Engraving Heaven’s Likeness
by Tova Benjamin

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Someone was painting the bochurim. Ever since the Rabbi noticed the first portrait hanging from the artist’s studio, the paintings seemed to multiply, until there were almost as many as the students themselves. Each night after zal ended and the boys went to sleep, the Rabbi walked past the darkened storefront where their familiar faces posed. There he recognized Zalman from shiur aleph, his ears keeping his black hat afloat; there was Yossi with the desperate first strokes of a mustache. The Rabbi noticed the way the artist tinged all their black jackets with blue, turned their faces into a rough collision of lines, painted the eyes soft and almost empty, with thick, lined lashes like girls or baby calves. Behind the window, the Rabbi could see stacks and stacks of canvasses, and, if he squinted his eyes, the shape of teenage boys sloped on each one.

The Rabbi wondered how the artist knew each student’s likeness. He considered that she must have first seen them on their daily route past her storefront window, at the corner of Lunt and California in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, right between the boys’ dorm and the yeshiva building. Still, the Rabbi wasn’t sure how she captured the boys in such detail. Did she step outside her studio at seven in the morning or twelve in the afternoon, stare at the boys and then imprint their images onto her memory? What would the parents say when they visited and noticed images of their sons, hanging in the street for everyone to see?

The Rabbi knew the artist was a woman. It wasn’t just the heavy lashes she painted—he saw her himself, standing at the window one morning and arranging a new portrait for display. She was middle-aged and chubby with curly hair that appeared frizzier in the display lighting. Her clothes were dark and oversized, and when she lifted her arms to hang one of her newest portraits, a stretch-marked patch of stomach fell out, causing the Rabbi to turn in embarrassment and walk away.

*

As far as the Rabbi knew, the artist had never come into contact with his students. He had never seen her visit the yeshiva, and she had no way of knowing where the dorms were located. The students had a strict schedule: studying lasted from early in the morning until long after sunset, and breaks between learning were rarely spent away from the yeshiva’s property. During lunch, the bochurim ate at the yeshiva or the dorms, and during breaks they played basketball in the parking lot behind the school. In the evenings they walked to the park under the supervision of the dorm counselor, and curfew was at 9PM sharp. Besides, the artist’s studio closed at five each day. The only time the boys were permitted to leave the neighborhood was on Friday afternoons, when they went on mivtzoyim, wandering the city’s streets in search of Jews who would lay tefillin. But the Rabbi knew they wouldn’t lay tefillin on a woman. All possibilities exhausted, he continued his walking past the portraits in perpetual unease, seeing the pictures without seeing them entirely.

*

“Baila Rochel,” the Rabbi finally said to his wife one evening, as they sat down for dinner, just the two of them, over meatloaf and soup. All eight of their children already had children of their own, and suppertime was a delayed honeymoon—they hadn’t been alone since the ten months after their marriage. “Do you think it’s illegal to paint someone without their permission?”

Baila Rochel held her spoon mid-air as if asking him to elaborate.

“I mean, say you walk past a store front, for instance, and see a painting of someone you recognize, someone who didn’t give the artist permission to paint them.”

Baila Rochel resumed her eating. “Are you talking about the studio on Lunt and California?”

“Yes,” the Rabbi said, relieved he no longer had to explain.

“I drove past it the other day, it’s very strange.”

“Have you looked closely at the paintings? If you look, you’ll see that she captured the bochurim exactly, their faces…It’s like she has the whole yeshiva in her studio.”

“What do you make of it? You think she’s Jewish?”

The Rabbi pushed his bowl up the table. “I’ve never seen her before.”

Baila Rochel stood up and collected her husband’s bowl, pouring his leftover soup into hers.

“Well, I think it’s scary,” she declared, and then stacked the bowls together, as if to say that she’d made up her mind and was done with the conversation.

The Rabbi pondered this assessment for a moment while Baila Rochel walked into the kitchen and filled the house with the familiar sound of rushing water.

“What do you think?” he shouted. “Should I at least talk to her?”

But Baila Rochel didn’t seem to hear, or at least she pretended not to, leaving the Rabbi to conclude that it was better not to make a fuss.

*

After speaking with Baila Rochel, the Rabbi kept his eyes from stopping at the portraits as he walked past them, ignoring the bochurim behind the stranger’s glass window. It was already spring when the portraits began to appear, almost exactly a year after his youngest son’s wedding. They all thought Mendel would never get married. But he did, the Rabbi reminded himself, he finally did get married. Of course, Mendel’s wife developed certain suspicions and read some messages in Mendel’s phone, messages between Mendel and a non-Jewish man. Mendel did not confirm or deny a relationship between him and the other man, yet their daughter-in-law seemed convinced regardless, and wanted a divorce. But Mendel didn’t confirm, and the Rabbi’s thoughts returned to this small comfort, that she could easily be reading too much into the situation. Mendel and his wife had only been married for a year, but she was already six months pregnant, with Mendel on a half salary at the cheder. If they did divorce, she would take the Rabbi’s grandchild.  

The painted boys in the window seemed to ask him about these troubles, though their real-life counterparts were undoubtedly unaware of Mendel’s secret. The Rabbi heard their voices during his own rounds past the storefront window between the yeshiva and the dorm.

Maybe they won’t get divorced, the line drawings whispered. She is pregnant after all.

The Rabbi continued walking past, thinking over which sections of the Talmud he might drill the students on. The portraits remained suspended this way for some time, present in the Rabbi’s periphery, until he received a call from one of the boys’ mothers, asking if it would be possible for her son, Shmuel Shapiro, to take art lessons. The Rabbi was so surprised by the suggestion he almost wasn’t sure he heard her right.

“What do you mean?” the Rabbi tried to keep polite. Mrs. Shapiro and her husband were ba’alay teshuvah from Richmond, Virginia, who only recently became Lubavitchers. Unlike most ba’alay teshuvah who came from completely secular backgrounds, the Shapiros were modern orthodox before they turned ultra-orthodox, a transition that wasn’t too drastic for their son, Shmuel. That was the only reason the Rabbi accepted Shmuel into the yeshiva – usually he would recommend Morristown, or other, more suitable environments. But Shmuel had a good head for Gemara, and a gentle disposition. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about joining the yeshiva, and the Rabbi got the sense that it was his choice, and not his parents’. Besides, Shmuel was one of two children and his father made a lot of money, enough to pay full tuition, making Shmuel a bit too valuable for the yeshiva to lose.

“Well, Sam has been saying that he feels like he needs a bit of an outlet,” Mrs. Shapiro explained.

The use of Shmuel’s English name made the Rabbi cringe.

“That’s why we give the boys a break every day after lunch,” the Rabbi said, keeping an even tone. “For the bochurim to channel their energy outside of class.”

“Yes, yes, he told me about that,” Shmuel’s mother replied. “But you know, Sam isn’t much of a sports guy, he really doesn’t like to play basketball. And he’s always been so creative, we think it’d be nice for him to continue it there at the yeshiva.”

“We’ve never really had a student take art lessons before.” The Rabbi felt uncomfortable. They didn’t teach math, science, or history—the idea of art lessons was absurd.

“Besides,” he added, “there really isn’t time in the schedule.”

“Oh, I know the boys are so busy,” Mrs. Shapiro said, unbothered by the Rabbi’s hesitance, or perhaps unaware, “but Sam told me about this lovely lady around the corner who offers art lessons for a very reasonable price. Couldn’t he go during the basketball time?”

“Shmuel has been going into the art studio?”

Mrs. Shapiro said something in response, but the Rabbi didn’t hear. He stared at the calendar in his office and tried to remember when paintings of his students began to appear, whether he’d ever noticed a student inside the woman’s studio.

“Let me think about it,” the Rabbi said, and then he hung up the phone. He brushed a couple of long, dark beard hairs off his jacket and absentmindedly lifted a pen off his desk, clicking it with his thumb. The Rabbi wondered why it never occurred to him before. The woman was able to capture the boy’s faces because she had met them. The bochurim were posing for her.

The Rabbi sat on his secret knowledge through spring as though it were information with the potential to damage him and not just his students. He considered asking the boys about it, and then thought the better of it. He hoped he were wrong, and none of the boys ever noticed the artist, in which case it wouldn’t be right to bring her and her paintings to the yeshiva’s attention.  He developed a habit of walking two blocks out of the way so as to avoid the studio entirely, curving around Lunt Street and walking towards the yeshiva through the alley as if the portraits could disappear by his very will. Stranger things had happened throughout history after all.

One Shabbos in late April, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel were invited to a meal hosted by the Rifkins, the couple that ran the girls’ elementary school. The two of them walked to the Rifkin house in distracted silence after shul. The weather was pleasant: cold enough for black suit jackets to be comfortable and not oppressive, but not so cold as to require extra layers.

Rabbi Rifkin and his wife had invited no other guests. The meal was small and intimate; the four of them leisurely enjoying their aging process; anxieties of rearing young children already far behind them. Baila Rochel thrived in her new role as grandmother, and the Rabbi felt he and his wife were closer than ever, even one of the same mind. When Mrs. Rifkin asked about Mendel, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel answered that Mendel was good, boruch hashem, neither one looking to the other before replying. Rabbi and Mrs. Rifkin murmured their assent, gently remembering how hard it was for Mendel to find someone. They all agreed Mendel’s wife was very special. The Rabbi asked about the Rifkin children, and the laughter came easy again, just how the Rabbi preferred. Once kiddush was made and the salads were eaten, Mrs. Rifkin began to discuss a recent issue they were struggling with at the girl’s school: the use of Yiddish in the classrooms.

“It’s a problem,” Mrs. Rifkin explained. “Many of the parents have started calling me to complain about the Yiddish-only policy.”

The Rabbi listened sympathetically. He, his wife, and the Rifkins were part of another class of Lubavitchers: children of old, prestigious families, unlike the other members of their young Chicago community, most of whom returned to religiosity in their twenties, or even later, possessing little knowledge of Judaism. These fresh adherents struggled with reading Hebrew, and Yiddish was a second language twice removed, patched together from too many other languages and insider references for any newcomer to remember.

“They should be happy their children are learning Yiddish,” Baila Rochel said. “If they don’t learn it in cheder, where else? Their parents don’t speak it to them.”

“That’s the problem,” Mrs. Rifkin told her. “The parents feel like they can’t help their children with the homework because they don’t understand the language.”

The Rabbi didn’t see how this was a problem. “The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish because he thought Yiddish was important. The parents should see that as well.”

Mrs. Rifkin struggled to articulate herself. “I agree that it’s important, but I don’t know…many of the students do poorly in Yiddish, but have no problem in English classes. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for the parents. They worry their children aren’t properly learning either language.”

“That’s because the parents still have goyish values,” Rabbi Rifkin said, responding to his wife, but addressing the other Rabbi.

The Rabbi agreed. “A lot of them don’t understand the essence of what Judaism is.” He remembered the conversation he had with Shmuel’s mother. “You know I actually had a parent call me up and ask if her son could take art classes? Never, in all my years of teaching, has anyone ever asked me if their son could take art classes. No one would have even considered such a thing when I was in yeshiva.”

Rabbi Rifkin leaned back in his chair and pushed his plate away, prompting his wife and the other rebbetzin to stand up and clear the table.

“It was just a different time,” he mused.

“I suppose,” the Rabbi said, and then he paused. The two Rabbis shared an anxious silence as the dishes steadily disappeared from the table. Rabbi Rifkin hummed a nigun and the Rabbi tugged at his beard, letting the uncertainty linger between him and his old friend. He joined along with Rabbi Rifkin’s nigun, singing the wordless tune loudly, the emotive familiarity buried in the song’s dips and rises. As he sang the familiar melody, etched into the muscle memory of his jaw so that it rushed out without premeditation, the Rabbi considered the fate of their next generation. The two Rabbis banged their fists on the emptied table and sang out the painful questions they had no answers for. Why did the Rebbe abandon them twenty years before and never return? Why had their leader tasked them with searching out new followers—Jews with no religious background or understanding—who threatened to dissolve the fabric of the community once they joined? They harbored the superstitious fear, one incapable of verbalization, that the world they so zealously guarded would end with their generation. But most of all, they feared the approaching extinction was their own doing. They feared the outreach they had devoted themselves to meant looking outwards instead of inwards; so that for each young man or woman coaxed into the tiny neighborhood of their lives, another son or daughter found an opening and slipped out.

“Do you want tea?” Mrs. Rifkin asked the Rabbi. Not waiting for his reply, she brought out a tray, balancing a teapot and little painted teacups.

*

Once the wives settled back into their seats, the conversation about the elementary school resumed. “Something very strange happened to me the other day,” Mrs. Rifkin told the others.

“A woman named Lisa came to the cheder and told me she was an artist, and that she wanted to paint the girls. She was wondering if she could take pictures of them. I told her no, of course, and then asked her why she’d been painting the bochurim.” At this, Mrs. Rifkin looked to the Rabbi, who looked down at his teacup and began to stir.

“This is the woman on Lunt and California?” Baila Rochel asked, even though everyone knew which artist Mrs. Rifkin was talking about.

“Yeah, you know, the one who has the big portraits of the boys hanging in the studio window.” Mrs. Rifkin stretched her hands as she said “big,” as if to emphasize her innocence in the face of artistic practices.  

“It’s creepy,” Rabbi Rifkin weighed in. “And besides, she’s not a very good artist. The paintings don’t look anything like the bochurim. I think she’s trying to make it abstract.”

“Really?” the Rabbi interrupted his friend. “You don’t think the pictures don’t look like them? For me, I can recognize the face of every student.”

“That’s the thing,” Mrs. Rifkin continued. “She’s painting them from photographs, that’s what the woman told me. Did you know that?” she asked the Rabbi, turning to address him directly. “Apparently during their Friday rounds, one of the boys went into her studio and asked if her husband was Jewish. She said, yes, my husband is Jewish. So, they asked if he would put on tefillin. She said only if they would pose for a painting. The boys said no, of course, but they let her husband photograph them instead. Now every week, a different pair of boys goes into her studio for her husband to take pictures of them, and in exchange he puts on tefillin.”

Upon finishing her story, Mrs. Rifkin looked around the table, but none of the other three ventured a response.

“Well…” Baila Rochel finally said. “At least her husband is doing a mitzvah, right?”

“You think that’s what the Rebbe would have wanted?” Rabbi Rifkin said, and the Rabbi startled at the sharp tone in his friend’s voice. Baila Rochel said nothing.

“Who knows what the Rebbe would have wanted,” the Rabbi added softly. He knew his friend did not expect an answer from anyone.

That evening the Rabbi went to shul for mincha, and when Shabbos ended, he walked home along California Avenue instead of his usual route, following the street to the woman’s studio on Lunt. Once he turned off Devon, the streets were empty, besides for occasional cars and other Jews making their way home from shul. California was the border street that separated houses from apartments, the Jewish community from the rest of Rogers Park, and to the Rabbi it felt like venturing down a long strip of the city’s seams, masquerading as concrete. They had only moved to that neighborhood thirty years ago, in 1979, fifteen years before the Rebbe abandoned them on earth. And since then, a few families had grown to hundreds of families, one shul to numerous shuls fanned beyond the original streets. The Rabbi resigned himself to the transience of their lives, and arrived at the darkened storefront where the portraits of his students hung. He looked around at the empty street and took a step forward to examine the paintings up close, his upper half bent towards the studio window.

In some ways, he noted, she painted them all the same. Each boy was shaped with angular shoulders and extra bony hands, as if the fingers on yeshiva boys’ hands bent in five places instead of three. But the shoulders and hands were where the similarities ended. The faces reflected the individual students he knew so well, students from around the world that he himself painstakingly selected from a pile of applications. Students he lectured at each morning as they stretched and yawned and picked at the white plastic tablecloths covering the yeshiva’s folding tables.

And yet, staring at the boys in the clean space of a portrait felt like encountering them for the first time. The Rabbi noticed, to his surprise, how young they all were; that their limbs seemed to float in their black hats and jackets, those signifiers of membership they wore so awkwardly and proudly. None of the boys tucked in their shirts, which gave them a haphazard appearance when studied individually, though this quirk appeared organized and neat when they sat before him as a collective in the school building. They all buttoned up the same way, keeping the top button undone so the collars flapped around their throats and the eager protrusions of their necks leaped from their dress shirts.

Taking in each painting, the Rabbi noticed a detail he had entirely missed all those months he walked past the portraits. In the corner of each one, the boys had signed their names in both Hebrew and English as if to approvingly say, Yes, this is me. The Rabbi’s eyes traveled from portrait to portrait and took in all the names scrawled in the corners of the paintings, evidence of something he could not place just yet. Yossi Feldman, Chaim Kornberg, Yitzchak Bogomilsky, Zalman Rapaport. He mouthed each bochur’s name and wondered how this woman’s project had managed to develop so innocuously, completely within his purview.

The Rabbi abruptly pulled himself away, moving faster than he had before. He resolved to email the teachers that evening. He would instruct them, he decided, to forbid the students from visiting the studio on Friday or any other day for that matter. Finally, he would personally visit the studio and ask the woman to take the paintings down.

As he neared his own block, the Rabbi removed his hands from his pockets and slowed his moving feet. He thought of the leaping necks and open eyes. It occurred to him that his bochurim were so unaware of themselves, the way they gingerly posed beneath the artist’s brush, their interior lives never coming into contact with the world’s perception of them.

He thought once again–the thousandth time since the news was relayed to him–of the troubles he was having with Mendel. The Rabbi couldn’t shake from his mind an image of Mendel as a young boy, so similar to those propped up in the window, yet different—drastically different. Mendel was already too conscious of his limbs at that age, and they met the clothing he wore with ease, took up natural residence in the four-cornered frame Mendel carried with him wherever he went, forcing everyone to encounter him as an individual, despite his black pants and greying button down. Mendel possessed a vanity that none of the other boys seemed to know they were capable of discovering—a oneness of body and spirit—and it disturbed the Rabbi to recognize this harmony in his own son. But these boys, these bochurim, they didn’t have to know about the four corners a body could carry around the world with it. The Rabbi wanted his yeshiva boys to live like they didn’t ever imprint themselves on another person’s mind, and it wasn’t right for the artist to take that away from them.

*

At home the Rabbi drafted an email to the other teachers at the yeshiva, and then read the daily portions before shutting off the lights in the various corners of his home. He passed his sleeping wife on the way to the bathroom, and brushed his teeth in the dark, his hands finding the toothpaste and toothbrush automatically. After rinsing out his mouth, the Rabbi paused and then turned on the bathroom light, examining the reflection before him in the mirror. He searched his features for remnants of continuity, something of the past that could be buried in his face. Under his eyes, the veins shone over dark circles, and the hairs of his beard crept so far up his cheeks that the space between his beard and his baggy eyes was almost negligible. The Rabbi tried to wriggle out of his own body and watch the face as though it were not his face at all, but he wasn’t sure how. All he saw was the skin he had breathed and sweated in for so many years, the functional collection of arteries and muscles, and the millions and millions of pores.

The Rabbi shut off the bathroom light and carried himself into bed. His wife turned over to adjust the blankets, and when he saw that she was still awake, he whispered,

“Did you speak to Mendel tonight?”

“No,” she whispered back. “He didn’t call.”

“I’ve decided to stop the boys from visiting that woman’s studio.”

“That’s good,” Baila Rochel said. “They shouldn’t visit.”

“No,” the Rabbi agreed. “They shouldn’t.” Then the two of them fell quiet, each breathing the blanket up and down in their separate beds.

“Baila Rochel?” The Rabbi finally said.

“Yes?”

“Do you ever think about your body?”

“Do I ever think about my body?

“Yes.”

“What do you mean?”      

The Rabbi thought into the silence again. “I mean, if you ever think about how the world sees you, what you look like to them?” It wasn’t what he meant to ask, but it was close.

“All the time,” Baila Rochel replied. “But I don’t really have to think about it, because I already know. Do you notice how people talk to us differently? Like we’re not one of them? Sometimes I’ll be at the grocery store and I’ll hear how the person behind the counter changes their voice when it’s my turn. Everyone becomes politer, more reserved, but kinder too, as if I’m a child.”

The Rabbi hesitated and collected his thoughts again. “I guess I mean what you think about your body, what you see when you imagine yourself.”

“Well, let me think.”

The Rabbi waited.

“I guess I just imagine me,” Baila Rochel said after a while. “My shaytl and my face, and maybe that I look older.”

She paused, and then continued talking, in that slow, absorbed way people talk when thinking about something for the first time.

“It’s always a surprise to think about how much older I look. Whenever I imagine myself, the first thing I see is me before all the children, myself at twenty, but really, I’ve spent more time with my body as a mother, myself after all the pregnancies.” She sat up and looked at him in the thinning dark.

“Why do you ask? Is this about the paintings?”

“I don’t know,” the Rabbi sighed. “I’m really not sure.”

In the morning, Shmuel’s mother called the Rabbi again, reminding him of the unpleasant task he was to take care of that day. Though she seemed to have forgotten about the art classes, at least for the time being, and was calling about an online math program for her son.

“I understand that the yeshiva doesn’t have time for secular subjects,” Mrs. Shapiro said, “but Sam is thinking of going to college someday. He’d like to be an engineer. Maybe he could skip some Gemara in the afternoon and take a math class online.”

“I see, I see,” the Rabbi murmured in response. He wanted to tell her that the Rebbe didn’t support college, or at least only supported college in special cases, and surely not before marriage. But because Mrs. Shapiro was so new he wasn’t sure whether it would be right to tell her. Maybe he could tell the boy one on one. They could speak in his office and the Rabbi would give Shmuel some letters from the Rebbe on college. The Rabbi already knew what the boy would say. He would protest that the Rebbe went to college, the Sorbonne no less, and ask how it could be that the Rebbe went to college and he, Shmuel, shouldn’t be allowed to go. The Rabbi sighed.

“I understand your concerns, Mrs. Shapiro. Let me schedule a meeting with Shmuel and see where he is holding in Gemara. You understand he is a little behind the other students. I will see where he is holding, and try to understand from him what he’s looking for.”

 “Ok, thank you Rabbi,” Mrs. Shapiro said, and she hung up the phone.

*

The Rabbi put on a light jacket and left the house. He headed towards the art studio on Lunt and California, letting his eyes search for another reflection in the storefront windows. Not just the image that existed in his own mind, but the reflection others might see: his black hat, his long beard, the rolling belly, and his dark colored shoes, walking with stiff purpose.  

Inside the studio, the Rabbi dizzied at the colorful paintings overwhelming the small room, paintings papered from floor to ceiling with piles more around the studio. Most of the paintings on the walls were of women, older women, detailed in the same bony, angular way the artist had made the bochurim, except bursting with earthy reds and greens with almost no blue. In the bright, bizarrely colored room, the bochurim stood out like a mistake, the only canvasses lacking in deep color.

“Hello?” the Rabbi called out cautiously, stepping slowly into the packed space.

“Yes, I’m coming! One moment!” A voice shouted from the back room. The Rabbi almost turned around and left. Swallowing the impulse, he placed his hands in his pant pockets instead, and rocked his weight between his heels and his toes, glancing from one painting to the next, and skipping his glance over the ones depicting nudes.        

From the back of the room came the squeak of a faucet, and then the woman herself. She wiped her hands on her long tunic and pushed back her frizzy hair with a breathless gesture.

“Hello,” she said, sounding surprised but not unpleasantly so. “I would offer you my handshake but I know you guys don’t do that.”

The Rabbi smiled politely. “I see you’ve met my students.”

“Oh!” the woman said, her eyes brightening. “So you’re in charge of the school?”

“Yes, I’m the principal.”

“Maybe they told me about you. They’re such sweet boys, you know. When I first saw them walking down the street, I couldn’t tell the difference between them.”

She laughed at herself, and then quickly added, “I don’t mean that in an offensive way.” She held out her hand as if to reassure him, before letting it fall to her side again.

“Just that, well, they all dress the same, and it’s almost impossible to tell any difference from afar. But when I started painting them, I couldn’t understand how I ever mixed them up in the first place! They all seem so different to me now, even in the way they wear their hats or button their shirts, there’s such personality within the uniform. Do you notice that, too?”

The Rabbi had never considered the bochurim to be indistinguishable from one another, or at least not in the way she described.

“Oh!” she said abruptly, jumping up and turning to her back room. “I should show you.”

The artist disappeared into the back and came out again, carrying out a large painted canvas. When the Rabbi saw the beginning etches of his Rebbe, the leader’s likeness taking form in the strokes of paint, he felt something like shock, or maybe anger.

“The boys kept bringing me this man’s photo and asking me to paint him,” the artist explained, chuckling a little. “Do you know who he is?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I told them I would only paint him if they brought me a photo of him smiling. ‘He’s always frowning!’ I said. ‘Why are you always bringing me angry photos?’ But then they brought me this very nice picture of him smiling, so I started painting that one.”

The Rebbe was indeed smiling as he took shape on the big, white square. His eyes crinkled in the corners, and his cheeks bubbled up underneath them, two crescent moons pushed into a smile by the lively mustache and the upturned mouth. The Rabbi could almost hear the sounds of nigunim, he could see the Rebbe’s fist lifted high above his smile, shaking and pushing through the air with enthusiasm, moving together with the livening rhythm. The Rabbi swallowed and buttoned his jacket, a slight shake in his fingers. It wasn’t the woman’s place to paint the Rebbe and bring him to life. From the portrait, the Rebbe seemed to be smiling at him, telling the Rabbi that it was okay, he knew, he had allowed it to happen. It was all part of a master plan, the Rebbe’s eyes winked from the canvas, but the familiar feeling of the doubt prevented the Rabbi from falling into the Rebbe’s image.

The Rabbi turned away from the painting and made as if to leave.

“Please take down the portraits of my students,” he said near the door, “and do not distribute or sell any of them.”

The artist looked at him curiously, warmth still lingering in her face.

“Why?”

“The parents are upset. The students are minors. You have no permission to paint them. Please remove the portraits or we’ll be forced to take further action.”

The woman’s face flushed; whether she was embarrassed or upset the Rabbi could not tell.

“Ok,” she finally said, after studying the Rabbi’s face for a few stifled minutes, searching for a clear emotion. “I’ll take them down.”

*

The artist made true to her promise, and by the next day, his students’ portraits were already gone. In their place stood canvases full of naked women, shoulders peeking out from reds and purples that barely covered their breasts. During morning class the students did not seem considerably changed. They sat and yawned and slouched as they usually did, and a few even asked questions. There was no indication that anything had shifted, that they had ceased to exist outside the world of their own minds. The relative calm that followed the tense events of the previous month gave the Rabbi a mournful relief. He allowed himself to settle into the calm, until a student knocked on his door, bearing the smiling painting of the Rebbe from the day before.

“Sorry to bother you,” the student said. It was Shmuel. He held the painting carefully, like it was holy or still wet. “The woman down the street gave this to me,” Shmuel stretched the painting towards the Rabbi, who didn’t make any motion to accept it. “Have you seen her paintings of everyone? She stopped by today with a crate full of them and gave us each a picture. She said to give this one to you.”

“Thank you, Shmuel.” The Rabbi gestured to a corner on the floor. “You can just put it there. I’ll figure out what to do with it.”

Shmuel put down the picture. The Rabbi leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. He returned his attention to Shmuel.

“I received a call from your mother yesterday.”

Shmuel nodded. “She told me about it.”

“Come see me tomorrow and we’ll speak some more. In the meantime, I think you should read the Rebbe’s letters on college. Ask the other boys, they’ll show you where to find them.”

“Ok,” Shmuel said, and he turned to go.

As he watched Shmuel walk away, the Rabbi was interrupted by another memory of his son Mendel at that age, the way Mendel’s shoulders sliced through the air like Shmuel’s. For a second, the Rabbi thought he saw Shmuel’s shoulders blur and then subsequently sharpen, turning angular and rough like those of the portrait that used to hang in the studio window. The Rabbi blinked, and Shmuel’s back straightened out again, the lines became clear and the colors more realistic.   

The Rabbi studied the portrait on his office floor. There, among the Rebbe’s features, the Rabbi saw his own. It wasn’t just the beard they shared, or the shadow of a hat brim. He saw, even in the first sketchings of the deceased man’s image, the sum of his life. Everything he had tried to be, every word or thought he shaped for the past fifty years. There was his father in the Rebbe’s eyes. There was his mother in the crinkles at the eye’s corners. His wedding day, the first day of his job, his children’s faces, his son Mendel underneath the chuppah. All of it rested in the curve of the Rebbe’s smile.

The Rabbi was hit with a disturbing awareness. His leader, his Rebbe, the man smiling from the painting, had become unfamiliar to him. Taking care not to smudge the paint, the Rabbi lifted the canvas and carefully placed it in his office closet. He cleared out any objects in its way and gently positioned the portrait upright so that nothing would crush it.

 

Cover Image: O’Keeffe, Georgia. “A Storm.” 1922. Pastel on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Pornographer Downstairs
by Jax Peters Lowell

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Olivia was folding napkins when his voice snaked up through the floor.

Would you rather wear the hood or sit on the dildo?

That was a question Henry had never asked.  

She wasn’t trying to listen but the laundry room was directly above his studio. Sound traveled freely between the building’s hundred-year-old beams, the price they’d paid for industrial charm. She pressed down on the damp cloth with the flat of her hand. Which would she choose? Sitting on a dildo sounded painful. Then again, the hood could be claustrophobic.

The professors upstairs said the pornographer gave the place its edge. “It’s frisson dangereux,” as Alfonso put it, working out the cork in the bottle of Veuve Clicquot they’d brought to welcome Henry and Olivia to the handsome limestone on Broome Street. “This was a cigar factory during Prohibition,” Wolfgang explained. “One rang the second-floor bell, put money in a basket lowered down from the office and voilà! Bootleg whiskey. We think of Vinnie and Candy as the building living up to its past sins.” Olivia imagined this was a story the professors told green freshmen from Paducah and Sioux Falls.

In time, Olivia and Henry would be among the guests watching tango dancers glide across Wolfgang and Alfonso’s pickled floors as college students in black trousers served poached salmon to soft-spoken men who adored the opera. They’d hit the neighbor lottery.  

Upstairs, that is.

Downstairs, a gagging cloud of patchouli seeped up between the boards. The deeply insinuating bass of Barry White added an illicit growl to the proceedings, producing in Olivia a strange nostalgia for heavy lidded boys in studded jeans, for delicious necking in the dim corners of long gone dance palaces.

The pornographer’s wife had hair the red metal flake of a ’57 Buick. The day their furniture arrived, she slouched against her front door as if to invite comparison with the bare-breasted woman sucking toes in the photograph over the peephole. “I’m Candy Palumbo,” she said. “You must be the new people.”  

Henry tried not to gape.

Olivia extended her hand. “We’re the Greys. Olivia and Henry. Our kids are at college now and we thought we’d come back to the city while our bladders are still able to make it through a two-act play.”

Ignoring Olivia, Candy tilted a hip and shot Henry a lascivious look. “Vinnie and I are sensualists. What do you do?”

He went blank.

“He does a bit of everything,” Olivia said. “Buying, selling and restoring antiques, some design work.” This was shorthand for nothing, really. In his Barrow Street shop, he moved things around, kept busy basically. She wasn’t going to tell a stranger he’d been trying to remember what he did for years. Or that he didn’t respond well to provocation. Since the surgery, answering for him, especially when he felt pressure, was automatic. She couldn’t be bothered with those who thought this was overbearing. “I write,” she added, despite an obvious lack of interest. “Some fiction and the odd magazine article.”  

Candy was attractive in a slutty sort of way, pants too tight, sweater cut low, breasts too perky to be authentic. Fine lines and a fading slash behind her ears said she was no baby. All the same, she appeared to have held up well under the X-rated circumstances. Her head bobbed slightly as she spoke; she drew a finger over her gums. The word cocaine formed in a remote corner of Olivia’s brain.  

Henry gave the movers a sharp look as they hoisted their Balinese Buddha past the salacious front door and into the padded elevator. With a practiced Stamford smile, Olivia said, “You and Vinnie must come up for a drink when we’re settled.”

What in the world would she serve a professional sensualist—absinthe?

 

*

 

The cartons were emptied and the detritus of their years in Connecticut was divided and shipped to their grown children, Ada and Jack. Brain surgery may have short-circuited Henry’s memory and seriously downsized his business, but it had not dimmed his eye for design. For the first time in their cluttered lives, Olivia and Henry had room to breathe. Buoyed by being downtown again, they arranged old friends around their long refectory table, set in a pool of light from massive cast iron windows—a reward of sorts for having run the toe-sucking gauntlet.

“Interesting picture in the lobby,” Anna said, passing a platter of grilled figs. “I can’t imagine why anyone would put a thing like that on their front door.”

Henry refilled Anna’s wine glass and pretended to sound blasé. “It’s hard to see her face with that foot in her mouth, but that’s Candy Palumbo, our downstairs neighbor.”

“When we came in tonight, we saw a kid coming out of that apartment,” said Anna’s husband Earl, a sculptor working with found objects. “She couldn’t be more than fourteen.”

“That’s the daughter, Cookie,” Olivia said. “There’s a younger brother, too.”

Magda gave a short laugh as she passed the focaccia.  

“Cookie? Candy? Are they all named for desserts?”

Anna winced. “At that age, I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents having sex, much less coming home from school every day through a door with a picture of my naked mother on it.”

“Isn’t that how we all got here in the first place?” Olivia said. “Through the door of a naked woman?”

At this, Magda’s husband, Hector, a moody psychiatrist with relationship issues, leaned into the conversation. “The symbolism is primitive, but the analogy apt.” Hector was a bit of a jerk, if you asked Olivia, but no one did, so she smiled sweetly and passed the frisée.

A spot of cadmium yellow clung to Anna’s sleeve from her own day’s painting and Earl absently rubbed it, a tender gesture that stirred a prickle of envy. In the time before, work was a secret she and Henry held close.

Earl would not be put off.

“Seriously, Olivia, do you approve of doing that in front of kids?”

“I’m sure they stop working when the children come home.” She realized how defensive she sounded, but they were her neighbors after all, regardless of what they did for a living.

Magda chuckled. “I can see them now. Scrambling to put away their whips and chains before school lets out. Interesting role reversal, don’t you think?”

“Not easy to rebel when your parents perform sex acts in the living room,” Hector added.

“Analysis aside,” Luke said, glowering at Hector. “I think it’s disgusting.”

Henry had been listening quietly to the discussion and now he gave his guests a bemused smile. They were used to his silences and rushed speech, the altered cadences of a mucked-up brain. “People like that…not my cup of tea… give…give the city its edge. I like rubbing elbows with all that. I missed… missed it in Connecticut with its cocktail parties and church Sundays.” He swept an arm over their island of candlelight and food. “I like…like…the mess of this…being shocked, shocked into my opinions.”

As if surprised by the suddenness of his views, Henry sat back abruptly and offered the decanter, a solicitous host once more. The conversation moved on to other topics, but not before Olivia realized, not altogether happily, that he hadn’t appreciated the quiet life she gave him; a life she never wanted for herself.

In truth, Olivia didn’t know what to think of the Palumbos. The kids seemed well adjusted enough. They took out the garbage, walked the dog, and ran a hose over their parents’ Subaru with its license plate, Sex Toy. If damage was being done, she couldn’t see it. Censorship was far more dangerous. Never mind that she found that sort of thing distasteful, she would defend their right to make what they said was art, but Mapplethorpe aside, wasn’t really.

Every morning, a pasty-faced assistant, sun glinting off the silver stud in her nose, rang the buzzer marked Studio. Was she in charge of getting the models drunk enough to do the things they did for the camera? A mountain of empty wine and tequila bottles in the recycling bin seemed to confirm this. Or maybe Vinnie needed the liquor to loosen him up as he zoomed in on a penis, alert and looking for fame.

Said member belonged to an ordinary man with hair the color of weak tea, who chained his bicycle to the No Parking sign out front. Olivia knew this because she had peeked at one of Vinnie’s books on a remainder table. Amazing how average a porn king can look in the flesh. Palumbo, too, was a nondescript man. On the short side with watery blue eyes and a mop of dirty brown hair framing a face unworthy of a second glance on the subway. It was easy to imagine an Italian mother in Queens cutting ravioli dough with a whiskey glass and wondering where she went wrong.

“We’re erotic artists,” he declared one day as they gathered their mail. She resisted the urge to ask how this was different from being a professional sensualist.

In the lobby, signing for a package one morning, Olivia found Vinnie and his son slipping shrink-wrapped books into Fedex pouches. The boy, in baggy sweats, bit his lip as he concentrated on the task. How a ten-year-old, whipsawed by nascent hormones, was able to negotiate the sexually charged atmosphere of that household was hard to fathom.

His father cuffed him on the shoulder. “Sunny, say hello to Mrs. Grey.”

The kid mumbled something unintelligible, avoiding eye contact.  

“That’s Sunny with a U,” Vinnie said, giving him a playful punch. “It’s short for Sunday.”

Olivia had zero interest in knowing why the Palumbos would name a child after a day of the week. Judging from the way Sunny winced and hunkered down on the steps, he didn’t either. His eyes were the same vapid blue as his father’s. Hard to tell if their flatness was studied cool or the evidence of a dull mind. She wondered if his inability to meet her gaze had something to do with the anatomical horrors Alfonso and Wolfgang described hanging in his parents’ apartment.

On the cover of each book, a man wore stiletto heels, a cloche, and nothing else.  His legs were shapely, albeit a touch furry for her taste. The effect of seeing multiple images of her neighbor under his transparent wrapping was that of mild seasickness.

“How clever of you to shrink-wrap these,” she said. “To keep minors from browsing, I presume?”

Oblivious to the barb, Vinnie tapped one of the books.  

“You know what they say…”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“Safe sex!”

Did he realize a child was present; that his child was present?

 

*

 

In February, Olivia was standing at the window, stretching the kinks out of her neck, when she spotted Cookie Palumbo leaning against a parked car crying. In her pink parka, arms hugging a skinny chest, she looked more like a little girl than the tough teenager she and Henry saw darting in and out of the building. Letting in a blast of arctic air, Olivia opened the window and called down to her.

“Are you okay?”

Red-faced and puffy, Cookie squinted up.

“No.”

Olivia had to shout over the blare of traffic.

“In that case, come up. You’ll freeze to death out there.”  

 

*

 

Absurd daytime disruptions had become a fact of life. Arguments over “party favors” and lighting problems associated with tumescence leaked into the Greys’ apartment. One night, a disturbing conversation insinuated itself over the sound machine they’d installed in the bedroom.

“I’m going commando,” Vinnie announced over Henry’s snores and the gentle lapping of Caribbean waves.  

Olivia pictured camouflage face paint, grenades slung from a belt, night goggles, a knife tucked into a boot.

“Isn’t it a little cold for that?” Candy asked, the acid in her tone evident a full floor away.

“It feels sexier, more spontaneous,” Vinnie told his wife. “I like not having to remember where I left my briefs.”

Had she expected fidelity in a pornographer? Had Henry ever gone out without his underpants?

“You can stick your spontaneity and your underwear up your ass for all I care,” Candy yelled.

“You’re just jealous because I’m into my work,” Vinnie shot back.

“You’re a little too goddamn into your work. And if you touch that girl again, I’ll break your face. You got that, commando man?”

Was he referring to the naked girl draped over the handrail on the back staircase when Olivia put out the garbage that afternoon? “Too cold on the roof,” said an unapologetic Vinnie, leaving Olivia to ponder the definition of common areas in their condo agreement. Perhaps Candy was mad at him for warming up this Valkyrie who’d rung her bell by mistake and whispered “Vinnoooshska” in a husky Slavic voice.

It wasn’t until Olivia invited a tearful Cookie Palumbo upstairs that she allowed herself to consider the word girl.

 

*

 

Cookie stood at the door in tight, low-slung jeans and a tiny T-shirt. Slutty like her mother, Olivia was ashamed of thinking. She poured the girl a cup of cocoa, put a few gingersnaps on a plate, and took the stool opposite. Nudging the plate closer to her young guest: “What could be so bad that you’d be out in the cold crying yourself silly?”

“My parents are going to hell.”

“Why is that?”

“Because they won’t embrace Jesus, who forgives all sins, including fornication.”

“Well, they don’t really fornicate, do they? Aren’t they just pretending for the camera?”

“Taking pictures of fornication is the same thing.”

“Don’t actors pretend to do things not in their nature for the sake of their art?”

“There’s a picture of my mother in the living room licking a big leather dildo. You call that pretending?”

“Not my idea of hygienic,” Olivia said, aiming for levity.

A girly pink phone shimmied on the counter. Cookie ignored it.

“Try saying no to a boy with that on the wall. Gross.”

It was gross and Olivia had no business making light of it. If she and Henry could hear the gory details of the Palumbo’s private lives in their own bedroom, God knows what that poor kid had seen and heard.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. Your parents’ work must be difficult to live with.” She resisted the impulse to add, “especially at your age.”

Cookie sipped her cocoa. Olivia’s thoughts wandered to Ada at fourteen; innocent one day, budding sexpot the next, as prickly and unpredictable as climate change. Eager to trumpet some adolescent triumph, she strode into Olivia and Henry’s bedroom and caught them in the act. Naked and in a position no parents should be, they’d grabbed for the covers as poor Ada dove for the door. At breakfast, Ada ate her eggs in silence. His face an incendiary shade of red, Henry pointed out the necessity of knocking on doors. Olivia rattled on about boundaries and adult relationships.

“No big deal,” Ada had said, but anyone with eyes could see that it was.

Cookie nibbled at the edges of a gingersnap. “I should run away. But if I do, who’ll save them?”

“Maybe they’ll save themselves,” Olivia offered.

The poor thing was too young to know that all the love in the world couldn’t save someone who didn’t want to be saved.

“Duh. My father handcuffs his models to the refrigerator and my mother lets him pee on her. Do you think they’re going to heaven?”

The kid had a point.

 

*

 

“You’ll never guess who was here this afternoon.”

Henry put down his magazine. “I guess you’re going to tell me.”

“Cookie Palumbo.”

“The pornographer’s kid?”

“One and the same. It seems her parents are going to hell. Alfonso wasn’t kidding. There really are pornographic family pictures in that apartment.

Henry chuckled.

“Well, Dorothy…I guess we’re not…not in Kansas anymore.”

“You think that’s funny?”

“C’mon, you know how dramatic teenagers can be.”

It had occurred to her that Cookie might be making it up to get attention; something Hector would call ‘adolescent individuation.’ Ada had certainly demonized them at one point, so had her brother Jack. Still, the evidence on the front door was unassailable.

“Maybe so, but what kind of mother lets a fourteen-year-old tattoo Baby Doll on her bum?”

“After she showed you her bum, did you show her yours?”

“Her pants were practically falling off! Then she bent down to pick up her gingersnap.”

“Cookie dropped her cookie?”

“Can’t you ever be serious?”

“I am being serious,” Henry said. “This isn’t…isn’t Stanford. It’s…it’s Bohemia…ground zero for weirdness. Isn’t that why we came back?”

 

*

 

Most days, Cookie arrived at four and stayed until suppertime. She talked of being a missionary in India and in a parallel universe, dreamed of dancing on Broadway, bragging her father knew someone who could get her an audition at Julliard. Always, the conversation came back to her parents’ one-way ticket to hell.

Olivia was rolling out a pie crust when Cookie opened her backpack and slapped several torn photographs of her naked mother onto the counter, creating a kaleidoscope of skin and curls of dough. She held up a sliver of her mother’s nipple. “A kid was selling these. He said they go through our garbage.”

Olivia swept them away.

“They’re only body parts, sweetie. Real love is in here.”

This was worse than useless, but she didn’t know what else to say.

 

*

 

In March, Cookie refused to go to school. All day, she stood on the front stoop or leaned against a parked car. On his third pass, a cop in a cruiser slowed down and told her to move along. Defiant, she told him she had a right to be in front of her own house.

Minutes later, Vinnie took the steps three at a time, his mouth a thin, ugly line. “I’m giving you one minute to get in here.”

The barest tremble in her shoulders betrayed her fear.

He loomed over her, fists clenched.

Watching from above, Olivia was about to call the police when Vinnie backed off and slunk into the house. Cookie, silent and unblinking, did not follow him inside.

Candy appeared, shivering in a thin blouse and mini skirt.

“How could you do this?”

“How could you?”

She slapped her daughter hard. A patch of crimson bloomed on Cookie’s cheek, but still she wouldn’t come in.

Olivia watched with a mixture of admiration and fear. Sooner or later, she had to stop playing it safe. It was another frigid day. She heated a mug of chicken noodle soup, brought it downstairs, and handed it to her young friend.

“Even Gandhi kept up his strength.”

A few hours later, Henry pulled up in a taxi just as Vinnie was giving Cookie a violent shaking. “If you don’t get into this house right now, you’ll be sorry you were born.”  

Henry bounded out of the cab.

“Let go of her!”  

Vinnie spun around and pushed him away.  

“You want to keep out of this.”

Henry did not back down.

Vinnie’s face was inches from his.

“And you want to keep…keep your hands off that kid.”

Neither man moved. Nothing short of a punch would end this.

Vinnie, perhaps thinking twice about adding assault to his long list of sins, stalked back into the building and slammed the door.

Upstairs, Henry shrugged off his jacket, tossed it on a chair, and paced. Adrenalin and electricity came off him in waves. “Did you see that…that cretin? He wanted to hit me.” He stopped outside the laundry room to listen for any threats from below, fingers fluttering up to the pearly scar on his left temple. After the surgery, a sleepy resident swabbed the incision and told Henry, “When this baby heals, you’re going to be one hard-headed mother.”

“Would have served him right if he broke his hand,” Henry said, still pacing. “Forget what I said about…not getting involved. He’s going to hurt…hurt that child.”  

Olivia waited for him to settle and drew him close. This was the man she preferred, not the one who needed to be shocked into his opinions.

The next day, Candy confronted Olivia in the lobby.

“This is your doing.”

Olivia tipped her head in the direction of the pornographic front door.  

“I would say it’s yours.”

“You need to mind your own business,” Candy growled.

“How do you suggest I do that when yours is so prominently displayed? Doesn’t it matter that your daughter is humiliated by what you do?”  

“You think it’s that simple, don’t you?

“I’m afraid I do.”

It was that simple. Choices have consequences. Even in Bohemia.

Candy edged uncomfortably close. “Vinnie knows people,” she said. “People who enjoy their work.”

Two days later, Cookie gave up and went back to school, and Vinnie was back to photographing naked Slovenians on the back stairs. Her after-school visits with Olivia resumed with no explanation or regard for the difficulties of the adults. Olivia no longer wondered how children were beaten, starved, and sexually abused in plain sight. It wasn’t in her to say touched or fondled. “Has your father ever hurt you?”

“He’s got my mother and his whore models for that.”

“What made you go back to school? Did they threaten you?”

“I prayed about it and decided to forgive them. That’s what Jesus would have done.”

“You are an amazing girl, Cookie Palumbo. Do know that?”

“I suppose,” she said, breaking into a rare smile.

 

*

 

In April, Olivia and Magda met for lunch. Fortified with omelets and two glasses of Pinot, they set out for the galleries below Canal to examine apocalyptic Barbie dolls, dead rats in a handbag, and a series of all-black paintings on an equally inky wall. Wonky from the wine, Magda struck a pose in front of a murky canvas. In her standard black uniform, she was nothing but red lipstick and green eyes in the gloom.  Olivia sneaked a photo to post. A few doors down, an exhibition of nudes offered welcome realism. There were bodies bathing, reclining, standing; an entire naked family sat on a tractor. Blood or gasoline leaked darkly onto the pavement.

“How refreshing,” Magda declared. “Art we can recognize.”

Taking a slow turn in the gallery, Olivia was drawn to a lean male nude with upraised arms. Next to it, a large silver gelatin print entitled Nest Egg seemed out of place in the roomful of paintings. At first glance, the central black and white image seemed like a nest. But upon closer inspection, flattened moons of buttocks framed, to put it as delicately as possible, an anal orifice photoshopped into an ovate shape. What appeared to be straw and twigs surrounding the egg was pubic hair.

Magda squinted at it through fuchsia trifocals. “It’s clever in a sordid way.”

“What kind of sick mind dreams up something like this?” Olivia asked.

Turning to the artist’s statement, two words stopped her cold. Vincent Palumbo.

She looked closer. Dark slashes, barely visible, two ll’s and part of an o were all that survived the cropping. And suddenly there was Cookie bending to pick up her ginger snap, her girlish and slightly flat bottom peeking out from low cut pants, Baby Doll tattooed on her creamy, unblemished skin. How long did she have to bend over while he made her humiliation complete? Was this how they would pay for Julliard? Olivia needed to sit down.

“My God, Magda, that’s Cookie!”

 

*

 

It was tempting to make a scene, but she thought better of it. She would call Henry and they would go to the police together. How would they make it clear to people who cataloged sins against children in more obvious ways than this, that they needed to get over to the corner of Broome and West Broadway immediately? Harder still was her own culpability. How could she have listened to Cookie and not intervened? She steadied herself and waited for Henry to arrive. He studied the image for a long time, a muscle in his cheek betraying the depth of his disgust.

“This will get ugly,” Magda warned before disappearing into a cab. “Are you sure you want to get involved?”  

“I think we already are,” Olivia told her.

At the First Precinct, a detective took down their story at a desk redolent of a half-eaten Danish.   

Olivia braced herself for Cookie’s wrath. She would make her understand.

“How could you,” she would accuse.

“How could I not?” Olivia would say.

But there would be no time to explain. In New York State, any hint, rumor, suggestion, suspicion, whiff, whisper, innuendo, insinuation, or intimation of abuse— sexual, physical or otherwise—required the instant removal of minor children from the home. Teachers, social workers, police officers, and judges, considered legal surrogates, faced prosecution if they did not act swiftly. The system no longer needed the Greys. There was no going back.

“My wife is Cookie’s friend,” Henry told the detective.

“I don’t want her to be frightened,” Olivia said.

“We’ll do our best,” the detective promised, escorting them out.

Early the next morning, two uniformed officers and a social worker pressed the Palumbo’s doorbell with its damning photograph and presented Candy, more asleep than awake, with a court order. At first, the gravity of the situation did not register. She held the paper limply as if refusing a package. Respectful, but firm in tone, a woman from Child Welfare insisted she be given access to the children.  

Candy roared to life, howling and clawing.  

One of the cops pinned her arms behind her.

Cookie and Sunny came to the door.   

“Leave my mother alone,” screamed the boy, punching at the officer.

Cookie’s eyes were peeled back to the whites.

Bags packed hastily, coats thrown over their pajamas, the children were bundled into a police cruiser.  

Blind with fury, bathrobe billowing out behind her, Candy ran into the street after the squad car. A taxi swerved and slammed on its brakes. She went down hard. Sprawled on the pavement, robe open and twisted to one side, her blood red hair stood straight up on her head. Oblivious to the nasty gash on her leg, she raged and cursed the receding cruiser, keening piteously. Collapsing into herself, Candy leaned forward to catch a ragged breath and reached for an ankle, most likely sprained in the fall; a motion that caused her pajama bottom to slide down. The words Baby Doll snaked across the rise of an exposed buttock.

Olivia felt her chest constrict. What had she done?

 

*

 

It happened quickly after that. Men in jeans, windbreakers, and IDs dangling from cords, carried out books, computers, thumb drives, and family albums. They removed large framed black and white photographs, each one lewder than the next. As they were hoisted into a waiting van, Olivia felt a mother’s need to cover them up. Vinnie Palumbo was led away in cuffs. A plainclothes cop, putting a none-too-gentle hand on Vinnie’s head, ducked him into the back of an unmarked car. Just before the door slammed, Vinnie found Olivia and Henry in the knot of onlookers and leveled a look of such malevolence they would remember it for the rest of their lives.  

They never saw Candy or the children again.

Candy had said Vinnie knew people, people who “enjoyed their work.” For a long time, they glanced over their shoulders, especially when strolling back from Anna and Earl’s on a warm night, or from some little bistro on the Bowery. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Henry would warn whenever she went out alone.

Rumors flew. Alfonso heard that Candy divorced Vinnie after his sentencing and married a New Jersey wise guy. Another theory put her in Belleview after a meth overdose. Either way, Olivia lived with the harm she’d done. She consoled herself with the notion that even if the model for that grotesque photograph had been Candy, and not Cookie, a childhood like that is never without its cost. Olivia was a mother herself; she did not expect to be thanked.  

In time, a notice of a sheriff’s sale appeared on the padlocked studio downstairs. Henry suggested they bid on it and rent it out to people less unsavory. Chastened by a new understanding of how close against the city’s cheek malevolence could live, Olivia agreed.

 

*

 

There are newlyweds downstairs now—Ava, a clothing designer, and Kareem, a classical guitarist. Arpeggios and glissandos slither up through the wide plank floors, sounds that soothe, rather than disturb. Some days, Olivia is tempted to shout “Bravo!” at an especially spirited riff, but resists the impulse. She’s learned distance can be neighborly. She never deliberately listens, but when she hears the occasional Where’s my blue shirt? or Must we invite your parents?, it’s a relief knowing it’s nothing more than the push and shove of a marriage settling in. Banal and blameless.

She’ll never speak of what she’s seen. What has she seen? She doesn’t know herself. But those nights she can’t sleep, with only Henry’s gentle snoring and the creak and settle of the building to break the silence, there is always Cookie, her skinny arms on the kitchen counter. Part child, part oracle, furious, and forgiving.

Selective
by Phebe TenBroeck Miner

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I dream that I speak.

Tuesday night: our house has been plucked from Trafalgar Street and moved downtown, so that a river of polyester skirt suits and slouching backpacks shuffle past me instead of lonely Mr. Sherborn and his ancient Great Dane. I stand at our steps and hand out scraps of speech: scribbled notes to Mum; printouts of comments left on YouTube videos and Reddit threads; bundles of text messages, somehow tangible; ripped-out pages of my Ready to Learn! workbooks. I read them out loud as I thrust them at the swarm, broken sentences strung together:

much like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which Jefferson
and Romy at 3 today, I’ll just take the RTS back
but the eyeshadow is honestly so creative that i dont think you even need a bold lip. Like its a stronger aesthetic to just accent one part of your face at a time otherwise

Nobody is looking at me. In desperation, I beg people to take my words from me. Hear me, I scream hollowly. Zip me back up. Dream-Milo knows she’s making noise, but the words feel like nothing as they leak out of my throat. No substance, no vibrations. Ooooh, bop bop, good vibrations … such a sweeeeet sensation, my disoriented brain sings to me in the final seconds, and I wake up thinking of Brian Wilson and Marky Mark.

After these dreams, I sit up, take a sip of room-temperature water, swallow, and open my mouth wide. I push out air at different frequencies. I click my tongue, chatter my teeth, lap wetly at my cracked lips. Anything to make noise.

Words don’t come. It is like scooping at an empty bowl, every time.

 

*

 

The first thing I noticed about Romy Meyer-Katz was her hideous glasses. Cheap plastic magenta frames, perched on her face like a joke. They make her look like an off-brand comic book villain. I spend an hour with Romy every Wednesday, and I still have not gotten over those three dollar glasses, cat-eyed and just a little too small.

I go to Romy’s house so that she can read to me. This is not what Mum hired her to do. She was supposed to cure me with “alternative techniques”—Mum’s way of saying that she couldn’t afford to pay real doctors for weekly failure anymore. Mum came with me to the first session, the time Romy wanted us to play with fine white sand in a black plastic tray.

“What do you want us to do with it?” Mum was uncertain.

“Just play,” said Romy, flashing her perpetual encouraging smile. “It’s a form of tactile therapy. Sometimes the sensory distraction allows sound to flow out.”

Laughter bubbled in my lungs. I’ve been to the beach, I told Romy with my eyebrows.

Mum trailed a manicured pinky in the sand, leaving a curve like a C. When I came back alone the following Wednesday, the sand was nowhere in sight.

It took Romy twenty weeks to run out of “alternative techniques”. She acted like the reading idea was something she had worked hard to come up with, but I knew that it was her way of giving up as much as her kindness and determination would allow. Post-sand, post-hypnosis, post-electrocurrent therapy, I showed up to our appointment one day to find her empty-handed.

“Okay.” Romy exhaled and plastered on a toothy smile that dug creases into the rolls of fat on her neck. “We’re going to take a break from physical stimulation, and work on Emotional Response,” she said, like she was trademarking it. It’s amazing to me how people can capitalize words with just their tone or italicize them with an inflection; how sarcasm happens in the ear, not on the page; how emotion carries itself through sounds and becomes a quaver or a crack. Who teaches you how to do that?

“I want you to take the whiteboard and the marker,” Romy continued, giving me instructions she had given twenty times before, “and if something I say makes you think, start writing. Then, if you want, we can discuss that further. Remember to keep your mouth open as much as you can, and try to hum. Okay, Milo?”

The first few weeks, I hated that directive: Keep your mouth open. I felt awkward and dirty, like a supermarket fish. My gums dried out. I kept forgetting and letting it drift shut, which made Romy admonish me in her unbearably friendly way. Now it’s become second nature; I walk into her house with my jaw loose, even though my chin is saying: Nothing but drool and empty air has come out in almost twenty years, what do you expect is going to happen? Romy ignores my chin. She has decided that sound will slip out of my mouth one day, and that my lips had better not be in the way when it does.

She handed me the whiteboard, and as always, I marveled at her huge fingers, the middle one swollen around a silver band. Even her cuticles were puffy, like her fat was running out of places to spread. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a library book, opening it without preamble. It had no dust jacket, but I recognized the story within minutes of hearing Romy read.

“—light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul—”

How funny to hear Nabokov in Romy’s frank New England accent, when I had always read him in a non-comic mixture of Alan Rickman and Patrick Warburton.

“—gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” Romy wasn’t a particularly expressive reader, but she pronounced every word carefully and never took her eyes off the book. A smile played at my open mouth. That first session, I wrote nothing; I listened to the first few chapters of Humbert Humbert’s great pedophilic manifesto with interest, and at four o’clock, I picked up my bag and left.

I didn’t think we would continue with the same book every week, and I was right. The next week Romy read selections from Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Some excerpts, explicit in their description of bodily function, were clearly chosen to prod an ‘ugh’ from my unyielding throat; others I couldn’t figure out at all. Romy began by opening to a random page, instead of to the first chapter as she had the previous Wednesday. After a while, however, she halted mid-sentence, flipped to the beginning of the book, and began tonelessly reading out the table of contents. This went on for less than a minute before I marked an impatient ? on the whiteboard. She glanced at me and my trout-mouth offering the question mark up to her aggressively, like it was a gift instead of a query.

“Anything you want to comment on so far, Milo?” No.

She smiled as she continued reading.

The next fifteen weeks were a blur of Toni Morrison, Aphra Behn, and Haruki Murakami. There were Western Civilization textbooks, medical journals, a shockingly flowery love letter that Romy claimed her grandfather had written her grandmother when they were teenagers. Memoirs. Old college research papers. Children’s books.

I made the occasional comment on the whiteboard. One word, sometimes two. I didn’t want to give too much, to let the word progress tease the corner of her mind.

Today, Romy holds a sheaf of printed paper instead of a book, and I remember, for a microsecond, last night’s dream. She explains that it is a piece she found on a blog called “Fat Logic.” Her arms wobble gracelessly as she flips through the paper, searching for the beginning, and dread courses in my marrow.

“I don’t understand why they don’t just lose weight, like have some fucking self-respect,” she reads, her voice even. “The worst part is when whales make some bullshit medical excuse. Like honestly if diet and exercise truly won’t work for some reason, then just kill yourself because no one wants to look at you, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” She reads out the machine-gun fire of the ha’s so tonelessly that it is almost funny.

My mouth is closed. She reads for another minute or two before glancing up and promptly reminding me to open it. Instead, I write: Idiot.

“The writer, right? Not me?”

I nod, my mouth shut tight, unable to believe how widely she’s smiling. Creases appear in her neck again, like folded paper.

 

*

 

I take the RTS to and from my appointments with Romy. If Mum isn’t working, she insists on driving me, and then acts so reluctantly that I hate her by the time we park. There’s a Transit stop at the end of Trafalgar Street and another one two blocks from Romy’s one-story duplex in Pittsford, Rochester’s nicest suburb. The twenty minutes on the bus is easier than ten minutes in a car with Mum’s sighs and drumming fingers. Everyone on the RTS is so bleak and disinterested that no attempts at conversation are ever made. Besides, headphones make an effective wall.

The woman staring at me on the way home today has wild red hair and an enormous mole. It sits right where her eyebrows meet, making them look conjoined. I bet she hated it growing up. I remind myself to ask Google: How expensive is mole-removal surgery? Then I manage to tuck away my morbid curiosity.

I think of Romy and her ugly glasses. I think of her boa constrictor ankles stuffed into those white polyester socks, which always peek out from beneath her hundred-inch-waist dress pants. I think of her non-chin; I look at my sharp one in the bus’s wet, filthy window. That silver ring like twine around her doughy middle finger. Romy, all six hundred pounds of her, who read hate aloud to me today and smiled at it. I find myself cowering away from this strength.

Thoughts of Romy’s fat and Romy’s voice and Romy’s smile carry me to my doorstep and fade as I unlock my house. On Wednesdays, my daily schedule of sleeping and reading and withering gets interrupted by our meetings, and by the time it’s four-thirty and I’m back in my bedroom, I’m drained.

Hello, Christopher, I say with my fingertips. Christopher is my eight-year-old Macbook. When I first got him, I wrote a horrendous and thankfully private poem about how he is my voice, my one true friend, my connection to the outside world. Title: ‘Portal’. We were all thirteen once.

I open the Internet, feeling acute relief in the anticipation of losing myself for a while.

Here’s what I love about Reddit: Everything in the world is in there, but you have to dig for it. Each community is like its own commune or city or neighborhood or pep rally, depending on the attitude of the page. My favorite type of post is the AMA: Ask Me Anything. Everyone from biologists to World War II veterans to supermodels to presidents to cult escapees, beckoning questions. Drowning in someone else’s answers: beautiful.

I am Leah Remini, Ask Me Anything about Scientology

I was Goofy at Walt Disney World for over 20 years! AMA!

I’m Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak, Ask Me Anything!

Hello Reddit, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen, Ask me anything. Apart from for money.

I open Reddit and go to r/IamA, the biggest AMA community. I do what I always do—browse, trying to convince myself I’m not looking for anything specific.

It isn’t like Mum to buy me expensive gifts. I get the feeling that she doesn’t think I deserve gifts, or that I really deserve anything at all. I got Christopher in the first place because she decided she couldn’t keep working three-day weeks in order to homeschool me the other four days. We sat at the rarely-used dining room table and set up my education apps and websites together, finality in her breath every time she exhaled. You can do it yourself. Finally. When she stood up, she shrugged off thirteen years of weariness like a scarf.

The GED subject tests, which I took two years later, were so easy that they made me feel stupid. I told myself that I would take a year off before enrolling in online college courses. I’ve never felt more hopeful and less scattered than I did then: fifteen, finished with high school, and curious about everything. I fell into a routine of reading books and browsing the internet, peppered with an occasional doctor’s appointment. Six years later, I still haven’t fallen out of it.

I took a health class online my second-to-last year of school, though I already knew the basics of conception from Mum’s explanation of her own pregnancy. I am fatherless in the least traumatic way you can be fatherless. When Mum was thirty-six years old and working for a publishing house in Manhattan, she drove to the South Jersey Fertility Center in Marlton, New Jersey and asked them to artificially inseminate her, please. She was given the option of flipping through a book of donors and choosing one based on height, coloring, education, occupation. She refused to even look. Her only request was a donor with the blood type O+, the same as hers. That way, she said, the baby would have a ninety-four percent chance of matching her; that way, she could donate blood or platelets if her child ever got sick.

I don’t know what Mum expected. I think I know what she wanted: a carbon copy of herself, blond and tall and slate-eyed. An affinity for music and math. Rosacea and early grays. It’s like she thought that if she never saw the donor, she could somehow be my only biological creator. I would match her in her best ways and her worst, and we would be best friends; Leona and her daughter vs. The World.

But I let her down the second I was born. I slipped out in a distressing silence, too small and too swarthy right away; my six percent O- rarity immediately denying Mum her one wish. I grew into pale skin, dark hair, small brown eyes. Ugly teeth. Short and skinny, all bony elbows, and far too quiet.

“You barely cried,” she told me in the car, the only place she could ever talk to me, because she was really talking to the windshield. “You used to whine. You used to make this whining sound. Especially when I played music—God, you hated Chopin.” A wan smile.

She told me this story matter-of-factly when I was eleven, entirely unprompted. On our way to a specialist whose office was a two-hour drive away, Mum explained sex to me, then promptly told me that she didn’t need to have it to become pregnant. She spoke plainly and made lots of room for questions, and I still left the conversation feeling confused about parts of it. I didn’t understand, for example, why she had moved to Rochester. The wistful way Mum spoke about New York City seemed incongruous with her decision to move so far away from it. This was one of the few things that couldn’t be my fault; she had moved, she told me, as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Under the assumption that her daughter would be normal, she moved to a smaller, less expensive city, only to discover years later that our unique psychiatric needs would probably have been better catered to in Manhattan.

What she left unsaid: Her pain when people cooed over me as a toddler, only for me to stare silently at them until their smiles faltered. Has she picked up your accent? asked in innocent delight by friends and co-workers. Mum’s grip on my shoulder tightening.

Mum’s puzzling explanation of sex and conception left me with questions that I shelved at eleven and dusted off at fifteen. I blushed as I typed words in the Google search bar only to immediately delete them. mute girl+sex, I began. Backspace. mute girl having sex. What I really wanted to know was whether it was even possible. Or difficult—mute girl having sex+hard?

I pressed enter. The result was such weird pornography that I couldn’t even guess how I was supposed to enjoy it. This experience effectively scared me away—for a while—but left behind a pungent curiosity that was impossible to ignore. After a few more days of wavering between delving deeper or wiping Christopher’s hard drive out of sheer embarrassment, I decided to search for information more carefully—by using the Wikipedia widget on my browser. Less disturbing, less informative. Soon after that adventure, I discovered Reddit. Sudden love story: A Girl and The Internet.

Mum made an effort (once) to care about what I do when I’m alone in my room. It was after our first session with Romy. On the drive home, she decided to speak to the windshield about Christopher and expected me to listen.

“Milo.” She always starts that way—my name, declarative, like she’s about to begin a speech. “I just want to make sure I’m doing my job when it comes to—I mean—like, you’re not talking to anyone online, are you?” A pause, always; it’s like she never gets used to the fact that I don’t answer. “Not talking, obviously, but—typing? I just ask because I feel like I never really briefed you on the Internet—on Internet safety. You don’t give out our address, or anything, do you? Or your last name?”

I turned my head toward her very slightly, glancing from behind my half-lowered eyelids. This is the best way I can roll my eyes without actually rolling my eyes.

Mum’s gaze never left the road, but her right hand began drumming on the steering wheel, out of time with the Brahms sonata humming softly through the radio, which is how I knew she was irritated. Even if our communication is dysfunctional, it is there: we know each other’s slightest movements, can read a finger’s dance and get offended by half a look.

“I just feel,” she continued, her voice thorny and stretched thin, “that you are very closed off about what you do on that damned computer. Lately it’s ten, twelve hours a day. You know, privacy is a privilege, Milo. You understand that.” I can feel her wanting to add Right? to the end of her sentence.

It’s not that Mum and I have many conversations. But during the ones we do have, I always feel like she’s waiting for an answer. After twenty years, she bothers to wait. Is this kindness or delusion? Forgetfulness? Hope?

Eventually, I told her with a fist clenched on my windowsill to leave Christopher and me alone.

Now, I scroll mindlessly through an AMA with the manager of a Petco. I catch myself with my mouth open and I snap it shut, annoyed that this habit has spilled over from Romy’s hours to my own. Discussion in the comment section has turned to pets, and one long, rambling paragraph catches my eye. It’s a guy, u/prestochange_o, who claims his older sister has been neglecting her pet hermit crabs. She brags about them to her friends, prestochange_o frets, but she won’t give them any attention at home. Its like she likes the idea of them more than the crabs themselves. Please help what should I do I cant buy their food myself because I dont get an allowance anymore.

At first I find prestochange_o’s concern genuinely endearing, but something about his story gnaws at me. The hermit crabs dont do much and she complains about it, he writes. Why would she get hermit crabs in the first place, she knows its not the coolest pet but at least its something. I read his comment again and then realize dully that his story reminds me of Mum. I’m a hermit crab. My thoughts are punctuated by a bubbling, almost like a giggle. Only there’s no concerned little brother looking out for me.

I can’t manage despair, but I do scrape up some silent laughter.

I shut Christopher’s screen, letting him warm my thighs. After a while, other people’s stories make me feel too small, make my lungs constrict, and my hands shake.

There’s a reason I don’t search mute anymore. There’s a reason I don’t try to collect sentiments of solidarity from Internet strangers, not for this part of my life. I cast out a wary net once and was so nauseated with myself by the end of it that I never tried again. Need help finding resources for trauma-induced mutism? thread titles pleaded, followed by details of the horrific rape or assault or heartbreak that cut her (almost always, her) vocal chords in two. And your excuse is? my subconscious breathed in my ear, and Christopher’s screen seemed to become blurrier with every indirect accusation.

I can open my laptop and leave comments on makeup tutorials; I can summarize someone else’s opinion on British politics; I can scratch out a perforated analysis of the latest Great Millennial Novel and post it to r/books for digital applause. But I cannot lay down the truth: that I have three meals a day and one whole and healthy parent. That I have privacy and clean clothes, a therapist, a library card. That there is no good reason, physical or otherwise, that I can’t speak. And my biggest secret: that I frantically, bitterly want to.

 

*

 

The following Tuesday night I dream that Romy and I stand next to each other against a wall. The red-haired woman from the bus watches us from a shadow cast by her mole, which has become frighteningly huge.

What’s wrong with you? she asks. I know what’s wrong with her, she continues when I don’t answer, her head jerking toward Romy, whose smile is much too wide. But what’s wrong with you? Why are you here? I look down; we are standing in fine white sand.

You can’t tell just by looking at me, I say, before forgetting how to speak again.

At some point on Wednesday morning, I realize that I’ve never seen Romy stand up before. I have no idea how tall she is.

This week, instead of a thin stack of paper, Romy holds a thick book with a speckled navy cover. It looks like a dictionary, but the spine reads American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

No greeting. No reminder to keep my mouth open. Just a smile, the handoff of the whiteboard, and a nod toward the door signaling for me to close it. I wonder if she is trying silence on for size. Maybe she thinks that if she tastes what I taste, she will understand ‘why Milo can’t speak’, even though no one else ever has.

Romy opens the book, and for the first time, I see a bookmark holding a page hostage. “Selective mutism,” she reads, her head very still, “is an anxiety disorder affecting less than one percent of individuals. It is normally diagnosed by a speech-language pathologist, who will often work with the individual’s neurologist and psychiatrist to—”

My spine goes rigid as a knife. Heat washes over me so quickly that it is a moment before I recognize it as rage. It takes seconds for tears to sting the corners of my eyes, and I am surprised at how shallow in me they lived. I don’t want to hear this, I say furiously to Romy. I say it with the clatter of the whiteboard as it falls from my lap to the carpet, with my balled fists, with the slam of her door.

Outside, I gulp damp air. I scream silently, my neck craned, tears leaking sideways into my ears. I never want to hear any of those words again, I tell myself, and fuck her for trying.

I pace around Romy’s perfect Pittsford yard and move from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, year to year, willing exhalation to magick itself into communication. Angiograms, MRIs, oxygen pushed through tubes that run down my useless throat and invade me. Prodding fingers looking for cancer, for inflamed lymph nodes, for blood disorders. Personality tests. IQ tests. Words whispered to my mother while I sit on ugly cloth chairs in the hallway: Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Concern in these voices, and derision in others: Attention seeking. Psychosomatic. And the worst, finally, because it meant a diagnosis, which meant that they stopped trying: Selective mutism. Selective. As if I selected this.

Deep breaths.

What do I want?

The question is bursting, desperate, but my answer is swift and clean: I want to get better. I blink. I am calming down. I want to feel like I deserve what I have.

Then you have to try.

The stars behind my eyelids fade away as I work to relax each muscle in my face. After a minute, I turn around and face Romy’s house.

She is standing in the doorway, as enormous and welcoming as land from sea. I feel tears close to the surface again, so I chew my lip to keep them under.

“Come on up, Milo.”

When I reach the top of her steps, I notice that we are exactly the same height.

We weave through the house back to her office. I shut the door as if nothing has happened, settling down on the couch and picking up the whiteboard delicately.

Romy waits, uncharacteristically quiet. No smile, just eyes behind those magenta glasses swallowing me whole. I bite my lip harder—a burst of pain and the taste of coins erupt in my mouth, and Romy absently hands me a tissue for the blood.

The marker is slick in my hand. It feels like Romy’s magnet gaze is picking it up and drawing it toward the whiteboard, even though her eyes never leave mine.

In my head, again: I want to get better.

Then you have to give something.

I uncap the marker. Then I look at her blankly, finally asking for help. Zip me back up.

“Begin at the beginning,” Romy says.

Begin at the beginning.

I hate your glasses, I write.

 

Not You. Not Us.
by Davis Enloe

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Because Mack was superstitious about even numbers on execution day, he’d set his alarm for 5:59. He rubbed sleep out of his eyes and swung his legs over the mattress. Three decades with the prison and he’d never used a day of sick leave. Still, he thought, now would be a damn good day to start—a good day to harvest sweet potatoes or paint the bathroom Paula had been on him about. Paula propped up on one elbow and asked if he was okay. He told her he hadn’t slept well.

“Might as well get at it,” he said. “No dodging this bullet. Bad word choice.”

“I know what you meant,” she said.

After showering, Mack pulled a clean Utah State Prison uniform from his closet and sat down at the kitchen table to put on his shoes. Tying off her housecoat, Paula walked into the kitchen with a pair of navy blue socks draped across one forearm. She placed the socks on the table, one beside the other, then smoothed them flat. Mack picked one up, looking for the red thread he’d asked her to sew into the toe, because in his mind, a matching pair of socks represented an even number.

“They pass muster?” she said.

“Can’t be too careful,” he said.

“How you feeling about today?”

“It’s hard,” Mack said. “Doesn’t feel real. If weeping Jeremiah himself had prophesied that Gil would someday ask me to be on his firing squad, never would have believed it.”

He closed his eyes, pulled in a deep breath, then took his time letting it out.

“It’s not too late,” Paula said.

“Is for me.” Mack finished tying his shoes, picked up his hat, and stood. “Is it okay if we don’t rehash this thing? I can’t think of any new ways to tell you had it not been for Gil, my name would be inscribed on that wall. I owe him—plain and simple.”

“I’m trying to support you,” Paula said. “But I think it’s fair to point out you’re not the only person this is impacting.”

Mack rested his hands on the edge of the kitchen sink. Sure as hell didn’t feel like support. Felt like she was patting him on the back at the same time she was sticking an ice pick between his ribs. He wanted to throw his hat down, stomp it, shout, For God’s sake, the man pulled me out of a burning helicopter! Good way to make things worse.

In the crepe myrtle outside the window, two cardinals alit. They dropped down to the feeder, but seconds later flitted back to higher branches. His grandmother had been fond of redbirds. What was it she’d always said about them? Something about—

“Are you listening to me?” Paula said.

“Yes, I heard you.”

“What did I say?”

“You asked me if I’d asked Taylor about being an alternate?”

“And?”

“It’s not like he’s making me,” Mack said, sounding more irritated than he intended. “Warden T. understands soldiers. He’s leaving it up to me, and Gil.”

When Mack walked out to his old Ford pick-up, Paula went with him. She took one of his hands and pulled his arm around her waist, drawing herself close to him. They walked without speaking, pea gravel crunching beneath their feet.

After Mack climbed into the truck and closed the door, Paula tapped on the glass with a fingernail. “Peck, peck, peck,” she said.

Mack rolled down his window. “Sorry I sounded so—”

“Defensive?” Paula said.

Mack shrugged.

“I don’t think you’re at a place to hear this,” she said, “but I’m going to say it anyway. I know you love Gil, but he’s on death row, not you. Not us.”

It stung to hear Paula speak that way about Gil, especially knowing he always spoke well of her. “I don’t even know,” Mack said, holding up both hands, “what the hell that means.” He started rolling up his window.

“It means,” Paula said, “Gil Coker had no damn right dragging you—us—into this.”

*

Mack drove with the windows open, letting the late September air cool down his ire. Paula was a good woman, damn good. On the one hand, she was right. On the other hand, she would never understand the bond between combat soldiers. How could she? He’d never thought about it in terms of love, but maybe, by god, he did love the man. What of it? She’d never served a day in the military. Never so much as set one high heel on a military post. The only enemy she’d ever faced was her husband, and Uncle Sammy didn’t give out “V” devices for beating down your husband.

Instead of the interstate, Mack took a shortcut to Sugar House State Park, a hundred acres of grass, trees, pavilions, and walking trails. In 1855, Governor Brigham Young had opened the Utah Territorial Prison on that land. Later, that institution became Sugar House Prison. In the 1950’s, after Sugar House had been razed, the park was built. When Mack pulled into the empty parking lot overlooking the lake, the sun was burning off the last of the morning mist.

He hated it when things weren’t right between him and Paula. Left him feeling exposed as a coyote crossing eight lanes of traffic. Hell, he owed her, too—all the shit he’d put her through after Vietnam—drinking, gambling, reckless driving. After the bullets had stopped whizzing overhead and the horror had raged on, she’d saved his life, much as Gil had. Give the woman a break. She’s probably terrified that being on Gil’s firing squad could tear open old scars, prompt something that could jerk him back into self-destruct mode.

Mack tried to remember what Sugar House had looked like when he’d visited it as a child with his father, a guard at the prison. To a five-year-old, the massive stone walls, catwalks, and corner towers had made the old prison seem like a castle. More important, it was the only memory he had of his father who died in the Korean War.

“Inevitable,” Mack said aloud. Maybe Gil’s execution had always been inevitable. Had Paula thought about that? Doubt it. Maybe a million years ago God had preordained it. Mack tried, but couldn’t remember where Sugar House’s stately entrance had stood in relation to the vast acres of tomatoes, corn, and field peas that had once grown outside the prison walls.

Twenty minutes later at the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper—a complex of low-slung buildings wrapped in fence and razor wire—Mack parked across the lot from his normal spot. Another execution day precaution. As he logged in at the front desk, a relieved-sounding Officer Nance Phillips told him the warden wanted to see him.

“Say why?”

“No, sir,” Phillips set her coffee down and stood to attention. “Said make sure you got the message.”

Mack liked Phillips. She’d come to the prison from the Army where she’d worked in supply as an armorer. Not only did she know weapons, but she also didn’t talk too much. And for damn sure wasn’t intimidated by male guards. Even six months pregnant, she was a firecracker. “Relax, Nance” he said. “You’re not in the Army anymore. It’s safe. Make that baby anxious.”

“Yes, sir,” Phillips said with a laugh, patting her stomach. “Hard habit to break. Sometimes I think I need desensitization training.”

“How long were you in?” Mack said.

“Eight years. Two tours with Dollar Ninety-Seven. I hear you wore the OD.”

“A couple of lives ago,” Mack said. “1st Infantry.”

“Big Red,” she said, as Mack turned to leave. “Some history there. Captain, don’t mean to speak out of turn, but the old man did seem agitated—pissed, really.”

Mack nodded and asked if the 197th was still with the 24th Division out of Fort Stewart. It was, but there was talk about the brigade getting deactivated due to the big troop drawdown after Desert Storm.

“Here if you need me, Captain,” she said

As he walked down the long hall to the warden’s office, Mack thought about Paula, how she’d put up with the shit he’d dragged back from Vietnam—gambling, drinking. But her tolerance had ended when he flipped his ’70 Chevelle tail light to headlight. She’d refused to sit and spectate while his life played out like a postwar movie tragedy. She’d moved out, refused to see Mack until he got help through the VA. That year had been hell with thorns. Isolation. Depression. Sure as hell not going back there.

But Gil Coker had never struggled—at least not in normal self-destructive ways. Instead of wasting his life drinking, he’d spent years building a plumbing business, sponsored an American Legion ball team. Instead of gambling money away, twice a year he held customer cookouts at Sugar House Park. Solid as Mt. Rushmore. Then, without warning, he goes postal on an old sheep farmer who’d stopped to help him change a flat tire? Bullshit.

At the warden’s office, the door was open. Warden T. sat behind his desk, face scrunched up like he’d swallowed a tablespoon of quinine. Taylor had seen combat in both World War II and Korea. The man had moxie and you damn well never had to guess what was on his mind. In forty years as warden, he had seen everything from an ultralight escape to a hit on an inmate via a transistor radio. Last thing blowing through that fellow’s mind had been Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”

The two green metal chairs in front of the warden’s desk were empty. Standing next to one of the chairs, in uniform, was Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Curtis Kiley—Mack’s brother-in-law. What are you up to this time, you bastard, Mack wanted to say. Instead, he extended his hand to Kiley. The deputy, thumbs hooked over his duty belt, turned away.

“Have a seat, Mack,” the warden said. “Won’t take long.”

Mack sat, but Curtis remained standing. Hell with him. It had been at least two years since Mack had turned him in for beating an inmate getting transported to the prison. It got him busted from lieutenant to deputy first class, but the fact Mack had fought for him to keep his job so he wouldn’t lose retirement benefits had been lost on Kiley.

“You, too, Deputy,” the warden said.

“I’ll stand,” Kiley said. “If it’s all the same.”

“It’s not all the same,” Taylor said. “Nothing is ever all the damn same.”

Kiley stood in place.

“That means,” the warden said, “sit your ass down or get the hell out of my prison.”

The deputy hitched up his belt, muttered something about professional civility, jerked the second chair back and away from Mack, and sat down.

How long had it been since he’d seen the warden this aggravated—six years ago when Pee Wee Sims escaped in a 55-gallon drum marked as old cooking oil?

“Curtis here,” the warden said, putting one foot on the desk edge and kicking back, “wants to educate me on how to run a proper prison.”

“Now hold on,” Kiley said. “I’m here as courtesy.”

“My lily-white ass,” the warden said. “I know why you’re here. Mack is going to perform his damn duty as assigned. End of drama.”

“Law don’t allow it,” Kiley said, sliding to the chair edge. “Mack on that firing squad is illegal.” Kiley banged his fist on the desk. “Immoral.”

“Remarkable,” Taylor said. “Your mouth letting that word escape.” He pointed at the door. “Time to unass the AO.”

Unass the AO. Mack smiled at an expression he’d not heard since Nam.

With Taylor close behind, Kiley stiff-legged it out of the office. Over his shoulder, he said he would take it to the Salt Lake Tribune. All the way to State Street.”

“My career can take the hit,” the warden said. “Can yours?” After closing the door, he opened it again. “I was warden when your mama was wiping mustard shit off your tiny balls.”

At a table behind his desk, the warden poured coffee. “Like that SOB reads the Tribune,” he said. On the wall above him hung a framed piece of yellowed embroidery that read: When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained ~ Mark Twain.

“Boss,” Mack said, taking the cup of coffee offered. “Don’t mean for this thing to cause you grief.”

“Kiley?” the warden said with a hand wave. “That’s not why I needed to see you. Good, though, you got to see Curtis take his best shot. And speaking of shots, the execution is stayed. Governor’s taking the weekend to scrub his conscience clean.”

“Understandable,” Mack said, feeling like he’d also received a stay. “This whole thing has moved like prairie fire.”

“Damn sure has. Almost fast as Gilmore in ’77. That one took six months from crime to casket—or in his case, urn. Looks like Coker will have his time in the Romper Room inside a year.”

Spinning his chair back around to the table, the warden stirred in more creamer, his spoon clinking against the porcelain. Early summer mornings, Mack’s grandmother had sat on her screened back porch, stirring honey into her tea, clinking her spoon. The redbirds had seemed to appear on cue.

“That’s the lesser half of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Taylor said. “When’s the last time you pulled the trigger on one of God’s creatures?”

*

Gil’s breakfast sat untouched on one end of his bunk. On the other end, he sat with his face in his hands.

“Tough morning,” Mack said, thinking Gil looked ten years, not ten months, older. His hair was thinner and he’d lost more weight.

“Had my mind right,” Gil said. “Prepared to go. Now the waiting starts all over again. Waiting for the VC to hit the concertina in dead-dark was easier than this shit.”

“Anything I can do?” Mack said, looking around the cell lined with paperback books; copies of westerns by Louis L’Amour, an assortment of Stephen King novels, and other classics.

Gil pulled a manila envelope from under his pillow. “My will. Hope you don’t mind me not asking beforehand, but I’d like for you to be the executioner—executor.”

Both men laughed nervously.

“You’ve already asked,” Mack said. “I accepted.”

“Executor?”

“Both.”

“Sell everything,” Gil said. “Write a check to Strick’s widow.”

“She still rejecting your letters?”

Mack picked a book up off the floor, A Tale of Two Cities. He fanned absently through the pages, then tossed the book on Gil’s bunk.

Gil nodded. “I understand her thinking, but I need to at least try, right? If she balks on the money, ask if it’s okay to donate it to charity. Maybe that place for vets on Foothill. Where, is your decision, but I want her to know I’m doing the right thing even if she can’t see it now.”

“All you can do,” Mack said, balancing the envelope in his hands the way you might hold an offering plate. Was this what a good man’s life had come to, a manila envelope guarding a few sheets of paper?

“Buried behind the barn are some old coins,” Gil said. “An uncle I never knew left them to me. They’re double sealed in plastic inside an ammo can. A map in your envelope there will show you where to find them. I’d like to think you’ll take them and do something nice for you and Paula. Get the hell out of Utah—some place with blue water. But I understand if you feel they’re tainted, if you’d rather donate them.”

Mack shrugged. “Maybe a homeless shelter. I don’t know. I haven’t judged you, Gil. That’s not to say I’m not still confused about what happened.” He hoped Gil would tell him how the shooting of Strick Cotton had gone down. Had something set off a chain of events? Strick was known for his temper—good-hearted, but cantankerous as a billy goat.

“Remember the day you reported to Fort Riley?” Gil said.

“I remember,” Mack said. Of course he remembered how excited he’d been about his assignment to a post rich in both military and American history: Custer, Patton, Joe Louis. Hell, even Mickey Rooney had passed through Riley. “But you’re changing the subject, again.”

“You were like one of those newborn wobbly-legged wildebeests,” Gil said. “First thing you did was rush through the door at HQ and knock Sergeant Eckerd’s coffee cup out of his hand. He got that cup from Westmoreland, when Westy was light colonel. You broke the man’s cup and spilled hot coffee on him at the same time. Now that was an ass chewing for the history books.”

Mack chuckled. “I knew Eckerd from Platoon Leader’s Course at Upshur. Candidates called him Sergeant Crazy. Every time he stormed into the barracks: ‘On your feet, crazies!’ He would spot a crowd of candidates milling around and bowl through them. ‘Out of my way, crazies!’”

“What ever happened to that old bastard?” Gil said.

“Last word, Crazy was captaining a lobster boat in Maine.”

For a while, Mack had kept up with the platoon. Most had gone back home to Iowa cornfields and Carolina tobacco farms. Woodson last sent a postcard from the North Slope where he worked on the pipeline. After graduating from Puget Sound on the GI Bill, Renton went to work for Boeing designing the SST’s antenna. Simpson resettled in Texas, then drowned saving someone else’s child at a birthday party.

The two chatted, exchanging stories, challenging the other’s memory. It was good to hear Gil reminiscing. Memories were all he had left. Soon, even those would be gone.

“Remember that FTX—the big one before we shipped?” Gil said. “That kid from back east—one talked more shit than a Hong Kong radio?”

“Catha,” Mack said. “And I know what you’re about to say.”

“Always sneaking a smoke, bragging about how good a shot he was.”

Mack tried to remember what Catha had looked like. What had his voice sounded like? Had he been short or tall? Tall, Mack thought. And Gil was right—the kid never stopped jabbering.

“From somewhere in New Jersey,” Mack said.

“We ever figure out,” Gil said, “who dropped that bullsnake into his sleeping bag?”

Mack missed those days before combat, when soldiers were naïve boys checking gig lines and polishing their low quarters for a command inspection, before the bullets zipped overhead like hornets on suicide missions.

Mack shook his head. “Always figured it was Bradley.”

“Sounds like him, always fucking with somebody. Catha kicked like a silverback gorilla though, didn’t he?” Gil said. “Nothing left of that bag but a brass zipper around his neck.”

“Stood there naked,” Mack said. “Breathing like a Russian racehorse, sweating like a November pig. Duck down stuck all over his sweaty face.”

Gil grabbed both his knees as he laughed. “But damn,” he said, “that boy could shoot.”

Laugh, Gil, Mack thought. You’ve only got a few laughs left. Probably count them on one hand, won’t need all your fingers.

“You know he was first in the platoon to get Glad-bagged?” Mack said, remembering then how Catha had been so tall they’d folded his legs to fit him into his body-bag.

“Had to light a damn Marlboro at an OP,” Gil said. “No kicking his way out of that bag.”

Newbill, a guard on suicide watch, walked by and looked into the cell. “Just checking, Captain,” he said, then nodding at Gil. “Guess your ass feels like it’s hanging on a meat hook somewhere between heaven and hell.”

“Something like that,” Gil said.

Newbill asked Mack what was up with Curtis Kiley sticking his nose into prison business. After Mack told him those kinds of things had a way of working themselves out, the guard moved on, muttering something about Kiley needing his ass reassigned to his face.

“This thing has played itself out,” Mack said. “Governor taking a weekend is typical, but there won’t be another delay. It’ll happen on Monday. We’re down to me asking the same question: anything I can do for you?”

Mack studied Gil’s face, creased from months of worry.

“One last thing. If you can’t do it, I’ll understand.”

“I owe you my life.”

“You don’t owe me a damn thing,” Gil said. “And I’m not saying I deserve what I’m about to ask.”

“Let’s have it then,” Mack said.

Gil had the look of a man who had come to a crossroads, but had accepted the difficult path that lay ahead.

“I want to go out of this world at the hands of a man who knew me at my best, a soldier that served with me in combat.”

“You are,” Mack said. “Warden has no problem with me on the firing squad.”

“Here’s the wrinkle,” Gil said. “I want you to make certain, promise me, you’ll fire a live round.”

*

By seven o’clock the next morning, Saturday, Mack was sitting in a tree stand in the wooded hills east of Salt Lake City. He had driven as far as he could along an old mining trail, shoulder-slung his Winchester 88, and hoofed it a half mile deeper into the woods. As a teenager, he’d often camped here, alone, wondering what it would have been like had his father survived Korea and they had camped there together.

As he positioned himself and his rifle on the tree stand, he thought about the promise he’d made himself after Nam—to never kill another living creature. If his father were here, what would he tell him? The warden was right to question him, because when Gil first asked Mack to participate in the firing squad, it had seemed simple. He’d hung his hat on the possibility of getting issued the one blank round. It wasn’t that the idea of shooting a friend ever seemed easy, more pulling a trigger itself was an uncomplicated thing. Now, even that seemed impossible. And who was he fooling? Not only would the blank bullet produce no recoil, it would sound different from a live round. The man who fired the blank would know it as soon as he pulled the trigger. Even if the peculiar sound of the blank was swallowed up by the noise, the other lightweight 30-30 rifles would kick like mules. Still, before Gil had tossed a wrench into the gears, a twenty percent chance of getting the blank round had felt like a back door.

When Mack heard the snort, he didn’t need to look to know a deer was nearby. From the sound of it, a large buck. He rolled the safety off with his thumb, slowed his breathing, and waited. A few seconds later, the buck walked into the clearing. Not as large as Mack had expected, but broad-chested, muscled. Rack, six-pointed and symmetrical. It deserved to live, Mack thought, but like three decades earlier when he’d crouched in a muddy fox hole on

Hill 177 in Southeast Asia, he eased the 30-30 to his shoulder and nestled his cheek onto its stock. And like decades earlier at the Quantico firing ranges with Sergeant Crazy in his ear, like hundreds of times in Vietnam, he inhaled, aligned the rifle’s sights, and followed the line of the deer’s front leg. At the end of his exhale, Mack held his breath until the rifle steadied. The deer collapsed where it stood.

Mack didn’t move. He’d expected it to be harder to pull the trigger, if he could do it at all. But it had been automatic. He’d not hesitated. His hands had not shaken. In fact, it had been easy—too damn easy. Had it been that way when Gil shot Strick Cotton? Had Gil, without thinking, eased the rifle to his shoulder as naturally as Mack had just done? Like the deer, had Strick dropped where he stood?

As Mack cut a couple of saplings to fashion a travois, he thought about the afterlife. He wasn’t a religious man, but couldn’t help but wonder why, if mankind had a soul, every living creature didn’t have a soul. And what was up with soul belief anyway? If there really was a God, and a soul, then what was the big deal about dying? If people lived forever in another dimension, why was everyone so damn scared of dying?

After field dressing the deer, Mack dragged it out of the woods. If humankind was created in the likeness of God, then surely God was disappointed. Because what kind of god felt good about creatures of their own making who went on to produce weapons used to hunt other humans?

At the truck, he lowered the tailgate, heaved the deer into the bed, and headed back to Salt Lake. An hour later, he dropped the deer off at a local abattoir with instructions to donate the processed venison to the homeless shelter.

*

As soon as he pulled in the driveway, Mack knew something was wrong. For starters, Paula was sitting on the front porch. She only did that when she was waiting to talk to him about something important, and usually something bad. Plus, Paula hated the cold and it was damn chilly. Yeah, this was going to be a doozie.

“Someone die?” Mack said.

“Curtis called.”

Mack grimaced. “Lovely conversation, I’m guessing.”

“He says you’re going to lose your job if you participate in Gil’s execution. That he’s got a meeting with someone in the governor’s office Monday morning. He says the warden is violating state law by having you on the squad—you being Gil’s friend.”

Mack sat down on the top step. He hated it when Paula was anxious. It made him feel responsible. Even if she didn’t understand about soldiers, she didn’t deserve getting dragged deeper into this mess.

“He said you would lose your retirement benefits.”

“He’s upset you?” Mack said. “He’s bluffing. We’re not violating law. Varying from normal procedure, maybe, but not law. He’s scaring you to get revenge on me.”

“I know this is important to you,” Paula said, “but our retirement years are important to us. I just wish there—.”

“Want me to tell Gil I won’t do it?” Mack said

Paula sat down on the step beside Mack.

“Not,” she said, “if you can’t get to that place on your own.”

The hell did that mean? What place? A place where Gil no longer mattered? Mack felt as if he were serving a dozen masters: Gil, Paula, God, Warden Taylor, Curtis, and his own damn prickly conscience. What was right and what was wrong, anyway? Consensus? Like the mob ever got anything right. If he wanted to act outside what other people thought was normal, that was on him.

“I don’t think I can,” Mack said, annoyed with Paula, then annoyed with himself for not trying harder to see Paula’s side. “Curtis is a bitter bastard that’s miserable unless he’s in conflict with something.” Why had he said that? Even if true, and it was, what the hell could Paula do about it?

“Isn’t it possible that that’s true,” Paula said, “and Curtis is still right? And I wish you wouldn’t call him that name.”

Jesus. Paula always defended her little brother when everyone else recognized him for the asshole he was. A grown-ass man shouldn’t need protecting. This was hard enough. Hell, Mack didn’t even know how he was going to sneak a bullet into the execution chamber; how the warden would react if Mack was caught with a live round not prison-issue. Maybe he should take a chance on getting issued a weapon with a live round. Gil would never know one way or the other.

After the two sat a while, Paula placed her hand on his shoulder. “Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

*

The next morning, after a Sunday breakfast where Mack had made a special effort to be nice, he headed to the prison to visit with Gil. Paula had said little at breakfast and the tension between them had felt like an electric fence waiting to be touched. He should not have called Curtis a bastard, at least not in front of Paula. He’d wanted to say he was sorry, but feared an apology would only introduce more tension, cause another spat. He suspected Paula felt the same way, that both of them had decided to leave the matter alone.

*

Gil Coker sat with his hands clasped between his knees. “It’s not that I want to die,” he said. “Scares the hell out of me. But it’s what I deserve—for what I did. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m not a hero poster boy for death penalty folks. Just trying to do the right thing.”

“You were the best platoon sergeant a butterbar lieutenant could have asked for,” Mack said. “The best, period. You never once faltered under fire. I saw you, in the worst conditions, take care of boys too scared to piss in the jungle, but something’s not right. Something that, if you remembered it, would cast this whole thing in a different light.”

“Maybe there was a gunshot?” Gil said.

“What do you mean?”

“This can never leave this cell. I need you to respect that.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” Mack said, but still hoping he was about to hear something that might justify the warden requesting another stay.

“Every once in a while, I think I remember I heard a gunshot.”

“You think you remember? Your gunshot?”

“No, I don’t remember shooting Strick. I may have heard a gunshot, from a hunter in the hills—off the road, but close. I’m not saying I did, but maybe. Something—that gunshot in the woods I may not have heard—caused me to crouch. I was in a foxhole in the jungle outside Tra Noung. You following me?”

Mack nodded. He was following Gil, but wasn’t sure he wanted to. Not back to Vietnam, not back to that suffocating jungle.

“Things smelled of wet canvas, gun oil, rotted leaves, and that nasty sucking mud. Insects, biting, stinging. The birds had disappeared. The canopy was thick with shafts of light here and there. There were sounds, movement through the undergrowth. A centipede, one of those red-headed foot-long ones with orange legs, crawled over my arm. Seconds later, artillery shells—not light-ass 105’s, but eight-inch 200-lb bastards sounding like Superman flying over. But no impacts—no explosions. I think when I realized no artillery was exploding, I came back to Utah, to the present. Does that make sense?”

“I’m with you,” Mack said. As he listened to Gil, he felt the press of the jungle. A wave of anxiety came on, as if he’d been transported back in time and set down in a firefight, into an immobilizing gut-churning fear of not knowing if you were going to be alive three seconds later.

“You ever experienced anything like that?” Gil said.

“No, not exactly,” Mack said. “For me, it’s a weight I can never set down. Sometimes, I feel like a dumb animal pulling a plow through red clay. Loud noises make me jump like hell, cause me to get jittery, irritable. Then I’m hell to be around until I talk to Paula about it.”

“I never did,” Gil said. “Not before this. But once I realized where I really was, I crawled out of the drainage ditch. Whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. Strick was lying behind my truck beside the flat tire we’d pulled off. He had a bad chest wound, the kind in Nam no one ever survived. Mack, I don’t even remember getting my rifle off the back seat, but there I stood with it tucked against my shoulder. And there he was bleeding in the grass. Dead, and I don’t remember shooting him.”

“You never told the police or your attorney?” Mack said. “This could get you another stay. Give us time to put together an appeal.”

“No. I don’t want another stay. I don’t want to appeal. I want you to listen. First, I’m not sure it happened. Even now it seems like I’m making it up as I go along—like I’m inventing a cover for what I did over there. But more important, an excuse for things I allowed to happen in country, in the name of keeping soldiers safe. Those things have to be atoned for.”

Mack wanted to say he didn’t understand what the hell Gil was talking about, but he knew exactly the weight of the pain—the pain of the weight. “You did your job,” Mack said, knowing that wasn’t what Gil needed to hear. “You rendered to Caesar. That’s what was asked of you, like everybody else.” What Gil needed was absolution, but not from Mack, a soldier who’d wrestled the same horrors. Where was a god when you needed one?

“It’s not that simple anymore,” Gil said, wrapping his arms around his stomach as if it was hurting him. “You think it’s possible,” he said, “to be sorry for one set of reasons, and for another set, be proud of the same things you’re sorry for?”

“I truly don’t know,” Mack said, not sure what Gil meant. “What do you think?”

Gil bent over his knees and started to rock.

“Used to think it,” Gil said. “Now, I think I was telling myself what I needed to hear on the inside to tolerate living with me on the outside, with things I did.”

Gil started rocking harder, arms tighter around his stomach like something terrible was eating its way out of him.

“I’m afraid to die for what I did,” Gil said. “Maybe there really is a God. A God that says we should have known better, that says there’s no excuse for killing boy-soldiers in a foreign country we had no business in, no justification for dropping mortar rounds on villages we knew damn well were full of women and children.” Gil was crying now. “I just don’t want to answer for eternity for things I did in Vietnam. That’s all hell is, Mack—facing the pain you’ve inflicted on innocent people.”

Fucking governments, Mack thought. Good at convincing young men to die for causes. Every damn war cemetery in the world was filled with headstones of children. Boys eager to have their souls stamped with the words honor and valor. Gil had been the best of the best and here he sat, tearing his own soul apart. Having nothing else to offer, Mack slid closer on the bunk and wrapped his arm around Gil’s shoulder.

*

Eighteen hours later, Mack stood with four other prison guards outside the weapons vault in the prison’s supply room. Earlier that morning, he’d apologized to Paula for calling Curtis a bastard and then compromised by agreeing he would not try to slip a live round into his rifle. Hell, maybe he would not even pull the trigger.

With practiced precision, Nance Phillips issued weapons to the execution squad.

“These weapons are loaded with a live round, one each,” she said. “Once you’ve fired your weapon, Do Not—I say again. Do Not—eject the round. I will collect the brass when I receipt the weapon back from you. I’ll escort you to the Romper Room. I’ll be outside during the execution. I’ll walk you back to the supply room for weapon turn-in. Any questions?”

The group of five glanced at one another and shook their heads. Someone asked who would give the signal to fire. “Just like you practiced,” Phillips told them. “Nothing is changed.” The warden would give a preparatory command of ‘Ready;’ then an execution command of ‘Fire.’ “Good to go?”

The group said they were.

“Jenkins. Sign here,” Phillips said, shoving a clipboard with a hand-receipt at a guard. “I get my weapon back, you’ll get your hand-receipt back. For some baffling reason, you’re able to leave this prison with my weapon, you’ll owe me for one 30-30 Winchester.” She repeated the hand-receipt process for the other three guards until she came to Mack. “You know the drill, Captain,” she said. “One signature, one weapon.”

Mack signed the hand-receipt and handed her back the clipboard.

“God, I think I’m going . . .” Officer Phillips said, and then collapsed against Mack. As he struggled to hold her up, she grabbed him by the forearm and slipped a round of ammunition into his hand. “From Warden T,” she whispered. Then, “Sorry, Captain. Time to time, dizzy spell catches me.”

The other guards hurried to help, but quickly as she had swooned, she was upright.

“I’m fine, guys. Really. Hands off. Let’s get to the chamber.”

“Jesus, Phillips,” one of the guards said. “Scare the hell out of us, why don’t you.”

The guards shouldered their weapons and walked single file to the execution chamber. When Phillips loudly reminded the guards to not eject their round after firing, Mack chambered the live round into his rifle. The closer they came to the execution chamber, the quieter the squad became. By the time they arrived at the door, the group was silent. Warden Taylor was waiting in the hall.

“Any regrets, say it now. After this door,” the warden knocked on the door leading into the execution chamber, “no one leaves until after the deceased’s body has been removed. Phillips will tell you when. Second thoughts?”

There were none. The warden opened the chamber door and motioned the squad inside.

The room smelled like crayons, reminding Mack of why the guards called it the Romper Room. The smell reminded Mack of the grease pencils they’d used in Vietnam to trace on plastic map covers. On one side of the concrete execution chamber was a large wooden chair bolted to the floor. Thick leather straps hung from each arm and from the front legs. Stacked in a U-shape around the chair were stacks of sand bags to absorb the bullets. The squad entered a smaller room across the chamber. Inside, there were five eye-level firing ports that opened into the execution chamber. The ports were big enough to poke a barrel through and aim, but too small to see much else.

“Barrels through the ports, keep your safeties on until the ready command,” Warden Taylor said, and then closed the door.

The small room was hot and stuffy. Someone passed gas and someone called them a nasty ass. Mack told them to knock it off. With the door closed, the only light was what filtered in through the firing ports. Mack unslung his rifle. He knew the M16 military round travelled at 3100 feet per second. He figured the heavier, blunter 30-30 bullet would travel slower, say 2500 feet per second. The firing squad members shuffled their feet and spoke in hushed voices. A minute later, the warden announced, “Soldier walking.”

By Mack’s calculation, the bullet would cross the 20-foot execution chamber in less than 1/125thth of a second. To measure how long it took to blink, Mack blinked several times. Seemed less than half a second—maybe slow as a quarter second. Much faster than the human eye can blink, lumps of lead would soon tear five holes through Gil’s heart. Seconds later, if not sooner, he’d be dead.

Through his firing port, Mack could see Gil’s waist as he shuffled across the chamber. He wanted to speak to him, to say he was forgiven, remind him that he loved him, but it was too late—wrong place, wrong time, wrong fucking century. Besides, who was he to forgive anybody? Soon, Gil would pass from this earth, taking with him his memories, hopes, disappointments, successes, failures.

The escort guards strapped Gil into the chair. Gil thanked them for treating him well while he had been incarcerated. “Welcome,” one of them said.

Was Strick’s widow there to witness? If it would help her heal, Mack hoped she was, but then he hoped she wasn’t, that she would not put herself through the ordeal of watching a man shot to death even if the state had ordained the killing. Gil had hurt a lot of people by killing Strick Cotton: his widow Maddy, their children, grandchildren, friends—all of them would live the rest of their lives with holes torn in their hearts by the bullet Gil had fired.

The warden asked Gil if he wanted to say anything and Gil said he did. Mack imagined Gil looking through the glass window into the viewing section, straining to see into a semi-dark room full of shadows.

“I don’t ask Mrs. Cotton and Strick’s family to forgive me,” Gil said, his voice quivering. “Too much to ask. I am sorry to my core, but I know being sorry is an insult to the life I took . . . and that’s why I’m here.” The warden asked him if he was done. “And to the soldiers I served with,” Gil said. “If I’ve let you down, I’m sorry for that, too. That’s all, Warden. Send me.”

The warden kicked the door, then opened it a few inches. Light fell across the grim faces of the men inside. They pulled their rifles to their cheeks. “Safeties,” someone said, and the five guards placed their thumbs on their weapons’ safety switch.

Through his firing port, Mack sighted his weapon on the three-inch circle of white paper pinned to Gil’s chest. He thought of the story Gil had once shared in Vietnam of him gathering hay with his father on their cattle ranch in Wyoming. He’d told of the vast acres of tall green grass, clear-running streams, and air so clean it hurt to breathe it. His father had sounded like the kind of father Mack had never known. A war had taken Mack’s father and now a different kind of war was taking another father’s son. Maybe it was best Gil’s parents had already passed.

“Forgive me,” Mack whispered, sending his request out to Gil, to Gil’s father, to his own father, to God, to anyone or any entity in this or any other universe that cared.

“Ready,” the warden said. Five safety levers clicked off.

*

Through the window, Mack watched several birds, wrens, he thought, flitting around the vehicles hauling luggage to the plane. A second later, they were gone. In the seat beside him, Paula opened a travel guide to Vietnam and unfolded a map of Hanoi.

“You think Maddy Cotton,” she said, “will ever forgive Gil?”

Mack didn’t answer. It had finally come to him what his grandmother used to say about birds, that her loved ones came back as redbirds. He smiled at the thought. Hell, maybe good people like Grandmother got to come back as cardinals, but what about bad people, or good people who’ve done bad things—like Gil. No self-respecting god would recycle a murderer. But maybe Gil wasn’t a murderer and the whole damn thing had been a casualty of war.

“Did you hear what I said?” Paula said.

“Of course,” Mack said, struggling to remember.

“About Maddy ever forgiving Gil?” she said, elbowing him in the side.

“I was just about to say that it didn’t seem like it when she tore up Gil’s check.”

And what about Strick Cotton? Mack thought. It didn’t seem right that both the murdered and murderer would be given the same second chance. He wondered how Warden T. was enjoying the retirement forced upon him by Kiley’s complaints to the Tribune. One head to please the masses, the damn governor had demanded for failure to follow procedure, for letting a friend shoot a friend. At nearly 80-years-old, Taylor had volunteered to retire—as long as Mack was left alone. A soldier’s soldier. Finally got your revenge, didn’t you, Curtis. Bastard.

Mack glanced at Paula to make sure she had not somehow heard his thought.

The wrens were back. They landed on top of the luggage hauler beneath Mack’s window. What did he know about God, or God’s will, or, for that matter, any damn thing. If God wanted to send Gil back, hell, as a damn yard chicken, so be it. But in his next life, don’t ask him to wage war. War: the gift that never stops giving.

“Is someone from the orphanage going to meet us at the airport?” Paula said, tracing the map with her finger until she came to the orphanage.

When Mack didn’t answer, Paula gently elbowed him in the side.

Yes,” Mack said, protecting his side with his arm. “I heard you—and a representative from the US Embassy.”

“This money is going to mean a lot to those kids,” Paula said, folding the map and tucking it back inside the travel guide.

Cover Image: Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de. “The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions.” 1814. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Del Prado.

The Cord
by Helen Whybrow

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

I can feel a nose and two feet. The feet are soft and pointed, positioned just above what I think is the head, only I don’t know if they are back feet or front feet. I need to know, because the answer tells me if I have one lamb coming out more or less okay, or two lambs tangled together with the first lamb folding its feet back and its twin doing a sort of backward somersault over the top of it. This would be bad.

It’s Sunday morning, about 2 am I think. I’ve been out in the three-sided shed with my twenty pregnant ewes for a few hours, and I have that all-nighter feeling when time is suspended and you are hovering slightly outside of your body. Near the shed’s opening, I sit in the damp hay blown over by fine snow that shines in the moonlight, and lean my back against the cold stone of the wall. Some of the ewes lie around me, eyes closed, chewing their cuds rhythmically, like the circular lines of a lullaby. A black ewe, Bluestem, lying on her side in an awkward position against the far wall, is the only reason I’m awake. I’ve had my eye on her since about 10 pm when her water broke.

Usually if a ewe doesn’t deliver on her own a couple of hours after her water breaks, it’s a good idea to help her out. It often signals that something is wrong with the way the lamb is positioned in the birth canal. A ewe straining to deliver a lamb that has its legs or head bent back, or a lamb that’s tangled up with a twin coming out at the same time, can rupture her womb or end up delivering a dead lamb. I’ve waited to see what Blue can do on her own, but now she is exhausted, heaving on her side, her eyes wild.

I stand up and stretch my back, wash my arm with cold iodine water from a tin bucket, and roll my thick sleeve down. I’m suddenly bone-cold. I step out of the shed where I can look east to the Northfield range, collecting myself. The stars are glittering on the snow. A few sheep have made their beds in the drifts, and they look at me placidly; their puffs of white breath like question marks against the dark.

Blue is my favorite. A runt at birth, rejected, her own mothering instinct is so strong that she never lets her lambs out of her sight. This is my fourth season of being a solo shepherdess. I’ve had rejected lambs and stillborn ones. Worst of all, a ewe with a grotesque prolapsed uterus that required an emergency call to the vet. But mostly I’ve had the joy of seeing lambs come into the world without a hitch. I have never delivered a pair of tangled twins.

My husband, Peter, is away, and though he knows nothing of the art of birthing, at least he could hold Blue’s head. My vet isn’t on call this weekend and his sub lives over an hour away. I have only the crazy birthing stories that shepherds tell each other about all the things that can go wrong and how they saved the day. Or mostly, how they didn’t. I push the worst possibilities from my mind—lambs that had to be dismembered to come out, wombs rupturing, emergency C-sections in the muck of the barn floor where the ewe was sacrificed for the lambs.

Strangely, as I come to the full realization that I have no choice but to work through this on my own, my fear subsides. Returning to Blue’s side, I roll up my sleeve and reach inside her,  following logic as a caver without a light might feel her way, inch by inch along the wall to a passage that’s familiar. The mass of womb and placenta are warm and wet, like a jellyfish in a tropical sea, while the bony wall of the pelvis grinds against the back of my hand. I find the nose, rounded and soft. Then, above the nose, I feel the hard triangles of two feet. I try to lock my fingers around them to pull and they twitch back. I’ve lost them! Gently I reach farther in, find the feet and trace the legs back against the unforgiving pelvic wall to the second joint. I do this to determine if what I have is a knee (front foot) or hock (back foot). I am 51 percent sure they are back feet. If they are, there is no anatomical way they belong to this nose, unless the lamb is a contortionist. To pull the first lamb out, I have to find its front feet, but they are folded back, out of my reach.

I step back from Blue, stand up, and rinse my arms. Her twins are jammed in the birth canal like tangled tree branches in a narrow stream during spring flood. The natural birthing position for a lamb is like a diver, head between front limbs, shoulders forward, and streamlined for the sprint to air. When the arms are back, the shoulders are too broad for the opening. This is the problem with the first lamb, I think. When they are breech, they can come out backwards, but there’s a high chance that the lamb will gulp in fluid on the way out as the umbilical cord is stretched and breaks. Then it’s unlikely to survive.

When our daughter Wren was born, the midwife lifted her to my chest and let Peter cut the cord near her belly. In my exhausted state where images took on a strangely supernatural intensity, I remember thinking how thick it looked, like a sinewy tree root you find while digging; the kind that resists every effort of the spade. Something muscular and undeniable.

A lamb’s umbilical is as translucent and soft as a bit of milkweed down. I’ve never had to break or cut a cord; it always happens on its own as the lamb slips out of its watery home and onto the hay, becoming a creature of the breathing world. This has always astonished me, that the cord that sustains life could be so thin. Perhaps it’s a function of being a creature that’s closer to the wild. A ewe would have to lick the birth membranes from the lamb and be on her way, to leave no trace of blood behind in case of predators. The lamb’s ability to get to its feet and follow its mom within a few minutes of being born is an evolutionary imperative.

Would Blue die in the wild, I wonder? No doubt all these thousands of years that humans have been shepherds and helped with births have tweaked the evolutionary arc so that not only the easy birthers pass on their genes. A nomadic shepherd would have helped a birth so that the whole flock could more quickly move out of the wind or away from predators, or to the first grass. Only in the worst cases would they have abandoned a laboring ewe and unborn lambs to the wolves. On a Vermont sheep farm, like most of these hill farms were in the 1800s, another live birth would have meant more food for a family that faced spring with little but potatoes and cabbage left in the cellar. The peaks surrounding our farm tell this story: Scrag, Stark, Hunger Mountain, while Shepard Brook drains their slopes to the Mad River. Those are the practical reasons, but I know there were more important reasons shepherds would do everything to assist a birth; this ancient, primal thing of caring for a flock is ultimately about human attachment.

*

Blue’s eyes are weirdly white, her sides no longer heaving. She lies still, lets me probe again. Inside her womb, I trace shapes of the yet-to-be-born with my fingertips over and over, guessing their anatomy aloud—front foot, nose, back foot—a lock picker in the dark. I have to get it right before I pull.

A faint noise comes from the doorway where a dim light spills from the barn into the sheep shed. Wren, who is three, has padded out through the snow in her dinosaur pajamas to find me. Her cold hands find the warmth of my neck beneath my parka hood and her too-big boots dangle from her sockless feet. Since her father was away, at bedtime I had told her, “If you wake up in the night and I’m not in my bed, then look outside. If the barn lights are on, I’m out there and you can come out. I’ll leave your boots by the door.” I honestly wasn’t sure she would figure it out, but I hadn’t come up with any better options.

“Are there babies?” she whispers close to my ear.

“Yes, soon,” I say, and I put her on a hay bale so she can watch. Idrape my huge coat around her.

I can’t take her back to bed. We are in this together now. The first time she saw a birth she was two months old, strapped to my chest under my down coat as I worked to deliver a lamb, her tiny head so close to my hands that I was afraid of hurting her. She is old enough now to observe more closely. I wonder if I should warn her about how seeing blood can be scary, and how when a lamb is born, it’s normal for it to be wet and limp, sometimes coated with a kind of yellow feces called meconium. And sometimes not alive.

But I say nothing. I’m certain now that I have found the missing feet that belong to this soft nose. I reach under the nose with two fingers, find the wrist joint, and unbend the folded-back legs, first one side and then the other. Then, I push the breech twin back. It will have to wait its turn. With my right hand locking the lamb’s feet together, I pull back hard while bracing my left palm hard on Blue’s side. I hear myself groan as I pull with all my strength to get the head through the opening, and the newborn slides into the world at last.  

She is tiny, legs frail as icicles, white with black spots around her eyes. The thinnest of translucent membranes covers her body and nose. She lifts her head immediately. I towel her off, wiping the birth sac from her nose and mouth, rubbing her curly black coat vigorously to stimulate her to rise. She feels ephemeral, a ragdoll of bone and blood, water and air. Blue makes a soft throaty nickering sound that ewes make only when licking their newborns. I stand back to watch the lamb shakily rise up on her front feet, fall, rise up, fall; her nose all the time butting against mom’s flank for milk. It reminds me of a sea turtle watch I went on years ago and wanting so much to help the hatchlings to the sea, but I was told  they needed to struggle into the waves and be tossed violently back up the beach again and again to get their strength to swim.

As the little creature butts against my legs, trying to find a teat, and Blue stands to lick and nuzzle her, I kneel and gently reach a hand into Blue’s vulva one more time. I can feel the breech lamb now, pointy feet, no head. He seems impossibly long as I pull his back feet with both hands and he finally lands on the hay with a thud, wet and shining. His head is strangely huge, with horn buds already breaking the skin. He doesn’t stir. I move fast to clear his nose and mouth, swing him like a pendulum by the back legs to shoot out the phlegm from his airway. It doesn’t seem to help. No cry, no gasp. I can feel panic rising in my chest. I lay him down and palpate his heart with two fingers. I’m whispering, praying, working so fast I’m not sure what I’m doing or why. Aware of Wren on the bale beside me, miraculously asleep, I will myself not to cry out.

It takes only seconds for the light to die out of his eye. His cord, like a snail’s trace, gleams in the hay.

I think, “That was it. His whole life.”

Blue rubs her nose on him and cleans him, pawing at the ground for him to rise. Her sharp feet scrape urgently at his still-warm lifeless body, and he crumples under her hoof like a discarded strip of towel, streaks of blood and mucus staining his white fleece. Blue’s call to him becomes louder, more desperate. It’s more than I can bear. I go up the stairs to get a burlap sack, which I line with some hay from the floor. I slide him in, back to the dark, with the smell of clover fields he will never know.

The sky is a pale yellow over the range. The wind has picked up just before the dawn and I realize I can no longer feel my feet. I lift Wren and she is warm and heavy against my chest. I know she will ask about the lambs when she wakes, and I will tell her. “One is good. One didn’t make it.”

In case she wants to see it, as proof of what death looks like—toddlers being more curious than sentimental—I decide to leave the lamb in his burlap by the door. Later I’ll do a sky burial— an offering to the coyotes— since the ground is frozen solid. This is a heartless practicality, or perhaps an earthly spirituality, that I’ve made my peace with as a shepherd. Rather than feel hardened by it, I feel more and more gratitude—for the birthing, the offering back, this strong love.  

The Biological Station
by David Carlin

Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

This is the in-between season. May in northern Finland, when the snow has not yet finished melting. The thick, white crusts on lakes and rivers bruise violet in the sunlight. Out of sight, underneath, water flows, cannibalising winter’s skin. What looks solid isn’t. There’s not so many places you can walk.

Soile had told me May was a perfect time to come and write at Kilpisjarvi, quiet and peaceful. The biological station lies some 5 km along the lakeshore from the village proper, north along the road that leads to Norway and the Arctic Sea. Soile had kindly booked me into a room at the biological station for two weeks. She would stay a couple of nights herself to do her own work and see me settled in.

On the Internet, it looked bleak and windswept. I don’t like bleak and windswept, but I trusted Soile and I liked the idea of going somewhere a long way north. I come from the south: in Greenwich Meridian terms southeast, in Australian terms southwest, in Perth terms, due west, out near the rifle range that blocked us from walking through the scrub down to the ocean.  White middle-class suburbs, lawns and rose bushes, laid out on sand-dunes in Noongah country. I don’t recall ever hearing guns being fired out there on the rifle range, although they must have fired them. Instead, the wind carried the sound of the speedway cars going around the track at Claremont Showgrounds. We never went to the speedway but I listened to it, lying in bed at night, like it was wild animals roaring in the distance. I come from the south but I come from nowhere, because where I come from isn’t where I come from. Willful amnesia is where I come from. My great grandparents and further back came from Scotland and England and probably other places north and European, but we never talked about that. We never talked about where we came from or how we came to be where we were. Who was there before, who was still there now. Aboriginal people we feared and pitied but mostly succeeded in erasing from our minds as our families had erased them from their lands, way back in the distant past,  we told ourselves. It must have been more than a hundred years ago, as if that was geological, but again we didn’t really have to tell ourselves very often because the trick was always not to think about it in the first place. Like I never thought about how my father died. Not once. (He committed suicide.) That’s how I got attuned to how not thinking works. It’s effective, in its own way, but only to a point, because things endure. Atmospheres remember. Maybe it was to get away from all of this effort of not-thinking that I felt a pull towards the north. Or maybe my body has an ancient sense that north is home. Even for the north, this place, Kilpisjarvi, is northern—far above the Arctic Circle. Already in mid-May, the sun no longer sets and won’t again for the next three months. Not that it rises very much. It travels in its own in-between zone, as if riding on a very slow and gentle rollercoaster hitched to the horizon.

Soile is a friend; a sociologist, she works at the university in Rovaniemi, administrative capital of Finnish Lapland. One Saturday she drives me up to Kilpisjarvi in her old Peugeot, taking the roads that flit along the river sewing Finland to its Western neighbor and former imperial overlord, Sweden. Back and forth we cross over wide and empty bridges, past sleeping border stations. Sweden: neater. Finland: wild, a bit disheveled.

I’ve never before been to a place where it is normal for the ground to be blanketed in snow for months on end. Where I grew up, you could drive for day after day in any direction, any season and never come across so much as a teaspoonful of snow. With a friend, when I was a kid, I climbed Toolbrunup, at just above a thousand metres tall, one of Western Australia’s highest peaks. A squally cloud enveloped the summit, spitting out a few rare snowflakes that nestled, dying, on the outstretched palms of our hands. We couldn’t believe our luck. Here, in some Swedish village we are driving past, a woman shovels away piles of old snow heaped by her front door, making the most of the weekend sunshine to do some garden chores.

We stop at a Swedish petrol station selling reindeer skins. They also sell a small book with diagrams showing the unique pattern each Sami reindeer herding family has chosen or been granted to distinguish the ear tags of their reindeer, which otherwise wander freely across the Arctic countryside.

Almost all of Finland is a flat plain, studded with freshwater lakes. But as you drive into the far north-west, the land finally begins to swell. Under the pressure of the colder latitude, the pine trees shrink and thin, leaving the leafless birches etching veins of black across white hillsides. The snow deepens. The rounded hills rise higher, until you crest a range to reach a place where the still, white surface of a large lake rests like a glass eye in a socket, watched over by dramatic mountains. This is Kilpisjarvi.

*

Across the skin of writing falls the shadow of its many failures. In this,  it is no different from any other task of making: cooking, hammering a nail. How many times has that nail bent, almost surely ruined, when I failed to strike it just how it needed to be struck?

In lieu of a more heroic writing project, I would be working at the biological station on a kind of compendium of ruins. Looking back at various unfinished and abandoned pieces of writing, I sift through their remains to salvage any scraps that might be dragged out and pieced together in a new form somewhere else. I also have a freshly abandoned work that so wants to be the beginning of something good but bobs uncomfortably on the same tide of shame that swamped the earlier manuscripts. In accepting that there is no hope in these projects being resolved in the short term, but having committed to this time of privileged solitude devoted entirely to the productivity of writing—in other words, at a null point—I am forced into the humility of accepting and nurturing whatever I can find, in between.

The biological station is owned and operated by the University of Helsinki. A flag flutters above the station displaying its emblem, which, as far as I can discern, is two lemmings hugging. In peak season, the station can comfortably accommodate 20 or 30 people, between the large main building and its surrounding cottages. In the main building, where I live, there is a cafeteria with full industrial kitchen, a library, seminar room, offices, a separate kitchen for the use of residents and a wing of laboratories packed with scientific instruments, equipment, and work tables. In the basement, because this is Finland, there is a sauna. There used to be another sauna in a log cabin down by the lake but sadly, this is closed. The spartan, spacious guest rooms line a wide corridor that runs perpendicular to the main spine of the building. Warm and buffed linoleum covers the floors so that one can enjoy padding along the corridors noiselessly in sock-clad feet.

The place is deserted. Usually there would be biological or other scientific researchers staying here, working on projects in the field or leading student residencies. The walls of the corridors are lined with posters detailing previous projects charting the effects of changing climate. Display cases on the way to the cafeteria house natural treasures found on field trips in the area. In a month the place will be full but for now, it’s just me. At 3 o’clock each weekday, the few staff members—the station manager and the cook, the cleaners—go home. On weekends and public holidays, they stay away entirely. I had anticipated peace and quiet, but this is more than I expected.

Soile bids goodbye on the third day to return to Rovaniemi; she asks whether I’m having second thoughts at being here alone. I can always bail out early, she says. Once a day, a bus stops up on the main road to begin the seven-hour journey south. And there are bicycles one can borrow to ride along the road to town.

Outside every window in the still-freezing air the snow plumps high like a doona, minding its distance from the human structures that destroy it with their warmth. There is not a window in the building the sun doesn’t shine through at one hour or another. At midnight, it illuminates the length of the residents’ corridor through the glass door at the end, as if lighting a dance show or some Chekhov afternoon behind an old proscenium.

I remember how my mother used to take me to the theatre when I was a teenager, just the two of us. The main local company in Perth was a reconstructed English provincial repertory that had washed up by the estuary of that most far-flung quasi-English province, led by a dashingly theatrical veteran of the scene named—as if a Noel Coward character—Edgar Metcalfe. In the grand tradition of actor managers, Mr. Metcalfe frequently shouldered the burden of the leading role as well as the director’s mantle: Shakespeare, Ibsen, whatever it might be. Meanwhile, in the first year of high school, I had my own theatrical debut when chosen, for reasons never understood, to play the eponymous butler Crichton in the play, The Admirable Crichton. I was good at following instructions, maybe that was it. My characterisation entirely consisted of a gesture I was instructed, by Mr. Parkinson, the English teacher, to perform whenever possible: clasping my hands together in front of my stomach and rubbing them back and forth against each other. Horizontally: that was important. This gesture, a sign of deference befitting my servile station, would become ironic in Acts Two and Three when, along with my master’s family, I was shipwrecked on a desert island and my versatile talents saw me emerge as the natural leader of the group, the master to my masters. The hand gesture transformed into a sign of unflappable strength during my ascendancy. Although I remember no details of the plot, Wikipedia maintains that in Act Three, the daughter of my erstwhile lord and master fell in love with me and I would have married said beautiful Lady Mary had I not chosen duty over love and responded gallantly to a rescue signal that saw us all returned to England and our previous class positions. (Clasps hands together in front of stomach with noble stoicism…) It felt like the play was hundreds (if not thousands) of years old ,but it turns out to have been written in 1902 by J  M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame.I cannot recall whether Lady Mary was played by a girl or boy; whether it was a co-production with our sister school or an all-male cast half in drag. Why does it matter? What does matter in this story? The light along the corridor, the hands, my mother, the theatre, Perth in the 1970s, home, comfort, being on a stage, distant in my head, going through the motions, dressed up, performing awkwardly.

*

In Kilpisjarvi, almost everything is closed. The caravan park, tourist shop, lakeside kiosk, boat cruise jetty. Most of the restaurants are shuttered, save the bland-looking cafe upstairs by the petrol station and the old place with the roof painted bright red to attract attention from the highway. In the latter, although its black gravel car park currently houses, almost exclusively, giant piles of snow, you can find a no-nonsense all-you-can-eat buffet lunch that breaks out towards splendour in the sweets department. The general store plies a year-round trade, underwritten by cashed-up Norwegians who cruise across the border to stock up with ten-kilogram slabs of frozen reindeer meat for a fraction of the price they’d pay at home.

The thaw and melt are late this year; the in-between time is extended. Like everywhere, the weather can no longer be relied on. There’s no clear ground yet for summer hikers. The lake is not yet free of ice for boating. On the other hand, the ice fishing season has come and gone; the ice is thin and dangerous. The only skiers left are the Finnish national cross-country ski team on a preseason training camp. Even they are leaving as we arrive, completing their last routines, which consist of strange lunging and leaping actions sans skis or snow across an empty car park. As they depart, the only hotel in town shuts its doors for annual holiday.

*

One day, after I have been living there alone for a week, a stranger comes. I’m not sure when I first become aware of her arrival. The station manager advised that a woman would be turning up and staying for some time. I didn’t know why she was coming to the station or what she would be doing there. By this time, I have grown accustomed to my solitude. On weekdays, the cafeteria will open just for me, if I have booked in for a meal. I turn up at the appointed hour. A generous one-person version of the standard breakfast or lunch buffet is laid out in gleaming stainless steel dishes along a counter, with fruit, bread, and various condiments on another bench nearby. I fill a tray with food, trying not to pile my plate too high to compensate for being the only diner. Then I sit, book open, at one of the many empty tables I can choose from, looking out at the snow and the bare branches of the birches poking through where, in several places, empty nests can be seen awaiting the activities of summer. As the days go on, I notice more and more birds fluttering about, increasingly busy and excited. Occasionally the maintenance man, the station manager, and other staff will be sitting at a table chatting when I arrive. They always hastily get up and leave, carrying their dishes with them, as if there is some protocol against sharing the lunchroom with outsiders. I try to make eye contact with the cook to say kiitos (thank you—my only word in Finnish applicable outside a sauna), but she invariably positions herself in a small office just out of view as I arrive. Until the stranger comes, these mealtime encounters, or missed encounters, are the only fixed points in what otherwise stretches as one endless day, a subtly transforming duration in which the illusion of night can only be artificially arranged. As if self-parenting, one has to consciously decide it is time to close the curtains, pull the blinds down and go to bed, covering the eyes if possible with airline-issued eyeshades so that, with the eyelids also closed, conditions will finally approximate darkness.

I first run into the stranger in the residents’ kitchen. After Soile left, this became my private evening domain. Each night, I worked through another segment of a menu improvised from the small range of groceries available at the store, listening to mildly interesting podcasts while I cooked. One night, she is there on a lounge chair when I arrive. She is eating fruit and yoghurt from a bowl while watching ice hockey on TV. Finland versus Russia, its arch-rival (another former imperial overlord). Small and self-contained, the woman looks to be in her late 50s, not much older than me. We exchange a single, universal word—hello—then she turns back to the TV. As I start to cook, the sound of the ice-hockey commentators fills the room. The players slide back and forth across the screen in their heavily padded costumes, whacking each other violently. When the game finishes, she turns the television off with the remote, stands up, nods at me politely, leaves the room, and vanishes until the following evening.

In my room at the biological station, where I spend most hours of the day, I don’t feel cooped up. I have a bathroom and a single bed on which I lay down with my eyeshades in place at the appropriate time each night. That is when the silence is at its most textured, inviting in the sound of dreams. At least once a day, I venture out for a walk or a bike ride in the direction either of the town; the lake or the closed-up caravan park with its dormant restaurant; gift shop and kiosk overlooking the lake, where you must be able to buy ice-creams in the summer. I talk to nobody; I scarcely see anyone except the shadows driving cars and semi-trailers along the American-style highway complete with its line of telephone poles and painted row of dashes converging in the distance. I take photographs of ice and snow in endless configurations, never tiring of their novel superfluity.

At the desk in my room I write, and I find it possible to write there in the biological station, in the soothing silence. I work seriously in the ruins. Once a day, I stop writing for a while and sit in the chair, cocooned in the solitude, not imagining I am far away but that I am close and present. Close to words but temporarily unwritten.  

Write about what you desire, advises the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, or perhaps he advises: write from your desire. As if either would be a straightforward injunction. Are what we desire and the way that we desire it our deepest, most humiliating secrets? (Koestenbaum would say, good, write about it all the more). And therefore, in the gap between what we want and what it is acceptable for us to want, brews the frustrations that lead to rage that turns outward into hatred that begets violence and cruelty and all the ways we become capable of causing suffering, and thus in a single sentence I have attempted virtually a universal theory of human everything, which is always a tendency I have had a weakness for.

The biological station is tightly sealed and insulated, its low body anchored to the ground so that no matter how extreme the weather outside, it remains immoveable. All the doors are airlocked. Do I feel at home? I certainly feel safe and secure, once I became accustomed to the building, its eerie scale and emptiness. Maintained at such a level of cleanliness that no unintended trace of previous inhabitants can be found, it is not a place you’d find idle scratchmarks on the desks in the seminar room or gobs of chewing gum underneath. A ball of fluff on the floor in the corner of a room would be unimaginable. Being sealed, it is also silent. It is so well engineered that the systems of airflow, heating and cooling, are virtually undetectable, as if the building itself is simply warm-blooded. Womb-like: the mothership.

“Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house,” says French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book, The Poetics of Space. How lucky we are, those of us for which this is true, who are not born homeless, seeking refuge, or within domestic violence. For Bachelard, the house is the space that shelters daydreams. It is the maternal space of intimacy, where solitude can roam free in attics, nooks and cellars. Or, as in a brick bungalow in Perth, Australia, the concrete front porch, sun-warmed back steps. “In the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all to be possessed,” says Bachelard. I have come to the biological station to learn again to daydream. I want to possess that space of solitude where daydreams can make themselves at home; I want to find a new place from which to write.

In memory we cannot know ourselves in time, says Bachelard. We can only know ourselves in a sequence of different spaces, tableaux in which different characters, human and nonhuman, appear. When we set out ‘in search of things past’, we actually want ‘time to “suspend” its flight,’ he says. ‘In its countless alveoli, space contains compressed time. This is what space is for.’ In my first childhood home, the corridor of bedrooms ran perpendicular to the main spine of the house. There, off that corridor, was my bedroom and next to it, my mother’s bedroom, where she slept alone. A few steps away at the far end of the corridor stood the door into the lounge room. This was far enough away to play, in the space between, an entire game of football with a balloon left over from a party. I would do so on a rainy afternoon, daydreaming in slow motion, alone, as if filling in time until my father—the first stranger—might arrive.

What I looked forward to most when I was a kid was getting away. Leaving home so as to be able to return. The shortest regular trip we made as a family was to my Gran’s house, each Sunday evening. The four of us are boxed into the little Mazda, my mother driving, my brother, sister, and myself. It was before seat belts were compulsory. The limbs of children, especially mine, much smaller than my siblings’ six and seven years older, were free to loll in all directions. The mood in the car, in memory, is always peaceful as we travel among the stars and sand dunes that together still won out in those days over houses and streetlights on the winding beachside road between Mt. Claremont and Scarborough. At Gran’s, more comfort: lemon steamed pudding and cousin games, the licence to watch commercial channels before the man said goodnight girls and boys. Just don’t talk politics or religion; Uncle Noel is to the right of Genghis Khan.

For days the only time I ever see the stranger is each evening in the shared kitchen where she watches television for an hour or so—sport or a nature documentary—and eats something minimal from the fridge. Never walking in the corridors or at the cafeteria.  What does she do all day? Is she a nun? Perhaps a Buddhist nun? A very down-to-earth Finnish ice-hockey-loving Buddhist nun?

Like the biological station itself she seems sealed and self-contained, comfortable in being alone. Each time I go into the kitchen to make a meal I hope she won’t be there. The way she sits there, absorbed in the sounds and images of the television, ignoring me.

If not a nun, what might her day job be? Retired? She doesn’t look quite old enough. So alone! Gay or straight? Most likely straight, but what am I, a psychic? Does she wonder what I’m doing here? What has the manager told her? A writer from Australia…? What even would that mean?

The house of Bachelard’s dreams is vertical: it should have either three or four stories, he insists, including a cellar, an attic, and multiple staircases in-between. Our house, like most of those I knew in Perth, comprised one floor only. All of the other floors were cut off—existing only in the imagination of the child who searched for them. This typified our lot as settler descendants in Perth: to be cut off, dwelling somewhere only the most basic of structures had been put in place. Yes, there were houses, but houses with phantom limbs that existed only in the books we read. How I longed for a staircase! As an adult, as soon as I could afford to renovate a house that’s what I wanted. A staircase. It didn’t matter where it led to, so long as there was a room upstairs. Our childhood house in Perth, like the biological station in Kilpisjarvi, existed on the horizontal plane. We were told our house had previously been a duplex or else had been intended to be a duplex. That’s why it had two front doors next to each other on the front porch. Supposedly. The word duplex hovered mysteriously. What was a duplex? Two half-houses stuck together sideways, like conjoined twins.

Our relationship— the stranger’s and mine—only progresses in so far as we grow accustomed to each other. I become more comfortable ignoring her as I chop and fry my vegetables, boil my pasta, sit at the table with my glass of wine and book. I don’t offer to share and neither does she. Was there a moment—an exchange of gestures—early on, in which the subject of sharing food and drink was raised and a protocol established in the negative? Actually, I think not. It was precisely in the lack of gesture—when I opened and poured the wine, she didn’t register the movement or the sound—that our way of being together became declared. It seems obvious she isn’t secretly hoping I will pour her a glass and invite her to the table. Or perhaps she is shy, as I am. We are conjoined twins, a duplex; an invisible wall of language and experience between us.

Neither of us wants to make the first move towards a greater intimacy of companionship. That reticence, in common, becomes a bond. Whereas in most situations, our social diffidence—the feeling that our emotional lives are somehow ziplocked and inaccessible even to our own perception—might be uncomfortable, here in the biological station it feels like an acceptable, even estimable, quality.

Some time goes on like this. A few days, a week, it’s hard to tell. Outside my bedroom window hangs a mercury thermometer, one way to measure the difference between the days. Likewise, the changing cloudscape. I can’t get over the uncanny feeling of being on top of the world, not only because of the latitude, but because of the peculiar topography of Kilpisjarvi, where a sliver of Finnish territory extends a few hundred metres north of the biological station, touching Sweden and Norway both at once. The only road into Kilpisjarvi rises up and up from the body of Finland proper and then, as it widens to become an immaculately engineered Norwegian highway, drops down again on the other side in a series of sweeping curves cutting deep into pine clad valleys as it approaches the great fjord of Lyngen. It is as if each country could only be in charge of its own distinctive and contrary mode of landscape, and thus the border drawn—Finland flat and lake-strewn, Norway carved in giant fingers, ocean-drowned. And Kilpisjarvi, this remote place where the two are stitched together, the occasion celebrated with a magnificent lake large enough for a ferry to take passengers between one country and another.  If and when the ice has melted. Above the lake, the Sami holy mountain they call Saana.

Are we all confined each to our own biological station? Often it feels as if the patterns of movement within my body—the corridors of thought, repetitive paths of muffled feeling—are deeply earthed in a time before I can remember. As if the architecture of my emotional life has been—always already—laid out, and its systems whir away silently in the background, constantly recycling their limited repertoire of images. I am now in middle age, according to objective human measures of mortality, but not yet reconciled to the bewildering events of infancy, the aftermath of being born.

The biological station! It is body as well as home—bio as well as logical. How long can we rest suspended in the in-between time, when winter has left already and summer has not yet come? A residency is always a suspension and a suspension is a pause, held fragile in its instability and the rituals of care that make it possible. What happened those two weeks? I wrote, I ate, I walked. I did such normal things.

*

A second woman arrives, and is welcomed by a third who has arranged to meet her at the biological station. The third woman is the well-known Finnish artist and scholar, Leena Valkeapää, whom Soile knows—the latter had emailed to warn me of this impending swell of sociality. Leena is married to a Sami reindeer herder and lives thirty kilometres south in a house some distance off the main road on another lake. She is worried about how she will get home because the ice on her lake is breaking up and her snowmobile could fall through  if she isn’t skilful enough in how she speeds across the cracks and holes. In the summer they travel by boat, in winter by snowmobile. In the in-between time it is hard to get anywhere, although a walking path winds the long way through the forest. The other woman, who Leena has come to welcome, has driven down from Tromso, in the far north of Norway. She has retired from a long career as a laboratory technician working in IVF and other fields to become a bio-artist. She is here to collect biological samples in the forest (if the snow clears) that she will later smear across glass plates and magnify into large, two-dimensional images. The two women inspect the deserted biological laboratories. The Norwegian bio-artist feels totally at home, like a chef inspecting an industrial kitchen, assessing the familiar tools she’ll probably be using: microscopes with cameras; glass containers and so on. Leena, who has acted so warmly, briefly, as our host, now departs to try to get home, one way or another, before it gets too late. The Norwegian and I thank her and say goodbye.

The Norwegian speaks excellent English. Her favourite English word is super-cool, and she herself is super-friendly. One of her current art projects is a site-specific community kitchen that pops up in abandoned buildings during festivals, inviting people to help cook and share free dinners from donated food that would otherwise be wasted. Within a few hours at the biological station, she has discovered much more about the mystery woman than I ever would have.

She chuckles to me in the kitchen later when we are alone: “Hehe. She is so Finnish! They are all like that. They don’t talk.”

“Do you know what she is  doing here?” I ask.

“Ice-fishing.”

Oh. Ice-fishing? I thought the season was over. The Norwegian woman shrugs.

That’s why I never saw the woman during the day. She woke up early to go ice-fishing.

“She comes here for a week, once a year, on holiday from the south, because it is cheap and quiet. And she loves ice-fishing.”

It’s a wonder I have never noticed the fisherwoman out there on the lake.

Next time I see the icefisher in the kitchen, I say, “So, you are fishing?”

She grins broadly: “Yes.”

“You fish in the ice?” I say.

“Yes.” She smiles again.

This is as far as our conversation goes, but it feels like we have been chatting and laughing together all afternoon and when we separate, we each trail a warm glow of social interaction back along the corridor in our woollen socks. Later, I tell the Norwegian woman about the conversation. She has come in from the back porch where she likes to chain smoke cigarettes in a puffer jacket. She judges this development super-cool.

The in-between time: Leena, the Finnish artist with the reindeer herding family, said this was the season she loved best. I was surprised. I had thought everyone would be in a hurry for the summer to arrive: the time for boating, ice-creams, sprouting leaves and nesting birds, berries and flowers on the ground. All of the nostalgic comforts. But she preferred it now, in the liminal; she preferred the patches. In winter, the landscape is a plane of white and in summer, unremitting greens. In between, with the snow half-melted, the ice half thawed, the field of vision makes complex patterns with scars and blotches, nudges of rock, floating jigsaws.

*

When the day comes I am due to leave the biological station, the sun burns in an unusually cloudless sky. I determine to make the most of it. Before breakfast, I take off towards the lake to try out—for the first time—the snowshoes the manager invited me to borrow. Sitting on the wooden jetty that leads out from the disused sauna to the icehole that seasoned Finnish sauna enthusiasts would plunge into in between their stints of sweating, I grapple with the snowshoes in the cold, eventually succeeding in clipping them into place. In slow motion, larger-than-life awkwardness, I stump along the lakeside across the freshly refrozen snow. And there I see her, for the first time, fishing. No, not quite—I had seen her from above, near the front entrance to the biological station, when I first stepped out that morning and was standing by the flagpole underneath the entwined lemmings. I had looked down upon the lake and seen a tiny black figure sitting very still, where she might have been sitting every previous day if I had ever thought to look. I know immediately who it is on the ice, and that I must take the snowshoes down beside the lake and approach her.

She is sitting on a stool about thirty metres from the lakeshore, fishing in a hole evidently cut out with the ice drill lying nearby. This fishing is in fact the sort of thing a Buddhist nun might do, so meditative and quiet. But I’m sure our Norwegian friend would have discovered if the icefisher were any kind of cleric. Gingerly ,I take a few steps out onto the lake toward her, wary of the fragility of its icy crust. She turns to me and waves. I wave back. I stop approaching. It doesn’t seem right to go too close to her. I might fall through the ice and/or I might spoil her solitude, her reverie of communication with the fish circling in the depths below. Obviously she likes to sit there on her stool, fishing through the hole in the ice, for hours on end. Rugged up in her down coat she is perfectly comfortable. I don’t know and will never know any of the story of her life outside this place, what home she is away from, whether she is alone there too or surrounded by people and animals awaiting her return. For some time I stand there, looking around at the view of the mountains from this perspective, seeing how the lake’s stillness and flatness, its crustiness as if it were a salt pan glistening in the sun, extends in every direction until its airbrushed meshing with the folds of snow and rock around its hem.

Afterwards, I decide to climb a little of the mountain, Saana. The refrozen snow is firm to walk on in the snowshoes. I find the path behind the deserted caravan park that leads up to the ridge. I go further than I intend. The day is so clear and dry; it is now or never. High up, I can see vistas opening up to the north and west, dramatic Norwegian peaks. Patterns, patches, just as the Finnish artist had described. A snaking duckboard wends its way up the steep, rocky ridge where the snow is thinner. I take off my snowshoes and leave them by the path for my return. Up ahead, I can see a single hiker disappearing over the rise  onto the long plateau near the summit. I get as far as a vantage point high above the lake from where I can look down at the biological station. I try to find the window of my room. Out on the lake, about thirty metres from the edge, there is a small black speck like a piece of dirt on the surface of some eyeglasses. It is her. The icefisher. All these hours later she is still out there, fishing patiently. From this distance, she could not appear smaller and yet I feel an uncanny sense of connection with her. We are strangers, each sitting separate and far apart, but we know each other. We are at home in being side-by-side.

When I get back for lunch and am packing up my stuff, she is in the hallway with an old canvas rucksack.

“I have my frozen fish in here,” she says. “I’m going home today.”

“Me too! On the bus?”

“Yes, on the bus,” she says. We laugh at the coincidence.

‘How many fish do you have to take home?’ I ask.

“Ten,” she says. I am impressed but she says ten is disappointing. Usually she would have more but because this year the snow is late in melting she hasn’t been able to walk up to the other lake behind the mountain where the fishing’s better. “Still, ten is good,” I say.

We walk up to the bus stop alongside each other. We stop and wait for the bus to come. I stand up my suitcase and she leans her rucksack, with the fish inside, against the wooden bus shelter.

“Can I take your photograph?” I ask. No. She shakes her head.

 

Acknowledgments: This essay was made possible thanks to an invitation to visit Finland from Soile Veijola, Professor of Cultural Studies of Tourism in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland, and was written with the support of RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication and non/fictionLab.

 

Deadman’s Pass by Cathryn Klusmeier

Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction Prize

We sent him in there by himself.

Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map, and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for our dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say that deep down, we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say sending him in there for tire chains was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we’d been carrying out for a while now. Because any one of us could and should have gone in there instead. And by the time it really registered what we had asked him to do, by the time I realized he was truly alone in there, I found myself jamming a gas nozzle frantically back into a pump and haphazardly sliding across some frozen sludge in the parking lot as I began to run towards the front door of the Les Schwab tire dealership in La Grande, Oregon.

It was a snowy day—a couple feet at least and counting, which is why we were at the Les Schwab looking for tire chains in the first place. And as I opened the door of the Les Schwab, I saw him immediately. There he stood at the checkout counter in a room that overwhelmingly smelled of burnt popcorn and rubber and something floral. He stood with his hands in his pockets; his feet shifted from side to side on the checkered linoleum. The snow on his pants was melting in pools on the floor. There was a line behind him, and it was growing longer.

“Sir,” said a tall, slender man in a greasy jumpsuit standing behind the checkout counter.

But my father said nothing.

Sir,” the man said again. And still my father stood there, muted.  

“Sir–?”

“I’m sorry sir, but what exactly do you need?” said the man in the jumpsuit.   

“Sir, can you hear me?” he said again.

If my father could hear him, he didn’t let on. He stood staring at something behind the counter. And as I walked through the crowd towards the front of the line, I could feel the man’s questions reverberate across the room and then fall flat in the depth of my father’s silence. The man in the jumpsuit spoke again and again my father didn’t speak. And in that next silent pause, the man in the jumpsuit began to pull back. It was a subtle sort of retreat—the man looked over his left shoulder for a moment. His eyes scanned the length of the room for another. He seemed to gaze at the back wall for a second too long. There were large posters covering the walls of this particular Les Schwab. Large posters filled with photographs of tires overlaid with big, neon yellow price tags and promises. Promises of long-term car care and lifetime tire guarantees and friendly customer services and smiles. There was an empty popcorn machine in the corner sitting next to a circle of under-stuffed couches where people sat and waited and now, were watching the man at the checkout counter. Above an empty coffee pot, there was a television turned to the Weather Channel informing us that we should not have been driving that day. Beyond that, the room was mostly quiet except for the squeaking of rubber soles on checkered linoleum and the mutterings of the growing mass of people waiting in line for the customer service desk. And of course, there was now the sound of a man in a jumpsuit becoming quickly agitated at the customer in front of him.

Sir,” the man tried again, this time louder. “Can I help you?” But by the last question, the man’s voice no longer held the veil of patience. Despite what his name tag said, he was no longer interested in helping this man at the front of the line. There was something about my father’s silence that had unnerved him—a glimpse of something unnamed. By now I was standing right next to my father so the man in the jumpsuit shifted his attention to me. He turned to me like I owed him, and everybody else who was waiting behind us, an apology.

How quickly the room turned against us. We were taking up time and we were taking up space and it was getting darker and the line was getting longer and the snow kept falling and everyone needed chains on their tires and yet there stood my father, still silent and still staring at something behind the counter.

“We need to know if we can get through the pass,” I spoke up, finally—I was far too late and I knew it. I placed my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, so we were linked.

“We’ve been driving for the past three days,” I said, offering something—some semblance of an explanation. “We’re moving—most of our stuff is in the back of a U-Haul but we’re concerned about the snow. Can we put chains on our trailer? Can we make it through Deadman’s Pass?” I said. I risked a quick glance up at my father midway through my barrage of questions for the jumpsuit, but his gaze never met mine. He was still staring, still not moving, still not speaking. The large, dirty puddles on the floor surrounding my father’s feet were growing steadily in diameter.

No, we couldn’t make it through Deadman’s Pass with the U-Haul, the man in the jumpsuit said. No, they had no more chains to sell us. No, he didn’t know when the pass would be clear again. Tomorrow? A week? Two? No, the hotels were likely full by now. But yes, we could store the U-Haul behind the tire shop if we wanted to. No, they couldn’t guarantee that the trailer wouldn’t be broken into. We could leave it there, if we wanted—drive over the pass, then drive back and get it later, maybe. If getting over the pass was so important tonight. Come back some other day, the jumpsuit said. Come back with someone who was speaking this time. Come back when the winter had passed and the snow had left and there was sunshine here, again, maybe.

And with my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, I nodded to the jumpsuit. I led and my father followed. I turned away from the counter, away from melting snow, away from the silence and the tires and towards the crowd who was waiting in line. There was anger there, a sudden collection of glances channeled our direction. They had their own snow and tires and chains to deal with and they didn’t have all day to stand here. But what was anger in their glances—at the least, some confused annoyance—turned to something else when I led him away. I could see it. They were dogs who smelled a bear in the woods. They looked flustered, they shuffled their feet. They saw something in his face that I had been staring at for years and it frightened them.

*

The day the movers came to pick up our home and put it in a truck bound for Seattle, we were not ready. All morning, my mom and I were frantically packing, sifting through boxes of old wedding presents—auburn candlesticks and cheap glass vases, all in packaging never opened—remnants of my parents’ big Southern wedding that never did fit them. Which is why the boxes had remained boxed for nearly thirty years.

We didn’t have room for most of it. We were throwing things away. That morning, three of my aunts had come over early to collect most of the attic storage we couldn’t take with us. We scattered our things on the old ping-pong table and they claimed the stuff they wanted. My aunts were in tears. They gathered old, tarnished candlesticks and lacy tablecloths—the female wedding inheritances of our family circa 1800. They took the blue china, the oversized forks, and all other remnants of the past we didn’t have room for. We were tenth generation Arkansans, and we were getting rid of the evidence. My aunts asked us if we were sure we wanted to let it all go. They said surely I would someday want this passed down to me at my wedding. They gathered it in the back of their respective cars and left.

I was standing next to my mom in the kitchen of the house she built herself when the movers—two bearded middle-aged men who smelled of chewing tobacco and unwashed Carhartts— entered our house to pick up the boxes we were supposed to have packed already. They spoke with a twang; they moved quickly through our house, they surveyed our furniture. They told us what we could sell in auction and what we couldn’t. They told us what things were worth. They tracked in mud on my mother’s floors. They dropped a lamp.  

“It must be a good job your husband got, what with you all pickin’ up and leaving so soon—moving across the country and sorts. Must be a real good job. Must be real good. Where you goin’? Washington—that’s right. I hear it rains something awful up there. Must be a real good job what with you movin’ and all. This here’s a real nice house. You built this yourself? Shit. Real good job it must be to leave this place.”

My mother paused and took in a breath through her teeth. I was holding translucent packing tape—I couldn’t find the end of the roll to pull out a good strand to shut the box of old sheets and frayed towels I was holding. Yet I paused with her. The moment dropped, it collapsed between us. We sat in silence for a moment too long. And then my mom smiled—a big, crisp, full-teeth smile that reminds you of all those things you think you know about Southern hospitality. She smiled at those men tracking dirt into the house she built herself, the men auctioning off her furniture. She told them it was a great job. She nodded up and down, still crisp, still smiling, still nodding. Because she couldn’t tell him there was no job. She couldn’t tell him the reason she had no address for him to send the moving van to was because there was no house to go to. She couldn’t even tell him why it was Seattle she had chosen, because it could have been anywhere, really. It just mattered that it wasn’t here. She couldn’t tell him that one day her husband had stopped talking, that he slept most of the day. That, after twenty-five years of working, he just stopped one day a year ago. That if you sent him to the grocery store for toilet paper and bread, he would come back with unripe mangoes and brown sugar. That sometimes he would get up at 3 a.m. and start making the bed with my mom in it. That doctors kept throwing out words like “mid-life crisis” and “depression” and asserting that these have many unexpected side effects. That he started watching movies beginning at nine in the morning, sometimes earlier. He started watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Bloody, war movies. He turned the volume up so high drowning everything else out until all you could hear were gunshots.

*

The drive from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Seattle, Washington, is thirty-one hours in good driving weather, but that was not the weather we had that January. That January, the roads in Kansas had turned to ice. Big, long sheets of ice that made the U-Haul we were towing slide haphazardly back and forth over the lane line. And because it was Kansas, every rest stop perpetually reminded us with magnets and stickers that there was no place like home, which felt like the definition of a cruel joke. And Kansas lead to Colorado and the Rockies, which then sent us to Wyoming and to Utah, which was this long trek of negative-degree wind that rocked the car for hours and made hissing noises where the old windows didn’t completely shut.

We didn’t have a place to live yet—four rental agreements fell through because of internet scams and confusion. While I drove, my Mom was on the phone explaining that no, we didn’t have any income, yes, we had a dog, no our credit wasn’t so great, but regardless you should definitely rent to us because we were really nice people. We ate Denny’s five-dollar Grand Slam breakfasts every morning and Subway’s five-dollar foot-long sandwiches every other meal. Five people for five dollars forever. We made it like this, diverting when the roads were bad. Stopping when the snow was too thick. Moving forward when we could. All the way to Le Grande, Oregon, and to Deadman’s Pass where we had to stop.

*

We sent him in there by himself. Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for my dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say deep down we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say it was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we had been carrying out for a while now. Tests to see if my father was really changing. Mom, the boys, and I—we assigned him small tasks—things that not two years ago would already have been done long before we had even thought to ask. Little habits, routines my father had delighted in years before. Things like mowing the lawn. Fixing the car. Emptying the dishwasher. Getting up in the morning.  

And when he failed, which he was doing more and more regularly those days, we did intricate cerebral acrobatics that created excuses in our minds so that we could reason away his absence. In our minds, if we admitted that we noticed, we would lose him. And every time we saw a glimpse of him again, every time I took him hiking in the woods or walking near the water, he started to laugh again. He talked a bit more.

One Christmas when I was home, I decided that we were going to run together, he and I. Every day we would put on our sweats and hats and go out into the rainy woods to run the trails. And one day, about a week into our training, he took off ahead of me, sprinting. He turned a corner and I lost him for a moment. And then I picked up speed and turned that same corner and he was gone. And then I paused and I panicked and I yelled his name. And then suddenly there was my father, leaping out of the woods from behind a tree, yelling “GOTCHA!” and then proceeded to lift me into the air, tickling and laughing and grinning. At that turn of the corner, he was back. He was cackling the way only he could cackle, he was looking me in the eye; he was skipping. He held his arms out like airplane wings yelling “RACE YA” behind him as he took off up the trail. We did this nearly every day for weeks. It took three miles of running to get glimpses of him like this. It was like clockwork. Three miles into certain runs he would start crying, weeping—asking me what had gone wrong and trying to make plans to make it right. Five miles in, the glimpses seemed more solid. But by the time we had cooled off, he started to revert. His clarity lasted all of 15 minutes after leaving the woods. And no matter how long or how far we ran it was the same every time. A glimpse. A small one, certainly, but enough to make us think we had jumped to conclusions too fast. Perhaps it was just depression, as so many had said. We scolded ourselves for thinking the worst. He was too young and too strong and too good. These tests we constructed were faulty, we unconsciously reasoned, he just needed more time and more chances. So, in the spirit of denial and opportunity, we sent him in to get chains for the tires.

*

A team of men in greasy jumpsuits showed us where we could park the U-Haul next to the trash cans. We were leaving all our possessions in the space next to the Les Schwab fenced-in trash heap. After backing it through the fence, we started taking out the necessities. Clothes, toothbrushes, medications, schoolbooks. My brothers, Andrew and Jacob—aged sixteen and seventeen—were technically delinquent because they had been out of school for too long. They were not enrolled in any schools because we did not have a house with an address that would allow us to enroll them.

Next to cardboard boxes and old tires we pulled all our stuff out and placed it in the snow. We stared at the supposed necessities of our lives strewn about in the snowy gravel patch between the trash cans and the back of the Les Schwab. Out came our clothes. Out came our pillows. Out came the dog food and our shoes and the winter coats and our sheets. Out came the cast iron skillet. The U-Haul housed all the supposed essentials and now here we were yet again whittling our stuff down, repacking our things, stuffing them into the back of our already stuffed car.

My mother and I were talking logistics with the owner of the Les Schwab so we stood with our backs to my father as he continued to pull out the rest of our stuff and put it in the snow. A few moments later, we heard a faint sound of alarm coming from the voice of my youngest brother, Jacob. I turned around to see him waving his arms faster and faster in the air.

“Dad—wait, no—Dad, stop—Dad, wait! What are you doing?” Jacob yelled, moving towards my father. He had started quickly putting everything back in the U-Haul. My father had first unpacked the trailer, put just about everything in the snow, and then suddenly, only a moment later, before we had a chance to put it in our car, started piling everything back into the U-Haul. It was a complete undoing of what he had just done. Turning at the sound of my brother’s alarm ,my voice followed with similar confusion and escalation. It was like watching a VCR tape being rewound. His movements were mechanical, nearly identical to the unpacking he had just done, but in reverse. Only a few minutes had gone by and suddenly this tape had rewound to the opening credits.

It was my mother who responded the slowest, yet with the most alarm. She turned, she stopped. She yelled and she never yells. She shrieked my father’s name. Once, twice, and then yelling again, more forcefully:

 

WALT!

Walt.

walt

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

What is happening?

What is happening?

The four of us recoiled in unison. We paused, uncertain if we had broken something—an old, hidden wound split wide open now. Our cries carried that stench of admission—an acknowledgement that our unspoken trepidation had not only weaseled its way to the surface, but there it was, shouted into the hills towards Deadman’s Pass. Because we knew what had happened. We had just thrown dynamite into the hillside of that snowy mountain pass. And so there we stood, frozen and silent outside the Les Schwab, waiting for the avalanche we knew had to come.

Origin of the Species
by Ainsley Drew

First Place, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Our relationship was a terminal cancer patient
Leaving chemo only to be hit by a bus.

I’ve never missed the irony
That fertilizer can be made
Into homemade bombs or flower beds.

Like how your name means healer
And mine means hermit
Burrowed in a meadow, hypogeal in a field.

My mother used to call me by my father’s name, David
Accuse me of breaking up their marriage, no longer a doctor’s wife.
Her brother still calls me by her name, Virginia
Smothers me in soil and plucks her maiden features from my face.

I am the union between a man whose father witnessed the loss of his virginity
And a woman whose father beat her until both tiny legs were left in a brace.

I am a cluster of cells in traffic.
I am the seed that stays mute in the dirt.

It’s impossible to predict next summer’s harvest
When this winter’s freeze has burst all the pipes.

It’s impossible to repack Pandora’s luggage
Once it’s been tilled for explosives by the TSA.

I’m standing in the waiting area at the arrival gate
Though you’ve only traversed the threshold of departures.

Lost lover without a collar, it’s too late.

Once the cat’s let out of the bag
It keeps running
Into oncoming traffic.

Burial
by Tara Westmor

Runner Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Because we weren’t supposed to, we planted them, in a front yard on Salem Avenue,
the glass, the small please from my sisters, how any child would say please

and hold out their hands. I was always listening because my body was
small and organic, not like glass at all – how my sisters said please

so I gave them the shards of glass I had been hoarding, green and brown
and sharper even than the way they said please, so wide, please.

Because we weren’t supposed to, we used the larger shards as shovels to dig
up dirt and the roots of our maple tree, which were difficult to cut, but the palms

of our hands were not. When the hole was dug, we poured the broken glass into
the ground. I was smaller than my sisters and smaller than the way they said please.

My hands still sting from the cuts and the dirt drying in them. How can I know
when to stop and when will I know the planting is fruitful, how can I understand

what it is that we planted and what survives? Because I am not supposed to,
I do, in a front yard on Salem, I continue to bury it, the small surviving please

of a memory, the braying, whimpering mass of it, too large to cover with dirt.

Reception Study
by Ainsley Drew

Honorable Mention, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

At times the only way to endure it
is to inhabit another body.

There’s an old legend that says
sex was developed as a way for us to find our souls,
located below a stranger’s sternum,
resting like a horseshoe atop the door frame
of their diaphragm.

I can’t stand to see my face,
throw dark-colored sheets over all of the mirrors
as though I am in perpetual mourning.

In bed I insist on leaving the lights on.
Dissection, vivisection,
spread like a frog and instruments inserted.

Remove what is in me that makes me feel
this way. Look down upon the cupola,
this is my body,
and recognize the symptoms.

The scars are white track marks where I’ve failed to go deep enough to remove it.
Bullet, canine, tooth, tumor, bone splinter, a coin from an amusement park
with an impression of your face upon it.

To cope, I corner the prettiest girl close to my size,
unzip her from cephalon to coccyx.
I put her on like a sweater and roam the streets,
targeting college-age men
who can’t decipher a homonym.
It is easy and less enjoyable than staying home alone and practicing with a scalpel.
It is easy but less enjoyable than dating doctors.

One day I will breathe in another person entirely.
I will feel them diffuse in my lungs like buckshot.
They will enter my bloodstream,
travel to the base of my brain,
and I will finally go blind.

Don’t Quote Me
by Melissa Baumgart

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

We get our yearbooks the Friday morning before the Jubilee weekend, the annual end-of-the-year carnival held in our high school’s parking lot. It’s kind of like the end of Grease! But with less hairspray and singing.

Ms. Benway hands the yearbooks out during homeroom, making sure we get the correct ones before anyone starts signing each other’s, because senior year, you get your own name engraved in the bottom right corner of the front cover.

I run my hand over the gold imprint, tracing my name. Jane Marie Smith, Class of 2018.

I open the yearbook. The binding is stiff, so I press the front cover back until the spine makes a cracking sound that cuts through the chatter in the room. It’s weirdly satisfying. I flip through the table of contents and the opening pages, looking for the senior class photos and quotes.

I can’t wait to see my portrait, between Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, the way I have been every year since middle school. I feel the tiniest bit bad splitting them up, because everywhere but in the yearbook, they’re joined at the hip.

What I’m really dying to see are the senior quotes: that one line each person chose way back in September, to sum up his or her entire life philosophy in 150 words or less. I spent forever picking out mine and finally settled on one from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

See, I’m more of a mirror kind of girl. I’m not the girl that boycotts the cafeteria menu for not providing enough vegan options, like my best friend Divya, or runs for student government, or is captain of a sports team, or even plays a team sport. But I am always there, supporting everyone else.

So I’m excited to see my quote right under my name and picture.

Except that when I find the page where I should fall, alphabetically speaking, I’m not there.

Alison and Cara are right next to each other, the way they are in real life. I keep checking the space in between them, as if my picture will sprout out of the sliver of white space, like a weed in the sidewalk. But of course, it doesn’t.

Alison’s quote: What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Alison Smalls would pick Emerson.

Cara’s is I woke up like this. – Beyoncé. That choice doesn’t surprise me, either.

I go through the entire senior section, scanning for my face and name. Maybe I’d been placed out of order by accident.

But when I get to the end of the alphabet, there is only this: Not Pictured: Jane Smith.

What the hell?

*

That’s what I say when I find Rudy Yee, the yearbook editor, in the hallway between classes.

“What the hell, Rudy?” I shove my open yearbook under his nose, so he can see where I’m pointing – at the space where my face is supposed to be.

“What’s your problem?”

I point harder. “You left me out of the yearbook. I was pictured. I had a quote and everything. I gave it to the office back in September, just like everyone else.”

Rudy looks at my yearbook, and then takes it from me. I glare at him as he flips through. He scrunches up his face as he sees what I already know: I’m not in there.

He looks back up at me. “You must have fallen through the cracks somewhere.”

“You had all year to ask me about it, to double-check. But now? Everyone in school has this yearbook, and I’m not in it.” My voice trembles a bit. I am not going to cry in front of Rudy.

I know it’s just a yearbook. But years from now, people will look through it and wonder why I hadn’t gotten my shit together to send in my portrait and quote when I did and Rudy Yee somehow overlooked me.

Rudy’s face is sympathetic, but he shrugs and says, “Nothing I can do about it now. Sorry, Jane.”

“That’s it? You’re sorry?”

Rudy opens his wallet and pulls out two twenty-dollar bills. “Here. I’m refunding the cost of your yearbook.” He holds them out to me.

I swat his hand away. “It’s not about what I paid. It’s that no one is going to remember I was part of this class.”

Now Rudy looks annoyed. “You have heard of the Internet, right? The yearbook is just something to collect signatures in and gather dust in your house until your kids take it out one rainy day and make fun of your hair. Get online and get over yourself.”

“My. Name. Is. Jane. Smith. I’m practically un-Googlable. Why were you yearbook editor if you don’t even care about it?”

Rudy makes a “duh” face. “For college apps? Obviously.”

Unless I end up doing something extraordinary with my life, it’ll be impossible to tell me apart from the hundreds of other Jane Smiths in the world. If my classmates lose track of me, I will not be easy to find.

I won’t be the candle or the mirror. I will be a ghost, with no reflection, no memories, not even a scorch mark left as a reminder of my presence.

*

Even Ms. Drabek can’t pretend to care when it’s the last day of school. She scrolls through her phone while everyone signs yearbooks and talks about the Jubilee and graduation this weekend.

“Hey, Jane, sign my yearbook,” Iris Chang says, passing it to me. It’s heavy in my hands.

“Sure.” I write, Good luck at college! Stay sweet – Jane Smith. Even my penmanship looks boring. This is who I am. Forgettable.

I hand it back to her.

“Where’s yours? Can I sign?”

I look to my backpack at my feet, where my own yearbook is hiding. “I forgot it in my locker. Maybe you can sign it later.”

“Okay,” she says, and moves on to Max Niederman.

Next to me, Divya shoots me a look of disapproval. She’s the only one I’ve told besides Rudy, in a string of incredulous texts.

“You’re making too big a deal out of it. At least let people sign your yearbook,” Divya whispers.

I snatch her yearbook off her desk and let it swing open, the pages flapping in the air. “I showed up to every football game in the fall. I went to every dance. But somehow, I’ve managed not to make it into any of the pictures, not even in the background. It’s like I wasn’t here at all.”

Divya grabs it back, like she’s worried my omission is contagious. “At least come to the Jubilee tonight with me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You’re going to blow your entire grad weekend because Rudy messed up your yearbook portrait?”

I’m about to tell her to stop judging me when her picture is right where it’s supposed to be, with her quote (We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? – 11th Doctor (Matt Smith)) below her name.

But that’s when Teddy Morganstern pulls up a chair next to me, yearbook tucked under one arm. One strong-looking, smooth arm. The kind of arm that could pull you by the waist and hold you against him as he bent his head and –

“Hi, Jane,” he says. “Divya.” His smile is warm, and his eyes are bright behind long lashes.

I sit up straighter, shaking myself out of my daydream about Teddy’s arms. “Teddy, hi.” I touch my hair, then notice I’m touching my hair, and pull my hand away too fast, grabbing a pen off my desk to cover up my awkwardness.

“You guys get your yearbooks? Can I sign?”

“Of course,” Divya says, trading hers with his. She gives me one more look, eyes wide, and points her gaze at my backpack. If she could telekinetically rip my yearbook out of my bag, that look would do it. “Of course I want to sign the class president’s yearbook. Who wouldn’t?” Her voice has a slight edge to it that I know is for my benefit.

Teddy blushes a little. “I mean, I hope that’s not the only reason,” he says.

“Of course not,” Divya says. “You have many great qualities that endear you to your fellow students. Doesn’t he, Jane?”

“Oh, yes! I mean, you’re also valedictorian.” Ugh. What am I doing, writing his resume?

“Just like his brother Andrew,” Ms. Drabek says, without looking up from her phone. I didn’t realize she’d been eavesdropping.

Teddy winces, just barely, but I notice.

“I didn’t know that about your older brother,” I say, a bit more quietly.

Teddy signs Divya’s yearbook as he speaks, his eyes on the page. “Yeah.” It’s more of a sigh than a word.

“How’s he doing?” Ms. Drabek asks, a bit of eagerness creeping into her voice. “Visiting home anytime soon? I graduated with him, you know.”

Teddy looks up at her and smiles again, but it’s the kind of smile I make when I don’t want Divya to know I can’t handle the sriracha she puts on our fries. “He’s in law school and clerking for some federal judge in D.C. this summer. I don’t know if he’ll be home at all.”

Ms. Drabek frowns, her summer romance fantasy shattered. She goes back to her phone.

Divya’s eyes are even wider now. “She totally wants your brother!”

Teddy shrugs. “He has that effect on people. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. Or to be.”

It’s weird, because that’s exactly how I would describe Teddy, who is definitely a candle and not a mirror. He has a light in him that people are drawn to. And there’s also those arms.

But even he feels overshadowed sometimes.

Or he’s been a mirror all along, just like me, and I just didn’t know it.

I need to say something.

Maybe it’s because it’s the last day of school, and maybe it’s because I’m not in the yearbook, and maybe it’s because after wondering for so long what Teddy and I could ever possibly have in common, I’ve finally found it.

But it’s not as hard as I think it should be to find the words.

“Well, Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.”

Teddy looks up from the yearbook and a slow smile spreads across his face, his eyes locked on mine.

I would kill for the ability to read minds right now.

I’m so obvious. I can’t stop staring at him, and it’s like it doesn’t even matter, because school is over.

And Teddy just broke up with Emily, and we’re going to college in different cities in three months, so it really doesn’t matter.

Divya hands Teddy back his yearbook. He scrawls a quick note in hers, and looks at me. “Jane? How about you?”

And like that, I freeze up again. I don’t want Teddy to know that, unlike him, nobody will be talking about me after I’m gone.

After what I’m certain is an eon, I manage, “Um, it’s in my locker. I can sign yours now, though.”

Divya sighs.

Teddy hands his yearbook to me and I flip to the back inside cover.

Now what? Clearly not what I’m thinking, which is “I’ve had a crush on you since the fifth grade, and now that you and Emily broke up, maybe we could hang out some time?” with my phone number beneath it.

I glance at Divya. I need her to distract Teddy to buy me some time to think.

“So, Teddy, what are you doing this summer?” she asks.

They start talking about summer jobs, and I stare at the blank page. Divya and Teddy’s conversation fades away from my ears as I focus on his yearbook.

What would Edith Wharton say?

For one thing, she wouldn’t overdo it. I picked her for my quote because she knew how to say something true and meaningful without being too wordy.

Teddy, I write. I know you’ll go far, no matter what you decide to do with your life. The only person you need to live up to is you. And you’re already pretty great. I hesitate over the closing. I could write “Love, Jane,” but that would be a bit much. I could write, “Sincerely,” but that’s too formal. I bite my lip and draw a small heart, making two swooping strokes with my pen before I can think too hard about it, then write Jane after it. A heart is a heart, but a lot of girls sign their names like that. It doesn’t mean I’m saying I love him.

Even if I kind of do.

I snap the yearbook shut, and Divya and Teddy jump.

“Sorry.” I hand it back to him.

“Should I read it now?”

“Maybe save it for later.” I wink at him.

I wink. At Teddy Morganstern.

And he seems to be just fine with it. “Okay,” he says, standing up. His eyes are on me, the whole time.

“We’ll see you at the Jubilee, right?” Divya asks.

“Definitely,” Teddy says, and he winks back.

At me.

*

“You are going,” Divya says at lunch.

“I’m not.”

“You cannot still be upset after Teddy basically asked you out this morning.”

“He didn’t ask me out.” I get hot all over, thinking about it. But I squash the feeling. “A cute boy being nice to me doesn’t make up for the fact that I am a total nonentity in the yearbook. And frankly, I’m a little surprised you’d suggest that it did.”

Divya blows her straw wrapper at me. It hits my cheek and falls to the table.

“Of course it doesn’t. You’re not in the yearbook, fine, but you’re still a part of this class. So show Rudy! Show everyone. You belong at the Jubilee.”

“How?” I crumple the wrapper in my hand.

“What was your senior quote again? Be the candle, duh. Quit being the reflection for once. Force everyone to pay attention to you.”

“You’re not suggesting that I, like, set a fire or something?”

“What? No. Don’t be so literal.” Divya leans in closer. “Do something so big no one will forget you. Flash everyone on the Ferris wheel.”

“You know I don’t like heights. And I would never flash anyone.”

“Okay, but if you could do something big, what would you do?”

And just like that, I know what that big something should be.

*

I’m impressed with how easily Divya takes to scheming.

We go to Walmart after school. I get the spray paint. Neon pink.

Diyva picks up matching black hoodies for subterfuge.

“I’m worried you’re a little too excited about this.” I can’t be responsible for starting Divya on a life of crime right before she heads off to the University of Michigan.

“What? Gotta dress for the job you want,” she says as we pay. “It’s cosplay, Jane.”

Then I understand.

Divya goes to cons on the weekends and dresses up as her favorite sci-fi and fantasy characters, with these amazing costumes she’s sewn herself. I’ve never been into it. I have never been able to be anyone but plain old Jane Smith. “You’re already halfway there.”

“What do you mean?” I follow her out to the parking lot.

Divya bats her eyes and speaks in a falsetto. “Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.

“I was just trying to be reassuring!”

“Jane, I have been waiting years for this side of you to come out. Honestly, I think this yearbook snafu is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s like senioritis on steroids.”

I stop in my tracks. “What do you mean? This has been one of the worst days of my life. I’ve never felt like a bigger nobody.”

“Don’t you see? You have been living in this defined little box, and now it’s gone. You stood up for yourself to Rudy. The old Jane would have never done that.”

Divya unlocks the car and we get in.

“You think it makes you nobody, but what it actually means is that you can be anybody. Including the kind of girl that flirts with Teddy Morganstern.”

*

On the football field, they’re putting out all the chairs and the podium where we’ll cross the stage tomorrow morning.

There are food stands, games, and rides, like the Tilt-A-Whirl, and a Ferris wheel that towers over everything else, where the parking lot usually is, so we have to park at the middle school and walk over.

My last Jubilee. I breathe in the scent of baking flour from the fried elephant ears and the spun sugar of cotton candy.

Having the spray paint in my backpack puts me a little on edge. The cans clink together when I walk. Every time a teacher walks by, my heartbeat pounds a little faster in my chest. But I remember what Divya said.

It’s cosplay. It’s not me, just a character I’m playing. Someone who isn’t afraid of getting in trouble, or of being seen.

The football team has a pie-eating contest booth, which I usually find disgusting, but when they ask for volunteers, I raise my hand. The quarterback, Brandon Rodriguez, hands me a paper bib, and I tie my hair back. Divya gives me a thumbs up. When Brandon yells “Start!”, I thrust my face into a chocolate cream pie and don’t look up again until I’m licking aluminum. Divya snaps pictures of my sticky face and I grin and wipe the whipped cream and pudding out of my hair. I don’t win, but I also don’t care, especially after Brandon fist-bumps me and says, “Nice job, Jane.” I didn’t think he knew my name.

Next, Divya and I ride in bumper cars with Iris Chang, shrieking and laughing as our rubber bumpers collide and send us spinning across the floor.

At the dunk tank, I somehow manage to dunk Mr. Murphy, my calc teacher. When the bell rings and Mr. Murphy drops from his seat into the clear tank below, everyone gathers around, clapping and cheering and giving me high-fives. With every slap of someone’s palm to mine, I think, I am here. I am seen. I am one of you.

Soon the Jubilee will close for the night and everyone will go home. Then Divya and I can get to work. But in the meantime, I want to enjoy every last minute of my final Jubilee.

Divya and I have just finished a round of Skee-Ball when I hear my name.

“Hey, Jane, want to ride the Ferris wheel with me?” Even before I see him, I know it’s Teddy.

I turn, and even though I want to say yes, I panic at the prospect of me and Teddy, alone up in the air, and Old Jane takes over. “I don’t really trust any moving contraption that can be set up and dismantled in a few hours.”

Even New Jane should probably stick to the games and the food, safe on the ground.

“Oh. Okay.” Teddy frowns.

Jane.” Divya gives me a little nudge from behind, pushing me towards Teddy. “You’ll be fine.” To Teddy, she adds, “She’s cracked out on cotton candy. What she meant to say was that she’d love to.”

“You sure?”

“Uh huh,” I say, but I can’t feel my feet as Teddy and I walk to the Ferris wheel line.

“Crazy that we’re graduating, right?” he asks.

“Yeah, crazy.” I’m trying to calculate how high the Ferris wheel is and if I’d die on impact if it collapsed or if I’d just be paralyzed.

The attendant lets us on. I tug at the safety bar to make sure it’s secure.

Teddy snaps his fingers. “Hey, just realized I never caught you with your yearbook after English class. I’ll have to sign it tomorrow at graduation.”

The Ferris wheel starts to move with a groan and a squeak, and I swallow. It’s fine. It’s not going to fall apart. Definitely not when we’re up at the top. We totally won’t go crashing down to the ground and die with our whole lives ahead of us. My classmates will never forget me then.

“Or do you have yours in there?” He points at my backpack. “I’ll sign it now.”

“No! I mean, no. I don’t have it.” I kick it over to the side, where he can’t reach it.

Teddy looks like he’s sorry he just locked himself in a flying car with an unstable girl.

We fall into silence. I look up at the night sky, finally dark and full of stars.

It’s a good thing we’re both going off to different colleges so I can forget this ever happened. Old Jane and New Jane are battling it out, and Old Jane is winning.

We get higher and higher, stopping each time they add new people and let more off. While we’re moving, I’m okay, but each time it stops, our little cab jerks and sways. I grab the edge of the seat with one hand, and Teddy’s wrist with the other. It’s not like this morning, when that senioritis on steroids, as Divya called it, took over.

No, this is mortifying.

“Are you . . . okay?” he asks.

I shut my eyes for a moment. “I don’t like heights.” I open my eyes and lock into Teddy’s. “I don’t believe that something temporary like this can be safe or a good idea.”

“So . . . why did you agree to come on it with me?”

“Because you asked?” Because Divya made me. Because I’m trying to be someone else for a night.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was going to freak you out. I could have just challenged you to one of those water gun races instead.” Teddy pulls his wrist out from under my hand.

I want to leap from the car and let the Earth take me.

Until he takes my hand instead, intertwining his fingers with mine and letting them rest in between us.

I look at our hands, then up at him.

“Does this help?” he asks.

“Yeah.” It’s all I trust myself to say.

I look out across the Jubilee, which is now lit up for night and filled with our classmates’ voices laughing and talking, and music pumping from speakers. I can see Divya, who appears to be playing corn hole with Lizzie McCoy, tossing sandbagged sacks through holes in a wooden target. I can see Jenny Kim and Matt Bradshaw, and Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, and all of the kids I grew up with and will be leaving behind soon.

“Are you going to be someone new next year?” I ask.

“What?”

“Like, are you going to reinvent yourself at college? Take up hockey or guitar or calligraphy?”

“Calligraphy,” Teddy repeats.

“Or whatever. Calligraphy is just one of the many options.”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Well, you could always just do whatever your brother did.” It comes out harsher than it sounded in my mind, and I hear Teddy’s sharp intake of breath.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s okay if you want to be like your brother. It sounds like you could do worse, as far as role models go.” I babble to fill the dead air around us.

After a long moment, Teddy exhales. “You know, I read your yearbook message.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. It was . . . exactly what I needed to hear.” He squeezes my hand in his, just the tiniest bit.

“I meant it.”

“What about you? Are you going to be someone new at college?”

“I want to be myself first. Whoever that is.” If I’d been more of a joiner, maybe I’d have a better idea of who I am, by virtue of having tried more things. Maybe one picture in the yearbook wouldn’t have the power to make or break me, because I could be many Janes, not just Old Jane or New Jane.

“They, um, forgot to put my picture and senior quote in the yearbook,” I add. The confession is a relief somehow.

“What? How?”

“Doesn’t matter now. It happened.”

Up here, I can see the football field, where graduation is set up for tomorrow.

But I can also see all of the seats, where we’ll sit in our itchy, hot robes and hats while we listen to Principal Brady blather on about our potential, and we’ll all act kind of bored but also excited, and Teddy will give his valedictorian speech, and our parents will watch us get our diplomas under the hot June sun, and the marching band will play, and then we’ll all go our separate ways and do the best we can with what we have.

I continue, “So, after I realized I wasn’t in the yearbook, I had this idea. Divya and I were planning to do it after everyone leaves tonight. I wanted to spray-paint my name on the football field. So tomorrow, when we have graduation, nobody would forget me.”

“I wouldn’t forget you. Even if you’re not in the yearbook and your name’s not on the football field.”

“Why not?”

“Let’s see. You always have the best comments during English class, like when you totally eviscerated Dimmesdale for being a tool in The Scarlet Letter.”

“That’s what you remember? My English class arguments?”

“You hit the desk at one point because you got so mad that Mr. Randolph didn’t agree with you. And your hair fell in your face, and you didn’t even notice. You just kept at him.”

“Well, Dimmesdale was a tool. I can’t believe you remember something I said in English a year ago.” Or how I looked when I said it.

Teddy bows his head, like he’s a little shy. “And once in third grade you wouldn’t let Grant Wilson torture the class hamster and you shielded it from him with your body until someone got the teacher.”

“I forgot all about that.”

“And you always write in purple or green or turquoise.”

“I hate black pens.” I didn’t know he noticed that. Any of it.

“I’m just saying, people notice more than you realize.” He nudges my knee with his own.

I could float away right now, like a balloon, if Teddy weren’t holding my hand.

“What was your senior quote supposed to be?”

“It was Edith Wharton. ‘There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.’” Saying it out loud to Teddy, it sounds sad to me. Like I have no self-esteem. How had I not realized sooner that I picked the senior quote of wallflowers everywhere? “What was yours?” I hadn’t even checked.

“‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.’ Teddy Roosevelt.”

“Had to go for the namesake, huh? I like it.” The message fits this Teddy. It’s optimistic and pragmatic at the same time.

“I can’t help it that T.R. is highly quotable. Plus, it’ll make for a good speech tomorrow.”

“You nervous?”

“Nah, it’s fine.” Teddy gives speeches all the time as class president, but I couldn’t do that in front of the whole school. At least, Old Jane couldn’t.

“I’d be nervous. But I think that Teddy’s got the right idea,” I say. “I am trying. From now on.”

Teddy clears his throat. “So, is there anything you want to try to do?”

“I can think of a few things,” I say. My eyes drop to Teddy’s mouth. “Why’d you ask me to come on the Ferris wheel with you?”

“A guy can’t go on a Ferris wheel alone,” Teddy says. “That’s weird. You’ve got to go with someone.”

I pause. “Why me, though?”

“I didn’t want to fail by never trying.”

That’s when I lean in and kiss Teddy Morganstern right on the mouth.

*

Divya’s grin when she sees Teddy and me get off the Ferris wheel holding hands would be insufferable if I weren’t so distracted.

“I can’t believe you kissed him,” she says after he leaves, promising to text me later. She chants it over and over again, dancing and jumping around me. “Who knew you had it in you? This was a big win for New Jane tonight. And on her first outing.”

“It’s not that big a deal.” But I can’t stop grinning now, either.

“Maybe we should spray JANE + TEDDY on the football field instead!”

“About the football field,” I say. “I don’t think we should do it.”

Divya stops jumping around. “What? Why not? Don’t tell me that it’s because Teddy made you realize you’re still special even if you’re not in the yearbook, or some shit like that.”

“It’s really not just him. It’s just that I was up there, and I could see the whole school, and graduation’s a big deal, for everyone. I’m not in the yearbook, but I’m still in the class.”

I was part of everything tonight. I was in a pie-eating contest and Brandon Rodriguez fist-bumped me. I dunked Mr. Murphy.

It wasn’t just Teddy.

“I was prepared to risk losing my diploma for you,” Divya says. “All in pursuit of one great moment of badassery and you’re going to back down.”

I throw an arm around her and pull her close. “I know. And I appreciate it. Which is why I have a different idea.”

*

Maybe we all have moments where we’re the candle and moments where we’re the mirror, and just because I wasn’t the candle in high school doesn’t mean I won’t find something exciting and new in college. Something that might light a spark, making me burn so brightly that everyone will have to notice. I can be anyone. By September I may be a whole new Jane. And by December, another one.

You can do something big so no one will forget you. Or you can do a million little things, so that the people who matter never do.

And failing that, you can spray paint JANE AND DIVYA WERE HERE ’18 in a little corner of the parking lot, where the grass has almost grown over and no one ever parks, and take a selfie, one you can frame and put in your dorm room in the fall.

Because even if they paint it over, nobody can take the memory away from you, of a perfect summer night with your best friend.

Where’s Z?
by Brooke Herter James

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

They were halfway to school before Y noticed the empty place behind him on the sidewalk.

“Yo! Where’s Z?”

The other 24 letters stopped and turned to look.

“Asleep again, I bet,” groaned A. “I’ll go back and check. You go on ahead.”

“Come on, Z!  Wake up! It’s the first day of school and you’re going to make us late!”

“I can’t go. Look at me. I bought this new hat, but I need straps to keep it from sliding off. I really wanted to get back-to-school shoes like yours, but I have no feet OR legs, for that matter.  Plus, I looked myself up in the dictionary. Zany! Zip, zilch and zero. As in Loser. As in Has To Tie His Hat On.”

“Oh, Z. That’s ridiculous.” A looked at his watch and hopped from one leg to the other. “X has it way worse. No one can tell his head from his feet!”

“Maybe. But he can do handsprings. He stars in all the tic-tac-toe games. He can wear jeans and cowboy boots. Look at the postcards he sent me this summer. He rode a horse!”

“Fair enough, but how about O?” said A. “She worries about rolling over. Q can’t quit sticking her tongue out. F is afraid of falling on his face and T is toast in strong winds. I think you are just feeling sorry for yourself! We all have a job to do! Get UP!”

But Z would not budge.

*

A hurried to catch B through Y. They shuffled on to school, just in time to hop up over the board before the bell rang.

“Good morning, children!” said Mrs. Kramer. “Welcome back to school! Let’s start by reviewing our alphabet names and shapes.“

“Uh-oh,” said X to Y.

“Psst,” whispered A to B. “Pass it down. Tell N to slide to the end and lie on his side. Maybe Mrs. Kramer won’t notice.”

But sure enough, Nancy Noonan did.

“Hey, where’s the N?”

“Hmmm,” said Mrs. Kramer. “That’s odd.”

Then Lizzy Zanzer cried out. “Look at the Z! It’s kind of squished!”

Mrs. Kramer turned and addressed the alphabet. “We seem to have a problem this morning. Why is N lying down where Z should be? And where, for that matter, is Z?”

A cleared his throat. “Z would not get up this morning. He is feeling…well, unneeded.”

“I get that!” said B. “A gets all the attention! Why not let Z go first for a change?”

“I don’t care if A or Z goes first,” said W. “I just don’t get my name, that’s all. I mean no offense to U, but shouldn’t I be called Double-V?.”

“Why would I be called Double-V?” said I.

“Now that you mention it,” said N, “I’m sick of being an M with only two feet! Like, who needs three feet?!”

“I never asked for that third foot,” shouted M. “Have you ever tried buying three shoes?”

“Now, now!” Mrs. Kramer clapped her hands. “Enough! We have a problem! Z belongs here with us and we must figure out how to get him back to school!”

“I have an idea,” said E, hopping down in front of Mrs. Kramer’s computer. “I will send him an E-mail.”

“Good idea!” said I. “What should I write?”

“I said I would write the note, not you!” said E.

“What’s wrong with me writing it?” shouted U.

Mrs. Kramer clapped her hands again. “Quiet!! Settle down, letters!”

Little Lizzy Zanzer raised her hand.

“May I please send the message to Z?” She walked to the front of the room and whispered into Mrs. Kramer’s ear.

Mrs. Kramer typed a brief note onto the computer and pressed SEND.

“Now back to work!”

*

Way across town Z awoke, startled by the ding of incoming mail. He slid out of bed and across to his desk. He stared into the computer screen.

 

Dear Z,

Today we thought about lots of things we need you for. Like pizza and zippers and zebras at the zoo. But most of all, I kept thinking about how I really can’t be me without you.

Love, Lizzy

 

“Wow,” Z whispered as he read the note over again. “Wow, wow, wow.” His cheeks felt warm. He closed his computer, tied on his new hat, and glided outside.

*

The classroom door opened and Z slipped in. He hopped up over the board, sliding past all 25 letters before coming to a stop in his usual spot.

“Hey, cool hat,” whispered Y.

Mrs. Kramer looked up at Z and smiled. “It’s nice to have you back!”

“I think I belong right here,” said Z to Y.

“That makes sense,“ said Y. “I mean you got that email, right? Just think, at any moment, Lizzy Zanzer might be looking up at you.”

“At U?” said Z. “Why would she look up at U?”

“Not U, man!” said Y. “Y-O-U! Or me! She needs us both after all!”

Noble Nuptials: An Elizabethan Wedding Alphabet
by Helen Kemp Zax

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

A

Archbishop awaits at the altar.
Aristocrats and attendants alike:
All are agog!

B

Behold!

Bustling along the byway—
bridesmaids bearing bouquets of blossoms,
Barons and their Baronesses,
bitty babes and boisterous boys.

Bells of brass beckon—
Bong! Bong!
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

Bearded bridegroom in bright breeches,
betrothed bride in blush, with bit of blue—
both bewildered.
Both are breathless.

Behold!

C

Courtiers chatter in the churchyard
as crickets chirp chirp chirp.

Crowds of clergy, countesses, children
crush into the close chapel
for the couple’s ceremony:

Chalice
Contract
Circles-of-gold
and
Courteous-kiss.

Then the couple cries,

“Come cheer us!
To our country-house! Come, courtiers!
For champagne, cloves, and cinnamon.
Come celebrate. Carouse!”

D

With the dowry delivered,
the delighted Duke
(in dark-red doublet)
declares:

“Those diamonds, those drawings, those dwellings!
And my Duchess is darling. She dazzles!
She’s delightsome! How delicious!
Do let’s dance and drink till dusk.”

E

England’s Queen Elizabeth enters—

in eye-catching emeralds,
in elegant ear-pickles.

Everyone (even the Earl’s English bulldog) exults!

F

After much fanfare,
the Duke
(in fine form)
and the Duchess
(in farthingale, fresh flowers, and frills)

flatter and flaunt:

“Faerie Queene! Fortunate Familiars!
In fellowship, feed upon these fashionable foods:

Fancy Fowl & Freshwater Fish
Flame-roasted Filets & Flanks (from Formerly Four-footed Fauna)
Farm-fresh Foodstuffs & Flakey Flour-filled Fare
Flavorsome Figs & Fabulous Fruits
Fanciful Frostings & Fluffiest Fluffs

Finally,

Fine French Fermentations in Flutes.

Fantastic Friends—now feast!

G

Genteel grownups, gowned and girdled,
gather near the Great-house Gallery
to dance Gavottes, Gaillards.
Queen Elizabeth gets going—
gilded garments all a-glow—
Queen glides between her guards.

H

In the high-ceilinged Hall,
horns harken
the handsome, hand-stitched-wall-hanging
that heralds
the Host and Hostess’s hospitality:

HONORABLE HOUSEGUESTS:

When Helios again horsebacks across the Heavens,
ALL HAIL
For—

Hunting with Hounds for Hart and Hare – Half-past 7
Hawking with Hunting Hawks – Hand on 8
Horsemanship with Her Majesty – Half-past 12
Honeyed Hikes beyond the Hedgerows – On the hour
Haunting the Hummingbird-Hawkmoths that Hover by the Honeysuckle – Hand on 2
Hurling and Hammer-throwing – Hourly
Horseshoes and Hopscotch – Hour upon hour

I

Invitee (William Shakespeare!)
–idling in an inner-chamber—
inks an inspired idyll
for
the ivory-faced Duchess
and
her infatuated Duke.

J

Jesters, jugglers, jousters,
jingling jewels of jet,
jiggling jellies, juicy jams—

Oh, joy! Oh, joy! Oh, joy!

K

Knights kneel to the kingless Queen

whilst

the keeper of the kennel kicks back with a kidney-pie

whilst

the kitchen-maid kneads with her knuckles

whilst

the Duke and Duchess—
keen to kiss in the knot-garden—
keep company with kinsmen.

L

To the lilting lines of lutes—

Lords and Ladies lift long limbs and laud
the lucky Duke and his long-locked Duchess:

“Long life! Long life! Long life!”

M

Whilst madrigal music melts on a musk-rose mist,
a mischievous, miniature master
meanders the maddening maze.

He moves

a
n
d

moves

a
n
d

moves
and

m
o
v
e
s

until . . .

Mama! MAMA!

. . . he is mislaid.

N

The nineteen-year-old newlywed
nudges her niece and nods at her Duke—
“Now ’tis Nell nevermore,” the noble-lady natters.
“My newfound name (since my noonday nuptials):

The Duchess of Nonesuch.

O

One and all ooh and ah
over the opal-encrusted ornament—
an oval oil-painting of the overstuffed Duke—
his opulent offering to his Duchess.

P

Picked-over peacock parts
perch on plumed platters

whilst

prospering peacocks
parade palace promenades.

Q

The queenly Queen

quaffs
&
quaffs
&
quaffs

in questionable quantities.

R

In rubies, ruff, and ribbons,
the red-lipped, red-cheeked, red-haired,
reigning Royal—

rollicks!

S

Squires sing and somersault!

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

sample sweetest spun-sugar
’neath the shadow-draped, setting sun.

T

Tudors trill and tumble!

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

tiptoe off together . . .

with twenty Tudors trailing.

U

Unmerry urchin
underfoot.

“Upsa-daisy!” urges
an understanding underservant.

Unsoothed urchin
underfoot.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

unbutton and unlace—

then upstairs under . . .

V

Varicolored velvets,
vivid velveteens, velours—

the Duke and Duchess vow
in velvety, veiled voices:

“You’re my virtuous Valentine.”

Whilst

viol’s vibrato,
vanilla, and venison

verily vanish—

along with the Viscountess
who vaults the verdigris Venus
after dancing the Volta,
vexing the Viscount.

W

Women in worrisome whalebone,
well-played wordsmith William,
and wildly weary well-wishers
wash down wedding-cake
with warm wine.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

whisper…

X

x x x
x x x

x x x x x x

x x x

Y

Yonder—
yard-dogs yap
and yeomen yarn
of yesteryear.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

y    a     w     n

Z

Zephyrs

zig

and

zag.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

ZZZZZZZZZZZ

ZZZZZ
Z
Z
Z
ZZZZZZ

 

*

 

GLOSSARY

Agog: Extremely interested and excited.

Altar: A table in a church that is the center of a religious ceremony.

Archbishops: The most powerful leaders of the Church of England. An archbishop would perform the wedding ceremonies of royalty and nobility.

Aristocrats: Members of the upper class of Elizabethan society seen as superior to common people in rank and wealth.

Attendants: People who perform tasks for others like a bridesmaid at a wedding, or people who are present at ceremonies or events.

Baron/Baroness: The lowest rank of nobility in Elizabethan England.

Betroth: A promise to marry. Aristocratic parents arranged marriages to increase the wealth and status of couples, who often did not meet until their wedding day. The Crying of the Banns publicized marriages to allow people to object to the union.

Bit of blue: Brides often wore a garter of blue, the color of purity and eternal love.

Breeches: Short pants worn by Elizabethan men that ended just above or below the knee.

Bride: A noble bride wore a dress covered in ribbons, flowers, and lace. She carried a bouquet filled with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers to scent the air around her.

Bridegroom: A noble bridegroom, usually bearded, wore a fancy doublet, breeches, hose, a codpiece, and a neck ruff made from expensive fabrics like velvet, satin, or corduroy and dyed in vibrant colors that were costly to make.

Bridesmaids: Women who helped the bride prepare on her wedding day, made the bride’s garland, and led the noisy wedding procession to the church.

Carouse: To take part in a wild celebration or party.

Chalice: A drinking cup that was used as part of the marriage ceremony.

Circles-of-gold: Rings that might be exchanged during the wedding ceremony. Often rings had poesy—phrases like “With Everlasting Love”—written on the band.

Clergy: Men ordained to perform the religious functions of the church.

Cloves and cinnamon: Some of the costly imported spices used by the rich to flavor food.

Contract: Marriage was a religious sacrament as well as a contract under the law.

Courtier: A person who was a member of the royal court.

Doublet: A close-fitting jacket buttoned at the front, worn for formal occasions. The color, style, and choice of materials for Elizabethan clothing were set by law.

Dowry: The money, land, and goods a woman brought to a marriage.

Duchess/Duke: Nobleman and woman who ranked directly beneath the king and queen.

Earl/Countess: Nobleman and woman who ranked beneath a marquis and marchioness.

Ear-pickles: A name for earrings, often made of gold and gems, that were worn by both sexes.

Elizabeth I: Queen of England from 1558 until 1603 and the last Tudor monarch. Queen Elizabeth never married; therefore, there was no king during her reign.

Faerie Queene: A name for Queen Elizabeth, who appeared fairy-like because of the thick, white makeup made of lead that she wore to cover smallpox scars and wrinkles. Aristocratic women copied her style and wore ivory-colored makeup as well.

Familiars: Close friends and associates.

Fanfare: The lively sounding of trumpets.

Fare: Food.

Farthingale: Large hoops worn beneath skirts of aristocratic women, made of whalebone or wire in the shape of a wheel. Farthingales made moving quite difficult.

Fauna: Animals common to a region.

Fellowship: Friendship.

Fermentations: Wines made from juice after yeast is added.

Filet: A piece of meat without a bone.

Flank: A cut of meat.

Flaunt: Show off.

Flute: A tall, thin, delicate wine glass.

Fowl: A bird of any kind.

Fresh flowers: The bride wore and carried blossoms, including a ring of flowers—often roses and rosemary—that she then wore like a crown after the wedding ceremony.

Gaillard: A lively dance that Queen Elizabeth, who loved to exercise, did each morning.

Gallery: A long hall on the upper floor in a manor often used for exercise or entertaining.

Gavotte: A popular dance that gave partners the chance to steal a kiss.

Genteel: Anything having to do with the aristocracy or upper class.

Girdle: A piece of clothing that circles the waist, worn by both men and women.

Great-house: A large home or mansion.

Hall: A room off the large inner court on the ground floor of an Elizabethan manor.

Hammer-throwing: An outdoor game in which a large sphere attached to a pole is thrown.

Harken: Listen or pay attention.

Hart: England’s largest deer, often hunted on horseback with dogs used for tracking.

Hawking: The hunting of game birds, like pheasants, with falcons.

Hedgerow: A row of trees or shrubs.

Helios: In Greek mythology, the god of the sun.

Herald: To announce.

Her Majesty: The title by which subjects call their queen.

Hummingbird-hawkmoth: An insect often mistaken for a hummingbird.

Hurling: A fast field game in which teams move a ball down the field with a bat to score.

Idyll: A piece of poetry or prose that may have a romantic theme.

Infatuated: In love. In arranged marriages, it would be improbably lucky for a bride and bridegroom, like the Duke and Duchess, to fall in love on their wedding day.

Jester: Fool or clown who entertained members of the court.

Jet: A black, precious stone.

Jouster: Men—often knights—who fight or compete in tournaments on horseback.

Kinsman: A male relative.

Knead: To work something into a ball—often dough—with hands.

Knight: Rank beneath a baron and baroness. The title of knight was given to a man who distinguished himself in battle in front of his king or queen.

Knot-garden: Garden beds made into rectangular designs using intertwined hedges that were planted so their patterns could be seen from above through windows.

Lady: A woman of a high social position.

Long life: The tradition of toasting newlyweds by wishing that they live a long time.

Long-locked: Having long, flowing hair, often adorned with flowers for a wedding.

Lord: A man of high social position.

Lute: A popular stringed instrument with a large body in the shape of a pear.

Madrigal: A short poem about love that was set to music.

Meander: Wander along a winding path.

Musk-rose: A type of rose that blooms in summer in England.

Natter: To chatter.

Noble: A high-ranking person or a person born into privilege.

Nonesuch: A person without equal.

Noonday: Midday. In Elizabethan times, it was considered lucky to marry before noon.

Nuptials: Concerning marriage or the wedding ceremony.

Oil-painting: Miniatures of the bride and groom exchanged before or after the wedding.

Opal: A precious gem that sparkles with iridescent colors.

Opulent: Luxurious sign of great wealth.

Peacocks: Showy birds with fanlike, shimmering tails. These birds often wandered the grounds of the upper class and were also eaten as delicacies.

Plumes: The feathers of a bird.

Promenade: A place for walking leisurely.

Quaff: To drink. Because water was often unsafe to drink, Elizabethans—including Queen Elizabeth I—drank large amounts of ale and wine.

Reign: The period during which a king or queen rules a country.

Royalty: People descended from kings.

Ruff: An elaborate, circular, standing collar with starched, pleated frills. By the time of Queen Elizabeth I, ruffs were so large they were often held up with gauze wings.

Shakespeare, William: The most famous playwright of the era, widely believed to be the greatest writer in the English language.

Squire: A member of the English gentry who ranks below a knight and above a gentleman.

Trill: A sound made by vibrating the tip of the tongue against the teeth.

Tudor: The royal dynasty from 1485 to 1603, when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ended. When she died childless, the monarchy passed to the Stuarts. The Tudor reign coincided with the Renaissance, a period when the arts, science, and exploration flourished.

Urchin: A mischievous, often annoying, youngster.

Velour/velveteen: Soft fabrics that resemble velvet.

Venison: Deer meat.

Venus: In Roman mythology, the goddess of love and beauty.

Verdigris: A greenish-blue coating found on some metals left out in the air over time.

Verily: Truly.

Viol: A stringed instrument during the 1500 and 1600s played with a bow. A viol, an instrument like a violin, usually had six strings instead of four.

Virtuous: Filled with good qualities.

Viscount/Viscountess: Nobleman and woman ranking below an earl and countess.

Volta: A dance in which couples embraced closely and men lifted their partners in the air.

Vow: A promise made with great seriousness.

Whalebone: The bone from a whale used in undergarments worn by women.

Whilst: A form of the word “while,” used most often in England.

Wordsmith: A talented writer.

Yeoman: A lord’s servant who ranked between a squire and a boy page.

Yesteryear: Time that has passed.

Zephyr: A soft breeze.

 

Cover Image: Artist unknown. “Portrait of a Woman.” Oil on wood. England, ca. 1600. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bird Girl: A Reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
by Christy Lenzi

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

(a novel excerpt) 

 

1.

My fingers freeze, hovering over the threads of my loom. Everything turns quiet again, but the scream hangs in the midnight air like an icy breath. My mistress rises up in bed with another cry. And sweet, holy Mary, don’t it turn my blood to cold, rushing rivers!

When she lifts her hands toward the firelight, they’re stained dark red. Dotta runs to her, throwing off her mother’s blankets. Mistress Sigrid’s legs are red. The linens are red. It reminds me of my first cycle, five summers ago. I was young and afraid, but Sister Fiona and the other nuns were by my side to calm me. This is different— Mistress is with child. She has the wild eyes of a demon-possessed creature. I have no love for the pagan woman, but I hope the poor baby inside her lives.

“Alf,” Dotta cries to her brother, “go fetch the seeress.”

He curses as he stumbles from his bed to the door, still half-fluthered from last night’s ale.

I know neither face nor place of this seeress woman, but ‘tis too late for her to be catching the child, I’m thinking. Mistress Sigrid turns to me, the whites of her eyes shining like moons in the dark.

“Dotta,” I say. “Your ma needs soothing herbs in a horn of beer.”

She glares at me. “Don’t tell me what to do, you Irish bitch. You’re our slave, not the other way around.”

“Am I, then.” My chin lifts in defiance. “But can’t you see the baby’s a-coming?”

Dotta slaps my cheek. “Then what are you waiting for?”

With my face burning but my chin still set, I scurry to the pantry to mix the herbs into the drink. My fingers shake, sloshing some of the potion on the floor.

“Hurry!”

I carry the drinking horn to Mistress’s bed and rest my hand on hers to calm her, but she pulls her hand away as if my body’s made of flames.

“Don’t touch me! I won’t have your filthy Christian paws all over me. Dotta, make Étaín go away. The pain worsens when I have to look at her ugly face.”

Dotta takes the horn from me and pushes me out of the hall like a dog, slamming the door behind me. I’ve managed to grab my feather cloak, but only one boot. I slide it on my foot and huddle against the side of the hall, shivering in the winter night.

Mistress’s moans issue from inside, sounding more animal than human now. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm as I peer out into the darkness, lit by a half-moon. To the east I can make out the slope of the master’s ancestral burial mound. And don’t my skin be a-crawling at the thought of what’s inside! They opened it soon after I arrived, during the funeral for Master’s brother, so the dead warrior might join his family who had gone before him into the pagan afterlife. I try not to imagine his rotting body next to the bones of his kin and I turn away, to the west.

The hay yard in front of the hall stretches out cold and empty, blending into the night sky like one vast, lonesome sea surrounding me. Then ain’t I a wee boat, lost in it.

I gaze above me and am startled again at the green rippling ribbons of light in the sky. I’m still not used to seeing such a thing—like grand fairy lights in the heavens. They do be looking like the swirling skirts of dancing angels. I never saw such strange skies from the convent in my Éire land. Even though I have no family and the nuns didn’t love me, when I think of my homeplace, my eyes turn wet—but a home ain’t a home anymore once the people there have left it for eternity. I don’t have a home in the world then, do I.

The moon is just bright enough to see the birch grove and the small tree that Mistress Sigrid’s husband dedicated to their pagan gods for the baby on its way. I walk to the little grove where he performed the ritual before he went a-Viking across the sea.

If he were here, he’d not let them treat me so hard, I’m thinking. That day when he picked me from the captured slaves on the boat almost a year ago, he spoke in my own tongue—no one else I’ve met on this murderous island knows a word of it, and I’ve had to learn theirs.  He said he wanted me to be a companion to his wife and daughter while he was away. He wanted a lass with “strong, quiet ways,” he said, who could help in times of trouble with little fuss. He said he chose me because I was the only lass whose eyes weren’t red and raw from crying. I remember being pulled from the belly of the boat and made to walk down the plank on wobbly sea legs to the cold, muddy beach of this dark Land of Ice. For sure ‘twas an ugly land, but I was ready enough to keep on living with my head up.

Mistress’s cry becomes one long howl, like the sound of Alf pretending to be a bear-man berserker when he tells old stories from Norway to scare me. The noise usually makes the hairs on my arm stand on end, but this time it takes my breath from me.

When Mistress’s voice breaks, the quiet that comes after ‘tis louder than anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Slumping to the ground against the baby’s tree, I pull my knees up to my chest and clap my hands over my ears to drown out the silence.

Everything in me do be hoping for that poor babe to live. Babies don’t give a care if a person’s pretty or ugly, pagan or Christian. They don’t know the difference between slave or free. I’m thinking I could let that baby love me if it had a mind to.

I reach for the wooden cross hanging from my neck and squeeze it between my fingers. Holy Father, save that innocent babe.

Make a noise, child.

Please cry—

A sound like the bleating of a goat tears through the stillness. I loosen my hands and listen. Is it one of Mistress’s goats they keep in the hall over the winter, or the baby?

I hear it again.

A newborn’s weak cry! Jumping to my feet, I leg it to the hall. Mistress Sigrid do be looking like a crumpled rag, her face ashen and slack. Her eyes flutter at me, but seeing the limp baby in Dotta’s arms, she clamps her eyes shut and turns her face away.

I take up the iron scissors. “We must cut it loose. First we should tie the belly cord.”

Dotta holds the child away from her like ‘tis some strange, unearthly thing, fallen from the sky. I rummage through my pocket, pull out a thread, and tie off the baby’s belly cord myself, then cut the child free. The baby’s blue skin is lightening to purple, but the infant’s not well. Too small—just a doonshie thing—and so still. Almost dead.

“Rub her,” I cry. “Wash her!”

Dotta won’t look at me and only says in a wobbly voice, “No. It’s too late. Fetch a basket.”

“Let me hold her!” I pull at Dotta’s arms, but she turns her shoulders away.

“Get away from me! It’s come too early like the other ones,” she says. “It’s too sickly—it doesn’t have the strength to live and must be removed. It’s just another girl, anyway. Nothing to be done about it, now.”

The other ones?

“Stop gaping and obey.” She waves her hand at me to hurry. “Fetch the covered basket. We must take it from the hall—that’s just the way it is. Our ways are no different than any other family’s in the land. Iceland women are strong and can do what needs to be done. We aren’t weaklings like you Christian women.” Dotta’s voice trembles, but her body’s rigid as stone. “Hurry, Étaín, you half-wit—do as I say!”

“But your ma needs tending, and the afterbirth hasn’t come out yet.” I don’t fetch the basket, because my body has stopped working.

A sob breaks from Mistress’s throat, and she turns her head away. “Do as Dotta says, Étaín. And curses on you if you disobey me in this. Go quickly.” The pain in her voice makes something in my heart crack clear open, and I want to do whatever she tells me, just to ease her burden.

“I will.” But I can’t move. I stare at Dotta, who’s found the lidded basket herself.

“Get your other boot and mittens on.” Dotta doesn’t even wrap the whimpering baby in a blanket before putting her in the basket, though it’s Goa-month; snow and ice covers everything.

I stare at her like a stone statue.

“Now, you fool!” Dotta’s voice sounds shrill and wild like a trapped animal, startling me into action.

I pull my boot on in a panic. Dotta, her jaw set and lips pursed, shuts the lid over the baby. How can she do such a thing without even flinching?

My duty presses down on me like the weight of an avalanche. But as I slip my mittens on, I’m thinking there’s still one thing I can do.

I finger the woven bracelets around my wrist. My ma made them for me when I was just a doonshie thing, before she died and the nuns took me. She called the design The Angel Sisters because it looked like powerful wings overlapping. She prayed a blessing for me over them, that as long as I wore them, the angels, they would protect me. To them who don’t know, they look to be two unrelated pieces, but if you match the bracelets up next to each other, their edges fit together just like a puzzle.

“Hurry, Étaín.” Dotta presses down on Mistress’s stomach, trying to release the afterbirth. Mistress still faces the earthen walls as she moans.

“It’s sickly and the same as dead. It hasn’t been given a name, so by the law of Iceland, no child has been born here tonight. It must be removed. You do it—I need to tend to Mother. Take the basket to the lava fields. Don’t stop. Leave it there and come straight back.” Dotta’s eyes are red. “If you disobey, I’ll have Alf whip you till you bleed.”

I nod, but my heart’s resisting like a mighty arm a-pulling at my chest. I lift the basket, no heavier than a bundle of linens, grab the blanket off my bed, and leave the hall. But I won’t go to the faraway wasteland of the lava field, will I. Nay, I won’t do it. I’ll fly, instead, to the sheltering rocks near Skógar River where the pagans say the guardian spirits dwell. ‘Tis a peaceful place with moss growing on the river rocks even in winter, and the comforting sound of the water rippling under the ice. If ever there be a place where the Christian God might deign to honor with His presence in this heathen Land of Ice, I’m thinking it might be there.

I fly like a night bird along the riverbank path, beside the frozen hayfield. The moon casts a shadow that follows me, creeping and a-lunging like a troll over the snowbanks after me as I run. I can’t stop shivering. My heart thumps a message like a voice in my ears, begging me to stop.

When I reach the rocks, the moon shines between the clouds and casts a faint, silver glow over the stones. Setting the basket down, I pull the baby to my chest. “You are Brigid.”

It means powerful. ‘Tis a name my people give to a girl child. I clutch her closer, rubbing her tiny back, her legs. “You do have a name. You have a tree. You have me—a sister.” Though not of my blood, she’s the closest thing I have to kin, because, like me, she has nothing and belongs nowhere. And hers is the only heart that hasn’t turned hard against me. I cry into Brigid’s soft neck. Her skin smells sweet and new.

Resting my sister’s belly on my lap, I pat her back until she gurgles and coughs and starts to breathe with more strength. Her skin’s no longer such a deep shade of purple. I cradle her in my arms and stroke her wee wrinkled face and limbs. I slide one of my ma’s Angel Sister bracelets off my arm and over Brigid’s for protection.

My voice cracks as I speak a prayer into the darkness. “Oh Holy Mother Mary, protect this lass, such a frail one, cast off in the great world and most alone. Remember her to your holy son, Jesus, and his heavenly Father. Do not forget her in this bleak land.”

But it don’t seem enough. Can the Holy Mother even hear me from this heathen place? I look around at the grand rocks, the pagans’ guardian spirits and, most suddenly, I feel I’m a trespasser on sacred ground. What if the pagan spirits direct their wrath on this child for my sacrilege? I swallow hard and whisper to them in the quiet. “Oh guardian nature spirits, I be but a stranger to you, but I ask you a humble favor. Please accept this gift of a precious bracelet and take care of my sister. She do be one of yourn, and her people know and love you. Oh spirits, please protect her.”

I think of the Norns, those pagan female beings who visit newborns and who spin and weave each child’s fate. Might their ears be turned to a beseeching Christian holding one of their own children on such a quiet, lonesome night? I almost imagine the Norns bent toward the infant, waiting to decide her future.

“Oh powerful maidens,” I plead. “Spin a garment of protection around my sister. Weave for her a kind fate, strong and good. Have mercy.”

I shudder to imagine what my own god might be thinking if He’s heard my plea to His enemies, but I don’t know what else to do. If neither gods nor spirits intervene somehow, then I’ll never be seeing my sister again.

I kiss the baby’s forehead and wrap her tightly in the blanket before laying her in the basket. Water burns my eyes as I leg it back to the hall.

By the time I return, Alf’s snoring in his bed once again, and I suppose the seeress has come and gone. Everyone’s sleeping. Dotta’s left the mess for me to tidy, of course. I take the afterbirth in the bowl beside Mistress Sigrid’s bed and bury it under Brigid’s tree, then I wash my hands and crawl into bed.

And don’t the dark thoughts plague me! Alf tells horrible stories of a troll who lives in a rock near Vík, a quarter of a day’s journey from our home. The troll longs for the flesh of young children. It only leaves its rock at night, but when it does, it can smell a lost child from twenty miles away.

The cover gets twisted around my legs as I toss in the bed. My ears strain for the sound of a baby’s cry, but the only noise is Mistress’s heavy breathing and Alf’s snores. May God or the spirits accept my prayers and care for Brigid before—? I try not to imagine a hungry beast lurking near the stones or that hunched-up old woman who was seen last month, a-wandering around the area, mumbling to herself. Alf called her a crazy hag. And the cold! How could I leave her out there in the freezing cold?

A sourness rises from my stomach to my throat, and don’t I want to heave my insides out. Brigid deserved more than my prayers and my bracelet. I just left her there. A babe. Alone! What have I done?

But ‘twas their doing, I’m thinking, not mine—I had no choice, did I. Ain’t I a slave, like Dotta said?

The night’s turned completely still.

Nay.

‘Tisn’t true.

The answer to my own question shakes me at the core.

My heart is no slave. ‘Tis free to do what it knows to be right. And that alone makes me equal or better than they.

I sit up in bed, a-shaking. Ain’t my heart beating like a battle drum. My breaths come so fast and hard, I feel dizzy. Everything inside me told me not to leave Brigid. I do have a choice.

I toss the covers aside.

Trembling at what I’m about to do, I rise from my bed and put on my things, creep to the door, and slip outside. The sharpness of the air raises the hairs on my arms as I run toward the stones.

I’ll hold the baby in my bed until morning, giving her goat’s milk from my finger to keep her quiet. In the light of day when Mistress sees her new daughter alive, she’ll agree I did the right thing, to be sure.

And don’t I fly like a night bird straight to the rock dwellers, imagining my sister’s pale round face shining up at me like a reflection of the moon. But as I approach the slabs of stone and stare at the spot where I left her, a bolt of lightning from somewhere inside my body strikes my heart and stops my breath.

My legs buckle beneath me and my knees hit the snow. I crawl on the rocky ground to the baby’s basket, lying just where I left it.

But, oh my heart! Brigid is gone.

 

 

2.

All the way back, as I run past the river, past the mound, I’m making a solemn vow. When Nuns make oaths, they place their hands on gilded Latin Bibles, but all I have is the cross around my neck. As I reach for it, I’m thinking I have something more sacred than a man-made wooden thing. Don’t I have the beating heart God gave me? So I run with my hand on my heart, saying these words in my mind over and over: never again will I ignore the voice inside my own self telling me what is right. Never again, never again—no matter what others might say I should do.

I’m out of breath when I return to the hall. My chest aches from holding in the silent sobs that rack my ribs. ‘Tis like I’m in a trance, moving through deep water. The long fire has burned down low and the room is full of shadows. I stumble over a sleeping goat on the floor and it bleats out in annoyance. I make my way to my bed, but a figure rises up in my path.

Alf. His nightshirt’s manky smell of sweat and ale makes me wince. I fight the instinct to turn and run back out into the fresh night air.

“Let me pass,” I whisper. “I do be tired.”

“Where have you been?” He reaches for my arm to steady himself.

“The stones of the guardian spirits.”

“Why? It’s our sacred place, not yours. You don’t belong there.”
“’Tis none of your concern.” I move to pass by him, but he pulls me closer.

“I’ll say if it’s my concern or not. What? A little slave bitch keeping secrets from her master? I think you need to be brought down low where you belong.” His fingers tighten around my arm like a manacle. “This is down where you belong.”

He drops backward onto his bed behind him, pulling me with him. I tumble forward, into his lap.

“That’s it. Right down there.”

I struggle to get out of his grip. “Please let me go.”

He grabs my hair near the scalp “My father paid good silver for you,” he whispers in my ear. “If it had been me, I would have picked out a pretty one, but I don’t really need to look at your face.” He laughs and pushes my head down into his bared lap. “Have some of that.”

“I won’t!” I cry as loud as I can, to wake his ma and sister. I dig my nails into his naked thighs, dragging them through his skin.

Alf cries out, too, waking them both.

“What is this?” Mistress Sigrid bolts up in bed.
Dotta throws off her blankets and runs to Alf’s side. “What has she done to you?”

I’m still on my knees with my hands on Alf’s legs, trying to lift myself away from him.

Alf says, “She came at me while I was sleeping, to seduce me. I thought she was a witch trying to murder me, the ugly thing!” He knees me in the stomach as I pull away, shoving me to the floor.

“When she saw her charms weren’t working, she stuck her claws into me and tried to rip me to shreds.” He gestures to his bleeding thighs.

“By the gods! Maybe she is a witch!” Dotta cries. “Let me get you some strips of linen to wrap your wounds.”

I struggle to a standing position. “’Tis a lie.”

Dotta halts on her way to fetch the linens. “What? You say it’s a lie that you’re an ugly thing? Have you seen yourself? Well, let me tell you—a truer thing was never spoken. Or do you say it’s a lie that you cut him with your own claws? Look at the state of his wounds, and the blood under your very nails. It’s clear as water that it’s you who’s lying.”

Mistress holds her stomach as she watches Dotta tend to the gouges I made in Alf’s thighs. “How dare you accuse my son when you’re to blame? I can’t bear to be in the same room with you for another minute.” She waves me away with a sweep of her hand. “Open the mound and shut Étaín in with all the rot. Perhaps by morning she will have learned her lesson.”

I gasp.

Mistress lies back down and pulls the covers up to her chin.

Alf laughs. “Yes, that’s a perfect idea.” He brushes Dotta away from him as he stands and pulls on his trousers. “Go remove the bolt—I’ll bring her out with me.”

Dotta smirks as she puts on her cloak and boots, lights an oil lamp from the smoldering embers of the long fire and leaves the hall.

I can’t speak for the shock of it.

“Maybe the gods will mistake you for dead and take you along with them to the other side. Don’t forget to tell my Uncle Grimolf hello for me. You might not even have to go to the other side to tell him so. Several times since we put him in, I’ve seen ravens flying above the mound that just suddenly drop to the ground, dead—some say that the presence of a draugr in a mound will do that.” He takes my arm. “You do remember what the draugar are, don’t you?”

I do, to be sure! For don’t he frighten me every chance he gets with his dark stories about the undead who haunt such mounds, searching for flesh to devour. I shake my arm to free myself from his grasp, but he only clenches his fingers more tightly around me.

“Please don’t put me in there!” I cry, causing more moans to issue from Mistress’s bed.

She looks at me. “Stop shouting, you wretched girl. Why my husband ever thought to bring such a lily-livered Christian into our home, I’ll never know. You must be made to learn your place and strengthen your pitiful nature—seduction, deceit, and cowardice might be accepted among your people’s women, but such weaknesses won’t be tolerated here.”

“Please, Mistress Sigrid! I’ll sleep out in the empty goat shed. Or beside the hall! Please, don’t put me in the—”

“Enough of your noise! Take her to the mound.”

“Nay!” I shout. “I won’t go!”

Mistress’s eyes grow large as platters at my words of resistance. My heart swells

with this new boldness flooding my heart, and I do resolve to go all out. I yank my arm from Alf and shove him hard. “I don’t belong to any of you—I belong to my own self!”

But Alf lunges right back at me, locking me in a vice grip. His smooth, mocking voice has turned to gravel and sharp blades. “You’re going in the mound if I say you’re going in the mound.” He yanks me toward the door and out into the night. I writhe and thrash in his grip as he pulls me toward Dotta’s flickering lamp.

She’s unbolted the thick, low door on the side of the mound and, as we approach, she pushes it open. It squeaks on rusty hinges, sending quivers through me. I stare at the dark gap beyont it, and don’t my body start a-shaking like a rabbit’s!

Dotta thrusts the lamp into the opening and peers in, pinching her nose against the smell of rot. I be smelling it from here. I make out the carcass of a horse lying on the floor, saddled and bridled so its spirit can carry its master’s spirit to the other side. The human carcass can’t be far beyont. Lord o’ mercy! They dare not throw me into such a foul place as that.

But they do! Alf shuffles me toward the door and forces my head to bend under the low entrance. I scream and kick, to be sure, but I ain’t nearly as strong as him. With a laugh like the devil’s, Alf thrusts me into the dark chamber and slams the door behind me.

I scream a banshee cry that rips a path from the deep part of my lungs, all the way up my throat. I fall against the door and beat it with my fists.

“Please open up! Let me out!”

Surely they’ll release me, now that they’ve had their way and terrified me to my very roots. The blackness surrounding me is pure cold and damp like something hanging in the air. A blackness that could slide over my skin and slip inside me. Another scream shoots from my chest, scraping my throat and shaking my bones.

What if Alf’s Uncle Grimolf did turn into a draugr and is in this room with me right now?  Oh, don’t the thought of it make my breath come fast and hard! Can draugar see in the dark like night beasts? Even if he can’t see me, I fear he’ll hear my heart banging like mad in my chest and follow the sound straight to me.

I clutch my wooden cross pendant and hold it out in front of me into the blackness, my back against the door.

Oh Mary! Oh Jesus and all the saints and angels!

But just as I feared, the blackness slips inside me and before I know it, it steals me clean away.

 

3.

When the blackness delivers me back to myself, I open my eyes and here I am in my own bed like the tail end of a dream. Light shines down through the smoke-hole in the roof, making a round, golden sun on my chest. I lie there for a moment, enjoying the warmth on my heart even though the rest of my body is cold. Then I remember Brigid and the burial mound, and the warmth disappears, for ‘twas no dream.

My body’s stiff and aches like I’ve had a beating, but I hear voices near the long fire—one of them Mistress Sigrid’s and the other a stranger’s—so I stay still as a dead man, the better to be earwigging their conversation. But ain’t it the voice of Mistress’s brother, Bröndólfur Godi, the local chieftain. I don’t like the goði one bit, for all the high words and the low looks he do be handing out wherever he goes.

Their talk is all about me and what I done.

“Look at her—she’s been out of her head all morning despite the shaking I gave her and she can’t be made to do a thimble-sized amount of work in such a state. She’s no use to me. My husband should have bought a boy to help Alf with the farming. I don’t understand why you’re forbidding me to sell her.”

“She is your husband’s property, not yours. I will not be responsible for causing a rift between him and me over this matter. You must wait until he returns to obtain his permission.”

“But she’s a liar and can’t be trusted. I’ve already told you what she did to Alf while he was sleeping, but there’s more. Alf says she trespassed into the guardian spirits’ dwelling place last night. And wouldn’t you know it—our goat gave no milk this morning, and Alf says a small avalanche buried our western field during the night. She’s disturbed the nature spirits. Who knows what else they will do because of her blasphemy?”

“That is a grave concern. Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? Have Alf whip the deceit and mischief out of her.”

“She has a hide of leather and a disposition to match—his thrashings fail to wet her eye.”

Bröndólfur Godi makes a deep rumbly sound in his throat as if he do be thinking the matter over. “Here is my advice. This Christian wench needs to be brought low and kept there in her place. And our neighbors should be made aware of her dangerous nature. Let me settle this as goði in an official, public manner. We don’t want any of her shameful behavior to end up on your husband’s shoulders if the nature spirits continue to shower their displeasure upon the farms in the area—it must be shared publicly so all will know that our family is addressing the matter.”

I hear him rise. “I’ll return within the hour. Have the fire hot.”

When they have gone and the hall has turned quiet again, I sit up carefully. Carefully because my bones ache like Lazarus’s must have ached when he found himself risen from the dead. I had been out of my mind all night as my body lay stunned and rigid in the cold, dank burial mound—my legs and arms do be forgetting how to move. But my bladder’s full to bursting and I need to use the pit, so I force myself up and wrap my feather cloak around me for a quick trip outside.

Alf’s repairing the far west wall and Mistress’s gathering peat for the fire. As I turn the corner of the hall toward the pit, Dotta crashes into me, going the other way.

“Loki’s Beard!” she cries. “Get out of my way, you lying witch.”

She pushes my shoulder and means to pass me, but something rises up inside me like a draugr, something that had been sleeping like the dead until this moment when a disturbance frees it from its crypt. And don’t it make me push Dotta right back!

“I’m not a liar!” I say as Dotta falls to the ground from my unexpected shove. I keep walking to the pit, hike up my skirt, and squat.

I hear her scramble to get up and hurry off. She’s got her ma with her by the time I’m done, and I see them approaching the hall as I stand up.

Ain’t Dotta’s face red as apples as she blubbers to her ma.  “She pushed me down and said—”
“Dotta, I told you and Alf not to go near her. She’s not worthy of your notice. Neither of you are to mix with her.”


And I hardly know the words I will say before I open my mouth and shout across the hay yard, “They are not fit to mix with me!” And before she can respond, I turn and run for the meadow, where the snow is deep but soft from the sun. When I get to the middle, I fall and sink down into the softness, hidden, and turn over onto my back, breathing hard.

I gaze up. No pagan hall, no ugly black mountain, no beatings, no enemies, no dank mounds or rotting bodies, just a sea of blue sky with hardly any dark clouds in it at all. I wish I could fall up into it and swim away to Heaven where all the saints do dwell.

Mistress, Alf and Dotta leave me be for a time, and ain’t it a relief to be alone. For once, I do feel something like peace, and soon drift into sleep.

‘Tisn’t long, though, till Alf’s smug voice calls me back to the world.

“Étaín! Come.” He gives a sharp whistle as if summoning a pet. “You’ve been a bad dog, not obeying your masters. Bröndólfur Godi is here to teach you some new tricks. Come here, little bitch.”

I stay where I am. The blue sky has turned grey, and black clouds shroud the Eyjafjöll Mountains. Maybe Alf will think I ran off.

But he’s seen my footprints and is already stomping through the snow, making a path toward me. He’s getting closer.

I won’t be waiting around to be scooped up and taken to the goði—who knows what he plans to do to me. I bolt up and away, legging it in the opposite direction, but before I’ve gone three paces, I’m yanked backward, a world of hurt bruising my middle.

‘Tis Alf’s goat rod, hooked at the end to catch them that run off from the herd. Once he’s hooked me, he yanks me backward and I fall to the ground. He laughs as he forces my hands behind my back and ties my wrists together. He pulls me to my feet.

“No more playing around. After today is over, I think you’re going to want to be a good girl from now on.”

I stumble over my feet as he pulls me by my hair back to the hall yard.

Dotta and Mistress stand there, flanking Bröndólfur Godi, with a small group of people gathered about them. I recognize them as members of pagan families of the district. Except for a pale lass with long white-blonde hair, standing in the back. I don’t know who she be, but she came down from the mountain once before, to sing the funeral lay for Master’s brother. She looks to be several years older than I, but tall as a man. All the rest of them seem quare antsy and eager to watch what happens to me, but with her ‘tis different. It feels like her solemn eyes do be boring a hole through my ribcage to my heart.

Bröndólfur Godi holds what looks like an iron rod with some strange attachment at the end of it. Does he plan to beat me with that? It doesn’t like any weapon I have known. Reminds me of the rods that farmers use for marking their sheep on the rumps as belonging to their clan. A shiver runs down my spine.

But as Alf and I approach, the goði hands the rod to his eldest son, Ketil, who takes it away and into the hall. I let out my breath in relief.

Bröndólfur Godi’s grey eyes gander freely up and down my frame, as if I am a heifer at auction. He turns to Mistress. “She’s a slight thing, and not much to look at. How many years is she?”

“Seventeen, if one were to believe a thing she says. We’ve had her these last nine months, though she has made them seem the longest months I’ve ever known.”

The goði turns back to me. “Étaín.” His eyes are stern. “Do you know who Loki is?”

I nod my head. I’ve heard the stories around the fire.

“And do you want to be like Loki?”

“I do.”

Mistress Sigrid’s eyes do be popping from their sockets. “See, she doesn’t even deny it!”

The goði crosses his arms over his chest and takes a glance over his shoulder at the people murmuring behind him. He squints at me. “And why would you want to be like the trickster Loki?”

I find the serious eyes of the tall lass in the back and I speak clearly and loudly so she and the rest of them can hear and know that I’m as sound as they. “The gods did not want Loki in their home and thought him beneath them, but wasn’t he pure clever and smart as ever a lad was. Smarter than they, to be certain. Sure, he did be getting into fixes, but didn’t he always find the craftiest way of getting out of them and mending the problem in the end?”

I see the hint of a smile on the lass’s face.

But the rest of them look sour as vinegar.

“It is your Christian ignorance that makes you talk so. Loki was a dangerous liar and mischief-maker. He didn’t deserve to call the house of the gods his home. Because of the lies that filled his throat, people called him Lygnhals, the lie-necked.”

I open my mouth to respond, but the goði raises his hand to shush me.

“Étaín, answer me truthfully: have you been an obedient slave, worthy of your master’s investment and this good woman’s care?”

No answer for such a question rises to my mouth, but Mistress answers it for me.

“Étaín has been a burden these nine months, not a help to me and my family as my husband intended. Her heart is stubborn and does not bend with whippings, yet she hasn’t the strength of nature to do what I have told her is right and good. The worst of her faults are also her most dangerous: she is deceitful and loves to make mischief.”

Mistress turns to the neighbors gathered around us. “I let her sleep in my own home and eat the same food as if she were family, yet not only did this wench try to seduce my son under our very noses, she attacked him while we were sleeping in our beds, wounding him severely, and then she lied about it!”

Oh, don’t my nostrils flare like a bull’s when I hear such falsehoods said about me to these folk!

Bröndólfur Godi shakes his head, and the neighbors frown at me. I blink back at the pale lass’s calm, steady gaze. I wonder if she can see the truth between the lies.

“But her dangerous behavior reaches beyond our hall,” Mistress continues. “Just last night, this Christian secretly trespassed onto one of our sacred places and disturbed the nature spirits who have shown their anger by distressing our goats and pulling an avalanche down on our field.”

This lights a flame under the people’s arses and don’t they get antsy! Their frowns turn into scowls and they raise a clatter of noise against me. But the pale one says not a word, and what a strange look she do be giving me.

I cannot stand to have that quiet lass think ill of me, I don’t know why. My rage at Mistress boils up within me and don’t it erupt like steam from a kettle!

“As God be witness,” I cry, “you’ve never treated me like family, though I sleep in your manky hall and eat your nasty food. But I would sooner eat dirt than be one of yourn.”

“How dare you say such things!” Mistress Sigrid screeches.

“Ain’t they true, then? Who had me locked in the mound with her dead kin? And who tells her cruel, eejit boy to beat me for no reason, just because she don’t be liking the look of me? People think you’re a good woman, but ‘tis you who be the lie-necked one, not I! And don’t I hate all of your pagan, heathen souls! I’ll never forgive you for what you done.”

And oh! How that riles them all. Here come the angry words like stones thrown in my direction.

The goði raises his hands, and the hurling of the word-stones stops.

All turns quiet except for the thunder a-rumbling over the Eyjafjöll Mountains into the valley.

“You, Étaín,” he says, “are a trickster like Loki, trying to untangle yourself from your web of falsehoods now that you have been found out. You are a dangerous wench, and all will know it from this day forward.”

He turns to the hall and calls his son, “Ketil, we are ready.” Then he nods to Alf, who takes hold of my arms again.

Ketil opens the hall door, holding the iron rod. The strange-looking piece on the end glows red hot.

Lord o’ mercy! I try to bolt, but I’m locked in Alf’s troll-grip.

Ketil hands the branding iron to his father and joins Alf. Before I know what’s happening, they push me to my knees and force me over Ketil’s knee, holding fast my head and shoulders.

Bröndólfur Godi raises the iron as he steps toward us. “As goði of the district, I mark this blasphemous slave with the sign of Loki, the lie-necked, branding her as a liar and dangerous mischief maker, so that all who see it will know to be careful and on their guard, and not to mix with her.”

He brushes aside my hair. With one hand, he pins my head to his son’s knee, and with the other, he presses the hot branding iron to my bare neck.

I scream as a flash of white glory-light blinds me, and my soul jumps up into my skin. I can’t tell the difference between my spirit and my flesh anymore because my whole being is lit a-fire, inside and out. The air smells of smoke and burnt meat, and I am sick, for ain’t it my own flesh a-cooking? I throw up on Alf’s feet, and he makes a disgusted noise and pulls away.

My body turns limp. Hands release me and I collapse, folding up into a crumpled rag.

4.

 

I don’t go out of my head this time; I go deeper into it. My senses turn pure numb, and I’m sinking into myself. My body feels heavy like it don’t belong to me anymore. When the goði’s young sons throw their dirt clods at me, I hardly feel a thing.

The people’s voices sound like the buzzing of flies. I keep my eyes shut against them so I don’t have to see their arrogant heathen faces. If I lie here quietly, maybe they’ll all go away.

And when the sleet starts a-falling, they do.

The neighbors scatter to their homes, and Mistress, Alf, and Dotta hurry inside. The clank of the bolt means they’ve locked the door against me for the night.

That moment before the hot iron had touched my neck, when I faced Mistress and delivered my truth-words—I felt the bonds around my heart had broken and I turned light as air. My heart had ascended the Eyjafjöll Mountains, above the clouds. ‘Twas glorious, like Christ must have been a-feeling after rising from the grave and ascending into Heaven.

But now, ain’t I fallen back to earth, feeling lower and more bound to it than before. I could go begging pardon from Mistress Sigrid, but then wouldn’t she despise me the more. What’s done is done, and the burning wound on my neck will be a constant reminder of why I’ll never forgive her.

My whole neck feels swollen and raw. I do be afraid of touching the wound, but I want to know how bad it is. I hug my knees up to my chest and hang down my head to let the cool sleet fall over the burn. Soon I’m drenched through and pure shivering from the cold. The thunder echoes the rumbling of my empty stomach.

I know I should be picking myself up and go sleep in the empty goats’ barn, but I can’t find the strength to make my bones move.

“Please, Heavenly Father,” I pray. “Don’t let me die here like a pig in the mud! I heard about that time you sent your angels to rescue the apostle Peter from his prison cell, and though I ain’t no apostle, I do be a prisoner in this Heathen land, and needing some rescuing. If it pleases you, sir.”

“Étaín.”

The angel voice at my side nearly makes me jump from my skin.

The angel is the tall, pale lass with broad shoulders and grave eyes. She holds a wooden staff and wears a hooded fur-lined robe, which must be hiding her wings.

The apostle Peter thought he’d been having a vision, not knowing if what his angel did was real. But my angel’s robe feels warm from her body as she drapes it around me.

“Étaín, stand,” she orders. “Come with me.”

And like a miracle, the strength returns to my bones, and I do.

What the Seashell Said by
Patti Richards

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

A girl in red with a hat on her head

went to the shore to explore.

She sat in the sand with shovel in hand

and scooped and poured while seabirds soared.

She heard a sound and turned around.

Something tumbled as a wave rumbled.

It toppled and tipped, flopped and flipped,

then landed in mud

with a thump, bump, thud.

And there in a pool that looked nice and cool,

that was made from the swell,

was a big seashell.

 

A big seashell, caught in a swell,

got stuck in the mud

with a thump, bump, thud,

and made a pool that looked nice and cool.

It watched a girl through the watery whirl

walk over the sand, her shovel in hand.

It whispered words that nobody heard,

then whispered again, “Come be my friend.”  

 

A hungry crab, reaching to grab

a tasty bite to his left and right

by the edge of the pool that looked nice and cool,

noticed the girl near the watery whirl.

He stretched out a claw towards what he saw.

As her fingers reached out, he heard the shell shout,

“That’s no way to play!”

So he sidled away.

 

During the lull a fleet seagull,

flying over the head of the girl in red,

saw the crab while waiting to nab

a seafood lunch with a little crunch.

The seagull heard the seashell speak

and fluttered and flapped from tail to beak.

Then the crab took flight before she could light

as her tasty crustacean changed his location.  

 

A girl in red with no hat on her head,

who went to the shore to explore

with sugary toes and sun-kissed nose,

reached in the pool that felt warm, not cool.

She picked up the shell that dropped from the swell

and got stuck in the mud

with a thump, bump, thud

and shook out the sand with both of her hands.

Then lifted it near to the edge of her ear and listened to hear…

 

Swish, swish, weeeee, swish, swish, wooooo

Swish, swish, crash, swish, swish, schlooooo

 

And that’s what the seashell said.

Randolph Caldecott, Forever in Motion
by Barbara Younger

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

 

Look! That picture book boasts a shiny sticker on its cover.

Study the sticker closely. Do you see a man bouncing on a horse? He’s John Gilpin.

Gallop back in time to meet the artist who drew him…

The world Randolph Caldecott loved was a leaping, flying, dancing, barking, galloping place.

At the King’s School in Chester, England, Randolph sat still long enough to pay attention, earning the title of Head Boy for his good grades.

The second school let out, he was off on adventures. On his way through town, he sampled sweets from the bakery, chatted with merchants hitching their wagons, and watched ducks splash in the River Dee.

He traveled the country lanes and fields, jumping over streams and fences. Randolph paused, every now and then, to study a pig’s snout, admire a rooster’s colors, or pet a farmer’s dog, but mostly, he was a kid on the go.

Those adventures whirled through his mind when he got home. He sent them sailing onto paper.

Mr. Caldecott didn’t encourage Randolph’s artistic talent. He wanted his son to be a banker. In 1861, at fifteen, Randolph moved to a nearby town to give banking a try.

Randolph added column after column at the Whitchurch and Ellesmere Bank. He needed a break from so many numbers! He sketched his fellow employees and the bank’s customers, a handy use for old deposit slips.

Luckily, his job included calls to local villages. He sped over the lanes in his brand new country gig. The villagers liked Randolph. They invited him to steeple chases, dances, and cattle fairs. More happenings to draw when he returned from the fun.

The Queen Railway Hotel caught fire that year. Randolph whipped out his notebook to sketch the shooting flames. He drew a more detailed picture later and mailed it to The Illustrated London News. The magazine sent Randolph a check, and, hooray, they published his drawing!

At twenty-one, he was promoted to a bank in the city of Manchester. Randolph grabbed the opportunities city life offered him: art lessons, an art club, and friendship with other artists.

Randolph suffered from a weakened heart and stomach pains, but he refused to let illness slow his artistic tracks. He snatched every spare moment to draw and paint. Sometimes, he even forgot to go to bed, working all night long.

But Randolph didn’t forget to celebrate each time he sold another piece of art.

One day he made a brave decision. He up and quit the bank.

Randolph Caldecott was on the move, this time to the great city of London. “I have enough money in my pocket sufficient to keep me a year or so,” he wrote to a friend.  In that year, he would learn if he could make a living as a professional artist.

Talk about a hopping place! Randolph roved the streets and squares of London. He sketched kids rolling hoops, ladies selling flowers, and rich gentlemen strutting to the theater with their noses in the air.

Inside the theater, he drew Hamlet on stage with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. He drew the Prime Minister giving an important speech at Parliament. And when witty Mark Twain visited from America, Randolph caught him on paper.

Randolph spent happy hours at the Zoological Gardens. He sketched everyone he met from the roaring lions to the zookeeper mucking out the stalls.

The animals lay stiller than still in the British Museum. Randolph studied the wing feathers of a stuffed stork. He measured the skeleton of another stork. He needed to understand how their bodies fit together and how they worked so he could bring animals to life in his drawings.

Project after project delivered money to his pockets. He painted huge swans for the dining room of a fancy house. He climbed high into the Harz Mountains to sketch the sights for a travel book. His big break came when he illustrated one hundred and twenty scenes for Washington Irving’s Old Christmas.

People were paying attention to Randolph Caldecott, including an engraver named Edmund Evans. Mr. Evans was experimenting with something exciting: color printing. Publishers sold books for older kids in England, but they didn’t offer many picture books, especially beautiful ones. Edmund Evans was determined to change that.

He visited Randolph in his apartment on Great Russell Street and asked him to create two picture books.

Randolph knew kids were cool. He jumped right into the project. He decided to illustrate a nursery rhyme, “The House That Jack Built” and a ballad, “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”

First, he constructed a blank book in the size the real book would be.

Next, he figured out where to place the words and pictures. He made quick drawings called “lightning sketches” as he thought about the story.

Then he painted the actual illustrations with brown ink and a small brush.

Finally, he added color to some.

Mr. Evans printed 10,000 copies of each picture book in time for Christmas, 1878. The first printings sold out right away. Success!  From then on, Randolph and Mr. Evans produced two new picture books a year.

Kids loved the books. Randolph didn’t preach or try to teach manners. The grownup characters made silly mistakes, and the kid characters got important parts. He even cast a boy and a girl as the King and Queen in Sing a Song for Sixpence.

And no one sat still. Cats caught rats. Frogs paid calls. Knaves stole tarts. A bear in a flowered dress and bonnet promenaded down the street. A doll danced. Dinnerware bopped to life.

Randolph didn’t fence his characters in with a black border like many illustrators did. His characters moved across the page as if they were actors on stage. He left plenty of white space, too, so they could breathe.

Randolph Caldecott became famous in England, Europe, and America. Not one to brag, he spoke in a low, quiet voice. He sported a pleasant expression, although it was hard to see because of his whiskers. Tall and thin, he sometimes put himself in his pictures. He married in 1880. Mrs. Caldecott began to make appearances in Randolph’s pictures, too.

No matter how busy he was, Randolph answered the letters kids sent him. “I thank you very much for the grand sheet of drawings,” he wrote one boy. “There are many beautiful things waiting to be drawn. Animals and flowers. Oh! Such a many.”

In 1885, a London magazine asked him to travel to the United States to record “American Facts and Fancies.” Randolph said yes to the adventure.

The rolling of the ship in rough seas was not the kind of motion he relished. He joked in a letter: “We hope an overland route is discovered by the time of our return.”

That fall, Randolph drew the people and sights of America, from a boy getting off the ship in New York to dock workers loading cotton in South Carolina.

The Caldecotts reached St. Augustine in December. Randolph was now sick, really sick.

The man who never stopped drawing kept on.

Then the lines in his sketchbook trailed off.

Randolph died on February 13, 1886. He was thirty-nine. His good friend wrote in a tribute, “The artist’s hand is still.”

Fifty years later, publisher Frederic Melcher created an award to honor picture book illustrators. He named it the “Caldecott Medal” after the artist who, with energy and enthusiasm, first captured for kids the scurry and frenzy and fun of the world.

Look at the Caldecott Medal. There’s John Gilpin on his horse, coattails waving as he gallops through town. Geese honk. Dogs bark. People hurry about. No one is sitting still. Randolph Caldecott, forever in motion!

***

 

Creative Activities to Use with Randolph Caldecott, Forever in Motion

For Teachers

Oh! Such a Many Journals: Randolph wrote in a letter to a boy: “There are many beautiful things waiting to be drawn. Animals and flowers. Oh! Such a many.” Have students fold five or six sheets of paper in half and then staple them together to make journals. Ask them to write “Oh! Such a Many” on the front of their journal. Inside, they can draw things they think are beautiful. Next to each drawing, ask them to jot down words describing that beautiful thing.

Objects to Life: Randolph was one of the first illustrators to bring objects to life in his picture books. Explain to children that this is called “personification.” Human qualities are given to things that aren’t alive. Next, ask them to find something at their seat to bring to life such as their pencil, notebook, friendship bracelet, or shoes. Through creative writing, drawing, or small group conversations, let students express what their object is thinking and feeling.

Lightning Sketches: Have students take turns choosing an animal or object for everyone to draw as fast as they can. Explain that Randolph used this technique when he designed a new picture book. Set a timer to add to the fun. Children sometimes have trouble with the concept of sketching. Help them understand that a sketch isn’t precise or detailed, but a useful tool for brainstorming and planning.

Capture That Scene: Randolph first earned money as an artist by drawing news events. Let your students bring pencil and paper out to the playground during recess Ask them to study the scene, as Randolph did, and then make a drawing of the playground action. Display the drawings in the hall for the rest of the school to admire.

Long Columns of Numbers: In honor of Randolph’s banking days, ask your students to create a long column of numbers. Have them switch papers with someone else and then add up that column. Randolph made sketches of his fellow bankers when he got tired of adding. Invite students to make a sketch of a classmate on their paper.

Travel Guide: Randolph spent happy hours exploring London. Use travel books and websites to show students the sights of London. Next, on paper or in small groups, have them list their favorite sights in your area. Let them each choose a sight to draw. Ask them to write a sentence or two describing their drawing. Put the drawings together to create a travel guide. Display the travel guide in your school media center or use it as a welcome gift for a new student.

Caldecott Medal Winners: Read Caldecott Medal winners and Honor Books to the class. Then go through the books again, examining the illustrations more closely (or have students do this in small groups). Randolph’s art was best known for its sense of motion and its humor. Ask students to look for those qualities in the illustrations and to share what they find.

Picture Book Party: Kids loved the picture books of Randolph Caldecott. Invite your students to bring in a picture book they love. Let them show the class their favorite page and explain why it’s their favorite. Then treat your students to a reading of your favorite childhood picture book. Consider playing a game or serving a snack in celebration of your book.

For Kids at Home

Clay Creations: Randolph made clay models of animals and other objects when he was a boy. To make your own modeling clay, mix two cups flour, one cup salt, and three tablespoons cream of tartar in a saucepan. Stir a tablespoon of cooking oil into one cup of water. Add several drops of food coloring. Pour the liquid into the saucepan. With an adult, stir the mixture over medium heat for a few minutes. Cool and then knead. Use your clay to create animals and anything else you like.

Action Charades: Randolph’s illustrations are alive with motion. Take turns acting out animal actions such as a duck waddling, a horse galloping, or a frog jumping, and people actions such as flying a kite, riding a skateboard, or licking an ice cream cone. The actor may not talk or make any other sounds. The other players guess the answer by shouting it out. Whoever guesses first gets a point.

Thank You Pictures: Randolph wrote lots of letters. He often included a drawing, signing his name “Pictorially Yours, Randolph Caldecott.” For your next thank you note, draw a picture of yourself enjoying the present you received. Add a simple “Thank you” and sign your name.

 

Cover Image: Caldecott, Randolph. Gilpin Losing Control of his Horse. Colored engraving. 19th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.

Laps
by Meg Cook

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Saturday is my first day back to the pool since my brother Johnny died.  

Mom drops me off at 10 am with a granola bar, my swim bag, and my phone, fully charged. My sister, Ava, is texting in the backseat in her cheerleading uniform. Her brows are furrowed over the brightly lit screen. She doesn’t look up as I get out of the car.  

“Have a good time, sweetie!” Mom is effusive, if a little concerned. She wants me to swim, but doesn’t understand why I am doing it alone.

I try to smile at her, but it comes out more like a grimace.

I have a full hour. No longer. If I am late coming out into the parking lot, Mom will barge  into the lobby and through the locker room doors, panting with worry.

I make a mental note to wait in the parking lot five minutes early.  

Walking through the glass double doors, I see that nothing has changed. Same old vending machines, metal folding chairs and the woman with white hair behind the counter. She wears her glasses on a brass chain, and she never seems to recognize me, even though I’ve been coming here since I was six.

Her eyes flick up as I walk in.

“Member?” she asks.

I nod, and she waves me through. But I can’t seem to move.

It’s been four months. Four months since the accident. Four months since swim team.

Four months since my brother …

Dark clouds erupt like a fog in my head. Don’t think so much, I tell myself.

My therapist Dana and I talked about this a lot when I decided to start swimming again. We made a whole plan.

Her voice rings out in my head: Just focus on everything one step at a time. After you walk into the lobby, what needs to happen?

Locker rooms. I need to go to the locker rooms.

It’s pretty dumb, but for the whole thing to work, I need to lay out the instructions for myself like I am talking to a toddler. Like I am learning how the world works all over again.

My sneakers start trudging through the brown halls towards the blue tiled entrance to the pool.

I move towards the sign that reads Women and turn the corner down the hall which deposits me in a blindingly fluorescent room. It’s mostly empty. An older woman changes in the far corner, her belly folding at her center as she bends over.

My eyes register the wall of teal lockers, their metal handles. The fumes of chlorine, the residual steam from the showers. I drag in a breath.

The locker room is the toughest part about being here. It’s full of memories. Moments. Things from before Johnny died. Changing with the swim team, trading candy from the vending machines, hitting the showers and slicking back my hair for practice. Feeling that adrenaline pumping through me. Kay’s laugh. We always shared a locker, even when there were plenty of others to use.

Now I avoid Kay in the hall.

Dana and I came up with a plan for the locker room. Once I get to the pool, I figure I’ll be fine. The water is why I am here.  

Dana’s plan is about doing everything in the right order. Locker, combination, change into my suit, tuck my hair into my swim cap, grab my goggles. Go.  

All you have to do is remember your combination and unlock the locker. I do it. I twirl the little dial and it feels like being at school.

The locker clicks open. Inside, there is nothing. Just a little bit of light shining in on dark metal.

On my last visit with Dana, she said: I sense you have some issues with being seen.

But she’s wrong.

I wish I could disappear. Like sea foam in Ava’s favorite fairy tale. In the fairy tale, the mermaid jumps from the boat and just fades away.

Ava asked me to read it to her over and over again when we were kids. Sometimes, Johnny and I would read it together. He would do the voices and I would narrate. Again and again. The sea princess fell away in the waves. Again and again, she turned into nothing. Nobody, not even the prince, noticed.

It’s a stupid book, I used to tell Ava. And she would cry. Snot welling up in her six-year-old nose. Why do you like books about mermaids who die? Why can’t you like normal fairy tales like Cinderella? She gets what she wants: the prince, the dress, the castle.

The kingdom. It’s all hers.

“Amie,” a soft, surprised voice echoes behind me. I wheel around. The older lady is gone, her locker closed. Standing on the other side of the bench is Kay. Her hair is wet and clipped at the nape of her neck.  

“Hey,” I say, without understanding. “What are you doing here?”

Kay tilts her head, rolling her eyes in the way that only Kay can. “Well, that’s a nice greeting.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, it’s just …” But I don’t finish. I just stand there at my locker, arms at my sides.

I wrap my fingers into the palms of my hands. Fingernails into skin.

Say something, I tell myself. But nothing comes out of my mouth.

Kay doesn’t seem to mind. Amazing, considering I’ve been ignoring her for a solid four months. She shrugs and says, “We changed our practice this week to mornings. Because of the game.”

“Game?”

Kay stares at me. “You know, the playoffs? Tonight? Football?”

“Oh,” I say. “Right, of course.” Though I hadn’t known about it. Everyone must be talking about it at school. There must be banners and everything. A pep rally, too.

And Ava. She must be doing late practices with the team.

How did I not notice? Is that why she was in her uniform this morning?

I was so worried about coming here, I didn’t ask.

“So, you want to come? Or what? I could pick you up.” Kay is looking at me like I am a puzzle she can’t figure out.

“What?”

“The party. After the game. I am asking if you want to go. I could give you a ride.” Her voice tilts uncertainly.

A party. No way in hell am I going to a party. I look at Kay closely. Why would Kay want me to come to a party? Doesn’t she remember what happened at the last one I attended?

“I don’t think so” is all I say. I try to smile, but I don’t think it comes out right.

“Well, if you change your mind, text me.” She gives me a little wave and then moves towards the bank of swim team lockers at the other end of the room and pulls out her phone.

I grab my suit out of my bag and head towards the bathrooms. I don’t want to change in front of Kay, even though she’s probably seen me change five hundred times.  

That’s one thing about the swim team girls. You could have five inch scars all down your back or be covered in chicken pox or your skin could be as green as the Wicked Witch of the West – they would just change into their suits, ball up their hair underneath their swim caps, and hit the showers.

“We miss you,” Kay says. Her voice is soft and it sounds like the Kay I remember from sleepovers. When her armor was down.

I turn around. She still has her phone out, but she isn’t looking at it. She’s looking at me.

“On the team,” she says. “Coach hoped you would be back. He says you could still join. For the spring.”

Swim team.

In spring.

Kay watches me, expectantly.

My heart thumps inside me like it’s banging on a door, trying to break through. The smell of chlorine overwhelms me, my feet shrivel against the moist tile and the walls keep getting closer and closer. I drag in a breath. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here before the rest of the team comes in.

“Okay,” I manage, already turning away from Kay. “I’ll think about it.”

I don’t wait for a response. I half-run to the line of bathroom stalls, clutching my suit to my chest as if holding it to my heart will make the whole thing stop.

As if these things can be stopped once they start.  

I bang through the gray stall door and stumble towards the toilet, then slam the door shut. God, it’s happening, I think to myself. My thoughts feel loud on the inside of my skull, like they have their own vocal chords and are screaming to be let out – my heart pounds faster and faster, adrenaline pumping through my veins as bright lights whirl through me, sparking like stars. Bolts of electricity run up and down my legs, my arms.

I can’t escape it. This thing.

My swimsuit falls from my arms and I clutch my elbows with my hands. My knees collapse, and I hold myself as I squat on the floor.

It will pass, it will pass, I remind myself.

This isn’t forever.

Dana. My therapist’s name comes to be like an epiphany. Dana says these are normal. A lot of people get them. Dana says the panic will go away. It’s always gone away before. Every time.

But first, I have to get through it.

I close my eyes against the fluorescents and see Bryan’s house decorated for Halloween, tissue paper ghosts strung up in the windows, an inflatable witch with a crooked nose on the front lawn. And inside: laughter, shouting, the pulse of a beat blasting through the speakers in the living room.

It was just a party.

I rarely went to parties, and if I did, it was only with Kay and the rest of the girls.

But Johnny. Johnny was always the life of the party. He went to every single one like it was Sunday church. He was a gentleman – that’s what everybody says. He never drank too much, never was creepy to the girls, always said hi to everyone even if they were unpopular or a jock or whatever.

God, Johnny. Why. Why. Why.

The question sprints through me and pumps hot blood into my chest. I feel like I am running a marathon, all breath and beat. All electric pulses. I might crack, I might explode.

I hug my knees to my chest, and rock myself on the stall floor. My face is right next to the toilet and I am inhaling bleach odor, but I don’t care, I just want it to be over. Just want it to end.  

I don’t know how long I am in the bathroom stall. All I know is that when I get my bearings, the locker room is peppered with the sounds of girls changing after swim practice. Voices I know. Part of me wants to go out there. I want to listen to their gossip, I want to know Cady’s new time for butterfly or how the meet against Ridgeport went last week. I want to be consumed with it.

But I don’t move, and eventually, the sound of flip flops on linoleum echoes through the room and the girls’ voices fade as they make their way out to the lobby.

I breathe until my heart steadies in my chest. Then, I slide out of my clothes, slip on my suit, and make my way towards the pool. Alone.

*

The water isn’t cold. It isn’t warm either. It’s perfect and chock full of chlorine. My mom complains about how much they pump into the indoor pool here, but I love it.

Makes me feel clean.

I strap my goggles on and the edges suction my skin. My hair is pulled back into a low bun and covered with a blue swim cap.

I tuck my legs and drop down beneath the surface in the deep end. It’s different underneath. The water has noise, which I always thought was weird. It muffles the splashes coming from other lanes, the lifeguard’s whistle, the slam of the locker room doors. But it also has its own sound. It’s a sort of endless sound. The sound of space and light. The sound of movement.

Blinking behind my goggles, I watch the aqua-tiled world. My eyes close halfway and everything blurs. My hands float ghost-like by my sides. My feet stabilize my body on the floor of the pool. I am not ready to float back up yet.

I am not ready to breathe in air.

The longer I am below the surface, the more my lungs tighten. I fight the urge to breathe in. I fight the urge to break through the surface. Every part of my body says, Amie, breathe, breathe! But there is something so tempting, so elusive about water. About the space I inhabit underneath.

If I can’t disappear forever, I at least want to disappear for a moment.

Finally, I press the bottom of my right foot against the bottom of the pool and shoot up through the water.

I float there for a moment. There are tons of skylights in the pool area. It’s kind of silly I guess, but I like how the gray light crisscrosses the tiled walls. How I still feel like I’m underwater even after I come up for air.

I never noticed that sort of stuff before. Before it happened. When I was still on the team. I can’t remember seeing the tiles or the windows or the people. I just remember the feeling of water on skin, stroke after stroke, the whistle, the way my arms cut through water. Adrenaline coursing through me like a river.  

I fold my knees against the wall and bend my arms back, latching my fingers onto the edge of the side of the pool.

My muscles know this feeling.

Dana says it’s overwhelming to think about a whole thirty minutes of swimming. She calls this an unproductive thought. Instead, she says, break up your day into only what you have to do next.

That’s how I get through my days.

It’s painful. My brain does somersaults narrating every last action, every motion, every thought. But I do things. I go places. I mean, mainly just to school and back home. And now the pool. But still. I eat my dinner and do my homework.

I have to hand it to Dana. It works.

My feet press against the slippery tiles as my arms arc through the water over my head. I tuck my chin, point my feet and glide, the feeling of water submerging me. The freedom, the ease.

My arms windmill on either side of my head. Freestyle. My favorite stroke. I swim fast. Faster than thoughts, faster than getting too drunk, faster than a car careening through the night.

My feet flutter-kick behind me as I angle my arms over my head. Every third arc, I tilt my head to the right side to breathe.

When I come up against a wall, I slip underwater and somersault before kicking off again, back across the pool for another length.

Two lengths make a lap.

Laps can be endless.

Laps can fill an hour.

I swim until my fingers are prunes. Wrinkled, shriveled raisins. It happened a lot when we were little kids. My brother Johnny in the bathtub. His brown eyes. His hair was lighter then. More strawberry blonde than red.

I hear the edge of my mother’s voice in the hall.

Muscles tighten against my bones.

A whistle blows, piercing my ear drums, dragging me back.

Free swim is over.

My legs pump in a familiar rotation beneath me. I am still breathing hard, but the rhythm of treading water helps calm me down.

I swim slowly, methodically to the shallow end of the pool. Kay’s voice keeps trilling through my head. A party. Has Kay been going to a lot of parties?

She tried to make an effort, after Johnny died. She tried to be my friend. But what could I say? The only thing I wanted to ask her was: what did he say? Moments before he died, Kay was with him, getting out of my car.

But I am not ready to hear the answer to that question.

And maybe Kay is not ready to give it.

Gripping the edge of the pool, I wait until my heart steadies inside my chest. I wait until the shaking feeling leaves me.

Pushing against the side, I climb out of the pool. My swimsuit clings to my body. I cross my arms over my chest and, dripping a trail of water behind me, I walk quickly over to the stack of towels by the locker room door.

I press the towel to my face, breathing into the cottony darkness. And stop.

Swimming is easier than living.

Living has so many moving parts. So many anomalies – so many things that could go wrong.

Just focus on the next thing. Do the next thing.

Dana’s voice is a clear bell inside my head. But that doesn’t make any of this easier.

I worry about tomorrow. It is empty and white. A beautiful plain. I have a hard time imagining me in it. I have a hard time seeing anything but the wet tiles of the pool area. The damp cotton of the towel. The world is endless, and I am so limited.

But I will end up waking up in this tomorrow-world. And it will be like today, only the details slightly rearranged.

I will end up leaving my phone unplugged tonight so the battery dies and Mom yells at me about responsibility. I will end up being dragged out of bed by Mom tomorrow around noon. I will end up watching shadows crawl across the wall until I curl around the warmth of my laptop in bed, so my heart stops beating so fast, so I can watch people who aren’t real and aren’t my friends love and hurt each other again and again.

That’s what my tomorrow-world will look like.

But then again, it might not be.

It could be clean, empty, white.  

I lift the towel away from my face. How long was I in the cottony darkness? A woman who wasn’t there before stands at the edge of the pool, removing her goggles from her face. They leave little red rings around her eyes. She isn’t paying attention to me.

Two guys make their way towards the men’s locker room. One slaps the other on the back. The movement makes a loud smacking sound that echoes through the entire pool area.

I sometimes wish I were in the ground. The smell of dirt, coolness of earth against my bones.

It doesn’t work like that, Dana says. You won’t feel relief when you are dead because dead people don’t feel anything.

That’s hard to imagine, Dana, I tell her in my mind.

But then she looks at me with these kind, brown eyes. Those perfectly aligned teeth. And I feel bad. I feel like shit for taking up so much of this nice woman’s time. She is trying to help people.

Trying to help me.

I try to envision a future where I come to the pool every weekend. A future where I train, join the swim team, and start sitting with the girls at lunch again.

A future where I go to parties.

The picture doesn’t come through. I walk through the locker room doors, blocking Kay’s invitation from my mind.

*

Mom is in the lobby when I finally emerge from the locker room. I am five minutes late.

Her face is flushed and creased with concern, but when she sees me, relief spreads like a wave over her skin.

“Hey Mom,” I say.

“God, Amie,” she says in a rush. “Not answering your phone. Not out in the parking lot.”

“Mom, there’s a lifeguard. And, in case you forgot, I am a great swimmer.”

Mom takes in a deep breath. “I know. I just …” But she doesn’t finish. Mom’s short,  shorter than me. So, I am looking down at her as she tries not to cry.

I reach over and put my hand on her arm.

It might seem weird to strangers. Teenage girls aren’t supposed to comfort their moms like that. But here’s the thing: Mom’s been this put-together business woman since forever. Ever since Johnny, Mom has been a basket case.

It’s just me, her, and Ava. If we don’t comfort her, nobody will.  

She shakes her head and squeezes my hand, smiling away the tears.

“Milkshakes and fries?” I ask. It’s our weekly tradition.

“God, yes,” she says as we turn towards the double doors. I breathe deeply as we leave the Y.

I climb in the passenger seat, tucking my swim bag on the floor. Mom puts the car in drive.

We swing through the drive-thru at Burger King. Mom orders for us: a large chocolate shake and a large fry.

I hope we can inhale sugar and salt in compatible silence, but Mom has other ideas.

“What are your Saturday plans?”

“My Saturday plans?” I stuff a fry into my mouth. I never have plans anymore. She knows that.

“Yeah. Your plan.”

“Nothing,” I say, sticking two fries dipped in delicious milkshake into my mouth. Ava thinks this is gross, but she has no idea what she is missing.

Mom’s ignoring her milkshake.

“We talked about this.”

“It’s one night, Mom,” I say. “I don’t have to make a plan for every night.”

“Dana thought …”

“Dana said I could have free time. Dana said I needed time to relax. That’s my plan.”

Mom turns the key in the ignition. I hand her a fry.

“These will get cold you know,” I say. She smiles and dips it in the shake before reversing.

I have a plan.

My plan is to avoid my sister’s dark glare.

My plan is to eat just enough of dinner that Mom doesn’t say anything.

To watch the bright screen of my laptop and sleep.  

But to Mom, plans mean progress. Normalcy. But plans can mean the destruction of things, too. It was my plan to quit the swim team. My plan to stop talking to Kay.

Suddenly full, I place my shake back in the cup holder and look out the window. The sun skids across my eyelashes, warming them and blinding me. I can’t deal with Mom’s interrogations right now.

I have to come up with something so she’ll leave me alone.  

“There’s a party tonight. For the game.”

“A party.” Mom says, pinching her lips together. “You know you’re not allowed …”

“You want me to see the girls on the swim team. That’s where they are going to be.” Maybe now she’ll see that staying home and watching my laptop is better than having so-called plans.

Mom purses her lips. I watch her watching the road.

“I’ll think about it. Where is this party?”

I shrug.

She is thinking about cars. About rides. About drunk drivers. Suddenly, I feel like a shithead for even bringing it up.  

The last time I went to a party, Johnny never came home.

Mom will say no, and then I can tell Kay that I tried but, of course, Mom wouldn’t let me. Then, Kay will think I am her friend still and I won’t have to watch teenagers guzzling beer out of kegs. I won’t have to see Johnny’s friends playing flip cup and turning up the volume on the speakers.

I won’t have to see the space that my brother once occupied.

*

At dinner, Ava’s sulking at the table in her cheerleading uniform. We won the game, but apparently, I ratted out Ava’s party plans to Mom.  

Ava pushes her potatoes around her plate with her fork. She used to do that a lot when she was little. Nobody can pout like Ava.

“Maybe you girls could watch a movie together,” Mom says brightly.

“I’m just gonna go to my room,” Ava says, standing. “Take a shower. I’m sweaty from the game.”

Mom nods, her lips pursed into a strained smile.

Ava and I have never gotten along. Johnny was the butter between us. He made us a unit. Without him, we don’t know how to interact. So we just … don’t.

Ava flies up the stairs, and I help Mom with the dishes before slinking off to my room. I curl into my unmade bed. My silver laptop lies asleep and charging underneath the sheets. I wake it up and navigate towards YouTube. I turn on the documentary I was watching last night and let the sounds wash over me.

My eyes close, I am almost asleep.

And then, I am dreaming.

I dreamt about Johnny a lot right after he died. They weren’t good or bad dreams, just little snippets. Like little pieces he left behind. I would be in the kitchen and he would come in as a little kid and open the fridge. Or we would be biking near the high school. But now, it’s like he is banned from my dreams. I never see him, not even the top of his unruly red hair.

Instead, I dream about my sister.

She is a little kid, and she has her bright blonde hair tied up in braids. We aren’t at home. We are at this cabin rental we used to go to when we were kids and our grandma was still alive. It smells like Pine-Sol and all of the lights are off.

She is by the window watching the lake. Except, when I stand beside her and look out, it’s not the lake at all. It’s a street. It’s night and red lights dance across the inky sky.

“It’s alright,” Dream Ava tells me. She is gripping the splintery windowsill with all her might.

Then, she hooks her palms under the large glass window and pulls it open with a large creaking sound.

Sirens blare into the cabin.  

My heart hammers in my chest. I am sitting bolt upright in my bed. My laptop is a black screen next to me. A siren wails a few streets away.

And then, there is the sound of the window sliding shut.

Of course.  

I crawl over to my window. It’s dark outside but I can see, by the dim light of the streetlamps, Ava in a dark sweatshirt crawling across the roof towards the tree.  

I toss the sheets aside and heave my bedroom window open.

“Hey,” I hiss in Ava’s direction. She turns around, surprised. But when she sees me, a mix of frustration and annoyance clouds her face.

I crawl towards her, the black shingles rough like sandpaper on the palms of my hands. This part of the roof is flat and wraps all the way around the house. There is enough room to lie down. The tree is right in front of Ava’s room. It’s one of those trees that was made for climbing. It’s like our house wants us to sneak out in the middle of the night.

She’s already in the tree when I reach her. I grab one of the branches and swing next to her. Her makeup is thick and heavy. I can barely see her eyes under all of it.

“Why do you want to go anyway?” I whisper. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sad to hang out with my friends?” Ava rolls her eyes. “Sad to have fun? Amie, we won the game today. Not that you noticed.”

“No,” I say, ignoring her comment about the game. “About Johnny.”

Ava wasn’t at that party over the summer. She was at sleepaway camp. She wasn’t here when we got the call. She made it just in time for the service.

“Everything makes me a little sad these days,” she says.

She climbs the rest of the way down. I don’t stop her.

I sit motionless in the tree, in the dark, listening to my sister walk towards a party I should be at.

And do what, try to be her friend? Try to enjoy myself in the mass of sweaty, drunk teenagers who all treat me like I am made of glass?

I could protect her, a small voice inside me whispers.

Like you protected Johnny?

My brain twists in something close to pain. I wait for the tightness in my chest to unfurl.

It doesn’t.

I ache for the morning before he died. I don’t remember it. Not at all. But I ache for it. For what we had for breakfast. For the dumb names he called me. For how he used to get Ava and I laughing.

I wait for Dana’s voice to give me instructions. But I can’t figure out the right thing to do. Minutes pass and the wind makes patterns as it hits the tree branches. The longer I sit in the tree, the more uncomfortable I am.

I swing down from the tree, my Converses hitting the hard, November earth. I don’t have my phone. I don’t have my wallet. I hug my sweater around my arms and walk in the direction of Hillcrest.

It’s cold and the wind rises every minute to whip my hair against my cheeks. The street is silent, and my footsteps make these loud scraping noises as I walk faster and faster.

My heart speeds up as I walk. Too fast.

I squeeze my arms under my armpits. No, I think sternly. I already had an attack today.

I practice breathing as I walk, the way Dana taught me. Breathe out longer than you breathe in. It’s weird but it works.

My heart steadies.

I hang a right on Hillcrest. It’s a short, curving hill. I can already hear the muffled sounds of hip hop on the speakers, laughter on the front lawn. I jog up the hill and pretend I am swimming. Pretend I am in the pool.

Pretend I am underwater.

The pavement is unrelenting on my knees. I feel stiff—I feel like if I fall, I might crack open into little slivers of Amie.

I am sharp inside. All knife-like edges. All words that cut.

I stop jogging and put my hands on my knees, breathing hard. I am a swimmer. An athlete. A jog up a hill shouldn’t wind me.

A car engine revs and bright, blinding lights flood the street. A horn blares behind me.

“Move!” Someone I don’t know is hanging out the passenger window. “Quit blocking the road, bitch!”

Startled, I walk slowly to the curb. I stand dumbly as a Ford Escort passes, the bass thumping loudly. A car full of boys laughing. Probably at me. I sink down to the grass and watch the car park on the side of the road. My eyes float up to the house across the street. The front lawn is packed with teenagers. This party got too crazy, too quick. The houses on Hillcrest are spread far apart and hidden by these tall pine trees, but there is no way the neighbors are going to let this party go on much longer.

I should find Ava. Find Ava and get out of here before someone calls the cops.

I force myself off the curb and move towards the party, my heart flickering like a flame. Every bodily sensation is magnified to 1,000. But I keep walking. I cross the street and make my way towards the front door, into the press of teenagers. The smells overwhelm: hair gel mingling with some terrible cologne, cold air, stale beer and the sharp scent of vodka. Someone says my name, but it’s not my sister, so I keep going, crash my way through the foyer and into the loud, thudding world of the living room.

They have pushed all the furniture—the coffee table, the couch, the lamps—to the edges of the room and everyone is crowded in the center, dancing. Or, doing something that is close to dancing. I look for Ava’s long, dark blonde hair in the tangle of bodies, but she isn’t there. I turn towards the bright kitchen and run straight into Kay.

She is holding a red solo cup. When I bump her, it spills onto her pale pink top.

“Shit,” she says, dabbing the wet spot ineffectually with her hand. Then she looks up.

“You came!” Her eyes are the kind of bright you have after a few drinks.

*

I had been the designated driver that night. Kay had to be home at midnight, so I promised I would drive her. I didn’t go to parties a lot. I remember Johnny in the kitchen, playing beer pong. He winked at me and I rolled my eyes at him. He was so smart, but played the dumb jock so well.

Then someone put a drink in my hand and I thought, One drink. Why not? Kay only lives 10 minutes away. Only 10 minutes.

But the drink was strong and by the time I was done with it, the whole world was a blur of lights and colors. I suddenly loved everyone and then my brother was there. They called us twins at school—only a grade apart. We were the athletes. The jocks. I was shy but it didn’t matter. Everyone knew me because of him.

“I’ll take her home,” he said. “Just don’t drink anymore, Mom will kill me if you’re hungover.”

I remember Kay laughing at this, and then I don’t remember much else until later that night. Until Mom screaming, screaming like someone stabbed her in the temple.

God.

Kay.

The party blares. I am caught inside it, my heart beats so fast I can’t tell where one beat starts and the next begins. The sharp pieces inside keep threatening to cut deeper and deeper. All the air goes out of the room. I can see Kay’s eyes, the tilting world of the living room and I wonder, suddenly, if any of this is real.

I try to hold onto breath, but I can’t seem to find the air. I open my mouth to ask something. Shut it.

It should have been me.

Johnny was hit after he dropped off Kay. He was on Foley Street and the guy who hit him ran the stop sign. Doing 60 in a 40.

Johnny hadn’t had a single drink.

But I … I was drunk. He took the car. He drove Kay home. Kay knows, though. Kay is the only one who knows. Which is why I had to quit the swim team. Why I had to leave.

Why I can’t be Kay’s friend anymore.

“Amie,” Kay’s voice emerges from the static.

Noises blur into aqua tinged tiles. For a moment, I am back in the pool. Safe under the blanket of water. I am going to melt into the air right here at this party before I can find my sister. Before she gets in a car. Before. Before.

“Amie.” Kay’s voice is as calm as a lake. “I am here. You are going to be okay. Someone is getting Ava.”

I crumple. Heaving sobs on Kay’s chest. “I’m sorry,” I say. I say it over and over again. A hand runs through my tangled hair. My hair tie is gone, probably trampled on by a thousand drunk teenagers. And then. Then, we are outside. Kay must have brought me here. It’s cold, but the cold feels good. I drink in the air, the almost quiet.

“Here,” Kay offers me her cup, and I shake my head. “It’s water. I promise. Drink.”

I take the cup and lukewarm water spills down my throat.  

Kay laces her hand in mine. “We are going to be okay,” she says. I look at her. Her eyes are red. Like she’s been crying.

I never talked to her about it. About Johnny. She was the last one who saw him alive.

“Kay …”

“Amie!” Ava’s breathless voice breaks through. I turn and she is coming at me full force. Her makeup is smudged and her hair is loose and wild.

“Hey,” I say and raise the red solo cup in a mock cheers. We stand there looking at each other. Sisters, somehow.

She drags in a deep breath and glances at Kay, who nods.

“Let’s go home.”

*

In the kitchen, Ava makes hot chocolate the way Mom used to when we were kids. In a saucepan: whole milk, Hershey’s syrup, and cinnamon.

She brings two steaming mugs into the living room. I take a sip. It’s perfect.  

Ava curls onto the couch, tucking her knees up to her chest. She doesn’t look at me when she speaks.

“You think it’s your fault.”

I don’t say anything.

“You do,” Ava says. And then she laughs. It isn’t a nice laugh. It isn’t a mean one either. It’s a disbelief laugh.

“You don’t understand,” I manage, finally. “It’s complicated.”

Ava snorts.

“What?” I say.

Ava turns toward me. Here is a secret: my sister’s eyes have always scared me. When she was little, she did this creepy thing where she would come into my room when I was sleeping and when I woke up, she would be sitting on my floor staring at me. Like she was trying to figure me out.

Now, her hazel eyes laser into mine. I can’t escape them. She faces life full on. She isn’t a coward like me. She doesn’t flinch.

“Tell me” is all she says.

I hang in the silence for a moment—just a breath. Then, something in my chest loosens.

I tell her about the party, about the drinks, about Kay. I tell her how I was supposed to be the one to drive Kay home. How Johnny stepped up. How I haven’t talked to Kay since.

After I am done, we sit in silence for a bit.

“Is that why you quit the swim team?” she asks.

“I couldn’t deal with it. With Kay. Facing her.”

“She probably misses you. She was pretty upset tonight.”

I don’t say anything.

Ava picks up our mugs from the coffee table and heads to the kitchen. The mugs clang in the empty sink.

She comes back, standing in the doorway, backlit by the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen.

“It’s no one’s fault, Amie,” she says. “I thought it was my fault for a while, too.”

I look at her. “How could it possibly be your fault? You weren’t even here when it happened.”

“Exactly,” she says.

She doesn’t move. I breathe into the darkness of the living room, the taste of milk chocolate coating my tongue.

“I am sorry,” I say.

“For what?”

“For missing the game. For not even realizing there was a game to begin with.”

Ava laughs. “It’s not your thing.”

“But you come—came—to all my meets. With Johnny and Mom.”

Ava moves from the doorway and perches on the arm of the couch so that a sliver of moonlight catches her face.

“I like watching you swim,” she says, not looking at me. “You are completely focused. Other swimmers look like they are attacking the water. But you just … are the water.”

She turns towards me and quirks her lips into a half-smile.

“I’ll be at the next game,” I say, holding her words in my chest carefully, not wanting them to break.

“I’d like that,” she says.

I listen to her footsteps as she walks up to her room. I let my eyes half-close so that the world comes out all blurry. It reminds me of the pool—how everything softens around the edges when I sink beneath the surface.

How I become the water.

*

I fall asleep on the couch. I don’t remember it happening. I don’t remember my dreams. Just the feeling of water submerging my limbs.

Mom shakes me awake. I blink back to consciousness, disappointment swallowing me.

The party, the panic attack, Kay, Ava.

Ava.

“You okay?” Mom’s brows are furrowed together. She is in her terrycloth bathrobe and she hasn’t put her makeup on yet. Her eyes are pinched and puffy.

“Yeah,” I say. “Just fell asleep here.”

She looks suspicious but nods. I follow her into the kitchen where we make coffee and watch the sun part through the trees and through the windows over the sink. I drink my coffee black.

I dig my phone out of my pocket. It’s still alive, despite not being charged in forever.

It’s early on a Sunday. She probably isn’t up.

I navigate to my contacts and click on Kay’s name, opening a new message.

When I am done writing, I hold my breath and hit send.

“What are you up to?” Mom is pulling bread and eggs out of the fridge.

“Making plans,” I say.

Mom smiles. I look back at my phone. Kay’s name is brightly lit against the screen.

Before I read her message, I close my eyes. Imagining a future where I am on the swim team, talking to Kay. Maybe even talking to my sister sometimes.

It will be a while, I know. But there is glimmer in knowing it could happen. That the world isn’t just a wide-open blankness. That there is me. There is light.

Until then, I will just keep swimming laps.

 

The Young Travelers Club
by Jessica Rinker

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

September 11, 2001
6:00am
Where were you?

When my mom decides to show up, that’s what I will ask her.

Because she isn’t at the end of the long accordion-looking walkway they pull up to Gate 61 when I get off the plane. And she isn’t at the baggage claim like the flight attendant named Anne thought she might be. She still doesn’t show up when they page her to Terminal C. Instead we grab my stuff, and Anne leads me to a mostly-glass room with a sign above the door that says: Young Travelers Club. There are three kids already in the room: two small kids, and a girl my age with black hair pulled into a huge knot on the top of her head. She’s reading, and her eyes flick up to look at me and then go right back to her magazine.

She’s not interested. Nobody ever is.

There’s also a too-tall, too-skinny guy who smiles too big when he sees Anne. He’s wearing a name tag that’s shaped like a pair of gold bird wings. The tag says TOM W. Tom takes my bag and guides me by the shoulders into the room.

“I’ll be your Travelers Club Tour Guide today, Brady McKinley,” Tom says as he reads a piece of paper Anne handed him. “I’ll help you with whatever you need while you’re with us.”

“Tour guide?” I ask.

“Pilot of the crew. Captain of the room,” he says, grinning like he’s clever. Maybe
if I were six I’d agree. When I don’t give him the response he wants, he says, “Just a title, bud. This is where kids wait for their flights when parents can’t wait with them,” he says, smiling at me as though I’ve just landed myself a premier spot in the most prestigious club ever. His teeth are very white. My mom, a dental hygienist, would approve.

“I just got off my flight. I’m not waiting for one.”

Tom’s smile disappears. “I realize that.”

“I’m too old to be here,” I say, looking at the little kids who are watching a cartoon about a sponge, which is actually really funny, but I’d rather be anywhere else right now. Sleeping, snoring, and dreaming in my bed is one idea. Chasing Bigfoot across the Siberian tundra is another.

“The Clubroom is glad to make an exception,” Tom says, like the room has a brain. I’d like to not be an exception to this room for kids who can’t take care of themselves. Except the older girl looks like she could take care of herself. She looks strong, like weirdly strong. No idea what she’s doing here.

“Hey everyone,” Tom says, his voice getting higher with every word, as I walk in
and inspect the room. “This is Brady.”

I half expect everyone to say ‘Hi, Brady,’ like it’s been rehearsed, but they say nothing. This is going to be a long morning. There’s not much to do. Table and chairs, two recliners, and a small couch. A half-full bookshelf with a few novels and a bunch of magazines. Fully stocked vending machine, but I don’t have any money. TV, but I could be watching that at home in my bed.

Girl my age, but reading what must be the most interesting magazine ever written since she can’t take her face out of it.

Two little kids. They are maybe eight or nine years old, small, and now that I see them closely, definitely siblings. One boy, one girl. They each sit with one leg up on the couch, almost mirror images of each other. The girl is coloring while her brother messes around with a pair of walkie-talkies. They buzz and crackle as he turns knobs and presses buttons. The walkies scream when they are too close together. He doesn’t seem to understand how they work.

“Uri and Phoebe,” Tom W. says even though I didn’t ask. “They are headed to Florida. Going to Disney.” When he turns back to me, he has a smirk on his face and adds, “Very soon,” as if I’m on his side.

The boy grins at me. The girl ignores me. The walkie-talkie squeals.

Tom closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Uri, please stop doing that.” He points to the girl reading, who still doesn’t look up at us as Tom talks about her.

“And this young lady is Jada. She’s headed home to Colorado Springs. I think you two are about the same age. Maybe you can keep each other company? Play Uno or something?”

He says it in a hopeful way, and glances at Anne who’s still standing in the doorway. I
get the feeling he’d rather follow Anne out of the room when she leaves, but he only follows her to the door and watches her walk down the hall. Jada doesn’t look at me again so I’m guessing Uno is out.

I head for the table in the back corner. The chair makes a loud screeching sound on the tile floor when I pull it out. Tom flinches a little bit. If he doesn’t like noise, he’s
probably got the wrong job, but I don’t say that out loud.

I drop myself into the plastic orange seat, throw my backpack on the table, and purposely scrape the chair as I pull it back in. Inside my bag, I have a big green spiral notebook. The McKinley Book of Records. I slap that on the table upside down so no one can see what it says on the cover, rip out a piece of paper, and start folding it. Folding paper calms me down. My dad’s the same way; he says it’s meditative.

“How long do I have to stay here?” I ask, as I fold the corners to the middle of the
page.

“Until a parent shows up.”

“My mom, you mean.”

“Whoever is able to pick you up.”

“My dad is an air traffic controller in Boston.”

“Where does your mother live?”

“Mars.”

Tom squints at me like he’s trying hard to keep his eyeballs behind his eyelids.

“Then I guess…your mother?”

“I guess.” If she decides to show.

“What are you making?” he asks, pointing to my paper. I notice Jada looks up, too.

“A starwing.”

“That’s an unusual way to fold a paper airplane.”

“My dad taught me.”

“Your dad sounds like a pretty cool dude.”

I look at him. But I’m done talking. Jada goes back to her magazine. Tom stands in the doorway and stares out like he wishes he were somewhere else. That’s something we could agree on, I guess.

*

Mom’s forgotten me before.

The last time she swore it would never happen again. But here I am. I understand sometimes it’s hard for her to get out of work early enough to meet me at school and on those days, I walk home alone. Last year, my ex-best friend Charlie’s mom would sometimes make me dinner, but if she couldn’t, I’d walk to Mr. Lou’s or the pizza place, and they know my usual order: General Tso’s Chicken or Two Slices Extra Pepperoni, Extra Cheese—Hold the Oregano. No big deal. But since I’ve been flying to Dad’s, she has never been late to the airport to pick me up. She always meets me at the gate when I come home, waving like she hasn’t seen me in a year.

She borrows Dr. Ross’ BMW. He’s the dentist at the practice where she cleans teeth, and they’re good friends. Mom tells me she loves to pick me up because the car ride is the only time she can keep me in one spot for more than fifteen minutes anymore, and she says how did that happen? because in sixth grade, I still hugged her in front of the school and now I won’t even look her in the eye. But she must not love it enough to be on time this morning. Even though I was gone all summer, I didn’t think she’d forget to pick me up. Even though we hadn’t been talking much by the end of seventh grade, you don’t forget your only son. Right?

Her lateness definitely makes the McKinley Book of Records, the notebook Dad and I started over the summer. It’s just like the Guinness Book of World Records, only just for our family. After we got in a fight about which type of paper airplane flies the farthest (Dad won), Dad said people will always fight over facts because they use whatever facts they want to back up what they believe from their own experience. In other words, I’m young and don’t know any better. He also says if I write stuff down, I might like to read it when I’m older.

I don’t really know if I’ll care about all the crazy stuff I wrote down about what we saw in the city, like the Drunkest Man at a Red Sox Game (Dad’s friend Zeke), and Farthest Frisbee Ever Thrown (Dad), and Loudest Root Beer Belch Ever Performed in a Taxi (me). I asked him if he should keep the book at his house until I come back, but he said to bring it with me and continue the recordkeeping in New York. Show him when I returned.

I’ll show him.

Worst Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

Then I feel really bad. She’s not really the worst mother ever. She isn’t even strict. My mom’s just busy. I cross her name out, but not so much that she couldn’t still read it if she ever decides to pick up the record book and skim through. Because that’s how mad I am.

Latest Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

I still feel bad.

I rip out the page, fold it into a classic dart plane, and fly it into the garbage.

*

I pretend the W on Tom’s name tag stands for Warden and I write Tom into the record book, too.

Skinniest Man Alive: Tom Warden

Seems to me he’s kind of like a teacher, only he has less power than a teacher so really he’s just like a super skinny babysitter. Tom finally leaves the doorway and now sits in the corner of the room on a computer, scrolling through lists of auctions on eBay. He’s wearing headphones and taps his foot, humming way off key, but I recognize the song anyway. Dad and I sang it most of the summer. It’s our song.

Tom confirms it with a sudden “Sweet Caroline! BUM BUM BUM!” For some reason this makes me mad. I grumble out loud and kick the chair across from me. Jada scowls at me. Tom lowers his headphones, turns to me, and asks, “Is there a problem?”

“Problem?” I say. “There’s no problem.” I even raise my hands up like I’m innocent. I don’t say anything about how only Red Sox fans sing that song and he couldn’t possibly be one because this is New Jersey. Just then the walkie-talkies squeal with feedback.

“Uri!” Tom jerks around to him. “Please. Stop. Doing that. I’ve been asking you all morning. I implore you to play with something else.”

“What’s implore?” the little boy asks.

“It means to beg,” Jada says, not looking up. She turns her page and then catches me watching her. She’s wearing black leggings and a long red t-shirt that says USA and she has crazy strong biceps. She tilts her head and widens her eyes like she’s saying ‘What are you looking at?’ I don’t want to, but I look away.

“Just play with something else, please,” Tom says.

“Like what?” Uri pushes one walkie-talkie over to his sister. She doesn’t look at it, but puts it in her pocket. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Why not get out a game?” Tom gestures to a big cabinet. “There’s a bunch to choose from. Clue, Monopoly, Life…maybe you and your sister can get this guy to join you.” He nods toward me.

Uri takes one look at me and politely says, “No, thank you.” He pulls a magazine off the rack instead. It has motorcycles on the front.

Good choice.

“Come sit by me,” Jada says, as she rolls her magazine up and sticks it in her bag. “We can look at that one together.”

Uri grins and squeezes himself between Jada and the arm of the oversized chair. They turn pages and talk about chrome and big tires, and Uri is about the happiest kid ever.

My stomach growls and the vending machine brags all about its Snickers and Doritos that I can’t buy. Dad said I wouldn’t need any money because Mom would be right there and could take me to breakfast. But that obviously did not happen. I stare out the glass windows that make up the front of the clubroom to try to take my mind off my stomach. Out in the hall, more people are passing by, dragging wheeled cases and small children.

The sun is coming up over the New York City skyline way in the distance. From the horizon up, the sky goes from yellow to white to blue to violet, and the sun is just below Manhattan so that the buildings look black against the pink and orange clouds. I don’t usually see the sunrise like this because I live on the Lower East Side and the buildings are too tall to see the whole sky at once. A sunrise in the city is more like a dimmer light slowly turning on. This looks like the world is on fire.

At the gate across the hall from us, an American Airlines jet taxies in and the massive engines come to a slow spin. Even behind all this glass, I can hear the steady roar die down. Lights on the tail blink and hypnotize me for a minute, makes me think about the first time I watched a plane pull up to the gate like that. I thought I was the luckiest kid with divorced parents ever because I got to get on that plane all by myself. I got free food and all the root beer I wanted. I got flight attendants like Anne fussing over me the entire flight. I didn’t have to drive back and forth like other kids. Flying was way cooler. But a year later, I’m over it.

Mom should probably send me back to Boston, let me live with Dad like he offered over the summer. He doesn’t want me getting into any more trouble at school.

But that would really hurt her feelings. But I’m also dreading going back to school because ever since Charlie ditched me, we haven’t said a word to each other. But I’m not sure I want to move to Boston. What if I couldn’t make any new friends? I’m not that great at it. But not going to Boston will hurt Dad’s feelings. I can’t win. Just thinking about all of it makes me feel like my eyes are bouncing around inside my head.

I grab my Sharpie and start scratching on the desk instead of the record book: L-O-S-E-R. When I’m done I stare at the word for a long time. Who is it for? Charlie? My very-late mother? Dad for sending me off without money? Or me for being me?

*

Caroline must have stopped being so sweet. Tom is suddenly standing in front of me yelling my name.

“McKinley!” It makes me jump. I’m starting to really not like him and his skinny chicken legs.
“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nothing,” I say. I look at the desk. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Well, it looks like nothing is defacing airport property. Do you write on your tables at home with black permanent marker?”

“It’s just ink.”

“Oh, okay. If it’s just ink,” he finger quotes ink, “go get something to wash it off with.”

He mumbles, “Unbelievable,” as I get up and loudly scrape the chair again. I swing open the bathroom door so hard it crashes into the wall. I yank on the paper towels so the cover pops off and clatters to the floor.

“Jesus, kid! Could you be any louder?”

I kick in the stainless steel garbage can. The more noise I make, the angrier I get. Phoebe holds her hands over her ears. Jada takes Uri by the hand and sits on the couch between the twins. They all look at me like I’m a crazy person and then I feel really stupid. I’m not a crazy person, I’m not even mean. But it’s hard for me to stop arguing with Tom. I want out of this room.

“You do realize it’s a privilege to be here?” Tom says. “You could sit in the security office until your mother arrives. I don’t have to keep you, especially if you’re a danger to the other kids.”

I’m not a danger to other kids. Only to garbage cans. “Then why are you?”

“Because I thought this would be more comfortable for you. Be with other kids, TV, stuff to do.”

“I didn’t ask for any favors,” I say. I’m not trying to be a smart-ass; the words just fly out of my mouth by themselves. But it’s the truth. This was the airport’s idea. I’d never choose to sit in a room with Tom or a security guard or anyone else. Well, maybe with Jada, but she’s so not interested in me. So probably not even with her either. If I had money, I could have gotten a cab home all by myself.

“Just clean up that mess please. Use this.” Tom places a bottle of Windex on the table. I hate to tell him Windex will not clean up Sharpie. I’ve tried it before in the boys’ bathroom at PS 276 after Charlie and I got in trouble for drawing a giant Tic-Tac-Toe board. I was X’s, he was O’s. It was a tie.

“When you’re finished, please just sit still like the Wonder Twins over there.”

“What’s a wonder twin?” Uri asks in his high-pitched voice.

Tom sighs and ignores him, but keeps lecturing me. “You need to keep it down and respect the property of the Clubroom. We made an exception for you today, so it would be helpful if you minded the rules; set a good example for the younger kids.”

I almost tell him to set his own example, but instead I spray the table with the Windex and keep my mouth shut for once. He doesn’t.

“You’re not above them, you know. Just because you’re what, twelve?”

I feel my skin getting hot as I scrub at the word LOSER. It’s not coming off, of course. I hope my face isn’t turning red. “Thirteen.”

The table will not come clean. Some things are permanent.

“Excuse me. Thirteen.” Tom sits on one of the reclining chairs and his voice changes, he’s trying to be nice now. This is where I should calm down and make peace.

I focus on the 747 outside. I imagine everyone boarding and storing their bags, unbuckling the seat belts and cursing when they can’t buckle themselves in. The way the compartments never close all the way, but somehow the flight attendants can always figure it out. How no one over the age of eleven can fit in those seats. How you always have to sit by strangers, but the roar of the engines at takeoff always puts everyone to sleep.

“Were you visiting your dad in Boston?” Tom asks.

I rest my chin on my arms. I don’t even look at him and he still won’t stop trying to have a conversation.

“Pretty well-off parents, I guess,” he says, smirking a little bit. “Used to getting what you want, I’d guess.”

If I were someone who laughed, I’d have laughed right out loud. Flying is just a perk from Dad’s job. And Mom is anything but rich. She works real hard, but never makes enough to buy Air Jordans or anything like that.

Rich is a fairytale, something you see in the movies.

Rich is for kids who have their own drivers with signs in fancy script who are always on time after school or at the airport.

Rich never has empty pockets or a growling stomach.

Rich is reserved for kids like the one who walks into the room right now.

*

“This is Nicholas Grace.”

Anne comes back into the room behind a blonde kid in khaki cargo pants and a white polo shirt who looks like he stepped right out of the Macy’s display window. He has a video camera around his neck and looks cleaner than an Ivory soap commercial.

Anne rushes over to Tom, who is suddenly Mr. Too-Nice Guy again, with a big stack of papers. Like an entire file-folder of papers.

“What’s all this?” Tom gets up from his chair and flips through the pages.

“His instructions,” Anne says. “Including a list of meal preferences?” Her flushed face has an unreadable expression, though Tom seems to understand it.

“O-K,” he says and tosses the folder on his desk. “Welcome to the Clubroom, Nick.”

“Nicholas,” the kid says.

He surveys the room with his camera in hand, panning across very slowly, filming the entire room and stopping on everyone’s face. Especially Jada’s. Tom and Anne look at each other. Anne shrugs, and smiles at Tom, tapping his shoulder.

“You have quite the group today, Tommy.”

She leaves and we keep watching Nicholas as he scans the room with his camera like he’s gathering evidence.

“Tom?” he says. “Your name is Tom, right?”

“Yes.” Tom points to his wings. “Tom.”

“This room is freezing, Thomas.” Nicholas walks over to the thermostat and raises the camera to it. “This should be set at seventy-two.”

“It’s just Tom. And why is that?”

“My father, Gregory Scott, you may have heard of him, he’s pretty famous. He’s written thirteen books and produced five movies, mostly about natural disasters, and he wrote a book about Mt. Everest and avalanches and hypothermia…”

“Sit down, Nick.”

“Nicholas.”

“Sit down, Nicholas.”

I get out my record book. This is gonna be good.

“I’m just saying, Thomas. Prolonged exposure is a dangerous and underrated phenomena.”

“I’m just saying,” Tom takes a breath, “you’re in an airport. And it’s September.”

“My fingers are already cold.” He blows on his hands like he’s trying to warm them up. “And my father…”

Tom walks over to the thermostat. “It’s sixty-eight, kid. Sixty eight is hardly freezing.”

“Seventy-two is recommended room temperature.”

Tom stares at Nicholas and punches a button on the thermostat four times with dramatic force. He slams the cover shut, returns to his desk, puts on his headphones and starts scrolling through eBay again. I’m willing to bet he’ll be sitting like that for a long time.

With a smug smile on his face, Nicholas goes to the windows and films the airplanes on the tarmac as if nothing ever happened. Jada and I look at each other. She shakes her head and sighs and I can almost hear her thinking it—boys—and I want to say something about how I’m really nothing like that kid even though I know so far I’ve sounded like a total jerk, but her attention goes right back to the twins.

“You’re a talented artist,” she says to the little girl. “Those skyscrapers look real.”

“She says thank you,” Uri says.

“Can’t Phoebe speak for herself?” Jada asks.

“No.”

Nicholas swings around with his camera and films their conversation.

“Why won’t your sister talk?” Nicholas asks from across the room.

“She only talks at home. She’s really shy.” Then he leans over to Jada and whispers, “Sometimes she wanders too, which is why my mom makes us carry these.” He taps the walkie-talkie.

“That’s fine,” Jada says, looking at Nicholas. “She doesn’t have to talk if she doesn’t want to.”

“So where are you all flying to?” Nicholas asks, still looking through his camcorder.

They tell him and he continues interviewing them like he’s some kind of reporter.

He has this weird way of getting them to talk, like part of him is grownup and important
and part of him is just nosy but maybe even a little shy too. I can tell he’s the kind of kid
who knows exactly how to use words to get what he wants. I can’t decide if I admire that
or hate it because I’m terrible at it. But I write their entire conversation down in the
record book. And then I rip out a page, scribble something down and fold it into a classic
plane. I send it to Uri and it lands right on the couch between him and Jada. They both
seem surprised, but when he opens it, he lets Jada and Phoebe read it, both twins grin at
me. Jada even cracks a tiny smile.

Most Powerful Superheroes = Wonder Twins

Then Nicholas whips his camera over to me. He doesn’t feel the need to keep his distance from me like he did with Jada. He walks right back across the room and stands in front of my table. When he pulls out the chair, it’s silent.

“What are you writing?” He asks in his reporter voice. But I don’t trust him.

“Nothing.”

“Is it a diary?”

“No. It’s just a book.”

“That’s not a book.”

“Yes, it is.” I close it and show him the spine and flip the pages. “See? A book.”

“Not a regular novel is what I mean. One that you read.” He brings his camera up and asks if he can get me on film. “I’m making a movie. Can I record you?”

I stare at him over the lens. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually looking for an answer.

“I’m serious, you’re a very interesting character,” he continues. “This army jacket that’s obviously way too big, faded camo pants that you’ve clearly worn a lot, silver stud in your ear which has to be new because your earlobe is still really red, and writing in a diary. It’s a great juxtaposition.”

He’s right on all accounts. These pants are my favorite because they have a ton of pockets. I keep my Sharpie in the lowest pocket. Other stuff like a small paper plane my dad left me, and a couple bottle caps from the day Charlie and I sat at the park and drank an entire six-pack of root beers. The army jacket was my grandfather’s and my dad just gave it to me before I left his place. And the earring, well, that was my own personal experiment this summer. Dad bet me I couldn’t do it. I won. Total record book material.

Nothing Nicholas needs to know.

All I can say is, “It’s not a diary. It’s a record book.”

“Can I read it?”

“No! Now go away.”

He gets out a small kit with a soft cloth and tiny spray bottle and cleans his perfectly spotless camcorder. “My dad sent me this.” he says. “It’s a Canon FV30.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It’s only one of the best and most expensive hand held video recorders you can get that also takes still shots. It’s perfect for amateur filmmakers such as myself.”

I don’t like that he thinks he knows everything. I want to tell him to buzz off, but with a better vocabulary word than “buzz.” But Tom would be on me for that one. Still, what could he even do? I’m already a prisoner of the airport. I don’t have any money. They can’t kick me out, they can’t send me anywhere except the security office, whatever that is. I can do whatever I want, though punching this mini Steven Spielberg is not smart. He probably has his own lawyer. I glare at him and say nothing and he seems to finally be out of questions, so he gets up and moves to one of the reclining chairs to watch videos on his precious camcorder.

When I was little, Mom used to tell me to punch a pillow or my bed if I got really angry. It doesn’t work anymore. And when I’m not home, there’s nothing to punch anyway. It builds up inside like a balloon with too much air and especially after last year, I feel almost ready to pop all the time. But these aren’t the things Dad wants me to record. He told me to write funny things, fantastic things, anything I want to remember. I think he’s right, not everything is meant to be in permanent ink. Instead I get to work on a zip dart, one of my best airplane folds, and push thoughts of Nicholas out of my head.

When I look up, I notice the little girl half of the Wonder Twins staring at me from the couch. She intently watches my fingers as I fold and crease and fold and crease until the plane is finished. When I’m done, I hold it up, aim it toward her, and when she smiles and nods, I send it her way.

*

Nicholas can’t stay quiet for long. He turns the camera back on and asks Jada if she wants to be in his movie.

“Not really,” she says. “But thanks.”

“Why are you making a movie?” Uri asks.

“Because it’s in my genes.”

Uri blinks. Nicholas explains, “My dad’s books get made into movies. That’s why I’m flying out to see him. I’m going to be on set of this next one.”

“Wow! So your dad’s really famous.”

“Pretty much,” Nicholas says and shrugs like it’s no big deal, even though he’s said it at least three times in about just as many minutes.

Phoebe whispers something in Uri’s ear. He speaks for her, “Phoebe wants to know if you’re going to be famous, too.”

“I am. That’s why I carry this camera around with me. I’m going to write screenplays—that means basically I will write and direct my own movies. I already have a ton of ideas.”
I grunt from my corner.

“What?” Nicholas says. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“You have to have something interesting to write about. Something people would actually watch.”

“I have plenty of interesting ideas.”

“Like what you do on Sundays at racquetball club? With your crisp white polo shirt and fancy camcorder? Everyone’s going to want to see that.”

“You don’t know a thing about me,” Nicholas says, angrily. It’s the first time he doesn’t sound spoiled. I’m almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he opens his mouth again.

“Who wouldn’t want to see the secret lives of the rich and famous? Look at all the reality shows on TV. My dad is a celebrity. Why couldn’t I have my own show?” He crosses his arms and smirks.

“You can’t just be rich. You’d have to do things no one else does. The only way to get a good story is to do things other people are too afraid to do.”

“How do you know I’m not?” Nicholas crosses his arms.

I can’t think of anything to say, so I shrug.

“Whatever.”

I put my headphones on and Nicholas goes back to the Wonder Twins. I close my eyes and try not to think about my growling stomach or what questions Nicholas might be asking those kids now. Jada laughs at something Nicholas says. I bury my face in my arms and drift off, hoping when I wake up the others will be on their flights and most importantly, my ride will show up.

*

Uri’s walkie-talkie screeches through the room like a jet.

I fly back in my seat, the sound jolting me from a dream I can’t remember. I check the clock and realize not even a full ten minutes passed while I drooled. Sleep was my only chance at escape and Uri ruined it. But I’m not as mad as Tom.

Tom whips around like someone hit him in the back of the head with something.

“Uri! Didn’t I ask you to please turn those off?”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t take it anymore.” He stands up and walks over to the couch. “Let me have them until it’s time for you to go.”

Phoebe’s eyes go wide and frightened. Uri shakes his head. “I won’t do it again. I promise.” He turns his off. “See?”

“I think it would be better if you let me hold them. I’ll set them right here on my desk.” Tom walks over and puts his hand out. Uri looks at his sister, but hands it over.

Phoebe doesn’t move.

“Phoebe?”

Neither twin says a word. Nicholas does it for them. “They need those because she doesn’t talk to other people.”

“Thank you for your help, Nicholas. I realize that. I’m not keeping them. I’m just going to hold them until they are ready to leave.”

After a few more seconds of nobody moving, I can’t help myself. “Leave them alone. You’ve already got one. The other one can’t make noise by itself.”

Tom stares at me. My armpits sweat bad. He points at me, but then shakes his head and says nothing. Instead he sets the walkie-talkie on the table, sits back down to the computer and puts on his headphones. I exhale. Then I look at Nicholas and tell him to leave the twins alone too. He seems surprised.

“We’re just talking,” he says. “This is how you make friends, you know. You talk.” He drags out “you” and “talk” like I can’t understand English. Like I’m some kind of ape in a cage.

“You’re not making friends, you’re making fans.”

Nicholas looks at me for a minute like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Then he points the camera at me. He seriously has no fear.

“Where are you flying?”

“I’m not.”

“This is an airport. If you’re not flying, why are you here? Are you the janitor?”

“I already flew. I’m waiting for my ride.”

“You must have had a red-eye,” he says. “That means an overnight flight.”

“I know what a red-eye is.”

“They don’t usually let kids do that.”

“I’m special.”

Nicholas shrugs and continues filming, but swings his camcorder over to Tom. I want out of the room so bad it’s hard to sit still. The walls seem closer and sitting here seems more and more ridiculous. I shove the record book in my bag and scrape my chair out. Everyone is watching me, but I pretend I don’t notice. I pace in front of the windows that look into the terminal.

“Can I make a call?” I turn and ask Tom.

Tom looks startled. “Why?”

“Because I want to make a phone call.”

“Who are you calling?”

I’m so tired of people’s questions. “What does it matter?” My foot kicks the table leg and sends it a couple feet. Phoebe jumps. I look at her and want to tell her I’m sorry, but the words don’t come. They never do. I don’t have those words, I’m sorry. But Tom has plenty.

“I think you should give me a good reason why you need to use the phone.”

I don’t have a good reason, at least not one that will convince him. Tom seems to know this because he sits in his chair with his arms folded like he’s waiting for me to do something besides pace. I wish I could. I wish I was brave enough to pound out of the room, but I’m not.

“Why can’t he make a call?” Jada asks. My skin reacts before my brain. She’s sticking up for me?

“Yeah,” Nick chimes in. “Isn’t that the point of having a phone?” I won’t lie, I’m annoyed when I hear his voice, but interested to see where Nicholas, lawyer to the people, takes this one.

“There needs to be a reason,” Tom says.

“Does it cost money to dial out?”

“No.”

“Is there a limit to how many phone calls a day can be made?”

“No.”

“Then why does he need a reason?” Nicholas is as calm as anything. Like they’re discussing the morning’s weather. I’ve never known a kid who can challenge an adult without skipping a beat. All without showing any frustration.

Ballsiest Lawyer in Training: Nicholas Grace

Nick continues. “If he doesn’t have a cell phone, he should be allowed to use the phone in here.”

“I have a cell,” I lie. “It’s just dead.”

“I rest my case,” Nick says.

I could learn something from him. Jada beams at him. That makes me want to throw a paper airplane at his face, but I can’t. He’s helping me out.

“What’s with the three of you? Do you know each other or something?” Tom asks. “Brady, no phone for right now, okay? Your mom’s on her way. Just sit tight.”

Nicholas sighs. Loudly. Then he stands up, reaches in his pocket and holds out his phone. “You can borrow mine. It’s supposed to be for emergencies only, but my parents don’t care.”

I stare at the phone, pretty much the best phone you can get, and stare at Nicholas. My mom would say tearing someone else apart just makes you feel worse in the end, but I can’t keep my mouth shut.

“Do you have your own credit card too?” I ask, unable to hide the sarcasm that fills the air like a giant cloud of black gnats.

“Actually…”

“I’m good.” I put up my hand to block his offer. “I don’t need your phone when there is one right there on the wall that I should be allowed to use.” I glare at Tom.

“Fine,” Tom puts his hands up. “I was simply asking you a question. Calm down and make your phone call.”

Now everyone is staring at me as I walk to the phone. I hadn’t intended on causing such a scene. I don’t even understand why I get so mad sometimes. Since I never seem to know where my feet are, I kick the trash can on the way over, surely making Phoebe jump again, which makes me feel bad.

I dial the phone and listen to it ring and ring and ring as my insides dry up and turn to dust. She’s either on her way or sleeping. Either way, Tom looks way too satisfied that no one picks up. I slam the receiver down so hard the phone rings back at me.

Sorry, Phoebe. I stare at the phone. Twenty more minutes and I’m calling Dad.

I stand there for a while. Tom returns to his computer, and Uri starts talking to Nicholas again. But Jada looks at me, worried, this time. I don’t know what to do with myself so I sit back down and hide my face again. There’s nothing worse than disintegrating in front of all of them.

This is all my mom’s fault.

*

My stomach growls so loud, Phoebe looks at me. I pretend it came from Tom W.

I did not sleep at all last night because I was so nervous about coming home, and I haven’t eaten in over twelve hours. I drum my fingers on the table thinking about all the food I could be eating out in the food court right now if I wasn’t stuck in this room. And if I had money. Cheeseburgers, spicy tacos, sweet and sour pork, cinnamon buns dripping with icing, warm chocolate chip cookies, French fries…my stomach growls even more thinking about it.

Jada pulls out her magazine again and now I realize it’s a photo of a gymnast on the front. She reads with a serious expression on her face.

Nicholas keeps his eyes on his camcorder, and he let’s Uri watch clips he’s recorded over and over. Nick cracks up every now and then, which looks like his shoulders are shaking, but no sound comes out of his mouth. His ears are pink. I think he’s super nervous sitting by Jada, but I guess it’s a good thing if the director likes his own work.

No sound from Phoebe except the continued scratching of her pencil.

“Is it okay if I sit next to you and read?” Jada asks. The girl nods and even smiles a bit, so Jada sits across from her and starts pulling things out of her bag. Water bottle, more magazines with gymnasts, a book, a box of protein bars, a pencil, and an iPod. She lines them all up on the table in a nice row. As soon as my brain registers the sound of the foil wrappers, my stomach growls so loud that Jada turns to me.

“Want one? I have plenty, and my mom sent more boxes in my checked bag.”

Shoot me now. I might as well announce that I’m penniless and foodless. I don’t need handouts. I need my mother to be where she’s supposed to be. I shake my head and put my face back in my arms and breathe on the table, where it feels like my own private greenhouse.

“I’ll have one,” Nicholas says, finally brave enough to speak to her. “I mean if you’re offering.”

“Sure!” She tosses one across the room; I hear him catch it. I get the feeling he will save that wrapper until the day he dies.

Meanwhile, my stomach curses me for saying no. I continue to breathe in my arm-head-table fort, listening as she settles back in her chair, how the pages of her magazine whisper when she turns them. Phoebe’s scratching pencil. Tom W’s fingers hitting the keyboard too loudly. Uri rocking his chair. Only Nicholas can’t be located by sound. I peek up and see him filming through the windows again. He is seriously obsessed with that camcorder. And then I realize there’s a protein bar on the table in front of me. Which is really, really nice timing because I was about to start eating my own fingers.

I look at Jada and try to give her a silent thank you, because I don’t really want to talk out loud and get Tom after me again. I’m not sure if she understands or not, but she nods and goes back to her magazine. I unwrap the peanut butter oatmeal piece of heaven, fold it in half, and eat it in one bite. I need about eighteen more of those things to make a dent in my starvation.

“Excuse me, Thomas?” Nicholas suddenly asks in his lawyer voice.

Tom sighs.

“Any chance you can get me out there?” Nicholas points toward the windows, but Tom doesn’t turn around.

“No.”

“You didn’t even look where I’m pointing.”

Tom pretends to turn and look. “No.”

Nicholas walks right up to Tom’s desk and stands to his left.

“Do you have kids?”

“No.”

“Then what’s with the figures?”

“My nephew’s birthday is coming up.”

“He must really love Star Wars. Bet you’ll be his favorite uncle.”

“What do you want, Nick?”

“Nicholas. I want you to take me outside so I can get some up-close shots of that airplane. It’s really important that I get all the right angles for this movie.” He sounds so professional and convincing, it’s creepy.

Tom spins his chair around now and folds his arms. “What’s your movie called?”

“It doesn’t have a name yet. Only a working title.”

“What’s a working title?”

“It means,” Nicholas impatiently sighs, “I have a title but it could be changed.”

“So what’s your working title?”

Nicholas dramatically poses and raises his hands like there’s a banner in the room.

The Day Everything Changed.

“Interesting,” Tom says, sounding genuine. “What happens on the day everything changes?”

Nicholas is quiet for longer than three seconds, which for him is a lot. “I’m not sure yet, but it’ll be good.”

Tom laughs. “Well, I can’t take you out there. You’re not supposed to leave this room until Anne comes to get you for your flight. And I definitely can’t take you outside the building. Nobody goes on the tarmac except employees or if a plane is boarding out there. Sorry.”

“No one will ever know,” Nicholas suggests. But Tom shakes his head very slowly.

“My father…”

“Don’t start.”

Nicholas sighs and gives up even though I know he’s accustomed to winning.

This must be new for him. When he passes by me, he whispers, “I’m getting out of this room and getting out there. You watch.” I guess he’s not giving up after all.

Adrenaline pumps through me. Could he be serious? I have to believe if anyone could wheedle his way out, it would be this Nicholas kid. And there’s no way I’m staying in here if he manages it. I’ll call my mom from a payphone and hide out in the men’s room if I have to. Anything is better than this place. Nick sits on the couch next to Jada and inspects his camera. I rip a piece of paper out of my record book and write: If you’re going, I’m going.

Then I fold it into a basic dart, the best fold for a quick and easy note pass, and send it crash landing into Nicholas’ lap. He reads it, looks surprised, and glances at me. I raise an eyebrow. He nods. And just like that, we’re on the same team.

*

Anne pokes her head in the room again.

“Tommy, can I talk to you for a minute?” Tom gets up in a hurry, a big smile on his face, and leaves the room without saying anything to any of us. The second the door is closed, Uri runs to the table, grabs the walkie-talkie and hides it in his pocket. I like that kid.

I forget my fortress of solitude at the table and go up to the window to see where Tom went. They are standing outside the door to the right, talking about something I can’t hear, but clearly isn’t about Young Travelers. Anne tucks a piece of hair behind his ear and he pokes at her ribs. Gross.

“Ready to leave?” Nicholas says, suddenly standing at my side. We don’t make eye contact and just stare out the window.

“Yes.”

“Have you thought about security?”

“Not worried about it. I only have to get to a taxi.”

“Do you have money for a taxi?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m trying to help you think it through. When someone tries to help, you don’t have to be so nasty.”

“I don’t need your help.”

Nicholas looks me in the eyes like no one ever does. “I think you do.” And he shows me a wad of money like I’ve never seen.

“Your parents let you travel with all that?” Jada asks, surprising us both at the window.

“They don’t know what I travel with,” Nicholas says and shoves it back in a pocket.

“What are you saying?” Jada asks.

“I’m saying they don’t know what I travel with.”

“You know it’s dangerous to go around with that much cash in one place. Everyone knows that. Someone could steal it all in one shot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nicholas says. “I have this too.” He pulls out a wallet and flashes a little plastic rectangle. I’m beginning to think money comes out of his pores.

“I knew it,” I say.

“It’s for emergencies, but my parents seriously don’t care.” He slides the credit card back and puts the wallet in his bag. “So, if we can get out, your ride home is on me.”

I can’t tell whether or not Nicholas is telling me the truth. Although getting home is totally easy if I have the cash, escaping is a different matter. If he’s all talk, I’d be stuck out in the airport with no way to even call my mom without going back to the clubroom like a dog with its tail between its legs. Can’t do that.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” I say.

“How do I know you won’t keep it?” he asks.

“Because I want out of here more than anyone. Did you not see how much Tom likes me? He’s a jerk and he’s going to make the rest of my day miserable.”

“You’ll get me out, too?”

“Promise, but I can’t get stuck out there with no ticket home. Cash first or no deal.”

Nicholas looks at Jada. “Don’t look at me,” she says, crossing her arms and grinning. “You two seem to have this all figured out.”

But I have the feeling she doesn’t really think we do.

“Cash for my ride home and I’ll get all three of us out,” I say.

“You’re crazy,” Jada says, but she’s still smiling.

“I like it,” Nicholas says. “You get your ride, I get a close-up of that plane. We help each other out.”

I nod. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

“Perfect. My flight isn’t for hours. I got dropped off early cause my dad had to work,” Jada says, rolling up her magazine and sticking it in her bag.

“You just said we were crazy!” Nicholas says.

“You are, but it’s still an awesome idea,” she says, grinning. “So how are we doing it?”

“You don’t even know me,” I say, not sure why.

“I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

“Why do you want out?”

“Why not?” she says with an expression on her face that tells me that’s all I’m getting. I figure it’s as good a reason as any other.

“I’m totally getting a Cinnabon,” she says.

Feedback from Uri’s walkie-talkie makes us all jump. “Can we come?” he asks.

“No,” Jada says. “But I’ll bring you back treats.”

Uri seems satisfied with that. Phoebe smiles, but doesn’t look up from her drawing.

“Do you think they’ll say something?” Nicholas whispers.

“What would they say that Tom wouldn’t already know? Besides, we’re going to need their help,” Jada says.

“We are?” I raise an eyebrow. Whose plan is this?

“Those walkie-talkies. They could seriously come in handy.”

I think about what Uri said about why he had them in the first place. “I don’t know.”

“What is there to know? If we get separated, we can stay in touch. I’ll make sure to bring them back here later.”

I don’t say anything to that because I didn’t even think we were going to stick together the second we get out the door. If we even get out the door.

“And no matter what happens,” Jada adds. “If we get caught, they can’t do anything to us. It’s his job to watch us, he’s the one who’s gonna get in trouble.”

“What are you going to do out there?” Nicholas asks.

“I don’t know. Explore. Shop,” she says.

“That’s a super exciting plan,” I say.

She makes a face at me. “And yours is so much more spectacular?”

“Nicholas is the only one with a grand idea,” I say. “I just want to get out of here.”

“A grand idea that I’m never going to have time to do,” Nicholas says as he looks at the clock.

“Why?”

“Because my flight is supposed to leave at seven-thirty. I don’t know if there’s enough time before they board me.”

“Oh no,” I say. “You don’t get to call off the bet now. A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t realize the time!”

“Too bad!”

“I can’t miss my flight. My dad is waiting.”

“Yeah!” chirps Uri. “He has to be on set!”

I roll my eyes. Fans.

“On set for what?” Jada asks. “Are you actually part of the cast?”

“Long story,” Nicholas says and for what I think is probably the first time in his life, he doesn’t tell the story. Another entry for the record book.

“Flight or no flight, you can’t go back on a bet,” I say. I ball my fist up in my pocket. It wouldn’t take much to knock him over and take the cash, a thought that surprises me as soon as I think it. I’m not really a bad person, but I am so close to getting out. This is our best chance, with Tom distracted in the hall and now Nicholas is going to wreck it. It makes me want to wreck him.

Only I don’t think it would impress Jada and I know it would scare the twins. I walk away from them both. There has to be another way.

Then Tom returns and my stomach drops. Chance lost.

“Nicholas?” Tom says. “You’ve been put on a later flight.”

“Why?” Nicholas asks.

“Mechanical issues with the plane. You’re going to catch the nine-thirty instead.”

Tom closes the door and goes back to flirting with Anne.

“Well,” Jada says. “There you go. Hand over the money.”

*

I stare at the ten and two twenties. Besides Christmas, I don’t know if I’ve ever had this much cash in my hand.

Jada and Nicholas stare at me now, waiting to see what I’m going to do. Honestly, I didn’t think Nicholas had it in him to live up to his end of the deal—not the guts or the generosity. But I was wrong. Both of them have their bags and are ready to go as if we’re going to walk right out the door. But Tom and Anne are standing too close to it.

“I still don’t have very long,” Nicholas says. “I need a shot of that plane and the food court.”

“I know where the food court is,” I say. I shove the money in my bag and put the bag near the door. “You’re on your own with the plane.”

“What’s the plan?” Jada asks.

“I’ve got it covered,” I say.

“Well, you better hurry up because I think the love-birds are wrapping it up,” Nicholas says.

“I’ve got it,” I say, and I do. I have an instant escape plan, one that Charlie and I developed in sixth grade. It failed, but I think I’ve got the kinks worked out now. And it should buy us enough time to sneak out before Tom even knows what’s going on. I crouch down in front of Uri, who seems a little intimidated at first. I’m careful to not get too loud.

“I need you and your sister’s help. We’re going to, um, detain Mr. Tom, but I don’t want him stuck forever. It’s only so we can sneak out. You’ll let him out after a little while. Can you do that?”

He turns his walkie-talkie on and off, on and off while he stares at me, then nods and says, “As long as there’s a cinnamon bun in it for me and Phoebe.”

Jada laughs. “Kid after my own heart.” She bends down to us too, and it’s like we’re making this pact together, a small team united by cinnamon buns. “What time do you and Phoebe leave?” she asks.

He pulls out a folded piece of paper with all his flight information handwritten on it. “My mom made me carry this.” He hands it to Jada who reads it and nods again.

“No problem,” she says. “Plenty of time. I’ll bring you guys back a whole box.”

She looks at Nicholas who nods as if this has been his whole plan all along. Still, I like
this girl more and more, and even Nicholas doesn’t seem so terrible right now. The fact he
actually gave me fare for a cab? You never really know what someone else is thinking, I guess.

I look at the Wonder Twins and hope they don’t rat us out before we escape. Then I get an idea.

“Lend me one of those.” I point to the walkie-talkie in Uri’s hand. “Do you know what air traffic control does?”

Uri nods and then shakes his head no. “Not really.”

“They sit up in that tower out there by the runways and help tell the airplanes where to go. When a plane is up in the sky, there’s no road signs or anything so air traffic control keeps track of every single plane to keep it on the right path. To let them know if there are any problems. They stay in touch.”

“You want me to do that?” A smile stretches across Uri’s face.

“Exactly. You tell us what Tom is up to and where he’s going, after you set him free. And we will bring the walkie-talkie back before you have to leave. Do you think you can do that job?”

Uri nods like crazy, like he’s been dying to have a reason to use the walkie-talkies and I just gave him the most important job in the airport. I’m glad he’s into it, because this way I can stay in touch with him, and know what Tom is up to. I give him a quick lesson in how to use the thing right, to make sure it’s not too noisy and Tom finds it. “Don’t use it if he’s right in the room, though.”

“Got it,” Uri says and slides back on the couch. His feet don’t even hit the ground because he’s so small and something about it gives me a weird feeling like maybe I really shouldn’t get them involved.

“You ready?” Jada asks.

“Yeah. Yep, I’m good,” I say. “Let’s get this thing going.” I get up, shove the walkie-talkie in my pocket and explain the plan to everyone. We line up our backpacks under the window by the door and wait for Tom.

*

Tom walks in looking like he just saved the world. I think maybe he finally got a date.

“You should probably call whoever is picking you up in San Francisco, Nicholas. The airline will call too, but it’s good for parents to hear straight from their kids and since you have your own phone…”

Nicholas looks unsure. “Nah, I’m good to go,” he says, looking at me instead of Tom. It sends a rush through me to move quickly. I get up and go into the bathroom, and waste five minutes unraveling three rolls of toilet paper, remembering how Charlie and I tried this to get out of going to see CATS on Broadway. Instead of expulsion, Mr. Jones threatened to make us go to the show twice. We got two days of detention instead. After the show.

But this time no one can give us detention. I stuff all the toilet paper and some paper towels for good measure into the toilet in a manner in which you should never flush.

And I flush.

I peek out the door. “Um. Tom?”

“Yeah?” Tom barely looks my way, busy settling back to his eBay auctions.

“Toilet’s clogged.”

“Seriously?” He shoves his chair back, and attempts to move me from the doorway, in which I scramble away from his hands anyway so that he can fully appreciate the fountain of tissue and water I’ve created. I move behind him, slam the bathroom door, and hold it tight while Jada wraps Tom’s headphone cords between the bathroom doorknob and the supply closet right next to it. Then we slide the big table up against the doors. The entire time Tom yells and bangs on the door.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Uri giggles on the couch. I give him a thumbs up. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”

Uri holds up his walkie-talkie and paper airplane and whispers, “I got this.”

I salute the Wonder Twins. We grab our backpacks and slip out the door, escaping the Young Travelers Club.

Freedom is way easier than I expected.