First Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          They were an older couple, fifty and forty-nine, and childless when they found me. They’d been told by someone at the agency that it was perfectly permissible to “spoil” a newly adopted child in order to compensate for the time she’d spent parentless, but were never informed when to stop. I was treated like the goddess Athena and every offering—including a sixth birthday party with a full-size carousel professionally set up in the backyard and removed the following weekend—was elaborately planned and kept secret. 
          I didn’t want them. I wanted my best friend Jane Switzer’s parents. Both lawyers.
          “As if you’d ever see them,” Jane said.

          One Christmas Eve, when I was nine, my father came into the house after collecting the morning mail. He handed over an envelope addressed to me, and I noticed the stamp was uncancelled. The return address simply said North Pole. I’d pretty much disregarded the idea of Old Saint Nick but, in the interest of getting more stuff, played along. The folded note inside informed me that “Mr. C” had a special gift; finding it would not be simple. I needed to follow a series of clues. The first was written on the bottom of the note and directed me to proceed to my grandmother’s house in Baltimore to await further instructions.
          “We’d better get a move on,” my father said, and Mom quickly packed a suitcase and made sandwiches for the five-and-a-half-hour drive.
          Of course my grandmother was in on the entire thing and after a huge dinner, I found an index card taped to the bottom of my cake plate. “Sleep well,” it said, “and you’ll receive another hint in the morning.”
          “We won’t be home for Christmas?” I asked. “What about my stocking? What about the presents?”
          My mother explained, “Santa knows you’re here. Maybe this is where the presents will be.”
          Horseshit, I thought. It was my new favorite word, one that Jane Switzer and I loved to use, but I knew coming out with it now would not end the day well.
          And a good thing, too, because Mom was correct. The following morning, under my grandmother’s prefabricated silver-and-blue Christmas tree, were a plastic travel kennel, a matching leash and collar, a pair of metal feeding bowls, and a ten-pound sack of dry food. My red felt stocking, smuggled by my mother no doubt, was tacked on the mantle and inside, along with the standard fare, was another note: “After breakfast, continue south into Virginia. Locate 14 Garath Kennels Road just outside Roanoke. There you will find the companion you’ve always wished for.”
          The photograph is somewhere among the fifteen or so albums that my mother collected and kept on the bookshelf. They recorded my entire life from a shaky referral picture my parents received before we’d even met, to a shot of me leaving for Boston University. The one I’m talking about shows me holding a French Bulldog in my arms, the drab brown outdoor surroundings of Garath Kennels in the background, a large red bow around the puppy’s neck. I do not look all that pleased because a dog was never a thing I wanted.
          On the endless ride back to Connecticut, with this squirming animal constantly trying to loosen itself from my grip, I decided to call her Twist.
          “‘Twist’ is a verb,” my mother said from the front passenger seat. “Are you sure you want “Twist?’”
          “It’s perfect,” Dad said from behind the steering wheel. “‘Twist’ can be a noun. Like licorice twist.”
          “Or the dance,” Mom agreed.
          “Twist of fate.”
          “A twist in time saves nine.”
          This cracked them up for some reason and I was almost reluctant to break the mood by announcing that the dog had just urinated on my new jeans.

          I was the only disciplinarian in a house with few rules. I cautioned Twist against chewing things and begging at the table. I taught her a few simple commands, chief among them being to stay out of my room. I housebroke her. But soon other things intruded: field hockey and sleepovers and cool guys. My dad, who I later learned had initially been opposed to getting the dog, wound up becoming her caretaker. It wasn’t something he disliked. He’d feed the Frenchie too much and too frequently. He’d buy her toys—knotted ropes and rubber bones and squeaky alligators—that lay in a mostly ignored pile in the corner by her “Cozy Cuddle Dream Lounger.” It was during this time that Mom had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and became almost totally housebound. Twist and my father would go on long walks, often coming home with some form of take-out dinner, Dad smelling like the cigars that had been banned from our house. 

          Jane Switzer once asked me about my biological parents. We were lying side-by-side in a daisy-patterned hammock stretched between trees in her backyard. It was July, our last summer before high school, and Jane had her first boyfriend, a guy from Jamaica named Freddie.
          “Aren’t you even curious about who they might be?” she asked.
          “Not really.”
          “Your dad could be an astronaut. Your mom could be a fashion designer.”
          “I doubt it,” I said.
          “Suppose they came back and tried to reclaim you?”
          “That would be different.” 
          “You’d go with them?”
          I shrugged. “What else have I got to do?”

          My adoptive parents were romantics—embarrassingly so—and I always found their conduct, well, odd. On Saturday mornings, while still in bed, they would read short stories to one another while I memorized geometric formulas. My mom would copy a poem (I remember her liking Pablo Neruda,) and—before her speech was impacted—read it at the dinner table. They did not come from literary backgrounds. She was a photographer for the Hartford Courant, he was night manager at a country club in Fairfield County. But their love of images and innuendo, puns and palindromes, drove me—a typically rebellious child—toward what I considered more exact: trigonometry, triangulation, the Taylor Polynomial. I was an exceptional math and science student, and although I did marginally well with English and history, I felt much more at ease dealing with problems involving Gaussian elimination or conditional probability.  

          After my mother passed in late April of my junior year, things became really weird. I had just come home from BU for the first week of summer break, a quick stopover on my way to Washington D.C. to work a twelve-week internship with the National Security Administration. My second or third day home I heard Dad in the kitchen talking to Twist. “So, hon,” he said, “what do you feel like doing today?” It was the same way he used to talk to my mother on Sunday mornings, just before suggesting an afternoon of apple-picking or stopping by some tag sale he’d scouted out during the week. I noticed, too, that Dad was now feeding Twist the same food he was cooking for himself, hers sliced into tiny slivers, but served on the same dinnerware we ate from. By now the dog was overweight and sloppy.
          “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” I asked him, pointing to the dish of meatloaf  and peas and mashed potatoes on the floor by the dinette table.
          “Let her enjoy it,” he said. “Poor girl’s not going to live forever.”

          I didn’t return for six months. The university was between semesters, and a boy I’d been dating but didn’t particularly care for had broken up with me. I was embarrassed by what I perceived as a failure on my part and needed someplace to hide out. We had an early December snow that year, just a few inches, but when I got home I noticed that not only had my father shoveled the walk, he’d plowed out a semi-circle from the foot path onto the lawn. From the upstairs hallway window it resembled a giant letter “D.” A “doggie turn-around,” Dad called it. I noticed, too, that my father (no carpenter by any estimation) had built a respectable set of padded steps, a stairway that allowed Twist to forego the twenty-inch leap onto the sofa. Even this was an effort; the dog was mostly being carried around at this point and had either forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the fact that her bathroom was located outdoors.   
          In the garage, next to Dad’s Chevy Volt, was a black three-year-old Nissan Sentra I’d never seen before. I enquired and was told it was mine. “A steal,” my father said. “Consider it your Christmas present.”
          I suggested we go out for pizza that first night back, but my father didn’t want to leave Twist alone. Instead, he made us tomato soup (the dog’s served just slightly warm,) and grilled cheese sandwiches cookie-cut into the shapes of playing card suites. Dad had retired a year earlier at age seventy-one and apparently had nothing much to do other than to nurse the Frenchie and meticulously clean the house. Pots hung from hooks over the stove, copper bottoms shinning. Books were alphabetized on their shelves. Not one window was even slightly smudged.
          He’d even painted my bedroom, the walls a minty green, the ceiling so white is seemed to shine. Virtually everything was still intact from my high school days and I found the effect touching. I could envision him at the hardware store looking through those colored cards, moving my stuffed animals to a place that would be safe from paint splatter, laying down drop clothes and carefully taping off the windows.

          When I woke up the next morning, I could smell bacon frying and hear Dad talking to someone downstairs. I waited in bed until I heard the front door shut then listened as a car pulled away. 
          When I got to the kitchen, my father had some oldies station on the radio and was singing along with the Beach Boys as he gingerly flipped an omelet. Cushions had been set up for Twist all over the house and she currently occupied her favorite, the one in the corner near the heating vent. 
          “Guess who I was just talking to,” my dad said.
          I told him I had no idea and watched as he broke off a half strip of bacon then squatted down and fed it to the dog.
          “Stan Cangelosi. You remember Stan.”
          Stan Cangelosi was a caterer my father knew from his days managing the country club. I’d worked for the man one summer during high school as a server. Mr. Cangelosi was harmless as far as employers go, benign and as bland as banana pudding.
          “He was asking about you,” my father said as he stood and poured me a mug of coffee. “Wants to know what your long-term plans are.”
          I nodded, sat at the table, unfolded the newspaper.
          “Old Stan’s done pretty well for himself,” my father said. “He’s thinking he might even franchise. Come spring, he’ll be looking for somebody to handle his books.”
          It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, moving back to Connecticut, back into this house, working a job I had little interest in.
          “We’ll have to see what happens,” I said, but my dad smiled as if this was the affirmation he was looking for.

          A few days before Christmas I got a phone call from a man named Carl Fullerton who identified himself as a human resources officer with the NSA. He wondered if I’d enjoyed my summer internship with the agency, and I told him I had. He said the research mathematician I’d worked for had spoken highly of me.
          “Is graduation still on for this spring?” 
          I told him it was and he asked if I had any interest in pursuing a career as a cryptanalytic diagnostician once I got my degree. It would mean relocating to “the District,” getting a more than decent salary, and—most importantly—not having to join that rabble of groveling graduates begging for any position they could find in an already saturated job market.
          I admitted I was more than interested, and he promised to get back to me during the first week in February.
          My father did not greet this news with equal enthusiasm. We were decorating the six-foot artificial Christmas tree I’d grown up with when I told him. “Why would you want to live in D.C.?” he asked. “It’s as expensive as Hawaii. Think of the money you’ll save living here.”
          “I think it’s a better opportunity,” I said.
          “It’s dangerous. Have you checked out the crime statistics?”
          “I’ll be careful.”
          “Home invasions. People shot on the street for no reason. I don’t understand why you don’t—”
          “Because I hate it here,” I said calmly. “I feel stilted here.”
          There was a pause. He hung the ornament he was holding—a silver icicle—and said, “I guess I didn’t realize that.” 
          “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings,” I said.
          “No,” he said. “It’s okay, I get it.” And then he put on his coat, harnessed up the Frenchie, tucked her under his arm, and went outside into what the radio had referred to as “a blast of Arctic air.”

          We exchanged a couple of presents on Christmas day, and on New Year’s Eve I went out with Jane Switzer for a late dinner. She was a single mom working in her father’s law office and going to community college at night, and for three-and-a-half hours we found virtually nothing to talk about. I’d invited my dad to join us, but he said there was a late Packers/Bears game on TV and that the dog might be confused being left alone that long. 
          When I came in around one in the morning, Twist was dead. She was on her cushion next to the heating vent, just lying there, mouth open. I didn’t need to check for a heartbeat because I knew, I just knew. I could hear my father upstairs snoring, the television still on. I wrapped her in an old beach towel and got a cardboard box from the basement. I thought about putting her on the front porch but decided to leave her where she was. I went into the living room and stretched out on the sofa. I wanted to be there in the morning when my dad came down.

          The ground was frozen, so I wound up contacting a veterinarian who suggested cremation. “Very dignified,” he said. “Very respectful. And if you wish, we can even give you the cremains.”
          I told him we’d pass on the cremains.
          My father never shed a tear in front of me, but he did get drunk the night after I dropped Twist at the vet. Found a bottle of tequila from what was probably a Cinco de Mayo celebration when my mother was alive. I sat at the kitchen table with him and poured, and I knew he’d reached his limit when he said, “It’s my fault. Giving her all that people food.”
          “She was thirteen years old,” I told him. “The food had nothing to do with it.”
          “This is my problem,” he said. “I can never let go.”
          I was tempted. It would have been easy. Call Stan Cangelosi, I could have said. Tell him I can start in May.
          But I didn’t, thank God. I simply said, “Let’s try and get some sleep,” and I capped up the bottle and poured his unfinished tequila into the sink.
          He didn’t last long after that; I didn’t expect him to. He died that summer, less than three weeks after I moved to D.C.

          “I think I’m incapable of love,” I told a man who proposed marriage less than a year later.
          “That’s impossible,” he said. “You’d have dried up like a fallen leaf by now.”
          I turned him down. Instead, remembering my father’s warning, I bought a dog for protection. A Shepherd-collie mix I named Rubin. I walk him in Montrose Park and around the Rosedale Conservancy, and every so often I’ll throw the ball or play tug.
          He seems to like me, but I can’t—try as I may—figure out why.

Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 nominee for the Indie Award for Best Short Story Collection. Since that time, his work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb, New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, The MacGuffin, LitBreak, and other terrific places. Z.Z. is married to novelist Tricia Bauer and they have a daughter, Lia, currently at Vassar College.


Where God Suddenly

Second Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          Rivka sees the girl before the girl sees anyone. The girl stands at the bus stop, dressed awkwardly. Not that her clothes are awkward, but rather that they seem as if they aren’t quite right upon her body. She tugs at the corners, caught between her fingers, holding so tightly that had the clothes been sharp, she’d be bleeding. Rivka stares. The girl walks up to the bus doors, one hand touching her side.  Rivka thinks gun first. Then she thinks wound. Then she thinks baby, as if the girl is trying to hold something fragile and small inside herself. The bus isn’t going to the hospital. The girl asks. Quiet voice like humming low. She steps backwards from the doors. Tugging the cloth, pressing her side. Rivka stares at her, even after the bus pulls away taking Rivka with it.
          Rivka believes in angels but not the pretty ones. She believes in the ones that destroy things. The ones that avenge without warning. The righteous ones. Sometimes she sees people and knows that they are angels. They are waiting for her. She thinks the girl might have been one of them.
          Rivka gets to work where she is a no one. She works at a restaurant but isn’t a waitress. She is the cashier. She takes people’s payments when they don’t want to wait at their tables for their waitresses to return, or when they are just a little paranoid about the waiter who takes their credit card to swipe it. What if he takes a second too long and, in that second, he is busy writing down their numbers? Rivka always smiles at the customers, but she feels that it is the smile of one forced to smile out of duty to her job and it is reflected in the smile of the customers who are forced to smile at her out of duty to politeness. She works her shift that night with the smile even more forced. It seems to take her mouth a moment longer than usual to register that she requires it to turn upwards and all that ends up coming out is a sort of grimace.
          Her boss takes her aside to talk.
          “Are you alright?”
          Rivka says, “Yes.”
          “Are you sure you’re alright?”
          She says, “I’m tired, not feeling well.” She doesn’t say that it feels as if ice is being forced down her throat and that it drips into her stomach and feels like a weight, feels like stones.  
          Her boss nods, understanding, thinking it is probably woman’s troubles. That’s what he calls it when talking about his wife, that she is having woman troubles, or sometimes he will say that she is on her feminine problems. He says, “Rivka, go home early. I don’t want to scare off the customers.” He laughs.
          She tries to laugh. It comes out strange and sharp, like the wrong note being played at the wrong speed.
          Rivka takes the bus home. She doesn’t like it at night, though. It isn’t annoying like it is during the day. It is just wrong at night. The reflections of people in the windows always look as if pieces of their faces are going missing, slowly being eaten up by the darkness of the night. She also doesn’t like the way that the city blinks in and out around her: the car lights and the street lights and the building lights. It is like the world isn’t there really; it is some light-up mockery that only is pretending to be her city and not very well since it flickers so often. She sits by herself on one of the side rows. People usually take the back and the front first and that suits her. She doesn’t like to sit too close to anyone. Sometimes the smell of someone’s perfume will send her into fits of weeping though she can’t quite name why.
          Her sister had never worn much perfume. Yet, she always smelled of some slight sweetness, like flowers from a distance or like the violet syrup their mother made for their sore throats. The liquid light, sugary, and smelling of the first blades of summer.
          Rivka arrives at home and doesn’t know what to do. She is so used to spending her nights at work that the apartment seems somehow foreign and uncomfortable. It is like she is intruding onto the life of the shadow-Rivka who lives the opposite life of her, the one who arrives home when it is early evening and who cooks her own meals and who curls up on the couch with a cop show and a partner and a dog who sleeps on her feet. Rivka tiptoes, though no one is there, not wishing to disturb the life she might have been living. She opens the fridge and drinks a glass of orange juice while standing by the sink. She rinses her glass as soon as it is empty, placing it onto the dish rack and wincing at the slight clink-sound it makes.
          She goes to her bedroom and steps into her closet. There is a tiny box, one of those wooden cigar ones that even empty still retains the smell of richness, at the very back and she picks it up. There are things inside it which she usually does not think about.
          Her sister was named Kat, short for Katarina. She was beautiful in the way that some girls are; it was unexplainable and there was no one feature to point to and say oh, well, her face was all about her eyes or her lips were just so full. Kat was beauty personified. She carried light. Not everyone noticed it—the way she glimmered and shone when the sun hit her—but everyone appreciated it even when they couldn’t quite put their finger on why she so captivated them. Rivka was younger, though she isn’t any longer. Her love for her sister used to consume her. She imagined Kat as a fire who could burn and burn but never quite turn Rivka to ashes. They came to this city when they were young. Her parents took the girls and little else from their old home. A few photos, a few trinkets, which in the years to come, would get sold or broken. All they wanted was the safety of somewhere new. The security that came with the blankness of starting over.
          They shared a tiny apartment. Two bedrooms, which could have been closets. Her parents in one and the sisters in one. Rivka liked the warmth of Kat’s body at night. It reminded her that she was alive when she was woken from sleep by the nightmares. In her nightmares she was always buried under snow. There was always so much snow. She’d wake shivering, so hard her teeth chattered like a cup full of dice and Kat would always wake up with her. Kat would never say anything, just nod and wrap her light-filled arms around Rivka, letting the light wash over them until Rivka was warm. That was Kat’s power, she could bend the light, make it stronger, seep it into another person, if she wanted to. Rivka would snuggle closer to Kat. Then Kat would nod again, just once, as if to say that everything would be alright. It was always enough.
          The pictures in the box all smell of tobacco. They smell warm like Rivka could put them under her pillow on the coldest night of the year and she wouldn’t need the heat on. They are all pictures of that in-between time: after they moved and before the end of her family. A man had once told her that families all end but in different ways. He said he was paraphrasing a book. He said that his family ended when his brother came out as gay. He said they couldn’t ever quite go back to what they had been when he was a child. She had stared at him, wondering at something so simple, so human, could make a family fall apart. He had still had his brother and should that not be enough for him? She had wondered at the ways that childhood ends. They must all be different as well.
          The photo she is looking for is of her sister, the last time that she was her sister. Kat is standing at the park, she is sixteen, and her hair is cut short. She had liked the dramatic style of some actress in a television show that she watched, though Rivka found it boring and emotional and for moody girls and no one else. Kat’s bangs cut across her eyes and a lock of hair curls up under her chin. She is wearing shorts and a t-shirt that has a band’s name across the front. Rivka has never known the name of the band; it’s obscured by Kat’s arms. She wonders sometimes if she had even known it then. If she had ever actually studied a single piece of Kat’s clothing. Rivka has never cared for clothing. It is something to keep away the cold, not for looking at. Kat is being Kat in the photo. She is half-smiling, half-looking defiant. Rivka wants to reach into the picture and touch her sister’s face. To feel the smoothness of her skin, the perfection of it in that moment. Photographs do not show how Kat glowed. Rivka wonders why. If Kat was like a living optical illusion or if she was like the stars. In photos, stars just look like pinpricks of white.
          It must have happened not so long after the photo was taken, Rivka thinks, trying to remember. Kat didn’t show up home one night. Rivka was worried. Her parents were not, or if they were they did not show it to Rivka. They believed in this new home. They believed in angels who helped people to escape, angels who protected those who asked for help. Kat was found the next day. Someone, a Good Samaritan who found her, took her to the hospital. They left her there, alone. Rivka hated them the most for this. She saw no good in this Good Samaritan. Her parents spoke in whispers. They spoke the language of home, the language that Rivka was already losing the flow of; it slipped from her tongue’s memory a little more each day, like fingernails growing so long that they broke. She went in to see Kat, though her parents did not want her to. Not yet, they said as if time could make a difference.
          The cut ran across Kat’s face, starting at her hairline and travelling diagonally down to under her ear. It was jagged. It looked like a crack made by some earthquake of the skin. Kat was no longer Kat. She may have had the same body, but Rivka knew there was nothing of her sister there. Un-Kat looked up at her and tried to speak. She did not speak.
          Rivka puts the photos away. She is certain that she was looking for something, that she had intended to find something out, but she isn’t sure what. She thinks it is because of the bus girl. The maybe-angel. Rivka rushes to the bathroom and vomits into the toilet. She is trying to get rid of everything that is inside her. She stays on the bathroom floor, cold tiles pressed into her legs until she can feel the sharp pangs of her muscles clenching in her legs. She pulls herself to her feet, dizzy. She brushes her teeth with too much toothpaste and ends up swallowing some, brushes until she can taste blood mixed in with the Mint Burst flavoring. She spits pink foam into the sink and rinses her mouth out until she tastes nothing.
          She dreams again that she is falling. She dreamt this often as a child. She dreams that she is falling into snow. The snow isn’t really like snow. It’s hot like a bath just run. The snow perhaps is bubbles. Except that it cuts her skin. Scrapes against her until she is raw. This is where the dream used to end, but it doesn’t now. The snow bubbles begin to bleed with her. The red overtakes the white. The white disappears. There is only the red. The red. It slips into her mouth and she tries to spit it out. The red drips into her eyes. It stings. She fights against the weight of her own body falling. She doesn’t have the strength. She closes her eyes against the red and sees her sister. Her sister and the river. Rivka wakes up and the bed around her is cool.
          Rivka never eats breakfast. She sometimes wonders, though, if this just means that she eats her breakfast at lunch time then her lunch at dinner and that she is perpetually behind by one meal and will never quite catch up. She goes to the grocery store. It is only a block away and she enjoys walking there. Her neighborhood is pleasant. There is a park across from her building and often she sees children playing and their parents are not bothered to come around and watch them. This is what safety in surroundings gives you, the ability to be absent-minded, to not watch your children growing because you think you will always be able to watch them. Rivka likes the children on the swings best. They always seem like they are about to take flight. If they just get high enough then they will be able to jump off and fly south.
          She walks to the store and the sky outside seems extra blue. She wonders if she could fly, if the blue would feel colder than days when the sky has a tinge of pink to it. Does the sky know that it is changing?
          The store is a small one, run by a family. They have many children who all take turns working at the counter. Rivka knows each of their names though she has never called any of them by name. She keeps their names, waiting one day for one of them to ask for hers. She wants to say, my name is Rivka and you are Peter or Lily or Aidan or Louisa. They range in age from fourteen-ish to mid-twenties and she marvels at the way this family has all stayed in one place. It is as if they are bound to each other by something.  Maybe it is the place that they are kept together by. Maybe that is the key to every relationship, just to stay in one place.
          She goes through each aisle slowly. She only goes shopping once every two weeks and refuses to return even if she has forgotten something. Rivka has always believed that doing without is a sign of some kind of strength of character, though she has never been sure what kind of sign exactly. She picks up a bottle of cranberry juice and studies it. She loves sour things, she loves the way that sour makes her tongue ache. It’s a quick kind of pain that goes away instantly. She sees the girl out of the corner of her eye. It is the girl from the bus stop, but not really. It is a girl who almost looks like she could be the maybe-angel, almost exactly. Rivka thinks it is her at first. That the maybe-angel’s power is to never look quite the same. Then she thinks it is her imagination. Then she thinks oh, sisters, and she knows that this is right. She knows it like the time she knew that the knocking on the door meant something terrible or the time that she knew that dirt covering a wooden box, that sound of shhpp-shhpp as the dirt hit the casket after slipping through her mother’s fingers, meant an eternity of doing without the thing she loved. She had almost howled at the box as it was lowered. But, she hadn’t, she had only almost, and the dirt she would not touch, she let her parents toss it down instead, their hands becoming stained with it. Rivka saw those stains on them for days. She wouldn’t eat anything her parents touched.
          She walks up to the girl who is staring at something without really seeing it. “Excuse me,” Rivka says. The girl doesn’t hear her. Rivka is used to this, she speaks quietly. No one ever hears her on the first try. “Excuse me,” Rivka says it again just a little bit louder.
          The girl turns to her, surprised, “Yes?”
          Rivka isn’t sure how to ask the question so she just asks it, “You have a sister?"
          The girl nods.
          “She’s alright?” Rivka asks.
          The girl shakes her head, confused, there are tears attempting to swallow her eyes, but they don’t fall. The girl says, “You know Elena?”
          “I saw her waiting for the bus. She was…” Rivka says. She wants to say more. She wants to tell the girl how she knew immediately what was wrong. How she had wanted to run and grab Elena and hold her and tell her that this world is not as broken as it seems. But she hadn’t done that because she thought the girl may have been an angel, may have been coming for her, and so she feels that saying so will show her as the coward that she is.
          “She’s in the hospital now,” the girl says. “I wanted to get her something but I don’t know what I should get her, you know? I thought something sweet because sweet seems like something she needs, but it also seems wrong because how could she even taste the sweet anymore?”
          Rivka looks around. She wants to find the perfect object to give the girl for her sister. She wants to say This will make everything better. She sees nothing. Then she says, “Take her anything, she will know what you mean.”
          The girl studies Rivka’s face. She doesn’t just look at her like everyone does, forgetting Rivka’s features the moment that they turn away from her. She actually studies her as if wanting to make sure to remember her. The girl tries to smile. It doesn’t quite come off as a smile but Rivka knows what the girl means. She tries to smile back and their smiles are reflections of one another.
          Rivka watches the girl walking away. She wonders why she has never thought about how there are so many different ways for people to walk away. Her mother walking out of a room once and turning back to wave at her father. Her mother had been smiling, Rivka and Kat were young and curled up on the floor, and her father was telling stories to them. They were always stories about children finding magical objects which saved the day. Oh, that one story, about the mountain made of glass with the well at the top. And in the bottom of the well was the water of life. Rivka had loved that story. She had loved her father’s voice most when he was telling that story. Now when she thought of her father, his voice was the clearest that she remembered. There was the time that she saw her grandmother for the last time as they were leaving to their new home. Her grandmother would not come with them. She turned from them and walked back into the house. Her walk was like the walk of a warrior returning one last time to battle. There was Kat’s walk. The one Rivka never saw. The walk into the river at night, the water covering her slowly. There was Rivka’s own walk, away, away, away.
          She pays for her groceries. The girl behind the counter smiles at her as she takes her money.
          “Are you alright?” she asks Rivka. Rivka looks at the girl. She is the oldest of the children, the one probably the closest to Rivka’s own age, maybe a year younger or two. Lily.
          She tries to never lie to people, she speaks around the truth, and so she just replies, “I’m tired, thank you for asking.”
          Lily nods, but Rivka can tell she wants to ask more, and so leaves quickly.
          She walks past the children on the swings. She wants to hear her mother’s voice, calling to her to come in. How long has it been since she has heard her mother’s voice? Her mother’s real voice, not the one which picks up the telephone and sounds like an empty room.
          Rivka gets home and wants to shower. She wants to wash away the encounter she had with the girl whose sister lies in a hospital somewhere, wants to see the encounter come off in some sort of physical way, maybe the water will run into the drain and be a different color after it has been on her skin.
          The shower runs hot. It always seems to waver between two options: icy and burning. She lets it burn this time. Her skin slowly turning red.  She remembers how Kat came home from the hospital and took a shower that lasted three hours. Until their mother picked the bathroom lock, ca-chh ca-chh click, and went in to check on her. Her skin had actually been scalded. Red welts blossomed across her like bee stings. Rivka had wanted to get clay to spread across Kat. The clay would pull the stingers out, she had thought. But she did nothing. That was something she would have done for the old Kat, the real Kat. Maybe, Kat had thought the river was the only way to get clean.
          Her mother later would ask her over and over again, how did you not feel when she left the bed? How did you not feel it? Rivka would not say how far into the corner of the mattress she had pressed herself, how she could not bear the thought of their skin meeting unexpectedly in the night. There was no one there for her to feel leave the bed. No one she wanted to feel.
          Rivka steps out of the shower and examines herself in the mirror. Her body seems strangely foreign suddenly. She has no scars. She has never really cut herself. She has never broken anything. There is a cool sort of perfection to her skin. She realizes that no one outside of her family has ever seen her completely naked. Her mother used to bathe her and Kat together. They would sit in a tub of bubbles giggling wildly as each took turns getting their heads dunked under the water. She had always loved seeing Kat’s skin. The way it glowed so brightly, not enough to hurt the eyes but enough so that they never needed flashlights to walk outside at night. As a child this had made sense to her. There wasn’t anything strange about the light her sister gave off. She had assumed that this was something that some people were just able to do. Only later did she realize that Kat was the only one who did this. Only after Kat’s skin stopped beaming. She became so dull that even the river water couldn’t make her shimmer.  
          Rivka doesn’t notice that she’s doing it until after she has done it. She has made a single small cut at the front of her hairline with the file on her nail clippers. She doesn’t even remember picking up the clippers. The blood drips down her face. It feels warm and gentle. She rinses off her face, the blood turns the water a light pinkish color. It swirls down the drain.
          Rivka dreams that night of running bare foot. Her legs ache even in her dream. She is running through hills of snow. She knows that she is looking for a mountain. She sees it always in the distance, the glass peaks sparkling under moonlight. The mountain glows.
          Rivka wakes to silence. The sun is just rising and the light creeps through her window blinds. A slant of light falls across her bed, directly over her thighs. She can feel the warmth of the sun even through her blankets. It feels like someone lying across her. As a child, she had loved the moments when Kat would turn over in her sleep and her limbs would find themselves flung across Rivka. Rivka had always felt safest when she was touching someone else.
          Before Rivka heads to work, she checks her face in the mirror, pulls the scab from the cut and lets it bleed for a second before carefully placing a Band-Aid on it. She already longs to be at home and ripping it off again.
          The bus ride is uneventful. Though she feels a strange sort of jolt when they pass the stop where the girl had been. At work, no one asks about the Band-Aid. It’s highly likely that no one even notices. She takes payments, she nods at the customers, she thanks them, she puts a smile on.
          “Hey, you’re the girl from the store.”
          She doesn’t immediately recognize this woman away from where she was supposed to be. It’s Lily. Rivka doesn’t know how to respond.
          “I work at the grocery store?” Lily says, as if prompting Rivka to know her.
          “Yes,” Rivka says.
          “I didn’t know you worked here. It’s a nice restaurant.”
          “Yes,” Rivka says.
          “I’m Lily, by the way.”
          “I’m Rivka,” she says, feeling silly because her name tag has probably already let her know this. But there is something soothing about saying a name aloud. It’s a release that she hasn’t felt in a long time.
          “I know. Your name comes up on your receipts. I always wanted to ask you how to pronounce it. It’s beautiful.”
           Rivka stares at Lily. She wants to smile. She wants to smile but she knows that a smile can be dangerous. She heard her mother saying it, she must have smiled at them, you know that smile, she didn’t know any better! Her mother pleading with her father. They had to blame something, why not blame it all on the way that someone’s lips turned up?
          “Would you ever want to maybe get something to eat or something?” Lily asks. She has a quiet voice. She sounds like telling stories before going to bed, like whispering in the library, like calm.
          “Yes,” Rivka says, but wants to take the word back. She didn’t mean to let it escape.
          Lily smiles. They exchange numbers. She has never given her number to anyone who has asked for it. She wants Lily to call her but hopes that she doesn’t; she doesn’t know what she would say. She is not sure that there is anything that she could say.
          She rides the bus home after work. Everyone’s reflections seem to be staring at her. Their shapeless and dark eyes following her. She stares at her feet. Her shoes are scuffed. She’s never noticed how scuffed they are. The fabric is cracking.
         “Miss, are you okay?” A man asks, his hand touching her shoulder.
          She flinches away from him. The touch sent a feeling like bugs down her skin. Bugs with sharp little feet, like needles pricking her skin. She tries to say something, apologize to him, but it comes out as a strange sort of hiss. The man steps away from her.
          At home, she has a message waiting for her. A woman’s voice, quiet, Lily’s. She listens to it and wonders how someone would want her. Can no one see how ugly her skin is? It’s so smooth. It’s marked by having no marks. It is the skin of a coward, of a fool, of the worst kind of person. The kind who betrays. Angels could see it. She is sure. The angels could see it and they would want to burn her, to bury her.
          Rivka goes into the bathroom. She takes out her nail clippers, and places it to her face, she begins to cut. Then a hand on her shoulder. She turns. Kat stands behind her.
          She stands and her face is still covered in a gaping wound. A fissure of red skin. “What are you doing, my sister?”
          It has been a lifetime since she has heard her sister’s voice and the sound of it makes Rivka feel like falling, like listening to the sounds of night—all the insects and birds that no one knows are there.
          “What I couldn’t before. So you will forgive me.”
          “For what?” Kat asks. She is genuine. She is concerned.
          “I never touched you.”
          Kat shakes her head, she smiles, and says, “So touch me now.”
          Rivka reaches out and touches the scar. It feels hot as fire.
          “Your hands are so cool,” Kat says.
          As Rivka moves her finger over the wound, the red skin begins to fall off. It leaves behind fresh skin, a little pink but smooth. “Oh,” she says.
          The sisters stare at each other. They glow. And then, from Kat, a single nod, as if she is bowing her head to keep from staring at the sun.

Chloe N. Clark's work appears in Booth, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-editor-in-chief of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and her debut chapbook The Science of Unvanishing Objects is out from Finishing Line Press. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.

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To See the Whales

Third Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          The clouds blew in with the wind. The wind brought waves. Waves brought a storm of jellyfish. Fernando did not know the meaning of a sting. He didn’t understand anaphylaxis. Circulatory collapse. He knew they were things to be avoided. Things that would burn terribly and consume his morning with the application of baking soda and vinegar and require time to heal that would keep him away from the ocean, but he did not understand the potency of their poison. And certainly he did not understand hives and hydrostatic pressure and how permeable capillaries leak fluid and become porous holes unable to support one’s blood pressure.
          He was not an outstanding pupil. He had quit school and was eighteen, but his future was bright. Tourism was his life now. It was a vibrant life. He witnessed the mating patterns of sea urchins spiny and black and the migration of dolphins and the tides that restored the beaches with tiny life forms like crabs and mollusks, and the road runners that chased them. Every day he did this. These weak creatures were in a way, his, to protect. From the mountains, the bay looked magnificent and blue, serene, yet in every corner, under every rock, were these fragile marine lives swirling madly in tide pools, his to be discovered. 
          He always wore a life jacket and although his skin was naturally brown and rich in melanin, itself protective in the sun of Guanacaste, he always wore sunscreen. He understood the ocean and knew that he must be careful himself and caution the tourists he led. They came to Costa Rica for the same reasons he loved her. If he was careful, the dangers of the ocean would not befall them. 
          He called the jellies that had washed in with the wind and cold water that day Rapunzel jellies because their tentacles extended in long strings like endless blonde hair, translucent, nearly invisible, until they were clumped and grasped to their prey.
          He set out on the Jet Ski from the resort on Playa Hermosa to see the humpbacks that had been sighted the last two mornings just past the mouth of the bay. The parrot was on his shoulder, clinging to the rugged vest, strung on its harness, to its cord. It did not appreciate the ride that morning the way it usually licked him with its little black tongue. It was not snuggled to his cheek, behaving as the affectionate thing which loved to have the yellow collar of feathers on its neck rubbed. Its claws clung sharp and strong, through the heavy khaki, into the skin of his bare shoulder beneath the vest, as he took each wave.
          The rock formation known as Monkey Head Island was visible from every angle. Beyond it, the ocean. As he approached it, its shape morphed to look more sculptured, less natural. Polygonal crests of brown stone, silhouetted and weathered and crumbled away in chunks to a simian profile. He turned the craft to hit the whitecaps diagonally. As he descended into a wave, another beyond it overtook it from his right, adding to its crest in synergy, such that it created a wave larger than him, and it pelted droplets that tore from the ocean waves with gale force. The ocean pushed back upon the Jet Ski, pushing its bow up as the watercraft surged forward. And as Fernando spit and cleared the salt from his eyes, his face dripping, ready to take the next wave as he gassed the Jet Ski, he saw that what had caused the rogue wave was the great body of a humpback. A thin stripe along its body that blended with the white of the sea spray arced parabolic over the surface then disappeared beneath it.
          His heart thumped in his chest, pulsing against his shoulder where the parrot squawked. Its wings protracted outward, righting its balance as they stopped. It shook its tail feathers and its wings retracted, settling against his body. There they were tossed about, and he tried to steady the water craft by gassing the Jet Ski with each wave, holding its handle where his knuckles were pink against skin whitened from his clutch. 
          Then, without so much as an explanation of what was to come, he had a vision that he was the bird, instead watching himself, Fernando, from a lifeless dune, where sandstone howled around them, a place resembling the after-death of monsters ill-tempered and bestial like the Cyclopes Brontes and Steropes and Arges. It was a place without water, no place for him, a boy summoned to the ocean. When he pined for water in this premonition, it came crashing upon him in waves at his feet from a river coursing like an unrecognized fate through this otherwise barren desert, where nothing sprouted with life, not algae, nor lichen, nor even moss. Bubbles escaped in neat spheres from his lips, his nose, rising, rising toward the surface. He looked to the west where upon the meridian, a palette of red and orange streaked the sky, glaring like Jupiter’s vast eye in disappointment, setting lower, until it disappeared altogether, leaving them in the gloom of a midnight clouded as membranous yellow as a cataract, yet it was only late morning.
          A moment later, the whale broke from the surface, only feet in front of him, this time the same white stripe on its body vertical, soaring and looking as buoyant in the air as it did in the water. It twisted around in a semi-circle, before all the tons of its mass crashed upon him and knocked him from the vessel. He hissed a rush of the tiniest bubbles. They drifted further from him, growing darker blue then black. The cord snapped from the parrot, such that it soared for a minute with a gust of wind, witnessing the spectacle of the humpback. Then it fluttered down to rest upon a rock protruding wet and jagged. It gave a chirp then another chirp and then it just sat, watching the enormous mammal in all its majesty, and watching Fernando tethered to the water craft, unconscious. Its wings were clipped, and it could not gain lift with them as nature would otherwise allow.

Melissa Franckowiak is an MFA student and a practicing anesthesiologist in Buffalo, NY. Recently, her work has appeared in Traffic East, Ghost Parachute, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and Rio Grande Review. Melissa is the mother of two children, the owner of a chatty Amazon parrot, and a lover of all things outdoors. She writes as Melissa Crickard.

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Finalist, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          My mother was facing eviction by eminent domain, and I was driving from Denver to Wyoming for the first time in seven years, trying to constitute two worlds remotely apart with a single question. Will you come and live with me?
          My mother, Som, inhabited a reality decades old, a fragment of the old farming world and the industrial modern, and I floated above, without, and around the world in hi-tech, or suffused it, or supplanted it, as some software savants might say.
          Som had won a first round in the local court and had become known as both a Don Quixote fighting windmills, and possibly the winds of change, and a charming idiot fighting a government with legal briefs used like hammers. All for a mobile home, forty-years-old, waffled aluminum skirt pitted and grayed on three sides where snow piled up in the winter and left in summer, roses that grew from gravel beds, and a singularly large walnut that could house as many as ten satisfactory treehouses.
          I traveled alone. My wife Wendy, a project management consultant, aka a tech gunfighter for hire, had a weekend deadline, and my seven-year-old son Tate already had a Saturday morning ritual of video games and silly Facetiming with his friends from school, and said he would die if forced to make the trip. My mother had seen him days after his birth, and for his first and second birthday, so he had no memories of her.
          At the mobile home, the walnut she had planted had grown to almost fifty feet, seemed wider than tall, obscuring the house with branches trailing to the ground, as if a barricade. My uncle, a refugee Buddhist priest from Thailand, had come to live with her, and I was ready to ask the most confounding and hard question:
          Will you come and live with me?       
          It would be a temporary place for her, as all of my places were temporary. I lived in a mobile world, a mobile job market, moving six times since graduation from Berkeley, twice in California, once in India, once in China, once in North Carolina, and now in Denver. My career was my home, my family’s home. My wife shared our fixation on upward income, about not losing our place in our generation, and though we talked about finally owning a place with acreage, we really meant a stockpiled 401K and stock assets we could use to weather unemployment or job-shifting when our assets aged in the job market. By the age of seven, our son had known an English sitter in China, an Indian sitter in San Mateo, a Colombian sitter in India, and now a Libyan refugee sitter in Denver. I had been recruited out of college for my language aptitude, i.e. coding ability, even though I had not written anything of significance. One of my professors had identified me as “talent.” The goal of colleges had become to provide the opportunity to expose or create a usable talent for business, our human potential best served by idea-spinning, electrified agile conglomerates, with one proviso: you had to be nimble, had to switch companies at the mere whiff of stasis, had to be swift to capture the wealth. Our greatest meta-asset as a couple was not app code or segment marketing, but that we were transportable, Bedouins on Arab steeds in the job market. 
          Will you come and live with me? How could I ask a woman from a stationary world into the whirlwind of high-tech mobility?
          In her homeland of Thailand, my mother’s name meant orange, the color, not the fruit, the vivid darkened orange of priests’ robes. It was her name that first attracted my father. He was a soldier from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, during the Viet Nam war, and to him orange was a winter treat in the doldrums of coal country, his father a coal miner who’d lost his joy for life in the death of his first wife, his livelihood in the death of coal, and his first and third sons to black lung from working in the mines. Gavin Thomas, my father, was the second son, tall, frail, with a Beatles mop and Buddy Holly glasses. He had been too thin and weak of upper body to work in the mines, and had been too undisciplined to go to college. In 1971, his draft number was two, and to avoid the draft into the infantry and go to Viet Nam, he enlisted in the Air Force, his recruiter promising an assignment back in Pennsylvania.
          Halfway into his third year of enlistment, my father received orders to go to Thailand, orders that put him on an air base that routinely bombed North Viet Nam and Laos. His mutual glee and dread gave him an odd sense of euphoria and depression. He thought about fleeing the country at times, hijacking a plane to Sweden, or running a car up into Manitoba. But one thing kept calling him to Thailand—his camera. He had become a photographer, a good photographer, and had placed several of his photo shots in national publications. He kept the camera around his neck almost from waking to sleeping.
          When he landed, an F-105 Thunderchief had come in hot beside his plane, having taken enemy fire and jettisoned its bombs over unknown tropical foliage on the Viet side of the border. A trio of F-4s loaded and ready for launching stood waiting for his plane to clear. But all Gavin could see were the forests rising beyond Ubon Air Base.
          He saw Som. She was wearing an orange dress the day he met her, a common hooker who would be his first sexual experience, and a woman who realized at first that this soldier boy was her ticket out of Thailand, out of prostitution, if only she could be both mother and lover to him.
          Som came from the village of Pathum. She was eight years older than my father. She had a unique expression of both a smile and a grimace, as if happiness was confused with pain, or perhaps pain infused in happiness. It seemed appropriate. She had endured the loss of her father and mother to the Viet Cong, lost her first husband to a motorcycle accident, her lone child from her first marriage to pneumonia. When Gavin would take her to Khong Chiam to where the Mun River joins the Mekong River, where the innocent blue water of the Mun churns with the brown water of the Mekong, she told Gavin he was the Mun bringing happiness into her life, and she the Mekong.
          On the Mekong at Dong Na Tham, he had her hide behind the flowers, the waterfalls, have her bright pink dress the sole tint as fog stripped all the other colors from the river and the quays. She became monogamous that day, she would tell me often as I grew up, a not too subtle lesson to corral my teenage desires.

          Standing in the shadow of the walnut brought back all of the stories my mother had told me. When she opened the door and hugged me. From a lower step I towered over her. She had shrunk, stood less than five feet tall, not the giant of lore made out by the news blogs.   
          Will you come and live with me? I had almost summoned the courage when I entered my childhood home, but the words stayed swallowed.

          Gavin took two years after his discharge to arrange for Som to come to the United States. He greeted her in Hawaii where they were married, a complete blur for her, remembered with precision by him through his photographic eye. Then he took her back to Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It could have just as easily been the moon. There was no bustle, no city, no long strings of passersby, no haggling, no market, and no rain so heavy that it burdened your shoulders. Instead of being treated like a victim, she was treated as if she was Viet Cong, the enemy, and more than once was asked if she knew the men who had killed and maimed American boys.
          Being Thai to the citizens of Fayette County meant being Asian, and being Asian meant you were either Viet Cong or Chinese, and both were bad. She never asked Gavin to move, but moving came.
          The doctor told Gavin that he had signs of black lung disease, even though Gavin had never worked in the mines. His father and brothers had brought the soot home on their work clothes, had played with Gavin without showering.
          Second-hand soot, Gavin joked.
          But the soot was no joke to Som. She looked for clean air and found that New Mexico and Wyoming had the cleanest air, and that Wyoming had an opening for a Sears photographer in Cheyenne. Behind my father’s back, she sent his photos as a job resume, they had called, and Gavin had a career.
          The clean air of Wyoming vanished as soon as they went out of their apartment. Smokers dominated the city. No restaurant was safe. No motel. No store. The clerks all seemed to smoke. Even the Catholic church smelled of smoke; she saw the priests out back after the service chain-smoking. The hospital reeked of smoke at the doorway and butts littered both the sand vestibules and the ground near it. Smoke fell over the valley like a dark blanket each night.
          Everywhere my mother turned, she saw darkness: darkness on the snow, darkness in the air, darkness in the lungs, and darkness in the hearts of suspicious townspeople. In spring, she found a mobile home outside of Cheyenne on a high mound overlooking a valley of aspen and maples. The mobile home was two-years new, and had been the home of a shale oil geologist who it seemed had never used the kitchen and barely disturbed any other part. She had her own money from Thailand, so she bought it, told Gavin that night, and within a month, they had moved. In another month, Som was pregnant.
          My father’s lungs did not recover. The asthma became worse, and in the third winter, he got the flu, which begat pneumonia, which begat death, a wheezing, gasping finale no different from his brothers or his father. They listed pneumonia on his death certificate, but soot had killed him.
          Soot. All over the world people worried about germs and bacteria and viruses they could only see under microscopes, and Gavin had been killed by visible bits of coal and wood sucked into his lungs.

          Will you come and live with me? Your life has been hard, I would tell her. Your home is cold in the winter. My home is warm. Wendy and I make good money. I have the space for both you and uncle. You could use your money from the settlement to live a good life, I would tell her.
          What I wanted to say: you are all alone out here. All of the other homes have been demolished and yours stands like an eyesore to progress. The propane dealer doesn’t even want to come out here any longer. One day you won’t have heat. Why do you want to hold up progress for an entire generation?

          Som knew how to work. She took in sewing. Good with needle, so-so with thread, she would always joke. She worked at Kimball’s bakery, up at three, work by three-thirty, home by one o’clock. Then she’d sew. One thing my mother liked about America—quilts. She started quilting. But not quilting like Quakers. She used color, like her homeland. She made quilts with bright blues and satin pinks and oranges. Sold like doughnuts at first, cheap, not much money. She went to her first show one Sunday and saw how much money women charged, one-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred dollars, and she changed her pricing to one hundred and five dollars and sold all six quilts just like that. Snap of fingers, she said. Then she found an outlet in Denver that sold all she could make, and she got one-hundred fifty dollars each. She’d make four a month. The sales brought in more money than the benefits. She stopped working at the bakery. No more three in the morning. She could breathe. She could breathe the good air up on this mountain.
          Will you come and live with me? After the pleasantries and four quarters of a pastry that made me drool, I felt the question finally crawling up my throat, inching up like a mountain climber on a sheer face of mountain.
          Instead I said, “When will you stop being so stubborn? When will you just accept the check and stop arguing?”
          The room froze. For ten seconds I could feel the cauldron of the volcano in my throat prep for spewing. My uncle removed his glasses. He smiled, but his lips quivered. He giggled.
          “I am not a survivor. I am a thriver,” my mother said, very quietly, and then the crescendo began. “Look, I ran from rainforests, enormous blossoms for this,” she said spreading her hands. “No blossoms, but no cowering under the trees. I left death, and here I have life,” she said, spreading her hands to show her three children captured in artwork and photos from decades past scattered in frames on the walls.
          “I left a world where men enslave women, and here I have no man to serve, no man to bow to, here,” she said, spreading her hands over her chest, “I have myself. I left no God, and here, I have God,” she said, spreading both hands over her face.
          “I have no sorrow, no sadness. Every day is difficult for me, like it is for you, for all of us. Ravens, rust, oil from rock, they surround me. I see shale oil as just another coal operation; black dust; state needs property as a road to wells. But this darkness killed your father, left me a mother of three children alone to survive, and this home, this land, my resurrection. I came to life here. Why do I want what killed my husband to take this too? To remove me from life. I am not bothered here. I do not look over my shoulder. I do not drop my head afraid to be recognized. I am free to move. Perhaps that is not happiness, but for me, I have contentment my brother the priest never finds.”
          Her decrescendo began. “He will kid you that he the priest is at great contentment, but his heart never rests, his mind never rests. It is only his body that rests. He does nothing. His hands and his feet are useless oars.”
          And now the question had crawled to my tongue. I could feel it burning my lips.
          “Will you come and live with me?”  
          She stared at me for a moment, and then burst into laughter.
          “No, no, no, it would never work,” she laughed.
          I was relieved.
          She would not suffer eviction, displacement. She was not the eternal refugee, the diaspora, the perpetual knapsacker, hobo, the cut adrift. She would win.
          “I want home for home,” she said. “But if I take their terms, take money, I lose all value then. I want value. In the long run, none of us has value, only the eternal has value. Unless here and now is eternal, unless kingdom is at hand, I want value. How can they just buy me out without my permission? I want a trade—a place for a place. Not money. Land. A home. If they trade me eternity, I will rest.”
          The conversation turned to more ordinary things, and my mother never let an opportunity go by where she could turn a phrase against Uncle, nor Uncle a phrase he couldn’t make into a double entendre about Som’s non-spiritual attitude. I was finally at the home I remembered, and remembered why I had left and not returned.
          After I left and the door closed behind me, I felt an enormous comfort. My life, and Som’s, could continue on a map that had a tomorrow’s tomorrow. The two worlds would not collide.
          About ten miles from the mobile home, I began choking, as if the question I had to ask had not been released when I spoke it, but was traveling back down to lodge again in my quivering stomach and heart. I had a swell of relief, suddenly, a bodily relief that was far more intense than comfort. It was not the relief from responsibility for my mother, but that I could always find her. No matter what point on a map my wife Wendy and I and our son might hasten, Som would be in the mountains of Wyoming, avoiding the darkness that accumulates in small black particles, the darkness of doubt, the darkness of transience, which sucked into our mind and body and soul, eventually kill us. In the age of mobility, in the necessity of mobility, she would be fixed.
          Where the wind blew clean, I would find her.
          All along she had been asking, Will you come and live with me?
          Now I could see. I could finally answer yes.

Jeff Burt grew up in Wisconsin, was tempered in Texas and Nebraska, and found a home in California, though landscapes of the Midwest still populate much of his writing. He has work in Per Contra, The Nervous Breakdown, Atticus Review, Amarillo Bay, and won the 2016 Consequence Fiction Prize.

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Emerald Green

Finalist, Summer Fiction Contest 2018

          Helen Zatansky got married on her fiftieth birthday. Of course, the wedding wasn’t the only extraordinary thing that had ever happened to Helen on the last day of July. It’s also the day her only child was born, exactly twenty-five years before the wedding, and exactly twenty-five years after Helen’s own birth. 
          And Peggy’s was a birth no one in Michiligaumee will forget. See, Helen had no idea she was pregnant, so when her water broke on the dance floor of the Buckhorn where she’d been celebrating, she assumed she’d lost control of her bladder. She headed toward the Doe’s room, but before she could weave through all the dancers swiveling around in Friday night jeans, her heart began to palpitate, her guts felt like they would fall out of her bottom, and she lay down on the woodplanks, head spinning like the disco ball above. Uncle Butch was up front singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the karaoke machine. When people started hollering, he thought they were cheering him on, so he added some whoops and if you’d been in the bar that night you’d have thought some kind of nerve gas had blown in through the vents. One of the Hutton kids finally got the bartender to call an ambulance.
          Helen believed she was dying. The night she’d spent with Bobby Bohanon never crossed her mind. Connie and Char knelt beside her, swabbing her face with a cool bar rag. The paramedics brought the stretcher, rolled her on her side to get it under her. There were two of them, but one was a woman, so drunk volunteers helped lift the stretcher onto the gurney, while Helen covered her face and wept. In the back of the ambulance, they put the mask on her and before she went out, she tried to pray. She knew she should be contrite before her maker, grateful even, for this trip into his promised arms, but she was neither. Dear God, she thought before blacking out, what a rip-off.
          “How could she not have known?” folks would ask. Helen has always been big. Her people are big. It was not unusual for her to gain or lose twenty pounds from year to year, and it didn’t sit much different on her body either way. She’d had the bad back since she slipped and fell at the fruit canning factory, and half the time she was doped up like a puppy in a pet shop. Her cycle had never been regular, and even so, she’d bled some during the seven and a half months Peggy was inside her.   
          When she woke up in recovery under that halo of silver light, she knew she hadn’t died but instead felt painfully reborn. It was still her birthday. She’d been blue all day because it had rained and the cable had been shut off. But Char and Connie had come by that afternoon with a store-bought cake and candles, a can of pineapple juice, a fifth of Malibu rum. Then they’d gone dancing at the Buckhorn. A nurse took her hand. 
          “You’ve been in surgery, hon,” the nurse said. “You’ve had a caesarian. You got yourself a little baby girl.” Helen looked at her like she didn’t know the language. “She’s in pediatric ICU now because she’s very small. Just over thirty weeks, right?” 
          An indeterminable pause then Helen began to laugh. She laughed until it damn near tore her in half, and when she stopped, exhausted, she knew she was somebody’s mother.    
          Bobby Bohanon had come back to Michiligaumee just before Christmas to help his mother pack for wintering in Florida. Helen was tending bar weekends at the Legion to earn a little holiday cash. Bobby was fifteen years her senior. He had a split between his teeth and when he’d whistle through it as she walked away, she’d give him a little shimmy. Closing time one night, he walked her to her car. It must have been ten below, the moon and stars so piercing, the sky so immense, their mingled frozen breath so friendly and small. He leaned her against the car, kissing anything exposed, and she could think of no good reason not to take him home. In the morning, she drove him back to his mother’s house, and he’d left for Florida a few days later.  When she thought about him, she thought not of the man, but of that icy moon and a warm arm across her in the night. She didn’t pine to see him again. And the first time she held Peggy—tiny Peggy, peach fuzz baby, child of her own rebirth—she knew she’d never go after Bobby. This love was none of his business.   

          Maybe Peggy came out a few bricks shy of a load. A scrawny kid with eyes like broken windows, the kind of kid who’d gather armfuls of dandelions only to tear them up and fling them like limp confetti. Couldn’t sit still to save her life. When Peggy flunked fourth grade, Helen did her best to right the ship with weekly trips to the library (“That’s a white pine, Peggy, our state tree. And that’s a red pine; see its shaggier bark and fatter needles?”) and daily walks to the grocery and back (“Milk is cheaper by the gallon than the quart, Peggy. You have to divide the price by the ounces. High-fat milk lasts longer.”) Keeping up with Peggy helped Helen shape up, and she got off of most of her meds. 
          But soon enough, the child wanted to move out from under the mother’s shadow. Peggy wanted friends, a boyfriend, and she started hanging out in front of the movie theater, asking people to pay her admission. Once inside, she’d stay inside, watching films repeat and loitering at the popcorn stand. At fourteen, Peggy was reading at a sixth-grade level, and the school held her back again. Helen enrolled her in the county’s alternative school with the juvie boys and the teenaged mothers, and she worried day and night that Peggy would go after one of the former and become one of the latter. More than once, she left a handprint on her face for sassing or sneaking around, but days would pass and she’d be the child’s champion again. Peggy wanted out of school even more than she wanted out of her mother’s house, so she worked hard in the new school, and with Helen’s help, she got her diploma at nineteen.
          They balanced and reflected each other—one thick, the other lean, both with the same dark eyes set deep over moon-round cheekbones. Canning factory layoffs happened right around graduation, so they got jobs together at the Thrifty Acres, Peggy as a cashier and Helen, a cook in the café. They’d go to the Buckhorn most Fridays and sing Judds songs on the karaoke machine. Peggy used to claim that she was born there.
          Then one summer day, Coast Guard cutters docked in Michiligaumee on their annual tour of Great Lakes lifesaving stations. The whole town turned out to see the fleet. Every woman under thirty, and a few over, hung around the docks until the cadets got liberty, and the Buckhorn bounced all weekend. Helen wasn’t surprised when Peggy didn’t come home till dawn. “Who is he?” is all she asked.
          His name was Jerry but Helen called him Taffy because she said he looked like he’d been caught in a taffy pull, nose on one end, toes on the other. The Coast Guard cutters pulled out after the weekend, and Peggy got a letter from Jerry before their wake had even settled, another every couple of days thereafter. Helen rifled through these letters when Peggy was out and hounded her daughter to break it off with the lanky sailor. Whatever reasons she gave, the fact was that Helen didn’t want to be alone in the world. So when Peggy, just shy of her twenty-fourth birthday (Helen’s forty-ninth), took what little she owned from the small house they’d been renting and skipped town, Helen fell off the deep end.
          She broke dishes and trinkets and record albums, letting the shattered heaps pile up around her. She’d leave the house only to go to the grocery, right before it closed, for five-quart pails of Neapolitan ice cream and gallon jugs of Mogen David wine. Even Char and Connie stopped calling. 
          One month after Peggy left, Helen got a belated birthday card from her, postmarked Norfolk, Virginia. Another month passed, and she woke to a north wind whistling through the cracks she’d put in her windows. Enough, she thought. She gathered her bottles of pills. She made a milkshake. She shook a few pills from each bottle and chased them down. Then she called 911, knowing all along that she didn’t really want to die, just needed something. The paramedics were breaking down the door before she even got a chance to fall asleep.
          That’s how she got sent to Helmsley, the psychiatric hospital that had once been a state-run sanitarium. At Helmsley, she shared a room with a recovering morphine addict who’d gotten hooked on the junk while working for hospice. Days were structured: individual therapy, group therapy, meals and activities. It wasn’t exactly summer camp, but people listened to each other.
          When the news about Helen got around Michiligaumee, one of Peggy’s old friends contacted her in Virginia. She sent her mother an orange chrysanthemum and a Happy Halloween card. Me and Jerry got a nice trailer off base, and I got a job at a seafood place, she wrote. I am going to meet Jerry’s folks at xmas. Miss you. She included her return address, but Helen didn’t feel like writing.

          Word of Elijah came to Helen from the morphine-addict, who’d heard about him from the male nurse she’d been fooling around with, who’d heard it from the nurse who had checked Elijah into Helmsley. The morning of Elijah’s arrival, a powerful thunderstorm knocked trees onto powerlines, bursting transformers. The chaotic, minutes-long blackout that occurred before the generators kicked in left many patients so agitated for the rest of the day that community was cancelled.
          It was said that Elijah Douglas was dragged in by two big men, Anishnabek who had him by the arms. They’d called ahead, reporting that he’d threatened lives, including his own. A cop was present. A male nurse was waiting with chemical restraint, waiting for any of the phrases that Elijah might scream to justify legal administration of the sedative. I’ll put a wire around your goddamned neck, brother. The nurse stuck Elijah and the orderlies collected him. The nurse and the cop, clipboards in hand, took their reports.
          “He went into my brother’s house here,” one of the big men explained, “and he cut the cords off of all his lamps and TV and appliances. Phone too.”
          “It ain’t the first time either, goddamn it,” the other brother said. 
          “Here’s his pills. You can call our ma and let her know what you’re gonna do with him.”  The brothers tore off in their pickup, lightning striking all around.   
          After a week, Elijah showed up in Helen’s afternoon group. She’d recently begun the paperwork leading up to her release, but when Elijah arrived, she reconsidered. 
          She thought he was a beautiful man. Lines in his brown face like sunrays made him look as if he was born smiling. A rope of black and grey braid ran down his spine to an ass as fine as a galloping horse’s. 
          “I wasn’t always this way,” he told the group. “I grew up with the tribe at Peshawbestown, and all I ever wanted to do was get out of there. I’d stay up all night with books while my family sang together by the fire. I never learned those old songs. I learned about the body and the universe in a new tongue.” Elijah did get away. He loved his work, but in his twenties, he had started hearing voices, often coming from the fixtures. “Whispers, threading through my brain like hot wire. A million people whispering together, coming from the machines, so loud that I had to scream over them.” 
          I want to know him, Helen thought. I want to keep him.
          She saw him smoking in the courtyard and went to him. She’d smoked off and on all her life, but when she drew from the cigarette she bummed, she swore it was the first thing she’d tasted in months. It brightened the sky and softened the ground below her. 
          Even though they slept on different wings at Helmsley, even though Elijah was only forty-two and had to be taken down with a needle now and then, even though Helen still felt shot full of holes over Peggy, they fell in love, as any two people might who, adrift and abandoned, discovered they could ballast one another. Elijah had never had children and asked all about Peggy. Talking about Peggy made Helen feel like her daughter wasn’t so unfathomably distant.  “It’s her quest,” Elijah told Helen. He said, “She hasn’t left you.” And Helen wanted to know all about Elijah’s sprawling family, about his heritage. It made no difference to her that he heard voices coming from the fluorescent tube lighting; she pictured candlelight, campfires, the night sky, and it seemed to her that electricity was probably overrated. Sometimes they didn’t talk at all, just held hands and smoked, watching geese stream south in formation. The trees went from yellow and brown to bare. Snow dusted asters. Thanksgiving was coming. Both of them wanted to go home.
          Before his last episode, Elijah had been building his own log cabin on the Little Michiligaumee River, lit by gas lamps and warmed by an old iron stove he’d bought at auction.  It was a shell when he’d been committed, but he planned windows facing east to catch the sunrise, and a deck off the west where he could watch the sun set beneath the hills that rose from the Little Michiligaumee. 
          Helen hadn’t been home in over six weeks either, and she was afraid to face the mess she’d left behind. “Part of me wants to set it on fire and hope for a windstorm,” she told Elijah. “Wanna help?” He put his cigarette down on the concrete bench, butt-out, took hers from her lips and laid it next to his, and gathered her hands into his own.
          “Marry me, Helen Zatansky,” he said. “You’ll come to Thanksgiving, meet everybody, share our meal. There will be fresh turkeys from the hunt, and smokefish. I love you, Helen.  Come to my table, and with you I will finish my home.”
          “Okay,” she said, “I’ll marry you. But you come home with me first. I need your help cleaning up.”

          They decided to wed on Helen’s birthday, and she took to calling the nuptials her third life, her life-most-charmed. The ceremony would be held along the river at the big powwow pavilion. Elijah’s great uncle, a full-blooded Odawa, would perform the ceremony. So, as Saturday, the last day of July, got underway, parties gathered at the tribal grounds in pop-up campers and their Airstream trailers. They set up tents, card tables and lawn chairs on the plots the men had cleared between the tall oaks, spreading blankets and stocking coolers with ice and beer. 
          Damn-near everyone in town was invited to the wedding by some extension of kith or kin, but the invitations, printed on imitation birch-bark paper, inviting guests to attend in full regalia, were intended for Elijah's family. Elijah himself was outfitted by his brothers and cousins at what amounted to his bachelor party.  Instead of hiring the buxom Wojiechowski girls, Elijah and the men had spent the day cleaning up the grounds for the wedding. At night, they settled around a bonfire with beer and whiskey, and one by one, the men presented Elijah with pieces of their own handmade regalia: a tooth-and-bone choker, beaded arm bands, a quillwork belt.
          But since the invitation didn’t make much sense to the Polish side of town, they improvised. They emerged from tents and campers in gowns bedizened with rhinestones; in puffy linen blouses and laced bustiers, renaissance-style; in seam-stressed old military uniforms.  Several families dressed in the same Victorian attire they wore in the town’s Founders Day parades. On the long log benches set up like an amphitheater down by the Michiligaumee River, the extraordinary group amassed. Behind them the drum circle began.
          All around the grounds, smudge sticks were lit, sweetgrass and sage. Helen stepped out from the roundhouse. She had wildflowers pinned in her short brown hair; her bouquet was tiger lilies, daisies, buttercups, and snake-grass, gathered from the riverbanks by flower girls. Her dress was emerald green velveteen with gold brocade, cut to the ground. Peggy, who had driven up from Norfolk with Taffy a week before the wedding, followed behind her mother, holding up the hemline. Peggy wore a white cotton sundress and had sewn herself a green velvet belt. They passed the drummers, passed through the purifying smoke, passed most of Michiligaumee who burst into applause as the two women, mother and daughter on their birthdays, walked up the sandy aisle. Proud Odawa men and Taffy, handsome in his dress blues, stood beside the beaming groom. The bridesmaids, Connie and Char, in their mismatched, mutton-sleeved dresses, flanked the aisle and dabbed their eyes. Peggy lay the velveteen hem down. She kissed Helen’s cheek at the river’s edge and gave her mother away to Elijah.

Mary Switalski’s work has appeared in Newfound, DigBoston, Monday Night, Copper Nickel, The Pinch, and elsewhere, and has been awarded a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. She teaches writing at American University.

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