A Good Medicine
by Jude Whelchel

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Tabor and his twin are eight years old when his father walks out the door to live forever with the family he’d spawned in Moultrie.

“Your mother’ll worry over you, Hoke, but you’ll make it fine.” The father ruffles his brother’s muss of hair.

“I’ve left you everything.” He speaks to the mother of the mercantile and their home on the second floor.

She does not look at him. Her eyes are fixed on the wide plank floor, waxed and spit-shining, it reflects their foursome as vague bodies, as ghosts.

“You got a mind going for you,” he says to Tabor.

The father opens the door, ringing the little bell at the hinge meant to alert at the arrival of customers.

“God Almighty curse you,” the mother says.

“If God cares to bother.” The father crosses the threshold, his feet quick clops across the wood porch. Tabor counts 1-2-3-4-5-6—his father’s feet down the steps to the cobbled road. The mother stretches her arm, holding the bell silent as she closes the door behind him.

Tabor goes to the window. It is a crisp, autumn day. The trees have gone to gold and crimson; the sky is clear but for a high wisp of cloud in the distance. His father is a big man; he is taking longs stride away from them. He does not look back.

“Come away from the window,” says the mother.

Tabor takes a final glimpse—his father throwing his head back, his mouth wide like he is drinking air, like he is breathing for the first time.

* * * * *

The following day, the mother burns the father’s photograph in the hearth, shoveling the ash into the chamber pot. Never again will she utter the father’s birth name.

“He’s dead to us,” she says. “Bury him over in your mind, six feet in a grave.”

* * * * *

A week passes. Two. It is evening when Tabor finds his mother studying herself in the hall mirror, her dark hair unbraided to her waist, her blouse unfastened and peeled from one shoulder, the pebble center of her breast standing at attention. Her throat is milk, her cheeks the soft pink of new apples.

“What are you looking at,” says Tabor.

She cups her breast and shovels it into her garment, buttoning her blouse like she is finishing a chore.

“Take this to the attic.” She lifts the mirror from the wall.

 * * * * *

If the mother spoke it to her sons one time, she spoke it a hundred. As she renounced their husband, she vowed herself to them, turning her attention to the business of the mercantile, to making more of life for the sons than the husband ever managed, fit determined to compensate for their double cursing—the absence of a father coupled with the discrepancies of their birth—Hoke born compromised in mind, Tabor compromised in body. Each son some shadow of a man.

Hoke ripped at the mother, coming first, covered in lanugo, thick as pelt.

“Jesus on the Cross, I never seen such,” said the old midwife, wondering aloud if her mind was slipping, the infant soft-furred as a pup.

The second infant showed no interest in coming. Despite the groaning and urgings of the mother’s body, and with every effort on the part of the midwife to coax it down, the infant curled high and stubborn under her rib. The midwife, already counting the child for dead, reached inside the mother, arm to elbow, to pull Tabor, waxen and bilious, into the world. Hued like midnight, tied in umbilical, he arrived an emaciated plug of flesh.

“Jesus on the Cross,” said the midwife. She removed the cord to rest the limp infant at the foot of the bed.

“Be grateful in your heart you was given one living child,” she continued. “I seen it plenty, one thriving, one dying. It’s the way of life.”

It was only for the mother pushing herself to her elbows to catch a glimpse of the one she’d lost that she caught the jerk of the blued body and gasped so the midwife turned and saw herself the flailing arm of the infant.

“Jesus on the Cross.” The old woman took the infant’s face to her mouth, forcing breath through the pucker of lip, the mother thinking the little thing piteous, thinking what life it lived, if it lived, would surely be lived sickly and jeopardized.

* * * * *

In the months that go to a year that follow the father’s going off, Hoke, making solace for himself, folds into a cadre of boys: Harvey Rutland, Dit Mellon, Buddy Hester, and the rest of them. Like a pack of dogs, they are off, knee high in the creek beds, following no path but some shared instinct of direction into the woods, some spirit stirring between them they cannot name but celebrate in the snake coiled and rattling, the stink and disgust of a turkey buzzard died and gone to rot and maggots.

Tabor wills himself to keep pace, chin to chest, tracking the boys though he is ten paces behind, twenty paces, struggling for breath, and when he no longer has sight of them listening for the direction they have turned, straining to hear over his own breath, which comes tight, sounding a high-pitched whistle in his chest. It is more days than not he loses the boys—though one afternoon he is sure he hears them in the understory. He moves through trees and thicket toward the sound of voices.

“I am here! Hoke? Boys?”

The voices go silent.

“Boys?”

He hears a cough.

“Hoke?” Tabor calls again. Another cough. Or a snicker? A stifled laugh as the understanding flashes hot: they want rid of me, the thought is blocked off and sent away as fast as it forms, leaving a shadowy residue of misery that has Tabor fleeing, running as if he is chased by something that would strike him down, suffocate him to a final stale exhale. He stumbles, runs a few paces, stumbles again, headed for safety which is the window seat in the sitting room where his chest is a storm of wheezing and he is watching the road through the pane glass, and though he knows in some corner of his mind there is nothing coming for him he puts aside reason for his delusional monster, preferable to the hard truth that his twin wouldn’t be coming down the road to find him.

2 + 2 makes 4.

4 + 4 makes 8. The simplest equations come first.

8 + 8 for 16.

16 with 16 for 32. His breathing slows. He feels his back pressing the wall, the sharp bones of his hips into the seat cushion. Fear, in one costume or another, will chase Tabor Rawls for the entirety of his life. He is decades from the day he will turn to it, the day he will look fear in the eye and not once blink, but for now he molds brick from numbers, he masons a wall of security from equations.

“I can figure 64 times itself. 4096,” he tells the mother.

“I figure you don’t need to be inside, nice a day as it is.”

“Name any figure, I’ll divide!”

She shakes her head—she won’t have it. She shoos him from the seat.

“4096 by 72 and you got 56 with 8 remaining.”

“Out the door with you!”

“I’ve been out already.” He raises his arms in attempt to slow her, unaware until his hands are before his face that he is trembling. He tightens to still himself.

“Not long enough.” She pushes Tabor out the backdoor—the door closes behind him with a harsh clap, the bolt scrapes into the catch.

“4096 times 8 gives you 32768.” He knocks at the door. “Please!”

The door does not open and he knows it will not open for however long he knocks. He sinks to the plank step that is tucked beneath the doorframe. Laundry lines string the alley, stained bed sheets and work shirts fight for air and sun. Cans of garbage and slop buckets. Strewn scrap and wood crates, an ironing board and shit pan gone to rust. It is a mudway of stench. Against their house, a carriage bed, stripped of wheels, is turned on its side, a moth-eaten rug thrown over it, a rag mop upturned beside it. He takes the mop stick and crawls behind the carriage, curling into a corner. It smells of cats and piss, but it is better that walking the alley. There are too many shadows.

* * * * *

Hoke, the son with no interest in learning, is the son the mother wants turning numbers. Reading books.

“Figure 8 and 8,” she insists.

He counts on his fingers—she pops his head.

“God gave you a mind.”

He looks at the ceiling. He counts dips in the bead board. “15.”

“No. No. No. You’re ten-years-old! Your brother knows his facts.”

He will write equations and keep writing until they are fixed in his mind. The mother starts a single column on the slateboard.

2 + 2 =
2 + 3 =
2 + 4 =

And Hoke will read the blessing at supper. He turns pages in the Penny Whistles book, back and forth, until he comes to the one he chooses every time:

It is very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink,
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place.

“Amen, “ says the mother. Her lips stretch across the bridge of her teeth in satisfaction. This is the only smile she has, a hard-earned, grimacing cut across her face.

“I expect manners.” She stands to plate the meal.

“You’ll eat every bite,” she says to Tabor.

Tabor twirls a fork through his meatstew, dipping it into a mash of potato that sits on his tongue thick as sap. He rearranges carrots to make a boat, buttered peas into mast and sail.

“Eat like a girl and you’ll have no get-up to you,” the mother instructs.

Taber pierces peas with a fork prong. He nibbles at a cut of bread while Hoke laps up the last of his stew with an edge of crust, taking a second helping of potato, asking for pie.

The mother watches the wall clock. Ten minutes to the second—Tabor’s dish is nothing but a stir of portions. She is up from the table to collect the beltstrap she keeps coiled in the drawer of the sideboard.

“I was only letting my portion cool!” Tabor forces a towering spoon into his mouth.

She won’t have excuses and he knows better than resist. His knees surrender, coming together in a pinch as the mother wraps the belt once, twice around his thighs, beneath the chair seat, pulling the strap through the buckle until his chin thrusts forward, his lips purse.

“Hurry yourself and you’ll be out of it,” she says.

“And you.” Her voice stops Hoke who is making his way to the door. “You’ll not run off this afternoon.” She exchanges his plate for the Penny Whistles book.

“Take your seat.”

Hoke’s shoulders sink, he returns, dejected, collapsing into his chair. She pops his head. “Knock the poor attitude from yourself—one day you’ll thank me that you read decent.”

When the mother is gone to the kitchen house, Hoke leans to Tabor and takes spoons from his brother’s plate into his own mouth. He swallows down Tabor’s milk.

“Read, Hoke,” Tabor whispers. “She’ll be back.”

Hoke opens the book to the thick illustration page where there is a round, shoeless child arching the sky in a rope-tied tree swing. Hoke begins:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Tabor covers the words with his hand. Hoke continues:

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

“You’re not reading,” says Tabor. He covers the next stanza.

Hoke smiles and continues:

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“I read by heart.”

“Mother won’t count your heart,” says Tabor.

The mother is back to the table with a slate and chalk. She eyes Tabor’s plate. She looks at Hoke.

“You’ll have a whiplashing if I catch you eating for your brother.” She snaps chalk on the table, breaking it into two pieces.

“The Lord’s Prayer. Start to finish.” She takes Tabor’s milk glass and the breadbasket to the kitchen.

Hoke furrows his brow. The fine muscles in his hands gripping the chalk, he makes slow, deliberate marks on the tablet, his fingertips going white, magnifying the dirt arches under his nails:

Ur fatder hoo art in hiven

Tabor shakes his head. “O.” He makes a circle of his fingers.

Hoke eyes the door for the mother’s return. He sighs and rubs off the slate with his shirt cuff.

“I’ll write for you, Hoke,” Tabor says. He pulls the slate across the table.

“You won’t tell?” says Hoke.

“I won’t tell ever.” Tabor writes quickly, in a script messier than his own.

“You want me to eat the rest?” Hoke’s fingers pick at the cane seat of his chair.

“Eat or don’t eat. I won’t tell.”

Hoke takes Taber’s plate into his lap. He makes a spoon of stew.

“I know I am a stupid boy,” he says, his mouth churning.

“Don’t feel bad, Hoke. At least you run good.”

*  *  *  *  *

Tabor takes steps two, three at a time. He belts canned goods to his ankles to make muscles in his legs. Left, right. Ten repetitions. Ten more. He suffers meals matching his brother, portion to portion, also bowing, no complaint, to whatever and all treatments the mother concocts. Ablutions of iced water, vapor fumigations, camphor amulets, poultice of garlic to the ear. There are scalding towels followed by rubdowns with remedies and elixirs that tout the benefits of brawn and vigor, reeking potions derived from Eucalyptus, cayenne, turpentine. Once a brown, translucent paste claiming genuine snake oil derived from Chinese water moccasins. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, fever or no fever, he strips bare and rests atop his bed, his face into a pillow.

“Bite this.”

He ignores the rag the mother offers. He sucks the fat of his lip between his teeth, bearing down until he tastes blood like a wheat penny on his tongue. She grinds menthol into his flanks, twisting, digging. He bites hard and harder and he can do this because in his mind the familiar recessed door opens and leads him to the river:

2 x 2 makes 4.

4 x 4 makes 16.

16 x 16 makes 256.

256 x 256 makes 65,536.

He multiplies himself from his body. He floats on his back, eyes to the infinity of sky.

65536 times itself… Numbers hang in the trees like leaves and he reaches for solutions. 4, 2, 9…

“Your blood’s stubborn,” the mother says. She goes to fetch a scalding towel from the kitchen—it will feel like fire, like skin coming from his bones.

“Scalding gets to circulation like nothing else,” says the mother.

“Will it help me run faster?” Taber asks

* * * * *

In celebration of their eleventh birthday, the mother orders Sunday suits from the Sears and Roebuck, matching breech pants, double-breasted sailor coats with yellow neckties. New socks, white with grosgrain trim. She keeps their good boots polished and gives her sons centerline hair parts. She oils their cowlicks into submission. They will go to church and anywhere with their heads high. She tells them though they have no father, they have one another.

She kisses them on the forehead. She says she loves them with a fierce love that wakes her at night—what lengths she will go for them!

* * * * *

Tabor is with the boys when they come upon the injured fawn under a catch of gallberry. Half-starved and ate into at the haunch by something Hoke predicts to be raccoon.

“Or maybe bobcat, though a cat would have drug it off,” he instructs. Hoke lifts the fawn, a stench of rot so given-up its only protest is a weak snap of the chin.

Buddy covers his nose for the stink.

“I smelled ten-times worse,” says Hoke.

Hoke stands at the center of the boys. These boys follow his lead, when he steps, they step. They will follow his plan—carry the animal down the road to the river, wash the wound, giving it drink, maybe caging it with log and limb until they come back to it with an offering of milk, making a nipple, if it comes to it, from the finger off a glove pulled over a glass bottle. In his arms, the slow blink of the fawn’s eye is the only sign of life.

“What you thinking?” There is a challenge baked into Harvey’s whispered tone and it calls the magnet of some internal compass in his twin to a darker and unconsidered pole. They are walking the road to the river, when Hoke suddenly stops. Tabor considers that the road they are on branches to a thousand paths extending to a thousand possibilities. Hoke could do any number of things in this moment.

“You got a machete in your shed?” Hoke asks Dit Mellon.

The boys are like hungry dogs around Hoke. Dit points back up the road to his house in affirmation and when they are there, the boys are whoop-cheering and watching the fawn, ears back and desperate, its awkward, bent limbs pathetic, pawing at the high grass. The head is arched sharply to the sky as if reaching would ward off the blows before they come, the first one hard but off aim, hitting bone. There is quick spray of blood and spasm of limbs before the second blow of metal sends blood up Hoke’s arms, his chest. The fawn exhales a melt of blood through the soft of her nose as the blows come and come and though the head is cut away the machete is cutting earth.

“You could stop now,” says Tabor.

Hoke throws the machete to his side. For a long moment there is only the sound of the boys’ communal breath and then a raptor calling from the high pines.

They carry the body, Hoke holding the head, back into the woods, marking the place they entered from the road with a tear of fabric from Harvey’s shirt. They use the rest of the shirt to tie the carcass to an oak. They bury the skull to keep rodents from having it.

* * * * *

Something is different. The smell of his brother has turned—like the sun has blistered and burned off a layer of Hoke’s skin that was holding back something pungent and gamy.

Tabor traces the skull with his fingers. It is fragile in a way Tabor had not expected, fine as a tea cup. He dips his thumbs into the cavernous eye sockets. He presses a fingertip against a molar.

“Is there a bone for me?”

“Boys got them all.” Hoke is sitting on his hands.

The boys have gone without Tabor to claim bones.

“All the ribs taken?”

Hoke shrugs. “You weren’t there. You can hold the skull much as you want.”  

Tabor turns the skull once more in his hands then reaches it to Hoke.

“You might’ve got something for me,” he says.

* * * * *

I got a mind. I got a very good mind. A quarter off a million makes 250,000. A third taken of 250,000 makes 83,333.3333…He has immunity; he is fortified. 83,333.3333. The numbers will never stop. To the end of time—that is endurance. His mind will run faster than any feet. Endure any challenge. An eighth of 83,333.3333? 10416.6666. Repeating not slowing, not stopping. Never.

10416.6666 to the second quotient? Tabor works his mind—108,513,889—until his body is all sweat, sour as a dog.

* * * * *

“It’s not fair as I’m not sick at all,” says Hoke. A fever has come over Tabor the mother has Hoke stay in with his brother.

“You’re inside not for being sick in the body but dull in the mind.” The mother brings the McGuffey from the shelf. “You need to be reading everyday! You don’t want ignorance holding you back.”

“I read good enough,” he says.

“You read remedial. Far below your brother.” The mother nods at the book to say to Hoke that he has no choice in the matter.

Before she is out of the room, she instructs Tabor. “Correct his mistakes—it is what a brother does for a brother.”

Hoke opens the reader. “It’s like a soup of letters,” he says to Taber. “If I could remember and not forget.” The intensity of Hoke’s look could implode the page. He presses his fists to his eyes. The book slides from his lap, striking the floor.

“I hate all books,” he says.

As if she has emerged from air, the mother is there, as a storm cloud through the room.

“You’ll get nowhere! Nowhere, I tell you!” She plants the book back into Hoke’s lap. “You want to be nothing but a farmer?”

A rope of snot comes from Hoke’s nose. He sniffs, wipes his shirtsleeve across his face.

“You practice in your head then you’ll read it to me.” She is across the room to tidy the bureau.

“Just say words about the pictures,” whispers Tabor.

Hoke wipes his nose again. He purses his lips to concentrate his exhale in a slow stream of breath.

“A girl and boy went walking off to the schoolhouse.” Hoke looks at Tabor. Tabor nods for him to continue.

“They was holding hands and a little old mutt dog comes on up the road after them.”

The mother slams a drawer. “Books are written in proper English!” Her feet drum the floor planks as she moves across the room. She thrusts her finger at the page.

“Come friends! We must go to the school. Do come along with me.” She dots the words with an angry finger. She points for Hoke to read the next line. He coughs back a sob.

“You read it, Tabor! Show your brother how it’s done.”

“I will lead you.”

The mother grips Hoke’s face in her hands.

“That is how it is done,” she says, leaving them in a huff of frustration.

Hoke bends to his lap and it occurs to Tabor to touch his brother’s arm, but he keeps his hands to his lap, turning to the window. The sun is soft through the glass like an invitation. He chews into his tongue to hold back a smile.

* * * * *

The day before the boys make twelve an afternoon rainstorm rolls in with dark, hard winds and thunderclaps. Lightening fires low and sharp. From the window of the mercantile the mother and sons watch as a high pine branch bursts to flame then extinguishes in the hard rain.

“This sort of storm don’t last long,” says Hoke.

“Doesn’t,” corrects the mother. “They can do a good bit of damage.”

Rain pelts the glass like marbles.

“We shouldn’t stand so close,” she says. “You’ve got chores.”

They retreat to the storeroom where there are no windows, but still they hear the storm fuming against the house walls. The mother fumbles with a lamp. Hoke will unload the crate. There are jars of goods, sugar sacks, sardine tins, and salt crackers. Tabor takes a rag to dust off and polish bulbous jars swimming pig feet, pickled cukes, peppermints. Hoke is in and out of the room stocking shelves, pouring sugar into a barrel. He drops a sack of flour that breaks open and spills the floor. They save what they can, Tabor sweeping the remnant into a dustpan. There is a low rumble of thunder. A soft flash of lightening comes through the doorway.

“Storm’s dying,” says Hoke. He lifts a pallet and moves it against the wall.

Tabor mops the traces of flour, the timbre of rain slowing its beat.

The mother points Hoke to a load of fabric bolts. “I want them displayed neatly in the front window.”

The bell at the storefront door sounds.

“It was a tornado! Hoke! You got to come!”

The twins go with the mother and meet Dit Mellon, breathless at the counter. He appears to have swum the river, clothing clinging his limbs, water pooling at his shoes. There are mud tracks across the floor.

“It was over the quarry. We seen it spit down out of the sky, spin and do its thing ‘til it was sucked back up from where it come. Hoke, you got to come with us to see the damage. All the boys are coming.”

“You’ll finish the bolts first,” the mother says to Hoke. “And you, Dit Mellon, will clean the mess you’ve made.” She takes the mop Tabor is holding.

* * * * *

The sky shows no evidence of the storm, but its footprint marks the road, thrown branches and leaf, a laundry line of clothing collapsed in a twisted knot, a roofing sheet come from some building. Tabor has left his brother and Dit inside to their choses. He steps over debris, a tree limb—this is the cleanest sort air and he breathes a long deep sack of it.

One and quarter mile to the quarry. 120 strides per minute—each stride a yard and two yards per second. Hoke and boys will come behind him. He can see them in his mind making a line in the dirt. They get ready, they get set. But Tabor is gone before them. His mind racing fast ahead. 1760 yards to a mile. 1 second makes 1/3600 of an hour. (2/1760)/(1/3600) equals to (2/1760)*(3600/1) and come to 4.09 miles per hour. Slower than the boys, but he turns down the alleyway calculating short cuts. Past the loading docks and the hotel back entrance, across hen yards, weaving chop blocks and kitchen houses, because if he can scale the link fence at the train yard and have a straight way over the tracks, beneath cars, if a station man doesn’t catch him, he might, he could do it, get to the quarry before the fastest boy. He is at his best clip to the fence high as two stories and he scales the link fence at the train yard, ignoring the cut to his knee by a jag of wire—he could climb even higher, to the height of the high trees, but he is over and dropping to the ground and up and darting between cars, ignoring also the high whistle wanting into his throat. He pushes it down. Blocks it with his mind, gives it no power.

“Boy!” calls someone from a platform. Tabor does not slow. There is wind to his back as he slips into the woods, running like an unbridled colt, unafraid until he comes to the quarry, bending over his knees, head up, he searches for the boys.

Tabor takes in breath, breath, breath. No boys. More breath, whistling breath.

The voices of the boys come through the trees—coming fast. A tight race. Tabor strips his clothes and climbs the granite tooth that juts over the water, his body a white streak against blue sky as the boys burst through the tree line, dogging for victory, they collapse, heaving into a scuffling bonfire of limbs. They are litter of mutts and Tabor wants in the middle of them.

“I’ve won!” he calls.

They do not hear him. He calls again, punching the words from his throat.

“Look here. It’s me. Tabor Rawls! I’ve won!” He steps to the edge of the rock face, sweeping his arms above his head, pumping wide, spastic motions of victory. The boys are still, leaning over one another, looking in his direction.

“Me!” Tabor jumps from the rock and in his brief moment of falling, he sees the boys, all eyes upon him, except for Hoke, his eyes steady and fixed beyond Tabor on the solid rock face.

10-9-8. Tabor counts as he sinks. He has never felt this before—7-6-5. Victory. Belonging—4-3. And pleasure. 2-1. He pushes against the rocky bottom, propelling himself to the surface.

The boys are wading into the shallows, coming for him, Hoke at the middle. Tabor takes quick strokes in their direction, sucking and blowing water from his mouth in a little fountain of celebration. He is in waist-high water when he is close enough to touch them, and he stands, the good stink of their skin in his nose. He reaches out, both arms for the embrace he imagines, and craves, and seems he has chased to a finish line. Dit and Buddy each catch an arm, someone is behind him, hands on his shoulders. His arms are pulled into a cross, stretching him wide. Tabor waits in this short, glorious moment, to be lifted over their heads, carried back to the bank and wrestled into the dirt in some ritual of concession.

They grip tighter and he does not understand what is coming which is Hoke’s hard fist, fast and mad, clipping his front teeth, catching his nose in a spew of blood and phlegm. One punch. 2, 3 punches in his gut. There is a kick to his ass and at the back of his knees so Tabor collapses, face down, down in the water, hands and feet hold him there—1, 2, 3, no breath. 4, 5, 6. No breath and he is sucking water because there is a fire in his chest. 7. He inhales water. 8, 9. More water. 9. 9. The next number? What is the next number?

* * * * *

Tabor is vomiting water into the dirtbank, hutched over like a dog. Hoke is sitting at his side.

“Where’s the others?”

“Gone away.”  

“I won.” Tabor turns and rolls to sitting. “I beat every one of you.”

The brothers are facing the quarry, the water smooth as glass.

“There’s no prize for you, Tabor,” says Hoke.

* * * * *

Tabor’s nose and bruises will heal, but his center incisors hang, broken-off and chipped away, like the entrance to a down-reaching cave. The mother makes Tabor a salt bath, takes a cloth soaked in camphor to his face.

For the first time in a long time, Tabor thinks of his father and tears come from the corner of his eyes.

“Hurt?” says the mother.

“A bit.”

“I’m sorry it was your brother done it,” she says. “But it’s a good medicine for you.”

Tabor takes the cloth in his own hand, pressing it against the swell of his nose. The pressure makes it easier to bear what rises in his mind.

It is his father who took the prize.

 

The Slide
by Jennifer Hasty

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

When I first saw my own living blood cells through a microscope, I suddenly had the idea that science could tunnel into the truth of me. I saw a vast population of pillowy discs drifting as if blown by a tide, some clumping together in long rolls, some bumping into strange spongy objects. And tiny bright dots, like stars, shooting this way and that through the traffic.

And it was me, all of it. No more doubt, no more worry about what was real and what was imagined. Here was an invisible realm that I could see with my own eyes.

“Pretty cool, huh?” said Mr. Howard, “The discs are red blood cells, well not cells really, because they don’t have a nucleus. The larger, grainy ones are white blood cells.”

“What about the littlest ones, the wiggly ones?”

“Bacteria, most likely,” he said.

“So the white blood cells attack the bacteria?”

“Sometimes you can see it, a white blood cell chasing down an invader.”

There were so many of the little ones, these wily specks, more than the spongy cells could handle, apparently.

“Is it bad, so much bacteria in my blood,” I wondered.

“Not necessarily,” he said, “There are so many red blood cells, so many that they can usually do their job pretty well no matter what. Bacteria are everywhere; so you always see some in your blood. And some bacteria are actually good. They say it boosts the immune system, having them around. Some are quite helpful, especially in your gut.”

I considered this, watching the drama acted out before me on the slide: the workers doing their work, the invaders looking for trouble, the police fighting for order in the chaos. The red blood cells were the virtuous ones, of course, the ones who ferried oxygen dutifully throughout the body, but they were boring, shifting mindlessly like cattle over a flat plain. The bacteria were the ones that caught your eye, made you wonder just what they were, what they might do next. Would this one find some cozy nook within me and divide itself into a full-blown infection? Or would it be discovered by a white blood cell and devoured whole?

I kept watching, couldn’t stop watching, as Mr. Howard went back to his desk to grade papers. After a while, I looked up at the clock and realized that I had totally forgotten that I had to be home to babysit my brother and sister so my mom could go to a church meeting.

Weaving through cars as I rushed home on my bike, I felt like one of those tiny bright spots maneuvering through the large, heavy globules rolling slowly through town. And I thought about my body, the inside of my body, where this kind of secret journey was endlessly unfolding—but with no destination, no resolution, just moving and dodging and surviving, on and on until the end.

I rounded the corner to my street as the late afternoon sun leaned down into the broad windows of our new A-frame church, reflecting an annoying light into my eyes as I slowed into the driveway.

I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the little disks and spongy specs and pricks of light passing through my blinded field of vision, as if I were still looking through the microscope.

I was brought up to believe that we are, every one of us, part of the body of God. My father often said this in his Sunday sermons.

If that is really the case, I thought, then what I saw under the microscope is what God sees, looking into each of us: a struggle, not good or evil, but a struggle, thrilling, beautiful, and strange.

 

Something went wrong with me when we moved from Hollow Knob to Centerville. Or maybe something was wrong to begin with and I just began to realize it then. Hollow Knob had been a slow place, a quiet place, hardly a town, really, more like a scattering of farmers and small businessmen with shops in the few strip malls along the state road. Centerville was the big city to me, the third largest town in our state. We moved into a new housing development in the southern part of town where a lot of well-to-do people lived. Ours was the house built for the pastor’s family, right next to the church, smaller than the other houses in the neighborhood but built in the same mottled brick with a mailbox that looked like a birdhouse planted next to the curb.

It was the beginning of my sophomore year, just starting high school, really the best time for me to change schools, my mother said, sympathetic to my fear of the unknown. And everyone will be making new friends, she said. But in the first few weeks of school, I came to realize that this was not the case. The other kids all knew one another from their various middle schools.   They congregated in their cliques in the halls and at the lunch tables. Inconspicuously, I examined each group, looking for kids like me, or better yet, kids like who I wanted to be.

Most of the girls had a sort of look about them that I found mysterious. They wore very simple clothes, with very few ruffles or pleats, but even their plain polo tops were cut in such a way that their bodies seemed athletic and powerful. While the girls at my old school wore obvious perfume and make-up, these girls had a completely natural look, their smooth skin glowing, fresh and healthy. Their lips looked stained with cherry juice but glassy, dew-kissed. They smelled like fruity soap. They wore little jewelry, just small stud earrings, gemstone or pearl, sometimes small golden hoops, never anything large or dangly. Their hair was either long and loose or cut straight in a simple bob that fell across the cheek on one side. They did not wear braids or buns.

I had never known any girls like these and I could not imagine what their lives were really like outside of school or what I might say to one of them if I wanted to make friends. When I came near any one of them, in line at lunch or brushing past in the hallway, I felt a strange surge inside that left me breathless and confused.

There were a few other girls like me, with our braided hair and ruffled tops from Walmart.   We often wound up sitting together at lunch, sometimes sharing notes or helping each other out with hard homework problems. But in general, we were not that interested in each other, so we were an oddly quiet group, awed into silence by the power of those magical beings surrounding us, chattering away in their parallel world.

 

My parents were so involved in starting up the new church that they forgot to check the courses I was signing up for at my new school. I picked biology class. I knew that we had particular ideas about nature but I guess I thought I was old enough now to sift out the truth from the lies. My father told me that scientists don’t lie on purpose, at least not usually. So they weren’t evil, really, just misled, and therefore not terribly dangerous to believers like us. Or so I thought.

In the first few days of biology, we had an overview about the scientific method and the various things that biologists study. I found this a bit boring so I skipped ahead in the textbook as Mr. Howard gave us his first lecture on “The Scope of Biology.” I found a part about the origins of life, how lightening may have struck lifeless chemicals to make a “soup” of living molecules when the earth was young, about three and a half billion years ago. Some people think the energy from volcanoes or deep sea vents started life instead. And some scientists even think that life may have begun on Mars or on a comet and some collision brought little pieces of it to earth.

Somehow I felt relieved that there were different possibilities, that you could choose one to think about but you didn’t have to really commit to it because it could turn out to be wrong when some new evidence came along. You were free to change your mind. You didn’t have to be wrong forever.

 

My father found me leafing through the textbook one evening in the first week of school. I had found another interesting chapter in the middle of the book. There was a diagram of a tree with different categories of living things.

“Whatcha readin’?” he said lightly.

“It’s biology, Dad,” I said, closing the book and folding my hands on top of it. “Did you know that there are more species of beetles than any other animal? And that they benefit from global warming? Someday beetles may become the dominant species on earth!”

“No,” he said quietly, seriously, “I didn’t know that.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and took the book from under my folded hands. He flipped to the table of contents, then began shaking his head.

“Let me take a look at this,” he said. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”

And I knew that I would never hold that textbook again. There was a long chapter on evolution, Chapter Fourteen. As I lay in bed, I cursed my own stupidity. Why did I have to go and tell him about the beetles?

The next day, when I came home from school, he called me into his office where he was going over church accounts. The big green textbook sat on the front corner of his desk, with a number of yellow post-it notes like a parade of militant little flags marching down the top.

“I’ve read some of your biology textbook,” he said gently. “And I think it would be best for you to take a different class.”

I heard myself heave a sigh. “I know you don’t believe in some of the ideas in that book….”

“We don’t believe, Nevaeh, not just me,” he said, his hand on his heart. “As a church, we believe in the truth of God’s creation. That’s what it means to be a Christian. This book is wrong. I don’t want you to study things that are wrong.”

“But to study them doesn’t mean I have to believe them,” I exclaimed, louder than I had intended. “I’m old enough to know about it without losing my faith.”

He took a long sip of coffee, then put the cup down in front of him and gazed into the cup for a moment. “Let me put this in a way I think you’ll understand,” he said, looking back up to me. “You know that I love your mother dearly, right? he asked.

I nodded, because of course I could not disagree.

“Well, what if a beautiful woman came into my office one day and told me she loved me and begged me to kiss her? What would you want me to do? What should I say to that woman?”

Although I wanted to turn the conversation a different direction to avoid the trap that was coming, the very idea of his infidelity deeply offended me so I took the bait, resigned to the lesson. “That you love Mom, that you would never let anything come between you and Mom.” I said, reciting my lines.

“That’s right, and it’s true, I never would let anything damage my relationship to your mother. My marriage is sacred to me. My family is sacred, given to me by God.”

I stood quietly, knowing that my attention was all that was required to get through the rest of this conversation.

“Your relationship with God is special and sacred, Nevaeh. This book has come into your life to tempt you, to test your faith. Its ideas are very seductive,” he said, flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, full of diagrams and nature photographs. “Will you let this book come between you and God’s word? Will you let its ideas damage your relationship to God?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, and for some reason, I saw behind my eyes the tree-like diagram of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order and the other descending levels of biological categorization. When I opened my eyes again, my father was studying my expression, kindly, patiently.

“I see that you understand me,” he said. “I know that this is difficult for a girl your age to deal with, especially a quiet, thoughtful girl like you. You don’t need to say anything, Nevaeh. I’ll write a letter to the principal and you can take a different class, one that won’t harm you.”

I closed my eyes again, savoring the image of the diagram that was still there. But as I held it in my mind, the words blurred together and faded away, leaving only the faint outline of a tree.

 

And so I transferred into the only remaining elective class that wasn’t already full, Home Economics. On the day I joined the class, they were learning how to make scrambled eggs. We broke into small groups and set to work in the several mini-kitchens along one side of the classroom. I was surprised to discover that many of those magical girls, the ones that looked so fresh and powerful, did not even know how to turn on the burner. But I knew a technique for making really fluffy eggs, so I suggested we try it. First you separate the eggs, then you whip up the whites into a foam, and then you recombine them along with some whole milk and immediately pour into a very hot, well-buttered pan. One girl in my group asked me how I knew so much about cooking eggs.

“Did you look it up on your phone?” she whispered, looking at each of my hands. I held a whisk in one hand and a potholder in the other.

I told her that eggs were my father’s favorite breakfast so my mother and I took turns seeing who could make the fluffiest ones. “I learned a few tricks watching my mom,” I said.

“Ohhhh,” she said, nodding slowly. Her eyes then flickered over my hair, my clothes. “I guess my mom doesn’t spend too much time in the kitchen.”

She picked up a stainless steel spatula and I moved away from the stove so she could stir the eggs. But she remained where she stood, studying the reflection of her glossed lips in the spatula. After a moment, she continued.

“And she says she doesn’t want me to get trapped there.”

“Trapped in your kitchen?”

“But this class is supposed to be an easy A, good for my GPA.”

As the teacher sampled our eggs, nodding her approval, an image came into my mind of the oven door snapping on my thigh like the jaws of a mouse trap as my classmates watched in horror. In the fantasy, I just stood there, one hand in an oven mitt, the other holding a spatula. I knew better than to struggle while everyone was watching.

 

I had a study hall in fifth period. Walking to the bathroom, I discovered that Mr. Howard taught Biology II during that period. So I started taking long bathroom breaks, standing just outside the biology classroom to hear ten or fifteen minutes of his lectures on symbiosis, bioluminescence, immunity, all sorts of fascinating things. As I stood listening to him talk about mass extinctions, he meandered over to the doorway. Pausing for a moment between sentences, he leaned his head out the door.

“Come talk to me after school,” he whispered, with a fatherly smile.

I was forbidden from taking biology class, but nobody said anything about chatting with Mr. Howard after school. I came by that afternoon. And the next. And the next. He even let me try some of the experiments his students were doing.   Most of the time, he set me up with some equipment then just went back to grading his piles of homework.

Even though he was there, it felt like I was alone, like no one was watching.

 

As she always used to tell me, my mother was raised to believe that girls should be seen and not heard. And then after saying it she’d laugh, as if to tease me with the prospect of enforcing this ridiculous idea.

In social studies class, we were studying the persecution of witches in Salem, Massachussetts in the 18th century. Mrs. Painter posed a question to the class about what factors led to the witch hunt. My own answer sat in my mind like in some kind of promising yet potentially disruptive event, like an unpopped kernal of corn. But as usual, I just sat there, scrutinizing the font in our textbook. I remember expecting the usual hush over the classroom after which I was often called upon.

And then I heard another voice, not my own, but with a similar oscillation between loud and soft, high and low, and going on much longer than other students ever did and saying something like, “some people would probably say that they were hysterical or full of teenage angst, you know, the psychology, or even that they were really possessed, which would be the religious angle. But I was thinking, their world was really changing, part of the town getting wealthier and the other part left behind. I think the girls maybe felt torn between different ways of understanding what was happening.”

The voice was coming from the back of the classroom but I was too shy and too stunned to turn my head to look. What I saw, instead, was Mrs. Painter’s expression, how her eyes warmed, her mouth pursed, her chin nodding slowly.

I don’t even remember when I actually laid eyes on her, probably after class when I could turn naturally, gathering up my books and backpack, stealing a glance across the room in the direction of the voice. But I knew before then, before I even saw her, that she was one of them, one of those girls with their fresh clothes and their radiant bodies, the girls whose movements constituted a sort of system in which the rest of us, both boys and girls, found ourselves oriented in one way or another.

Somehow I heard that in her voice, a determined pitch that turned my ear like a compass. What made me think about her so much—that day, and the next, and the day after that—was the other thing I heard in her voice. It was something uncertain, roving, searching, something as familiar to me as the cadence of thought in my own head.

Her name was Audrey Cooper and it turned out, she was in three of my classes, not only social studies but also English and Algebra II.

 

I found myself listening for her, in those classes, and even in the hall as I navigated the current of bodies streaming in both directions; I listened for that tone of shrewd conviction that seemed to rise up and around all the other voices, quieting the rest of us with the assuring constancy of her insight.

And then, after a couple of weeks, I found myself raising my hand in response to her comments. I never looked at her, kept my gaze fixed on the teacher, but Audrey was the one I was talking to. I found myself saying the most surprising things. In English, when Audrey said that free-form poetry allowed for more emotional expression, I argued that forms like the sonnet and the haiku imposed a kind of discipline on pure feeling, forcing it to become more subtle and more powerful at the same time.   In algebra, Audrey argued that we shouldn’t have to do word problems because numbers are inherently more pure than words. But words and numbers are both impure, I said. Only pure thought is pure. Only God is pure.

I could not turn my head to see how she reacted to my constant objections. But I could see how the teachers in those classes started turning to me after Audrey spoke, expecting my rebuttal. And the pleasure I saw in the eyes of those teachers was a pleasure held in tension between Audrey and me.

 

I went to Mr. Howard’s room nearly every day after school. Whenever I came in, he’d smile and nod, turning back to his piles of grading. Since I came in so often now, he just left the day’s lesson plan out for me on the black-topped lab table. I checked to see that the lesson was there and then turned away, keeping it in my peripheral vision like a piece of pie at the edge of my placemat. I’d started doing a few things around the lab to help out, feeding the tadpoles, misting the moss collection, making sure the sponge was moist in the domed habitat where ladybug larvae hung upside down in their cocoons, metamorphosizing.   After my chores, I read the lesson and then found the equipment to reconstruct his demonstration—Mr. Howard always had some kind of specimen or experiment to illustrate the lesson.

One afternoon, in late January, I dropped in to find him leaning over a wire cage.

“Hey Neva,” he said, his voice wavering with enthusiasm. “Come and see our latest subjects.”

He leaned away from the cage and I peered over his shoulder. Two white rats were snuffling around in a carpet of fresh yellow wood shavings. One of them paused to acknowledge our gaze, its pink eyes rolling up in its skull like small beads of glass.

“We’re starting the unit on animals next week,” Mr. Howard explained. “Our specimens arrived this afternoon.” He turned back to them, his face fascinated and bemused.

On the table next to the cage, I saw a packing slip. For some reason, I picked it up. It was a regular receipt, the kind you might find in any package arriving in the mail. “Outbred Rats,” it read, “Quantity: 2.” The total price was $52.17.

It struck me as odd somehow to purchase living beings the same way you bought any other piece of lab equipment, like a petri dish or a microscope slide.   But then, people bought cats and dogs and birds for pets, even mice, why was it weird to buy a rat for a lab specimen? Because it was an instrument like any other in the lab?

“What do you do with them?” I asked, wondering if I didn’t really want to know.

“Well, first I use them to illustrate the distinctive features of mammals, the fur, the mammary glands, the beat of the four-chambered heart, the differentiated teeth.”

“Only mammals have those things?”

“Yes,” he said. “Then we talk about animal behavior, aggression, cooperation, learning, sexuality.”

“You can see all of those things in rats? They cooperate?”

“Oh yes, rats are very social” he said. “If you put up a partition between them and set up a system where one rat has to pull a lever to give food to the other rat, they start cooperating so they both get enough to eat.”

“Did you see them do that? In this class?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking up from the cage. “It was a student project, modeled on some recent research.”

I felt my eyes widening.

“After the lesson on animal behavior, we have a class competition. Each student writes a research proposal to carry out a study on these two little guys. As a class, we vote on the top three proposals and the students who designed those studies become our principle investigators.”

“And you do the experiments?” I said, astonished. “Right here? In this class?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “And then we write up the results. It’s their final paper for this class.”

“So what other kinds of experiments have you done in the past?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, looking out the window, “one year we did a nutrition study where we had one rat eat raw vegetables and the other one eat only hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s.”

“And what happened?”

“We had to cut the experiment short,” he said, “for humanitarian reasons. The fast food rat became obese and immobile.   We were afraid it was going to die of dehydration because it couldn’t even get over to its water dispenser. It was sitting in its own waste most of the day.”

I must’ve made a face. He held up his hand as if to reassure me.

“We stopped the experiment in time,” he said. “After a few weeks on the veggie diet, that rat was back to its normal weight. We wrote up the results and they were published in a youth science journal.”

“Wow,” I said. “You can really discover something, right here, something that nobody ever knew before.”

“Another year we altered their day-night cycles by putting them in different cages, putting blankets over the tops, and setting lights on differently programmed timers. Then we tested the effects on their cognitive abilities by timing how long it took each one to get through a maze.”

“What kind of maze?”

“Oh, let me show you,” he said and he went off to a corner of the room, searched through a stack of boxes and pulled a smaller one out from under several large ones. The front of the box depicted an astroturf grid with plastic panels that could be fitted on the base to construct a maze. At the top right-hand corner was a small cell with a bait tray. With my finger, I traced the path of the maze in the picture, thinking of the series of decisions the rat would have to make to get to the prize. Realizing what I was doing, I pulled my hand away.

But Mr. Howard was looking out the window again. Then he looked back at me.

“Nevaeh,” he said slowly, as if pronouncing a quiz question, “what do you think you would do if you could conduct your own experiment with our rats?”

I thought for a moment. What would I want to know?

“I would put them together for a while, let them get to know each other.” I was thinking as I spoke, my words fueled by rising curiosity. “Then I would separate them and put them on opposite ends of the room, where they couldn’t see or hear each other. For at least a week. And then, I’d take them out and put one in the bait area and the other one at the starting gate. To see if one would go through the maze just to be with the other one.”

He considered this, nodding. “And what would you be testing, specifically?”

“I guess,” I hesitated, “Love, I guess, or desire. To see what a male would do to be with a female—or the other way around.” My project was refining itself in my mind. “And I would time them to compare the male’s desire with the female’s.”

Mr. Howard raised his eyebrows. “There’s just one problem with this scenario,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed.

“These rats are both females.”

“Oh,” I said, again.

“We always get two of the same sex,” he added, “to avoid procreation. We don’t want an unexpected pregnancy mucking up our research.”

“No, you wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“But you know,” he said, “I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same experiment with two females. In fact, that might be a lot more interesting.”

“Really?” I said. “Do you really think it would work though? Would a female go through the maze to be with another female?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “but that’s what you want, a question worth asking because you don’t know the answer.”

We gazed into the cage. Mr. Howard cocked his head as if considering his next comment.

“I got an email a couple of weeks ago. There’s a group of women professors at the university doing a science contest just for high school girls. You write up a proposal for an original research project, you carry it out, and then you write up the results. There are ten first prizes and each winner gets to choose between a telescope or a microscope.”

“I wish I was in your class,” I said, “so I could do it.”

“You don’t have to be in my class,” he said, “or at least the email didn’t say that you do. So just write up your proposal. We’ll be finished with our class experiment in April. The students will be writing up their results in the month of May. The rats will just be sitting there, idle, all that month. You can use them to do your own study.”

“So if I write it up, you’ll turn it in for me?”

“Sure,” he said. “You should do it, Neva, you really should.”

I was suddenly frightened at how much I wanted to. I looked deliberately at the rats. They snuffled about in their wood shavings, nudging up a pile in the corner. One of them climbed on top of the pile and turned, as if to encourage the other one to join her.

“What happens to them after school’s out?”

“I take them out to the country,” he said. “And I set them loose. They’re not very self-sufficient so they probably don’t last long out there but at least they get a taste of freedom before they get eaten by snakes or owls.”

I imagined them, two females, set free in a vast field of tall grass and wildflowers. Would they head off in different directions? Would they want to be together or each go in search of a male to mate with?

“I want to know,” I said, “I want to know the answer.”

“Do the experiment,” he said. “And then you’ll find out.”

 

Although early March was still dreary and cold, some of the girls began wearing short-sleeved polos to school, draping their pastel cardigans over their shoulders as they sat at their desks, crossing their shivering arms in refusal of the lingering chill. This was how I came to realize that spring was coming, a shift in the physical world that included us, embraced us as shifting bodies longing to, destined to return the embrace.

But for us, for me, early March meant Lent, turning away from the flesh, as my father said, turning inward to the contemplations of duty and fated sacrifice. I gave up lunch and saved up my lunch money, intending to donate it to a fund to help a woman at our church get an eye surgery she needed. Without lunch, my own vision was blurry by the end of the school day. I felt ghostly, floating through the hall into my last class of the day, Algebra II.   I gripped the edges of my desk as I descended slowly into my seat next to the long row of louvred windows. I was uncertain that my desk would really hold me in my place the entire class period.

We’d just started a unit on imaginary numbers.

Audrey was unconvinced. “If the square root of negative one isn’t possible, then it doesn’t exist and it can’t be a number at all,” she said. “It’s not a thing, it’s not out there in the world.”

But to me, buoyed by the faintest scent of new grass drifting in through a tiny crack in the glass louvres, anything seemed possible. I raised my hand.

“But a number, any number, isn’t a thing, it’s an idea,” I said, my words dancing off ahead of me. “It can seem to have a physical existence, when you place any quantity of things together, but even if those things are destroyed, the number still exists.”

“No,” Audrey interjected. “Then that number is gone and you have zero, a different number.”

“It’s like a person,” I continued. “If a person dies, the physical presence is destroyed but that person is not gone, not entirely. It’s not like they never existed. The person continues to exist as an idea.”

“As a memory,” Audrey responded. Then she stopped herself and checked the teacher’s expression, to make sure we hadn’t gone to far. But he was leaning against the chalkboard, happy to relinquish the class to our debate. So Audrey continued. “A memory of a thing that was once real, that once had a physical existence. But the square root of negative one never did have a physical form, never can be real in any way.”

“But maybe it will,” I said. “Maybe imaginary numbers will take form someday. Maybe we just haven’t found out how, not yet.”

At the end of class, I was zipping up my backpack as Audrey sauntered up to my desk.

“That really blew my mind,” she said, her eyes widening as she laughed.

I thought: this is really happening. Audrey had never spoken to me outside of class discussion. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So you’re the smart girl,” Audrey said, still smiling, her eyes probing curiously into mine. I held her gaze for an instant, then my eyes slipped down the placket of her shirt, wandering over to the pale wedge of shadow beneath her small bosom. I caught my breath.

“No,” I said, with certainty. “You’re the smart girl.”

“Well,” she said, flipping her head so that the hard edge of her bobbed hair lifted from her cheek and fanned out backward over her ear like the pages of a open book. “Smart girls rule.”

“At least in the realm of the imaginary,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically, as if she hadn’t quite heard me, then nodded as if she’d suddenly gotten it. “But it’s real,” she said, beaming again. “It may be just an idea, but it’s real, right?”

“That’s right,” I said and she turned to go.

And I thought, yes, this really happened.

Audrey and me, it’s real.

 

I wrote a proposal for an experiment with Mr. Howard’s mice. I was babysitting the neighbor’s kids and I put them to bed at their regular bed time, as instructed by their mother. They complained, begged to watch another episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but I was thinking about my project and so I stood firm, tucking them in precisely at nine pm. Then I turned off the TV and sat on the couch with my notebook on my thighs, savoring the expansive quiet, the time to consider what I most wanted to think about. Mr. Howard had given me a brief lesson about how to write a research proposal but he hadn’t given me the handout he gave his students. We both knew that I wasn’t allowed to have that. So I’d listened carefully to what he said and now I recalled the lesson, point by point. I stayed up until midnight, refining my research question, designing the experiment, thinking how I would analyze the data.

“Fantastic,” Mr. Howard muttered, as if commenting to himself. “You can get started at the beginning of May.”

I kept coming by after school, doing my lab chores and reading the lessons. But now everything I did was freighted with anticipation, taking on meaning as preparation for what was to come.

 

I started my experiment in the first week of May by putting the two rats together in one cage and enriching their environment with a few toys they could play with together.

I kept them together for two weeks, letting them grow accustomed to playing together, eating together, sleeping together. Then I took them out and put them in separate cages, stashed in corners on opposite sides of the room.

In home ec, we started doing final projects in May. Each group had to prepare a nutritional four-course meal for a family of four in thirty-five minutes.

“In the real world,” the teacher told us, “you’ll often have less.”

Each group had a day to prepare and present their meal while the rest of the class worked on a mending assignment. As a class, we all sampled the meal and shared our comments in group discussion.

My group was doing cashew chicken casserole. I came to class one Monday, our assigned day, to find the whole kitchen area marked off in yellow tape that read “Hazard: Do Not Cross.”

I went over to a girl in my group, the one with the glossy lips. Her name was Sophie and I’d gotten to know that she was a friend of Audrey.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“Haven’t you heard about the rats?” she giggled.

“In here?” I said. “Rats, in this classroom?”

“Mr. Howard’s rats,” she said. She leaned close to me as if sharing a juicy tidbit of gossip. “His lab rats escaped over the weekend. When Mrs. Mulvey came in here this morning, she found them running all over the counters and stovetops. We’re all in trouble ’cause she says it means we haven’t been scrubbing the kitchens properly after we cook.”

“My rats,” I whispered. “My project.”

“Your rats?”

“I mean,” I stammered. “Not my rats, they weren’t my rats. It’s just that I used to have a pet rat. He used to escape all the time.”

“Oh,” she giggled again. “Then you’re not going to want to hear what happened next.”

I met her laughing eyes. Despite her warning, she continued.

“The custodian thought they were just ordinary rats so he set out snap traps and caught them both. He’d thrown their bodies in the garbage out back by the time Mr. Howard found out about it.”

After school, I went to see Mr. Howard. He was sitting on the lab table, holding one of the cages. The other one was on the table next to him.

“It’s really a mystery,” he said.

“It’s ruined,” I said. “All that research and now I’ll never know the answer.”

“Look here,” he said, pointing to the severed latch on the door of the cage. “It looks like one of them chewed through the wire holding the door shut. “See how it’s chewed through, on the inside of the door?”

“But both of them got loose,” I said.

“Well then, look at the other cage,” he said, putting down the first cage and taking up the second one to show me. “The same wire is chewed through on this one, see? But it’s the part of the wire on the outside of the door.”

“But how could she have chewed open a wire on the outside of the door?”

“It didn’t, Nevaeh,” he said. “The first rat must’ve chewed itself free….”

“Then found the other one in her cage across the room and set her free.”

“I’m sorry your study was ruined,” he said. “But I think those rats gave you an answer after all. Maybe not what you were looking for. Maybe what they were looking for.”

 

A feeling set in, life surging around me, under me, but I held on motionless as a leaf caught against a rock in a swollen creek. It was better that way, stillness. I thought of my rats, caught motionless in their snap traps, life continuing on after them, without them.

On Friday afternoon, I sat on the bench in my gym clothes as the other girls dressed. I didn’t feel like opening my locker, changing clothes, going on to another class. I just wanted to sit there, letting normal life carry on around me as I became still and quiet, removed and undisturbed. I sat there inert with one gym shoe still on and the other one in my lap unlaced. One girl asked me if I was ok and I said, yeah, just tired.

“See you later,” she said, turning to leave and I realized that she was the last one to leave from that class and girls from the next class were already coming in, getting their gym clothes from the locked baskets at the back of the room, then stripping down in front of their lockers, some of them chatting with friends as they hurried their shorts up their legs and shimmied them up over their hips. I pretended to relace the shoe in my lap, though this made little sense; I was just waiting for this crowd to pass into the gym.

And then Audrey was there, beside me, pulling her yellow polo shirt up over her head, unzipping her short white skort. I continued lacing, noticing in the corner of my eye how she folded her clothes so carefully as she stood in her white socks, pink cotton panties, and pink stretchy bra. Another girl said something to her and she laughed. The girl reached over to Audrey’s back and snapped her bra strap. Shrieking, Audrey lunged at the girl, her fingers shaped into hooks. At that moment, Coach Loomis, the girls’ gym teacher, came barreling through the locker room, telling everyone to hurry up and get to the gym. “You two,” she said, pointing to Audrey and the other girl, “quit horsing around and get going.”

And in a few more moments, they were gone. I’d never skipped class before and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I laid myself down longways on the bench, staring at the industrial florescents for a while. And then, with sudden curiosity, I sat up and looked over at her locker. The locker door was closed and latched but the padlock hung open. Distracted by the playfight, Audrey had left it unlocked.

I listened for a moment. I could hear occasional shouts and thumps from the volleyball game in the gym but the locker room was quiet. And then I was at her locker, slowly pulling away the lock, lifting the latch, opening the door. Her clothes were stacked neatly on top of her loafers, her backpack hanging from the hook above them. My hand went to her shirt, tracing the edge of the collar down the front placket, under the seam to feel the buttons, then reaching below into the folds of her white skort. There was the beady edge of the zipper, the waistband, and deeper, the seam between her legs, still warm and slightly wrinkled from sitting in the previous class. My thumb crossed over and over the seam where the front piece met the back.

And then I heard a sound, a kind of urgent hum that grew into a soft moan. My eyes flew open as I realized that it was my own voice and not Audrey’s, as I had somehow imagined. And I stepped back, holding that hand out in front of me as the other hand went up to my throat. I felt the hardness of the gold cross under my fingers and my hand closed over it. Before I could formulate the prayer I meant to say to myself, I yanked the cross away from me and thrust it into the pile of clothes, holding it there for a moment, then releasing it into the warm folds of cotton. I took my hand away, closed her locker and locked it.

And then I got dressed and went to my next class. I slipped in, fifteen minutes late and the teacher didn’t even seem to notice.

Ashamed and horrified, I sat in class after class for the rest of the school day, replaying the incident over and over in my mind, inspecting every movement, every sensation, every thought that occurred to me as I did whatever I had done alone in the locker room. But I hadn’t been alone; God had been watching, this I knew. But what had God seen me do? Audrey’s clothes were so pretty; I was admiring them, that’s all. And I hadn’t stolen anything, after all, actually the opposite. And you could say (couldn’t you?) that I had left something sacred and beautiful for Audrey, that I was reaching out to her as a sister in Christ.

But I could not shake the feeling that I put that cross there to nullify something sinful, something from my own hand. Then I found myself thinking about how she might have found the cross there in her clothes, how she might draw the chain up around her neck, the cross swaying gently against her chest, how it might settle against her skin, now a part of her as it had been a part of me.

But she wasn’t wearing it in social studies and not in algebra.

After school, I went to Mr. Howard’s room but for some reason, he wasn’t there.

Walking home, I tried to force myself to pray but I just couldn’t. I tried singing softly to myself, the lyrics to my favorite song at the time, “Lifted Away”:

 

I fell into the shadow of dark desire

on the path from sin to infinite fire.

Then Your light touched my face

with Your power and grace

And you lifted my soul away, so high.

Your hands lifted my soul away.

 

That’s what I wanted more than anything, to be lifted away from this life, enveloped in a kind of selfless peace, free from doubt and struggle. When I got home, my mother was babysitting several church kids whose mother was in the hospital and the house was swarming with chaos as they played hide-and-seek with my sisters and brother. I knew that I would soon be put in charge of this mayhem so that my mother could cook dinner. I went to the bathroom just to have a few more moments to myself.

My period had started, ruining a nice new white pair of panties.

It must be punishment, I thought, for what I did today.

And I knew that I would never be lifted away, not by God and not by Audrey.

 

Even though my experiment had been ruined, Mr Howard wanted me to write up the results anyway.   In the last week of school, I found out that I’d won one of the first prizes. There was an awards ceremony but I couldn’t go because it was Wednesday afternoon when I had to go to prayer warriors. So Mr. Howard went for me, to pick up the microscope I’d chosen.

On Thursday, after school, Mr. Howard opened the box and pulled out the microscope, a huge and gleaming apparatus with dials and buttons and little red indicator lights. This was obviously not a toy. I knew I could never take it home with me.

Mr. Howard said he’d keep it for me in the science supply closet. He handed me a black magic marker and I wrote my name on the side of the large box. He hoisted it up to the top shelf.

“It’s right here for you,” he said, encouragingly. “You can use it when you come to the lab after school. Just go right in here and take it down when you want it.”

“Thanks,” I said but it came out like a whispery gasp.   I couldn’t catch my breath. I was remembering the feel of the cool metal arm in my hands, the teeth of the dial against my fingertips.

“And you can take it with you when you go away to college,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said again, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the box above my head.

“College,” he repeated. “Don’t forget.”

 

That night, when I turned out the light and lay down in my bed, I stared into the darkness above my face, prolonging the interval before my eyes adjusted and I could again discern the shapes around me: the dresser, the rocking chair, stuffed animals on a shelf, my younger sister’s body in the twin bed next to my own.

You see these things in the daylight, I thought, that’s what your eyes are designed to do. But when the lights are off, your eyes reach out, touching the darkness, opening up like fingertips seizing on a prize. If you’re awake, if you’re alive, you cannot stop yourself from touching darkness. You cannot stop your eyes from seeing what they grasp. Unless you close them, give in to sleep and close them forever.

My father tells us that we should think very carefully about what God sees when He looks deep inside each one of us. But now that I have my microscope, the question I keep wondering is, What does God mean for me to see?

Edna, With Her Mouth
by Katherine Schaefer

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

Edna, with her mouth closed, was not a fashion model, but she could have passed for one. She was stretched and slender everywhere: swan-necked, narrow-waisted and -hipped, her long, lean legs tapering into finely-turned ankles. She had elegant feet, graceful fingers. Her dresses hung from her straight, narrow shoulders as if flawlessly draped on a J.C. Penney mannequin, one of those matte-painted, bald ones with staring, vacant expressions. If I think of Edna in this way, remember her as still and silent and sphinxlike as a mannequin, I see her beauty, even now, forty years later, as if she were right here in front of me.

Edna with her mouth open was something else entirely. The first and last and only thing you saw about her was teeth. Edna had the worst set of buck teeth I have ever seen, or will ever see in my lifetime. If Edna’s body was classical in its architecture, like the fluted column of a temple in its pure vertical simplicity, her open mouth was positively Baroque, all curves and angles jutting this way and that—excessively, extravagantly deformed. No garden-variety overbite, Edna’s teeth were so dominant they took over her face and everything else about her person. Yet for all their mesmerizing there-they-are-ness, I couldn’t ever really look at them. When I try to pull the image of her teeth up in my memory and take a good, long look—stare at them in my mind’s eye the way I never could in real life—I can’t seem to get a clear picture.

Or maybe I can. It began with her gums, which protruded far beyond the frame of her thinly-stretched upper lip. Fully exposed to the air, Edna’s gums were pink and healthy-looking, but somehow reminiscent of an internal organ not meant to be visible outside the body. The teeth themselves projected even farther forward into space, and also crossed over one another, not a one of them in its rightful spot. Just to look at Edna’s teeth was painful; you imagined having them in your own mouth, stretching your lips to fit, trying to contain them in a space too small to ever manage. You couldn’t help but look away while you unconsciously ran your tongue over your own front teeth, feeling them still there in their proper places, smooth and wet under the movement of your tongue. You’d give a small, relieved sigh, and press your lips together, the upper and lower meeting easily, effortlessly, over your own, merely ordinary, teeth.

Who was Edna to me? Just a woman of my mother’s generation, though older than my mom by maybe a decade. I must have watched her more closely than I realized, back when I was a young girl, then a teenager, wondering about her life there on a farm a few miles west of the one where I grew up.

As painful as it was to look at Edna’s teeth, how much more painful it must have been for Edna to have them. This, too, could be clearly seen: the way she raised her hand to her mouth to shield it from view when she spoke, when she laughed. And, it may surprise you to know, she spoke and laughed often. You might think she’d remain silent and observant, only listening to the conversations flowing around her at the church Mary Martha Guild or the neighborhood Home Projects club. When Edna listened, she kept her lips closed and followed the stream of talk, her shiny black irises darting from speaker to speaker, her head tilting like a hen’s eying the ground for a piece of cracked corn. But Edna was not shy, as you might expect, nor a wallflower, despite her unfortunate teeth.

Edna’s voice was the second thing that ruined one’s initial, closed-mouth impression of her. It was perhaps more high-pitched than most, but with this wobbly up-and-down range that also included some low, guttural tones. When Edna talked, the words exploded from her mouth as if she simply had to say something, even if she knew it would be better to stay quiet. She began in a burst of high notes, then ended low, her phrases punctuated by trills of nervous, stuttering laughter. Surely the way Edna spoke was influenced by her teeth, the rapid staccato of words, her difficulty with enunciation, but there was more to it than that. Her voice had a swallowed, gobbledy quality that must have been simply how Edna sounded, teeth or no teeth. Truth be told, Edna’s voice resembled nothing so much as what you’d hear coming from a poultry barn full of caged white turkeys: that loud, shrieking up-and-down gobbling that almost makes you want to scream, yourself. And what with her skinny, stretched-out neck and those bird-bright eyes, the resemblance to poultry was all the stronger.

Whenever Edna joined into conversation, she talked so fast and her words were so garbled that it was hard to understand what she said. I noticed how people sort of skipped right over her and continued on with their own line of thought, which come to think of it, is how most conversations seem to be carried on, even without Edna or someone like her in the group.

Maybe part of my fascination with Edna was because she had this thing that was so obvious to anyone who saw her. I almost said “so obviously wrong,” but there wasn’t anything wrong, really, with Edna’s teeth. They still functioned: she could eat and speak and just plain live with those teeth. They just weren’t your normal, everyday set. There were other women in Boon Lake Township who had something different about them, something obvious to anyone looking. Sharon Meyers had a goiter, a big one, round and pink, like an extra breast attached to her neck. Louise Steffen wore leg braces and walked with a terrible see-sawing limp. As a girl she’d had polio and was shut up in an iron lung for months, learning to walk all over again upon her release from that metal prison.

But unlike the trials of Sharon and Louise, Edna’s teeth weren’t caused by an illness. It was simply how they grew in. And even though Edna held her hand over her misshapen mouth, everyone could still see it. I wondered how she could carry on with such a conspicuous flaw and still remain so cheerful. Because secretly—and this may be the heart of the matter—I felt like something was wrong with my own mother or, if not “wrong,” then at least “not right.”

On the outside my mother looked normal enough. I watched her assemble herself, layer by layer, when she got ready to go out, the way she armored herself to face the world. Girdle, slip, dress. Hairspray, lipstick, powder. Coat, gloves, handbag. The same stuff all the other ladies wore. Mom was neither pretty nor plain, stylish nor frumpy. Not fat, not thin. She could have been anybody’s mother, if you saw her from a distance. But she was my mother and I saw her close up. And there was something wrong with her, some hidden flaw. It was nothing that showed on the outside, no obvious defect to cause her unhappiness. But she was unhappy. Could other people outside my family see it, too, concealed beneath her armor of normalcy?

It was Mom, after all, who taught me to be so observant, always on the lookout for imperfections, especially female ones. When I was a teenager, she often recited the litany of my faults as we stood doing the dishes together, telling me what was wrong with my hair (lank), my clothes (tight), my posture (slouched). Her own mother had done the same for her, Mom told me, back when she was young, helping to correct her flaws. The ones that showed, anyway.

 

But back to Edna. You might think from what I’ve told you that she was unmarried, an old maid as she would have been called in that time and place. But no, Edna was married to a farmer named Lyle Lubke. Lyle was as silent as Edna was voluble. He was average-looking, possessing no physical characteristics to distinguish him from all the other farmers I knew, including my own father, with their insulated coveralls and Redwing boots and oil-stained work gloves. In summer they wore canvas caps from the feed store or the seed corn supplier; in winter they switched to plaid wool hats with the earflaps turned down. Cigarettes drooped from their lips as they went about their work, milking the cows, feeding calves, watering heifers, forking down silage, fixing the barn cleaner, the tractor, the water pump, the electric fence, always something: fixing, fixing, fixing.

I can still hear Edna’s voice so clearly in my mind, but I couldn’t describe Lyle’s if my life depended on it. The neighborhood men always talked amongst themselves about how Lyle had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and while he’d come back from it alive, he wasn’t the same as he’d been before. Not only did Lyle never say a word about the Battle of the Bulge, he never said much about anything at all. He was a deeply silent man, but his reasons for that were known and respected, and people let him be.

Edna and Lyle had five children, spaced apart over twenty years. The three boys’ names all began with the letter W, the two girls’ with a J, I don’t know why. The two girls and the youngest boy took after Edna, though their teeth were less flamboyant than hers. The two older sons favored Lyle in looks and manner and even speech—making solemn, slow statements only after measured consideration. The three who resembled Edna talked like her as well, that same high-low, swallowed gobbling that made it hard to understand their words.

Joanne, the elder daughter, babysat for my siblings and me once, staying at our house for a few days when my parents went away on vacation. She was tall and slender, like Edna, but more modern, with harlequin glasses and a dark blonde flip. The first night when Joanne was making supper, I brought a Mason jar of canned peas up from the cellar for her to heat on the stove. Instead of pouring the extra liquid down the sink, Joanne carefully drained it off into a coffee mug. “Who wants the pea juice?” she called out in a gleeful tone, holding the cup high. Huh? My sister and I were horrified. Pea juice? “Don’t you all drink the pea juice over to here?” Joanne said. “We all fight over that at home.” No, we said. You can have it. She drank it down, although with less pleasure than she might have felt in the face of our disinterest.

The next day at lunch it was the same thing with the pickle juice. Joanne said her family loved pickle juice. Olive juice, too. It was a treat to them, a delicacy. What a waste it was for us to pour it down the drain. I imagined Edna in her kitchen, holding up a cup of brine, a green-tinged nectar made of salt and vinegar to tempt her brood.

It’s not such a big thing, the Lubke family’s drinking of strange juices. It was just one of those glimpses into the mysteries of other people’s lives, those being lived inside the walls of farmhouses that seemed as impregnable as fortresses. For all the ways the people of Boon Lake seemed exactly alike—landowner farmers, either Catholic or Lutheran, all with German surnames—there were still these small, secret differences between them that I began to collect. Maybe Joanne did the same thing, only in reverse, when she returned home from her babysitting stint. Guess what? she may have said the next time her family clamored for castoff pickle juice. The Schaefers don’t even save it. They just pour it down the sink! And they might have shaken their heads at us, wondering how it could be.

 

My quest to gather information on the Lubkes wasn’t easy. Their farm was set so far back from the road that nothing could be seen except the rounded, silver top of their silo sticking up above the cottonwoods. They had the longest driveway of all the families on our bus route, a whole quarter-mile, heading straight north and disappearing into the planted windbreak. Wayne, the youngest son, was closest in age to me, in the same grade as my big brother, Bill. Wayne had asthma, the only kid I knew that did—another mystery back then, asthma. I didn’t know how to spell it, but it sounded exotic. When the school bus stopped to pick him up on winter mornings, Wayne came down the aisle to his seat, red-faced and gasping from the cold. He’d be bundled in a stocking cap and scarf, his breath frosting the wool over his mouth, eyelashes icicled, nose dripping as he thawed. Every morning he sat down on the bench seat beside my brother, across the aisle from me, and just wheezed. That’s OK, Wayne, we’d say, patting him on the back gently. Just breathe. We stayed quiet and listened to the wheezing of Wayne, feeling each whistling, gasping inhalation as if it were our own, hoping he would get his breath back soon, for all our sakes.

I’d sometimes think of Wayne at the end of that quarter-mile straightaway, having walked its length, or worse, run it if he was late, with the winter wind cutting across the land, so flat that even on the calmest days it never stopped blowing entirely. At the end of some farmers’ driveways you’d see a little shelter put up for their kids to wait for the bus. Most were simple lean-tos, strictly utilitarian, but some were made more charming, almost like playhouses, painted up in colors, with shingled roofs, a door, even windows. There were no such bus shelters for the farm kids out our way. I mostly saw them on the road to Hutch, the big town we went to on Saturdays to buy groceries. Those must be for rich kids, my siblings and I would say to each other. Richer than us, anyway. Probably spoiled—can’t even take a little rain. We’d scoff at the coddled babies we imagined. Still, I thought Wayne could have used one of those.

 

I traveled up the long driveway to the Lubke place only one time that I can remember. I must have been about eight when my family went to visit; I can’t recall the occasion. To me, it was like they’d let down their drawbridge so I could cross over the moat and enter the gates of their citadel. Except the Lubke’s citadel turned out to be a split-level ranch, white and featureless. It had replaced their old house, a two-story frame building original to the farm. Well, not exactly “replaced”—instead of tearing down their first house and starting fresh, they just built the new house alongside the old. After all, as structures go it was still perfectly good, so Lyle had turned it into a storage shed. There it stood in the dooryard next to the barn, its weathered gray clapboards cracked and cupped, the nail heads blooming with rust.

I was dying to explore it, so Wayne took my siblings and me on a tour. The first floor was impassable, stacked full of straw bales which blocked the sunlight and muffled the sound of our footsteps. Wayne led us up an enclosed stairway, the walls still covered in faded maroon paper, its pattern of silvery-gray ferns swooping across the walls and making me dizzy in the narrow passage. Halfway up, near a window, the wallpaper hung in shreds around a hole in the plaster, bigger than a fist, about the size of a pie plate. Beyond the crumbled edges of plaster and lath was a dark space, the innards of a wall you normally don’t get to see. Wayne stopped as he drew level with the hole. From within came a sound, a rhythmic pulse.

“Watch out, there’s bees in there,” Wayne said.

I froze. “Do they sting?” I didn’t know what scared me more, the bees or the hole.

Wayne shrugged. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”

I crept up the stairs, clinging to the far wall, hearing the low hum of insects. A few bees flew drowsily in and out of the hole, light from the window picking out the edges of their wings.

The second floor was mostly empty and uninteresting, as Wayne had forewarned: rusty metal bed springs, an oval wooden frame without a picture. All I thought about later was the dark hole that held the secrets of the house, abandoned to the stifling straw, the subtle bother of bees.

Edna must have looked at that old house every day, visible out the window from her kitchen sink. Did she think of the early years of her marriage spent in that house as she stood washing dishes in her new one? It was right there in front of her, tall and plain. Sometimes people stop noticing things like that, sights they see every day. But I didn’t think about all this when I was eight. It’s only now, looking back on it, that I wonder how Edna felt, what she noticed out her window. My own mother stared out the kitchen window all the time when she did the dishes. There was nothing to see but a thin grove of ash and elm, but she wasn’t looking at the trees. She was somewhere else, far away.

 

Years after my visit to the Lubke place—I must have been about fifteen—my mother called me to the phone one afternoon. It was Warren on the line, the middle Lubke boy, asking me to a dance that Saturday at the Gibbon Ballroom. Warren was four years older than me, already graduated from high school. I had never said a word to him in my life, nor had he to me; he was one of the silent Lubkes who took after Lyle. “No, thank you,” I told him. “I guess not.” I was so surprised he’d asked me out that I couldn’t even think up an excuse. What could we possibly say to each other on a date? I, too, was the shy and quiet type.

“Hold on,” he said, when I was about to hang up. “Wayne wants to talk to you.” Wayne came on the phone, and in his rushed, garbled voice, so much like Edna’s, asked me out to the very same dance.

“Wayne,” I said, “I just told Warren no, I don’t want to go.”

“Well, I just thought you might want to go with me instead of him,” he said. “He’s older so he got first crack.”

Was that what I was to the Lubke boys—someone to take a crack at? Warren had gone into farming with his dad right after high school. He was probably starting to think about finding a wife. And Wayne? He was easier to talk to, but still—he was just the neighbor boy, my brother’s friend.

“No thanks, Wayne, I don’t want to go with either one of you. No offense, though.” There was no reason to be mean, although I did feel a little offended. Also a little flattered.

“OK then, we just thought we’d try. Bye, then. See you on the bus.”

Neither of them ever asked me out again, which was a relief. I didn’t see myself as someone who would settle for the boy next door, the way my mother always let it be known she had.

 

Occasionally my brother Bill spent the day over at the Lubke place, helping with some farm work and then staying on for dinner. One time he came home with a story, which he repeated so often over the years it became a joke. Bill described the Lubke clan gathered around the table, imitating the way they—the talkative ones, that is—shouted over each other, grabbing for the food and shoveling it quickly from plate to mouth, jabbering away the whole time. My brother parroted Wayne, with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, saying to Edna, “Ma, these potatoes taste like shit.” “Yeah, Ma,” Warren echoed in his deep, deliberate voice. “They do. They taste like shit.” Then they both had second helpings.

The first time my brother told this story, I couldn’t believe it. Bill was laughing and astonished at the same time—laughing at how Wayne’s already hard-to-understand speech became nearly unintelligible with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, yet what he’d said came out clearly enough for everyone there to understand and even repeat. And he was astonished that Wayne, a boy his own age, would say such a thing to his mother. The more Bill repeated it, the funnier he thought it was, but I was aghast.

What?” I said. “He said that! To his mom? What did she say?”

Bill shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Well, what did she do?”

“Nothing,” he said again. “She just looked down and kept eating.”

“And what about Wayne’s dad? What did he do?”

But Bill’s answer was the same—Lyle had done nothing. It was so different from what our own father would have done: the instant crackdown of a slap on the face, then banishment from the table after the extraction of an apology. More punishment later if deemed necessary. Dad would never have allowed us to speak like that to Mom, no matter how bad her cooking. (And truth to tell, she’d never been much of a cook. Maybe that’s why we never criticized our mother’s cooking at all. It was one of those sore spots you didn’t dare poke at.)

Even worse, Wayne had used a swear word at the table, and to Edna, his own mother. Our mom didn’t permit any swearing in her earshot, not even darn or jeez or golly. To her, those words were just substitutes for swearing, as bad as the real thing. So to swear at your mother, in front of your father, about her cooking! Unthinkable. But what I did think about, whenever Bill told that story, was Edna’s acquiescence, her head hanging over her plate. And about Lyle’s, too, in not rising up to defend his wife. Another glimpse behind the walls of their fortress, another mystery I couldn’t comprehend. At least it made me feel less guilty about having turned down Wayne and Warren’s invitation to the dance. (I hadn’t thought I felt guilty about that, but I must have, a little.) Because I knew I wouldn’t want to end up with someone who could talk to his mother that way, or even someone who stayed silent upon witnessing such an insult.

That’s not to say that my own mother never hung her head over her plate as we sat down to supper. She did, and as the years went by, it happened more often. Sometimes, on one of her bad days, she’d run from the table into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her; from the other side we could hear her sobbing. After a minute, my father would sigh and push back his chair, go in after her. My sister and I would take up their unfinished meals, sliding the plates into the oven to stay warm. Moodiness, melancholy—it doesn’t matter what euphemism we might have applied to our mother’s depression, because we never spoke of it. Maybe we thought if it wasn’t named, it could remain hidden, invisible—even nonexistent.

 

About Edna, I haven’t much more to say. Perhaps it’s only because I know so little about her, have so few stories to tell, that I think I can paint a complete portrait, when all I have to go on are the barest few points of a dot-to-dot puzzle. When I try to connect the dots, I can draw in the lines wherever I want, and think in the end I’m able to render her whole.

But when it comes to the Lubkes, I will forever remain standing at the end of their driveway, straining to see their homestead tucked away in the trees, a quarter mile away. It’s a distance I can’t achieve with my own family, growing up in the midst of it, too close to be able to see us as an outsider might. Not a simple dot-to-dot, the puzzle of my family is more like a thousand-piece jigsaw, one of those maddeningly complex ones made up of all one color, all one texture: a golden plain of wheat with no horizon line. The dark, green depths of a cornfield in August.

 

At sixteen, I stopped watching and wondering about the Lubkes in their farmhouse-fortress to the west. My own family was coming apart, our own fortress crumbling. I spent that year, and half the next, preparing to lose my mother. I worried over how it would come about, imagining a nervous breakdown, perhaps, followed by a stint at the state hospital in Willmar. Or she might run away, as she’d threatened, leaving the farm to begin a new life. Or, if neither of those scenarios, the one I most feared and could not let myself envision beyond a single word: suicide. It was as bad as a swear word in our house, another of those words we were never allowed to utter.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, when I was seventeen, I lost my mother in a way I’d never anticipated, when both she and my father were killed in a car crash. It was nothing I’d thought to prepare for, but merely an accident that took their lives. In the dark time that followed, I’m sure Edna was there, amongst all the other church women who brought us casseroles and cakes. But the secret attention I’d once bestowed on her had lapsed in my grief. I didn’t give the Lubkes another thought until, half a year after my own loss, I got the news that Lyle had died of a heart attack. He was sixty years old. People said he was too young, and looking back on it, I guess he was. But since my own parents had been just forty and forty-one, I didn’t consider dying at sixty such a tragedy. Not so much as I might now that I’m approaching that age myself.

People said that Lyle was out in his barn when he suddenly collapsed and died. They didn’t say who found him. I hoped it wasn’t Edna, but still pictured it: her standing at the kitchen window, looking out toward the barn, thinking that Lyle was late coming in from chores. Finally, going out to get him. It was June when he died, the beginning of summer. The bees would have already come back to life, as Edna walked (trotted? ran?) past the old house on her way to discovering his body.

How did they put it again? He died of a silent heart attack. Or: He suffered from silent heart trouble. Something like that. Of course Lyle had died in silence, I thought. All his troubles were bound up in silence. I imagined him working alone in the barn, only his herd of black-and-white Holsteins to bear witness as he crumpled to the concrete floor. The water troughs, a fallen pitchfork, the warm flanks of the cows surrounding him, while somewhere in his memory Lyle was still at war—in the trenches with his weapon, the bodies of comrades to his left and right. A Silver Star lying in the darkness of his dresser drawer.

 

On a visit home from college the following year, I heard some neighbor ladies gossiping about how freely Edna was spending Lyle’s money. “Maybe she thinks she’ll nab another husband,” one said, “getting herself all fixed up like that.” The arch tone of the speaker’s voice matched her cocked eyebrow. “At her age?” the other replied, and they laughed—dry, knowing sounds like crows cawing in trees. When I turned away they probably went back to gossiping about me, how I was misspending my own inheritance, going off to art school in the city instead of staying home to take care of my younger siblings. I didn’t have to hear it to know what was being said. Everyone watched everyone else out there in Boon Lake. Our fortresses were not impregnable. There were holes in our houses.

The next day I went to a service at my old church. Down in the basement kitchen afterward, where the Mary Martha Guild was making egg coffee and setting out trays of bars and cookies, I saw Edna. She stood straight and tall as always, her figure as slender as ever. But even with her mouth closed, I saw right away that there was something different about her. She wore a beautifully-cut dress of peacock blue wool, with a paisley scarf tied artfully around her neck. Edna with her mouth closed was still birdlike, but the birds she resembled were peacocks and swans, not chickens and turkeys.

When she saw me—I must have been staring, although I didn’t mean to—Edna met my gaze and smiled. Had I ever seen Edna smile before? Talking and laughing, yes, but had she ever smiled like this, directly at me? She held out her hand as she came forward, saying my name in a slow and careful way, as if we had just been introduced for the first time. Edna, with her mouth open, smiled and said hello and asked me how I was doing. The lights overhead reflected off the metal braces covering her teeth, like hundreds of diamonds showering the room, glinting from every surface.

Adventure Counselor
by Jocelyn Edelstein

Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

 

Yes, we all had a camp name.

A name you made up?

Uh-huh.

 

I expect to get into this, when I tell people I was a summer camp counselor. When they furrow their brow and smile. When they ask me if my co-workers called themselves Panther and Ponderosa.

Yes. There were in fact two counselors who called themselves Ponderosa.

There were songs everyone knew and silly skits and tears when goodbyes were uttered and falling in love beside river banks and forever friendships forged, then engraved upon wood cookies we wore like necklaces.

 

Yes and yes. And yes.

 

Summer camp is society’s collectively approved, communal escape into wilderness. It’s perceived as wholesome, if not a little quirky, safe, if not a little dorky.

Summer camp is the place where Americans are allowed to get more American and hippies are allowed to denounce corporate gluttony – where budding 15-year-olds come of age in cult classics and pancakes are shared with grown men named Walrus and grown women named Tiger Lily. Or Panther. Or Ponderosa.

 

I was 18 when I signed on to be part of this longstanding stereotype. A good Oregon raised girl, it seemed only necessary to invest my time in at least one outdoor oriented, nature-based summer job. I was eager and untested. I, like so many novice campers, coveted a secret hunger for wild places, but didn’t yet know about the scent below the scent – the breath of bark and moss and mushroom during damp morning hours. I didn’t know about the kind of green you never recover from. I had not waited in a forest wordless – all goose bumped skin and plant light lungs. I was clueless and desperate with excitement. I was a cult classic protagonist, a wannabe hippie, a wide-eyed wilderness virgin.

 

But they hired me regardless. I’ve always done well in interviews.

***

“Tibet, don’t close your eyes, it makes it worse!” Lily hollers to me in her sweet singsong voice as I’m raised slowly upwards over an 80-foot ravine, strapped inside a harness that feels like an adult diaper.

She calls me Tibet because this is the camp counselor name I ceremoniously chose for myself.

No, I’ve never been to Tibet. And yes, I realize now, how embarrassing that is.

 

Lily is one of my 14-year-old campers and she’s trying to encourage me.

You see, being the adventure counselor means taking groups of kids on harnessed drops over forest canyons, among other things.

And when I said yes to this role, it was because I thought we’d be hiking or running near water, maybe howling at stars in a meadow. I’m skittish about heights and I’m not a particularly strong swimmer, but I’m good at quoting poetry and I can play two Dar Williams songs on my guitar. I assumed there was a balance to be struck. I had no idea the adventure counselor led horseback rides, whitewater rafting trips and 80-foot harness drops.

 

“Tibet! You look like you’re going to throw up!” That’s Anna, Lily’s not-so-sweet counterpart, and she taps her black fingernails against the hem of her ripped jeans.

I gaze out at treetops that are neither quilted nor velvet – that are nothing like the supple emblems described in my favorite nature prose. They are just spiky, pointed wood and they will skewer me like a fat cube of chicken if this harness breaks. I hold my breath and shake my head at Elk, the harness operator. He nods his shaggy mop of sun bleached hair and gives me a let’s-do-this thumbs up and a slightly stoned grin.

I shake my head more furiously, but he’s already preparing to release the cord.

 

“Breathe!” Lily calls.

 

“You’re crazy high up!” Anna shouts.

 

I push the air out of my lungs as Elk hits the go button.

 

“Fuuuuuuck!” I scream – three – possibly four times – as I hurtle through air, as my innocent 14-year-old campers giggle until they can’t stand, as the honest wind tells my body a story of speed and force and falling.

 

And like this, my summer camp adventure begins.

***

It’s not so bad when you have a co-counselor schooled in adrenaline-based excursions. Moose, (that’s his chosen name), takes charge of the stuff I’m no good at – like charting paths through churning water in small rubber rafts and leading horses over steep ridges.

This gives me time to listen deeply, to have real conversations with our campers, to play the two Dar Williams songs I know on my guitar every night before they sleep and to tell the truth with unabashed frequency.

 

I’m scared we might be crushed under that horse if he trips.

I don’t know what we’d do if our raft sunk.

I’m not entirely sure where we are.

I don’t know how to pitch a tent.

Starting a fire is hard and we might never be able to do it without matches.

 

But when we camp along the beach I turn each raft into a castle. I string battery-powered lanterns above our heads and craft bouquets of soggy gummy worms. I make up stories about stars that lived in rivers and rivers filled with light. About the day the stars abandoned water and married sky to bring the world out of darkness. About the river, still in love, reflecting burning circles. About the water’s deep, sad beauty and the sky’s enormous gaze.

The girls hold gummy worms suspended between hand and mouth and listen with rapt focus. Moose studies the map with his flashlight and plans a route for tomorrow that will bring us adventure and safety in equal measure.

 

The summer finds its pace.

***

It’s an early morning hike when I pause with a group of girls at the threshold to a clearing. Fractured sunlight fills the veins of lucent plants as dewdrops make a fleeting plea for solid form.

The animal is so still he could be stone – brown rib cage pushing breath – head bowed toward grass and earth, antlers bigger than my torso.

 

Recognition ripples through each of us in turn until we saturate the field with our fierce collective attention. And because I want to make it real, I allow myself one word, muttered out loud – a naming of our wonder.

 

“Moose.”

 

“He’s waiting up ahead on the trail,” Lily whispers.

 

“Not the human, the creature.” I reply.

 

“Elk.” Anna says.

 

“He’s not here either,” I smirk and for a second I think I’ve won her over, but she shakes her head disdainfully.

 

“It’s an elk Tibet, not a moose.”

 

“I know.” But I didn’t know. My honesty simply surrendered to my pride.

***

In the movie Moonrise Kingdom, he’s a raccoon hat wearing eleven-year old, in Troop Beverly Hills, he’s a girl scout’s dad who was formerly an inattentive husband and in Wet Hot American Summer, he’s an asshole with a great body.

For me, he’s a quiet, bronze skinned counselor who plays the saxophone at campfire.

And though I try to keep the blush from rising, my girls can see right through me.

 

“Pine Cone’s really cute,” they giggle.

“Are you guys friends?” they query.

“I bet he has a girlfriend outside of camp,” they sigh.

 

What I know is that Pinecone makes me feel like I’m being harness dropped on repeat. What I know is that I’m only four years older than my hormone-ridden campers and I’m just barely able to transcend their terribly obvious way of crushing hard.

 

At campfire the moon is golden round. My girls hide mosquito bitten legs beneath a blue fleece blanket that they share between them. Pine Cone stands up to play his saxophone. He looks once in my direction before the first note sounds out like a wolf howl in the night.

Anna’s voice is barely a whisper – devoid of sarcasm. “He likes you. You two would be cool together.”

 

I don’t pull any punches. “I like him too. We would be cool together.”

 

She smiles a slow smile. She offers me the corner of her blanket. Saxophone notes wail and scatter and when the music is done, earth hums to help us navigate the silence.

 

***

Our muscles are strong and our burnt skin has peeled to reveal the perfect hue of summer. At night I fall asleep on a mat below a fir tree, while my girls slide secrets between tents. August’s grip is ripe.

 

In the final days of camp, Moose and I take our adventure warriors on a hike that ends in a cold plunge, or more specifically, submersion into a deep pool of frigid water at the base of a large waterfall.

Moose waits on the rim of the pool. His job – tie his rope to the rope each camper wears around their waist, so that no one is lost to the shock of icy water.

My job – hold each camper’s hand as they climb up the final rocky ledge below the pool and prepare for Moose to drop them in.

 

Instead of gripping my hand to steady her gait, Anna twines her fingers around mine. She doesn’t move up or down. Her green eyes are round. Her black mascara streaks her cheekbones.

 

“You’ve got this,” I cheer, with the same enthusiasm I’ve used on all the other campers before lifting them towards an abyss-like well of dark and freezing water.

Anna shakes her head and her fingers tighten. Then all the sound of excited kids and water crashing, it levels into static.

 

“That water is cold as shit.”

Anna nods and her eyes get wider.

“Not being able to see the bottom is scary,” I say. “I thought I was going to die the first time I did this.”

 

Anna nods again and her grip softens.

 

“But that’s why we have the rope. We’re on the other side of that rope. And you’re gonna be fine.”

 

“I’m really scared,” Anna says.

 

“I know.”
The noise of the other soaked and gleeful campers is a chant of summer, of timeless friendship, of the crazy feral forest.

She pushes off my hand and climbs to Moose. He ties his rope to hers and she readies herself to drop. Anna finds my eyes and grins.

 

“Fuuuuuuuck!” she screams at the top of her lungs.

 

Then she closes her eyes and dives into the wild, lonely water.

 

***

 

Do your kids learn your real name at the end of the summer?

Yeah.

Are they surprised?

No. Your real name doesn’t matter anymore because it’s not what you remember.

 

What you remember is that the path to the dining hall is lined by rocks the color of ochre. Hummingbirds land often on the foxglove by the archery station, electric purple wings and pinpoint beaks. Skits are silly and some songs are cheesy, but communities gathered under the cherry plume of sunset to cherish something wild – it’s as necessary as air. Without screens or ringing phones, what you remember by the end of summer is that this togetherness matters. This forest home, this crazy coexistence of senseless beauty – this matters. And we, the fearful and the fearless, we will choose pride and we will choose truth, but we will all find our way through the deep and drowning water, back to each other.

And this matters.

More than anything, this matters.

All the Pieces Came Together
by Chris J. Rice

Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

I’ve always been a turtle behind the wheel, slow and steady. I didn’t get a license until I was twenty-four and I totaled two cars by the age of forty-eight, uncertain of where I was in space. I routinely drove off steep curbs. Somehow missed the dip that signified a driveway entrance or exit. Could never tell how far my own car was from the one just ahead. On mountainous roads I’d ask someone else to take the wheel, lie down on the back seat or crouch on the floorboards. Edges terrified me. I rode the brake, gulped fear, heart pounding. Never looked out the window with pleasure, even on planes. Didn’t care about seeing a carpet of clouds. I slid the porthole cover shut as soon as I sat down. Turned the overhead reading light on and zoned out.

Distance. Heights. Crowds. I couldn’t deal with everyday space and time. Scooped out just looking at a clock. Immediately convinced I was late, I’d grab my purse, eyeglasses and keys, and head for the door. I was the woman who always showed up too early and waited out front in her car, the woman who claimed a seat closest to the plane gate two hours ahead of the flight.

Transitions were hard.

“Read the letters on the chart for me, please.”

They looked like Celtic runes or the Cherokee syllabary. E was easy, the top letter on the chart and one I knew well. E was the initial of my son’s first and last names. Also the first initial of my adopted last name, and the official surname on my birth certificate, not the name I was born with but the name of StepDad. S — my initial from Real Dad — was long gone.

My biological father left when I was three years old, and didn’t come around again until I was ten. Looked at me wary. Looked at me weird. Told me I was like him. Told me I was like her. Took me for a ride in the country and spewed scary stories. “Never forget what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “Opposites attract. They attract all right. Then they fucking kill each other.”

“Were you ever hit in the head?” my ophthalmologist asked.

Fingernails in my arms hang on hang on. Head bounced against the wall. Run. Run. Run, you little idiot. Get out of here. Slip out the door and out of her way. Move. Two years old on my trike, twenty blocks gone.

I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m out of here.

Not enough to go around. Not welcome, not wanted, no room for any of us.

Not in her.

Born to a woman who had to parcel out love to her nine children.

  1. Me
  2. Moody Sister
  3. Baby Brother
  4. Tomboy Twin
  5. Platinum Twin
  6. Meanie Lee
  7. Lawyer’s Son
  8. Last Girl
  9. Last Boy

Only the twins had the same father: a man my StepDad tried to kill one night with a bottle opener.

Tore him apart and set Mama rambling.

After that night, she never lived in the same place for more than a year or so. She took off to avoid questions she didn’t want to answer from people paid to ask those kinds of questions: social workers, doctors, school counselors and law enforcement officers.

She distrusted authority and instilled that distrust in all of her children.

Mile-high moxie, ruthless disregard of authority, and freedom of a kind I left behind, left behind and sometimes longed for.

Afraid. And ashamed of my fear and my weakness, ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to carry my siblings away with me when I left. Afraid of being run over, demolished and obliterated by the hate and disregard that had lived in Mama and lived on in them. That didn’t die with her. That would never die.

“Here’s the thing,” the doctor said. “There isn’t a prism insert big enough to correct this. I’m going to have to send you to a strabismus expert.”

Strabismus? As soon as I got home, I looked up the term.

Strabismus, sometimes described as: crossed eyes, walleyed, lazy eye, wandering eye, or deviating eyes, an imbalance in the muscles responsible for the positioning of the eyes, preventing the eyes from tracking together in a coordinated way.

Psychological difficulties included: social inhibitions, anxiety, and often, emotional disorders from the loss of normal eye contact with others.

Traitor is what my half-sisters called me, and worse.

When the twins were three, Mama had Meanie Lee, the parting gift of some stranger in the night, and I knew that once again I would have to love her as my own. And I did. I loved her so hard and so strong, she called me mommy. She toddled toward me, arms wide open and trusting.

I held on to her the way I needed someone to hold on to me.

And then Mama had another baby, this time a boy. The kind she hated, the kind she never even tried to like. Born seventh in line, with a full head of black hair and dark inquisitive eyes. Eyes that took it all in from the get-go. I could tell. And I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there, couldn’t try to love one more loveless baby one more time. The last I saw him he was fourteen months old, standing in his crib, watching and silent. And I was off to live with Real Dad and his new family.

Broken family, wrecked finances, for years involved with men who didn’t want me, harsh judgmental pricks, not tender or kind at all. The people in my life fluctuating, more acquaintances than friends, not as important as the ones I had left behind—never as important as the kids in the car.

In many ways I was still in that car.

Cramped legs, clenched fists, and squinting eyes.

Stubborn. For as much as I moved forward I also stood still. Afraid of what would resurface, I kept my life fragmented: these people here and those people there. Friends never met family. Family never met friends. I lived my life on the edge of every family system: biological, adopted, step, foster and married in.

Compartmentalized.

The only way I could deal. The only way I could keep it together. Then I fell in love with R, the first letter of relief, and the initial of my current last name, surname of the man I kissed under a bright light in the sky. “What is that?” I asked him that first night, because I’d never seen the moon so high, the world so bright.

In the first photo taken of me with my second husband and his two children, I stand apart from them, arms crossed, head cocked to the right, squinting eyes aimed left. Body contorted. Inward. Hidden away. Protected.

The way you look at us, friends would say.

Lighten up. Don’t sit so far away. Don’t look like that.

See it this way.

Ten percent of the general population has strabismus; four percent of children have strabismus. Age of onset for naturally occurring strabismus: two to three months or two to three years. The condition might be congenital, acquired or pathological. As for a fix, the odds were not good. The chance of achieving stereoscopy in adult life was slight to none. I examined photographs from childhood. I studied my gaze in infancy, in early childhood, and found a level gaze at two and four. Sad eyes, yes, but eyes able to look directly into the camera, until age six and then not so much.

At six, I remember looking across the room at a favorite toy, a gyroscope. I remember seeing it split apart and become two. One gyroscope levitated, the other stayed on the bed. I was in awe. Transfixed by the magic I had made. I thought everyone looked so hard they made the objects in the world split and float apart.

The wonder didn’t last long.

By age eight, I avoided eye contact. Shied away from the camera. Looked down, to the side. Covered my face with a book. Adopted a stubborn stance of defense and resistance. Sat as close as I could to the TV and squeezed my eyes together. Pressed in on my temples as hard as I could. Struggled to bring the doubled images on the screen together in my head. Couldn’t see to catch softballs lobbed my way, failed to judge the distance between my bike’s fender and a friend’s and crashed. I stayed inside more and more with my Moody Sister. Upside down, we flopped backwards into the canyon between our twin beds. And watched our lips move, striking and odd and so comforting. I became obsessed with viewing the world that way. Wondered why all doorframes weren’t inverted, allowing you to step up and into a room instead of mindlessly gliding through portals.

“Look at the world and paint a picture,” my fourth grade teacher said. “Make it look the way you see it.”

I chose the bloom of a blue iris, stuck in a water glass on her desk. I mushed the wet end of a watercolor brush into a cake of violet and transferred the flat world I saw onto the flat world of the paper with deceptive ease.

Transcribed the world of my vision onto the world of the picture plane.

The code for depth already buried in the back of my brain, disconnected.

Unplugged.

To “put” something in perspective is to place it within a contiguous space, in sequence, with clear boundaries and borders, in context. Seamless.

Art blows that map apart. Has to.

Life never stays the same, in sequence with clear boundaries and borders. 

In my twenties I made a special trip to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see Picasso’s Guernica before it was returned to Spain. I sat on the floor in front of that monotone mural and took it all in, transfixed by the light and the lack, by my recognition of the fractured world depicted: horrific conflict, child in the center, torch lighting the way. Cubistic. Drawn as much from what we know to be true as what we see in the world.

All art an abstraction, all vision an interpretation. The brain was an organ of interpretation.

“They’re not finished,” observers would say about my drawings and paintings. “Why don’t you ever finish them?”

“They are finished,” I would answer.

I was so sure I knew what I was leaving out. So sure composition was a choice I made, that what I left out was purposeful.

Drawing was my skill, my knowledge, and my way to get attention.

Life was so hard.

I made the meaning I could.

Adapted.

I was so adept at adapting; I was eleven years old before someone in my life noticed something off with my vision. Grandma Iola watched me struggle to see the TV and took me to an eye doctor. After the examination, she let me pick out a pair of cat-eyed frames, along with a silver chain to hang them around my neck. So I would never lose them. There’s one photograph of me wearing those eyeglasses, a black and white Kodak of a solitary girl standing on a gravel driveway in front of an old Chevrolet. A nerd girl in peg leg jeans, a button-down white Oxford shirt, and a corduroy jacket lined with fake shearling. Suede loafers with white socks on her feet, hair in a ponytail, stray bangs hung over and into the brand-new eyeglasses on her solemn face.

I didn’t even make it into Mama’s house with those cat-eyed frames. The instant she saw me, she ripped them off my face and threw them back into my grandmother’s car.

“Ugly four eyes. No kid of mine will ever wear glasses.”

Mama didn’t like doctors. She only took us to one when we needed shots for school attendance. Doctors were nosy. She didn’t trust them. She hadn’t gone to them when she was a kid and she didn’t want their questioning eyes on any of her children.

“Mercy,” my grandmother said.

Mercy was the word she used whenever she had cause to wonder. She said it in surprise or disbelief or whenever she needed time to think. I would hear her say that word whenever I was afraid. Petrified that day, I adopted her invisible faith, hoisted myself up from the curb where I had fallen and followed Mama into the house.

The next time I wore eyeglasses, I was forty-two years old, working as a photo researcher in the Los Angeles Times editorial library, with so much eyestrain I could barely think. For hours a day I looked through magnifying loupes, searched through Lektriever files for the best negative frame, browsed through online databases for this or that particular image, eyes in a squint, head throbbing. Queasy and disoriented, prone to double vision when I was tired, unable to pull my lazy right eye into alignment, make it cooperate with my overworked left.

A body holds a head to suit the senses. I held my head askew. Turned my face to the right and looked at the world crossways, eyes aimed in the opposite direction. I trained myself to look at the world sideways. Shot the people around me endless side-eye like some kind of perpetual doubter.

Torso twisted to support my misaligned vision.

Head rotated to reposition my wandering right eye.

Neck and shoulders torqued to the right to accommodate my head.

Right hip rotated.

Right leg followed and right foot splayed.

Spine curved.

I had some support to go to college from my foster parents but all the loans and work-study jobs were on me. It took me eight years to finish my BA because I married young, too young, and had my son when I was twenty-three.

I do not recommend that—going from unsupported child to raising one.

The waiting room of the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles was full of parents with young children. Most of the kids were under three. Some were still in strollers; many wore eye patches like little pirates. I wondered how they could test pre-verbal kids with an eye chart.

Strabismus, if not detected and treated early, contributes to loss or lack of development of central vision. Early diagnosis increases the chance for complete recovery.

In the examination room, I took a seat in the exam chair and laughed. Across the room, shadow boxes held a menagerie of stuffed animals.

Above that was the Snellon eye chart.

The nurse came in and gave me a preliminary exam.

She showed me a card of geometric designs: nine rounded squares, and within each of them, a set of four concentric circles. “Point to the three-dimensional circles in each set,” the nurse said. “The circles that seem to rise off the page.”

As usual, I simply guessed. I did not know.

The world was a flat road stretching into the distance, parallel lines seldom converging, with objects and people popping into my field of vision as if from nowhere.

Twenty percent of murders take place within families. Reactive and regressive people respond with violence to upsetting or provoking stimuli. I’d read all about the makeup of criminals; I couldn’t get enough of the subject. I’d searched myself body and soul for the marks of Cain: odd lines in the palm, strange spaces between toes, creases on the tongue, and ears too low on the head.

Eyes unfocused.

The nurse left but told me to wait; the doctor would be in soon.

While I waited, I checked my phone for messages. I took a photo of the room and posted it online.

I’m here. Right here in this place.

We are animals with forward facing eyes. Eyes that converge to see close up and diverge to see into the distance; eyes that scan the world as we move through it.

Stereo and peripheral vision helps us do that.

I didn’t have either.

I was stereo blind. Stereo is the Greek word for solid. Real. Objects seen in three dimensions look solid, in and of the world. Located in space.

From early on, Mama wasn’t real and solid to me. For as long as I could remember, she was split into two people in my mind’s eye: the loving Mama who I imagined had been taken away and the mean version left in her place.

Get a grip, we say. Meaning: hold it together.

A couple of months before I found out Moody Sister had died Last Girl — the sister born after I left — called my landline. I didn’t recognize her number on the display but I answered anyway, uneasy and unprepared for what I was about to hear.

“Another one of our sisters is dead.”

Platinum Twin, seventeen the last time I had seen her, in the Tulsa Juvenile Detention Center, staring at me with dread, a truer blonde than her full-blood sibling, with spooky blue-green eyes strangely tuned out like Mama’s.

“They found her in her bed. Pretty as she always was but not breathing.”

“How? How did she die?” I asked. Wishing I had taken all of them with me when I left Mama and then the Midwest.

“She’s in heaven now, at peace with her savior,” Last Girl responded.

Still I pressed, needing to know. “What exactly happened?”

“I haven’t seen the death certificate. They won’t give it to me.”

Jesus! Couldn’t any of them answer a simple question? “Okay. Forget about the death certificate. Don’t you think it’s strange she died so young?”

She was only forty.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember who our mother was? What she was like?”

“Look, I haven’t ever met you,” Last Girl said. “I was a baby in the front seat of the car when you ran away. So, you know what, you don’t know anything about me and I really don’t know anything about you. But I’ll tell you what. I have faith and I do like my faith tells me to do. I forgive. What about you? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Do you even believe in God?”

The earth, the ancients said, is a great island floating in a sea of water, hanging down from a solid rock sky suspended on all four sides by tenuous cords. Someday those cords will break and our only earth will fall. That’s what I believed. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that to someone I’d never had to keep quiet in the backseat of a speeding car, a baby I was never around to protect, never took care of through a dark wandering night. So I got off the phone as fast as I could, and sat down on the kitchen floor quaking.

Couldn’t keep it together.

Mama couldn’t keep it together. She died in her car in a hospital parking lot. All she owned was in a cardboard box stashed in an unpaid storage unit. Dead, but never gone, not for me, and not for all seven of her surviving children, and their children and their children and their children. She was still alive in them and in those to come, and in me, her oldest girl, the one not included in her obituary, the one who ran, the girl who got away.

Two of Mama’s six girls were already dead by the time she died. Two of her three sons left before they were grown, before they had reached the age of accountability.

Mama had nothing. Moody Sister’s real father paid for Mama’s grave and I paid for her headstone.

Daughter. Mother. Sister. Mother. Daughter.

When the nurse came back, she was with a portly man in a white lab coat. Finger puppets were stuffed in both his pockets. He introduced himself and sat down on a stool to read my chart. Then he handed the chart to the nurse and swung the phoropter over my face, a whirl of lenses, knobs, and prisms.

“Look across the room,” the doctor said. “And tell me what you see.”

“A pink pig, a blue elephant and, I think, a raccoon.”

He smiled. “No. I mean the letters on the chart. Start at the top.”

While I read as well as I could, he measured the distance my eyes roamed as I moved them from side to side, trying to recognize every letter, to prove to him and myself that I was okay.

“You should have had this done a long time ago,” the doctor said. He slid the phoropter off my face and told me what he planned to do.

Operate. Once, twice, maybe three times. Whatever it took to correct the misalignment of my eyes. It had to be done. The difference between my left eye view and my right eye view were too great for my brain to combine into one contiguous picture. So my brain suppressed the information from my right eye and only used the information from my left eye.

I stared at the doctor’s toupee and tried to absorb what he was saying.

He was going to fix me. Put his hands inside my head. Cut the translucent white skin over the surface of my eyes. Roll my eyeballs in the bony cradle of their sockets. Find the faulty muscle and alter it. Clip the loose muscle and tighten it. Cut the too-tight muscles off the surface of my eyeballs and move them down a notch or two. Stitch it all back down and call it done for now.

Who knew if the operations would work or not? The code for depth was buried in the back of my brain, disconnected all these years.

Unplugged.

“That’s deep,” Grandma Iola would say.

Depth a measure of seriousness, of sadness, a measure of how far down into the space of our psyche we are willing to go, to integrate, to pick up the pieces and come out whole on the other side.  

After Mama died, I tried to reconnect with my three surviving sisters with varying success: one called only to ask for money, another to save my soul, and the third routinely launched all-cap midnight attacks through social media. 

 

TO YOU WHO DON’T LOVE OUR MOTHER THOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHY!!!

 

A virtual barrage of vicious messages designed to convince me everything that had happened was my fault entirely. I was the Big Sister. If I had stayed, their lives might have turned out better.

 

What do we care what you think? Who are you anyway?

 

After the first operation, I was shattered. In. Pieces.

Eyes a kaleidoscope.

Brain cells and electrical circuitry were reactivated and scrambling to make sense.

The eye drops burned going in. “Look up. There,” my husband said. “At the fixture in the center of the ceiling.”

I focused on that light. Every morning I trained my eyes upward. And focused. Took charge of my vision.

What we make of what we see is our story. What we are able to see is our truth.

At fifty-eight I had to learn how to see again.

The monocular cues developed over decades to help me decipher the world were useless to me now. Now those cues were scrambled and I had to live with the reality of my actual vision while I retrained my eyes to work together. I was betting that if my eyes were not misaligned at birth or in early infancy — and I knew from photographs that they were not — my optic box had all the information I needed, and it was not too late to regain stereo and peripheral vision.

But it would take a lot of work.

Every morning as soon as I opened my eyes, I looked at that light fixture in the center of the bedroom ceiling and pulled the two images of that light fixture back together into one solid object.

I was determined to awaken my visual cortex, remind it, persuade it to reconnect to my realigned eyes. I was determined to see what I had never seen before. I wore a pirate patch on my left eye to coax my stray right eye back to center. I binge-watched Six Feet Under on my iPad, a shallow box of light placed six inches from my face. I focused on those tiny scenes and pulled their doubled images back together in my head. Forced everything to come together: my eyes, thoughts, words, and life.

I stopped driving on the freeways.

I clung to daily habits: walked the dog through the streets of our tree-lined neighborhood, sorted the mail: the pieces that fell through the slot in the door and the pieces I scrolled through on my iPhone inbox. Everything was fractured and flat: my sight, my mood, and the weather. Fractured and flat and sequential, it all rolled by, day after day. Day after day I used the same silver spoon, the same cereal in the same yellow-green Bauer bowl, the same uncertainty gathering, and the same debilitating doubt. A year passed that way, unsure of what I thought, felt, saw. Unable to correct badly placed commas, drive freeways or read for very long, I stared out the living room window, watching birds land on a water bowl and promising myself that after this was over, I would get a tattoo on my left shoulder, my dominant side, my weakened side, the side of my body which had held my left eye steady while the right side twisted away in confusion. I would get a tattoo of the first initial of all my last names. Mama on the brain, in my head, in my flesh and blood and bones, in spirals of DNA, undetectable to the human eye, fractured bits of information and promise, of fate and possibility.

We put the world together the only way we can, with our senses. We place what we know in context, and that context gives us a defined location in space.

What we are able to see is our truth, our reality.

Mama had two more babies after I left: number eight, another girl to ignore, and number nine, her last, another boy to hate. Born when I was twenty, five years gone and at last in college.

I had never met either of them when I got the call Mama had died.

Her story over and done, mine just beginning.

A being captive, yet in her heart evolate, flying outward like the ancients, as if springing into being from an embryonic state. Like the ancients I was determined to defeat the cowardice in my heart, the silence in my head and the trouble in my life.

I, eye, aye, this is what I give you, what I see, what I have seen, what I know to be true. Some people will never love you. They will clobber you with their minds and hold you down.

Do not let them.

“Don’t stop painting,” E, my first husband said. “Whatever happens with us? This is your thing. This is what you need to do.” As if he knew.

It was uncomfortable to realize the role my faulty vision had played in my decision to leave our son in Oklahoma with his father when I left to go to art school in California. I wasn’t stupid. I saw the power I gave my ex by leaving. The moral high ground he ascended to when I left my son behind. Loaded up my Datsun and took off with my drunken boyfriend.

My identity as fractured as my vision, I erected walls around me. Hard walls. Flat walls. Walls I made and maintained. Walls consciously and unconsciously made to give me space, to give me time, time and space to pull my vision together. Scarred with profound anxieties, I had already cordoned off my most painful experiences. I’d already accepted my fate.

In art school, the instructors pushed me to pick up a video camera. Put down the brush. Be like us or you can go home, hick girl. Pick up the tools of mass media. Use a video camera and deconstruct the dominant hierarchy. I tried. Put my right eye against the aperture and could not see. Went blind up against that machine. Literally could not see. Aesthetic production, they called it. Not art. Video flickers from expensive machines. A mechanical process meant to circumvent the body. Amend the body. Extend the body. MAGNIFY the body politic. They looked at my paintings of bodies, stacked and layered like history, like communal graves, like the back seat of a car, looked at my efforts and said: “Can you do without this obsession with the body? I mean. Does this say all you need to say?”

Then came the second surgery.

As I was going under the anesthesia, the baby in the bed next to me cried and I let myself be comforted by her mother’s voice. “Everything is okay,” she said. “It’s okay. I am right here.”

I hadn’t seen my son in twenty years.

“You will never see me again,” he told me when he left. “Never.”

Knocked out with his voice in my head, I came back to consciousness propped up. The doctor was asking questions.

“Tell me which is sharpest? Clearest?” Click. Click. “Is it this one or that one?”

The doctor wanted to make sure my eyes were not over- or under-corrected. He wanted to make sure my eyes were coordinated, able to move together like the front wheels of a car.

Not misaligned, continuing to pull me off course.

On the way home, my husband stopped at a Peet’s Coffee to get us each a cup. I waited in the car while he went in. There were bandages over my eyes, the smell of disinfectant on my skin, stinging, and I was so curious. But I waited until we got home, until I got out of the car, to lift the bandages and open my eyes.

And bam! Binocular neurons fired and the world unfurled in front of me.

Distant hills curved into the sky. Every leaf on every Chinese elm, which all grew in a row along our street, spiraled around me, one after the other. Plants grown out of the depths, rooted and round and three-dimensional, like me.

I walked through our front door as if into a new world. A sixty-year-old woman, who saw, finally saw what she had to do to take her place in the story.

One day I danced in the living room to Janis Joplin.

Oh yeah, take it. Take another little piece of my heart, yeah, baby.

No longer staring at the light in the middle of the ceiling, optic box busy unscrambling the chaos, pulling the doubled back together, no longer trapped in that space of powerless cowering, saying: I can’t, you can.

No longer an imposition, in the way and taking up more space than I should.

No longer adapting to the damage done, my center of gravity shifted.

My back swayed. My shoulders shimmied, my butt aligned and my two feet followed.

The pain in my neck went away and new pains moved in.

If this had happened to me, what had happened to them, my siblings? The baby in the crib the day I left, the day I finally got away?

And my son, the child I was too afraid to love. The being I brought into this world and the being I was most responsible for.

I, eye, aye, a blind spot exists before the physical possibility of perception, a blind spot not darkness, but the absence of light. Fifteen degrees from the center of the retina, right where the optic nerve takes off for the rest of the brain. Right where the nerve leaves the retina for the brain. Right in that spot, there are no light-sensing cells. Right in that spot, there is darkness. No contrast, or illusion.

Empty.

And in that place of emptiness all the pieces come together.

S

E

E

R

The entire world was my blind spot, self in the dark center, unable to see until I could.

Like the terrapin in the old Cherokee tale, thrown into the stream by wolves: the terrapin dove deep under water into darkness and came up on the other side into light, escaping the wolves, alive but broken. His back fractured against a river rock, the terrapin sat on the opposite bank and sang: I have sewed myself together, I have sewed myself together.

Gudayewu.

Goo-dah-yay-woo.

The pieces came together, but the scars remained.
###

Little World / After a Series of Rejections
by Sawnie Morris

First Place, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

You      can safely e merge        to sit   with magenta   tulips   ,
orange day    lilies    shouting

surprise(!)    in their inaudible – to – humans –  language.  . ..   Dandelions make
punctuation    marks   in short   isomorphic    sentences of

manna and buffalo grass.     You   are struck
by the    watery    sounds       grackles    make.   It’s fabulous ,

and they are forgetful                of  you ,    which is also            grand,    gathered
as they are    in the crabapple     and hopping in   miniature

crescendos   ~ ^ ~ ~ ^   they’ve made      a discovery,   these   branches     this
bark : new     country,       paradise,     the real

estate     they have    longed     for .      How far out
on a limb are you willing to go? ,  ,     perched

on     the radical          reaches     of
nerve      nebulae . … .       Into the blue  

beyond      .  . …   .
a less  bird-like    sotto voice   chimes : “that’s your grandmother’s

language”     &       “ it’s   getting     hot”   – –
Y ou move   beneath

the   crabapple,       grackles
scatter.   In the halo of        sentence-diagrams

there’s a buzzing       Gertrude
vibrated    along   with.     You watch    a bumble bee     go     at it

with a blossom,   and a     smaller       black     drone     hovers :
amateur   observing a    pro.   The speaker

phone       makes an ugly   sound •     from inside
the house ,  as though    calling for   a

doctor.   The message     says
not   to     leave   a          message     ,,   someone

ornery    or desperate  or    oblivious   does so
anyway.   Your   beloved is

in the    painting   studio     laughing   at the    astrological
forecast     that has    interrupted the    jazz

show.  Briefly,
s/he hammers  a     board .   When you first crept   out

the door  you were     startled
by      branches    of the lilac   ,   how exactly

they  were         capillaries craning   their angular
snake-like     necks   , forest     explosions !     (radiant

ends ).    This     has   everything       to do    with
the limb-
ic    system ,       your  thin   malachite     t-shirt

a  pond –
w/     gold   sparkle ,     which   floats    , ,

and the emerald   ink      you write  in     every
spring  b/c you have   a need  to

talk to   yourself      in   color  after     the spanipelagic   wash
of   winter.    The black dog    drinks

from the bird’s   oval   basin     & lies down       covered
in     the  cadmium       heat of the nearest

star . Light     is    amniotic   , we swim ..       More banging
sparks   up   static  in      the studio.        You have   only

so much   sand   left       in   the eternity
symbol   ,       how are you      going to
count  it ?

( The   dog   rolls   on his    back
r olls   back     on his    side

snorts     . )       The virgin constellation    sits at a  tilt  ,
rock-nested.   She’s  seen     more  gracious

rotations  ,    but       remains
in the prayerful      position.   On the other side  of

dishevelment ,       stone and latilla       steps    hide
the insignia     of   crab          beneath

sage.       It isn’t that      you
are crabby    ,  it’s that  your    efforts  are       beginning to

resemble    a      gust       hitting      a    cluster
of densely packed particles.         Perhaps  your

elements are     perplexed . Wind
is      ephemeral.

The    dog           leaves   the   rays
in   favor   of   a      gray

the    crabapple             casts
,, (  The dog  ,     at least     , thinks

you might  have       something to     offer. )  The grackles
have decided      you are a non-
threat,   so move in      as   close

as      the nearest       apple  .
Chuck chuck  chuck ,    the shiny     crow     says,

Pheew.   Perfectly normal             bees
descend     to       lower   branches ,     close to your

hat, which is
human.   Nature          adores you ,

what more   can you want ?
The         unknowable           answers

w/ last night’s   dream :   B.H.     exhorts   ‘A.S.   to   WRITE !

A   Klee-like         twig-drawing   appears :       rectangular dwelling
containing a flower-in-a-pot, a stick-tree ,   and a stick-person

etched     in the skin of
an   upper   arm   ,

a     shot in the   dark

( like the doctor gives ) of the lyric :
( according to Donne ) :

a     little     world
made                                                                  cunningly   .”

 

And so, it is.

Carol Amber
by Kate Kingston

Runner Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Bacteria breeds in the potato bin, white
spores on the windowsill. The stove
top is lined with cold cuts, half-eaten
yogurt. Tea bags line her sink, Sweet Flag,
Burdock, Bitterroot. Her milk is outdated,
the salami petrified. Mice coagulate
at the periphery of crackers
and chips. I offer to clean
but she says, no, blocks the refrigerator
as if I am about to steal
her oranges. She worries I might
spill the milk, break the eggs.
The pantry smells like dog urine,
her own hair a disarray of tanagers.

The supermarket calls to her like a siren.
She can’t refuse its colored cans,
its cool freezer breath, stacks of lemons,
limes, apples, grapefruits, oranges,
its tussle of bananas and string beans.
She worships its bakery, sprinkled
donuts and caraway rye—buys more,
shops every day, sometimes twice.
She is in her element, pushing
the wheeled cart like an old friend,
focusing on the grocery list
tattooed to memory—aged cheddar
in case her son visits, Cheerios
for her grandson, goat’s milk
for her daughter, ice cream
and steak in case the neighbor
stops over, hungry.

Her dog carouses the yard with bristled
neck fur. Pine needles shed onto shingles
and an eave hangs loose like a strand
of hair escaping the barrette. The dock reins-in
boats—paddle, pontoon, kayak, canoe—
tethered like patient horses,
their marshy pasture a lily pad haven
full of turtle breath, frog dynamics, how wetlands
too harbors words—oasis, cattail, snake.

She pours us tea, one that claims
to detoxify, to soothe the throat. Honey
dissolves in the agitated swirl
of our spoons. I mention a home,
as if it’s a nesting word, as if she’s a porcelain
doll and I’m placing her in the doll house.
I promise she can take her dog
and her array of crackers. When I tell her
she can return in the spring,
the word Bitterroot sticks in my throat.

Terrorists
by Donald Levering

Runner Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

The neighbor kid behind me

in line, twitching,

with black widow bites down his arms,

 

about to implode

into obituary.

Or the one in the vacant lot

 

packing powder in a pipe

to blow himself away

in a blizzard of dirty pigeons.

 

There’s the guy on the bus

with inflammable breath,

nudging me.

 

God don’t let that be

my bombshell daughter naked

in a sleeping bag on a public bench

 

with gaps in her teeth, picking at scabs.

I say to myself

behavior isn’t contagious,

 

the spray from that vomiting vagrant

can’t infect me with DTs.

But that youth who was caught

 

letting himself into my home

to stash contraband

and steal heirlooms—

 

please tell me he’s not

my tunnel-eyed son,

quick with excuses,

 

plotting a fix.

Oprah, Maslow, and Me
by Amy Emm

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

Jell-O lady is the best one so far. Janice. You can’t be a mean lady and be named Janice. She calls me hon, even though I just told her my name is Melanie. I imagine Janice sitting in a bright cubicle farm, framed ad posters on the walls, shiny plants everywhere, neat desks and new light blue carpets. Maybe she gets free Jell-O on her breaks, any flavor under the sun. Cool and soft, so easy to eat, she doesn’t even have to move her mouth to chew. Lucky.

“So hon, can you describe the defect for me?”

“Well, when I opened the box, there was a red packet inside…but the outside of the box showed green Jell-O.” With my free hand, I tore open the closed end of the empty box, flattened it against my knee and flipped it over. Green cubes in a white bowl.

Just don’t look over at the nightstand, just neveryoumind about my container of green Jell-O sitting pretty there, under the lamp. Just look away. I myself study the ceiling.

Kind Janice, sweet kind unknowing Janice, has me read the codes printed on the flap. BF021, that is my code. Probably for one of the factories, the day of the week, the manufacturing line, what have you. Par for the course.

“Ok,” I can hear typing as she pauses, “For your trouble I’d like to send you a coupon for a replacement product.”

This is where I have to hang up. Because there had not been a red packet of powder in this particular box, the one with the green cubes on the front. There had been a green packet, all green sugary crystals, the promise of green Jell-O dutifully fulfilled. The container on the nightstand is all sorts of proof.

“Hon? Hon? Where might I send the coupon?”

I almost laugh. Where. The thin polyester bedspreads aren’t talking–not that you’d want them to. The long gray curtains covering the windows block out the parking lot sign, and the phone cord doesn’t let me reach that far to push them aside. Where was here?

Room 113 at the Motel 6? Or was it room 6 at the Super Eight? Is this a Rodeway Inn? A Ho-Jo? No matter. By the time the coupons chase us down, we’ll be gone.

With my finger I depress the telephone’s little bar to disconnect, as gently as I can, on kind Janice. Maybe she’ll think I wanted to say goodbye, but was cut off by mistake. Have fun at break, Jan, and have some Jell-O for me.

 

Praise J that 1-800 numbers are a free call, and that someone always answers. I like the routine the best. It is always the same: state your problem, then the apology, then the offer of coupons. No matter whom you call, the beer company, soda company, cookie company: tell ‘em your beef, they say sorry, you get coupons. Except I never want the coupons. There are so many other good things: thinking about where I was calling, listening for other workers in the background, imagining what the customer service person looked like. Sometimes I got someone who asked about me, where I was calling from, what the weather was like. Those are my favorite. That is my hope, always, that I’ll get that person.

Plus, no one ever questions me. No one ever says, “Really? Are you sure there was a blue corn chip inside your yellow corn chip bag?”

It’s because I am never outlandish. I never say I found a mouse in my soda, never a severed finger in a cheese block or an earplug in my soup. No nonsense, you know? No, my complaints are just things that maybe could happen. The foil lid to my yogurt is askew, creating a dangerous entry point for foreign bacteria. (Hey, biology was the last subject I paid attention to, I know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps I found a clump of chips molded together, all deformed and mutated. Hey, anybody can get stale M&M’s out of a vending machine, anybody at all. Maybe me!

 

I am halfway through my green Jell-O and just getting into an old Hitchcock film when Corinne comes busting though the door with her supplies.

“Am I on? Am I on?” Her plastic bags slide against each other as she dumps them on her bed while kicking the door closed behind her. She leans in to see the TV while shrugging off her coat. “What’s this? More black and white?” She stands still and gives me a look, “Come on, Mel, it’s after five!” She’s still got one arm in her puffy coat but manages to motion for the remote by flapping her hand.

“Aw, Cary Grant was just about to do something good.” I toss the remote onto her bed. She wants the news, she can change the channel.

“You and Cary Grant,” she says, lunging across her bags for the remote, “He was probably a scoundrel. Hollywood cheater.”

“I just like his voice.” I did. Smooth, capable, debonair. You don’t see debonair much these days.

I head to the long dresser to cover my Jell-O while my sister furiously clicks through the channels. I wonder if Janice has any kids at home, or if they’re older. Maybe she has an extra bedroom she’d like to rent out.

The first time I saw Corinne’s face on TV I thought she had won something. But no. No no no no lol no. I don’t know why I was surprised, really. We hadn’t exactly been angels. And by we I mean her. And dad. But at least he’s not still on the news.

When she finally finds the local station there’s a cheerfully plastic yet serious woman really belting out the news, like it’s her job, which I guess it is. Theresa Dewitt. With a fresh blast of music, her name swirls around the screen and comes to rest at the bottom, signaling a new news segment.

“Well isn’t she special,” Corinne says.

I had to agree Theresa delivered the news in a smug You’ll-Have-To-Deal-With-This fashion.

“Yeah, she could be a little more detached.” I expected her to shake her head sorrowfully as she reported on a yet another shooting in Syracuse. She practically sighs. She uses her Thankfully-I-Live-Elsewhere voice.

“Looks like she likes to shop. Look at that hair! Find out where she lives, k, Mel?”

“Yeah her hair does look a little too shellacked.” Like it’d break right off if you tried to bend it. I don’t comment on tracking her down because I am not doing it. She probably has cameras and a little dog with sharp teeth.

“Shhhh! Shhh!” Corinne waves her hand at me. “This is us!” She turns up the volume.

I wasn’t even talking.

Theresa Dewitt can barely conceal her repulsion: “The girl, known as The Ghost, is suspected to have been operating in the Cazenovia area and may have been spotted in the Manlius and Fayetteville areas. If you have any information—“

“Blah blah blah don’t use fountain pens, we know Theresa, we know.” Corinne talks over the part she knows Theresa’s going to say. “Ugh! What a snob. We should find out where she lives. I bet right in her precious Manlius. She looks like a dumb cluck. Probably won’t even take her own advice, thinks she’s safe. Serve her right.”

Corinne turns down the volume and drops the remote onto the bed. She reaches for her plastic bags, shakes everything out. I watch for a Reese’s to come sliding out. Nothing. “You open this.” She tosses me a bottle of pale pink nail polish remover. “None of that acetone-free shit this time.” Corinne thinks she is bad-ass, and I did too, I thought we both were, but that was four months ago when it was September and the sun still actually shined.

Corinne peels the sticker off a new plastic sandwich container and pries off the top, sets it on the nightstand. I pour in the nail polish remover.

“Which one do you want to do?” She reaches into her back pocket and comes back holding three checks like a card dealer. “You pick. Oh wait,” she says, using her thumb to push one out, “How about this one? National Parks.” Lightly imprinted on the check’s background is red flowing lava, black rocks, and a small bit of sea. Hawaii Volcanos National Park. “Closest we’ll ever get.”

“Whatever, Corinne. Just do it.”

With tweezers meant for plucking eyebrows, she slides the check under the liquid, swishes it around. The solvent turns from pale pink to light blue with dissolved ink. “Thank youuuu, Opraaah,” she sings.

“Poor Oprah.” I bet she never imagined this.

“Yeah, poor Oprah,” Corinne says. Her voice doesn’t quite match the sentiment.

“Corinne, she lives to help people. It’s like, her mission.”

“Well this is irony at its best, then, isn’t it? Or maybe we’re the ones she’s helping now?”

The nail polish remover gets bluer by the minute.

“I doubt…” I lean over to read the unfortunate soul’s name who happily mailed their National Grid bill this morning, “that Mrs. James Anderson would agree.” Mrs. J-A had a heavy hand because the J in what used to be January is taking forever to dissolve.

“Well, Mrs. James Anderson should have: A – memorized Oprah’s survival tips from 1985 like I did, or B – listened to Theresa Dewitt’s snotty warning tonight. Oh wait. Too late!” She laughs. And swishes.

Corinne has twisted Oprah’s helpful survival tips beyond recognition. She is obsessed with the eighties (hence catching that old rerun episode) and Oprah (thinks she should be inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame) but has warped Oprah’s good intentions something fierce. The episode that landed us here featured tips on surviving a plane crash (wear sneakers, sit in an exit aisle), warding off an attacker (poke the eyes), and protecting yourself from check-washing criminals (don’t use inky pens). That last bit I guess didn’t stick with many people from 1985 (or those who caught the rerun), cause people still use inky pens and then put their checks in their mailboxes, out there for the taking. Sitting ducks, we call them.

“Yeah, well, you had better hope I don’t call Oprah and tell on you.” I am only half joking.

“Yeah, well, as soon as Oprah shows up with my new car all wrapped up with a big red bow, we can talk.”

“Hey, she came from humble beginnings. She worked for what she’s got.” I get up for a towel. When I get back Corinne is whispering.

“You get a car,” she whispers slowly, in Oprah’s cadence, recalling another rerun where Oprah gave out free cars to every audience member, “You get a car.”

That episode always killed Corinne. Hey, maybe the audience were military moms or retired schoolteachers, maybe they were more than deserving. I usually argued the point, but eh, not tonight.

“Should have listened to Opraaaaah,” Corinne sings, louder and herself again, as she lifts Mrs. James Anderson’s now-blank check into the air. Fat blue drops drip back into the container. I lay out the towel and Corinne places the check carefully on top. Hawaii National Park looked better than ever.

 

“The Ghost likes to court trouble,” Corinne says, pressing on the gas as the light changed to green, “Oh yes she does. Head on a swivel, k, Mel?”

“Yeah, Corrinne, I’ve got eyes wide open. I totally bet Theresa lives here. I bet she doesn’t live in shots-fired Syracuse,” I said, “But do you think we should be here, I mean, they just mentioned us on the news last night.”

“Don’t be such a chicken. Did you see that picture they had of me? That was like three haircuts ago. Let’s just poke around, k? No mailboxes today.”

“Yeah ok fine.” I slide down in my seat anyway.

Manlius, so far, is pretty fancy-schmantz. We pass a shiny Ethan Allen showroom, a Lexus dealer, and a Talbots perched on a high snowy hill, where even the models in the windows look warm and satisfied.

Apparently the Manliusans are very proud of their swan pond, as evidenced by the flags hanging from every light pole. A sparkly snowflake decorated one side of the pole and a flag depicting a pond hung on the other. We found the pond, easy-peasy, right in the center of the village. We park and hunch our shoulders against the cold, to get a closer look and to read the sign. Every summer the pond is stocked with two specific and clipped-for-flying swans, enclosed in a black wrought-iron fence six feet tall.

“Eh,” Corrine says, “Big deal.”

“Probably looks better in the summer,” I said. Broken spider webs flap between the fence rails.

The swans are gone, the fountain off, the little island in the middle covered with snow, the whole pond mostly iced over, just a puddle of open water left. A laminated sheet stapled to the wooden sign explains that the swans overwinter in a local farmer’s barn, safe and sound. “See you in May!” the sheet proclaims. It is signed by the swans, Manny and Faye.

“Come on,” Corinne says, “Let’s get hot chocolate.” She heads to the walk-up coffee/ice cream stand next to the pond.

I manage to reach out and pull her sleeve. “What’re you, nuts?”

She spins. “Oh come on, you think everyone watches the news? Come on, I’m freezing.” She pulls her sleeve from my grip and reaches up to pull her hat down further on her head. “It’ll take two minutes.”

I pull my hat down, too, and my hood up, just in case, and follow her. I can’t turn down hot chocolate.

Freedom of Espresso’s outdoor counter had a sign taped to the window: No Hundred Dollar Bills Accepted. I am not making this up.

“Looks like we’re in the right place.” I nod toward the sign.

“Yep,” she says, reading it, “But they can’t do that, hundreds are legal tender. If I had one on me now I’d pay with it, just to make ‘em squirm. They’d have to take it. Maybe we’ll come back later.” She pauses and sticks her nose up in the air. “After Theresa’s.”

Before I can protest a man in a knit cap and fingerless gloves slides open the to-go window. “What can I getcha?”

“Two hot chocolates,” Corinne says. I watch Knit Cap for signs he recognizes her.

“Five-fifty,” he says, and slides the window closed. I watch him through the glass, make sure he doesn’t reach for the phone or pause to press any red emergency buttons he’s got back there.

He doesn’t. He slides the window open to exchange two cups for Corinne’s money. Sweet mercy.

“Why the swan jail?” Corinne asks, nodding to the pond.

“Years ago some kid got in there and killed one of the swans. Wrung its neck. Up went the fence,” he says, pouring coins onto Corinne’s mitten-coated palm, “They mate for life, you know.”

“Unless one dies,” Corinne replies, shaking her head and puffing air from her nose, “Then no more mating.” I know she is thinking about mom but seriously? This is not the time to bring it up.

“Yeah….” The guy looks a little too long at Corinne as she turns away. I grab the back of her arm like my dad used to do to us to get us to move along.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” I walk faster.

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, matching my pace but turning to look back at the No Hundreds sign, “But we are definitely coming back.”

 

Corinne said no mailboxes but she loops through the streets behind the swan pond anyway. I cannot even imagine the jobs these people had. Neurosurgeons – no – Head Neurosurgeons. These guys did ten-hour brain surgeries. Who else? Judges? College Deans? Top lawyers – yes – all the partners lived here, right next to each other, when they weren’t working late into the night.

We usually go for the middling neighborhoods. We don’t want curving brick driveways, brass knockers, tall clumps of waving grasses, gates, cameras. Nope – we want something riiiiight in the middle. Nothing like our old neighborhood, either—no crooked posts, no rusty metal rods, no duct tape—and definitely no molded plastic. If Corinne spots even one of those giant green one-piece Rubbermaid mail boxes she’ll press on the gas and shake her head.

“Looks like a garbage can for your mail. No taste,” she’ll say, nodding her head in the direction of the offending box, “Bank account’s probably already overdrawn.”

Here there are fancy scrollworked metal boxes, with little doors in the back that can only be opened with a key. “Mmm-mm,” Corinne says when we cruise by a box like that, “Wish I could get some-a what’s in there.” But we can’t. So we go for the easy ones, for the houses of big-box store managers and real-estate agents who leave home early, the high-heeled ladies putting their mail out and their flags up, little red beacons for us. It’s better in the fall, when we could hear them coming from our lookout spot, the click-click of their dress shoes on driveways. “Sounds like money,” Corinne usually said, wiggling around in her seat for a better view.

Corinne reaches for her hot chocolate and brings it to her lips. “Too hot.” She lowers the cup and bangs it around the holder till she fits it in, not taking her eyes off the road. “Let’s get outta here. It looked clear up north. And it’s only noon.”

“Yeah, ok,” I say, even though in winter I think we should cool it. Footprints, tire tracks, the snow belt. You have to watch the weather every morning to see if you can leave your house and not die in a whiteout.

My idea is to follow the sun, like snowbirds. Back and forth, up and down the coast, right when the air turned chill – boom, we’d fly. No heavy coats, no mittens, no hats and the ridiculous hair that went with it, just sandals all the time. If we can do the check thing up and down 81 why can’t we do it up and down 95, spend a couple days in Key West, under some palms, let me dip my freezing feet in some sand, you know? But no, Corinne feels safer up here. She knows people. The car! The car! Her old high-school friend Bobby and his shop. So fine. I can do my Jell-O thing easier in the winter anyway. Back in September I had to bury the container in the ice machine. Now I just leave it outside the room and hope nobody kicks it.

By the time we get far enough away from swan-proud Manlius it’s too late, there are no red flags, mail must’ve already come, and everything’s too empty, we’re running parallel to the highway, small town USA. It’s too hard to tell where the bigger cities are, and there’s no such thing as a neighborhood up here, just random houses super far apart, horses and cows huddled in alternately muddy and snowy fields.

We drive by a house with the number spray-painted in neon green on the mailbox. “Yeah no,” Corinne says.

Just as well, we still have the other two checks and I am not in the mood to jump into a snowbank for what might be a handful of baby-shower invites.

“So back to 81?”

“Yep.”

“North or south?”

“North, let’s not go back toward Manlius and Theresa Dewitt, please.” Not to mention Knit Cap and his searching looks.

I should say south, and can we just keep driving and driving until we splash into the Gulf of Mexico?

Corinne turns and turns and turns, following the highway signs. Each turn I think we’re going to see 81 but alas, another sign, more fields, more horses.

We pass a two-storied white-pillared high school, a wedding cake of a building. Port Byron, Home of the Panthers. Everyone in that frosted building already home. Says it right there on the sign.

I can feel Corinne looking, too. “What’s over there?”

“Just a pretty high school.” I bet in spring they have tulips around the flag pole, newly greened soccer fields, and their own cross-country trails threading through the distant woods.

“Hmmmm.” Corinne feels around for her hot chocolate, grabs it.

“Makes me miss ERA.” East Rochester Academy. I was a Spartan.

“Homesick for high school? Impossible.” She sips her drink and holds out the cup for me to fit back into the holder. “Finally cool enough. Geesh.”

At first I liked this whole bit, this outlawish, Mad At The World bit. I loved that Corinne moved back home. I loved standing up in that last calc class and tossing my test over my shoulder, a good-luck grain of salt. The rhino-skinned tough girl had finally arrived, and she didn’t take calc. She hung with her sister. But now I miss everyone, even the people I hated. Gossipy, judgmental types that could take you down for a spot on your jeans, lest you infect their clean-eating, ironed-hair lives. Maybe I could have hung on, I could have asked someone (was there a counselor I missed?) for a couch. People love a stringy-haired hungry girl, right?

Corinne finally finds an onramp and is solidly on 81 North before we see it – blue black clouds straight ahead. And it’s snowing lightly.

“Oh shit,” she says. It’s snowing harder. In the past two seconds, yep.

“I thought you said it was clear up here!” I grip the door handle as if it will help.

“I thought it was! Get out the map, Mel, how far is the next exit?”

“If we hit the wall we are fucked, Corinne!” I pop open the glove compartment, rifle through napkins and straws and grab for old maps. When I look up – it’s snowing even harder and the roads are covered. The car in front of us has disappeared. Corinne takes her foot off the gas.

There’s this wall, it’s more like a shower curtain of snow, and it’s terrifying. One second it’s clear and sunny and the next you cannot see the car in front of you. Because of the curtain, and the band behind it. Lake Effect.

“I know what the next exit is.”

I have the map unfolded and am mad flipping it around.

“What?”

And then I know, without even looking at the map.

The Tug Hill Plateau. I have only heard about it on the news. It’s snowing on the Tug, they’ll say. Three inches an hour, they’ll say. Once it snowed eight feet in one day.

My arms fall heavy on the map. Corinne’s profile is stone, concentrating. “Remember the eight feet?” My throat squeezes tight on eight feet and it comes out panicky.

“That only happened one time, Mel, calm down—”

“But you can’t—” I can’t see anything. There used to be a forest on the side of the road.

“—Calm down! Hit the hazards!” She is white-knuckling the wheel.

You can never find the fucking hazard button when you need it.

Next I cheer on Corinne, the next stage of Lake Effect driving. First is anger that you’re even in this situation, then there’s panic that someone’s going to spin out and kill you, then acceptance, then you start the you’ve got this type sayings.

“Ok, we have the hazards on. See the reflector things? Stay between those. Ignore that guy! Ignore him!” There’s always an SUV buzzing by in the passing lane, thinks he has Four Wheel Stop. “You’re doing great!”

There’s no sound in the car (except for the map crinkling on my lap), there’s not even slush hitting the wheels, and I’d kill for slush right now, as she pulls off 81 and onto route 11. Corinne drives into the parking lot of the first thing we (barely) see, a gas station surrounded by 4×4 pickups driven by unworried people, probably. Snowmobiles in trailers and in pickup beds abound.

“Let me go ask about a hotel.” Corinne leaves the car running and jumps out before I can even offer to do it.

I get out and brush off the lights as much as I can but my skinny arms and wooden brush are no match for Lake Ontario. I get back in and throw the snowbrush into the back seat. Pathetic. Corinne comes back and plops down in a rush of swirling snow. She stress-laughs, a defeated heh. “It’s across the street. You should see the guys in there. Standing around with their coffees. Not a worry in the world.”

I knew it.

The motel is called The Snowed-Inn. You cannot make this shit up.

 

Whenever I get pissy I try to picture the Domestic Help-Line pad at our old doctor’s office. That pad was always empty, a telltale line of leftover glue at the top. Always just the cardboard backing left, imprinted with the same phone number and message as, presumably, the rest of the missing sheets. Every time I went into the bathroom, I checked on the paper pad, hoping that it’d be full or just a few sheets missing, only a little of the glue strip showing. But no. Always empty. Full glue strip. So either people were feverishly tearing away at the help line sheets or the nurses never replaced the spent pad. In either case, Mel, there are people worse off than you so Shut. UP.

I try to remember the Domestic Help-Line pad now but my head is itchy, my hands will not warm up, and my wild and desperate side is dangerously close to the surface.

And the smell in this no-tell motel is Not Normal. My best guess is that it’s a fishing in summer/snowmobiling in winter lodge. The wood-paneled walls must’ve soaked up the smell from every sweaty man that has ever slept in these beds. The only good thing is that we spotted a Pizza Hut across the street, the glow of the sign recognizable through the snow, and all we need now is a blank check and a nervous kid or an overworked mom at the register.

Corinne sits at the little table dipping a check with a Mickey Mouse background. I flip through my Ikea catalog. It’s wrinkled and battered but it helps me plan for my someday apartment, everything clean and tidy, smooth and Swedish.

“I am sick to death of this sweatshirt.” Ikea’s not working tonight. I mean, I can be earthy. I recycle. I don’t litter. I don’t wear deodorant so that I don’t add more plastic to the landfill. Or spend an extra dollar. But this GD sweatshirt has crusty sleeves from I don’t know what.

Corinne could bitch with me, commiserate, complain about the cold and the snow and being stuck. She says nothing, just continues swishing her check. I look at shelving units.

I don’t want it to slip out but it does, in the smallest voice: “It’s not fair.” I hope Corinne doesn’t hear me because she will jump. Her head swings around. She heard me.

“Oh really? And you think I’m having a party? You think I wanted China to undercut the penicillin prices?”

Ohmygod not China and the penicillin again. I peruse the lighting section. Corinne goes on about her lost job, about the factory that made eighty percent of the world’s penicillin, until the Chinese cut safety and quality corners – and the price. Her factory could barely keep the lights on, blah blah, until it closed and she was turned out, I have heard it all before. She is the world’s oldest twenty-five-year old.

“…well good luck with that!” She finishes up and I tune back in. I have no idea what she just said.

“I just feel like we’re pretty low on the hierarchy of needs, right now.”

She fixes me with a look. “Are you talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” Her voice is level. She lifts Mickey out of the plastic container, lays him on the towel. Must’ve been some nice ink on that one. Easy.

I press on, matching her smooth tone. “Yes, Corinne, I think we’re okay with food and water but I’m a little concerned about safety and housing, it’s essential—”

“Are you wondering how we’re going to get to the tippy-top of the pyramid?” Her voice is weird now, sweet and sing-song-y, like how you’d talk to a baby. She jumps off her chair and bends over, her hands on her knees and her face even with mine. “Are you concerned about self-actualization?”

I actually wasn’t. I thought I’d get to that when I was, like, fifty. “No, Corinne, right now I’d like a clean t-shirt that I don’t have to wash out in the sink. Maslow said­—”

Corinne slaps her thighs with both hands so hard it must hurt.

“I know about Maslow! You think I don’t know about Maslow? I went to college!” She straightens up and paces around. “Not that I needed to, because you learn that shit in high school if you pay attention! And I did pay attention, Mel, I did, I was third in my class and summa cum laude at Colgate.” She extends her arm and points at the door as if Colgate is across the street. “Do you know what summa is? That means my GPA was over 3.85. I worked my ass off for those grades and that job. You think I wanted this to happen to us? That I want to be here with you?” She is breathless. I think she is shocked I knew enough about Maslow to bring it up.

“If only you spoke Spanish!” I say, and she turns and runs for her shoes and coat. I knew that would get her, because next up is her second favorite topic, Puerto Rico and all the pharmaceutical jobs down there, if only she spoke Spanish.

“That’s right!” She pushes her feet into her shoes. “I could be in Puerto Rico RIGHT NOW!”

“But you fucking took French! Didn’t you! Good one Corinne!” I get the last word in as she yanks open the door and slams it behind her. I see her pass in front of the window, raising both her arms, and I hear her too, “She tells me about Maslow. Me! Me! I invented Maslow!” Her voice fades as she heads to the concrete staircase at the end of the building. “Fucking French!” is the last thing I hear. Even though I’m mad I hope the staircase isn’t covered in ice. Her sneakers have no tread. They are no match for the way she bounds around when she’s mad, even on a dry day. Maybe in a minute I’ll peek my head around the corner, make sure she didn’t slip and is laying there all unconscious. That’s all I need.

I should rip up the clean check and leave it on her pillow but I want Pizza Hut more than I want to piss off Corinne. Or do I? She’s the one who ran out. Tiny pieces of Mickey would show her who’s boss. I weigh Corinne’s reaction against my stomach. I leave the check alone. The Hut wins.

 

When Corinne doesn’t come back I open the door and peer down the hall. Nothing but blinking fluorescent lights and air so cold it feels abusive. A couple of idling rigs ring the edge of the parking lot. A line of snowmobiles sit closer to the building, lights on and steaming. I hear a woman laugh, a sharp smoker’s cackle, but all the riders are out of sight. Now I have to go check the stairs.

After I push my feet into my sneakers (who thought of grabbing boots in September?) and get my coat (Salvation Army – I don’t want to talk about it) and my key-card, I head for the staircase, praying Corinne’s dumb old head is not laying there bleeding. I’d really hate to step on her.

The staircase is empty. So is the lobby, but a bunch of big guys in snow pants and black jackets stand outside the main glass door. They stamp their feet, helmets under their arms, laugh. I should totally run upstairs and rip up Mickey’s face. No, Mel, remember the pizza.

The blonde at the front desk examines the ends of her long hair, and as I approach, before I can say anything, she pulls on a single hair, making two hairs out of one.

“Split ends,” she says, raising her head.

“I…I…” I forgot what I was going to say. I look away. I didn’t know it was possible, to pull split ends like that.

“You have great hair,” she says, presumably looking at my hair. I have no idea. I am busy counting ceiling tiles.

“Oh…a good haircut will fix you right up,” I say to the ceiling.

“Oh no way, I been growing this hair out two years now.”

Of course. Always an excuse.

The guys out front laugh and stomp again and someone revs an engine. Corinne I hope you’re as smart as you say you are because I am not in charge of you. I head for the lobby’s back door.

I take the concrete steps two at a time and know that I am a No Excuses kind of girl. At least I was. Corinne was, too. We wore plaid skirts to elementary school and each classroom posted this sign: No Excuses! But then we slip-slided to here, and along the way we gathered so many: why we couldn’t keep the house — ok that was easy, Dad was up in Clinton Correctional, aka Dannemora, which is what I like to call it, sounds like a resort — but before that, why we couldn’t fix the bb hole in the front window, why we couldn’t screw the doorknob back on the bathroom door.

I once overheard a conversation between two women in a sub shop that made me realize that excuses were really just faulty logic. One lady complained that she wanted a baby so badly she could taste it, but her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her because she had collected an enormous number of dolls and he was allergic to dust. Weird baby-tasting cliché aside, the answer was so clear to me but invisible to her: get rid of dolls, vacuum the hell out of house, make way for boyfriend and baby. But no, there was just this circular argument: I want a baby but I also want these dolls and my bf is allergic so we can’t get married or live together but I want a baby with HIM but I also want these dolls so we can’t live together as a family, around and around we go…remember ninth grade logic, those IF/THEN statements? Yeah, apparently this poor woman didn’t remember a thing.

Like the lady at the front desk: I do not want split ends. A haircut will cure split ends. But I do not want a haircut. I walked under the blinking fluorescents and tried not to have a mini-stroke from my beating heart and the lights and the fury of ignored logic.

 

When I get back to the room Corinne is there, sitting on the bed. She’s watching the local news, snug as a bug, while I’m off getting practically kidnapped and positively grossed out. A blue ribbon crawls across the bottom of the screen: Lake Effect Snow Advisory Warning. Three beeps as I unbutton my coat.

“Can you do the check?”

“Yeah.” I leave my coat on and my shoes, too, and I hope I soak the floor and she steps in a wet spot in her socks. At midnight.

Excited voices throw the news to a very excited team of weather people. A deep blue wedge signaling Lake Effect shows up on their map. One weatherman, all hopped up on meteorological fervor, points at the west to east band. “This band will move south during the night as the winds off Lake Ontario shift in that direction.”

“We are socked in,” Corinne says.

“Of course.” I rub my hands together to warm them. Cold signatures never look right. “You didn’t see this, this morning?” I keep my head down but tip my pen in the direction of the TV.

“This morning it was just a watch. I remember now.”

Summa cum laude my ass. I cannot believe I have to sleep in the same bed as her tonight. I hope I don’t kick her in my sleep.

“Ok. Done.” I get up and hand her the check, Ms. Morgan Jackson’s new signature right over Mickey’s face. It’s on Corinne tonight, and she had better pray for a newbie at the register.
“We should walk.”

“Fine.”

All the idling vehicles have gone, and it’s quiet except for the retreating sounds of snowmobile engines. We don’t die crossing the street, and I have to admit the snow is pretty, mesmerizing, even.

Ms. Morgan Jackson of 193 Waterford Lane treats us to dinner. Praise J.

 

Two days later we decide to make a run for it. 81 South. The weatherman’s face this morning looked decidedly less excited, less like he’d been up all night studying maps and wind directions.

“Let’s bust on through.” Corinne clicks her seatbelt, determined.

“Yeah – and the next place? No sweat scented wood paneling, please. Let’s do this!” We kind of have to, even though it is still snowing. We are tougher now, baptized by a three inch per hour snowfall rate. Plus, we are down to one check, and that means a bank run. Cash. Never easy.

We need a city with a hospital, a research center, a defense laboratory, anything with neighborhoods, with money making, bill paying people.

From the highway I keep my eyes peeled. Closed closed closed. Everything. Modern-day ghost towns. Once busy highways now swept right by plywood-windowed factories, empty loading docks, parking lots filled with snow instead of cars.

We did this one town, a couple months back? Gloversville. A whole town named after one thing – the glove factory. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. So now it’s closed, right, the workers and the leather and the thread and the paychecks all gone somewhere else, to China, probably, with the penicillin, and now what do they have? A couple of blinking traffic lights, a pizza shop (there’s always a pizza shop), sagging houses, and clinical depression.

Even the baby food factory, the one you can see from 81, is silent and still.

I turn up the radio, hoping to distract Corinne, get her singing, keep her from noticing the fading Beech-Nut logo.

“What, is China making baby food now too? We can’t make baby food here?” She notices.

“I don’t know, Corinne, maybe they just moved south, like we should.” I lean my head into my hand, against my window. Hopefully she’ll get the hint.

“I know shit,” she says, jamming on her directional to exit, “At least I used to. It’s not my fault I got so specialized, that this is all we have,” she sweeps her arm toward the crumbling brick factory, “What, we all have to code for Google?”

“So you’re saying you can’t find something similar to what you had?”

“I am a Chemical Engineer, Melanie,” she says, in this snotty voice, as if I just met her and speak a different language, “But do you see any chemicals around here to engineer? No! There are just dollar stores and laundromats for miles.” She juts her chin into the air. “And I am not stocking shelves with Chinese tampons and generic Band-Aids just because it’s honest. Where has honesty ever gotten the two of us?”

Another small town, it looks like. A strange mix of McDonalds and grain silos. It’s snowing again and Corinne is taking corners like the roads are dry.

“I was honest.” She points at herself. “You were honest.” She points at me. “Yet here we are.”

We are in the drive-through bank teller in a sleepy town, hoping for a sleepy teller, one that just wants to go home.

 

We get that careless teller and we get more Jell-O. Later I should totally call Jan.

All dollar stores have Jell-O. It’s a staple of the American diet. Plus, every hotel room, even the fleabaggiest motels, have coffeemakers. You make hot water in the coffeepot. Tip: run one pot through first, unless you want coffee flavored cherry Jell-O. You empty the packet into your plastic container (get one with a tight-fitting (I mean it) lid), pour the hot water in, put the top on, and shake to dissolve. Donezo.

My container fits perfectly on the railing outside our room. I scrape snow from beside it, nestle it in good.

On my way back to bed I wonder if there are any vitamins in Jell-O. Would it kill them to inject some vitamin C in there, maybe a little D for winter?

I want to nap but Corinne is flipping channels. I toss and turn and finally stare at the ceiling. No dice on the nap.           “Corinne, do you miss our house?”

“Hells no.”

“I do. I miss the records.”

“Mel, those records are what got us in this mess.” She exhaled. “Those records and stupidity.”

“Oh. I always thought he used CDs to DJ, or mp3s, like on a computer.”

“Whatever. I’d break every last one of them if I knew back then what I know now.”

“Maybe he didn’t do it, Corinne, maybe he was set up.” I flip onto my side, wedge my pillow under my arm.

“You have watched too many movies. He wasn’t set up. The courts know all this stuff. He was selling, both at night and from the house. Don’t you remember all the cars coming by?”

I didn’t. “But why?”

“I have no idea. That is the million-dollar question.”

I sit up, pile my pillows behind me.

“I loved the company parties.” Bausch and Lomb had the best – a sprawling corporate park, huge company parties every summer.

“You did.” She laughs. “You ran around like a crazy woman!”

“I played EVERYthing!” I bounced in the blow-up house, I tied my leg to Corinne’s for the three-legged race, I played kickball, egg toss, origami, you name it, I did it. I even got the back of my shoulder painted, right next to my tank top strap, a big bright yellow sunshine, every year with that sunshine, since I was ten. “Remember the balloon toss? I was in it to win it!” I can still feel the water balloon in my hand, the fragile potential, the cool squishiness.

“And when we won the rabbit and raccoon stuffed animals? You practically fainted from happiness.”

I had a thing for woodland animals. Still do.

“We came from somewhere, Corinne.”

“Yeah but now we’re here. Fallen from a great height.”

We have. Our neighborhood had rusty duct taped tilting mailboxes but it also had us, and it wasn’t so terrible. We had a carpeted basement and air hockey and those plaid elementary school skirts until it closed down, and we had dad, Manager of Research and Development.

Corinne flips to an old movie and leaves it.

Vertigo.” Unbelievable. Cary Grant and she’s not changing it. “Wait. Mute.”

Voices outside have me out of bed and peering through the peephole.

“No one is going to touch your Jell-O.”

Up on my tiptoes I see a couple people move on down the hall. The Jell-O is safe. Behind my container the parking lot is filling up with snow.

“Dude. You should see it out here.” It’s coming down so hard it is like the sky is mad.

“Again with the Lake Effect?” Corinne says. “It’s like Lake Ontario is giving us the finger. The middle one, you know?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why anyone lives here, or anywhere near here. So can we go south now?” The parking lot lights are a barely visible faint orange. Cold air rushes in under the door. I leave the Jell-O to the snow.

“You know why we can’t go.”

“Yeah yeah, Bobby can fix the car, I know.” I hope she can hear the eye roll in my voice. I hop back up onto my bed, bury my feet under the covers.

“And?”

“And I could take my GED and enroll in some college with palm trees in their logo.” I motion for the remote. A diamond-encrusted Hollywood lady looks like she’s going to jump into the ocean. Where’s Cary now?

“Mel. Look at me. That is a reason why we CAN go. What is a reason why we can’t?”

“And there are bound to be jobs for a summa cum laude voulez voulez vous, like you!” I am not going to take the bait.

“Still a reason to go. And why we can’t?”

And nothing. She can fish all she wants. I am a master at holding grudges. You will need to send me flowers and cakes and balloon bouquets and heartfelt cards and dedicate a song to me on the radio every day in order to me to thaw out. It is because I am part Italian (so is Corinne but she doesn’t let it affect her) and we are not known for forgiveness and moving on. Instead we invented the mafia, which is all about grudges and payback.

“I can’t believe you want to stay here. Aren’t you mad, didn’t you just want to break all the records?”

“Yeah I can be mad and at the same time want to visit. It’s called complexity?”

“You are really harshing my may-o.”

She shakes her head. Dad taught us that phrase. When I was a kid I couldn’t say mellow, and I’d say may-o instead.

“We should go ask him why he did it, you know?”

Corinne just played her ace. Why give up free food and sunshine on your shoulder, bounce houses and squishy water balloons for part-time DJing and selling? Why put all that on the line? Why put us on the line?

“Corinne, it’s been four months, now we’re going to show up? Besides, if the roads are bad here, what do you think they’re like up north? It’s probably an Arctic tundra.”

“Yeah Mel, there are polar bears around every bend.”

Dannemora was a stone’s-throw from the Canadian border, so it was probably true.

“Besides, we’re no better, we’re going to go up there all righteous and ask why? Why are we doing what we’re doing?”

“We got pushed here. I’m not in love with this either.” She doesn’t mention Chinese penicillin or generic tampons or her Colgate transcript, praise J. I cannot get on that merry-go-round again.

Silent Cary runs his hands through his hair, grimaces, all his usual debonair gone. Bad guys afoot, probably.

“Look,” Corinne says. She unfolds a sheet of torn notebook paper, hands it across the beds.

Waterford Lane. Shalimar Lane. Mrs. James Anderson. A whole list.

“I’m going to pay them back as soon as I get my voulez-voulez-vous job, and you enrolled in that palm-tree school. Just wait.”

I hand back the paper. “You are lucky, Corinne, because I was just about to call Oprah on you.” She smiles and refolds the paper.

Even though I’ve unmuted Cary and he’s back to calm debonair, I can hear Corinne over on her bed, softy to herself in Oprah-cadence, “You get a car, you get a car…”

 

I once saw this illustration of a cartoon fox in his wintertime den – a cross section, if you will. He was lying face-up on his couch, wide-eyed staring at the ceiling, a book open on his stomach, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck. This fox, he even had a steaming cup of tea on the table next to him and two fuzzy bunny slippers strewn on the floor. The best part wasn’t even that he had a roaring fire in a woodstove, vented via a silver pipe that extended through the room into the ceiling and into the earth above him, even though that looked so cozy. I liked that you could see the whole picture, the snow piling up outside, the dark sky, too, and him on the couch, still and patient, doing his best, with his book and his fire and his scarf and his tea, waiting. I wish I had a real copy of this illustration, because I am like this fox. Except without the cute scarf and hot tea. Oh and forget about the woodstove and bunny slippers – ha! Me and this fox, we are doing the best we can. Under piling snow and darkening skies, there’s me, wide-eyed and still, waiting.

 

THE END

A Proud Family of Sneezers
by Sandra Nickel

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Opening Illustration: A portrait of a large melting-pot American family of all ages and types, including seven-year-old Wills, Uncle Sol, Gramma Bee, and Momma Weezer. Each has a prominent nose and holds awards from sneezing contests. Next to them stands a roman bust of Weezer the First. Above them a banner reads: The Weezers! #1 Sneezers!

 

The Weezers were sneezers. They had won medals and trophies and been World Champion Sneezers since the first Weezer out-snooted Caesar!

Wills was the best of the Two-Tooters. He always sneezed twice. Never more. Never less. Uncle Sol was the Champion of the Extraordinary Three-zers. And, Gramma Bee held the World’s Record for the Longest Single Snoot.

When Momma brought baby Snookie home, the whole family crowded around to see the newest prize-winning sneezer.

“She’ll be a Two-Tooter like me,” said Wills, giving Snookie’s nose a tap.

“That sneezer’s a three-zer, if ever I saw one,” said Uncle Sol.

“A snooter that will out-snoot me,” declared Gramma Bee.

Gramma Bee opened her locket and took out a pinch of sneezing powder. “Only The Test will tell,” she said.

As the entire family gathered around, Wills held his nose. Uncle Sol held his camera.

“Shouldn’t we let her sleep first?” asked Momma.

“There’s always time for that later,” said Gramma Bee, and she sprinkled the powder under Snookie’s nose.

She sprinkled a little more. She sprinkled a lot more. But all Snookie did was yawn.

“Something’s wrong with her nose,” said Wills.

“That sniffer’s terribly small,” said Uncle Sol.

“Call the doctor!” cried Gramma Bee.

When the doctor arrived, she examined Snookie’s nose inside and out. She poked and pinched and prodded, and finally declared, “There’s nothing wrong with this little girl. You just need to show the nose how to blow.”

“A swig of cough syrup?” suggested an aunt.

“Pull out a nose hair,” said a cousin.

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed Wills. “The sun! That makes everybody sneeze.”

The Weezers scooped up Snookie and hurried outside.

The sun shone and shone. It gleamed and dazzled. But, Snookie only yawned.

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed Uncle Sol. “Feathers!”

The Weezers scooped up Snookie and hurried inside.

“Foolproof!” declared Gramma Bee, once a fluffy mobile twirled above Snookie. “Feathers never fail.”

But no matter how many feathers whirled above Snookie, no matter how many whooshed onto her pillow, Snookie didn’t sneeze. She only stretched open her mouth and yawned.

The aunts came running with perfume, black pepper, pansies, and peppermints. The cousins wheeled in chocolate, chalk, and chili powder. The uncles lugged boxes of ferns, fans, and fizzy drinks. The Weezers tried every sneeze-making secret they knew. Still, Snookie didn’t sneeze. Instead, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

“It’s a mystery,” said Wills.

“It’s her snoozer,” said Uncle Sol, nearly in tears. “It’s just too small.”

“I never thought I’d see the day,” sniffed Gramma Bee. “A Weezer who’s not a sneezer.”

Snookie snuggled into her covers. But then, her nose twitched. It wriggled. Snookie let out a zn-zn.

Everyone stopped and stared.

“She’s going to do a two-tooter,” said Wills.

zn-zn-zn, repeated Snookie, louder.

“A three-zer,” said Uncle Sol, grabbing his camera.

zn-zn-zn-zn, came the noise from Snookie’s crib.

“That little snooter’s going to out-snoot me,” said Gramma Bee.

Snookie sniffed. She snuffled. And then, she hooted a honking . . .

ZNOOOAAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!

The aunts, uncles, and cousins covered their ears. Uncle Sol dropped his camera.

“That wasn’t a two-zer,” said Wills.

“That wasn’t a three-zer,” said Uncle Sol.

“That,” said the aunts, uncles and cousins, “was definitely NOT a sneezer!”

“But she did out-hoot me!” cried Gramma Bee. “This little snooter will be the most stupendous snorer the world has ever seen.”

“She’ll win ribbons!” exclaimed Wills.

“Medals!” shouted Uncle Sol.

“Trophies!” cried Gramma Bee.

And she didn’t even have to get out of bed.

 

Closing Illustration: Snookie sleeps with a giant blue ribbon on her blanket. A banner above reads: The Weezers! #1 Sneezers AND Snorers! Next to the roman bust of Weezer the First stands a second bust, Snookie the First.

The Gifts of Ratoncito Pérez
by Joe Baillargeon

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

I had been playing with my loose tooth for a month when I could finally flap it flat with my tongue. I stood on the porch of our living quarters at the Estancia del Rivero. My father had just come in from caring for the ponies after Señor de Rivero’s sons had practiced their polo, and he was taking maté with the other gauchos. I loved the bitter drink, but this was their time to be with each other after a hard day of work, so I stood at the edge of the porch and played with my tooth.

“Perpetua,” my father called, after handing the cup back to Antonio. “Let me see that tooth.”

“No,” I said, and snapped my hand over my mouth.

“Don’t worry. I won’t do anything.” He turned on his stool and faced me, his knees and arms spread wide.

“No,” I said, backing away. “You’ll pull it.”

“No, no. I just want to see how much longer it will be. Come here,” he said, and he called me to him with flapping hands. I walked closer but stayed just out of reach and Antonio laughed.

“Perpetua,” he said. “You act as though your father is sin vergüenza, some kind of shameless man.” The others laughed and slapped their knees or leaned back on their stools. “He is the head gaucho for Señor Enrique de Rivero, one of the largest estancia owners in all of Argentina. He is not to be doubted.”

I looked at my father, his head tilted now, the tips of his moustache turning out with his smile like the wings of a small bird. He turned his palms up, as if to cup my face. I stepped closer and put my hands on his knees and his baggy trousers slipped along his leg under my weight as I leaned toward him. My father held my chin in one palm and reached up to wiggle my tooth with the fingers of his other hand. Before I knew it, he held the tooth in front of my eyes.

“Look,” he said, his eyes as wide as mine. “It came out right in my hand.”

The others laughed and I stood holding the tooth my father placed in my hand. I looked again into his face and saw wrinkles around his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. His smile continued as he flicked the tip of my nose with a finger and sent me off to the kitchen to have my mother wash the tooth and prepare it so Señor Ratoncito Pérez, El Raton, might come that night and leave me a present.

The following morning, I woke before the sun and reached under my pillow. My fingers curled around something hard and pulled it into my palm. It had many sharp corners that poked my soft skin and sent tingles up my arm. I moved to the window and held it between my thumb and finger. Where light grew in the sky, it glinted off of the sides that joined to form the points, and where the world was dark, it appeared I held nothing at all. That was seven years ago. I am twelve now, no longer a little girl, and I don’t believe in El Raton anymore, nor do I look for presents under my pillow. The crystal, however, remains on my windowsill, where I sometimes watch the colors of the night dance off its many sides.

###

Standing inside the doorway of Romero’s, a pizza house across from Plaza Arellano, I sip from my iced maté and watch the Delgado’s three-legged mastiff work the tourists. Ouzo is a beautiful dog with steely gray fur that hangs on his body like an old blanket. He lost his leg when he was a pup and fell out of the back of Señor Delgado’s pick-up, catching his leg in the tailgate. From then on, Ouzo learned to get around on three legs and charm handouts from the tourists who eat their lunches under the shade of the trees in our square.

From the doorway of the pizzeria I can see Don Rivero’s Land Rover that my father often drives into town to pick up supplies. It is parked in front of the church. I like to go to church at San Antonio de Padua. Inside are lovely paintings on the walls of many saints. My favorite is of Saint Perpetua, for whom I am named. She stands in a large stadium, blood running down her face and arms, her dress soiled and torn, a bull standing behind her with its forelegs bent, dragging its nose in the dirt. But Perpetua’s face is blissful. That is all I can think. A glow radiates from her face and she is smiling as she bends over and picks her friend out of the dirt.

I wonder why Papà would be in the church now. It is Tuesday, and while I know it is time for the other gauchos to be resting, Papà normally goes to Señor Martin’s Goods for the rope, nails, wire, fencing, and anything else a person might need to keep an estancia running. I sip my maté and sit down on the threshold of Romero’s Pizzeria.

“Why are you out here, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says as she leans out and throws a bucket of water on the walkway to keep the entrance cool. The water arcs in a solid mass and sparkles in the sun, like the crystal on my windowsill, then hits the ground and shatters into dots of gray on the hot sidewalk that quickly evaporate under the summer sun. She looks toward the square where the dogs chase each other between the trees, and then toward the church. My father is on the front steps now, a young woman I have seen before holding his arm. She is from a tourist company in Buenos Aires. She came out to the estancia the other day to speak with Don Rivero and my father about some gaucho demonstrations. Her hair is big. It does not fall naturally along the sides of her face, or lie over her shoulders like a gentle hand. It surrounds her head in sweeping, twisting curls like the streamers we hang for parties at the estancia. She kisses my father on the cheek. He looks around, reaches across and takes her hand from his arm and shakes his head, then leads her around the truck and opens the door for her.

“Come in, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says and taps me on the shoulder. “I have fresh breadsticks and some prosciutto bits for you.”

“I know that woman,” I say. I sit at the counter and eat while Señora Romero cleans the counters.

“¿Si?” Señora Romero says. “And how do you know her?” she asks, but she does not turn to face me.

“She came in a bus from Buenos Aires the other day with a group who wanted to see a working estancia. She talked long with my father and the other gauchos before they left.”

“Ah,” Señora Romero says, “then I am sure your father is helping her to see the important places of our town.”

“Mmm,” I say and finish my breadsticks and maté. I thank Señora Romero and go out to my bike.

Leaving town, I cross Puente Viejo, the old rose colored bridge that begins the road to our estancia six kilometers away. As soon as I cross the bridge, I feel the sun I know I cannot escape until I get home. There is one place to pull over and rest under a small grove of trees that grows along the side of the road, so I ride slowly, saving my energy and riding just fast enough to create my own breeze against my face.

As I ride along the river, I think about my father and the young woman. I understand Don Rivero asking my father to show her around. Don Rivero has talked in recent years about going the way of the other estancias and opening his place to the tourists. The estancias are not making the money they used to, and the tourists want to come see the land, the gauchos, and our pretty town. So it is an honor that my father was chosen to show her around the town.

But the woman kissed my father.

My mother kisses my father like that sometimes, on the cheek, quickly, and with a little smile or a pat on the bottom. It isn’t much, but it shows me she loves him. I think it shows him, too. I know what they do when the lights go out. Marisol de Rivero told me what that was about, and she showed me pictures from a magazine. I don’t like to think of Mamà and Papà doing that, but I know it is what people do when they are in love. Marisol told me I will do it one day, and that she wants to do that with Roberto Castro, the principal’s son from her school. I have seen him play fútbol. He is a pretty boy, and very kind, so I don’t think he will do that with Marisol yet.

Halfway home I am hot and ready to rest. I see the grove ahead. From here I can see the taillights of Don Rivero’s Land Rover off the road and behind the trees. As I get closer, I slow down and look at the windows, but I see no one is in the car. I stop and drop my bike on the ground, and the young woman’s head appears in the back window. My father’s head pops up too, and then I see a hand reach up, an open hand patting the window, as if asking me to wait. I turn and pick up my bike quickly, put one foot on the pedal and swing my other leg over the seat, and soon I am pedaling fast down the road. My legs pump hard as I watch only the road in front of me, and they don’t slow down until I park my bike behind our house.

###

I am reading when my father comes home. He greets Mamà with a kiss and comes over to me in my chair.

“Hola, Perpetua,” he says, and gives me a nod of his head.

I don’t respond and my mother looks at me. A sickness rises to my throat, like when I watch the castrating and the branding of the young steers, but I can’t look at Mamà. I feel her looking at me though, and then she goes back to the kitchen.

“Perpetua,” my father says. “let us go outside and talk.”

“Are you sure, Papà?” I say, and I look up at him as he stands above me. Mamà comes back out to put a dish in the cabinet. Papà turns to her, then back to me. “Are you finished showing the young tour guides around our town?” I ask.

Papà looks quickly at my mother now, but her back is to us. Her arm stops moving, the dish in her hand hovering above the shelf. Then she places it inside another dish, closes the cabinet door, and goes back into the kitchen.

“Yes, Perpetua,” he says, not looking at me. “I am finished.”

I raise my eyes from my book and he turns to me. “I need to go help Antonio with the fires for dinner. We are eating with the others tonight, and we will have a wonderful meal outside, under the stars. We can talk then.” My father walks away and I put my book in my lap. I wait for my mother to come out, but I hear only her shuffling feet and the slap of a wet towel as she wipes down the counters.

###

We eat with the entire estancia this night, for the summer solstice. Don Rivero and his family and many friends eat in the large screened off pavilion, away from the bugs, and we are out back near the cooking fires. Every kind of food is roasting tonight. We have the asado, large slabs of beef ribs and young goat spread wide and hung on metal stakes that surround the fire, a fire as wide as one of the small gazebos on the grounds, and almost as high as me. And then there is the parilla. A grill set two hand widths from the ground and fed constantly with coals from the asado. This is where my favorite pieces come from. Here Antonio turns the bife loma, the most tender pieces, the chorizo sausages, and the chicken legs that he has coated just in salt and rosemary, and that he splashes with lemon when they come off the grill.

Our families eat after those in the main house and their guests, the older girls taking turns serving wine or coffee to those in the pavilion. As we eat, there is much chatter. We have six families that work here on the estancia, and our tables are crowded, friendly, and there is always much laughter. My father sits next to my mother and Señora Vazquez, Antonio’s wife, while Antonio tends the fires. Antonio loves to cook, and he will never leave this job to anyone else.  And as he loves cooking, his wife loves talking. She keeps my mother and father busy with chatter, but she is funny, and they like her.

Normally, I sit at the children’s table, but tonight Mamà has asked me to sit with the adults. She says that with all the little ones, and now with little Gustavo needing his own chair and not his mother’s lap, it is time for me to make room. So I sit at the far end of the table, away from my mother and father and next to Angelica Diaz who had her 14th birthday last week. She is nice to make room for me, and lets me pick first from the tray Antonio brings around. I choose a small piece of chicken and put some bread on my plate. But as I watch my father laugh and put his arms around the chairs of my mother and Señora Vazquez, my chest tightens, and I have no stomach for food.

The girls chatter next to me, and the boys across the table look at them, whispering, and laughing. Some of the smaller children leave the table and come ask me to sit with them again, but one of the mothers sends them back and tells me not to worry about it. Antonio brings another tray around, but I refuse until he insists and puts a piece of bife loma on my plate, red juices drip from where he has stabbed it with the fork and soak into my bread. I turn away from my plate and see my father. He is still laughing and he tightens his arm around Señora Vazquez as she slaps his thigh and laughs.

My father sees me, and his smile fades.

I step away from the table and walk out past the low line of rosemary and bay trees that separate our yard from the vast pampas grasslands and beyond. In the dark I can still hear them laughing and the children shout after me. I catch a few words “nervous…big table,” and walk farther away, out into the dark, into the field and the still air of the evening. Papà is soon beside me. We stand, silent in the dark. Papà holds a beer by the neck of the bottle. I keep my hands in my pockets and wait.

“The pampas are beautiful at night, no?” he says, and turns his head to me. He points his bottle at the sky and sweeps it wide in front of him. “Especially the stars. One can see all the constellations out here.” He turns from me. “Perpetua,” he says after a moment. “What you saw is nothing. It means nothing. I am a man. That is all. Your mother…she understands this.”

I say nothing, just nod my head in the dark. I look toward the house. The glow of the fire hovers over the tips of the shrubs like a settling fog.

“There,” my father says, and he points toward the sky. “Do you see it? It is Taurus.” He turns to me then, holds the bottle of beer towards me and waves me in with it. “Come here, Perpetua. Let me show you.”

I go to him. He puts his arm around my shoulders, the cold wet from his bottle dripping down my arm. “Right there,” he says, pointing up toward a sky I’ve seen many nights before. Near the horizon the stars race across the sky, a thick flood of light that, if I wanted, I am sure could sweep me up in its current and carry me with it. This is the belt of fire we call vía lacteal, a milky path. I follow this path with my eyes as it streams as far as one can look in either direction. These stars are undetectable from each other, like the water thrown from buckets in the square, a cascade of light that allows no darkness in-between.

Elsewhere, away from this glowing river, blackness fills the space between the stars, a blackness like looking down an empty well. These separate stars shine bright, glinting now and again like the crystal on my windowsill. But the blackness is what I see now, what I feel. What my father spoke about, what I know of him, it is not nothing as he says. It is something. It will always be there, coming back, off and on, like the dark between these stars that fill our summer sky.

“Do you see it, Perpetua? Can you see Taurus, the bull?”

I look to the loose cluster of stars where he points.

“Can you?” he continues, and his hand tugs on my shoulder, pulling me closer to him.

“Si, Papà,” I say. “It is very clear.”

The Angel Age
by Val Howlett

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

 

It always comes full-on, the memory. Complete with scenery—the beige rug, the mauve seats of the auditorium. I don’t just get an echo of the pumped-up slow-mo feeling of looking at Dani Aguilar. I see you, consumed by that feeling. Squeezing the cushion on the flip-bottom of your seat. It’s like you had coffee, you’re so awake.

It isn’t the first time you ever saw her, but it’s the first time you’re really watching. It’s one of the early stage crew meetings, and four eighth graders run the crew and she’s the only girl. She’s sitting on the stage’s edge, leaning back on her arms, talking to the eighth grade boy in charge of the meeting, who is taller than your grandpa. Between her thighs she holds a bag of Chex Mix that she occasionally plunges an arm into and scoops a handful from, like it’s totally fine to inhale a big bag of anything onstage in front of three rows of sixth grade girls. Everything seems brighter, louder. She is making the boy smile and popping those Chex pieces into her mouth over that full bottom lip.

She’s a million roundnesses—linered, crescent eyes, kid cheeks, tiny zigzag curls that fall to where her breasts start to curve back into her. You’re not thinking the word “breasts,” but you’re staring. For a good long minute before you catch yourself and it’s all why are you doing that? What’s wrong with you?

No one is looking at Dani Aguilar like you. You get that, right away. You’re surrounded by fellow sixth grade girls and they’re texting, waiting for the meeting to finally start.

The girl who played Cinderella last year, in fifth grade, is sitting right by you. One seat away. You were the evil stepmother. Her backpack’s on her lap and she keeps finding reasons to rummage through it. She pulls out her phone and checks it, slides a compact mirror onto her lap and checks her face for who knows what. She doesn’t look like she’s wearing makeup. Her hair is glossy as ever.

Then, from the stage, the boy who runs things—Cole Something—calls out in his guy croak, “Listen up, stagehos!”

He’s grinning. What is he talking about? He’s talking about you. The group of you. Stagehos—like stagehands but not. Actor-hopefuls, actor girls who only joined crew so Mr. Rosen will remember your faces when he casts the play next year. There’s an awkward giggle rising up from some of the girls in your group. Definitely not you.

You’re queasy. You’ve got that same uneasy nausea that came about a week before, when you walked into your room and lying at the foot of your bed was a thin book, paper bag brown. You knew it wasn’t yours right away, knew from its prominently subtle placement on the bed that someone had left it for you.

The title was in faded scripted pink. You had to lift it close to make out the words You Are Changing.

There were those frantic moments of wondering who the culprit was. Of looking for a written name on the inside cover, a note scribbled on one of the musty pages, any sign that it had once belonged to someone else.

It didn’t seem like something Mom would leave you. Mom was a nurse. Her explanation of where babies come from got you in trouble in kindergarten. If she wanted to talk to you about body stuff, she would just talk. Probably.

Which left Gran. Or Grandpa. It seemed like the kind of book Gran would save. And she probably didn’t mean it like that, but having to approach the book and read the words You Are Changing was like finding a mean note taped on your locker. Like You Are Changing and the Whole World Notices. Even your Gran is thinking about your zits, or your BO, or your boobs growing, or something. There must have been some reason she left you that book.

And being called “stageho” is like the same thing is attacking you again—that something everyone must see when they look at you, except you. You can’t see what it is.

Cole Something is still chuckling at his own joke. Dani Aguilar’s mouth is wide open with laughter. She says a word to Cole, then punches him in the arm, a playful punch. There’s a half-second when her dark eyes glance out at you—all of you, all the stagehos—at once, on their way down to her Chex Mix bag. That’s how much you mean to her. You’re not worth watching, not even if someone makes a joke about you and you’re right there. Dani Aguilar only cares about the people on the crew who are for real.

So when Cole asks if anyone wants to go up to the loft where the prop room is and look for things from his list, you say, “I will!”

Everyone is suddenly looking at you. Cole says, “Woah, alright.” You didn’t just volunteer—you shouted. Like a little kid who wants ice cream. You can’t bring yourself to meet Dani Aguilar’s eyes. You pull the list from Cole’s outstretched hand and practically run backstage left.

When you get to the prop room—ascend the ladder to the loft and walk three steps to the wall and open the groaning door—you see an angel. It lies hunched on the rug, its head slightly, shakily lifted, its black coils of curls tangled in the dirty, ragged feathers of its wings.

*

What if I could break right through my memory and talk to you then? To you, at the very start of The Angel Age. You, A.A.

The girl who had gasped and backed out of the prop room and swayed standing on the platform, who while waiting on the school steps, while riding home with Gran, was stuck in that recognition moment—the dawning that what was in front of her wasn’t an animal (even though its limbs were splayed on the ground, its head lifted like a colt). The girl who couldn’t stop seeing that dirty robe, the hairy human leg kicked out underneath it, the head that was like a person’s but not round enough—too oval, with too-long lips. Yellow owl eyes. Dark feathers drooping off the long thick bones that protruded from its back.

The girl who is wondering who she even is.

Back when you were rehearsing for Cinderella, you always hammed up the scene where you and the stepsisters had just returned from the ball. You danced around the room as you told Cinderella about the ball, speak-singing in an opera-ish voice, so everyone who watched you laughed. Then one day, Cinderella interrupted you, breaking character and freaking out. “Stop it, stop it!” she’d shrieked. “Why do you have to be so crazy?”

You had laughed with the stepsisters for a full month about how jealous she was. But now the Angel Age you is hugging your pillow, letting Cinderella’s question loop and loop around your head.

Why do you have to be so crazy?

What if you are crazy? What if the normal part of your life is over? What if you wind up in a mental hospital, trapped in never-ending fantastical nightmares that only exist in your mind like Dorothy in Return to Oz?

There’s a lot I could tell you. But I don’t know if telling you would make a difference. Don’t worry about the angel? How many things have you been told to not worry about, and when has that ever made you worry less? I could tell you not to go to the loft again, but now, I can’t imagine life without the angel.

I think it would have appeared somewhere else anyway.

The only advice worth giving would be small, I think. Suggestions of things to avoid so your life won’t be worse than it has to be. Like don’t hop on the computer and google “seeing angels” and then spend an hour trying to figure out how to erase the browser history. None of the adults in your house actually check the browser history. Don’t stare in the mirror for an hour trying to figure out if your face is what an insane person’s face looks like.

And don’t, definitely don’t, look for answers in You Are Changing.

*

You Are Changing, introduction:

It all started when the flat lips on your chest puckered—the first sign of your breasts beginning to blossom. Or perhaps it began when you stopped playing kickball with the boy next door . . . and started wondering if he liked how you looked.

You are changing. You are in the midst of that ever-confusing, heart-flutteringly exciting phase of life between childhood and adulthood. And that’s where my little book comes in.

Perhaps you picked it up because you’re eager to become a woman. You’re the type of girl who wonders when your menses will finally arrive, who dreams in exquisite detail about your first kiss. You want to get each and every question answered, all the whys and, of course, the when.

You might, however, be the opposite—a girl who prefers to live in the past, who doesn’t understand the change. You might cry at night, wondering where the former you has gone, the girl who used to play with toys and didn’t spend hours in front of a mirror. You might not even have purchased this book yourself, but instead received it from a concerned parent or trusted friend.

If you are the latter, I say: chin up, young lady! There is so much to love about this new phase of your life, when your beauty starts to emerge—inside and out! It’s a time of discovery and gaiety, too, a time when you start to become who you truly are.

*

When you wake up the next morning, you decide that none of it happened. That all of it—the angel, your ensuing panic, was imagined—a hazy result of an off-mood, bad cafeteria food, something.

In the kitchen, you greet Gran and your sister with midday hyperness. You slather cream cheese on your bagel and drop blueberries and grapes on top. You listen to your sister’s stories about fourth grade, nodding with a full mouth. You are aggressively normal.

But sooner than you’d like, it’s time for stage crew and it’s harder. Walking to the auditorium, it hits you that you never returned to Cole Something and Dani Aguilar yesterday with props from their list. They might be angry, or waiting for you.

You hover outside the auditorium double doors, read the fliers taped to them, the cast list. All those seventh and eighth grade names you barely know. The hallway is emptying. You could go home, drop stage crew, and forget about the angel, but the list’s right there with roles listed in order of importance and real people’s names next to them. Your name could be there next year if you stay.

You push the doors open, walk down the aisle where actors are standing tall, singing melodic ah-ah-ahs. No one’s looking for you. No one from crew is even there.

You head backstage right—the opposite side from the loft—and eventually think to push through the double doors to the adjoining tech room. There are the sixth grade girls, surrounding a giant table covered by a canvas. They talk to each other mostly, half-heartedly painting the canvas dull beige. The eighth graders aren’t there.

You sit on a stool near Cinderella, who is in a group of girls from a different elementary school. She doesn’t look at you when you sit, but one of the girls gives you up-down eyes. You wonder if there’s something wrong with your outfit.

You lift a paint roller, dip, roll.

Then Dani Aguilar enters with the boys. They are wearing black, talking urgently, looking important. You bend close to the canvas. Their voices grow.

“Rosen’s gonna talk to us tomorrow about our design for the recess scene.”

“He better like it.”

“He probably hasn’t looked at it.”

“Oh, the Rose-man. Rose-dawg.”

“The prettiest flower.”

A laugh.

“He’s probably just gonna ask about props.”

A groan from one of the boys.

“Hey,” says a thick, loud girl voice. “Didn’t we send someone on a prop run already?”

They’re quiet. They don’t know who went, you realize. They don’t know your face. You all look the same to them.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

Dani Aguilar’s standing over your shoulder.

You turn and your eyes are in line with her chest. You have to tilt your head up at an unnatural angle to meet her gaze.

She recognizes you.

“Yeah,” you hear yourself say.

“Well?” asks Cole Something. The boys are behind her, but you can’t focus on them with Dani Aguilar looking at you. You can’t tell if she’s mad. She’s not smiling. Her hair is falling forward, curtaining her cheeks, so you can only see the middle of her face, her pursed lips. “Did you find anything?”

You didn’t actually set foot in the prop room. You try to picture what was beyond the angel staring from the floor.

Shelves. You saw shelves. Probably there were props on them.

“Yup,” you say, for some reason. You sound like your grandpa.

Cinderella’s girl-group is watching you now. Cole Something is annoyed. “Why didn’t you bring them down?”

“It—there was too much to carry.”

Cole Something looks at Dani like you are an agonizing chore, like why are we even talking to this stageho?

“Alright, alright,” Dani says to Cole, as if they have been arguing. Then she turns to you. “I’ll go with you.”

It takes you an extra minute to understand, to recover from the fact that Dani Aguilar is talking to you.

“We can bring them down together,” she says. She’s not smiling, but she doesn’t sound mad about it either.

Then Cole asks, “You think you can get it all?”

“What?” Dani Aguilar’s voice turns sharp. “You think I can’t?”

Cole makes surrender arms. “Just asking a question.” He’s smiling, like he’s used to this, but Dani is giving no hint that she is not actually angry.

“Who brought out all the fresnels yesterday?”

The other boys are laughing.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she goes on. The ends of her lips curve into a slight smile. “It wasn’t someone named Cole.”

You’re standing up. You’re so in love with this universe, this You and Dani Aguilar Against the Haters universe. You picture yourself in the prop room, just with Dani—no boys allowed—joking while you scan the shelves. Lifting heavy things together. You’ll be strong, loud like her, the exact opposite of how you felt when you saw the angel. You’re already amused about yesterday, like you can’t believe you actually imagined an angel and worried about it through the evening into your nightmares.

But then a cool voice says, “I can help.”

It’s Cinderella, polite and nonchalant. She’s smiling that infuriating smile that had been on her face throughout the whole ball scene last year, the tiny one, with her eyebrows raised, like she was making fun of the prince.

Why does she even want to come? She’s been texting her way through every rehearsal. She doesn’t even care about stage crew.

If anyone’s a stageho, it’s Cinderella.

Dani Aguilar should see that, but she doesn’t. She takes in you and Cinderella like the two of you have blended into this single amusing thing and says, “Sure!” all huge. She faces the boys. “The more the merrier!” she says, and once again they’re laughing and it feels like they’re laughing at you but you can’t put your finger on why.

“Come, stagehos!” she cries, raising her arm with actor flourish. She marches backstage, leaving you and your rival facing each other, struck.

You turn away, follow Dani. You don’t need to share a moment with Cinderella.

The backstage lights are off. The actors are in shadow, lit only by the faint glow of the house lights onstage. You tunnel around them, trying to keep up with Dani Aguilar, but Cinderella has somehow gotten ahead of you, her shiny hair swishing beside Dani’s curls. When you have to pass single file behind the stage to get to backstage left, she’s between you and Dani. She’s not even keeping her voice down. There’s a rehearsal going on right in front of you and she’s still talking as if she’s the star of the show.

“Have you been in stage crew since you came to this school?”

“Did you have Miss Hart when you were in sixth grade?”

She’s trying to annoy you.

And Dani Aguilar is answering like Cinderella is normal instead of awful. She’s murmuring, so you can’t hear what she’s saying, but her murmurs sound friendly.

It doesn’t make sense, because she called you stagehos just a minute ago. Cole Something asked her in a totally polite way if the two of you could carry all the props and she freaked out, but now she’s being nice to someone she doesn’t even know.

You turn the corner to backstage left, which seems darker, for some reason. Maybe because it’s less crowded? It’s just two actors, waiting by the front to go on, and the loft ladder before you, looming in a shadow.

Dani Aguilar stops at the ladder and just stands there, watching Cinderella wander toward the actors, looking around like she’s lost.

“I can’t see anything,” she says, too loud. “Can someone turn on the light?”

The actors stare at you.

“Shh,” you want to say, but Dani Aguilar says it first. The sound is soft, velvety, like something you could eat.

She’s laughing to herself. Her face looks different when she smiles—sweeter. Like she’s not so much older than you.

You walk toward her so when Cinderella turns, she’s looking at the both of you, side by side. She seems genuinely confused, like she really doesn’t know why Dani shushed her.

“You have to be quiet backstage,” you explain.

She doesn’t respond. She gazes up at the ladder. “That’s where the prop room is?”

It looks so different with the lights off. Like a reverse ocean, dark-to-black as it moves up. You can’t even see the top.

“Yeah,” says Dani, “You’ll see the door on the side, right when you get to the top of the ladder. But if you go back farther, the loft takes you to the catwalk. You can walk over the stage on that.”

“We’re supposed to climb that ladder without any light?” Cinderella asks, her voice more wavery now.

“You scared?” asks Dani Aguilar. It’s less taunting than it is surprised, like she’s wondering if Cinderella is real.

“You want me to go first?” you offer with sugar concern. “I’ll go first.”

You step onto the first thin ladder rung, then the second, and that pole feeling against your shoes brings you right back to the angel. And you’re sweating. You can smell your own stench as you lift each arm to climb closer to the angel, because what if it is there? You were so stupid to volunteer to return after last time, to think one day could cure you of your crazy, to think you could be anything like Dani Aguilar. Now there’s no light and you’re still you. You’re more you than ever. A sloppy body, kid-scared of the dark.

Your foot hits the platform with a soft clang, and then you bring your other leg up, hoist your body into nothingness. You know from yesterday that there’s about seven feet of platform from the ladder to the prop room door, so if you step to the left you should be fine, but you still feel like you’re on the edge when you do, like you’re hovering over the stage.

Between you and the door, something is moving.

You can’t step back, because then you’ll be blocking the ladder, but what if it’s the angel? It doesn’t sound like the angel. It’s softer. Rustles. Suctioney sounds.

Dani Aguilar steps behind you, so close that if you lean back a little you’ll fall into her.

The rustles stop.

“Someone there?” A girl’s voice.

The sound is a person. People. Thank god. The darkness starts to form their shapes, now that you know what they are. The girl is so much shorter than the boy. They are pressed against each other and the prop room door.

“Nobody,” Dani stammers. “We’re just here to get props.”

The couple rustles as they move so that your path to the door is clear and they are deeper in shadow. You take a step, but you don’t want to walk beside them, so close. Dani doesn’t seem to either. She stops next to you, half-whispers, “Your friend’s still climbing.”

“She’s not my friend,” you say, then regret it immediately.

Dani Aguilar lets out a laugh. “Woah.” But then she says, in a to-each-his-own sort of way, “Okay.”

She’s right there, hand-holding distance, breathing distance. The couple is kissing a foot away. You and Dani Aguilar are listening to their lips.

Cinderella clangs onto the platform. There’s a pause for a moment before she asks, shrill, “Are those people making out?”

No one answers. Then Cinderella shakes her mane and says, “Ew.”

It’s amazing how easily her judgment comes, like it’s almost automatic, like there’s no question in her mind that she’s on top and can say things like that.

“What’s your problem, princess?”

Dani Aguilar has whirled around. Her roar is punishing. You almost feel like Dani is yelling at you. It’s startling, how fast she turns.

“You don’t have to be up here if you don’t want,” she goes on. “You can just climb on down that ladder.”

The making out couple has stopped. They’re listening too.

“You gonna get those props or what?” says the guy. The girl giggles.

Cinderella doesn’t say another word. You just feel her moving away from you, the soft pats of her shoes whimpering down the ladder. Your stomach rolls because now it’s just you and Dani, and it’s what you wanted, and it’s scarier.

Dani Aguilar barrels toward the prop room like she wants to get away from all of you, throwing open the door, flicking on the dull yellow light. It makes the shadow-couple more contrasty, with dark bits and light bits. Now you can see that the girl is standing on her toes, lifting herself up. Her head’s tilted back, her lit hair swaying like a flag in the darkness because their heads keep moving, fast-then-slow. You’ve never seen anyone kiss like that in the movies—so messy. You can see their tongues.

“Prop Girl!” you hear. Dani Aguilar’s voice.

Is she talking to you? Are you Prop Girl?

You walk into the prop room, shut the door.

She is standing by the shelves, the angel at her feet. The angel. It’s there, on the dirty floor, holding itself up with its arms so the wing bones are its highest part. It’s looking at you, right at you, with its too-round yellow-black eyes that make you want to run.

But you don’t, because Dani Aguilar is right behind it, looking at you too. She’s marvelously angry, standing with her weight to one side, her arms crossed under her breasts. Her face looks like a model’s, impatient and a little pouty, with her hair up except for one perfect calligraphic curl curving in under the silver hoop in her ear.

“You gonna show me what you found?” she asks.

She doesn’t see the angel.

You are the only one.

Below her, horror movie slow, the angel stretches out one milk-white too-long arm. Toward you. So disgusting your eyes start to water.

You almost pivot out of the room, but you can’t. Dani Aguilar asked you a question. She’s waiting for you, and if you don’t answer, if you walk away, it’ll make her notice, it’ll make your craziness real.

You force yourself to look up at Dani, to step in a wide circle around the angel toward where she is standing in front of the prop shelves. Because for some reason, she thinks she needs you. She sees something inside you that’s not the angel, that’s the opposite even, something you don’t see. And whatever it is has caused her to raise you up above the mass of stagehos and crown you Prop Girl.

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 4: Boy Ups and Boy Downs:

It may seem, at times, that all your girlfriends have found a steady and you can’t get a boy to look at you. Every woman feels that way at one time or another. And in those times, it is important not to focus solely on your personal appearance. While it never hurts to look presentable, your personality can also factor into a boy’s attraction for you. It is true that not every young lady (or grown-up lady, for that matter) is beautiful. But loveliness is something we can all strive for.

Of course, there are young ladies with the opposite problem, who do not yet have feelings for the opposite sex. If you are one such character, I say: don’t be perplexed by your friends’ new fixation. In time, boys will become a hobby of yours as well. It’s simply inevitable. Meanwhile, your girlfriends will appreciate your support, and will return it in kind when they are dating and you finally experience that uncomfortable first crush.

*

When you were in the prop room with Dani and the angel, you could barely speak, let alone remember what props were on Cole’s list and look for them on the shelves and point them out to Dani as if you had found them the day before. The angel hovered by the doorway and Dani stood so close her presence almost engulfed you—her powdery smell, her leftover roughness from yelling at Cinderella—so you only pointed out three props. Three. You could have carried them yourself. Climbing down the ladder after Dani was like feeling her disappointment rise up and settle into your skin.

Upon getting home, you tear apart your backpack and coat pockets, looking for the prop list. If you could only find the list to work from, maybe you could find more props somewhere else.

But the list isn’t anywhere. You wind up making your own, sitting at your dining room table, combing every page of the script. Your little sister wants to watch talk shows and Gran asks you to set the table for dinner and you tell them both, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to do all this work for my show.”

You gobble your dinner and return to the task. It is slow, soothing work. It’s easy to list the props—what takes awhile is finding and recording the scenes when each prop is used. But at least all the information is there, in a packet in front of you. All you have to do is find it.

You switch to homework shortly before your mom comes home from the hospital. You’re hastily scribbling equations as she stands behind you for a minute, looking down at your work.

“Long day, huh?” she says, but it sounds like she’s talking to herself.

*

It’s hard getting Dani Aguilar alone. She’s chatting, businesslike, with another crew boy, then with a candy cane thin actor girl. They part and she starts to walk backstage and you have to work against your muscles that don’t want to move toward her, your heart doing puppy beats you can feel.

“Hi,” you say. She’s looking at you, surprised. Does she recognize you? Is it possible that even after yesterday, she doesn’t remember who you are?

You hand her the paper without even explaining. She looks down like it’s alien and you rush to say, “I made a new prop list. I mean, I know you have one, but I noticed a few things were missing from your list…”

You follow her dark eyes as she reads, her long lashes starting to cover them as she gets to the bottom of your paper. You can feel yourself sweating. Again. You have to take a non-obvious small step back so she doesn’t smell you. How can you live in a world where she also exists, with her so gorgeous and you so disgusting? Not that you’re attracted to Dani Aguilar in a crush type of way. It’s just that she’s one of those magnetic people that you want to be friends with, that you can’t stop thinking about.

She turns toward stage right. “Hey Cole,” she calls. “Come see this!”

Cole Something strides out. Dani hands him the paper like she forgot you’re here.

“It’s a prop list,” she says. “It’s better than yours.”

His eyes slide across a few lines. Then he says, uncomprehending, “Who did this?”

“Her,” says Dani Aguilar.

And now their attention is all on you. Cole looks at you for a moment before turning back to the list, and that look tells you he doesn’t understand who you are, why you made this. He doesn’t like you, either.

Dani grins as if you’re a kid trying to act grown-up, like she’s barely repressing a laugh. You were so stupid to think she’d be impressed by your work. It was too much. The list is too much.

But she says, “This is good.” To you.

Cole is still staring at your paper.

She says, “You think you can find some of this stuff upstairs?” and loses some of that awful smile.

You nod before it sinks in, what she’s asked you. You’ve been sent back to the prop room.

You go. Backstage left, up the first rungs of the ladder. You have a strategy in mind for the angel. You’re just going to walk around it, fast, like it’s not even there. Focus on the props. But someone’s already on the platform, above you. More than one person.

It’s not like the softness you heard from yesterday. There’s more sound. Low animal groans and the same high note again and again—mmm, higher than a girl’s voice should be.

You don’t move. You can’t interrupt. But then you’re even more creepy, just frozen on the ladder, listening. You climb as softly as you can, one foot above the other, slower than the rhythm of the sound.

But then your feet hit the platform like cymbals and everything stops.

“Someone there?”

It’s the same girl from yesterday, breathy. She was making that too-high sound. You’re frozen for a full minute before you can choke, “I’m just here for props!”

“It’s Prop Girl!” The boy.

“Oh, hey Prop Girl!” The girl, laughing. How can she laugh like that, like what she’s doing is normal, like it’s fine that you heard it up here, the three of you standing above the entire cast and crew?

You practically run into the prop room and slam the door and when you turn on the light, you’re not ready for the angel. Its eyes snatching at you, its arm outstretched.

Walk around it. Don’t look, you tell yourself, maybe out loud, and somehow you’re doing it, heading for the shelves. You take the list out of your pocket. You just have to be fast.

And then there’s a screech, a piercing scream that makes you jump, that makes you look, it’s coming from the angel. The angel is moving toward you, kneewalk-crawling in white-and-gray jerks. You back up, round a shelf to the next row. You’re panting.

Ignore it.

Look up.

Another rabid high cry. You can’t help it. You glance. It’s rounded the shelf, it’s coming down your row, eyes cutting you open, its black hair dragging with its robe in the dust of the floor. It can’t touch you, you can’t let it. You flee again, yanking the prop room door open so hard the making-out couple turns. You hear the girl call, “Bye Prop Girl!” as you climb down the ladder.

The angel is not going away. It is getting worse. You are getting worse. You can never go into the prop room again. Never ever ever ever ever.

You have to tell Dani you want to find props somewhere else. Our props are cheap-looking, you could say. You could say you don’t mind buying new ones. Props you buy yourself can be changed. You can paint them bright colors, so the audience will see them better.

Maybe you’ll sound dedicated—like the opposite of a girl who sees angels in lofts. Maybe Dani will be impressed, start including you in crew meetings. Maybe.

You begin that evening. You rummage through your basement, searching for props on your own. But it’s hard to focus when you keep hearing sounds in your head, those mmm moans of the making-out girl. It’s their realness you can’t shake, their untouchable private-ness. Like if you made a sound like that in class, everyone would make fun of you. The guys. Girls, at all levels of popularity. You heard something no one else was supposed to hear, except for maybe the making-out guy, and if girls can actually make those sounds in places besides the movies, in real life, can you?

You go upstairs to the bathroom and lock the door, turn on the shower and step into the steam, listen to the shh sound of the water which drowns your voice as you try to make the sound, yourself, in your throat. A moan. Finally.

You don’t sound like the making-out girl. The sound is lower, foreign in your mouth, like something inside you is being twisted loose.

I am so screwed up, you think, and moan again. It’s a quiet sound but it feels too big for standing still. You press your hands on the glass, even slide them down a little. It is so unsatisfying. You wish there was something in the shower you could actually hold—an edge, a handle. You need to grip, clutch, tighten.

*

You can’t put your quest for Dani Aguilar’s approval into words, but I can. It’s about her contradictions, the boy and girl of her, the meat of her voice coupled with the way the white stitching on her black hoodie rounds her shoulders and circles toward her waist.

Plus there’s the inherent danger of getting on her bad side. If Dani Aguilar was all over you, if she lauded your ideas with enthusiastic approval, if there wasn’t that unclear note in the way she calls you Prop Girl, that faint hint of maybe derision, would you care so much?

Because when you present your prop-gathering idea, she doesn’t finally see your brilliance. She looks at you like you’re a little weird, again, and says, “Well, yeah, you could do that, but it’s a lot more work. You really want to do all that work?” Her frown is inscrutable, and maybe beautiful because of that, like there’s this whole Dani Aguilar you still don’t know.

So you don’t give up. You don’t quit crew or fade into the white noise of the other sixth graders, barely trying. You say, “Yes. Yes I do,” like a soldier. And you get to work, so there’s no danger of her ever calling you princess.

Over the weekend, you convince your grandpa to drive you around so you can scan the streets for yard sale signs. You visit three. Grandpa buys a bookshelf from the second place. You buy a bucket of children’s toy food, two wiffle ball bats, three brooms, and four baseball bats.

You ask Gran to drive you to school Monday so you can bring it all in. You get there early, thankfully, so most people don’t see you hauling garbage bags full of props to the auditorium. Mr. Rosen doesn’t seem to know who you are, but when you explain, “These are props for the show,” he blinks, then smiles. “Leave them in the tech room,” he says.

After classes, you sprint to rehearsal, so you can be painting props when Dani Aguilar comes in. Everyone looks at you—the stagehos, all confused. Cinderella comes in with a few friends and takes in the bats lying on the tech room table, you are painting one of them red. “Is that, like, our job right now?” one of her friends asks, and you shrug, because you’d rather Dani Aguilar see you doing it on your own.

She finally strides in, swigging a Diet Dr. Pepper. You keep your head close to the table even as you watch her gaze move from the spread to you. It’s a lot of props.

“You can get paid back for that stuff, you know,” she says, and that hint of critic in her voice pulls your eyes right to her. Her attention is all on you, her soda bottle dangling forgotten at her side. “We have a budget for props.”

“You do?” you ask, like an idiot.

But then Dani Aguilar walks around the table over to you and you can smell her powder and she says, “That’s a good color. Can you make all the bats that color?”

“Sure,” you say, and your nonchalance comes out perfect this time and Dani Aguilar doesn’t walk away. She says, “Or maybe, like, the bats for one team that color and the bats for the other team different, like blue or something?” And Cole Something walks in at that moment, sees the two of you talking, and nods as he passes. He’s nodding at both of you.

It’s the smell and the nod that carries you through two weeks of staying late to paint props and going home and sending out emails to the stagehos begging them to look for props you still need and doing your actual homework late into the night. Of rubbing your eyes and inhaling all those paint fumes as the stagehos sit near you and gossip and text and the stage crew boys walk by you too. Of Cinderella asking, “So are you like a crew person now?” sounding almost nice she’s so relieved.

The angel haunts you. In the rare moments when you have to go backstage left, you hear faint screaming coming from the loft ladder. It’s almost as if the screams are coming from the ladder itself, as if the angel is shaking it so hard it hurts.

But you don’t look. You barely look. Looking would mean thinking about the angel, and you want the sight of it stumble-crawling—feathers quivering—with those yellow eyes steady on you to dim into a nightmare impression, until it doesn’t seem like it really happened.

When your props are mostly present and painted and Dani Aguilar says, “It’s probably time to set up the prop table,” you say, “Let’s put it backstage right,” as far from the ladder as possible. She pulls her neck back and stares at you. You’re not sure if she’s surprised by your confidence or the fact that you know the difference between stage left and stage right.

“There are more props for actors who enter on that side,” you explain, and she says, “Okay, Einstein,” and looks into your eyes when she smiles.

She lifts one end of the table and you lift the other. She hollers, “Coming through!” and you share a grin as the actors and stagehos scatter, just like that.

She walks backward so you’re looking at her the whole time. The weight of the table strains your arms but you bend your knees and hold it up like Dani, and the resistance makes you feel strong. You’re almost sad when it’s time to set it down.

“Sunday is tech day, you know,” Dani Aguilar says. “So you got to wear black.”

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 8: Down in the Dumps:

Young ladies, you must cling to your optimism! Even in the midst of your loneliest, grumpiest mood swing. Mother Nature herself is optimistic. You only need observe flowers blooming after a brush fire or a rainbow following a storm to understand that Providence wants you to go on.

I am not so naive as to think you will turn to my little book to solve every problem that flits through your adolescent life. There are situations that may seem complex or specific, that you may need to talk to someone else about. I certainly endorse conversation! You might even find, after a good long gab session, that other people’s problems are not unlike your own!

But don’t just turn to your friends for advice. Consider your parents. I know you want to say, “Those fogeys don’t know anything about my modern concerns!” But I guarantee you’ll be surprised. Remember, parents were teenagers once. And not in the dark ages, as you might think!
But if your mother and father are not available for one reason or another, I recommend finding another adult—a clergyman, perhaps, or a teacher—that you can trust.

*

On the evening before tech day, you can’t sleep. You keep thinking about your only black pants, jeans from last year. What if they look too fifth grade? You get up, grab the pants, and step down the stairs toward the bathroom to try them on.

You start to pass through the living room, but Mom’s on the couch. She turns from the TV and calls your name, pats the cushion next to her.

You sit. She smiles at you like you’re a friend she wants for company.

She’s watching a hospital show. It feels good to take it in—safe. The doctor characters walk very fast in scrubs and have dramatic conversations with the other doctor characters.

“This is not what it’s like,” Mom says, which is what she always says during every hospital show. She raises her eyebrows and looks right at you, like you’re adults sharing a sarcastic secret.

You want to cuddle up to her, put your head in her lap, have her tangle her fingers in your hair while you pour out everything about the angel. You want her to laugh in her hearty, sympathetic way and tell you it’s normal to see angels, that everyone does at your age, that she’s sorry she didn’t warn you. That you’ll grow out of it in time.

But you don’t. You can’t. You watch a doctor duck into a side room and covertly kiss a nurse. The kiss is passionate and pure—their heads perfectly tilted, the music swelling to crescendo—and you know you’re supposed to sit there with your mother and appreciate this moment instead of anxiously hooking your fingers in and out of the loops of the pants on your lap, wondering if that’s what love is supposed to be.

*

Early in the morning, before the actors show up, Dani Aguilar helps you set up the prop table. She shows you how to divide it by scene by sticking masking tape around an edge, then pulling the roll in long quick strips to make boxes. You label each, covering index cards in clear tape and then pressing them into their making tape squares, small squares for scenes with two or three props, a huge block of space for the baseball scene.

You put the props on top and take a step back and just stare at your table, your work. After all those hours of researching and scrounging and emailing and painting, it’s weird how it only takes up one little rectangle of space.

Then Dani Aguilar assigns you a job: to stand by the table all day like a guard, making sure the props return to their correct places.

“The actors’ll mess them up,” she says, “If you’re not here.”

She claps you on the back and strides off to her job. She’s working lights with the boys. You’re still feeling that hand press as the actors trickle backstage and the lights are turned off. The dark is thicker than it’s ever been, because onstage there’s no more big generic light—there are special lights, spotlights and lights on focused spaces. You hear Cole Something’s voice calling to the actors, “Move a little to the right… stop” and then muttering tech jargon back and forth with the boys and Dani Aguilar before the light onstage shifts slightly. You’re so far away from it, next to your table against a wall, that even the actors don’t see you. They walk past you in a different dimension. It’s like you’re dissolving into the darkness, like the agony and secrecy of it are overtaking your physical body. You’ll separate soon, spread apart, until you’re nothing but floating anxious feelings in the dark.

The silence grows. You listen for Cole Something’s voice and don’t hear it. You’re the only person backstage right.

Maybe everyone took a break and forgot to tell you?

You inch forward, taking baby steps toward the stage to peek out. There’s a spotlight onstage. It looks like there’s a girl sitting in the spotlight—maybe rehearsal isn’t over? Maybe it’s a solo scene? You’re not sure if you should be this close to the stage. You’re supposed to be by your table. Someone in the audience could see you—what if Dani Aguilar is watching by the light grid and sees your head poke out of backstage and thinks, “Stupid actors, don’t they know not to inch up that far?” and then notices it’s you and regrets everything she’s done for you?

But you don’t want to be backstage by yourself. You’ll just look for a second.

The girl in the spotlight is leaning back, twisting to see you. It has yellow eyes.

It’s the angel.

It has been looking for you.

It starts animal-running toward you, on hands and knees. It’s rodent fast. You back up toward the prop table but you don’t want to be pinned. A screech hits you and you run, sprint, behind the stage to backstage left.

There’s no one there either. Empty except for that stupid loft ladder. How did the angel get down that ladder? You’ve never seen it stand up, let alone fly.

You step on the first rung as you hear the angel turn the corner, scamper toward the ladder. You climb faster, feeling for the rungs above you. You can’t see anything.

You’re getting near the top when you hear a familiar rough voice.

“Hang on!”

You freeze. It’s not the making-out girl. It’s definitely Dani Aguilar.

“We gotta go down soon,” she says. “Break’s almost over.”

“Okay, okay!” Cole Something’s voice—gruffer and easier than you’ve ever heard. “Hey, where’s your shadow?”

Aguilar laughs. “She’s probably, like, painting the whole stage for us or something.”

They’re talking about you.

“You know what I think?” Cole’s voice. “I think she has a crush on you. I think you have, like, a little lesbo follower.”

“Ew,” Dani Aguilar squeals. “You have a sick mind.”

“She wants to take you to the prop room and scissor.”

“Stop it!” she squeals, the way Cinderella would squeal. The way girls say stop when they don’t mean it, when they really mean keep going.

You hear her giggle as you climb down two, three rungs before you stop again. The angel’s at the bottom. There’s nowhere you can go.

And you’re so stupid. Stupid and crazy. Any normal person who sees an angel would run away, but you had to stick around. You had to get yourself noticed by Dani Aguilar. You should’ve known she’d never like you. That you could never be like her.

And the worst part is she’s still beautiful. Her voice still makes you picture her face, her cheeks, her lips, and your body is responding like she’s the whole world, like you still want so desperately for her to like you. But she doesn’t. And now you know she doesn’t, and you know why. You’re so crazy, you’re a joke, and Dani Aguilar knows you’re a joke, and that truth is so unbearably ugly.

You look down. The angel is waiting for you at the bottom of the ladder. It straightens and pulls its head back when it sees you, like it’s prepping for another bird roar.

You could roar right back. You look down at its purple pale face and you see red. Because why you? Why this angel? Why couldn’t you have gotten one of those nice angels you read about on Google, who know how to speak and tell people things like, “Be not afraid?”

Your angel would never say that, even if it could speak. It would probably say the opposite. It would probably say, “Be afraid. Be afraid of everything around you. The boys, the girls, changing. When you are changing, it’s not just you—everyone around you changes. The way they see you changes. There are intimidating angels you don’t want to talk to and beautiful angels you want to talk to but can’t and glorious angels that get in the way of everything. When you are changing, everyone around you looks a bit like me. And they all kind of make you want to scream.”

*

This is it. The moment where I actually could change things, if only I could talk to you.

Because I know this moment in The Angel Age so well. I know that right now, your biggest wish is for your consciousness to disappear, evaporate into dark.

I know you’re going to climb down the ladder as quietly as you can so Dani Aguilar and Cole Something won’t hear you, and when you get to the bottom where the angel is rearing, you will look the other way, you will walk fast in that direction, and when the angel screeches, you’ll run.

I want to tell you that you don’t have to run.

You don’t have to unofficially quit stage crew by never setting foot in the auditorium again, or to choose not to audition for the school play next year in an effort to avoid the angel. And when the angel comes looking for you, when you inevitably see it in classrooms and hallways and the cafeteria, you don’t have to look up away, pretend not to hear it screaming for your attention.

You don’t have spend high school distracting yourself with homework and bad dates, telling Mom and Grandma and your kid sister that everything is okay when it’s not. You don’t have to turn away every time the angel appears, until the middle of college when you’re exhausted from finals and a hangover and just can’t do it anymore.

Instead, when you reach the bottom of the props loft ladder, you can look down and meet the angel’s animal eyes.

It won’t hurt. It’ll surprise you with its softness, actually—that first moment of looking. The angel will stop screaming just from the shock of your met gaze, close its lips. Closed, they won’t look so uncannily long. They’ll just look like human lips, purpler than most—like the angel is a homeless person watching you walk on a frigid night. Stark. Entreating.

Don’t turn away. Stand there. Look. Even though fixing your gaze makes your body feel rigid and too too open to fear and heat and revelation. Even as the angel’s cold bird eyes turn into something else, something so beyond human sympathy that your eyes fill to teeming. Even as you realize you’re shaking.

The angel won’t break its gaze, but it will move, slowly getting to its knees, lowering its spider hands to the floor. And at first you will recoil like it is going to crawl toward you, but instead it will push itself back onto its feet and rise.
And rise. And keep rising, until it’s taller than you—Cole Something tall, tree-tall. So tall that the dim backstage light will seem to have ascended with it—the angel should be shrouded in darkness, but it’s not. It looks down at you with its boy-thick jaw and delicate mouth, its curtain of curls falling toward you. If it were stern, it would be monstrous, but it’s not. It seems concerned, like it’s wondering how you’re doing with all of its glory, if you’re okay.

You will realize that you are.

You will feel yourself smile as the angel’s wings stretch out and lift it up and you will laugh because the wings are whole new miracle. How wide they are, how marble white in the middle, how their former dusty raggedness has become a grand outer layer now that you can see the long ovular shape of each individual grey-black feather. The swooping thunder rhythm of their beat. How it looks like they are constantly changing colors, but it is really the light that’s moving, rolling along the wings in shimmering waves. You will understand that beauty is continuous movement, is one thing flowing into the next—lights changing on a stage, in-and-out kissing, a girl doing cartwheels, a dance.

If you want it to, the angel can put firm hands on your waist, lift you up, fly you above the ladder to the loft where Cole Something and Dani Aguilar are laughing at you. They’ll stop laughing when they see you in the air, hovering above their heads like a vision. They’ll scream. You can say things like, “You are the worst!” and “You are not actually in charge!” and “I am not a stageho! I am not a prop girl either!” You can tell them your name.

And when you’ve said your peace, you can bellow, “Do you understand?” like you’re God.

And you will get to hear their chorused reply, that single, deep note that will reverberate through your body until it is a part of you: an immediate, pleading yes.