The Stuff Between the Stars

Sandra Nickel

Enjoy a 10% excerpt of Sandra Nickel‘s forthcoming picture book, The Stuff Between the Stars (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019). “The Stuff Between the Stars” won Category First Place for Children’s Books in the 2017 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

* * *

As a baby grew inside Vera, she began answering a question that had left a bright trail through her mind. Was it possible that galaxies rotated around a center in the universe like the Big Dipper circled the North Star? She plotted galaxies on a globe and carefully measured how they moved. Just before her son was born, Vera discovered that her idea might just be right.

Vera drove through a snowstorm, thick as the Milky Way, to share her ideas at a gathering of America’s most important senior astronomers. The men were all clustered together like the bright bulge of a galaxy. They all seemed to know each other.

She stood before them and told them about the movement of galaxies. One by one they stood up. They said her ideas were outlandish. They said her ideas were ridiculous.

Vera felt like the smallest, slowest star on the edge of their galaxy. She asked herself, “Will I ever really be an astronomer?”

Photo of Vera Rubin. PC: Carnegie Institution

Check out this interview with author Sandra Nickel, Abrams Books executive editor Maggie Lehrman, and literary agent Victoria Wells Arms on the legacy of Vera Rubin, women in science, and the process of writing a nonfiction children’s book. 

The Carrying Beam

S.M. Mack

1925, Northwestern Nepal

 

When my half-brothers died, Mother would not let anyone touch their little bodies. She wrapped them in a blanket her own mother made and carried them to the small pyre we’d built above the village. The summer rains had not yet arrived, so even in the gathering dusk the world remained brown and dry. Houses the color of road dust slouched, and without the wide green leaves of young trees and overgrown shrubs our mountain home appeared more monochrome than even in the bleakness of winter.

The lama, who lived at the far edge of the village, had a much shorter walk to the pyre. Our mistress requested his presence on our behalf, so he left his warm home to chant the proper words over their bodies.  

“I like to think,” he said as the kindling hissed and curled, “that those who depart so soon must be more likely than the rest of us to escape the next cycle of rebirth.”  

“Thank you, jowo,” I said, and bowed.  

Mother’s lip curled.  

We stood outside the ring of light and warmth and listened to the lama’s voice as he performed. I wished Mother’s husband Tsering home from the annual trading route, or that we could wait for his return to do this. I wished our mistress had come, and brought her husbands and children, to mourn with us. I wished Mother would put her arm around me.  

The wind sprinted up the mountainside and shrieked its way through the village below us. It pulled at my unadorned braids and tore Mother’s shawl from her shoulders. She hardly seemed to notice when it blew away, but shouted when I ran to retrieve it.  

“You are disrespectful,” she hissed when I returned.  “Loveless, ungrateful child.” The lama paused, and in the absence of his baritone the silence rang.  

“It will grow colder before spring returns again. You need this,” I said, and shook the shawl in her face. She smacked my fist down and slapped me with an open palm.  

The lama broke in, frowning. “This is not seemly,” he said.  “You must control yourselves.” Mother’s head snapped around, and for a moment I thought she would strike him as well.  

Her face smoothed, though. “Of course, jowo,” she said, bending at the waist with loose shoulders. I stared until the lama cleared his throat, then startled as the world snapped back into place. I jerked, Mother’s shawl still in my hand, and brought my palms together. My braid slipped past my ear. 

During the darkest part of the night, long after the lama finished his duty and left us, Mother and I turned our backs on the dying pyre and followed the path back into the village.  

As we passed the mistress’ trongchen, the great house where she and her family slept, the wind picked up again. It stung my cheeks and I squinted against the chill.  

Mother stopped to stare up at the trongchen. “Listen to the thatching, Dorje,” she said, her eyes hard. “Her house-beam may be strong enough to carry a witch down the mountain, but the rest of it is weak.”  

“Do not say such things,” I said without heat, and took her cold hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine. I tugged until she moved again, then led her away from the front of the house.  

In our small hut behind the trongchen, I lit a mostly-burned candle and gathered every blanket we owned, then crawled onto my mother’s pallet as if I was no older than my dead brothers.  

“You shouldn’t,” she said as I settled. “I haven’t been cleansed of the death-taint yet.”  

“Too late,” I said, and curled up against her warmth.  

When the candle guttered and the room grew dark, Mother’s breaths began to hitch. I pressed my face into the meat below her shoulder and wished for something to say.  

Her husband, Tsering, might have brought more comfort, but he and the oldest of our mistress’ three husbands had left weeks before, almost the moment the weather permitted. Yaks carried the knotted carpets, tea, and knitted clothing they would exchange for rice, linens, and metal accoutrements.  

Tsering would have no idea his sons were dead until he returned. Letters rarely reached the men who left the village, as their routes varied from year to year. Tsering and our owner could be as far away as China by now.  

I closed my eyes against Mother’s sorrow and let her sleeve soak up the leaking from my eyes. “I am sorry,” I said, over and over, though I did not know why. A gulf yawned within my chest, between my ribs and spine.  

“Our mistress did this,” she said into my tear-stained hair.  

My forehead mussed the damp fabric at her shoulder as I shook my head. “No, Mother.”  

“I know she did,” Mother said. “Why else would she let them die so easily?”  

I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her as she had me and my brothers. I said, over and over again: Our mistress did not harm my brothers. Our mistress had no witchcraft in her blood.  

“They needed medicine and did not receive it. There is no witchcraft inside her,” I insisted.  

“It is still her fault,” Mother said. Her voice cracked.  

Privately, I agreed. Mother’s chest rose and fell with harsh breaths, but she relented enough to pull me close.  

~

I endeavored to keep my mother and mistress apart for as long as possible. Mother would not quickly forgive me for leaving her to care for our mistress’ children, but it was better than the discord she would sow here. 

My mistress met my eyes through her handheld mirror. She sat on a generous pile of cushions, warming her feet in a slant of morning sunshine while I arranged her hair for the day. “I provided my condolences, did I not?” she said.

“Yes, jozhon, you did.” I dropped my eyes to my fingers intertwined in her thick, black hair. Though we would both work the field today, watering, pulling weeds, and killing pests, the fineness of her hair and clothes would mark her as my owner. “We are both grateful for your kindness.” 

She smiled, but her eyes narrowed. Mother had a similar expression, one she donned when she took pleasure in causing unhappiness. “Grateful,” my mistress said. “Really?”  

“Of course.” I resisted pulling her braid too tightly. 

“You don’t think me cruel?” she said. “If we’d had the money I might have saved them.”  

I could feel her watch me in her mirror. My hands moved faster, though not so quickly I would lose the strands of my work. “Cruel?  No, jozhon.  Of course not.”  

My brothers battled their rashes and fever long enough to grow quiet, pale, and weak. When their fevers spiked, one after the other, our mistress decreed the necessary medicines extravagant. Mother tried to petition the lama for mercy, but our mistress ordered her locked inside our hut. The shackles, though open, still sat piled in a corner.  

My mistress’ voice lost its silky edge, and the shift startled me into sneaking a glance through my lashes. She caught my gaze and held it through her hand mirror. “Samten was not in her right mind,” she said. 

I swallowed and looked down. It would not do to keep Mother from this task only to botch it myself. I could never be anything more than a good daughter and a good slave, so I sought to balance both. It occupied my days, kept the peace, and was certainly more than Mother had managed.  

“We trust that you knew what you were doing,” I said. 

~

Mother began to whisper prayers with her eyes fixed on the trongchen’s central house-beam. She was careful not to be overheard, but I saw her lips move as she served the meals.  

I caught and pulled her away from the second-floor dining area; not downstairs to the barn, but upstairs to a floor full of empty bedrooms.  

“You must not,” I said, low and fierce, with my fingers still on her wrist. “They will think you are casting spells. They will call you a witch.”  

Mother smoothed a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “No one will catch me at it.”      

I could not fully hide my exasperation. “I did. Anyone else could have also seen.”  

Her expression grew placid, and something within me shifted like an anxious bird. “You’re different,” she said. “Observant, and outside of the rest. Like myself.”  

A dark forehead and small pair of eyes appeared at the top of the stairs: Chodak, our mistress’ youngest son. My stomach swooped.  

“You are not going to try to bring them back, are you?” I said, unease making me tactless. I should not have mentioned my brothers. “Because you cannot. They are gone.”  

Mother’s humanity slipped as her lips pulled back into a snarl. Her teeth sharpened and her skin sagged as if aging fifty years in a moment. Her eyebrows thickened, her nose warped as if it had been horribly broken, and when she raised a hand, wicked talons glinted in the poor light.  

Terror closed my throat. I stepped back, unable to breathe.  “Mother–”  

Then she blinked, or I blinked, and she was my mother again.  

“I know the dead are gone,” Mother said.  

Goosebumps crawled down my arms. I nodded, eyes still wide. She turned toward the stairs in time to hear small feet patter downward.  

“What is it?” I said when she paused, straining through stagnant air.  

Her shoulders rose in a deep inhale. “Nothing, Dorje,” she said. “Come, now. Our jowo and jozhon will need us.”  

~

When Mother was young, she sought to rise above her birth, perhaps even to free herself from slavery. Our mistress’ eldest husband had already favored her several times, and she hoped my birth would cement her position. He could have freed her, but in the end he did not, and Mother hates them all for it. 

Our mistress may have had husbands to spare, but they did the sharing, not she. 

I may not acknowledge anyone but Tsering as my father, but he is a good man, and Mother loves him, in her way. He is our laughter in the dark and our warmth through each winter. He grounds and softens my mother, and he is the only kind of man I may hope for: one who loves me despite my mother and all that she is.  

~

I kept a close watch over Chodak. Our mistress could take care of herself, but he was only four years of age–old enough to fear witches, though perhaps not old enough to recognize one.  Everyone else knew what to look for, and to be on the lookout for it.  

Witches dismembered their husbands, tortured children, and chained their daughters to the house-beams they used to fly. They learned their cruelty from their mothers, who had chained them to their own house-beams in order to whet the daughter’s appetite for cruelty. They destroyed entire villages with their darkness.  

While the mistress’ two eldest boys spent their days watching over the cattle, I limited Mother’s interactions with the younger children as much as possible. I sent her to attend our mistress and insisted on caring for the children myself.  

So long as she refrained from harming anyone, I could justify keeping her secret. 

I began to dream of waking in the middle of the night to an empty hut with no center house-beam. The house should have fallen. I should have died.  

Only witchcraft can keep a home upright without its center beam. By removing it a witch proves her power over those closest to her–her husband, her children, her mistress and masters.  

The first few times I dreamed of waking in an empty home I remained too sleep-fuddled to do anything but sit up and look around. Only on the third night a dzomo, one of the yak-cattle hybrids stabled in the trongchen’s ground floor, called loudly enough to her calf that I took notice. 

Though my eyes were already open, it felt like waking. My skin felt as if I had gone walking without it and it now hung loose on all my bones.  

I looked up. The central house-beam remained missing. The hut remained empty. 

I swallowed and threw myself back down, pulling the blanket almost to my ears and squeezing my eyes shut as I willed myself to dreamlessness. 

~

Early the next afternoon the summer rains drove all who could be spared inside. I herded our mistress’ two youngest boys, the ones not yet old enough to watch over the grazing animals, into one of the second-floor storerooms to continue work on some of the half-finished rugs that Tsering and our master would trade next year. “Do you have your blocks?” I said.  

“I’ll get them,” said Palden, who bolted down the hallway.  He was Chodak’s elder by only a year. Chodak hovered by the door and kept his attention on me and his sister, who I carried in a sling on my back.  

I settled myself before the loom with my back to the wall.  Their sister would grow fussy soon enough with the view, but for now she continued to nap.  

Palden returned with an armful of toys. He dropped them with a clatter, and I looked at him sharply. “Do not wake your sister.”  

He kneeled beside his toys and looked at me from the corner of his eye. “I won’t,” he said, then swiveled around on his knees to face me directly. “If you can do magic, why did your brothers die? Did you want them to?”  

Adrenaline surged with a cold jolt. “What?” I said, though I couldn’t help but glance, rabbit-quick, at Chodak. He looked at the floor the moment I turned my head.  

“Do witches need medicine when they get sick?” Palden said.  “Can you ride on a house-beam?”

He thought I was the witch. The molten thought pooled into my gut and I stared at him, unable to move.

“No,” I said, more harshly than I intended. “No, I cannot do magic, but magic would not have saved them. Witchcraft is evil, do you understand? It is depravity and wickedness and every unkind thought the world has ever had.” I found myself on my feet in front of the loom, breathing harshly. The baby strapped to my back woke and began to fuss.  

Palden’s shoulders met his ears. He stared wide-eyed at the floor and shook his head, but I could not stop. “Am I a monster who has simply taken a liking to you?” I said. “Is that what you have decided, that I cursed my brothers to die but would not do the same to you?”  

Chodak cowered. He scooted backward along the floor and bumped into the doorframe. The baby began to wail.  

A wild, wordless sound escaped me, and I used my fingernails to tear at the knots holding her to me. When the sling came loose too quickly, it slipped and she shrieked.  

I grimaced and dropped to my knees. I pulled her around to my front and lay her on the floorboards with shaking hands. “Hush,” I said, my voice thick.  

She hiccuped and continued to scream. Her face turned pink with exertion.  

An ache formed in my chest, no larger than my fist and beating steadily against my sternum. I inhaled what was meant to be a calming breath, but it hitched on the exhale. I leaned over beside the baby, dropped to my elbows and lowered my face to kiss her cheek. “I am sorry,” I said, my voice hardly more than a breath.  

It took a long time for the darkness in my chest to fade.  When the baby finally fell back into an exhausted sleep, I left her alone. I kneeled beside the boys’ block tower and kept my hands loose in my lap. No fists, no rubbing my empty chest.  Both Chodak and Palden averted their eyes.  

“I apologize to you both,” I said. “I should not have yelled.”  

“I’m sorry we asked,” Chodak said. Palden looked up with big, earnest eyes and nodded.  

“It’s all right,” I said. “But let’s not mention this to your mother or fathers, yes?”  

They nodded, still searching to please.  

The unnatural quiet persisted when I returned to the loom.  This was how witchcraft spread, I reflected as it clacked and the rug grew by increments. It had nothing to do with chains or house-beams. Witchcraft bloomed through anger, from mother to daughter. Rage beyond control.    

~

At sunset after Mother and I cleaned the dinner dishes from the table, I caught her by the elbow. She let me tow her to the garden just outside the ground floor entrance, and gave only a small sigh when I released her ungently. “Dorje,” she began, and I made a wordless, frustrated noise as heat flared in my chest.  

“You must stop,” I said. “Whatever it is you have been doing at night, whatever spells you have woven, it must all cease. I woke up last night. I saw you gone. And today with the children–” I cut myself off too late and tried to distract her by continuing on another track. “You are poisoning me.”  

Mother’s gaze sharpened. “What about the children?” she said. “The daughter born since my sons died, or our mistress’ own little boys?”  

I shook my head, though I could not pinpoint what I meant to deny. I should have said nothing. “Do not hurt them.”  

She smiled without warmth and said, “I won’t.”  

I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my fists to my forehead.  “Mother.”  

Her eyebrows rose as if my disbelief disappointed her. “I will not hurt them, Dorje.”  

I dropped my hands. “Swear it,” I said, feeling as though my bones might snap. “Swear that you will let me fetch the lama to exorcise the evil within you.” Perhaps he would consent to exorcise me as well. It was for the good of the village, after all.  

Mother’s expression flattened and her canines lengthened.  Dark brown fur began to sprout all across her face and neck.  “For as long as you stand between us,” she said with a growl, “I swear I will not harm our mistress’ children.”  

I stood my ground, though could not help shuddering.  Mother snarled, the same noise a cornered fox makes. “Does that satisfy you, daughter?”  

“Yes,” I said, breathless.  

She turned away with a huff. When I did not follow, she paused and turned back to look at me. The fur had disappeared; she looked like my mother again. “Are you coming?” she said.  

I nodded. I did not hurry after her, but I went.  

~

When I woke again in the middle of the night, I realized this time I had almost expected it.  

From where she crouched at the foot of my pallet, Mother grinned and gestured for me to sit up. “Dress yourself, quickly.  The night won’t last forever.” Her darkness had already exposed itself. This time she bore tusks that jutted from her mouth and her skin was corpse gray. Her slitted pupils glittered in the light of our lone candle.  

With my eyes on my lap, I pushed myself to sitting. She leaned over me with her arms outstretched like a hawk over her meal. I inhaled and lifted my head, thinking she meant to embrace me.  

Too late, I heard the metal click. The cold iron closed around my neck, and two more bands encircled my wrists. I cried out and lurched to my knees. Mother danced back; an iron chain dangled between us. “What are you doing?” I said.  

The chains formed a rough triangle between my wrists and neck. Another length branched off from the shackle around my neck to Mother’s hand.  

She straightened, smiling. “I’ve already put the village to sleep. We’re going on a trip.”  

She turned away and tugged on my chains as I had on her elbow earlier in the day. I stumbled to my feet, tripped over my blanket, and let myself fall to the floor.  

Mother spared me no more than a moment before she yanked on my leash. My arms jerked forward and I choked. Involuntary tears stung my eyes as I arched my neck to breathe. “Mother–”  

A flat weight whacked against my arm just above my outstretched wrist, though it took several heartbeats before the heat registered through my sleeve. Fabric sizzled, then pain seeped through. I shrieked and jerked away, opened my eyes to see Mother standing over me with an iron spatula, hot enough to glow red.  

“I am going to show you why you need not stand between those children and me,” she said. “You will learn to enjoy this, Dorje. You will see they are no better than their parents.”  

She jerked on my chains again and I scrabbled to my feet.  I hunched over my burned arm, my shoulder braced against the doorframe, and tried to say a prayer. Nothing came.  

The roof of our home shuddered. “No,” Mother said to herself, and the earthquake stopped. She laughed. “Not ours tonight.”  

She led me around our home to the trongchen. The top floor, where the house-beam would be taken from, held nothing but bedrooms for our mistress, her husbands, and their children.  

The trongchen shuddered as our home had, and the central house-beam dropped like a leaf from the nearest window.  Witchcraft kept the home standing in the absence of proper support, just as it would heat my mother’s spatula and give her strength beyond her normal abilities. Mother turned to me, grinning, and the beam followed her movements like a dog.  

“Get on,” she said, and swung one leg over the wooden beam.  

A small sound escaped my chest. She didn’t look so monstrous from the back.  

“Dorje,” she said, a warning in her voice.  

I gritted my teeth and obeyed. The wooden corners cut into my thighs, and splinters threatened when I braced my palms on the space between my mother and myself. My chains rattled horribly.  

“Hold on to me,” Mother said, and I scooted forward until I could wrap my arms around her waist.  

She still smelled like herself, like sweat and garden dirt and very faintly of stolen perfume. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead at the base of her neck. Except for the pulsing burn on my arm, I could almost pretend this was only another night.  That I was dreaming.  

Mother croaked, and the house-beam leaped forward. The rushing wind pulled my sleep-braids back so hard it felt like someone sat behind me, tugging on them.  

We descended from our mountain and traveled for a long time. The wind died but the air remained sharp, and while the air cooled my burned skin, the chill spread until my shoulders vibrated with shivers. My arms grew fatigued and my fingers numb with cold. I hated letting my feet dangle into the nothingness below but had nowhere to brace them.  

When I felt the motion of the house-beam slow, I cracked an eyelid open and peeked over my mother’s shoulders.  

A city spread out below us. When I gasped at the size of it, Mother laughed and patted the iron cuff on my wrist. She said something stolen by the wind.  

My stomach swooped as we descended. Gravel crunched as Mother’s heels skidded against the dirt, and we halted with a jolt. Mother moved to alight and I had to release her, though I did not wish to.  

I dismounted and landed with a jolt to both knees that left me stumbling, legs tingling as blood swept downward. Mother righted me with a snap of the leash and led me through the front door of the nearest trongchen–it may have already been unlocked, or she may have used a spell. I don’t know.  

The street stood in shadow as the stars held their peace behind the impossible buildings. The doorway stood almost wide enough for a cart to pass through–significantly larger than our mistress’ trongchen, though more visibly shabby.  

Inside, Mother drew the spatula from the inside of her coat, and I did my best not to flinch away. It did not glow; she must have cooled it before storing it so close to her own skin.  Or perhaps burns did not hurt her anymore.  

“Do you know where we are?” she said. I shook my head. The mountains ringing the city were unfamiliar, but then, I had never seen any mountains but ours.  

“This is where your half-siblings live,” Mother said. “The ones who do not own you. Your sire comes to visit their mother each year as he drags my husband and the rest of his goods behind him, and he holidays while the rest of us toil in the dirt and dzomo shit.”  

I exhaled slowly, frozen on a single realization: Tsering was near, even if he would not be permitted to sleep too near the family who lived here. Mother had taken me to the one person who might persuade her to see reason. Not only that, but Tsering cared for her. He would keep her secret.  

“Do you see?” she said, and gestured with her spatula at the dark home before us. “Your sire is not above acknowledging his bastards. It is only because you are mine that he will not look at you. It is because our jozhon does not wish him to.”  Her voice edged toward a snarl.  

I groped for something intelligent to say. A response. “I don’t need him,” I said, and hated how stupefied I sounded.  

“Of course you need him,” she cried. Her hands, still clutching the spatula and my leash, rose to press against her temples. “He will give you away when our mistress’ last brat is married off. Their daughter will become your mistress and it will never end. You will marry a slave whose brothers are partitioned to other houses for other women. Your children, if any live, will live in the shadow of that brat’s own children.”  

“If we were jozhon, I would be gone when I married, too,” I said. “We have Tsering. We don’t need anyone else.”  

She bared her teeth. “You’re not listening,” she said, and spun to stalk away upstairs. The leash grew taut and I stumbled after her.  

Her spatula began to glow. “Mother, no,” I said in a loud whisper, and reached out to tug on her sleeve. “Please. Let’s go home.” She snapped at me to be silent.  

“If my daughter will emerge having felt my wrath, do you think I would let anyone else off so lightly?” she said. She raised the red-hot spatula as if to strike me again and I recoiled. The leash brought me up short.  

She lowered her arm and stared at me, her corpse-gray skin silver in the moonlight. I recognized only bits and pieces of her: the shape of her nose, the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, the thickness of her braids.  

She said, “If you join me in this, you’ll never have to see me do witchcraft again. I’ll stop baiting you.”  

I ceased breathing for a long moment. I wanted to agree, to blindly reach out and accept her terms, but something within me hard and immoveable as our mountain, warned that Mother’s proposal would come with a catch.  

“Mother,” I said, but had nothing to follow it with. She only arched an eyebrow and flipped her spatula to offer me the handle. Haltingly, I shook my head.  

Then the sick stench of burning meat sizzled, and I snatched it from her before I knew what I had done. Mother smiled and showed me her palm–unblemished. An illusion.  

“Are you ready?” she said. She still held my leash wrapped around her other hand.  

I tightened my grip on the spatula and blinked against tears. “This isn’t fair,” I said, and brought her weapon out in front of me. The chains dripping from my wrists rattled against each other.  

Mother tipped her head back and laughed, and I bared my blunt teeth at her. “Take me home,” I said, my voice rising past the hushed tone I’d been using. It did not matter if I woke everyone in the house we trespassed in, or if I woke the entire city.

Mother’s smile spoke of hunger and primal satisfaction.  “You are mine,” she said. “You are mine and we’re going to prove it to everyone tonight.”

My jaw ached. “I will not help you torture children,” I said. “I would not even torture our master for you.”  

Mother could not smell half-truths, so she snarled a terrible wild sound. My shoulders tightened. I raised her spatula with both hands, and she raised my leash–triumphant from the start.  

I glared at her. “Wake up,” I yelled, lifting my chin to send my voice down the hallway. “Help, wake up. Tsering!”  

A thump sounded from the far end of the house. A woman’s muffled voice, and a man’s.  

Mother’s face contorted. She howled and rushed forward. I threw myself to the side to get out of her way, but she ignored me except to tighten her grip on the leash and to drag me along behind her. I tripped and stumbled down the stairs after her–the spatula fell somewhere, and I spared half a moment to hope it would not set the house afire–and when I fell outside the trongchen’s entrance, the iron collar dug into my neck so tightly that I gagged and grabbed blindly at the leash.  

Mother swung a leg over the house-beam. “Get on,” she said, her voice guttural and sharp, merciless and so full of fury, and then she kicked her foot against the ground.  

The house-beam rose, and I screamed, a short, high sound as my lungs used all the air within. I lurched from my knees to my feet, arms outstretched, and one hand caught the house-beam.  Splinters pinched as my other palm landed and held fast. I hauled myself up, my leash blessedly loose.  

~

As we neared the outskirts of our village, Mother leaned back until her lips found my ear. Over the sound of the wind she said, “You’ve disappointed me tonight, but we’ll have other chances for you to make this right.” 

I sagged, weary beyond reckoning and too heartsore to think of tears. “Please don’t do this,” I said. “No one saw us. No one has to know what you’ve become.” 

Mother didn’t bother to answer. She leaned forward again and placed both palms upon the wood, one in front of the other, and murmured to the house-beam. Her witchcraft would not wane until the sun rose—soon, but not yet. 

I sat up, careful to keep my balance without looking down.  When the sun rose, the spell that kept our mistress and her husbands, and in fact the entire village, asleep and unaware of Mother’s activities would end. The village would wake and emerge from their homes. When that happened—

Witchcraft was hereditary. If I revealed Mother’s sins, I implicated myself. I had the talent and the personality to follow her in this; if I was not stopped I might yet lose control. If not tomorrow, then perhaps someday. 

Or perhaps not.  

Mother glanced over her shoulder as I took hold of my dangling leash and tucked it away. “Try to tell me it doesn’t call to you, Dorje,” she said. “This is the only power we’ll see in this life.”  

“That may be so,” I said, knowing it was. I placed my hands on her back and shoved her from the house-beam. 

Mother screamed. I made myself watch as she fell. Her clothing fluttered, her hair streamed upward. She twisted her shoulders around and reached out to me, her face an unfamiliar mask of panic, as if I could take it back and rescue her.  

When she hit the ground far below, the front of the house-beam tilted and began to slide downward. My hair streamed behind me as it began to plummet earthward.  

Death may have been the honorable choice, to throw myself from the house-beam after her, but something cold and implacable within my chest refused. If I lived, I might come to regret it, but I could not fail to try.  

As the house-beam gathered speed, I hunched forward to place my palms against the wood. I closed my eyes, pressed my hands down, and willed the carrying beam to fly.  

A Roundabout Way

Patricia Jacaban Miranda

When you want to unload a problem, hire a hobgoblin. Under the table is best.

That’s what Mark says at recess after we beat the fourth graders to the roundabout and call dibs. We grab opposite handlebars and start running. The roundabout’s so old and rusty, it takes awhile to get it going, especially when the ground’s muddy. It’s been raining a lot lately. So much that Mom keeps saying, “When it rains, it pours.” She’s always saying stupid stuff like that around Foster. They laugh like it’s actually funny.

Mark and I jump onto the roundabout. Holding onto a bar, I look at the sky. I’m moving fast, round and round, and I pretend I’m a moth in a jar. Don’t ask me why I think stuff like that. I just do. That’s what I’m thinking. That I’m a moth in a jar.

Mark asks, “So how come you’re not doing soccer league? Coach says we could really use you back as goalie.”

I blink hard like there’s something in my eye. Suddenly I’m thinking of Dad and me on the soccer field. How the hours just flew by—neither of us even knowing it. After a while, I say, “I can’t get to the games. Mom and Foster have counseling on Saturdays. They say they wanna start off right. It’s pretty stupid.”

“How long they been married?”

“I dunno. Ten months, maybe.” In two days, it’ll be a year.

“Do you guys get along?”

“Who?”

“You and Foster.”

I open my eyes. Mark’s head is thrown back. He’s grinning at the sky.

“You and Foster,” he said again. “Do you get along?”

“I dunno. He’s nice enough. More of a jerk, though. Doesn’t like me talking about Dad.”

While the roundabout slows down, we try to balance in the center. We sorta push at each other, too, and that feels good ’cause I’m bigger than Mark.

And that’s when he says it. That he’d found an old book about what to do with problems. Recess ends in five minutes, but that’s all we need, Mark and me, to decide that Foster qualifies as a problem.

~

By the time I get home, my shoulders can hardly take the weight anymore. All I have to do is get upstairs, but Foster calls from the kitchen.

“Ben, is that you?” His tired face appears at the door. “Why are you late? Was today Robotics?”

That’s one of his problems: Foster’s always asking questions, always butting in. Last week, I heard him tell Mom, Let me try with Ben. Give yourself a break.

Sometimes, I really hate him.

“Yeah, we had Robotics.” I run upstairs before he can ask anything else. In my room, I let my backpack hit the floor with a thump. The book inside is called Advanced Logomantics: Rituals and Incantations. It’s moldy from being in Mark’s basement for ages. His parents don’t know where it came from.

I turn to page 303, where the chapter title, “Purgative Procedures,” has been crossed out and replaced with spidery handwriting: “How to get rid of problem people.”

I read the first paragraph for the tenth time:

When the expulsion of an individual is needed to restore community harmony, a hobgoblin can be hired. Payment requires a tidbit and a trinket. However, conjurers should specify contract terms, for hobgoblins are notoriously unpredictable.

About a hundred bullet points called “caveats” follow, but I skip to the end where the handwriting gives instructions I can understand: “Wait for a new moon.”

I have two days. And I have a lot to get ready.

~

I’m down in the basement, and my stomach feels funny, like it does when I’m on the roundabout. Maybe it’s ’cause I’m wearing my underwear inside-out and backwards—for good luck. I’m glad no one can see what else I’m wearing: a black T-shirt and a pillowcase I’ve magic-markered black. It’s supposed to be a black robe.

With my flashlight, I double-check the diagram. Everything seems right. I’ve laid alternating black and white stones in a big circle under the pool table. In the center are the mouse in a lidded shoebox and my old Transformer Bot (with its head missing, but the instructions didn’t say the trinket had to be in great shape). Foster’s wedding picture is taped to the candle, but I made sure to cut me and Mom out of it first. There’s a weird hole in Foster’s chest where my head would have been. Maybe the goblin won’t notice.

Somewhere upstairs, a floorboard creaks, and I peer out to check the spiral staircase in the corner. Mom gushed about the spiral staircase when she’d first told me about Foster. The stairs connect the “lower level” (what Foster calls the basement) to the kitchen pantry, and for days, Mom made a big deal about playing video games and grabbing snacks all I wanted. Just to annoy her, I didn’t check out the basement for a whole month after we moved in.

I wait, listening for more sounds, but the house has gone quiet. It’s hot under the pool table, and I’m sweating. I look down at my clothes. White streaks show where I was sloppy with the magic marker. The patterns remind me of the moth I drew, that time we were at the hospital for Mom’s arm cast. Dad was staring tight-lipped at the floor, so I knew to keep quiet. I found a pen and drew a black-and-white moth on the back of a magazine. I drew it over and over until it was finally time to leave.

I’ve got my flashlight trained on the figure in the ring of stones. It took me two trips to the art room to steal enough clay to make it: a thickish, humanlike creature about two feet high. Following the instructions, I’d pulled some of my hair out and squashed the strands onto its head. I made a paper-towel toga for it, too, ’cause I didn’t like seeing its bare body. I messed up a little, though. One leg is longer than the other, so it’s standing lopsided.

Now it’s time for me to light the candle. I take a deep breath and unfold the paper with the incantation on it. The words are in a language I don’t know, and it takes a long time to finish reading. My eyes sorta start watering ’cause my voice sounds crazy and ugly, like I’m saying things backwards.

Then the candle flickers out, and the room gets cold. I set my flashlight down to relight the candle, but my hands start shaking pretty bad. In the beam of the flashlight, the legs of the clay figure rise up into darkness. I keep having to wipe my eyes to see. Finally, I light a match, and the wick flares to life. That’s when it happens.

Its legs bend.

I gasp and snatch up the flashlight. Again, the legs bend, one hip dipping lower ’cause the knees aren’t even. One hand lifts and gestures toward Foster’s picture.

It’s asking me a question.

Before I know what I’m doing, I nod my head.

The hand swings toward me, palm up, and I cringe. I know what it wants, but I can barely breathe, much less move. The thing must be able to hear ’cause it tips its head at a scrabbling sound below it. In one move, it hinges at the hip and lifts the lid off the shoebox. It scoops up the mouse and brings the struggling creature to its faceless head. A gaping hole appears, and the mouse is gone.

When the thing straightens, it’s right next to my Transformer Bot. The two are nearly the same height, except the robot has no head. That’s ’cause one night, Dad came home with that smell on his breath and tripped over it. In a rage, he’d ripped off the Bot’s cheap plastic head. That night, he broke a lot of other things, too.

In the quivering circle of my flashlight, the thing puts its arms around the Bot and rests its head on the empty space between its shoulders.

I’ll admit it. I’m full-out sobbing now. I wish I hadn’t called it. I wish I hadn’t made it. It’s monstrous, embracing the gift my father had given me.

Slowly, the thing swivels its head in my direction.

And then I really can’t breathe. ‘Cause I see that nose, crooked at the bridge, from when our neighbor on Deming Street had punched it. And I see that mouth, twisted in a sneer, spitting out words that sting worse than wasps. And I see those eyes, that always went cold just before he’d go after—

The hobgoblin rips Foster’s picture off the candle and races away. The movement is so sudden it extinguishes the flame and swings the flashlight’s beam toward the corner of the room. For a hopeful moment, I think it’s actually leaving.

Then I see it’s heading for the spiral staircase. I can’t tear my eyes from its stumping gait, its mad glee. Instead of using the stair treads, the thing grabs the iron railing and swings itself upward, hand over hand. It looks back at me with my father’s eyes and winks.

Swing and wink, swing and wink.

Only when it heaves itself through the opening in the ceiling does my brain start working again. I lurch up and bang my head hard on the underside of the pool table. It hurts like a monkey-mother, but I crawl out, toward the staircase. It seems a million miles away.

When I finally reach the bottom step, my head’s throbbing. The staircase winds upward in a tight spiral, and the darkness presses down on me. I left the flashlight under the pool table, but I don’t have time to go back for it. I crawl up the first few steps, gripping the stair treads tight and bracing my shoulder against the center pole. I feel dizzy and sick. My father’s face swims before me. He’d looked at me that time, three years ago. He’d looked at me and said, “Get over here.” But I didn’t want to, and he knew it. I cried when his hand clenched into a fist.

Foster had found me crying on their wedding day. He’d put his arm around me and said, “It’s okay. I understand.” Shut up, I’d yelled, shut up. I threw off his arm, but I don’t remember what he said after. I’ve thought about it a bunch of times, but I just don’t remember.

Above me, the pantry is glowing green. I’m suddenly afraid to know what the thing’s doing. I read that hobgoblins like to crush and mangle. They especially like problems that can be crushed and mangled. And I’d sent the hobgoblin after a problem.

I peer cautiously over the edge of the stair opening. To my right is the threshold to the kitchen. To my left is the hobgoblin, crouching over something, its back toward me. Strewn about the floor are cereal boxes, flour bags, spice jars, and marinara bottles—their contents dumped into random piles of goop. In the green light, the place looks radioactive. Mom’s going to kill me.

As though reading my mind, the hobgoblin turns and stares, sly-like, at me. It’s holding a dagger with nasty toothed edges. It’s the source of the green light.

Raising its other hand, the hobgoblin flickers a piece of paper at me. He slashes it with the blade and lets the pieces flutter down. It’s Foster’s picture.

I should be scared out of my mind, and I am, ’cause I’m trembling all over. But I’m also mad—crazy mad. The kind of mad that takes me up the last two stairs to block the way to the kitchen.

The thing with my father’s face giggles, and that’s when I know. It’s either him or me. A hobgoblin, once hired, can’t be unhired. But I don’t have a weapon. I’m the stupidest person in the world, and I’m going to die that way.

The hobgoblin studies me with bright, catty eyes. I step back and almost lose my footing on something long and thin. Right away, I know it’s the broom we keep in the pantry. It must have gotten knocked over when the thing was ransacking the place. Warily, I reach down and take up the broom. It’s well made, with a hefty wood handle. Foster says it beats the dickens out of cheap plastic ones. He often hums while he sweeps.

The hobgoblin stops giggling. He stares hard at me, then dodges to the left, dipping a bit because of his gimpy leg. He’s trying to get past me.

But I’m not a star soccer goalie for no reason. I know it’s a juke. Just as he switches directions, I bring the broomstick down on his arm, as hard as I can. He shrieks, and the dagger clatters to the floor. We both dive for it.

Even when hurt, hobgoblins are fierce, ’cause they’re part stone and part fire. And they fight dirty. The hobgoblin kicks me viciously, catching me in the ribs and taking my breath away. If it weren’t for the broom, which lay across its path, it would have gotten to the dagger, and that would’ve been the end of me.

Strangely, the hobgoblin is afraid of the broom. He scurries around the handle, which gives me the chance to lunge for the dagger. My hand closes on the hilt just as the hobgoblin throws a punch across my temple. My head busts open in pain. But I have the dagger and somehow, too, the broomstick. Holding both, I stagger to my feet.

The dagger feels alive in my hand. Tiny electric shocks run up my arm and into my chest. The dagger’s twitching, restless. In the cast of its ghoulish light, I see him again. My dad. That look in his eyes that was love, but also a lie. I hold tight to the broomstick, leaning on it like a staff.

“Why’d you hurt us?” The voice doesn’t sound like me. Because I’ve never ever asked that question before.

He doesn’t answer. For a moment, he looks lost—terribly, desperately lost.

When he turns and runs for the door, the dagger, as though tracking him, shoots from my hand and into his back. I cry out, like the wound is mine, too. And then a powerful ache wells up from deep inside me and washes me down, down to a place where all is silent and blue and still.

~

It takes me awhile to figure out what I’m seeing: a pair of long, bent legs in faded blue pajamas. My eyes are puffy, and I’m lying on the pantry floor. The heaps of foodstuff are gone, but I can still see traces of swept flour and strange rust-colored streaks. I start up, looking for the hobgoblin.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m here.” Foster leans over and grasps my shoulder.

My eyes dart about. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what? You mean the mess?” Foster slides next to me, smiles in his tired way, rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, that sure was something. I just finished cleaning up.”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Upstairs, getting ready to take you to the hospital. Want me to call her?”

“No.” I sit up, my head pounding. “Why’s she wanna do that?”

“Well, for one, you don’t look so good. You’ve got a black eye. Did you know that? And a bunch of bruises. And we haven’t been able to wake you, even though you’ve been talking in your sleep.”

I look around the pantry, slow ’cause it really hurts to move my head. Not one sign of the hobgoblin.

My stepfather hesitates, then holds something up. “You were clutching this.”

I stare. It’s the wedding picture of Foster, Mom, and me. It’s crumpled up bad, but it’s whole, like it’d never been cut or slashed.

“Wanna tell me what happened here?” he says.

I don’t . . . can’t speak. His voice is so sad and gentle that I can’t seem to find my own.

Then he says it. The thing he said at the wedding that I couldn’t remember. He says it as Mom’s footsteps sound on the stairs.

“Things get better, Ben. In a roundabout way, things do get better.”

 

Do Not Go Gently

Mindy McGinnis

Someone’s shit is under my fingernails and I don’t know whose.

There are more than a few options. The nursing home went cheap on us and bought crap gloves. The way I’ve been chewing my nails ever since Rowdy was born, the ragged edges push right through the fingertips. Makes me think of that damn broken condom every time.

Of course it could be Rowdy’s shit, which is what I’d rather. I like that better than the last idea, which is that it’s my own shit, jammed up under that nail. Because just like the nursing home, the school is cheap as hell and you’ve got to spin the roll at least five times if you don’t want to touch your own cooch – or worse.

I look at the brown froth churned up by the ferry, enjoying the slow movement of the boat that’s taking me to work, a place across the river in Kentucky that’ll take a CNA who doesn’t have a high school diploma yet. I couldn’t get a job in Ohio, though without a car the only place I could really apply was the county home, where the HR guy spotted the name scrawled across the top of my application and his eyebrows shot up. I wondered if he had a kid that I went to school with, and knew the joke about me.

Taylor Havers – everybody’s had her.

It’s an old joke, one I’ve been hearing since seventh grade when I got too cozy with a freshman in the backseat of his rusted out Toyota. Not that cozy is a good word to use there, since it hurt like hell and I cried the whole time. But he said sweet things, and his hands were warm, and it had been so long since I’d been touched nice.

I’m no whore. But when you do it young everyone thinks you don’t stop, like your vag is rolling downhill, gaining speed and knocking down boys like bowling pins. Really it wouldn’t have mattered even if I wanted to keep on rolling, ‘cause the guy caught so much shit from his friends for banging a seventh grader he never talked to me again. Everybody else that came sniffing around didn’t even start out with saying sweet things or have warm hands. They just heard it was easy pickings, and were there to reap.

But it doesn’t matter that I told all them no, sometimes having to scream it so that they’d get the idea. People just remember that I said yes that once, and then another time I said it twice in one night because I’d had too much to drink and needed someone to want me, not even caring who. And that night got me Rowdy, and a big question mark hanging over his last name. I gave him mine. Because that’s what he is.

Mine.

I scrape a clean nail under the dirty one and flick what comes loose into the river, adding to whatever-all is cooking in that mess. I’m so tired these days it’s more than possible I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom before leaving school straight for work, my breasts resting hot and heavy against the roll of fat that I don’t think is ever gonna go away.

The ferry lets out a blast that I’ve gotten used to, long and low, my cue to step out of the daydream and be a nurse now. But I see Rowdy’s little face same as if he were right in front of me, and I think about how he hasn’t heard that joke about me yet, and never will if I can get together enough money to get us out of here. That’s why I get out of bed early and go to it late, wake up to being a mom and then a high school senior and then a nurse, and then go home to be a mom again.

Like I ever stop being one.

I clean my hands good at work, scrubbing under the nails and washing clear up to my elbows. Massey is the RN on duty for my shift and she’ll tear me a new one if she thinks I’m anything less than sanitized. I pull my hair up into a ponytail and drop my lanyard over my head, the plastic ID swinging as I make my way to the nurse’s station.

On the card it says my name and job. CNA – Certified Nurse’s Assistant, which sounds a lot more glamorous than Resident Ass Wiper. I look happy in my picture though, if you can get past the third-trimester puffiness of my face. I’m smiling and I might be swollen as hell but I’ve got the pregnancy glow working for me. There’s a little hint of hope around the eyes, too. Like maybe I thought since I got certified and got a job before Rowdy came everything was going to be okay.

Things are not okay, not by a long shot. I make eleven bucks an hour and spend twelve getting over on the ferry every day. But a job at Twilight Hills is better than a job nowhere at all, and eleven bucks every hour is more than I had sixty minutes earlier, so whatever. I’m here.

“You look tired, kid,” Charlene says as I slip behind the desk. She’s at her computer, rearranging pictures of her grandkids since a new one is on the way and she’s got to clear a spot.

When I started a month ago I didn’t know if calling me kid was supposed to make me feel stupid or cared for. Since all her scrubs are covered in puppies or kittens I figure it’s the second one, so I let her.

“I am tired, old lady,” I say, and she barks out a laugh.

“How’s your little one?”

“Haven’t seen him since I left the house,” I sigh, torn up about the place deep inside of me that is part glad about that, part devastated.

“It’s good of your mom to keep him the way she does,” Charlene says, using the hem of her scrubs to wipe a smudge off a picture frame. “But that’s what grandmas do.”

I only shrug. Where I live, what grandmas do is bitch about being one before forty and repeat things about laying in the bed you made. But I can’t say it’s not good of her to keep Rowdy, because it is. He’s always clean, fed, and happy when I get home so I can’t badmouth my mom on that.

It’s what isn’t done that bothers me. If I look right now there’s probably three or four pics of Rowdy on my phone, the crack in the screen putting a black scar right across his whole face. Sure, she’ll send me stuff through the day, let me know my baby is okay. What’s not there is a word from her, any kind of indication that she cares for him – or me.

I tried to tell her so, once. I’d heard about lying in the bed I’d made for the hundredth time, Rowdy crying in the background after I got home exhausted. I said maybe if I felt some love once in a while I wouldn’t have gone chasing after it in the first place. That got me a smack across the face, which kinda proved my point.

But Mom can’t raise me no different than she was raised herself. I met my Grandma Dorris the one time and that was all I needed. So all I can do is learn, and do better. I end up pulling out my phone and showing it to Charlene, her making the right noises and saying the right words about my Rowdy, the ones my own mom can’t quite get out. I’m slipping it back into my pocket when Massey comes barreling at me.

The hallways are wide enough here so that wheelchairs can go two-by-two, Noah style. Even with all that space I swear Massey fills it, her voice coming before her.

“Phone away,” she yells at me, like I’m a dog raising my leg on the counter.

“Christ, Barbara,” Charlene says. “She’s looking at pictures of her baby.”

“Phone away,” Massey repeats, jaw set hard.

There’s not much I can do since the phone is already gone, so I raise my hands up, feeling stupid as shit but desperate to show her they’re empty. I can’t lose this job, and opening my mouth won’t let anything nice out.

The double doors at the end of the hall swing open automatically, slow and easy, and the mixed smell of the dining room hits me. It’s spaghetti night, which means there’ll be a lot of tomato-sauce stained chins to wipe, and oregano scented diapers on the menu for tomorrow. My patients file past the station, some of them on their feet, a few pushed by nurses in their chairs. Carmichael raises a hand in greeting – one of the few residents that don’t care about me being a mom without a ring on my finger. His wife, Judy, gives her wheelchair an extra spin to get in between us, mean-mugging me the whole time, like I’m making a play for her man.

Still, I’ll take a bitch face over whatever Jarold has to toss at me tonight. Last week he told me he likes girls with a little meat on their bones and pinched my ass so hard I had a bruise. Tiffany laughed when I told her. Said Jarold makes her happy she’s flat as a board on both ends.

“Hey there, Miss Angelina,” Charlene coos at everybody’s favorite, a hundred-plus-year-old-woman I could fit in my pocket. “How’s your day?”

“Shitty,” she says, her voice just as strong as her grip as she brakes, leaving a tire burn on the clean linoleum. “They said orange Jell-O tonight and it was lime. What kind of establishment has kitchen staff that don’t know their colors?”

“I’m sure it was an oversight,” Massey says, positioning herself behind Miss Angelina’s chair to get her moving again. But the old lady’s got the brakes on and isn’t going anywhere.

“Don’t oversight me, missy.” Angelina turns in her chair, loose skin around her chin jangling with anger. “When Jell-O is the best part of your day, you’ll understand.”

“We’ll all get there eventually,” Massey says, and my stomach kinda drops and I feel my mouth pulling down on the corners.

Lately a stiff breeze is all it takes to make me cry, let alone the thought of getting old, eating my dinner at four-thirty and hoping I can stay awake ‘til the end of Wheel of Fortune.

“I’ll take you to your room,” I say to Angelina, slipping out from behind the station. “I don’t mind,” I add to Massey, so she thinks I’m doing her a favor rather than trying to get her to leave the old lady alone.

And people think bullies are only on the playground.

Angelina makes one of her noises – a haughty little hmmph low in her throat. It does everything she wants it to, puts Massey down while making Angelina seem above it all. I could learn a thing or two from the old lady. Angelina’s hmmph is a lot classier than my go-to fuck you. She holds her head high as I wheel her down the hall, passing under a flickering fluorescent that maintenance hasn’t gotten to yet.

Once we’re in her room I have to help her use the toilet – something I thought I’d never get used to. But four weeks in I’ve got no problem pulling up a fresh diaper onto an adult who leans on me while I’m doing it, her skin paper smooth against mine where our arms touch.

It’s weird because she feels so much like Rowdy, but her skin is a map of the hurts life has done to her. Broken veins in her legs spiral dark blue against pale skin, and the sag of her belly where her children left their marks. Rowdy’s only got the one spot on him, a blush of red at the base of his neck where he got caught up inside of me and scraped a bit on the way out. One of the maternity nurses at the hospital told me that’s called an angel’s kiss, the last bit of heaven they get before they’re tossed into the world.

“No bath tonight, I don’t think,” Angelina says as I help her to the bed.

“Are you sure?” I glance at her chart. She’s not exactly due for one but the color of the Jell-O wasn’t the only thing she struggled with at dinner tonight. There’s a healthy glob of mashed potatoes smeared across her forearm. She notices it at the same time I do, and her mouth thins out like she’s angry or about to cry.

“I’ll get it,” I say, wetting a washcloth in the corner bathroom. I wipe her off, giving a few swipes here and there for good measure.

“Thank you child,” she says, her eyelids drooping even though the sun is still throwing light at us through the blinds, making her whole room glow a dusky red.

“Anything else you need?” I ask, but she’s already gone, her head tilted to the side. Everybody always says sleeping like a baby to say they went down deep, but I spend my days with both and I’m here to say that old people know more about dropping off in a second than any baby. Thing is they spring back awake just as fast, ready for another round of nothing more than checkers and mashed peas.

Tiffany walks past, knocking her bony knuckles against Angelina’s open door to get my attention. “Can you make sure Agnes gets her meds after Jeopardy? She’s all cranked off at Judy about something and wouldn’t take them for me.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say, clipping Angelina’s chart to the end of her bed.

“Thanks,” Tiffany says, hovering a second longer than she needs to. “Jarold give you any trouble today?”

I roll my eyes. “No. Maybe I’m getting too fat even for him.”

“Awwww,” Tiffany says, but she doesn’t tell me I’m being silly or even that I look great, and I’m glad. I don’t look great, but it’s got nothing to do with my belly. My face is saggy, and when I glance in Angelina’s mirror all I can see is two dark circles staring back at me. Out in the hall I hear the bell go off at the nurse’s station, followed by a yell from Emmett’s room.

“I’ll get it,” Tiffany says. “He’s all pissy because he has to go to the clinic for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”

“Don’t you mean shitty?” I ask and she giggles, putting her hand over her mouth as she backs out into the hallway. I hear her voice, high and friendly again, as she says, “Hey there Emmett, what do you need from me?”

I get a hitch in my chest, tears wanting to run somewhere but I got to keep ‘em tight trapped in my throat or risk getting Massey pissed at me for upsetting patients. Hearing Tiffany switch from dead-on-her-feet to how-can-I-help-you? and make it sound like she actually wants to has got me remembering last night when Rowdy was screaming at three in the morning. I banged my hip on the crib and all he got from me was breathless goddammit and a whiff of pit stench when I picked him up because I keep him cleaner than I do myself.

Or maybe it’s what she said that got to me more than how she said it – what do you need from me? I don’t know if anybody’s ever asked me that once in my life. Couple years ago I woulda said a new phone or a pair of shoes, but now if somebody asked I’d say five minutes. Five minutes in a chair alone with my feet up.

But that’s all wishful thinking, ‘cause nobody’s going to ask. Angelina’s breathing is easy, the light rasp of it filling the room as I turn off the lights, leaving her to the dying rays of the sun.

~

I take a hard pull of the last breath of fresh air I’m likely to get for a while before I open our front door. My face is pinched red and tight from the coolness of the night biting at me on the ferry, my feet complaining from being on them most of the night and then dragging my ass back home. But I’m outside, and everything is fresh here in the early morning hours, not heavy with the smell of sick like at work, or rank with smoke like what I’m about to walk into.

I try real hard not to let my keys jangle, but my hip hits the door as I’m coming in and it bounces back at me, my lanyard still hanging from the knob. Everything’s ringing like Santa’s sleigh and I know Mom’s gonna be pissed at me before I’ve even put a foot inside. Rowdy’s cry reaches me first though, cutting through the paper-thin walls and doubled by the baby monitor on the end table.

“He was asleep,” Mom says, rising up from the couch for a cigarette.

Her anger is like that, hiding in her tone and not coming right out to fight. That way she can shrug and say she didn’t mean anything by it.

I don’t even take off my shoes, I go right for Rowdy’s room. It’s a corner of the house that probably was supposed to be something like a pantry or maybe even a closet but it sure as hell wasn’t meant to be no nursery. His crib takes up the whole wall and one leg of his changing table hangs out over into the hallway, so that I have to slide past it to get in his room. My stomach brushes against the spindles and for once I couldn’t care less about holding my breath to see if I can suck it in enough to get by.

I’m so tired I might just keep holding my breath until I go over, right there in Rowdy’s room.

I don’t realize I’m half-considering it until there’s a burn in my throat and I take a gasp, matching Rowdy’s once he knows I’m there. I don’t know if it’s smell or hearing or what, but that boy can tell if it’s me or if it’s his grandma. And when it’s me he knows just what to do.

His pealing scream dies out with a little whimper, like he knows that I’m going to come to him anyway so everything’s okay now, even if I haven’t done it just yet. There’s so much trust and love inside of him I’m ashamed of what I was thinking a second ago, not breathing ‘til I crashed down, probably shaking the whole house and scaring the living daylights out of my baby.

My baby.

The words still throw me, like when I haven’t had a boyfriend for a bit and then I do again, so I get to say that word–boyfriend, which always taste like candy at first, before they go all bitter and sour in my mouth. But baby never comes out sounding nasty like in Mom’s voice, or even the one checkout lady down at the dollar store who always says “your baby” like I should be ashamed of him nestled up against me in his sling when I make a run for diapers.

No, my baby always feels different when I say it. It used to come out shocked and confused, then all doomed like Rowdy was a brick wall already in sight, and me with no brakes. But then he came, all covered in my blood and there was sweat running down my face and my hair in such a knot from me thrashing it had to all be cut off, and the nurse handed this screaming armful of flesh to me and laid him against my skin and she said, “Taylor, here’s your baby.”

“My baby,” I repeat, sliding my hands down into the blankets and around Rowdy’s body, loving how his tiny little butt fits into my hand, how one of my palms against his shoulder blades holds him right in place and then he’s against me, nuzzling for food and making little noises that he saves special for his momma.

I drop into the rocking chair that I can’t rock because the rails will scrape against the wall, but Rowdy never seems to mind. He gets to work eating and I feel all the tightness flow out of me. Right now I don’t care that I’m in the smallest room in the world, with a wall pressing against the back of my skull and my knees hitting his crib. I don’t need a big room because it’s just me and Rowdy in it.

And I think I could stay here, and be good.

~

“Taylor! Wake up, you’re late.”

It’s not my name that cuts down into sleep and gets me moving, but the word late. I jerk awake in the rocking chair, Rowdy protesting with a bawl that sets my nerves on edge before I’ve even rubbed the crusted sleep out of my eyes.

“Christ, Taylor,” Mom says from the hallway. “You fall asleep with him in the chair?”

“Guess so,” I say, looking down at my baby boy, who looks as confused as me. I put him in his crib and he wails as I leave, sliding out the door and past Mom who follows me to the bathroom.

“You can’t be doing that,” she says as I splash water on my face. “This girl I went to school with smothered her baby one time. Kid slid down in between her arm and the chair and died while she was dreaming.”

I feel a gag threaten in my throat, tasting all dense and slimy since I haven’t had nothing to eat since a handful of animal crackers Charlene snuck me from the kitchen around one in the morning.

“I didn’t mean to,” I say, slipping past Mom again and down the hall to my room, her still hot on my heels and Rowdy yelling for me to come back.

“She didn’t mean to either,” Mom goes on. “Kid’s still dead. It only takes once.”

I’m stripping down right in front of her when she says this, my scrubs stinking of my own drool up top and Rowdy’s leaky diaper down below. I lose it, all the hot of the vomit I feel down in my stomach forcing up words that feel good coming out, just like a real upchuck.

“You think you gotta tell me that, huh?” I scream at her, my belly jiggling over the edge of my underwear with the force of my voice. “You think I don’t fucking know it only takes once?”

Her finger comes up, pointing at me, long and accusing. Thin as hell, which somehow makes me even more pissed. “Don’t you take that tone with me in my house, young lady,” she says.

“Fuck your house,” I yell back, jerking on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt off the floor that hopefully doesn’t smell too bad. She likes to work little jabs into fights, her house, her time, her money spent getting my certification. Only thing she never says is that Rowdy is her grandson. She only lays claim to what she can bitch about.

I’m trying to jam my shirt down into my pants, but it’s a losing battle because this shirt came along way before Rowdy and my tits are like water balloons right now. Mom crosses her arms in the doorway.

“You can’t leave before you feed him,” she says, more quiet than before.

“Fuck,” I say again, my voice like hers, drained out and done now that the fighting is over.

She’s right. I’m late and that’s the way it is and I’ve got to feed Rowdy before I do anything else.

Because I’m the only one who can.

~

On days I catch the bus to school I feel more like a loser than usual. All the other kids my age drive or hitch a ride, but I don’t have a car and my friends lost interest in me somewhere around thirty-two weeks when I had to go on bed rest. So I usually haul my ass to the corner, walk past the kids sitting in the front where Rowdy will be in five years and make my way to the back where I slouch down low in the seat.

The little ones up front usually sing, their voices high and sweet. Towards the middle seats the faces start to slide toward sullen and guarded, and then there’s me in the back, too tired to wear any emotion at all. It’s like the emergency exit is a black hole that sucks away all your happiness, but the littles don’t know that yet. They’ll figure it out about six rows back, I guess.

The bus might be depressing as hell but I’d give anything for it this morning, my swollen feet slapping against the ground as I walk as fast as I can to school. I’m not desperate enough to break into a jog; I did that once and had all sorts of things yelled at me as I went, my boobs bouncing and my belly flopping every which way.

It didn’t used to. I never had a flat stomach or anything, but I could bare a few inches between my shirt and my jeans, and like the whistles and long looks that came with it. But Rowdy ended all that, the shirts and the looks both. Even if I do lose the weight I’m different now my skin all stretched and torn from being a place where someone lived, once.

I feel a stab down in my gut and stop walking for a second, not sure if it’s from walking too fast, or if it’s my conscience taking a cut at me. I love Rowdy, deep down in my gut, I love him. But what Mom said this morning about him maybe dying ‘cause I could suffocate him in the chair made me want to vomit at first because it was horrible, and then I wanted to vomit because—before I could stop it—I felt a tiny breath of relief at the thought.

No more diapers, no more baby shit. No more waking up every three hours to feed an always-hungry mouth. I could let my breasts go dry and they’d go back to normal size. I could sleep. I could dream. I could rest.

I could not be a mom anymore.

It’s an ugly thought, but shiny at the same time.

I jam it down, past all the worry and the hurts and all the other bad things in me and walk to school like I didn’t think about my baby dying and maybe it not being the worst thing in the world. Because it would be, and I know it, and when I see my face reflected back at me in the front doors I tell myself to fuck off.

Office staff at the school must’ve gone through some kind of sensitivity training or something since last year, because they hardly bat an eye at me when I show up late again. That or maybe it’s easier for them to pretend I’m like all the other kids when my belly brushing up against the counter isn’t all tight and full of baby anymore. In any case I get my late slip without too many dirty looks and slide into my seat a few minutes after second period starts.

Government is one of the classes I couldn’t get out of in order to graduate. The online course was already full and the option class at the satellite campus is only offered while I’m over the river at work. So I sit in here and learn about how a bill becomes a law and try to ignore all the side stares whenever public assistance comes up.

After my couple of classes I run home to give mom the milk I pumped at school, and squeeze out a little extra so that I don’t feel like I’ve got cement in my bra by the time I get back from work. Mom’s quiet and careful with me, like she always is after we blow at each other. I keep my mouth shut too. Neither one of us is big on apologizing. We just try to make it better by pretending it didn’t happen. Until it happens again.

Rowdy is asleep and Mom makes a dark noise at me when I slip into his room, but I’ve got the guilt of the morning hanging over my head and I want to see him. He’s deep asleep, mouth open, his tummy going up and down in a rhythm I could watch forever. His arms are above his head, which Charlene told me once means he’s a happy baby. Sometimes, when he’s red in the face and screaming and I’m trying to get my boob free quick enough to hush him up so Mom doesn’t yell at me too, I have to remember the moments like this. Watching him sleep is one of the better things I have so I hold onto it as I close the door softly, leaving him behind again.

My scrubs feel like heaven after the jeans I squeezed into this morning. They’re nice and loose on my hips – maybe even a little looser than last week. So I’m feeling decent when I swipe my monthly pass at the dock, stepping onto the ferry for my few moments of freedom.

It takes five minutes to cross, and I swear my blood pressure goes down every second. From the time I open my eyes in the morning to when I collapse in my bed at night I’ve got something to do, something to worry about, something to drag down me down while my aching feet carry me to whatever duty I’m headed to next. But on the boat, I’m floating: no work, no responsibilities. I don’t even have to walk. It’s someone else’s job to get me where I’m going and nobody is the boss of me here.

Even though my feet hurt I usually don’t sit down. I like to lean over the side, watching the river water bubble up as we head over to Kentucky. Thing about water is that it’s not actually blue. Not here, anyway. River water is brown as shit, and even the kids know better than to color the curly strip on their drawings blue. I remember the hallways when I was in elementary, the bright yellow paint of the cinderblock walls dulled by the pictures our chubby fingers had made. Brown buildings with dead grass in the front lawns, a muddy snake crawling through the middle of every picture, the green and blue crayons in our boxes keeping their sharp points well into the school year.

I’m staring at the dirty froth when the ferry gives its deep bellow, knocking me out of wherever I was and right back into the real world. The one where I gotta go to work. When I get to the home there’s a squad out front, but the lights aren’t going. And an emergency vehicle in no particular hurry in front of Twilight Hills is not a good sign.

I try to ignore the empty stretcher in the hallway, my eyes bouncing off it real quick like they don’t want to look too close. Charlene is at the desk, clicking through a spreadsheet. She glances at me when I come around the counter.

“Emmett passed,” she says, all matter of fact.

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never even been to a funeral because mom said going to Grandma Dorris’ was half an hour more than we had to give, and everybody else in my life who’s dead split long before they got to the dying part.

Charlene’s fingers stop tapping across her keyboard. “Your first one?”

“Huh?” My brain is slow. Too little sleep the night before and too much activity down the hall has me all distracted as the medics move something draped in a sheet over to the gurney.

“First time around a dead body?” Charlene clarifies.

“Yeah.” The medics are gentle with Emmett, laying him all careful and keeping his arms and legs tucked under the sheet, like there’s a danger he’s going to get cold or something. Even for all that, it feels wrong. There’s a dead person under there, a person who was yelling for Tiffany last night, trying to make it sound like he was all grumpy about something but really he just wanted her attention.

Tiffany was his girl, for sure.

“She come in yet?” I ask Charlene. She knows who I mean without me saying.

“Shift starts in half an hour,” she says, checking her watch. “Won’t go well, I’m afraid. Emmett liked to give her some hell, but I don’t think she minded taking it too much.”

“Nope,” I agree as the gurney slides past us, Emmett leaving the nursing home without anybody saying goodbye, the medics negotiating who is going to get the door, same as if they were carrying groceries.

“You get used to it,” Charlene says as the doors slide shut behind them, the wind pulling the sheet edge out from under Emmett. It whips around as they load him and I get a glimpse of a foot.

I don’t know if I will get used to it, honestly. Seems like there should be something more to moving a body than just actually doing it, same as getting a truck on moving day and having a neighbor help with the sectional. But no, in the end Emmett was like anything else, a weight to be lifted and loaded, and somebody’s job to do it.

But a month ago I couldn’t stand the smell of shit and now I can give a sponge bath all the time looking forward to what I packed in my snack bag, so I guess a person can get used to just about anything.

Massey comes out of Emmett’s room and her eyes lock on me like I done something wrong the second I walked in the door, even though I did that ten minutes early.

“Did Emmett get his meds last night? I can’t read the handwriting of whoever wrote in his chart,” she says.

I take it from her and glance at Tiffany’s writing. “Looks like it,” I tell Massey, relieved that I’m able to say the right thing.

“Alright,” she says. “Send Tiffany in to my office when she gets here. I’ve got to sign off on a pile of paperwork as high as my knee.”

Through the front doors, I see Tiffany’s car pull into the parking lot, her mouth wide open as she sings along with her music, not knowing she’s about to have all the song knocked out of her the second she walks in.

I run my finger along Emmett’s chart. This folder has been touched and turned, written in and on, stacked and reshuffled. Its edges are soft like the down on Rowdy’s head. Emmett had been here a long time, and he’d left with less notice than the mail coming in.

The doors swing open and Tiffany breezes through, spinning her lanyard at her side like a lasso, letting it loop tight around her finger before she unwinds it the other way. She hits the brakes as soon as she sees our faces.

“What? What happened?”

“Tiffany, honey,” Charlene doesn’t have to finish her sentence. Tiffany already spotted the chart in my hand, the typed label, long-yellowed, with Emmett’s name on it.

“We lost him, didn’t we?”

“This afternoon,” Charlene says.

Tiffany nods once, hard, like she’s taking a punch on the chin. “Shit,” she says quietly and ducks into the nurse’s bathroom, a tear already smudging her eyeliner.

We watch the door swing shut behind her, the sound of running water almost covering a half choked cry as she gets whatever she needs out of her system before clocking in.

“You get used to it,” Charlene says again. “But that doesn’t mean it gets easier.”

~

“You okay?”

It’s a dumbass question, but I’m not good with words and don’t know how else to ask Tiffany how she’s doing as we tidy up what used to be Emmett’s room. All his clothes went into a box, the picture of his grandkids resting on top along with a couple of detective novels from the eighties. All it takes is one box, thirty minutes, and two people to make Emmett’s room not his anymore. Tiffany and I have stripped it down, sterilized it, and made it into just another room, waiting for the next person whose stuff we’ll be boxing up a few years down the road.

“I will be,” Tiffany says, her voice still hoarse from the good cry she got out of her system in the bathroom. She’s jerking the sheets off the bed, the last thing in the room that’s still got a little bit of Emmett about it, even if that is only a few gray hairs on the pillow and a shit stain.

“Damn,” Tiffany says, rubbing the end of the sheet between her fingers.

“What?”

“I forgot to knot it,” she says, quiet like and mostly to herself.

“What’s that?”

“You probably don’t know that one yet, do you? If there’s a patient close to passing, tie a knot in the end of their bed sheet and they won’t die on your shift.”

I lean against the wall, resting for a few seconds here where Massey won’t spot me. “Seriously?”

Tiffany shrugs and gives the sheets an expert tug, stripping the bed with one rip. “I’ve been doing this five years, Tay. All I know is, I tie a knot and they don’t die. Not on my watch, anyway.”

“But what if the next shift ties a knot too? And then you come back on and tie it again. Nobody’d ever die.”

She shakes her head and rolls the sheet in her arms. “Doesn’t work that way. Somebody always forgets.”

I don’t want to upset Tiffany any more than she already is, but this kind of stuff has never sat well with me. I was the kid who didn’t worry about the monster under the bed because I could hear a real one yelling at my mom through the wall. But my thoughts must be right on my big stupid face because she just kinda smiles at me like she knows something I don’t know.

“There’s more to this job than what they teach you in the classes,” she says. “I call it off-the-charts stuff.”

I’m so worn out that even the cold hard wall behind my back feels good because it means not all my weight is on my feet. I could talk to Tiffany about stuff I don’t believe in for hours if it means I’m pushing back on something, taking a little pressure off of me.

“Off-the-charts?” I ask, hoping she’ll say more.

“Yeah, you been here long enough. Surely Charlene has gotten after you for saying the Q word, right?”

I know a lot of bad words, but none of them start with Q. The only thing that I can come up with on short notice is queeve, which I’m not sure Charlene would know and I got no business saying to her in the first place. Tiffany sees how blank I am and smiles.

“The Q word,” she repeats, dropping her voice low and whispery. “Quiet. You don’t ever say that the ward is… that. It’s asking for it.”

“Got it,” I nod, and pick up the box from the floor. I spot Emmett’s slippers tucked under his bed, one pushed further than the other. “Missed something,” I tell Tiffany.

I lie on the floor to reach the one, my scrubs popping up over my fat roll so that my belly is against the tiles, their coldness sucking the heat right off me. It takes my breath away and I can’t help but think of Emmett’s foot on the gurney, pale and naked in the cold wind, and how he had no idea when he went to bed last night he wasn’t gonna need these slippers no more.

~

I wanted to ask Tiffany more about off the charts stuff, but Agnes and Judy got into it because Carmichael gave Agnes his cookie at dinner and his wife went off on him same as if Agnes had crawled under the table and undid his fly. Judy went to sulk in the room she shared with Carmichael as Agnes ate the cookie – a little more slowly than necessary, like each bite tasted better than normal because Judy was so hacked off over it.

Carmichael shuffles over to a window table to sit by himself as we prepare med trays, and Tiffany nods toward him, eyes on me. I wave to let her know I see him, taking the paper cup with his name on it over to where he sits.

“Hey there, Carmichael,” I say, keeping my voice light and cheery like we’re supposed to. “Time for your meds.”

His own mixture is a pretty kind of one: light blues and white, a bright red shiny pill like a cherry on top of his medicinal ice cream sundae. He takes them all with a sharp jerk of his neck, dry-swallowing them without a blink. I offer the other cup, cool in my hands with newly poured water, but he waves it away.

“Only talent I got left,” he says. “I can get a mouthful of pills down without a drink. Always impresses the ladies.”

“I don’t think that’s what does it,” I tell him.

It’s funny how once you’re around old people enough you start to see what’s below the wrinkles and the age spots. I don’t need his sepia colored senior picture by his bedside to tell me Carmichael was a good-looking guy once. He still is, really. There might be a broken blood vessel on his temple but his eyes are an ice blue that stop you, and the laugh lines are deep in a way that isn’t a bad thing.

He chuckles now, creasing them more. “You see Judy have her fit, did you?”

“Guess you’re still a prize,” I tell him.

“And she won me a long time ago. Still thinks she’s got to fight over me though.” The smile fades out, his eyes going a little off focus as he stares out the window.

“You okay?” I ask for the second time today, knowing well enough the person I’m saying it to is nowhere near okay.

“Oh well,” Carmichael waves it off like it’s no big deal, but his words fall flat and his eyes are still searching for something that ain’t there. “You get to be my age, kid, and you got to look for things to do, stuff to keep you busy.”

I think about my day, every second scheduled up and thought out ahead of time, none of them but the ones on the ferry meant for me and me alone. “Doesn’t sound so bad,” I tell him, and he snorts.

“Maybe not, but when your wife looks for trouble over dessert to keep her own life interesting it sours the deal a bit. God love the woman, the sound of her voice has been with me for sixty years, and most of the time I like it. But when she’s on a nag the only thing that stops me from hearing about whatever I done wrong this time was setting up to play checkers with Emmett. And now he’s dead.”

It falls out, loud and stiff here in the dining room. Charlene and Tiffany were real careful to use other words – gone and passed – things that made it sound like maybe Emmett was off visiting, seemed to say he still had movement inside him. But it ain’t true and Carmichael is calling it like it is, using the word that covers it all, just like the sheet that went out with the body.

Dead.

He sees me tense up and pats my wrist. “Don’t worry about it, honey,” he says. “You get to the point where we are and you know it’s coming. Some of us are ready, some don’t want to go, but we don’t have a lot of say in the matter, in the end.”

I sip Carmichael’s water, my throat suddenly dry. “Was Emmett ready?”

“I think Emmett would’ve liked a few more days with your pretty friend,” Carmichael says.

“I’m not all that pretty,” Tiffany argues, passing behind us to give Jarold his meds.

“Sweetheart, you got color in your hair and your eyes shine bright. You’re all pretty to us, every last one of you.” Carmichael calls to her as she rouses Jarold from his post-dinner nap. He pats my hand again. “Once you’ve been around awhile you learn there’s only so many types of faces in the world. Doctors like to call it dementia, and I guess that’s one way to look at it.

“But you’ve got a face reminds me of a girl I knew back in school, and I’ll probably call you by her name once or twice. That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my head, or even that I think you’re her. I believe we’re finding our own types of medicine when that happens, and it’s not something you can put in a cup.”

“What was her name?” I ask.

“Becky,” he says, glances over his shoulder like Judy might come wheeling in any second. “She had a nice face, just like yours.”

There’s a tweak of pain in my backside and I yelp, turning to find Jarold behind me with a shit-eating grin. “I like her ass, myself.”

 

One in the morning is a dark time, and cold. I can’t say I like it, but it does keep the other ferry riders jumbled together inside the covered part in the middle of the deck, hunkered low in their coats so that I’ve got most of the space to myself.

It’s a Friday night so pretty much everybody crossing the river this late is either sauced or on the way to getting there. A couple of the guys sneak glances at me but my scrubs are poking out from under my coat so they must get the idea that I’m not the kind of working girl they’re looking for right now.

The nursing home left me tense and I roll my neck as I lean against the side of the ferry, the rumbling of the engine sending a thrum through my knees that feels sorta good. One of the drunks lights up and a cloud of smoke wafts over to me, a reminder that even here in the only time I have alone, nothing is ever mine.

I cough pointedly and he laughs.

I lean out further over the edge, reaching for the fresh air. I can barely see the froth bubbling, brown against the black of water at night. I hear steps behind me and close my eyes, ready to say whatever rude thing it takes to get him to leave me alone in the precious four minutes left to me before we dock.

“You okay?”

The voice is nice, low but sweet, and definitely doesn’t reek like a cigarette. Still, I’m not in a talking mood, and especially not to answer the same question my dumb mouth kept asking all day to people who weren’t.

“Fine,” I say, in a way that shows I don’t want to share it. “Enjoying the quiet.”

“All right,” he answers, and there’s so much surrender in it, it’s like I can hear his hands up in the air right along with his words.

I open my eyes. “Sorry.”

I take a minute to look at him, my tired brain telling me I might not know this guy but I definitely recognize him. It’s the logo on his jacket that makes the leap for me. He works on the ferry, pulling up the ramp behind the last car on and letting it back down for the first one off. I’ve watched him work on my trips, taking more notice of his hands than his face. It’s not a remarkable one, but it’s kind, like Carmichael says mine is. This guy wears glasses and his breath steams against the lenses as he leans beside me.

“Wanted to make sure those guys weren’t bothering you,” he says, nodding back towards the drunks, who are tipping the ashes of their cigarettes into the river, adding dirt to the froth.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” I say, but in a nice way that lets him know I don’t mind him watching out for me.

We study each other for a second, two people that see each other every day but never really looked.

“You ride a lot,” he says. “What takes you over the river?”

“Work.” I pull on the side of my scrubs to illustrate what I do, glad that it’s the sort of job that doesn’t need explaining. At the same time thinking it’s the first conversation I’ve had with a boy since second trimester and I’m wearing the dorkiest thing I own.

“Me too,” he says, pointing to the picture of the ferry embroidered on his fleece.

I start laughing, I don’t know why. Like here we are, a boy and a girl, me pointing at my pants and him at his shirt like that’s the only way we know to talk to each other.

“Fuuuuuck,” I say, drawing it out as long as I feel tired. “It’s been a long day.”

“Tell me,” he says, as the ferry scrapes up against the dock. “I gotta go, but… I guess I’ll see you Monday, right?”

“Yep,” I nod. “Monday.”

And I don’t feel the cold, or think about the dark while I’m walking back home.

God, or whoever, must have decided I’ve had enough today because Mom’s asleep when I walk in the door, stained fingertips resting just short of the ashtray, a burned out butt dead in her hands. She coulda dropped it, right there on the living room carpet. Lord knows there’s enough black rings there to say it’s happened before. But Rowdy wasn’t sleeping in the same house when those burnt spots were made, and my heart jumps straight up into my throat at the sight of Mom like that.

I run down the hall to his room, though I know well enough there’s nothing on fire except my lungs because I’ve never been no athlete, but I get to his room quick as spit. He’s up, hands exploring his own face, quiet in the night.

“Hey there, little man,” I whisper, leaving the light off so we can share a bit of the darkness, keep it for ourselves and not invite others in. He kicks his legs at the sound of my voice and I reach for him, his wet diaper hanging nearly down to his knees. I get him changed, then we settle into our spot in the rocking chair that don’t rock.

I expect him to go right for me, but Mom must have given him a full bottle before she hit her own, because he’s happy just to look. So I look back, amazed at this body that came out of my own, these eyes that I can see myself in as we stare and stare, in awe of each other.

He gets sleepy after a bit, curling into my chest with his fist in his mouth. I lean back, shocked as hell when the rails of the chair bust through the drywall, enough hours of pushing finally making something give, just like the day Rowdy came. I can rock now. Small, jerky movements, but I’m rocking.

I’m rocking my baby.

He gives a little sigh and I feel his body get a touch warmer, like it always does right before he goes off to sleep. I cup Rowdy’s little foot in my own, the thread of life that had left Emmett pulsing strong through my boy. I’m going now, the chair easing us both into a lull not much different from the way the ferry feels under my feet.

Rowdy shifts against me, the top of his head brushing my chin. He’s easing off, and I glance at the clock to see it’s nearly two in the morning. Tiffany says Angelina usually wakes up about now, wanders around in the hallway until somebody puts her back to bed. I think of Angelina, up and walking just as Rowdy goes all the way down into the deepest sleep.

Maybe one day Rowdy will need someone in the night too. Maybe he’ll come to me in a house that doesn’t smell of smoke and maybe I won’t be alone in my bed. I think of the boy from the ferry, and picture him sleeping next to me as Rowdy tiptoes into our room. Maybe I pull him up with us and we lie together in a room with no holes in the wall, our bodies warm and alive and trusting.

I rest my head against my son, breathing in the smell of him.

Maybe.

The Color of Sad

Trista Wilson

I live in the saddest house, on the loneliest dirt road, surrounded by the most pathetic fields you ever saw. It’s a lopsided two-story that looks like the second floor is just itchin’ to become the first. The outside is scarred wood covered with scales of greyish paint that might have once have been sunshine yellow, barn red, citrus orange or sky blue in a past life. The house reminds me of a confused old lady who doesn’t notice that she’s lost her coat and is standing buck naked in the bright sunshine.

The only way to get to the house is down a long winding dirt road. Riding in the bed of my daddy’s beat up Ford truck, I’ve memorized every bump and pothole so I can brace myself and clench my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue. The old dirt and dried out cornstalks are just the color of sad. My eyes are dried out from sad. Once I saw a red bandana on the side of the road and my eyes drank it in like the 7-11 Slurpee I once had when I was four. That was the best thing I ever tasted and I watched that bandana till it turned to a speck. But it didn’t wash the sad away.

Our big old dog Ben’s the first thing I see when we get home. He’s always sleeping in the shade of the one pecan tree in our front yard. I climb up our creaky front steps, pull open the crooked screen door and let my eyes adjust to the colorless gloom inside. The only bright thing in the whole place is hidden in a box in my closet. I try not to open it too much because I’m afraid the dust and darkness will seep in and suck all the bright right out of it. I always sit on my bed to open it. I close my eyes and reach in to feel the silky material. Even when it’s a hundred degrees out, it feels cool under my fingers. I’m careful that my rough hands don’t catch and make a pull in the fabric. Then I take it out and smell it. I only take a little sniff because I’m scared that I’ll sniff up all the sweet and it’ll start to smell like nothing. I open my eyes but keep them squinted so the colors run together in a yellow, red and purplish blue puddle, kind of like when Daddy’s filling the truck with gas and some leaks onto the ground and makes a rainbow. I wrap the scarf around my shoulders. I used to be able to pretend my mom was hugging me but it’s not working very well anymore. I keep trying ‘cause it’s all I’ve got.

I wander out to sit on the porch steps to wait with Ben for Daddy’s truck. He’s gone to pick up my Aunt Louise at the airport. She’s coming to stay with us for the summer ‘cause Daddy says I need some supervision when I’m out of school, and also he says now I’m not a little girl anymore I need some motherin’ and he don’t know how to do it. I’ve only seen Aunt Louise two times in my whole life. I wonder what could possess her to come spend three whole months in this hot, dusty, colorless Texas town.

“I think that’s them,” I tell Ben, who’s of course sleeping.

I stand and brush off my jeans as the truck parks, and a tall, thin woman in a dress pops out calling, “Oh my goodness! Elizabeth, my sweet girl. Look how you’ve grown!” She tries to run over to hug me, but twists her ankle as her heel catches on a bone Ben left lying in the dirt. She hobbles over with a smile and squeezes me tight. Dad climbs out of the other side of the truck and walks around the back to get Aunt Louise’s suitcases. As Aunt Louise lets me go, I see a face peeking out of the windshield. Who the heck is that? I walk to the car and look in. A little brown chestnut of a face is peeking back. “Aunt Louise! I think you forgot something!” I back away as a little boy bounds out of the truck. He is moving so fast that I’m afraid he’s gonna set off a spark that’ll set this whole place on fire.

“Elizabeth, meet Isaiah. Isaiah, this is Elizabeth.”

“Hi, hi, hi, hi,” Isaiah says as he continues to leap around like a little puppy.

“Isaiah is living with me for a bit and I thought he would enjoy getting away to the country for a little while,” explains Aunt Louise.

“Are there snakes here?  I want to catch a snake!”

I put my hands on my hips. “You don’t know the good snakes from the bad. If a bad one bites ya, you’ll be dead quicker ‘an a duck on a Junebug.”

“Elizabeth, don’t scare the kid,” says dad.

“I don’t want our company to die on the first day! I’m just bein’ helpful.”

Dad gives me “The Look.”

As we walk toward the porch steps, I lean down and whisper to Isaiah, “And watch out for Ben ‘cause he hates kids.” Ben, who has moved three whole steps away from the porch and fallen back asleep in the dirt at our feet, opens an eye for a second and goes right back to sleeping. I don’t think Isaiah even hears me, he’s so busy trying to hop up the steps on one foot.

I come downstairs the next morning and hear Aunt Louise humming in the kitchen. Everything looks different but I’m not sure why. Then I realize she’s been busy as a bumblebee. The curtains are open, dust stirs where it’s been happily sitting quiet for a year. Bright purple flowers are in a vase on the kitchen table. Now I remember when all the color went out of this house. It’s when Mom died. I thought I wanted color but now I’m surprised how mad I feel to see some seeping back in. It feels like the world has up and decided to go on without her.

I stomp right back upstairs and bang on Daddy’s bedroom door. “C’mon in.”

“Dad,” I say flinging open the door and flopping face down on his bed. “We don’t need Aunt Louise and Isaiah here. I’ll be good this summer, I promise.”

Daddy sits next to me on the bed. “It’s not about you being good, kid. Macy is off to college and you’re too young to be home alone all summer.” I feel his hand on my back. “You’re alone too much, honey.”

“I like to be alone,” I say my face still squashed into the bed.

“Just give ‘em a chance, okay?” I feel the bed lift as he rises. “I’ve got to get to work. See you at dinner?”

“Mpff.”

I hear Daddy smile even though that’s not a sound.

I lay still, pretending I’m a dead fish. That’s a game my babysitter Macy used to play with me when I was driving her crazy. She would yell, “Dead fish!” and we would both drop to the ground wherever we were and lay still. Whoever could be still the longest was the winner. I always lost though ‘cause I would start laughing and rolling around and yell, “It’s a miracle! The fish has come back to life.”

My stomach is growling so I decide to follow the smell of pancakes downstairs.

“Morning Elizabeth. How are you?” asks Aunt Louise.

“Okay.”

“Pancakes?”

“Yes please.” Aunt Louise calls Isaiah who comes twirling in like a dust devil. I half expect his chair to lift off the ground as he sits on it. The three of us eat blueberry pancakes dripping in syrup. I focus on popping the warm blueberries with my fork, painting my plate with purple juice as Isaiah babbles on about something. I finally notice that Aunt Louise is saying my name. I look up.

“I was thinking you could take Isaiah and show him around a bit today.”

“There’s not much to see,” I say, thinking I’d much rather hide in my room and read a book.

“Pleeeeaaase Lizbeth!” says Isaiah standing on his chair.

“Fine,” I say.

Isaiah jumps down and I put my hands out to ward off his sticky fingers.

“I’ll clean up,” says Aunt Louise.

Isaiah and I walk down the front steps. “C’mon Ben,” I say.

We walk side by side down the middle of the road. There aren’t any cars this early. Well there usually aren’t many cars ever. “Where we goin’ Lizbeth?”

“Do you want to see where my daddy works? It’s a ranch ‘bout a mile down the road.”

“Are there animals?”

“Some horses and cows.”

“Cool!”

The sun is growing hotter and I feel the dirt sticking to my sweaty cheeks. “What’s that?” asks Isaiah, looking ahead into the pasture to the right of the road.

“That’s Jones the bull. Dad says he’s a mean son a bitch. But I’m not allowed to say that so don’t tell, okay?”

“Okay.”

We walk over to the fence and climb up, looking at Jones who’s standing across the pasture under a tree.

“Why is he mean?” asks Isaiah.

“Maybe he’s just lonely. I can be a mean son a bitch sometimes too. Maybe we can RE-habilitate him. I learned that word in school. Means we can make him nice.”

“How do we do it?

“I think he has to learn to trust us. So we’ll come every day and sit here and talk to him and tell him he’s a good bull.”

We both look at Jones. He’s dark brown with big horns. He looks over at us and then looks away swatting flies with his tail like he doesn’t have time for such foolin’ around.

Isaiah looks like he’s wilting a little. “Want to go put our feet in the creek?” I ask him. Ben’s ears perk up. He knows that word. We say goodbye to Jones and walk across the road to a path through the dried-out cornfield. We reach the water and Isaiah copies me as I take off my shoes. I walk in the slowly moving water up to my knees and Isaiah follows almost up to his waist. Ben lays right down in the shallow part and takes a drink. Little fish swim around our legs and Isaiah giggles. I reach down and cup some water, pouring it on my head and letting it drip down my face. Isaiah splashes me and I try to look mad but he’s laughing so hard he falls down into the water and I have to save him.

We sit on the bank and can almost see the water evaporating off us. “Maybe don’t tell Aunt Louise we went in the water. She seems like the type to worry about drowning and stuff.”

“Okay.”

“Ready to head back?”

We stand and Ben pulls himself out of the water. We crunch back through the stalks and scuff off down the road.

“I love it here!” Isaiah yells, twirling around.

“How come you’re livin’ with Aunt Louise?” I ask him.

“My daddy’s in jail. Mommy had to leave too.”

“Oh.” I look at him. “My mom’s gone too.”

Isaiah all of a sudden hugs me like he’s a sticker burr clinging to my pants. By the time we get home the sun has sucked all the water off of us. We collapse on the steps and Ben takes up his spot under the tree. “Hey there. Did you have fun?” Aunt Louise comes out and sits with us, handing us each a glass bottle of Coke. It tastes so good: bubbly, sweet and cold.

“It was great!” says Isaiah. “We met the son a bitch Jones and got all wet in the creek.”

“Isaiah!” I say sneaking a look at Aunt Louise to see if she’s mad. But she just smiles. The three of us sit on the porch for a while as a tiny breeze tries hard to be bigger than it is.

The next morning, Aunt Louise has packed a picnic lunch for me and Isaiah. “I thought you two might want to go out on an adventure again today. What do you think?”

“I think YES!” says Isaiah, hopping on one foot and then the other. His arms are spread like wings and I figure I better get him outside before he takes off.

“I guess,” I say.

“But be safe,” Aunt Louise says giving me a look.

I pick up the bag with our sandwiches, apples and soda. “Let’s go, y’all,” I say to Isaiah and Ben. We retrace our path from yesterday, Isaiah popping down the road like a corn kernel in a hot pot. “What do you think Jones would like, Isaiah?”

“What do Joneses like to eat?” asks Isaiah.

“Hay.”

“Let’s feed him hay.”

When we get to the fence, I set our lunch down and lead Isaiah around to the right of the fence where there’s a field. We walk out to one of the giant rolled bales and each try to grab a handful of the prickly grass. We have to pull so hard we fall over when some finally comes out. Then we walk to the fence and hold out hay to Jones who’s off in the distance living his life, full of flicking his tail and looking grumpy. “Hey Jones, we’re here to RE-billy-tay you!” calls Isaiah. Jones doesn’t seem to care. We stay up on the fence holding out our offerings until my stomach starts to growl.

“Let’s eat,” I say.

We jump down, and I grab our lunch and go join Ben in a sliver of shade under a scraggly tree. Isaiah and I eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toss the crusts to Ben. We sip our Cokes, which are warm but still sweet and bubbly. “Mom used to buy me Cokes at the store under our apartment,” says Isaiah.

“You must really miss her,” I say. “I miss my mom too.”

Isaiah looks at me and smiles a little bit. “My mom smelled good.”

“Mine let me sleep with her if I was scared.”

“Mine too!”

“My mom made really good cinnamon toast when I was sick.”

“My mom read me Goodnight Moon a million gazillion times.”

“My mom sang me silly songs about our day.”

That brings on another sticker bur hug from Isaiah and I fall backwards onto the ground. “Okay, okay. Let’s try to feed Jones hay again before we go.”

We pack up our stuff and climb the fence holding out hay to Jones who has moved a little closer. We wait but Jones stays where he is. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow Jones,” I say.

“Yup! See you tomorrow Jones! We’re going to RE-billy-tay you!”

Isaiah and I keep up our campaign over the next few weeks. We get into a routine of Jones, picnic, wading in the creek and back home for dinner. I even teach Isaiah to play dead fish and it’s pretty funny when we both flop down on the ground. I actually win because Isaiah is even more squirmy than me.

I wake up one morning to the sound of rain thundering down on the roof. It doesn’t rain a lot here but when it does, it really and truly does. I decide to read one of my summer books I’m supposed to read for school. Aunt Louise tries to keep Isaiah busy inside but finally lets him go run outside in the rain. He comes in dripping and Aunt Louise sends him upstairs to change into dry clothes while she makes lunch. I’m still curled up reading in the living room when Aunt Louise calls for us to come eat. I sit at the kitchen table and pick up a potato chip. “C’mon, Isaiah!” calls Aunt Louise sitting down across the table. “Isaiah!”

“I’ll get him,” I say and run upstairs. I peek in his room but he’s not there. My door is open a little bit so I go there next. Isaiah is standing on my bed holding mom’s scarf. I can see he’s gotten it wet and muddy as he waves it like a flag. “Isaiah! No!” I scream and jump toward him trying to snatch the scarf away. I knock into him and he falls off the bed onto the floor. I hear him start to cry. I grab the scarf where it landed on the bed. “Don’t ever touch my stuff! Don’t come in my room!” Aunt Louise comes running into the room.

“What’s going on?” She hears Isaiah crying and goes to scoop him up. She wipes he tears and after she makes sure he’s okay sends him downstairs. “I’ll be right there.”

I sit on the bed clutching the scarf and the tears that will never fall, finally do. Aunt Louise sits next to me quietly. “It’s my mom’s. It’s all I have. He ruined it! It’s all muddy.” Aunt Louise takes my hand softly. I cry. And cry. Probably enough tears to make the corn grow again.

“It’s been so hard for you. I’m sorry I haven’t been here more for you and your dad. I’m really glad to be here now.” She puts one arm around me and with the other hand wipes my hot cheeks and tucks my wild brown hair behind my ears. I lean into her shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re here now too.”

“We’ll clean your scarf, kiddo. It’ll be okay.”

“I didn’t mean to push Isaiah.”

“I know,” says Aunt Louise.

After some more sniffles I say, “I’ll go tell him I’m sorry.”

As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I notice it’s way too quiet. I look in all the rooms. “Aunt Louise! He’s not here.” Aunt Louise and I take one more look to make sure he’s not hiding. Then we go out on the front porch and call into the rain. “I’ll go find him.”

“I’m going to call your dad,” says Aunt Louise.

I run into the rain and down the road, until I reach Jones’ pasture. Daddy’s truck pulls in just as I get to the gate panting and trying to catch my breath. Daddy gets out and we both freeze as we see little Isaiah and giant Jones standing, facing each other, only about ten yards apart from each other. Everything slows. Even the raindrops seem to be falling in slow motion.

Daddy says, “Stay here, Elizabeth!” He runs along the fence away from us. I watch as Jones tosses his head, staring at Isaiah. Daddy jumps over the fence yelling and waving his arms. It’s hard to hear him through the noise of the rain. Jones lowers his head and Isaiah starts to jump from one foot to the other. Daddy is getting closer and trying to get Jones’ attention but the bull is still focused on Isaiah.

“Dead fish! Isaiah, dead fish!” I yell as loud as I can. I see Isaiah’s head turn. He didn’t notice us before. He drops to the ground just as Daddy reaches them and smacks Jones on the flank, turning to run, yelling and waving his arms, away from Isaiah. Jones wheels around and chases Daddy who barely gets to the fence and leaps over seconds before the big bull reaches him. Jones tosses his horns and kicks his back legs before turning to run away down the pasture, having had enough of us. As soon as he’s far enough away, Daddy jumps back over the fence and runs to scoop up Isaiah. He brings him to where I’m clutching the gate and climbs over. Once we’re all safe I hug Isaiah and Daddy is hugging both of us. Isaiah is sobbing and shaking and Daddy leads us to the truck. We all climb in the front and I put my arm around Isaiah while Daddy checks to see if he’s hurt. “I’m so sorry, Isaiah. I’m so sorry I yelled at you.”

“I think he’s okay,” says Daddy letting out a big breath. We’re all soaking wet and muddy and I notice Daddy’s hands are shaking on the wheel as he drives us home. Aunt Louise runs down from the porch and flings the truck door open.

“Are you okay? Is he okay?” Aunt Louise asks.

“He’s scared but okay,” says Daddy.

I climb out and Aunt Louise picks up Isaiah and carries him into the house. We go into the living room and Daddy goes to grab some towels. Aunt Louise bundles Isaiah up and sits snuggling him on the couch. Daddy and I dry off and sit together in a big chair across from the couch.

“Isaiah, why did you run away?” asks Dad.

“I wanted to RE-billy-tay Jones for Lizbeth.”

“That was so dangerous, Isaiah!” says Aunt Louise. “You could have really gotten hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” says Isaiah.

“I’m sorry too, Isaiah,” I say.

“Lizbeth, I think Jones really is just a mean son a bitch,” says Isaiah.

Daddy’s and Aunt Louise’s eyes get big and I start to laugh. “I think you’re right.”

Before we know it, summer is almost over and it’s time for Isaiah and Aunt Louise to go back to New York. Me and Daddy help pack up the truck as Isaiah makes a dust storm in the yard. Aunt Louise gives me a long hug. “We’ll be back next summer, but I think you and your daddy should come visit us in New York for Christmas too. What do you think?”

“I think yes,” I say hugging her back tight.

Isaiah gives me his signature sticker hug. “Bye Lizbeth. I’ll miss you.”

“Hold on a second,” I say running inside. I run back out to Isaiah and pulling my hands out from behind my back, show him the scarf. I wrap around his shoulders. “This is for you. It’s a hug scarf.”

Isaiah wraps the scarf around himself even tighter, covering his mouth and taking a deep sniff. The scarf’s almost as big as him. He gives me a side bump hug since his hands are busy holdin’ the scarf tight. I see the grin lighting up his eyes. I bend down to his ear and whisper. “Hey, I hear there’s a mountain lion that’s been seen ‘round here lately. Maybe next summer we’ll try to RE-habilitate him.”

“Okay!” answers Isaiah, hopping in the truck.

As they drive off, I sit on a porch step and Ben flops in the dirt. He puts his chin on my foot, which means he’s feelin’ sad to see Isaiah go. “It’s okay Ben. It’ll be Christmas before you know it.” I look to where the truck has gotten as small as a dot. The scarf must have spilled some color on its way because I notice that the world doesn’t look so empty and sad anymore. And it feels okay, because I know Mom is lovin’ me through all those colors. I feel green grass kissin’ me on the cheek, blue sky tickling my toes and purple and orange flowers wrapping their arms tight around me like they’ll never let go. Ben must feel it too because he stands, shakes and scratches behind his ear, before going back to sleep, and that much activity pretty much means Ben’s ‘bout bustin’ with joy.