Urban Pastoral

Author Bio: J.R. Barner is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Athens, Georgia. They are the author of the chapbooks Burnt Out Stars and Thirteen Poems and their forthcoming first collection, Little Eulogies. They were educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia. Their work has appeared in online and print journals FlowAnobium, and Release. New work is available periodically at jrbarner.tumblr.com

Hot Breakfast

By Anthony Neil Smith

Too tired to keep driving. Too dark to see anything but headlights spiking our eyes like fuck. My wife had driven most of the way from Minnesota to Colorado. I can’t drive so far anymore, lulled to sleep like a baby. That left Priceline duty to me. Small print on my phone, shitty reception. But hey, it was a VIP deal. Those never steered us wrong, did they?

Once part of a popular brand, a tarp covered the original sign, with its new name sloppily painted across – Day’s Rest or Sleepy Inn or Blurry Blur, my poor eyes. It once had a hacienda theme.

The girl who checked me in looked at least eighteen but small enough to wear a kid’s t-shirt, Rainbow Brite-y or anime. Faded and ripped in a couple of spots. Grime under her nails. Short and dirty blonde. Friendly, even flirty, as my wife waited in the car. 

At the tail-end of Covid restrictions, there was still a plastic divider between us, but she easily bypassed on the left hand side, dealing with me directly, maskless, no hand sanitizer in sight. She handed me key cards with wifi info, local food delivery options – all two of them, one a Domino’s – and at the bottom: Hot Breakfast, 6:30am to 10:00 am.

love hotel breakfasts, and I’d had a two-year pandemic drought. Even little boxes of Froot Loops and unlimited coffee, I’m happy. Better was muffins, cinnamon rolls, fresh(ish) orange juice. Best of all was hot scrambled eggs, hot sausages or bacon, hot biscuits. Hash browns or American fries, either was great. Colorado seemed a hash browns sort of state. I was very much looking forward to the next morning. 

I’m no hotel snob. I’m no stranger to Super 8 or Meh 6. I’ve picked out some real winners on kitsch value alone. I know well the odor of citrusy-sick disinfectants hiding smoke in non-smoking rooms. I’ve held many remotes with the batteries duct-taped into the back. 

And still, this place.

We parked in the creepily empty lot.

I whispered about the girl to my wife.

“Has to be meth.”

“Tell me later.”

“But look at her when we pass by.”

“Stop it.”

But the girl wasn’t at the front desk this time.

On the way to the elevator we passed the breakfast room. The lights were off and there was a rope across the entrance, a sandwich board sign attached. It had a drawing of a fried egg on it, and a piece of paper with Hot breakfast! written in bold black Sharpie, so I didn’t bother to read the rest. 

The elevator was miles from the desk. Our room was on the second floor, but the elevator was the only way up. The tile in the hallway grew wetter the closer we got to the elevator because it was so near the indoor pool. You know the way a hotel pool smells when chlorine reacts to all the piss, spit, snot, and sweat in it?

On the second floor, we followed the signs and walked more miles from the elevator to our room, on a mezzanine overlooking the lobby. The same lobby we’d started this trek from ten minutes ago. 

“Fuck!”

Scared the shit out of us. A shout like that, no warning. No follow up. Some man on our floor shouting “Fuck!” as we walked by. 

My wife turned to me, wide-eyed. 

“But…hot breakfast.” 

Here was our room. 

The door was already open. 

Imagine, right? As soon as you discover the door to your hotel room is already open, you cycle through fear, then anger, then self-righteous anger, then maybe more fear thinking someone’s installed hidden cameras in the bathroom. 

I found the switch. Inside, even though the air smelled like betrayal – or, really, smoke trapped in twenty-year old carpet – nothing was out of place. Nothing to indicate this was anything more than a mistake. Housekeeping didn’t close the door all the way.

What do you do? 

I shrugged. “It’s prepaid.”

And we were exhausted. 

And hot breakfast!

For our first post-Covid vacation, my wife really wanted to visit Mesa Verde in Colorado, where ancient indigenous tribes carved entire cities into cliff sides, then abandoned them, mysteriously, left for modern people to rediscover later and turn into a National Park. It fascinated her, because before meeting me, she’d been an archaeologist, traveling the Midwest digging up arrow points and other Native American relics before big bad developers built malls or wind turbines or another Casey’s gas station – the Starbucks of the prairie. 

In a few days, we would arrive, only to be told we should’ve gotten a reservation way ahead of time.

The rest of the evening was dull. Loud kids ran up and down the hallway. I watched one of the alphabet shows on CBS (FBI, NCIS, CSI). My wife fell asleep reading her Kindle. My CPAP mask drove me nuts. The hotel pillows sucked. 

Didn’t matter. I had a hot breakfast waiting for me.

I’m a creature of habit. At home, I wake and head downstairs, feed the pets, and immediately start the coffee. Pop Tarts in the toaster oven, or a cup of dry kid’s cereal – Honey Smacks, Corn Pops, Count Fuckin’ Chocula – for breakfast. 

Me. A nearly fifty year-old man.

I want the fastest possible tasty thing taking no effort on my part. 

At a hotel, I get up, put on yesterday’s clothes, and race to the breakfast room before those loud kids and their comatose parents wreck the joint. Same in Colorado, too. Woke, stretched, blew gunk out of my nose. I jiggled my wife’s foot on my way to the bathroom. 

“Get up. Hot breakfast!”

I wet my hair down because my CPAP mask gives me an effortless Johnny Rotten every day. I stepped out of the bathroom to find my wife still in bed, cocooning in the comforter. 

“Hot breakfast,” I said.

“I bet there’s not. Because of Covid.”

“But they said, remember? They said hot breakfast.”

“I’m just saying.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, hands hanging off my knees. 

She said, “Why don’t you check it out? If there’s hot breakfast, text me. If not, come back to bed.”

Alright, then.

Back down the hallway, bracing myself for another “Fuck!”

None this time. 

Down the elevator, the pool’s morning chlorine dump burning my nose. Almost slipped in wet patches. 

I rounded the corner to the breakfast r – 

It was dark. 

The rope still in place.

No eggs or sausages. No kids or sleepy parents. No TV blaring Fox News. No one hogging the waffle irons. 

Instead, there was a card table with a tray half-filled with hardboiled eggs in plastic Ziplocs. A woman in men’s jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, her hair a mullet, sat in metal chair. She took an egg from a stack of crates up to her waist, dropped it into a bag, zipped it, and placed it next to the others. 

She looked up. “Yeah?”

I glanced at the sandwich board I’d passed over the night before. 

Hot breakfast! Until further notice, our breakfast buffet is closed due to Covid-19. We offer you a complimentary breakfast bag and a hardboiled egg.

The woman waited, egg bag in midair.

“Can I have…a breakfast bag and some, um, light roast?”

“Some what?”

“Coffee. Plain coffee.”

She got my coffee first. The cup was half the size of my usual first mug every day. “Sugar? Milk?”

“Sure.”

“How many?”

“Three?”

“Three?”

“Three’s good.”

Another trip for sugar packets and little milk cups. I didn’t ask for Splenda and half-and-half because I’d interrupted this woman’s day enough already. 

She walked behind the buffet divider and pulled out a paper bag, scotch-taped closed, and passed it over.

“You want the egg?”

The egg. 

“No, thanks.”

I don’t like hardboiled eggs. My wife doesn’t like hardboiled eggs. No one really likes hardboiled eggs.

She sat back down, picked up an egg, and dropped it into a bag.

On the way up to the room, I peeked in the bag. 

A tiny blueberry muffin, plastic-wrapped. 

A small tub of strawberry yogurt. 

An apple.

The elevator opened to my floor. I dumped the bag in the nearest garbage can, then poured the coffee on top. 

In the room, I climbed back into bed. Slid in behind my wife, spooned up close and wrapped my arm around her.

“Told you.”

Later we went to Sonic. 

I can’t find the receipt for that hotel, or its name, or the name of the town it was in. I don’t remember passing it on our way home a week later. If I really put some effort into retracing our steps, I’d still never find it again, like the island in LOST

Our next hotel outside of Mesa Verde promised hot breakfast, too. All you had to do was microwave one of their frozen breakfast burritos. 

Heaven.

About the Author: Anthony Neil Smith is the author of numerous crime novels including Yellow Medicine, All the Young Warriors, Slow Bear, and The Butcher’s Prayer. His short fiction has appeared in Cowboy Jamboree Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Bellevue Literary Review, HAD. Juked, and many others. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. He likes Mexican food, British beer, and Italian crime flicks from the 70s. 

Roots

By Bethany Jarmul

I’d left it all behind—the sun-faded trailer and asbestos-filled house with broken-teeth windows at the entrance of the dead-end street; the man with pit-stained tank top, cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips, cat purring around his legs; the dogs, one or two in each yard—barking, howling, whining; the rusted cars—some in spots, others all over; the smell of burning wood and the distant gunshots in the woods; touching our neighbor’s house with my fingertips and ours with my toes; hills so steep you can scrape the bottom of your car on the cracked asphalt; neighbors that know when your mail piles up, lawn mower breaks, when you’re sunbathing or laughing or fighting with your sister over a borrowed sweater found balled up beneath your bed; the way the houses start to peel or grow moss or lose their shutters; the Appalachian Mountains as both beautiful backdrop and formidable, omniscient jailers.

I’d left it all behind at 18 when I accumulated enough scholarships to attend an out-of-state college, a few hours north, a state away, far enough to feel like I’d escaped. I’ve visited my parents a few times each year, but each time with a rubber-band ball of dread bouncing in my gut, lurching up my throat with each pothole that I hit or swerve to avoid. 

I’m 30 with a family of my own, we’re visiting my parents for the July 4th holiday. The next town over, Stonewood, West Virginia, where my mother grew up, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a festival. We’re at the festival, sitting at folding tables inside the local fire station—me, my husband, and our two-year-old son who is enjoying a purple-grape snowcone. My mother is nearby chatting with someone. 

“Bethany, I want you to meet Willa Jean. I taught with her at Norwood,” Mom leads an older woman over toward me. 

Willa Jean—I’ll soon learn—is 88. She wears glasses, sunspots, make-up in the creases around her mouth. She smiles wide as she talks, standing so close that I can see her nose hairs when I look up at her from my seat. 

“You know, I went to Norwood from 1st through 9th grade. Then, I taught there for 30 years. And I didn’t even go to college until after my kids were in first and second grade. When I went to Fairmont for college it was 99 dollars per semester!” 

“Wow!” I say, realizing she’s lived her entire life in this tiny town. 

“I have my great grandkids over every Sunday and feed all of them.” 

“How many do you have?” my mom asks. 

“13,” she says. 

We chat about her children, grandchildren, community activities. I cut off a few of those rubber bands on the ball inside my gut. 

 “I see her out-and-about all the time,” my mom tells me after Willa Jean leaves. “She’s 88, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She always says, ‘The Lord has been good to me.’ She’s volunteering here cleaning off the tables all day; bless her heart.” 

More rubber bands dissolve. 

As we explore the festival, the smell of pepperoni rolls and kettle corn hangs in the humid air, clings to our clothes and the sweat under our arms. In my suburban, near-city life, I’m accustomed to seas of unfamiliar faces. Here, my mother stops to greet an acquaintance or friend every 10-feet, getting pulled into conversations, greeted with handshakes or hugs. 

My son sees a booth selling cake and cookies. “Cake. I want cake!” He runs over and reaches toward the table. 

“No, no. We’re not buying cake,” I say. 

One of the young men who is working the booth says, “Would he like a cookie?” and pulls out a bag of peanut butter cookies. “Here, reach your hand in there and grab one. You can have it for free. It’s our snack.”

My son reaches his hand in and grabs two.

“Oh sure, you can have two.” The man smiles. 

I thank him, feel the ball in my gut shrinking to the size of a marble. 

During the rest of the weekend we splash in a blow-up pool, hang out on a deck with neighbors and sip flavored water, swing on the porch swing, read books, sit in the sun, discuss theology with my dad late into the night, light sparklers. 

On our way home, the ball of dread is gone. I turn to my husband and say, “Something was different this time. I don’t feel the angst that I used to feel when I went back home.” 

Home—I hadn’t thought about it like that for years.

Porch-sitting; pepperoni rolls, hoagies, hotdogs with chili sauce, blackberry cobblers with vanilla ice cream, apple juice popsicles; neighbors who watch you grow, strangers who offer cookies, share stories; fireflies and firepits and fireworks; bare toes in mossy grass, sunshine and shade and splashing in the creek; folksy fiddle music that plays between my ears long after the musicians are gone; $10 in my pocket for a festival meal; the earthy smell after a rain, earthworms emerging from warm soil, robins feasting; being known by a place and the people of that place, feeling that place reverberating in your chest, soaking into your pores, pickling your heart; growing deep roots—I’d left it all behind. 

About the Author: Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Brevity blog, Gastropoda, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

Real Life

By John F Duffy

The buzzing was overwhelming.  An avalanche of noise that muted the usual din of cars and air conditioners.  The seventeen-year cicada brood was big news in a very midwestern way.  Journalists interviewed entomologists to talk about cicada life cycles and to offer interesting trivia about the orange legged, red eyed creatures that felt like a rubber ball when they bounced off the side of your head.  Cicadas, according to the papers, spend most of their short lives underground, and when they finally surface, they mate, lay eggs, and then die, all within a handful of weeks.  Their mating call is so loud that the males turn off their own ears so as not to deafen themselves while seeking a partner.  Dragging her rolling suitcase behind her, Sarah waved her hands at the air to deter the hefty insects from flying into her face.  She was walking faster than usual as she rounded the corner onto Noyes Street, where she climbed the stairs to the Purple Line El stop.

 Alan had offered to drive her to the airport, but Sarah told him not to bother.  She deflected his kindness with fraudulent decency.  “I don’t want you to waste your time stuck in traffic there and back. Besides, the train is faster, especially during rush hour.”  She had smiled as she said these things knowing that she was lying, knowing that she was eager to start her trip and fearing that a long car ride to O’Hare with her fiancé would just delay the moment she was desperately looking forward to.  The moment when she would be alone.  Once she was a single unit, a person only concerned with her own needs, her own wants, no matter how miniscule or selfish, then she could relax.  Funerals might not be a common cause for relief, but ever since Whitney died, Sarah had been looking forward to going home.

 Waiting in the terminal with a paper coffee cup in one hand, Sarah held her phone with the other.  Whitney’s Facebook page was blowing up with comments expressing surprise and grief at her passing.  She was so young, she was so undeserving, it was such a tragedy, and even a host of statements suggesting that Whitney was now with a God her real friends should have known she didn’t believe in.

 Sarah’s thumb flicked the glass phone screen, then flicked it again.  All she wanted to know was if her briefest of high school boyfriends was going to be at the funeral.  Ever since getting word about the car accident, Sarah had imagined how she would approach the man who took her virginity if she were to see him again.  For the last three days she had silently practiced what she would say not only to Blake, but to all of the people who had filled her days so many years ago.  With as few words as possible and in the most bland of tones, she would tell them all about her life in Evanston and her job at the university.  Brevity would invite intrigue, and her old friends would all be left believing that Sarah’s life was far more interesting than it actually was.  Why she needed them to think this, she wasn’t sure.  Why she so often wondered about where Blake’s life had taken him, she also couldn’t explain.  Sarah did know one thing for sure; if it had been her who had gotten ripped in half by a FedEx truck, Whitney wouldn’t have sat around crying about it.  When she touched down in Chicago to go to Sarah’s funeral, Whitney would have exited the jetway in open toed shoes with a manicure and her blonde hair perfectly blown out, ready to cruise the airport bars for the hottest guy without a ring on his finger.  

 Though the service was going to be in Millard, Sarah stayed at a hotel in downtown Omaha.  Tonight, Whitney’s parents were having a gathering at their house for relatives and friends.  Sarah figured she would go to be polite and cross her fingers that Blake would make an appearance.  If he didn’t and she was bored to tears, she could always make her way back downtown for a drink.

 After showering and towel drying her chin length brown hair, Sarah stepped into a short black skirt and reached behind her back to drag up the zipper.  In the floor to ceiling mirror, she observed herself from all angles before settling on a T-Shirt that revealed one of her shoulders and a pair of black Doc Marten’s. Standing up straight, she proudly looked at her trim profile.  While fixing an out of place strand of hair that no one else in the world would have noticed, she wondered if her look was too casual, but decided to go with it because it was in line with how everyone would remember her.  Before leaving, she grabbed her phone and ‘checked-in’ at her location, hoping to subtly announce that she was back in town.

 Driving the I-80 to Whitney’s parents’ house, Sarah was subsumed by nostalgia.  She smiled as the projector behind her eyes cast her teenage life onto the landscape all around her.  In pale colors she saw the city as it existed at the turn of the millennium, complete with Whitney at seventeen, riding shotgun in a Pedro the Lion T-Shirt, taking long drags from a brown clove cigarette that Sarah could taste on the sides of her tongue.  Sarah sang loudly to Braid’s Hugs from Boys as her rental car took the exit ramp a little too quickly.  She was fully permitting herself to travel through time, to ignore the two decades that stood like a chasm between who she was, and who she long ago thought she would grow up to be.  Like an end times cataclysm, old music that no one remembered, and the imagined laughter of her dead best friend slammed that chasm shut, and now Sarah was deftly stepping over the hairline crack in the Earth that remained, banishing Alan, her apartment, her career, and everything else she woke up every day to bring into being.  She encased all of it in glass and left it on a shelf one thousand miles away, and as she pulled into the suburb where she grew up, her heart warned that she may never want to pick it up again.  

+++

Knick-knacks filled every end table and shelf in Whitney’s parent’s house.  Impeccably dusted Hummels watched over Whitney’s father as he sat watching SportsCenter.  

“Sarah!” Whitney’s father said, pushing himself to his feet, his tan recliner clanging and clanking beneath him.  The chair had a permanent ass shaped depression kneaded into it by the man’s ever-expanding carriage, and looking around the family room, Sarah noted that his increase in size and the switch to a flatscreen TV were the only visible signs that time had passed in this home.

“How are you?”

“I’m well, Mr. Beck, all things considered.  How are you holding up?”  Sarah and Whitney’s father joined for a nearly imperceptible hug.

 “Oh, you know.  It’s hard.  Cathy is taking it especially bad.”

 “I can’t imagine.”  The kitchen was bustling with voices.  “Is she in there?”

 “Yeah, most everyone is out back.  Cathy is in the kitchen with Whitney’s aunts getting the food ready.”

 Sarah passed through the short hallway to the kitchen where Whitney’s pear-shaped mother and aunts were all busy bumping into and reaching past each other as they pulled casserole pans from the oven, chopped carrots, and poured whole bags of corn chips into floral print bowls.

 “Mrs. Beck,” Sarah said, announcing herself as she stepped onto the linoleum floor.  Whitney’s mother turned, and her eyes brightened.  

“Sarah!  Oh my God, come here sweetie,” she said with a booming smile and wide-open bosom. Sarah had known Whitney’s family since she was eleven years old, and as the plump, rosy cheeked woman pulled Sarah’s taut, spin-class frame into her doughy mass, the old woman’s eyes began to glaze with tears.  “Oh, my girl.  Thank you so much for coming!”  Mrs. Beck released Sarah just enough to be able to stare into her face, while still gripping her shoulders.  “It means so much to me, and I know it means a lot to Whitney.”

“Of course, I came.  I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Sarah said as Mrs. Beck hugged her again, squeezing the wind out of her.  

 “I know you two grew apart a bit after college, but Whitney still thought of you as her best friend.  You brought so much joy into her life.  She was so excited to be your maid of honor next year, and…”  Mrs. Beck couldn’t finish her sentence.  She stepped back, gripping each of Sarah’s hands.  Sadness overtook the woman, and she began near convulsing.  Her face turning purple, Mrs. Beck threw her head back and wailed out, “Oh God!  Oh, God, oh God!”

 Whitney’s trio of aunts were frozen behind Mrs. Beck, the oldest and grayest of the three still squirting ranch dressing from a plastic bottle onto a platter.  Sarah was locked to Mrs. Beck who clamped her hands fast and poured forth her sorrow to a yellow water stain on the kitchen ceiling as if it had some connection to the divine merely because it existed in the space between the old woman’s head and infinity.  

“Why’d you take my girl?!  Why? Why? Why?”  Whitney’s mom was whipping Sarah’s arms like the reins of a racehorse with every “Why,” and Sarah, desperate to find a polite exit, was relieved to see Mr. Beck lumbering into the kitchen to take hold of his grieving wife.

 “It’s OK honey.  It’s OK.”  Ranch dressing farted its last onto a Disney print vegetable tray behind the distraught woman.  

  “Do you want me to take that outside?” Sarah asked a curly haired aunt.

  The backyard had twenty or so people gathered in small clusters of four or five.  Sarah dropped the plate of vegetables onto a glass picnic table and scanned the attendees.  There was an obvious demarcation between the mostly older family members and the younger, more sharply dressed friends, most of whom Whitney had met in college or after.  Sarah did see one woman she knew from high school named Dylan, so she moved towards her and the pack of young thirty-somethings she was standing with.  Sarah said nothing as she breached their circle, only laying a gentle hand on Dylan’s shoulder.  

    “Oh my God, Sarah!”  Dylan pulled her chest to Sarah’s, lifting her chin.  “How are you?” 

   “I’m fine.  Sad, obviously, but I’ll be OK.”

  “You guys,” Dylan said, turning to the group patiently observing the introduction.  “This is Sarah,” Whitney’s best friend from back in high school.”

  Not bad, Dylan, Sarah thought, as Dylan introduced her handsome, well-dressed husband.  Then there were Jim and Jenny, or John and Jenny, or whatever.  Both had “J” names that Sarah immediately forgot, and both worked with Whitney at the insurance company.  “I heard you were getting married, and that Whitney was going to be your maid of honor?”  Dylan said.

   “Yeah.”  

  “That is so, effing, sad,” Dylan offered, with her hand over her heart.

 Sarah stood and made small talk with the group, frequently looking away to the sliding door that led back into the house.  The first glass of drug store cabernet went down quickly.  Sarah split time listening to tiny conversations and looking at her phone.  During her second glass of wine, the sun began to fall behind the cluster of houses to the west, and Sarah ceded the event to Whitney’s older relatives and distant cousins who sat listening to stories about a relation they knew mostly from toothless elementary school photos and horrendously sweatered Christmas cards.  To them, Whitney was a fifth grader with high bangs and braces.  Mrs. Beck was at the center of them all, seesawing between laughter and tears as her husband clasped her hand.  Supportive aunts nodded at the tales they didn’t remember, or maybe never knew, in between bites of boxed coffee cake.  

 While draining the last drops of Malbec from her glass, Sarah told the group of reminiscing elders a story about being on the volleyball team with Whitney when they won state their junior year.  It was her way of tithing the pot.  Though the story didn’t capture the truth of who Whitney really was after editing the best, but most scandalous plot points out, Sarah saw the Beck’s both smiling, and she realized that the truth didn’t much matter.  These were people who needed to cope and to move on with what life they had left, and the truth would only hold them back.  They had a narrative of who their daughter was, of the parents that they had been, and keeping that narrative intact was essential for the Beck’s who were coasting towards their own fast approaching deaths.  So, Sarah withheld uncomfortable details as she told her story, and kept her telling in line with what the Becks already decided that they knew.  Sarah had her Whitney, there was no reason that the Becks couldn’t have theirs.  

 Showing excellent judgment, Dylan left early.  There was no way Sarah was going to suggest getting a drink with Jerry and Jessie, or whatever their names were.  She knew for a fact that Whitney must have thought these two were a galactic bore, and agreeing with her dead friend’s assessment, she yawned and lied, telling everyone that she was tired from traveling and that she needed to head back to her hotel for sleep. 

 Once downtown, Sarah sat at the bar of the Wicked Rabbit and drank a vodka martini.  She sipped it slowly, searching Facebook and Instagram for random people she knew from Omaha.  Classmates and coworkers with last names she fought to remember.  The bar was full of people, and Sarah made sure she looked very single as she played with her phone, but after her second drink she still hadn’t been approached by anyone.  Alan called twice, and twice Sarah silenced her ringing phone.  She planned to later lie and tell him that she got roped into staying at the Beck’s longer than expected.  Pulling an olive from a tiny plastic sword with her teeth, she looked up.  There was a mirror lurking behind the liquor bottles directly across from her.  Locking eyes with herself, Sarah wondered what the hell was wrong with her.  The vodka allowed her cynical inner voice a chance to speak, and it asked her why on Earth she was so desperate – not to see – but to be seen – by people she once knew, people connected to her by nothing more than the flimsiest accident of geographical proximity at birth, people who the passage of time had effectively rendered into strangers.  What did she think would happen if their particular sets of eyes passed over her?  Did she want the very average boys she once knew, who had since grown into spectacularly unimpressive men, to look upon her and to lust?  To question their own life choices?  To quietly scold themselves as fools for not having seen her potential so many years ago when she was an awkward alt girl whose great personality they never made an effort to know, and whose body would hold out much longer than those of all the popular girls they’d paid more attention to?  Why would it thrill her if this particular set of men, who she knew in name only, whose faces had grown weary and sad, agonized over her, if only for one night?  

 Between the necks of the glowing green gin bottles, Sarah squinted at her own sapphire eyes, cold with judgment.  On the bar next to her empty stem glass, Sarah’s phone began to vibrate.  She silenced it, stuffed it into her clutch, and gave a nasty look to the Sarah who was staring back at her from the mirror.

“What?”

+++

Your best friend’s funeral isn’t supposed to be the highlight of your summer social calendar, but Whitney was far too dead to be offended.  Sarah would certainly have preferred that it was a lesser friend who bled to death on the 480 loop, because Whitney would have made a fantastic companion this weekend.  Had they gotten to attend someone else’s funeral together, Sarah knew that she and Whitney, failing to lend the situation the gravity it demanded, would have been on the receiving end of many quick glances that would forever exist for them as a source of laughter.  But Whitney did die, and Sarah was on her own.  Leaning close to her bathroom mirror, Sarah carefully applied a heavy layer of bright red lipstick.

 On the expressway, Sarah listened to Mineral’s Five, Eight and Ten.  There was a voice in her head that tried to call her out, to make her feel silly for listening to twenty-year-old albums, but in the bright light of morning, that voice had no power.  Sarah turned up the volume and painted the world with the same panicked guitars that she and Whitney had screamed along to in their youth.  She was in it now, fully embracing her desire to play at being young again.  Fuck it, it felt good.  It felt right.  Was it really any more embarrassing to listen to her favorite records from high school and to hope to run into an ex-boyfriend, than it was to slouch forward through life towards an ever more dull, more overweight and under-inspired future like most people did?  And who was judging anyway?  Just the little voices in the back of her own head, and they could all just shut the fuck up as far as Sarah was concerned.  She wanted a cigarette and stopped at a gas station to buy a pack despite the fact that she was running late.

The funeral home in Millard was textbook.  Diffuse light restrained by gossamer curtains, buoyant salmon colored carpet, air conditioning cold enough to render embalming fluid unnecessary for those interred.  Mr. and Mrs. Beck were standing at the front of the large parlor room in their department store formal wear.  Brass rimmed chairs were occupied by black clad family and friends.  Whitney’s casket was open from the torso up, and a short line of people was making its way forward to offer condolences to Whitney’s mother and father, and to take their turns silently hovering over Whitney’s wax dummy corpse.

Sarah took her place at the rear of the line, her hands folded in front of her stomach, her back straight.  She looked side to side as she made her way to the casket.  When she saw a face she recognized in the crowd, she would offer a very faint, lips-only smile, enough to say, “Hello, I see you,” without robbing the room of the grief that everyone was working to collectively manifest.  

Amongst the strangers were thirty or so people from her graduating class.  A few had barely aged, but the rest looked as though they had done the excess aging for them.  Men were balder, with thicker necks.  Women were wider, with more lines on their faces.  Sarah absorbed their short nods and subtle waves like flashes from paparazzi cameras as if she was walking a red carpet.  Her dress selection was perfect.  From a few feet away, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Sarah wore nothing but a layer of black satin paint.  She reveled in knowing that she was the best-looking woman in the room, that she had kept it together, that she not only hadn’t gained weight since she was seventeen, but that her figure was even more firm and toned than it was back then.  She didn’t decline, but improved, and she loved that the men whose wives were still carrying pregnancy weight were noticing. 

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Sarah said to Mrs. Beck, who was clutching a crumpled wad of tissue.  Mrs. Beck leaned in and embraced Sarah, saying, “No, it’s all of our loss.  But God called her home.”

Sarah nodded solemnly to Mrs. Beck and turned on her black suede heels towards the polished mahogany box.  Looking down on her dead friend, Sarah wondered if Whitney’s legs were there in the bottom of the box, and if so, whether any effort had been made to reattach them.  

Your make up looks like shit, she said silently to her friend.  And your face looks kind of smashed.

Gravity yanked all my face skin down and it hardened this way, what do you expect?

Sarah smiled at Whitney’s unspoken retort.  Who picked lavender eye shadow for you?

Ugh! Is that what I’m wearing? Dammit mom!

Well, now you get to look like a hoochie for eternity.

I got painted by a mortician, what’s your excuse?

Tears began to fall down Sarah’s cheeks.  Their years apart were a mistake.  Their belief that there would always be more time, that keeping up over text and Facebook was enough, it was so foolish.  Sarah found herself audibly crying, and her hand flew to her bright red mouth to keep the sound in.  She hadn’t expected this.  She hadn’t imagined crying in this moment.  As Mr. Beck came to escort her to a chair, Sarah caught hold of her choking breath.  Once seated, she dabbed at her wet eyes and wondered who she was actually crying for.

A pastor spoke.  Whitney’s father spoke.  Whitney’s college roommate read a poem and the veggie platter aunt led the room in a prayer.  And that was it.  It was over.  Across the foyer was a dining hall with several long folding tables that absorbed the shuffling guests.  Steel coffee carafes, one with a black lid and the other orange, stood as sentinels on a ghastly yellow countertop.  Several cakes, all of them store bought, waited to be devoured next to a stack of paper plates and plastic forks. 

The guests who didn’t find their way into the dining hall littered the parking lot, sucking on vapes and hunching over their phones.  Sitting amongst her former classmates, Sarah sipped black coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  Many of these people still lived in Omaha, and it was the few like Sarah who made it out and established a life elsewhere, it was these individuals who had something to report, who had to be caught up with, who may just have returned from the wider world with some insight not available to those who had shamefully continued living their lives where they had begun living their lives.  But it was bullshit, and though Sarah knew it, she pretended she didn’t when it was her turn to tell the group what she had been doing all these years.  

“It’s no big deal,” she said of her position at Northwestern University.  She spoke this line as if behind her humility, maybe there was a big deal, some mystery that should be scratched at with further inquiry.  Sarah was deferential.  She asked all the right questions and made every effort to appear interested in the lives of the rest of the group, with special attention paid to those whose existence was so obviously the most mundane, those whose last seventeen years were the most aimlessly shambled across.  Muted envy was palpable, and it warmed her.  Tiffany Schwartz, a girl that was never anything more to Sarah than just another kid in the hallway, a blonde girl in sophomore English, a black and white postage stamp in the yearbook, she hated Sarah right now, she hated that she was elegant and educated and probably highly paid, and that she was pretending that she was none of these things.  She hated how by Sarah’s pretending that she didn’t possess them, that all of her qualities were on full display.  Sarah felt Tiffany’s bitterness, and she gathered it up inside of her, folding it like a cardigan she was saving for a cold winter day.  Around the table there was adoration, lust, and even genuine glee for Sarah, and she wanted all of it despite judging herself for the wanting.  I’m such shit, she thought to herself.  Then Blake stepped into the room, and her heart was a kick drum.

“Hey everyone.”

“Blake!” came the chorus.  

Sarah didn’t react as men rose from their seats to shake Blake’s hand, and to do that thing where guys use the handshake to pull each other into a one-armed hug.  Not wanting to stare, Sarah only nipped at Blake’s visage like a child stealing a few candies at a time until they have eaten the whole dish.  His black hair was held askew by product.  His beard was full but well-trimmed and seasoned with silver strands.  Blake’s black suit was not expensive, but it was a good cut, and it hugged his frame expertly.  Tattoos on the backs of his hands added to his quality.  Though he didn’t look outwardly muscular, he had filled out, and Sarah generally approved of his appearance.  The men who had been greeting Blake returned to their chairs, and Sarah finally turned her head to truly look at him, forcing him to meet her eyes.

“Oh my God, Sarah, you came!”  Blake stepped to where she was seated, and deftly, Sarah pushed her orange vinyl chair backwards, and rose.  She stood erect in her heels making sure every curve screamed at him from above and behind her flat stomach.  Opening her arms, she grasped him as intimately as she thought he could get away with in front of so many sets of eyes.  He said, “It’s so great to see you!  I didn’t think you’d show up.” 

It was plain to everyone watching the interaction that these two people were going to fuck, even to those who knew and enjoyed Blake’s girlfriend Candace, and especially to those who listened carefully when Sarah bragged about her fiancé, Alan.  What they didn’t know was how quickly it would happen.  It took less than an hour for Sarah to excuse herself to the restroom, for Blake to tell the group that he had to step out to make a call, for Sarah to peek out of the bathroom door to make sure no one was looking, and for Blake to close that door behind himself.  In the dining hall, Sarah’s classmates continued to talk about the old days, stabbing their forks into artificially moist, artificially yellow cake, while Blake lifted Sarah by her trim waist and set her down on the edge of the sink.  Her eyes were wide, staring past Blake’s ear, the sweet tobacco smell of his pomade drawn deep into her throat by her muffled gasps.  The last time Blake was inside her she was sixteen and terrified.  She hadn’t expected to have sex that night on the trampoline behind Carolyn Bartlett’s house, and though she was eager to get past her first time, teenage Sarah was convinced that she made every wrong move, including having thrown her bloody underwear away in the kitchen trash can after not so subtly rejoining the party.  Tonight, she wasn’t wearing underwear, and she was on birth control, and she was doing everything right, rolling her hips in time, holding her mouth just agape, and making eye contact as she whispered, “Your cock is sooooo big.” 

Blake came in less than three minutes.  Resting his forehead on her shoulder, he exhaled deeply.  Sarah waited, hoping he hadn’t finished, hoping that he was changing his tempo, when he groaned, “Fuuuck, that was good.”  He chuckled, and added, “I have thought about doing that again for a very long time.”  Before he pulled out, Sarah tried to kiss him, hoping to reignite his interest and to keep the moment alive, but Blake turned his head to the side, only allowing her lips to glance off of his.  “We should get back,” he said.

And then she was alone again, sitting on the toilet to drain what Blake had left behind.  She washed her hands and fixed her lipstick.  Into the mirror she asked, “Was it good for you?”

Whitney was alone, too.  The room in which she lay dead was empty of mourners when Sarah returned to walk down the aisle between now vacant chairs.  She stopped at the side of the casket.

“I just fucked Blake Lewis in the bathroom.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“It wasn’t much better than last time.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“I don’t know what I expected, coming here.  I just feel like…” Sarah paused to find the right words, then continued, “Like since we graduated, there was a big bang and everything just started expanding away from me in every direction, and I felt that if I didn’t move too, faster and further than everyone else, that I would be left…floating.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“When we were in high school, I assumed everyone felt like I did, that the lives we were being primed for were bullshit.  That waking up every day to drive to some job that we hated so we could get a mortgage to buy a house in a suburb that was just as boring as the one we came from, I thought we all knew that it was a lie.  A trap.  And I thought that that was what all the music, and the drinking, and partying, and wanting to get tattooed and to dye our hair pink was all about.  I thought the rebellion was real, that none of us wanted to be our goddamn parents!  I thought we had all seen how they chose to live and that we saw the results – their misery, their stress, their demoralizing acceptance of life on a couch, and I thought that we were all saying, ‘Fuck that!’”  

Sarah recognized that she was raising her voice, so she looked behind her to make sure the room was still empty.  Seeing that it was, she returned to her dead friend, and sighed.  “Maybe there is no escape, no path that actually leads to a life that would feel like more than a shuffled deck of workdays and weekends, meetings and grocery runs, but I thought that the burning need that I felt way down deep in the basement of my soul, to look it all in the face and to say, ‘No!’ I thought we all shared that.  I thought we were alive, and that no matter what, we would be different.  Maybe not all of us, but people like you and me, who had felt a taste of what life could be on so many crazy nights.  I thought that you and I at least, that we were something special.”  Sarah had been gesturing to no one, and finally she rested her hands on the rim of the casket and brought her eyes down from the ceiling to which she had been appealing her case and looked hard at Whitney’s petrified face.  “Do you remember when we drove to Lincoln to see Jimmy Eat World before anyone knew who they were, and my car got towed, and we went to that weird after party and had to walk around taking donations so we could afford to get it out of impound, and when we finally did, it was like four in the morning, and even though we knew we were in total deep shit, we said fuck it, and stopped for French toast before driving back to Omaha?  That was the best night of my life.” 

Whitney didn’t respond.

+++

Sarah texted Alan that night before falling asleep on one side of her king-sized bed, telling him that it had been a long day and that she would see him tomorrow.  The next morning while waiting for her flight to board, she listened to Rainer Maria’s Ears Ring while scrolling through photos people had posted to their Facebook and Instagram profiles from outside Whitney’s funeral.  They all justified this vanity by captioning the pictures with some words of tribute to Whitney.  Sarah swiped her index finger up the face of her phone, clicking her way through a series of options until she found what she was looking for.  A link that read, Delete Account.

 Back in Evanston, Sarah clung to the silver bar that kept her upright against the heaving and jostling of the Purple Line train.  She decided not to tell Alan about Blake.  Not yet anyway.  She was numb to herself.  No choice seemed obviously right or obviously wrong.  Should she go forward with the wedding?  Could she?  Was it terrible that she felt that either path forward was just as good as the other?  That she felt entirely indifferent to all of the decisions before her, and that this worried her more than the decisions themselves?  As all of these thoughts and questions passed through her mind, an electronic voice was calling out train stops from a speaker.  Sarah snapped back into the present as the voice declared, “This, is Noyes.”  The double doors of the train car parted, and Sarah stepped out into the world.

 On the sidewalk, dying cicadas inched along while the already dead curled their limbs towards the blue sky where their brethren zipped through the air on their way to mates and meals, to trees where they screamed in a mighty chorus and laid millions of eggs, before scattering at the sight of birds who ripped their tender bodies clean in half, leaving only their exoskeletons to float back to the Earth like brittle autumn leaves.  It was a seventeen-year-brood.  In a few more weeks they would be forgotten, and the hum of passing cars and air conditioners would be the only sound.

About the Author: John F Duffy is originally from Chicago, but currently lives in the backwoods of southern Indiana.  His debut novel, ‘A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing,’ will be available in the autumn of 2022.

Feral

By Jeremiah Blane Kniola

From behind a thicket of perennial grass, seventeen-year-old Rosalyn Fowler eyes a rabbit as he hops towards her snare. A notched stake holds a sapling bent in place; the bark splintered at the curve from the tension of the angle. Stems are piled carefully into a teepee on the opposite side of the looped twine; food to draw the rabbit’s attention. 

Beneath her breath, Rosalyn encourages him forward, praying the snare doesn’t accidentally set off and scare him away. The rabbits big, maybe four pounds, with spotted brown-white fur and long ears sticking up from its head. More meat than Rosalyn has eaten since she arrived at the dunes a month ago. As he hops closer, the rabbit unknowingly slips his head through the noose, but pauses momentarily, as if instinct has warned him of danger. “Come on, don’t stand there,” Rosalyn mumbles beneath her breath. 

 As she leans forward a branch pops beneath her boot. The rabbit jumps, tugs the knotted twine, and untethers the young tree. The slender trunk catapults back to its natural vertical position, jerks the twine skyward, and jolts the rabbit off his feet, the snap of his neck echoing in the silence. For a moment, his fluffy body swings back and forth, legs kicking the air in a last-ditch effort to hop to safety, before finally running out of nerve. 

Rosalyn unties the noose, carries the rabbit by his ears to a clearing in the dunes, and checks the fur for ticks. Once she’s satisfied there are none, she carves two u-shaped cuts around the ankles with her knife—a slightly dull blade with a curved wood handle she stole from her dad—digs her finger beneath the flaps, and tugs off the hide like a parent removing a child’s coat. Fluffs of fur stick to the bloody meat, but Rosalyn’s too impatient to care. Hunger rips through her like a gut shot. Four days have passed since she’s eaten anything but mast. She builds a fire from sedge grass, hacks the meat from the bone, and quarters it into tiny bite-size pieces to roast on a stick. The sulfurous stink of burnt fur does nothing to discourage Rosalyn’s appetite. She keeps her eyes and ears peeled for movement; the smoke liable to attract the rangers’ attention.  

Once she’s eaten her fill, Rosalyn relaxes against a log, and watches the sky change from blue to a peach color as the sun lowers behind the cool waters of Lake Michigan. Her dad would’ve been proud of her today. She wishes he could’ve seen her snag that rabbit. He would’ve given her a high-five and said, “That’s my girl.” On the other hand, her mom would’ve scorned her for dirtying her fingernails and clothes. “You don’t want people thinking you’re a hillbilly,” she’d say. Rosalyn didn’t think that was in all together bad thing to be, but her mom was always concerned what others thought about the family, even if what they said was true.  

Every summer, Rosalyn’s folks took the family camping at the dunes. They said it was beneficial for her and her siblings to connect with nature, get them out of the house and away from the TV, but the truth was a free vacation was all they could afford, her folks stuck in a financial rut from which they could never climb their way out. Mom spent those weekends sitting around the camp, reading her magazines and complaining about the heat and the bugs, while Dad—who grew up around these parts—trained his offspring how to live off the land. They ate by campfire, slept in tents, and learned survival tactics such as how to purify water, forage for edible plants, hunt and fish. Rosalyn always looked forward to those trips, counting down the winter months, impatient to return to, what she considered was, her place of origin. 

When she was seven, Rosalyn jumped at the opportunity to gut a steelhead her dad had caught while fishing off of the East Arm of Little Calumet. He teased her that he didn’t want her hurling breakfast at the sight of blood and tried handed over the duty to her older brothers. Back then, Rosalyn was scrawny and soft-spoken, the runt of the litter, but she picked up the knife and demanded he show her where to cut. Astonished by Rosalyn’s candor, her dad instructed her to insert the tip of the knife beneath the fish’s tail and cut along the belly toward the gills. Rosalyn sliced that steelhead open as easily as a loaf of bread and didn’t flinch a millimeter when blood squirted on her wrist. Her dad spread the abdominal cavity and offered her a spoon to clean out the guts, but Rosalyn stared directly in his eyes and dug her hands into its stomach and pulled out its entrails.  

Rosalyn often reflects on those summers while scavenging for driftwood in the evenings. The wood floats listlessly in the lake, pushed forward by the waves, until it finally washes ashore, where it collects in piles and becomes homes for seabirds. As she walks along the shore, Rosalyn selects a few small pieces then collapses onto the sand and carves little figurines out of the scraps with her knife. 

She enjoys the concentration of the work, the attention to detail, but it’s the silence of the dunes she enjoys the most. The silence has always soothed her. 

* * *

From morning until evening, Rosalyn trounces along the spider web of trails weaving through the hurst of Black Savannahs, across the Mesic sands of the Hoosier Prairie, around the boggy marshlands, and over the windswept dunes, scouting for food. Hunger is always foremost on her mind, gnawing at her from the moment she wakes until she falls asleep. She tries spearing fish in the lake and stealing eggs from nests and sets snares for animals whenever she comes across feeding areas. But hunting proves harder than her dad made it look when she was a girl. Of course, he had more weapons than a dull knife and his wits. What she wouldn’t give for a fishing pole or rifle? Most of the time she has to settle for a pocketful of mast she picks from shrubs or digs from the ground. To preserve her rations, she dehydrates the fruits and plants on rocks where there is plenty of sunlight. Sometimes she loses her rations to pesky predators. 

Late on a cool night in September, Rosalyn awakes to a critter scavenging outside her tent. She opens the flap to a possum stuffing his furry gray belly on some mushrooms she’d planned to soak in hot water for broth the following morning. She sneaks up behind him, but when he hears her footsteps, he hisses and cowers over the loot, eyes like tiny white flames in the darkness. Rosalyn shakes a stick and in a gruff voice orders him to “shoo!” When that doesn’t work, she pokes him in the hind with the pointy end. He drops to his side and lies motionless as if stabbed through the heart. Watching him play dead, Rosalyn feels sorry for the poor critter. She leaves him her rations and from her tent watches as he eats until she falls back to sleep. 

Whenever she encounters hikers, Rosalyn tries to blend in, but people tend to take notice. Hard to look normal when there’s two-week dirt in your tangled hair and you smell rank like something rotten. Normally nobody says anything directly to her, but Rosalyn hears their whispered judgments, feels their stares, sees their disgust. She fears one of these days someone is going to report her, which is why she always on the move. Staying in one place too long is dangerous and she avoids the camp sites at all costs. Though the scent of cooking meat from the campfires draws her close, and she’s tempted to rummage through the coolers and trash bins, she knows if the Rangers catch her they’ll take her in for trespassing. 

One afternoon, a young family stumbles upon her pissing behind a bush. The mom hides the kids’ eyes while her and the dad divert their attention elsewhere. Once Rosalyn has hiked up her pants the dad lectures her on decency. “They have laws against that,” he says. He asks about her folks and looks around as if he expects to find them in the vicinity. Ignoring the parents, Rosalyn pulls a totem in the shape of a fish from her knapsack and offers it to the kids. The mom pulls them away as if Rosalyn’s diseased. The dad warns her that there’ll be trouble if she touches his children. Raising her arms, Rosalyn tells the family she meant no harm then runs off into the woods before they can shout for help. Once she’s far enough away, Rosalyn slouches against a Black Oak and peels away a hunk of bark, feeling the difference between the tree’s rough exterior and its soft inside, watching for any sign the family followed.

Often when she’s lying in her tent, Rosalyn thinks about her family. She wonders if her folks regret throwing her out. Do her siblings ask when she’s coming home, or do they just fight over who gets her stuff? Have her parents been searching for her these last few months? Did they report her missing? She imagines them speaking with the police, faces marked by tears as they plead for her safe return. They probably called every number listed in her phone and checked her texts and messages. Drove around every street in town and knocked on the neighbors’ doors and searched for her at Fox Lake and Winding Creek Park. They may have even searched for her at the dunes. But Rosalyn is careful to cover her tracks. Far as she’s concerned, they never need to find her, but that doesn’t stop her from missing them. After all she put them through can she blame them if they forgot about her altogether?  

* * *

All through high school, Rosalyn was in trouble. She could recite the policy book from memory and describe the principal’s office down to the number of pens in his mesh cup, the monthly tasks listed on the calendar, and the degrees and awards displayed on his walls. Rosalyn had a habit of mouthing off to teachers. She didn’t understand how they expected her to sit inside a class all day in those tight desks, listening to them babble endlessly about things that didn’t matter. She could read and write and pitch a tent and kill a rabbit. What else did she need to know? She wasn’t above challenging boys to fights or telling girls her opinion of them. Her temper as unpredictable as a spooked deer. She got the reputation as someone to steer clear from, which was fine by her; she was never much good at talking with people anyway. 

Her mom demanded Rosalyn cool her attitude or she was going to force her to go to La Lumiere, the local Catholic boarding school, and let the nuns straighten her out, but Rosalyn understood this as an empty threat, her parents couldn’t afford the tuition, and so she continued doing whatever she pleased. Rosalyn’s reckless disobedience spawned many heated arguments. If there was one thing her mom despised—and there were many—it was disrespect. She told Rosalyn constantly she didn’t have to love her, but she’d be damned if any of her children didn’t respect her. Sadly, she didn’t realize that not a one of them did. 

Her dad, on the other hand, tried reasoning with her. After the fighting settled, he’d come to Rosalyn’s room and plead with her to first apologize to her mom then promise to do better in school. He was worried she was going to fail, or worse. All he expected of her was to obtain her diploma. It wasn’t too much to ask for. Was it? Rosalyn would lie and say it wasn’t but knew as soon as she returned to school it wouldn’t take long before she got into trouble again. 

Then her sophomore year, Rosalyn got expelled for breaking Brad Hullinger’s nose. She’d leapt on him in the vocational hall outside metals class, pinned his arms beneath her knees, and drove her fist into his nose turned crooked. By the time the shop teachers dragged her off, the front of Brad’s shirt was covered in blood and two purple half-moons had risen beneath his eyes. 

 Rosalyn had to wait in the principal’s office for her folks to fetch her, knuckles swelled to the size of chestnuts and a tiny compression in the shape of a tooth marking her ring finger. They had to pay Brad’s medical bills and drive to his parents’ house to apologize for their daughter’s behavior. The entire ride home, Rosalyn had to listen to her mom break into hysterics. She couldn’t believe her own daughter was capable of such violence. As if she’d raised a savage. Her dad didn’t have the same visceral reaction. Actually, he said nothing at all, but he didn’t have to, she could sense his disappointment by the way he refused to look at her. They grounded Rosalyn to her room for the remainder of the grading period. At sixteen she’d drop out of school and acquired her GED. Would it have changed their mind if she’d told them why she’d attacked that asshole Brad Hullinger? What would they have said if they learned he’d texted nude photos of her to his friends with the word “Slut” typed in capital letters? But then she’d have to admit she was fucking him in his car out at Winding Creek Park sometimes after school.    

Occasionally, Rosalyn walks to a rusty pay phone, the only one she knows of in the entire area, outside the log cabin style building of the Visitor’s Center. She only goes here early in the mornings when no one is around, stashing her rucksack inside a log about fifteen feet off of the trail. When she grabs the handset, the plastic crackles around the exposed earpiece where someone bashed it against the dented top of the kiosk. She pulls her only quarter from her backpack pouch, a quarter she’s carried ever since she found it on the beach, and runs her thumb along the ridged edges smoothed with sand. She drops it in the slot where it lands with a clank and is greeted with the steady buzz of a dial tone. She presses her folk’s digits, but pushes the squeaky release lever the moment the phone starts ringing, catching the quarter as it rolls out of the scratched metal slot of the coin drop. 

She wonders what would happen if she talked to her folks. How would she feel if she heard her their voices? Would it be so bad? 

“Do you need some assistance, miss?” a woman says from behind her.

Rosalyn snaps out of her thoughts and turns her head to find a ranger leaning against a wood pillar. She’s dressed in the standard uniform: green khakis, gray buttoned shirt, and a wide-brimmed felt hat that shades her round, moon face. Her bangs fall over the left side in a swooping wave. A toothpick twirls between her teeth. The Ranger doesn’t look in the best shape. Rosalyn guesses she could outrun her in a foot race, but the firearm holstered to her tactical belt gives her pause. She decides to play it cool. 

“I was just calling my boyfriend. My folks don’t allow me to bring my cellphone on camping trips.”

“Your family staying at the Mather or Douglas site?” the ranger points with her toothpick in opposite directions. 

“The one by the RV dump.”

The ranger pulls her toothpick from her mouth and shakes it to make a point. “Tell your folks to rent a spot at the Douglas next time. It’s quieter and closer to the hiking trails.” 

Rosalyn smiles. “I’ll let them know. Well, I should be getting back. My folks worry if I’m gone too long.”

“You and your folks need anything be sure to ask for me, Carla Coons.” 

“I’ll be sure to mention that,” Rosalyn replies. 

The ranger sticks the toothpick back between her teeth and tips her hat. “Take it easy now.” 

Ambling down the path toward the State Park Road, Rosalyn waits until she’s out of sight of the Visitor’s Center, grabs her rucksack from the log, then dashes off the trail into the woods.

 * * * 

The sun has barely peeked above the horizon when Rosalyn strips out of her clothing and steps nude into the cold waters of an interdunal pond. She shivers in the early autumn breeze, wraps her arms tightly around her chest, and rubs the goosebumps prickling her tan skin, the light fuzz on her arms and legs standing to attention. A thin film of mud spreads around her as the water laps the sand from her body.  She hardly recognizes the rippled reflection staring back at her. 

The primitive diet has trimmed the fat from her body, her ribs sticking out above her concave stomach. Hours spent in the sun has tanned her rawboned features the color and texture of beef jerky and hair grows in places where she’d shaved before. Not that Rosalyn has ever been pretty. As an adolescent she sprouted to a respectable 5’9 but remained flat and straight in the wrong places. She inherited her dad’s lean cheekbones, angular jaw, thick eyebrows and her mom’s beak-like nose. Her voice deepened, but it wasn’t the sexy deep of movie stars, more like a toad’s throaty rasp. Unable to look at her reflection any longer, Rosalyn dunks her head beneath the surface and runs her fingers through her butchered scalp. 

Floating in circles on her back, she watches the rays of light glistening through the branches and listens to the waves murmuring their aquatic songs. Rosalyn reaches down and rests her palm against the soft patch between her legs.Thinks about when she used to sneak out at night to have sex with immature boys in their cars at the park down the street, their eagerness to be pleased, their ravenous appetites and swollen erections rubbing against the inside of their pants. She thinks about the blankets spread across their backseats camouflaging the stains and crumbs and dog hair. The bedding area, she thought of it. Rosalyn would order the boys to lie on their backs and close their eyes before removing their pants. She didn’t like it when they watched and would stop if she caught them peeking. She’d take them in her hands. Take them in her mouth. Take them grunting and bucking and sweating. She was aroused by how easy they were to tame, though she didn’t derive any pleasure from the exchange. It wasn’t the attention she craved. Nor the intimacy. It was the silence afterwards. The moment when they were lying next to her and the only sound was the boys’ heavy breathing.  

Rosalyn dries in the grass before putting on her clothes. When she emerges from the tree line, clothes stuck to her damp skin, she comes upon two rangers rifling through her tent. She’s careful not to step on any twigs or make a sound. She ducks behind a royal fern and brushes a space between the fronds. The woman she’d spoken to at the payphone, Carla Coons, kneels inside the zipper flap and tosses her things—clothes, canteen, cooking pot, first aid kit, sleeping bag—outside while chewing her toothpick to splinters. The other ranger, a burly cave dweller of a man, pokes her stuff with a stick to inspect for contraband. Carla Coons asks if he found anything. 

 He shakes his head. “Looks like some weekenders wanted to have a bonfire and brewskies without paying the campground fees?” 

Carla Coons slides the skinning knife out of Rosalyn’s shoes. “Squatter. From the blood on the blade I’d say she caught herself a little breakfast recently.” 

 “How do you know it’s a her?” 

 She shows him a package of tampons. “Intuition.” 

 “You sure she’s still around?”

Carla Coons takes a couple steps toward where Rosalyn is hiding, and for a moment, Rosalyn freezes, afraid the ranger has spotted her. She curses her misfortune. She shouldn’t have been so careless. 

 “Unless she’s decided to abandon everything.”

  The other ranger hocks a loogie. “What do we do?” 

 Carla Coons swirls her toothpick in her mouth. “Bring the jeep around. We’ll load up this stuff and lock it in the station. You never know, she might get desperate enough to come around for it.”

 As Rosalyn watches them cart her stuff away, she thinks about everything she’s lost. Her family. Her home. Her dignity. Some might even say her sanity. She reaches into her pocket, feels the smooth ridges of the quarter, and is thankful she hasn’t lost everything. 

* * * 

Temperatures drops a dramatic forty degrees over the next few weeks, as they only can in a Midwest fall. Frost greets Rosalyn where she sleeps in the morning, covering her in a thin icy layer. Some nights she’s lucky to get any rest with the cold, shivering and gritting her teeth against the biting winds that blow hard off of Lake Michigan, her clothes too worn to protect her from the weather. Building a fire has become an arduous task. It rains frequently and without matches Rosalyn struggles to spark a flame. She has yet to master the trick of rubbing two sticks together.  

 Since the rangers stumbled onto her tent, Rosalyn has taken every precaution to limit her exposure. This is increasingly difficult due to the leaves beginning to shed. She hunts at night when she thinks no one is around, but the lack of visibility mixed with the shortage of food has left her desperate. Birds have begun to migrate and there’s less evidence of other animals. There are still fish, but they’re harder to catch, her hands and feet numb in the frigid waters. And since the rangers stole her knife, Rosalyn has no tool in which to skin or cut her meat. She has to use a stick or sharp rock. This leaves her foraging for mast—walnuts, persimmons, chickweed—that grows in the cold seasons. But without proper sustenance, Rosalyn feels fatigued and irritable. Desperation pushes her to scavenge the trash bins in the campsites when no one is around. 

  On a late afternoon, Rosalyn is scarfing down a half-eaten Nestle bar when dark clouds sweep in out of the west. Powerful winds rattle the trees and knock branches in her path as she searches for shelter. Rain pummels her head, soaks her to the bone, and washes the ground beneath her feet. She slips several times, the ground splashing her in mud. By the time she reaches the bathhouse by the public beach she’s drenched from head to toe and bleeding from scratches on her face and arms. She hangs her clothes to dry on the urinal walls, kicks the stall doors and curses her bad luck. She slumps onto the linoleum floor and waits there the rest of the afternoon for the storm to settle. 

A month before she ran away, Rosalyn’s dad procured her a job as a warehouse stocker at Lowes. For eight hours a day, she drove a forklift, unloaded inbound freight, organized product on shelves, and reviewed shipping paperwork. The job wasn’t terribly exciting, but it kept her busy. For the most part, she got along with her supervisors and co-workers. She kept to herself and didn’t complain and performed her duties satisfactorily. She scraped enough money together to buy her a beater with tons of miles and a loud muffler. She cut her hair to a respectable chin length, bathed daily, and even occasionally wore makeup, though she never felt comfortable with it on, as if she were camouflaging her true nature. 

Her parents checked in on her though they’d pretend to be shopping, curious to know how she was getting along. They were proud that she’d turned things around. Also relieved to have the extra income she paid in rent. Rosalyn pretended she was happy but couldn’t deny that deep down inside she craved something more. Something she couldn’t explain. Maybe she lacked imagination, but she couldn’t picture a career at Lowes as her life. The moment she decided to leave she knew she wasn’t going to miss it.

 Long after the moon has risen and the chill has set in, Rosalyn manages to blindly stumble her way to the Visitor’s Center. She knows it’s stupid coming here late night. Carla Coons could be waiting for her. There’s a single blueish bulb glowing in the building, but otherwise the place is dark and appears empty. Just to be certain, Rosalyn circles the perimeter, keeping low behind some underbrush, and when she sees no one, tests the front doors and finds they’re locked. She tiptoes over to the payphone. Her hand trembles as she lifts the receiver. The dial tone crackles in her ear. Hesitating, she fingers the quarter while arguing with herself whether to go forward with the call. Finally, Rosalyn drops the coin in the slot, leans her head against the kiosk and rest her eyes. With each ring, she considers hanging up. She hasn’t thought about what to say if her parents answered. 

 Her mom picks up, sounding groggy. Rosalyn listens to her say “hello” several times. Her mom’s pitch rises in annoyance when Rosalyn doesn’t respond. A tone Rosalyn loathes for its superiority. She hears her dad in the background asking who it is. Rosalyn recognizes the concern in his voice and she almost calls out to him. “I can hear you breathing, creeper,” her mom’s contempt reaches across the line. Rosalyn slams the phone down on the cradle. 

 The last time they’d spoke they’d fought over Rosalyn walking out on her job. Neither of her parents understood how she could make such a brash decision, considering the financial burdens they faced, and she had no way of explaining it to them. Her dad begged her to ask for her job back. Her mom told her if she didn’t want to work to pack a bag and move out. She wasn’t going to take care of a bum. Rosalyn expected her dad to come to the rescue, talk some sense into her mom, but he just walked out to the front porch to smoke a cigarette. Along with her siblings, her folks watched as Rosalyn packed her stuff into her car. None of her family said goodbye. None of them waved. None of them could even look at her. 

 As she drove away, headlights illuminating the country road, Rosalyn had no idea where she was going. All she knew was she finally felt free. 

* * *

For days, Rosalyn lumbers around the trails of the dunes, cold, hungry, and weary, searching for a warm place to sleep and something to snuff her hunger. Beneath the overcast sky, the leaves have changed color and fallen to the clay colored ground, stripping the park of its former beauty. Rosalyn can’t ignore her own filthy stench. Her tattered clothes and knotted hair reek of wilted plants. She can only guess what she looks like. Every mile or so, she needs to stop and rest, tell herself the fatigue doesn’t mean anything. She begs her stomach to shut up. With its pangs and rumblings, it sounds like her mother. 

One evening, Rosalyn stumbles upon the Douglas campground. The campers have long gone. Only remnants of their presence remain: a pile of salt-and-pepper ash burned cold in a firepit. Rosalyn pulls a half-scorched piece of paper, a receipt from Wal-Mart. The campers had bought hot dogs and burgers and potato salad. The rest she couldn’t read, but she could imagine them with their little outdoor picnic, carrying their supplies for a few days of relaxation in the wilderness. While scrounging for wood, Rosalyn comes upon a sleeping bag draped over the twigged skeleton of an eastern redbud. It’s pretty clean for being out here for several weeks. No filthier than her anyway. It looks like the one she used to own, blue on the outside, checkered on the inside. She unzips it, knocks out the leaves and dead bugs then curls inside to watch the sunset over the treetops and listen to the silence until she falls asleep.  

Rosalyn awakes to Carla Coons nudging her with the tip of her boot. “Mighty brisk to be out here snoozing,” she says. Carla sits across from Rosalyn on the stones of the firepit, pulls a toothpick out of a package, and points with the tip to the sleeping bag.  “Thought you might want that back.” Rosalyn snuggles deeper inside it. “I have the rest of your stuff at the station. I had a feeling you might make it out this way at some point. I have to admit you took longer than expected. I looked all over you, but you’re a tough rascal to catch. What are you doing out here anyway?”

Rosalyn wishes she knew. 

“Oh, come now. You’ve got to give me something. What do you say we have a nice chat? Between girls.” 

“You got anything to eat?”

Carla digs through her coat pockets, produces a chocolate flavored protein bar, and hands it over. Rosalyn tears the wrapper with her teeth and takes two huge bites. The mushy brownie is the best thing she’s tasted in months. 

 “You running away from something?” Carla asks. 

 Rosalyn takes another bite of the bar, swallows.  

 “So you just decided one day to live out in the wilderness?”

 “I don’t understand why that’s so unbelievable.”

 Carla Coons bites down on her toothpick. “Because honey, it’s not every day a girl decides to be homeless.”

 “I’m not homeless. This is my home.” She motions at the woods. 

 “Mmm-hmm. Now I’m not passing judgement, but you know this is a state park. You have no legal right to live on these grounds.” 

 Rosalyn finishes the protein bar, tosses the wrapper in the firepit, and licks her fingers. “I’m not bothering anyone.” 

“Be that as it may, we have laws against soliciting on state owned land.”

 “Then why haven’t you kicked me out yet?”

 Carla sucks on her toothpick. “Teens are always camping in the dunes during the summer. No one says much if they don’t cause any hassle. But if you’re planning on staying any longer then we have a problem.” 

  “Are you saying I have to leave?”

 Carla Coons shrugs in her jacket. “Listen, I’m not going to pretend I know what you’re going through, but living out here in the dunes isn’t the solution. A person can get hurt. Trust me, I know.”

 “A person can get hurt no matter where they are.” 

“Can’t disagree with you there,” Carla chuckles. “Be that as it may, my guess is you’re underage, and it’s my duty to get you back safely to wherever you belong.” 

 Standing, Carla Coons dusts sand from her ass and tells Rosalyn to come along. She can wait at the ranger’s station and enjoy a nice cup of freshly brewed coffee while waiting for her parents to come get her. 

 Rosalyn considers running, but where would she go. And she can’t deny how much she’d love a hot meal and a warm bed. She begins to cry. She doesn’t understand why, but something has broken the dam inside her and released a flood of emotion. Before she knows it, her body is shaking, racked by a hurt so deep she can’t say where it originated from. 

 Carla comes down on a knee and rubs her back. Promises is everything is going to be okay. Rosalyn lies her head in Carla’s lap and they stay that way for a while. The two of them listening to the bird calls as the sun rises in the sky.  

 As Rosalyn follows Carla toward the ranger’s station she listens for the silence. She remembers the evening when she first saw the dunes rising above the tree line. She stopped the car on the shoulder of a gravel road off Highway 12, killed the ignition, retrieved the title from the glove compartment, and climbed out into the steamy heat to burn it along with other things from her past: license, social security card, a discount voucher to Applebees. She remembers climbing the dune, forcing herself to keep moving despite the sand sliding beneath her, threatening to throw her backwards. Twice she lost her footing and tumbled a good ways down, the sand ingraining in her clothes and hair and mouth. She’d had to collect some of the things had fallen out of her backpack before continuing upward. By the time she crested the dune she was completely out of breath. 

 She remembers shrugging off her gear and collapsing onto the sand. In front of her, miles of beach spread along the blue waters of Lake Michigan. She lied back, closed her eyes, and listened to the silence. The silence she may never hear again. 

About the Author: Jeremiah Blane Kniola lives in Chicago with his wife and pets, but is originally from a small town in Indiana, similar to the setting where his fiction takes place. In 2020, he graduated from UIC with a Bachelor’s in English at the age of 43. Throughout his life he’s worked as a Law Office Clerk, English Teacher, Railroad Steward, Construction Worker, and Restaurant Manager. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Literary Orphans, Dogzplot, Lover’s Eye Press, among others. He enjoys baseball, jazz, and gin martinis. 

Looking the Part

By Kevin Finnerty

            Nick never paid much attention to the clothes people wore until he met Dana. He cared a little about his own attire, but just a little.   

            Dana managed a boutique clothing shop in the North Loop in Minneapolis. A hip store in a hipster neighborhood. The sort of place where patrons only checked the price after they’d already made the decision to purchase the item. 

            Nick lived in the neighborhood that had been called the Warehouse District for a long time after the warehouses along the Mississippi River had disappeared, only to be quickly re-branded once urban living came back in vogue and the neighborhood offered upscale opportunities to those who worked downtown, less than a mile away.

            Nick and Dana spoke for the first time after he walked into the boutique without any intention of buying, or even pretending to buy, clothes. He’d lived in the city for two years without entering a serious romantic relationship, as he’d discovered Minnesota Nice did not mean warm or inviting. He’d met Dana’s eyes on at least a dozen occasions when passing Fine Threads on his way home from work before he decided to find out if she viewed him as anything more than a potential customer.  

            “How can I help you?” 

            Dana’s question took him aback. He’d planned his approach in advance, but it had not included her initiating the conversation.

            “Do you always wear a suit?”

            Nick thought he could handle the second question at least. “Four days a week.  Five if I have to go to court or meet with a client on Fridays.”

            “What do you otherwise wear on Fridays?”

            “Business casual. Emphasis on the business part.”

            “Most people aren’t so constrained.”

            “What about the military?” 

            “The military, sure.” Dana showed her full teeth as she smiled this time, revealing to Nick the difference between the pleasing smile she’d previously offered and the natural one she now displayed. “What about weekends? Holidays? Vacations?”

            Nick looked down at his clothes — suit, tie, dress shoes — as if they would provide him the answer. “Whatever I want, I guess.”

            Nick left Fine Threads ten minutes later without making a purchase, but he had Dana’s phone number and a thought he’d never previously considered: Most people aren’t so constrained.

            As he walked about his city in the days that followed, Nick paid more attention to the attire of those around him and discovered that even in its corporate center most people took advantage of their freedom.  People wore jeans, both of the designer and second-hand variety, and everything in-between; shirts, collared and pressed, as well as those torn that exposed the wearer’s flesh; sneakers, loafers, boots, sandals, sometimes no shoes at all.  He saw Ts that gave him information about the individual’s favorite band, school, or sports team.  He even saw one guy in his early twenties, hair a little long, but otherwise clean-cut, clean shaven, whose shirt said I’m that guy.

            Nick imagined the slogan would have been profound had the wearer been a philosophy major making an existential statement. The sort of person whose voice mail would have said: “I was going to say ‘I’m not here’ but that may have started a debate that would have been impossible to end. So please just leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you.”

            Nick thought the dude on the street looked too happy to have been a philosophy major, but he was sure the guy wanted to convey some message.    

            “Most people do,” Dana told him on their first date. “You buy top brands at full price, you’re telling the world you want the best, can afford it, and want others to know it. You purchase knock-offs, you want to pretend you’re a member of the first group and hope people can’t tell the difference.”  

            The couple sat at an outdoor patio at a restaurant just across the river in the neighborhood named Northeast but pronounced “Nordeast” by its residents.  

            “What do mine say?”

            “You buy functional clothes and shop middle-of-the-road department stores for items you can afford that you hope won’t offend anyone.” She used air quotes around “shop.” “Nothing wrong with that. I’m with you, right? I wouldn’t have given you my number if you’d worn sweats or sandals when you came into the shop, no matter how good looking you might have been.  That would have told me you valued your own comfort above everything else. Like women who wear yoga pants 90% of the time.”

            Nick wasn’t sure what to make of Dana’s attire and was afraid to ask. He’d noticed at work she wore lots of black or white or black and white. Sharp, professional clothes that would have been beyond her price point but for her employee discount and her employer’s expectations.

            On their first date, Dana wore a striped blouse, solid short skirt, and a red fedora. Nick soon understood she liked to mix-and-match and frequently combined one item that was fairly expensive, another that was dirt cheap, and a third somewhere in-between, but it would be some time before he’d be able to consistently tell which was which.

            Nick better grasped the message she wanted to send on their second date. She wore a Zach Parisee jersey when she greeted him in the doorway to her apartment. They’d made plans to attend a Wild game after he learned, like most in the State of Hockey, Dana was an avid fan on the sport.   

            “No jersey for you?” 

            “I didn’t want to risk it.” Nick had elected to take her to the game when the Wild were facing off against his hometown team, the Flyers.

            She patted him on the shoulder. “That doesn’t happen here. I was at a game last year where we all got serenaded by a bunch of Canadiens fans when Montreal ran us out of the building. Five solid minutes of Ole, ole, ole. Most Minnesotans politely left the arena.”

            “That wouldn’t happen in Philly. Not without a fight.”

            Nick sat quietly through the first period even though the Flyers were the only team to score. After the second goal, Dana leaned into him. “Go ahead and cheer. You know you want to.”

            Nick told himself he would the next time Philly lit the lamp, but as soon as he did so, a Flyer defenseman caught an edge giving a Wild forward an unimpeded path to the goalie. One deke and it was 2-1.

            Dana jumped to her feet. Seconds later she looked down at Nick as if she knew what had happened. Had it been her plan all along?

            Nick wondered if not getting to his feet when the home team scored was just as telling as applauding when good things happened to the visitors. The Flyers scored next, but the Wild scored last during the shootout. Dana left the arena twice as happy as Nick because her team garnered two points and his only one.

            “You look good in those jeans,” Dana said as they reached his car after the game.

            Nick smiled at the compliment but wondered what it was about the jeans she liked during the ride to her apartment. All his pairs were different. Also, did the sole compliment about his jeans imply she didn’t like the shirt or shoes he wore?

            Nick paused when he parked the car outside her apartment, waiting to see if she would abruptly exit or invite him inside. She did neither.

            He turned and stared. She smiled. He leaned across believing it was time for their first kiss.

            Dana moved a third of the way towards him but slipped the kiss and embraced him instead. Nick felt both of her hands on his back, rubbing against his new flannel shirt.

            “You smell good.” She had her chin resting against his shoulder.

            “So do you.”

            Nick couldn’t smell anything. He believed his spinning thoughts must have impaired his senses.

            “I hope we’ll do this again.”

            “We’ll have to go to Philly. They play there later this year.”

            She pulled away. “Slow down, Bud.”

            He prepared to apologize, or tell her that wasn’t what he’d meant, but before he could say the words, she said goodnight and left. He turned around and looked through the rear windshield hoping she’d glance back. She didn’t.

            On their third date, Nick entered Fine Threads while Dana was in the process of closing the shop just after seven on a Friday night. He’d come directly from work wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and maroon tie after spending the day in a deposition until it ended shortly before five.

            Mentally drained from paying attention to every word being said for almost seven hours, Nick considered coming home to change and relax or, alternatively, going out with some colleagues for a drink or two during happy hour. Instead, he stayed at work until 6:45.

            “You should have gone.  Or were you scared of showing Drunk Nick to me too early in the relationship?”

            Nick happily pocketed the last word she said. “I didn’t think about that. I just didn’t want to break with tradition. If staying later on a Friday keeps me out of the office on the weekend, it’s worth it. If I have to come in no matter how late I stay, I might as well take off early on Friday.”

            “So your weekend’s free?”

            “Didn’t say that. Just don’t have to go in the next couple of days.”

            Nick and Dana left the boutique and walked west along Washington towards a popular pasta restaurant that had recently opened in the neighborhood. The place had an industrial feel with its dark brick and wood and exposed ventilation tubes running overhead. Tables were situated close to one another, so guests often had to lean across theirs to be heard. When their server arrived, he bent at the knees and squatted to communicate better with them.

            They ordered one item to be shared from each of the categories on the menu, which included antipasto, bruschetta, dry pasta, fresh pasta, and a meat from the “Secondi” listing. The dishes began to arrive in no particular order from a seemingly endless supply of waitstaff dressed in white shirts and aprons, all of whom (women included) sported a tie. The constant motion ensured guests never waited long.

            Like Dana and Nick, most patrons were in their twenties or thirties. Urban dwellers whose form of relaxation consisted of additional activity, not rest.

            Nick considered the night a huge success until he lost control of the last piece of veal pappardelle and it skated from the plate onto his lap and left him with a stain on his pants.

            “Guess I’ll add visiting dry cleaners to my To Do list for tomorrow.”

            “Give ‘em to me as soon as we get back to your place.”  

            Nick and Dana stopped going on dates. They were dating. She took him clothes shopping, meaning they went to a store together, and she pulled items off the rack, handed them to Nick and told him to try them on.

            “You need more color. And tighter fitting clothes. At least for your free time.”

            Who was he to disagree with the expert in this area? Especially when more than once a person in the street, at a restaurant, or in a store had approached them and said they made a lovely couple.  

            “Tall and blonde, tall and dark,” one middle-aged woman said as she passed their table in the cafe in which Nickand Dana were breakfasting.

            “I wouldn’t think that behavior to be very Minnesotan. Too outspoken.”

            “It’s about you, not me. I’m just like everybody else here.”

            Nick knew Minnesotan women were taller and fairer of skin than the average woman on the east coast, but Dana was far from the norm. She stood eye-to-eye with him when she wore heels, and was far prettier and more lithe than most of those of Scandinavian extraction.

            He looked forward to the opportunity to present her to his world. To show them what she thought of him.

            He soon had his chance when Nick’s firm held its annual meeting in Minneapolis. Lawyers from around the world gathered to attend to company business, to place faces to names they only knew electronically, and to socialize.

            The closing dinner, officially coined The Gala but universally called The Prom by those of Nick’s stature, was a black-tie affair to which lawyers were allowed to invite a guest. Nick invited Dana so he would not have to go stag for the third consecutive year.  

            “Do you own a tuxedo?”

            “I’ll rent one.”

            “You should think about buying.”

            “If I become partner, I will.”

            “Owning one might help you make partner.”

            Nick did not heed Dana’s advice. He thought owning a tuxedo would constitute a commitment he was not ready to make.  

            He entered the converted railway station where The Gala was held wearing a rental once more. For the first time, he paid attention to what others wore.  

            He thought he looked okay. Maybe his tux wasn’t the nicest, but it fit him better than many of the men who were overweight or otherwise out of shape. Formal clothes did them no favors.

            “Except showing they care.” Dana whispered in Nick’s ear after most of the other members of their table — Nick’s coworkers and their guests — had risen to get a drink or head for the dance floor. Mainly the former.  

            “Maybe that’s the opposite of what I want to say.” He saw Dana frown. “At work at least, not with you.”

            “You’re with me here. And you should care, even if you weren’t.”

            “You’re right,” he said, uncertain if he believed himself, “next year I’ll get my own.”

            Nick stood and held out his hand to escort Dana to the dance floor. As she got to her feet, he felt for the first time — not just that evening but the first time in his life — perhaps she was out of his league. At least he believed those who watched him lead Dana, dressed in an off-the-shoulder, black silk dress, would think that. Or that she was banking on him making partner someday.

            Nick wondered that himself, at least until she conceded something to him, or to herself, after the first dance, when she removed her shoes and became slightly shorter than him once more.

            She dropped her shoes just beyond the dance floor’s boundary. “It’s easier this way.”

            They danced for a half hour in a rather unlawyerly way, which is not to say they danced provocatively or even eccentrically. Just that danced. Period. Which meant they made themselves and their appearances open to observation and comment.

            For once, Nick didn’t care.

            When they tired, Nick took her hand and escorted her to one of the bars that had been established in each of the corners of the room for the evening. He left Dana to get in line for free booze. A few minutes later, he found her in a conversation with a partner at his firm. Or the guest of a partner anyway.   

            “We went to high school together.”

            “You guys were really kicking it.” To the extent her sun-soaked skin hadn’t sufficiently aged the woman, her formal white gown did the trick. Nick thought there was no way she could have been a classmate of Dana’s, especially as she was accompanied by a man two decades older than him.

            “You guys having fun?” The partner wore a big smile as he grabbed his date’s shoulders. 

            “Yes, Sir.” Nick took a large sip from his glass.

            “I hope I’m not overdressed.” Dana’s former classmate tilted her head back after closely studying Dana’s appearance.

            “Nonsense.  No such thing. So what do you do, Dana?”

            “I manage a boutique in the North Loop.”

            “See,” the partner said as if Dean and Nick wouldn’t hear, “she’s all about clothes.  You’re with me.”

            Nick wasn’t sure whether he or Dana was the primary intended target of the partner’s jab. In either case, it bothered him.

            Nick pretended it didn’t when he smiled and told the partner he wanted to mingle. He pretended it didn’t when he got another drink and he and Dana found his friends near another makeshift bar. He pretended it didn’t when he and Dana took a taxi to his place an hour later. He pretended it didn’t when they went to bed that night.

            In the morning while they sat at the small round table in his condo drinking coffee, Nick could no longer pretend.  He introduced a non-sequitur into their otherwise banal conversation.

            “Are clothes really that important?”

            Dana offered him a smile he hadn’t previously seen. It wasn’t the smile of the store manager staring at a potential customer. Nor was it the smile of a woman attracted to a potential mate. It was the smile that a person smiles to herself when she expects someone to act in a certain way — a way she wishes the person wouldn’t act — and then sees the person conform to the expected behavior.

            “Happiness is. If I do my job right, I’m helping make other people happy.”

            “For how long?”

            “For a while. That’s something, right? Do you make people happy doing whatever you do?”

            “Not often. Sometimes with a big win perhaps, but most of the time my client is still upset getting a huge bill. And forget about the other side.” Nick stared into his almost empty mug. “Plaintiffs’ attorneys make their clients happy with large verdicts or settlements. Even corporate attorneys do when they make deals.”

            “Why don’t you become one of them?”

            “Not in my nature, I guess.”

            Dana asked Nick to take her home shortly thereafter. He wondered if she’d ever return. They hadn’t ever had a fight before, and he wasn’t even sure if they’d just had one, but there was something about her request. As if she were implying there wasn’t any point if he was going to completely devalue her. 

            On his way home, Nick wondered why he’d sabotaged the relationship. He didn’t agree with the partner and certainly didn’t like him. How was it that other people could influence his behavior in a negative way, even when he knew (or should have known) the person who was influencing him could care less about him while the person against whom he was going to act did?

            Nick knew he needed to apologize but didn’t know what to say, so he avoided saying anything. He thought about what he should do, what he could do, a lot the next day, but didn’t actually do anything.

            Dana knocked on his door Sunday evening. She held a rectangular box in both arms in front of her.

            “I was going to give this to you for Christmas.”

            He stared at the box but didn’t take it. He thought doing so might amount to conceding he was no longer eligible for the grand prize and was merely accepting his parting consolation gift.  

            “So why don’t you?”

            She shrugged.

            “I was hoping you would consider going with me to see my family around the holidays.”

            Nick hadn’t actually ever considered that. Not yet. It seemed too soon. But at that moment he thought he might as well launch a Hail Mary.

            Dana’s somber mood disappeared. Her voice assumed a lighter tone. “Do you think we’re ready?”

            “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t.”

            “I don’t know.”

            Dana looked behind her as if she wanted to leave. Or perhaps to see if she were being observed. Nick occupied one of only three units on the third floor of his building, so there never was any traffic.

            “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot sometimes.”

            Dana thrust her hands into the pockets of her peacoat. “Everybody is.”

            Nick’s parents lived, by choice, in a tiny town in Oregon, far from all major airports, so he and Dana had to rent a car at PDX and then spend more time driving than flying. After six hours on the road, they puled into a grass driveway off a dirt road.  

            From the outside, the placed looked more like a cabin than a house. Wooden construction home hidden by trees.  

            Dana grabbed Nick’s hand when he got out of the car. “So is this going to be like going back in time?”

            “Not at all. Going to Philly is going back in time. This place, these people, it’s like being transported to an alternate universe.”

            Nick’s sister greeted them at the door. She wore old, stained jeans and a frayed sweater, the sort of clothes Nick’s family called “comfortable,” but which he knew Dana thought were not even good enough to be donated to goodwill.

            “Keily, your uncle Nick is here.”

            Ellyn’s daughter raised her hand with a smartphone in it but didn’t move until ordered to do so by her mother.

            “Just eleven and already at the stage where she just does her own thing.”

            The tween wore a flare dress with horizontal blue and white stripes, but she was not the same girl Nick had last seen a year ago. The formerly ever-engaging child now studied her smart phone as if it, and it alone, contained all the answers to the universe.

            “So how you like Tacoma?”

            “Boring.”

            “Did you recently move there?” Dana directed her question to Keily, but Ellyn answered.

            “Six months. The same time the divorce became final. We used to live in Redmond.”

            “Wish we still did.” Keily spoke to her device.

            “No, you don’t, Little One.”

            Keily retrieved her earphones from her pocket and returned to the couch.    

            “Everybody always used to tell me I married well. Corporate executive. Fine home, car, family. I now see Mom and Dad got it right when they left that world and Philly behind and moved to the middle of nowhere.”

            “What made them leave Philly?”

            “They found a tumor near my brain.” Nick’s mother did not hide her scar. The way she wore her hair intentionally pulled away from that side of her head emphasized it. “Hi, I’m Gloria, this is Joe.”

            Dana shook their hands and Nick briefly hugged his parents before pushing past them. “Let’s go inside.”

            The quintet joined Keily in the living room. Ellyn tapped her daughter’s legs so she would remove her earphones.  

            “I’ve heard this story a million times.” The youth answered with more volume than necessary but complied with her mother’s request.

            “How you know what we’re going to talk about?”

            “Because she knows Mom and Dad always share it first,” Nick said.

            Joe grabbed his wife’s hands. “It answers the question that’s on newcomers’ minds right away so we can all get past that. Am I right?”

            Dana nodded. “You moved out here because of your wife’s medical condition?”

            “Not exactly. We stayed in Philly for my surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It’s just the corporations for whom we’d worked for decades could have cared less.”

            “They did at the start,” Ellyn said.

            “Some of the people did,” Gloria corrected.

            Joe shook his head in disgust. “But with all the time off from work and the enormous medical expenses, they soon hated us.”

            “And I couldn’t do my job as I once could. Lost some processing ability.”

            “You … you seem fine.”

            “Thanks. I’m fine.  Used to be better than fine but that’s okay.”

            “Mom was brilliant,” Nick said.  He felt himself redden for having used the past tense.

            “So what happened, if I can ask?”

            “I got out of my suit and put on a nighty. We had some help for a while, then insurance stopped paying for that. We churned through our savings. Joe eventually left one set of work clothes for another because he had so much cleanup duty.”

            “We did what we had to do.” Joe took his wife’s hand. “We were told 5% chance she’d last more than a year. It’s been seven.”

            “So we told our kids maybe we’d given them bad advice. We’d placed such a high priority on achievement, but at the end of the day, that didn’t matter much.”

            Nick placed his leg atop his opposite knee. “Of course, if you didn’t have jobs that provided quality health care and allowed you to accumulate savings over the years, who knows what would have happened?”

            Joe reached out and smacked his son’s foot. “We probably would have moved in with you.”

            “You’ve got a point, Sweetie. We’re not saying stop doing what you do and live in the woods like us. We’re just saying keep your eyes open about the path you’re on at all times.”

            “The one you put us on?”

            “Touche.” Joe looked at his wife. “That’s the problem with raising smart kids. They can fire back every time.”

            “So how’d you end up out here?”  

            “We got in our car and drove west,” Joe said. “Once we hit Utah, we looked at each other and I asked, ‘north, south or straight ahead?’  Gloria said ‘how about northwest?’”

            “When we got here, we needed gas. While we were stretching our legs and filling up, we looked at each other and said ‘why not?’”

            “Just like that?”

            “Yep, best decision we ever made.” Gloria and Joe hugged, and their matching gray sweatshirts blended so much they almost appeared to be one person. “We never went back.”

            Later, it would seem as if it was all inevitable. It wasn’t quite like that when life proceeded forward.

            Nick pondered his possible professional and personal courses. He wondered what hats he should wear or whether he should wear one at all.

            Dana seemed more certain, save for the time she appeared in his doorway that Sunday evening, presumably to end it.

            One couldn’t have happened without the other, but just because Dana agreed to slip into a wedding dress didn’t require them to work together. Sure, she’d proposed the union not long after he did, but she hadn’t conditioned her acceptance. Even a non-transactional attorney like Nick noticed that.

            No, it was a second proposal during that period in which they’d told the world they would marry but before the actual ceremony. She raised the idea to him at brunch shortly after they’d finished making waffles or French toast, both of them wearing robes and slippers on a Sunday morning.

            “What would you say if I said I think we should buy a store?”

            “I’d ask what kind of store.”

            “You’d really have to ask?”

            “I suppose not.”          

            “But I’d have to know what you’d say.”

            “You don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “Neither do I.”

            He said yes on their honeymoon. While they held each other and kicked their legs in eight feet of water in the Atlantic. She wore a one-piece because he’d taught her while a bikini was fine for lounging at the pool, or even one of ‘Sota’s 10,000 lakes, it didn’t fare so well if one intended to spend the day body surfing.

            After they returned home, they kept their plans secret, or at least unknown to their employers, until they found the right location and arranged for financing. Then they gave notice and stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic.

            They ran Eclectic separately but together. Dana bought and sold. Nick hired and fired. She kept abreast of fashion trends, and he monitored governmental regulations.    

            She wore the sort of clothes that perfectly fit the theme of the store. He wore business casual clothes with a slighter greater emphasis on the casual part of the equation. On the first day, he wore the argyle sweater she’d given him as a present on their first Christmas together. As time passed, instead of her seeking his approval concerning his wardrobe, he made the initial selections and simply sought her confirmation. Sometime later, even this last step proved unnecessary.  

About the Author: Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.  His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, The Muleskinner Journal, Portage Magazine, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other journals.

Wasted Years

By Sheldon Birnie

I used to party fuckin hard, but now I’m old and lame.

One time, up on the reserve by Winfield there, my foot got busted when this wild man from the Kootenays come flying outta the pit and stomped right on it, trying to keep himself upright. I was kneeling down, slamming whisky from the bottle and making eyes at the young lady I was smitten with at the time. We’d been drinking beer all day, hadn’t eaten nothing but a couple powerful pills. Yet when the bone snapped, it was a white hot expressway of pain from toes to the center of my skull. Dulled the feeling but couldn’t kill it with joint after joint until I caught a ride into town in the back of a pickup truck, cold winter wind relentless. Don’t think I stopped shivering for days. 

Those were grimy, greasy days, boy. The local legend whose family’s house this all went down at held punk rock and metal shows there all the time. Played there a couple times myself, splattered blood all over the walls. Bands would set up in the dining room, volume cranked, and shake the foundation. Beer bottle graveyard spilling from the sink all over the counters and onto the kitchen floor, air thick with cigarette and dope smoke, ripe with BO and cat piss.

That wasn’t the first nor the last time I fucked myself up good partying. Ripped ligaments, countless bruises, scrapes, and scars. A concussion or two. Cracked my patella walking down the street with my hands jammed deep in my pockets, drunk, like a half-bright child. Any dummy could have picked out the pattern there, but I kept at it for well over a decade. Those golden, wasted years.

Another time at that same house, New Year’s Eve, I opened the front door just as some young drunk punk rolled down the stairs, out the door. I don’t remember anything else from that evening other than we were on mushrooms and somehow I drove me and my buddies home, but I’ll never forget that tumbling punk rolling down the hill into the woods below while all his friends howled like hyenas from the foyer.

Buddy whose house that was got sober, I’m told. Others from that scene are dead, or otherwise drifted away, forgotten, or still plugging away in tattered denim and well worn leather. Some of us have kids and have jobs and all that shit we thought was bullshit back when we were young. I’d like to say the memories live on. But they don’t. Most of them are burnt out, fuckin faded even now. Not unlike the stick and poke tattoo that gal I fancied, the one I was drinking whisky with that time I broke my foot, gave me coming down off an acid trip on a separate occasion. It all meant something, once. But now it’s hard to explain.

About the Author: Sheldon Birnie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada who can be found online @badguybirnie

Oracle

By David Wright

About the Author: David Wright’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Image, Ecotone, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Hobart, among others. His latest poetry collection is Local Talent (Purple Flag/Virtual Artists Collective, 2019). A past recipient of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship, he lives in west central Illinois where he teaches American literature and creative writing at Monmouth College. He can be found on Twitter @sweatervestboy.

State And Local History

By Mikey Swanberg

About the Author: Mikey Swanberg is the author of On Earth As It Is (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021), Good Grief (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2019), Zen and the Art of Bicycle Delivery (Rabbit Catastrophe Press).
He holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison & lives in Chicago.

Deer

By Kelli Lage

Author Bio: Bio: Kelli Lage is earning her degree in Secondary English Education and works as a substitute teacher. She is a poetry reader for Bracken Magazine. Awards: Special Award for First-time Entrant, 2020, Iowa Poetry Association. Website: www.KelliLage.com.