Sam and Viet stand in his small blue kitchen. Viet has stopped stirring his chard lentil soup while Sam tries to figure out what to do: Three nights a week on the mountain, leading small groups up Whitney, or sleeping out in Alabama Hills, climbing.
I’m doing ok, she says. It’s just I think I should find a room or something, short term.
Viet says, I see what you mean.
Renewing my one-year lease, don’t you agree it’s financially a waste?
Hot, back in the corner of the coat closet you find it, right where you knew it would be. Pull it out with both hands, it’s a lot heavier than you expected. Dad said never to touch it, but who knows when he’s coming back this time and what else are you supposed to do on a day like this? Show it to your sister, how it gleams in the light let in through the screen door. Stand it up, it comes up to her chin.
We sat three abreast in hard white pews. At our backs, an open door laid rectangles of sun on the salt-smoothed pine floor. It was an old Puritan church—Built in 1772, read a small plaque by the door. You could tell: the ceiling was crossed with bare beams, the floor was hard and cold. As a boy, I’d been brought to the church from time to time for a service, usually the wedding or funeral of a summer neighbor. I recalled the starkness of it, the chilly severity. Across the street, at the base of a hill that sloped down to the ocean, my mother’s ashes lay beneath a weathered stone.
Children always follow the mother. That’s what my mother always used to say. And it was true for my sister Kelly and me. Every time our worlds fell apart, we would end up in our mother’s kitchen, washing the dishes and sitting at her pockmarked table until light returned to the world, sometimes just at its edges. Even after so many years, what my mother said was still true. How else could you explain why I visited my mother every day once she moved into a nursing home? How else could I explain why my oldest daughter, April, followed me there too, coming every day after her twelve-hour shift ended and refilling my mother’s cup with water and thickener so she wouldn’t choke? We took turns, the two of us, stirring the pureed food the underpaid dining staff delivered on pockmarked plates, adjusting my mother’s legs on the pillow we propped under them, and righting her head that, lately, seemed too heavy for her neck.
Shhhk. The knife blade flicked up. Shhhk. The knife blade flicked down. I can’t remember who gave me the knife but I’m pretty sure it was my brother. He certainly had a knack for knowing what I liked, having later picked my favorite husband of three. I kept both sides of the blade razor sharp. For a time, I loved it, unduly.
Daisy has this boy that none of us like. She says they aren’t boyfriend girlfriend but he sure acts like it’s more than a hookup when he texts her things like, where are you? and i miss you much right now baby.
Daisy tells me she likes the way he takes control. Like on their first date, he put his hand on her chest and she pushed it away cause she’s “not that kind of girl,” but then after a few more minutes he tried again and she let him.
The ticker tape dropped from the unseen buckets perched high above the swarming city streets. If this was victory, the boy didn’t want another second of the crush of people, the taste of ash and paper on his tongue. His mother gripped his hand and though he couldn’t see her face, he knew she was crying. He was bounced by hips and knees, that little rubber ball at the end of the paddle until his fingers ached and he found himself alone at the mouth of an alley, struggling to breathe, sound, not air, filling his lungs. A soldier kneeled halfway down the trash-strewn pavement.
Snapshot One: Graduation, Three Forks High School. Amanda wears a dark blue cap and gown with honor cords. The photo is out of focus and off-kilter since it was taken by Daddy who was probably drunk at the time. The principal is handing her a large envelope, which will turn out to be a full-ride scholarship to Mountain Valley State College in Billings. Granny is impressed, but Mama will say she doesn’t understand why Amanda would accept such a thing, since the money is from people they don’t even know.
Malu’s daughter Lotte and Lotte’s friend Charelle were playing their favorite game: Mutant Vampires. They pressed their arms against their ribcages underneath their tight, glittering t-shirts so only their hands stuck out of the lacy sleeves, and stumbled through the kitchen groaning blood, blood, blood. They were both eleven years old.
“Billboards?” William asked over the phone. His voice seemed small, reaching us, I imagined, from somewhere inside his mother’s house in the mountain, where he liked to play the grand piano and persecute the help, whom he refused to by their names, calling them only that: “the help.”
Until recently, I’d only traded in one Punch Voucher and that was the time I hit Chuck Mellon in the nose when we were kids and broke his glasses. He didn’t make crying noises, but his eyes sure watered. We stayed best friends, though. Right up until he hanged himself.
Guilt, it has always seemed to Roger, is visceral. It takes up residence inside the body, burrowing or maybe perching there, as much a part of you as your bones or blood or lungs. You sense it waiting even when no one else can see it, even when you stop obsessing and the days and nights slip past on their conveyor belts.
LEO RISING by Anna Dorn The first thing I do when I wake up is open Evie’s Twitter. I’ve been doing this every morning since she left about a month ago. If one of my patients did this, I’d roll my eyes. But I can’t help it. Evie won’t answer my texts or calls. This is the only way I can hear her voice. @LeoRising has five new Tweets. (I always thought astrology was nonsense, but Evie treated it with a religious reverence. The rising sign, she told me, is our surface self, our outward appearance. And Leo is the best, she said, and apparently I am one too). I always look at her profile picture first. In it, she’s narrowing her eyes at the camera in a way that never fails to excite me. The look says: I’m smarter than you. It’s the precise face I fell in love …chop! chop! read more!
He was standing outside the double doors of the restaurant, sweating underneath his blazer. He was exactly on time. He saw a girl walking towards him, a close approximation of the one whose picture he had on his phone. He waved to her. She didn’t wave back.
She waved back. Amelia. She was wearing a puff-sleeved pink fur coat, cropped at the waist. He could tell by the sheen of it—his ex-wife had been fond of mink—that it was faux. She trotted up to him and kissed his cheeks in quick succession without having to tiptoe.
It’s twilight on the fifth floor of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a weak light seeps from the underside of the plastic-lined blackout curtains. It is growing dark against his wishes, yet Jacob Silbergeld no longer has the voice to catch the attention of a passing nurse who could adjust the transitioning of light he has hated for most of his life. Twilight is when slippery things happen, when one can be led by the hand to unwanted places. Twilight is when buildings surge in the skyline and become otherworldly, a time when one loses control. Jacob had fought against its demons for years with distractions of all sorts: films, friends, or when all else failed, a good book and a single malt scotch, but he is no longer in control of his environment, and the coming of night frightens him. He brushes his left hand over the blanket in search of the call button.
This isn’t one of those stories where the twenty-two year old work-study assistant gets kissed on the cheek by the Chair of one of the country’s most prestigious English departments while she’s arranging cookies for the Visiting Writers Reading, writers whose names you’d surely recognize, like the author of the graphic novel about her coming out and the author who writes about horses, and the trim little poet who upstaged her husband last December at a reading for The Environment.
While my husband frantically searches the house for his misplaced eyeglasses, I watch Marie Kondo fold socks, then stockings, then a sweater into neat little rectangles. They look like origami handbags. In her signature white jacket, the Japanese tidying expert instructs viewers to stroke each garment. She says, “Send the clothing love through your palms.” She runs her hands gently down both the sleeves and the body of a fluffy, white sweater, and my skin tingles.
First inning. The summer had been hot, so goddamn hot, and of course Bill’s air conditioner had kicked out last night, and wouldn’t you know it, his landlord was on vacation, so he had slept—or rolled around, really—in a river of his own sweat. The restless night had cost him sixty-one minutes—a negative seventy-one for the three hours of sleep and a plus ten for the sweaty rolling—but, honestly though, he wouldn’t have minded if the life watch strapped to his wrist on his burnt arm had said something like five minutes because here he was in the stadium, in the sun, with his bald spot sizzling like a fajita, his back on fire from the heavy red bag of peanuts slung across his shoulder, his throat burning from chanting into the humid air, “Get your peanuts, here! Large bag of peanuts!”
In a neighborhood in the north of Copenhagen, there is this cemetery, though really it’s more of a park.
The locals go on walks there, have picnics, drink in the shade. In the summer, the evenings are cool and infinite here, as though coming from afar, because Denmark is a Northern country. I happened to walk through the cemetery on exactly such a summer evening and so the two have become linked in my mind, the evening and the cemetery, along with a quiet sense of dread which is in essence what I want to tell you about here.
It was really dark and it scared Billy. Really very dark. Yes, really very very—made him think of when he was young and every time he turned off the light to go to sleep started remembering ghost stories. Every ghost story he’d ever read or heard or, well, just every one and his sock feet would hit the floor and his hand would hit the light switch and they didn’t go away, the remembered stories, but they settled, soft in his mind and it was okay again.
I’m waiting for you in Paris. Waiting in the Champ de Mars, the park next to the Eiffel Tower. Standing on a patch of grass, wearing a tuxedo, and holding flowers. One among many men who wait, but they’re not like me. They stay for varying amounts of time—some holding signs, some sitting under trees—but eventually they leave. Not me. I’m here for you, Jess, waiting patiently, if not excitedly. And when you get here, we’ll embrace, and we’ll climb up the Eiffel Tower, and we’ll be together again, in love.
First thing that morning, a woman told Henry his crew must not cut her tree’s branches. She looked as though she wouldn’t survive if he cut the thinnest twig from the huge willow oaks in front of her house. Fully dressed and made up before eight a.m., she clutched the notice that his crew had hung on her door knob a few days before. She argued for the integrity of the tree as though he had suggested cutting the arms off her grandchildren. A branch as large as a trunk had shot over the power lines. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number. Her hands shook as she dialed the number on her flip phone, murmuring, “murder, murder, murder.” They moved their trucks to the next house—on this road, almost all the properties had tree limbs extending over the wires.
FROM HERE TO THERE by Gloria Yuen Barrier on, the device declares. “When you initiate the force field,” the Head Agent instructs, “you lock yourself in an impenetrable membrane. It will keep danger out. But it will also keep you in.” Barrier off, the device declares. I engage Search: Force field, noun. Popular Articles. The invention of the force field (neochrome). The invention of the force field (electromagnetic). History of force field usage in Post-Contemporary warfare. [New in TECH] ‘Defense Fields’ for Civilian Homes in Final Stages of Development. The Head Agent claps her hands. I exit Search. “Field practice with the neochrome next week. Dismissed.” We salute in unison. “What happens if you walk through a force field?” M-2 asks at my left. I turn to examine him. Raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth. Inquisitive. He is one of the preliminary cadets to join the M garrison and is …chop! chop! read more!
The winter when Lucy was nine and her brother Nick was 12, he taught her to play chess. They bent over the crosshatched board on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, blonde heads nearly touching, all through Christmas break and into the new year. Wool socks and hot cocoa and Bing Crosby late into the night, the Douglas fir in the corner shimmering with tinsel.
The church retreat is the last bit of bullshit before we get confirmed. We are at a bunch of crappy cabins on the dumpy shores of Lake Erie. They call it a holy camp, gave it a fancy name too: Camp Gold Field. They got the field part right, but I don’t know where they got the gold. Everything here is barren and gray. Last night there was a thunderstorm, but today the sky is defeated and a blanket of grey snow clouds have replaced the horizon. The seasons are theatrical in these parts—especially during April.
A guy comes into the drugstore and goes to the snack aisle. Early twenties, longish hair, patchy beard like he never learned to shave properly. He glances at me so I look away quick, busy myself with straightening the packs of Life Savers on the counter. I’m not watching him because he’s attractive or anything. He isn’t. He’s skinny and stoop-shouldered. I’m watching him because of how his eyes dart around and because he keeps fidgeting with a buckle on his canvas backpack.
They were the only friends I had. All of them had palms that changed colors when they stroked my hair, picked up an iron pot or peeled yucca. I remember one of them with more love than the rest—her palms turned purple when she showed me her lifelines. She was never able to show me her life, though. She would turn her hands up and the bright point of an amethyst’s reflection would lacquer her palms. At one point, I think there were five.
Her doctor said he’d sign us up, you know, for the trial. That either she’d get the real drug or the fake one, and we wouldn’t know which, of course. But fifty-fifty, you got to think that’s a pretty good shot and all. I said that to her in the car afterwards. “Pretty good shot,” I said. “I think we’ve got it.”
The lucky streak ran out when the air rifle went off.
I felt the little ragged hole in my shirt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. Too small to be significant. Johnny let the air rifle swing to his side, the ends of his teeth glittering. Kali fell off the stump she was sitting on. They were all waiting for me to do something. I heard blood in my ears. Maybe they’d thought I’d keel over and die, I’m thinking.
Frances had skipped two periods before she realized what was going on. “I’m lucky,” she bragged to Sarah over milkshakes at the corner store, “I haven’t had my period in eight weeks, no tampons for me, I beat the system.” Sarah’s mouth dropped and that’s when Frances became aware of the extent of her self-deceit. Now, just days later, she sits cross-legged on the floor in Jack’s bedroom shuffling a deck of cards while Jack moves laundry from the washer to the dryer in the basement, his parents in the city at a hospital benefit.
For the uninitiated, if it’s even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can’t and don’t even care to remember, end up living with the mother’s parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.)
Moira’s son is snuggling against his grandfather on the couch. That’s all. Just resting on the old man’s shoulder, his forehead against his frayed collar. Michael looks tired, sweaty. There’s color high in his cheeks, as if he’s just come in from play. The sliding glass door is slightly open, and She can hear her father singing to him, something low, soft, painfully familiar. His knee moves up and down in steady cadence with the song. Eyes closed, they seem lost in each other’s comfort. She tries to swallow, but it tastes like acid, so she spits into the grass.
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. Randi the realtor called (remember her, with the forehead?) and said the owners were still undecided, but I had visited by myself the week before, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I guess it was too big for just me and Pammy. Too many rooms, too many spiderwebby corners. They ended up selling it to that Polish couple, I think. For now, I’m living with my dad, who says
It’s moonlit and muggy out as Peety Alfaro walks to work. Under the yellow streetlights, he pauses to wipe the condensation off his glasses. Once done, he affixes his large and thick lenses back onto his face and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he tugs rapidly at his white tee to cool off. Then he nods hard and continues walking, shoulders back and head up.
Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves had pulled them all apart.
We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back with them to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached high, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.
A teaspoon of salt. It is flaky and the flakes overrun the tiny spoon and the recipe calls for kosher but the only thing in my cupboard is the fancy kind from France bought at the organic grocery store. Already I’m doing it wrong.
Just let me finish my story. Listen. I was at this party at a house on Vanderveer Street off of Hillside Ave in Queens. I was having a great time with my friends, then near the end of the party, I had to leave because I wanted to help my mom. She had called me, you know, she’s older and needed my help, I don’t know, can’t remember, something about her house, maybe the garbage disposal or something, so anyway, I said I’d be there after the party. Well after a while, I thought I had hung around long enough, mingled enough, so I went to the front of the house to look for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them.
My mother told me nothing is safe. I’d grown up fenced in playpens, leashed like a dog, harnessed in strollers. I was buckled and belted, handheld and sandwiched, life-vested, sunblocked, helmeted, braced, and warned. My vaccines were up to date. My laces double-knotted. She told me never go out alone, my friends weren’t friends but “buddies.” Each time I built up the courage to timidly test the limits of her invisible fence, things went wrong. I’d think maybe she was right. Or this was a bad idea.
What is this fat hen squawking about? Michael tries to open his right eyelid, so he can see the nurse better, but it is sealed shut. His left is barely a slit. Through the haze of milky sleep scumming over his pupil, he makes out a whitish blob topped with frizzy orange lint.
“Fat? You’re already in enough trouble, mister.” This nurse he has never met before heard him. She walks to the wall beside the door. He fights the urge to think in case another insult slips out. What if he has hurt her feelings before having a chance to prove the opposite, and she thinks him an ogre? His head feels like it weighs thirty pounds, fifty, as he rotates it to better set his good eye on her. He senses the unmade hospital bed beside him, the television plopped onto a cart in front, and the wheelchair in which his large body rests. This room, this ward, is unfamiliar, but he tries to stay calm. The nurse rips off a length of brown paper towel from a leaden dispenser triggering an artery centered in his brain to pulsate and deliver short punches to the surface of his face and into the boggy fluid of his stomach. His gut quivers as he tenses the muscles above his left eye to raise his brow and lower his cheek, which is like trying to prop up a fallen roof with a toothpick.
Before Del opened his eyes he knew the kid was gone. That panic feeling. That guilt. That screen door slamming in the wind. It had broken into Del’s dream, and as soon as he realized what it was he gripped the arms of the threadbare recliner and launched himself upward. His feet hit the carpet and he was down the hall with his head spinning and vision blurry. By the light in the house, it was hard to tell whether it was morning or evening.
When the boy asked his father where his mother went he said she “had a bird.” He didn’t know what that meant, but maybe it was because she squeaked like one, he thought. Or maybe she used to have one and she lost it.
His father paced around the kitchen preparing for dinner. He pulled out the pasta strainer and put it on the counter but there was hardly enough room, only the corner. He peered over at Tommy. He grabbed the plates smeared with dried ketchup, pressed them together, and rolled them into the dishwasher. He glanced again at the boy, who looked like he had a question. In fact, Tommy was trying to reach an itch in the middle of his back and was squinting his face in desperation.
For eighteen years Eddie’s bullet was like some forgotten organ—the spleen, maybe. His cousin Denny had his spleen removed a few years ago, and the same thing: it was all right until it wasn’t, until one doctor felt a distended lump beneath cool fingers and then a flurry of signatures and warnings about lungs that might or might not collapse. Eddie is thankful that his bullet stayed under the skin, innocuous and clandestine, like a roll of undeveloped film. He never even told his ex-girlfriend; he just said he had a shoulder injury. She was still careful with it, though, as if it were something sacred, and he found himself doing the same. Over the years, the bullet’s importance swelled until it was no longer a foreign object lodged in him, but a tangible memory all its own.
The last time I saw my ex-wife, we were sitting next to each other on a faded picnic blanket in a field of daisies and late-spring grass so bright that I could feel my corneas crisping. She looked great, as always. She was wearing a pair of black cutoff shorts that she’d made herself, cuffed high enough to show the mermaid tattoo looping down onto her upper thigh. She was hot, the hot mom. A hot mess.
It started gradually. First, little Michael was wrinkling his nose in a way he never had. Then, four-year-old Jessamyn across the street sprouted whiskers from her cheeks that were long, fine, and nearly transparent. Elisa developed a light coating of tiny hairs which were thicker than body hairs ought to be, and which turned gray within a few days. Paul was the first one to grow a tail. His tail was long, pink, and hairless, and at first he delighted in it, and used it to tap other boys on the shoulder when they weren’t looking. Then, he realized it was not coming off, and he wailed in his mother’s arms. His mother, for her part, tried not to cringe as his tail wrapped around her leg.
It started out as a joke in the warehouse. You could buy and build anything you needed for your home at IKEA, at least that was the corporate strategy behind all the useless knick-knacks that made it hard to pack the boxes. It was only a matter of time before they started doing people, they said. What good was your dream kitchen without a dream family to sit around on the INGOLF chairs you’d built yourself and praise your cooking? Surely IKEA could produce a model that was more durable, less flammable than your ordinary family, less likely to be annoyed when you let the jam spill over the side of the jar and then stuck it back in the fridge so that globs of fruit smeared all over the shelf.
The high-pitched animal cries of your boy come hurtling to you drunk at the breakfast table from the backyard and until you finally hear “Dad! Dad! Dad!” it’s only by that terminal “Dad!” when anything registers—those cries and yelps and weight of the sliding glass door as you wrench it open into the sharp February bluster that spreads against your arms and face, snow falling in the crushed heels of the shoes slid on like slippers before crossing your uneven deck. There he is, your boy, standing on a cheap, green-plastic, piece-of-shit chair holding his puppy’s leash untethered in a red glove.
Cici squints at Agatha’s toes, bunched together like an Indy 500 pile-up of smashed, shiny speed-racers. “And that’s why you wear socks in bed,” she says, leaning against the short kitchen counter as she points a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey at her wife’s feet. “It’s good you’re getting them looked at.”