Where’s Diane?

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“Keep an eye on her,” my mother warned, after asking me to pick up my second cousin, Diane, from the bus station. “She’s a strange one.”

I arrived at the station just as Diane was climbing down the bus steps, her large straw hat blowing in the wind, bell bottom jeans flapping around her ankles. She stood with other passengers, hugging a Be Happy tote, as they waited for the driver to open the baggage compartment. I sat in my car, ready to wave her over as soon as she collected her luggage. But when she grabbed two, overstuffed suitcases, she headed inside, not hearing me honk and call her name over the idling engine and whiny exhaust system.

“Diane,” I followed her inside.

She looked back at me like I was a stranger.

“It’s me…Bianca.”

“Hey,” I thought Charlene was picking me up.

“No, they’re still on vacation.

“So where am I staying?” she stepped back.

“With me. Didn’t my mother call you?”

“No,” she relaxed, and we headed for my car.

I reached for one of her suitcases, but she pushed my hand away.

At the car she insisted on lugging the heavy bags into the trunk. Sweat beads slid down the side of her face as she struggled. She let out a loud, exhausted breath and then collapsed in the front passenger seat. I rolled the windows down for her, and she took off her hat, exposing thick patches of frizzy, gray hair.

“Phew,” she exhaled, cool air filling the car.

“How was the trip?” I asked.

“Like riding a bus for three days,” she griped. “Glad I’m off that bus.”

“Are you excited to be here?”

“I’ve been here before,” she stared out the window. “That’s new,” she pointed at the two-level health food store. “Has its own parking lot too?”

“Yeah, remember the Wellness Market?”

“By the railroad tracks.”

“This is it now,” I said, her mouth opening wide.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

I left her wrestling with her suitcases while I opened my front door and moved the shoe rack from behind the door.

“You sure you don’t want help?” I asked when I returned.

“Nope. Show me where I’ll be sleeping. That’s all I need to know.”

I showed her to the extra room, a small dresser and air mattress the only furniture.

“Nice,” she said, sliding one suitcase into the closet at a time. “Hangers too?”

“It’s not much,” I shied. “I’m still working on it.

“I got a bed and somewhere to put my clothes,” she looked around the room. “Thank you.”

“Are you hungry? I can make us something.”

“I’d appreciate that,” she put her hands together.

“Do you have any preferences?”

“I like everything,” she sat on the air mattress and took her shoes off. “Anything you make, I’ll eat,” she laughed, rubbing her feet. “But first, let me wash up.”

I made chicken alfredo, warmed up a can of green beans, and filled a glass pitcher with water, dropping in a few pieces of fruit for flavor. Diane came to the table dressed in baggy sweatpants and a sleeveless t-shirt.

“Looks good, cousin,” she reached for the alfredo and then the green beans, piling one on top of the other.

“Is there anything you want to do this weekend?”

“You don’t have to worry about me cousin,” she took a bite. “I can entertain myself. “

“I just thought you might want to do something together,” I pressed, thinking about my mother’s stern warning.

“That’s okay,” she gulped her water. “Today I’m going to sleep.”

She finished eating and did just that–slept–her snores long, angry. I cleaned the kitchen and cozied up with the couch, deciding to watch Orange is the New Black again. For hours, I shared the characters’ sadness, rooted for them, and punched couch pillows when their foolproof plans didn’t work. I fell asleep between episode four and five. I woke up to the Are you still watching message and an empty guest room.

“Diane,” I stepped outside, looking around, still sleep drunk. “Diane.”

“Are you looking for the woman wearing a big hat?” my neighbor asked. “She went that way,” she pointed east.

I grabbed my keys and took two water bottles out of the refrigerator.

“Where could she be?” I said as I drove east on Pacific. “Come on, come on,” I looked for her big floppy hat.

Five blocks in, I thought she couldn’t have gone that far, but I drove another block and then another. Ten blocks in, I wondered why I had to keep an eye on her.

“She’s a grown woman,” I complained. “She seems fine to me…is someone going to kidnap her?”

Fifteen blocks in, I looked out at the water, the ducks and birds flying in clusters, excited by something as they dove towards the sidewalk and back into the water. I stared, squinted until I saw the brim of her hat rising and falling in the wind. The cars behind me began to honk, so I drove up another block and made a U-turn. On the way back, I pulled into the parking lot, choosing a spot where I could see her, but she couldn’t see me. I felt like a detective, a stalker. She reached inside a bag of bird feed, and I wondered how she had gotten it. I watched her throw handfuls up in the air, a smile across her face as they flocked to her and ate the seeds.

On the bench behind her was a stack of comic books, a bag of chicharrones de harina, and a lattice quilt she had spread on the bench.

“How long was I asleep?”

She whistled Stairway to Heaven, lost inside her own world, just the way she liked it. I thought about going over, asking her about her whereabouts, using language to contain her, box her in so my mother felt safer. But I didn’t.

I left her there to feed the birds, free from my critical gaze.

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A Choice to Make

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We waited most of the day for news about Honey, our thirteen year old Golden Retriever. She lay in her bed all morning, lethargic, our worst fears playing out before our eyes as we loaded her limp body into the backseat and drove to the closest vet hospital. Three techs dressed in identical blue scrubs took her from our arms and hurried her to the back, ready to do everything they could to save her life. Santino filled out the forms, his hand a little steadier than mine. And then we sat in hard, waiting-room chairs, wringing our hands, tapping our feet against shiny, white tiles until the vet appeared, wearing a long white coat and a sympathetic smile.

Honey was comfortable, and they were running tests. She didn’t offer optimism or calm our fears in any way. Instead she listed possible diagnoses, best and and worst case scenarios, and told us they’d be in touch. So we went back home, the emptiness loud, unsettling though we tried to busy ourselves, absorb the uncertainty without burdening our daughter, Lizzy, with fear.

“Anything yet?” I kept asking Santino throughout the day.

“No,” he shook his head, fiddling with the lawnmower.

The update on Honey came right before dinner: she was comfortable, but cancer had attached itself to healthy blood vessels causing internal bleeding, and we had a choice to make.

“Hemangiosarcoma, this is pretty common in Retrievers,” the vet said. “Unfortunately, it’s not always detectable until it’s too late,” she exhaled. “I wish I had better news for you.”

We sat inside the news, digesting it, hoping it might become more palatable.

“She’s had a good life,” Santino said. “Maybe we should…”

My phone rang, Lizzy on the line wondering where we were.

“We’re on our way,” I promised, remembering this was the evening of the banquet put on by her culinary school.

Santino grabbed his jacket, filled Honey’s water bowl, and headed for the door.

I didn’t say anything. We were on our way to celebrate our daughter. We’d eat good food and enjoy ourselves, find peace in knowing that our best friend was comfortable, that she had lived a good life and could rest now.

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Things I Held Dear

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“You can stay with us,” my sister said, her husband, Michael chiming in. “Hope you like Scrabble.”

I smiled, packing clothes still with the tags on them, a new pair of shoes, and travel-size toiletries into a brand new pink, zebra-print rolling suitcase. The sun poured through a slit in the thick, hotel curtains, casting light that lay diagonal across the bed. I took one last look around and then headed for the elevator. Stephanie, the front desk clerk, asked me about my stay as she checked me out, her voice cheery, her face pleasant.

“Have an awesome day,” she sang.

“You too,” I said over the sound of my suitcase rolling across the stone floor.

My car was parked under an oak tree, its brown, stringy tassels collecting on my trunk. With a press of a button, the trunk opened and the droppings slid onto the ground. I threw my suitcase into the dark, empty space and hopped in, ready for the six-hour drive to Riverport City to stay with my sister and her family for a while. Morning traffic was still raging, but I merged onto the already packed freeway, taking my place behind a delivery truck. After having spent two days in the hospital, three days inside the hotel room, I cherished movement, even if it was slow.

The sun was behind us, the air chilly as it came through the vents, a whisper against the ear, a cold tickle on the skin, not like the impatient flames, stampeding through my apartment like a band of wild horses, the scorched items crumbling as fire consumed them, the smoke I inhaled until a firefighter found me cowering in the bathroom and carried me to safety.

I was lucky. A day and a half of oxygen, preventative antibiotics, and I was my old self, displaced but alive, unlike my upstairs neighbor, Nettie, and her dog, Rueben; the woman who walked to the store everyday, filling her small basket with food she didn’t have a place to store; Charlene, who was working now and trying to get her four children back; George who some accused of taking their newspapers, which he denied; and the little boy we called Batman who used to run through the halls. They were gone, along with others I didn’t know.

What was left were the memories of life then, of the routine that I thought sustained me, of the things I held dear.

“You can’t leave,” my friends protested. “What about us?”

“I’ll be back,” I promised. “I just need to, you know, clear my head.”

Traffic thinned, and I settled in, watching city turn to long country roads, acres of agriculture, the smells filling the car. I drove with just my own thoughts, no music, no news. That night replayed, and I pushed it away, but I couldn’t escape feeling like part of me had been lost in the fiery storm, that its gases had deposited particles of hopelessness in my lungs no amount of oxygen or antibiotics could clear.

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A Storm was Brewing

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I spent every other weekend working with my father, the owner of CarZone, a small dealership in East Wilmington. Working with him wasn’t my idea of fun, but it was the only time I saw him, so I kept my complaining to things like meals and movies. He picked me up from school on the Friday of his weekend, chicken strips, fries and a Sprite his offering as we headed to the dealership to spend the next six hours, longer during tax season when people walked in with cash and drove away in a shiny, used vehicle, or Christmas when husband’s wanted to surprise their wives with a fully-equipped SUV that had only minor dings. It was my job to wash the cars, make coffee Saturday and Sunday mornings, and tend to customers when my father, whom I called Mr. Allen in front of customers, was busy.

During down times, I did my homework and talked to friends.

“It’s so unfair that you have to work the whole weekend,” they agreed, going on to tell me all about the fun things they were doing, hanging up abruptly when something funny happened on their end, when they were up next in line for frozen yogurt, for a ride at the theme park, for skates at the ice rink.

“Tell him you don’t want to visit anymore,” they suggested, my heart aching at the thought.

After making sure everything was secure, parking the cars so the most expensive were blocked behind all the others, my father drove us home, his roommate, Barb, in her room watching a Snapped marathon and eating buttery microwave popcorn. My father and I ate pizza or tacos and watched a movie, something with high action or he fell asleep. We argued about how realistic the stunts were, how likely it was to escape a Zombie horde, whether or not someone could run with bullet wounds in the chest. This was the part of our visit that I liked. He talked with his mouth full, started his sentences with “when I was your age” to make a point about the change in times.

“So are you going to buy me a car for my sixteenth birthday?” I’d tease.

“When I was you age, I worked, bought my own car.”

“I work for you,” I reminded him.

“And I pay you.”

“Not enough to buy a car.”

He paused, gulping his beer.

“We’ll see,” he belched. “I’ll have you pick one out at the lot.”

“Really?” I jumped up.

“Don’t get too excited,” he warned. “You still have to work for it,” he smirked.

At my mother’s house, I had a bedroom, not just a couch and a storage bin to store my belongings. She worked at the hospital as a phlebotomist, and her boyfriend, Kenneth, worked in oncology. On the weekends I stayed with my father, Kenneth stayed over or they left the city and stayed in Airbnbs. When I was home for the weekend, I visited friends, returning after Kenneth had left. I never talked about one with the other, though my mother had a habit of pointing out how much better I had it at her house. The truth was I felt safer on my father’s couch, the sound of Barb dragging her feet against the floor waking me early in the morning as she got up to use the bathroom, the dark, moth-eaten curtains dangling on the floor for the cat to bite and scratch late at night, his eyes glowing in the dark while I tried to sleep; instead of the deep silence at my mother’s house where her only rule was not to talk to her in the morning or in the evening, where she texted me things like “ur on ur own for dinner” and “I’ll b home l8, ” anytime she went out for drinks with her rowdy girlfriends.

There were only a few times I didn’t see my father during our scheduled weekends: the time he had a ruptured spleen, the time his mother died and he had to fly across the country for her wake and funeral–the grandmother I never met because my mother said she was evil–and the time he didn’t pick me up from school, his voicemail full, the We’ll Be Back sign at CarZone still hanging in the window.

“I guess you have to come with us,” my mother groaned.

“I’ll stay with Emily,” I said.

“Her parents are out of town.”

“Crystal then.”

“I don’t like her parents.”

“Janet.”

“No.”

“I’ve slept over before, many times,” I explained, but she shook her head no. “Becca.”

“Too quiet. I don’t trust her.”

“Leanne.”

“I don’t want her in my house.”

“I’ll stay here by myself then.”

“Not happening.”

“Why?”

“Why?” she barked. “Don’t ask me why. Pack a bag,” she stormed upstairs.

I kept calling my father, hoping he’d pick up and we could get back to our usual weekend routine. But when Kenneth arrived, parking his car in our garage, I knew it was too late. He drove my mother’s SUV, complaining when he realized she hadn’t filled the tank beforehand. The drive was long, their chit chat boring. I texted my father, his friend, Sherry, his friend, Kevin, and Barb until someone answered.

“Who is this?” Barb wrote back.

“It’s Savannah. Have you seen my dad?”

“No,” she wrote, and then twenty minutes later continued her message. “He’s at Saint Anthony Medical Center.”

“What happened?” I heard her crunching popcorn when I called, the Snapped theme song loud in the background.

“They don’t know yet…maybe his heart.”

I asked my mother if we could turn around, if they could drop me off at the hospital, but they both thought it was a bad idea, that I should wait. Sherry texted back letting me know that my father was being admitted into the hospital. I begged my mother and Kenneth to take me back, flailing in the back seat until he pulled over and yanked open my door.

“Your father might accept this kind of behavior, but I don’t,” he yelled. “Sit back and shut up,” the door slammed, my mother sitting quiet in the front seat.

The Airbnb was a two-level beach house with long windows overlooking the ocean. My mother and Kenneth toured the home like giddy children, disappearing into the master bedroom. I sat outside watching the water, dark clouds hovering, wind whistling.

Sherry called with more details about my father: he had suffered a heart attack, and they put in a stent.

“They’re taking good care of him,” she assured.

“Can I talk to him?” I cried.

“I’m okay,” my father said, his voice raspy. “The storm’s almost over.”

Sherry got back on the phone.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she promised. “While I’m thinking about it,” she paused. “Let me save your number in my phone,” I heard her fiddling with her phone, talking herself through the process. “Give me your mom’s number because the one I have is wrong.”

I gave her the number, starting with the area code.

“That’s the number I have. I left three messages and a bunch of texts.”

“Did you tell her who you were?”

“I told her who I was and what it concerned.”

I leaned back in the chair, water droplets landing on my face. A storm was brewing between my mother and me, impending doom she wouldn’t see coming.

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The Distinguished Gentleman

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Every day at 2:30pm the man in a black suit and fedora, strolled down North Street, his hands clasped behind him.

“Here he comes,” Lesley said. “Like clockwork,” she poured black coffee into a small Lava Java cup and sealed it with a lid. “For the Distinguished Gentleman,” she smile.

As the man approached the shop, she stepped outside, handing him the coffee. He nodded in appreciation and stared for a moment into the store like he was meeting someone, but he wasn’t. He sipped the coffee and continued down the street, the hunch in his back making him seem small, frail the farther away he got.

This was our afternoon highlight aside from the Nelsons who came around 3pm for tea and scones, brightening the place with their witty banter. Married for forty years, they delighted us in marital jokes and finished each other’s sentences. Around 4pm the after-work crowd filed in, looking for the caffeine they’d need to finish important projects, start a night shift, or feed the addiction that had guided them there.

My shift ended at 6pm most days at which time I headed for my car parked in the lot a block away and hurried to campus for a two-hour business class. The professor lectured from the podium, his voice loud, angry. It was a class I would have dropped if I didn’t need it to graduate. Some nights I fell asleep, my classmate, Julie, nudging me, protecting me from the professor’s wrath. Other nights I made an excuse not to go, begging Julie later for her notes. The evening of our midterm, the test worth thirty-five percent of our grade, I intended to go, having spent the night before making flashcards and studying them until the answers were softly etched in the front of my mind. I left Lava Java as usual, shedding my apron as I walked the block to my car. Across the street from the lot was the distinguished gentleman sitting on the sidewalk, frozen in thought.

I crossed, calling out to him as I neared. He looked up, his eyes lost, confused.

“I’m trying to get home,” he said.

“Where do you live?” I figured he lived nearby, that I had time to help him get home.

He pointed in the direction I had just come, so I helped him up and we started to walk. With his arm looped through mine, we took our time, darkness swarming in, forcing our eyes to adjust.

“Mother will be home soon,” the man said.

“Excuse me?” I asked, unsure of what to say.

“She’s bringing sweet bread and candies from work.”

“Oh, I see,” glad he was pausing now in front of the shop so I could get Lesley’s attention.

He stared into the window and then back down the sidewalk.

“She’s on her way,” he assured.

I waved at Lesley and she rushed towards us.

“What’s going on?”

“He said he’s waiting for his mother?” Lesley and I glanced at each other.

“She’s on her way from work,” the man clarified. “She works for the Hendersons as a housekeeper,” he stared again down the street. “Mrs. Henderson always lets her take the leftovers.”

“What should we do?”

“We’ve lived in this building, all fifteen of us, for ten years,” he pointed at the shop. “My parents and their five children, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and their four children. All of us under one roof.”

“Wow,” I thought about how hard it was to live with my roommate and her boyfriend most days.

“She’s never late,” the man began to panic. “She’s always home by now…I miss her.”

Lesley put her arm on his shoulder and he wept.

“Oh my god,” she mouthed. “Let’s go inside and sit down.”

Fifteen minutes later, two police officers arrived and took over, leaving Lesley and I standing in the doorway as they drove away. I stayed and helped her clean up, everything I had studied now stained with emotion. As we cleaned, we played the what if game–What if they can’t find where he belongs? What if he gets stuck in the past, stuck waiting for something that will never return?

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The Miracle

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We left early to beat the traffic, on our way to Aunt Josie’s backyard barbeque to celebrate her son, Jeremiah’s homecoming.

“He’s not in high school,” I said when my mother told Ellis and I that we’d be going.

“That’s fine,” she dismissed, going back to ironing her work shirts.

That Saturday morning, my mother’s close friend, Ruby, joined us, along with her children Faith and Bryson. They each carried a small blanket and backpack filled with snacks and battery-operated hand-games. We jumped into the bus, Faith and I sitting on the back row, Bryson and Ellis on the middle row, my mother in the driver’s seat, Ruby across from her. The bus engine roared through the quiet neighborhood, two bright headlights disturbing the darkness, as my mother drove towards the freeway. Warm air poured through the vents and we drifted into sleep, the sound of my mother’s voice and Ruby’s contagious cackling stirring our dreams, but not enough to wake us. When the sun rose, we opened our eyes, and in our stupor we watched one city slip into the next, cars passing us on the left, the backs of diesel trucks like a blank movie screen.

I thought about Aunt Josie’s house, shivering a little when I remembered the last time. A fight broke out over lobster tails, shirtless men drinking until their eyes were bloodshot and angry words were slurred. Round women tried to intervene, swift shoves and punches rendering them helpless. Children cowered, the older ones bouncing the younger on their hips, using toys and soft, reassuring voices to quiet their baby cries. I didn’t want to go back there but didn’t have the heart to tell my mother, so I closed my eyes and wished for a miracle.

We pulled over for gas and a bathroom break about midway. Ruby accompanied us kids to the bathroom while my mother filled the tank. And then we were back on the road, the sun beaming now. We were maybe on the freeway another thirty minutes when Faith and I smelled smoke coming from the back.

“Mom,” I called, turning to see a big cloud of black smoke. “There’s smoke coming out of the car.” And then under my breath I said, “Please god, forgive me,” thinking I had caused the bus to catch on fire.

Ruby panicked, but my mother stayed calm, turning on her emergency lights and then exiting on Acorn Blvd. At the light she could only turn right, so she did, pulling into a busy parking lot, smoke still rising behind us, the temperature gauge in the red. She turned off the engine and let the bus roll into a spot, the front tires hitting the curb.

“Everybody get out,” Ruby yelled.

My mother used her jacket to pry open the hood, and we stepped to the side as more smoke escaped. She stared into the scalding hot compartment, fanning the smoke with her hands. When this didn’t work, we looked around for help, answers.

“Let’s go to Acorn Village,” Ellis jumped up and down.

The sign hung over us, and on the other side of the parking lot people gathered, celebrating the week’s end. My mother agreed we should head on over, not to join in the festivities though. She was looking for a payphone to call James, the mechanic. I avoided my mother’s gaze, turning my back to her just before her eyes landed on mine. And I was more helpful than usual, spotting the payphone and counting out the exact change for her as she found James’ phone number in her purse. But James wasn’t at home, so we’d have to wait.

“Oh why not,” my mother said as we begged her to let us stay a while instead of sitting in the hot bus.

We strolled through Acorn Village, a shopping center, mini-amusement park, and petting zoo in one. The shops all had acorn themes, and we awed at acorn owls, frames, wreaths, and jewelry, my mother reminding us not to touch anything unless we had money to pay for it. We caught a magic show, got our faces painted, and rode the carousel three times, guilt adding pounds my already weak legs had to carry every time I my mind found its way back to the wish I had made.

Music played and dancers shook their hips to the rehearsed routines. My mother and Ruby watched basket weavers, listened to historians talk about the land and the people who used to live on it, and smiled at the artwork on display, pleased with the craftmanship, the creativity.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to do glasswork,” my mother said to herself.

That’s when the idea came to me: I’d buy her a piece of glasswork to make up for causing the bus to breakdown. I counted the money I had in my pocket, wondering if it was enough to buy something. While my mother and Ruby lingered, I slipped away, searching for something in my price range. The only piece I could find was a cat, so I bought it.

A few hours later, my mother called James again, and this time he answered. She told him where we were, two-and-a-half hours away, but he hopped in his truck and headed for Acorn Village. We made more laps around the center, revisiting stores, petting goats, buying food, and a lemonade slushy Faith and I had to share. I felt for the glass cat in my pocket, making sure it was still in one piece. And when we got back to the bus, it looked peaceful, except for the soot covering the back.

“Mom,” I said, as she unlocked the door for us. “It was my fault the car caught on fire.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t want to go to Aunt Josie’s, so I wished for something to happen.”

“Something bad?” she scolded.

“No, a miracle so we didn’t have to go,” I explained. “I got you this,” I pulled the glass cat from my pocket.

“A cat, Veronica?” she examined it. “Why a cat?” she laughed.

“It was the only thing I could buy.”

“Well, thank you, but you didn’t do this,” she explained. “Can you keep a secret?” she leaned in.

“Yes,” I shook my head.

“I didn’t want to go either,” she kissed my forehead.

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Where Existence is Sweet

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“Are you sure about this?” I fretted.

“You’re going to love it,” Dominic encouraged.

We trained for this, I reminded myself, thinking of the certificate resting on my office desk, still in its envelope. The dive instructors checked our equipment, reiterated do’s and dont’s, stressed the importance of safety, outlined the risks, and told us to have fun. Rapid air consumption, nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness, oxygen toxicity, played in my mind on a loop as the instructors steered us onto the boat’s platform and watched as we jumped.

The cold water was unforgiving, wrapping us inside its waves, pulling us towards its center. We descended into darkness, maneuvered through walls of water, our fins flapping, bubbles rising. It was time to explore, time to visit a place we had only seen in pictures, video. The instructors, one in front, one in back for stragglers like me, swam alongside schools of fish, coral reef, Manta ray. We passed seals, turtles, shark, balancing fear and curiosity as we observed the ocean’s mysteries, up close and personal, yet very aware of our foreignness.

We were submerged inside a world we didn’t belong, every species existing on a hierarchy, unbothered by the threat of death, though survival was the plan, and not because of some imagined future, solely for the present moment where existence is sweet. I glanced down at the floor and up towards the ceiling, light resting on the surface, air flowing freely. I marveled at the paradox, the beauty, felt every muscle in my body relax, pure awe for nature enough to guard against worry, enough to garner trust in something I didn’t completely understand, but knew I loved anyway.

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Talking to Strangers

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I caught the train to Gilford, my plan to spend a couple days with my brother, Adonis, his wife, Declan, and their new baby, Jax. The trip took a little over six hours. We winded through cities, mountains, and industrial zones, a window seat my excuse for not talking to the woman next to me who really wanted to tell me about her cats.

“That’s Louie,” she said when she saw me staring at the cat printed on the side of her bag. “And this is Domino,” she showed me the other side of the bag.

“How cute,” I smiled and turned to look out the window.

For the next few hours, I read and listened to music. After lunch, I did the same, slipping into a two-hour nap that ended just before we reached the station.

“We’re almost there,” the woman next to me said, watching as a yawn stretched across my face.

“I see,” I said.

“Are you here for business of pleasure?”

“For pleasure,” I answered, feeling bad for ignoring her the whole trip. “What about you?”

“I’m here for my sister’s funeral,” she began.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“She thought she was having everyday stomach problems and turns out it was stage 4 stomach cancer. I took this same trip a few months ago. She was skinny, much skinnier than she had ever been. Even when we were young girls she was chubby. I stayed with her, took care of all her affairs…”

I nodded, overwhelmed by all the details.

“We sat outside in the yard every night watching the sky, talking about the good times. By the time I had left, she seemed at peace with everything. I wasn’t, but she was. And that’s what I remembered each day. I called her every morning, sometimes in the evenings too.”

The train slowed as it slid next to the platform.

“About a month ago though, she couldn’t take my calls, not all of them, and she started sleeping most of the day. Hospice came in and things went downhill pretty fast after that.”

She paused as the conductor made her announcements.

“Now I’m going to her funeral,” she put her crossword puzzle book back into her bag and tightened the lid on her water bottle before tossing it on top. “I’m really glad I got a chance to see her one last time. But I’m even more grateful that I got to talk to her for as long as I did.”

I stood up to leave.

“I’m Roberta by the way,” she extended her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Roberta,” I shook her hand. “I’m Autumn.”

“My father used to say that you never meet a stranger,” she said. “Until our paths cross again,” she laughed.

I smiled as I squeezed past her and grabbed my carryon. Once outside I watched for Adonis, pacing up and down the sidewalk in anticipation. Twenty-minutes later I found a spot on a bench and sat down. I checked my phone to see if he had called or texted. After another fifteen minutes, I gave him a call, assuming he had forgotton.

“Where are you?” I said when he answered.

“Wait…what…that’s not today is it?”

“Yes, it’s today,” I laughed. “Come pick me up.”

“Damn it…we’re at Declan’s parents’ house,” he explained. “Do you mind taking an Uber? There’s an extra key in the flower bed.”

“That’s a pretty obvious spot. I thought you were the smart one,” I teased.

The Uber driver was named Jillian, a young college student in her first year who figured she could make some extra money to pay for books, rent, and food if there was enough; otherwise, she’d eat at her parent’s house.

“It’s cool that your parents let you do that. My parents would have never allowed my brother and I to eat at their house unless they invited us.”

She drove me the twelve miles jabbering on about her classes, how it was more work than she thought it would be, how she had a D in math and was thinking about dropping it.

“Have you tried tutoring?”

“No,” she frowned at the idea and let me out at 3142 Wright Street.

“Thank you, I said.

I rolled my carryon up to the front door, and then I dug around the flowerbed for the extra key. Soon dirt collected under my fingernails; bugs that had been buried surfaced, my body shivering at the sight.

“Nope,” I said, walking back to the front door and finding wet wipes in my purse to wipe my hands.

The dirty wipes lined the front step, five balled cloths drying in the sun.

“Hey there,” the neighbor said on his way to the red Kia in the driveway.

“Hi,” I said.

“Are you waiting for Declan and Adonis?” the man paused.

“Yes.”

“Cool,” he continued to his car, popping the trunk to take out a stack of fold-up chairs.

On his way back, a dog ran out of the house, full of playful energy. He jumped on the man, wagged his tail, and ran back and forth from the door to the walkway.

“No, boy,” the neighbor repeated.

I heard the chairs crash to the floor not long after he had walked through his front door.

“Do you need some help?” I shouted.

“Uh, no…” he yelled back. “Hold on.”

A few minutes later he came out again; this time his dog was on a leash, headed in my direction.

“I’m Phoenix and this is Boy,” he said. “Didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Autumn,” I said. “You named your dog, Boy?”

“I did,” he laughed. “You must be Adonis’ sister.”

“What gave it away?” I laughed.

“You here to see the baby?”

“I am. Have you seen him?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him a couple times,” he laughed.

And, without missing a beat, he sat next to me on the step, entering into a silent agreement to wait with me. He talked about his favorite teams, their season stats; his love of technology, the two computers he had built, if I wanted to check them out; his favorite bands, mostly rock bands, but a few country artists only a few people knew he liked. I talked about hiking, the trails I loved; new recipes I had tried, how I almost burned down my house; my sewing adventures, showing him pictures of five finished outfits; the chickens that came with my house, what it was like to care for them; and I admitted that I rarely listened to anything accept 70s bands.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wild.”

He told me how much he liked theater, and I high-fived him. I told him that I was learning about moon phases, and he nodded in approval, listened as I shared what I knew. He admitted to having three spider plants, revealing his green thumb, and I told him I had twenty-five plants in my living room alone. We laughed.

We stared at each other with genuine interest as details about childhood fell from our tongues. Like the time he was hit by a car while riding his brand new BMX bike. Or the time I hit a parked car while riding my bike and broke my arm. Like the time his dad forced him to play baseball and he sat on the bench the whole season. Or the time I joined the track team and lost every race.

He asked me about the book I was reading. I said it was about a twisted psychologist. He said he was reading Stephen King’s The Stand. I asked him if he liked board games. He said he did, but was okay with never playing Monopoly again. He asked me if I could go anywhere right now, where would I go. I said I’d go to South America, but I hesitated, thinking about my choice.

“Hiking in Columbia’s Lost City, huh?” he said.

“If you had to stand on the corner of a busy street holding a sign, what would your sign say?” I asked.

“It’s fun to talk to strangers,” he said with a big grin.


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Life’s Goodness

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“I need your help with something, Tori,” Grandma Adeline said in the second voicemail she left, the first one filled with Hello? and Are you there? “I hope I’m doing this right. Call me when you get home from work…okay then, bye bye,” she said in her third message, followed by loud rustling noises.

After my last class and a quick chat about Fall schedules with the department chair, I drove to Grandma Adeline’s house, a Cape Cod-style home she shared with Grandpa Eddie for forty years.

“Grandma Adeline,” I said when she answered. “How are you doing? I’m on my way.”

“Tori,” she delighted. “I’ll be here,” she laughed.

“Do you need me to pick up anything?”

“No, I don’t need anything.”

“I’ll see you in about twenty minutes.”

Grandma Adeline’s house was tucked into the neighborhood, framed by cedar trees and a rickety gate she had talked about replacing for months. I parked on the street, walked up the path, and punched my code into the panel. The gate opened to an overgrown grassy entrance.

“I’ll have a landscaper come,” I had suggested.

“I don’t want anyone coming to the house,” she protested.

“They won’t need to come inside.”

“No.”

So every third Saturday I stopped by during Olivia’s soccer games or gymnastics class, Lucas filling me in on all the wonderful details I missed while Grandma Adeline and I waited for the landscaper to mow the lawn, trim the bushes, add mulch to the flowerbeds. He gave a thumbs-up when he was done, and we waved from the kitchen window, watching him get into his truck and drive to his next job. I made sure her TV guide and remote were where they were supposed to be, refilled her pill organizer, and made a shopping list of the things she needed, at the top of the list was Call the Vet for Lionel, her ten-year old Himalayan, who had a habit of vomitting behind the living room curtain.

“Grandma Adeline, I’m here,” I said as I opened the door.

“Tori,” she called from the kitchen.

“What is happening?” I looked out at the open boxes spread across the living room, the sofa, table, and chairs all stacked with items I hadn’t seen in years, and some items I only knew existed from the stories she told.

“I need your help,” she stood between the kitchen and the living room.

“What are you trying to do?” I picked up a ballerina figurine, a bunch more on the coffee table, fifteen or twenty smaller ones safe inside a glass case.

“I’m in the process of decluttering my life,” she said.

“Why? You love this stuff.”

“I can’t take it with me,”

“No, but you’re not going anywhere,” I assured.

“You don’t know that.”

“So, what’s the plan, exactly?” I looked again at the clutter, ignoring her easiness with death.

“I want to decide what to keep and what to give away,” she opened Grandpa Eddie’s watch case, pulling out each one and running her fingers along the leather straps, the faces, and when she thought I wasn’t looking she smelled them, perhaps hoping his scent was still there somehow.

“Okay, we’ll leave all the things you want to sell in here, and the things you want to keep I’ll put in the den. Sound good?”

“Works for me,” she closed the watch case. “I’m going to give these to Isaac.”

“Perfect,” I took the case into the den.

I dug through boxes of books, first editions of classics she had wrapped in plastic to preserve.

“You read this to me,” I held up Little Women.

“Keep it,” she smiled. “Read it to Olivia.”

Grandma Adeline decided to donate the snow globes but keep the music boxes though they know longer played their melodies. The paintings she wanted; she turned her nose up at the sea shells. I put them in my purse, sad that she didn’t remember they had been my gift to her on our first Mother’s Day together after my mother had died. She wanted to keep the antique furniture–the hand-carved, Victorian sofa, chairs, china cabinet, table, and sideboard–all of the furniture we were never allowed to use.

The coins, she decided, would go to Lucas, along with a few cigar boxes, though he had never smoked. The dishes, silverware, and table cloths she wanted to keep, as if one day we’d all sit around the table with her and eat a meal. But it was unlikely since she didn’t like people, and she didn’t want them her house.

“What do you want to do with these?” I pointed to a chest full of greeting cards.

“Toss it,” she said, pulling earrings she never wore from a white jewelry box.

“You sure?” I pressed. “There are cards and letters in here that you haven’t opened, from people back home.”

She ignored me.

“There are photo albums in here,” I dug through the chest. “I’ve been asking you about these for years.”

“Then take them with you,” she said calmly.

She continued examining the items in the jewelry box and then moved on to a container of keychains and postcards from every place she had traveled. I watched as she closed the lid, pushing it into the den. And then I realized what we were doing: ridding the house of all the things that rooted her in memory, in life’s goodness, leaving all the things that would make dying easier.

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The Necklace

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Eleanor, Carson, and I were on our first Saturday morning bike ride, following the Lakeside trail for seven miles to a small juice bar on third street. We rode brand new mountain bikes along the paved path–Eleanor’s a bright yellow, Carson’s a smooth silver, mine a shiny red. Cracks in the asphalt sent us wobbling, crashing into the railing, tumbling onto the ground.

“Who said that you never forget how to ride a bike?” Eleanor said as she dusted herself off.

“I’m not sure that’s the saying,” I laughed.

“Yeah, no one says that,” Carson joined.

After the first half-mile, we found a nice slow groove, riding one behind the other as faster riders passed on the left. Every now and again a strong gust made us swerve, but we welcomed the cool breeze, the smell of algae and fried fish, that seemed to somehow propel us forward.

Carson shared the details of his week, some I heard, others I didn’t. He complained about customers, his boss, and spoke lovingly of his neighbor, Gloria, the baker who used him as her personal taste tester. Eleanor worked for her father, but wished she didn’t.

“Tell him,” Carson and I agreed.

“He wants me to take over the business since, you know…” we nodded, finishing her thought.

It was her brother’s third time in prison, this one a life sentence neither of us knew how to wrap our minds around, so we redirected the conversation. For a moment we watched joggers, some who were travelling faster than we were, and cars filled with families ready to enjoy their day at the lake rolling down the street.

“Did I tell you guys that I got a second interview?” I asked, knowing I hadn’t.

“No,” Eleanor and Carson screamed. “When is it?”

“Next week.”

“Are you nervous?” Eleanor asked.

“I’m beyond nervous,” I gripped my handlebars.

“You got this,” Carson cheered. “So what will we have to call you when you become lead?

“It’s not that serious,” I shied. “Plus, you know what happened last time.”

“Anytime you get to tell people what to do, it’s a big deal,” Eleanor added.

“Watch, she’s going to be telling us what to do,” Carson teased.

“She already does,” they laughed. “We’re kidding…this is your time,” Eleanor said.

At the juice bar I ordered an avocado smoothie. Eleanor and Carson opted for something fruitier. We sat outside at a table with a leaning umbrella, its weathered, polyester covering thin, letting in the sun’s rays.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Carson said, referring to the seven-mile bike ride.

“No, it wasn’t,” Eleanor agreed, but I think tomorrow is when we’ll know what kind of damage we did.”

“I don’t have to wait until tomorrow,” I laughed. “My calves are burning.”

We sipped our smoothies and watched the crowd grow. Sidewalk vendors stuff food in containers, wrapping plastic utensils in a napkin like they were a gift. They sold ice cream sandwiches, graphic tees, beaded necklaces and bracelets, hot dogs, and cold sodas. A long line of motorcycles passed, their music blaring, motors revving. Customers waited in line, studying handwritten menus. Children on skateboards whizzed by, their long hair dancing in the air. And people lined up to have their faces painted by a caricature artist, a man who kept a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, smoke and ash staining the drawing.

“Should we get a painting?” Eleanor asked.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Me too,” Carson stood, leading us to the end of the line. “It’s going to be a minute.”

It took an hour. Eleanor went first, then Carson, then me. The oversized ears, foreheads, and teeth made us laugh. We took a minute to study our own pictures, questioning the painter’s decisions.

“He made me look scared,” I complained. “Look at how big my eyes are, how they make me look like I just saw a ghost. And my hair? It’s not that poofy. My nose is so small it makes the rest of my face look huge.”

“Are you done?” Carson asked. “You do know what a caricature artist does, right?”

“I see what she’s saying though,” Eleanor pointed at my long, skinny neck “There’s no way this neck can hold up this head,” she pointed and laughed.

“But honey, your eyebrows look great,” Carson teased. “I didn’t know you were wearing a necklace,” he paused and looked over at me, moving my hair to the side. “Oh, you’re not.”

“Why did he give you a necklace?” Eleanor and I shot each other a confused glance.

“It looks like a cough drop,” Carson said, crinkling his nose.

“No. it looks like some kind of pendant,” Eleanor guessed. “We should ask him?” she eyed the man coming back from a short bathroom break.

“Excuse me,” I approached.

He blew smoke in my face and smiled.

“We were wondering why you painted her with a necklace when she isn’t wearing one,” Carson squeezed between us.

“And what is it exactly?” I asked.

“It’s Tiger’s Eye…you need it,” he took a puff of his cigarette. “You need it,” he repeated and walked away.

“Siri, what is tiger’s eye?” Carson held up his phone.

Siri read through the uses for the gemstone, and we listened.

“So he thinks you’re anxious,” Carson said.

“That you need more stability.” Eleanor added.

“Basically, I need to be more balanced.”

“Yeah,” they agreed. “Maybe.”

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Wilted Petals

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Few people came to see me when I was in the hospital. Some called, some sent flowers, mostly white orchids. When friends visited, they wore sadness on their faces, unloaded their disappointment in the silences. My parents leaned back in their chairs wearing what were you thinking expressions, their words all layered with the same sentiment–you should have known better. And once they were gone, I cried even though it made my body hurt more.

I lay back and listened to the beeping machines, the steady drip of electrolytes, the patient on the other side of the curtain trying to stuff her emotions inside her pillow. Nurses dressed in light blue scrubs, scrubs with kittens and cartoon characters, entered with professional smiles, working through a mental checklist as they charted vitals, changed bedpans, and redressed bandages, undisturbed by burnt and blistered skin. The television hung from the ceiling offering twenty-four hours of news, sitcoms, and movies. I let it play but muted the voices.

My hospital stay culminated with a visit from Eden, a woman I worked with at the Glendale Housing Department.

“A little birdy told me you were here,” she said as she entered. “How are you getting along?”

“I’ve been better,” I said, collecting all the flowers and cards people had sent. “How are you?” I paused to let her hug me.

“I’m alright for someone my age,” she laughed, sitting across from me. “So…” she waited until my eyes met hers. “What’s next for you?”

“That’s a really good question,” my eyes stung, the bruised skin underneath tingling. “I was able to get a bed at the women’s shelter, but I have to get a way there,” I looked away, embarrassed that not one single person I knew had been willing to take me.

“A shelter sounds good,” she crossed her legs and leaned in. “What services do they offer?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “They were the only one with a bed.”

“I see,” she said, looking away as the nurse came in with final wound care instructions, a bag of gauzes, and a prescription for a medicine I already knew I wouldn’t take.

“Thank you,” I told the nurse, stuffing the gauze in plastic hospital bag, the prescription in my purse.

“Good luck,” the nurse smiled and walked away.

“I was thinking,” Eden stood and put her hands in her pants pockets. “I’m headed up to the coast. My sister has a vacation home there, and I was thinking it might be good for you to get away for a little while.”

“That sounds amazing,” I smiled. “But if I don’t check into the shelter today, I lose my bed.”

“Well, if you’d like, I’ve got an extra room,” she put her hand on mine, the warmth traveling up my arm. “You can stay as long as you need. Besides, I could use the company.”

“Take the room and go,” the patient behind the curtain yelled.

Eden carried my things to the elevator. She adjusted her pace to mine, and I thought she might ask why I stayed so long, but she didn’t. Instead she told me about some home remedies I could try.

“Aloe Vera is good, honey too, and lavender,” she listed. “We can pick some up.”

“That would be great.”

Eden put my things in the back of her Subaru wagon, and we hit the road. We cruised along in the slow lane, warm wind slapping our faces.

“If it’s too much, let me know.”

It wasn’t too much. I wore a pair of her large sunglasses and a cap, watching the city disappear. Eden talked about retirement, how she spent her time, what she loved and what she didn’t.

“Am I going too fast?” she asked, noticing I was gripping the seatbelt.

“No,” I released my grip and took a deep breath.

She went on about her daughter and son who both lived abroad, the books she was reading, how much she missed her dog, Sir, who had died two months earlier. We were a hundred and seven miles from the hospital when she exited the freeway and pulled into the first gas station she saw.

“I’ll be back,” she said, walking towards the entrance.

The almost empty station, quickly filled with cars, drivers with the same idea. I tapped my fingers on the console, my eyes darting from one pump to another, the long-faced customers slipping their credit cards into the machines, waiting for approval before lifting the nozzle and filling their tanks. My palms were sweaty, my breath quickening. I opened the door and stepped out, the smell of gas thick as pumps pushed gas through black hoses. Eden appeared carrying a plastic bag filled with water, nuts, gum, and potato chips.

“Look what I got us,” she greeted, opening the bag for me to peer inside. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” I said, taking the bag.

I waited for her to pump the gas before getting back into the car. There were moments during the trip that I forgot I was a battered woman, but reminders always returned, loud and suffocating. My body ached and itched at the same time, a sign of healing I welcomed, though a small part of me craved more of the pain, though part of me wanted to return to the minutes right before boiling water was thrown on me.

“I’m going to cover the flowers back there,” Eden said, pulling a long towel from her duffle bag. “The petals are starting to wilt.”

She covered the flowers and bent to get in the car.

“You know what’s great about wilted orchids?” she asked, and I shook my head no. “It doesn’t mean they’re dying. In fact, they will return even stronger.”

I smiled, knowing she was trying to make me feel better. And it worked, a little. As she drove, I imagined I was a wilted orchid, planted in a ceramic pot. Part of me was dying, but part of me was still alive and I’d have to learn how to love her.

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Waiting to Write

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I woke up early, my plan to sit in front of my laptop until I churned out a ten-page literary analysis of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales. Still in my pajamas, wrapped in a silky robe, I stared at the blank document and then at my notes, typing words and then deleting them until something stuck. After committing to three lines of text, I poured cereal into a Ziploc bag, nibbling on it while rereading the words on the screen. I settled into a groove, adding words, erasing them, cursing in frustration, and exhaling when ideas came together. Two long paragraphs stared back, my cue to take a break. I headed back to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. A few sips of chai led to what was supposed to be a quick glance at my emails. There at the top of my in-box was an angry message from a student claiming I had lied to her about what the test covered. I clicked out of my account, wishing I hadn’t read the hateful words, wishing I knew how to better balance my roles as a TA and a grad student.

The phone rang as I was rereading my two paragraphs.

“Hello?” I answered, already typing the first few words of my third paragraph.

“I know you’re busy today, but would you mind going with me to drop off some things at Michael’s grandmother’s house?” my friend, Casey, asked.

“Um…” I looked through my notes, assessing the time and effort still needed to arrive at a descent paper. “Yeah, I’ll go with you, but I really need to get back.”

“I know,” she agreed. “It’ll be thirty minutes top.”

I saved my draft to my computer, my flash drive, the cloud, and I sent it to my email, unwilling to take any chances. Then I dressed, pulling my hair back in a loose ponytail that I covered with a cap.

Casey’s big truck rumbled in the driveway, idling as she waited for me to lock my door and climb into the passenger seat.

“He’s not going to be there, right?” I asked, putting my seatbelt on.

“No, that’s why I wanted to go now, but you know his family is…”

“Unpredictable,” I laughed.

She pulled out of the driveway, headed for the main street.

“I don’t know how you drive this thing,” I squeezed the door handle as she turned left onto McHenry.

Music played and we sang along for twenty blocks, but when Casey turned into Michael’s grandmother’s neighborhood, she turned off the radio, the eeriness of barren yards, boarded windows, and abandoned cars demanding our silence.

“Have you been here before?” I asked?

“No,” she hesitated, eyeing the house with the numbers 2121 painted in black spray paint above the garage.

Before she could park, a spry woman came out of the house, her wig matted, disheveled, revealing her natural short, white hair. She moved down the walkway, intuitively avoiding the large cracks in the concrete. Casey opened the door and stepped out to greet the woman.

“Hello,” I heard her say.

“Where’s the stuff?” the woman asked, getting right to the point.

“In the back,” Casey opened the truck bed door, revealing the items.

“Back it into the driveway,” the woman ordered. “We can unload this stuff in the garage,” she said, already walking back inside.

Casey hopped into the truck, and guided the truck backwards, a few inches from a Ford Mustang, its hood missing. The garage door raised, and the woman stepped out. We freed the bed of tools, a bed frame, clothes, and two televisions. Ransom, the woman’s blind mutt, kept getting in the way, wanting to sniff everything, but also up for a quick rub behind the ears.

“Anything else?” the woman asked when we had emptied the bed. “What about in there?” she pointed at the cab.

“No, that’s it,” Casey said. “Thanks for…”

“Alright then,” the woman waved us away.

We hopped in the truck, Casey putting the truck in drive and letting it roll towards the street.

“Thanks for coming with me,” she offered. “How about a coffee?”

“I’ve got to get back,” I reminded. “I have some free time next week,” I said, sensing she wanted to talk about Michael.

Casey let me out in front of my house, watched me walk inside, and then drove away. I returned to my laptop, the two paragraphs and the start of the third still there. The break proved to be an interruption I’d have to recover from, so I reviewed my notes again, read what I had so far, and then sat with the ideas, waiting for something to click. I paced but stopped when instead of ideas, I found small things to do: clean the dust on the crown molding, hang up the pants that lay on a chair in my bedroom, finish yesterday’s journal entry.

Since the weather was nice, I thought I’d be more productive writing outside in the backyard. I set up a small table and sat under the large oak. Two paragraphs turned into three full paragraphs, then four. Soon I had four pages, five. I celebrated with a turkey sandwich, an oatmeal cookie, and music. The sound of the orchestra was soft, rising and falling, a dance between singer and musician I could only admire, not understand, in the same way I could only write about the characters in the stories, not relieve them of their pain.

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Push, Don’t Pull

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When we arrived, they collected our phones and we were given a number and ushered into a large waiting room. The fluorescent bulbs shone dimly, some flickering and buzzing as we piled in, making our way to 70s style office chairs. I chose a light green armchair, sinking into its worn cushion. There was soft mumbling between us, curious smiles, a sense of distinction because we had been selected, and the tiny slip of paper in our hands with a number printed on it was proof. Still, in the backs of our minds we wondered what it all meant. The woman next to me tapped her leg against the black and white tiles. Across from me another woman pulled knitting needles from a Barnes & Nobles tote bag. And behind her, a man leaned forward in his chair running his hands through his beard.

Two women walked through the double doors, both dressed in navy blue pantsuits, shiny silver hairpins taming unruly strands.

“If we could have your attention,” the one on the right began.

She welcomed us, thanked us for coming, and then read a script that explained the process.

“When you hear your number, you will come up, and Lyle will lead you to the back…”

“To a room with computers,” Kelly interjected. “There’s nothing weird going on,” she laughed and we did too, relief we didn’t realize we needed.

“Once inside, you’ll follow the instructions on the screen.”

“We value your honest responses and appreciate your time,” Kelley reminded.

They walked back through the double doors, leaving behind a floral fragrance. A few minutes later Lyle stepped out holding a clipboard and called five numbers. The participants collected their belongings and followed him. I looked down at my number again and then at the remaining participants. Those standing found their way to the open seats. Moments later the man returned and called the next five numbers. They followed, their coats folded over their arms, keys swinging at their necks.

And then we waited. Fifteen minutes went by, then thirty, forty and people began to stir.

“I didn’t know it was going to take this long,” one woman said aloud.

“It is taking a long time,” another woman agreed.

“I wonder why it’s taking so long,” a man stood up and walked to the double doors, pulling on one and then the other but finding them both locked.

We watched, the mood shifting from interest to agitation as we tried to settle our restlessness. I counted the ceiling tiles, the number of times the lights flickered, the coughs and groans.

“You’d think they’d be more professional,” a man griped, realizing we had been waiting for an hour and fifteen minutes now. “Good luck everybody,” he rose to his feet and headed for the exit.

Half the room stood up and followed. They couldn’t leave fast enough, but the others remained seated, scoffing at their impatience.

“A little patience,” a man yelled. “It is a research study.”

“Mind your business,” a woman huddling in the foyer said.

“This door is locked too,” someone announced.

“They can’t just lock us inside.”

The room felt smaller now as people moved from one set of doors to the other, grasping at the handles, tugging with all their strength. Then we began knocking, controlled strikes against the wooden door at first. We fought to keep our composure, waited for a reasonable explanation, the gotcha, but it never came. So we pounded the door, screamed, loud panicked shrills vibrating against the walls, surely heard throughout the building.

“What’s happening?” a woman cried.

“What did I sign up for?” we all pondered.

Though we were standing, it felt like we were crashing into a fiery furnace. My mind bounced between this can’t be real and I can’t believe this is happening. Others wept for themselves, their babies, friends, spouses, family they were sure they’d never see again.

“This was some kind of trap,” a man shouted, anger squashing fear.

The lights flickered, longer this time and we froze, our breaths shallow. Strangers hugged and held hands as the bulb turned black.

“11, 12, 13, 14, and 15,” Lyle said as he stepped out of the double doors, people whose numbers were one though ten, maneuvering around him and returning to their seats. “And I’ll take 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 too,” he said, but no one stepped forward, no one moved.

“What’s going on here?” A man with a round belly demanded. “You didn’t hear us banging on the door?”

“No,” Lyle squinted with confusion. “Why were you banging on the doors? Is everything okay? The fans back there are really loud. They’re the big industrial kind because without them we’d faint. There’s absolutely no circulation in back there,” he chatted, not realizing the severity of the storm in front of him.

“You guys took our phones and locked us in here,” we yelled.

“The doors aren’t locked,” Lyle moved towards the exit, twisted the knob and pushed the door open. “You have to push, not pull,” he demonstrated, the door opening to a bright sunny sky.

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No One Saw Him

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“I can’t believe this is the last day,” Marisol whined as she flopped on the bed and slipped her feet into thin, white ankle socks.

“We have today,” I reminded her. “The tour…” I began when Estrella and Krystal knocked on our door and sang, “‘rise and shine sleepy heads.'”

Marisol limped to the door with one shoe on and twisted the handle.

Krystal barged in, Estrella behind her.

“Let’s go, ladies,” Krystal mocked our high school gym teacher.

“You went way back,” I laughed.

We grabbed our things, took at glance at ourselves in the mirror, and left, arriving downstairs in time for the van. The driver checked our passes and let us board. Marisol led us to the back, she and Krystal sitting across from Estrella and me.

“Here we go,” Estrella said as the driver closed the door and climbed into his seat.

At first we chatted, slipping between the present and the past, memory our dear friend who maintained the bridges between us. Then we turned our attention to the road, mesmerized by the landscape, tall palm trees waving, crisp blue water rolling peacefully onto the sandy shore, visitors and locals carrying surfboards and beach towels, wearing stylish, straw sun hats. I leaned back and thought about the past two days: The temporary pleasures, the experiences we felt obligated to take on, the excitement of being away from home, though it waned at times. There were smoothies on the beach, deep tissue massages, dancing and chanting; hours spent in museums soaking up the culture, the history; architecture we admired enough to capture on film. And, of course, the food.

The driver turned off the main street, maneuvering the van along a bumpy trail. We rocked back and forth, bounced almost as high as the ceiling until the driver turned onto a paved road and stopped in front of a resort, one much nicer than ours. A man and a woman were standing at the edge of the path, there to welcome us to what would be an adventure of a lifetime. We followed them into a large, open area overlooking the water, and sat down at square tables. Servers approached with water and menus, returning a short time later to take our breakfast order.

By the time we were done eating and our food had settled, the tour guide appeared again, his voice loud as he outlined details we had read already before signing up for the tour, but now that we were here needed clarifying. Marisol and Krystal whispered something to each other. Estrella stared at the guide, taking mental notes. I nibbled on a piece of mango, anxiety building.

“Are we ready?” he yelled, his face bright.

His excitement was met with impatient smiles and then our backs as we headed to the van. Soon we were on the path less traveled as the guide directed our attention to historic monuments. Then we were snapping pictures of waterfalls, sea turtles, whales, horses. We visited the rainforest, walked through bamboo trees on long, narrow planks. And then we went to the beach, moving in and out of the water, letting the sun warm our skin.

Lunch was served five hours later back at the resort, and we gobbled it up, our bodies yearning for nutrients. The room was quiet until we had swallowed enough food to satisfy the rumbling in our stomachs.

“That was fun,” Marisol said, taking a sip of water.

“I got so many great pictures,” Krystal said, pulling her phone out of her bag.

Estrella, Marisol, and I copied, ready to show off our pictures. Many of them were the same, not surprisingly, but there were differences in angle, framing.

“Send that one to me,” we repeated.

“Well, we know who the photographer is,” we teased Krystal.

“We know who isn’t,” they teased me.

“Who is this?” Marisol asked, pointing at a man in the background of three of my pictures. “He keeps showing up.”

I enlarged the photos and saw a wild-haired man, his eyes big, front teeth missing. He was at the beach, outside the museum, and standing behind us as we waited to go snorkeling. In each picture his face rests in a goofy grin, not aimed at the camera, but at something else, someone else.

“He’s ruining the picture,” I complained. “You think I can photoshop him out?”

“I don’t know,” Krystal shrugged.

“It’s not that bad,” Marisol dismissed. “It’s kind of cute.”

I stayed silent, unamused.

“It’s funny that he’s in so many pictures, and we didn’t even see him,” Estrella said, pointing out three more pictures. “No one saw him.”

I looked at the pictures again, at the man in the background. His face, his whole body, was filled with the kind of happiness we were trying to portray.

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Hope & Healing

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We left a little after 5am and drove two hours to Cedar Grove Park in East Stoneborough. My mother belonged to a non-profit organization called Hope & Healing, and once a year they held an event in the park to share their message with the larger community. Tables with t-shirts, bumper stickers, pens, and notepads were set up in squares, volunteers standing inside the space, while visitors stopped by with questions and left with brochures that would sit in their cars until they slipped under seats and were retrieved by car wash attendants who assumed the crumpled, glossy print brochures were trash.

This year there were games and jump houses, hot dogs and burgers, prizes one could win. It was an event for the entire family, and I was all for it because I appreciated this day. I shared my mother’s plight in ridding the world of violence against women and children. I didn’t mind talking about the organization’s mission, getting signatures, encouraging people to donate what they could. I didn’t mind talking to people who had suffered, who had lost someone who meant everything to them.

As we rounded the one-way path to the center of he park, I watched morning joggers race along the sidewalk, weaving between tall cedars. My mother parked the bus, and I jumped right in, carrying boxes of materials, greeting members I had known most of my life. Truck drivers delivering jump houses arrived, and I watched the heavy-duty nylon become magical castles and long slides. Ice chests were filled with ice and water bottles, tea, juice. Bags of chips and pretzels dangled on snack hangers. And self-proclaimed grill experts lined hot dogs, burgers, and veggies on the cast iron racks.

I mingled as the crowd grew, introducing myself to newcomers.

“Hi, my name is Tabitha,” I extended my hand. “I’m with Hope & Healing,” I explained our mission. “The children can play,” I said. “We’ve got games, food.”

By late afternoon, the parking lot was full, and people were having a good time. Lucille Rigby spoke and I watched as people listened, their faces engaged, their eyes sad when she shared frightening statistics. I restacked piles of fliers, re-organized t-shirts, shuffled pens around the table, trying each one to make sure they worked. And then there was a girl my age, a little older, who spoke. Her name was Letty. She was a survivor.

“I’m so glad that organizations like this exist,” her voice cracked.

Children screamed with excitement in the background, the sound of the jump house air pumps buzzing, but everyone else was quiet as she shared her story, including me. It wasn’t as if I had never heard a victim’s story before because I had, many. This was the first time I had listened, the first time I felt another person’s tragedy as though it were my own.

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Ghost Town

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Armed with three degrees–one in urban planning, one in law, and one in real estate development–I headed west to Jackson Mills, ready to introduce myself to residents who had lived in this ghost town their whole lives. They were owed an upgrade, and I believed I was the person they’d trust with the undertaking.

I was wrong.

Pillars in the community rallied against me. They awakened the sleeping, unleashed the angry, stirred the quiet, and together they fought me. Their words were like knives thrown into my chest, my back, barely missing arteries, my lungs, my heart. I got the message: No one was going to come in and shake their lives upside down with upgraded utilities, shopping centers, and recreation centers for the youth. I could have just left, but I didn’t. I felt like I was in the middle of a Nancy Drew novel. There was a mystery that needed solving, truths that needed to be brought to light, so I hit the pavement.

It turned out that not everyone had gotten the memo, and they actually opened their doors when I knocked. I started on the south end and worked my way north. I painted the picture for them: nearby shopping instead of the fifty-minute drive they were now locked into; more local businesses they could own, not people who lived outside the community; modern structures that would enhance their communities, bring people, revenue. Their faces twitched at the ideas, some even gave me a half smile. But in the end their answers were the same, exposing layers of fear, psychopathy, and secrets they maneuvered around until the little monsters reared their heads.

“I’m just saying you don’t want to go digging up stuff back there,” Sally Horton advised.

“What’s back there?” I asked.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” she closed her door.

The back there she referred to were the abandoned buildings and railroad tracks that ran from one end of town to the other. I walked along the gravel edge, the emptiness suffocating. This was ghost town, the part no one ventured because they believed something lived there, or worse, something was buried there. I continued walking, kept company by the sound of gravel crunching under my feet. An occasional stray dog darted out between the buildings but minded its business, nose to the ground. There were possums and gopher holes, nothing else. No garbage, no footprints, no signs that anyone, not one single person, had been there. I wondered how that could be. There were always an outsiders, rebels. I just had to find them.

As the fog thickened, the headlights of a large truck shone through, and the rumbling of the diesel engine grew closer, and closer, until my only two options were to stop or try my best to outrun the six-cylinder beast. I stopped. Four people stepped out of the truck, two men, two women. They didn’t say anything, not right away, but they did stare and exhale long, angry breaths.

“We see you’re still poking around,” one of the women said. “What are you looking for?” she put her hands on her hips.

“Who sent you?” the other woman interjected, matching the first woman’s posture.

“You know what you’re doing here is called trespassing,” the taller man slid from the back. “One call to the sheriff’s office and well, they’ll have to decide what they’d do to you.”

“She reminds me of the…” the shorter man said, snapping his fingers to jog his memory. “The Jacksons,” he laughed.

“They died right here on these tracks,” the first woman admitted. “We’d hate to see the same thing happen to you.”

I recognized the veiled threat, but I still wanted clarification.

“Were they hit by a train?”

They all laughed, slapping their knees, holding on to the side of the truck.

“No train has been through here since I was kid,” the second man said, and I guessed he was at least seventy.

“So how did they die?” I pressed.

“There’s only one way to find out,” the first man warned.

“Why don’t you just leave like we asked you to,” the second woman suggested.

“No worries,” I turned and started walking back to my car.

This time I thought I heard the sad sighs of the dead, felt them huddle around me, waves of energy there to keep me from unraveling. I made my way to my car without looking back, though I could still feel their sharp threats. I turned the key and drove away, mystery solved.

They were right.

This town didn’t need a fancy shopping center or low-flow toilets when there was a greater threat to their humanity, when part of its core was missing and people lived like they were dying.

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White Picket Fence

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My mother let me out of the car in front of Grandpa Greg’s house the day before Thanksgiving.

“I’ll be back,” she mumbled, and then watched me drag an army green suitcase, weaving between a row of parked cars, some covered, some not, all in a state of disrepair.

She waited for me to knock on the door, and then for the door to open before she drove away. I waved but was met with the side of her tired face.

“Well, come on in then,” Grandpa Greg sighed, opening the door just enough for me to slip through, the suitcase scuffing the door as I tugged it through the small space.

Once inside, I saw bins and clothes stacked behind the door, thick cobwebs and layers of dust on top. Grandpa Greg grabbed the suitcase and led me down the hallway, a narrow path with piles of newspapers on either side, to a room filled with old furniture, some pieces sitting upright, others turned over on their sides, or upside down, stuffing and long springs exposed.

“You can sleep in here,” he leaned the suitcase against the mass and left the room.

I followed him back to the kitchen. He sipped black coffee from a stainless steel mug, his fingers covering deep scratches. An old refrigerator, black from fire, sat next to a smaller one. It was plugged into an extension cord that ran along the wall, the other end stuffed into a dusty outlet in the next room. I stood in the doorway drowning in questions.

Grandpa Greg was a quiet man, a loner, in his late sixties. He called himself a collector, but neighbors referred to him as a hoarder in their complaints to the city. His overalls were always dirty, mismatched patches covering holes and rips he earned while working on his cars. I ate breakfast and lunch at school, but dinner came from cans, warmed up on the stove. He mixed his food all together in an old butter bowl, so old that the label had faded, and the company had rebranded themselves twice. I learned to stomach salty kidney beans and white bread, stewed tomatoes and tuna, fried spam and slimy okra. And I learned to live with the stuff, find order by restacking bins, clearing cobwebs, wiping dusty surfaces until they shined, and decorating small spaces with colorful drawings I planned to give to my mother when she returned.

I don’t know what happened to those pictures. I was eighteen before I saw her again; in fact, adulthood came early for me, in many ways, at least. Grandpa Greg expected I take care of myself, not worry him with things like hair and clothes or school work. He never attended parent-teacher conferences, never went to back-to-school-nights, never checked my forehead to see if I had a temperature when I stayed home from school. To the dismay of neighbors, he had more junk cars towed to the yard and he lay under them all day and night tinkering until radiators, hoses, and wheels covered the lawn. And I handled my own affairs, explaining food stains on my clothes and homework to teachers, filling in blank checks for field trips Grandpa Greg scribbled his signature on, leaving black grease stains in the corners, and challenging bullies when they followed me home.

“Just as I suspected, the dirty girl lives in a dirty house,” they shouted.

“Why don’t you come and say that to my face?” I shouted, dropping my backpack in the middle of the street.

I rolled up my sleeves and balled my fists, tears blurring my eyes until the hot, salty liquid spilled down my face. Grandpa Greg lay on a padded roller underneath his newest project. He stood up, wiped his hands on a greasy rag and walked to the middle of the street, grabbing my backpack before heading inside. I waited a second, still in a fighter’s pose.

“You better not come back here,” I warned, backing away.

Grandpa Greg didn’t scold me. He didn’t ask any questions. Instead we ate dinner, the clanking of our forks the only sound between us. When we were finished, I washed our dishes and put them on the rack to dry. Then I went into my room, where I tucked myself behind boxes and drew pictures for my mother. In the next few days, Grandpa Greg’s niece, Meredith, came to pick me up. She had red, curly hair and chewed her gum so that it made popping noises.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“For what?”

“You’re coming to stay with me for a while,” she explained, helping me stuff some clothes into my army green suitcase. “I’ve got some kids your age.”

Grandpa Greg made a muffled sound as I left, too busy tinkering with his cars to say goodbye. I didn’t know what “a while” meant, but I imagined it meant that I’d never see him again. Meredith’s house was about an hour away. Her children were in the yard waiting. They began to jump up and down as she drove down the long brick driveway.

Her daughters Charlotte and Beverly greeted me, pulling me into their bedroom, showing me where I would be sleeping. We played. We did chores. And Meredith brushed our hair at night, telling us stories from her youth. I loved it there. I didn’t want to leave.

After a week of dresses and bows, fingernail polish, chit chat, bike rides, endless games of tag, ice cream sundaes, and all the space I could dream of, it was time for me to go home. I hopped in the car, Charlotte and Beverly waving as their mother backed out of the driveway. She asked me if I had a good time, told me I could come back anytime, and I wondered if that “anytime” could be then but didn’t ask.

I drifted off the last half of the drive, awaking when I felt the familiar dips leading up to Grandpa Greg’s house. I opened my eyes and then closed them again, unsure if I was in some kind of dream state. Meredith parked her car in front of the house. Grandpa Greg stood on the front step, waving with one hand.

“What?” I stared in shock.

All of the cars were gone. The yard was free of car parts and tarps. The dirty siding had been painted white, the trim a mahogany, making the house look decades younger. And a white picket fence now lined the property. Grandpa Greg welcomed us inside, holding his hands out at the wide open space. There were no more boxes. New shiny floors were firm under our feet. Clothes now hung in closets. He had a sofa, two chairs, and a coffee table. The small refrigerator had been replaced with a big one, and the kitchen table had enough space for visitors.

“Go and see your room,” he said.

Meredith grabbed my hand and we raced down the hallway side by side. In the doorway I paused, my mouth gaped. A beautiful canopy bed replaced the old mattress. There was a desk with a matching chair and white fluffy carpet to tickle my feet. My closet was filled with clothes, my old ones and some new ones, like the ones Charlotte and Beverly wore. I had a bookshelf with books.

“Come look outside in the back,” Grandpa Greg said.

Inside a shed was a red bicycle with white streamers.

“Can I ride it?” I asked.

“Yep.”

I hopped on, taking a ride down to the end of the street. My cheeks ached from smiling. I felt like a kid again, and I just wanted to keep riding, to get lost inside of play the way I had at Meredith’s house.

“That’s it, Cora,” Grandpa Greg shouted as I neared the house, and my smile faded.

He had called me by my mother’s name. I waved as I passed, thinking that this was the gift he never gave her. This was his chance to get it right, and I hoped that one day she’d come back and see the white picket fence.

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Coffee with Cats

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I spent the afternoon at my friend, Stella’s, shop. Located on the corner of 10th and Providence, the small, rustic-styed shop sat between two forty-feet tall Drooping Juniper, their needle-shaped leaves and dark purple berries spilling onto the patio throughout the day.

“Hey, Stella,” I greeted when I entered, the smell of coffee with hints of cinnamon and doughy pastries wafting.

“Hey girl, how are you doing today?” she sprayed whipped cream into two Life is Good mugs and then carried them to the couple seated in the corner, next to the bamboo plant towering towards the ceiling.

“You need help with anything?” I offered.

“No we’re good. Kara is in the back, and Brian is taking a break,” she smiled. “What can I get you? Chai latte?” she guessed.

“How did I get so predictable?” I laughed, sliding my card into the reader. “I’m going to find a seat outside.”

“I’ll bring it out to you,” she waited for my receipt to print and then handed it to me. “I’ve got some news.”

The customer behind me stepped forward, ready to order. I waved and headed outside where I found a table next to a waterfall made of rocks. The soft sound of water trickling was background to the chatter of patrons. I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my book, hoping I’d be able to get through the last fifty pages and finally learn the identity of the killer. Stella came out carrying a large chai latte, sitting across from me as she set the icy cold drink on the table.

“So you know how I told you I met with an investor a couple weeks ago…”

“Yeah,” I leaned forward.

“Well, it looks like we’re going to be opening another shop in East Orrin,” she put her hands together and squeezed them, hiding her excitement behind her knuckles.

“Wow! That’s awesome, Stella,” I followed her lead and cheered softly.

“That means I’m going to need a team for that shop,” she teased. “What do you think about possibly managing it?”

“Are you kidding?” I felt my shoulders rise.

“Think about it. This might help,” she put her hand on my arm. “I gotta get back inside…call me later.”

She was already through the door before I found my words. I played with the idea for a while, imagining myself at the East Orrin shop, wondering if it was close to the river, if it was near the walking paths, or if it was tucked inside the shopping center where people stood outside their shops with samples. In between thoughts I caught glimpses of customers’ faces as they bit into sweet and flaky deserts, as their lips met the side of their cups. I heard parts of their conversations about the awards their children received, gas prices, terrible bosses, sickly family members, back stabbing friends. And when their cups were empty, when there were only crumbs on their plates, they stood up and left, bidding their companions adieu. At first there was a steady influx of customers, but then things slowed, creating an opportunity for George and James to make their appearance.

Like best buds, they strolled in and found a spot in the sun to lay and lick their paws. They stretched their furry bodies, rolling back and forth on the ground, until something in the environment–a bird, a dog, a small animal–caught their attention and they raised their heads, prepared to attack or run. And then they were up again, making their way around the patio, atop the brick fence, under tables, and finally to me.

“Come here, George,” I held my fingers out for him to smell, James approaching but more skittish than George.

George’s hair flew into the air as I petted him, as he rubbed his face against my legs, twirling around and around until he flopped down next to me, while James hesitated. I thought again about Stella’s offer, how it would be good for me to get back to work, how this might help, as she suggested.

“What do you think, James?” I bent down, surprised when he allowed me to pet him.

Not only did he accept the belly rub, but he wrapped his paws around my hand, holding me tight.

“So that’s a yes?” I kept petting, George now looking for his share. “I think you’re right.”

When I looked up, Stella was standing at the window. I knew we were thinking the same thing: My daughter, Annie, would be happy to know that I had found a way to live again.

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In the Sandstorm

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Wren stopped by after her shift at Birdy’s. She ran into the house and flopped onto a chair.

“You won’t believe my day,” she breathed.

I grabbed two waters, placing one in her cupholder before sitting across from her on the sofa.

“Was Kenny there today?” I sipped my water.

“Kenny is always there,” she exaggerated. “And he was on one today,” she complained.

“Hey, I need to drop these packages off at the post office,” I pointed to the stack of long, brown envelopes. “You want to walk with me?”

“I guess,” she huffed. “Every time I come by you take me on a walk. Are you trying to tell me something?” she laughed.

We stepped outside, the temperature a nice 75 degrees, a light wind whispering past us. Wren set the pace, her tired feet stomping against the sidewalk, the best she could do after standing on her feet for eight hours.

“What have you been up to?” she asked.

“Same old thing,” I said. “Still painting…” I shrugged.

“Portraits?”

“Mostly, but sometimes I get requests for other things like landscapes. A lady wanted me to paint parts of her hometown recently.”

“Did you?”

“I did. It was fun. She had lost a lot of photos in a fire and wanted something that represented the place she grew up.”

“And here I was thinking of a simple painting of some buildings and sidewalks,” she laughed as we neared Sandy Oak Park.

Baby oak trees lined the path, their thin branches waving from side to side. Two joggers passed us with matching Fitbits wrapped around their wrists. They leaned into the wind, determined to push through its sharp gusts.

“Is it me, or is the wind doing something strange?” Wren pointed out about fifty feet ahead at the haziness, the sand whirling in the air.

“I think it’s a sandstorm,” I stopped, watching the sand billow out into the street, and run towards us.

Wren turned and I followed, looking behind to gauge the storm. We picked up our speed, a light sprint to the corner, where I looked back again, and then around deciding if we needed to take cover.

“Get in,” I heard a man’s voice call.

Wren glanced at me and headed for the man’s car, a long Lincoln.

“Wait,” I yelled,” standing back as the man opened the front passenger door, and a little girl opened the back door.

Sand was now in our hair, our eyes, wrapping us in a thick, white cloud. Wren rushed towards the back passenger door, so I slipped into the front seat, the door slamming against my arm, knocking the packages to the floor.

“Just in time,” the driver said, his smile friendly. “I’m Glen,” he put his hand to his chest. “And this is Georgia,” he pointed at the girl slumped in the seat behind him, occupied with the two dolls on her her lap that she dressed and undressed as she muttered to herself.

“I’m Wren.”

“Lena,” I said. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem,” Glen said. “This is a terrible spot to be during a sandstorm,” he added. “There are a lot of trees but no place to take cover really.”

The car shook as the storm passed. We looked into the white dust; it was as if the world around us had disappeared. I clutched my packages to my chest and leaned back.

“Headed to the post office, huh?” Glen asked.

“Yeah, I need to mail these packages,” I offered.

“What’s in the packages?” Georgia asked, her voice soft.

“Paintings,” I smiled.

“What kind of paintings?”

“Paintings of people.”

“Oh,” she stared, chewing on the idea and then returning to her dolls.

“You’re a painter then?” Glen asked.

I smiled and shook my head, repositioning the padded envelopes in my arms from smallest to largest.

“That’s great,” he said. “And what about you Wren?”

“I work at Birdy’s,” she cheered sarcastically.

“Nothing wrong with Birdy’s,” Glen tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “I started out as a line cook.”

“What do you do now?” I asked.

“I’m a psychologist,” he said, the angle of his face catching my attention.

He stared down at the red stitching on the steering wheel, tracing the intricate binding with the tip of his finger. Tattoos peeked from underneath his sleeves, lines and colors that didn’t reveal much, but excited the eye, made it crave for more.

“I work with juvenile offenders,” he continued, his fingers pausing and then dropping into his lap. “I see so much of myself in them,” he confessed.

“How so?” Wren pressed.

“I was there. I was them,” he started, looking at her through the rearview mirror. “It took someone who saw in me what I didn’t see in myself for me to get back on track.”

His facial features were not at all uncommon, but I wanted to paint him. There was something about the way he looked that made me want to fill a canvas with his likeness, oil paint giving texture to capture the heaviness of life, long brush strokes to release the joy.

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A Horse Named Maximus

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When I woke up Saturday morning, my neighbors’ horse, Maximus, was on the property standing near the brook. I called Amanda and Chris to let them know, but they were in town so I agreed to walk Maximus home, returning him to his enclosure. This proved to be an easier task than I thought. The gentle animal responded when I slipped a harness behind his ears, making sure it was snug before I grabbed the lead. When I took a step, he followed, the sound of his four-beat gait echoing.

“You’re such a good boy, Maximus,” I ran my hand along his coat.

“Let’s get you home,” I chatted. “What do you say?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Did they leave you enough food?”

I spotted the place in the enclosure Maximus had escaped as we neared Amanda and Chris’ ranch. Fixing it, I discovered, would require more time and tools than I had, so I secured Maximus in the stable, making sure he had food and water. I gave him a hug and headed home to begin my day.

Janet called an impromptu meeting, which meant working from home was not an option today. I dressed and headed into the city, an hour and a half drive I enjoyed. The long, quiet roads, miles of trees and agriculture, homes hidden on wooded property, and houseboats docked on the river. Like the river, the road was made of sharp bends, winding towards the city. Draw bridges opened for long shipping boats, and I watched both ends of the platform rise until each stood vertical, a line of cars forming on either side of the bridge. Passed the bridge was another small town, Derwood, with scattered homes on acres of land, one school bus stopping in the road, its red Stop sign warning drivers not to pass. Down steep hills cattle grazed, wheat grew. Modern homes built on family property revealed shifts in mindsets and lifestyles as city dwellers arrived, blurring the lines.

A pizzeria, gas station, and bakery marked that last point on the road where drivers could turn around easily if they chose to. From that point on, the road narrowed and winded even more, the elevated path raised fifty to sixty feet, on one side the river, homes and cultivated land on the other. It was not uncommon for drivers to take the turns to fast and dive head first into the river, where, if they were lucky, trees and brush might slow their fall.

To those who didn’t live here, one town looked like the other, but at the traffic light, where Derwood ended and Morrison began on one side was the river hidden behind lush trees, homes on the other side built on wide open planes, mobile homes, cars, and tractors parked on muddy land. If you weren’t looking for them, you’d miss the tiny signs leading to homes nestled at the ends of dark, damp streets. Rest stops on the river’s side might be missed, mistaken for simple interruptions in the thick brush.

But at the end of the Skyline bridge, a two-mile car and pedestrian bridge, the view changed. First there were industrial buildings blowing puffs of thick, white smoke into the air. And then came housing communities, new and old homes and apartment complexes filled with families who lived in close quarters as strangers. On into the city, past a school, a church, a car dealership, past a strip of fast food restaurants, an urgent care and other medical buildings, two more car dealerships, and a commercial complex, home to a department store, sit-down eateries, and specialty stores, were office buildings, one of which was rented by The Digital Design Team.

I parked in one of our designated spots and grabbed my briefcase, ready to showcase my designs for one of our big clients. When I walked in, Janet was on the phone. She looked up at me, her eyes squinting as she remembered why I was there.

“Okay, thank you, Mary,” she said, nodding her head though Mary couldn’t see her. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll send the revision over today…okay then…sounds good…okay…yes…you too…bye, bye,” she hung up the phone.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Morning,” she smiled. “What brings you in today?” she shuffled papers on her desk.

“You asked me to come in,” I said, my words slow.

“Not today,” she clarified. “Monday,” she laughed.

“I was a little distracted,” I admitted. “My neighbors’ horse got out and I had to…” I watched her face as she lost interest. “I’ll be here Monday morning,” I said and excused myself.

I figured since I was in the city I would grab myself a fancy coffee before heading back home. Instead of going through the drive-thru, I ordered inside, used the bathroom, and waited for the barista to call my name.

“Venti, Iced, Chai for Ella.”

On the way back, I listened to a Bill Gates and Rashida Jones podcast. The traffic was thin, and the weather was warming to a nice 75 degrees. At times I rolled my window down and inhaled the smells of river and dirt. And, as with many journeys, returning home seemed to take less time. When I reached our narrow, dirt road off route 9, the coffee had worked its way to my bladder. I drove down the bumpy driveway, and as I turned towards my front steps, standing in front of the white farmhouse was Maximus.

“Are you kidding me?” I slowed the car so I didn’t scare him. “How did he get out of the stable?”

“Maximus,” I greeted as I got out of the car. “What are you doing here, boy?”

He nodded his head up and down as he snorted. I put my things down on the porch and then gave Maximus a pat. I called Amanda and Chris again, but they didn’t answer.

“What are we going to do, Maximus?” I asked him. “If I go to the bathroom will you be here when I get back?” I stood to unlock my door. “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.”

I hurried inside and used the front bathroom, steadily calling out to Maximus, afraid he might leave and head further out towards the empty fields, some known to have traps. To my surprise, he was standing in the same spot. I sat on my steps and we waited for Amanda and Chris.

After a few minutes, I decided to play the next episode in the podcast, listening intently for their voices to break through the silence when my phone dinged. There was a notification for my appointment with the contractors coming the next day. We listened to the podcast, Maximus letting out a snort when I laughed too loud.

“What do you say we listen to some music?” I asked him, rubbing the sides of his face.

I turned on my playlist and lay back against the hard, wooden rail. Maximus came closer and closer until his face poked through the slits in the rail, his nose tickling my hand.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I put the harness on and led him around the property, down the dirt road.

Amanda and Chris were pulling onto their property, their silver truck loaded with materials. I decided I’d walk Maximus home one more time instead of having them come to my house. Maximus snorted and shook his head as we took the half-mile walk.

“It’s been nice, Maximus,” I said as we walked onto their property.

Chris greeted me at the edge of the stable, surprised to see Maximus.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, taking the lead. “Maximus, what are you doing, buddy?”

“I can’t believe he got out twice,” Amanda chimed. “He likes you,” she laughed.

“Maybe he’s your spirit animal,” Chris joined.

“That’s fine with me,” I said as I turned to head back home.

I turned my phone back to my playlist and listened to the singer’s voice, the sweet, sugary sounds, the witty lyrics, the subtle riffs an ethereal expression I sunk my heart into, my gait a four-beat tempo.

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Freedom

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

I grew up on the White Boulder Oceanfront, a small community that attracted a lot of tourists who surfed all day, lay on the beach till their skin burned, and strolled up and down Ocean Street buying trinkets they’d take home with them as proof they had been there. They were loud in the evenings, lingering on the sand even while beach patrol asked them leave. Then they walked to nearby restaurants with outside dinning overlooking the ocean where servers delivered pitchers of beer, one after another until the manager informed the table that they were being cut off. This was the part my parents hated, the part they griped about when spring rolled around and throughout the summer months when even more tourists arrived and their lives overlapped with ours.

“It’s as if they were all raised in barns,” my mother huffed.

“They probably were,” my father said, his face hidden behind the newspaper.

“I saw a bunch of them hanging around the grocery store,” she continued. “Just standing there with big, goofy grins, still in their swim suits. There’s just no decency anymore.”

“It’s a different world now, Claire,” my father explained.

“Put your dishes away when you’re done,” she turned her attention to me and my sister, Amelia.

After dinner, we took a family bike ride, my mother shouting for us to slow down when we got too far ahead. During off seasons my mother didn’t mind riding along the beach, observing the sleepy shops, recalling earlier times when it was a safer place to be.

“Why isn’t it safe?” Amelia probed.

“Why?” my mother slammed on her brakes, her head almost exploding.

“The tourists,” my father explained, his voice calm, matter of fact as he kept rolling on the path.

Amelia and I caught up with him, my mother now trailing behind, where she stayed until we reached the bait shop, the place we usually stopped and turned around, my father chatting with customers about fishing, what was once his favorite pastime, while we rested.

“Let’s go, Stewart,” my mother interrupted anytime the people he was talking to suggested he got out with them.

Now my sister and I trailed behind, admiring the waves, the smell of fried foods, the freedom kids our age had as they dashed in and out of the water, laughter the language they shared. It was the place we longed to be, not just as passersby, but as players in nature’s playground.

“There’s no way I’m letting you go there alone,” my mother repeated any time we asked if we could join friends there.”

“We won’t be alone,” I argued.

“Listen to your mother,” my father yelled from the living room where he sat in his favorite chair reading books about World War II.

And then one day, while my mother was out of town visiting an ailing friend, Amelia and I asked again, this time approaching with our neighbors Jenecka and Sara. At first my father just stared at us, his glasses sliding down the end of his nose.

“Why not,” he said, closing his book and sitting it on the coffee table. “What are you planning to do while you’re there?”

“Go in the water…look in the shops…hang out.”

“Hang out, huh?” he smiled and reached for his wallet. “Here,” he handed me a twenty dollar bill. “Be back by sundown,” he said. “And no boys.”

“Ewww,” we squealed.

We hopped on our bikes and headed for the beach where we lay a blanket on the sand and sat down, still not believing we were there. But this disbelief waned, and we became beachgoers. We laughed, walked along the shore, dipping our feet into the cold water, built sand castles and nibbled on hot pretzels. Kids we went to school with waved, and people we didn’t know cheered as we joined volleyball games, raced from one cone to another, and found buried treasures.

And then it was the four of us again as we walked down Ocean Street, our shorts wet, sand in our hair. Everyone, except for Amelia, decided on fish and chips, but I made her hold a table for us anyway, while Jenecka, Sara, and I went inside to order. A girl named Libby took our order. I recognized her from school. She was a grade ahead of me.

“Hey,” she said. “What can I get you?”

“We’ll take two of the fish and chips,” Jenecka said.

“We’re splitting them, so can we get an extra container?” I asked.

“I’m not supposed to,” Libby said.

“That’s okay,” Sara,” said.

We filled our soda cups and headed back outside. Where Amelia was supposed to be sitting was now two couples. They sat in the plastic white chairs, leaning across the table for a long, slobbery kiss.

“Where did she go?” Jenecka asked before taking a long sip of her Dr. Pepper.

I looked around at all the tables, back in the direction we had come, then in the other direction, trying to spot her pink and white striped shirt.

“Amelia,” I called, barely loud enough for the people sitting at the last table to hear.

“Amelia,” Jenecka repeated, louder.

“Are you looking for the girl who was sitting at that table?” a girl wearing a bikini asked?

“Yeah,” I blurted.

“She went that way,” the girl pointed towards the direction we had come. “She was pissed.”

“Thank you,” Jenecka said, as we started walking.

“I have your food,” I heard Libby say. “I brought you extra plates, even though I’m not supposed to,” she said, extending the tray for one of us to grab.

Sara grabbed the food, spilling fries as she followed us.

“Why would she walk off like that?”

“She can’t be too far.”

We walked along the beach, back onto Ocean Street, our food cold, unappealing. And we did it again, the sun threatening to set before we found her. First anger set in, then worry. I wished my father had denied our request, keeping us safe inside the house, protected from the world.

“We’ll find her,” Jenecka assured.

I nodded, but inside I cried. Freedom felt dangerous, heavy, suffocating. We kept searching, the sun’s soft orange glow disappearing right in front of our eyes.

“Should we call the police?” Sara asked.

“I’m in so much trouble,” I sobbed, bending to sit on the curb next to the spot we had parked our bikes, Amelia’s now gone. “What if something bad happened to her?”

“I’ll go see if Libby will let us use the phone,” Sara offered.

“I really need to get home,” Jenecka said.

The air was cool now, blowing our hair into our faces. I tried to breathe. I tried to move past fear to devise a plan. Instead, my body began to shake. My lungs felt like they had collapsed. And my head felt large, swollen with fright. Jenecka and Sara leaned over me as I tried to catch my breath. They rubbed my shoulders, pulled my hair out of my face, wiped the tears that spilled down my cheeks.

“Maddy,” I heard my father’s voice and then Amelia’s.

I jerked my head up towards the sound. Their faces were blurry.

“I told you I didn’t want fish and chips,” Amelia sassed.

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The Hitchhiker

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“Should we stop?” Shea asked, eyeing a woman walking along the grassy shoulder.

“Um…” I observed the woman’s springy gate, her overstuffed pack bouncing, its seams bursting. Her left hand extended away from her body, her thumb raised.

“It’s over thirty miles to town,” Shea said.

“36.4,” I checked my phone.

“I’m stopping,” Shea pulled over, and we turned to watch the woman approach.

She hesitated first, so I stepped out and waved.

“Do you need a ride?” I asked, and the woman stepped closer.

Puffy bags rested under her eyes, red from the cold. Deep creases ran across her face. And perspiration collected on her top lip. She adjusted the straps on her pack and let out a long, tired breath.

“Am I glad to see a friendly face,” she blurted. “How far are ya going?”

“We’re headed to Stratham,” I said, looking back at Shea.

“That’ll work,” the woman said.

“I’m Esther and this is my friend Shea,” I said, Shea waving from the driver’s seat as I opened the back door.

“Call me Kitty,” the woman said, sliding her pack onto the back seat. “That’s what people call me in my new life.”

“Kitty, it is,” I smiled and closed the door behind her.

“I sure appreciate you two young ladies stopping for me,” Kitty adjusted herself on the seat. “I’ve been walking out here for about five hours,” she stared out at the mountains.

“Where are you coming from?” I asked.

“Blue Mountain…I stayed up there for a few weeks. There’s a little community,” she trailed off. “I’m headed to Cardenia now. My daughter lives there.”

Cardenia was another twenty miles or so from Stratham. I looked over at Shea, her heartstrings dangling from her chest.

“We’ll be a little late, but I think it’s okay,” she whispered.

The woman stayed quiet. She dug through her pack, pulling out crumpled pieces of paper and old pictures.

“This is the address,” she slid a yellow piece of paper onto the console. “My daughter is expecting me,” she let out a nervous laugh. “I haven’t seen her since she was nine years old…” she trailed off again.

“How old is she now?” Shea asked.

“Thirty-two…thirty-three,” Kitty rubbed her hands together. “I know what you’re thinking,” she defended. “That I left my little girl,” she grew agitated. “But that’s not what happened at all…I didn’t leave her.”

I shot Shea a look, her expression matching mine this time.

“Do you think we can stop at Marty’s?” Kitty asked as we passed the weathered sign.

“Sure,” Shea agreed.

“I want to get Shelby something,” Kitty pulled out a leather coin purse. “Something pretty,” she said to herself.

“Do you have grandchildren?” I asked, shrugging my shoulders when Shea glanced over at me.

“Three…” Kitty pulled a small, clear plastic bag from the pocket of her back. “This is what I got them,” she held up the bag of gemstones. “I think they’re going to love them,” she stared at the gems with pride and then tucked them back inside the pocket.

“Pretty,” Shea said. “You got them on the mountain?”

“I got these off a dead man,” Kitty admitted. “I didn’t kill him though,” she adjusted, sensing the growing tension.

For the next few miles, the satellite radio was silent as we rounded the mountainside. It came back on as we entered Marty’s gravel-covered parking lot. Kitty opened the door before Shea had stopped the car.

“I’ll be right back,” she jumped out, clutching her coin purse to her chest.

We waited until she was entering the front doors of Marty’s Market, and then we vented.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” I asked.

“Should we leave?” Shea asked. “We could put her pack over there,” she pointed to a tree stump.

I opened my door, ready to grab the pack. Shea started the car.

“Why don’t I drive you over there?”

“Good idea,” I closed my door, and in the mirror I caught a glimpse of Kitty. She was being escorted out of the store, a potted lily in her hands.

“Don’t back, Katherine,” the manager yelled.

“I don’t want to come back, Lester,” she shouted, wriggling out of his grip.

“Leave Shelby alone,” he added before walking back into the store.

Kitty plopped herself into the car, loose soil sprinkling onto the floor as she settled in.

“Did you get everything?” Shea asked, masking her anxiety.

“Just ignore him,” Kitty protested.

We got back on the road, the radio station counting down the week’s top hits. Kitty tended to the plant, mumbling to herself.

“But, I didn’t mean to…I know…I know…say what?” she paused. “Okay…will do…you know I love you…yeah, I’m coming back from Blue Mountain…there’s a community there…they took care of me,” she laughed. “I helped them too…mama is really sick…no, not my mama…that’s just what they call her…she’s like a mama…I’m back…did you miss me?” she paused again. “Did you miss me?” Kitty asked again, growing agitated.

Shea looked at me, the sign for Stratham up ahead. The same question burned in both of us: do we continue on to Cardenia or let the hitchhiker off in Stratham?

“Did you miss me?” Kitty screamed, beating the backs of our seats. The lily tipped over, and the plastic planter rolled onto the floor. “Did you miss me?”

“She missed you,” Shea yelled, interrupting Kitty’s tantrum.

Kitty sat back against the seat. She stuffed the lily back into the planter. She wiped her face, tracking dirt across her cheeks. Shea drove on, and we counted down the miles to Cardenia. Kitty sat quiet, either staring straight ahead or rocking back and forth as she watched the flat land widen, animals graze.

When Shea pulled in front of the large ranch house in Cardenia, a woman walking an American Quarter Horse out of his stable watched as Kitty stepped out of the car.

“I’m back,” Kitty yelled running towards the stable.

“Drive away,” I said. “I don’t think I want to see how this ends.”

“Did you miss me?” I heard Kitty ask as Shea steered the car back down the long entrance.

All was calm, but inside I still felt the heaviness of her presence. I hoped that her daughter had missed her, that she welcomed her home. Yet, I knew that this might not be enough for Kitty. She had layers of life to unravel before kindness was enough to make life livable again, before home felt like home.

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In the Quiet

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We found a spot to camp for the night, and Avi built a fire. As the fire grew, I warmed my hands and looked out at the vanishing skyline. Fog blurred city lights, diminishing its magnitude, its significance. Tourist spots that drew large crowds were quiet. Tour trolleys filled private parking lots. Museums home to 16th century artifacts had closed their doors. Coffee shops and bars buzzed with end-of-the-day murmurings of tired patrons too wired to sleep.

“You hungry?” Avi asked, holding up a container of black beans.

“I’ll have a little,” I said, leaning against my backpack.

“You’re not still thinking about what happened, are you? Ari asked, a concerned look on his face.

I smiled and pulled my aching legs to my chest. The fire crackled, smoke rising eastbound. I hadn’t been thinking about what happened, but now thoughts were rushing in, taking me back inside the moment I turned down an opportunity to study full time at a university across the country.

For as long as I could remember, I had imagined myself living on campus, fully immersed in research, participating in community events, finding my path to a leadership position. I knew I’d graduate with honors, be recognized for my charity, my contributions to the field, my unwavering spirit of excellence. Hours went into this goal, and my CV and letters of recommendation were proof that I was ready. That I was the real deal.

“We usually don’t reach out to applicants like this,” the dean said. “But there was something about you that stuck out…your letter…it’s clear you share the same values and your accomplishments are impressive,” she awed. “What made you pick our campus?” she asked, but kept talking. “We’d really like to invite you for a tour and discuss fellowship opportunities,” she took a breath and started again, spelling out details about the program, listing the accomplishments of people in the department, bragging about the prestige the department had earned.

I listened, my body shaking with excitement. I saw myself there reading books, engaging in cheerful banter with my classmates, eating lunch on the quad, discussing new research with professors whose careers began long before I was born. But the longer she talked, the more I heard. The expectations she understated seemed big, and things she emphasized seemed small in my mind. The weight of their values felt heavy now, a mismatch where I thought we had aligned. And what felt like an underlying disregard for opposing views reminded of Stephen King’s It. I wondered when the scary clown would call me into its underworld.

“I’m very sorry,” I interrupted. “I won’t be able to accept the fellowship,” my voice quivered.

In the quiet she let out a disappointed sigh, and I inhaled with relief.

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Where Are We Now?

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The house smelled like lavender. Everything was neat and clean, the curtains drawn, windows cracked. Bernard and Baby stared out the window, scratching the glass when someone passed.

“Get down,” I said when I entered, watching Baby, a terrier, jump off of the sofa chair.

She sat at my feet and stared up at me in anticipation of a treat. Bernard, a Beagle, had his eyes on our neighbor, Jillian, as she jogged pass the lawn.

“Down,” I repeated and pulled his collar. “Go play,” I told them, setting my laptop and writing pad on the sofa.

Bernard and Baby followed me downstairs where I refilled my coffee mug. They stared up at me with their little faces and big glossy eyes, tails wagging, beating against the cabinet door.

“Zoom time,” I cheered, raising my mug in the air.

I walked to the stairs, Bernard and Baby on my heels. I bent down to give them each a good rub before closing the pet gate and heading to my office/sitting area. My laptop made rumbling noises as it turned on. I sipped my coffee watching the black screen, crossing my fingers as it lingered a few seconds and then prompted me to type my password. The wait continued and I sipped more coffee, staring out the same window Bernard and Baby had, watching my neighbor, Eileen Shannon, kneel in front of her flower bed, pulling weeds, preparing to add mulch. When the rumbling in my computer stopped, I clicked on the Zoom app and signed on to the 8am meeting with district leaders for their weekly update.

The top of the screen read “Where are we Now?” Faces of people I knew appeared in little boxes, some with tropical backgrounds, others sitting in front of long bookcases, walls lined with college degrees, paintings, artifacts from around the world. Melany Castillo came on to say that we’d wait a few minutes for everyone to join and then get started. More faces appeared. People with noisy backgrounds struggled to find the mute button. Others filled the chat box with greetings. I typed my own greeting and waited.

Melany Castillo came on again, her face bright, animated. She introduced Kaylee Wright and Parker Smith, giving them quirky attributes they all laughed at. After agreeing that there were too many of us to do proper introductions, they decided we’d go around and share the title of the one book, movie, or song we couldn’t live without.

“Dammit,” I thought, teetering between The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and One Headlight by the Wallflowers.

I was the second to last to go, my last name beginning with V, and I shared both, unwilling to deny either the spotlight. After Katherine Zaba cited The English Patient as her favorite movie, Melany thanked us for playing along, changing the screen to the second slide in her presentation. The tone shifted. I grabbed my pen and writing pad, ready to take notes. Melany, Kaylee, and Parker took turns updating us on grim numbers, exciting trends, future plans.

“I know you’re all excited to get back to your offices,” Kaylee said. “The latest report suggests that we may be closer than we thought, that we’re on our way back to some sense of normalcy…”

Bernard and Baby were barking at the birds visiting the bird feeder in the backyard.

“Baby…Bernard,” I yelled, turning off my camera first.

Kaylee shared more slides with numbers and charts, each one more positive than the last. Parker interrupted with details from contacts he didn’t reveal. And Melany still guided the meeting with probing questions and a resounding “…that is, if things continue to go in the direction they’re going now” as clarification to disputed suggestions.

I listened, took notes, but found myself outside of the conversation. The idea of returning was far from my mind; I had replaced it with early morning coffee I savored, enjoying the flavors, not just the caffeine rush. I had replaced it with long letters to friends and family on stationary I found stored in my garage. Reading books from cover to cover in two or three sittings replaced dry commutes. And watercooler conversations were replaced with long silences, the careful handling of thoughts I had let run wild for too long.

Music from musicians I had never heard of now quieted my mind, Bernard, Baby and I dancing across the living room floor to the upbeat melodies, the raw lyrics like Band-Aids for invisible wounds. New recipes introduced me to foods I had previously ignored. Long lines planted seeds of patience. Netflix provided the danger and excitement of drug cartels, the inner workings of prisons across the world, and the side-splitting humor of familiar comedians.

“So, where are we now?” Melany asked, her voice pitchy.

I watched Eileen pour mulch into the brick-lined flowerbed, thinking about how she might answer that question, as a widow twice, as a woman who had outlived all of her children.

Melany went on about the possibility of us returning, the idea of restoring what had been lost, and a deep sense of sadness came over me. I didn’t know how to get back there, to before. I had wrestled with a spiraling world and somehow found peace with myself. I let my mouse hover on the red Leave button and waved at Eileen. She waved back, her hands tucked inside thick garden gloves.

“If things continue to go in the direction they’re going now,” Melany repeated. “We’ll be able to get more people back in chairs and…”

“What if they don’t want to come back?” a woman asked, first apologizing for her Zoom name, Curtis Rogers, explaining that she was using her husband’s account.

There was a pause.

“Um…I hadn’t thought about that,” Melany said, pulling her hair behind her ears. “We’ll have to consider that,” she let out a nervous laugh.

Kaylee and Parker came on with their “Are there any final questions?” and “Thank you for coming.” I clicked Leave and watched the faces disappear, the absence of their voices unnerving until I again heard my own.

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Summer Days

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Summer months were the best, a time when all the neighborhood kids roamed the city, chased the ice cream truck, and spent every moment of daylight together, holding on to each other as if we might not ever see each other again.

Every morning we rose with the sun. Our mothers and fathers readied themselves for work, reminding us to be good, not to go inside people’s houses they didn’t know. Armed with housekeys around our necks, flipflops, change we found under couch cushions jingling in our pockets, and Huffy bicycles with baskets, banana seats, and a few mangled streamers, we headed to Jimmy’s where we collectively bought a handful of Slim Jims and long packs of Now-and-Laters. Most days Jimmy greeted us at the door as he swept the walkway.

“You’re back,” he said as the nine of us piled into the small store.

He waited for us to fill our hands with as much as we could carry to the counter, calculating the cost aloud.

“Charles, give us your quarters,” I said.

“Lainey, we need your dimes,” Tricia yelled, not realizing Lainey was standing right behind her.

“Ari, you have sixty-five cents, right?”

“James, has another quarter, and he found two nickels on the way.”

“Cassandra has five dollars,” Jordyn reminded.

“Yeah we know,” we sassed. “That’s for the pool.”

Back at Tricia’s house we spread out on the lawn, first parking our bicycles in the driveway, leaning them against their wobbly kickstands.

Mila was the oldest so she was in charge of dividing the bounty, but this never stopped Caroline from chiming in, reminding everyone that “last time I had to share with Jordyn,” her younger sister. This was the unspoken rule: if Mila wasn’t able to divide the portions evenly, siblings had to share. Mila’s grandmother watched from the screen door, her presence settling any growing resentment. We stuffed our mouths with the salty beef and took turns drinking warm water from the hose, which sometimes led to the kind of water play Mila’s grandmother prohibited.

“You all turn that water off now,” she said through the screen, never stepping out to expose her housecoat and rollers, the ones she only took out for doctor’s appointments and church.

We unwrapped the fruit flavored candies, stuffing two or three in our mouths at a time, announcing the flavors beforehand.

“I’m trying watermelon, grape, and fruit punch,” Ari would say, and we’d watch her mouth twist and pucker.

By mid-morning the sun lay against our bare arms and legs, so we hopped back on our bikes and rode to the park, weaving past runners, drifters, and drummers lost in African and Caribbean rhythms. We parked our bikes and ran for the swings, our flipflops flying in the air as we swung higher and higher. James and Charles jumped off the slide, daring each other to jump from an even higher spot until they were standing on the top of the structure, both tumbling towards the sand. Caroline pushed the merry-go-round while Jordyn stood in the center holding the bar tight. her squeals piercing as dizziness set in. Cassandra and Ari climbed the monkey bars and dangled upside down, clapping their hands to Miss Mary Mack.

Before leaving, we lined up at the fountain and slurped water, dampening the fronts of our patterned tank tops. Our next stop was Cassandra’s house. She was an only child, her father a corporate lawyer who refused to leave his roots, the suburban developments his parents and grandparents called home. Cassandra was the quietest, but by far the kindest, always willing to share her snacks. We sat on their stiff green grass and waited for her to put something together. When she returned, she carried a tray stacked with goodies: cheese sandwiches with gobs of mayonnaise, graham crackers, and sweet plums from their tree. We dug in, mayonnaise dripping onto our hands, sticking to the corners of our mouths.

Our next stop was the community pool off of 65th Street, a half-hour ride. James and Charles weren’t allowed to go to the pool, so they went home and waited for us to return. That meant it was just the girls. There was something special about this time. Mila and Caroline lead the way, Lainey, Jordyn, Ari, Cassandra, and I trailing behind, in that order. We coasted along, standing on the pedals, a warm breeze tickling our faces, whisking our hair off our shoulders until it floated behind us.

At the pool, we parked our bicycles on the rack, and as soon as Cassandra paid the fifty cents entrance fee for all of us, we rushed inside. We piled our shorts and tank tops in a spot on the grass, stripping down to our solid, one-piece bathing suits. And then we held hands and ran to the edge of the pool, and jumped, the lifeguard blowing his whistle, giving us a warning when we came up for air. After several games of Marco Polo, at least one dive off the high board, synchronized backflips, and a few rounds of I bet I can hold my breath longer than you we got out of the pool, slipped our shorts and tanks on over our wet suits, and headed to Mila’s house.

We sucked on Now-and-Laters to settle our grumbling stomachs and when our pockets were empty, Cassandra shared her secret stash of sunflower seeds. She pulled up to each one of us and poured seeds into our extended palms. We swished the salty seeds in our mouths, cracking the shells, and eating the seeds, spitting empty black hulls in the gutters of 64th and 63rd streets. Then we played a game called When I Grow Up.

“When I grow up I want to be a surgeon,” Mila started.

“When I grow up I want to be an actress,” Caroline added.

“When I grow up I want to be a designer,” Air cheered.

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist,” Jordyn joined.

“When I grow up I want to be a baker,” Cassandra said.

“When I grow up I want to be a singer,” Lainey sang.

“When I grow up I want to be an artist,” I said.

At the end, Mila offered motivation, borrowing phrases from speakers who had come to school assemblies. We pedaled in unison, giving each other high fives, believing one day we’d be what we wanted to be, and more importantly, we’d be together.

“Girl’s rock,” we yelled.

We sped back to Mila’s house, picking up Charles and James on the way.

“What’s so funny?” Charles asked.

“Nothing,” we laughed, smirking at them as we privately rejoiced in our sisterhood.

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Thank You!!!

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Six months ago I set out to write a story a day. I’ll spare you the details of my many failed attempts and simply state that it took me a while to find my groove. But when I did, I knew I was onto something. Through this process I’ve learned so much about myself and myself as a writer. In celebration, I wanted to reach out to those who find their way to my daily stories and say THANK YOU.

Thank you for taking the time to read my work. Thank you for your Likes. Thank you for the comments and compliments. Thank you for the encouragement.

I’ve met some amazing writers and bloggers whose work inspires me every day. I don’t think I’d be sitting here now if it wasn’t for the wonderful community of people who share their ideas, resources, and compassion. Again, thank you!

Here’s to another six months…

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The Silent War

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The only thing we knew about mother’s sister was that she lived in a tiny trailer on our property. Uncle Carl delivered the trailer. We watched from our bedroom window as he and several other men set it up.

“What are they doing?” Sydney asked.

“Making it level,” Sonia explained.

“They don’t want it to fly away,” Sierra added.

“Oh,” Sydney sang, her mouth open as she observed the workers.

At breakfast neither mother nor father mentioned the trailer, why it was being delivered, what it would be used for, or who might be living there. Sydney smacked her food, licking her lips between bites. Sierra, Sonia, and I scooped thick oats onto our spoons and shoveled the bland grains into our mouths. We chased the oatmeal with a bite of buttery toast, our tongues delighting in the contrasting flavors.

Father had already left for work by the time we finished breakfast, sneaking out every morning before either of us noticed, which was for the best because we would just beg him to stay, knowing he couldn’t. He was the fun parent, his demeanor easygoing, full of surprises, always up for after-dinner play, each of us girls riding on his back from one end of the room to the other where he bucked, throwing us onto the floor.

Mother was all business, no play. She was strict and sharp-tongued, never showing emotion, never succumbing to pain. Her days were spent doing chores, yelling directions at us as we worked through our homeschool lessons, slapping our knuckles with a wooden spoon when our answers were wrong. But by the end of the day, she was different. She sat on the front steps and looked out at the countryside. Her mind was far away, and she sat like this until the sun went down and mosquitoes started biting her ankles.

The day after Uncle Carl set up the trailer he returned, dropping off a woman, her two suitcases and a small, black and white television set. We watched as long as we could, hoping the woman, who had arrived in a yellow housedress, would step out of the trailer, show her face. But something even better happened. Just before dinner Mother handed us a warm plate covered with crumpled foil.

“Take this to our new neighbor,” she ordered.

Sonia, Sierra, and I headed for the back door when Sydney, who was hesitant at first, rushed passed us, carrying her naked baby doll.

“I’m coming,” she grabbed my hand as I walked out the door.

There was maybe 15 yards between the house and the trailer, but we traveled the grassy space like we were practicing for a funeral procession. I stood in the middle, Sydney and Sonia to my right, Sierra on my left. We bickered over who would knock on the door, pausing at the end of the steps.

“You do it,” Sonia said, trying to use her seniority to guilt us. “Go,” she tried again when none of us budged.

When we heard the creaking trailer floor we froze, the door opening slowly, a woman wearing mother’s face stepping out to collect the plate. She glanced at each of once and turned around to return to the small, one room trailer. We ran back to the house, dizzy with questions.

“Mother,” we shouted as soon as we were through the door.

“Wash your hands and come eat,” she yelled.

“But…”

“Now,” her do-it-now stare frightening us into submission.

She never talked about this woman, who we figured was her sister, likely a twin, though the woman was a couple inches taller. Aside from their shared looks, they acted like strangers, enemies. There was an invisible feud that was decades strong, an irreparable rift no one else understood. But like obedient children, we were willing pawns who delivered hot plates of food, winter blankets, and packages because the post office didn’t recognize the trailer even when the send wrote “Deliver to the Blue Trailer.” No words were ever exchanged not even on Sundays when mother and father drove separate cars to church, the sister riding in father’s long, loping Buick with me and Sierra, Sydney and Sonia in the backseat of mother’s two-toned Plymouth.

In the evening mother and her sister both sat on their steps pretending not to notice the other. They took turns denying the kindness of the other, each time raising the bar to display just how little they cared. When mother sent a bag of dresses to her sister, we watched for weeks as the bag sat untouched in front of the trailer. It absorbed weeks of the sun’s rays and two summer storms. And when the muddied bag lay limp with insect holes, father tossed it into the garbage.

The next day a bag of shoes was left on our steps, and the feud continued. In the evenings mother sat next to the bag pretending she didn’t see it or its sender. This too went on for weeks, and we all played along, maneuvering around the black, garbage bag until it was covered in dust, the small rips exposing the size eight, patent leather dress shoes. Mother continued the feud by sending a box of cucumbers from the garden. We watched the sister dig through the box, collecting the cucumbers she wanted, leaving the rest.

“I have to go get them,” we heard father arguing with mother later that evening. “We can’t let them sit out like that. I don’t care what you think of each other.”

So he brought the remaining cucumbers back into the house, mother slicing them into salads she refused to eat. Surprisingly, things were quiet for a while. Uncle Carl carried the sister to the market once a month. Each time he brought something new, things he was “trying to get rid of,” my mother accused. Now the sister had a bench, pots she filled with soil and seeds, a picnic table, and baby trees she planted in front of the trailer.

“She’s trying to create some kind of barrier,” mother bickered as she stared from the kitchen window.

Their silence went on for years. With each passing year we knew less about the feud, but more about how destructive it could be as mother’s tit for tat spirit deepened.

“She’ll never get away with this…” mother said under her breath as she mulled over her next attack.

Boxes of fruit rotted on our front steps, the putred odors and slimy, slithering maggots made us yearn for the days before the trailer was delivered, before the sister arrived, awakening old wounds. And then, the day of my thirteenth birthday we got our wish.

Father had cleared out the latest box of old magazines, and Sonia, Sierra, Sydney and I were preparing for the party, blowing up balloons, taping streamers to the walls, taking turns blending the cake batter until it was smooth, ready for the pan. When our guests arrived, it was father who led us in a game of musical chairs. We moved outside for more games, cake, and gifts. The sister sat on her bench, mother on her stairs pretending not to see each other.

After I cut the cake, father took a slice to mother and one to the sister, in that order. But neither took a bite. They just kept on pretending, until father had enough.

“Eat the damn cake,” he shouted, standing in the middle of the yard waiting for them to obey. “May god have mercy on your souls,” he pointed towards the sky and walked inside the house.

“May god have mercy on her soul,” the sister said, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“May god have mercy on your soul,” mother returned.

They both stood up and stared in the direction of the other. We froze, mid-chew, wondering if this moment marked the end of a fiery feud between sisters whose faces were identical, whose wounds seemed to be caused by the same villain: the other.

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How I Ended up Here

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There was something about the stranger that passed me twice in the store, walking close enough for her arm to scrape against mine each time. She wore a heavy perfume and a thick, white scarf around her neck. Her heels were at least six-inches high, a shiny red to contrast her black pants suit.

“I’m so sorry,” she said the first time, clutching a red purse.

“You’re fine,” I smiled.

The second time she said nothing as if she hadn’t felt the jolt to her body as I had. I watched her pass, noticing her runway-like gate as she moved across the floor. Even after she had turned the corner, I could still hear the click-clack of her heels announcing her presence, her importance. I went back to shopping, checking items off my list, adding some things not on the list until I made my way to the self check-out line just as the stranger exited the store, her hair swinging in the early morning wind as she stepped off the curb and disappeared into the parking lot.

I uncrumpled my bags and set them on the hooks, pushing the “I brought my own bags” button on the screen before scanning my items and weighing the produce. The cashier had to come over twice to override the system, but other than that I didn’t suspect that anything was awry. I set the bags in my trunk and walked the cart to its lane. On my way back to my car, a red Mercedes passed, narrowly missing me. I gathered myself, heart still racing, and crossed the parking lot, chalking the near hit up to an impatient driver, the entitled kind who believed pedestrians should get out of their way.

At home, I put my groceries away and started the Keurig, my mouth watering for the white peppermint mocha brewing. I let Spotify play in the background, setting a place at the table where I’d sit for the next four hours editing book manuscripts. It was a tedious job but paid reasonably well for someone starting over. And every once in a while I’d come across a manuscript I couldn’t put down. Most days were filled fixing comma splices, run on sentences, fragments. I tried not to focus on plot, character development. That wasn’t my job.

This, however, didn’t mean I never broke the rules. I did, once. Twice, actually, but I could only remember the one title. Sadie’s Truth, a murder mystery with a few kinks in the plot and an especially unbelievable narrator. At the end of my review, I offered, what I thought was, a helpful critique, imaging the writer would appreciate the gesture. Instead I was reprimanded when the writer complained.

It had been several months since that incident. I had no desire to do anything but edit, though I must admit I had tried to find the identity of the writer, something kept hidden from editors for a good reason. I spent hours scouring the internet, social media pages, searching for details that might lead me to this disgruntled writer. I did finally come to my senses though, in part because I was sleep deprived, but mostly because I felt defeated. Each week new manuscripts arrived and I edited them, nothing more. And I kept a routine, grocery shopping early Monday mornings because the shelves had been restocked after the weekend rush, back home to edit for four hours, a lunch break and short, brisk walk through the neighborhood, back home for more editing, and on Friday evenings I met with Noemi and Laura for happy hour, my best friends for twenty years. I’d be blaming them if I said it was their idea, but it was. They were the ones who reminded me of the disgruntled writer. They were the ones who suggested I not let this person, who we believed to be a woman, get away with what she had done. So the search was on again, this time unveiling details I could use: her name, her address, her phone number.

At first I held onto the details. They were like small pieces of gold. I treasured the yellow-lined paper they were written on, kept it folded up, neat inside my wallet. Throughout the day I pulled it out, reading her name aloud, my voice heavy with hatred.

That Monday, a few weeks after my first encounter with the stranger at the grocery story, our paths crossed again. She bumped me twice, said excuse me once. I laughed to myself when I noticed she was wearing the same black pants suit, the same red heels, thinking this must be her one good outfit. The Groundhog’s Day feeling came later when, in the middle of plotting my revenge on Astrid Hopkins, I realized that every Monday she found me in the cereal aisle. Every Monday she bumped into me as I checked the dates on milk cartons. And I realized her basket was always empty.

“Always empty,” I expressed to Laura and Noemi. “She’s following me.”

“Or she’s just really rude,” Noemi suggested.

“But what about the red Mercedes?” Laura asked. “It always almost hits you?”

“It barely misses me,” I added. “Do you think I should go to the police?”

“What would you say?” Noemi discouraged.

We paused to think, sipping our drinks, the burn of alcohol stirring the rage.

“Maybe if you saw her at other places you go…then you could tell the police that she’s following you,” Noemi thought.

The next day, Saturday, while at the Laundromat a couple blocks from my apartment, I saw the red Mercedes pass, the stranger’s face peering out as I carried my overflowing clothes basket through the double doors. Sunday she passed the frozen yogurt shop, idling in front while I added an array of toppings to the vanilla flavored yogurt. Monday I was on alert, my plan to observe the stranger, turn the tables on her, scare her with an intimidating gesture, words if it came down to it.

She was already in the store when I entered. I found her reading the labels on protein bar packages. I positioned myself next to her, pretended to read labels. Then she was off to the fruit and vegetable section, smelling melons, squeezing apples, oranges, selecting none. I followed, my back always turned to her. She walked around the bakery section, eyeing apple streusel, carrot cake, blueberry tarts. I did the same. After a stroll down the cleaning aisle, reading more labels, she exited the store. I watched her get into her car, her tires screeching as she sped away.

Then I began my shopping, a big smile on my face. I thought I had outwitted her, certainly discouraged any further interest in me. At the self-checkout I placed my bags on the silver hooks and began scanning. There were no hiccups, no need for the cashier to come over and reset the machine. I took this as a sign that I had won.

Once outside, I looked both ways for the red Mercedes. Nothing. I walked to my car and began loading my groceries into the trunk. In my peripheral I remember seeing a man, or maybe it was a woman, a big woman. But by the time I felt her presence, it was too late. Her long fingers wrapped around my mouth, between us a thin cloth with a a smell so toxic I passed out immediately.

I don’t know how long I sat under those bright florescent lights, tied to the chair with some kind of synthetic rope. My mouth had been stuffed with a rag, saliva dripping down the front of my shirt. Next to me on the floor was a glass of water, big black scissors, and a book, How I Ended up Here. I let out a muffled laugh, now remembering the first writer whose work I had critiqued. On a small sticky note, I had written: I don’t believe a character could be so na├»ve, so blind she couldn’t see that her stalker had been sent by the very people she called best friends.

Joy Holland, author of How I Ended up Here, had proven me wrong. Like an unsuspecting character, my gut had steered me in the wrong direction. My reality had been replaced with a truth I’d have to unravel, like the ropes that wrapped around me, rubbing my skin raw.

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The Soul Whisperer

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I lived at Camp Unity for six months, a tent community on the east end of White River. It was the cleanest camp I had lived in, rules upheld by mayors elected long before I found my way there. On one of my darkest days, I was invited to Camp Unity by a woman with wild, red, curly hair pandering outside the Dunkin Donuts on 30th and Washington. I had left the women’s shelter on 5th and Washington, dragging a broken rolling-suitcase behind me. My big toe hit the cold pavement with each step, the once grey duct tape holding the shoe and sole together worn, its adhesive powers gone.

“Anything helps,” I heard her saying. “Have a nice day.”

She held a large sign, and when I got close enough I saw that it read: Will Dance For Food. She tossed the sign in the air, flipped it, twirled, smiling at customers as they pulled out of the drive-thru. Some stopped and handed her a few bills, whatever change they had in their console.

“Hey,” she said as I was passing. “Haven’t seen you around before,” she put her sign under her arm and approached.

“Hi,” I said, observing old scars on her arms, her new sneakers, and clean fingernails.

To passersby we might have looked like sisters, both with bright red hair, mine shorter than hers but as fiery. I thought we might be around the same age, but she felt older, wiser.

“Where you staying?” she asked and then turned to wave her sign at the driver exiting the drive-thru. She ran over to his window and collected a five dollar bill. “Thank you so much, sir.”

“Nowhere,” I said, trying to figure out her angle.

“The women’s shelter?” she pressed. “You were coming from that direction.”

“Someone stole my backpack…this is the third time,” I admitted. “I can’t go back there.”

“Me and my boyfriend stay at Camp Unity. You heard of it?”

“No, the only camp I know about is…”

“Death Camp?” she asked and chuckled.

“Yeah,” I felt my body relax a little. “The police raided it and I lost all my stuff,” I tightened my grip on my suitcase.

“I’ve been a Camp Unity for a while now. It’s different,” she explained. “They have mayors and rules.”

“Mayors?”

“Yep, like a real community,” she said with pride. “There’s no drugs or alcohol allowed; we have porta-potties, job resources, a nurse, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays a local church arrives in vans with food, tents, shoes, personal supplies…”

“That’s what was in my backpack, but someone stole it so now I have nothing,” I complained.

“I can get you a spot at Camp Unity,” she offered. “If you want,” now she looked at me, checking my arms for needle tracks, my eyes for redness, my hands to see if they had a twitch I couldn’t control. “I’m Bambi, by the way,” she extended her hand, and I extended mine, embarrassed by my dirty hands.

“I’m Maven,” I said.

She pandered for another hour, until the morning rush ended and then we headed to Camp Unity, about five miles east with the shortcuts we took through the park, through gaping holes in fences shielding abandoned buildings, placed to keep us out, though many had already found their way inside to hide, sleep; through parking lots where she asked customers if they’d like to donate money to her modeling career. I laughed at their expressions, enjoyed the moments we connected to people we would have otherwise been invisible to.

When we got to Camp Unity, a man sitting outside a dark, blue tent stood up to greet us.

“This is Paul, one of the mayors,” Bambi said as the man looked on, his stance protective. “Paul, this is Maven.” she pointed at me. “She’s looking for a safe place to stay.”

He looked me up and down, his silence accusatory.

“She’s coming from the women’s shelter on 5th,” Bambi added, which seemed to settle his curiosity.

“Do you have a tent?” he asked me, but looked at Bambi.

I shook my head no, and he went inside his tent, coming back with a folded tarp.

“You can use this for now,” he said, showing me how to hang the tarp.

That day I met other campers, but stayed mostly to myself after Bambi went back out to find her boyfriend. I set up my bed, a roll-up mattress and a wool blanket, and then stared out at the river. Voices in the background faded against the rushing water. Memory of my old life lurked in the corners of my mind. I thought about what I had left behind, what had left me behind when I lost my job, my apartment. It had been two years, and I wondered if that was too long. Would anyone recognize me if I went back? Would they understand me? Would I understand them?

A woman who introduced herself as “Girl” tapped me on the shoulder.

“Come,” she said.

I followed the growing crowd towards white vans lining the underpass. They opened their doors exposing boxes and crates filled with food, supplies, clothes. At first I watched, trying to understand how things were being handed out, if I needed to be in a line for each van or if they’d make an announcement. That’s when a short lady with rectangle eyeglasses saw me and waved me towards her.

“What do you need?” she looked me in the eye, her pupils large.

“Anything will help,” I said modestly.

“But what do you need?” she repeated.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to articulate my needs without feeling small, like a burden.

“What about a blanket? You have one?”

“Yes, I have one.”

“Take these,” she handed me two thick blankets. “You have shoes?” she looked down at my feet. “8?” she dug through a box of colorful sneakers. “Try these,” she passed me a pair of Nikes.

I slipped off my shoes, trying to hide my dirty socks.

“You need socks too,” the woman said, and then turned to dig through another box, dangling a pack of white socks in front of me. “What about hygiene?”

She didn’t give me time to answer before thrusting a small bag of toiletries into my arms.

“You have a tent?” she looked me in the eye again.

“No, not yet.”

“Come with me,” she said, leading me to another van. “I got one you’ll like. It’s spacious.”

“Thank you,” my voice weakened.

She set the box down in front of me and stared into my eyes again.

“You’re welcome,” she began. “But you don’t have to thank me. This is all stuff you deserve because you’re human,” she held my gaze. “You deserve help.”

I smiled, and she leaned in to hug me. At first I coward because I smelled, but her arms pulled me in tight. She held on, squeezing me until I believed her, until her words reached my soul.

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Sunshine on a Cloudy Day

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My intention was to attend the funeral. I had taken off work, had my car serviced, and packed an overnight bag, the plan to stay with my brother, Myles, and his wife, Ashleigh and leave early the next day, around 4:00am. But in the back of my mind distress was building.

“You’re thinking of not going to your father’s funeral?” my friend Scarlet asked, her face mirroring the contempt she felt inside. “Can I ask why?”

“It’s a long story,” I said, continuing to walk through the store aisle, not wanting to revisit that part of my life.

It wasn’t a story unlike others I had heard or even read about. But I did want to keep the creatures in it at bay, let the sleeping dragons lay. I was fine with the life I had now, or at least on most days it seemed manageable. Sure, on holidays and birthdays, old memories tried their best to resurface. A trip to the gym with my trainer helped, followed by a swim, and a movie that I fell asleep to after about thirty minutes, long enough for the main characters to enter my mind and create a whole new world I’d be both surprised by and doubtful of until I awoke hours later.

“We weren’t close. That’s all,” I explained and directed Scarlet’s attention to a small, leather handbag I pulled off the rack and modeled. “How do I look?”

“Great,” she smiled. “You should get it…for the funeral so you don’t have to worry about a big purse.”

I put it back on the rack and kept looking around, not for anything in particular, just looking, looking away from the sadness I had known for years. The question “what will it be like when…” always played in my mind, every birthday, every father’s day. I wondered what it would be like when he was no longer there to ignore, to avoid, or to cast away with unforgiveness. The heaviness of that question made me want to crawl out of my skin.

The reality of his absence made his presence more menacing. Memories of his calloused hand wrapping around his belt, swinging against my skinny legs and arms, his roar vibrating through the walls, his drunken nights ending with threats to burn the house down while we slept if we misbehaved.

Then there were memories of his tractor in the middle of the field, weeds growing up around it during the weeks he was gone.

“Where’s daddy?” I asked my mother.

“Why don’t you ask Lara Jenkins that on Sunday,” she stared out the kitchen window as she washed our morning dishes.

I never asked Lara Jenkins about daddy, and I never asked my mother about his whereabouts again either. His absences were as unnerving as his presence. The longer he was away, the more I saw him, his ghost, his shadow. The longer he was gone the more we felt him, his anger lurking around the corner, on the other side of the wall ready to erupt. And every night we prayed we wouldn’t wake up to fire blazing through the house, black smoke lining our lungs.

Myles called on a Tuesday evening, and I knew when his number came up on the caller ID that something was amiss. We shared no more than a monthly call and an occasional text or email with pictures attached: pictures of his children, pictures of my dog, Lucy, a feisty terrier I rescued. Twice-divorced, I lived in a studio apartment and poured myself into work, preferring not to be bothered too much with the daily “Can you believe?” or “Did you hear?” I never would have admitted it, but I was unhappy, no…miserable.

“Hey, Nina, I hate to interrupt your evening,” he said, his wife in the background chasing the children, preparing them for bath time. “I have some bad news, uh,” he paused, his voice fading.

“Just spit it out,” I said, not really trying to be pushy and unfeeling, but coming across that way.

“Dad died.”

I don’t remember what else Myles said, or if I said goodbye. A boulder was on my shoulders, and the weight was crushing. I hopped in my car and headed to the gym, staying there until my body was stiff, my clothes drenched with sweat, which I knew was my body’s way of crying, purging. Before I drove away, I noticed Myles had sent me a text. Attached to it was a video. He wrote: I’ve been meaning to send this to you. I’ve been transferring our hold home videos to MP4 files. I thought you might like this one.

The video played on my six-inch screen. I heard daddy playing the guitar before he came into frame. And then there he was still dressed in dirty overalls, his calloused hands strumming his guitar. He was outside on the porch, sitting in a wooden chair. His knees bounced. His neck jerked back and forth. He went on like this for about fifteen seconds while he built up to a song I’d recognize, love; a song that’d bring me face to face with the sadness I had evaded my whole life.

His raspy voice was in my ears now, his tongue wrapping around the words, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day…” Tears slid down my cheeks, heavy, unyielding. I nodded my head to the sound of his work boots hitting against the porch floor. “My girl…” he continued, his rendition a mix between the Temptations’ and Aaron Neville’s. I leaned back in my seat, my muscles stiff and achy.

“Are you my girl?” he asked, leaning forward.

A moment later a small hand patted his knee. My hand. I cried harder now, remembering the days he played his guitar on the porch, the days he brought sunshine, not darkness.

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She’s Somewhere

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After my flight was cancelled, I took a shuttle to the Grand Grove Hotel where I had booked a room on the eleventh floor. It overlooked tall city buildings that, for most of the day, blocked the sun. I opened the curtain anyway and let in the dreary daylight. My bags lay open on the floor, rummaged through, still with the airline tags. Room service delivered hot meals, so I didn’t bother leaving, which was fine with me since this wasn’t a trip for pleasure.

My Aunt Lydia had called earlier in the week, advising me that my mother was missing and had been for over a week.

“Why didn’t you call sooner?” I yelled.

“She met someone…I thought they were together and wanted privacy,” she explained, her tone soft, cautious as if she thought I might come through the phone and shake her.

“She met someone?” I paced in my kitchen, a pot of penne boiling. “Did you at least meet this someone?”

“He used to come to the house all the time and sit with her…” she cleared her throat. “He worked down at the wharf.”

“What did he do at the wharf?” I pressed.

“I didn’t ask, but he sometimes came over after work and was dirty, smelling like fish water,” she defended.

“What’s his name?” I opened my laptop.

“Brody…or Braden.”

“What do you mean Brody or Braden? You don’t know?” I put my hand on my forehead and tried to squeeze away the dull ache.

“He doesn’t have all his teeth so…” she said politely.

“What’s his last name then?” I typed the name Brody into my search bar.

“Uh…Greene or Greer.” I heard her fiddle with a plastic wrapper.

“What is that?”

“It’s a butterscotch,” the hard candy hitting against her teeth.

“So you don’t really know who my mother is with?” I sassed.

“She might be with him, but she might not,” she mumbled.

“Did you make a police report?”

“Well, duh.”

“Okay, I’ll see what I come up with on my end and call you back.”

I searched both names and found a lot and a little at the same time. There were a lot of Brody Greenes and Braden Greers, but none lived in or near Kingsbury. I poured cold water over my noodles, using a fork to scrape a few off the bottom of the pot. As I mixed the penne with half a jar of sauce in a bowl and added some grated cheese, Aunt Lydia called.

“Did you find her?” I asked, not giving her time to dive into a superficial greeting.

“No…I wanted to tell you something I forgot to say before,” she sounded scattered.

“Are you drinking?”

“I’m sober,” she attacked and then paused. “But…I did relapse a couple weeks ago,” she confessed.

“Around the time my mother went missing?”

“I think so,” her voice was soft now.

“So maybe she went to stay with Brody/Braden?”

“Yeah, she could have.”

“Did she take anything?”

“Um…” I heard her walk through the house. “She took some clothes it looks like, but she left her meds.”

“What meds?”

“The antipsychotics her doctor prescribed,” she said like it was common knowledge.

“Did she ever take them?”

“I think so.”

“Is the bottle full, empty?”

“It’s still full, looks like,” she shook the bottle and then opened the cap. “Yep, there all here.”

“When was she prescribed the antipsychotic?”

“About a month ago or so,” her voice raised revealing uncertainty.

“Why did she need them?”

“Oh, she had an episode or something. George had to come down and take her to the hospital.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“She tole me not to,” Aunt Lydia admitted. “I wanted to though because, you know.”

“Why didn’t she want to tell me?”

“It’s just that sometimes she thinks you’re trying to boss her around when she wants to live her life.”

“I’m trying to keep her safe because she makes terrible decisions and always has,” I argued.

“Maybe she just wants you to pull back a little.”

I sat now on the floor of my hotel room, twenty-four hours away from my rescheduled flight to Kingsbury. My search for my mother continued with long, blinding web searches. She’s somewhere, I repeated to ground myself. And after I had called thirty or more strangers who I thought might know something, I took a dinner break, feeling like I somehow knew less than when I started.

My mushroom burger, fries, and Cesar salad arrived on covered plates. A pitcher of water and a cold can of Coke were on the side. I sat at the table and stared out the window. But. I didn’t eat because I was hungry; I ate because it filled the time, it filled the space between longing and receiving.

As I took the last bite of salad, gulped the Coke, thoughts of my mother returned. I sat on the floor and began typing in a new search. She’s somewhere, I repeated, my eyes glued to the screen. This time Aunt Lydia’s words were in my ears: “…she wants to live her life.”

She didn’t want me to be the mother anymore.

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Worry Free

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We decided on a whim to spend the summer traveling the country in Quintin’s bus, Spartan. He and his cousin had spent six months converting it from an old, rusty Greyhound into a home, spacious enough for two. The all-wood interior and brand new or slightly used appliances brought the small space to life. Quintin had placed orange and yellow throw pillows on the long, grey sofa. A square table was bolted in front of it; a Living on Wheels magazine lay in the center. Cabinets were already filled with a set of dishes, the kind made for the road. And shelves stored knickknacks we might need. A moonroof hung over the sink, the window covered with an soft orange curtain.

“Come see the bedroom,” Quintin took my hand and pulled me through the narrow hall.

A large bed filled the room, and on either side were long, grey storage bins he opened to reveal more shelves for clothes, shoes, and personal items.

“Wow!” I put my hand on my face. “This is amazing, Quin.”

“One more thing,” he led me back down the hall.

“Did you save the best for last?” I laughed.

“Something like that.”

He opened a door, what first looked like a closet, exposing the bathroom, a tiny space with a compost toilet and a shower meant for quick washups, not the long, hot shower one might take after a stressful day at the office. A cabinet was secured to the wall, one lone bottle of Tylenol on the shelf. And a small, square mirror was stuck to the back of the door.

“What do you think?” he smiled, proud of his handiwork.

“Small, but nice,” I looked around the bathroom again.

“Can you see yourself going out on the road?”

“Yes,” I stepped out into the hall, looked back at the bedroom, the living area, and kitchen. “When are we going?” I teased.

“How’s June 1?” his face serious.

“For what a week or so?” I clarified.

“For the summer.”

“The whole summer?”

“We’ll come back after Labor Day.”

“Uh…” I looked around again, walked up and down the bus, imagined myself there. “Okay.”

I dropped the summer classes I had signed up for, quit my temporary job as a receptionist at Legal Aid, and boarded Spartan with my boyfriend of one year. Between us we had six-thousand dollars and a fool’s plan for making money on the road. The first week we settled into a routine and ventured from one end of the state to the other, spending time there before crossing state lines. There was something special about this day: we were official, embracing the home-on-wheels lifestyle.

We visited tourist spots and spent time observing locals. We drove through scenic routes, slept on beaches. We explored national parks, camped on campgrounds roasting marshmallows. We parked and enjoyed the weather. We tried new foods, splurged in giftshops. We created a Vlog to share our experience. We met other travelers, talked for hours about our adventures, and exchanged contact information, promising to keep in touch.

But nights were cold, the bus seemed to get smaller by the day, and our usual easygoing nature was tested by long hours on the road, the endless destination chase. The thrill of seeing the country faded, and I slipped into a kind of 8 to 5 attitude, forging ahead, counting miles and scratching things off our to do lists. Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier. We took pictures, posed for selfies and moved on.

Around week six, Spartan began to overheat, so we found a shop and stayed three days in a hotel where we swam, enjoyed room service, watched movies, and I fretted getting back on the bus to drive through yet another state.

“What about the Carolinas?” Quintin asked, staring at pictures of their most popular spots.

“I think we should just go home,” I admitted. “What if the bus breaks down again?”

“We’ll get it fixed,” he looked at me like it was a no-brainer.

“We don’t have the money for another breakdown.”

“I can make more money…build a website for someone, sell some things online,” he put his phone on the table. “Is that what you’re worried about?”

“I’m tired.”

“So we’ll rest more, take our time,” he scooted closer to me. “I want you to have fun. I want us to make memories we’ll look back on when we’re old,” he said.

I thought about the future, wondering for a moment if this kind of let things be what they are, worry-free approach would sustain us, or if I’d crave something more ordered and worrisome.

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Just Keep Dancing

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I buckled Genesis and Emerson in the backseat and wrapped them in matching Moana blankets, before starting the car and heading to Pleasanthill. Emerson’s eyes closed and reopened until her head drooped to the side. Genesis sucked her thumb and twirled her hair, wide awake, ready to see her daddy walk to the car with his briefcase swaying at his side.

“Where are my girls?” he’d ask, leaning into the backseat to kiss their foreheads.

We were down to one car again which meant, until we could find $1100, I had to drop Dimitri off at the university, drop the girls off with Iliana, and then drive to work. In the evening, I did everything in reverse with my fingers crossed, hoping and praying the car, a twenty-year-old sedan my dad gave us when we got married, didn’t also quit, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. I blasted the heater and even then the evening chill numbed my fingers. The headlights of oncoming traffic brightened the car, highlighting the girls’ faces in the rearview mirror. I smiled at the sweet image and continued on the thirty minute drive to Pleasanthill Business College, where Dimitri worked as a lecturer.

It was the beginning of winter term and students were hopeful. This was the beginning of their journey, the route to success, to security. They arrived early for class, their backpacks hanging on one shoulder, their eagerness radiating, infectious. Dimitri spoke kindly of his students and spent hours preparing his lectures because he wanted them to understand math the way he did.

“If they can get this,” he paused. “They can go anywhere,” he professed, driven even more now by the urgency of the task.

Streetlights started coming on about midway through our commute, dim against the sea of headlights inching down the two-lane roads. I maneuvered through the dense, rush-hour traffic, the darkening sky making it feel later than it was. I played the Moana soundtrack on a loop, and Genesis sang along, her voice soft when she didn’t know the words, loud when she did. We bobbed and swayed in our seats on the way to pick up daddy, her hero.

“Yeah,” she cheered as we got closer to the campus.

The light a block away was always red when we approached; it was long, letting miles of cross traffic pass uninterrupted. At first I raged inside irritated by the delay, overwhelmed by our circumstances, jaded by life’s inconvenient surprises. My face was on fire; my fingers thawed.

“What’s wrong, mommy?” Genesis asked.

“What do you mean?” I feigned, still not sure what she had seen.

“You stopped dancing,” she whispered. “Just keep dancing, okay,” she continued, ready to get back to the music.

So now, when we got to the light, I kept dancing, looking back at Genesis buckled in her car seat, kicking her legs and waving her arms. She belted out lyrics waking Emerson who, though still half asleep, began shaking her head to the music.

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Her Prison

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“I hurt her,” Meadow whispered to Aunt Evelyn and walked onto the patio.

She said this any time someone inquired about the crime, the reason she had been sentenced to serve fifteen years at the Raven House Correctional Facility. Every time I imagined her there, I pictured a hospital, a bright, clean, stale space with a common area filled with tables, and small rooms they’d sleep in, windows they’d stare out, observing the moon cycle. Of course, I knew the opposite was true, but I couldn’t bring myself to think of my sister sitting in a dark, dirty cell, with another woman whose list of crimes was much longer than hers.

Aunt Evelyn stood frozen in a what did I do pose. I avoided her eyes, reaching for the spinach dip. This was, after all, Meadow’s going away party, and we had agreed not to mention the obvious, to let the elephant blow its trumpet while we showered her with love and positivity.

“Well, that’s okay,” Uncle Matthew sang, his hands trembling as he scooped macaroni and cheese onto his plate.

I moved over to the sofa and sat next to my mother. She tried to smile, but her face stayed flat.

“I brought you some more spinach dip,” I put the plate on the coffee table. “Miles is making a big dent in the bowl,” I joked, hoping she’d laugh.

But we weren’t laughing, and we weren’t having fun. This was a scheduled goodbye, a surrendering to powers greater than us. It was time to welcome in the beast, become its friend, or close associate, at least. I looked around at aunts and uncles, cousins, a couple of Meadow’s close friends. These were the brave souls who had accepted the invitation; the absence of those who had declined hovered like thick fog. We could understand their reasons for saying no, though we didn’t understand how they had untethered the bond we had always celebrated.

I stepped onto the patio. Meadow stood leaning over the balcony, staring out at the parking lot. She looked back to see it was me and then returned her gaze to the tops of cars, birds fluttering in trees, residents walking with baskets of clean clothes under their arms. At first I watched with her, comforted by the monotony of life. These were the things she’d miss. This life would be gone, and she’d have to revert back to childhood, a time when taking orders felt normal, when relying on people she didn’t know made sense.

“You don’t have to stay out here with me,” she said without turning to look at me. “I’m fine.” She had cried all the tears she could cry, but sadness now lived on her vocal chords like a bacteria, laboring each sound.

“I know,” I stood and walked over to the balcony. “Can’t I hang out with my little sis?” I nudged her with my elbow.

A half-smile spread across her face and then disappeared. I knew her mind was far away, busy processing memories she couldn’t help but replay, the smallest details that were now part of who she was. All the things that only she knew like her motive, her justification, her emotional state when she pushed her best friend out of a second-floor window.

Though she had another twenty-four hours to report, part of her was already waiting at the prison doors. She had already given up on freedom. She had undergone some kind of reverse metamorphosis, a butterfly shrinking back into an egg with a protective shell, invisible to the human eye. This was her prison, and it was ours too. For fifteen years we’d live in duality: mind and body jailed behind real and imagined bars.

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In the Spirit of Friendship

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Meet me at the coffee bar; be there when it opens. We’ll order the house blend and inhale the rich aromas. While we wait for the barista to fill our cups and top them with whipped-cream, we’ll succumb to fresh baked pastries in the display, our mouths watering for the buttery flavors, the fruity sweetness, the white, fluffy icing we’d lick off our fingers.

Meet me at the coffee bar where we’ll sit outside, our elbows resting on a small, rickety table. Between bites we’ll discuss the last novel we read, still reeling from what felt like emotional entrapment because how dare the writer hide the murderer’s identity until the last page. We’ll tackle Derrida, work our way through the linguistic maze that is his theory on language and consciousness, posing questions that we’ll wrestle with until we talk ourselves into a corner, the only way to escape being through a long, quiet pause, a reposturing to align us again with the physical.

Meet me at the coffee bar for a conversation with time. We’ll take a stroll down memory lane, cry for old versions of ourselves, laugh at errors in our thinking, and revisit the protected spaces in our minds where happy times live on unextinguished. We’ll root for the current version, protect it from old wounds, the ones still seething with shame, still doused with regret. We’ll cheer for our future selves, imagining our souls existing peacefully as we forge ahead on a journey that can only unfold one moment at a time.

Meet me at the coffee bar where we’ll both let go of time’s ticking hand. We’ll free ourselves from notifications, news feeds, and viral videos. We’ll share in the spirit of friendship, guarded by its shield. We’ll get lost in laughter, discover interlocking histories that reveal our grandmothers worked at the same factory, that we had the chickenpox twice, that hiding was a prominent theme in our lives. We’ll let our hearts weep, find healing in vulnerability. And we’ll end our meeting with a smile, a two-armed hug, a profound sense of compassion we’ll wear like skin.

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Happy Saturday

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Two months earlier, I had accepted my neighbor, Katrina’s, invitation to take a ride in a hot air balloon, thinking I’d cancel later, making up an excuse for why I couldn’t go, while giving her plenty of time to find someone else to take my place. But, I forgot.

“Are you excited?” Katrina greeted when I answered the phone.

“About what?”

“I know you’re nervous, but I have taken a lot of balloon rides…”

“Right…” I interrupted, remembering the day I looked her in the eye and agreed to join her. “I am nervous.”

“You’re in good hands,” she reassured. “So, I’ll pick you up at 4:15am. This will leave plenty of time to get out to Miller Field. Wear layers, but pack light. And maybe you should hold off on caffeine until after the ride,” she laughed, revealing details I had never committed to memory because I hadn’t planned on going.

“I’ll be ready,” I tried to sound excited, thinking I was losing a Saturday, rather than signing up for an adventure.

“Oh, and after the ride I thought we could have breakfast…maybe go out to the vineyards, do some shopping?”

“Sounds fun. We’ll make a day of it,” I cheered, the second half of our day more to my liking.

At 4:12am the next morning, I sipped berry-flavored tea, watching Katrina’s headlights illuminate the brick driveway. Her SUV rocked as she put it in park. She sent me a quick “I’m here” text and I replied with, “On my way out now.”

Her car was warm, heat blowing from every vent. I settled into my seat and shut the door, the cabin darkening, with just the dashboard lights glowing. Katrina backed out of the driveway and followed the maze of dark, sleepy streets to the freeway. She followed highway 99 past the airport, leaving the early morning traffic behind as we ventured through small towns. I stared out at the large homesteads with long, red barns, flocks of sheep, tagged cattle, and green tractors with bright yellow wheels. Thick, suffocating animal odors seeped through the vents until we found ourselves whizzing by rows of wheat, corn, and the smell of earth entered. In the distance I saw a growing crowd, cars lining up on the north end of Miller Field.

“The trucks are there already,” Katrina pointed. “You’ll get to see how they set everything up.”

“Interesting,” I started to feel nauseous.

Before anyone said anything about getting into a hot air balloon, there was talk about the weather, wind direction, fog, all things that could effect the ride. And thirty minutes after our original start time, we climbed into the tall, wicker baskets. Sweat beads formed under my clothes as people in red shirts recited a memorized speech outlining the do’s and dont’s. One by one, we watched balloons rise and float away.

Then it was our turn. I gripped the side of the basket and waited for what I imagined would be a jolt, a shudder. Instead the liftoff was smooth, weightless. Like all the other balloons, we floated away, gliding across he sky, the roaring flames above a heat shield that protected us from the chilly morning air, the unexpected wind pockets. We passed miles of green, narrow waterways. We watched the sun rise, its soft orange glow peeking over mountain tops. There was more agriculture, manicured rows of crops farmers would box and ship to local stores. The air was clean, calming like eucalyptus. I felt my body relax.

“We are now 1100 feet in the air,” the man in the red shirt announced, but I was unmoved.

I loosened my grip, soothed by the dreamy scenery, while Katrina and other riders used their phones and cameras to capture the beauty.

“You look happy,” Katrina teased, catching me with a big grin on my face.

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Floating Towards a Red Sky

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“Hadassah,” Kai called from the backyard. “Come see this…”

I closed my laptop and headed outside.

“Yeah?” I stood in front of the screen door.

“Come look at the sky,” Kai lay in his hammock. “I think we can both fit on this thing.” he motioned for me to join.

First I stood next to him, watching the hammock swing back and forth. He moved over a little, and I eased onto the blue and white fabric. It rocked wildly for a moment and then slowed to a comfortable sway.

“How often do we get to see something like this?” Kai ran his fingers across my ankle.

I smiled and touched my hand to his foot covered in the nylon suppression socks her liked to wear. The neighbors were in their backyard too, grilling steaks and admiring the evening sky.

“Did you get around to organizing your office?”

My breaths shortened. Thoughts of the cluttered space raced through my mind on a reel. Months of mail rested in messy piles. Half-open boxes were still filled with office supplies–gel pens, whiteboard markers, Post Its, a heavy duty stapler, printer paper, and a beautiful, unused calendar now a year old. Equipment still wrapped in cardboard pieces and bubble wrap rested on the L-shaped desk.

“Well?” his voice was sympathetic but felt heavy.

A shiver started in my toes and traveled all the way up to my teeth, producing a chatter only I could hear. Fright lurked behind my mind’s wall of regret, every shameful moment I had ever experienced displayed like mementos. Instead of facing this wall, I cowered, tiptoeing across what felt like a landmine, hiding from the soul’s seductive call, its plea for courage in an unpredictable world.

“I started,” I whispered, hoping he didn’t pick my words apart.

“Good,” his fingers crawled up and down my calf. “Imagine what it will feel like when you start your business.”

For a moment I saw what he saw, me breaking free from doubt, disciplined and motivated. I felt weightless, floating towards a red sky.

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Evidence of Life

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The assignment was to capture life, the evidence of it in unexpected spaces. I chose the abandoned house off route 9 near the Lark’s farm. Sasha borrowed her dad’s truck and we took the hour drive, listening to the Johnny Cash cassette stuck in the radio, hot air slapping our faces, the sun burning our skin.

“Why couldn’t you choose something like life at the mall?” Sasha laughed as she steered the truck down narrow roads. “At least then we could’ve gone to Harport for the day.”

“There’s nothing unexpected about that,” I clarified, content with my decision.

The house stood alone in the middle of an empty field, stiff yellow grass and tumbleweed framing the rotting structure. Its missing windows and doors revealed a crushing emptiness, an engulfing loneliness I hoped my camera could record.

“I don’t see any life,” Sasha stopped the truck and stared. “I see death though,” she opened her door as I opened mine, her hands in her pockets and a folded magazine under her arm when she reached the front of the truck.

There was an earthy smell, the ground hard in most places, but surprisingly soft in others. I scraped the dead grass with the edge of my sneakers, exposing the wet dirt, a sign that there was an irrigation leak nearby, and if there was water there had to be life. I took my time snapping pictures of the house, from all different angles. Where sunlight shone through doorways, I aimed my camera at cobwebs, termite-bitten walls, broken chairs, and books whose weathered pages lay crumbled against the warped floor. Big holes in the ceiling exposed pipes and tattered tiles, signs of nests tucked in the corners.

“How long are you going to be?” Sasha yelled from the truck where she leaned against the bumper, reading her Cosmopolitan Magazine.

I walked around to the front and stepped inside the doorway, eyeing a broken staircase, a long crack traveling across the floor. On one side were the remnants of a rocking chair, on the other a table for six leaning against the wall. At the top of the stairs was a pile of clothes or blankets. I wondered whether these things had been left behind by the owners or added later.

Darkness poured out of the space where there had been double doors sliding along the metal rail. I tipped towards the opening, shining my flashlight into the space. Spray painted on the wall in big, sloppy letters, were the words, “We are always getting ready to live but never living. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson”

I called Sasha to come shine the flashlight while I took a picture.

“What?” she complained as she approached.

“I’m going to take a picture of the wall,” I explained.

“The wall?” she shone the flashlight and read the words aloud. “Why are you taking a picture of this? I don’t think this is what your teacher meant by finding life.”

“Why not?” I pointed my camera.

“Wait, what is that?” Sasha pointed to a tiny teacup with a budding prayer plant rising through the soil.

“It’s life,” I laughed.

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Hidden in Plain Sight

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Mabel and I moved the animals to shelter, filling bins and barrels with food and water, securing gates and latches to maintain the peace. Winds hit the side of the barn walls and the goats chattered. The chickens continued to peck, and Eileen, our pot-bellied pig lay in her pen, gazing up at us as if to ask why we were making her sleep in the barn and not at the foot of Mabel’s bed.

“Look at her,” Mabel choked. “She’s sad.”

We closed the barn doors and went around the house securing anything not already bolted down or inside its own casing. Mabel called our nearest neighbors, a half mile up the road, to see if they needed anything, the line weak as the increasing winds threatened nearby cell towers. I checked our supply kit, made sure our portable radio had batteries, counted our canned goods.

“It’s the same as the last time you checked,” Mabel interrupted. “The Grants are good, and Laurel and Dean can’t find Scout.”

“Oh no,” I put my hand over my heart.

“I told them we would go out and look for him.”

“We should grab our raincoats just in case.”

“Yeah, it’s already sprinkling,” Mabel revealed as thunder erupted.

The storm was coming in from the north east, arriving as predicted, casting a darkness across the sky, one half lit by the sun, the other half lit by razor thin streaks. Cold, heavy raindrops pelted against our skin as we slipped on our bright yellow jackets, zipping them up to our necks, the hoods hanging loose on top of our heads. We walked towards Laurel and Dean’s home, calling out for Scout as we passed his usual hiding spaces: the small spring on the other side of the hill, the thick grassland behind the Franks’ property, and the talking tree on the edge of the Pride family’s land.

Rainwater slid down our nylon sleeves and dripped from the rubber ridge lining our hoods. The water splashed against our faces, blinding us temporarily as we searched the landscape where things were known to be hidden in plain sight. Lightning raced across the sky, its buddy thunder a preface to the short show. Our fingers were numb now, the winter chill drilling straight to the bone. Puddles under our feet made the terrain slippery, but we trudged on, shouting Scout’s name into the air.

“You think they found him already?” Mabel asked.

“Check your phone,” I leaned in to help guard the screen from the heavy droplets. “Nothing.”

We turned around and headed home, retracing our steps, though this time the sky was almost completely dark, thick clouds stirring. Mabel’s persevering spirit meant this time she searched harder, yelling Scout’s name until her throat ached.

“We better get inside,” I said. “We tried.”

“No,” Mabel protested. “He’s out here…”

Her eyes were red with worry, the ends of her hair drenched. I took her hands in mine and blew warm air against her frozen fingers. In that moment, as her mother, I wished I could protect her from the harshness of the world. We stared out once more, the wind whirling debris across the sky.

“Scout,” we chanted.

I opened the front door and motioned for Mabel to join me. In the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something move in the shed. Mabel led the way, walking across the muddy driveway to the shed, a door-less structure we used to store firewood and junk. There laying next to the pile of oak logs was Scout. His dark-brown coat blending perfectly.

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When you Find Me

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I thought the white envelope in the mailbox included good news. It was addressed to Ms. Haven Reed and was from Jamie Gladson, of Adventures in Missions. I lay it on the table and texted Haven to let her know it had arrived, four or five exclamation points following, along with balloons and smiley faces. She responded with thanks.

My excitement waned, and I went back to binge-watching The Office while I folded clothes, placing them in short piles around the living room. At 2:30pm I took out a pack of ground turkey, letting it thaw in a sink filled with cold water. I figured to celebrate Haven’s good news, I’d make our favorite nachos, barbeque wings, and a veggie tray I’d buy on my way back from picking up Lucy from school.

It was the three of us, my daughter, Lucy, myself, and younger sister, Haven, living in our childhood home, a Ranch-Style house in need of a little TLC. After the accident, I moved back home so that Haven didn’t have to uproot her entire life her last couple years of high school. My divorce was finalized the day Lucy and I left Norford. We drove for three days, sleeping in hotels that made being in the truck feel restful. By the time we arrived in Ashborough, the stunning, green hills had disappeared, replaced with flat, dry land. Lucy pouted, disappointed by the neighborhood, the house, this new arrangement that left us longing for what had been lost: grandparents who made everything better.

They were coming back from their church anniversary, my father driving westbound on the 117 freeway, listening to talk radio, when a diesel traveling eastbound broke through the divider and crashed into their car and several cars around them. Our parents died on impact, my mother in her powder blue suit, my father in a black tux, his tie the checkered one Lucy got him for his birthday. The church helped us with funeral arrangements, the pastor and his wife walking us through the legalities, the grieving, the wariness.

I focused on Lucy and Haven, finally becoming the homemaker my ex-husband would have appreciated. Lucy found that she liked her new school, and at the request of her new bestfriend, Alexandra, she joined the Girl Scouts. Haven dabbled in writing, photography, artsy pastimes she immersed herself in. And life went on as we maneuvered around the hole in our hearts. We learned to celebrate small and large accomplishments, joined community events, shared our story with others, and laughed again.

After I put the clothes away, I headed out to Lucy’s school, timing her departure from Mr. Callum’s second-grade classroom just right. She smiled when she saw the car, her frizzy hair and backpack bouncing in unison.

“How was your day?” I asked as she opened the back door and got in.

“Fine,” she wiped the hair from her face. “We had cupcakes for Leah’s birthday.”

“What kind were they?”

“Chocolate and vanilla.”

“Did you bring me one?”

“They were just for the kids, mom.”

“Well, then,” I looked at her in the rearview mirror. “I thought we’d have nachos and wings tonight. What do you think?”

“Yeah,” Lucy raised her hands.

I texted Haven once we got to the store to let her know I was making food, in case she was thinking about making other plans. Lucy headed straight for the veggie trays, and then we grabbed a few other things.

“Do we need any of these?” Lucy asked again ad again as we perused the rows.

Haven still hadn’t texted back as Lucy and I headed for the car. I wondered why, imagining the news wrapped in the white envelope was good, life changing.

“Are you waiting for a text?” Lucy surmised.

“I’m waiting to hear from Haven. I want to see if she is going to join us for dinner.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“I don’t know.”

And I didn’t know why, but I did know where she might be.

“We’re going to take a little detour,” I told Lucy, my voice excited, like I was taking her on an adventure.

She squealed and stared out the window. We hopped on the freeway, exiting on Windmill Way. I followed the bumpy road for three miles, trees and brush cradling the path.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re almost there,” I reassured.

At the end of Windmill Way I turned onto Spruce Road, an even narrower path. I parked the car on the grassy embankment and opened my door. Lucy followed, hopping out of the car, ready to see what awaited. I grabbed her hand and we walked across a dirt path into the wooded space, pausing when we heard rodents rustling.

When we were maybe two hundred feet in, Lucy stopped, eyeing the big tree house nestled in the trees.

“You see the tree house?”

“Can we go in it?”

“I think Haven is inside…let’s see,” we hurried our pace, and when we reached the ladder, I called up to Haven.

She rushed out and peered over the railing.

“What are you doing here?” her voice irritated.

“We came to check on you,” I spotted Lucy as she climbed up the ladder. “I didn’t hear back from you.”

Haven grabbed Lucy’s hand and pulled her up, and I followed, adjusting my clothes. Lucy and Haven were already sitting at the square table when I entered. Haven shared her chips with Lucy, avoiding my eyes as I sat across from them.

“You didn’t have to come check on me,” she played with a bottlecap on the table, spinning it again and again.

“I don’t understand what’s going on. The letter…”

“Stop with the letter,” she huffed.

“Okay…I thought it was a good thing.”

“Well, it’s not.”

“Why isn’t it?”

She was quiet. Her body tensed. And Lucy looked back and forth at us, waiting one to speak.

“Why isn’t it?” I repeated.

“Because I don’t know if I want to go,” she whispered. “I only wanted to go because mom and dad wanted me to,” her legs swayed back and forth. “I think I still need to figure out who I am.”

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Other People’s Things

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The day before New Year’s Eve, Celeste called to tell me Harriet had passed and that she had left us–me, Celeste, Laura, and Mira–her store.

“What?” I gripped my steering wheel to keep from veering into the next lane. “Are you kidding?”

“I literally just got off the phone with her attorney,” Celeste’s voice had dropped an octave, and she pronounced every syllable like she was a speech coach. “I’m meeting with him this afternoon,” she paused. “Are you free? It’s just us since Mira and Laura don’t live in the city, but I’ll fill them in.”

“Yeah…I can meet you,” I turned my turn signal on and waited behind a red Buick. “Text me the address.”

As soon as I hung up with Celeste, my mind went back to the the summer I graduated from high school. My parents agreed to me taking a gap year so long as I was productive, meaning I had a job, and by the following fall I had my butt planted in a seat at Mountainview University. They served daily reminders of this agreement, nagging me until I had found a job. It was supposed to be temporary, but my part-time position became full-time, and soon Other People’s Things felt like a second home. Harriet, then a spry sixty-something, hired me to do intake, which meant I sifted through boxes of donated items and put them in piles for her to sift through again, deciding on what to keep and what to pass along. At the time a woman named Norma Rae worked the register and tended to customers, and then, at the end of my first week, she called to let Harriet know that she wasn’t going to be returning. I came in early that Saturday for a quick training session and I became, as Harriet described, the face of the store.

“You have to look interested, excited,” she directed.

Customers began trickling in, and I put on my best smile. I watched them explore items on racks, shelves, even things that collected on the floor, and I realized this was not your usual thrift store. Harriet used the donated items to make new things. There were bags pieced together from old jeans, quilts, patterned-blouses, and dresses. She restored clothes by picking them apart at the seams and replacing ripped fabric. People were mesmerized by her new creations, by how the artistry of well-known designers now lay stitched together on a hanger. Harriet never payed the compliments much attention. She just hated to see things go to waste, and believed that with a little effort she could bring old things back to life.

Celeste started a couple weeks after Norma Rae quit. We had both gone to the same high school but had different friend groups. She was a cheerleader, and I was a band geek so our paths rarely crossed. I had assumed she hated us; she had assumed we hated them. And now we could laugh at the whole thing since most of our day was spent in the store working like we had never worked before. It wasn’t hard work, but there was always something to do, and Harriet had no problem telling us to do it.

By fall, Celeste was attending evening classes at the community college, so that she could still work at the shop. My position changed again to include finding donations when I turned Harriet on to the massive pile of ceramic pots I saw behind the art school on the way to work. Harriet stuffed each one into her car, even the chipped ones, and drove them back to her house, a cluttered Victorian.

“What are you going to do with them?” we asked.

“Fix them,” she mumbled as she dug through the donation boxes that had arrived that day.

We didn’t see the pots in the store right away, but when we did we couldn’t believe they were the same unclaimed pots designed by beginner students. Harriet had repainted them, fixed their chips by adding pieces from other pots. And again she took no credit for the work, stating, “I hate to see things go to waste.” Celeste and I couldn’t help but try our hand at repurposing items, first for fun when we had some down time, and later as part of our job when Harriet noticed that we too had a knack for making old things look appealing. I made bags using the sturdy fabric of old corduroy blazers, with colored shoestrings instead of zippers, and silver jewelry pieces as ornaments. Harriet gave us an entire section of the store to show just our items. And she hired two new girls to work the front counter, Mira and Laura.

They were older than us by a few years and came armed with marketing ideas that eventually got us featured in business magazines and our very own website which meant people from across the country could also shop at Other People’s Things. Harriet showed her usual lack of enthusiasm, keeping her attention on the latest donations, making sure we were focused on creating, not on the attention we were getting.

At the end of my gap year, I left, something that pained me for a long time. Celeste followed a few months later. Mira and Laura stayed for many years until the pressure to do more with life got to them, and they too made their way back into the cold, hard seats of a college campus. I’m not sure if they ever looked back. After eight years of college, I found myself in an office, working my way up a long ladder. And now, as I drove to the attorney’s office, I flirted with the idea of walking away from my job, going back to the place where other people’s things made the walk through life more desirable.

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Knock Knock

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I had been living at the Riverside Condominiums in a company unit for a few weeks when I met Magda. She was part of the janitorial team, and I saw her every day pushing her grey cart into the building. I watched from my third-floor balcony, drinking my second cup of espresso. Working remotely had grown on me, though my sleep schedule was irregular as I often joined meetings with people all over the world. The semblance of routine gave me comfort; in fact, I looked for it: the same cashier at the grocery store, the same Uber driver, repeated servers, baristas, meeting agendas, episodes of Seinfeld, and Magda. She arrived at the same time, her mannerisms the same, her heavy footsteps hitting the tile floor to the same tempo, her voice flat as she belted out lyrics to songs currently crowding the airways with their peppy rhythms and surface meanings.

Her work order was for unit 116, but she knocked on my door, 118, before sliding her master key into the doorknob. I heard her gasp as she saw that someone was living there.

“Hello?” I called, as she pulled the door shut.

She opened the door again to tell me that she had the wrong unit, her face flushed from embarassment.

“No worries,” I met her in the doorway. “I’m Whitney,” I offered.

“Magda,” she extended her hand.

She squeezed my hand tight and locked eyes with me as though this were the beginning of an important interview. I smiled and drew my hand back.

“I’ll see you around,” she grabbed her cart and moved a couple doors down.

For the next few days things were the same: coffee, meetings, food deliveries, Magda’s singing. But the evening of the third day, there was a knock on the door. I looked out the peephole and saw Magda standing there in her gray uniform, her hair pulled back in a loose bun.

“Hey, Magda,” I greeted.

“Whitney…what are you up to?”

“I was just about to eat,” I said. “Why? What’s up?”

“My ride is late, so I thought I would stop by and say hi,” she laughed.

“Yeah…do you want to come in?” I asked.

“Sure, just for a few minutes,” she explained. “My ride should be here soon.”

She eyed the food I had set up on the coffee table, containers filled with mushroom ravioli, garlic green beans, salad, and bread sticks.

“Let me get you a plate,” I said.

“That’s okay…I’m not hungry,” she said but still stared at the food.

“Well, in case you get hungry,” I said, handing her a white dinner plate and fork.

At first she held back, while I ate. She told me about her daughter, Chloe, a third grader at Benson Elementary. Her husband, Edward, had worked as a cab driver before he died from a tumor in his brain. Her sister, Iris, lived with her now, but Magda suspected she was taking drugs, though she had no proof. Their mother, an eighty-year old woman, was dating a ninety-year-old-man named Clarence, and they feared he was after her money, their father’s pension. A man name George had stirred Magda’s fancy, though she was hesitant since her husband had only been dead for a year, and she thought it would be more respectful if she waited at least a year-and-a-half. Her favorite pastime was dancing at her favorite nightclub where, she admitted, the country music and a couple beers made her forget her troubles. I continued to eat while she talked, mostly nodding my way through her story. Once she got comfortable, she helped herself to healthy portions of the ravioli and green beans.

“Would you like a water? Lemonade?” I asked, using the short trip to the refrigerator as a way to escape her chatter.

“I’ll take lemonade,” she adjusted herself on the couch and kept talking.

Magda was thinking about getting a dog because when she was twelve she had a dog named Grover who was hit by a car, though she was certain she had seen Grover the other day wandering around her neighborhood, and she wondered for a moment if God had returned him to her as a sign that he really did love her. Her best friend had moved to the east coast and called her everyday to complain about the cold weather to which Magda said, “Well, that’s what you get for leaving us.” I laughed because I thought she was kidding, but the line she seemed to draw between serious and joking was thin, punctuated by a subtle shift in her voice. Her blood pressure had been up lately, but she wasn’t ready to go to the doctor, losing pay for them to tell her what she already knew.

After an hour I hinted at the fact that I had a meeting with overseas clients that I needed to get ready for. She agreed that she should get going, but she stayed seated telling me about the time she won a trip to Cancun she had to miss because of finals, final exams for a degree in nursing she never completed. I excused myself and went into my bedroom, thinking this would certainly prompt her departure. Instead, she followed, suggesting I put on the black blazer, not the blue one.

“And you should put your hair up,” she grabbed my brush from the dresser and began pulling my hair back. “I can do your make up too,” she said.

The more I resisted, the more she insisted, her friendliness overpowering. With my hair up, make up I rarely wore, and my black blazer, I sat in front my laptop, waiting for the participants to join. Magda leaned against the kitchen counter, eating mushroom ravioli straight from the container, her loud smacking in the background distracting, infuriating as I made sure she was outside of the frame.

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Mockingbird

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I was seventeen and a half, working at Comic Genie after school from 3:30pm to 7:30pm, longer if we were doing inventory. My boss, Ellis Wheeler, wore a white button-up shirt everyday and played 70s rock music through the small speakers hanging from the ceiling. If I had a question, he preferred I write it down and leave it behind the counter for him. Pink sticky notes were for urgent questions, the yellow ones for anything non-urgent. He used a similar quiet approach with customers, pointing and gesturing until words were needed, but even then his was succinct. Regular customers knew to find me if they were looking for conversation, and I obliged, engaging in banter about the classics, Marvel vs. DC, and why the movies, which were okay, would never be as good. While I chatted with customers, Ellis processed orders, reorganized shelves, arranged collectibles. and checked the bargain bins. Most days his younger brother, Blaine, sat in the back playing PC games and answering the phone. On occasion, he’d come out of the office to alert Ellis of any pending emergencies like changes in shipment dates, back-logged items, or angry customers.

Ellis gave me a ten minute break at 5:00pm, enough time for me to walk down the strip to get a smoothie and gaze into the specialty stores, the art studio, and the tattoo shop, where I paused and watched the process play out, eyeing the wall of completed tattoos: butterflies, dragons, portraits, birds, trees, skulls, dream catchers, crosses, flames, tigers, roses, and shapes and patterns people would have to explain for the rest of their lives. I was careful not to linger too long because I knew Ellis was waiting. When I returned, he glanced at his watch and then went back to processing orders.

At 7:30pm, Blaine walked me to the bus stop, waiting with me for five minutes until the bus arrived.

“See you tomorrow,” he said as he turned to walk back to the store.

I boarded, found a seat and stared out the window, the starting and stopping making the five mile ride long. My mother and her boyfriend, Rodney, were home resting on the couch, a plate of food waiting for me in the refrigerator, along with an icy, sweet tea from Ruth’s Place.

“Hey mom,” I said from the kitchen table, taking a bite of the red beans and rice.

“Yeah,” she answered, her head nuzzled against Rodney’s shoulder.

“Can I get a tattoo?”

“Excuse me?” she sat up and looked at me. “You’re kidding, right?”

I laughed and went back to eating. When I was done, I retired to my room where I did my homework and got ready for the next day. Ellis had turned me on to a few 70s bands I liked, so I listened to them while I read about derivatives and found solutions for differential equations. Then I worked on my AP English paper on the Invisible Man. I usually fell asleep just before midnight, saving any incomplete assignments for first period, my free period. This was my life Monday through Friday, but on Saturdays, when my mother thought I was out with friends, I visited the tattoo shop, sharing tattoo ideas with Mark, a man whose arms and neck were covered with ink. He made three sketches, and I selected the last one.

“I’ll hold onto it for you,” he said. “Come back when you’re eighteen.”

For my eighteenth birthday, Ellis and Blaine brought cupcakes from Sweetie’s. They didn’t say happy birthday, but Ellis nodded towards the cupcakes when I walked into the store. I ate two, one chocolate, one vanilla, and instead of getting my usual smoothie during my break, I visited Mark at the tattoo shop.

“Today’s my birthday,” I said.

“Happy birthday,” Mark and a couple of the other artists sang. “You ready for that tattoo?” he moved towards a drawer and pulled out the sketch.

“I’m ready,” I squeezed my hands together.

I made my appointment for the next day, a Saturday, since my mom and Rodney were going to be out of town.

“We’ll celebrate when I get back,” she promised as they stuffed their luggage into the back of his truck.

Mark was still preparing when I arrived. I sat down in the black chair, my body shaking with anxiety.

“Are you okay?” he joked. “Take a deep breath.”

After four hours of his needle scratching against my arm, he revealed his masterpiece, Marvel’s Mockingbird character standing strong, her eyes masked, and, as part of my design, she had the wings of a mockingbird.

“What do you think?” Mark asked.

“I love it,” I awed, staring at each detail in the mirror.

Mark wrapped my arm and instructed me on the aftercare process. This moment felt life-altering, like I had entered a new phase of life, one where my decisions were my own, where I decided what made me happy. I left and headed for the smoothie shop, ordering my usual banana cream smoothie. The bus arrived thirty minutes later. I showed my pass and boarded. walking to the first free seat. I stared out the window, a big smile on my face as I thought about my tattoo. We bounced up and down as the bus absorbed every lump, every pothole. And when lights turned yellow, we braced for a hard stop, the grumpy driver muttering under his breath.

At my stop, I exited and crossed onto Denver Road, walking the three blocks to my street. I looked forward to taking off the wrap and admiring the work in the mirror. When I turned onto our street, I saw Rodney’s car parked in the driveway. My arm began to throb, the pain paralyzing.

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Silent Songs

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Hazel was missing again, but this time she left behind her guitar, the one Grandpa Wally gave her, the one she promised she’d play because music settled her soul. After Grandpa Wally taught her everything he knew, they both signed up for classes at the local community college. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening they ate an early dinner and then left for class, their guitars resting in the back of Grandpa Wally’s green, Volvo station wagon.

“You know I’m the oldest student,” he bragged. “Hell, I’m older than the teacher,” he laughed.

Sally and I watched from the kitchen window as Grandpa Wally and Hazel drove away. Then we went back to eating, Sally smacking her food and squirming in her chair until her plate was clean. I washed dishes while Sally swept the floor and wiped the counters. We sang some of her favorite songs, bickered a bit when she left crumbs on the counter, and then returned to the table to finish our homework. When Grandpa Wally’s headlights lit the driveway, we ran out to greet them. In our minds they were becoming rockstars who would one day play in big arenas, where we’d be granted backstage passes and merch just because we were related. We didn’t factor in Grandpa Wally’s age, he was seventy-four at the time, or Hazel’s woeful disposition that often prompted her search for a kind of peace she believed existed on dark streets, alongside people we judged in passing.

The music they played made us feel good. We danced, laughed. smiled. Sometimes we cried, overwhelmed by the polyphonic sounds. We delighted in the way their hands slid up and down the strings, rendering rhythms and melodies that cradled our minds, soothed our hearts. Half beats, harmonies, and strings strumming while sweet words fell from their lips marked most evenings. By summer Grandpa Wally and Hazel were playing for aunts and uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Backyard concerts became our thing. Sally and I made the popcorn and refilled the punch bowl. Donations went towards new equipment. A year later they had a band, Paul from school who played bass, and Avery from down the street who played keyboard. They played at the Freedom Festival, Sally and I cheering them on with fake tattoos lining our arms, a couple on our faces, to our parents’ chagrin.

Not long after the festival, Grandpa Wally became ill. He felt funny. At the emergency room doctors informed him that he was having a stroke. And everything went downhill from there. A second stroke followed, then a heart attack, another stroke, and a burial site where his name was added next to Grandma Betty’s. This wasn’t the day Hazel stopped playing music though. At the funeral she played a song, and after the burial she played again, songs without words that comforted us. Even a month after the funeral, Hazel still played, and the band met and interviewed guitarists. Sally and I waited every evening for her to play and she did, but now with earphones tight against her ears, sealing sound. We saw her fingers moving up and down the strings, but to us her songs were silent, something she no longer wanted to share. It was as if she had disappeared, first inside the music, and then inside herself.

She left for class one evening and never returned. I imagined her driving along dark streets, music in her ears as she became one of the people we judged, the people whose plight we didn’t understand.

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The Last Train

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We lived on the hillside then. Cora was fifteen. Mabel was thirteen. And I was ten, wearing Cora’s hand-me-downs. Mama worked at the textiles factory, while Daddy chopped wood for the McDaniels family, which meant he was gone a lot. So after attending Mrs. Charleston’s homeschool, Cora, Mabel, and I went home to do chores. Cora was in charge, yelling her orders across the house. Mabel and I scrubbed the floors, washed windows, and hand-washed clothes in the big tin tub, taking turns heating water on the stove. Cora tended the garden and prepared dinner. She liked to work alone, but sometimes she elicited our help carrying wood baskets from the garden back to the kitchen, plucking feathers from chickens, and hemming clothes Mrs. Wiley dropped off from the church.

By the time we saw Mama walking up the dirt path, her shoes in one hand, her purse in the other, the house was clean and dinner was ready. The first thing she did was wash her face and hands in burning hot water. We watched steam pour from the pan of water, her hands gliding up and down her face. Then she sat at the kitchen table. Cora filled her plate, and we all sat down to eat. Mama’s eyes closed as she chewed. She didn’t have the energy to chastise us, to ask us how about our lessons, to make sure we were becoming the kind of women we ought to be. Instead she gulped a glass of water and made her way to bed.

Cora went to Evelyn’s house, a doublewide trailer down the hill. Mabel and I hung out with George, Hester, Korrine, and Wade who lived up the hill. We caught butterflies and ladybugs, chewed Bitterweed, and waited for the train to pass, imagining ourselves on board whizzing past the countryside.

“I get the window seat,” Wade said.

“We can all have a window seat,” Korrine clarified. “If you knew anything about trains,” she sassed.

The truth was none of us knew. We had spent most of our days on the hillside, with occasional trips to Lou’s Market in Canton. And, aside from the books Mrs. Singer donated, we had no idea what was on the other side of the hill. This didn’t stop us though. Our minds raced from one city to the next, creating new lives until the sun was ready to set. We relied on these fantasies, often picking up where we left off the previous day to continue our journey across the country.

At ten I couldn’t imagine life any different until it was. The news about the train rolled down the hillside like a boulder, gaining speed as it crashed into the houses below. It was Cora’s sixteenth birthday, and instead of receiving birthday wishes, people replayed the news they had heard: Northern Loop Railway would be redirecting trains through Millcliff.

“So we won’t get to see the train anymore?” Wade asked.

“Nope,” Korrine searched the brush for Bitterweed.

“It’s coming tonight,” I corrected. “We should go down there,” I suggested.

“I don’t know,” George complained.

“We’re not going to get that close,” Hester affirmed. “Just close enough to really see it,” she delighted.

“I heard that some people jump on trains,” I said as we headed down the hillside.

“We should jump on,” Wade suggested, his eyes big with excitement.

“No,” Mabel said without explaining.

We found a shady spot and sat with our knees to our chests as we waited for the train. This time our imaginations played quietly in our minds. I leaned back in the plush seat and watched the countryside pass. People worked their gardens. Long fields were filled with cattle. White puffy smoke escaped factories. And somewhere along the way Daddy was chopping wood, his clothes drenched with sweat, his muscles bulging, his pride keeping him from quitting. But beyond Canton my fantasy became blurry. I couldn’t see what came after the market, the clinic, the church. I needed the others for that. They sat staring out into the distance, waiting.

When we saw the flat face of the passenger train, we stood up, jumping and squealing at the sight. Soon we could hear the rumbling of the train as it raced across the tracks. I wanted to reach out and touch it, feel the smooth exterior, and grab hold so that I too could be propelled into a new place. Mabel shot me a glance, but I ignored her and started running in the direction the train traveled.

“Where are you going?” they yelled, but I kept running, the ground hard under my feet.

And when I could feel the train behind me, its heat heavy, I ran faster, thinking that I could leap onto the back as it passed. Adrenaline made me feel strong, courageous.

“Stop…” I heard the others, their voices muffled by the roaring train.

I kept running, harder, faster. And when I saw the train slipping past me I reached out, but there was nothing to grab hold of. I slowed my pace and extended my arms in a defeated position, letting them bounce against my sides before I bent over from exhaustion. Mabel and Hester caught up with me and put their arms around me.

“Let’s go home,” Mabel said, guiding my steps.

“That was the last train,” I whimpered. “Now what will we do?”

“We’ll ride in an airplane.”

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People Like You

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By 10:00am I was on my fifth cup of coffee. Noelle, my supervisor, had been barking orders since 6:00am and didn’t seem to have plans on stopping.

“She’s on one today,” Kelly whispered, a smirk on his face.

“Tell me about it,” I responded, grabbing a stack of files from the “to do” pile.

We had been working overtime for two weeks trying to catch up, and the deadline was today. Any insurance applications not entered into Lotus would have to be sent in manually, not a good idea for a company like Data Central whose promise was professionalism. Kelly, Ryan, Demitra, Chrissy, Lula, and I worked in a large open space, gray partitions dividing us. Down the hall was another group of data processors, temps who typed eagerly, the promise of a possible open position buzzing. This rumor was started by none other than Noelle as a way to encourage a competitive work space where workers gave their all in hopes of a door opening, full time work becoming a reality.

The sound of keyboards clicking and earphones buzzing filled the space for hours, our minds focused on the small details in each application. With our application count there on the screen for us to see, we pushed ourselves past the hunger, the aching hands, the boredom. By lunchtime, I was ready to escape to the nearby sandwich shop.

“Instead of taking lunch right now,” Noelle snuck up behind me. “I need you to take lunch in an hour, at 1pm,” she fiddled with her phone.

“Why?” I pulled my hands away from the keyboard and felt my shoulders slump.

“Keep typing,” Noelle said. “Lunch at 1pm, okay…” she walked away.

“Wow,” Ryan mouthed.

“This is ridiculous,” I complained. “We’re already staying until 7pm.”

“Tell me about it,” Kelly said. “But the money is going to be good.”

We went back to typing, getting lost again in the process of entering names, birthdates, addresses, yearly income, details we’d replay in our dreams later. Sunlight squeezed through the slits in the blinds, but for the most part, we were kept under florescent lighting. At 12:45pm, I eyed the three remaining applications in my stack and paced myself to complete them by 1:00pm exactly. In my periphery I saw a figure standing. I thought it was Chrissy who enjoyed an occasional stretch and yoga pose.

“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted.

I turned to find a young woman my age. She wore a long floral dress with a cashmere sweater. Her frizzy, long hair dangling at her shoulders.

“Hi,” I said, Kelly turning to greet the stranger too.

“I was looking for the exit,” her face reddened. “I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t be,” Kelly jumped in. “This place is a maze.”

“Are you going to lunch?” I asked.

“Yes. Noelle said lunch was from 12:45pm to 1:15pm.”

“We’re all taking staggered lunches right now because of this deadline,” Demitra laughed. “Oh…” she turned and got back to typing when she saw Noelle approaching.

“If you go out and make a left, at the end of the hallway make a right, and then another right. The exit is there,” I explained, using my hand to describe the route.

“What’s happening here?” Noelle asked, putting her phone down long enough to give me a concerned look. “Lunch isn’t until 1pm,” she reminded me.

“I was giving…I’m sorry I don’t know your name.”

“Eva,” she smiled.

“I was giving Eva directions to the exit,” I said, my tone sharp.

“If you have questions, Eva, come and see me, okay?” Noelle said, motioning for Eva to walk with her.

“Control freak,” Kelly said once they were gone.

We went back to typing, and I finished the last application I was working on and headed to Harry’s Hoagies across the street. On my way I ran into Eva. She was standing in front of the frozen yogurt shop, looking in as if to decide on the flavor she wanted.

“Getting yogurt?” I asked, startling her.

“Oh hey,” she said, a breeze pushing her hair back off her shoulders. “No, I was just looking.”

“You sure?” I teased. “Looked like you really wanted one.”

“I was just thinking,” she smiled.

“Well, I’m on my way to Harry’s to pick up my sandwich, so I’ll see ya,” I started walking away.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?” she took a step towards me.

“More the merrier,” I said. “So what brings you to Data Central?”

“I lost my job, and I haven’t been able to find anything full time yet,” she revealed. “How long have you worked for Data Central?”

“Almost four years,” I counted. “Long years.”

“Noelle said there was an opening. I’m hoping…”

“I hate to break it to you, but she tells everyone that,” I shrugged as we entered Harry’s Hoagies.

“Oh, I see,” she frowned.

“Sorry,” I tried to cheer her up. “You’ll probably get another few weeks out of it though. It’s not the best place to work anyway,” I appealed. “The work is boring. They play favorites. Ugh, don’t get me started on management. It starts to feel like jail after a while.”

Eva stood near the door as I walked to the pick-up counter and gave my name. I returned with a white bag and a fountain drink.

“Did you want to get something?” I asked, feeling foolish for not having asked earlier.

“No. I had a sandwich,” she admitted.

On our way back to the office, where I suggested we sit on the patio and chat for a few minutes, Eva was quiet.

“So what do you like to do?” I asked as we got closer.

“It’s hard to think about what I like to do right now,” she said. “I have three children to care for, and it’s hard. Especially when…”

“When what? I probed.

“When employers prefer people like you,” she started walking away.

“What is that supposed to mean?” I set my lunch on a table.

“People they have to harass to work, people who complain every step of the way.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I defended.

“Don’t I?” she asked.

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Dead End

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I left my house late, two hours late to be exact. The sun was beginning its retreat, and the air had a chill.

“Maybe you should leave in the morning,” my roommate, Ronnie, suggested.

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted, closing my door.

Julianna, Miranda, and Payten were at the Wellness Retreat, and, according to the last text I had received from Miranda, they were getting settled in. I drove eastbound for an hour and then hopped on Hidden Highway, a name I chuckled at as I followed the northbound, two-lane road for another forty miles. Mountains were in the distance; thick, green brush lined the road. Then came big boulders we drove between, rocky intrusions blocking what was left of daylight. We slowed to steer around the sharp curves, the guard rails our friends as we caught a glimpse of the dry, barren land hundreds of feet below us. My playlist played low in the background as I waited for the navigation to chime in with step-by-step directions.

The navigation was silent until the landscape changed from giant boulders back to lush green, and then to city where the bright lights of buildings lit the darkening sky. I inhaled the smell of greasy food and acknowledged the navigation’s directions: “Keep left on Hidden Highway for twenty miles.” So I did, even as the cars behind me disappeared, and the cars in front of me veered right to their destinations. Bustling parking lots became wide open space. Lights disappeared, replaced with an occasional streetlamp beaming onto the highway and my headlights marking just the space in front of me. Before I knew it, two lanes became one and I was careening towards a dark, eerie road.

Fog was now hovering above my car, its white mist slowly claiming the road. The wooded embankment hugged the winding path, and the longer I drove the more it felt like these woods were closing in on top of me. There was no way of turning around, and I hadn’t seen another car for miles. Nor did there seem to be any homes, cabins, or structures that suggested anyone lived here. I kept going, wedged between long, thin trees and guard rails, my brakes squealing now as I inched downhill, rounding one corner after another.

When I came to a yellow sign poking from behind the brush, I stopped. It read “Dead End.”

“What?” my heart raced.

I checked the navigation and realized it had lost the signal. My phone rested on the charger, so I picked it up, hoping that I might have at least one or two bars, but I didn’t. My first thought was to sit and cry, let fear get the best of me. My second thought was to put my car in reverse, back into the woods, the sound of vines and branches crunching under the weight, and make my way up the winding road. The hum of first gear reminded me to downshift. And I watched the scene in reverse, tucked inside a sense of security as I rounded each corner, until two headlights like my own stared back.

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Under the Shade Tree

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Kayakers glided across the marina. In the distance, sailboats floated west towards Sage Mountain. And children played behind me while their parents lay atop blankets on the grassy hill, with a picnic spread they nibbled on as the sun beat against their skin. A warm breeze stirred the air from time to time, leaving behind stagnant air we inhaled like it was our last. I sat on a bench watching adventures play out on the water, watching people find peace as they paddled their way to freedom.

This was my favorite place to be, in an exchange with nature, where I too found relief.

The heaviness of life slipped away, absorbed into the soil beneath me. Political strife and social unrest drifted into the middle of the marina before sinking, to be consumed by hungry bass. Money woes climbed the branches of the shady sycamore and melted into its patchy bark. The feeling of helplessness succumbed to the sun’s radiation. And broken hearts were cradled in the sycamore’s long, leathery leaves.

This was my favorite place to be, under the Sycamore tree, where a friendship with nature forms, and ease calms the storm.

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Imogene’s Heart

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There were seven of us, five girls and a boy, along with my parents, Louis and Carmela, living in a two-bedroom flat at Community House, a run-down high rise, the only home we had ever known. We spent every holiday there, ate almost every meal in the small kitchen around a table so big it spilled into the living room, and formed relationships with people who looked like us, and some who didn’t.

I was the oldest, welcomed into the world with the help of our neighbor, Fran, a doula who befriended my mother a few months before I was due. Fran also delivered my sister, Janis, who came a year later. Cecilia and Quincy, the twins, were born at the hospital because my mother went into labor early. My mother stayed home with us, four children under the age of three, while my father worked in the steel factory twelve hours a day. She was a patient woman, always singing as she did chores, teaching us lessons again and again until we understood them; she was the kind who brushed our hair a hundred strokes every night even as sleep all but paralyzed her. We played with dolls she made from scraps of fabric. And for Quincy, because my parents were very gender conscious, she made stuffed animals for him to play with. My father also built a workstation for Quincy, filled with tools, metal and wood pieces he could use to build things, though he usually ended up getting splinters and cried when my mother dug them out with a needle. All day long other mothers visited between loads of laundry they stuffed into noisy washers in the laundry room and pots of stew that cooked in tall pots. When they visited, my mother laughed and her body relaxed. I don’t remember any of their conversations. I just remember the connection they had, the way it made them light up, where there had been darkness, a heaviness I didn’t yet understand.

We lived in a bubble and couldn’t see outside of it until Imogene came along a few years later. She was born at home too but had to be rushed to the hospital when Fran saw that her heart was beating outside her tiny chest. They wrapped her in blankets and left. I was six, standing with Quincy on my hip as he cried. Janis, five then, mirrored me, holding Cecilia on her hip. The woman a few doors down stayed with us. She warmed up leftover beans and rice and served it in the glass bowls that had belonged to our maternal grandmother. And when her children returned from school, she led us to her apartment where we sat on a long, lumpy couch watching television, something my mother and father hadn’t allowed us to do, even though I knew there was a tiny black and white set in their closet. I got lost in the cat and mouse chase, the roadrunner’s tricks, perplexed by the endless disaster.

Imogene stayed in the hospital for weeks. Her heart was not only beating outside her chest, but it was weak. We spent our days with the neighbor, and then one day my mother came home and told us it was time for us to meet Imogene. A man named Nolan drove us to the hospital, my mother, me, and Janis. The twins stayed behind with the neighbor. On the way, my mother prepared us. She told us to be on our best behavior, that this might be our one chance to tell Imogene how much we loved her.

The hospital had a smell I couldn’t describe. Its long halls looked clean with calming paint patterns. Bright lights strained my eyes. Pictures of flowers in vases were sprinkled along the walls, and at one point I remember thinking it must be the same picture or that we were traveling in circles. But after going down several long hallways, up a couple floors in the elevator, we arrived to the room where Janis lay in an incubator, tubes stuck inside her skin, her chest, her face. My father greeted us and it was then that I knew what it all meant, the visit, the beeping machines, the hole we could stick our washed hands through to touch her hand. I didn’t cry, not then. My mother’s tears stained her face, though she didn’t make much sound. I thought about the roadrunner and coyote I had seen on the television screen and did my best impression, thinking my pain would erase hers. I got lost in the antics, falling and then jumping back up again, running around the room knocking into the equipment. When my father’s fingers were tight around my ear, I screamed as he pulled me outside the door. He scolded me and I cried, hugging him tight.

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Now that you Know

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It was not even noon, but I had been driving for about six hours already and needed to get out, stretch, and grab a bite to eat. I exited the freeway when I saw the Welcome to Orrinhill sign. The city was small, quaint, with a family-friendly feel. Cars slowed to 25mph, bicyclists riding alongside us between the white lines of bike lanes bordering both sides of the street, Municipal buildings and a park made up the first few blocks. A Catholic church occupied most of the sixth block, its parking lot gated with just a few cars. Across the street was their school, almost as massive with the same gated parking lot, and a covered playground. We waited at the light for bikers to cross, children with their character helmets and parents leading with a watchful eye. Up ahead were shops selling stationary, candles, handmade goods; further along was a dry cleaners, a veterinary clinic, an optometrist’s office. There were a few restaurants, a bakery, and a coffee shop, each already spilling with Saturday morning patrons.

I decided on the coffee shop and found a parking spot in back where, if I got my ticket stamped, I didn’t have to pay. When I entered, the shop was warm, the smell of pastries and coffee thick as we waited to order and then waited some more for our names to be called. The baristas were chipper and swift on their feet as they made each coffee, warmed each muffin, each panini. After I ordered, I stood with my book under my arm, looking around at the other customers, and then for a table, preferably one next to the window. But by the time my coffee and Danish were ready, there still were no free tables, so I walked outside to check the patio. At first glance it seemed to be just as full. Girlfriends caught each other up on their hectic lives. Students were deep in debates over philosophical theories. Mothers sat with their mothers, discussing the latest family drama. A man sat alone staring out at the street, mumbling to himself until another man joined him, both appearing to be in their late sixties, still spry, preferring to spend their days in coffee shops rather than at home. As soon as I turned to leave, I heard a soft voice say, “You can sit here, if you’d like.” The woman sat at a table hidden behind the students whose books and backs blocked her from view.

“Yes, thank you,” I said once at the table. “I’m Natalie. How’s your day going?”

“Nice to meet you, Natalie,” she nodded. “You can call me Alice.”

“Nice to meet you, Alice.” I set my coffee cup and Danish on the table and then lay my book in my lap.

“What are you reading?” Alice asked.

“Oh, this?” I lifted the book to show her the cover. “It’s about the brain, memory and that sort of thing.”

“Well, memory is certainly some kind of thing,” she laughed. “It can really be a monster.”

I laughed in agreement and then took a sip of my coffee.

“There’s a story about a man who lost his memory and became someone else,” I offered.

Alice squinted her eyes, digesting what I had said.

“I wonder if that’s what happened to my daughter,” she leaned back in her chair. “She was in a car accident twenty years ago now, and since then it’s like she’s a completely different person.”

“How so?”

“She woke up from a coma and screamed when she saw me. They had to sedate her, she was screaming so bad.”

“Did they do an MRI or something?”

“Oh yeah they did all of that,” she scratched her head. “She finally calmed down, but wouldn’t see me or her father.”

“How old was she?”

“Jenny was sixteen then, going on seventeen. They said she had a traumatic brain injury and that it would take awhile for her to regain her memory, only she never did.”

“Still to this day?”

“Still to this day,” Alice rubbed her hands together, her eyes misty. “It’s a tough thing to lose someone even though their bodies are still here.”

“Where is she?”

“She lives in the We Care Facility on Brighton way…you’re not from here are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well, that’s where she lives. I go once a week now just to see how she’s doing.”

“She still doesn’t want to see you?”

“No,” Alice sighed. “She doesn’t remember me.”

“Does she scream when she sees anyone else?”

“Just me…there’s something about my face, I guess,” she touched her hands to her wrinkled skin. “I didn’t always look like this, you know?”

I laughed and drank my coffee, noticing everyone around us was staring.

“Never mind them,” she winked.

I smiled and ate my Danish. Alice talked more about her daughter, while I chewed, my eyes occasionally shifting to the watchful audience. When I took my last sip, I excused myself and went to the bathroom. On my way back to the table, one of the baristas, the young woman with her hair in a bun, stopped me.

“It looks like you’ve met Alice,” she smiled, using air quotes when she said Alice’s name.

“What’s the deal with her?” I inquired.

“She almost killed her daughter in a car accident years ago,” she revealed.

“Does her daughter remember the accident?”

“Yes,” the barista nodded. “Alice was drinking.”

“Wow,” I said under my breath and headed back outside.

Alice watched me weave through the tables and sit down in my chair. She smiled and stared. I didn’t know if she was waiting for me to speak or if she wanted to be the first to speak, so I waited. And after a minute she spoke.

“I’m surprised you came back,” she looked out at the street. “Now that you know…”

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