Two Dead, One Buried

by Preston Taylor Stone

The thunder had rolled the evening into night: syncopations the dog growled at, but the rain never came. So it wasn’t without reason that I paused, wondering whether the bangs on the door were real.

“Who’s there?” 

“Open the goddamn door.”

I unlatched and opened the door and my sister shoved her way into my studio apartment, tracking mud on the white tiles and the gray patterned rug beyond it. She did lose herself on occasion, her panics frequent after the local court dropped the charges on the man who hit her in the parking lot of the Publix with his car. She was, as the prosecutor argued, “an overly hysterical woman with a history of drug abuse and paranoia. Who could believe she would tell the truth now if she hadn’t told the truth enough to keep her children?”

The old dog met her with sniffs and a waggy tail. She ruffled his fur as she sat down on the couch, her muddy shoes still on.

“He’s over there,” she said. “Watching me like a fuckin’ sniper.”

“Who’s over where?” I said.

“I swear to god, do you read your email?”

“Yes,” I said, a lie.

“The man from the church, the one who gave out the candies—prolly fuckin’ laced. He’s moved into the trailer across the way from me and his blinds never close. He don’t even make a show of being a stalker.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little—”

“Fuck you. I’m not paranoid and I took a picture to prove it.”

She took out her phone, different from the one I had seen her with just a week before; though, I should say: she hadn’t keep phones for very long, not because she was paranoid about the number getting taken, but because she dropped them. Out windows, in toilets, on sidewalks, in the garbage disposal, in food or beers. She dropped them a lot.

The photo she brought up is of an older man walking into the trailer across the way from her own and what appeared to be a small bedroom window without blinds.

“I don’t see how—” I started, but she shushed me and flipped to the next photo.

The second and third photos she flipped to were more concerning: one of the man with a rifle while he sat in an older lawn chair the likes of which had probably not been sold since the late 90s, and one of what appeared to be the man watching the camera from the window. I didn’t think it was cause for as much alarm as she did at the time.

“Maybe,” I said, “he’s watching you because he can see you’re watching him. The gun’s a gun. People have guns, especially down here. They show ’em off.”

“But showing it off after you know I’m watching?”

“Why don’t you speak with him about it if you’re worried for the kids’ safety?”

“I just got them back from the state,” she said. I could tell she had thought through the scenario. “You think I wanna go argue with some armed fucker from the church who all but kicked me out so he can go on and tell everybody I’m what they always thought I was?”

Then, dog sat at her feet and licked some of the mud from the tip of her socks closest her knee. Another percussive episode of thunder made him growl so she shewed him from her feet. She had always been afraid of big dogs, even as when she was her daughter’s age. I thought more about the man, remembering as my sister had pointed out that he’d given out candy when we were small kids, stopping only because he had contracted diabetes and gave up sweets altogether, according to Nana. The pockets of his pleated khakis seemed so deep when we were that age. In the photos, though, the man seemed unbecomingly small. His petiteness was swallowed by the khakis, yes, but their length was too short for his leg and his tall white tube socks more than peaked out from the bottom of both shins. He was frail looking, too, like he’d had to take pains in order to lift the rifle.

“I don’t think you ought to worry,” I said. “That will just trigger some of your worse behaviors. And besides, he’s got a limp now, doesn’t he? Lost his leg from the knee down to diabetes, Nana said.”

My sister wasn’t satisfied by this answer. Almost offended, it seemed, at me dismissing her fears. She was paranoid, at times, the only remaining effect of her addiction. But she had come to my apartment for support and she trusted my loyalty to her wouldn’t be in question as it had been by almost everyone else in our family after she lost custody of the kids.

“Let’s go,” I said.

When we drove up to the trailer of the old man, I could feel her tense up. The man wasn’t in the yard, but the old chair was. It must have rained on that part of town because the sand and the little grass that the man had in his yard was wet. The sand snared when we stepped out of the truck and the tall weeds made a slap against my boots, leaving wettened imprints along the sides.

“I ought to go check on the kids across the way,” my sister said. “You know E. can’t be alone with her brother for more than a hour without wanting to strangle him.”

She’d already started walking to her place.

“No,” I said, and waved her over to where I was standing in front of the truck, which pointed at the man’s front door. “We’ll settle this together. You’re the one who’s scared, anyway, so you can confront him.”

She waited, thinking about it, probably offended I used scared, but I’d chosen the word specially. She was paranoid, and she knew it, but the one way I knew I’d get her was if I called her scared. She’d have jump off an ATV if someone told her she was too scared to do it. She turned around and walked to where I was. I tapped my knuckles on the vinyl door of the man’s trailer. No answer.

“Hello?” I said. “Sir? Excuse me.”

Still no answer. I looked around to see if his car was anywhere. I hadn’t noticed it driving up.

“Maybe he isn’t here,” I said to my sister. “Where’s his car anyway?”

“Don’t got a car,” she said. “Nana said he ain’t been able to drive for last couple years and ain’t got no family left to take him anywhere. And besides that, he’s always here. Never goddamn leaves.”

We hadn’t noticed the kids come from my sister’s place until they’d gotten to my truck.

“Uncle!” E. said. The little one tried but he could only muster out “Untull.”

“Get the hell back in the house,” my sister said to them both. She was scared. “I told you don’t come ‘round this man’s property. He’s got a gun, dammit.”

E. hugged me tight, ignoring her mother. Weird how they grow. She was almost taller than I was even though she was just ten years old. She screamed when she let go of me.

“He does got a gun, don’t he?” the old man said. He’d walked from around the side, and his arms held the shotgun, pointed at us. He cocked it.

“Woah,” I said, stepping in front of my sister while the kids hid behind her. “C’mon now, why you got that pointed at us for?” I said, making my accent thicker to appeal to him.

“You know it’s illegal for somebody walk on a man’s property without permission in the state of Florida?” he said. “And if I feel threatened I could damn well shoot somebody who’s on my land.”

“Sir,” I said, begging. “Please, you don’t wanna do this.”

I walked slowly toward him, something I knew of either intuitively or because of the films I’d seen. I had no plan of how I’d get him to put the gun down. With it cocked, I couldn’t very well grab it, since a slight nod of his finger on the trigger would see my hand or worse blown off. Shotguns are the flamethrowers of guns, the unskilled shooter’s choice: they dole out imprecise and unforgiving destruction. That close to us, he could have shot an arm off or blown my head to kingdom come.

“I think, actually, I do wanna do this,” he said. “Bitch’s been watchin’ me for all hours of the day and night. Wouldn’t take the warning when I got my gun out. Now strangers’ on my land asking for clemency.”

“You don’t remember us?” I said. “St. Peter’s UMC. Mary Louise Helms is our grandmother.”

For the first time, he let the gun down a bit, opening the eye he’d closed to make as good a shot as he could.

“You Patrick’s kids,” he said. “Or the other one’s?”

Uncle Pat had been a reputable member of the church for going on thirty years. He led bible studies, communions, youth camping trips, missionaries, and Sunday school classes. My mother, though, had always worked full time at the hospital. The last thing she wanted was an endless sermon at the quietest church in town on her one day off. No one in the family blamed her; she got us there every Sunday and Wednesday as kids. But the church members made side comments to all of us about her. “She can bring them but not stay,” they’d said. Or “We sure do miss her. Hope she can make it,” with just the right amount of judgement in the tone of voice that you knew that it was a commendation, not an invitation. In the split moment he’d asked which of Nana’s children we belonged to, I figured he’d surely wanted me to say Uncle Pat.

“You hear me, boy?” he said.

He put his face back against the shotgun, closed the one eye, and aimed again for me. My sister hit me on the shoulder and whispered something I couldn’t make out. She was telling me to lie, I was sure.

“Patrick,” I said. “It’s Patrick.”

E. stepped from behind her mother. “Great Uncle Patrick?” she said.

“Liars!” the old man said and he took the shot at E.

My sister screamed and covered her body with hers. I lunged at the old man and he cocked the gun again, but I pushed the barrel up before he could fire. The bullet broke through the makeshift patio cover that jutted from the camper’s side, protecting the chair from rain. The force of my pushing, with the firing of the gun, pushed the man down. I took the shotgun from his hands and knocked him out with the stock.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to my sister. She was screaming, still on of E.’s body. The little one was crying now, too, but likely because he saw his mother doing it. He was too young to know death. I said it again: “Call 9-1-1!” She took out her phone and dialed. When they answered, she struggled to tell them what had happened. I could tell the operator was unable to understand her because she had to repeat herself several times.

“Give me the phone,” I said and took it. “Hello, yes. There’s been a child shot at Maury’s Mobile Manor, Jacksonville, FL. Yes. Thank you.”

I took off my button-down shirt and pushed my way to E.’s body. She was bleeding from where her chest met her neck. “Move,” I said and shoved my sister. “We gotta control the bleeding. That’s what they said.” My sister grabbed the little one and held him close while they both cried. Their screams were stomach-turning, and I don’t know to this day how no one heard enough to come see what had happened. Not a soul living in the mobile park made their way over to where we were.

The old man groaned and when my sister noticed, she grabbed my shoulder and screamed louder.

“Hold this,” I said to her, putting her hand on top of my bloodied shirt. “Press down!”

I grabbed the shotgun from the ground and beat the man where his hand was rubbing his head. I cursed him to hell and beat the shit out of him. His old body cracked like hot oil under my boots and his skull popped and flattened as I beat his face with the butt of the gun. When I was tired and the anger expensed, I realized what I’d done. My sister had stopped crying and started comforting E. with words like “Come on, baby, stay with me. Stay with momma.”

“C.” I said, calling her. She ignored me, stroking her daughter’s face and continuing the mantras of comfort. “C.!”

She turned to me finally. “Tell them the man ran off with the gun.”

“What?” she said through tears. “Why?”

“Just do it!” I said.

She looked frightened by my yelling at her but she nodded.

I took the old man’s body and chucked it into the bed of the truck. When I went back for the gun, I realized the man’s blood had painted the grass under it. I panicked. Looked around. I threw the gun into the bed of the truck and ran over to E. and my sister. 

“C. we gotta move her over there,” I said. “They need to think that’s her blood.”

E.’s body had fallen on wet sand and barely stained it despite all the blood she’d lost. We picked up my niece carefully, C. keeping the pressure on the wound. The flash of the police and ambulance lights was in view now. We were roughly midway into the mobile park but I hoped there’d be an exit at the back. We sat E. down where I had bashed the man’s skull in. I ran to where she had fallen and kicked around the wet dirt so it was of no focus for the police. I hopped into the truck, cranked it, and rolled down the window.

“Don’t forget,” I said. “He ran away with the gun.”

C. nodded. I backed the truck quickly—I could hear the body and the gun toss around the bed of the truck when I changed gears and sped off toward the back of the mobile park. By this point, I could see people coming out their homes. They had begun walking toward the sirens alongside the dirt road. I slowed to appear unsuspicious, but they still watched me closely as I passed them.

At the back of the mobile park, there was no exit. The dirt road ended at a final mobile home that was grown over with vines. The vinyl was so colored by a rusty orange mold that it had to have been years since it was abandoned. The trailer had become a part of the forest around it, the yard busheled by tall weeds and dense, wet grass. When I got out the truck, I looked around to confirm the property’s abandonment, peered around the truck and up the road to see if any of the neighbors wandered their way behind me. No one.

I opened the truck bed and pulled the body from the back. It fell to the ground like several cinder blocks, making a thumping sound. I dragged the body to the front door of the abandoned trailer. I said a silent prayer and tried the door. It was unlocked. I pushed the door in, moved the vines from out the doorway, and yanked the body into the living room of the home. The automatic headlights of my truck flipped off and the whole place was swallowed by darkness. I shut the door and got my phone out for the flashlight. I used it to look around the house, which while it was dirty did not smell of anything but dust and still air.

I checked the closets for shovels since I hadn’t seen a shed in the yard. Nothing. The closest I found was a large ladle in the kitchen drawer. I saw a long bread knife with serrations in the drawer and abandoned the burial idea. I looked in the living room for a fireplace and found one below a dusty wooden mantle. I opened the smoke shaft, and used my cigarette lighter to start a fire with my undershirt and what remaining wood there was alongside the fireplace.

When I took the knife toward the old man’s body, the barbarism I had committed and would continue finally occurred to me. It began to rain outside, hard. Thunder shook the trailer and I winced when the man’s skin and muscle squeeched from the knife. As the rain got stronger, though, crackling on the top of the trailer, I wasn’t able to hear any more sounds from the body under the knife. However, I quickly realized that the knife wasn’t nearly sharp enough for the man’s bones, even with their frailty. Besides that, it would have taken too long to chop the man’s body up and burn each piece in the small fireplace.

So, I decided after a moment that I would fold the man’s body into a ball. I tucked his body into a pillowcase from the bedroom and waited for the fire to get hot enough to burn a full body. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy, I told myself. Reiterating this phrase stopped my own paranoia. I’d killed someone. I wasn’t trained to kill a man. I’d never joined the military like my father or uncle Pat. I wasn’t a surgeon or a nurse. I had never seen the amount of blood that had collected under the man’s head when I had squashed it with the gun. I had never gone to the dressing place with my father after we’d hunted and killed a deer because I didn’t want to see them slice into the animal’s flesh and rip the muscles away from the bones the way my friends had told me they did. Yes, he’d shot my niece and self-defense is an argument that can hold up for some things, but not when you beat a man so much you collapse his skull. The man was crazy. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy. He shot my niece.

I went searching for lighter fluid or something flammable to help the body burn. The fireplace would never get hot enough to burn the body. I found something better: lye. I wasn’t a soldier, a doctor, a nurse, or an undertaker, but I had paid attention in high school chemistry. Lye and water can melt flesh, disintegrate it into a bubbly body stew, and empty every nutrient from every bone so they are brittle enough to powderize under small amounts of pressure. Heat expedites the process.

I got the largest pot I could find in the kitchen of the abandoned trailer and filled it with water from the case of water bottles I kept in the backseat of my truck. When I got back inside the trailer, I put the pot on the fire, and dragged the pillowcase with the man’s folded-up body inside it to the bathroom. I emptied out his body into the tub and wrapped the bloodied pillowcase around my head to cover my nose and mouth, so I didn’t inhale the fumes. I scattered the entire bin of powder lye over the body. When the water was warm enough, I poured it over the body. It wasn’t enough water so I did this several times: filled up the pot with water, warmed the pot, and poured it over the lyed body in the tub. Eventually, the fumes and smell of the bubbling flesh were so much I had to close my eyes and avoid breathing when I entered the bathroom.

When the water from my case ran out, I put out the fire and got in my truck to call my sister and meet her at the hospital. I didn’t have service, so I drove up the road until I could find a place where I had bars. I finally got to my sister’s place and my phone connected to the WiFi. My phone dinged with two voicemails and ten missed calls from my sister and my mother. I parked the car at my sister’s trailer and called her. No answer. I called my mom.

“Hey, baby,” she said. Her voice was calmer than I expected it to be, given the circumstances. Hearing her made my voice crack, my emotions finally hitting me.

“Which hospital y’all at?” I said, sniffling through tears.

“Memorial.” She spoke to someone else, thanking them. “Baby, you should get here soon.”

I put the truck in gear and drove toward the entrance of the mobile park.

“How is she? Is she okay?”

“E. didn’t make it, honey.”

The lump in my throat grew as hard as rock, my mouth dried, and my vision blurred, submerging in tears.

“I gotta go, baby,” my mom said. “They’re calling us in. Come quick.”

She hung up.

*

The next day, I bought the abandoned trailer and moved into it. I cleaned up the yard and cleared off the vines and painted the vinyl bright white. The old man’s liquid remains filled up the tub, too thick to go down the drain. So, I bought five-gallon gasoline jugs, filled them with water, and diluted the liquid remains of the tub every few hours until only the bones were left. When the electricity was reconnected to the trailer, I boiled the bones in lye and water until they were brittle enough to be crushed. I flushed the crushings down the toilet.

The funeral was at the church and they buried E. next to my grandfather. It was sunny and so humid that everyone sweat through their clothes and the women fanned their faces with the programs. My sister cried, of course, sitting in a chair facing the preacher and the casket. My mother held my nephew in her lap and rubbed my sister’s back while they both cried, as well. My father sat next to my mother listening to the preacher, a stoic and hardened look I couldn’t tell from one of boredom behind his dark sunglasses. His face didn’t appear to bear any tears. 

While the preacher gave a final prayer and everyone bowed their heads, I stared at the casket. I thought about how I didn’t regret killing the old man. I would never speak of it with my sister and to this day she has never mentioned it to me. My nephew, God willing, won’t remember. I thought about E. and my nephew going to church with my mother and father while they had custody of the children, when my sister was in rehab last time. E. loved to sing hymns and was fascinated by the sound of the organ. When she’d asked me once if I believed in God, I lied and told her no. I wished I hadn’t lied.


Preston Taylor Stone is an English PhD student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, where his research centers on diaspora studies, contemporary literature, and formalism. He is the Chief Editor of KAIROS Literary Magazine.

The Lines and Their Consequences

by Annie Vitalsey

It was Yves who threw the party when we learned the earth was blue. When Gagarin came down from his orbit and swore it was so, we took him at his word. It was Paris, it was 1961, and before this most of us had thought our planet to be green.  

Not Yves. 

When he was a boy, he would lie on the sand and divide the earth amongst his friends. Claude would have the land, Armand the animals, but Yves only ever wanted sky. A blue so perfect, he had to possess it. Blue, pure energy. Blue, absolute serenity. Blue, the only color that could hold emptiness. He railed at the birds for pocking his view. 

When I knocked on the door of Yves’ blue apartment, it was Rotraut who answered in blue pants and a blue blouse, brown pigtails hanging heavy on her shoulders. 

“You thought it was green too?” she asked me. 

“Everyone did,” I said. “Don’t tell Yves.” 

Inside the walls and carpets were blue, the couches and chairs. Yves had blued the spines of all their books, and painted over plates and glasses, knives and forks all the same shade, dark like evening—over-saturated—like if squeezed, the hue would flood out smelling salty and fresh and almost frightening. In the corner, he had painted a heavy globe this same blue, seas and continents merged together in one shade. He had thrown Rotraut’s bluest scarves over every light and lamp so they cast the color over the faces of the partygoers. They would have looked dead, had they not been smiling so. 

“Drink?” asked Rotraut, and she offered me a cocktail in the familiar shade, and I took it. She smiled at me then, and too her teeth were the same blue, too dark for just a trick of the light. “Family recipe,” she said. 

I had known Rotraut first, before she met Yves and moved in with him. Before, when we shared a tiny apartment in Montmartre and modeled for art classes. I liked the work. I liked sitting still. I liked watching the groups survey me, seeing how they fixed my lines by eye. But all this bored Rotraut. Her back grew stiff and her eyes wandered and more than once her head rocked back from dozing. She would go home and sketch angry shapes across paper—fast colors at bold angles. 

“This is misery,” she said. She wanted to paint in her own right. But like me, she was only twenty-two, and apart from her tits and the slope of her spine, no one was paying attention. 

Then, of course, she met Yves and he let her mix the blue. 

It was a new kind of blue, she told me, formulated with the help of chemists, with the help of the same man who did Picasso’s blues. The trick was in the binder—it dried perfectly clear and would not taint the luster. She swore me to secrecy. A blue, like the heart of a flame, she described it. A blue that looked like love felt. 

Rotraut slathered herself in the blue and slid over canvases for Yves. She pressed her blue body to walls and floors of white. A new, dynamic model of painting, she explained. The body, liberated from the paintbrush. A satisfying collaboration, she called it. 

“Sure, sure,” I said. Her own paintings were being shown for the first time in London. I had to take on extra work to pay for groceries. 

Yves spent the whole party at his writing desk, composing another letter to Eisenhower. Yves wanted to use his blue to color the atom bombs. He said it would bring true peace, a blue revolution. Rotraut stood at his elbow, offering now and then a word. Yves wanted to marry her, she had told me. She also told me Eisenhower had yet to answer his letters, and he was still waiting on replies from Castro, too. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. He wanted to pave the roads with it. He wanted to color houses and churches, tint bread and salad, he had plans for the animals, for the rain. He wanted to feed it to sea plankton. He had just done his Blue Venus, and L’Esclave de Michel-Ange in blue. 

“Did you know,” a young man sitting next to me at the party said, “that Michelangelo couldn’t afford the color blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

The young man had a mustache bleached out and colored blue with what looked like chalk dust. It was making him sneeze. 

“Oh yes!” he said, scooting in. 

I took a sip of the drink Rotraut had poured me. It tasted briny. It stung my molars going down. 

“Did you know there’s no blue in cave paintings?” he went on. “Did you know the ancient westerns had no word for blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“Did you know the Egyptian god Amun could make his skin turn blue and fly invisibly across the sky?” 

I sat and listened to him, thinking of my mother back in Nice, and how she liked to let good looking men explain things to her. She told me it was good for their hearts. 

“Did you know,” he went on, “that blue eyes aren’t really blue? It’s a trick of the light. Same thing that makes the sky blue.” 

I drank more, feeling the liquid pull and burn in my chest. 

“My name is Shrike,” he said. 

“Caro,” I said. 

When he tried to kiss me, I did not pull away. I tasted the blue chalk in his mustache—milky and hygienic. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. But according to Gagarin, according to the news and the experts, it already was. 

Rotraut had been working with Yves for months before she invited me to his studio—a white room a short walk from the Panthéon, with a brass chandelier hanging low on one side. She wanted me to try the new modeling, too. She wanted me to see how fun it was. 

Yves was in the studio when I arrived, but he did not look up from his work until Rotraut asked him to.

“This is Caro,” she said. 

Yves nodded. 

He worked while Rotraut painted me up with a sponge, pressing the blue over me, tenderly, neck to knees, as if she was giving me a bath. The paint was oily and cold, and clung like needles. 

“Now move,” she said, and gestured to the canvas, held taut to the wall with nails, ready. 

First, I pressed my whole front to the white, then my back, then my front. Rotraut added more paint and I went again, slapping my fingers to the wall, sloping my knees. The whole thing took ten minutes. 

“Good,” said Yves, but he still did not look at me. 

Rotraut sat on his lap when I went to wash, down in the little bathroom in the hall. The whole thing reeked of Yves. Vanilla and beeswax, turpentine and unwashed hair. His beard shavings clung to the sink. The husks of his fingernails and loose, knotty pubic hairs peppered the floor. In the mirror, I saw the blue had crept up my neck and gotten into the ends of my hair. 

I stood in the ancient bathtub and opened the window to temper the air. The cold from outside prickled my skin. I found an old, dry sponge to work into a lather, and the soap suds blued as I scrubbed, running down my hands and my legs, dyeing the rest of me blue, but lighter. I washed and rinsed and lathered again, and the soles of my feet went blue in the cool standing water. 

Blue is a color that swallows, I thought. A consuming color. It runs and it devours everything else. It is everywhere. It is inescapable. 

I lathered and I rinsed, lathered and rinsed, again and again and again. 

Afterwards, Rotraut bought me a glass of wine. We sat at a table on the street, and she told me she was in love with him. 

“It’s a spiritual love,” she told me. “It’s immaterial.” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“It’s all there, in the blue. Didn’t you love it too?” 

My skin still tingled from the paint, it burned. I thought it was cold and uncomfortable, artless and cheap. The pigment still rimmed my fingernails and clung behind my ears. It was going to give me a rash. 

“I don’t get it,” I told her. “I don’t like it.”  

Rotraut took a sip of her wine. She twirled a pigtail. 

“He says he thinks he’s going to die soon,” she said. “He feels the void. He feels it everywhere. In the blue, too. But he isn’t afraid.” 

“He’s going to ruin your life,” I said. 

Rotraut looked hurt, surprised at this. “I don’t believe in death,” she said. 

“He doesn’t really love you,” I said. 

“Before modern science,” Rotraut said, “they made blue by soaking plant leaves in human urine. Usually urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol. Look how far we’ve come!” 

She had stopped listening to me. Within the next week, she moved out of our apartment and into the blue with Yves. 

At the party, Yves had my blue portrait propped against a wall, the imprints of my thighs, my breasts, my belly and hands ready to be shown off. I thought of how much of myself was left behind on that canvas—how many germs and skin cells, how much of my DNA would go on to be displayed in galleries, museums, gazed upon by thousands, auctioned at great price. 

“That’s me,” I gestured to Shrike. 

“Oh?” he said. 

“I did that one.” 

“Oh?” 

I wanted him to revere me. 

“I like it,” he said. “That one and that one.” He pointed to the one next to it—one of Rotraut’s first. Yves had painted her up and dragged her across the canvas, leaving two long, arced smears with breasts. 

“Another drink,” I said. 

At his writing desk, Yves balled up the letter he was writing. Rotraut rubbed him on the back. 

Within a year, Rotraut would go on to marry Yves. She would wear a white dress and a blue tiara, and Yves would wear the insignia of the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. By then, Yves would be jumping off buildings and onto trampolines for the photographs, to look as if he were flying, defying gravity just the slightest bit. 

Eisenhower still had not written him back. 

Yves would be painting in fire by then too, sneaking into the Centre d’Essai de Gaz de France, dousing models in water and rolling them over canvases, then torching their outlines with a heavy flare. Men at the center lost their jobs for those paintings. 

Within six more months, Yves, 34, would die of a heart attack, leaving Rotraut six months pregnant. Even at the end, he told her he wasn’t scared. Neither was she.

That night of the party, I took Shrike home with me. We left early, because the blue was strangling, suffocating and I was drunk. In the lantern light on the sidewalks, the chalk on Shrike’s mustache looked lighter, more pastel. 

We sat at my table and dipped our fingers in sugar while he told me more about the color blue—reflex blue, Prussian blue, ultramarine, azure, cornflower, steel. The sugar helped get the taste of those drinks out of our mouths. We ate it by the spoonful. 

“What was it like?” he asked. “What was is like for him to paint you?” 

“Boring,” I said. 

In my bed, he found the spot between my legs and dallied there until the blue had long rubbed off his mustache. With every loll of his tongue I pictured tangerine and safflower, fuchsia and merlot. 

But later, when I got up for the toilet, I filled the bowl with that familiar color, and in the mirror I saw the whites of my eyes had also gone blue. 

I phoned Rotraut. “What the hell?” I said. 

She laughed. “Methylene,” she said. “A great joke! The revolution is starting.” 


Annie Vitalsey has an MFA from Arizona State University and her stories have appeared in Reed Magazine, Juked, Bennington Review, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches fiction writing at Colgate University, where she received the 2019-20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship. 

We’re Fine

by Elizabeth Vignali

The house was only one story, so it was easy to see where it began, in the top corner of the living room above the potted schefflera. The little triangular patch right where two walls met the ceiling—not much bigger than both my hands splayed out—faded till it was as thin as parchment paper and we could see the yellow leaves of the neighbor’s birch tree through our own wall. You noticed it first. You saw the yellow shapes moving like coins on the ceiling and thought it was reflected light, that the baby was playing with some shining toy on the floor.

But the baby was on my lap. I was still trying to bond with him, get him to smile
at me the way he smiled at you.

“Ba-ba-ba-ba,” I said in that nonsense way people do when they’re talking to babies. He clung to my finger but he was still looking at you, your face turned away, toward the ceiling. We both watched you. He and I thinking the same thing. Look at me. Look at me.

“I think something’s wrong with the house,” you said.

I followed your gaze but I couldn’t see it then, couldn’t see anything but your
turned-away face.

The next morning, even I had to notice. On my way to the kitchen for coffee, sunlight striking my forehead, my right ear. A small corner of the house was gone. I walked over and looked up. It was a perfect circle. No saw could make edges so clean. You’d come up behind me, so quiet I didn’t know you were there until I felt your arms slip around my sides. Pressed your cheek to my back.

“It must be a prank,” I said. “Your brother.”
“No.”
“What, then?”
“I don’t know.”

After breakfast, I pulled the ladder around the side of the house and climbed up to take a look. “Be careful,” you said from below. Your boots on the fallen yellow leaves, the baby in your arms. I hadn’t been up here yet. There was moss on the roof, a few shingles missing. The gutters were choked with leaves.

“I should clean out your gutters for you,” I said.
“Our gutters,” you said.

Through the hole, I could see my plant in its mustard-colored pot. The coffee table. Your paperback spread-eagle facedown on the glass. The couch. Cushions indented from the previous weight of our bodies. The baby’s plastic giraffe tangled in your crocheted afghan.

The hole itself was just a hole.

“I don’t understand,” I said, too quiet for you to hear. But you did see me reach
for the edge, wanting to feel the cleanness of the cut, wanting to figure it out.

“Don’t touch it!” you said.
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”

I pulled my hand back. Grooves from the ladder stretched from where I’d dragged it to root against the house, black dirt tracks like a railroad curving around the corner, beyond where I could see. From here, I could see the roof of the coffee shop I used to go to every morning. The red-edged tower of the old theater. The spires of the church-turned-bar where I’d seen my favorite band last year. Had I been to the bar since then?

When was the last time I went to the coffee shop? I grasped the ladder, fingers aching on the cold aluminum, and tried to remember.

“What’s happening over here?” Your neighbor propped his mug on the fence
separating the yards. “Do you guys need help with something?”
“No,” I said. Too quickly. Your reproachful look. “I’m just looking at the gutters.
Our gutters. I need to clean them out.” I don’t know why I lied; there was a hole in the
house, and small as it was it was plain to see. I watched his eyes travel from the hole to
your face.
“You sure?” he asked you.
“Yes,” you said. Shifted the baby from one hip to the other. “We’re fine.”

We couldn’t see it happening, but by late afternoon we were sure the hole was a little bigger than it had been that morning. The edges weren’t as clean, either. They were blurred, almost. The walls and ceiling around the hole were thin and faded, as if the house was a pencil drawing slowly being erased. By evening, the translucence had crept down the wall. The top of the schefflera was vanishing. The leaves nearest the empty spot were curled up.

We kept an eye on the baby, but he wasn’t interested in the corner anyway. He grasped the edge of the coffee table and pulled himself up on chubby legs, wobbly but determined. He lost his grip and sat down hard. Pulled up again. His open smile, only for you.

“He’ll be walking soon,” you said.
The plant bothered me. I stood and walked closer to the corner, studying it.
“Do you think it’s too late to move it?” I asked.
You weren’t listening.
“Want a beer?” you asked. “I’m getting one.”

While you were in the kitchen, I got down on the floor and army-crawled toward the plant. It felt ridiculous, ducking to avoid a hole, but the thought of getting to my feet beneath it made the hair on my neck stand up. I grasped the heavy ceramic pot and tugged it toward me, grunting and awkward with the lack of leverage. Still, managed to move it a couple feet, enough that it was out of the way of danger. I stood again and looked at the plant, half expecting the disappeared section to be back, but it was still gone. I passed my hand through the air where the top of the plant used to be.

You returned from the kitchen, a beer in each hand. You gave me one bottle and drank from the other, your lips wrapped around the neck in a way that took my attention from the hole in the house.

“It’s actually kind of nice in a weird way, isn’t it?” you said, looking at the stars
through the wall.

We retreated to the bedroom sooner than we had to, in retrospect. The rest of the house sort of seemed superfluous, anyway. We’d always preferred the bedroom. For a
while, we could still get to the kitchen when we needed to, laughing at each other as we absurdly hugged the wall in order to avoid nothing.

You had the foresight to bring food to the bedroom, paper bags stuffed with crackers and carrots and cheese, grocery shopping in our own house. You even remembered to grab the remote before it was too late, to turn the television so it was facing the hallway to the bedrooms, so we could sit in the doorway to what used to be your living room and watch baseball until the television vanished too. Then the baby used the remote as a teether, pressed the hard plastic against his sore gums, drool all over the power button.

The plates began to pile up in the bathroom, crusted with food, but neither of us felt like doing the dishes with hand soap and washcloths in the bathroom sink. “Watch,” I said. Balled up my paper towel and threw it toward the emptiness. It disappeared. We got a little carried away then, fetched the dirty dishes from the bathroom and flung them like frisbees and watched them vanish into thin air. It was fun at the time, but we didn’t have any plates to eat on after that.

No one came by, except once, when your neighbor’s teenage son knocked on our
bedroom window. I slid it open.

“You want your lawn mowed?” he asked.
I turned to you.
“Sure,” you said. “Hang on.” You had on underwear and a threadbare tank top,
and I watched his eyes track your progress across the room until I moved to stand in the way. His eyes slid the other direction. You found your purse under a pile of dirty
laundry. Pulled a twenty from your wallet. You handed it to me. I handed it to him.

“Thanks,” I said, and shut the window.

Every day—sometimes twice a day—I pulled the schefflera a little further away from the growing erased area. I waited for you to tell me to just go ahead and move the plant all the way into the bedroom, where it would be safe, but you never did.

Then one day, the schefflera vanished. I’d moved it bit by bit into the hallway, where it blocked our view of the disappearing house. But the erasing was happening faster than I realized, and one morning when I filled an empty yogurt container from the bathroom faucet and went to water the plant, it was gone. I stood in the remaining half of the hallway and looked out. It was raining out there in the rest of the world, a rain so cold it was nearly snow. There were no leaves left on the neighbor’s birch. The naked branches black against the clouds.

I heard your bare feet come up behind me.

“It’s gone,” I said.
“I know, honey,” you said.
I put my arm around you and pulled you close. We watched the freezing rain till
you started to shiver. I rubbed your arms, pulled you close.
“Come on,” I said and slid my hands to your hips. “May as well go back to bed.”

You were sleeping when the bedroom wall began to fade. I woke you up.
“The baby,” I said.

You got up and walked naked to the doorway, peeked across what remained of
the hall toward where the baby’s room was. You came back, your skin prickled with cold. Lifted the covers and burrowed against me.

“It’s too late,” you said.
I sat up, wanting to see for myself. If there was anything to be done. You pulled
me back down, your skin warm again already.
“It’s okay. I’m sure my mother got him.”

I didn’t ask how your mother would have known, how she would have reached him. Easier to run my hands down your back, pull you on top of me, push your head gently into my neck so you wouldn’t see the encroaching eraser, the slow disappearance of the door to the bathroom, your grandmother’s old oak bureau, our pile of crumpled laundry.


Elizabeth Vignali is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019), and the full-length collection House of the Silverfish (forthcoming from Unsolicited Press). Her work has received special notice from the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in Willow SpringsCincinnati ReviewMid-American ReviewTinderboxThe Literary Review, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she works as an optician, coproduces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.

Hunting and Fishing

by Charles Haddox

With the vicious determination of a mother bird hunting insects for its young, two strong men cast out a weighted nylon net and pulled it in one direction and then the other, trying to catch as many fish as possible before the start of the afternoon rains. They were using the net in the clear waters of a creek coursing through the dense forest of sheltering river palms, beetle-covered strangler figs, and towering ceibas that continually dropped yellow flowers into the water below like a slow rain. The creek flowed just north of Greyhill, along the base of an ancient talus slope, which was topped by the road that ran to the island’s capital. Standing in waist-high waters, the two young men called to each other. They were mainlanders who had come to the village to idle away a few days fishing in the unspoiled rivers of San Carlos. And they were using the net to catch small fish which would later be used as bait to take bigger ones in the broad green river that surged through Greyhill on its way to the coast.

Two boys, about ten years old, were wading in the creek. They played with a turtle that swam in the warm, sparkling water. The turtle was almost a meter long from head to tail. It moved gracefully, gliding through the water like a thread of light. Its short, leathery legs were yellow and viridian, and its shell was the color of chocolate. It paddled against the gentle current of the shallow creek; unhurriedly, indolently, as though lacking any purpose or desire.

Birds of all colors chattered in the tall trees, and a sea mouse moved cautiously through the reeds that bordered the creek. The sky was clear, and the day was hot.

The boys lost interest in the turtle and set about building a dam across the creek with fallen tree branches. The water sparkled as it flowed over the branches and eventually carried the smaller ones away.

One of the men saw the turtle and pointed it out to the other man. They dragged it to a rocky spot on the shore and dropped large stones on it until it lay crushed and lifeless. It was half-buried by the rocks; a pile of red flesh, broken shell, and purple entrails.

The boys noticed what was going on. They stood in the water, watching.
“Why did you kill it?” one of the boys asked.
The men looked at each other.
“The turtle eats fish,” one of them answered.



Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries.  His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Stonecoast Review.

CLIK2CHAT

by Daniel Marcus

The house was full of people and the insect hum of their voices.  Their presence made his living room look oddly foreign and it was easy for Bob to imagine for a moment that he, too, was a guest.  He stood awkwardly next to the fireplace, drink in hand.  People approached, inquired, veered off. Nearly everyone had brought something to eat or drink and every available surface in the kitchen was loaded with casseroles, salads, plates of cookies, sushi mandalas, paella pans.  There was something about bereavement and food.  It wasn’t comfort — there could be no comfort — but it was deeply tribal nonetheless.  What Bob really wanted was a good, stiff drink, but he was afraid of where that would lead, so he sipped his glass of Pinot and tried to not look like he wished they would all just fucking leave.

A cluster of Jenna’s friends, bristling with piercings and spiky hair, huddled near the door.  Bob had known most of them since pre-school.  A willowy girl in sleeveless denim, Lu, caught his eye.  She walked up to him and gave him a loose-limbed hug.

“You guys okay?” she asked.

Bob had a sudden, vivid memory of a trip to Marine World, maybe six years back, an impossibly distant other life.  It was just Jenna, Lu, and him.  The girls orbited about him like wild, giggling moons as they explored the park.  They slept, curled up in the back seat together, the entire drive home.  It was a good day. 

Bob shrugged, smiled sadly. How could we be okay?

“Sorry — stupid question.”  She looked away, biting her lip.  A single tear tracked down her cheek.  She took a breath, looked up at him again.  “How’s Mrs. P. holding up?”

“She’s hanging in there.  I’m really glad you came, Lu.” 

In fact, Mrs. P. hadn’t stopped crying for three days and was upstairs now in a shade-darkened room, tossing in a sweat-drenched Ambien doze.  Bob was almost glad of his hostly duties because they took him off the front lines with her.  He felt a stab of guilt at the thought. 

Jenna’s friends were the first to leave.  Lu turned on her way out and gave him a sad, little wave. Bob’s colleagues from the office were next — a handshake conga line and a pat on the shoulder from the head of the firm.  His secretary hugged him and cried a little. 

“Give my best to Allie,” she said.

“I will,” Bob promised.  

After the neighbors left, and a few other parents from the school community paid their respects and backed out the door looking guiltily relieved (fellow travelers for many years, their connection now abruptly severed), there was just Allie’s sister, Darcy, and her deadwood husband, Frank. 

Darcy flitted about cleaning while Frank helped himself to a healthy dose of Glenlivet from Bob’s liquor cabinet.

“Hell of a thing,” Frank said. “So young.”

Bob remembered Jenna’s description of him as “that fucking retard Aunt Darcy married” and nearly smiled, then caught himself, and a wave of grief rushed through him like the ocean through a rocky channel, leaving him breathless for a moment.

“You okay, Bob?” Frank asked, a hint of slur in his voice.

“Yeah, I’m fine, Frank.  I just need to sit down.”

Bob sat in one of the two floral patterned wing chairs bookending the fireplace.  Frank stood watching him for a moment, then sat in the matching chair, resting his drink on his thigh. 

They spoke no further and Bob tried to will his mind empty of thought. 

After a few moments, Darcy appeared, pushing back an errant blonde lock from her forehead.

“All clean,” she said.  She was a ditz, but Bob had come to like her, even love her, over the years.  Her luck with men was almost comically abysmal. 

“Thanks, Darce,” Bob said.  “You didn’t have to do all that.”

She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.  “Don’t worry about it.  You just take care of Allie and yourself.”

When they left, silence descended on the house with the finality of a closing curtain.  Bob returned to the chair next to the fireplace and sipped his drink.

Upstairs, Allie awakened and began to weep, a soft, desperate keening that seemed to come from everywhere in the house at once. 

Bob sighed.  He didn’t want to face her and felt it again, that pinprick of guilt. Her grief was no more acute than his, he felt, but it demanded more attention.  Infinite attention, really — a black hole that swallowed all solace.  He didn’t blame her at all.  He just didn’t know how to help her.  He couldn’t even help himself. 

He set his glass on the coffee table and went upstairs.  The hallway was dark.  The door to Jenna’s room was open a crack.  He walked past without looking in.  His bedroom door was shut and he placed his palm flat against it.  From within, the sound of weeping continued. 

“Allie?”

There was no answer.

He gently pushed the door open. The air in the room was humid and had a strange, oceanic smell.  Allie sat on the edge of the bed.  Her grief had an animal quality: primal, pre-verbal.  He sat next to her, put his hand on her shoulder. She vibrated with a fine tremor, like a bird.  Every now and then she would gasp, a breathing reflex. The keening would catch, then continue.    

Bob pulled back the collar of her nightgown just a bit, kissed her bare shoulder, and left her there.



Bob’s home office was a long card table in a corner of the garage.  There was a multipurpose printer, a big monitor, a keyboard. Several rows of shelves sagged under a haphazard collection of tools, books, and boxes with faded, peeling labels.  In the opposite corner, amidst a litter of discarded plastic lawn toys, sat a red bicycle with flat tires and training wheels. Faded blue ribbons dangled limply from the handlebars.

He sat down and stared at the flat, grey screen until he imagined motion within its depths. He pushed back his chair and went back in the house.  He cocked his head to listen.  Allie had stopped crying.  He imagined her sitting on the edge of the bed staring off into nothing. The furnace sighed on.  A car whispered past on the street outside. 

Bob poured himself two fingers of Glenlivet and returned to the garage.  He sat at his desk and took a sip of whiskey. His eyes watered and his chest filled with heat. 

He missed her so badly.  It was like a physical hypersensitivity, a migraine or an opiate withdrawal, a painfully acute awareness of smells and changes in light.

He double-clicked a shortcut on his desktop and her homepage appeared.  There were dozens of pictures, mostly of Jenna smiling, occupying a center of gravity among several friends, a couple of somber art-school poses and several with Allie and Bob.  He was glad that she wasn’t embarrassed to post them. 

In her most recent photograph, just a few days before she died, she had shaved her head and carved, in the emerging stubble, swirling Maori-like designs.  She had a pierced eyebrow and upper lip.  This too was something of an art-school pic, but in spite of its edginess, it seemed to capture better than the others the essence of Jenna as a much younger girl. He could see her peering out, smiling, just behind the hardware and the adolescent piss-off frown. 

Her profile said she liked basketball (he knew that), Rimbaud (he had no idea), and motorcycles (he’d have to have a talk with her) — and it hit him again, that surge of grief (have a talk with her) so acute he lost track of himself for a moment. 

Her status read:

Smith is nice.  Mt Holyoke is a gothic prison. Amherst is Amherst. In Logan now, waiting for the plane home. I love airports, monuments to transience. The static hiss between stations!

She must have posted from her cell phone, minutes before the explosion.  Bob tried to imagine it – an instant of heat and light, intense pressure, a sound like the sky ripping open. He hoped it was fast, that she didn’t have time to register what was happening. He wondered if she thought of them in those last milliseconds, then cursed his narcissism.    

It seemed he was living half the time in fugue – replaying snippets of time with her, random moments, conversations real and imagined.  They surfaced haphazardly, pulled him in, played themselves out, and left him stunned and empty.

His eyes kept returning to the icon in the upper right corner of the screen, a yellow smiley-face in side profile beneath a word bubble.  Inside the bubble: Clik2Chat.

He slid the cursor over the icon, hovered for a moment, then willed his finger down on the mouse button.

Jenna’s avatar appeared next to his keyboard: a smiling, translucent, foot-tall pixie.  Tiny diamonds of dust swam in the light beams emanating from small, twin sources beneath the screen.  The scan had been taken about a year before, so it captured Jenna before her severe phase.  Her hair was shoulder length and she wore jeans and a plain, green t-shirt. She tilted her head, a coltish gesture he knew well.

“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”

Bob’s breath caught in his throat.  The voice was almost right – Jenna, with syllables oddly clipped.  He knew it was nothing more than a bit of digital magic cranked out by a kid hunkered down in a cubicle amidst a litter of Nerf toys and empty soda cans, but it was still a shock.

Jenna tilted her head the other way.

“Hey, Dad.  What’s up?”

This is stupid, he thought.

“Hi, Jen.”  His voice cracked.

“Hey!  How are you?”

Bob didn’t say anything. The avatar shifted her weight, brushed back her hair.

“You’ve probably figured out that I’m somewhere else right now.  My little Doppel-G here will record whatever you want to tell me and I’ll have a look at it later.” 

“We miss you terribly.”

Jemma frowned disarmingly.

“Sorry, didn’t get that.”

“We love you.”

Jenna smiled.  “I love you, too, Dad.”

“We’ll always love you.”

“I love you, too, Dad.”

From far away he heard the high whine of engines, a plane settling in to SFO final approach.  He cocked his head, listening, until he couldn’t hear it any more.  

“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go.  Bye!”

“No!” Bob shouted, startling himself.  “Wait!”

Jenna tilted her head again, looking, he imagined, just a trifle impatient.

The static hiss between stations, he thought.

Something rustled outside, probably a raccoon.  He closed his eyes and saw clever, busy hands.

“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go.  Bye!”

He did nothing this time.  After a few seconds, the image winked out. 

He sat there for a long time.  When he was ready, he pushed his chair back, stood up, and stretched.  He let himself back into the house and went upstairs.  Allie was sleeping again, her breathing deep and regular. 

He slipped his clothes off and slid under the sheets, careful not to wake her.  She whimpered softly, turned on her side facing away from him, and backed closer.  He curled to fit her, feeling her warmth, draping his arm across her hip.  He shifted restlessly as he drifted off to sleep and she moved in response, their somnambular dance as familiar as walking. 

Daniel Marcus’ short fiction has appeared in many literary and genre venues, including Asimov’s SF, ZYZZYVA, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Witness. Some of these stories were collected in “Binding Energy,” described by Salon.com as “a cross between Raymond Carver and William Gibson.” He is also the author of the novels Burn Rate and A Crack in Everything. He has taught Creative Writing at the UC Berkeley Extension Program and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Queen of the Sunken City

by Susan DeFreitas

The King of King Street poled his skiff across Calhoun, looking for his queen. Sometimes in the mornings she could be found around Market, meeting her day’s appointments with “dem tourists from foreign,” as his granny used to say.

Tourists had been coming to the Sunken City of the South since long before it had sunk—coming to see the Rainbow Row and the Battery and the grand old churches built upon the backs of slaves. Coming to take the tours, most of which omitted such distasteful details.

Tours such as this one here on Calhoun Street—which, like all of the streets downtown, was no longer a street at all, but a glittering canal, reflecting the half-submerged historic homes and churches that appeared on all the postcards. A fellow in a flat hat at the helm of a water taxi steered it slowly into the mangroves of Francis Marion Square, telling stories to white folk made whiter by their reflective nanoscreen, which made their whiteness gleam.

“Here to the south side of the square, just beyond the Lindsey Graham Memorial Mangroves, you’ll see the statue of John C. Calhoun,” the guide said, stilling the motor. He gestured to the bronze statue on high, which the King always thought of as the white man in the sky. “Calhoun was one of the state’s most illustrious citizens. He served as a senator and US Vice President in the years leading up to the First Civil War, and he was an prominent advocate of states’ rights.”

King almost laughed as he poled on past, his dark skin bare to the sun. The only reason the white man in the sky had escaped being sunk was because the city fathers had seen fit to raise him up so high. And why? Long ago, any Black folks who happened to pass would do their best to deface him. Rumor had it the statue of John C. Calhoun was missing the pinky finger of its left hand, which sat casually upon the man’s hip, as if he were disciplining a dog.

“King,” came a voice from down the way. “How you going, boss?”

“All right, all right.” King shaded his eyes from the sun. There upon the wrought-iron balcony of the Floating Flophouse stood Nestor, tying up his catch. “How you keeping, Nesta?”

“Fine, man, fine. You see?” Nestor held aloft a glistening magenta fan from which dangled strands of blue.

“Man, you crazy,” King told him. “You eat that thing?”

“You en eat jellyfish chop chop?”

“I eat saltfish chop-up.”

Nestor laughed. “Saltfish? You try. I en able with shark, man. Shark got teeth.”

King just shook his head. Like King’s granny, Nestor hailed from the islands to the south—what was left of them now—which is why he talked so broad. He’d made the harbor last spring on his cunning Third World raft, a riprap of sea trash, slipped in under the guard, and promptly installed himself amid the rotting grandeur of the Floating Flophouse. (Which did not actually float, though rumor had it, upon occasion, the air mattresses of its inhabitants did.)

“Nesta,” said King. “You seen the queen?”

The man smiled, showing teeth. “Queen Street way she dey.”

King lifted his hand in thanks and poled past.

Past Society, Wentworth, Hassell, and down by Market, where the boardwalks of the city converged—where tourists stepped up from sleek water taxis to wander the stalls of the New Market, which sat atop the roof of the old.

Altogether, a pod of scuba divers dropped off the promenade, their airbreathers affixed to their faces. Even as one group dropped, a barker stood at dock, rustling up the next. “See the Sunken City in all its grandeur! Shipwrecks, pirates, and Blackbeard’s Revenge! Opulent marble malls, mausoleums, and museums! Swim inside the Circular Church!”

King sucked his teeth in derision as he poled past. Of course, he had taken such a tour himself once—who could resist the invitation to see the Sunken City from below? But just like the water-taxi tours, the scuba tours were full of hokum. The mall, museum, and mausoleums were real enough, as was the Circular Church, which really was a wonder—much of the stained glass was still intact, and when the sun shone through it, illuminating beds of kelp swaying in your wake, and the headset played “Amazing Grace,” it was enough to make the Devil himself get religion.

But the Queen Anne’s Revenge was no more than a rich man’s yacht from the 2040s worked over by crafty hucksters. It had been picked up from the Ashley River by Hurricane Yvette and dashed against the Old Slave Mart, as if in recompense—and the skeletons of those so-called pirates were no more than the city’s poorest citizens, whose bodies had lain so long under the sodden trash, awaiting emergency management, that they’d never been claimed or buried.

King knew that now—knew too the real reason the seas had risen, the heaviest buildings had sunk, and the great storms had grown so fierce. All of this he knew because of the queen, and today, he’d decided, was the day he would present to her what it was he knew. A humble craft, but an old one, in which he might find favor.

King stopped to drop his dipper in an eddy that had formed near Jacob’s Alley and fished out a bright yellow bag—#4 plastic, good quality—and added it to the pile at his feet. Soon he’d have enough for another basket, like those tied up on display to the fore of his craft, which would fetch a good price at the market.

When King reached Queen Street, he anchored his pole and turned his skiff in one smooth, practiced maneuver. From a nearby rowboat, patched up with cheap nanobond, three boys were watching him, but they looked away when he caught them. Their plastic roses were loosely folded, their sea baskets slack and lopsided. King lifted his chin in their direction, in dismissal, and away they rowed down Queen.

And there she stood, a vision in yellow beside St. Philips Church. The tourists she was addressing bore only superficial resemblance to those he’d seen in the water taxi, and to those strapping on scuba gear at the market; some were white and some were black, and some murmured to one another in a language King thought perhaps was French, but all of them were attired in such a style that his finest sea basket would not have fetched a price sufficient, he suspected, to purchase even one of their shoes.

“In 1835,” the queen was saying, “the original church burned to the ground. Three years later, the church that stands before you now was built, in the Wren-Gibbs style, common in the churches of Charleston.”

The queen’s immense yellow sunhat bobbed as she spoke. Her manner and bearing bespoke a lineage stretching back to Nefertiti, and her elocution, her various degrees from good Canadian colleges. But she was not above dressing the part of the guide, in anachronistic style—in that full, flowing sundress that brushed the tops of her sandals, in that beribboned hat so broad a brood of children could have gathered in its shade, all of it as yellow as the #4 plastic King had just fished from the canal. The color gleamed against her blue-black skin.

“Two years later,” the queen was saying, “the statesman and outspoken advocate of slavery John C. Calhoun was buried in the West Church Yard here, and then, during the First Civil War, moved to the East Yard, for fear his grave would be desecrated by Union troops. However, efforts to protect Calhoun’s grave would ultimately prove in vain, as the massive tomb built by the state legislature in 1880 would in fact be desecrated, in 2054, just before Hurricane Yvette. Unbeknownst to the elders of St. Philips Church, a crafty activist would carve his own epitaph—or should I say, epithet? ‘Here lies John C. Calhoun, a real motherfucker.’”

The group tittered; this was, after all, as advertised, “The Truly Troublesome True History of the Sunken City of the South.” King could have listened to the queen all day. Which in fact he had, more than once, though he’d never approached her so boldly.

“John King,” she said, turning to him. “What can I do for you today?”

Floating there at her feet, the king felt a fool—what, after all, had he expected, interrupting her this way? He stood there on his skiff for a moment tongue tied, all his troubles doubled: the great tower of St. Philips rising above and rippling below, the tourists in their fine clothes, and in the center of it all the queen, lemon yellow and blue-black in her immense beribboned hat. He may have been the King of King Street, but here, he could see, just two blocks to the east, he was no more than riff raff, sea trash.

Finally, he lifted that yellow #4 plastic bag. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and then, in his best approximation of the Queen’s English: “My apologies for interrupting. I thought perhaps your group might be interested in a traditional African American handcraft dating back in this region nearly four hundred years. Might I offer a demonstration?”

Under her hat, the queen lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Please,” she said, “by all means.”

King explained the way peoples from West Africa enslaved in the Sunken City—long ago, before it had sunk—had woven baskets of bulrush. Their descendants had carried on the tradition with sweetgrass, and now, in modern times, folks made such baskets with sturdy recycled plastics, deposited daily in the canals of the historic peninsula—likewise the city’s iconic roses, prized as souvenirs, once folded from the fronds of the palmetto.

Now the fine tourists listened to John King speak, as if he really were a king. Now the queen watched him from beneath the benevolent brim of her hat—in such a manner as to suggest perhaps, in time, she might grant him a private audience.

By the time he turned, lifted a hand in farewell, and poled his skiff down Queen Street, one perfect yellow rose lay folded at her feet.

Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne ReaderStory Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, High Desert Journal, and many other journals and anthologies. In 2017, The Oregonian named her “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read.”

stillcoast

thirteen kidney beans laid on the threshold

            the loup-garou counts and counts

                        and counts and –

tide’s morning vocabulary: the thrown and rescinded words over and over and: gravel crunches a bit differently every time the basketball bounces, I was taught by its sporadic coming-up. For some reason, I think of wobbling women in stilettos and how they’d walk with bulging calves over the gravel that’d crunch a bit differently every time the heel hits. Like most boys, I’ve tried on my mother’s heels and felt them out. I think nothing of this. I’ve also, many times, like most boys, rode many times on the tops of my father’s feet, his steps, my steps.

froggers come back after long nights tossing big bulls into chests

                                    church of the empty

two generations separate the second graders from their teachers

                                                                                    some get the paddle’s correction

11, 12 … 1, 2, 3 …                                          lycanthrope is full to the brim with bloodlust

                                                                                                      moon rises, looks for prey

shout as loud as

but it will be swallowed

by the blanket

the water makes

an argument

washes up

on shore

carrying globs

of seaweed

in tears are archives?

LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE & FISHERIES (22:14): Houma Wildlife and Fisheries, how can we help?

RICHARD AUCOIN (22:14): [background noise] Yessir, I believe I seen the garou out back [mixed voices] shhh, I said, it gone get us.

LA DEPT. W&F (22:15): Can you describe what you have seen as closely as possible?

R. AUCOIN (22:15): Yessir, I seen something full with hair and standing on big two feet then it came [background noise] [long pause] –

LA DEPT. W&F (22:16): Sir, I’m sorry, can you – sir?

                                                                        morning formed itself

            something moved over wiregrass

                                                                                                                        and it wasn’t fog

dogs bark through screen doors                                   moon mad

she is tired of walking to Lapeyrouse’s when the tap isn’t drinkable

            it is hot and gnats                                            how else might

                                    need constant swatting                        the day spend itself

cocks run the strays underneath camps

                                                                                                leaving them to the cottonmouths

That was nice, us laying on the algae-slicked rocks. Our feet pointed toward the Caribbean. Me in my swim trunks and you in the bikini you’d later spill out of. We made another game of letting the water wash over us. We hadn’t yet realized the power of pretending to be dead. You liked the moments when the water would reach all the way to your ears. How, when the water filled the basins of your ears, you’d lose yourself for a second, now knowing which way’s up. I told you all of it was my favorite: but mostly the threatening prospect of dying beside you. Can you imagine both of us buoys only for the minutes out lungs would work to keep the water out? Can you imagine the streaked night that’d be above us, a night ready to unspool its darkness and a morning ready to unravel its best clouds?

hack heads off with the garden hoe

            keep in mason jars when the house needs

                        good gris-gris

the town has a new ghost – unnamed

see the beginnings

of jaundice under

the nails or

too many

cigarettes?

Food N Fun goes up cattycorner to the bait shop with no name

            the one at the warning light

the one who didn’t come back three trick-or-treats ago …

the mower moans its bass when no grass tangles itself underneath

and the egret matches, constructing, as if to say,

Let us do the only thing possible in the face of another day:

call

the moon’s limb quivers in apogee

because the loup-garou was first on it

it’ll run rampant through the breccia

called childhood memories

                                                voodoo is in the hand              ready

                                                            to hurl a million bellyaches

                                    dealer                           in diabolatry

                                                                                    flophouse         ramshackled

                                                flimsy and        berserkly grizzly           love dormant               at last

when it seems dead lift the driftwood near the lean-to

            there is life

                        there are earthworms bound

                                                                                                                                    together

There is a horizon I always looked to. It was far and I watched through my bedroom window, inland, for about 3 years before I told my mother about it. You don’t just look at a horizon, because a horizon, my mother told me, is just a word for something else. There are camps lining the horizon or The grass composing the horizon glows in morning light, my mother would say, It is impossible to say, Hey, look, a horizon, without talking about something else. I would tell her that what the horizon is for me is the up-down of a machine far off. Son, come get your toast, my mother would demand. Lufkin 912D 365-192, my father said, barging into our conversation. He knew the pumpjack’s make and model simply from the intervals of its bob in and out of sight. That’s a hardworking donkey pump, he said. 

some congruency between

the dog that found its place

in the dried out stone

fountain and the way

the elderly must

be coaxed into a home?

first look, combatting the near freeze blowing in off the Gulf

            second look, a speaking, a language of tethering

                        third look, just that, a third look

no matter how soft you step                                                    you shake the mosquito world

fiddler crabs run long-ways to

            their black holes

                        peeking ever-so-often

                                    for serenity

                                                                                                the fist came

                                                                                                                        down   the contrast

                                                                                                            blue-black        on        yellow

                                                                                    and      this is a grounds           for peeling and

                                                                                                                                    peeling and –

                                                                        it is now           the red             that trickles to drain

                                                                                                                                    the want;

                                                                                    to not be          gotten enough              of:

                                                                                                                                    carve

                                                                                                                                    chip

                                                                                                                                    incise

                                                                        someone said   the closer to mirror     

                                                                                                the blurrier       ; pressed so close

                                                                                                                                    scoured

                                                                                                                                                belief

ten years too late ICEEs become talk of the town

fishermen watch the forecast like the Superbowl

            just like how they watched WWE and NWO years ago

                                                                        inside the Bud Light, smashed cigarette butts,

                                                                                                                          stale beer

there’s a sixty year high school reunion happening (8 women)

            they play Cajun craps with pocket change and nicked die

                                                may                  the word not    come

                                                from                else-                 where:

                                                one                  cannot              be:

                                                            disappointed

men shoot Old Crow from work boots until their throats say no more

                        or until they sink the boat trailer at the landing

            some sit on their front porches all day and count cars                                                        

My mother speaks of a time I fell sick as a baby: She didn’t sleep a full night in 8 months. Only 2 hours here and there, always interrupted by my cough or cry. She tells me how I’d always want to be on my side in the cradle. Same in the crib months after. She describes the phlegm, mucus, my susceptible body. She describes my bronchitis and fever that climbed to 100, 101, 102. She tells me of her worries about getting me to swallow the antibiotic. She laughs and says I was as stubborn as she was. As stubborn and we both are now, sharing a surname and all. She says that she thought of the throat in general, the way she saw my tantrums coming, the way the antibiotic worked its chemical sorcery for ten days and my crying, coughing, fever hadn’t stopped. She remembers yellow-green gook on her shirts and how she tried everything.

headline reads BOY, 11, RIDES ATV OFF BANK INTO CANAL, DIES

whatever needs naming will be named

                        it is said

his school ribbons, trophies, awards, certificates are somewhere on a shelf

                                                                                                                                    collecting dust

the Sabbath full of its excesses:

                                                football,

                                                            hallelujahs,

                                                                        ennui,

                                                                                    dishwashing,

                                                                                                sleep,

                                                                                                            …

don’t mais la

don’t hug the submerged, barnacled pier posts while canal-swimming

don’t leave the filet knife plugged in if there are children around

don’t gah dehy dohn your elders

don’t let the traiteur get carried away with her remedies

don’t let her tell you you must sleep under the relentless half moon

don’t be canaille

don’t stomp when Mawmaw is trying to make do-do

don’t pass Henderson exit and skip out on boudin and cracklin

don’t be moon mad

don’t scrape the pot’s gratin and not give some to the dogs

don’t come in muddy, wash down with the hose pipe

don’t throw away last year’s Mardi Gras beads, but do save the dishes

ceramic frogs out front will keep the coons away

                        what moves:                                                    when you look on it?

                                                                                    kindness not of one dimension

                                                                                    leaks like weeping and blasts

                                                                                    like a convulsing turret

                                                                                    God bless you: God bless you:

                                                                                    God save you

extreme measures include elevating trash cans

– the sound a family makes in rupture, the more and more silence is capable of, the various meanings of washing, the smoothing the answer does opens more questions

“You can just about have dinner with those bullfrogs before you catch ‘em.” – Pierre, frogger, Cocodrie

TODAYS SPECIAL

CATFISH N TURTLE

COURTBILLION

she reads the obituaries to her grandmother for the twelfth day in the a row

                                                                      for the twelfth day                     they cry

I should be a bit more stubborn to the prophet who was close enough for comfort and to the ghost who let itself in without a key to the front door. We, both Alan and I, saw the apparition as we pulled up to he and his girlfriend, Monica’s, place. Monica started to yell even before we walked through the front door. Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? – ad infinitum. Then, the fluidity of her pronouns as she described what he/she/it was. What Alan hadn’t told Monica, despite being with her for 6 years (living with her for 3) was that he’d known a woman, now a witch, black magic practitioner somewhere in Florida. As I recalled this episode, now with a worldview that gives less space to those events, I cannot help but think of how Monica, as long as she “knows” Alan, will continue to know this ghost, this he/she/it. Again and again in the same way; forever.

hose down the dog just like you hose down

the muddy white rubber boots

gravity pushes off and pulls over clothes of the coast

with anxiety the same is done day in and out

                                                                        afternoon pregnant with simple dreams:

                                                that grandkids don’t end up in Big ‘Gola,

                                                                        that milk doesn’t go up,

                                                that the rotting balcony makes it through until next season,

                                                                        that, for the sake of the town,

                                                Father Will don’t fall into the ways of the flesh like Father Jacob,

                                                                        that Lent fasting goes by fast fast

                                                                                    doxology of breaks: and break

                                                                                                                                    ing – wonder

how the sugar

gets from cane

to tables

an answer can be fabricated: however reasonable

tangled in the barbed wire fence:

the skeleton of an unrecognizable animal.

bones sucked crawfish head-dry by the wind

                                    underneath the carcass,

                                                wildflowers flourish

            to not look at the flesh for five months

            to come back to it

                                                                                                the way that what we see becomes

                                                                                                the way that we not-see easily

            figuring meaning distorts more

            fishermen arrive at the same hole

                                                                                                the way speech is almost a habit

                                                                                                the way success is almost depressing                                                                                                                in its way of ushering

                                                                                                            another cycle of failures          

Then, my mother speaks of consulting a healer: She tells me how she never thought she’d consult a healer, but it was harder and harder to think of me as a gift. She remembers 6 Advil and dosage recommendations. She reminds me of growing up on the Teche, close to traiteurs from Jeanerette and St. Martinville, old and chubby. She recalls their Cajun French; liminal and inhabited. She tells me about method, measurable result, testability, and things in her life that’ve caused her to thrown those out. She grabbed a foil-lined pan at the traiteur’s request. The traiteur, she remembers, wore a crucifix strung on knotted twine around his neck and how it sat on his Adam’s apple, vibrating at the words of his prayers. She shows me pictures of me as a baby all in the same front-buttoning bodysuit, a onesie she calls it. She then explains how the traiteur asked for it. He ripped it to shreds and piled the shreds on the foiled pan. She told me that, before she knew it, he was cutting my hair and I kept my head still. The almost-translucent strands of hair fell on the pulled apart clothes, on top of the foiled pan. She explains alternatives to me and the philosophies of their mysteries, but also the inevitability of the traiteur, the hair – its DNA, too, and how it somehow threads each of us and holds us together — the metals of pan and foil, how the here and now slips up right before us. She describes the way the traiteur lit a match and guided it toward all that was piled up now, his hand shielding the flicker from the stuffy air and small winds accompanying such a ritual. A slow engulfing, meticulous enough to keep nothing from the flame. She tells me that he told her blow it out before everything was made ash of. She passed her through the smoke, and again. The traiteur cradled in his arms. He infused the room with more prayer. My mother explains that we know so little of what happens on the small scale: which part of smoke sets off the smoke alarm, which of the traiteur’s words cleansed.

here, no sidewalk giving a warning of the shoulder

here, no center line, nothing dictating where or how

here, dirt and gravel and grass, nothing such as road and not-road

            opossum in every ditch

who knows when a hurricane will come through

chop off another slice of the coast

who knows when a hurricane will come through

flatten the next row of fishing camps

she is convinced there is an intruder in the walls

                                                                                                            the new ghost may be a cat

            rosaries hung wherever sexuality repressed

                                                            mold making its way to the loaf’s end feed to the gulls

Mother Mary has been flooded over

            blunted to a lump of Quik-crete

                                                                                                another dog, this one doors down from the screen-door wailer, joins the howl

                                                            calm canal-cut topwater shivers under the dogs’ calling

all is directed toward becomings of three kinds

see the sparrow

duck up and down

into the trash bin,

stand to call the flowers

painfully purple,

excruciating even

a frog’s spaded feet slap topwater, sliding it across –

(one’s mind skirting around the Christ archetype)

                                                                                                – a few more and it reaches the lonely shore with its cypress-knee gnomes, moss awnings, …

                                                            (shape)shift at night

My father stood at the end of the family camp’s pier. At its farthest reach, a covering, underneath the covering a rusting countertop with a sink and a trashcan. He fileted redfish and speckled trout, maybe a drum or two. He couldn’t stop talking about how his new double-welled sink sped up the process. It’s deep deep, he says. Look, he adds, a chute with a pipe going right down into the water there. This, on top of his new Mister Twister filet knife. The blades’ back and forth make a sound like a rolled R enclosed in the mouth, a silent working thing like a new John Deere riding mower. Poo-yi, he says. To this day, I do not know how easily the electric knife moves through the speck’s see-through meat. I do know the click of the hook yanked out of the red’s mouth, the way it must not hurt, its lips like plastic – threshold for the low croak whispering catch, release, catch, release.

            the bronzed crucifix transforms the threshold

                        into something other and –

                                                                                                the dumpster rental company

                                                                                                boasts a totem of recycled cross

widower wishes for wife’s chill

essentially a disobedient act

                                                                        don’t carry away the traiteur with her remedies

passerby is told jumbo shrimp at 5.95/lb but who knows where?

countenance                            best described as weather-beaten, the all of someone slouching toward payday

                                                                                    prick of burr dents skin

the gutted junkyard’s congregants lined and solemn

in their pews, yet no one is truly lovely

everyone’s got a prayer on their head, a haunting

fishing reports are true

as Jesus is true as

carpet-dented knees

are true as the heaven

that catches bedside pleas

are true as flyswatter-

patterned buttock is true

as the curfew is true as

the loup-garou is

true as …

shrimpers step from boat to dock, dock to boat,

            dew rags, taut and muscular, crowning their heads

black eyed peas on the 1st with tough parts of bacon squeezed between buttered white – fava

                                                            beans in wallets, pockets, tight fists – some still have nothing

                        the morals oversaturated with bleakness: make the world when

                        faced with the familiar landscape         of where two walls meet

                                                                                                            frog legs taste like chicken                                                                                           just as much as anything else tastes like it

“Don’t you” –                          “But it looks like those shake-up snowy things.”

                                                                        – daughter, turning over and over

                                                                           a jar of pickled quail eggs,

                                                                           and mother reprimanding; Piggly Wiggly,

                                                                           just outside of Houma, Louisiana

everything powerful here is invisible, which is not to say imaginary; dually trucks rut the gravel roads, the divet yanks another steering wheel

on a scale of 1-10, how pretty your women, how pretty your tides, how good your fishing?

[1-3: poor | 4-7: good | 8-10: excellent]

                                    Cocodrie, Terrebone Bay, Louisiana (8762928)

                                                                                    – 5: women, tides, fishing

the same scaly hands feed the Sunday wafer, scrape the scales

                                                                        everything powerful here is abbreviated,

                                                                        which is not to say premature

                        chances are you’ve got your grave dug for you, the only thing is keeping other                                    things out of it before you’re ready

We woke at 4am because we needed to be the first ones to Bayou Dularge. After only 3 hours on the water, we kept 247 specks, all big enough. We knew it was over limit and illegal. Remember the camp named DAD’S PAD WHEN MOM’S MAD? Where it used to be? It’s all skeleton now. We laughed when we first saw its bare stilts and the toilet atop one of them, a true and lonesome throne. Must’ve been a bad storm to do it in. You told me if I ever needed a whooping, we’d take that half-hour boat to whatever’s left of the camp’s floor, you’d sling me over your knee and give me my whooping. 247 and we couldn’t even close the ice chest. Specks flapped at our feet. You told me to keep my head on a swivel in case one tried to jump out. We cleared out the console with our tackle boxes and lifejackets and filled it with water and more specks. 247 and no one believed us. I wanted pictures but you said, No it’s between just us.

                                                                                    some have simply resorted to houseboat

            the devil is beating his wife: sunny out and rainy

            Jesus is moving furniture: sunny out and thundering

We had to keep ourselves occupied, you know, living in a fishing town on the coast. One bad move and the devil could suspend inertia and bloop, we’d slide right into the Gulf. I tried my hardest not to curse in front of family, but did more under my breath. We lit spiders on fire with just sunlight and shards of glass, poured alcohol down ant piles and watched them float and sizzle, wore our bare feet on the gravel road to the marina, filled rubber boots with minnows and let them go in our kiddie pool. If the night before held high tide, there’d be frogs hopping against the screen porch in the morning. We had a field day with bubble wrap on the odd occasion that a truck dropped us a package. I hadn’t realized how much hurt the world held.

there’s something to be said for unsaid

                                                                                    should we do the Lord’s work and plant

                                                                                    the blessed candle overnight? If so,

                                                                                    how many? –

                                                                                    (the way what is destructive blurs

                                                                                    what is above it)

don’t you see it? the camps are risen, risen in order to escape the corpse-laden marsh –


Originally from New Iberia, Louisiana, Nicholas Molbert now lives and writes in Central Illinois. He has work published in or forthcoming from American Literary Review, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, Permafrost, and South Carolina Review among others.

Palmdale

by Sara Patterson


Ruth wants to clutch entrails. Death is final and lacks decorum. She cannot walk back from this scene with its burnt coffee smell of off-brand hazelnut, its sound of screen door flapping in breeze.

Praise Jesus this be a consumptive country; surely it will drown her.

A touch jars her.

“Please, ma’am, come this way.”

/

Ruth Prophet lives with her mom Heather in a flat roofed, cinderblock Florida house. A low, shadowed thing with windows open in evening and closed during day. Heavy curtains block out summer heat though humidity claws through regardless. Walls sweat. Tiles sweat. Ruth and Heather sweat.

It’s always late when Ruth comes in from her second job at a truck-stop gas station. Her mother asleep Ruth leaves lights off as she brushes her teeth and crawls naked into bed. She tries to read but cannot focus, eventually falling asleep with face pressed into book.

Ruth dreams always, and tonight it’s the Blue Man. His back is to her and she can’t make out the details of his clothes beyond the color of the coat (Atlantic) and hat (hurricane-clouds). She asks, “what storm is coming? What’ll its name be? Will it bury us under silt?”

The Blue Man does not answer and though she walks towards him he remains out of reach. There is wind. The dream-beach is coquina and cool sand. She thinks of houses prepared for hurricanes with boarded windows and doors, generators tied down. She wants to shake him and demand answers. When she wakes it’s to the taste of salt and memory of rain on skin.

Early mornings are hot. Everything in Palmdale is hot. There are five minutes of cool at 3am but Ruth is never awake for them. Her alarm buzzes as she throws clothes around looking for it.

“You can stop now,” she snaps. It continues. “Jesus fuck there you are.” She hits the machine until it stops then looks at the dress it had been hiding under and decides that God clearly wants her to wear it so shoves it on. Going to the kitchen for coffee she hears the screen door flapping in the breeze. Banging itself against the side of the house in the breeze. She closes it as coffee brews.

“Mom?” She calls down the hall. “Mom I made coffee.” She knocks on her mom’s door but it’s quiet. “I made hazelnut. I’ll leave it on the counter ‘k? I gotta run.”

/

Ruth’s second job is at the one diner in Palmdale. Arriving Susan yells from the front, “girl, you work too hard.”

Ruth doesn’t argue this as she fries eggs and makes Texas-style toast. The diner coffee is strong enough to rip enamel off teeth and is never made to order.

Susan is forever cheerful even though it’s 6:30am and the humidity is thick enough to cut. Ruth attributes this eternal cheerfulness to her assumption that Susan has never been in debt and probably has a good relationship with her mother and an existing sex life. Ruth hates Susan but knows she shouldn’t hate Susan because of feminism.

The day marginally improves when Lisa and Miller arrive for lunch. Miller shakes everyone’s hand with a “God bless you” before ordering for him and Lisa. He has the easy charm of a Baptist, frugality of a Methodist and the raging faith of a Pentecostal.


He calls to Ruth, “Come out here for a break, Miss Ruth.”

“Who’s going to make your coffee and sandwiches then, pastor?”

“The Lord’ll provide.”

“Well the Lord’s provided me with sandwich makings so I’ll be out as soon as I’m done.”

Once she finds two minutes to rub together Ruth sits with Lisa and Miller. Where Miller is small-town homespun Christian, Lisa is big city mega-church Christian. He wants hymnals; she wants a projector and screen. He wears second-hand; she’s a dazzling light of crisp yellow dresses and red lipstick.

Ruth adores Lisa.

Neither Lisa nor Miller have touched their food. Lisa intermittently stirs her coffee. Miller looks at Lisa who isn’t looking at him or Ruth.

“What’s wrong?” Ruth asks.

Miller reaches for her hand and says, “I’ve prayed for you, Miss Ruth. God’s not given me the words.”

“It’s your mom,” Lisa says. “We’re going to take you home.”

/

The Blue Man is a Palmdale legend. He lingers on the sandbar that divides Pinecrest lake from Pinecrest swamp. Possibly, he’s searching for his lover, or he’s watching over her land, or seeking revenge for her death by hurricane. How do you take revenge against a force of nature?

The sandbar comes and goes. Sometimes barely a strip, other times expansive and rocky. The Blue Man shows up before big storms, hurricanes wearing a blue coat and grey hat. If you’re lucky enough to see him your home will be saved from the ravages of nature.

/

Death lacks decorum.

There’s a poem that is the colour red over and over and if it’s not red it’s white and Ruth can think only of that as she enters her mom’s room. The poem was about the poet’s wife who adored red then killed herself. Ruth thinks, while it was the woman who stuck her head in the oven it might as well have been her husband who turned on the gas.

She had told her mom about the poem and how it opens with red was your color and her mom had said, “she must’ve been a bright woman.” Ruth had replied “she was a sad woman” and her mom had said “well, there you go.”

Ruth had been a sophomore studying English Literature but thinking of changing to Political Science. Her mother had said, “get something practical. Something you can use, like a trade. You were always good with your hands.”

Ruth had replied, “you don’t go to college for a trade, you go for an education.”

“Tell me more about your poem.”

“It’s not my poem, it’s Ted Hughes’ poem and he was married to Sylvia Plath and she wrote that poem ‘Daddy’ do you know it?”

“Not sure I do sweetie.”

Ruth hadn’t bothered to explain. She had spent much of her time with her mom not bothering to explain. How do you break down the history of literary movements for someone who barely finished high school? They had always struggled to speak with each other but college made translation an impossibility.

An officer touches her elbow.

“Please, ma’am, come this way.”

Ruth blinks. Sees the quiet darkness of the hall, the red on the mattress, the blue of the woman’s uniform. She thinks, Sylvia Plath got all the white in her death. My mom wasn’t found in the kitchen with her head in the oven but in her bed and there’s so much red.

Ruth doesn’t see her mom’s body because the police have already taken it. But she does see what used to be inside her mom’s body. She sees it and knows why it is there and it is because of her uncle and some land that belonged to an old relative from a long time ago. Just as one cannot argue that Ted Hughes killed his wife one cannot prove that Ruth’s uncle Claudius killed her mom. It is not an argument that would hold up in an academic article. It’s not an argument that would hold up in court.

Ruth breathes out.

/

Dream of an alligator and an anaconda wrestling. Ruth does once the police are gone and she’s done answering questions she doesn’t understand because she doesn’t speak English anymore only the language of breathing.

She sleeps on the back porch wrapped in her mom’s coat that is too hot for summer. She sleeps with mosquitos buzzing and biting and she hopes she will get malaria and die like the old settlers. The family who first founded Palmdale in the 1870s died of malaria. Ruth wishes she were one of them so she could be buried in marshland.

She sleeps and dreams of an anaconda battling an alligator with its thick body wrapped around the alligator and once it has killed the alligator it begins to eat but the alligator is too big and the snake’s body splits. Wild cats and blue herons gorge themselves on reptilian feast.

At the edge of her dream are reeds, cattails, mangrove roots tangled like thick braids of hair. She can see her mother on dry land while she, Ruth, drowns in water that cannot decide if it is too much salt or too much fresh. She clings to a buoyant fact: certain animals can only survive in brackish waters. They will die if they live anywhere else.

She wakes drenched in sweat.

/

In fleeting early morning thoughts she thinks of ghosts, those hungry creatures. She recalls the malaria victims and those who followed afterwards.  The second round of colonists were German immigrants who came down from the north and with them had come Ruth’s great-grandparents. She hates her great-grandparents on her mother’s side because of the inevitability of what they would have meant to the great-grandparents on her father’s side.

She fumbles with her phone, pulls up a family picture taken at her uncle Claudius’ and sees her mom smiling, holding a piña colada. There is her half-sister Julia visiting from Jamaica. Her grandfather Isaac, not yet dead, looking exhausted and yellow from his liver. Her uncle Claudius stands behind her mom. Her mom resembles Isaac the way Ruth resembles her father Fidel.

Ruth remembers Fidel’s cadence, his gentle silences, his hair big curly like hers, how he let her win when they raced from his van to the back door. That screen door that had been flapping in the breeze.

She freezes.

Had Claudius been in the house the entire time? Had he been hiding and waiting for her to leave before he—

She wants to cry and wash at the same time. So she does. The shower is as hot as she can stand and she screams and beats her fists against the floral tiles patterning the side of the tub. She wants to wash out her mind, clear brackish water of memory at the same time she wants to cleave to it. Her legs hurt. Her stomach hurts. Everything hurts. Snot runs down her nose.

Afterwards, she lies on the bathroom floor wrapped in a towel as steam settles.

An hour later she crawls from bathroom to kitchen, still naked with the towel forgotten in the hallway, and pours herself a shot of whiskey. Then another two.

Lying on the kitchen floor she stares at the filth beneath the fridge. Onion peels, dust bunnies, stale cereal. The kitchen needs a deep clean. The entire house needs a deep clean. Everything needs a deep clean.

She rolls to look at the yellowed walls above her and says, “Dear God, my mom better have gotten into heaven. Even if she drank too much and smoked too much and lived too loudly I hope she got in because if she didn’t,” she wags a finger skyward. “I will get a gun and I will shoot the fucking shit out of you.”

/

Afternoon doing its red dip into night. Still on the floor, as she cannot seem to get up, Ruth calls Lisa.

“Can you come over?” She asks. She is lying with the phone pressed against her ear. She thinks she ought to shower again.

“Of course. I’ll be there immediately.”

“Can you bring something to drink?”

“Did you think I’d come empty handed? I’ll pack a bag.”

“Does Miller have a gun?”

“Miller sure don’t, but I do.”

/

When Lisa arrives it is to Ruth on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor.

“Smells like church in here,” Lisa says.

“Does that make it holy?”

Lisa pulls a chair out from the other room and sits with legs crossed. Ruth looks at her from where she is on the floor in old jean shorts and faded t-shirt. She can see Lisa’s ankles and thinks that were she a believer, she’d assume the Devil made them to lead people to hell.

“Holier than my husband’s church. I’m going to make us gin and tonics and you’re going to get off the floor and sit in this chair and drink two of them.”

“I already threw up the whiskey I had before you came over.”

“Whiskey’s for rage, gin’s for grief.”

Ruth doesn’t think this holds up but doesn’t push the point. She feels empty. It comes upon her suddenly. Lisa eyes her with palpable concern. Ruth bristles. Lisa relaxes.

“There you are,” she hands over a glass. “There’s too much gin in it, sorry.”

“Can we go outside? I’ve sandals you can borrow.”

The only ones they find that fit are a pair of Heather’s old gardening sandals. They are red. Ruth looks away. That color is God’s.

/

Ruth thinks, God is a Right that I am too much monster to have. But, this has not stopped me desiring it.

She hates that she is too rational for faith and too irrational to be comfortable without faith. She wants to believe but cannot find it within herself. Perhaps religion would bring comfort. She has heard that it is a salve for the soul. She only half believes.

Ruth thinks, It is perhaps the greatest weakness of humans that we were made to bend at the knee.

/

“I never thought it’d happen here. In Miami, sure. Orlando…Tallahassee even, with all those politics. But here? Never thought I’d see the day.”

Despite the subject matter, which cannot be helped since it was less than fifty-six hours ago, Ruth could listen to Lisa for years.

“I think he was in the house before I left for work that morning.”

She tells Lisa about the screen door and the silence from her mom’s room. “Or maybe he had already done it and I went to sleep and mom was— you know and I was sleeping in the next room not thinking anything was amiss.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I should have checked on her. I should have looked in on her in the morning. I should have called home during my break.”

“Would that have changed anything?”

Ruth wants to scream, For fuck’s sake this isn’t helping! She doesn’t want therapy. She wants to rage. Rage, rage, against the dying of the—

She says, “no.”

They are standing beside the house. Ruth plays with a hibiscus flower from the plant that’s growing up the side. Ants use it as a ladder to get into the roof but her mom always liked the color so they put up with the occasional infestation. She relents. The anger flows out and away for the time being. She nudges Lisa’s shoulder, “isn’t this when you’re supposed to say something inspirational? Something moving about love and God?”

Lisa shrugs, “you called for me, not Miller.”

“True.”

Ruth wants to say, Thank you. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. She looks back to the flower.

Some hibiscus flowers are a deep enough pink as to be red. Their thorns will prick skin, tear at flesh, but the petals are soft and edible.

“I want to become death the destroyer of worlds.”

“Oh Ruth, there’s no need for theatrics here.”

Ruth wants to tell Lisa about Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita but doesn’t. She doesn’t know how she would explain it to a woman who married a pastor whose family holds snakes when the Holy Spirit takes hold. Why does she always lack words and explanations? For Lisa, for her mom. All these women and she cannot talk.

Ruth’s heard Miller speak in tongues, she’s born witness to Lisa holding his hand as the Holy Spirit moved through him. She can’t imagine Lisa understanding Oppenheimer and Hinduism. She wants her to, though.

She wants, she wants, she wants.

/

Before bed Ruth and Lisa comb the house from one end to another. They check closets and behind the curtain in the bathroom, under every bed and couch and cupboard. They even look under the sink on account of Ruth having seen one too many X-Files episodes and confiding her fear of contortionists to Lisa who says that so long as the Devil doesn’t come out of the closet to impregnate her like some inverted Virgin Mary she’s good.

Once the house has been checked twice Ruth turns up the volume of the television and they watch reruns of soaps. To distract herself Ruth imagines things she cannot have and does her best to make sure Lisa is as comfortable as she can be considering they are in a house where a murder happened.

/

When Ruth was a little girl she and her mom would go up to Tampa to spend Thanksgiving with uncle Claudius and aunt Sharon, wife number two. Sharon was a large, expanding woman both in her body and personality. Ruth thought she was so cool because of her gold necklaces, expensive perfume and how certain she was in her opinions. She also liked Sharon because she was also black and would pat the seat beside her and whisper to Ruth, “we have to stick together you and me.” Whenever they would arrive Sharon would say, “ladies! We always need more ladies here. Es-tro-gen am I right? I can’t be having with only men here.” Sharon would whisk Ruth’s mom away and they’d drink and smoke by the pool. Ruth would then comb through her uncle’s house admiring the book collection and the several Neanderthal skulls he had on display in his office.

“You not out with your cousins?” Claudius would ask when he inevitably found her tracing the eye sockets of the skulls.

One time she had asked, “what do you do?”

“I’m an architect.”

Uncle Claudius was tall, thin, and freckled while her mom was short, fat, and tan. He made Ruth think of skyscrapers which she had only seen in movies and so it made sense to her that he would make them.

“How’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Become an architect.”

He had smiled and motioned her out of his office. She thinks, He never did answer me. She wonders if her mom and him got on. She had never thought to ask.

/

“My mom and I – we never knew how to talk to each other.”

Ruth and Lisa are sitting with Heather’s jewellery spread out between them. Ruth is deciding what to keep and what to give away. Lisa is cleaning the jewellery box. Her perfect red nails have chipped at some point and Ruth wants to apologize but thinks that would be bridging on the absurd.

“She always used to say ‘I don’t know how to read you. You remind me so much of your father and your father’s mother.’ My grandmother on that side, my father’s side, her name was Dinah, which is interesting. Considering.”

“Considering what?”

“Well, they’re all from Jamaica right, and my dad’s black. Dinah was a generic name for slave women the way Maria was for the indigenous in Mexico after conversion.”

Lisa shakes her head, gives Ruth a sympathetic look. Ruth does not like this sudden investigation so becomes very intent on her mother’s old paste necklaces.

“Do you talk much to your dad?”

“No. Sometimes. Every few years one of us will call the other. He’s not a man who speaks and his presence is better experienced in person than on the phone.”

“Will he come to the funeral?”

Ruth thinks, No. She says, “maybe.”

Fidel is a man of islands and salt. He had not been able to abide the stagnant waters of Florida and had begged Heather to come with him back to his home. Her mother, in turn, had not been able to imagine a life away from Palmdale.

“My family,” Ruth says, “fell apart due to a lack of imagination.”

/

On the third day Lisa asks why Ruth thinks it was her uncle who murdered her mom. Ruth explains that it’s because of the land.

“Great-grandpa had land and gave it to my grandpa who then split it between my mom and uncle Claudius. Uncle Claudius wants to sell it to developers because there’s some good money being offered but mom didn’t want to because of nostalgia.”

“Doesn’t her land go to you?”

“No, grandpa was a Godly man. I was born out of wedlock and he thought we were still living in the 1930s so I don’t get it. Skips me, goes to my uncle when mom dies, then my cousins. Anyway, he’s the only one with a motive. Random people don’t just show up and murder strangers in their houses. I mean they do, I saw a show on it, but the likelihood is low. It’s most likely a relative or friend.”

“Aren’t the police investigating?”

“Yes. I’m assuming. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much evidence. But it can take a while, I’ve been told, before they can get the person who did it. Assuming they get the person. I looked up the stats, they’re not very high. Especially in rural areas and poor areas and rural poor areas.”

“We’re not that rural or poor.”

“We’re in a swamp, Lisa.”

Lisa does not contradict her.

“We’re swamp trash, Lisa.”

Lisa continues to not contradict her.

“We’re swamp trash in a swamp and no one has any money, or if they do it’s like my mom and tied up in land that is also a swamp and only developers have enough to make anything out of it.”

“Your family feud is excellent for conservation efforts.”

Ruth scowls then laughs. Her ribs hurt from it and she feels some buoyancy.

“See,” Lisa says, “there’s something to laugh about. “

Ruth rubs at a spot on the counter. She imagines purchasing a red convertible and driving away with Lisa like they were in a movie. Lisa would have a scarf in her hair and her cherry red lipstick on and she would be wearing impractical shoes. Preferably blue.

/

Sometimes Ruth hates her mom for making her come back. She hates that her mom would call week in and week out and say how much she missed her and how much she wishes she’d be here and how she could use the help and how poorly things were going until Ruth couldn’t stand it anymore and booked a flight to Miami then took a car to Palmdale.

“I’m only staying for a week,” she had said when they met. Her mom had tried to hug her but it was awkward. They broke apart. “Then I’m going back to Charleston.”

The house had been a mess so that week was spent cleaning. Then her mom had asked her if she wanted a whiskey and she had said yes but not too much since she had to drive to Miami to catch her flight and her mom had said, “look, I owe Claudius some money and I need your help.”

“How much?”

“Enough that I need your help.”

Ruth had shrugged and said she didn’t know how she could help as she was barely on her feet and her mom had cried and said that just her being here was a help and maybe if they work hard enough they could pay it all off. Then, when the debt’s paid, Ruth could go back to Charleston. Ruth had wanted to say no but found she couldn’t imagine leaving her mom and getting on a plane knowing she could have done something.  

She hates her mom for that, for imparting the genetic inability to have an imagination.

/

The beach calls her. Ruth walks it when she remembers how much her mom hated it. The mosquitoes, the flies, the leeches if you’re in the water. There is little pleasant about either Pinecrest lake or swamp.

Her mother had once spoken of the north. Of how the grass is soft and a beautiful green unlike the crabgrass of Florida which is green-yellow and not so much grass as a weed with a convoluted root system, like fungi. It is impossible to eradicate. It itches, scratches against your feet. It is not a gentle thing.

She tries to remember something about her mom no one else knew. A secret shared between only them but cannot think of one. She doesn’t know her mom’s favourite color or show or book. She doesn’t know about her childhood or life before her own birth.

Sitting on a log she catalogues the limited facts she has: my mom met my dad in a bar in the Keys when she had been waitressing and he had been sailing around the Caribbean. At some point they moved back to Palmdale and had me and then dad went back to Jamaica and mom stayed here. She had only a high school diploma. Did she have boyfriends? Ruth cannot recall. Did she have friends? The women at church, she supposes. She dreads the speech she must give at the funeral.

She wipes at her cheeks, uses the edge of her shirt to wipe her nose. The air is still and the insects suddenly quiet. Even the frogs have stopped. It feels like hurricane weather; that absence of atmosphere before you’re slammed with the second half of the storm that’s always worse than the first half. Only, the sky isn’t eye-of-storm-green. It is perfectly blue. The air smells of salt. Her skin feels damp.

She looks around and sees a man standing down the beach from her. He wears a grey hat and an old blue coat. Ruth stands, starts towards him then stops. She thinks, It’s not hurricane season yet. He can’t be here. She glances up to see if there are clouds and finds none. When she looks for him again he is gone.

A heron takes flight, spreads its wings and they are a beautiful blue.

Ruth breathes out.

/

How do you say goodbye to your mom? How do you speak of someone for whom you have no words? You can’t. Ruth hides in the bathroom at the church until her makeup runs down her face. At one point Lisa knocks on the door, “y’allright in there?”

“Yes, I’m all right.”

“No you’re not.”

Ruth stands next to the door and places her palm against it. She imagines Lisa doing the same and thinks of how pilgrims touch the hands of statues of saints. Holding one palm against another is like a kiss.

“Your mom’s dead, Ruth. You’re allowed to not speak.”

Ruth rests her forehead against the door. Closes her eyes and waits until she hears Lisa walk away.

/

The wake brings skyscrapers and entrailed memories. Ruth sees a tall figure in the crowd with white hair and when the figure turns around she can only think: It doesn’t hold up in an academic article. It doesn’t hold up in court. Her uncle Claudius is in black, of course, and he walks towards her. She cannot move.

“I am so deeply sorry,” he takes her free hand in his. “Poor Heather.”

She looks around. She sees Miller and Lisa by the snack table and there are the women who served donuts after church with her mom in a circle and Susan from the diner and Gerry from the auto-repair shop and Paul, the rival Methodist minister to Miller’s non-denominational, and she wants to scream to all of them, Here he is. Here is the man who caused us all to be here today when it is too hot and too sunny to be in frocks and starched collars. He’s the reason we’re sweating awkwardly and eating warm egg salad sandwiches.

“Thank you, I need to uh—” She motions to the group. Claudius pats her hand again and says that of course she needs to circulate. She needs to be a hostess.

“If you ever need anything you know you just have to call. Family sticks by one another.”

“Thanks.”

He drifts into the crowd.

Instead of circulating she drinks too much then leaves and walks through town in her black dress losing her gloves and shawl along the way. Her shoes give her blisters and her spine wants to free itself from the confines of her body at the same time as her ribs want to buckle inwards. She stops beside the diner, leans against the hot concrete and breathes. Sweat drips down her back, down her armpits and thighs. The sun is too bright and she has no words.

She goes to the store and buys the makings for piña coladas before returning home. She then makes enough to fill every glass in the cupboard and begins drinking them one then another then another. Once she is sufficiently drunk she goes to her mom’s room. It is dark, and just as the police left it, the bed stripped. They gave her a receipt for the sheets in case she should ever want them back. She doesn’t. Or she does, just so she can maybe burn them. Her mom would not want to be remembered for being murdered. Her mom would want to be remembered for something else. Maybe. She doesn’t know. She has absolutely no idea. She cries.

/

When Lisa arrives Ruth is still sitting in her mom’s room. The mattress is stained. Lisa leans against the doorframe, “well?”

“Well what?”

Lisa waits.

“I want to kill him.” Ruth feels outside herself as she says it.

“All right.”

Ruth rubs tear tracks off her face with the heel of her palm.

“I went walking before the funeral and I saw the Blue Man. It’s time.”


Sara Patterson is a Toronto-based writer raised in Florida and California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, Occulum, Plenitude Magazine, Minola Review, and RagQueen Periodical (forthcoming).

Unhitched

by Marlene Olin

Butch had lived in South Florida since the fifties and had weathered more than one major storm.  Donna in 1960. Cleo in’64. Betsy in ’65. They came like bats, flying out of nowhere. A whirl of wind, a surfeit of sound, a blast of rain.  And like he tackled life’s other unexpected twists, Butch rolled up his sleeves and dealt with it. Hammered planks of plywood over the windows. Bought batteries. Filled his thermoses with coffee and his coolers with ice.

But now everything had changed. People went crazy and the crazy was contagious. The frantic newscasters on the boob tube. His branch managers at the car dealerships.  And on top of it all, he had Berta.

Again the old familiar anger swirled inside him. These were supposed to be his golden years. All that investment–the time and money, the sweat and tears–was supposed to be rewarded.  The dividends were simple. A trace of fingertips flitting on a shoulder. A bit of companionship. A smattering of trust.

Butch, as always, felt robbed.  

Once again his jacket buzzed. Chewing his morning cigar, he glanced at his cellphone. It was Jorge at the Hialeah showroom. Again.

“Just follow the protocol,” said Butch. “Comprende?  Shut the gas pumps. Unplug the computers. Kip will help you move the cars. My son Kip. No te preocupes.”

It cost a fortune but their backup plan was worth every penny. Butch had signed contracts with a half dozen shopping mall garages. Not a single vehicle would be left on the lots. Still the salesmen panicked.

“You got the sandbags, right? You got your landline phones, right? There’s only so much you can do, Jorge. God’s in charge of the rest.”

He hung up the phone and paced up and down the patio.  The pool was pinging with rain. Of course he should go inside. Eunice would tell him to go inside. But he just couldn’t stomach the house anymore. Nothing made him feel smaller. Eight thousand square feet of marble floors echoed with each footstep. Sure the grandkids visited. But Butch never had time to cultivate friends. Berta had been the socializer, the organizer, the one who strategized the people they saw and when they saw them.

The phone buzzed again. This time the area code was 207. Maine.

“Dad, are you okay?  The Weather Channel says you’re on a hurricane watch.”

His daughter Clare. Nervous. High-strung. Like those tropical waves that brew off of Africa. When the world teetered, she spun.

“How’s Mom? Have you spoken to the nursing home?  Does she know what’s going on?”

Butch glanced up at a bruised sky. The birds had already left, the sun dimmed, the clouds sliding like plates. Clare always worshiped her mother. And the fact that she worshipped her saddened Butch to no end.

Of course Berta fooled everyone. That starched apron, that creamy voice, that Southern charm. How she lived by her lists and her menus. The blocks filled on her calendar.  The weathered address books. Hers was a charade of gestures and small talk. A reckless life regimented only by routine. She was an actress and the world was her stage. Dazzling and damaged. Tender and treacherous. She fooled everyone but him.

He tossed the cigar into the inlet churning behind his house and watched the waves swallow it.

“Dad? Are you there, Dad?”

“In the old days, hurricanes were fun,” said Butch. ” Remember? With the shutters up, it was like living in a cave. We’d walk around in our underwear, suck down warm brewskis, fiddle with the rabbit ears on the TV.”

He could hear Clare sighing over the lines. “Was this before or after the birth of Christ?”

Butch glared at the cellphone in his hand. He was always amazed at the lightness, the way something so thin and fragile could be so powerful at the same time. “Your mom was always a great cook. Remember? Before a storm, she’d empty the refrigerator and cook for days. Swedish meatballs. Tuna casserole. Endless trays of brownies.”

“Dad, this storm is a monster. Even if you don’t take a direct hit, the cone is huge.”

“There was nothing she couldn’t tackle,” said Butch.  My God the parties she gave. We drank until the sun came up. Dancing. Laughing. Crying.”

“We were talking about the storm, Dad.  You know, there’s a hurricane coming your way.”

***

Now that rains had started, Kip’s minivan was sure to get flooded.  There was little in the universe that he hated more. The sheer ugliness. The embarrassing lack of horsepower.  The way it waddled down the road. Fucking Miami with its sinking streets! Give him an SUV any day of the week. Something high off the ground that barreled its way through.

The winds were whipping now, blowing the baseball cap clear off his head. Carmen stood in the driveway, her swollen feet planted, her large stomach providing ballast.  One hand gripped their squirming two year old while the other held a suitcase.

“Hurry, Kip.  The roads are already a mess. We need to get going.”

A few days earlier, the obstetrician’s office called.  Though Carmen’s due date was a month away, they wanted them to ride out the storm at the hospital.  South Dade General was clearing its corridors and lounges. Pack only what you needed, they said.

Of course Carmen packed enough clothes and food to survive Armageddon.

Lately, going anywhere required the logistics of a military assault. Kip loaded the sleeping bags, the pillows, the suitcase, the boy’s backpack, and an ice chest filled with his favorite foods. Then he buckled up the kid in the kid seat and carefully maneuvered his wife into the front. Finally, he threw the key into the cup holder, put his foot on the gas, and punched the ignition.

“Trenton, you okay buddy?”

Kip glanced in the rearview mirror.  Though he wasn’t quite three, the boy was already hooked on electrical devices. His sweaty little fingers itched to push buttons. Then voila! The world’s most nauseating tunes would repeat themselves over and over again.

“This is it. We’re leaving. We’re really leaving. Did we forget anything?”

In the distance, the concrete hills of I 95 were dotted with headlights. Half of South Florida was battening the hatches while the other half was hitting the road. Kip could just picture it. The expressway would soon be a disaster, the lines snaking to the service centers, the pumps running out of gas. And those very same families would end up panicked– stranded on a roadside, face to face with a Category Four.

“We almost there, Kip? Ay Bendito. Once more I have to pee.”

The parking lot of the hospital was already filled with people stashing their cars in fire lanes. Kip pulled into the ER entrance and unloaded his family. Then he kissed his wife and turned to leave.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said Carmen. “You’re not leaving, are you? You heard them.  The barometric pressure could send me into contractions. I could pop this baby out any minute.”

Kip’s to-do list was a mile long.  Everyone and no one knew where this hurricane was actually heading.

“Babe. I’ll be an hour or two. Tops.”

He glanced in his rearview mirror as he pulled away and saw Carmen glaring back.  Meanwhile traffic was getting worse. Kip punched an app on his phone and followed the side streets.  For reasons he couldn’t fathom, this storm gave him a bad feeling. And the last time he had this kind of feeling was more than twenty-five years earlier.

The summer of ’92, he had just finished college. Butch had put him in the Perrine showroom, made him assistant manager, and pressed the keys to their sportiest convertible in his hand.  Then three months later Andrew hit.

For over two decades Miami had weathered a dry spell. Growing up, Kip remembered close calls, days where they cancelled school and times when he just played hooky. He and his friends would strap their surfboards on top of a car, drive to Fort Pierce, and enjoy the four and five foot waves.

But Andrew shocked them. Cell towers went down. The power went out. People had no way to communicate.  And afterwards, neighborhoods were filled with hollowed homes, gutted and roofless with only the walls remaining. Spray paint in hand, they wrote.

When the whirlwind passes, the wicked is no more.

Screw you Allstate!  

I’m tired of all this Bushit!

He threw another Tums in his mouth and waited for his breakfast to settle. Suddenly the cellphone in his pocket vibrated, vibrating his whole body with it. Carmen.

“I’m so sorry, baby. Me and Trenton are fine. You be careful, okay?  Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

***

Only when the heavens cleaved open, when the rain hammered like nails, did Butch go inside his home. Since his family room/kitchen faced the dock, floor to ceiling glass windows gave him front row seats to the storm.  He thought the TV would keep him company but each channel seemed more depressing than the next. Half were broadcasting hurricane updates, hurricane contingency plans, hurricane supply lists. Others showed live newsfeeds of stores being emptied, of children crying, of their fathers fighting over bottled water. Hardest to watch were the countries the storm already passed. They looked like a war zone. Homes were flattened. Trees were leafless. Stores looted.

Butch glanced again at the windows. Outside the wind blew in gusts, the rain blowing horizontally. Detritus of every shape and size flew past. Newspapers. Tree branches. Garbage pail covers.  This newfangled hurricane glass was both a gift and a curse. He felt his ears pop. He heard the walls creaking. Any minute he expected to see a witch on a broomstick cackling by.

Once more his phone rang. Eunice.

“Butch, how you doing? You all right?”

The minute he heard her voice he felt his pulse slow. Though Eunice wasn’t family, she was the closest thing to family that he had.  He had met her the day Clare married Clifford. An odd-looking woman. Someone so opposite to his wife, the comparison was laughable.

“Good Lord.  Do you see what’s she’s wearing?” sniffed Berta. “It’s so dated it’s positively vintage.”

His wife was a vision in organza who nearly out-dressed the bride.  A long flowing train, a sparkly wrap that covered her shoulders, a spattering of glass beads sewn into the skirt. Meanwhile Clare’s new mother-in-law wore a gray silk suit.  A pair of sensible flats on her feet. Her crazy hair sprayed and subdued.

In truth, he had hardly noticed her. For over twenty years, Eunice sat on the sidelines, a pair of hands toting a casserole when a holiday came around. Butch considered himself 100% American. A church-going, flag waving member of the NRA. Eunice couldn’t have been more different. A Holocaust survivor. A liberal. A Jew. The food she cooked, the accent she spoke with–everything was foreign and unfamiliar, a remnant from another time and another place.

Looking back, he supposed it had made him uncomfortable. His tiny world, his golf course buddies, his Coral Gables clique, was simply a hall of mirrors. Everyone looked and sounded the same.  He knew where they each vacationed. He knew who took their whiskey straight up and who liked their martinis stirred. Of course they weren’t all wealthy. If you didn’t have money, you just pretended to.

“Butch, do you hear me?”

For a few minutes the storm eased, pulling back its talons while it waited for another chance to strike.  “I’m pacing like a caged animal, Eunice. Jorge’s dealing with the showrooms and Kip’s dealing with Jorge. Carmen and Trenton are parked at the hospital, and I’m going out of my mind.”  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “How’s your apartment holding up?”

For ten very long seconds she was quiet. “I’m at the nursing home, Butch. I couldn’t leave Isaac alone. They lost power here hours ago. They don’t have enough generators, Butch.” As if it were a secret she started whispering. “They have a few to keep the defibrillators going. For emergencies and that sort of thing. But there’s no A/C and no lights in the hallways. It’s a nightmare, Butch. People are already passing out from the heat.”

Butch was smart enough to keep quiet. What could he say?

“So I’m leaving and I’m taking Isaac with me. He’s light as a feather. I’ll steal a wheelchair. I’ll grab his things.”

Despite himself, Butch felt sorry for the guy. And more than a little jealous, too. He pictured the man’s head lolling on his swayed shoulders, a bag of urine by his side. Nearly five decades earlier, Eunice had thrown her husband out of the house. An alcoholic, an abuser and a user. Now, as he clung to life, Isaac had no one but Eunice to care for him.

“Eunice, head to South Dade General, okay?  They’ll take care of Isaac and they’ll take care of you. Can you make it?”

Butch pictured her two mottled knuckles grabbing the steering wheel, the top of her head barely clearing the dashboard. But there was no doubt in his mind.  In normal conditions, the drive would take around ten minutes. If anyone could negotiate a storm, it was Eunice.

“What about you, Mr. Tough Guy? Mr. I don’t need my cataracts fixed? Who’s gonna take care of you?”

Outside, the wind seemed to be switching directions.  His neighbors’ boats were rolling and pitching. A disconnected power line soared by. Eunice, as usual, was right. Though it was a five star establishment, the best that money could buy, a nursing home was not a home. It was more like a convenience store, a QuickStop, someplace you shelved your loved ones long after their expiration dates had passed. The thirty mile drive to Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t be easy, but he needed to check on Berta.

“I’ll meet you at the hospital,” he said. “I’ll just be a little while.”

***

First Kip steered south toward the Perrine dealership. The winds were noticeably worse as he headed down US1.  What traffic lights were working swung wildly, bouncing like a yoyo on a string. Only desperate souls or idiots were still on the road.  To his shock, the lights were on in the showroom.

Inside he found Walter Hoffendorf manning the fort.  Kip chuckled. Walter was the oldest salesperson his father employed. He’d been around as long as Kip could remember. More of a mascot than a functioning employee, Walter was absolutely useless. Still his dad kept him on the payroll because Butch was Butch.

“I got all the paperwork in the lockboxes,” said Walter. “But these new alarm systems have me stumped.”

The old man looked tattered. Coffee stains on his tie. What little hair he had was glued to his scalp.

“We’ve hired off-duty policemen as soon as the storm passes, Walter. We have it covered. Meanwhile I’m giving you ride home.”

Once again Kip was heading north.  The radio said the eye was heading offshore which was the best news he had all day. It was the storm surge he was worried about. Even if Miami didn’t take the brunt of it, the sea water would cause havoc. A full moon, high tide, and a sinking city all added up to disaster.

The phone was connected to the speaker when it rang. Carmen.

“I’m not feeling too good, honey. It’s probably Braxton Hicks but they’re not sure.”

Kip leaned closer to the windshield. The wipers were just about useless. “I gotta check the house one last time, Car. Then I’m coming your way. How’s Trenton?  Is Trenton behaving?”

“He’s been playing with my phone. You gonna get an awfully big bill this month. I think he’s been dialing Australia.”

While his house wasn’t as large as the one he grew up in, Kip was still proud of it.  A barrel-tiled roof with Mediterranean finishes, it sat on a pretty spot on the Intracoastal. The minute he pulled onto his street his heart sank.  Tree limbs blocked the road. Palm fronds were everywhere. A filthy lake of water covered the asphalt. Even though it was four o’clock in the afternoon, the houses were dark, the sun eclipsed.

Again he cursed the minivan. He fished the flashlight out of the glove compartment.  Then he parked on the swale and walked the fifty yards to his driveway. The rain came down in needles, pricking him in the face, blinding him as he walked. Within seconds his windbreaker was soaked through.

The house would be watertight, he was sure of it. The elevation was high, the lawn pitched. It was the dock he was worried about. He pushed through the wind until he reached the patio.  Even though he had drained a foot of water out of the pool, it was close to overflowing. Then he glanced towards the dock. The ocean was lapping over the seawall, throwing great gusts of mist with each wave.

The last item on his list was the boat. A forty foot Sea Ray and only two years old, he had paid more for that cabin cruiser than most people pay for their kids’ college tuitions.  If he didn’t work quickly, not only would he lose the boat but the dock and pilings as well. Grabbing the cleats, he loosened one line than another. When he was done, he stood back and watched. The Ray was bobbing like crazy now, the hull surging then dipping then surging once more. Only one more line needed slack:  the anchor. But to take care of that, he needed to jump onto the boat.

***

The expressway was slow-going. Wind buffeted the car as rain pelted the windshield. The visibility got worse each time another vehicle splashed by. Finally, Butch saw two rear lights plowing the road ahead of him. A power truck. He planted himself behind it and followed in its wake. He just hoped the guy was heading to Fort Lauderdale. A few minutes after the exit, Butch would be at Berta’s door.

While Isaac was living out his last days in a Medicaid special, Berta’s nursing home looked like a Four Seasons Hotel. A hair salon. Gym. Pool. Only the locks on the doors and the cameras in the ceiling told you different. Butch grabbed another cigar from his front pocket, popped it into his mouth, and started chewing.

The disease was progressing quicker than they had expected. At first there were only blips, sudden moments where Berta’s face drew blank and her mouth gaped open. Then for a few short seconds she’d disappear. She’d have no idea who or where they were.

It was like that movie, as if a tornado had scooped her up and plopped her down. One day she’d be back in the fifties, driving in her high school sweetheart’s jalopy. The next day she’d be in her old living room, her family gathered, her parents still alive, watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie on TV.

In truth, Butch felt like victim of the disease, too.  Each visit had become more and more painful. But while he was miserable, Berta seemed happy.  Perhaps happier than she’d ever been.

It was no secret that she had dalliances on the side. But Butch had considered them temporary glitches, minor bumps along the road. No one ever spoke of them. Butch had his business to attend to. There weren’t enough hours in the day to keep track of the car dealerships and babysit his wife as well. Berta was a force of nature. Sometimes you had to pull up your collar and let the winds blow.

But now things had changed. Suddenly Berta had become derailed. She was lust unchained. An embarrassment.  It were as if every day had been Halloween and suddenly the masks were off. She flirted with doctors. She sat on orderlies’ laps.  On more than one occasion Butch found her under the covers with a strange old man tucked beside her.

And the fact that it bothered him was the biggest embarrassment of them all.

“We check them for STDs once a month,” the staff assured him. “You wouldn’t believe how randy some of these old folks actually are.”

Looking back, it was his fault, not hers. He was the one who’d been complacent, who mistook greed for passion and success for happiness.  Butch had been too busy to be lonely. Lonely? Loneliness was for losers, for people who spent their time handcuffed to blood pressure machines. Who got their jollies counting their pills and eating the early bird special.

He pulled into the parking lot and sighed.  Above the door, a neon Welcome sign blinked on and off. Who was he kidding? Lonely? Of course he was lonely. Loneliness smacked him in the face every day.

As usual, he held his breath the moment he entered the lobby. No matter the cost, despite the pseudo perfumes plugged into the air vents, the place reeked of decay. If you lived long enough the end was never fast. A thousand small deaths and humiliations paved the way.

The halls were unusually empty as he made his way toward Berta’s room. Nurses and attendants were huddled at their stations.  At every station a TV blared. Finally, he found a familiar face. Jamaican. Black. Friendly.

“I’m Butch, Berta’s husband. How’s she doing?”

“Today a good day. Come see for yourself.”

They found her inside the lounge parked in front of a table with a jigsaw puzzle.  Her hair was swept up. Her lipstick neat. Her pearls in place. Yes. Today was a good day.

He leaned towards her, placing his face inches from hers, hoping against hope that she’d remember him. “Berta, it’s me. Butch.”

“Oh, sweetheart. I thought you’d never come.”

Then she leaned in closer and whispered in his ear. “Don’t tell anybody but there’s a storm heading our way. Be very very quiet. The people who live here, you know, are like little lost lambs. It doesn’t take much to scare them.”

***

Kip took off his water-soaked jacket. Then he got ready to jump. Standing on the dock, he hunched forward and reached for the boat’s windshield. He widened his stance; he bent his knees. But each time he reached out, the boat bucked like a bronco. The whole thing was comical really. Something you’d film on a video camera and post under Stupid Ideas.

Then all at once his jean pocket started to vibrate. Thank God thank God he invested in a waterproof phone.

“I’m at five centimeters,” said Carmen. “Where the hell are you?”

He’d never know what hit him. Maybe it was a lawn chair or the cover to someone’s barbecue. But one moment he was upright, and the next he was flat on his back. The phone flew from his hand. Then everything went black.

***  

Over an hour later, Butch had Berta in the front seat and was clearing the expressway exit when his phone rang.  With one hand he held onto the steering wheel while the other swiped the screen. A name popped up neon bright.

“Carmen. Is everything all right?”

In the background, a doctor was being paged, an elevator pinged, people were talking. But no Carmen.

He hung up the phone figuring it was a bad connection.  A few seconds later it rang again. This time he heard his grandson Trenton giggling.

“Trenton, is Mommy there?”  He started shouting, thinking if he spoke loud enough the baby would hand over the phone. “Where’s Mommy, Trenton?  Is Mommy with you?”

Oh for the love of God, thought Butch.  His thumb scrolled through his contact list while he negotiated the rain. Next he tried Kip. And when he couldn’t reach Kip, he called Jorge.

“Senor. How you doing?”

“You know where Kip is, Jorge?”

“He dropped Walter off a while ago. He should be at the hospital?  Dios mio, he’s not at the hospital?”

Butch glanced at Berta. She was humming now, playing with her pearls. And in an instant Butch realized that another version of Berta had taken hold. Sometimes it happened that way. All at once she seemed inches smaller, her shoulders slumped forward, her neck at a tilt.  Butch dialed another number.

“Is this South Dade General?  I need the maternity ward. I’m looking for a possible patient. Carmen. Carmen Gutierrez. You got a Carmen Gutierrez?”

They had him on hold when he glanced again at Berta. “We’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.”

She looked at him blankly, as if a stranger had slid into his seat. “How much did you say the fare was?” Then to his shock, she wrapped her fingers around the door handle. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get out right here.”

He double-checked the door lock and quickly pulled the car off the road. US1 was mostly empty. The stores were closed. Only a few cars splashed by. He reached over, there-thered her, patted her arm. Christ, he thought.  This day can’t end soon enough. Then he pictured a nice warm shot of whiskey, imagined bringing that glass to his lips, remembered how good the burn felt as it worked its way down. Suddenly a voice boomed from the other end of the phone line.

“Butch, it’s me. Eunice. I’m here with Carmen. She’s having the baby, Butch. They’re wheeling her into delivery anytime. I parked Trenton with a nurse and Isaac in a hallway. But no one knows seems to know where Kip is.”

“Jesus,” said Butch. “I thought he’d be at the hospital with you.”

“So I called the police,” said Eunice. “They should be heading to his house about now.”  

***

The light in his face was so bright it hurt.

“Are you Kip? asked the cop.

His head was pounding. When he touched his scalp, blood stained his hand. “Something hit me,” he said. “Then I went down.”

Another cop stepped out of the shadows. Meanwhile the wind was relentless, pushing the light back and forth, making the shadows jump. Kip couldn’t believe it was still raining. A steady drizzle pounded his nose, his eyes, his mouth. Kip blinked.

“Can you stand up?” they asked.

Each one grabbed an arm and lifted. One leg seemed to work but the other one quit.

“I think I busted my ankle when I slipped,” said Kip. “Shit. Got through four years of college football. Now a stupid hurricane named Irma takes me down.”

Together the three of them slogged toward the police car. As they turned on the headlights, another vehicle pulled up. The car looked familiar, and there was no doubt about the face. Once again Kip blinked.

“Dad?”

***

The next time his phone rang it was Clare. Butch walked down the hospital corridor as the reception faded in and out. The emergency generators had powered on, the fluorescent lights casting a dull gray glow. Everything was beeping. Shorted computers. Blood pressure monitors. Even the incubators. Like a million heartbeats, the sounds echoed off the walls.

“I’ve been trying forever to reach you, Dad.”

“I’ve been looking at babies,” said Butch. “You’ve got a new niece named Camden. Five pounds five ounces. Cute as a bunny.”

“Camden?”

“Yeah, they said they conceived her on their last visit.”

Eunice threaded her elbow around his then offered a megawatt grin. “Tanks to God they went to Maine. Can you imagine if they vacationed in Hackensack?”

“So we’re good,” said Butch. “I’ve got your mother double-parked with Isaac in a private room. Your dumbshit brother’s limping around the hospital. And Trenton? I have no idea where Trenton is. Probably sticking a screwdriver in an outlet.”

“And who’s got you, Dad?  Who’s taking care of you?”

He squeezed Eunice’s hand and mumbled a small prayer. At the end of the day, there were still some things you could count on, things that were as regular as rain. An employee’s loyalty.  The miracle of childbirth. A daughter’s devotion. For despite all the uncertainty, despite disease and disappointment, despite the pain you acknowledge and the pain you choose to hide– one door opens as another door closes.

Eunice, as always, smiled.


Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.

SOME SAY THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE by Vic Sizemore

A few years ago, I stood sweating in my yard Saturday morning and I thought of my dead sister Sylvie’s predictions about the climate apocalypse. The massive oak in my neighbor’s yard had broken about twelve feet up the trunk and fallen on my roof. At eight in the morning, the temperature was eighty-seven and heading toward a high of 106 for the fifth day in a row. We had no power, and word was that it would be out for at least a week. Another tree had smashed through the back fence and filled the back yard with a sudden jungle of limbs and leaves. It stretched all the way across until its small top branches rested bent and broken on the far fence. The wind-torn trees were ripped open and twisted. My wife Ginny and I walked the yard to survey the damage.

“If nothing else,” Ginny said, “it smells good.”

She was right. It smelled like fresh-cut firewood, like a high school wood shop.

Strange iridescent green insects flitted around, bugs who must normally live their entire existences up in the tops of those trees where we never see them. Knocked from their nests, baby squirrels swarmed the felled tree branches; small as hamsters they skittered and chirped and chased one another in confused play. There must have been forty of them. They were gone in a matter of days, I don’t know where, but I have an idea—our neighborhood is not short on cats.

Sylvie hated cats. She wanted to get rid of them. “They aren’t natural to the ecosystem,” she told me. “They are on a relentless campaign of bird murder.”

Trees and power poles were down all over town. So many roads were blocked it took Ginny and me two hours to find a way to the grocery store, only to discover the manager out front waving people away because their power was out too. Cars smashed, houses collapsed around tree trunks. Three deaths that I heard of, people crushed inside their homes.

The weather event that caused all this wreckage was a derecho (Spanish for direct or straight ahead). I had never heard of a derecho, and tornados are extremely rare here in Central Virginia—flooding is our regional disaster. This new, extreme and unrelenting heat created conditions right for this straight-on windstorm that blasted across the eastern U.S. at 80 to 100 miles per hour. The oak was on the roof right above Ginny and my bedroom. I could hear Sylvie’s voice in my head saying, “See?” and “Do you believe me now?”

One evening when Ginny and I took Sylvie some matzo ball soup I’d made from mom’s recipe—except I used Saltines because it’s what I had handy—all she wanted to talk about was this damn article she’d given me to read about global warming. Statistics. Global catastrophe. Doom and gloom of biblical proportions. Weather out of control. People out of control.

Finally I said, “Syl, can we just shut up, eat soup and watch TV?”

She looked at me, imploring me with her earnest eyes, her bruised eyes that were sinking into her skull. “Don’t you get it?” she yelled right into my face. Her breath was hot, coppery and cancer-rotten. “It’s close, closer than anyone knows.”

Ginny said, “Well, tonight we’re sitting her together eating soup and watching TV.”

“Who knows,” Syl said, smoothing her blanket over her legs. “I might even live long enough to see it.”

Sylvie had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL in the literature). By the time she got around to getting the swollen glands checked, and they did the whole chemo and Rituxan thing, it had metastasized, was in her stomach, which everyone knows is a death sentence. Sylvie was so sick that we kept a full glass of water by her bed because barfing the water immediately back up was less unpleasant than dry heaving.

Ginny made more sacrifices than I did. She used up her personal and sick days at work, and then took unpaid leave to help mom care for Sylvie.

Five months after the diagnosis, my sister was a walking skeleton, when she did walk. She was often too tired. Mostly she sat on pillows, under dirty pilled blankets, in dad’s old easy chair at mom’s house, books and journal articles and videos about global warming scattered around her. She hadn’t long to live, but she was determined to use every minute of it preaching her environmental gospel.

One day she shoved an article at me that she had torn out of a Rolling Stone from a stack in her doctor’s office, by Bill McKibben, called “The Reckoning.” The red and black picture accompanying the article is what looks like an Easter Island head facing up, sinking into a charred earth, breathing a solid flow of numbers in or out of its open mouth. Behind the head, the world is engulfed in flames, oilrigs rise on the red horizon, trees are leafless and dead. Everything is ruined. Yellow flames lap at the face. There are no people. The lead in: “Climate change has some scary new math…three simple numbers…global catastrophe…”

Syl had passages highlighted for me, had created hysterical marginalia for my further enlightenment. McKibben writes that the “acceptable” gigatons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, 565, will raise global temperatures by two degrees, which doesn’t sound like much, but will change the shape of continents, make entire island nations disappear, make the weather go bat shit crazy. However, the actual gigatons already in the big oil companies’ reserves for sale, 2,795, will increase the global temperature by eleven degrees and “create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

Sylvie was nonreligious at the end of her life. She’d left the church yet again, which I was glad of because she could be a little self-righteous and Ginny and I were spending so much time over there. Mom needed the help because she is not well herself; we’ll be starting the routine over, taking care of her before long. I swear it seemed like her decrepitude accelerated after Sylvie’s death.

One other evening before Sylvie died, we were settling in for a few hours of TV, and I said, “I’m making a rule for tonight. Nobody can mention global warming.”

Ginny and Mom both said, “Deal.”

“If you see someone in a boat heading for a waterfall and you don’t yell and warn them, what kind of person does that make you?” Sylvie said.

Mom got up to go check on some vegetable broth she was simmering. The whole house smelled of rich and healthy food. Mom made her own broth from fresh ingredients, and then tossed the sapped and soggy vegetables into her composter, which I jokingly called the creature feeder because she couldn’t keep the animals out of it.

“In a way,” Ginny said, “we’re all in the same boat.” She said, “Let’s just be in our little boat together tonight and enjoy each other.”

“You’re not in my boat,” Syl said bitterly. She scratched at her scalp under her mangy chemo hair. “You are not in my boat.”

“I know,” Ginny said. Ginny is the picture of sunburned good health. She runs marathons. She plays league softball.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She stared at the floor.

This derecho gave us a fleeting glimpse of what the end of the world might feel like. Ironically, when the windstorm hit so unexpectedly that Friday night, Ginny and I were already in our basement, settled in and binge watching this show about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Our daughter Gracie was at her mother’s house for the summer.

On the show, a chef who closed her restaurant for work elsewhere after Katrina destroyed the town comes back for a visit. She rides the trolley, gazes out at her drowned city, and weeps. A singing vagabond, played by the real singing vagabond Steve Earle, has just been mugged and shot dead in the street. Cops have shot kids, people are desperate, some still without homes, some trying to cobble a life back together, exposed to the elements and to the predators—both in masks and in dapper suits—running the streets. People are angry. They are fearful and desperate. John Goodman’s character commits suicide.

The TV zipped to black as the overhead lights went dark. Upstairs, the wind was loud as an endless subway train on top of the house—within that roar were the gunshot cracks and banshee squeals of trees breaking and shearing and crashing to earth.

After five days in the dark, our electricity came back on. I spent those days cooking all our meals on the backyard grill. I even made coffee on the grill, and sat outside in the hot morning air listening to the chainsaws and chippers and sirens ring out in every direction as I drank it. It was a little uncomfortable—and we still have a tree looming over our bedrooms; we are out of that side until the arborist can get a crane and remove the tree without destroying the house. We haven’t suffered. Not really. It was more like a window to the suffering of New Orleans cracked open and we got a glimpse, then it closed and we were once again out of the brutal sun in our cool homes.

Though a number of limbs rested on top of the house, there wasn’t much damage to the roof. A massive white oak outside our daughter Gracie’s window—which we call Gracie’s Oak—caught the bulk of the falling tree. That is where it still hangs, waiting for our arborist to secure a crane, the two trees’ branches clasped together like hands sprouting out into the sky a gnarled and broken here is the church… see all the people.

Our arborist has names for everything. The way this tree hit my tree and slid back onto its own trunk is known in the business as a barber’s chair. A large branch broken off and hanging in a tree is called a widow maker. I know a woman here in town whose husband died in just this way: they were at a neighborhood barbecue; he was holding a beer and watching his daughters play with the other kids, and a fat limb fell on his head and killed him while burgers and dogs smoked on the grill.

In the days following the storm, from the backyard, through the tree’s twisted branches I saw truck after battered truck of profiteers, riding the streets like revolutionaries, gripping their chainsaws like guns. Many houses emptied by those fleeing the storm and the heat were being broken into by looters. A gang of homeowners near us discovered just such a thief one night. In a fit of vigilante justice, they chased the guy down, cornered him, and beat the hell out of him Little League ball bats. How little it takes to collapse polite suburban niceness into raging violence. How easily it feels as if everything is flying apart, as if the end is near.

Sylvie’s end-time obsession was not new to her illness. She had been on one desperate campaign to save the world after another ever since we were kids. I can tell you the exact night it all began. It was in the late seventies, when mom and dad had tried to save their marriage with religion—it didn’t work. They dragged Syl and me along to church three times a week, and to see every crackass evangelist in a three-piece suit who rolled through with his eponymous crusade.

They loaded us up and carted us to this end-times crusade in the Huntington Civic Center one night. People poured into the parking lot in cars, church busses and vans. The evangelist preached on how horrible it was going to be for the unsaved after the Rapture, a man with coal black hair and a coal black suit and something like a flat Michigan accent. His wife was very small but sang like an opera diva—I remember the two of them making jokes from the stage about her being some kind of massive voice in a ninety-eight pound body. Rexella, Roxella, something like that.

His descriptions of the horrors to be rained down on earth scared Sylvie and me witless, and we nearly ran down front when he called the invitation. A man with a bushy mustache and tangy coffee breath took us together to the edge of the stage. He had a fat red tie with a knot big as a fist held under his chin, and he led us in the sinner’s prayer, and gave us both copies of the Gospel of John and made us promise to read it.

Sylvie had on an Izod shirt with green, red, and blue horizontal strips that night, and her hair was short as a boy’s for gymnastics. She gave me that huge grin, goofy and sincere, while the man who’d led us in the prayer told us we needed to start reading our Bibles and praying, and find a good church to go to, did we have a good church to go to? I was trying to avoid the pain and horror of the Great Tribulation, nothing else. The night faded in my mind like the memory of a troubling horror movie seen too young. Sylvie though, she got a good long swig of the doomsday Kool-Aid.

She became involved in this weird end-times scripture code breaking: the bear represented Russia, and China was the dragon—who but an idiot couldn’t see it. “There’s no eagle mentioned,” she told me. “The United States will not be around. Who knows, maybe the USSR will blow us from the face of the earth before then.” She was in seventh grade. Twelve years old.

Sylvie left the church in junior high. She ran with dope smokers, wore punk rock spiked hair, torn shirts, leather, and face piercings. She marched in anti-nuke rallies, protested Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and called herself an Anarchist. Then in high school, she had another radical conversion back into church. She swung back and forth like that, but she was always on the front line of the fight to save the planet. It was as if she would be yelling across the picket line, suddenly step across the line, turn around and resume her yelling back the other way. It might have had something to do with her sexuality and the church, her inability to settle in with one group and stay there. I can’t say for sure.

Her second conversion was in the late eighties—mom and dad were finished with religion by this time, long divorced, mom remarried, dad drinking and job hopping, trying to get his shit together. Sylvie joined this whacked out Fundamentalist church. When Bush Sr. rolled into the first Gulf War, Syl wrote me several letters begging me to get saved because it was clear that the world was coming to an end.

I found one of the letters the other night, after Mom and I sorted through Sylvie’s things. She sent it to me in February of 1991. Here it is, just to give you an idea in her own words what I’m telling you about my sister. I haven’t changed a single word of the letter:

Jeff,
I just got my report card (4 A’s and 2 B’s) it’s not as good as I’d hoped, it never is, but it will do. My A in history is all that really matters to me. The more I study it, the more I understand biblical prophecy. I think the Russian people (Gog and Megog in Jeremiah) or I should say person (Gorbachev) will play an important role in the “global peace” that will set the stage for Jesus’ second coming. We clearly see that it cannot be Saddam because Babylon is going to be wiped out.

While my friends and teachers hail Gorbachev for bringing peace and freedom to Eastern Europe and the USSR, I’m skeptical. From studying history, I’m beginning to wonder if glasnost and perestroika are a deliberate ploy to set up the West for its final destruction, by creating the false peace that the Bible prophesies. By freeing Eastern Europe he neutralizes Western Europe and destroys NATO. The U.S. and Western Europe then take over the financial burdens of Eastern Europe.

The neutralization of Western Europe through a great peace has been on the Kremlin’s drawing board for years. And since 1948, when Israel once again became a nation, the only thing left to happen before Christ returns is the world peace, and Russia marching on Israel. We are close Jeff. We are so close. Gorbachev is using religion to unify his country. But he is embracing a false religion. Roman Catholicism. And many Russians will be misled. The Pope, like every pope before him, has dreamed of uniting Greek Orthodoxy and the Roman church. With Europe united and a uniform religion spreading, the Roman Empire will once again rise, just as prophesied. In the Middle East because of the current crisis democracy is seeping in, thus another possibility of a united world living in a false time of peace and prosperity before the final battle. Please, Jeff, make a decision before it’s too late.
I love you,
S.

Near the end, when we were just trying to show her some kind of enjoyment where we could, Ginny and I took her to see a movie by Tim Burton, her favorite director. We both loved the old short feature of Frankenweenie he did back in 1984, so it was going to be a treat. This was a new 3-D, stop action version, and we were seeing it at the new IMAX.

It was not one of her good days, but insisted she was up for it. I rented a wheelchair with swing-away footrests from Bedford Medical Supply, paid $175 for one month. It was grey and came with a detachable desk arm. Ginny padded it with a couple of mom’s quilts—one her own mother made, and she’d ignorantly sewn in these designs that looked suspiciously like swastikas, so Syl and I always called it the Nazi quilt, laughed at it, told mom to hide it when people came over so we wouldn’t lose friends.

We picked her up and eased her into the chair. The plastic squeaked and Syl groaned. She didn’t weigh anything at all; I was afraid of holding to hard, afraid I might break something. Her arms were skeletal, bruised, scabbed. I pulled a happy pink sweater over her head, and then replaced her knit cap. I piled the quilts on.

“Look at me,” she said. “I’m Jack the Pumpkin King.”

I stopped at the dollar store and left the radio on for Syl as I ran in and grabbed some Goobers and Raisinets (Sylvie smiled ironically at the green bubble on the yellow box advertising natural source of fruit antioxidants) and Twizzlers to sneak into the movie. I bought one Sprite for Syl and one Ginny and me to share. I didn’t want to hurt Syl’s feelings, but I didn’t want to drink after her. A sickening rot hangs in front of a stomach-cancer mouth. We parked the wheelchair in the back of the theater, Ginny and I helped her down a few rows, and we sat in the new seats that leaned back like airplane seats.

Halfway into the movie, Syl took off her 3-D hipster glasses and starts coughing. She’d only had a few sips of Sprite, and no candy of course. She hacked and coughed, and then retched onto the Nazi quilt folded over her lap. A woman turned and looked at her, then turned back to the screen. Ginny folded the quilt closed and rolled it away from Syl’s lap. I whispered, “We have another one. We’ll switch out.”

Sylvie retched again. A dry heave that ended in a vocalized groan.

The woman turned around and said to me, “Please.”

“She’s very sick,” I said.

“Then take her to a hospital.”

Syl shouted, “Fuck you.” She dry heaved again and groaned.

The woman said, “Sir. Please.” A child beside the woman rose up and pulled off his glasses to get a good look at us.

Sylvie cursed her again. I lifted her from the seat.

Ginny stood and leaned over the woman and said into her ear, at normal conversational volume, “God forbid you get stomach cancer.”

Ginny gathered the quilts and followed as I carried Syl like an overgrown infant up the aisle. Sylvie hissed into my ear, “God damn it, I’m not leaving before it’s over.”

One month ago, Ginny went into her room in the morning and found her on her back in bed, already hours dead, the blood pooling at the bottoms of her arms making them striped blue on bottom white on top, the difference as stark as a dipped Easter egg.

It looks like the new regime is out to gut the EPA, even as the scientists there scramble to save their research and fight back against Big Oil. I saw in the news that the White House tried to make them delete the climate change web page, but I visited it the other day and it is still there. It is not for the faint of heart.

This past winter was the warmest winter ever recorded here so far. It is March and for the first time ever, my Swiss chard grew through the winter months. Another storm came crashing through yesterday evening, with pounding rain, lightning and thunder, ominous sky and heavy wind. Ginny and I once again heard a tree cracking outside the dark windows, so we fled to the basement. As we descended the steps,

Earlier Ginny had made Thai chicken and peanut noodles and put it in the fridge. She brought the bowl down with a chilled bottle of wine. She set up dinner on the table in front of the couch, lit by a green Coleman lantern that had two soft white tubes glowing vertically inside. We ate and drank wine in the soft white light.

With the storm raging above, Ginny says to me, “Can’t watch TV. Whatever are we going to do?” She grins at me, half her face illuminated by the soft fluorescent lamplight, the other half in total darkness.

I shrug.

“I guess we’ll just have to have sex,” she says.

Lightning strobes down the stairs from the kitchen above. Cracks and rumbles of thunder follow. Ginny scoots closer to me, and her pale arm reaches for the black knob on the lantern. The basement goes completely dark but for the flashes from above. Her mouth is close to my face. Her warm breath smells of garlic, peanut sauce, and wine. She says, “Gracie comes back from her mother’s house tomorrow, you know.”

“What if the world really is ending,” I say. “What if Sylvie’s right?”

“Eventually,” Ginny says, “she will be. But I think we’ll make it through tonight.” She kisses the side of my mouth in the dark.


Vic Sizemore’s short story collection I Love You I’m Leaving is forthcoming from Big Table publishing. His fiction and nonfiction are published in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best of the Net, and several Pushcart Prizes.