Someone to Hold on to



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It was a Saturday morning. Ellie and Quinn were practicing their dance routine for an upcoming performance while I decided on a theme for my new scrapbook. Eric was out for a run, and Pepper dozed on the floor under my desk, unbothered by the sound of Hip Hop beating through the wall. The smell of breakfast sausage still lingered in the air; sticky syrup thickened on plates next to half-eaten French toast and blueberries. A load of laundry sloshed in the washer, a second load tumbling in the dryer. Dust from the week coated the top of every appliance, shelf, and windowsill. And laminate floors begged to be polished but not before we first indulged ourselves in the things we wanted to do. We’d give it a few more hours and then head out to the mall to pick up a very specific kind of glitter socks. Unable to pass on a Jamba Juice, we’d grab three to go on our way to the dance studio for one last formal practice.

I decided on a butterfly theme and began planning the layout, sinking happily into the process when the doorbell rang four times.

“Door,” Ellie yelled, turning down the music before racing down the hall to investigate.

“Are you expecting someone?” Quinn asked, running her hands through hair yet to be tamed by gel and sweet-smelling lotion.

“No,” I said, peeking through the peephole.

“Who is it?” Ellie asked as Quinn hurried into the kitchen to hide.

“It’s Grace,” I opened the door to greet her.

“Hey,” she blurted. “Can you help me with something?” she asked, bypassing the formalities.

“Uh,” I looked past her at the bicycle and attached trailer. “What do you have going on there?” I asked, stepping out onto the walkway.

“Chairs…I have to get them to the park,”

A pile of fold-up chairs was tied down with rope, their legs protruding over the end of the trailer.

“What’s going on at the park?” Ellie asked.

“It’s a big celebration,” Grace explained. “There’s going to be food and music,” she smiled, exposing nicotine-stained teeth, gaps where some had been pulled but not before causing incredible pain she dulled with Tylenols with codeine and Percocets she got from a friend.

“Why kind of event is it?” I pressed, looking closer at the rusted chairs, some covered in cobwebs.

“You guys should come,” Grace put her hands on her hips and looked at her bike and then back at me. “What do you say?”

“Which park are you going to?”

“The one by the boats,” she snapped her finger as if doing so would jar the name from her memory. “By the nice, old houses…the river” she slipped her hands into her front pockets and rocked on her heels.

“That’s pretty far,” Ellie chimed. “You’re riding your bike all the way there?”

Grace stopped rocking and bit the skin around her fingernails.

“I’ll take you,” I said. “Let me grab my keys.”

“What about the socks?” Ellie reminded. “And dance practice?”

“We’ll be back in time,” I promised.

I stepped back inside, slipping on a pair of shoes, grabbing my purse and phone.

“Mom,” Quinn approached. “I want to stay here,” she said, turning back to look at Grace who was eyeing my scrapbook.

“We can stay here and wait for dad,” Ellie offered. “He can take us to the mall.”

“I’ll text dad,” I said. “But I will be back in time.”

Grace followed me outside and we piled the chairs and her bike and trailer onto the truck bed.

“Ready?” I cheered, checking my phone to see who was calling. “Oh, one second,” I said before answering.

“Hello?”

My cousin, Janet, was on the other end, warning me that Grace was in town and had been to her house the day before with the same request to move chairs to the park.

“Oh, really?”

Janet went on, sharing her suspicions about Grace’s motivations. Convinced that the chairs must be stolen, she warned me not to get involved, to remember what happened last time.

“Gotcha,” I nodded. “Will do.”

But before I hung up, Janet reiterated her gripes about Grace, ones stemming from childhood, holidays, moments where her presence had been inconvenient.

“Thanks for letting me know, Janet,” I hung up and started the truck.

Grace put on her seatbelt and requested music.

“Turn it up,” she danced in the seat, humming along to a song she didn’t know.

She danced, and I drove, replaying Janet’s warning before dismissing it. Grace stared out the window excited to be going to the park, to be bringing chairs for her guests to sit. Before I had come to a full stop, she opened the door and hopped out, ready to clear the truck bed of her possessions. I helped her set up in a space overlooking the river.

“Is this good?” I asked.

“Yep,” she nodded, her smile big. “It’s perfect.”

“Who’s bringing the food?” I joked.

“Gabriel and Sally,” she assured. “Mary, Lena, Tom…”

“Oh, I see.”

“You guys should come and join us,” she offered again.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I better get back. We have some errands and dance practice a little later.”

“Cool,” she awed. “Tell the girls to come dance for us.”

“Have fun,” I said and left.

When I looked back, I saw her sitting by herself and wondered if people were really coming to sit next to her. Back in the car, I took another call from Janet who had, in the interim, figured out that I was with Grace.

“I can’t believe you,” she complained. “You know what she’s like…” she continued, retelling the same stories from earlier.

“All I did was give her a ride, Janet.”

“That’s enough,” she yelled. “You opened the door.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything is wrong,” Janet huffed. “Don’t think it’s a coincidence that she just showed up on Danny’s birthday…”

“Wait…it’s Danny’s birthday?” my grip on the steering wheel tightened.

“Don’t be fooled,” Janet warned, continuing her diatribe.

I headed east on Chester to the Lucky’s Supermarket. Inside I loaded my cart with pastries, cases of soda, and other snacks that could be poured onto disposable platters. I bought balloons, flowers, ice for a Styrofoam chest I kept in my backseat. And I drove back to the park, my intention to drop off the food and rally as many people as I could find to celebrate. But when I arrived, I didn’t see Grace, not right away. There were more chairs now, long tables piled high with chips and salads, marinated meats and veggie trays. People were sitting, standing, laughing, Grace in the center, celebrating life with those who had said yes to the invitation, who had agreed to be someone she could hold on to on a day marked with both joy and grief.

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Errand Girl

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During the middle of my senior year, amidst all the buzz about prom, college selections, summer plans, and ditch day, the company my mother worked downsized, and we packed as much as we could in my father’s rusted blue, ’67 Plymouth Belvedere, headed south to her hometown.

“What about the rest of the stuff?” I asked before my mother shut the front door.

“We’ll get new stuff,” she brightened. “New bedroom suites, a new dining room set, one of those recliner sofas,” she listed as if she were looking through the circulars in the Sunday paper.

“Why can’t we just get a moving truck and take the stuff we already have?” I challenged.

“Just get in the car,” she grumbled and walked away flustered.

“It’s a reasonable question, Alice,” I yelled before squeezing into the front seat, alongside knickknacks my mother couldn’t squeeze into the boxes loading down the trunk and backseat.

I scoffed, shoving dusty books, canned peanuts, bottles of scented lotion, an old tin can once home to Danish butter cookies now stuffed with rocks and seashells, a map, a half-empty Pepsi bottle, loose pens, and balled-up tissues to her side. When she returned, having dropped the apartment keys in the manager’s mail slot, she looked at the pile in her seat and slowly slid the items to the middle of the sun faded bench seat. She started the car, and we rode in silence, except for the steady rattle under the hood.

Two days later, we arrived in Orton, known for its Super Wal-Mart and generations of loyal residents. My Aunt Lorna had cleaned out her basement, at least she said she had, and that’s where we were supposed to live, but the mold and the lack of insulation made it impossible. After the first night, I slept on the floor in my cousin, Matilda’s room, and my mother slept in the den because Aunt Lorna’s friend, Cindy, and her children had already claimed the living room. Half of my mother’s pallet lay under the table, the other half reaching the edge of the carpet where the vinyl strip separated frayed fibers from checkered linoleum. Deep in the night, after all the chaos, the bickering, and the prayers we whispered into our pillows, sleep saved us, wrapped us in the kind of darkness sight couldn’t penetrate and pain couldn’t saturate.

Every morning I rode the bus to Orton High and spent my days there as an outsider. Cheerleaders and football players owned the halls, the marching band claimed the lawn, jocks lived on the quad, and the sewing club showcased their best work in the lobby. Friend groups were tightly formed. Prom dates had already decided their dress colors and tie patterns. Party invitations were in the mail. Careers had already been selected, college offers accepted. As quickly as I had arrived, I slipped away unnoticed. Maybe my mother didn’t know. Maybe she did but was too tired to deal with me and her job at the factory.

I left the house at the same time, accepted bus fare and an awkward hug that proved we had forgotten how to love each other. It was on the job board at the Shop & Go market that I found a job as an Errand Girl. The position sounded simple enough: I’d run errands for a woman who spent most of her time inside and save my money until I had enough to get back home.

Corrine Lewis lived in a brick house with garden windows. In each were small pots with seasonal flowers crawling down the sides. The rest of the house was pristine. Plastic-covered furniture decorated the living room. Magazines with glossy covers were stacked on the coffee table. They lay unread, untouched because she didn’t want to ruin them with creases. A white, lace cloth covered an oval-shaped table, matching chairs placed perfectly.

“I need you to run me to the market, to doctors’ appointments, to the pharmacy, to the post office…” she started listing before I had even sat down and introduced myself.

Most times she was with me, riding shotgun as I drove her from one place to the next. But sometimes it was just me, cruising around town picking up flowers for her garden, decorative rocks she’d have me place in one area only to move them to a completely different space. If I was late getting back, having stopped off for a soda, she reminded me that I was on her time.

“Yes, ma’am,” I cowered. Her 4-foot frame was propped up with a cane, but her presence was overpowering.

She paid me $150 a week, and I saved the money in an envelope I hid in my mother’ s copy of The Odyssey. On the days I returned late, well after the end of a school day, it didn’t matter because those were also the days my mother picked up an extra shift. Eventually, I started asking Corrine for extra work because it meant I would be out of the house for longer and I wouldn’t have to wade through the anger that erupted in the early evening.

“Let’s go for a drive,” Corrine said in response to my request. “Let the wind blow through our hair.”

She guided us to places she knew well. We didn’t get out of the car; I just parked, and she talked, the same sternness in her voice, but now with a hint of sweetness since we were off the clock. Every place we went had a long story attached to it, lessons in hard work, kindness, forgiveness. I listened, recognizing myself in the larger themes. She collected happy times and presented them proudly but hid sadness behind strength.

“The things I’d do all over, if I could,” she sighed.

“Would you have kids?” I asked shyly.

“I have kids,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged and fiddled with her rings. “I wish I knew.”

“What happened?” I asked, ready to take back the question if it stirred her the wrong way.

“I didn’t finish what I started,” she began, and I wondered if she knew I had been skipping school. “When they were babies, I loved them so hard,” she smiled. “And then…” she paused.

We sat in front of the home she once lived, almost fifty miles from where we had started. A cool breeze blew through the windows, the setting sun casting a darkness over us.

“If your mother loves you, love her back,” she advised as a man opened the front door of the home and peered out. “Let’s go now,” she lowered her head.

I started the car and drove. When I looked over at Corrine, her cheeks were wet, her small frame now somehow smaller, it seemed. The wind whipped against the car, the only sound between us as we wrestled with the versions of ourselves that had led us into despair.

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Safe

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By the time we got to Shadow Lake, my grip on Ivy’s hand had loosened. Her head bobbed with the sway of the truck as Kenny drove us up the mountain to the place we’d live until our memories of the life we knew faded like apparitions in the presence of a priest. The sound of tires gripping the road and the truck bed squeaking had stirred me from a fitful sleep, a dream where we were running through a fiery corn maze, long, leafy stalks diving towards us, orange swords we ducked and dodged.

“Are you okay back there?” Priscilla asked, her tone concerned, with a hint of pity, understandably.

I nodded and watched Ivy’s face muscles twitch. On the floor under her feet was the brown, teddy bear she named Kat.

“We’re almost there,” Kenny said, assuring us that the six-hour drive had not been in vain.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Priscilla pointed at the trees, a dense forest home to animals I didn’t want to come face to face with, at the lake, its eerie stillness.

“It’s nice,” I obliged.

The enormity of it all felt suffocating though the air was crisp. Rugged mountains loomed, snow softening sharp ridges. Faint sounds tickled our ears the way sweet berries awakened tastebuds. Kenny followed the bumpy path to a large lodge and parked the truck. He took a deep breath and then exhaled, taking off his seatbelt as he opened the door.

“What do you think?” he pointed at the wood-framed structure, its windows big, revealing.

“Aren’t we supposed to be hiding?” I asked.

“We’re safe here,” he turned to face me, his tone serious. “All of that stuff,” his hands danced in the air. “It doesn’t exist here.”

I nodded and unbuckled Ivy’s seatbelt. She stirred and leapt up, gripping the arms of her booster seat as she looked around at the unfamiliar terrain.

“We made it,” I rubbed her back. “Let’s get out and take a look around.”

Kenny and Priscilla walked ahead a bit letting their childhood memories of the place guide them along the walkway, up the stairs, and into a roomy foyer, what used to be the check-in area for hunters, I imagined. The floor was marred where there had been furniture, long scrapes and scratches, dusty wood that was once shiny.

“Wait until you see the kitchen,” Priscilla motioned for us to follow her down a long hall and through a set of double doors into an industrial-sized kitchen. “The meals we can cook in here,” she jeered.

“There’s just three of us,” I reminded, opening ovens and stove tops.

“Everything works,” Kenny nodded. “Let’s go see the rooms, shall we?”

A long banister with small chips in the wood framed a ladder-styled staircase. On either side was a row of rooms, the doors wedged shut over time, cobwebs draping the frames. The smell of aged cedar hung in the air. Musty sheets covered furniture–full-sized beds with long posts and tall headboards; long dressers with attached mirrors; small bathrooms with standalone showers; and windows overlooking the forest.

“This doesn’t give hunter vibes,” I said when Priscilla pulled the sheet off of an antique clock.

“Hunter vibes?” she laughed.

“Didn’t you and Kenny come here with your dad?” I asked. “To hunt?”

“Not exactly,” Priscilla kept laughing, ignoring Kenny’s ominous stares.

“I thought you said…” I started and Kenny took Ivy out of my arms. “This wasn’t a hunting lodge?”

“Not solely,” he explained. “Let me show you where we’ll be sleeping,” he led us to a large room the size of a small apartment that looked to have already once housed a family. A king-sized bed faced the window, a twin-sized bed lined the adjacent wall joined by an armchair, and a tarnished crib still with the bedding of the previous user had been placed in the corner. There was a bathroom with a shower and a tub, a vanity, a walk-in closet, space to play, lots of space to play, to watch, to wait.

“We won’t be needing this,” I attempted to move the crib.

“Don’t worry about that,” Kenny said. “I’ll get it later…why don’t you and Ivy get settled in, and Priscilla and I will got get the stuff.”

“Sounds good,” I said, looking forward to cleaning the place, making it ours.

Ivy jumped on the bed while Kenny and Priscilla unloaded the truck. One by one they filled the room with boxes of clothes, necessities, things that reminded us of home. I began wiping surfaces, organizing clothes in drawers, shoes in the closet.

“Mommy, it stinks in here,” Ivy complained, sliding off the bed.

“No one has lived here in a while,” I explained, the words sliding across my tongue like lies. “Let’s open the window,” she followed, patiently awaiting fresh air.

I pushed and pulled the lever, but it didn’t budge so I turned my focus to the cobwebs and the corpses of bugs and spiders.

“It’s a mess,” I said as Priscilla walked in carrying a box of Ivy’s toys.

“Look what I found,” she sang, letting the box slide to the floor in front of Ivy. “When did you get all of these toys?” she asked, rustling Ivy’s hair before heading back downstairs.

“Hey, can you tell Kenny, the window is stuck?”

“Uh…sure,” she smiled and slapped the door frame.

Ivy played with her toys on the floor, and I went inside the bathroom. I cleared the medicine cabinet of expired aspirin, bandages, and a small jar of baby teeth.

“Mommy,” Ivy screamed as she ran into the bathroom.

“What it is, sweetie?”

“There’s something under the bed,” she cried.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” I walked her back into the room. “Let me see,” I got on the floor and lifted the bedspread.

A plate of moldy food stared back at me. I gasped, glad it was just moldy food, but concerned that there was moldy food in the room, a sign we weren’t alone.

“Kenny,” I yelled, but Priscilla appeared.

“Hey,” she placed a box of photo albums and personal papers on the bed. “What’s up?”

“This was under the bed,” I pointed at the plate. “There was someone here,” I began, looking around the room.

“Lots of people were here,” Priscilla acknowledged.

“Something feels off though,” I said.

“After everything…you just need time to get adjusted,” she smiled and left.

Ivy went back to playing, the sweet sounds of her imagination calming. I pulled the bedding off what would be her bed, and in the process of examining the mattress that lay exposed, I bumped into the armchair, exposing what looked like a small cabinet built into the wall.

“What’s that, mommy?” Ivy dropped her dolls to see what I was doing.

“I’m not sure,” I said, maintaining a curious tone to mask the uncertainty building in my chest.

I cracked open the door and stared into the empty space.

“You found it,” Kenny said, setting the snack bag on the chair.

“What is it?” I asked, stepping back and forcing a smile.

“A dumbwaiter,” he laughed.

“Really,” I laughed, the tension in my jaw lifting.

“What is a dumbwaiter? Ivy asked.

Kenny explained and offered to show her how it worked.

“I’ll go downstairs and send something to you,” he said. “What should I send you?”

“Cake,” she squealed.

“I’ll see what I can find,” he tickled her and then stood to face me.

“This room needs a lot of work,” I complained, wiping the sweat beads on my forehead. “I couldn’t get the window open; there was food under the bed and who knows what else,” I pointed at the plate. “And we need to wash the bedding…”

“We will get all done. I promise,” he pulled me in for a hug. “I have an idea,” he kissed the top of my head. “Why don’t I make us some food and we can relax for a while?”

“Yes,” I agreed, letting my shoulders slump as I followed him towards the door.

“Do you want to see how the dumbwaiter works now or later?” he asked Ivy.

“Now,” she jumped up and down.

“Okay, stay here and I’ll send something,” he winked and closed the door.

Ivy stood in front of the dumb waiter, dancing, fidgeting, waiting for something to appear. I don’t know how long we stood there, maybe five minutes, maybe ten, before a sinking feeling came over me. I walked to the door, quietly, careful not to disturb Ivy’s excitement, and even before I reached for the knob, I knew it would not open.

“We’re safe. We’re safe. We’re safe. We’re safe,” I repeated in my mind, looking around the room at all the boxes, the furniture that had been used and then covered, preserved for the next set of guests who’d spend their days in the wild, their nights secluded in rooms that smelled of cedar logs. But what if now there were only nights and the protection we sought turned out to be scarier than any ghost of the past?

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In the Silence

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Grades were submitted just in time, scores measuring ability, effort, lack of interest. Students lay in wait, fingers crossed; their minds scrutinizing every bubble they shaded, every short answer they wrote on thin, college-ruled paper. They replayed positive affirmations, practiced law of attraction, prayed as they never had before that they might be granted permission to pass through the shiny gates of academia. And graduation went off without a hitch for some, the usual pomp and circumstance, speeches to inspire, stadiums half filled with family and friends screaming their hearts out. Others wrote frantic emails, each time-stamped correspondence stained with cries for help, compassion, and they waited in silence for responses that never came as the halls thinned and their professors left for the summer.

SUVs, RVs, and Caravans were loaded with camping gear, beach toys, gifts for grandparents who waited all year to visit with grandchildren who were now taller, older, wiser. They set out on carefully planned adventures, filling cabins with laughter, love. Unfamiliar cities became a home away from home, wrong turns opportunities for exploration. Miles of wilderness offered a wide net of protection, the threat of peril always lurking. Quaint towns overlooking the ocean welcomed visitors inside small shops whose shelves were lined with ceramic whales and turtles, whose racks wobbled with postcards begging to be mailed across the country, messengers of beauty. Late nights brought crammed quarters inside four-star hotels made for the kind of closeness that felt uncomfortable at first, but in the quiet it became a nagging reminder of what was missing.

Backyard barbeques were in full force; smoke rising from gas grills, beef patties, hot dogs, and shish kebabs sizzling. Music played through small, powerful speakers. Dominoes slammed against weathered card tables. Loud conversations between old friends overlapped. Ripples danced across swimming pools, children in Baby Shark swimwear jumping and splashing. Surprise visitors who had travelled from far away brought unsuspecting family members to tears. And memory unfolded into neat, manageable pieces, too small to fret, too large to forget. But carefully woven into the silences was the noisiness of mourning, the shrieks of strangers whose lives were crumbling while the world observed their disaster, absorbed their pain.

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Along the Redwood Maze

Tucked between a bustling city and the foamy shore of the Pacific Ocean, lies a ten-mile stretch of redwood trees whose long trunks and weepy branches wall us inside a maze of sharp and wide turns, shadows and sunny peaks. Fern and Sorrel sprout wildly between the giant trees, shielding banana slugs, caterpillars, and beetles with their leafy arms. Clusters of Hoppy and Larkspur interrupt shades of green, flashes of color that startle our eyes. Earthy smells lay on top of the cool air, hints of Geranium, moss.

Homes hidden behind Huckleberry and Hemlock go mostly unnoticed compared to their counterparts built on cliffs, charming onlookers with their rustic siding and bay windows. Sleepy creeks stand still, a silent ecosystem that shrinks and swells from one season to the next. And quaint shops on narrow roads compliment the small-town feel, embracing a “take your time” attitude, while out-of-towners whizz along the winding highway, ready for a day at the beach chasing waves and soaking up the sun.

They befriend danger, steering sedans and SUVs down the hill towards surf shops and seafood restaurants, hotels and hostels, funnel cake drenched in chocolate sauce and flimsy trinkets displayed on vendor tables, contraptions spinning and rumbling on tracks and pulleys and confection candies dyed bright colors decorating glass cases. Passengers hold on tight to armrests, their restless sighs exchanged for “almost there” banter, the anticipation of arriving like electricity pulsing through their veins. But in the moments when traffic slowed and the cinnamon-colored giants became more visible, their strength felt even more majestic as they whispered their truths into the air, and we paused to hear them.

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Think of Me

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It was a Wednesday evening, the sun heading west, leaving behind thick clouds filled with darkness. Freddie’s mother stood on the porch, yelling and waving wildly at the chickens that had escaped the coop.

“Get that one,” she directed. “Hurry up…”

“I’m trying,” I shouted back at her, just missing the lackadaisical Leghorn that sped up as I reached for her. “You could help,” I suggested.

“I’ll help,” Elijah said, weaving his ATV around the chickens, exciting them even more.

“Elijah,” I shouted over the noisy vehicle.

He gave me a sneaky smile as he rode out into the field, miles of green grass that would soon be home to Jersey cows we’d feed, milk, and slaughter, and somewhere in between we might form unexpected bonds to one or two of the massive creatures, growing sad in their absence. Freddie stood up and took a step towards the edge of the porch but decided against chasing chickens and instead chose to join his father who had taken a break from working on his truck to laugh at my error.

“That latch is tricky,” Freddie’s father teased.

“She’s really forgetful these days,” I heard Freddie tell his father. “Really forgetful,” he continued, leaning against the driver’s side door of the baby blue truck.

Under their gaze, I managed to rally the chickens back into the coop, a rainbow of white, gold, red, and black-colored feathers littering the ground. Freddie’s mother’s crumpled face relaxed; she let her arms hang at her sides, but her disdain for me still burned in her chest. I sat on the top step next to her and fanned myself with a Church of God fan, the cardboard bent and flabby, barely resembling the last supper anymore.

“You should get inside and start dinner,” Freddie’s mother mumbled, looking down at me, her eyes scrutinizing the loose hairs that had escaped my ponytail, moving swiftly to my swollen belly, scoffing at the 6 months I had already stolen from her son’s life. “Don’t forget to wash the beans this time,” she began, interrupted by the shiny, black car slowing in front of the gate.

We stared at the black tinted windows, squinting until the passenger door opened and a woman stepped out in a flowy summer dress, its colors vibrant, its sleeves short, its skirt landing just above her knees. She strolled the fifty-yard dirt path with a knapsack on her shoulder, her gate jaunty, unencumbered. Freddie’s mother adjusted the bobby pins in her hair, smoothed the wrinkles in her housedress. Elijah parked his ATV and killed the motor. Freddie and his father stepped away from the truck to get a better look at the beautiful woman approaching. I stood up and moved towards the front door, hoping to disappear before anyone noticed.

“Rae,” the woman called. “Wait,” she quickened her pace.

I turned to face her, clasped my hands in front of me.

“Oh,” Freddie’s mother dismissed the stranger she now recognized as my sister, Ella. “It’s her.”

“Hey,” my sister adjusted her knapsack, items bulging, poking out the top. “I just wanted…” she stopped, a few feet from the front steps.

“You should leave,” I said.

“My thoughts exactly,” Freddie’s mother stood holding the screen door open. “Come on,” she beckoned.

“Wait…” Ella rushed up the steps. “I know I’m the last person you want to see, but I…” she paused, put her hand to her mouth.

“What, girl?” Freddie’s mother pressed.

“I got you something,” Ella blurted, letting her knapsack slide down her arm.

She bent down and wriggled a stack of folded fabric, prints and solids in the same bright colors she wore.

“And,” she looked up at my face to gauge my interest. “I got you this too,” she held up handmade jewelry, small perfume bottles, and several silk scarves. “And…” she looked at me again, her eyes big with hope. “This,” she pulled out several air-sealed bags containing onesies and jumpers, booties and binkies, cardigans and sleepers, small stuffed animals waiting to be hugged, chewed.

“No, I can’t,” I refused the items.

“I want you to have them,” Ella insisted.

“You should keep this stuff,” I let my hand glide across one of the bags. “Make a memory chest or something…”

“I don’t need these things to remember him,” Ella assured.

Freddie’s mother opened the front door and ushered us inside, relieving Ella of the fabric and scarves. We sat around the kitchen table sifting quietly through the stuff until Freddie’s mother brought us each a glass of ice-cold lemonade.

“Why didn’t you let me see you that night?” I asked, my voice shaky.

“I didn’t know how,” Ella started.

“Did you tell Steven not to let me in?”

She nodded and reached across the table for my hand, but I pulled away.

“But you let Evelyn in…and Savannah…and Maribel?” I asked, drawing circles on the wood with my fingers.

“They’re my friends,” she explained.

“I’m your sister,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she began organizing the baby clothes. “I just couldn’t.”

“Well, then I can’t accept this stuff,” I picked up a knitted pair of booties and threw them at her.

Freddie’s mother threw me a glance and cleared her throat as she added beans to a boiling pot of water.

“So, I actually came to tell you that we’re moving,” Ella pushed the clothes to the side, setting the booties on top. “To Pleasanton.”

“That’s nice,” I shrugged, but my heart sunk.

“I just wanted you to know, in case…” she took a sip of her lemonade and stared out the window at Elijah riding his ATV in circles. “I better get going,” she stood and swung the empty knapsack over her shoulder.

“Leaving so soon,” Freddie’s mother wiped her hands on her apron and began collecting the gifts into a flimsy laundry basket.

“Maybe you and Freddie can come for a visit sometime,” Ella said, making her way to the front door.

I watched her walk towards the shiny, black car, her gate slow, weighed down by disappointment.

“Think of me,” she said, turning around midway, making one last attempt to reach me.

But I was unreachable, standing firm in shame, holding tight to a wound that wasn’t mine.

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Into the City

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The sounds of Friday afternoon rippled through the streets, offices thinning as workers left behind long to-do lists on desks buried under files and sticky notes, shedding their ties and jackets, exchanging briefcases for backpacks, florescent bulbs for sunlight. They walked briskly to parking garages around the corner and hopped on rickety elevators, getting out to find their cars along dimly lit rows, every step echoing until they reached light and dark-colored sedans. Ready for the weekend, they swerved and sputtered around tight corners, rolling towards the gate two, three, or four levels down where they handed tickets to the attendant and paid their fees or waited for their FasTrak devices to beep, turning left toward freedom.

Commuters jammed freeways and onramps, locals hopped on public transit headed home, and event goers arrived early enough to eat dinner at quaint restaurants not too far from the venue, hopeful that floor seats meant their admiration would be noticed, seen. Bicyclists commanded the road, travelling in long lines past restored Victorians up and down hilly paths, around construction zones and pedestrians. Delivery drivers double-parked in front of corporate buildings, emptying their trucks of long-awaited packages. They stacked boxes on dollies, chatted with managers who scribbled their signatures, and then moved on to their next stop, inching closer to the end of the day when they’d drive across the bridge and claim the night.

Doctors dismissed patients with prescriptions and good news to share. College students lay on blankets, reading Kafka, debating existence, or just people watching while the sun slid behind the skyline. And museums let in the last visitors for the day, announcing closing times over intercoms, promising to reopen the next day for another journey through history–exhibits showcasing stone sculptures, still life paintings, and modern art that redefined beauty, that embraced counterculture, with Kerouac at the center still beating heart into the city, wedging wonder into the mind.

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Breathtaking

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When my mother honored the visitation agreement, she picked me up after school in a rented car, parking haphazardly in the bus zone with her emergency lights flashing.

“Call me if you need anything,” my grandmother’s words ran through my mind as I opened the door and slid in next to her. She stared at me through big sunglasses, her eyes searching every inch of me.

“You sure are getting big,” she said and sped away, ignoring the punitive shouts and gestures of parents and school staff. “How was school?”

“Good,” I cracked my window. “It was a minimum day.”

“I know. That’s why I’m here,” she winked. “How’s cranky Mr. Stewart?” she jeered.

“I don’t know,” I watched her face, the fine creases in her skin as she laughed. “He was my teacher last year.”

“I know…I know, I just thought you might see him from time to time,” her expression went flat, both hands gripping the steering wheel.

She turned on the radio to fill the silence and succumbed to an anxiety-driven, fidget frenzy, rolling all of the windows down, opening the sunroof, racing through the preprogrammed radio stations, and finally settling on one with an angry host shouting at his guests.

“He’s right you know,” she barked, a segue into her own diatribe laced with logical fallacies and emotions rooted in the parts of her life I knew nothing about except that they functioned like quicksand, keeping her stuck, fragmented.

After forty-five minutes of her critiquing the government and the fate of humanity, which included a somber forewarning to bad parents, ironically, we arrived at Lupe’s, a small restaurant on the west end that overlooked the water. She ordered appetizers and a margarita for herself, nachos with chicken for me, a pitcher of water to wash it all down because she said I looked dehydrated. I told her about my science project, how I had won second place, and she asked about dad’s love life. I updated her on my friend Sophia’s cancer diagnosis, and she bragged about the diamond necklace she found on consignment. I showed her pictures from my gymnastics tournament, and she licked the salt on the edge of her glass. I let her know that I’d be getting braces soon, that I was nervous, and she said braces were unattractive.

We nibbled on our food, watched the families around us enjoy their meals. And then we were back in the car, the sun still bright, burning our arms; the mountains in the distance framing our view, spring flowers patches of color we passed, blurry but beautiful.

“I want to show you something,” my mother giggled, switching lanes so that we were headed towards the toll bridge.

“What is it?” I squeezed the armrest as she sped past a long line of diesel trucks.

“You’re going to love it,” she assured.

She paid the toll with a handful of quarters, humming Fly Me to the Moon.

“I know which room will be yours,” she grew more excited the closer we got to the quaint, cottage-style house.

“You bought a house?” I sat up straight.

She sat with a big grin on her face, weaving her way into the neighborhood, down long well-manicured streets with tall trees, decorative rocks and stones, turtles and gnomes. A for-sale sign stood on the edge of the property, a smiling woman dressed in a black suit promising the best deal in town. People entered with inquisitive brows and left with paperwork and hopeful spirits. My mother awed at the cabinetry, crown molding, original hardwood floors that shined. We imagined how we’d fill closet space, arrange furniture we’d have delivered, the direction our beds would face, what we’d do on the weekends with all the time we’d have together.

“I’ll make some popcorn, and we’ll cozy up on the couch and watch movies all night,” she delighted.

“And ice cream sundaes,” I added.

“And pizza…”

“Soda…”

“Wings…”

People talked pre-approval letters and down payments, warranties and interest rates, maneuvering around us like we were decorative pieces.

“Wait…where’s our letter?” I asked.

“I forgot it at home,” my mother said, shrugging apologetically.

“Let’s go get it…”

“There isn’t enough time,” she explained, smiling at the realtor.

“I can take your information,” the woman from the picture offered. “This is a wonderful family home,” she smiled at me.

“I’m looking at a few other properties,” my mother said. “Do you have a card?”

The card lay on the console, a symbol of our resentment for each other. She drove us out of the neighborhood, back across the bridge through the heavy evening traffic, into the city, tall buildings welcoming me home.

“Are you going to call the lady?” I asked, opening my door.

“I’ll try,” my mother blushed, and I leaned in for a hug, squeezing her tight, reaching for the part of her I could hold, the part that needed to be held.

“That’s enough,” she pulled away, looking down at the dashboard. “I’ll see ya next time.”

For a moment I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. And then the shadowy figure in the walkway approached, illuminated by the streetlights.

“Leah,” my grandmother called. “Come inside now.”

I grabbed my backpack, closed the door, and walked towards my grandmother, the urge to look back tempting, even though doing so would only bring more longing, more loose ends I’d have to cut, burn.

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A Temporary Haven

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The sound of meat sizzling in the pan and all the sweet, Sunday breakfast smells drew us from our rooms like zombies to a noisy crowd. Still in our robes and slippers, we slid into high-backed chairs, sitting with our elbows on the table, the wood bruised with eraser marks, scratches, burns made by the children who had once sat in our place. Sleepy gazes fell on the growing pile of turkey sausage, the waffles perfectly square and lightly buttered. Fresh fruit lay chopped and cubed in Tupperware. A large plate of scrambled eggs was safe under tin foil, a smaller plate with just egg whites next to it. And a gallon of 2% milk chilled in the refrigerator, ready to be sipped, slurped, spilled by clumsy hands, spit out from laughing too hard.

“Go wash up,” Jack said, tossing a towel over his shoulder. “It’s almost ready,” he rustled our hair as we stumbled away, pulled us close to kiss our foreheads, his beard scratchy smelling of hemp and lavender.

One by one we moseyed to the bathroom, piling in until we were shoulder to shoulder, Bobby standing on the toilet, Cameron on the counter. We wiped the sleep from our eyes, brushed our teeth with strawberry flavored toothpaste, and fought our way out the door, leaving Julia behind to clean up the water pooling on the floor.

Jack had set the table and filled our cups with milk; he had placed our favorite silverware on leftover napkins from Christopher’s Transformers themed birthday party, next to the pink plates from Annie’s party the following weekend when she turned eight too, and he had organized the food in the center of the table. Bobby climbed into his booster seat. Cameron extended her arms for someone to put her into her highchair, a low whimper in her throat. Annie and Jacob plopped into their seats, staking their claim to the waffles they wanted.

“I want that one,” Jacob pointed at a waffle near the bottom of the stack.

“No, that’s the one I want,” Annie defended. “I saw it first.”

“They all taste the same,” Jack assured, making his way around the table, pushing our chairs in until our chests touched the edge.

Christopher sat shyly at the end of the table just watching everyone. Julia tied a bib around Cameron’s neck and then sat next to me, her body towering mine though we were just six months apart. Jack scooped eggs onto our plates, gave us one waffle to start with fruit on top or on the side. He made sure Annie’s food didn’t touch, gave Bobby egg whites only, kept Christopher’s plate sausage free, and served only real maple syrup because Julia preferred it over the fake stuff.

He stepped back and listened to the smacking, the sounds of satisfaction, comfort. While we ate, he cleaned, putting extra ingredients away, rearranging items in the cabinets, rinsing dishes and stacking them in the sink. He hummed, lost in thought, water rushing out of the faucet.

The mid-morning sun lit his face as he stared out into the yard. And I watched in admiration, my eyes welling.

“I see you,” he said, catching my gaze. “What are you doing over there?”

“Nothing…”

“Nothing?” he asked.

My face crumpled, and my body began to shake.

“Come here,” he bent down and reached for me. “You’re okay.”

I collapsed in his arms, overwhelmed by his kindness, the promise he had made to keep our bellies full, our hearts safe: a temporary haven we’d never forget.

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Small Familiar Spaces

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Mateo left home at 5:30am in steel boots, toting a 49ers lunch bag, grumbling his disappointment at the lumpy mass moving under the blankets on the couch.

“You’re still here,” he reminded and took a noisy sip of coffee. “But you’re leaving tomorrow, right?” he grabbed a pillow that had fallen on the floor and swung, hitting my feet.

“Just one more day,” I mumbled, poking my head from under the blanket.

“Can I get that in writing?” he opened the front door and turned, only to find me feigning sleep, snoring wildly.

“You better not be here when I get home,” he closed the door, and I listened to his steps fade as he trudged along the wood planks.

It would be another hour before Skylar and Ruby woke, starting their day with pre-teen angst and a chaotic search for missing homework pages, shoes, the one bracelet or headband they didn’t dare step onto school grounds without. Once they were fed and dressed, Laura sweetly nagged them all the way to the car with me trailing behind in a wrinkled sweatshirt, Hawaiian shorts, flip flops, and a Bohemian-print bag on my shoulder.

“Aunt Lilly,” Ruby paused before getting into the car. “You wore that yesterday.”

“Thanks for noticing,” I laughed.

“Ruby…” Skylar reprimanded her sister. “She’s doing the best she can,” she waited for Ruby to scoot to the other side. “That’s what mom said,” she assured, Laura glancing at me, offering a shrug.

Jefferson Elementary was our first stop, the girls in the back chatting, Laura tuned in to the Morning Crew on 102.5 so much so that she almost missed the turn. Skylar and Ruby exited happily, not bothering to look back. Next was the hospital where, for 8 hours, Laura would be the bearer of bad news, sending hefty bills to patients who had endured complicated procedures and suffered the wrath of gnarly diseases. She parked, took a deep breath as she removed her work badge hanging from the rearview mirror, grabbed her purse, and walked slowly towards the entrance.

“Have a good day,” I yelled as I walked around to the driver’s seat.

“Oh, you too,” she snarked.

I drove to the nearest coffee shop, treated myself to a large espresso and drank it in the parking lot, watching the morning crowd wait in anticipation while machines whirled and baristas topped cups with whipped cream, substituted whole milk with nonfat, soy, or oat; smiled through conversations with cranky customers who visited their frustration on people who made coffee by day and took classes at night. The sun still hung in its eastern nook, its rays warming the cool spring air. Flowers in bloom decorated brick planters. Baby trees leaned against wooden stakes, their limbs still bare. Retired neighbors and morning joggers arrived with dogs on retractable leashes, babies tucked snuggly inside strollers. Early risers sat around square tables, steam rising from cups made of recycled materials. They contemplated the state of the world with dear friends, leaning back in metal-framed chairs with their legs crossed to better digest each other’s point of view.

As part of my routine, I unzipped my bag and pulled from it an 8×5 notebook, a spotted owl gracing the cover, its pages thick, sewn down the center, home to words that spilled slowly onto the lines, capturing my current mood. They were syllabic snapshots I reread before pressing my gel pen into the paper and weaving more meaning into the fibers, a slow dance with desire, a debate with time: should I stay, or should I go? I weighed the pros and cons, searched the corners of my mind, measured the beat of my heart, while unanswered messages from known senders prodded, pleaded for my alliance, recounting years of memories to hold me hostage. But each time I came close to staying, on the verge of returning to small familiar spaces, where I’d fold myself into a neat little box, I wondered what it would be like to escape, to exist differently in the world.

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Take My Hand

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Two days before my Aunt June’s guests arrived, our neighbor, Mr. Landry, joined by his buddy, Duke, drove us to Canton to do a little shopping. He gladly waited for Aunt June to find just the right fabric for a new tablecloth and curtains, to haggle fast-talking salesmen, and turn her nose up at subpar goods. They all obliged her, the woman who wore white, laced gloves everywhere she went, and me, her mysterious sidekick with the blurred face.

When she was ready to go, Mr. Landry pulled the truck around to the front and loaded the bags. Duke’s chain rattled on the floor of the truck bed when he moved from side to side, barking at the wind as we cruised along the narrow, blacktop roads that stretched from town almost all the way home, the dingy white farmhouse at the end of Vernon Street, a bumpy dirt road the city refused to pave. Aunt June talked Mr. Landry’s ear off about her guests.

“I can’t believe they’re coming…” she said, her excitement lost in the sternness of her voice. “I can’t believe they found me here,” her voice trailed.

Mr. Landry nodded and took his hands off the steering wheel long enough to light a cigarette and blow the smoke out the window. I sat between them, cradling a carton of brown eggs and bloody lamb chops wrapped in plastic I feared I would puncture. Each time the truck slowed, Duke stuck his head through the back window, sniffed my hair and licked my ears.

“He likes you,” Mr. Landry laughed as I tried to wriggle out of Duke’s reach.

Aunt June recited the menu, her plans for the friends she hadn’t seen since college. Mr. Landry and I listened, chiming in occasionally with a “that sounds nice.” But on Canal Street we all fell silent, our eyes naturally drawn to the charred ground where my house once sat, while our hearts screamed, “don’t look.” Neighbors squinted through the windows as we passed, delayed recognition followed by friendly waves, hesitant smiles when they remembered the wild blazes that had consumed us. Forty minutes later, we turned off of Hemlock onto Vernon, the truck bouncing down our street, its shocks squeaking, its tires sinking inside deep holes only to rise again. Mr. Landry left the engine running while he helped us into the house, Duke still tied in the back, his whimpers making us uneasy, like listening to the cries of a wounded friend. We lined the kitchen counter with groceries, and after all the heavy items had been brought inside, bid Mr. Landry adieu.

The dust hadn’t even settled before Aunt June was shouting orders. I helped her put away the food, prepare her sewing machine while she unpacked her good dishes and washed away years of disuse. I spent hours on my knees scrubbing floors and baseboards, shining metal figurines, wiping windows and windowsills. I cut fresh flowers, picked herbs from the garden, stirred ingredients in discolored mixing bowls, ironed our dresses so that when her guests arrived, we had transformed ourselves from the housecoat and blue jean wearing type to the semi-elegant type standing in our Sunday best, buttons and zippers strained by good eatin, unruly hair tamed by bobby pins, bright red lipstick and rouge Aunt June believed shaved years off her withering frame.

Aunt June welcomed four ladies wearing hats and blazers with gold buttons into her home, and was the perfect host, offering finger foods and fine wine, the kind of dinner served in a fancy restaurant. They laughed and told stories, guarded the past to keep from disappearing, relived dreams, the ones that had come true and the ones that hadn’t. I lurked in the shadows, collecting bits and pieces of their lives, their joys, their sorrows as the evening came to an end and long hugs and waves turned us back into pumpkins.

We made sweet tea and sat out on the porch, staring at the stars forming in the sky. Aunt June sat with her ankles crossed. She sipped tea from a chipped mug, her teeth clicking against the glass.

“That was fun,” I said, sensing the growing melancholy. “I didn’t know you lived abroad…” In the darkness I saw her wipe her eyes with the end of her sleeve.

“You okay, Aunty?” I asked.

She nodded and looked the other way.

“Are you sure?” I leaned in and reached for her hand. She wrapped her fingers loosely around mine the way one might hold hands with a stranger. Her swollen scars were thick, a missing index and ring finger a reminder of what had been lost, remaining fingers wearing inscriptions of an earlier life, the sacrifices she made to protect a family she loved deeply but knew only as a visitor.

“We better get inside,” she said, pulling her hand away.

I followed and began washing the dishes she had stacked next to the sink. Aunt June went into her bedroom and returned wearing her favorite housecoat, her hair hanging at her shoulders. She fiddled with the record player until there was a loud scratch, and then an upbeat melody, a contagious rhythm.

“Aunty?” I called, drying my hands and heading into the living room.

“What do you know about this?” she shimmied, moving towards me. “Your mother loved this record.”

Her movements were hard as she pulled me in and pushed me away, never letting go, never looking away from the scars we both wore, the ashes of the past we carried like tarnished trophies. When the song ended, she held onto me, squeezed my hands in hers, and we stayed like this, finding comfort in knowing we were permanent visitors in each other’s lives.

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In a Thousand Years

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“Come with me,” Nina said, stuffing an extra pair of shoes into her backpack. “Just in case,” she smiled.

“I don’t know…” I poured trail mix into a small container for her, snapping its lid in place. “How long…”

“As long as it takes,” she interrupted, walking towards me, her smile contagious. “You know you want to.”

We laughed, threw playful pats and nudges at each other until the moment passed. With our backpacks full of water and food to fuel our trek, Nina drove us to a sleepy grove north of the glorious, green hills overlooking Asham. She told me about her free-spirited escapades through Alaska and Columbia, hikes along the Inca Trail in Peru and Markha Valley in India. I leaned back and listened, absorbed her memories like tattoos on the skin. I adored her, the way she embraced life, the way she sought the kind of adventure I had only read about in books, lived vicariously through characters created to feel real. I admired her, how at ease she was in her body, how free her mind was to play on nature’s playground.

She parked the car across from a pedestrian bridge and exited with delight, her steps light, effortless. I trailed behind a bit, inhaling woody odors, hints of sweet shrubs, the musky smell of decay. Nina skipped ahead, slowing to balance herself on an old, steel beam. I watched her inch from one end to the other, squealing at the thought of a misstep. And then I crouched down, pulled my notebook from my backpack, jotted words she inspired: In a thousand years, I hope the music in your soul still plays. Sweet chords like capillaries bleeding meaning into the world.

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Like Water

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The morning air felt thin in our lungs, laboring our breaths as we climbed to the top of a rocky cliff where the view of the ocean was sublime. Winter’s icy cold hand slapped our faces with its northeast wind; the sun’s glow soft, sustenance we craved after a long night of darkness.

We stood on the precipice and looked out at the water, capillary waves rolling endlessly towards the horizon. Below nature’s liquid blanket a precious ecosystem, aquatic creatures meandering through algae and kelp, coral and moss: An everchanging paradise, medicine for the caged mind, the broken heart.

In awe of the vastness, we inhaled the salty air, listened to a song orchestrated by the wind. Small rocks fell under our weight, crashing through the surface of the water and disappearing, ripples spreading wide, hard and then soft, a disruption absorbed in the ocean’s bowels. Beau wrapped his hand around mine and smiled as the sun kissed our faces, its promise to always bring us back to light, to fill absence like water fills the ocean.

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Therapy Session

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“Be ready by 8am,” Lydia said, dishes clanking in the background.

“Why?” I paused my movie. “Are you washing dishes?”

“I’m going to drop off the blankets from Jeninne,” the faucet spewed water onto cast iron pans. “And I figured you could come with us to Sherylann’s therapy appointment.”

“Um…” I sat up on the edge of my bed and squeezed my forehead. “I don’t think today is a good day.”

“What’s wrong?” she turned off the water. “Are you sick?”

“No, no,” I stood up, touched my belly, and walked to the bathroom. “I just don’t feel like going out today.”

“Well, Sherylann’s first appointment is at 9am, so be ready.”

“First appointment? But I’m not…” I blurted as she hung up.

I showered, put on a pair of mismatched joggers, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and filled snack-sized bags with carrot sticks, grape tomatoes, and a peanut butter sandwich I cut into fourths. Lydia parked in front of my house, leaving Sherylann in the front passenger seat waving and grinning.

“Aren’t these adorable?” Lydia walked in and set a stack of pastel-colored blankets on the sofa. “Jeninne made these,” she unfolded one and held it up in front of her. “She’s so excited,” Lydia refolded the blanket.

“Tell her I said thanks,” I ran my hand across the soft fabric.

“Of course,” she looked at the stack of papers on the table. “Almost done?”

“Um…” I followed her out the front door.

I slid into the backseat and greeted Sherylann.

“How are you doing today?” she asked carefully, nodding and smiling as I answered. “Did you eat?”

“A little,” I put on my seatbelt. “I brought snacks.” I laughed.

“Oh good,” Sherylann turned around and watched Lydia drive towards the gate.

Cool air blew through the vents, and the car rocked over thick speed bumps while a smooth-talking radio host announced Concert in the Park artists, urging everyone in ear’s reach to head out to Discovery Park with our blankets and ice chests.

“I’ve never heard of any of them,” Lydia shook her head at the announcement and went on to remind Sherylann of the questions she was supposed to ask the doctor. “Tell him about that pain in your left foot,” Lydia coaxed.

“I will,” she agreed. “What was the other thing I told you about?”

“The other thing you told me about?” Lydia clarified.

“Yeah…”

“When?”

“It was one day this week,” Sherylann laughed.

“That’s why you have to write these things down,” Lydia chastised.

“Oh…” Sherylann reached for her purse. “I did write it down…on the back of the Korean barbeque menu,” she dug through loose items.

“Did you find it?” Lydia pressed.

Sherylann lined the console with pens, napkins, and slips of paper.

“You know what?” Sherylann laughed. “I left it at home…your home.”

There was a short silence, a glance out the window at the morning traffic.

“It’s your home too, while you’re here,” Lydia corrected.

“I guess it is,” she said softly, folding her hands in her lap.

“Try to remember,” Lydia reiterated. “I’m going to get you one of those little notepads so you can write a note to yourself every time you think of something you want to tell your doctors.”

“Yes, I need that,” Sherylann laughed and began stuffing her pens and crumpled napkins back into her purse, looking at each slip of paper carefully before deciding to keep it or toss it into the small trash bag hanging near the cup holders.

They slipped into sisterly banter, the past a dear friend they eagerly visited. I listened to stories of people living and dead, the trials of small-town life, what they missed most. By the time we reached Dr. Allen’s office, Lydia and Sherylann had relived homecoming, their first jobs as seamstresses, college courses in the city, marriages they thought would last forever.

I found a bathroom in the hall across from Dr. Allen’s office, Lydia and Sherylann trailing behind, the sound of Sherylann’s cane crashing against the cement. They walked noisily into the neurologist’s office, signed in, and waited to see the wiry-haired man with ice cold hands and the voice of a sportscaster. He spelled out the results of her latest test and added a new medication.

“Do you have any questions?” he asked, leaning towards Sherylann.

“Yes, I do,” she asserted and then looked at Lydia who jumped in with a list of ailments and questions about diet, activity level, future prognosis.

We returned to the car a little smarter, spouting knowledge as Lydia drove to the next appointment.

“I think that’s what he said, at least,” we gave up once the holes in our conversation were too big to ignore.

The sleep center on 5th and Broadway had limited parking, so Lydia dropped us off and went to find parking in the garage down the street. Sherylann signed herself in, a scribble on the line she laughed at when the receptionist retrieved the clipboard. We sat one chair apart, our hands in our laps, our eyes darting across the room.

“What’s your thesis on? Sherylann asked.

“It’s a comparative study of…” I started but was interrupted by the medical assistant.

Sherylann wobbled on her cane a bit and trudged on to the first patient room down the hall. The assistant asked a series of questions and then left. Not long afterwards, Lydia rushed through the door.

“Did the doctor come in yet?”

“Not yet,” Sherylann said. “Where did you park?”

I listened to Lydia complain about parking until she threw her hands up in frustration. Dr. Tillman knocked once and then entered, his smile wide, sincere. He engaged us in light banter and then proceeded with the examination, detailing the connection between strokes and sleep disorders, his plan of action.

“We’ll see you in a couple weeks,” he said and hurried to the room next door, his muffled voice seeping through the wall.

Sherylann and I waited inside the lobby while Lydia found her way back to the car.

“What do you have over there?” Sherylann pointed at the bag of grape tomatoes I had cracked open.

“You want some?”

“Oh, no thank you,” she whispered, politely dismissing the tomatoes.

“They’re good,” I jiggled the bag in front of her. “They’re from Jeninne’s garden.”

“I see,” she smiled and reached into the bag. “Mm mm…”

The air conditioner was blasting when we got in the car, but the seats were still flaming hot. We found the towels Lydia’s nieces had left in the trunk the day before after their trip to the pool and lay them on the seats and then drove across town to a sandwich spot near Sherylann’s next appointment. They both ordered hot pastrami sandwiches with Lays and raspberry tea, and we found a table near a window. I nibbled on a turkey and Swiss, watching cars enter the parking lot.

“Are you getting ready? Sherylann pointed at my belly mid bite.

“It’s a lot,” I exhaled, letting my shoulders drop. “I haven’t really started…”

“Is Cory…” Sherylann started but was interrupted by Lydia who shot her a glance and cleared her throat. “Never mind,” she apologized.

“You’re fine…um…” I managed a smile, reached for words that never came. “I’ll be right back,” I said and found the bathroom.

Inside, I turned on the faucet and dipped my hands into the stream of cold water, splashed my face until water slid down my neck, wishing I had stayed home where I could more easily manage the monster beating in my chest. I replayed Cory’s last message a few times and returned to the table.

“I didn’t know…” Sherylann offered, sliding an oatmeal cookie in front of me.

“Thanks,” I laughed.

We chatted about names, colic, and sleepless nights before hopping back into the car and travelling four blocks to the rehabilitation clinic on University Avenue. Sherylann met with her physical therapist, beginning with stretches and then strength-building exercises, her left side resisting. Lydia and I cheered her on as she walked through parallel bars, squeezed stress balls, retrained her mind to think about her body differently.

She had gotten a second chance at life, while Cory lay in a hospital bed thousands of miles away alongside other soldiers fighting for his. And I was finding another way to be at home in the world, learning to leave the door open for memory, therapy for the soul.

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Winter’s Chill

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Winston carried Annabel upstairs, her head bobbing on his shoulder. Caleb and I were a few steps behind slipping our hands out of thick, insulated gloves.

“Here, mom,” Caleb paused a couple steps ahead and tossed me his gloves. “Dad, can we make hot cocoa?”

“That’s a great idea,” Winston’s voice echoed. “With marshmallows?”

“Yum,” Caleb tucked his arm under Winston’s.

Our neighbors in 3C appeared at the top of the stairs. They raced past us with smiles and questions about the weather.

“It’s chilly out there,” we sang, fresh snowflakes on our jackets evidence. “Have fun.”

We climbed the last few steps and veered right down a narrow hallway. Caleb grabbed Winston’s keys and ran towards the blue door. After the third attempt, he unlocked it.

“Ahh…” he rejoiced as he stepped into the warm air.

Annabel stirred when Winston tried to lay her on the sofa. He unzipped her snowsuit, pulled off her mittens, and untied her boots. She held out her hands for him to massage away the numbness. Caleb threw his jacket on the floor, tugged on his boots without first untying them, screaming until the nylon yielded and his sweaty feet emerged. I waded through the stack of winter wear, making two trips to the butterfly-themed bedrooms we had slept in the past two days.

“Who wants hot cocoa?” Winston headed for the kitchen, Annabel on his heels, Caleb racing ahead to grab four mugs from the cabinet.

They helped pour milk into a saucepan, measure cocoa powder, vanilla, sugar, and chocolate chips. As the milk began to bubble, they added one agreement at a time, taking turns stirring the creamy liquid. Winston patiently answered questions and blocked small hands that inched too close to the red-hot burner.

“Let’s go sit at the table,” Winston carried two mugs across the room and waited for Annabel and Caleb to settle into their chairs before setting the steamy cocoa in front of them.

“Don’t forget the marshmallows, dad,” Caleb reminded.

I poured the rest of the cocoa into the I Love New York and Best Dad Ever mugs and Winston topped them with marshmallows.

“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked.

“I liked the snow,” Annabel asserted, her eyes wide.

“I liked riding on the sleds,” Caleb joined.

“I liked the snowman,” Annabel remembered. “And the snow angels.”

“I liked the snow fight with dad,” Caleb laughed. “I beat you, dad.”

“I want a rematch,” Winston teased.”

“Me too,” Annabel chuckled.

“You didn’t win,” Caleb clarified.

“I did too,” they bickered.

“You know what?” Winston interrupted. “I think the cocoa is cool enough to drink now,” he stirred his and took a sip. “This is the best cocoa I’ve ever had…” he took another sip.

Sips turned into loud slurps, spoons hit the sides of clay mugs, and brown spots sprinkled the glass table. The hot cocoa warmed our insides, awakened numb appendages. We found a comfortable corner in our minds and entertained daydreams, fragmented memories.

Our fingertips tingled as we remembered hilly slopes. Our lungs expanded with cold air until we felt lightheaded. Our hearts swelled with satisfaction, at peace in nature’s white, icy floor. And our bones rattled, ached, winter’s chill crawling through them like a current, keeping us planted safely in the present moment.

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A Celebration

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Charlene called me, I called Allie, and she called Habiba who called Dominique. We sat up sleepily in our beds, stood in our kitchens with our backs to hungry children, slipped out of midday board meetings where speakers droned on about quarterly sales, slowed our steps around a clay track while the sun slowly disappeared.

“I got a call… about Savannah…” Charlene said. “We need to go see Joanne…all of us.”

We reminded her that a year earlier we had ventured home, visited our old stomping grounds, recounted the years we spent on Fletcher Street.

“I still think we should go…do something nice for her,” Charlene pressed, and a week later we all boarded red-eye flights, jumped time zones, arriving with matching Duffle bags and neck pillows.

Joanne’s sister, Madelyn, led us into the brownstone, offered us coffee and then returned to the sofa where she knitted booties for her newest great-grand.

“I’m glad you ladies could come,” she adjusted the bootie in her hand. “It would be a shame if you weren’t here…” she sighed.

“We’re glad to be here,” Charlene said, and we nodded in agreement. “Let’s get started…” she stood, looking around the room. “We can put the serving tables along that wall,” she pointed to the dining room.

“The food will be here in a few hours,” Madelyn informed, never looking up from her knitting.

Allie and I pulled serving platters and utensils from cabinets and drawers, washed the dust off so the surfaces shined. Dominique and Charlene hung balloons and streamers. Habiba went to work on her famous strawberries and cream cake. Light chatter filled the air. We swapped work stories, shared our children’s milestones, made observations that led us down memory lane, its bumpy course.

“I can’t believe she still has this?” I held up the ceramic cookie jar Habiba made in high school.

“Hey…” Habiba interrupted. “That’s a masterpiece.”

“Well, there’s nothing else like it,” Allie laughed, pointing at the mishappen jar decorated with a hand painted teddy bear whose eyes bulged, its sunken lid and faded finish.

“There were always cookies in that thing,” Dominique remembered. “We’d run inside, our hands dirty…”

“Charlene the last one, crying because she didn’t want to get stuck with the peanut butter cookies,” I said.

“Still don’t like peanut butter cookies,” Charlene chimed.

“Habiba was first inside, on hot pink skates…” Allie started.

“The wheels didn’t even turn anymore,” Habiba laughed. “I got them from the Lawsons…”

“Jody Lawson?” we laughed.

“Yep…at their garage sale,” Habiba tied the end of a balloon. “She saw me wearing them one day,” Habiba shook her head.

“What did she say?” Charlene asked.

“She teased me all the way home.”

“Is that why Joanne painted them?”

“Hot pink with white flowers,” Habiba smiled.

“Jody is coming, right?” I asked.

“And her brother…”

“Marie will be late…”

“Lennie, Michael, Ryan…”

“Elijah, Henry, Sara, Natalie…”

“Everyone is coming,” Allie said.

“Except,” we all stopped what we were doing, froze inside the heaviness of the moment.

“Hold on,” Charlene went to Joanne’s bedroom and returned with a small projector. “I was going to surprise everyone,” she fiddled with the machine.

“A movie?” Dominique asked.

“Yes, of us, all of us,” Charlene clarified.

Habiba slid the cake pan into the oven and helped Charlene and Dominique drag fold-up tables and chairs into the dining room. And one by one, people arrived, adult versions of the children who grew up on Fletcher Street. They piled gifts on the corner table and mingled, counting the years that had passed, reliving after-school bike rides, endless games of dodgeball, tag; long, summer days with Joanne and her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Savannah, who loved balloons, the way they felt in her hands, sitting on the stoop watching us run up and down the street, always ready with Band-Aids and Neosporin, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, a place we could feel safe while our parents were stuck at work, taking orders from relentless bosses.

Caterers dressed in crisp, white uniforms brought Italian cuisine, beverages we helped ourselves to while we waited.

“She’s getting out of the car,” Jody said, motioning for us to huddle together.

We listened to the soft click of her cane hitting each step, her key turning the lock.

“Ms. Joanne,” we cheered.

“Oh my,” she covered her mouth, nodding. “She loved balloons,” Joanne cried, moving from confusion to glee, to grief, to sweet sadness where love laced loss, softened death’s hard edges, illuminated the safety sealed in bonds created when we needed them most. “It’s a celebration,” she perked.

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My Way Back

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I was told that a silver Buick with a rusted hood and whitewall tires plowed through our front yard, crushing the wooden lawn chairs Grandpa Ray made, toppling potted plants whose roots grew in circles around the soil, and destroying the porch where we all sat. Two days later I woke up alone, anchored to beeping machines bartering with death, unchained from memory, the signs and symbols that keep us from unravelling. It was all gone.

Friends and family brought flowers, chatted on and on about how much they loved me, how they couldn’t wait for me to get better, to get back. I watched their faces as they summarized my life, their eyes piercing mine, searching for something familiar. Their soft, sympathetic voices delivered a collection of truths that swam around my brain for a while and then disappeared until the next person arrived with stuffed bears, balloons, and baked goods that felt strange on my tongue.

“They’re your favorite…”

I nodded and let the ingredients dissolve in my mouth, unsure if they were, in fact, my favorite. Aunts and Uncles recounted family trips, the day I had my tonsils removed, time spent chasing after a dog named Teddy. Cousins reminded me of sleepovers, conversations about boys, movie hopping at the Alpine Cinema, bike rides to the A&P where we bought bubble gum and Fun Dip.

“Remember?” they quizzed, waiting for it all to click, for an aha moment we could relax inside, feel safe knowing I wasn’t gone.

But I didn’t remember, and what was a frightening interruption for them was a gap I could only begin to comprehend through pictures of someone who looked kind of like me, with longer hair, a kind face, and an essence I didn’t see reflected in my own eyes.

“That’s me…” I stared.

“Yes,” they stood, too excited to sit.

Every day they flooded my room with stories, continuing their search for clues, trying desperately to align past and present, while I found comfort in the singsongy voices pouring through the intercom, the smell of cleanser wafting from the hallway, the feel of bright lights shining overhead.

They tiptoed around details of that day, filling the air with talk of heaven and judgment.

“You understand, don’t you?”

I slurped Jell-O from a small, plastic cup, protected from a pain so sharp they wept, a loss I could only experience logically: four people I was related to but didn’t remember–a mother, a father, a sister, and a brother–were no longer with us even though they looked alive and well in pictures, like me.

“Yep,” I licked the inside of the cup.

“You do?” they doubted. “Are you sure?”

“I think so…” I nodded, smiled, and waited for the nurse to enter with five colorful pills I’d swallow just in time for Supermarket Sweep.

Between visits, I travelled by gurney to dark rooms where machines took pictures of my brain, my bones, my belly, highlighting what was broken. And bloodwork was taken to the lab and studied, the findings charted, prompting new medicine, new procedures I slept through and recovered from in front of strangers who said they knew me, who said I knew them.

“How do I know you?” I asked.

“I’m your Aunt Vera…”

“We’re neighbors…”

“We went to school together…”

“You work for me…”

“You’re my best friend…”

I watched a girl hang a brown shoulder bag on the back of the chair before sitting. She crossed her legs and looked up at the tv.

“Basketball, huh?” she laughed.

“Do I like basketball?” I reached for the remote.

“Do you?” she smiled.

“I think so,” I scoured a shoebox filled with loose pictures for one of her.

“Who’s your favorite team?” she asked.

“The blue team,” I said, stacking pictures on either side of me.

“What are you looking for?”

“A picture of you…”

“Here,” she stood up and grabbed her purse.

She pulled a picture of the two of us from her wallet and handed it to me. We wore matching tees, our arms interlocked, our smiles big, fiery excitement burning behind our eyes.

“That’s you,” I pointed. “And me…” A wave of emotion ripped through me, an unshakeable feeling that I had been there, that I maybe I could find my way back.

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In the Moments we Lived

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A chorus of goodbyes and good to see you’s trailed behind us as we stepped onto the winding walkway, cold air bringing us to a shiver. We lingered a moment, exchanging laughs, thank you’s, and with one last hug, a wave, we set off for the car, the lone sedan two blocks away. The sound of our shoes hitting the asphalt disrupted the silence. Dim streetlights illuminated empty porches, bicycles and basketballs littering front yards, and leafless tree branches, their shadows cast on wooden fences. And cats scurried at the sound of our voices, choosing to wait until we had closed ourselves inside the car before resuming their nighttime hunt.

The engine rumbled to a start, and the same song that had been playing when we arrived was playing now, an irony we reveled at first before becoming annoyed and changing the station. We waited until thin lines appeared in the frosted rear window and then made our way out of the neighborhood, to the main road cluttered with cozy restaurants displaying closed signs, drive-thrus beckoning hungry drivers, brightly lit gas stations whose patrons stood frozen, watching numbers race across the screen. The vents blasted warm air, a sign we could settle in, find comfort in the fullness of the day.

Generations joined by blood, marriage, friendship, and kindness had filled the newly remodeled home. We enjoyed conversations over plates piled high with salty and sweet favorites, requested dishes life wouldn’t be the same without, and food combinations that in any other space we’d be too embarrassed to admit we loved. Football fans cheered and then sunk into quiet defeat when touchdowns were thwarted, finding some relief as they bit into buttery rolls. Sleepy cousins made their way to the sofa. Dominoes and playing cards brought excitement to onlookers, to players who bet gift cards, the last piece of red velvet cake, a can of roasted almonds. Like an endless wave, the day kept unfolding, revealing more goodness, more to cherish. And with love and laughter, we remembered those whose absence echoed like a judge’s gavel, final but not forgotten because they were gelled in memory, in the moments we lived.

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Everything we Wanted

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The house on Solomon Road was the last on our list, an abandoned Queen Anne Style home sitting across from a new development of row houses, its charm dimmed by tarnished siding, overgrown Weeping Willows, and the appeal of modernism spilling into the freshly paved street.

“That’s it?” I stared. “Is it?”

Arthur smiled and parked in front of the rusted mailbox leaning on its post, the shape of a flag that had long fallen off stained on the side.

“You’re kidding,” I said, watching him take off his seatbelt and open his door.

“Come on…” he laughed.

Julie was right behind us, parking her black SUV in front of what was once a brick driveway. She stepped out, reaching in for her purse and a black folder stuffed with comps and notes she’d refer to throughout the showing.

“What do you think?” she approached. “There’s so much history here,” she held her hand out like she was presenting us with a display of fine china.

“We’re excited,” Arthur grabbed my hand.

“Well, it’ll take a little imagination but…” Julie said, leading us to the chain-link fence she unlocked, and then onto an uneven driveway, towards a long porch whose missing panels made the house appear sad. “There are still some really great features,” she promised.

“Hidden gems, huh?” Arthur joined. “I get the feeling the pictures online don’t do it justice.”

“You’re right,” Julie said, and they both paused, basking in their agreement.

We walked carefully along the weed-infested path, broken bricks crunching under our feet as we awed at the architecture: its eye-catching asymmetry, steep gabled roof, bays and balconies facing east, a detail we thought was a good sign.

Julie used her folder to shield us from long, dangling leaves that hung like a curtain from overarching branches and then fumbled a moment with the lockbox before the door squeaked open, stale air rushing out. We stepped inside the foyer, and she stood in front of us like a tour guide, drawing our attention to the dark wood flooring, decorative engraving, and signature French doors she led us into the parlor. Her voice echoed as she announced column styles, ceiling embellishments, ornate mantels and banisters.

She paced slowly while we digested the information, mentally weighing flaws against the expectations tattooed on our brains. A spacious kitchen and dinning room checked boxes. Main and back staircases spelled convenience. Large, well-lit bedrooms and bathrooms were everything we could have asked for. We smiled through mysterious smells, electrical glitches, rusted hinges, jammed drawers, sinking chandeliers, hoping the time-beaten masterpiece could be restored, could be ours.

After Julie had given us all she had and her cheeks ached from smiling, she dismissed herself, leaving us on our own to revisit rooms we weren’t ready to say goodbye to yet.

“What do you think?” Arthur asked. “We’ll have to get an inspection…see if we can offset the costs…” he replayed the logistics.

This house was everything we wanted and everything we didn’t, but if I stood still I could hear the sound of children playing outside, see summer fruit hanging from trees we planted, feel the steadiness of old and new, death and birth, an unexpected marriage: unstaged, proudly baring its soul.

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One More Time

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We kept telling ourselves that she wasn’t gone, just away from us long enough for it to hurt. Sydney busied herself with phone calls, contacting everyone Charlotte knew, pressing them for details they didn’t have. Louisa brewed one pot of coffee after another so our caffeine levels never dropped. Frank paced, pausing to stare out the window when he thought he saw her riding her bike through the fog. Kat and Sue huddled on the sofa sipping wine and whispering worrisome what ifs. I tidied the place, washed mugs and wine glasses, made food to distract us from the emptiness.

Between calls, Sydney replayed fragments of her last conversation with Charlotte, neglecting fine details, skewing the sequence so the only outcome in her mind was positive. We nodded in support but quietly wrestled with her words. And somewhere between “How was I supposed to know” and “It’s not my fault she left,” we realized the layers of her agony were self-imposed, created from the scraps of her own youth.

“Maybe she’s at a friend’s house…” Louisa offered.

“Yeah…”Kat agreed.

“I’ve called all her friends,” Sydney insisted.

“It’s probably a friend you don’t know…” I suggested.

“No…no,” she shook her head so hard the clip holding her bun together slid across the floor.

Frank retrieved it, the silver top shinning in his shaky hand.

“Thank you,” Sydney muttered, clutching the clip to her chest. “I just wanted…” she started and then caught herself, fixing her face before picking up the phone and dialing the next person on her list.

We watched her perk at the sound of the person on the other end before moving back to our posts: Kat and Sue finishing a bottle of wine, Louisa scooping coffee grounds into a disposable filter, Frank peeping out the window. I took out all the makings for a green salad and began slicing cucumbers and carrots, the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board background to Sydney’s probing, a dance she led, forced twirls and dips no one was prepared for. She dug for details like a human drill, a feisty defense lawyer batting rumors and ill-thought suggestions right out the courtroom. I sprinkled the sliced vegetables over a bed of mixed greens while she demanded they check their surveillance systems, look to see if Charlotte had stopped by, passed on the sidewalk, if she had been with someone. I shook a bottle of vinaigrette dressing until its ingredients combined, and Sydney ended her conversation with a weepy request for prayers.

“I don’t think she’s coming back,” she said, her shoulders slumped in defeat.

“She’s coming back,” we all cajoled, running to her side.

“No…” Sydney set her phone on the table and walked into the living room.

We followed out of sympathy, but no one spoke.

“I hope she’s not cold,” Sydney stared out towards the pedestrian bridge shrouded by fog. “I don’t think she took a jacket…she never listens. She insists on ruining her life…” her face drooped, and Luisa pulled her in for a long hug.

As she sobbed, I wondered if Charlotte would find her way back home, or if the emotional maze was too much for her to navigate one more time.

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Tiny Markings

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Elias and I sat in the kitchen all morning, sipping coffee he’d made in his new espresso machine and reading the newspaper.

“Can you pass the Classifieds?”

“Really?” I laughed as I sifted through the pile. “You don’t strike me as a Classifieds kind of guy,” I teased.

“What do you mean?” he smirked. “Besides, I’m looking for something I lost.”

“Care to elaborate?” I leaned on the table, waiting for him to lower the paper.

He exhaled, folded the newspaper, and leaned back in his chair.

“It’s a long story…”

“I’m listening.”

“So, technically I have a brother…”

“I thought you were an only child,” I interrupted.

“We haven’t spoken…not since our mother died,” he tapped his fingers on the table.

“Wow,” I waited for his eyes to find mine, but they didn’t.

“When we were kids he collected baseball cards,” Elias scanned the newspaper, circling ads.

“You think he’s selling them?” I guessed.

“Not exactly,” he paused, picked up his phone and dialed. “Hi, can I speak with James…I’m calling about the ad…”

I listened to the fragmented conversation, his excitement rising and falling as they bonded over baseball cards. He crossed his legs and ran his fingers through his beard, smiling as though he had just reconnected with a long lost friend. I finished my coffee, nibbled on a piece of toast, and watched him jot down the man’s address and fold the small sheet of paper until it was a perfect square.

“You want to go with me?” he said, hanging the phone on the wall behind him.

“To a stranger’s house?” I crumpled my face. “No thanks…”

“It’s not like that,” he clarified.

“So you know him?”

“No,” he laughed. “I’ll keep you safe.”

I complained as we headed for the car, spouted the names of serial killers who had lured their victims with less. He unlocked my door, grabbed a pile of old newspapers and put them in the back seat, exposing cracked leather, years of crumbs collecting in the battered foam. With handwritten directions between us, we headed south on I5, midday traffic light, morning fog still lingering. Elias cruised along at a steady 55mph, the dashboard rattling almost to the beat of the music. At times we sang along, belting out our best Madonna and Fleetwood Mac. In between songs we knew and liked, we were quiet, tucked inside our own little worlds, rhythmic background noise and the river a reminder of an earlier time when we lived on Dalilah Way in a basement apartment, my landlord a widow who only left the house for doctor appointments and bus trips to the casino with her friends, Pat and Bev.

For a reduction on the rent, I cleaned her house once a week, ridding it temporarily of cat hair, arranging items in her pantry, refilling her pill boxes, dusting framed pictures of grand and great-grandchildren she only knew through unnatural poses and cued smiles. She followed me around the house, catching me up on General Hospital, assuming I was as invested in Luke and Laura as she was. And if I missed a spot, she was sure to let me know, casually pointing out water spots, cobwebs, the uneven display of her boxes of Saltines, bags of red beans, cans of sauerkraut, and loose butterscotch candies.

Elias was her neighbor at the time who didn’t mind mowing her lawn when he mowed his. He was a student at the local community college, pursuing a degree in horticulture while he cared for his ailing mother. Over loud mower blades, he convinced me to sign up for classes, get my GEs out of the way, and soon we were meeting for study sessions, planning lives we imagined would run parallel. Then turmoil arrived, its blade sharp enough to sever our hold on the future and ground us in the flood waters of the present.

I was evicted and spent fifty-three hours in jail after one of Eugenia’s grandchildren moved in and t pressed charges, stating I had stolen her grandmother’s money and assaulted her, a claim that paralyzed me as I sat in a holding cell, next to a woman named Starlight who jabbered on about her innocence. Then Elias’ mother died and because his mother never updated her will everything went to her twin sister who promised not to make any decisions before talking to him but sold the house three months later.

“Were the baseball cards in your mother’s house?” I played detective.

Elias nodded but kept his eyes on the road.

“I thought if I could find them, some of them, I could…you know.”

“How would you know the cards were his?”

A smile brightened his face, and he let out a chuckle.

“He put our initials on the back…in really fine print, the letters EE,” he laughed.

“Have you found any?”

His laugh disappeared and he cleared his throat.

“No…not yet anyway.”

“You will,” I encouraged, regretting my doubt.

“It’s not about the cards,” he defended.

“I know,” I said, staring out at the water, wishing I too could rework the past, wash it clean so that disappointments were just tiny markings on cards we collected.

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The Climb

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We missed the school bus by a couple minutes, nothing but its exhaust lingering in the air and two empty sixth-grade classrooms when I pulled into the parking lot.

“Does this mean I don’t get to go on the field trip?” Fredrick gasped.

“Uh…” I looked down at my phone, three messages from Robert letting me know the auditors were waiting in the lobby. “Not necessarily…” I responded to Robert and stuffed the phone back into my purse.

“Can you take me?”

“Let me talk to Mrs. Evans,” I opened my door and headed for the principal’s office, Fredrick trailing.

He waited with his hands in his pockets while Mrs. Evans and I chatted, the worried expression lifting when he overheard her say it would be fine for me to drop him off at the Discovery Museum in Xenia.

“You can probably catch up with them, if you leave now,” Mrs. Evans smiled and excused herself.

On the way to the car I called Robert to let him know I’d be late, that he’d have to deal with the auditors, and after a bout of hysterics he collected himself, accepting the task as if he’d never doubted himself. Fredrick hopped into the front seat, barely able to contain his excitement.

“What are you looking forward to the most?”

“Hanging out with my friends,” he admitted.

“What about the exhibits?”

“That too,” he said before getting lost in Mario Kart.

The drive was hilly with long stretches of construction, the smell of fresh asphalt wafting through the vents, bright orange cones a boundary we didn’t cross. And each time we paused longer than a few seconds, Frederick looked up, staring at the traffic and then back at his game unless something caught his attention.

“I bet I can climb that hill,” he blurted over a mattress commercial, about ten miles from our exit.

“You think so?” I teased. “Should I stop the car?”

“I’d get a running start,” he began. “I’m wearing the perfect shoes for it too.”

He took me through his imagination where I was a spectator of a boy digging his heels into the dirt, slipping and then regaining traction, cleverly using rocks to hoist himself up the steep side until he was standing on top, the sun kissing his face as he accepted his victory. We inched forward, and he watched the hill disappear, worry finding his brow again. He scratched his head and then let out a long sigh.

“What’s up, bud?

“I can’t climb that hill,” he decided. “Not in real life.”

“Sure you can,” I cajoled. “It may take a while…”

“I could probably bring some tools with me,” he started and then jumped back inside his imagination, a train travelling a hundred miles an hour, fueled by fairies.

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The Promise

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“You still want to go?” I rolled over and looked up at Nicholas, squinting to see his face crumpling.

“You said…” he whimpered.

“It’s raining,” I argued, sitting up to stretch, to let a long yawn rip through me.

He watched my body contort, frowning at the sight, unmoved by my weather update.

“Alright,” I ran my finger across his cheek. “Get dressed…,” he turned and ran down the hall to the guest room. “We’ll stop and get breakfast,” I yelled.

“It’s lunch time,” he clarified.

I made us each a turkey sandwich, and we sat in the living room watching the rest of Handy Manny. We washed up and slipped into cotton, comfort-wear and puffy jackets. Before we left, Nicholas insisted on feeding Chatterbox himself, scooping bird seed into the feeder and then watching the green and yellow bird sway on his perch.

“Is he going to eat it? Nicholas asked, his eyes wide.

“When he’s hungry, he will,” I assured and grabbed my purse. “You ready?”

“Ready,” he jumped up and down.

“Are you going to be okay in the car for an hour?” I asked, more to myself than to him, a reminder that I had missed the first six years of my godson’s life.

“Lily,” he huffed and walked towards the door.

“Let’s unlock it first,” I intervened when he twisted the knob, pulling it until he stumbled backwards.

Nicholas climbed into the backseat and collected the cars he had left there after returning from the courthouse, a split decision as rain pelted against us. I started the car, waited until I heard our seatbelts click, and rolled down the driveway, heading west to the place I promised to take him. He mumbled as he played, mimicking the sounds of screeching tires, metal colliding. Talk radio played in the background, hosts building elaborate conversations from shards of truth.

“Are we almost there?” Nicholas asked after about fifteen minutes.

“Not really,” I said, my answer greeted with a long, restless sigh. “It’s not much longer, actually,” I corrected.

He went back to playing, and navigated through weekend traffic, SUVs packed tight with coolers, bicycles, overnight bags, excited passengers pointing out at the landscape, waving at strangers down below. Charter buses whizzed by filled with casino-goers, hopeful a jackpot was in their near future. Diesels transporting tomatoes, gas, packages trailed behind, passing each other when one’s speed dropped too low.

The rain slowed to a light mist, and the clouds thinned. City turned to farm land, stretches of agriculture Nicholas awed. At times he pressed his face to window. Once he rolled the window down and let the air whip across his face.

“I’ve been here before,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“My mom took me before she got sick.”

“Oh…” I treaded carefully. “Did you have fun?”

“No,” he said and then fell silent, watching the road narrow, rows of orange pumpkins still attached to their vines.

I followed behind him while he poured through small and large pumpkins, examining them like they were works of art. The ones he wanted he put in an old rusted wheelbarrow, almost toppling every time he lifted the handles.

“What are you going to do with all these?” I asked.

“They’re for my mother,” he said, trying to wrap his arms around a pumpkin that weighed more than him.

“That’s nice,” I helped him lift the pumpkin. “She’ll like them,” I wiped my hands on my pants and watched for a moment, his whole body wobbling as he tried to lift the wheelbarrow. “Let me help you,” I said, lifting one handle while he grabbed the other.

I took his lead, off to the next row to sever more pumpkins from their vines, wondering if somewhere in his mind, in his heart, he knew he too was being plucked from his roots, that this was permanent, a promise I made before he was born.

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The Couch

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While Steven and I, still in our pajamas, sat in front of the television watching Looney Tunes, a man in a green truck pulled into the driveway. We ran to the window, prying the blinds open with our fingers, watching a man exit the truck, his jeans dirty, his beard thick, a cigarette dangling between his lips. He turned to say something to his passenger and then approached the door, ringing the bell twice.

“Go sit down,” my mother barked as she came down the hallway.

Rodney, her new boyfriend, was on her heels, racing her to the door where they argued over who would open it. Steven and I stood frozen as they tussled. When the door cracked open, we hid in the hallway, daring each other to steal glimpses of the bearded man, find out why he was ringing our doorbell at 9am on a Saturday.

“I called about the couch…” he greeted, extending a folded up newspaper with an ad circled.

“Oh, that’s right,” my mother grumbled, opening the door.

“What couch?” Rodney probed, a scowl crumpling his face.

“The one in the den,” my mother explained.

Steven tried to hold me back, digging his dirty fingernails into my pajama top, the faded pink My Little Pony one I loved so much because Natalee gave it to me.

“Wait,” I yelled. “That’s where Natalee sleeps.”

“Not anymore,” Rodney taunted. “We’re gettin’ a pool table.”

“Mom,” I complained.

“You and your brother go back in your room,” she scolded.

“No,” I defied, changing my mind when Rodney reached for his belt.

“Should I come back another time,” the man asked, his cigarette smoke wafting into the house.

“The couch is in here,” my mother said, leading him into the den as Steven and I went to my room.

With a ten year age gap between my oldest sister and me, I rarely saw her. And I knew very little about her, except that she attended the university about an hour away because we had dropped her off, Steven and I waving, waiting for her to turn around and see us as we drove away, but she never did. Her dad, Ivan, was there to greet her with a stiff hug and a few one-hundred dollar bills. She folded the money and stuffed it in her back pocket, breaking from the awkward hug to grab her bags, glance once more at both sides of her family–a mother and a father, whom she knew only through a court ordered visitation schedule, and their children produced in subsequent loveless marriages, an unhappy Brady Bunch she was thrilled to escape, hoping it meant the strangers she’d meet felt more like family.

On occasion, she returned, and we surrounded her, showing off our best cartwheels, new dance moves, and artwork, blushing at her compliments, watching her live out of a suitcase, never thinking we weren’t the reason for her visit. I sat on my bed listening to Rodney and the man shout directions at each other as they lifted the couch and moved outside.

“Turn a little to the right…”

“Watch your step…”

I hugged my knees, remembering the last time Natalee had been home. She arrived on a Friday evening, a couple weeks before Christmas, while my mother and Rodney were at the pool hall.

“It’s me,” she knocked on the door three times. “Audrey…Steven…”

We let her in, jumping up and down, squealing as she threw a black duffle bag on the floor, giving us each a hug before she slumped on the couch a few minutes with her hands covering her face. I went on an on about school, showed her my new shoes, played with her hair, ran through a list of games we could play after she rested. She hopped in the shower, trading the black turtleneck and red corduroy pants ensemble for a baby blue, cotton sweat suit.

“Hard day?” I asked, plopping next to her on the couch.

She brushed her wet hair, making faces when it ripped through a patch of tangles. Her eyes were red, tired, weepy. When she was done, she put her brush back in her bag and grabbed a stack of index cards, reading one side and then the other before stuffing it somewhere in the middle.

“When’s your test?” I pulled her hair into a ponytail and made a loose bun.

“Monday morning…” she exhaled.

“Do you want me to quiz you?”

She read a few more cards and then handed them to me. I stood in front of her, flashing each card and waiting to see if her answer matched the one on the back.

“Keep trying…” I said, but she shook her head and curled up on the couch.

I sat on the floor next to her, building small houses from the cards, matching them by color. She slipped into a fitful sleep, and I covered her with a moth-eaten blanket from the hall closet. Steven and I lay on the floor in front of the tv, sharing a bowl of dry cereal, laughing at a boy wearing overalls and oversized glasses, a teenage witch, twin girls playing tricks on their parents. Just before midnight, Natalee turned off the tv, woke us up, tucked us in our beds, and then disappeared. I heard the usual arguing sometime later, Rodney’s baritone roar rumbling through the whole house. We sat up in our beds and stared into the darkness until it was safe to close our eyes again.

It was quiet in the house now, Rodney and the bearded man’s voices faded, meaningless. I tipped into the den, the front door wide open casting bright light on the empty space, and began collecting the items we had long forgotten, items covered in layers of dust. From Happy Meal toys, Legos, and puzzle pieces, to pills wedged in carpet fibers my mother never found, stretching manic episodes into what felt like eternity.

I heard the man’s truck gate slam, my mother and Rodney coming up the walkway. Steven was next to me, gathering Lego pieces while I collected the pills in my palm. First her nails scraped the back of my neck, and then they dug into the back of my scalp gripping me by my hair pulling until I was face to face with her and spit raining off her P’s and T’s freckled my face. Steven’s screams amplified her slap, the sting of her skin on mine a reminder that home wasn’t home. I let go of the pills and ran outside to find the bearded man checking the ties across the couch one last time.

“My sister sleeps on that couch,” I approached.

“Maybe your mom is getting a new one…” he turned his gaze to the woman in the cab staring back at us.

“She’s not going to,” I wept.

He offered a sympathetic smile and hopped in the truck next to the lady with bright pink rollers in her hair.

“Have a good day,” they said and turned up their music, Marvin Gaye’s I want You.

I chased the truck, running as fast I could, the cold air numbing my skin, the song like silk, suspending me somewhere between sadness and exuberance. And even when the truck was out of sight, my legs heavy, I kept running, laughing, giddy at my newfound freedom. But in between the buzz of weed whackers and birds chirping, I heard Steven call my name and I stopped, touched my hand to my face, the burning a reminder that I was his couch, the place he could lay when there was chaos all around us.

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Sacrificed

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Daniel packed his trucks in their plastic case and then sat on the sofa, his hands stuffed inside the pockets of a puffy blue coat.

“I’m ready to go now,” he asserted, watching me eat the last of my breakfast. “Are you almost done?”

I nodded.

“Is my mom or my dad picking me up?”

“Your mom,” I reassured. “We’re meeting her.”

After I finished eating a poached egg and a slice of toast, I packed a sack lunch for Daniel and drove towards the meet-up spot, stopping near a small alcove north of the lighthouse. It was empty of people, white waves crashing against jagged rocks the only sound, the sun still pale against a light blue sky. Daniel shivered as a wintery chill blew through his coat, nudging him towards the water’s edge. I found a spot on the shore and we waited, a turkey sandwich and Gala apple safe inside the crumpled brown bag between us. Miriam was on her way, bringing a familiarity Daniel yearned. He kept his eyes glued to the road, scooping handfuls of sand to pass the time.

“I think that’s her,” he perked when he saw headlights in the distance.

We both stared, saddened when it wasn’t her, all too eager to be relived of the visit neither of us wanted. Daniel was five, entertained by anything that had wheels and was born a worrier. He spent our week together troubled by thoughts I couldn’t help him escape, fears whose origins were rooted in a time his mind couldn’t access. It was as if we were trapped in a loop of “What ifs,” the plot always the same, always anticlimactic.

“She’s not coming…” he threw sand in the wind, gasping when it blew back in his face.

I reached for him, but he turned away in protest, folding his arms tight against his chest. As he sniveled, his body shook. And then he quieted, let his arms fall to his sides before spinning around wide eyed, stumped by a burning question, one that had come up before rattling my nerves, illuminating a truth I had buried in memory’s graveyard.

“Who are you anyway?” he scowled.

“I’m your mom’s friend…” I stuttered.

“No you’re not,” he leapt to his feet and ran to the water.

“Wait,” I followed, slowing when he picked up a rock, threw it and then found another.

The last time I had seen him he was a newborn. I held him once, Miriam and Dennis on either side, enamored by their bundle of joy. They thanked me with hugs, tears, tuition to law school. And, as planned, we went our separate ways. I flunked out of law school and bought a trailer off highway 112 where I spent my days tutoring international students remotely, my nights counting the stars in the sky, wishing I was somewhere else, someone else. Miriam and Dennis moved into their new house, decorating Daniel’s room with dolphins or footballs, something like that, content with the life they had created for themselves.

Then came Yosef, a neighbor I nicknamed horse whisperer as I watched him from my window. He trained horses that would have otherwise been put down, and made the best chili I had ever tasted. At night we sat outside, laughing, crying, reimagining life until ours overlapped. We got married, had a home built, and welcomed a baby girl whose every coo we cherished. Everything was as we imagined, as we planned.

The day before we were supposed to travel to Yosef’s family reunion, Miriam called.

“I need your help,” she cried. “Something terrible has happened…”

“Is Daniel okay?” my heart raged.

“Yes.”

With little information, I agreed to keep Daniel, to Yosef’s dismay.

“Don’t you think this will confuse him?” he asked.

“He won’t know…” I said.

But I knew. The part of me that belonged to the little boy still yearned for him, even though the sacrifice I had made meant he’d be loved the way I couldn’t love him, meant we were never supposed to meet, not even as strangers.

He threw a few more rocks and turned his attention back to the road ready to be rid of me, free of the fear we stirred in each other, a fear birthed during a time when love should have been at its height.

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Missing

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Over the years people claimed to have seen her, passed her in the supermarket, on the street; saw her on the bus, at the airport: spoke with her while in line at the DMV, while she ate her lunch on a park bench. But none of the sightings ever turned out to be true, and Valentina stayed missing, gracing us with a yearly postcard she scribbled her name and a few words, vague phrases Alonzo and I spent weeks trying to decipher. There was never a return address, and the pictures were just decoration: sandy shores and sea shells to mark her absence.

“Give her time,” people said when they learned she had packed her belongings and disappeared in the middle of the night.

“She must have a reason for staying away,” they said in a snarky tone when the amount of time that had passed seemed enough for any reasonable person to return, unless some evil lurked.

We explained, defended, and then explained some more even though at this point people stared back blankly, already firmly rooted in their opinion of us. Their silence was razor sharp, unforgiveness fueling misunderstanding, a loathing for our mere existence. So, we disappeared too, made the road our home, and found purpose in searching, found peace in hoping.

In the still parts of the day, we replayed loss like a song, hit all the notes like pros. In the busyness we let our guards down, lived like life was a postcard, taking in all of nature’s beauty, its charm and mystery. And in between the ocean floor and mountain tops, we too saw Valentina, passed her, whispered I love you’s into the wind, a soundtrack she might hear playing the next time she thought of home and scribbled words on the back of a postcard.

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Dream State

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Hazel and Luz slept on the sofa bed, Gabby on the air mattress, while I lay awake down the hall on an old pillowtop mattress. It was just before 2 am and thoughts collected throughout the day played against an eerie silence. My mind labored over every detail, pausing to ponder whether the cashier at Sassy’s had been wearing a shirt that was indigo or navy, whether the engravings on the towels I ordered did, in fact, match the ones already hanging in the bathroom, whether Hazel would notice the blotches on the ceramic elephants I made for her, if she’d care, whether the coffee I tried once in the store would taste the same at home, or if I had imagined delight, been primed for it by all the surrounding nods and smiles, the fancy cups and sweet aromas. And when my mind had travelled to the end of every thought, it stopped short, leaving me dangling, clutching at darkness.

I sat up and pushed the blankets past my knees, listening for the presence of life, three lives resting soundly in a new space and a different time zone, but I heard nothing, not breathing, stirring, or mumbling. My feet touched down on the cold wood, and I gasped, the chill gripping, settling in my lungs like eucalyptus, piney and smooth. The floor creaked on my way to the living room, moonlight from the window guiding my steps. I avoided spongy spots, the one in front of the bathroom, the one in the center of the hallway, the one where wood meets carpet and a glass coffee table rested, making room for a queen size air mattress. Gabby lay sprawled, her feet hanging off the edge. Luz was curled in a ball. Hazel slept with her hands under her face, soft breaths escaping through pursed lips. The ceiling fan spun on low, leafy plants slow dancing in the corner. I listened as the automatic air freshener sprayed its tropical breeze into the air, and then I headed back to my bedroom, tucked myself under the white duvet cover, darkness an inflexible backdrop.

My mind returned again to the day’s events like a trolley, starting and stopping along Aberdeen Street for frozen yogurt, beads, stationary; through Jepsen Park to snap pictures of the garden, pose in front of fountains, picnic on the grass; inside the farmer’s market, a maze of fruits and vegetables, flowers and herbs, people who knew what they wanted and those who didn’t. I moved shoulder to shoulder with friends I had met in college and spent my twenties and thirties with, fumbling through life until we found our way. We laughed, reminisced, fluctuating between longing and fulfillment, between then and now.

I blinked, turned my head, dozed off or something and when I looked again they were caricatures with exaggerated features, sitting at a bench composing long letters. Their smiles exposed cartoonish teeth. Their doll eyes stared sweetly, and, for a moment, there on the edge of sleep where the lines between real and unreal are blurred, I relished the ambiguity.

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It’s Our Anniversary!

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I began writing daily stories here at WritingBlissfully a year ago, technically 13 months (I miscounted midway). My intention when I began, was to make sure I made time each day to write, something I had always put off for the more important activities in my life like Candy Crush and The Walking Dead, or just downplaying my passion for storytelling and complaining that I didn’t have time to write.

So here we are a year later (13 months), and I’m happy to have met/created some really interesting characters along the way. There were plenty I released back into their fictional worlds, while others stayed with me. Moving forward, I will be revisiting the characters that left an impression on me, expanding their stories, giving them more time and space to exist.

Thank you to all of the readers and fellow writers I’ve met along the way. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my work. It’s also been a pleasure connecting with so many of you. I look forward to seeing more of your wonderful posts. I may be around a little less, but I’m still here. (Also, it’s hard for me to imagine not tuning in every day, so we’ll see what happens…)

Happy Writing!

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In the Moment

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As I drove onto the property, I could feel the festivities going on in the back. It was my grandmother’s birthday, and there was always a big celebration with cousins and great-aunts, lifelong friends and neighbors who lived a couple miles down the road. There would be her favorite foods, gallons of strawberry ice cream, music, and gifts that made her weep.

Growing up, we used to meet guests on the edge of the property, hop in the backs of their trucks or chase them half a mile to the house. Growers, buyers, and family traveling from a distance brought excitement, stories my brothers and I listened to while picking at mosquito bites, gnawing on sour grass. As long as we stayed quiet, no one noticed we were sitting there in cut-off jeans with dirty knees and elbows. My grandfather and the Townsend brothers talked grapes, pests, droughts. Fast talking merchants pitched their ideas. And family members we remembered by the kinds of gifts they gave exchanged hugs, talked over each other, sharing details of their drive, catching us up on months of work. When the conversation lulled, they moved into the house, making themselves comfortable at the dinning room table.

They drank tea with milk, shared tips, made agreements, or revisited the past, clinging to comfortable memories from their youth as their bones creaked, hip and knee surgeries scheduled and then rescheduled. After a couple cups of tea and a trip to the bathroom, the magic in reminiscing got lost in the aches and pains, the call of a future still unclaimed. Talk of selling, downsizing, and retiring made for a somber mood, led to long pauses for reflection, mourning. Around that time my brothers and I entered, lurking first before disrupting the quiet with questions, hastily formed arguments for why we deserved a cookie from our grandmother’s honeycomb-shaped cookie jar. It was just the interruption they needed to find their way back to the present moment. They watched us devour the cookies, proudly wiped the crumbs from the corners of our mouths and brushed our cheeks with their calloused hands. We only knew how to live in the moment, to embrace it, and we expected nothing less nor anything more.

Now two shoeless, little girls in identical butterfly dresses and a boy in jeans with holes he earned approached the truck, motioning for me to stop so they could climb into the back. They cheered the whole way home, welcoming adventure in all its many forms, unaware of how memory might frame this moment. There wouldn’t be a party, but we’d each have a cookie from the honey-comb-shaped jar. And I’d wipe the crumbs from the corners on their mouths, rub my hand across their faces knowing they didn’t yet see themselves in me though I saw myself in them.

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Expecting Rain

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Pearl liked to take a walk before dinner, during the last half of the Sally Jessy RaphaĆ«l show, before the oven timer buzzed. She set aside her mending, slipped on her shoes and sun hat, and moved onto the porch, down the concrete steps she’d sweep when she returned. I grabbed my favorite doll and followed her outside for a leisurely stroll along the winding driveway. With her hands clasped behind her back, she hummed church hymns, eyed nature, appreciating Oak and Maple trees, the way they hugged the path. Patches of Blue grass hid behind prickly bushes, spider flowers in bloom, a beautiful shade of pink, a suffocating stench we hurried past.

Birds called out to their pals. Squirrels raced up scaly bark, avoiding fungus, pruning scars, insect bites. We slid our feet against dirt and rocks, stepped over dips and grooves but not before Pearl paused to examine them.

“It’s going to rain,” she said suspiciously, looking up at a bright blue sky, the tips of blue-gray mountains. “We should get back.”

“I don’t think so,” I stared up at the sky.

“Let’s go back,” she warned, but not before taking a few more steps into the bend.

Deep tire tracks marred the ground, and weeds scattered along the edge. But a few feet away something caught her eye each time. She walked through the trees, stepping carefully through vines, around rocks until we were standing in front of a plaque that had been covered by drooping wisteria. She crouched to scrape the dirt from the engraved letters, and I whispered the words into the air.

“To My Beloved Friend,” I paused for effect. “Charlie…Who’s a Good Boy.”

She lingered for moment inside the sweet smell of the flowers and then turned to leave.

“Come on,” she reached for my hand. “It’s going to rain.”

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Evidence of Outside

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Rubi and I arrived first, Alannah, Erin, and Desiree not far behind, their SUV loaded with luggage for a week. With keys in hand, Rubi led us up the stone steps and into her family’s timeshare.

“Wait a second,” she said, motioning for me to stay outside, while she checked the conditions of the house.

She gave the door a shove and disappeared. I took a seat on a wooden bench, English Ivy tickling my back, thin trees a screen blocking the sun’s rays, fracturing light. While I waited, I listened to the sound of water flowing across rocks and animals scurrying through thick patches of green foliage, yellow and purple flowers. The wind tickled my arms, blew through loose hairs that had found their way outside of a black ponytail holder. Leaves fell from high branches, landing in my lap, on my head, resting there weightless and adaptable. There were hints of eucalyptus, wild jasmine, and honeysuckle that soothed my lungs like medicinal vapors.

I caught a glimpse of Rubi standing in front of an upstairs window, her face obscured, framed by Ash and Cedar as she prepared the space, putting things away, clearing surfaces of dust, sweeping all evidence of outside into garbage bags, She waved and pointed at the oval-shaped leaves resting on me. I waved back, smiling at her, smiling at the juxtaposition.

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Familiar Land

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We hadn’t seen each other in the last two decades and had spoken maybe four or five times during the holidays when my parents and my sisters and I huddled around my mother’s old rotary phone to speak with relatives across the country, all of us talking at the same time, inquiring about children, jobs, school, expressing how happy we were to hear each other’s voices. And if we both could find a quiet space, we’d chat nonstop about our lives, our goals, motivating each other to stay the course. Before hanging up, we promised to stay in touch, not let so much time pass before checking in with each other. But we always got busy, months turning into years with a conversation here and there, the closeness between us waning, memories of good times fleeting.

When she called, I was outside planting perennials, Elias running back and forth in his Superman cape.

“Hello?”

“Angie…” the voice on the other end squealed.”

“Charlotte?” I listened to her laughing.

“It’s been a long time,” she stretched her words.

“It has…” I stood up and moved to the steps where Elias was now playing with a pile of action figures. “What are you up to these days?”

“Well, I’m on my way to a conference for work,” she explained. “And I’m in Bellford…” she squealed again.

“Right now?” I joined in her excitement. “Your conference is in Bellford? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“The conference is not in Bellford, exactly,” she clarified. “My connecting flight was delayed, and now I have some time, so I thought I’d give you a call to see what you were doing.”

“I’m just here at the house,” I said. “I was planting some flowers, but I can do that later.”

“Do you want to get something to eat?” she asked. “I have a few hours.”

Elias and I picked her up from the airport. When she spotted us, she squealed and rushed towards us with open arms. I hesitated for a moment, collecting her characteristics and matching them to my memory. We we’re older, our features changed by fine lines, water weight. But we found our way back inside youth, talking nonstop about life, our journeys through its dense jungles and quiet coves, all the times we waded alone through its slimy swamps and mountainous peaks, armed with introspection and a desire to connect, to reconnect on familiar land.

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Endless Summer Days

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Summer days felt endless, and we were unstoppable, resistant to the heat, sudden downpours, and hunger. We thrived on blackberries, sour grass, hose water, tag, and hide-n-seek. There were seven of us all together, my older sisters, Mira and Josephine, and our cousins, Kimberly, Brook, Eli, and Caleb. We woke to the sound of Mr. Gill’s chickens, ate breakfast, and followed our grandmother outside onto the porch, where soon our playfulness disrupted her peace and she shooed us on into the yard, a space that came to life with our imaginations.

Rusted tractors became get away cars, hay stacks made good hiding spots, and old farm tools were weapons to fight aliens, zombies, and other villains. One scenario led to the next, leaving little time for food breaks. little time to challenge believability, to consider the fear factor for the scaredy cats. We edited storylines as we went, vetoed ideas that didn’t fit, appeased younger cousins who threatened to tattle.

“Fine then,” we said, adding imaginary dinosaurs to zombie hordes.

Our grandmother brought lunch to us. When we heard her call, we stopped what we were doing and raced to the long, screened porch. She stood in her housecoat, holding a tray of sandwiches, dill pickles, cherry tomatoes, and snap peas no one grabbed. After maybe five minutes, we folded a few tomatoes into our shirts and were off again, moseying to the end of the gravel driveway where we’d race trucks that passed, the drivers honking to humor us.

The next few hours were spent swimming in the lake behind Mr. Robinson’s property. We piled into his truck and he drove two miles up the road. While we played in the water, he fiddled with his trucks, tuning his hear to sounds of coughing and choking.

“Be careful now, or you’ll have to get out,” he warned.

So we were careful, the bigger kids keeping an eye on the little ones, there to catch them when their bravery was bigger than they were. We played Marco Polo, tag, jumped from low-hanging branches, floated aimlessly until our skin wrinkled. And when the sun began to set, we sat on the grass, welcoming the cool evening breeze.

“Who wants to go back in the water?” we asked before realizing exhaustion had drained any energy we had left.

We threw out ideas, built elaborate stories, characters we’d play only to lay back on the grass and watch the sun disappear, wishing the day wasn’t over yet.

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Morning Coffee

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A few days before she arrived, my parents huddled in the living room, the kitchen, engaged in hushed conversations that left them rubbing their brows, exhaling, throwing their hands in the air.

“What’s wrong?” I asked my mother on the way to school.

“What do you mean?” she feigned.

“You and dad…” I nudged.

“Nothing,” she kept her eyes on the road and then turned up the radio, pretending to be absorbed in the traffic report. “People really need to slow down,” she mumbled.

That day I presented my report on endangered species with Diana Jensen who had talked me out of creating a slideshow of dead animals. I had first lunch, and all my friends had second lunch, so I roamed the halls, finding my way to the art room where, if Mr. Dalton was in a good mood, I could play with clay, mold it into a turtle, a flower pot, a mug I’d gift to my father once it had been put through the kiln and painted with leftover colors like mustard yellow, neon green, crimson red. After school, I rode home with Michelle Ashley and her sister, Renee, who lived a few blocks from us in a two-story brownstone with their parents and grandparents. We usually sat on the front steps or in the laundry room on top of the washer and dryer, chatting, making little progress on our homework.

My father, instead of my mother, picked me up at 7pm, an hour later than usual. I threw questions at him as he drove, but he ignored them, told me to sick back and relax. The lights on the dashboard glowed. something in the engine compartment rattled, and truth’s shadow lay against my father’s face.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“So…we’re going to have a visitor for a while,” he explained after a labored pause. “She’s staying in the guest room, and for now we need to give her some space…”

“Why?”

“Well, because she needs some space right now,” he ran his hand through his beard. “She’s been through a lot.”

“What?”

“Things you might not understand,” he said, checking the mirrors before changing lanes.

“Tell me…I’ll understand,” I pleaded.

“When she’s ready, she can tell you…if she chooses too,” he warned.

“Who is this person anyway?”

“Her name is Cynthia.”

“How do we know Cynthia?”

“I know Cynthia from work,” he slowed for a light. “She was my teaching assistant last year.”

I stared blankly for a moment, still not understanding why Cynthia had to move in with us.

“She doesn’t have her own house?”

“No, that’s not it,” he said and then fell silent.

We pulled into the driveway, and my mother came rushing out to greet us. She guided me into the kitchen, touching my face and hair as if it had been months since she had last seen me. They exchanged a long gaze and a few telepathic messages before sitting down at the table, picking at mashed potatoes, chicken breasts, green beans. I talked about my presentation, threw in questions about Cynthia that they provided vague answers to, and then headed upstairs for bed.

The next morning I awoke to whimpering noises, followed by footsteps descending the stairs. I grabbed my robe and slipped out of my room in time to watch Cynthia and her dog exit the back door. She let her dog off his leash and watched him sniff around until he found the perfect spot. I crept down the stairs to get a better view. When she came back inside, she told him to sit, and he did, staring up at her with big, begging eyes while she sifted through my mother’s coffee flavors before finding one she liked. I thought about walking into the kitchen, because watching without her knowing felt wrong. She took my father’s mustard yellow coffee cup from the cabinet, looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf, grabbing another one that didn’t have an uneven handle or odd shape. The coffee maker rumbled and brown liquid dripped into the cup. She watched the drips turn into a stream, and when the machine clicked off, she took the cup and sat down in my father’s chair.

There was nothing in her demeanor that explained the urgency of her visit. She sat soaking up the sun, lost in thought, so I decided to move into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice.

“Hello,” I said, nonchalantly.

“Oh hi,” Cynthia said, surprised to see me.

“I’m Francis,” I said, extending my hand.

“Hi Francis,” her hand was limp inside mine. “I’m Cynthia.”

“I know,” I said, opening the refrigerator door.

She smiled and then turned her gaze back to the window. I grabbed the orange juice and then a glass, filling it.

“Do you like orange juice?” I asked, and she turned to look at me again, this time her smile forced, her eyes looking in, not out.

“No,” she whispered, and I left her to enjoy her morning coffee.

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Brown Sweater

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On Saturday mornings, my mother dropped me off at the Drip N Dry with four baskets of laundry and six dollars worth of quarters stuffed in a red coin purse. She sat in the car while I lugged the baskets inside and then drove to her shift at Thelma’s Boutique where she fitted women for dresses and gowns, wigs and jewelry, chatting with them about their upcoming events. Before driving away, she warned me to keep the coin purse close, to watch out for detergent thieves, machine hogs.

“I will,” I said, slamming the trunk.

Inside the laundromat it was hot, stuffy, the regulars already staking claim to washers, dryers, space on the folding tables. I found a seat between two women, both with children they yelled at, threatening physical punishment if the bad behavior continued, but this didn’t stop the children from running around trying to destroy the place, even the shirtless baby who ran after his brothers in a saggy diaper, gripping an empty bottle he stopped to suck, frustrated when there was only air.

The sound of water sloshing through cycles and dryers buzzing quickly became background noise to the yelling, the complaining, the gossiping. Dressed in bleached sweatpants and mismatched socks, patrons led the attendant to washers that had accepted quarters but never turned on, dryers that had spun clothes round and round only for them to still be as wet as when they started. Women who were already familiar with each other collected around folding tables talking about people they knew, people they didn’t know, attacking their characters, their appearances. The women’s unapologetic tone cast a restlessness over the room, and we steered clear, as much as possible.

We jumped up when there were open washers and dryers, maneuvering our baskets through the rows of seats, crowded aisles. As Miss Harrington emptied two washers, I swooped in, waiting with a patient smile. She nodded and I began planning my approach–colored clothes and towels then whites and bedding. A woman wearing a brown, loose knitted sweater approached from the other side, her demeanor imposing.

“I’m using these washers,” she informed.

“I was here first,” I said, barely above a whisper.

Miss Harrington shot me a warning glance and then left. I began tossing clothes into the washer when the woman pressed her body against mine, pinning me against the machine.

“I said I’m using these washers,” she pressed harder until I gasped.

It took another twenty minutes before a washer opened, and I pounced, energized by the conflict. I threw the clothes in, measured detergent, and slid quarters into grooves. The woman in the brown sweater stared, her arms folded tight. I turned away and found a seat near the dryers next to a woman fanning herself with an All Saints church fan. Brown Sweater followed, pacing in front of me, mumbling insults. Her children joined, thinking it was a game, not the passive aggressive move she intended.

When she left to check on her clothes, I raced to the bathroom, pulling my baskets into the narrow space. I looked in the mirror at my glossy eyes, at the fear burning in my cheeks. Fear turned to anger, and the longer I stood there, the more confident I became. Armed with a fleeting sense of power, I barged through the door ready to take on whoever was on the other side, but Brown Sweater was gone. And the posse she belonged to was packing up, the mood growing lighter, strangling my nerve.

Once they were gone, I went to check on the clothes, discovering the machine was empty. I slammed the lid and opened it again, still nothing.

“Were those your clothes?” a woman in a baseball cap asked.

I nodded.

“A lady took them,” she looked around. “She was wearing a brown sweater.”

There was loud knocking against the window, on the other side Brown Sweater. She held up my Clear Lake Academy gym shirt and shorts. Then she pointed at me, beckoning me outside. My heart sunk and I stood frozen, my legs like Jello. Brown Sweater knocked again, this time with her keys, the jingling a menacing sound that made everyone look and then look away. I headed for the door and then stopped, considering for a moment what the infraction would cost me, if it was worth it.

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Creek Life

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My younger brother, Freddie, and I attended Travis Elementary. Our sister, Faith, attended Travis Junior High, the campus right across the street, and after school we went to catch crayfish in the creek while Faith, stayed for cheer practice. We rolled up our pants, slipped on galoshes, and walked to the middle of the creek, dipping our nets into the dirty water. If we were lucky, by the time Faith found us there, we had a small bucket full, but most days we caught a few minnows and insects.

“Let’s go,” she barked, still dressed in her blue and white uniform. “If any of that gets on me, you die,” she pointed at our muddy bucket.

Freddie and I shared the load, lugging creek gear and our backpacks for two blocks to the blue house on Kentucky Drive. We left our galoshes and nets outside, and delivered any crayfish we caught to our mother, who greeted us at the door, her nose crinkling when she caught a whiff of creek water on our hands, our clothes. I showered in my parents’ bathroom; Freddie enjoyed a bubble bath in ours. If we had homework, we finished it before plopping in front of the tv. Dinner was served when dad arrived, and we sat around the table eating spaghetti, broccoli florets, jabbering about our day.

Afterwards, Faith and I washed dishes, dad and Freddie in the living room watching a PBS special on the Civil War. Our mother ironed our uniforms, working through her nightly checklist.

“Did you finish your homework?” she probed, and we nodded.

“Did you turn in your homework from yesterday?” she looked at Freddie who paused, looked up at the ceiling, and then ran to check his backpack.

“Do I need to sign anything?” she asked, steam pouring from the iron.

Freddie found a permission slip in his math folder, and Faith and I were dismissed. I followed her to our bedroom, diving onto the bottom bunk, while she sat at the vanity brushing her hair and talking to her friend Maxine. She was also a cheerleader, so they mostly talked about cheer routines and why Betsy Fisher shouldn’t be on the team.

“She can’t even do the routines…” Faith whined. “She’s only on the team because her dad works in the front office.”

I lay with my back turned to her, the covers over my head as I listened, usually with disgust; that is, until a boy named Robert Jackson entered the picture. They went on and on about his features, his voice, his laugh, arguing over who he said hi to first that day. Soon they were competing for his attention, both wanting to attend the winter formal with him.

As much as I loved catching crayfish, I had to see who this Robert fellow was, so a week before the dance, when Faith and Maxine had already been fitted for their dresses but were still dateless, I ventured onto the campus, still wearing my galoshes. The cheerleaders were practicing, chanting their spirit, and on the sidelines were a few parents, siblings, and none other than Robert Jackson, a short, stalky boy standing with his hands in his pockets. I watched him pace awkwardly, taking his right hand out of his pocket long enough to adjust his glasses. And after each routine, Faith and Maxine ran to his side, welcoming his praise, his critique. Their smiles were wide, their eyes beaming.

“Gross,” I said, and made my way back to the creek where Freddie had already caught three crayfish.

I joined him, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but replay the Robert Jackson scene, oblivious to what made him so appealing, to why Faith and Maxine were so infatuated. We caught three more crayfish before Faith came, this time her shoulders slumped, her face long, eyes puffy.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, moving towards her until she held her hands out for me to stop.

“Nothing…” she cried.

“Robert Jackson didn’t ask you to the formal?”

“He asked Betsy, and she’s not even a real cheerleader,” her voice quivered.

“He’s dumb anyway,” I said.

“No, he’s not,” she wiped her tears with her sleeve. “Let’s go…”

She walked ahead of us, arms folded, head pointed at the ground, perhaps hoping comfort was there, written between the cracks in the sidewalk.

“Did you know that if a crayfish loses a leg it can grow another one?” Freddie posed.

“So?” Faith pouted.

“If your heart is broken…then maybe you’ll grow another one,” he explained, mud splattered across his face, thick under his fingernails.

Faith wrapped her arm around him, her mood lightening. He wasn’t Robert Jackson, but he saw her when she felt invisible.

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The Guardian

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We lived on the edge of Sweetfield in a three-level house with ten acres of land separating us from our nearest neighbor. My great aunt, Jackie, preferred it this way, relishing in the quiet, the solitude. In the early days, I didn’t know life could be any different until I started school and built friendships with Scarlett, Evie, December, and Lillian, who enjoyed playdates and sleepovers while I watched Matlock with Jackie, inhaling Bengay and emptying plastic store bags Jackie filled with peanut shells.

“Why can’t we move?” I asked anytime brave buyers ventured onto the property with their bold offers.

“Nonsense,” Jackie scoffed, and went back to critiquing the housekeeper’s work. “Can’t she see all this dust?” she complained.

I finished my homework and then tuned into the primetime lineup, soaking up catch phrases and lessons I’d take to school and try on with my friends, even if it meant irritating teachers who’d call Jackie to express their concern. They didn’t know that Jackie wasn’t exactly a parent. She was my guardian and took care of my basic needs, but parenting wasn’t part of the plan, aside from a few rules that barred me from parts of the house like the entire third floor, the first bedroom on the second floor, her father’s old study, and the half-bath. It wasn’t as if I didn’t try though. Jackie was one step ahead of me, bringing in a locksmith to secure the doors. I was five then, a snooper in search of information about my mother, my father, any other person who could decode the mysteries that seemed to surround us like the cobwebs Bertha could never reach.

“I’ll try, Miss Jackie,” she nodded, and she did, tiring her shoulders from holding sweeper in the air so long.

When I turned ten, instead of our usual celebration at the house, Jackie let me invite friends. even let them sleep over. She provided cake and ice cream and food we warmed in the microwave while Jackie lurked on the edge, unamused by the noise, the unbridled joy. She took a walk in the garden and then sat on the porch listening to oldies. I cut the cake and December took a slice Jackie. She turned up the radio to drown the excitement of opening gifts.

“What’s wrong with your Aunt?” Scarlett asked.

“Nothing,” I avoided their eyes. “She just likes to be alone.”

I don’t think Jackie slept much that night, kept awake first by our silly squeals and chit chat, and then by her fear that the privacy she had maintained for years was now threatened by four pre-teens. And she was right. They returned to school armed with observations that meant little to them but everything to Jackie. Word about her quirks got around, and all day long people drove out to the property to watch her, taunt her, remind her of a past she’d tried to seal.

Jackie didn’t acknowledge the insults, but she started going through old files and letters, looking at old pictures, conjuring the past with obsession, yearning. It took a few weeks before the past arrived in the flesh, a man named Henry who had made his way to the property and waited, poised like he was posing for a picture. Jackie told me to grab the grocery bags and go inside.

From the window, I watched their exchange. They weren’t exactly strangers, but the familiarity they once shared had diminished, in its place a wound. Neither wanted to be the first to speak though their bodies didn’t hesitate, diving into resentment, succumbing to the heaviness of holding on instead of letting go. Henry took a step towards her, and she took a step back, rocking on her feet for a bit, hands clasped.

Their mouths moved one at a time, the corners creasing as they remembered who they had been, what had made life so good then. And maybe this was Jackie’s chance to unseal her heart, let someone in who had loved her then, who loved her now.

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Predictable

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I slept for maybe five hours before my alarm blared, jarring me from a disturbing dream about a pizza delivery to a boardroom filled with men and women in suits, their heads on backwards. Enticed by the smell of coffee brewing, I slid out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. Kenny and Beau sat at the table each halfway through a bowl of Frosted Flakes. As I poured myself a cup of coffee and stirred in creamer, Kenny listed the day’s tasks, stressed deadlines. I sipped and nodded, absorbing the information the best I could.

“Text me the dentist’s address,” I said. “I’ll mail the packages on our way.”

“I don’t want to go to the dentist,” Beau turned to look at me, his face worried.

“It’s just a cleaning,” I comforted.

Kenny and Beau put their bowls in the sink before leaving, and I sat inside the absence, mulling over my 9:00am meeting with a client named, Noelle, who I knew would reject the first two plans I presented her, only to brainstorm a third and then go back to the first one. Today I was prepared for her long, contemplative pauses, her sulky sighs and disappointed glares that would all melt away in a moment of clarity when she saw the bigger picture, saw herself in the plan.

I envisioned my 11:00pm meeting with Grecia, a trainer who always came with tips for sculpting leg and arm muscles, going much more smoothly. She was chatty but decisive, idealistic but true to her budget. We’d both leave feeling inspired, full of energy, and I’d move on to my 1:00pm with Lavern who’d want to vent for ten minutes, weep for five, her tears staining the documents as she signed. With about forty-five minutes to spare, I’d mail the packages and arrive at Beau’s school in time to watch him walk out with his Batman backpack, his eyes wide with anticipation as he searched the pick-up line for my car.

What happened instead was a series of events that made me wish I had stayed asleep, haunted by suited men and women with their faces pointed towards the walls, their arms stretched towards the boardroom doors. On my way to my office in Millcreek, I was rear-ended by a sassy teen whose father, she threatened, was a judge. At the office, the printer was jammed and our usual technician was on vacation. There were the deliveries my assistant had mistakenly sent to our sister office in Bancroft. The missing files, broken light fixture in the bathroom, and black ink that had spilled in the storage room. Then Beau’s school called to let me know he was running a fever and needed to be picked up sooner than later. And the Kinkos on Walnut Blvd was closed for the day, meaning I’d have to find an alternative.

Kenny was in a meeting when I called, my mother was at the senior center playing bingo with her friends, and the sitter was in class taking a physics exam. So I took Beau home, and tended to him, promising an orange-cream popsicle after he choked down two teaspoons of cherry flavored medicine. His expression signaled the exchange was well worth it. He lay across my lap when he was finished, sleep relieving him of the discomfort.

By the end of the day we were still in the same spot, the sun crawling towards the horizon, steady, predictable, embracing the dimming of its glow without resisting.

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The Edge of Chaos

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Yareli called and asked if I’d spend the day with her, go for a ride, eat, celebrate.

“What are we celebrating?” I laughed.

“I don’t know…life,” she said, punching the keys on her keyboard.

“You’re at work?”

“I’m getting ready to leave now,” her attention divided between our conversation and her computer screen. “Meet me at the train station.”

“The train station?” I protested.

“Train leaves at 9:35am.”

I glided a pink highlighter over the definition of Structural functionalism before closing my textbook and emptying my backpack, filling it with a sweater, a few snacks, and my phone charger, before heading to the train station. Yareli was waiting outside on a bench, her legs crossed, one arm stretched across the back, the other in her lap.

“Hey,” she said. “You made it.”

“Where are we going?

“You’ll see.”

We moved inside and waited to board. People paced, hid behind newspapers, stared into their phones. She talked about an upcoming project for work, and I talked about classes, my anthropology professor.

“You have a crush on him,” Yareli teased.

“No,” I defended. “He makes me think…” my voice trailed.

“About what?”

“All kinds of things,” I waved my hands in the air. “Like how societies maintain order.”

“Wow,” she nodded. “Sounds interesting. It’s not something I’ve ever even thought about,” she laughed.

“You’re more of a numbers kind of gal,” I patted her shoulder.

“Numbers are everything.”

“Sure,” I rolled my eyes. “Too bad numbers can’t edit your reports.”

“Hey,” she put her arm around my shoulders, and we walked to the boarding area.

Once inside the trolley, she released her hold, sitting across from me so we both had a window seat. There was the light rustle of people settling in, mumbled confusion dispelled by instructions printed in plain sight, followed by urgent uniformity as announcements blared through the speakers and the train lunged forward.

“Sonoma, huh?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Wine?”

“Nope.”

“What then?”

“You’ll see,” Yareli shifted in her seat so she faced the window.

We passed through the city, through barren industrial areas, across narrow bridges, stopping to let passengers on and off, many moving swiftly to get to their destinations, to find their seats and get situated. After a quick glance at the new arrivals, Yareli and I chatted for a minute before getting back to gazing, which for me was a combination of observing the landscape and entertaining daydreams I orchestrated in my mind, moving things and people the way I saw fit. This is part of the reason I didn’t realize there was commotion in the trolley.

Yareli said it began with a shoulder brush. The lady across from us said it began with a side comment, something sarcastic. A man a few seats ahead of her said they belonged to rival gangs. While the encounter continued, words and gestures loaded with anger flew across the trolley and people talked amongst themselves. Brave bystanders and staff swooped in to offer their bodies as barriers, their calm demeanors as a purifier, turning anger into tolerance. And it worked. The feuding passengers returned to their seats, and through our windows we observed the softness of fall, its browns, yellows, and greens framing what still felt like the edge of chaos but looked like order.

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Everything we Needed

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It was our first summer in the house on Charleston Street, a three-bedroom townhome that had been painted the same color inside and out, a baby blue we thought was charming at first until it started to crack, exposing a blemished brown color we hid behind posters. My grandmother bought me curtains and bedding from QVC. Alice’s grandmother bought her a whole new bed, double curtains she had someone come over to install, fluffy pillows and stuffed unicorns, a matching robe and slippers, a small television set, and summer clothes she’d wear once and pass down to me.

“For god’s sake,” mother muttered, ripping the price tags off all the items.

“You can have whatever you want,” Alice told me, pulling me inside her room.

I left with a pillow and a unicorn half my size, placing both on my bed across the hall. But that night, every night until school started, we slept downstairs on the couch because it was hot and because we had never slept alone. Mother was off the week we moved in, so she joined us, and we watched movies, ate popcorn, braided each other’s hair, danced in front of the fan, talked about how this time things would be better, how we’d have everything we needed.

Alice turned twelve that year, and I was a year and a half behind her, much shorter, thinner, without the same curly hair people admired. When mother went back to work, we were on our own, spending our days playing board games, watching Little House on the Prairie, living on popsicles and pizza from our cousin, Natalie’s, parlor.

“Are you two supposed to be here?” she asked every time we walked through the door.

I looked at Alice and she looked at me, Natalie standing in front of us now with stern eyes.

“Come on,” she led us to a table, got us a pitcher of ice water and two slices of pepperoni pizza.

Before we left, she slipped us money for ice cream, told us to be safe, to stay off the bike trail even though it was a shortcut to our house.

“You hear me?” she warned, and we obliged, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

The trail offered a much more interesting view overlooking the creek, away from traffic, the hurry up and go attitude of lunch-breakers. We picked wildflowers, skipped rocks, raced to the tree with winding limbs. Bikers and runners passed us, shouting their location in advance.

“On your right,” they yelled, and we responded with a giggle.

Ahead on the trail were suspicious figures, but we crossed at Cheyenne, cutting through the park and arriving at Dairy Queen a couple blocks later, where we shared a sundae. We dodged concerned glances, pretended our mother was in the bathroom or next door at the sandwich shop, if people asked. It was a few days after the fourth of July that a girl appeared on the edge of the Dairy Queen parking lot, wrapped in a blanket, making us invisible. We stared at the motionless mass, some wondering aloud.

“Should we call someone?”

“Is she dead?”

Alice and I slipped out the side door and walked towards the girl, our steps slowing the closer we got.

“Excuse me?” Alice asked, her hand shaking in mine. “Are you okay?”

“Are you dead?” I asked, Alice shushing me.

The girl stirred, unravelling the blanket to reveal her disheveled hair, dirty jeans, bare feet.

“No,” she let her shoulders slump. “It just feels like it,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her arm.

“Why are you sitting out here?” I asked.

“I lost my dog,” she looked around. “Bear,” she cried.

“We can help you find him,” I offered. “I hope he wasn’t the dog we saw…” Alice nudged me.

“What did he look like?” the girl perked.

“Brown and white,” I said. “But he was…” Alice nudged me again.

“A man was putting him in his car,” Alice interrupted. “He was feeding him and petting him.”

“Really?” the girl cried. “You think he’ll take good care of him?”

Alice shook her head and smiled.

“Okay…thanks for talking to me,” she wrapped the blanket around her and sat on the ground. “I think I’ll be okay,” she rocked.

Alice motioned for me to follow her, this time taking Spokane to Walnut to Charleston, the sound of tires on the road drowning our voices. We waited for crosswalk signals to turn green, found loose change, kicked cans down the street. And when we got home, the answering machine was blinking with a message from Mother letting us know she’d be home late.

We played Checkers and Candyland, ate popsicles, dripping cherry and grape droplets onto the board. We watched Wheel of Fortune, guessing vowels and consonants. Afterwards, Alice made dinner, Top Ramen and toast that we ate in front of the television. We fell asleep on the couch, our ears tuned to the sound of the front door opening and then closing, the smell of sweaty cologne familiar to our noses as it wafted, following Mother up the stairs, the small click of her bedroom door closing all we needed to convince ourselves we were safe, all we needed to be okay.

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Shadowy Formations

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When I was thirteen, my grandmother moved in, along with her diaper-wearing dog, Fred, who barked at everything, including his own shadow. I gave up my bedroom and moved into my mother’s sewing room, decorating around patterned fabric, spools of thread, unfinished projects folded on shelves or flung over the chair and door frame, stick pins holding sleeves together, holding collars in place.

“Why do I have to give up my room?” I complained, while my mother diced onions. “Noah and Matthew don’t have to give up their rooms.”

“Never mind all that,” she scraped the onions into a saucepan. “Go see if Nana needs anything.”

And that’s what I did before and after school, filling her water pitcher, fixing her a snack, taking Fred for a walk, reading letters from childhood friends who wrote to tell her that someone they knew had died.

“Well,” she stuffed the letter back inside the envelope. “Put this in my letter box.”

“Are you sad?” I sat on the edge of her bed.

“Of course, I’m sad,” she patted my hand and then went back to her cross-stitching.

Most evenings she joined us for dinner, sitting in my father’s chair, while he squeezed between Noah and Matthew, their elbows bumping. But some nights she preferred to eat alone, left to grieve the deaths of her friends, to mull over test results and her doctors’ recommendations. And life went on. We absorbed changes, adding new pills to the dispenser, learning everything we could about new treatments, ordering take-out on the way back from appointments.

I was midway through 7th grade at Carson Charter when my grandmother started daily radiation treatments at Bellevue Medical Center, her appointments right after school, which meant I had to race to my locker and then to the car so we wouldn’t be late.

“Next time get here faster,” my mother complained.

“Why don’t you park in the front then?”

“If I park in the front, we’ll have to wait for all of the other parents trying to get their kids.”

“I have to run through the hallway which is full of kids.”

“I’ll talk to Mr. Bower,” she mumbled. “See if you can get out early.”

Fred licked my face and plopped next to me as my mother drove. My grandmother asked about my day, reminisced about being in high school.

“I’m not in high school yet, Nana.”

“I know,” she laughed and went on about a boy who had caught her eye, a boy who drove a Plymouth Fury. “

At the hospital, my mother and grandmother moseyed in arm-in-arm. I stayed outside with Fred. We walked across the street to the drugstore where I bought a pack of peppermint gum and an orange Crush. I shoved two sticks of gum in my mouth and sipped the soda as Fred and I strolled along the waterfront, weaving past men and women in scrubs, friends and relatives of patients who needed to take their minds off things. They wore worried expressions, stared out at the water until curiosity called them back.

“It’s so beautiful,” they all said, taking one last glance at the stillness, the way the buildings were reflected–blurred, shadowy formations that would fade when the sun set and shimmer softly under the moon, never letting time separate our seams or leave us alone, unfinished and fragmented.

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The Most Vulnerable

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The morning after the worst storm we’d had all year, the sun rose and clouds parted, illuminating damaged rooftops, toppled sheds, garbage scattered across muddy lawns, uprooted trees narrowly missing parked cars. Residents opened their doors to the aftermath, thankful their homes were still standing but perplexed by nature’s attack on unsuspecting gnomes, flamingos, bird feeders, fountains, grills, and wicker furniture now broken and twisted, too fragile to use, too blemished for curb appeal.

We drove around, retrieving city-issued receptacles and other items that had journeyed across the neighborhood, checking on the most vulnerable to make sure they had survived. Familiar faces filled yards and hoisted Hefty garbage bags over their shoulders. Parents with children and Golden Retrievers by their sides, strolled by handing out water and granola bars, offering their assistance with broken fences, tree removal and stump grinding.

When I returned home, I put away my candles, scraped wax off the coffee table, reset the clock on the microwave, and opened the windows to let in the fresh air. My phone buzzed with text messages from friends, family. I responded with emojis and one line messages that conveyed general concern, an invitation to respond if they needed anything. And after two cups of coffee, I went out into my backyard, clearing branches and leaves, fast food wrappers and wrinkled notebook paper with spelling words written in cursive, math problems scribbled on one side, answers blurred. Plants in ceramic planters leaned to the side, their roots exposed, so I secured them, adding more soil to keep them upright. I swept dirt from corners and restored the awning.

Around midday the doorbell rang, my sister and her children on the other side of the door, peering through the peephole to see if I was home. I sat at the kitchen table, eating an egg salad sandwich, listening to the children run across the grass.

“I know you’re home,” my sister yelled. “Your windows are open.”

“Yeah, we know you’re home,” the children parroted, giggling as they went back to their game of tag.

I went to the door, put my hand on the lock, and then froze, stepping back a couple feet.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I’m checking on you…I can’t check on my sister?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

“Okay,” she sang. “Well, we’re fine too,” she mocked.

“That’s good.”

“You wouldn’t know because you never call or come by.”

“That’s not true…” I started.

“It is,” she turned to walk away. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

“No,” I said, watching her rally her children.

They were the most vulnerable, and even after years of acrimony, I still checked on them first.

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White Puffy Clouds

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Our plans to binge watch The Wire were thwarted by a collect call from my sister, Aurora, claiming she had been falsely accused of stealing her neighbor’s dog.

“Why did you steal your neighbor’s dog?” I asked, still making sense of what she was saying in between angry and sorrowful cries.

“I didn’t,” she blurted. “Can you come?”

Wesley and Tia went home, wanting nothing to do with the situation, but Miranda reluctantly agreed to take the two-hour drive with me.

“Do you mind if we listen to my audiobook?” she asked when we got in the car.

I plugged her phone in and backed out of the driveway, listening to the opening credits. Miranda leaned back in her seat, slipped off her shoes, and closed her eyes. I thought she might fall asleep, but she didn’t. Occasional gasps and groans overlapped with the speaker’s voice, a sarcastic, nonchalant first-person narrator with everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Drawn in by the character’s flaws and her underlying desire for good, we rooted for her, let the speaker pull us inside the chaos, the mystery, the joy though it was fleeting, swiftly swapped with sadness. We screamed at the end of each chapter as the narrator was swept away by yet another bad decision, and we cried for her at the beginning of every chapter when hope began to fade, when she realized loss was eminent and embraced the wound long before it appeared.

Most of the drive felt seamless; in fact, there were parts I didn’t even remember, long stretches of highway unaccounted for, but the emotional trek was rife with potholes, arduous hills we had to downshift to climb, a weepiness we couldn’t shake because at times it was like looking in a mirror.

“Do you mind if I pause it?” Miranda asked, as the narrator weighed the pros and cons of leaving her daughter with a friend.

“Go ahead,” I said, anticipating silence.

Instead, she pointed towards the bend.

“Look…”

The highway curved, and we were riding alongside white, puffy clouds, miles of unexpected peace shielding us from where we had been and where we were going.

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A Story

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I was two days into my three-day trip to my grandfather’s cabin, a small one-room, log home he’d spent a lot of time, remnants of his woodwork still scattered, hidden as if they had been part of some scavenger hunt. Already I had found a small pack of wooden wolves lined up under under his bed, owl faces in the window sills, birds perched on ceiling beams, and a figurine of a women wearing a feather hat and a ballroom-inspired dress, her face blank, smooth.

In plain view were stained coffee mugs, a jacket still wrapped around a chair, boots by the door, logs he had stacked in the corner, the debris collecting, home to insects I rehomed near the creek that ran alongside the cabin. I cleared the cobwebs, but I left everything else alone, preserving his last days there, learning as much as I could about who he was.

“I don’t advise it,” my mother warned. “Who knows what he did in that cabin.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I defended. “Just because he liked to go out to the cabin doesn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.”

“Well, I guess we’ll see,” she gulped the rest of her wine and went to the kitchen for a refill.

I got lost twice on the drive up, missing faded road signs, narrow turns down ominous paths, before arriving to a dense, overgrown piece of land. The trees around the property seemed to lean towards the cabin, their branches reaching out like arms. A nearby waterfall plunged into the stream, white noise slowing my thoughts, quieting the worry, my own and others’. This was my cabin now, willed to me because I told him I wanted it.

“What are you going to with it?” my grandfather asked from his hospital bed.

“I want a place I can go to write… like Virginia Woolf,” I said, leaning over the bed rail.

“Like Virginia Woolf?,” he laughed and reached for my hand.

“And take pictures…paint.”

“If I give you the cabin, you’re going to do all those things?”

“I already do…”

“I want to see what you have,” he smiled. “I want a show.”

So I gave him a show, right there in his hospital room. I brought my paintings, pictures, and read chapters from my novella while he dozed off, awaking when my voice trailed.

“It’s all yours,” he said, sitting up and then clearing his throat.

He changed his will a few days later, and at the reading I learned that he had also left me enough money for the upkeep.

“Figures,” my mother stood up and left.

I made sure everything stayed the same. I lived on the edge of the space, not in it, a visitor aware of how her presence changed the energy, but also of how our lives intersected, a story I was now responsible for weaving together, changing it into something new.

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Hillside

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When I was thirteen, about six months after my parents’ divorce, my father and I moved to Elford into a small house on the hillside, over a hundred miles from my old school, my friends, my mother who kept our dog, Lily, and had a new boyfriend named Terrance, whom she told not to tell my father about but I did anyway, to which he said, “Okay,” and shrugged.

There were only two bedrooms in the house on the hill, instead of four, like our old house, and the rooms shared a wall, a thin wall my father’s snores drilled through like a jackhammer. We ate meat and potatoes, the only things he knew how to make, at a table for two. He woke me up at 4:30am and I dressed for school, finishing my homework in the truck during the hour drive while he listened to the Aaron Neville cd stuck in the player. When we made it into the city, he bought us breakfast sandwiches and coffee from Caroline’s a few miles from my school, and we parked in the empty lot. Our conversations centered on sports, professional basketball teams and the St. Francis’ girls’ team where I played. As we took our last bites, he asked how I was doing, and I nodded, chewing until the food was mush.

It was the two of us and our neighbors down the hill, Holly and Glen, who brought us figs from their tree, invited us for dinner on Sundays, and gave us a baby goat who chewed through the enclosure and made his way back down the hill, to the only home he’d ever known. My friends called every day, updating me on the gossip, even including me in their girl’s night celebrations. I watched them for a while, jumping into the excitement when a space opened, but eventually hung up and read choose your own adventure books until I fell asleep.

Some Saturdays I hiked with Holly who would always invite me to make pickles with her, and I would decline, reminding her that I didn’t like pickles.

“You don’t have to like pickles to make them,” she explained.

“I don’t like the smell,” I said.

“I see,” she said sweetly but always asked again to see if I had changed my mind.

On my birthday, while my dad went to get a cake, she walked up the hill, toting a pink giftbag and an invitation to help her feed the baby goats.

“Remus misses you,” she laughed.

“He ran away,” I grabbed my jacket. “Pretty sure he doesn’t miss me.”

We took our time down the hill, admiring the greenery and the flowers spring delivered. She schooled me on what was edible and what wasn’t, the animals and insects native to the area, what to do if I ever got lost.

“I only go to school and home, Holly.” I laughed.

“You should always be prepared…how old are you?”

“Fourteen. It’s my birthday,” I stopped, waiting for her to remember.

“That’s right…” she laughed.

At her house we slipped into work boots and went out to the goat pen. It soon became clear that they had already eaten. Remus played with his buddies, oblivious to my presence.

“I know what you can help me do,” Holly said. “I have these jars I need to wash…they’re not pickle jars,” she teased.

“What’s going on?” I asked, detecting something was off.

“Nothing,” she sang, a smirk forming as she tossed me a pair of rubber gloves.

“Is my dad trying to surprise me?” I fished.

“I don’t know,” Holly said, staring out the window at the goats.

“Do you know if my mom is coming?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, this time her tone sympathetic. “When is the last time you saw your mother?”

“Right before we moved here,” I said. “But I talk to her every couple weeks.”

“Oh good,” her body relaxed.

We washed jars, labeled boxes, and cooked fruit until it was soupy. Glen poked his head in the kitchen from time to time, praising our progress, throwing hints that made no sense.

“Glen,” Holly threw him a glance.

“I think I already know what’s happening,” I laughed, and they both waited for my guess. “A party?”

“Umm ,” Holly and Glen avoided my eyes.

“My dad went to get my mom, and we’re going to have a party,” I said, satisfied with my guess.

Holly looked out the window again at the goats, I thought, but creeping up the road was my dad’s truck, bouncing on the uneven terrain. I ran out to greet him, Holly and Glen chasing after me. And the closer he got, the clearer it became: We weren’t having a party with my mother. My dad sat in the driver’s seat, his body large behind the wheel. Next to him was a small-framed girl with curly hair and braces. She waved wildly, freeing herself from the seatbelt.

“Sophie,” I screamed.

Charlotte, Hannah, and Ester were in the back seat, their hands raised to the ceiling as they cheered. They jumped out of the truck and swept me into a group hug. I glanced over at my father, offering a non-verbal thank you for bringing home to the hillside.

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The Choice

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As soon as I started climbing the stairs to Sabrina’s apartment, I heard her yelling at Vincent, her boyfriend of two years. I slowed my pace, unsure if I should interrupt or come back later. They threw complaints and insults at each other, pain the enemy fueling the dispute, replaying past traumas and dramas. I waited outside the door, ready to knock, to distract them from the wreckage.

“Choose,” he yelled.

“I can’t,” she yelled back. “I won’t.”

A few minutes later, the door swung open, Vincent racing past me, down the stairs, leaving behind the smell of his cologne and the sound of wrought iron vibrating long after he had released his grip on the rail.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hi,” Sabrina exhaled, ran her fingers through her hair.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she crossed her arms at her chest. “You want to take a short walk?” she grabbed her keys.

“Sure. It’s a nice day, and I could use a walk,” I joked, but she stayed quiet.

We headed west on Market Street, past residential sound walls, into the heart of downtown where we were greeted by honking and rage, blocked intersections and broken meters. Sabrina took her time, strolling along unbothered by the noise, by drivers who were blind to pedestrians.

She stared up at the office buildings, their rounded corners, bay windows, brick siding. The half-lit structures loomed, drowning us in shade, like an ominous prequel to a thriller, but still she continued her stride, her silence. We moved past couriers pushing packages in wire-framed baskets from one building to another. Workers in suits and rimless frames stood poised, waiting for drivers. UPS trucks double parked in the alleyways to unload boxes they transported into building lobbies.

Things quieted the closer we got to the Punch Bowl, the smell of pizza, burgers, fries, and spicy noodles hanging in the air. There weren’t fewer people, but they stood quietly in line, scrolling through notifications. They wandered into boutiques, bookstores, jewelers, galleries, and day spas. Sabrina still moseyed along, pausing to read store signs, muse at artwork, collect brochures she glanced at and folded in half.

At the corner of Market and Fifth, she stopped, looking first at the coffee shop on our left and then at the coffee shop on the right.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Should we go to…” I watched her cover her face with her hands.

Soft cries turned into long, silent stretches labored with the kind of pain that suffocated before it offered release. We stood on the corner, temporarily invisible to passersby who didn’t understand just how complicated the choice was, or why in this moment picking one over the other brought sadness and not joy.

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Green Smoothie

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“…And I came home to a note from neighbor about my guests parking in front of her house,” Valentina said as I came back from the bathroom, examining three mangos before selecting one and putting the other two in the refrigerator. “They don’t own sidewalk,” she complained.

“That’s ridiculous,” I supported.

“Besides, the only guests I get these days are Jerry and Jean,” she cut the mango into slices. “They come in together and park right in front,” she pointed the knife towards the street.

“What about me?” I nudged her with my elbow.

“You don’t count,” she tossed the mango slices into a bowl. “You’re my daughter…I mean friends.”

“What happened to Hillary?” I moved over a little so she could get a bag of kale out of the refrigerator. “Why don’t you take out everything you need, instead of going back and forth…”

“Because I do it this way,” she snapped.

“So what happed to Hillary?” I laughed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she fiddled with the bag, trying to open it without spilling the kale.

“Here…let me,” I grabbed the bag and cut the top corner with the knife, creating a small opening.

“I can’t get my hand in this,” she grabbed the knife and started widening the opening.

“Pour it, mom,” I reached in, tilting the bag.

“Well, now I have to wash the knife,” she walked to the sink and rinsed the knife.

“I thought you only used this thing to make soups.”

“I make smoothies,” she defended. “Jean gave me this recipe a couple weeks ago, and I thought I would try it since I’m here,” she pulled out two produce bags from a drawer.

“Why didn’t you go to the flea market today?”

“Didn’t feel like it,” she shrugged, untwisting the wiry twist ties.

“Why not?” I pressed.

“What are you with the FBI or something?” she scoffed, measuring seeds and pouring them into their own bowl, finally ready to make her green smoothie.

“I ran into Hillary at the post office today,” I confessed. “She said you weren’t returning her calls.”

“Interesting,” she said, the icemaker rumbling as it dumped ice cubes into a bowl.

“Are you mad at her?”

The motor of her newly dusted Vitamix screeched as its blades cut through ice, mango slices, kale, pumpkin and flax seeds. She yelled over the sound, defending herself, but I could only understand her hand gestures, her disgruntled facial expressions, the meanings of her words drowned by the blender while swirling bits turned to liquid.

“I’m the one that should be mad, right?” she asked, the motor winding down from a screech to a whirr before ceasing.

She poured a little bit of the smoothie into a glass and took a sip, the smell of fresh kale and mango still lingering in the air.

“It’s not that sweet,” she set the glass on the counter, looking at the recipe again.

“Is it supposed to be sweet?”

“That’s what Jean said,” her tone sad, defeated.

“Maybe it’s sweet to her,” I explained. “Or it could be the mango…” I said, but she had stopped listening.

She began cleaning the space, piling the bowls in the sink, pouring the rest of the smoothie into the glass and rinsing the container.

“Why don’t we go get a smoothie?” I suggested. “There’s a place downtown that’s good.”

“Never mind,” she wiped the counter twice.

“Are you sure?” I put my arm around her, squeezing her.

“Enough of that,” she broke out of the hug. “I’ll just make something else.”

“They’re sweet,” I teased. “And green…”

She put the dishes in the dishwasher and with her back to me said, “Let me get my purse.”

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Hiding Places

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By age ten I knew how to perform the day-to-day duties in my parents’ bookstore, helping customers find books, running the cash register, making sure I slipped a free bookmark into the bag when a customer spent at least twenty dollars; restacking books customers decided not to buy, and directing delivery drivers to the back where my parents were, lost in a lively conversation about transcendentalism, citing and reciting writers like Emerson and Thoreau.

It was also my job to look after Albert and Jackson, our sixteen-year-old Himalayan and the young man who spent his days in the aisles of the store, a history buff who dabbled in Myths and Legends, sipped black coffee and nibbled on muffins my mother got from the day old bakery. Albert knew all the nooks and crannies and hid from us until it was time to eat when he filled the store with his meows and rubbed against our legs, white hairs flying through the air. Jackson wore a black leather coat and boots year round, mumbled while he read, and minded his own business. He had no family, no friends, that I ever saw, and at times he didn’t seem to have a home either. But he always found his way into the store, grabbed his stool, and picked up where he left off the day before.

“He never buys anything,” I complained to my dad after Jackson left one day. “This isn’t a library.”

“That’s not for you to worry about,” my dad said calmly, peeling an orange and leaving the peels on the counter.

“Dad…”

“What?” he turned, an orange slice sticking out of his mouth.

“Your garbage.”

“Why don’t you take care of that for me,” he winked.

I threw the peels into the garbage can near the entrance, and as I turned, out of the corner of my, I thought I saw something shiny so I took a closer look. There were two silver bracelets stacked one on top of the other. I reached in, grabbed them, and slid them onto my wrist, remembering the young women who had come in earlier. One led the other into the store all the way to the self-help section where they spent an hour flipping through chapters on healing before they decided on two books, one written by a psychologist, the other written by national radio host. I tried to remember if I had seen either dump the bracelets on their way out but came up with nothing. Squiggly designs on each made them look expensive, or at least not cheap. On the inside names had been engraved, Lucy and Leanne. I decided to put the bracelets in my backpack, thinking my mother would certainly see them and ask questions.

The shop closed at 8pm, giving us just enough time to get home, eat leftovers while playing a quick game of Scrabble, and then we were off to bed. My parents always left the house before me, leaving me behind to get dressed, make my own breakfast, and catch the 19 bus that stopped a block from school. I sported the bracelets that day at school, playing with them while my teacher blabbed on about fractions, parts of speech, osmosis. I ate lunch with Sybil and Priscilla, played a little dodgeball at recess, and goofed off during the library tour with Mrs. Walker.

“You don’t want me to contact your parents, do you?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” I said but kept pushing books off the shelves.

After school, I took the 30 bus and then transferred to the 11 bus, walking a few blocks to the store, past the Salvation Army, a gas station, a four-level apartment complex, a park, and the bakery my mother bought muffins and nine-grain bread. The front of the store, usually bustling with delivery drivers, customers who heard we had a copy of some out of print book they needed for a project, was quiet except for the three police cars parked side by side.

“What’s going on?” I ran inside, my bracelets clanking.

“This is our daughter,” my mother offered. “Go in the back, please.”

I cut through the store, feeling my mother’s eyes on me until I was out of sight. I waited a few seconds and then crouched down, making my way to the next aisle, crawling to the middle where their voices were clear, where the problem burned like a wildfire and they couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it.

“He wouldn’t harm them,” my father said, his tone weepy.

“Several witnesses have…” one of the officers started.

“It can’t be true…none of this…It can’t,” my father cried. “They’re his half-sisters…Lucy and Leanne.”

I slipped the bracelets off and hid them behind a book, my hands shaking, my flesh burning.

“When he was here yesterday,” another officer chimed. “He seemed okay, like everything was normal?”

“Everything was fine,” my mother said. “Also…” she paused.

I heard my father sniffling, trying to compose himself, and then voices on the officers’ radios announced codes that meant something to them and nothing to us, adding more stress to the moment.

“He’s…” my father started, his voice faint. “Jackson is…my son.”

Albert found me, his meows loud as he rubbed his face against mine. I didn’t know what else to do so I scooped him into my arms and ran to the front of the store.

“I think they came into the store yesterday,” I said. “They bought two books.”

My father shook his head, and, as if it were contagious, my mother started shaking hers too.

“No, they didn’t,” she said.

“There were two…” I started.

“They aren’t allowed to come in the store,” my mother explained.

“But I found their bracelets in the garbage can,” I admitted.

My father covered his face with his hand, emotion moving through him. His body shook with pain, and I wanted to save him, protect him the way he had protected Jackson, but I also wanted to scream at him and tell him to stop hiding.

“I threw them away,” I lied, watching his eyes perk.

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Memory Keeper

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“What do we do with the pictures?” Alexandria asked.

“I’ll get some of those picture boxes,” I said. “How many do you think I should get?”

“Depends,” she scratched her head and put her hand on her hip, surveying the walls, the faded Polaroids, the unframed images taken by disposable cameras, all of children who had passed through Aunt Linda’s third grade class. “There are the ones in the back rooms too,” Alexandria remembered.

“Oh yeah…” I counted the top row of pictures and then the ones along the border, hoping a little multiplication would help me figure out how many pictures there were. “I’ll stop by Michael’s on the way home and see what they have.”

We finished covering the furniture with sheets, emptying the cupboards of expired canned goods and mite-infested bags of flour, cornmeal; wrapping dishes in newspaper, and making a list of all the things that needed to be fixed.

“I can’t believe my mother just left,” Alexandria said, emotion in her throat. “I don’t know if I could leave everything behind…walk away and start over somewhere else.”

“You never know,” I stacked two small boxes on top of the big ones we had already packed, taped, and pushed to the side. “Maybe it was something she always wanted to do.”

“Maybe,” Alexandria said, dissatisfied with my answer. “I think it was something she just decided to do without even thinking about how it would effect us.”

“It doesn’t really effect me…not that much,” I clarified. “Plus, now we have someone to visit in Alaska.”

“I’m not going to Alaska,” she clenched her teeth. “Why don’t you start taking the pictures down…we can get the boxes later.”

“Okay,” I stood up and slipped past her, weaving through boxes on my way to the living room.

My Aunt Linda had used some kind of adhesive to glue the pictures on the wall, making it impossible to remove them without destroying them first. Decades of smiling faces collected like yearbook pictures, some children wearing their Sunday best, others standing in grass-stained jeans, in baseball uniforms, in leotards and tutus, with younger siblings, parents and grandparents. There were pictures of birthday celebrations, children reading their favorite books, building sandcastles at the beach, riding new bikes in their cul-de-sacs; fishing with grandpa, camping in the woods, sleeping under character comforters with their teddy bears next to them.

I ran my fingers across the pictures, wondering why she had chosen to keep them in this way. For most, the fine details had been blurred by time, by the cold and hot air blasting through the vents. What remained were bits and pieces of the moments parents had captured and sent to her as a thank you, a forget me not. And Aunt Linda had found a space for every child, lining up the pictures so their faces reminded her of their days together, so they were not forgotten. Her walls had disguised the passing of time, until it crept into her bones, an aching that sent her on a adventure she’d live, even if it meant letting go of the memories that had once kept her safe.

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Light

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Denise pulled up to pump 9, got out to pay and realized her tank was on the opposite side.

“How long have you had this car?” I asked.

“Um…like five years,” she said, pulling around to pump 10.

“And you still don’t know what side your gas tank is on?” I teased.

“Ha, ha,” she got out, slid her card into the machine and entered her pin, looking around while she waited for the prompt on the screen to select a fuel and begin pumping.

I leaned back and listened to the sound of gas gushing through the hose, panhandlers asking for change, a young salesman announcing his merchandise: gold chains, designer sunglasses and wallets, Cd’s.

“Ready?” she asked, getting back in the car.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“Well, you better get ready,” she doused her hands with sanitizer.

We were on our way to take groceries to our sister, Sandra, who, for the past year, had walled herself in her house, living off microwave dinners and romance novels. I usually let Denise do the drop off while I took mom to her dialysis appointments every week.

“You need to come with me,” Denise pleaded. “I think we should do an intervention.”

“Are you serious?”

“She seems really unhappy,” Denise explained.

“Sometimes people are unhappy,” I dismissed.

“No, like really unhappy, like she doesn’t want to be here anymore.”

As we drove south on I5, Denise went on and on about the new hire at work, pausing when she had to make a lane change, when someone cut her off, when she tired of the topic. The quiet neighborhood she lived was tucked behind a wooded bike trail, a few miles from the main road.

“Is she even home?” I asked as we got out of the car, each grabbing two grocery bags stuffed with fresh fruit and veggies. “You think she’s eating this stuff?”

“I’m just trying to be helpful,” she sighed and rang the bell.

All of the windows were dark, but we heard footsteps and then locks unlocking. Sandra poked her head through door, squinting at the sunlight.

“What do you want?” she muttered.

“I brought you some groceries,” Denise said.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Sandra tried to close the door, but Denise wedged her shoulder between the door and the frame.

“I wanted to see how you were doing.” Denise said. “I brought Hazel.”

“Hi,” I said, like a stranger who had tagged along to get out of the house.

“Can we come in?”

“No.”

“Not even for a few minutes?” Denise persisted.

Sandra looked inside her house and then back at us before opening the door for us to enter.

“Don’t touch anything,” Sandra warned.

Boxes of books cluttered the living room, small stacks collecting on the end tables, the sofa and loveseat, on the dining table, the chairs, and countertops.

“Wow,” I said, “Are you starting your own library?” I asked and Denise jabbed me with her elbow.

We followed Sandra into the kitchen where she unpacked the grocery backs, frowning at each item as she stuffed them onto the empty shelves of her refrigerator, cabinets, pantry.

“There,” she wiped her hands on the front of her pants.

“So what have you been up to?” Denise pried.

“Time to go,” Sandra pointed towards the door.

I backed up right into the table, her laptop resting on a pile of newspapers wobbling, the light on the screen flickering against the darkness in the room. Denise pressed Sandra on her daily activities while I snooped, clicking through the open tabs on her laptop, the pill bottles hidden behind craft books, receipts for slacks, blazers, button-down blouses, the appointments scribbled into a planner.

“Get out,” Sandra was yelling now.

“Come on, Denise,” I grabbed her arm, guiding her to the door.

“I’m concerned,” she kept saying, Sandra on our heels, ushering us towards the door.

When the door slammed in our faces, we paused for a moment, processing what happened, adjusting to the sunlight, its familiar warmth.

“She’s fine,” I comforted Denise.

“No…” she shook her head. “We have to do something.”

“She’s already doing something,” I put my arm around Denise and walked towards the car. “I think she got a job.”

“What?”

“Yeah…on her laptop there was an email from her manager, and she bought clothes…”

“Really?”

“Yep,” I said, waiting for Denise to unlock my door. “She’s finding her way.”

“Well, that’s good,” Denise relaxed, turned on the radio, and bopped to the beat.

She was excited, unburdened, and now I would carry the truth on my shoulders, weighed down by the fact that our sister was sick and was not searching jobs but for doctors who could help her find the light wanting to shine through.

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