Left to my own devices, I’d be coiled up on my favorite corner of the couch from the time my son went to bed til the scent of fresh coffee wafted my way.
Left to my own thoughts, I’ll slash a slit in my consciousness force feed it a stream of stimulation til my inner voice is drowned.
Left to fend for myself, I slip into the semi-feral state that fits my nature like a well-worn glove existing only for that which excites me.
I left to make myself the person I’d always pretended to be. Convinced a change of scenery would change who I am.
Like a ghost left to cycle through their final violent breaths who learned their history and are doomed to repeat it I always come back to haunt me.
Allison DeDeckeris currently based in Yuma, AZ. She draws inspiration from day to day life, current events, and the natural world. Her work has been published in the Colorado Crossing Literary Journal and is forthcoming in Pile Press. She can be found on Instagram.
Rose Phillips stands in front of the full-length mirror and stares: cheeks stained salmon-pink and skin glowing like it’s been spritzed with dew, her hair artfully curled and worryingly flammable with the amount of hairspray holding it in place. She doesn’t look anything like herself, which is fitting in some way – this is, after all, the day Rose Phillips dies.
She scowls at herself for thinking so macabrely, but the thought won’t leave her head. It’s true, really. A part of her brain insists as it had done for the past year. After today, Rose Phillips won’t exist anymore, and Rose Wilson will take her place. She will become someone else entirely after saying a few words and signing a piece of paper, a simultaneous death and birthday wrapped up in a pretty white dress.
She really needs to stop thinking like this.
It’s funny that today, of all days, everything that made Rose Phillips Rose Phillips seems to be demanding to be acknowledged. It’s as if returning to Cumbria has prompted her to pull back all the layers of her life that she had built up over the years since she left. In the week leading up to now, she had shown George around all the places that held the moments that shaped her, a whistle-stop tour of her life before him. Naturally, there were some places she couldn’t bring herself to take him to, like Penny’s. It would have just been rude, intrusive in some abstract, unexplainable way that she wouldn’t let herself contemplate.
It had been strange, taking these pitstops around her old life with someone who was to be her future. But she was glad for it – relieved, in fact, to be getting married here rather than in London or even somewhere else. It’s like the closing of a chapter, a cyclical release that she didn’t perhaps even know she needed.
It’s good to be here again. She has never grown to love living in the London as much as George does – although Rose supposes that’s to be expected, seeing as though he’s lived there his whole life. Rather, she tolerates the city: the grey streets peppered with spits of chewing gum and pigeon shit, the dirty air, the hard water. The nightmare that was the tube at rush hour. The rats. The rent. The rude people. Sure, there were theatres and quirky bars and their entire bloody professional lives, so they stayed and were mostly happy. Rose had to admit that the rush of it all could be sweetly addictive, and returning to the lumbering lanes of Cumbria only seemed to slow her down; over time, her visits home grew less and less frequent until they finally stopped completely.
So it’s been seven years since she was last here, and she’s happy to be back on what is to be one of the most special and pivotal points of her life. It’s funny how it all works.
Rose has always been told that she has her head screwed on straight. And it holds truth – after all, her life is on track. Here she is, in step three of her life plan (move to London – done; get a career in journalism at someplace that’s not The Sun – done; get married – imminent; have kids – pending; dream of buying a house – eternally pending.) Rose thinks that if little Rosie Phillips could see how her life was turning out, she’d be pretty satisfied, especially in this very moment standing in front of this mirror in her nauseatingly expensive (but totally worth it!) white gown. Growing up, Rose had always dreamed about her wedding day – the floating down the aisle, the fairy lights, the fanfare – but had never really given much thought as to who it was that she would end up marrying. Every time she had pictured her wedding, for all her planning and dreaming, only a faceless smudge of a shadow would be hovering at the end of the aisle.
And then she met George. A good man, kind and patient, who listens to her and all of her eccentricities. Steady as an ox, unflappable. Someone she can build a life with, someone she loves enough to sacrifice her name on the altar of their marriage and create a whole new sense of self. She has her head screwed on straight, and it told her that he’s the right one for her.
Her reflection looks at her, expressionless from behind the mask of makeup.
It’s inexplicable, the human mind. It likes to remind you of things you truly thought you had forgotten or would rather not remember at all. Rose doesn’t know if it’s back her hometown or her impending last minutes as the person she has spent close to three decades being, but in this moment, the past has woken up and is fully wrapping itself around her, hungry to be acknowledged, a serpent waiting to devour her in memories.
And who is she, as sentimental and self-flagellating as she is, to deny that great snake of times gone by?
“It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine.”
She lived down a winding country lane that you would miss completely if you didn’t know to look out for it, in a small cottage laced with honeysuckle that sat squatly in front of a cluster of trees that led out to the woods. They met in the summer before Rose went to university, both working at a local boho-esque café with large, leafy plants in the windowsills, chalkboard menus, and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs.
Rose could tell that she didn’t like her at first. Perhaps, with all her chattiness and naïveté, Rose came off as annoying and too eager to be liked, or maybe she just liked to be judgemental about new starters. Whatever it was, Ophelia Deane did not rate Rose very highly at all in those early weeks at Penny’s. Ophelia barely spoke to her beyond asking her to check on a table or fill up the sugar bowls, no matter how much Rose persisted in trying to draw her into a conversation.
Ophelia was one of those girls who was so comfortable in her own skin that Rose almost wanted to peel it off and wear it herself. Rose was mesmerized by her. She exuded a quiet confidence, watching the world from behind the café counter and giving no indication of the thoughts forming behind her dark, unforgiving eyes. Ophelia dressed in a way that Rose wished she could pull off but knew she never could – the ends of her long black hair were dyed a loud magenta, and she wore Doc Martens with floral skirts that would sometimes hike up a bit and show her thick, hairy legs. She wore statement earrings that she had made herself out of clay, and a fuzz of hair grew underneath each of her arms, which Rose noticed one day when Ophelia was restocking the shelves. Ophelia was content to say as little as possible to her and to anyone, scribbling poems on the back of her notepad instead of talking. Rose spent hours wondering what she was thinking, what she could maybe say to end this coolness that seemed to exist between them despite the heat of the summer sun.
But it wasn’t as if she was entirely unapproachable either. Ophelia was warm and genuine to customers, and sometimes some of this would even extend to Rose herself if she happened to be nearby. It was moments like these that threw Rose’s brain into a scramble, frantically ticking through the right thing to say to make the conversation last longer, to find a way to peer behind the thick curtain that always, inevitably, descended back over Ophelia again as she would go quiet, back into herself. Rose found herself hoping that there would be more and more moments behind that curtain as time went on.
Two weeks after Rose started at the café, Dan from the kitchen had a birthday picnic gathering on the banks of the River Eden, and he invited everyone from Penny’s. Rose was surprised to see Ophelia there, lounging on a tartan blanket with her legs stretched out in front of her and a small, almost knowing smile on her face as she saw Rose arrive. Rose ended up sitting next to her as they all clustered on the blanket, passing fruit punnets and sipping tinnies and soaking in the sunlight. Though she laughed openly and smiled at the others with what she hoped was a carefree look, Rose could feel her heart thrumming in her chest like the bumblebees that drifted by them, the heat of Ophelia’s knee as it pressed casually against her thigh. Her skin was so warm, warmer than the sun.
The next shift they had together, Ophelia greeted her with a crooked smile and an actual hello. Rose blinked, surprised and strangely relieved that she seemed to finally be making progress, although also unable to figure out why it mattered so much.
‘I take a while to warm up to people,’ Ophelia said out of the blue a few days later. Rain pattered softly against the windows; thick clouds blocked out the sun, so they had the lamps on. A classic British summer. It was cozy inside and slow. They both nursed cups of tea in clasped hands.
‘I can tell,’ Rose said to her, flashing her a smile that she hoped wasn’t too much. ‘I know I can be a lot to start off with, so I guess I’m used to it.’
‘You shouldn’t think like that, Rose,’ Ophelia said soberly, her fathomless eyes not leaving Rose’s face. Rose suddenly found a brochure on the counter advertising local produce very engaging and started to leaf through it. Ophelia set her tea down on the counter and went to clear a table, and nothing more was said. Rose chewed over the words she should have spoken for hours after.
It came as a pleasant surprise one afternoon when Ophelia invited her to the cottage where she lived. Rose felt her heart fall into her stomach and leap back up again as she accepted, only managing a wordless nod and another overly-excited smile that she proceeded to agonize over for another length of time. She couldn’t explain these feelings – all she wanted, somehow, was to impress Ophelia, for Ophelia to like her, but she couldn’t help but dissolve into nerves at the thought of being alone – really alone, no customers – with her. She was effervescently anxious but couldn’t dream of saying no.
It was one of the hottest days of the year when Rose went to the honeysuckle-draped cottage for the first time; grateful Ophelia had met her at the café to guide her else she would have never found it. Inside, the cottage was refreshingly cool and light, with low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Flowers sprouted from ceramic vases on almost every available surface.
‘My parents travel a lot for work, so it’s just me here a lot of the time,’ Ophelia told her, offering Rose a glass of water freshly poured from the Brita filter. ‘I’m staying here until I find my own place.’
‘Are you going to live on your own?’
Ophelia shrugged. ‘Maybe with someone from work, I don’t know. When do you leave for Goldsmiths?’
It suddenly struck Rose that she didn’t know much about Ophelia, but she herself was such an open book. Rose often felt that everything she was sat plainly on the surface, ready for anyone to know with a glance. It was this way, no matter how hard she tried to be elusive and enigmatic, like how Ophelia was.
‘Mid-September,’ she responded.
‘A month away,’ Ophelia said. Rose couldn’t tell if she was stating a fact or expressing disappointment.
‘Didn’t you want to go study somewhere?’ Rose asked, leaning against the kitchen counter with what she hoped was an easy air.
Ophelia shrugged. ‘There’s time for that whenever. Maybe I’ll travel. I don’t know. We’re so young, you know? We don’t have to have everything planned out. There’s no rush.’
‘I’ve always been told that I have a good head on my shoulders because I know what I want to do.’
‘Who says that?’
‘My dad. Everyone.’
Ophelia scratched the tip of her nose. ‘What’s your plan then?’
‘Ah, go to uni. Work hard. Get a good job. Get married. House. Kids.’
‘I’ll be honest, it sounds pretty vague. Basic even.’
Ophelia laughed, a deep belly laugh that made Rose giggle too, feeling heat rush to her face.
‘Hey, if that’s the best you’ve got. I’m happy you’ve managed to squeeze me into your schedule.’
‘Yeah, don’t make me regret it.’
Ophelia smiled at her, the corners of her eyes crinkling. ‘Let’s go foraging,’ she said suddenly, and she took Rose’s hand in her own and wheeled her in the direction of the back door. She paused a moment, briefly letting go of Rose’s hand to throw a bag over her shoulder, before clasping her hand in hers once more and pulling her out into the garden that spilled out to the woods.
The sun was bright and hot in the sky, beaming down on them as Ophelia and Rose half-ran, half-skipped, exuberant, down a small trail into the trees. Rose had no idea where they were going but couldn’t care less. She could sense their sweat mingling on the palm of her hands and felt nothing but free as the light summer breeze on their backs seemed to propel them forward.
‘What are we looking for?’ Rose asked, her voice breathless in the wind.
‘Whatever we find,’ Ophelia called over her shoulder.
Soon, the trail began to wind its way along the river. Ophelia let go of Rose’s hand, and they slowed down to an ambling walk, the birdsong and gentle bubbling of the stream over the rocks filling the comfortable wordlessness between them. Sometimes, Ophelia would pause to gather dandelion stems or nettles, wrapping the folds of her long skirt around her hands to protect herself, lips tightly pressed together as she concentrated on not getting stung. Once safely stored in her bag, she wiped her hands on her skirt and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
‘You have the strangest look on your face, Rose,’ Ophelia said, turning back to her. ‘And usually, I can tell what you’re thinking.’
‘Am I so easy to read?’
‘You know you are.’ Suddenly Ophelia was taking her shoes off and treading across the grass to the river, her sandals held aloft in her hands. She plonked herself on the riverbed and dropped her feet in the water, leaning back to rest on her palms. Rose followed, sitting down beside her and folding her legs over themselves.
‘Aren’t you going to put your feet in?’
‘Maybe in a sec.’
‘So go on then. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
‘I hardly think that’s fair.’
‘I never know what you’re thinking.’
Ophelia laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. ‘Ahh, Rose. You really do make me smile. I should show it more.’
Rose twiddled some blades of grass between her fingertips. ‘I just really enjoy being out in the sun with you, that’s all,’ she said, regretting it almost instantly, looking straight down at the water in front of her. But Ophelia’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Me too, with you,’ so calmly, kicking her feet gently in the river. The words fell from her mouth as if it really were nothing at all.
It was getting uncomfortably hot. They shifted downriver slightly so they could sit underneath the shade of a river birch tree, but after only a few minutes, Ophelia announced that she was too warm and stood up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m cooling off. You can too if you want. No pressure though,’ and she pulled her vest top over her head, tossed it on the grass and shimmied out of her skirt so that she was standing only her knickers, pubic hair peeking out the edges. Rose watched at the way Ophelia moved, the way she held herself, completely at ease in her own body and almost nakedness in a way that Rose herself had never felt before. Ophelia turned to the river, the skin on the backs of her thighs kissed with dimples, and lowered herself slowly in, breathing deeply, floating, the water gently lapping at her breasts. Rose had never seen anyone quite so content to be themselves, anyone quite so beautiful.
‘Are you coming in?’ Ophelia asked her. ‘It’s really refreshing, I promise. It’s quiet here, too, you don’t have to worry. Come on, be Shakespearean with me.’
‘Oh, God. Please don’t drown.’
‘I guess I should probably read the damn thing. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.’
‘I can tell. Spoiler: Ophelias and rivers don’t mix well.’
‘Well, this time, they do,’ she said, tracing patterns on the water’s surface with her fingers.
‘It’s on at the RSC soon, I think. We could go. Or there’s a Kenneth Branagh movie. It’s four hours long, though.’
‘Is he in it? God, I can’t stand him sometimes,’ she splashed water in Rose’s direction.
‘Hurry up and get in. Live a little. Or is that not in your grand-and-super-important-yet-also-kind-of-vague life plan?’ Ophelia grinned before leaning to float on her back.
Rose took a moment. She saw the dappled patterns of sunlight on the grass, how the water glimmered like it was surfaced with diamonds. The fresh air, hot sun, the scents of summer caught in the breeze. She saw Ophelia floating, her eyes closed, completely at peace in the river like her Shakespearean namesake. Birdsong floated around them, a soundscape of melodies and wings fluttering across leaves. And there, in that moment, it all started to feel a little bit magic.
Rose wriggled out of her shorts and top, pulled off of her shoes, and marched herself to the river.
‘It’s cold!’ she said as she dipped a toe in.
Ophelia opened her eyes and pulled herself up, so she was resting her feet on the riverbed once more. ‘You know you’ll get used to it, just have to get in.’
Rose put one foot in front of the other and lowered herself down into the water. It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine. Rose submerged herself completely underwater once, the water rushing over her ears, coming up smiling so hard she thought her face muscles might spasm. It was like something had loosened in her belly, something that she hadn’t realized was wound so incredibly tight.
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They listened to the sounds of the wind in the trees. After a while, Rose said, ‘I wish I could be more like you.’
‘You’re just so… you.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ophelia asked, frowning.
‘I’m too much. Annoying. You even found me too much, to start off with.’
Ophelia’s frown deepened, but she said nothing.
Clouds drifted across the sun, casting shadows over them and hasting their decision to get out. They pulled their clothes back over themselves and sat beneath the tree. They made daisy chains and draped them across each other. Ophelia, resting against the tree trunk, scribbled in a notebook she pulled out of her bag. Rose lay on her back and watched the clouds journey across the crystal-blue sky.
After a while, Ophelia gently closed her book and let it rest on the ground and came over to lie down next to Rose.
‘About what you said earlier,’ Ophelia said. ‘About you being too much.’ Her voice was low, serious, filled with an intensity that Rose hadn’t heard before.
‘I don’t think you’re too much,’
‘You don’t have to say that,’ Rose said.
‘I’m not. I think it’s a beautiful thing for you to be so open. To have your heart dripping on your sleeve like you do. Don’t let my standoffishness be the reason you want to change yourself; I’d hate that.’
‘So you didn’t find me annoying to start off with?’ Ophelia paused.
‘You see? It’s fine, don’t worry.’ Rose sat up, drawing her knees to her chest. Ophelia did the same, lightly moving her wet hair over her shoulder.
She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. ‘I didn’t find you annoying,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t you. I just – I’m closed off, I guess. Maybe I knew how much I would like you, and I was afraid.’ ‘Of what?’
‘You’re not going to be around, and you’re going off to uni. Which will be so great for you, a whole new life, the next step forward in your grand plan. I guess I didn’t see the point in us becoming friends because we wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it.’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
Ophelia fidgeted on the grass. ‘I know. But sometimes it’s easier for me.’
‘Okay,’ Rose said, not knowing what else to say. Then: ‘Do you regret it then? Getting to know me?’
‘No,’ Ophelia said softly. ‘No, I’m having a great time.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to disappear, you know,’ Rose said. ‘I’ll come and visit. Keep in contact. It’s not too far, in the grand scheme of things.’ Ophelia smiled a small smile that didn’t warm her eyes like it usually did.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘I think you’re wonderful,’ Rose said. ‘I’m really glad I know you.’ Ophelia stared at her for a lingering, charged moment before shifting a little closer to Rose. Rose could count the freckles across her nose now, see her wet eyelashes clinging to each other.
‘And I’m glad that I wasn’t too much for you,’ Rose said softly. ‘You couldn’t be too much,’ Ophelia murmured. She was so close. Rose’s heart pulsed electricity through her veins, and she was tremoring ever so slightly.
‘And I think that you’re wonderful too, Rose Phillips,’ Ophelia breathed, her eyes wide, spilling open. And then slowly, she leaned in so close that their noses were almost touching, waiting, watching for Rose’s reaction. Rose kept very still as if waiting for a butterfly to settle on her mouth, her gaze never leaving the dark pools of Ophelia’s eyes.
Slowly, Ophelia brushed her lips against hers. It was a light touch, barely there, and she pulled back after only a few heartbeats.
The corner of Rose’s mouth lifted.
‘What?’ Ophelia asked an eyebrow arching.
‘You look so serious,’ Rose laughed, and she kissed her again.
The world seemed to shrink and hold only them. All Rose could sense was Ophelia: the heat of her body through her damp clothes, her breath hot and falling on her face as their lips parted. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, and they were cast in dappled shadows as they pulled each other close underneath the tree.
And the rest of the summer days passed much in the same way: when they weren’t working, they were foraging, swimming, falling into one another and their sun-kissed skin. Some days, they lay in the grass under the sun in Ophelia’s garden and paint with watercolours. When it grew dark, they would retreat inside and dance to Dolly Parton or ABBA, drink red wine and make nettle soup. Occasionally they would curl together under a blanket and sit beneath the stars, and count as many as they could before they drifted off to sleep.
It was a dream, another life, a pause. Rose had never been so happy or so afraid. While she had no reservations about keeping in touch and visiting when she went off to university, as the day slowly approached for her to leave, she could sense Ophelia pull away from her, as if she was slowly and gently starting to untangle herself. The thought of losing Ophelia because of something as small as university filled Rose with concern, but she didn’t know what to say.
Time moved inexorably onwards, and too soon, it was the last night before Rose was due to leave. They were sat in the garden, on the grass, Rose in Ophelia’s arms as the sun started to go down. She tickled the palm of Ophelia’s hand with her fingertips, the atmosphere between them sombre, heavy as if waiting for a weight to fall.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rose murmured.
‘I’m going to miss you too,’ Ophelia said, and she sighed.
‘You’ll come visit?’
‘If you want me too,’
‘Of course, I will,’
‘You don’t think I will? Want you to visit?’
Ophelia sighed again. Rose sat up and held Ophelia’s hands in her own. ‘Talk to me,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘I don’t – I don’t fit into your plan, Rose,’
‘Are you joking?’
‘You and your screwed-on head. You’ve got it all figured out. Uni. Marriage. House. Kids. I’m not like you. I don’t know if I want all that. I don’t know what I want.’
‘As if we have to know all that now! You said it yourself – it’s all vague. It can all change. You’re worried about nothing, nothing at all. I want you in my life; that’s all I know right now for sure.’
‘You’ve got a whole new chapter starting. You don’t need one month with me to shape so much of it.’
‘But I want it to.’
Ophelia let out a huff of surrender. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I will suspend my disbelief.’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I don’t not believe you. I just – I know how things go, you know? Sometimes worlds are just too different. All I’m saying. Some things have to get left behind.’
‘As if you’re calling yourself “something,” Ophelia. You will never be that to me.’
Ophelia chewed her bottom lip and looked down. Rose hadn’t seen her look this unsure of herself before.
‘I actually can’t wait for the day, years from now, when I’ll get a chance to say that I told you so,’ Rose said teasingly, trying to draw Ophelia out of herself.
A small smile twisted her lips as Ophelia stared somewhere beyond their conversation. ‘I’m sure you can’t.’
Rose cupped her palm on Ophelia’s cheek, lifting her face, so their eyes meet.
‘I love you,’ Rose said for the first time.
Ophelia kissed her softly on the mouth, an echo of their first embrace, and they didn’t need to say anything more.
“She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if didn’t.”
It won’t take too long, Rose thinks. The ceremony will be over quickly, and then it will be a fun party, and she won’t have to spend long thinking about the fact that she has just killed/replaced Rose Phillips with a brand-spanking-new and completely unknown edition. She’s erasing her whole history, her whole life, in a way. Isn’t she? She imagines what George would say to her if he were in the room right now, and she let her mind spool out to him: he would kiss her forehead sweetly and tell her it was her silly little brain that he loves so much running away with nerves. But she doesn’t feel nervous, not really. If anything, she feels kind of numb.
This is everything she has always planned for. Everything is falling into place. Another life milestone to check off the list. This is where she has always been heading to, the path she’s been walking since she left Cumbria behind.
And George is a good man. A wonderful man. She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if she didn’t.
Someone calls for her outside the door. The car’s here. It’s time for her to go.
Her reflection stares back at her blankly as the seconds tick on, rushing her to the future she has always thought she wanted. Rose holds herself in her beautiful white dress, unmoving, and dreams of the honeysuckle cottage at the end of a country lane.
Maxine Meixner (she/her) is a UK-based writer, poet and floral print enthusiast obsessed with the moon. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and her work has previously appeared in small leaf press, Second Chance Lit, and Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
There is this urban way of taking walks at night under stars and streetlights anywhere between the hours from seven to ten. This is how it usually goes: on clear nights when Sirius is particularly visible Venus makes its timely appearance and music replaces the sounds of nightly household activity you smell the lentil tempering feel the butterfly effect of mortar over pestle straight through your headphones. You focus on the feeling of night air over your face time slipping away under your steadily walking feet leaving behind the daily grind. You begin your days at night. Then shower and lights out. Ritual or prayer to pause for a little while and live when you don’t have the rest of the world pulling at your limbs. There are only so many you can spare for others after the day has finally died.
Anukriti Yadav(she/her) is an undergraduate STEM student from Delhi NCR. She enjoys poetry, book-hoarding, all kinds of tea, Grant Snider comics, taking pictures of commonplace objects, and speed-walking while listening to hyphenated genres of rock and acoustic music. She ardently believes in mint chocolate and mental health rights, and can be reached on both Instagram and Twitter. Her work is forthcoming in Ice Lolly Review and Pop The Cultural Pill.
Anukriti Yadav (she/her) is an undergraduate STEM student from Delhi NCR. She enjoys poetry, book-hoarding, all kinds of tea, Grant Snider comics, taking pictures of commonplace objects, and speed-walking while listening to hyphenated genres of rock and acoustic music. She ardently believes in mint chocolate and mental health rights, and can be reached on both Instagram and Twitter. Her work is forthcoming in Ice Lolly Review and Pop The Cultural Pill.
On open rooftops by humming water tanks in the slow burning minutes after sunset, you pause. Take stock of a dying day. By the fruit stall at the local vendor’s you look out the open door box of seasonal strawberries in hand. On the walk back home from evening classes, the taste of berry popsicle on your parched tongue, you look up at the pink sky. It is funny how you learned to weed out early on that color that was too feminine to ever be taken seriously. Yet, the web-footed geckos, roseate spoonbills, pygmy seahorses, pink axolotls, amazon dolphins, sea anemones and orchid mantises— in their knowing zen stances— all disagree.
And what of the periwinkles in your balcony overlooking bountiful bougainvilleas on the busy street the cherry blossoms awaited all year, the blooming magnolias in late spring? There is also the frown you wear looking at finished laundry forgotten to be separated in the wash. The reds, quiet naturally, bleeding into the whites. Baby blanket and ballet shoes cackling with delight. Afterwards, the color of blood just under the skin on your cold palms when you scrub them raw as raisins, trying in vain to smother a natural existence from the world.
The Belt of Venus is an atmospheric phenomenon, the pinkish glow that surrounds an observer shortly before sunrise or shortly after sunset.
Anukriti(she/her) is an undergraduate STEM student from Delhi NCR. She enjoys poetry, book-hoarding, all kinds of tea, Grant Snider comics, taking pictures of commonplace objects, and speed-walking while listening to hyphenated genres of rock and acoustic music. She ardently believes in mint chocolate and mental health rights and can be reached on both Instagram and Twitter. Her work is forthcoming in Ice Lolly Review and Pop The Cultural Pill.
“What do you mean you’re not going to tell Charles?” I can feel my mouth hanging open; disbelief etched on my face like crude graffiti.
“Exactly what I said. I’m not going to tell him.”
I shake my head, trying to dispel the words attempting to lodge in my cerebrum as solid fact. My new husband’s proclamation hovers between us, something nearly corporeal, the first invisible obstacle upon which our fledgling marriage has stumbled.
“I’m not going to tell David either.”
At this, I close my eyes briefly, struck with a jolt of visceral psychic pain. He closes the door behind us as I toss down my black handbag and kick off my black heels, pulling the clip from my hair. It springs free and resumes its natural state of frenzy, a lifelong burden which Mark requested I tame prior to his ex-wife’s funeral.
“What’s that look for?” he asks guardedly. I’m certain he already anticipates the objection I’m about to draw. He does not anticipate these feelings’ ferocity; how quickly and deeply I have bonded with his sons.
“Mark,” I begin and pause, taking a breath and placing my hand on his bicep before I start again. “I love Charles and David like I grew them in my own womb. They are not my stepchildren; they are my children. You know that, right?”
“Of course,” he says tersely, shifting slightly, so my hand falls from his arm to lay by my side. “They love you, too,” he adds, an afterthought as he turns to walk down the hallway.
“Well…,” I start, trailing after him, fully prepared to advocate all night for these children – for my children. “I’m glad to hear that. I think…”
Mark stops abruptly and whirls around to face me.
“But they’re not your children. They’re my children and Candice’s children, and this was always our decision.”
I reel back. It has been so long since he has said her name; when absolutely necessary, it is only ever “Charles and David’s mother.” Now, it seems sacrilege to have spoken something we’re always forbidden to utter, like it will jinx the boys; like it will rub off.
“But…” I protest uncertainly. “But I…”
“Just drop it,” he commands and disappears into the gloom of the kitchen.
I know he does not mean this the way it sounds. He is grieving. He is in shock. But he is wrong because Charles and David are my children now. Their future is irrevocably tied to mine; their happiness is my happiness.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
“Because there is no cure.”
The old name comes from the Greek word for “dance.” That word is “chorea,” and thus this hellish disease used to be called “Huntingdon’s Chorea.” It is a macabre moniker; it refers to the involuntary jerks, and tics patients suffer as their nerves literally break down. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning because the condition is degenerative. Eventually, patients cannot move, unable to speak, unable to swallow as their mental faculties decline into dementia.
Nowadays, it’s called “Huntingdon’s Disease,” and it is genetic. It is very, very genetic. It takes only one carrier to pass on the gene responsible for Huntingdon’s; only one mother or father, only one of the men and women who answer that Darwinian drive to reproduce, nurture young, and propagate the species. It takes only one chromosome to ruin generations, to ruin human lives. It is hard to grasp the true tragedy of the disease through the sterility of Mendelian genetics, but nonetheless – as dictated by that good old Punnett Square – any offspring born to a Huntingdon’s carrier has a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease.
You’d think it would be more complicated than that, but it’s not. Fifty percent. Yes or no. Heads or tails. Life or death. A future, or the lack of one.
Because there is no cure.
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“Do you want to know how it was?” Mark challenges. “Do you want to know how bad it got before you were even in the picture?”
“Please!” I say desperately. “I’m not trying to hurt you, or undermine Candice, or insult your parenting!”
We have been fighting for hours.
“But you are,” he states firmly. “You’re saying you know what is better for my boys than I do; than their own mother did.”
“But I’m not!” I exclaim, begging him to see my point of view. “I just think Charles and David need to know what could happen. They deserve to know if this is something they will face.”
“You don’t know anything,” he sneers, anger emanating from every pore. “They had to watch their mother die. Even after we moved out and I married you, they had to see it. And there is no way I’m going to tell them the same thing could be in their future. They’re too young!”
“They won’t be young forever,” I say quietly. “They’re going to ask questions eventually.”
“But they’re not really going to get it,” Mark yells, and I understand everything in a flash of insight. Never underestimate, of course, the power of compartmentalization, the power of denial.
“They’re not going to get it,” he repeats, and turns his back on me to retreat into the bedroom.
I sigh heavily, disturbed and deeply exhausted. I think of Charles and David, safe at their grandparents’ during Candice’s funeral, and feel a flash of terror. I wince; my breath hitches. My emotional mind spirals – I think of them stumbling and stuttering, quality of life draining away, unable to communicate, unable to move – and I have to force my brain away to contain the bile that rises into my throat.
Finally, I toss my wine glass into the sink and walk into the dark living room to collapse on the couch. Right now, I have no desire to sleep next to my legal partner, the father of the children I am legally adopting. Instead, I lie awake until morning.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly
There is a test.
It is, to be clear, only a test. It only predicts; it does nothing to heal. It is good for identifying the genetic marker; it is good for letting an individual know what is in store.
A child, for example, who has a parent with Huntingdon’s can take this test; they can see the 50% into which they fall. They can know, as early as infancy, if their life will devolve into something unfathomable before they’ve even had a chance to come into themselves; they can know if they will die young.
But – and here’s the existential part – is that a good thing to know?
Does it help to know the future? Does it help to know now what will come to be? Does it help to risk the loss of hope for the chance to end up with all the hope in the world?
And who gets to make that decision?
“I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.”
I spread peanut butter on bread, smiling at my stepsons over the breakfast bar. I am making school lunches the next day while my husband showers for work.
“Eat your breakfast,” I encourage.
“I don’t like oatmeal,” complains Charles, the elder boy. He is opinionated and stubborn, the spitting image of his father. David is several years younger, the rainbow baby after Candice had a series of miscarriages, from what I understand. He is thoughtful and soft-spoken; he looks like his mother.
“I know,” I say. “But eat it anyway.”
“I miss Mommy,” says David, apropos of nothing, and I pause with the knife in the peanut butter jar.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly, and I hear the agony under his words.
“But I want her,” says his brother, tears starting to fall, and my wise mind suddenly glimpses the future.
I see my stepsons’ graduations. I see their weddings. I see daily life, and vacations, and New Years’ Eves. I see their blissful ignorance to the monster in their DNA. I see the birth of my grandchildren (step-grandchildren, I suppose, but that still makes them mine); I see those grandchildren grow.
Then I lose wise mind, and I see Charles and David, confined to their beds, trapped in bodies which no longer work. I see their funerals before either has reached the age of 40. And then I see the same story yet again, the same tragedy, only it is the grandchildren; and on, and on, until I have to physically dig my nails into the flesh of my forearms to stop the vortex.
“Hey, guys…” I say hesitantly, new to parenting, new to grief. “Your mom…”
“Was very sick!” interrupts my husband, entering the kitchen. He shoots me a glare for mentioning her, then picks up his coffee and briefcase and lays his hand briefly on each of his son’s heads. “But your stepmother and I are healthy, and we will never leave you.”
“That’s right,” I agree, for lack of anything else to do. “We’re always here for you.”
Lunches are collected, and the bus is caught, and I wash the breakfast dishes, deep in thought. My feelings have now surpassed concern, or love, or personal opinion. Now, I feel an ethical obligation; I feel a moral duty. My sons need to know what killed their mother; they need to know before they plan for careers and mortgages before they procreate and unknowingly pass on a death sentence.
My phone beeps, interrupting this musing. It is Mark apologizing for his bad mood, for yelling at me, for making me feel inadequate. He is sorry, he texts, for disrespecting me as his co-parent.
There is a rush of love, of gratitude for this wonderful man – these wonderful children – choosing me. I was alone before; I was lonely. Now I am a vital part of a family, and I realize I also have an obligation to the integrity of this intimate unit.
The hours pass. I clean; I pay bills; I fold laundry. Mark calls, offering to stop by the store to pick up dinner ingredients. He tells me he loves me; that I am a wonderful wife and mother.
The boys return from school, bounding off the bus and bursting through the front door. I give snacks, exclaim over art projects, set them up at the table for homework. My husband texts, saying he was pulled into a meeting; he suggests ordering pizza and promises to be home soon.
The boys and I have dinner. We watch a show, and I draw a bath. The whole time, my emotional mind is focused on Huntingdon’s like a laser; it conjures up what I will wear to their viewings when I am an old lady with custody of their children. At the same time, my logical mind reflects on my husband, on our relationship. It remembers our courtship, our vows; it reminds me of orgasms and security and affection and a lifetime of tomorrows together.
I am torn between duty and respect, between love for my children and love for my husband, between all that is right and all that is easy. Just like Cassandra, I am doomed to know the future but never be heeded; I am the only one who knows what might actually come to pass. I cannot stand this dialectic of truth and falsehood, the conflict deep in my soul. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, like a cat pet the wrong way.
I tuck them both into bed, the door downstairs opening and closing as Mark returns. I hear him enter the kitchen, drop his briefcase, check the refrigerator.
I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.
I look at the sleepy children beneath their comforters; I think of my best friend downstairs.
“Boys…” I say weakly. “I…,” and I trail off as I realize I have no idea what to say next.
“Which came out of the open door – the lady or the tiger?”
Frank Stockton, 1882
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter.
My first memory is of a large white woman with bleach-blond curls, pale pink lips, and stained teeth saying: “Is that really your name?” Phil had left me behind at the store, again. By the time my dad came for me, I had had three chocolate milks and was playing with a litter of newborn kittens in the back. I can still picture his blue overcoat and apologetic expression towards the clerk.
As a precaution, all my clothes had our phone number sewn in the back. The line has long since been disconnected, but like a lapsed catholic, I was able to recite that 202-… phone number as if it were the Hail Mary.
My grandparents had owned a bar at some point; Grandma Nola would sit at the head of the counter and give out drinks to anyone she fancied. That was until the grandfather comes into the bar and instructed whoever was working that night to cut her off.
She got into debt after the grandfather died. My parents had forced her to sell all the memorabilia from the grandfather’s hay day as a semi-professional boxer and move into our house at 16th St Heights. On Sundays, I helped her cook breakfast; it was then that I learned that the trick to a good waffle is a little bit of bourbon. According to Nola, the trick to everything was a bit of bourbon.
When my dad’s mother died suddenly, my dad dropped everything and travelled back to Pittsburgh in order to sit shiva and make arrangements. We — my sister Bema, Phil (my mom was one of those do-not-call-me-mom-people), Nola and I — were supposed to join him the next day.
We only made it to a motel right outside of Germantown. Nola slept with the night manager in the room while Phil lay next to them in a catatonic state. Bema took a marker out of my bag and started to draw on Phil’s face. Vertical lines over her eyelids, long whiskers on her cheeks and a line from her nose to her mouth making her look like a cat.
I called the house till the answering machine was full. In order to eat, I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall across the street until I spotted a catalogue family and followed them into the convenience store. I made sure the person at the cash register saw me getting in with this nice-looking family and followed them while they got groceries. I had to fill my pockets with as much food as I could find without it being too obvious. Then walk out, trying to shield myself from view by hiding in the crowd. The spiel held up a couple of times; I just had to make sure it was a different person at the cash register before walking through the door.
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My sister had her first psychotic episode a few hours before my high school graduation party. Apparently, she had been spiralling at her menial job for some time, but her boss had assumed there was some trouble at home, and no one said a thing. She had gone to bed with a ‘migraine’ and fifteen minutes later appeared in the kitchen naked; my scarf wrapped around her head, chewing on a straw, red lipstick covering half of her chin as if she was a five-year-old playing dress-up.
“It’s really nice of them to throw a party for me, but I can’t handle it right now.”
No one reacted. Even Nola was dumbfounded. Bema kneeled down beside me, “they are throwing a party for me, isn’t it nice? Really…” under her breath, “nice” “It’s nnniiissséeeh” letting every single letter fill the room, bouncing off of the balloons, “But I can’t …. I can’t handle it right now.” Phil ushered Bema back upstairs. I could still hear her repeating the words to Phil as my Dad pushed two on the speed dial.
“Doctor, it is Yves Levin,” a beat. “No, my wife is fine, it is my oldest; I think she is having a psychosis” A pause “Yes, I know, doctor, but I’ve been through them all and think I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to these things….”
Nola shoved a glass of Dr. Pepper towards me. She knew that I didn’t like fizzy drinks but presented me with them whenever she thought social convention dictated the offering of a tasty beverage. I took a reluctant sip and noticed the warm aftertaste of bourbon. She had gotten into the liquor cabinet again and had given me her spiked Dr. Pepper can by mistake.
“I don’t care about protocol; I want her committed!” Dad yelled into the receiver before hanging up. He turned towards me, “we better cancel the party.”
From all our years of experience with Phil, my Dad and I had gotten the cancellation phone call down to a less-than-two-minute-conversation:
“Hi [insert name], it’s [insert own name]”
[Wait for response]
“Yes, I’m sorry, but we have to cancel [insert event].”
[Wait for response]
“Phil is not feeling too well, and we have to take care of her.”
[Wait for response]
“Thanks for offering, but we’ll be fine; we got it all under control. We’ll keep you posted if anything changes. Bye-bye.”
Nola, on the other hand, kept saying how awful the situation was for her. How she had lived through so many horrible things and how much she missed her husband. Did the person on the other line know how much she suffered when her dear husband Phil died? And when she had all those miscarriages? And when her son was stillborn? How much they wanted a son but ended up with a girl, her little Phil. O, her life had been so hard, she said. She ended up taking this poor person on the other end of the line hostage for a good 30 minutes and barely let them get a word in.
She was still talking when the doctor called my Dad on the other line to say that he could see my sister directly. I threw her stuff in a bag as my Dad got her dressed. We put her in the car, and Dad drove her to the clinic. She didn’t return to the house till three months later. The balloons from my cancelled graduation party were still dangling from the tree in the garden like dried grapes on a vine.
Dad made four serious attempts to divorce her; he moved into an apartment across town each time. Inevitably she would go off her medication, disappear into a manic phase followed by a long bout of not leaving the bed, and then my Dad got her back on her medication, after which he stated he would give up.
I asked him, after Phil succeeded in killing herself, why he kept coming back. He said, “it would have been cruel and unusual to leave such a sick woman out in the cold.” I asked, “who would have found it cruel and unusual, you or other people?” But he didn’t answer.
So after I moved out, he spent his days in a shed in the yard, a little stove for warmth in winter and my childhood bed tucked in the corner. He went up to the house three times a day to make sure the women there showered, ate and cleaned themselves.
During Phil’s funeral, Nola kept me prisoner talking loudly about every person there. “M-darling look, look over there, that woman has mosquito bites for tits.” She would laugh and point to Mrs. Johnson from down the street. I looked down in embarrassment.
“Here,” she said and handed me a nondescript bottle. “No thanks,” I said.
“But it will help you with the weight. You really look very plump today.” Tears started to well up, but I didn’t let her see them. I stopped talking to her after that day. She died not long after.
“My name is Monday Levin,” I used to mumble my first name under my breath, even tried to only go by ‘Levin’ for a while. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I will have the conversation head-on.
“Monday? Is that really your name?”
“Where you born on a Monday?”
“No, but my mom thought it was.”
“And no one corrected her?”
“She wouldn’t listen. It could have been worse; my sister is named Alabama because Phil decided to drive down to Alabama when her water broke. She never made it, had my sister in the car right off the I-95.”
LJ Kessels(she/her) is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. She has a MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and has worked for various (film) festivals, events, and whatchamacallits across Europe. Her work has previously been published in Bull & Cross, Stadtsprachen Magazin, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and more.
Tomorrow they will scrape and sell the last salt blocks, crusted on the volcanic crater called Aliapaʻakai. Sandwiched between sun and Pacific, the salt will be shipped abroad. No one on Oʻahu will smell the burning resin of trees, the briny smoke trailing from incense sticks.
But today, two sisters celebrate a new homecoming. They carry salt, red dirt, and a bird from Kauaʻi. Or they drop the items and scallop two craters: Aliamanu (salt-encrusted bird) and Aliapaʻakai (salt-encrusted lake). Two homes for two goddesses.
Tomorrow the Salt Lake community will learn that a town hall was held, approved by a majority. The lake will be sold and filled with a golf course, a country club.
But today, we celebrate the new high school opening up. We race our bikes along the lake’s snaked edges. We are invisible like the wind that scores lines on the lake, reminding me of my grandmother’s wrinkles.
Tomorrow 27,000 gallons of fuel will leak from the U.S. Navy’s tanks below Red Hill, which is adjacent to the now-filled Salt Lake. Nothing will be done to rectify or prevent it from happening again.
But today, we believe someone is looking out for us. Someone is doing the work for us as we reuse utensils, plate our tongues with inclusivity. We worry for our ageing kupuna, while the dying live on a different schedule than the workers.
Tomorrow Oʻahu’s main aquifer will be contaminated, a hundred feet below Red Hill. Over 400,000 residents, from Halawa to Maunalua, will receive an emergency text alert:
WATER QUALITY EMERGENCY FOR THIS AREA. All Oʻahu residents with medical conditions and children under age six should refrain from drinking tap water from their homes until further notice.
But today we hold our breath over water. We close our eyes, hold out for a different ending.
Shareen K. Murayamais a Japanese American, Okinawan American poet and educator. She’s a 2021 Best Microfiction winner as well as a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal. Her art is published or forthcoming in Pilgrimage Press, 433, MORIA, SWWIM Every Day, Juked, Bamboo Ridge, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram & Twitter.
Claire Marsdenenjoys writing poetry, CNF and flash fiction, and is thrilled many of her pieces have found wonderful homes, both in print and online. When she isn’t tramping through the West Yorkshire woods, she can usually be found squirrelled away writing or on Twitter.
Sometimes I wonder how little they knew of Jason. We were all friends, but did they really know him? Everyone saw the football star, the tough guy who knocked out Randy’s teeth in middle school for being an asshole and that buzzcut who walked down the hallways. Everyone saw these things, but did his friends really know him? I’ve known Brett and Brandon for 50 years, and they are smart guys, always have been, and I wonder if that was enough to put it all together.
Brett, Brandon and I all sit in this diner every morning and spit stories about the past, mostly about Boone’s farm and all those dares. I’m quieter than them, and I wonder if they think it’s because I can’t tell stories the way they can, but it’s mainly because I’m here thinking about who isn’t.
We have our time at the diner now, but back then, Jason and I were the only ones that really drank, and I had him over for beers on Friday nights to watch the game or sit on the porch. Most of the time, we just talked about Jordan, Magic and Bird. There were times others crept in, but that was our ritual during basketball season. We didn’t talk a lot about football, mainly because I didn’t know enough and he knew too much, but the night that stood out to me was a fall night in September, and neither sport crossed between us. I remember it because he’d gone through the Bud Lights a lot quicker than normal. He’d downed about four of them in the first hour as that sun began to sink behind those maples across the street. Normally, we were both good for about two beers or so an hour, but he was moving for some reason.
I remember looking over at him as he sat back in that rocker. His body had an extra layer of fat, but you could still tell he was a mass of muscle from all that weightlifting he did back in high school for football. His hair wasn’t buzzed anymore but straight razored instead. Jason was a calm guy when the two of us hung out, but I remember noticing how his feet were crossed, and they shook a little between rocking. He looked nervous tonight, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. The night was growing cool, but that’s normal for September in New England. He tipped the beer back, took a sip and placed it between his thighs. I remember a silence that lingered longer than it normally did between us. They always got filled with some off-center joke or a quick story about a girl he met at a bar that we were never introduced to, but tonight we could hear that breeze send whispers through the wind chime at the far end of the porch.
His voice finally touched the night air, after what seemed like twenty minutes, “you know, I think about that day a lot.” No one ever talked about that day. We all had regrets from what happened, and he had his secrets. We all remembered the dare and Boone’s strong arms pulling him toward that chicken coop. I remember the lingering time where we didn’t intervene with what was happening behind that closed door. Mostly, I remembered his scared eyes, his collar that hung loosely around his neck after Boone had dragged him by it and those two trenches cut by his feet toward the coop. I still wonder why we didn’t step in, but I was sure we didn’t want to become one of those famed stories that we all knew, even though that meant Jason would be one. Old man Boone’s truck finally rumbled up his driveway and backfired as it did, and Jason’s tear-soaked cheeks are burned in my memory as he fell out of that coop. We all wondered what happened, but he never told us.
“I do too.” I cut in, trying to let him know I was listening and sometimes thought about that day too.
“I wonder if it would all be different if I hadn’t taken that dare.” I saw him close his eyes for a moment, open them again and take another long gulp of beer. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m a little like that story we all remember. You know, the one with Eli and the hay bales.” My mind ran back to one of the stories about Boone’s farm. We all knew them, and he didn’t really need to elaborate. “You know,” he paused, took another sip and looked into the opening in the can. “You wanna hand me another one of those?” I reached over to the cooler, popped the lid open and handed him a fresh can. Chhhh. “Eli and me, we’re kinda similar in a way.”
“What do you mean?” All I could think about was the story about Eli and the one that happened to Jason, and really, they didn’t end the same way. My mind slid back for a moment to what I knew about Eli’s tale. It was similar in the sense that his friends had dared him to check out a piece of Boone’s property, but he was dared to enter that hay barn and bring back something that showed he was there, and Jason’s task wasn’t in a building. Eli entered and saw those stacks upon stacks of bales, dust hanging in the air like a low fog and suffocating him because the hay pulls any semblance of moisture out of it. I could imagine him looking around for some kind of object to prove he was there, taking in the enormity of that place. Jason’s task was a little easier in a way; he just needed to pull something from the back of that truck that was parked outside the barn. Both stories happened at different times, but both boys were jumped at that point in their story. Jason dragged to Boone’s chicken coop as we watched, feeling like helpless spectators, and Eli whacked with a rusty shovel by that same infamous man that haunts our town.
Jason interrupted the thoughts, “the isolation, I mean.” “You’re out, though!” My voice rose a little, and I saw him wince.
“It doesn’t feel that way. To be honest, I feel like Eli every day. I feel like I’m stuck in that coop with Boone, and I see those eyes under the low brim of his cap and those yellow teeth in a smirk. I remember his hands and feeling like the situation wouldn’t end. Sometimes it’s a little harder to take than others, and sometimes I feel like I need to get away.” In that moment, I wondered what wasn’t being said, what words he was holding on to that would have unravelled the rest of the story for me and helped me reach out a hand to respond to this beacon in the night, this indication that something still wasn’t right in Jason’s head.
I thought back to the relief we all felt when he was all right, alive at least. He went into that coop and came out, and that was what we saw; that was all he allowed us to see. Eli woke up gasping for air, seeing only the yellow spines of the hay bales bristling in all directions. The last thing he remembered was looking at that hay barn and thinking how vast it was. He felt his head pounding, thumping on those hay bales. He turned it to the right and saw hay, turned it left and saw it again. He couldn’t lift his body because the space was too tight, but he knew there was hay at his feet and hay behind his head. He was trapped on all sides, consumed by that stack of hay bales. There was a wetness under his head as he shifted it from side to side, and he realized that was where the pounding originated. We all knew the stories of the old farmer, and now Eli was sure he was in one. He could only imagine how he became trapped between those bales. Eli knew Boone had hit him with a blunt object that knocked him out and then stuffed his body in the stack of bales and stacked the others one by one around him.
The story goes that he remembered flits of those strong hands before being closed in, strong hands on his body and then those strong hands stacking the bales. He could imagine the constant smirk as Boone lifted bale after bale until he was no longer visible. I’m sure he felt that hay closing in, pressing him tighter and tighter. All the yells for help, but no other houses were within shouting distance, and the road was a country one that not a lot of cars had a reason to take. The way I heard the story, he pushes on those bales trying to get out, and he yells and yells, but no one hears him. We could all imagine how the story ends, and I still wonder if kids may have gone digging for him in those haystacks; maybe it became another dare associated with Boone’s farm. I wonder if Eli’s bones are still buried in that stack of hay or if the bales finally pressed in on him, and he became one of them, destined to feed the farm animals.
“It was terrible, and we all felt bad after that dare.” I didn’t know what else to say. We all did them; we all threw dares out and took them and succeeded or failed, but this one ended differently. It wasn’t like the silo for Brett or the concrete barn for Brandon. Jason was frozen in time, a relic of his younger self lost in the immense glacier that froze the moment in his mind and moved inch by inch closer to a place where he couldn’t come back.
“It’s not that. I just sometimes feel like I’m screaming in that stack of hay bales, you know?” I sat for a moment, thinking about this statement. He seemed like he wanted to help me along, “we’re not the smartest, not like Brandon or Brett, but I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately and how Eli was just yelling and trapped in that stack of hay. He had nowhere to go and nothing he could do. He was just trapped with his thoughts. No one could help him, and he was just waiting for it all to end.” He leaned back in the rocker and drank another long sip of the beer. He looked out across the road at those silent maples and didn’t say anything for a long time. I sat thinking about how to respond to that. We weren’t in there; we didn’t know what happened or what sort of thoughts were still stuck in his mind.
When I think back on Jason and all that he went through, I think the image of him in the porch rocker is the one that sticks with me. I no longer think of him as the linebacker or the enforcer; I think of him screaming silently in his head and waiting for someone to hear him or stitch him back up before it was too late. I know it’s one nobody else saw, but I think it was telling, even though I didn’t know it at the time. He was so silent after sharing that comparison, and I’m sure the connection between the stories ran deep. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have let him sit in that silence for as long as he did. If I could do it again, I would claw through those hay bales and pull out my friend who was screaming for help when no one was listening.
Matt McGuirkteaches high school English and laughs at his own puns by day, and scribbles stories at night. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Hampshire. Find his upcoming stories in Drunk Monkeys, Literally Stories, Sleet Magazine, The Dribble Drabble Review and Versification.Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.