DISPATCHES FROM THE WAR By: Adam Peterson
hide in the forest when there are forests, but since the war began there is only the desert. Still all the generals packed us are tree costumes and when we stand atop dunes as mournful maples, both enemies and friends think we are mirages and say we are not real. We lose many men to non-existence. When the complaints are finally heard we receive better costumes. Mailboxes. We stand very still and make the noise mailboxes make when a hot wind blows over them. We make this noise anyway because we are at war and the only other noises at our disposal are [vengeful yell] or [exhausted panting] or [the sound of a machine gun replicated with one’s lips]. If you could turn the noises off and only see our faces when we make them, we would look like we were really excited to see you, like we’d been running all the way across the ocean to see you, like we were going to kiss you a hundred times in under a minute until you fell down dead. We have to make a noise, even when we’re hiding. It’s how we know we’re still alive. Which is why we pretend to be almostsilent mailboxes on windy summer days. This noise causes our enemies to put down their guns and take up their pens. They sit at our feet and write love letters home. The sound they make is scribbling and memory. When they finish, they push the letters to our chests and pick up their guns. Carry these home, they say. Lovelorn, we will, we say. Saying this is part of the hiding. To not just be the mailboxes that exist but the mailboxes we would want to exist. If not to make a perfect world, why else are we fighting this war? There are many reasons, we know, but many times we all agree to be deceived by something less terrifying than the truth. When our enemies are gone, we read their letters. Then we tear them up and chase after them while vengeful yelling their lovers’ pet names. We do this because they are the enemy. We chase them until the dusk grows quiet and we bend to pant and remember. Then we tell each other stories with machine guns in them until we hear the moan of telephone booths. We pick up the receivers and punch in numbers we mouth when falling asleep. The phone booths are better than the ones we remember. They are warm and smell like sweet gunpowder. Remember us, we say. Lovelorn, we will, the telephone booths say. When we hang up, someone chases us while yelling out the things we once loved. And I hope you’re hearing this because if you’re not, then I don’t know who the enemy is or if I can run all the way back to you before they get me. •
We came in vans, convertibles, trucks, and jeeps. We stayed in cabins and tents and the cars we brought with us. We slept outside, under the stars. There were kayaks and canoes and a handful of jetskis. No one asked permission to use anything. No one was ever angry. There were beers in all the coolers and there were coolers everywhere. Naked bodies streaked past the campfires. The sounds of sex and general horseplay decorated the forest. Women and men stretched out topless on endless decks. Legs were placed on shoulders and great bouts of chicken were held. Someone knew whose land it was, whose cabins and docks and jetskis and beers, but that someone wasn’t me. I was there because Jordan’s sister had a friend whose cousin was newly single and looking for a “smart boy who was nice enough to be a virgin, but who wasn’t a virgin, unless she was feeling really desperate.” But I was never introduced to Jordan’s sister’s friend’s cousin. I can’t say for sure if she was even there that weekend. If she was, she’s most certainly dead. When only a few of us were left—when we were gathered by the lake—some of us argued over who had gone first: Claire or Jonathan. I can’t say why it mattered. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Claire had been swimming in the lake and Fred said he saw her bob out of the water, run her hands over the top of her head to smooth her hair, then drop back down. He looked away after a moment, didn’t think much of it, but when he was pushed he said he honestly couldn’t remember seeing her surface. He was just sure she had. Somewhere. We all saw what happened to Jonathan. Jonathan had been tied to a tree. At first it looked like a prank gone wrong. The ropes wore into his wrists, neck, and torso, softly, as if they had been pulled tight over a period of time. After that, we gathered as many people as we could by the ashes of the campfire. No one was looking to blame anyone, Jess said. It was obviously an accident. No one here could have done something like that on purpose. We just needed to know what happened. We needed to start somewhere. But no one came forward. Heidi, Jen, and two blonde boys decided to take a Jeep into town to report the disappearance and the death. The rest of us would stay and make sure no one took off while we awaited the authorities. We blew on the coals of the fire as the Jeep vanished down one of the winding roads that lead out of the forest. Only a few minutes later we heard a crash, an explosion, then a series of faint whistles. Heidi, Jen, and the two blonde boys had taken a turn too sharply and were lost over a cliff that hugged the curving stretch of road. Some of the tougher boys—Roy, Garrison, Clint—went looking and found the Jeep at the cliff’s bottom. It was twenty or thirty feet down, black, streaked across the rocks, and still smoking.
They brought back a cooler they found about forty feet from the crash. It was filled with lunchmeat, bread, and beers. It must have slid out of the Jeep as it fell. We drank because we were all in shock, and it was still the weekend. No one expected us back. We had even fewer obligations than we’d started out with. There were families to notify, calls to make, but the service was weak and the phone lines in the cabins were, of course, disconnected. Ronnie had cell service. He had a special extender for the antenna on his wireless. We ate handfuls of lunchmeat while Ronnie walked toward a clearing, his phone at his ear. I didn’t hear the hiss of the arrow, but I heard it stop. I was just aware suddenly that an arrow had stopped. Then Ronnie, the black phone now pinned to the side of his head, collapsed. Todd said he saw the arrow loosed from a bush to the left of the main cabin. He took off in that direction. We never saw him again. I huddled up at the campfire with six girls: Tasha, Clarisse, another Jen, Abi, Andrea, and Nisi. The fire was hardly a fire. We waved strips of cardboard at it. We blew through our hands. We were all in T-shirts. Twelve erect nipples articulated by heathered cotton. I looked at my feet. The sun was setting. “We’re all going to die,” said Nisi. She was shaking. Some girl I didn’t know held her shoulders. After a few minutes, two boys, David and Michael, demanded that everyone fill the vans so we could head into town together. No one else, they told us, would be lost. We clambered toward the vans in clumps and loose lines. Among us there were cowards and heroes, burnouts and good boys, nice ones and mean ones, sluts, bitches, nerds, and virgins. There were handfuls of the sheepish that would rise to an occasion, the over-sexed, the under-educated, those who were too smart for their own good, and those who had seen all this coming. We had believers, atheists, and those who couldn’t care less. We had a few who were trained in combat, a few who had been in wars, skirmishes, bar fights, and operations, both military and medical. We had doctors in training, philosophers, heavy readers and heavy breathers. We had skinny kids of indeterminate age. We had plenty of all that you could imagine. We gathered in the vans, buckled one another’s belts. Arms went around shoulders. We were together, all of us, and we would survive this. We would make it through and know something more about how fragile life is, how close we are at all times to losing it. We would rise above it, see what we hadn’t seen. Know what we hadn’t known. We introduced ourselves. We held one another. We waited for the sound of the keys in the ignition. We listened closely for a click before the roar of our deliverance. But there was only a click, click, click, then nothing. Some wire
had been cut in each, or torn. Something somewhere was broken or removed. We popped the hood. Pipes had been bent, wires tangled. It was a mess beyond imaginable correction. “God damn it,” bellowed a muscular one named Troy. He pounded the hood of a van with a meaty fist. He threw the beer he’d been drinking against a rock. He shook his thick arms at the sky, slowly. The clouds rolled in. “See,” said Scott, one of the few pious, “now look what he’s done.” Scott led the remaining pious to gather by the water and they prayed as the rain began to fall. The rest of us split into four groups of ten to twenty and took shelter in the cabins. My group consisted mostly of the younger crowd. Jordan was there, but not her sister’s friend’s cousin. Like I said, I never met her. It’s likely she was in the cabin that blew up next. I haven’t seen a list of the names of those in that cabin. We never saw the bodies. The cabin went and we lost some more. That’s all I know. One of the other groups was spooked by the explosion. They ran— one by one—through the front door and into the woods. It was dark. It was raining. Flashes of lightning lit their backs as they vanished. We watched from the windows, but couldn’t see anything after the branches they’d disturbed came to rest. Then we heard the screams. One. Two. Three. Four. On and on. Shrill and uniform. My group huddled closer toward the center of our cabin. We wouldn’t fall prey to the collective anxiety for separation. To go it alone. Although I imagined if I set out into the woods, my chances of survival would just plain be higher. If quiet enough, I might go unnoticed. I could think more quickly, thinking only of myself. I would have the luxury of being able to act without thinking. The risks taken would be entirely my own. After a good amount of arguing and crying from the others, it was determined we could not remain in the cabin. “Look what happened to the others,” insisted Troy. “In here, we’re sitting ducks.” He made a certain kind of sense. We decided to gather by the water, alongside the few pious. We decided to gather stones and sticks, to fashion weapons. We would not start a fire. We would not use our lanterns and headlamps and flashlights. We would be as quiet as possible. We would join the pious and if one or two of us abandoned the weapons and slipped into prayer, the others would understand. We exited the cabin, each of us gripping the waist of another. I held Terri. I asked where she was from. “Texas,” she said. I had this thought that I might like to climb inside her, for warmth, for safety, but that wasn’t the right thing to say, so I said, “Oh. Me too. I am from Texas.”
When we reached the lake we discovered the bodies of the pious strewn about the shore. Some were on their backs, waist deep in the water. Others were face down in the dank puddles where erosion had exposed the roots of the looming trees. Scott was on his back, a few feet from the water, a knife buried deep in his chest. Two women were on either side of him: one blonde, one brunette. They exhibited bruising about the neck. The tip of a tongue rested in the crease of the blonde girl’s lips. They had been split open, the two women. Groin to sternum. Their skin pulled back, organs removed, as if for examination. I could go on and on like this. I could describe it for days. Everyone erupted into argument. A light came on in one of the other cabins. Everything up to this point had happened so quickly that we hadn’t even paused to acknowledge how unlikely it all was, how surreal. The question was never, how could this have happened, but always, what should we do next? But when Terri ran toward that other cabin, its light like a sudden beacon of hope in the darkest night of any of our lives, everything slowed down. Exhausted, I sat amongst the corpses of the pious and watched Terri, my hands still warm with the heat of her waist. She reached the cabin and began to pull at the doorknob. I guess the door was stuck, or the knob wouldn’t turn. She seemed to pull at it forever, yanking and twisting. The others around me were howling and screaming and arguing. Two boys pushed each other. A girl screamed for them to stop. Terri grappled at the knob and pounded at the door. Lightning lit the scene beat after beat. More and more lightning. Darkness punctuated each gesture. A figure moved from the side of the cabin and I began to shout, “Terri!” but she was struck down before I could even finish the warning. Everyone kept arguing and hollering and cursing everything and grasping at the bodies of those around us as the figure hunched over Terri and began to heave. It only lasted a moment. I didn’t see Terri struggle. The figure dragged her into the darkness at the side of the cabin. The cabin lights went out. The rain kept on. Ten or twenty people gave up. Sat down, sank into the mud. Here is what I thought about: The figure looked human-ish. Dark. Like a shadow or something covered in tar. It was bigger than Terri. It seemed strong. It had taken her out with a single blow. Its heaving was like that of an animal, but that did not necessarily mean it wasn’t human. Then Hetti made a speech. She climbed atop a rock near the lake. “There is so much darkness in this world,” she said. “Before this weekend, I just chose to look the other way. I have never seen anything like what I’ve seen tonight. I’ve lost nearly all those near and dear to me. But we are not alone here and we are not completely lost. Gather stones from the beach. Lift high your branches. Tonight, we fight.”
No figure came. No arrow. Hetti merely slipped. The rain ceased and the clouds shifted enough for her fall to be lit by what little moonlight there was. Her legs went up, her neck went down. Then she was still. Several people screamed, one after the other. Several more took off into the woods, never to be seen again. Those who had given up, gave up even more. They sank and bubbled. I stood and tried to look in all directions at once. My eyelids twitched and I rubbed them but that did nothing. I closed my eyes and saw the remaining members of the group in the final cabin slaughtered, one by one. The figure had great strength, an endless supply of blades and power tools. He killed them, one after the other, tortured only a few, hacked through the rest with great speed. He didn’t slow. He didn’t pause. He tore through them like wild fire. He shredded them. Cut them down like blades of grass. He twisted them up like an old rope. He drowned them, cast them into an enormous fire. He liquefied them and poured the liquid into a granite mold. He cracked open the mold with the fingernails of the dead to reveal a goblet glimmering with blood and young hopes and fears and dreams and loves and betrayals. He gathered water from the lake with the goblet and washed his hands and feet with it. I opened my eyes. I felt a hand at my shoulder. It was Lydia, Hetti’s sister. She had tears in her eyes. I felt I should say something. I did not want to climb inside Lydia. I wanted to run from Lydia. She had a rock in one hand, my shoulder in the other. There was blood on her wrists, on her shoulders and chest. People were whimpering, crying, talking. I heard voices coming from all directions. I ran. I ran deep into the woods, deep into the darkness. I kept running and running, supple branches slicing my arms and legs as I went. I was in a bright orange bathing suit with a green drawstring (it looked just like a thick shoelace) and a pair of black flip-flops. They slapped, slung mud as I tried to disappear into the woods. I could hear those who remained screaming from the darkness behind me. I ditched the orange bathing suit. I tried to go invisible. I heard one girl begging, another boy pleading. One protested. Another seemed grateful. I ran from the myriad responses given to the brutal ends delivered upon my peers. I ran with all of my power, all of my strength, with every bit of traction my slipping, sliding footwear could provide. I might not have made it clear to you how beautiful these kids were. Even the ugly ones had something special about them. These were those who would have been loved. They were soul-mate material. The elite. The prepared. The blessed. Each and every one of them was perfect. But I’m the one who survived. I’m the one who made it here. I’m one of only two who set out to do a thing and did it. And that’s all I know. I couldn’t say more.•
CHANGE OVER DAY
By: Caitlin O’Neil
eople on vacation are disgusting. They leave their underwear pooled by the bathtub, cigarette butts floating in halfdrunk beer bottles, long hair the clotting the drains for Claire to fish out. What is with the hair? Does it start falling out when you reach a certain age? She is just getting used to shaving—she only nicks her ankles twice a week now—so hair falling out seems convenient by comparison. But there is so much of it. Only the vacuum extension saves her from retching. She watches it inhale the dark curly hairs sprinkled across the bathmat. Winter people are probably just as gross, she thinks, but we have to clean up our own messes. Saturdays, the change over day, are the worst. People leave in hurry, ransacking the room as if on the run from their real lives. The only good thing is that they sometimes leave something behind. So far: a silver bracelet engraved with a P, a green golf pencil, and the top hat from the Monopoly game. She’s never found any money. The job had sounded almost glamorous when her mother first mentioned it. Anything to avoid weekends on her father’s landscaping truck. She figured she would wear a cute, frilly outfit, do some dusting, and pick up a check. On her first day, she found a used condom twisted in the bed sheets. Thankfully, it’s only parttime, which means the rest of her summer continues as usual. She plays tennis with Maude, who calls her belle sauvage and makes fun of her precision. Before her serve, Claire bounces the ball three times. Never four. Never two. The court is the one place where she stops playing everyone else’s game and starts playing her own—explosive, methodical, unyielding. One more year and her single-minded play might earn her a full ride to college. She likes calling it a ride, as if she is going to a carnival, because the phrase makes her seem less desperate. Without a ride, she may not get anywhere at all. After tennis, she and Maude change into bathing suits and walk to the beach to watch the boys windsurf. Trevor, the one her mother calls Claire’s boyfriend, has taken to surfing in aviator sunglasses with a cigarette drooping from his bottom lip. (Though he brags to the other boys of addiction, Claire’s pretty sure it’s been the same one all summer.) With him by her side, she doesn’t have to explain her life—her job or parents or public school—to any of the summer kids. It has taken years to decode their culture. No one steals beer; bottles leave too much evidence. Vodka and rum disappear, unnoticed, from the liquor cabinet. Boys named Trip are the third of their kind. The Dead are, still, the best. Their schools don’t have grades, but “forms,” as if they are magical creatures who can transform their appearance, which she supposes is true, busy as they are becoming their parents so they can inherit the house, the boat, the family business. Before settling down, boys like Trevor play at being
rebels, smoking joints and dating local girls like Claire, who is ready to take advantage. Her parents certainly aren’t going to help her. They are too busy worrying over certainties—snow will fall, grass will grow, business will be fine—rather than the prospects of their only daughter. Perhaps that’s why they’d put the racket in her hand to begin with. She’d met Trevor on the court—well, she’d met his father, really. Mr. Henry got down late on Saturdays, after his wife and all the other adults had played in the cool of the early morning, when Maude and Claire were the only ones left. Maude recruited her little brother, Owen; though he was only ten had perfected a kind of reverse topspin that made him annoyingly good. After their fourth Saturday match, Mr. Henry took Claire aside and told her she had division-one stuff. He set up a tryout for her at a small private college in the west of the state. “I can tell you’re smart,” he said. But how? Claire wondered. She had hardly spoken to the man. “I do all right.” “You should meet my son, Trevor. He could use a girl like you.” Now it’s nearly September and Trevor’s parents have caught them half-clothed so many times that they’ve run out of places to hide and simply resign themselves to repeated embarrassment. Claire flips off the vacuum with the heel of her sneaker. Today she is on the top floor toward the back. No ocean views or sea breezes. The cheap rooms. They are so cheap that for a while she fanaticized about saving up for a night with Trevor. Impossible. But there is a brief time between check out and check in when the rooms are deserted. Next week, she and Trevor plan to sneak in and lock the door behind them. Then they will be alone, indoors, and what might happen then makes Claire break out in small beads of sweat. She rolls her cart to a stop in front of Room 257, gathers an armful of fresh linens, and uses her keycard to open the door. At first all she sees are legs. Legs entwined with legs. Hairy legs. She hears the soft moaning, and knows she should back out of the room and come back later. But instead she stands with her hand on the door knob and watches Trevor’s father fall in happy relief onto the bed alongside a much younger man who resembles Mrs. Altschuler’s son, Rich, the summer pro at the tennis club. Mostly because he is Mrs. Altschuler’s son, Rich. The room is so dark, and they are so content with each other, they don’t see Claire, which allows her to come to her senses and fly out of the room. Before the door shuts, Mr. Henry looks up at her. Recognition flickers in his eyes as the door slams shut.
Claire stands dumbstruck in the hallway. Mr. Henry isn’t driving down late at all. He is sneaking in here every Saturday to be with Rich. She probably isn’t even that good. She is just a pet project he’s adopted, like one of those sad mangy kittens in the SCAP commercials, to make himself feel less guilty. From around the corner, Mary Fran trucks toward her, elbows pumping, en route to the laundry room. “All done?” she chirps. “Not quite.” “What are you standing around for? “257 is still,” Claire searches her mind for a neutral word, “occupied.” Mary Fran glances over Claire’s cart and motions for her to follow. “Laundry’s full anyway. You can drop it off and come back later.” Claire follows Mary Fran to the washing machines and feeds her sack of dirty sheets and towels inside. By the time she returns to 257, the room is empty. Rick and Mr. Henry have even made the bed. Atop the smooth surface of the white chenille bedspread, there is a crisp $100 bill. The bill lies before her like a proposition. No one has to know. ** Usually, Claire and Maude are the only two people on the courts in the afternoon. They don’t mind the sun or the attention. But when Claire arrives that day, later than usual, there is an older group playing mixed doubles on her and Maude’s usual court, the one farthest from the clubhouse. “Let’s play right beside them,” Maude insists. “That’s our court and they know it.” Claire doubts anyone knows it is their court because no one is ever around to notice, but she nods her agreement because Maude doesn’t have a job—her parents don’t believe in manual labor, they believe in trust funds—and as a result she spends a lot of time waiting for Claire. Maude cracks open a new can of balls and one by one stuffs them up her skirt. Claire runs ahead. As she nears the baseline, she gets a better look at the foursome: Mr. and Mrs. Henry vs. Rich and Susan, the Lovetts’ blonde, blue-eyed daughter. Mr. Henry and Rich are trading volleys at the net until Suzanne sends up a lob over Mr. Henry’s head and Mrs. Henry puts the point away with an overhead at Rich’s feet. Rich cries out and Mrs. Henry high-fives Mr. Henry as the ball sails into Claire’s court. She bends over and cups the ball in her hand, its slight fuzz scratching against her palm. “Oh, hi,” Mrs. Henry gives her lazy three-fingered wave. She wears bright pink lipstick that accrues in the feathery wrinkles around her mouth. “I didn’t see you there.”
“We like to play when no one else is around.” Mrs. Henry turns her fingers on herself, flapping them like a fan. “In this heat?” “We jump in the water after.” For once Claire focuses on Mrs. Henry—who has seen as much of Claire as Trevor—so she won’t have to speak to Mr. Henry or Rich. But Mr. Henry jogs over and gives her a giant grin. “She’s out here all the time. She’s going to be number one on her tennis team next year.” Mr. Henry winks at her. He actually winks. What on earth does that mean? Does he want some sign that she took the money? It’s in her skirt pocket right now. But she hasn’t decided to take it yet. “It’s not for sure,” Claire hedges. “With that serve? You’re a shoe-in.” He all but pats her on the butt and sends her to the locker room. Claire fights the urge, but she can’t help smiling back. She can picture herself on a brick and stone campus in the west of the state, the tennis ball floating through the air against a backdrop of green hills, piles of books that will explain the world that awaits her. Rick calls out from across the court. “Chit-chat won’t get you out of the hole you’re in.” “We’re just picking up some pointers!” Mr. Henry shoots back, through a smile. How can Mrs. Henry not see it? Rich has transformed her husband into a winking, twinkling little boy. “You’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Claire looks to Mrs. Henry, questioning. “We thought we’d celebrate before Trevor leaves for school.” She never issues invitations to Claire; this huffing capitulation is as good as it gets. “Wear something nice,” Mr. Henry says. “We want a picture for posterity.” ** After stuffed quahogs and grilled shrimp, Mr. Henry assembles the family on the front lawn, a lush green (tended to by Claire’s father and her brother, Quinn) and a system of sprinklers that poke their heads up periodically to dispense a restorative mist. Even now, as the sun begins to set, the blades feel damp beneath Claire’s bare feet. Claire, Trevor, his parents, and sister Tenley are assembled for end of summer photos. The women are in khakis, the men in madras, like some rare species of migratory bird. “Smile hard. We’ve got twenty seconds before the flash goes off.” Mr. Henry sets runs from the tripod to stand beside his wife. The sun has set, leaving a trail of pink and purple in the darkening sky. “My face hurts,” Tenley complains. Claire casts a disdainful glance her and the shutter snaps. “Claire moved!”
“We all moved, tattletale,” Trevor spits back. “It takes, like, an hour for that thing to snap.” Trevor tosses the hair out of his eyes and squeezes Claire’s hand as if to say, hang in there. “How many more of these, Dad?” “I want one of you and Claire.” Mr. Henry stands at the tripod with his wife perched beside him. They look like WASP paper dolls. Claire recalls how easy hers would tear. “Say “Whiskey!” Mr. Henry trills. “Why whiskey?” Claire asks Trevor without breaking her faux smile. “It’s a trick to make you smile more naturally,” Mrs. Henry replies with glee. She lace her fingers around her husband’s neck and looks at him with a stunned happiness. She is his Trevor, Claire realizes. Her love allows him to pass. “Say it, Trev.” “Whiskey!” Trevor feigns Disney-level enthusiasm, his white teeth bared. “That’s a good boy.” Mrs. Henry crosses her arms and retreats to the deck to serve dessert. Trevor throws a hand down to help Claire up, and then runs ahead, leaving Claire and Mr. Henry alone on the lawn. “Is that your first job?” His voice floats quietly across the lawn. “Yarsh.” Claire garbles the word. She is unprepared for this conversation. “I worked as a busboy when I was in college. Before law school. Before the firm had my name on it.” He fiddles with the camera as he speaks. “The money was good. Do they pay you well?” “Not really.” She stands before him in the dark, unable to read him. “But we get tips.”
“That’s nice to hear. The world has become a very hard place.” He hoists the tripod over his shoulder like a fishing pole and strides toward the deck. “No one is willing to pay for good help anymore.” The unspoken being: I am willing to pay. I need help. Claire pulls the bill from her pocket and holds it out in the darkness. “I can’t accept this.” Mr. Henry looks back at her. In the dark, all she can see are the hollows of his face, the shadows where his eyes and mouth would be. He nods, closes his hand over the money. The minute the bill leaves her hand, her palm begins to itch she wants it back so badly. But she stops herself. She’s after something more. As Mr. Henry mounts the stairs onto the deck, he stops and turns back to her. “What will you accept?” “I was hoping to play tennis in college.” “Then I guess I’ll see you next Saturday.” ** After dinner, Trevor and Claire walk down to the beach. “Thanks for doing that.” Trevor put his hand in her back pocket. “My dad is so crazy about the camera. He’s been photographing us like crazy all summer, like he’s dying or something.” “Don’t say that. It’s bad luck.” “Well, it’s weird. That’s all I’m saying. He used to barely look at us.” “Maybe he realizes how lucky he is.” On Sunday afternoons, Claire’s mother and father went straight to the beach no matter what the weather and bobbed on the waves like bottles, as the dirt that swirled in their knuckles slipped quietly out to sea. On Sunday nights, her mother grilled fish that they
ate at the redwood picnic table, where the four of them lingered long after sunset, unwilling to let the day go. “My parents would kill for a week’s vacation, let alone two.” “Don’t be such a downer.” Trevor fools with the strap of her sundress. “It’s the truth.” “I don’t care about the truth. I care about getting this off of you.” Trevor slips the strap off, sending goosebumps down her arm. She turns and kisses him. He tells her that likes that she kisses him, not just the other way around. She is braver than any girl he’s known. Still, she isn’t brave enough to reveal what she has seen that afternoon. They walk in silence toward the boathouse, where she will unzip his shorts with her teeth and live up to his ideas about her while she listens for footsteps in the distance. ** The following Saturday, Claire is standing on the bathroom vanity cleaning out the bowl of the overhead light fixture, which some guest has filled with ice and tiny bottles of vodka. Srsly, what do pple do in hotels? she texts Maude, who is already waiting for her at the club. As she’s screwing the fixture back into place, she notices a pair of aviator glasses and a cigarette lighter abandoned on the high windowsill. Curling the flaps over her ears, she forks her fingers into a vee and flicks the lighter before her imaginary cigarette. “Shoulda never let go of that Benjamin.” Benjamins. That’s what Trevor called hundred-dollar bills. He and his friends thought they’d invented a new style of rap, gangtsa prep, which involved knowing rhymes about seeksucker, beemers, and Choate. She’s been feeling strange about what she’d seen, and even worse about not telling Trevor. But as she looks at herself in the mirror she knows he wouldn’t believe her. His world is still too small, though he thinks she is the one who needs tutoring. She’s never even heard of Choate. Tucking the sunglasses and lighter in her apron, she tosses saltwater taffy on the pillows and heads to her last room, the one she’s been avoiding. Claire rolls her cart to a stop in front of Room 257. She’s sliding the key into the doorknob, holding her breath, hoping that Mr. Henry has been smart enough to switch rooms, when Trevor appears at the end of the hall, smiling. He gallops toward her and starts unbuttoning her uniform before she can get the door open. “Sorry I’m late.” Trevor’s mouth makes its way over her shoulder and down her chest. “But we said two o’clock. It’s only eleven,” Claire protests weakly, unable to think clearly with his mouth on her skin. “They’re making me get a suit. It’s college. Who needs a fucking suit?”
“They just want you to look the part.” Claire feels panic rising. Mary Fran could come down the hall at any moment. But who knew what they’d find inside room 257? “Speaking of parts, you never mentioned the maid’s getup.” “I’m a maid. What did you think I wore?” “My imagination failed me.” “You were supposed to come at two.” “I didn’t want to wait. Is that so wrong?” His mouth made its way over her shoulder and down her chest. Claire has no choice. She manages to slide the key in again and sees the green light flashing. Then she opens the door and prays. Again, she hears the soft moaning, sees the naked bodies, watches Mr. Henry turn toward the door as if expecting her. As the door swings closed, he takes in Trevor too, without surprise. There are a dozen run-down hotels up and down the shoreline. Why did he have to come here of all places? But of course it isn’t a coincidence. This is the moment he’s been engineering all summer, the one where Claire becomes the bearer of bad news. “What the fuck was that?” The cigarette that’s been balancing on Trevor’s lip all summer falls to the ground. Claire stalls. She doesn’t know how much he’s seen, or what he’s understood. “That was my dad.” He lunges toward her. “Give me the key.” Claire holds tight to her pass card. If she understands anything about these people, it’s that less is more. “Don’t.” Trevor slams his fist into the wall and spins away from her, down the hallway. “I’m the one who needs a reality check?” He shoves his sunglasses onto his head and stares at the papier mache anchor mounted above him, mumbling. “What?” asks Claire, thinking he is still talking to her. He charges back to spit the words into her mouth. “I should have told him I wasn’t interested in his re-education project.” “In what?” Claire lets herself fall back against the wall. “You.” Claire flinches, as if he has struck her. “Your father made you date me?” “Made me? He paid me. Why else would I ?” Because I’m different, thinks Claire. While he is still close, she slings an arm around his neck and kisses him, feeling the small hard muscles pulse the way they do after she’s torqued a winning serve. He pushes her away, wiping her off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t like it when you kiss me. I never did.” Trevor stands before the door of Room 257 and raises his fist as if to knock, but instead runs down the hallway, away from his father, away from Claire, toward his life of suits and certainty.
When he is gone, she bends down to collect the cigarette, crumpled at the filter and still moist from his mouth. Then she walks to the laundry room and feeds her sack of dirty sheets and towels inside. The linens curl around each other like Mr. Henry and Rich, indistinguishable. Claire wishes she, too, could disappear. When she returns, room 257 is empty. Atop the bedspread, there is another crisp $100 bill. This time, Claire slips it into her pocket. And she realizes how she is different. She will take the money and grateful. But she won’t be happy. The chance for a tryout is gone. Her ride, over. She opens the slider overlooking the parking lot and takes Trevor’s cigarette from her pocket. She can feel the groove where it rested on his lip, she can feel his lips on hers. She pulls out the found lighter and smokes away their last connection. At the edge of the parking lot, the peg-board sign is already fitted with a farewell message: See you next year! The assumption of return for everyone who came. But what if you never leave? Claire wonders. She is praised for being steady on the court. That’s what everyone wants to see. Consistency, repetition, return. But it’s a game; she knows this better than anyone. You have to play the part people expect of you. Reality, she thinks, is what goes on behind the scenes, in rooms like this one, where love is stolen when no one else is looking, where people leave evidence of their desire. •
TIME & TEMP.
n the town where I grew up there was a number you could call that gave you the time and the temperature and the date of your mother’s death. If your mother was already dead, it gave you an apology then a coupon code for 10 percent off an oil change. Every day I called at 10:04 a.m. when it was 61 degrees and every day my coupon code was Sweetums which was what my mother had called me before kissing me goodnight. When I was old enough to drive, I took our station wagon to the mechanic who sponsored the number. I did this even though my father told me not to. I did this even though no one had driven it since my mother left it behind. There was a line of cars all the way down the street, all of them station wagons or minivans or sporty post-divorce convertibles. I idled in the orphan parade. When my turn came, I pulled inside the dark tunnel of the garage, and it was my mother who knocked on my window with a grease-covered fist. Or maybe not her. She looked the same, but when she took the keys from my hand, I saw a dragon tattoo on her forearm. She spit black tobacco juice into a yellow bucket. My mother did not have a dragon tattoo. She had a flower tattoo and hated the color yellow. Mom? I said. Is it really you? She replied, Baby, you’re going to want synthetic oil for the winter. When I got home, I told my father. He was making spaghetti, and started to laugh so hard that he almost dropped the jar of sauce. Don’t you know they’re only trying to sell you a set of whitewalls? he said. This did not sound like my mother, but really I only knew how my mother sounded when she said happy birthday or sang lullabies. My mother had not sung as she changed my oil, but she did beatbox a little, thumping and hissing while someone else’s mother, elbows deep in a Ford, rapped about a gang sh sooting. When I went back to the garage, I brought all of my savings, enough for three whitewalls. The fourth my mother said she’d give me for free as long as I didn’t tell my father. She actually said don’t tell the manager, but I was done listening and I was done talking. Before I left home I’d pulled the phone from the wall. It shouldn’t take long, she said. You can wait in the office. There’s coffee and a few pornos in there, Sweetums. In the town where I grew up there was a line you could call that told you everything except how it would feel to know. •
The doctor suck ed on his uppe r lip as he worke said. Mark and d. “That explai the doctor look ns that,” he ed into the met a lump of bloo al pan together dy tissue rested , in which , plain as the af anesthe- tized ternoon, free fr shoulder. om Mark’s “I don’t see it,” Mark said. “There it is,” sa id the doctor. Mark leaned in closer. The tissu ribbon of dark e was perforated er stuff. by white flecks and a “There’s a near ly functional en docrine system up a tag of flesh here.” The doct with his blade. or ticked “Explains the sw right there. And ings. There’s a look,” he said, little heart, raising his elbo sion, coming aw w and leaning ay with one of in for precithe white fleck “A tooth,” Mark s. He held it up to said. the light. The doctor clap ped Mark on th resorption. Nev e back. “After al er thought I’d l that, a goddam see one outsid ned gentle shake, re e a book.” He ga vealing a ribcag ve th e e as pan a de “Can I keep it? licate as a bird ” Mark asked. ’s. “Her,” said the doctor, snappi ng off his surgic cally, the develo al glove. “I mea pment process. n, techniI’ll get you a ja r.”
** Mark tried buckling the jar into the passenger seat but it slipped against the belt and fell over. It was unsecure in the glove compartment, too loose against the car care manuals, and so he held it between his legs as he drove, the glass snug against his jeans’ crotch. At home, he placed it on his mantle. The doctor had filled the jar with a fluid which suspended the mass without dissolving it. Observing the contents, Mark was reminded of a time he went fishing and found himself sitting close to a slop bucket of fins and eyes. He called his mother. “When you were pregnant with me, did the doctor say that you were going to have twins?” he asked. “Of all the items you could have addressed,” his mother said, and hung up. Though he was proud of it, he didn’t want to display the jar on the mantle like a trophy buck. Instead, he placed it on the windowsill in his kitchen. On fine mornings he enjoyed standing at this window and observing the sparrows on the rail, and now he had a companion. The afternoon sunlight caught the curves of glass and sent an array of soft light through the jar and into the room. The contents of the jar became beautiful in the light. It seemed incorrect to leave the contents unnamed, as a mass of tissue or a fetus, but equally incorrect to give
By: Amelia Gray
the contents a kind of birth name, for they had not been born in any traditional sense. “But you were birthed,” Mark said. “I birthed you, and you came to include a jar and an amount of fluid. And so I will call all of you Katherine, after my mother.” The cloudy fluid revealed a section of spinal cord floating like a salt-stained twig. Outside, one of the sparrows flung itself into the snow and died. ** The winter light was kind to Katherine, but the warmth of spring was too aggressive on her delicate fluids. Mark touched her one morning and found she was warm indeed, enough to be dangerous, and so he moved her to his bedside table. She was in good company there, alongside his favorite books and that sweet sparrow he had taken immediately to be preserved, wings spread, tipped slightly groundward in the spirit of its final flight. The spar- row’s body, elevated on a copper pike, served as a protector of Katherine. Mark read to Katherine and the sparrow from one of his favorite books before bed. “The poet arrived and regarded the project,” he said. “He wrote something on a scroll and tucked it behind the piano, which had just been delivered on a boat. After he left, a woman dug out the scroll.” The sparrow’s push-pin eyes followed along with the words. “You go ahead,” Mark said. The sparrow was silent for a moment and then spoke, saying: “Raise high the cathedral walls with oak and pine. Make a wooden church that becomes an ark when turned. Load the ark with men and women and set it to sail. Paint our city in blue and yellow. Paint it to greet the sun and sky, paint it to greet the bay.” “Very good,” Mark said. “Very, very good.” Mark ran his finger gently along the bird’s head. Katherine glowed with pride and fluid. Theirs was the happy family Mark had wanted for five or six days at least. ** Mark’s mother arrived with the monthly fund. “Katherine, look who’s here,” he said. “You break my heart every time you open your mouth,” his mother said. “Well well,” he said. “Well well well well well.” “I wish you would take your medicine,” she said. “It is trying to kill you. I hate you and I wake up every morning wishing you were dead.” The woman lifted a plastic grocery bag which was of course bulging, as they do. It was not a safe environment, and Katherine right there on the bedside table. Mark opened a dresser drawer and tossed its contents at the woman’s feet. She trumpeted, the material of her bag grotesque and pooling on the floor beneath. A dark fog seeped in under the front door, confounding Mark and the sparrow alike. When the woman was blinded by the fog, Mark pulled off his sweatshirt and wrapped it around Katherine. “I’m straight on,” he said. “I’m straight as a go-dam row.” The fog rose like the tide and he gagged in it, finding the woman had become a central part of the fog, that it steamed from her. She went into his body by his mouth and completed a procedure. Mark held tight to
Katherine in her sweatshirt. The cushion had also become Katherine due to principles of matter and transference. “Obviously,” said Mark, sucking the top three layers of fog into his mouth and holding them there. And the sparrow tipped its head above the fog and found its way anew and the sparrow spake, saying: “Once the rhythm is maintained, nothing can pull the orbit askew. We look to Katherine, soft within soft. Katherine, heart aloft, legs tapered reeds. Reigning queen of our bedroom universe. Matriarch and maiden in one, body within body, sourced and pulled free from the whole. Take care to maintain and sustain this tide. Take care!” ** Mark’s field of vision glowed amber. He came back to find Katherine pressed against his face, her cushion part wrapped protectively around him. He placed her behind him on the bed to examine the area for danger. Hazards of fog sulked around the corners of the room but the woman was gone. “Good God, we made it,” he said. “We went into it together and came out alive.” The bed held Katherine so safely, a raft on silent water, and Mark saw that she had grown to include the bed as well. He was upset to find that the sparrow on its perch had toppled over in the excitement and landed without ceremony on the floor, the bird’s brown feathers gathering sticky dust. It wasn’t right. Mark scooped the bird up and placed it outside, wooden base resting on the porch rail, the bird itself permanent and a few inches higher than its old neighbors. Katherine floated massive in the room. Mark sat cross-legged beside her on the floor. “Fine then,” he said, resting his head. She was already seeping down into the planks and spreading across the floor, broadening strong along the wood and becoming the lamps and books, the walls, the door. •
Published on Dec 9, 2013