Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here

          Bo Schumpert took Sunday mornings off. She paid her neighbor, Dickie Robledo, six dollars an hour to watch the Country Mart from nine until noon so she could go home and vacuum her living room, mow her lawn, pour poison on fire ant mounds in the front yard. That morning in March, the day Shawna came back, the temperature was already in the low nineties. After running the mower for fifteen minutes, Bo was getting dizzy so she turned it off and wiped her forehead with the hem of her t-shirt. A cicada droned overhead and a hot breeze blew in off the Gulf. One hundred yards away FM 624 hummed as cars raced west to Orange Grove or east to Corpus Christi. Next door the oldest Ayala boy had laid pieces of cardboard across the grass and was attempting to roller-skate over them, making tight revolutions like a plastic ballerina in a jewelry box. Thirty people lived in Schumpert, Texas, named for Bo’s great-great-grandfather who’d founded it—but Bo was the only living Schumpert left in the county. As rare as hens’ teeth, she thought. Like a snowbird in Hell.
          Rocks crunched under tires and Bo looked up to see a red car driving slowly toward her on the caliche road. Bo didn’t recognize the vehicle and was surprised to watch it pull into her own driveway. She wiped her forehead once more and brushed her hands down the front of her jeans.
          Loud dance music pulsed through the car doors. The windows were tinted almost black and Bo could see nothing in them except her own reflection. But as she stood waiting to see who would emerge, and before the door even opened, Bo caught a subtle whiff of perfume, the Britney Spears kind in the bright green bottle that smelled like fruit juice and toilet cleaner. She knew: the person in the red car was her twin sister, Shawna. 
          “Damn, dude, you need a shower,” Shawna said by way of greeting. She wore checkerboard sneakers without socks and a t-shirt from a pool hall in Port Aransas that said Nice Rack. To Bo she looked older than twenty-nine. Gone two years, Shawna’s face was rough and lined, her jowls drooped, her eyes were red and her blonde hair was limp and showed traces of once having been dyed blue. Bo was dizzy again, the shock of her living, breathing sister standing before her almost enough to knock her down.
          Shawna had left without a word, a forwarding address, a plan, a dime. Bo had called the police—the deputy didn’t even get out of his car. He’d pointed to their small shingle house, at the mosquitos swarming the trash-strewn ditch that ran between them and the road. “Hell, I’d have left, too,” he said.
          “She’s a junkie,” Bo said. “I’m scared she’s gonna OD.”
          “She might,” the deputy said, watching a blue tarp flap against the side of Dickie’s house. “Most do.”
          Now Bo looked at her sister, her twin, with whom she’d shared a womb and for twenty-seven years, a life. She wanted to both hug and strangle her, knock her teeth out and then sit on her so she’d never leave again. She was afraid if she touched her she might not let go and it seemed unnatural after all this time everything should be rectified with a hug, so she crossed her arms over her chest and held herself close.  
          “The air conditioner’s broken,” Bo said, “but you’re welcome to come in.”
          Shawna squinted at the house. “Nah,” she said. “Anyway why aren’t you at the store? Who’d you get to watch it for you?”
          Shawna snorted. “You’d better count the scratchers when he leaves.”
          Bo bit the inside of her cheek and would not admit that was precisely what she did every Sunday. “You came straight here thinking I’d be at the store,” Bo said, preferring to yank the purpose of the visit out of Shawna, rather than listen to her sister lie and wheedle for hours only to discover she needed money. “What do you want?”
          “Why do you have to be like that,” Shawna said, crossing her arms, too, and thrusting one foot forward. “You haven’t seen me in forever. I’m clean now.” She held up her wrist to show Bo a small gold charm dangling from a bracelet. “This is for one year. I quit drinking, too. Even Boone’s Farm.”
          Bo’s eyes narrowed. “Let me see that,” she said, reaching for the bracelet.
          The charm was enamel, about the size of a quarter. On one side it read Time equals miracles, and on the other, A new way of living, Just for today.
          She dropped the charm and stepped back, still not convinced. “Where are you staying?”
          “With a guy over in Flour Bluff. He’s a boat mechanic.”
          “You working?”
          “Sometimes.” Shawna eyed the house again. “You got anyone?” she asked.
          Bo gave a short laugh. “Dickie brings me quails every now and again—does that count?”
          The sisters laughed politely until their voices were swallowed up by an eighteen-wheeler roaring down FM 624.
          “Well, I’ve got to get cleaned up,” Bo said. “If you want to stay for lunch you can come to the store and I’ll fix you some tacos.”
          “Yeah,” Shawna said, taking a few steps in the direction of the backyard. “Thanks.”
          Bo watched her sister a moment from the porch, silently absorbing the carefree way she put her arms out on either side of her as she walked over a two-by-four like it was a tightrope. “Come in if you want,” she said, “but it’s probably cooler outside.”
          Fifteen minutes later the sisters hoisted themselves up into the cab of Bo’s pickup truck for the short drive across 624 to the Country Mart. Bo thought Shawna looked pale, a lot like their mother when she used to get her migraines. And the darker part of Bo had to admit it was a relief. Her biggest worry the last two years, after her sister dying face-up in a ditch, had been that Shawna would find success outside Schumpert—that her decision to leave was the right one.
          “Are you alright?” Shawna asked as they waited for the traffic to break long enough that they could cross the highway. They were stopped beside the green metal sign that read Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here.
          “Just fine,” Bo said. “The store’s doing good, too. I started selling egg taquitos in the mornings. They hardly come off the grill before they’re gone.”
          “I can’t believe that stupid Coke can hasn’t blown away,” Shawna said, indicating the giant, inflatable Coca-Cola can tethered to the ground in front of the Country Mart.
          The girls had inherited the store when their mother died, though Shawna left town after only a few months of co-ownership. Shifts that began at six in the morning or ended at ten at night, sponging up urine from the men’s room floor at least twice a day, arguing with the same women every week about why they couldn’t use their SNAP cards to pay for diapers—Bo understood why Shawna would reject her inheritance, but how could she ignore the fact that her freedom had come at the cost of Bo’s imprisonment? Shawna had floated into the blue sky like a balloon while Bo was staked to the ground on a short leash just like that Coke can straining against its ropes. Bo remembered finding Shawna sobbing one morning with her head on top of the cash register. “I’m gonna be here when I’m eighty,” she’d said. “Right in this same chair.”
          “Well,” Bo had told her, “at least we’ll be together.”
          “And what are all those flowers and things?” Shawna asked as they pulled into the parking lot, pointing to the dirt field behind the store. Her voice had risen an octave and Bo knew she was lying, that Shawna had been talking to people and somehow knew exactly what she was looking at.
          Bo sniffed and looked at the gravel in the parking lot glinting blue and gold in the sunlight. “Why don’t you go see,” she said. “I’ve gotta tell Dickie I’m back.”
          Shawna was outside a long time. Bo fixed her one beef taco and one chicken, liberally pouring barbeque sauce over both, and left them on a Styrofoam plate near the cash register while she counted the scratch-off tickets. Shawna finally appeared after half an hour, red-faced and sweating. She made straight for the cooler and took a bottle of Sprite, pressing it against her forehead and in between her breasts.
          “A roadkill cemetery,” Shawna said. “I heard your ass had gone crazy but I didn’t believe it.”
          Bo said nothing. The dairy cooler was leaking again and she was busy searching the drawer under the register for the repair man’s phone number.
          “You’re not gonna say nothing?” Shawna asked. “How long have you been at it?”
          “How long have you been gone?” Bo answered.
          “Jesus,” Shawna said. She took her tacos over to a plastic chair and sat looking through the window at the highway. “What have you got—fifty, sixty graves out there?”
          “Seventy-one,” Bo answered, shutting the drawer with a hard bang.
          The thing was, Bo was enormously proud of her cemetery. She worked on it almost every night after she closed the store, digging graves, planting plastic flowers around the tombstones, dusting the ground with boric acid to keep the coyotes away. Living so close to 624 she certainly had no want of fresh bodies. One day, not long after her mother died and Shawna took off, she’d watched a Schwan’s delivery truck clip a pregnant raccoon that was crossing the road in an attempt, she assumed, to reach the dumpster behind the Country Mart. She’d seen the entire, grim spectacle: how the raccoon’s swollen stomach practically dragged on the ground as she waddled across the road, how cars and motorcycles whipped past but she continued undaunted, dragging her greasy tail over the double yellow line. Bo’s dread had turned to hope as the raccoon entered the eastbound lane, her journey almost complete. Bo had turned away, starting for the dumpster, figuring she would fish out a meal for the animal and spare her the chore of climbing into the hot metal box when she heard the truck. Bo had lived a hundred yards from FM 624 her entire life and she knew the acoustic sequence of hitting an animal at seventy miles an hour—a do, re, mi of brake, swerve, thump. The truck, its Easter yellow paint now faintly streaked with red, had struck the raccoon just as her front feet had reached the solid white line that split the road from the shoulder. The driver climbed out only to make sure he hadn’t damaged the fender before he and truck were absorbed back into the other traffic going east.    
          It had been a slow day and anyway Bo didn’t want a dead raccoon sitting in front of her store. She decided to bury her near the dumpster—at least she could get there in death. When the raccoon was in the ground Bo looked at the little mound and felt it didn’t look quite right, that such a selfless, if foolhardy, mother deserved recognition, a story that would outlive her. And besides, Bo felt more than a little guilt that it had been her dumpster that had lured the animal to her death. How many others had died seeking the same prize?
          And so, each animal received a small tombstone inscribed with a few lines. Baby rat, found in a ditch outside Dickie Robledo’s house. Dickie’s cat probably got him but he was in one piece so he must’ve been a fighter. She said no prayers over the bodies. It was enough just to lay them in the ground, to cover them in soft dirt and mark their brief lives with a few words. They deserved at least that.
          Shawna licked her fingers, having finished the tacos. Bo cleaned smudges from the glass fronts of the coolers with newspaper.
          “I ran into Dickie,” Shawna said, “in case you were wondering. He said some of the neighbors think it’s weird you’re out there all night. They think it’s un-Christian to be…” She paused and cleared her throat. “Playing with dead animals.”
          “For Chrissakes,” Bo said, dropping the bottle of glass cleaner on the floor. “Who’s complaining? Mr. Withers? Kevin Hayek? Mr. Withers is mad because he thought he won five hundred dollars on the Pick Six and I had to tell him his ticket was from the wrong week. And Kevin’s mad because I won’t let him sell meth in the parking lot. Un-Christian? Come on. They’ve known me my whole life.” When she finished speaking Shawna was looking at her with such abject pity Bo thought she might scream.
          “You weren’t here,” she said, surprised at how her throat tightened and her chin wobbled. “I’m in this store a hundred and nine hours every week. I might as well move my dang bed behind the register. And it wasn’t supposed to be like that. It was supposed to be different.”  
          “Let’s sell the store,” Shawna said, holding her hands open to Bo like a TV preacher offering salvation. “Let’s get you out of here. You can move in with me, get a normal job. You’re smart with numbers—you can even go to school. ‘Cause that,” and she aimed her thumb behind her in the direction of the cemetery, “ain’t normal.” She paused and touched her bracelet. “It’s an addiction,” she said, her face brightening, obviously pleased with the analogy. “You’re working on that instead of working on yourself. You’re digging holes out there instead of filling the holes in you. Come on,” she said, and she approached Bo slowly and Bo could see her sister’s throat tighten and her chin wobble as well. Like looking in a mirror. “I’m sorry I left you here,” Shawna said, her voice cracking. “I’m sorry, okay? That’s one of the things they teach you in recovery, is how to say sorry. I was never strong like you. I never could hold up this whole place on my shoulders.”
          Bo let herself be swallowed up in the hug. Her vision blurred and she grabbed her sister fiercely and let her tears fall into Shawna’s hair. Something was loosening and uncoiling inside her, years of anger and fear breaking apart like clouds growing thinner and less distinct until there was nothing left but sky, until she was weak from relief. Could it be that easy? My God, if I’d only known, she thought. “Thank you,” Bo said, breathing in what tasted like new air. “Thank you.”  
          “I love you,” Shawna said, letting go of the hug. “I know it must’ve been hard to run this place on your own. And you did amazing. But let someone else rot here. You don’t have to sacrifice your whole life just because your name’s on that stupid sign out front.”
          Bo had paid five hundred dollars in state fees to have the green metal sign put up in both directions of 624. She’d always had big plans for Schumpert. When she was little she dreamed of reopening the school that had flooded out in 1919, putting in an ice cream parlor, a pizza place, a roller rink. She could see it become more than a gas station and three streets dotted with trailers and junk cars. Even as she decorated the graves with plastic roses and plaster Jesus statues, she’d hoped that people would want to stop and visit the cemetery, that they’d kneel over the tombstones and remark on the care she’d paid to each occupant. When she was ordering the sign the clerk from Austin had asked over the phone if she had a motto she cared to include and Bo had frozen, wishing she’d thought to come up with one before that moment. “’You’re already here,’” she’d said quietly into the receiver, feeling the sentence conveyed both truth and an aspiration: visitors were, in fact, already in Schumpert by the time they were close enough to read the sign, but if they cared to stay the afternoon they would find aspects of the town that were familiar and, she hoped, reassuring.  
          But beyond the sign and the cemetery perhaps Bo had done nothing for Schumpert other than maintain the store and dutifully clear 624 of roadkill. Perhaps Shawna was right. Perhaps it was time to let someone else squeeze themselves into the town. Would anyone notice if the number of living Schumperts in the county dropped from one to zero?
          “I haven’t been to the beach since high school,” Bo said, smiling at the silliness of the admission. “I live forty miles from the Gulf and I haven’t been in eleven years.”
          “Well damn, dude, you gotta go,” Shawna said, wrapping a thin arm around Bo and pulling her into a sideways hug. “You can see the channel from our apartment.”
          “You can help me find a job?” Bo asked. “I always thought it would be nice to work at a bank. Come home not smelling like bleach and nacho sauce.”
          “I could see you working at a bank,” Shawna said.
          “And I could live in one of those apartment complexes that has a pool,” Bo said, laughing a little and feeling giddy. “I could get a milkshake on my lunch hour. A whole hour just for lunch!” Excitement was beginning to build inside her. The fantasies poured forth like bats escaping a cave—a giant television, high heels, a car with air conditioning, a house with air conditioning. Bo spent several tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of seconds as her fingers traced the outlines of wishes she’d never dared breathe.
          “So I may actually already have a buyer,” Shawna said. “He owns a boat that my guy works on sometimes. All I gotta do is give him a call.”
          “Just like that?” Bo asked, blinking rapidly. And as quickly as her dreams had come, now she could see them for what they were, the chipped gold paint revealing the enamel underneath.  
          “Just like that,” Shawna said, fidgeting with her bracelet. “He wants to come today, actually. But before I call him we gotta clean out that cemetery. If he sees that he’s gonna spook.”
          “You came to the house thinking I’d be at the store,” Bo said slowly. “You wanted to be at the house alone so—what? So you could grab the deed?”
          “What?” Shawna laughed and screwed up her face and a hard, little vein appeared on her forehead. “Don’t get paranoid. I’m just saying we can do this today. He’s got cash.” 
          Bo bit her lip and gave one last stab, not ready to let everything go. “What if you stay?” she asked. “You can move back in the house. I’ll get the air conditioner fixed.” She paused and readied herself to say the thing she’d wanted to say for two years, the little hope as small as a marble that she’d almost forgotten deep in her pocket. “If you’re clean now we can run the store together,” she said, “like we were supposed to.”
          But Shawna was shaking her head. “You’re not listening to me,” she said. “We’re doing this.”
          “The cemetery can be a tourist attraction,” Bo said, “like those Cadillacs buried in the ground up in Amarillo. We’ll make it bigger and charge admission. We can sell t-shirts and ice cream. Maybe get a little carousel.”
          “It’s my store, too,” Shawna said, her face beginning to redden. “You don’t get to call all the shots.”
          “We can make this work. We can make this town something special.”
          “What are you talking about?” Shawna barked, causing Bo to jump. “You said it yourself—you want to go to the beach and work somewhere you don’t have to mop up trucker piss. Don’t be stupid.” Her voice cracked again, this time out of desperation. “I’m handing you a ticket out of here,” Shawna said. “Just take it.”
          Bo let her sister’s words hang in the air a moment. Just take it. “You had this cooked up before you came out here,” she said. “Did you think you’d hit a big payday or something?” She pointed to the bracelet. “Is that even yours?”
          Shawna shrugged and fingered the gold charm. “You can find anything at a garage sale,” she said, smirking. 
          Bo looked at her sister and sadness grew like a balloon inside her. “Get out,” she said. And when Shawna didn’t move Bo shoved her hard causing her sister to stumble and knock over a display of Cheetos. “Get out!”
          Shawna ran out of the store and Bo stalked after her, afraid she’d run headlong into the highway like the raccoon. But Shawna hadn’t run to the highway—she was in the cemetery, Bo’s big shovel in her small hands, smashing the remaining tombstones and kicking plastic roses into the air. And she’d been at it a while. When Bo had been inside the store preparing her lunch, Shawna had been out in the cemetery dismantling two years of work. Almost everything was gone. Only the original few graves nearest the dumpster remained, including the raccoon.
          “I would have died if I’d stayed here,” Shawna said, holding the shovel up in front of her like a battle-axe. “Look what this town’s done to you,” and she brought the shovel down on a marker for an old Labrador. “I’m telling you we can get a goddamn garbage bag full of money, today, and you’re in there talking about selling ice cream? This is why I left. ‘Cause I knew staying here was gonna make me crazy, too.”
          “You need the money?” Bo asked, and she was surprised at how calm her voice sounded, how, even now she carried the uncoiled sensation inside of her like a flower shoved into the barrel of a gun. 
          “Yeah,” Shawna said, kicking at a stubborn tombstone that wouldn’t topple. “I got bills.”
          “I meant what I said in there,” Bo said. “I forgive you.”
          “Congratulations,” Shawna said, jamming the shovel point-down in the ground. “You’re Mother Teresa.”
          “And I love you.”
          “I don’t give a shit.”
          “Well that’s your choice, then.”
          Shawna tried to pull the shovel out of the dirt but she’d shoved it in too deep and her scrawny, drug-depleted arms struggled vainly to wrench it free. Finally she gave up and screamed into the sky that was now white with humidity and no one heard her except Bo and a pair of turkey vultures on a power line. Bo watched her sister—sweaty, stormy, defeated—and she wanted to believe it was only the addiction that had whittled Shawna down. Heroin was one kind of drug; hope another.
          The dairy truck rattled into the parking lot. The cow on the side of the trailer smiled wide with promises that her milk was the freshest. Beach days and swimming pools faded as Bo left her sister and propped open the back door for the deliveryman. She wasn’t worried about the cemetery—there would always be more animals.
          From the back of the store she could see the whole town, cup it between her hands, her entire life in the brief space between her palms. She walked around to the front of the store. The wind had picked up and her hair wrapped itself around her like a mask. When she reached the Coke can it was a foot off the ground, pulled west. She had a box cutter in her back pocket and used it to saw the old ropes until the can was free. She watched it somersault over the grass and into a ditch before it caught a good gust that put it on its side and sent it rolling down 624. Cars honked and swerved but no one hit it and the can rolled, unimpeded toward Orange Grove, Freer, Mexico. Bo laughed, covering her mouth at first but then letting herself double over at the sight of the emancipated can rolling to its destiny.
           When it was out of sight she put the box cutter back in her pocket. She was still smiling when she went back in the store.    

Elizabeth Gonzalez James' work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere. Her short story, "Cosmic Blues," was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers. She is working on her second novel, a magical realism western about her great-grandfather. She lives in Oakland with her family. 

Elizabeth .jpg

The Miracle Landing

          “Four stories,” she said, “and only fractures. Can you imagine?”
          Henry nudged past the woman who was blocking access to the soda machine. She seemed not to notice him at all, her elbow thrust out and the phone pressed to her ear. He fished three quarters from the pocket of his jeans and jammed them into the slot.
          “I can do more than imagine it,” Henry said, louder than he’d meant. The woman turned her head to look at him more closely, phone drifting from her ear. Henry heard someone squawking at the other end.
          “What did you say?” the woman asked.
          He straightened up. He tried to make his voice growly. “Ever think maybe I’m the one that dropped him?”
          “Dina, I’ll call you later.” She shoveled the phone into her purse and zipped it closed. “Do you have a bottle of something?” she said.
          “I do.”
          “422,” she said. “Bring it with you. Sounds like you need someone to talk to.” She grabbed her bucket of ice and ambled down the hall. There were runs like pumpkin ribs in the calves of her black stockings. She didn’t titter at all in her high heels.
          By the time he made it to her room, his palms were sweating. Henry stood outside her door for a full minute, the bottle of Crown hanging loosely between thumb and forefinger, the can of Coke cold in his other hand. He could walk back to his room, and she would never think about him again. Or maybe he’d be an anecdote she told her friends over gin and tonics in the lounge of a different hotel, one that didn’t rent rooms by the week or cash paychecks for guests who’d been there more than a month. I met him, she’d say, the one who dropped that sweet child off the balcony. Her friends would be incredulous at first, shaking the ice in their glasses, clicking their long acrylic nails in syncopation. Him? they’d say. Was it really him?
          If he knocked, he wouldn’t be an anecdote. He’d be a story, and it was worth whatever was coming to be more than a glance, more than a ripple from the plunk of the skipping stone, more than a memory built up over time into something more than it was. He rapped the bottle against the door three times.
          “You,” she said when she opened the door. “Come in and sit down. Give me that. I’ll pour you a drink.” There was a small kitchen alcove with a two-burner stove, the kind with spirals that grow glow for twenty minutes after they’re turned off. His room didn’t have a kitchen or an alcove. It was just an almost-square with a bed and a chair, a chipped nightstand near the window.
          “How do you take it?”
          “Fine,” she said. “That’s easy.” She cracked open the can of Coke and set it on the counter. Her glass was full of ice. She poured Crown almost to the top then tipped in a splash of cola. She poured three fingers into another glass and handed it to Henry. “Where are you from?” she asked.
          “I don’t see how it matters, since I’m here now.”
          She nodded like he was speaking nothing but the truth. “I always had family around,” she said. “Until I didn’t. The world gets lonely when your people start being gone.” She reached over and took his glass. “I’ll fill that up for you.”
          “You here a week?” Henry said.
          “Not really.” She handed him the glass again. “Do you read?”
          “Can I read, you mean?”
          “No. Do you read? Books, newspapers, whatever.”
          “There’s only one book I read,” he said, leaning back. He wanted to cross his arms over his chest.
          “I thought you might say that.” She sipped her drink carefully. He tilted his glass and there was a thin pool at the bottom. He couldn’t remember his throat getting warm. “I found a Gideon once,” she said, “in a hotel room in Tuscaloosa. It was signed by Jesus. I mean, not really by him. But by someone’s hand, and I could tell the Lord was moving through those fingers, running down each knuckle and into the pen itself. I could feel it just by seeing the writing.” The ice was loud as she shook the glass. “You must know what I mean.”
          “I don’t, ma’am, no,” he said.
          She stood up and glared at him, leaning in close to his face. “Are you calling me ma’am like a goddamn old lady?” He stammered and she bobbed closer and back, playing the distance between them like a theremin. “Here,” she said, taking his glass, “I’ll get you another.”
          Next to the dingy gray couch was a small glass end table. On it was a rectangular box, gilded gold with an intricate pattern around each side. The top had a raised oval painted in a Swiss chalet scene, the whole thing shiny with enamel.
          “Press the button,” she said from the kitchen. She wasn’t far away, but her voice turned up at the end like they were in different rooms.
          There was a thin golden button on the front of the box, smooth and polished. Henry picked up the box and pressed the button. The lid flipped open on hinges and he started. A miniature cardinal popped up and sang a melody in clear, sharp tweets. The bird swiveled from side to side, tail feathers shaking, wings flapping softly. It whistled and turned, hitting each note in its strong voice, this tiny bird that was not real making his heart quicken, his hands tremble. Then the lid snapped closed and the bird disappeared.
          “My daddy gave it to me on my eighth birthday,” she said, handing him the glass. He wondered if she saw his hand quivering as he took the drink. “He told me magic was everywhere. He figured it was a miracle to be alive. We never talked about what happens to the magic when you’re dead.”
          Henry felt a lifting above his eyes, like he was raising his eyebrows. He ran a finger over his forehead to see if his brow was creased, but it wasn’t.
          She walked to the glass door and slid it open. The room filled with the whoosh of outside air, and Henry breathed in deep. He inhaled as much of the air as he could. There was a small balcony beyond the sliding door, a patch of concrete compassed by a rusty iron railing.
          “Four stories,” she said. “Just imagine.” She glanced at him over her shoulder, and he took another drink. The warmth was gathering in his stomach—he could feel that much. She shivered and slid the door closed.
          She walked over and took the bird box from his hand, set it on the end table, and knelt down before it. She pushed the button, and the lid snapped up. The bird moved from side to side, carrying the song with it and giving the song to both of them. They shared the melody like two fish strung on a line. It wasn’t exactly the same. The line eddied in the same current, but they were two different points on the line. More like echoes of one another along the bounding of the current.
          The glass was lifted from his hand, and now there was music—“Old ‘55,” the Tom Waits original and not the soulless, sanitized version the Eagles did later. He closed his eyes.
          “Sometimes,” she said, “the ones who need to hear it most end up hearing it last.” She chuckled, and he looked down at the glass in his hand. The song was still playing, so he hadn’t lost much time. Her phone vibrated on the counter, turning in a slow arc, and he was glad when she answered it. The hem of her dress was a jellyfish rippling past him. She stepped onto the balcony and slid the door almost closed.
          Henry’s mouth was chalky. He held the liquid up to the light and it moved like the oil and water wave from the playroom at his nanna’s house. He willed his pinky to the rim of the glass, dipped his finger into the liquid, marveled that he could not feel where dry ended and wet began, reckoned the whiskey was at body temperature. He rubbed his finger in a fine white grit at the bottom of the glass, put it to the tip of his tongue to taste it. It tasted like whiskey.
          The door slid open and she was smiling. “My friend, Dina,” she said, “is so easily moved. I told her about you, and she started crying.”
          He tried to ask why, and he might have asked because she answered as though he had. “She always feels like people can be saved, you know? Like everyone can be saved with the right number of chances. That baby got a second chance, didn’t he? But that isn’t what I mean about being saved. You know that.” He nodded the best he could.
          She nodded back and gestured for him to get up and follow her. I can’t, he was going to say, but he found that he could, that it felt good to move away from the shine of the bird box. He moved his legs and it felt good. He walked toward the fresh air, following the pleats of her dress, and it felt good.
          There were no stars, but there never were. Not in the city. He’d visited the way-out suburbs a few days ago, to his cousin’s house where he hoisted the children and threw them into the sky. He caught them by their armpits. After some time, they stopped doubting he would. His cousin called him godfather, told the children that. It didn’t change the way they looked at him, but it changed the way he looked at them.
          “Come on, sugar,” she said. She was holding his fingers lightly, leading him onto the balcony. The sky was a gray ocean, and the iron rail was peeling. He felt the rust blisters on the underside of each rail. He worried at them with his nails.
          “What did it feel like?” she asked, turning toward him. “To hold that child,” she said, “to feel the weight of him and the letting go.” She closed her eyes and shivered. She knelt down in front of Henry, her knees creaking, fingers splayed on the concrete. She balanced herself and wrapped her arms around his thighs, the warmth of her so different from the air. He thought of the jet streams from an old high school textbook, the sweeping red and blue arrows that circled the globe. All that air moving from one place to another. She squeezed her arms tight.
          “Like air,” he said. He had meant to say It wasn’t me, but he felt she must already know, and his ears were ringing. Behind that ringing a plane droned overhead, or maybe it had already passed, the sound coming after. He never saw the blinking lights.
          “Four stories,” she said. “Can you imagine.” He sensed a dark corona spreading around him. She heaved, grunting audibly, and lifted him up, her forearms sliding up to the ridge of his buttocks. His tailbone pressed against the iron railing, and she rested him there for a moment, panting. “The powder,” she said. “You really shouldn’t feel a thing.”
          And then her arms were no longer there, the pressure hiccupped free from his tailbone. It wasn’t like flying. Even the bird in the box didn’t fly, but it sang and it sang, and his heart was a song that was falling, not flying, the red tail feathers moving until the lid snapped shut and the silence reclaimed the room. The lid snapped shut and the silence reclaimed the air. The air snapped shut. The air and the lid and the feathers. Every bit of it was a miracle.

Jad Josey is a writer from the central coast of California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Passages North, Palooka, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Visit his website at or reach out to him on Twitter at @jadjosey. 

Photo credit: Aidan Klimenko

Photo credit: Aidan Klimenko


           She knows he shouldn't have had to tell her. There was the underwear, for one thing, that she found while folding laundry. She told herself it was her own. She told herself she shouldn’t have put the colors and the whites together. Color bleeds and turns white something new, that’s why this pair was unfamiliar. She’d checked the tag, and they were her size, so she’d rolled them up and tucked them in her drawer. She’d even worn them, simple cotton bikini-briefs, just the type she would buy for herself in a bargain package of six, just the type to throw into a shopping basket along with the toilet bowl cleaner.
          But now her husband stands in front of her, rubbing his stubble, that damn way he has of putting his fingers to his chin when he’s thinking, which really means he’s not listening. This time he’s telling. His words have already come out of his mouth but she wants to put them back, one by one, to stack them neatly inside him, into the dark place inside him, where they belong.
          He falls, roughly, onto the coffee table, buckled by his own words. This is supposed to bring pity. She steps toward him and surprises herself. She digs her fingers into his hair, and pulls.
          “Get up!” she says, and he obeys her. She pushes him with both hands, all the way to the wall. She presses into him. She’s only ever come up to his chest. She knows his soft place so well, the place set just beneath his ribcage, the place where the bones curve in and make the perfect spot to cup her head. Sometimes she wants to lay her head there, but now she says, “What did you do?” even though he’s just told her.
          Still, she doesn’t order him to leave. She doesn’t pull herself up and point a finger at the door. She drops her hands, he tries to take her wrists, but her wrists cut sideways and slice away from him. Then it’s like looking at her husband through the wrong end of a telescope, a tiny, disappearing husband.  
          He sleeps on the couch that night. He sleeps with the light on.

          She brushes her teeth, dips her head over the sink, wipes toothpaste and spit from the corner of her mouth. The woman in the mirror has cut her hair short; a bristling of gray runs through it. There are half-moons under her eyes.  
          A dull ache means her period is coming. She’s thirty-nine, blessed with one child—Lily, her daughter. A female fetus forms with ovum intact in the womb, she knows this, generations of women stacked one inside another like matryoshka dolls. But now, she imagines her eggs melting inside her. Rotten eggs, she thinks, and imagines their smell.
          She strips the bed, stuffs sour sheets into the hamper, smooths a new pair on. She pulls open her top drawer, finds the underwear of the other woman, and pulls them on.

          Did he fuck her on the bed, or on the couch? Did he fuck her on the floor?
          She remembers the skylight of their first apartment when they were just kids, only twenty-one, how at night, in the glass reflection, she could see right through the outline of her husband fucking her. His back, her legs, and the night sky moving through them.
          She knows exactly what he looks like while he fucks the other woman.

          The next morning, she decides not to get out of bed. At first, there’s a luxury to it. She pulls her body, naked but for the underwear, against the cool sheets, hears the muffled noise of her husband readying their daughter for school, the clanking of cereal bowls, Lily’s voice a flute, her husband’s a rumble. Everything reminds her to turn away, and she’s pleased by this tit-for-tat, her absence for his betrayal. She pulls the comforter over her head. She sleeps through the day, through the evening, wakes to feel her mouth thick and fuzzy, the room lit only by the alarm clock. It’s past nine o’clock—she even slept through Lily’s bedtime! She slept longer than she’d ever imagined she could. Downstairs, there must be papers everywhere, unwashed dishes, dirty clothes spilling like snail trails across the floor, but she wouldn’t know. The shadows of the tree branches reach into the bedroom and scrape across the wall. The wind blows and the shadows tremble, cross paths, confuse themselves. She turns over onto her belly, presses herself into the bed. The underwear is a bit too small for her. The elastic pinches around her thighs. She’ll have welts from it. It doesn’t matter.
          Downstairs, he’s turned on the television. He’s watching cable news, the fucker.

          She stays in bed, forgets the difference between sleeping and waking. Her eyes open only for the sound of her daughter’s voice, or the sound of a closing door.
          On day three the bedroom takes on a smell, a beautiful smell, like baking bread. Her mind curls into the smallest spiral of her own snail shell.
          Her husband knocks softly at mealtimes. His offerings are elaborate, all the things she used to love: flank steak, dark chocolate, oily stalks of broccolini spiked with red pepper flakes and vinegar, garlic roasted in the husk. He leaves quickly, takes to the stairs. She eats with her eyes closed, hunched on the floor, her fingers slick with meat and oil, her belly spilling over the lip of the underwear. There’s a dark crosshatch of hair snaking from her crotch to her navel. She licks her fingers, lets shreds of meat rot between her teeth until they become a part of her.

          By day six, her smell takes a certain turn, as if an animal shat in the corner. Still warm and loamy, but no, she wouldn’t call it good. She tells herself the smell will move away from her, that it will sit in the shadows like a small and obedient darkness. She puts her hand to her head and her fingers come back sour and warm.
          Still, she lies in her bed, wearing nothing but the underwear. Her period comes, she lets her blood crawl across the sheets and dry. Then she slides off the underwear and hangs it on the doorknob like a flag. 

          There was a time when she would have wished to eat her husband. She would have taken all of him inside her, taken his cheeks like melon, his teeth like cracked candy, she would have known all the places where he was salty, loamy, sour, just like she is now.
          But she doesn’t want this, not anymore.
          Her smell has grown to include the searing musk and diesel of a skunk gone flat, the quiet curve of shit uncurled, the blood that waits deep inside a woman. Now the stench has taken over the whole house, and she moves thickly through sleep, dragging the bedsheets behind her. She’s amazed by her steaming power.
          She grinds the last thread of steak between her molars. She gathers the stench and moves toward the crack of light beneath the door. She’s big enough now that she could roll over anything, eat alive anyone she’s ever loved, tear down the house as if it were made of toothpicks. She is the opposite of light, the opposite of glow. She takes hold of the doorknob, turns.

          There is a child, her child, her Lily, standing on the other side of the door, wrapped in a lemon-colored blanket. She’s slipped out of bed and down the hallway in her nubby, footed pajamas. She’s flipped on every light switch as she passed—night light, lamp, overhead, bathroom, hallway, the chandelier at the top of the stairs—a path of light through the stench, all the way to her mother’s door.
          With the added height of her snarled, uncombed curls, Lily is exactly as tall as the doorknob. She stares into the brass, eye to eye with her own stretched-out reflection. She puts her nose to the nose of the other Lily, wraps her hand around the doorknob and her reflection disappears.
          On the other side, her mother. One body is a shadow. The other is an anchor.
          They’ll turn the knob together, for there’s a path of light now. A way home.

Melissa Benton Barker’s fiction has appeared in Entropy, LadyLibertyLit, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a Best of the Net nominee, and is the former managing editor of Lunch Ticket. Melissa lives with her family in Ohio.

Melissa Benton Barker jpg.jpg

A Galaxy Far Far Away

          It’s Friday evening again. This heralds the beginning of another dreary weekend, a chunk of time that needs to be passed. Back in Tehran, it was depressing for a totally different reason: it meant the conclusion of a usually joyful two days off and the approach of another working Saturday.
          No one else is in the lab. Usually I stay late, tuning my self-devised algorithm to improve results. As I go to the kitchen to brew coffee, I find it empty too when it is normally cramped with people eating or playing foosball. I glance over the railings, down onto the main floor where two students are making out.
          I fiddle with the sophisticated coffee maker, which makes as bad a cup of coffee as the one it replaced. In the midst of its rumbles, my mobile rings. It’s Carlos.
          “What’s the plan, amigo?”
          On Friday nights, that’s how he starts his conversations. Either he has no plans and wants to tag along with mine, or he does have one and needs me to go along. In the former case, I’m usually a disappointment. I know so few people in Vancouver, even though I’ve lived here for six months. My ideal Friday night activity has so far been watching classic films stored on my 2 GB external hard drive.
          “Still at the lab. You home?”
          This semester, with a bit of cunning, Carlos and I moved into the family residence at Simon Fraser University. The contract was in a friend’s name, who secured a place off campus with his new wife. Carlos became my roommate. To save some money.
          “Dude! It’s almost nine. We’re going to crash a party. You and me.”
          “I’m waiting for a call from Iran,” I say, as if it’d get me off the hook.
          “Right! Mom’s daily call! What time is it there?”
          I tell him though it’s not the first time.
          “Call your mom, tell her you have to get ready to party with a bunch of Mexican and Colombian hotties.”
          He laughs at his joke and hangs up.
          The coffee is ready. I take one sip of the bitter liquid, pour the rest into the sink, and hurry back to gather the stuff I left in the lab. On the way to my residence, I dial the country code for Iran. My parents insist that it should be them calling me, to cut my expenses. I’m supposed to initiate it only when I ache for them terribly, which rarely happens since my mom calls once a day, if not more.
          My call receives no answer, nor do the ones I make an hour later sitting next to Carlos on the bus. We’re sitting in the back row. Carlos sprawls in a corner, propping his legs on a free seat. His shorts show off his bare thighs. He studies me as I tuck my mobile in my pocket.
          “Look at you all dressed up!”
          “In my country people go to parties like this, not…in shorts.”
          “Cultural gap, that’s all. In my country people dress like you when they propose.” He extracts a bottle of golden liquid from his satchel. “Come on! Time to get into party mood.”
          Normally, I wouldn’t drink in such situations. The bums stinking of alcohol and vomit on the bus late at night give me the creeps. But it’ll help me to relax. After one quick gulp and a few coughs, I return the bottle.
          “Ready to chat up girls? And stop telling everyone you’ve got a girl in Iran.”
          “I don’t!”
          “Then whose picture is that in your wallet?”
          I falter, though not surprised by his invasion of my privacy.
          “Didn’t have time to take it out.”
          He asks, “Is it soldered in?”
          We get off the bus and have to run to catch the sea bus to North Van, so I can ignore Carlos’ comment. After a few minutes of walking down a narrow alley, we hear music. At the turn of the alley we notice a crowd in the front yard. The elaborate red door keeps opening and shutting as guys and girls pour in and out of the house.
          “The host’s name is Natalia, by the way,” Carlos whispers as if to give me the passcode. He slams the bottle into my chest and takes the lead.
          Dutifully, I finish what little is left in the bottle and follow him. It soon becomes apparent that the official language of the party is Spanish. Carlos joins a group of smokers who, judging by the frightened skunk smell, are smoking pot. I enter the house alone, hoping people speak English inside.
          A sign is haphazardly attached to the hallway: “Smoking not allowed inside!” In semi-darkness I see people enjoying the permitted vices: dancing out of sync with Celia Cruz, loudly toasting a round of tequila shots. In a shady corner on a couch, a guy with an Afro is exploring beneath the scant fabric of a chubby girl’s dress.
          No one receives me. No one knows me here. Since I have nothing better to do, I yank out my phone and try home again. I can hardly hear the beep. Someone slaps me on the back and I jump. It’s Carlos.
          He drags me to the kitchen with such efficiency that would seem he’s been living here and not with me in our dorm. He opens the fridge. “Beer?”
          He snaps open a Dos Equis and slams it into my chest, the froth overflowing onto my shirt. He doesn’t appear apologetic. “That’s Natalia over there.”
          Where his finger is pointing could mean any of the three girls chatting in front of an empty fireplace.
          “Mamaciiita! Isn’t she?”
          With his taste in women, I can almost tell which one should be the mamacita.
          “I thought we were spontaneously crashing this party? Clearly you have an agenda.”
          Before he gets a chance to respond, a girl materialises between us. Petite. With long curly hair.
          “Well! Well,” she says, laughing. “I’m not the only one who doesn’t know enough Spanish to get by.”
          “He’s at home here.” I point my free thumb toward myself. “I’m the illiterate one.”
          “I’m Darya. Italian! Exchange student.”
          Shaking her hand, Carlos introduces himself and his nationality before turning to me, “And this is Moe.”
          “Short for Mohammad, or so I’m told.”
          The smell of the beer on my shirt makes me a bit self-conscious.
          “Now if you guys will excuse me, I’ve got to say hi to the host.” Carlos winks furtively at me.
          “So how did you end up at a Latino party?” Darya says, raising her glass of red wine. “Me, I came with a friend.”
          “This is all Carlos’ fault.” I gesture in his direction and catch him taking a selfie with his mamacita and her friends. “Your name in Persian means the sea.”
          “I already know that.” She smiles. “What I didn’t know was that you’re Persian.”
          My phone vibrates against my thigh. I check it immediately, thinking it could be from Iran. It’s a text from Carlos: Jackpot! Exchange student ;-)
          I shove it back into my pocket. “Yep, I’m from a galaxy far, far away.”
          A bunch of drunken partiers raid the kitchen seeking fuel. Darya suggests that we sit on the couch, the one previously occupied by the fumbling couple. They’ve moved on, nowhere to be seen.
          I sip from my beer, walking with her. “So, Antonioni, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Fellini…” I drop names so casually it sounds like I’m naming my childhood friends. “Which one is your favorite?”
          It’s the alcohol in me talking. Under its influence, I tend to jump from subject to subject.
          But she doesn’t look surprised. “You’re a film buff. Me, I don’t like oldies. What about you?”
          “Definitely Fellini!” I say, though I’ve never before had such strong preference.
          “Ohhh, Fellini and his obsession with fat women! Your girlfriends must be fat.”
          She assumed the plural, but the plural doesn’t apply here. There’s only been Shireen. I’m sober enough not to impart that information.
          Darya’s shoulder blades jut out of her strapless top in points, and I notice them. Clearing my throat, I tell her, “Federico and I, we don’t share the same taste in women.”
          I’m out of beer and in need of another. My hand hovers over her wineglass somewhat indelicately. I can’t hold it steady. “Want a refill?”
          She shrugs. “I’m already past my limit.”
          As I stumble towards the kitchen, I make conversation with people whose names I immediately forget. I even reach out and pat some girl’s bare back.
          There are half a dozen bottles of wine on the counter. I pick up a Styrofoam cup and fill it with a Malbec. Darya is idly leaning on the wall next to the couch, watching others dancing. A guy starts to chat with her; he takes her hand and carries her to the middle of the floor. They dance. He’s a good leader; she follows awkwardly.
          Again, to keep myself busy, I call home and half-finish the cup of wine while waiting. No answer. Darya seems comfortable with the guy. He could be the friend she came with, or the boyfriend she didn’t say anything about. I’d met Shireen at a party too. I’d kneeled, extended my hand and asked whether she’d like to dance. Back then I was in control: even as silly a gesture as kneeling before a strange girl was in my canon of possibilities. I whip out my phone and scroll for Shireen’s number only to be reminded that last week I deleted it from my contacts. The digits of her number though jump back to me, as vividly as the day I’d written them down.
          I call. She answers right when the music reaches its crescendo. It’s not easy to hear her. I step out, into the yard.
          She speaks softly. “What is it Mohammad? I’m at work.”
          It’s Saturday morning, of course.
          “I’m at a party.”
          “I can hear that. Thanks for confirming it.” She chooses her words diligently, though she’s less successful at controlling her tone.
          “I met an Italian girl here. Guess what? Her name is Darya.”
          “Good for you, finding an Italian girl.”
          “That wasn’t my point. She’s dancing with her boyfriend as we speak.”
          She hesitates. “I’ve a meeting now. For the next hour.”
          I say I’ll call again in an hour. She says okay, hangs up, doesn’t say goodbye.
          It’s 11:28 here, which makes it 10:58 in Tehran, a reasonable time to be worried about a meeting set for 11:00. She didn’t lie. Shireen didn’t ditch me.
          There are more people outside now, scattered in clusters of threes and fours. A guy hunched over calls me by name, probably one of the acquaintances I made inside, and offers me his joint. I tried pot once, thanks to Carlos. You have to take it in enough, he’d said when I complained the world was as shitty as it’d been before.
          I grab the joint, take long drags this time, pass it back and deliver a full half of my Spanish lexicon: gracias.
          It’s not even 11:35. Back inside, I start dancing to the hip hop beat, killing the minutes until I can call Shireen. I see dancers all around me swirling. It makes me more excited. I spin. I hear clapping.

          Sprawled on the couch, I watch the dancing around me when my view is blocked by a figure. It’s Darya, and from this position, she towers over me.
          “It took you quite some time to get yourself a drink.”
          The cup isn’t with me and I have no idea if I finished the wine.
          “I had to make a long-distance call. Besides, you were busy with your friend.”
          She chuckles. “He was just some random guy. I don’t even remember his name.”
          It’s morbid, but I want to call Shireen and update her on this latest development.
          “You had good chemistry. On the dance floor.”
          “He was good! I suck though. To be fair, you suck, too.” She makes a V with her middle and index fingers, points them to her eyes then turns them on mine. “I saw you.”
          “Did I make a scene?”
          She smiles. “As much as a stoned drunk can. But the good news is you’re surrounded by other stoned drunks. Tomorrow, no one will remember you.”
          “Unless it’s leaked on YouTube, in which case back home they’ll watch it and I’ll be deprived of any inheritance.” I joke, hoping my meaning will cross the communication gap between us.
          “Do you think a lot about your family?”
          “Sometimes I consider hopping in a cab and going down Granville to take the first flight home.”
          “I used to feel the same. Then I realized I had to accept this new life, otherwise I’ll end up having neither this one nor the old one. It’s like quitting an addiction. You know how people go through detox?” It sounds like a rhetorical question, but I shake my head as she pauses. “During the process, they experience paranoia, nausea, chills, agitation. They’re drowned in their own sweat. But once the poison is out, they’re free.”
          “You’re wise!”
          “Since both of us suck at dancing, how about we try that salsa club sometime after school? As a way of detoxification!”
          She edges forward, asking for my phone so that she can enter her number. Her phone is in her purse, I’m told, which is somewhere in this house. She calls her own number in order to have mine. I can feel her warmth, her breath. But no sooner do I get excited than I’m hit with nausea.
          “Do you know where the washroom is?” I blurt out.
          She doesn’t, frowns a bit at me. I consider asking the people close by but everybody is so wasted, so high, so wild. I climb the stairs, relieved to be saved from the loud music if only for a short while. The first door I open is the laundry room. It’s occupied: Carlos and the girl I recognize by her dress, though pulled down to her waist, exposing large, round breasts. She’s one of the three girls that Carlos had pointed to, not the one I thought to be Natalia.
          “Amigo. Did you talk to your mom?” He speaks without interrupting the movements of his hands.
          I slam the door, afraid of throwing up on them. The next door is, thankfully, the right one. I lock it, kneel before the toilet, brace myself and prepare for whatever is supposed to happen.
          I drop the lid, sit on the toilet and dial Shireen. I let it ring for almost a minute. Eventually, she picks it up.
          “Mohammad, I told you I’m in a meeting.”
          “I thought because of the long distance, time might warp, you know, like in Around the World in Eighty Days. String Theory. Relativity.”
          I keep rattling on, vomiting nonsense, while recruiting help from philosophy and science to prove that her meeting should be over and it’s my turn to have her. Then I burst out laughing which turns into coughing. The coughing part is to conceal my sniffing back a couple of tears.
          “Are you OK?”
          The worry in her voice makes me more reckless. “Totally fine! In fact, I’m having a great time here. Can’t you tell?”
          “I’m really sorry for you. For myself,” she says mournfully.
          “I’m sorry you had to walk out of your super critical meeting. Who’s in it by the way? Mr. Kachal?”
          Her boss, Jafari, used to be a laughing stock, with his conical bald head—hence Kachal.
          She’s annoyed. “He’s my boss, Mohammad.”
          “You’ve lost your sense of humor along with me. That’s sad.” Somebody turns the knob and finding it locked starts knocking. “Sorry! Gotta go! I’m in the toilet.”
          I flush as if to prove it.

          I have no recollection of who was behind the door, of how I descended the stairs, how much longer I stayed at the party, or how on earth I ended up walking down Granville Street crossing the Vancouver harbor.
          My phone rings. It’s mom. I tell her I got worried for them, trying my best to sound sane and sober.
          “Sorry, azizam, we were grocery shopping. And then some other errands. We both forgot to take our phones. Your parents are getting old.”
          I slur my words. “Your grocery shopping took forever.”
          I sound as if she is the one who made a grave mistake, and is now wandering around after midnight drunk and queasy, as if she’s the one who made a fool of herself while speaking with Shireen, who abandoned an attractive person who seemed to be into her, who caught her roommate undressing a drunk. All these things were her fault.
          “Mohammad jan, you sound weird. Where are you?”
          An ambulance passes by, sounding its siren.
          “I’m taking a walk.”
          “Are you alone? What time is it there?”
          “I have no idea.” This is a terribly wrong answer. I’m known to be on top of time, everything.
          “I’m going to call Shaheen now. They’ll pick you up.”
          Though thousands of kilometers apart for the past decade or so, Shaheen is my mom’s friend from her university days. Recently, she’s been acting as my mom’s eyes in Vancouver, overseeing my “well-being.” They live in West Vancouver, in what looks like a mansion, with a handful of cars parked in their garage.
          There’s no use talking her out of it and it doesn’t matter if it’s past midnight. Walking along a row of nightclubs, I hear my mother’s effervescent lecture on how hard it is to deal with her worries about my safety from the other side of the planet.
          Three blocks later, my phone rings.
          “No, Shaheen khanoum. There’s no need. You know my mom,” I say rather hopelessly.
          “Just tell me where you are.”
          “In Granville, near the bridge.”
          “Good! Stay put! Ramin is somewhere downtown with his friends. He took the Mercedes.”
          The Mercedes, only two months in their garage and already like a member of their family, arrives and with it the blare of Persian rap. They just got out of a club, Ramin says, and are debating which to go next. He invites me to join them. We both know I have to accept the offer, though none of us truly wants it. He’s doing his mom a favor, who, in turn, is doing one for mine.
          The passenger seat is occupied by a girl whose glamour only pales against the one sitting in the back. They look to be sisters, or simply two girls who use identical makeup in the exact same way.
          As soon as I get in the car, settling into the shiny black leather, Ramin does a perilous U-turn in a street full of cops.
          “Mission accomplished,” Ramin announces while texting, probably reporting his triumph to his mom.
          “Dude, what were you doing all by yourself? Walking to the airport?”
          “Ramin, you can drop me at Granville Station. I’m fine, really. I’m not in a clubbing mood tonight.”
          I say tonight as if I’m ever in the mood.
          “Shut up and get acquainted with your dance partner for tonight. The lady on your left!”
          The lady on my left, with her dewy face glowing in the dim light, doesn’t seem to be impressed. She has probably spent hours in front of a mirror, hoping for someone better. Her fake smile—landing on fake lips beneath a fake nose—can’t hide her disappointment.
          Ramin extends his arm to retrieve a flask from the glove compartment. “To bring the mood to you. Just make sure it doesn’t spill inside the Mercedes.”
          I’m reluctant to drink more. Ramin’s driving has already turned my stomach. Negotiating with him, on the other hand, is difficult. I go for the lesser of two evils and grab the flask. I slip a bit when I come forward. Shaheen khanoum had mentioned that they carefully apply lotions to the leather. In a quick motion, I down as little as I can.
          “Goli, this guy is a genius,” Ramin yells, over the music. “He’s been to Sharif University. It’s not for everyone. But he’s also a real gentleman.”
          She raises her eyebrows without meaning to.
          “Don’t pay any attention to him.” I flap my hand, well aware she doesn’t.
          Again, my phone vibrates. It’s an unknown number, probably from Iran, and if so, definitely from my mom.
          Only it isn’t.
          “Is this Mohammad?” The voice is unfamiliar, the tone unfriendly.
          My heart starts pounding. A sequence of possible tragedies crosses my mind. A fear you develop when living far away from your family. I signal Ramin to turn down the volume.
          “This is Jafari.”
          I review my relatives’ last names. It doesn’t ring a bell. Am I too drunk? “Sorry…who?”
          “Jafari! Moslem Jafari!”
          Shireen’s boss! I remember now. My worries shift. “Is she alright?”
          “I ask that you stop hurting my girlfriend.”
          I cup my free hand over my mouth. “Sorry…who’s your girlfriend?”
          “You know who. Leave her alone! She’s been distraught since your call.” He pauses to let the information sink in. “You had your chance with her and fucked up. Now move on!”
          I turn to look at the girl on my left—Goli, was it?—to see her reaction, as if she’s heard him, as if she knows what this filthy lizard is talking about. Of all the tragedies I’d imagined a moment ago, none came close to this.
          Not even once did Shireen show the remotest interest or admiration for him. “She can’t be with you.”
          “Well, she very well is!” He sounds vicious, victorious.
          He hangs up before hearing my curses—the curses I don’t use even in the presence of guys, let alone girls—and before hearing my volcanic vomiting all over the interiors of the Mercedes and  over Goli’s costly dress.
          Ramin brakes amid my retching and the girl’s unbridled, disgusted shrieks. He turns to observe the damage in disbelief. I get out of the car. It’s pretty obvious I’m beyond redemption.
          Ramin mumbles something I can’t hear. I bite my lip. A mere apology for such a fiasco is ridiculous.
          I turn and walk away, smelling myself. People stare and frown. I don’t care. A muddled tramp reeking of bile on a Friday night in downtown Vancouver isn’t an unusual sight anyway. When I arrive at the bridge, I cross it to reach the Fifth Avenue. The numbers on the intersecting streets increase as I continue walking down Granville. It’s getting quieter, darker. If I cry now, the sound of it won’t be drowned out in the crowd. It’ll stay in the air.
          I don’t though. Or maybe I do.
          I keep walking.
          I wake up to someone’s repeating “sir” in my ears. It’s a cop: my very first real contact with one in Canada. I’m lying on the ground in front of a closed hardware store. As I stumble to my feet, he stares at my dress shirt, the dried vomit leaving traces, the outlines of some unknown country.
          He asks for my ID. I show him.
          “Ph.D. student, huh?” He waves the card in the air, weighing the odds. “You aware that there’s a ten-thousand dollars fine for what you did?”
          Sorry is all I struggle to say.
          He enters some information into the laptop in his car. Then he gives me back my student card.
          “Do you have a place to live, sir?”
          “Yes, of course! I am sorry. Really.”
          My empty stomach makes its presence known with terrible growling.
          “Make sure this won’t happen again. It’s not safe for you.” His voice carries some sort of paternal worry.
          Once he leaves, I check the time only to see several missed calls, mostly from Iran, and a few from Carlos and Shaheen khanoum. I’m debating which one to return first when an unknown Vancouver number appears on screen.
          “Hello?” my voice is gruff.
          “Good morning. Sorry to be a bother. I have a missed call from this number late last night. But I don’t—”
          “Darya? This is Mohammad. Moe.”
          “Oh the Fellini guy! Where did you disappear to?”
          “Long story!” I say though I don’t remember most of it.
          “I love long stories. You should tell me.”
          She falls silent.
          I’m supposed to fill it. Nearby, a plane takes off, roaring.
          The weekend has only just started, and full of opportunities.

Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. Recently, one of his short stories was selected as a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Contest. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in Passages North, The Rumpus, Catapult, The Malahat Review, The Walrus, Portland Review, among others. He has work forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Belletrist and the Minnesota Review.

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          The ghosts in Albert Edgecomb’s house don’t seem to notice the time and bang around at all hours. Lately they’ve been keeping Albert up at night: Mother rattling the kitchen pots, Uncle Hartwell stomping around the attic where he shot himself, and that homely red-haired girl in her bloody pinafore, just standing at the foot of Albert’s bed, picking her nose. At least she’s quiet. There are others, too, but these he either can’t identify or prefers not to think about. Albert used to roll over and cover his head with the pillow when it got noisy, but lately he’s started shouting at them to quiet down. Sometimes it works.
          This morning in July starts like every other in the coastal town of Wellbridge, Maine, with the midsummer sun arriving on schedule, accompanied by the rooster’s bare-scrape alarm and the tease of cool air drifting in with the tide. Last night was particularly raucous, so Albert didn’t get much sleep. He squints against the glare, licks the salt that has accumulated on his lips, lumbers to his feet, and makes his bed. After he washes and dresses, he yells, “I’ve had about enough of your deviltry, so you’d best behave tonight and let me sleep.” Then he tromps down the narrow stairway, slightly sideways. It is important not to brush against the walls. If he does, he’ll have to go back up and start again from the top.
          At the foot of the stairs, Albert pauses to look at the snapshot that sits next to a vase of blue plastic daisies on the TV he never watches anymore. “Good morning, Mother,” he says. In the picture, the newly married Myra Edgecomb shies away from the camera. There is a tangle of earth-clotted carrots overflowing the basket on her hip. Still slim behind her checkered apron, she is two months pregnant. “You’re there, Albert. I just didn’t know it yet,” she told him when he was a little boy. “Your father took that picture, so he was part of it, too.” This is Albert’s one family photo.
          In the kitchen, Albert taps the water spigot three times with his right index finger before opening it to fill the kettle. He spoons equal parts Nescafe and sugar into his mug. Then he peels off three strips of bacon, puts them in the big black skillet and lights the burner. When the bacon is just shy of burnt he lines up the strips on a sheet of newspaper to drain and cracks two eggs into the pan. He flips them carefully so as not to splatter.
          “Now close the flame and count. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” Mother recites the numbers with Albert all the way to ten, which is when the eggs are done. Albert likes the ten Mississippi eggs well enough, but it’s Mother’s voice that fills him up. He worries that if he switches to oatmeal like Doc Norden said, she might not come back. Or one of the others might take her place.
          After breakfast he steps outside, breathes deeply the warm air. The pink perfume from the beach roses curls into his nostrils and vines around the lingering smells of fatty bacon and lemon dish soap, then squeezes until they’re gone.
          At the chicken coop, he fills the feeder and changes the water, then opens the door to let the hens out. He counts them as they hop down from their roosts. One two three, one two three, one two three. All nine present and accounted for in waltz time.
          Wednesday is weeding day, so Albert steers his wheelbarrow over to the garden. His knee bones creak as he crouches between the rows to clear out the interlopers and harvest his crop. By lunchtime he’s filled Mother’s basket with more pimply kirbys, yellow squash and green peas than he’ll be able to eat all week. The pole beans and tomatoes aren’t ready, so he passes them by and dumps the weeds over the banking on the way back to the barn.
          “What do you think, Mother? Run the extras over to Father Morrill?” he asks. When she doesn’t answer, he takes it as a yes and sets the basket in the truck bed, then he goes to the kitchen for a cucumber sandwich.

          After lunch, Albert is walking to his truck when he feels a cool shadow, a bird passing overhead. He looks up at the mottled white underside and black wing tips of a red tail hawk ascending, something small and bloody writhing in its talons.
          A second later the creature wiggles free and plummets to the lawn. Albert doesn’t really want to, but he approaches the bloody mess, a small rat, torn almost in half, barely alive, its black eyes bulging in panic and pain. Albert hates rats. The big ones get into the henhouse, break the eggs and suck them dry. Sometimes they kill his birds. Once he found two chicks with their throats torn out, not even eaten, just mangled and left in the dirt.
          It’s plain nothing can save the rat and he considers leaving it there, but it’s just a small one, probably never did any harm. Albert crosses the driveway to his truck and returns with the shovel from the emergency toolbox.
          “The longer I wait, the more you suffer,” he says just before he brings the blade down squarely on the quivering animal.
          Albert raises the shovel and shakes the carcass off, wipes the rat blood on the grass. He wonders if animals have souls and is thinking maybe he should say a prayer when his thoughts are interrupted.
          “Getting pretty good at killing things, aren’t you, boy?” the voice snarls, then singsongs, “Pretty good, pretty good, pretty good.”
          Albert closes his eyes so as not to see the raw red scrapes across Royal Edgecomb’s knuckles. He tries not to breathe in the stench of blood and liquor that always follows his father. His heart is slamming against his chest, his mouth bone dry.
          “Get out of here,” Albert shouts. “Get out, get out, get out!”
          Usually the three-magic beats back the darkness and silences the voice along with its hateful ghost, but not this time.
          “Who threw out my whiskey? If it was you, I’ll thrash you good,” his father growls.
          Albert runs for the truck and clambers inside. He slams the door, grinds the shift into reverse and tears out of the driveway. Halfway to town he steers the truck into the lay-by and drops his head onto the steering wheel, breathing slowly in and out like Mother told him. When he has stopped shaking, he thanks the Lord three times, blesses himself and continues down the road to church.

          Father Gideon Morrill is overdue for a call on Albert Edgecomb, but can find any number of excuses for not going. He is considering the possibilities when the man appears at the front door of the rectory, arms full of his garden. “Hand of God,” Morrill murmurs.
          “I was just thinking about you, Albert. You must be heaven sent,” he says too loudly and invites his visitor into the kitchen for a glass of iced tea.
          Albert wipes his feet three times on the welcome mat. The priest’s house has always been ghost-free, but you can never be too careful. He sets his offering on the counter and sits.
          “Thank you so much. You’re always so generous with your harvest.”
          Albert smiles and sips his tea. He wishes the drink were sweeter, but is afraid it might be extravagant to ask for more sugar.
          The priest asks how things are going on the farm.
          “Pretty good,” Albert says, then talks at length about his garden: which vegetables are ripe, what looks good this year, and when he thinks the blueberries will be ready for raking.
          Father Morrill smiles and nods, but he’s only half listening. He’s wondering how to broach the subject of Albert’s mental state. One time, he asked Doc Norden if he thought Albert might be delusional, but the doctor dismissed the possibility. “Obsessive-compulsive, definitely,” he said. “And he’s not exactly the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but crazy? I don’t think so.”
          After Albert finishes the crop report, Morrill asks, “Things okay with you? Any visitors lately?”
          “Ayuh,” says Albert. “Been keeping me up at night.”
          The priest notices creases between Albert’s eyebrows that he doesn’t think were there last time they spoke. He nods when he can’t find words to fill the silence.
          “I been wondering, Father, does God make ghosts, or are they the Devil’s doing?”
          “God makes everything, Albert, good and bad, including the Devil, so in a way it’s both I guess.” Morrill is on shaky ground. His faith in God has never wavered, but the truth is, he has always had doubts about certain Church teachings, such as the notion of tormented souls haunting the Earth and demonic possession. Though he accepts the existence of Satan in a vague way, he’s never seriously considered the possibility of encountering him, or his minions, and prefers not to think about such things.
          Morrill knows there is no place for cafeteria Catholics in the clergy and reminds himself that the last thing poor Albert needs is to see doubt in his priest. “Do you think maybe it could be your mind playing tricks on you, Albert? From loneliness perhaps, or sadness.”
          Albert taps his index finger three times on the rim of his glass. “Maybe, but this morning my father showed up again.” Albert is talking into his lap. “I wish he’d stay away.”  He isn’t sure the priest believes him, but there’s no one else to tell. “I know it’s a lot to ask, Father, but you think you might come out to the house? Try and drive him off? He’d have to listen to you.” Albert’s cheeks are burning. He’s never asked anyone for help before. Mother always said, don’t involve other people in your problems, keep your counsel. That’s why he doesn’t go to Confession, why he can’t take the Holy Communion.
          The last thing Gideon Morrill wants to do is cart himself out to the Edgecomb place for a midweek ghost hunt. He feels unequal to such a task, even if the possibility of finding anything evil is remote, but says of course he will, first thing the next morning, before he leads the elder ladies’ choir practice.

          In his examining room, Doc Norden has determined that the mass underneath the bottom fold of Naina Tremont’s belly is a hardened accumulation of dead skin, grease and dirt, probably years in the making, and not a floppy tumor as she feared. Her mother died from a floppy tumor, and she’s convinced they run in the family. The doctor suggests that more frequent baths, with a scrub brush, would be a good way to avoid such scares in the future and sends her on her way. Having opened the window and sprayed the room with Lysol, he washes his hands and splashes his face for good measure.
          Even though he is seventy-four-years old and semi-retired, many people in town still refer to him as young Doc Norden. He inherited his practice, and patients, from his father almost forty years ago, but days like this, he is less grateful for the windfall than he might be.
          His daughters, he thinks, were smart to become teachers and move downstate. They are lucky not to have to scrape filth from gelatinous flesh, lance plum-sized boils, or deliver a death sentence to someone twenty years their junior, as he has done today.
          Out front, the receptionist tells him his last appointment just cancelled—a small mercy, so he closes the office early and returns to his desk. As he does at the end of every workday, the doctor traces his finger along Sarah’s smiling mouth in the photo of her taken ten years before, back when she still knew who he was.
          He’ll get to the nursing home in time to feed her dinner while he tells her about his day. Once, they’d have laughed about the floppy tumor and commiserated over the injustice of lives foreshortened while they sat on the screen porch sipping gimlets and listening to the loons on the lake. Today his wife will stare vacantly at him between spoonfuls of pureed beef stew and reluctant slurps of vanilla-flavored dietary supplement. Today he will speak to her as if she understands his words, and today he will fail, once again, to cover her face with a pillow and put an end to her suffering, as she always promised she would do for him.
          “Plenty worse things than death,” he mutters, not for the first time, and throws his lab coat into the HazMat bin.

          At the rectory kitchen table, Father Morrill cuts the cards then indicates the heap of damp vegetables on the counter with a tilt of his head. “Had a visit from Albert Edgecomb today,” he tells Doc Norden. Over the past two years their Tuesday-night cribbage tournament has evolved from habit to ritual. The doctor brings crabmeat rolls and onion rings from the Dairy Bar take-out window; the priest, having divested himself of his collar, supplies the beer. They never drink more than two in an evening, the doctor because he’s driving, and the priest because he’s a priest.
          “Albert still communing with the spirits?” Doc asks.
          “Says he’d like them to stop answering back,” says the younger man. “Asked me to go to the farm tomorrow and try and clear them out.” Morrill is trying to seem confident, like there’s nothing other than an aging, lonely dirt-farmer out there, or that he drives away demons as a matter of course.
          “You talking about an exorcism?” Doc asks as if he were inquiring about Morrill’s plans to join the circus.
          “Not really. Houses don’t have souls, so it’s not an exorcism per se. A simple blessing’ll probably do. Kind of a placebo for Albert, you know? Of course, if he’s really having chaotic visitations, that’s another thing...”
          After Albert left, the priest dug out some of his seminary textbooks to bone up on the litanies, invocations and procedures for dismissing spirits and/or cleansing demons from homes. As he read, he recalled the subject being covered in his classes. At the time, he paid about as much attention to the lectures as he did the emergency evacuation pantomime on an airplane.
          “And here I was thinking I had the worst job in town,” Doc says.
          They play the hand and peg the score. The doctor wins in a skunk to take two out of three, leans back in his chair and drains his glass. Morrill retrieves the second round, and Doc accepts the bottle saying, “Last call,” though he knows otherwise.
          “Think you’ll find the devil out there on the East Point, Padre?” Doc asks.
          “Never know where he’ll turn up,” the priest says. It occurs to him that the doctor might actually believe in ghosts, and if so, he’s probably not the only member of the Church of St. Paul the Bleeding Apostle who does. The priest doesn’t kid himself about such things. He’s a spiritual man, but he’s also a realist.
          “Whatever happened to Albert’s father?” Morrill asks.
          “Speaking of the devil,” Doc Norden sighs. “Royal Edgecomb, he was a right nasty piece of work, awful handsome though. Boozer, brawler, used to knock Albert and his mother around pretty good. Married Myra Moody late in life, for around here anyway. She must’ve been about thirty and he was probably ten years older. Story goes, Royal came home late one night, drunk as a lord, as per usual. Dead of winter. Parked right in the middle of the front yard. I guess he passed out after he got out of the truck. Sherriff found out he’d been in a fight in town earlier that night. Anyway, my father used to examine the bodies after he certified them, no M.E. back then you know. Turned out Royal had a collapsed lung, loaded with cancer. Coughed up blood all over his truck and out in the yard, but it was the cold that killed him. He was stiff as a popsicle by the time they found him next morning.”
          “Good lord. How old was Albert?”
          “Fifteen, sixteen maybe. Anyway, I don’t think anyone quite believed Albert and his mother never heard anything, or thought to look out. Then again, it wasn’t much of a loss, except maybe for the bartenders in Fairleigh, and the whores. Excuse me, Father.”
          “I’ve run across the term before. You think they just let him die?”
          “Couldn’t say. No one ever asked really. Good riddance and all that,” Doc Norden says with a shrug, then drains his glass. “Funny thing, Myra died ten years later to the day. Heart attack, in her sleep. Never woke up. Albert found her of course. Called me out to the farm. That woman was the least peaceful-looking corpse I ever saw.”
          Doc picks up a text from his buddy backing out of their Wednesday morning golf game, so he offers to go out to Albert’s place with the priest the next day, figures he should probably check Albert’s heart and blood pressure anyway. They decide to meet for coffee beforehand at the diner near the East Point Road.

          When Doc gets home the house is dark, but he knows the glass and gin bottle are where he left them last night, on the lamp table next to his recliner, so he doesn’t bother with the lights. He kicks off his shoes, settles back in the chair and stares out the picture window at the night sky, but owing to the full moon, he can’t see many stars. On the lake, the loons wail back and forth to one another in a mournful call and response, their cries flowing in waves across the water, the sound softened and rounded by the contact. Sarah loved listening to them, said their three-tone calls were loonish for where ARE you.
          Across town, on his knees, Father Morrill begins with the Hail Mary and the Our Father. He considers asking for guidance in leading his dwindling, geriatric flock, and for help bolstering attendance at mass; instead, he gets to his most pressing concern.
          “Lord, I ask you for clarity so that I may see the way back to the true faith that will armor me against the deceptions of the Devil, wherever I find them. Give me strength and courage so that I may walk in the light of grace and be worthy of the challenges you set before me. I ask this in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
          He genuflects but continues kneeling, worried that he hasn’t spent enough time in prayer, but lacking anything more to say. Morrill stands and turns out the light to begin what he assumes will be another wakeful night, wanting desperately to sleep, to dream of archangels and sanctifying grace, but fearing he will again be forsaken.

          Two a.m. Albert hears the usual commotion, but tonight, instead of hollering for silence, he gets out of bed. He is exhausted, desperate for sleep, and blind with rage at being denied. Halfway down the stairs, his right shoulder brushes the wall, but tonight, like that night so many years ago, he doesn’t stop or count to three or turn around.
          “Mother?” Albert calls. When he sees nothing, feels nothing of her presence, he shouts again, more sternly this time.
          In the kitchen, the cabinet door hangs open. Before bed, he checked it three times to be sure it was latched tight. He decides to nail it shut after breakfast.
          Albert walks back to the front room and peers out the window. He remembers doing the same thing that horrible winter night. Forty-six years ago it was now.
          Just like before, he sees his mother in the yard and runs out the front door, hears Myra’s voice, harsh and cold: “You will never hurt us again, Royal Edgecomb.”
          Tonight the air is warm and still, but in the moonlight Albert can see it all: the snow, his mother leaning into the truck, pocketing the keys, leaving the door open and the dome light on, then striding toward the house. She tells Albert to come inside, but just like before he runs to his father. On the ground, Royal is coughing up blood, the snow around him speckled red.
          Now Mother is shouting at Albert, trying to get him back in the house, but this time Albert will not leave. He doesn’t have to look back to know Uncle Hartwell is peering at him through the attic window, or that pinafore girl is watching from his bedroom. He can feel them around him, and the others, too.
          Albert looks down at the spot where his father lay that night. He sees Royal’s shivering body splayed next to what’s left of the rat he smashed earlier but couldn’t bring himself to bury. For once Royal is silent, unthreatening. Albert says, “I’m sorry. I should never’ve left you out here.”
          He begins to cry, standing in the place where his father died alone, in slow agony. “I could at least’ve made it quick,” Albert whispers.
          At that moment a jolt, jagged as lightning, hot and cold at the same time, passes straight through Albert and brings him to his knees. After the shock comes fluttering warmth, like a blood bloom, spreading up from his belly to his chest and down his arms to his fingertips. It is pleasure so intense it is nearly pain, and though Albert is frightened, he gives himself over to it, not knowing whether he wants the feeling to stop or go on and on.
          From high above, the night sky reaches down to collect Albert’s last breath; the white moon paints all that lies beneath in black and blue, haze and shadow. The silence thrums, absolute, as Albert’s last pump of blood dissolves into the endless vibration of forever.

          Just before five a.m. a clatter of crows wakes Father Morrill from the callous, fitful sleep that has been toying with him for the past hour. He wipes the crust from his eyes, briefly considers rolling over, forces himself out of bed and into the shower. He has work to do—God’s work—and whether or not he is equal to the task, he will do it.
          In the house by the lake, Doc Norden comes to in his recliner, grasping for the ghostly wisps of his dream about Sarah. He listens for the loons, but the lake is silent. Remembering that he offered to go out to the Edgecomb place with Gideon Morrill, he groans. The priest, he reminds himself, has offered plenty of moral support since Sarah got sick, so Doc figures he owes him. Besides, the guy is the most god-awful cribbage player he’s ever met, and the doctor enjoys schooling him every week.
          Out on the East Point Road, Albert Edgecomb rises. The tide is at rest, neither coming nor going beneath a bank of summer fog that hovers so dense and low on the bay only the mountaintops are visible on the far shore, disembodied peaks floating on a cloud sea. Above the fog, the sky is streaked with purple slowly fading to pink. Albert drifts across the lawn to the front door and passes through. He is home.
          Above the Edgecomb farm, the red tail soars, scanning the ground for prey. When she spies movement in the garden, she tucks her wings and dives, capturing a young chipmunk in her talons then flapping skyward. It is always dangerous being so near the ground, but she is safe now. She tightens her grip on the writhing creature and banks left toward the nest, back to her mate and their greedy hatchlings. There she makes quick work of the chipmunk. The creature suffers only a moment, then it is over.

W. S. Winslow’s work has appeared in Yemassee and Punchnel’s. She has completed a novel-in-stories, of which “Trinity” is part, and has begun a second novel. Her MFA is from NYU.

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