Mid-Century Triptych

Stanley’s Hunch

Shelly’s fiancé. Dirk. What kind of name is that? Stanley’s hand twitches. A horsefly bumps against the screen. Dirk’s smooth. Maybe too smooth. Knocks back Scotch like it’s water. Cocky. Ok, so was Stanley back in the day. But there’s something else that he can’t put his finger on. Dirk’s parents—they’re decent enough. They can be pain-in-the-ass-yacht-club snooty. But they’ve got the yacht, they’ve got the yacht.

And yeah, isn’t that what he wanted for her, putting in 70 + hours building his business to give her the best? Even returning to the ring when cash was low. Nearly got himself killed. He’d do it again. You’d better believe it. Sent her to Germantown Friends when the neighbor kids went to Northeast. The pricey business college for girls up in Rhode Island. His Shelly won’t marry no bum with a busted-up face and scarred hands. A guy who stinks of diesel fuel, fingernails black with chassis grease. Find someone with smarts and money, he told her. In that order? She asked, and he said, Nah, and they both laughed. Hell. But Dirk? Stanley could ask Marlene to talk to her but planning the wedding has helped ease that stepmother thing. It’s nice when they laugh together.

Sometimes he just wants to lock Shelly in her room. She’s been turning men’s heads since she was twelve. She’s got her mother’s sparkle. Those blue eyes wide as the ocean. Every guy was in love with Julie. Even after she got sick. Docs falling all over themselves for that high-beam smile. The surgeon’s face when he realized Stanley was Julie’s husband! Like, how’d this lout land her? And Shelly introducing him last week to Dirk’s father, who looked from Stanley to her, Stanley to her. Like, how in the world does this happen?

Now it’ll be Dirk’s job to protect her. Dirk. Christ.

Maybe it’s just father-of-the-bride jitters, but Stanley finds himself back in that old nightmare. No one said, but part of him knew Julie was dying. He knew and he didn’t know. In his dream, he’s in the ring, but can’t see his opponent. There were just gloves. Huge. Black. Hammering hammering hammering. A hook to his jaw, corkscrew jab to his kidney. His footwork is shot to hell. He tries to twist away, but he’s locked in cement. Another hit to the kidney and he’s down. He’d piss blood for a week.


Dirk’s Rehearsal

It’s been building all evening, each under-her-breath comment his mother makes at the rehearsal dinner fueling it, each complaint from his future mother-in-law with her purse-string lips, Shelly yoyoing between giggling and pouting, and that look his father gives him as they argue over who will sit where, that same old look no matter how hard he works, how smart, the old fucker’s never satisfied, he could sell a million boats, load each one with every option in the book, it will never be enough, he will never be enough, and it’s that sucker-punch look his father sneaks in every goddamn single time, and he never sees it coming–how does he never see it coming?–and after the bullshit about the bar tab, the tip, the centerpieces, his lack of a tie, to top it all off, there’s Shelly’s stupid stupid giggle when they go parking after the restaurant, and when he levers the car seat down, she starts whining she doesn’t want to have sex, It’s the night before our wedding, Dirk! and she rounds her big blue eyes and pushes his hand away and fuck! can’t he even get some relief. They’ve been screwing since their third date, and now she’s going all virgin on him? and when his fingers move further up her leg she slaps him, not even a play slap like she sometimes does, his cheek stings, dammit! and that’s it, he lets loose, fingers coiling into fists, he gives in to his rage, stoking it, pretending he is even drunker than he is, but his fists avoid her face and somewhere inside he recognizes he’s been moving towards this all along; it’s that cool calculation to avoid her face with his fists that shocks him, appalls him, makes him howl inside for who he once was, for who, until this moment, he might still have been.


Shelly’s Secret

Shelly waits until her parents’ bedroom darkens, then slips off her shoes, opens the door, moves through the dark living room where the cuckoo clock screams 2 A.M. and she stops on the stairs, realizing it’s the last night she’ll hear the clock at this hour and how sweet and sad this moment should be, but now it’s just lonely and awful and upstairs under the fluorescent bathroom light bruises bloom on her arms and ribs and she knows knows that her father will kill Dirk if he finds out and it’s this, this certainty, more than the white cake at the bakery, the white dress in her closet (thank god for its Victorian collar, the tapered lace sleeves that graze her fingertips), more than everyone waiting to watch her walk down the aisle, more than the shame if she backs out now, after all the decisions and preparations and checklists, the fights over flowers and the dessert table that makes it impossible and her legs shake as she sits on the toilet to pee, shake as she washes her hands, as she wipes the mascara and glimmer shadow from her eyes—how blue and startled they look, pink-rimmed like a rabbit’s (is that why Dirk calls her Bunny?) and she stares long and hard, wondering what he sees when he looks at her, wondering how they’ve lasted this long (he’s always had a temper, he’s screamed at her, put his fist through a wall inches from her face, once even pushed her but instantly his eyes filled with self-loathing, and she always knew it wasn’t her he was mad at, it was work, his dad, the guy who cut him out on the Boulevard, the barkeep who told him he’d had enough, it was never her he was mad at and how tender he was afterwards, his fingertips tentative, gentle, but tonight was different, it was everything and for the first time she was just another thing in that everything, and maybe she should have just slept with him or at least given him a hand-job, after all, why shouldn’t he expect something (how about a little sugar, Bunny?) to tide him over, but she can’t shake what she saw in his eyes, something calculating and cold, but what would she say, how would she explain (her father will kill him) and so she turns off the bathroom light, tiptoes to her bedroom, searches the bottom dresser drawer for her old baby doll pajamas, soft and thin with wear, the elastic loose, and she climbs into her childhood bed, the sheets smelling faintly of sunlight, listens to the murmur of traffic beyond the park, and waits for tomorrow.

Mary Rohrer-Dann is the author of Taking the Long Way Home (Kelsay Books, 2021) and La Scaffetta: Poems from the Foundling Drawer (Tempest Productions, Inc.) Additional work appears/is forthcoming in The Clackamas Review, Vestal Review, Third Wednesday, Rat’s Ass Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories (issue 2!) and other venues. Although she has long lived in central PA, she is still a Philly girl at heart, and is finishing a collection of story-poems based on the Philadelphia neighborhood she grew up in.


I knocked on my aunt’s door as insistently as my cold knuckles and army gloves would let me. The sound was pathetic and I’d be surprised if she could hear it. But just in case she could, I took a step back to wait.

This was the kind of cold that stabs through whatever you’re wearing, including skin, fat, and muscle. Newly-made blood cells were chinking off each other as they came out of my bone marrow already frozen. I pulled my overcoat tighter around myself, no mean feat considering the thickness of the sweater I was wearing, and buried my chin, mouth, and nose into my scarf.

I wasn’t wearing a hat, but I’d piled up a bunch of my hair on top of my head to imitate one. It didn’t really work. All it meant was loose strands caught the breeze and fluttered around my head, occasionally whipping at fresh snow.

“January fucking sucks.” The steam from my muffled voice puffed through the folds of my scarf. I rubbed my gloved hands together in a caricature of hypothermia. My brother mailed me these gloves from Vietnam. Apparently some bureaucratic fuck up issued his artillery battalion cold weather uniforms, despite Vietnam not having a winter worth mentioning. Pat made sure his sister came out ahead though and swiped me some gloves and socks. Thick wool and olive green. I was wearing the socks too.

I wanted a cigarette, but I didn’t want to deal with inarticulate wool fingers fumbling around in my coat pockets trying to find my pack and lighter. So I suffered.

I turned back to face my aunt’s house. It was a two storey row home of red brick that could probably stand up to nuclear war, despite being built forty years before that was something we had to worry about.

The first floor only had three rooms, the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Naturally, it’s where we spent most of our time. Listening to the radio, playing card and board games, cooking, backing, eating, and talking well past everyone should be asleep.

Upstairs was two bedrooms, so space for guests. But usually the guest space was for me and my five brothers and sisters when we needed to bail out of our own house. We’d all used it. I once stayed for two weeks.

It was why I was there now.

All in all, it was a respectable home for someone in her situation. Her situation being that of an unmarried woman. An unmarried woman on that side of forty. An unmarried immigrant woman on that side of forty.

I put my ear up to the door. I couldn’t hear anyone behind it.

“Fuck it.” I pulled the glove off my right hand, brought my balled up fist to my mouth, and breathed into it, trying to defrost them to the point where they could function. When I was satisfied I sent my half-feeling fingers into my overcoat pocket for my cigarettes. I took the pack out, shook it, caught a cigarette and put it between my lips. The pack went back in and out came the lighter, another surplus gift from my brother.

I flipped it open and flicked the flint. The flame kissed the front of the cigarette and I sucked. With a metallic snap, I shut the lighter and dropped it in my pocket. My hand wandered in after it and I thumbed the edges of the departing bus schedule folded in my pocket.

I’d picked it up after a particularly ugly debate with my parents. You’d think they wouldn’t take my political dissent so personally, but I guess when one of your sons is wrapped up in a war that looks like it won’t end before another one has to go over too, dissent gets sharply intimate.

I let out the smoke from my first drag slowly, trying to get it to catch in my scarf and hang around my head like a cloud. Instead, it was whipped up and whisked away by a sharp winter wind that stung my cheeks and threw snow in my face.

I don’t blame Pat for getting dragged overseas. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, he was drafted. And it goes without saying I wanted him home, safe and sound, as soon as he can make that happen.

But it’s well within my rights to parse out where my support begins and ends and it begins and ends with Pat. I’m not buying into the rest of it the way they have and I’m not going to stick around so that every single sit-down dinner devolves into a diatribe on threats both foreign and domestic.

I put the cigarette back in my mouth and figured I might as well try another knock now that it had been a little while and my glove was off.

Almost immediately, the door swung open and my aunt, Bridget Collins, appeared. She looked perpetually windswept, with wild gray curls and stinging red on her cheeks. At five-foot-ten, she had a good four inches on me. She was certainly wider. Her shoulders were used to work and constant movement. Coming to America had put a few pounds on her, but they added to her overall sense of resilience.

She looked me up and down with gray-green eyes, no smile or tension on her face. “Put that shit out.” She turned to go back in the house, leaving the door open for me to follow. “Nineteen years old, thinking she can suck down tar and fucking smoke and there’ll not be consequences for it.”

Even though she was laying out an early death for me, her voice made me smile. Hers was the music of a working class, west-Irish woman. Conviction was in plentiful supply and the edges came off when it was time for tenderness. It carried me along, soft and firm, insistent and pleasant.

I dropped the cigarette into the deepening snow and stepped across the threshold.

She was already in the kitchen, evidenced by utensils thunking and metal racks clanging. Making noise for noise’s sake.

Her voice curled through the house. “Wipe your shoes. They’re using too much salt on the street and it ruins my carpet.”

I dragged my boots across a bristled welcome mat, then sat on the chair just inside the door to unlace them. My breath fogged in front of me. “Bridget, it’s barely warmer in here than it is outside.”

“We’re at a generous 60 on the thermostat. Are you wearing my jumper?”

I glanced at my torso to confirm what I already knew. It was one of hers. A big, itchy, coarse thing, made for warmth in air that never fully dried. Definitely not style.

I couldn’t remember if she’d brought it with her when she followed my dad to America or if she’d knitted it herself. In either case, it hadn’t actually been given to me. I found it in her closet a few years ago and just took it. She never asked for it back, but she also always referred to it as “hers.”


“Then you’ll be fine. Come grab an apron.”

I put the boots back on the linoleum and walked to the dining room to hang my coat on one of the chairs. I took a moment to admire the decor.

It was a fairly simple room. The only furniture was a table, six accompanying chairs, and a buffet. All were solid wood.

On the buffet were a few keepsakes, mementos, and photographs. She had my dad’s war medals from his time in the Pacific, a letter my brother wrote her from Vietnam, and a couple photos of us kids at various holidays and events.

There were sketches too. An old stone archway, a fishing boat, and a handful of Celtic knots. One of a pub with an Irish name I couldn’t pronounce. They were snapshots of her childhood and adolescence in Galway, done by her own hand.

On the wall was her contribution to the watercolor medium. The sun was rising or setting, I couldn’t really tell. An orange-red sun spilled hazy light over a coastal city and its marine environs, both bathed in purple and pink. Smudges in suits, caps, and dresses filled the cobbled streets and watched fishing boats head into the bay.

Bridget’s voice jolted me back to her house. “Where the hell did you get to?”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.”

When I joined her in the kitchen, she was holding out an apron for me. I dropped the top loop over my head and bent my arms behind my back to tie the string.

“Let me.” She spun me around, pulled the strings around my waist, and tied them tight. She turned me back to face her and lit up with a smile. “Katherine. Hello.”

I always liked the way she said my name. Most other people I know put it through their fucking noses, but here she was, putting that music back into it.

Dad talks this way too, which you’d expect since they both came from the same place, but there’s a hell of a difference between listening to a paternal lecture and an aunt’s pleasantries.

She released me and turned back to the counter. “What’s on the menu, Bridget?”

“I was in the mood for scones.”

I injected some sarcasm into my voice. “Homesick?”

The answer came offhand. “Always.” Her eyes flicked from the mixing bowls on the counter to my sweater then back.

I felt blood rush to my cheeks and bent to look in the baking cabinet. Sacks of different kinds of flours, sugars, syrups, powders, and spices stared back at me. I pushed a few sacks from side to side, lifted brown sugar and white sugar, poked a bag of chocolate chips.

“Self-raising flour and caster sugar, Katie.” Her voice was level.


The crumbs of flour, sugar, and butter pushed between my fingers and through the creases in my palm. They combined, balled up, and fell out of my hand. Dry, greasy, unappetizing balls of grittiness that in no way indicated they’d eventually turn into the sweet, bready companion for a strong cup of tea.

Bridget was at my shoulder, watching me push the flour and butter together. She nodded her approval. “That’ll do us nicely.”

I took my hand out of the pile of crumbs and rubbed my fingers together, trying to get as much of the butter and flour as possible off my hands and into the bottom of the metal mixing bowl. When I was done, I went to the sink and turned on the hot water. I kept a finger under the water to monitor the temperature.

Bridget was giving me side-eyes as soon as I turned the tap handle. “I’d say that’s hot now, no?”

“If I try to wash my hands with this, all I’ll do is make another big pat of butter at the bottom of your sink. Nothing’s melting right now.”

“So you’ll dump half the fucking Brandywine down the drain?”

I sneered, hopefully playfully. “If that’s what it takes.”

The hint of a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth as she went to the fridge and pulled out eggs and milk. She put them on the counter next to my bowl full of crumbs. “One of these, then the milk until it looks wet enough.”

Warm water finally came from the tap, so I rubbed a bar of soap between my butter-greased fingers and got to work.

I felt eyes on the back of my neck, so I turned my head to peek over my shoulder.

Bridget was standing in the doorway, staring at me. The gears in her head looked to be turning. “Does your father know you’re here?”

“I’d say he’s safely assumed where I am.” I muttered the next part. “And why I’m here.”

If she heard my dig against her brother, Bridget didn’t let on. “Will you be spending the night?”

“Could I?”

“You’re always welcome here, I just need to know so I can make up the guest room. I washed the linens and they’re not on the bed.”

“I don’t want to put you out.”

“Not at all.”

“Thanks, Bridget.”

She went upstairs, still wearing her apron.


A ring of wet dairy clung to the sides of the bowl, refusing to be mixed into the rest of the batter. I dug the whisk deeper in and turned it like a spoon. I sped up, hoping the shock of having the metal cage back on them so quickly might scatter the grains.

“I don’t know what the fuck is wrong here.” I held the bowl out for her to inspect. “Maybe I put in too much milk.”

“It’s possible.” She took the bowl and whisk from me and mixed. The metal of the whisk gave a ringing scrape along the bottom of the bowl. “No. No. Just pockets of crumbs stuck on the bottom. Not quite mixed yet.”

I huffed.

“Don’t let it bother you.” Bridget smirked. “For time immemorial, bakers have been vexed by clumpy flour.”

I shrugged. “I’m better than this.”

“You are.” There wasn’t scolding in her response. Just a statement.

She turned her attention to the bowl.

Since I was ten or eleven, I’d been walking down and dropping on an apron to join the production line. I’ve made at least six different types of soda bread, another twelve breads that required yeast, and three more that had us pouring bottles of stout into the batter.

We’ve churned out biscuits, “biscuits,” muffins, barmbrack for Halloween, and virtually every birthday cake me and my siblings have ever wanted, along with a few we didn’t.

Small hand-held pastries pour out of this kitchen with the kind of regularity military commanders kill for and in numbers that could feed the Marines and Vietcong, with enough left over we could host tea for even our most casual acquaintances.

Some days, I saw more of Bridget’s kitchen than I did my own bedroom.

But for all the time I’d spent here and with everything I’d put in and taken out of the oven, I’d never actually watched my aunt work. So I did. I leaned back against the sink and watched her fix my careless mixing.

She pulled the whisk in firm, steady circles. When she wasn’t satisfied with that, she stabbed at the clumps with the foremost wire. The metal from the bowl and the whisk scraped and rang against each other to a slow beat that would shame a metronome.

It was an effortless thing. I knew she baked before she came here. Some bakery in the middle of Galway, at the intersection of an unmarked street and mislabeled lane. Long closed by now.

Her gaze left her kitchen, her house, her street, our city, our county, our state. Her eyes looked instead at something a few feet below her and three thousand miles to the northeast.

And she was singing. There weren’t notes. There was no tune. It was only breath, re-enacting a song she’d already sung.

I must away now…

I was an intruder. Out of place in the kitchen where I’d supplied armies of relatives and neighbors.

This morning’s tempest, I have to cross…

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. The floor’s linoleum crackled against its aging adhesive.

He knelt down gently upon a stone…

I went to her glassware cabinet and clinked glasses against each other, some so hard I thought I might chip them.

And more than near drenched…

I took one from the cabinet and put it below the tap. Water rushed from the faucet.

Until that long night was past and gone…

The words left Bridget. As they did, she adjusted the bowl in the crook of her arm, stopped mixing, and turned her full attention to the batter.

I slurped my water.

Bridget looked up at me, smiled, and handed me the bowl. “We’re grand now, so.”


The two of us looked proudly down at a row of three-inch, raisin and chocolate circles, salvaged from heinous mixing and distraction.

Bridget handed me a brush, a fork, an egg, and a bowl. “You know what’s next.” She turned to heat the oven.

I cracked the egg into the bowl, beat it to a yellow foam, and dipped the brush. Anywhere I saw flour dust or dry dough, I dragged the brush. There were thirty-six in all and I treated each one as if it was going to a photoshoot for Julia Child, if she would ever deign to dignify Irish baking.

Bridget opened the front of the oven. “It’s bound to be hot enough by now. Stick them in there and set yourself a timer.”

The baking tray scraped along the rack and I clicked the timer to seventeen minutes.

On top of the stove, steam poured from a cast iron kettle I hadn’t seen or heard Bridget fill. She wrapped the handle in a towel and poured the water into a teapot. “We’ll have one while we wait?”

I knew better than to treat it as a genuine question.

She waved me away. “Go sit at the dining room table. I’ll drop it down to you.”


In the dining room, I stood in front of her watercolor. The scene was devoid of minute features, mostly due to the limitations of the medium, not Bridget’s talent. It didn’t matter. I filled in the details myself.

The women had gray-green eyes, just like Bridget. The men looked out through the blue gradients of my father, a dark navy that turned to ice closer to the pupil.

Some of the landlubbers had kempt mustaches and others were clean shaven, but the fishermen had red and brown beards that would catch the spray coming off the bow of their boats. Their shouted orders, jokes, and shanties carried between boats.

Women’s silver earrings, brand new purchases they were showcasing to friends and neighbors, caught the multicolored light. They emitted bashful laughs at compliments and pointed to jewelers’ storefronts.

It seemed like a cold day, whatever time it was, and the people’s cheeks were red and drying out. Wind rushed off green mountains and the calm bay water to whip across the gentry’s faces. Men held their hats against the wind, desperately trying to hide bad haircuts and bald spots, but women let their brown, black, gray, and red locks bounce in the gust.

I heard Bridget’s feet behind me, along with the sound of her fully stocked tea tray being placed on the table.

“You painted this, right?” I didn’t turn around as I asked.

“I did, aye.” She stood up and went back into the kitchen. I could tell from the noise that she was rummaging through her liquor cabinet. She came back in with a half-empty bottle of whiskey and dropped it on the table. “Would you sit down? You’re making me nervous, putting all that stress on your knees.”

I picked the seat catty corner from her, the one with my overcoat hanging off the back.

She held my eyes for a moment and I got the sense she was calculating.

She poured a healthy measure of whiskey into both of our cups. “Don’t tell your father. He’s bought into the drinking age here for some reason. I suspect it’s because he has American kids.”

I added milk and sugar and stirred both into the tea and whiskey and jerked my head toward the watercolor. “Have you told me what it is?”

“If you’re asking that, probably not.”

There was a long pause. There was the clink of metal on porcelain as she scooped sugar from its dish.

Impatience got the better of me. “Well?”

She stirred in her milk and sugar. “Not much to tell. I woke up too early one day. There was no going back to sleep — believe me, I tried — so I threw something on and headed out. That jumper, actually, if memory serves. That’s what I saw that morning.”

I fingered a few of the gaps between the yarn of my sweater. “Short shrift for something that you clearly spent so long on.”

She smiled, sighed, and changed the subject. “Your brother sent me a picture.”

“Oh, lemme see.” I held out an expectant hand.

She went to a pile of mail on the buffet. “Apparently some journalist popped round with one of those cameras. You know, where you take the picture and it comes out and develops as you shake it. He had a regular camera, too, like. But that was for the papers. The instant was for anyone who wanted to send something home.”

“It’s a good thought.”

“I’m inclined to agree. Here it is. Right on top.” She took the picture from its envelope and handed it to me.

My breath caught. My oldest brother, Pat, was leaning on 155mm Howitzer like it was the wicker furniture on our front porch. There were sandbags and guard towers and bunkers visible in the background, and jungle hills behind that, but those barely registered. I could only see my brother.

He hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, but when they called his number, there he went. Now here was a pale Polaroid facsimile of the man we sent away.

He was smiling, but it was a begrudging smile, at ease in spite of himself. He wasn’t necessarily having a bad time, but it certainly wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his mid-twenties. There was a cigarette in his mouth and his red hair was shorter than I’d ever seen it. His shirt was unbuttoned almost halfway down his torso and his sleeves were rolled up past his elbows. Dog tags glinted against his bare chest.

I flipped the picture over and found my real brother. On the back was his chicken-scratch, recognizable immediately, immediately frustrating. “Vietnam is lovely this time of year. A bit noisy. I hope you’re well, Aunt Bridget.” There was a line break, then under it, in parentheses, “You too, Katherine.”

I sat back in my chair and blinked tears from my eyes. I dragged one hand across my nose. With the other, I pushed hair off my forehead and behind my ear.

“Six months. It feels longer.”

She took the picture back and looked at it, pride written in bold letters across her face. “It always does.”

She traded the picture for the whiskey bottle and swigged directly, then offered it to me.

I took it. “Sláinte.”

“You listen to me sometimes.”

“When you’re being interesting.”

I put the bottle back halfway between us.

Bridget had a face on her similar to when she was mixing in the kitchen, and she was tapping her spoon against the table. Her voice lapsed into an odd sentimentality I’d never heard. “I think one of the things I miss most about home is when the winter rain finally breaks.”

She laid the spoon flat and picked up the teacup. “You kids, and this is nothing against you, but you kids don’t seem to appreciate the kind of sun you get here. Even on the coldest winter day, you might still see the sun. The sun’s a bit sarcastic about it, I’ll grant you that, because the day will still freeze boiling water. So it’s not so pleasant, but at least the sun is out. At home, you might as well replace the sky with a thick fucking blanket of damp and wind between the months of October and March. Throw on your wool everything, because this is the way we’re living for the winter. Indoors at home or sprinting to the pub or indoors after sprinting to the pub. If you have a job, you’ll go there for the day, but eventually you have to leave and face the rain and there it is again.”

She put her empty cup back on the table. “It was February and it was cold. Not cold like here, but home’s humid cold. So I threw on that jumper and went outside and I’m glad I did because it started raining later and fuck did it keep going.”

She looked up at the painting for the first time since she came in the room.

“But everyone was out that morning. Like we had an alarm clock set for the only sunrise that would be worth watching. And we went down to watch the fishermen go out from the Claddagh, all of us pretending the winter wasn’t going to punish us for it later.”

She poured two fresh cups of improvised toddies. As she did, she examined every available inch of my face. She even ventured down to my shoulders to see if the slope or lack thereof would tell her something.

Evidently it didn’t, because she reached into the apron she was still wearing and pulled out the Greyhound bus schedule that was previously in my coat pocket. She slid it in front of me. “Big plans?”

Instinct took over and I threw my hand into the coat pocket. It was empty. “I was brainstorming.”

“This is more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”

I paused. I had to.

Bridget kept probing. “Is there a destination in mind? The wild west is written all over this schedule, but there’s nothing final.”

“San Francisco. I have the ticket already. One way.”

I nodded.

“Any particular reason?”

“It’s always warm. I like hills. I think the lifestyle might agree with me.”

“I think it might too.”

My eyes snapped to hers. “What?”

“From what I’ve heard about the place, it’d suit you. Young people, war protests, female liberation, flowers. They seem like things you’d like.”

My voice fell to almost a whisper. “Dad’s not there.”

With a barking laugh and a nod, Bridget said, “You’ll miss that one day. But not while you’re young.”

We both took another swig from the whiskey bottle.

“You asked me if I was homesick. I know I’m American now, with the immigration and naturalization and citizenship and voting and true-blue all that. And I love this house. I love this city. I love what I found here.” She reached across and squeezed my hand to emphasize the point.

A flash of guilt crossed her face. “But those pink and purple and orange and red sunrises, mornings you can’t get here, never go away. They don’t. They just don’t.”

She looked at me and I stared at our joined hands.

After long seconds, she released me. “When will you go?”

My voice betrayed me as it shook. “Two days.”

She nodded. “Do your parents know? Does your father know?”

“It hasn’t come up.”

She didn’t say anything for a minute. When she finally did, we were finishing a conversation she’d been on the receiving end of decades ago. We were standing on a wharf in the west of Ireland. A suitcase with enough fresh baked scones to take me across the Atlantic sat next to my feet and we were watching deckhands extend a gangplank down to a waiting crowd.

Bridget saw me off. “We’ll be here when you get back. However long you’re gone, however long you need to stay away, we’ll be here when it’s over.”

Dillon is from Wilmington, Delaware. His fiction has previously appeared in Caesura Literary Magazine, The Main Street Journal, and The Broadkill Review in the United States, and The Galway Review and Ropes Literary Journal in Ireland. Most recently, he had poetry appear in Vox Galvia in Galway. He also completed his MA in Writing at NUI Galway in Ireland.

Coal Black

The story of what happened during the summer of 2020 is lost, or rather, someone just dusted it over, and if you just put a little breath on it, you’ll reveal it all. The only abnormalities you can find in the official records have to do with the weather. If you want to know what was really going on, you’ve got to compare what you find on social media with what was officially reported. Check BallSnatch, Fakebutt, and Ingrastam. You’ll see. Things just don’t match up. Maybe you’ve got to water gaze, get a clean bowl, and fill it. Maybe you’ll get some answers that way. I don’t know.

Back then, the reporters gave no indication that anything was unusual; they continued to report the weather like nothing was wrong.  It was August, and not once had officials given us citizens an explanation for why it hadn’t rained all summer. Every city experiences an occasional drought, but it wasn’t dry. Far from it. There should have at least been a mention of it. No official source—no TV weatherman, no newspaper, not even weather.net—gave an explanation for the all-encompassing mushy grayness hovering over the city. Each morning a thick fog rolled in off the Delaware river. It was so massive. It looked like God had hiked her puffy white skirt above her knees to avoid the water. Then, for the rest of the day, a seemingly malcontent, monochromatic shadow colored everything, and no one said anything about it. Imagine normal, temperate, summer weather being like this all of a sudden:

Dawn rises, and there might be a wind that’s a little aggressive, a little more than flirtatious with the hair that hangs about your neck. It teases, and then it definitely threatens, slowly becomes tempestuous. And by mid-morning the sky cracks and rolls but never opens.

There was no rain. Never. At least there wasn’t any officially reported. Every day with the same recorded smile, the weather person, in her too tight cocktail dress and pin-up girl makeup,  announced the same, “Smothering humidity, high temperatures, severely overcast skies, possible rain.”  But it was ridiculous. Everyone knew that it rained. Just not continuously, and not over a very large area.  It was known to rain on one person, or one car, or one house at a time. In torrents. Hurricane conditions for an average of four square feet for an average of four seconds. They didn’t lie, not really. The media, indeed the people, simply ignored these uprisings that only amounted to the discomfort of a few, people who were often other anyway.

A new fried chicken and milkshake place had opened up across from the park, next to the new tiny art gallery, opposite the popsicle store, the pickle store, the mayonnaise store, and the barley beer store. It seemed to Sunny that there was now a store for everything in this neighborhood. How about a Qtip and cotton ball store? A dish soap store? Sunny imagined one day, these specialty stores would cover the city. And instead of a supermarket, you’d get each ingredient for your sandwich from a different store. At the end, your tomato on rye with vegan curry mayonnaise would cost over $100. How ridiculous would that be? But for now, couldn’t a sweet, thick milkshake cheer her, lift the numbing grey fog clinging to her mind and heart?

As if in defense of the thought, an angry steel cloud began forming over her head as soon as she stepped off the number 40 bus. Sunny barely escaped the rain. She stepped quickly through the glass doors that had been covered in plywood after the last riots. Merry bells rang, startled her, bright sounds to match the shockingly bright white walls and halogen lights. The inside of the shop had been sterilized of all of the violence and uncertainty that filled the streets around it.

Sunny ordered her shake from the counter girl with the blond hair. She had a plastic smile and empty blue eyes.

“Vegan shake please.”

“I’ll bring it out to you in 10. No chicken today?”


“Right,” she said with a tiny smirk.

Sunny slid onto a stool at the counter in the back and carefully peeled off her damp cardigan. From her vantage point she could people watch. She could clearly see everyone sitting at tables and booths. There was a thin slice of glass left uncovered by the plywood, and so she could also spy the anonymous raincoats and umbrellas walking past outside the shop.

There was a Black couple in the booth closest to the window that kept grabbing her attention. They were the only other Black people in the restaurant. And although most of the Black faces she passed in the streets were gloomy and wet, victims of rain, their houses maybe even torn up by the summer’s flash storms, they seemed to be happy. The sun wasn’t shining at all, and still their faces were reflecting some source of inner light. The waitress brought over a basket of hot chicken, which she sat in the middle of their table.

“Gimme some,” the girl said.

The man looked at her with a devious grin. “Better keep your hands off my food woman.”

She placed her hands on the table and leaned forward ready to pounce.

“I will bite the shit outta you,” he said, still smiling. “Stop playing!” he placed a protective arm in front of the basket.

The brown man began to eat greedily. He barely held in his laughter and paused to drop the chicken and lick his fingers to cool the burning. His date saw her chance. She pushed his arm aside and snatched a wing just as he was about to attempt another bite.

“Let me try this here. The girls at my school said this place got good chicken.” The woman pulled the wing from her mouth; her teeth took most of the meat from the bone.

The man spoke first, “This is nasty as hell,” he said, “it’s soggy as fuck.”

“Dang!” she said and spit the bite she had taken back into the basket.” Ain’t no salt on it or nothin…”

“And that piece you bit is bloody in the middle.” She looked as if she wanted to vomit. “That’s so trife.”

“That’s what you get, woman. How you gone let some white girls tell you where to get chicken in your own hood? What the hell is ‘artisan fried chicken’ anyway?”

“I coulda got better chicken on the block with some salt pepper ketchup.”


“Like $.10 a wing.”

“Alllll day!”

They both laughed until they were holding their bellies. They sat closer together. He grabbed the back of her neck and they pressed lips. Sunny swiveled her stool back toward the counter and sighed. Her milkshake had come and melted. She hadn’t even noticed. It was just as well.

Twisting to and fro on her stool, Sunny glanced once more at the couple as they made their way to the door in each other’s arms. They were the brightest in the room, not the walls or the lights, and when they left, they carried the sun out with them. Sunny imagined that they were in love. The way the girl kept smiling and the way the boy kept touching her, she imagined she must have been witnessing love or something like that.

Sunny paid for her forgotten milkshake and left. Her rain cloud had waited above the door of the shop to escort her home. She glanced at it threateningly from time to time as she walked the four blocks to her house. She didn’t even bother to put her umbrella back up.

“Fuck it,” she thought, “let it rain.”

But it didn’t.


The front door of her apartment was open, but the lights were off. She wondered where her roommate was. As she neared the top of the stairs in the communal hallway, she could hear a commotion in the bathroom. A less experienced partygoer may not have recognized the faint noises she heard as retching. But she knew, before she saw, that Mel was throwing up into the toilet. Sunny took the last few steps in bounds.

She found Mel with her head in the toilet looking distressed and even more pale than usual. She helped her into her bedroom and sat her on the bed. Sunny noticed that her personal cloud had hung around, and was now outside Sunny’s bedroom window making a storm just for her. Fat droplets began to assault the pane. Mel lowered her face as her eyes also began to shower the front of her lavender tank top. Her tears came in torrents. Puddles began to form in her upturned, cupped hands.

“I’m pregnant Sunny and I think it’s Allen’s.” Mel did her best to push her words through the water.

“Wow, Mel. Can I be the god mom?”

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t have this baby.”

Sunny moved to her friend’s side. “I’ll help you,” she said and gently brushed the hair out of Mel’s eyes. She held her tear-soaked hand. “And you won’t have to worry about money. Your parents will give you money right?”

“Not for a half Black baby Sunny. They’d just die. They’d disown me! For real this time…”

Sunny stood up and moved away. “Well, no that’s crazy, Mel. It’s your baby, so they’ll love it. Besides, your parents aren’t racists. They’ve always been really nice to me. How many times have I been to their house?”

“That’s because you can’t get their daughter pregnant, dummy.  Of course we are nice to Black people, we don’t fucking have babies with them. My nanny was your color Sunny,”  Mel stood glaring. “I’m getting rid of it, that’s what I’m going to do.”


“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just can’t do it.” And she left the room.

Sunny stood in the same place in the middle of the floor, staring at the empty spot on the edge of her bed where her friend had just been. She didn’t think. She just stood wondering what to think or do, if anything was to be thought or done. She turned toward the window, which the darkened sky had transformed into a mirror. For a moment the rain racing down the glass almost made it look like Sunny was crying, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t. She certainly wanted to but couldn’t choose between the many reasons why she might. Her friend had been the one crying, but somehow, Sunny was the one soaking wet. Now the rain was inside. She ran her hands over her cottony, kinky curls and briefly felt self-conscious; felt herself an enemy of her own skin.

Then Sunny felt anger but she felt love too. She remembered the couple she had seen in the restaurant, how they radiated love. For a brief moment, Sunny wanted to curse Mel, but instead she said this prayer for her and her baby:

I hope this child is born. I hope it’s born full of love and health, she prayed, and Dear God, I pray it’s born black as coal.

Misty Sol, a writer/visual artist from small-town Pennsylvania creates art to explore Black people’s connections to family, nature, and speculation. When she isn’t painting, writing, or homeschooling her two kids, Misty enjoys making meals from scratch, gardening, and foraging for wild edible plants. She currently lives in and creates in Philadelphia. Misty’s work is featured in both literary and visual genres in our winter 2021 edition. Visit www.mistysol.com.

Nobody Makes it Big in Philly

Elizabeth did the best she could to make ends meet. There were times she’d pay the light bill and times the lights went out. Sometimes we had a place to stay, other times we had to flee in exodus. Those times, I could never bring more than I could carry. We’d get to the apartment of some new artist boyfriend of hers that I had to call “uncle” so and so, and he was gonna take care of us, but it never lasted for more than a few months. We always outstayed our welcome.

I always assumed my father was one of the many artists she had lived with. I had no pictures or physical description, just the drunken ramblings of my mother yelling in an ear-piercing tone that I “looked like that motherfucker.” I remember going through a phase where I studied every brown-skinned man on the street and wondered if he was my father.  His name did not appear on my birth certificate, so all I could do was wonder.

When I was around eight, she settled with Fingers, a pianist and singer.  She followed him from gig to gig, usually stumbling home in the early twilight hours. A tap at my feet would signal their return, and I’d awake to see his tall, dark figure standing over the bed.  All I could see were his eyes in the moonlight and the red-orange of his cigarette dangling from those curving dark-colored lips. I was forced to sleep on the couch in the living room.

I used to share the same bed with my mother, sleeping on her right side, while her night guest laid to her left.  Until one evening, Fingers got mad and shouted, “When is he gonna get a bed of his own?” Ever since then, I was forced to sleep on the lumpy old couch in the living room.  I hated laying there alone in the dark while he enjoyed the comfort and warmth of the bed and my mother’s affections. Watching from the crack in the door as their bodies merged in the moonlight, I’d see how he held my mother, and how she looked at him. Fingers would call her “Baby,” and he’d sing to her.

In the morning, I’d have to tiptoe past their sleeping half-naked bodies, with the fragrance of cigarettes, liquor, and sex stinging my young nose. Forging my way to the bathroom and stepping on their carelessly flicked cigarette butts, together with empty bottles of Night Train lining the threadbare carpet. This became a part of my morning routine. Fingers would usually stir a little when I closed the door after having used the bathroom. He’d rub his eyes, smile dryly, and say something like, “Hey little man.” I’d scowl at him and walk back to the couch, wishing he’d leave so I could sleep comfortably.

When Fingers slipped out the front door in the morning before mom could prepare breakfast, I could hear her quietly sobbing in the bathroom. When she finally made her appearance in the living room, she’d push a bowl of cereal towards me.

As Fingers and Elizabeth’s relationship progressed, there would be weeks Elizabeth wouldn’t come home and I’d be left alone to fend for myself with nothing but liquor bottles in the apartment. Eventually I found my solace in those bottles. I’d sit in the living room and drink until I passed out, my little body numb to the reality of neglect. While alone, I began to channel my thoughts into a black and white marbled composition book, waxing poetic about the things that didn’t make any sense to me, about not knowing my father, about how poorly Fingers treated Elizabeth, and how I wished for a place to call a permanent home.

By the end of the year, Fingers stayed with us. I stayed as far away from home as possible. I passed the hours after school in the library, meandering through the art section, falling in love with the surrealism of Dali, the artful graffiti of Basquiat, and the collage of Romare Bearden. I began to see my world of abandoned buildings and liquor stores in geometric patterns. I began drawing and sketching this world in a spiral pad, seeing the images before the pen ever touched the paper. I consumed the writings of Richard Wright and listened to the sounds of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. I was in the library until they kicked me out.

Elizabeth and Fingers were up nights talking about moving to New York. Fingers said he was tired of taking the Chinatown bus.

“Nobody ever made it big in Philly,” he told my mother.

A few weeks later, my mother told me that we were moving. I didn’t bat an eye. I got up from the couch and started the familiar ritual of shoving my clothes into my duffel bag. Moving in with Fingers would be just another of our many relocations.

“What kind of dump he taking us to?” I asked.

“Baby, there ain’t no place for you where we going.” I walked down the stairs with my duffel bag and waited for Fingers to start up his Monte Carlo.

I hopped in the back, not sure where I was going. Fingers looked at me through the rearview mirror for a while. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry or asking my mother to pick me over her lover. Elizabeth sat in the passenger’s seat and remained silent as the car went down Grays Ferry Avenue.

Pietra Dunmore’s writing has appeared in Rogue Agent, Penumbra, Causeway Lit, Pine Hills Review, Rigorous, and Hippocampus Magazine.

Feral Wives (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Feral Wives

The Feral Wives have left us, that much is clear. What is less clear is why, and for how long. Surely their absence must be an aberration, a temporary detour from the long, slow, steady march of civilization. For how would we go on without them? And they without us?

We know so little. Their means of survival, their patterns of migration, their social structure—if they can be said to have one—all remain mysterious. We can theorize, of course, but little can be said with any certainty. We have learned that they tend to travel in groups of six to twelve—though communities of twenty or more are not unknown. They prefer to stay on the move, building temporary shelters from the materials close at hand and then disassembling them, so that the only traces they leave behind might be a pile of sticks and leaves, a charcoal pit, a few bones. And yes, they hunt, fish, and trap, though we have little idea how, since they do not appear to be armed in the conventional sense. They seem to know things that we have lost, and to have lost things that we know.

Those who are returned to us—sometimes by misadventure, more often by force—are of little help. They understand our questions but do not answer them. Have they been sworn to secrecy? Attempts to reintegrate them inevitably fail. In extended periods of captivity—for this is clearly how they see it—they become despondent, sometimes even catatonic. We can warehouse them, or we can set them free. Either way, they no longer belong to or among us.


We were at a rest stop somewhere in Ohio when Katrina finally bolted.

She’d been slumped over in the passenger seat all morning, face pressed against the glass, staring out at the monotonous landscape of fields, farms, and factories scrolling by on the turnpike. I was at the wheel, trying to put as many miles as possible behind us, with the vague notion that a change of scene might mean a change of outcome. The girls rode in the back, uncharacteristically quiet, Chelsea clinging to her phone, Greta to Mr. Tiddles, her stuffed rabbit. They were anxious, looking to us for cues on this odd, unexpected journey. I had none to offer.

To the extent that I had a plan, it was to keep driving west, chasing the sun until it set, then find a cheap motel for the night. Rinse and repeat. I’d thought maybe we could outrun destiny, and if not, then at least we’d be on the run as a unit. Maybe at some point we’d just ditch the car and the hastily packed suitcases and tramp off into the wilderness together. That didn’t seem to happen to others, but why couldn’t we be different? Or maybe we’d just keep going, all the way to the Pacific, and then . . . what?

Something made Katrina perk up. She raised her head and squared her shoulders, the muscles on the back of her neck tensing. I stole a sideways glance out the passenger window to see what might have caught her attention, but it was just the same thing we’d been seeing for hours: rows of soy and corn stretching into the distance, punctuated by an occasional barn or silo. Perhaps sensing my gaze, she turned to face me. Her eyes, curtained by wisps of her long blond-going-to-gray hair, were open wide, pupils dilated. She was looking, not at me, but right through me, beyond me, to something that wasn’t there, or not yet there, though I had the feeling that the sheer intensity of her gaze could almost bring it into being, whatever it was. Not for the first time in recent weeks, I also had the visceral sense that I was no longer looking at my wife of fourteen years but at a complete stranger. God knows what she saw when she looked back at me.

The angry blast of a truck horn in the left lane snapped my attention back to the road. I’d been drifting, and I jerked the wheel to the right as an oil tanker whizzed by mere inches away.

“What is it, Dad?” said Chelsea, her voice tight with worry. “What happened?” At nine, to her sister’s four, Chelsea had become their spokesperson for the trip.

“It’s fine, honey,” I told her. “I was just getting a little too close to that truck, so he was letting me know.”

“Mom, what were you looking at over there?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Katrina absently. “Go back to sleep.” Neither girl had slept a wink since we’d left our home in Harrisburg in the early dawn.

“I have to pee,” said Greta.

“How bad, muffin?” I asked. “Can you wait a little while?”

“Kinda bad,” she said. In the rear-view mirror I could see her squirming in her seat. She hugged Mr. Tiddles so tightly that his torso slumped forward, his long ears drooping over her tiny thighs.

I sighed. “OK, let me see what I can do.” I’d been holding on myself since at least Pittsburgh and had finally reached that point of Zen where my angry bladder seemed to belong to someone else. Now, with the prospect of relief, the urgency returned. I saw a sign ahead promising a rest stop in five miles.

“Hang in there,” I told Greta, taking the Subaru up to eighty to pass a row of cars and trucks in the right-hand lane. In four minutes flat we were pulling into the Muskingum County Rest Area. We drove past a long line of stopped tractor trailers and turned into one of the angled parking spaces for cars. Ahead, up a paved walkway, was the visitor center, a low concrete building with a flying-saucer-shaped metal roof. A path to the right led to a pavilion with a few empty picnic tables, beyond which lay grassy hills with stands of tall oaks, and, beyond that, the woods. A cell tower loomed out of the trees like a sentry.

“OK, let’s go,” I said, opening the door and unfolding my stiff legs. By the time I stood up, Chelsea and Greta were already out of the car and on their way up the sidewalk. “Wait up!” I called, but they kept going, Greta pulling her older sister by the hand toward the glass doors of the visitor center. I poked my head inside the car. “Are you coming?” I asked Katrina. “I don’t want them running off alone.”

“They’ll be okay,” she said, not looking up. “They’re survivors, Steve.”

“Alrighty, then,” I said, not wanting to argue the point. “Do you want anything? Coffee? A snack?”

She shook her head.

“We may not stop for a while after this.”

“It’s best to keep moving.”

“Suit yourself.” I pushed the door closed and hurried up the path. We’d had a lot of disconnected conversations like this lately, and I was running out of patience. So, apparently, was she.

The bathroom stop turned into a snack run, which was quickly upgraded to lunch, and then I couldn’t resist getting in line at the Starbucks for an iced mocha latté, my one weakness. By the time we emerged from the building, laden with greasy bags and sweaty drinks, Katrina was gone. Not only that, but she’d left the passenger door wide open, with all of our stuff in plain view of anyone wandering by.

“Where’s Mom?” asked Greta.

“I guess she went for a walk,” I said. She’d left her phone in the cup holder between the seats, and her suitcase was still with the others in the luggage compartment. I scanned the surrounding area but saw no sign of her. A wave of panic rose from my gut to my chest and lodged there. I didn’t want to alarm the girls, so I said, “Let’s go over to the picnic tables. We can eat our lunch while we wait for her to come back.”

She didn’t come back.

“Maybe she’s inside, looking for us,” I said, though I didn’t really believe it. “Let’s go check.”

We dumped the remains of our picnic into the waste bin and headed for the building. Several couples passed us on their way out, retirees in tennis shoes and oversized sweatshirts. The kind of people you saw on the road in late September. We must have seemed out of place, and perhaps a bit panicky, as we attracted looks of curiosity and concern. One of the women leaned over and whispered something to her husband, then gave the girls a sympathetic nod. Save your pity, I thought. We’ll be fine.

The visitor center was humming with activity, as people headed in every direction at once, alone and in clumps. I looked around the place and saw no sign of Katrina. I sent the girls into the women’s room, but they returned without their mother. We combed the food court, to no avail. I asked some of the employees if they’d seen a fortyish woman in jeans and a fuzzy brown sweater. Not much to go on, I realized, but we had to try. They just shrugged. Greta began to cry, and Chelsea took her by the hand. More people were staring at us now. More whispers and knowing looks.

“She must be outside,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go, girls.”

We walked the perimeter of the rest area, where the mown grass gave way to woods, calling “Katrina” and “Mom” at the top of our lungs. The dark, silent forest swallowed our cries. The only other sound was the rumble of trucks out on the highway. I saw no paths or obvious points of entry, just weeds and underbrush, thorns and poison ivy. Discarded candy wrappers, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags had blown up against the edge of the wood, like sea foam washed up by the tide. The idea of stepping over them and into that dense mess of foliage with the girls in tow made me deeply uneasy. So did the idea of leaving them standing there at the edge of the wood.

We went over the entire rest area twice, then returned to the car and sat with the windows down. Greta continued crying and sniffling, while Chelsea stroked her sister’s hair and I sat in the front thinking about next steps. It was Chelsea who finally broke the silence. “We lost her, Dad,” she said.

It sounded like an accusation.


HOST: Welcome back. I’m Megan McCready, and this is “Here and Now.” Today we’re talking about the so-called Feral Wives. Who are they? Why are they leaving? Where are they going? What can we do to bring them back? Joining me this morning are two experts: Roger Reed of MROWWW. Roger, why don’t you tell us what that stands for?

ROGER: Sure. It’s Men Rebuilding Our World Without Women.

HOST: Welcome.

ROGER: Pleased to be here.

HOST: And over here we have Vanessa van der Velde, professor of women’s studies at Barnard College and author of Fleeing to the Future: Manifesto for a New Feminism. Professor van der Velde, thanks for joining us.

VANESSA: My pleasure. And just Vanessa is fine.

HOST: Roger, let’s start with you. Why do you think this is happening, and why now?

ROGER: Well, it’s pretty clear, really. As a species we’ve reached a breaking point. For millennia, human society was shaped around a simple concept: the nuclear family, with one man, one woman, and their biological offspring.

VANESSA: Not al- . . .

ROGER: And it worked, or at least it worked well enough that every society in the world ended up adopting some version of this model and building a cosmology around it.

VANESSA: Not ev- . . .

ROGER: And the reason it worked was because there were clearly defined roles and a hierarchy for enacting and enforcing them, with the woman as the primary caretaker, and the man as the head and decision-maker.

VANESSA: Whoa, I . . .

ROGER: But in the last, let’s say, five decades or so, there’s been a coordinated effort to undermine the natural order of things and replace it with something else, something based on destructive and misguided notions of fairness and equality.

VANESSA: What’s mis- . . .

HOST: So you blame feminism?
ROGER: No, not at all, Megan. I blame men.

VANESSA: Can I just . . .

HOST: Why do you blame men?

ROGER: For being weak. Too many of us have abdicated our natural role, and it’s left our women rudderless. They’re leaving because we haven’t been fulfilling our social and biological imperatives as the male of the species.

HOST: Which are?

ROGER: I call it the three P’s: Provide, Protect, and Preside.

VANESSA: If I may . . .

ROGER: It’s like the proverbial three-legged stool. You take away one leg and the whole thing collapses. I’d argue that all three are eroding, and what we’re seeing now are the consequences.

HOST: And you, Vanessa, how about it? Do you think Roger is right?

VANESSA: I couldn’t disagree more. He’s right that we’ve had centuries of patriarchy but look where it’s gotten us. A planet on the brink of disaster, a society that’s literally being pulled apart. And all because of men’s insatiable need to dominate everything—women, nature, each other. This is what’s driving these women away. They’re returning to nature as allies against a system that aims to destroy everything. It’s a survival instinct . . .

ROGER: Vanessa, Vanessa, please, you know that just isn’t true. Our survival as a species has always depended on subduing and exploiting nature at every turn. That’s the whole basis of civilization, going all the way back to the Fertile Crescent.

VANESSA: Fertility is nature, Roger, and women . . .


HOST: We have to . . .

[More crosstalk]

HOST: We have to break for commercial. I want to thank you both for being here. When we come back, we’ll be joined by a bounty hunter who’s been reuniting families across the country. He calls it rescue, others say it’s kidnapping. What do you think? Stay tuned.


We stayed in the rest-stop parking lot until dinnertime. I knew with increasing certainty that Katrina was gone, but I was reluctant to leave in case she changed her mind. If we left, how would she ever find us? We made several trips to the visitor center for various things, and to have another look around the premises. And then it started to get dark, and the girls were getting restless and asking too many questions I couldn’t answer, so I decided it was time to move on. But first we had to leave a note or something inside.

I herded the girls into the visitor center one last time, looking for someone official to ask about where to leave a notice. The best I could do was a uniformed janitor emptying trash cans in the food court. I explained our dilemma, and he pointed to a kiosk against the wall that I’d somehow overlooked in our previous passes through the building. Under a sign that read “Have You Seen Us?” was a unit that could easily have been mistaken for an ATM. On the screen, at roughly six-second intervals, appeared a succession of captioned photos of women: “Regina Simpson / Age 36 / Last seen Steubenville, Ohio / August 7, 2023. If located, please contact….” Regina was pictured seated at a table and clutching a large kitchen knife in her hand, blade pointed toward the ceiling. On the table in front of her was a birthday cake, candles ablaze. She was facing the camera, and there it was again, that look I’d seen in my wife’s eyes just hours earlier, gazing past us, through us, into a future we couldn’t see. A wave of vertigo swept over me, and I clutched the edges of the counter to steady myself. Then the picture was replaced by another, and the feeling passed.

A green button to the lower right of the screen was labeled “New Entry.” Reluctantly, I pressed it, and a touchscreen menu appeared. I entered Katrina’s name, date of birth, and “Last seen Muskingum County Rest Area, Ohio,” along with the date and contact info. All that was left was to upload a photo. I pulled out my phone and began scrolling through the gallery: memes, pictures of the girls on their bikes, of a fender-bender I’d been involved in a few months earlier, of the girls in last year’s Halloween costumes, more memes . . . did I really not have a picture of Katrina?

“Chelsea, do you have a decent picture of Mom on your phone?”

After much discussion, we settled on one from last summer, of Katrina kneeling in the garden. She was looking at the camera and smiling, her hand cupped around a large, ripe tomato. We uploaded the photo and then stood there, waiting for it to come around on the screen. After a couple of minutes, she appeared among the procession of the missing and then was gone from us again. For the first time that day, I felt tears gathering at the corners of my eyes.



HARRISBURG, PA – Eighty-nine hunters took part in Pennsylvania’s one-week general elk hunt, which closed Nov. 9. Most left elk country with a trophy. For those licensed to hunt bulls, the success rate was 100 percent.

The harvest included eleven bulls estimated to weigh 700 pounds or more. The heaviest, taken in Clinton County, tipped the scales at 800 pounds and had a 10-by-9 rack. Some hefty antlerless elk were also taken in the harvest. Ten of the 62 cows taken by hunters weighed over 500 pounds.

Harvest numbers were down somewhat from previous years, due to the closure of several areas following sightings of non-hunters in the vicinity. State Game Commission wardens also investigated several reports of unlawful harvesting, including the partial remains of one bull discovered in Carbon County. No arrests were made.

All hunters are urged to use caution due to increased activity in state game areas unrelated to licensed harvesting of wildlife. Accidental shooting incidents such as those reported in Illinois, Michigan, and Tennessee have not occurred in Pennsylvania to date. We’d like to keep it that way.

Pennsylvania State Game Commission Bulletin


The closest motel I could find was two exits and twenty-some miles away. The taciturn Indian-American couple who ran the place handed over the keys without comment, and Chelsea and I unloaded the bags and brought them in while Greta stood outside in the pale yellow glow of a streetlight, clutching Mr. Tiddles and sucking her thumb.

“Greta,” I said as I emerged from the room for a second load, “Thumb.” We’d made a bargain whereby she got to take Mr. Tiddles everywhere in exchange for not sucking her thumb.

“Dad, leave her alone,” said Chelsea.

“We can’t suspend the rules just because Mom isn’t here.”

Greta threw Mr. Tiddles to the pavement, stomped into the motel room, and slammed the door.

“Nice going,” said Chelsea.

“You know, you could cut me a little slack,” I said. “It’s not like this is easy for me.”

She rolled her eyes, retrieved the rabbit from the sidewalk, then joined her sister in the room, closing the door behind her.

“Chelsea, Greta, I’m sorry!” I called after them.

I tried the door. It was bolted from the inside.

After much cajoling, I managed to get them out of the room and back in the car, and we drove off in search of a restaurant. The motel owners hadn’t been especially helpful, but it seemed there was a diner a couple of miles down the road. After driving back and forth through the town, which was really just a cluster of dull clapboard houses with rusting cars in the driveways and plastic toys on the lawn, we finally spotted the neon sign on a side road that led back in the direction of the interstate. It didn’t look promising—just a dull stainless-steel-plated box of a place, with a handful of old cars and trucks parked out front—and I was half-tempted to drive the twenty-five miles back to the rest stop for Sbarro or Wendy’s, but the weight of the day was settling over me like a damp wool blanket. I needed a meal and a bed, perhaps not even in that order. I pulled into the lot and parked.

In contrast to the dingy exterior, everything inside was bright and shiny and smelled like disinfectant, even the menus, which were almost as large as the Sunday comics section. Our waitress, whose name was Sandy, wore a white uniform and a cheerful smile that seemed like an extension of the decor. She asked where we were from and where we were going. The first one was easy, the second one not so much. I was about to say that we were “headed west,” but Greta beat me to the punch.

“Our mommy ran away today,” she said.

“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry. You must be worried about her.”

Sandy continued talking to the girls, asking them questions about their mother, all the while ignoring me. Finally, I could stand it no longer and cut in.

“They’re fine,” I said. “We’re fine.”

“No we aren’t,” said Chelsea.

Greta, who had finally calmed down somewhat on the way over, began crying again.

I sensed a coup building and I was outnumbered, so I backed down.

Sandy brought the girls multiple refills on the sodas that came with their grilled cheese sandwiches, and then threw in two free sundaes for dessert—as though an excess of sugar would somehow soften the loss of their mother. With me she was curt and direct. “Are you finished with that, sir?” she asked, looking at my half-finished hamburger and pile of fries.

“I couldn’t eat another bite,” I said. My appetite had fled, and fatigue was settling in.

“Your check.” She slapped it face down on the table in front of me.

Is this how it’s going to be? I thought. Damnit, I’m the one who stayed behind.

Just for spite, I left her an outrageously large tip.


It was sometime last year when we first heard about the Feral Wives, though I don’t think they were even called that yet. It was a Sunday morning. The kids were watching TV in the den while Katrina made pancakes and I did the New York Times crossword. We had NPR on in the background, and a report came on about an unusually large number of missing-persons cases involving women in various parts of the country. The women were believed to be alive, and some had been spotted traveling in groups, usually in rural areas. Supermarkets and restaurants in these areas had also reported overnight break-ins that many thought were related to the disappearances. A local sheriff somewhere in the Midwest was interviewed, as was one of the husbands. Both seemed completely at a loss to explain the phenomenon. “I just keep waiting,” said the husband, “and wondering why.”

“That’s weird,” I said. “I mean, it sounds almost like an internet hoax to me, or some kind of hysteria. Remember all those clown sightings back in, when was that?”

“I believe this is real,” said Katrina.

“So what do you think it’s about? Why would they do this?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged and looked out the window. Outside, our neighbor Ted was bent over his lawnmower, tugging repeatedly at the starter cord. Finally it turned over, chugged a few times, and roared to life.

“Everyone is different,” she said. She didn’t elaborate; I didn’t ask.

In retrospect, I probably should have.


Deirdre Hendricks, Ted’s wife, was the first to go. We knew them, of course, but weren’t especially close, even though one of their two boys was in Chelsea’s class at school. Word got around, along with various rumors—that she’d run off with an unknown lover, that she’d gone back to California to live with her parents, that she’d joined a religious cult—but eventually, as other women began to follow suit, we connected her disappearance with the larger trend.

We’d see Ted on the other side of the fence, puttering around in his yard, pruning the roses, scooping the leaves out of the pool, running the leaf blower along the deck. He seemed determined to act as though everything was normal, but there was a ferocity to everything he did. I felt sorry for him, of course—but also, I have to admit, a little superior. I imagined that he must not have treated Deirdre very well, after all, for her to take off like that. And there had to be something very wrong with her as well, to abandon her kids like that. I crossed paths with him once at the supermarket and mumbled a few words of sympathy, which he brushed aside in a pretty rude way. Oh well, the guy was suffering. Most of all, though, I felt bad for the boys. Whenever I saw the two of them coming or going from the house, they always had their heads down and seemed lost. Chelsea said that Ted Jr. had been getting in fights at school.

A month or so later, a police car pulled up in front of their house, and two women in uniform got out. They helped Mrs. Hendricks out of the backseat and escorted her up the walkway to where Ted and the boys stood waiting. She wore a long white gown and walked slowly and deliberately, a policewoman at each elbow. Then they all went inside and closed the door. After that, we’d see her out on the back porch now and then, usually accompanied by her husband. There was a chain anchored to one of the porch posts, and sometimes he’d lock the end of it to a little brace she wore around her ankle so he could leave her out there. She’d sit on the folding deck chair in the sun, arms draped at her sides, until he came out and brought her back in. We saw nothing of the boys anymore. Chelsea said they had stopped going to school.

Katrina and I were sitting in the kitchen one morning, drinking coffee. It was a bright, sunny day, and normally we would have been outside, but we’d stopped using the back porch so much because we never knew when Mrs. Hendricks would be out there in her chair. Not that we interacted with her, or her with us, but it was just awkward having her sitting there.

She was out there now, in fact.

“What do you suppose happened to her?” asked Katrina.

“Our sunbathing friend over there? I don’t know.”

“She looks so . . . empty.”

“Yeah, not a lot going on there.”

“But why?”

I shook my head. “Who knows? Drugs, mind control, PTSD.”

“What if she’s only sad because she’s back here?”

“What’s wrong with here?”

“What if she was better off . . . wherever she was?”

I shrugged. “I don’t see how. She was probably half-starved. I mean, what do they eat, anyway?”

I looked out the window and noticed that she was staring at us, or at least in our direction, which was unusual. Most of the time, she seemed to keep her eyes straight ahead, even when Ted was out there with her.

“She’s watching us,” I said.

And then suddenly she stood, opened her mouth, and screamed—a long, protracted shriek that was audible even through the closed windows of our kitchen. It was painful to listen to. Ted came barreling out of the house and tried to put a hand over her mouth, then quickly pulled it away. It appeared she had bitten him. They struggled for a while, until he was finally able to subdue her, unlock the chain, and drag his wife inside the house.

“That was horrible,” said Katrina. She looked pale and shaken.

“I feel so bad for those boys,” I said. “It must be hard with their mom like that.”


One day, Ted knocked on our back door and asked if we’d seen his wife. Apparently, he had come outside to discover her missing. Her chain had been cut neatly in two, probably by a hacksaw. Ted said he didn’t even own one, so she must have had an accomplice.

“Are you sure you didn’t see anything?” he asked. His tone had an accusatory edge, and I half wanted to throw a punch at his pinched face.

“No,” I said.

“How about your wife? Did she …”


He stood there for a moment, then turned abruptly and walked back across the yard toward his place.

I went down in the basement and checked our hacksaw. It still hung in its usual spot over the workbench, though I couldn’t tell if it had been used recently.

A few days later, a “For Sale” sign went up in front of the Hendricks’s house.



It has long been accepted that some fathers will leave their families behind for extended periods of time. The reasons have varied according to culture and time period, and have included military service, sea voyages, colonial adventurism, migratory labor, and numerous other pursuits that have taken men far from home and hearth. And then there are those who choose to walk away from the burdens and responsibilities that attend raising a family. Depending on the circumstances, such men may be lauded for their service, viewed as making noble sacrifices for the sake of their families, or castigated as deadbeats and losers, but the fact remains that their absence is seen as a commonplace and even necessary fact of life.

But what about women who leave their families behind? Extended absences by mothers are likely to be judged far more harshly than those by fathers. This is true even when the woman is serving in the military or working a job that involves frequent or extended travel. While the father is likely to be seen as providing for his family or sacrificing for his country, with a mother there is the negative perception that she found something “more important” than her children, and that the children will suffer as a result.

Ample evidence exists that extended maternal absence has a negative effect on the mental health of children, but it is not clear that the impact is any more severe than it is for paternal absence. Furthermore, children raised by single fathers seem to fare just as well as those raised by single mothers. So why does this disparity in perception persist?

This question has received renewed attention lately due to the so-called Feral Wives. Reports on the phenomenon in the popular press tend to treat it as a kind of epidemic, something that arose suddenly and spontaneously, with very little precedent. Although research supports the notion that the number of women abandoning their families has spiked in the past year, this also represents the culmination of a trend that began decades ago. Much of the evidence remains anecdotal, but a recent U.K. study of walk-away moms covering the years 2015–20 indicated an increase of about 12 percent per year in the number of cases. . .

Psychology Today


In the weeks following Deirdre Hendricks’s second departure, other women in began disappearing. First it was Camille Fogarty, whose husband Rob was a contractor specializing in overpriced additions; then Renée Compton, who worked as a legal secretary and was married to the town supervisor; and finally, Mrs. Romberger, Chelsea’s fourth-grade teacher, who just stopped teaching one day and stared out the classroom window until the confused children finally got up and left. She didn’t come back the next day, or the next, and now they had a long-term substitute.

Not long after that, I awoke one night to find Katrina’s side of the bed empty. I rolled on my side and looked at the clock: 3:24 a.m.

I lay awake, waiting for her to return from the bathroom or wherever. When she didn’t, I slid out of bed, donned a robe, and went downstairs. The kitchen light was on and the back door stood open. I slipped on a pair of shoes and went out into the yard.

I found her standing under a tree.

“Katrina, what are you doing out here?”

“Can’t you smell it?” she said.

“Smell what?”

“The fumes. They’re choking us.”

“Katrina, I think you’re dreaming.”

“We’re dying, Steve. All of us.”

“Come back to bed.”

“You go. I want to stay out here for a while.”

“OK, whatever.” I went inside, got back in bed, and tossed and turned, finally drifting off just in time for my alarm to go off.

When I stumbled downstairs to make coffee, I found Katrina on the back porch, curled up against the door, fast asleep.

Things went downhill fast after that. Katrina stopped cooking, bathing, sleeping in our bed. She kept irregular hours, often staying up all night. I don’t know if she left the house, or where she went. I don’t know what, if anything, she ate. All I knew was that we were losing her, that it was only a matter of time before she was gone altogether from our lives. And that’s when I made the decision to take to the road. We’d head west, the four of us, to the land of new beginnings.


We saw them on the way back to the motel. There must have been fifteen or twenty, fanned out at the edge of the road. The high beams from the Subaru lit them up like so many statues, casting long shadows across the field from which they had emerged. Opposite them, to our right, was a stand of fir trees, their pointy peaks registering as a slightly blacker area against the darkening sky to the west. I slowed the car.

“Look, girls,” I said.

Chelsea leaned forward between the seats. Greta, who had been halfway asleep, sat up and craned her neck. “Is Mommy there?” she asked.

I had wondered the same thing, but none of the women in the group resembled Katrina. They were too old or too young, too tall or too short. I got the feeling they had been out here much longer than mere days or hours. And besides, how could she have covered all that distance in so short a time?

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“We should check anyway,” said Chelsea. She unbuckled her seatbelt.

“No, Chelsea,” I said. “Stay in the car. I’ll get us closer.”

I inched the car forward. We stared at them, and they back at us, though I doubt they could see very much with the headlights shining directly on them. Even in the stark light, their faces were darkened, with webs of what might have been paint streaked across them. Most were wrapped in long robes or blankets that hung to the ground, and some wore feathers or garlands around their necks, in their hair. One of them held a long staff, a good ten feet tall, with what looked like the skull of a small animal at the top.

As if on signal, they sprang into motion and bolted across the road, their robes streaming behind them, and disappeared one by one into the trees. The last one to cross hesitated for a moment at the edge of the wood and turned back in our direction. I rolled down the window and shouted, “Hey, wait!” Then she turned and plunged into the darkness.

We drove slowly past the spot where they had disappeared, but the forest had swallowed them, and all was still and silent.

“I want to go home,” said Greta.

“We will,” I said. “Tomorrow.”

Because what else was there to do now but return? Return to the questions, the stares and whispers, the casseroles delivered to the door. The feeling that we had failed at a game whose rules no one understood, least of all the players.

I awoke early the next day to a beam of light in my face. I opened my eyes and saw Chelsea standing by the window with the heavy curtain pulled partway open. A thick slice of morning sun spilled across the double bed where Greta slept, her tiny frame curled around Mr. Tiddles, thumb stuck in her mouth. We’d have to have a talk about that thumb later.

“What do you see, honey?” I asked Chelsea, propping myself up on one elbow.

She showed no sign of having heard me, so I asked again.

“What’s out there, baby doll?”

She turned and stared at me, wordlessly, then dropped the curtain, enveloping us in darkness.


The Feral Wives have left us, this much is clear. But we will carry on without them. We will keep the fires burning, the wheels turning, the engines churning. We will hold down the home front, as best as we can, while we await their return. They seem to be compelled by forces beyond our control, beyond our understanding—perhaps beyond theirs as well. We do not know if they are going forward or backward, or if these directions even hold any meaning in relation to their actions. Perhaps it is enough to say that they are going. And when they get there, if they get there, perhaps someday they’ll come back for the rest of us.

David L. Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Grimoire, Daily Science Fiction, and 365 Tomorrows, among other venues. A member of the Bucks County Writers Workshop, he edited the first two issues of the group’s literary and historical journal, Neshaminy. A long-time museum publishing professional, he is currently director of publications at the Barnes Foundation. He lives in Wyncote with his wife, daughter, and more books than they could possibly ever read.

Dead Women (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Dead Women

The dead women are the topic of conversation at dinner. One in a dumpster. One, a hunter found, in the wooded swamp outside of town. One, with a hand that had fallen open, palm asking please, please don’t forget me. One in a river, three in the swamp. Some degraded beyond recognition. The most recent, on the side of I-10. All together eight women, all of them sex workers, white girls and black girls, found in Jennings, New Iberia, Iowa, Louisiana.

It is not the conversation for polite company, but Moira and John pride themselves on the subversive. Of course, these dead women will be discussed over moderately priced cabs.

I love this about them.

Moira and John host: Moira, a history professor at the local university, and John, a chemical engineer at one of the plants. Some of the guests, I know, and some I do not.

It is the end of Moira’s semester, and they were so happy when I arrived. They demanded I stay the night. You could head out first thing. You could at least have coffee with us. Once, I would have acquiesced, but tonight I’m only thinking of my trip back home, willing myself to stay sober enough to drive. Just an hour, east on I-10, a straight shot home to Lafayette.

On the table sits a big bowl of potato salad, yellow and shining. I watch it while the others stand around the table, chatting and watching Moira and John. Moira has tight, dark curls, and a face that isn’t quite pretty. She is smart and loud and funny, so it doesn’t matter.

From the corner where I stand in the dining room, I can see Moira standing over the stove, telling her husband that the pot is too hot to set on the table.

“A towel?” she yells. “It’ll burn through.”

“Who’s the scientist, Doctor?” John replies. John is tall and all arms and legs. He towers over Moira who looks up at him with her hands on her hips.

I take a seat at the table, put my purse on the chair back, and stare at a bottle of wine. I want more but think of the cops monitoring the highway home.

Finally, John marches out of the kitchen, holding the boil pot with potholders on both of his hands. Moira fusses behind him with a hot plate and a towel. She puts the hot plate down, just by the potato salad, then drapes the towel across it and folds it back over, a sacred ceremony. She gestures to her husband: put the damn pot down.

There is comfort in the steaming pot, the scent of the thick broth, of venison sausage, of pulled chicken.

“Sit!” Moira commands the guests. They mill about, make moves toward the table. “Go sit by Erin,” Moira pushes a man near my age. He is also tall and thin, a young John with shaggy hair. He looks down but obeys. I feel my phone buzz in my purse, against my chair back. Maybe it is Sam. I want to get home to him.

Moira carries bowls of rice from the kitchen and places them in front of people at the table. All together, we are twelve.

With my bowl in front of me, I ignore the man to my side and ladle gumbo into my bowl. I take a large spoon of potato salad and throw it on top. The first bite is life-affirming. No decision I make today is so crucial that it can’t be changed. It is thick and silky and salty.

Moira hovers over the table, making sure everyone has filled a bowl before she fills her own. John watches his wife. Brown, gravy dots his beard.

“Erin, Adam, Adam, Erin,” Moira says, taking her seat at the head of the table. Adam is the man beside me. “Adam is John’s nephew and a Chemical Engineer too. He interviewed at Citgo yesterday.”

I smile, and he gives a small wave.

“I’m not sure I want to leave Texas.”

Moira waves this away. “You’ll love it here.”

He starts to speak, but someone yells down the table to Moira.

“The girl on the highway, her throat was slit. Who do you think killed her?”

“Her arms were covered in bruises,” says someone else.

I feel a creeping feeling in my stomach, drawing away the heat from the gumbo. I refill my wine glass a third time.

Moira shakes her head. “Conspiracy.”

“Serial killer!” John calls from the kitchen. “It’s a serial killer. All of those girls dead in a thirty-mile radius.”

Moira crosses her arms and sits back. “Her throat was slit. Someone didn’t want her to speak.”

“We are talking about eight dead prostitutes, Moira. Doesn’t that sound like a Jack the Ripper?”

She waves her arms at him. She is drunk. “Their innards aren’t decorating the highway. Serial killers like a show.”

“I’m glad I’m not a young woman,” one of the other teachers says. “They are almost all under 30.”

“It’s a cover up,” says Moira. “You have to know these towns. That many dead girls?”

Women, I think. I do not want to think about dead girls or dead women. I want to think about Sam who wanted me to stay home to begin with. His wife is out of town for the whole weekend. I’m not too drunk to drive, I think. I know which exits the cops hang out at. I resolve to stick to the speed limit.


I knew about the previous murders. I wasn’t afraid. They were all sex workers; they worked out of the same hotel. They had rap sheets, drug habits. Crimes like this just remind you that they can happen, not necessarily to you.

The guests carry on.

“The Lafayette paper said –”

“Yes, but did you read—”

They mention neck bruises, the particular mix of semen in the vagina, the dirt and blood under the nails.

“Our paper says it’s a serial killer”

“Parish cops are not incorruptible.”

My stomach turns again. This morning, Sam asked me why I wanted to hang out with “those old people.” We were lying in my bed, his arm around my shoulders, his other hand moving slowly down my stomach. I didn’t bother mentioning that he was closer to their age than mine.

“They’re my friends,” I said. “I haven’t seen them in months. Come with me.”

Sam laughed at this. Of course, he wasn’t going to come.

“I’m going,” I said.

“What about the slit throat?” This question brings me back to this dinner, which now feels as if it will never end. I want my little studio apartment. I want to curl up with Sam, spend a slow Sunday morning with sunny-side eggs and black coffee.

I think about my apartment: my own, without roommates, above a garage, one big room and a tiny bathroom. I feel years have passed since I lived in Lake Charles, even though it has just been one. My parish job pays more than any job before. I don’t miss the years I spent in Lake Charles: grad school and then low-paying jobs. It was easy living, late dive bar nights, weekends at camp houses on Big Lake, a far cry from my Tennessee home.

The apartment, now, is my haven, full of crazy, mid-century furniture inherited from an aunt: a wooden cabinet with an art deco inlay, two short, puffy little chairs that almost curved all the way around you, a wooden desk with hairpin legs. I bought a couch and a bed for myself. It is cozy. I love it because it is my own, because I have the entire say in how it looks, because I can see every corner at once. It feels safe. Amidst the chatter of murder and conspiracy theories, I want nothing more than to be home, door locked to the world outside.

“Hellooo.” Moira is standing at the head of the table. “Erin?”

“Sorry, what?”

“What do you think? Serial killer or conspiracy?”

“It’s really grim isn’t it?” I ask. “Talking about them at dinner.”

“It’s current events.” She is not the least bit worried.

“I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it.”

“You should wildly speculate like the rest of us.” John is smiling, sensing my unease.

“I’m a historian, John. My job is to wildly speculate on events. These just happen to be very recent events.” The attention turns back to Moira and John, and everyone laughs. John gets up to grab another bottle of wine.

I take a sip of my wine. Adam says, quietly, “it is grim, isn’t it? I saw the news, but I hadn’t really thought of it until now.”

“I hadn’t either. I should, but I don’t want to.” Thinking too hard might bring me somewhere unsafe.

He puts a hand on the back of my shoulder. It is warm and friendly. The others start to get up from the table, moving to help in the kitchen or sit on the couch.

I glance at Moira; she is oblivious, talking to John, gesturing with her entire body.

“Do you want more wine?” Adam moves his hand to his own empty wine glass.

“I have to drive back to Lafayette.”


“My boyfriend wants me back.”

I watch the implication cross his face.

“Moira led me to believe otherwise.”

“She doesn’t know.”


I nod and take another sip of my wine. I close my eyes to taste it, let it burn the back of my throat.

“Maybe stay?” he says.

“I’m going to get some air,” I say.

I stand on the back patio, wishing I was a smoker with a reason to be outside. The bricks on the patio are sweating in the December humidity, it’s still above 60 degrees outside and as humid as a swimming pool. I draw a line in the condensation with my foot. I feel too tipsy to drive right now. I worry in an abstract way, that there are too many things to manage, to think about.

I look around their yard. It’s dark, but the patio’s floodlights cast harsh bright stripes on the yard. There are stakes in the garden for tomatoes, but no vines. Beyond the garden, the low chain-link fence cannot hide where the land slopes into bayou. Cattails grow haphazardly. The water ripples at a disturbance. I shiver, thinking of womens’ bodies settling into the murk. I take one deep breath and turn to go inside.

Inside, I pass the guest room where the door is only half shut. Adam is in there; his shirt off, his back to me, and I can see the broad definition of his shoulders. I feel a sudden ache, and I want to crawl to him. He could curl around me. I stand and watch him a second longer, dead silent. He starts to turn, and I run to the bathroom.

I look at my face in the mirror, flushed red with smudged eyeliner. The humidity had melted my face. I squeeze some toothpaste out on my finger, then put it in my mouth and swish it around. I spit, run some water on toilet paper, and wipe off the makeup under my eyes. I check my phone, no word from Sam, but his existence feels like a heavy weight all around me.


            I finally leave around 11:30 with that hour drive ahead. I feel sober. On the way to the highway, I drive through the downtown strip: lots of young people are out in front of the bars drinking and smoking. From the car, they all look beautiful and happy. For a second, I want to stop and join them. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

The highway calms me down. There are few other cars, and the road is well-lit and freshly paved. Why had they insisted on talking about those girls in that vague, glib way of people drinking? Of academics, always at a distance, always analyzing, asking everyone to zoom out.

I call Sam to let him know I am on my way. No answer, and I leave a message. Hey, I’m headed home, you coming over?

The stretch of I-10 between Lafayette and Lake Charles is completely flat, lined by rice fields and littered by fast food restaurants. I know the stretch by the exits: Iowa, Welsh, Jennings, Crowley, Scott. Otherwise, there is little to tell each mile apart. Almost midnight, the streetlights along the highway grow intermittent. Not all of them work. Any traffic has thinned. My mother would tell me to watch out for drunk drivers. Moira told me to watch out for drunk drivers as I left. She had been faux-enraged that I was leaving. “We have everything you could need here! Look at this handsome nephew! If you have to leave, take this food!” The highway stretches infinitely ahead. I try Sam again.

The phone rings, and all I see is Adam, shirtless, back turned. We had barely spoken, but the appeal of this new person is easy, all potential, no baggage and dead weight. I shake him from my head, shake away the option. Sam wants me back tonight. I like that about him, that he wants me close, whether or not he stays the night with me. Still no answer on the line.

I begin to worry, just a little. He can get so irritated when I don’t answer, and our plan is to meet at my apartment, assuming all went well with his wife. Or, as well as it could. He would stay with me for a week or two. It had felt like a good idea to be out of town when he told her, though now I wish I had just stayed home. I don’t know much about his wife; she is a dentist. I can care less about her the less I know about her. Sam doesn’t talk about her much, unless it is to say he can’t get away for the evening.

I realize I have been driving in silence when I pass the Welsh exit. I find the Cajun station; it is playing Zydeco, which is usually irritating. Right now, though, the accordion, the nasally butchered French lyrics are a comfort. They lighten the night.

When I see the Jennings exit ahead, police lights flashed red and blue in my rearview mirror, as if on cue,

“Fuck,” I say. I slow, as I drive up an overpass to park under the streetlight at the top. To my right, the gas stations and fast food restaurants off the exit ramp are bright and not too far away. I stop the car and watch the cop in the rearview mirror, typing into his computer, doing whatever cops do for ages before they finally get out of their vehicles. I am sober; I am certain. I don’t see any other cars on the horizon.

“Fuck,” I say again. I chug an old plastic bottle of water, watching him in the rearview mirror, swishing it in my mouth. The water tastes like plastic. I think of my apartment and its safety. I look out into the night: the low-lit highway, the haze of humidity, the lingering exhaust. This is too vulnerable. This is unsafe.

He gets out slowly, and I can see his beer belly as he shuts his car door. A car races by on the interstate, but he doesn’t even look at it. I take my eyes off of him to watch the car ride away; its taillights shrink to faint red dots on the horizon. I roll down my window; it is still humid out. The moisture billows into my car. I can smell exhaust and tar and wet grass. I reminded myself what I am doing, where I am going, who I am.

“Ma’am” he says.


“You’ve got Tennessee plates?”

I try to make these words make sense.


“Your license plate, it’s not local. Are you from Tennessee?”

“Oh,” I say. “Yes, I moved to Lafayette not too long ago. There was so much to do. I hadn’t thought about them.” Mostly true, I did completely forget about my plates. The car is still in my mother’s name, though I have lived in this state for almost four years. I realize I have avoided the hassle of tickets or getting pulled over my whole life here.

“You need to do that. How do you like Louisiana?”

“Oh,” I start, wondering where this is going. “It’s good.” I try and stop a shiver.

“Good. I’ve never been to Tennessee. What brings you down here?”

“Work.” I try to say it cheerily. My cell phone buzzes once on the console.

“What kind of work do you do?”

I will another vehicle to pass by, for it to be daylight. I want to have made different choices. Sweat pools under my legs on my car seat. I feel it drip from behind my knees.

“Social services,” I finally say. “Social work.”

“You definitely have a Tennessee accent. Have you spent any time in Jennings?”

“I haven’t.”

“You should visit sometime. We got better gumbo than Lafayette.” The fear of a DUI dissipates, but a new one creeps up my spine. I do not want to talk about gumbo on the side of a highway after midnight.

I think of the dead women in Jennings, about Moira’s suspicions of police corruption. A couple of cops had been taken off the force, and it was rumored to be related. That was what someone said at dinner. Or maybe they were on extended leave? Did they always get everyone though? That was the thing about corruption. It runs deep.

“I guess I will.” My phone begins vibrating again on the console. “My husband is probably worrying about me. It’s so late.”

The cop frowns. A truck speed by; my car shudders faintly in its wake.

I swallow and put on my serious voice that I use for clients: “did you want anything?”

“I noticed your plates. You need to change them. It’s a residency requirement.” His casual chat has turned abrupt.

“Yes sir,” I say.

The silence hangs thick between us. I barely dare to breathe.

“Can I go?” I finally ask.

He nods slowly and turns back to his vehicle but doesn’t walk away.

“You should come to Jennings sometime. I’m Mike.”

I look up and out of the window to see him. He isn’t looking at me; he is looking out over the splendors of the exit, at the Shell and Tobacco Plus, Popeye’s and McDonald’s. His hands are on his hips, which makes his belly poke out even more.

“Ok,” I say, quietly.

Mike takes a step toward his car and looks back at me. The right side of his face is illuminated by the lights. He looks sad, maybe. Then, he turns again and walks away.

I move slowly inside my car, scared to move too fast and catch his attention. I put my foot on the brake, slide the car into gear, then nudge the gas. My car moves easily, as if it knows slow movements will calm me.


 My apartment is an over-the-garage, mother-in-law suite, separate from the main house where a family with young children lives. They were happy to rent the apartment to a young professional who was no longer a partying college student. When I pull up in the driveway, the garage floodlight switches on. On the left side of the garage, a wooden staircase leads up to my small deck and door. The porch light is also on. I feel relief to think that Sam must be there.

I turn off the car and grab my purse and the grocery bags with leftovers that Moira sent with me.

Inside, Sam is sitting on my round little chair, and the floor lamp next to him is off. I can only see shadows on his face.

“You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

“I got pulled over.” I put my bags down by the door. “It was really weird.”



“Pulled over? You drive like a mawmaw.”

“I know. It was weird.” The back of my neck prickles.

I walk over to him and lean to give him a kiss. He turns his head to the side. I turn on the lamp next to him and look at him, his long, pronounced features, his Roman nose, his high cheekbones. He gazes at some spot on the floor, away from me.

“Are you okay?” I go to pick up the bags and start to put the food away.


It strikes me suddenly that Sam is drunk. I can smell it now, like a switch has flipped. He doesn’t drink often, but now the scent of whiskey is everywhere. I open the fridge.

“Do you want something to eat? Eggs or toast or something?” I pull out the eggs.

He crosses his arms. “Where were you?”

“I told you. I called when I left Lake Charles. I got pulled over in Jennings.”

“Where’s your ticket?”

“I didn’t get one. It was weird. It was like he just wanted to talk to me.”

Sam stands up. “What happened with the cop?”

“He just asked me a bunch of questions.”

“And let you go?” He says this as if it was the most preposterous thing he has ever heard.

“What’s going on Sam?”

“Was he hot?”

I put the eggs on the counter. “What the hell, Sam.”

He stands over me, a good six inches taller, thin, wiry muscles.

“Was. He. Hot?”

“What the fuck kind of question is that? Jesus Christ. Getting home was hell. You need to drink some water.”

In a second, he has both of my arms in his hands, tight. I pull away, but he grips them firmly. “Just answer me.” I start moving.

“Let go.”

“Answer me, and I’ll let go.”

I look up in his eyes, they are dark and blank. His brow is wrinkled, furrowed.

“No, he wasn’t hot, Sam. He had a beer belly. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he wanted something from me. I don’t know. He let me go. I’m here. What else do you want?”

“The fucking truth, Erin.” He let me go, like he could throw my arms to the floor.

“What happened with Regina?” I move toward him, but I can tell by his face he’s told her nothing.

“I want you to tell me why you took so long to get home. Did you meet someone at Moira’s? Cops don’t just let people go without a ticket that late at night.”

“You need to leave.” I say it firmly, tiredly.

Before I can move, he has both hands around my neck, and I’m against a wall. I try to push his chest, to slap at him, but he is stronger than I can ever be. I cough, choke, struggle for breath. I think of the dead women. How someone was close enough to them to bruise them, to slit their throats. Even if it was a stranger, a serial killer, they had to trust them enough to get that close.

I gasp for breath and let out a ragged scream. Against all logic, I hope the family does not hear me. I think how I do not even want the police to help. Sam loosens his grip and shakes his head. I put my arms between his and push them off of me. His shoulders slump, and he will not look at me.

“Sit down,” I say. “I’ll make you some food.” I watch him walk toward the table and sit, still gazing down.


Earlier, when I was leaving Moira’s house, John had walked me to my car.

“You okay, kiddo?”

“I’m okay. Just a lot going on.”

“Ignore her. She thinks she knows what’s best for everyone. You don’t have to see Adam, we’ll still invite you over.”

I laughed. I had wanted to tell him everything. That I was dating a married man, that he was leaving his wife for me, that I found his possessiveness exhilarating and at times a too much. That I was terrified to leave, to head home, but that my home was the only place I wanted to be. That I was completely spooked.

“Invite me over next time he’s in town,” I said.

John gave me a hug and opened my car door for me.

“Be safe out there,” he said.


I put a frying pan on the hot plate and crack the eggs into a pint glass. I hold each end of the egg between my finger and my thumb and tap it once on the countertop. Then, I break the egg into the glass. I add a little water and beat the eggs with a fork.

“I didn’t tell Regina,” he says from the table.

I keep beating the eggs. I don’t look at him.

“Why not?” The pan is hot, and I pour in the eggs, throw shredded cheese on top.

“I can’t.”

I keep cooking. Maybe the cop had just wanted to talk to someone. Maybe Sam had just had too much.

For the first time all night, I feel not fear or anxiety, but anger.

“Why didn’t you tell her, Sam?”

I hear him inhale, but he doesn’t answer, and I don’t turn around. I finish the eggs and turn off the heat, lifting the pan. I feel the creeping feeling in my neck again, and I whirl around.

I know that Sam is right behind me. I know that the pan hits his arm. He yells, almost a bark, and I strike him again with the pan, maybe on the shoulder. The eggs are on the floor in a glistening mess. I grip the pan and breathe heavily. Sam stares at me and clutches his arm with his other hand. We stand, staring at each other: me, with my back to the stove, and Sam, with the rest of my apartment behind him. I feel the adrenaline course through me; I see how his eyes cannot focus.

I feel anger and power and powerlessness and sadness, and I try to make a decision. I will put the pan down and leave the eggs. I will run cold water over a rag and put it on Sam’s arm. I will send him to his car, and that will be it. I will leave him to explain his injuries, to account for his own scars, to make his own choices about his marriage. I will keep moving forward. I will make it.

Tomorrow, Moira would call to check on me. She would share more rumors and speculation. The murders would never be solved. Moira would invite me over. I would never make that late-night drive again. Maybe I would let Adam wrap his arms around me. Maybe I would always choose something safe over something exhilarating. Maybe not. Maybe I would give in to impulse again and again. I had to own my story. I knew I controlled it. This was my only power.

I put down the pan, but keep my eyes on Sam. I get out a rag, turn on the faucet, and feel the cool water run over my hand.

Allie Mariano’s writing has appeared in CutBankThe Citron ReviewAnother Chicago Magazine, New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune, and other places. This year, her short story collection, Dead Women and Other Stories was a finalist for the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found biking in the Ouachita Forest.

Young Americans (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Young Americans

What was the one thing he couldn’t do without? Like, if he was stuck on a desert island forever. He knew his answer right away but took a few moments to ponder so he didn’t seem so strident. “A pencil and a sketchbook, I think.”

“Sorry,” Raquel said, “but that’s two things. The point is, you can only choose one.”

Harry smirked at her, so alert in her posture at the driver’s wheel. A textbook pose from her drivers-ed class. “You can’t have one without the other–they’re an essential pairing.”

“I don’t make the rules, dad. Only one thing.”

“Well, if it’s a desert island, I guess I only need a stick, so I can draw in the sand.”

She threw her head back and laughed without taking her eyes off the road. “You can say anything in the world, and all you want is a stick?”

He showed his palms. “Hey, I’m a simple man. What would you choose, a graphing calculator?”

She peeled her eyes off the road to roll them at him. With her math mind and zeal for detail–about to embark on a degree in civil freaking engineering–she would surely be able to build a beautiful house on her desert island. But maybe he’d sounded sarcastic? He was about to take it back when she said, “I need my music.”

“So an iPod or something?”

“Just a device with all my music on it, that never runs out of power.”

“Don’t you also need headphones? That’s two things.”

“No, it’s just a device that plays any music I want, any time I want.”

“So a transistor radio, with an infinite library of tunes.”

“I guess so, but it has really good sound.”

“So you invented a magical device with access to every song ever recorded, but I can’t have a sketchbook to go with my pencil?”

She made an I-regret-to-inform you face at the road and shrugged. It was the kind of conversation that could last them all the way to California, which was the whole point of this road trip–a last bout of father-daughter bonding before she vanished into college and California and adulthood. He didn’t know if she was feeling as melancholy about it as he was–how could she, with all the excitement and possibility?–but he felt like he was visiting a beloved house for the last time, turning off the lights, closing all the doors.

Movement in the mirror caught his eye with a spike of adrenaline: a truck’s grill and headlight completely filling the sideview. He twisted around to look out the hatchback. The front end of a very large late-model Ford pickup surged at the window, less than a car-length back.

Raquel, both hands gripping the wheel, shot glances in her rearview. “Holy shit, he came out of nowhere.”

“He’s way too close,” Harry said, teeth clenched. Their cruise control was set at 65, precisely the speed limit on this gently curving stretch of desert highway. The center line was dashed, with no oncoming traffic, and there was no reason why the truck couldn’t just pass. Harry lowered his window. Wind battered their cocoon as he jutted an arm out to wave them around.

The truck fell back then gunned ahead, coming within inches of their back bumper. “Steady, Raqui.” He reached over to kill the cruise control. “Let it slow by itself. Hands on the wheel, nice and steady.”

The truck fell back again, then surged forward and cut sharply to the side. With a burst of throaty engine roar, it passed. Someone in the passenger seat banged on the truck’s door as it zoomed by, with shouts that were torn away in the wind. With an abrupt lurch, it pulled back into their lane and sped away, middle fingers flying from both windows.

“Jesus,” Raquel said, slumping but keeping her hands locked at ten and two.

“You’re fine,” Harry said in a calm voice even as his heart slammed. “You did great. Just slow down and let him get some distance.”

“You should’ve wished for a gun instead of a stick.”


            They pulled off at the next town to switch drivers, and ended up scarfing a dinner of beef jerky, corn chips, and soda pop on a picnic table beside a gas station. A galaxy of moths pinwheeled around the Conoco sign in the twilight. Harry was counting off in his head how many more meals he was going to have with his daughter. This might be their second-to-last one, he thought as he chewed. In two days, everything would be different and irreversible. He didn’t say anything about that, because why paint someone else with your own shadows?

It was another hour to Menden, the town where he’d reserved two rooms in a boutique hotel. Harry drove with his eyes flicking from shoulder to shoulder and mirror to mirror, alert for crossing animals and road warrior pickups. Antelope stood bright-eyed and frozen off in the brush, and small critters zipped across the pavement. He slowed when they came around a bend and saw the strobing lights of a police cruiser at the side of the road.

An ambulance was just pulling away, flashing and shrieking and heading back towards the freeway. Harry slowed to a crawl as a cop standing by the squad car’s bumper waved them past. Their heads swiveled as they went by. A compact car lay on its crushed roof at the end of a rutted debris trail about thirty feet off the road. Yellow caution tape demarcated the whole area.

“Dad,” Raquel breathed. He knew what she was thinking but he didn’t want to say it. She did. “Those assholes in the pickup ran somebody off the road!”

“You think so?”

“They were just looking for it.” She twisted around to stare at the wreckage even as Harry sped up. He wanted to tell her to look away and keep the sight of car wrecks out of her head, the same way he tried to ignore a TV in a bar. Why fill yourself with garbage and pain? But he didn’t want to nag. Besides, she had a good head on her shoulders; she could decide what she paid attention to. In the mirror, the ambulance sped away, a UFO streaking across the desert.


            Their hotel was a chintzy affair, in the only three-story building in downtown Menden. The town was a leafy oasis in a shallow valley, with lunar crags and mesas surrounding. They’d chosen the town as their stopover on the way to LA because of an article Harry had read about a thriving art gallery scene. “The Marfa of Utah,” the article had called it. A tiny community of ranchers and hippies, with a cabal of transplanted artsy weirdos that made the place feel like a sliver of SoHo relocated to a desert oasis. He knew that Raquel would have preferred to stick to the freeway and stay at a Comfort Inn, but she’d agreed to his plan since this would likely be their last road trip together. Artsy weirdos were his tribe, the way math freaks and programmers were hers.

Raquel disappeared into her adjoining room as soon as they got in. She wanted to check in with friends and get a good night’s sleep, so she’d be fresh for their last day of driving. “You should check in too,” she said, wiggling her phone. “Let her know you’ve been thinking about her.”

He waved his hand to dismiss that, but he’d been thinking all day about a short and clever message he could send to the woman he was planning to see in Santa Monica tomorrow night. He splashed cold water on his face, tousled his greying brush of hair, and pulled on a blazer to head out to Main Street, sketchbook in hand.


            A single ink line ascends a blank page, two-thirds of the way up, before cutting to the side to describe a gentle curve, then a collection of interlocking squares and rectangles. The tip of the pen never leaves the page, and its progress across the creamy paper never quickens or slows as it accumulates lines, turning back on itself, dipping into another curve, then finishing with a waving line embellished with tiny tassels.

When he finally lifted his pen, he took a sip of red wine and looked at what he’d done. A straight-backed rocking chair appeared to fly like a kite, high at the end of a string. He chewed his cheek and tap-tap-tapped his pen on the café table. The drawing was decipherable, but lacked zing! He turned the page, this time starting with a wavy ocean horizon across the bottom of the page before sending the string upwards again.

An hour passed, at the end of which he had five pages of flying rocking chair kites. Paging back through them, he found that the fourth one had something special: a looseness to the line, with a higher, smaller chair that really looked like it was pulling at the end of its tether in a landward breeze off the ocean. This was the one.

He pulled out his phone, propped the sketchbook up at an angle to catch the light, and snapped a photo. Then he zapped it off in a message to Jackie in Santa Monica, without explanation. The phone swooshed to confirm delivery.

The table where he sat in the back of the Café Cosmos appeared to be a marble and iron artifact transported here from a Parisian sidewalk brasserie, but it was the only table like that. All the furniture was mismatched, with tapestries and draperies hanging everywhere. Pinpoint Christmas lights gleamed like constellations embedded in the folds of fabric. An arched doorway looked over an outdoor terrace where more tables and chairs were arranged under a pergola that dripped with glowing webs of light.

Besides himself and the bearded man at the counter, the place was deserted. Sixties French pop grooved on the speakers. Gazing through the archway at the softly illuminated courtyard with its archipelago of tables, Harry had a feeling of dislocation. Was this Paris? Istanbul? Barcelona? It felt more like any of those places than a small town in the desert.

The man behind the bar said, “Oh my god!”

Harry glanced up. The guy stood behind the bar holding a phone to the side of his face, eyes wide. Then: “What!”

Their eyes met but the guy didn’t seem to be seeing him. He was fully submerged in whatever scandal was currently unfolding inside his ear. Presently he said, “Jesus, poor Deborah. Does she know yet?”

Harry felt his own adrenaline pumping out empathy for whatever this barista and Deborah were going through. He bent to a fresh page and started a new sketch–another rocking chair kite, this one flying even higher and more distant than the others, tossed by a swirling wind that pulled the string taut. He tried to block out the one-sided phone call. The barista finally wrapped up the conversation and killed the call. He stared at Harry. “Dude, do you drink?”

Harry glanced at his nearly empty wine glass. Before he could answer, the barista came out from behind the counter with a half-full bottle of Bulleit and two shot glasses. He took a seat at Harry’s table and poured two fat shots. He held his up and stared over the top of the shimmering booze with shining eyes. “To life,” he said.

Harry picked up the other shot, raised it. “To life.”

They swallowed and set the empty glasses back down with twin clicks.

The barista—long black hair framing a scruffy face, Jack Sparrow-esque with a scarf and bracelets and a paint-spattered shirt—nodded towards the counter. “That was a death notice.”

“A death notice?”

The barista waved at the archway that opened onto the terrace, a blank white wall on the far side. A scaffold there held paint buckets and tools. “The guy I hired to paint that wall–a muralist–he just got killed in a car wreck on 27.”

“Jesus. Highway 27?”

“Rollover accident, went through the windshield.” The barista poured two more shots.

“Wait–I was just on that highway a couple hours ago. I think I saw that wreck.”

“Completely dead,” the barista said, pouring and raising a fresh shot. “You never know.”

Harry raised his too. “You never do.”

The barista sighed and downed his shot. “Transformation, man.”

“Transformation,” Harry said, and drank.


                       That was the beginning of their transformation from sobriety into drunkenness. They finished the bottle of Bulleit and moved on to a bottle of Johnny Walker, taking occasional breaks to step onto the terrace and smoke a joint that the barista offered up. The guy’s name was Julio and he was originally from Juárez, but he’d grown up in the American southwest, and he’d opened this place just last year. He rose to attend to other tables when people trickled in, but always ended up back at Harry’s table where their shared bottle stood. They’d become boozy compatriots in solidarity against death. Julio tapped the closed sketchbook on the table between them. “Sorry, I cut your inspiration. What were you working on?”

“Have a look, if you like.”

Julio spent ten minutes paging through, making little twitches of surprise or interest. Finally he closed the book and narrowed his eyes at Harry. “You’re a real artist.”

“Well, it’s only a sketchbook. Just the raw stuff.”

“You’re a real artist, though. I can see it.”

“Actually, I’m the art director for a greeting card company. There isn’t as much art involved in that as you might think, but yeah. You could say I do art for a living.”

Julio watched him, a wry wrinkle at one corner of his mouth. His eyes glittered.

Harry knew what was coming next. He saw it as clearly as a sign along the side of the highway.


            Muted light throbbed behind the drawn hotel curtains as Raquel’s voice called from the hall. “Anybody alive in there?” she said, rapping on the door. Only when he dragged himself back to consciousness did he notice that his phone alarm was chirping. His head was splitting with the ghosts of wine and whiskey and weed. He couldn’t quite remember how the night had ended, only that he’d been out past midnight. And had he agreed to paint Julio’s damn mural? The sketchbook lay on the bedside table and he leafed through it. Several pages were torn out, raggedy edges along the spine.

He remembered that he’d sent Jackie a snapshot of a sketch, and when he checked his phone, he saw her reply: Am I the kite, or am I holding the string?

Yes, he replied with a dimple in his whiskered cheek.

Her response, moments later, was a googly-eyed smiley-face, every bit as ambiguous as his reply.


            Raquel laughed when she saw his face as he shuffled into the breakfast room. “Did you get hit by a truck last night?” she said, then sealed her lips, apparently realizing that the phrase was in poor taste after what they’d seen.

“I made a friend,” he said. He sloshed black coffee into a mug and slurped it down standing by the machine, then poured himself some more.

“How about I start us off driving?” she offered.

“Perfect–I can get caught up with my Instagramming.” He meant it as a joke, and grinned, but Raquel gave him an earnest smile and grabbed a couple of bananas from the fruit bowl. Was this what happened on the cusp of the empty nest? The teen transforms into an adult, and the parent regresses back into adolescence. It felt like that switcheroo had been happening for years now, but the pieces had finally clicked into place. All her life, Raquel had been a proto-adult, and Harry had been an overgrown kid. Time had simply sealed the deal.


            Harry swiped left, swiped right, swiped left again, as Raquel held their Prius to a steady 75 across the southern flank of Utah. “How about this one,” he said, reading glasses low on his nose as he read the Tinder profile aloud: “‘Social justice warrior bent on world domination via the synergy of good whiskey, hot jazz, and absurd conversation. Be as sharp as you are tall.’ Wow, I think she’s got my number.”

Raquel blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Dad, please–she sounds amazing, I’ll give you that–but don’t you think you ought to step away from the Tinder for a while? You’ve got a date lined up already. Don’t be a douche.”

“A douche! I’ve never been a douche!”

Raquel snorted. “Said every guy ever.”

Harry hooked an eyebrow at his daughter. “Have boys mistreated you? You never talk about that stuff.”

She scoffed. “Boys mistreat everybody. They’re boys.”

“Well, not every–”

“Dad! You don’t need to worry about me, honestly. Guys really don’t bother me anymore. I can handle myself.”

“Of course you can, Raqui, I know that.” He held his phone out for her to see the woman’s profile pic. “Look at her. She looks like Annie Hall.”

Raquel wouldn’t even glance at it. “My eyes don’t leave the road, dear father. Swipe left, and step away from the app.”

He sighed and clicked the phone off. “I’m just hedging my bets. Jackie could be a total bust.”

“Are these lines from your upcoming part in The Douche Dialogues?” Smirk.

“Okay okay, let’s just concentrate on driving.”

“And what about this ‘friend’ you made last night? What’s up with that?”

“It was just a dude. He owns the café across the street from the hotel.”

“So what if it’s a dude? Love is love.” More smirk.

“Raquel. The road.”

“I know. We’ve met.”


            Across a corner of Arizona, through a descending canyon of shipwreck cliffs, in and out of Las Vegas and then into the traffic-congested desert flats of outer California. Raquel stayed behind the wheel, fueled by bananas and corn chips. Harry’s date with Jackie was set for this very evening, 8 pm, on the Santa Monica pier. He hadn’t seen her since high school, until she’d improbably popped up on Harry’s Tinder when he set his location for Santa Monica in anticipation of this trip. He’d recognized her right away: the big eyes and heart-shaped face, the black curtains of long hair parted straight down the middle. She’d been a stoner freak in high school and Harry had been more a part of the goth weirdo crowd, but they’d connected through mutual friends and spent a season hanging out in her bedroom after school smoking and listening to mixtapes of Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend and Sisters of Mercy. Her natural beauty had intimidated the hell out of him, and he’d never made a move to kiss her, although it was nearly all he thought about during those autumn days. He was certain she never thought of him that way. Then she got a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle, and she wore leather pants and sleeveless Harley tees to school for the rest of the year. The deathrock afternoons came to an end. Senior year, she moved away, and he never saw her again–until he stared into her nearly unchanged face on Tinder twenty-five years later. “Haroldo!” she’d responded to his initial message, the only one who’d ever called him that. “You haven’t changed! Did you sell your soul to the Devil? How much did He give you?”

He’d changed plenty, of course. His hair was still thick, but it was entirely grey now. Still, his face was thin, but in a hollowed-out way. Were there really any traces of his 16-year-old self left? He peeked in the sideview mirror where the sun fell directly on his face. Death Valley unspooled all around. He looked haggard, dark under the eyes. Not just hungover but used up. Jackie was not going to even recognize him tonight. Maybe he should just cancel? What were they going to do anyway–sit on the pier and google deathrock tunes on their phones?


            The sun pinned them from above. Harry felt better after Barstow, but Raquel wanted to keep driving. He tried to engage her in conversation about her living arrangements, sharing a one-bedroom off-campus apartment with a girlfriend from high school, Priya, but Raquel kept her responses monosyllabic. He started to get the feeling that she wanted to be behind the wheel as an excuse for avoiding conversation. By this time next week, he’d be on the highway back home, alone, and he’d be childless. She’d be a grown person, out in the world, and all his biological duties for propagating the species would be over. “You know, Raqui,” he said, looking out over the plain of cacti marching off to the sun blasted horizon, “the finest line is knowing when to trust, and when to be on guard.”

She glanced at him, then scowled at the road.

“And at your age, you need to err on the side of being on guard.”


“I think I’ve been more of a friend than a dad these past few years, and that was probably a mistake. I’m sorry, sweetie.”

She glanced at him again, starting to look alarmed now. “Dad–I get it. But you have to get over mom.”

“What? I’m fine. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Don’t get all guilt-trippy about it, dad. You did the best you could–the best anyone could. We’re both going to be fine.”

He looked back at the cactus procession. “The best I could,” he said. It sounded like an epitaph. He kept quiet until they entered the outer freeways of LA.


            The hug and kiss that Priya gave Raquel when they arrived outside the apartment confirmed a suspicion in Harry’s mind. Raquel’s grin was supernatural, a vision of a long, rich future full of love and challenge and triumph.

They unloaded the car in a headlong rush, Raquel dumping her things in what was clearly Priya’s bedroom. The ocean was visible out the front window in a sliver of space between two buildings across the street, partially eclipsed by a leaning burst of palm trees. But the air was laced with sea salt and sunlight. Twilight flared over the water as Priya poured them each a shot of tequila. They toasted standing on the balcony where the landward breeze played with their hair. “To fathers,” Priya said.

“To the future,” Raquel said. She leaned into him and clinked her shot to a second time and said, softly, “To you, dad. Thank you.”

Harry grinned. “To love,” he said, and all three of them blushed, and downed their shots to hide it.

Raquel looked a degree of magnitude happier than he’d ever seen her, almost to the point of not being recognizable. For his part, he felt sadder than he’d almost ever felt, except for the days and weeks following his wife’s death. But tonight was a different kind of sadness, tinged with a certain satisfaction. He’d gotten his child this far, after all, and she was going to be all right. Even better–she was going to thrive. You could tell just by the look of her.

Dinner plans took shape quickly. Raquel and Priya were meeting friends of theirs at a local watering hole. Priya invited him, but Raquel put an arm around her roommate’s shoulders and said, “Actually, my dad’s got a hot date tonight.”

“Oh?” Priya said, eyes wide. “Who’s the lucky girl or guy?”

Harry waved a hand. “Just an old friend. We’re going to compare aches and pains.”

Raquel nudged Priya. “Old high school sweethearts–and she’s actually hot. I checked out her profile.”

The tiny apartment became a whirlwind of primping and Fiona Apple, and before he knew it the two girls were heading out. Harry realized that his last dinner with his daughter had already come and gone. He thought of that picnic table in the weeds beside the gas station in Nowhere, Utah, where they’d chowed beef jerky and Fritos, in what had turned out to be their last sit-down meal together as father and child. From here on out, they’d just be two adults. A stricken smile played on his face as first Raquel and then Priya give him a kiss on the cheek.

“Do twice as much listening as talking,” Priya said as she went out the door, finger in the air. “Make her feel respected.”

“Who?” Harry asked, bewildered.

“The hot date.”

“Ah, of course.”

Then they were gone and he was alone on the balcony with an empty shot glass. The sun melted towards the edge of the world. He went back inside to put himself together.


            He found the arranged spot on the pier–the farthest end, under one of the last lamp posts–and leaned there in his blazer, shivering with the twilight breeze that whipped off the water. A guitar dude was set up nearby with a tiny amp and microphone, playing folky covers of old Bowie. The guy’s CDs were for sale in his open guitar case for twenty dollars. Harry watched him from his lamp post, feeling annoyed to have a soundtrack imposed on the moment, even if it was Starman.

Halfway through Let’s Dance, a woman walked up to him on clacky heels. She wore a gauzy scarf around dark hair, and kept her hands plunged into the pockets of a long leather coat, a vintage find by the looks of it. Her smile was immediately familiar even if the rest of her was not. “I was waiting for Ch-ch-changes, but it was starting to get cold.”

“Jackie. Damn, you look great.”

They shared a hug, then went back to shoving their hands in their pockets against the wind. “So you’ve been waiting a while?” he said.

She waved at a spot a few lamp posts away. “I just wanted to get a look at you first, make sure you were yourself.”

“So I passed that test! I’ve been wondering if I’m myself, you know.”

She squinted at him. “You’ve improved a lot with age, Haroldo. It’s weird.”

“A lot?”

She regarded him, shaking her head, almost angry looking. “Men get to do that–sexy aging? As if you didn’t have all the advantages already. Dudes just never stop getting away with it, right?” Then she broke into a grin.

“Well,” he said, “you’re one to talk. You look amazing.” He wasn’t even sure yet if he meant that, only that it had to be said. But his first glimpse of her suggested that her features had sharpened in a fortunate way. The rosy roundness of her face had diminished, replaced with sculpted angles and lines. He pushed an extra spark into his eyes.

Her look matched his. “Sounds like we’re both going to get lucky.” She laughed and slipped her arm through his.


            Dinner in a bistro along the boardwalk where rented beach cruisers coasted past and people strolled as night settled over the shore. He’d expected to reminisce about Bauhaus and all the elements of their junior year as kindred outcasts—the Aquanet, the Benson & Hedges, the Bartles & Jaymes, Ronald Reagan’s bullshit, their future visions of themselves as famous artists and rock stars—but none of that came up. Instead, she asked question after question about his life, his daughter, his work, his prospects. Harry found himself answering as fully and truthfully as he could, aware that he was dropping the ball on Priya’s advice. He finally said something about that. “You know, my daughter’s ‘roommate’ told me to listen twice as much as I talk, but you’re not really letting me do that.”

Jackie leaned forward in the circle of spotlight that illuminated their small table. The tablecloth was littered with crusts and crumbs of the baguette they’d demolished with their bowls of French onion soup. “Why did you say it like that? With air quotes?”

“‘Roommate’? Well, I think there’s more going on that she hasn’t shared with me.”

“But she did share with you. She brought you into the apartment where she’s going to live with this person, and she didn’t try to hide the hug and the kiss, or any of it. That was sharing.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“And it sounds like this ‘roommate’ knows what she’s talking about when it comes to dating scenarios.” They both fingered the slender stems of their wine glasses.

“Okay then,” he said, “now I ask the questions.”

She laced her fingers in front of her, squared her shoulders, and beamed.


            She’d been married, ten years, to a chef. During that time, she’d gone to culinary school as well, and they’d opened a restaurant together in Silver Lake. A gourmet vegetarian joint with craft cocktails. But the husband kept screwing the waitresses and hostesses, and she’d finally left him and opened her own place not far from here.

“Why aren’t we eating there?” Harry wanted to know.

“It’s where I freaking work, you know? Besides, I always like to see what the competition is up to.” She looked around with slitty eyes, tenting her fingers together.

“That explains all the cockroaches in the soup.”

Her eyes popped for just a second before they disappeared into crescents under the smile that was unchanged after all these years.


            They finished a bottle of wine, then walked back to her condo where they had sex, watched a couple episodes of The Office, had sex again, and fell asleep on her couch. Harry awoke, disoriented. The dawn sky was a grey sheet hanging over a grey ocean outside her balcony door. Jackie’s hair curtained over his face as she leaned down to peck a kiss on his forehead. She was in a bathrobe, puttering in the kitchen where a kettle started to whistle.

“Why didn’t we do this twenty-five years ago?”

“You were too shy,” she said, heading for the stove.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A gull hovered in mid-air, almost close enough to touch, just beyond the balcony railing. “You mean if I’d just said something?”

“Well, it depends what you said.” She joined him on the couch with a tray of tiny earthenware teacups and an iron pot that wafted the scent of jasmine.

He pondered. “So it took me twenty-five years, but I finally found the words. Which ones were they?”

“It was all of them, in combination.” She poured steaming ribbons into both cups. “Plus general horniness, and a desire to recapture youth. And the Bowie songs. And the wine. Don’t forget the wine.”

“I won’t forget anything.”

Up close like this, in the pale dawn without make-up or wine goggles, he could see the age on her face, but it worked for her. He hoped the same was true of himself. She seemed to like looking at him, at least.

“You said you were only going to be here a couple days,” she said quietly. “Is that still your plan?”

“No. At this point my plan involves never leaving this couch.”

“I see.” She scrunched her lips in thought. “That means we’ll probably end up screwing a few more times before I get tired of you and kill you.”

“A few? Could be worth it.”


            He ended up staying two more days, ostensibly occupying the couch at Raquel and Priya’s tiny place, but actually spending both nights at Jackie’s. She was gone for twelve hours both days and came home exhausted and already a little drunk to find Harry sitting on her balcony making sketches of the street below. The rooftops, the palm crowns, the ocean horizon. She never made him feel unwelcome or that she wasn’t happy to see him, but he knew that the time had come for him to go after they skipped the sex on the third night. He’d dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, and it was time for him to ease back into his own and get it flowing again.

His farewell dinner with Raquel ended up being a home-cooked affair with Priya, who helped him slice onions and garlic. They rustled up a batch of linguini and asparagus with cream sauce. It was simple and good enough. “I never really taught her to cook for herself,” he said to Priya as they were plating nests of noodles. Raquel was setting the table out on the balcony under a web of lights. Strange music made puzzle pieces in the air. “I meant to teach her how to make salsa, and omelets, and beef bourguignon. All she ever wanted to make herself was ramen and cereal.” It felt like an admission of failure.

Priya caught the look on his face and patted the counter between them. “Well, Mr. Stills, you got her this far. Now she’s got people.”

“Please, call me Harry.” He grinned into the warmth of her smile. “And thank God for people.”

They ate under the gradual twilight with the ocean murmuring. “To the future,” he offered, and they clinked their white wines. There was nothing else momentous in their conversation, just a lot of easy chatter about TV shows and antique shops and coffeehouses that stayed open late. Harry felt himself faking a smile at first–he really would be leaving, any minute now–but before long the smile was real. With a crust of bread he drew a face on his plate in a puddle of sauce.

Later, as he was saying goodbye to Raquel at the curbside, she gave him a tight hug that went on and on. Finally, wet-eyed, she pulled away, gave a smile, and ran back up the walk without a word. Harry raised a hand but she didn’t see it before slipping inside. He almost called out, then let her wordlessness linger. What would more words do? He drove out of town, out of the city, in no particular direction.


            The Pacific Coast Highway held his attention for a few days. He found rooms in small towns and motels in a meandering route that took him back over the mountains and into the same desert they’d crossed a couple of weeks earlier. His sketchbook had grown full of cross-hatched drawings of vineyards seen from rest areas, lines of telephone poles marching to the horizon, distant thunderheads.

Coming back into Menden in southern Utah, he cruised down Main Street under the noon sun. There it was on the side of the café, on the courtyard wall: a rocking chair straining at the end of a kite string, buffeted in the wind. Bold black lines on a white background, with colorful clouds and mesas along a low horizon. Someone’s name–not his own–was stenciled in the lower right corner, along with birth and death dates. A dedication, he supposed, to the late muralist. He saw it all while stopped at a light and moved on when a horn bleated behind him.

Freaking Julio–the café guy had stolen his sketch! Or–here Harry paused and considered–had he offered it to him? He couldn’t remember the details. Now his design had been recreated on the side of the wall, with Harry’s name nowhere in sight. He smiled to himself. Am I the kite, he thought, or am I holding the string?

He sat pulled over at the side of the road, looking at the wall. The chair strained against the line, reaching for the sky. You make things you love, you send them into the world, and then you let go. And then the next thing happens, and the next thing after that.

A.C. Koch is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has been published in literary journals such as Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, the Columbia Journal, and F(r)iction. A story of his was selected by Robert Olen Butler to win the Raymond Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine in 2003. In addition to short fiction, he is an aspiring novelist, and recently completed a draft of a generation-spanning story about a small group of humans leaving a dying Earth to settle a new planet. He lives in Denver, Colorado, where he teaches linguistics at the graduate level and makes music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.

Twitter and IG: @henry_iblis; Music: firstimers.bandcamp.com

Sometimes I Need To Be Dragged

by Jeff Klebauskas


Steve hasn’t left his apartment in a week. The panic attack hit him while he was walking to the restaurant he works at over on 12th and Passyunk. Katrina told me that he told her that every time he sees the glowing La Birra sign hanging over the building’s brick façade, it happens; he hears a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside his own brain—BOOOOOM—then his vision starts to dim, and he has to run back home before he faints.

He’s sitting on the bare futon across from me. I watch him pull strands of tobacco from a plastic pouch then haphazardly scatter the dried leaves along the concave of a white zigzag. The tobacco that doesn’t make it into the final product lands on the coffee table underneath his outstretched arms, where it lays with all the other tobacco that didn’t make it into the previous final products. He doesn’t seem to notice the pile forming as he twists the cigarette and lights up. This is the ninth time I have seen him do it, and I’ve been here for, maybe, forty-five minutes.

We’re posted up in his third-floor apartment on 5th and Mifflin in his half-assed living room with its two decrepit pieces of furniture, its random posters hanging unevenly on the wall, and its single wooden bookshelf in the corner that looks like it was made by him in shop class back in seventh grade because it was.

He’s lying on the futon now, shirtless and supine, with his knees bent and pointed at the ceiling like his eyes. Gravity is pulling the hem of his black mesh shorts down mid-thigh. There’s a gigantic tear in the fabric running up the right leg. He takes a drag, exhales the fumes and says, “I just…” He stops to spit out stray bits of tobacco then continues. “I just couldn’t maintain anymore. I had to quit that job, felt like my heart was dying.”

I’m over here on the beat-up loveseat, finishing off my third bottle of Red Stripe, staring at the flyers on the wall with our defunct band’s name on them.

There’s us in Chattanooga, 2006. There’s the promo poster for that east coast tour we did. There’s that basement show we played in Long Island City in front of seven people. We left with fifteen dollars and an eighth of dirt weed.

Decent memories, but I’m just not into music anymore. I uprooted myself, settled in a city that isn’t my own in search of something more than what I was given. I’m hanging on because I don’t know where else to go. I’m thirty now. Too old to start over, too old to move forward. I’m stuck.

Pete sold his guitar, moved back to Scranton. I haven’t talked to him in almost a year, but I heard he’s got a job with the Sewer Authority. I guess that means he’s doing okay. Katrina will be fine. She’ll do something with that Psychology degree. So now it’s just me and Steve and by the looks of him, I’m starting to worry it’s just going to be me soon.

I slam the empty bottle down on the table and check the stash by my foot on the floor. There’s only two left, but there’s more in the fridge. I grab a fresh one, pop the top off with Steve’s Bic, start pounding it down while he laments some more.

“We weren’t supposed to end up like this, Josh. We were supposed to have an impact.”

I try to balance him out.

“Katrina really wants to talk to you.”

Which is true. She said he had stopped speaking to her, that when she told him she was leaving he just stared at her like she was an inanimate object. I told her I’d go see him. So here I am. And he hasn’t gotten up from the futon the whole time.

I lay down some Hallmark card shit.

“She cares about you. Don’t push her away.”

“I’m just gonna keep disappointing her. Everything’s too fuckin’ much.”

I know exactly what he is talking about. It happened to me when I was going into work a few months back. I was on the 57, heading west on JFK Boulevard, packed into the bus like a book on some bibliophile’s shelf, each person a different story, a different set of themes, a different purpose. My brain said, Josh THINK, and I thought, there’s so much pain out in the world, just floating, and my problems are just a speck, a dot on the map amongst billions of dots. I am no longer on the outside looking in. The collective mind frame applies to me. I am just like everybody else.

I bolted from the bus when it stopped at 19th Street, four blocks before I was supposed to get off. I ran through the swarm of people crowding every single inch of the sidewalk, trying to get away from something, terrified because I had nowhere to run to. The panic attack left me gasping for air on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, grasping my cellphone as if I could call someone for help. I ended up calling in sick instead. I just couldn’t mop floors and scrub toilets that day. I couldn’t bottle up the emotions that came with the realization that my existence is inconsequential enough to make it through the eight-hour shift. I hailed a cab, went home, and collapsed on my bed.

Now I just walk everywhere, haven’t ridden a bus since.

But I’m good. I’ve scarred over. Steve will too if he just stops caring, if he comes to grips with his own worthlessness and realizes there is no point to any of this, that nobody in the world is right about anything, that we were all born directly in the middle of the human continuum with no clear understanding of anything that has happened, that is happening, that will happen. There is no need to have an impact.

I give him the abridged version.

“Stop thinking so much.”

He’s not listening to me. His face is in the crook of his elbow now, lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s not moving.

I go over to the open window, check out the scene on 5th. It’s July—seven-thirty on a Saturday night. Nothing crazy. No violence. No anger. Just kids running around on the sidewalk, their moms watching them from the stoop, smoking Virginia Slims, and yelling, “Hey! Get back over here,” every time they get too close to the street. Just hipsters walking their hipster pit bulls. Just the non-stop hum of about fifteen air conditioners hanging out of the row apartment building across the street.

I say over my shoulder, “Come look at this, Steve. Look at all these people, just out here living. They don’t care about having an impact.”

I get nothing in return.

I walk away from the window, downing my fourth Red Stripe, and place the empty bottle on the coffee table next to the other three then pop open another, the last one I have out here.

Steve is in the same position on the futon, the cherry on his cigarette about two centimeters away from singeing his lip.

I grab the American Spirit, take the last drag, then drop it into one of the empty beer bottles on the coffee table.

He doesn’t move. He doesn’t care that I’m here at all.

I backhand his knee.

“You gotta get out of the house, man, seriously. You’re creeping me out.”

I take down the rest of my beer in two huge gulps, and I’m still thirsty.

I have to peel my chucks off the sticky, beer-soaked linoleum floor as I walk across the kitchen towards the fridge.

The place is an eyesore. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. A lead paint warning duct-taped to the fridge by the landlord, reminding his tenants that if the wall chips and the dust gets in their lungs their risk of getting cancer doubles. Two baby mice on the floor in the corner, squeaking and flailing their tails back and forth, trapped in that glue trap for the rest of their short lives. Remnants of Katrina: the flowers on the table, the quadruple photobooth pics of her and Steve magnetized to the fridge next to the lead paint warning, the organic, cruelty-free health food on the shelf—dried seaweed chips, dried kale chips, dried apricots looking like shrunken heads, all lifeless and small. The inside of the fridge itself is mostly empty except for my four Red Stripes and a bottle of Sriracha.

I grab my beers and head back out into the living room.

And there’s Steve in the same position.

I try to pull him out of his hole, drag him up to my level where nothing matters anymore.

“What’s up with all that seaweed out there?”

I get nothing back. Well, not exactly nothing. He’s got his leg resting on his kneecap, toes tapping the air like they’re slamming down on a bass drum pedal. That’s something, I guess.

I say, “So, what you’re done talking now?”

More nothing.

I’m running short on ideas.

I’m out.

The streetlights are on now. The kids and their mothers have gone in, but those air conditioners stay humming as I press on alone, all loosened up and drunk, looking for something to get into. I got four bottles of Red Stripe banging around in my front hoodie pocket, pulling the neck of my sweatshirt down, making me look like a slob. I’m down for whatever.

I take a right on Mifflin. A plan takes shape—follow this up to 20th. There’s a show at JR’s tonight. I’ll run into somebody I know.

Identical row homes loom as I stumble-stomp down the sidewalk like I own the place. Watch me drain this bottle of Jamaican pride and ditch the empty in the community garden off Broad Street. Watch me take a piss behind the elementary school where that fight scene from Rocky V was shot. Watch me tower over restaurant-goers eating their Americanized Mexican dishes on Passyunk as I strut my stuff towards the bar.

I hit 20th, take a left. Two blocks up I see figures on the corner where JR’s stands. I walk a block, make out the glowing tips of cigarettes. I walk a half a block, see who’s holding them—Joan Jett-looking chicks decked out in leather and denim, minuscule mini-skirts hiked up to their upper thighs, almost revealing everything they’re working with.

I get to the corner, try to bum a cigarette off one of them, but they’re having none of it. Maybe it’s because I tripped when I was stepping onto the sidewalk and instinctively grabbed one of them by the shoulder to keep from falling on my face. Or maybe it’s because after I regained my balance I said, “Yo, let me get a cigarette,” instead of apologizing.

Whatever. They don’t know me.

I pull the door open and get blasted with a wall of noise. Every band sounds bad to me anymore. They’re all the same. Everything’s been done before.

I check out the flyer on the wall to see who’s playing tonight.

Suburban Death Squad from Boston.

Manchurian Candidate from St. Louis.

Headlining is Philly’s own ASSASSINATION.

I barrel through the small group of people hanging out by the entrance. Will’s working the door. He knows me. He won’t make me pay the cover. He’s guzzling a forty, looking bored, staring at his phone. When he sees me, he perks up.

“What’s up, Josh?”

I pull a bottle out of my hoodie pocket.

“What’s up, what’s up? You got something I can open this with?”

He says, “Yeah. Don’t let the bartender see that, though.”

He hands me a Bic. I pop the top, drink, swallow, make a face at him like, I don’t gotta pay, right?

He gestures toward the room the band is playing in with his head like, Nah, go ahead. We clink our bottles together, and I head into the show.

I’m watching three kids from St. Louis do their thing on stage. I don’t know their exact story, but I can fill in the blanks. Their band fund’s in the red. They’ve drawn less than twenty people at every show they played. They believe in what they’re doing.

I home in on the bass. The kid’s playing bullshit lines. Basic octave patterns in nothing but minor scales. Old news. I want to stop the whole charade, tell him that my Fender did that a decade and a half back when I first bought the fucking thing.

They finish their set and get a weak round of applause from the audience.

Good. Manchurian Candidate needs to know how unimportant they are, so they can grow up, get all bitter and apathetic like the rest of us.

By the time ASSASSINATION takes the stage, I’m in the back polishing off my last Red Stripe, brooding in the dark, analyzing the scene in front of me. The alcohol depression is starting to hit. I’m catching nothing but bad vibes.

The singer is bouncing around like a straight-jacketed maniac in some antediluvian insane asylum. I estimate his age at nineteen, maybe twenty. Only people that young get that excited. The measly crowd is already starting to thin out, and they haven’t even finished their set. They finish up with a song called ‘Dachau.’ The lead singer introduces it by ranting about the evils of Nazi concentration camps like he’s bringing something new to the table. The drummer kicks off the song with the prototypical four stick clicks and the noise starts, all redundant and fast and sloppy and indistinguishable to the untrained ear. I can tell what they’re going for, but it’s not working. The drummer is a half-step behind on his blast beats, and the guitar player has a lazy right hand—his strumming can’t keep up with his fingering. The bass player’s holding it down though. I guess that does something for me.

‘Dachau’ is done in less than a minute. The singer sends out the word that they have t-shirts for sale in the back. Ten dollars.

Will’s counting money when I get over to the door. One of the St. Louis kids is standing in front of him. He gets his twenty dollars then walks outside.

The cash count continues, one-dollar bills with the occasional five. Without looking up, Will says, “So how you been, Josh? Y’all playing again or what?”

I scoff at the question.

“Hell no. I can’t do this shit anymore. Pete’s gone, and Steve won’t even leave his apartment.”

One of the Boston kids comes up to Will for his pay-out. He’s full of life, starts telling a story about state troopers searching their van somewhere outside Atlanta.

Will feigns interest, gives him his twenty-dollar cut of the door money then goes back to counting. The kid catches on, leaves without finishing his story.

I watch him as he goes then I say to Will, “I feel so out of place. I think I’m getting too old for this.”

He takes a sip from his Olde English, smirks.

“Josh, you were too old for this when you were nineteen.”

The bands are loading equipment into their vans when I get outside. Busted-up cabs and heads are lifted, strategically placed into the back like they’re pieces to a puzzle.

I remember doing that. Bass cab first, then the drum hardware case, then the guitar cabs, then the bass drum. Toms and cymbals and the snare go on top of the hardware case. Guitars get slid in between the cabs and the side-rear window. The van had to be packed in that order, every night, or else nothing would fit.

I’m sitting on the steps that lead up to JR’s, eyeing them all down.

Boston regurgitates the van search in Atlanta. St. Louis talks about how bad their van smells after living in it for three weeks in hot-ass July. Philly regales their listeners with the story about that time in Chicago when they came back to the van from the house they were staying at to find all the windows smashed.

Everything revolves around the van when you’re on tour. It protects you from the elements when you’re two weeks in and starting to crack. You can crawl in the back after all the equipment is loaded into the venue, and your bandmates are out wandering around Cincinnati or Syracuse or D.C. and just lay there, milk the small amount of alone-time for all it is worth.

Will comes out. I shift my body, give him room to walk down the steps. When he gets to the sidewalk, he half-turns to me and says, “You good to get home? I’m riding with ASSASSINATION.”

“Yeah, yeah I’ll make it.”

Now it’s just me.

I head north on 20th. It’s a little past midnight, and the streets are basically empty except for homeless cats and an old homeless woman who asks me for something, but I dip by her. Her life is just something I can’t deal with right now.

I hope that Korean joint on the corner of 18th and Mifflin is still open, so I can get more beer. I look both ways at 19th and see it to my left—the 57-bus rolling up the street towards me.

The trigger.

My brain says, Josh THINK. I think about what Will said. How I was always too old, always hateful, always self-absorbed. It all comes full circle. The beer dulls the panic but gives the low mood swing a wide berth to work with. I don’t fight it. Let it drag me down to Steve’s level where everything matters. I hear a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside my own brain, like an atomic bomb explosion in slow motion.


Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia and is currently an MFA student at Temple University. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Confetti Head.

Good Grief

by Pete Able

FIC_Able pic

It was September, the beginning of a new school year, and I was having a snack in the teacher’s room when I was told about my parents’ accident. I left the school without hardly a word to anyone, knowing I’d never go back. I needed time to figure things out and, also, I’d just inherited several million dollars. As devastated as I was, it was some consolation to know that I’d now be free to follow my dream of not being a middle school math teacher. For the time being at least, I could not be one to my heart’s content.

The realization of this particular dream began that night when I drank several vodka martinis on a school night and continued into the next afternoon when I got out of bed at the crack of noon and went to IHOP for waffles. I went with the Belgian and gobbled up three. Then it was back to my place for Bloody Marys. I kept up this general routine for several weeks. I thought the alcohol and comfort food would help me to grieve, and, in some small way, I think they did help soothe the confusion as I learned how to deal with the loss.

I’d made the arrangements and gone to the funeral but, after that, I was mostly avoiding friends and family. I hunkered down in my miniature, one-story, two-bedroom house and didn’t take any calls. But one night I got a call from a familiar number that I decided to answer. It was the principal of the school, expressing his condolences and asking how I was doing. I said, “Oh, you know, fine, more or less,” but I don’t think my tone and slurred speech were very convincing.

“Andy, a lot of people in positions like yours benefit from support groups.”

I was confused and looked around my messy house.

“My position?”

“Yes, needing help is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t know…”

“The meetings are pretty innocuous. You could even give a fake name.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Anonymity can be like a suit of armor in a way.”

I was just inebriated enough to jot down the address of the group he’d researched for me. With a martini in hand, almost everything sounded like a good idea, or at least highly possible.


The group met at 2pm in the basement of a church on Pacific Avenue, not far from the Atlantic City beach where I’d spread my parents’ ashes into the surf. That Wednesday I limited myself to one mid-afternoon Bloody Mary and drove into town to see what it was all about. I figured, at the very least, it would be educational. As a former educator I was a big proponent of getting a well-rounded education.

The church was an ornate, faded, stone structure. It had two short spires at the front corners and one taller spire in the center. Or was it a steeple? I didn’t know. It was a lovely building. Unfortunately it represented something I didn’t believe in and couldn’t condone. But I had to admit the architecture and stained-glass above the large wooden doors were beautiful, and there was organized religion to thank.

I’m not a tall man but still managed to bang my head on the ceiling as I made my way down the stairs. The floor was green shag carpet and the air had a musty smell, like someone’s outdated and forgotten fallout shelter. It could have been the piles of books, the exercise equipment in the corner, or the stacks of canned food on the shelves, but there was definitely an end-of-days feel to the space.

Ten metal folding chairs were arranged in a circle and one open seat remained in between a large, mannish blond woman and a small, Middle Eastern man in a mechanic’s blue jumpsuit. As I took my seat the man smiled a warm but crooked smile, made more noticeably crooked by his thin black mustache.

The head guru in charge, a middle-aged woman with tan skin, black hair, dark red lipstick and a clipboard resting on her crossed legs, welcomed me as a newcomer and asked if I’d like to introduce myself. I kept it short.

“My name’s Andy. I’m 28. I’m a middle school math teacher. I recently lost my parents in a freak skydiving accident. I inherited some money and took an indefinite leave of absence from my school. I’m doing okay but well… I guess I’m here because I’m wondering if maybe I could be handling it better.”

The guru woman asked me some questions, as did some of the other members, but I felt a little squeamish about getting too personal with a bunch of strangers. When I told them as much, the guru checked something off on her clipboard and we moved on to focus on other group members’ issues. Space freed up in my chest when the attention was taken off of me.

The youngest member by far was a teenaged girl named Sam who recently lost her first boyfriend to leukemia. She was having issues with depression and anorexia and was struggling to keep up with her college-prep classes. She kept a sullen expression, had a lip ring, streaks of green and purple in her hair, and said “fuck” a lot.

Javier, a short, muscle-bound Mexican man, was dealing with the grief of having his wife and two small children deported. He sent almost all of the money he made in his landscaping business to them but he still felt guilty and wasn’t sure staying in the States was the right thing to do. After wrapping up his share he said, “It’s so hard,” and sobbed into the crook of his muscly, tattooed arm.

The Middle Eastern mechanic sitting beside me introduced himself as “Sai, the widower.” His wife had drowned in an undertow in the Atlantic two years earlier and he was lonesome and sad and on the verge of being suicidal. In a soft voice he thanked everyone present for being there because, “this group really helps.”

To this Sam said, “You’re welcome but, just so you know, I’d literally rather be anywhere else.” So far, she was my favorite.

A woman, probably in her forties, with long blond hair and two impressive front chompers, whose name I didn’t catch, talked rather eloquently about grief as a process. Among other things, she said, “I thought I’d be through at least some of the five stages by now. And yet I keep going back and forth between them as if they were the strings of a banjo and someone was plucking out a complex melody.”

Eventually, the woman leading the group, whose name was Jasmine, “like the tea,” thanked everyone for their shares and closed the meeting, saying next week there would be Rice Krispies Treats courtesy of Sarah, a silent, frumpy woman wearing a plaid shawl sitting on her right.

It was a heavy first group. All of that concentrated sorrow and grief sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I was angry and then depressed from one second to the next on the drive home along the marsh on Route 30. I was sure I was experiencing at least three of the five stages of grief myself, and all at the same time. I didn’t feel under control again until I was starting in on my third martini, swallowing my ninth stuffed olive.

It seemed more often than not my dinner consisted solely of vodka and vodka-soaked martini olives.


I took up dancing after letting loose one night at a local bar. I had always been a terrible dancer and avoided it so as not to embarrass myself. But now I didn’t care. It came as a much-needed release. I’d go out, have several drinks or more, and then sway or shake my parts around to whatever music happened to be playing. Over the next few weeks, I would singlehandedly clear more than a dozen dance floors.

Whenever I found myself dancing alone I’d make my way to the bar, but, the moment I’d see someone starting up again, I couldn’t stop myself from getting back out there and executing more of my awkward, chaotic moves. Not once did a woman engage with me on the dance floor, and if they had been talking to me at the bar before they saw me dance, they quickly shut that down after seeing me dance.

“What were we talking about before?” I’d ask.

“I think you were mostly talking to yourself,” they’d reply.

“Yeah, that checks out.”

Sometimes I was too drunk to feel lonely. Other times I was too lonely to feel all that drunk.

I tried making waffles late one night but the batter came out thicker than cookie dough and I couldn’t get it off of the spoon.


I remembered to duck my head as I made my way down into the basement of the church my second time there. I don’t remember the real name of the church now, but I got to thinking of it as The Church of Perpetual Sorrow. I couldn’t recall anything bumming me out more than that group did. In fact, I surprised myself a little by going back. Each time I descended those stairs I felt like I was attending my parents’ funeral all over again.

“When I lost my little Bobby four years ago,” said a woman with curly hair who looked as if she was both born and lived to be a mom, “I thought I’d never find meaning again. But now, fostering dogs is just my everything.”

This was sad. But to me Sam’s story was still the saddest. She was only 16 and her parents were, by all accounts, dysfunctional, poor and mean. I wanted to hear more from her but she didn’t take a turn this time. Javier spoke more about how he was depriving himself in order to send more and more money to his family in Mexico, which to me sounded a little severe and unnecessary. Though he had a successful business he was eating only rice and beans and ramen noodles every day. Sai went on for a while about being grateful for the group. He sounded sincere, but I had a tough time relating to him for some reason. A couple of the other members spoke too, hitting similarly pitiful notes. When it came to my turn I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

I parroted Sam and said simply, “I pass.”

Though they were a little hard and stale, frumpy Sarah’s Rice Krispies Treats were still the highlight of the session. It certainly wasn’t the flavorless, lukewarm coffee we had to wash them down.

Jasmine took me aside after we closed things down. She put a hand on my back and drew me closer, smelling like my mom’s herb garden. “If you’re going to continue to drink before our groups, I must ask you to start using mouthwash and/or cologne. Some of our members battle with alcoholism, and I like this to be a safe space for them. It’s nothing personal, nor an affront to your mode of grieving. It’s just out of respect, you understand. Okay, dear?” From an apparent bottomless well of understanding, she smiled and gave my shoulder a good squeeze.

From the church I walked to the boardwalk to have a look at the ocean. It was only a couple of blocks. On the way I pulled the hood of my coat down tight against the wind and wished things were different. It seemed strange that I could see no real use for my parents’ millions. Why was it that I could see only the things money got me out of doing, and not any of the things it could allow me to do?

The blue-gray Atlantic rolled, crashed and receded, but gave no answers.


It was around then that the third stage of “bargaining” kicked in for me. I started thinking in hypotheticals. If only their parachutes had opened. If only they had taken up bungee jumping instead. If only they hadn’t gone to that bargain skydiving company they found on Craigslist. Whatever way you sliced it, I was in a desperate state of mind. If anything, I felt my sadness was deepening. I sometimes pictured myself stuck at the bottom of a bottle of maple syrup, unable to move, able only to exist and feel bad.

I used the first $104 of my inheritance to buy a comfortable pair of shoes so I could stay out on the dance floor longer. That’s where I felt things clicking into place. That’s where, I thought, I would discover how to move forward.

With my arms up in the air I could almost reach the pipes and wooden beams of the ceiling at Earthworm, my favorite bar for dancing. It was a bit of a dive, nothing much to look at from inside or out, but on Saturday nights it was always packed because the headlining deejay had a reputation. He was this tall, weathered-looking Asian guy with dreadlocks who played the choicest current stuff but also peppered in classics from the 90s and early 2000s and 2010s. From 11 to 2am the place would echo with the most beautiful and intense vibes. While his tracks played people seemed to set aside their differences and personal struggles and moved as one large organism, almost as if in a trance.

As far as moves go, as I’ve said, I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I kicked my feet out. Sometimes I brought a knee up—clapped my hands. My facial expressions were out of control too. I tried to smile but would get distracted and bite my lip, open my mouth, make duck lips as I moved my hips in little circles or from side to side. I must’ve looked like I was having a seizure half the time. But at the very least I was out of the house and getting exercise. And I thought maybe, just maybe, I could sweat out some of the sorrow and loss I was feeling. Towards the end of the night, as my shirt would become soaked through, I’d imagine some of the demons were evaporating from my body.


The nights I didn’t go out to the bar I watched old movies in my living room and played drinking games with myself. I’d watch old Meg Ryan movies and would take a big sip of martini every time she did something adorable. I had a bit of a crush on her, so halfway into one of her movies I’d be fairly wasted. I can’t even count the number of times I blacked out watching When Harry Met Sally… (I literally can’t count them. I don’t remember.)

People continued to call, of course, but I wouldn’t answer. I’d apologize out loud to the white ceilings of my small, crummy house as their numbers appeared on my phone, listing imaginary excuses.

“Sorry, George, I’m swamped with paperwork.”

“So sorry, Aunt Carol, I’m indisposed in the bath.”

“Oh no, Aunt Lucy, it’s terrible timing! I’ve just been drafted into the neighborhood watch!”

I didn’t feel right ignoring my grandpa though. He was my dad’s dad and we were pretty close. I put him on speaker and let his raspy voice fill my increasingly filthy living room. In the middle of the conversation he stopped and repeated my name, as if he didn’t already have my attention.

“Andy,” he said, “Listen to me! You have to keep going. No matter what! It’s what your parents would have wanted.”

Grandpa had lost an arm in Vietnam and had a sort of combative approach toward life.

“Okay, Grandpa.”

“No, Andy, listen. No matter what! Even if life sucks and it’s a terrible, terrible burden. Keep going! You owe it to your parents!”

“Okay, I will.”

“Andy, I mean it! Even if you get sick and you’re in horrible pain! Don’t be a wuss!”

“Okay, Grandpa. Thanks for calling.”


Another Wednesday found me once more in the basement fallout shelter of The Church of Perpetual Sorrow. I was stone-cold sober and so, a little shaky. The quote of the day from guru Jasmine was, “Ends are also transitions into new experiences.” Most everyone except Sai the widower, who still appeared to be in some form of denial, seemed put out by the statement.

Sam, in her shrill, girlish voice, said, “I don’t want to fucking transition!”

I couldn’t help but admire the disgruntled, distraught teenager for her spirit.

Then I heard frumpy Sarah speak for the first time when she said that she didn’t have the energy for new experiences. “I’m 65 and my husband is dead,” she said. “Everything I worked at all my life is gone, and I’m too tired to start again.” She looked surprised by the words that had come out of her mouth, her face flushed.

And the fun continued…

A chubby, bald man I hadn’t seen in the group before was all blubbery, “I’m afraid… Without John—I’m afraid of everything. I don’t want to face the world without him.”

“I can’t take it no more,” said Javier. “I’m going back to Mexico.”

And Sam chimed in again. “This is bullshit! I’m too young. If this is just the beginning, I’m not sure I want to see how it all turns out.”

Many more grumblings filled out the hour, and then the kindhearted Jasmine closed out the meeting by telling us to continue to “explore your grief.” Saying, “it may be uncomfortable, but you will be rewarded.”

On my way up the stairs, I was imagining Jasmine in some spotless, amenity-flush apartment listening to old-timey jazz music for some reason, when I banged my head on the ceiling again.


That night, to properly explore my grief, I didn’t drink. I watched Joe Versus the Volcano, and every time Meg Ryan did something adorable, instead of sipping a martini, I sobbed a little. Teardrop by teardrop, I lubricated my soul for a new experience. I began to feel different somehow. I guess “sober” is the word, but also something more. After meditating during the end credits of the movie, I got changed and headed for the club at the Borgata Hotel and Casino.

The Premier Nightclub at the Borgata was a swanky establishment. The bar was long and black. The booths, along with their leather cushions, wrapped around the large low tables of the VIP areas. The purple and red lights set just the right atmosphere, leaving just the right dim glow in the wide, sort of intangible room. Everyone was dressed smartly and flashily. To me, who had been dancing in nothing but crummy bars, it felt as if I had leveled up or been promoted to a higher floor.

Almost immediately, I discovered I was a much better dancer without alcohol. I guess it took a clear head for me to properly feel the music. I stopped rushing my movements and let the rhythm come to me, discovering a sense of style. Women began to take notice. A few smiled in my direction, and some even brought themselves into the orbit of my flow. I wasn’t terrible looking after all, with a decent shave and haircut.

Elated and full of energy, I didn’t want to leave the dancefloor, but after two hours or so I got tired and went to the bar for a drink. As it was Wednesday, it wasn’t all that crowded, and I was able to find a spot easily.

“I’ve been watching you dance,” said a girl with short yellow hair and jade green dangling earrings. She was sitting on the edge of her stool in a black miniskirt, grinning at me.

“Me?” I said. “That’s embarrassing.”

“You must be thirsty.”

“I am. Can I get you something to drink?”

She seemed more interested in me than my previously rock-bottom spirits would’ve warranted. We did a shot of tequila then I ordered myself a water and we began chatting over the club music. She was with her girlfriends, visiting from Delaware. One of them had gotten a promotion and they were celebrating.

There was a break in the conversation and she looked down at her hands.

“Do you have a room here?” she asked.

“No, I live nearby.”

“Really? Do you work in the casinos?”

“No, I’m not working now.”

For the first time since we began talking, the corners of her mouth drooped down.

“I’m in a bit of a transitional stage,” I explained. “I recently lost my parents.”

I realized I’d never said this out loud outside of the group before.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the girl. But she was already looking away. Back out toward the crowded dance floor. And that was fine.


The following week outside of the church before the group, Sam was leaning against the stairway railing, smoking a cigarette. It was a cold November day and she was wearing a cream-colored hoody with the hood up, a gray coat and matching gray fingerless gloves. Compared to the stained glass reflecting in the sunlight on the church front above her, Sam’s colors were dreary, but there was a brightness in her eyes and her features didn’t seem quite as morose as they usually did.

I didn’t know whether I should stop and engage or not so as I approached I just nodded my head and kept heading for the side door that went down into the basement.

“Hey,” she said.

I stopped and turned toward her.


“Do you think you’re really getting anything out of these groups?” she asked.

I had a feeling of déjà vu. It was like when one of my students asked me a question about algebra. Only now I didn’t have the answer.

“I don’t know.”

Sam took a puff of her cigarette and looked off over my shoulder.

“Sai seems to think so, but then why is he still coming, two years later? It’s fucking depressing.”

I stuffed my hands into my pockets.

“If I’m still coming to this group in two years, remind me to off myself,” said Sam.

“I wouldn’t worry. You’re young. In two years, you’ll be in college. You’ll be too busy to be depressed.”

“Oh yeah, college, sure. Are you kidding? I’m not going to college. I can’t afford it. Besides, my parents don’t want me to go. They want me to get a job.”

I thought then that if my parents’ money enabled me to help this unlucky, bitter girl get an education, then maybe I could find a way to move forward with my life. Maybe I could find a sense of purpose. That wouldn’t be the craziest thing I’d ever heard.

Pete Able’s work has been published in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Blue Lake Review, Spillwords Press, and others. He lives in southern New Jersey.

End Times


I stare at my therapist’s coffee cup the entire time she talks to me about the importance of communicating. I’m focused on the yellow Sunoco logo that hasn’t changed since 1995 when I would see its sign across from our first house on Lewis Road. What I’m truly thinking, as she talks about advocating for yourself and not running from conflict, is if I can really trust the advice of someone who gets their morning coffee from a shitty gas station that doesn’t even let you pump your own gas. Did she pay the grizzly old man with oil-stained callouses to run inside and grab her this too?

I nod and nod and wait for the small timer to go off because I know it’s got to be time soon. I give little mmhmm’s when a pause is long enough and wonder if getting her a Starbucks gift card for Christmas is passive-aggressive. Do you get your therapist Christmas gifts? Is that like a conflict of interest?

Time’s up.

The chime is still going off by the time my coat is slipping on, and I’m on my feet. Unless she has a patient lined up right after me, she always finds ways to make it all go another 10 or 15 minutes, until my left leg starts bouncing. I tell her bye, that I’ll think about what she said, that I promise to actually keep that thought journal she asked me to do from two weeks ago and look into reading that book about love languages.
I choose to miss the bus and run to the coffee shop across the street to sit for a few minutes. One of us should have a reasonable cup of coffee.


The good news is Aly thinks I spent extra time with Dr. Wasterman. I finish the coffee before I get home and toss the cup in a trash can outside a different coffee shop two blocks down from our apartment. This one has stickers with rainbows and things about trans rights and all that good stuff in the window, but the one barista creeps me out. He works on Sundays and right when they open on the weekdays and always looks pissed off.

The bad news is she wants to go out.

I really would rather only do one thing a day. And therapy is like three things already before 11am. But she wakes up when I’m already gone and gets stir crazy waiting for me to come back and the sun is popping in and out between clouds today with a nice, even high of 55 or so. She wants a hike. Fresh air, open space. I can’t accuse her of cornering me if the conversations I don’t want to have given myself over to the wide-open outdoors where I have everywhere to run. That tactic didn’t come up in Dr. Wasterman’s long monologue about communication. Or maybe it did. I was focused on the coffee cup.

On the edge of the city lies a valley of trees and climbable rocks. Over a couple hundred or thousand years, a few streams scored through the trees and ground, causing ridges to rise up on either side and eventually dumping into the Schuylkill. This is where she wants to go. She looks me dead with green eyes and says, Diana, you said we could do something today. I meant puzzles or baking something or finishing any of the fifteen shows we were trying to watch at once.

Yeah, okay.

I change into boots and put on pants that I care a little less about. I fill up the water bottle she got me for my birthday. She packs snacks, and I realize it’s not going to be a short hike. I ask if we can stop for coffee.


We take my car because it’s the one that has the parking permit. We cut through Manayunk and up the hill into Roxborough. While we drive, I ask if she ever thinks about how many dead bodies are probably just strewn and hiding in the woods around the city. She shakes her head and tells me something is wrong with me.

People talk about the bodies in Washington Square. Something like 20,000 under the nice, clean concrete paths and fountain welcoming you to Old City. It’s not just me.

I didn’t think I could afford therapy. I’m pretty sure I still, technically, can’t. This therapist has a way of billing for like four sessions at once. Rather than $80 a week I see an occasional bill of a couple hundred, followed by incessant payment reminders on my phone. She once refused to take my calls or set up an appointment until I paid off the $50 that I owed her. I get it. We all have to make a living. But everyone saying we should all be in therapy like it’s something anyone can afford or something insurance companies give a shit about.

After our third reenactment of the same fight, I had a moment of some kind of clarity and said fuck if we’re doing this again. Everyone talks about insanity and its definition as doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a new result. I don’t know if that’s true, but every time a line like that came out of a book or a TV, I felt them talking to me

Why am I the only one of us in therapy, though?

I think about the bodies again because this place is old. Not old-old, but it saw a colony and a revolution and all sorts of other stuff. A friend from my old D&D group out in the suburbs once said that you can tell there’s a body because the ground does kind of a six-foot by three-foot dip where it’s decaying, and the earth is filling in. Like I said, it’s not just me. But Aly doesn’t like macabre or do horror.

We pull off to park along Hermit Lane because she wants to take the Yellow Trail to Lover’s Leap–the long way–probably take a photo and call it a day.

The first paper mill in British North America was here, she says while we walk along the trail. This was all industry. I nod. She tells me about the Battle of Germantown that happened farther down the trail, about an abandoned trolley bridge, about the legend of a Native American couple who couldn’t be together because of tribal disputes jumping from the rock we’re heading to. She never does her research halfway.

On our first three dates, she was swimming with facts. I had smiled and nodded and found it cute. Figured it would go away the more comfortable with me she got. It’s almost two years later now.

We walk to the trailhead beside a cream and yellow house with a sign outside that says Hermitage, with some stories about the Russian entrepreneurs who lived there and made a couple gazillion for their descendants. I follow her down the trail, which bends and turns sharply. The leaves hide the path every couple of yards, and I think about grabbing her hand to make sure she didn’t slip.

I want to show you something cool. I nod and follow and think about Dr. Wasterman and how she tells me things like You’re afraid of vulnerability and it’s okay when relationships don’t work out. I wonder when you know. Is it in the first couple months when something is just not working? Is it when you get to a year and no one wants to tell anyone else that they love them? What happens when you’re two years deep and you feel numb in your shared apartment, numb when she’s holding your hand?

America’s first doomsday cult was here, she says. The Hermits of the Ridge lived out here and waited in the woods for the world to end.

That I can get behind. She shows me a stone plaque next to the black mouth of a small, man-made cave. Inside it’s about the size of a guest bathroom, rectangular, and surprisingly tucked away from the air of the park outside.

Johannes Kelpius used this place to meditate and think and study–

And just wait for the world to end.

She tells me about how they built a tabernacle and observatory, how they practiced chemistry and astronomy. People say they had the philosopher’s stone, and that Kelpius had thrown it into the Schuylkill before he died, or that it was buried with him, depending on who you ask.

Where’s he buried?

She shrugs and tells me no one knows.

I think again about the bodies.


I don’t want to go to this party, but I need to get better at being social. It’s all her friends and people who now say they’re my friends, but if we broke up, I’d never hear from them again. I add that to my growing list: how do you deal with a failed relationship when it makes you a friendless loner afterwards?

We walk south, cross Baltimore, and make a few turns I don’t track, but she knows West Philly better than I ever will. It’s some kind of housewarming party a few months late. We know every housemate, but it will be fun to guess which guest got invited by which person. We’ve brought a bottle of wine that’s just for us because they’re the kind of people who offer Yuengling and PBR to guests alongside cheap tequila and vodka.

It’s loud. I always wonder what neighbors are doing when parties are this loud. How close are they to calling the cops?

I stick close to her, our hands laced. It’s a survival tactic. There’s no soft grip or thumb running across the soft skin at the back of either of our hands. It’s hot and tight, and I wonder exactly how many people this apartment floor can hold while a group of women jump around to Robyn playing over the laptop speakers. Furniture has been moved out of the way to create a makeshift dance floor, and we find a spot on a couch in the corner of the room. No cranny is quiet, but we feel separated from the crush of bodies. We pass the wine bottle back and forth and look at each other. We give up on trying to shout over the music and we’ve stopped holding hands. A year ago at a party, she pulled us out to the balcony and asked if we could make out, and we giggled and held each other where no one could see us. Now it’s like that first night in the Mexican restaurant where we couldn’t keep eye contact. The difference is that back then felt like a start. This feels like we’ve finally tunneled to the other side of the Earth and said now what?

People talk to her. People who have known her far longer than I have and maybe still know her better. I sip the wine from the mouth of the bottle, grip tightly at the neck like I could snap it, and smile when I make eye contact with people. The heavy weight of the wine settles over me all at once when it’s half gone from the bottle and the clock is just past midnight.

She’s good in a crowd. She wouldn’t agree. But she’s good with her friends. All fifteen of her closest friends in one room. I don’t talk to anyone from my college. Maybe I should have been in more clubs.


I have a dream about the cave. Or, at least, because of the cave. The outside was the same, but this one went deep and winding. I was pushed down into it by something behind me, and I was tumbling for hours or at least what I understood to be hours in dream time. I never find the bottom because eventually, a work alarm goes off.

I’m in the shower thinking about how cold it’s going to be today and wondering if, with my boss up at the New York office for the day, I’ll have time to just put Netflix on in the bottom corner of my screen and watch something .

I do end up having time. But instead, I google the cave.

Johannes Kelpius was born in the same village as Vlad the Impaler. I hoped that would lead to stories of human sacrifices and Satanic carvings along the ravine in Wissahickon. But the monks were surprisingly kind and open to anyone who stumbled on their sanctuary. When the end of the world came and went, they did too. No fanfare, no Kool-Aid, no shootout. The world didn’t end, but that part of their lives did and they moved on.

I go home and we talk about absolutely nothing that matters over dinner. She puts on sitcoms from the couch, and I clack away at my laptop reading about Kelpius and a faction of historians who actually went on dredging missions in the Schuylkill to see if the philosopher’s stone was really down there.

Aly says she’s going to bed and closes the door without much else, and I’m left in the kitchen by the light of my laptop screen. I wonder if they put enough thought into this elixir for all diseases to make it cure mental ones too.


A week later my therapist is talking, and I’m not listening until she says the words break up, and I lift my head. I think it’s a joke for a second. I think maybe she said it because she knew I wasn’t paying attention and wanted me back in the room. But she repeats it again with dead eyes at mine, and I feel that tightness you get at the front of your throat when a good cry is going to come on.

I think it’s something you need to consider, whether this relationship is healthy and sustainable. I wonder if therapists are always this blunt. But I have been focusing on her shitty gas station coffee for two weeks, so I don’t have much to compare it to.

I actually do consider it on the walk home down Chestnut. I pass the City Tap, where we went one Saturday night on the way back from watching a friend play indoor soccer. We got two beers and maybe a little tipsy and didn’t have to pay for our pizza and then went home and had sex. I move past the bagel place we would go on Sundays, trying to get there before the Penn students roused themselves from sleep. A bookstore with a friendly, fat cat that I constantly sent her pictures and videos of. A beer shop where we built overpriced six-packs and got popsicles when it was summer. I can feel all these memories rotting under a time-lapse video like a carved out pumpkin left too long on a stoop. They belong to another part of me now. I can see the pair of us, young, moving down the street, holding hands, and thinking this has to be for forever.

I walk past them. They’re farther behind now. I can’t even hear their footsteps. I do not go back to our apartment.

I get in my car and drive. I think I put on my seatbelt. I don’t remember the car dinging at me. I use turn signals and don’t think I blow through red lights, but I also don’t remember the drive as I move out of West Philly and up through Bala Cynwyd. I cross the river and bob and weave through the tight turns to get to the top of the ridges of Manayunk. I’m not sure what the speed limit is.

I park my car as the sun settles low beneath the trees. Without the leaves, slices of sunlight slide easily between the thick trunks. I follow the path and think about dead bodies and cheap coffee.

It looks like the shadow of a jail window.

She’ll have noticed an hour ago at least that I’m not back yet. I think about meeting her parents and how much I’ll miss them and how I’m supposed to tell my mother that we’re breaking up. How many clothes I’ll have to return. How many gifts strewn through my stuff are things she gave me that will forever carry her aura. I think about sleeping in my bed by myself and all the times I used to wake up confused in the middle of the night when we lived in separate places, and I wondered where she’d gone. Would that be my world, now?

How did those guys camped out here think the world was going to end?

I sit on the dirt floor of the small cave. People could think in here, meditate if you were good at that sort of thing. It’d be even easier back before the screaming cars on Lincoln Drive and Henry Ave.

I think if the world would just die in its sleep, that’d be best. Maybe this is how you do it. In this cave. It’s chilly in here, and the sun’s gone now. I’d like to sleep in here, but I’m not sure I can do it. Hours must have passed now. Is my phone still on?

If you knew the world was going to end, what would you do? It was one of the questions she asked me on an early date. She had at least one odd question every time we went out somewhere. I wondered if she picked it up on other dating apps or had done one of those strange speed dating things. I told her I would eat everything without worrying about carbs or sugars or what happens to my hips and stomach. The answer was the same as if I knew I had a terminal disease that would get me in a couple months.

But I guess I lied. I guess I’m doing this.

I see why he did it. It’s small and contained and a little chilly, but nothing a fire couldn’t handle. I can do it, I think. Trees and leaves and eating berries and finding dry wood and making a small civilization onto myself out of nothing. Monks who were alive and kicking before George Washington ever set foot in Valley Forge did it. And the Lenape long before them. Maybe that Bible passage they named themselves after, the woman in the wilderness, was me after all. Is this how messiah cults start? With someone deluding themselves into thinking they’re the second coming? At three in the morning, anything feels possible. Maybe I’ll find that stone at the bottom of the river. Everything will suddenly click into place, the base metal of our waning relationship transfigured.

The sounds from the road slow and fade, the lights from Center City are something I understand exist but cannot see. She is in a warm bed somewhere in a pocket outside of me, and I think it’s best if she stays there, gets used to it, learns how to live there. I’ll do the same.


And then the sun comes up like it always does. Outside the cave there are animals and early morning hikers and the sounds of Henry Ave and racing cars. I step out of the hole and walk back to my car, which has not been towed. I charge my phone to a herd of missed texts and calls, and I’m terribly hungry, and I think maybe gas station coffee wouldn’t be so bad because coffee is coffee and sometimes life is like that.

When I get to our front door and she hears it open and comes running into the living room with dark circles under her eyes and justified anger, I don’t know what I’ll say. I didn’t like that cave. I don’t do well with long silences.

I start by opening my mouth. I think it’s the better route.

Melanie is a copywriter and author living in Belmont Village. Her short fiction has been published in Ghost Parachute, Meat for Tea, and A Woman is a Cinema. Her nonfiction reviews and criticism have appeared in Boulevard, POPSUGAR, Prometheus Dreaming, DIYMFA, and Write Now Philly. Her debut novel was published in 2018 through Waterton Publishing, and her forthcoming second novel is set for publication in 2021 through Lanternfish Press. When not writing she serves as the Marketing & Outreach Coordinator for the 215 Festival, cooking, and exploring Philly’s restaurant scene.