As Alex walks through the glowing embers of the burning building, she checks her phone to be certain it’s actually on fire. Do people know I’m here? she wonders while clearing her complexion of any ash or debris. Her phone lies in wait at the end of her arm, ready to assist her in any way she needs. She extends the camera seven inches above eye-level. Roaring flames rip through the hallway in the background as she snaps the first pic, posting it with an enticing caption: “Does anyone know what’s up with our old high school?”
Nostalgia disintegrates to the tile floors all around Alex. She does her best not to inhale the last memories of her formative years. Despite the smoky haze, the crumbling entryway holds the same inauspicious aura it had the first morning Alex entered, ten years prior; a violent fight between parents, a rusting pick-up truck screeching to a halt, a final glance from a father that she did not have the time to recognize as goodbye. Though the school permanently closed a few years ago, Alex has been posting pictures in front of the entrance ever since, hoping her father would reach out and reminisce about the last place where they were a family. He never has. Instead, she relies on her selective memories about what a family is, how love should feel, and when to leave it all behind her. After snapping the picture, she hurriedly pushes off her knees to get up from her practiced crouch as a piece of ceiling tumbles toward her. She presses “post” on her picture, brushes herself off, and continues moving forward.
Alex’s phone alerts her of incoming remarks from former friends and current acquaintances. She fixes her eyes to the screen, backlit by the flames: “OMG SO SAD! Great pics though!”“Awesome use of light. About time someone got rid of that place.” Though she was hoping someone would ask if she’s okay, she still appreciates the compliments on her photography. The same darkroom pursuits that made her something of a freak once upon a time have translated into a valuable real-world skill. The pictures she posts on her socials routinely enjoy an onslaught of admiration. Strangers see her photos and want to add her to their list of friends, a request Alex is always excited to accept. More often than not, however, her messages go unanswered. Her invitations are met with silence or excuses. She realized a long time ago that friendship is only recognizable in the comment section of her pictures. With this in mind, she traverses her way across her smoldering past to find the perfect shot.
Around a familiar corner is Alex’s old homeroom. She sees the same dented locker and inconsequential trophy case that remained unchanged before the school shut down, and she remembers exactly where she is. Quickly, she turns the corner in an attempt to elude the encroaching inferno incinerating everything behind her. Using the light bouncing off the glass of the trophy case, Alex turns her back to the door and positions herself. She shrugs her left shoulder and asks the world: “Anyone remember this room?” Alex remembers the room. She has never forgotten the snickering and staring directed at her when she entered that day. Phones were passed around and private pieces of herself meant for someone special had been abused and ridiculed. Almost on cue, a boy responds with a typical line: “I remember! Lookin hot! Hit me up!” It might be the boy responsible for the pain all those years ago. It’s hard for Alex to know. He doesn’t matter. More comments flood her vision as the flames make ready to corner her; more bad puns and pick-ups about being hot, some questions about how the fire started, no one offering to help.
Out of room to run from the flames, Alex turns around and faces her old homeroom. Like she was taught as a child, she presses the back of her hand to the metal handle. Feeling its red-hot heat arrest her like a stop sign, she hesitates. She knows what waits for her if she enters that room again, but every door behind her has vanished. She inhales the tainted air and consoles herself. “It’ll be okay now,” she whispers. A mighty breath-out powers a shoulder-thrust through the threshold. The backdraft rushes into the room behind her. Charred loose-leaf papers swirl into a whirlwind of scorched memories and malicious intent. An eruption of pulsating crimson swarms around Alex’s head as a meandering ember floats down and sticks her in the back. As the fire envelops her body, she knows she can not let the scene go to waste. Flesh melts away from her arm and evaporates on the floor of the school, but she raises her phone up without issue. Her nose dissolves into a hideous stump, her eyes begin to bulge and sizzle, but the beauty of her in this light is undeniable. Alex blissfully fades away from the moment with a singed smile, reveling in the thought of the comments that will carry her into forever:
“You’re such an artist!”“Your father would be proud!”“SMOKING HOT! Take more!”“I heard she started the fire.”“She’s so deep and mysterious.”“She was my best friend.”“#Alexisonfire.”
Robert Ball graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English/writing from Northern Michigan University in December of 2018. While attending, he worked as an editing intern for Passages North literary magazine. His fiction most recently appeared in Third Point Press and Prometheus Dreaming and was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize and the Pushcart Prize.
Kyla is a Visual Artist with a focus on drawing and painting. Originally from New Orleans and now lives in Toronto. She uses art as a way to intersect her passions and escape from reality, stemming most of her ideas from the subconscious. Her style is abstract with a psychedelic touch. Kyla tends to combine realism within her abstract work as well. She hopes her artwork sends a message and provokes conversation among viewers.
They call it Friends Group. But there are no friends, and there is no group. Just me, a state-funded Social Worker, and another sixth grader the kids call Sweaty Teddy. We sit in a converted cinderblock office between the furnace and the chapel and listen to the muffled sounds of the rest of the middle school having actual recess outside. On the desk, Ms. Judi has placed a stress ball, a point-to-the bad touch doll, a box of tissues, and a bowl of candy. She has been meeting with me individually every Monday, for forty-five minutes of stress-inducing awkward silence, since I transferred from Rosa Parks Elementary. Teddy is a Friends Group veteran. According to Tommy Stanick, my assigned locker partner, Teddy has been going to the nut ward since third grade when he threatened a teacher with an X-ACTO Knife in art class.
Ms. Judi decided to put Teddy and me in a group session so we could dialogue. So far I’ve learned that dialoguing usually just means Ms. Judi repeats the last thing I say in the form of a question.
“How are you feeling today Roosevelt?”
“I dunno. Little anxious I guess.”
“So, you’re feeling a little anxious?”
I nod. She writes something down. Teddy unwraps another piece of candy and pops it in his mouth. To escape his hard candy crunches, I do what I always do when I don’t know what to do – I pick up my book and begin to read.
“The Strenuous Life,” she says.
“Still reading it,” she says.
“Can you read us something?”
I open the book to any page and close my eyes, “far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
“That’s impressive.” She says.
“Teddy Roosevelt was an impressive man,” I say.
“No, that you memorized that passage.”
Without looking up, Teddy slides one of the hard candies he has taken from the bowl over to me. I accept the gift. As I place the book back into my backpack, the edge of another brittle page flakes off and flutters to the floor. When the firemen left, they gave me and my mom anything of my dad’s that they could salvage. His fifteen years of service watch from Wayne State, a few teaching awards, his master’s degree diploma, and his soggy, signed first edition of The Strenuous Life, which he read to me every night before bed – the book from which I can recite not one passage, but any passage. And that is impressive. But I do not feel the need to tell Ms. Judi that.
“Teddy why do you think you’re here?”
This catches Teddy by surprise. He clears his throat and for a brief second the Sour Ball in his mouth goes down the wrong pipe. A series of coughs, snorts, and breathy exhales follows. He regains. His cheeks flushed red. His uniform shirt suddenly more sweat-soaked than usual, hopelessly untucked and hovering above an ever-descending pair of khakis that no longer fit.
“I think we’re here because I’m fat and he’s black.”
We both look up from our laps at Ms. Judi. Waiting for her to say, so you’re saying you’re fat and he’s black? But instead she opens up both of our files and begins to write.
* * *
The walk to school was always the same. I’d pass Michael Drostey and Ronnie Bootrie getting high on the corner of Westwood and Tireman. At Derby Hill, I’d see Gina and Tammy, two white girls who wanted to be black, listening to Controversy. They shared a pair of foamy orange Walkman headphones, listening with wide eyes and shrieks of delight like they were getting away with something. And they were. Controversy was controversial in Copper Canyon – our little corner of Detroit that had no copper and no canyons. Just house after house of Detroit Police officers who had to live in the city they pledged to serve and protect. So, they begrudgingly colluded to live in one neighborhood, a white island, that shined like a new badge, with St. Agatha’s at the center of their planned community.
I was not part of the plan. After the fire. My had to go back to work. She applied for a job in Mayor Coleman A. Young’s office as an executive assistant to the Head of Human Services. The day she of her interview, she was armed an associate’s degree from Wayne County Community and a ten-year old resume. After I helped her pick out her clothes (three times) and put on her makeup (twice), I slipped a note in her purse to calm her nerves.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is
marred by the dust and sweat and blood – T. Roosevelt.
Except I changed the world man to woman and added a bunch of fireworks and flowers and hearts. I think it helped. She got the job. This meant we too had to live in the city. But we were done with Corktown, so we came to The Canyon to be safe.
I get to the top of Derby Hill, and by the graffiti-covered cannon, he is standing there. Teddy. We stand for as minute facing each other. I pull my inhaler out of my pocket and pump it twice. Teddy Roosevelt had asthma too. Mine acts up when I am near dust, mold, or confrontation. I’m not sure about Teddy Roosevelt’s asthma. I have not been able to find adequate detail on his symptoms or triggers. Tommy Stanick passes by on his Mongoose. He flips me the bird. I don’t know why.
“He’s a dick,” Teddy says.
Teddy reaches into his backpack and tosses me a Sour Ball. I pop it in my mouth, put my inhaler back in my bag, and start to walk toward school. With Teddy.
* * *
Theodore Roosevelt began boxing at age fourteen when a couple of bullies taunted and manhandled him. I started at eleven. He trained with the Boston Strong Boy, Jim Sullivan. I trained with my mom. He went from a sickly kid with asthma to fighting in the Harvard Gym Championship on March 22, 1879. I have asthma and have settled for trying to teach Sweaty Teddy how to punch. In the hours between school and dinner, Teddy and I were pretty much on our own. My mom worked until six or seven most nights and Teddy’s dad was a real gung-ho hoorah cop who was put on a special narcotics division in my old Corktown neighborhood. He was a gang buster, ballbuster, Teddy would say. Total badass.
“It’s a pillow,” Teddy says.
“It’s a punching bag.”
“Made from a pillow. This is stupid.”
“This will get them to stop calling you Sweaty Teddy.”
I hold my homemade heavy bag. Teddy punches. “That was terrible. You have to rotate. You punch with your hips, not your arms. Watch.”
He holds the bag. I throw a combination
“Damn! And you’re so skinny.”
“You think I hit hard, Teddy Roosevelt was –”
Teddy throws a left to my chest.
“Fuck! Teddy! Roosevelt!”
“Oh it’s on.”
We wrestle to the ground laughing, rolling on the burnt-out grass of my yard, throwing jabs and talking shit until Teddy ends up sitting on me.
“Don’t tell me – Teddy Roosevelt used to get sat on all the time.”
“Fuck you Teddy.”
“Fuck you Rosie.”
* * *
On Saturdays I visit my dad. St. Hedwig’s Cemetery is exactly 9.4 miles from my house. My mom used to drive me every week, but that was before she started spending Saturdays with Phil. I usually take my bike, but Teddy popped my back-tire bunny hopping a curb, and my mom won’t let me take the bus ever since those kids got shot in Warrendale.
“Paul Ray has a car.”
Teddy’s half-brother not only drove, but he smoked, had a tattoo, and a ring of hickeys on his neck. He spent most days ditching high school and practicing his nunchucks on his corner. Teddy was pretty much terrified of Paul Ray, but since I was teaching him to box, he felt like he owed me. I waited across the street, watching Teddy talk to Paul Ray. Through the slats of the wooden fence Big Ray built, I could see the brand new, four-foot high, above ground pool they just put in. The sunlight bounced and shimmered off the surface. A big green inflatable turtle floated dumbly back and forth across the pool.
I could see Teddy shifting his weight and not making eye contact. At one point he popped a Sour Ball for moral support. As they talked, Paul Ray would line up Pepsi cans on the fence and crush them with his nunchucks. Each time Teddy would flinch and step slightly further away. The rumor in Copper Canyon was that Big Ray had to save Paul Ray more than a few times down at the precinct. There was talk of drugs. And fights. All Teddy would say is that Paul Ray would have been better off in jail, than having to come home and deal with Big Ray. When Paul Ray broke his arm, everyone at school said Big Ray did it. Inever asked Teddy about it. And he never told.
Teddy waves me over from across the street. I watch Paul Ray watch me walk toward him, pretty sure I am not what he was expecting. I say thanks. He says nothing. Teddy shoots me the shut-up look, and we all pile into Paul Ray’s Burgundy Monte Carlo with cry baby rims and a petticoat spoiler.
The back seat is immense. Teddy and I bounce up and down as Paul Ray tries to scare and impress us, fishtailing down Warwick, and laying a huge patch as he leaps off the line at a stop sign on Belton. Being a cop’s kid in Copper Canyon meant you had license to do pretty much anything you wanted behind the wheel. And Paul Ray did. As we made a left on Telegraph, I tried to yell to the front seat that we were going the wrong way. But between Foreigner Four on the Alpine, and the growl of the dirt mother muffler he put on himself, Paul Ray didn’t hear me. Or didn’t care.
We pull up, not at St. Hedwig’s, but at Sheri Olshenski’s house. She was famous in Copper Canyon for almost getting pregnant. It seemed to happen a lot. Paul Ray lays on the horn. She comes out a minute later. Torn jean shorts. Cowboy boots. Teddy and I watch her walk down the driveway toward the car. She gets in, doesn’t even look at the back seat, and begins to make out with Paul Ray. This goes on for a while. I try to whisper we should go to Teddy. But he shushes me, eyes fixed on the front seat. A minute later we hear the thuddy ca-chunk of the Monte Carlo’s automatic doors unlock, and we slide out the passenger side.
The last mile of the walk was the worst. They hazy smokestack Detroit sky held the heat like a plastic bag. Soaked and slow, we walked toward the hill where my dad was laid to rest. I made the time go by faster for Teddy by summarizing my father’s Masters’ Thesis: Theodore Roosevelt: Politics, Patriotism, and Preparedness.
When we get to the grave I reach into my bag and get to work.
“You always keep that in your bag?”
“Never know when I’m gonna get up here.”
“It’s like a tiny shovel”
“It’s a trowel.
I clear the crab grass and weeds off the headstone with my trowel. On my hands and knees, I blow the tiny blades and leaves out of the recesses of my father’s name, birthdate and death date. Teddy watches. Gets down on his knees. And blows as well.
“We must show not merely in great crisis, but in the everyday affairs of life.” I say.
Teddy nods. Understanding the quote.
“And all men must try really hard in the arena of their life.” He says.
I nod. Understanding he’s trying.
* * *
As the weeks went by, we worked at being better at life. Teddy got better at boxing and doing his homework. I got better at being less judgy and more normal, and we both got better at answering Ms. Judi’s questions. On the playground we found corners and nooks to disappear into. Safe havens far from every Tommy Stanick, Ronnie Bootrie and Michael Drostey. We created our own world, and together we preached and lived not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.
On our last hot dog lunch of the year, Teddy and I ate alone, together, like we always did. I gave him my second hot dog. He gave me half his sour cream and onion chips. After that, we were supposed to have final period recess, but since our homeroom earned enough self-control marbles in Mrs. Garko’s Shush Jar, they let us out early.
My mom was working late. Big Ray was at a DPOA union meeting, and Paul Ray was getting hickeys from Sheri. So, we went to Teddy’s house. It was the first time I was actually inside. Teddy’s mom was away visiting her sister again. He said she had been gone for a while this time, but she called Teddy every Wednesday and Sunday to check in on him. Big Ray said Teddy was in charge of cleaning. Which meant the house was never cleaned, but with Big Ray’s work schedule and Paul Ray’s Sheri schedule, no one was around much to care about the house. But the yard. The yard was perfect, with an Aqua Leader pool, and a little wooden deck Big Ray built out of scrap from the privacy fence.
Teddy made us homemade Nesquik chocolate milk since my mom wouldn’t let me have it at home. We sat on the deck. Our feet dangling in the water. Teddy found a cloud that looked like a snow cone with human baby head. I found a buffalo.
“Why’d you do it?”
“The X-ACTO Knife.”
The big green turtle floats towards us, gently bumping its face into my foot.
“They were calling me fat.”
“They always do that.”
“So, you’re saying, exactly?” I say in my best Ms. Judi voice.
Teddy smiles. Nods.
The snow-cone-baby-head cloud passes over us, blocking out the sun. For a minute the traffic seems to stop, and we can hear the wind and the birds of Copper Canyon.
“I got so tired of being the fat kid. I just wanted to be something else. You ever feel that way?”
Teddy’s looking at me now. He’s almost always looking down. But now his eyes are wide. His face is open. A chocolate milk mustache beginning to dry and crumble around his lips. He looks innocent. Like maybe how he looked before any of this happened.
“We should swim,” I say.
Teddy looks down again.
“No, I… I don’t –”
“You don’t swim?”
“So, let’s swim!”
“No, I don’t – I don’t –”
“You don’t what?”
He takes a moment, then makes a decision.
“I don’t take my shirt off. Around other people.”
My father’s favorite quote. The one he recited to me every night before I fell sleep, was the simplest, and hardest, one of all. In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing. That one haunted me. Before you act, it feels like a riddle or a curse. After you act, it feels like absolution and freedom. If you do not act at all, it is regret. Pure and simple.
I set my book down and unbutton the top two buttons of my uniform shirt. Teddy looks up. I grab the bottom of my shirt and pull it up over my head. My skin tingles in the sunlight, still sensitive to heat and light after three years. The doctors said I was lucky. Forty percent usually means your face is burned as well. But my scars hide under my shirt.
“You can touch it,” I say.
I take his hand and rub his fingers across the scar tissue on my chest and stomach. It is fierce skin, tough skin, skin that has held together in strenuous performance of duty.
“It protects my heart,” I say.
The sky goes white hot. The snow cone baby and the buffalo are long gone. The sun beats down on my bare back, and it feels good.
Teddy leans over to untuck the last part of his shirt that is still clinging to his uniform khakis. He pulls his shirt up over his head and tosses it behind him. The stretch marks are pink and veiny. They wrap around from his armpits to his boobs, and from his love handles to his belly button.
“You can touch them,” he says.
They are smooth. Scars inside his skin.
“They protect my fat,” he says. His high-pitched little boy laugh becomes hysterical. Contagious. We get loud. And we don’t care.
“Fuck you Teddy!
“Fuck You Rosie!”
I stand on the deck and I proclaim to all of Copper Canyon, “It is a fact that Teddy Roosevelt would skinny dip in the Potomac with his trusted advisors and closet allies!”
I kick off my shoes. A neighbor’s dog begins to bark.
“And as a symbol of that solemn solidarity and kindred camaraderie!”
“Don’t do it,” Teddy says.
Off go my pants.
“I hereby declare that we too shall skinny dipp – right here in Lake Teddy – to honor the great Theodore Roosevelt and the great kinship and camaraderie that is right here between Theodore and Roosevelt.”
I drop my underwear and dive in the water. The cold water shocks and stings, then embraces. I hold my breath and wait at the bottom. A second later, still underwater, I hear an even bigger splash. We break the surface together, laughing and splashing. Total immersion. Complete the surrender.
“What the fuck are you doing!” Paul Ray is standing on the deck, looking down on us between our two piles of clothes. “Teddy what the fuck are you doing!”
“We were just –”
“You shut the fuck up! I was talking to him!”
Teddy’s gaze drops to the bottom of the pool. He walks to the ladder without saying a word. And climbs out of the pool. Paul Ray throws his uniform pants at him, “Put your clothes on you little faggot.”
* * *
When I get to my locker the following Monday, Tommy Stanick’s stuff is gone. The note inside says his parents are no longer comfortable with him sharing a locker with me. It goes on to talk about HIV and the tragic unknowns of the disease.
On my way to homeroom I see the first Teddy + Rosie sign written in lipstick on the boy’s bathroom mirror. Michael Drostey makes kissing noises when he sees me in the hall. Ronnie Bootrie grabs himself and follows me until a teacher breaks it up. In one day, I went from the only black kid at St. Agatha, to the only black kid found naked in a pool with a naked white boy at St. Agatha. Notes. Signs. Handwritten letters. All within the first three hours of my first day back. I become Rosie Palm. Rosie Bottom. All because Paul Ray didn’t want people to think he was gay.
* * *
“I can’t be here. Not today.”
“How do you feel?”
“Roosevelt – “
“I don’t need your stupid questions or these stupid fucking stress dolls!” The stress toys fly. The candy bowl shatters.
Her phone rings. She drops the call.
“You need to talk to me, Roosevelt.”
“What happened your book?”
She puts the file away and waits. “Where’s your book, Roosevelt?”
I shake my head. “It was all bullshit anyway.”
* * *
The hospital room smells like rubbing alcohol and cafeteria gravy. When I walk in, Teddy is asleep. His nose is packed. Both eyes purple with pooled blood. I sit next to the bed and hold his hand. His eyes flutter, then focus. He smiles.
“Let’s go swimming,” he says. “It’ll be fun,” he says. His laugh more of a congested exhale.
I nod. “Yeah. Bad Idea.”
“Hey, could you cover –”
I move his gown over to cover an exposed stretch mark on his left side.
“I got you this.” I place a gift shop teddy bear on his tray.
He nods. Smiles.
“In 1902,” he says. “Teddy Roosevelt went hunting – “
“Mississippi,” I say.
“Right. Mississippi. And his assistant –”
“Holt Collier,” I say.
“Right. Tied a bear to a tree. But Roosevelt wouldn’t shoot it.”
“Because it was too easy,” I say.
Teddy nods and shoots me with a finger pistol.
“Some people think that’s just a myth,” I say.
“I believe it,” he says.
A nurse comes in to change the dressing on his forehead. She asks him if I should leave. He says no. She cleans the gash above his eye. Replaces his gauze and refills his ice chips.
I touch his face. “Paul Ray?”
He shakes his head. “Big Ray.”
“Because I was naked in your pool.”
“Because you were black in my pool.”
* * *
Over the next month Teddy and I didn’t talk. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We saw Ms. Judi individually, and if we saw each other in the hall, we would turn the other way. Outside of teachers, neither of us spoke to anyone at school. In 1981, in Copper Canyon, if you were two boys swimming naked, you were fags who probably had AIDS. And there was no way to undo the damage that had been done. But from a distance I would watch Teddy. I could see him healing. Getting stronger. His color getting better. The purple under his eyes fading to yellow. The mark on his forehead growing smaller and less pronounced. His scars becoming more obscure and invisible like stretchmarks under a school uniform shirt.
The last time I actually talked to Teddy, it was on the phone. I told him about my mom’s new job with the state. About the house we found in Lansing and the school I would be attending next year. He said, yeah, a lot, and wouldn’t even say my name, because we both knew that I was going to be anonymous in Lansing next year, and he was going to be the fat, possibly gay, X-ACTO kid, sitting by himself in Friends Group for the next two years. He was destined. And sentenced. And I was free. And neither of us understood it or deserved it.
* * *
On the last day of school, you could feel a restless energy building. For weeks Tommy Stanick had been talking about a fag fight between me and Teddy. We were the drama. We were the gossip. The beef. And now they wanted blood. This was how it works. You didn’t fight when you wanted to – you fought when they decided you would. All throughout the day I heard about Me and Teddy settling the score. Homeroom, lunch hour, fifth hour. You could hear the stories – how I came to his pool and tried to have sex with him. How he lured me into his pool to have sex with me. How we broke up, and now we hate each other, and the only thing left to do is settle it on the big lot behind the middle school gym, where all things like this get settled. As soon as Mrs. Garko left the lot to have a smoke, a circle began to form around us. That’s when I knew we were actually going to fight. That this was going to happen. Kids who never even talked to me were yelling my name, telling me to kick his ass.
Fag Fight! Fag Fight!
Tommy Stanick. Waving his arms right in my face. Trying to get people to join him. They do. Ron Bootry and Michael Pawlick, still a little high from their walk to school, giggle and fall into each as I pass. Someone takes my backpack off my shoulder. A group of seventh graders begin pushing me in the back, shoving me toward Teddy who is now being pushed toward me, his belly heaving, his cheeks flushed red, his uniform shirt sweat-soaked and hopelessly untucked from his ever-descending khakis. We end up face to face. He still won’t look at me.
“Fucking Fight!” Someone says.
A seventh grader pushes me into Teddy. He swings wildly. After all our lessons he is still terrible. And they all see this. They see the fat kid. The kid with the X-ACTO. The one who swam naked.
He swings wildly again.
I slip and counter.
Teddy is off balance, out of sorts.
At some time in our lives a devil dwells within us, causes heartbreaks, confusion and troubles, then dies.
I drop my hands.
I show him my chin.
No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his body – to risk his well-being – to risk his life – in a great cause.
I scream, “Don’t foul! Don’t Flinch! Hit the line hard!”
Teddy connects. Solidly. Beautifully. Right on the button. Just like I taught him. My hearing goes dull and watery. But I can hear them cheering. My vision goes soft and fuzzy, but I can see them celebrating. And as the seventh graders pick me up and pull me away, Teddy becomes something else.
Steven Simoncic is a former resident artist at The Purple Rose Theatre, an alumni resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theatre and Writer in Residence at Pegasus Theatre Chicago, and 16th Street Theatre. His plays and fiction have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Hippocampus Magazine, Conclave, CRAFT Literary, Beyond Words, New Millennium Writings, Spork Magazine, Ampersand and Drift Magazine. Steven’s work of creative non-fiction, “I Like You” was selected as one of the notable American Essays of 2015 by Robert Atwan in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology. Steven holds BBA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from Warren Wilson and an MLA from the University of Chicago.
Lawrence Bridges is best known for work in the film and literary world. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums, Flip Days, and Brownwood. As a filmmaker, he created a series of literary documentaries for the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative, which include profiles of Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Cynthia Ozick.
We had saved the curtains for last. I spent the day with my family, condensing our small home into small boxes, and now I stood in our foyer assessing what was left to be done, our belongings stacked in boxes like a cardboard castle, threatening to tumble down around me. I was going to miss visiting my childhood home, not just to open the bathroom drawers and read the messages my sister and I wrote to each other in nail polish, or to use our super strong oven that miraculously cooked everything in half the time expected, but I was going to miss wandering through the gardens my father had so carefully tended, and watching as my mother painted our front door a new color every year. Most of all I would miss basking in the morning light, the evening light, any light, as the home had windows in every room, chasing away shadows and always providing a good spot to read.
“The curtains!” My mother gasped and dashed over to the floor to ceiling windows in our living area, looking out onto our yard and garden. We were a small family, this was a modest home, but the gardens were lush and I caught my father’s expression as he gazed at them for the last time.
Long twilight blue curtains flowed to the floor, crumbs and dust and sparkles likely caught in their skirts. My father dragged his eyes away from what lay beyond the windows and disappeared to the garage for the ladder.
I left my mother in the living room and wandered to the dining room, noting two more sets of curtains to take down. The kitchen, at the center of the home, had no direct windows but was filled with light, and my older sister was leaning against the counter, sneaking the snacks that were for tomorrow’s road trip to our parents’ new home. She swiped at the cheese dust on the counter and then stared at me.
“I don’t want to sleep on the floor tonight,” Alaina said.
“A mattress on the floor is not sleeping on the floor. It’ll be fun! Like camping but without the bugs.” I reached for the bag of chips but she moved it out of reach.
“What was the difference anyways between moving the beds into the truck today or tomorrow?”
“It’s not about time, it’s about space,” I said. I was glad we moved all the heavy stuff today, I didn’t want to sit sweaty in the car all day tomorrow. Not that Alaina would know anyways, as she did not help lift anything heavier than a ceramic vase. She crunched on more chips, keeping a tight grip on the bag.
I left her to check the bedrooms. My curtains were there, seafoam green. Alaina’s still billowed in the breeze from her opened window, sheer lavender. My parents’ bedroom had four sets of windows. All with curtains, why did my mother love curtains so much? I had never noticed that my home was filled with curtains. If we tied them all together could we escape from Rapunzel’s tower?
Even the French door in the bathroom had a curtain over its glazed glass panes. I washed my hands in the sink before I left. It felt odd, wandering from room to room without doing anything. I heard my father using the drill in the living room. The rods were coming down. Soon all the curtains sat in a dusty pile on our well-worn wooden floor, a collection of muted rainbow colors.
“I should’ve washed them maybe once or twice,” my mother murmured to herself. She knelt and folded them neatly, gesturing at Alaina to help. My father took the rods out to the truck and I snuck into the kitchen for a snack. I found the bag of chips empty, sitting on top of the trash pile.
The light slowly began to sink from the sky, the sun sending out flashes of orange and yellow in panic, in a last-ditch effort to hold onto day before it dipped into night.
My family pushed two mattresses together and we rested in the center of our empty living room, letting the colors that leaked through the tall windows wash over us. It felt too early to go to sleep yet our bones called for rest. We had run out of things to do. It was just us and the mattresses and the windows now. I tossed and fidgeted in my spot next to Alaina. She smelled like the damn chips. I wondered if she’d brushed her teeth. Alaina was talking about settling down with her boyfriend soon, maybe starting a family. I hoped she would remember to brush her teeth.
“Curtis?” My mother brushed her hand down my father’s back, interrupting his snoring.
“Marina,” he breathed, soft and low, blowing her name into her face. I suddenly felt uncomfortable to be sharing a bed with my parents. Yet I watched my mother and father whisper in each other’s ears and I felt a burst of happiness for them, happiness for them starting over somewhere new together now that their children had finally fled the well-feathered nest.
I nudged closer to Alaina and she shoved me away. I hugged myself and stared at the ceiling contemplating what was next for me. I considered that my parents were firm on moving because they wanted me to move. To get away, to leave this place. It was no longer a place I could stay, but I imagined them all getting into the truck tomorrow and driving away, me standing in the driveway and waving goodbye before disappearing into the gardens.
The room seemed to become a vacuum of silence, so quiet, and then BOOM.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. The cracking sound of gunfire shook the room. The sound came once more, like the target was returning fire.
“That doesn’t sound like hunters,” my father said, sitting up harshly, the blanket bunched around his waist, an early drip of drool gathered in the corner of his mouth.
“Who the fuck is shooting each other out here?” Alaina was rising off the mattress, headed toward the window.
We lived around a large section of forest, not many homes in and around our development. Beyond father’s garden was more green, green that stretched on and on.
“I can call the neighbors,” my mother said, lifting the pillows, searching for the phone.
“I’m sure they heard it too,” Alaina said. She had risen on her tip toes, her face and hands pressed to the glass as if she could see the culprits among the trees.
“Alaina, come back from the windows.” My father patted the mattress and she returned, settling next to him.
“Where is the phone?” My mother had become frantic, throwing the pillows across the room.
“It’s right here, Mom,” I said, and handed her the phone that was caught among the sheets. She called the neighbors and no one answered. It was dinner-time, perhaps they were all eating, chewing so loud they could not hear the guns.
My family sat and waited to see if there would be more shots fired, as if counting the seconds between thunderclaps in a storm.
Then, we heard something. We looked at each other, Alaina’s eyes searching my face for confirmation, mine looking to my mother and father’s all of us a picture of concern. It started as a buzzing sound perhaps, but then it grew more solid, more concrete, footsteps, stampeding, headed our way.
The first men to appear held each other in headlocks. They rolled on the ground until one broke the other’s neck. My mother screamed. They did not look at us. More people came, fist fighting and knife fighting in our backyard, in our front yard. They were screaming and yelping and spitting and not once did they ever see us, did they ever glance through our windows.
Their sneakers kicked up the turf in the garden. Gravel flew into the fountain. They were not people but animals, possessing a fury I had never seen, viciously at each other’s throats, hissing and moaning over the spilling of blood. My family huddled on our mattresses, our home feeling so small, these monsters in our yard a mere distance away from tearing us up too. But they did not look at us. They ignored the house.
The golden light of the sky bleached away and the survivors grabbed the fallen and yanked them away from our property and into the trees.
My family was crying, we were all crying, in shock, useless, terrified, unable and not knowing what to do.
“What the fuck just happened?” Alaina was wailing. My mother was shaking. My father raked his eyes over the garden, over every stomped petal, every blood-soaked bush, every statue and trellis fallen.
He turned to my mother. “What do we do?”
“I am not leaving this house,” I said. If I could’ve sunk through the floor, I would’ve. My ears were ringing. When I blinked, I only saw the flashes of knives going in and out guts, in and out, in and out.
“That’s exactly what you want anyways,” Alaina snarked to me, gnashing her teeth, just like the people outside.
“Shut your fucking mouth!” I lunged for her, maybe I could be an animal too, but my father pulled me back.
“Girls! Stop!” My mother pressed her fingers to her temples and rubbed them in slow circles. My father rubbed her back too and she shoved him off. She went stiff, dropping her hands and tilting her head. “Do you hear that too?”
We all strained ourselves, leaning forward, still huddled together on the mattress like it was a life preserver at sea.
Then, I heard it. Voices, growing in volume. I didn’t want to, but I looked through the windows again and I watched as people came out of the trees. They held hands and chanted. They stood in a ring around our home, their faces neutral, no signs of pain, although some still bled from wounds. I could not see the shape their lips made, but their noise was loud.
“What are they saying? Can you tell what they are saying?” My father was searching around our empty home for a weapon. All we had were pillows.
I felt suffocated. Our bed seemed closer to the windows, had we shoved it there in our panic? I stood to push it back but found us still in the center of the room. Was the house shrinking? Was I going mad? Had the world gone mad?
I looked to the people again and they were closer. I could see their lips now. I watched them move, they all seemed to be saying something different, and I could not read them.
My mother gasped and clutched at her chest with one hand, the other reaching for my father. “It’s Andy and Sue!”
Our neighbors were there. Chanting. I gave the rest of the faces a good look and found that I recognized almost everyone. Those who were not familiar to me were perhaps familiar to my family. My Sensei was there, my middle school English teacher, the late-night grocery clerk, and my old babysitter. They all stood outside and chanted. I focused on my teacher’s mouth, my teacher who was so sweet and kind and gifted me books from her special collection. I watched her lips and realized what she was saying.
“Riley, Riley, Riley.” My name over and over. I looked to the neighbors’ and they chanted the names of my parents. I roamed over every mouth that spat at my home, throwing our names to our glass.
“Why is this happening?” My mother searched around the room as if waiting for a signal or a sign to manifest and explain. Every time my family looked away from the windows the people took a step closer. We couldn’t take our eyes off them or they would close in on us. And then what would happen? What would they do?
“Alright, why are we fucking around? We have agency, people!” Alaina grabbed my shoulders and gave them a shake. I grabbed her shoulders right back and shook her too. My parents were in shock. My father watched the lips of someone in the crowd and mouthed, Curtis, Curtis, Curtis, back to them. My mother was wringing her hands, trembling, still searching around the room, looking everywhere but outside.
Alaina shoved the phone into my hands. “Call the police! It’s time!”
The thought had crossed my mind, the thought of calling for help when I watched people dying in my backyard, yet it did not feel like an emergency. This felt like something that was always coming our way.
“Riley!” Alaina smacked me on the head and I faced the windows again. It was then that I saw him, my ex, standing with the rest of them, holding the hands of my best friends. I looked to his lips. He chanted, Alaina, Alaina, Alaina.
I tasted fury and bit down, letting it course through me. I tried to crush the phone in my hands, wanting to shape it into a club and bludgeon Alaina with it. I turned back to her and she smacked me again.
“You’ve got to call!” Alaina was crying. I was crying. Numbly, I dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The woman’s voice was curt, almost cute.
Everyone in my family started speaking at once. Then we stopped. There was silence. My mother nodded at me to talk. “Our property is being trespassed by strangers with what we think is malicious intent. They showed violence towards each other earlier. Please send someone to get them away from our home.”
There was no response, then the line went dead.
“Fuck!” My father shouted. He gestured at me to call again.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“We need squad cars here now! Our home is surrounded! Send help!”
There was no response. Then, “911, what’s your emergency?”
I inhaled to speak again, but then I heard it. Through the phone, I could hear the chanting. Riley, Riley, Marina, Curtis, Marina, Alaina, Riley. The operator was there.
“911, what’s your emergency?” She said it with a smile, I just know she did. I looked for her through the windows. I got up, scanning, walking throughout the house, passing by them all. Alaina’s bedroom window was still open, only a screen separating us from the chaos. I cursed my sister’s existence and slammed the window shut. Then I opened it and slammed it again. From the window in my room, I saw her. Standing next to Alaina’s lacrosse coach and my mother’s dentist. The operator had a phone held to her ear and was the only one who’s lips did not move. Her smile widened when we locked eyes.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The phone went dead again.
“Are we going to die? Are they going to kill us? What’s the plan here? Do we stay in here forever or should we try to escape?” Alaina rifled through the trash bag for a possible weapon, using the phone as a flashlight. Night had fallen.
“I think we should wait it out,” I said. We discovered that as long as one person looked through the windows at all times, that they wouldn’t move in on us. I stood watch.
“Of course, you think that, Riley. You always just want things to happen to you, you can’t make them happen for yourself.”
“I’m sick of you talking down to me. I think you forget yourself,” I spat at her. I wanted to rip out her fucking hair, the worst part of this was being stuck with her.
My parents had stopped speaking to us. They only murmured quietly to each other, resting on the mattresses, tangled up close.
Our home was shrinking too. Of this I was almost certain. The bed was still in the center of the room, but now only three steps and you could touch the window. The world was closing in on my family. What did it mean, what did it mean?
And why did I feel like it was my fault?
I looked to my ex again. He met my eyes and gave me a nod. He still chanted Alaina’s name. I had to look away.
“Riley!” Alaina gasped and I felt dizzy. The whole room seemed to lurch. I fell, my knees hitting the edge of the mattress. Before, I was across the room, still in the kitchen. I looked back to the kitchen to see Alaina splayed out on the floor, her eyes rolled back in her head. I crawled to her, and blood trickled out of her nose.
“Mom! Dad!” I shouted for my parents but they seized on the mattress, the mattress now pressed up against the window. The people outside stood only a foot away. I heard sirens. Red and blue lights flashed through the home. I heard more marching. I watched as police, firemen, and paramedics joined the ranks of the chanting. They all stared at me now, their faces illuminated by the porch and garden lights, by the flashing sirens. It became harder to read their lips.
I dared a look away from the windows to pull Alaina into my arms. I brought her head into my lap and checked for a pulse. She was breathing. I smacked her.
The sirens cut off. The chanting had changed. They all spoke one word now. I looked back to the windows and every one had a face and body pressed against it, dark silhouettes illuminated by the flashing lights in the nighttime darkness. Their breath fogged on the glass, their hands created ghostly imprints, they were pressing, pressing, as if they could morph inside.
They all chanted, “Stay, stay, stay.”
Shanna Merceron is a Florida writer whose work can be found in many acclaimed literary journals and magazines. Shanna holds an MFA in Fiction from Hollins University, where she wrote stories that explored the darker aspects of humanity and pushed the boundaries of the strange. She is currently at work on her first novel, and when not writing, best spends her time traveling or with her dog. You can read her work via her website at https://linktr.ee/shannamerceron.
Amy is an artist pursing her MFA at Naropa Univeristy. She is founder of Wisdom Body Collective and the Ekphrasis Salon. Her work explores the body, myth, and human origins. http://blondewanderlust.com.
Derek Thomas Dew’s debut collection of poetry, Riddle Field, received the Test Site Poetry Prize and is out October 2020 from University of Nevada Press. His literary work has appeared in a number of anthologies, and his poetry has been published in a variety of journals, including Interim, Twyckenham Notes, The Maynard, The Curator, Two Hawks Quarterly, Tempered Runes Press, bee house journal, and Hawaii Pacific Review. He is a winner of an Oregon Opportunity Grant and an Omnidawn Publishing Workshop Scholarship. He currently lives in Oregon.
Serge Lecomte was born in Belgium. He came to the States where he spent his teens in Brooklyn. After graduating from Tilden H. S. He joined the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma. There he was a crew member on helicopter rescue. He earned a PhD. from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature and taught Russian and Spanish at the University of Alaska for 20 years. He now resides in Bellingham, WA. He is a published novelist and poet and painter. His works are available on Amazon.
“Don’t bother,” the pregnant mother ticks grunt in the layered mush of leaves and dead flowers beneath the birth-bush. “You’re better off starving to death then living as a one-hoster. Time spent doesn’t pay off the pain of loss.”
The mothers each lay between two and eight thousand eggs, and then they die.
After the third and final bloodmeal, I will have to leave her. My host is marked with swollen-warm rings, soft hair, and infrequent, nubby moles. She has lasted me through my larval blood meal and my molt into nymph-hood. As I am about to enter my molt into adult-hood, it is bad timing to discover she is sick. Yet, her temperature skyrockets, and she begins to smell like death: fermenting flowers.
I want to make it to adult-hood, and I want growing up to be not as futile as everyone who’s already done it so callously implies. If I let myself pretend to know her mind, I think that my host wants the same. It is this mutual desire we share that now puts us at cross-purposes. I think I am killing her.
I am a tick.
In the bushes where I was birthed, I learned that this type of infection – heat, stillness and then death – is common: that I’d likely unwittingly contracted one human-targeting virus or another while still in my egg.
Ticks always say: the trick to keeping a host alive long enough to get what we need is an art of subtlety, and if that fails, persuasion.
I thought I had more time, but sweat drips, now at a steady rate, from her hairline down to and around the raised mound where I’m engorging myself. Above all, I know I must prevent her from seeking other humans. The time for subtlety is at a close.
After itching for days at the heating rings, which alternated red and pale like a target, my host starts to think more like a tick: not with vision, but with sensation. She comes up with a tactile tactic. Her fingers brush in concentric, ever-narrowing circles, adjusting their direction as she feels out the mound where I have anesthetized and incised my entry point.
For ticks, negotiations start with threats: Don’t squeeze – what if it’s a tumor? What if you damage something in your neck? You could be paralyzed if you pinch nerves. You could die. I push these thoughts of paranoia at my host in the form of subtle brain chemicals, which I secrete in slow dribbles. I make myself as small as possible, even as her blood slowly fills and bloats me larger and larger still.
“I think there’s something there,” my host says, fingers brushing my scutum-shell. She says this just to me – I can feel no other body heat around, and I see no other exhalations but ours: sluggish, mid-air puffs. The bare echo of her words reverberates through her skin and vibrates the air currents around her head. The flavor-sensation of her voice meets up in the sensory organs on my front legs, which I have folded tight to my body. With these legs I see her heat, taste her smells, and feel her breath as it moves through the room.
I say: “Do you think that your life is worth more than mine?”
I am confident. I have spent two-thirds of my life with my host. I think I know her. I know the neat scars on her wrists, her boney ankles, the smell of her panic and the taste of her fear. Though she whirls around at my words, she doesn’t see anyone who could have spoken. The only conclusion she can come to is this:
“A tick! Oh, but I’ve heard how you vampires croon so sweetly that your victims choose death over separating. Your face cannot be as pretty as your voice. Where are you?”
“Oh, all about, right here. Beside you and behind. Say, what’s going on with your neck?”
She jerks her hand away from me – my ploy is a success. My host isn’t one to blush often, but the fever, mild though it is at present, makes it happen easily.
“Are you going to eat me?” she asks, and I cannot tell her that she’s fed me once already, is feeding me now in throbbing pulses under the numbness of my saliva.
She continues, “Am I going to die? The stories say the people who die from ticks are almost always happy to go, that they go laughing, or in love. But I’m – don’t kill me. I don’t want to die, not anymore, and I’ll never forgive you if you make me want it.”
“Would you prefer to die in pain, afraid, in tears?” I ask, as her breath leaves her all at once.
My breaths are smaller, dispersed from the spiracles on the underside of my body in a steady, chugging stream. Her’s are all drama: a big billowing cloud, nothing, and again a huge exhale in shades of heat. A tick’s weak eyes can see some color, and motion in blurs from far away. I have to rely on her breath and her warmth to teach me the way space exists around us at scale, but up close I can count the inflamed rings around me.
I lose focus when a shiver runs up from her toes to where I continue to feed. I am buried deep enough that getting knocked loose is inconceivable, but suddenly her health is much more in question.
“Already it’s begun,” she whispers. “I can’t feel my toes.”
The next morning, I am swollen. Anything sharp or hard could burst me. I disengage my mouthparts from the hole in the back of her neck and make my way delicately into the space behind and above her ear. It is the safest place on her body.
“Tick,” she says softly, rubbing the back of her neck. “What do I call you?”
I am settling in to molt, and, after leaving the hot spot of nerves at the base of her neck, I can’t discharge the toxins needed for her to receive my response anyway. I listen, despite wishing she wouldn’t speak.
“Tick,” she repeats, “tell me what to say, what to do. What can I do so that you’ll let me live?”
Of course, she hears nothing in response. She digs her nails into the back of her neck – I can smell the blood mixed with my saliva. I wonder if she’s regained sensation there yet.
“Where are you?” she says, and then she is yelling and yelling. My host struggles upright. Her lower limbs seem weakened. Possibly, they have also begun to numb. I wish she would stop moving, stop trying. I realize with a suddenness that could only come from repression that I want to tell her: Stop that! You’ll only spread it faster.
I can’t say anything, so she uses her upper limbs to drag herself to her reflection, which she has mounted on a wall. I am hidden behind her ear and long hair. Even if I was not: I am less than a millimeter in size, and so hidden anyway. An insignificant lifeform. Without considering it deeply, I inch forward to get a view of what she does next, sloughing off bits of my exoskeleton with every miniscule movement. My host stares at her own reflection with something visibly moving in her eyes, like a heartbeat. Like passion.
“Look at me. I’m only nineteen. That’s practically –” She cuts herself off, and I watch as she touches her face. It is twitching. She moves her lips again, slowly and without words.
In the mirror, one of her eyes loosens from its stare and begins to spin on its own. The eye is blue – clear sky between branches, singular. The eye seems to chase after her breath as she shudders it out. She brings her hand to its lid and tries to force it shut, but even closed we can both see it still moving, circling.
There is a thrum like bullfrogs in her throat when she speaks next, and I can sense a warm liquid ooze from her eyes.
“I’ve barely begun – I’m still learning to be happy about it. Please. If you have any mercy at all – please give me more time.”
My host is clearly dying. I don’t want to think about it.
Why is my life an antithesis?
Am I supposed to accept it: being the shadow, not the shape, and never the sun; a reflection; a parasite… numbing eyes losing focus on the real?
She is solid, overflowing with blood and life, larger than me and my purposes. She’s given me my first unhindered view of the sky. She’s given me her blood.
I can only take. I only take.
I shed my skeleton behind her ear, safe while she is afraid, warm while she is burning up.
I worry that it might be too late. I worry that I will not make the best choice. I worry that there are no good choices here.
As my molt comes to a close, I know there is no time for me to recover, to lie dormant. I weave my way through her dark hair to peel the remaining bits from my new shell, hurrying back to my incision site. I begin once more to feed, as I must, but also to plan. My host has not left her spot in front of the mirror all day; she mumbles about love and hospitals.
I am running out of time.
That night, after I drink for some hours and regain my energy, I offer to give her a vision.
My host is belly-up, vulnerable. Her breathing is hitched, difficult. I have already pumped her with as many calming neurotoxins as I safely can without inhibiting all her brain activity. Her body spreads out above me, heavier than the heavens.
“Adult ticks can grant wishes,” I tell her.
This is true, on a slant: as we mature, ticks’ toxins strengthen, allowing us to move beyond communicating and affecting the emotions of our host to a hallucinatory, mind-altering influence. A “wish” is the best I can give her without giving up my own chance to live.
“You can – you will?” She is slurring, not fully lucid.
Yet: “I will,” I promise.
I will let her feel the sun on her carapace, gentle, not burning, I tell myself. I will help her know the community and comfort-without-hunger of an egg cluster. I will give her whatever gentle, warm things she asks for.
“I want to have sex,” she says, and I am repelled by her violence. “I want to, to see my girlfriend again, and hug my parents, and tell everyone I love them. I was going to get a new job. I planned on learning how to sing – they tell me it’s learnable with lessons! My lease is nearly up, but I was looking forward to decorating a new place. There’s so much… Let me live another five years, another five weeks, another five days even. I want to live. I’m finally getting selfish; I’m finally asking for what I want: let me live, let me live, let go of me!”
“Do you want me to die?” I ask. “This thing you ask from me, it doesn’t come without a price. Either I take you, or I die. My choices are simple. Anyway, you aren’t special. Copulating, bargaining, dying. Anyone can do those things. Why not me?”
“Have you ever wondered if a cloud was telling you a secret?” Ah, so she is desperate now. “When have you sat in a field doing nothing but staring as it moves across the sky? And have you ever practiced how to fall until it’s muscle memory? How late do you stay up? Why do you wake up early? Why do you wake up? I kiss my mom on her cheek when I see her. My girlfriend makes my favorite foods on all the holidays. My best friend makes me laugh. My job makes me scream. Do you know what any of that means? Can you live like I do?”
We let the silence curl up with us on the floor for a few minutes.
Finally, I ask, “What is your name?”
“It’s Sala,” she says.
“Let me know your life before you ask me to give up everything for it, Sala.”
“What would you have me do?”
Instead of answering, I nudge my straw-like mouthparts deeper into her neck and focus on her words: clouds-in-a-field, moving skies, tears, practicing the muscles of memory and staying, waking kisses on her cheek, see makes food, laugh, make screams, living.
She goes under without a word, and the vision takes over. I’ve never gone this deep before; I’ve always heeded the warnings of the birthing-bush mothers.
Mouth to mind, I live through her dreams.
I wonder why I risk myself to tell you these things.
I live as Sala for a week. I let her girlfriend make love to Sala’s body, and it is warm and not painful or too much. I say I love you to all of Sala’s friends, and to her family, and to a few others who Sala does not describe to me, since they are around. Sala’s lips purse and her tongue dips up and down, but I say the words.
I say them over and over, each time meaning them more. By the time I say “I love you” to three strangers with blurry faces, knowing I speak the truth, I understand the “you” to be Sala.
A tick is a parent to its meals and a victim to its children.
I feed Sala’s body and feel her joy in sensation – how flavors for her don’t come from the healthiness of her meal but rather from its unique gustatory attributes. By walking to the edge of the forest where I was born from her home, I crack myself open. The world is much bigger than I will ever get to experience: it is miles and miles in every direction, and Sala could slice through the distance like I could flesh. I know I’ll see no more soon.
Time stretches around us similarly without limit, but this is the illusion, the dream.
Eventually, I let her wake up.
* * *
A week later and after her dream, I release my grip on Sala. She is still feeling weak, but she goes to the forest’s edge, where my people finally catch up with me. A male tick grabs onto Sala’s calf from a nearby bramble. His questing forelegs hook on the jeans I fit her into only that morning. As the male climbs up Sala’s body to reach me, I gentle her to lay limply on the ground and then detach myself from her completely.
I am well-engorged on Sala’s blood, meaning I am maybe ten times larger than I was after molting. When the male performs the mating, he feeds me flavorless goo to make me grow bigger still. It is quick, not painful, but efficient.
I think of Sala’s girlfriend and feel ashamed.
When he finishes, the male crawls to Sala’s shoulder, as if to look around. Low to the ground as we are, his last sight is of green things and, unreachably, the sky. He dies there seconds later, and I have to push him off of her before I can reconnect.
I get Sala up, and let her follow a paranoid impulse to brush her shoulders off twice more before moving on. As we circle the edge of the forest back to her home, I balloon.
This is not growth ten times’ larger than a nymph, this is six hundred times’ or more.
My mouthparts jut grotesquely from my body. Blood and eggs stretch me until I think, once again, I will pop.
I took Sala’s phone with us that last day to the forest. When we arrive at the borderland between shrubbery and trees, I smell flowers. We call an ambulance, and then I slowly remove myself from Sala’s neck, toddling into the safety of the birthing bush.
Of course, safe is where we go to rot. As I watch Sala stumble, colors swirl, the screaming truck arrives to take her to a hospital, and I think about death.
When I die tonight, and she lives, I wonder what new thing will grow.
Taylor V. Card is a fiction writer from Metro-Detroit, Michigan. She recently graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Taylor has been published in See Spot Run and the Pine River Anthology. Both her writing and her favorite hobby, pottery, reflect her fascination with animals and the natural world.
Serge Lecomte was born in Belgium. He came to the States where he spent his teens in Brooklyn. After graduating from Tilden H. S. He joined the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma. There he was a crew member on helicopter rescue. He earned a PhD. from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature and taught Russian and Spanish at the University of Alaska for 20 years. He now resides in Bellingham, WA. He is a published novelist and poet and painter. His works are available on Amazon.
antique rugs, cobwebs blooming in the window panes
and wooden staircase corners
barren, childless chimney
smoke here has no interest in traveling
to the moon; the couches are too comfortable;
one drinks coffee with me every morning, another
rides shotgun while we drive down roads
I shouldn’t be on; another gives up on crosswords
after ten minutes, another cooks with too much garlic,
another tucks me in at night (the coffee-drinking one,
a courteous bookend); others chatter over midday tea,
rattling my porcelain skin (I’m not the good china, so
they don’t mind a crack or two); they know my
roadmap veins the swing of my wrist dragging pen
across paper and the sound of my dreaming —
one of them sings it in the shower (he’s always in the shower);
I don’t consider myself haunted any more than
wax museums or hammocks on a still day or
empty shells at low tide or faded family photos;
Flowers need gardens and beehives need bees and
none of us want to feel lonely, anyway.
Emily Dolan (she/her) is a poet, novelist, and photographer from Wilmington, Delaware. She currently lives in Sevilla, Spain, where she has played professional soccer for the past two years. Her work has been featured in The Northern Virginia Review, Coffin Bell, and CircleShow, among other publications.
Born in Queens N.Y., Tony Murray is a self taught artist who’s work has been in over 75 National and Regional juried art shows and exhibits. Tony is also the founder and creator of the “Artistic Merit Award” which has made its way around the world honoring over 56 artists. His eclectic works involve various media such as sculptography, scratchboard, painting, videography, sculpture and photography. His first love in artistic expression will always be scratchboard. He feels the medium offers such vivid contrast and considers it more of a two dimensional sculpture. His works are preceded with the title and then he begins the process of creating that vision.
“It can be heard at many a funeral that the deceased had died an ‘untimely’ death. But who has died a ‘timely’ death?” (Murray)
Michelle Brooks has published her work in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gargoyle, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Her latest collections of poetry, Pretty in A Hard Way (Finishing Line Press)and The Pretend Life (Atmosphere Press) were published in 2019. She has published a novella titled Dead Girl, Live Boy with Storylandia Press. A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in the city of Detroit.
Emerson Little is pursuing a degree in Digital Media Production at Whittier College. His body of work ranges from landscape photography to graphic design and multimedia pieces. He has previously been published in Burningword Literary Journal, saltfront, and Toho Journal. He recently designed the poster for the independent film, Carlos Through the Tall Grass. Emerson’s passion for photography has led him to specialize in the strange and unusual elements of the American southwest.