Tag Archives: Fiction

Some Way Out of Here

By Parrish

Mother says grace isn’t given; you fight for it. Charley smiles in the mirror as she drives. Ah, Mother, grace takes many forms.  Jimi, for instance, or Kristin. Definitely Blue. She’s otherworldly. You’d admit that. Then there’s Kat. What about Charley? Hmm. Definitely not Charlotte. That bitch is dead and won’t survive the second coming.  Sorry, Mom. Grace is a heaven of my own. 

Along I-75, the sun sinks into the sea redder than blood. Creation bleeding at the edges, and Jimi occupies her car speakers like a godly messenger from a lost world. He’s singing the way through. At 90 mph, she looks for that new sky and new earth that will come when the sea gives up its dead, and the copulators and murderers gather outside the new golden city to be damned. She’ll be among them if Mother doesn’t drag her through the gates to the golden city herself. Better turn up Jimi. Grace infected his guitar, and maybe it’s contagious. 

Graduation was tomorrow; unless it’s today, everything is always happening again. If she were eighteen, she’d wear a tattoo. Mother says no. She thinks any day now is Judgment Day when the dead will bury the dead before grace everlasting. Don’t defile your flesh, she says. As for girls, be one, don’t kiss one. She says together we’ll fight the beast until it’s cast into the fiery lake. But what if I’m the beast? May as well wear that black lipstick Mother hates. She sighs again. 

She quit her job today. She was going to try for the kingdom if she can. She wasn’t going to spend eternity cleaning comes. Fuck that asshole and his low rent peep show he calls a bookstore. And fuck his twenty bucks an hour and putting his hands on me, like Mother said he would. It’s happening now, Mother says. From Sarasota to Pensacola, people rehearsing the Rapture. Houses being built for the banks to fail, the insides stripped for materials, bathtubs stinking from shit.  Shells corroding in the sun occupied by the warlords of the Apocalypse mixing medicine to sell to zombie children. The coastline beckons in skywriting like ancient prophecy. 

BE ALL YOU CAN BE IN THE ARMY! 

ESCORTS NEEDED NOW! 

Jimi, what’s a girl to do? Soldier or whore? The fucking future. It’s been overtaking her every second since before she was born. Blue stopped time, but she’s not Blue. Mother thinks she’s my watch and I’m her minutes. 

In the mirror, Mother supervises her driving. Her reflection turns up everywhere. Her purse was not to mention random windows; puddles generally worked, and sometimes free-floating in space in her room. No mirror in the world—she has checked them all—can distinguish her eyes from her eyes forever watching her, forever talking to her, inescapable, behind everything, forever eating her through her own eyes. 

Jimi, there must be some way out of here, right? You found the exit ramp. 

Jimi never answers; he just plays on repeat since he took over her playlist. Blue was the one who put him there that day in the bathroom. 

And you were a soldier too, like my brother. Luke traded dealing drugs for the army. Didn’t listen to Mother. Why go to Afghanistan, she says, when Jesus needs warriors. No sign up needed for the Final Battle. The future’s here, Charlotte, and it’s murder.  

But Mama, I don’t want to be a soldier; I don’t want to die. Her hands gripping the wheel are clenched fists.

You’re already a soldier, Mother says, in the army of the Lord.  

   Jimi, you hear that? Mother Dearest! She’d eat everybody living and dead to save me.  Who’s eating Luke? 

Hush, sweet Charlotte. Luke’s ok.  He’ll live while others will die, and there’s always a lesson in that. Never forget we live in the Truth. Yes, it’s a burden to live among these billions of bodies waiting to be burned. And more being born each second! They multiply through vice so that Satan may lead them to the slaughter. Such a conflagration! I can smell it from here to Miami!

No point adjusting the mirror. Mother installed it inside her head before she could speak, and Charley can’t escape its reflection. Charlotte did. That’s because Charley killed Charlotte, so Mother wouldn’t. It was surprisingly simple. She let Kristin kiss her on the beach, surf licking their ears. Somehow, Mother knew. Mother’s the lover that’s hard to quit.

Before you were born, she says, I knew you. In the womb, I encircled you. Upon birth, the circle widened. Its circumference encompasses all of time and creation, arcing from the sizzling pits of hell to the misty azure of heaven.  She’s been grounded half of the calendar weekends since she turned fourteen. In Mother, she’s safe—from drugs, from other girls’ mouths, from marking her body with the tattooed ink Zombie-Goats wear in Satan’s army of the dead.

“Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another.”

She’s been to six classmates’ funerals— three by hanging, two by overdose, one by car. The future really is murder. Ask Blue. She graduated herself. Charley met her one day hanging in the school bathroom. Blue Angel. Her face looked almost pretty in the mirror hanging from the ceiling. Charley rubbed her bare feet, and they discussed what was to come. She knew their friendship was fate.  Sometimes she sees the future in the present. It’s a gift from Mother. Blue knew Charley too—she spoke without saying hello. The afterlife is no different from this one. When the rent-a-cop came to cut her down, Charley clasped Blue’s knees and cried to keep her close. She wasn’t bothering anybody. They took her body but not her face in the mirror. Sometimes she can almost kiss it.  

Since Blue found her bedroom mirror, things are better. Her friend Kat comes too. Blue must have shown her the way. Blue’s great. She says the craziest things, except they’re not crazy. Like, time can’t cease, and grace won’t come until male and female become a single being and male won’t be male and female won’t be female, so kiss whoever the fuck you want. It’s hard not to laugh when Blue talks like that, but she doesn’t want Mother to see. And Jimi in her ears with his forever song. Blue was broadcasting it when they met. She heard it from the stall calling her. She removed the buds from Blue’s ears so Jimi might bloom in hers.  It’s almost as if Jimi brought them together, though Charley prefers to credit Blue’s generosity. Blue came to bring her Jimi’s good news, and that has made all the difference. The earphones, too, Mother is always tossing hers.  

Hush, sweet Charlotte, Charley says, so Mother won’t. Keep your body clean. Patience now, or you’ll die forever. The day ending all days is near. Until then, live among these dead as best you can. Grace awaits. 

Charley’s face pales like death. It’s her. But I killed her with that kiss.  No, she lives in Mother’s eyes, looking straight at Charley, dating proper boys and keeping her body pure of graven images.

I’m Charley now, she says, barely moving her lips so Mother won’t see, like a ventriloquist she saw once. She was concentrating on Jimi in her ears, praying, save me, let Charlotte have Mother’s afterlife, and letting me have grace like that time with Kristin on the beach, away from her voice. A voice that was falling over her like lava on Pompeii those words were bubbling and gurgling, saying, graduation’s soon, sure, but time is short. The form of this world is passing away. Better stay home with Mother. It’s more dangerous than Afghanistan out there. The drones are within— schools breeding zombies. Masks won’t save them. I’m a nurse, I know, I see the wires attached to their heads streaming filth. Dead to the world, dead to everything, dead dead dead. And the junk they read! Game of Thrones gobbledygook. Harry Potter prattle. Goat books for goat people. The living dream of being dead, and well they should. Men were marrying men; women were marrying women. Fire fodder. But not you, baby girl, never you, not if you stay close to Mother.

She’d turn up Jimi, but Blue already has. He gets louder when Mother gets closer. Her arm tingles so wildly she believes may be her tat’s coming now.  In dreams, she’s seen it, written in red letters she can’t remember. She wishes she could borrow the stars pressed on Blue’s eyelids. Charley had seen them in the morgue when she pretended to be her sister. Kristin wanted stars like that, but she spent all her money on heroin.  Look, Mother. Aren’t they pretty? Blue says if the spirit comes into being because of the body, it’s a marvel of marvels. That’s me when I get my tattoo. You’ll see.   

And if you’re worried about my life after graduation, Kat has ideas.  She’s not a whore, Mother; it’s called sex work. Not like the bookstore. Kat copyrighted her fine little ass! She used to work in a bike shop, but the men were such assholes. It’s a little-acknowledged fact, Kat says, Charley says, men go into heat worse than women. Existence for them is a mechanism cruder than a bike. A gear that runs all the other gears is always running them. It’s like what you told that new mom at church, how baby girls are better than baby boys because changing their diapers, boys get tiny erections shoot pee in your face. 

Never ends, Kat says. 

Master, the penis, master the man, Mother says.

Better off with girls, Kat says. Like you and Kristin.

I was her nurse, Charley says. She’s messed up.  

Girls are tricky, Mother says. You must watch them until they’re grown. And even then. 

Mothers, Kat says. I wouldn’t unblock mine from my phone for a thousand bucks—the price of an ass fuck.

Charley giggles. She loves it when Kat talks like that, even if she has to move her lips to make it happen. Mother isn’t giggling, though.  

Charley, I told you, Charley says, it’s not your job to clean Kristin’s bones in this life.

I know, we’re splitting up. 

Kat looks confused, so Charley puts the side of her hand next to her mouth and whispers words only she can hear. 

Mother says Kristin is a lesbian. My body is a temple, and L is Satan’s middle initial, and if Kristin pillages my temple, Jehovah will mark my forehead with Satan’s name. But that asshole’s not touching me. No way. If Mother doesn’t like it, she can suck my bones in the afterlife. 

Charley laughs since Charlotte never says such things. In the mirror, Charley’s lips move like Kat’s.

Speaking of money, that job you had . . . second hand come is not terrible. At least you didn’t have to watch them jerk off and clean your face. I’m almost sorry you didn’t get real hands-on experience. Sex work isn’t terrible if you work hard and have goals. Show up. Maintain your appearance. And carry a gun. If a client asks for your number, call that day’s number and tell whoever answers what happened, so you never see him again. That’s the benefit of working for a corporation. Beats the army. The clients are disgusting, but it’s not about you, Kat says, Charley says, while Mother frowns over her shoulder. The worst part is they talk when they finish. I’d rather put their dick in my mouth again than listen to their bullshit.  

Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another, like roommates in the same cell. She closes her eyes and hears not Jimi but Mother calling from downstairs. 

Knock knock. Charley? You there? 

Sorry, she says, Mother wanted something. 

I quit talking to mine after I put my dad in jail. 

Charley’s mouth opens so wide she sees Blue peeking from behind her tonsils.  

“Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign.”

He molested me.  Aren’t words stupid?  Dad RAPED me. I couldn’t count the times. When I was sixteen, I quit trying.  I called 911. The funny thing is he had just given me that cell phone, the eternal asshole. The cops and the emergency techs found me bloody—it was my period—with evidence of his miserable need. I felt like I was the criminal turning him in. Crazy, right?  I don’t know how I did it. Jesus, maybe, but I don’t believe in Jesus, so I don’t see why he would care about me. 

Actually, Jesus—the words don’t come. The ferocity of Kat’s expression prevents Charley from mentioning that Mother says Armageddon is here and Jesus could be on her side.

He did my older sister too.

It brought you together, I guess. 

Sure it did. Big Sis was my first pimp! She was blackmailing him with me. Mom knew. Mom taught her the business. Mom had been extorting him for doing Sis. They begged me to withdraw the charges—said they’d cut me in. They said if Dad went to jail, we’d have no income. Sis said she’d have to hook. Fuck me! 

Charley gasped—not at Kat’s words, which she had repeated many times before, but at Mother’s absence. Usually, she drives Kat away now. 

Mom won, though. I caved. The prosecutor read my statements to me in court, and I said they were lies.  I lied about telling the truth.  I testified against myself! How sick is that? Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Kisses, Sis, you stupid cow-cunt!” 

Charley reaches to stroke Kat’s face, but the mirror’s words push back her hand. 

You’d never do that, would you?

What?

Lie against yourself?

And there’s Mother, a little off cue, standing behind Kat like a deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. She moves toward Kat! That’s never happened before! She nears, arms open, whether to hug Kat or break through the glass; Charley doesn’t want to know. She closes her eyes and dreams of graduation; it’s tomorrow unless it was yesterday. She’s back in the second row, wearing her blue gown, tasselled cap on head, waiting with hands crossed to be called. Above loom shadowy figures in black robes reading names. Behind her, everyone else. The theatre so vastly exceeds the limits of human endurance, but for Jimi’s singing her war song like a lullaby. Her head bobs; she’s falling asleep again. Charley! The voice jerks her awake inside of her dream. Come forward and receive your reward.  On the dais, she turns to face the others who have vanished like names erased. Among the countless empty seats, one rises. Mother, her sword tapping “All Along the Watchtower” on the metal chairs . . . 

Yo, Charley! You there? 

The bleary mirror blinks into focus. Mother, is that you?

I’m telling you, in court, everybody wanted to believe my lies.  Who wants to think Dad the hot shit lawyer is a serial rapist growing his own victims?  The judge ruled against my testimony. He must know lawyers are paid, liars. Dad went to the state prison, and I bolted the Mom-prison. Charley jumps back and sees Mother hiding behind Kat, a nearly perfect silhouette. 

Charley looks as deep into those eyes as she dares. When I die, she thinks, you’ll bring me back, and everything will happen again. 

In the Resurrection, everyone must come forward to receive their share of grace, Mother says over Kat’s shoulder. Fighting will be required. 

Oh, the fight’s on, Charley says through her ventriloquist’s lips. Kat would be an excellent ally, especially if Blue doesn’t make it.

I moved out, Kat says, to a friend’s house. Her dad was nice. He treated me like a family member. I tried to do him once, just because he was so nice he’d never ask; his wife was a total bitch. He turned me away, which is weird. Maybe he knew I’m a lesbian. 

In the mirror, Kat’s face freezes, arrested by Charley’s frightened face, which makes little sense since Kat can’t see what Charley sees, which is Mother’s L on Kat’s forehead, the one that caused Charlotte to use the word, Charley. In her panic, she wants to kiss Kat right now, to make that look disappear, but there’s Mother’s face, looking so much like her own, Adam’s apple bobbing because some words are as hard to swallow as they are to say. 

You’re a lesbian?

Haven’t we been through this? 

I forget.

I’m like you— or are you bi? 

Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign. 

Mother says I am. 

What do you say? 

It’s just that we talk a lot, every day practically: about the future, and other things. When I don’t, she talks to me from my mirror.

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A laugh that sounds like a sob, and she wishes Jimi would play louder, but it’s that silent moment before it repeats, and she doesn’t see her lips move when she speaks. She’s afraid Mother is going to answer her. 

Finding your mother in the mirror every day talking to you! I can’t think of anything more frightening. I’d have to break my mirrors and live like a vampire. 

She wants me to see a therapist.

Kat’s eyes narrow, and her face becomes comically prim.  You’re not skipping school to fuck your dad, are you? I wouldn’t want to call the attendance officer, young lady. 

Charley’s face cracks—into a smile. It’s so spontaneous, beautiful, she doesn’t recognize it or her own teeth, which she imagines belong to Kat. She’s licking them. Mother’s image seems to dissolve in the glass.

School’s ok. It’s just that Mother thinks I shouldn’t date girls. She says L is Satan’s middle initial, and Jehovah will tattoo it on my forehead for all eternity, or until Jesus tosses me in the flames on Judgement Day.

Girl, I don’t see it. 

Charley leans close to touch noses. She doesn’t see it either.  

Well, I’m not one. The voice sounds strange in her own ears—it sounds so much like Charlotte, who sounds so much like Mother. 

What about you and Kristin? 

That’s different.

I saw you making out at the mall. Looked pretty hot.  

She’s generally too stoned to get hot.

But you fuck?

I’m not—what Mother says.  

So what’s the problem? 

She didn’t know. 

Dump Kristin. She’s not good enough for you. 

Behind Kat, Mother nods her head. 

Any other girls you want to try?

Blue.

Do her.

I tried—but she found grace. She left me behind. 

Found Grace? Seriously? Do you believe in that shit? Well, you’re looking at grace, baby. No joke. Clients choose names for you. One called me Grace. The way he shouted that word when he came to my face, I almost believed I was it.  The last time I saw him, though, was terrible. His daughter had just died. He couldn’t get it up. He cried so much he couldn’t function. Pushing around his limp dick, I could almost imagine what it was like to have a parent who truly loved you, who’d mourn your absence. I would’ve let him talk, but I had another client soon. So I whispered, Grace is here, Daddy, come unto me. His dick became lifelike enough to screw, though he kept crying and mumbling her name. As he got harder inside me, I had a terrible realization. Grace was his daughter’s name! I couldn’t help it; I puked in his face. Then he hit me and came. After he left, I called the number. Fucking grace.

Charley grimaces like a punch to the gut. Grace isn’t a name or even a name for a name, she wants to say, you’re grace, she wants to say but can’t because she can’t breathe with Charlotte now looking at her so triumphant and . . . and Jimi getting louder playing new notes in new combinations because Blue’s speaking through the guitar, saying never lie to yourself, Charley, don’t do what you hate, all things are disclosed before heaven, and she exhales because Kat’s there, not Charlotte.  

You date dudes?

Some. I liked meth and ate bath salts and tried to eat his skin and another girl’s skin, but he was always nice to me. I was sorry he died. 

“Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.”

Men are dicey. Better to stay away.

How do you stand it? 

Stand what?

Sleeping with them. 

Learning I didn’t have to fuck them was the hard part. It’s a job. I’m getting my GED, saving for college. Then law school so I can sue assholes like Dad. They’re everywhere, like cash machines. 

Talk of the future brings to mind graduation, which she almost remembers remembering, though, for the life of her, she can’t fathom Mother’s sword. 

Watch out for therapists; the court assigned me mine. I call him The-Rapist. At first, he was my dream friend—the one that listens to whatever you say and understands you no matter how fucked up you are.  And he was so typical—like my friend’s dad, I thought, except a fucking professional normal person. I started lingering after the sessions thinking some might rub off on me. It began with him making tea. And then he started telling me his problems. Who knew normal people have problems? It made me feel; I don’t know, smart or something. I didn’t get that he was telling me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I thought maybe he was in love with me. 

It happens, right? Charley asked hopefully. 

You’re sweet, but who was I to him? I was pretty, and I was hurt, and I was fuckable. My parents fucked me! Therefore, I could be fucked by anybody.  That’s what my life said— the facts on my résumé and The-Rapist knew that. When I realized he was using his impressive framed diplomas to get himself next to what made him hot, I dumped the asshole. Sex work is my therapy. I’m the one getting paid. The firm has me in training for their B & D division. Apparently, I’m a natural. I have that something extra.

In the mirror, Charley blinked her through her crying eyes like an actress receiving the Academy Award. 

Thanks, everyone! Parental units? You watching? I owe everything to you! Hey Sis! Fuck yourself for once! Special shout-out to my therapist! Bruuuuuuce! Kisses, baby! Oh, you want a speech? I don’t have anything prepared, but . . . ok, here’s what every real-life actress knows. Once everything has already happened to you, anything goes! You can fake anything just to get through. I got there early. Just lucky, I guess.

The words, which Charley remembers perfectly, she was crying the first time Kat said them, leak from her lungs, her heart, her brain like she’s been punctured by someone else’s memories. Charlotte’s a bitch to play. Leaning across her childhood dresser, she wants to touch her hand, kiss her mouth, make her feel better somehow. She leans closer, lips ready to kiss. Kat turns aside as Charley talks out of the side of her mouth. 

I already have a girlfriend, girlfriend.  

The eyes in the mirror are vacant, from another world, one where Mother isn’t. Blue’s face replaces Kat’s like radio signals converging, and she doesn’t notice the earbuds fallen around her neck like a noose. 

What if you walked out of this reflection and gave no forwarding address? 

Mother will find you, a distant voice taunts. 

Who said that? Charlotte, are you there?  

If you know what’s in front of your face, Blue says, everything hidden from you will be disclosed.  

Charley slaps her cheek twice, hard, to unshape its mouth and to unmake its eyes. Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.

Through the mirror, Blue returns the pods to her ears. Listen, girl, listen this time, please. Blessed is she who came into being before coming into being. Her words soar like Jimi’s guitar. 

Charley’s eyes flash, burning holes through the glass and penetrate the world behind the world. For a moment, just long enough, she can’t see anyone, not even herself, since the mirror is perfectly blank, but for the strange gravitational force pulling her forward into the black tunnels her eyes have made. 

“In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.”

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

A rolling roar, a buzzing in her brain. School counsellors’ words, Luke’s letters from Afghanistan, dead bodies in the bathrooms were reading newspapers aloud. It’s not strange to have gone through the mirror, not at all. 

She expects light overwhelming but sees only her, broken glass embedded in that face like diamonds, eyes streaming red globs of blood like bleary mascara, motioning her forward with her sword. She looks for a place to run and recognizes the auditorium from her dream. Graduation night! This place is ginormous. Look at all these . . . at all these . . . people? A multitude whose number she couldn’t count, from every nation and tribe and tongue.  Most look like they’re dead. She wonders if everything exists just for her.

Throughout the theatre, Jimi’s guitar reverberates. Still, only she hears it, his wah-wah whispering, this way, Charley, you can make it, but Mother is greeting her with the promised sacred kiss and putting that sword in her hand, except now it’s a pocket mirror, saying, nice work, honey, but look at yourself, on this day of all days, can’t you just fix your face? Her eyes are sockets black and bruised above strips of hanging flesh. N,o doubt about it, she looks beat-up, emptied out, but wearing that black lipstick Mother hates. It looks cute. Her lips pucker as the lights go out like they had never been a light from within allows her to see her robe is white, not blue, and smeared with blood. Mother’s robe is white like hers but sparkling as if freshly washed. You can change later, she whispers. 

As she grows accustomed to the darkness, she discerns classmates naked but for the scars on their battered bodies. Her bloody eyes fix upon the robed figures on the stage. One sits upon a throne above the others. Around him are four animals teeming with eyes in front and back. A lion, a calf, an eagle, and a dog with a human face that Charley recognizes as Blue by the way it winks at her. He’s giving slips of paper to those whose names are called. Jesus, it’s going to take forever and a day to get through this thing. Her name rings out, but she hears only Jimi, while Blue seems to be barking and wagging her tail.  

Mother pushes her forward, whispering, it’s ok, baby, the dead are not alive, and the living will not die. Charley can’t hear, and anyway, she’s watching her arm where a feather quill writes upon it from inkpots filled with blood. A glowing graven image was raising up like goosebumps. She can’t believe it.  Mother said it would happen over her dead body. The letters emerging from her skin seem to be moving the quill until the pot disappears into the air. The quill, free-floating, drips blood on her bare feet and then goes where the pen went. The letters light up her eyes. G R A C E runs one direction and C H A R L E Y the other.  They intersect at the A.  It looks like a sideways cross.

In the second row among the chosen, Mother has returned with her diploma, cooing; you’ve earned it, baby.  I will choose you as one from a thousand and as two from ten thousand, and you will stand as a single one. Before she can ask its meaning, the paper starts to burn. Fire shoots through her fingers and into every strand of her hair as the throne rises heavenward. Fight your ass off, the ascending one yells, but Jimi drowns him out. The doggy Blue dissipates into the smoke. Only then does the terrible smell infuse her, the auditorium turning into the ashes from the burning flesh of women and men and the world darkening at the edges as its light disappears through the gap where the throne ascended.

On the beach, two remain. One holds two swords, the other none above neither sun nor moon. Still, the view seems familiar despite I-75 being gone. That’s ok. She won’t be needing her car anymore. In the sand, she notices shards of stars fallen like unripe fruit from a tree. The sea had been a bottomless pit, and the wind sounds like a buzzing of locusts. Her ear pods are gone. Mother’s voice pierces through the noise. 

You ready? They’re about to rise up. We’ll have to fight them again. 

Where’s Jimi? 

Here’s your sword.

Keep it. 

Don’t make me fight you. I’ll cut your arm off to save you. 

Through her arm’s muscle, the tattoo flexes like a taunt. Mother can’t help herself. The sword severs the arm at the A, and the A shatters the sword. Charley doesn’t blink. She has never seen Mother cry before. 

It’s ok, Mom. You have another one.  

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

Mother, Charlotte cleft your body to enter this world. She now cleft me so that Charley can return. She bows her head. 

Jesus, in the name of Blue, she says, grace shall reign over me.  

As the sword comes down, the music swells in place of the disappeared sea. By her two ears and her one arm, Jimi carries her to that world where she meets the face she wore before the world was made, and they were one. 


Parrish is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and critic living somewhere in California and teaching. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Hunger

By Christina Rosso

On my third birthday, my mother told me she had a special treat for me. She placed a dome-shaped cake the colour of smashed berries in front of me; a flaming candle stuck in the tip of the arch. “Today, you begin your transformation,” she said, smiling. “Today, you discover hunger.” The lines by her eyes and mouth reminded me of the tracks birds left in the dirt. I beamed up at her, showing my jagged grin of baby teeth and gaps of pink gums. I blew out the candle, wishing she’d stay this happy, and then she cut me a large piece, the insides oozing crimson onto the plate.

The hunger increased steadily until the monthly bleeding began. I was thirteen. My limbs stretched, my body blooming just as my mother’s had. I was her double, twenty years removed. She said she could smell it on me, the blood. She nodded, saying it was time for me to hunt on my own. She told me to use the blood on my mouth. “Men can’t resist women with blood-red lips,” she said. “It reminds them of your cunt.”

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A man lies at my feet, cracked ribs and gutted organs displayed. Dark brown blood stains my bare toes; I wiggle them in the syrupy liquid; I hold the man’s heart in my palms. It pumps softly, fluttering, unaware that it’s left its body. I remember biting into that cake on my third birthday, the shredded heart chewy and a little slippery. The taste was hearty, like steak, but better. Now that I have been hunting for over a decade, I know each heart tastes different, reflecting the man it comes from. The women in my family subsist on men. Our kind has existed for centuries, adapting to technology and popular culture and beauty standards. We use the male gaze, shaping our appearance, to lure and trap our prey. 

Hunger is the one thing that doesn’t change.

I raise the heart to my mouth, jaw stretching, fangs extending to deadly points. I salivate at the thought of what this man’s heart will taste like. Sweet? Tangy? Chocolatey? I press a finger into one of his heart’s flexing valves and dress my lips in purple blood, a hot appetizer. My mouth opens, my fangs tear into the heart with a crunch. I grin. I remember the words my mother told me all those years ago. A fresh, beating heart is the best. The blood dripping from it the sweetest.


Christina Rosso is a writer and bookstore owner living in South Philadelphia with her bearded husband and rescue pup. She is the author of SHE IS A BEAST (APEP Publications, 2020), a chapbook of feminist fairy tales. Her first full-length collection CREOLE CONJURE is forthcoming from Maudlin House. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. For more information, visit christina-rosso.com or find her on Twitter.

THE FILTHY HOUSE

By Stephen Phillip Lupkin

Carl had just begun chewing the last bite of his sandwich when there was a knock at the door. 

“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled through cheap bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Who is it?” he yelled.  

“It’s Andy; open the door!” 

“What are you doing here? You didn’t say you were coming over!” 

“Who cares? I’m here; let me in.” 

“Well, hold on just a minute! Why didn’t you call first? Jesus!” Carl still did not open the door. A visitor at almost ten o’clock at night? 

“What the hell’s wrong with you? Just open the door!” Andy shouted. 

Carl could not let Andy in because his tiny, cluttered house was a filthy embarrassment. He shot intense glances around the living room, spotting several dirty dishes on the coffee table, two pairs of soiled socks on the floor near the stained couch, and the carpet had not been vacuumed in over two months. The foul smell of unwashed dishes soaking in ancient cold water had found its way from the kitchen to the front room, though Carl had not noticed this until faced with the obligation of letting someone into the house. 

“You’re just gonna have to wait a few minutes!” Carl shouted back. “Just shut up out there, stop yelling, you’re gonna piss off the neighbours! Give me five minutes!”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Andy said from the other side of the door, but he found a seat on a nasty old lawn chair. 

Carl raced and fumbled through the house, cursing quietly and then sometimes loudly, trying his best to clean as if he were competing on a television game show. Why the hell didn’t Andy call first? What was he even doing here? Who just shows up at someone’s house unannounced? Both men were thirty years old and had been best friends since their freshman year of high school, though they didn’t see each other as much as they once did. But since neither had found a better friend over the subsequent years, they were still best friends. 

Carl dumped the dishes from the coffee table into the sink with the others in hopes that Andy would have no reason to enter the kitchen. He ferociously ran the vacuum over random areas of the floor, pouring lavender-scented powder onto the carpet as he went. Covered in beads of sweat, both on his pale but reddened face and under his thin white T-shirt, he shoved the vacuum back into the closet, ran his fingers through his unwashed black hair, and opened the front door. 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Andy asked. “What are you doing in there?” 

“You didn’t tell me you were coming over. Why couldn’t you just call first? Jesus.” Carl’s breathing was heavy, his heart was racing, and he hoped Andy didn’t notice the shiny sweat on his face. 

The two men entered the house, Andy subtly eyeing his surroundings. He looked far tidier than Carl, in a clean black polo and blue jeans. He was a fairly handsome man with a slight tan and dark blond hair—a catch near the cornfields of Indiana. 

“Were you cleaning?” Andy asked. “I thought I heard the vacuum.”

“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten.”

“It was a little messy in here. I don’t have to keep my house spotless when no one’s here. I would have cleaned before if you had called. That’s your fault.” Carl glared at Andy, daring him to say anything more about it. 

“Well, hey buddy, I’m happy to see you!” Andy grinned, wrapping his arms around Carl in an exaggerated but authentic embrace. Carl returned the hug, his face and mind softening at last. Then Andy licked the inside of his ear. 

“Don’t do that! You know I don’t like that crap!” Carl yelled, wiping his ear out with his shirt sleeve. 

“Oh, you did once or twice, if I remember.”

“Jesus, shut up about that, just let it go,” Carl said, trying not to smile. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you in a couple months.” 

They each cordially found a seat on the brown microfiber couch, leaving one cushion between them. Carl subtly inhaled, hoping he hadn’t used too much lavender powder on the carpet. 

“Doing good, staying busy with work, work’s going really well, just got another raise.” 

“From your dad?” Carl asked. 

“Go to hell. Yes, from my dad. It’s his company, dipshit. I’m not gonna do landscaping forever, so whatever. Might as well milk it.” 

“I’m sure that’s what your dad said when he took over the biz for his paw-paw.”

“What stinks in here?” Andy asked suddenly. 

Carl’s eyes bulged, and he quickly looked down at the floor. The socks. How did he forget the socks? He looked right at them earlier. He clumsily gathered the two forgotten pairs of dirty socks in his hands and stood to expel them from the room. 

“Goddamn, Carl. Don’t you have a hamper? But I don’t think that was it. It smells like something else, worse. What the hell is that?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Carl said, returning from the hallway. “So, how’s the wife and kids these days?” 

“They’re good,” Andy said, almost questioning. “You should come by sometime; they’d love to see you again.” 

“Maybe I will. I’d love to hang out with the wifey.” 

“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten,” Andy scowled. He then shot up from the couch and went straight for the kitchen. 

“Hey, get the hell out of there!” Carl yelled, smacking his shin hard against the coffee table as he tried to chase after him. “What are you doing? Get out!” There was a whimper in his voice as he tried to shout. He was now angry at both Andy and the sharp, tingling pain in his leg. 

“The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen.”

“Christ! Don’t you ever clean this place?” Andy asked, suppressing an unwelcome laugh. Aside from the filthy and stinking dishes that were the cause of the horrid odour. The trash was nearly overflowing, and food crumbs were scattered about the sticky linoleum floor. An untied loaf of generic white bread lay resting on the counter next to a small silver can of something mysterious, slimy, and foul. “Were you eating when I got here? What in God’s shit is that stuff? It smells like crap.” 

“Deviled ham. Did you eat already?” Carl asked. Now that they were actually standing in the room he had hoped to avoid, the crippling fear and embarrassment had nearly dissolved, leaving Carl now with only an obligation of hospitality. 

“If that’s what you’re offering, then yes, I’ve already eaten. Why the hell are you eating cat food for dinner? Jesus, Carl.” 

“It’s not cat food, it’s cheap, and it fills me up. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” 

“Speaking of filling up, you got quite the little gut on you, honey. Maybe lay off the devil’s ham for a while.”  

Carl reflexively clutched at his belly and tugged the hem of his T-shirt downward as if the fat was spilling out offensively, needing to be covered at once. 

“Why are you being so shitty?” Carl asked. 

“I’m sorry, I know, that was a shitty thing to say.” Andy moved in and once again opened his arms and embraced his friend; his left ear pressed firmly against Carl’s right ear. Carl hesitated for a moment but eventually returned the gesture. They stood hugging in the kitchen for almost a full minute, breathing in the familiar scent of each other. The same scent each man had known for the past sixteen years. Riding in cars together, sitting in movie theatres together, lying naked in bed together for the first time at twenty-two.

But Andy’s nostrils flared at the stench of the salty cat-food slop in a can that sat on the counter within arm’s reach. He wanted Carl to live a different life, to eat different food. He wanted him to find a new job, a better job than that of a grocery store manager. He wanted Carl to live in a cleaner house, a bigger house. He wanted Carl to be proud of his life, to stop being so angry all the time. Having these things would help him; they would make Carl a happier person, a better person, Andy knew. 

In high school, Carl had been an annoyance to everyone he came in contact with or even passed in the hall. He had a temper, a temper like his father had. He had a mouth on him. If something upset him, there was no forgetting it and moving on; he needed to ensure that every person in the immediate vicinity knew that he was upset and why. Students called him trailer trash, mostly because he indeed lived in a trailer, and they continued because he appeared to embrace the title. He didn’t live in a nice or well-kept trailer, but a dilapidated eyesore of a structure that was once baby blue but had since turned a heart-rending shade of gray. Andy only knew it had been blue because Carl’s alcoholic mother never shut the hell up about the state of the “mobile home.” 

Andy visited Carl’s high school home only a handful of times. It was always a gross and uncomfortable mess, and he understood that Carl never wanted him there. Instead, they regularly lounged in the giant family room at Andy’s house: a two-story, five-bedroom, four-bathroom brick beauty, with bold black shutters and a huge purple front door. They ate greasy pizza in that room, played video games, and watched movies. Andy once let Carl pick the movie. He chose a dark film about a prostitute who murdered her clients for a living. As soon as Andy’s mother entered the kitchen, which was an open extension of the family room, a startlingly loud scene in which the main character was covered in blood and bludgeoning a man to death had begun. “That doesn’t sound like a very nice movie, boys,” Cynthia had said. Andy gave a side-glance toward Carl, who was trying to cover a subtle but warm—almost appreciative—smile with his hand. “Sorry, Cynthia,” Carl mumbled. Andy then shut the movie off. 

The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen. It finally occurred to Carl that his dinner did, in fact look and smell like cat food, though he would still eat the remainder of the can the next day. Carl stared at Andy, and Andy stared at Carl, seemingly too long. Too long to stare at someone for nothing to happen afterward. Would something happen if they stared long enough? They had been here before. Things had happened afterward. Things they both wanted, had wanted likely since their junior year of high school, maybe before. If either man made a move, the other would give in without hesitation. If Andy decided to kiss Carl in that moment, Carl would open his mouth and welcome it. Kissing would then lead to caressing, which would lead to groping and then growing. 

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But in the brief seconds Carl was considering these possibilities; he realized he couldn’t take Andy into his bedroom. The sheets had not been washed in weeks and smelled of sweat and dirt, Carl was sure. Not to mention the dirty socks and underwear that lay exposed in uncovered laundry baskets or on the floor. He suddenly felt ashamed. How had his life come to the point at which a person he wanted passionately was standing directly in front of him, in his house, their faces inches apart, and yet he couldn’t take this person to his bedroom because it was a pigsty. A place where pigs would thrive would squeal as they enthusiastically rolled around in the filth they love by nature. 

What’s wrong with me? he thought. 

“No, no. No, no, no. We’re not doing this again,” Andy said, providing some relief to Carl. “We can’t do this again.” 

“I know, I know. You and that happy little family of yours,” Carl teased, waving his fingers in Andy’s face. 

“We are happy,” Andy corrected with no smirk and no sympathetic eyes. Only an indication that a joke like that should never be made again. 

Carl decided to move past the hiccup as if it had not occurred, moving back a few steps as a gesture. “So, do you want some coffee?” he asked. 

“Sure, why not. We have some catching up to do anyway. And can you please put that goddamn food away? Maybe in the trash? Christ.” 

Once back on the couch, still one cushion between them, they sipped black coffee in mismatched cups and began talking about their years in high school. Carl hated talking about high school, but Andy seemed to enjoy it for some reason. So, he indulged his friend. 

“Did you hear about Jesse Benton having cancer?” Andy asked. 

“Oh yeah? Hm.” 

“That’s it? Hm?”  

“What? I haven’t seen that guy since high school,” Carl said. 

“Yeah, well, they say he’s dying,” Andy continued. 

“They do, huh? Hm.” 

“Now that’s shitty.” 

“What’s shitty? I’m not happy he’s sick; I just don’t really know him. We went to high school together, and he was always a piece of shit. Calling me all sorts of names, making my life hell. I don’t want him to die, but I’m not gonna pretend like he’s someone special to me.” Carl took a breath and a sip of coffee. “What did he ever do for you, anyway?” 

Andy closed his eyes and shook his head in exhaustion and frustration. Mostly frustration. He had always been frustrated by Carl. Carl was a very frustrating person. But still, Andy came around to visit, not too often lately, but he came around. Carl was a part of him, like a wrist or an ankle. A sprained ankle was bruised, swollen, and throbbing. 

“While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless.”

“So what’s going on? Why are you living like this?” Andy asked.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Look at this place; it’s gross! It smells like crap, and you’re basically eating cat food. There’s dirt on everything. And I don’t even want to know what your bedroom is like right now.”

Carl knew this was somehow Andy’s method of inviting himself into the bedroom. But Carl would not give in so easily. He may have been feeling something in the kitchen only minutes ago, but not now. Definitely not now.  

“Jesus! Who the hell do you think you are? Coming into my goddamn house, drinking my goddamn coffee, and telling me that my life isn’t good enough, for who, you? Why don’t you just get the hell out of here then?” 

With that, Carl threw the rest of his coffee back in a single gulp, and the liquid was too hot for him to have done that. It burned his tongue and his throat. The inside of his mouth felt raw; it felt red. He tried not to reveal this with his face, but he winced involuntarily. Like a stupid little bitch, Jesse Benton would have said. 

“I know, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m sure your room is fine. Why don’t we head back there?” Andy reached over and gently squeezed Carl’s knee.

“Holy Christ, are you kidding me? Why would I wanna do that? We’re not going anywhere. No one’s going in my room. We’re gonna sit right here.” 

Andy sensed there was a pressing reason for Carl avoiding the bedroom. He began to wonder about the current state of the room, assuming it could be no better than what he had already seen throughout the rest of the house. Would it stink as bad? Would piss-stained underwear be lying about? Would there be hardened food stuck to plates piled on the nightstand? Pizza boxes? Empty cans of spreadable mystery meat? He didn’t want to know, but he also needed to know. He suddenly sprang to his feet and shot toward the hallway and to the bedroom, the last door on the right. Carl was coming after him, mumbling something or another, maybe shouting, but Andy didn’t care. He needed to see Carl’s life. He swung the door open. 

“Get the hell out of my room, you bastard!” Carl was near hysterical in his defensiveness, a state in which Andy had seen him far too many times to be afflicted by it. 

The room was not much unlike Andy had imagined. On the dreary gray bedsheets were large, darkened areas where Carl lay at night—oil from his body—especially on the pillowcases, from his greasy hair. Only one dirty plate sat on the nightstand, but three empty cans of pop—two Dr. Pepper and one Mountain Dew—accompanied it. The beige carpet was badly stained as if it had never been cleaned or even vacuumed. And the smell, oh god, the smell. It smelled of every smell of the human body you never want to smell, combined with many other unidentifiable smells. 

But on the second dusty nightstand, he noticed a familiar photo, one he had not seen in many years and had nearly forgotten. It was of the two of them grinning with their cheeks pressed together at the reservoir about forty miles from where they lived, the summer before their senior year. They had driven there together in Andy’s red Pontiac Grand Am (purchased by his parents) and spent the Saturday fishing, eating potato chips and pork rinds, and drinking pop from a cooler. The sun was hot that day, and they both had taken their shirts off, a sight each pretended not to notice. Andy pulled Carl in to take an ironic photo together with a disposable camera. The sight of the picture inside the frame suddenly made Andy ill. While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless, seemingly wiped clean that day. What a thing to notice, and maybe it was his imagination, but he noticed it anyway. Why had he been so cruel to Carl? So Carl had a temper, so he talked too much, so he ate things no human should eat. So he hadn’t bothered to clean his house in what looked like a year. He was still Carl, the man who was once the boy that Andy loved when he was a boy. He supposed he still loved him, but a different love, a love tinged with sympathy. Or perhaps it was mostly sympathy Andy now felt. It is one thing to be an inconvenient teenager—people remain hopeful that one will “grow out of it”—but an inconvenient adult is just an inconvenience, a person who their closest friends avoid for months at a time. 

“Carl…” Andy suddenly burst into a sob, uncontrollable. It was the state of the room; it was the photo; it was the thought of going home to his wife after being here. It was knowing that any foolish fantasies in which he had indulged were nothing more than fantasies. 

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god damnit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got.”

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god dammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. ”

“Andy, it’s not as bad as it looks! You just got me when I wasn’t expecting company. Come on; you know how stuff gets! It’s not easy keeping up with a house and all. It’s just a lot, and I get tired. I promise I’ll clean up tomorrow. I’ll invite you back over, and you’ll see. I’ll make dinner and everything.” Carl rested a hand on the back of Andy’s neck, hoping to comfort him some. 

But Andy just stood hunched with a red face, crying like a child, tears flowing, nose running. He looked a mess, sloppy. He knew he looked sloppy, but he didn’t care. He needed to be comforted. He wanted Carl to take advantage of him right then, to grab his face and begin kissing him, the way he did that night when they were twenty-two. Instead, Carl came around in front of him and hugged him tightly. It shocked Andy, and he let out a soft whimper, about which he felt strangely embarrassed. It was a very different hug from the one in the kitchen only twenty minutes earlier. That hug was gentle, loving, and homosexual in every sense of the word. This new hug, this unfamiliar and frightening hug, was full of love, but it was not gentle, and it was not homosexual. Andy regretted his sobbing, regretted nearly everything he had said to Carl that night so far, but it was done. Everything Carl did now was a direct response to what Andy had said or done. It could not be changed. 

The tears dried, and Andy blew his nose in the bathroom. He came back into the bedroom to find Carl sitting on the bed, his white-socked feet dangling a few inches from the floor. 

“Can I lay with you for a bit?” Andy asked. 

“You wanna lay here, on this bed? On my dirty ass sheets? You’re something else.” Carl tried to suppress a smile, but he failed. 

“Move over. Lay with me.” 

Carl did as he was told. Andy decided he didn’t mind resting his head on the oil-stained pillowcase. It smelled like a stale or even expired version of Carl, but still Carl. Andy could handle that for the next while. 

“Do you remember the first time you wanted us to kiss?” Andy asked suddenly. 

“No. I wish I did, but I don’t. I remember the first time I wanted us to do more than that, though. It was that day at the reservoir. You acted like you were taking that picture of us as a joke, but I knew it wasn’t. You wanted that picture because you didn’t know if anything would ever actually happen. I didn’t know either, but I knew I wanted it. I almost told you that day, but then I didn’t. I don’t know why. When you pulled my face against yours and smiled, that was when I knew. Then I guess it never really went away. Now I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me.”

In the sixteen years they had known each other, Andy had never heard Carl speak this way. Calm, somewhat elegant, and far away. He was always so present, alert, and pissed about something. In this change, Andy found hope. And horror. 

As if he hadn’t heard a word Carl had just confessed, Andy said, “I’m really hungry.” 

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, goddammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. “

Andy had no intention of eating the contents of the can in the kitchen, so instead, he lay in the soiled sheets thinking of what to say next.


Stephen Phillip Lupkin is a writer and editor living in Phoenix, Arizona, with his two Shelties. He completed an internship with Arizona State University’s literary magazine, Superstition Review, during which he developed a strong passion for short fiction. When he is not working or reading a new book, he is busy crafting an original story of his own. You can find Stephen on Instagram @stephen_phillip_lupkin and Twitter @StephenPLupkin.

Persephone of the Valley

By Dani Herrera

I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.

There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges. 

That part I remember.

The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.

I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers. 

All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.

So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,

I wondered who they really were. 

The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.

Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.

Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold. 

I never want to hear bad news from people I love. 

It’s the softness that kills. 

Vincent says,

I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,

your eyes looked just like the moon.

I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,

the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.

Please let me carry you down to the valley,

where your feet can touch the floor. 

Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.

Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.

I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air. 

They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me. 

I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.

No

I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.

I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.

Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too. 

As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in. 

She says,

Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.

I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet. 

And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.

I don’t know which place is worse.

The same woman comes in in the evening. 

I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.

She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.

I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles. 

“I was in those shining buildings.”

For the first time, the memory ends.

And now there is the after:

Vincent yelling for me, 

Dragging me inside,

Carrying me to the car.

Playing my limp fingers like a piano.

When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.

He tells me,

It’s the elevation.

You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay. 

Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.

Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish. 

The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy. 

I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home. 

There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway. 

And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.

Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.

When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt. 

This is the thin air I’m used to. 

My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes. 

I look up, not down.

Down is where the sea of hands and feet are. 

I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.

I say,

I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow

and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans. 

I guess it wasn’t enough.

I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below. 

He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.

All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster. 

Vincent says,

I know what it’s like, 

breathing in those clouds.

Across the way, over the water,

I was in those shining buildings. 

I was there long before I met you.

Wouldn’t it be nice,

to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?

“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

A place without bare, bending trees;

no dirt or dead grass;

no splintering sandalwood. 

So that’s where he takes me.

With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,

He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer. 

Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.

I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows. 

Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway. 

All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life. 

Vincent nudges me, saying, 

El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.

So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver. 

I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel. 

I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.

We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser. 

I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.

I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating. 

I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark. 

The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.

I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.

I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.

Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,

Look at the wind, 

asking not to be forgotten. 

It’s twirling the trees just for you, 

sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,

his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.

There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.

I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.

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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.

Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.

I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.

I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window. 

Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.

I think,

I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.

Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.

I think,

I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.

I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me. 

It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass. 

I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,

Please, take me in. 

Ground me. 

My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”

Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway. 

“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”

I pace the backyard.

It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.

I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.

Claw marks, really.

Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down. 

Vincent comes back. 

He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through. 

Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”

I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”

He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”

I frown, and he laughs.

Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”

And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.

I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.

But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did. 

So I could be worse things,

Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge. 

That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.

I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.

“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”

He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.

I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.

How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that. 

Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back. 

So I sit in the tub now.

And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break. 

He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder. 

I’m standing on the ocean floor. 

My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.

I see myself twirling toward me. 

The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,

Come back to me, my love. 

I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen. 

The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows. 

I hear a whisper saying,

Don’t you miss me?

And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me. 

I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land. 

When I wake up, I tell Vincent.

I tell him the story before the story.

The beginning long before the beginning; he knows. 

Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.

The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning. 

We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips. 

And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get. 

I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed. 

Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.

They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.

My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.

“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”

It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.

I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh. 

I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place. 

I coughed up water the whole day. 

And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”

Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.

It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises. 

“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”

I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.

I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them. 

I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed. 

Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.

I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.

Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away. 

I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.

Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.

I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.

But it’s just the wind.

“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”

I think,

oh no, please. 

And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.

I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs. 

We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.

Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef. 

We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.

We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me. 

Back in my summer valley, 

Our car is flying through the streets.

And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street. 

Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.

There are no other cars out, but we still stop.

Vincent says, “Maybe,  years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”

And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,

I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.

So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams. 


Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.

Gigolo

By Don E. Noel

Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they beginthe beguineit brings back a night

“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as she passed Rita at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”

Sasha was Rita’s best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped her get the job and more recently volunteered to help manage Roberto, Rita’s boyfriend. Manage, meaning get him back into line.

From the tables Rita was serving, he stood out: a young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheel. Nice variations. She knew Roberto was a great dancer; they’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebony. A weightlifter’s chest, emphasized by his short brocaded tuxedo, almost like a toreador’s chaquetilla jacket, that he’d found in a second-hand store when all this began.

What mattered was how close they were dancing.

Rita cleared the dinner dishes, left the tray on a rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. Roberto’s back was to her. This was an older crowd: the Unionville Class of 1983 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure or at least wore enough Spandex to still look good. She had shoulder-length coppery hair, which was surely a dye job. Her eyes were closed; his right hand was not at her waist but in the small of her back.

Very close.

Finally, they turned. Roberto’s eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw Rita, gave her a smile and wink. She glared, he wheeled away. She shouldered the tray back to the kitchen.

On the carving counter was a short boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. On impulse, she grabbed it with a dishtowel and put it on a tray of dessert puddings. Hoisting the tray, she paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged them to look good. More than good, she thought. A Columbiana, she was built at least as well as that ageing Spandexed fake redhead on the floor; she danced better too. Her black hair was as long, although tucked into a net when she worked. She frowned at her reflection, making fierce black eyes.

Sasha, coming in the other door, caught her. “Pretty good, babe!”

A compliment from Sasha meant something because she was, herself, a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian by birth, but a citizen now, lucky lady, with a husband and two kids. She thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.

“Thanks.”  Rita tried to smile at her in the mirror.

“Enough woman for any man,” Sasha persisted.

“Wouldn’t you think?” Rita said, heading out to serve the pudding.

Sasha hadn’t noticed the knife.

Rita had been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, The Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables and cleared the rubble.

If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on. High school reunions, on the other hand, high school reunions were a joy. The women often dressed in school colours matched by crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, only a few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down— most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.

This Class of ’83 had wine for happy hour. Rita and Sasha and all the waitresses carried hors d’oeuvres as people renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lies about how little they’d changed.

In fact, the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and most had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.

They took a class picture while rolls and salads were put on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Most of Tony’s players were as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.

So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner how a toreador plays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta.

Rita was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.

She set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy, the desk clerk, played computer solitaire. “There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”

“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her? Let you leave a voicemail?”

“No thanks,” she said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” She hurried back to work, biding her time.

“You were late again.”

Roberto had discovered these reunions two years ago. He arrived early to pick her up after work one night and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plainly but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.

Rita waited until they got back to their third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in her eye. “What was all that dancing about?”

“That was amateur night, chica. I can make money doing that.”

“What?”

“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”

“I’m not enough for you?”

“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting her culo. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”

He, of course, knew that would soften her up, but she didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . isn’t there a word?”

Roberto was a boricuatwo-century but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good New York education. “Gigolo,” he said.

“You don’t just jiggle when you dance.”

“No, no. Gigoló. A dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”

She relented. Still, she went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’

His new sideline was at first as squeaky-clean as he promised. He took Rita to The Paradise, and if he found it was a reunion crowd, he went home for a shower and shave, dressed up and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time, he’d start inviting single women to dance. Rita never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove her home.

“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me?  My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honour of taking a turn on the dance floor?”

He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help resume his supposed ballet classes.

He bragged about his performance on the way home but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.

She let the money stifle her jealousy. She opened a savings account at a neighbourhood bank, and their start-a-family savings began to grow.

Then one night, Roberto sought out Sasha. He told her he had to leave early and asked her to give Rita a lift home. He was dragged into their apartment at four in the morning.

She was still awake. “Qué diablos! Where have you been?”

“I gave a guy a ride home.”

“Sure. A guy. In your bus, I suppose.”

“No, really; he was too drunk to drive himself. He offered me $200 to take him home.”  He pulled two century notes out of his shirt pocket. “Here, for our family fund.”

Too tired to argue, she went to sleep, turning her back, so she barely felt him crawl into bed.

She felt him next morning, though, hard as a rock at ten o’clock, wanting to make love. “You’re supposed to be at work!”

“I called the dispatcher. Said I was sick. I want to be sure we’re still okay, you and me.”

Roberto wasn’t only a good dancer; he was a wonderful lover. She wanted to believe him. He promised she’d never need a ride home from Sasha again. They made love without a condom.

When her period didn’t come the next week, Rita got a test kit at the drugstore. Pregnant. Which made a difference the next time he had “a man who needed a ride home.”

In Sasha’s car, she cried most of the way to the apartment. Sasha turned the engine off. “You don’t have to put up with this,” she said. “There are other men. Throw the bastard out.”

“I can’t; I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, God! Does he know?”

“Not yet.”

“Rita, you gotta tell him. He’s going to be a father; he’s got to be responsible. I’ll have Ted find him at the depot, talk to him.” Ted was her husband.

“Thank you.”

“And tell him I’m keeping an eye on him. I do the tables nearest the dance floor.”

“Thank you, Sasha.”

Rita didn’t tell him right away, though, and Ted may not have spoken to him before it happened again.

“Does he know yet about the baby?” Sasha asked as Rita wept again on the way home.”

“No.”

“You’ve got to tell him. And tell him you don’t believe his giving-rides-home stuff. Don’t tell him tonight, though, in the morning. Be all sweetness and light, and then lay it on him over breakfast when he’s not expecting it. When he’s vulnerable.”

So Rita didn’t wait up and pretended not to hear him tiptoe in. In the morning, she woke him without a kiss and got breakfast. They couldn’t afford eggs often, but Roberto always wanted them after they had sex – “restored his resources,” he said – and she put eggs over-easy in front of him.

If he got the signal, he didn’t show it. She pressed the point.

“You were late again.”

“Another guy who’d had too much.”

“And where did he live?”

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

He took just a moment too long. “West Newbury.” He embroidered it. “Someday, we’ll live in a town like that. Nice neighbourhood, two-car garages. His wife hadn’t come last night. She’ll bring him this morning to get his car.”

Maybe I should write down the numbers from the car’s speedometer to get the truth out of him, Rita thought. No, hardly necessary. She ignored the lie and did what Sasha urged. “We’re going to have a baby,” she dropped on him.

There was no joy on his face. “Oh, my.”

“Yes,” she said.

“When?”

“October.”

“That’s sooner than we’d planned,” he said and managed to add, “but it’s wonderful! We should get married.”

Be tough, Sasha had urged. “I’m only interested in a faithful husband,” Rita said.

He got it and gave her a lengthy apology. “I don’t mean these things to happen. The devil puts temptations in my path.”

“So I should give you five Hail Marys, and all is forgiven?” Rita said. “Go see a priest.”

He actually wept; it would never happen again.

“You’ll give up the dancing?”

“We’ll need the money for the baby.”

She relented, he promised, they made love.

“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”

Two months went by; more dancing, more money in the bank, no funny stuff. Until this night with the Spandexed redhead.

“Did he see you watching?” Sasha asked.

“Yes.”

“And he didn’t right away take her back to her table? Bad sign.”

“I’ve had it,” Rita said. She let Sasha see the knife. “It’s time this toreador got gored.”

“Oh my God! You can’t do that. You’ll go to prison and then get deported. Your baby will be put up for adoption. Why ruin your life?”

“I don’t care; he’s already ruined my life.”

“Let me think,” she said. “Go tend your tables. And give me that knife.”

Rita let her take it.

Ten minutes later, in the kitchen, Sasha had another plan. “You’re barely showing. Picking up a man for the night is entirely credible.”

“What?”

She explained her plan: Turn the tables on him. It was time to teach him his lesson.

And then throw him out, Sasha insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, living alone on waitress earnings. But the new baby bank account was in her name, so she had a cushion. She could find a smaller apartment. Maybe think about abortion; she’d be unlikely to find a new man willing to disregard a swelling belly left by another man. In any case, show him the door.

Okay, Rita said, let’s do it. So she told the kitchen boss she was sick and took a taxi home. Sasha would catch Roberto toward the end of the evening, between dances. “Have you seen Rita?” she would ask. “She said not to wait for her tonight. One of the guests is drunk and needs her to drive him home.” And, she would add naively: “Does that make any sense to you?”

Roberto dropped the redhead like a bomb and stormed out to the lobby to ask Tommy if he’d seen Rita. “No,” Tommy said truthfully. Rita got all this later, of course. Roberto strode out to ask Vincenzo, the doorman if she’d left with anyone. He hung around until the guests had gone home and staff had cleaned up. Sasha waved goodnight to him.

Meanwhile, at home, Rita packed his belongings. Everything. They only owned one suitcase each, and she didn’t want to lose hers, so most of his stuff went into plastic garbage bags.  Then she took a bath and went to bed. Maybe he dozed but was quickly wide awake when he came home at two.

“You’re late again,” she said, playing innocent. “Someone else needed a ride home?”

“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”

“Right here, sweetheart. Didn’t Sasha tell you I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well?”

“That’s not what she told me.”

“Maybe you misunderstood. I had morning sickness.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“The doctor said it could come at any time.” She was cool. “What did you think?”

That stopped him. He didn’t want to say what he’d been worrying about all evening.

She let him stew for a minute before asking the question that was the punch line of Sasha’s plan. “How did you feel about our marriage the last few hours?”

It was a pleasure to watch him; she told Sasha later. He frowned, trying to figure out what she meant. Then his eyes opened wide as he got it. He started to scowl, angry at being duped. Finally, his face softened into a smile, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I deserved that.” He looked around and saw all his stuff on the floor. “Are those things mine? What’s that about?”

This was the moment. Pick ‘em up, you gigoló deceiver, she was ready to say, and get out!

But first, be sure he knew what he was going to miss. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting what he’d let slip away, wishing he was still with her, helping bring up a man-child.

“If you put your ear on my stomach, you can hear the heartbeat,” she said. “The doctor says it’s a boy.”


Don Noel is retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. You can visit Don at www.doneonoel.com.

All the Best Paintings of Jesus

By Don Foster

Day-drinking naps give me the best dreams, and this one’s no different. I’m with Renee, a figure I’m still connected to in a weird, offensive way. In my dream, though, it’s all honeymoon. She’s unzipping my pants, about to do something marvelous, when a knock rattles my bedroom window. 

I throw the blanket off and pull back the curtain. It’s not yet dark but soon will be. Rain slashes against the building. Wind whips a fast-food wrapper stuck in a branch and ruffles my neighbor’s makeshift garbage bag car window. Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably just a branch rubbing against the siding. I’m turning back to bed when I hear it again. It’s more of a persistent tapping than a knock. I look outside and see the same. Then I look down and there’s my father standing on the sill, no bigger than a baby squirrel, half-drowned and shivering. I open the window. 

“Christ, dad, what’re you doing? I mean…how?” I bring him inside, cradling him in my hand. 

“You thought throwing some dirt on me would get rid of me.” His shivering makes my handshake. I use two hands like you would a communion wafer.

“Usually that does the trick. Twelve years, why now? And how’d you get so small?” 

“Boy, get me some dry clothes. You want me to catch pneumonia?” 

I glance around, bewildered. “Clothes? There’s nothing to fit you.” I carry him into the bathroom and set him on the counter. I shut the door.

“We’ve got to be careful. I’ve got a cat.” 

He looks at the red hairdryer pushed against the corner of the vanity. “You must got yourself a woman, too.” 

I laugh. “Don’t you recognize it? It’s yours.” I tell him to strip. 

Plaid shirt and his favorite jeans—the clothes he was buried in. Dad never was a suit man. He pulls his shirt over his head, unbuttons his jeans, and shimmies out. 

“But you don’t have enough hair.” 

I pat my buzz cut. “I know. But I had trouble getting rid of your stuff after…you know. I’ve kept most of it. Every time I take a piss, there it is reminding me of you. Call me sentimental I guess.”

Dad still has great hair, flowing loose curls like all the best paintings of Jesus. With his blue eyes, broad shoulders, and big hands, there was never a shortage of bar hags crashing at our house growing up. But it’s hard to make out these details now on account of his stature. 

I plug in the blow dryer, set it to warm at the slowest speed. I put my left hand behind his back so he won’t scud off the vanity. “Okay. Turn.” After I finish drying his backside, I switch the thing to the faster speed and dry off his clothes. “They feel good now.” I hand them back. 

“Why were you in bed so early?” He slides his arm into the sleeve. 

“I’m doing some babysitting. Just resting up a little before Renee brings her boy over. He’s very active.” Of course, I don’t tell him about the day drinking. 

“The kid’s not yours?” Dad pushes the button through the last hole on his shirt. 

“Nah.” I hold my hand out for him to step on. 

“Then who is this Renee?” 

“My ex-girlfriend.”

“Why the fuck are you volunteering to watch her kid?” 

“It’s complicated. I worked for her dad as a salesman at his furniture store. He fired me two weeks ago saying business sucked, yet I outsold Renee every week. He just didn’t want me there anymore, staring at his daughter like some lovesick clown. Plus he might’ve heard me call her a slut when I discovered she was sleeping with the warehouse guy. Anyhow, he never mailed my final check. I can’t reach him because he and the Mrs. are on a cruise. Renee said she’d drop it off if I watched her son for a few hours.” 

I carry dad into the living room. Pusser, my 18-pound tabby, is lying on the couch. “That’s going to be a problem.” 

“You told me you had a cat, not a mountain lion.” 

I set dad on the armrest farthest from Pusser. I scoop up Pusser and carry her to the spare bedroom and shut the door. His clothes, his tools, his high school wrestling trophies; it’s all in there. I hear Pusser knocking into things, things falling. 

“What’s all that racket?” 

“Nothing. It’s just Pusser being Pusser.” I offer dad a beer, figuring things are different now, but he waves me off. With dad still on the wagon, I feel funny about boozing in front of him, but this is my apartment. Am I not a grown-ass man? I grab a beer for me and a bottle of water for him. I grab a few slices of imitation cheese while I’ve got the fridge open. 

Dad has the remote on the sofa cushion, hopping up and down on the power button. 

“You’re wasting your energy. The cable got shut off.” 

He looks at the blank TV. “How do you entertain yourself?” 

I pull my phone from my pajama pocket and blow his mind. When dad had passed, flip phones had just been invented. I find Key & Peele on YouTube. We laugh our asses off. 

“I help pry Spike off her leg so she can leave.”

“Phones are televisions. Unbelievable. What else have I missed?” “Not much.” 

“Not much,” he mocks me. “You’ve got phones that are televisions —televisions!” 

“I mean, yeah, we’ve got these tricked out phones, but everything’s gotten fake because of it. People don’t want to hang out anymore. Kids just sit around and type messages to each other.” I scroll through Renee’s text messages to demonstrate.

“Damn. She didn’t have the lady nuts to break up in person?” 

“I know. Ridiculous considering I worked with her. I give her seven months of my life and this is what I get in return. A goddamn text.” 

Dad presses different icons on my phone. I let him play around with it for a bit until he clicks on the photo gallery. I take my phone back, unsure whether I deleted all the pics I sent Renee back when we were screwing all the time. I get back on my soapbox. 

“All people do is showboat, posting pictures of their new house, new car, new abs, new butt lift, their kid’s perfect report card. And they’re always going on and on about how blessed they are. It’s so damn phony. It makes me want to puke. We’re all eating shit sandwiches breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but no one will cop to it.” 

Dad scratches right below where his hair hangs down on his neck. “What’s this posting pictures?” 

I click on the Facebook app. My last posting was from two months ago, a selfie of me and Renee in front of a Lamborghini at a car show. “There’s this thing called a Like button—see it? People try to get as many Likes as possible.” I can tell dad’s not following. “Look, it’s not worth explaining.”

I go back to YouTube, scroll through some recently loaded videos. I hit play on one called Chicken vs. Gorilla. Two grown men—I assume they’re men—dressed in costumes are beating the shit out of each other. 

Dad tilts the phone to see better. “So what’s this thing you’re showing me?” 

“YouTube. What it is, you shoot a video and upload it to this site for the world to see.” 

“And people Like this, too?” 

“Yes.” I point to the thumbs up button. “Or if you don’t like it, you press this one.” I point to the number displayed beneath the video. “This tells you how many views the video has. When you get enough people watching, companies wave money at you to play their ads. That’s why we had to watch that truck commercial before the video.” 

We sit quietly, enjoying the action. It looks like chicken is done after gorilla lands a left hook, but when gorilla charges in for the double-leg, chicken times a beautiful knee to gorilla’s nose, laying him out.

The doorbell rings. I check the time. “She’s not supposed to be here for another hour.” I pan the room, figuring where to hide dad. “Here, slide behind this throw pillow.” With dad out of sight, I open the door. 

Renee’s wearing red lipstick. Her winter coat hides the hem of her dress, skirt—I can’t tell. Knowing Renee, whatever she’s wearing won’t be on long. Spike hides behind her; she’s got to push him through the door. “Say hi to Uncle Kevin.” 

I tussle the little guy’s moppy brown hair, then deadeye Renee. “You said seven-thirty.” 

“Yeah, I’m early. So what?” She turns to leave. 

I clear my throat. “Forgetting something?” 

“I’ll give it to you when I get back.” 

“You’ll give it to me now or you’ll have a two-year-old cock block stuck between you and Mr. Swipe Right.” 

Her look says it all, but she says it anyway. “You’re such a dick.” 

“Go on,” I shoo her back to the car. God damn it, look at that run in her stockings! She’s playing mind games. She put that run in her stockings because she knows it makes me hard. She leans inside her car, digs around for a bit, then reemerges with an envelope. She puts the envelope in my hand, careful not to let her fingers touch me. 

She bends down. “Come give mommy a kiss.” She offers her cheek so Spike won’t smudge her lipstick. 

“Don’t slut around too long. I’ve got stuff to do.” 

“Sure you do,” she says. I help pry Spike off her leg so she can leave. Her headlights arch onto the neighboring duplex as she backs out of my stumpy driveway. I wait until she turns onto the next street before closing the door. Spike starts up with his sniffling routine, but I’m prepared this time. 

“Hey buddy, want some M&Ms? Uncle Kevin’s got a whole bag. A big one.” The little guy follows me to the kitchen. I cross back into the living room with a bag in hand. 

“Dad always had too much confidence in the wake of ridiculous obstacles.”

“You can come out now.” 

“What about him?” It’s hard to hear dad behind the pillow. 

“Our buddy here is speech delayed.” I pretend to have Spike’s nose. “But that don’t make him no dummy, right ol’ Spike?” Spike grabs my thumb and puts his nose back on his face.

Dad steps into view. Spike stares at him, eyes big as Frisbees, gaped mouth drooling red and green holiday saliva. 

“Chew your candy lil’ man. The landlord likes his carpet beige.” I lift on Spike’s chin. 

Spike takes a step toward dad but is distracted by the thumpety thump against the bedroom door. He looks at me. 

“I put the kitty in the bedroom. Why don’t you let her out?” Spike toddles toward the sound. I walk to the armrest and pick dad up. 

“This is getting to be too much. I’m moving you to higher ground.” I carry him into the kitchen, set him on top of the refrigerator next to a cookbook featuring that guy with the frosted tips. When Renee was living here, we thought we were going to cook and save money. We never did. I hear Spike working the doorknob until he gets it. 

Renee doesn’t pick Spike up until three a.m. She could’ve put her stockings back on but she didn’t. Like it’s not enough for her to stick the knife in my heart—she’s got to give it a twist. It’s too late to wake Spike, so we put a blanket down and lay him across the backseat. 

After they leave, I check on dad. He’s still sitting next to the cookbook, wide awake. 

“Don’t you sleep anymore?” 

“I’m tired. I’m just worried about rolling off the edge.” 

“Sorry, I would’ve moved you earlier, but Spike and I fell asleep on the couch.” 

“How come your ex knocks and you open right away? Look at my knuckles. I was pounding that window for twenty minutes.” 

“Don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with you weighing less than my sneaker.” I pick dad up and carry him to my bedroom. I shut the door to keep Pusser out. I set him on my pillow until I find a suitable sleeping arrangement. There’s a tissue box on my nightstand, the squat, rectangular kind. I rip the top off and splay the sides. I lay him down on tissues. “How’s that?” 

 “Great.” 

“It’s the store brand, but I think they’re just as soft.” I turn off the lamp and close my eyes. I think about what it would be like to never open them. 

We go out the next morning to stock up on ramen noodles and non perishables with my last paycheck. Dad fits in the inside pocket of my jacket. I leave it partially unzipped so it won’t be as stuffy. There’s a PetSmart next to the grocery store. We stop in there and buy a birdcage on clearance, something to keep dad in when Pusser is sharing the room with us. On the way home, I buy a bottle of Old Crow at the liquor store. 

It’s hard not to overdo it with my drinking in front of dad. Two weeks had passed since I lost my job. None of the neighboring retailers would touch me because of my neck tattoo—one of the many bad decisions I’ve made while under the influence. Next month’s rent wasn’t getting paid. Dad instigates the shit out of the cat, butting his face up to the bars of the birdcage, knowing they are set too close for Pusser to stick her paw through and attack. Pusser tries regardless, flicking her tail and twitching her upper lip. I hold out the whiskey bottle, offering to splash some in dad’s drinking bowl inside the cage. I know I shouldn’t press dad, but drinking by yourself feels weird when you have company. 

“You really want to wind me up and set me down that road again?” He runs his fingers across the bars. Pusser presses her nose against the cage. Dad flicks her right on the tip of it. Pusser hisses and bares her teeth, then scrambles out of the room. 

I swirl my whiskey. The ice cubes have melted into one big lump. Of course, neither of us want him going down that road. The last time he went down that road we had gotten into it after he’d had too many. He threw a sloppy right that caught me just above the jaw. The punch didn’t hurt. What hurt was knowing I would’ve flattened him if I swung back. That was the first time I thought of dad as anything other than invincible. Who would look after him when I wasn’t around? Who would wake him up when he hit the snooze too many times? The morning after, I heard him in the bathroom flushing the toilet to drown out his sobs. He never had another drink, even when the cancer moved in and dismantled his body. 

The spring-latch squeaks as my father reaches through the bars and opens the door. He climbs onto my lap and sits there like a child. We stare at a hunk of Pusser’s fur rolled up in the corner of the room like tumbleweed. Pusser prances back into the room. Dad steps back into his cage just as she hops on the couch. I latch the door behind him. Dad studies Pusser for a spell. 

“How hard is it to create one of them YouTube channels?” 

“Easy. Why?” 

“You got something to film it?” 

“Right here.” I hold up my phone. “What are you getting at?” “I think it’s time for us to grab some of that ad revenue.”

Dad always had too much confidence in the wake of ridiculous obstacles. Like that time I was fifteen, working out in the basement, attempting to turn my concave chest into a hulking chick magnet. Dad came down and demanded I put every plate on the bar even though he hadn’t benched since high school. “Every damn plate,” he yelled. He had set his beer on the washing machine and helped me load the plates. It took everything I had to pull the weights off of him that evening. And here was that bravado again, thinking he can outrun Pusser through an obstacle course. 

“It’ll be like a modern-day Tom & Jerry.” 

I shake my head. “Except that was a cartoon and you’re not a mouse. This is a bad idea. A very bad idea.” 

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“No, it’s a crazy idea, not a bad one. Every great idea sounds crazy at first.” He stops pacing and grabs the bars. “Until someone proves it possible.” 

I’ve heard this story before from dad. Roger Banister. The four minute mile. Blah, blah, blah. “Look, you can’t outrun Pusser. You just can’t.” 

Dad points to Pusser’s underbelly. “She’s got a lot of flesh hanging there. A whole lot of gunt action.” Dad punches himself in his abs for effect. “I’m in the best shape of my life. Haven’t had a drink in fifteen years.” 

“You can’t count the years you were dead.”

“I’m not sitting here splitting hairs with you all night. Take me for a spin.” 

“Where?” 

“I’ll know when I see it.” He rattles the cage door. “Open up.” 

We drive around town looking at Christmas lights and nativity scenes. Dad has me slow down every time we approach a manger and plastic figurines. 

“Pull over, son.” 

I pull onto the shoulder in front of The Church of God. “What’s your obsession?” 

“Do you see that? The clothes are real, not just part of the mold. Go snatch that shepherd.” 

“I can’t steal from the church.” 

“Yes, you can.” He pushes on my hip. “Get out there. Quick, before a car comes along.”

I jog across the frozen grass and kneel by the icons. The fluorescent cross attached to the church washes over me with its artificial glow. I grab the shepherd and run back to the car. 

I shut Pusser in the bedroom when we get home. Dad has the shepherd disrobed and is shoving his arms through the sleeves. The cuffs hang past his hands; the bottom bunches on the carpet, hiding his feet. “It’ll have to be altered,” he says. 

“Would you please tell me what’s going on?” 

“I’m Jesus. Lil’ Jesus. LJ. The miniature messiah. This shit’s going to go—what you call it?” 

“Viral.” 

“Yes, viral. Everybody’s hopping aboard the LJ train. Think of all the sponsors we’ll have. We’ll shoot an episode every week, each escape more daring than the last. We’ll build an online store. Lil’ Jesus hats, hoodies, tee shirts. Maybe get some beer koozies and bumper stickers up in there. You’ll never have to sell furniture or whatever bullshit again.” 

“Jesus, dad.” 

“Exactly,” dad thrusts his fist in the air.

“No, I mean Jesus as in you’ve got to be kidding me. Jesus, as in you’ll get hurt and leave another hole in my life.” 

Dad cocks his head and looks at me with confusion, disappointment —it’s hard to tell what’s scribbled on his tiny face. “Why aren’t you seeing this for what it is? This is an opportunity, son. When opportunity knocks you don’t go hiding under your bed. You invite it in, ask it to stay.” He pulls his hair back so it falls evenly over his collar. “I’m doing this. Whether you tape it or not, that’s up to you. But one way or another, I’m running from that goddamn cat. Now get some scissors so we can take care of this.” 

I rifle through the junk drawer until I find scissors. I cut a few inches from the sleeves and bottom. Still, it’s big in the chest. I cinch the robe at the waist with the cloth belt. We build the obstacle course with shoe and cereal boxes, orange juice cartons, and other miscellanea we find around the apartment and community dumpster at the end of our street. We duct tape a red string to the ceiling at the midway point of the course that will allow dad to swing to an elevated cereal box. 

The next day we buy a hot glue gun and Popsicle sticks at the craft store and construct hurdles, adding them to the final stretch. We use another shoebox for the finish line, cutting a slot into the side that’ll allow dad to dive through safely. We wedge the box into the bottom shelf of the entertainment unit. At the opposite end of the course is Pusser’s travel carrier set six feet behind the strip of tape stuck to the carpet marking dad’s starting line. I argue with dad about having a bigger head start, but he’s having none of it. 

“The race needs to stay competitive to capture the audience.” He adjusts his robe. 

“You going to be able to run in that thing?” 

“Like the wind.” 

“They think I’m a phony,” he mumbles. 

I grab my phone and shoot a video trailer of the course, zooming in on the red string, the cereal boxes, the miniature hurdles. Lastly, I zoom in on dad leaning against the steel gate of Pusser’s carrier. The robe, the hair, the beard— I have to admit, he makes a good Jesus. Pusser rams her head against the gate, jostling dad. Dad turns and wags his finger at Pusser for comedic effect. 

“Tune in Monday for our inaugural Cat vs Lil’ Jesus.” I end the video and post it on YouTube. 

“What are we waiting for?” he asks. Let’s film the race.” 

“You can’t post on the weekend. People are out doing shit. You post it on Monday when people are stuck in their cubicles.”

Dad watches me push buttons on my phone. I create a Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I submit our teaser video to Reddit. “We’ve got to use a bunch of platforms to create traction. Hopefully, we’ll have a substantial following come race day.” 

Dad looks exhausted. He dumped all his adrenaline into this idea of his, and now he’s suffering. I pick him up and carry him to his bed of tissues. “I still don’t get why Jesus. Just be yourself.” 

 “People are lazy. They can’t see a miracle without the packaging.” Dad yawns. “You coming to bed?” 

“In a minute. I’ve got to let Pusser out of the carrier.” 

I do that. Then I head to the kitchen and make another whiskey and cola. Dad just needs a hobby, something to distract him. I wish he was bigger. Or his tools were smaller. It wouldn’t be hard finding a car in this neighborhood to fix. Maybe I can get him one of those nicer Matchbox cars, the bigger ones that glide real smooth with the hoods that pop and the detailed plastic engine beneath. 

The bulb burns out in the brass chandelier. It’s down to a single candle built like a flame. I must be getting drunk. Of all the stupid ideas. What would dad even say? How the fuck am I going to turn a wrench on this? 

By race day we have 200,000 hits from our video trailer. I carbed dad up the night before with homemade Thai—drained ramen noodles with scrambled eggs and hot sauce. I grab my phone and shoot dad doing hurdler stretches, then catch some footage of Pusser butting her head against the gate. 

“Looks like we’re ready folks.” But dad motions one more second. He kneels and clasps his hands. “Right, let’s pay our respects to the big man first.” I watch dad move his lips silently. Is this part of the act? What if it isn’t? And why didn’t he tell me about this? 

Dad stands and hops around. “Lil’ Jesus getting the blood flowing, getting ready to cut loose.” He plants his foot on the grey tape and assumes a crouched position. 

“On your mark, get set,” and on go I release the gate. Dad jumps onto a ream of copy paper, bolts along the surface, and jumps down. Pusser sniffs the ream, then detours the obstacle. Dad scales the shoebox, deftly maneuvering between hand and footholds I had notched in it with a steak knife. He reaches the top, grabs the red string, and swings. We screwed up calculating the trajectory, and instead of landing cleanly, he slams into the General Mills logo. The box tips and dad topples with it, landing on his shoulder and rolling to his feet. Pusser feels a renewed commitment and closes the distance. As dad clears the final hurdle, Pusser swats, pawing nothing but air. Dad dives through the slot in the box, punctuating the race. 

 “Talk about a close one! Lil’ Jesus tearing ass through the course, leaving Pusser with a mouthful of dust bunnies. Lil’ Jesus one, Pusser nothin’. Be sure to subscribe to our channel to catch all our videos. You can also watch us on Facebook Live.” I hit the red square to stop recording. I rush to where dad is bunkered and slide the box from the shelf. I pop the lid. “You alright?” 

“That was some workout.” He takes a minute to catch his breath, then pushes himself to his feet. He swings his arm in tight circles. “That box got me.” 

“Want me to get an ice cube for your shoulder?” 

“Nah, I’ll be alright.” 

“That was amazing.” I lift dad out of the box. 

“How much money do you think we’ll make?” 

“A lot,” I tell him. “A lot.” 

The following Monday we had gone viral with twenty million views. A Texas real estate investor advertised a house flipping course on our video. I was in talks with several apparel manufacturers, putting together a line of tee-shirts, hats, and hoodies. We had already generated enough ad revenue to build our online store. 

Within a month our store is cranking out thousands of dollars in merch. A fulfillment center ships it directly from a warehouse to our client for a small cut. We get the cable reconnected just in time to catch football playoffs. A blonde analyst is on the field, the Green Bay weather whipping her scarf and reddening her cheeks. Dad is on the sofa, eating a microwaved taquito and reading viewer comments from our YouTube channel. 

“Listen to this one. If you believe that fake-ass Jesus you must’ve been born again yesterday. Just some UCLA grad CGI-ing the shit out of this video.” Dad shoves a hunk of taquito into his mouth. “They think I’m a phony,” he mumbles. 

“The comment section is a wasteland. Don’t bother with them trolls.” But he doesn’t listen. 

“He is my father, who am I to disobey him?”

“Here’s a good one. Dear Americans: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, modern-day Israel for you dumb shits that have never spun a globe. How can he possibly be your shade of vanilla? Enjoy your ignorance while you can, because there will be no Walmart in the afterlife.” Dad puts his taquito down. “These people are worked up.” 

“C’mon dad, that’s enough.” I turn the phone over so it’s face down. “All you think about is work these days. Kickoff is about to start. Let’s watch the game like old times.” 

Dad glances at the players running through the tunnel. “I’m thinking on the next shoot we use empty toilet paper rolls instead of hurdles. We’ll place them in a T-formation, so I’ll jump over one and crawl through the next. They’re light enough, maybe I can ping one-off Pusser when she gets on my heels.” 

I polish off my whiskey & cola and set the stubby glass on the end table. “I don’t know, dad. I’m thinking maybe we should stop shooting.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“We’ve been cutting it close. Pusser almost got you last time.” 

“It was just my foot,” Dad says. “The rest of my body was already in the box.” 

“Still,” I say, “the first time she ever touched you. She’s getting leaner, faster, smarter. It’s only a matter of time. We’re playing Russian Roulette.” Pusser won’t stop rattling the bedroom door. “I better let her out before she shits on the floor again. You should get back in.” 

Dad crosses the threshold and I shut the cage. 

“I’m getting tired of this fucking cage,” he yells as I walk to the spare bedroom. When I turn the knob I see I’m too late. There is a turd on top of dad’s red Snap-On toolbox. She had to hop five feet to lay that one down. Pusser gives me this cocky look I don’t appreciate, then prances into the kitchen. I follow her. Dry cat chow clinks against the metal bowl as I make another drink.

I’m awakened by my moans, the sugar and alcohol having rung my brain like a dish sponge. My sinuses are clogged; my eyes glued shut with mucus. I had fallen asleep on the sofa, a bad habit perpetuated by my growing arsenal of whiskey cocktails. 

“Your immune system is shit.” Dad watches me work the sleep from my eyes. I blink until his image sharpens. Dawn snakes through the missing slat in the blinds, illuminating a whorl of dust motes above his head. 

“Good morning to you, too.” My throat is parched and it’s hard pushing the words out. “I need some water.” It takes three attempts to get my footing under me. I come back with a glass filled with tap and two Advil. Dad starts lecturing. 

“Don’t act as I did.” 

“I’m not.” I gulp the medicine back. “You drank with friends.” “They weren’t my friends.” 

I look at the whiskey glass and empty beer bottles littering the coffee table. What am I doing? When will I say enough’s enough? I’m too embarrassed to look at my father. “I can’t lose you again. You’re everything.” I rub my eyes. 

Dad reaches through the bars and opens the latch. He climbs down the sofa, using the rivets along the edge as footholds. He zips across the carpet and jumps on my foot. He bunches the leg of my pajamas in each hand and begins to climb. At my thigh, he pauses to catch his breath, then continues up and up, his face a red dot from the strain. When he reaches my waist, I offer my hand. 

“Put it away,” he barks. He regroups and doubles his effort. He clasps my tee shirt and inches up my torso. Panting and trembling, he leans his ear against my chest. “Can’t you hear that, son? It’s bigger than anything you can imagine. As long as it’s pumping, it’s all you need.” 

He continues to ascend, hand over hand. He pulls himself onto my shoulder. He rests. 

“I just climbed a mountain. No gear. No safety net. All heart. It’s time you put the bottle down. You’re bigger than your excuses.” 

I try to hide my trepidation about the shoot. Pusser has changed. She no longer rubs against my leg. When I go to pet her under her chin she bites my fingers. She never finishes her two scoops of dry mix anymore, and her belly sag has noticeably shrunk. She has awoken me on several occasions during the predawn hours galloping through the house and climbing doorjambs like she used to. 

“What time’s this shoot?” Dad rolls his neck from side to side. “Whenever you want. We can always push it off.”

“Shit no we ain’t pushing it off. We sold over a thousand tee shirts last week. I want that doubled by month’s end. I’m ready.” 

“You sure you’re good for this? You exerted a lot of yourself yesterday with the climb. Maybe you need another day to recover.” 

“What do I look like? Some kind of Sally? Hit the button.” Dad puts his foot on the line. 

“Don’t you want to stretch? Do your hurdlers or something?” “I’m stretched.” 

I open my mouth, but there’s no point in speaking. His mind is set. He is my father, who am I to disobey him? 

“On your mark. Get set. Go.” I release the gate. 

Like so many great sprinters, dad never looks back, his eyes glued to the obstacles. The ream of paper has been replaced with two shoes. He jumps and rolls off them, smooth like butter. In his best start ever, he scales the shoebox without a hitch. But Pusser is dialed in. She doesn’t pause, she doesn’t sniff. She is a sniper. As dad swings from the red string, his hair flowing back, Pusser takes a great leap. She hooks her claws into dad’s back, yanking him to the floor.

I drop my phone. I wrench Pusser off dad and chuck her across the room. But I’m too late. Dad’s eye dangles from its socket. His neck and body are carved up and bleeding. 

I wrap him loosely in a Lil’ Jesus tee shirt and lay him in the shoebox we used for the finish line. For two weeks I hold vigil over his body, calling his name, praying for a second resurrection. But who exactly am I praying to? All I can think of is my ol’ man. How he taught me where to put my fingers on the laces. How he taught me to use a full bladder to spell my name in the snow. 

He’s not coming back this time. I move his box into the spare bedroom with his other belongings. I set him on the side shelf of his Snap-On toolbox. Most of the tools in there I’ll never use, but just being near them fills me with a sense of purpose. Second acts come in life, sometimes even thirds. But you’ve got to put in the work. I start by unscrewing the cap on the Old Crow and finding the nearest sink.


Don Foster grew up in a Maryland farm town and now lives in Delaware with his wife and kids. In 2019 he won an artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, and his stories have been published in various places online and in print. When he’s not writing, he’s masquerading as a flooring salesman. You can find his work on his website here.

Little Ghosts

By Aimee Brooks

I was laying on my cold and crinkly blowup mattress when the phone rang. I moved carefully to avoid spilling the noodles that I made in the microwave earlier, rolling over to my other side where the consistent hum pulsed through my bed’s empty membrane. 

His name flashed across the glowing screen. No. I couldn’t do it. I did not have the energy to deal with this right now. I would say time, but I had all the time in the world. 

Every weekend Hazel went back to the city to see her kids, leaving me alone in our childhood house that we were remodeling together. She told me not to do any work while she was gone. 

“We all need to rest sometimes,” she would remind me before she left— the same kind of compassion I knew she would not extend to herself. 

I would raise my overgrown eyebrows at her. As childish as it was, I still hated it when she told me what to do. I was almost a 30-year-old woman for crying out loud. And besides, I knew the real reason she didn’t want me to work. Her overbearing was almost enough to stop me. 

“I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets…”

So while she was gone, I tore down walls, laid floors, and painted the bedrooms, the sorts of things that you don’t need two sets of hands for. It was better to hear the roaring thunder of crashing walls than to hear the phantom clock ticking in my mind. 

Nostalgia is a strange thing. More than a pang in your chest, it disintegrates your bones and puts an ache in your teeth. I tried to not let myself sink in. I don’t know what it would look like to give in to that cruel lover. 

It was strange to be back in that beautiful house. She was ever changing these days but held shape to my memories of the place. Looking back was a kind of mirage. It was hard to tell what things had been there in my youth and what had been changed by the three owners since. 

But there she stood, tall and shapely, a grand affair back in the day. A huge porch, two stories, enough space for work and play. I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets, jumping off the step into the sunken living room floor, now a sign of its time, running barefoot, shag carpet worming its way between our toes. 

We never thought we would get a chance to set foot in her again—us living about 5 hours away and Mom and Dad in Florida. It was fitting that it came at this point in our life. So much had changed and we had given up almost everything to pursue a dream that had only begun a few years back. 

“I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives.”

At the beginning of it all, Hazel had spent the last few days before her divorce wallowing in self-pity in a pile of soggy blankets in my shoebox apartment. She had sent her three small children to stay with our parents for a few weeks, hoping they would go to the beach and forget all about mommy and daddy’s separation. Despite the mutual end, it was so much more brutal than either of us could have imagined. Second thoughts and words, crueler than lashes pushed back and forth between them. 

She would disappear on me. The strong sister. The one who had it all sniveling back to her now ex-husband begging for him to take her back. I would plead for her to stay every time she left to see him one last time, to make love or hate or whatever it was. 

“You wanted this,” I would say to her. 

“And I still do.” 

But the bond, the animal magnetism, the evolutionary desire to love and be loved was too much for her human nature to bear. Without fail, until the last of the papers were processed, she still believed that her love was stronger. 

In the house, there was a kitten that looked exactly like the one that we had as kids— a cinnamon tabby with golden stripes, round green eyes. Hazel made her live on the porch while she was there, claiming that she didn’t like cats inside and that our old cat never set foot inside a day in her life. I would plead that she was all alone in the cold, but Hazel would never concede. 

The kitten lived on the front porch where we fed her table scraps, but when she was gone I would let the little kitten in. She would explore the house, nimble on her tiny feet, hunting blinds strings and slinking past whatever construction equipment we had hauled in that week. 

“Misty?” I would whisper to her sometimes hoping that she would recognize me. I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives. She would look at me with those huge orbs of eyes and blink knowingly in response. I took it as a sign and called her by her name. 

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When I would try to tell Hazel, she would deem me ridiculous. She had gotten more rigid since the split. A coping mechanism, I would tell myself, hoping that I believed it. It was different too, to work with her. She had been somewhat like that when we were kids, but now, spending almost all day every day with her, she found herself too good to believe in fairytales, too strict for fun, too driven to spend a second on herself. Like my Misty, she was another ghost from my past reincarnated into a completely different being. 

The house had many mirrors on the walls. The ones that I couldn’t justify shattering in the overhaul, I ran past quickly hoping to never catch a glimpse of myself. I tended to avoid reflective surfaces those days. I didn’t need any more reminders that I was a phantom myself. 

My hair was still growing back, the bags under my eyes becoming less dark, nevertheless, not returning to their original state. My ribcage still looked a little too skeletal when I wasn’t wearing my self-imposed uniform of men’s work overalls. I wasn’t the woman I used to be. 

But I was different than before in other ways as well. The muscles in my arms and back became more defined from the hard labor, my skin a bit more bronzed, a greater sense of purpose in my head. 

I was fine. I was doing fine. I don’t know why I did the things I did. Sabotages and mutinies on my own ship, abandoning love and letting it sink. Why couldn’t I just answer the phone? 

But I couldn’t, so I ran. 

“Do you want me here?”

It didn’t start that way. After Hazel’s split, I left behind my few things and we flipped her house to put on the market. It hadn’t needed much to update it, so we were able to turn a pretty good profit. Then we laid all the tile in her second home that she bought all on her own and built on the bedroom for her little boy. We learned a lot in that time. We were young and knew nothing of building up and tearing down in the physical sense. 

After those first two, we met a crossroad. It was an easy choice with lots of immediate consequences. Hazel had to say goodbye to a class full of kindergarteners halfway through the school year. Looking back I think teaching was a strange choice for her to begin with. She must have had those children military ready by winter break. 

I had less of a shift. I kept working, but took far fewer freelance jobs and was finally forced to leave my couch and create some sort of a routine. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the stay at home life either. I had never been able to create any sort of structure. I didn’t even own a desk. It had been nice though when I was sick. I could work from my hospital room with no need to explain anything to anyone, not fear of anyone seeing me in my weakness. Now I could work with Hazel all day and avoid the rest of my problems at night by working some more. A golden setup. I was tired, but I felt good, the kind of exhaustion that comes from your body going to battle with herself. 

Back in the city, the weekends were on the same schedule, but at the house, just me and Misty, we were left to sit with our thoughts and talk to our house. “Do you want me here?” I would ask sometimes. I wondered if she remembered me from when I was little. I wondered if she liked me tearing her apart, gutting her out, and giving her new polished insides. 

I walked around barefoot like when I was small, my toes turning blue from the cold wooden floor. We would probably take that out soon too and replace it with some more modern vinyl. I could feel each scratch through the souls of my feet and wondered if they had all been here before. Surely we couldn’t have been that destructive. Surely we couldn’t have made scars that deep. 

“I never asked for this.”

Our childhood was everything good and holy and pure in this world — running through sprinklers in the backyard, believing in the tooth fairy, bedtime stories every night, an eternal summer. Now that we were there for such a short period, it felt like we were wronging the place, not doing justice to her glory days. 

I sometimes thought about the families that lived there after us. Did they have children? Did they spit cherry pits off the front porch and make blanket forts? Did they ride the bus home from school and proudly wear their first pair of bright yellow rain boots even when it was dry outside, and name the earthworms that crawled out of the garden? Did they fall in love? Did they break someone’s heart? 

I couldn’t do it, couldn’t answer. I couldn’t let someone in. How could I do it when all I would give in return was heartache and loss? The house didn’t ask for me, but there I was. He asked, and I was forced to protect him from this ticking time bomb. 

When she went up on the market, 5 long hours from modern civilization, I knew I had to take this opportunity to leave. What better excuse than the distance. Who knew how long this project would take. 

I knew he watered my plants in the window box of my apartment. Sometimes he would send me a picture of them, the vines that my little yellow flowers grew on in the spring. I never asked for this. I figured they would die in the first freeze anyway, yet they lived on. 

And so did I. Through the cold months, the hard labor, my ghost curled around my feet. Through the ache in my jaw that I woke up in the morning, the time with my sister in our childhood home, and the stillness and longing on the weekends in my loneliness. I tore down walls, and I rebuilt them so that one day, I might pick up the phone and make a call. 


Aimee Brooks is a writer, artist, and lover of snacks living in the Wild West (aka Texas). She currently works for a college mentorship program but has hopes of going back to school sometime soon to pursue an MFA in creative writing. When she is not working, writing, or creating art, she spends her time playing with her cat (even though he is kind of evil)
listening to podcasts, and fighting the patriarchy.

Lip Blam

By Leah Sackett

Lips are gross if you watch them in motion wet, dry, rough, soft, flaky, luscious, spittle, and bad breath. Harlow had asked for her tube of lip balm from Orderly Roberts. 

“Can I have my lip blam?” Harlow asked. “You see, my lips are so chapped,” she said with a pout. 

“Okay, give me a minute. I have to give out meds,” Orderly Roberts said. 

“Here you go,” he said and handed over the little tube of Orange Crush chapstick. Roberts didn’t think her lips looked chapped. He figured it was just something to do when stuck on the ward and watched as she applied it to her pale lips. He fantasized about what those lips would look like with a bold, red color like his sister wore. Roberts was just an orderly, but he felt some of the patients were misplaced and mismanaged. In his mind, Harlow was one of them. If it weren’t for the morning and evening rounds of meds, Roberts would not indicate Harlow’s condition. She was Bi Polar and went off her meds from time to time, and every time she landed in the hospital. But she straightened out pretty much by the time she reached the main population ward where Roberts worked. He was jerked out of his reverie by an outburst from Oliver. This guy had been in much longer than insurance customarily allowed. He had nowhere else to go. No family, no place to stay, the social workers had promised him he would be released three days ago, and this quiet guy who shuffled the floors like an old man, which belied his 23 years, was frustrated. The Nurses’ station housed Cafe and De-Cafe urns of coffee along with Styrofoam cups and little packets of sugar. The objects were now being hurled at the nurses. Roberts embraced Oliver in a stifling hug and worked him to the floor. Another Orderly joined the struggle armed with a syringe of Midazolam. Together Roberts and Orderly Harrison muscled Oliver back to his room, where he could sleep his anger off. When Roberts regained the floor, the other inmates were whispering and wide-eyed. Harlow approached him and released the chapstick in Robert’s hand. 

“Here’s the lip blam,” she said. 

“You know it’s balm, right?” 

“What?” she said shrinking from Roberts. 

“It’s lip balm, not blam,” Roberts said gently. 

“Oh, right. I get confused,” Harlow said. 

Roberts felt wrong for correcting her. He didn’t want to scare Harlow off. He only had her for three more days, and then she was getting out. 

“Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints.”

He couldn’t ask for her phone number. It was an impossible relationship. Roberts palmed the lip balm back in her hand. 

“Keep it. Just be discrete,” he said. He gave himself the same advice. 

Roberts wasn’t working when Harlow was released. He resigned himself to the inevitable. His purpose was to help those short term cases get back on the right path. It started as rewarding, but some of these people just seemed to be arrested on the fringe of society, not a danger to it. Of course, he was no doctor. He was the muscle. 

Time inside an asylum sucks the staff and the patients into a warped fabric of reality, and the days run a cycle of drama and drool. Roberts began to wonder who was really incarcerated in this place, him or the patients? Charlotte slinked up the hall and cornered him up against the wall, mumbling, ” Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify…” Charlotte’s repetition of this question was maddening, and it got inside Roberts’s head like an earworm. He would ask himself the question on break and off shift. Was he a hero or a medical thug? His time in the asylum was tortured and terminal. Who was really trapped in this place? 

A new patient, James, was obsessed with his missing shoes, and tension was high in his demeanor. He shouted out threats to the unknown persons that had his shoes. 

“Where’re my kicks?” James pleaded.

“You can’t have your shoes here. You got the gripper socks,” Roberts said. 

“Man, I don’t want no gripper socks. I want my kicks. Then I’ll kick your ass,” James shouted. 

“I need you to keep it down and stop the threats,” Roberts said. 

“You telling me what to do? I don’t think so, Bitch,” James said and pushed Roberts back. 

Roberts got him in a prone floor hold. Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints. Hopped up on adrenaline, the Orderlies lifted the man and strapped him to the table in the solitary room. The rest of the inmates made a reticent scatter to their rooms. 

It was the end of the summer, Roberts had a much needed three day weekend. He and his buddies, Marc and Lucas, were meeting up at Milo’s for some beers and bocce ball. And to be honest, they were hoping to hook-up with some babes. Marc fetched the first round of beers, while Lucas and Roberts wrestled up the bocce balls and chalk to mark the score. Marc returned with a trio of girls, and introductions were made. 

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“So, what do you do?” the strawberry blonde Twiggy asked Roberts. “Oh, stay away from him. He’ll lock you up,” Marc said.

“What are you some kind of cop?” 

“Naw, he’s an orderly over at the mental hospital. Spends all day with the loonies,” Marc said. 

After the last pitch of the bocce ball, the ladies begged-off and went in pursuit of less creepy conversation. 

The guys were still quarreling over who was responsible for scaring the ladies off when they entered a greasy spoon, the Midnight Owl. 

Roberts did not like owls. He got a plush owl on his 8th birthday. Since then, every birthday and Christmas, he was gifted another owl. Things had really gotten out of hand when his grandma got him a set of owl salt and pepper shakers when he was 14. This diner’s name had kept him away, but tonight the dining victory went to Marc and Lucas. Roberts kept his head down in the menu, avoiding the Owl clocks, toys, and taxidermy on the walls. The waitress smelling of bacon was rattling off specials. She started to recite the Midnight Owl special when Roberts looked up into her face. No introduction was needed. It was a greasy Harlow with her hair up and thick eyeliner. It was Harlow right in front of him. But she didn’t let on that she knew him. Roberts assumed, correctly, that Harlow didn’t want to be identified. But this understood anonymity did not stop her from zoning in on Roberts and flirting aggressively. 

Roberts excused himself for the bathroom. In the narrow back hall, Harlow stood in his way, “It’s so nice to see you,” she said.

Roberts was unsettled. What were the odds of them meeting like this? He ate up her attention, and his fantasies about her came crowding back in his head and cluttered his judgment. 

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” she said. 

“Ah, yes,” he said with bated breath. 

After a greasy meal of eggs, onions, and hash, the guys made their good-byes. Roberts settled into his black 1967 Chevy Impala and waited. Roberts was racking his brain for a private place. There was a Red Roof Inn four miles down the road, but they never made it there. Harlow unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned dangerously close to Roberts’s face, for starters. 

“Hey, hey, you need to put your seatbelt back on,” Roberts said. 

But she was busy fishing for something in her purse. It was a tube of Orange Crush chapstick. 

“Here’s some lip blam for you,” she said, smearing it across his open mouth and chin. 

“A second squad car arrived…”

A clump stuck on his bottom teeth. Roberts wiped and at it with the cuff of his sleeve, while Harlow redoubled her attack and swung her right leg over Roberts. Saddling him, Harlow began to grind. 

“Harlow, I can’t see. Get off,” he said.

“I thought you liked me?” she said. “You’re no fun.” 

Harlow was pouting and leaning against her door with angst that scared Roberts. Just then, he saw the lights in his rearview mirror, and it was backed by the siren. Roberts pulled over on the shoulder of the road. This was a busy road during the day, but at night the businesses were all shut down, and the four-lane road was a vast playground for drunk drivers on the way home. 

“What’s going on here?” Officer Manners asked. 

His flashlight illuminated the half-dressed Harlow slumped along the window. 

“Do you want to have a good time, Officer,” Harlow said, climbing back over Roberts. Roberts was glad to have the policeman’s assistance. Harlow was out of control. 

“Step out of the car,” Officer Manners said to Roberts. 

“Me? What about her?” 

With that, Harlow stepped from the car and planted a handstand on the side of the road. Her waitress uniform fell around her waist. She was naked waist down. Roberts looked to see her panties draped from his rearview mirror. He had no idea when that happened.

Officer Manners made Roberts take a breathalyzer test, which he failed, and found himself cuffed in the backseat of the squad car. A second squad car arrived to take the loud and hard to handle Harlow to the psych ward. She’d been wearing her medical ID bracelet. 

Roberts’ car had been impounded, and he was unable to release it until Tuesday. He drove straight from the impound yard to work. He told his supervisor that he would need time off for his court date. Roberts thought this was the height of his embarrassment, but he was wrong. 

“Hey, there lip blam man,” Harlow said in a scratchy voice. 

She moved in close, not too close, just close enough so only he could hear her when she dropped her voice. 

“How much trouble did you get into?” 

“Plenty. But you need to stay away from me.” Roberts said. 

“Awww. Don’t you like me when I’m manic? Admit it, I’m much more fun.” 

“No, I don’t. We can’t act like that in here.” 

“You mean you can’t act like that in here. I can do whatever I want. I rather thought I got that point across this weekend,” Harlow said. “It’s not about you.”

Roberts stared into those big brown eyes. But he stopped seeing what he wanted to see. He saw a woman that needed help, stability. And what had he done but take her for a joy ride? He felt like a misogynistic ass. Harlow slipped off like a discarded garment and curled up in a green faux leather chair. Roberts watched her sitting there, talking to herself. A patient approached Roberts from the left. It was Charlotte. She was to be transferred to a long term facility that day. Charlotte stopped to rub the top of Harlow’s tussled hair. 

“Do you identify as a hero?” she asked Roberts. “Do you?”


Leah Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is where she earned her B.A. and M.F.A. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn about her published fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website.

The Coffee Maker

By Dominic Loise

The machine in the lobby was placed as a nicety. Something warm and inviting offered visitors like yourself. It maintained the body heat of their initial handshakes. A first attempt to show the corporation cared to learn about others too by offering, “How do you like your coffee?” 

Your ceramic mug held the first sip of truth. A streamlined, sigil logo on the exterior contained the burnt out and bitter from spilling over. What artificial sweetener and 

dry powder pampering combination could you bring to the organization? 

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Current employees tried all the corporate kitchen counter alchemy fixes of ingredients bought for an extended boxed in shelf life. Are you a green, six months, resume hopper giving the cauldron a quick burst of youthful energy before tipping it over to start again? Are you a freshly cut vital organ from another competitor? Or will you stay the long haul wishing back to this day?

The coffee maker bubbled bottom charring residue. The burner is not turned off in time. As you waited in the closed-off lobby, being told it should only just yet be another twenty minutes. Contracts were being reviewed. Magical laws wiped continuing their conversion into legal rhetoric.

You get up and walked out placing the empty mug by the glossy brochures. The cycle had been broken. Time weaved and waved back towards you. Saving yourself time for one last cup of coffee. 


Dominic Loise lives in Chicago, Illinois. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness. His work has appeared on Alchemic Gold Poetry Society, Analogies & Allegories, Calm Down, Raven Review, Refresh & Short Editions and in Collective Realms & Emotional Alchemy.

Up in Smoke

By William Cass

Rosa felt flattered and appreciative when Jenny invited her to join a few other housekeepers and resort staff for a TGIF. She’d only been working there a couple of weeks and hadn’t yet made any friends. The truth was Rosa had no one she was close to outside of work either; she passed this off as due to her being overweight, acne-scarred, and the shy, reserved nature that had been a restraint for her for as long as she could remember. 

Their group met at an outdoor bar on the boardwalk not far from the resort and included three other housekeepers, a grounds guy, and a well-built bellhop. They’d each changed out of their work uniforms and were all in their early to mid-twenties. They sat at a table away from the Calypso band playing in a corner, ordered Happy Hour drinks and appetizers, and conversed over the sound of the music and the soft tumble of waves beyond the boardwalk. It was early spring, pleasantly cool, and as the late afternoon fell, the sky took on the color of a bruise. 

Rosa was last to arrive. Jenny gestured her over to the empty seat next to her, made introductions, then engaged her in conversation. Jenny was twenty-four, two years older than Rosa, and had been working at the resort since shortly after she graduated high school, had a baby girl and got married. She told Rosa she had taken sporadic online courses through a technical college but was having a hard time finding meaningful time for that. 

Rosa asked, “What does your husband do?” 

Jenny’s lips pursed and she rolled her eyes. “Warehouse security guard. Overnight shift.” 

“How do you handle things with your daughter?” 

“Well, he mostly sleeps while she’s at school and I’m at work, then takes care of her until I get back. We have dinner, and he catches another quick nap before he heads to the warehouse.” She shrugged, “We manage, How about you?” 

“I need a favor,” she said.

Rosa mimicked her shrug. “I live with my grandfather. He and my grandmother raised me before she died when I was in high school. Now I kind of care for him…he’s pretty frail, forgetful.” She smiled, “I call him ‘mi abuelito’.” 

Jenny nodded. “That’s nice. Then you probably can’t stay too long this evening, either.” 

Rosa shook her head. 

Phillip, the bellhop, raised his glass and called for a toast. Rosa regarded his tanned skin, his flop of bleach-blonde hair, his self-assured surfer vibe; in spite of the stereotype, she felt a tickle of attraction. He toasted Happy Hours, he toasted poorly paid workers everywhere, he toasted beauty. As he uttered those last words, he gestured at the setting around them, the ocean, the sky, the music, but when he finished, his eyes rested on Jenny. 

 Jenny began joining Rosa often for lunch in the staff room, which Rosa also appreciated. Unlike most pretty girls she’d known, Jenny didn’t appear smug or aloof, and Rosa didn’t mind that Jenny did most of the talking while they ate. Rosa learned that Jenny’s marriage had been one born mostly of obligation, that her husband’s name was Carl and her daughter was Audrey, and that the little girl loved glitter, ponies, the color pink, and preferred dressing in tutus and plastic tiaras. When she spoke about Audrey, Jenny’s eyes softened as much as they went dull when the talk turned to Carl. He wasn’t a bad guy, Jenny told Rosa, just kind of a doofus; a high school jock gone to seed. He worked weekends, and she didn’t, so with their schedules, they saw little of each other. Jenny gave a kind of smirk when she said that was fine with her. Rosa watched her grow silent afterward, gazing at something, it seemed, on the opposite wall. 

The two of them had the same shifts during the week, so when Jenny told her their car had broken down and would take several days to be repaired, Rosa offered to pick her up and drop her off until it was ready. Their apartment was in a low, cinder-block building on a busy street in a rundown section of town. When she arrived that first morning, Rosa knocked on an open door with a tattered screen, and a man’s voice called for her to come in. Rosa entered a small living room that was separated from an equally cramped kitchen by a Formica table and chairs. Carl stood at the kitchen counter arranging items in a lunch box that had a unicorn on its lid. He was a big man with a soft belly and prematurely thinning hair, but kind eyes. 

He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “Jen will be right out, sit if you want.” 

“Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly”

Rosa lowered herself into a chair across the table from Audrey who didn’t look up from the coloring book she was scribbling in. Both rooms were cluttered with toys, piles of laundry, dishes, and strewn papers. A television played an animated children’s program against one wall of the living room. The smell of fried bacon and toasted waffles lingered in the air; a partially eaten plate of both was pushed aside next to Audrey, a puddle of syrup ringing its edge. A red ribbon perched next to the crooked tiara on her curly head.

During the next few moments, Rosa watched Carl write what appeared to a note with a heart at the bottom and fold it into the lunch box before closing the lid. Then Jenny burst into the room buttoning her uniform top. She quickly gathered her purse and pecked Audrey’s cheek. 

“Hey, there,” she said to Rosa. “We better go or we’ll be late.”

As Rosa followed her to the door, Carl called, “See you later. Love you, babe.” 

“You, too,” Jenny muttered, pushing through the door, the tear in it flapping behind her. 

They each had different morning and afternoon breaks, and Rosa often saw Jenny spending hers down behind the resort’s dumpsters smoking cigarettes with Phillip; sometimes another staff member or two was with them. When the two of them were alone, they sat close together on a makeshift bench there. Rosa felt her eyebrows knit the first time she saw them exchange a quick kiss when they parted. Each time that happened afterward, she stood very still and tried to chase away thoughts of crooked tiaras, love notes in unicorn lunch boxes, and farewell calls of endearment. 

At the TGIF’s that continued every month or so, Rosa only saw Jenny and Phillip chance occasional furtive glances. But on the one occasion that a group of them met on a lark later at a club, she did see them push their way into the crowd on the dance floor during a slow song and stroke each other’s backs while they moved closer together. Jenny’s eyes met hers through the throng, and Rosa looked quickly away. When she glanced back, Jenny’s eyes remained on Rosa’s, and she did not attempt to hide the fingertips that continued to caress Phillip’s back. 

So, Rosa was startled, but not entirely surprised, when Jenny appeared beside her cart in an upstairs hallway during one of her breaks shortly afterward cradling a set of clean sheets and pillowcases. Jenny fixed her with a gaze that held a combination of things, yearning, and determination among them. 

“I need a favor,” she said. “I need to use one of your rooms. Just for a little bit, but I need you to keep an eye out for the supervisor. Knock if she comes by.” 

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Rosa felt herself blinking, but Jenny’s gaze remained steady and unyielding until she said, “I checked the registry, and there’s no one in 402. We’ll change the bed when we’re done.” 

Rosa watched her march quickly down to the end of the hall and nod into the stairwell there. Phillip came out of its cavity, waited while Jenny used her pass key to open the guest room door closest to them, then followed her inside it. Rosa winced as the door clicked quietly behind them. She set the towel she was holding on top of the cart and didn’t reach down to pick it up when it fell to the floor. It was early afternoon, the hours between the end of guest check out and the beginning of check-in, so no one else was around. The only sounds were the screech of seagulls outside mingling with laughter and splashing from the pool four stories below. 

At home, Rosa’s grandfather had begun to fade further. Even though she measured his meds out into clearly labeled sections in a plastic dispenser, he often forgot to take them when she wasn’t there. Rosa started calling him during her breaks and at lunch to remind him and to check upon him. When she got home to their bungalow, he was often still dressed in his pajamas sitting where she’d left him that morning and staring at the same channel on the television that was usually muted. She tried getting him outside for some exercise before dinner, but he could barely make it to the end of their block with his walker. She brought out old photo albums and flipped through the pages with him to jog his memory, but he sometimes struggled to even recognize his wife. Rosa lingered over the photographs of her grandparents alone together in which they always held hands, even while blowing out the candles on the cake she’d baked them for their forty-eighth anniversary just before her grandmother’s death. 

The brief afternoon trysts between Jenny and Phillip continued at work every week or two. But unlike the first time, Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly from the end of the hall, and when their eyes met, gesture with her head towards the guest room in front of her. Rosa gave no acknowledgment, but a moment later, Jenny would juggle the change of bedding in her arms, make the same gesture into the stairwell, and Phillip would appear and follow her into the room. He never glanced Rosa’s way, and Rosa always made certain to leave her cart in the hallway, but not be there herself when they dropped bedding into its dirty-laundry sack and returned to the stairwell. 

Rosa normally had her grandfather sponge-bathed, diapered, and in bed by eight each night. She usually channel-surfed on the television afterward but began spending time on her laptop looking at online dating websites. She felt a sheepish excitement as she did. She concentrated on those that advertised matching potential couples by personality and valued characteristics. It took her nearly a month to gather the nerve to join one. She kept her personal description brief, using words and phrases like, “Loyal, enjoys simple things, quiet, and giving.” When prompted to describe the sorts of traits she was looking for in a match, she used similar descriptions, but included, “Integrity, honesty, and faithful.” She posted only three photos, all profiles in shadows from the waist up which she’d staged awkwardly with the self-timer on her grandmother’s old camera. Rosa hesitated for a long time, her finger poised over, “Enter,” on the keyboard, before finally blowing out a breath and finalizing her membership on the site. 

As soon as she did, her grandfather groaned from his bedroom. She hurried into the room and knew immediately by the smell that he’d soiled himself. He stayed asleep while she cleaned him up and changed his diaper. Her eyes widened when she returned to her laptop because a flashing icon on it indicated that she already had her first potential match. Her heart hammered as she skimmed through his profile and photos. He was a few years older than her, appeared a bit overweight, too, and his personal descriptions seemed to be reasonably close to her own: nothing to dissuade her from pursuing the match. 

“Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down…”

Rosa looked at the framed black-and-white photo of her grandparents on the desk next to the laptop. In it, they were about her age, newlyweds, and had just immigrated to the United States from Cuba. They’d grown up there in the same village and had been childhood sweethearts. A sudden flush spread through her. Rosa shook her head, looked back to the laptop where her photo smiled back at her in a blouse Jenny had told her was, “Slimming,” and with a couple of quick taps, deleted her membership on the dating site. She closed the lid, sat back in the hard chair, and listened to her grandfather’s soft snores from the next room. 

Several mornings later, she carried her cart’s full plastic bag of trash to the dumpsters. She smelled cigarette smoke as she approached them and stopped still in her tracks when she heard Jenny’s voice from the other side say, “You mean Rosa? Are you kidding me? We’ve got nothing to worry about there.” 

Phillip’s voice followed. “How can you be so sure?” 

“All that cow cares about is fitting in somewhere,” Jenny said. “We keep asking her to a TG every now and then, and we’re good as gold.” 

Rosa heard Phillip guffaw, then two clouds of exhaled smoke rose above the dumpsters. She felt her throat tighten and burning behind her eyes. Children shouted happily to one another in the nearby pool, and dishes clattered into a sink in the restaurant’s kitchen a handful of yards away. Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down in front of the dumpsters and somehow found her way back to where she’d left her cart. 

Rosa didn’t sleep much that night. For a long time, she just lay thinking, vaguely aware of her grandfather’s snores and the occasional vehicle passing in the street. She allowed her feelings to tumble over themselves. She thought about her loneliness and what her life would be like when her grandfather was gone. She thought about how safe and cared for her grandparents had always made her feel. She thought about Jenny’s gaze beside her cart before the first tryst with Phillip and realized the look in her eyes held something beyond yearning and determination: it held to scorn. Rosa felt her eyes narrow, and a small snort escaped her. An image of cigarette smoke drifting over the dumpster kept invading her attempts to quiet her mind. She finally dozed briefly as the first birds began tittering, woke up at full dawn, and immediately called in sick at the resort. 

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

She lingered over breakfast with her grandfather, then took him for a long walk in his wheelchair through their neighborhood with her jaw set hard. She eventually got him settled in his recliner in front of the television at about nine and drove off. She’d waited until then to be sure that Audrey would be at school. When she got to their apartment, she turned off the engine and sat staring at their screen door for a long time before heaving another snort, climbing out, and knocking on it. 

Rosa rubbed her damp palms together as she waited. It took three more knocks and before Carl emerged rubbing sleep from his eyes on the other side of the torn screen. He wore plaid sleeping pants with a ratty T-shirt that rode up over his stomach. They regarded each other until his eyebrows knit into a frown. 

He asked, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” 

Rosa cleared her throat. “There’s something I need to tell you.” The same breakfast smells came from inside. “Something you need to know.” 

She watched him rub his disheveled hair, his frown deepening. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.” 


William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, December, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press. He received three Pushcart nominations and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020.