Cross-Country

“…hello?”

          “Yeah, can I talk to, uh, Ben?”

            “Hi, yeah—this is Ben.”

            “Okay, it’s just… I kind of thought you’d be here tonight. You know, celebrating a little.”

            “Sorry, who is this?

            “Uh, Theo? We’re in homeroom together? Or, I guess, we WERE in homeroom together.”

            “Okay…”

            “Oh, you know; tall guy, devastatingly handsome, has a purple streak—”

            “Okay, right!”

            “—in his hair? Okay, cool; I knew you knew me. I’m a memorable guy.”

            “Sure, but…”

“Anyway, I’m just calling because I was surprised. You know, that you skipped out. That you’re not here. Like, isn’t it kind of mandatory? You graduate, you sit around in your backyard with Grandpa Joe and Grandma Gert, eating sheet cake off those crappy little paper plates, everybody asking you, hey, what’s next, kid? Like you’re supposed to have everything figured out. And when they’ve all shuffled off to the old folks’ home and the bingo parlor and the cemetery, you head right back to the place you’ve just gotten finished with and they load EVERYBODY onto a bus and next thing you know, you’re on a boat, just circling the lake all night. And everybody’s loud and nostalgic and talking about how they can’t wait to leave and how much they’re going to miss everybody. And all the couples that never quite got around to being couples, well, they take their shot.”            

            “…”

            “Then they make everybody eat breakfast at four in the morning and watch a magician—because what do high school graduates love more than a fucking magician? And your parents pick you up and you sit there in the passenger seat all the way home, your head all bleary. Thinking, wow. It’s time for the rest of my life.”

            “Hold on. You’re on a boat?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Wait, really? They have a phone there?”

            “I mean, I’m practically on a boat. We’re at the dock and they’re taking forever to actually let anybody on. And there’s a payphone next to the bathrooms, so I decided I’d call you up, find out what was so fucking thrilling that you skipped all this.”

            “I mean, I’m watching TV.”

            “What? What are you watching?

            “Profiler.”

            “You skipped Project Graduation because you just couldn’t miss an episode of Profiler? Seriously?”

            “What? No! It’s just on!”

            “Damn. I didn’t even know Profiler HAD superfans.”

            “No, I skipped because who wants to be stuck on a boat for six hours with all your old high school classmates?”

            “Uh, well, all your old high school classmates, for starters.”

            “…”

            “Oh, I’m pulling your chain. I just thought, I don’t know, that you’d be here. That we’d get to talk a little. Figure out what each other’s deals were, right? And maybe…”

            “Yeah?”

            “…take our shot, you know? Find some hidden-away spot on the top deck or down where they keep the bus, sit next to each other. Talk. Tell each other about our childhoods and shit. And if things get quiet—but like the good kind of quiet—I thought maybe I’d tell you that you could touch the streak in my hair, find out how soft it is.”

            “Is it really soft?”

            “Dude, it’s just hair. It feels like hair. But you have to lean in nice and close to see it well, and once you were right in there, running your hand through my hair, it’d be no big thing to kiss you.”

            “Oh.”

            “Is that all you’re going to say? ‘Oh?’ Like I told you I just bought a dirtbike?”

            “I—”

            “Oh. Ben?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Are you touching yourself?”

            “…maybe.”

            “That’s so hot.”

            “Are… you?”

            “I’m on a payphone in the middle of the marina: of course I’m not touching myself!”

            “Sorry, that’s a stupid—”

            “But if I weren’t in the middle of the marina, you know I would be.”

            “Really?”

“Yeah, really. Jesus. You know how many quarters I’ve put in this fucking phone? It’s killing me that you’re not here.”

“Well…”

“Well what?”

“…what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Sleeping until like ten at night! I told you—they’re making us go see a fucking magician at 6 a.m.!”

“Okay, but after that. When you get up?”

“…I don’t know. What are you doing?”

###

            “Hello?”

            “I miss you.”

            “Oh, you just miss my cock.”

            “Well, sure—that, too.”

            “Knew it! But seriously: what’s up, kid? You all moved in?”

            “Yeah, pretty much. My folks are out trying to find a minifridge that’ll actually fit under this tiny desk, and I keep changing my mind about what poster gets the place of honor over my bed—”

            “Got to be the Bowie, right?”

            “I am leaning that way, yes.”

            “What about the roommate? Have you met him yet?”

            “Yes.”

            “…is he cute?”

“Yes. But it’s not like I’m looking.”

“Oh, when he’s changing in front of you, I bet you’ll be looking.”

“Theo! This isn’t a sorority movie, okay? He’s just some guy from Iowa. I’ve got you, he’s got some girl from his hometown who sewed him a quilt that’s all monogrammed with their initials and they’re planning to get married and have like 70 babies the moment he graduates. So whether or not I look at his dick, there’s nothing to worry about, okay?”

“…okay.”

“Come on, I’ve got everything I need with you.”

“I know.”

“What about you? What are you up to?”

“Up to? It’s like midnight here—I’m just about to brush up.”

“Right. Sorry, I keep forgetting about the time difference. But things are good at the sandwich shop?”

“They’re all right. My boss is still kind of being a bitch, though. Like, who knew that two-dollar bills were a real thing? It was an honest mistake!”

“…”

“Anyway, sorry to vent.”

“It’s fine! I asked!”

“Okay.”

“But the thing is, I kind of need to head out. They’re having, like, a welcome mixer for all the freshman and I feel like I should probably go.”

“…”

“But I’ll call you tomorrow!”

“Okay. Have fun.”

“Thanks, I’ll try! Sleep well, babe.”

“Well, I’ll try…”

###

“…yeah?”

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? You haven’t called me in, like, eight days. Are you still coming?”

“Well…”

“Theo.”

“It’s just, the country’s so big. And you know I hate buses.”

“You were the one who wanted to take the bus! I offered to help pay for a flight!”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. High-roller throwing around his work-study money. Thank god he’s there to help out his no-account boyfriend, who can’t even keep a job making fucking sandwiches! It’s a BLT; it’s not hard. Like, who can’t make a BLT? And it turns out the answer is: this guy.”

“Theo.”

“I’m sorry—I’m just a fucking mess right now, you know? Even if I could afford it, I’d be terrible company.”

“I don’t care; I really want to see you. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, kid.”

###

“Hello?”

“…”

“Theo?”

“Look, this was never going to work, and I should have known it from the fucking start. We sit next to each other for a whole year, never say a goddamn word, and then, after one phone call, I suddenly think that I’m in love, that this is some swing-for-the-fences, long-haul kind of thing; like you can be a fuck-up for nineteen straight years and then just fall ass-backwards into something perfect—”

“Listen, Theo…”

“—but life’s not like that, not really. Looking back, I don’t even know how I ignored the central obvious problem here: you leaving. I mean, you were leaving from day one, moment one; you were leaving before we ever fucked or kissed or even spoke, and there was never anything I could have done about it, right? You had California in your eyes and that was all you could fucking see.”

“Theo, are you… high?”

“I’m fucking sick of it. You don’t love me—if you did, you never would have been able to leave. And if I really loved you, I never would have LET you leave. So this is really for the best, for both of us, whatever you might think. And I don’t know why I’m so concerned about your delicate fucking feelings, like it’s more important for me to be quiet and polite and thoughtful than to be real with you, like it’s not fucking suffocating to hold things in and in and in, until you feel like you’re going to goddamn explode, until there’s nothing left inside of you EXCEPT for all that stuff!”

“I never—”

“Yeah, that’s right! You NEVER let me be me, okay? You snuck me into your house like a secret, like somebody you were ashamed to be seen with—sure, you’re happy to take my cock in your ass, but god forbid you treat me like an actual boyfriend.”

“Theo, are you serious? I brought you to my mom’s birthday.”

“And look, I’ve got to go. My hands are, like, shaking, and my heart is beating and beating, and I think I’ve pretty much said everything that I had to say. So, goodbye.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Goodbye? Just like that?”

“Just like that. Goodbye.”

###

            “Uh, hello? Who is this?

            “Hey there, stranger.”

            “…Theo?”

            “You got it, kid. Look, I know it’s been kind of a long time—”

            “It’s been a year.”

            “—but I don’t know, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately. And I was thinking, you know, what’s that crazy kid up to these days? So I thought I’d call, just to check in. Like, I know you’re probably still doing the college thing, living that California life. Acing tests and shit, the way you always used to, hanging poolside—”

            “You know I don’t know how to swim.”

            “Still? Man, you should get on that. Anyway, if I know you, you’re all amped up about studying abroad, trying to pick between Germany, because you got that family over there, and some place that’s new and exotic like Colombia or Thailand or some shit. And you’ve been thinking about me and how it all went down because you’re worrying about leaving your new guy back in Cali for six whole months—and you do have a new guy, right?”

            “Yes.”

            “And he’s that super-Christian guy who was going to have all those babies, right?”

            “…yes.”

            “And you’re kind of worried that while you’re off living it up in Bogota, he’s going to be babymaking with a bunch of other guys…”

            “Farley loves me; he wouldn’t do that.”

            “Farley? Dude, of course that’s his fucking name. You two probably spend your school breaks at his family’s rustic goddamn cabin in Idaho—”

            “Iowa.”

            “—just riding around on sailboats and making cocktails on the porch and, like, foxhunting, or whatever guys named Farley do in their spare fucking time.”

            “Why are you even calling?”

            “What, I can’t call? You’re too busy with Farley and his starched-collar family to talk to me for a few minutes?”

            “I was fucking worried about you, asshole! Your parents called me, said they couldn’t find you, didn’t know where you were. They thought you were dead! I thought you were dead! And now you just ring me up like nothing happened, like it’s no big deal, and you start giving me shit about my new boyfriend—who is a TOTAL sweetheart, by the way—like I’m the one who broke up with you. Like I’m the one who fucked somebody else when we were together…”

            “Kid, if you’d seen the ass on that guy, you would have done exactly the same thing.”

            “That’s bullshit, and you know—”

            “Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t have, but you would have fucking WANTED to.”

            “…Theo, where are you?”

            “Where do you think? Still back home. Chilling. You know, it’s pretty crazy to think that we’re talking right now like we’re sitting across from each other at that booth at Lucky’s, but really there’s, like, thousands of miles betwen us, all those cities and highways and mountains, the Mississippi, the Continental Divide, the Grand fucking Canyon, and the only thing tying all this together is a wire the size of, like, a shoelace that’s stretched the whole fucking way.”

            “Seriously, where are you? I can hear people shouting and… do your parents know that you’re okay?”

            “They know, all right? Don’t go pretending that you’re, like, some family friend who’s just concerned for my parents’ wellbeing. You’ve never even met them, all right? You’re not their son-in-law or something; you’re just somebody I used to fuck. And don’t forget that YOU were the one who used to beg for more, who used to cry because it was so good.”

            “…I loved you. You don’t need to piss all over that, okay?”

            “…”

            “…”

            “Hey, I’m sorry, kid. I was just pulling your chain a little. Talking about the past gets me all keyed up sometimes, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you. Anyway, I got to bounce. I’m almost out of phone time and they get real cranky here if you go over.”

            “They? Who’s ‘they,’ Theo? Where are you really?”

            “We’ll talk soon, kid. Promise.”

###

            “…hello?”

            “I know it’s been a while, and I haven’t been the most together, or the most open about what’s going on with me—”

            “Theo? Is that you?”

            “Listen, I’ve been going through a lot of shit, which we can talk about another time, but going through that shit made me realize some things. Like, I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to the way I can talk to you. And also that I was an ass to you—like, repeatedly. Constantly. And that you would have been well within your rights to just hang up on me, or refuse to take my calls…”

            “You always call from a blocked number!”

            “Just, just let me finish, all right? I’m trying to say that it means a lot. You’ve been real decent with me, and you didn’t have to do that. Any of that. You’re a good person, a kind person—I wish I knew how to be as good to me as you are. It used to kill me to sit in my shitty little room in my parents’ basement, thinking about you off in California, living it up in some beautiful fucking dorm with Spanish fucking tiles on the roof, but now it feels right. Like we’ve each gotten what we deserved. And maybe that’s okay. I don’t need the things you have, the life you live, and if anybody should be living it, it’s you.”

            “Theo…”

“Don’t think I ever stopped loving you, okay? Because I haven’t.”

“Theo, where are you?”

“Still with that guy?”

“No. Not for a while.”

“I’m downstairs. At the payphone by the front door.”

“…I’ll be right there.”

###


T.B. GRENNAN was born in Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, and once read the entirety of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus while stuck on a delayed plane. His writing has appeared in The Indiana Review, The Seventh Wave, TIMBER, and Spaces We Have Known, an anthology of LGBT+ fiction. The initial drafts of Grennan’s piece, ‘Cross-Country,’ were written during his participation in New York’s Hypergraphic Writers Workshop.

Lonely Laundry Boy

Open the door. Halfway in, always halfway in. A full cup right? Right. Normal. No, not warm. Cold will be too cold. Cool it is then. Extra Rinse? Extra Rinse. Close door. Locked. Fill. Perfect. The lock clicked and the machine turned. I quickly opened the round black lid and put my bum in first, then shoved the rest of my body in. My neck creaked as it adjusted to the embossed cylinder. I held my breath as though it would make my body smaller. Even with my knees touching the tip of my nose, the door just barely closed. It had been a while since my last wash, the ick had become heavy on my skin. The drum twisted once, then twice trying to gauge the weight of the load— of me. My toes screamed in pain as they tried to anchor me through the intervaled spins. I sighed as the heaviness of the ick began to settle into the ridges of the drum. It had been a while since the ick had been this bad. With overeager people being overly friendly and constantly being called upon in class, the ick had managed to infiltrate my clothes and lodged itself in the small fibres around my joints. I hadn’t tried getting rid of it with this washer yet so we were really living life on the edge.

The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention as the water poured into the drum. Please work, fuck, please work this time. I had rigged the lock of the washer when I moved in. It would lock, unlock and instead of lock again, it would stay unlocked for a minute so that I could get inside, and then lock again. I didn’t expect facilities management to fix said lock because no one would use the washer but me, I made sure of that. Now that I think about it though, the Out of Order sign that took me a few minutes on Word and a handy dandy inkjet printer nearby might be something that could lead them on if they cared enough. The entire point of it was to figure out whether or not the rig had worked. I don’t really want to think about what would happen if it didn’t. The water wooshed into the drum and stopped right under my neck. The machine stopped for a moment, both drums stilled, and my heart dropped in my chest. My softening nails dug into my palm and my shoulders slumped. Great. I’d have to reposition the magnet, try a new rig or maybe a new machine even.

Just as I was about to push the door open, the soapy liquid flowed into the drum. The strong gush of water made the Mrs. Meyers Basil laundry detergent bubble on the surface. A heavy sigh left my clogged lungs. It used to make me gag, the foamy liquid, I mean. It’s like when you get shampoo in your eye and it stings. This wouldn’t sting though. Instead, it would sink into every crevice and scrub out the ick. The washer kept getting more and more cramped as my limbs grew longer but nothing worked as well. My eyes shut and my breath eased as the knots in my shoulder unwound.  Mam had been on my case a lot more this week, Da hadn’t been home for a few days. Things had got better between them once I’d left, but they still fought enough. The tension in her voice floated through the sound waves and settled in my bones. It’s not that she was a bad mother, it was more so that her tough love coupled with the unexpressed feelings was a little too tough at times. People around me didn’t get why I’d get angry. Matt didn’t get it either even though he tried to offer countless ways to talk about feelings. Boxes of Camels lay in my bin and my lungs hurt. I hated tobacco but it helped when my brain knotted together and fought with everything and everyone who cared.

The pressure of the water squeezed my lungs and the tobacco dripped out of them in globs. The ability to breathe without feeling any pain was magical. The back and forth of the washer made the thoughts in my head hit against my skull aggressively. They were trying to escape, they always did that. The small bump in my head had been a favourite spot of theirs but today they were hitting every surface they could. It was slightly abrasive and it felt like they were trying to achieve a goal— ridding themselves of sin and dirt by hitting against my skull again and again. It had been hot today, maybe I should’ve cared more about paying attention in class and being better but it didn’t matter when the sweat kept pooling under my clothes and clung onto each thread of my red shirt. Mam had also said something about being a good child, maybe even a better child, right before hanging up. But I wasn’t a good child, there was all this ick on me. After a few whiskeys, she always slurred at me about God, and sin, and the reward at the end of spiritualism that was only granted to the good souls. What the hell did good even mean? It was frustrating trying to figure it out but I trust the cycle knew the answer, it always did. I squeezed my eyes shut as this week’s ick eroded against my skull.

The dull gurgle of the valve opening made all the gunk drain out in a long whoosh. Instantly, the extra rinse kicked in. The water gushed out the valves and flowed through another, sloshing against me aggressively. With each flood of water, the sweat, not nice feelings, and anxiety kept being pulled out of the atoms. Clothes always came out looking happy after a wash, maybe this time I would too. It was almost time to leave the ridges that supported me and soaked up all the ick through the cleanse. Some gushes came in tidal waves, and despite me holding my breath, they made me splutter like a fish, before draining out. I had learned to hold my breath for those three minutes back in middle school. I was on the swim team and a few of us used to faff about and see who could be underwater the longest. Whoever won got a fiver at the end. The spinning kicked in the compressed drum and squeezed the broken bones and sore tendons together. They were crushing into each other, molding into one another wherever they fit with the magic that ran through the washer. The little jingle of the washing machine rang in my ears. Guess I was done for this week. I pushed the door open and dangled whatever bit of my body I could out the front, like a fortune cookie fold.

“You should wear running shorts,” came a voice from the far end of the room. I didn’t expect anyone to be here.

“Excuse me?” I craned my neck towards the voice holding onto the cold comfort of the steel.

“You’re wearing jeans, jeans get really heavy in the wash. Aren’t you uncomfortable?” She turned back towards her basket and kept putting things into the drum.

 It was almost three in the morning, why was this girl in polka dot pajamas doing laundry right now? The only reason I came down at this time was because no one used the machines at this time so it was easy to carry out my compulsions. Ah, I see, she’s here because it is three in the morning and no one would be using the machines. She had a point though, why had I been wearing jeans for so long? It made sense to wear something that was lighter and wouldn’t absorb as much water. Truth be told, wet and rough denim had always been a little bit of a pain.

“I never thought of that before.” I picked at a loose thread on the denim.

“Exactly. So wear running shorts next time.” She hummed to herself and threw in the Tide pods.

“You’re right, running shorts would dry quicker.”

“And they wouldn’t chafe either.” I couldn’t help but agree with that. The chafing was always bad after a particularly rough spin.

I nodded at her and made my way out of the washer. My spine cracked in relief once my feet were firmly on the white tiled floor. If it weren’t for the humming of the radiator, she would have been able to hear just how old I felt. I attempted to say goodbye, I wanted to know her name but her back was still to me. So I just left. My legs felt heavier now that I was actually paying attention to the denim. I was surprisingly not dripping all over the place but I guess that’s why washers spin at the end for a while. I got back to my dorm and lay on the floor. The stale smell of the heating overpowered the gentleness of the Basil that, moments ago, flooded my senses. I had mopped that morning so the floor wasn’t as disgusting as usual. The beige linoleum was cold though. The wet clothes pressed against my cool, damp skin and made me feel cold. Maybe the temperature would help keep the other shit away. I could feel my eyelids struggling to stay open. Just a few more minutes, I didn’t want to go to sleep just yet because then I’d have to wake up and do tomorrow. The denim remained moist and all I could think was yeah, running shorts next time.


JUSTINE ANTHONY is a simple human trying to get by in the universe concentrating in classics and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Some day she hopes to find the perfect laundry detergent and fabric softener combination and spread the word far and wide. Until then, she is content learning dead languages and cooking tofu.

211.971° F

In the driveway off the road, look at that little car, soft rust creeping over its chipped paint. See the rotting wood stairs, how they’d creak with age if anyone was left to climb them. The bones of a cat lying by a long empty bowl, coated in the thick gristle of decaying flesh. The dishes piled in the sink, with rich swirls of mold the only life left here. Let your gaze finally rest upon the overturned tea kettle, cheery bright blue.

Once, the kettle poured liquid love for its owners. Once, it was chosen for its color, favored. Blue shades are splashed throughout the house. Those accents only owned by the comfortably unaware. The dish towel, the welcome mat, the blanket tossed over the couch. The boiling water still pouring from the kettle has made its way there, hissing faintly under the sounds of the still running television. The channel flickers, news of a bombing in the deep South turning to a cheerful salesperson selling the latest microwave technology.

The woman seems distant, unaware of the boiling water making contact with her hand as it drapes over the side of the couch, unaware that the water is slowly swallowing her home. You would think her body vacant were it not for those eyes. Those terrible, terrible, open eyes, a scream felt in their frantic movements. She must feel it all, you realize. She must see how the kettle was wrong, all wrong.

Oh, that pretty blue. How it deceived her in the shop, lured her in. Somehow it was the shade she’d looked for her whole life, perfect for her. Ten dollars, the woman in the shop said, and she was so friendly, so kind. Of course the woman bought that perfect kettle, with its shining spout like an anglerfish.

She drove to her home in the countryside and thought only briefly of the heat creeping over her. A strange spike for October, she thought, but still, she took out her mug, measured out the leaves so carefully. A connoisseur, this woman of ours. Her tea comes from China, you know. She has it shipped over specially.

If only she were so careful with her other purchases. If only she hadn’t sat there while the water boiled, watching the news. She practically tempted it. The poor kettle can’t resist an easy target, and oh how enticing her skin was. Water loves to move, and fire loves to burn, and the woman loved her little things.

How long she’ll sit there, undying, not alive, with the water slowly taking more of her, one mustn’t guess. Speculation only distracts you from what’s important.


FIO CUMMINS GARBER is a teenage writer and poet in the Colorado area. Their work has previously appeared in student magazines and on Tumblr under the username honeysweetdisaster, where you can find their thoughts on love, soulmates, personal growth, and small acts of witchcraft.

Our Favorite Writing Prompts

It’s that time of year when the weather is changing, the world is being quarantined and folks are looking for new sources of inspiration and solace. Check out some of Inklette’s favorite writing prompts below to spark your creativity!



PROMPT 1

You’re sitting across the table from a character from your current work in progress. How do you start the conversation? What do you talk about? Are they talkative or reticent, joyous or subdued? Do they answer questions freely? What do they ask you? What do they notice about the world?


PROMPT 2
(Best done in a walkable place)

Pick a number between 1 and 10. Start walking, and when you reach an intersection, flip a coin. Heads, you go right; tails, you go left. Do this for as many times as the number you picked in the beginning. Write a short story set in the location that you end up in.


PROMPT 3

Choose an object near you or in front of you. Do each of these for five minutes: Ask questions to the object. Describe the object in as much detail as possible. Write the origin story of the object. Write a first-person narrative from the point of view of the object. Draw associations with the object– what else does it look like, what does it remind you of, what does it make you think– and talk about it without naming the object, using metaphors or similes. 


PROMPT 4 

Make a list of topics you would never write about, followed by a list of words you would never use. Then, write a poem on one of those topics and use as many of those words as you can.


PROMPT 5

Choose any letter from A-Z. Write the first stanza without using the letter you chose. Now choose a second letter. Write the second stanza without using the second letter as well as the first letter you chose. Keep going for 5-6 stanzas in the same way.



An Insider’s Guide to Viewing the Night Sky

           If you’re going to count the stars you can’t stop without counting them all. The trouble is in losing track of what’s been counted and what still needs counting. The obvious solution is to section off parts of the sky, string boundary lines between the memorable standouts, clusters to divide, kingdoms to create, without repeating a single one.

# # #

          It took my landlord 23 weeks to evict me. She showed up at the door with an actual cop, wringing her hands and speaking slowly. I could tell she had rehearsed. For her benefit I pretended to be surprised. In a way, maybe I was. When you’ve gotten away with something for 23 weeks — avoiding windows, burning letters — you begin to think it will last forever.

# # #

          I paid the cab with money I borrowed from my dad’s wallet. I’ve never tipped anyone in my life. I took a dump and read an article ranking fifty of the season’s best hunting knives, then made a sandwich and opened a diet Pepsi before turning down the TV and greeting my father.

“Food in the fridge,” he shouted, his voice unused to a quiet TV. I never felt he was anything but happy to see me. Sometimes that thought made me cry.

“What’s on?” I nodded towards the TV.

“You need money?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed him his wallet.

          We ordered pizza and watched Death Race 2, The Shawshank Redemption, and several episodes of Lodge 49. My dad fell asleep in the recliner, his wallet empty. I took my sleeping bag into his bedroom. Memories and dreams are hard to separate, moments morphed like personal fables, but the dark particle board suffocating that room always reminded me of being a baby in a crib, running my fingers down the rough slots where the boards intersected. I imagined the walls were darker now, the carpet denser with whatever it was that age retched into the places of our past. In my mind it was all the same. I hardly looked at the undusted photographs fading in my mother’s frames. I didn’t need to.

# # #

          My father told me that rent would be chores. He seemed happy to say something like that to his full-grown son, like he’d been waiting all his life for it. I couldn’t imagine why. I had never known him to care about work.

         I rummaged through the garage and brought out the mower and a tool I assumed was for pruning, but before I could get going it started to rain. I clipped a couple branches and returned to the couch, my father’s snores reverberating from his armchair. The rain outside tapped like a beggar on the glass. I turned up the TV. 

         That afternoon I helped my dad into his jacket and drove him to the doctor. He didn’t mention the mower by the driveway, the pools of rainwater collecting in its curves.

“Nice weather,” the receptionist said. My father smiled.

        In the waiting room I thumbed through candids of actors and rock stars, lamenting how normal they looked in bathing suits or at restaurants, pushing strollers and arguing with their wives. I liked them better on the screen where they looked perfect and beautiful, impossibly smooth. To think of their success as unachievable because of their perfection, it made it easier to live a life like mine. A life like my father’s and, I guessed, his father’s before him. “One day at a time,” my father would say. “That’s all you can ask for.” Ambition, purpose, direction: they meant nothing to people like us.

         A nurse came into the waiting room and said my name. I followed her through a hallway that smelled like piss and bleach. “You can have a seat here,” she said, then left. My dad smiled at me. He was propped at the end of the exam table, naked beneath his smock. His ankles were stark white with purple and red splotches and his arms mostly matched. I noticed that someone had folded his clothes on one of the extra chairs. I took out my phone then put it away.

When the doctor arrived she shook my hand.

          “Your father’s condition is not improving,” she said. I couldn’t decide how to react. My dad and I rarely talked and when we did it was definitely not about our health. “Heart failure and stroke are now very serious concerns. Inevitable, it seems to me.”

           She proceeded to lecture about lifestyle and diet, about options for in-home care. Doctors always made me feel guilty. 

“How bad are we talking?” I asked. 

She made a sad little smile and handed me a sheet titled “End of Life Solutions.” 

“I suggest you start taking this seriously,” she said.

# # #

          We went for ice cream on the ride home. We ordered from the same window my father used to lift me up to see into, but the menu held no splendor. It was chipped and peeling. Mildew stained the sill. The server wouldn’t look us in the eye as she listed off the flavors she was out of.

          “Sorry,” my dad said. “About all this.” He waved his arm weakly. “I should have told you. Or left you out of it.”

           I tried putting myself in his place, his colorless tongue scooping rivulets off his cone. Maybe you reach an age and you stop caring. Maybe you care more and more as the reality of life sets in. Or maybe age and caring have nothing to do with it. I handed him a napkin to wipe his face.

# # #

           I made sandwiches for dinner and we watched The Fugitive, Independence Day, and MASH until my dad fell asleep in his recliner. With the TV still flickering I took my sleeping bag onto the uncut grass, feeling its wetness creep through the down and into my clothes and skin. The sky was a million miles away.

           You have to pick a place to begin. Pick a point and know that no matter what, you won’t return to it. You have to draw lines. Cut it all apart and string it together in a way you won’t forget. A way that moves you forward, only forward, so you’ll never go back and count it twice. Because if you did you’d risk every piece of progress, risk losing it all as the sky twists past, twisting so to start again would be a new task entirely. 

An entirely new sky with entirely new stars to count.

 

END


LUCAS LEERY is an educator at a maritime history museum in Maine. He likes noisy guitars, unhinged sentimentalities, and falling asleep on the beach. Some of his stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal and Sorrow: A Horror Anthology.

Cooked Meat

I

She could not remember the exact moment she forgot her name, or what time it was, what she was doing, what she was thinking. But she was sure she was running, or thinking of running. In her head, she had covered a thousand miles, even though she had never known the world beyond Balambala, the small, permanent village two hundred miles northwest of Garissa, Kenya, where she had lived all her sixteen years. She was sure too she was crying, wet-crying—with tears, that is—or dry-crying, without. She must have felt fear too, fear forceful enough to wipe out the memory of herself, like a storm that ravages a city into unrecognition.

But she remembered the moment she realised she had in fact forgotten her name: two minutes ago when the woman selling khat asked her the question. She was at the Rahole bus stage, having just landed in Garissa town after a three-hour journey on the back of a speeding Land Cruiser from Balambala. She stood next to the stalls, not knowing what to do, where to go, her face red with dust, like the soil of Saka.

Uhm…my name? She hesitated to drink even though she was dying of thirst. She then took one little sip, wincing as she swallowed.

Yes.

My name is…uhm…my name is…

It’s alright dear I understand if you don’t want to tell me.

She thought she was having a momentary brain freeze that would go away immediately. Of course I know my name, she thought. I’ve known it all my life. Nobody forgets their name. It’ll come to me in a flash.

II

She walked away from the stage down the road, lest someone at the stage might recognise her. The midday azan rung out from the mosques. She walked on, even though every step she took was a step closer to getting lost. There were so many people than she had ever seen. The more she walked the more buildings she saw. Back in Balambala when you walked for two minutes in any direction you ran smack into woods. Here they had no end.

Perhaps the day she forgot her name was the day mom and dad told her about it. It was noon, and she had just come from school with her friends Najma and Ayaan. It was the last day of the school term. The girls stopped at a shop on the way home and bought candy.

They sat on a wooden bench outside.

Why are you grinning like that? Najma said.

I’m not grinning like anything, the girl said.

Is it a boy? said Ayaan. It’s a boy isn’t it? Spill the news girl. I’ll buy you an extra candy if you tell us.

It’s definitely not a boy, Najma said. She’s too shy.

Boys are too boring, the girl said.

Not to mention weird, Ayaan said.

They watched people walking to and from the market centre, crossing the open field in front of the shop.

What did you score by the way? Najma grabbed the girl’s report card. Let’s see what we have here. Wow you came number two in the whole class?

This is why she’s been grinning like a camel in a plush forest, said Ayaan.

Give it back, the girl said. It’s nothing.

It’s not nothing. It says here you are “a self-driven girl with lots of promise,” Najma said.

Masha Allah, said Ayaan. I don’t know about you but I need to be driven to do anything. I failed so miserably my report card just shrivelled up.

The girls laughed and ate their candy. They talked about the things they would do during the holiday and agreed to meet the following morning at the computer centre of the library. They then went home. When the girl reached home before she dropped her bag her parents asked her to sit down and told her.

But dad, mum I can’t do that.

You are a grown woman, stop behaving like a child!

But I’m not ready for that.

At fourteen you should be a grandmother.

Please.

Do you want blessings or a curse?

Blessings.

Allah says in the Qur’an fear your God and obey your parents if you want to go to heaven. You want to go to heaven don’t you?

Of course.

Then you’ll do as we ask.

She had never known all her life what it means to be torn or helpless until that moment. But what had she known anyway, other than to go to school, play with her friends and help her mother with household chores? What anguish had she known other than worry why some of her friends had nicer dira dress than she did? For this she was not prepared. She could not bring herself to doing what they wanted her to do. Yet she loved her parents and she did not want to disobey them. Could she even? Wouldn’t she go to hell if she did?

III

She wandered through the streets, covering her face with the edge of her hijab to keep off the dust raised by rickshaws and motorbikes. Once a man with a hennaed beard came into her field of vision. She bolted down the road. She only stopped when she could no longer run. When she looked back no one was running after her.

She sat in front of a building to rest.

She considered another possible instance when she might have forgotten her name. It was exactly a month after her parents told her about it. A camel was slain. People flocked to their compound. They ate to their full. Najma and Ayaan walked by on their way home from school. They stood on the edge of the fence and watched. The women dressed her in new clothes, sprayed her with perfume, tattooed her arms and feet and wrapped her head in a black scarf. It was her wedding day, and she was terrified. At the new house on the edge of town the old man waited. The bridal party marched towards the house, the path lit by a glorious moonlight. They beat drums and blew horns and ululated. When they arrived the women circled the men and sang burambur. The men danced saar, clapping, leaping, grunting with ecstasy. They placed glittering corsages on her neck, and sang her praises. As they left, she clung to her sister and mother.

Don’t leave me.

You’ll be fine. Just do as we told you.

I’m afraid.

Just do as he asks.

Perhaps it was when she looked at herself in the mirror and failed to recognise the person looking back at her that she forgot her name. Or it could be the moment he shed her clothes off and she stood naked for the first time in the presence of a man, overcome with the urge to cover herself, though unsure whether it was because she lost her clothes or her name. Perhaps it was when he pushed himself inside her, his hennaed beard shining in the low light, her fragile form body crushed under his weight, her hands pinned down, unable to move, the insides of her thighs burning with pain, the bed sheet clenched between her teeth unable to muffle her gasps and cries, the water from her eyes filling her ears, watching the flickering lamp, the shadows on the mud wall, the lone lizard running along a wooden plank, listening to the sound of men grunting and women singing in the distance.

Or maybe it was when, soon after, all she did was chores all day and got beat at night, even after her stomach started swelling like the bruises on her face and a darkness overcame her and she had to drag herself get out of bed and she would forget what she was doing, half-present, her movements slowed, holding a spoon in mid motion while mixing a soup, forgetting wiping the table, staring into nothing, dry-crying, at night biting the bed sheet, so hard it had more holes than the veil she wore to her wedding, watching the shadows dancing, the lizard gaping, thinking of running.

IV

She came upon a big fork on the road. On the right side was a tarmacked road and on the left a dusty footpath full of holes. She stood there thinking which road to take, even though she didn’t know where neither led to. She felt a strange sensation she had never felt before. A thrill. For the first time in her life, she could choose to do something on her own. She could for instance choose to turn right or left, and no one would tell her otherwise. She could decide to take neither and turn back. All her life she had never done anything she wanted to do. Yet she felt guilty, naughty even, though she did not know why. It was the way she felt when she stole money from her mother or when she allowed her friend to copy an answer from her sheet during an exam.

Looking at both roads her first instinct was to take the dusty footpath because the tarmac road looked like something too clean, too big, something men and boys should take, something she was not worthy of. She felt the same guilt at the thought of picking a new name for herself, and her head still spun at her plan of finding some sort of work to do in this town. At home girls always ate from the bottom of the pot and slept on the older mattresses. They sacrificed their comfort for others and were forbidden to do many things. Having to choose for herself made her feel like she was doing something wrong because she did not know there was a difference between ‘forbidden’ and ‘wrong.’

V

After sunset—lost and tired—she emerged into a busy highway. It was so dark but you could see the dust on her feet, white as flour. On this side where she was were lines of shops and outdoor cafes where men chewed khat. In the distance where trees drooped were the silhouettes of mechanics repairing trucks. She found a makeshift shack that looked like a daytime tea shop made of used blankets and curtains. She was glad to stop walking, and she was glad to find a mat on the ground, though tattered and prickly. The water the woman had given her earlier was still untouched.

Fear filled every crevice of her being like the night filled everything. She had never found herself out at night, alone. Even in Balambala safety was synonymous with ‘home’ and ‘company’ ‘daylight.’ Mother would never let her walk to the edge of the village any time past six in the evening to fetch milk from their camels, even though her six-year-old brother could.

Mother, commenting on the delicate nature of women and predatory nature of men, had explained, A female is cooked meat, don’t you know?

She peeped outside to read all the names she could see written around her on the buildings and the shops. She could recall all the names of the people she knew. Like her baby’s name, Udgoon. She missed it, the baby they took from her the last time she ran away, and could hardly think of anything else since she had left home. At only seven months old she worried whether they might give him the wrong food or ants might enter her cot. She almost died giving birth to it and had passed out from the pain several times, or maybe it was the bleeding that wouldn’t stop. Or perhaps both. As she lay down and used her arms as a pillow she missed how it smiled and cooed—her baby—unaware of all the darkness that engulfed her mother. She felt dejected for bringing another little girl into a world cruel to little girls, another cooked meat into one supremely gifted at devouring, another little light at one that extinguishes so well.

She could not remember her name.

Yet she had not forgotten the names of her mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, villagers. She could remember people from when she was a toddler. She could even remember the names of people she met only once. Gedi, for instance, a man who once sold charcoal to her mother when she was three. Haibo, a distant relative who spent one night at their house when she was five. Yet she could not remember her own name. She tried recalling all the female names she knew, certain she would recognise hers once she heard it. Fatuma. Naima. Khadija. Hawa. Malyun. Zainab. Ambiya. Batula. Rukiya. Ifrah. Quresha… None sounded like the name she would know to be hers. Sometimes she would get this flash across her mind and she knew she had finally remembered her name, but it would turn out to be an incomplete thought, gone faster than the mind could process it, and all that would remain would be a memory of the memory, like an aftertaste whose origin one can’t recall.

She gave up trying to remember it.

VI

The night grew calm. The only sounds she could hear were the faint music coming from the khat shacks, her groaning stomach and her drumming heart when a lone walker shuffled by. She missed her old friends. She missed Najma’s stubbornness and Ayaan’s humour, and wondered what they were doing, whether they would suffer the same fate she did. Then it came to her: the exact moment she had forgotten her name. It was four days ago. She had run again, her baby strapped onto her back. She crossed the river into Hasaaqo on a boat.

Early next morning as she tried to board a car to Garissa, someone pulled her back down. The hennaed beard was the first thing she saw. On the way back, when they crossed the river, he grabbed her by the neck and took her back into the river. He dipped her head into the water. He held her steady, her arms flailing in the air, as the water drowned her lungs and her brain was starved of oxygen. She thought she was going to die. Perhaps she did. Because when he let her back up she could not remember her name.


mohamed aress is a writer, photographer and lawyer from Garissa, Northeastern Kenya. In his free time, he enjoys doing nothing, but when feeling particularly productive, he likes imagining the pleasures of watching camels make out. He binges on Key and Peele with the hope of bringing comic relief to his worryingly morbid fiction, though this has never worked. He currently works as a defender of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Vinifera

The vines grew. Leaves tangled. Fruit burst. The earth cracked in its effort to thrust up more life.

In the spring, people called Maggie lucky. In the summer, they said she was blessed. With autumn, her harvest came in large and radiant, straining the other growers’ smiles with envy. Winter stilled the country, and yet the vines shone a healthy green through a thin dusting of snow, pulsing with life like veins under pale skin. And neighborly eyes grew cold.

Fruit ripened and oozed on the vine. The juice beaded and froze, transforming grapes to glittering diamonds. Maggie wondered if she should harvest them. She worried everything would shrivel and die come spring.

“It’s alright, Auntie,” her niece said, slicing onions with thin precision.

Maggie stood at the kitchen window, frowning at the dark spots where fallen grapes stained the snow.

Her niece and nephew had come to spend their winter holidays. They always did. Becca seemed much older, as if she had done all her growing in one year. She watched the vines rioting in the winter field with practiced nonchalance. While Benjy shied from them, darting down the dirt lane every morning, skates and stick slung over his shoulder.

He came back with the early sundown, sluggish and reeking from a day of pond hockey. Sometimes he came home with bruises, once with a black eye. Maggie never asked if it was the game’s natural play, or if the other boys said things that her nephew had to answer. He had grown distant in the last year, as if concentration could keep him a willow limbed boy with spring colored eyes forever.

“It’s alright, Auntie,” Becca said, again.

“Mhhmm,” Maggie’s low voice hummed off the glass.

“Benjy’s late today. The sun’s almost down.”

“They’ll be at the back porch soon.”

Becca scraped the onions into a pan, they hissed and spat as she stirred them through hot oil. Maggie left the frost-edged window and began piling dishes in the sink. Becca helped herself to what remained of her aunt’s red wine. Maggie raised an eyebrow. Becca raised a shoulder.

“Mom will never know,” she said. “Besides, red wine’s good for your heart.”

“You’re too young for heart trouble.”

“You should grow Syrah.”

“Syrah’s surly. We don’t have the right climate for it.”

“December’s not the right climate for anything.”

And yet the vines grew.

In the year past, Becca had gotten notions of Paris and culinary school and romance under European skies. But Maggie’s sister believed illusions were best shattered early. She told Maggie to take the kids to town, stuff them with burgers and fries, anything salted and greased, rather than let Becca near a stove. But Maggie never had much defiance in her and found it too easy to bow to her niece’s efficiency.

And watching the tall girl at the stove, Maggie knew Becca would run to the Old World. She’d run from her mother’s petty tempers and her own unfinished dreams.

Maggie had made the journey herself, once. But she hadn’t sought oil painted sunsets or velvet accents. She’d gone to Germany, learned about soil, mineral deposits, and microclimates. The only thing that caught her eye with longing was a cottage on an abandoned bit of vineyard, choked by wild hops, untamed vines mingling for as far as she could see under a sky leaded with rain.

When Benjy came home at last, there was a bloody gap where his left eyetooth used to be. He insisted it was a baby tooth, not a big deal. Wasn’t he too big to still have baby teeth? Maggie fretted, thought about warming up the beastly old pick-up and taking him to a doctor? A dentist? She wasn’t sure. And eventually she gave into his thirteen-year-old obstinacy and settled for giving him some ice wrapped in a dishtowel.

“You won’t tell Mom?” he mumbled, through the towel.

“She’ll notice.”

Benjy shrugged his doubt.

“They trapped a bird,” he said.

“The other boys?” Maggie frowned.

“The vines.”

Maggie peered out the window, but in the dusk, she saw no feeble flap of wings.

“It’s probably caught in the wire,” Maggie said. “They’re pests, you know.”

“It’s the vines,” the boy insisted. “They’re mad it tried to eat the grapes.”

Becca clucked her tongue from the stove, but she didn’t tell her little brother he was being stupid. Maggie shrugged on her heavy coat, swamping her in flannel and old- snow musk.

She tramped along the nearest row of vines, listening for any cries from further afield. But the bird must have freed itself. All Maggie found were a few gray feathers twisted in a trellis wire.

Later, ice melting in the sink, bloody towel crumpled by the draining board, Maggie watched the vines in the bluish moonlight. She wondered what had filled them with such unsleeping life, and if they meant to strangle the house. Maybe she could find the answers in their wind raked pattern. Flakes whisked down, catching on the still green leaves, lacing the trellises. The vines seemed to shiver. Maggie blinked, feeling foolish.

She decided Benjy’s jaw needed to recover, so she took the kids to town the next day. On the main street, a gaggle of boys sprayed slush over her shoes, as they chortled past on their fat-tired bikes. Maggie sunk her fingers into Benjy’s puffy coat sleeve when his body jackknifed toward the retreating riders.

“Who wants ice cream?” Maggie asked.

Benjy swore and sucked at the red gap in his teeth.

“Don’t talk like that,” Maggie said. She turned an appealing gaze to Becca, who watched two women lean over strollers and wag pointed chins at Maggie. Becca’s eyes turned to flint.

Maggie repeated the offer of ice cream.

“It’s winter,” Becca said.

Their cheeks were apple bright and stinging, the sun too pale and distant to do more than wring water from last night’s icicles.

“Since when do kids turn down sweets?” Maggie asked. But she thought of Becca sipping the tannin dried wine without a pucker to her lips.

Benjy had slipped three doors ahead, close to the corner where the boys lingered with their bikes.

“It’ll be good for his tooth,” Maggie said.

“It won’t grow back.”

But she caught up with her brother and hustled him across the street. The shop was empty, as Maggie had known it would be. The bell above the door muffled by a wilting sprig of mistletoe. A poison and a bane against witches, her sister had whispered on a far-gone winter eve.

The air was sweet and warm, but the ribbons around the proud chocolate nutcrackers looked defeated. A teddy bear cradled a sign in his coco paws declaring the holidays were now for sale, half-off.

Mr. Peters, white haired and weathered, stood behind the counter in his neat pinstriped apron. He looked like a gnarled tree but he bustled about their order without a creak of arthritis. He gave the children extra scoops and Maggie a wink doubled by his round, wire rimmed glasses.

“Trouble with your vines, I hear,” he said.

“Yes,” Maggie smiled tightly. No one talked to her about the vines anymore.

“They’re getting all grown-up,” Mr. Peters nodded at Benjy and Becca, their faces sticky with black cherry and pistachio. They didn’t look grown-up just then, elbowing giggles out of each other.

“You can’t do much about it,” Mr. Peters adjusted his glasses with a fluorescent twinkle. “Except stay on your toes. Vinifera’s tricky.”

“Yes,” Maggie agreed.

“Hard to manage on your own.”

“I manage.”

“And no one ought to say otherwise. You been there six years now, haven’t you?”

“Seven.”

“I ought to be minding my own business.”

A sound like ice cracking on a warm winter day silenced Maggie’s next question. Benjy stood amidst glass shards and rolling gumballs.

“I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “I’ll pay for it.”

Mr. Peters waved a papery hand. “Don’t worry. These things happen.”

Still, Maggie tucked some bills under the memo pad beside the register while the old man went for a broom. Benjy apologized and did his best to help with the mess, but his well-intentioned feet sent the rainbow-colored candy spinning into corners. Maggie felt Mr. Peters was better left on his own. She ushered the children back toward the faded mistletoe.

“I’m sorry, again,” she said, over her shoulder.

“It’s nothing. Don’t let it discourage you,” Mr. Peters chuckled. “Not too late to have one of your own.”

He meant it mildly, so Maggie only shook her head and left.

Later, Maggie stood in her kitchen, twirling a long-stemmed wineglass like a flower she meant to pluck the petals from, while the sun flared away in the west. She could hear the children bickering in the next room. Mixed with the hum of the television, their voices sounded scripted and hollow.

The awful truth was they wore on her. She would be relieved when they returned to their mother and Maggie was left alone with the reaching vines. It wasn’t what she should want. She knew that.

The syrup sweet liquid in her glass smelt of strong sun and ripe flowers. It was the first she had pressed from the unlikely grapes and it made her head light.

She wondered again if she should harvest before winter was through. By spring, the crop might be lost. By summer, the town might find an impassable wall of greenery around the house. But Maggie had shears out in the shed, the metal darkened with age still held its edge, and the next autumn might bring grapes bursting with a finer vintage.

The children had subsided. Maggie would call her sister in the morning, tell her to let Becca go to Paris. The girl would have to see things for herself sooner or later. And if she came home with her dreams scattered, well maybe by then Maggie would be ready for an extra hand about the place.

A coyote darted, russet and ragged at the tree line. The sun stained the sky like spilled wine. And the vines grew.


B. B. GARIN is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. She holds a B.F.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in the online journal Embark. Her chapbook New Songs for Old Radios is available from Wordrunner eChapbooks and she has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She is a current member of the Grub Street Writing Center, where she has developed a series of short fiction pieces, as well as a novel.