Fourteen Ninty-Five

By Brittany Frandsen

Anson Electronics paid my rent the summer after my parents kicked me out and before my boyfriend took me in. I functioned as a combination secretary/receptionist/accountant/ general-office-manager-of-one at Anson’s headquarters, a dumpy little building squeezed between a failing bakery and a thriving pawn shop. You know the type. No air conditioning but plenty of bugs.

I walked into work that Thursday morning to the shrill ringing of the phone. Wincing, I threw my brown lunch bag into the fridge with one hand and picked up the phone with the other.

“Anson Electronics. This is Heather.” I seated myself at the three-legged card table which served as my desk.

The voice on the other end brought the phone three inches from my ear. “I want to speak to your supervisor!”

“Please hold,” I replied. I set the phone down and walked back to the front door to prop it open with one of the bricks that had recently fallen from the hole in the ceiling. Returning to the card table, I attempted to switch on the Apple computer my boss had recently purchased and which occasionally worked. The computer whined feebly before returning to its lifeless stupor as I scooped up the receiver.

“This is Meridith,” I said.

“Hello? Hello? Are you there?” said the voice on the other end.

“Yes, ma’am. How can I help you?”

“Well, I don’t really think you can. Do you know, I’ve called six times this morning and this is the only time anyone’s picked up the phone?”

“We don’t open ‘til eight, ma’am.”

“Well, you should certainly have an answering machine. We purchased one six months ago, and I don’t see how any functional business can run without it.”

“Thank you for your suggestion, ma’am. I’ll certainly bring it up at the next staff meeting. You have a nice day now.”

“Where are you going? That is not why I called.”

“All right, what else can I do for you?”

“I need a refund on the toaster I purchased from your company.”

“Have you spoken to the store you purchased it from?”

“Yes, and they said they can’t give my money back, that I have to go through you.”

“May I ask why you’re unsatisfied with this appliance?”

“You certainly could! I have never been so unhappy with a product in my life. For one thing, the plug doesn’t fit into my wall socket.”

“Doesn’t fit?”

“No! It’s too wide. My husband tried to bend the little metal things that actually go into the wall so they’d fit and they still didn’t, so we had to pay an electrician to install a whole new wall socket.”

“Do you have the box the toaster came in?”

“Yes, that’s how I found your number. I’ve got it right here.”

“Look on the front of the box, lower-right-hand side, under the picture of the rabbit.”

“Okay, I see the rabbit.”

“Great. Right under there, it says to check your wall socket before you actually purchase the toaster to make sure the toaster will plug in.”

“Well, I didn’t see that before I bought the toaster.”

“Ma’am, I recommend that in the future, before you purchase an item, you read the print on the box. You have a nice day now.”

“Wait! That isn’t all.”

“All right. What other problems do you have?” I leaned back in the chair and put my feet up on the card table, which swayed and almost dumped the Apple onto the floor.

 

“Well, once we got everything set up and plugged in, we tried to toast some bread. But the toaster started to smell like burning rubber every time we used it! And then whatever we made would taste just like the toaster smelled.”

“Mm-hm. Ma’am, do you still have the toaster box in front of you?”

“I do.”

“Great. Open the box and look on the inside of the lid. Do you see the writing there?”

“I do. There’s a heading that says ‘Instructions.’”

“Great. Those are the actual directions for operating the toaster. Did you follow all those directions?”

“Give me a minute. There’s a lot of writing here.”

“Skip down to the fifth paragraph in the middle column. It says there that you need to make sure you remove the rubber tabs placed along the bottom of the inside of the toaster before you actually try to use it. Did you do that?”

“Well, no, we didn’t read this before we tested it out.”

“Ma’am, I recommend that in the future, before you use an appliance, you read the instructions. You have a nice day now.”

“Hold on! I still have complaints!”

“All right, go ahead.”

“It’s too slow.”

“Pardon?”

The voice on the other end started to grow in intensity and volume. “Your toaster is far too slow for my needs. I’ve timed it, and on average your toaster takes two minutes and twelve seconds to adequately toast a piece of white bread. This means that my kids are spending valuable time that should be spent at their honors clubs or studying for their Advanced Placement classes in front of a smelly, dysfunctional toaster. This means my husband has to get up earlier every morning and go to bed later every night to make his breakfast before work. This means not only does it take me longer to get my breakfast, but I have to run around trying to help everyone else whose time your toaster is wasting! I demand full compensation, and I can assure you, I will never recommend your product to anyone.”

By the time she reached the end of her sentence, her voice faintly resembled that of a seagull. Somewhere towards the commencement of her monologue, I had reached into my purse and pulled out a magazine. Thumbing through its contents, I stifled a yawn.

“Ma’am, I understand your situation. I understand you’re upset. However, I need to point out that Anson Electronics is not responsible for the current situation.”

“How can you say that? Your toaster is the cause of all this.”

“I hardly think our toaster is the issue here, ma’am.”

“Oh, really? Well let me tell you something. My neighbor runs a small electronics store downtown, and we took your toaster over to him last night, and he said it was the most ridiculous excuse for a toaster he had ever seen. He said it should never have passed inspection, and he’s actually the one who advised us to get a refund. He knows absolutely everything about things like this, and if he says it’s faulty, you know it’s true.”

“All right. I do understand that. But if you don’t mind my asking, ma’am, why didn’t you buy your toaster from him?”

There was silence on the line for a few seconds.

“Yours was on sale.”

“And how much did you pay for this toaster, ma’am?”

“Fourteen ninety-five.”

“And you would like a refund for fourteen ninety-five?”

“I most certainly would. Are you going to be able to do that for me, or will I need to speak to someone higher?”

“Well, ma’am, the very best I can do for you is nine ninety-five.”

“Nine ninety-five? Why is that?”

“There’s a five dollar processing fee.”

“Why is that? I hardly think I’ve gotten five dollars worth of function out of this toaster.”

“You know what, ma’am, it’s just a processing fee, and it’s not even something we deal with. It all goes through the government.”

“All right. Well, how do I get this nine ninety-five?”

“You’ll need to package the toaster in the original box along with any accompanying attachments and ship it to our office.”

“I know. I read that on the box.”

“So, you have read our refund policy?”

“Yes. I found it on the bottom of the box.”

“All right. Do you have any questions about that?”

“Yes, I do. Do you have any idea how much it costs to ship a box containing your toaster to the address listed?”

“I do not.”

“Priority mail costs nearly twenty dollars. That’s more than the cost of the toaster itself.”

“I understand that. But I have no control over the price of the mail, ma’am. If that’s your complaint, I can see if I can find you the number for your senator.”

“That will not be necessary. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“My hands are tied unless I have the toaster here in the office.”

“Well, do I have to send in the whole toaster?”

“Of course. We can only offer you a refund if you return the product. I think you’ll find most companies operate in the same way.”

“Well, can’t I just send you the receipt?”

“No, ma’am. In order to give you a full refund, we need the toaster. You can keep the receipt.”

“How can that be possible? I can’t pay for a refund.”

“Do you have any friends that will be visiting our area? Perhaps they could bring it in for you.”

“We do not.”

“Well, then I really don’t have any other options for you. If you want the refund, you need to return the toaster. If you’d like, I can waive the five dollar processing fee, but that’s really all I can do for you.”

“That is not acceptable. I’d like to speak to the director of the company!”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. The director is out of the country at a business conference.”

“Well, get him on the phone!”

“I can’t do that, ma’am.”

“Why not?”

“He is in meetings all day improving our company. He has far more important things to do than deal with a fourteen ninety-five toaster.”

“Are you saying my needs aren’t important? I’m your customer! Without me, you don’t have a business at all!”

“It takes a lot more money than fourteen ninety-five to run a business, ma’am.”

“Excuse me?”

I spoke a bit louder. “I said, it takes a lot more money than fourteen ninety-five to run a business, ma’am.”

“Well, I— I have never spoken to anyone so unprofessional! How old are you, anyway?”

“I hardly think that that is relevant information.”

“It most certainly is! You’re probably just some punk teenager they pulled off the streets! You’ve probably never even seen one of these toasters!”

“Ma’am, if there is nothing else I can do for you today, I’m going to have to hang up. I have several other customers waiting.”

“I’ll be reporting you to the Better Business Bureau!”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”

“You’d better not try to sell any more of your toasters around here! I’ll make sure none of my friends use your products.”

“You have a nice day, ma’am.”

I hung up the phone and gazed thoughtfully at the computer screen, which had just lit up with alternating purple and green bars that floated across the screen, blinking on and off. It held my gaze for only a few seconds before the phone started ringing again. I rolled my eyes and picked it up.

“Anson Electronics, this is Marie.”

Red Shoes

by Kristine Fielding

 

When l was a little girl, I had a pair of red shoes. They were my favorite shoes. They had a strap and clicked when I walked down the sidewalk with my father. I felt like a princess in those shoes. 

We lived in a big city then. I was too little to remember which one it was, We lived in a brown apartment building next to another brown apartment building with all the other brown buildings on the street. I was not allowed to play outside unless my mother or father was with me. I could, however, sit on the building’s front steps if I promised not to go out on the sidewalk or the street. The stairs were on the left side of the building’s front. So it was possible to stand at the bottom of the stairs, look around the corner, and spy down the alley.

I was an only child then. Neither my brother, Bill, nor my sister, Susan, had joined our family. And we had not yet moved to Ohio. I was five then, and we moved when I was six.

For some reason, I didn’t go to school that day. I spent the day cooped-up with my mother, who swept the kitchen floor, made beds, and stirred things with big spoons.

Then the kids came home from school. I heard them laughing and yelling. Our living room window faced the street, and I knelt on the couch, leaning against the back, and watched them come home. My best friend, Molly, lived in the brown building next to ours. She came home, wearing her yellow ribbons. I heard apartment doors slamming, opening, and slamming again. The boys came home, changed, and went back outside. I don’t know what the girldid. They didn’t go back outside.

I turned around and sat on the couch. I stared at my red shoes on my feet. The reflection of my face blurred and stretched on them. My mother had bought me black shoes the week before, but I still wore my red ones. I liked them best. 

It was a special treat if Mama let me sit outside on the steps by myself. She must have seen my sad brown eyes longing after the door. She let me go outside after I promised I would not set foot on the sidewalk or the street.

I clicked down the two flights of stairs, proud to be a big girl. I opened the door to the real world and sat myself on the top step. Two boys, Ted and Kevin, were playing marbles on the sidewalk in front of the alley. They were both hunkered down. I didn’t know much about the game, except that it took precision and swearing.

Ted’s family lived next door to mine. They had spaghetti every Wednesday, and his father worked at a bank. His sister, Missy, was a year older than me. She had black hair. Ted had yellow hair and large orange freckles spread over his face, like strawberry jam seeds on an open-faced sandwich. He was missing one of his front teeth.

Kevin had brown hair. He had all of his teeth but one eye was a darker blue than the other. He was bigger than most kids and no one knew what his father did. His father came and went. His mother sewed dresses for rich ladies with purple hair.

Kevin and Ted were older than me. They were allowed to say dirty words if no one heard them.

Ted aimed his marble, “Do you believe in God?” he asked. 

“No,” Kevin said. There were shadows under his eyes, and the sunlight did not reflect off his hair.

Ted flicked his finger. It knocked Kevin’s green marble out of the circle. “Well, who do you think made the Earth and people and stuff?” 

I shifted myself on the steps. My bum itched. I could feel the straps on my red shoes press against the tops of my feet. My toes were curled tightly at the ends of my shoes.

Kevin picked at the scab on his elbow, “I mean, I don’t think God cares anymore. I think He’s gone golfing. He doesn’t care anymore.” 

Kevin surveyed the marble game. I heard that he was the expert on the block when it came to playing marbles. 

“I heard your mother tell you that your father went golfing and that was three months ago. Do you think he’s golfing with God?” Ted heckled.

Kevin looked up with meanness on his face, “Shut-up,” he spat, and he reached across the circle and pushed Ted in the face. Ted fell from his haunches onto his rear. He stopped laughing. l held still. 

Ted looked at Kevin for a moment. He was deciding if he should hit Kevin back or let it go. Kevin looked fifteen pounds heavier than Ted, and he was three inches taller. So, Ted said, “I’m thirsty. Maybe we can find some change in the alley and go buy us some sodas.” 

Kevin thought a moment, then he agreed. They gathered up their marbles and put them in leather pouches. I stood up and jumped down each stair with both feet. I wasn’t interested in finding money; I just wanted to watch.

The boys walked into the alley between Molly’s building and mine. Both brown buildings were hot in the summers and cold in the winters. My father banged on the heater with a monkey wrench in the winter. I didn’t know if that made the heater work or if it just made him feel better.

They both hung their heads and slowly searched the ground, pushing at soup cans with their feet. Someone had eaten a lot of soup, a lot of tomato soup. I hated tomato soup. A window on the second floor of my building was open. Mrs, Edgars rattled her pans and her husband swore. He always swore. If my mother heard me talk like Mr. Edgars, l got my mouth washed out with soap, and when my father came home, he would take off his belt.

“Ah, I don’t see nothing. This was a stupid idea. I’m going home.” Kevin’s voice had that long, hard sound, like a distant train whistle. 

“Yeah,” Ted agreed.

“Wait! Ted, c’mere!” Kevin cried.
Kevin was bent behind the garbage can. From where l was standing, at the bottom of the stairs. I could see his blue-jeaned backside. Ted slowly shuffled over to Kevin, “Ah, they’re just a bunch of baby cats. What do I want with cats?”
I caught my breath. Kittens!

“No, stupid.They’re not just baby cats. Where’s their mother? She’s gone and left them!” Kevin said.

 “Yeah! So?” Ted tried to sound tough. 

These babies are gonna get eaten by some dog or rat. They’re helpless.” Kevin picked up a stick and poked at them to prove his point. “Their eyes don’t even open.” 

“What are we gonna do? Take ’em home to our mothers?” Ted grunted at his joke. 

Kevin dropped the stick and picked up a rock. “They won’t even know,” 

There was a quiet moment of fading conscience. My eyes stretched big and traffic stopped. 

Ted slowly nodded, “Yeah,” and he picked up a rock. 

Kevin threw his rock. I saw the muscles in his arm flex. I don’t remember the sound, but I remember the hard pressure of my hands pushed against my ears. Ted threw his rock, then they both stood there for a minute. They weren’t picking up more rocks, so I let my ears go. Maybe they would leave the kittens alone.

“I think Tommy Hatcher stole my orange marble, the one I got from Fletch. Fletch said he saw Tommy shooting it at school,” Ted said. They both stared at a spot behind the garbage can.

“Fletch is a fibber,” Kevin said, toneless. He was focused on something else. “Fletch said he didn’t have a marble with one of those twisty-spiral things in it. He said his were all clear-colored. The next day, he had a green one with one of them twisty things. I hate those kind, They remind me of a flat worm in amber.” 

“I like the ones with sparkles,” Ted offered.

Kevin bent down and scratched the ground for another rock. He flung it before l could cover my ears.There was a squeal, like Molly’s vioIin. 

Kevin hurled two more rocks before Ted looked for a stone. My hands pressed so hard against my ears my arms hurt. An earthquake shook my head. I opened my mouth. I couldn’t breathe for a moment, then l began to scream.

Ted immediately jerked his head over at me. Kevin stomped behind the garbage can. I saw both of their heads snap upwards, toward Mrs. Edgars’s window. A pan flew out of it, and they sprinted out of the alley. I screamed more, and my legs felt wet. My red shoes were soggy. My mother burst from the building like she was flaming. Her legs raced down the steps like pages flipping in a book. She grabbed me under one arm and hauled me inside. She took the stairs two at a time. In our kitchen, she turned the faucet on and shoved my head under it.

Later, I sat on a kitchen chair, still hiccupping. l had on a clean dress, the one with pink flowers, and my hair was wet and combed back. My mother stirred soup on the stove. The kitchen light glared off my black shoes. I wiggled my toes in them. My mother placed a plate of bread and butter in front of me. I picked up a slice and licked the butter off. 



			

The Strawberries of Eldritch

by D. Kohl Glass

 

Janice Blackwell’s funeral was poorly attended. Up until one week prior, Janice Blackwell had been the most powerful woman in Eldritch. She was loud, stubborn, and heavily opinionated, with a proclivity for trying to solve other people’s problems. For the past twelve years, Janice Blackwell’s strawberries had been awarded “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tast” at the Fragaria Strawberry Festival held in Eldritch every April. This year the longest run in Fragaria Strawberry Festival history had ended, and power had shifted. Four days later, Janice Blackwell died.
The twelve-year queen of Eldritch was feared, obeyed, but most of all, she was hated. The only funeral attendees were her estranged daughter, Janice; her three assistant gardeners, Miguel and the two Jorges; her friend and sycophant, Sally Firth; Sheriff Stone; and the mayor, Charles Samuel Masters, although he was there only to officiate at the funeral of Eldritch’s most prominent citizen. There was also an older woman named Celeste Willets. Celeste stood apart from the funeral and listened to the ceremony from under the cemetery’s only tree. She did not feel comfortable standing among Janice Blackwell’s mourners since, after some twelve years of losing to Janice Blackwell, her strawberries had taken “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” and sent Janice to her grave. It had been a very hard year for Celeste; her winning “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” was the first thing that had gone right in a while, and she wanted to pay her respects to her fallen adversary. Celeste continued to stand under the cemetery’s only tree after the funeral was over and she was alone with Janice Blackwell’s grave. After a moment’s pause, she turned and quietly left the cemetery with the whispered parting, “A worthy opponent.”
The second Janice, or, as the town called her Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell, moved into her mother’s home shortly after the funeral. As part of her inheritance she took control of all her mother’s wealth and property as well as her twelve-year award-winning strawberry patch. The second Janice was so much like her mother that many in Eldritch hardly felt the gap between the going of the first and the coming of the secondexcept the second Janice had never taken “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.” Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell often vowed publicly that she would regain the “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” crown to avenge her mother’s death, which struck many of the Eldritch townspeople as odd since it was gossiped that she had hated her mother when she was alive. Nevertheless, the second Janice swore a strawberry vengeance on Celeste Willets.

Three days after the funeral, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell knocked on Celeste Willet’s door. No one answered. She knocked again, then again, and then slowly peered into the front window. The house was nicely furnished in the quaint country style that was the standard in Eldritch, and Celeste was not home. She was going to try the door but decided to cut to the chase and go around the back to the strawberry patch. Upon circling the house, Janice saw something that struck her as odd. Celeste Willets had two strawberry patches: one that was nestled up close to the back door of the house, and another that stood a good distance away, sitting on the slope of a hill, surrounded by a small, white picket fence.
“Why would she be so harebrained as to have two?” she thought to herself.
From the house, the second Janice could see that the fenced in patch was far better tended that the one by the house, though the one by the house was still producing strawberries. Janice reached down and picked a strawberry. It was of average size and colordefinitely not a possible contender for “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.” She looked from the strawberry to the hillside patch. She put the strawberry in her pocket and started off for Celeste Willets’s fenced strawberry patch on the hill with a slump of frustration at the walk before her, for Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell, like her mother, enjoyed a pampered life and had not grown accustomed to the physical act of moving. After much labor on the small grass-lined path that connected the two patches, Janice heard someone speaking.
“What a glorious crop you brought this year. ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.’ As good as your word.”
Janice stopped and looked around; she saw no one, though she had clearly heard the voice. She moved closer to the patch.
“You’ve made me so happy.”
She looked around again but saw nothing. Reaching over the short picket fence, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell picked a second strawberry. This one was brilliantly red and massive yet perfectly shaped. It was cool to the touch, and juice seemed to be condensing on its skin, which left a faint red smear on Janice’s fingers. It was perfect; it was “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.”
Slowly, Celeste Willets rose up out of the patch. The second Janice quickly stashed the strawberry paragon into her pocket with the first strawberry. Celeste had not seen her yet; her back had been to Janice when she stood to stretch. She had a small garden spade in her hand and a bonnet on her head. When Celeste did see her she was not startled, but said, “Janice Blackwell, what an unexpected surprise. What brings you out to my garden?”
“I wanted to see this year’s patch and maybe pick up a few gardening tips.” Janice forced a smile.
“Oh, I’m not revealing anything to you; you inherited your mother’s ‘Second in County, Sweet ‘n Scrumptious’ strawberry patch. She may be gone, but right now those strawberries are the strongest contender against my patch.”
“You mean patches. I couldn’t help but notice that you have two. That must take a lot out of youto work both of them.”
“Oh, I don’t compete with the patch down by the house. That was my old patch, and it never did well at festival. I just keep growing the berries to sell. This patch was a gift from my Harrison before he left, and I expect to give your mother’s record of consecutive awarding of the ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ a run with it.”
“You’re not as young as you used to be and tending a prize-winning strawberry patch is a lot of hard work. My mother died in her strawberry patch.”
“Did she? I had heard that she was on the couch with her feet soaking in her Footcuzzi, eating chocolate cake,” Celeste said. “At least that is what Dr. Campbell said. I guess that goes to show you can’t trust gossip!”
“No, she was in her patch when it happened, just like she always knew she would be when she went.”
Celeste came closer to the fence now and looked at Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell. She looked sorry for what she was about to say and softened her voice. “Janice, I’m worried that you’re a little confused on the facts about your mother. It was less about strawberries and more about status with Janice. She hired Miguel and the two Jorges to work her gardenI don’t believe she ever went back out there except for newspaper photos.”
“How dare you suggest such a thing! You listen to me, Celeste Willets, your little victory will go down in Eldritch history as a fluke when I reclaim ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ once again. Your name will be but a blemish in a sea of Janice Blackwells!”
Celeste became emotionless and in a cold, even voice said, “My Harrison gave me this patch before he left, and a sweeter man there never was. I have no reason to fear you or your mother’s patch. Good day to youthe berries need my attention.” With that, Celeste sank back into the patch and Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell walked down the hill much faster than when she came up, this time powered by both gravity and fury.

Sally Firth was tending her own strawberry patch when Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell rattled on her garden gate. Sally Firth’s strawberries had always done poorly at the Fragaria Strawberry Festival; so seven years ago she had given up growing the domestic breed of strawberry and began cultivating foreign and exotic strawberries. Since that time she had won “Best in County, Foreign ‘n Fancy” every year. Unfortunately, “Best in County, Foreign ‘n Fancy” was a title that meant nothing to the town of Eldritch, mainly because Sally Firth was the only one who entered that category.
“Sally Firth, it’s Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell,” the second Janice called. “It’s important.”
Sally Firth carefully pulled open the heavy gate. “Shhh! The
Fragaria Manchuria cannot be exposed to loud noise after six p.m.”
“I went up to Celeste Willets’s place this afternoon, and do you know what she said? She said that my mother didn’t work her own garden and died because she was power hungry!”
“Well, you know that she did entrust a lot of the work to Miguel and the two Jorges. In fact, most of the work.”
“Her assistants? They were just migrant workers when she hired them. It takes education and genius to be ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.'”
“I guess you’re right, but still I hire them out every other week ever since one of the Jorges saved my dying Manchurians. That’s the one that took ‘Best in Counry, Foreign ‘n Fancy’ this year,” Sally giggled in a way that made Janice stare at her in disgust.
“Did you know that Celeste Willets has two strawberry patches? She said her husband left one of them for her. How long has she been a widow?”
“Oh, her husband didn’t die, at least not for sure. He just left.”
“Where to?”
“Oh, no one knows. Celeste said that one morning he declared that he had some hunting to do and wasnt sure when he would be back. He hasnt been back since.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Going on a year this September.”
“I picked these two strawberries from Celeste Willets’ two patches.” The second Janice pulled the two strawberries out of her pocket and Sally Firth examined them.
“Oh my. You would think that the same area of land worked by the same gardener would grow similar berries.”
“But it wasn’t the same gardener.” Janice held up the large, perfect fruit. “This is Harrison Willets’s strawberry.”
“A man working a strawberry patch in Eldritch? Ha! Men only attend the Fragaria Strawberry Festivalthey don’t compete.”

“Is it against the rules?” asked Janice.
Sally Firth stopped in her amusement at the idea of an Eldritch man growing strawberries and thought for a second. “I don’t think a man has ever entered.”

Charles Samuel Masters was the president of the Fragaria Counry Board of Fragaria Festival Judges and the mayor of Eldritch. No man knew more on the subject of strawberries, both cultivation and culinary preparation, in the entire counry of Fragaria. However, although it was well known in Eldritch that Mayor Masters knew every aspect of what happens to a strawberry up until it passes his lips and absolutely nothing about it after, he had limited his interaction with strawberries exclusively to the latter, post-lip, portion of the process and had never physically ventured into his realm of expertise a day in his life. Janice Blackwell and Mayor Masters had never enjoyed contact in in all their years as fellow cttizens of Eldritch.
This fact struck many in Eldritch as ironic since Mayor Masters, along with the rest of the Fragaria Counry Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, had awarded Janice Blackwell “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ every year the previous twelve years of the festival. Regardless of
Charles Samuel Masters’s dislike of her mother and hands-off policy on strawberriesexcluding of course the “dish, utensil, and beyond” segmenthe was the next target of inquiry in Janice Blackwell’s daughter’s investigation.
This second Janice Blackwell had telephoned demanding that he come immediately, which happened to conflict with Mayor Masters’s habitual pre-dinner reclining time. The mayor, however, took his pre-dinner reclining time because he knew that an “immediately” from a Janice Blackwell was urgent only to the Janice saying it.
“Well, Mayor Masters, how does this town get along when one of its citizens has an emergency and receives this kind of promptness?”
The mayor stood rested on Janice Blackwell’s porch.
“Well, in true emergencies I do not often respond personally. A pressing matter came up that needed my attention. Perhaps I should call the proper authorities?”
Janice made a mental note that his pressing matter had pressed his wispy hair into a sea fan formation on one side of his head, which now waved in the evening breeze, and had left a red crease along one of his cheeks as well. “Don’t overwork yourself. Please come in.”
“It begins,” thought Mayor Masters, grimly foreseeing his golden years with this new Janice Blackwell.
Janice led him into the front room and sat down on a high-backed love seat. He sat opposite Sally Firth on a matching couch. The room was dominated by twelve identical wooden cutouts of a little old lady holding a giant strawberry tole painted with exquisite detail, which hung along the wall near the ceiling. “Best In County, Tart ‘n Tasty” and a year were written on each strawberry. Each tole represented a year of Janice Blackwell’s supremacy, and it was a sight that left both Mayor Masters and Sally Firth in awe. The space following the last tole had been cleared and the wallpaper was even cleaned, but it stood bare except for a small, framed, wallet-sized photo of Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell.
Janice spoke first. “As President of the Fragaria County Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, please tell me: are men allowed to enter strawberries in the Fragaria Strawberry Festival?”
The mayor and Sally were still gazing up at the twelve toles of power when Janice asked this question, and after a moment, Mayor Masters looked away and collected his thoughts. “As President of the Fragaria County Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, it is my honor to say there are no rules against men entering the festival.”
“Has a man ever entered his own strawberries in the festival?”
The mayor looked at her curiously when it dawned on him how bizarre Janice Blackwell’s questions were. “I’ve never heard of a man entering in festival.”
“Can you think of any reason why a man would keep a strawberry patch himself?”
The mayor put more thought into this. “I can’t think of one.” And that was the dead honest truth.
“This will come as a shock to you, but Celeste Willets’s ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasties’ came from a patch actually tended by her husband.”
“Harrison Willets disappeared over six months ago. Patches are planted in the spring. He has been gone too long to work a patch.”
“Then how do you explain this?” Janice pulled the stolen specimen of strawberry perfection out of a bowl she had behind the love seat. The mayor’s eyes grew wide at the sight of it.
“Ah yes,” he said a little excitedly. “That is one of Celeste’s. I haven’t seen strawberries like this in many years.”
“She outright admitted that he left her that patchthe patch she took ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ with!”
The mayor furrowed his brow. “I fail to see the problem with this. If there was a rule against entering strawberries from a patch that has been inherited, you would be left out in the cold right next to Celeste Willets. If you could even prove that hers was inherited.”
“All I am saying, Mayor Masters, is that I strongly believe that a strawberry like this cannot be grown without some crookedness. There is something just not right about it!”
“You have to be joking. It is just a straw” Janice Blackwell and Sally Firth stared at him aghast, and the mayor realized the severity of what he had been about to say. “Quite right,” he continued a little more softly and deliberately. “This would be the first time foul play entered the Fragaria Strawberry Festival, at least as far we have detected. I am just struggling to see what one could do to a strawberry patch that would constitute foul play.”
“Genetically altered seeds.” Janice Blackwell’s voice was cold and even, as if she spoke the purest, most despicable truth. Mayor Masters jerked up his head. Mayor Masters was a lifetime subscriber to Strawberry Quarter: A Journal of Science, Cultivation, and Culture, which for the previous two years had run a series of articles following the efforts of Richard Glack, Ph.D., in creating the Genetically Enhanced Super-Strawberry. This series had consumed Mayor Masters’ mind, until the most recent issue of SQ had exposed Richard Glack as a charlatan and his experiments as a hoax.
“No such thing,” Mayor Masters said painfully.
“Well, what then? Super dirt?”
The mayor paused. ‘Actually, the only thing one could really alter is the fertilizer, and there are thousands of different ways to fertilize a strawberry patch.”
At nine the next evening, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell pulled up into Sally Firth’s driveway and honked once. Sally came out the side gate with a shovel and some plastic bags.
“Shhhhh! Please, you must be quiet, or my berries won’t color right!”
“Just get in.”
Sally loaded the shovel into the back, and they drove off. The drive was a quiet one, with the task at hand weighing heavily on their minds. The plan was simple. They would collect soil samples from various levels of Celeste Willets’s “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ patch. They would then take the soil samples to Jack Harris, Eldritch’s resident fertilizer specialist, for analysis. Later they were to convene at the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office to decide if they should employ Sheriff Stone in an emergency stripping of the “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ title.
Janice Blackwell turned off her lights and rolled to a stop on the small country road just outside Celeste Willets’s winding driveway. Celeste’s house was dark. Sally pulled out the shovel and plastic bags, and they started off for the strawberry patch on the hill. Janice had a flashlight, which she left off until they had circumvented Celeste’s house and approached the patch from the back side. Both women were huffing by the time they reached the small picket fence, but the pumping adrenaline drove them right to the task. Sally collected the first dirt sample by scraping some topsoil into a plastic bag. She then looked to Janice Blackwell for instructions.
“Start digging!” hissed Janice.
Sally reluctantly positioned the shovel and started digging.
After three shovelfuls, she stopped. “This is good enough. Let’s just get two. I don’t feel right about this any more.”
“Give me the shovel!” Janice snatched the shovel away from Sally and started digging furiously. She stopped to take the second sample and then continued digging nosily. She seemed to be getting angrier and angrier. She stopped and took the third sample and again began digging.
“Janice, we only need three! Let’s go.”
“I’m getting four! There is no way she’s going to get away with whatever she’s doing!” Janice, who was now sweating prorusely, continued her digging frenzy.
“Please, Janice, she’s going to hear us! You’re scaring me.”
Just then the shovel hit something and stopped with a thud.
Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell scooped out the dirt and pointed the flashlight into the hole.
“Janice, what is it?” Sally asked. Janice just stood there, looking down. “Janice, what is it!?”
“I knew it.” With that, the second Janice dropped the flashlight, burst out of the patch, letting the gate close loudly behind her, and disappeared down the hill.
Sally was petrified. “Janice?” she whispered into the dark.
“Janice?” She was almost in tears. The flashlight, still on, lay in the dirt next to the hole. Slowly, Sally got up the courage to move from the spot she had been rooted to and pick up the flashlight. “Janice?” she whispered one more time. She had almost convinced herself to run down the hill, but it was not knowing that made her most afraid, and looking into the hole would solve some of that.
Slowly, very, very slowly, she directed the beam of the flashlight down and let it rest inside the hole. Then, very shakily, she looked in. A decayed skeletal face stared back up at her through dirt filled sockets. Sally Firth screamed louder than she had ever screamed before. She spun toward the road just in time to see Janice’s headlights come on and then speed away. She screamed again, and Celeste Willets’s back porch lights came on. Celeste was standing just outside the light like a ghost. Sally screamed a third time and fled towards the mountains, weeping.

Janice burst into the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office, where the mayor was sitting at Sheriff Stone’s desk. Sheriff Stone was sitting at a small table cleaning a gun. Mayor Masters was closing the large red Fragaria Strawberry Festival rule book just as she burst in. She had a wild look in her eye.
“Well, I hate to say it, but I just read this book cover to cover, and there is no rule about using unorthodox fertilizer or inheriting patches,” said the mayor, oblivious to Janice’s frantic manner.
“Is there any rule against murder?” she said, out of breath.
Both the mayor and the sheriff looked up at her. “I believe what was once Harrison Willets is buried about a foot deep in Celeste Willets’ ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ strawberry patch. That’s right, murder most foul.”
Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone looked at each other, and then Sheriff Stone quietly put his gun back together, stood up, and said, “Looks like I better go out to Celeste Willets’s house and ask her some questions. I can tell it is going to be one of those nights. Literally.”

When Sheriff Stone pulled into the Willets’s drive, all the lights were on in the house. He got out, walked up the gravel drive, and knocked on the door, which was never answered. After a few more sessions of knocking, he circled the house and walked up the hill to the second strawberry patch. Celeste was there, filling the hole that Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell had dug.
“Celeste,” the sheriff said. Celeste stopped her work, and he could see that she had been crying. “Celeste, Janice Blackwell, the daughter, claims to have seen a body buried in your strawberry patch. Literally. Is that true?”
“Yes.” Celeste’s response was immediate.
“She says it is the body of your husband, Harrison. Now I don’t see how she could possibly know
“It is my husband, Sheriff,” Celeste almost looked proud as she stood like a sentinel pillar above her patch, surrounded by the dark and her strawberries. Sheriff Stone reached under his hat and scratched his head as he tried to sort things out.
“Well this is killing me, Celeste Willets. Literally. But I gotta take you down to the station.”
“That’s fine, Sheriff.” Celeste picked up the small spade she was using to fill in the hole and a few other tools and started down the hill with Sheriff Stone.
“Could you do me a favor, Sheriff?” she asked as they walked.
“Yes, ma’am, what is it?”
“Could you send someone to look for Sally Firth? She ran off through that field over there after Janice left her. I can hear her screams every so often on the wind.”

The next morning Sheriff Stone and part-time Deputy Silus Marc exhumed Harrison Willets from this years’ Fragaria Strawberry Festival’s “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” strawberry patch. It was a lengthy process in which the men took great care not to harm any more of the patch than was necessary. Harrison Willets’s body was taken to the only morgue in the county, Jarkins Family Morgue, where the county coroner, Ed Baker Senior, performed an autopsy. Celeste Willets quietly waited in the jail cell of the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office, saying only, “It will all turn out in the end.”
The next morning, Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone visited Celeste Willets in her cell.
“Celeste,” began Mayor Masters, “we have a positive ID on the corpse. It is your husband, Harrison.”
“I wasn’t aware that his identity was in question,” Celeste said sweetly.
“We needed to be sure.” Sheriff Stone looked uncomfortable. “We are trying not to jump to any conclusions. You know your rights, but we would like to maybe hear your story, just so we can get a clear picture. Literally.”
“Please don’t be so nervous, Sheriff, I’m glad to answer any questions that you or the mayor might have.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the mayor asked the first question.
“How did your husband end up in your strawberry patch, Celeste?”
“I buried him there.”
“Did you kill him before burying him?” asked Sheriff Stone.
“No.” There was another moment of silence, then Mayor Masters spoke again.
“Did you bury him alive?”
“Heavens no, Mayor,” laughed Celeste. “He was dead when I buried him. If you can call simply filling up the hole burying.”
The mayor and the sheriff looked at one another thoughtfully.
“I loved my husband,” Celeste said. “I miss him fiercely. The only thing I have left of him is that patch. He left me that patch, and it was one of the most beautiful acts a husband has ever done for his wife.”
“So you didn’t kill him?” asked Mayor Masters.
“No, Mayor, I tell you I didn’t kill him. I would give my ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ title and all the strawberry patches in the world to have him back. But that can’t be. However, Harrison gave me the next best thingthe best strawberries in Eldritch.”
“So what exactly did happen?” asked Sheriff Stone hesitantly.

“I’ll tell you.” Celeste Willets then told them the story of her Harrison. The story had begun the previous summer. Celeste Willets had lost to Janice Blackwell for the twelfth year in a row and she had come home sad and defeated. Harrison had not attended the festival that year because he had just retired from the mine and was suffering from cancer. He was a meek man, one who did not trouble others with his problems, so he kept his illness a secret from all but Celeste. Harrison got up out of his chair with great effort, took Celeste in his arms, and suggested that she try a new location for next year’s patch. They walked out in the back, past Celeste’s strawberry patch, all the way up on top of the hill behind their house, and chose the spot. For the next two weeks, Harrison, despite his condition, cleared the area and built a small white picket fence around it. When the work was done, Harrison told Celeste that he was going to go hunting as a break. This worried Celeste because he was deteriorating faster than ever. That night he didn’t come home. The next morning Celeste climbed the hill to see if she could see Harrison coming home, but instead found him dead, lying in a shallow grave that he had dug himself, in the middle of the fenced-in square of dirt. In his hands was an amendment to his last will and testament instructing Celeste to fill the hole and plant the new patch over him. In exchange, he promised to give her the best strawberries in Eldritch.
As Celeste Willets finished her story, she had tears in her eyes. She looked up at the mayor and the sheriff. “A better man there never was. Even in death he was beautiful. When I’m in that patch working, I’m with Harrison again. Within that little picket fence, I have the same feeling I’d get when he’d bring wild flowers back to me from the fields, or when he’d sing to me when I was scared of the howling night winds outside: things he did that told me that he thought about me and cared for me. In the patch I have all that back again. I have him again.”
Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone stood silent. The phone was ringing. Part-time Deputy Silus Marc answered the phone, spoke for a moment, and then told the sheriff that he was wanted.
“Well, Celeste,” Sheriff Stone started slowly. “You’ve given us a lot to think about. With a little time I hope we can sort this out.” The two men excused themselves and left Celeste’s cell.
“That was one of the most touching stories I have ever heard about a strawberry patch. Literally,” Sheriff Stone said as they slowly walked up to the front so he could get the phone. The man on the phone was county coroner Ed Baker Senior reporting that the autopsy was completed and requesting that the sheriff and the mayor come right over to Jarkins Family Morgue.
In a small gathering held right over the draped form of Harrison Willets’s body, Ed Baker Senior admitted that he did not know the time of death, but he said that he did know the cause. It wasn’t murder, but cancer. And in Harrison’s shirt pocket, he
had found an amendment to his last will and testament carefully preserved in a Ziploc bag. That was enough for Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone, and they were about to return to the jail to release Celeste Willets when Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell called Jarkins Family Morgue for the fifth time that day. Mayor Masters told her the whole story and said that they were planning on releasing Celeste as soon as they got back to the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office. The second Janice was furious and would not allow the mayor to get off the phone until he promised that he would try to find some charges to bring against Celeste Willets.
“All right, Janice, we’ll look into it and see if we can find something,” said the mayor, and he hung up, defeated.

That evening Sheriff Stone knocked on the Blackwell residence door. Sally Firth answered, and it was visibly evident that she had not been able to find shelter the previous night. “How are you feeling, Sally? I heard you spent a rough night out in the fields. Literally.” When part-time Deputy Silus Marc had found Sally, she was so mentally disheveled that she kept running and screaming and wouldn’t get in the car. In the end, he had to physically place her in the cruiser.
“Yes,” she said sweetly, “but I’m all together now. Please come in.”
She led him to the front room and he sat looking uu at Janice Blackwell’s twelve toles of triumph. Janice entered and urgently asked, “Is Celeste Willets still in jail?”
“No,” said Sheriff Stone, “But let me explain . . .”

“I knew it!” exploded Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice
Blackwell. “I knew you would do nothing! This town lost any spine
it ever had the day my mother died!”
“Quiet!” shouted the sheriff, standing up abruptly. The second Janice Blackwell sat fuming but silent.
“There are no charges we can bring against Celeste Willets, because she hasn’t done anything wrong. Let me tell you something: there may be laws in other counties about how and where a person can be buried, but Fragaria hasn’t caught up to those places yet. In Fragaria you can be buried in any fashion on any property that you have legal control of. There are, however, laws protecting last will and testaments. Literally. Harrison Willets’s last will and testament states that he wanted to be buried in that strawberry patch on the hill behind Celeste’s house. So that is where we are putting him tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t believe this.” Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell growled through her teeth.
“However,” the sheriff continued, “there has been a crime committed. Right now I have both you and Sally for trespassing. ”
Both women sat up in their seats. The sheriff continued, “But since the mayor knew about it and Celeste Willets is unwilling to press charges, this will have to go unprosecuted. Literally. The mayor and I, after some consideration on your character, Janice, tried to convince Celeste that it would be in her best interest to file a restraining order against you, but again she was unwilling. So, let me say this. I better not hear of or see either of you near Celeste Willets ever again, or there will be prosecution. Literally.”
With that Sheriff Stone stood up and left the Blackwell house. Both women stayed seated in their chairs, completely shocked. Finally, Sally Firth broke the silence with, “Well, I never!”

Celeste watched as Sheriff Stone and part-time Deputy Silas Marc unloaded Harrison Willets’s body from the back of the sheriff’s truck and laid it in the hole from which he had been exhumed. While Celeste was in the county jailhouse, Miguel and the two Jorges had come and tended her strawberry patches. They had cleaned up and squared off the edges of the hole, so, despite its shallowness, it did resemble a grave. With Harrison in the grave, the sheriff and deputy took off their hats.
“It seems that something should be said right now.” Sheriff Stone spoke reverently.
“There’s no need for that, Sheriff,” said Celeste. “He’s said so much in death I don’t think anyone can improve on it.”
The two men put their hats back on, filled the hole, and quietly left. The entire time they were putting Harrison Willets back into the ground Celeste stood outside of the little white picket fence. She watched the men leave and did not move until their truck was out of sight and most of the dust it had kicked up along the country road had settled. She walked to the gate, paused, and looked down the road again at the corner where the truck disappeared. Now, finally alone, she entered the gate and began tending her patch.

Up and Out

by Jessica Christensen

 

There isn’t one inch of my body in repose. Rocks jut through my sleeping bag, and the wind barrels through the canyon, whipping over the edge of the cliff. The August wind carries the crisp air of November. It seems to take me away with it, layer by layer, and I think of Thompson’s onion-peeling metaphor for getting to know someone, peeling and revealing to the very inner core. I remember walking fast the night last May when he peeled close to my center; I remember wishing he would follow. If he had come to where I sat alone and barefoot in that parking lot, breathing only calm understanding and no words, I would have given him all that was untold, all that was dark inside me, heavy to carry and explain, all that was programmed and unwanted in my genes that seemed to push others away. But he didn’t follow, and I walked home more slowly, my feet black from the asphalt. I had walked fast too many times before. Thinking of it now, my legs feel restless and tired at the same time.
I keep my head tucked tight inside my sleeping bag and continue shifting my body, trying to decided if it’s more comfortable to have a rock in a hard spotmy hipor in a soft spotmy thigh. My jeans twist in one direction and the sleeping bag in the other. Everyone is still talking, but I keep breathing my own warm breath in my slick bag, the wind now only a hush outside. The wind carries to me snatches of their words, a laugh, and memories of our spring hike up Angels’ Landing. The moon was bright that night and the closeness became dangerous. When I realized Thompson was staying, staying forever if I let him, I wanted and needed to tell him everything, but was afraid he would turn away. I remember him looking up at me, the red rock behind him, and knowing the blue behind his Oakley shades was deep and his shoulders were strong. But I turned to say something to Laura and pretended not to see. Now I hear Rand saying this trip will be much tougher than our first “adventure” together.
I lie in my bag, each muscle contracted against the rocks and the wind, pulled tight in, listening. I am cold and hard, one with the cliff. I hear Brent and Rand laughing about the “ice queen” that Brent had obsessed over. Dave is spouting random comments and Scottie makes some sick remark. I don’t hear Thompson’s voice.
Thompson’s voice, the sound of promise and entreaty had followed me to London after the initial trip. “I’m staying to work all summer so there’s no rush. Don’t feel like you have to make a decision right now. I’m here for as long as you need me to be. I’ll wait as long as it takes.” I had tried to bury it in my cathartic journal and in my wanderings. But I couldn’t lose it in Trafalgar Square or mute it in the green of Kew Gardens. It spoke louder there, swirling in my inner ear and making me dizzy. Every wing and rain spoke his cool blue calm. “I just want you to be happy.”
But I don’t hear him now. Now that I have a heavy parcel in my chest to heave off, he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t ask anything or offer anything. He doesn’t even laugh when Candice and Jana reminisce about playing “Truth or Dare” and “Skeletons in the Closet” at slumber parties. “Truth” is more risky that “dare.” Run down the street without your shirt on or open Pandora’s Box. Some doors are hard to open and some lids are better with a safety seal.
The chatting continues all night. Thompson is silent. Maybe he is holding his breath too. Everyone is rendered an insomniac by the wind, the roughness of the cliff, and the nearness of the trail down. I’m impatient to go downdown to where it is shady and clear, no walls and open air where thoughts can be breathed out into words that can be caught or let float away without danger.
I count the minutes until dawn and when the sun hints its arrival, it is enough. We roll up our bags with Orion faintly visible. We stretch and I wish I could stretch over to where Thompson is.

But I need to crack my back and rub the cold out of my arms. I strap on my pack. The sun is not yet over the rim of the canyon, but Thompson has his Oakleys on already. I cant tell where his eyes are as I brush past him to the trailhead, legs primed to go.
The trail down to the Indian reservation campsite of Havasupai is eight miles long, the first mile all steep switchbacks. Rand had suggested the trip as a challenge and reminded all of us girls multiple times that it would be “rough.” The pack I borrowed from my brother-in-law is heavy and old, too big for me, and the metal frame rubs on the outsides of my shoulder blades and sags on my lower back with its bulk. We all start together, but by the bottom of the switchbacks I am ahead and taking long strides. The thought of those shades hiding blue propels me forward, and I cannot slow down.
The dust is four inches thick on the trail and powdery. It coats us to our knees as we kick it up in small clouds, muting everything to beige. I remember sitting alone in the locker room at lunchtime, hiding when someone came in, ashamed of my aloneness and inability to “be me,” needing to stay up with the pack at practice, proud of broken-in, thrashed training shoes. I look at the dust on my shoes and am glad that mine are hard to distinguish from the ground. My feet consume the path ahead with each step, pounding each painful memory into the dust, memories of the time when only the moon understood and I just couldn’t pull out of it alone.
All this sweat in the cool morning makes me feel feverish. The need to fast-forward mounts and wills me around the next bend, then faster to the next boulder where the trail dips under an overhanging willow and disappears to the left. Looking back, I cannot see Thompson’s Oakleys glinting in the sun.
Bethany is breathing heavily and coming up from behind.
“Hey, speedy. You okay?”
“Yeah, I just wanna get there.”
She takes a double step to keep up and lowers her voice.
“I thought you two were talking again.”
“We are.”
“How did you leave things before?”
“It’s complicated. I didn’t really explain myself as usual. I mean, he told me not to throw what we had away and I told him not to wait for an uncertainty.”

“But he’s not going to Thailand to visit his brother?” she says.
“No. He sold his ticket.”
“And he came hiking in Arizona in hundred degree weather in the middle of August instead.”
“Yeah.”
Bethany is silent for a moment.
“I know you know this, but he’s strong enough to lean on.”
We don’t say anything for a few steps, and the hipbelt on the front of my pack is digging into me. “And if he goes away?”
She hesitates for a second. “Nothing would really be different, would it?”
I don’t answer. It would be different. It would be to miss the nearness, to strain and look without the possibility of hearing or seeing. Bethany stays up with me the whole way.
The rest of the trail is a dry, sandy river bottom that winds past giant boulders and water-carved red rock overhangs. There is a numbness where my pack’s weight presses on my collarbone, seeming to cut off circulation to my head. I shove my left thumb under the strap to relieve some tension and concentrate on my breathing. The sun is high when we reach the shack where we pay the wrinkled brown man. Brent pours water over his head and calls me “iron woman” and “the rest-free wonder.” Rand the ringleader reminds us that we have to carry all our trash out with us, can’t light fires, and should take advantage of the natural spring to fill up our water bottles before hiking out.

The campground is a series of cleared spaces under tall shade trees where the canyon walls draw close. The boys set up tents in a rough circle, and the girls spread a tarp in the middle where the canopy of leaves opens on sky. The air here is warm and dry, the breeze soothing on my skin. After a few minutes of repose and the rough, sweet tang of beef jerky, we leave our packs and head for the falls.
I leave my shoes behind, but have no sandals to wear. I don’t think of the white heat of the sand. Like I didn’t think of the black rough of the night I told Thompson I was only giving fifty percent and he needed someone willing to give herself whole. Like I didn’t think I’d like sitting in his passenger seat and listening to Van Halenor that I’d miss it either.

Havasupai attracts many visitors because of its waterfalls. There are three giant ones within a few miles and even more if one is willing to hack a path in the brush or climb beyond the easily accessible falls. We head to the first one, and I am proud of the toughness of my feet as we climb over rough rock, down into the cliff’s edgewhere we can see down fifty feet to the pool turned turquoise by lime. The pounding of the white falls prevents me from asking how we get down, and Dave pulls my hand toward a dark opening in the bleached rock. It is a cave-like tunnel, rough-hewn steps twisting down to the left. I see the light at the other opening and the outline of a metal rod with a chain attached. The remainder of the descent requires us to lower ourselves from metal pegs connected by heavy link chains to where we drop the last ten feet to the rocky beach.
The water is warm and mist rises where the falls churn the river. The walls, formed by hardened mineral flows, rise in petrified dripping masses around us, shading us from the sun. While floating in the pools of liquid aquamarine, we hear a call from Thompson and John, farther along the trail on the far side of the water, to follow them to some larger falls a few miles away. I think of my feet now, but it’s too late, and I don’t want to hike back alone. We join the pack, a bushwhacking war party, cutting our way through the green tangle where it obscures the white sand path.
My tough pads are feeling the wear of rough rock river crossings, and I find myself walking on the spiny brush at the edge of the trail to avoid the scalding sand. The sound of the last falls fades, and no sound comes to us from the canyon ahead. I let my breath out fast and hard when Dave says he can’t take the burning on his bare feet, and I volunteer to go back with him.

The stair cave is cool and dark when we reach it. I want to stay, but we keep on until we reach the shaded, soft path to the camp. I lie on my bag when we get back, smooth under my stomach, no rocks to disturb me, and write my fever out, my fingers scraped and raw from the return ascent, and the burn on the balls of my feet pounding with my heart.

The others return triumphantly reporting the “undiscovered and gigantic” waterfall they have found. They play Rook and Nertz until dusk. With the dusk comes quiet and the smell of ramen noodles from Scottie’s portable stove. I am content with the gritty cleanness of granola bars and fruit leather. Laura offers free ear cleanings, hygiene in the sticks, her ziplock of cotton swabs raised above her head in invitation. She commences work with Brent, her first hesitant customer, his blond afro glowing around him like a halo in the near twilight. His thin face breaks into a ghoulish, Jack-the-Pumpkin-King grin when I look at him, and Scottie says he could use some “backrub lovin’.” John seconds the motion with a half-raised forearm from his face-plant position on the far end of the tarp. A few groans all around and no one moves. Thompson is silent and his head twitches slightly from his book as I step toward him and then over him to start on John.
John hands me a wooden massage roller and is soon rubbed into sleepy delirium. I stop and listen to the night sounds. The stars in the moonless canopy are bright and pulsating. It is fully dark now and Thompson lies on his stomach, reading with his Oakleys on. John is breathing heavily and my hands have stopped. The silence stretches, someone shouts “Nertz!” from the picnic table, and Laura sends another clean-eared boy back into the game.
Thompson hasn’t turned a page: his breath seems caught it his ribcage. I let the wooden roller on the tarp, staring at his back. It isn’t moving and I can barely make out his white t-shirt in the dark. I imagine his heart still in its place, no longer pumping, the blood slowing, and I have to put my palm on his back, on the left side, my thumb gripping the edge of his scapula. He lets out his breath and the faint rhythm comes to me from inside. My rehearsed lines run the trails of my brain, coming out of my fingers, not yet vocally clothed. As I work out his weariness with the thoughts on my hands, my fever ebbs and the ache in my feet dulls. They are tired from walking so fast. Here, where it is open and smooth, where the trail does not cut down or burn like coal or cast up clouds of dust, I let him catch up with me. When the last knot is eased, he shuts his book and moves to his tent, pausing to touch my head in one smoothing motion from brow to crown, his breathing even. Tomorrow we will speak; I think myself to sleep.
During the day, Thompson is at the upper falls, jumping cliffs with John. I chase streams with Jana and Laura. All day, a song plays on repeat in my head: “I wanna hold you close, I wanna push you away. . . .” I have to sing something else out loud to get rid of it. At night, it is Nertz and Rook again. When the yelling is too much, Candice and I make ourselves absent and wash our hair in the river. My head is cool with the tight coil of hair piled on it, and Jana pats a spot on the tarp for me between her and Thompson. Her red hair reminds me of Glenda the good witch, and she seems to wink at me in the dim light as I lay myself down.
“We’re talking about books. I just asked Thompson what his favorite book is,” Jana says.
“I read Nibley mostly. I like the substance. I like to know
things, to understand,” he says.
I turn toward the sound of his voice. “I never knew that.”
He turns his face to me in the dark. I cannot see it, but I can feel it. “What?” He didn’t hear my whisper.
“I never knew you read Nibley.”
“That was probably about my second layer. Maybe you weren’t listening.” It is quiet and he thinks I don’t hear, but I hear. I hear his voice and the implication that we’ve arrived beyond the second layer, deep enough to breathe liquid, but I’m still holding my breath.
My knot of hair feels tight and is pulling at my temples. The warm night air is smoothing the coolness out of my hair. Jana is called as referee and goes to the table to calm the debate. A sudden blast of wind from down the canyon blows over me, and I nearly miss the quiet words from Thompson.
“How is your brother?”
This layer is safe; it’s been exposed before, so I can show it.
“Not so good. My mother is worried.”
“Are you okay? I remember it was hard for you before.”
Before. The night last winter when he asked if I wanted to talk about it and he listened. I duck. “They don’t really mention it anymore, but it’s always there, y’know?”
“Yeah.”
“It’s there, right below the surface of everything, ready to explode. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel there’s anything I can do.”
“Sometimes there isn’t anything to do but wait. Time is a healer. He needs that. I told you about me, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. Is that what helped you?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying it’s the answer to his situation because mine was different, but he’s not the only one to ever struggle like that. He just needs love right now. Love and time.”
“Yeah.”
“We all do sometimes,” he says.
“I know.”
“He’ll come around.”
“Yeah. Thanks.”
His eyes are still fixed on the darkness near my face, but I do not turn to him. I cannot see him clearly, not clear like the night my brother’s band played and I first met her. I broke down and told Thompson all about their hasty Las Vegas wedding to fix the problem coming in nine months and showing in just a few. When I thought the silence would stretch heavy and long with hesitancy, he said he’d stay as long as I needed him. He’d stay until I was okay and the shaky breathing was regular again. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t expect so much on your first encounter with her. Give yourself some time and things will even out.” The light in his blue eyes had penetrated me. He’d seen menot all, but that part riddled and swaying with fearand he’d stayed. He’d stayed as long as I needed him, until I was okay.

The wind picks up in the night and I feel a drop on my cheek, followed by a low rumble from somewhere down the canyon. It is too hot to stay in my bag, and the air in my nostrils is musty with the coming wet. I am still, but the wind gives me the sensation of tossing. Another wet drop and I hear a rustling from one of the tents. I can hear the soft rush of feet on sand and see the haze of a white shirt move to the trail down to the falls. I curl up to stand and follow, barefoot.
Without the moon, it is hard to see the sand and I stop at the rocks. I sit down to go over the edge to the cave opening. I can hear the scrape of him inside and I enter the black. Thompson is sitting on the edge of the other opening, feet dangling over the lip of the cliff. He doesn’t turn as I sit down, lowering each leg slowly.
“Couldn’t sleep.” He looks across the canyon to the clear sky of stars above, unobscured by trees. “You can’t hear it, but you can see it.”
“What?”
“The sky. The night.” He pauses without breathing and turns to me. “You, too.”
“What?” Sleep is still clinging to my thoughts.
“I got your postcard from London about doors loosening and rooms needing air, about how savory an onion can be unpeeled and alone. I may not get all of Shakespeare’s lines, but I got yours. I see you walk; I see you fighting to be brave and tough, hiking barefoot without admitting it hurts. I see you.”
I can feel his blue eyes on my face. “I know.”
The water pours down hard and loud, and I can feel the cool spray from far below. I want to pour like that, rushing down so loud that he can hear it, that he can feel it and see it and taste it and know itknow all the inside and out. I want to let him hear it and see if it’s too much, see if he still wants to stay. I can feel the lines in my head, building, like the speed of the river as it comes to the drop.
I breathe deeply and watch the water as it spills over the cliff freefalling to the bottom. He remains with his shoulder turned to the stars and his face intent on mine. “You don’t have to. ”
“I do.”
I pour. I sit still and I pour it down fast and quiet, the dark and the struggle, the years of loathing myself for not being stronger, not fighting harder, the carrying of the constant weight, and the fever in my head; the night my eyes lingered on the knife rack and it seemed easy to stop the struggle of self against self the day I ran with the team down to the canyon trail, and a semi was coming opposite us, and I though how easy it would be to take two strides to the side in a stumble and end it; the fear of and need for help; the hours of clinical terms and soothing voices, little blue and white pills. I pour it all down for him to catch, to hold in his hands or let pass through. That night the stars spoke to me, and I knew that something bigger than me had a hand in it. I had to hold my grip and keep my pace.
My temples burned with the fear of admitting the need for medication and “talking it through,” relaxation breathing exercises, positive and constructive coping mechanisms, and cool, clinical tones. With the lifting comes ease and the cranial pressure lessens.
My breathing is shallow. The falls are quieter. How long have I been speaking? Thompson is facing me, and I have to count before I turn. The light of the stars is bright, and the white of the water catches it. A drop on his cheek reflects light as it comes down. He blinks and another follows the first salty trail. He doesn’t look away. He doesn’t speak. His eyes are full of blue, fluid and deep, deep enough to draw from and still be bottomless. We don’t move, but stay as we are. We cannot hear it, but we can see it and feel itthe night and the sky and the enormity of the space where we have entered, whole and seen.
My face is warm now where his heart pumps under it. The falls cool my fever-abandoned head, and I know that tomorrow I can walk slowly up the trail with himup and out.

Daddy’s Girl

by Benjamin Christensen

 

One of the Boys
Daddy, you mind I come in?
I no like interrupt when you writing, but I get one problem. I in love with my best friend.
No, Daddy, no worries, I not talking about one girl. You know I not like thatI like boys, no worry.
I talking about Kenny. You know, Kenny Thompson, the one my best friend since second grade? He real nice, and ho, the handsome! Even more handsome than you, Daddy. Nah, just joke. No one handsome as you. But Kenny come close. He hapa, just like you-get one haole father and one Hawaiian mother. He get the light brown eyes, and the wavy surfer blond hair; he not too light, and not too dark, but just right. Just like you, Daddy.
Lately, every time I see him, I like wrap his arms around me and stay like that forever. But no can.
Kenny no even think of me as one girl. “Faye, you good fun for hang out with, ’cause you just like one of the boys,” he tell me. Ho, I no like be one of the boys; I like be one girl! I like be his girl! But no can, Daddy. Kenny no like me like I like him.

Tita
I know what they all think of me. They think I one tita. When I was little, they call me tomboy. Now they call me tita. Different words, same difference.
I not one tita, though, Daddy. Just ’cause my best friend one boy, and I no like hang with girls. Just ’cause I good at sports, and I go beach with the boys for surf. Just ’cause I no like paint my face like one prostitute, and I no like dress like one neither, and I no giggle and act all girly-girly like, “Oh, Kenny, you can help me tie my shoes, ’cause I one girl and I too stupid to do ‘um myself?”
I one normal girlI like talk story on the phone, I like read girl books, I like boys, I like all that stuff too.
Today in drama class, we was picking parts for our end-of-the-year play we going put on, and of course Kenny get picked for be the big manly hero. So then we need pick who going play the girlfriend, the damsel in distress. So I tell Miss Kawamura, “I like audition for the part.”
Then everybody laughing, and Keola Mooney yell out, “You no can be the damsel in distress, Faye. No one going believe that you never wen’ beat up the bad guy yourself!” And everyone laugh more. I so mad, I like punch him in the face, but I know Keola and Kenny friends so I hold back.
Of course, Kristal Mizoguchi wen’ get the part-the ditsy cheerleader. The only good thing is I going to be the wicked with and I going to put one spell on that little
Oh, try wait, Daddy. I think I hear Tutu yelling at me. No wonder Mommy so grumpy, after that lady raise her all her life. I would be too.

Cheerleaders
Last night I wen’ the Kaiser-Kahuku game with Kenny. Good fun. Even look like we get one chance first quarter. Second quarter different story. Our guys no cam compete with those big Kahuku guys. Still good fun, though.
Except these stupid titas from Kahuku was sitting right next to us and talking stink the whole time. “Ho, Gina,” one says to the other, “why we even bother come all the way down here? Waste time. All these spoiled rich Kaiser kids…. every last one of them haole or Japanee. Act like they own island when they not even Hawaiian.”
“Yeah,” the other one says, “we know we going win the game, anyway.”
What they know? Just ’cause I go Kaiser, no mean I rich. No mean I haole or Japanee. They don’t know I live in one beat-up old house on Aipo Street. (Sorry, Daddy, I know it not your fault-I know you try for sell more books so we can have one better life. I no care we poor. I just no like people think we rich when we not.) They don’t know I Chinee-Hawaiian, not Japanee. (Okay, maybe I part haole, but mostly Chinee-Hawaiian.) And why it matter so much if you Chinee or Japanee or Portagee or Hawaiian, anyway? All the same thing.
They make me so mad! I like bust their face, but instead I turn to Kenny so he can tell them off, ’cause he look more Hawaiian than I do, so they can see we get Hawaiians at Kaiser, too. So I tap his shoulder and ask, “Eh, Kenny, try tell those two girls for shut up. I sick of them acting all high maka maka just ’cause they
But he not even paying attention to me. He never even hear those girls talking, ’cause he staring at the cheerleaders the whole time, like one zombie. I know which one he staring athe staring at that bimbo, Kristal Mizoguchi.
Why he gotta look at her for?

Daddy’s Girl
Every time I talk about you with Kenny-guys, Daddy, afterwards they always whispering and laughing and looking at me, like I don’t know they making fun of me. I know what they thinkthey think I one daddy’s girl, like I need for ask you about every little thing I do.
I no care, though. They can think what they like; I proud of you, Daddy. I proud you one writer. I proud you still give me hugs and kiss my forehead everyday, even though I sixteen years old. I lucky for have you, and I know it. Plenty kids no can talk with their parents like I talk with you. Heck, I no can even talk with Mommy like I talk with you. You the best, Daddy.
Let them think I one daddy’s girl. I no shame.

Shame
I so shame, Daddy. I never felt so shame before.
I decide if Kenny like cheerleaders so much, I going try out for the squad for next year. How hard can be, yeah? I mean, I been on track before; I done hurdles and high jump and all that. Same thing.
First we had for put on this little costume. I look like She-Hulk in that thing, Daddy, with my arm and shoulder muscles all popping out. All the other girls, they all cute and skinny, and I get man shoulders. I so ugly.
Then we had for do splits like that. No problemI know how for stretch.
The whole time, Kristal Mizoguchi acting all cool ’cause she already on the squad and keep on giving me stink eye and then looking at her little friends and giggling. She make me sick.
After that, they teach us one dance routine, you know the kind they do on drill teams, and we had for show we can do ‘um. I no can dance, Daddy. I no more rhythm. Must be the haole part of me.
And every time I take one step, Kristal and her friends go “Boom! Boom!” like I Godzilla. I so shame.
The last part the worst. We had for run across the gym and do one flip. So I running, I flip over on my hands, and thenWhack! Flat on my back. My okole hurt so bad! And then, like I no shame enough already, while I getting up I hear one loud rip ’cause the back of my shirt wen’ rip right in half. Like I said, my shoulders too big for that uniform.
I so shame. For sure Kristal going tell Kenny all about it. Ever since we start practicing for the play, Kenny and Kristal all buddy-buddy. Make me sick.

Acting
I was right. Kristal wen’ tell Kenny the whole story, with me landing on my okole and everything. I thought he was going laugh at me, but instead he stay all mad, like he shame of me or something.
“Ho, Faye, why you wen’ try out for cheerleading?” he wen’ ask me today during lunch. “What you trying for prove?”
“What?” I tell him. “I no trying prove nothing, stupid. Maybe I try out ’cause I like be one cheerleader, you ever think of that?”
“Yeah, right. Since when you like be one cheerleader? Stop acting, Faye. Why you cannot just be yourself?”
‘Cause you no like me when I myself, I like say, but I never. Instead, I stand up and yell at his face, “You so bakatare, Kenny! Just mind you own business!”
I so mad, I wen’ leave the table without even finishing my lunch. The whole cafeteria all staring at me, so all I like do is get out of there quick as possible.
While I was leaving, Kristal wen’ sit down next to Kenny and I hear her ask him, “Ho, what’s her problem?”

Stink Eye
I dunno what Mommy’s problem is. Every time I come out of here after talking to you, she give me stink eye, like I doing something bad or something. She probably no like me bother you when you writing, since she know how hard you work in here. But you no care, ah, Daddy? You can spare a few minutes every day for spend some quality time with your daughter, yeah?

Magic Balls
I cannot wait for our play to start, Daddy. Going be so good. Hilarious, Daddy. I no even care anymore that stupid Kristal stay in the lead role as Kenny’s girlfriend. No matter.
Kenny the one wrote the play for us. Get this surfer guy named Kimo (Kenny going to play him), and this witch, Broomhilda (that’s me). She no like him, so she kidnap his girlfriend, Jenny (Kristal going be her). Anyways, for rescue his girlfriend, Kimo gots to collect these five magic ballsget one disco ball, one beach ball, one football, one crystal ball, and one gumball. Then when he get all five balls, he can trap the witch and get his girlfriend back.
Pretty cool, yeah? Kenny so good at writing. Almost as good as you, Daddy. Almost.

Sandy’s
Today, I wen’ with Kenny-guys to Sandy’s for surf. The waves so big, Daddy, you should have been there.
Kenny pretty good surfer, but the other guys only okay. I keep telling them one day you going come with us for show them how for surf for reals. So when you like come with us, Daddy? I know you like get away from that dusty typewriter sometime.

Hot
Today I wore my new dress for Kenny. I never wore one dress like this before, but I figure I need be more girlycan be one tomboy when you twelve, but not when you sixteen. So I wen’ buy this little red dress with matching sandals and purse and everything. I even put on makeup. Ho, I so shame, but I like impress Kenny, so no matter how shame I feel.
So I walk into first period and the guys is all whistling and staring, and Lonnie Williams yells out, “Ho, wow, I never knew Faye Nguyen had one hot sister!” He wen’ call me hot, Daddy! No one ever call me hot before.
Then, Keone Kaawa gets up from his chair and says to me, “Please, Ms. Nguyen, take my seat.”
“No,” says Johny Matsuo, “take mine.”
And like three other football players all stand up and offer me their seats. Yeah, they was joking around, but still…. Daddy, these the most popular guys in the whole schoolusually, they no even notice I one girl.
Then, Kristal Mizoguchi wen’ open up her big mouth and ruin it all. “Wow, Faye, nice dress. Where you bought ‘um, the Big & Tall store?”
Everyone forget they was being nice to me just two seconds before, and now they all cracking up like that the funniest thing they ever heard. I so mad, I no can even think of what for say. I just stay there, staring at her, like one tree.
“Well,” she says, twirling her finger in her bleacher-orange hair, “now you ready for start working on Hotel Street tonight, yeah?”
Yeah, well, I no like steal your customers, so come show me which corner is yours, I should’ve said, but I never. I just stay there, smoke coming out of my ears, making fool in front of the whole class.
And the worst part is, Kenny never say one word in my defense. That ditz, Kristal, rubbing my face in the mud, and my supposed best friendwhat he doing? He in la-la land, gazing off into space, like I no even exist. I dunno what his problem is. Lately, he act like he shame for be my friend. Jerk.

My Ex-Friend, Kenny Thompson
I no even like him no more. Today after school I wen’ talk to him about yesterday.
“I thought you was my friend, Kenny.”
He look like he going act like he don’t know what I talking about, but then he must’ve seen that I was serious. “Yeah, well I thought you was Faye Nguyen, but lately I cannot even tell who you are. Who you trying to impress, anyway?”
Him, but I not going tell him that. “You no even know what you talking about. I not trying to impress anyone. I just like try new things. You got a problem with that?”
“Yeah, right, Faye. I known you since we was kids. You never wore one dress in your life, even when your mom try put ‘um on you herself.”
“What? You no can accept that I can change? You not going to be my friend now, just ’cause I not the same tita girl you play baseball with when you was ten?”
“No, Faye, I not going to be your friend until you stop acting and be yourself.”
I no can believe him, Daddy! When I myself I not girly enough for him, and when I try be girly he tell me be myself. “Forget you, Kenny. I no going waste my time on you.”
And then I gots to walk home, ’cause he my ride. Guess I going be walking home a lot now.

Friends
I still see Kenny a couple times a day in class, but that’s it. We hardly even talk anymore.
I wearing girl-clothes now. I figure, I wen’ spend buku bucks on all them dresses and skirts and cute outfits, I better wear ‘um. It’s not as bad as I always thought it would be. Plenty guys look at me all the time now. Being little bit girly not bad at all.
Kenny was wrongI still myself. I still play sports, I still go surf, all that. I just like make myself pretty every morning. Nothing wrong with that.
Only problem is now I no more friends. All my friends the guys me and Kenny hang out with, but since me and Kenny no hang out, I no hang out with them either. I try making friends with this one girl, Kalani Perez, but we no get nothing in common. I dunno how for make friendsKenny the one good at that.
I wish I could talk to him, ask him what for do. I miss him, Daddy. What you think I should do?

The Kiss
Before the play, I feeling bad ’cause you couldn’t be there, but now I glad you never came. I glad you never see the disaster I wen’ make.
Everything good going until the end part, when Kimo traps Broomhilda with the five magic balls and rescues Jenny. I supposed to be frozen, ’cause I trapped by the magic balls, and then Kimo and Jenny kiss. Only supposed to be one fake kiss, ’cause we not allowed kiss for real in school plays, but when Kristal putting her face up close to Kenny’s, I can tell she going kiss him for real. I can’t just watch her kiss him, Daddy.
I go crazy. Right there, in front of the whole school and everyone’s parents, I wen’ charge across the stage and right into Kristal. Only she and Kenny at the front of the stage, so when I push her she wen’ fly off the stage and down into the band. She wen’ land right on top the trombone player. Lucky he chubby, ’cause he wen’ cushion her fall.
“What are you doing, you witch?!” she yell up at me. (Not exactly in those words, but I no going repeat what she really say in front of you.)
Me and Kenny, we both in shock. But for once in my life, I no freeze up. I knew I gots to cover up, for save face. I no like ruin the whole play.
“You don’t want her, Kimo,” I say, making the lines up as I go and talking loud so the audience can hear. “I’m sorry I put a spell on her and forced you to find all those magic balls, but the truth is, I love you, Kimo. Kiss me, you fool.” And then I wrap my hands around his head, pull him in close, and kiss him. For real. I know he only let me ’cause he never knew what else for do, with the whole world watching, but still, not too bad for my first kiss.
At first, the audience kind of confused. But then someone decide the whole thing one big joke and start laughing. Slowly everyone wen’ join in. Laughter and applause come from everywhere, and then they close the curtains on us.
Kenny wen’ push me away, and for a second I think he going smile, but then his eyes turn angry. “I cannot believe you, Faye. I cannot believe you.” He wen’ stare into my eyes like he looking for something, then he spin around and stomp off the stage.
And that was that. I think I screwed upbig time.

Honest
“I sorry, Kenny. I so sorry.” I finally got one chance for talk to him today before water polo practice.
“I not the one you need to tell that to, Faye. Try tell Kristal you sorry. She the one you wen’ shove off the stage.”
“Oh, you poor little girlfriend. She never broke anything, so
“She not my girlfriend, Faye. You know she not.”
“Yeah? Could’ve fooled me!”
Kenny takes one deep breath and looks down at his stomach like he always do when he trying to keep from saying something he going regret later. “Faye,” he says slowly, still looking down, “this isn’t about me and Kristal. This about you and me.”
“There is no you and me,” I blurt out, “I no good enough for you!”
“Where you get this crap, Faye? You watching soap operas now, or what? What you want from me?” Now he looking me straight in the eyes.
I no can handle it anymore. My eyes getting all watery and get boogers dripping out my nose. I never cry like this before. “I want you feel for me like I feel for you. I want you be my boyfriend.” I so shame. I cannot even look at him.
Kenny wen’ put one hand on my shoulder and say something I never expect. “You no even know what you want, Faye. You no want me be you boyfriend, you want me be you father.”
“What?”
“Ever since since we was little, Faye, you always act like I you fatheryou like me protect you, tell you what for do, take care of you. You always trying to get my approval, whether you playing the sports I like, or dressing up like you think I like, or whatever.” He put his hand on my chin and lift my face to look at him. “I only sixteen; I cannot handle you depending on me like that. I sorry you no more one father, Faye, but I cannot be all that.”
I push his hand away from my face. “What you talking about? I no need you be my father. I get one father. You talking bubbles, Kenny.”
“Whatevers, Faye. You the one talking bubbles. You been talking bubbles ever since I knew youyou act like your father still alive.”
“Shut up! Just shut up!”
“And surprise, surprise, everything about this imaginary father you always talking about is just like mehe one writer, just like me; he one swimmer, just like me; he one surfer, just like me. He even hapa, just like me. How come you get one Vietnamese last name if your father half haole and half Hawaiian, Faye? How you explain that?”
I no can explain it. I like tell Kenny he wrong, but no can. “My daddy really was a writer” is all I can say.
“Faye, I love you. I love you since the second grade. And I no mean that like when one guy tell his girlfriend he love her one week and the next week he get new girlfriend. I mean it for real. I dunno if I even love you like one girlfriend, but I willing to talk about that, if you willing to be honest. Honest with me, and honest with yourself. Let me know when you ready for do that.”
He pulls me close to him and we hug. I like stay in his arms forever, but then he says goodbye and leave me there, alone outside the swimming pool.
I think I always knew what Kenny wen’ tell me. I always knew that I was talking to an empty chair in front of a dusty typewriter that no one even used for twelve years now. I knew you wasn’t real, Daddy, but I wanted so much for you to be real.
But I have to be honest with myself now. I no can pretend you real when I know you not. I just wanted to come talk with you one last time, Daddy, for tell you goodbye. Thanks for listening to me. I going miss you. I love you, Daddy.

Remembering Addresses

by Erika Dahl Price

 

When he first saw her, he said, “Hello, pake wahini.” When he wrote her a poem, he said, “You are like a mountainthe farther away you are, the better you look.” When she gave birth to their first, he said, “Now that didn’t look so bad.” When the moment called for profanity, he said, “Equine escrete!” When he moved their family to a house with no plumbing, he said, “But the rent is free and I can fix it; just need a few tools.” When he handed her his dissertation to type, it said lots of things she didn’t understand. When the littlest clung to his leg, whimpering on the porch, and asked, “Is she ever coming back?” as she slammed the door and drove away, he said, “I hope so.” When she said she had felt alone for years, he said, “I’m so sorry, forgive me.” On Thursday mornings he winked at her and said, “I’ll be home for lunch.” When she set the meal, he said the prayer. When the sixteen-year-old daughter sassed her, he said, “You’d look pretty funny walking around with your buttocks between your shoulder blades. . . .” When the kids left home, he said, “Now we can go on that vacation.” When she begged to move out West, he said, “If it would make you happy.” When the stroke hit in the backyard, he said, “That was the strangest thing.” When he saw the loose screw, he said, “Will you bring me the whatchamacallit?” When she asked him if he remembered his address, he said, “Of course I remember. It’s the same as yours.” When he sat on the evening porch with her, he said, “I’m not the same as I used to be.” When she asked how he did it, he said, “I just took the bull by the hand. . .” When he bowed his head for the supper prayer, he said, “And we’re glad for all these good people. Please bless these good people. And we’re happy to have all these good people…” When the doctor said he had Alzheimer’s, he said, “Damn.” When he wanted a spoon, he said, “I need a fork.” When he soiled himself, he said, “Did I do something wrong?” When he wanted the television off, he said, “Um. Tsk. Huh. There. There!” When she asked him if he was hungry, he said, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.” When she asked which kind he wanted, he shook his head, as if to say, “No. No, thank you.” When she hung his clothes in his new closet, he cried. When she visited him in the afternoons, she turned his face toward hers, cupped his soft, quiet hands like a bird, and spoke for the two of them.

The Night That Marvin Gimler Shined

by Nathan Keonaona Chai

 

In the third to last row of the bus Jess Watkins sat slouched and shivering. Three miles past the Utah border, the bus’s heater had quit: a metallic clang, the slapping of the decelerating fan, then the driver cursing and hammering his fist against the already battered dash. As the temperature dropped in the bus, the cold whistling through the broken seals on the windows grew louder, or at least it seemed so to Jess. He unpacked his jacket⸺black with Montevista Junior College Basketball stitched in yellow across the chest⸺and put it on. Aaron Pampasi, huddled in the seat across the aisle, had long since put on both his jacket and his hat and was now muttering through chattering teeth that he could see his breath.

Taking his hand from his jacket pocket, Jess polished a circle onto the fogged window. Dirt-brown snow as hard as rock and as old as January lined the shoulder of the highway. A thick mist spun over the ground, obscuring the foothills of the Wasatch range, reducing the mountains to little more than black streaks that quickly faded into the grayness. It reminded Jess of some bitter-cold setting for an arctic novel⸺a novel in which at least one character would certainly die of exposure. Jess sighed and turned from the window.

Marvin Gimler, seated in the front row of the bus, suddenly turned around in his seat and looked back at the other passengers.

“Heads up, everyone,” he shouted. “All eyes on me, fellas.”

“Here we go again,” Aaron Pampasi whispered.

“I wonder if Marvin thinks about anything besides basketball,” Jess whispered back.

Aaron snorted. “Doubt it. He’ll be practicing until he’s eighty-five.”

Marvin focused his gaze on Aaron and Jess and waited patiently for attention. Light from the headlamps of passing cars flickered through the windows and lit the fog of his breath a cold blue.

“You all heard the word already this week,” Marvin began, “but just let me say this: we played a decent season⸺straight up!⸺and now we’re standing here at ten wins, ten losses. If we light it up tonight, Coach gets his first winning season at Montevista, and you know the man deserves it.”

Coach Heyward, sitting across the aisle from Marvin, waved a dismissive hand. “Nice, Marvin, but I don’t need any win-one-for-the-coach routines.”

“Whatever you say, Coach Hey,’ Marvin said, looking over at the Coach. “Maybe we’ll just get you a fancy tie or something. But the thing is, we’re not losing.”

He turned to face the team again. “You guys remember that Coach gave us the lowdown that some NCAA scouts are going to be manning the bleachers courtside tonight. Now I know their mission is to get the four-one-one on Fiji. But while they’re at it, they can’t help but see Marvin Gimler and anyone else who represents. So listen up, fellas. I’m telling you straight that I’m playing this one to impress those scouts and step up into a big-time program. And I’m asking every one of you to get up with me. They’re looking for big-time skills, and that’s what we’ve got.”

Marvin thumped his chest in an ape-like display of confidence. Pete Chung, an undersized, flashbulb quick player from Las Vegas, called back, “I always thought of you as a Stanford guy myself,”

“Right on!” Marvin shouted. “The Stanford Cardinal! Now one last thing. You guys got to remember that this is our last chance to dent a top team. Go out with a bang, you know. How many games South Valley lost this year anyway, Coach Hey? Three?”

“Two,” said Coach Heyward.

“Two games,” Marvin repeated. “They’re probably thinking right past us to the playoffs. But we can take this one. Everybody with me?”

Jess leaned across the aisle and whispered to Aaron Pampasi.

“Marvin should’ve been a street preacher.”

Aaron nodded and blew into his cupped hands. “Makes me nervous. I wish Coach Hey hadn’t said anything about the scouts, or Fiji.

“Me, too.”

“Jess, listen up. I’m talking to you, man.” Jess swivelled to face Marvin, who was staring wide-eyed down the aisle, a sort of delinquent defiance sketched across his face, something in the tight line of his lips and the slightly down-turned head.

“What?” Jess said.

“You ain’t afraid of Fiji…” He let Fiji hang in the air, accentuated, before he finished the question, “are you?”

“You already know the answer,” Jess called back.

“Good,” Marvin said, “because you got to guard him all night. We’re counting on you.”

With a sweep of his eyes, Marvin inspected the faces of the other players. ‘Anybody else afraid of Fiji?”

Four rows from the front, Josh Romero raised his hand.

“Romero!” Marvin spat. “No time to be clowning.”

Coach Heyward craned his bald head around just in time to see Josh’s hand drop. He squinted hawklike over his crooked boxer’s nose, just long enough to ensure discomfort, and then settled back into his seat. As if preparing to speak but thinking better of it, Marvin’s lips parted, then promptly joined again. He held a victory fist in the air, then he turned and sat.

“What a screw-up,” Aaron whispered.

“Something like that,” Jess said.

Jess settled into his seat and stared at the back of Marvin’s head, as though trying to see into Marvin’s thoughts and somehow make sense of his fanatical reality. Jess played basketball only because the scholarship paid for his schooling. He’d always been bothered by Marvin’s devotion to the game, his decisions to continue on long after Coach had ended practice, his stupid court slang, his tireless interest in the NBA and all its worthless merchandise. And after all that, Jess thought, he was still a mediocre player at best. Jess averaged more than twice as many points per game as Marvin. After a moment, Jess unzipped his duffel bag and foraged until he found his wool beanie cap. He stretched it down over his head and ears and tried to relax, to concentrate on the low hum of the engine, the rattle of loose bolts, the wisps of his breath dissipating into the air before him.

After a while, Jess let his head slump back against the seat. Soon his eyes closed; he did not see the snow begin to dot the windshield, or the driver’s expression of surprise when, after he turned a knob, the wipers actually began to sweep across the glass.


Cutting two black lines through the skin of fresh snow; the bus chugged through the parking lot and braked alongside the gymnasium as near the yellow double doors as possible. It sat there, sputtering soft waves of white smoke, while the players gathered their bags.

“This is football weather,” Jess mumbled, rising to his feet. “Those guys like this kind of thing.” His head bumped against the roof of the bus. He hunched over and rubbed it.

“I don’t think Marvin’s going to appreciate that attitude,” Aaron said, smiling, as he shouldered his bag.

After entering the school, Jess and the others waited in a long corridor while Coach Heyward went to find someone who could show them to the locker room. He returned with a janitor who led them down the corridor, past the gym, to the women’s locker room. He winked back at Coach Heyward, cracked open the door and then called in, “Anybody home?” When no answer came, he said, “All clear, boys. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll get the visiting team sign and hang it out here so that we don’t have any incidents.”

Marvin Gimler was first into the locker room. “Not exactly first class,” he said, as he pushed open the door, “but it keeps us hungry.”

Jess Vatkins held the door for Aaron Pampasi and with raised eyebrows questioned the lodgings: “Girls’ locker room?”

“It’s an old school,” replied Aaron, with a casual shrug. “Just have to make do.”

The locker room was ordinary enough, the only real novelty being the private curtains around the showerheads. Jess tossed his duffel bag onto a bench, slipped off his clothes, and put on his uniform and warm-ups.

“Oh man,” Marvin moaned, as Jess cinched his drawstring. “I lost my dime. Anyone got an extra?”

Jess looked over. Marvin was rummaging through his bag, both socks on, shoes lying overturned on one side.

“Those stinking dimes don’t do anything,” Pete Chung heckled. “It’s all in your head, Marvin.” Pete had already donned his uniform and he was now hopping nimbly in the corner, arms whipping an imaginary jump-rope around his body.

Coach searched his pockets. “Two nickels and a quarter,” he said.

“Anyone else?” begged Marvin.

Jess searched his street clothes. He found a dime and four pennies. He held the coins in his hand for a moment, then put them back into the pocket of his pants.

“Sorry Marvin,” he said. “Just pennies.”

The others’ searches ended without finding a dime.

Marvin sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Can I borrow those nickels, Coach Hey?”

Coach tossed him the coins. Marvin pulled his sock away from his ankle and dropped them in, then maneuvered them with his thumb until they rested beneath the arch of his foot.

“I guess two nickels is as good as any dime,” he said, slipping on his shoes.

“Doesn’t that hurt your feet?” Jess asked.

“Nah,” said Marvin. “Hardly notice.”

When all the players had changed into uniforms and warmups, Coach Heyward escorted the team out of the locker room. On the outfacing side of the door, a paper reading “Visiting Team⸺Keep Out” had been taped directly beneath the women’s locker room sign.

“Somebody’s trying to be cute,” Marvin said loudly.

“You really think they did that on purpose?” asked Pete Chung.

“Who cares?” Jess offered.

“Me,” said Marvin. “I care. But it’s all just fuel for the fire.”

Almost game time, Jess Watkins sat on the bench and wiped a light sweat from his face. His teammates were all pushing through last minute warm-ups⸺except Marvin, who stood motionless at the top of the three-point arc, crouched, ball held loosely in both hands, eyes seeing only the basket. His lips moved, but Jess couldn’t hear the words. Jess drummed his fingers on the bench. He crossed his legs, then uncrossed them. He looked aimlessly about the gymnasium.

The gym was old and smelled like a sawmill. Thirty, maybe forty spectators had found seats in the bleachers, a very low number even for a junior college game, but to be expected considering the weather. The wood panels of the court floor were carved with light scratches that, in the glare of the spotlight, reminded Jess of so many grooves at an ice-skating rink. At the far end of the court, the South Valley  players were warming up. Fiji stood to one side with his coach, watching his teammates and cracking jokes. He was as large as Coach Heyward had claimed: very tall, and muscled like a bison. Jess looked away and sighed. He wished that he had stayed in Nevada where it was warm, where there were no Fijis.

The horn sounded, startling Jess, signaling that the game was about to begin. He looked over at his teammates. Still standing at the top of the three-point arc, Marvin took a deep breath, then launched the ball toward the basket. His shooting hand hung limply at the end of his raised arm, forming a swan’s head and neck. Perfect form. The ball clunked off the rim and bounced to the far side of the court. Marvin stared after it; then he walked toward Jess and the other players already huddled at the sideline.

“It’s nothing,” he said, head held high. “Nothing at all. Gimler is here to play.” 

“It’s on,” Pete Chung said, slapping Marvin’s hand.

The starters stripped off their warm-up pants and shirts, revealing bee-yellow uniforms beneath. Across their chests, written in black cursive, was Montevista. Coach Heyward called together the five starters⸺Jess, Marvin, Aaror, Pete, and Parker.

“Okay,” he barked. “Quick review. On defense we’re coming out playin⸺T”

“Um, Coach Hey,” Marvin said.

“What?” Coach Heyward said.

“I don’t see any scouts in the bleachers.”

Coach Heyward did not look at Marvin; instead he traced the grain of the wood floor with the toe of his shoe. “Marvin,” he said, very slowly, “Just play your game. If they’re here, they’re here.”

“Coach,” said Marvin, “it’s just that this is my last game, and if they don’t see me tonight⸺”

One of the three referees, standing near center court, blew his whistle. “One more minute, Coaches.”

Coach Heyward, his back to the near bleachers, clasped Marvin’s shoulders with both hands. Jess and the other starters stood around them in a half-circle.

“You see those two guys, top row, one talking on a cell phone?”

“Yeah, I see them,” Marvin said.

“They’re here to scout Fiji.”

Jess and the other starters looked up at the scouts. The man with the cell phone noticed the staring faces. He smiled and nudged his companion, who also turned to look down at the team. Jess looked quickly away.

“How do you know them, Coach?” Marvin asked, still staring Past Coach Heyward’s head, unconcerned that he had been noticed.

“Damnation, Marvin,” Coach said, suddenly flustered. “Is it ever enough with you?”

“Just a question,” Marvin said.

Coach snatched his hands from Marvin’s shoulders and took a quick step back. He looked around the half-circle at his five starters. 

“I know those guys because I used to coach at one of their schools. And before you ask, Marvin, I got fired after one season. Worst season in school history. Anything else?”

Not even Marvin could think of anything to say.

“Let’s go gentleman,” the referee called, “It’s getting late.”

Coach Heyward walked to the bench and slumped down. Jess risked one final glance up at the bleachers, then strolled to center court, his teammates close behind. The South Valley coach gathered his players into a huddle and led a rough chanT: “One⸺ Two⸺ Three⸺ Game⸺ Time!” They broke up, and five players, uniformed in blue and white, walked confidently toward the court.

“Hey,” Marvin said, gesturing to the approaching opponents. “What’s up with this?”

Jess stood staring, not saying a word. Still dressed in his shiny blue warm-ups, Fiji had taken a seat on the bench. He was not going to start the game. For a moment Jess felt a surge of confusion, then suddenly he understood. South Valley had already made the playoffs. There was no reason for them to start their star player and risk an injury. A great sense of relief washed over Jess.

“Hey, Fiji, what’s your problem?” Marvin shouted. “You afraid we’ll embarrass you?”

“You guys ain’t embarrassed anybody but yourselves,” Fiji shouted back. He leaned back in his chair and chuckled.

Jess turned and stared at Marvin, hoping he would have enough sense to keep his mouth closed. Marvin’s face and shaved head reddened.

“Man,” Marvin shouted, “get your prima donna butt out here and I’ll school you like your first-grade teacher!”

“Playoffs, baby,” Fiji-said, a smile spreading across his wide face, “We got to think about the playoffs. But I guess you don’t have that problem.” 

Marvin began walking toward Fiji. Jess stepped in front of him. “Knock it off, Marvin,” he said. “This is stupid.”

Marvin gave Fiji a cutthroat’s stare for a few long seconds, then he pulled away from Jess.

“Okay, gentlemen,” said the head referee, standing at center court with a ball held against his hip. “Now that we’ve got.that out of our systems, let’s play. I need two players for the jump. Let’s move.”

Jess stepped forward along with a slender player from the opposing team..Jess was taller by least an inch. The referee held the ball between them, then tossed it up into the air. Jess leapt up and slapped the ball back to Marvin. 

Marvin brought the ball to the top of the three-point arc. He stared at his defender, then he took two steps backward, bouncing the ball under his leg, from one hand to the other, with each stride.

“What’s up?” Marvin said, staring without expression at his defender, dribbling the ball effortlessly. He held his body crouched, weight forward, feet apart. “I’ll bet you want my cookie,” Marvin said, dropping into his court slang. “A quickie is what you want.”

The defender made a quick lunge toward Marvin, a feint intended to raise Marvin’s guard or throw him off balance. Marvin, expecting the move, sidestepped and launched a shot from two feet behind the three point line. As the ball left his fingers and arced through space, rotating slowly backward, Jess shouted “No!” in frustration at the poor choice of shots and pivoted around his defender, trying to establish a good position for the rebound. The ball glanced off the back of the rim and fell through perfectly, catching in the net before falling to the floor.

“Yes!” Aaron Pampasi shouted.

Marvin skipped down the court backward, never taking his eyes off his startled defender. “You can’t play with this,” he said. “You can’t play with this.”

South Valley brought the ball down the floor and methodically began perimeter, cutting to the basket, setting picks. Montevista handled it well, rotating and calling out assignments, preventing any easy scores. Until suddenly Marvin stood straight up, staring off into space, completely unaware of the game taking place around him.

“Hey!” he yelled. The player he was defending darted past him, caught a pass, and drained an unchallenged ten foot jump shot.

“What the⸺Marvin?” Pete Chung wore the expression of a startled gambler.

Marvin did not look at Pete. Instead he cupped his hands and yelled up toward the bleachers. “Hey! You can’t leave!”

Jess, standing beneath the basket, followed Marvin’s gaze. The two university scouts were making their way down the steps of the aisle toward the exit. They stopped only for a moment as the one with the cell phone yelled over to Coach Heyward, “Something’s wrong with your boy, Matt,” and then they were through the exit and gone.

“Coach Hey,” Marvin wailed.

“Play the game,” Coach Hepvard yelled back. “Just play the stupid game.”

Marvin stood there, mouth open, arms limp at his sides. A sharp blast from a whistle ended the stupor on the court.

“Delay of game warning,” the ref shouted. “Next time it’s a technical foul.”

Jess cursed Marvin under his breath and walked over to inbound the ball.

Although Marvin played as hard as always, he did not score again in the first half. His concentration had been broken. Instead it was all Pete Chung. According to the karma of all sport, Pete had suddenly found the Zone. Almost every shot, no matter how ridiculous or ill advised, made its way directly to the bottom of the net. When the horn blasted out the end of the first half, Montevista had a ten point lead over the Fiji-less South Valley squad. Pete had sixteen points.

Following Coach Heyward’s lead, Jess and his teammates filed back to the women’s locker room. Pete Chung scampered to a seat at the far end of the bench, an outlier from the rest of the group.

“I wish someone had that on video,” he whispered, with intonation just as well suited for referring to a miracle.

“Pete’s on fire!” shouted one of the freshman.

“Nobody talk to me!” warned Pete. “Stay away. I don’t want to lose it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Marvin slumped into the locker room, slouched onto a bench, and pulled a towel over his head. He looked very much like a defeated boxer abandoned after a match.

“It’s just a stupid⸺ ” Jess began.

Marvin cut him off, “Just shut up and leave me alone.”


About two minutes left in the game, Montevista clung to a four point lead. Despite the halftime seclusion, Pete Chung’s blazing heroics had cooled to his usual inconsistency. The second half had been marked by balanced attacks and solid strategies from both sides, although Montevista had steadily given ground. Even a somber Marvin had managed a few good plays⸺a steal here, a jumpshot there.

“Take your time. Work it around,” Coach Heyward called from the bench.

A few seconds later Jess Watkins set a back pick for Aaron Pampasi, who cut to the hoop, caught a rifled pass from Marvin, and pulled up for a fifteen footer. The ball sailed long, bouncing off the back of the rim and into the arms of a South Valley man, who promptly called for a time-out.

The team gathered around the sideline. Jess sipped water from a paper cup and toweled the stinging sweat from his eyes. Coach Heyward advised his team of the obvious: slow the pace, use the clock and the four point lead to put the pressure on South Valley.

As the referee called the teams back onto the floor Coach Heyward offered a final plea: “A minute and a half. Just hold on for that long and we get a win⸺a winning season. Don’t let this get away.”

As they walked back onto the floor, Jess saw him. “Hey,” he said to his teammates, voice barely more than a whisper. “Fiji.”

They all turned toward the scorer’s table. His warm-ups stripped off, Fiji was checking into the game. He stood there smiling, well over three hundred pounds of brawn. Jess tried to maintain an appearance of nonchalance.

Without warning, Marvin erupted. Before anyone could move to stop him, he was walking toward Fiji, shouting like an angry drunk. “You fat lazy⸺You benchwarm the whole game and then⸺ If you’d started this game, those scouts⸺”

Fiii, looming over Marvin like a small ridge, actually took a step back, startled by the volatility of Marvin’s rage. Shoving his body between the two players, the head referee bear-hugged Marvin and tried to pull him away.

“Get off me!” Marvin shouted, shoving free of the referee’s grip. The referee pointed toward Marvin and shouted, “Technical foul on number twenty-two yellow.” Coach Heyward sprang from the bench and strode toward Marvin as though he intended to walk right through him. He gripped the back of Marvin’s skull in his hands and whispered fiercely into Marvin’s ear.

As Coach raged back to the bench, muttering nearly every word befitting the occasion, Jess looked over at Marvin and shook his head. “What the hell are you thinking?”

Marvin stared down at his shoes, breathing harder than he had all night.

South Valley made the technical free throw. Three point lead for Montevista. Fiji inbounded the ball, setting the clock ticking. As the point guard jogged the ball up the floor, Fiji made his way down toward the basket. Jess hunkered down and tried to use his legs to muscle Fiji away. Feeling the resistance, Fiji shifted his weight back and plowed Jess even closer to the hoop. The pass came and Fiii slapped the soft leather benveen both his hands. He turned and faked a shot. Jess leapt into the air. Fiji bounced the ball on floor once, stepped past Jess, and slammed the ball through the rim with two hands.

Just under a minute left in the game, one point lead. Ever conscious of the seconds slipping away, Montevista passed the ball around in a game of keep-away. With five seconds left on the shot clock, Pete pulled up for a three point try. It missed and Fiii smothered the rebound. He turned and hurled the ball down the court to a sprinting South Valley man. Marvin raced to catch up to him. The ball sailed teasingly over Marvin’s outstretched hands. The South Valley man caught the ball in stride, lept off of one foot, and flipped the ball off his fingertips and into the net.

South Valley by one, fifteen seconds remaining. Aaron inbounded the ball to Marvin, who raced it down the court. His defender met him at the three point line. Marvin gave a head fake to the left, then spun to the right. It happened so quickly-a burst of spinning yellow-that even Marvin seemed surprised; he nearly lost his balance, catching himself with his left hand against the floor as he dribbled with his right, propelling himself toward the basket. Fiji shoved Jess away and blitzed Marvin, cutting off his approach. Marvin drove his shoulder hard into Fiii’s stomach. Fiji took the blow but gave no ground. Marvin pivoted toward the basket, then suddenly, shifting his weight back, he launched himself away from Fiji. Arms raised, Fiji leapt forward, angling over Marvin like a collapsing wall. At the apex of his bachvard flight, Marvin heaved the ball wildly toward the basket. The tip of Fiji’s finger brushed against the ball, sending it spinning hopelessly down.

Jess Watkins, no defenders near him, caught the ball and tossed it toward the hoop. Everything happened with surreal clarity: the ball rising toward the backboard; a sharp bang like a rock hitting the hardwood floor; the ball reflecting off the backboard and falling through the net; the horn signaling the end of the game; players shouting in celebration or disbelief. Then silence.

Fiji slowly lifted himself from the ground. Marvin Iay on the floor beneath Fiji’s shadow, convulsing in vicious seizures. His jaw was clenched, the muscles of his cheeks and forehead flexed and quivering. His eyes were slits of white and a slow glassy puddle of crimson slid out along the floorboards beneath his head. The players stood over him, as still and silent as a grove of winter trees. It was not until Coach Heyward crouched over Marvin and shouted for an ambulance that any of them remembered to move.

Marvin lay stretched over a narrow hospital bed. White bandaging had been taped to the side of his stubbly head just behind his ear, like a patch on a ball. He strained to raise his head off the pillow to better see his visitors. His eyes narrowed to pain-telling slits and he moaned slowly. He let gravity tow his head back to the pillow.

“Little bit of a headache,” he said, offering a weak smile.

Jess, Aaron, Pete, and Parker⸺the starters⸺still in uniform, formed a line of head-bowed mourners to one side of the room. Coach Heyward sat in a folding chair at Marvin’s side. It would have made for a nice Rockwell painting.

“How are you feeling?” Coach Heyward asked gravely.

“I’m good,” said Marvin. “I threw up a little while ago. Doc says I have a concussion, but he didn’t see any fractures on the X-ray.”

“I guess we’re lucky that’s all it is,” Coach Heyward said.

“Some luck,” said Marvin. “Where’s the rest of the boys?”

“Waiting in the lobby,” Coach Heyward said.

“Oh,” Marvin said. “You mind if I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Coach Heward said.

“Actually two questions.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“Well, first, what happened?”

Coach Heyward’s bald forehead wrinkled over the rising arches of his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. What happened?”

“You hit your head,” Pete offered.

Marvin rolled his head over his pillow as though it were a heavy rock. He was now facing Pete. “No offense, man, but don’t you think I know that? I ve got fifteen stitches sewn into the side of my dome.”

“I don’t think I understand, Marvin,” Coach said.

Marvin rolled his head back around. “I’m sitting on that antique of a bus. The heater goes out and the driver’s banging on the dash. Next thing I know, I’m in the hospital and some smiley dude is knitting my scalp.”

“You don’t remember?” asked Aaron , amazement raising him to a high tenor.

“What did I just say?” Marvin replied.

“We won,” Coach Heyward said.

“Straight up!” Marvin exclaimed. “I knew we could take those fools!” He smiled and pumped his fist weakly in the air. “So that answers my second question. Back to the original, what happened to me?”

“You got squashed by Fiji,” Aaron said with relish. “It was this amazing play. Time was almost out and you had the ball and we were down by one. Fiji was guarding you and you put up this shot⸺”

Marvin interrupted him. “I won the game?”

“Well⸺” Coach began.

Again Marvin interrupted. “I’ve never made a last second shot in my life.” Marvin spoke the words slowly, quietly, a prayer to himself.

Silence choked the small room. Marvin’s face turned pink, then crimson. His eyes blinked and his lower lip began to tremble.

“Are you okay, Marvin?” Coach Heyward asked.

“Breathe, Marvin,” Pete said quickly. “He’s not breathing, Coach Hey.”

At last Marvin sucked in a gulp of air. “’Aw, man,” he rasped. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “This is lame. Sorry, guys.”

“It’s okay, Marvin,” Parker said, looking baffled.

“Yeah,” echoed Aaron, also confounded. “We won’t tell anybody.”

Marvin sniffed. “It’s just that ever since I could hold a ball I’ve been dreaming about this. Now it finally happens and I can’t even remember.”

As though deflating, Coach Heyward slumped against the backrest and sighed. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and finger. Marvin sniffed again and rolled his head back around to face his teammates.

“How many points did I have, guys? Anyone remember?”

No one spoke. Marvin waited with the expression of a man about to be told how much money he has inherited. Coach looked up, searching the faces of his four players.

“Anyone remember how many points Marvin had?” he asked.

After only a brief silence, Jess responded, his voice steady and deliberate. “Thirty-eight points,” he said. “You set a new school record.”

“Thirty-eight points!” repeated Coach Heyward, recoiling in surprise. Marvin did not move; he lay staring at the ceiling, oblivious to the dumbfounded stares of Pete and Parker. Aaron turned quickly toward Jess, away from Marvin, and mouthed, “What’re you doing? He’s going to find out.”

Jess looked past him at Marvin and said nothing.

“Coach Hey,” Marvin said quietly, eyes still on the ceiling.

“Yes, Marvin.”

“Did any scouts show?”

Coach Heyward shook his head. “No, Marvin. I’m sorry.”

Marvin closed his eyes. “You know what? It doesn’t even matter. Tonight’s the night that Marvin Gimler shined, and nothing’s taking that away from me. Right, fellas?”

Jess looked away. No one offered a response.

A Million Kinds of Happiness

by Karina Andrew

Monday. Sunny. Low of 68. High of 94. Nineteen percent chance of rain.

The scent of dirt follows me into the house. People say “dirty” like it’s a bad thing, but I like dirt. It clings to me, to the knees of my jeans, to the undersides of my nails, to all the tiny lines and crevices in my skin.

I scrub my hands with lots of soap, watching that dirt run off my skin and down the sink. It leaves tracks in the white bowl.

“Avie.” Mom’s voice is gentle and perky, like pink carnations. “Don’t leave the water running too long.”

Right. The drought warning. I turn the tap, and the water stops.

Mom doesn’t make me change clothes for dinner, which I appreciate. Hallie’s already at the table, her pink nails clicking against her phone screen. She’s wearing makeup, too, something she never did before I left for college. Granted, her makeup is poorly done—an early attempt at painting over thirteen-year-old insecurities—but I can’t help her fix it. I haven’t worn makeup in months. I wonder if she expected me to be more . . . something when I got back for the summer. Cooler, funnier, more interesting. I’ve likely disappointed her in all categories.

I help Mom set the table. Dad comes home as I put the last fork in place, towing a dirty Logan into the house behind him. I give Logan a smile. Of all the family, he is the only one who shares my affinity for nature. He flashes back an impish grin and rushes to the table.

“Wash your hands,” Mom reminds him, eying his grubby fingers. 

“But it’ll waste waaaater,” he rebuts, eyes twinkling.

“Wash them really fast.”

He runs to the kitchen sink. He’s been bursting with energy since I got back three weeks ago. Four weeks ago? Each day morphs seamlessly into the next with little distinction. I don’t pay attention.

Logan reaches for the potatoes.

“Logan,” Dad says, “wait until we say grace.”

It’s the only time of day we talk about God. We all close our eyes while Dad thanks the ceiling for the food Mom made, then start in on our chicken, potatoes, and broccoli.

“Savannah and David should arrive tomorrow,” Dad says. Savannah is Dad’s sister. “We’re going to put them in your room, Avie, is that okay? I know it’s not ideal.”

“No, it’s fine. I understand.”

“With their neighborhood being evacuated—”

“I know. It’s really fine.” I force a small smile, so he knows I mean it—it’s not like the wildfires tearing through California are his fault—but Dad’s still opening and closing his mouth like a Venus Flytrap, forehead wrinkled in guilt.

“Well, when they get here, we’ll just have to do something fun as a family,” Mom says, spearing a potato with her fork. “Take a day trip out to the beach or something. Hey, isn’t the summer fair next week? They always have those stands with the hand-made jewelry you love, Avie, remember?”

I do remember. I remember being fascinated with them as a kid, with the way the sunlight filtered through the beads and changed the color of the sand. I remember walking through the stands with my high school friends in the months after graduation and talking about the future with glittering eyes and high hopes. I remember going there with Grandma, until she grew too sick to get out of bed.

I shrug and shove a piece of broccoli across my plate with my fork. “Yeah, sure.”

Mom and Dad exchange glances. My gut drops a little, and I quickly turn my lips up at the corners, so they won’t worry. I finish my food hurriedly to escape the feeling of their concerned gazes like searchlights on my face and head back out to the garden.

The flowerbeds line the porch in front of the house like a dense, brown moat. I kneel, feeling the dirt squishing beneath my knees, the moisture soaking into my jeans. I inhale and taste the metallic scent on the back of my tongue, cool and rich and alive—a breathing bank of precious metals. I dig my fingers into the earth, clearing space to make my deposit.

I’ve planted halfway down the length of the porch since coming home. To my left grows a plethora of flowers, my own porch-side Eden: geraniums, daisies, lilacs, even two rose bushes. To my right stretches a blank canvas of earth, waiting to be painted from nature’s own pallet.

I work well into the evening, tending carefully to my little buds, adding fertilizer, pulling the tiny beginnings of weeds, planting new rows of flowers in meticulously dug trenches. I don’t notice the darkness creeping in from the east until Mom flicks the porchlight on and comes outside.

“Looks good,” she says in her carnation voice. Sandals separate her feet from the cool evening grass.

“Thanks.”

“It’s getting late. You want to finish this tomorrow?”

“Finish?”

“Continue.”

“Of course, I’ll continue tomorrow.”

“I mean, how about you come inside for tonight? We’re putting on a movie.”

I sit back on my heels. “I don’t like movies.”

“Since when?”

I pluck a blade of grass from between two geraniums.

Mom’s eyebrows pull together a little in the middle, but she tries to keep her lips smiling.

“We’ve missed you while you’ve been gone, Avie. Come inside and be with the family, okay?” I can’t deny her that. My eyes run once more over my garden. It glows golden in the sunset. No weeds spring up between the flowers. No leaf or bud is out of place. Immaculate.

I stow my unplanted flowers on the porch in their plastic containers, next to my spade and hand trowel, and haul the bag of fertilizer up the steps after. It slumps against the porch rail.

I do change clothes this time, so I don’t get dirt between the sofa cushions. Mom has done my laundry for me, and the detergent she uses smells better than the discount stuff I bought at school. It’s a soft scent, clean and fluffy and vaguely reminiscent of cherry blossoms, though the bottle advertises lilies.

I want to call it a night, crawl into bed and lie with my eyes closed until the world spins around and puts my garden back into the sunlight. I want to skip the night, fast-forward through the darkness. But it isn’t fair of me to wish that the night would pass faster, because I suppose the sun is shining on someone else’s garden somewhere—maybe the palace gardens of a queen, or the garden of a single mom growing food to feed her family—and why should my comparatively inconsequential garden get priority? So I go downstairs and join the others in the family room. It’s a secluded space in the basement where I’ll be sleeping once David and Savannah arrive.

I pause in the entryway. Logan is sitting where I usually sit, in the corner of the sectional, his knees tucked under his chin like a bomb of energy liable to explode at any moment. Hallie lounges to his left, her neck arched pompously like the stem of an orchid, her face lit in the darkness by her phone screen.

“Stop bouncing,” she snaps at Logan.

“I’m not,” Logan taunts, stretching the one syllable into three.

“I can literally feel you shaking the whole couch.”

“Well, what if I do this?”

He launches to his feet and starts jumping on the sofa, each hop getting him closer to landing in Hallie’s lap. 

“Mom!” Hallie says.

  “Logan, sit down,” Mom says without turning around from the Blu-ray player.

“But I’m not touching her!”

Dad gets up from his recliner, his eyes twinkling in that mischievous way only dads’ eyes twinkle before they do something dad-ish.

“No jumping on the sofa!” he says, grabbing Logan around his small waist and flipping him upside down.

“Stop—stop—” Logan gasps between giggles, kicking his legs in the air and barely missing Dad’s face. I slip behind their play-fight, dodging one of Logan’s flailing limbs, and reclaim my corner spot. The family dynamic is much the same as it was before I moved out, but I can’t seem to find my place in it anymore. As if, in my absence, they all grew to fill in the places I used to occupy. Maybe I never played that big a role at all.

They pick a feel-good family movie with wide-eyed animated characters, only it doesn’t make me feel good. I might have enjoyed it more before college, but now it seems the cinematic equivalent of eating unsalted potatoes. For a moment I entertain the idea that my year of university education has refined my taste in media, but then I remember the art gallery Mom took me to a couple weeks ago as a “welcome home” outing, and how that, too, had been bland. That was the day she’d started pulling up her eyebrows when she looked at me, lowering her voice like I was something fragile—glass that might splinter at the slightest shiver.

I hate it when she looks at me like that, hate that I’m causing her distress. She’s got Dad giving me the look, too, but they don’t get that they don’t need to worry about me. People change. That’s life.

I get up and slip out of the room just before the end credits roll. In the reflection of the TV screen, I catch Mom giving me that look.

 

Tuesday. Sunny. Low of 71. High of 97. Eleven percent chance of rain.

David and Savannah arrive a couple of hours after the sun. Their tires sound hot and dry against the driveway.

“Avie!” Savannah sounds unnervingly chipper for someone whose house might burn down any day. “You’re back from school already?”

“It’s June.”

“Remind me what you’re studying?”

“Biology. With a botany emphasis.”

“Explains the gardening.” Savannah’s smiling eyes roam over my work, then return to me. I stand up but instantly regret it, suddenly too aware of my stained jeans and dirty fingernails and the fact that I rolled out of bed and fumbled my way out here without brushing my teeth. I try to smile back at Savannah, but it feels unnatural, like I have weights attached to my cheeks. I don’t know what to say, but Mom opens the door, and I don’t have to say anything.

“Savannah,” she says. “David. How was the drive? Have you had breakfast?”

“Not yet. You didn’t happen to make those banana muffins, did you?”

“You know I did.” Mom smiles, pulling Savannah in for a hug. “How’re you doing?” she murmurs.

“Oh, we’ll be alright.” Savannah is still smiling. It doesn’t even seem fake. I turn my spade over in my hands while Mom hugs David, and they exchange more encouraging sentiments. 

“You coming in, Avie?” Mom asks. “You’ve been out here for hours, you must want something to eat.”

“Hours?” David asks, checking his watch. “It’s only nine.”

“Oh, Avie’s been getting up at the crack of dawn to fix up the yard for us,” Mom says. “It’s been her project all summer. I guess one of her botany professors . . .”

Mom chats David and Savannah into the house, and I trudge in behind them, leaving dusty footprints on the white tile. The house does smell like bananas. Mom’s muffins are famous among family. Everyone gets outrageously excited about them, as if they aren’t made of the same ingredients that comprise every other baked good known to man.

Hallie makes her way downstairs, and Dad follows close behind, carrying Logan piggy-back into the kitchen. Greetings bounce off the cabinets and loud voices ring in cacophony until all our mouths are filled with warm banana mush. 

I wonder what makes banana muffins any better than German chocolate cake, or sourdough bread, or peanut butter cookies, if they’re all made of flour and sugar and butter. Why do some come out dense, while some are fluffy? Why are some desserts, while others are breakfast?

Humans are the same way, I suppose. All made of blood and bone and muscle. But sometimes, one will come out different, wrong. I have the same ingredients as my family, the same DNA. But they all seem like banana muffins, and I feel like a crusty grain roll. 

“Avie?”

“Hm? Yeah?” I tune back in. Savannah is looking at me, smiling wide like a daisy.

“I asked if you were planning on planting sunflowers anywhere.”

“Oh. Um.” I glance out the window. “I hadn’t thought about it. I could, I guess. Down the side of the house.”

“Sunflowers are my favorites,” she says. “We were going to plant them this year, but . . .” She leaves a space in her sentence for the fire that’s burning down her house, then goes on. “But I’d love to help you plant some! Since we’re here for a while, anyway.”

  “Sure,” I say automatically, but my stomach sinks at the thought of letting someone else in my garden, which is stupid, because it’s in the front yard and anyone can walk in whenever they want, anyway.

The conversation turns to other topics, and I take the opportunity to slip back outside. When the sun sets and I go back in for the night, the couch in the family room has been fitted with sheets for me.

 

Friday. Sunny. Low of 76. High of 101. Six percent chance of rain.

White bits of skin flake off my sunburned neck and dust the soil beneath my hands. I’m putting in another row of geraniums today, orange and yellow, like a hundred tiny suns. Savannah sits on a quilt on the grass, watching me work, getting tan. She keeps apologizing for not being more helpful, but I prefer it that way. The same way a painter can distinguish the stylistic differences between his work and that of another artist, I can see the places where other hands have touched my garden.

Mom steps outside with glasses of lemonade just as I pull the hose around and begin a gentle spray.

“Do you need to use so much water, Avie?” she asks, frowning.

“Yes.”

“We really need to cut back. The city is asking that we don’t use sprinklers—”

“The sprinklers have been off all summer.” The lawn itself is dusty and brown. “This is just for the garden. The flowers need water.”

  “Well, just try to be careful about it, okay? Don’t waste a drop.”

I press my lips together and watch the soil beneath my flowers darken with moisture. Savannah joins my mother in the shade of the porch. I don’t hear their low voices over the steady flow of the garden hose, but when Savannah returns to her quilt, she’s wearing that same, pitiful look Mom always gives me.

 

Saturday. Sunny. Low of 74. High of 99. Three percent chance of rain.

“You know why I love sunflowers so much?”

Savannah has started planting a row down the side of the house. It’s late in the season to start planting, I warned her, but she was sure they’d grow just fine. “Why?”

  “Because they’re heliotropic.” She pauses proudly, as if expecting praise for knowing the term. “They always look toward the sun.”

Of course I know what heliotropic means, but I don’t want to make her feel bad, so I just smile awkwardly.

“I just think that’s lovely,” she goes on. “And people can learn something from it, too. No matter how bad things get, just keep looking on the bright side, and we’ll bloom.” She looks up at me hopefully.

I sit back on my heels, thoughtful. “Sunflowers aren’t universally heliotropic, though. Not all species follow that pattern, especially not wild sunflowers. And at this point in the season, these ones will likely never develop the turning flower heads.”

Savannah blinks at me, and a pit churns in my stomach. I’ve said something wrong—I can see it in her slack jaw and disapproving squint. I don’t know what I should have said.

“So, what got you into gardening?” she finally asks.

I shrug, leaning forward with my clippers to prune the rose bush. The buds should be plumper by now. Must be thirsty. “It feels good out here, I guess. Like being alive.”

“Right, like you’re not alive the rest of the time.” She’s laughing but I’m not.

“Plants are easier to connect with than other living things.” I don’t know why I’m still trying to explain it, but it suddenly feels urgent, like I need to make her understand. “They don’t have to think or feel—they don’t do anything. They just are. They just exist, and make the world pretty, and . . .”

She’s blinking again, and I trail off, because even if I could explain it, she wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t get it.

I go inside early, climb into my makeshift bed, and stare at the ceiling.

 

Sunday. High of 102. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom is already up by the time I come upstairs.

“I’m glad I caught you,” she says, yawning. “Don’t go out to the garden this morning, okay? We’re taking a family outing, and I don’t want you getting dirty.”

I stare. “No one else will even be awake for another three hours.”

“Then how about you sleep in, like a normal college student?” She says it with a smile, running a gentle hand over my hair, but the comment still stings. Not normal. Broken.

“What are we doing?”

It turns out Mom’s idea of a “family outing” is visiting my grandmother’s grave. She and Savannah make us all dress up like we’re going to church, and we drive forty-five minutes to the cemetery. The grass here is thin and yellow. It strikes me as strange that the city won’t even use sprinklers in the cemetery, but I guess the people buried here don’t know or care what the grass looks like.

We stand by the plot, looking at the tombstone sparkling in the sun. I think about the same, scorching light blaring down on my little plants. They haven’t had water today. Savannah takes Dad’s arm and leans her head on his shoulder.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year without Mom,” she whispers. Dad nods his agreement. Logan isn’t bouncing around for once. He looks up at Dad. “Is Grandma in heaven?” 

Dad smiles at Logan and nods. “She’s an angel now. And she’s with Jesus, just how she always wanted to be someday.”

But she’s not in heaven, I think, frowning at the dried-up grave plot. She’s right here, rotting under our feet. Dissolving slowly into soil, feeding the withered grass with her body. Disappearing.

The family is smiling at one another, clasping hands and patting shoulders and bringing up fond memories of Grandma, and I want to join in, but I feel like I’m watching them from the far end of a tunnel. Nothingness like a fog grips my mind, crawling in from the edges of my consciousness and resting firmly in the center of my brain. I drift over to a bench sitting in the sparse shade of an oak tree. The fog follows me. I stare at nothing.

“Avie?”

A voice emerges from the nothingness, and eventually a body. Savannah sits next to me on the bench. How long have I been sitting here? She drapes a tan arm around my shoulders.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good.” The words come automatically, but they taste stale in my mouth, the same way off-brand Oreos don’t taste quite like the real ones.

“I know you miss her.”

“Yeah, well. That’s life.”

Savannah, for once, doesn’t say anything else.

“Do you really believe in God?” I don’t know where the question comes from, but it spills from my mouth before I can process it.

Savannah considers my question a moment before answering. “Yes. I just can’t imagine that there isn’t . . . something out there. It doesn’t make sense to me that all this”—she gestures vaguely at our surroundings—“could be meaningless.”

I turn that comment over in my head, my forehead creasing. I don’t see how the existence of a God factors into life meaning anything. Either there is no God, no one listening in the ceiling when we say grace over dinner, and meaning dies with our bodies, lies with us in the ground until that inevitable day, billions of years in the future, when the sun expands in its final stages of life and swallows us up and leaves no one left in the universe to remember that human life ever meant anything. Or, there is a God, and the droughts and the wildfires and the emptiness of life will eventually give way to eternal bliss in heaven, in which case we would all be better off under the grass with Grandma, anyway.

But it’s not a normal thing to say, so I make an indistinct noise in my throat and watch the yellow grass quiver in the pathetic breeze until Mom comes over to pack us all back into the car and take us home.

 

Monday. 101. Zero percent chance of rain.

My alarm doesn’t go off, so I don’t get up. I just lie there, and the longer I lie there, the more overwhelming the task of getting up seems. The numbers on the clock keep changing, nine, ten, eleven, and I think that maybe I ought to feel bad that I’m wasting my day, but I don’t feel anything at all except a muted sense of dread, like something bad will happen if I push off my covers. So I don’t. I just keep lying there.

The garden.

I hear footsteps on the basement stairs. Someone coming to check on me. I close my eyes until I hear the click . . . creak . . . snap of the door opening and closing again.

The garden.

My Eden. My roses and lilacs and geraniums. No one will water them if I don’t. I pull my covers off, swing my legs over the couch, and fumble up the stairs. My mind is groggy, drunk on an excess of sleep. Savannah and David are putting together sandwiches for Hallie and Logan, who sit on the counter barstools with their legs swinging. David asks if I want one. I shake my head, stumble out the door in my pajamas and grab the hose.

The rose buds are still too skinny.

 

Wednesday. 103. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom and Dad call a family meeting before dinner. We’re still using too much water, they tell us. We’ve got to cut back. Scrub dishes with soap and get all the food off before rinsing them. Don’t leave the tap running when you’re brushing your teeth. No one should take a longer-than-five-minute shower.

“And Avie, honey, I’m sorry, but we really can’t be watering the garden anymore.” My heart plunges into my stomach with dizzying force.

“But . . . Mom,” I say. My voice creaks, barely louder than a whisper. “It’ll die. The roses . . . everything. They need water. They’ll die.”

“And I’ll die if I can only shower for five minutes!” Hallie interjects. “How am I supposed to wash my hair, ever? It takes longer than that, Mom!”

Hallie keeps whining and Mom tries to calm her down, and everyone forgets that my garden is going to dry up and turn brown and disappear to a place where I will never be able to bring it back to life. My throat goes dry at the thought, drier than the godforsaken California dirt. My heart picks up speed and my brain feels fuzzy and no one notices. No one else seems to understand how urgent, how crucial it is that the garden stays alive.

The oven timer goes off, distracting us from the argument. Dad serves the food and asks me to say grace. I only ask the ceiling for one thing.

Rain.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

I wake up early, too early, and grab two mop buckets out of the closet. I use my five minutes of water to fill them up, then rush them outside, like a surgeon in an emergency room running to deliver life-saving medicine to a patient on the cusp of death.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, emptying the buckets over my little plants as the bluish glow of dawn creeps over the eastern edge of the neighborhood. “I know you’re thirsty. This is all I have.”

Their leaves, sickly yellow around the edges, curl downward, betrayed. You’re going to let us die, they accuse me.

“No, no!” I whimper, hands quivering, but my tongue is dry and they can hear it, hear the uncertainty. They weep tearlessly.

I grab my clippers and prune away their yellow parts.

 

Saturday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Savannah has stopped joining me in the garden. Her sunflowers will never send up shoots. I don’t waste water on them.

 

Tuesday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad cuts us back to one five-minute-shower every other day until the drought is over. Five minutes of water every forty-eight hours is not enough for my garden, not in this heat. I sneak into Hallie’s room and use her perfume when she isn’t in there. My nails are permanently black with dirt and my hair is heavy with oil. Getting out of bed grows more daunting every day, but I do it, because no one else will give their five minutes of water to my garden.

 

Friday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Logan runs into the house late in the afternoon, his face lit up in a big, dandelion grin, yelling that he saw storm clouds while he was playing outside. Savannah and David and Mom and Dad and even Hallie come running outside to see their salvation. They file onto the lawn, and stare in dense silence at the huge, black billows of smoke creeping up from the southwest.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad has bad news when he comes back from work. The wildfires have taken on an unexpected trajectory, putting our house in the path of danger. We should all have a bag packed, in case they evacuate the neighborhood. Hallie and Logan whine loudly, but Dad pinches the bridge of his nose and tells them to do it.

“And try not to go outside, okay? There’s a public health warning, the air isn’t safe,” he calls after them as they run upstairs. I sneak out to the garden before he can turn around and tell me that the public health warning applies to me, too.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

The stench of smoke clings to my sweaty skin and greasy hair, clings to the yellowing leaves and cracking dirt in the garden, clings to the house and everything in it as if with millions of clammy, gray hands. I stop using Hallie’s perfume. None of us ever smell clean, now.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom wakes me before my alarm goes off, before the sun has started peeking through the narrow basement windows.

“We’ve got to go, Avie.”

I stir groggily. “Huh?”

“They’re evacuating us today. It isn’t safe to stay any longer.”

I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “I can’t today. I have to fertilize, prune . . . ”

“I’m sorry about the garden, honey. Really, I am. But the National Guard is clearing everyone out. We can’t stay.”

Her words sink through my sleepiness, sink through my fog and my nothingness. I open my eyes and focus on my mom’s face in the darkness. “No.”

 “Avie—”

“No.”

“We’re not discussing it.” Her voice hardens for the first time, thorns prickling out of her lips. “Go upstairs and pack up what you can—Savannah and David are already out of your room.”

The thorns in her voice cut deep. She doesn’t care about my garden. She doesn’t care.

I sit up and push past her, leaving the blankets in a tangle on the floor, and run outside. Even in the dark, I can see how yellow the garden is. I kneel in the dirt, rubbing the wilting, thirsty leaves between my fingers. There’s commotion in the street—neighbors calling for family members, National Guardsmen giving instructions, dogs barking. A siren blares somewhere in the distance, and that cloud of smoke hangs in the air, too close, an extra layer of blackness against the sky. It chokes me with its long, clammy fingers.

I don’t bother with my pruning shears—I just pull off yellow leaves with unnervingly steady hands. I watch those hands, as if they belong to someone else. The sun sends up shoots over the horizon, turning the sky purple.

“Avie.”

A hot breeze scatters the pile of yellow leaves. My little plants need water, but I don’t have five minutes for them today. I gave them seven yesterday.

“Avie, let’s go.”

I look around, dazed. My whole family stands in the driveway, dragging suitcases and backpacks—I recognize my own luggage among their load. Hallie cries frustrated tears. Logan slumps, still half asleep, against the porch rail. Dad, Savannah and David are loading up the cars, and Mom stands expectantly on the lawn behind me, a scarf tied over her nose and mouth.

“I’m not going.”

“I grabbed your suitcases from school—they were mostly still full. If you need anything that wasn’t in them, you should go grab it now.”

“I’m not leaving them,” I whisper.

“And we’re not leaving you.” Mom kneels beside me and strokes my snarled, greasy hair. “I know it’s hard. But you can plant another garden next year.”

Not if the house burns down, I want to say. But then I remember that I’m supposed to be hopeful, heliotropic, looking toward the future and all its blazing inevitability with a blind grin, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I pick up my spade, but I don’t know why, because I don’t need to dig for anything. I jam it into the ground anyway, like maybe I can dig a hole big enough to crawl into and escape Mom’s prying gaze.

“Avie, you haven’t been yourself all summer.”

I jam my spade hard into the earth again. It gives with a dry crunch.

“Is this about Grandma passing?” Mom asks, her carnation voice wilting.

I don’t know how to answer that, how to explain that it isn’t Grandma, but the questions left in her absence. Too many questions about life and death and meaning and time, ending only in dead ends and complications, and I am unequal to the daunting permanence of their answers.

So I say no, and punctuate the word with another jab with the spade. “It doesn’t matter. That’s just how it goes.” I don’t know what I’m digging for, but my spade keeps flashing and my throat feels hot and suddenly all these stupid words are spilling out of my mouth, putrid like vomit, and I can’t contain them. “Things leave. People”—crunch—“time”—crunch—

“ happiness. It all leaves and it doesn’t come back and you just have to live with it.”

Mom gives me that damn look again and for some reason, it makes anger boil up inside me, hot and rancid and guilty. I hate myself for putting that look on her face.

“You’re right,” she says. Infuriating. I want her to disagree. I want to argue. I want to scream. “But there’s more than one way to be happy.”

“But has it ever occurred to you that some kinds of happiness are better than others?” My voice comes out shrill and ragged. My family members all turn to look at me, some startled, some pitying, but I can’t stop. “Effortless happiness. Real happiness. Not fabricated happiness. The kind we have to convince ourselves we have, force ourselves to have.”

“You don’t have to force yourself to feel anything.”

“But everyone else has it!” Crunch. “Everyone else is normal. Why can—” my voice breaks. “Why can everyone else feel it?”

A drop of water lands on my right hand, and for one wild moment I think it’s started raining, but then my vision fuzzes over and the heat from my throat stretches up behind my eyes and I realize that I’m crying.

Stupid, I think angrily, watching more drops spatter onto the dirt. Stupid how the human body can produce so much water, but not enough to drink, or put out forest fires, or water the garden. Useless.

Soft footsteps on the grass behind me. “You ready?” Dad asks.

I palm the tears off my face, horror crashing over me like a heat wave. “No.” I look at Mom, frantic, but she just shakes her head.

“Avie—”

“No. No!” More tears burn hot in my eyes, but I can’t wipe them away fast enough. “I can’t leave them! They’ll die!”

Dad reaches for my arms to pull me up, but I jerk away from him. “Don’t! You don’t care!” I hear weeping, but I don’t know if it’s me or my garden, mourning my last betrayal. Another set of strong arms wraps around me and hauls me to my feet. I pull against them, but they bind me, constrict me, pull me to the car.

“No!”

The door slams shut like the lid of a coffin. I press my face to the window, tears streaking down the glass like the rain the traitor ceiling never sent us, like five minutes of water drizzling into a mop bucket. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

The car lurches beneath me. We follow the line of traffic from the neighborhood, and I watch my poor, yellow plants grow smaller and smaller until we turn a corner and they disappear from view.

 

 

August. Zero percent chance of rain.

We watch the news coverage from my mom’s cousin’s house upstate. I don’t look at the screen—don’t want to see the blackened remains of our home. Instead, I look at my hands. Clean, soft, with trimmed, white fingernails. No dirt.

Mom and Dad say we can’t come but I stand up from the sofa and get in the car anyway and they don’t stop me. The drive seems an eternity, but when we get there, I wish it had been longer. I wish we could have driven and driven until we reached the line on the horizon, the end of the world.

The street is silent, except for a few of our old neighbors milling around, speaking with National Guardsmen and fire-fighters. Everything is gray and black and the air scratches my throat when I inhale. My body feels numb. Blank. Empty.

I turn my eyes back onto the remains of our house for the first time. They trail from the partially-collapsed roof, to the blackened windows, to the front porch, to the—

My heart punches into my throat and my lungs clench. I step forward. A gentle hand lands on my upper arm, trying to stop me, but I shrug it off. It doesn’t touch me again. Slow steps, up to the side of what used to be the porch.

It’s gone.

My knees hit the sooty remains of my Eden. The geraniums, the lilacs, the roses. The last piece of happiness, the last thing that had mattered. All gone. I dig my fingers into the soil- turned-ash, breathing in gasps, and sink into this pathetic grave for the flowers and the time and a million intangible parts of me I can never bring back to life.

My burning eyes land on something green. I turn my head slowly, the nothingness stifling any incredulity that might have sprung up at the sight.

Impossible.

By the side of the house, a single, tiny sunflower shoot pokes out of the ash.

A ragged, primal pain tears through my chest. I press my forehead to the ground and water the garden.

Karina Andrew grew up in rural Ohio, but she’s a big city girl at heart. She dreams of moving to New York City someday, after she completes her degree in journalism at BYU. When she’s not writing, she can be found attending concerts, burying her nose in a fantasy novel, or, if it’s early in the morning, repeatedly pressing the snooze button on her alarm. 

Birthday and Christmas

by Giorgio Palladino

Annie was given two dogs in the same year. One on her Birthday (partially black, fixed, the Hornbergers’ Mom had decided the kids couldn’t take care of it) and the second on Christmas (blonded, younger, a rescue). The first was meant to curb the loneliness her parents could hear compressing her childhood. The Christmas pet was to keep the loneliness dog company. The dogs would gnaw and grow and get lost on separate occasions. The loneliness would too.

Unlike when the dogs went missing, there were no posters put up in search of the loneliness when it would disappear. Annie’s parents offered no reward. Mostly they made scones and watched as much television as they could together before her fever of optimism inevitably broke. She could stay home from school, was the agreement, if she could produce some proof of illness. Any abnormal excretions were fair game and often she would borrow Birthday’s latest concoction  and mix it with the plunger in the toilet bowl. Mom was willingly and nobly deceived.

When things got bad, Annie would lie on her stomach and speak with her dogs: whisper to the Christmas dog things the Birthday dog would likely fail to understand and stroke Birthday’s belly when Christmas was asleep. The secrets she harbored gave her something to tally and possess. At night she imagined pitting the animals against each other, inciting a rivalry or contest within them. She wanted to see their affection played out with violence—a kind of love her home was incapable of producing. Her efforts did not bear fruit, as a dog cannot be against anything. A dog or dogs can only be unconditionally for something, for you, about you, with you.

Her shyness gave off a gentle amber shimmer, it drew people toward Annie, and Annie further into herself. Mom and Dad couldn’t help thinking there were worlds under their daughter’s hair, that each strand was a Rapunzel rope to a different part of her mind. That a boy could discover the ropes and make his life work the exploration of her mind, tirelessly interested in Annie. First she had to manifest herself to a boy, as a girl.

Annie became a woman at the magazine drive assembly in March. The presenter had finished the what and how, and now they were talking about the why: prizes promised if you got your relatives to subscribe. Annie was not considering participation and was instead reading Proust when she felt the warm menstrual creek developing out of her lap. She stayed put, knowing that movement could elicit the attention that could compromise her anonymity. Instead she casually pulled the covers away from the pages and held the protective flaps together in one hand; the pages fanned out in sympathy and sopped up some of the blood from her legs and chair. Under the cover of the torrential cheering for the stretch hummer limo ride to Boomers, she got up, the stained book now closed and, and exited the building. Successive adolescent shrieks escaped the double doors, her blood had been found. Annie was exposed.

The quad was humming with absence. Unoccupied tables with fiberglass umbrellas made up a system of emptiness. She was still bleeding in transit, leaving little red stars—exploding spots of puberty—on the concrete. In the ladies’ room, she wept as she inserted the feminine product. She hated that she was dripping more of herself into the world. She wanted to be picked up early, but a sixth period Ms. Hagishida would not be mocked with excuses. The potential for tomorrow’s embarrassment (and the anxious hours before that embarrassment took shape) eclipsed today’s discomfort. Annie stayed.

At home she wore her backpack while she removed the soiled baton and replaced it with a pad. She walked past the sink and into her room, hungry. From her laptop, she played “Forever Dolphin Love” and surrendered to her duvet. She kissed the silence with open lips, and prayed to God that no one would say her name ever again. Christmas raked softly against the door until he found the lever and broke through. On her bed, she washed him with kisses and wrapped him in the prison of her arms.

“Where is the sun, my present?” Annie pleaded, cupping his ears with both hands. “Where is the light and the morning and the strawberries in yogurt?”  Looking into his eyes, she found a question, “do you like being touched?” It had not occurred to her that her concern might smother her pet. The door sighed once more and Birthday made them three on the bed. Synchronized together in the safety of her sheets, Annie wouldn’t have to wake up, she thought, for a month. She could sleep with her dogs until finals and still pass her classes. When she reached for her phone to read them some Rumi (their favorite poet), she discovered a ghost trauma of her menstrual mishap: two bleeding streaks on her bed. She sat up, then off the bed, following the syncopated trail to the bathroom trash bin. Christmas remained in bed with Birthday, licking the sweet crimson. When she realized that Birthday had eaten the cotton soaked in Annie’s insides, she laughed incredulously. “My dogs,” she thought, “know every part of me.”

Birthday and Christmas continued gnawing at spring until it gave way to summer. Before school got out, Mom and Dad became concerned that the generosity they had demonstrated on her Birthday and at Christmas was not curing her disease—the enveloping darkness of her loneliness had expanded, tinting the windows and graying the water. Annie’s father stopped taking baths. Maybe, they thought, Birthday and Christmas only dislodged her loneliness onto another plane. Perhaps they only distracted their daughter from confronting her demons. Annie could sense their concern and looming preparations. She braced for the ambush that took place upon coming back Thursday after tennis practice.

The homosexual her parents had brought into their home was smiling in the living room. He introduced himself wrongly, with his first name. Grown-ups that pretend their last names aren’t important cannot be trusted, Annie had discovered. The only teacher at her school that insisted on going by his first name had to leave in the middle of the school year for inviting one of his pupils to his house during spring break. The rumor that this former teacher had also been a homosexual only bolstered her suspicions.

“Annie, do you know why I’m here?”

“…”

“I’m here because your parents are—they love you very much and…” he paused when his prologue produced no visible results. The professional had been a top-rate student, he was bright, idealistic, and handsome. But terrible with children.  “Do you ever feel out of place, Annie?”

“Where,” she asked, “at school?”

“At school, or with friends. Or at home?”

“I guess I don’t really have a place I’m supposed to be. So it’s hard for me to feel out of place?”

“Okay then, when do you feel most yourself? Where does Annie feel most comfortable?”

The way he talked about Annie’s feelings was physical, as if he was talking about the curves and the corners of her soul’s body, heretofore untouched and still in the throes of maturation.  She did not like his words or his mouth and she wanted out. Annie excused herself without permission to check on her presents, explaining she would return.

In her room, Christmas was alone, damp with mercy and commanding the top of the sweatshirt pile Annie cycled through each morning for school. His eyes were glinting resolute silver and his jaw rocked softly with his panting. Annie looked at her dog and the dog did not look away. Shame is a singularly human phenomenon, sometimes advantageously projected onto other living things to relate better to their own suffering. Remember that it was woman, not beast that broke the rule and ate the fruit. Golden Retrievers and Jackals and Corgis were spectators to man’s curious performance. Man found himself naked and put on clothes. God threw man out of the garden. Toil and sweat were prescribed to man. It didn’t occur to the dogs they were naked or lazy, but they chased after man when they saw how sad he was in his clothes. Dogs might feel pain, but they cannot feel shame.

Annie wiped the blood echoes from Christmas’s mouth and understood: Birthday was now a part of Christmas, consumed out of compassion. The cubist remains of his companion were swallowed up and rolling in festive acid. Though she had not been present, she chose to believe that her pet’s spirit had left this world without a peep. Annie cursed aloud for the first time as she applied baby powder aimlessly to Christmas’ head and spine. The desultory white dust felt like courage on her hands. She lifted the weight of two dogs and carried him into the living room and onto her lap.

The therapist shifted in his seat, reorienting his hips to face his client’s daughter. He asked about the dog. She had lived enough years in silence to know when someone was unwanted and the therapist clearly did not approve of Christmas’ presence during his session. But Annie had also lived long enough to know that this was not a session, strictly speaking, and whatever it was it would happen on her terms. She rubbed her hands on Christmas’ sloping skull, feeling the helmet under his fur speak friction to the joints beneath her skin. She decided not to hear what the stranger in her living room was saying—she had learned to tune out unwanted voices as a way of protecting her autonomy. She ran the underside of her knuckles back and forth along Birthday’s ribbed crypt, feeling out a jagged piecemeal in between cell bars. Christmas would lift his head and groan dryly when Birthday scraped against his stomach wall. The homosexual left and Annie went swimming to wash the layer of tennis salt that colonized the region above her nose. Christmas and Birthday joined her.

The dog trailed Annie in the water, tripling her wake. He excitedly shook in the pool water, splashing forget all over her face. She would go under and Christmas would pull her back up. Their wet friendship produced a clever game: How deep could she get before Christmas stopped her? She would descend and Christmas would nudge her back up. On her fourth attempt at the bottom, Christmas gripped her nylon bottom half in his teeth and swam heroically. Annie could feel the stretch in her suit and extended her right arm out, hoping to make contact with the floor. Sensing danger, he pulled harder—his efforts mirrored her resistance. She broke the surface with her knees and tumbled into oxygen. In the quarrel, she hadn’t touched the bottom and Christmas had taken in chlorine. He began wet-hacking, waltzing in seizures toward the shallow end. Annie, by this time, had recovered her hearing and was bouncing over to him. Every cough birthed economy, exchanging something out for something in. He was drowning himself in Annie’s arms. Red and bones and brown and soft formed an estuary from the river of his body. The protected watershed was breached and fed into the ocean of a Southern California swimming pool. Christmas stopped coughing; Annie floated in Birthday.

From the window, Mom saw Annie battered and buoyant on her back and called to her husband. He left the television promptly and ran to the pool deck in socks. Annie could hear their confused parenting, but could make out no words. The sun sang vespers on her skin. The glowing girl lifted Christmas, now less heavy, out of the pool and laid him motionless on the grass. She took the shovel from the garden steps and knelt on his chest.

“You rescued me,” Annie prayed and plunged the head of the shovel into Christmas’s neck. The animal was alive and muted. She pulled the metal from his throat and with her weight on her foot severed his head. When she had separated the body from his mind, she placed the corpse into the pool and dried off with a towel.

The next day the pool cleaners were paid extra to remove Christmas and Birthday and disinfect the pool. The avocado trees dropped their fruit in mourning and the gum tree tower shed a thousand eucalyptus tears. Annie learned to shave her legs in the summer that soured before it began.

 

 

Giorgio Palladino lives and works in Spanish Fork, Utah.

Honey Candy

by Elmo Ishii

When Todd asked Abigail to be his wife, she crawled out of the balloon-suspended basket and into a free fall, breaking both legs, her pelvis and, as Todd would never have the privilege of pointing out, her hymen. The pain of recovery was long and grinding, but she didn’t complain. In fact, she was pleased; it wasn’t a suicide she wanted, but a wheelchair.

She loved Todd. He was small and timid, but clever enough to tease her—she liked that. He didn’t care for other people and she liked that too; she wanted him to care for her and her alone. She loved his thick-strung red hair and smoky lips, how they shared the same birthday and weren’t too proud to take the train or tip street-dancers. She loved him and would never leave him, but lived in fear that at any moment he might forget her entirely. She fell from the balloon to end the uncertainty, convinced that after a few months of elevators, graceless kisses, and coworker pity-whispers, Todd’s love would lose its pulse and she’d be free.

But Todd found the life that blessed his laden love well worth its inconvenience. Wheeling Abigail here and there had made him stronger. Once rawboned and brittle, he found a sense of accomplishment in filling out his shirts and even began a daily routine: twenty minutes jumping rope, twenty push-ups, twenty sit-ups. When they went to the movies they parked in blue without a worry, and never had to sit too close to the screen. Doors were held open when they approached buildings and stranger-made apologies seemed sincere. People talked kindly to him, and when he worked nights at the call-center he began talking kindly to people. He listened to Abigail and wrote down her more beautiful insights in a lined notebook—what she’d say about God and other unseen things. He attended his soul, seeking counsel from men of greater faith. One Sunday he found the closest congregation to his apartment and spent the afternoon laughing and crying in tongues with the pentecostals. He arranged a weekly visit with the pastor and was always punctual. Todd washed in his wisdom and left their sessions dripping with a more determined devotion. His pity for Abigail soon bloomed into exhausting patience.

On their twenty-third birthday he missed his own party to help her try on dresses at the department store—her birthday wish. He plucked her from the dressing stool and paraded her about the displays, weaving through whooshing racks of things she couldn’t afford. Abigail blushed at his cartoon strength and caught the glances of walking shoppers, winning their jealousy, she hoped.

He spent his days at her apartment and would stay at her side for hours, finding fresh ways to serve as she plucked at her online assignments. He’d wheel her to the window to see the clouds burn cherry-purple, arrange for visits from loved ones, bring her newspapers bursting with golden tulips. Her sisters gushed when they came to meet him, saying he was too good to be true. Abigail shook her head and grinned, but soon wondered if he was too good to be true to her.

She spun in worried circles until the room stank of charring rubber, questioning his goodness before the tulips needed water. She convinced herself that his tenderness was building toward something terrible—perhaps the day of her healing, when he would realize he had confused pity for passion and leave her apartment, taking the tulips and forgetting her entirely. She would be left to wither, her bottom melting each day more into the chair until it was rendered geriatric. These suspicions made his companionship something to avoid. Sometimes she’d pretend to fall asleep in hopes of his leaving, but he would stay another hour humming, holding her bare ankles, rolling her back and forth on the hardwood.

Do you love me, Todd? she asked one day.

I love you, yes. Very much.

Why?

Why do I love you?

Yes, why?

Todd didn’t know why. She was beautiful and fragile and they had read the same books. Her nose turned at its end like a trumpet and he could run his fingers through her black hair all day without drawing any grease. Though buried deep in plaster casting, he remembered her pale, balletic legs with fondness. She loved him and when she told him so for the first time his contents wobbled with familiar warmth. She had a way of looking at him that made him feel like he could play the stock-market. She trusted him because he respected her. Even if her healing bones could have born his body, he wouldn’t have suggested sex. Todd was not a virgin, but Abigail was and wanted to wait—he liked that. There was a curious open-endedness to each kiss that marked her purity and he liked that too. He had lost all interest in other girls, and in conversations with female coworkers would ask safe questions about the weather that week or what they thought of the new headsets. They could tell he was happy, and if yesterday one of them had asked if he loved Abigail he would have said yes. Now he wasn’t sure. The next few nights at the call-center, he posed the question to customers until his supervisor sent him home. Why do I love her? Why do I love her?By the time he saw the pastor on Sunday, the question was shorter.

Do I love her? I’m

Perhaps, he said, Or perhaps you love serving one of the Lord’s wounded lambs.

So you’re saying it’s not Abigail? You’re saying I love God?

I’m saying you’re a good man.

Plodding the three blocks home from what would be his last meeting, Todd was unhinged. At once he missed Abigail and felt relief at the thought of never seeing her again. In his apartment he draped himself over an armchair and smoked a pair of cigarettes, bathing in the lamp-light. It was unreasonable—unnatural to expect one to wait so long for lovemaking, he thought, and went to sleep wondering what other worlds awaited him.

* * *

Abigail had been dreaming about God since Todd stopped coming by. She had the same dream twice a week, but each time would wake not knowing if the memory of having dreamt it all before was just a consequence of the morning delirium. She dreamed that God drew from her mouth a silver finch and locked it in a cage. Her knees could bend and she could run, so God hid the cage in a cobwebbed hole. She crawled inside, worming her way toward the song of the finch. She crawled for days, for years, to the end of the hole, to a circular room with banana-spotted walls. The floor was carpeted with honey candy and from the walls stuck thick ice shelves, each stacked with glass bottles of water. The hand of God hung where chandeliers do, holding high the cage between thumb and forefinger, the silver finch turning about, croaking her tired song. Abigail reached to free her, but in crawling had forgotten her legs and how to use them. Sprawled upon the floor, she stuffed herself with honey candy and drank glass-bottled water until she grew too bored for breath.

How can I help you today?

It’s me. Todd, it’s Abby.

I really shouldn’t talk at work.

I haven’t seen you in months.

Can you please hold?

A jazz ensemble squeezed through the tinny speaker. She dug a green heel into the hardwood and twirled in her unzipped birthday dress.

Abigail?

I’m here.

I can’t talk right now. Why don’t we meet this week?

Sure, she said.

Saturday? Evening-ish?

Afternoon.

I’ll be at your place at two o’clock.

No. Meet me at Blithe Park—the aviary. I’m walking again.

Todd detoured on his way to their meeting, then only blocks from the park. He stopped to rescue a haggard pair of misioneras who had stranded themselves on the median divider in a sea of unholy traffic. They kissed his hands and, linking arms, ushered him into el Salón del Reino to be counted among the one hundred forty-four thousand souls Jehovah soon would save.

At the aviary, flushing in the afternoon swelter, Abigail rediscovered the pleasure of leaning into a flaccid chain-linked fence. She leaned through hours, birthday dress glued to her naked body, waiting to forgive her Todd in maple-shaded passion. Soon shade yielded to the going sun and she limped the twisted path through the canopy, lapping ferns and giant flowers. The birds hushed. A pair of hooded vultures landed behind her softly, then followed on foot. A melba finch joined in line, then a sunbittern. An eastern screech owl, a white-headed buffalo weaver, a domestic chicken. Tails brushed and claws clacked, but not a yawp from the procession—even the swan geese yielded. An egret flew above the nonsense in winged expanse. Abigail watched as the large slow thing would lift, then pale before the netted dusk; its flight reduced to such clipped circuits. Then Abigail turned and beheld the aberrant parade of birds. Good Lord, she said. Their heads cocked, eyes all agog. A child stood at Todd’s ear translating the discussion about La Atalaya when la puerta del Salón del Reino se abrió de golpe. El hermano who had been sitting outside keeping watch entered, flapping his hands.

Aves! Vengan ya!

The congregation moved into the parking lot. El hermano and the child were pointing toward heaven. Birds flocking by the hundreds, gathering into a great column of kinds and colors, rising in the evening black. They were silent but for the heavy murmur of wings. They circled and spun above a parking structure then doubled in the bright reflection of the hospital, peeling backward en masse and up again. Others in the street began to watch. Two policeman were atop their cruiser, laughing and weeping, gesturing to the angry drivers to exit their cars and look! All were still with wonder and all joined in a whining boo when the birds flew out of sight as if onward to a long migration. But a distant drone of squawks sounded, then grew loud and impending. From the darkness they returned, pouring over the buildings in garish honks and trills. They were calling all birds—seagulls, pigeons, crows—to join their pageant. They soon were countless and in an instant broke into a swarm of terror and droppings, like bats. Then gone. The traffic resumed. The congregation rose from their knees and set to gathering up the best fallen plumes.

Todd was running to the park. Two employees stood at the open gate of the aviary when he arrived; one clawed and bleeding, the other fumbling with a radio—both frantic. He asked if they had seen a black-haired woman with a cane, maybe crutches. They didn’t answer. He stumbled along the unlit paths and through the trees calling her name, but she didn’t answer.

He was tired and had slowed into a nervous walk when he reached the black pond at the heart of the park and saw the egret. It was so enormously white in the smooth and moonless reflection, he first thought it an angel. From high above the treeline it fell like a howling star, then spread into a glide, a slow landing. It stalked with backward knees, it’s head a snake, floating. Then snapped downward, emerging polished with water, a dark fish speared on its bill. Todd watched the great bird as it left the shallow edge for the shore, turning itself toward the trees in an attitude of sharing. High, high above the egret in the ladled crook of a eucalyptus was Abigail cradling a large red hen, singing.

 

 

Elmo is a Christian. He enjoys playing the piano.