Many startling images weave through Amy Small-McKinney’s new book of poetry, Walking Toward Cranes. One of my favorites is “there is a turtle in my mouth…he will not be banished.”
Small-McKinney is creating a moving landscape that mirrors her struggle and journey with breast cancer and what comes after. Her images are stark but also personal: “I am beginning to remember my body/I will wake up tomorrow. I am not a leaf.” She moves from the intimate to the universal: “Inside a hollowed out body, what is left?” to “When I was a girl I used my hair as a kind of weapon.”
The poet is not afraid to reach beyond sentiment to unspeakable feelings, unknowable outcomes: “My real life hides in trees, beneath deep snow./If I open my door, the wind will divide me.”
The book is divided into three sections: Treatment, The Healing, and Walking Toward Cranes. In the poem “Inside the world” in the first section, she writes:
I may be wrong or misunderstand borders.
Every day my body is a different place.
In these poems, Small-McKinney is not afraid to open the door to her sadness, her pain. But she can ground herself enough to incorporate what she is losing:
I should lug the limbs felled from the storm,
whole trees at places,
pile them beside the road for pick up.
In the second section, The Healing, she begins to see a way back: “Home is not where I live,/it is sleeve of a daughter.” She describes the physical losses and heartache of having her body invaded by an unwelcome intruder: “For the couch, it is the shaved head,/hours of a body hanging on as though a raft”. But she is also not afraid to reveal the depth of her fear: “Well, she is afraid. Seductive fire,/articulate rain, all of this being alive.”
She grapples with the physicality of the body and her time taking in all the lessons that implies:
a bog can be destroyed.
Still, I am rainwater.
I love what is unexpected.
What falls from the sky, falls into me.
She lets herself imagine all directions, past, present, future:
When I was a little girl, night after night,
I imagined a funeral, a torn black ribbon
pinned to my blouse.
When the poet reaches the third section, Walking Toward Cranes, she begins to feel a future reappear and lets herself imagine in another way:
I want to travel, probably won’t.
I want to walk into a village where a woman weaves yarn,
squat beside her, not condescending,
not sentimental, but because I am lost.
Her honesty about her own feelings of loss pervade this book, but there is a curve of repair and coming back to the world with new insights:
I know there is another tree that sways
outside my new home, new window.
It tells me when the world is hard,
when it is forgiving.
This is a moving, beautiful book about walking through darkness and coming to light, without complaint. Small-McKinney has a clear vision kept focused on the real world and the world of endless possibilities.
Seen as pleasant and enriching in easy times, in times of crisis the arts take on greater significance. In his collection Loplop in a Red City, poet Kenneth Pobo uses ekphrastic poetry, poetry inspired by works of visual art, to consider scenes from domestic life as well as scenes from an apocalypse. Intersecting in subtle, but increasingly startling ways, the poems build together, reaching an urgent pitch, absorbing both ease and discomfort.
Domestic scenes including family members, kitchens, gardens, and homelife expose the vulnerability of comfort. Having a home or family suggests losing a home or family — throughout the collection, this dual celebration/anxiety of domestic life repeats in a variety of ways. The poem “Empire of Lights” opens the collection with the line “Inside the house our peace rumbles” (13), setting the stillness and quiet of the house’s interior against external threats: “Gunfire breaks the calm, like cathedral bells…” and “time’s red bear…knock[s] over the mailbox.” Many of the poems in the section “Crow at Daybreak” suggest a similar vulnerability of the home to threats from inside and out. Parents and other relatives appear dreamy and unmoving, presenting a danger of stagnation. The next section’s title, “Get Far Enough Out” reinforces the need of the speaker to move beyond the domestic and into less familiar threats.
The collection’s title comes from the subject of a Max Ernst painting, Loplop Introduces Himself and most of the poems refer to artwork from a variety of painters and artists from the early 20th Century. Poems refer to René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, and other artists known for surrealism. Their works depict the fragmented psyche as well as startling violence, many working in the years before, during, and following the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, and Second World War. The work of these artists reflects a changing reality: a clearer understanding of the human potential for cruelty and destruction. The work of many surrealists also reflects a greater awareness of human psychology and how we must break and re-break inherited molds and models in order to keep up with what we learn about ourselves.
Throughout Pobo’s collection, the concerns of the speaker shift from family and household, to nation and planet. In all of these areas, we must face uncomfortable truths and find ways to reconcile ourselves to our world. In the poem, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of a Civil War),” the domestic and the political fold together over a meal while “avoid[ing] the trombone anchorman” (76). The speaker anticipates future bureaucratic indignities:
we’ll have to bleach our bones
before presenting them to the Office
of Bone Collection.
Though “we scream,” the gesture is unsatisfying and further alienates the speaker: “Perhaps / we still look normal.” The following poem, “The Third of May,” offers a similar sentiment:
look as they did yesterday.
So much the same but smells
Though Goya and Dalí were separated by more than a century, their work reflects the evolving terrors of war. In Kenneth Pobo’s poems, the reified threat of danger seen in surrealist art is felt keenly, but internally. The poems’ speakers seem caught between feeling afraid or angry and appearing “okay.” This tension between external calm and interior turmoil runs through many of the poems. In “The Red City,” the figures of Paul Delvaux’s painting appear bored or dull:
alarmed the meaning
of life hasn’t yet been
put in a zoo. (78)
Our response to chaos is often to steel ourselves and carry on, but for many of us, the bathwater is gradually starting to boil. These poems reassure us that we are not imagining things — the world around us is troubled and uncertain.
The final poem, “Pastoral” echoes this sense of uncertainty — “You/can hardly tell human/from animal” (90). And even though the speaker addresses a “you” who wants the world to stop, it is allowed to continue spinning. Though we recognize the harm we do, we still prefer the familiar rotation:
…You say let it spin,
which it does, as if trying to weave
a lethal wonderful calm.
The calm is both “wonderful” and “lethal”; we may not outlive our own masks of ease.
While individual poems set-up and break-down scenarios of familiarity and comfort, taken as a whole, the collection urges the reader to find comfort, if not remedy, in uncertainty. Kenneth Pobo’s Loplop in a Red City offers space to both our fears of destruction and our hopes of avoiding it.
Frank Ewing only ever lets me into his place because he has to. It’s right there in the lease.
“I ain’t ever signed off on that,” he tells me through the crack of his door the first time I knock. “You show me where it say that.”
I pass a copy across the threshold and point to where the Housing Authority mandates monthly visits from me, his new case manager.
He looks at the paper for a long time. In a few months, he’ll start to let me help him with his mail, and I’ll come to understand he can’t read.
“Boy they kill you with the small print,” is all he says about the lease.
He never learned how.
He is seventy five and has a long enough history of homelessness that the city pays me to provide whatever support he needs to stay housed, now that he’s finally housed.
“It’s not like an inspection or anything,” I add. “I’m not here to get you in trouble.”
He opens the door and lets me in. The place is always the same: clean enough, with some cowboy show on the TV, mattress on the floor, unopened condoms on the windowsill, and nothing in the fridge.
“Want some help with food?” I ask. “There are some places I know about that could help you out a little.”
“Don’t need no help. See you next month. Seventeenth, right?”
On the seventeenth, I bring back a loaf of bread. One of the pieces of mail I help Frank review is from the Housing Authority, threatening eviction. He hasn’t paid his rent once in the six months he’s lived there. I ask why not.
“How much I owe?” he says. “I’ll pay them next month.”
He doesn’t. I explain the situation to my supervisor, and at first, she assumes Frank’s using, but then when I mention the condoms, the pieces fall into place for her.
“So, he’s tricking, too.”
Next time I see Frank the lights don’t work. He lets me call PECO to work out a payment plan, but the thing about it is he has to actually pay. Both the rent and electric payments are so small it’s like they’re symbolic. It’s like:
You want this place? Give up something for it. We know your pension is modest, we understand things are hard. We’re not asking for much, just give us something.
He doesn’t give them anything. Maybe it’s symbolic for him, too.
On the day I visit Frank to tell him he’s being evicted, I meet the woman he’s been spending all his money on. She’s leaving just as I get there, and in lots of ways, she’s not what I expected: she’s older, in her sixties maybe, and beautiful in the way that mothers and grandmothers are, wholesome. Her hair’s done up, she’s wearing scrubs, she’s off to work, she tells me. We talk for a minute, and she calls me baby in that way that older women sometimes do that I love. Her name is Prudie.
“So that’s her,” I say to Frank once she’s gone. I’ve been coming to see him for almost a year at this point, so I should know better. It’s the wrong thing to say. He darkens, says it’s none of my damn business, and points to the door. I show him the notice to vacate.
At eviction court, the lawyers compel Frank to either submit to a representative payee—someone to handle his finances, pay his rent, budget his spending—or vacate the unit in thirty days.
“Please,” the lawyers appeal to me in private. “Try and talk some sense into him. You know how many people would kill to have what he’s about to throw away?”
I do. I get it, but for the whole meeting, all I can think about is Prudie in her powder pink scrubs, and I don’t try and convince him one way or the other.
After he’s evicted, I go and see him in the shelter, see what he’s paid back this month. When the balance is zero, he will be awarded a new Section 8 voucher, judge’s ruling. He hasn’t paid a cent, and the staff at the shelter are frustrated with him.
“Every month it’s the same thing. He leaves out the first—payday—and comes back on the fifth, broke as a joke. It’s been four months, and he hasn’t paid back a dime towards his balance. It’s like he doesn’t even care about getting back home. And it’s not like he’s even getting high—we’ve tested him. Addiction we can at least try to treat. There’s funding for that. But this? And don’t think we don’t know exactly where his money’s going.”
“To love,” I say, and it helps, they laugh. I’ll never tell them about Prudie, and Frank will never give her up. I try and press him a little, though. The shelter is a hell of a place to be seventy-five years old.
“Just give them a little bit. I mean don’t you want to get the hell out of here?”
He laughs. “I sure do get the hell on out, every first of the month, don’t I?”
I don’t know where it is he meets Prudie every month for those few days, and I know better than to ask. I get it. Wherever it is, it’s the one place none of us can touch.
Before I leave we play a game of chess in the day room. I’ve never played anyone as good as Frank. He seems to wake up when we play, like he’s thirty years younger, moving quickly and slamming the pieces down, “There.” He talks smack, he laughs at most of my moves, and he uses his queen in ways that would make me nervous.
“You putting her on that pedestal ain’t doing you any good, neither,” he tells me.
I laugh, he’s right. “I’d just be scared of losing her.”
“Shit,” says Frank, and he darkens like he does. “That ain’t love.”
Patrick McNeil has worked in Philadelphia’s homeless sector since 2011. His work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Apiary Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the organizer of Philly’s own Backyard Writer’s Workshop, and founder of the Writers Residency in Tufo, Italy.
Joseph Cilluffo has had over 100 poems published. In addition to Philadelphia Stories, his poems have appeared in journals such as The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Apiary, and Philadelphia Poets. He was the Featured Poet for the Fall 2014 Edition of the SVJ, which nominated his poem, “Light”, for the Pushcart Prize. Joe’s first book of poetry, Always in the Wrong Season, was recently published by Kelsay Books and is available on Amazon.com.
Joe Samuel Starnes is a native southerner who has lived in the Philadelphia area for eleven years—five in Fishtown and the last six in Haddon Township, New Jersey. His novels are Red Dirt (2015); Fall Line (2011); and Calling (2005). He also has published poetry, short stories, essays, and journalism in publications as varied as the New York Times and the blogazine Fried Chicken and Coffee. His website is www.joesamuelstarnes.com
Gwen Wille lives and works in West Chester, PA. She studied writing at the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in San Pedro River Review, Philadelphia Stories, and Crow Toes Quarterly, among others. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time in the woods with her son, husband, and high-spirited spaniel.
Years and years ago when I was six, and there were four of us kids always fighting, when my mother stayed in bed the entire year, bottles under blankets, orange vials on the floor, when us kids made bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches for supper, combed each other’s gritty hair in the morning, pulling and tugging, untangling knots of nightmares, although we skipped hair ribbons and barrettes, forgot to brush our teeth and wore wrinkled dresses to school with our only-one-pair-each scuffed brown shoes, before my mother was taken away, sirens splitting the night, before my father stayed home and made sodden pancakes, when my best friend Emily brought her new red patent leather shoes to school, I stole them from her locker.
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam and Healing Muse among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light.
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam and Healing Muse among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light.
Since we launched the Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Contest in 2008, I am tasked each year with two duties. First, I must find a judge who is also willing to come to Philadelphia and deliver the keynote address at our Push to Publish conference, as well as offer a master class the day before. I start this task by reaching out to writers whom I admire. Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t. In 2015, some might say that stalked Bonnie Jo Campbell to convince her to participate. (Well, to be fair, I did chase her down an aisle of the bookfair at an AWP conference.) Still, she agreed to be our contest judge and delivered a wonderful keynote speech and inspiring master class. In other years, I’ve approached writers I’ve had the pleasure of working with and could do a little personal arm twisting, such as Kevin McIlvoy, Michael Martone, Robin Black, and Elise Juska, just to name a few.
It has been our honor and pleasure each year to welcome these writers of national renown to be our contest judges. This year is no exception. Karen Joy Fowler is writer of tremendous versatility, writing successfully in many different genres. She is also very funny, and I’m excited to have her be a part of the Push to Publish experience. Thanks to writer Gregory Frost for the introduction.
My second task is to choose the finalists. Some years I read upwards of 200 hundred stories. This year I only had to read 60. (Thank you to all of our contest readers!) From those final stories, it’s my job to choose the final ten to send along to the judge who will pick the winners. It might strike you as funny that I get nervous about choosing these stories–after all, the judge is not commenting on my work. But I do get nervous. The stories that I choose are a reflection on the magazine, and once I get to this stage, it feels very personal. Ultimately, I pick what I like: stories that are well written, of course, but also stories that take chances with content or form, stories we may have heard before but are presented in new ways—writers who are taking risks and succeeding.
We’re only as good as the writers who submit their work to us, so thank you to all of the writers who trust us with their work each year. This is what Karen wrote in her email announcing the winners:
“I’ve judged several contests of this sort in the past and it’s always hard because one story is a wonderful example of one kind of story and another is just as wonderful, but just a different kind, etc. Still, there are almost always a few stories I don’t like as well that are easily eliminated. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here. Each story was quite incredible, nothing was easily eliminated. Each story was a pleasure and a joy to read. So, I’m impressed with everyone.”
It was no surprise that two of the finalists are highly accomplished. They’ve published stories, essays, poems, and books, but I am just as excited to announce that this will be the first time the third-place winner has ever been accepted for publication (his story will appear in our online edition of the magazine). Having both ends of the publishing spectrum represented in our contest is a real thrill for us, and, more importantly, I think it would have made Marguerite very happy. As always, many heartfelt thanks to the McGlinn and Hansma families for their continued support of the prize and the magazine.
Abby Morales, age nine, grew up just south of Mecca, California on the northern shores of the doomed Salton Sea. The shoreline was thirty-four miles of fish hooks, broken bottles, and car parts. If you believed everything people said, you’d think it was a truck-stop toilet.
Her abuelita forbade her from going. So she snuck out, hopped on her bike, and rode past Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the orchards of Grapefruit Boulevard, until she hit the outskirts of the Salton Sea. She tossed her bike on the ground–the front wheel still spinning.
She jumped a rusty fence and walked past abandoned RVs covered in graffiti. Murals of dead cartoons splayed out their bones and guts across decaying wooden siding. Did their insides really look like that? One time, Abby found a real skull with sharp teeth. It still had fur on it so she threw it onto an ant hill. The next day it was shiny and white like porcelain.
Abby picked up a rock and went looking for a window. No one could tell you what you could or couldn’t do out here. You were free to break your arm or throw rocks at windows. Abby broke several. The sound of shattering glass was liberating. Salton Sea wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was.
It wasn’t actually a sea. In 1905, engineers diverted water from the Colorado River leading to a catastrophic accident. They called it the “Great Diversion” like they did it on purpose. It took a year and a half to stop the flooding of the salt-rich sink. They started calling it the Salton Sea. The lake was fifty percent saltier than the ocean. It wasn’t a watering hole, but that didn’t stop Pelicans and Black-necked Stilts from descending on the beach in search of fish. Then came the tourists. They flocked to the accidental sea like it was a pop-up resort until it started to stink, and the fish began to die. They left in droves as quickly as they had come.
The abandoned boomtown wasted away in the desert sun, but the saltwater rift lake had no outlet, and continued to concentrate. The water levels were sustained by six and a half centimeters of rain a year and agricultural runoff that deposited heavy minerals, which sank into the mud, but were harmless as long as they stayed there. Then the California droughts hit. Every time the shoreline moved, it exposed more seabed that dried up and turned to dust. All it took was a strong gust of wind to kick it up into the air. Every summer the lake got a little smaller. A little saltier. A little more toxic.
Abby pulled a mason jar from her book bag, kicked off her sandals, and waded out into the water. Her eyes burned red from the chemical sting of sulfur and rotten eggs. In the summers the air stunk like a mass graveyard of dead fish, and after a die-off the shore was more fish bones and scales than sand, but there was a kind of beauty in the ruins. Dead oak trees with empty bird nests lined the shore–their white trunks and branches sprawled towards the sky like bleached coral.
She submerged her arm up to the elbow in the cobalt waves, and scooped up jarfuls of saltwater until she was certain she had collected the sea monkeys that needed rescuing. She threw the jar into her book bag and hopped onto her bike. A film of brine shrimp hatchlings stuck to her legs. Their tiny bodies squirmed around until the summer sun baked them into a crust like an extra layer of dead skin.
The next day, her little sea monkeys had turned a putrid black. Abby shook the jar, but her sea monkeys did not wake up. They weren’t swimming, or eating, or doing anything. There was a white fuzzy ball of growth at the bottom of the jar that hadn’t been there before.
She asked her abuelita if her sea monkeys had gone to heaven, and her abuelita said what she always said as she poured the contents of Abby’s mason jar down the toilet. “Dios mío, would you really have me wait in line behind all the pececitas you’ve sent before your pobre abuela?” With a wrinkled finger decorated in silver rings, she scooped out the last of the dead slop stuck to the inside of the mason jar and flicked it into the toilet bowl. “For my sake, I hope they are all going to hell.” She flushed the toilet, and yelled at Abby for making one of her mason jars smell like dead fish.
Abby ran to her bike, but when she cranked the pedals her front tire dug into the ground. She fell sideways and skinned her knee. Abby clenched her teeth, but didn’t cry. The last thing she needed was more trouble from her abuelita. She limped to the garage and scavenged through metal drawers until she found a pair of pliers. After one sharp tug, the nail dislodged from her tire. The rubber sealed back up, but her tire went flabby when she put weight on it. Abby snuck into the kitchen, hoping she wouldn’t get yelled at again for getting blood everywhere, and stole a piece of ice from the freezer. With nowhere to run, or a way to get there, Abby sat barefoot on her back porch steps and felt sorry for herself. The ice numbed her throbbing knee. She winced as she picked hard grains of sand from her wound. The ice slipped out of her fingers, and she watched it melt on the hot concrete within seconds.
At that moment, Abby decided she hated California. If she could, she would get as far away from this backyard as possible, somewhere where the sun didn’t beat the life out of you, and she’d never look back.
After graduate school, she applied for a job. They gave her a supplies checklist. It said to bring long underwear. Abby crammed several pairs of polar fleece and all of her excuses into a one-by-one meter box. She boarded a C-130 Hercules, four-engine turboprop military transport, along with other scientists, medical professionals and tradesmen from all over the world. Five hours later, they landed on an airstrip built from compacted snow. McMurdo Station, located on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, was a sprawling compound. The station served as the primary logistics hub for the U.S. Antarctic program.
Her contract was originally for one year, but she kept getting lucky, and her contract kept getting renewed. So far, she’d spent four summers and three winters drilling for ice cores in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. She had traded her California desert of dead fish and animal skulls for the Dry Valleys with their million year old glaciers and mummified seal carcasses. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
It was spring in the southern hemisphere, and her most recent expedition out in the field had hit a snag. Abby kneeled in front of an eight meter tall tripod. Her face and hands were numb. She mashed the giant red button on the control box with her whole palm. The winch squealed to a stop. Suspended from the tripod, a long metal tube dangled above the ice core annulus her team had been struggling to drill for the past hour. They were racing against time. The glacier they were drilling into had been buried for eight million years. The ice was like a time capsule waiting to be cracked open, but their mission was in danger of melting away.
Abby pulled the tube toward her and inspected the head of the thermal drill. It was shot. It had to be. She took off her glove and pressed the back of her hand against the rim of the tube. It should have burned her, but it was ice cold.
She kicked herself for not bringing a mechanical drill head. Mechanical drills used metal teeth. Her team usually didn’t bring one unless temperatures were below freezing. An annulus cut with a mechanical wasn’t at risk of refreezing like one made with a thermal drill. Mechanicals had more moving parts and were less reliable. They hadn’t brought one for the past two years. They didn’t need to, especially not in December. Now, her team was stuck out here wasting time and out of options.
Abby was ready to scream, when a continuous-track Snow Dragon pulled up to her dig site. The Chinese had built another dome near the south side of the Dry Valleys. It was Abby’s dumb luck that they had been passing by. The Snow Dragon’s door cracked open, and Xian called out in English, “Trouble?”
Abby shouted, “Thermal head died!”
“Okay.” Xian jumped out and rummaged around in the trailer his Snow Dragon had in tow. He walked over to Abby carrying a one-meter hand auger. “This one. We don’t use anymore.”
It was better than nothing.
“You’re a lifesaver.” Abby said.
These moments of international cooperation in the name of science were unique to Antarctica. The environment benefited from a shared goal and a distinct absence of world politics or wars.
Xian made some small talk. It was an opportunity to practice his English. Abby told him she’d got a lot of good reading in over the winter, but conversations between research teams always devolved into the same subject. How was your funding? She teased him for being able to give away equipment. Xian surprised her when he told her that his team was hoping for three more years of funding. Abby didn’t want him to know that her contract for next year hadn’t been renewed yet.
After an awkward silence, Xian jumped back into his Snow Dragon and disappeared over the horizon.
Abby looked at the hand auger. It was going to be a long day.
Later that night, she lay in her tent and listened to the glacier groan like a giant whale. She thought she could even feel her cot rise up and down like it was breathing. When you weren’t standing still, it was easy to forget you were floating on a slab of ice.
The next morning, her team packed their ice cores into a crate and waited for a helicopter to pick it up. Once the crate was secured to the helo’s winch, they waved goodbye to their precious cargo. They sat in a circle with their gear and waited for their ride home to McMurdo Station.
A few hours later, Abby was looking out of the helicopter’s window at the research station that she had come to call home. Her fellow Antarctic coworkers were pouring out of every building. They were scrambling to the dining hall at a pace that was criminal. Shipments of “freshies” were rare, and fruit was considered its own form of currency. This foot traffic looked like some kind of black market run on the banks–code for strawberries.
When they landed, Abby instinctively broke into a sprint.
The galley was packed. She still remembered the smell of crab legs and duck. Basically anything decadent and braised or browned, minus anything fresh like limes or avocados. Avocados. She would kidnap and sell babies for an avocado. But not a single tray or fork had left their stations. Someone had set up a small LCD screen hooked up to a cable box in the middle of the hall. The volume was maxed, and the tiny speakers didn’t quite fill the eerie silence of the galley. Abby sidled her way to the front of the crowd, and did her best to keep up with the tail end of the New Zealand news broadcast. It was politics; something about a trade deal and some kind of cold war arms buildup. She heard the word “pipeline” mentioned several times along with the name of a company: Palmer-Bak.
The crowd groaned collectively and slowly began to disperse. A lot of people lingered as if they weren’t sure what they should do with themselves next.
Someone said, “Relax, it don’t mean nothing.”
“Bullshit,” a man replied. “They’re kicking us out.”
Abby’s stomach turned. She felt sick.
The day after the news broadcast, Abby and her Antarctic coworkers were informed that their contracts were canceled and all government funding had ceased indefinitely. They were instructed that all research was to stop immediately. And that was that. Decades of international cooperation in the pursuit of science circled down the drain. Most of the contractors were phased out over the course of the next six weeks. Not all the contractors left. Some of the tradesmen got hired on by Palmer-Bak. It made for some awkward goodbyes. Abby was there long enough to watch the Palmer-Bak snow plows and giant sections of pipe start to roll in from the port straight off of Palmer-Bak freighters. It was a warm austral summer, which gave Palmer-Bak twenty-four hours of light to work around the clock. Three weeks into December, Abby saw the foundation of the oil rig starting to go up. The ice in Antarctica had remained untouched for millions of years, but it had been melting for decades. The pipeline had been inevitable.
On Christmas Eve, Abby and her research team printed out their unfinished research on the nicest stock they could get their hands on. They made camp with a propane stove and several bottles of champagne.
She wondered if, given a few years, McMurdo Station would look like the rusted-out RV park from her childhood. Abandoned Sno-Cats, collapsed warehouses, and deserted airfields. Had the scientists flocked here like the tourists to the Salton Sea? To something that was never meant to last? She hated the thought.
Nine-year-old Abby didn’t sit on her back porch steps for very long. She snuck back into the kitchen to steal another piece of ice, but she didn’t get that far. Abby took a mason jar from the cabinet, filled it with water from the tap, and threw it into her book bag. She didn’t even remember running all the way to the shores of the Salton Sea. Out of breath, Abby twisted off the top of the mason jar and dumped the fresh water into the lake. She put her hands on her knees so she didn’t collapse and stared at her red-eyed reflection in the water.
Adult Abby was too old to do what she really wanted to do. She wanted to throw rocks at the Galley windows and spray graffiti of dead cartoon seal carcasses on the Sno-Cats. Maybe skin her knee as her coworkers tried to stop her. Instead, Abby held her research over the blue flames of the propane stove. She watched three and a half years of unfinished work crumple and burn into glowing pixies of light that flew up into the air. Bright orange ashes danced across a golden sky with a sun that would never set.
She didn’t expect what happened next. From somewhere deep down, a feeling she had forgotten came welling back up to the surface.
For a brief moment, she missed California.
Derrick Calkins enjoys writing about the sea, and is currently working on a short story collection. His debut novel will follow. Growing up, his creative writing assignments were always turned in late because he would have rather gotten docked a letter a grade than not turn in a mini-novella with a better story. This is Derrick’s first publication.
Not long before Olive called a meeting of the Insult Club for the first time on the shaded, snail-calloused back steps of PS 64, she discovered a small lump, a scaling horn-like barnacle, growing on the severe wing of her shoulder. Soon, a second crustaceous bud sprouted on her opposing limb, pushing its way through the sharpened ledge of what she quickly learned (scanning WebMD for her sudden, inexplicable symptoms) was the part of her shoulder called her “acromion.”
Some unexpected “acrimony” as her new wingman?
Right on, she thought. Olive wasn’t afraid.
Since the first day of 5th grade, she’d felt oppressed by a juddery, slow-churned irritation that vibrated out from her knees and surged up her coxis, where the tremor violated out through her spine and into her back as a reckless, crippling knot. Of late, she found it awfully hard to sit still in the warped homeroom chairs listening to Miss Blatter’s lessons about gout-faced men and their centuried accomplishments. She appreciated the men’s importance: their jelly lips and snorkeled groins were once the anatomy for change in science and culture. But where were the girls, their mothers, in the stories of men? What did they do when their dads sailed off? Or wandered away into their cavernous dens?
Stories happened in spite of daughters. In spite of moms, she realized.
Spite, it seemed, was her foremost school lesson.
Suddenly, Olive’s back felt better.
She relaxed as the chips on her shoulders formed.
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GIRLS
Mary chose a poet for partner at 17 and, still a teen, wrote Frankenstein two years later. Publishers assumed her husband wrote the ground-breaking novel, because, like so many, they failed to understand girls know monsters best, especially monsters who at first don’t look like monsters at all. Frankenstein—a novel about a man out of control, and the monster who put him in his place—was finally published under her own name. 13 years later.
16 year old Claudette defied the nation and the state by keeping her seat on the bus, and initiating the landmark civil rights case: Browder vs Gale. Described as “emotional,” “mouthy,” and “feisty”—who wouldn’t be? she was pissed off!—she was passed over so that Rosa Parks could play her part 9 months later. But it was Claudette’s case in court that finally ended bus segregation.
Abandoned by her father as a babe in the mountains because she was not a son, Atalanta was left for dead and raised by bears. Later, hunters found her, took her in, trained her. Soon, she sailed with the Argonauts and helped kill the Caledonian Boar. Girls always have to prove their mettle is twice (3 times? 4 times?) as strong as their brothers. Even our myths tell us so.
When Olive was six, the racist neighbor next door tripped on the sidewalk while shouting at an earbudded teen riding by on a bike. The neighbor fell hard, hit his head on the splintering concrete and was left, long after his pooled blood dried into the broken path, with a raw scar shaped like an N over his left eyebrow. Her mother called it his “scarlet letter.” Taught her about “Hawthorne,” “racism,” and “irony” in one informative rant. Then advised Olive “to just avoid the jerkwad’s yard.”
Long before comprehension lessons at school, Olive learned that people are stupid and sometimes the world shows them how much.
Olive wasn’t afraid of the growths on her shoulders the way adults feared crepuscular skin tags or unruly moles. Still awash in the early years of post-amniotic wonder, she tended the lumps like snails in her garden, wondering how they might inflict themselves on her flora next. Would the nubs rupture or leak like a soft-boiled egg? Peel back from her secret scabrous fruit? Would they sprout, become thistle or thorned? What kind of creature was she becoming? Would she soon be taloned? Take flight?
Naturally, Olive preferred nubs on the shoulders to bumps on her chest. The school nurse, her friend Georgia’s teen sister, not to mention the terrifyingly, cheerful Girl Scout leader who called even the troop’s cookie thieves “Dears,” had presented a forest of pamphlets with aggressive Tanner Scale sketches illustrating the maturing female form—the section on “breast buds” highlighted with care—before saying with reassuring dread: Soon, you’ll be a woman. Isn’t that exciting?
At the next recess meeting on the shaded school stoop, Olive pulled her shirt to the side, showed the huddled girls the prongs on her shoulders, let them palm the scabby nubs with their humid, pre-pubescent fingers.
They were a sign, she told them. Maybe an omen.
An insignia, she thought, of leadership.
She kept the last one to herself.
“My acromions are acrimonious,” she said, whittling the sharpening point of each nub, then going on to teach her friends the names on each part of the shoulder: the rounded bursa, the humeral head, the socketed glenoid and labrum, the scapula behind, the clavicle above. The girls nodded, then rubbed each part of their own shoulders in turn, wondering, as they looked out with terror at the jungling antics on the woodchipped playground plot if they were due their own armor soon.
Olive studied the schoolyard, the raging monkey bar play.
“Jackal,” she said, frowning at a flank-steak of a boy kicking woodchips at a scrum of K-kids barnacle-stalked on a bench.
“Boars,” Molly corrected. She was looking at the teachers ignoring the brawl behind them.
Imogen growled the word, a stone skipping air, as she carved the pitted step with a stick.
Olive nodded approval. Her shoulders were on fire.
From that day forward, the Insult Club sat together on the stoop at recess, a chorus of wide-eyed girls of varied backgrounds hunched on the shaded, ant-smeared steps. The snails crawled up their arms as they named what they saw. No one asked them to join the play in the sunlight.
No one noticed the girls at all.
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GIRLS
At age 12, after watching another child get impaled at a mill, Margaret designed a safer loom, which the mill owners put into use at once. She was never given credit. But she went on to design many other inventions: most notably, the flat-bottomed paper bag. You know the one. Plastic or paper? Stacks of them. Still. At your grocer.
In 2012 a Pakistani teen had to remind the world that girls are worth more than your ass. She fought for the education of girls. Then she was shot in the head for her trouble. She survived. And after recovering, continued her efforts. Malala is the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate for her courage and her ongoing advocacy for the rights of children.
16 year old fictional sleuth who used her brains and charisma to solve local cases. Why can we believe stories about smart girls. But not real ones?
Olive couldn’t recall later, during her deposition, who named the group the Insult Club. Whether the girls came up with the name themselves. Or if a passing kid carelessly lobbed the double slur their way—an insult about insulting that neither undermined nor amplified offense—that the girls adopted at once, the way pilot fish adopt a shark. They didn’t think of their work as insulting though. They’d been taught by their mothers to be “tactful.” By their fathers, to be “polite.” By their teachers to be “correct.”
They’d also been taught not to lie.
The Insult Club had only one expansive rule: Be precise. Give what you see the tag it has earned. The name he/she/it deserves.
When one of the girls hit a name on the head, Olive first awarded the winner an M&M from her pocket, then bent to twist the sweet-eater’s arm—just once, hard—giving her a quick reddening burn that heated the skin to remind them all, she said, that telling the truth was a pleasure that almost always also gives pain.
It was something her father told her, she said, before he left when she was four. She hadn’t seen him since.
“What do you call him now?” Molly asked.
“You have to know a thing,” Olive reminded her, “before you can name it.”
Favorite insults from Olive’s pocket journal (later called “Exhibit A”).
7th grader, Max Meyerson.
Weapon: pencil. Specialty: poking girls’ bums in the cafeteria crush.
After being poked in the hallway, Imogen slammed a locker shut on Max’s left hand. The resulting scar on M.’s index finger looked like an arrow pointing back at his own black heart.
The playground gazebo where the 8th graders liked to sit out of sight tucking hands into pockets not their own. The Insult Club vowed never to go there. And they never did.
The adult practice of claiming as true what is untrue. Then demanding others agree.
The Insult Club wasn’t a club in any real sense of the world. Outcasts, the girls were driven to the back step at recess, the way pebbles are pushed to the shallows by the currenting force of a stream. They were too slow, too fast, too dreamy, too generous. The Insult Club girls were simply too much, couldn’t keep their ideas in check, or keep up with the untethered come-ons and come-backs that volleyed the field. They found their way to the shade to hide or cool off. Cautious, they stayed in the shadows to survey the terrain more clearly.
When Ava found her way, sweaty and dew-eyed, to the step one afternoon, Olive placed a snail on her arm. They watched together as it started sucking its way towards her elbow.
“Did you ever tell Ree to just bug off?” she said.
Ava looked at her blankly.
“Ree won’t wear glasses—she can’t see—it’s why she stares like that. Acts mean.”
Ava wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. It was oddly soothing to watch the snail move with steady fearlessness up her arm.
Olive shrugged. “Next time she calls you fat, tell her not to worry: she’ll look great in glasses.”
“She’ll punch me.” Ava peeled back the flesh on one finger.
Imogen snorted. “That would suck. But then she’d get in trouble.”
As the girls around her began to laugh, Ava couldn’t stop herself from letting a swampy hiccup of air escape. It was fetid, held in for too long. Not quite a laugh. But close.
Olive smiled. Rubbed her tingling shoulders.
Without looking, she could feel each prong growing.
Naturally, Olive’s transformation didn’t take place over night. In spring, flowers often seem to bloom with sudden fierceness. But if you’re patient, look closely, the buds first burp out gently, furry pimples testing the air, before swelling resolutely until their skins peel back to reveal caped redolent mouths breathing open, exposing tongues, tonsils, suckling throats. The fiery, perfumed breath.
As Olive walked down the halls of PS 64, she could feel herself blooming. Her whole body trembled, not in fear. Or anticipation. She was electrified, the hairs on her arms standing on end. When she passed gaggles of students huddled at lockers, they’d tentatively sniff the air, the way a rabbit twitches at the smell of a fox. But Olive smelled of mulch and moss, the mild putrid scent of insects that live beneath rocks. The kids stepped back, uncertain, looking around for a wet cat, or a snake in the rafters. They ignored Olive in the camouflage of her neatly pressed cotton skirt, her pink knee socks. The delicate fingers always pushing one loose tress behind her ear.
They didn’t know that under her shirt, her skin had grown goosed and cobbled. And that under her skin, her spine was plating. Her feet were heavy, the toenails sharp. The heat radiating through her pores wasn’t a fever, but their entire world about to implode.
What set Olive off?
What sets off a flower? Was it the girls in the hall laughing into their scalloped paws? The boys who lurked, eavesdropped? The teachers who smiled in class and smoked in the break room? Her mother who loved her, but could not change the world?
It was purely coincidental that her final change came during a test, a math test she was prepared to take of course—Olive was a good student—and which, she was certain, was going well. Until the final question.
How many steps?
She paused, looked around. The other kids didn’t seem to be miffed by the question. She reread the sheet, looked for the information she must have missed. Flipped the test over. Scanned, reread, reconsidered. Nothing.
Rising, she walked quietly up to Miss Blatter at the front of the room.
“This question,” she whispered, “is impossible,” she said.
Miss Blatter smiled, patted her hand.
“You’ll figure it out,” she assured Olive. She gestured toward Olive’s desk. “Now go finish.”
Olive half-turned to go, then paused. Tried again.
“Really,” she said. “I’ve looked it over.”
This time Miss Blatter frowned. “Olive,” she said quietly. “Go sit down and finish. Everything you need is there.”
So Olive sat down and stared at the test.
How many steps?
Beyond the window, she could see the stoop where the Insult Club gathered. Five steps, she decided. Unless she counted the foot of the staircase, the floor as it were. Which made six. But what of the top step, that final plateau before you reentered the school? Was that a step? Or a launch pad? Was a step only the horizontal plank on which a foot was placed? Or was it the entire architecture of the stairway’s construction? The vertical riser that supported the tread, which in turn supported another riser and the next tread above? If one considered that all “steps” supported “each step” could a “single” step ever exist?
Olive sat back and closed her eyes. Around her, she could hear the scratching of pencils working out problems, chairs squeaking as children squirmed in place. Labored breaths. Teeth grinding lead pencils. She could hear hearts beating. Sweat rising, condensing, between every moist thigh. The coppered smelt of fear. Lactic boredom. The enzymatic satisfaction of an answer solved before the next problem’s sinews were broached.
How many steps?
How many answers?
When had she begun to (fail to) answer the question, she wondered? The evening she studied? The day she’d listened to the lesson in class? Her first day of fifth grade? Her first day—ever—of school? Were answers always historic, a runway off which, one day, a girl might take flight? Or did they arrive in the future, always after they were needed?
Olive wrote down an answer. Knowing it was wrong. Yet because wrong, right.
Her shoulders tingled.
And the world around her was fire.
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GIRLS
At the age of 16, she rode faster and twice as far as Paul Revere to warn her neighbors that the British were coming. Did you learn about her in school?
At 13, she was the first girl to pitch a shut out in Little League Baseball World Series history. Watch out: she throws like a girl.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn:
A labor leader, feminist, and activist, the “East Side Joan of Arc” gave her first speech at the age of 16 and began a career as an agitator for women’s and worker’s rights. She never stopped.
Just 6 years old, she didn’t run, didn’t cry, when she was led through a roiling mass of bigots into William Frantz Elementary.
In the initial immolation, the heat of Olive’s new body radiated out and melted every test, all the desks beneath them, the linoleum tile (even the asbestos tile the new flooring concealed), the laminated artwork collaged on the walls, all the cubbies and lockers and abandoned, half-eaten snacks. Every transcript. Every log. Every rule book.
The blast was swift, yet like Olive, selective. Why wouldn’t it be? She melted plastic, metal, and cloth. But skin and bone? The children and teachers? Naked, missing some hair, they survived. Every one of them. Though, Olive wasn’t above spite: Miss Blatter and Max Meyerson turned up more charred than the rest. The teacher’s tight bun was transformed into ash. And Max Meyerson? His bum, scorched a blistering red, was suspiciously (auspiciously?) marked by arrow shaped streaks that pointed right at his own puckered ass. He couldn’t sit down for a week.
The children and teachers sprawled on the floors where they’d once been sitting, in classrooms that no longer existed. When the temperature died back, they opened their eyes, blinked at each other in the raining light, while Olive, above them, tested her new wings in the air, pulsing hot gusts with each stroke on their sooty, exposed backs.
Like every monster who realizes she’s not a monster at all, but an evolved artifact of the human condition, as Olive flew above them, she was laughing.
Soon, Olive saw the concrete stoop had survived and flew over to find her friends gathered and waiting for her. They no longer sat in the shade. Because the school had been razed, the sunlight bled over their shoulders, and the snails had taken refuge where the steps caved in a new protective lair.
How many steps when steps lead nowhere?
Imogen reached over and touched Olive’s shoulder where her new wing had sprouted a webbed antler surging from its pinnacle.
“Finally,” she said, feeling its warmth radiate from the wing into her hand.
Ava’s legs were crossed. One arm was wrapped over her chest, the other shielding her eyes as she gazed out at the flattened grid of the school, at the drive leading up to a sidewalk that now only framed rubble. But there was a smile hidden behind her ash-covered face.
“Now what?” she asked.
The once subtle preteen movement was cataclysmic: her entire wingspan convulsed.
Imogen rubbed ash from her side, just under her waist. “Look,” she said.
Olive smiled and touched the nub now growing from her friend’s hip.
Of course the town was in uproar. “Readiness and Response Plan #1” was invoked. The School Board Crisis Management Team huddled around hastily assembled cafeteria tables watching Power Point presentations about “insurance mandates,” “city infrastructure grids,” and the influence of the “changing environment on adolescent female biology.” Distraught parents herded truculent children indoors. On the TV, the public panicked and growsed. Fundamentalists preached. Environmentalists lectured. Zoologists gave interviews. The news bloomed and germinated its rhizomatic cycle.
The situation could have been worse. But no kids, or teachers, had perished. Not even one homeroom pet. As the school’s legal team explained to the school board, the PTA, and the police, Olive couldn’t be held responsible: there was no case law, or by-laws, for girls becoming dragons. And while her role in the school’s destruction was “leading” even “coincidental,” her transformation at the end of the day, was simply circumstantial: all the security cameras and smart phones that might have proven otherwise had melted in the blast.
Fortunately, like most cities, there were too many shuttered schools on the tax roll. Soon, one was selected. A Blight Team was sent in to prepare the way and, three weeks later, the mayor was photographed cutting tape at the (Re)Opening Ceremony of PS 42 while students walked through its newly painted doors behind him. In no time at all, the public grew bored of cataloging “Olive sightings” when she flew overhead. The mayor, meanwhile, discovered that his city was lined up for what the local news called “an insurance settlement of exceptional size,” and, in result, the tax roll debt was reduced, rearranged, forgiven. Not only was the city’s credit rating expected to surge in the next quarter, the comptroller noted, but according to both local and nationals newspapers, the mayor had also handled the PS64 Blast with such “steadfast reassurance” that they’d moved onto to the next question: Would he soon run for Congress?
While Olive tested thermal gusts above, it was the question being asked below.
Olive, of course, was still in the thick of it. In the absence of video evidence, there were depositions about her anatomy, her state of mind, her friends, the Insult Club in particular. Family genetics.
Lawyers were called. Biologists consulted. Documents notarized, distributed, filed. Meanwhile, a daily witnessing took place at her doorstep. Mormons baptized her in absentia. Catholics performed an exorcism from the curb. The Universalists sent an invitation to tea.
Olive took it all in stride; after all, she could fly away—above, out—whenever she wanted. She wasn’t trapped. For the first time, she was stratospheric. Free. They could all go to hell. She was already in the wind.
Sure, news outlets speculated that the city would soon be overrun with winged girls melting local Elks lodges and football fields, Weight Watchers franchises and Botox dens. Or that—singular in her transformation—Olive would sign a 7-figure book deal, and launch a life of celebrity in either New York or L.A. Had Olive been a different sort of girl, she might have considered such options. (Her mother, reading the “news,” reflected with curtained enthusiasm that the “7-figure book deal sounded nice.”)
As for Olive? It wasn’t that she lacked ambition. Or that she wasn’t generally pissed off at stupid tests, bullies, lunchbox size packets of 100-calorie foods, thongs, “lady” anything, or the term “tomboy.”
But for Olive, her wings weren’t new or different. They were just part of the girl she always knew she was. Her mother made her dinner and folded her (altered) clothes each night. There were still friends and cotton candy. And even if sleepovers were cancelled for the foreseeable future—and she now spent her time rejecting research proposals en masse—she was still a girl. Would always be.
Olive could have done anything.
But she chose to return to the halls of PS 42 with her friends for the first day of 6th grade.
PS 42 had to take her. It was a public school after all. And maybe, she admitted quietly to herself, she wanted to make them abide her presence now, much as she’d often endured theirs. It’s important to look past your own windowed reflection once in a while, and see who, beyond the glass, is staring back.
At the new school, the Insult Club continued to meet. At recess, they now sat out in the open—Olive’s new size required more space—and spreading her wings around her friends, she shielded them from the glare of the sun and the other kids’ curious eyes.
“Clankermass,” Imogen warned.
Frankie J. was sidling up to spy on them, but the rattling key chain hooked into his belt loop always gave him away.
“Skern him,” Ava whispered.
Olive turned her head and withered him with a look of exhausted distaste.
Reprimanded, he veered off at once toward the trees.
Olive smiled as the girls leaned against her.
The pilot light of her belly now kept them all warm.
List of Favorite Insults (continued).
The Kindergartners who, in the Library or Cafeteria, accidentally glued their bums to chairs or snacked on paper and paste while their teacher’s backs were turned.
Other kids who tried to insult the Insult Club. But sucked at it.
Then, one day, unexpectedly, Olive’s dad came back.
She didn’t see him until she landed in the back yard, shaking small clouds of smog from her wings, before folding them delicately behind her. She walked to the house, lost in thought about her new perspective—how, from above, her neighborhood at first looked like an elegant puzzle, its form and content shifting from artistic abstraction, to unkempt, distraught rooftops, to (as she descended fast, testing her speed) a charismatically landscaped nostalgia when her feet took on earth again and she remembered the landlocked girl she’d once been—and there he was, rising from a chair in the shadows on the porch.
“Daddy?” she said. She’d seen his image in photographs for so long that his animated face, conflicted by time, was alarming.
In his hand, he held a cupcake. It had wilted in the heat while he waited, the once mountainous cap of icing now sliding a slow tsunami toward the edge.
“I had to see you,” he said. In his hand, he held a newspaper, a picture of Olive in flight on the front page.
In the driveway, her mother pulled up in her car and stepped out. She stood by the driver’s side door, stunned, looking at the two of them on the porch.
“You’ve gotten so big,” he said. He was sizing her up, not just her height, she realized, but her wingspan as well. She wasn’t the girl he remembered.
“How does it feel?” he said.
There were so many things he could mean.
“Your wings,” he clarified. “How do they feel?”
She looked at him looking at her body.
“May I touch them?” he asked.
She didn’t answer and he circled around, until he stood behind her. She could feel the inept heat of him, his heart rattling against its plasticized cage. She didn’t stop him from studying the sturdy webbing of skin, so much like the leather that still tipped her elbows, which had now grown between the enhanced architecture of her shoulder blades. When he reached out his hand, however, the wings shuddered involuntarily, collapsed in sudden recoil against her spine. He blinked. Stuffed the hand in his pocket.
Behind her, the gate creaked open, then shut. There was the rustle of gravel and leaves. Her mother’s feet on their clovered plot of lawn.
“Mom says I have her eyes,” Olive said as he shuffled his feet.
She rustled her wings at him. “Did I get these from you?”
He refocused on her. Took his time answering.
“In my family,” he said, “there are stories of girls who left suddenly. For no reason.” He blinked. “My grandmother would say ‘they just flew off.’ She’d say it the way you might say ‘took off.’ ‘Those girls just flew off.” His voice trailed. “I didn’t understand.”
Her mother was at her side now.
“Dad says I get my wings from him,” Olive said.
Her mother snorted. “He would.”
Olive could feel her mother folding anger like a fan inside her heart, trying to quell the fury it contained: wings of a different order just under the surface. One day, they might sprout too, Olive thought.
She hadn’t seen it until now. How much she took after her mother.
“I imagine many women in his family would like to take off,” she said.
Her mother looked at her. “Those wings are yours. You earned them.”
She stroked Olive’s shoulder.
The next day, PS 42’s new Development Officer invited Olive into his office on her way to recess: he’d love it, he said as she stepped through the door, if Olive would give a speech at Commencement about the significance of the school’s new logo. He stood carefully back from her, a good three steps maintained with care, as he explained he’d designed the logo himself.
“Take credit where credit is due,” he said, showing it to her. The image was of a child with wings, looking off the edge of the paper into the horizon of her burgeoning future.
Olive paused. She was supposed to be pleased, she thought. Supposed to be proud. She stepped closer to look at the sheet, noting his proportional shift away toward the wall.
It was one thing, she thought, to be baptized against her will by the Mormons camped nearby. To rebuff researchers. Even the stares of neighbors who knew her. It was another thing to be diminished. Transformed into a mascot.
There is a gesture adults forget how to synchronize in their rubbery, superseded bodies. A subtle twitch of the shoulder, a dismissive fleck and recoil from the chin up to the brow. The movement’s horizon is infinite. It asks for no response.
What the Development Officer saw was a shrug.
“You’re missing an opportunity,” he said. His voice frowned. He’d started to sweat. He smelled like a spent penny dug up from the dirt. She guessed he’d already sent the logo to the printer.
“It’s time for me to go,” she said, looking out the window at her friends waiting for her on the playground.
He turned toward the clock, the minute hand nearing the end of the period.
He thought he understood.
“I didn’t mean to keep you,” he said. Then: “We’ll talk more later.”
She smiled, and headed off down the hall. Soon, she joined her friends in the grass.
They sat quietly for some time. Like all creatures that travel in packs, the girls often simply sat together to share each other’s warmth.
Ava sighed and touched Olive’s arm.
“You’re going aren’t you?”
Nodding, Olive stroked Ava’s shoulder. Touched Imogen’s hip. And they, in turn, creviced into her body like the flowering leaves around a tender choke. Dragons are not only made of fire.
“There are others,” she assured them, stepping back. “You know it.”
Then, without fanfare, Olive flew off.
The Insult Club watched her go. For now, it was enough to know she was out there, a growing collective of girls whisking the moonlight. Beating every horizon back.
In no time at all, Olive was clear sky where a winged girl had once been, and the Insult Club turned to go inside. Frankie J. stood at the edge of the playground watching Olive launch her stratospheric flight path, his mouth slack in the soft meal of his face. If pudding could feel awe, Frankie J. was a gelled dessert held together by a set of frayed laces, his cinched nylon belt, and a cap.
Imogen walked over, touched her toes to his, let him feel the heat of her. He couldn’t stand it for long, and when he fled back to the school, he was red from the base of his collar to the backs of his ears, as much from her ovening swelter, as from the blush that had crept up the mostly unseen length of him.
Imogen knew that, sometime soon, she would consume him. She wasn’t sure precisely why. Or in what fashion. Just that she smelled a sweetness in him, like a yolk inside a translucent egg. Or the custard inside a mild, inoffensive pastry.
One day, she knew she’d eat him up.
Dragons have the gift of foresight.
All girls do.
Christina Milletti’s fiction and articles have appeared in many journals and anthologies, such as Harcourt’s Best New American Voices, The Master’s Review Anthology: Best Emerging Writers, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, Studies in the Novel, and Fiction’s Present: Situating Narrative Innovation (among other places). Her first collection of short stories, The Religious & Other Fictions, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and she has just completed a new collection of stories, Girling Seasons, with the help of a fellowship from the UB Humanities Institute and a residency at the Marble House Project. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo where she curates the Exhibit X Fiction Series, and she is currently working on a novel about Cuba.