by Mallory Dickson
Amiga, unfazed, hacks away with her small machete. Her ax peels the slivers of onion bark away from the bulbous tree, where they fall like pine needles, mingling with her pumpkin seed tears. Cutting through this onion is cutting through her, thin lines of mascara streaking down her face, black vine tendrils. Her face a brown canvas, lost in this forest, this arena of food. The slab in front of me is cold, numbing my fingers and rejecting my blade. I am fighting with a jellyfish, jello de carne, pink marble slab. Amiga is offering up her kindling, tossing the small ivory pieces onto the stove, mixing with golden sap: a pond of oil. As the onion slices crackle in liquid fire she turns to face me, me with this sword, hacking away at this faceless opponent, the metal reflecting off his salmon-pink armor. No I do not need help, let me face my demons alone! Fingernails dig into this fleshy hill, steel penetrating the carne: I leave carnage in my wake. Rosy chunks, fallen petals are strewn across the wooden chopping block. I lay down my knife, turn away. Let her bury the dead in round metal caskets, ringed by flame.
From a young age Mallory Dickson has been fascinated with books and writing. She has worked on a fantasy trilogy for over seven years, dabbles in poetry, and writes creative essays. She is a senior at Brigham Young University, studying English with an Editing minor.
by Kristen Evans
The day Rafael Ochoa first noticed the thorns on his hands, it was too late to do anything about them. It was a Thursday, near the end of March. He ducked into the high school auditorium, accompanied as always by a simmering storm cloud of anger, his hands stuffed into his pockets: two stones at his sides. A blue bruise was spreading across his jaw.
The lights in the auditorium were low. Dark lighting, yellow lighting, like the air just before a tornado, tinted by greens and purples. Onstage, shadowy students moved as told, flimsy pamphlets in their hands. Rafa figured they were holding scripts, but honestly, he didn’t care. His cousin was running late.
Rafa shot an impatient glance toward the clock on the wall. For the third day in a row,
Elisa’s practice had gone over time. Since Elisa, her parents, and by association, Rafa himself, lived over fifteen miles from the school, and since Daniel and Irma both worked until nearly eight at night and they only had the two cars, and since Rafa didn’t feel like walking and wasn’t big enough of a jerk to make Elisa walk, Rafa was stuck at school as long as Elisa was stuck at school. Which meant that yeah, Rafa had had the time to get into a fight with Joyner, but midway through the fight he had noticed the thorns emerging through his knuckles. He was so taken off guard that he hadn’t had time to put up his arms, which meant that Joyner had definitely, definitely won. Joyner had hesitated at first—almost like he had seen, Rafa wondered if he had seen—but no one had commented on the thorns, brown and brambly and thick, and they hadn’t stopped Joyner’s fists, so Rafa assumed they couldn’t have really been there. If they’d been real, someone would have noticed. Someone would have said something.
The problem was, though, that they weren’t going away. Nearly an hour later, and there they still were. Rafa pulled his hands from his pockets, careful not to catch the spikes on the fabric of his jeans, and studied them: a tangle of brown spines erupting from his hands, just lighter than his skin. He almost thought there were more of them now.
Rafa kneaded his fingers against his temples as the drama teacher announced something into the microphone in loud, hurried English. Rafa could have picked it apart if it weren’t the drama teacher, but since it was, the woman’s drawl slurred all the words together, making vowels too long and consonants disappear, as if she were taking a switchblade to the words and carving out pieces of them. In the five years since Rafa had come from Sonsonate to Roseboro, he had learned to adjust to the sway of Southern words. Under the right circumstances, though, (anytime someone spoke too quiet, too fast, or too emotionally), he felt much, much less than bilingual. The drawling, rural accent was how everyone here talked—teachers, students, even the rich ones, like Joyner.
At least when Joyner spoke, Rafa thought, there was no question what he was saying. The language of hate and challenge translated cleanly, no matter who was speaking it. Rafa almost preferred that. And he definitely preferred the language of fists. It was blunt, destructive, and bruised, which meant it suited Rafa perfectly. And it was what everyone expected of him.
He glanced at the clock again.
Rafa watched the second hand spiral. It was a bright red but not a pure red, tinted with a drop of orange. An easy color to mix. Not like the strange shade of the wall behind it, a bizarre aquamarine that sometimes looked vomit-yellow. Whoever designed this place deserved to be fired.
Rafa turned back to the stage and leaned his head against the vomit-teal wall, closing his eyes. It hardly mattered that only minutes ago he had released the need—Rafa’s fists still ached for a fight. Something tight in his chest pounded against him, urging his restlessness. He wondered if this was how Denis had felt, if this was the emotion that led to a car wrapped around a tree.
Don’t think about it. Anything but that.
Rafa opened his eyes to find the auditorium lights back to an antiseptic white, Elisa standing beside him. Her curly dark hair was pulled in a ponytail, a drawstring bag slung over one shoulder, her thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack.
“You’re late,” Rafa said in English. His aunt and uncle spoke Spanish at home, but only sometimes. Rafa could never decide if he wanted them to speak Spanish more or less. When they did, they carried the accent of home. A good thing, but a painful thing. Like pulling out a splinter.
Elisa blew her bangs out from in front of her eyes. “Yeah, sorry. Mrs. Hodgins wanted us to run the whole act and it took longer than we—” She broke off, jaw falling open slightly as she took in Rafa’s face. “What happened?”
Rafa angled his face away from hers impatiently. “Can we go now?”
Elisa raised her eyebrows, and Rafa knew he’d offended her. “What’s the emergency? Is there a fire somewhere I haven’t heard about?”
Rafa wasn’t in the mood. He turned for the exit, but Elisa caught his arm, turning it over so the patch of thorns on his knuckles stood out sharp against the bright lights. They were grotesque, really, as if Rafa’s hands were twisting into a briar patch. A mass of dark lines.
There was horror on Elisa’s face. Rafa’s heart lurched.
She sees them. Oh, thank God, she sees them. Rafa steeled himself for her disbelief, for her questions, for some acknowledgment that he wasn’t crazy—
“Are these scrapes from hitting Joyner?” Elisa demanded. “You were really so eager for another fight you couldn’t let yourself heal from the last one?”
Rafa’s heart plummeted in his chest. Elisa didn’t see the thorns, either.
“I’m healed enough,” Rafa snapped. He shook his arm free and then he pushed through the auditorium doors into the warm, humid evening. The warmth and the wetness reminded him of El Salvador, like stepping outside into the steam from a hot shower. It was slick against his skin.
“You’re going to get suspended.” Elisa took long, hurried strides to keep up with Rafa’s furious steps, the cousins pounding unevenly across the pavement. “Or Joyner’s parents will make it a legal thing. They’re the sort of people looking for any reason to hate you. They’ll send you back if you give them an excuse, you know they will.”
“Maybe I deserve to go back.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Rafa didn’t know what he meant. He still felt dizzy, like he was looking at the world sideways. His hands were beginning to ache. He couldn’t tell if it was from the punching, or from the spines. “You’re not going to tell your parents, are you?”
“You can’t seriously think they need to be told. How are you going to explain your knuckles? Your face?”
Elisa let out a laugh, but an unkind one, verging on the slightly hysterical. “It’s going to take more than a shrug to keep Mom and Dad out of this one. You heard what they said last time. I mean, crap, Rafa, it’s not even like you’ve got a good reason. What, you just like beating up people? You’ve got to find a better outlet.”
Elisa’s cheeks darkened in embarrassment as she fumbled with the keys to the car. It was a beat-up thing, old and grey, with mismatched doors. “Yes, Rafa, like me. You don’t have to act—fine, whatever, I know what you think about watching me practice—but you’ve got to do something. I’ve seen your art. Your hands were made for that—for creating things. Why do you insist on breaking everything down instead?”
The doors unlocked, and Rafa slid into the passenger seat moodily, clenching his jaw.
Elisa was wrong. Rafa didn’t insist on breaking things, and he didn’t like beating people up. What he liked was doing something that proved he was real, something that changed the way the world worked. Art had done it for a while, letting Rafa create out of nothing, watching as the world filled with his brush strokes. But then Denis had—well, Denis had died, and creation seemed useless, and Rafa spent his time bludgeoning out bruises and scrapes. You couldn’t get hurt if you weren’t alive. Sometimes Rafa needed a reminder that he hadn’t been killed too.
He rested his head against the glass of the window and stared at the gravel as Elisa reversed.
“Look, I know I’m not your mom. But I worry about you. One of these days you’re going to be in a fight, and something will break that you’ll never be able to fix.”
Rafa exhaled, examining the patch of thorns creeping towards his wrist. That was exactly what he wanted.
The night went about as expected: Tío Daniel demanded answers, Tía Irma provided a lengthy lecture, and Rafa mostly stood there and listened. Not that he needed to listen, exactly; he could guess everything Daniel and Irma said before they said it. The words responsibility, carelessness, and ungrateful came up a lot. So did worried. And DACA. And lost.
The word Rafa least wanted to hear, though, was Denis. And that one . . . that one was unavoidable.
“Rafael,” Daniel finally ventured, once it was clear Rafa wasn’t going to answer to his satisfaction. “I know it’s been hard since Denis—”
“This isn’t about him,” Rafa interrupted, too loudly. Neither Daniel nor Irma had commented on the briars which now entirely covered the backs of Rafa’s hands, but at this point, Rafa hadn’t expected them to. The pain went bone-deep, though, and every time Rafa caught sight of his own hands he half expected them to be covered in blood.
“Rafa,” Irma added, softer, reaching a hand out to Rafa, as if to touch his shoulder. “It’s normal to hurt. But your brother wouldn’t want this for you.”
Rafa’s fingers curled into fists, the stems cracking taught against his hands. Something pulled tight across his chest. “Shouldn’t have died, then, should he.”
“You know that wasn’t his choice,” Daniel said, “and it wasn’t his fault.”
“Yeah, because it was mine.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Rafa turned away. He wished everyone would stop trying to tell him what he did and did not mean.
“Have you at least tried talking to your counselor at school?” Irma pressed. “She’s there for exactly this reason.”
For thorns on Rafa’s hands that no one else could see? The counselor would only call him crazy. To talk with an undocumented kid who’d come—by some twist of fate or stupidity—to one of the most conservative towns in the States? She probably thought he didn’t belong, either. To counsel a kid who had survived the gangs and the cartels and La Bestia and the icebox and a million other cruelties in the crossing only to lose his brother five years later in a stupid car crash that had only happened because Rafa and Denis had fought? What could the counselor possibly have to say to him?
Sometimes Rafa felt as if he’d lived six lifetimes.
“I’m going to bed,” Rafa said at last.
His aunt and his uncle didn’t move, and Rafa went to the bedroom of the double-wide where he was staying. The door swung shut quietly behind him, clicking into place with a sigh.
When Rafa woke up the next morning, he couldn’t move his arms.
He opened his eyes blearily to find them pinned in place on the bed, the tangle of thorns spreading past his wrists, well up his forearms. The spikes were definitely thicker now, and the sheets were twisted around them, the spines caught on the cotton.
Rafa let his head fall back onto the pillow, weary. Still not gone, then. Gathering his energy, he forced himself to sit up, leaning over to unpick the sheets from his skin. It took longer than he thought it would because every time he freed a part of himself he would find a different section had caught on the fabric instead. By the time Rafa was completely untangled from his bed, there was a lot of noise coming from the kitchen. Someone pounded on the door to the room: Elisa.
“Come on, Rafa, we’re going to be late!”
“Hypocrite,” Rafa muttered to himself, but he rose to his feet, carefully threw on his clothes, and stepped into the hall.
Because Rafa was wearing short sleeves, he half-expected everybody at school to stare at him. His arms were very visible, and very, very wrong—in some places, he was so covered in overgrowth that he couldn’t even see his own skin anymore. There was something stirring beneath his chest that he thought might have been panic, but he’d had so much to worry about for so long that he couldn’t tell if this emotion was related to the thorns or was just a general state of unease.
He was wrong about people staring because of the thorn bushes sprouting from his arms, but he was right about people staring at him. They were looking at the bruise on his face. Most of the kids did that stare/not-stare thing you did when you were interested but didn’t want to seem rude: glancing at Rafa from the side of their eyes, or picking a spot just past him and focusing on that instead.
Rafa put on a cracked, wolf-like smile and stared back. Daring someone to ask what had happened. No one did. There were benefits to looking dangerous when you wanted to.
If he had thought his friends might say something he was mistaken; none of them looked at the thorns. They didn’t even comment on his bruises.
It was what they all expected of him.
The only class Rafa and Joyner shared was English, which was taught by an older man named Mr. North who was enthusiastic about red pen corrections, American literature, and tacky ties. Rafa, who was enthusiastic about none of those things, always chose a seat at a table in the back of the room. Joyner, who acted enthusiastic about all of the above but wasn’t actually, usually sat in the back too.
Today Rafa got to class first. He dropped his backpack unceremoniously to the ground and went to rest his head in his arms on the table. He paused, though, remembering the thorns.
He didn’t care if they were real or not; he didn’t want to risk impaling himself on them. So instead Rafa leaned back in his chair and kept his eyes on the door.
Joyner walked in with a swagger, surrounded by a handful of friends. His blonde hair was perfectly styled, and he dressed in the manner of a person who has always had money—so effortlessly it was clear that it must have taken quite a lot of effort.
There was a huge bruise blossoming around Joyner’s split lip. Not as bad as the one around Rafa’s eye, but still, bad. From across the room, Rafa met Joyner’s eyes. For a split second, Joyner flicked his gaze downward to Rafa’s arms. And focused on the thorns.
He sees them.
Joyner’s eyebrows went up, and then down, and then the bell rang and Joyner’s crew took their seats and Mr. North took control of the classroom. Rafa spent the whole class period in a daze, desperately wanting to get proof from someone, just one person that his arms were as heavy with thorns as they felt. Even if that person was Joyner.
Why did that person have to be Joyner?
During class, Rafa tried to think of things he might say, but there was no good way to approach the person who regularly either beat you or got beaten by you to demand they tell you whether or not they could see the thicket sprouting from your arms.
In the end, when Rafa caught up to Joyner as he was leaving class, what Rafa said was,
“Can we talk?”
Joyner’s friends nudged him with knowing smirks.
Joyner’s eyebrows went up again, pointedly looking at Rafa’s bruised face and not his arms. “Our conversation last night wasn’t enough?”
Rafa gritted his teeth. Look at me. You see them, you see them, I know you do—
“If you want a rematch, you’ll have to wait. I’m not stupid enough to fight during school. Colleges care about that sort of thing.” Joyner’s mouth twisted in disdain. “Not that you’re going to college.”
As far as Rafa knew, it was true. He didn’t have the money for college and he didn’t have the grades for a scholarship. That only made it worse.
“I don’t want to fight,” Rafa snarled. Even as he said it, he realized he did. Rafa wanted to use his fists the way he used to use his paintbrush, making a long stroke across the canvas until the world was different than it was before. He wanted to throw back his head and scream, howling like coyotes in a desert. He was so tired of having so little say in anything.
Joyner rolled his eyes, then focused directly on the brambles coating Rafa’s arms. “Monday,” he drawled. “The usual.”
Was he talking about the thorns or the fighting?
Before Rafa could say anything else, Joyner had already left.
Over the weekend, the thorns did not disappear, and Rafa grew used to them, the way he had grown used to so many undesirable things before. It was funny, really, what a person could get used to. In Sonsonate, it had been fear. In the trek north, it had been violence. In the detention center, it had been uncertainty. In Roseboro, with Denis, those first few years when it had just been Rafa and his brother, it had been happiness.
Now, it was thorns.
As Elisa worked on her homework and Rafa ignored his, the news blared on the small, old television. A protest in Raleigh. Or a rally, maybe. Possibly both. The crowd was in support of a wall. They were protesting—well, him, really. They were protesting him.
Someone in the crowd was holding a sign that said RETURN TO SENDER. The footage showed other signs too, finally focusing on a hastily scrawled one in red: DIE, ILLEGALS, DIE.
Elisa cast him a worried glance. “Rafa, it’s just the news. They want controversy—” Rafa let out a bitter laugh. Everyone already thought he was a criminal who was going nowhere. And as for dying, well, Denis had done that already. At least the Ochoa boys were fulfilling expectations.
On Rafa’s arms, the thorns crackled further.
Late that night, when the pain from his personal thicket woke him up, Rafa rose to his feet and out into the living room. He was looking for medicine, or water, even, but on his way to the kitchen sink he stopped.
Tía Irma was lying on the couch, the TV lighting the room a silent, glowing blue. She must have fallen asleep shortly after coming home from work. Something inside Rafa twisted guiltily. If he weren’t here, Irma and Daniel would have one less person to pay for. But he didn’t know where he’d go.
He reached to scratch awkwardly at his arm, then paused. Not wanting to get the thorns from one hand caught on the other. Not wanting to hurt more than he already did.
Rafa looked down on his aunt for a moment. Then he grabbed a blanket from the back of the couch, draped it gently over his aunt, and went back to bed.
And then Monday came. Rafa sat through school, his arms stiff. He had given up expecting anyone to notice the thorns. They didn’t hurt anymore; they just felt like part of him.
As though his arms were made of brambles instead of skin or bones.
In his English class, there was some conversation about the rally from the weekend—a handful of students who declared proudly that they knew people who had been there, another handful who wished they had. Rafa sat still and stiff, trying not to look like he was listening. But it was hard to ignore Joyner’s loud, drawled comment: Rapists and criminals, isn’t that right, Rafa?
Mr. North didn’t hear Joyner specifically, but he took control of the classroom. There was some general reprimanding. Rafa doubted anyone was listening.
The pounding need to get to the woods behind the school—to fight, to fight—quaked through Rafa, and he spent the whole day staring at the clock. Knees bouncing eagerly. Brittle fingers drilling against the wood of his desks.
Finally, finally, it was time. Rafa dropped off his bag in the auditorium. He turned to duck out of the room—
And felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Tell me you’re not going back there.”
He turned, the hand dropping as he moved. “Elisa.”
His cousin stood there, her eyes pleading. “Rafa, please. You’re going to get hurt. Can’t you just stay here? For once?”
Rafa scoffed. “And watch you practice?”
“Do you even know what play we’re doing?”
Rafa shrugged. No, he didn’t. He hadn’t really been paying that much attention. And he needed to go, now, or Joyner would think he was too scared to show up, and after what Joyner had said, that was far from the truth—
“Well that’s funny because I was just thinking it’s one you might actually care about.” She did not sound like she thought it was funny. “It’s about the Holocaust.”
“What? Why would I care about that?” Rafa hadn’t meant it to come out that way: so incredulous. Rafa cared about the Holocaust the average amount, probably—but Elisa had made it sound like this was a particular topic of interest for him, and it wasn’t.
Two red spots were burning high in his cousin’s cheeks. “Because there is a difference between telling a story and bearing witness,” Elisa snapped.
Rafa just looked at her, confused.
“Look, we’ve been talking about it in drama. The Holocaust is a story everyone already thinks they know. There are good guys and bad guys and sometimes the people making movies or plays skip the truth part and go right into sensationalism because that’s what audiences expect.”
Rafa paused, then nodded slowly, because it seemed like Elisa was waiting for him to do something and he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“That’s what’s happening with you. Everyone already thinks they know your story. Only the people telling it are like those idiots on the news or the jerk you keep fighting—they’re wrong, Rafa, they’re wrong. You’re the only one who can bear witness. And fighting won’t change anything.”
He said, “In order to bear witness, someone has to be listening.”
Elisa opened her mouth—but then the drama teacher was shouting for the students to get back onstage, and Elisa paused. So Rafa took advantage of the moment and ducked away.
Facing Joyner sometimes felt like facing a giant: not because Joyner was much taller or stronger than Rafa, but because of everything he represented. Money, and power, and legacy. Things Rafa had never had.
Rafa stood in the usual spot, half-hidden in shadow by the trees. The sunlight filtered through the leaves, turning the whole clearing a dusky, golden brown.
When Joyner showed up, Rafa didn’t wait for a speech. He didn’t wait to allow himself a spike of hatred at Joyner’s perfectly rich appearance. He didn’t wait to say, Why can you see the thorns? He didn’t wait for a greeting. He didn’t want to talk.
Instead, Rafa threw himself at Joyner. And Joyner responded.
Like snarling wolves, Rafa and Joyner grappled with each other, a blur of fists and feet and knees and thorns.
It felt good to pound out the truth of things, letting his anger out into action. Rafa imagined he was punching the gangs in Sonsonate and the corrupt police in Mexico and the border guards in Arizona and the people at the rally. He shouldn’t have tried; Rafa knew that fighting things larger than himself always meant he would lose.
And he was losing now.
Everything ached. Knuckles on fire. Leaves and underbrush were sent into the air under their feet. Joyner connected nearly as often as Rafa did, maybe more, and Rafa was breaking, and breaking, and breaking.
Joyner drew his arm across his forehead and looked down at where Rafa lay on the forest floor, curled around himself. Sneering.
“I don’t know why you even try. You really are a waste of space.”
“No, I’m not.” Rafa surprised himself by saying it. His thorny fingers dug into the earth at his sides, feeling the reality of it. Soft and damp. He remembered what Elisa had said: bear witness.
His stomach twisted. He didn’t want to think about Elisa.
He didn’t have to for long: Joyner laughed in his face.
Far worse than losing to Joyner was the moment, later, when Rafa had to meet Elisa’s eyes at the end of rehearsal. After Rafa limped back through the auditorium, feeling sick and hurt and bruised. Rafa was surprised by the guilt he felt—as though the thorns had somehow found their way from his arms into his stomach. Worse, too, was the disappointment in Elisa’s expression at the sight of new bruises and dirt in Rafa’s hair. Worst of all was Elisa’s silence.
There really was nothing more for her to say.
Rafa’s fists—which had been clenched tight—loosened and fell to his sides.
A few days later, Rafa trudged into his bedroom from the pick-up soccer game happening down the road. He was covered in sweat and cut grass and thorns, always the thorns. He had not fought with Joyner again. He didn’t think he would. Rafa wasn’t sure he could explain why other than to say that Rafa no longer had the energy to lose. He had gone looking for a fight because he had wanted to lose one. It wasn’t what he wanted anymore.
He didn’t know what he wanted.
Rafa slung his bag off his shoulders, kicking off his shoes as he made for his chair. But he paused. There was something on his desk, something that hadn’t been there earlier. Rafa moved closer and looked down on it until he understood.
A pad of over-sized water color paper. Some pencils. A set of paints. And a note.
The note read, in its entirety, Do something with your hands. Draw something true.
Rafa studied the blank white paper, the paints. He thought about what Elisa had said about bearing witness. He thought about the way his fists felt pounding against Joyner. He thought about the car crash that had killed his brother. He thought about people bearing signs of hatred, demanding that he leave the States forever. He thought about the briar patch twisted across his arms.
And then Rafa sat down and began to sketch.
He tried painting several things, though he started with a hope and a lie.
It was difficult to draw anything at first because the thorns kept scraping against the paper. Once or twice there were horrible sounds and Rafa worried the paper had torn. Other times, once he had started to set watercolor to the page, the thorns dragged their way through the colors, smearing them. Rafa cursed quietly and dabbed away the mistakes.
The first painting was this: himself, Papá, and Denis, standing outside a two-story colonial house. A small one, compared to the mansions lining the downtown streets of Roseboro.
Still, much larger than anything Rafa had actually lived in. The shutters were blue.
The house was the hope, not the lie.
The lie was what was on Rafa’s face: a smile, stretched wide. Making drawing-Rafa’s eyes crinkle. It was too happy.
Real Rafa examined the impossible scene, then crumpled it in his fist.
He pulled out a new sheet of paper and tried again. This time, a scene from the trip north: a view from the top of a speeding train, all lines and motion. There was no sense making it a watercolor; watercolor could never communicate the violence or the speed of La Bestia, the cool metal under an inky sky. So Rafa drew it furiously, dark lines forcefully made, and there in the corner, huddled onto the roof of the train: Rafa and Denis. Heads hunched down against the wind.
Even drawing it, Rafa couldn’t help but think of a girl he and Denis had been traveling with. The girl had fallen from the roof of the train. She’d probably died. Neither Rafa nor Denis had stuck around to find out.
Something on his arm snapped.
Rafa paused his furious drawing, glancing down in horror, half-expecting to see a piece of his arm on the page. He was half-right: a thick bramble had broken off his arm. It lay on the paper like an accusation.
Rafa gritted his teeth, batted it away, and drew again.
This time, it was the sparse rooms of the icebox—the detention center where he and Denis had been sent when they first arrived in Arizona. Rafa drew it as he remembered it at night: full of huddled forms with reflective emergency blankets pulled tight against them to protect from the unbelievable cold. Even as Rafa drew, he shivered. His shaking hand made the lines tremble. He thought of Denis promising him things would be all right. He thought of the flood of English, the fear of a future he didn’t understand.
There was more snapping. Smaller. A series of crackling breaks.
Rafa swept off the thorns with his pencil shavings. And still he drew, his eyes blurring wetly.
The car crushed against the tree, that last, awful night. Denis’s body on a stretcher. The horrible, cruel realization that Denis might have actually lived longer if he had stayed in El Salvador. If he had left Rafa behind. If Rafa hadn’t shouted at him and made Denis take off in the middle of the night down a poorly-lit road.
Rafa’s paper was flecked with thorns: fallen brambles, and with spots: fallen tears.
Denis’s biggest dream had been to come to America, and Rafa felt suddenly sick, because how could America mean anything if coming meant losing everything? But then he thought of his overworked aunt and uncle and his cousin who cared, and Rafa knew he hadn’t lost everything. Not everything.
Rafa didn’t decide so much to stop drawing as his hand decided to simply let go. He was crying now, in a way he hadn’t allowed himself in years. Violent, core-shaking sobs. Mourning a life that used to be his, and the brother who should still be there, and the future no one seemed to want him to have.
The future he knew he deserved.
Rafael Ochoa was tired of losing.
His arms were no longer a thicket, exactly, but more of a rose bush: twisted, still, with thorns, but surrounded by the silk of petals. Something cruel and beautiful. It shouldn’t have been possible.
Rafa sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, wiping roughly at his eyes. He pushed back his chair, piled his drawings together. And he padded quietly to Elisa’s room, where he left the drawings in front of her door. Setting them down was like setting down a backpack filled with stones.
Elisa had told him to draw something true, and he had.
Here was a truth: Rafa wanted a future to look forward to, and he was allowed to want it.
Here was a truth: he deserved happiness as much as anybody else.
And here was a final truth: accidents happened and the world kept turning, and Denis’s death was not Rafa’s fault, it was not his fault.
As he stood in the hallway by Elisa’s room, he glanced down at his arms—almost entirely back to normal. Now, though, they were dusted with the deep red-orange petals of a tropical flower he thought he recognized. The petals were silky against his skin. On the back of his hand, there was a single briar, but it was not deep. Rafa reached over and plucked it out. So small. The sort of thing you find stuck to your shoe.
The motion had sent petals tumbling from his arms. They drifted gently down.
“I am not anything I don’t want to be,” Rafa whispered.
He brushed the rest of the bright flamboyán petals from his skin and watched as they fluttered to the ground. He let the briar join them.
“And that,” he said, “is something true.”
by Julien Fish
I wept for Armando Palomo at his funeral luncheon, but not otherwise. I wept for my lacking toward him in recent years and embarrassment at the thought that the tears salting my tamales might have been taken by others at the table to mean that Armando and I must have once shared the very dish in a tender memory just triggered. We had, but it wasn’t cause for my tears. I blew my nose.
The stench of unwashed black suits and stockings peppered the meat, soured the water. Smacks from dry-stuffed mouths woke the rattle in the rims above and the hardwood of the gymnasium gave mottled imitations of the floating chatter. Too much for me. I kissed his mother on the head, first kissing his sister Pati by mistake. She looked more like Armando’s mother than his mother did. Ay, she’s a woman. I kissed the other strangers at their table and left.
I stopped at the sunday school classroom where we had viewed the body to see what I’d feel as I looked on it alone, without the grief pollution. There’s no comfort in the company of mourners—not mexicanos. At the viewing I sat far on the wall on a stray piano bench and beheld each blubbered lip with guile: they’ll soon make unearned peace with his passing, probably. If they’d loved him like I had they wouldn’t be talking about the Cowboys moving to LA. They wouldn’t be so hungry.
I entered. A well-legged girl was up on the casket. She was knelt on the polished cedar in white socks, on the closed half of the lid where his hands were folded. Bent into the opening, elbows strung, reaching toward his face with a pair of tweezers and a held breath. She heard me, but did not break focus as she plucked a palm’s worth of makeup-caked hairs between his eyebrows. She slid down from the casket and flipped over her flat hand, letting the hairs onto the carpet where they disappeared into the obscured industrial pattern, as does anything smaller than a button.
You try the menudo? Sure, I said.
I’m gonna end el culo that dressed him up like this.
How old are you?
They made him smile like he’s got a fart.
Huevón probably died with a fart or two still in him, k no?
She frowned and turned. She reached across the casket and gripped the long handle then scrambled onto her knees again, bent into the opening again. She walled her face with forearms and I left without saying goodbye to Armando.
The truck wouldn’t start and Claire wouldn’t answer. Vamos, I’ve got work tomorrow, I said. I turned the key a third time. Nada, this piece. Five hours to Santa Fe, I said. From the back of the lot where I had parked I saw the uncles wobble from the church onto a tailgate where they broke into a six-pack one had left cooling in the bed. I knew the other by his bald head and limp. He had taken us camping one summer in Las Cruces and said to call him Tio. He’d have gladly given me a jump, a lift. But I couldn’t talk to Tio or any Palomo right then. I left a message for Claire: be home tomorrow afternoon, probably. I’ll miss the matinee, sorry, should be back—I don’t know, I’ll let you know. Good luck tonight. I felt her slap my back as I hung up. Luis! It’s bad luck to say good luck in theater! I folded the phone, keys, tie, and wallet into my jacket and laid it on the seat. Pati came out with cake slices for the uncles. Tio picked the walnut bits from the frosting. Es que me dan la tos fea! I saw the girl on the casket, bent into the opening, touching Armando. So I walked.
The air was crisp against the September sun, I rolled my sleeves. Upper valley was pleasant and lonely with its wide roads and tall cars, the expensive smell privacy. That hadn’t changed. I passed the brick homes and RVs, down the sharp hills, through the parking lots of two malls neighboring. Went inside the second for a pretzel before feeling for my wallet. It was new and loud and bright, the salt-and-sweet-dough-air heavy and coming through my ears. I looked for teenagers, but saw only sandalled couples old as my parents, most of them white like my father. A well-dressed toddler ran from abuelita to the escalator, the leash on his harness flitting along the linoleum. A sad man about my age asleep at a cell-phone cover kiosk. On luck I found an early-abandoned massage chair with forty-three seconds left on the session timer. I slipped my loafers and sat at thirty-six seconds. The knobs were punishing, but well wanted. I closed my eyes and sunk. I forgot where I was. . . . Forgot El Paso entirely. . . . Summers in El Paso. . . . Mornings at EPCC with Abuelito, in his bootbox of an office spinning in the chair while he taught Biology, knocking scantrons and yogurt cups of staples to the floor. . . . Our summers. . . . Laughing, scared as rabbits, crawling under pews in the pitch-black chapel after La Santa Cena. . . . Me and Armando. . . . Pati too, sometimes. . . . Swimming in the—stillness. Time expired. Again so bright and loud. God help this embarrassing place, I said. I left with heavy shoulders and wanting salt.
Near evening I crossed the tracks into lower valley. A dusty wind smelled wet as clay and I could feel the sweat-beads slowing and cold on my temples. I unrolled my sleeves and watched the sun poach earthward, washing orange the mountains and a thinning bar of sky. At once the ripest and most rotten peach in a broken pool, taking with it all the heat. I kept along the sidewalk as the shadows pulled and weakened.
The houses modest and stately and closer together. In one groomed yard a St. Bernard filling up the porch, present as a bear. He was nimble coming to the iron fence and bowed his head over. His eyelids yawned into pink, sodden bowls that seemed to say, Come, reason with me . Ears first, I scratched him as ownerly as one can through a fence. I could really read that dog. I found the good spots fast—the best spots—warm patches of underbelly that pitch a growl up to a purr. I scratched that slobbering son of a bitch until he rolled over, snoring like a generator. Crossing the street, clumps of white hair on my slacks and hands, I felt an aching hollowness. Claire hates dogs.
Every other streetlamp was dead or dying in the quickened darkness. I felt my blisters and walked to the playground on the corner, sat on the carousel with a loafer heeled in the dirt, inching myself around its axis. I had paused long enough to pull my arms into my shirt and shiver when a green Explorer that looked like mine slowed left at the corner. Green or black? Too dark to tell. It passed the playground, stopped seconds further and reversed, stopped again in front of the carousel. The driver dropped his window and waited for something. I was the only thing around, it seemed. I approached with my tucked elbows jutting from under my shirt like some inchoate thing. I had not come close enough to see his face when he reached across the cab and tossed something black. It unfolded on its way, spinning to the ground before me like a moth.
No te enfríes, o.k. huero ?
The yellow of teeth then pulled away and gone. I replaced arms in sleeves and picked up the black thing. I sang something grateful to God and the park—a jacket! Left arm in first, I swung the heavy suede around my back and as I entered it felt the fit I had paid the tailor for. I reached inside the left-breast pocket and found: ticket stub for Grease! tissue with blotted snot and chile verde, receipt for roses and gin. Pura mierda. That was my green Explorer. My tongue dried like a stone and I checked the other pockets. No wallet, no phone. He must have liked the tie too. There I was, robbed and warmer than before. My Explorer that wouldn’t start, my green Explorer. Tio probably even helped him jump it. Qué raro este bondad.
There was no dog when I returned to the fence, only his shape stamped dark into the lawn. I crushed the unswept leaves along the walks through a snake-line of streets, thinking of anything but my truck and Claire’s post-show eyebrows, the hellish vibrato-humming and conjugal levels of detail in telling how it all went. I could see her: thighs crashing in her poodle skirt, livid that I hadn’t called her right away. What if something had happened to you?! Why didn’t you borrow a phone? Her pale face wagging as I admit that I had never in six years, memorized her number. . . . The girl on the casket, white socks bunched and loose about slender ankles. I laughed. . . . Ankles? Those are the first thing to go, Armando would say. Like, Carmen? She’s hot now, fersure, but come twenny-five, twenny-six, she’ll blow up like a bouncy-castle. It’s the magic taco, man. Every mehicana eats it sooner or later. Just look at the mamis. . . .
A droning wherrghr . The snuff of lust-curdled cardboard. Gatos. They own nights in the lower valley as rats do in other cities. I could hear them brawling and breeding in every unlit depth. I kept walking. The cats soon faded. Near silent. The red dust muted my loafers and thickened into dirt down the narrowing street. That street so hardly lit, so familiar and awful. It disturbed my soul and seemed to kissed my cheek. A tall girl with a round belly kicked a red rubber ball high into the earthy swirl and in my path. I overshot the return kick and sent her running and squealing toward the unseen landing. I wouldn’t see her again. Most were inside, their telenovellas glowing round and warm on their curtains. A few boys sitting on patched cement with loose heads, beeping on bulky handheld games, lonely for siblings. It did feel lonely. That street where houses turned to trailers spaced just enough to swing a door. Each painted one of six colors like an opened box of old chalks: once-bright pastels worn to rubble by children and monsoons.
Before me was a trailer with three bay windows covered by a wire screen, each angled to its own view of the black sky. At those windows my body traded balance for grief. I buckled. I skirted the trailer, eyes in adjust. The once-blushed walls found unbleached under the roof drains, the aluminum skirting peeled out in sanctuary to every small animal. In back a glassy patch of sand we once called wild—the rebar staked there, too deep to move, still bent at the top from the post driver. That bend our only edge against the other kids. All year I’d practice for summer, tossing and fetching a plastic horseshoe behind the rec center, wearing work gloves over my knits, tossing and fetching, fingers cold enough to cry. Dios, God, quítame este dolor. To the other side where the storm-door bore angry pocks and clacked loose with the wind. Knocked there. Knocked again and nothing. Back at the windows, the circle complete. . . . Walking through El Paso all that way, day into dusk, refusing to believe where my feet were bearing me: 136 Calle Delfina, donde vivían los Palomo. I vomited pale-green until I had nothing to heave but my grief. I saw our three bright faces pressed to the acrylic of the bay windows, each angled to our own view of the happy sun. Armando, Luis, Pati. Tres mosqueteros. Two machotes and a mosquito with nothing to know in summer but joy.
The drawling cats again. Behind the trailers the humming of border trucks and four fired whaps! far off. Calle Delfina, the hand-torn edge of America. I watched the stars and wondered which ones belonged to them, to us. A pitbull stirred ten steps from me. She was asleep, sunken in a channel of her own clawing. Prostrated in pointed attention like a sphynx, blue coat rolling over wrested collar, twenty-foot chain slackless and violent to the anchor. Her tongue out and limp, as if she had collapsed in the struggle to reach whatever it was she’d been barking at.
Julien Fish is from an avocado town in southern California. He lives in Idaho with his wife and dog.
by Lindsey Keller
In a rusty Detroit iron he took Delia to his house, his basement with the russet futon. She looked through his cabinet of records, turning each one with her knuckle. Her fingers were still tacky, still had the bright smell of orange juice. She had been sitting on the front lawn of school, peeling her orange, trying to scour off the soft pulp with her thumbnail. She got up to throw away the skin and when she came back he was sitting next to her jumper on the grass, breaking the orange into segments. Blonde hair and a suede vest. Then and every time after a shock to her, the long hair spreading over the masculine back like a river delta.
The pulp is where all the vitamins are, he said. Reward for those willing to stomach a little roughage.
Delia had been a little stunned to see him there, so close, when her mother had told her to keep her distance from people of his type. The things to look out for: long, unwashed hair, loose clothes, loose morals. So when he held a piece of the orange out to her, her alarmed response was to open her mouth like a child. Without exaggeration or suggestion he put it on her tongue, and she chewed it, trying not to make a face at the texture of the pulp he hadn’t removed.
He said, I’m Sam. She held out her palm, fingers splaying so wide it hurt, ready for more.
More was the basement, with the records her father wouldn’t like, music he said was too stirring, by which he meant black. Sam reclined on the couch. Delia touching his hair out of curiosity, fingers passing through it like smoke. This observation Sam made, and then pulled out a joint and offered it to her. She declined but watched him smoke the whole thing.
Your eyes are all red, she said.
He said he should check to see if hers had turned color as well.
The formation of an immediate new sign between them. She asked him to check her eyes again when she wanted him to kiss her.
Delia’s parents had already been concerned about Sam, with Delia saying things like, he has this cool friend who calls himself Stovepipe, because he’s black, and he’s always smoking. Her increased appetite. Her passionate discussion of the war industry at the dinner table—why else would Johnson still have us in Vietnam? And then Sam showed up at the front door to take Delia out, his wet eyes drowning in the sleepy features of his face, and in that moment they called the school board in order to transfer her to a private girls’ facility.
They expected a fight, this being Delia’s junior year in her school, but Delia didn’t mind. She sat in class, not speaking to anyone, instead imagining a telephone line connecting her to Sam and sending thoughts his way while considering her own uncombed hair. She liked the way it tangled. She liked thinking about Sam’s resin-stained fingers getting caught in it, pulling her neck back, how she would dig her fingers into his scalp in recompense.
Her senior year, she skipped class for Sam’s birthday, so she could help bake the cake and cut the brownies and stand on the futon to crack the basement window. They passed a lighter around and when it came back to Sam she brought out the cake but he told her to put it down for a minute. He took out a piece of paper.
Turn down the lights, he said. She did.
He read from the card: Sam Michael Warnick. Birth date, September fourteenth nineteen fifty-one. Reno, Nevada. Eyes, blue. Hair, blonde. Height six one. Other obvious physical characteristics, none. Was duly registered on this day. This your selective service system registration certificate.
The basement was quiet with smoke.
This is to certify that you are in accordance with the selective service law, he said. Happy birthday to me.
Delia scanned the faces of his friends, expecting some horror or sadness. Small smiles instead.
The lighter, please?
He mimed pointing a gun at Delia, bent his thumb. Fire, he mouthed.
She clicked on the lighter and he held the draft card over it. She watched it burn from the bottom up, erasing his birthday, his eyes, his long blonde hair, his name last of all.
It made sense to her to quit school right away. They swept up the ashes of the draft card and dumped them out the window, but she could still see it burning, smell it worse than the skunk.
They got a one-bedroom apartment in the city. There was a couch for a friend to sleep on. The living room floor. The rug in the laundry room. Their apartment for two being used for nine or more. They had the floor space, after all.
Delia got a part-time job as a typist for a professor who didn’t really need the help, but needed a legitimate excuse for the money going out, which was really going towards the odd bag of leaves. She took the documents up to his campus and while she was there she asked around about upcoming protests, sit-ins, demonstrations. She and Sam painted signs together on the floor when there wasn’t anybody sleeping there.
He put red paint on his eyelids. You’d better check my eyes, he said.
When she wasn’t typing or painting or protesting, Delia tried to convince Sam to try to get a deferment. He could apply to the professor’s college. He could fake an injury. If drafted, he could go to the physical examination in some of her lace underwear so they’d think he was a fairy and turn him away.
He shook his head. I’m not pretending anything, he said.
She lit herself a joint to gain courage. They also offer deferments to heads of families, sometimes, she said. She waited for a reaction, and hurried on when there was none. We could try for a baby. We could get married.
He held out his hand for her joint and took a puff. The smoke sunk out of his nose, slow.
I’m not going to let them push us into any major steps too quickly, he said. This is too good.
She smiled and nodded, and didn’t say check my eyes again even though she knew he wanted her to. She tried to keep her face in place, to not think about why, during this quickened life they’d built together, anything could be too fast.
December was there with little flurries coming down that looked like cigarette ashes.
And December first was the day of the draft lotto, every day given a number. 1: January first. 2: January second. Et cetera et cetera.
And the very first number they drew from that cylindrical cage that could easily double as a bingo roller, except it was filled with blue pellets that almost looked like rubber bullets, was 258.
The first boys to report for the draft, those born on September fourteenth.
Dear Delia, read the note he left.
I love you. I had to go, you know why. I can’t tell you where, baby, you’re an open book, my open book. They’ll ask you and now you won’t even be lying when you say you don’t know.
Not knowing where he was made sense at first to Delia. When the police came by to ask whether Sam still lived on the premise? No? If not, where might he have gone to? They believed her when she said she didn’t know.
When she was at the rallies, shouting around her like thunderheads, without a hand to hold, came off too loud. When she saw the riot police with their shields and turned to run, she had a worry that Sam’s running was over. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe without her knowing he’d been shipped off. She thought of this in the empty bed. When she walked into the kitchen and saw friends lying on the floor in various states of disarray, something that used to reassure her, she now saw the pictures from the newsreels. Bodies spread over the ground in Khe Sanh.
The professor stopped giving her work. His wife had figured him out and threatened to leave him. She got a job as a waitress instead. Every time she saw young teenagers sitting at one of her tables, not having to worry yet about their age, she’d go into the back and smack her tray against the wall several times.
After a few weeks, she called up Stovepipe because she had a hunch he knew where Sam was staying. She told him she really needed to hear Sam’s voice. And he called her back, from wherever he was. She held the receiver to her ear, tight, to hear him drag out a Hey blossom, I wish you would come here and check my eyes.
He asked her to describe the snow out the window. She spoke quietly so as not to disturb anyone sleeping in the living room. She asked him where he was. He told her he couldn’t say, that he thought they were bugging the wires. Just pretend he was vacationing on the warm sunny beaches of Nam. She told him not to make jokes about that.
She lost her job at the restaurant, because she smelled like skunk. She hadn’t even had any lately, couldn’t afford it. Sam’s friends could though, were hazing up the apartment.
She asked Stovepipe to have Sam call her again. Where are you, she said first thing, when he said hello.
Hawaii, he said. Told you I’m on the beach. Surfing on turtle shells, sleeping in palm trees, building sand-snowmen, thinking of you.
Why don’t you come home? They’ve already come to check for you here, they haven’t come back at all.
Too risky, he said. Baby, I’ve got to go.
In the second before he hung up, she could hear a high voice in the background, a female? Laughing.
Rent notices piled up on her table like the snowflakes outside. She gave them to her friends to roll joints with.
She visited her parents to ask for help.
They’d given her up for a lost sheep already, but still didn’t like to dwell on it, so instead of attacking her they attacked Sam. Told her they were ashamed of his cowardice, that they wouldn’t give her a dime until he did right by his country.
She thought of lying, of telling them that she’d ask him to reconsider when he came back into town, then realized suddenly that she didn’t actually know when that would be.
If you don’t know where he is, that’s your fault for living with that type of man, her mother said. I told you they practice loose behavior.
When she walked out, her mother spat out: Not only has he abandoned his country, he’s abandoned you.
Delia went home to beg a smoke and turned on the tv. Footage from Nam. Men cutting through the jungle, men with shaved heads and smudged faces. She thought she saw Sam’s blonde hair for a second. She turned the tv off and finished the joint.
On Sam’s side of the bed she took a good look at the black and white print of every person who needed money from her. For the first time she considered life after being thrown out of her apartment. She didn’t have enough to get a new place. She couldn’t stay with her parents, who she called upon again only to have them reiterate that they wouldn’t let her back into the house for anything, and wouldn’t loan her anything as long as Sam was draft-dodging.
She felt very afraid after the joint, more than usual.
She imagined of Sam freezing to death in the forest running from the police. Sam getting hit by a bus as he hitchhiked to the border of Mexico. Sam in South America contracting a rare disease, getting shot by a drug cartel. Sam with that female voice whispering in his ear, with two strange arms around him.
And finally, she got Stovepipe to give her Sam’s number, and she called him, and she shouted into the receiver when he told her he was meditating with the yogis in India.
She told him she couldn’t take him joking about where he was anymore, that she had to know where he was, that she had to see him. He bewilderedly told her that he didn’t know why she was so upset, but he agreed to meet her at the Super 8 in the next town at 5:30 on Saturday.
She’d already called them beforehand, but she told them 11pm, to leave time for the reunion.
To leave time for will you please check my eyes again.
The police said they might consider a financial recompense if it was truly Sam she was turning in, but even if they went back on their word, her parents had promised they would welcome her back while she waited for Sam to come back from the war, duty served.
The unknown horrors Sam faced now gone, she thought of the real ones. The guerrillas. The grenades, the landmines. Children carrying guns. The tiny towns shot up and disintegrated.
The little bullets, she had been told, that you couldn’t really hear. That shot past you in the dark whizzing like flies, that your ears couldn’t trace until your eyes watched a man go down.
One image in particular: the compound barbershop, the shears going to Sam’s head, shaving off his lovely hair that shone in the sun the first time she’d seen him. Bright like the smell of orange juice. She couldn’t shake it off. She went to the front desk of the hotel and asked to borrow some scissors.
This the last good thing she would do for him, gently lifting his head and easing her knee under it, stroking his head.
Picked up one of his locks and closed the blades, the blonde hairs falling to the bedspread one by one.
Lindsey Keller is an MFA candidate at Brigham Young University.
by ShelliRae Spotts
At six o’clock, on a smoky fall evening in September I planted pansies in my front yard as my twin brother reported to the county jail to serve a ninety-day sentence for charges stemming from “unethical business practices.” I did not hear about it until almost midnight, but it was an occurrence we had foreseen for weeks. He had spent the last month making provisions. He made sure his wife and children would be taken care of, called his six siblings to make sure we knew, witnessed the birth of his fifth child, and was gone.
I know of many people who have gone to jail. Lindsay Lohan, Martha Stewart, Stephan Fry, Bill Gates. My father. Now my brother. I don’t know how to feel about this. My head hurts. My chest hurts.
I remember specific moments so clearly, it is as if they just happened.
It is cold, even for December and the night lies heavy against my teenage brother as he huddles on the sidewalk. The lights are stark pools against the flat black night, illuminating the lot of cars guarded by a cold steel fence. Dad has gone to see if anyone will let them in, only for a moment, just to get the homework out of the old blue van parked in the corner. No one is there. It is locked—the gate closed against my brother’s need and my father’s pride. Then suddenly up he goes, my daring twin. Over the fence, along the line of cars, and into the side door, emerging moments later with a math book in his hands. It is a moment he will never forget. The embarrassment, the furtive back and forth, eyes watching, shame beating in every heartbeat for the father that could not pay the bills, for the cars repossessed, for the electricity unpaid, for the groceries eked out of children’s babysitting money. It is a way of life we both try hard to put behind us, in radically different ways.
It has made me cautious, timid, inflexible. A saver of money, of clothes, of the unwanted and unneeded, of stuff. A cushion against the bad times. An inability to live in the good.
It has made him brave, a risk taker, an all-or-nothing money man determined to find his way to success, to more, to even more than more. And what now?
And from even earlier, when I was eight or nine. I remember the gray. The sky never seemed to clear, reflected in the faces of those around me. The whispered shadows in the corners of that long ago, the phone calls we were not supposed to hear. Business was bad. Don’t answer the phone. “No, he’s not here.” Round robin, a child’s game. Rob Peter, pay Paul, rob Paul, rob Paul. Do I remember when my father went to jail or is it a story I’ve only heard? It wasn’t long, a few days, a week, maybe two. Then I remember him on the phone in the corner of his room, shrunken and colorless in the red wing chair with the worn piping on the arms. He is crying, tears leaking down his face slowly. They too are defeated, an echo of the man. He doesn’t see me there, a child who has learned to be small, to stay in the background. “If I thought it would do any good, if I had any insurance at all I would throw myself off of a bridge.” I remember these words. Seared on my mind. Etched in granite the gray color of his face. How much do I remember, and how much have I created out of fear?
“Pack a bag, hurry, in the car.”
A sudden after-school drive.
“When are we coming back?”
And the silence.
We never look back, we never go back.
I have never been back.
I admire my brother. His courage, his strength. His determination. “Never. I will never live like this,” he would whisper in the dark of the unfinished room we shared as children. And now—he is a good man, a good brother, a good husband and father. My kids love to go to his house, the place with all the toys. But it is more than the toys. When he wants to talk to the children, he gets down, eye to eye with them. On their level. When he speaks, they listen. When he speaks, we all listen. It is what has made him successful in business, until now. The listening.
They always listen.
There is a short story they made me read in high school—I don’t remember the name—but I hate it. The one with the small bird in the cage. “Let me out. I can’t get free. I can’t get free.”
He can’t get free.
I picture the poor bird beating against the bars of the cage, wings bruised and bloody.
We had a parakeet around this time. Blue and yellow. Happy-looking, happy-sounding. I was cleaning the cage, outside. Who cleans a birdcage outside? I opened the door. Just opened it and watched the bird fly away, a blue and yellow speck against the blue and yellow sky
I don’t know where my parents had gone that night, but I was stuck with no way to get home. I was fourteen and taking music lessons with a professor on campus. I waited and waited, alone in an unfamiliar building, but no one came. Finally I called my brother, distraught over the lateness, the darkness, the aloneness of the hour. He rode his bike five miles across town, put me on the back seat, and pedaled us the five miles home again in the still dark night.
This is my picture of my brother.
Loyal. Reliable. Protective.
My dad’s financial and legal problems originated not in deliberate deceit, but in a relentless and unrealistic optimism, a belief that things would work out in the face of all indications to the contrary. He would promise someone payment, confident in the ability to meet his obligations, only to have reality intrude harshly on his world. He approached check writing in the same way, with very little care for the actual amount in his checking account, but an endless tally, a list of check marks, mental bills, and invoices tagged paid and unpaid.
His balance never quite meshed with reality.
In ninety days you can plant a garden and watch it grow.
In ninety days you can begin a program to recover from drugs and alcohol.
In ninety days you can hot air balloon around the world.
In ninety days you miss 90 bedtimes, 270 meals at home, and thousands of unforgettable moments.
In ninety days a newborn learns to recognize its parents, to smile, to laugh. To roll over.
In ninety days the average heart beats nine million seventy-two thousand times.
My father has been very matter of fact about my brother’s situation. Stalwart almost. He has been the practical one, the person my sister in law calls when she needs to talk to the lawyer, to take care of the kids, to get things done. He has set up phone accounts, commissary accounts, has called the jail every night. He jokes about it, the only one able to laugh. Or maybe he needs to. I can’t help thinking, what if he doesn’t laugh?
“He needs us,” he says.
“Even if he says he doesn’t.”
I have never learned to spend money comfortably. The balance in the bank always seems more real than any physical need. My husband is exactly the opposite. He is the one who clothes our kids, buys the groceries, pays the school fees. All this while I watch the checking account dip lower and lower throughout the month, my anxiety increasing exponentially. It is a constant ledger in my head: Subtract, add, multiply, divide. Circling through the whispers in the night, trying to make it all fit; the bills, the needs, the breaths of want.
Twins are a unique phenomenon, even the fraternal like my brother and I. There is strong anecdotal evidence that says that a twin shares an inherent understanding of their co-twin’s emotional state, an understanding that has even been labeled ESP, or telepathy. I have never experienced this phenomenon, the sense of knowing when my brother is suffering or hurt. It seems strangely egotistical to assume his feelings, to adopt his problems and pains as my own. To assume I know, or can comprehend with any degree of honesty, his feelings.
The call came late that night as the family was winding down, the children and the house quiet in preparation for bed. He didn’t ask for me, talking instead to my husband.
So much of this experience has been second hand. My brother says, my father says, my husband says.
But I feel.
No matter what he has done, and we were never really sure on that point, how could I get over the fact that my brother knew better? Not in some abstract moralistic sense of right and wrong, but in the absolute certainty of what happens to a family, of what impact it has on children. He has felt the fear, the insecurity, the shame and embarrassment, the denial, the messy convoluted whole of it. The fact that he would, no matter how inadvertently, visit the same down on the heads of his children, on his four sons, makes me incoherent with rage, bright red and hot against my chest. It rattles my faith, my sense that there is anything you can do to stop the endless cycle from repeating, again and again, an endless melody in fugue form, playing in tonal keys down the scale.
I did not visit him, but in my mind I could see him, an amalgam of every bad prison movie ever made, dim lights flickering on orange jumpsuit. The flowers I planted in the fall faded, turned gray and indistinct, crumbled into dust, a musty perfume clinging to their softness and decay. I had wanted to take him something; my way of consoling, of offering comfort. To fuss with flowers in a cut glass vase, to fix food that no one will eat. But nothing is allowed into the prison. Nothing but letters full of the words I am unable to write.
My friend and I are in the home of a neighbor, a young woman who has taken in her sister’s small boys while the sister serves time for drug distribution, selling “spice” out of the backroom of a local tobacco shop. The story was big news at the time, a lead on all the local news programs, a shockwave through our small community.
She fumbles in the drawers of her kitchen as we visit, her long blond hair spilling in a messy braid down her back, a baby on her shoulder. We are uncomfortable, an awkward trio.
“What can we do?” my friend asks.
The tears come suddenly, filling her dark lined eyes, locked tight in my chest.
“There is nothing,” she says, as the baby begins to squirm in response to her mother’s distress.
“No one understands what it is like, to have everyone know,” she starts, and stops, calming the baby with soft pats and slight swings of her body.
She is wrong.
I understand. What it is like to have to walk in the shadow of another’s failures, to feel the weight of another’s actions. But I can’t speak. Instead I offer up empty condolences, punctuated by awkward silences, and in moments we will leave, and she never has to know, and neither does my friend, and I can go home. For really, there is nothing to say, and so we never really talk, but only sit together, a silent trio. Alone.
I took my scout troop to visit the local police station, one of the requirements for passing their rank advancement a visit to a government location in the community. Our tour guide, Officer Friendly as he was called, was completely unprepared for the graphic nature of the eight-year-old imagination. Questions about guns and chases and blood and shooting ran rampant as we made our way through the mostly beige halls of what looked like an ordinary office building. Officers in blue and white uniforms, official business radiating in waves as they hurried away from the noise and the dirt, and the chaotic confusion surrounding us. Two things stand out about that afternoon: the boys’ fascination with the dispatch office, with the immediacy of tragedy as they watched an officer receive a call and rush others to help; and the lock-up. The cells where they keep people for processing until they can be transported to the county jail. It was occupied, so we were not allowed to tour that area of the station, but in the dispatch office, there were closed circuit TV’s overhead that showed a solitary figure, blanket wrapped, lying on the bench. It was an indistinct silhouette, anonymous in a dark shroud, formless. Without height, weight, race, or gender.
And all I could think of was my brother. Had he sat there while others observed him from some room far away? Had he felt the weight of judgment in the eyes that watched, without ever revealing themselves to him? Had young boys, proud in the respectability of their scout uniforms, in the security of their lives, clamored to know what he was there for, what crime he had committed, what law he had broken?
I did not see him until he was released, shortly before Christmas. The flowers of summer and fall were buried under the knee deep drifts of an early snowfall. To my surprise he looked good. He had lost forty pounds, and despite the lines on his face and the grey in his hair, he looked more like the brother I had grown up with than he had in years. Less jaded and more authentic. Less absent; more real.
There were still complications. Ankle bracelets and parole officers and family events that had to be reorganized, moved, and rearranged, allowing for distance and travel restrictions. There was the chance comment to my grandmother; how was I supposed to know she wasn’t to be told? But the truth was that after a relatively short time, he was home, and I can’t help but think of my neighbor’s sister and her sons, and the others who go to jail, and the people who love those other people who go to jail. I think of the months and the years and the decades; of the judges and the officers and the inmates. I think of the flowers, brown and grey under the weight of the snow, and of their roots growing deep and strong. And I think of the spring, the tender strands of green emerging from the frozen ground, thin and pale and translucent, and eager for the sun.
Shelli is an MFA graduate and instructor at Brigham Young University, teaching creative writing and advanced composition. Her essays have appeared in Locutorium Journal, Insight Magazine, and Inscape Journal of Literature and Art.
by Sarah Jane Myers
I know you were just joking, back in our classroom, about our Fruit-Roll-Ups burning where we left them in the gymnasium lunchroom. Because of the fire drill. I know you probably weren’t thinking about your father at all when you said the joke, even though it was your first day back at school. After everything happened. Were you? Were you thinking of your father when you joked about our Fruit-Roll-Ups burning? I couldn’t think of anything else after our teacher told us—the horribleness of a father burning—the horribleness of a father sleeping and burning. I know I should have thought before. But I didn’t. “Our Fruit-Roll-Ups won’t burn because it’s just a drill. . . but your dad did. He burned.” I know I shouldn’t have said it.
Your father burning didn’t seem real to me. I couldn’t believe that could happen. I said it as a question. He burned? I wonder if it seemed real to you. I wonder if you hated me for making it more real with my words. Those words have burned me for years with acid guilt. I wish I would have known not to say them.
I know we haven’t had a class or even the same city in common since second grade, before you moved away. That year in elementary school was the last time I saw you. I’m writing you this now even though I don’t know where to send it. When our teacher told us you weren’t in school because your father died in a fire, in his trailer, asleep and alone, I know she told us so we would be extra nice. I didn’t realize that “extra nice” meant I shouldn’t remind you of your father burning. I wasn’t extra nice. I know I deserved it when you kicked me in the shins.
I don’t blame you at all for yelling, “Shut up!” I don’t blame you for running away. And when the silent watchers finally spoke up and said, “You’re in so much trouble,” I knew they were right. I stared down at the green hard-packed carpet of the classroom, and my words burned in my throat. And when our tall, gray-haired teacher came back after lunch and took you and me into the yellow linoleum hallway and looked at us with tears leaking in the corners of her eyes, I knew I deserved to be punished. I knew she was right when she told me with a hitch in her voice how horribly I needed to apologize. Do you remember that? I stood across from you and our crying teacher and I could think only of the burning—flames and smoke filled my mind. I wanted frantically to figure out how it could be real that your father burned. Was mine going to burn too? Would everyone’s? I somehow managed an “I’m sorry,” and you just looked at me. Then you walked back into our classroom, and the metal door clanged behind you. I couldn’t look at our teacher alone in the hallway with me. I looked at the cracked yellow linoleum under my feet, and everywhere inside, I burned.
We never said a thing to each other again. Sometimes you walked past my desk to the pencil sharpener in your old white tennis shoes, and I opened my mouth to try. But I always felt a rock at the back of my mouth, and you walked past before I could ever swallow it and speak. Then you moved away to another city.
The words I shouldn’t have said and the words of apology that I should have said that day in the hallway drift back to me now like smoke down an empty strip of yellow linoleum. I am not writing this letter to try and apologize better. I still don’t know how. There are rocks in my throat. In my second-grade mind all the fathers are sleeping and burning and I can’t understand. In my second-grade mind you are still walking endlessly past my desk to the pencil sharpener in your old white tennis shoes. I hope my words don’t still burn in your memory, too. I hope you have found a way to forgive me; I hope because I think this letter is my way of trying to forgive myself.
Sarah Jane Myers is an essayist, whale watcher, mother, and sourdough bread lover. She lives in Provo with her husband and daughter where she enjoys walking in the mountains, reading C.S. Lewis and listening to classic Russian composers like Shostakovich.
by Mari Molen
Aimee and I wear ours at eight in the morning—alone.
The night before, Mom had weaved Aimee’s lightning-blonde hair into a tight braid. But now in the morning light, Aimee looks like an albino Klingon or something, random hairs flying from her head like alien antennas. Her light blue windbreaker pulls tight along her bird shoulders as she slides into the passenger seat.
I freeze. “You’re not old enough yet.”
“I’m tall enough,” she yawns, reaching for the seatbelt over her head. “And that’s what matters in the law.”
“That’s not true.” I fling another backpack in the backseat. “Height doesn’t equate maturity. Don’t be stupid.”
She makes that face. I hate when she looks at me like that—eyelids fully receded, mouth closed tight. Like she’s expecting me to explode in her face.
I rub my nose, itch my nose, and scratch my nose until she looks away.
“We’re not supposed to say that word, Rachel.”
“Well, I said it. Now be quiet while I get the rest of the stuff.”
I pass through the sleeping rooms of our house one more time. I feel I am forgetting something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. We have the tarp, sleeping bag, the food…
I pause in the doorway of Mom’s room. She is sprawled on her side of the king bed, a harlequin novel lifting and falling on her chest. She snores. I hate the sound.
Last night, she sat on the couch in her pajamas and started spouting advice as she pulled Aimee’s hair back in a tight braid. I think Mom was starting to realize the awfulness of her plan to force us to have fun.
“Don’t forget to text me when you get to the base of the mountain.”
I scrolled through my phone, focusing on nothing. “I will.”
“And don’t forget to refill your water bottles with the nozzles by the bathrooms.”
“We won’t forget.”
“And be sure to tie up the food.”
“What do you mean you won’t?
“I mean I won’t forget.”
Aimee strained to look back at Mom. “What if I get hungry in the middle of the night?”
Mom plastered on a smile and rubbed Aimee’s head. “Rachel’ll make sure you eat. I packed you hotdogs and chips and s’mores—”
“And you’ll have lots of fun.”
“But I already miss you,” whined Aimee. She warily looked at me.
“I won’t forget anything, Mom. Promise,” I said.
I am shot back into the doorway, looking at Mom sleeping.
Of course I have everything.
I grab the keys, a few extra water bottles, and lock the front door.
Then I unlock it and lock it again.
* * *
We weren’t the kind of family who liked Easter, so I’m pretty sure it was a Target sale that turned the set of four of us Christian. Dad, Aimee, and I awoke that April morning a year ago to find bunny chocolates stuffed in colored baskets alongside dumb windbreakers.
By the way Mom made us all try ours on and go stand in front of the bathroom mirror, and the way she came prepared with makeup already on at seven in the morning, I think she wanted this to be a moment. Or at least something different than us rubbing our armpits, experimenting on the sound of air and plastic.
Dad kept playing with the noise his zipper made, his chin folding into his neck. It sounded like a spaceship taking off. I said, “You look stupid, Spock.”
He raised an eyebrow. “It is illogical to speak that way to the half Vulcan that is keeping us all alive on this ship, Captain.” He turned to Mom and whispered, “These don’t seem very practical, hon.”
Mom paused her posing. Then, pinching her windbreaker at her waist, trying to see a shape through her plastic, she sighed, “It’s not about practicality, Mike. We all match, and that’s what matters.”
Aimee bounced like an idiot and beamed and twirled in the mirror. She told Mom we all looked like supermodels.
I think Mom read too many catalogs. She had probably seen a picture of a perfect family of four roasting plastic marshmallows over a CGI-inserted fire. Dad said you can tell it’s photoshop because the fires don’t cast shadows on their faces, so the models’ faces just look one-tone happy.
Mom insisted we go that summer, a set of four, on a camping trip in the California woods.
But we never got around to it. Dad got a promotion and Grandma Cheri broke her hip and in the end that summer Aimee and I watched Netflix on the couch the whole time. Then when school came around and Dad died in Vegas, shot twice in the stomach and once in the face under the jaw, we packed up our boxes of stuff and moved to Oregon. Just the three of us.
* * *
I turn off at the wrong pass.
“That was wrong, Rachel,” said Aimee.
“I know. I saw it.”
I turn around. I focus on the road, my fingers straining white on the grip of the steering wheel, when I suddenly hear some plastic rustle. I glance over.
“Aimee, get out of the cooler!”
She balances the red cooler on her knees. “But I’m hungry!”
“If you ate before we left, you wouldn’t be.”
“You didn’t make anything.”
“If you’re tall enough for the front seat, you’re tall enough to pour your own darn bowl of cereal.” I catch her sneaking a brown square between her lips. “And stay out of the chocolate!”
“If I eat now, then I won’t be hungry later.”
“You’re not eating all our chocolate on the way up!”
“Fine!” She throws the chocolate back inside, hoists the cooler on her shoulder, and dramatically drops it in the back seat. “Whatever, Rachel.” She yanks a coloring book out of her backpack. My backpack. My old backpack. “How much longer?”
My gaze jolts to my phone propped on the dash. “About another two hours.”
I hear her grumble, “D’you think if we pulled over and stayed at a hotel, Mom would know?”
“It’s a prepaid campsite, Aimee. We’re going.” I attempt a smile. “Besides, it’ll be an adventure. Won’t it?”
Forty minutes down the highway, she asks the question I know is on her mind.
“Did you remember your medication?”
I raise my eyebrows at the road. I feel the snake perpetually wrapped around my nerves begin to coil around my bones, tensing all my muscles. “Don’t be a retard.”
“That’s a bad word.”
“It’s not if I say it. And of course I took my medication.”
She shifts under her seatbelt. “But did you bring your medication?”
I flick the blinker. I am fairly sure we were supposed to go right a half mile ago. “I only need to take it once a day.”
“Mom says you should take it twice.”
Even after I change lanes, I click the blinker twice more. I do because if I don’t, I feel like I am holding my breath and cannot breathe underwater and the world fades in the corner of my eyes and the snake around my heart devours me whole, so I click the blinker twice more than necessary to breathe.
“Well, Julie says I only need to take it once a day. And Julie’s the one who’s got a PhD, so I’m going to listen to her over Mom.”
“Okay.” I hate the silence that buzzes between us. “Did you bring your meds bottle to take it tomorrow?”
A cold feeling rushes under the sleeves of my windbreaker, crawls up my neck and down my back.
“Jeez, of course I did. I remembered. I have it.”
“Can I check?”
“Can you shut up?”
We stop talking. I try to fight the mental image of the orange bottle still on my nightstand.
The car slopes upward under us like we’re on a rollercoaster. The road is getting thinner ahead of me, and now the stress is crawling to my head. The trees converge in on us, the skyline disappearing under their shade.
Oregon air is different from any other kind of air: wet in all the wrong ways. Like the air comes from the ground instead of the empty sky. That empty sky starts to disappear as we creep up the dirt mountain road.
Aimee pulls a Magic Treehouse book out of her backpack. Nonchalantly flipping through the pages, she straightens her back and clears her throat. She crosses her legs and pursed her lips—like Mom does when she knows something it out of place.
Aimee is waiting for me to apologize.
I turn on the radio. I push the button three times. Mariachi music blasts from the speakers. I fumble and click three times and only end on static. Three more and it’s a fuzzy channel of pop music. Three more and I’m past it. Three back and I’m in the same place.
“Don’t worry, Rach,” she sighs. Her seatbelt snags as she leans forward. “I’ve got it.”
She presses it once, and it lands on the pop channel. We drive. I straighten my neck and refuse to thank her.
The trees are starting to converge. I try to lose myself in the Ke$ha song.
* * *
Dad and I would watch Star Trek on Saturday mornings.
He always awoke at least three hours before Mom, which gave him full control of the television until nine. I would pretend to trudge out in my pajamas, acting upset that I couldn’t go back to sleep. Lying, saying I’d had a bad dream or I was worried about school. Dad would pour me some Lucky Charms.
Then we would watch. Captain Kirk would always try to act braver than he actually was. When people think of the original series, most of them only laugh at William Shatner’s announcer voice and bad acting, but it is so much more than that. There was an elegance in the way Captain Kirk approached problems: unyielding, confident. A lost prince searching for his kingdom.
At least, that’s what Dad would say.
Whenever the Enterprise left a planet, off to scurry into deep of space, a sense of loss filled me. I asked Dad one day why they couldn’t stay.
He bumped my shoulder. “That’s what they do, space explorer. They travel to places no man has gone before. They don’t go places to stay. Only to discover.”
* * *
We finally find the turnoff for the campground.
The parking lot is barricaded by sliced logs, and the front wheels of our car bump one when I pull into a spot too fast. A smile spreads across Aimee’s face.
“Finally.” She packs her bag. “Should I bring my book?”
I shrug. “Sure. You’ll probably have time to read it.”
The car off, I start to feel much better. The tension cramping my muscles to my bones starts to fade, and I feel I can breathe easy. The path to the site is just ahead.
Opening the door, the chill surprises me. I forgot to account for the altitude, but luckily my windbreaker is barely warm enough.
Pulling open the back door of the car, I swing a school backpack over each shoulder. Sleeping bags swing off their bottoms, tied on with rope from the garage. I carry the cooler in both hands.
“Aimee, can you get your backpack and the tarp?”
I hear her feet stop moving on the gravel. “We’re not bringing a tent?”
My arms ache enough already holding the cooler. “We’ll sleep under the stars,” I say. “It’s more fun. It’ll feel like we’re sleeping in outer space.”
“But what if I want a tent?”
“And it’s a half mile walk to the spot. Do you want to carry it?”
“But don’t we need a tent to technically go camping?”
I think back to those two weeks I was a Girl’s Scout. “Not if you want to have fun.” I force a smile, though neither of us buy it. “Come on!” I start for the trail, anxious to get the bags off my back.
She scurries behind me.
The road is not well-marked, and I can feel every ridge through the rubber of my sneakers. Over rocks, through ditches—ten minutes in, I regret ever coming. Due to Google Maps not knowing which way is up while I was driving, it is already past noon. No way we can go swimming in that lake Mom found online.
“Why didn’t Mom come?”
I roll my eyes. Mom told me that she needed to finish some housework. “She lost her windbreaker.”
“No she didn’t. It’s in her closet.” Aimee kicked a rock. “Kinda hard to miss.”
I sighed. “Uncle Joe is going to stay over.”
Aimee leaned back in her seat. “Oh. Does he not want to see us?”
“No, he probably wants to see us.”
“Then why can’t we stay?”
I itch my face twice. Then I itch it again. “Because we’re not invited.”
The chilly air bites through our windbreakers.
Aimee asks with an elevated tone. “You know, it’s good Uncle Joe is coming to visit.”
“I don’t know. I just know it’s good.”
“That’s stupid. Don’t say anything unless you have a good reason.”
“It’s not stupid. It’s not like they’re going on a date.”
I stare ahead. “I didn’t think they were going on a date.”
“Then why isn’t it good?”
I curve forward, shifting the weight of my backpacks to my neck—if only for a moment.
“Uncle Joe is an ass,” I say.
Aimee’s light-up shoes shuffle to a stop. I keep walking.
“What did you say?”
“Look, Aimee. We’re in nature. Everything’s beautiful, and there’s birds and deer. So can you shut up about Mom and Uncle Joe and just enjoy it?”
She stops talking. After a few minutes, she starts sniffing.
I pull one of the backpack straps tighter on my shoulder. No way I’m falling for that.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
“And we’re almost there,” I say. “Almost. Just a few more minutes.”
* * *
The shooter’s name was James. According to STAR magazine, friends called him Jim.
I can’t imagine any of his friends knew his favorite color, though. Feel like that’s friendship 101—you can’t be close enough to give someone a nickname unless you know their favorite color. His “friends” probably just liked their words about James a few centimeters away from the newest gossip about Ryan Reynolds.
If Jim really accumulated so many friends, they would know his favorite color. And they would have told him not to shoot my Dad.
STAR reassured that Kenny Chesney was fine. The first bullet missed him. His security escorted him out immediately to a special little room they apparently have under the Bowl. A guard jumped on Kenny to save him—just in case. The movement sprained Kenny’s pinky. He couldn’t play the guitar for two months after.
I didn’t read the rest of STAR magazine’s report.
Because the editors had only so many pages, and they needed to get in the article for Ryan Reynolds, they only had two pages covering the victims. Their deceased Facebook profile pictures, gray and fuzzy—people who were smiling who are no longer smiling. They had little fun facts, like favorite movies and television shows.
My Dad was the only trekkie who died, because Uncle Joe didn’t die.
If Joe was brave enough to die with Dad, there would have been two trekkies in that magazine.
* * *
We arrive at the campsite three hours after I tell Aimee to shut up.
I have grown used to the gnawing straps on my back. When I drop the cooler, my arms burn at the released weight.
At least, I think it is the campsite. It’s shaped like a moon, with only a few rocks and twigs strewn over somewhat even dirt.
The sun is low in the sky, disappearing behind the countless trees. I drop my luggage and go to cool off in the woods before I murder Aimee and her stupid braid that is falling apart and her scrunched eyebrows and wide eyes that are scared that I’m going to yell or something. And her silence. I hate her when she waits for me to snap.
It’s getting cold. It’s like the air is bipolar or something, not making up its mind.
When I catch my breath, I come back to find her sitting on a downed tree trunk, rummaging through the cooler.
“Let’s make hot dogs,” she says.
“Well, first we need to gather sticks for fire. You go right, and I’ll go left.”
I find a log that vaguely resembles a person lying down. I drag it back to our site. In the half-light, the shards of sun splinter on the forest floor as day melts into night. Aimee has a few small sticks in her hands.
“How do we light it?” she asks.
“Easy,” I drop the log. “Throw the sticks on top.” I pull out the matches.
Strike, strike, strike.
It isn’t catching.
Aimee sits across the sticks, watching.
“Does Mom not like her windbreaker anymore?”
“That could be why Mom didn’t come. Because she finally realized it’s really ugly.”
A smirk cracks my face. “I don’t know. I hope she realized how heinous these things are.”
The flames on the match tickle the stick, but none of the embers live long.
Aimee asks quietly, “Do you think she still has Dad’s?”
I scratch too hard on the matchbox. The match snaps and my knuckles scrape the sandpaper.
“No. She probably donated it with the rest of his clothes. It was too new to keep, anyway.”
My heart speeds as it grows darker. The cold now hangs over us, temperature dropping by the second. Occasionally, a fire will catch an edge of a stick, live for a moment, then die away.
Pfft. Pfft. Pfft.
“We don’t need fire,” I say, dropping the matches. Aimee is right; I don’t have my medication, and I should not stress myself out.
“Wait. Of course we do!” she is suddenly angry. “How else are we going to eat?”
“Well,” I rustle through the cooler. “We can eat the hot dogs raw.”
“We’ll get sick!”
I pull my earlobe three times. “They’re already baked. Cooking is only a formality with hotdogs.” I tear the plastic with my teeth and pull out the cold dogs. My fingers prick in the meaty water. Laying the strings of hotdogs on the cooler lid, I rip apart the hot dog buns.
“Come on, Aimee. We should eat all these so we don’t have to tie them up for the bears.”
“It’ll be fun.” I am losing my patience again.
She pulls her knees up to her chest. “This is the opposite of fun.”
I laugh loud, thinking it will change her mind. She only looks at me quizzically. I eat three cold hot dogs.
Eventually, Aimee chooses a bun and starts pulling apart pieces, placing crumbs slowly on her tongue.
* * *
“What is that thing Spock says? Before a journey?” Mom asked Dad across from the kitchen table. It was the morning he left for Vegas.
I piped up. “It’s live long and prosper, Mom. He literally says it all the time. Even trolls on the Internet know that.”
Dad raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, sure. Even, uh, trolls know it. And the fairies in the radio know it as well. And Rachel’s other imaginary friends who live in electronics.”
I threw a dry Cheerio at Dad. It bounced off his big cowboy hat.
“I’d rather have Internet friends than go to some dumb cowboy concert where everyone pretends to drawl.”
Aimee looked up at Mom. “What does ‘drawl’ mean?”
Mom pushed a hair from Aimee’s face. “It means, well…like when people talk funny.”
I watched a light fill Dad’s face. I knew it would happen. He leaned across the table at Aimee. “It means,” he rumbled, “L-l-like th-th-this.”
She shrieked and threw her hands up. “Daddy, that’s scary!”
Expression sullen, he dropped back in his seat and took another bite of his apple.
Mom patted Aimee’s head. “It means,” she tried in a gentle southern accent, “You talk like this. Live long and prosper, Dad.”
Aimee perked up. She tried to mimic Mom. It was pathetic. “Live long and prosper, Dad.”
Dad grinned. He then turned to me. I rolled my eyes.
“Live looong and prospeeer, Dad.”
* * *
I slide my sneakers across the dirt, feeling for the biggest rocks. It is practically pitch black around us now, and the light of my flashlight quivers as I seek out the biggest stone. I shove them out of the way, and lay the tarp. It is officially cold now, and I have zipped my windbreaker all the way up to my chin. It still makes the Enterprise noise.
The two sleeping bags rolled out, I call to Aimee. She is sitting on her own on that log, turned away from me, straining to read her book in the dark. She is probably still moping.
“It’ll be warmer in your sleeping bag.”
She shuffles over, not looking me in the eye. Both of us forgot to bring pajamas, so we will be sleeping in our hiking clothes.
“I hate you,” she whispers.
I ignore her as I throw the contents of a cooler in a trash bag, tie a rope around the top, and hoist it over a branch. I used to be like Aimee—if only a little. I used to say mean things I never meant.
I step back. Everything in the camp is in its place. The tightness in my chest begins to pull apart, the snake always seizing my nerves releasing his grip.
Sure, it’s much colder without a fire, and the hot dogs did very little to curb my exhaustion from the unexpected hike searching for the site. But I did everything I was supposed to—even if the dark trees looked like men standing around us, watching, waiting to close in.
I drop into my sleeping back and lay on my extra sweatshirt like a pillow. I am finally beginning to feel the warmth of my bag when I hear an inorganic crinkle join the noises of the night.
I turn to face her. She is completely swallowed by her sleeping bag. She looks like an animal caught in a cobra’s belly.
A little louder. “Aimee, what are you doing?”
Then I hear the strangled muffle of her crying.
I leap to my feet and scramble over. “Aimee!” My breath catches as I unzip the side and throw open the tongue of the bag. I point the flashlight in her face.
Suddenly shocked, she starts a low whine, muffled by the sound of something in her throat. By the solitary light of my flashlight, I see it.
I grab her arms and peel her out of her tin foil sleeping bag. The insides run slick with melted chocolate. I drop her and inspect it.
“Frick, Aimee! That was a real smart thing to do.”
She cries in her hands, her small body shaking, the chocolate drying like blood on her hands.
“What did you want? To be an ice cream sandwich for some bear?”
Her sweatpants and arms are covered in it, already hardening on her skin in the cool night. I look into the woods. The bathroom is far away, and I’m not sure which direction it is. The trees stare hauntingly back.
“Why’d you have to go do that, Aimee? Are you happy now?”
She shudders on her own spit. “I-I just wanted.” She cuts herself off with a gasp. Her cheeks swell a beet red color.
“Fine, calm down!” I scratch my head three times, my face three times, my head three times, my face three times, my head three times, my face three times—
“Stop touching yourself!” she screams suddenly. “You’re always touching yourself, Rachel!”
“I can’t help it!”
“Yes, you can!”
“No! I can’t!” I scream hoarse.
The trees are practically curving in half in the wind. I press my hands against my forehead.
“Alright.” I start pacing. The blackness envelops us, chews us, swallows us up. I take a breath and try to sound calm. “We’ll get through this. It’s fine. It’s good. We’ll just put the sleeping bag up with the food in the tree. That way if a bear comes it’ll eat the bag and not you.”
I look down to see chocolate spread on her arms and sweatpants. In this light, it looks as black as the ground. I cough.
“Can you lick it off?”
She shakes her head, shuddering a hiccup.
“Alright, stop crying, dangit. That’s not gonna fix anything. We need to be rational about this. Dignified.” I put my hands on my hips.
She wipes her eyes. “If we sleep in the car, would we be safe?”
I look into the dark woods. I can see no path.
“No, the car’s too far. The bear’ll eat you on the way. There has to be another way.” I look her up and down. “Can you sleep in your underwear?”
“No! It’s too cold!” she shrieks, covering herself preemptively, like a full-grown woman on a blockbuster poster. The empty woods around us scream as the wind shifts the trees.
Rustling once, rustling twice, rustling thrice. Rustling once—
“Fine.” I am not too comfortable with her in her underwear, either. It is too cold, anyway. I finally admit to myself that our crappy family windbreakers are useless. My teeth chatter.
Scratch my head three, two, one.
I feel like running, screaming, taking off the nearest branch and biting it in half.
I know that we are running out of time. I swing the white light of the flashlight to my clean sleeping bag. “You can sleep in my sleeping bag.”
“Sure. We’ll snuggle. It’ll be fun,” I throw on a smile as cheesy as anything. “Just like when we were little.”
“Rachel,” she sobs and drops her head in her knees for a long time. Finally, she utters, “I don’t want to be eaten by a bear.”
“You won’t, Aimee. That never actually happens.”
Neither of us believe me.
“Besides, I’m a teenager, which means I’m so smelly it’ll cancel out the chocolate smell.”
“That’s not how it works,” she says. “Not even you smell that bad.”
“Trust me, Aimee,” I listen to the steadiness of my own voice, even though I taste the lie. “I’m in Biology, and I just learned this. It’s called pheromones, and it’s in our sweat. As a teenager, it means I can cancel out smells. Now, come along.” I feel like a witch luring a child. “We wanted to sleep under the stars, so let’s do it together.”
On shaky legs I move back across the campsite to my single sleeping bag. The radiance of my flashlight dips into my eyes, temporarily blinding me as I wiggle into my sleeping bag. I open the top flap. “Aimee,” I say in a sharper tone. “We’re doing this.”
She wipes her nose and crawls on the tarp. Still gasping and crying, she edges herself into my lap. I work hard not to touch my face as she coils up her limbs and slips her feet inside. I reach past her for the zipper and shimmie it closed. The bag is barely big enough for both of us. We both lay down, squished next to one another.
I point the flashlight at the trees to our right. The largest ones. The shadows move.
“Can I please have some water?”
I fumble around over my head until I find the cold, plastic bottle. I bring it over my head and hold it above us.
“Thanks,” she sniffs. She takes it, props on an elbow and takes a few dry swallows. I can hear her hiccups as she tries to slow her sobs. She gives the bottle back to me, and I returned it to its place. I clutch the flashlight in the arm wrapped over her, still looking.
She won’t stop crying. My heart hammers in my chest, and I brush my nose, brush my nose, brush my nose. My gaze flickers at every leaf movement, twig crack, and whispering howl.
“Aimee, you’re going to be fine. Aimee, I am here to save you.”
“You can’t fight a bear,” she whimpers.
“No.” And then I state the obvious—the terror that I have been intentionally hiding from myself. “The bear will kill me first.”
“The bear doesn’t want you. You’re not covered in chocolate.”
“Bears can’t tell the difference. It’ll eat me first because I’m bigger, okay? That will give you time to run away. So if a bear comes, you’ll have to make a break for it into the woods.”
“But I don’t want to see you torn apart by a bear.”
I swallow. “Yeah, well. You’ll just have to go to therapy for that. Because the bear will get me first. Do you believe me?”
“And I will be up all night,” I know it is true the moment I say it. There is no way I will relax enough to sleep now, “I will be watching the woods. So you don’t have to worry about the bears. I promise. I’ll shake you if I see one.”
Something moves to our right. I sit up and point the light at it. Nothing but trees.
“This is hell.”
“Aimee, you’re not supposed to say that word.”
“I know.” Then she curls her fingers into her face and starts a new wave of tears.
I look back at the woods, bracing for the next sound. “Aimee, it’s okay. I’ll be in charge of saying those words. So don’t worry about saying them.” I breathe. “This is hell.”
* * *
I wonder if this is how Dad felt when he was shot twice in the stomach and once in his head.
I also wonder if Dad felt anything at all.
A crucial part of me needs to know which song was playing, how many people were killed before him, how long he had to be scared, which bullet hit first, if it hurt like a papercut or a burn, and if anyone stepped on his hands as they ran over him and all those survivors bounced around like animals in a corral, dodging rain falling from hell.
The only thing I know is that Uncle Joe left my Dad.
Pretty quickly, actually. He would have had to bolt in order to get as far away as he did. Uncle Joe hid in the basement of the Bowl, which is stupid because turns out the shooter was coming from a window across the street. I think about how funny Joe must’ve looked, shivering in a supply closet, praying that God would save him, save him, save him—all the while the police were two stories above his head, scrounging for survivors, rifling through the bodies. Stepping on Dad’s hands.
Uncle Joe wasn’t there to stop them from stepping—or to say Dad might still be alive.
* * *
I pull a stray hair from her face. “I love you.”
She burrows into my stomach and mumbles, “You better.”
“Well, I do. Because I’m not running anywhere. I promise.” I force myself to stay lying down, instead of bolting into the woods. “But if a bear comes, I’ll yell ‘bear’ and you can run. Run as far as you can back to the car. Okay?”
Aimee and I squish together, the subtle glow of our body heat transcending our insufficient windbreakers and miraculously reflecting each other’s warmth. Like the Enterprise transponders pulsing each other.
The edge of the flashlight digs into my inner wrist as I hold it upright, scanning the trembling world around us. I strain my neck to keep my gaze level. Insects chirp. Twigs break. Things growl.
Taking a lone, deep breath, I manage, “If I die…can you tell Mom I love her?”
I drum my fingers against my hidden leg three times. I kiss Aimee’s cheek once. She doesn’t move, but her small hand reaches for mine. I hide it in my palm.
It hurts so much to sit up that, after a few minutes, I lean back on my crumpled sweatshirt. It cushions my neck as panic continues to well within me.
I don’t mind the fear as much anymore, though. Neither the panic nor I are leaving tonight, and that makes it more okay.
And, in that sleeping bag, I surrender. The snake coiling my bones and seizing my nerves unbites me, its fangs drawn from my neck and resting smooth on my collarbones. We’ll sleep together—him unlodged, weightless on my chest, as I listen to every sound of the night.
What seems like hours later, Aimee drifts off. She whistles with each breath, the sound emerging deep from her gut.
I nuzzle her forehead with my nose. She only stirs in her sleep.
Patches of the sky above trickle through the black branches intertwined over our heads. I kiss Aimee’s cheek again, scratch my face, then watch as the infinite blackness swings over us. Throughout the night, I catch glimpses of stars in unbalanced sets of three, swirling and twisting. And I find comfort consume my shaking frame as I watch the way those stars stumble their improvised shuffle against the backdrop of their depthless, unconquered universes.
Currently a senior in the English program at BYU, Mari Molen originally hails from Fountain Valley, California. She enjoys working in the library archives as a research assistant. In her freetime, Mari likes reading, cooking Japanese food, making dragon noises, psychoanalyzing strangers online, and speaking in the third person. Mari is not an android giraffe from Brooklyn, and asks politely for the parties involved in circulating those rumors to stop.
by Hayley Rawle
My therapist Rachel sat across the room from me holding a small red box of Sun-Maid raisins. We were in her office at counseling services in a basement corner of the Brigham Young University student center. I had started seeing Rachel a few months prior for my myriad manifestations of anxiety, which she had confirmed with a diagnosis. She told me that particular Wednesday afternoon we would be practicing mindful eating. I noticed half of a rose tattoo peeking out beneath her yellow cardigan sleeve as she handed me the raisin box.
According to instruction, I opened the box lid and plucked out a raisin. She asked me to put the raisin in my palm and inspect it. I put my hand eye level and looked. The raisin was puckered, a near purple shade of dark brown. Hold it up to the light and see how it changes, she coached, notice the weight of it in your hand. The weight was slight, a tiny point of pressure. The brown tinted amber, especially around the edges, when held between my thumb and forefinger against the fluorescent office light. I noted the deepness of the grooves along its surface. The edges of the wrinkles were sharp.
I felt slightly uncomfortable as Rachel watched me examine it, but paying such close attention to the raisin was comforting. She knew about my recently prescribed daily dose of fluoxetine. I had ended up in urgent care after a panic attack a few weeks before, my leg muscles shaking uncontrollably and pain swelling in my chest. I told her the physician had prescribed anxiety medication and she assured me it was the right thing. But still to come to counseling to learn other coping mechanisms. I told her I would. My Google search results suggested that medicine plus therapy produced the best success rate for handling generalized anxiety disorder. Plus, I liked it there in her office, usually cross-legged on the couch, one of the throw pillows on my lap.
I also took to Google to refresh the knowledge I partially remembered from my high school AP Psychology class once I got my prescription. I recall feeling fascinated as Mr. Stevenson pointed out components of the brain on a projected chart as he explained the scientific process of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The projector whirred overhead as I tried to comprehend a pill that could convince a brain neuron to not reuptake serotonin. And how that extra serotonin could make someone calmer and happier.
Years later at 22, I was skeptical to be taking something that would chemically change what was happening in my mind. But I needed help. Just think of it like migraines, I told myself, wouldn’t you take medicine for that? After a few months of adjusting to the side effects of sleepiness and mild nausea, I came to greatly appreciate the extra serotonin flooding my head. The medicine took the edge off my fear and stress and sorrow. I still felt like myself, just more relaxed. Life went back to normal.
At therapy, Rachel continued to teach me different mindfulness techniques. She told me to put the raisin in my mouth, close my eyes, and take some time to taste it. The sugariness was biting. I felt each crease of the dehydrated grape with my tongue, the same tiny point of pressure rolling around my mouth. I split the skin with my left back teeth and more sweetness spilled out. I chomped down again and paid attention to the way it sectioned the honey taste. I chewed a few more times and the raisin continually split into fragments until it nearly dissolved. I swallowed. The pieces were too tiny to track as they travelled down my throat. Rachel gave me the little red box of raisins, which I dropped into my backpack before I left.
That night I examined my bottle of fluoxetine, which is colored a clear bright orange. The pill capsules are blue-green. “To open hold down tab and turn” the white cap reads. I slide one out and feel its pressure in my palm. It’s a slight bit heavier than the raisin. It is longer and thinner on my tongue. I can’t leave it there too long or its bitterness will seep out. I take a sip of water. I swallow. This time I can track it down my throat.
And beyond that, as I lay in bed before I fall asleep, I imagine I can sense it in my organs. A swelling as it is absorbed by my stomach and small intestine, a slight ache as it passes through my liver. I wonder what it feels like as it slips into my bloodstream and gets pumped throughout my body. I can almost sense its texture when it soaks into my brain.
Hayley Rawle is a Utah native and a Brigham Young University English major. She particularly enjoys reading contemporary novels and writing nonfiction, as well as eating Indian food, movie theater popcorn, and chips and salsa– but not all at once.