Hog Suit

One morning, I found one of my pigs outside the pen. He wanted to get back inside; he was tapping on the fence with his snout and his grunts sounded distressed to me. When I let him back into the pen with the others, he seemed pleased. A weird little episode, but I didn’t think much about it.

            The next day two pigs were outside the pen. I checked the fence again; the fence was just fine. I put the two pigs back. Easy.

            The day after that, there were two pigs missing. One of the pigs was right outside the fence wanting to get in like on the other days. But the other pig could not be located. There were no hoof prints. He was just gone.

            So, I looked around my property until I heard some oinking. But the oinking was coming from above me. High up. I’ll stress that oinking ought not come from above. I looked up and there was my pig in a damn oak tree, looking worried. I got the ladder and brought him down—which wasn’t easy, he was a heavy boy—and put him back in the pen. He was relieved to be back with his buddies. But I didn’t sleep well that night. I was up late thinking about the moment I saw him on that branch like a nightmare bird.

            The next day a sow was outside the pen, and she was in bad shape. She had injuries on her ears, little cuts. They almost looked like words, but I couldn’t make them out. I looked for predators. There were none, and there were tracks, either.

            The next day, a sow was outside the pen, and she was hurt—she had cuts on her back and on her ears. I patched her up and set her back with the others. I looked around and found some tracks, but they vanished right at the edge of a pond. I thought whatever had done this might be in the pond, but it was a shallow pond, and I didn’t see anything in there worth noticing.

            That tracks looked like bear prints, but then they also didn’t look like bear prints, not at all, because there was something humanoid about them. The arch, the narrowness. But it wasn’t human either. In the end, I concluded that the tracks were of an indeterminate character.

            The next day, the pigs were inside the pen but there were three pigs stacked up on each other. What it was was a tower of pigs: a little tower, but still. They were in some sort of hypnotic state, standing on each other. When I gasped, they snapped out of it and fell. The tower crumbled. It took an hour to get them to trust me again and to get back into the pen.

            The next day a pig was in a tree, the same tree as before, and another was dead, pale from being drained of all blood, missing its ears. There were no footprints: no boot heels, no wolf tracks, no bear tracks. I thought what in God’s name.

            I had a vet come over. Same vet I been using for years. Good man. Bad divorce recently but knew lots about swine.

            What do you think? I said, as he was examining the corpse.

            Weird shit, he said.

            He said the ears had been removed with surgical precision. They didn’t have any teeth marks on them. They weren’t torn or ripped. They had been removed with a sharp blade and a straight edge of some kind.

            No animal did this, he said.

            The next day I had two pigs outside the pen, each drained of blood and missing eyes and ears. The eyes and ears were nowhere to be found. They had been removed from the premises and carried to God knows where. This must have been traumatizing for the other pigs. I knew it was for me—I had nightmares.

            There was no blood in the pigs. Not a drop. It was like someone vacuumed in there. I showed my wife; she was in disbelief. She accused me of doing it. Are you sleepwalking, Harold? Are you sleepwalking and performing savage acts?

            Later we found blood in our lemonade pitcher. As in, the lemons, water, and sugar mixture had been replaced (or transubstantiated) into blood. You better believe we didn’t drink a drop of that concoction.

            I called a scientist over to do some tests on the blood. The scientist knew his pigs inside and out. It was pig blood sure enough, he said. But he said there was a some magnetic field around the blood.

            What does that mean? I asked.

            He didn’t know.

            He did a battery of other tests. These were inconclusive. I asked him if he had any advice for what we should do. He said the missus and I should try to love the pigs while I still had them, because you never knew what was going to happen. This seemed like decent advice, though not scientific like I was hoping.

            Word got out and soon the Hortonville Gazette was talking about my swine displacements and mutilations. Nobody believed me; they believed the events had occurred, but they disputed the cause and minimized the impact on me. They said it was predators or teenage vandals. They said there was a rational explanation for everything. They published a hurtful cartoon in which I am sneaking into the field and night and putting my own hogs in a tree and cackling about insurance fraud. I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the cartoon and the tenor of their coverage. But they didn’t print it. They thought I was a loon, and why would you publish the words of a loon in your paper? I wouldn’t. The only thing is, I wasn’t a loon, at the time.

            I was in a quandary: some unseen force was removing my animals from their pen, without harming my fence, and placing them in trees or mutilating them and, in addition, swapping out my lemonade with real blood. Who or what would do these things? And who or what could?

            I installed a security camera and pointed it at the pen. My wife was sure that we’d see footage of me sleepwalking out there, some dark part of my personality expressing itself all over my pigs in the middle of the night. I thought maybe we’d see a new kind of wolf. But the camera kept shutting off before it got anything good. Upon investigating, I discovered that the wires were frayed. I bought another camera and the same thing happened. None of the cameras picked up the other pigs that got lifted out of the pen, treed, or mutilated. None of the cameras survived the night.

            I bought another camera and pointed it at the cameras that were pointing into the pen, so I could at least see what was happening with the mutilated cameras. In that footage, you could see the lights go off in the pig-pen-directed cameras, and that was about it. A figure was seen by my wife in one of the frames. A hand coming out of the darkness. I didn’t see any hand no matter how hard I looked at the footage, but my wife said it was a hand and I believe her. At least she no longer thinks I sleepwalk in an evil way.

            Next, I bought myself a hog suit online. It wasn’t cheap. It was the best-looking hog suit I could find via the Google search engine. The suit was extremely life-like—the skin texture, the bristle hair, the snout, the ears. I donned it and I felt like one of my animals.

            That night I went inside the pen. I wanted to be with my pigs when the malevolent force arrived so I would have an opportunity to confront it and, hopefully, shoot it in its head with my .38, which I had covertly duct taped to my realistic-looking underside/teats region.

            The first night nothing happened: I just oinked around and got weird looks from the other pigs. And man did it smell bad in there. The second night I was tired. I was asleep on my haunches. I knew I had to stay vigilant, but I couldn’t help it. I laid down next due to some sows and it was quite comfortable. Here I am among my pigs, getting a brand-new perspective on life, I thought. I dozed with the pigs and dreamed their dreams.

            I was awakened several hours later by a breeze playing at my hooves. I looked down and noticed that the ground was many feet below me. I was being levitated in the night air, and I could see the moon shining clearly above me as I made my way to the top of a forty-foot oak tree. I could not see the thing that was lifting me into the air. I was placed on a branch in the tree. And then I watched as the other pigs were lifted, one by one, over the fence and into the tree. But I couldn’t get down. I fired off my thirty-eight, but it didn’t stop the force from getting the pigs out. I decided I’d make a jump for the branch right below mine. I figured I could move from branch to branch if I was careful. However, the pig costume was cumbersome and did not allow for the acrobatic maneuvers I was envisioning. I fell.

            I woke up in the hospital. My wife showed me a picture of strange, cramped handwriting on tiny parchment. What is this from? I asked. She said it was from the back of my ears. I felt my ears and there were cuts already scabbing over, raised like a braille. Then the nurse came in and told me I’d been drained of blood and spinal fluid. Not the whole way, but a little. But she didn’t have to tell me. I felt different, lighter, lesser. I didn’t even ask about the fate of my pigs.

          I believe the cuts on my ears spell out a message, though from who or what I have no idea. Are they legible to you?

 

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Welcoming Our New Poetry and Fiction Editors!

We are thrilled to welcome to our new Poetry and Fiction Editors! Read more about them and their work below.

Rochelle Hurt (Poetry Editor) is a poet and essayist. She is the author of three poetry collections: The J Girls: A Reality Show (Indiana University Press, 2022), which won the Blue Light Books Prize from Indiana Review; In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize; and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her work has been included in Poetry magazine and the Best New Poets anthology. She’s been awarded prizes and fellowships from Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. Originally from the Ohio Rust Belt, Hurt now lives in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.

Brandon Amico (Poetry Editor) is the author of a collection of poetry, Disappearing, Inc (Gold Wake Press, 2019), and the recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. His poetry can be found in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2020, The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Booth, Copper Nickel, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, New Ohio Review, New South, Slice, and Waxwing.

Blake Sanz (Fiction Editor) is the author of The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, a collection of short stories that won the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, EcotonePuerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Poets & Writers, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he teaches fiction at the University of Central Florida.

Submissions to our 2023 Editor’s Prizes in Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction are now open! The winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in the Review. All entries are considered for publication, and all entrants receive a complimentary one-year subscription to the journal, as well as the option to purchase an additional discounted subscription. We thank you for your support of The Florida Review, and look forward to reading your work.

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Dawn of the New Age

Three hours after learning the museum has secured a major grant, based largely—the Director assured her—on Luisa’s late night, visionary sketches of a wing for the new space age exhibits, this phone call, or something like it, was due. Bringing the world back in balance: a reporter, asking questions about her husband, about his participation in a reality show called Astronaut Academy. Luisa asks the woman to explain the show to her, though she read an article on it just that morning. It is being produced in partnership with the Space Force, the reporter says. A dozen competitors from around the country, going through the challenges any astronaut would encounter on their training: stints in the Buoyancy Lab, in zero gravity, in Earth-bound models of the shuttle they will ride if victorious. The winner will receive a seat on the Mars shuttle, and the same pay and benefits and stature as the traditionally trained astronauts. “How do you feel,” the reporter asks, “about your husband pursuing what would likely be a one-way mission?”

            “Proud,” Luisa says. “How else should I feel?”

            “But you weren’t familiar with the show?”

            Luisa is silent until the reporter weakens and explains that this is all for a human-interest story. She wants Luisa to share more insight into her mental state, which is a thing Luisa privately feels incapable of sharing even with herself. “Maybe it’s better if we speak in person,” Luisa says, not wanting to volunteer for this additional torment but not knowing how else to extricate herself. “I’ve never been very comfortable speaking across distance.”

            “That will make things difficult, won’t—”

            “I’ll talk to Jon,” Luisa says. “We can find a good time for it.”

 

            Against her wishes, he is on the sofa when she arrives home. “Go celebrate!” Robert, the Director, told her when she asked to leave before lunch—to which she could only offer a faint, gummy smile, allowing him to think the grant was the cause of her distraction. Sitting on the ottoman, bag between her feet, she waits for Jon to explain the show. Instead he describes meeting the neighbor’s dog that morning; the persistent slow drain of the bathroom sink.

            “Is there anything else?” she asks. A part of her wants him to say there isn’t, so she can catch him in the lie.

            “I do have news,” Jon says. He seems to believe that more detail will absolve him of any wrongs, and so he talks her through the joke of his application. The physical trial and mental assessment, a process that lasted months and which he performed without her notice, taking advantage of her lengthening workdays. “I thought I would flunk out sooner or later.”

            “A reporter wants to interview us,” Luisa says. “She’s writing a human- interest piece.” She doesn’t want to touch Jon or even look at him. It is tempting to label her feelings the inevitable result of his subterfuge, though in truth she cannot recall the last time she wanted to let her body be near his. For the last few years of their marriage she has had the vague sense of them being broken in some elemental way, the thread of attraction that existed between them having snapped while she was looking in a different direction.

            “You spoke with someone? You knew?” He reaches for her, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Okay.”

            “When does filming start?”

            “Two weeks. But we’re due out sooner, for publicity.” He picks at a zit that has scabbed to the surface near his Adam’s apple.

            “Why didn’t you ever tell me you wanted to do something like this?” Luisa asks, but then she remembers: he has. On one of their first dates, crowded into a two-seater in a taqueria, a lime-green margarita sweating between her hands, licking salt from her lips. She laughed when he began talking about the prospect of a one-way journey into space, how he would happily volunteer himself for such a mission. He was a biologist, the most earthbound profession she could imagine, but he spoke of “the greater good” like a man with conviction. “Anyone can see we’ve taken things too far on this planet,” he said, and maybe that much was true: the western half of the country had already been abandoned to forest fires, and the southeastern states to the hurricanes and rising tides. Life was pressing in closer and closer every day, it needed an outlet.

            Anyone would have laughed, she tells herself now as she leaves her bag slumped on the floor, walks to the bedroom and shuts the door. He was twenty-five, a boy in a world that seemed unlikely to ever offer the opportunities he imagined for himself. So she laughed, and was endeared, and slept with him even though it would be months before she felt really compelled in his direction. By the time they married she had forgotten that conversation. She had no concept that he might one day reform himself into this person he had imagined, this person she is now unable to follow.

 

            Checks are signed, champagne uncorked. The donors to the space age wing, invited to the museum for an exclusive tour-slash-soirée, all want to meet Luisa—not because she imagined so many of the exhibits their money will fund but because they have all seen the interview and know her husband may be one of the men who supplies these artifacts. Suits and goggles, Martian rocks, a replica of a shuttle that will never land on Earthen soil. All of this a departure for a museum that to date is best known for its textile exhibits.

            “I couldn’t believe what they made them do on the last episode,” says Muffy Van der Barg, a woman with a rumored inheritance over a quarter- billion dollars. A fist-sized stone, strung on near-invisible links, rests on her creped chest.

            Luisa has to apologize. She doesn’t watch the television show—

            “My poor dear,” the woman says, “of course you don’t. Who would want to?”

            About forty million households thus far, if the ratings are to be believed. Luisa excuses herself before Muffy can launch into a description of this show she has been studiously avoiding. She retreats farther and farther, until she is outside the museum, cigarette trailing from her hand, watching the parking lot that will be one day be her new wing. Sweat gathers in her elbows and the small of her back. Heat waves rise from the pavement, distorting the streetlamps’ glow.

            Robert appears at her side, his soft-soled loafers having silenced his walk down the marble steps. “It must be hard,” he says, handing her a fresh glass of champagne.

            Luisa sips, the bubbles fizzing unpleasantly at her nose. “We weren’t doing well, before he left. But I can’t say that.”

            “No,” he says, “I suppose you couldn’t.”

            She twirls the glass, watches sweat bead to its surface.

            “You really don’t watch?” he asks.

            “I feel like I’m watching a character.” The first episode is the only she’s attempted so far, and she didn’t make it further than the first challenge before shutting it off. The way Jon described himself in his introduction, the way he smiled for the camera, even the way he held his shoulders back as he walked to the suit room, where they competed to select the correctly- sized outfit—none of it felt familiar to her. The man on screen looked like Jon, but at such a remove that she couldn’t connect him to the person she’s known for the last decade.

            “For what it’s worth, I think one of the women will win. The crew is only a third female right now.”

            “Sure.” She can guess at his reading: an op-ed from just that morning, decrying the sissified nanny state that led the Space Force to refer to “crewed” rather than “manned” space flights.

            “Political correctness usually wins. Natasha would be my bet.” Robert offers a hand and Luisa ignores it.

            “I was joking. She’s the most capable, clearly—come on.”

            And, because Robert signs her paychecks, Luisa lifts a hand to his. “I don’t think I’ll mind if he wins,” she says. “We can call it the Jon Gonders Memorial Hall. We can put a wax figure of him in the entrance.”

            “A statue out front. Maybe a fountain, throw in your coins. Subtle fundraising.”

            “We can offer a widow-led tour for our major donors.”

            “There’s an idea.” Robert’s gaze vanishes into the parking lot for a minute, the streetlights bolting off his glasses, before he leads her back to the party, the donors, all the things he likes to label the “dirty business of philanthropy.” The widow’s tour, Luisa thinks as they step inside. She is almost pleased with her idea, and with the thought that this event is her first opportunity to practice the role.

 

            The week after the fundraiser, Jon begins to call at night. “Is this being recorded?” Luisa asks. “Is this going to end up as footage to make you seem more compelling?”

            “No,” says Jon. “I mean, they’re filming on my end. But the call isn’t being recorded.”

            Luisa doesn’t believe him. But she can sit on the line, she figures, and wait him out. “How do you feel?”

            “Not bad. The rations are getting old, but that’s part of it, I guess. And I’m worried about the isolation challenges.”

            “You should be good at that.”

            Jon’s exhalation is almost violent against the receiver. “They’re telling me I have to go,” he says. “I love you.”

            To Luisa’s surprise his calls continue, every night between seven and eight. To her surprise, she looks forward to them. When they cease after a few weeks, when she realizes he must now be in the isolation phase of the competition, she is adrift and unsure how to move through their apartment. It isn’t the feeling that she’s lost him, because she’s felt apart from him for so long; it’s just that the loss now feels somehow reiterated.

            The second night without a call, Luisa doesn’t resist tuning in to the now-constant stream of the competitors’ activities. Each astronaut sits in a dimly-lit capsule so small they could stretch out their arms and press their hands to opposing walls. A chyron at the bottom of the screen encourages viewers to vote for their favorite astronaut, and to text donations to the Space Force. On the righthand side of the screen, a public comment stream flows too quickly for Luisa to make out more than a word here or there: love, WOW, Jon! When the feed shifts to Jon, she moves closer to the screen, trying to sense in his hunched shoulders, the book open on his lap, whether he is struggling, or thinking of her, or thinking of anything at all. She can’t tell, and when the feed moves to the next contestant she turns off the television. She does not cast a vote.

 

            Luisa does not in her heart believe the Space Force will succeed. NASA hasn’t launched a mission in decades, and a rebranding seems insufficient to staunch its woes, however popular Astronaut Academy may be. She suspects Robert doesn’t believe, either, but is pleased that their unspoken doubts don’t stop either of them from pursuing the museum’s new wing. Reality need not place any limits on their ambitions.

            The parking lot vanishes, replaced by billowing dust and torn asphalt. One of the junior curators sources a basketball-sized meteorite, which Luisa exhibits alongside a glass case in which patrons can stuff dollar bills. She plots an exhibit around the textiles of space: fireproof astronaut uniforms, and waffle-weaved long johns, and the inflatable living capsules promised to be part of the Martian mission. Trying to form a bridge between the present-day textile museum and Robert’s imagined rival to the National Air & Space.

            It is Jon’s tenth day in isolation when Robert asks Luisa to stay late. “We might have a new funder,” he says, “and this man has some ideas.” She thinks, at first, that the funder is only a figment Robert has crafted to distract her—but the man is real, a major yarn manufacturer interested in donating if they can assure him the woolen arts will be properly highlighted in the new wing.

            “We can do a case on merino t-shirts,” Luisa says. “Wool air filters. I’ve already been working on long johns.”

            Robert writes this: merino, air filters, long johns.

            “How much are they donating?” she asks.

            “We’re looking at a million.”

            “From wool?”

            “And a gift shop partnership. Stuffed astronaut sheep. Wool keychains that look like comets. That sort of thing.”

            Luisa leans her chin into her fist and watches Robert. She has worked for him almost as long as she has known Jon, a fact that has never previously occurred to her—how much of her life tracks alongside these two men. “Do you think people really want to see these things?”

            He stops writing. “Maybe they aren’t so interested in seeing it,” he admits. “But make it interactive—let them touch the suits, or wear an astronaut’s t-shirt—that’s different. People want to feel like they’re a part of something.”

            Luisa tries to recall what type of shirt Jon was wearing, the last time she watched Astronaut Academy. It’s been over a week, and her memory of him is vague. Just the top of his head, his hand turning a page. The show has slogged into a stretch with no obvious challenges, only the interminable wait for four of eight contestants to declare themselves unfit for the lonely rigors of space. Instead of their usual gossip, Luisa’s colleagues have begun to complain about the unbroken, indistinguishable nature of time on Astronaut Academy. “They could just be showing the same day again and again,” her assistant said that morning.

            “Maybe I can get us one of Jon’s shirts,” Luisa says. “From the show.” As soon as the suggestion emerges she regrets it. She is not sure what compelled these words from her. But then Robert smiles. He reaches across the desk and for just a moment rests his hand on top of hers, not in a way that feels romantic—Luisa assures herself of this, when she thinks of it later—but in a way that only feels human, and comforting, and necessary.

 

            Jon is not sent home. For two weeks it seems none of the contestants will fall and then, all of a sudden, they do: the strain of isolation is heightened as their televisions and books are taken away, as lights turn on and off at random hours, as an oppressive and total silence is piped into their private chambers. The producers have broken their own promise to not revise challenges once they’ve begun, but no one seems to mind—there is general agreement that mere isolation cannot break this pandemic-reared generation, and a relief that the show is once again progressing. In an article debating the chances for each remaining candidate, Jon is described as possessing “a quiet, monk-like strength.”

            The million-dollar check from the yarn manufacturer is signed. A banner unfurls on the chain-link fence surrounding the former parking lot, with doctored photographs of children wearing merino “space t-shirts,” asteroids flashing across their chests. Jon calls the night after the fourth contestant has left, surprising Luisa at her desk.

            “It isn’t that hard to be alone with your thoughts,” he says. “Which I was worried about.”

            Luisa toggles between a few uncharitable responses, settling at last on, “No, I guess it isn’t.” Thinking of a conversation she once tried to have with him, her fear that her body had toggled off a switch without permission, leaving her with the barest memory of how desire had once unspooled through her, touching him. The loss a thing she had never known to anticipate. “Is that so different, really, from before?” he’d said, before claiming it was a joke—as if that was somehow better, to make a joke of her.

            The office is empty and feels private, with the motion-sensing hall lights switched off. She sets the phone to speaker and rests it on her desk, staring at her second monitor and deleting emails as Jon talks. He describes his tongue’s adjustment to the bland food, how over two weeks in solitary the minutes and hours and days turned into an amorphous span of time that he was unable to separate out into its component pieces. He talks for so long that Luisa believes him on this point, that he has lost the ability to measure time or his place in it. “It sounds like you’re ready to go to Mars,” she says. “There isn’t anything holding you back now.”

            “I still have to do the zero-gravity test. That’s tomorrow—where we go up in the plane.”

            “Right,” Luisa says.

            “They call it the ‘vomit comet.’”

            “Right.” She deletes three more emails. When she looks up, the hall lights have clicked on and Robert is in the door. “I have to go,” she tells Jon. “Good luck with tomorrow.” She feels a need to cover herself, despite her sweater and suit jacket.

            “Do you have someone to talk to?” Robert asks. He is still in the doorway. “About all of that?”

            Luisa is tempted to tell the truth, which is that she talks to him; but to say that feels like opening herself a degree too far. “I don’t know what I’d say.”

            He pulls a chair to her desk. Her phone screen fades to gray, and then black. “He’s got a one-in-four chance now. You should have someone to support you. A therapist. Family.”

            But what would Luisa say to them? That the thought of her husband leaving in this way is almost a relief, because it frees her from the slower work of understanding and then extricating herself from the husk of their relationship? That she has felt closer to him in the month of his absence than in the three preceding years? That a part of her wants him to succeed? “I’ve been thinking,” she says, and tells Robert how they might build on the textile exhibit to focus more broadly on materials in space. “I have so many ideas,” she tells him, hoping that he will listen—to her ideas, and nothing else.

 

            Two contestants are so violently ill, vomit unspooling through the air before it slicks, in the increasing gravity, down the front of their suits, that they are both eliminated from Astronaut Academy. One contestant, a man the rough size and shape of a professional linebacker, is not ill at all. Jon vomits in a restrained fashion following the final flight, and is allowed to continue to the final challenges.

            There isn’t any doubt now, not for Luisa. “It’s going to be him,” she tells Robert, after watching the clip at his desk. “The other one, he’s just too big.” She has a vague idea that astronauts are a compact class of humans, not on the same scale as jockeys but certainly not so far away, either. Jon, who has always exaggerated his height to 5’10”, is the correct size for interplanetary travel. His competitor is not, and she wonders that he was even allowed to join the show in the first place.

            In that case, Robert says, they should begin planning in earnest for Jon’s departure. “I don’t mean to be insensitive,” he says, before describing Jon’s mission as a coup. “It’s only that no other museum can promise such a close view of the rigors and costs of space travel.”

            When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t mention his increasing role in the museum’s new wing. Robert is envisioning a rocket suspended from the ceiling in direct imitation of the Kennedy Space Center’s Atlantis shuttle, a video of Jon—“our own civilian astronaut”—on loop. She doesn’t want to expose Jon to any of these ideas, to the suspicion that she might use their relationship for her own gain. She thinks the imagined exhibits are too expensive to ever produce, and in any case Jon will be well-flung toward Mars before they come to fruition. Instead, for the first time, she tells him a different truth: “It’s going to be you.”

            “No,” Jon says. “Rick is at just another level of fitness. He’s clearly better.” But even as he speaks, Luisa can locate the lie threading his words. Knows that he feels it as clearly as she does.

            “Do you remember when we met?” she asks.

            “Tell me,” he says.

            “I was at the coffee shop. I went there every Saturday to apply for jobs. And this one day, you sat at the table next to me. You asked if I would drink a coffee with you, and I said I already had one. So you asked if I would get a drink with you instead.” It is hard for her to recall Jon’s face from this day, back when it was only a face with no real significance. A collection of ears, eyes, nose. Mouth. She can more clearly remember the burnt cardboard taste of the coffee.

            “You left some things out.”

            “I know,” Luisa says.

            “I couldn’t think of a way to talk to you. And then this Saturday, I’d finally decided, but every seat was taken. I just sat at the bar, watching in the mirror the whole time for when I could sit with you. And I still didn’t know what to say.”

            “Do you ever wonder,” she asks, “what if that man hadn’t left his table?”

            “No.”

            Luisa has. They met a month before she accepted the job at the museum, a time when she felt faced only with possibility, when it felt like a comfort to close off some of her paths. She wonders at this now, why she felt so sure in dismissing her body’s cues, at how easy it is to accede to a person, a job, a life, knowing they aren’t right. “I’m going to miss you,” she says.

            He is silent.

            “Tell me about your next challenge.”

            He tells her how in the morning they will be repeating mental challenges to exhaustion. They’ll be suited in the pool to simulate zero- gravity, and beneath the water they’ll manipulate torso-sized Rubik’s Cubes, they’ll draw foam puzzle pieces into position on the tiled floor. Challenges with enough of a visual element that viewers won’t complain again of boredom.

            “Do you feel prepared?”

            “Sure,” Jon says.

            She doesn’t think he is being honest. She doesn’t think he really feels prepared. How could anyone? When they hang up she sees they have talked for twenty minutes, their longest conversation since he left for the show and possibly their longest conversation in years. He is leaving, Luisa reminds herself. He is leaving for a year’s flight, he is leaving for a planet so cold that she is only able to comprehend it as a kind of heat—as a cold that burns. He is leaving for a planet where he will, suddenly, weigh seventy pounds instead of nearly two hundred. But these are only facts, and though she cannot stop herself accounting for them, she is no longer sure whether they mean anything at all.

 

            The wool manufacturer sends a box of micro-fiber merino shirts. The enclosed letter details their resistance to odor, allowing them to be worn for weeks on end. “There’s no laundry in space” is underlined twice, a fact which Luisa stores for use in a future exhibit. She tucks one of the shirts into her purse and later, in the bathroom, slips it on beneath her sweater. The fabric is silken and cool. “What about selling these in the gift shop?” she asks Robert when she brings the remaining garments for his inspection. Each one costs hundreds of dollars, money woven into the moisture-resistant wool and stitched into doubled seams. He likes the idea enough that Luisa’s assistant spends the afternoon on the phone with the manufacturer.

            When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t want to hear about the challenges. He describes them anyway. She is at their apartment, holding the hem of her shirt between thumb and forefinger as Jon talks about trying to slot puzzle pieces into place with the weight of all that water pressing down on him. “It won’t feel like that in space,” he says. “None of this is anything like what it’ll be in space.”

            What he is saying, but isn’t saying: that he made it through. That it’s going to be him. “You’ll figure it out,” Luisa says. “They’ll put you through the normal training program, with everyone else.”

            “But they won’t.” He explains one of the puzzles, how he couldn’t figure it out. Which way to turn the pieces, the water’s weight, how he could hear his own breath percolating through the suit. He will be home tomorrow.

            Luisa smooths the shirt’s fabric. For so many days she has told herself the story of his going, and now she is unsure how to compose herself to this new reality. Perhaps it is not so different from the old reality, how things were before he left. “I’m sorry,” she says, first because she thinks she should and then because it is true. “I’m so sorry. You must feel—”

            “They’ll still want to do some interviews,” he says, “since I was a finalist.” He tells her to expect a call from one of the producers, they’ll want to interview her solo, and then together. A special episode rounding out the contestants’ lives.

            She wears the shirt to bed. Before lying down she opens the closet and each dresser drawer, thinks of how they would have looked half-emptied. Not bad.

 

            Jon’s loss is big news. It is the only news. Former astronauts appear on television to discuss the difficulty the winner, such an oddly-sized crew member, will present—how he won’t be able to share in the store of standard-sized suits the astronauts normally use. There’s an exhibit in that, Luisa thinks, and when she shares the thought with Robert he touches the back of her hand in what she now recognizes as his only available gesture of sympathy. It is a move, she suspects, that she will one day find illustrated in the dog-eared managerial handbook wedged amidst the knitting books shelved behind his desk. A page labeled “consensual non-sexual touch,” she thinks, sliding her hand back to her lap.

            She leaves work early to be home when Jon arrives with the producers. The cameras appear first, armed with questions: “How did you feel when you imagined your husband was going to be a hero of the space age? Did you always see Jon’s interest in space travel? What do you think he might have contributed, as the first Martian biologist? How do you feel, with him coming home?” There is a role to play here: the woman rescued, at the last moment, from grievous widowhood. Though she has just left the office the producer insists they return so she can be filmed typing at her desk, and standing before the wasteland of the future wing. The makeup woman, who between every shot runs forward to powder Luisa’s forehead, hands her a jacket they say Jon wore through most of his trials. “Hold it to your face,” the woman says. “Smell it.” For minutes Luisa presses her nose to the jacket as the cameraman gathers angles. It is glossy, it smells like detergent. They blot wet Q-tips around her eyes, “for the shot,” and when they drive back to the apartment and Jon is waiting for her Luisa is surprised to find herself crying, really crying. Her face blotching but the producer happy.

            “I guess I should apologize,” is the first thing Jon says, brushing her ear so the mics can’t pick it up, and she doesn’t know how to answer—how to explain that even she isn’t sure why the tears.

            “I was ready to donate all your things,” she says, but this isn’t right. There is no way to reach the place she wants to go—to imprint her story on him in the way he has her. For the rest of her life, she thinks, she will be only the wife of the man who nearly went to Mars; for the rest of his life he will remain himself, Jon Gonders.

            The crew follows them inside, to see them side by side on the sofa, hands clutched. Leaning into each other and sharing a beer, Jon’s first in months. After they leave, Luisa is unsure how to behave or even where to look. To speak to Jon’s face feels unnatural after so many weeks with the phone pressed to her ear. “Are they going to air it?” she asks. “All our conversations?”

            “Maybe,” says Jon, and then, “Yes.”

            He pats the sofa, as if trying to remember it. The top button of his shirt is still undone from when they unclipped his microphone. Luisa cannot feel her face beneath the layers of powder.

            “I can sleep out here tonight,” he says.

            “Robert will probably want you to come out for the exhibit. You’ll be such a big draw. It’ll be a real boost for the museum.”

            By eight they are both feigning exhaustion. Nothing more to say. Luisa starts to collect the extra blankets and pillows for him, but of course he knows where these are, it’s his home as well, and finally she retreats herself to the bedroom where she can listen, from this safe distance, as he readies himself for sleep.

 

            The launch is confirmed for early June, only six weeks away. The new wing won’t be complete, but Robert decides they can still open the exhibit to coincide with the launch: they will use temporary cases, it will be a final fundraising push. Astronaut Academy airs updates on the winner’s training, and updates on the losers, and because of this—because of all their conversations packaged for public consumption—Luisa feels no guilt at driving boxes of Jon’s clothes and video games and books to the museum. “On temporary loan” is how the pieces will be labeled, but they could stay forever, that is her thinking. She and Jon move around the apartment like wrong-sided magnets, always bumping away from each other, and there must be an action to perform or a decision to make but there is so much work at the museum—and Jon has so much to do as well, figuring out his next step in life, calling his former employer, submitting dozens of job applications, managing interview requests about the show.

            Luisa outsources most of the launch planning to her assistant, billing it as “a great development opportunity.” This a piece of trickery she recalls from her own early days at the museum, when for eight hours a day she sat before the door of Robert’s predecessor and would seize on any non- administrative task offered. The girl reports her progress daily, telling Luisa all about the loaned screens on which they will stream the launch (“life- size,” supposedly) and the plastic champagne flutes with clots of starred black galaxy trailing down their stems. “It sounds amazing,” Luisa says, and “You’re doing great work.” Increasingly she finds that she wants only to rest her face on the desk and remain there, prone, until all these responsibilities have passed her by. She thinks all the things she cannot yet muster the strength to say: I don’t care about wool, and I’m tired of this exhibit, and I want a divorce.

            With two weeks to go, in late May, the apartment’s air conditioning breaks. It is already broaching a hundred degrees, and watching Jon prod at the unit like he’s equipped to repair it, Luisa has this moment—just a moment—when she thinks of the alternate version of his life. How close he came to being someone with a bolded name buried in a history book, the first man to raise potatoes and crickets on Martian soil. “I can figure it out,” he insists, and for days Luisa swelters in her space-capable merino shirt before he admits defeat and calls the landlord. How is it possible, she wonders, that this man was nearly declared humanity’s future, and all because he can sit quietly in a room by himself. She can do this as well as him and all their days feel like they are trying to prove this to each other, their ken for silence, the minutes and hours dragging uncomfortably behind them until they arrive at launch day, when they stitch themselves into their black tie wear and make the apposite remarks on how nice they look.

            Her recent involvement has been so slight that Luisa is able to feel something like awe, seeing the exhibit. All the construction equipment is gone, and the watered ground has a Martian tendency, dirt tinted red by the temporary lights staked around the site. Blue-lit Lucite boxes hold ribbed gloves and boots and helmets, just one item per box both to stretch the collection and, she thinks, to give more room for reflection. “This is what we’ve made.” One broad rectangular box holds twenty Merino shirts, all facing forward above a drawing of the rocket’s path to Mars. Waiters in white jumpsuits circulate with glasses of wine, and despite the evening swelter and the crowd, all their questions and babble, Luisa admits that her assistant has done a good job. More than a good job, she has done a better job than Luisa would have. She couldn’t picture any of this, and now here it all is, the launch screen positioned so it’s framed by the museum’s white columns just across the street, so that at no point in the evening can their guests forget where they are, who made this night possible. She holds a glass of wine, Jon has vanished into a cluster of potential donors, the wool manufacturer is at her elbow wanting to discuss the gift shop partnership. A collective gasp, hundreds of breaths as one, when the screen flickers on to the launchpad, its trembling rocket.

            Robert finds Luisa before she can think herself invisible: already, he has a fifty thousand-dollar check folded in his pocket. “And more where that came from!” he exclaims, toasting her. She recalls her first days at the museum, when Robert was a Special Projects Manager and would walk her through his exhibits, hand brushing her lower back, guiding her.

            “That’s amazing,” she says, and reminds him that it was her assistant who did all this work. A glimpse of Jon, encircled and enthralled, it looks, by his own story. Everyone is gathering, as if by instinct, before the screen, and then the audio comes on—there is a moment of silence and then the sound of all that future, thrudding beneath their feet. “Excuse me, excuse me,” Luisa whispers to people who are not listening, overcome by the need to not be in this crowd, to not be among them in the moment.

            On the street, the sound falls away. No one is out, everyone is watching the launch; no cars or buses pass. Luisa finds herself on the wrong side of the screen, but gazing at it she can find the outlines of the ship and imagine its trajectory. The faint tap of heels to her left, at the other end of the screen: Jon. For a minute they look at each other, she looks at him and marks all his features she must by now know: ears, nose, mouth. They are beginning the countdown. Ten, nine, eight… She turns away to face the screen. It is beginning, now.

 

*This story originally appeared in The Florida Review 46.2.

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Passengers

The day I met Bryce I could’ve given everything to him, let him take me over completely.

            Kentucky greenery flashed in my windows, a tint of blue as I cruised the Western Kentucky Parkway, a four-hour slot. I was in between: school and another life, the small town where I had spent four years getting a degree and whatever Louisville promised. A cousin named Debbie had moved to Louisville a few years ago, guaranteed me a couch while I found a job and saved money to find my own place. The Saturday night of graduation weekend, a friend, Andrea, had a going-away slash end-of-semester house party. I was leaving for Louisville the next morning. We’ll miss you, but at least you’re getting the fuck out of here. I usually avoid these parties, but Andrea said, You have to come. It’s your party. When I arrived I barely knew anyone. The vacancy deadline on my financial aid housing had passed. Crash on the couch, she offered. By the end of the night three people layered on top of each other, passed out from cheap vodka. I took a good look at myself, where I was: my life here had long been over. I revved my sixteen-year-old Corolla and left, then saw how late it was, thought about how much I had to drink. I couldn’t afford the cheapest of motels, so the highway rest stop was the best option.

            My neck had wrenched from sleeping in the backseat the previous night, curled in a spine-mangled ball on the lumpy, upholstery-shredded cushioning. I was hungover, too. When I got on the road, I didn’t make it far before I realized I needed gas and food, so I took the next exit, Calvert City. I pulled into the Love’s, bought a sandwich from the chain inside and ate slowly in a booth, savoring the food, which was all I expected to eat for most of the day.

            It was then that I saw him. Through the window, in the parking lot. He was by himself. He looked late twenties, wearing black shorts cut off at the knee, a sweaty t-shirt, a pack hoisted on his back like he planned on camping for days. The image of his body lithe against the morning sun. He was talking to a woman who shook her head, shooing him away, and he caught another woman. He walked backwards as she walked forward. He talked to her fast, but she didn’t acknowledge him until he gave up. He put his hands on his hips, his beautiful body, an ease in how he carried himself. I turned away to take another bite of the sandwich and when I looked back he was gone.

            When I finished I refilled my water bottle at the fountain–no need to pay for water—and splurged on some chips for later. I had just enough money for gas to Louisville. As I fueled the car, I watched the people coming and going from the travel store, families and truckers, and I wondered where they were headed. A mom yelled at a screaming child who, if I overheard correctly, had been refused some kind of candy. A group of truckers, do-ragged heads, some so scrawny their shirts flapped in the wind, others with large bellies, carrying on with one another.

            I exited the Love’s and, caught up in thought, where I was going, Debbie’s couch, I missed the turn for the highway and didn’t realize until I hit the point where the backroads heading into town started. I was waiting for the next offshoot road to roundabout, and then, in my side mirror, a figure in my periphery. I turned over my shoulder, and there he was, treading along the road as he lugged his pack, his frame so thin and the bag so monstrous.

            He noticed me driving and stuck out his arm, thumb upturned as he paced along. I hadn’t seen anyone hitch in years, dangerous I was always told, you never know who you’re picking up or who would give a ride. But those incidents were likely the exception, the chances low. And me, I was a wreck myself.

            I turned-about into a side road and headed toward his direction, pulled off the street, and hit the flashers to signal him. He clapped his hands together and jogged toward my car. He came into fuller view as he stood in front of the passenger door. His shirt hung loose, stains and rips at the shoulder and sides. I rolled down the window, and he peered in, his face striking, apple shaped, tanned with faded freckles at his nose, jaw thick, cheeks thin, eyes intense. He said, Hey, thanks man. He assessed, rolling his eyes over me as I said, Sure. No problem. I was struck with this pleasure. A man like him: beautiful. He said, Which way you going? I had to remember all over again, searching for the answer. Louisville, I said. Headed toward the Western Kentucky Parkway. He said, That’s perfect. He spoke with a drawl similar to the kind I grew up around. He was from the state, I could tell, or close to it. There was a time I was ashamed of my accent, tried to phase it out of my speech, but hearing it on him, it became endearing, made desirable a quality I once didn’t desire. He said, You going to let me in or what? I had forgotten this was required, opened his door.

            Where can I put this? he asked, motioning toward his bag. All I packed were three duffels of clothes and one box with personal items, so there was still room for his pack. I said, The back seat is fine if it’ll fit. I unlocked the back door, and he unloaded the clunky pack. He opened the passenger door, smiling as he said, It does. He slid into the front seat. He had ropey braids in his hair, twisted and ragged, his body emitting a sun-sweat smell. He likely hadn’t had a proper bath or shower in a number of days, and I breathed him in deeply, his natural scent powerful. So, where are you going? I asked. He drummed his knee up-down in my lower periphery. I sensed that thigh. He said, Meeting some friends of mine. A campsite at Red River Gorge. You ever been? I told him I hadn’t. Well you should, he said. I don’t get outdoors too much, I said. That knee drumming. Sounds like you need to get out, he said. We go rock climbing. The thought of climbing a mountain, so far from anything I would ever consider. He pulled his leg up, propping it against the dash, in my side eye-line. I looked, the inside of his leg, hair speckling the meaty flesh something gorgeous. But I took care to not look too long, the right amount to catch a glimpse but not too much so it’s obvious you’re admiring, because if anyone noticed you would be caught, exposed.

            I’m Bryce, he said. He lent his hand to me, and I cupped it, warm palm. And you are? I had forgotten myself again. I told him my name. Thanks for stopping for me, he said. Just drop me off in Louisville and I can make it to the gorge from there. That feeling of pleasure in providing for him came back to me. No problem, I said. He said, So, are we gonna get going? I was so caught up in taking all of him in – his scent, voice, body, face, lips, throat, hands, his thighs and legs – I forgot this was the next step, actually driving us. I turned onto the road and veered to the ramp.

            Hey, you got anything to eat? he said. I remembered the chips. I said, Yeah, in the bag there. He ruffled into it and pulled them out, ripping the top and munching a handful. So I told you where I’m going, he said between crunches. What’s taking you to Louisville, mister? This title struck me as odd. I was clearly younger than he was by a few years, and it suggested respect, like I had authority, but I didn’t. I said, I’m meeting up with my cousin. He said, Oh yeah? Louisville’s nice, man. Real nice. Lots to do. You live there? He tilted the bag to slide crumbs into his mouth. I said, No, then realized that wasn’t true so I said, Well, sort of. I’m moving there. A lapping sound as he inserted each finger into his mouth to suck the chip dust. He said, Where you moving from? I told him. He said, You go to that university, don’t you? Yeah, I said. I just graduated. He turned to me, wagging his index. I thought so, he said. You look like the school type. I was flattered he had given thought to the kind of person I was, but what did that mean exactly? He said, I always wanted to do that, go to school and all. I couldn’t though, ya know? He continued pacing his leg up and down, and I continued to not glance at it, the skin leading to underneath his clothes. He said, But I had to take care of my grandma. She raised me, ya know. I nodded along. He was generous in what he was offering about himself, endearing me to him. He continued, Mom and Dad were no good dead beats. I don’t even know where they are now, if they’re alive or not, and I don’t give a shit. Passion in his voice but matter-of-fact. He said, My grandma, she got that cancer. I said, I’m sorry to hear. He shrugged. It is what it is, he said. I took care of her best I could. This story made me feel bad for him. I wanted to say, I’m so sorry, but a sorry wouldn’t change anything, so I said nothing.

            Does this go back any? he said, motioning to his seat. I told him how to adjust it, and he pushed back. He tried settling but had a difficult time sitting still. He fiddled with the radio, not pleased with the pre-sets so he scanned each station, listening intently, even the static, before deciding to move to the next. He gave up and closed his eyes, so I could give a quick glance to see his face again, supple and stubbled skin, some acne, red splotches making him even more attractive, imperfections, flaking sun burn, serene face. He sat upright and sighed. He didn’t seem to have noticed me looking, and I was relieved. He grabbed a pile of CDs from the side pocket, fanning them out. Got any Hendrix? I said I didn’t. Damn, I could go for some Hendrix right now, he said. He examined each disc, displeased with the selection, until he picked one at random and pushed it into the slot, a mix of bluegrass an ex-boyfriend made for me even though I didn’t care for bluegrass. Bryce said, This is nice. But he kept switching the tracks.

            I’m so fucking starving, he said. You got anything else? I’m sorry, I said. I was disappointing him again. Could we…, he said, hesitating. Could we stop somewhere? Like he was ashamed at the question, his hunger, the circumstances that lead to his state of hunger, which were still vague. I assumed he was a camper, meeting his friends like he said. But that hunger, his unwashed clothes, that story about his grandma and neglectful parents. Yeah, we can stop somewhere, I said. I left home when I was a teenager with no support from my own parents. I hadn’t seen or talked to them since. If it wasn’t for the scholarship to school, which a high school teacher clued me in on and helped me with, I could be like Bryce. I asked him, Where do you want to go? He considered for a moment. There had been signs for fast food at upcoming exits. You know what? he said. Did you see there’s a Cracker Barrel coming up?

            I tried to remember how far. We had passed Dawson Springs, and I figured it was about fifteen minutes out of the way. Also, he said, and he kept rubbing the back of his head because he didn’t want to say the next words. Could you lend me a few bucks for it? I considered my money. I thought Bryce might have picked from the assortment of drive thru chains, which would be cheaper. I forgot how much Cracker Barrel meals cost. No more than ten dollars, right? I could buy Bryce’s meal, and I didn’t need to eat. Next time I stopped for gas I wouldn’t fill the whole tank. There was Bryce waiting for my reply. Shaving off ten dollars would be okay. Don’t worry, I said. I can get it for you. The relief in his Thanks man gave me satisfaction.

            After turning onto the Pennyrile, I followed signs to Cracker Barrel. Bryce and I walked in, passing the row of rockers out front. I hadn’t been to one of these in years. When I grew up in Leitchfield the closest one was in Elizabethtown, and going there was a treat for birthdays and Easter and the rare Sunday when my dad would declare after church, How about we go to the Barrel? My mom usually cooked Sunday meals, and this was a gesture my dad offered so she could take that Sunday off. He said it with pride, giving his family a luxury, the whole trip treated as an extravagance.

            I gave them my name. The place was packed with a considerable wait, but that was the point if you wanted to peruse the store, which I was awed by as a kid, endless. Now as an adult, it seemed excessive. I stood with my arms folded, the lively crowd making me uncomfortable, children running, parents telling them to be careful. Bryce loved everything. In the time we waited for our table he riffled through all he could: clothes, movies, Fourth of July decorations, toys and games, stuffed animals, dishware, figurines, candy. He would hold something up. You want this? How about this? Look how cool this is.

            They finally called my name and seated us. I got the sense that other tables, locals, eyed us like a threat, wondering what we were doing in their town. I grew up with the type. They were probably suspicious of Bryce, rough looking. Bryce ended up ordering a classic breakfast. You’re not eating, he said to me when I ordered my coffee. I told him I just ate. You can have some of my biscuits, he said. He played that peg game while we waited for our food, and when it arrived he told me stories of his mountain climbing, animated with hand gestures. Once he got up from his seat to simulate what he described, and I didn’t care what onlookers thought. He claimed he almost died a few times. I like the rush, he said, scarfing hash browns soaked in egg yolk and ketchup. This was a treat for Bryce like it had once been a treat for me as a kid, maybe the most substantial meal he had in a few days.

            When we left, as I pulled out of the parking lot, Bryce said, Hey look what I got. He emptied his loot onto the floor. A snow globe, a cat stuffed animal, a mug, sacks of candy, a mini figurine, a small jar of jam, pouring out from under his shirt, pants, pockets, shoes. Holy shit, I said. How did you? I was amazed at how much he could fit on himself. When did you get all this? He opened the jar of jam, stuck his finger in and licked. It must’ve been when I was in the bathroom and he waited for me in the shop. I had only shoplifted once. As a teenager one of my only friends convinced me to take a cheap bracelet, the kind popular in the late 90’s made of puka shells, from the mall, a typical dumb teenage act, pretending at rebellion.

            You can’t just, I said. You can’t just do that. He tilted the snow globe and watched the glitter fall. Yes I can, he said. I just did. I considered telling him to take it all back, but what was done was done. He said, I wanted to get some souvenirs. He held up the stuffed animal. You want the cat? Or the globe? I don’t know, I said. Taking one of them would make me part of the crime. He said, Well I have to get you something for driving me, and for the food. How about the globe. I gave in and said that was okay. And I found I took pleasure in feeling complicit, a feeling I resisted but then settled into.

            As I followed signs to get back on the Western Kentucky, Bryce said, Wait, I gotta use the bathroom. He drummed his leg like he was waiting for something. I pulled into the nearest gas station, and before the car came to a full stop he flung out the door and hurried into the food mart, leaving me to wait. I shut off the car to save gas despite the heat. I thought more about Bryce’s shoplifting. He had been kind to me, non-threatening, but his unpredictability was unsettling. But then my next feeling: That was exciting. I didn’t think Bryce was dangerous, but a part of me, dark and deep, wanted him to be, and his stealing heightened this want.

            He had been taking a long time in the food mart. I wondered if he got distracted and was checking out the items in the store, and I thought that maybe he was shoplifting again. I debated whether I should check on him. I was already behind schedule for when Debbie expected me in Louisville, so I was partially annoyed with how long he was taking. Right when I was about to get out of the car, I saw him on the side of the building. How long had he been out here? He looked around, aimless like he didn’t know where he was. I approached him, and he walked toward me with big steps. His eyes different, glazed over like jewels, and as I got closer he squinted at me like I was a stranger. Hey, he said. It’s you. I knew you would come. I said, Yeah, it is me. He tugged my arm, and I was surprised at this sudden touch, and he pulled me into him, wrapping himself around me in a hug, his scent permeating into me. I considered what others around us thought, some truckers to our left, and decided I wouldn’t let that bother me. I lead him to the car, and he nestled into the passenger seat.

            When I got back on the expressway, Bryce fidgeted in his seat. His leg thumps were bigger, and now he alternated between both legs. He held his arms, generating friction as he rubbed them, but the car wasn’t cold. He had been somewhat erratic before, but there was a change in him now. I wondered what he did in that bathroom. Are you okay? I asked. He said, I thought you would never ask. I’m fucking great, man. Can’t you drive faster? I was going almost ten above the speed limit, cautious about getting pulled over. I told him this. He said, No one’s gonna pull us over. Come on. I bet you can’t go twenty over. He was testing me. Ordinarily I would brush this off as immature, but I came back to that feeling, complicit with him. I pressed my foot against the acceleration, watched the speedometer climb. Bryce delighted, laughing, clapped his hands. I was fifteen above now, at eighty-five. Bryce draped himself over me, checking to see how fast I was going, his shoulder and upper body across me. Come on, he commanded. He grabbed my shoulder, his clench rippling into my whole frame. I said twenty over. You’re not there yet. I bet you’ve never gone twenty over in your life. It was true I hadn’t. My older car couldn’t handle it, and I avoided getting a ticket because of their cost. Bryce’s hand clawed around me was my safety. We were speeding together. I went even faster, past twenty, twenty-five, the engine revving, thirty, riding the rhythms of speed and the road with him, a rush. We kept climbing. Momentum and force, his hand guiding me. He bobbed up and down, like a child thrilled at the prospect of ice cream or new toy. Fuck yeah, Bryce shouted.

            I came to my senses. I imagined how it would play out if we got pulled over, what Bryce would do if confronted by an officer, if he would be combative or if the cop would be able to tell that Bryce was fucked up and associate me with him. And I had already given Bryce a thrill. I slowed down. What are you doing? Bryce said. Slowing down, I said. He said, Come on. We were just having some fun. I brought the car back to the speed limit. Bryce slouched in disappointment. You fucking fucker, he said, looking at me like I betrayed him. I can’t believe you, he said. Then he shoved me hard, which made me swerve the car. I held my breath, scared, then gained control. If there had been a car in the other lane I would’ve rammed them. Hey, I said. Are you trying to get us killed? He laughed an uncontrollable laugh, hysterical, hunched over, and he kept going on like that, laughing. Then he sat back up. Hey, you’re going to listen to me, you hear, pointing his pointer. He reached in his pocket, and I saw it in the corner of my eye, glinting. He replaced his pointer with the point of a blade aimed at me. Hey, he said. I asked if you heard me. You hear me? I nodded my head. What was that? I want to hear you say it. He brought the knife closer, an inch away from my lower right abdomen. All of my breath felt lodged in my throat. Yes. I’ll do what you said, I stammered.

            He was satisfied with my response. Danger, I thought. This is dangerous, what I had asked for, but not like this. I didn’t think Bryce had a weapon, and I felt stupid, that I had gotten myself in this situation. But there he was next to me. I was still so attracted to him. He held my life in his hands at the end of a knife. Good, he said. That’s real good. I was relieved. I would go along with whatever he told me. Look, I said. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll do what you say. I’ll take you to wherever you need to go. Red River Gorge, right? I saw that we had passed the city of Graham, heading toward Central City. He said, What the fuck you talking about? I’m not going there. I said, But, didn’t you say you were going mountain climbing? He threw his head back and laughed that same laugh. Fuck no, he said. I got a load to sell back here, and he took the knife off me to motion to his pack in the back seat. Meeting up with some friends of mine, and we’re going to make fucking bank off it, he said. The drugs, whatever kind he had taken in the gas station bathroom. He put the knife back on me. Okay, I said. I’ll take you wherever you need to go. He brought the knife closer and said, Damn right you will. I wanted him to tell me where that was exactly, but I didn’t want to press him, afraid it might make him angry.

            You wanna come with me, don’t you, mister? he said, shifting, startling me. He gave me that title again, though I still wasn’t sure what it meant. He was holding me hostage, and this title insinuated I was in a role of authority. Or was it an affectionate term? What if I did go with him, wherever he was going? I could ditch Louisville and Debbie, the shit job I likely needed to take to get on my feet. This idea, leaving everything and following Bryce, lifted up and burrowed into my skin, heart, throat, shoulders, body, an alternate possibility. His knife on me was a thrill, my life his, for him and no one else. He said, I can tell you do. I can feel it. Come with me, he said. What do you say? That story about his parents and grandma. I could’ve been like him if things had gone differently. When I left home, my parents and family, if I hadn’t been able to go school, I might have been homeless, drifting like him. I was already on the brink of homelessness. That story about his grandma, what had endeared me to him initially, I realized now was probably a lie. He said, Are you going to answer me?, brandishing the knife closer. I don’t know, I said. My answer surprised me. It was closer to the truth. I didn’t know.

            What do you mean you don’t know? Bryce said. His eyes widened to bright bulbs. I had set him off, should have told him I would go regardless of my uncertainty. He said, You’ve looked down on me ever since you saw me, and that’s a goddamn fact. You rich bitch school boy. His assessment of me was wrong: I had no money, no job. At school I had sat in dark lecture halls, the slides in my art history courses clicking away, each instructor providing details, context, analysis. I took notes dutifully, memorized everything with mnemonic devices for the tests, retained them for the finals, and when the semester was over they emptied from my mind. This is what I did for four years, and now it was over.

            How much money you got? I was shaky, my hand wobbly on the steering wheel, as he pushed the end of the knife against my lower right abdomen, the thin fabric of my shirt the barrier between my flesh and the tip. I said, Only about twenty-five. He said, Bullshit, with a scoff. I wasn’t lying: that was all the money I had. Tell the goddamn truth, he said. The pinch of the blade against me. Would he really cut me? As I was driving? His face was slack and stern. My wallet, I said. You can look in my wallet. He said, All right then. I said, It’s in my back pocket. I need to reach in my back pocket. This suggested he needed to get the knife off me if I was going to use my free hand to reach around. His eyes narrowed, skeptical. Okay, he said. But you better not try anything. He slowly removed the knife, and I retrieved my wallet and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled out the twenty and five. He said, And this is it? Yes, I said. That’s all I have. This is bullshit, he said. This. He held up my debit card. He said, You fucking liar. There’s gotta be more on this. I had withdrawn all of my money, fearing that if I used my card I might accidentally overdraw. No, I said. My account is empty. He said, Give me a fucking break. Now you’re a goddamn liar. I want you to show me. I said, What do you mean? He thumped his leg up and down more, stuck the knife at me again. Are you questioning me? He was so serious, but then he broke out in laughter, that hysterical laughter from before, like he had been putting on an act, and was so surprised at himself it was funny. No, I said. I’m not questioning you. Like I said, there’s no money in my account. I withdrew all of it for this trip. He said, after composing himself, We’ll see about that. Next exit. Stop off.

            I thought about which exits were next. Caneyville, then Leitchfield, which is where I grew up. I hadn’t gone back since I left, five years before. This one? I said, as we were two miles from Caneyville. Bryce had taken the knife off me, I noticed, maybe when he was laughing, and that alleviated my fear. No, Bryce said. Are you kidding? Not some podunk place. We need a place with an ATM. We’ll stop at the next one. He was right. Caneyville was scarce in the way of options for gas and shops and restaurants. This meant driving into Leitchfield, which lodged a pit in my stomach, my fear all over again, but a different fear, the fear of my past. I told myself it would be fine. We would go to a gas station ATM. I would show Bryce the twenty-five cash was all I had. And then what? A vague idea of trying to escape entered my mind, but what would I do? I didn’t have any ideas. If I tried something and it failed, I worried how Bryce would react. But I was also scared of what he would do to me the longer this continued. He was telling some story about how he and some friends wanted to start a band, mimicking an air guitar, singing some song he wrote without a melody. Silences unsettled him. He always had to fill the emptiness with something.

            When we came to the Leitchfield exit, he put the knife on me again. Get off here, he said. I never thought I would take this exit. I took solace knowing we weren’t going into town itself, just the strip of the gas stations next to the highway. He directed me to some Chevron or Shell, and we didn’t see the lit-up letters advertising an ATM. He told me to go to the next one, and I was grateful when I saw this station had an ATM, that we wouldn’t need to go into town to find a bank. I pulled up to the front. Bryce leaned over me, the green-red hawk of his neck tattoo swooping, his skin so delicate. I still noticed him, that desire for him present underneath the fear. He had leaned to take my keys from the ignition, cutting off the engine, and he dropped them on the ground, fumbling, the drugs in his head, and after he picked the keys up, he said, Stay here. He got out of the car and looped around to my driver’s side, opened my door for me like it was a courtesy. I got out, and from behind he tugged me into him, my back against his front. I could feel his hips securing me to him, and into my ear he said, We’re going in here. I still have the knife on you if you try anything. Act normal. Got it? His breath hot on my neck, like he was touching me without touching. He was holding me at knife point to rob me, and I was aroused. You’re going to open your account and withdraw all of your money.

            In the shop I came to the ATM and pulled up my account. He told me to check the balance, and I showed him the zero on the screen. Goddamn. Fuck, he said. I didn’t know what came next. He forced me back to the car, shoving me into the driver’s seat. He sat back in the passengers, slamming the door. He punched the dash, huffing. Then he breathed deeply and settled, placing his face in his cupped hands. His body next to me, that desire again I couldn’t help. Then it came out of me, surprising myself so much I didn’t know if I really said it or not. But here I was, saying it. I said, I could… hesitating briefly. But then. I could still come with you, I said. He turned to me suspiciously. What do you mean? Like he had forgotten when he asked me to come along with him. We still have the twenty-five, I said. We can still go wherever you’re going. I can still come with you, I said. My life was nothing, I had nothing holding me back. Following Bryce wherever he was going. I wanted someone to take me anywhere else from where I had been headed, and here he was.

            He squinted at me, examining me, and I felt exposed. You, he said, the knife waving at me, accusatory. I’ve seen you. The air conditioning was on full blast, blowing onto our bodies, and my face went hot. What? I said. What do you mean? Barely choking out the words. I’ve seen you, he said again. I’ve seen you looking at me. Watching me, he said. He un-squinted his eyes, opening them. I was caught, always my fear, looking at a man and desiring him, a man I shouldn’t. It was happening here with Bryce. My whole body was hot now, weak, heart pumping into my throat, not knowing how to respond. Yeah, I finally said. What else could I say?

            You’re like, Bryce said. You’re like, into me. He said this like he was trying it on, seeing how it felt, having to come to the realization by saying it aloud. He kept eyeing me, yet he seemed softened and still, his tear drop tattoo at the corner of his eye. Suddenly he put his arm around me, startling me at first, and he brought me into him closer, gradually like slow motion until our faces were so close I could feel his breath. He turned, exposing his neck, and what came naturally to me was to kiss, that neck. I placed my lips, seeing how he would react. He shuddered. He hadn’t been touched in a very long time. Then he settled, and I kissed more, his neck, the skin. He tasted briny and sweet, and he sighed with a quiet moan. I touched his stomach, emaciated, my hand riding his breaths. I stopped, pulled back to see what he was feeling, what he would do. I wanted his body, on me and in me.

            No, he said, changing his tone. No. Get the fuck off me. He switched from relaxed and calm at my touch to anger within a second. He gazed at the ground like he was confused. Get the fuck off me, he said again, even though I wasn’t touching him anymore. You, he said, pointing the knife. Don’t touch me. I can’t be touched. He slammed my face into the steering wheel, the horn going off, my nose bashed. I grabbed it in pain, my forehead aching. I had to comprehend what happened, couldn’t think. He punched me in the gut, winded me so I had a hard time breathing. Get out, he said. Get away from me. He opened my door and shoved me out. I was so disoriented. My body slumped to the ground of the parking lot. He walked around to my door, and he kicked me in the stomach. Get away, he shouted. Then he kicked my head. An echo in my ears, like the sensation of laying back into bathtub water. I heard a voice above us, an outsider. He was saying something like, That’s enough. Leave him alone. I could barely hear. Bryce said something, I couldn’t make out what it was. The other voice, louder, said something else, barking commands. I stood, hobbling. A ringing in my ears.

            I turned to my right, the car door opened. Where was Bryce? Sound came back, gradually, then I could hear fully again. I heard that same voice. Hey, are you okay? My head had been spinning and it stopped, and I could focus. Next to me was an older man, baggy jeans, thick set and stocky, an American flag t-shirt, gray beard on a rounded face. Looked like he clocked you pretty hard, he said. Why don’t you sit? He led me to the driver’s seat. I hunched over with my feet out the side. Here, he said. A water bottle appeared, and I drank. What? What happened? I asked. Where is he? This man, looking at me with worry and pity. Don’t know, he said. I pulled him off you. He was about to beat you more, so I pulled him off, told him to cool it, leave you alone. He yelled at me. Nonsense mostly. He was on some shit. You, he said. You fucked up, too? I shook my head. No, I’m not, I said. Okay, this man said, believing me. Anyway, I told him I would call the cops. Then he ran off. That way. This man was probably pointing in a direction, but I continued looking to the ground. My whole face hurt. Who was that guy? he asked me. Bryce, his body, his neck, skin, his smile when he talked, his leg bouncing. He was, I began. No one. He was no one. Okay, the man said. This man could’ve been my dad. My dad was here in town, only a few roads away. You want to call the cops? he asked. I pictured this scenario, and it would only add to how embarrassed I already felt. No, I said. I’ll be okay. All right then, the man said. If he comes back and gives you trouble. Or if you need anything, you let me know. I’m on a rest stop with some buddies, and we’re right over here. I said, Thanks, and sipped the water. I must’ve looked horrible. Take care now, he said, and he was gone.

            When I rested my head in my hands, my face felt enormous and swollen. I needed to clean up. I made my way into the store, tried not to streak any blood on the door handle, but some wiped off anyway. Onlookers waiting in the cash register line stared at me, some of them whispering to each other. I hurried to the restroom, luckily a private single I could lock. In the mirror, the image of my face, fissured, blood streaming out of my nose, which looked broken, my eye sockets lined with bruising. I hadn’t cried from physical pain since I was younger, but I was almost there at this point. I splashed water on my face carefully, because touching my face hurt badly, even worse when I tried to clean it with paper towels. My stomach felt like I needed to vomit, and I dry heaved. I went back to the car. I couldn’t find the keys, panicked that Bryce ran off with them, until I finally found them after searching for a good fifteen minutes, under the passenger’s. I sat back in the driver’s seat. I would call Debbie and tell her I was late. I would think of an excuse the rest of my way there. In my side view, sitting on the ground, the globe. I picked it up, upturned it, and through the hurt of my face I examined the snowy glitter falling down. Bryce. I had ignited something in him he was so scared of, that he saw in me. I half expected him to show back up, but no, he was gone. Drifting. And I was drifting, too, maybe not quite in the same way as he was, but drifting all the same. I would get on the road and drive to wherever I was headed next.

 

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On Sandy Beach

We drove the road to Sandy Beach every Saturday. First me and Grandma, and then me, Grandma, and Fetu, after he was introduced to the family and before he decided to leave it. In the morning, when the fog hung, we couldn’t tell what was land and what was ocean. If we could, we would have seen that the road was carved in sea cliffs that rose to the left and on the right fell straight down to the Pacific.

            My favorite part of the drive was when it was over, but Fetu loved the last turn. On early mornings we stopped at the lookout and watched the sunrise turn the night-black water purple and gold. Sometimes it didn’t look like water at all. It looked like a road we could run away on.

 

 

            In early summer, Grandma liked to make lei. She’d invite us over, and we came, laden with the bounty of our gardens. Though he was always welcome, my mother’s brother, Uncle Alema, rarely joined, excusing himself with his work at the police station. But that June he came, and with him he brought Fetu.

            As we parked in front of Grandma’s, I got Mom’s first attempt at an explanation.

            “Today we’re going to meet your cousin,” she said.

            I was five and not sure what she meant. “Who?” I asked.

            We stood in front of grandma’s locked wooden gate, nestled between two bay rums. Mom knocked, impatient.

            “Uncle Alema has a son,” she told me. “He’s been living with his mother.”

            I snatched a handful of the bay rum’s leaves just as Alema answered the gate.

            “Mom’s on the deck with her friends,” he said.

            The glossy leaves crushed in my fist as I followed Mom in.

            I had always disliked my uncle, even before what happened with Fetu. Dad left when I was two, and I wasn’t used to being around men. It didn’t help that everything that came out of Alema’s mouth was double-edged. I never wanted to be alone with him, and though I hadn’t told this to Mom, she knew it. She pulled me in front of her, and I dropped the bruised leaves. The air with their spicy scent as Alema shut the gate behind us.

            Grandma’s deck wasn’t actually a deck, but the converted roof of her garage. To get up there, we had to climb a wooden ladder. Worn by years of use, its wooden rungs were smooth. My hands and feet slid, rushed by Mom’s hands on my ankles.

            “My favorite girls!” Grandma said when we got to the top. She was already garlanded. “Give me a kiss.”

            We did, and Mom complimented Grandma’s mango tree, heavy with humpbacked Haydens that were just beginning to ripen. I dumped our bag of soaked flowers over the toweled table and smoothed the blossoms with my hands. Then, with Mom distracted, I escaped to my corner.

            At these lei parties, I sat at the edge of the deck. There, wedged between pots of orchids, I could avoid the questions of Grandma’s friends. But that night, a boy sat in my corner. He saw me just as I saw him.

            “I’m Fetu,” he said. He was seven years old then.

            He twisted the ribbed scythe of a mango leaf in his hands. At this gesture, I found my own nerves relax.

            “Can I sit with you?” I asked.

            He pushed the pot beside him so I could fit. A flock of parrots roosted in the tree above us. Our legs swung in time.

            “My mom says they’re escaped house pets,” I told him.

            “Do you think we would make it if we jumped?” Fetu asked.

            I looked down at the mondo grass below. “Definitely not,” I said.

            The air of early evening was steamy with summer. Half-lost in the neighbors’ trees, the sun’s compromised light made everything soft. Beads of sweat strung the skin above my upper lip. Fetu held up an immature, green mango.

            “Should I throw it?” he asked.

            “At what?”

            Just then, Alema walked out of the house, wiping his hands on his pants. Fetu pointed at my uncle, and I said no, but he was already cocking his arm back. The mango flew, spiraling through the air, imbalanced. It clocked Alema on the side of the head.

            “Fuck!”

            Alema reached up to where the mango had hit him. Behind us, the party quieted. I glanced back to see Grandma in a haku, Mom’s hand frozen mid-pour above Grandma’s wine glass. Alema’s gaze hardened when it landed on us.

            “Which one of you threw that?” he asked.

            “I did,” Fetu said.

            “Down here. Now.” Alema’s voice was clipped with anger.

            Fetu walked across the deck, and I stood to watch him. My heart pounded in time with the hollow sound of his feet on the ladder’s rungs. Mom stood beside me, and I leaned in to press my head against her bony hip.

            “What the fuck did you think you were doing?” Alema demanded. He picked the mango up and held it in his hand. “Are you an idiot?”

            Fetu didn’t answer. It was then, as he stood across from Alema, that I realized it. The long profile of their noses were shaped by the same hand. Alema tapped Fetu on the forehead with the mango. I flinched.

            “I said,” Alema tapped him again, harder, “are you an idiot?”

            “No,” Fetu said.

            I was surprised by the stability of his voice, that he was not crying as I would have. Then Alema slapped Fetu across the face with his empty hand.

            Mom gasped. “Alema!” she said.

            Alema looked up and dropped the mango. Mom was across the deck, down the ladder; she ran to them. Kneeling in front of Fetu, she held his face in her hands. A red handprint spread its five-petaled stamp on Fetu’s cheek. Behind me, someone whispered.

            Mom took Fetu into the house, and I retreated to sit next to Grandma. The gate slammed, and Alema’s truck roared outside. Grandma squeezed my hand.

            “Why don’t you start,” she said, and passed me a lei needle.

            The party thawed as everyone returned to what they’d been doing. One of Grandma’s friends strummed an ukulele. I threaded the needle like Mom had taught me, licking the tip of the string and passing it through the eye. Grabbing plumeria after plumeria, I repeatedly stabbed blossoms, thinking of the heavy sound of Alema’s hand on Fetu’s face. As the needle filled, I pushed the flowers down to hang loosely on the thread.

            By the time Mom and Fetu came back, everyone was singing again.

            Mom sat Fetu down beside me. The tips of his hair were wet, and his eyes were red. Mom sat across from us. I handed Fetu my half-strung lei.

            “Do you want to finish mine?” I asked. “I don’t like the color.”

            He took it. I grabbed another needle.

            “Here, I’ll show you,” I said.

            Mom watched as the two of us thread lei, sorted through the flowers for the best. We alternated colors. We tore petals. We pricked our fingers every now and then. Our blood mixed with the flowers’ sap. When we finished the lei, we hung them around each other’s necks.

            Later, after we’d left Fetu with Grandma, I thought of how scared Fetu must be, having been taken from his mom to live with a strange man.

            “I’m proud of you. You did good today,” Mom said.

            That was five years before the kiss.

 

 

            Sandy’s was the type of beach where necks got broken. Most dangerous were the shallows. There, where Fetu and I played, the sea floor inclined without a buffer between the break of the wave and hard-packed sand.

            Though there were dozens of safer beaches we could have gone to, Grandma couldn’t boogie board there, or stop by Costco after. She probably shouldn’t have taken us to Sandy’s, and she definitely shouldn’t have left us alone to bodysurf, but she did, and she wasn’t the only grandparent to do it.

            I stood on the shore. Goliath waves broke in front of me. I was eleven, and Fetu and I had been going to Sandy’s for six years. Feet from me, he played in the whitewater as a wave built behind him. I wanted to warn him, but didn’t, knowing he’d laugh. When the wave broke, he dove under it.

            Whitewash bubbled around my ankles. Sand covered my toes, chunky bits of coral, shell and bone that had been smoothed in the constant rhythm of the ocean. It sucked at my feet, pulling me in.

            Fetu’s head floated in the bubbles. “You’re wet.” He splashed me. “Come in.”

            He stood, water dripping from him, shining as I wished I could. Every drop of water glistened, catching the sun. It wasn’t just the water I was scared of. Sometimes I was also scared of him. He was fast, forever springing into motion, and with him I often found myself on edge. It’s not that I didn’t trust him, it’s that I was scared of most things then. And part of me was unsure about how I felt, about the weird pull I got in my gut when I thought about him.

            The next wave’s foam swirled around my knees. My fair skin burned in the sun. I longed for the relief of water surrounding me, suspending every hair on my body, but could not dive into the ocean like Fetu. I turned to run up the sand berms, to where Grandma had set up our umbrella, but before I could, Fetu was on me. He tackled me into the sand.

            When we fell, it was harder than I expected.

            At the edge of the shorebreak, we wrestled. Waves shot water up our suits, in our ears and eyes, splaying my hair around my head. Fetu laughed. Out of the ocean, his brown hair was spiky. His lashes were blond-tipped. He pinned me down, rubbing sand into my suit and face, a handful into my hair. At first, I laughed too, but soon the sand became rough. Its grains dug into my scalp, grew hard against my skin. They slipped in my mouth and when I bit down, the grains crunched. I elbowed him, and then suddenly, he was pulled off.

            A lifeguard stood over us, face shaded by a red cap.

            “You okay?” he asked.

            Instead of answering, I glanced at Fetu, who sat five feet from me, behind the lifeguard. His hand clenched around a fistful of sand. A strand of my blonde hair curled between his fingers.

            Grandma slipped up the beach, still in her fins. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized.

            The lifeguard ignored her, handing me a bottle of water. “Rinse your mouth,” he said.

            I took a sip and swished. Fetu leaned forward onto his knees as he watched me, brows pinching with nerves. The freshwater was sweet in my mouth. Spitting, I found no blood or teeth, only saliva and broken fragments of sand. The next wave whisked what I’d spit back to the depths.

            “I’m okay,” I said, and Fetu let out a long breath.

            “You shouldn’t leave them unsupervised,” the lifeguard said to Grandma. “The beach is busy, and I don’t see everything.”

            She was quiet, and he sighed.

            “Take care of yourself,” he told me. Then he walked back down the beach to his tower, raising his radio to say something I couldn’t hear as Fetu crawled across the sand to sit back next to me.

            “What were you thinking?” Grandma asked Fetu.

            He took my hand without saying anything.

            “You know what,” Grandma said. “I don’t want to know. We’re leaving.”

            Fetu and I held hands as she corralled us over the hot sand, only dropping them to help Grandma pick up the towels. It was earlier than we usually left, but we both knew not to argue. We both knew that with Grandma, like Alema, it was best not to say anything.

            Barefoot, we tip-toed across the pokie-filled grass to the beach park showers which even then were rusted and covered in algae. Smooth bars of soap and crusted shampoo bottles were shoved between pipes, left by the unhoused and beach regulars. Grandma squeezed a bit on each of our heads before disappearing into the bathroom.

            “I’m sorry about tackling you,” Fetu said.

            I massaged the shampoo. It was quiet besides the sound of suds popping.

            “It’s okay,” I said.

            Fetu took a handful of bubbles from my head and patted it to his face, shaping a beard.

            “Let’s play a game,” he said.

            I looked to see if Grandma was still in the bathroom.

            “What kind of game?” I asked.

            “Tag,” he said, and reached for me.

            Under my feet, the cement was mossy and slick. I stepped back, and fell before he could touch me. The ground was hard against my bottom. The sting of hurt and shampoo mixed. I began to cry.

            “I’m sorry.” Fetu was on his knees.

            He wiped the suds from my forehead. If Grandma saw me crying again, she would tell Alema, and we both know what that would mean for Fetu. I let Fetu wash the moss from my elbows and back. He rubbed gently, until I was no longer slimy. Something inside me warmed. I looked up at him.

            “It hurts,” I said.

            Fetu helped me up and we looked at my elbows. There were no scratches or blood, but a warm flesh had crept to the surface.

            “It’s going to bruise,” Fetu told me.

            Over our heads, kites flew, dotting the sky in green and red. My chest rose and fell in shallow breaths. Fetu poked my cheek and stuck out his tongue. I laughed. Just then, Grandma came out of the bathroom. Fetu ducked under the shower to wash the bubbles from his cheeks. At the car, we changed into clothes and from across the backseat, I watched as Fetu stripped off his suit. Outside the window, Grandma held up a towel, hiding us from the eyes of the people who passed. Fetu watched me back.

 

 

            At Costco, I helped Grandma shop. Fetu skated through the aisles, sneaking free samples and playing hide n’ seek with himself. Each item Grandma and I crossed off the grocery list was a little victory, and we barely noticed Fetu was gone until he met us at the exit. Leaving the cool of the warehouse, we unloaded the shopping cart into Grandma’s car, and when we were done, we got in.

            From Costco to Grandma’s was another half hour. I was hungry and tired from the sun. Fetu and I leaned against the locked car doors and faced each other. He pressed his feet against mine. Behind him, shower trees passed through the glass of the car window in a kaleidoscope of color. We spent the whole ride like that.

            Back at Grandma’s house, we helped bring the food in, the dogs following us as we did. Grandma made us turkey and cheese sandwiches while Fetu and I sat at the kitchen counter. I was more tired than hungry, and after half a sandwich, I was in pain, the overly toasted sourdough cutting the top of my mouth. I set the sandwich down and took a long sip of water.

            “Finish your food,” Grandma said.

            Fetu was already done and had left me alone at the counter as he played with Grandma’s shells, driving cones across the floor like cars. I forced bites down like pills, swallowing each with a gulp of water. When my plate was finally empty, Grandma took it.

            “It’s time for a nap,” she said.

            In the bedroom, we changed into pajamas as Grandma set up our mattress. She left, and I lay down, the fresh sheets crisp and cool beneath my sun-warmed skin. Fetu dozed beside me.

            Everything in that room was green. In fact, everything in the house was, from the forest of Grandma’ towels to the mint of her walls. Even the light, cracking the blinds, was filtered green through leaves. In all that green, I thought of growing. I thought of the tree outside, the grass, the garden. I thought of how Fetu had looked when I first met him, in the fading summer light. I fell into a shallow state of dreaming.

            I woke to the ceiling fan spinning. It felt like I had not slept at all. The mattress moved, rustling the sheets. When I turned, Fetu was so close I could see the sand in his scalp. Under his left eye, I noticed a triangle of freckles I’d never seen before.

            “Hey,” he whispered.

            His breath smelled of turkey. I began to sweat. Tendrils of breeze tugged at my leg hair. Outside, Grandma talked to the dogs as she fed them. Hard pellets rattled as she poured food into their metal bowls, a shot of water in each so it was soft enough to chew.

            My mouth was dry. My lips were chapped. Fetu kissed me, and I let him do it.

            His tongue explored me with a certainty I had not anticipated. He tasted sour. When he pulled away, I counted the spins of the fan, tried to make faces out of the cracks in the ceiling. I fell back to sleep with Fetu’s warm hand on my chest, but when I woke he was gone.

 

 

            A year later Amy entered our lives. She started off as a clerk at the police station where Alema worked, and then before we knew it, she had moved into Alema’s house. She brought with her a host of problems, most noticeably her dislike of me, Fetu, and my mom. But while Mom and I had it easy, had our own apartment we could escape to, Fetu was stuck there, in the house with her. I was too busy growing up then to realize how hard that was on him.

            Years passed and Fetu and I went to different schools. We made different friends. I took up volleyball. He became the starting quarterback. As we got older, I retreated into my shyness, and Fetu began practicing manhood the only way he knew how, mimicking his father’s anger and accumulating a string of girlfriends. Because of all this, I barely saw him.

            And then, Amy got pregnant. I was sixteen, Fetu seventeen then. We had stopped going to Sandy’s, and only saw each other on holidays, when my mom and I drove over the Pali to Kailua, where Alema, Amy, and Fetu lived. Their house was a single-story. Fetu slept in a room behind the kitchen. The few times I sat on his bed, it didn’t smell like him. It smelled of burnt pasta, dry chicken, the plastic of Lean Cuisine dinners Amy ate, post-pregnancy. He never complained about it.

            When Harrison was born, Amy said he’d sleep with her and Alema for the first few months, and after that he’d move to the back room with Fetu. I remember how Fetu looked when Amy said that, how he speared the turkey on his plate, how the hand in his lap clenched.

            I wasn’t there a few months after that conversation, when Fetu got arrested. It was just Amy and Harrison. But I’ve heard the story so many times that I can reconstruct it.

            It starts in the kitchen. Amy stands, reaching. She is trying to open the microwave oven. Her belly hangs over her skirt, a reminder of the body she had before Harrison. She’ll never have that body again.

            Alema is sleeping at a cot in the police station. Fetu is in his room, the door to the kitchen open. In the living room, Harrison cries. Amy leans against the counter and blows on her leftovers.

            “Go check on him,” she says.

            When Harrison sees Fetu, he stops crying. He smiles with his gums and kicks his chubby legs so hard he rocks the high chair. On the ground lies a bowl of spilt Cheerios.

            Amy stands in the doorway.

            “Pick them up,” she says.

            Fetu sweeps the Cheerios into a dustbin. He thinks he has them all and turns to empty them out. Amy stops him. She points at the corner of the room that has not been swept for months. There is a tangle of human hair, feathers, dust. There is a single Cheerio.

            “Sweep it up,” she says.

            He sweeps it up.

            In the kitchen he empties the dustbin into the trash. He puts the broom and bin away and opens the fridge. Grabbing peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich, he puts them on the counter. The fridge door is left open.

            “You’re letting the cold air out,” Amy says.

            “It wasn’t open long,” he says.

            She stomps over to the fridge and grabs the loaf of bread. “Look,” she says. “Let me show you how easy it is.” She closes the door and puts the bread on the counter, walks back to the fridge and opens it again. “See. Simple. You do it.”

            Fetu doesn’t move.

            “Do it,” she says.

            “I don’t want to,” he says.

            “Just fucking do it, Fetu.”

            She grabs his shirt. He tries to shrug her off, but her fingers are hooked into his armpit. So he pushes her. He throws her across the room. Hitting the counter, she falls to the floor.

            Fetu takes a step towards her, and she flinches. Her right wrist hangs from her arm like a bracelet should. It doesn’t look like part of her.

            “I’m sorry,” he says.

            She elbows him away with her good arm and stands, cradling her wrist.

            “I’m calling your father. I’m calling the cops,” she says.

            This is where we come in. This is when Fetu called my mother. She and I were sitting, taking a break from dancing to Frank Sinatra. We had just finished dinner and our sides were in stitches after spinning around the apartment.

            “Can you come get me?” he asked over speakerphone.

            I turned the music off. He was crying, his voice thick through the static.

            “I need your help,” he said.

            He tried to explain what had happened. It was a story Amy would retell and contradict.

            “I don’t know what to do,” he said.

            I grabbed the keys.

            “We’re coming,” Mom told him, and then we were driving to him.

            The cops were at the house when we got there. Their lights flashed down the quiet dead end. Fetu sat in one of the cop cars, and when he saw us, he raised his hands to the window. He was handcuffed and crying. Amy stood in front of the house, yelling at the police. Mom tried to talk to the officers, but they wouldn’t listen to her. They told her to get Alema to call. They told her to find Fetu’s mother. When the cops drove off, their sirens pierced through the rolled-up car windows, and we sat there and listened, long after they’d left.

 

 

            We were only there when Fetu got sacked because Mom had promised Fetu we’d go to his game. I was usually playing volleyball, so we rarely got the chance. The game had already started by the time we got there. The bleachers were full, but Grandma had saved us seat beside her in the third row. When she saw us looking for her, she stood and waved, a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear.

            By then, Fetu had been living with Grandma for a few months. Amy hadn’t pressed charges, but Alema had kicked Fetu out. From what Fetu told me, life with Grandma was boring but safe. In the mornings they blended smoothies, and Grandma took him to school. She did chores and saw friends until it was time for him to be picked up. Sometimes she’d watch from the parking lot while he played football. They’d go home for dinner, then take the dogs out. Each night ended in the living room, where Fetu did schoolwork and Grandma read.

            The only time Fetu said he was happy was when we picked him up to surf. Out on the water, he said he felt free. While Mom and I caught waves, he’d paddle out past the lineup to sit and look at the horizon. Sometimes he’d lie back and stare at the sky. I’d try to imagine what he was feeling, but I felt so far away from him then, like I was somewhere below the ocean while he floated in light.

            On the bleachers, Mom and I sat next to Grandma. Fetu stood on the sidelines, looking trapped.

            “How’s he playing?” Mom asked.

            “It’s been a hard game,” Grandma said. “His left tackle got hurt.”

            The opposing team’s offense was on third down. A whistle blew, and the quarterback handed the ball to runningback, who didn’t make the conversion. The ball was punted, and bodies sprinted, pivoted, cleats ripped chunks of grass.

            Fetu walked on the field, his offense following him. At the twenty yard line, he and ten other boys huddled. His hands fluttered as he called the play. They disbanded onto the line of scrimmage. A whistle blew again and the center snapped the ball. Fetu chucked it to a tight end.

            They were in the red zone when Fetu got hit. He was in the pocket, eyes on his wide receiver. He didn’t see the linebacker running around the right, but I did. I stood. I screamed, trying to warn him.

            He threw just as he was hit. The ball spun in the air, wobbly, like the mango all those years before.

            I ran down the steps and onto the field, pushing past security and coaches. Kneeling over Fetu, I pulled his helmet off, and found blood covering his forehead. He stirred. “You smell like dirt,” he said.

            Mom’s hand knelt beside me. “I know you’re trying to help, but you’ve got to give him space,” she said.

            She pulled me up and back, her fingers tight around my elbow as we stood beside Grandma. Trainers knelt in the spot I’d been, velcroing Fetu’s head into a brace. I felt my own throat constricting as they strapped him to a gurney, and we followed them over the field, and down the ramp to the training room.

            “What happened?” Fetu asked.

            One of the trainers got out a penlight to check Fetu’s eyes.

            “The ambulance is ready,” the trainer said.

            Fetu tried to sit up. “I don’t need an ambulance.” The plastic brace cut into his neck.

            “Don’t move.” I pushed myself in front of the trainer so Fetu could see me. “You’re bleeding.” My own voice rang in my ears as the training room lights washed the color from his face. I took his hand and squeezed, and he stopped struggling. When he was wheeled out to the ambulance, Grandma got in with him. Mom and I followed them in our Acura to the hospital. There, the emergency room doctor said Fetu was severely concussed.

            “According to the trainer’s notes, this is his third one this year,” she said. “He needs to take off the rest of the season.”

            “It’s my senior year,” he said.

            She clicked her pen. “You just suffered a traumatic brain injury, and if you keep playing, it could lead to permanent damage. You won’t be able to move, to speak. You might not even be able to think.”

            The waxy paper on the exam table crinkled. I started to cry. His jaw clenched.

            He didn’t speak again for the rest of the night. Not at the hospital, or the car ride home. Not as we helped him into the house or put him to bed. When he looked at me, it was like something had locked behind his eyes, like a room had shut on me. It was like the boy I’d grown up with wasn’t even there.

 

 

            Fetu spent the next week in bed. Mom was working night shifts as a waitress back then, so I was often alone in our apartment. When I didn’t have volleyball practice, I visited Fetu at Grandma’s. I thought I could distract him. I brought him gifts—pretty leaves I found on the hood of my car, candy from my school’s cafeteria, flowers I picked at lunch. We played cards. We attempted to watercolor. We baked, and on the nights Grandma left we snuck out, taking turns around the oleander-lined blocks.

            Sometimes Grandma had her friends over, and I’d stay with Fetu in the back room, listening to Grandma’s laughter through the wall. It was on one of those nights that Fetu told me about his mother. We sat in his room—me on a chair, him on the bed. The shoyu chicken Grandma had made was too hot for me, so I’d left it to cool on the dresser. Fetu ate, mouth open to let the heat out as he chewed. I whistled Blackbird to the shama thrush warbling out the window.

            “My mom used to sing that song,” Fetu said.

            “Do you ever talk to her?” I asked.

            He stopped eating. “When I was a kid, I burnt all the skin off my hands,” he said. “I was hungry, and my mom was in the bedroom with her boyfriend. I’d asked her for something to eat, but she told me to take care of it myself, so I went into the kitchen. She’d forgotten she’d left the stove on. It was one of those electric ones that you can’t tell is hot, and I put both my hands on the burner. My skin just melted.”

            He turned the steaming rice in his bowl with his fork. The bird chirped the notes I’d sung back.

            “She took me to the hospital, and at the hospital they called CPS. Before that, my dad didn’t know he had a son. She was only two months pregnant when they got divorced. Her boyfriend thought I was his,” Fetu said. He looked out the window and I looked with him, but we couldn’t see the bird. “After I burnt my hands, she told them about my dad so I wouldn’t go into the foster system. They called him and he didn’t believe it. He made them do a paternity test.”

            I stared at Fetu’s hands, noticing for the first time the scars between his fingers, remembering the leathery feel of his palms when we had walked through the beach park hand-in-hand. He began eating again. On the other side of the wall, in the living room, someone dropped a glass.

 

 

            That night I woke to moonlight stretching in rectangles across my bedroom wall. Mom was crying. When I walked into the kitchen, I found her sitting on the floor, our landline phone to her ear.

            “There must be some way to know where he’s gone,” she said.

            “What happened?” I asked. I was still sleep-dazed, everything a little round.

            “I have to go.” She stood. “Let me know if you find anything.” She hung up. “Honey, go back to bed.”

            I shook my head. “Tell me.”

            “Fetu’s gone.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Grandma went to check on him, and he wasn’t in bed,” she said.

            “Did he leave a note?”

            She said no. I was wide awake then.

            “We have to go out,” I said. “We have to find him.”

            “Honey, it’s two in the morning.”

            I sat on a barstool. I picked up my phone, which I’d left on the kitchen counter, but there were no calls, no texts.

            “Where would he even go?” I asked her. I wanted to run out onto the street, to scream. “Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

            Mom came close. She hugged me, and I slid off the barstool and into her arms, letting her hold me up, just as she had when I was five and had fallen in the playground, skinning my knees.

            “I don’t understand,” I said.

            But a part of me must have, because I knew what Fetu had been trying to say in the last conversation we’d had. He wasn’t telling a story about his mom. He was telling a story about Alema. A story I should have known, but was too selfish to piece together. Because I had never felt the way he had. Because growing up my mom and I had days where we would not speak, days she grew frustrated with my timidness, days where I shut up like a clam after too much of her prodding. We still have days like that. But I know that she is mine and I am hers and there is no one in the world I love like her. There is no one in the world she loves like me. Fetu never had that.

            A week later we found out Fetu had run away to his mom. To Hilo, where she’d moved after Alema got custody. I’ve tried, many times, to picture what Fetu must have done, must have said, to convince his mom to let him come back. Unlike what happened with Amy, this story’s never been told to me.

            In the years since Fetu’s left, I’ve thought often of our kiss. Though it only happened once, I’ve wished, many times, that it happened again. I never told anyone about it. Sometimes I wonder if it happened at all, or if it was a dream I had, brought on by the heat of Grandma’s bedroom, by my own longing. When I’m alone I return to it, again and again.

 

 

            The beach at Sandy’s gets cold around 4 p.m. Then, with the sun blocked by Koko Head, the heat fades and the wind brings sandstorms. The naupaka, once green, turns gray. The waves break in black and white. Everything loses color.

            The last time I went to Sandy’s, I went alone. I was home from New York for the holidays. On my first night back, Mom asked me to come to a friend’s dinner party, but I was jetlagged. I wanted to relax, but when I tried I couldn’t. So I left the house. I planned to drive to Makapu`u, to look at the Mokuluas. Instead I stopped at Sandy’s.

            The parking lot was a box full of beer cans and sand. It was early evening, and the families had left, their broken boogie boards shoved into trash cans, their sandcastles crumbling in the breeze. In their place, young people sipped beer, smoked weed, laughed.

            Sitting on the curb, I ate my sushi, my bottom cold from the cement. The sand was lower than I’d ever seen, tides and storms having stolen the beach. The berms Fetu and I had wrestled on were gone.

            I didn’t see Grandma until she walked up. It was a Wednesday, so I didn’t expect her. If I’d checked the parking lot, I might have seen her car. I might have been able to avoid her. Instead I was forced to say hello, something neither of us wanted.

            Her hug smelled of sandalwood and sunscreen. She had a white hibiscus pinned in her hair, just like all those years before. I hadn’t spoken to her since I graduated from high school and moved to the East Coast.

            I told her about my apartment in Brooklyn, the freelance work I did. Grandma told me about the retirement community she’d moved into and the salsa classes she took. The conversation came to a pause too soon, and I found myself asking about Fetu.

            “Not since he left,” she said. “Well, he called once. Asked for his social security card. And his birth certificate. Said he wanted to go to college.”

            For a shining moment, I pictured Fetu at university, somewhere far away from Alema and Amy. He was walking across a green lawn, surrounded by people who loved him as I did.

            “I don’t think he made it,” Grandma said. “Last thing I heard he’d knocked up his girlfriend.”

            And with that, my dream was replaced with a small house in Hilo, with peeling walls and a screaming baby at the foot of the bed.

            “Do you have his number?” I asked.

            She shook her head.

            “His address?”

            “I sent a Christmas card, but they sent it back,” Grandma said.

            In front of us, waves pummeled the shore. Their crashing mixed with the laughter of the last beachgoers. It filled the space between us. When we said goodbye, it was without hugging. Grandma walked down the beach and climbed up to the parking lot, where I watched her dust off her feet with a towel before getting into her Prius.

            I left my food on the curb and walked to the water. Taking off my shirt, I let the foam tickle my feet. The next wave broke and I was running, up to my knees, to my hips, diving beneath. I skimmed the sandy bottom as the water massaged my back and ran through my hair, tugging at my bikini. I let it flatten me out. I let it crush me.

            When I got out, my hair was full of sand. I gathered my clothes and walked up the beach. It was even emptier than when I’d arrived—the lifeguard tower closed, just three cars left. Sitting back on the curb, I finished my sushi. Tradewinds dried my skin to goosebumps. Clouds hung on the horizon, the tops of them catching light. Through the rising fog, Moloka`i was barely visible.

            Above me, `Iwa birds flew in figure eights. I knew that beyond Moloka`i lay Maui and Lana`i. I knew that past them sat Kaho`olawe. I knew that somewhere, far to the East, miles of ocean away, was the Big Island. I couldn’t see it. I thought of Fetu in Hilo, and wondered if I would ever see him again. The swell died down. The ocean was black. I got up and when I did, I was the last person to leave Sandy Beach.

 

 

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Maze

Still in my high school punk rock phase, so when I showed up Ralph said I already looked scary. Every October, I worked at a haunted Halloween corn maze on the outskirts of town because I had to pay for my car insurance. There were folding tables with tons of makeup on them. It was here where everyone came to get ready for the night. Cardboard boxes sat waiting with every child’s nightmares: Ghostface, Jason, Freddie, and other freaky but untrademarked faces. I opted for the makeup, since these boxes were God-knows how old and were stored in God-knows what condition and smelled like weed, vomit, sweat, and cornfield.

            My friend Liz brought over black and white face paint to transform me. She was an artsy tomboy, forever in dark eyeliner with lots of jangly bracelets and black jeans. She bustled around and did everyone’s makeup except for the jocks, who squeezed fake blood on their hands and then played some form of slapsies until they were covered in red handprints. Stupid, but pretty effective. While she did my makeup, Ralph, who owned the farm, gave us our nightly pep talk. This one consisted of some red-faced yelling about not smoking weed or leaving beer cans around.

            “It ruins the illusion,” he said, stalking off, but not before one of the jocks gave him a friendly pat on the back, leaving a red palm on his jacket.

            “How is the usual first day of the season madness?” I asked Liz. She went to the high school across town, West. I went to East.

            “Sheer chaos. They didn’t take any of my suggestions like labeling the boxes or getting plastic Tupperware. Pretty sure there’s a family of mice living in, like, all of the coffins, so don’t get stuck jumping out of one.”

            “I’m going for the chainsaw this year.”

            “You always say that. And then you can’t start the chainsaw. And then the guests laugh at you, and then you get all insecure.” She had finished covering my face in lotion and started painting it corpse white.

            “Last year I was lulling them with a false sense of safety. They were more scared of the next monster after I fumbled my scare,” I said. The truth was I just didn’t have the upper body strength to start the chainsaw.

            “Uh huh. Psychological warfare. I get it. It’s like when I’m nice to my stepmother on Thursdays and then I’m a total cunt the entire weekend. Close your eyes.”

            I kept my eyes closed as she switched to black, which had a heavier texture than the corpse white. She hollowed out my cheeks and painted all around my eyes. She was a pro at turning out corpses at this point.

            “So itchy,” I said.

            “Would you rather stick your face in one of those masks?”

            “Fuck no.”

            “Okay then, time for the lips. Open your eyes.”

            When I opened them, I saw Katie, who I knew through Liz, sitting at our table with a guy I did not recognize, but kids from all over the area came to work here. He was around my age. Katie had a round face painted to look like there was blood coming out of her eyes and her mouth. She growled at Liz and made a hungry-snapping noise at me.

            “Are you scared?” she croaked out.

            “I did your makeup, Katie, so no,” Liz said. “You should bring that energy to the school play.” Katie was a drama kid, like Liz.

            “The Crucible but zombies,” the guy said. He had this big nose that dominated his face. Kind of a girly voice. His hair was buzzed short and he had two little stud earrings in each ear. He looked like a stoner, like one of those kids who blazed up in the back of the auditorium and said “cool” a lot.

            “Oh, that’d be awesome. Try to eat John Proctor,” I said. “I’m Mike.”

            “Sorry, I forgot you and Anthony don’t know each other.” Liz said, now using a Q-tip to brush black lipstick onto me. “Mike works here every year. Anthony goes to West with Katie and me. He does behind the scenes with me in the plays.”

            “But like not makeup,” Anthony said. “Like sets and sound and stuff.”

            Katie nodded and gestured at the two of them. “The dream team, Liz does my makeup and Anthony does my mic.” She squeezed his arm, obviously crushing. I stood to the side, the sole member of the group who went to East.

            I nodded. “Nice. So you didn’t work here last year, right?”

            “No,” Anthony said. “Liz told me about it.”

            “Where in the fields are you all?”

            Katie growled again. “I’m with Liz, sort of by the front, with the vampire cultists. As always, shotgun cult leader.”

            “Sounds about right,” I said. “I’m with the serial killers and the chainsaws over by the haunted shack and apple cider.”

            Anthony was over there too. I told him once he got his makeup on we could walk over together. I’d show him the best hiding spots to really freak people out.

            “No makeup for me. I’ll wear a mask.”

            The girls started to walk over with us and then we parted ways, deeper into the fields. Anthony told me he needed this job to pay for his car. He spent the evenings that weren’t weekends delivering pizza. He lived in the Kings Grant apartments and his mother was a flight attendant so was never home. Dad was gone. If he wanted spending money, he’d sure as shit earn it himself.

            It was still daylight out, so it was easy to weave in and out of the maze, just following the arrows to our spot. Without the arrows, we would have gotten lost. The maze seemed endless. Anthony and I had an isolated little area toward the end, festively decorated with a small scaffold and a two of dummies hanging from nooses, meant to look like our victims. The two of us grabbed the extra ropes and whipped the dummies, watched them sway. He left his mask off, saying he’d put it on when the first few people came through. In the dimming light, while I was pretending to strangle him, I noticed he had very nice lips.

            “So you do theater tech?”

            He looked at me for a long minute. “What are you trying to say?”

            “I’m not trying to say anything. I’m asking if you do it. Like, could you build a scaffold like this?”

            He grinned. “Probably better. It should really have a trap door that pulls out. So yeah. If you got me the right wood, I could build.”

            “Cool. I mean, I don’t need one. But that’s cool.”

            He laughed and held out his hand. I gave him a high five. He shook his head. “No. Like feel my hand. Feel how calloused. That’s your proof I could build a scaffold since you don’t want one.”

            “Oh, oh yeah,” I said. “I feel.” It occurred to me that we were sort of holding hands. Is that what he wanted? Or was I walking a thin line to getting my ass kicked?

            “Yours feel soft.” He poked where my fingers met my hand. He caught my eye for a second and then looked away. “Now that it’s darker you look kinda creepy. I’m not sure I’d recognize you with your makeup off.”

            “I’ll say hi, then you’ll know,” I said.

            “I’m just kidding. I can tell what you look like.” He caught my eye again.

            “Anyway, the makeup is better than that mask. They store them like, in the same dank shed on the farm somewhere. Next time you should just do the makeup.”

            He shook his head. “I don’t want anyone to see me.”

            “Why not?”

            “Well,” Anthony bit his lip and turned the lights on over our swaying victims. It was darker now. “When I started delivering pizzas, a few kids noticed and started, you know, being shitty about it at school. So I started like, wearing a hoodie and a hat and stuff so no one can see me. This job it’s even easier to hide.”

            I grinned stupidly. “I see you.”

            “You’re like, mad cheesy.” He bumped me with his shoulder. Ralph drove by on a little green Gator to tell us guests would be coming by soon. The front had opened; the sun had gone down. It was early in the season though, so it wouldn’t be too crowded. That didn’t mean we should get lazy, though. He got off the Gator and looked around the scaffold for any empty beer cans and thanked us for being the only sober ones this deep into the field. Then he drove off, leaving the smell of car fumes in the otherwise clear and sweet corn.

            “So speaking of sober, do you wanna smoke? Just a little. Like I don’t wanna freak out at the corn maze. Imagine if we were more scared than the customers. That would be so—” He snapped his fingers and paused.

            “Ironic?”

            “Yeah! Ironic. That would be ironic. Smoke?”

            We walked a few feet into the corn maze, but not so far that we’d get lost. It was so tight that we were pressed close to each other, face to face. I could smell Anthony’s cologne, one of those body sprays people keep in their cars if they can’t shower. We passed the joint back and forth.

            “So you’re smart? You do well in school?” He said, exhaling over my shoulder.

            “I don’t know. I do okay.”

            “I mean, you knew about ironic.”

            We finished the joint, but we still stood there, the corn swayed and pressed against us, as if nudging us closer.

            “We should head back. I think I hear—” I said.

            “Do you mind if I pee first?”

            “Sure.”

            “I don’t wanna walk back alone. Can you wait?”

            “Okay. I have to pee too.”

            We unzipped, and peed. I caught him looking down and watching me, and then he caught me watching, too. He pressed his lips together.

            “Sorry. Weed always does this to me. You?” He sounded shaky.

            Weed didn’t do that to me, but the sight of Anthony’s mouth and his dick out in the dim corn maze did. I didn’t say that though. “Yeah. Me too.”

            He looked side to side and slid closer to me. The corn caressed against us, and I swallowed nervously but extended my hand. We pulled at each other for the first time that night. A few customers were walking by and couldn’t see us in the dark corn, but I could overhear them wondering if someone was going to jump out and scare them.

            Anthony finally gasped, wet and sappy in my hands. “I think I hear something out there,” one of the girls said, and that made us laugh so hard, which freaked them out, and they ran off. My hands were sticky with him the rest of the night while we scared other teenagers, although I’d wiped them on the sharp edge of a corn’s bladed leaf.

            We exchanged numbers and started texting each other all week. Stupid stuff, like what we were doing and how boring class was. A few times, I told him about all the trouble I was getting into at home for not going to church. He’d tell me about being alone all the time, eating cereal for dinner. He called me his new best friend.

            But being friends didn’t stop us. We touched in the cornfields again and again, a few times a night most of October. He sucked me behind the scaffolding. The two dummies watched with bulging eyes, as if they were shocked. I tried to kiss him after the last customer came through and we were alone out there, but I’d barely leaned in before Ralph’s Gator puttered up.

            Anthony invited me to come over his house the next day after work to watch a scary movie. He asked if I could bring something to eat so I picked up a pizza, with his favorite toppings, and a two liter of coke. It felt like a date. I squeezed into a small shirt I almost never wore and shaved the peach fuzz off my chin. It looked more angular now, a new face.

            He lived in a horseshoe apartment on the second floor that got no light. He had this mattress in the living room and a pile of dirty clothes in the bedroom. He did his homework on the little patio but always forgot to bring the notebooks and crap inside, so it was perpetually damp and moldy. He had a TV but it wasn’t up on a stand or anything—it just sat on the ground. There were bowls full of dry cat food, no cat in sight.

            “I can’t fall asleep without the TV, but mom gets mad if she comes home and the TV is in my room. So I just bring my mattress out here.”

            That seemed like a classic example of what my mother called, “teenager logic.” He lived without any adult supervision. I was jealous, and at the same time, I couldn’t imagine being so alone, waking up on the mattress in the blue light of the TV.

            We chilled there for a bit and tried to watch the movie. Anthony started feeling me up and we pretty quickly shifted activities. Instead of going right for the touching, I leaned in and he let me kiss him. His lips felt as nice as they looked. We stripped down, and I marveled at being naked with another person. He produced a condom in a golden wrapper and handed it to me. In theory, I knew what to do with one of these. But in practice, not so much. My ex and I had a hurried relationship, quick handjobs in the front seats of his car.

            “Do you want to? “Anthony said, turning over onto his stomach.

            From what I’d seen on the internet, this was my cue to hold Anthony down, roll on the condom, and start savagely thrashing like a WWE wrestler. Somehow, though, that didn’t seem correct. I had no idea what I was doing. My palms were sweating so much I couldn’t get the condom wrapper open.

            “Yeah—” I said, finally getting the condom and rolling it on. I pushed myself against Anthony and he yelped. I pushed a little harder and he crawled away, shoving me off him.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. His body disappeared as he pulled his pants back up. His face was bright red. “”I can’t do it.”

            “You don’t have to be sorry,” I said. “I’ll go slow. You tell me what to do.” I hadn’t gotten to do much, but I decided I definitely wanted to do more.

            He held his head in his hands. “I can’t. No way. I’m not—I’m not like that.”

            “What?”

            “I—I don’t know. Just forget this ever happened.”

            “Okay.” I said, not wanting to, but I could see he would start crying any second. I yanked the condom off and slipped my pants back on. He turned away from me and hit play on the movie. Every time I tried to catch his eye, he looked away. He didn’t invite me to crash, so I got to my car and imagined him, falling asleep to the credits, the opened condom wrapper gleaming golden on the floor. What had I done wrong?

            When the weekend finally ended it was like he disappeared. I only knew he was still coming in to work because Liz told me.

            “Why?” she texted.

            “What do you mean, why?” I wrote back.

            “Like, why are you asking if he’s coming in today? You want me to give him a message or something? We have gym together later.”

            I told her no. No message. Why bother? He hadn’t responded to any of the texts I’d sent.

            Before work on Friday, I drove past his place. I’d say it was on the way, but it wasn’t. I went past the third light and turned off Route 73 and into his development. He wasn’t home, but I peeked up through the open curtains when I parked my car. The mattress was still on the floor. His cat had finally come out, and was staring back at me like a gargoyle. Only other thing I could see was the empty pizza box and the TV.

            I drove off. He’d have to talk to me at work.

            I got there just in time for the sun to be that autumn orange just before it sets. When you walked onto the farm from the side entrance, it looked beautiful. The corn swayed and you couldn’t see any Halloween decorations at all. It was just quiet and breezy and bright.

            Of course, not far down the path the jocks were, once again, squirting themselves with blood. Liz, in some heavy corpse makeup, was at her usual station. Katie was talking her ear off, all set to be a vampire cultist again. I spotted Anthony digging though the dirty pile of masks. I thought he was stupid for wanting to wear one, now I think I missed the point.

            “Hey everyone. Ready for another night of it?” I said.

            “Scaring people is our passion,” Liz said, and I couldn’t tell whether she meant it or not.

            Anthony must have found his mask because he started trotting over to sit with us. He put his arm around Katie and seemed intent on staring at the lobe of her ear or the jocks just over my shoulder.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “Yeah, hey,” he said.

            Katie smiled a stupid big smile and the two of them kissed. On the lips. I made eye contact with Liz and she shrugged.

            “I’m gonna be with you tonight so the lovebirds can be together,” she said.

            “But Anthony’s not dressed like a vampire cultist,” I said, gesturing at his dark jeans and mask. He didn’t tell me he and Katie were dating. Dating. After literally spending half of the month touching each other, and the other half of the month texting about touching each other.

            “Mike’s right. We should get you in character, babe,” Katie said. “Wouldn’t want to break the illusion,” she lowered her voice and did her best Ralph imitation.

            “Needs blood, fangs—not sure why you went and grabbed a mask. That doesn’t scream vampire cultist, like, at all,” I said, grabbing his monster mask and pulling it over my head.

            “Chill,” Anthony said, yanking it off me. “No one is putting makeup on me. I’m wearing a mask. I’ll be a vampire who wears masks. It could happen.”

            Liz frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe.”

            “No,” I said. “That’s idiocy. How’s he gonna suck blood through his mask?”

            “I’ll suck blood before I put my mask on,” he said, putting his arms around Katie and nibbling at her neck. She squealed appropriately.

            I could feel myself getting hot. I rolled my eyes. “Gross,” I said, glaring at Katie, who did not seem to care about the daggers I was sending. Liz squinted at me when I looked at her for commiseration. Anthony, who one week ago had handed me a condom and offered me his ass was now nibbling at my friend’s ear lobe. And all I could do was stare.

            “Really nice,” I said, louder. I’d get so loud I’d scare the crows if I wanted to. “Tried to have sex with me a week ago, then disappear back into some hole in the ground, then make me watch you make out with someone else. Fuck this.”

            Apparently I’d gotten the attention of the jocks, who stopped squirting each other with blood to oooooh and ahhhh at Katie. They assumed I meant her. She looked confused. Then, in unison, she and Liz both understood. I had been talking to Anthony.

            Anthony, who threw on his mask and bolted into the corn maze. The jocks, still thinking I had meant Katie, called after him. Don’t worry about that whore! Plenty of other biters around here! That’s tough my booooy!

            Only the four of us knew what I’d really meant. Katie sprang up, stoic in the face of all the cat calls, to go after Anthony.

            Liz sucked her teeth at me, her skeleton makeup only underscoring the severity of her expression. “That was a shit thing to do.”

            “What? Me? What about him?”

            She just shook her head and walked away, not saying anything.

            Weeks passed. The maze still seemed endless. Katie held Anthony’s hand in a gentle, performative way, though I could tell they weren’t dating. Anthony wore his mask all the time around me now, and its long eyes looked more sad than frightening. Even Liz painted my face in frowning silence. For the rest of that season, none of my friends would talk to me. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.

 

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Mrs. Tsai

It was past eleven at night when my mother called. The rain came down in great big sheets, and I’d been curled up under three blankets with the heater on for hours, reading a book about digestion.

            “You’re still up,” she said.

            “It’s not that late. What are you doing?” and before she could answer I started guessing, “Watching a crime thriller?”

            “Ha,” she said. “A western. The one with the good-looking sheriff who’s in your yoga class. What are you doing?”

            “Reading and resting,” I said.

            “It’s raining a lot,” she said. “Reminds me of winter in Pingtung.”

            “CeCe and I planted bell peppers this week, so it’ll be nice to have them watered without me having to do it,” I told her.

            “Is she asleep?” she asked.

            “Of course. She’s right next to me,” I said.

            I thought about my mother sitting on her green corduroy sofa in her new apartment with Tuo-Ba, her mop-like dog, watching the Western. From time to time, she must wonder what she would do next now that she was alone, except for the dog. A dog was good at filling holes in a schedule. A lot of walks to punctuate the day. Random and intermittent socializing with other dog owners here and there. Buying dog food and treats, vet visits. My mother took Tuo-Ba to volunteer at the library with a team of other service dogs. Children arrived to read to the dogs once a week, eagerly sounding out syllables on a bright blue carpet lined with drowsing dogs.

            She cleared her throat a little. I heard Tuo-Ba by the tinkling of his little tag.

            “Are you okay?” I asked.

            “Fine,” she said, but cleared her throat again.

            “Are you sick?” I asked.

            “No, I’m not,” she said and cleared her throat.

            I heard her walking around, opening a drawer. A faucet turned on.

            “I need your help with something,” she said.

            “What?” I asked, my voice perched.

            “Someone came over earlier today,” she said. “And they fell. They’re still here.”

            “What do you mean?” I asked. “Who came over?”

            My first thought was that she had invited a man to her place.

            “Wen-Ting, from the building,” she said, and drank water. “I invited her up to have tea after dinner.”

            CeCe flipped her arm in the air and smacked my pillow. Had I been lying down it would have been my nose. Lately I had heard snippets from all kinds of parenting gurus via podcast or Instagram about not letting your kids sleep in your bed. Boundaries! Sleep hygiene! Blah blah, I thought. But how about a black eye or a broken nose as deterrent?

            “How did she fall?” I asked.

            “She was leaving and she fell down the stairs,” my mother said.

            I had often been frustrated by my mother’s opaqueness, but this was really a new level.

            “Is she okay?” I asked. “Did she have to go to the hospital?”

            “No,” my mother rebuffed gently, as if I’d asked whether she wanted to try paragliding tomorrow.

            “No, she’s not okay, or no, she didn’t go to the hospital?” I closed the book and set it against my lap. The heater clanked and I could hear it clank below, too, in the downstairs neighbor’s apartment.

            “She didn’t go to the hospital. I brought her back up here,” my mother said.

            I was already setting and resetting the scene. Mrs. Tsai had fallen down some of the stairs, and crying in pain, had hobbled back up the stairs to my mother’s apartment? Maybe the injury was a sprain, a fracture. Maybe my mother had iced her ankle or wrist, and Mrs. Tsai had fallen asleep on the couch, not wanting to sit in the ER all night.

            “Did she break anything?” I asked.

            “I’m not sure. She’s resting. I need your help. It’s important, but don’t come now. Just come in the morning,” my mother said. “It’s late. No need to wake up CeCe.”

            I moved some of the hair out of CeCe’s face. Her skin was creamy as a cashew aside from the little white dots that sometimes appeared on her cheek. The corner of her mouth glistened with spit.

            “Okay,” I told her. “I’ll come right when we wake up.”

 

 

            Driving in the rain proved to be difficult. A car accident jammed all the traffic into a single lane. CeCe complained from the backseat booster about having to leave home without getting to play Barbies. But when I told her that Nai Nai would probably have some delicious moon cakes there and that she’d get to play with Tuo-Ba, she eventually changed course.

            We circled the block and meandered up a side street before finding a parking spot. And then we trudged through the rain under CeCe’s clear umbrella. Rainwater gushed down into the gutters.

            The slippery lobby was posted with a sign about the elevator not running, so we climbed to the fifth floor, one floor smelling like paint, another of boiling cabbage.

            “We’re here!” CeCe announced when my mother opened the door.

            “Oh! Come in,” she chirped, the heat from her apartment pouring out into the hall. Tuo-Ba shuffled forward happily, rubbing his moustache on our shins.

            The small dining table was arranged with plates of sliced fruit and moon cakes, covered in plastic wrap.

            “CeCe, will you help me feed and dress Tuo-Ba? I’m going to give your mom some books,” my mother said. She showed CeCe the food scoop and bag and pointed to a green diamond sweater for the dog.

            I followed my mother into her bedroom and found Mrs. Tsai face down on the bed with her knees on the ground. She was completely still.

            “Is she dead?” I asked in disbelief.

            My mother nodded, frowning.

            “Why did you bring her up here?” I hissed. “Why didn’t you call an ambulance right away?”

            “She can’t pay an ambulance fee,” my mother said crossly. “And her son doesn’t work.”

            “But now she’s here, and her legs are–” I swept my hand over Mrs. Tsai’s body, “like this!”

            “I need your help to bring her downstairs,” my mother said. “She lives on the second floor. We can put her on her own bed. Like this. Then I can call her an ambulance.”

            “The paramedics can’t help her now,” I said.

            “That way it won’t look suspicious,” my mother said.

            “I can’t get the sweater on,” CeCe was calling from the kitchen. And then as if she could teleport, appeared behind the door. “What are you doing in there?”

            My mother stepped out and led her back into the kitchen. The dog sweater was on halfway, but backwards. They laughed. I shut the door.

            If we carried Mrs. Tsai’s body back to her own apartment, would it seem strange that my mother was calling an ambulance? They were having tea and she’d fallen down the stairs on the way back home. If my mother had called for help, Mrs. Tsai would be in a hospital, or maybe she’d still have ended up in the morgue.

            “It’s me,” my mother said and quickly opened the door. “CeCe is watering plants on the balcony. We can cover Wen-Ting with a sheet, take her down to the apartment – I know the keypad code to unlock her door. We can put her on her bed. Then I’ll call the ambulance later.”

            “Well, we can’t do it now, with CeCe,” I said.

            “We can do it tonight,” she said.

            “But what about her fall?” I asked. “Won’t the paramedics see she has an injury from falling down the stairs? And won’t it be strange that her knees are like that? What if they match the sheet fibers on her body to your bed?”

            My mother scoffed. “That’s stuff they do on murder shows,” she said. “This was an accident. I should’ve just dragged her to her own apartment when it happened. Come out.”

            She closed the door behind us and we called CeCe in. Sitting at the table eating fruit and cakes, and drinking tea, I felt like I was in a bad dream. And had my mother said dragged?

 

 

            I returned to my mother’s apartment in the evening as soon as I dropped CeCe at her dad’s. The rain had ceased long enough for me to walk through the cold without getting wet. I was thankful since CeCe had taken the umbrella with her.

            My mother and I pushed Mrs. Tsai into a seated position on the bed. She was absolutely rigid and startlingly cold. When I finally dared to look at her face, her eyes were open!

            “Oh my God!” Her eyes were hazy, grayish.

            My mother reached out and had to push the lids down twice.

            Draped with a sheet and in a permanent yogic chair pose, we lifted Mrs. Tsai to the door and then hurriedly shuttled down one flight after another.

            “What if you’re questioned by the police?” I asked.

            “I’ll tell them we were going to meet for tea last night. She never came. This morning, I go to her door and she doesn’t answer. So I get worried and call the police. In case she fell. And she did fall.”

            We passed the floor that smelled of boiling cabbage. A dog barked behind a door.

            “If someone sees us, we’re screwed!” I whispered, running around the curve so that I could keep Mrs. Tsai level.

            My mother started to laugh her silent laugh.

            “Imagine someone comes out of a door right now. ‘What are you carrying? Looks heavy. Let me help you,’” I said.

            “No one is going to help us,” she said between our shuffling.

            When we got to the second floor, we hurried down the hall to Mrs. Tsai’s door and my mother trembled, lifting her side of the body with one hand while punching in the code with the other. She got it wrong the first time and I started to panic, sweeping the hall and staircase with my eyes.

            “I really hope you know the code,” I said. “We can’t go up and down, up and down like this.”

            When the door opened, we hurried in and followed the familiar floor plan to the bedroom. Like my mother, Mrs. Tsai lived alone. Her little apartment was tidy and smelled of cedar and camphor. A rattan living room set with red cushions crowded around an old TV.

            In the single bedroom, a big red calendar with a single date on each rice paper-thin page, and a black and white photo of her family of origin hung on the wall. We lowered Mrs. Tsai onto the bed, face down, and then maneuvered the sheet out from under her.

            “Won’t it look strange to find her like this?” I asked.

            “Probably,” my mother said. “Probably strange to find anyone dead.” She patted down Mrs. Tsai’s hair and smoothed her blouse.

            A narrow gray cat slithered into the room.

            “Tu zi,” my mother said, folding up the sheet.

            “Rabbit?” I asked.

            “The cat jumps like a rabbit,” my mother said. “Mrs. Tsai was funny.”

            “Should we feed her?” I asked.

            My mother turned on the kitchen light. We rifled through the cabinets and found it well stocked with tins of sardines in tomato sauce, pickled vegetables, rice, pork floss, dry noodles, and a variety of soy sauces and vinegars. Nice French wines frosted in the refrigerator, along with glass containers of cooked porridge, poached chicken, and tea eggs.

            “You two drink together?” I asked.

            “Sometimes tea, sometimes wine,” my mother said.

            “Will you miss her?” I asked.

            “Yes,” my mother said, clearing her throat. “She was a nice woman.”

            Finally, underneath the sink, I found the cat food and scraped it into the cat’s dish. We slipped out then and locked the door behind us. My mother had always been friendly and likeable, lighthearted. She had friends from before my father’s death, a few she still met for lunch or coffee. But Mrs. Tsai was a friend she’d made in this new life on her own.

            “What will you do tonight?” I asked as we walked back through the hallway.

            “Maybe go on a walk with Tuo-Ba,” she said. “It’s not raining.”

            “I’ll walk with you and Tuo-Ba,” I told her.

            She looked tired but pleasantly calm. I followed her up the stairs and back into her apartment. I pulled on my jacket as she leashed Tuo-Ba and straightened out his sweater. On our way out, I picked up her old umbrella that sometimes opened too far out, but still worked.

 

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Junior Steaks

We both order junior steaks, and she asks the waiter to turn on the fight. She says it just like that, “the fight,” and he understands. He’s got a lumpy, bald head, peppered with drops of sweat and he goes over to tell the guy behind the bar. We are seated beside a wall. Across the restaurant, people are seated beside windows.

            She asks, “How’s your summer been?”

            I say, “I moved.”

            “Oh yeah? How was that?”

            For my last month or so living in the old house, they played the same Tom T. Hall song every day and suggested I didn’t leave. “Call the whole thing off,” they’d say, “It’s not too late.” And I would say it was fine, that people moved all the time, people just moved. Anyone who found somewhere that cheap so much closer to the city would be stupid not to take it. Then I’d go up to my room, close the door, open the window, and cry. I give her a brief lesson on the geography of the suburbs. Bridges I drive over now.

            She begins to tell me that her summer was fine, except that the guy she was seeing drowned. She glances at the fight, frowns, then back at me. Yes, it was pretty sad. Pretty shocking. Pretty tragic.

            “The guy you were seeing drowned?” I repeat. I can see it clearly. I must be remembering a scene in a movie. The man is wearing a 1920’s style bathing suit and has center-parted hair. A British accent. British teeth. We have whiskeys and are pushing the ice cubes around with black stirring straws. I think of the Titanic. Now that’s drowning.

            “We don’t need to dwell on it,” she says.

            “How long were you two together?”

            “A month and a half,”

            “Oh,”

            “See? It’s strange. It’s strange. I’m not sure what I’m grieving – a summer fling? A future? The children we could’ve had, I mean.” She looks down at her drink. It’s gone. So are the steaks. I wish we had just stopped talking long enough to enjoy them. We order more drinks, doubles this time, and fries to split. The sweat drops on the waiter’s head are bigger now, as if he’s crying from his scalp. “So now you’re on a trip?” She asks. That’s why I’m here. Passing through and staying at her place. Before we came out here for steaks, she laid a folded mattress topper on the floor beside her own unmade bed, then said “It’s like a side-car bed.”  Her place is down the road from the restaurant, close enough to walk. She’s got a window box herb garden and a rabbit named Misty and the whole place, an unairconditioned studio, smells like it. Her linens are the color of surgical scrubs and I can tell, somehow, that she took them from the hall closet the day she left her parents’ house.

            “Yeah,” I say. “Just, you know, to shake things up.” We were never very close. I realize this now, downing half my whiskey. It was only ever proximity and I try to conjure an image of it. There was the time we drove an hour away to see our professors present at an Environmental Studies conference. All I can remember is coming back, her maroon station wagon cresting a hill in the springtime. And I think we had discovered a commonality, lactose intolerance or left handedness, something that seemed to matter then. And now we are here, looking down at the wood laminate table, a little uncomfortable because lonely people are afraid of each other.

            “There are three rounds,” she says, picking up her steak knife and pointing it towards the television, “and a one-minute break between them.” I nod but don’t turn around. I am not sure if I don’t care, or if I do care and that’s why I can’t look.

            “So, tell me more about the house,” she urges, using her knife’s tip to draw a smiley face in the juices left on her plate.

            “The house?” I ask.

            “Yeah, the house, the one you just moved to.”

            I stare at her and nod and think about the place. How all of the cabinets are labeled and none of the women wear bras and at night we sit around with our breasts falling in all directions and talk about dogs until one of us cries – cries about how good dogs are. Then we talk about talking, about ourselves and our habits. We talk about how we always talk about dogs until one of us cries. How strange this is. How special we are. Then bedtime, and we walk around the kitchen without looking into each other’s eyes. “There’s a big front porch,” I say.

            “Hey, that’s great,” she says. Then I sigh and look at the wall. There is a small, framed map of the state. That’s all there is. If we were really friends, I would’ve insisted we sit by a window. I study the image of the state, floating on a white page, trying to remember the borders. Was it landlocked? Was that a lake coast, up at the top?  “It was a long, Catholic service,” she says, through the ice cube she’s chewing. I turn in time to watch her wipe a drip of water from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. “Catholic with an open casket. And I hate open caskets and I hate Catholic services because all their songs sound like Broadway hits – I was raised Methodist, have I told you that?”

            “No, you haven’t.”

            “I was, and the music is better. Anyhow, I didn’t have anyone to sit with. None of my friends would come with me. I asked one and she said it wasn’t appropriate. She wasn’t family.” I finish the watery whiskey left in my glass. She does the same.

            On my last Saturday at the old house, I said that Tom T. Hall’s voice had an adolescent quality. It was a particular note, a strain of startling, boundless grief – the sort we are no longer capable of feeling once we reach adulthood but might be reminded of in a plotless dream. None of the others agreed, “not quite adolescent,” they said, frowning, “not adolescent, something else.” But there wasn’t much debate before we put the matter aside and drank coffee in the yard until only two of us were left. The shadow of the house was beginning to creep across the tufty lawn when he started in on it again, with waning conviction, saying it wasn’t too late.

            The whiskey floods me with affection for her – torrents of buoyant sympathy. I float on it like a lazy river at a waterpark, filled with Band-Aids and hair and timid children, too scared to ride the real attractions. The waiter wants to know if we want another drink. We don’t. He wants us to leave but doesn’t say as much. The droplets on his head are even bigger now, and they have multiplied. I take her hand. It is puffy and claw-like, with fingernails filed to points and I think of the man who drowned and wonder how it was to be attracted to a woman with hands like this. She’s going on in a stage whisper, leaning across the table, like a conspiracy theorist. She had nothing to wear to the service, she’d never met his mom, she didn’t know what to do – bring flowers? She’d been thinking of breaking up with him (actually, she’d decided on it).  She wasn’t close with his friends, and they were grieving so hard (that’s the adjective she chose: “hard”), harder than her. Should she have tried harder, she wants to know, tried harder to grieve harder? Should she have made some sort of performance? The front of her blouse is dragging in the ketchup on her plate.

            At church coffee hour as a child, I used to take the jelly donuts, suck the filling out, and then put them back on the platter. Their appearance was perfectly preserved, perfectly innocuous. But there was a backwash effect. With the saliva, I mean, if you can imagine that. It wasn’t kind.

            “Why are you crying?” she asks, a little incredulously, withdrawing her hand and leaning back in her seat.

            “I don’t know,” I say. She looks over my shoulder at the fight and I can see it reflected in her glasses, not in any great detail, of course – just flesh and bright lights.

 

            A few months after I make it back home autumn arrives over the course of a single weekend and in advance of the first frost, I ferry all the tropical plants from the big front porch into the living room and she texts me late one night to say that she found a dead opossum at the end of her street, that it was sweet, that it looked like it was sleeping. Before I can reply, she writes more, she says: “At any rate, it made me think of you.”

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The Wounds of Childhood

We are the last to arrive. Jonathan parks on the gravel shoulder and is halfway out of the car before he remembers to help with Ellie. “Go,” I say, though I will cash in on his choice later. Jonathan is shouting greetings to his buddies who are lobbing sacks at the cornhole boards while I crate Ellie across the lawn to a picnic table covered in gingham. Here are the remains of the adults’ dinners, empty glasses and crumpled napkins, though the women, Peggy and Andrea, are still spooning puréed foods into their babies’ mouths. I leave Ellie in her carseat on the grass and reach for the open bottle of rosé.

            “You made it,” Peggy says, deadpan.

            “Barely,” I say. I’m allowed one glass of wine because I am nursing, so I must drink it slowly. “Why didn’t we stay in Duck again? This place took so long to get to.”

            “It’s better up here. Quieter,” Peggy says. She looks tired. The skin under her eyes bags down like an old basset hound’s.

            Andrea plays her part, like she did in college, smoothing things over between us. She reassures Peggy that the house is cute and super nice, ignoring what I can see from here, even in the dwindling daylight: this rental is a downgrade, old and unwanted. Its siding is worn and salt-baked. Spiderwebs glaze the floodlights while weeds eat through the driveway. I can already feel how damp the bedrooms will be, with loud ceiling fans that can’t compete with the humidity.

            As Andrea praises Peggy for getting the house on such short notice—we hadn’t coordinated our schedules until late April, when most houses were already booked—her son sucks his thumb and stares at me. He is a dull, lifeless weight on Andrea’s knees. He wears a blue helmet that is reshaping his skull, which was mushed on its journey through Andrea’s birth canal. With his helmet and dulled expression, he looks like a stoned NATO peacekeeper.

            “What’s so funny?” Peggy asks me.

            Instead of sharing my thought, I say, “Remember the house we got after graduation? It had seven bedrooms and a hot tub. Remember that hot tub, Peggy?”

            Peggy reddens and glances across the street, toward the sound of waves crashing on a shore that we can’t see. In her firm but forbearing, good-mother voice, Peggy says, “No thank you, Tommy,” to the child in her lap, who is trying to rip the buttons off of her shirt.

            Peggy’s dutiful husband, Seth, appears then and picks up Tommy, throwing him in the air so that he squeals. Peggy is gearing up to lecture me, the last of them to get married, get pregnant, accept my fate.

            “We’re not twenty-two anymore,” Peggy says, as if I could forget. “We don’t need to be close to the bars. We need a place that’s family-friendly. This house is small, sure, but there aren’t stairs for the kids to fall down or, heaven forbid, hot tubs to drown in. If you really feel cramped though, there is an extra bedroom between our rooms you could use. It’s got a crib.”

            “Great,” I say. “I absolutely will. Ellie hasn’t slept in our room for three months.”

            While Jonathan plays one last lawn game, I find our bedroom, which contains a musty double bed and a particleboard dresser. Ellie is fussing, as usual—she is always fussing—and the spit bubble between her lips and the blushing skin under her eyebrows tells me she’s hungry, again. The mattress sags and the frame creaks as I lower myself onto it, wincing at the scrape of Ellie’s single tooth on my nipple.

            While she nurses, I take in the room. There are coarse wood planks, nailed diagonally across all four walls. I squint at one and notice black outlines, here and there, peppering the planks. At first, I mistake these half-circle outlines, upturned at both edges like crescent moons, for irregularities in the wood. Rotted whorls, maybe, or carpentry mistakes, but then I lean over and touch one and my finger is coated in ash.

            When Ellie’s eyelids sink, I scoot to the edge of the bed and lug myself up, then walk through the door that leads into the extra bedroom, which is so tiny that a crib and rocking chair crowd each other like commuters waiting for a train. The odd planks cover these walls too, only here, the blackened crescent moons appear in uniform rows up and down the planks.

            The room is cramped, but the crib looks clean enough, and Ellie, exhausted from the drive, is snuffed out like a match.

When I hear Ellie’s throaty cries just two hours later, I nudge Jonathan. He groans and rolls away from me, but I won’t let him win this. I had her all evening. He can deal with her at night.

            “Your turn,” I hiss, before squeezing my eyes shut and trying for sleep. “Dammit, Jonathan, go in there before she wakes up the whole house.”

            But then, the noise stops. Ellie has gone from hungry crying one second to complete silence the next. There is a void of sound, as if Ellie has disappeared.

            I shoot up in bed, deciding that Ellie truly has disappeared: suffocated, fallen out of the crib, that she is suddenly, infantly, dead. I rush through the door between the rooms, and my hands are gripping the crib’s rail. I look down and see Ellie, and see that she is okay. She is so okay, in fact, that she is practically glowing in the moonlight that streams through the window’s wavy panes, her chest rising and falling with each breath.

            I take a few steps back until I am standing in the doorway. I am watching her breathe and marking this night in my mind: the first night Ellie has soothed herself back to sleep.

            Jonathan won’t believe it.

            I have nearly turned away when a flicker of movement catches my eye and I realize that Peggy is here, in the room with Ellie. Peggy is standing in the corner, between crib and window. The black of her high-necked, long-sleeved gown has merged with the wall behind her so that I might not have noticed her at all if it weren’t for her pendant. The pendant hangs on a silver necklace and is big and gaudy, for preppy Peggy, wide as the palm of a hand, but curved like a crescent moon with sharp points. It is creamy white, its edges a garish red.

            “Peggy?” I whisper.

            In the shadow, I can’t see her face, but I see her hand as she lifts it to the pendant. I hear her as she breathes out, “Shhh.”

As soon as Jonathan hands Ellie to me with a grumble about missing tee time, she is clawing at my left breast. I shift her to my other arm and seek out Peggy among the adults in the kitchen. She is pouring coffee and humming softly. I touch her shoulder and say, “Hey, thanks for helping out last night. How did you get Ellie back to sleep so quick? She’s impossible.”

            Peggy looks like a beachy angel in a silky white cover-up, her hair blown out. “What are you talking about?”

            “You took care of Ellie,” I say, but I hesitate at her confused expression. “Remember? I went in to get her, but you were already there. You were wearing black.”

            Peggy blows across the top of her coffee and rolls her eyes. “Who wears black at the beach?”

            By evening, my woman in black is a joke. Around the picnic table, Peggy asks if the woman not only calms babies, but changes their diapers, too. Andrea wonders aloud how much ghosts charge an hour for babysitting. Jonathan shakes the ice in his glass and calls into the dusk that he could use a top-off.

            I spray on more bug repellent and keep my mouth shut. I know what I saw. At least, I think I do, though surrounded by the nursing babies, the ball-busting fathers, the woman in black doesn’t seem so real. Could she have been a product of my sleep deprivation, of post-partum whatever?

            When we all head inside, I change Ellie’s diaper and dress her in her pink pajamas, then pick her up and walk toward the door that links our room to hers.

            “You’re letting the ghost have her again?” Jonathan says to my back, an audible smirk in the question.

            “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I say.

             But hours later, I wake up sweating, the sheets tightened around my knees. I grope for Ellie, then remember that she is not here. She is sleeping in the crib in the little room because I don’t like to sleep with her. I relish the time that I am free of her; Jonathan does, too, though he won’t admit it.

            That, and I don’t believe in ghosts.

            When Jonathan rolls toward me, vapors from his ginny breath mist over my face. I prop up on my elbow and listen for Ellie.

            After a few seconds, I hear the slightest whimper, or maybe it is a coo. Or it could be a whisper.

            In the little room, the rocking chair’s runners creak against the floor as the woman gentles my baby. Ellie’s hand reaches up for the pendant, and the woman accommodates her, letting the necklace fall so that it almost touches the space between Ellie’s collarbones, her pink pajamas burnished in the moonlight. When the woman bends down, her gowned body covers Ellie up, blots her out, swallows Ellie into her shadow until I can see no part of her, not her cloth-covered feet or fisted hands.

            Half of me is panicked, horrified by Ellie’s consumption into this woman’s shade, the other half embarrassed at the sentimental nonsense that is pouring from my mouth. “She’s mine,” I am pleading with the woman, but I am whispering too, because something about her demands that my resistance be quiet, like I’m negotiating with a nun or a grieving great-aunt.

            “She’s mine,” I whisper again. “She’s mine.”

            At this third plea, the woman’s torso rears back against the hard dowels of the rocker, and I am tripping over my feet, wrenching Ellie from her, not looking at the woman’s face, this woman who smells of dust and oleander.

            When Jonathan sits up in bed, I am clutching Ellie like she is my purse and someone tried to snatch her. Her chest is so warm that it burns.

            Dinner that evening is steaks on the grill, Peggy’s salad. I don’t help. I don’t pass out forks and knives, or pour the wine. I cuddle Ellie and sniff her hair. Instinct keeps drawing me back to the skin of her chest, which is the vulnerable shade of thawing ice, the blue blood coursing under it like a spring stream.

            Across from me, Peggy is tipsy, urging Jonathan to tell it again.

            As he tells it, I am the lunatic. I am the confused, attic-wandering mommy searching for her baby, one step from the asylum. “So then, she comes running into our room and tells me I have to scare away the ghost,” Jonathan says. “Only when I go in…”

            “…No one was there,” Peggy finishes. “I mean, obviously.”

            “Might explain why no one else had rented this place,” I snap back.

            Peggy groans. The wine has loosened her. She is no longer tolerating me, even though we once shared a kiss, immersed in a rental hot tub. When I put the tip of my tongue on hers, Peggy moaned and reached for me. She liked it more than I did.

            “It’s all in your head, and I’ll prove it,” Peggy says.

            “Oh, yeah? How?”

            “I’ll put Tommy to bed in there tonight.”

            She smiles up at her husband, who is swaying, the yellow liquid in his glass threatening to spill over. “We could use the night off, couldn’t we, babe?”

That night, in the salt air leaking through our bedroom window, I dream of ovals that flatten and bulge and wane to become crescents, of the moon juttering through its phases so quickly that it catches on fire, causing typhoon, mud slide, hurricane. I dream of a naked woman who has captured the moon and held it between her lactating breasts, can hold it there even though it burns. I dream of threes, of fairy tales, of the third night, when the humans fail and the witch wins.

            I wake up gasping, my throat burning. I yank off blankets to search for my asphyxiated baby but find her, soundly asleep, tucked against Jonathan. I breathe out, then ease myself back down, careful not to wake them, but I don’t sleep again, not for hours. Whenever I close my eyes, the phases of the moon whir by, full back to full again.

            Toward sunrise, I think of Peggy’s little boy, quietly asleep in the crib.

            I think of checking on him.

            I think of these things, and perhaps the thinking of them alone pulls me back into sleep, because soon I am drifting on soothing black swells.

The next morning, Peggy looks fresh and free in a purple tank top. She looks like the Peggy of old, who used to grind against strangers at The Wreck, who used to be a wreck herself. I am fuzzy from my dream, which feels silly now, in the dazzling gold of the morning, with Ellie happy in my arms, full of milk and tenderness.

            I am gathering myself to apologize to Peggy for a few things: for giving her crap about this sea-roughened house on the unfashionable end of this barrier island, for bringing her down with a ridiculous ghost story, for mocking her devotion to her son.

            I am about to apologize when Seth rushes into the room, holding Tommy around his belly as the child wails and rubs his chest, keening, mama mama mama, an incantation that starts quietly and expands to coat the walls.

            Peggy is a comet streaking toward them. She barks at Seth to put him down, and he does, holding him on the counter so that Peggy can unstick his pajamas from his body. When the little boy sees his own blood on his mother’s fingertip, he is stunned out of his wails. In the unholy silence that follows, the rest of us take in the blood and the charred, red-rimmed crescent moon now exposed on Tommy’s chest.

            I slap my hand over my mouth and do not say what I am thinking, instead rushing to gather up what Peggy needs, her phone, her insurance card, her shoes. And in the aftermath—through Peggy’s anxious updates from the burn unit, through all of the disappointments about the failed skin grafts and infections, through the questions that the skeptical woman from child protective services asks all of us—I never say what I am thinking.

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Mother and Child

Kyle is on her way home for Christmas. Home home, as in, where she grew up. She sits stiff in her bulkhead window seat, chewing on the teat of her water bottle and watching other passengers file in. She’s got her dog with her on the flight, her big retriever, the first time she’s flown with him, and she almost wishes a stranger would complain about it. Just enough for an excuse to get mad back at someone out loud. The only reason she didn’t take Iggy when she flew home last year was because her mom doesn’t like dogs, and this time—well.

            A flight attendant presses a coffeepot button and Iggy whines at the beep. The attendant turns, looks maybe admonishing, and Kyle puts a defensive, ready hand on Iggy’s neck. The attendant just winks and says, “He knows the coffee’s bad.”

            Kyle sighs. She grips Iggy’s collar’s leather strap. She could ask to have a drink before takeoff. Even at twenty-nine, airplane mini-whiskeys always seem riskily grown-up. She raises two shy fingers, but the attendant is looking away now. He’s smiling at the cabin doors. Another attendant escorts a young girl onboard.

            The girl has stringy blond hair, and a backpack, and a plastic pouch of papers on a lanyard around her neck. An unidentified minor—isn’t that what they call it? She could be five or she could be ten. Older than Kyle’s sister’s twins, but by how much? Kyle’s girlfriends would be able to tell, probably. Those trivia games at baby showers these days when everyone else knows, without guessing, about diaper tallies and babies seeing in black and white. Last time she was home, when she’d just broken up with Saul, Kyle’s sister asked over dinner, Was it because he wanted kids? and Kyle couldn’t explain how it didn’t feel that simple.

            That night, at that dinner, Kyle’s dad switched the subject on her behalf. He took her out for ice cream after and got her mind off things.

            He’s in Reno this year, with his brother’s family through New Year’s.

            Kyle prays the attendant will walk this little girl past her row—the airline has open seating—but the girl sees Iggy and her face lights up.

            The attendant whispers, “Do you want to sit with the doggie, sweetie?”

            The kid takes her seat slow. Her feet don’t touch the plane floor. She says, “Can I pet him?” and she puts her hand out carefully, calmly, settling her fingers on Iggy’s taut forehead. Kyle almost tells her, Be gentle. He’s anxious.

            Iggy nuzzles, softening under the girl’s touch.

            The girl says, “I’m Pearl.” She points at Kye’s wrist, the Series 6 Kyle bought herself as a holiday present. “I like your fancy watch.”

            Kyle shakes her wrist to adjust the band.

            Pearl asks for Iggy’s name, and then Kyle’s. “I knew someone named Kyle who’s a boy,” she says, not good or bad, the way Kyle’s nephews say, I am dancing. “Boston’s where my mom is and she had a dog Polka who couldn’t go with her when she moved.”

            “What happened to her?”

            “She went to live with Roger.”

            Kyle nods, like, Okay. But, the mom or the dog?

            The sky’s going dark outside the porthole windows. The aisle jams with elbowing passengers. A graying man in a safari shirt stops at the bulkhead row and asks Kyle if the aisle is free. “I like the legroom,” he says. He stows a camera bag in the overhead, leaves the satchel’s strap hanging down without seeming to notice. He’s about Kyle’s dad’s age, with crow’s feet and an easy grin, and a ring, the soft of his finger grown comfortably around it. His arms and legs fall lazy, splaying into Pearl’s seat space, and he registers Iggy with lukewarm surprise, as if, impossibly, obliviously, he hasn’t noticed the dog until now.

            The man nods at the lanyard around Pearl’s neck. “You must be a professional flyer.”

            Pearl grins. She tells him, “It’s my first time on an airplane.”

            The man looks at Kyle, an impressed face. Why didn’t you say so! He assumes they’re together, Kyle can see. She wishes she could just read her book. She wonders about her own first flight, vaguely remembers some long-ago trip where she’s small in a middle seat, her parents on either side playing rummy across her table. The memory hurts.

            “Pearl was just talking about going to see her mom in Boston,” Kyle says, to clarify.

            “Well, Pearl. I’m Roy.”

            When the plane lurches, beginning its taxi, Iggy cants forward unprepared. His nose bumps Pearl’s knee. There’s a rip in the knee of Pearl’s jeans that Kyle hadn’t noticed, a rim of dried blood on the denim hole and a scab on the skin underneath. Pearl sees Kyle looking and says, “It’s OK.” She touches the scab with a careful finger. “I was supposed to fly yesterday, but we missed it. I fell when I was running with my bag.”

            And no one put her in a new pair today, Kyle thinks. That’s bad, right?

            Pearl points at an old scar on Kyle’s elbow, as if to say, You fall too.

            When the attendant asks for Kyle or Roy’s confirmation they’ll assist Pearl—in an emergency, with any big problems—Roy looks at Pearl and smiles and raises his eyebrows. He says, “I don’t know, kid. You can swim, right?”

            Pearl frowns. “Like at the Y?”

            It’s the same as when Shannon texts teasing, haha videos of the boys doing things they don’t get are funny. Kyle feels bad. She gives the attendant a nod, but he needs to hear her say it. “Yeah,” she answers. “Yes.”

 

 

            Yes, Kyle’s mom has been seeing someone. That’s the sadness, the great Donne family drama. But the problem is that Kyle knew about Brian years ago, and her mom promised it had stopped.

            One night, when she was seventeen, Kyle burned through a computer cord and went to her mom’s office after hours, to pick up a spare. She found her mom and Brian, the receptionist, in an exam room, on a table. Kyle’s mom was beside herself afterward. She apologized, profusely. She called it weakness. Her humanity. Something Kyle would understand when she was older, a frustrating cliché Kyle has kept hoping will come true.

            Kyle’s mom said if the rest of the family knew, it would destroy everything, for nothing. And Kyle needed to believe her. She didn’t know how she could tell anyone—like, actually tell them. So, when it came out in June about her mom’s “mistake” with “Brian who she used to work with,” Kyle couldn’t say to her devastated father, her blindsided sister, that she knew more than they did. That she’d known, without knowing it, for twelve years. That it was so much more and worse than they thought.

            If you’ve been long holding a bomb that goes off in a crowd, probably no one forgives you if you tell them, I’m hurt too, or, But I believed it was dead.

 

 

            The plane wobbles going up. Pearl squeals and clasps her hands.

            Most people settle apathetic into books or sleep or laptops. Roy puts his headphones in and snags his bag from the overhead—Pearl gasps, pointing at the seatbelt sign—and begins cleaning his camera with a little swab. The kind of leisurely routine you’ve perfected on regular flights to worry-free destinations, Kyle thinks, a little indignant.

            Pearl tap-dances her feet across Iggy’s back and says, “Look at the clouds!”

            Pearl asks Kyle how cold it is outside the airplane window. Cold enough for snow? Will Kyle do snowy things over Christmas with her family in Massachusetts? Kyle asks has Pearl ever seen snow before, mostly to bumper the talk away from her own family’s activities, and Pearl shakes her head no. “There was snow in Boston last night that Daddy said I missed because I made us late,” she says. “He drove me three hours to the airport twice. Yesterday, and today all over again.” She adds this proudly, like it was nice that he went out of his way.

            That’s something Kyle’s dad always says—Need anything from the grocery store, Dad? What do you want for your birthday? Don’t go out of your way, as in, Let’s not worry about me.

            Kyle keeps Pearl talking about herself. Pearl likes school. Her best school friends are Lee and Ty. She likes this school better than two others she’s gone to because they hold after-school outside, and her favorite school subject is science, because they did an animal unit last month—“Mammals are all different kinds but they all have fur and the mothers do nursing.” She lives with her dad in Louisiana, and they had to drive so far because Houston is the nearest airport.

            When Kyle asks Pearl if she’s always lived in Louisiana, Pearl says yes, and Iggy sits up.

            “Mom used to live there too, before she went to live in Boston. I stayed with Sasha and Jax for a while until Daddy found out and I went to live with him.”

            Kyle asks slowly, “How long ago was that?”

            Pearl is matter of fact. “Two years.”

            While Kyle works out the sad math—never been to Boston, Mom’s in Boston two years—Pearl bends and stretches for a book by Kyle’s feet, the one Kyle planned to spend the flight reading. Kyle watches Pearl study the angry cover, a young woman smashing an old clock.

            Kyle clears her throat. She tells Pearl, whispering, just the two of them, “My dad’s in Nevada for Christmas.”

            Pearl considers this a moment. “Yeah,” she says, nodding. Understanding. “Las Vegas.”

            The metal drink cart rouses Roy from his camera screen. He pulls out his headphones and reaches for his wallet, announcing to the attendant, “Ian, let me treat my friends here.” Kyle just wants a water, but her will to pick a fight has faded. When the drinks arrive, they’re chocolate milk for Pearl and cranberry soda for Kyle, with a little airplane vodka for Kyle on the side. Roy winks and says, “I took a guess.” He ordered a tea for himself, and he turns to chat with Ian as he dips the bag in the hot water.

            The plane shudders. Iggy sniffs the rippling liquid in Pearl’s cup. Pearl whispers, “Kyle” and leans toward Kyle’s shoulder. “I only like strawberry. I don’t like chocolate.”

            Once, in the grocery store, when they were picking out a cake for Shannon’s birthday, Kyle’s mom said kids who don’t like chocolate aren’t kids. She said it like a joke. Kyle’s older than Shannon, and she remembers thinking, If she’s not a kid then what am I?

            Roy gets up for the bathroom. Kyle slips the tiny vodka in her purse. She hands Pearl the pink soda and tells her, “We can switch.”

            Pearl twirls the soda straw. “Like what Daddy makes for Joy,” she says.

            The surprising tastes and smells that evoke old memories are never the ones Kyle thinks they’ll be. She cradles the chocolate drink and takes a slow sip. She’s eight, at the kitchen table after day camp, drinking Nesquik with her pancakes. A nice morning. Simple. Black and white.

            The first mouthful of flavor fades away, and she takes another sip to try and get it back.

 

 

            Kyle has been mostly ignoring her mom’s texts and emails, after a few accusatory phone conversations right when the part-truth broke. So Shannon called, Mom’s envoy, to summon Kyle home for Christmas. She guilted Kyle for acting childish about the separation. “Marriages are long,” she said. “Mistakes happen.” Shannon, who’s twenty months younger than Kyle, and doesn’t know she doesn’t know the full story, and has only been married four years herself.

            When Kyle said it wouldn’t feel like Christmas, Shannon said, “There’s more about Christmas than walks with Dad.” Normal Christmases since Kyle moved away for college have meant walks with her father around the old neighborhood, sometimes several loops a day. He gets sentimental over the holidays, calls her Kylie and waxes nostalgic about when she was young enough that he knew her friends. He always points out new construction and says, They must have just put that up! If he does it to make her feel like the place isn’t changing too much without her, or because he actually hasn’t noticed the changes before, Kyle can never tell.

            Kyle sat on her couch, on the phone, Iggy nudging her with an orange boomerang toy. Shannon said, “Give me one good reason for staying in Houston by yourself.” Her tactic was, You are alone. You are not a girlfriend or a partner or a wife. You are not a caregiver. This was partly what Kyle was afraid of—face to face with Shannon for the whole Christmas week, Shannon taunting, Give me one good reason, and Kyle unloading what she knew about good reasons, making things worse just to prove Shannon’s insulting theories wrong.

            “It’s not as easy as just blaming Mom. You not talking to her is making it worse,” Shannon said. “What am I supposed to tell the boys if you’re not here? They’ll say, Aunt Ky’s not here for Santa, and where am I supposed to tell them that you are? What do you tell kids about something like that?”

 

 

            Kyle and Pearl share a bag of airplane pretzels and take turns feeding Iggy. One from Kyle, one from Pearl. Happy Iggy takes each bite like its own treat. Roy, watching over a magazine, smiles and says, “Poor thing doesn’t know they’re just pretzels.”

            Kyle feeds Iggy a big piece. “I think it’s nice.”

            Pearl cocks her head at Kyle’s brusque tone.

            They all watch Iggy lick the salt from Pearl’s little palm. The dog’s loved salty food since he was a puppy. The vet said he’d grow out of it and he hasn’t yet.

            The plane bumps over a surprise air pocket and Pearl says, “I bet my mom will pick me up from the airport in Boston.”

            They’re somewhere above Charleston—the cartoon arc on the TV map says it’s just over halfway. Roy turns his magazine page, and laughs, like Pearl was kidding, but Kyle rummages in the pretzel bag for a few more broken chips. She hands Pearl a piece carefully. “Was there something that had you thinking she wouldn’t?”

            “She was supposed to visit over the summer,” Pearl says. She holds her hand out for Iggy’s tongue. “We did the bed on the couch all made up for her. The other sheets because that’s her favorite, purple. And she never came and when we called her she said she had to take care of Mr. Petrezzi, but I know they were the days we planned because Daddy let me put the stickers on those days on my room calendar.”

            Roy picks a pretzel piece from up off the floor. He crumbles it absentmindedly into a dust that falls back down. He says, “Your mom will come get you,” and Pearl says “Okay” so easily convinced that Kyle hates to think what will happen if Roy’s simple promise is wrong.

            The guy Kyle really dated, Saul, said once toward the end that needing promises and being in love were opposite ideas, and Kyle asked him what promises he resented making. He told her she was proving his point.

            Pearl says, “Iggy’s thirsty” and holds out her empty soda cup. Kyle pours it full from what’s left in her Nalgene and Pearl tilts the cup for Iggy like a baby bottle. Pearl tells Iggy, “You’re a mammal.”

            Kyle wonders how old Pearl’s mom might be—Kyle’s same age? A Kyle-sized Pearl with Pearl’s stringy hair? Imagine Pearl walking into baggage claim and there’s no one there for her. Kyle hopes it would be true if she said to Pearl, Things shouldn’t be this complicated for you already. But what does she know?

 

 

            Kyle’s dad’s car waits for her in airport parking. He left it when he flew to Reno and mailed her a key. It will be after midnight by the time Kyle finds the car, and warms it up, and drives it out to the house. She’ll park in her dad’s old spot in the driveway, by the tree her mom once planted.

            Everyone will be asleep inside, so Kyle will try to be quiet, keeping the lights off, guiding Iggy upstairs in the dark—muscle memory—and slipping into her old kid bed. Her parents have never changed her room much at all. Still the same ratty stuffies and pre-teen wall posters and striped sheets from high school. The headboard has a worn patch where she used to rub her thumb when she went to sleep nervous, and she’ll try it, to see, but it won’t work like it used to. Iggy will take up the foot space, and Kyle will feel big in a small bed.

            In the morning, Christmas Eve, Kyle will get up first. Before even her sister’s little boys. She’ll put on a pot of coffee and wait in the kitchen for people to come down, elbows on the island counter, studying the water as it boils. The twins’ rocket toys have been left out on the floor by the table, and a pot is soaking in the sink. She’ll have expected them to make a bigger deal of her arrival, but maybe this is better. More real. Maybe it’ll help that it almost feels like a regular day in the familiar house.

 

 

            Over Baltimore, the pilot turns off the cabin lights. Roy pulls his camera out again. He scrolls Pearl through his bright pictures and talks to her about his Hanukkah plans, the gelt and video games he packed for his grandkids’ presents. Pearl squints at the glare of the digital screen in the dark. Before she can ask about one image, Roy is on to the next.

            He describes his daughter’s farm in Sherborn where his family is gathering. “It’s like the Cape without the water.”

            Pearl asks, “What’s the Cape mean?”

            Roy smiles. He picks up his jacket and tosses it over his shoulders like a cape cape.

            Pearl touches the jacket fabric.

            Kyle says, “She’s actually asking.”

            A man across the aisle falls asleep. His head tips back, and he starts to snore. Looking at him, Pearl points one finger at Roy’s camera and another at the overhead compartment and asks, “Am I allowed to get something out?” It’s clear by the way she receives her backpack from the attendant that the bag is light, and she extracts a single plastic folder. She lays the bag down on the floor and says to Iggy, “A pillow.”

            Kyle reaches for the seat light so Pearl can see.

            Pearl tilts the folder toward Kyle’s seat.

            The folder looks empty at first. Pearl pries back the pocket to reveal an assortment of photographs tucked below the flap. They’re softened, worn, but clean. No fingerprints. Handled with great care. Like Kyle’s mom with Kodaks after childhood trips—By the edges! Pearl searches for a specific photo, filing through them individually, and about ten prints in she stops and says, “This one!” She positions it under the spotlight. An image of a man asleep on a couch, a woman behind him doing bunny ears. Pearl whispers, “Cody was sleeping!” and holds the photo up toward the snoring man across the aisle, like, They look similar.

            Kyle says, “Can I?”

            She accepts the folder as if it’s fragile. The photos are glossy, on professional stock. She can’t think when she last held a developed picture, and it’s unsettling. Time-traveling, almost.

            There are school photos of friends, little rectangles with kid signatures on the back. The mismatched rectangle sizes and backdrop colors make what Pearl said about changing several schools feel real.

            There are a few candid group shots. One of Pearl at a bonfire in a whole group of children, the rest of them older. Middle or early high school, even. The most teenaged-looking girl with a plastic cup in her hands. One photo in a raggedy waterpark, a young woman dangling a laughing, bathing-suited Pearl off a deep-end diving board.

            “At night in the summer,” Pearl says. “Me and Nina at the pool.”

            In the photos of Pearl by herself, she looks so eerily unattended. Alone in a field with a water gun, shot from across a busy street. Posing thumbs-up for a New Dawn “All Gave Some” plaque. Cutting her own hair with brown hedge shears. Kyle accidentally presses her thumb on the haircut picture and the oil of her fingerprint sticks to the picture gloss when she pulls it back, leaving a smudge.

            Kyle tells Pearl, “I’m sorry.”

            Roy reaches for the waterpark picture. “Fun in the sun!”

            If Kyle could just shake him and say, You’re blind! You’re blind! Imagine Pearl packing all of these to bring with her, like show and tell. Mom, this is where I live. This is where I go to school. This is when they waved at me across a speeding boulevard. But, at the same time, who looks better—the mom-person who wasn’t there when these were taken, or the one who was?

            Kyle says, “Thank you for letting me see.” She hooks a wary finger through Iggy’s leather collar and tugs. It’s not her business. If she disapproves, she can’t tell of who. She has Pearl walk her through each photo one by one until the plane lands in Boston, and still she isn’t sure she’s done Pearl’s unknowing vulnerability justice.

 

 

            Christmas Eve morning, Shannon will come down first, and then her husband with the boys, and then Kyle’s mom. Kyle will hug her mom because it would look weird not to. Her mom will smell the same, the Baby Soft perfume her dad’s been gifting since forever. She’ll still have her ring on.

            Other than asking about the trip, Kyle’s mom will mostly hang back, watching the twins wrestle with Iggy. Kyle will pour Shannon coffee and tell her, “I did the roast half and half.”

            Shannon will say, “Two years ago we couldn’t get you up before noon.” She’ll point to their mom in the corner, mouthing, Talk to her.

            Kyle’s nephews say Houston like Ooston. “What’s far away as Ooston? Santa’s far as Ooston?” The T-shirts Kyle gave them last year still fit, so she must have guessed their size too big before, which is funny—they seem like babies now, compared to the fresh idea of Pearl on the plane. Kyle will tell them they have to come visit Texas and see it’s not so far, her brother-in-law looking at her like, We’ve heard that before.

            When the boys say, “Aunt Ky plays Duplos?” and Kyle’s about to say yes, Shannon will tell them, “Not Aunt Ky, boys. Go easy on Aunt Ky. What did we say?”

            There will be a lull in the late morning, the time Kyle and her dad would usually take one of their Christmas walks. Kyle will think about driving his car around the neighborhood instead, but then the idea seems cheesy. Like what she might have done if she was mad in high school. She’ll go from room to room noting the persisting signs of him. She imagined the house scrubbed Dad-clean, cut and dry, but he’s still in the pictures on the wall. His cereal’s still in the pantry. Some of his coats are still in the closet, tucked toward the back.

            Shannon will find Kyle in the Florida room, thumbing through an old Guitar World of his, and she’ll ask, “Where’s Mom?” accusingly, like Kyle’s banished her mother somewhere.

            Kyle will say, “I’ll go look.”

 

 

            They’re the first ones to deboard, because of their row. Pearl leads Kyle and Iggy down the jetway, saying, “You get to meet her now!” and Roy trails behind them, on the phone, unconcerned. The more Pearl skips and pulls her along, the more it convinces Kyle that even if Pearl’s mom does show up, she’ll be late or unexcited in a way that will complicate Pearl’s familiarity with disappointment.

            They emerge from the passage and Pearl’s mom is there, beside a TSA agent, shifting from one waiting foot to another. She’s just different enough from what Kyle was picturing to be surprising. Despite her hard face, Kyle guesses the woman is a few years younger than her—around Shannon’s age. She has a lanyard around her neck that matches Pearl’s. She has well drawn-on eyebrows that have smeared a bit throughout her day, and a shoulder-bag that saddles her skinny frame. Her clothes are black shoes and black jeans and a white dress shirt that bows open between the buttons, the kind of outfit that is probably a uniform and makes Kyle guilty in her leisurely plane clothes. Pearl’s mom looks tired and nervous. She holds a pink milkshake, in a cup with an orange TSA sticker, like she went through special screening to get it past security.

            Pearl sees her and runs forward. They hug, a tight hug, and stay holding each other for several seconds. Pearl’s mom says tenderly, “You’re taller,” and she wipes her cheek. She touches a finger to the knee rip in Pearl’s jeans. She hands Pearl the strawberry drink.

            Pearl says, “You remembered.”

            Iggy pulls his leash and Kyle holds him back, embarrassed at the choke in her own throat. Roy strolls past waving a contented, told-you-so goodbye.

            Pearl calls Kyle over, saying, “Kyle’s from my flight! And her dog!”

            Kyle inches forward, trying to keep a respectful distance. She snaps for Iggy to sit. She wraps her right hand around her left wrist to cover the fancy new watch, but then she’s afraid Pearl’s mom saw her do it. Pearl’s mom frowns and puts a protective hand on Pearl’s shoulder.

            Kyle says, “She did great,” and it sounds presumptuous out loud. “I mean, the plane didn’t scare her is all I meant.”

            Pearl’s mom says, “They assigned you to sit with her?”

            “I think they just thought she’d like my dog.” Kyle coils Iggy’s leash tight around her arm. “All she talked about was how excited she is for Boston. For your guys’ Christmas.”

            Pearl’s mom says, “I know.” She hoists the heavy purse on her shoulder, ready to leave.

            Kyle stands there with them. She knows she should say goodbye, and she doesn’t understand what she’s waiting for.

 

 

            Kyle will find her mom in bed, on top of the sheets, curled away from the door. Kyle won’t immediately step forward, but she also won’t back away. She’ll hold out her mug and say, “Do you need coffee?”

            It will be clear her mom’s been crying by the careening way she says Kyle’s name.

            Iggy, who follows Kyle in, will hop onto the end of the bed and sit, glancing between them. Kyle’s mom won’t shoo him off like she might have last year. Kyle will walk around to the other side of the mattress—her dad’s side—and get in. Face to face.

            Kyle will scoot forward, reluctantly. Nervously. She’ll budge one hand between her mom’s head and the pillow, wrap it around her mom’s back. She’ll use her other hand to lift her mom’s top arm and drape it across her own shoulders. They’ll lie that way a few moments, each of them holding with one arm and being held with another.

            “Iggy’s on my feet,” Kyle’s mom will say. “It’s warm.”

            “She’s good at that.”

            They’ll both wait for the other to say something more. Downstairs, the boys yelling something and Shannon yelling back. The metronome clock on Kyle’s mom’s dresser ticking. The stiff pillowcase cotton crinkling under the weight of their two heads.

            Kyle’s mom will say, “I know you’re mad at me.”

            “Yeah.”

            The clock clicks. Her mom does look pretty when she cries. Have men told her that? Kyle will wonder. How many? And who? And where? And when?

            “I’m mad at me too,” Kyle’s mom will tell her.

            “I can see that.”

            One of them squeezing the other one. Hard to tell which, their long, close limbs.

            “The last time you climbed in bed with me,” Kyle’s mom will say, “you were small enough to tickle my shins with your socks.” A shaky breath. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.”

            Kyle will study her mom’s sad, pretty face. Up this close, it’s hard to tell the parts that have aged and the ones that haven’t. Kyle will say, “I miss him too.” She’ll wish her mom would say she’s sorry. She’ll want her to say it the two ways—I apologize, and also, I know you do sweetie. There, there. Child and mother, mother and child. Both, at the same time.

            Kyle’s mom asks, “Will you let me talk to you about it?”

 

 

            While they linger at the gate, Pearl’s mom says, “—Well.” And Kyle wishes she could apologize to this tired, unknown woman. For interrupting the moment. For having believed she might not come. But Kyle also wishes there was a way she could ask, What kind of mother are you? Half in the shameful, condescending way of still judging for the bits she does know, and half in the way of really wanting—needing—to understand about the give and take. The moving away, and the showing up. The strawberry milkshake remembered. The long road getting here. The full story.

 

 

            With her head crooked on her arm on the pillow, Kyle’s neck will ache, but she won’t move. She’ll stay, hurt, listening, for longer than she would have thought she’d be willing to.

 
 
 
 

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