A Favor

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“Tell us what happened,” two detectives sat across the table from me.

I shivered, thinking about how the day had unfolded.

It was easy to see where things had gone wrong. They stood out now like a predictable heist film. My upstairs neighbor, Sam, paced back and forth, yelling expletives at someone named Julius. I continued with my Saturday cleaning duties, scrubbing nooks and sanitizing surfaces. Shelves in my home office were reorganized. Food I stored in the refrigerator for later was tossed. Trash was collected from every room. On my way back from the garbage dumpster, I saw Sam standing next to my car.

“Hey, I need you to take me somewhere.”

“I’m kinda busy right now, Sam.”

“You owe me…remember?”

“I do…” I recalled the time she took me to work. “We were going to the same place,” I defended.

“So…”

“Fine,” I agreed. “Give me five minutes,” I held up my empty trash can.

I went back inside, leaving Sam standing next to my car. My apartment smelled of cleaner, so I turned on a fan. I grabbed my purse and an energy bar as I left. On my way back to my car I made a mental list of what I still needed to do when I got back.

“Where are we going?” I asked Sam as I approached.

“I’ll tell you when we get in.”

It wasn’t until we were in the car and driving through the gate that Sam finally revealed our destination.

“Head east on Roosevelt. There’s a jewelry store.”

“The Diamond Mine,” I announced, Sam nodding with irritation.

Rain sprinkled onto the windshield, so I turned on the wipers. They made a loud scrapping sound, smudging the windshield with dirty water.

“You need to clean your car,” Sam complained.

“Are you getting something at the jewelry store?” I changed the subject.

Sam ignored the question, choosing instead to look out at the traffic. The roads shined, their sleek surface catching impatient drivers off guard. Taxis double parked to let little ladies carrying large umbrellas exit. People rushed in and out of shops not letting the rain interrupt their cravings for coffee, baked goods, and pizza. On Roosevelt the scene was replicated, with security guards monitoring the streets from the safety of dark colored vans and cars.

“Let me out here…and wait,” Sam opened the door before I could stop the car.

“How long are you going to be?” I asked, Sam’s door slamming.

I parked behind a shuttle bus and let the car idle. Ambrosia played on the radio, and I rocked to the catchy melody. The smell from Luigi’s Pizzeria wafted through the vents. People exited the restaurant with large pizza boxes and to go containers, their smiles big as they rushed towards their cars. Coffee shop customers walked with large cups, their scalding hot brew safe inside, except for the occasional patron who proudly sipped on an ice cold drink topped with whipped cream. My mouth watered for a coffee, for a sweet pastry.

My decision to get out the car is what put a wrench in Sam’s plan. I zipped my hoodie, opened the door, and ran to Kat’s Koffee. There were three people ahead of me, which gave me time to work through the lengthy menu: white chocolate and caramel drizzle, peppermint sprinkles, foam/no foam, fat free milk, almond milk, soy.

It was the woman behind me, the one in a long, black trench coat, who alerted me of the chaos ensuing across the street.

“I looks like something is going on at the jewelry store,” she said, staring out the rain-stained window. “Should we leave? I really want to get some coffee.”

The woman’s laughter filled the small shop. I excused myself and went back outside, meeting a frantic Sam.

“Get in the car!”

I ran around to the driver’s side and unlocked the doors. Sam threw a velvet jewelry bag onto the seat and hopped in.

“Let’s go!”

I started the car and checked my mirror just as a security officer in a black van pulled up and blocked us in. Another officer wasn’t far behind, along with the owner of The Diamond Mine himself, strutting with a cane.

“Shit,” Sam yelled, taking off by foot down the slippery sidewalk.

“That’s the one,” the owner yelled.

I don’t know how far Sam got. Security waited next to my car until two police officers came and took me away.

“Sam put the jewelry bag in my car,” I told the detective. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“Are you saying you didn’t know what was happening when you dropped Sam off at the Jewelry store?”

“I didn’t know. I dropped her off across the street from the jewelry store,” I explained. “I was getting coffee when she came out. I didn’t know what was going on.”

“How do you know Sam?”

“She’s my upstairs neighbor, and we both work at The Furniture Warehouse.”

“When did she ask you to take her to the jewelry store?”

“When I was coming back from the trash bin. I was cleaning my apartment. I heard her yelling at someone named Julius on the phone.”

“Do you know Julius?”

“No.”

“So are you saying you didn’t know why Sam wanted you to take her to the jewelry store?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I was helping her because she had helped me once.”

“What do you mean by she helped you once?”

“She gave me a ride to work once, so I owed her.”

“So you were doing her a favor?”

“Yes.”

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Beginnings & Endings

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I got the keys to my new apartment, a studio downtown between a busy laundromat and a realty firm that welcomed their own steady flow of traffic. For three days I lay on my living room floor in an army green sleeping bag I bought at the thrift store. Aside from bathroom breaks, I stayed there on the floor nibbling potato chips, pastrami, and pudding cups, the TV blaring as I flipped through the five free channels offered by the complex. My voicemail was full with messages from my mother asking if I was okay, if I had found a job yet.

The first day I searched online job boards and submitted my application to a few local restaurants, thinking this would yield something even if it was temporary. Day two was filled with more of the same, but I did go out and pick up some groceries, as much as I could get for twenty dollars. And on the third day I binge-watched Dateline, haunted by endless investigations, victim backstories, hour-long probing that revealed the premeditated crimes committed by the victims’ loved ones.

At around 6:30pm, as I was making myself a bologna and cheese sandwich, someone knocked on the door. I looked through the peephole to find a woman my age standing with her hands clasped in front of her. When I opened the door, she smiled and leaned in to introduce herself.

“I’m Cassie…is Brianna here?”

“No, you have the wrong apartment,” I said.

“Is this Seven?” she moved back to check the number on the door frame.

“It is, but Brianna doesn’t live here. It’s just me and my husband,” I lied.

“Oh,” her smile fading. “She gave my mother this address…she’s supposed to start work in the morning.”

“Sorry,” I began closing the door.

“If you by chance run into her, or she comes by, can you give her this,” she reached into her small, leather purse and pulled out a card. “It’s a long shot, but…”

“Sure,” I agreed. “Have a good evening.”

“You too.”

I put the card on the counter and went back to making my sandwich. Thin white bread stuck to my teeth, and no matter how much I chewed, the bologna still felt thick on my tongue. My phone rang, the “Your Mother is Calling” ringtone blaring louder than the TV. I let it go to voicemail again and moved back into the living room, watching a few more episodes of Dateline. Before turning in for the night, I refilled my water bottle in the kitchen, and before heading back to my sleeping bag, I caught a glimpse of the business card Cassie had given me. It belonged to a Marlena Larson who owned Heart & Soul Coffee on the corner of Date and Bell.

Between nightmares and hours of restless sleep, the idea came to me: I’d show up at the coffee shop ready to work. I set my alarm for 4:30am, but I don’t think I slept much after the idea popped into my head. At 4:30am I started a pot of coffee and then hopped in the shower. I pulled my hair into a bun and settled on a pair of khakis and a blue, loose-fitting, button-up blouse.

“I’ll be making coffee…” I said to myself.

At 5:15am I hopped on my bike and rode the four miles to Heart & Soul Coffee. Once there I parked my bike and waited for the shop to open. A short woman dressed in jeans and a Heart & Soul t-shirt arrived and opened the door.

“Are you Marlena Larson?” I asked, searching her face for some resemblance to Cassie.

“I am,” she paused. “How can I help you?”

“Well, I’m not sure if you found someone, but Cassie came by and…”

“Oh, are you replacing Brianna?” she asked, pulling chairs from inside the shop to the outdoor patio. “Grab those for me, will ya?”

I followed behind her with the iron chairs.

“If you still need help, I’m available.”

“That’s great. Cassie didn’t tell me she found someone.”

“I’ve worked at a café before…” I pulled out a copy of my résumé  from my bag.

Marlena looked over the lines with a scrunched brow.

“You know the job is not here at the coffee shop, right?”

“Um…no, I didn’t know that. The card…”

“I’m looking for someone to take my mother to her Dialysis appointments and do some light cleaning and cooking.”

She handed me my résumé and headed back inside the shop.

“Do you think that’s something you could do?” she looked me up and down, trying to get a sense of the kind of person I was.

“I can do that,” I said, pointing to my housekeeping job on my résumé .

“What do you know about dialysis?” she tested.

“It’s to flush the blood,” I said. “My sister was on dialysis.”

“Was she able to get a transplant?”

“Uh, no she wasn’t,” I cleared my throat. “She passed away about a year ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.

“I helped my mother take care of her, and now I’m here, starting over you could say,”

“That’s what life is dear, a series of beginnings and endings.”

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The Most Important Venture

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The city was busy with commuters. They stuffed themselves in trains, buses, and ferries, into taxis and carpool vans. Charlotte and I were on the bus wedged between travelers in suits and ties, the smell of their aftershave thick, suffocating. Each time the doors opened I waited for fresh air to enter, washing away the odors. Passengers entered and exited while earbuds played playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks. Sleep chased the seated until their heads bobbed. A quiet, electric hum lay on top of silence as the driver steered us towards the city center.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Charlotte whispered.

“Can you wait until we get to the Broadway stop?”

She shook her head and wiggled in place.

“It’s just a few more stops,” I said, the bus coming to a stop in front of the Willow Grove shopping center. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” she said, already making her way past the men in suits.

We ran to Feliciano’s, a small restaurant that smelled of pancakes and sausage links. The hostess agreed to let Charlotte use the bathroom if we bought something to go, so I ordered a coffee and a hot chocolate.

“Better?” I asked Charlotte.

“Yes,” she exhaled. “Let’s walk,” she suggested, sipping her hot chocolate.

“If we walk, we’ll be late,” I explained.

“Please,” she begged. “There’s a park…with ducks.”

“Okay, then.”

Charlotte grabbed my hand, and we walked to the end of the block. Willow Park was set back away from the street, seasonal flowers were in bloom, trees lined the perimeter, and one of its many sandy paths led us to a green pond where ducks rested on top of the water.

“Look, mom,” Charlotte pointed at six ducklings.

We sat on the bench and finished our coffee and hot chocolate. The sun warmed our faces, filling us with an easiness we craved.

“Let’s go through the arboretum,” I said.

“Aren’t we going to be late?”

“We’re already late,” I laughed.

We meandered through the garden, admiring the botanical collection. Charlotte stopped to read about each plant, bending down in front of the short posts in the ground.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said. “I could never read that small writing.”

“I’m glad you’re here too,” she said, standing up to hug me. “I wish we did stuff like this more often.”

I watched her make connections between the plant species. The joy on her face caught me by surprise. She took pictures with my phone, sat on a bench to take notes in her notebook. I didn’t know she liked plants. I didn’t know what sparked her interest outside of our everyday routine.

Thoughts of catching the next bus waned. For now, this was the most important venture.

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The Calm

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I was still five hours away from East Lancaster when the fog began to set in. Signs directing travelers to Sleepy River appeared on the side of the freeway, so I followed them. An empty, winding road led me around bold, towering mountains. The grassy, asymmetrical hills loomed, half hidden behind the haze. I parked in the designated area and walked towards the embankment. Jagged rocks were loud under my feet, an uneven path I navigated with care.

Cold air tickled my face, the sounds of birds chirping in the trees. I looked out at the water, slow ripples on the surface when a creature stirred. The soft rustling of busy rodents in the brush contrasted with long stretches of deep silence. In those moments my mind replayed the past twenty-four hours.

My mother, my best friend, my ex-boyfriend, and I sat at my mother’s kitchen table, our conversation weaving joy and sadness into a quilt we’d each leave with a piece of, a mental memento to keep us forever connected.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving,” Kim said, her voice layered with disappointment.

“I remember how you two used to plan your lives together. At one point you swore you’d get married on the same day,” my mother joined.

“We both wanted our first song to be that Whitney Houston song,” Kim added.

“I will always love you,” Kim and I shouted.

“When did you two meet?” Simon asked.

“In second grade,” I said. “She saved me from being the new kid everyone bullied.”

“I knew we were going to be best friends, that’s why,” Kim laughed. “And now you’re leaving me here,” she pouted.

“You can visit,” I sympathized. “As soon as I get settled…”

“You’ll be working a lot more,” my mother said. “That’s what psychologists do.”

“Psychiatrists,” Kim corrected. “Your daughter is a doctor now…”

“You’ll be meeting all new people,” Simon said. “But none as cool as us,” his laugh trailing into sorrow.

“Yeah, none will be as cool as us,” Kim repeated. “You sure you don’t want to stay?”

I smiled and leaned back in my chair. Their sweet and bitter comments continued until memory subsided and reality became too painful to ponder. They wiped their tears, nodding with acceptance, finally allowing their minds to absorb the idea of my absence. We hugged and said our goodbyes, promising to stay in touch.

Now over a thousand miles away, I found respite in the calm, freedom in the wild: All unspoken binds severed as I embarked on a new journey.

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October

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The spring formal was a couple weeks away, and girls were scrambling to find the right dress or bragging about the dress they had already found. They filled the halls, clusters of five or six girls, jabbering on and on about dresses, some in tears, cursing their mothers for denying them the dress of their dreams. Raven and I pushed past the crowd to our lockers.

“My mom said no to the blue dress,” Raven admitted.

“Sorry about that,” I said. “My mom is making mine,” I rolled my eyes.

“Oh, wow.”

We each slipped our math books into our backpacks and headed to D hall. Mr. Wilson let us sit inside while he went to get coffee in the teacher’s lounge. Raven compared her answers on the homework to mine, changing hers when they didn’t match.

“Yours might be right,” I said as she erased numbers and blew the pink rubber onto the floor.

“We’re going to my grandparents’ house this weekend,” she said. “So, I won’t be able to spend the night.”

“That’s okay.”

Mr. Wilson came through the door, a few students following behind. They took their seats across the room. A few minutes later October and her friends, The Queen Bees, entered, laughing at an inside joke, tossing loose hairs off their shoulders. They sat in the center rows, huddled together as they whispered witty insults.

We ignored them, turning our math books to the section on polynomials and finding a clear piece of paper in our binders. Mr. Wilson started with a question of the day and then moved through the day’s lesson, leaving time for us to do some practice problems. The class erupted with noise, more chatter about the spring formal, who was going with whom. Raven and I were going with Ronnie and Jonathan, both seventh graders, a year behind us, but only as friends. Our mothers had signed up to be chaperones, a detail we hoped would remain secret.

When the bell rang, The Queen Bees were first out the door, the rest of us lagging behind as we collected our things and hounded Mr. Wilson with last minute questions. The walk home took thirty minutes, Raven and I saying our goodbyes at the corner of Elm and Grove. October was about half a block ahead, departing with one Queen Bee at each intersection until she too was walking by herself. Though we were next door neighbors, she didn’t dare let anyone know, and she certainly didn’t reveal we had once been the best of friends. I stayed behind, seething with anger and admiration. I was angry because she dropped me as a friend without an explanation, and I admired her impenetrable confidence. I thought about running up behind her, confronting her, all with the hopes that in the end we’d be friends again.

Before I could put my plan into action, she stopped, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and adjusted her backpack strap. Her next few steps were shaky as if she were walking in heels for the first time. I sped up. She dropped to the ground, resting on her knees. Then she touched her hand to her head before collapsing face first onto the cement.

“October,” I yelled, still running towards her.

Once at her side, I slipped off my jacket and put it under her bloody face.

“Is she okay?” A woman in a blue sedan asked.

“No,” I yelled back.

“I’ll call 911,” the woman said, getting out of her car.

She checked October’s pulse and slipped off her backpack. Soon other drivers stopped to help, and neighbors who happened to be looking out their windows rushed out with medical advice. Sirens were in the distance, a welcoming sound that eased the tension a bit.

“Is this your friend?” the woman asked. “Can you call her parents?”

“Uh, yeah,” I grabbed her phone.

I called my mother, and she called the Robertsons. They arrived just before the ambulance was leaving. My mother arrived a few minutes after the ambulance left.

“Are you okay?” she asked as I got into the front seat.

“I’m fine.”

At home I did my homework and my chores. Then I called Raven. We talked for an hour, first about October and then about the spring formal. I was fine. I went to school the next day. The Queen Bees strutted through the halls, minus October. And we ate lunch on the quad.

October returned home the day before the spring formal. Her father all but carried her into the house. She looked weak, thinner, her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail.

“You should go say hi,” my mother suggested.

“I’m good,” I said.

Visitors came the next day, a steady flow of family members, classmates, and medical professionals.

“You should go say hi,” my mother repeated.

Raven and I went to the spring formal instead dancing our hearts out to the latest hits, Ronnie and Jonathon at our sides in their black tuxedos. The Queen Bees were in full form, huddled in the corner sipping punch, waiting for the cutest boys to ask them to dance.

Over the next few weeks, the visitors waned, until there were none. The Queen Bees seemed to have appointed a new leader, Melanie Fisher, and teachers expressed their sadness as we waited for October to return.

“You should go say hi,” my mother said again. “Really, you should.”

The weather was getting warm, and the end of the school year was just a couple weeks away. Raven and I walked home, parting ways at Elm and Grove as usual. I shuddered every time I passed the spot October had fallen, hurrying to my street where I took one glance at their red door before unlocking my own. This time their door was wide open, an ambulance in front driving away. I heard Mrs. Robertson’s screams before I saw her. She searched aimlessly for her purse, her keys.

“Mrs. Robertson?” I called from the doorway.

A moment later she appeared, calmed by my voice.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Is October okay?”

“No, Dalia. She didn’t make it,” she wept and went back to looking for her purse and keys.

I helped her find them, sitting on the kitchen table in plain sight. She locked the door and left, leaving me standing in her sadness. I pulled my key from my backpack and walked inside.

“Mom,” I screamed. “Where are you?” emotion shortening my words.

“I’m in here,” she yelled from the laundry room. “What is it?”

“October is dead,” I cried. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“You let anger get in the way,” she said.

I shook my head, tears pouring from my eyes.

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Sweet Angel

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They always arrived by bicycle, parading down the street with their toddlers buckled behind them in baby seats. The sounds of their tires echoed through the halls, sweet voices expressing excitement.

“It’s Wednesday,” Megan sang.

I grabbed the snack cart, and we headed towards the gym for Mommy & Me Yoga. Familiar faces greeted us at the double doors. They chatted while spreading their mats on the floor. The children slipped off their jelly sandals, or attempted to, ready to get started. Megan unpacked the cart, lining the table at the back of the gym with fresh apple slices, carrot sticks, cucumber rounds, and milk cartons.

Angel, an energetic two-year old, jumped up and down at the sight.

“I want a snack,” she yelled, her mother trying to redirect her attention.

“Are we ready to get started?” I asked.

The children sat on their mats, eyes closed and palms facing up, as I started the meditation music. Megan and I exchanged a glance, admiring their focus. We kept the meditation at just a minute because this was their threshold. They would pop up rejuvenated, tiny explorers racing across the gym.

“Remember to breathe,” Megan said.

“I’m breathing,” Angel answered.

“Good job,” I said.

“Me too,” a little boy named Brice added.

And like that, they were all distracted, so we moved on to a few warm-up poses, games and more poses. Little bodies were bent in downward facing dog, standing straight in mountain pose, and bent in cobbler’s pose. Moms followed along, round and slim bodies moving through each pose with ease. Before the wind down, I collected the children for snacks. They sat on their mats in a circle, soft giggles and squeals comforting. I served each a couple apple slices, cucumber rounds, and carrot sticks.

“Who wants a milk?” I asked.

“I do,” Angel said, the others repeating.

“A milk for everyone,” I cheered.

I delivered eight cartons, opening each one in front of the child.

“Thank you,” their little voices spoke.

“You’re welcome.”

When I got to Angel, she put her hand up, motioning for me to stop.

“Don’t open mine,” she said. “I’m going to give it to my daddy because he didn’t have milk for his coffee this morning,” she put a cucumber round in her mouth.

“Oh no,” I said, putting the milk in front of her mat.

“He was sad,” she added, stuffing another cucumber round into her mouth.

Angel’s mother looked over at me, mouthing her apologies. I smiled and waved to let her know it was no big deal.

“That’s very sweet,” I said.

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Blue Butterfly

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Grandma Betty was always a constant figure in our lives, but her rigid demeanor made knowing her impossible. She lived a few houses down from ours. Aside from tending to my mother when her nights and days became so agonizing she had to be reminded to breathe, Grandma Betty spent her days alone. On my way to the school bus, at 7:45am, I saw her standing in front of her living room. She never waved or said anything, just stood there watching me. At 3:50pm she sat in her yard with a glass of lemonade and her needle point. She watched me pass, her face stern, never asking how my day went, if I was okay.

Every night at 8pm, Grandma Betty called. It was a two-minute conversation, my mother’s participation no more than yes and no to what I imagined were Grandma Betty’s questions. We went on with the evening–homework, dishes, and an episode or two of The Andy Griffith Show. Then we were off to sleep, most nights quiet, with just the sounds of cats and raccoons rummaging through trash cans. Some nights were long, chaotic. Sleep evaded my mother, and like a newborn baby she ate a small meal. She turned on all of the lights in the apartment, emptied drawers in search of an item that existed only in her mind, rocked back and forth reciting numbers in a pattern so significant they needed to be memorized.

By morning, Grandma Betty was letting herself in with her extra key. She sat at the kitchen table studying the bottles of medicine my mother consumed each day.

“You need to take this one every day,” she told my mother. “See, it says once a day right here,” she pointed.

“Seven, seven, seven, three, three, seven,” my mother sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, rocking back and forth.

“Okay, then,” Grandma Betty said, taking a glass from the cabinet and filling it with water. “Take this,” Grandma Betty handed her the water and a small, white pill.

When I got home from school all seemed to be restored. Grandma Betty called at 8pm, I did my homework, and we watched The Andy Griffith Show. I found relief in the routine, all fears of next time squashed with laughter, with my mother’s arms wrapped tight around my shoulders.

It’s hard to pinpoint what triggered her last episode. She sat on the kitchen floor, inconsolable, memory of an old wound as overwhelming as the day life’s lashings broke her skin, pierced her heart, and muddied her mind with an everlasting disorder. Our next door neighbor agreed to look after me while Grandma Betty went to the hospital with my mother. I sat on the ground waiting, believing my mother would return in time for our routine, in time to relieve me of worry, an invisible jail I frequented.

At 8pm, Grandma Betty called. The neighbor stood next to me with her arms crossed, listening to my conversation, “yes…no…no…yes…” A half hour later I was sitting in the front seat of her Ford hatchback carrying a plastic bag filled with a change of clothes and toiletries. There were no words between us, no glances. She drove a few houses down and parked her car on the side of the street. I walked behind her along the uneven walkway, eyeing the disorganized collection of roses and perennials. Her house smelled of cleaner. Everything was in its place, her walls lined with pictures of her dead husband, of my mother, of me.

“You can sleep in this room,” she led us upstairs to a room overlooking the front yard. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes,” I put my plastic bag on the shiny dresser.

We ate leftover chicken and dumplings, my accidental slurping the only sound between us. When I was done, she motioned for me to put my bowl and spoon in the sink.

“It looks like this is going to be your home for a while,” she said.

“Will I be able to see my mother?”

“It’s best if we wait until her mind is clear again.”

“Okay,” I said, my body starting to shake. “Goodnight.”

“Whitney?”

“Yes?” I answered, emotion forcing blood to my face.

“Would you like some ice cream?” she stood up and moved towards the freezer.

“Yes.”

Our spoons clanked against the sides of the bowls as we ate. She explained needle point to me, showed me all her finished works, and let me pick out my very own kit. I chose a blue butterfly, a project that settled my mind morning and night, a new routine, a relief I had never known.

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In Peace I Rest

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The fog hung over the city like a veil, masking the unrest simmering below. Residents spouted anger and vulnerability. They filled open spaces the same way poisonous gas enters the lungs to suffocate. Authorities wrestled with recklessness, death lurked in the crowds, reporters around the world commented on the chaos.

I absorbed the darkness until I felt the eruption was in me. The walls of my apartment began to swell; loud footsteps and rowdy chatter poured through the ceiling, so I left. My plan was to sit in my van and listen to music, find safety between the steel doors. Jazz played soft and rhythmic, my legs stretched across the long, back row, but I needed something more cathartic.

A long drive through nature’s landscape was in order. I guided my van along winding roads, the smell of earth seeping through the vents. Tall trees lined the path. Untethered branches reached towards the sky. Deer and coyote went about their business, oblivious to the disruption that plagued so many. I turned up the music and let the sound of strings seduce me with their melody, finding peace in the absence of words.

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Three Days Away

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Donovan and Dominic were upstairs playing with their Legos. Paul was in the garage trying to figure out why the Check Engine light had come on in the van. I was on the phone with my mother who was calling me to let me know that Stacey, her live-in caregiver, had given her two-week notice.

“Okay, mom,” I interrupted her frantic rant. “We’ll get someone else. Don’t worry.”

“I really like Stacey,” she reminisced. “I like how she cooks. She knows my schedule. She’s always on time. I never have to worry about her stealing from me. And she likes to watch Murder She Wrote with me…”

“Mom, we’ll find someone who is just as good. I’ll call the agency.”

“I just don’t know…” she complained, her voice soft, doubtful.

“Mommy,” Donovan came running down the stairs. “The floor is wet in the bathroom,” he announced, his pants twisted and his shirt inside out.

“Mom, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said, following Donovan upstairs to see what he was talking about. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll find someone. I’ll call you tomorrow…”

Upstairs there was water seeping from the side of toilet. I grabbed a towel and threw it on the floor.

“Donnie, did you wash your hands, buddy?”

“Yes, mommy,” he shook his head up and down.

“What about you Dom? Did you go in the bathroom?”

“I did, and I flushed.”

“Did you wash your hands?”

“Yes,” he held his hands up to show me.

“Good job boys,” I looked at their Lego creations. “Wow! What are you making?”

“A robot,” they said together.

“Nice. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” I headed back downstairs to the garage to alert Paul of the water leak.

He was bent over, staring into the engine compartment.

“I think I solved the mystery,” he said. “But I’ll have to pick up a couple parts.”

“Well, we’ve got another problem,” I said.

“You’re kidding,” his eyes widened.

“There’s a pretty nice leak in the upstairs bathroom.”

“I’ll be up in a minute,” he said.

We ate dinner about thirty minutes later, after Paul decided to turn off the toilet’s water supply and get the supplies he needed the next day. I spent a couple hours washing towels and disinfecting the bathroom. Our vacation was three days away, and I still needed to pack, call the home security company, pick up Paul’s prescription, and finish the Simmons project so my colleague, Harriet, could present it at the conference the following week. I lay awake for hours contemplating each task.

The next morning, when the alarm rang, I headed downstairs to start a pot of coffee.

“I’ll get the milk,” Paul said, already dressed and ready to leave. “Uh oh…” he pulled the new gallon of 2% milk from the top shelf.

“What?” I panicked.

“It doesn’t feel that cold.”

I touched the side of the cartoon and stared into the dark refrigerator.

“I’ll put it on the list,” Paul poured the milk into his coffee and walked outside to wait for his coworker, Jim, to arrive.

Donovan and Dominic didn’t mind eating dry cereal for breakfast and were happy with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. I dropped them off at Murray Elementary, their teacher, Mr. Hendricks, high-fiving them as they approached the classroom. At work, things seemed to be stabilizing. I finished the Simmons project and went over the details with Harriet, and my call to the agency to arrange for another caregiver went well. On the way to pick up the boys, I stopped at the store to pick up some things for our trip: travel size toiletries, snacks for the plane, swimming trunks for Paul and the boys, and a small first-aid kit. While in line, I got a call from the school nurse.

“It’s either a bad fracture or a break,” she said, Dominic’s loud cries in the background.

“I’ll be right there,” I said as the cashier bagged my items.

Paul met us at the hospital, and after x-rays, a green cast on Dom’s left arm, and pain medication, we headed home.

“Should we still go?” I asked Paul once the boys were tucked into their beds.

“I don’t see why not,” he fiddled with the back of the refrigerator. “We’ll put a plastic bag over his arm if he goes in the water.”

“Yeah…at least it’s Friday. This gives us a day to rest.”

I thought about what he said, the heaviness in my mind lifting. With two days remaining, I pulled our luggage out and filled each with the travel size items, clothes for all weather variations, checking things off my list as I packed. I left the opened luggage on the living room floor, satisfied with my progress. It was another night of sleeplessness, thoughts of Dominic dominating though he slept soundly down the hall.

The next morning we got up and made waffles. Dominic complained of a little pain, but didn’t delay his work on his Lego masterpiece. I did laundry and cleaned while they played, Paul in and out as he finished fixing the van. My body relaxed when the luggage was zipped up and stacked in the back of the car. I double checked our tickets, put them in my purse for safekeeping. And I called my mother to remind her that we were leaving in the morning and would return in a week.

“I talked to Stacey, mom. She said she will make sure you have everything you need,” I explained.

“But she’s leaving, and I don’t want another person to come in…”

“She is leaving, mom, but not today, and not before we get back.”

“Oh, I see,” she was silent. “So she’s going to stay?”

“Yes, mom she’s staying,” I agreed, not wanting to leave her in a state of angst while we were gone.

***

Donovan and Dominic watched movies the entire flight. Paul slept. I looked over our itinerary, crossing some things out, rearranging others. First up was the train tour through Misty Mountain, a favorite from the year before. I sat back in my seat, remembering the loud sound of the wheels rolling across the track, excitement in the air as we rounded the mountain, overlooking a clear blue stream. My eyes closed as I thought about the sweet smells of nature, the warm, moist air tickling our skin.

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Rainy Love

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Thomas slammed the front door. Moments later I heard his car start, tires screeching as he sped to the end of our street. I sat at the kitchen table, feeling air reenter my lungs. The bone-deep quiver settled, and I looked out at living the room at the broken picture frames, upended furniture, and another hole in the wall where Thomas had thrown a ceramic vase my mother gave me for my birthday. “Love can be heavy,” my mother advised.

I stacked the pictures on the coffee table, tossed moulding, matboards, and plexiglass into the garbage. Once I flipped the couch and chairs, I ran the vacuum cleaner, tiny pieces of glass clanking against the metal head. The smell of cinnamon escaped its vents as it recycled the white, carpet powder left over from the last use.

It was still raining when I was done, but I decided to go out anyway, the streets empty of the usual vendors and shoppers. The smell of fried fish still seeped from restaurants along the strip. I strolled through the shopping district watching birds find food hidden under benches, in the grass. At the wharf, a couple walked ahead of me, their arms interlocked. I followed behind, stopping to look out at the rippling waves, in awe of its mysterious temper. Fog hid the sky, adding to the somberness of the day. I took out my phone to snap a picture of a pair of sea lions. Then I turned and held my phone up, hoping to get a selfie with them.

“Let me help you,” the woman said, releasing the man’s hand.

“Thanks so much,” I said, watching her walk towards me.

Thomas saw me before I saw him, while my eyes were on his date, a tall, slender woman with brown shoulder-length hair. She looked like a kindergarten teacher, her fingers thin, perfect for arts and crafts.

“Let’s go, Nikki,” he said, avoiding my eyes.

“Wait one second,” she said. “I’m helping her take a picture with those sea lions over there.”

Thomas stood with his hands in his pockets. His jawbones protruded; sweat formed at his temples.

“Thanks again,” I said, as Nikki handed me my phone.

“No worries,” she smiled, and they walked away.

I waited until they were out of sight before I headed back home. The rain had picked up again, heavy drops sinking into my sweatshirt; love silent, exposing the gaping wound I had left to fester.

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Don’t Look Back

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“Who was that?” my coworker Amy asked after I hung up the phone.

“An old friend,” I said, my heart slowing to a hard thump. “That was really weird.”

“What did she say?”

“She asked me to pick her up from the bus station,” I explained. “Her mom is sick.”

“Oh wow.”

“It’s just that I haven’t seen her in over five years, not since her wedding,” regret spread across my face.

“Girl, what happened at the wedding?” Amy moved closer to me, looking around to make sure our supervisor wasn’t nearby.

“Right before their vows, she announced to everyone that I was the slut that tried to sleep with her fiancé.”

“What?” Amy gasped, but I could tell she wanted to know if there was any truth to the statement.

“I didn’t, ” I clarified.

“I know.”

“She ended the conversation with, ‘It’ll be good to see you again. My soul has been unsettled about how we left things,'” I mimicked her voice.

“That’s creepy,” Amy stared out into the store. “I get off in an hour; you want me to go with you?”

“I’ll be okay,” I searched my purse for my keys. “I should go. There’s a big storm coming in tonight.”

“Hey, whatever happened with those notes?”

“Nothing…” I shook my head. “We took them to the police station, and they said there was nothing they could do because the notes weren’t threatening or anything.”

“Even though the person knows where you work and where you live?”

“Yep.”

“Well, be careful,” Amy grabbed her coffee and went back into the stockroom.

When I stepped outside, I was greeted by the low buzz of power lines. The wind was picking up, blowing debris across the parking lot. I got in my car and set the navigation for the Lincoln Bus Station. I sent Trent a quick text to let him know I’d be home late.

Traffic was heavy, miles of taillights brightening the freeway. We passed two accidents, and three stalled cars a mile into the route. I grew irritated as snow started to fall, icy drops that dissolved and then slid down my windshield. The fog was thick, but city lights were brighter, illuminating fast food food restaurants, grocery markets, and member-only warehouse stores. We inched along, stopping at every on-ramp as cars, one by one, entered and merged into the already long lines. According to the navigation, I was 3.7 miles from my destination, drive time 29 minutes.

I leaned into the seat and turned on my audiobook. A woman with a British accent told a story about a passenger traveling on a train, only she couldn’t remember how she had gotten on the train and had to be restrained. The narrator’s voice was intense, the scene unfolding with a climatic shift as the woman outwitted officers, leading them on a chase from one carriage to the next. I gripped the steering wheel tight, inching towards my exit, anticipating the woman’s next steps. A few minutes passed and my phone interrupted the story with the Star Wars ringtone. It was Trent.

“Hey,” I said.

“Where are you?” his voice concerned.

“I’m pulling off the freeway now,” I eyed the station.

“Another note came,” he said. “This one says, Rest in Peace.”

“Oh, wow!” I exhaled. “Who is doing this?” I yelled.

“What time do you think you’ll be home?”

“Probably another hour,” I guessed. “I’m almost to the station.”

“Okay, call me when you’re on your way.”

I waited at the light, my audiobook picking up where it left off. The snow was picking up, now sticking to the windshield instead of melting and sliding down the side of the car. I thought about the note. This was the third one. Each had been placed under my driver’s side wiper, a small, folded piece of stationary. The first note read Have a Blessed Day. The second note read May God have mercy on your soul.” I played the messages over and over, searching for clues I had missed.

As I pulled into the bus station, I drove behind a line of cars, following the white arrows painted on the road. Several passengers stood outside with their carryon luggage, their hands stuffed in thick, winter gloves. People moved in and out of Starbucks carrying venti cups. Some drivers parked, paying for parking before entering the station. Others pulled over to the side and waited with their hazards flashing. I slowed, staring out the passenger window in hopes Gwen was in the growing crowd. Cars began to pass me, drivers assured of their destinations. First a blue car, then a silver truck, a red hatchback. It was when a gold SUV pulled up next to me that the hairs on my neck rose like prickly blades of grass. I had seen that SUV outside my apartment, the driver always leaving as I was walking to my car. After a few seconds, I glanced over at the driver who waved, her smile eerie. It was Tabitha, Gwen’s maid of honor. Why did Gwen ask me to pick her up if Tabitha was available, I thought. On my right, I felt a presence approaching the car. Gwen, she wore the same eerie smile, walking towards the car, bag-less, in just a long sleeve shirt and jeans.

I looked at Tabitha. Her hand was in the shape of a gun; she mouthed the words, “you’re dead.” Gwen was reaching for the door. I yanked the gear shift into reverse, speeding backwards towards a row of parked cars before putting my car into drive and taking a hard left down a one way lane, the driver in front of me honking to alert me of my error, but I kept driving, forcing the driver to pull over to the left. Back on the main street I weaved in and out of traffic, fueled by panic. I didn’t look back, but I knew the high beams pouring into my car belonged to the gold SUV. The roar of its engine was threatening, Tabitha close enough now to tap my bumper with hers. Her hand rested on the horn, a distraction for everyone.

We crossed Fifth and W Streets, Tabitha still riding my bumper. That’s when I saw my opportunity to escape: a sharp left on W, followed by another left into an empty pay-by-the-hour parking lot. My small car slid across the icy road. Hers did too, but the momentum flipped the SUV onto its side, sending them sliding into traffic.

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Red Wagon

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Quinn found Dad’s red wagon tucked behind the overgrowth on the edge of the property. He and Shane brought the riding lawnmower and spent the whole weekend tidying up the place, hoping to get it ready for the buyers coming the following week.

“I’m sending you a picture,” Quinn said. “You’ll never guess what I found in the yard.”

“What?” I checked my phone for the picture.

“You’ll see,” he teased. “Shane and I cleaned it up a bit.”

When I clicked on the image, the red wagon appeared, dirt stained with patches of rust, years of memory scribbled into the wood siding.

“Where did you find it?”

“In the overgrowth,” he laughed. “I can’t remember the last time I saw this thing. “

“I was thirteen, so you were about nine, I think. It was Ag Day,” I recalled. “It was you me, Grace, Lynn, and Joey.”

“Ah, yes siting on top of the hay,” he laughed. “Holding up giant squash…”

“Bell peppers, bushels of green beans and carrots.”

“The marching band played. Patty brought baby goats and pigs, and children lined up to pet them.”

“Daryl’s Shetland ponies…did we ride them that year?”

“You did; I was too big,” I laughed. “I helped Linda with face painting and balloons after the parade.”

“I remember all the games.”

“The ranchers’ showcase, Eileen’s bake sale.”

“And mom,” we both paused.

“Everyone loved her aprons,” I said.

“She made sure everyone knew the aprons were handmade.”

“She sure did,” we laughed.

“I still have the ones Dad kept…remember how he hung them up after the parade?”

“Yeah, on the canopy. They hung above the vegetables.”

“‘My wife made these’ he always said. “It’s like she’s still here'”

“On the way home, he made sure I had folded the aprons and put them in the truck before we left,” I laughed.

“Didn’t he count them?”

“That’s right, he did count them while we stood next to the wagon.”

“When he gave us a nod, we jumped into the wagon, our load lighter so we were able to move around more as he drove home, never letting the truck go above second gear.”

“So what do we do with it?” I asked.

“Shane was thinking about getting it patched up and using it to start his landscaping business,” he explained.

“I think Dad would like that,” I said.

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The Bitter & The Sweet

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Everyone who lived in the village knew Cynthia and Violet, the retired widows who spent their days making peanut brittle they then delivered to residents, lugging their black, food storage bag up three floors, always with big smiles and quirky conversation.

“Now don’t eat it all at once,” Cynthia warned. “But if you do, we won’t tell,” she laughed.

No one turned down the peanut brittle, even if they’d have to make sure their dentures were secure, as Mrs. Tyler admitted. They were a welcomed sight amongst the growing chaos and violence new tenants brought, roots to a long history of community. We counted on their jolly attitudes and festive approach to life. Their occasional technology mishaps brought us all a little laughter when they couldn’t figure out what it meant to pair devices or how to open pictures of their grandchildren on their phones. And their timeless fashion sense made them the most adorable interruptions.

Because I worked late, Cynthia delivered my peanut brittle just after 8:30pm. She met me at the bottom of the stairs, holding a sealed plastic bag with a yellow and white bow. I accepted each batch with a hug and a donation I had to convince her to take.

“Get yourself something nice,” I told her.

“I have everything I need,” she pushed the money back in my hand.

“But isn’t there something you’ve always wanted?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Then use the money to get more of these yellow bows,” I patted her arm and started walking up the stairs. “Have a good night.”

Cynthia and Violet made their deliveries mid-month. They spent the rest of their time volunteering at the local food bank and nursing homes. No one could argue that they weren’t responsible citizens. That’s why it surprised us all when, in the middle of May, police cars swarmed the village with warrants for both of them. First the police knocked. Then they rammed the door and rushed in with their guns drawn.

We watched from our windows, holding our breaths until the first officer exited the apartment and then the next, and the next. Their faces were flushed, their bodies screamed defeat. They put up yellow tape and waited for CSI and the coroner. We’d have to wait until the next day to learn that Cynthia and Violet had been murdered. They weren’t just packaging peanut brittle for residents but also opiates.

I thought about my last meeting with Cynthia at the bottom of the stairs.

“Take it and do something nice for yourself,” I held out money.

“I have everything I need,” she promised. “You get to be my age, and waking up every morning is a big enough gift.”

“You do so much for everyone else,” I continued. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I don’t do enough,” she disagreed. “Each day I get up and try to balance the bitter with the sweet. That’s all.”

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When the Lights Came on

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My sister, Zahara, called the day before to remind me to pick up the cake. She talked fast, racing through a mental to-do list, attempting to pull me into the latest family drama.

“I still don’t know if I’m going,” I interrupted.

“Of course you’re coming,” she dismissed, continuing to complain about how much she had to do, how Uncle Gerald was still having an affair, and how the twins, Abigail and Ada, were both back in rehab, and how unhelpful and standoffish I had been over the last few months.

“I’m just not feeling up to it,” I continued.

“Who is?” she yelled. “Who is up for this? We’re family. You don’t get a choice…Do you know how much I have to do every day? Where’s my choice?” she went on and on.

I hung up the phone and exhaled.

“Your sister?” John asked as he came into the kitchen and grabbed an apple.

“I just can’t with all of that right now,” I vented.

“So don’t go,” he offered.

“It’s family…”

“But they make you feel miserable.”

“They’re family…”

“That doesn’t obligate you to put up with their bad behavior.”

“Well, it’s easier to say than to actually abandon people you love,” I left the room before emotion came over me and a fight ensued.

In my bedroom closet I found an old photo album filled with pictures from our childhood. From school pictures, birthday parties, my theater performances, Zahara’s marching band days, backyard fun complete with princess swimsuits and an old green, hose squirting warm water, to a series of pictures of ailing grandparents, and our parents who lived on the brink of divorce, I watched years of my life unfold from one page to the next. At the end, I was left with a deep sadness and longing for the happy moments, realizing that they had been the bridge between chaos and love.

I put the album away and went back into the kitchen. John was still sitting at the table, his apple core standing upright in front of him as he worked a Sudoku puzzle.

“I’ll be back,” I said, grabbing my keys off the wooden hanger.

“Okay,” he smiled. “Be careful.”

I didn’t have a plan. I just thought I’d drive around for a while, admire the Christmas lights still hanging. Two hours later I found myself in South Aramore, headed for our old house. The houses were spread out, each family owning acres of land they used to grow food or raise goats. A large feed market was at the center with places to park cars and horses. Trees grew untethered, wild grass mowed only when it became a nuisance. As I drove along Poplar Street, the same residents, much older now, sat on their porches stuffed in long winter coats, journeying through memory. The same broken and rusted swing sets sunk in front yards. Potholes still plagued the road, something few paid much attention to.

At the end of the road, still nestled on a grassy hill, was our old house. It had been painted, and new windows and siding beautified it, made it almost unrecognizable. I stared at the dark structure, remembering the way we had left it, shabby, lived in: broken cabinets, holes in the walls, soiled carpet, utter neglect of crevices, blinds, and precious countertops.

The lights came on, and for a moment I could see the layout of their furniture, the care they gave to their belongings, the care they showed each other as they collected in the kitchen to start dinner. They weren’t like us. They weren’t weighed down by anger. Their bloodline wasn’t muddied with addiction, infidelity. And then it hit me: like our old house, I too could be remodeled, restored.

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Something Beautiful

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The planks wobbled and creaked under the weight of my steps. Brush and rock columns on either side, formed a shield from the blustering wind. I lingered on the trail for a moment, thoughts crawling through my mind and then slipping away before I could even acknowledge them.

With my bag and crocks in my hand, I stepped onto the shore. Warm sand swallowed my feet, a sensation I relished as I neared the water. Wind and sun danced, blistering rays calmed by icy breezes. Birds flocked, squawked, the ocean their all-you-can-eat buffet. I watched their beaks sink into the water and pull out unsuspecting creatures. Children and their parents took their time getting into the water, even then they only wet their feet, jumping back onto shore when the cold became too much to bear. They winced and squealed as they retreated, turning around to face the beast that had been so cruel, enticed again to return for more.

I found a nice spot behind a large rock and spread my blanket there, ready to celebrate the eve of a new year. Soothed by the sight of white waves rolling again and again across the blue water, I felt my body relax, my mind steady itself. A man passed, staring intermittently through a pair of binoculars. A woman trailed behind him with matching binoculars, just as engrossed in their search for something interesting, something exciting. I slipped my journal from my bag and leaned against the rock. The wind fought with the pages as I tried to write about the experience. I scribbled words between the lines, pausing when the flow slowed, when language wasn’t enough to capture something so beautiful.

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A Welcomed Irritation

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Levi and I made it to the cabin just after noon, with plenty of time to unpack and get ready before my sister and her brood arrived. Our neighbor Stanley and his wife, Gina, stopped by with a gift basket, the same kind of baskets Gina sold in town at their small inn. We chatted nonstop about the year’s events while sipping wine and snacking on crackers and fruit. When we were halfway through the second bottle, Stanley and Levi decided to try their luck ice fishing about a mile away at their favorite spot. Gina and I finished the wine, and I started dinner; cutting up the vegetables for a salad and kabobs, defrosting the steaks and pork chops, and whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Gina assisted, adding laughter and an occasional, “this looks great.”

A fire crackled in the fireplace, meat sizzled on the stove, and the snow was falling again, sticking to the windows.

“They should be coming back soon,” Gina said.

“I’m going to call my sister and see where they are,” I said, pulling my phone from my purse.

It wasn’t a long conversation. She was making her way up the mountain, a winding, snow-covered road, with three kids in the back rattling on about how long the drive was taking. Gina set the table. I fussed with the gifts I had brought for the kids and double checked the spare bedrooms to make sure everything was as it should be.

“This is their first time at the cabin, huh?” Gina asked.

“For the kids, yes. But you met my sister about five years ago,” I explained.

“Oh, yes,” Gina remembered. She was pregnant with her youngest daughter.”

“Molly,” I smiled. “She’s quite the character.”

I put the food in the warmer after about forty minutes and two unanswered calls to my sister and Levi, Gina and I now both standing at the window waiting for the first sight of Stanley’s truck and my sister’s SUV. Snow sat on rooftops, bright under the darkening sky. Porch lights lit the hillside; tall, frosted trees lined the road. Gina put her hand on my shoulder, grabbed her jacket, and walked outside onto the steps. I followed behind her, looking down the road. Gina turned on the flashlight on her phone and started walking.

“Gina,” I called.

“You coming?” she asked.

“We should call someone,” I suggested.

“I’m going to see what’s taking so long,” she turned and kept walking.

I called my sister again, still getting her voicemail. My body felt heavy with worry, my mind slush as I tried to keep out the bad thoughts. At first I was going to stay behind, but I couldn’t let Gina go alone, fearing she might fall. I trailed behind, placing my shoes inside her shoe prints until we had rounded the bend and were sliding down the steep decline. I grabbed hold of her hand, and we sloshed around a bit, our attempts to gain traction futile.

When we saw the four headlights headed towards us, we paused, our dry eyes making out the red truck and black SUV. They were safe. We were cold and wet. Gina started laughing first, waving her hands in the air so that Stanley saw her. I waved my hands in the air too, laughing to ease fear’s grip.

Stanley stopped the truck in front of us, and he and Levi got out to find out why we were standing in the middle of the snowy road with snow in our hair.

“We thought something had happened,” I said. “You didn’t answer your phone.”

“I left my phone in my bag,” he pulled me in for a hug. “I forgot, but Stanley had his phone, just in case.”

“We ran into your sister on our way back,” Stanley said. “She had some trouble with the chains.”

I gave my sister a wild, happy wave and hopped in the back seat of the truck cab with Gina. The warm air stung against our frozen skin, but it was a welcomed irritation. I put my hand on Gina’s and gave her a big smile.

“I think it was the wine,” she laughed.

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Bags Filled with Desire

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Traffic wasn’t too bad. Gabrielle, Kevin, and Mark hopped in the car, and we headed into the city. They were three stir crazy teens anxious to get out of the house, ready to search through stacks of jeans and t-shirts at their favorite stores and see newly released sneakers sitting pretty on a shelf, their price-tags of no concern. They wanted to sip on smoothies, bite into salty pretzels, and laugh their way through the mall. That’s what they wanted, the same kind of comradery and carefree existence they had known before.

“I don’t know about that,” I said when they first proposed the idea, wanting instead to stick to our stay at home routine we had been practicing for months.

“We’ll wear masks and stay six feet away,” they begged.

“Let me think about it. What day are you trying to go?”

“Tomorrow,” they all stared at me trying to read my face.

I agreed to letting them go for an hour and a half so long as they practiced social distancing. As we approached the stop sign at the end of our street, I looked over at Gabrielle and looked back at the boys in my rearview mirror. They sat with their masks pulled down to their chins, snug in their hoodies. Aside from venturing out to our local grocery store to pick up food, the occasional dentist appointment, walks to the park, and drive-by visits, we had acclimated to quarantine life pretty well, our closeness and creativity flourishing each day to my surprise.

The back route to the Grand Palace Mall, our usual route, was mostly empty. A sleepy, overgrown bike trail graced both sides of the two-lane street. I headed towards the Preston Overpass, pausing when I saw a myriad of dome-style tents under the bridge, their owners sifting through piles of stuff, bargaining with their neighbors, scrambling to prepare for another forty-five degree night as the winter sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon.

“Mom, look,” Gabrielle said.

“I see, sweetie,” my heart sank. “This is a really tough time for so many people right now.”

The boys stayed quiet, but I caught a glimpse of their faces in the rearview mirror, sadness written across their brows. Once on the overpass, I followed the four-lane path into the city. More tents lined the once empty spaces on lots, in alleyways, in front of establishments. People stood wrapped in their blankets, trying to shield themselves from the piercing cold. Others rustled through their carts, through what seemed to be collective piles of garbage. A man in shorts, walked shirtless and barefoot down the middle of the street, waving his hands The darkening sky and boarded-up restaurants brought an eeriness I couldn’t escape.

I wasn’t ignorant to what was happening around the world, in our country, in our communities; it wasn’t that I was blind to our growing homeless population. I had raised money in the yearly Feed the Hungry run, made financial donations when I could, and prayed for relief. We were showered daily with news stories about scarcity, but they never hit the same as witnessing it firsthand. Seeing just how much the numbers had grown was a reminder of an unhealed societal wound, an oozing infection we tried to cure with fresh Band-Aids.

I shuddered at the contrast between my reality and theirs: Our bellies stayed full, and we were warm in our mid-size sedan, armed with hand-sanitizer to chase away germs. We were on our way to a place we’d roam, filling our bags with desire, the entire process therapeutic.

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Meeting Hannah

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We were still in our school uniforms, standing in front of Eva’s house when a woman and her baby wandered onto the community grounds. Sydney pointed and I pulled her hand down before the woman saw her. It wasn’t okay to point, but neither of us could keep from staring. The woman didn’t look like any of the women we knew. Her hair was spikey, half pink, half silver. Piercings lined her face, and tattoos were like a second skin on her neck and arms. She looked down at the baby snuggled against her chest in a baby Bjorn and then back up at the house numbers. Her steps were soft against the cobblestone walkway, a slow hum under her breath that she shook her head to.

“Where are you going?” Eva asked and then covered her mouth and ducked down behind me and Sydney.

“Who said that?” the woman asked, her face friendly.

“Eva,” Sydney and I pointed at Eva, moving so the woman could see her.

“Hi Eva,” the woman moved towards us. “I’m here to see Francis Wallace,” she said. “Do you know who that is?”

“I know who that is,” Eva said. “She’s teaches home economics.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sydney and I said in unison.

“Why are you meeting her?” Eva pressed.

“She’s meeting my daughter, Ginseng, for the first time,” she kissed the top of her daughter’s head.

“How do you know Mrs. Wallace?” I asked.

“Well, believe it or not, I know Mrs. and Mrs. Wallace,” she smiled. “They are my parents.”

We let out a collective, “What?”

“I guess they’ve never mentioned me,” she laughed.

“How old are you?” Sydney asked.

“Twenty one…how old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“Aw, to be thirteen.”

“Why did you get those piercings on your face?” I asked.

“Yeah, and why did you get all those tattoos?” Eva asked.

“What’s your name?” Sydney added. “And what do you with all those piercings and tattoos?”

“So many questions,” she laughed. “Well, I got the piercings and the tattoos because I wanted to, my name is Hannah, and I have my own band. I play guitar. What are your names?”

We let out a collective, “Wow!”

“I’m, Eva.”

“Sydney”

“Marie.”

“Mrs. Wallace does talk about you,” Eva confessed.

“What does she say?” Hannah smiled and swayed to sooth her baby.

“She says don’t be like Hannah,” Sydney blurted.

“Yeah, but we don’t listen,” I tried to soften the blow.

“Ahh, thanks, but I’m okay…now which way to Mrs. Wallace’s house?”

“See those women walking?” we pointed to a group of three women walking along the path, their hair covered with identical hair scarves, each carrying items from the garden. “Follow them past the store…”

“Past the park…”

“Past the church…”

“Well, okay then,” Hannah sighed. “It was nice meeting you.”

“It was nice meeting you too.”

We watched her walk away, the same low hum in her throat as she headed to her parents’ house, not in the least dissuaded as she caught the judgmental gaze of the women around her.

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Waiting for a Package

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I wasn’t bothered by the delay until the package was over a week late, but even then I dismissed my concerns with the words, “He said he sent it.” And I went on with life: tending to Eileen’s novelty shop, working on my dissertation, checking the mail, and chatting nightly with my mother.

Richard and I were on a break, a year-long one, and I now lived across the country in my mother’s cluttered, cottage-style home. She allowed me to set up my study area in her sewing room so long as I didn’t touch anything. I worked early mornings nestled between reams of fabric and half-finished dresses for people who had already died. I imagined the dresses would still be there when she passed. Much of the fabric she was holding on to had been faded by time and weakened by moths. The dust on the sewing machine’s cover was thick. Shelves filled with sewing patterns were organized by type, the thick envelopes dating back at least forty years. I wedged my broken laptop between the patterns on the second shelf not long after I had arrived, frustrated by the inconvenience, but thankful I had a printed copy of my dissertation back home, one Richard had promised to send. Eileen let me borrow her old laptop, and I was able to continue writing, my deadline only a couple months away.

I didn’t call Richard right away, not until my deadline was a month away, after two failed attempts to get my laptop fixed.

“Hi,” I said when he answered.

“Hi,” he mumbled, the tension thick.

“I was calling to see if you’d be able to send me something.”

“You took everything,” he said.

“Actually, I left some things in my office.”

“I don’t see anything,” I imagined him poking his head into my office.

“It’s in the closet,” I said. “There are a few boxes stacked on the right side.”

“Yeah.”

“In the second box there’s a brown Fed-Ex box,” I said, listening to him move the boxes around. “It’s my dissertation.”

“Yeah, I was with you when you went to get it printed.”

“That’s right,” I laughed.

“Why do you need it?”

“My laptop crashed,” I sighed. “I took it to two places, but they said they couldn’t fix it.”

“They couldn’t get your files?”

“Nope.”

“I’ll send it out in the morning,” he said. “Was that it?”

I paused for a moment, wanting to say more, but knowing there wasn’t more to say.

“That’s it.”

“Okay, well, I’ll call you in the morning after I leave the post office.”

I thought about asking him to send it priority, but he had already hung up the phone. I had no reason to believe he hadn’t sent it. In our ten-year marriage there had never been cause for concern. He wasn’t the kind to betray others. His mild manner made him an ideal employee, friend, and husband.

Every time I saw a a mail truck, a delivery person carrying packages to the neighbors, I felt the hairs on my arms rise, a nagging suspicion returning to haunt me. “He said he sent it,” I repeated day after day. Eileen kept me busy at the shop, boxing and unboxing items. My dissertation was coming along though a little less than half of it was still in route. And my mother sat on the porch repeating stories she had told a million times.

I maintained my composure for as long as I could, forcing positive thoughts into my mind when I felt like driving across the country to yell at Richard.

“He didn’t send it,” I said, marching into the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” my mother asked, startled by my entrance.

“Richard said he sent my dissertation,” I confessed. “That was almost three weeks ago.”

“Oh, dear,” my mother said. “What does it look like?”

“Mom, he didn’t send it,” I clarified.

“Oh, I see,” she took a sip of her tea, the sound of her slurping irritating me further.

“It was the one thing I asked him to do…”

“Did you check the post office?” she slurped her tea again.

“That’s where I just came from,” I huffed.

“Did you call Richie?”

“No,” I became more irritated.

“Why not?”

“He said he sent it…why should I have to call him?”

“To say hi, I don’t know,” she shrugged and got up to go into the living room. “Something came a while back,” I heard her say. “I don’t think it’s a dissertation,” she said, picking up a white box from the coffee table.

“Why didn’t you tell me this came?” my heart pounded.

“I did,” she argued.

“When?”

“The day it came…” she scratched her head. “You were staring at that laptop typing away.”

“What did you say?”

“Richie sent you something. I hope it’s not divorce papers.”

I ripped open the box and found the pages of my dissertation there. At the bottom of the box an envelope. My body shuddered as quickly as it had leapt with joy. I slid my finger under the sealed flap and then pulled out the contents, not divorce papers, photos from our wedding, along with a note that read, “I hope you weren’t waiting too long for the package, but I had to include these pictures because I’m still thinking about us.”

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Who I was Then

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Parts of this story are now blurry for me, while others remain as lucid as the day they happened.

It had stopped raining, but the ground was still wet. The trained slowed as it approached the next stop–Shadow Island Station. There was no island, just a darkness that never seemed to lift. A man carrying an umbrella sprinted towards the boarding area. He looked small, mysterious on the empty platform. The conductor announced the station again as the train came to a stop. Passengers exited and a few passengers boarded, the last being the man with the umbrella. He entered holding his umbrella in one hand and a briefcase in the other, walking towards his seat which was across the row from mine. An empty seat and an aisle separated us. He took off his trench coat, folded it once and stuffed it into the overhead along with his umbrella and briefcase. The chair squeaked as he sat down; the sound of his wool jacket sliding across the back of his seat made a soft whoosh. He settled into a comfortable position and then pulled his phone from his pocket, scrolling through messages while we waited.

I pulled a book out of my bag and held it up to my face, not so that I could read the words, but because I didn’t want the man to see me staring. His newly trimmed beard caught my attention. It started where his sideburns ended, a long, seamless patch that stretched across his jawline and rounded his chin. I imagined the hairs were soft from a daily conditioner he used, one recommended by his barber. Where his beard ended, in the space just above his shirt collar was a tattoo, one I was sure most people missed.

The train started moving again, jerking us back in our seats. I read a few lines in my book and then turned my attention back to the man. He sat now with head turned away from me, staring out the window at the city. This position made it a little bit easier for me to figure out what his tattoo said. At first, I thought it was of someone’s initials, a woman’s perhaps, one he loved but lost. Then I remember thinking the tattoo was of a bird, and instead of the top being that of letters it was actually the outline of its wings.

I worked through as many possibilities as my mind could come up with, making sure to avert my gaze when the man turned. One time I thought he had caught me staring. He turned in his seat, looked my direction, and then went back to checking something on his phone. I waited before looking in his direction, and then found him frozen in a scowl as he read the words on his phone’s tiny screen. He put his hand over his mouth and exhaled, as the train approached the next station.

There are stops I don’t remember. People entered and exited, leaving a trail of cologne and sweat. They weren’t of any importance to me. Each time, when the train started again, I glanced over at the man, hoping to decipher the tattoo before he disappeared into the night.

I do remember, right before we arrived at the Newport Station, he adjusted his collar, exposing the number thirteen, its green color faded.

“Is this what you’ve been wanting to see?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?” I feigned.

“You’ve been staring at my neck this whole time,” he laughed. “We’re you trying to see my tattoo?” he leaned over the aisle.

“Uh…yes,” I admitted, my eyes locking with his. “What does it mean?”

“Well,” he ran his hand through his beard. “It was a lifetime ago, or at least it feels that way,” he looked down at his feet. “It means…I caused a lot of heartache for people,” he cleared his throat. “But that’s who I was then.”

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Christmas Day

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I saw Uncle Ernie head for the front door, and I followed after him with David Jr. still in my arms. My mother, her sisters, the grandparents, and the husbands were still screaming at each other.

“Wait a second,” I said.

“Tempest,” he said, the T’s and S silent as he pushed the syllables through the gaps between his teeth.

“Are you leaving?”

“I don’t think I’m welcome here,” he pointed at arguing relatives behind us.

“Where are you going to go?”

“Wherever the wind blows,” he laughed.

“Can I see your RV?” I put David Jr. over my shoulder and patted his back.

“Come on,” he grabbed David Jr.’s bottle and we walked towards his old, brown and white Winnebago. “She’s not the most beautiful on the outside, but she purrs like a kitten on the road.”

“Where do you sleep?”

Uncle Ernie opened the door and walked in, ushering me inside a moment later. I noticed the stained, scuffed floor first while navigating the narrow path with David Jr. in my arms. A small kitchen top was on the left, a couch on the right with a warped table in front.

“Let me give you the grand tour,” he said as he tidied up. “This is the living area, but I don’t do much living here. I like to be outside in nature, mingling with the people.”

“I see you like raviolis,” I laughed at the open box filled with cans.

“You caught me,” he cackled. “That’s just a little something.”

“Is that the bathroom?” I pointed at a narrow, accordion door.

“That is correct. We’ll keep that closed for now,” he said. “Here’s where I sleep.”

The space was filled with a bed and a small walkway leading to the back window and a few shelves where he stored more Hawaiian print shorts and off-brand sweatshirts.

“Come with me,” he put his hand on David Jr.’s back. “I want to show you something,” he gathered a velvet drawstring bag and a book. “Let’s sit on the grass.”

He explained crystals to me, their purpose, their powers. He told me stories from the road, all unbelievable but told well. Uncle Ernie was a natural storyteller, merging real life and fantasy. In all of his tales he was the victor, saving the day with his crystals and tarot cards. He was animated, showing me just how things went down, even if they had only happened in his mind. I couldn’t help but join in from time to time, cheering him on anytime he paused and said, “I better get going.”

“I’ll get us a plate,” I offered. “And you can tell me about your time at Blue Mountain.”

“Hey, make sure you put some of your mom’s potato salad on my plate,” he rubbed his hands together.

Back inside it was quiet, each couple quarantined in their own area, sulking, Skylar still in front of the television, the remote in her hand. I put David Jr. in his playpen and made two plates. My mother glanced at me as I grabbed two sodas from the ice chest and headed for the door. I knew she wanted to say something, but se was too far into her own breakdown to care.

Uncle Ernie was standing right outside the door, ready to collect his plate.

“Everything okay in there?” he asked, his eyes big.

“It’s quiet…for now,” I sat on the grass.

He took a few bites of the potato salad, ham, and carrot-raisin salad.

“There’s chocolate cake, apple pie, and banana pudding,” I said. “I can go back inside and get some.”

“Yes, please,” he said.

I went back inside and grabbed desert. Everyone was still sitting, so I grabbed two more paper plates and began slicing the cake and pie, scooping the banana pudding onto the thick plates.

“What do you think you’re doing?” my mother asked, still sitting next to David who looked to be passed out.

“I’m getting some desert…”

“We haven’t even eaten yet,” she untangled herself from David’s arms and moved towards me. “Who do you think you are?” her red, puffy eyes narrowed.

“Who are you talking to?” Evelyn stirred.

“My daughter…she already cut the cake,” my mother complained.

“No she didn’t,” Evelyn stood up from her corner, her husband following behind her.

“Forget it,” I put the plates down and tried to squeeze past them.

“You’re not going anywhere,” my mother took the plates, moving towards the garbage.

“No,” I screamed and grabbed her arms. “If you’re just going to waste it, let us eat it.”

“Let us eat it,” she mocked me, letting go of the plates. “You love your Uncle Ernie…you think he’s so interesting.”

“Grow up, mom,” I grabbed the plates and headed for the door.

“Listen to your mom,” David woke up from his stupor.

“Leave her alone,” grandma said.

“Don’t tell me what to do in my own house,” my mother returned.

“Just calm down,” Grandpa Roy shouted.

“Stay out of it, Dad,” Ester chimed.

I opened the door and walked out. Uncle Ernie was there to collect his plate.

“Take mine too,” I said. “I have to get the baby.”

David Jr.’s cries were soft, but I knew he was revving up for a louder, mind-numbing cry.

“I got ya,” I said.

I put him in his stroller and pushed him out the door. This time I came back for Skylar, promising to let her watch Dora on my phone.

“Are they back at it?”

“Yep,” I said, parking David Jr. and Skylar on the grass next to me.

“I’m sorry I came,” he took a big bite of chocolate cake.

“Why?”

“I caused all of this.”

“It’s always like this,” I laughed. “I’m glad I had someone to hang out with this year.”

I watched him swish food around in his mouth and swallow. He made loud breathing noises as he chewed. When he was done, he looked over at me.

“Well, I’m glad I came then,” he said.

“You think you’ll come back next year?”

“Probably not,” he laughed. “I can’t take this kind of unrest. I like peace.”

“Me too,” I confessed.

“I’m going to send you something when I get to Blue Mountain.”

“Okay,” I smiled, comforted by the fact that I’d have someone out there thinking about me.

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Christmas Eve

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On the morning of Christmas Eve, David Jr. woke the entire house with his heartbreaking cries, and all we could do was get up and watch his body flail as his mind succumbed to what the doctor called night terrors.

“Don’t touch him,” my mother barked, tying her robe.

We listened to the sharp screams, Skylar plugging her ears, my mother leaning over David Jr.’s crib.

“Come on…wake up,” she whispered.

David came in wearing just his boxers, scratching his head and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“Just wake him up,” he complained.

“The doctor said…” my mother defended.

David pushed her out of the way and picked up David Jr., letting his head fall against his shoulder.

“Shhhh…” he repeated, bouncing David Jr. up and down.

Soon David Jr. opened his eyes and lifted his head, looking around the room at us. A big smile exposed his gums as his head and torso wobbled.

“Here, he stinks,” David Jr. said, handing over their son to my mother and walking out of the room.

“Girls, go get ready,” my mother ordered. “Help your sister,” she told me. “And do her hair.”

I grabbed Skylar’s hand and walked her back to her bedroom, a light pink, Dora-themed room with a full-size canopy-bed and a family photo, minus me, on her nightstand. Her closet was filled with princess dresses, with only a few outfits she could actually play in. I grabbed a matching jogger set and helped her change. And then I brushed her hair, applying a generous amount of gel to make it lay back in a sleek ponytail.

“You know people are coming over,” my mother whined, looking at Skylar’s outfit.

I ignored her, watching Skylar climb up onto a stool, my mother already filling a bowl with some sugary cereal.

“Where’s the baby?” I asked.

“With David,” she said, pulling a big pot from the cabinet. “I need you to peel potatoes.”

“I haven’t eaten yet.”

“That’s too bad,” she put her hand on her hip. “I need you to peel these potatoes.”

I washed my hands and sat at the table to peel the potatoes, then the carrots; I chopped celery, measured flour, sugar, salt. I drained noodles, boiled eggs, wrapped bacon around asparagus.

By midday, my mother’s sisters–Ester and Evelyn–arrived each carrying a foiled-covered dish to share. Their husbands were not far behind, carrying beer and chips. Because they all had their own families now, we celebrated on Christmas Eve with them and again on Christmas Day with friends and family members who had nowhere else to go.

David came downstairs with the baby, handing him off to me with a stern, “watch your brother,” as he greeted George and Alex. My mother and her sisters chatted in the kitchen, their voices loud, sometimes angry as they bickered about whose cooking was better. I put David Jr. in his stroller and took him and Skyler in the backyard.

“Go play on your slide,” I encouraged Skylar.

“No,” she buried her face in my arm. “I’ll get dirty.

“That’s okay.”

She thought about it for a moment and then ran to the slide. I watched her go up and down while entertaining David Jr. with a set of plastic baby keys. When he started to fuss, I took him out of the stroller and walked around the backyard, showing him things along the way.

“See the tree and the shed,” I said.

I heard the doorbell ring and figured it was grandma and grandpa, that they’d make their way to the backyard sooner or later. The house was loud, and dinner was still a few hours away. It was the adults’ time to unwind and forget they had real responsibilities. But when I peeped through the sliding door, I saw that it wasn’t my grandparents who had arrived, but a man in a gray sweatshirt and blue, Hawaiian print shorts, and a pair of worn loafers with a hole in the toe. Everyone stood around him, their faces frozen in shock. My mother motioned for me to move away from the door, but I didn’t. I kept watching as the man stood between them with a toothless smile.

This strange man turned out to be my Uncle, Ernest, the older brother my mother never told me about. He had disappeared ten years earlier, giving up a life as an Insurance Agent for a life as a transient, travelling the country in his RV. Now he had returned with a smile and a pack of flattened rolls my mother put in the garbage when he wasn’t looking. After some adjusting, everyone went back to cooking and arguing. Uncle Ernest made his way to the backyard.

“Hi there,” he said as he plopped down on the bench. “You must be Elaine’s daughter,” he grinned. “Tempest! I remember when you were this high,” he held his hand up to his knee.

“Who are you?” I adjusted David Jr. in my arms.

“I’m your uncle Ernie,” he said. “I haven’t been around for awhile,” he explained. “I’ve been on an adventure.”

“Sounds fun,” I laughed.

My mother poked her head out at us every few minutes.

“What’s that all about?” I asked Uncle Ernie.

“I think she’s mad that I didn’t dress up,” he laughed, slapping his knee.

Skylar wanted to go inside, and David Jr. had fallen asleep, so I took them both inside.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

When I returned, Uncle Ernie was sitting on the ground shuffling a deck of tarot cards.

“Have you ever had a reading?” he asked.

“No,” I sat cross-legged, excited to see what the cards had to say.

He spread out some crystals on a white cloth and then shuffled the cards some more. He was quiet at first. Then he thanked the spirits for the message.

“What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know,” I looked away.

“Are you interested in your love life?” he asked.

“Uncle Ernie, I know you’ve been gone awhile, but I’m just fifteen.”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed. “What about your career? Do you have any questions there?”

“How about friendships?”

“Friendships it is,” he shuffled two more times and asked the spirits for their insight.

He lay three cards on the ground face down. I watched as he turned the first card with his dirty fingernails. It was the Hanged Man.

“This means you may need to release something…or someone,” he put the card back on the ground.

The next card was the Wheel of Fortune.

“This means change is coming soon.

And the last card was the Strength card.

“It looks like you have all the strength you will need to deal with whatever comes your way. Now let’s…”

My mother poked her head out the door and saw us on the ground with the cards.

“Get that out of my house,” she yelled, her sister Evelyn was behind her mirroring my mother’s anger.

“It’s not bad,” I said as I stood up. “They’re just cards.”

“How dare you bring this nonsense to my house,” she kicked the crystals and tried to kick the cards out of Uncle Ernie’s hands.

“Don’t, Elaine,” he said.

“Why did you even come here?”

“It’s Christmas…I came to see my family,” he collected the crystals.

“Family?” my mother scoffed. “Are we your family?”

“Or are those Satan-worshipers your family?” Evelyn asked.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Uncle Ernie said.

“Get out,” my mother demanded, her hands on her hips.

I watched him put his things back inside his fanny pack and move towards the door.

“Mom and dad are here,” Ester yelled out the door.

I followed Uncle Ernie into the house where he was interrupted by grandma and grandpa.

“Well, look who the cat drug in?” grandma said, staring at her oldest son.

“You’re alive,” grandpa cheered.

My mother and Evelyn weren’t far behind, ready to attack.

The house smelled of delicious foods I couldn’t wait to eat. Skylar sat in front of the TV, engrossed in an episode of Dora the Explorer. All around, the adults, except for Uncle Ernie, attacked each other with words and shoves. I learned that, like me, Uncle Ernie was the half-sibling whose father had disappeared, leaving his mother to work two jobs until she met grandpa Roy and they had three beautiful girls. They accused each other of being the favorite, blamed grandma and grandpa for not doing more, the mix of pain and anger turning them all into sniveling children.

The noise woke David Jr., his cries loud. I lifted him out of the playpen next to Skylar and went into the kitchen, maneuvering through the madness. I put two scoops of formula into a bottle and added water to the second line. I shook the bottle hard until the white powder dissolved. David Jr. gulped the milk with desperation, his tears still sliding down his face.

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Darla’s Oasis

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Patrons that entered with a plant, any plant from the framed list Darla kept on the wall, received a free coffee and pastry in exchange, along with a sometimes-optional conversation about the species. The Oasis, a café, was Darla’s retirement project. She had dreamt of owning a place people could come and enjoy nature, food, tea, and each other. And that’s what it was, a place people came every day, a place that impressed locals and intrigued visitors who heard only wonderful things about the café’s plant lady.

What they found when they arrived was that Darla’s tea menu was just as impressive as her plant collection, with teas from across the world. And she bought food from chefs from varying backgrounds and cultures, welcomed everyone for an afternoon of taste testing. The only time there was a free table was just before we opened, regulars already lined up at the door waiting to enter and satisfy their cravings for savory croissants and the rich, creamy chai’s and milk teas. At closing, patrons walked us to our cars and parted with a “See you tomorrow.”

For many, The Oasis was home. Darla let creatives take over the space some evenings throughout the month, always sticking around to listen to the local poetry, music, and comedy. While not as fashionable as a nightclub, it drew the attention of young hopefuls and truth seekers, a peace and love kind of crowd that believed life was meant to be shared. While serving finger food, I always glanced over at Darla. She sat in the corner chatting with the people around her, a big smile wrapped around her face. There were no strangers in life, only friends you haven’t met yet, was her mantra.

It’s no wonder that when The Oasis burned down, everyone that had ever been to the café rallied behind Darla with well wishes, donated plants and teas, and the skill and labor it took to build a bigger and better space with plenty of shelves and hangers for her plants, a small stage for those who felt compelled to share their gifts, a garden where she could grow fresh herbs, and a private balcony with a spiral staircase just for her.

Each day she watched her dream be resurrected, overwhelmed by the compassion.

“I’m so incredibly grateful,” she said, standing on the stage opening night. “Thank you…thank you…thank you,” she repeated. “I never imagined I’d be surrounded by so much love, that The Oasis would mean as much to you as it means to me,” the crowd clapped. “To community, to creativity, to friendship, to The Oasis!” she cheered.

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The House that Crumbled

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Besides paying the taxes on the property and the occasional city-mandated repairs–fallen trees obstructing the road, overgrown weeds, and snake infestation that became a nuisance to nearby residents–I pushed thoughts of the homestead to the back of my mind, letting time dismantle the structure, letting nature reclaim the space. I never imagined that one day I’d be left with the decision no one else in my family had been able to make: To tear down the place we called home, the place we formed wonderful memories, the place we experienced the kind of heartbreak that lingers like a ghost in a haunted tale.

The once terra cotta, French inspired quarters was home to us five kids and our parents, Ida and Luis. I was the middle child, between Donna and Steven. Donna was the oldest, our mother’s helper who at twelve was in the kitchen creating her own recipes as though she had spent years in culinary school. Thomas was the second oldest, his strengths taking out the garbage after being asked fifty times and giving his teachers a hard time. Steven was born six years after me, and he was mine from the start. I carried him on my hip all through the house, ran my fingers through his thick curls when he cried. And when Steven was two, Christina came. She was small. Quiet. Her presence made us all feel fragile. But by the time she was a year old, her squeals were just as loud as ours, and her feet slapped against the wood floor not to be left behind and miss the action ensuing in the next room.

We had the best of times there. Holidays were magical, the only time our parents splurged on the best foods, the best gifts, times when being together was not a question. My father got up from his chair to play with us, his tired body still wreaking of grease and motor oil after generously helping that one last customer at the shop who would have otherwise been stranded. The short, gray hairs on his face scratched our skin each time we leaned in with a playful punch. Our mother and Donna stood in the kitchen with their arms folded, spectators to the roughhousing until someone got hurt.

“That’s enough,” my mother said, tending to the wounded child.

Both sets of grandparents visited once a year, never arriving at the same time. Our mother’s parents visited in the summer. They took us camping, and we spent time at the river. They laughed with us, took a million pictures, and regarded us as their sweet angels. Our father’s parents visited in the winter, bringing knitted scarves and homemade jam as gifts. Unlike our mother’s parents, our father’s parents had demands, making their month-long visit one we dreaded. Their first rule was that the children study the bible two hours first thing in the morning, which meant, on some days, we had to wake up earlier and then go to school after bible study. Their second rule was for the girls only. We were forced into a lengthy discussion about chastity followed by Daily Acknowledgements whereby our grandmother tested our commitment to protecting our bodies.

Memories of my grandparents’ visits pale now next to symphony of disasters that began just after my fifteenth birthday. Donna made a strawberry cake, and I got to invite my best friends, Jennifer and Carmela.

“Happy birthday to Marcy,” they all sang, and I blew out the candles with Christine’s help.

We ate cake and I opened my gifts: a charm necklace, a sticker book, three Laura Ingles books, and a pair of sneakers–the kind I wanted. Jennifer, Carmela, and I wandered between the house and the yard, seeking privacy to discuss boys and our fantasies about the future.

I went to sleep that night proud to be a year older, the age my father took us out in his old Chevy and taught us to drive, excited that the next day I’d have my chance to sit behind the wheel and guide the loping vehicle down route 30. Around three in the morning we were awakened by Thomas’ loud cries. He was bent over the toilet, vomit pouring out of him.

He died from a brain aneurysm ten hours, seventeen minutes, and fifty-three seconds later. Our father came to my room and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.

“It’ll be good for you,” he said, but once in the car, as I inched down the gravel driveway, he put his hands in his face and wept hard.

Six months after Thomas’ funeral, Christine was kidnapped while walking home from school, her body found on Lance Noland’s property, vultures already feasting on her remains. And though the Noland’s were not found guilty, their property merely being the place the kidnapper disposed Christine’s body, we could never face them, which meant I had not only lost a brother, a sister, but now a best friend–Jennifer Noland.

Our father kept working, finding comfort in alcohol and his shed. Donna and I tended to our mother, most days her mind far away, safe from the ache of absence. It took a long time, but we did find a routine, a painful one, but it made the days go by faster and it subdued sadness. And then Steven went missing, leaving a sorrow-filled note, an apology for what would have already been done by the time we found the note.

I don’t remember our mother shedding one tear, not because she didn’t love Steven, but because her heart refused to accept one more loss. Our father drank more and lost his job at the shop, so Donna put off college and began working as a waitress.

“I can get a job too,” I told her, watching her take off her shoes after pulling a double, the blisters on her toes fat, ready to burst.

“Go to bed,” she said.

While Donna worked, I made sure our mother bathed every day and that our father stayed in the shed since he was no longer allowed in the house. I took a plate of food to him and collected the old one, each time finding almost the same amount of food still on the plate. Some days I stood in the doorway, searching for some semblance of the man I once knew. He was gone. Call it intuition or whatever you want, but somehow I knew he was next.

Harvey from the shop called a couple weeks later with the news. In the middle of the night our father had made his way to the shop where he fiddled with a Dodge station wagon, got it running so that his last breaths were filled with carbon monoxide. So we attended another funeral, our eyes bloodshot. Donna called our grandparents, our mother’s parents, and asked them if I could come and stay for a while. They flew in for the fourth time and helped me collect my things. And before I was settled into city life, they had to fly back a fifth time when Donna and our mother were killed in a car accident. Donna was driving my mother to her appointment after pulling a double and lost control of the car. This time I sifted through everyone’s belongings taking with me things that reminded me of them, steering clear of items that were too closely connected to their untimely deaths.

I was asked if I wanted to see the house one last time, and at first I said no. But on the day the bulldozer arrived, I stood in the crowd with Jennifer Noland, her arm locked around mine, and watched the house crumble to the ground.

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Restless Mountain

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The stream narrowed, carrying our boat down its meandering course. Lush green vegetation surrounded us, the steep mountainside hovering above. I felt small atop the water’s racing current, but I held the wooden oars tight. Joseph sat behind me, nestled in his life jacket.

“Are you okay back there?” I asked every once in a while.

“Yeah,” his small voice barely audible over the sound of the water. “I’m okay, mommy.”

“We’re almost there,” I comforted.

My father’s remote log cabin, built by his own two hands, was about five miles downstream, hidden by hundred-year-old evergreen he protected like they were his children. Against the advice of friends, the ones I shared my plan with, I embarked on the journey through Restless Mountain, well-known for its travelers, who not unlike me, set out in search of peace, motivated by an unquenchable yearning for all that had been lost.

As my father directed, I docked the boat where the stream widened and the current nudged us north. Joseph stayed in the boat, even after I had backed into the slip and tied off the lines.

“Are you ready?” I asked, my voice sweet. “We have just a little more to go,” I pointed to the path we’d follow through the trees to grandpa’s cabin. “Put your backpack on.”

“I don’t want to,” he whined, gripping the side of the boat. “It’s scary.”

“It’s okay,” I extended my hand.

“I don’t want to,” he buried his face in his arms.

“We have to go before it gets dark,” I warned.

No,” his voice muffled, faint.

I steadied myself, my bag on my back and reached for him, each time my arms missing his skinny frame. The more I reached the more he flailed, but I kept reaching, slipping further and further into the water.

“Helen,” I heard my father call through the trees. “Helen,” he repeated.

“Get out of the boat,” I yelled, water now splashing around me as I moved along the boat, reaching. Reaching.

“No,” Joseph screamed.

“Helen,” my father’s voice got closer.

“Get out now! Now!” I screamed, shaking the boat.

“Helen,” my father called again, his voice calm as he wrapped his arm around me. “It’s okay.’

“He won’t get out of the boat,” I yelled.

“I’ll get Joseph,” his voice still calm. “Don’t worry. I’ll get him.”

“I don’t know why he won’t get out of the boat.”

“He’s getting out of the boat…I got him,” he said comforted. “See?”

“Thank you,” I felt my body relax.

I followed him up the path, watching Joseph’s Spiderman backpack bob up and down.

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The Bridge

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I made dinner, waited for Brandon to fall asleep, and then left. It was a twelve hour drive to Davenport, and I hoped my car would make it. As I backed out of the driveway, I looked at the house one last time, the two-story brownstone that had once brought respite. Lit by just the bright lights of restaurant signs, gas stations, and car lots, I drove my twenty-year-old car down Bell Avenue to the freeway entrance, headed southbound to the home of the one person I knew that Brandon didn’t: Priscilla Payton, an ex-convict who served time for murdering her husband.

“I can’t come there,” she said when I called. “I can’t leave the state,” she took a puff of her cigarette. “But if you get here to the prairie, I got a bed for ya.” she joked.

“Thank you, Priscilla,” I cried. “I’m leaving tonight.”

“Did you pick up a new phone?”

“Yes, I put everything in my trunk.”

“Make sure you take off the tracker before you leave,” Priscilla coughed.

“I will.”

“This phone won’t work anymore after I hang up with you. Safe travels,” she hung up the phone.

Brandon came home at the usual time, his muddy footsteps in the foyer, his anger sitting across from me at the kitchen table.

“How was work?” I asked.

“Why is the chicken burnt?” he complained. “And you know I don’t like the mashed potatoes like this,” he stirred the mashed potatoes with his fork, taking an angry bite.

“Sorry,” I whispered, hoping not to stir his anger so the evening would end peacefully. “I made ice cream, your favorite.”

He didn’t say anything, but his eyes perked. I ate two pieces of fried chicken, a helping of mashed potatoes, and green beans, waiting for Brandon to finish and retire to the living room where he’d eat his ice cream.

“Give me three scoops,” he said as he got up from the table. A long belch escaped his body, and his chair let out a long painful squeak as he collapsed in the ten-year old recliner. “Hurry up!”

I put three scoops of the melatonin-laced ice cream in his favorite Seahawks bowl, and listened for the first signs of sleep.

“Do you want more?” I asked when I heard his breathing hasten. “Brandon?” I tipped into the living room to find him asleep, the bowl of ice cream still half full.

The television blared sports news, switching from sportscasters to clips of recent games. I set my phone on the table, grabbed my jacket and keys, and left.

I drove through one dark city after another, keeping myself awake with music and a wavering hope that my plan would work this time. A year earlier Brandon and I met in a grief group for people who had lost their spouses. He spoke lovingly of his wife, Nadia. I had fewer nice things to say about Dean, though my despair was genuine. It was Brandon who understood this contradiction. He invited me to what he called a soul retreat, a week-long event in the mountains that changed our relationship from strangers to connected souls brought together to save each other.

“The reason Dean was killed in that motorcycle accident is because your souls weren’t truly connected,” he reasoned.

I never really bought into the idea, but I also couldn’t release myself from Brandon’s constant prediction that if I didn’t stay, something would happen. His words were paired with actions too, good ones that made life feel better. The first few months were like an extended vacation. We quit going to our grief group, deciding instead to spend the early morning recreating our own version. I didn’t think too hard about his first request that I not drive at night because it was delivered with concern for my safety. Soon my friends and family were toxic, too toxic to visit. And my phone, which was his, had a tracking app I knew not to remove or there’d be hell to pay.

“I don’t belong to you,” I complained.

He responded with his fist across my face.

I locked myself in the bathroom and tended to the broken skin. I tried to remember how my life had been. I tried to find my way back inside the unexpected sadness and confusion I felt after Dean’s death. Each time my mind failed, the fog too deep to navigate.

And then, when I was back in our bedroom, I found a letter from Priscilla inside an envelope filled with personal papers.

“If it hadn’t been for your letters, I would have given up long ago. You are the bridge that helped me from one end of life to another.”

That tiny piece of my life offered a glimmer of who I had been and awakened in me a desire to return, a desire so persistent I thought for sure Brandon would find out. But he didn’t. Priscilla instructed me on how to leave, something she said she wished she had done.

As I approached the Darwin Bridge, feelings of relief and sorrow came over me. But this time I knew the contradiction was proof that I was embarking upon something new: a bridge that would take me from one end of my life to another.

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Secret Sentiments

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Marissa brought two Starbucks coffee travelers to the meeting, one filled with medium roast, the other with blonde. I brought donuts, and Amy made blueberry muffins from scratch. Bottled water lined the edge of the table, next to them were bagels and three kinds of cream cheese.

“Anyone heard from, Janella?” I asked.

“No,” Marissa said as she took a bite of her bagel. “You think we should call her? It’s raining pretty good out there. “

“I’ll call,” Amy said, pulling her cell phone out of her purse. “She’s forty-five minutes late. That’s not like her.”

We sat around the conference table nibbling on donuts, muffins, and bagels, sipping coffee. Rosemary and Jason chatted about the Genesis contract, debating whether Janella would want wood or aluminum doors.

“No answer,” Amy announced. “I left a message though.”

“I hope she’s okay,” Marissa said.

“Maybe she forgot,” I suggested.

“Janella doesn’t forget, especially not something as big as this,” Jason reminded.

“She’ll be here. I remember her saying something about her car last week. She may be in one of those vanpool things.”

“She could still call…” I added, growing irritated.

“Unless she doesn’t have service…”

“Or her battery is dead.”

“Or she’s sick.”

“Or she got pulled over.”

“Or she overslept.”

“Or she had to go back home.”

“Or Riley’s school called.”

“Or she was in an accident.”

“Or someone died.”

“Or she died.”

“Or she’s just late,” I screamed. “Why are you making excuses for her?” I protested.

Everyone was quiet, no chewing, no slurping. Their eyes were on me.

“We’re not making excuses, Danielle,” Amy said a few moments later. “We actually care about Janella,” her tone condescending.

“Are you trying to say I don’t care?” I stared at Amy.

“I’m saying that we are concerned about her because this is unlike her,” she defended. “We’re a team and if one person is missing…” she stopped and looked at the door.

Janella walked in, raindrops sprinkled across her long, black jacket.

“I’m so sorry,” she sang, putting her leather work bag on the table. “You’ll never guess what happened to me,” she reached for a Starbucks cup and twisted the cap off of the blonde roast. “I really appreciate you guys staying,” she stirred creamer into her coffee. “All the way over I just knew you’d be gone by now,” she took a seat next to me.

“What happened?” Amy asked, throwing a I told you so glance at me.

“So, I was leaving Riley’s school on my way to pick up the crepes from Simply Crepes, and I looked down at my dashboard and saw that I needed gas. I thought Nick had put some in for me last night,” she laughed, and the others joined. “Anyway, so I went to the gas station, and I should have listened to that little voice in the back of my mind and just left, ” she began sobbing. “I don’t like paying at the pump, with identity theft and all, so I went inside not realizing that two armed men were inside.”

“Oh my god,” Amy put her hand over her mouth.”

My face turned red with embarrassment.

“One of the men told me to give him my purse. The other demanded money from the register. The woman’s hands were shaking so badly, she had a hard time getting the money,” she sipped her coffee.

“I’m so sorry,” Marissa cried.

“They told us to go in the back, and then they left, but I couldn’t stop crying, even when the police arrived,” she let out another nervous laugh, this one attached to tears. “I had to call Nick to get him to bring my extra key, but he didn’t want me driving like this.”

My heart ached for her.

“I told him I had to get to the office because I didn’t want us to fall behind,” she wiped her tears. “I really appreciate you guys and the work you do,” her voice fluctuated between steady and faltering.

“We would have understood, ” Jason tilted his head and smiled.

“We’ve got your back,” Rosemary added.

“The most important thing is that you’re safe,” I said. “The fact that you’re here, after being held at gunpoint is amazing.”

“Thank you, Danielle,” she touched my hand.

The others stayed quiet, reluctantly keeping my earlier sentiments secret. And as the heaviness waned for them, it grew heavier for me, a weight I’d have to carry for the rest of the day.

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Strawberry Rescue

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It was my day off. I had planned to run a few errands that morning and spend the afternoon and evening lounging around the house, with a few hours outside on the hammock. That plan was interrupted when Avery called begging me to come in because Stephanie, the new hire, had called in sick.

“If you do this for me, I’ll make sure you get first dibs on the next schedule,” she pleaded.

“Okay,” I sighed. “What time do I need to be there?”

“In fifteen minutes,” she laughed. “Get here as soon as you can…”

“I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes,” I agreed.

I showered and hopped in the car, driving the thirty-minute drive to Middlebay Beach. The wind was strong, an indicator of how the day was going to play out for all the lifeguards. There weren’t many beachgoers when I arrived, but I knew they were at home preparing their picnic baskets, trying on their swimsuits, and applying sunblock. Waves were big, the current strong, ready to dance with professional and amateur surfers, teenaged daredevils, old ladies who just wanted to get their feet wet, and babies.

Avery thanked me when I walked in, her body leaning towards mine for a hug. I obliged, wrapping my arms around her loosely.

“I need you and David on the towers right now,” she ordered, her demeanor changing from thankful to directive.

“Yes, ma’am,” I looked around to find David standing behind me. “When did you get here?” I asked him as we walked out towards the towers.

The first hour was filled with the usual, people swimming out too far, lost children, and minor injuries from broken glass and critters. Just before lunch, when the beach had filled with both vacationers and locals, I looked out and saw the moment a boy was pulled under by a rip tide. His mother’s back was turned and she didn’t notice until Tyler and Fran were running towards them.

Not long after, a fight between two women ensued, one claiming the other stole items from her ice chest. A man in Speedos had a seizure in the water. A young girl went missing, her parents giving two different descriptions of her. And more of the usual complaints about the restrictions people found to be too rigid.

The post-lunch crowd brought just as much energy. They ate sandwiches and bagged chips. Kids and adults played volleyball, made sand castles, and flew kites. Then they were back in the water, the waves crashing against their sand-covered skin. I rode with David in the patrol vehicle. We stopped to assist with life jackets, and educate swimmers on beach safety. There were more cuts to clean, more swimmers pulled away by rip tides. And then a family holding their lifeless daughter in their arms ran towards us.

“Help us,” they cried.

We followed procedure, emotion rerouted to the backs of our minds. I administered CPR while we waited for medical professionals. Tyler tried to keep the family calm. Avery supervised and kept nosy beachgoers from interfering.

“Where were you guys?” I heard the mother scream. “Why didn’t anyone see that she was drowning?” she blamed.

David glanced over at me, but we stuck to our training, relieved to see the flashing EMT lights. I described what happened. Avery adding details that I missed. When the EMT drove away, Avery called David and I over to a bench for a debriefing.

“I can’t believe the mother blamed us,” I complained.

“Well, it’s our job to rescue,” she explained.

“Not babysit.”

“Sometimes there’s a thin line,” her voice was calm, reassuring. “You did everything right, but something bad still happened, so there’s more to learn.”

Anger warmed my body. I regretted coming to work on my day off. I regretted being a lifeguard.

“Bad things happen, but we still go out there and rescue those who need us,” she perked.

So we went back out there for more. More scrapes, more lifejacket checks, more teaching, more almost drownings. By the time I got home, the emotion I had put off was there, front and center. I sat on my sofa and let the tears flow, finding sleep at the end. I awoke sometime later when Avery knocked on the door.

“Hi,” she greeted. “Are you busy?”

“Uh, no,” I wiped sleep from my eyes.

She walked in and headed to the kitchen.

“Sit down,” she directed. “I brought you something.”

I listened as she pulled ingredients from her grocery bag and glasses from my cupboard.

“This always helps me after a long day,” she handed me a mug filled with strawberries and an unknown liquid.

“What is it?” I asked before taking a sip.

“I call it Strawberry Rescue,” she laughed. “Cheers.”

Gin burned my throat as I took a sip. I leaned back and let it glide from one end of my body to the other.

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Keeping the Monsters Away

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“You used to live here?” I asked my mother as she drove down Oxpass Road.

“Sure did, for thirty-three years until I met your father,” she slowed the car to show me where she worked as a waitress. “Elliott’s Steakhouse, I can’t believe it’s still here.”

“You worked there while you were in school?” I adjusted my seatbelt to lean forward. “You want to go in?”

My mother pulled over, parking the car along the edge of the sidewalk.

“Where’s the meter to pay?” I asked as I got out, prepared to take my mother’s card and slide it into the machine, every moment making me feel more grownup.

“We don’t have to pay here,” she laughed, wrapping her arm around my shoulder as we walked towards the restaurant.

Inside the lighting was dim. There were two long rows of booths on either side, and in the middle were large round tables with crisp, white table clothes draped over them. A woman carrying two menus approached us, her steps wide, her face cheerful.

“Good afternoon,” she sang. “For two?”

“Yes, thank you,” my mom said.

“Table or booth?”

My mother looked at me for an answer.

“Booth,” I said.

The woman lead us through the empty restaurant to a booth near the back.

“A jukebox?” I whispered to my mother.

“If you want to play something, go right ahead,” the woman winked, overhearing me.

“Okay,” I said shyly, sliding into the booth.

“Your waitress will be right with you. “

“Thank you so much,” my mother smiled.

The waitress wasn’t far behind with two waters. She introduced herself as Becky and told us to take our time. I searched the laminated menu for an appetizer, excited they had mozzarella sticks.

“Can I get the…” I started.

“Get whatever you want,” my mother said. “It’s our special day.”

I ordered the mozzarella sticks and the sirloin with mashed potatoes and broccoli florets. My mother ordered soup and salad, her appetite not the same as before the chemo. While we waited, my mother pointed out the small dance floor next to the jukebox.

“Wow!” I stood up to look at the wooden floor. “Did people actually dance?”

“Oh, yeah. On Friday nights this place used to be packed.”

“Where is everybody?” I asked.

“I wonder if Mr. Franklin still owns the place. Elliott Franklin, he was the owner. He’d walk around greeting everyone, asking them how their meal was.”

When our waitress returned with our food, my mother asked about Mr. Franklin and was surprised to learn that he did still, in fact, own the restaurant and would be in for the dinner crowd.

“More people come for dinner?” I asked.

“Lots more,” she said. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

“No, we’re good,” my mother said, blowing her soup.

While we ate, my mother told me more stories about her days as a waitress: the times she mixed up orders; the double shift she pulled and no one told her that her uniform was inside out; the kitchen fire that shut the restaurant down for two weeks; how much the crew felt like family, especially after her parents died.

“On my last day, Mr. Elliott gave me five hundred dollars right out of his wallet,” she recalled.” He told me to go out and conquer the world and when I got some time to come back and visit.”

“Did you ever come back?”

“No, I got whisked away and never found the time until now.”

“Do you want to stay for dinner?” I asked, half joking.

“I would like to see Mr. Elliott,” she confessed.

“Well, it’s almost dinner…”

“True,” my mother looked around the restaurant.

“I’ll get dessert,” I said.

As the waitress predicted, the dinner crowd appeared, their cars lining the street and the back parking lot. Loud chatter began filling the restaurant, along with the sounds of silverware hitting against the sides of warm plates. People stood in the entryway unbothered by the wait.

My mother didn’t recognize Mr. Franklin when we first entered. He wore a grey Fedora that he took off when he approached the dining area. His hair was thin, white, his cologne soft. As he passed our booth, he smiled, resting his veiny hands on the edge of the table.

“How’s everything?” he asked.

“Mr. Franklin,” my mother sobbed, sliding out of the booth to hug him. “It’s me, Maribel Connelly…well, now it’s McAlester, she corrected.

“Yes, it is,” he held out his arms. “What a treat,” he smiled, unable to take his eyes off of my mother. “Look at ya,” he squeezed her hand. “How are you doing?”

“I’m much better,” she ran her hand through her short, curly hair, as tears fell.

“Sit down,” he said, sliding in next to her. “And who is this?” he looked at me.

“I’m Kensey, her daughter,” I said.

“You sure are. You’ve got your mother’s eyes.”

I watched as they played catch up. She told him about moving away and getting married, about becoming a nurse, how cancer appeared one day, reminding her how big life really is. He talked about the restaurant, his grandchildren, his own battle with cancer; he talked about how his wife had made peace with the monster before slipping away in her sleep the previous year.

“Let’s pray the monsters stay away for good,” he grabbed her hand again.

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The Good Friend

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I watched from my living room window as she drove up and dropped off gifts. She rang the bell and hurried back to her car, pausing before driving away.

“Who was that?” Malcom asked, peering out the peephole.

“No one,” I sighed.

“There are presents…you want me to get them?”

“Umm…no, just leave them there,” I got up and went to the kitchen.

“Why?” Malcolm followed. “Are they from Allison?” he guessed.

“What?” I asked, thrown off guard.

“Are they from Allison?” he repeated, smiling. “You don’t talk to her anymore.”

“I didn’t think you noticed.”

“How? She was always calling you and asking you to meet up with her. And she always brought gifts for me.”

“Yeah, I had to pull back a bit.”

“You pulled all the way back,” he laughed, collapsing in a chair. “You ghosted her.”

“No, I just needed some space,” I defended. “Don’t you ever need space?”

“Space, sure…this isn’t space,” he pointed towards the front door. “There are packages out there you won’t bring in the house. There’s something more to the story,” he watched as a I poured a pack of hot cocoa in a cup.

“Aren’t you supposed to boil the water first?”

“I always do it this way,” I said. “You put the mix in the water?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what the directions say,” he joked and left the room.

I finished making my hot cocoa and sat down, thoughts of Allison filtering into my mind. We had gone to school together, both worked as TA’s, and had lost a sibling to cancer the same year. It was a fast friendship, first built on sympathy and compassion, and later on common interests like concerts, scrapbooking, and fashion. We took many road trips together, saw each other through jobs–hirings and firings–relationships and breakups. She was my maid of honor and I hers. We celebrated with a trip to the Bahamas when our divorces were finalized. I picked up her children from school some days, and she returned the favor. We were each other’s support system on a mission to become our best selves.

And then life dealt us another blow: Allison was charged with embezzling from the company she worked. I helped her hire a lawyer, borrowed from my 401k to help her post bail, and took on another job to support my family and hers. She promised she was not guilty, that she had been set up. I believed her.

At the trial, prosecutors presented evidence to the contrary. She had been caught on camera logging onto the company’s database, her digital footprint exposing the crime. I watched as her lawyer cross-examined, his attempts futile. Allison’s face never changed, even during sentencing. Her emotionless body was led away while we succumbed to the devastation caused by truth.

Mr. and Mrs. Washington hugged me tight and apologized on behalf of their daughter.

“You’ve been such a good friend,” her mother wept. “Don’t give up on her.”

I hadn’t given up. When she sent letters, I responded. And I visited, at first. But she never even attempted to explain why she did it. She didn’t apologize for asking me to invest in her defense when she knew she was guilty.

“Why did you do it?” I pressed, during our last visit.

“That’s the past,” she looked away. “I’m not that person.”

“What did you do with all the money?”

“It would be nice to have some of that money for commissary,” she joked.

Five years later she was released early with ten years probation. Mrs. Washington called with the news and hoped I was open to reestablishing our friendship.

“She needs you right now,” she pleaded. “I know you stopped visiting, but maybe now things can be different.”

Not long after our conversation, I received several calls from an unknown number that I didn’t take. I knew it was her. She was trying to force her way into my life again, hoping time and gifts could mend the wound.

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Chaos & Peace

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It was Friday and I was gathering my things, ready to escape the relentless buzzing of florescent bulbs and the careful watch of Sydney Ferguson, our department lead who took her job very seriously. She knocked on the side of my cubicle and uttered words few people want to hear.

“Can I talk to you?” a fake smile stretched across her face. “It’ll only take a minute.”

“I do need to catch my bus,” I warned.

“Of course,” she entered and stood across from me. “This is about a conversation you had with Megan,” she said like it was question.

“Okay,” I said, prepared to defend myself.

“I just want to reiterate company policy…”

“I know what company policy is, Sydney,” I interrupted.

“Did you take Megan’s lunch?” she fast-forwarded to the point.

“No…why would I take her lunch? I bring my own lunch.”

“She says she saw you eating her yogurt, one only Rally’s sells.”

“I did not eat her yogurt, and she’s not the only one who shops at Rally’s”

“Do you shop at Rally’s?”

“No, Sydney I do not shop at Rally’s. My point is…”

“Why did you tell her that you ate her yogurt?”

“Because she kept bothering me about the damn yogurt, that’s why. Not because I actually ate it.”

“Well, in the future please refrain from lying to try to resolve an issue,” she looked me in the eye, her face serious. “Come to me if you can’t find a better solution. We can brainstorm some better options.”

“Sure thing,” I looked at the clock. “I do need to go,” I exhaled, eager to start my weekend far away from Templeton Health Services.

“Let me know if I can be of assistance,” she said, still standing in my cubicle as I left.

I hurried through the maze of work stations and out the front of the building where I crossed the parking lot and headed north on Clemency Avenue to my bus stop. At the corner, I waited for the green pedestrian signal. I watched traffic from each direction rush through the intersection, my bus fast approaching. I pushed the button again as cars traveling north crossed.

“No!” I shouted, waving my hands in he air to get the bus driver’s attention.

I thought about running across the street anyway, but I knew Clemency Avenue had a reputation for being dangerous for pedestrians, with ten accidents, one fatality, in the last month alone. I kept waving, hoping to get the driver’s attention. Then his light changed to green, and I heard the quiet motor of the eco-friendly vessel as he rode away, trailing behind the other cars.

It wasn’t until the next rotation that the green walk sign flashed for me to cross. I stomped through the crosswalk, bitter and defeated, deciding to spend my hour wait at the shopping center two blocks down State Blvd. By the time the next bus arrived, I had bought food, a birthday card for my sister, Evelyn, and a six-hundred page crime novel I was sure would keep me busy for the weekend.

The next bus was not eco-friendly. It polluted the air with its thick exhaust, and its frame rattled as the bus idled long enough for us to board. I flashed my pass and found a seat in the middle, next to a woman headed to her shift at the hospital. She smelled of lavender, her hair slick against her scalp and pulled into a ponytail.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hi,” she smiled as the bus lunged forward, cutting off a driver who tried to pass.

We moved straight into the downtown center, the driver inching through Friday rush hour, much denser than on any other day as people left their offices and theater goers rushed in to find decent parking and eat at their favorite restaurants before the show. Tonight’s show was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, performed by an award-winning cast, a once-in-a-life opportunity for folks who lived in South Lancaster.

I watched the line of hopefuls grow outside the box office. They stood under colorful umbrellas bracing the cold to purchase any remaining tickets, even if they were in the nosebleed sections. Their happy smiles were visible through the rain hitting the windows in a light drizzle. A warm feeling came over me as the traffic waned a bit and the bus moved forward.

I exhaled, paused, and then found my breath again. I felt my body relax, cradled by the contrast of chaos and peace.

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The Shortcut

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The temptation to cut through the alley had burned in me since I began walking home from school. I was ten years old, in fifth grade, Mr. Kellum’s class, happy to have this new responsibility. Before the school year started, my mother showed me the route she wanted me to take.

“Don’t go down that alley, you hear me?”

“Yes…but why?”

“It’s not safe,” she explained. “Trust me,” she shook her head as we passed the narrow road.

“Okay,” I agreed, knowing one day I’d defy her.

That day came. It was Valentine’s Day. My backpack was filled with pink and purple heart candies, jellybeans, chocolate, lollipops, a red velvet cupcake from Mr. Kellum, a red bear from a boy named Patterson, and twenty-four Valentine’s day cards, each character themed. I wanted to get home to snack on my goodies and read my cards, so I didn’t hesitate when I came upon the alley. Cutting through would spare me two long crosswalks at the busiest intersections in the area. I’d arrive home maybe ten minutes earlier, time enough to catch half of iCarly.

I stepped onto the blacktop, the sound of my shoes an eerie clacking that echoed between the buildings. Soon my heartbeat seemed to match my footsteps–hard, slow. A door opened outward and a man exited carrying a black garbage bag. I stopped as he crossed in front of me, opened the green bin against the wall and threw the bag inside. He looked at me and nodded before turning away to rearrange the blue and gray crates that lay disheveled behind the door.

I adjusted my backpack and started on the path again until I saw a delivery truck turn into the alley, its headlights dull. I moved over to let the driver pass. He hopped out and opened the back of the truck. I listened to the lift’s motor whine as the driver loaded boxes onto it. The sound of rats scurrying in the back of the pizza restaurant was loud with intermittent squeaks. I moved over, my steps slow in case one ran across the path.

As I passed a water grate, I heard sloshing noises underneath, almost missing the car headed straight for me. When the driver’s eyes met mine, I froze for a moment. In between the sloshing and squeaking there was another sound, a soft cry. The driver maneuvered his car around me and parked it in front of a garage door he used a remote to open. It rolled up into the ceiling, rattling all the way. He unloaded a few boxes into the crowded garage and then left.

There was the soft cry again. I looked around but didn’t see anything. The truck driver was on the lift again, the whining noise an interruption. I waited for it to stop and the cry to resume.

“Are you looking for the kitten?” the driver yelled.

I turned to face him but didn’t say anything.

“The kitten? The gray one?” he yelled.

Still I stayed quiet unsure if I should be speaking to him.

“It’s on the other side,” he pointed. “Next to the fence,” he yelled as he walked through the back door of the shoe store.

I kept walking unsure of how to get to the other side, which fence he was referring to.

“Hey,” I heard the man’s voice again. “Over here…” he waved for me to meet him at what looked like a wall.

As I approached, he pulled a latch and the wall opened. There on the ground was a dirty gray kitten. He picked it up with his gloved hands and held it there for me to see.

“You think your parents will let you have a kitten?” he rubbed the kitten behind its ear.

“I think so,” I said. “Thank you.” I extended my hands accepting the crying kitten.

I hurried to the end of the alley and headed home where I gave the kitten a bowl of milk and a bath, using my mother’s blow dryer to dry its fur. With the kitten on my lap, I started my homework, hoping that when my mother walked in and saw how responsible I was being she’d let me keep the kitten whom I had already named Mr. Valentine.

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Peace Lily

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Every day I passed her store on my way home from visiting my mother. A woman with long gray hair moved in and out of the crowed space, carrying potted plants of various sizes and color to the front where she set them on display. She was spry, her expressions jovial. I couldn’t help but smile as I cruised along on my Vespa.

Back home I made a late breakfast for Jack who was just stirring after working the graveyard shift. His taste buds were consistent, desiring biscuits, sausage links, eggs, and black coffee. He came downstairs when he caught a whiff of the food, his hair still wild from sleep.

“Good morning,” I said, kissing his forehead.

“Morning…how’s your mother?”

“Same,” I said with a frown. “I did speak with the doctor this morning though, and she said they’re going to try a new drug to try and stop the swelling in her brain.

“That’s good news,” he brightened.

“I hope so,” I flipped the sausage. “How was work last night?”

“The usual…an endless influx of gamblers betting their livelihoods on a poker game only to be escorted out when they lose everything, including their minds,” he laughed.

“Here you go,” I put a plate in front of him. “I’ll get you some coffee,” I crossed the kitchen to the coffee maker.

“You’re not eating?” he asked, biting into a biscuit.

“I am,” I said, grabbing myself a sausage link. “I was thinking about adding some plants to the patio, some small ones.

“Oh really? Got a green thumb suddenly, huh?”

“There’s a store I pass everyday…a nursery with all kinds of plants. I think I might go in next time.”

“You should,” he winked.

***

I spent the afternoon researching plants, deciding which kind would work best for our small patio. When Jack was getting ready for work, I made a pot of spaghetti and put some in a to-go container for him to take.

“I may just go back out when you leave,” I told him. “I want to get started on the patio.

“Why not?” he encouraged. “I can’t wait to see what you do with it,” he looked out at the empty patio.

We walked out of the house together, Jack hopping into his truck, I onto my shiny, red Vespa. He waved as we drove in different directions. The sun was hidden under thin clouds, trying its best to shine through. I traveled the same path I took every day to visit my mother, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that seemed to have snuck up on her overnight. For over a month now she lay unresponsive, her face almost unrecognizable. I thought about returning for a second visit, but I knew she’d still be gone, unable to wake up from this deep sleep.

I turned into the parking lot, winding along the curved path to the front of the store. The woman was there unboxing small, handcrafted pots and lining them on top of a shelf.

“Good afternoon,” she said as I approached.

“Good afternoon,” I returned.

“How can I help you?” she lifted the last flower pot out of the box and put it on the shelf.

“I want to add some plants to my patio,” I looked up at the woman. “I don’t really know what I’m doing though,” I confessed.

“No worries,” she smiled. “Are you looking for something small…big?”

“Small…I think.”

“Okay. Well, let me show you a few things…by the way, I’m Maryellen.”

“I’m Rachel,” I extended my hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

Maryellen walked me through the store, sharing years of knowledge about each plant species. I nodded and tried to soak up as much as I could.

“What made you want to get plants?” she asked.

“I’ve never had any, not even before I was married, but they’re beautiful,” I looked around. “I want to bring a little life to our apartment.”

“I get it,” Maryellen smiled. “I think was born with a green thumb. We always had plants growing up, and I was the one that tended to them. Everyone always asked me to assist them when their plants started dying,” she laughed. “Sometimes I saved them, sometimes I didn’t.”

“Well, I may have to call you,” I joked.

“Anytime, dear,” she held up a plant she thought would be great for me to start with. “They don’t need a lot of fussing with, and they don’t grow too big.”

“Nice,” I admired the plant’s short leaves.

“The Peace Lily, and it has been proven that plants are good for the mind,” she tapped her temple with her long finger.

“Really?” I perked. “I’ll take two then.”

I paid, promised to let her know how things went, and sped away with the two plants in the cart on the back of my Vespa headed for the hospital. This time I took the elevator to the fifth floor, room 532, where I found my mother still in the same position. I set the Peace Lily on her table and positioned it so it was close enough for her to see in case she woke up when I wasn’t there.

“Rachel, you’re back,” her nurse walked in. “Everything okay?”

“I just wanted to bring this,” I pointed at the plant.

“It’s very pretty.”

“I got myself one too,” I admitted.

“I’ve heard these plants have healing powers,” she smiled and put her hand on my shoulder as she left the room.

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Out by the Water

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Elise checked the paddle boats to make sure Justin had docked them properly. I swept the shop floor and prepared to lock up after Elise finished checking the boats.

“Everything looks good,” she said when she walked back into the shop. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I thought this day would never end,” I flipped the lights, set the security system, and followed Elise out the door, closing and locking it behind us. “So where are you headed?”

“Not home,” she complained. “Gary is back.”

“Your older brother, right?”

“Yep. He’s back. Drinks all day, rages all night.”

“Wow…so what are you going to do?”

“As soon as I can move out, I will.”

“What do your parents say about his drinking?”

“Nothing,” Elise yelled, frustration building.” They don’t say anything. My mother buys him beer.”

“Do you want to get some food?” I offered.

“Nah. I think I’m going to go sit out by the water.”

“Do you mind if I join you?”

“That’s cool,” she smiled.

We walked down the embankment in our matching yellow, Arnie’s Boat Shack, shirts.

“Actually, I am a little hungry,” Elise said as we were passing Tito’s taco stand. “You want a taco?”

“Sounds good,” I looked over the menu, deciding on two carnitas.

We waited for the food, eyeing a rickety table about thirty feet away.

“I’ll grab the table,” I said.

I used an empty nacho container to prop up the leaning table and then sat down. Boaters were still on the water though the sun was setting. The hum of their boats echoed across the river. The smell of meat cooking on grills filled the air. Like any other evening, people lingered, not ready to go home.

“Two carnitas for you,” Elise placed a Styrofoam container in front of me. “Two for me.”

We bit into the soft shells, a hot combination of juicy pork and salsa gracing our tongues. When we were several bites in, Elise pointed at a turtle, his head poking up from the surface.

“He better go back under the water before that boat comes,” I joked.

“I wonder how many animals die a day because of boats,” Elise said.

I shrugged, wishing I hadn’t made the comment.

“Where are you thinking about moving? You know, when you get ready?” I changed the subject.

“Maybe out of state…or another city…maybe just a few streets over,” she said with her mouth full.

“I see,” I said. “You’re still thinking about it. It’s a big decision.”

“Yeah,” she went back to eating. “I don’t know how much longer I can live there,” she shuddered.

“What about getting a roommate?” I suggested. “I have two roommates. They’re pretty nice.”

“That’s a good idea,” she stopped chewing. “I thought I was going to have to kill my brother.”

“I get it,” I laughed.

“I’m glad you joined me. I like working shifts with you.”

“Ah, thanks,” I smiled.

“And I really was going to kill my brother,” she confessed, looking out at the water. “I’m going to get in,” she stuffed the last of her carnita in her mouth and walked away.

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The Playwright’s Café

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Tickets were a hundred dollars, and the waitlist was six-months long. So, we didn’t plan on venturing out to the Playwright’s Café anytime soon, until my friend Natasha called from the hospital after breaking her leg.

“Well, did you have fun, at least?” I asked.

“Oh, we had fun alright,” she laughed. “I got some skiing in before tumbling down the hill.”

“How long will you be in the cast?”

“Six to eight weeks,” she sighed. “I won’t be ready to ski until next season.”

“I’m sorry,” I sang. “I know how much you and Joey love skiing.”

“Oh, he’ll still go. He can’t miss out on all that good snow. I’ll hang out in the lodge or something,” she contemplated. “I don’t want to miss out,” her voice weakened.

“You know I don’t ski, but I’ll join you if…”

“That’s why I called you,” she remembered. “We have lunch tickets to the Playwright’s Café tomorrow, if you and Rosa want to go.

“No way! We’ve been dying to go,” I said, a smile spreading across my face. “Are you sure?”

“There’s no way we’ll be able to go. Do you know how much pain medicine I’m on right now?” she laughed. “I can’t feel anything.”

“You’re too funny,” I laughed.

“I’ll have Joey transfer the tickets. You two have fun, and tell me all about it.”

“I will. Get some rest.”

***

The sky was overcast, but Rosa and I wore long sun dresses with a matching cardigan just in case it was chilly inside. We were seated at a table with pink and yellow chairs, water and warm bread already waiting for us when the hostess, dressed in a red, puffy ballroom gown showed us to our seat.

We nibbled on bread while others were seated and waiters in black suits made their rounds. Viennese music played in the background, dancers waltzing across the stage. White wine and appetizers were served while we waited for our meals. The writer, also an actor in the play, came to the stage to share his vision and thank us for coming.

Our meals came on carts, waiters removing the stainless steel food covers once at our table, a rather dramatic reveal we cheered before digging in. The ballroom dancers returned bringing new routines and music.

“This is amazing,” Rosa said, taking a bite of her linguini.

“It is. I can’t wait for the play,” I nibbled on a piece of bread and then dipped it in marinara sauce.

The waiter returned to refill our water glasses and collect dishes we were no longer using. At a few tables behind us, a woman started yelling, “What do I have to do to get some water around here?”

“I apologize,” one of the waiters said, making his way over to her table.

He filled her glass and apologized again, but instead of accepting his apology, she screamed and threw the water in his face. People from the surrounding tables stood up and restrained her. The room went dark, our gasps loud.

“Enough!” a man’s voice yelled out, his footsteps ominous as they crossed the stage.

The lights came back on, dimmer now. The woman and the people who restrained her stood in a dramatic pose, pausing before running out of the dining area. We clapped at the surprise performance and watched other characters take the stage. The life of a business man and his wife played out before our eyes, their lives threatened by a mysterious illness of the mind. One by one, their close family and friends succumbed to catatonia, until a visitor from a far away place arrived claiming to have a cure he was willing to share in exchange for one thing: the business man’s life.

We sat on the edge of our seats as the action unfolded. The business man spent an entire evening grappling with the idea of giving his life for his family. On the one hand, they’d live; on the other, they’d live a life of poverty.

The next morning he left to go meet the stranger with the cure, ready to give his life for those he loved.

“I just have one request,” he said. “Don’t ever tell them about the life they once had.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t want them to crave a life other than the one they will have now.”

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Forgiven

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She set up her portable microphone and speaker in front of the Greenfield Food Co-Op. Shoppers passed her by, driving their baskets into the store. I parked my car on the opposite end and walked towards the store’s double doors. The woman’s voice belted through the speaker, pitchy but heartfelt. I slowed my pace, listening to her lyrics of love and loss, pain and triumph. As I passed her, I gave a little wave of appreciation, before entering the store.

I headed straight for the produce section, filling my small basket with fresh strawberries, bananas, grapefruit, spinach, sprouts, white and yellow onion, potatoes, and mushrooms; my plan to make soup for dinner and a fruit smoothie for desert. Next I picked up Steven’s pistachio nuts, the ones straight from the bin because they were organic. I put two-pounds worth of nuts into a bag and moved on to the bread, taking a slight detour to check the seafood cases, though it wasn’t in the month’s budget. I inhaled the fishy smell as I made my way to the nine-grain bread Steven couldn’t live without. I treated myself to a few soy yogurts and headed to the checkout. Each time the sliding doors opened, we heard the woman outside singing, her song now on the heaviness of a broken heart.

“Would someone shut her up?” The woman in front of me said, turning to see if I’d join in her criticism. “At least if she could sing,” she shook her head in disgust.

“She’s just trying to make a few bucks,” the man behind me said. “Times are hard,” a pity smile formed on his face.

A woman in the next aisle over chimed in, siding with the singer. “You don’t know her story,” she argued. “Try to be kind. We’re all hurting in different ways.”

I stayed quiet, waiting for the line to move up, but inside I was suffocating on my own cowardice. The woman’s song poured through the doors in waves, sass in her voice now as she recounted how she escaped heroin’s dark chambers.

“Did you bring your own bags?” the cashier asked me as I started putting my items on the counter.

“I did,” I pulled the bags from the bottom of the cart, watching the total increase.

My hands started sweating as I wondered if I would have to put something back. As the cashier swiped the last item, Steven’s bread, I exhaled and put my card into the machine. Outside the singer was on to another song, this one about the brighter side of life. I paused near her, swaying to the rhythm. She smiled, exposing rotten and missing teeth. And when the song ended, I clapped.

“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate you stopping to listen.”

“How long have you been clean?” I asked her.

“Five years today,” she said, putting her hand over heart as she looked up towards the sky. “What about you?”

“Eight years, almost nine,” I said.

“Nice…you want to celebrate?” she handed me her microphone. “Go for it.”

I stood staring down at the microphone, anxiety stirring in my gut. And then the words to Alanis Morisette’s Forgiven came to me. I gripped the microphone and closed my eyes. The words slipping bravely off my tongue, loud, powerful, nasally.

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Truths & Lies

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Katelyn and her date, Michael, sat on the sofa. I sat in Lonnie’s chair across from them listening to Michael describe his job as a cake decorator.

“It wasn’t my dream job,” he said, leaning towards me. “Not at first. I went to school for business, and then one day I started making cakes. I started playing around with it and I found my niche.”

“What’s the strangest cake you’ve ever made?”

“The strangest,” he rubbed his hands together. “I once made a cake that looked like a skunk,” he laughed, pulling his phone out. “I can show you some.”

“Who would want a skunk cake?” I frowned.

“Here’s a taco cake…a Lego cake…a horse cake,” he held his phone out for me to see the pictures and then reached into his wallet and pulled out a business card. “In case you ever need a cake.”

“Wow!” I awed at the details on each cake.

“He’s really good,” Katelyn chimed, wrapping her arm around his. “What time is Lonnie coming?”

“He should be here by now,” I stood to look out the window. His car still not in the driveway. “I’ll text him…we can start. I don’t want the food to get cold.

We all sat around the table helping ourselves to the Mediterranean cuisine, the conversation now on how they met.

“I was going to the hair salon and Michael was coming out of the dry cleaners,” Katelyn laughed.” He swung his shirts over his shoulder, the plastic slapping me right in the face.”

“Oh my,” I feigned interest, knowing these details were more important to them than they’d ever be to anyone else.

“He stopped to see if I was okay and we just started talking…”

“You make cakes in business casual?” I joked.

“No…no,” he laughed and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I teach business classes at Trinity Community College too.”

“Interesting,” I sipped my wine.

“Yeah, I figured I’d give back to those who also want to start their own businesses.”

Katelyn glanced at me, barely able to contain her smile.

“You and Lonnie will get along great then,” I said, taking a bite of my salad. “He’s the department chair in Mathematics.”

Michael took a bite of his salad, his jawbone protruding.

“Do you know Dr. Nichols?” Katelyn asked.

Michael finished chewing and looked around the room.

“Never heard of him,” he took another bite. “I work part time, in the evenings. I don’t see many people,” he laughed.

“Oh, I see,” I smiled. “You’ll get to meet him tonight.”

“Looking forward to it.”

We ate in silence for a few minutes, exchanging smiles and nervous nods.

“How is everything at the gym?” I asked Katelyn.

“Great! Ever since Michael helped me with some business decisions, things have really picked up,” she smiled.

“What kind of business decisions?” I inquired.

“Really it was just a matter moving some things around,” Michael explained.

“What things?” I pressed, my duty as a big sister.

Michael tapped his foot against the chair next to him. He shot Katelyn a concerned look, his mood shifting from jovial to annoyed.

“He helped me make changes to equipment rental and vendors,” she waved her hand in the air, dismissing the seriousness.

Lonnie came through the front door, his keys dropping to the floor.

“Hello, hello,” he called.

“We’re in dinning room,” I yelled.

He rounded the corner, a big smile on his face.

“I made it,” he joked. “The traffic on the 101 is outrageous,” he said.

“Join us,” I said.

“Let me put some things away and wash my hands.”

When Lonnie returned to the table, he smelled of antibacterial hand soap. He had shed his jacket and replaced it with a dark grey cardigan.

“This is Michael,” Katelyn said.

“Michael, nice to meet you,” Lonnie and Michael exchanged a nod. “Welcome to our home.”

“You’ll never guess what Michael does?” I teased.

“Do tell,” Lonnie smiled.

“I’m a cake decorator,” Michael said.

“A cake decorator,” Lonnie repeated, wrapping his head around the idea. “So do you make those big fancy wedding cakes and things like that?”

“Yes, sir. Wedding cakes, birthday cakes, any occasion people want cake,” he cleared his throat. “I’ve made cakes for funerals, jail releases…”

“There’s always a reason to celebrate,” Lonnie laughed.

“Michael also works at TCC,” I added.

“Really?” Lonnie asked, mid bite. “What department?”

“Business,” Michael said, his jaw protruding again.

“That’s quite alright,” Lonnie said. “What classes are you teaching right now?”

“I uh…” Michael glanced over at Katelyn. “I teach introductory courses mostly.”

“I see,” Lonnie sipped his wine. “So you work with Dr. Livermore then, huh?”

“Well, I teach evening classes, so I don’t see much of anyone.”

“Makes sense.”

“He helped Katelyn make some changes at her gym…business changes,” I smiled.

“That’s great,” Lonnie nodded and finished chewing his food.” “So you have an MBA?”

“I do,” Michael gulped the last of his wine and reached for the bottle.

“What school did you go to?” Lonnie asked.

Michael looked down at his phone.

“I’m sorry. I really need to take this,” he left the room.

I listened as the front door opened and then closed behind him.

“What are you doing?” Katelyn complained.

“We’re just trying to get to know him,” I said. “Something you should be doing too.”

“I do know him,” Katelyn defended, getting up to check on Michael.

I waited for the door to close behind her and then turned to Lonnie.

“Have you ever seen him?” I asked Lonnie.

“I’ve never seen him, but that doesn’t mean anything,” he used his tongue as a toothpick before taking another bite.

“Search him up,” I said, pulling his card out of my pocket.

Lonnie took the card and stared at it for a moment, before pulling out his phone and pulling up the campus directory. He scrolled for a minute and then paused.

“Let me try something else,” he stood up and went to his office.

I waited, tapping my fingers against the table. Michael and Katelyn returned, his arm around her as they looked into each other’s eyes.

“Where’s Lonnie?” she asked.

“He’s in the bathroom,” I said, glancing at Michael, his body stiff. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah,” Michael answered. “That was work. Someone wants a unicorn cake.”

“You take business calls after hours?”

“We’re going to take off,” Katelyn interrupted, giving me the mind your own business look.

“Okay, well it was nice to meet you, Michael,” I stood and looked down the hallway for Lonnie.

“Yes, it was very nice to meet you,” Michael extended his hand. “You’ve got my card. Let me know if you need a cake,” he forced a laugh.

Lonnie came walking down the hallway just as Katelyn and Michael were walking out the door.

“It was nice meeting you,” Michael turned and extended his hand to Lonnie. “Maybe I’ll see you on campus.”

“Stop by my office when you get a chance,” Lonnie said.

Once they were at the end of the walkway, I closed the door and turned to Lonnie.

“So he does work at TCC?”

“No,” he laughed, scratching his head. “He’s a compulsive liar.”

“What?”

“Not only does he not work at the college, he is not the owner of Cake Break.” Lonnie explained. “His mother owns the bakery.”

“Nothing he said was true…”

“Well, he does decorate cakes…”

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A Dress for an Angel

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I woke up to Maggie’s screams. She had gone to the bathroom, and on the way back to our bedroom, saw the orange flames through the window.

“Fire, fire,” she screamed.

Dad ran out first, and then Mom, tying her robe around her waist. I stumbled out of my bed last, the cold floor like ice cubes under my bare feet.

“What is it?” Dad looked out the window. “Dear god,” he grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen. “Call 911…” he ran towards the Baker home.

Mom told us to put on our coat and shoes and then called 911. We went from door to door, knocking and screaming for everyone to wake up. Mr. Rigby put on his boots and ran to help my dad. Mr. Spencer and Mr. Everson were next, following the boot prints in the snow. Martha Spencer collected the children in her home, while the other wives, including my mother, went to see how they could help the Bakers.

“The children,” Mom cried, wringing her hands as she trudged through the snow in flats.

We heard the sirens in the distance, still too far away to find comfort, but close enough to grab hold of hope as we waited to find out if the Bakers were okay. Mrs. Spencer started a pot of coffee and warmed milk for the children. Maggie and I shared a glass, sipping the sweet, frothy beverage. We stayed quiet except for the soft gulps coming from the Rigby boys. Maryellen Spencer paced alongside her mother, her teeth chattering from the cold wafting in every time Mrs. Spencer opened the front door to see what was happening.

When the sirens and flashing red lights were at the end of the road we ran to the front door to watch the firefighters go to work. The EMT wasn’t far behind. Smoke filled the air now, thick and suffocating, so Mrs. Spencer ushered us back inside. Our view from the window was blocked by the Everson’s shed. Maggie grabbed my hand while we waited.

Mr. Spencer came running back first, his face covered with ash.

“We need some towels,” he burst through the door.

“Are they okay,” I asked, Mrs. Spencer down the hall gathering as many towels as she could find.

Mr. Spencer looked down at me, his eyes narrowing with emotion. I looked away before I saw tears fall, but as he was leaving, towels piled high in his arms, I saw the damp tracks stretching from his eyes to his beard. The sirens of two more EMT’s were racing towards us as the first drove Mrs. Baker away. Mr. Baker was next, and then their daughter Michelle.

“Where’s the baby?” Mrs. Spencer yelled.

We all waited to see Molly, the rambunctious two-year old we chased through the yard in the evenings while our mothers visited. And as if in slow motion, Mom and Dad walked hand in hand towards the Spencer home, the others behind them, each with a somber expression pale against the rising sun.

It was decided that the Spencers and the Eversons would drive out to the county hospital until other members of the Baker family were able to get there. Mom and Dad took Maggie and I home, what felt like the longest walk I’d ever taken in my eleven years. Mom made coffee and biscuits. Dad sat at the table still covered in ash.

“I want to make a dress for Molly,” I announced.

“Not right now,” Mom said.

“Yes, right now,” I protested, emotion getting the best of me. “She needs a dress to go home.”

My mother set up the sewing machine and we sifted through reams and reams of fabric until we found one we thought she’d like. I drew a pattern, my mother’s corrective hands guiding me. And then I began to sew the dress in the same way I had sewn dresses for my dolls.

“It’s beautiful,” Mom said when I was almost done. “A dress for an angel.”

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Remember Me

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I found her address while at my parents’ house going through my old college bins. They were filled with papers and other dorm-life memorabilia. White and yellow legal pads were filled with chemistry notes, long equations that meant nothing to me now, drawings of cells with lines to diagram the different parts. Pages and pages of psychology notes were highlighted pink, yellow, and green, the original words now blurred. Thick packets outlined the inner workings of the brain, listed Spanish vocabulary words, and defined theories.

“Here’s some lemonade,” my mother said, venturing out into the garage to see how I was coming along.

“Thanks, ma.”

“How’s it going?” she looked around at the mess.

“Well, right now I’m just going through everything.”

“What are you going to do with this stuff?” she put her hands on her hips.

“I don’t know yet…it’s stuff I’ll never use again, but it’s weird to just throw it away.”

“That’s a part of life. We can’t hold on to everything,” she picked up my molecular biology paper. “What are Viral-derived transduction vectors?”

“I don’t know…”

“Then you don’t need this,” she tossed the paper back into the file and went inside the house.

I kept working through the bins, finding four supply boxes filled with gel pens and mechanical pencils. The batteries in my graphic calculator had long died. Every student planner I ever owned formed the bottom of the last bin, meticulous schedules organizing class and study time. If I ever needed to explain my whereabouts during those four years, I could since I had assigned myself a task for each hour of the day, with six or seven hours dedicated to sleep. In my senior year planner was a slip of paper with a faded name and address. I held the paper close to my face and squinted.

Micaela Mitchell…256 Dawson Lane, Stillcreek.

She had been my study buddy, the smartest girl in all her classes. Her name was on every dean’s list. Professors mentored her, invited her to participate in their research. Graduate school was hers for the taking. My first thought when I saw her address was not to go there, but then I remembered that she had not attended our sociology final. In fact, I never heard from her, though I called several times. I graduated liberal arts, and she graduated with a science degree, separate days and times so our paths never crossed again.

I scoured the planner for Micaela’s phone number, but I only had her address. Something in me screamed go see if she’s there. After stuffing everything back inside the bins, I hopped in my car and set the GPS to direct me to Dawson Lane, a thirty-five minute drive.

Stillcreek was a small city outside of Millstone, one occupying the north end of Redwater Blvd, the other occupying the south end. The city was quaint, dedicated to maintaining its long history. Attached homes lined one side of the street; shops lined the other, with a big park built around the creek. I turned onto Dawson, and there were more attached homes, one of them Micaela’s. The GPS led me to a brick home with two sets of stairs, 256 on the right, 259 on the left.

I took a deep breath and climbed the stairs on the right. At the top I knocked and waited, listening for movement, voices, any sign that someone was home. It wasn’t until then that I thought about what I would say. I’ll apologize for stopping by without calling and tell her I came across her number while cleaning out my old college bins, I thought.

Slow footsteps were approaching the door. I imagined a worn pair of house shoes sliding against the wood. The person unlocked a dead bolt and unlatched a chain before opening the door just a sliver.

“Hi,” I said.

“How can I help you?” a woman with a blue hair scarf asked.

“Well, I’m looking for someone named Micaela Mitchell…we went to college together and…”

“Hold on,” the woman slammed the door.

When the door opened again a young woman my age stared back at me. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, drops of what looked like blood on the front of her shirt.

“Hi…Micaela?”

“Do I know you?”

“We went to college together,” I smiled, but she didn’t smile back. “I found your address in…”

“Okay.”

“I thought I would come see how you were doing. I tried calling you finals week and…”

“How do I look like I’m doing?”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” she closed the door.

I stood frozen for a second before turning to leave. And then the door opened again. It was the woman in the blue hair scarf.

“Micaela doesn’t remember much before the accident,” she explained. “The morning of her final exam a truck crashed into her car. Her brain was injured,” the woman wiped her eyes. “That’s why she doesn’t remember you, but she doesn’t remember me either, and I’m her mother.”

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Ocean Magic

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It wasn’t a planned stop. We were all packed and ready to end our vacation when the van broke down an hour into our drive. The tow truck driver arrived within fifteen minutes, finding us stranded on the side of the freeway.

“Hi, folks,” he said as he approached. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“We were driving along and lost power,” John demonstrated by turning the key and revealing the soft whine instead of the van’s usual robust engine turning.

“I can get it on the truck bed and tow you to the nearest auto shop.”

“That sounds good,” John said.

Once the van was loaded on the truck, we climbed in, John first, then Nate, Selah, and me. The ride was short but bumpy, Nate and Selah getting a kick out of the unpredictable bouncing.

We waited two hours to learn that the van needed an ignition switch they’d have to order, and we would be delayed for at least two days. John arranged for a hotel while I played I-Spy with Selah and Nate.

It wasn’t as nice as our previous hotel, but with a looming $500 car-repair bill, we chose necessity over luxury. The first day we sat around waiting to hear from Paul, the mechanic. When we finally heard back, it was good news. The part had arrived from their sister store and he would be able to get to the repair later in the day.


“Let’s go out,” I said, needing fresh air.

As John held up their jackets, Nate and Selah stopped jumping on the bed, running over to him to slip their little arms into the puffy sleeves.

“Where are we going?” Selah asked.

“Wherever the wind takes us,” John said, glancing over at me.

We took the stairs to the lobby, surprised when we found it crowded with people .

“What’s happening here?” John asked.

“We’re waiting for the shuttle bus. It takes you through the city…and it’s free,” a woman and her husband overheard and answered.

John glanced at me, giving me the you want to look.

“You think the kids will be okay?”

“I think so,” I said.

Just then the hotel manager asked for our attention, her voice loud but squeaky. She explained the trip, how long it was, the stops the driver would make, and that we were prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages of any kind while on the shuttle. It all made sense to us so we boarded, finding seats towards the back of the bus.

The first few stops were to historic buildings in a small downtown center. Next were stops marking the life and untimely deaths of famous people we hadn’t heard of. And the site of the city’s famous ice cream cannery, where we ate samples of ice cream while a man described how they made it, and eventually led us on a short tour.

Our last stop was the coastline. We had thirty minutes to explore. The driver stayed with the bus, standing outside the door smoking a cigarette. John and I followed the others in a walk along the shore, sandwiched between the blue water and the majestic rock formation, nature’s wall some dared to climb. Selah and Nate did their best to find their footing and make their way up the side but gave up, more excited about the water, ready to dip their feet into the cold waves.

I took Nate’s hand, and John grabbed Selah’s. We squealed as the cold water lapped over our feet.

“It’s cold, mommy,” Nate cried and jumped back onto the shore.

I stayed for a moment, watching him draw lines in the sand. The water was not so cold anymore, now somehow purifying; the soul’s awakening as all mental and emotional binds were loosened. I glanced over at John and Selah. They too were standing in the water, staring out at the endless ocean, in awe of its magic.

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The Things They Left Behind

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It was my first job, a member of the nighttime clean-up crew at our local county fair. I was sixteen, two months shy of my seventeenth birthday looking to make some quick cash to spend on shoes and make up. When I ran into my high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Nelson, at the mall the day after school ended, she told me to apply to the position, that she’d be a reference if I needed one.

“Thanks, Mrs. Nelson,” I said.

“It’ll be good experience for you,” she said as she walked away.

I was excited to find out that the training was paid. It was a full day of regulatory stuff and then crew assignments. A woman named Raquel, Jimmy who was grade ahead of me at St. Vincent High School; Sara, a mother of two: Kennedy, whose father’s ultimatum was to get a job or move out of the house, and I covered the south end of the fairgrounds, which included cleaning three men’s and women’s bathrooms, each with four stalls; sweeping trash, emptying garbage cans, and reporting damage, suspicious activity, and lost items.

After my first night, I wanted to quit. Raquel watched my every move, it being her second year on the job gave her some kind of seniority, in her mind at least.

“Not like that…don’t forget to do this…why did you put this here…do you know what you’re doing” her voice was in my ear all night.

By the end of the week, I had found a groove. Garbage, toilets, sinks, floors. I started at the perimeter and moved towards the center of the fairgrounds, sweeping mostly garbage into my dustpan. But occasionally I stumbled upon things that had fallen out of pockets, backpacks, strollers. There were a myriad of ear phones, from the wired to the wireless, expensive to inexpensive, that had made their way under benches, in the nearby brush, and where there had once been long lines of people, hiding in plain sight.

To make my shift go by faster, I turned it into a quest for missing items. Raquel’s voice blabbed on in the background, but I had a mission. I found shoes, wet clothes, baby bottles, dentures, jewelry, glasses, and drug paraphernalia. We reported the paraphernalia and took the rest of the items to the lost and found. Some nights I found wallets and mini purses, and, though we weren’t supposed to look through them, I did.

The owner of the first wallet was named James Johnson, who, according to his license, was a short, pudgy, fifty-two-year-old man. He had forty dollars, his ATM card, his medical insurance card, and a picture of his family. From the picture, they didn’t seem like the fair-going type, but still I tried to picture them there. Were they there all day? Or were they the type to come as the sun was setting just to see what all the fuss was about?

The second wallet was a brown leather, women’s double-zipper style with a matching leather pull- tab. It belonged to Nancy Cameron, a thirty-two-year-old dancer, who owned Dance U Studio in Shasta Park. Her ATM card and checkbook were stuffed inside, along with a ring and a picture of a woman who looked to be her mother. She was an organ donor and had contributed to some Feed the Children organization, earning herself a pin she kept in the change pouch.

Most of the mini purses I found had just an identification card and a variety of lipstick, tampons, some kind of perfume, and hair ties. Melanie Stronger had lost her mini purse, the glittery pouch found under a spinning coaster. She was my age, a new driver, with freedom that now probably felt heavy as she and her friends searched the fairground for the small purse. Jeannette Thompson had also lost her mini-purse. It held her identification, phone, and insulin. It was found near the baby farm animals. Had she gotten lost in the cuteness of the baby pigs and goats? And Pamela Livingston had lost her mini-purse. She was a twenty-seven-year-old expectant mother. Inside her purse were saltines, mints, and the sonogram pictures of her unborn baby, she had likely shown her friends. I couldn’t imagine her getting on the rides. Instead she was there for the exhibits and to enjoy her last few, child-free months.

“What happens to all this stuff?” I asked the lost and found attendant.

“We try to contact the people if there’s a phone number.”

“And if you don’t reach them?”

“Then it all just becomes stuff that got left behind,” she shrugged. “Most of it’s replaceable.”

“But some of it isn’t,” I argued, but she was not interested in having that conversation.

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One Scoop, Two Scoops

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Ellie was deep in paperwork when I got home from school. I threw my backpack on the floor and flopped onto the couch.

“What’s all this?” I kicked a box on the coffee table.

“Be careful,” she warned. “It’s a surprise.”

“What is it?”

“You’ll see,” she teased, going back to her paperwork. “We’re leaving in an hour, so go do your homework.”

“I don’t have any.”

She glanced over at me, and we both laughed.

“Fine,” I said, picking up my backpack.

I grabbed a yogurt from the refrigerator and sat at the kitchen table, working on algebraic expressions. After an hour my paper was smudged with eraser marks, the paper thin in some places, but I was confident my answers would get me at least a B on the assignment, which was all I needed to keep my allowance.

“Let’s go,” Ellie said, a thick folder under her arm. “We’ll come back for the boxes.”

“What’s in them?”

“You’ll see,” she winked. “Did you finish you homework?”

“It’s Monday; I only had math.”

We hopped into Ellie’s Volvo station wagon and headed downtown. Manicured yards with blooming perennials and campaign signs were replaced with high rises, parking garages, restaurants, and the county jail.

Ellie drove down H street three times before finding a parking spot in front of The Boys and Girls Club.

“I hope this isn’t the surprise,” I rolled my eyes.

“Follow me,” she said, slipping her credit card into the parking meter.

We walked three long blocks, sprinting part of the way, to the Wakefield Administration Office. Ellie took a number from the dispenser and sat in a chair close to one of the reception windows. She went through her papers double checking they were all there.

“107…107,” a woman said over the intercom.

Ellie and I followed a red-haired woman into a small room.

“Hi, I’m Tracey,” the woman extended her hand.

“I’m Ellie, and this is Anna.”

“So, you’re here for a business license?”

“Yes,” Ellie shook her head.

“You didn’t need to make an appointment here,” Tracey looked befuddled.

“I was told to come here because I need to do a transfer…”

“Oh, I see,” Tracey opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out three forms. “You are in the right place then.

I watched as Tracey explained the forms and showed Ellie where to sign, trying to follow along.

“You bought a business?” I whispered.

Ellie smiled. We shook Tracey’s hand on our way out.

“Where is it?” I wrapped my arm around Ellie’s as we walked back to the car.

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

“You’re not even going to give me a hint?”

“Nope.”

The traffic was much heavier on our way back home, forcing us to wait for intersections to clear before a green light meant anything.

“We’ll go by the house and get the boxes,” Ellie said.

And that’s what we did, lugged one heavy box at a time to the back of the Volvo, placing them so they wouldn’t slide around during the drive.

“How far do we have to go?” I asked Ellie, eating another yogurt as she put on her seatbelt and sped off.

“Not too far.”

We rode through one neighborhood, and then another, and another, reaching the West Wakefield Community Center. She drove passed it, pulling into a lot with basketball courts, an adjacent Fish Market, and a skateboard park. In the corner was what looked like a big, blue mobile trailer with ice cream cones painted on the side.

“An ice cream truck?” I panicked.

“Who doesn’t like ice cream?” she smiled.

“This is so embarrassing,” I sunk down in my seat.

“Come on… help me get the boxes.”

She opened the small shop, a sugary smell welcoming us inside the crowded space. We unpacked two blenders, a waffle cone maker and holder, scoopers, empty squeeze bottles, and other odds and ends I didn’t recognize but was too angry to inquire about. Even though the inside looked clean, Ellie cleaned it again, wiping counter tops, sweeping the floor, making sure each piece of equipment was ready when she began serving customers.

By that Saturday, Ellie had packed the ice cream shop with every flavor of ice cream, had cones ready to go, and strawberry, chocolate, and Carmel sauces were in bottles. She woke me up early to present new aprons. They were blue with pink spots. Hers read “One Scoop,” and mine read “Two Scoops.”

“Are you serious?”

“Come on. We don’t want to be late on our first day.”

“Who eats ice cream this early?”

“We sell coffee and hot cocoa too.”

The lot was empty when we arrived. Ellie went to work first giving me small tasks–wiping the counters, starting an inventory list.

“We haven’t even sold anything,” I protested.

“But we will…”

An hour passed, and then another hour passed. No customers. Ellie fiddled with ingredients, arranging and then rearranging them. I stepped outside and stood in front of the order window. Kids were arriving at the skate park and on the basketball court. Morning yoga students were arriving for their class. Musicians and dancers were arriving for a performance later that day.

“Ellie, they don’t know were open.”

I ran over to the basketball courts, then the skate park and told the players to come and get a cool drink when they got thirsty. I ran inside the community center and told everyone I saw about the ice cream shop, two little ladies asking me questions about the menu.

“Would you mind bringing each of us a cup of coffee?” one of the ladies asked, handing me a ten-dollar bill. “I trust you will bring my change back?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right back.”

I ran back to Ellie, “I need two medium black coffees.”

“What?”

“Two ladies want coffee,” I handed her the ten-dollar bill.

As Ellie handed me the coffees, another customer, one of the dancers, was headed for the window, her friend not far behind. I delivered the coffees, earning myself a two-dollar tip, and headed back. The line was growing.

We made white mochas, iced coffees, warmed morning buns and muffins, and blended fruit smoothies, until the afternoon rush when we perfected our ice-cream cones, made milkshakes, sundaes, and served sandwiches.

“You want something?” Ellie asked me after the crowd thinned.

“Vanilla ice cream,” I smiled.

She put sprinkles and a cherry on top and sat next to me while I ate.

“Thanks for helping me today,” she pulled my hair away from my face.

“Thanks for making me come,” I laughed.

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Are You Ready?

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It started to rain about an hour into our drive. Clare was next to me, her head leaning against the window as she slept. I listened to people share the details of their lives only to be berated by the radio host. When I agreed with the host I laughed, but when I thought his comments were too harsh, my heart hurt for the caller.

“Why would he say that?” I griped under my breath. “Isn’t this a show about helping people?” I complained, ignoring my own hypocrisy.

I followed our usual route down a two-lane road, through the heavily wooded town, homes tucked behind the trees away from sight. A caller came on the radio, her deep sobs a traumatizing introduction.

“Judy!” the host called. “Judy! Listen to me, Judy. Your tears aren’t helpful, Judy.”

“Wow,” I said, pronouncing each letter.

“I’m sorry,” Judy cried.

“Don’t be sorry. Just stop the crying and tell me why you’re calling.”

“Jerk,” I said louder this time. “You know why she’s calling. It says on the screen.”

I listened to Judy’s breaths as she tried to calm herself.

“Okay…” she started again. “I’m calling today because I am wondering which direction I should go…”

“You called me to tell you which direction you should go?” the host taunted. “What am I a GPS?”

“No, sorry…I’m not explaining myself right,” she said, but he was interrupting again.

“Are you ready to make this call?” he shouted. “Are you ready to change your life?” he played his signature voiceover.

“I recently divorced after twelve years and…”

“Got dumped, huh?”

“I’m calling because I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next,” she ignored his comment, a sign she was regaining her strength. “

“Do I look like I have a crystal ball?” the host attacked.

“Well, I have some ideas,” she ignored his insult again. “I really just wanted to know which steps I should take to open my own business.”

“What am I now? A business consultant?”

“No…”

“What makes you think you can run a business, Judy?”

“I’m a fast-learner, I’m good with people, I’m good with numbers…”

“Thanks for the CV, Judy, but that doesn’t make you ready to own a business.”

“That’s why I’m calling…” she snapped.

“Judy, are you getting angry?” he teased.

“I really don’t see the point of this call anymore.”

“Now you’re ready to change your life,” he flipped the script. “Now you’re finally ready!” he played the voiceover again.

“Boo,” I yelled. “You are a horrible life coach.” I couldn’t listen to anymore.

I switched to another station and let the jazz ensembles sooth away the growing tension.

“Are you okay?” Clare woke and looked over at me. “How long was I asleep?”

“I’m okay,” I said. “You missed the Adam Meyer’s Show.”

“I don’t know why you listen to that garbage,” she shook her head as she reached into her goody bag. “You want a granola bar?”

“Sure.”

She opened the wrapper and handed me the oat and honey flavored bar. I thought about her question. Why did I tune in to the emotionally abusive program? I still lived with Clare after my car accident three years earlier when she took me in, body cast and all, and nursed me back to health. She was my rehab buddy and now my road trip buddy, always willing to join me on an adventure. But where was I going?

“Where do you see yourself in the next five years?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. Where do you see yourself?” she returned, and when I didn’t respond she yelled, “Are you ready to change your life?” mimicking Adam Meyers.

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What Remains

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I left work fifteen minutes early so that I had enough time to catch the train and get to Ethel Matheson’s house where I’d spend the evening making meals to last her the next few days. We had an informal agreement: For seventy-five dollars a week, I made her meals, did laundry and some light cleaning, and emptied the P.O. Box of Crystal Gladson, her daughter, who lived overseas and used this mailbox to send her mother mail, gifts, money.

“Why doesn’t she send it to your house?” I inquired one day.

“Because I’m always moving,” she laughed, though she had been in the same house for the past five years.

I didn’t press the issue; I figured this inconvenience was due to stubbornness. This was the way she had always done things, and this would be the way she would do things until the good lord called her home.

There was standing room only on the train, so I wedged myself between a man in a suit carrying a briefcase, and a young woman wearing a backpack and foggy glasses. I grabbed the handrail as the doors closed. The smell of cologne and sweat filled the small space, loud chatter followed by deafening silence weaving though one moment into the next. At each stop, just as many people exited as those who boarded, bringing new smells, new conversations. A seat opened up about halfway through my ride, and I found myself sitting next to a woman who either had no teeth or had left them at home. She made chewing motions, mumbling her discontent with a person who wasn’t there. Across from us was a high school kid jamming to music. Every part of his body bopped to a hip-hop beat, notifications on his phone a small interruption he welcomed.

“Yo, they found the remains of Jody Ferrer, the daughter of that cult leader…what was his name? he snapped his fingers.

“Jessie Ferrer,” the man next to him said.

“Yeah, that’s his name. He was ruthless…bound women’s hands with wire.”

“They say his wife was more ruthless.”

“Didn’t he kill her though?”

“That’s what he said, but they never found her body.”

I turned my attention back to the woman. She was still chewing and mumbling. We were maybe three minutes from my stop. Daylight was fading, the air chilly, perfect for the soup I planned to make for Ethel.

When I arrived, I gave a curtesy knock and then entered with my key.

“Ethel,” I called. “I’m here.”

“I’m in the kitchen, dear,” her voice strong.

I put my purse on the end table and shut the door, the blank wall catching my attention.

“What happened to the picture?”

“It fell…just came crashing down,” she explained.

“I can get it fixed for you,” I walked into the kitchen. “I know how much you love that picture of you and your daughter.”

“Oh, that’s okay dear.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” she flipped a page in her bible without looking up.

I washed my hands and began making dinner, broccoli and cheddar soup.

“Make sure you’re cutting the broccoli into small pieces.”

“I will.”

“Not too small though,” she stared at me over the top of her reading glasses.

“You got it.”

She disappeared into the back room a few times, always returning to monitor my progress.

“Not too much salt, dear.”

While I waited for the soup to cook, I started on the next meal, a 11×13 inch pan of enchiladas. My phone rang as I was dipping the tortilla shells in red sauce. I looked around to make sure Ethel was still in the back and then answered.

“Hey, Tiff, I can’t talk right now. Let me call you later,” I checked again to make sure Ethel wasn’t coming down the hallway to the kitchen.

“I think that old lady you work for is Jessie Ferrer’s wife,” she half shouted.

“What?”

“They found the daughter buried on the property…”

“I heard.”

“They showed a picture of Jody, and in the background is a woman that looks just like that lady you work for.”

“Okay…I’ll…”

“She was one of the wives.”

I heard Ethel coming down the hallway, her house shoes gliding across the carpet.

“Who were you talking to?” she chastised. “I don’t want you taking calls.”

“It was my mother,” I lied. “She wants me to pick up some medicine for her.”

Ethel sat down and went back to her reading. I put the enchiladas in the oven and started washing the dishes I had used.

“I’ll take my soup in the living room at six-thirty,” she stood up and moved to the living room to watch Murder She Wrote.

I quivered as the theme song played. The sink filled with bubbles and I was about to dip my hands in when my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a text from Tiffany with a link to the news story. I clicked on the link, and as Tiffany had said, there was an old, black and white picture of Jody Ferrer and in the background was Ethel wearing a long skirt, her hair wrapped around her head in a bun. She was a person of interest, still considered to be dangerous, thirty years later.

After I washed the dishes, I served Ethel her soup.

“Do you want me to set the bowl on the table? It’s hot.”

“Put it here,” she pulled a dinner tray from between the sofa and the chair.

I set the blue, porcelain soup bowl in the middle of the tray. She reached for the spoon, not giving me time to take my hands off the bowl. Deep scars covered her hands. My eyes widened, and I stepped back.

“There are worse things in life than scarred hands,” she said.

“Of course…I know.”

“I spent a good part of my life thinking it was the worst thing. And then I realized life isn’t just about what you’ve endured, but what remains,” she slurped the soup.

“How did you know Jody Ferrer?”

“When our hands were bound with wire we prayed together.”

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Letters from Strangers

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The letters kept coming in, from what seemed like strangers whose return addresses spanned the globe. At first, I stacked them on the kitchen table so my grandmother saw them when she came home, but the doctors sent her to a stroke rehab facility instead, and the letters kept coming.

“You’ve been getting a lot of mail, grandma,” I told her.

“Who are you?” she stared at me.

“I’m Holly, your granddaughter, remember?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she paused. “My granddaughter…I didn’t know I had a granddaughter,” she laughed.

“I’m your daughter, Lilly’s, daughter,” I had to repeat each time I visited.

She searched for the clarity in my statement, her face mirroring just how complex this task was for her now. I grabbed the photo album and went over the pictures with her again, watching her eyes widen as I reintroduced her to the family. By the time I reached the end of the album, I could tell by her expression that she had already forgotten the people she had been delighted to see.

“Grandma, do you know someone named Alice?” I pulled one of the letters from my bag.

“Alice!” her face lit up. “My friend from Belgium,” she rubbed her hands together. “She had her last round of chemo…breast cancer,” she clarified.

“Well, she wrote you a letter,” I handed her the envelope.

She slipped on her glasses and pulled the folded, handwritten letter from the envelope. I watched emotion fill her.

“Alice is in remission,” she smiled.

“Here’s one from Ahmed…”

“My friend from Canada,” she opened the letter. “He lost his arms and is learning to write with his foot,” she showed me lines of well-formed letters.

“How old is he?”

“He’s seventeen,” she read the letter. “It’s been a tough adjustment…I’m so proud of him.”

“This one is from Gabriel…”

“Ah, Gabriel, the newscaster,” she opened the letter and read the scribbled handwriting. “He did it,” she cheered. “He quit his job and started his own business.”

“Here’s one from Alma…”

“From Denmark…she had a heart transplant a few months ago,” my grandmother paused to read the letter.

Her energy shifted as she absorbed the bad news. I watched her fold the letter and stuff it back inside the envelope.

“It’s from Alma’s husband…she didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry, Grandma” I put my hand on hers.

“I need my pen and writing pad,” she looked around the room.

“I’ll go and pick them up from your house. Where do you keep everything?”

“Who are you?” she asked, her face contorted as though she were staring at a stranger.

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For Sam

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Sam slept in the front passenger seat, his ears twitching when new sounds entered the bus. I listened to one podcast after another, something that made the drive more enjoyable and distracted me from the purpose of my trip: the reading of my father’s will, where my sisters were guaranteed to make a scene. Tammy-Lynn, the oldest, was always ready to fight, anger boiling in her blood. Juliette, the youngest, was the crier who could make anything sound unfair. Vanessa, the middle, like me, who had mastered sulking at an early age and was still ignoring me because I didn’t ask her if she wanted to sign her name to dad’s birthday card last year.

The temperature changed from hot to cool as I left the valley and moved closer to the bay. I trailed behind a diesel truck, cars speeding passed us. The smell of ivy and mugwort wafting through the vents. We crossed the bridge, rounding the long, wide curve into the city. The traffic was thick with the afternoon lunch crowd. I had two hours before our meeting with the lawyer, time enough for a long lunch on the beach, so I headed towards my favorite sandwich shop, Little Lucca’s, and ordered a pastrami sub to go.

My bus climbed the hilly city, its engine screaming all the way. Sam barked at a passing group of surfers when we got to the beach. I found an unoccupied area and parked so the sun shone into the bus, a nice contrast to the chilly wind outside. Sam followed me to the back where I gathered his food bowl and opened a can of beef dinner. He wagged his tail and whined until the bowl was in front of him. I plopped down on the middle seat and unwrapped my sandwich. The wind whistled, jostling the bus back and forth.

I thought about my dad, the man he had been–strong, supportive, funny. Every year he planned fun summer vacations, surprising us on the last day of school with details of our upcoming trip. He coached our softball and soccer teams. We had big birthday parties where he was always the entertainment. When we fought, he raced into our rooms playing judge and jury until we forgot all about the injury. Our home was filled with a balance of discipline and love. It was the place neighborhood kids came to hang out, to exist in peace.

And then our mother died, our world crumbling into chaos. At first dad tried to hold everything together, keep the family from collapsing in on itself. But one by one we unraveled, replacing sadness with anger–anger at each other, anger him, anger at the world. Soon he retreated, his life on autopilot as he waited for us to turn eighteen and move away.

Sometimes my dad invited me to go fishing with him, and I’d go. He didn’t always say much, but what he did say stuck with me.

“I wish life had turned out differently,” he said.

“Me too, dad.”

“Your sisters…” he stared out at the water. “I know they’re not easy to get along with.”

“No, they’re not.” I said, thinking I knew where the conversation was headed.

“Don’t let them take advantage of you,” he winked.

I finished my sandwich and headed to the lawyer’s office. My sisters stood out front waiting for me, their eyes throwing daggers.

“About time,” Tammy-Lynn shouted.

“We have fifteen minutes,” I patted Sam’s head to calm him.

“I wish I knew we we’re bringing dogs. I would have brought mine,” Juliette complained.

Vanessa kept her back to me as we walked in, the lawyer excited to see Sam.

“Look at this little fellow,” he reached for Sam. “Let’s see what your daddy left for you,” he whispered into Sam’s ear.

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The Photographers

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In my mind the word photographer signified weddings, festivals and parties, animals, and water, so when we learned that photographers were coming to take pictures I couldn’t imagine why.

“But, mama, what are they going to take pictures of?”

She continued sewing the holes in my school uniform, a blue, collared shirt and skirt. I turned to my aunt who was washing clothes in a tin bin, soap suds spilling out onto the ground.

“Why are the photographers coming?” I asked her.

She touched my chin with her wet hand and smiled.

“Our souls,” she began. “Go play, or I’m going to put you to work.”

I ran to my friend’s house and found her making mud cakes, so I joined.

“The photographers are coming today,” I said.

“I know.”

“Why?”

“To take pictures,” she rounded a mud cake using a rusted can we had found on the beach.

“Of what?

She shrugged and stood up to get more water.

“That’s enough,” I heard her mom yell from inside the house.

I helped her make three more mud cakes so that she now had four three-layer cakes. We danced around them, proud of the masterpiece.

“Maybe the photographers will take pictures of the cakes,” my voice high with excitement.

“Let’s put rocks around them, that way the photographers notice.”

We went searching for rocks, using the ends of our shirts to carry them back to her house. After inspecting our collection, we decided to place the rocks around the mud cakes from smallest to largest. When we were done we sat and waited. I thought about how the photographers would arrive, what they wanted to take pictures of.

Our plan to stay with our mud cakes was foiled when my mother came for me and my friend’s mother called her inside. I ran ahead of my mother back to our house, a small two-bedroom, concrete shelter. My mother closed the door and told me to study my lessons. I pulled out a plastic-bound booklet and started reading my spelling words. A few minutes later, I heard a helicopter in the distance.

“They’re coming,” I said under my breath.

My mother was in the kitchen with my aunt, so I moved over to the bedroom window and stared until the helicopter was in view, its spinning rotors creating a whirlwind of dirt and debris. It landed on an open piece of land used for morning and evening prayer. Two men and a woman stepped out, their cameras hanging from their necks. They looked around pointing at the buildings cradled by the mountain, their faces revealing awe. It made me feel proud, though I still didn’t know why they selected our home. I pulled the curtain back to watch them move along the path. The man with curly hair and tinted glasses was he first to hold his camera up to capture the mountainside. The woman was next, preferring to take pictures that were up close, personal. Our wash bins, clotheslines, doors, windows, rooftops, people–those walking home for lunch, shop owners announcing their goods, anyone who didn’t know photographers were scheduled to come or didn’t care.

I let my mind burn with questions as I watched the photographers, but when they were out of sight, curiosity sent me running after them.

“I’ll show them the mud cakes,” I thought as my bare feet hit the ground.

When I approached, the woman was kneeling in front of a ceramic bowl outside the market.

“Why do you want a picture of that bowl?” I asked.

The woman snapped her camera and then turned to look at me.

“Because it’s beautiful.”

“What makes it beautiful?”

“The culture, the history,” she explained.

“What are you going to do with the pictures?”

“We’re going to print them so everyone can see them.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“People who like to learn things about different cultures.”

“How will they learn by just looking at the pictures?”

“I’ll tell them,” she smiled.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we told them?” I asked, as the woman’s smile faded.

My mother was calling me, her voice piercing, her native tongue capturing disapproval, a lack of trust in foreigners who came to get a glimpse into our souls.

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Rudy’s Back

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I was thirteen, Olivia was fourteen, and Rudy was fourteen-and-a-half. We lived on the same street–Lovebird Lane–attended the same school where we passed notes between classes, and ventured out to the same church every Sunday with our hair slicked to our scalps, our clothes stiff with starch. We rode our bikes on the bike trail, all the way out to the Benedict District, perusing small mom and pop shops, pooling our money for a large pack of barbeque sunflower seeds and an orange Crush soda we shared, wiping the lip with the ends of our shirts. These were some of the best days of our lives.

Olivia says she noticed when Rudy changed, but I never did. We still went to the same school, we still lived in the same neighborhood, we still went to the same church, until we didn’t. First Mrs. Holloway called Rudy’s parents in for a parent-teacher conference. She expressed how happy she was with Rudy’s work and praised them for raising such an amazing young man. But she did have concerns about the amount of time Rudy was spending with a boy named Logan. She thought they should know that something unholy was brewing.

Next the entire neighborhood was talking. Parents forbade their children from going to that house. Our parents sat us down and talked to us, warned us not to partake in such silliness. And when Olivia and I asked our fathers why they grabbed our shoulders and shook us as if to free us of Satan himself.

We learned through whispers that Rudy had been sent away to a family in the desert where he’d relearn God’s plan for man. Olivia and I thought about taking the thirty-mile ride on our bikes to find him but didn’t dare risk angering our parents whose next recourse would have been taking the belt to our backsides.

I don’t think we forgot Rudy, but after six months and then a year, he just wasn’t at the tops of our minds. We were in a new grade and had a new friend, Jessie-May. She lived one street over and had a pink Beach Cruiser with a basket in front that we used to store our sunflower seeds, sodas, and jellybeans. On Saturdays we rode our bikes along the bike path to the Benedict District moving in and out of shops, snickering when we saw a cute boy. It was the week before our summer break, and we each had enough money in our pockets to buy a Crush soda and cheddar Lays. We zigzagged through the streets, licking our fingers and slurping orange soda.

Before I saw him, I saw his bike parked outside the comic bookstore.

“It’s his. See the Green Lantern sticker?” I pointed.

“Let’s go inside,” Jessie-May suggested.

“I don’t know,” Olivia hesitated.

Just then Rudy walked out with three comic books wrapped in a plastic cover.

“Hi,” I said, watching him step back out of fear.

“Hi,” he muttered, staring down at his comic books.

“When did you get back?”

“Yeah, we haven’t seen you at school…or church.”

“I go to a different school now.”

“Do you want to ride bikes with us?” Jessie-May asked.

“No, I’m not allowed to,” he looked at me and then Olivia, our faces stiff with disapproval.

We watched him ride away, saddened our dear friend’s spirit had been broken, fearful that this interaction might get back to our parents.

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The Lesson

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Jacob left early that morning, around 4am, to pick up his niece from the airport. I knew he’d be gone for a few hours, so I tended to the animals, checking on our cow, Lucy, since she was set to deliver her calf any day. Marcy, one of our farmhands was already checking on her before I arrived.

“Does everything look okay?” I slipped on my gloves and entered the pasture gate.

“I think we should call the vet,” her face concerned. “She’s showing all the signs.”

“I’ll give him a ring,” I said, walking back to the house.

Dr. Mason was in his early seventies, but still insisted on making the trek up the mountain whenever we called. He held the line asking a long list of questions before suggesting he “come check things out.” Hi voice was soft, calm, matching his demeanor. I called Jacob to let him know that Lucy was maybe a few hours from giving birth.

“Would you like to see Lucy have her calf?” I heard him ask his niece, Heather.

“Gross,” she said.

I hung up the phone, frustration building as I headed back to check on Lucy. I thought about the last time Heather visited, two weeks of her ditzy, city-girl attitude, turning her nose up at everything we did, everything we said.

“No one else will take her,” Jacob defended volunteering our home for the rebellious teen. “It’s us or she’s going to end up in…” he didn’t have the heart to continue.

At least this time I had several weeks to prepare. I stocked up on junk food, expecting she’d spend most of her time staring at her phone, snacking to satisfy her sugar and salt cravings. I prepared for our trip to the local store where she’d scoff at the imperfect fruits and vegetables and ask the owner silly questions about Wi-Fi, lame packaging of locally grown foods. Her late night movie binging would disrupt our sleep, and she’d ignore our midday nudges to wake up and join the world, only to awake a couple hours later and sit around in her pajamas until bedtime when she was hit with a sudden burst of energy and desire to beautify herself.

“You should give her some rules, Jacob.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“I thought that was why she was here, to learn something.”

By the time I returned to the pasture, Marcy and Sheamus, our other farmhand, were with Lucy.

“Dr. Mason is on his way,” I announced.

“You think she’ll need assistance this time too?” Sheamus asked.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” I started double checking our supplies. “I just hope it’s not another stillbirth.”

“It’d be nice to have a calf running around,” Marcy offered.

***

Jacob and Dr. Mason arrived at almost the same time, Dr. Mason in the lead by just a few moments, giving him time to walk out to the pasture, his gate lopsided from a bad hip. My blood pressure began to rise when I saw Heather hop out of the truck and stand with her arms folded across her chest. The hood of her jacket bounced as she followed behind Jacob, her pace defiant.

“Hi Heather. Welcome back,” Marcy smiled.

“Yeah, welcome,” Sheamus held up his gloved hands. “You got here just in time.”

“How was your flight?” I asked.

“Okay.” her body swayed as she stuffed her hands in her pocket.

Jacob glanced in my direction, sensing my frustration building.

“Do you want to go in the house and get settled in?” I asked.

She looked at me but didn’t answer. Instead she watched the doctor, her face locked in a that’s disgusting stare, her mind reeling with curiosity. At Dr. Mason’s direction we prepared, and as if Heather was his student, he explained every step, gave her short lessons in anatomy, biology. She was engaged, interested. I thought about the girl who had visited before, the girl on the other end of the phone an hour earlier rejecting the idea of seeing a calf come into the world. Where was that girl?

Her questions were impressive. She assisted Marcy, handing Dr. Mason what he needed. And when the calf was safe on the ground, Lucy performing her mama magic, Heather turned to Dr. Mason.

“What happens if Lucy and her calf don’t bond?”

Her words were heavy, coded with a pain I never imagined she could feel. She wasn’t rotten. She was injured, in search of someone who recognized the frightened girl that lived inside her.

“We help them bond,” Dr. Mason answered.

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You Can’t Come in

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The house looked great, an arrangement of pumpkins, large and small, and potted flowers lining the steps to the brick dwelling. I let my car idle as I looked out at my childhood home. Everything was the same, but it felt different. My mother’s three-pound turkey was browning in the oven, garlic and herbs sizzling on top. A green-bean casserole lay in a flat, glass dish next to candied yams soaked in brown sugar. Cornbread dressing with cranberries, roasted vegetables, and potato salad already on the table, smaller proportions than in previous years.

I watched my mom move back and forth from the stove to the counter, my dad in his recliner reading the day’s newspaper. She didn’t have to worry about the grandkids running in and out of the kitchen, but she couldn’t dote on the newest addition either. Nieces and nephews weren’t house hopping this year, carrying away paper plates piled high. The football game wasn’t blaring, the sound of beer bottles clinking when our favorite team scored a touchdown. Great-grandparents wouldn’t be making their appearance. Sleepy visitors would be spared the compromising photos, the playful teasing. And at the end of the day, when everyone but us, her adult children, had gone home, we wouldn’t sit in the living room watching Miracle on 34th Street, finalizing Christmas plans.

My car’s engine fan came on, its motor loud against the quiet. I shut the car off and stepped out, opening the back door where Ariella slept in her rear-facing cars eat. My phone began vibrating in my pocket.

“Hey, mom?”

“Are you hear yet?”

“I just got here,” I fibbed. “Are you and dad ready?”

“Oh, yes we are ready…you’re not coming in, are you?”

“No, mom. Remember, we’re going to meet on the steps. You’ll stand at the top and I’ll sit at the bottom with the baby.”

“That’s right,” her voice faded as she tended to something on the stove. “I’ll get dad.”

When she opened the door, I was already sitting on the bottom step with the baby facing them. Smiles brightened their faces as they cooed at the baby and went through a list of people she looked most like, none of them me or my husband.

“I can’t wait to hold her,” my mother said, her hands folded in front of her.

“Me too, mom,” I said through building emotion.

Ariella began to whimper, her small month-old limbs squirming under the blanket.

“She wants her granny,” my mom bragged. “One day…one day soon.”

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