Road Trip // Holly Aldridge
Mama rolls down the car window, and the hot Florida air wafts into the car, bringing with it the scent of gasoline and cigarettes. The squeal of Metallica plays softly on the radio, and I hum along to it, watching as a black cat streaks across the parking lot in front of our car.
“C’mon Paul, we’re gonna be late,” Mama huffs, pulling down the sun-visor mirror. Her oily reflection grimaces. Papa finishes with the gas and runs inside to pay before climbing back inside the car, his mouth drawn in a thin line.
We pull out of the parking lot in a cloud of dust, like we just robbed the place. The interstate looms ahead of us; one long, never-ending, gray snake. Papa turns up the radio.
“We’re gonna be late,” Mama grumbles again as she reapplies her lipstick— vivacious vermilion. Her mouth parts in a wide O, just like a trout gasping for air. Papa doesn’t respond.
The roads eventually begin to shorten, branching off from the main highway like tangled roots. We turn into a gated neighborhood surrounded by towering palm trees wrapped in unlit Christmas lights. Coastal Pines, reads the big sign by the road.
Papa doesn’t slow down, and I crane my neck to drink in all the houses as they pass by. Their enormous, white columns and red bricks look like the pictures from my history books.
“Slow down, Paul,” Mama grunts as we drive over a speed bump.
Papa, wordlessly, presses harder on the gas, and we zoom through the strange neighborhood. As we pull up to a four-way stop, Mama turns around and reaches into the back seat, rummaging around for her makeup bag.
“God damn it, where is that stupid bag?” She lifts my backpack and throws it to the side. Her long, pink nails screech across the vinyl seat like an angry cat.
I reach into the crack beside my door and sheepishly hand her the small cosmetics bag. Mama’s frosty blue eyes narrow to slits as they meet mine.
“You better not have been messing with this.”
I shrink back into my seat and turn my gaze to the safety of the perfectly manicured lawns outside. Kids run through sprinklers, tossing bright bouncy balls— their smiles wide and untouched. I still hear their laughter even after we’ve passed by.
Papa takes a sharp right turn and Mama curses. Ahead looms a big, green lawn and a white house with red shutters. A black mailbox out front reads: The Millers.
Papa puts the car in park, and for a moment we just sit there, taking it all in.
Mama takes a deep breath and gets out of the car. Papa closes his eyes and sighs before he gets out, too, and starts pulling our bags out from the trunk. I gently open the car door, my feet dangling just above the bubbly asphalt.
“C’mon,” Mama yells over her shoulder as she steps onto the front porch, adjusting her skirt and blouse. Papa slams the trunk shut, and my feet drop to the ground. We walk up the driveway and stand beside Mama, who fidgets with her hair.
Mama rings the doorbell, and I watch the sweat drip down her neck in little, pearly beads. The door opens, and two wrinkled faces appear.
“Hi Mama, hi Daddy,” Mama smiles and wrings her hands. “Sorry we’re late.”
The strange man and woman look from Mama to Papa, then finally to me. I feel like a bug under a microscope, their burning gazes making me squirm. I find Papa’s hand and cast my eyes to my sneakers.
“We were making good time, but we had to stop for gas,” Mama lets out a breathy laugh and the silence returns. Finally, the old man clears his throat and steps out onto the porch.
“It’s good to see you, Lucy.”
Mama leans in to hug him and the strange woman. Their stiff movements remind me of my barbies at home. They ignore Papa completely.
Before I can escape, Mama lunges forward and grabs me by the arm, pulling me forward. She rests her hands on my shoulders, her nails digging into my flesh like talons.
“Mama, Daddy… this is Ellie-Mae, your granddaughter.”
My grandparents stare at me blankly. They don’t offer any hugs. Eventually, we are allowed inside from the punishing heat and served dinner.
As evening falls, I find myself back on the front porch, sitting with Papa.
We sit in silence, listening to the cicadas, enjoying the Earth as it is.
“Why does Grandpa and Grandma hate us?” I whisper.
Papa lets out a deep, grown-up sigh and pulls me close to his side.
“They don’t hate you, Mae.”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, Mae. Your grandparents don’t hate you. They just don’t know you, that’s all.”
“They hate you.”
Papa is quiet for a moment before he speaks, his words slow and careful, “Grandpa and grandma loved your Mama very much when she was younger. But they didn’t always like me,” Papa shifts his legs. “You see, Mae, Mama and I was very young when we got married.”
“That’s why they hate us?”
“No. Your Mama and I had to get married because your Mama got pregnant with you. It was the greatest day of my life. But this was a very difficult time for your grandparents.”
“Auntie Lu at church says all babies are a gift from the Lord.”
Papa smiles and leans in to kiss my forehead.
“Auntie Lu is right, sugar.” He stands up and stretches before going back inside. I stay seated on the porch, my eyes transfixed on the sprinklers across the lawn. Soon, the sound of arguing drifts outside, mixing with the harmonious chirp of insects. My eyes begin to burn.
Watermelon Terracotta Fireworks // Zoe Blandford
To ensure the perfect cat-eye, a clever trick is to take a strand of clear tape and flatten it neatly between the tip of the eyebrow and the waterline. As one draws along the tape, they will notice the straightness of the eyeliner that would be otherwise impossible for a fifty-year-old man with a shaky hand to draw by himself.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiit.”
An omission: prior to sticking the tape onto one’s face, it is best to first stick it onto the hand and peel it off to remove some of the stronger, more rebellious cling from the strand.
“You okay, girl?”
Roy, after having himself one more expletive, turned to the young man on his left and huffed, “I’m fine, Blakeley. Thank you.”
Roy turned back to the mirror to see the shaky streak of black surrounded by harsh redness poking at the end of his painted brow. He got closer to perfection every time, but when he reached for it, it never quite reached back.
It was twenty minutes before Sara N. Dippity’s appearance on the main stage of Fuzzy Navel Drag Bar. The bar was known for some of the nastiest Jell-O shots in all of D.C. and one of the lowest health inspection scores east of the Mississippi, but every individual who walked through those cheetah-printed doors was promised to leave with a belly full of liquor and an empty wallet. The queens at Fuzzy Navel gave epics using only their muted lips, all while dancing across empty chairs, kicking out the pink spotlights for kicks, and dropping into splits from the ceiling. There was once a Britney Spears impersonator who was so bold as to bring out a live snake.
Then there were rookies with stick-figure bodies and side buzz-cuts like Blakeley, who couldn’t tell their right foot from their right.
“Anyway, like I was saying,” Roy, from the corner of his eye, saw Blakeley’s arms flail about like he couldn’t decide what part of that beautiful, probably-Swedish-somewhere face he wanted to destroy next. “I was walking home from Club Gecko the other night, right?”
“Well, I was passing Capitol Hill, and you’ll never guess what I saw.”
Roy was only paying half attention. A pop of his lips revealed a bright sheen of purple. Roy’s answer as he tapped the last remnants of powder away: “Bill Clinton playing bagpipes in drag.”
A huff was followed by a quick slap across Roy’s arm. The thickness of his skin ensured that no one really got hurt. As he stared into the mirror, he announced, “Done.” Roy smiled as if the mirror was his professional photographer, despite the shoddy bulb dangling above him from a single wire. Roy pouted his lips, then stabbed the bottoms of his eyes with the corners of his mouth. The brown, pink, and red covered everything he needed it to. Yep, all staying, he thought.
Blakeley leaned his lanky body over into Roy's mirror as he slathered green eyeshadow over his eyelid.
“Beat to the gods as always, queen,” Roy thanked Blakeley before ducking under the table, pretending he knew what that meant. “I tried that tape thing the other night and it just didn’t work,” Blakeley added, “Think I have to get a little more artsy first.”
“Art’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Roy hoisted himself back up with a razor-straight, neon-yellow wig on. At the angled contour of his face, the color of the strands changed to pink, blue, purple, or green. The closer the strands got to his shoulders, the brighter the hues. “Were you drunk when you tried it?”
Blakeley looked for the number of tequila shots he had that night on the ceiling.
“Yep, think so,” Blakeley answered with a crumpled nose. “Made some decent tips, though. Almost enough to cover those shots, at least.”
Despite the dressing room being built for two high-maintenance supermodels and housing the accouterment of ten drag queens, it was easy for any two people to follow each other’s chatter while they worked without much interruption. This was due to the fact that the queens in this room were usually too occupied with adjusting their wigs, curling their lashes, shoving into their padding, or completing the arduous task of taping their genitals up between their legs to say much else.
“Well, there ya go. If you’re too piss drunk to walk in a straight line, what makes you think you can draw one?” Roy clipped in one star-shaped hoop, then the other. The hoops belonged to his younger sister back when she would sneak out to do coke to Pat Benatar in her boyfriend’s garage. All some of these more vivacious queens had to do for a bump these days was shimmy to the richest-looking group of gays during their number, hit them with a signature finger wave followed by the sit-in-the-lap-of-the-shortest-one trick, find them after the show and pretend that she’s happy to see them.
Roy could pull all this off. He figured if he weighed two hundred pounds less, was born in the 90s as well, and lastly, this was important – if he had any lust left for this at all.
Becoming too familiar with the rules of a game makes the game less fun, especially once you stop playing for fun.
Roy got up with an aluminum can in his purple talons. As he did, he watched Blakeley work without announcing it.
“Watch out, world,” Blakeley growled at the mirror as if RuPaul and his casting team were on the other side, “Bea Calypso’s prowlin’ on out and she's here to slay!”
No one had ever heard of this “Bea Calypso” until a few months ago, and as far as anyone else was concerned, she was there to be slain. The other queens would read Bea for just about anything: her wardrobe that came from the clearance shelf at Wal-Mart, the sloppiness of her tuck that could be undone the second she tried "prowlin',” or even something as minute to a tipper as the unevenness of her stick-on glitter nails likely stolen from some poor child’s Cinderella costume pack.
“Hold your breath, Blake.”
Blakeley stored two large bubbles of oxygen in his cheeks. Seconds later, Roy added to the looming fog of hairspray above them with a few clicks of his acrylic nails. His eyes flitted upward and saw what the other queens read Bea Calypso for more than anything else: that rough, rough face. The green clashed with the hot pink caked over Blakeley’s chapped lips, and the white of his face was so profound that Roy wondered if Blakeley was still going for Bea Calypso or a geisha. Perhaps the harshest thing that caught Roy's attention was Blakeley’s sharp contour, which, as one queen pointed out last week, only made his face look more like a weapon.
But still, for six nights a week, Blakeley would get on that stage right after Roy and make perhaps a fifth of the tips compared to the other girls. That was on a profitable night. Roy figured that Blakeley must have known how deep in the red he was.
Did Blakeley not sense the disgust in the other queens’ voices when they addressed either persona? Did he not hear every jab in their whispers? Did it not bother him that the only man who willingly set up next to him was an old, fat guy whose body was learning how to hate this after fifteen years?
Thinking about all that exhausted him more than anything else about these gigs.
“You know what?” Blakeley pulled out a black Sharpie and a roll of clear tape, announcing proudly, “I’m gonna try it again. I’m sober this time.”
Roy wouldn’t let a wince ruin his foundation, but oh, did he want to do so regardless. Yet, he couldn’t help but reminisce as he watched Blakeley sink into deep concentration, the tip of the marker dangerously close to his pupil. Other queens in the past had learned a trick or two from Roy behind the curtain or from Sara on the stage. That wasn’t what was quite as special to him.
Roy had a lot of first tries in the mirror. Some queens aren’t so humble as to admit that reality themselves.
Wendy taught him that eyeliner trick.
It amazed Roy while he was watching her get ready for prom from her bathroom door. He asked her, “Now where did you learn that one?” she said with an eye-roll and a smile, “You can learn anything on the internet, Dad."
Wendy was doing new and crazy things with her makeup all the time. Roy would often joke that she was more of a drag queen than he could ever be with all the eyeshadow and blush palettes she burned through.
The makeup affinity didn’t come from her father’s nightly gig, nor did it come from her desire to impress the boys at her school; they were already impressed with her, to the point where Wendy had to choose her date among four prospects. She decided to go with some friends, all of them getting matching pearls. When asked nights before why she turned down all four of those boys, she said that any love a boy could give her would only be taped to her heart, and not plastered on.
Wendy stuck a strand of tape on her hand and quickly ripped it off.
“Just like a bandage,” she hummed to no one but her reflection.
Minutes before Sara N. Dippity got on the main stage, the last queen to perform, Casey NoRoyale, warned her that there were hardly any tips to be made that night.
“I’m seeing some of George, but none of his friends,” she sighed while puffing away at her last cigarette, “You might make enough to get a taxi home.”
Unfortunately, she was right. All that could be gathered was a hearty fistful. The song Sara performed, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” was a classic of hers, yet there were just barely enough biters for Roy to buy what he needed for his last stop of the night.
Visiting hours were over, but Roy was able to swindle old Cathy and the other nurses into letting him come in after his shows for the past two weeks. He told Wendy that he had “worked his magic,” when really, doughnuts, cordial conversation, and a healthy dose of sympathy from the nurses was enough to keep everyone quiet.
“Hey there, chickadee,” Roy took off his wig, showing the bald dome underneath.
Wendy put her hand to her eyes and squinted.
“Oh God, someone turn down the lights! Going blind here!” she cried, leaning her head back with her hand like she would faint into her down pillow. Roy laughed along despite hating Wendy’s convincing acting.
It was hardly acting, and Roy was already convinced. Wendy was looking worse. It became less deniable with each visit he made. Wendy once explained to him that staying up this late never bothered her, seeing as how the friends she had her age were likely out partying or whatever at this hour anyway. And yet, she always looked asleep. The bed swallowed her, and it would continue to swallow her until the ground claimed her next.
Roy complimented Wendy’s makeup, and she thanked him, huffing about how she had to use the water glass as a mirror.
“I asked the nurse for a compact, and I swear to God, she never came back. But, you know, whatever. I didn’t need her,” Wendy gently patted at the few freckles that remained in the milk of her rouged cheeks. “I was able to do it myself in the end.”
Prom was three months ago. To Roy, it only felt like last night, but it also somehow felt like last decade. It was ages since that next morning when Wendy coughed up blood, and the morning after that when she coughed up even more blood, and the hospital decided that the stay would be longer, and then that the stays would be more, and then that the stay would be “comfortable.”
“Like you always do. Now,” Roy rubbed his thumb between Wendy’s painted eyebrows. “Close your eyes.”
His thumb movement already relaxed Wendy, just as it did throughout her childhood.
Before Wendy was a square chocolate cake hoisted on her lap. Her pupils gleamed before Roy could even light the candle.
“Happy eighteenth birthday, chickadee,” Roy pulled a lighter from his bra and lit the single, brave candle standing alone in the center of rainbow sprinkles. “Make a wish.”
Wendy pinched her eyes shut, and the wish left her cheeks.
“So what do you do when you forget the words?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like, when you’re performing. Do you ever find yourself forgetting the words when you lip-sync?”
Roy did sometimes, but he wouldn’t admit it on this walk.
When Roy learned from an offhand comment of Blakeley’s that he walked home alone every night, he would hear nothing more of it. Even though Blakeley persisted that he was fine by himself, he silently welcomed the company.
The two walked side by side with their drag still on and their heels in their hands.
“My old drag mother once told me that if you ever forget the words to a song,” Roy recalled to the breeze, “You mouth, ‘watermelon terracotta cantaloupe fireworks’ as fast as you can multiple times. With your lips moving that fast, people won’t notice that you don’t know the real words.”
“Well, sure sounds better than what I did Saturday night at Club Gecko.”
“And what did you do Saturday night at Club Gecko?”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“You’re probably right,” Roy turned to Blakeley and planned to stand in the middle of the street until Blakeley answered his question. “But you did this to yourself, kid.”
“Fine, fine,” Blakeley whined. He traced the heel of his go-go boot. The squeaks the leather made at his touch made Roy cringe, but he was still attentive.
“ “I, uh…I did nothing. I didn’t say anything, didn’t move, didn’t do anything. I just stared off. Like, not only did I forget the words, but I forgot I was performing a song. Then, I basically forgot where I was. I don’t remember what happened the next few minutes after that. All I know is that I was quickly laughed out of there before I could even get a word out.”
Roy wasn’t sure what to say.
“You’re not laughing.”
Roy shrugged, only replying with, “I only laugh when something’s funny.”
Blakeley shook his head and gave a dying chuckle. As Blakeley talked, he paced around the circumference of a manhole, not once throwing a glance over at Roy.
“ “I made a dumbass out of myself. I honestly don’t know why I’ve been trying at this so hard. Wanna know how much I made tonight? Six. Dollars. That’s two dollars more than last night. I love being on stage, I do. I love watching all of you perform, and I want to be that. I want to be that! I just get so wrapped up inside myself.”
Roy came closer to him.
“I...I know what the other girls think about me. A-And I know what they say. But they’re right. They all are,” Blakeley stopped to twitch his head downward, rejecting his own tears. “I can’t afford to be good at this, and I never will. Beyond that, I hardly have the talent to collect enough to get my damn bus fare. But it’s all I have right now. Four months ago, I stood in the window of my apartment with the full intent of jumping out of it. But something told me to not. That there was still ‘something’ out there for me, and ‘something’ in me thought that maybe it was Bea. And honestly, I don’t have much else in this world I see light in besides her. Even that’s dimming. I don’t even know what that ‘something’ is anymore, you know? I keep saying things don’t bother me, but they do. God, they do. They do so bad...”
“Blakeley tried to chuckle again, but the attempt ended with him sinking over the manhole and, eventually, sobbing against Roy’s sequins.
“Why can’t I say any of this to anyone else?” he howled into Roy’s breast pads.
They had already arrived at Blakeley’s. It rained. Neither went inside.
After Roy finally got Blakeley inside, he turned the corner and arrived at the hospital.
“Who’s there?” Roy cooed. Water from his arm dripped down the door.
There was silence on the other side.
Roy’s fist dropped. His blood grew cold. As Cathy teetered behind him with her cart of cleared dishes, she gently scratched him in the back keyhole of his dress and said, “She’s been sleeping on and off all day, sugar. You know how she can get. Breathe.”
She bit into some leftover birthday cake, stuck a cup of hot cocoa in Roy’s hand, and took the elevator down.
Roy turned back to the door and slowly opened it, greeted only by darkness. He tossed his pumps aside. Lights didn’t have to be on for Roy to find his way around this room. This room, this damn place! Roy thought while on sloshy tiptoes.
The two sitting chairs were to his right. Fingers coasted along the leather upholstery until his cocoa hit the cabinets that housed every single drop of medication that did nothing for his daughter. While awake, she would insist, and insist, and insist that she was fine, that “something” was working.
Roy wanted to take that “something” and trap it in a bottle. Surely it wasn’t already in these cabinets.
He hit a wall, turned, walked. Soft exhales drew him back to where he needed to be.
After placing the cocoa on the invisible side table, Roy ran his hand through what remained of his daughter’s hair. He would braid her thick, black locks for karate, do up large cinnamon buns for ballet, and eventually use her as a regular test for his own wig stylings as she got older. He would never ruin it by cutting or dyeing it, nor would he dream of it. He would especially not waver from this if he knew that this thin blanket of spiderwebs was what would one day remain. Wendy never stirred, but Roy felt the coldness of her skin as he scooted up half of his soaked body next to hers. He wanted to be careful, believing that one thoughtless move of his arm could get his paper doll crumpled.
Despite the darkness, Roy was close enough to see Wendy’s cat-eye, and this time, she drew little black hearts in the purple bags that made her cheeks droop. He traced both lines with the tips of his acrylic nails. Perfect as always. She did a little rouge, too. Roy’s stubby thumb went to the bridge of her nose, rubbing up to her forehead. Her breath slowed.
Then, he held her and wept into the divot of her collarbone.
There was nothing else to do.
Knock-knock. “Roy?” Knock-knock-knock. “Roy?” Knock-knock-knock-knock-knock. “Roy, you in there?”
There was silence on the other side.
“This is Blakeley. I know this is your apartment… I-I think,” Blakeley shook his head. He continued, “Listen, it’s been a month since any of us have heard from you. I know you’re alive. I see you walk around town, but never in drag. If you’ve given that up for now, that’s your choice, and it makes me sad and all, but I respect it. It’s just that we’re worried about you… or at least, I am. If you don’t want to come back to Fuzzy Navel with me, that’s fine, too. Just please—”
The door creaked open and jolted to a stop by a chain. Roy’s bloodshot eyes met Blakeley’s.
Roy had already heard Blakeley’s monologue at six different doorways, and his Perler-bead bangles further added to the ambience of his stride. These beads went with a choker that had just as many colors that didn’t go together, colliding perfectly with Blakeley’s black skirt, yellow crop-top with “RICH BITCH” spelled out in rhinestones, and pink, fingerless gloves. Roy would have asked Blakeley what in the hell he was wearing if he had the wind in his lungs for it.
“I’m fine, Blakeley. I’m alive. See? You see me?” Roy unclicked his door open. He wore nothing aside from a bathrobe, and he was developing a beard for the first time in his life. He gestured at his ensemble, stating, “I’m not dead. You can tell everyone that.”
“When should I tell them that you’re coming back?”
Roy let out a hearty laugh. It scared Blakeley to the point where he couldn’t tell if Roy was being earnest or not.
“You really think I’m coming back, Blake? Seriously?” his laughter grew harsh until he hacked.
Blakeley clenched his green nails with turquoise Crackle into his fists and said, “I do. You can’t stay here forever.”
Roy craned his head upward and slowly nodded.
“Ohhhh, I get it. You want to have your moment where you teach me something. You want me to fall on my knees and say that you’re right, and that I should move on, and that this isn’t what Wendy would want, and all that good shit. Well, let me tell you something,” Roy got close enough for Blakeley to smell how many days it had been since he had cleaned any orifice of his body. “The one thing that could help me right now is the one thing I can’t fucking have. How’s that for a message?”
Blakeley paused at the door for a few seconds to sew together what to say.
“Roy,” he began, “I didn’t come here to preach at you. I didn’t walk all the way across town to tell you what Wendy would want from you. I never knew her. But what I did come here to tell you is that locking yourself away from the rest of the world, which loves you so deeply whether you think it or not, won’t help you at all. I would know. You know I would—”
“But have you ever lost a child?” Roy glared upward at Blakeley, his nose nearly touching the young man’s chin. “Why are you suddenly acting like we’re the same?”
Blakeley pursed his lips and replied with nothing. Then, in a start, he swooped under Roy’s shoulder.
“Hey!” Roy spun in a circle.
Blakeley tapped his hand around the wall and turned on the living room light. Trash and laundry and grime lined the walls, but Blakeley spent no time looking at any of it. He threw two pizza boxes from Roy’s recliner onto the ground, dragged the recliner with him into the kitchen, and took out the dishes from the sink. Wendy’s several pairs of eyes followed his movements from the candlelit walls.
“What do you think you’re—”
Before Roy could finish, Blakeley pointed down at the recliner.
“Sit down, Roy.” Every word from Blakeley’s tongue sounded like its own weapon.
Then, silence. Roy found himself in the recliner.
Blakeley got to work in seconds. He unrolled a shaving kit and leaned Roy’s head back over the kitchen sink with a towel from his Hello Kitty bag. Roy closed his eyes.
“Ever seen Dream Girls? It’s got Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson in it, and they’re sickening. I think Jamie Foxx is in it, too. He’s okay. I liked him better in Baby Driver. Anyway, the music in Dream Girls is, like, fantastic. I mean, you got Jenifer Holliday’s song in it that goes…”
All of the sounds began to merge together. The shings of the blade across his cheeks and the rushing of the water, all swirled around by the cadence of Blakeley’s ramble, made Roy forget where he was.
“Hold still, okay?” Blakeley interrupted himself, then continued his babble while holding Roy’s head in place. Within seconds, Roy was out of his kitchen and in his daughter’s bedroom, sitting across from her on her bed.
“Hold still, okay?” she asked. Wendy carefully drew across the strand of tape stuck on Roy’s waterline. As she worked, Roy asked her if it was really her, if she was alive, if they were actually in her room, and if Blakeley never showed up, and…
Roy stopped himself when he realized that Wendy couldn’t hear him. If she did, she wasn’t going to respond. She told him to look up, and after a few seconds, she pulled back to look at the side of his eye.
“You can do this without my help, you know. Pretty simple,” she commented with a smirk, but Roy could never quite pull it off like she could. Wendy giggled at this and told him that wasn’t true. She gave him the eyeliner.
“I want you to try this one. No mirror. I won’t even look at you while you do it, but I’ll help you start.”
Roy faintly heard the rushing of the tap. Someone was talking to him from the kitchen.
Wendy pulled out her roll of tape and began to yank off a strand.
“And if I fail?” Roy asked of the impossible.
Wendy ripped a thin line of tape and smacked the strand onto Roy’s hand. Same smirk.
“Well, I guess you’d have to rip off another strand of tape and start again. But you know you can't leave here without a finished face,” Wendy shrugged. “And you can’t just not leave.”
The second Wendy ripped the tape off his hand, Roy’s eyes snapped open. Blakeley turned off the tap.
“All done!” Blakeley exclaimed.
Roy met his reflection in Blakeley's hand mirror. He lifted his hands to his face in hesitation as if it were a creature never before seen by man. Every morning for the past month, he saw his reflection when he took his morning piss and then let his scruff scrape his pillows. But this?
This couldn’t be him.
“Blakeley?” Roy asked.
“Yeah?” Blakeley looked down at Roy’s freshly-shaven jaw.
Roy’s request was simple: “Bring me my makeup bag. In the medicine cabinet.”
Once the makeup bag was in his hands, Roy pulled out his stick of eyeliner and the shell of what remained of a roll of Scotch. Yank, yank.
Blakeley tried holding the mirror in place for Roy, but he kept turning against it.
“Do you not need this?”
Roy shook his head.
Just like a bandage.
Sara N. Dippity was penciled in as the second to last act of the night, and Bea Calypso was to be the closing finale. The queens got a major hoot out of that one until they all realized that Raymond, the bar owner, wasn’t kidding.
“That really shut ‘em up, didn’t it?” Blakeley whispered to Roy with a familiar smirk. Tongues in cheeks seared through Blakeley’s mirror.
Just as Roy was about to put on the pearls, Sara decided that her outfit didn’t need them. She stood up from her chair and turned to Blakeley.
“How do I look?” she asked in one breath.
The softness of Blakeley’s face eased her.
“Like you’ve always been ready.”
And as long as she walked out with a pretty face, Sara figured that he was right.
“She’s been away for a while, but she’s back, and she’s got something to say!” Raymond boomed into his microphone from his cue card, “Here she is, our D.C. Darling and long-time vet, Miss Sara N. Dippity!”
Applause preceded pink spotlights flashing across the stage. The disco ball sank downward to make the light scatter into fractals. The song, learned only hours before, began with Sara’s lips mouthing from the collar of a fur coat:
“And I am telling you… I’m not going.”
Blakeley smiled as he watched her from the silver tinsel that separated him from the stage. Neither Sara nor Roy needed that little lip-sync trick. The words just came so naturally.
From Afar // Lauren Cavagnini
“I thought you were done with me,” Eleanor said.
“It has been a few years,” the figure next to her replied.
“Eventually, I come back to everyone.”
Eleanor swallowed, “I’d prefer that you go. I’m trying to make the most out of my retirement.”
The figure tilted their head, “Retirement. I do not think I have heard someone refer to it as that before.”
“It’s much gentler than the reality you gave me.”
“Perhaps I should have waited a bit longer before I came to see you again.”
“Perhaps you should’ve.”
The figure followed Eleanor’s line of vision to the woman playing in her yard with the young girl.
“At least you can still see them.”
“What does it matter if that’s all I can do? I might as well be watching TV.”
“You’ll be reunited with them eventually.”
“Do you think that makes it any easier?”
The figure did not respond for a moment. “I suppose not.”
They stood in silence, watching the woman push her daughter on the backyard swing set. Eleanor used to pump her legs as hard as she could on that swing with that woman. They would dare each other to jump off at the highest points.
“Have you ever watched a birth?” Eleanor asked.
“Of course. My responsibility takes me everywhere.”
Eleanor’s hands trembled. “Have you ever watched a funeral?”
A pause. Then, a small “no.”
“Your work is done by then.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. I am there for the moment I must escort them. I do not stay for what follows.”
“I attended my own funeral.” She dragged her grubby Converse in the dirt at her feet. No scuff marks were left behind. She hadn’t left marks in the dirt for twelve years. “People cried. The pastor said some bullshit that brought no comfort to my sobbing sister or parents. They threw flowers over my coffin. Afterwards, people ate appetizers and pretended like they were celebrating my life.” She shook her head. “Sixteen years isn’t enough life to celebrate.”
“I cannot change what must be.”
“It is the way of the world.”
The figure dipped his head. “I will leave you to enjoy your retirement. I shall return in a few years.”
“Why don’t you go watch a funeral between now and then? Maybe it will do you some good to see a mother collapse over their child’s grave.”
The figure turned to go. “Farewell, Eleanor. We shall meet again.”
She clenched her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t want to see you.” The words caught in her throat. “Why do you have to come back?”
The figure turned towards her, and she could see a silver tear trail down their cheek. “In time, I apologize to all that I must lead away from this life.”
They disappeared. Eleanor turned back to her sister and watched her carry her daughter inside. Eleanor never got to meet her niece. She was called Ellie.
Keep Her in the Stars // Lauren Cavagnini
When the sign reading Welcome to Mayville comes into view, Rose nearly spins her wheel in a U-turn and goes right back the way she came.
After about thirty seconds of intense debate with herself, Rose sets her jaw, tightens her hands on the wheel, and continues onto Main Street.
“You’re going to feel upset and vulnerable, and that takes courage,” her therapist had told her when she recommended this trip. Rose owes Annie a bit of courage.
The place looks no different than it did when Rose left in 1985, which is both unsettling and a comfort. The same tree-lined sidewalks, newspaper racks filled with free copies of the Mayville Tribunes, and bakeries and boutiques with neat displays created with the intention of drawing in customers.
Rose purses her lips. She knows that it’s been eight years since it happened, but how does this place look so goddamn cheery?
As she drives down the street, she sees a father walking and holding the hands of his two young daughters. Rose’s body tenses. Those girls are too young to remember what happened, but Rose still wants to reach her head out the window and tell them to never let go of each other.
Like most young students, summer was Rose’s favorite time of year. The heavy heat that would drive her and her twin sister Annie to break open their piggy banks and haul down to the Mini Mart for ninety-nine cent popsicles. Dad kneeling in the garden, sprinkling fertilizer over his vegetables and flowers. Mom creeping up the neighborhood in her shiny 1975 Chevrolet as the sun began to make its way towards the horizon, pausing if she saw Rose or Annie to tell them to be home soon for dinner. Hiking with the other neighborhood kids out to Haw Creek, swimming in the frigid water, and then huddling in towels on the banks eating Oscar-Meyer sandwiches their parents had packed them. Annie and Rose grumbling as they were told to weed Poor Old Mrs. Francie’s flower bed, but then quickly forgetting how hot and sticky they were when afterwards she presented them with Little Debbies wrapped in cellophane as a reward. Reading books from the Mayville Public Library with a flashlight beneath worn floral sheets well into the night because being tired for school the next morning wasn’t a concern.
On clear evenings Rose and Annie laid in the hammock in the backyard and stared up at the stars. Rose pointed out constellations she’d read about in a book, like Draco the dragon, who was killed when Heracles (“Hercules?” Annie asked. “No, Heracles. Pay attention.”) had to get to the tree the dragon was guarding. When Draco was slain, Hera, the queen of the gods, made him a constellation because she was heartbroken, and she wanted to be by his side forever. Annie would try to pretend like she thought the story was dumb, but when Rose was finished, she would ask to hear another.
Rose reluctantly decides to park the car along one of the parallel spots. She pays the meter, and with her hands shoved deep in her pockets and her chin pressed against her chest, begins walking down the street. To her, the whole town seems to be holding its breath, as if it’s afraid the unthinkable will come knocking on its doorstep again.
Rose wants to close her eyes to block out everything that’s a painful reminder of why she came back after so many years. That was her favorite bench. We used to eat ice cream at that parlor. That’s where we bought the prom dresses neither of us wore.
Rose pauses by the bench and considers sitting down. Instead, she retreats to her car and keeps driving down Main Street. It almost feels blasphemous to sit on that bench without Annie by her side.
“Let’s gooo,” Annie sang when Rose walked out of the school. They had agreed that at the end of their first week of freshmen year, they would meet up afterwards and go get ice creams to officially say goodbye to summer.
“There will still be ice cream if we get there thirty seconds later.”
“You don’t know that.”
Rose suppressed a smile and rolled her eyes as she reached down to unlock her bike chain. “So how would you rate your first week?”
“The friends are good, but other than that I’m starting to feel like I got excited about high school for nothing.”
“Well, we’ll power through together.”
They grabbed their bikes off the crowded rack and began the two-mile ride to Dippers, the only ice cream shop in town with chocolate-dipped cones.
As they sat in a cheery booth sending off summer with their treat, Annie rattled off her excitement about the football game that night. She made Rose promise that she would come to see Annie cheer with the team for the first time.
“I’ll come to support you, but do I have to stay the whole time?”
Annie stuck out her bottom lip. “Just until halftime, please?”
Rose agreed and focused on the ice cream in front of her as Annie began to tell her about the different girls on the cheer team and how she was excited to have so many new friends.
“I wish we had the same lunch so you could meet them. Guess you’ll have to wait ‘til tonight.”
Rose forced a smile and tried not to think about how she spent every day at lunch this week alone.
Eight years after their family left, the house looks fairly normal from the street. It’s two stories, painted white with blue shutters and a red roof. An old For Sale sign sits in the front yard. Rose’s parents stopped trying to sell the place long ago. No one wanted to move to Mayville anymore. Not after something so gruesome rocked the tiny community.
As Rose forces herself to walk closer, she can see the signs of abandonment. One of the neighbors has kindly kept the lawn mown—she’ll have to find out who later and thank them. But the paint of the house had been chipped away by weather and time. The patch of dirt that was once overflowing with fresh vegetables and bright flowers is now a mess of weeds. The steps groan under Rose’s feet as she forces herself up them. The porch could use a thorough cleaning, and the screen door looks like it’s about to fall right off the hinges.
With a trembling hand, Rose begins to put the key in the lock. She turns it with a deafening click. For a moment, she stands there.
I can’t do this. I’m sorry, Annie.
She gets in her car and drives away from the house as fast as she can.
“Why are you wearing your gym clothes?” Annie asked Rose as she climbed into the car.
Rose purses her lips. “I was hot.”
“Bullshit, it’s fifty degrees outside. What happened?”
“Was it Maggie and those assholes again?”
Annie smacked the steering wheel, making Rose jump. “Yes, it was! Jesus, Ro, you can’t keep letting them do this shit to you.”
“Just drop it!” Rose snapped. “Please, just take us home. I have homework that I actually plan on doing.”
Annie threw her sister a scowl but started the car and began driving home. Rose kept her eyes glued to the road head and tried not to think about pulling her soaking wet clothes out of the locker room toilet while Maggie Wright and her wenches looked on.
Later that evening, Rose was huddled on her bed reading a book. The sound of a car puttered up the street. Rose didn’t even have to look up to know it was Joey, Annie’s football-player boyfriend.
Rose glanced out the window to see Annie jumping into his arms. The cheerleader and the football player. A match made in Shitty High School Movie Heaven.
The happy couple got in Joey’s loud car and took off down the road, either to meet up with friends or go make out in the abandoned parking lot behind the movie theater.
Rose tucked her nose back into her book and tried to ignore the twinge of jealousy.
Rose’s growling stomach finally drives her into Sunnyside Up, the best and cheapest meal in Mayville. She sits in the booth in the opposite corner from the one she and Annie always used.
“Rose Benson, is that you?”
A cocktail of excitement and dread swirls in Rose’s stomach at seeing a familiar face. “Hey, Ms. June, it’s so good to see you.”
The large woman wraps Rose in a hug so comforting it almost makes her forget all her troubles. “I am so glad to see you again. I thought that when your family up and left you would never set foot in Mayville again. Same as the Parkers.” Ms. June grabs Rose’s hands in her warm ones. “How are your parents doing? I haven’t heard from them in years.”
Rose’s lips tremble, but she forces a grin. She thinks about how her mother had drank herself to death four years ago, and how her father is sitting in a nursing home with early-onset dementia. “They’re doing okay.”
Ms. June presses her hand against Rose’s cheek. “It’s good to see a familiar face, sweetie. Lord knows that half the people who come through here are bozos looking for a sick thrill in a tragedy.”
She leaves before Rose can order, then comes back with an extra-thick grilled cheese, tomato soup, and a sweet tea with exactly three lemons. When Rose looks at her with wide eyes, Ms. June chuckles. “You didn’t think I’d forget your order, did you? Only made it a hundred times.”
Ms. June won’t let Rose pay. After they say goodbye and Ms. June walks off to serve another customer, Rose drops a hefty tip on the table.
As she’s leaving the diner, she pauses to look at the new guests that Ms. June is serving. They’re clearly from out of town, dressed in dark clothing, and carrying camera equipment. Rose feels her lip curling. She wants to stomp over to them and sock each one of them in the jaw. Scream at them about how their twisted idea of a thrilling tourist attraction is the disaster that tore her family apart.
Instead, she storms out of the diner, angry at herself for not being there for Annie when it mattered.
Throughout junior and senior year, Rose and Annie fought more and more frequently. It was mostly about small things, like Annie taking too long to get ready in the morning and making them late, or Rose not returning a shirt that she’d borrowed.
This one had been nasty. It was the kind that their parents didn’t even try to stop—they just figured it was better to let the angry teenagers hash it out.
Rose had taken the car when Annie had apparently needed it. Rose had called bullshit on that and claimed Annie never said she wanted the car tonight. As a result, Annie missed her friend’s birthday party because she couldn’t get a ride.
“We’re going to be in college next year,” Annie yelled at Rose. Her fists were curled into balls, her face was red. “This was the last time we were all going to get to celebrate~”
“I said I was sorry!” Rose threw her hands in the air. “What else do you want me to do?”
Annie stomped her foot. “Maybe listen to me when I’m talking to you? I know you think you’re too high and mighty for me or anyone else—”
“Oh, real mature—”
“But I actually have a social life so you can’t take the car whenever you goddamn please!”
“I didn’t know you needed the car! Maybe if you didn’t sound like such a whiny idiot whenever we talked, I would value what you said.”
Annie groaned in frustration. “No wonder you don’t have any friends—you are so fucking conceited.”
The sting of the words settled onto Rose’s skin like needles. “At least I’m not a fucking dumbass.”
Annie looked like she was going to hit Rose. Instead, she just grabbed the car keys off the counter and stormed out, slamming the door behind her for the last time.
Rose forces herself into the gravel parking lot, muttering affirmations to herself like her therapist had encouraged her to. This is healing, right?
It doesn’t feel that way.
Before she can think too hard about it, Rose practically leaps out of the car and slams the door behind her. She can’t help but notice the few cars in the lot all have out-of-state tags.
Rose stares down the winding trails that lead into the Ida B. Wells Park. The grassy clearings interlaced with trails and surrounded by thick clumps of trees used to be one of her favorite places in the world. Now, it’s her own personal hell.
Rose stumbles down the gravel path. Despite the cool air, her palms are slick. Her chest is conducting its own percussion ensemble in her chest. Cold shards of fear—no, guilt—course through her veins.
After walking for several minutes, she comes to a fork in the road. She knows the path to the left will lead her to the location of the worst moment of her life. The other will take her to the place commemorating it.
Rose swallows and takes the path to the right.
The empty car Rose and Annie shared had been found three weeks ago. Rose couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t focus on her books or her schoolwork, and she really couldn’t stand the endless looks of sympathy from the other kids at school, especially when the day before Annie and the two other girls disappeared they had all looked at her with smirks and sneers.
Rose knew her parents were trying to hold it together for her sake, but the cracks were starting to show in her mom’s extra glass or three of wine every night and her dad’s seemingly endless pacing up and down the hall.
A month after Annie disappeared along with two other girls in town, there was a frantic knock on the door late in the evening. It was their neighbor Mr. Adams, an off-duty police officer. When Rose’s parents opened the door, he spoke in frantic and hushed whispers that Rose couldn’t hear from the couch. She caught a couple snippets: “anonymous tip”, “jogger”, and “man with shovel.” The wineglass slipped from her mom’s grasp and shattered on the floor in a splatter of shards and dark red stains.
“R-Rose, stay here,” her mom’s voice was high and panicked. She and Rose’s dad grabbed their coats off the rack and followed Mr. Adams to his car. Rose immediately jumped off the couch, a sense of dread growing in her stomach.
When the car had pulled out of the driveway, Rose rushed outside, grabbed her bike, and pumped the pedals as hard as she could to keep the taillights of the car in sight. When she realized they were heading to Ida B. Wells Park, her arms turned to lead.
The parking lot was a firework display of red, white, and blue lights from the police cars and ambulances.
Rose slammed on her brakes when she arrived in the parking lot. She frantically stumbled off, not bothering to lock it up.
She followed the sound of shouting in the distance, tearing straight through the park and cutting through the woods. She ignored the thin sticks and branches that whipped across her face and tore at her hair. Please don’t be Annie. God, please, don’t let it be Annie.
Rose burst into a clearing and was met with utter chaos. Paramedics were rushing around with first-aid kits and yelling for oxygen tanks. Police officers were trying to maintain a barricade against the throng of distressed people who were pushing to get through.
Beyond the police line, Rose could see three mounds of freshly dug dirt. A team of police officers and paramedics were frantically throwing clods of it to the side in a desperate attempt to reach what was beneath.
Rose grew cold as the first body was uncovered. If she didn’t know any better, she would think it was herself being given CPR by paramedics or having oxygen forcibly punched into her lungs. She wished it were her instead. She begged for it to be her.
The paramedics continued to work on the two other girls who had been unearthed. The ones who were surrounding Annie had stepped back, their heads hanging low. Why had they stopped? Annie wasn’t awake yet. Rose tried to yell at them to keep going, but she couldn’t speak.
Rose dropped to her knees. A horrible, primal scream tore from behind the barricade and through the clearing. It sounded far away to Rose, but she knew it was her mother.
Rose stood beneath the tree and stared at the golden plaque nailed into the bark. The polish used to shine, but now it was dingy with the wear of the outdoors.
TO OUR LOST GIRLS
MAY THEY FIND ETERNAL REST
Below the inscription are the names Lihua Parker and, of course, Annabelle Benson. Beatrice Rodriguez had miraculously survived being buried alive. Rose remembered sitting with her wailing parents and staring at Annie’s still body while Beatrice coughed and sputtered back to life.
For a long time, Rose resented Annie for not being able to pull off the same miracle. The feeling was always followed by waves of guilt.
The sound of footsteps on the pathway makes her head turn. It’s the two people who had been at the diner. They’re still dressed in black like a bunch of cartoon bank robbers. Their camera is pointed at the plaque.
Shaking, Rose steps to the side as they approach the tree. They don’t acknowledge her.
“Aw, man,” one of the visitors approaches the plaque and looks it over. “This is crazy. Eric, are you getting this?”
The one holding the camera, presumably Eric, shoves his camera lens up to the inscription. Rose purses her lips and turns to leave before she does something stupid.
“Excuse me, Miss?” the other one calls. “Can you take a picture of us?”
Rose turns and blinks slowly at them, certain she’s misheard. “Excuse me?”
“A picture,” he said again. “My friend and I are doing a story about this and we’d love a picture next to the plaque.” His hand is outstretched towards Rose. He’s holding a small digital camera that she didn’t notice before.
She nods but doesn’t take the camera. Her cheeks grow hot and she asks in a cool voice, “What’s the story for?”
“For our radio series, Dark America. We’re doing an episode rating the top ten serial killers in history.” He tilts his head when she doesn’t take the camera and pushes it at her a little more, like she forgot to grab it.
Rose can’t stop nodding. Her head is buzzing. Is the ground spinning? “That’s very nice. And you’re doing this story on…?”
He grins. “The infamous Gravedigger. He’s really a fascinating topic—”
Rose lunges forward. The asshole doesn’t have time to flinch before her fist sails into his face. He falls flat on his back and cries out like a wounded puppy. Eric stares at Rose with wide eyes. He doesn’t even move to help his friend, who is whimpering and clutching his bleeding nose.
“Then why don’t you interview me?” Rose snarls. “Why don’t I tell you about how Annie Benson spent the last month of her life locked in a murderer’s basement? About how we had to have a close-casket funeral because your precious Gravedigger left wounds on her body that the funeral home couldn’t cover up? Why don’t I tell you about what it was like for my parents to bury their eighteen-year old child? Why don’t I tell you about how I lost my best friend to that fucking animal?” She lunges at Eric, but he scurries back down the path. The one she had punched scrambles to his feet and follows close behind.
As soon as they’re gone, the fire in Rose’s chest ebbs and her hand starts to sting. She knows what her therapist would say. That attack wasn’t for Annie. It was for you.
Sure as hell was, Rose would say. She wouldn’t admit that it only makes her feel worse.
A few reporters had come to the Benson’s door before Annie and the other girls were found. Now that there were two confirmed bodies and a gripping name to accompany the killer that committed these acts, it was an endless stream of them.
Strangers stopped Rose on her way to school to ask her about how her family was holding up, and what would she say to the killer once he had been caught? Her family received letters and phone calls asking them to come be interviewed on TV and the radio. Each time a microphone or a camera was shoved in her face, or each time she saw the headlines Gravedigger: Where Will He Strike Next? or Small-Town America Shattered! Rose felt like there were hot coals in her stomach. The worst headlines to see were by far, One Survivor, Two Dead.
Soon after Rose left for college, her parents moved out of Mayville. She didn’t offer to come help pack the house up, and they didn’t ask. They just gave her an address and she showed up in the new town that was far away from the nightmare.
Once Rose is done rinsing the blood off her hands in the park bathroom, she returns to her car and sits in the front seat. It’s starting to get dark. Rose has a room booked at the nearby hotel, but she doesn’t want to go quite yet.
She leans her head against the steering wheel and takes a shaky breath. Her therapist had recommended this trip for closure, but Rose doesn’t know where to start looking for it.
Just start at the beginning, her therapist’s voice echoes in her head.
Rose forces herself to turn the key, and the ignition roars to life. She drives back down the street, following the same route she had taken on her bike eight years ago.
She arrives back at the house that she had fled from earlier. For some reason, the dim lights of the streetlamps make it less daunting. She looks towards the door, but she knows she won’t be able to walk inside. She doesn’t want to see the empty hallways, or the carpet still stained with red wine. Even from a distance, the house is almost suffocating her.
Rose removes her shoes and walks through the cool grass, letting the blades tickle her feet. She goes around the perimeter of the house to the backyard, to the two trees where there used to be a hammock.
Rose lays on the ground and stares up at the night sky. Before long, warm tears trickle down her face. She had found over the years that grief never goes away; it just becomes pickier about when it shows itself.
Lying on the grass doesn’t make her feel better. The house is a looming reminder of what she lost. Rose’s therapist had told her over and over again that it wasn’t her fault—if she had known what would happen to Annie that night, Rose would have done everything in her power to stop her from leaving. Rose repeats the words, but she never truly feels them. She doesn’t know if she will ever feel them. After all, Rose had taken the car that night knowing Annie needed it, just because she couldn’t stand the fact that Annie was going to Maggie Wright’s birthday party. Rose could have prevented the fight. She could have prevented Annie from walking out that door.
Rose looks up at the constellations and finds the Big Dipper, Leo, and of course, Draco. She stares at the shapeless clump that some astronomer had decided centuries ago kind of resembled a dragon. For years now, Rose had been calling it Annie.
Treasure Box // Lauren Cavagnini
The dilapidated police tape has been wrapped around the perimeter of the Victorian style inn for several years now. Few strands remain; just enough to know this place was once a crime scene.
Annie Parker stands before the rustic but elegant building, a cigarette between her fingers. The surrounding forest is covered in a thin layer of frost, but she barely notices in her thick coat.
She drove up here from her city apartment last night. She had been tossing and turning until finally, around 3:00 AM, she arose from her bed, grabbed the car keys to her old, tan Ford, and drove nine hours from her home and one hour from the nearest gas station. She needed to see it again.
The inn has been abandoned ever since the police tape went up around the perimeter. The case that accompanied it has run as cold as the forest air.
Annie flicks the rest of the cigarette onto the ground and makes her way to the wooden door. The ground crunches under her feet and breaks the comforting silence of the forest.
She tries to jimmy the door open, but the lock holds fast. Annie goes to the brick flowerbed that rings the inn. From the edge of the porch, she uses her finger to count ten bricks across, then three down. The one she lands on takes a bit of coaxing to slide out, but eventually it does, revealing a rusted, but intact, key beneath.
After some coercing with the key, the door swings open with a long creak. Annie steps inside and closes it behind her, plunging herself into near darkness. She rubs her hands together for warmth as she slowly walks through the check-in room. She squints, trying to make out the wood-paneled walls decorated with cross-stitched flower bouquets made by her mother and George, the taxidermy buck who hangs over the front desk. Her eyes fall on the door directly behind the check-in desk with a sign that reads: “Employees Only.”
“Annie!” Her mom peeked her head into the room behind the front desk. “Will you come help our guests with their bags?” Annie set down her book and followed after her through the doorway.
The couple who had just checked in was an older one, with graying hair and wrinkles lining their eyes. When the old woman’s eyes landed on Annie, she grinned. “Oh, aren’t you just the most precious thing.”
Mom smiled and placed her hand on Annie’s head. “She and her sister are our little helpers around here.”
The man with the woman chuckled, “I bet it’s fun to run around this inn all day.”
Annie nodded enthusiastically, and her mouth split into a gap-toothed grin. “I’m gonna live here forever!”
Annie’s boots echo around the empty kitchen as she explores. The only source of light emanates from the candle she found on the front desk.
Her parents considered upgrading the kitchen several times to reflect the white, industrial kitchens that most hotels and inns had, but over and over again decided that they wanted the room to remain warm and homey. They wanted guests to feel as though the food they were eating was made by their grandmother, like they were part of the Parker family. Annie decided to keep to their wishes after she took over the place.
She runs her finger through the thick layer of dust on the island counter. The shelves that line the walls contain rusted cooking tools and curtains of cobwebs. Animal droppings spot the floor, and the linoleum tiles are cracked and dull. The dusky smell of abandonment hangs thick in the air.
Annie can tell that everything has been searched through. Even ten years later, she knows she didn’t leave the pots and pans in such disarray. And yet, with all that searching, the detectives didn’t find enough evidence to convict anyone.
Annie feels a tug in her heart. She’s tempted to search the cabinets for baking supplies she knows aren’t there and whip up a three-course meal like she used to. She wants to smell chicken and roasted potatoes and the tang of homemade salad dressing. She wants this place to feel like home again.
On Tuesdays, the inn served lemon cake with raspberry frosting. At thirteen, Annie and her twin sister Rose had recently been placed in charge of making desserts; their Dad had deemed them competent enough. Once the schoolwork their parents gave them for the day was over, they’d run down to the kitchen, mix together the batter with practiced ease, then throw it in the oven. The most difficult part was the waiting. Usually they left while Dad sat in the kitchen, reading a book and listening for the egg timer to go off.
“Let’s play hide-and-seek,” Annie said after the time had eaten away her patience (roughly two minutes).
Rose rolled her eyes. “What are we, seven?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
A minute later Rose had shut her eyes and covered her ears with her hands. She began counting in a loud voice to conceal the sound of Annie’s footsteps. Annie’s eyes darted around the room. She considered climbing on top of the cabinets, but she was afraid they would tip over beneath her weight. Then she spotted the dumbwaiter. Mom and Dad had forbidden Annie and Rose to go inside of it; it was old, and the ropes could break.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Rose would never think to look there. Annie pried open the creaking doors while Rose continued to count out loud. She held her breath as she crawled inside, waiting for the sound of ropes to snap under her weight. There were only a few groans of protest from the ropes, and then silence. Annie quietly shut the door and waited with her knees curled to her chest. She had to duck her head to fit, and the metal was cold against her skin. It was what she imagined a corpse in a coffin felt like.
After a moment, Rose’s counting stopped. Annie kept her ears pricked and listened for Rose’s footsteps to come closer to her hiding spot.
Annie expected to hear the sound of cabinets opening and closing, maybe the metallic clang of pots and pans being moved aside. But there was only silence. The dumbwaiter grew hot and stuffy. Perspiration beaded on her forehead. After several minutes, Annie yanked the door open to escape the oven she had created.
Rose was nowhere to be seen. “Asshole,” Annie chuckled. She should have known. When they were little girls, they used to send the other to hide and then never went looking for each other.
As Annie started to slide out of the metal box, she paused. None of the dangers her parents had warned her about seemed to have happened. Curiosity seized her, and she squeezed herself back into the dumbwaiter and shut the door.
She grabbed the coarse rope that ran through the box and gave a hefty tug. The dumbwaiter creaked in protest, but Annie felt herself move upwards. With a satisfied smile, she continued pulling herself up. Her muscles soon began to ache, and the darkness felt suffocating. She listened for her parents to start yelling at her for disobeying them, but the only sound was the creaking and groaning of the dumbwaiter.
She stopped when she was suddenly met face-to-face with a dim light. She peered closer and found herself looking through a large vent into one of the rooms. She could see that the bed had been slept in and there was an open suitcase with clothing hanging over the sides, but the guest was nowhere to be seen. Annie’s body thrummed with the excitement of knowing she was breaking the rules. She pressed her hand against the metal grate, but it was screwed into the wall.
Annie jerked backwards as the door to the room opened. In walked the most recent guest to the inn. Annie couldn’t remember his name, but she knew he was a traveling magician. He had done a few card tricks for Annie when he saw her sitting in the dining room reading a book. Even though she was old enough to know magic wasn’t real, she didn’t have the foggiest idea how he pulled it off. He said he was touring the country and wanted to spend his three-day break out in the middle of nowhere, and had just happened to come across the inn.
“It’s fate,” he had told Annie with a dazzling smile.
Annie watched through the grate as he pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and absentmindedly fiddled with them while watching TV on his bed. After a few minutes, he went into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. Annie took the opportunity to lower herself back down to the kitchen without the noise alerting the magician.
As soon as she had closed the door to the dumbwaiter, vowing to herself that she would be back, Rose walked in with a mischievous look on her face. “I gave up—you were just too well-hidden.”
Annie gave her a playful shove. “Just take the cake out of the oven.”
There’s only one staircase in the inn that goes to the third floor where the family lived. Annie’s dad had taken the time to drill large pieces of plywood to create three bedrooms for Annie, Rose, and their parents. The walls were thin, but it was better than no privacy at all. The rest of the floor was an open space with invisible lines dividing the kitchen, dining room, and family room. When her family was taking a break from working, or when Annie and Rose weren’t doing schoolwork, they were often here.
Annie walks into what was once her bedroom. It almost looks the same; it just seems as if a melancholy filter has settled over it. Her twin-sized bed and homemade quilt are still there, drawings done by both her and Rose decorate the walls, and one side of the room is taken up entirely by an enormous bookcase.
Annie leans against the doorframe, her lips trembling.
“Will you edit my essay?” Rose stood sheepishly in the doorway to Annie’s bedroom, a piece of paper gripped tightly in her hands.
Annie looked up from the book she was reading and knit her eyebrows together. “I didn’t know Mom assigned us any essays.”
“It’s not for her,” Rose said. “It’s for my college applications.”
Annie sat upright on her bed. “Which one?”
Rose smiled bashfully. “NYU.”
Annie’s stomach twisted. “But…but that’s hours away.”
Rose sat down at the foot of Annie’s bed. “I know…but I really want to live in a big city for a while. See a part of the world other than the inn.”
“Well, what’s wrong with the inn?”
Rose shrugged. “Nothing, really. I love it here, but it’s time for a change, y’know? You should start looking into colleges too. I have a book that you can flip through.”
“No, I’m just going to run the inn,” Annie said. “I don’t need a degree for that if I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Her sister lifted an eyebrow. “You want to stay here your whole life? Don’t you want to see the world or experience someplace else even for a couple years?”
“I mean, I feel like I meet so many people from around the world that I don’t need to leave.”
“It’s not the same thing, Ann,” Rose said in a gentle voice.
Annie crossed her arms. “Have you met the man in Room 207? He’s a Korean War vet. He told me all about the country and getting to meet the civilians and how terrifying it was to be a soldier. He even showed me the picture he always carries of his infantry! And I have books—I can read about any part of the world I want or any topic I want.”
Rose bowed her head. “If that’s what you want. But I have to go somewhere other than the nearest town to get groceries.” She placed the essay at the foot of Annie’s bed and turned to go, but Annie grabbed her hand.
“You can’t leave me.” Her voice was desperate and fragile. Rose gently pulled her wrist away and left.
Annie took a shaky breath. She had never known a life without Rose. If Rose got accepted to NYU, she had no idea what she would do. Annie clutched her chest and tried to process the idea.
After a moment, she reached towards the end of the bed and grabbed the handwritten essay. The prompt was “write about a person who has made an impact on your life.” It was entitled “Together Since Birth.”
Annie steps out onto the third-floor balcony. Even in the darkness, she can see the outline of the snow-covered forest. She takes in a deep breath of the frigid mountain air. It smells like home. Out here, she can pretend like they never came, like the raid never happened. Like she didn’t have to leave everyone behind.
Annie’s parents were outside in the gravel driveway with Rose. A couple months ago, they had bought a tan Ford for Rose to pile her belongings in and drive up to New York City. She had been accepted. Annie’s best friend was abandoning her.
Rose had asked Annie to come see her off, but Annie was curled in a ball on her bed, choking back tears.
As Rose was saying her final goodbyes to her parents, Annie, with a packed bag in her hand, tore down the wooden stairs of the inn.
“Wait!” she yelled. “I’m coming with you!”
Rose opened her mouth in confusion, but Annie grabbed Rose’s hand and stopped her before she could speak. “You’re right. It’s time to see the world.”
After protests, arguments, and more tears, their parents agreed to help Annie pay for a hotel near the city until she could find a job and an apartment.
Several hours later, Annie trudged up the road to the inn, her suitcase in hand. Her parents came out to meet her, demanding to know what happened.
Annie’s set her jaw and glared at the ground. “Rose didn’t want me to come with her. She said to get out and walk back; that this is her journey, not ours.” I had to bring her back.
That night Annie was sitting in the lounge, sharing her woes with a kind guest. The guest shook her head. “My mama always used to tell me that when the world seems low and dark, red lipstick can always lift your chin and brighten the world.” She showed Annie the silver tube that was in her pocket. “And mamas are never wrong.”
Two months after Rose left, the family received a letter from her that stated she wasn’t coming back for the holidays. Annie’s mother read her letter in a broken voice. Rose wanted to backpack the country. She sent multiple letters over the years. She was always safe. She was always happy. She didn’t want to come home.
Annie comes to the hallway where the guests stay. The candle in her hand throws up dancing shadows on the wall that make Annie feel like she’s surrounded by spirits. It feels comforting to have company again.
She strolls down the hallway, trailing her fingers along the wall. The doors to every room are closed, but she can imagine what they look like. Or, what they used to look like before she had to evacuate. She doesn’t want to see what they look like after the teams of officers swept through them.
She stops in front of Room 207. Her fingers hover on the doorknob for a moment, then she draws it back. It’s best that what has happened to her sanctuary is left a mystery.
Two years after Rose left, Annie’s parents sat her down at the dining room table. They told her that they were ready to retire. While they loved the inn, it had started to feel monotonous. They wanted to join a retirement community, maybe even take a page out of Rose’s book and do some traveling. They had found a nice “old folks’ home” in the town over, about ninety minutes from the inn.
“We just think it’s time,” they explained to Annie.
Annie jumped up from the seat. “No, no, no.” She pointed a finger at them. “You can’t leave me like Rose tried to. You can’t.”
Her parents exchanged distraught looks. “Honey, we know you love this place and us being here together, but there’s a whole world outside the inn.”
Annie clenched her fists. “Stop saying that.”
She rushed downstairs to the dining room, where the guests were being looked after by Dani, the waitress who had been hired to help in Rose’s absence.
“Annie!” she called.
Annie stopped her sprint to the front door and turned to the worker. Her hands twitched with agitation. “What, Dani?”
Dani blinked in surprise at her aggressive tone and produced a white envelope from her pocket. “There’s a new letter from Rose.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Annie grabbed the envelope and stared down at the neat penmanship addressed to her family. With a yell of frustration, she ripped it in half. “It doesn’t matter because everyone keeps fucking leaving.”
The guests in the dining room were looking at her with curiosity and fear. Dani’s closed her mouth and cleared her throat. “I-I’m sorry?”
Annie shouldered past her and out the front door. Her parents couldn’t leave. They had to stay together. All of them.
Annie returns to the kitchen. She stands before the doorway of the dumbwaiter. She had spent hours and hours in there after she’d discovered it, and Room 207 came to hold a special place in her heart as she took more and more trips up to it.
She pries the doors open with difficulty. Inside is dusty, and she brushes the spiders out. When the officers came and took evidence, they took away the screwdriver Annie always kept in there for the screws that held the grate. She can’t get into Room 207 now.
With some difficulty, Annie squeezes herself into the dumbwaiter. She isn’t surprised that it holds. She had replaced the pulley systems and rope a few years before the raid.
It takes a minute to get it moving, but eventually the system moves not up, but down.
When she stops pulling the rope and opens the door, Annie is in the abandoned basement. She had discovered this place about a year after the dumbwaiter. She didn’t know why the person who built the inn had added a floor that was nearly unreachable, but Annie certainly appreciated it.
The basement had been nothing more than a dirty concrete floor with a few weight-supporting beams when Annie found it. She hadn’t changed much; she just added a row of rocking chairs against the back wall.
A weight lifts off Annie’s chest, and she laughs in relief when she sees them, just as intact as when she’d been forced to flee.
“Welcome to the Hidden Beauty Inn,” Annie said with a wide grin. “Do you have a reservation with us?”
“Ah…no,” the woman said, shaking the droplets of rain off her red coat. Wet strands of red hair were plastered to her face, and her cherry lipstick was smudged. A red suitcase rolled in behind her. “Do I need one? I didn’t realize how far a thirteen-hour drive feels when you’re doing it by yourself. When I passed by, I figured that eight hours was enough for the day. Especially with that awful rainstorm.”
“Oh, most definitely,” Annie chuckled, opening the guest book to take down her information. “No reservations are needed.”
She said her name, but Annie wrote down “Red Woman” in the guestbook.
The Red Woman reached into her red purse and brought out a credit card, but Annie waved her hand apologetically. “Cash only.”
The Red Woman blinked in surprise but presented Annie with the correct amount of money. Annie took the money and placed it in her cash box with a smile. Usually potential guests had to leave because they didn’t have the right amount of cash on hand.
“Right this way.”
Annie considered the wall of keys behind her for a moment before making a final decision. She grabbed one, took the Red Woman’s suitcase and led her through the door that opened into the dining room.
“Do you have any other guests?” the Red Woman asked, looking around at the empty tables. They were all covered in white linen tablecloths and set with fine china and floral centerpieces. It was around 7:00; time for supper.
“We have a few,” Annie lied as they exited a door out the other side. It opened to a wooden staircase that they began to climb. “However, they seem to be either early diners or extremely late. If you come down in around an hour, I’m sure they’ll be there.”
“I don’t see any other staff members.”
Annie smiled. “My parents and sister are somewhere around here, but they don’t help out much these days.”
“So you run this place all by yourself?”
“I do my best.”
On the second floor, Annie unlocked the door to Room 207. It had been a while since she’d determined a guest worthy enough to stay in this room. “Enjoy your time here.”
As Annie handed the suitcase to the Red Woman, she noticed the large ring on her finger. It was a golden band with a bee molded from the same material on top. The stripes of the bee were distinguished with tiny red gems.
“That’s a beautiful ring,” Annie told her.
A smile split her bright red lips. “Thank you—my fiancé gave it to me.”
“How wonderful. Congratulations to the both of you.”
She continued grinning, thanked Annie for her help, and disappeared inside.
“Hang on, everyone,” Annie says to the row of rocking chairs. “I’ll be there in just a minute.” She veers to the opposite end of the room. The silence is deafening, but a comfort. Ever since moving to the city Annie could barely sleep at night.
At the end of the dark room was a small, antique box. Annie picks it up and opens the lid with a low creak. She smiles at the contents and slowly walks back towards the rocking chairs.
“I missed my friends,” she calls to them as she looks through the box. She rifles through a deck of cards once shuffled by a kind magician. A wrinkled black-and-white photo of a group of soldiers against a Korean jungle. A silver tube full of old lipstick. The letters that were signed as Rose but written by Annie, paperclipped to a letter from New York University that declared Rose’s failure to check into the dorm or show up to class resulted in an automatic forfeit of her spot at NYU.
Annie approaches the first rocking chair and kneels in front of it. “I had to keep your ring, you know. It was just so beautiful.” She delicately picks up the golden ring and holds it beside the Red Woman’s face. Annie wishes that her eyes were open to see, but the embalming book had said that eyelids had to be sealed shut.
Annie says hello to the next three people in their chairs. The hitchhiker, the fortune teller, the aspiring scientist. They had all been very interesting. She had put them all in Room 207.
The last three chairs are who she really wants to see. Annie grabs the cold hand of her sister. “I missed you, Rose.” She turns her head to her parents. “And you two.” She notices her mother’s head has somehow drooped forward. With a single finger, Rose pushes it back against the rocking chair. “That’s better.”
Annie sits in the empty chair at the end of the line and holds her father’s hand. “Isn’t this nice? We’re finally all together.”
Flowers // Zoë Däe
Mamaw Daisy was more than happy to see me. It had been a week since my dad’s shiva, and my step-mom, Shelly, had finally reached the point in her grief where she wanted to be alone. I figured some traditional grandmother one-on-one, complete with too much food and drowsily watching daytime game shows in her dark living room, would be a good palate cleanser for my soul after days of creeping into Shelly’s kitchen to munch on funeral sandwiches.
Mamaw was already preparing lunch. It was no later than 10 a.m., but I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I had a plate of crowder peas and mashed potatoes topped with Armour beef stew and home-canned tomatoes. Mamaw Daisy, whose hair was in curlers while she waited for her perm to set, sat across the table from me and had only a cigarette.
“How you holdin’ up, girl?” she asked.
I shrugged, mouth full of potatoes.
“I lost my daddy to cancer fifty years ago.”
She went on to tell a story I had already heard. Her father had colorectal cancer and, out of his eight children, only Daisy was willing to go home and care for him. Grandfather Samuel had been a backwards southern Mormon. He once tied his eldest daughter to a tree and beat her with a whip because her brassiere strap accidentally showed from under her shirt. His youngest, Daisy, was his favorite, shy and reserved, only daring to speak when spoken to. But when Daisy had her first daughter, Rose, her husband, Daniel, hadn’t stopped hitting her. She returned home to Grandfather Samuel and Grandmother Alice, only to have them tell her she now belonged to her husband and they couldn’t take her back.
Daisy returned home to the dying Grandfather Samuel because he no longer had a wife to tend to him. She stayed with him for six days. The last three, he kept begging her to kill him. On the final day, she hid in another room while he screamed and cried all day, only to go silent that night. She said for years she regretted letting him die alone. But after she left Papaw Daniel, opened her own flower shop to support her daughters, and began to lead her own life, she felt she had given Grandfather what he deserved: a feeling of pure, cold loneliness, of desertion so sudden and vicious, like biting down on cold metal.
Fun family stories like this were what passed the time for me as a child babysat by my grandma. No story was too graphic, too adult for me as long as it was entirely true. She also liked to tell me about when one of her brothers chopped her other brother’s finger off with a hatchet because they both thought the other would chicken out, and when her eldest sister died of rabies. But no story was more scarring than the one of Grandfather Samuel’s demise. She told my cousin Holly the same stories, but when our mothers were around and everyone was talking about the Good Old Days, there was an eerie sense that Mamaw Daisy’s own children had not been trusted with the same knowledge Holly and I had been handed before we were even in grade school.
“I loved my daddy, Mamaw Daisy.”
My dad had been a high school biology teacher who wore a lab coat to the grocery store and volunteered to do science shows for terminal* kids at the children’s hospital in Augusta. He was tragically goofy, always having a good time, and for most of my life, was legally drunk every day.
When I was fourteen, I made him his favorite meal for his forty-second birthday. I wasn’t a great cook, but I worked for hours to make meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and collard greens, all from scratch and with fresh ingredients. When I had finished, my dad was passed out drunk on the couch. Shelly and I ate dinner without him. The following day, a Sunday, when he woke up after 2 p.m., Dad had some of the leftovers for lunch, as well as a forty-ounce Budweiser to ease his hangover and prepare for the next school day. I waited patiently for him to finish, for him to thank me for my hard work, but all he had to say was, “It needs salt.” I saw red, destroyed every glass, dish, and piece of artwork in my line of sight until Shelly pinned my arms behind my back and hollered at my dad, “This is all you! Look at what you are doing!”
He didn’t have a drop after that Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t matter. Almost four years after his last drink, he was diagnosed with stage three liver cancer, and a year and a half after that, he was gone. Tragically goofy as he was, his life ended up being just regular old tragic.
“I loved my daddy, too,” Mamaw said. “Anyways, your aunt Lily is coming by to help me rinse and set my hair. We’ll be gabbin’, you know, but please stay, and don’t hesitate to let me know if you need any little thing, sugar.”
Aunt Lily did come by to do Mamaw’s hair, but when she saw me, she called Holly, Aunt Violet, and Aunt Rose. Before today, my mother, Iris, was the only member of this family who had seen me in the flesh since the second day of the shiva. I’m sure they had tried all kinds of ploys to smoke me out. But all of their messages were either lost in the stacks of recent tapes by Shelly’s answering machine, or scribbled carelessly on the notepad by the telephone at my mom’s, who ripped her answering machine out of the wall years ago because of her sisters.
Holly walked in with a Polaroid camera hanging around her neck, bouncing gently on her pregnant belly. She collapsed into a kitchen chair, fanning her sweaty neck and whipping her blond ponytail off her skin.
“Hey, Mama, Mamaw,” Holly said. Lily and Mamaw Daisy ignored her, arguing over Mamaw’s hair. “Sorry it took me so long to get here. I had to run some photo tests for the Belcourt wedding.”
Belcourt. They sound rich.
Holly turned to me. “How are you doing, hon?”
I told her I was doing okay and asked her how her first year of college was, but I already knew. Holly and I had both just finished our freshman years at college, but unlike me in every way, Holly went to a prestigious private college to study pre-med. She realized she was pregnant after Christmas break but finished the year anyway with a 4.0 for the second semester and the year. She hadn’t decided if she was going to return or not, but it didn’t matter because the portfolio she had collected during her just-for-fun photography class was enough to book her ten high-paying photography gigs over the summer. She was considering photography full time. She was closest to a degree, an actual career, and producing Mamaw’s first great-grandchild.
Violet and Rose came in bickering, as usual.
“Well, I actually went to college,” Rose said, pulling her designer sunglasses off of her face.
Rose, like her mother and sisters, was a florist, but she worked exclusively with funeral homes. Her shop, Final Arrangements, was the most lucrative of all her sisters’ and she never let anyone forget it.
“For horticulture. Which you don’t actually need to run a flower shop,” Violet said, popping the clip-on shades off of her eyeglasses.
Violet and Lily ran Mamaw Daisy’s old flower shop, Sugarberry Blossoms.
“What do you know about properly running a flower shop? How many fingers have you got left?”
“Oh, did they teach you how to handle sharp tools at flower school? Please, Lily’s real estate license she got for fun is more useful to what we do than a horticulture degree.”
Violet slid her shades into the breast pocket of her denim shirt while Rose carefully placed her sunglasses on top of her hair like a tiara.
Aunt Violet was tough, which is one of the nicer words people used to describe her. She had calloused hands and short nails because “I do my own work.” Final Arrangements and my mom’s flower shop, Cat’s Foot, ordered pre-cut flowers, but Violet convinced Lily to let her cut theirs herself. One summer, when Holly and I were seven and being passed around between family flower shops while school was out, Aunt Violet cut the knuckle out of her index finger while trimming flowers. Because the blade was so sharp and she was working so fast, she didn’t notice until I scraped it off the concrete floor and handed it to her. A few years later, she lost the tip of her pinky the same way, but it fell into the trash and wasn’t found until ten hours later, much too late to reattach it like a doctor had her knuckle. Aunt Rose was insistent that one reattached digit and another lost forever wasn’t worth whatever money ordering uncut flowers was saving Sugarberry Blossoms, but to Aunt Violet, a penny saved was a penny earned.
After the bickering died down and Lily finished Mamaw’s hair, we decided to play rummy, and boy, there’s nothing quite like being in a room full of florists just after the funeral of your immediate family member.
“How did you like the wreath?”
“Pfft, wreath. Didn’t you prefer my peace lily?”
“A peace lily for a funeral? How original, Violet.”
Before I was forced to choose which was better, Mamaw Daisy came to my rescue.
“Iris came by wallago to bring me my pictures I had developed,” she said, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth as she held on tight to her cards with both hands. “Wanted me to thank you again for coming with us to Avi’s uh… thang the other day.”
She was talking, of course, about my dad’s shiva. In his final weeks, my dad had warned Shelly and me that his will would read that he be buried as soon as possible, not embalmed, in a pine box in the Jewish section of Sugarberry Cemetery, and he was not prepared to change his last will and testament.
“You bought a plot in the Jewish section of Sugarberry Cemetery?” Shelly asked.
“Don’t worry yourself, sugar,” he replied. “I bought four. One for me, you, Gertie, and Gertie’s spouse if she ever marries.”
Dad said all of this with great finality, discouraging Shelly or me from questioning him. Shelly was not Jewish and hadn’t planned on converting, but that was for her to figure out. Dad had been what he himself called “barely a Jew” for most of my life and our visits to the nearest synagogue were always “for culture, not religion,” but his decisions about his burial were for us to figure out.
“And sit shiva for at least three days,” he said before abruptly closing his eyes and pretending to die.
“You know my folks are Christian, they don’t get that stuff,” Shelly replied.
He popped one eye open for a moment to counter, “The A.M.E. Church knows to feed you. Just tell them to use the food they were going to waste on the whole city on the day of my funeral to feed my wife and daughter for three days instead. My funeral doesn’t need a reception.”
Shelly and I did end up sitting shiva, or something like it. For three days, we sat on the couch in sweatpants with the door unlocked for several hours each day. We didn’t expect a turnout from our very goyische community, but if you’re sitting shiva in a largely non-Jewish town and want people to show up, Georgia is the place to do it. Neighbors, friends, and family brought truckloads of food to us for three days and then a couple more. The only thing was that they’d gently rap at the front door, and we’d have to shout at them to just come in.
Uncle Calvin, Shelly’s brother and pastor, came through in a kippah, asking if he was wearing the “ya-mayka” right before delivering our sixth baked macaroni to the kitchen. Mamaw Berta, Shelly’s mother, came by approximately fifty-seven times on just the first day to give us food and nervously vacuum and wipe down all the surfaces with apple cider vinegar. Shelly’s siblings, cousins (first, second, and third), and every member of her church all showed up within the first twenty-four hours, then each checked back in at least once before the three days were up.
Dinah, Dad’s only living immediate family, showed up on day two, pissed as hell that we’d dumped him in the ground before her flight from Tampa had landed. Aunt Dinah was Dad’s older sister who he had been very close with when I was younger. When he quit drinking, he had asked her to give up drinking as well, but she just laughed in his face. Suddenly, seeing another person drunk at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday was depressing for him, so he avoided her more and more until she kickstarted her early midlife crisis and moved to Florida.
“I told you what he wanted and what was happening weeks ago,” Shelly said. “Being drunk is not an excuse for your poor memory and negligence.”
For the rest of the day, Shelly ignored Dinah, who, in turn, didn’t show up to sit with us on day three.
My mom, her three sisters, Mamaw Daisy, and Holly also showed up on the second day. The six women stood in a heap, staring at Shelly and me with big hungry eyes. My aunt Rose narrowed her eyes at the Magen David around my neck for just a fraction of a second before snapping her Botoxed cheeks back into place for a friendly smile as warm and southern as apple pie. They all suddenly remembered who they were and brightly and loudly expressed their deepest condolences, except my mom.
Mom and Shelly had never liked each other, nor had they pretended to. But the man who had come between them was gone. The man they had both loved at some point was gone. Mom took Shelly’s hand and gently squeezed it, then produced a little black box from the pocket of her gray slacks. Shelly opened the box to reveal a silver necklace with two small pendants strung independently: a silver chamsa and a silver cross.
“He’s still with you,” Mom said. “And in his eyes or your eyes, both ways, you are safe, protected. It’s real sterling silver. Avi mentioned a long time ago that you had a metal allergy.”
Hearing Dad’s first name stung. For days he had only been “Mr. Fleiss,” “Your Father,” “Your Husband.” Mom could say his first name because she knew him. She really knew him. In his mid-thirties, he had cheated on her with Shelly and, apparently, some other Jane Doe because Shelly and Mom both ended up with chlamydia. Avram Fleiss was raised strictly, cleanly, quietly, and chasidically in 1950s New York City. He moved to Georgia to study biological and agricultural engineering and, by the time he had his Ph.D., he was a husband and a father. He was late sowing his wild oats, but they got sowed one way or the other. He tricked Iris Green into believing he was a non-threatening nerd who wanted a quiet life, and for the most part he was, until one night he was thirty-five, drunk, and tallying up just how many research positions he had had to turn down to be a public school teacher so he could be around to raise his daughter. Taking his drunkenness outside of the house, which he rarely did, he bumped into Shelly Noble, who he hadn’t seen since undergrad, as she leaned over a pool table in acid-wash jeans. You know what happens next. He disappeared for six months— well, not exactly. He kept his job at the school where he showed up every weekday, but he moved into a single-wide trailer to be a single man for a while and only saw me on weekends. To everyone’s disbelief, instead of returning home to my mom, instead of divorcing her and starting over completely as a single man, at the end of his six-month spirit journey, he chose Shelly Noble.
Iris Green knew Avi Fleiss. She had loved Avi Fleiss, hated Avi Fleiss, forgiven Avi Fleiss. Now she was at his shiva as the first wife. The tossed-aside, used-up dishrag, but she refused to show it. She was in her mid-forties, but her skin was taut, her figure was thick but smooth, and her eyes were bright because her first husband walked out when she was still young and she had the good sense to never get another one. Shelly Noble got the good life with Avi Fleiss. The sober life. The faithful life. But the price was to be his wife as and when he died before fifty. Iris Green had the good life now, but instead of rubbing it in Shelly’s face, she marched into Avi Fleiss’s shiva and gave his second wife the gift of forgiveness and solidarity.
Everyone looked up from their cards as Mamaw spoke. She appeared was looking directly at Aunt Rose, who didn’t seem to appreciate the attention.
“Of course I went. Why wouldn’t I go and be there for Gertie?” Rose turned to me and forced the corners of her mouth out.
“Well, she just knows you don’t like Shelly,” Mamaw said, looking back down at her cards to say We’re done here, back to the game, but Rose wasn’t having it. She scoffed.
“Well, obviously I don’t like her, Mama. She slept with my sister’s husband.”
“Oh, please,” Aunt Violet interjected, her spectacled eyes not rising from her hand, racing back and forth over her cards. “Cindy Anderson fucked your own husband and you still have her make your boutonnieres.”
“She cuts me a deal in exchange for me not telling her family,” Aunt Rose replied, then audibly snapped her teeth together, realizing she shouldn’t have said that.
Everyone looked up again, but no one spoke. Holly, who sat at the far side of the table to keep Mamaw’s smoke away from her pregnant lungs, drew from the discard pile and laid down the King, Queen, and Ace of spades.
“Even Aunt Iris has forgiven Shelly at this point,” Holly said, tapping her manicured nails against the last two cards in her hand. “Just tell us the real reason you’re so weird about her.”
“I just don’t know her,” Rose said, shimmying into her cardigan even though Mamaw had the gas heater blazing to warm her old bones. “She’s from… the other side of the tracks. You never know if you can trust those people.”
Holly nodded as she played her three of diamonds on Aunt Violet’s Queen, King, and Ace. “You mean black people?” Holly tossed her last card into the discard pile and smiled. “I’m out. Count your hands.”
Aunt Violet, totally absorbed in the game again, ignored the conversation at hand and hollered, “You can’t do that! My Ace is played as a face card, not a two. We don’t play ‘round the world in this house.”
“Let her,” Rose said, standing up. “I’m not gonna be interrogated at my mama’s dining room table. Game’s over.”
Holly kept a level head. “I just find it amazing that you’re a racist considering Shelly’s own mama raised you.”
“How dare you say such a thing in front of my mother?” Rose stamped her foot on the cement kitchen floor, but everyone except Holly and me were too busy counting their points to look up. “Mama raised me. No one else.”
“Berta fed you and changed your ass while Mamaw was at the flower shop. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Forty-nine,” Aunt Lily said, breaking her silence. “Forty-nine points for me.”
“I got a hundred,” Holly said, not looking away from Rose.
Violet, whose head was still completely in the game, scratched down the points, then blew a puff of air through her glasses and into her falling bangs. “Tough play today.”
Rose, realizing no one was going to respond to her performance, sat back down. “Rook next?
The hinges on the screen door shrieked as I opened it to get away from everyone, but nobody seemed to notice. I always felt othered by my aunts. First, there was my name.
“Why didn’t you name her after a flower? Holly marks the third generation of flower names in our family.”
“Her middle name is Hazel,” my mother had defended.
“The first name, Iris. You know that’s how we do it.”
“Oh, please. I was twenty-five and madly in love with a man who wanted to name his first child after his mother who survived the Holocaust, what the fuck did you want me to tell him? No?”
Second was my accent. I was surrounded by lifelong Georgians my whole childhood. My dad and Aunt Dinah were the only people I hung out with during my formative years who didn’t have a deep southern accent. And yet, as a young adult, my accent was mostly American neutral. Sure, when I went to college and met a few out-of-state northerners, they all complimented my adorable southern accent, but to my own family, I may as well have been born and raised in Detroit. I said “y’all.” Any soda was a Coke. I often added syllables to words (down was day-own). But my aunts cringed when I said oil or toilet. I pronounced pin and pen differently from one another. My long Is were just that, long Is. Fire, tight, and bite were fire, tight, and bite, not fahr, taht, and baht. I was a victim of circumstance. Very weird, unlikely circumstance, but circumstance nonetheless. Still, my aunts often acted like the accent I had developed in childhood was my teenage or young adult self putting on a show and thinking I was better than my hick family. “Here comes Miss New York City,” they’d say.
Third was the most obvious one. My mom practiced pagan rituals and worshiped more than one god, but it wasn’t until she became pregnant by a Jewish man that my aunts began to worry. “You won’t raise the baby Jewish will you?” There was obviously no Christ in my mother’s life well before my dad showed up, but my theory is that Jewish was worse than Pagan because my mom’s religion didn’t seem real to my aunts. My mom was free to be a little witch until she grew bored of it because she had been baptized when she was six. My soul, however, was doomed because I never even considered letting Jesus into my heart. I’m sure he exaggerated a tiny bit for the drama, but I once overheard my dad telling Shelly that he and Mom had caught my aunts plotting to have me baptized by the cover of night. My mom had gone to the office of the pastor who was involved and reminded him, sweetly as ever, that law enforcement would probably take pity on my aunts for what was clearly kidnapping from a legal standpoint, because they were innocent ladies and my relatives. He, however, would look like a huge creep in what would be “Need I say it again, Pastor? Kidnapping.”
What trivial things to care about for women whose lives revolved around flowers. When I was small, before my first summer actually spent working in a flower shop, I fully intended to continue the dynasty and be a florist. I would have a sweet little shop that didn’t take itself too seriously, just like my mom had. Just like my mom, I would work alone, but I would complete impressively huge projects. I would build wedding chuppahs, starting out by connecting the hardware on my own, then growing various vine plants up the braided wood. I would be a whimsical enigma, seen in a sundress at the flower market, in paint-splattered shorteralls at the Home Depot. I would always smell like lavender oil and my hair would be long and wavy. I would be making six figures by my twentieth birthday.
Instead, I was now nineteen with absolutely no idea what direction I should be taking. Panicked on what to major in, I chose agricultural engineering like my dad. My advisor reminded me that I didn’t have to declare a major yet, but if I was considering this one, I should go ahead and get the math out of the way. My first year of college I, someone who had never been remotely good at math, took three math classes and a lab that was all about dirt. Soil, to be more scientific, but what I was looking at was dirt. Aunt Rose, who had a very useful and not-at-all-silly horticulture degree, told me I could still fall back on flowers if I graduated with an Ag degree.
My dad had gotten really sick right before exam season, when all my big papers and projects were due. I went from a 4.0 in the fall to failing every single class in the spring. I was on academic probation and all the merit scholar programs who were so pleased to assist me financially weren’t returning my calls. I was tired all the time and usually smelled like instant ramen. My hair was barely shoulder length and dark, dull, pin-straight but still kind of suffering from an expired perm at the lowest two inches.
My aunts had always compared Holly and me, but I couldn’t really blame them. I mean, look at where we were. Holly was blond, sweet, pregnant and glowing. She didn’t know if she was finishing school but either way she was succeeding. She was a Georgia Peach. Plump red cheeks, an accent as thick as USA-manufactured corn syrup, and a love for Jesus Christ. Named after the flower people sometimes use to celebrate the big man’s birthday.
“You’re late,” my mom said, sitting on her front porch sipping a peach Nehi.
I wanted to explain to her that, yeah, it was nearly 8 p.m., but my teenage monkey brain told time by the sun and the longer summer days made 8 p.m. the new 5 p.m., but instead, I just apologized.
I walked inside to find a dismembered watermelon on the kitchen table. Butterbean, my orange tabby cat, was sitting among the fruit’s innards, licking his chops. The cardiovascular system of AC flooded the room with the lifeblood of summer, the antidote of the dry heat.
Home. Home. Home, home, home. I had gotten drowsy the second I had walked into Mamaw Daisy’s flat-roofed brick house earlier that day, but this was on a whole other level. Not only did my body immediately relax, but my brain was finally able to close up shop for the first time in weeks.
I went back out on the front porch to enjoy the fact that the sun had still refused to set. Butterbean jumped up onto Mom’s lap and she adjusted them both in the white plastic lawn chair.
“How you doin’, sugar?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t say the words out loud yet. I was about to experience my first summer without my dad. He wouldn’t be setting my summer curfew, which had consistently been pushed thirty minutes later every year, leaving it at a projected 1 a.m. this summer. He wouldn’t push me to spend quality time with my annoying aunts because “you never know when you’ll lose someone.” He wouldn’t be spending his evenings on his porch, clumsily picking at a banjo in yet another effort to replace his identity of City Jew with Good Ol’ Country Boy. He wouldn’t be winking at Mamaw Berta from across the room as he helped himself to another serving of her green beans, knowing the bacon fat they were boiled in makes them treif. He wouldn’t be around to remember in the grocery store checkout line that he forgot something, leaving me alone, with no money, to count down the seconds before the cashier is to give me the total, returning at the last possible second with his forgotten item, grinning and saying, “Thought I’d abandon you? I had my chance to drop you off at the fire station, I’m stuck with you now.”
My father was dead after an excruciating, yellow-stained battle with cancer, and now I was the only Jewish person in Sugarberry, Georgia. I felt like I had swallowed an armful of peaches whole, let them slide down my insides, their pits black holes, jerking my whole being inward. But I didn’t know how to say any of this.
Mom didn’t ask me again. Instead we sat in silence, watching the sky hemorrhage purple and the late flowers bloom.
Best Friend // Hallie Fleischmann
Apollo watched the snow fall through the dark sky — the flakes grew larger with every passing moment, and the fluffiness of the fields appeared comfortable and warm. The stillness of the frozen landscape put him at ease, and his eyes glazed over the white terrain. As the mounds outside grew, silence consumed him, and he observed the ice — time froze, if only for an instant. But the world continued to freeze, and the fall grew heavier and faster, and he was drowning again.
His thoughts snapped away from the weather and came back to reality. Apollo glanced around his gray room. The floor was cold — it always was — and the few blankets he had couldn’t stop the freezing temperatures the night air brought. Countless sleepless nights he spent lying awake proved it. He assumed it was colder inside than it was out in the snow; whether it was true or not, he felt no warmer. With a sigh, he pulled his body upward. Apollo’s joints throbbed from the hard ground. A low murmur came from the halls surrounding his room, and he presumed the morning had come, however early it was. The others were awake now too. Staring at the walls that separated his bed from the others, he wondered if they felt the way he did: alone. He would never truly know. He began stretching out the rough kinks that riddled his bones, and as he pulled his muscles, his body shook. Apollo yawned and scratched his ear impatiently.
As the hours passed and the sun rose in the sky, he grew bored. Breakfast should have been here by now, he thought. As he paced back and forth along the walls of his cell, the rumbling of others grew louder. They were too loud, too hopeful. Footsteps finally emerged down the hallway, and as his stomach rumbled, he grew more optimistic. He sat back down on the small bed in his room and waited for the attendee to throw his meal to him. The door flew open, the woman left as quickly as she had come, and a tray now sat at the door of his room. Apollo ignored the food and walked through an opening that led to the narrow, cramped patio that gave him access to the outside. The snow glistened in the sun, and while its rays slowly made the frozen wonderland around him melt, everything still felt exquisite. Taking a seat in the cool sunlight, he realized he had left water sitting out from the day before. It had frozen overnight, but the sun began to melt it. He drank the water — the cool liquid chilled his throat, but it tasted stale.
Looking up from his water, Apollo noticed one of his neighbors staring at him through the glass surrounding their units. As their tired eyes met, he noticed her eyes. She was tired and gray, and he could see how her frail body shook with the cold air. A bashful feeling washed over him, and he quickly backed away, back into his room. Others had been there longer than him, he thought. She had been there longer, and yet he felt sorry for himself. Guilt formed in his stomach, and he trotted back to the doorway of his room. Looking down to the bowls of food left for him, Apollo sighed. It was always the same. Every day was the same: cold, quiet, and lonely. Even in the warmer months, the floors felt sickly and raw. Day in and day out, the never-ending routine he found himself stuck in felt ceaseless, but waking and eating and sleeping the same way wasn’t what made him feel hopeless. People would come, each day, and they would stare, and they would smile. But then they would leave, and he would be alone again.
Putting up with the façade of happiness eventually grew tiresome, and his excitement for meeting new faces eventually grew to be nonexistent. Despite his cynicism, Apollo ate the bland food the woman who worked in the building brought him. The attendants were kind, he thought, and they would smile at him every time they brought him his meals or fresh water. But when they weren’t around, he ate, he slept, he sat there for the bystanders to stare at him, and he slept more. He loved when the attendants would enter the room during his naps and leave him something extra: sweets, or toys, or goodies of some kind. One worker especially took a liking to him. She had brown eyes like he did, a kind smile, and she always brought him ice cubes. Looking away from the food, he turned back to the doorway of his room. There was nothing.
Apollo dreaded the darkness as the night grew closer. His bones shivered as he saw the colors in the sky begin to change. He wondered if the others thought it was beautiful. Seldom were there things he found beautiful. But the snow was, and he often thought of it as he was confined to his cell. He missed its puffy warmth and comfort. In the hall, the others would grow louder as each moment ticked away on the hanging clock on the wall. They’d howl when people passed by, excitement filling their veins. Apollo remained quiet in the corner.
As the sun set, he knew the building would close like it did every night. Judging from the light that pierced his eyes through the small opening he had, Apollo assumed there was maybe an hour of light left before he had to prepare for seclusion yet again. As he went to lie in the corner, his grayed neighbor was escorted from her cell — she walked past his room with an attendant and a tall man, but her beady eyes focused on him and the others as she tripped along by them. Her frail legs struggled to keep up with their long strides, and in a blink, she had already disappeared again. Although he felt doubtful of the stranger, Apollo was happy for her. He didn’t know her well, but she was old and deserved a way out — he hoped the man would give it to her.
Time ticked on, and Apollo began to prepare for bed; when he was as comfortable as he possibly could be, he squeezed his eyes shut. But when the voices he tried to ignore grew louder, he opened them again. With a grunt, he laid there, watching people pass by. The racket they made annoyed him, but their ignorance of his existence almost annoyed him more. He sighed as his neighbors’ excitement grew — they generally weren’t lucky at this time of day. When he returned his attention to the hall, there was a woman there. Her big eyes studied him, but he did not move. A smile appeared on her face, and her glittered blue eyes made him curious.
“Honey, come look at him,” she said.
Nobody seemed to answer her, and she disappeared as quickly as she had sat in front of his cage. His heart almost sank, but she suddenly reappeared with a man. His smiling face crouched down to look into his eyes.
“Hey, buddy,” he said.
Apollo surveyed him as his body shook.
“Look how sad he looks,” the woman said. She was right. He was sad.
The woman knelt down and stuck her fingers between the chain links. His ears perked up, but he remained still. She looked disappointed, but then noticed the hanging bucket attached to the door of his room. He knew they kept the treats there. The woman took one in her fingers and poked it through the grating. Apollo didn’t like the treats the attendees left out for visitors to give them, but he couldn’t help but inch closer to her. His tail wagged, and his nose bumped the fence to take the treat. He wouldn’t take more than one, but the woman’s happy face excited him.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s it.”
The man beside her smiled. He was quiet, “I’ll be back.”
As he walked away, Apollo and the woman were left staring at each other. He wasn’t sure about her, but she seemed kind. Her eyes melted into him as he looked back at her. He wondered why she was there with him.
“You want to play?” she said.
He did, although he didn’t know why. But he wanted to tell her.
“You’re such a cutie, huh?”
Maybe, he thought. Then he had an idea — exiting through the back part of his room, he searched for something, anything to show her his excitement.
“So, Apollo, huh?” one of the attendees said as he returned with the man. “He’s sweet… he’s been here a while.”
Apollo reentered the open crate with a large, red bone in his mouth. His tail wagged as he brought it to the woman to show her. After he saw her eyes widen, he turned to show the man as well — he was sure it would impress them. They all laughed and smiled, cooing at him and talking in kind voices. He was pleased. The woman’s eyes almost seemed to fill with tears, but the massive grin on her face told him otherwise.
“You want to play with him, I take it?” the attendee said.
The two of them nodded, and the attendant began searching for a leash to hook him to, his curly hair flopping as he walked away. Apollo’s chest buzzed with excitement, and his body shook. It had been a while since he left his room, but he had no sympathy for the gray, piercing floors. While they waited for the attendee to return, the man and woman turned back to him.
“He already looks less sad,” she said.
She was right. Her kind eyes pierced him, and his excitement showed through his tail. He couldn’t help himself.
“Well,” the man said. “It’s nice to meet you, Apollo.” He had dark hair, like Apollo’s, and the same comforting eyes the woman had.
Apollo wagged his tail, and the two of them turned away. But he could not hear their mumbling. Curious, he hopped up against the chain-link of his cage in hopes they would listen to him. A moment passed, and they turned back to him. The woman gasped and cooed, while the man laughed at her. He felt accomplished, and he liked the woman — the odd sounds she made when she spoke to him amused him, and he wanted to know more.
Finally, the worker returned with a dusty green leash in hand and a grin on his small face. Apollo’s heart seized — he couldn’t remember the last time he played with anyone other than the kennel workers, and he couldn’t remember the last time he went into the white room where he played with strangers. He tried not to shake, but the woman’s smile proved to him that he was failing.
“Let’s get you hooked up, boy,” the curly-haired boy said to Apollo. His tail-wagging grew faster and harder with every passing moment, but he refused to make a sound. It seemed to surprise the man and the woman.
“He’s not much of a barker,” the attendant said, securing the green around his neck.
He was right, Apollo thought. He generally preferred to stay quiet. The walk to the playroom felt endless. As they finally came to the entrance, the curly-haired boy unlocked the clear doors to let them in. The room was narrow, with faded white walls and glass windows and doors. Toys were scattered across every inch of the floor, and he liked them the most — they were better than the toys from his kennel. As the worker shut the door and locked it behind them, he came to unhook the leash. He soared around the room the moment the clip was removed and ran as fast as his legs could take him, slipping and tripping around the men and woman as they laughed and cheered. Apollo’s excitement distracted him so much that he almost hit the walls of the room because he was running so hard. But the woman’s laughs made his mistakes appealing, and his elation took over.
When he finally grew tired, the woman got on her knees and held a tattered tug rope out to him; it was one of the toys that he wasn’t allowed to have in his room. He darted at the rope, snatching it up in his mouth and battling for the toy. Apollo was stronger, and he knew it, so he pulled less in hopes that she would enjoy their game too. She laughed and giggled as he dragged her around the room. Eventually, he did pull it from her though, and ran in circles to celebrate. When he turned back to them, tail-wagging, their red faces cackled so hard that they seemed unable to breathe. It concerned him, but then the woman picked up a ball and threw it for him. He zoomed after it, and their game continued through many cycles of throwing and catching — and he didn’t particularly enjoy bringing the ball back, but that seemed to make them smile as well.
“Look how much he likes this one!” the woman said.
He did love that ball.
As they continued playing and running around the room, the man stepped out with the curly-haired boy, and they began speaking outside of the closed door. Apollo spit the ball out immediately, looking at their silent, moving lips. He wondered what they were saying and where they were going. They stopped at the front desk outside of the door, and the woman eventually stopped playing with him for a moment to watch them. She stared at them, unblinking, and her face made him uneasy. Apollo jumped to place his paws on the bar of the door to see their faces and came to her height when he stood up. The woman turned to smile at him, but Apollo still watched the man.
“He’ll be right back,” she said. Her voice soothed him, but barely.
He jumped back down and plopped his body on the floor. The man returned quickly, but only to get the woman’s attention.
“Emilia…” he said, and the two of them left Apollo alone in the room.
He wished he could hear them and figure out what was happening. But their concerned faces told him what he assumed: he’d be alone again. Apollo thought back to the snow, and how he once thought it was so warm — but these people, the strangers, were warm and kind. And they were leaving him like everyone else. Thinking back to his lonely cage, the floors of the white room felt cold. His body shuddered. They wouldn’t come back — they didn’t want him. Apollo assumed they felt sorry for him and sat his head against the cool, tiled floor. The man and the woman, Emilia, he called her, were searching through their pockets and bags. They were pulling out different colored cards and papers and plastics to show the curly-haired boy and another attendant. He had never seen things like that before, but wondered what they were doing.
Emilia looked nervous — her face made Apollo anxious — he wanted to make her smile return. With a sad face, she turned back to the doors and started walking back to the room. It excited him, but her face negated that. She quickly slipped in the room, sitting down with her back to the door. Apollo tiptoed up to her, being careful to not get too close. With a grunt he laid down by her, looking up to her scrunched brows.
“What is it?” she asked. Her eyes studied him.
Apollo didn’t know how to answer, so he just sighed.
“You want the ball?” She tossed the blue wired ball for him.
But he didn’t want it. Eventually, she stopped asking him questions and moved closer. Her delicate fingers scratched his ears while she continued to look through the glass at the man. He liked her — both of them. But he wanted to show her. She came back for a reason, he thought — maybe it was his last chance. Turning, Emilia kneeled in front of him. She placed her small hands under his chin and began speaking to him again.
“You’re a good boy, huh? Don’t look so sad.”
His tail thumped against the icy ground, softly.
She sighed, “I like you a lot. Do you like me?”
Apollo examined her long hair as it tumbled over her gentle features. It covered her eyes, but only briefly, as she swiped it away and tucked it behind her ear. Her blue eyes glowed in the dim playroom, but they pierced him in a way that made him wish he could somehow speak to her. Emilia, he thought. He never wanted her to leave. He stared back at her, hoping she could understand.
“I wish I knew what you were thinking.”
Apollo sighed — he wished she knew too. He tried to think of anything he could do to prove himself to her. Then, the idea twinkled in her eyes. He sat up and touched his nose to hers. He stared, and then licked the tip of her nose, ever so gently. Apollo hoped it would work. Then her gaze lit up, and her smile grew. The woman wrapped her arms around him, and he filled with ecstasy. He wanted to stay there, with her, forever.
“Yeah, you’re such a good boy.”
Maybe he was. But he hoped it was enough. The man was still conversing with the workers at the desk, and Emilia was looking out at him. Her face gave nothing away, and he didn’t know what to think. He grew content with her, but bored, wondering why the man hadn’t come back yet. He wasn’t sure if he would, but Apollo wanted to play with him too. The more time that passed, the more hopeless he felt. He and Emilia sat there silently, watching the man’s every move — he flipped through papers and slid them to the attendants, and his mouth moved quickly as he spoke to them. Apollo had to know what they were saying. He jumped up and ran to the door, hopping up so his paws were on the bar once again. As he caught the woman’s attention, he barked as loud as he could. The sound even startled him, but soon the workers and the man were smiling and pointing at him through the glass.
Emilia came over, laughing, as she went to scratch his head, but Apollo turned to her, losing his footing from the door’s bar, and taking her down with him. Worried he’d hurt her, he walked over top of her — but when she began giggling, he licked her face and wagged his tail.
Better, he thought.
As she recomposed herself, her face turned red as she looked to the door. Apollo’s heart sank, as he turned to see the man standing there with a vacant gaze. He looked back to her, and she slowly stood — the man let out the smallest smile and nodded. Apollo looked back to her and her red face, and she scratched his head.
“Guess who’s coming home with us?” she said to him.
He jumped up. They looked happy — but he didn’t understand. The curly-haired boy from before had returned with the leash, and he entered the room with a smile on his face. He patted Apollo’s head and scratched his ear, then he clipped the leash to his worn collar, and handed it to Emilia.
“Congratulations,” the boy said with bright eyes.
The man and woman kept asking the worker different questions: what he ate, and what his favorite treats and toys were. But Apollo was confused. It felt too good to be true. The woman had his leash. She looked down at him and smiled, ruffling his ears. His heart raced.
“Looks like you’re coming home with us, buddy,” the man said to him, crouching to his knees to envelope him into a hug. Apollo’s gaze met the man’s, to see if he had lied to him. But the man smiled. It was true. He was leaving the kennel, with its blank walls and cold floors. His mind went into a frenzy, his eyes shooting between the two of them. Apollo exploded and tackled Emilia, blanketing her in slobbery kisses. Her laughter thrilled him as she wrapped her arms around him.
“Y-you’re such a good boy,” she said.
He was, and he felt like he finally knew it.
The man smiled, taking the leash from the woman. As they stood, Apollo sat happily, waiting for them to move. They smiled down at him. Good, he thought. He wanted to impress them. The three of them walked out of the room with the attendant, who seemed as happy as Apollo was. Walking around the other workers, they all clapped. The brown-eyed woman was there, standing teary-eyed. His ears perked up at her. She looked happy. Everyone cheered as he sat with them, waiting for Emilia and the man. He didn’t know the man’s name, but he knew he loved them both. The workers surrounded them.
“Please, can we get a picture before you go?” the brown-eyed woman said.
The man and the woman gripped his leash and nodded. Apollo was unsure of what they were doing, and when they tried to sit still, he wanted to run. There was a flash, and he looked back at them all, confused.
“It’s blurry,” the curly-haired boy said. He laughed.
Emilia smiled. “It’s perfect.”
They looked down to him with happy faces, and his eyes met theirs. He wondered if they were leaving. The woman seemed to understand, somehow, and she nodded. Apollo took off down the hall. The workers ran after them, calling their goodbyes through tear-filled eyes. He pulled the man around excitedly as they began to exit the building. He had never been that close to the front doors. They were big and opaque, and he couldn’t see outside.
“Let’s go home boy,” Emilia sighed, rubbing his ear.
Apollo breathed as they moved closer. He thought back to the snow, wondering if it had melted. The once warm tufts of ice now felt foreign to him just as the cold, gray floors of the cage began to fade away. He no longer felt alone. The doors opened to the outside — the snow had melted. The sun’s bright light blinded him, and Apollo’s eyes squeezed shut. Excited and vulnerable to the unknown, he reopened them.
An Exchange by the Lake // Nathaniel Patterson
We sit on one of the park benches at the Greensboro Country Park, facing the lake. A bunch of kids are riding paddle boats.
“How have you been?” I ask. “I mean, it’s been a while.”
Dave looks out at the lake. He doesn’t make eye contact.
“I’ve been fine.”
“Well, what have you been up to?”
“You know, just working. Nothing else, really.”
I try to get a better look at his face, but he won’t look my way.
“You still trying to write that romance novel?” I ask. “I remember that was taking up a good bit of time.”
He shakes his head.
“No. No, I’m not doing that anymore. It kinda died. Wasn’t worth fixing.”
“Well, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah.” He nods. “Big shame.”
“Speaking of,” he says, “how’s Mike?”
I look down. “Oh, you know. He’s good. Just got a promotion, so he’s excited about that.”
Dave nods. “Good, good. Good for Mike.”
We sit in silence for a bit, listening to the crying baby at the picnic table and the kids yelling at each other from separate boats. Dave smiles as he watches the kids laughing on the lake.
“So, what brings you here?” I ask.
He nods to the kids in the paddle boats. “Youth. I’m here with the youth from church, me and a couple other adults.”
“So, you found a church?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did. How’s First Baptist going?”
“Good, good. You know, same old, same old.”
“Pastor Rick still there?”
“Umm, yeah. Yeah, he’s still there.”
“And the Douglases?”
“Yeah, and the Douglases. They’re still there.”
“How’s Ben doing?”
“He’s doing alright. He’s growing up pretty fast. Mrs. Douglas says he’s got a girlfriend, but he’s too embarrassed to admit it.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
I look away to the lake. Dave’s jaw tightens.
“They ever mention me?” he asks.
“Yeah. Once in a while.”
He sighs. “It’s okay if they don’t. You don’t have to lie.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Yes, you are.” He drops his head. “I can tell. I can still tell.”
We sit in silence for a while, unmoving, except when Dave raises his hand in a wave to one of the boys out on the lake. He lowers his hand as the boy looks away and the momentary smile falls from his face.
“You meet anyone yet?” I ask.
He smirks, “No.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I mean, maybe not, if you’re not looking.”
He shakes his head, “I’m not looking.”
I lower my head. I won’t ask why. I already know. I look at my hand. Naked. So is his. The kids on the lake start to come in and get settled back on the dock.
“I’ve gotta go,” he says.
I nod. “Okay.”
He stands and begins walking toward the dock.
“Nice seeing you, Cherryl.”
I look to the lake.
Life Behind a Fence // Remington Relick
He’s born a month after the Infection begins. The town is still throwing up barbed-wire fences, cleaning their guns, canning their produce and waiting for news. Holding their breath. The hospital is still clean, and there are real doctors there. They weigh him and ink his hands and feet, and his mom takes the certificate out to look at sometimes.
“You had a future,” she tells him often, through tears. “A really good one.” Ben is hesitant about the future, but the present that folds out into it is alright enough. He can run around wherever he wants if he’s inside the fence and home before dark. He makes up games with Lucas and Christian to play in the weeded-out baseball field. “Smash the Rotter” and “Save the Settlement.” They dig through the sticks and grass underneath the bleachers for old bottle caps and coins, then take them to the adults so they can melt them down and make them useful. If they find a lot, sometimes they’re rewarded with a couple of hard candies, or a story from beyond the fence.
The summers are hot and burning, and he spends more time inside, the windows open even when there’s no breeze, helping his mom cut up old sheets and sew them into clothes. Sewing is boring, but the heat saps the energy out of every inch of him until the only thing he can focus on is the in and out, in and out of the needle. She talks about the little sister he would’ve had one day, if the world wasn’t what it was. He’s learned how to stop listening, staring out the window at the deep blue sky.
She writes out times tables and makes him copy pages out of the family Bible until the paper is worn sad and thin from erasing and rewriting, over and over. He learns seven by five and six by three and how to make his handwriting march neat and orderly across the page. His mom cries when he asks her what any of it matters. The lessons he gets from his dad about how to spark fires, repair fences, or load bullets into a gun are what he’s actually going to use one day. But that only upsets her more, so he tries to get through her lessons as quick as possible, tries to remember them for next time.
It’s winter when he finds the hole in the fence. He’d eaten canned peaches for breakfast with a metallic glass of water. He hadn’t wanted to think about the empty sloshing in his stomach anymore, so he’d grabbed his jacket and slipped away while his parents were out bartering for firewood. The wind bites at his nose and through the fabric stretched thin over his elbows.
There’s not much left of the zombie, anymore. Half its head is blasted away, and it gurgles pitifully as it tries to drag itself through the fence. The smell of blood and carrion are thick in the winter air. He’s never seen one this close before. In the stories they’re as fast as humans, with blood dripped around their mouths. This one looks like nothing but a pile of bones and meat.
His mom finds him still staring down at it, a foot away from its twisted, grabbing hands. Its single glassy eye keeps landing on him before sliding away to stare at nothing. His mom drags him away by the arm, screaming at him about how one day he’s going to get himself killed.
Autumnal Innocence // Molly Thomas
This was the land of the fairies, and I wanted to be their friend.
My family and I meandered through the golden woods with crisp leaves crunching under our feet. I drank the dry air in deep breaths, refreshed. My small figure moved in overtime to keep up with my mom and dad’s long strides.
I knew that they would never reveal themselves to me in their magical form, but they might grace me with their eyes from hiding places as I walked by. I scrutinized stones stacked in such a way that looked like a rough lean-to, possibly built to serve as a home or small church. It definitely couldn’t be their hospital or school, it wasn’t large enough. My parents and I would pass streams trickling out of the mossy hillside soil and my eager eyes would scan for the unsuspecting swimmer. After all, fairies’ wings were coated in sparkles that protected them from water, that’s what made them such great swimmers.
As we puttered along the trail, I made sure to tell my parents to keep their eyes out for fairies. They were small and clever, but with three of us looking for them, we were bound to find at least one.
After rambling and exclaiming about fairy-finds and enchantment, my dad turned around and crouched down around a sharp bend. Once we caught up to him, he lifted his hand parallel to the earth, pushing the air downward, and I became quiet. He whispered.
“Maybe if we make an offering, they’ll show us they exist. They’ll come out and take what we leave for them as long as we’re not looking and then…” he trailed off, lifted his eyebrows.
“We’ll know that they’re real!” I interjected.
My dad smirked, “Exactly.”
My mom crouched down so that all of our voices were concealed in the same air. “What would they want though, honey? You know more about fairies than us.”
I felt mischievous at the prospect of tricking a fairy into revealing its existence, tiny creatures bent on hiding from humans.
“A penny or nickel!” I declared. “They can use the metal to make chairs for their school.” This was a fact.
My dad proceeded to pull out spare change from his pocket and set it on a rock.
“We’ll all go around the bend and close our eyes so they know we can’t see them. Maybe they’ll come out and take it. If there’s no money when we get back, we’ll know they’re real.” We all fist-bumped and I ran back around the bend, heart racing. I clutched my mom’s hand in my own, crossing the fingers of the other. I stopped and closed my eyes. I waited with pricked ears for the buzz of minute wings, and each second without their sound passed by slower until I had felt that I had stood there for an eternity. Finally, I heard my mom’s voice.
“I guess it’s time to check.” She looked at me with anticipation in her eyes and I knew she wanted them to be real too.
We turned the bend and the cool air became stiff between the rock and me. As my vision of a naked rock became clearer, I broke into a sprint toward it. The coins were gone. I shouted, swinging my arms in circles in front of me in a dance, and my parents laughed and joined me in the middle of the trail.
“They’re real!” I yelled in triumph.
I watched for dazzling wings riding the falling leaves for the rest of the hike.