Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 3)

Book Review: Family of Origin

By Amy Reardon

Leave it to the generation that enjoyed a privilege and abundance fueled by post-WWII government subsidies to close the door behind them, handing their children an earth destroyed by greed, a democracy gone off the rails, and crushing student debt. Leave it then to a mind like CJ Hauser’s to capture what happens next: how the children abandoned in a dry well must set to work building for themselves a stairway of hope before they can climb out and face the serious work of healing the planet.

In her new novel, Family of Origin, Hauser takes to extremes the idea that the youth of today will never have it as good as their parents. The novel’s world is a fictional island off the Gulf Coast inhabited by the Reversalists, an isolated colony of scientists studying a rare species of duck they hope will prove a renegade theory: that evolution has reversed and is now going backwards. The book’s inciting incident, the death of their never-satisfied father, brings estranged half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey to their father’s abandoned hut on Leap’s Island, where they soon become embroiled in the book’s central quest: “They were thirty-five and twenty-nine years old, too old for this. Elsa’s life was a litany of troubles caused by the various absences of Ian Grey. Why should death be any different?”

If the secret to an emotionally satisfying novelistic journey lies in the gap between what the characters need and what they want, then Hauser does not disappoint. What Elsa and Nolan (who refer to themselves as “the children” even though they are grown) need is evidence their father loved them. They arrive seeking closure from a troubled childhood and proof they were good enough for their father’s PhD-sized standards. But as the children search his belongings for clues to why their brilliant father abandoned civilization—and with it his own children—they are surprised to discover the one living thing that sparked his joy. His field notes reveal an unexpected hopeful side, one that Elsa and Nolan craved as children. And so they must set off to find what they now want: to see for themselves what’s so special about one particular bird their father called the Paradise Duck.

In order to free themselves from the emotional bonds of their parents’ expectations and also solve the science, the children must face the truth. “Everything out there doesn’t get any less bad just because you don’t have to see it,” Elsa says. Family of Origin is a coming-of-age story, packed with revelations like Nolan’s— “maybe there were no adults in charge of anything. Maybe it was just children above children, all the way up the chain” —but modernized, with a sexy side of science.

With Family of Origin, Hauser joins a new era of writers like Mira Jacob and Carmen Maria Machado, who have neither the time nor the patience for old school beating around the emotional or physical bush. Hauser’s characters are here to give it to you straight, even when it hurts. The pain is at its glorious, titillating worst when Hauser finally gets to revealing the secret that broke the family and that Elsa and Nolan spend the first half of the book avoiding. But Hauser knows her audience and when life gets tough, a comfort animal is always nearby for a cuddle. The undowny bufflehead ducks, the subjects of the Reversalist research, are cute, fluffy, and tame. Especially endearing are Elsa’s words of encouragement to Jinx, a German Shepherd who hesitates from fear. “You are a ferocious wolf,” she reminds the dog, words one imagines Elsa would like to hear from her parents.

Using no quotation marks and no single point of view, Hauser moves deftly from the thoughts of Elsa and Nolan to the background stories of each Reversalist scientist. One of the scientists, in fact, will be familiar to those who read “The Crane Wife,” this summer in The Paris Review, Hauser’s smash hit personal essay about calling off her wedding, studying birds in the wild, and why there is nothing more humiliating than her own desires.

In Family of Origin, Hauser argues there is still room on our desperate earth for the future, still reason for the children to hope: “Nolan laughed. He sat down on the porch, knees crooked, and held his own head in his hands and laughed.” By the novel’s resolution, Hauser satisfies by bridging that emotional gap between what Elsa and Nolan want and what they need. The end feels inevitable, yet new and different.

In capturing the pressures on and the promise of the Millennial generation, Family of Origin asks whether perhaps, despite the bad news and bluster, humanity is still evolving after all. Even carrying the baggage of their parents’ unmet expectations, the Millennial generation represents the largest voting block alive today. In my view, the sooner they step into their power, the better.


Amy Reardon is an editor at The Coachella Review. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal and Glamour. She is at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @ReardonAmy.

 

Book Review: Your House Will Pay

By Collin Mitchell

Ripples from the past resurface in Steph Cha’s new novel, Your House Will Pay.

At the time of the writing of this review, veteran journalist K. Connie Kang had recently died after writing about the Korean community for the the Los Angeles Times. Kang gave voice to the Koreatown community affected by the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Journalists like Kang are burdened with adhering to the idea of truth, while the creative writer can entreat memory and personal experience in finding a truth that fits within the framework of their own grief. It’s these personal stories, the prejudiced tales told within families, that Steph Cha explores in her new novel, Your House Will Pay. Through the frame of early ‘90s race-tinged LA and our current grapple with race politics and police brutality, Cha ably depicts greater Los Angeles as it is: a melded body of bedroom communities, sun-bleached strip malls, and liquor stores threaded together by a dozen distinct cultures and a violent history. It’s in this context that the book examines the idea of transgressing the familial stories we think define us and finding a part of ourselves that can separate from the past. As one character observes: “This is when shit gets permanent. The choices you make are gonna stick, they’re going to follow you.”

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TCR Talks with Rachel DeWoskin

By Gina Frangello

The versatile writer and former actress Rachel DeWoskin—a member of my Chicago writing group since we were set up on a “blind friendship date” by our mutual close friend Emily Rapp Black—was born in Kyoto and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After studying English and Chinese at Columbia University, DeWoskin moved to Beijing to work as a public-relations consultant and ended up all but accidentally becoming a Chinese TV star and sex symbol on the blockbuster nighttime soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing, which was watched by approximately 600 million viewers. Following this heady and surreal experience, DeWoskin returned to the United States in 1999 and returned to her first love—literature—earning a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University. Her memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, was published by W.W. Norton in 2005; Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and the project is currently in production. DeWoskin has since become the author of five novels: Big Girl Small (FSG 2011) Repeat After Me (Overlook 2009), Blind (Penguin 2014), Some Day We Will Fly (Viking 2019) and Banshee (Dottir 2019). DeWoskin, whose mannerisms are gracious and intense in equal measure, is, in addition to her writing, a devoted mother of two, married to the playwright Zayd Dohrn, a morning exerciser, a fierce friend, and the core creative writing faculty at the prestigious University of Chicago. Who better to dissect the complications and contradictions of a woman, like Banshee’s Samantha Baxter, who “has it all” than DeWoskin, who is both extraordinarily productive while leading an intimate family life?

It was my pleasure to discuss Banshee with Rachel over an email exchange conducted while we were both traveling like maniacs over the summer. Further, as a breast cancer survivor myself, the publication of Banshee feels watershed to me. Transcending facile “sick lit” portrayals of virtuous heroines and “feminist outlaw” labels that eschew serious examinations of women’s own culpability, DeWoskin presents instead a ferocious, lyrical, highly skilled tightrope walk of one woman’s simultaneous emotional disintegration and sexual awakening in the face of a dehumanizing medical industrial complex and a lifetime of seeing male colleagues “getting away” with behavior she would never have considered prior to staring her mortality in the face. What results is one of the most complex, morally ambiguous and intimate stories of body and women’s (still) societally sanctioned roles I have read in recent years. It was my great honor to read and blurb Banshee prior to its publication, and it’s even more exciting to share my conversation with Rachel DeWoskin with TCR readers.

–Gina Frangello 

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Book Review: Three Women

By Jackie Desforges

Three WomenSince the publication and instant success of her debut nonfiction book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has stated that she set out to tell a story about human desire. She spent eight years researching and writing the book, and as the years progressed, the story narrowed: she went from writing about human desire to writing about female desire. She went from writing about hundreds of women to writing about dozens, and then less than a handful, and then, finally, three. She went from denying any requests for anonymity to shielding the identities of most people featured in the final book. The resulting story feels, at first glance, too specific to be universal: three women, living in small American towns and entangled in various phases of heterosexual relationships.

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Desert Seas

by: Anca Segall

Lars’ baby blue VW bug, rusty and dented, came to a stop in the rutted parking lot at the trailhead into Dark Canyon. Covered in nearly as much dust as the car, we both tumbled out into the scrub desert, already parched in May. Fable Valley had enough flash floods to make leaving our names at the BLM box prudent, though it was still early in the season. Eager to stretch our legs, we shouldered our backpacks and started down the steep trail into the valley.

We had driven down from Logan and stopped in Provo for a Saturday fair in the city park, where Lars did a brisk business drawing portraits of fair-going kids. He’d kept them captivated with stories on a rickety stool as he rendered their character in strokes of charcoal and Conte crayon. At midday, while families lunched and the kids trickled in more slowly, Lars had me pose for him, to pass the time and entice paying customers.

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GWENDOLYN

By: Dylan Schifrin

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Alex – 25 years old, recently suffered from a devastating breakup. Wants to absorb himself in his work and avoid all human relationships, but ultimately falls for Gwendolyn.
Gwendolyn – A cactus brought to life in Alex’s mind. Very sweet and simple at first, wants to be with Alex and comfort him. Progressively becomes manipulative and cruel to Alex.
Louie – Alex’s friend, got Alex his job at Scratchopolis. Affable yet over the top at times, wants to help Alex move on from his breakup. 26 years old.
Honoria – Robotic, logical, somewhat arrogant. Dislikes human interaction, but secretly craves a level of intimacy. 30 years old.

SETTING
Alex’s office at Scratchopolis, a company that manufactures and distributes backscratchers.

TIME
The Present

SCENE 1

SETTING:Alex’s new office at Scratchopolis, a backscratcher company. There is an office chair and a desk with a phone and a computer on it. On the wall there is a poster depicting a backscratcher with the slogan “Scratchopolis: Ditch Your Itch!”

AT RISE: We hear a phone ring, and lights come up on ALEX, sitting in the office chair. He answers the phone.

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your backscratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry you’re not satisfied with the Itch eradicator It’s our top of the line model. May I ask what difficulties you’ve encountered, sir?
       (pause)
It burst into flames?
       (pause)
Look, how about I just send you a new one?
       (pause)
I’m glad we were able to work this out. Thank you for calling.
      (ALEX hangs up and looks around nervously before quickly picking up the phone again and dialing a number. He waits a bit and then begins nervously leaving a message)
Hi, Katie? Hi. I guess you’re not home now. I know we aren’t supposed to, you know, talk. But just ‘cause we broke up, there’s nothing wrong with checking in, right?
      (he gets a call on the other line)
Gotta go!
      (he switches to the other line)
Thank you for calling Scratchopolis. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry to hear you lost your backscratcher, ma’am.
       (pause)
No, I don’t know where it is.
       (pause)
Ma’am, please, calm down. Watch your language–oh, you found it. Ok. You’re welcome. Bye.
       (he hangs up, then quickly redials Katie’s number)
Hi Katie. I forgot to say…this is Alex. So, uh, anyway, call me back, if you want.
       (he hangs up, but immediately redials Katie’s number)
It’s me again. You’re probably wondering how I’m doing. I’m doing great. I bought an ottoman.
       (pause, ALEX picks up a little object shaped like a hand from his desk and begins to manipulate it)
Anyway, I’ll see you soon. Wait, I guess I won’t. But I’ll talk to you, maybe. You know, probably. So…bye. I guess. I mean…it’s Alex.

       (ALEX hangs up)

       (HONORIA enters stage right)

ALEX: Hello?

HONORIA: You’re new here.

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t care for change, Alex.

ALEX: Oh, you know my name.

HONORIA: Your deductive skills are commendable. Now let us proceed to the topic at hand. I wish to present you with a proposal.

ALEX: (uncomfortable, lamely) A proposal? You’ll have to buy me dinner first…(he laughs nervously, HONORIA stares at him expressionless)
You were saying?

HONORIA: Every workday at precisely 10:14 I depart from my office for a brief 3.75 minute break where I consume five-eighths of a banana and some nonfat ice milk. The shortest route to the kitchen from my workspace is through this office. I feel you must know this lest you become startled by my daily commute.

ALEX: So, you’re going to come through my office every day?

HONORIA: I’m afraid you have no choice, Alex. Cutting through your office shaves roughly ten steps off my commute both ways. Assuming one step takes approximately 0.5 seconds, that’s five seconds saved per day, translating to 1300 seconds, or 21.7 minutes, saved per year. Now, to the second topic at hand.

ALEX: There’s a second topic?

HONORIA: Mr. Delafontaine has requested I improve my relations with my coworkers. He feels I am unable to connect to others on a personal level and am inept at understanding various social cues.

ALEX: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I had a cousin who-

HONORIA: (abruptly cutting him off) During every morning trip to my break I shall say, “Good morning, Alex,” and you shall respond, “Good morning, Honoria.” Upon my return trip through your office, I shall bring up a common topic of conversation. We shall discuss it briefly, and then I shall exit. Is this clear to you?

ALEX: Sort of.

HONORIA: My break is starting. Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Enjoy your break.
(HONORIA stares at him)
Is something wrong?

HONORIA: (annoyed) I must insist you stick to the prearranged agreement. Say “Good morning, Honoria.”

ALEX: Oh, right. “Good morning, Honoria.”

(HONORIA stares at him for a bit, then exits stage left)

(ALEX continues to look at the magnet, when suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Hey, Alex! Welcome to Scratchopolis, buddy!

ALEX: (startled) Oh! Hey Louie.

LOUIE: What’s wrong?

ALEX: I just met someone named Honoria.

LOUIE: We like to play a little game around the office called “If Honoria Sees You, Run Like Hell.” Remind me to teach you the rules sometime. Anyway, tell me, how’s your first day as Executive in Charge of Quality Control?

ALEX: I’m still settling in. I can’t believe I already have an executive position.

LOUIE: Yeah, we use the term “executive” pretty loosely here. Steve, the unpaid intern, is Executive in Charge of caffeine retrieval.

ALEX: Well, thanks, Louie, for recommending me for the job.

LOUIE: No problem, pal. You needed a fresh start. And nothing can give you a fresh start like the nation’s third most successful backscratcher company. Hey, I almost forgot your office-warming present!

(LOUIE runs off stage right)

ALEX: Present? Louie, you didn’t have to-

(LOUIE returns with a sad-looking cactus)

ALEX: (CONT’D) Oh. You got me a cactus.

LOUIE: Last night it hit me that I hadn’t gotten you anything for your new office! So, I wrote “buy Alex gift” on my hand so I wouldn’t forget. But it must have washed off in the shower or something, because in the morning, the only letters I could make out spelled “Blift.” “What the hell does Blift mean!?” I thought. It was the scribblings of a madman! But then, when I was cutting through the alley on the way to work, I remembered! Blift! Buy Alex gift! And–just my luck–I saw this beauty, sitting all alone in the alley next to a urine-soaked mattress. It was fate.

(LOUIE plops the cactus down on ALEX’s desk)

ALEX: Uh…thanks.

LOUIE: It’s just that you both could use a little love.

ALEX: It looks like it could use a little sun, too.

(ALEX takes the cactus and places it on the window sill)

LOUIE: (catching sight of the hand magnet) Oh, no. Alex, don’t tell me you still have this!

ALEX: (uneasy) Louie, please don’t touch that.

LOUIE: I thought you were trying to get over Katie. Keeping her gifts won’t help that!

ALEX: It’s the only thing I have left of her.

LOUIE: Whatever. But tonight, I want you to come out with me and some people from the office.

ALEX: I don’t know, I mean I have to go home and, you know, throw out some expired yogurts–

LOUIE: Come on. It’s been forever since you’ve felt any kind of joie de vivre.

ALEX: Sorry, Louie.

LOUIE: Fine. But at least promise me you’ll forget about Katie.

ALEX: I can’t promise that.
(he clutches the hand magnet)

LOUIE: Oh God, you didn’t leave her another message, did you?

(Suddenly HONORIA bursts in stage left)

HONORIA: Chinchillas are the softest rodents and have been hunted nearly to extinction. What are your thoughts on this matter?

LOUIE: (annoyed) Hello, Honoria.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE, not looking at him) Don’t try to engage me. I haven’t the time for multiple discourses.

LOUIE: Looks like it’s my lucky day.

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: (as soon as LOUIE is gone, to ALEX) Your thoughts, please.

ALEX: What?

HONORIA: Your thoughts. On the chinchilla matter. I’m trying to have a conversation, Alex. Remember our agreement.

ALEX: Well, I guess that’s pretty sad, that they’re hunted and all.

HONORIA: Goodbye.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

(ALEX types something on his laptop, then stands up and gets a cup of water from the water cooler. He drinks half of the cup and pours the rest on the cactus. ALEX then exits stage right.)

(While Alex is gone, the cactus on the windowsill transforms into GWENDOLYN, a young woman in a green dress. She sits on the windowsill, where the cactus was, with her feet in a large cactus pot. No one can see or hear her but ALEX.)

(ALEX enters stage right and sits at his desk.)

GWENDOLYN: Psst. Hey! Alex!

ALEX: …Who said that?

GWENDOLYN: I did. Over here.

(ALEX turns to GWENDOLYN and looks at her in disbelief)

GWENDOLYN: (CONT’D) Hi there.

ALEX: (after a pause, calmly) Oh, look. The cactus is talking to me. Hm, either I’m dreaming, or this is what a mental breakdown looks like.

GWENDOLYN: You’re not having a breakdown.

ALEX: Oh, ok. I’m dreaming, then.

GWENDOLYN: No, you’re not dreaming.

ALEX: What? How is this even possible?

GWENDOLYN: My name is Gwendolyn.

ALEX: Cactuses have names?

GWENDOLYN: It’s “cacti.”

ALEX: I thought it was “Gwendolyn.”

GWENDOLYN: No, I mean the plural of cactus.

ALEX: What’s the plural of cactus?

GWENDOLYN: Cacti.

ALEX: Oh. Definitely a mental breakdown.

(he rubs his temples)

GWENDOLYN: Sorry. I should have realized this might be confusing for you.

ALEX: You think?!

GWENDOLYN: I apologize if I scared you.

ALEX: (warily) So…have you always been able to talk?

GWENDOLYN: I’m not sure. I’ve never tried before.

ALEX: Then why am I the lucky guinea pig?

GWENDOLYN: I guess I haven’t really had anyone to talk to before. People tend to keep their distance from you when you’re a cactus. It’s all the spines, probably.(pause)
I liked it when you watered me. It made me feel good.

ALEX: Well, uh…you’re welcome. You looked a little thirsty.

GWENDOLYN: I was.
(then)
Can I trust you?

ALEX: What, you mean not tell anyone what a talking cactus says? It’s a pretty safe bet I’m gonna keep this to myself.

GWENDOLYN: Thanks. No one’s cared for me before. That’s what you’re doing, right? Taking care of me?

ALEX: I guess. It’s no big deal.

GWENDOLYN: Well, that’s a start.

ALEX: Start to what?

GWENDOLYN: Our relationship.

ALEX: What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you want to be friends?

ALEX: Uh…sure?

GWENDOLYN: (smiling) Thanks. I’ve never had a friend before.
(beat)
I’m sorry about Katie.

ALEX: (defensive) How do you know about Katie?

GWENDOLYN: I heard you and Louie talking. I’m sorry she broke your heart. Do you want to talk about it?

ALEX: No. Especially not to a plant.

GWENDOLYN: Alex, we’re friends now, remember? You can trust me too. What happened?

ALEX: (stares at GWENDOLYN for a moment, then gives in:) What the hell. Katie and I had been dating for a year, and everything was going great. Then, one day while we were playing miniature golf, she turned to me and said that I just wasn’t enough for her anymore. Who does that during miniature golf?!

GWENDOLYN: I’m sorry, Alex. I’d hug you, but, you know, spines.

ALEX: I gave her everything. I was kind, I listened to her, I made her soup when she was sick, I drove her to the DMV, I drove her mother to the DMV, and when her cat ran away, who do you think scoured the neighborhood all night in the rain, only to come back and find Peaches asleep on her face? I did everything I could to make her happy. And it still wasn’t enough.

(he picks up the ceramic hand magnet)

Before it happened, she made me this little ceramic hand. She made one for herself too, and she put magnets in them, so that when they were finished, we could stick them together. Our two hands, forever touching.

GWENDOLYN: (moved) That’s so sweet.

ALEX: We worked together, but being around her was too painful, so I had to quit my job. Luckily, Louie was able to set me up here.
(then)
Wow, it’s getting late. I better get home.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Really? Oh. Well, I’ll be here, I guess.

ALEX: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…thanks for listening.

(ALEX starts to exit)

GWENDOLYN: I like listening to you. Oh, and Alex–
(ALEX turns back and looks at her)
–thank you for the water.
(ALEX exits)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 2

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX enters stage right, hangs up his jacket, and turns on the light. All of a sudden:

GWENDOLYN: Good morning, Alex!

ALEX: AH!

(Pause)

GWENDOLYN: I hope you didn’t forget about me.

ALEX: I tried to by taking lots of medicine.

GWENDOLYN: Remember how we talked about Katie, and how we’re friends now, and that you can trust me?

ALEX: Oh. Right. We’re friends now.

(ALEX sits at his desk and begins inspecting a backscratcher)

GWENDOLYN: You don’t want to be more than friends?

ALEX: …What?

GWENDOLYN: Well, if you don’t want to…

ALEX: Like a relationship?

GWENDOLYN: We have a relationship. But I was thinking of something more.

ALEX: You mean a romantic relationship?

GWENDOLYN: If you want.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Gwendolyn. This is really weird.

GWENDOLYN: Oh. I should’ve known.

(GWENDOLYN is sad, ALEX sees her and is moved)

ALEX: Look, I don’t know if I’m ready to be with another woman.

GWENDOLYN: I’m not a woman. I’m a cactus.

ALEX: That doesn’t make it less weird.

GWENDOLYN: All I want is to be with you so we can take care of each other.

ALEX: (pause, touched) I just can’t handle being hurt again.

GWENDOLYN: (re: her spines) I won’t hurt you. Unless you touch me.

(GWENDOLYN reaches out to ALEX, ALEX impulsively reaches out to touch her but then, seeing her spines, he grabs a backscratcher and touches her hand with it. They have a moment together)

(Suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Alex! Where were you!?

ALEX: (startled, drops his backscratcher) Here, why?

LOUIE: You missed the meeting!

ALEX: Wha-what meeting?

LOUIE: The entire company was there to hear your report, and you were a no-show!

ALEX: Oh my god! No one ever told me!

LOUIE: This is a complete disaster! Boy, is Mr. Delafontaine furious with you! And now I look like an idiot for recommending you!

ALEX: I’m so sorry! This job means everything to me! What am I gonna do?

(LOUIE starts laughing)

ALEX: Why are you laughing?!

LOUIE: Oh man, I really got you!
(he sees the look of pure terror on ALEX’s face)
Alex, I’m just kidding!

ALEX: I thought I was going to lose my job! Why would you do that to me?

LOUIE: Now breaking up with Katie doesn’t seem so bad, does it? You’re welcome!

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: (not looking at either of them) Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

LOUIE: Good morning, “Gonorrhea”.

HONORIA: You misspoke. My name is Honoria.

LOUIE: Oh, so the “G” is silent.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE): If in past encounters I have conveyed the impression that I enjoy your company, said impressions were fraudulent.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

LOUIE: Hey, I wanted to show you something.
(LOUIE rolls out a blueprint revealing a detailed drawing of a backscratcher)
I drew up blueprints for a new backscratcher model. It has a reinforced carbon fiber arm, a solar-powered scratching mechanism, and, through my addition of an extra finger, its productivity is increased by 20%. This is going to revolutionize the entire industry. Can you feel your heart pounding with anticipation?

ALEX: Yes, because you almost gave me a heart attack earlier. What did Mr. Delafontaine think of it?

LOUIE: I haven’t told him yet. But when I show it to him, I’ll finally be promoted out of the sales department and into–
(his eyes aglow)
–mid-level management. This is my big break.
(then)
Hey, you missed a fun time last night. We got kicked out of three different bars.

(ALEX grabs the hand magnet and starts squeezing it)

ALEX: Sorry I wasn’t there.

LOUIE: You really need a good time like that. You gotta put yourself out there. What are you doing tonight?

ALEX: I’m busy.

LOUIE: Calling Katie?

ALEX: (defensive) No. I have a date.

LOUIE: (incredulous) Oh, yeah. Right. You have a date. What’s her name?

ALEX: Gwendolyn.

LOUIE: Gwendolyn? You couldn’t have come up with something more believable?

(GWENDOLYN looks at LOUIE angrily)

ALEX: It’s true! Her name is Gwendolyn. And it just happened.

LOUIE: Wow. Well, that’s great! You gotta introduce me to her.

(GWENDOLYN begins frantically miming “no way” to ALEX)

ALEX: I don’t know…she’s kind of, uh, shy…

(ALEX’s phone rings)

LOUIE: Well, if Gwendolyn does exist, I’m happy for you, pal. You should bring her when we all go out and celebrate my promotion!

(LOUIE exits stage right. ALEX answers the phone)

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your back scratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
(pause)
No, ma’am. Our backscratchers are unable to treat crippling depression. You must’ve misread the label.
(he hangs up)

GWENDOLYN: Did you really mean it, Alex? Are we dating?

ALEX: I just said that to get Louie off my back.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Oh…
(pause, then:)
Well…do you want to?

ALEX: I don’t know. Do you?

GWENDOLYN: I do if you do.

ALEX: This is crazy. I mean, we’re two different species.

GWENDOLYN: So? Lots of mixed couples are very happy.
(pause, ALEX looks at her)
I won’t leave you like Katie did. You can feel safe with me.
(referring to her pot)
I’m not going anywhere.

ALEX: That sounds nice.

(beat)

GWENDOLYN: Now that we’re dating, would you mind putting Katie’s magnet away?

ALEX: (picking up the hand magnet) Um…

GWENDOLYN: Please? It would mean a lot to me.

ALEX: (he thinks about it) Okay.

(he drops the hand magnet in a drawer and closes it)

GWENDOLYN: That’s better.
(then)
I don’t like how Louie treats you. That joke about the meeting he played on you was mean. You don’t need people like that in your life.

ALEX: I guess he did go a little too far. But he was just trying to help me.

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you wish there was some way you could get back at him?

ALEX: Get back at him? What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: I know what you should do, Alex.

ALEX: What?

GWENDOLYN: Steal Louie’s backscratcher model.

(HONORIA suddenly enters stage left)

HONORIA: Genetically modified organisms are a much-debated subject in today’s modern society. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria, this really isn’t a good time.

(HONORIA stares at him)

Fine. I think more research should be done on genetically modified crops. Happy?

HONORIA: Joy is an illusion. Just stick to our arrangement.

(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN, aghast) You want me to steal Louie’s model?!

GWENDOLYN: Well, don’t think of it as “stealing”. Think of it as “liberating” it from someone not as worthy. Show it to Mr. Delafontaine and say it’s your idea. Then you’ll get a raise and a promotion!

ALEX: I can’t do that to Louie!

GWENDOLYN: Then do it for me.

ALEX: I don’t know…

GWENDOLYN: You have no ambition, Alex. Don’t you want a promotion?

ALEX: I’m already an executive!

GWENDOLYN: So is Steve the intern! Besides, all you do is inspect backscratchers and converse with the insane!

ALEX: Come on. This is a criminal act!

GWENDOLYN: I thought you cared about me, Alex.

ALEX: I do care about you. But this is morally wrong. I can’t betray a friend. He gave me this job. He gave me you!

GWENDOLYN: He found me in an alley! Besides, I’m your more-than-friend. What matters more to you: him or me?

(ALEX is silent)

You have to do this. You deserve that promotion more than Louie does. And deep down, I think he knows it. I believe in you.

ALEX: You do?

GWENDOLYN: Yes.

(pause as ALEX contemplates his course of action)

Oh, and Alex? Maybe you can use the raise to buy me a new pot? A nice, Italian one? With a polka-dot pattern?

ALEX: Sure, Gwendolyn.
(then)
Whatever makes you happy.

(ALEX exits stage left)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 3

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX is sitting at his desk, perhaps with a new jacket to indicate his promotion. GWENDOLYN sits happily with her feet in a new polka-dot pot. LOUIE enters stage left and looks resentfully at ALEX.

ALEX: (nervously) Oh, hi, Louie.
(LOUIE just stares at him)
What’s up?
(LOUIE doesn’t answer)
Louie, let me explain–

LOUIE: I know exactly what your deal is: you’re a back-stabbing double agent from our competitor Scratch-Co, sent here to uncover Scratchopolis’s darkest secrets for your own nefarious purposes!

ALEX: What? If I was from Scratch-Co, why would I have shown your model to the head of Scratchopolis?

LOUIE: Enough with your mind games, Alex, if that is your real name. I don’t have to stand for this! I have dignity!

(LOUIE stomps his foot and a large amount of backscratchers falls out of his jacket)

LOUIE(CONT’D) I was going to assault you with those, but now I’ve lost the element of surprise.

ALEX: I know what I did was terrible, Louie. But please–

LOUIE: We were friends, Alex! I trusted you. And if that doesn’t mean anything–

ALEX: It does!

LOUIE: I never want to see you again! You’re scum!

(HONORIA enters stage right. LOUIE starts to exit stage right and encounters her. They both freeze)

LOUIE: (CONT’D) (disdainfully, to HONORIA) You!

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN) What was that? You said deep down Louie would think I deserved it!

GWENDOLYN: Please. You wanted to believe me. Besides, you still got away with it, didn’t you? What’s the problem?

ALEX: I’ll tell you what the problem is! Louie thinks I’m scum!

GWENDOLYN: Well, maybe you are.

ALEX: What?!

GWENDOLYN: I don’t like how you keep inviting Honoria in here.

ALEX: Inviting? She invites herself! It’s part of her “social interaction proposal”.

GWENDOLYN: I think you’re spending too much time with her, Alex. This is supposed to be our space! Our sanctuary!

ALEX: Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Honoria!

GWENDOLYN: Do you think she’s prettier than me?

ALEX: Of course not!

GWENDOLYN: Flattery won’t save you this time, Alex. You need to assert yourself! When she returns you have to stand up to her and tell her never to come back here again.

ALEX: Why would I do that? Sure, she’s annoying, but she’s not hurting anyone.

GWENDOLYN: She’s hurting me. I thought we promised to take care of each other. But if you don’t want to anymore…

ALEX: No! I do!

GWENDOLYN: If you really loved me, you’d get rid of that thing you call Honoria. I’m the only woman in your life.

ALEX: Woman?! You live in a pot!

GWENDOLYN: And you live in the past! I thought you wanted to move forward. I thought you wanted to make me happy.

ALEX: I can’t keep pushing people away!

GWENDOLYN: The only thing Honoria cares about is herself. You’re just a means she uses to improve her hopelessly awkward social skills.

(A pause as ALEX absorbs what GWENDOLYN is saying)

ALEX: Fine. I’ll do it.

GWENDOLYN: Good. I knew you’d see things my way.

(HONORIA enters stage left)

HONORIA: The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of the electrons between two surfaces. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria…can I talk to you?

HONORIA: Yes. That is our agreement.

ALEX: No, I meant talk to you about something other than electrons.

HONORIA: To deviate from the selected topic?

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t know what you did to Louie, but his broken emotional state filled me with a satisfying schadenfreude. Therefore, I shall allow you to deviate temporarily.

ALEX: Honoria, I hate to do this, but I don’t think you should pass through my office anymore. The truth is, I lose work time due to our conversations.

HONORIA: Interesting. So, in my attempts to maximize my social productivity, I have caused you to sacrifice your work productivity.

ALEX: Exactly. I hope you understand.

HONORIA: I understand. I respect your opinion and furthermore withhold my disappointment that our conversations have not been a pleasure for you as well. Goodbye.

(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, but ALEX stops her)

ALEX: Wait, are you saying you’ve enjoyed talking to me?

HONORIA: Yes. Mr. Delafontaine was right about social interaction. It can be an enjoyable experience.
(pause, then somewhat sorrowfully)
Upon my next visit I was to ask you, “What makes you happy,” and you were to reply, “Truly it would be a crime not to hear your magnificent answer first, Honoria.” I was then to respond, “Human interaction has proven an enjoyable experience,” and you were to finally reply, “never have my ears been tickled with a grander response. Brava, Honoria.”
(beat)
But I won’t detract from your productivity any longer. Goodbye.
(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, then turns back)
Oh, I almost forgot. I overheard Louie saying something about getting you fired.
(ALEX’s phone rings)
I suspect that phone call pertains to the situation. Goodbye.
(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (answering the phone) Hello? Yes, Mr. Delafontaine?
(pause)
I understand. Thank you for everything.
(he hangs up)
(then, devastated)
Well, Gwendolyn, I hope you’re happy.

GWENDOLYN: Happy? How could I possibly be happy?! How will you provide for us now?

ALEX: This isn’t my fault! Stealing Louie’s model was your idea.

GWENDOLYN: It wasn’t my idea for you to get fired!

ALEX: And Honoria did care about me. So did Louie. But now I’ve lost both of them.

GWENDOLYN: So? You don’t need them. I’m the only one you need.

ALEX: You?! You’re just a cactus!

(GWENDOLYN pauses for a second, then retaliates viciously)

GWENDOLYN: What are you going to do now, Alex? Who’s going to hire someone who would willingly steal a fellow employee’s work?

ALEX: You manipulated me!

GWENDOLYN: You could have stood up for yourself! What are you, jobless and weak?

ALEX: Gwendolyn, stop!

GWENDOLYN: (bitterly) Maybe you could ask Louie for another job–oh that’s right, Louie hates you. Well, maybe you could try Honoria–oh wait, she hates you too. Hey-maybe you could ask Katie to help you out! Oh, wait, she’s hated you from the start.

ALEX: Gwendolyn! Please!

GWENDOLYN: I can’t believe you didn’t foresee any of this. You must be jobless and weak and stupid!

ALEX: GWENDOLYN! SHUT UP!

GWENDOLYN: I know exactly what Katie meant, Alex. You’re just not enough. And you never will be.

ALEX: I AM ENOUGH!

(He pushes GWENDOLYN out of the window; she screams, and we hear a crash. The lights immediately come down)

HONORIA (O.S.): Alex? Alex?

(Lights come up to reveal ALEX slumped over at his desk)

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: Are you dead? Because that wasn’t part of our arrangement.

ALEX: Honoria…you came back. I could really use a friend.

HONORIA: Well that’s unfortunate. I’ve been assigned the task of escorting you out of the building. Now please gather your belongings.

(ALEX continues to lie pathetically on the floor)

Are you quite certain you’re not dead?

ALEX: Fairly certain.

HONORIA: Good. Now please hand in your Executive in Charge of Quality Control ID badge and follow me.

(she starts to leave)

ALEX: Ironic, isn’t it? That I was Executive in Charge of Quality Control, when I’m such a mess.
(HONORIA turns back)
I’m defective. I should be thrown in the reject pile with those deformed backscratchers that look like they’re giving you the finger. I feel terrible about what I did to Louie. I lost control. I thought working here would help me get over Katie. I thought it would help me move on with my life. But I guess I couldn’t outrun my demons.
(he looks out the window that he pushed GWENDOLYN through)

HONORIA: You’re babbling.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Honoria, for what I said. If I still had an office, I would let you pass through it whenever you wanted to.

HONORIA: No, Alex. It is I who is sorry.

ALEX: (sitting up) What?

HONORIA: When you requested that I not pass through your office anymore, I started to contemplate my interactions with others. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my social skills are not what you might call “normal” or “even remotely appropriate.” Faces move so quickly. I think someone looks happy, so I say something, but then all of a sudden, they’re mad, or annoyed, or sad. People push me away all the time and I don’t know why.

ALEX: It’s not your fault. Your social challenges aren’t something you ask for. They’re something you’re born with, like…like spines on a cactus.

(he stands up)

HONORIA: You know…spines are often utilized in nature for protection.

ALEX: You shouldn’t have to protect yourself. If people can’t accept you for who you are, then it’s their problem. Not yours.

HONORIA: I had hoped that my experiment with social interaction would have allowed me to become close to you.

ALEX: Really? You still could.

HONORIA: I better stay on task of escorting you out of the building before your inevitable tazing by security.

(ALEX begins gathering his things)

HONORIA: (CONT’D) You never answered my discussion question.

ALEX: What was it, again?

HONORIA: I asked you, “The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of elections. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?”
(pause)
If touch is fundamentally just repulsion, then why even bother trying to connect with people? What good is intimacy if the conceit of it is false?

ALEX: (holding and manipulating the hand magnet) We all want intimacy to some degree, and the thought that it might not be real is scary. But believe me: there is something real there. Maybe the individual atoms themselves don’t touch, but there must be something in the space between them. Maybe it’s love–you can’t quantify that. But you have to be open to it by embracing the people who accept you for you, and letting go of those who don’t.

(ALEX places the hand magnet on his desk)

HONORIA: …Thank you, Alex. I was going to ask you a question about tapeworms, but I think I made the right choice.

ALEX: (finishing gathering his things) Ok, I’m ready to go.

HONORIA: You forgot something on your desk.

(she starts to retrieve the hand magnet)

ALEX: Leave it.

(He takes her hand; a spark of light flickers between their hands)

BLACKOUT

END OF PLAY

 

Dylan Schifrin is a playwright and musical theater writer from Los Angeles. He is currently a senior at Yale University. His work has been distinguished by the Blank Theatre Company, the California Young Playwrights Contest, the Foundation for New American Musicals, and the National YoungArts Foundation as a 2016 Finalist in playwriting. Check out more of his writing at www.youthplays.com or at his website, https://dylanschifrin.com

 

STONE, WATER, FIRE

BY: Patience Mackarness

Fire was essential to their weekend plans because the child with them was a known arsonist.

While the adults carried supplies into the house, Peter stood under the mantel and looked up the blackened chimney. He pointed to an ancient chain hanging over the hearth and asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s where they hung their cooking pots in the old days,” said Gwen. She set a crate of wine on the oak table next to Maureen’s multipack of cigarettes. 

“Are we doing that?” Peter asked.

“No, there’s a gas stove now,” said Gwen. “And we won’t need a fire indoors as it’s so warm. But we’re having a bonfire tonight.” She and Maureen exchanged glances.

Peter and Maureen went off to explore the little wooded stream valley while Gwen set out chairs and a table in the garden. Once home to hill-shepherds, the cottage was built of the grey slate found all through North Wales. Its garden was separated by a dry-stone wall from rough grassland roamed by wild ponies and sheep. No other buildings were visible. The evening light was all green and gold: bright moving leaves on the taller trees, dusty-golden shafts of sun below. The hill facing the house was in shadow, but the sky above it was a pure and limitless blue. Gwen, who had adored this outlook since childhood, breathed slowly and felt the familiar stealing-in of a peace touched with awe.

Maureen and Peter came up the hill, stepping over tussocks of marsh-grass. Maureen, a chain-smoker for forty years, breathed hard. Peter had found a long stick and was using it to lash at bracken and nettles. He was a small, wiry child, straw-haired and pale of skin.

Gwen poured red wine for herself and Maureen, Coke for Peter. Maureen sighed, leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and took a great luxuriant swallow. “Your place is fuckin’ lovely, Gwen. I could stay here all week.”

Peter rocked his chair, gouging the grass.

“Bit different from Liverpool, isn’t it, love?” said Maureen. This was an understatement; the street where they lived had no grass or trees, and its backyards were more notable for trash than flowers. “Listen how quiet it is,” she said. “Everything’s dead old, too. Gwen’s nan lived here for years. Didn’t she, love?”

“My great-aunt,” said Gwen. “Yes, all her life.”

Peter went over to the pump by the back door and tried to work its rusted handle. There was a screech, followed by an ominous, terminal clank. The boy gave Gwen a sideways look, both sly and challenging. It was a look she, and their neighbors, knew well.

“That old pump must have been a pain in the arse,” said Maureen heartily. “Just think if you had to go out there every day for your water. In winter too.”

“It was even harder when my great-aunt was little,” said Gwen, picking up her cue. “They went all the way down the hill with buckets. Like Jack and Jill,” she added, though she doubted that nursery rhymes had featured much in Peter’s short life.

“To the river?” Peter asked, returning to his Coke.  

“No, a spring. That’s a place where the water comes right up out of the ground, so it’s better to drink than the stream water.”

“I want to see it,” said Peter.

“I—don’t think it’s there any more,” said Gwen.

Peter, who rarely looked adults in the eye—whether teachers, police officers, or his mother’s succession of sinister boyfriends—fixed Gwen with a steady pale-blue stare. He demanded, “Where’s it gone then?”  

“I mean,” said Gwen quickly, “it’ll be covered with brambles and nettles and stuff.”

“There’s snakes, too,” put in Maureen. “Poisonous ones.”

“No, there aren’t,” said Gwen. She gave Maureen a stern look, meant to remind her they had agreed not to lie to Peter this weekend. “But the spring’s probably so overgrown, it would be hard to see.”

“We can find it,” Peter said. “I’ve got me boots.” Maureen had bought him a pair of Wellingtons especially for this trip, the first he had ever owned. She had also equipped him with a small backpack, a waterproof jacket, and a toothbrush.

Gwen looked at Maureen, who gave a little nod.

“All right,” said Gwen, “we’ll look for the spring tomorrow. There won’t be time tonight. It’ll be dark soon, and we’ve got to build our bonfire.”  

Plenty of their neighbors in Liverpool thought the weekend project was misguided, mad, or both. “Why are you taking him away to Wales?” demanded Kitty, who lived next door to Maureen. “He breaks windows, he starts fires, he leads other kids into trouble. Why not take the good kids, the ones that deserve it?”  

“Because he’s family,” Maureen said shortly. She and Gwen were sitting on Maureen’s front doorstep with glasses of wine. Kitty stood on her own step, arms belligerently folded, looking down at them.

“And because Peter needs it more than the others,” said Gwen. As Kitty was a churchgoing Catholic, she added, “Like the Prodigal Son.”

Kitty pursed her mouth, as if to say that a mere Protestant had no business quoting the Bible at her. “And why are you calling him Peter? Everybody calls him Hobsy.”

“Hobsy’s a bad-boy name,” said Gwen. “We want him to leave that behind.”

At that moment, the child himself passed on a rusty bike, pedaling along the street with a mob of young children running or riding behind. Kitty sniffed. “You’re wasting your time with that one. He’ll end up in prison, soon as he’s old enough.”

It was true that ten-year-old Peter Hobson was a local legend. Everyone had seen him running over the roofs of parked cars, scrambling up drainpipes, lobbing bricks at feral pigeons, or smashing the windows of empty houses. Gwen herself had found him crouched in the back alley with a lighter, about to kindle a heap of garbage, and had chased him off. But as Maureen said, people like Kitty were also keen to blame him for things he hadn’t done.

“Ol’ bitch,” said Maureen under her breath, after Kitty had stalked back into her house. She’ll never understand that kid.” She topped up Gwen’s glass, lit another cigarette, and leaned forward, the way she did when she had confidences to share. “Him and me are the same—we don’t take shit from anyone. It’s like when I was a kid, in the tennies.”

“Tennies?” Gwen’s Scouse vocabulary was growing, but she still needed Maureen to translate for her at times.

“You know, the old tenements in town. Back then, we had to fight for everything.”

“Yes, but lighting fires—”

It’s how he gets people to notice him, isn’t it? The police, and the other kids, and everyone else round here. That fuckin’ useless smackhead mother of his. She’s off her head half the time, but he still idolizes her.”

“You’re a psychologist, Maureen,” said Gwen.

Peter helped them collect wood for the fire. He was too small to swing the axe, but he liked breaking dead branches by jumping on them. He watched gravely as Gwen showed him how to build a bonfire in the approved Girl Guide manner. Then he struck a match and lit the center of the little wigwam carefully, standing well back while the flames took hold.  

Later they burned an old armchair, its covers chewed and stained by the mice that overran the empty house in winter. Gwen and Maureen carried it out between them and tipped it into the bonfire’s red-hot core. It was then that Peter let out a kind of whoop, so loud and sudden he even seemed to surprise himself. Gwen thought he should be dancing round the fire, like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Instead, he stood staring and staring as the chair shot yellow, hissing flames up into the dark.

“I hope,” Gwen murmured when the boy had gone for more wood, “he’s not in a police station some day, and they say, How did you come to burn that house down, Peter? And he says, I just lit it the way Gwen showed me. Maureen cackled.

By ten o’clock, the bonfire had burned low. When Peter yawned, Gwen saw that some of his teeth were black. She must remember to speak to Maureen; maybe the hopeless mother could be persuaded to take him to the dentist.

Peter and Maureen slept upstairs in the front bedroom while Gwen had the little room below, the one Great-aunt Miriam had used when she couldn’t manage the stairs any more. There were a few minutes of murmuring voices overhead, then the house went quiet. Gwen sat up a while, in the room they used to call the parlor.

Little had changed since the long-ago visits, which had felt to younger family members like entering a book by Enid Blyton. The furniture was heavy dark oak—cage-backed chairs and a Welsh dresser, the long table still smelling faintly of ancient beeswax—making the room resemble a badly curated heritage museum. Neglected by Miriam’s nieces and nephews, its joint owners, the house’s decline tracked that of the old lady: solitary and inexorable, punctuated by visits from affectionate but busy relatives.

In the morning, the sky was clear. They had breakfast in the garden, Maureen inhaling the glorious views along with her first cigarette of the day while Peter was devouring a bacon sandwich oozing ketchup.

“You’re hungry this morning,” said Gwen.

“Isn’t he?” said Maureen proudly. She had told Gwen the fridge at Peter’s home was empty, that it was a fuckin’ disgrace, and she often had to feed him herself. “So you’re not his actual grandmother?” Gwen had asked, trying again to map the sprawling Scouse tribe that was Maureen’s family.

“Fuck, no,” said Maureen. “His dad was me cousin’s stepson.” Maureen adored her own children and grandchildren, but she also had a fondness for needy strays. These included Peter—and Gwen.

When breakfast was cleared away, Gwen said it was time to find the lost spring, and Peter jumped up so fast that his chair tipped over. While Maureen poured her second cup of coffee and lit her fourth cigarette, the other two put on their boots. Gwen gave Peter gloves and loppers. She carried the scythe, which, like the axe, was too large for him to use. She pushed away the disturbing image of an adult Peter, six feet tall and swinging a well-sharpened blade.

They picked their way down the slope into the valley. Although everything was more overgrown than in the storybook summers when Gwen and her cousins had scrambled about with shrimping nets and muddy knees, the spring was not hard to locate. Underneath dense bog-willows was a miniature jungle, where reeds and marsh flowers grew, tangled in thick vegetation that scratched and stung. Out of it twisted a thin brown channel.

Gwen told Peter to cut off the willow branches that reached nearly to the ground, and she used the scythe on brambles and nettles. They worked mostly in silence, Gwen saying from time to time, “Are you all right there, Peter?”—the boy responding with a nod or a grunt. If a branch was too thick to cut, she noticed that he would neither leave it nor ask for help, but worried at it with the loppers until it yielded or until she came to give him a hand.

The idea for this weekend had, naturally, been Maureen’s. One evening at the start of the summer vacation, when the hard-nut kids of the neighborhood were running in packs with the boy Hobsy at their head, as usual, Gwen told Maureen about the cottage. How remote it was, how she and her cousins had always thought it magical and the little old lady a sort of benign witch. How through the misery and confusion of her own divorce, and the ill-planned move to Liverpool afterwards, this house had been her refuge, the place that had saved her from total despair. She was going to add, “You saved me, too,” because it was true; without Maureen she would still be wounded and lost, a stranger in a city of alien voices and alien customs. But Maureen’s mind had skipped ahead; she said suddenly, “You know what?”

“What?” asked Gwen warily. She had learned that You know what? signaled one of Maureen’s Big Ideas.

“We should take Hobsy there. Just me, you, and him. Get him away from all the shit, give him a fuckin’ big dose of nature. That’ll straighten him out.”

Gwen, who in her teaching career had organized plenty of trips, brought up the question of parental permission, and Hobsy’s behavior, which his headmaster described as “challenging,” and the possibility that he would burn the ancestral cottage to the ground. But Maureen, who was unstoppable once gripped by a Big Idea, had answers ready. “His mum’s always saying she can’t cope with him; she’ll be made up if we take him off her hands for a bit. Hobsy’s good as gold with me. He never gives me any shit. And he can light fires there, proper fires, can’t he? Get it out of his system.”

The neighbors were skeptical, but Maureen was sure she could deal with them. “I’ll use me psychology, won’t I?” Kitty might be a lost cause (“Hobsy could grow wings and a halo, that bitch would still swear he’s the devil”), but most of the others could be brought round. Anne from the next street, who had a soft spot for Peter, was told he was a lovely lad who just needed time and space to bring out the good in him. Tommy, two doors down and retired from the Army, was told the weekend would be filled with discipline and structure. “We’ll have his day all planned out, Tom, plenty of chores, everything at the right time. And six o’clock’s the time for me wine and me ciggy, har har!” Those who still doubted would, Maureen said confidently, come round when Hobsy returned from Wales a changed boy.

By the time Gwen and Peter uncovered the spring, a wet and gleaming mudhole, they were nettle-stung, bramble-scratched, and spattered with mud. The hole filled slowly with rich brown liquid. Peter stood silent, staring down. He said nothing, but Gwen guessed he was disappointed.

“Well, we can’t drink from that the way it is now,” she said. They went up to the house and fetched jugs to use as bailers.

“Fuckin’ell,” said Maureen, “look at the two of you! You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a pig.”  

They scooped mud from the spring and, to make it more well-like, lined it with blocks of slate they found stacked behind the house. With another child, Gwen would have tried to make this educational. She would have talked about quarrying, shepherding, the hard and solitary lives of Great-aunt Miriam and her forebears among these hills. But Maureen had warned her against trying to educate the boy. “Forget you’re a teacher for now, love; you’ll just turn him off. Him and school don’t get on, trust me.”

Gwen did trust Maureen. She had trusted her since the day, nearly a year ago, when a mob of children laid siege to her house. Gwen’s accent, posh London with a touch of Welsh, signaled her foreignness to the neighbors and especially to their kids. In bleaker moments, she wondered if they smelled her fear, like river piranhas attracted to a leaking wound. In the first few weeks after moving in, her car was scratched, trash dumped on her doorstep, poorly spelled graffiti scrawled on her windowsill. That particular day, a gang—some of them only eight or nine years old—crowded round her front door, jeering and hooting. Gwen tried talking to them, but they only yelled louder and pushed in closer. She retreated inside; they hammered on the door and windows, and she feared stones would follow. It was then that Maureen, whom Gwen had spoken to only once in a short exchange about bin collections, came charging along the pavement like a bleached-blonde avenging angel. “Ey! That’s me friend’s house, now piss off!” To Gwen’s astonishment, the kids dispersed like a flock of urban starlings, even their small leader, the boy they called Hobsy. And they never came back, for Gwen now had the protection and friendship of the character most neighbors called Mo, the local champion to whom Kitty referred sourly as Queen of the bloody street.

There was some truth in that, for everyone knew Maureen. All local life—deaths and family feuds, births and break-ins, people leaving and people moving in—were her personal business. Most of all, Gwen saw how she made the kids her business. “I love ’em,” she said, her voice sentimental and slurred while she and Gwen shared their now-customary bottle of red wine one summer evening, watching the life of the street from her low front wall. “They’re little bastards, but I love ’em all.”

Gwen, though she failed utterly to love the kids, went along with Maureen’s Big Ideas for keeping them occupied and clear of trouble. The two of them organized litter picks and flower planting, street parties, pavement art with colored chalks. Neighbors called across the street, “You’re doing a boss job there, girls!” and congratulated them on how much cleaner the area had become, how much safer the old people felt in their homes. Gwen, too, felt safer as Maureen’s friend. More, she started to feel that she belonged in Liverpool.

Only Hobsy never joined in. He would hover, waiting for the adults to go indoors, then try to reclaim his position as gang leader and mischief-maker-in-chief. Maureen took his resistance as a challenge because she hated to fail and because, to her, Hobsy was the prize of prizes, the child she wanted most to save. “He’s a lovable rogue,” she said to Gwen. “You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“I’m going to tame him.”

By mid-afternoon, after a lunch break for sandwiches, Gwen and Peter finished their well chamber. It was more or less square, with three slate block steps leading down. The blocks did not fit together precisely, and fine dark mud seeped in, making the water grainy and brown.

“Now, we leave it to settle,” said Gwen. “We’ll come back tomorrow and see if it’s clear.”

They went back up the hill, Gwen wondering if their shared labor constituted a bonding exercise. As they stood together at the sink, rinsing the last of the mud off their hands, the boy pointed to an old sheet of paper pinned to the wall and said, “That’s me dragon.”

On their way here, in a roadside café, Maureen had bought Peter a keyring. The fob was a lump of slate, to which was glued a metal disc enameled with the white and green of the Welsh flag, the red dragon commanding the middle. Looking closely at the paper, its curled corners held in place by rusty thumbtacks, Gwen saw that Peter was right. The sheet had faded to the same dirty yellow as the wall, but the creature, once scarlet and now pinkish, was unmistakably a dragon passant, with its clawed foreleg raised, its arrowed tongue stuck out. She said, “Oh, yes! One of my cousins drew that when he was quite small. I remember how pleased my great-aunt was. She must have kept it all those years.”

Maureen and Peter—whose energy was inexhaustible up to the moment he collapsed—had an early night, but Gwen stayed up again, breathing the atmosphere of the house and her own past.

Some children’s books stood on the oak shelves, alongside Great-aunt Miriam’s cookbooks and family Bible. The books were old friends, though blotched and brittle with time. She took down The Silver Sword. On its yellowed paper cover, a rough-headed boy, the orphan Jan, stood amid bombed rubble, his box of treasures clutched to his chest. Gwen knew suddenly that Peter, in another time and place, would not be a criminal nuisance, but a hero. He would scale walls, scavenge for food, slip past Nazi guards, maybe lead his own tribe of Lost Boys into a post-war future of safety and hope. More hope, perhaps, than he had in twenty-first-century Liverpool.

These thoughts could not be shared with Maureen, whose love of her city was proud and fierce, who would be outraged to hear it compared to a war zone. Nor could Gwen say, “Remember The Silver Sword? Or the kids going feral in Lord of the Flies?” For Maureen had been a mother at sixteen, a grandmother at forty, and there had been little time for reading.  

Maureen was up first on Monday morning, watching the dawn with childlike wonder and her usual cigarette. After breakfast Peter and Gwen checked the water in the well, finding it clear and icy cold, floored with fine brown silt. A few leaves and dead insects floated on top, but Gwen showed the boy how to dip an empty Coke bottle upside-down, then turn it upright so the water bubbled in clean. He stood up, holding the bottle like fairy gold.

“Try it,” said Gwen. “It should taste great. Really pure.”

Peter tilted the bottle and took a cautious sip.

“Is it good?” Gwen asked.

“It’s all right,” said Peter gruffly, and then he was off, bounding up the hill, calling, “Come and try me water, Mo!”

“I don’t do water, love,” said Maureen, but under Peter’s expectant stare, she poured an inch into a wine glass and sipped. She suppressed a shudder, nodded slowly, and pronounced it “fuckin’ good water.” “You done a good job there, love,” she said. “Come on, give’s a hug.” And Peter did. Over the top of his head, Maureen gave Gwen a look of misty-eyed triumph.

They went for a long walk that last day, taking sandwiches and following footpaths and pony tracks higher and higher until they could see the peaks of Snowdonia piled up, hazy and far off. Gwen marveled again at the boy’s persistence. He never complained of tiredness, and whenever Maureen wanted to rest, he would fidget until they got moving again. His color was better than when they had arrived, and Gwen thought his cheeks had filled out too.

When Peter was brushing his teeth that night, Maureen said softly, “It’s working.”

“Do you think so?”

“Fuckin’ right I do. Getting him away from the shite at home. All the open space. Giving him proper jobs to do, like the wood, and that well of yours. It’s calmed him right down.”

“For now,” said Gwen. “But he’s had years of neglect and running wild. One weekend won’t fix that.”

“It’s a start. You know what? We should bring other kids here. The scallies, the ones that’re always in trouble.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” Gwen said firmly. “My nerves wouldn’t take it. But there are organizations that do that sort of thing, you know. Youth clubs.”

“Not like this,” said Maureen. “Not the way you and me have done it with Peter.”

“Sign up as a volunteer, then,” Gwen said quickly. “Show them how it’s done.”

“Fuck off, Gwen,” said Maureen. “You’re not turning me into some fuckin’ youth worker, so don’t try.” This was an old discussion, frequently rehearsed on the sidewalk over wine, and much enjoyed by both. Maureen believed in handling problems locally, without involving the authorities, most of whom she dismissed as “a waste of fuckin’ space.” Gwen would counter that to get things done you had to work with the system, follow the rules. Maureen would say, slyly and provocatively, “Rules are made to be broken, Gwen,” and describe local crises she’d averted through deviousness and well-crafted lies. She boasted of the time she’d stopped one of Peter’s worst arson sprees by telling him the back alley was strewn with addicts’ needles. No fires were lit for weeks afterwards. Gwen found it hard to argue with this and rarely tried. She had learned that friendship with Maureen meant adjusting her own moral compass, a few points at a time.

Peter came out of the bathroom in his pajamas. Maureen asked, “Sleepy, love?” Peter shook his head. “Want to go out and look for shooting stars then?” said Maureen. But the boy wandered over to the bookshelf. He seemed to be scanning the titles, and Gwen held her breath superstitiously when his hand brushed The Silver Sword, but it was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books that drew his eye. He took the boxed-set down carefully. Maureen said to Gwen, “You don’t mind if Peter reads your books, do you, love?”

“Of course not,” said Gwen, though she wasn’t sure how well Peter could read.

Peter took the seven books out of their box, laid them on the carpet in a fan shape, and asked, “What’s this one?” On the cover, a dragon-headed ship flew before the wind with full sails and streaming pennants, white foam around its bows.

Gwen said, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Three children go on a long sea voyage in a world called Narnia, where there’s magic and animals can talk.”

Peter touched the figurehead with his fingertips.

“On one island,” Gwen said tentatively, not sure if she had his attention, “a boy called Eustace gets turned into a dragon.”

“How?” asked Peter.

“He falls asleep in the dragon’s cave, on top of its treasure, thinking greedy thoughts. And when he wakes up, he’s a dragon himself.”

Peter picked up the book and, not looking at Gwen, handed it to her.

“Um, do you—I mean, would you like me to read a bit?” Gwen asked. Peter nodded. Over his head, Maureen’s eyes went wide. “Come on then, sit down.”

Peter sat formally upright between them on the couch. His tousled hair smelt of woodsmoke. His eyes stayed on the ship until Gwen opened the book, then moved to her face.

She read about Eustace’s transformation into a dragon. How, without language, he struggles to show his shipmates who he really is. How he becomes useful to them, lighting their campfires with his burning breath.

“Fuckin’ good, that,” Maureen remarked, yawning. “I’d never need to worry about losing me lighter if I had a dragon at home, would I, love?”

When they reached the part where the lion Aslan plunges Eustace into a magic well and turns him into a boy again, Gwen hesitated. She had always found this episode a little too blatantly Christian and wondered if Peter would lose interest once the dragon was no longer in the story. But he listened intently, right up to where the Dawn Treader sails away from Dragon Island and into the East. Gwen closed the book and said, “That’s the end of the chapter, Peter. But you can borrow the book if you like.” Peter shook his head and went slowly up the stairs to bed. Maureen, mouthing an astonished Fuck! over her shoulder, followed him.

As they got into the car on Tuesday morning, Maureen said, “It’s boss here, I could stay forever. Couldn’t you, love?” But Peter had gone silent, bundled into his new jacket in the back seat, with his dragon keyring in one hand and a bottle of spring water in the other.  

As a child, Gwen had hated these departures; they were like leaving Narnia for the dullness of the ordinary world. Now, driving away from the house along the stony track, she was flooded with grief again.

On the way home, they visited a slate mine made over for tourists. Gwen assured Maureen it would be fun and nothing at all like school. They watched the grandsons of old-time quarrymen deftly splitting roof slates, followed a guide through lamplit caverns, and skirted a lake glowing with colored lights. Maureen breathed, “Wow, fuckin’ magic!” while Peter held her hand, wide-eyed. In the flickering light of a replica miner’s lamp, their guide recounted the legend of two dragons, one red and one white, doing battle for the soul of Wales in a subterranean cavern. The red dragon of the Celts triumphed, incinerating the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxon invaders with his fiery breath.  

When they took Peter back to his mother’s house—front yard piled with binbags and smashed furniture, doorbell broken, dirty net curtains sagging in the windows—no one came to the door. Gwen waited in the car while the two of them stood outside, the woman in her denim jacket, the boy with his backpack, knocking and knocking. Eventually they turned and came back to the car, Maureen rolling her eyes at Gwen: No surprise there. Bitch.

“Peter’s coming back to mine for a bit, aren’t you, love?” she said when they climbed back into the car. “Just till your mum gets home. We’ll have beans on toast.”

September came, and with it, the frantic activity of a new term. Gwen had little time to call on Maureen or sit out drinking wine in the street, and she rarely saw Peter at all. She wondered if their intervention (a word she could not use with Maureen, who would have snorted “Why don’t you speak fuckin’ English?”) had had a lasting effect. Parents of other kids at the boy’s school reported little change. They spoke of vicious playground fights and frequent truanting. But in their street, gang activity and vandalism did seem less. “That’s because Peter’s calmed down,” Maureen said confidently. “Yesterday he came to my door with a bike someone had robbed, asking if I knew whose it was. He used to be the one robbing bikes. Isn’t that boss?”

Gwen agreed that it was boss.

“And when he’s chilled, the other kids are chilled too. You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“There’s more things we can do with those kids. Street parties. Planting flowers. And a muriel, like they’ve got in Toxteth.”

“A what?”

“You know, one of them big pictures on the wall. The kids help paint it.”  

“A mural.

“That’s what I said. We could do a dragon, a big red fuckin’ dragon. Peter’d be made up. I bet he’d join in with the others too.”

“That would be brilliant.”

“Gwen?”

“What, Maureen?”

“We did it. You and me.”

One night in early October, Gwen was woken by an explosion that shook the house. It wasn’t in their street, but it was close. She was bone-tired, and there was school in the morning, so she stayed in bed, knowing she could get the news from Maureen later. But a blaring of fire engines followed and a skirl of police sirens, so she put a jacket over her pajamas, went downstairs blinking and groggy, and opened the door. Maureen was on the step, fully dressed. In the orange streetlight, her face looked unlike itself, drained of color, fearful.

“It’s Peter,” she said. “I fuckin’ know it’s Peter. Come on.” She set off running.

“How do you know?” Gwen cried, hurrying after her. “What happened?”

“Shit happened,” panted Maureen. “The usual shit, only worse. His mum got took into hospital last night. She’d got herself some new feller, some drug dealer. They had a fight, and he hit her so hard he broke her nose.”

“Shit,” Gwen echoed.

“Soon as I heard that, I knew. I thought, it’ll all kick off now. Hobsy’ll get the bastard back. She might be a bitch, but she’s still his mum.”

They came to the cross street that junctioned with their own and turned the corner. Two hundred yards along, by Hobsy’s house, a car was burning. Fifteen feet high, the flames lit the street from end to end. There was fire on the ground too, spilled petrol snaking over the tarmac toward a dumpster that overflowed with garbage and building debris. Seconds later, with a quick throaty whoosh, the whole thing was alight. A listing wooden fence beside it caught fire; the flames streaked along the fence like a trail of gunpowder, heading for a rickety shed half-collapsed against the house wall. People stumbled out of their doors, hammered on those of their neighbors; there were shouts and screams, scared voices and excited ones.

The fire engines had already arrived, and as Gwen and Maureen drew closer, two giant hoses deluged the car and dumpster with Class A foam. Black smoke bellied up from mounds of frothing white. One hose was turned on the trails of burning fuel, another on the busily crackling fence and shed. Bulky-suited firemen tramped along pavements and into yards, pursuing secondary fires.

Tommy, the ex-soldier, was standing by the roadside in a little knot of neighbors, arms folded and mouth set hard.

“Who was it, Tom?” Maureen asked, though she knew.

“That Hobsy,” said Tommy shortly. “The car belonged to his mum’s feller, the dealer. Someone saw the kid put a petrol bomb under it.”

I heard the feller was in the car,” said a man standing by Tommy.

“Oh, fuck,” said Maureen.

“He got out,” the man said, and added, “Too bloody bad.”

Tommy grunted, “It’s attempted murder anyway. He’s too young for prison—they’ll put him in Redbank first. But he’s on the road now.”

Maureen drew a sharp breath, ready to stand up for Hobsy as she always did, but from behind them, Kitty’s voice said triumphantly, “I could have told you what would happen if you took him away to Wales. Try to help scum like that, they laugh in your face.”

“Fuck off now, Kitty,” Maureen snapped without turning.

Police officers were moving along the street, shining torches down alleyways and up the sides of houses.

“They’ll find him,” said Maureen. “Course they will. Where’s he gonna go? He’s ten fuckin’ years old.”

“I can see him,” Gwen said suddenly.

“Where?”

“Up there, look.”

Where their street branched off, a small dark shape moved swiftly over the roof-slates, clambering up toward the chimneys. As they watched, it straightened up and balanced, arms spread, along the topmost ridge of the terrace.

“Bloody monkey,” said Tommy with something like admiration. “Where’s he think he’s going now?”

“Peter!” Maureen bellowed, off again at a run with Gwen following. “Come down off there. You’ll break your fuckin’ neck!”

The small figure hesitated, wobbled, turned toward them. At this distance, and in near-darkness, they could not make out his face. Most of the police had heard Maureen shout; now they converged, torch beams bobbing, on the littered alley from which Peter had begun his climb. Two officers ran round to the front of the terrace. The senior fireman gave rapid orders to his team. Overhead, Peter moved steadily forward. Three more houses, three more rooftops, and he would reach the vertical cliff that was the gable-end.

All eyes were on the child now. Police, fire crews, neighbors, late passers-by. Maureen’s hand gripped Gwen’s arm painfully. Those below knew this could only end in one of two ways. Upturned faces showed their fear, wonder, horror, anticipation. Gwen knew what Maureen was seeing: a small broken body on the tarmac, a memorial stone in the cemetery, Our little angel at rest.

There was no third way, but still Gwen’s mind reached up to where the child stood poised on the ridge, black against the faint orange of a city sky, arms wide as wingtips.

For a second, she saw what he saw, felt what he felt: the chasm below, the power and the rage, then a graze of bronze claws on roof-slates, a swoop and a rise, a leathern-winged torpedo out of darkness.

She thought, We did it.

THE END


Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in a cottage in Brittany, France and partly in an elderly VW camper van. She spent many years in Liverpool and has also lived in Portugal, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Her work has been published by many literary magazines, including Brilliant Flash Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, and Peacock Journal.

Monkey Mountain

BY: Kali VanBaale

The brothers first heard the screaming one morning as they fed calves. The piercing cries echoed from the timber above the dairy farm, a bluff the family had called “Monkey Mountain” since the boys were little. Startled by the sound, Jamie and Eric straightened in unison and turned toward the dark woods.

“What the hell was that?” Jamie’s breath billowed against the flat pink horizon.

“Shh.” Eric frowned.

Seconds passed. A cold gust funneled between the white fiberglass calf huts and swirled late spring snow into Jamie’s face.

Another screech splintered the air. Several calves scrambled to the back of their huts.

“Is that a woman?” Jamie whispered. He shivered inside his winter coveralls.

Eric shook his head. “It’s an animal.”

“What kind of animal sounds like that?”

Eric tossed an empty calf bottle into the back of the utility wagon. “Some kind of big cat. Bobcat, maybe.” He paused. “Or a mountain lion.”

“Bullshit!” Jamie threw an armful of hay into a pen and brushed off the front of his denim coat. “You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.” Eric cuffed his red nose. “We get ’em here sometimes. A couple dozen in the last twenty years or so. Look it up on the DNR website if you don’t believe me.”

Jamie didn’t need to. He knew his brother was telling the truth. Eric was only eighteen, two years older than Jaime, but he’d always seemed to be some version of a responsible adult. He could’ve picked on Jamie anytime he’d wanted to, but he never did.

Eric pulled another empty bottle from a pen. “We should tell Dad.”
“Why?”

“He’ll want to kill it. Big cats are hunters.” Eric mounted the four-wheeler and started the motor. “Let’s go,” he said. “I got homework to do.”

Jamie straddled the back of the seat, trying to imagine a mountain lion strolling through Iowa hills and pastures, hunting for its dinner, but couldn’t. The idea seemed ridiculous.

#

Two days later, Eric and Jamie donned their camouflage hunting clothes, loaded their 12-gauge shotguns, and started for Monkey Mountain in search of the animal. Once again, they’d heard the screaming during evening chores, and their father agreed with Eric that it sounded like a big cat. Bobcat or lion, he didn’t care. He wanted it dead before it started picking off livestock or their mother’s beloved dogs.

The boys crossed the frozen Fox Creek, trekked up the snow-dusted bluff, and hiked deep into the trees. Eric was a good shot and had been hunting the timber most of his life, but Jamie didn’t much like hunting and only did it when his father made him during deer season. He’d never killed anything and hated the sound of gun blasts, but sometimes it had to be done, he was often reminded. They needed meat, rabid animals were dangerous, and dying cattle shouldn’t be made to suffer. It was part of farm life, and eventually he would have to accept it like any other necessary chore.

The boys silently entered the section of timber that had spawned the nickname Monkey Mountain—a copse of non-native catalpa trees that had been there since Grandpa Chuck bought the farm in the early thirties. No one knew who planted them. As children, Grandpa Chuck told Jamie and Eric an absurd tale about some circus performer planting the trees to attract monkeys with the catalpa’s long, browned banana-looking seed pods that hung from branches all winter. The boys readily believed their grandfather, and the name Monkey Mountain stuck long after they outgrew the story.

Eric stopped and brushed his gloved fingertips over a short, crooked trunk. “I love it up here,” he said. “This is my favorite place on the farm.”

Jamie rested his gun against his shoulder and plucked a pod from a low branch. He crushed it in his gloved palm. Jamie and Eric had camped amid the trees many times on warm summer nights in a little yellow dome tent. He’d always felt safe here, when it was just the two of them in isolation.

“Do you really think there’s a mountain lion up here?” Jamie asked.

Eric shrugged. “Maybe.” He tilted his head back, staring up into the branches. “I sure wish Grandpa’s story had been true.”

“Which one?” Jamie chuckled.

“That there were monkeys up here. It was always my favorite story.”

“Yeah, that was a good one.” Jamie dropped the pod pieces and switched his gun to the other shoulder. His favorite story from Grandpa Chuck had been his claim that once during a dust storm, he’d witnessed a flock of birds flying backwards to keep from getting dirt in their eyes.

“Are we resting or what?” Jamie asked.

Eric exhaled, sounding tired. “Just for a minute.”

Eric had been up since four for the early milking. He’d milked the morning shift before school for years, and Jamie and their father milked the evening shift. Soon Jamie would take on the evening shift by himself. That was the plan. The brothers would eventually take over the farm in a partnership, accepting the reins from their father.

Jamie’s toes grew cold inside his boots, and he stamped his feet to get some blood flowing. He studied his brother’s profile in the fading light. Maybe it wasn’t fatigue in his face. It was something else. He seemed distracted or worried. Heart harried, their mother called it, whenever Eric became pensive and quiet, as he often did.

An ear-splitting scream spooked the brothers, and Eric reflexively trained his gun in the direction of the sound. Jamie fumbled with his own weapon, struggling to get the safety off and the recoil pad comfortably settled against his shoulder. They waited, fingers on triggers, steel barrels side by side, until another scream tore through the trees.

“God damn,” Jamie whispered, “that sounds like a woman being strangled.”

Eric shifted his weight and leaned forward.

The screaming continued, a demented, painful growl that echoed off the hillsides. A half mile away, maybe less.

“It is a mountain lion,” Eric finally said, his voice low. “Female. She’s in heat.”

Jamie’s muscles strained to hold his gun up, and the end of the barrel wavered. “How do you know for sure?”

“I watched a YouTube video last night.”

Jamie widened his stance for better balance on the uneven terrain.

“Stop moving,” Eric said.

Several minutes passed before another screech echoed, farther away this time.

Eric lowered his barrel. “She’s heading east.”
Jamie looked at his brother. “Will it come back?”

Eric patted Jamie’s shoulder. “Just remember that you’re the one carrying the gun.”

#

During their second trip into the timber, Eric tracked fresh scat and paw prints in the new snow. The trail led from the creek straight into the heart of Monkey Mountain.

There, the brothers hunkered down in the fallen needles and seed pods, huddling close to a catalpa with fresh claw marks on the trunk.

It was even colder this evening than the previous, and Jamie wished he’d thought to bring a couple of warming packs to stick in his coat pockets. He shivered and clenched his jaw to try to mask the chatter of his teeth.

Eric burrowed down deep into his coveralls until only his eyes were visible over the collar. “This is funny,” he said.

“What’s funny?”

“We’re in Iowa hunting lions in a place we call Monkey Mountain.”

Jamie laughed softly.

Eric yawned and rubbed his face. Last night, after the boys returned from the timber empty handed, Eric and their mother had walked out to the milking parlor where Jamie and their father were finishing up the evening shift. Their mother told Jamie to go into the house so the three could talk, and they stayed out there until nearly midnight. When Eric finally returned to the house, he’d gone straight to bed without a word. The silence had continued through breakfast. Jamie knew better than to ask what was going on and get in the middle of it, but the tension between them had been like a taut wire strung across the room that he could’ve reached out and plucked. Despite not knowing what was up, Jaime felt the ground beneath him become unsteady. It’s how he always felt when Eric seemed unbalanced.

The sun made its final descent below the horizon, basking the fallow fields and barns in a soft orange light.

“The farm looks so small from up here,” Eric said.

“Yeah,” Jamie said. “But I like that you can see it all from one place.” He picked up a stick and scratched at the hard ground. “What’s going on between you and Mom and Dad?”

The timber was quiet but for the occasional rustle of the wind gently rocking the catalpa pods hanging above their heads.

After a pause, Eric said, “I had to break some news to them.”

“What news? You get someone pregnant or something?” He laughed but Eric did not.

“I told them I joined the Marine Corps last week,” he finally said. “A four-year enlistment. I leave for boot camp at the end of August. In California.”

Jamie dropped the stick. He lifted his face to the sky and watched the brown pods sway back and forth.

The Marine Corps.

California.

Four years.

His throat tightened and he turned away. Eric hardly ever cried. Jamie had only seen it a couple of times in his whole life. Once, when Eric had to put down his old sheep dog, Dolly, and once at their Grandpa Chuck’s funeral. But Jamie choked up all the time it seemed, no matter how hard he tried not to.

“Did you hear what I said?” Eric asked after some time, but Jamie didn’t answer. He kept his gaze high in the canopy, blinking the tears away.

“I signed up ’cause I just want to do something different for a while,” Eric said. “Something on my own.” He kicked at the snow with his boot. “It’s hard to explain. Mom and Dad don’t understand.”

Jamie didn’t understand either. He couldn’t understand why his brother would want to leave this place, their home.

He tried to imagine the house without Eric for four whole years or doing chores every day without him just an arm’s length away to talk to and make the work go faster.

“Are you coming back after you’re done?” Jamie asked.

Eric shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Jamie picked the stick back up and chipped at the ground. “Monkey Mountain is such a stupid name,” he said.

“It’s just a nickname, Jamie.”

“Well, it’s a stupid nickname.”
As Eric opened his mouth to respond, a screech echoed over the bluff just above them, and the boys scrambled to their feet. It was close.

Eric lifted his gun to his shoulder and silently motioned to the top of the bluff. He tapped Jamie’s chest and pointed right, then tapped his own and pointed left. Jamie nodded, and the boys split up.

Jamie made his way up the western side of the steep hill, taking slow, silent steps. His shoulders and biceps began to burn. Tiny flakes of snow drifted through the trees dotting his face, making his skin itch. Another screech, this one even closer. His heart hammered in his chest. He stopped and fumbled with the rifle to double check that he’d taken off the safety, that it was, indeed, loaded.

He hadn’t fired it in months, since the last time Eric took him target practicing. Had he cleaned and oiled it after the last time? He couldn’t remember. Maybe he did oil it. But maybe he oiled it too much and the gun would jam if he tried to fire it. Maybe he would shoot more accurately with his gloves off. He bit the tips and pulled his hands free, leaving the gloves where they landed on the ground.

Just as he repositioned the stock against his shoulder, his peripheral vision caught a sliver of movement. Jamie turned his head toward the bluff, and there she was. Ten, maybe twelve feet away. She stared back at him, perfectly still, poised with one front leg bent, ready to pounce. She was beautiful with a light cinnamon-colored coat, dark-tipped ears, and black-lined eyes. So much bigger than he’d imagined.

Monkey Mountain was quiet. Jamie and the lion remained locked in a staring contest, like he and Eric used to play when they were kids.

Jamie pressed his cheek against the cold stock and squeezed his left eye shut, sighting with his right. His index finger curled around the trigger.

Shoot it! Jamie’s mind screamed at him. Just shoot it!

 

The lion lowered her paw to the ground and took a few steps backward. Maybe she was retreating. If she turned and ran, he wouldn’t have to fire at her.

But in a blurry motion, the lion launched from the top of the bluff straight at him. Jamie cried out and squeezed the trigger. One, two, three times, the violent punch of the butt slamming his shoulder with each shot. The lion screeched and hit the ground hard, front legs buckling, her face plowing into the fresh snow. She tried to stand, staggered sideways, then collapsed with a thud.

Jamie lowered the gun barrel, his ears ringing. Acrid smoke drifted into his face and clogged his nostrils. The lion lay just a few feet in front of him on her side, unmoving. He waited until her shallow breaths ceased and took a step toward her. Her glassy eyes were fixed on nothing.

Two small red circles dotted the left side of her neck.

He kneeled next to her and laid his bare hand on her warm belly, stroking her coarse hair.

Footsteps pounded down the hill above him.

“Jamie!” Eric shouted, panting. “Jamie!”

Eric halted, mouth agape, when he saw Jamie and the prone animal. He crouched next to Jamie and lay his shotgun down on the ground.

“I got her,” Jamie said quietly.

The snow fell thicker now, covering everything in a smooth white blanket. Jamie lifted his face to the sky and let the cold flakes gather on his eyelashes. He loved it here, too.  

Tears streamed down Eric’s ruddy cheeks. “You did it,” he said.  

Jamie gave a small smile.

“Sometimes it has to be done,” he said. For once, he didn’t feel like crying.


Kali VanBaale is the author of the novels The Good Divide and The Space Between. She’s the recipient of an American Book Award, and Eric Hoffer Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal, and is represented by Dunow, Carlson & Lerner for a third and fourth novel. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Chaffey Review, Nowhere Magazine and others, and she’s the assistant editor of the essay series Past Ten. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives in Iowa with her family. www.kalivanbaale.com 

Going Backwards On Ice Skates

BY: Adam McDonald

Rebecca had climbed through my bedroom window Saturday night, and we undressed ourselves in the dark. Pretty much the only thing she said the whole night was, “I’m sorry about the blood,” and we fell asleep not touching under the covers. Both our first times—a mutual understanding, a scratching of each other’s backs, checking off that box so many of our friends had checked. I imagined it was hard for her to nudge me awake and whisper into my ear, “I have to go home.”

She braved the cold and rushed for her clothes on the floor, reaching out to amorphous clumps, bumping furniture, jostling my things. I could see the shadow of her arms circle around to clip her bra then rise above her head for her T-shirt, sweatshirt, then coat. She was graceful in her shadowy figure, wholesome in her weight. She left the window open on her way out. The snow blew in and melted on the floor. No kiss; no goodbye.

My clock showed 5:38, and I watched the walls brighten to blue, then level off to gray with the rising sun. My room was quiet; my ears rang. I felt like a misunderstanding had taken place, like the people I loved were already disappointed. Like I had done something bad and irreparable.

At best, Rebecca and I knew of each other. We’d see each other at parties, make eye contact, smile without our teeth. We had mutual friends and second-period English together. When it was convenient, we said hello. Never went out of our ways. I wouldn’t say we knew each other the way our parents would’ve wished.

My sister in the next room exhaled audibly as she transitioned to another pose on her yoga mat. She did yoga every day and wanted to live closer to the ocean and work in a studio. She was sick of country living—“Out grown,” she said.

I got out of bed, shut the window, and stood over the heater holding my shriveled-up self. In the corner, Rebecca’s purple panties were scrunched up in a little ball looking like a giant piece of lint you find in your pocket after a wash. I laid them on my bed. French-cut. I smelled a fusion of feminine juices and fabric softener. Shameful of me, I know, but I was only acting out what I saw lustful men do in the movies.

Then, from deep down inside, out of an unknown place, an urge lurched to escape. I slid them on. They felt good licking the tops of my thighs with their lacey softness. The tightness around my buttocks and the way they dipped down beneath my pubic line—I had nothing to compare the feeling to, and for a moment, I was able to enjoy them for simply being wrapped around me. Then, the questions flooded about what it meant. Questions laden with shame and a self-loathing I could feel in my fingertips.

If it wasn’t for my mom yelling, “Forty-five minutes before church!” I would have played sick, stayed hidden underneath the sheets. But in my family, the only way you could skip church was if you were dying, in which case the bishop would come to your house and fill you in with acute detail about that morning’s service.

I took them off quickly and tucked them underneath my box spring.

***

There I was, suffering in my ironed Sunday clothes, looking down at my crotch, completely powerless over wanting them on again. I didn’t hear a single word the priest said. My thoughts were all I could hear, and I’m pretty sure he knew it, too, since every time I looked up at him he was staring back at me with that omniscient look on his face like he could smell my deviance from the pulpit—I needed to get some fresh air.

“Gene?” my mom said as I bumped her knees. She touched my arm, her eyes heavy and watery.

“To the bathroom. I’ll be right back, I promise.”

“Can’t it—”
“It’s urgent.”

“This is—”

“I will, I will.” I could see worry in her eyes now. I could see how much she believed this was good for me to hear. It wasn’t a secret she believed church would provide me stability and fulfillment once I left for college. That wasn’t me, but I admired her for revealing her conviction to me in this way. She had to have known we had different belief systems, but she wasn’t afraid of appearing vulnerable, soldiering on with what she thought was best for me even though she hadn’t a clue.

The fresh air on my cheeks was remarkable, and so was the sight of Lindsey leaning up against a wall smoking a cigarette. When she saw me, she dropped it in the clean snow and buried it with the heel of her boot.

“What are you doing back?” I said. “I thought winter break was over for college students.” We hugged briefly. I felt her hand slide off my back and down my arm.

For years, we went to this church, and ever since I started liking girls, I liked her. But I knew it would never happen. She was known around school as the Rifle because she went through new boyfriends like bullets from a semi-automatic—after one fired, another filled the chamber. But I didn’t care for that. I just wanted a chance that never came before she left for college.

“I’m on a reprieve at the moment. You know, recalibrating,” she said and looked down at her cigarette in the snow.

“It’s okay if you smoke,” I said. “I won’t judge.” I put my back on the wall, shoulder to shoulder with her.

She lit a new one, puffed twice and passed it to me. I held it but I didn’t smoke it, not really sure what to do with it. I passed it back after a moment. She held it between her first knuckles.

“So, are you thinking about college?” she asked.

“Northwestern, State as a backup. My mom’s hoping it’ll be Catholic. You never answered my question about school.”

“I’m taking a semester.”

“What happened?”

“Just wasn’t ready for it. They say that can happen during orientation, but you never think it’s going to be you that can’t hang.”

“You never think you’re going to be the bad exception.”

“So many things all at once. Freedom from so much. You pick your classes, a new selection of friends, of boys, a new you, new home, and no one telling you what to do or keeping tabs on you. No more church on Sunday.”

“You stopped going to church?”

She looked at me. “It’s like everything you thought about yourself gets thrown out the window and you’re left to redefine your life, to chisel out every detail, and it’s all at once.”

“Sounds stressful.”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Me, I just needed a little break. In the spring, I’ll know what I’m getting myself into.”

I said I should be getting back.

“We should hang out while I’m back, catch up proper.”

“That sounds good,” I said.

We hugged and parted ways.

“What took you so long?” my mom asked as I bumped her knees.

“I ran into Lindsey.”

***

In the car, my sister kept looking at me with a smirk, and I knew she knew about last night. I made a face, and she shrugged and returned to the blue haze of her phone.

My sister, Liza was her name, was 2 years older than me. She was enrolled in community college waiting to hear back from universities in the spring, just like me. She wanted to do philosophy and ecology. She especially enjoyed getting our mom worked up about public universities along the coasts, but there was a good chance we’d both end up at State because the tuition was cheap and it was a good school. We weren’t close like best friends, but she looked out for me so we tolerated each other.

“You’ve been awfully quiet back there,” my mom said, and we made eye contact in the rearview mirror.

I shrugged.

“How’s Lindsey?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Quiet today, just like your father.” She looked at my dad in the front seat, who hadn’t said anything this entire morning, and placed her hand on his knee. He nodded to my mother’s musings and placed his hand on hers.

He really was a taciturn fellow. Some people joked by calling him Stone-cold Jackson because his name was Jack. He was a normal guy. Held a steady job, went to church every Sunday.  Loved golf, grilling burgers, knew how to drive stick-shift, and didn’t smile much because of his teeth. He was predictable in a way that after church, you could count down from fifteen seconds from entering the house to when my dad would turn on the TV, a hushed announcer murmuring while a man putted surrounded by green fields. However, this Sunday, the Winter Olympics were on for my mother. She loved to watch downhill skiing, luge, curling, figure skating, whatever was on. It was her weekend with the TV, and she and my dad sat on the couch watching, commercials and all.

I had gotten a bottle of sparkling water from the fridge and was headed for my bedroom when my sister blocked my path to the hall. She squinted at me; I could see in her tight face she was on the verge of saying something out loud that had very little evidence of being true but huge potential for hurt. I ducked under her arm, my feet thudding against the hardwood floor as I ran to my room.

“Hey!” she called after me. She caught my door from closing. We were face to face, our noses nearly touching.

“Let me in,” she said.

I didn’t say anything but backed away from the door. She went straight to the window Rebecca had crawled through last night and looked out to the street. I sat on my bed and waited for her to talk first. She nodded her head and I nodded mine. She laughed kind of. I could see her shooting phrases, lessons, aphorisms through her curly hair, trying them out in the universe of her brain.

We were silent for a long time. She slowly paced with one hand holding her elbow and the other nibbling her nails. “I never thought I’d be in this position,” she said.

“What position?”

“Being the one you have to talk to, I guess.”

“There’s nothing to say.”

“There are mistakes to be made, Gene.”

“I’m not going to make any mistakes.”

She sighed, and a silence settled over us.

“You’re right. Everyone’s mistakes are different.”

“Thank you.”

“I just feel I have a responsibility to warn you.”

“Not with this, Liza, please.”

“Fine. If you want to go it alone, then fine.” She stood there hawking me like I was damned. She said, “I think you should know yoga helps, a lot.”

“Jesus!”

“Take deep breaths, Gene.”

She closed the door. I lay on my bed and spent the rest of the day pondering my life’s new toughest question. I combed through my past like counting blades of grass looking for an explanation. I had had a normal childhood. Loving parents and friends. I played baseball in spring. I did well in school. And there was Rebecca, too. I debated if I should call and tell her I had a good time. I wanted to call, but there was a resistance, a block between last night’s me and today’s me, who worried until my stomach bunched up and I couldn’t eat.

Throughout dinner—I skipped lunch—I zoned out, barely said a word, unconsciously feeling my face and neck for poppable zits until my sister nudged me. “Stop touching your face.”

“Are you okay?” my mother asked.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You don’t seem fine.”

I excused myself from the table. “I’m not feeling well,” I said and rushed down the hall to quickly secure myself in my room.

My mom knocked on my door. “Gene, may I come in?”

“I just need time to be alone.”

“I’d really like to talk to you, honey.”

“Not now, Mom. I just need some space.”

She tried the handle. “You’ll let me know if you need anything, won’t you?”

“I will.” She shuffled off back to dinner.

I lay naked under the covers, the door locked, and thought obsessively of the underwear under my bed and the feeling of liberty they gave me. It was like I was suddenly the correct version of myself. Yet, I was a man, I liked girls. I knew this. I felt this. It was too much for me to understand. They didn’t teach the intricacies of sexuality in school. All we heard was cross-dresser, transvestite, she-man, he-she, as though these people were lepers or miscreants. There was just what was normal and what was unwanted, which was everything else, and then we moved on to a different topic.

Rebecca texted me later in the evening, asking if she had left her underwear at the house, and then Lindsey called me about the same time.

“Want to hang out?” she said.

“I don’t know. Now may not be a good time.”

“I’m outside in my car.”

“You can come in if you want, but we can’t be loud.”

“I’ll be quiet.”

Helping her in, I held a finger across my lips and pointed towards the wall I shared with my sister. She nodded and began undressing her outer layers.

“You have a bigger bed than I imagined.” She sat down. “I’m sorry for barging in on you like this, I just didn’t know where else to go.”

“Did anything happen?” I said.

“Just my parents getting all over me about college.”

“It’s fine. A little surprising is all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, I just wouldn’t have expected you to call me out of everyone you’ve been close with.”

“I don’t want to see any of them. I was never close to anyone. Nobody really talks to me.”

“It’s tough in high school.”

“It’s the same in college.”

We sat side by side, our hips touching. I was reminded of when we were younger, before the crush and boys. We’d play in my room or hers doing this or that, our world miles away, making up everything to suit our adventure. She got up and turned out the light. The streetlight trickled in through the frosty window. She started touching my thigh, gliding her hand up, biting her bottom lip. Her smile glowed in the night, and I could see the gap in her front teeth, which I had always loved. I felt disoriented. I thought of Rebecca. I wanted to ignore it. Ignore the shame, the confusion. Fuck it, I decided.

She asked if I would undress her. I did, slowly, thinking of the way I’d want to be undressed. I took everything off, leaving her underwear for last. Then, I slid those off her hips, and I held them in my hand while, with the other, I touched myself. It was as though I was alone, with only myself to think about, and not a few moments later, it was all over for me—all over me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

“I’m sorry,” I said, catching my breath.

“What?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“For what?”

“I can’t do this.” My pants deflated.

“You got me naked!”

“Ssssshhhhhhh.” I looked back toward the wall.

Lindsey covered herself with my sheets. “What’s going on?”

I dropped the underwear on the floor and kneeled, feeling the wet spot sticking to my thigh. I told her how long I had waited for the moment I would be the one undressing her. It was the truth, or at least it would have been before this morning.

She understood. “Too soon.” She looked depleted. After a long silence, it looked like she made up her mind. “I still don’t want to be alone tonight.”

“It’s okay if you want to stay,” I said.

She gathered the clothes she could without revealing herself and put them on under the covers. I gave her underwear over easily, so as not to make a scene. “Can I smoke in here? By the window?”

I pulled up a chair and she lit a cigarette for the both of us. Her in the chair, me on the windowsill, we shivered while she talked of moving to Los Angeles, talking down our small town and the tourists that come during fall to pick their own apples. Talked about religion like a liquid. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but wanted to believe.

***

I dreamed the strangest dream:

I was alone out in the deep wilderness, coming to the edge of a frozen lake in ankle deep snow. The pain in my feet was nearly unbearable. The lake was smooth and glassy, undisturbed. It reflected perfectly the tree line from the opposite side. In the moonlight, wearing a tuxedo, my dad was figure skating. He jumped and twirled and carved gloriously forwards and backwards, his hands flying out to his sides. His reflection on the ice doubly beautiful, chasing his every move. He was completely silent, like his dancing took place in a vacuum. He leaped up into the air and spun so fast his face blurred, then came back into sharp focus. I watched him secretly in the woods for what felt like hours and hours going around and around.

***

I woke up late and hurried to get ready. Lindsey begged for 20 more minutes, and I decided to leave her there hogging the sheets. I told her to shut the window when she left.

I didn’t even try to focus during first period, and I showed up a few minutes late to my next class to avoid Rebecca and left right at the bell. Speed walking down the hall to the cafeteria, I took refuge knowing she wouldn’t approach me with my friends.

I realized I hadn’t slept too well the past couple of nights, so the plan was to go home and rest and hope for this weekend to blow over to a time when this would all become a funny story I told at parties. Everyone would laugh and see me in a better light—better than the nervous, introverted kid who spent too much time under the covers in his dorm. Facing the cold, I trudged home, feeling the compression of snow under my boots, listening to the grinding salt.

Rebecca was waiting for me at the stop-sign intersection where her house was right and mine was left. She leaned on the aluminum pole looking down at her phone.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She took her earbuds out.

We stood underneath a canopy of oak trees. The wind sometimes blasted through this natural tunnel, but today it was still. I felt protected. I debated quickly if I should keep her underwear. It was between the right thing for her and the right thing for me, and I chose me because I really needed a win and I was certain they weren’t her only pair.

“A lot going around right now,” she said.

“Did you tell anyone?”

“I told Jennifer. I needed to. You know, it’s a big deal for a girl.”

“I know, it was a big deal for me, too.”

“Did you really sleep with Lindsey last night?”

“No,” I said. “Who said that?”

“Jenny and Tyler. You know Lindsey. She posted pictures of herself in your bed on Facebook and everywhere else.”

I knew then word would get around. Mothers who snooped their children’s social media would see Lindsey’s posts, and it would get back to my mom and dad, and they’d bar my window and force me into seminary.

“What’d she say?”
“She said she wasn’t too impressed.”

“We didn’t sleep together.”

“Why would she say that?”

“I don’t know. She came over and we smoked a cigarette and fell asleep.”

Rebecca looked down. Her face was expressionless, and I assumed she was either ashamed for believing the rumor or worried she’d chosen a womanizer to be her first. I wasn’t a womanizer, I knew that much. I also knew my track record thus far wasn’t doing me any favors. “I don’t really care what people say. I’m out of here in less than a year,” she said. “But I’d like to keep going out.”

“Can I walk you home?”

We held hands, and I told her about the dream I had with my dad. It seemed I could with her. That she wasn’t someone to use it against me.  

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you think dreams mean something?”

“I think so,” I said.

“What if you didn’t dream it?”

“I think I definitely dreamed it.”

We stood out front of her house. “Maybe you’ll dream the answer tonight. Or maybe you’ll never know and you’ll keep guessing your whole life. Or maybe you’ll just forget about it like the rest of our dreams.”

She kissed me even though her parents were probably watching through the window. I stuck my cold hands in my pockets and walked backward until she went through the front door. I didn’t know what I was doing with her, but it felt good to start something. Make one last stitch before we all headed our own ways.

Almost home, my phone buzzed.

Rebecca: if u have my underwear u can hold on to them

Me: they r safe w me 😉

I dropped my backpack on the floor and sat on my bed. The house had an empty feeling, like listening to the inside of a seashell. I closed my door gently because the house felt gentle.

I undressed myself the way I wanted to be undressed by Rebecca someday. I wanted to bury my face in her bosom and take refuge in the clouds of her body. I slipped her underpants on and those feelings of boldness, bravery, and confusion came rushing back. I handled them all at once, no idea how to sort the emotions, but I didn’t need to know right then. All I needed to know was that I liked wearing them.

I went to the kitchen for a sparkling water. The ground was cold on my feet; the peach fuzz on my chest rose. When I closed the fridge, my dad was standing dead silent looking at me, my private hairs peeking out. We stared at each other, blinking and thinking God knows what. I expected him to erupt. A small part of me wanted to finally hear what his anger sounded like. To see a side of him I had never seen.

He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Are those your sister’s?”

I shook my head. “No.”

He let out all the air in his lungs. “That’s fine,” he said and looked me up and down, grinning, showing all his crooked teeth. “That’s fine.”


Adam McDonald lives in Toronto with his partner and two cats. He is the 
Managing Editor for Patchwork Mosaic magazine, an online publication for 
new and emerging writers. His work can be found in Allegory Ridge’s fiction 
anthology, Archipelago.

Hotels

By: Rachel Smith

The party was on a Thursday night. The guests came flushed with cold, carrying six-packs of Stella Artois. They unwound their scarves and lay their coats on Cici’s bed. As with all New York buildings in winter, the sixth-floor walk-up was overheated. Still, some guests kept their coats on. As each person arrived, Cici’s panic mounted. She’d invited women. Where were they? The work friends who had said they’d come? At half past seven, fifteen men stood in the tiny living room drinking. They threw glances her way as they talked to each other—about what? What could they have to say? None of them knew the others. She’d slept with them all.

Cici felt that they understood this. In the low, flickering candlelight, Brandon leaned toward Momar to speak. Steven drifted toward the window, tapping a pack of American Spirits on his palm. Frank and Hervé followed, reaching into their pockets. She glimpsed them from the open kitchen, where she was frantically browning meatballs. She saw awkward politeness in the way they moved across the room. But why be nervous? she asked herself, as she piled mounds of spaghetti on each triple-stacked paper plate. What could they say that would make it worse?

She delivered the food and moved among them, dipping into conversations, offering more beer. The apartment was deeply hot now and the last coats had been shed and tossed on the couch. She began to almost enjoy herself. The act of eating seemed to simmer them down. Then Luke came close and whispered, Sweetheart, I can’t compete, and dumped his plate in the trash. As he let himself out, he waved at her with his leather-palmed gloves. A sense of permission rippled through the room. Frank went to the bedroom for his coat. Hervé took his scarf from a hook on the wall. Soon the apartment was empty, candles burning down, a scattering of garbage. They were gone and she looked at the clock. It was nine.

 

How had it happened? she wondered again, three nights later, in the hotel room with Jean. He was a bulge breathing loudly beside her. She moved her legs and felt the milky soft sheets. To some of the men she’d barely mentioned the party, not even invited them. But mentioning a party was an invitation, she realized now. And she’d known that. Possibly she’d mentioned it out of fear no one would come. Or only two or three people would come. Some humiliatingly small number of people who would regret taking the train all the way up to 111th Street.

A clicking sound came from the gas fireplace in the corner. It was off now. Earlier she had lain on the thick carpet, bathing in its little heat. Jean always rented the Royal Suite when he came to the city—an indulgence she associated with his age—and the luxury made her feel spacious. It made her wonder if it was the squalidness of her apartment that had set her party up to fail. Whether a Chesterfield and a coat of Farrow & Ball would have changed the composition of the guests, made everyone drink more, and given the party that natural feeling good parties have. But this wasn’t about her apartment, she thought, turning over, pushing a pillow aside. It was about something more difficult. She had become one of those women who didn’t have friends.

Well. There were worse things. She was young. She probably had time. Light leaked around the cracks of the door to the bathroom and Jean’s shape was seal-like under the covers. She reached under and touched his arm.

Nn, he grunted. Cold.

Jean, she said, rolling onto her side.

Asleep, he said.

Why are you interested in me?

I was asleep, he said, opening his eyes.

That’s good, she said. You can go there again. But what made you interested in me? She was propped up on her elbows now.

He turned on his side to face her and said, Why are you asking?

I think I’m realizing something, Jean.

Well—he breathed and seemed to come more awake—I like being around you.

She fell back onto the pillows and thought about that for a moment. Or didn’t think about it, but felt it. The feeling was something like satisfaction.

I’m realizing—she said, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Jean? She nudged him with her fist. In the dim light, she studied the round outline of his face.

 

She half-woke when he left, before seven. Her alarm sounded at eight. The morning dark had given way to grey. Not light, exactly, but visibility. The room seemed to have been uncloaked. She stretched, cold under the sheets. The covers were heaped on the floor.

I used to go to the palace to meet with the son, he’d said at dinner the night before. He meant Baby Doc, Haiti’s president-for-life who’d fled to France in ’86. Half a decade, almost, before Cici was born. On a U.S. Airforce flight, by the way, Jean had said. They were in the hotel restaurant with its white tablecloths and dark damask walls. Jean had his fingers pressed on the base of his wine glass, his face lit with good humor. When I used to go meet with him, he said, twisting the glass a half turn, he would sit at the desk like a walrus in his beautiful suit. But he would never stand to greet you. You see, it was hot there, even in the palace. If he stood, you would see he was sitting there in bare legs and shorts.

Cici thought of this as she looked down the bed at her own thin legs. She’d lost weight when she visited Haiti, where she’d met Jean four months ago. She’d lost her period. The trip had left a spiritual mark on her, like a thin, white stripe on a plain beach rock. But whatever the mark was, she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t really say what it was.

She reached for her phone to text Jean and opened an unread message. In meetings until late my bird but done TODAY if things go well. There were three fingers-crossed emojis. Idea: would you like to go to Maine?

Reading this raised a vague tenderness within her. She thought of Maine as a place that had kept its wildness, a place artists liked to go to paint little boats against a sea that bled into the sky. It must have been three months ago that she’d explained her wish to go there. They were at a hotel in Washington, where Jean lobbied for his textiles. I know I have a romantic idea of Maine, she’d started out, in her matter-of-fact way. It was one of the first nights they’d spent together. He folded his newspaper and looked at her blankly. As she went on talking and got more into the thrall of her own thoughts, she’d said, But that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? Romanticizing? Isn’t that what gives you pleasure?

The memory embarrassed her now. It made her feel exposed. It showed something unguarded that she would have rather him not have seen. When they were together, she was aware of the outer life she presented. She tried to allow no opening, to control his impression of her. She thought that this made him like her more. But thinking of him now, when they were apart, she felt that her inner self was exposed—was always open to him—in some elemental way.

She texted: Maine! Yes. 

When she got out of the shower there was a reply: But can u take off work?

She dried her hands on a bath towel and typed back: Of course.

 

Light and fine as salt, snow drifted over the park. She jammed her fists in her pockets and snugged her coat tighter. Horses and carriages lined up on 59th Street and the drivers huddled together smoking. Cici turned out of the park onto the sidewalk. She walked close to a dun horse and touched its neck.

Ride for you? a driver called out. He moved toward her, dropping his cigarette in a puddle.

She shook her head. The horse flared its nostrils and she felt its wet breath.

Beautiful day, he said. Snowy day—though the snow had nearly stopped—Today half price.

I’ve read about your horses, she said, moving her fingers over the mane. They don’t get to go to pasture. Their stables are too small.

Your titties are too small, he said, smiling.

You can’t even see my titties, she thought, walking on. When she got to the corner she wished she had said that. And as she turned down Fifth Avenue and pushed the heavy doors open to the lobby and took the elevator to the 32nd floor, she was dogged by an indistinct sense of regret.

She went to the boss’s office and asked for the rest of the week off.

No, he said. His desk was polished and bare, nothing on it but a MacBook and a package of Red Vines. You’ve already taken more time off than we allow, he said, fixing her with a perplexed gaze. He pushed the Red Vines toward her, as though offering consolation.

She went to her cubicle and turned on the computer. But as she thought about it, she felt that it was unfair. She had worked there the six years since college, taking no extra time off until this year. Her trip to Haiti shouldn’t count, since one of the organization’s pillars was “service.” She’d gone there after the hurricane to volunteer. They’d written her up in the company newsletter. She looked down the hall and saw the other copywriters staring into their computers, wearing earbuds. She stood and took her coat off the back of her chair.

 

She had met Jean at the Oloffson, the hotel from The Comedians, with its grand, weathered approach: a cement path with tall palms at each side. White balconies with rows of thin, ornate balusters. Flat patches of grass shored up by cracked, pale walls. The hotel had a kind of weary elegance that had slipped into being something else, something more like fluky endurance.

She was supposed to be in the south, where the hurricane had blown roofs off—in Les Cayes—but hadn’t figured out how to get there. So she was here, in Port-au-Prince, blowing a hundred bucks a night on what amounted to an oddly thrilling vacation. In the day she wandered the streets downtown. She bought bottles of Coke out of ice-filled coolers. The vendor handed her a tall glass bottle and wouldn’t let her leave until it was empty and she gave it back. People climbed on their roofs to repair leaks from the storm, and in the narrow alleys power lines were clumped haphazardly along cement block walls. Children bathed in plastic tubs and sold Chiclets and called out, Give me one dollar! Women sold fruit and men sold cell phone chargers and batteries. Blan, they yelled at her. Hey, Blan.

She drank rhum punch at the hotel bar. She swam in the pool, the one where the dead man had been found in the Graham Greene novel. On the porch, at breakfast, she listened to conversations. The third morning, a man near her spoke rapidly in English and French. She heard the words compliance assessment and you knew they were Koreans. The man wore short sleeves. He picked up his water glass and set it down again, as though his speech were so important he couldn’t pause to drink. Across from him, a woman sat hunched over a flat omelet. When she got up to use the bathroom, she dropped her napkin on the ground.

The man rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and addressed Cici. I usually go to the Hotel Montana, he said. But there are some people you must always meet here.

Why? Cici asked.

He waved a hand toward the empty chair. She hates it here, he said. So I have the advantage.

The woman returned and took out her pocketbook. Non, ma chére, he said. He turned his cheek for her to kiss. As she walked off, the sound of her heels made the waiter, in his billowing white shirt, glance up.

Jean turned to Cici then and asked what she was doing there. She explained that she didn’t know how to get to where she was meant to go. That evening she was in a private car, with a hired driver, on her way to Les Cayes.

 

Cici walked up Fifth Avenue, weaving back through the stream of commuters. It wasn’t yet ten. She went to the bookstore. She was standing, staring blankly down the aisle before she knew what she wanted. The Comedians had given her her first idea of Haiti: a country doomed and fertile, with dusty streets and paintings in bright colors. The image wasn’t so far off what she had experienced when she went there. She wanted to revisit that now.

When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals… Something like comfort spread within her at the formal, rhapsodic sound of the words. And there, near the bottom of the first page, was a line she remembered underlining ages ago: There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. The words had thrilled her. She’d been in college, in her tiny dorm bed, curled with her back to her roommate. She’d wondered if that was true—the point of no return—and if it was, when it would arrive for her, or if it already had, and those questions had made her life seem to unfurl into the future, full of mystery and consequence.

There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives.

The words seemed more like a trick now. They seemed meant to coax her into a false sense of things mattering more than they did. They seemed cheap. The comfort she’d gotten from reading the first lines turned over on itself and darkened.

But why cheap? she wondered, as she closed the book gently and tucked it under her coat, under her arm.

And here her thoughts became confused, because the truth was that she felt both things at once: the sense of mystery the words had given her before, and also this new suspicion of cheapness. And there was something else, something swimming below the surface of her thoughts that she couldn’t get at. She walked in the direction of the door.

Excuse me, a man said, as she passed the sale table. He put his hand on her arm.

She stopped. She felt her face outwardly compose itself and she smiled at him.

Sorry to bother you, he said, in a cautious way. But I bet you’re my daughter’s age. I’m looking for a gift.

She waited for him to go on. A violin concerto played softly, coming from the cafe. She thought he must be well past sixty, the same age as Jean.

What books do you like? There was helplessness in his voice, as though he’d already been there, scanning the shelves for a long time. I want to get her the right one.

Don’t get a book, Cici said, clutching the zippered edge of her coat. She watched his face crumple. Get her anything else.

 

The snow had stopped. The air was cold through her coat. She felt the hard brick of the book against her ribs as she walked toward the train. Only when the doors had closed did she move it to her bag. No one saw. There weren’t many people going uptown.

She opened the door to her apartment, everything in order but dingy, and felt for a moment that no one lived there. It smelled like the natural, bergamot-scented spray she bought online. She crossed the living room to the window, the one the men had used to smoke at her party, and worked it open. In the pocket of her coat, her phone sounded, and she took it out and saw it was a call from her job. She turned the phone off. She left the window open as she packed a suitcase, even as it got cold. For a moment she stood in the doorway with her coat and luggage and the inexplicable sense that she wouldn’t come back here. She turned the lights off. Then, as though to guard against that odd feeling of finality, she switched the one in the kitchen on. 

In the hotel room, Cici slept on the pale, striped couch until Jean came. She felt him moving around the room, heard drawers opening. Then he was in the bathroom clipping his nails. He was on the phone, ordering room service, when she opened her eyes. She stretched, arching her back, and when he saw her, his face changed. It gave him pleasure to see her wake up. 

Did you have a good nap? he asked, coming close to kiss her hair.

Yes, she said.

He went to the mirror and undid his shirt buttons with the usual attitude of vigor and purpose. As she watched him now she wondered if this quality was something he’d cultivated against the fact of getting old. It made her feel sympathy, and admiration. She pushed the feelings aside. They weren’t the ones she wanted to have.

I accomplished my goals today, he said.

Good. She swung her feet to the floor. Her legs were bare. She stood and walked around the couch and lifted her shirt to see her midriff when she passed the mirror.

You’re thin, he said.

So? she said, dropping her shirt again.

He turned his body to profile, showing his beach-ball stomach. I didn’t used to be so fat, he said, and smiled. He took off his undershirt and looked at it. These are good shirts, he said. He opened his suitcase and took out a plastic-wrapped package. Want one?

She stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, and put her hands out.

He tossed it in her direction. This is what we’re making in my factory now. 

What are you paying these days?

That’s why I like you, he said. You have a conscience.

She pulled off the plastic wrapping and let it fall to the floor. She held the shirt by its two shoulders and shook out its folds. 

Five dollars a day. Twenty-five percent over the minimum wage and five times what people are making all over the country. He said this in a salesman voice that irritated her.

Mm, she said.

Mm, he said, with a finality that made her feel she should not say more. He walked into the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on.

 

She picked up the plastic from the floor and took out the cardboard insert that clung to the inside of the shirt. The cotton had a new, slippery feel, and it smelled like chemicals. She ran the fabric over her arm. Presently there was a knock, and she pulled her jeans on and opened the door. While the girl set up their trays on the folding stands, Cici took cash from her purse. It was money Jean had left that morning for her to take a cab.

Thank you, the girl said, and Cici nodded. The girl asked if they needed anything else.

Cici shook her head and softly closed the door. 

She looked at the trays. The plates were covered, and—she put her fingers to them—hot. She lifted the napkin from the bread basket and took out a piece of baguette. She spread it with butter, and stood there, next to the table, eating slowly.

She says she’s hungry, the driver Jean had hired told her, as they moved through the slow traffic on the way to Les Cayes. They were watching a woman walk alongside the cars with her hand out and pleading eyes.

Many people here have need, the driver said. But we also have fakers.

You think she’s a faker? Cici said.

The driver shrugged.

A man in the car in front of them rolled down the window and yelled something.

The driver laughed.

What did he say? Cici asked. The woman had fixed her eyes on their car now and was thrusting her open palm at Cici.

Nothing, the driver said. He says nothing.

Cici handed the woman a coin.

Put up the window, the driver said, and she did. The car in front of them moved and he drove on, gathering speed.

What did that man say? Cici asked again, after they’d traveled a few bumpy miles. The driver smiled and turned his clear eyes to her. You want to know?

Cici nodded.

The lady says mwen grangou. I’m hungry. That man puts his window down and says, Go have a fuck. It will make you forget about it.

He turned the radio up and drove on.

Cici was eating another piece of bread when Jean came out of the bathroom. My factory got two contracts today, he said. He had recovered his jolly mood. One is a big label. We have not been working at full capacity since we opened. Now we will, almost. Oh, good, he said. The food is here.

Jean produced a candle from a small paper bag and lit it. He moved behind her and pressed his mouth to her neck. He pulled out her chair. Before he lifted the lids off the plates, he took her hand between his and rubbed it. The portions were small but he had ordered lavishly. French onion soup, mussels, filet, green beans.

You know, he said. Since the factory opened after the earthquake, we’ve created almost two hundred jobs.

Cici thought of her own job with a swell of resentment. You don’t mind spending money, she said, surveying the food. You could pay them more.

You liberals, he said soberly, you always use the same lines.

What are you, she asked, a conservative?

I’m an industrialist. I’m a business man. And—he picked up a steak knife—a champion of my country. Mwen grangou, he said, as he cut the filet in half. He spoke Creole, she understood, to show that he knew more than she did about his own people.

He began talking again after they had eaten for a while in silence. I went to a good private school, he said. We spoke French at home. We were raised to be—he waved a hand—cosmopolitan. By the way, they teach French in the schools all over Haiti. Only they don’t teach it well enough for anyone to come out understanding. He took a bite of bread and Cici waited as he chewed.

Our class went to an assembly in an outdoor arena, he said. This was with Papa Doc there, running the country—he pointed in the direction of the coffee table—like in your book. Terrible times. Though if you were not political, and not unlucky, you were not so desperate then as the people are now. I mean in terms of money. He cut the last green beans on his plate, picked up his water glass, and set it back down. When he spoke again it was with hesitation, as though she’d asked a difficult question. We sat in a row on bleachers. In front of us a man was blindfolded. The Macoute came out wearing their sunglasses, holding guns. Ten of them, maybe. They line up. There is no speech about the man, nothing. No sentence. Nobody coughs. This man is there, of course, for a political reason. But we don’t understand. We’re eight years old. I was wearing my navy uniform with shorts. He paused, then made his fingers into the shape of a gun. He looked toward the window, as though looking away from the image that had come into his mind. Can you imagine? he said. This was what we watched at school.

 

In bed, Cici pressed her body to his, touching the hair on his arms, the band of his cotton underwear. She couldn’t sleep. She had napped too long. She thought of the tent city in Les Cayes, where she had helped a mission group hand out water bottles and plastic toys. The local people had left her with varied impressions—resignation, friendliness, shock, dignity. They had warned her not to wear her flip-flops in the mud because of worms. The day before she left, she had wandered through the corridors, among the tents and tarps, snapping photos with her phone. As she reached a small clearing, away from the foreign workers, a man in a loose, sleeveless shirt had come up to her, slapping his chest and yelling in Creole. He took a rake that stood against the fence and waved it at Cici, heckling. He came close and backed away, dragging the rake over the ground. The only word she understood was white person, blan, but she saw what was underneath the words. It was pure—almost appealing—anger. And there was something sexual in it that confused her, something to do with power.

A woman in a Médecins Sans Frontières jacket stopped and stood beside Cici. He says, Look at me, she translated. Go ahead. Take my picture. Isn’t that what you want? Take it home with you. Take my picture when I’m—the woman searched for the word—in squalor? In her lovely French accent, the woman remarked, Next time you might want to ask.

Later, Cici stood with the same woman near a small garbage fire, and she said, You know what the problem is with this country?

Cici shook her head.

The corruption, the woman said. The elites. There’s money here. But it goes—she held her fingers up as though she’d taken a pinch of salt—to this many people. They rob their own country blind.

Cici thought of this now, in the bed, as she touched Jean. She had a rush of feeling that she tried to untangle. It had risen from his story of the execution. He had seemed sincere. But in that sincerity, she sensed something else—as though his feelings about it were rooted in something more personal than watching a man be shot. But who was she to doubt the depth of his feeling? It had made her suspicious. But why? She knew nothing about Haiti. Or business. Jean had only been kind. Yet she couldn’t dismiss the sense that he should not have money, being from a country that was so poor. She fell asleep wondering if there was logic in this, or if it was naive, or whether it mattered at all.

In the morning, he brought her coffee in bed. It’s a beautiful day for a drive, he said.

She looked to the window. The patch of sky between buildings was gray and there was a steady drumming of rain. Why are you so happy? she said.

Did you ever go to Cité Soleil? he asked.

She shook her head.

He shrugged. I thought maybe you had, because all the do-gooders like to go there. I used to have a factory there. But when the government changed, we started to have gangs. I kept operating, losing money every day, my workers being shot at, bullets coming in through the walls. Everyone lost their jobs. I had to close the factory down.

With the new factory, I’m useful again. And what happened yesterday, the contracts—people can rely on me. It will be the first time we’re on steady ground. He touched his hands together, then drew them apart. I feel a weight is gone.

Cici allowed herself to be swept up in Jean’s sincerity. She gathered the covers around herself and said, I like you.

Why, my bird?

I like the way you talk about what you do, she said. But—she felt herself speaking from someplace else, saying things that were possibly not true, yet at the same time were pleasing to say aloud—There’s a part of me that might say I like you because of your money. I like the hotels. The plates with the silver covers. The fireplace and the good sheets. It doesn’t take much, she said, for me to feel happy.

A wounded look passed over his face, but he quickly recovered.

He came close and put a hand on the side of her neck and said, We have our own reasons for enjoying each other. At my age, the enjoyment is what matters. The details matter less.

He turned his back to her and she felt as though something had fallen within her, as though he had won.

She put on the clean, chemical-smelling t-shirt he’d given her, and felt her own uneasiness as they hauled their suitcases down in the elevator and loaded them into the rental car. She knew better than to romanticize having nothing. And yet, she was cutting the pieces of her life down to nothing. No friends. No job. No money. She would go on the trip, she thought, and after that she would not see Jean. As they drove north in silence, with the windshield wipers flying back and forth, she understood the difference between them, and for a moment it eased her suffering. He had passed the point of no return, and she still had all the time in the world.


Rachel Smith’s writing has appeared in The AtlanticThe Seattle TimesThe Rumpus, and Brevity. She has been a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives with her husband and dog in a cabin in the wilds of the North Cascades. 

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