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stork FALL

2017

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VOLUME

24


stork fall

2017

¡

volume

24


Stork Magazine is a fiction journal published by undergraduate students at Emerson College. Initial submissions are workshopped and discussed with the authors, and stories are accepted based on the quality of the author’s revisions. The process is designed to guide writers through rewriting and provide authors and staff members editorial support and an understanding of the editorial and publishing process. Stork is founded on the idea of communication between writers and editors—not a simple letter of rejection or acceptance. We accept submissions from undergraduate and graduate Emerson students in any department. Work may be submitted at stork.submittable.com during specific submission periods. Stories should be in 12-point type, double-spaced, and must not exceed 4 pages for the “short shorts” issue or 30 pages for the long issue. Authors retain all rights upon publication. For questions about submissions, email storkstory@gmail.com Stork accepts staff applications at the beginning of each fall semester. We are looking for undergraduate students who are well-read in contemporary fiction and have a good understanding of the short story form. Copyright © 2017 Stork Magazine Cover design by Bella Bennett Printed and bound by Shawmut Printing, Danvers, MA


MASTHEAD Editors-in-Chief Kayla Cottingham Allison Rassmann Managing Editors Colleen Risavy Jessica Pressman Prose Editors Abby Visco Isabel Stewart Micaela Pryor Megan Michaud Head Copy Editor Lauren Lopez Assistant Copy Editor Olivia Martinson

Faculty Advisor John Skoyles Head Designer Bella Bennett Design Assistant Francisco Guglielmino Readers Abby Hibbard Courtney Meunier Edna Lopez-Rodriguez Gabriella Saavedra Hannah Kelly Ian Stock Isabel Filippone Lauren Lopez Olivia Martinson Samantha Wiener


LETTERS FROM This is a year of change at Emerson. As you walk through campus, threading your way through the construction sites and renovations, everything seems new: from the dorms at Hemenway and 52 Boylston, to the sleek, modern Dining Center, even down to the soft serve machine hidden in Paramount Cafe which gave away free ice cream until its death in mid-November. (May it rest in peace.) Though it’s hard to remember at times, Stork is still a relatively young magazine--only twelve years old. Founded as Emerson’s first and only strictly fiction magazine, Stork has a habit of always asking, what’s next? We are unafraid to bask in the new. Our intensive collaborative editing process means we always see new versions of our submissions before they’re accepted, and are sometimes even edited a second time after that. And this year, we’re publishing four new authors never before published in print. We’re delighted to give the stage to authors who aren’t afraid to go for the unexplored, including the crisis in Puerto Rico; a neighborhood lost in transition; a childhood game with serious consequences; and a couple who bury their secrets along with the bodies in the garden. Each story is as unique as it is memorable. Like our campus itself, though they may be new, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Allison Rassmann


THE EDITORS Welcome to Stork 24. In this collection, you’ll find honest, vibrant, brilliantly crafted storytelling from some of the most talented writers at Emerson College. After working for Stork for three and a half years, I can honestly say this might be my favorite issue yet. In fall of 2014, Stork hired me as a copyeditor. I missed my very first meeting because I napped through it. I spent the entire first semester quietly in the back of the room, afraid to speak. Worst of all, I didn’t even know how to copyedit. Thankfully, none of that lasted. I’m now the longest-standing current member of Stork and extremely grateful to be one of two Editors-in-Chief. I’ve seen entire teams of gifted people join and graduate, and their past work is the foundation Stork 24 stands on. I am so incredibly proud of the stories in this issue, and of the writers who worked with us on short deadlines and still managed to pull it together. I also want to acknowledge my mind-blowingly intelligent, funny, and kind staff. I’d like to give specific shout-outs to Jess and Colleen for being fantastic managing editors. My co-EIC Allison deserves an award for her stellar leadership during stressful times. To John Skoyles for his enduring support. Designers Francisco and Bella, you make it easy to judge this book by its cover. And, finally, to prose editor extraordinaire Abby Visco: you’re the Lim to my son. It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Stork, all these amazing folks, and every synonym for “great” I used in this letter. Keep doing what you do, because it’s marvelous. Kayla Cottingham


CONTENTS

11 19 31 45

The Vultures Circle By Cassandra Martinez Illustration by Francisco Guglielmino Choking Game By Micaela Pryor Illustration by Francisco Guglielmino Man Hunt By Lauren Lopez Illustration by Kayla Cottingham The Inside of a Skull By Sophie Lynch Illustration by Kayla Cottingham


THE VULTURES CIRCLE

by Cassandra Martinez Illustration by Francisco Guglielmino

The storm of the night before had littered the yard with shredded palm leaves, acerolas thrown across the grass and stone like rubies scattered in the sand of a pirate king’s lair, something out of one of the stories that our abuela used to tell me when I was young. My sister, Luciana, was still young enough for such tales. I watched her pick across the yard like she was discovering the world all over, her hands held softly out to either side of her, a creature poised for flight. I tried to step around the fallen red fruit as I made my way through the yard, my fingers coated in dirt as I collected leaves as if to make an oering for Palm Sunday mass. I was surprised by the size of some of the fallen branches: they seemed too much for a single tree to lose. Luckily, the rejas on our house had prevented any of the debris from shattering the glass. Hours after the storm had finally ended, I had already swept the patio clean and picked leaves from the twisted bars of iron on the windows, though I had given up on the task, branches of the acerola tree nearly collapsing onto the faded yellow walls of our house. My friend Marisol had texted me 12


that morning saying that her cousin’s house just outside of Ponce had an entire tree fall through the roof. “At least we’ll have off from school for a few days,” I’d answered after the appropriate, “I’m sorry.” Mama and Dada had gone to get our abuelos, who had lost power in their own house. They’d left us to the task of recovery with the promise of mofongo for dinner. They’d only just left and we had only just begun our afternoon when Luciana made the discovery. She called my name across the yard in a panic, staring at a spot on the ground. When I reached her, it took me a minute to see what had caught her eye amongst the torn leaves and the bright, bleeding acerolas. A flash of yellow in the myriad of split colors, framed in black and scarcely moving. A small bird, just a collection of black, gold, and grey feathers; its beak opening and closing ever so slightly, thrown from its nest by the force of the storm and left on the ground, rendered flightless long enough for an army of red ants to launch its attack. “The ants are eating it!” Luciana cried out to me. “They’re eating it!” She’d been immobile, rooted as a tree in shock. Then she darted down, breaking her moment of stillness, a pebble thrown into a body of water rippling after inertia. I swatted at her. “Don’t touch that thing, loca.” “The ants are eating it!” “I know.” “Is it dead?” I didn’t know how to respond to her pleading tones, her eyes welling with tears already. I would have left it if it wasn’t for her. There were people with flooded houses and half of Puerto Rico didn’t have power and she was crying about a bird. But she was crying, so with a huff I made up my mind, snapping at her not to touch the bird before crossing the yard hastily and disappearing into the house. 13


“Where are you going?” Luciana called after me as I went into the bathroom, grabbing a ratty towel from the top shelf of the closet and pivoting back. “What are you doing?” she asked when I came back, hovering anxiously by my shoulder as I crouched down in the corner of the yard and spread the towel between my hands. I thought better of it, draped the towel over my arm, and used a broken leaf to brush away the angry ants off the bird as best as I could until all that remained were matted feathers. Readjusting myself on my haunches, I spread the towel again, took a breath, and then as gently as I could, I lifted the bird into my hands, wincing as I felt an ant bite my ankle. “Careful!” Luciana said as I stood up, and I tried not to glare at her. I crossed quickly to our patio, my sister trailing like a shadow. Out of the reach of the ants, I came to a halt and finally looked down to see what I held. I could have dropped my hands and forsaken the bird, forgetting I held it for how light it was, the towel more weight than the creature itself. Yet, as I took in the ragged little feathers—the brushstrokes of where black warmed into golden yellow, almost green on the chest, little muddied paths of white beneath the wings and creating a mask on its face—I could feel the beating of its heart, or so I thought. “It’s so small,” said Luciana, like it was a miracle. I didn’t tell her that spindalis usually don’t get any bigger than this. “Is she going to be okay? She can’t die.” I don’t know how Luciana managed to speak in such a pleading tone and yet with such resilience. Her fairytales had taught her that anything could live if it was loved enough. The storm had ended in the early hours of the morning, and when the sunlight had broken through the soft, honey 14


planks of the blinds of my bedroom, I couldn’t decide which seemed more the dream—the tempest of the night before or the reemergence of the sun. I assumed the bird had been thrown to the earth when the storm had taken it and carelessly tossed it like child’s play. Or maybe the bird had been injured, and had fallen out of the sky all itself. As my sister pressed close and marveled at the bird, I could hear cawing and looked up at the washed-out sky to see vultures beginning to circle. I knew they could not see what it was that I held but I felt myself grow rigid all the same. “Luciana, take the bird,” I said, transferring the creature into her outstretched, anxious hands. “Stay here. Mama will kill us if we bring it inside.” “Where are you going?” I went into the house without answer, not bothering to wipe the mud from my shoes as I crossed to the bathroom and rummaged through the drawers—past baptism trinkets, old retainers, empty bottles of perfume I’d stolen from our abuela—until I found the syringe they’d given me after I had my wisdom teeth taken out. I had a half-formed plan, the scarcest idea of what I could do, what could save the creature held gingerly in my sister’s hands. Spidalis ate fruit—I’d seen them flutter about the yard before. Our father had made himself a smoothie yesterday: mango, banana, some parcha, I think. I wondered for a moment when our parents and abuelos would be getting home; they wouldn’t approve of the saga unfolding in the yard. Our abuelo used to tell us about how growing up en el campo he had watched his father and uncle break the necks of chickens before telling him to pluck them for dinner. Luciana gave me a confused look when I reentered the yard with the leftover smoothie in one hand and the syringe in the other. 15


“Luci, we’re gonna try to feed the bird,” I said, dropping to my knees beside her. “You have to be very careful and you can’t push it out too fast or the bird might choke.” I took some of the smoothie into the syringe and handed it to my sister, who accepted it with both hands. I pushed her forward and watched as she slowly, with more gentleness than I ever could have managed, angled the tip of the syringe into the bird’s mouth and pushed down on the top, the pale yellow liquid trickling into its open beak. The bird hadn’t eaten in hours, in all the time that it had been helpless on the ground, and I thought some nutrients would help. But as my sister continued to nurse the bird, its glassy black eyes would blink, its grey-into-gold chest rising and falling slightly. I had no idea if we were performing a miracle or murder. My knees began to ache and I could see the strain in my sister’s eyes, the grim line of her mouth as the sun moved across the sky. Luciana would have been with the bird until the end, but her tears told me she was growing tired of watching it struggle, and I didn’t want to tell her it was dying. “I think they’re home,” I said when lights went on in the house. Luciana tore her eyes away from the bird. “Do you think abuelo will take us out for mallorcas tomorrow?” Luci asked, and I knew: it was her surrender. Hunger had won; the promise of something sweet won over the decay. “Go eat something,” I said, “I’ll take the bird. Don’t tell them though, Luci.” Luciana disappeared inside and I stayed with the bird, staring at her. I caught the detailed paintbrush strokes of her ocher feathers, the white lines on her face, all dripping into a blazon of yellow and grey. Her beak was cracked, I realized. She was beautiful, despite the mud and torn feathers. 16


But she was dying. The light in the garden had shifted from washed-out bright to molten gold, long shadows cast across the wreckage we had forgotten. The coquis were beginning to oer up a solitary chirp or two, and overhead, I could hear the cawing of other birds. I looked up to the pink-streaked sky and caught a glimpse of two sparrows, chasing one another, diving in and out of flight. And beyond them, the vultures still. I knew it was silly, but I felt like they were waiting. Even if the bird did live, the sparrows were a reminder that she would not fly, not with her twisted and matted wings. She was earthbound while every atom in her would ask of her the one thing she would never do, a crime against nature. Last night, we had peered through our windows, watching the storm like tourists on our own island, our house protected and reinforced while we forgot that even in our own yard, this storm could be killing something. We were so fascinated by that force. We were enthralled by something that could take such beauty and life and rip a tear into the earth, the trees and flowers ragged at their edges. We had been suering a drought, and here came God to answer the prayers with a tropical storm. We passed tsunami zone signs every day, the beaches are eroding away, and yet I had never seen true destruction. I sat in our yard, staring at the havoc, the little bird in my hands so light, like air, but an anchor as well, its polished black beak opening and closing with such terrible tribulation. I trembled to hold something so fragile in my hands. I wondered if this was what God felt like. Gently, I took a finger and ran it from her beak to her back, and her eyes closing as I did so. I could feel myself shaking, listening to the life around me as I held something dying. I had seen my uncle do it once, and at the table he had given a blessing, thanking God for his abundance, the life 17


that was given to sustain us. I knelt into the ground, forgetting the ants; I prayed that I could do it just as swiftly. The towel in my lap, I gently took the bird’s head between my fingers, her body in my other hand. I could feel her warmth fading. I could feel life, gentle and fleeting in my hands before I took a deep breath, fastened my hold, and broke her neck. Luci cried when I told her that the bird had died in my arms. I went to bed without eating that night and opened my window, the cool breeze coming in, rustling my hair, the coquís in full chorus. I leaned my head against the sill, staring at the patch of yard where I had buried the bird that I had killed. I told myself it was a mercy. She would not have lived. She was flightless. It was a mercy. Eventually Luci forgot the bird and continued to play in the yard, watching the sparrows dance in the air. My grandparents stayed with us for almost a month, waiting for power, and my friend Marisol’s cousin’s house took even longer to repair. That summer, my uncle broke the neck of another chicken for dinner and I devoured the meal in full. The vultures still circle.

18


CHOKING GAME

by Micaela Pryor Illustration by Francisco Guglielmino

The first week of the heatwave saw the end of many windowsill plants and flowerbeds. Old cars overheated in their driveways. Rabbits died and rotted at the sides of the road. In the second week it killed the air conditioners at Golden Hills Middle School, and there was no choice but to send everyone home at lunch. As kids called their parents to pick them up, Tay made her way out the back gate and through the open field behind the gym. Kicked-up dirt clung to the open scrapes on her knuckles; sweat gathered at her neck and soaked her shirt under her backpack. She followed the dusty footpath home, stopping every so often to pull out the foxtails that dug into her socks. Tay’s house sat on a hill dwarfed by two oak trees choked with browning mistletoe. The stucco had been white at one point, but the dust storms that blew through every summer had given it a lasting coat of yellow. Inside it smelled of sweat and old blankets, the air only marginally cooler than outside. Peeling her socks o at the door, Tay cooled her feet on the sticky entryway linoleum. In the living room, she switched on the swamp cooler near the TV, and sat cross-legged in 20


front of it. The rush of air dried her damp hair, and she closed her eyes against it. After a minute she heard a door behind her open and, turning around, saw her father leave his room, bleary eyed and yawning. He stretched his arms up, revealing the holes in the armpits of his white sleeping shirt. Locking eyes with Tay across the room, he stopped mid-stretch. “Why aren’t you at school?” “They let us out early because of the heat. AC’s busted.” “Oh.” He frowned and scratched his head. “Alright then.” They watched each other for another moment, silent. Tay rubbed her knees, and her father’s eyes fell to the shining, dirty cuts on her hand. “Where’d those come from?” “Game at school.” Tay blew on her knuckles to speed up their scabbing. The sting was satisfying, like the ache in your legs after winning a footrace. The pain implied victory. Letting out another yawn, her father shuffled to the adjacent kitchen and turned on the coffee maker. “A game. Like kickball?” “No.” “Well, put a Band-Aid on ’em if they hurt, I guess.” She watched him pull the can of Folgers from a crowded cabinet while the current blew hair across her face. He grabbed a mug from the pile of dishes in the sink. As the water heated up he tossed a frozen burrito on a plate and started the microwave. Leaning against the counter, he watched the pot with half-closed eyes until he noticed her staring and shifted uncomfortably. “What?” “Can you take me to the lake?” “It’s not a long walk there,” he said, turning his back to her. He poured a hefty scoop of crystals into the mug and placed the lid back on the can. 21


“Not a long drive either.” He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t much feel like driving right now.” “But it’s hot.” She flopped onto her back, arms splayed. “And I’m bored.” “I work all night long, Taylor.” He moved to the stove and turned up the heat. “I am tired as all hell. If you want to go to the lake, then go. Not my job to entertain you.” He placed the can in the cabinet and went back to watching the water boil. “Fine.” Tay stood up and went to her room to find her flip flops. She kicked around the clothes and chip bags that layered the bedroom floor, looked under the bed and at the back of the closet. More of a converted office, her room had no windows and was always particularly sweltering. The search left her sweaty and breathless. Finally she came across them, tucked behind the desk under a ragged hoodie. “Watch me get bit by a snake before I get there,” she said, marching to the door. Her father was already posted on the loveseat, breakfast in hand and TV on. “Bye,” Tay called as she closed the front door behind her. The TV turned up. The walk to Brite Lake would take twenty minutes, less if she took the downhill parts at a run, but even walking downhill was a chore. The dry air chapped her lips and weighed down her lungs. She spat out the mucus that made her mouth taste like metal, flip flops kicking up dust in her wake. Nearing the lake, the landscape changed. The footpath stopped at the sidewalk that led to the lakeside neighborhood. Houses were a little closer together, the lawns nearly as green as the golf course another few miles off. Trees bunched up where the houses didn’t, cooling the pavement and providing shade for passersby. 22


The lake itself was more of a wide pond dotted with a few tiny islands. Anyone tall enough and unperturbed by the feeling of scum and duck excrement under their feet could walk from island to island without issue. Lake or not, the water took the stiff air and filtered it into light, breathable breezes. Little kids splashed at the shore, throwing wads of scummy mud at each other and shrieking. Women in khaki capris and bejeweled sandals sat at picnic tables, talking with their hands. Tay noticed a circle of boys sitting on one of the creaking wooden docks. Walking closer, she saw a coin being spun in the center of the circle. The game was familiar, one that usually managed to bloody her hands. Everyone took turns flicking a quarter to keep it spinning. A boy with curly hair caused the quarter to wobble and fall flat. He dutifully pressed his already-split knuckles to the wood, ready for someone to smack the ridged edge of the coin into them. Tay headed to the dock, eager at the prospect of a good game. Tay wasn’t one for friends at school, but there was no shortage of competitors. The best games were tests of pain and endurance. Pile salt in your hand and hold an ice cube until the burning wins out. Take turns slapping each other’s bare stomachs until someone yells mercy. Rub an eraser against the back of your hand to see who draws blood first. Tay and other sixth and seventh graders would huddle on the blacktop to play, and walk to class with trophies on their skin. She preferred the games that left a mark; they were more likely to provoke a reaction. The first time she played the eraser game, her science teacher noticed the raw patch and sent home a warning note that her father ignored. Tay kept at it, goading other kids into erasing their skin for fun. Infections ran rampant, and 23


the school board had to send out a letter urging parents to check their children’s hands and discourage such behavior. Tay still came home with sliced and bleeding knuckles. The games never got less popular, only more creative. The dock bobbed under her weight, the sides, slick with algae, emerging and disappearing into the green water. The hunched heads looked up and Tay felt she’d made a mistake. There were five boys in the circle, four of whom she vaguely knew were a grade above her. She was sure she’d won a salt and ice game against the curly-haired one at some point. The fifth she knew was Dominic, an eighth grader known for dying his hair fire engine red and frequently yelling at teachers. Eighth graders didn’t have the same breaks, so she’d never played against him, but she knew he was very good. He glared as she approached. “What do you want, kid?” “To play,” Tay replied, steeling herself. No point in going back now. “Gonna cry if you lose, little girl?” Dominic snickered, but edged away to give her a spot in the circle. Grease shone in his bloody hair. “I don’t cry.” She sat and stared him down. “And you know, you’re only two years older than me.” “Yeah, so?” “So I can still beat you easy. Let’s go.” “Oooh, little tough lady,” he said, nudging the boy to his left, who picked up the taunt briefly, grabbing the quarter from the center. He spun the coin and the game recommenced. They played long enough to break skin on a few knuckles. Tay halted its rotation a few times with careless flicks. The punishment stung, but she refused to flinch as the cuts from school were reopened. Her shoulders cooked in the relentless sun. 24


“Let’s do something else,” Dominic said, standing as he placed the quarter into his pocket. “Ever play the choking game?” Tay stood to meet his eyeline, coming up an inch short. “What’s the rules?” “There’s this spot on your neck that, if you press down on it, you can’t breathe at all.” Dominic demonstrated, putting his thumb to a soft, hollow point at the base of his throat. “That’s not a game,” Tay said, “that’s just not breathing.” “It is if it’s a competition, dumbass. No cheating, either, since you can’t breathe through your nose.” Tay felt around her neck for the spot he’d pointed out. “No, here.” Dominic jabbed a finger just under hers and gave a shark toothed grin when she coughed. “Don’t touch me, asshole.” The other boys gave a mocking ooooooh as she repositioned her thumb. She glared at Dominic. “Loser gets pushed in.” His teeth shone as he placed his thumb at the choking point. “Three, two, one.” Tay pressed down hard and felt her windpipe shut. She fought the immediate urge to gasp for air, feeling her pulse thrum against the pressure. The rest of the group watched, making remarks under their breath. The dock bobbed slowly underneath them as the blood began to pound in her ears. Dominic’s face reddened, but the smug look remained. The seconds ticked by. Tay bit her lip to concentrate, insisting to her body that she did not need to breathe right now. An ache spread out from her lungs and climbed its way through her limbs. Another second and he would crack, she just had to hold out for another second. But instinct kicked in, and she released the grip on her throat, needing the air blowing off the lake. It came through thin, not enough, like breathing through heavy cloth. Tay 25


gagged and faltered to the side, the corners of her vision going red for a moment before her foot slipped against the slime at the dock’s edge. The world was sideways, and then the world was water. Tay gasped on impact, swallowing thick and grimy water. She flailed to right herself, to find a direction to swim, but every direction just looked like more green. She coughed involuntarily, inhaling another bout of lake that burned on its way down. A hand hit air for a moment, then smacked against wood. She strained and pushed upward until her head broke the surface. Hands grabbed at her shoulders and arms, trying in vain to lift her onto the dock. Clawing at the planks, she heaved herself up out of the lake. On her hands and knees, desperate for a breath, she convulsed and vomited onto the wood “Nasty!” she heard a boy shout. They jumped back from her as she continued to retch. Lungs, throat, nose—it all burned as she took in heaving breaths, trying to steady herself and refusing to cry. She spat and stayed down, her lungs greedy for air. A moment later she heard sandaled feet slapping down the dock. She looked up to see a woman with khaki capris and pink sparkling sandals approach, her short sandy hair contained in an immaculate white visor. Dominic ran close behind, looking horrified. “Sweetie, are you alright? What happened?” The woman took Tay’s wrist and arm in a firm grip and hoisted her up. “M’fine.” Tay stood on shaky legs to look her in the eye. “Just fell.” “Honey, you look a mess.” The woman put a hand on her shoulder. “Where’s your mom?” “Dad’s at home.” Tay tried to shrug the hand off, but the woman seemed adamant. “I’m fine. I can walk.” 26


“Oh no, no, I can take you home, sweetie.” Tay felt herself being guided to the shore, the arm now wrapped around both her shoulders. “C’mon Dom, we’re giving this young lady a ride.” Tay found herself being ushered to the small parking lot and into a shiny black SUV, Dominic trailing behind. She climbed into the backseat, still shaking and dumbfounded. Dominic got in at the other side and clicked on his seatbelt. The two sat with stiff backs, pointedly staring out their respective windows. The car smelled like hot leather and vanilla air freshener. Tay felt terrible to taint it with the lake water smell that stuck to her clothes and hair. Dominic’s mother started the car with a push of a button, and the AC blasted from every angle. “Just give me a few directions, honey. I know my way around.” Tay shifted against the leather, smearing dampness on the seat and headrest. “Um, I’m out on Comanche Point, up the hill.” A dozen warnings flashed in her head. Never tell a stranger where you live; don’t get into other people’s cars. Dominic’s mother smiled at her through the rearview mirror. “Oh, I know where that is. The little house with the two big trees?” Tay nodded and leaned back as the car pulled out of the parking lot and away from the lake. Trees and houses passed by through the tinted windows. Another coughing fit seized her chest, and with every hack she tasted algae. Dominic jumped and started to reach a hand out, his eyes darting to the driver’s seat nervously. “You okay, hon?” Dominic’s mother called back. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Tay sucked in a long breath. “Just got some water in me.” “Dom said you took a little tumble in the lake. Must’ve been kinda scary.” She smiled through the mir27


ror again. “But you seem like a tough girl. What’s your name, sweetie?” “Taylor,” she said, glancing over at Dominic. She met his eye briefly before he jerked his hand back and his head forward. “Or Tay.” “Okay, Tay, looks like we’re coming up to your place.” The car made its way up the hill, sending dust flying in a plume behind it. It came to a halt next to her father’s white and rust pickup. As Tay hopped out, she looked over to Dominic, his eyes still locked on the headrest in front of him. “Uh, thanks.” “Yeah, sure.” He looked at her sidelong through a curtain of bright red hair and shifted in his seat. “And, um, sorry, I guess. That sucks, falling in like that.” “Yeah, no, it’s fine.” Tay shifted her feet in the dirt of her driveway. “Congrats on winning the game.” Dominic’s smile was small, not as shark-like as earlier. “You were right, it’s not really a good game.” Tay smiled back. “Bye.” She slammed the door shut and started for the house, but stopped when she heard the engine turn off. Dominic’s mother walked briskly around the car and caught Tay up around the shoulder again. The two walked in forced tandem to the front door, which the woman knocked on promptly. The sounds of the TV still blared from inside, but soon enough Tay heard the padding of feet. When her father opened the door, his eyebrows quirked up in surprise. “Hi, I’m Kara Gardner,” the woman said, extending a hand. “Tay here took a nasty dive off the dock and I wanted to make sure she got home alright. No cuts or head bumps, looks like.” “Oh.” Her father took Kara’s hand slowly, glancing between her and his daughter. “Okay. Yes, thank you.” 28


“She’s coughing a bit, too. Might’ve taken in a bit of lake water.” He shifted in the doorframe and nodded. “Alright, well, thanks for taking her home. Sorry for taking your time.” “You’re most welcome. Have a good day!” Kara turned and went back to the SUV. Tay and her father watched it drive away, the dust clinging to the tires. “Couldn’t stay out of trouble for an hour?” She pulled at her lake-soaked shirt. “Sorry.” He sighed and walked back inside. Tay followed and closed the door behind her. She dripped in the entryway as her father collapsed back onto the couch and unpaused his show. A smarmy host in a cheap suit was introducing his guest, and the sound of cheers filled the living room. “I didn’t mean to fall in,” Tay called over the noise. Her father turned the volume down a bit and glanced at her over the back of the couch. “We were playing a game and I slipped and fell in the the lake and swallowed some of the water.” She coughed again, and the panic suddenly rushed back to her, clogging up her throat. The sting of tears hit as she continued to explain through hiccupping sobs. “I couldn’t breathe and it was really hot and I forgot how to swim for a second and I couldn’t, I couldn’t—” “Aw, Jesus.” Her father jumped up, his face contorted with concern. He stood and stared at her for a moment, his hands outstretched like he was calming a hissing cat. “Just give me a sec.” He darted into his room, leaving Tay alone and shaking. She couldn’t stop the sharp breaths that wracked her body. She felt like a little kid, crying over nothing. Her flip flops squeaked against the floor with every shudder. Some studio audience erupted into laughter on the TV. 29


A moment later, her father emerged with a massive blue towel and wrapped it around her in one swoop. She gripped at the sides and hugged them to her. The fibers rubbed the stinging in her knuckles back to life. “Hey, you’re alright.” He pushed a tangle of hair from her face before straightening again. “Come watch TV?” She gave a small nod and followed him back to the couch. The dirty mug and plate sat on the floor, which her father quickly tossed into the sink before settling down onto the cushions. Tay sat down at the other side, towel clenched tight around her body. She blew on her cuts when they started to seep blood again. The swamp cooler in the corner blew warm air around them as the live audience shouted insults at the guest.

30


MAN HUNT

by Lauren Lopez Illustration by Kayla Cottingham

“First rule of Man Hunt,” Raf announces with a lopsided grin as we watch him from our spots in the grass. The sprinklers were on today and it is still damp and, now that it is dark, quite cold. Al had wanted to sit though, even if I protested. He looked at me with those big brown eyes and that’s all it took. Raf takes his faded Yankees cap and swivels it around on his head so it’s facing forwards; he means business. “We know how to play Man Hunt, moron,” Manny shouts from the right half of the lawn where he sits with Nelson, Nicky, Bobby, and Tino. We’ve unconsciously segregated ourselves with girls towards the left and boys on the right. I’m seated closer to the boys than the girls, but no one’s going to argue because I’m with Al. Apparently a boyfriend is all it takes to be accepted as one of them. “We’re switching it up,” Raf says with a grin. “When we visited our cousins in Pennsylvania, they taught us a new way to play. No more messing around.” “How do you play?” Lily asks from the far-left side of the lawn. Lily’s had a crush on Raf since they could walk. It was one of those things where the parents put their two babies in 32


the same room and declared they will get married even if one was drooling and the other was sucking on their foot. Raf drinks it up and I have to remind Lily that she’s too good for him. Raf ’s my best friend, but even I can’t deny that he can be a first-class asshole most of the time. I’m reminded of this by the way he’s looking at Lily. He flashes her a wide smile, one that keeps her pointed towards “maybe someday.” Maybe someday he’ll go out with me. Maybe someday he’ll like me. It’s the reason I want to leave this town when I graduate. We’ve grown up too close. All of our business is each other’s business. We all know who’s dating who and who likes who and what each family’s having for dinner. We’re connected by individual threads of string and after seventeen years they’re so tangled up I don’t know how to separate them anymore. “At least someone listens,” Raf sighs dramatically. There are eight of us on my lawn right now; more boys than girls. Mom is at a conference and will be gone all weekend, which explains the large gathering in my yard. It’s not like Mom has to worry while she’s away. It’s just the two of us, anyway, and she knows she has seven other moms within walking distance to make sure I’m fed and to smack me upside the head if I do something particularly stupid. “We’re going to have the girls hide and the guys seek,” Raf explains. “That’s what makes it Man Hunt instead of hide and seek. There are more people searching than hiding.” I glare at Raf but he’s not paying attention. I can’t help but feel this is personal, the separation of the boys and the girls so that Al and I have no choice but to be split. Raf ’s mostly gotten used to the idea of his best friend dating his brother, but of course there will still be lines that we know we shouldn’t cross. Al likes to come as close to those lines as he possibly can, and he even crosses them every now and then. 33


Al puts his arm around me almost as if he can sense that I’m thinking about him. I glance over at him. His curly black hair is falling into his face and I move a strand of hair away from his forehead. He smiles and leans forward to kiss me, but I shake my head and nod towards Raf. He’s turned his hat backwards again, which means it’s time to play. “Alright, let’s get moving!” Raf says, clapping his hands together. Our front yard has been creeping further into decay over the past year. The grass becomes overgrown until Nelson or Mr. Anderson come over and cut it for us. The lamp hasn’t been fixed since Al hit it with a home run ball during a game of street baseball. We were the only house that didn’t put up lights during the holidays. We’re slowly becoming the stereotypical old shut-ins you see in movies, the ones where the neighbor kids are afraid if they hit the ball over their fence, except we’re a high school kid and a working mom. “What are our boundaries?” Teresa asks. “Any of our houses and all the spaces in between,” Raf says quickly. That’s why he’s always in charge of our games; he’s always one step ahead of all of us. He always seems to have everything figured out before we can even think of it. “Even—” Tino starts to say but then he meets my eye and stops himself. “Even my house,” I shout at him. I know no one is going to want to use my house anyway. They’ve all avoided it like the plague since May. I’m hoping I can use that to my advantage. The boys all head towards the lamp to join up with Raf. Al and I get up, still joined by clammy hands. I start to head over with him, not even realizing that I’m supposed to be going in the opposite direction. “Look at this, the lovebirds think they’re the exception to the rule,” Manny says with a laugh. 34


“Go hide,” Al says to me. He gets close to my ear and the hair on the back of my neck stands on edge. I thought when we started dating that I would get used to him being close to me like this, but I still haven’t. I thought at first it was because I knew Al for so long that it was going to take a while to see him as my boyfriend and not my best friend’s older brother, but somehow that doesn’t seem quite right either. “Maybe I’ll catch up to you later.” The boys all huddle around the lamp and Lily calls for me to join the girls. I wrench my hand away from Al’s and as soon as Raf starts to count, we all scatter. I head for my house immediately, taking the sagging front steps two at a time. Everyone else scatters in different directions, so I’m hoping my house will be left untouched. When I’m in the house I realize going into my own home was probably too predictable, but it’s too late to change the course of action now. I dart up the stairs and consider turning back down and finding somewhere else to hide. Not Tino’s because his dog, Rocky, barks as soon as you step foot on his lawn. Not Teresa’s because her mother has to put her younger sister to bed early. If I hide outside I feel like it only makes me more vulnerable. I’ve chosen my house and I have to stick with my choice. To my left, at the very end of the hall, is a faded blue door. There’s a dent at the bottom of it from when Raf decided to skateboard down the hall and he crashed into the door. I haven’t been in this room since last May. Since last May when George whispered to me that he was going to a party. Since last May when I told him to be careful. Since last May when I waited up at night for the ding of my phone to tell me George was home. Since last May when that ding never came. I reach out a hand and hover over the door knob for a moment. There’s a click and I realized I’ve turned the knob 35


and pushed open the door ever so slightly. Mom never made it a rule, but I know I shouldn’t be in here. She hasn’t been in here since his funeral, when she went into his closet to get the suit he wore to high school graduation. I told her she should have bought him a new suit, but that was a shopping trip she was completely unable to make. No one should have to buy a suit for their dead son. I’ve seen movies where a child dies and the room is exactly how they left it. I always thought this was an exaggeration, but our house has been practically frozen in time since George left. The last time I was in this room, he was pulling on a button up shirt and telling me he was going out. I was uneasy. I had my history final the next day and would need a ride. I didn’t want him to be too hungover to take me. Never mind the history final: The car was totaled, my brother was taken away, and I passed my history exam without even showing up. The black and gray duvet is pulled over his bed. I know the bed isn’t made; I can tell by the lumps underneath. George would pull the blanket over the rumpled sheets and call that a made bed. There’s a soccer ball peeking out from underneath the bed. It’s leaning against a pile of textbooks: History, Psychology, Calculus. I’m crying without even realizing it at first. First just a single tear that trickles down my cheek, but then I can barely see the bed in front of me. They’re never going to find me in here. I’m going to be in here forever and they’re never going to find me because I had to open that blue door and step into the preserved world of my dead brother. I need somewhere else to hide and I find myself stepping carefully towards his bed as if I’m going to break something. I pull aside the covers and I choke back both a laugh and a sob as I see the pile of clothes that was creating the mountain 36


in his bed. George would leave dirty laundry behind. There’s a pile of it: soccer jerseys, button up shirts, t-shirts, shorts, probably a month’s worth of his laundry just shoved under the covers. I pick up the first article of clothing I see—a blue and green button up—and press my face into it. It’s clean, actually, and I realize he must have shoved the pile of clothes under his covers before he went out that night so Mom wouldn’t yell at him. He intended to put it away in the morning. I place the button up over my shoulders and I realize for the first time that I’m shaking. Slowly, deliberately, as if it’s some sort of memorial to George that was missed when we put him in the ground, I pop each button into its hole the best I can. The process of buttoning this shirt is an unfamiliar ritual—something passed down between fathers and their sons on Easter Sunday in front of the bathroom mirror. The last recognized strands of masculinity in my family were shut away in this room last May. I climb onto the bed and pull the covers over my head, allowing myself to sob in the pile of clothing. It’s here that I allow myself to think about George for the first time in the last year, to really think about George. I realize that I haven’t been allowed to grieve my older brother, the smiling nineteen-year-old who was killed when his 2006 Toyota Camry struck a tree on the side of the road. He could have hurt someone else, the police told us. He was intoxicated. He was lucky it was just him in the car. I wanted to scream that he hurt all of us. That the car crash cut a string in our neighborhood web that could never be fixed again. I lie down and bring my face in his sheets. It still smells like him, like Lever soap and mud and those cherry drops he always kept in his car. “You ready, Champ?” I can hear his voice clear as day and I almost respond. He treated me as if 37


he saw who I really was, not with the practiced rituals that Mom does, as if she’s compiled some sort of hand guide from self-help books and online message boards. “You’re a tomboy. You’ll grow out of it,” she says, while handing me the Easter dress that she doesn’t realize is more of a death sentence on a hanger than a piece of clothing. Later, it morphed into, “You’re trying too hard to be the boy in your relationship. That’s what Al is for.” All these things are usually said while we’re preparing dinner, and I never speak back because she’s usually arm’s length from something sharp. I often wonder if she does this on purpose. “You changed when you started dating that boy.” Al became “that boy” after we started dating. Never mind that he’s my best friend’s brother. Never mind that growing up he ate dinner at our home more often than his own. That boy, as if the only way Mom can believe I’m dating him is to say it out loud, enunciating every syllable and stretching it out to a longer length. She treats it like a job title. I pull a sweatshirt on next. I think it’s one of his old soccer sweatshirts from middle school by the way it fits. I get caught in it as I try to move under the blankets, but I’m afraid to emerge from the cocoon I have made as if doing so will shatter the last memories I have of him. As if doing so will announce to everyone in the neighborhood of my hiding place. I’m trying to weigh myself down with every piece of George I can get my hands on. The smell hits me and my whole body is shaking, my shoulders pulsing forward in a silent sob. I can feel the gentle tug of his hands in my hair before I go to sleep. I can hear the footsteps down the stairs as he rose from his bedroom after noon on the weekends, shirtless and blearyeyed, but always smiling. I curl into a ball and bury myself into the pile of clothes hearing my brother’s voice over and over. 38


“You’re my favorite little brother.” He said it one night when he crawled in through his bedroom window. I could tell from how pink his nose was that he was drunk, and he sat on the edge of the bed and held me in his arms, singing nursery rhymes Dad had taught him as a kid apparently. I always stayed in his room when I expected he’d come back in that state, just to make sure he was safe and slipped in unnoticed. Mom must have known that a college student living at home would go to parties and sneak back home, but she always looked at George through thick goggles. She only saw what she wanted to see. The same went for the both of us, but I think the goggles Mom used on me were cracked. “You’re my favorite little brother.” He cried it into my hair and I wanted to ask him why he was crying, but the breath caught in my throat as he said it. It must be the alcohol. He must have meant sister. He couldn’t have meant favorite because it was only us two anyway. But he never corrected himself and as a result, I didn’t either. It’s one of the many secrets that died with him. “You’re my favorite brother,” I gasp out loud but my chest is caving in as I sob out loud and I’m not sure if any sound came out at all. I’m surrounded by all these pieces of clothing, these meaningless garments that I was never allowed to have. These jackets and shirts that have stayed preserved in this room for months. All the secrets were trapped in this room. The ones that George would whisper to me through breath that smelled of rum. “Dad left to be with a woman half his age. They have three kids now and Mom always shreds the Christmas cards before we can see them,” he’d tell me. That was the night he reeked of vodka and came through the window with a Santa hat perched atop his dark brown hair. The chill 39


that entered his room made us both bury under his blankets for warmth. “There’s this boy in my Calc study group and I can’t stop staring at him,” he told me in February. I should have asked him what his name was. I should have asked if he was going to tell Mom. I should have asked why he only said things like this at night after these parties. “Mom hates her job but keeps it to support us. She doesn’t think she’d be able to get another job and she can’t be an unemployed single parent,” was what he said in March. The next morning I noticed the way she sipped her coffee slowly, as if she was hoping taking her time would mean she wouldn’t have to go at all. She abandoned the coffee altogether after George died. “The Garcias are worried they might lose their house.” This was before I started dating Al, but sometimes as we sit in his room listening to music, I hear his parents arguing downstairs and wondering if that worry is still there. I think about asking him sometimes. I think about what would happen to us if they had to leave. “I kissed a boy at this party. I didn’t hate it.” That was the night Raf went with him. Raf had been begging to go to a party with George and Al, but Al always said he didn’t want his kid brother slinking around their campus. George took him anyway and it completely slipped my mind to ask what Raf was up to when all this happened. “You’re my favorite little brother.” It was repeated over and over, the only secret that I sometimes considered telling others too. He’d clutch me close and cry after all of these parties. That’s why I never wanted him to go. There was something that changed in him after these parties and I realized it was be40


cause he’d get to be himself when he went out and it would feel like regressing when he came back home to the same bed he had since age five. But I also selfishly began to look forward to these hours late in the night when he’d come home with a grin on his face and fumble around his room to get ready for bed. I pull the rest of the clothes closer to me. I’m hoping to be buried underneath all these clothes. Buried underneath the soccer jerseys from a team that would have to find a new captain. Buried under the t-shirts from Old Navy that have bleach stains on them from the wash. Buried underneath the ties and the button ups from functions he would no longer get to go to. Buried underneath the sweatshirt from the community college that has a memorial for him where kids who didn’t know him can make themselves feel better about their grief by placing notes and gifts in a cluster around the plaque. The sound of the door opening causes me to pop out of the pile of clothes to see who has found me. Al is in front of me, standing in the frame reluctantly as if he’s not sure how to proceed. He moves a little closer, standing in the center of the room. “You’re the last one,” he said. “What the hell are you doing in here?” He comes closer still and holds a hand out, not even waiting for me to respond. I look at it like it’s a threat. I’m reluctant to leave my pile of clothes. I feel as if my entire secret is plastered on my body and as soon as I stand up, he’s going to see it. I take his outstretched hand and he puts his hands on my shoulders. He leans forward to kiss me and I pull back. It feels wrong to kiss my boyfriend, here, in George’s room. I can’t understand why he would even want to kiss me when I’ve been lying to him the whole time we’ve been dating. I don’t know why I thought dating him was a good idea. Maybe I thought 41


it would fix something in me. That I could just shove down the secrets and cover them up. “Al, we can’t date anymore.” Something flashes across his eyes. Anger? Confusion? He sits on the bed next to me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “This place is messing with your head.” I can’t think of what to say anymore. This place is the reason I’m able to tell him this. The reason I can finally look my boyfriend in the eyes and stop lying to him. You’re my favorite little brother. You’re my favorite little brother. My brother was taken away from me. “You’re not gay.” “What are you talking about?” “You can’t date me,” I say. “You’re not gay.” I hear the staircase creak and I move away from Al. Raf appears in the doorway with arms crossed. “This room? Of all places? Are you insane?” There’s a look on his face, almost like he’s about to cry. He and George had gotten really close before he died. We couldn’t even mention his name for a month without Raf leaving the room. I should have known it was selfish to come in here. That I wasn’t only opening up this world to myself, but to this whole town. I was ready, but maybe not everyone was. Raf ’s hat is askew, like he had been turning it back and forth again. My chest feels clearer when I see him, as if the crushing weight has been lifted for a moment. “Al, go downstairs and let everyone know the game’s over. We’ll be down in a bit.” Al makes a noise as if he’s about to say something, but then he nods and gets up. He knows when Raf speaks in that tone that he’s serious. Raf is almost never serious, but when he is, people listen. “We’ll talk later,” Al says to me, before walking out of the room. Raf shuts the door and steps toward me and I start crying. “Hey, hey,” he hushes gently. His hands on my shoulders are 42


more gentle than Al’s. “Why are you in here? Why are you …” I know he sees the clothes. I think he’s going to comment on it, but he reaches past me and picks up George’s college sweatshirt. He pulls the sweatshirt on, his hat getting stuck as he pulls it over his head. George was taller than Raf and it shows now, as my best friend stands there in a sweatshirt that almost comes to his knees. He steps back to me and hugs me. We both smell like Lever soap and sweaty socks. “I miss him too,” he says finally. I can’t see his face and I wish I could, but I feel safer than I’ve felt in months. He moves his head so I can see him. He’s crying. Raf and George weren’t as close as I am with Raf, but a few months before George died, they were gradually getting closer. They’d stay holed up for hours playing video games in George’s room. After the party George took him to, they became more distant. I meant to ask George about it, but I figured he’d tell me about it when he was ready. I think Raf is going to say something, to reveal another secret in this room, but he just hugs me again and simply says, “I’m proud of you. Things like this are hard.” I step backwards in surprise and study his face. His lips are pressed together so they’re just a line. His hat was lost when he put the sweatshirt on and is laying in the middle of the floor. He wipes a tear away. I’ve only seen Raf cry twice. Once, when he dislocated his shoulder after we played soccer in the street and he lunged to save a goal. The second time at George’s funeral, which I almost skipped because I could barely breathe. I want ask him a million questions about my brother but I don’t feel right now is the right place. “You’re allowed to miss him too you know.” His face is glistening from the few tears and he nods. “He’s your brother, though.” 43


“We all miss him.” Raf starts laughing for a moment and I want to smack the smile off his face until I realize why he’s laughing. “Did you really just break up with my brother during a game of Man Hunt?” Now is my turn to laugh and it’s the laugh that starts when you don’t know whether you’re going to laugh or cry. I double over laughing until tears come out of the corners of my eyes. I didn’t know how heavy all of these secrets had weighing on me until now. Raf is laughing with me and his eyes look lighter again. I hope he knows it’s okay to be sad. I want him to be able to grieve. We should be able to grieve together. My sides hurt as I hunch over from laughter. “We should get back to the others,” I say, and he nods but makes no sign of moving either. I almost want to live in this room forever, in the room where the secrets we have to hide still live on. Raf shrugs George’s sweatshirt off and puts it neatly on the bed. I nod but keep mine on. “Do you think we should tell them?” “Don’t you sometimes think they already know?” I’m not sure which secrets he’s talking about at this point. I bend down and pick his hat off the ground and put it backwards on his head. “Let’s get back to the game.” I start walking and he follows me without saying a word and we step over the threshold and close the door behind us for who knows how long.

44


THE INSIDE OF A SKULL

by Sophie Lynch Illustration by Kayla Cottingham

May 7th, 1974 Dear Mama, You would’ve run away with her too, you know. You would’ve married her lickety-split, no shotgun, just you two and the moon and the mosquitos under a flat sky. She could do that to anyone with those eyes. You remember them—doe eyes. I’m sorry I left you without so much as a goodbye or a note or even a speck to remember me by. I’m sorry that it’s been six years. I’m sorry there can’t be a return address. I’ve been thinking about you a lot at night, Mama. When the guilt starts squeezing at my stomach and the paranoia starts to itch. When she’s asleep. When the crickets all chirp my name and the mice in the walls are coming just for me. When I can hear the maggots talking and the blankets feel like an overturned patch of soil. I think of you then. I remember the blue dress you always wore on Sundays and how many curlers you wore in your hair. I don’t know what I wanted to say anymore. Maybe I just need to get it out. -Todd 46


A garden has sprung up at the abandoned house at 33 Grant Street. For years, the house has been nothing but shades of grey and brown. The once-white paint is still peeling and there’s still a broken window in the back, but now there’s sunflowers, rose bushes, hydrangeas, black-eyed Susans, marigolds, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots coloring the front yard. The mailbox has been straightened and its red flag raised. Crouched in the midst of the sunflowers is a woman with hair the color of buttercups, fine golden hairs on her arms illuminated by the afternoon sun behind her. When she looks up, her deep brown eyes meet Liam Soliz’s. In all of Liam’s six long years, he’s never seen anything living here. Never mind a garden. Never mind a woman. Liam hears about beautiful women the same way he hears about the sea: out there somewhere but not here—not in Williams, Arizona. The men in the bar where his mom works talk about them all the time—how many they’ve had, and that one they saw that time. Liam always looks up at his mom when he overhears these conversations, and tries to puzzle out whether or not she’s a beautiful woman. But there is definitely a beautiful woman crouched in the overnight garden. Liam stops his bike and stares. “Well hello there, can I help you?” She speaks in a southern accent that Liam has never heard before, and so he can’t recognize that it’s fake. “I—um—hi, I’m Liam. I live in the yellow house way down that way,” Liam points down the road. “I ride past here a lot but there’s never been a garden before.” The woman finishes pulling some dirt over the roots of the sunflowers and stands up, brushing soil off her gloves. “Oh! Well, it’s real nice to meet you. I’m Sarah. I just moved here with my husband, Todd, about a week ago. We 47


packed up all our stuff and all our plants and drove all the way here from Stillwater, Oklahoma.” Sarah brushes her hair out of her face and Liam sees the blood staining the fabric of her gloves. His eyebrows pull together and she follows his line of vision. “Oh, honey, don’t worry about that. This old house is full of mice and our cat is just havin’ a ball. I’m buryin’ all the dead ones in the garden. They make great fertilizer, you know.” Liam tilts his head. “What’s fertilizer?” “Why don’t you get on with your bike ride and ask your mama at home? I’ve got more mice to clean up. Nice meetin’ you!” Liam understands when an adult dismisses him and gets back on his bike, already full to the brim with the things he’s going to tell his mom when she gets home tonight. Sarah watches him go and lets her smile drop. She walks into the house and slams the screen door behind her, leaving a bloody smudge on the plastic. “We need a fucking cat,” she says, throwing her gloves down beside the mostly-dismembered body on the kitchen table. Her husband, Todd, looks up from where he is carefully removing the body’s liver. “What? Why?” “Because I told a little Hispanic kid that we had a cat and I was burying dead mice in the yard. In a town with 300 people, if I say we have a cat, then we have to have a goddamn cat.” Todd rolls the liver up in biodegradable material and places it in a pile of other rolled up body parts. Sarah continues, “I mean, you said there was no one around this house for miles, now we have to deal with a little kid? What happens when he throws a fucking frisbee into the yard and trips over some rotting arms?” 48


Todd shrugs, “Bury your arms better.” “Take this seriously, Todd!” Todd sighs. “His house is at least a mile away. I didn’t think anyone would come all this way, especially not a little kid.” “Fine. Chop him up faster. We have to find a pet store by the end of the day.” They don’t finish burying the pieces until the daylight is stretched long and thin over the desert. Todd’s face is flecked with cold blood and the bathroom sink is tinted pink. They get into their rusted pick-up truck and drive into the center of the town, stopping at a gas station to ask the clerk if he knows of any pet stores. He tells them of one about thirty miles west, and they fill up the tank and start driving. Sarah rests her cheek against the window as they drive through the endless desert. “What are you thinking about?” Todd asks. “There’s never gonna be any storms here,” she answers. “What are you thinking about?” “My mom.” Sarah lifts her head, “Yeah? What about?” “Nothing in particular. Sometimes I wonder how she’s doing and if she thinks about me.” “I mean, I’m sure she does. She’s your mother. I always liked her. Do you miss her?” Todd pauses and adjusts his grip on the steering wheel. “Yeah. I do. Remember her brownies? I got a craving for them the other day.” “Oh yeah! She used butter instead of oil, I think. Those were the best.” Todd’s mom loved Sarah. She always went on and on about how Todd was such a loner before her, and how he stayed out till all hours with her, and how she would have been worried but he just seemed so happy. She never 49


prodded about Sarah’s bruises but always kept an ice pack in the freezer. After a minute of silence Todd asks, “Do you ever miss your mom?” Sarah looks away, back out the window at the cloudless evening sky. “No.” She does not think of her stiff elbows and blue lips. She does not think of the rope pattern etched in her throat. Ten minutes or so later, they pull into the parking lot of an animal shelter. When they slam the car doors, the dogs inside all start barking. The woman at the front desk looks so startled when the bell rings that it’s possible she’s never actually had a customer before. The woman helps them pick out a cat she thinks would be a good mouser, what with her favorite toys being mouse shaped. She’s a solid grey cat with big green eyes and a black nose. Sarah drives the rusted truck back home with her left hand on the steering wheel and Todd holding the new cat in her carrier with his right hand. Her right and his left meet at the gear shift. “Hey. Sorry I yelled earlier. About the cat,” Sarah says about halfway through the drive. “It’s okay, I get it.” “I just wasn’t expecting to see a little kid staring at me while I was burying body parts, you know?” “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry about it.” She steals a glance at him from the driver’s side. “Still love me?” Todd lets his mouth crack into a small smile. “Always, you know that.” When they were kids, they talked about getting a cat together someday. Having a little house with a green yard and a schedule for cleaning the litter box. Whether or not they 50


would let it sleep in between them. They have that now but nothing like Todd imagined it. The cat watches him steadily with those slitted pupils and doesn’t look away once. May 8th, 1974 Dear Mama, I’m sorry that when you caught me dissecting squirrels in the back yard you thought I was going to be a surgeon. I think I could have been. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be the son you wanted me to be, the son you deserved to have. I’m sorry that I got blood on all the good towels. I always hated wringing their necks, getting the life out of them like water from a cloth. I just wanted to understand their bones and hearts and guts. I’m sorry that when I saw JFK’s assassination on TV and I saw that little bit of skull go flying all I wanted to do was get my hands on it and smell it and know it. I’m sorry that I was jealous of Mrs. Kennedy. I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop this thing before it started. I’m sorry I can’t stop it now. It’s worse now than it used to be. It used to be once a year, maybe. We would have time to settle down and make a home and sometimes I’d even forget. But then she’d come in from the garden with that gleam in her eye and twitching fingers and I knew it was coming soon. I’d start packing up our things and she’d keep itching. She’d talk in her sleep and she’d cry at night and the next thing I knew, I’d be holding a man down for her. To let her get it out. I’m not going to lie to you, Mama. I like it. When it’s my turn I get to read every layer of them. I know them more intimately than they ever would have known themselves. But I don’t want to do it anymore, Mama, I don’t want to feel this guilt anymore. I don’t like seeing their faces go empty. I don’t want to feel like if 51


I make one mistake it’ll be me. I want to come home and I want to see you and I want to start over. -Todd Sarah wakes the next morning with nonsensical dreams floating around her head.Sunflowers with fingers sprouting from their faces. Mouse bones in her tomatoes. Red coffee. Drunk snores. A floral couch with one broken leg and an early morning thunderstorm. The rope around her neck and the way her eyes bulged and her protruding tongue. The overturned patch of dirt in the backyard and new bruises. Todd is shaking her awake and she blinks away the images, tries to calm her racing heart. “What do you want? What time is it?” Her voice sounds clogged. “It’s seven, and the fucking kid is here!” “What do you mean the kid is here?” “What do you think I mean? He’s just loitering outside, he probably wants to see you.” Sarah groans and stands up from the mattress they have on the floor. She pulls clothes on and walks through the house to the front door, where she pauses and puts on her benign housewife face. When she opens the door, Liam looks up from the gate lock that he was fiddling with and smiles so wide his eyes nearly disappear. “Hi, Miss Sarah!” he says, waving wildly. “Hey Sweet Pea, what are ya doin’ here?” Sarah asks, crouching down to eye level. Liam gets shy suddenly and looks down at his feet. "Well, I—uh—I wanted to ask you a question.” “Alright, go for it.” 52


“I was telling my mom about you and she says she wants to see the house and the garden all spruced up and so she thought we should have dinner together.” “Here?” Sarah bristles at the self-invitation. Liam nods. “Mhm.” Sarah considers. Maybe if she meets the mom she can convince her to tell her son to keep away from their house, and then they won’t have to worry about any frisbees and unearthed arms. “Sure, why don’tcha go tell your Mama that we’ll have you two over tonight at six thirty. We’re makin’ spaghetti and meatballs.” Liam’s face lights up and he nods earnestly before getting back on his bike and waving goodbye. Sarah turns back into the house and slams the door. “Now we need fucking spaghetti and meatballs.” “Would you stop telling him we have things that we don’t?” “What am I supposed to feed them? All we have is bread and peanut butter and cat food! We want them to think we’re normal, don’t we?” Todd sighs and grabs the keys to the truck. When they come back from the grocery store (the nearest one was ten miles away), they start putting the groceries away and setting up the dining room so that it looks like they use it for meals, not just dismembering corpses. Sarah cleans all her gardening supplies of any blood that may be left on them, and props her floral painted shovel on the wall as a kind of decor. Some of the tomatoes in the garden are finally ripe enough to pick to make into sauce for dinner, so Sarah makes her way through the garden to pick them. At the roots of the tomato plants, she knows, are the two shins of the last man they killed, beginning to rot. Worms and 53


grubs and maggots have probably already burrowed into the marrow, feasting. She wonders how long it takes for a body to completely decompose. How many bites will get taken out of it, how long until the bones disintegrate into the ground. How there can be so much going on under an overturned patch of soil in the backyard. She wonders how long it took for her mother to completely decompose. She was already stiff by the time Sarah found her, hanging in the hall closet. Heavy and useless as the winter coat next to her. Some part of her must have dissolved long before then. The beatings must have turned her muscles to stone and the choking must have turned her brain to soup. He made her into a walking, talking corpse with a graveyard for a womb. He planted an apple tree over the patch of soil when a neighbor asked what he buried. The apples it grew were so red and shiny, Sarah could see herself in them. By the time Sarah makes it back inside, her hands are trembling and she has to get Todd to slice the tomatoes. Liam and his mother arrive precisely at six thirty. Liam’s mother is a tall woman with shoulder length black hair and deep, dark circles under her eyes. She wears a bright pink lipstick shade that smudges onto her chin when she smiles, and she’s holding a potted cactus with a flower sprouting from the top of it. “We thought we’d bring you a little something to welcome you to the desert,” she says, holding out the plant. Sarah takes it and places it on a windowsill near them, reminding herself to put on the Southern accent. They exchange the common pleasantries while Liam bounces next to his mother, Mary, looking altogether too excited to be seeing the barren inside of a house that was abandoned less than two weeks ago. 54


They move to sit down in the living room, which is only furnished with a love seat, a shaggy rug, and some chairs from the dining room. Sarah makes her apologies for the state of the place and mentions that they plan to go furniture shopping sometime in the next week — which they don’t. The cat, which to Sarah is unnamed but to Todd is Wichita, comes out from her usual hiding place in the bathroom closet to sniff at Mary and Liam’s shoes, then jumps up into Liam’s lap and looks more relaxed than she has been since they got her. “It’s about time to put the pasta in. I’ll go take care of that,” Todd announces, standing up and making his way toward the kitchen. While he stirs the pot, he can hear Sarah and Mary chatting about gardening: what flowers like sun, which take well to this soil, what fertilizers they use. For a moment, Todd can almost think that they’re normal. That they’re a normal couple having neighbors over for a normal meal and that there isn’t a dead body under the topsoil in their front yard. While he waits for the spaghetti to cook, he makes two margaritas and brings them to the women, and then a glass of water for Liam, who lets Wichita lap from the same glass. Eventually the meal is ready and they sit down at the rickety dining table, join hands, and say grace. “So,” Mary says around a forkful of spaghetti, “Where did you guys move from?” “Stillwater, Oklahoma! Todd here was taking night classes at the University,” Sarah answers. Stillwater can’t be more different than Cashion. Stillwater was a college town with wood and brick buildings. A town where people bought new boots every winter and would have noticed if a man had gone missing. Cashion, Oklahoma had wheeled houses that sounded like tin cans 55


when you knocked on them, and would have dented if you knocked too hard. People went missing in Cashion all the time, whether they got lost in a winter storm or packed up and left or got their heads held in a bucket of water by a young woman and her husband. But even in Cashion, someone will notice eventually. “What were you studying, Todd?” Mary asks. “Agriculture. Sarah and I both have a green thumb.” “Oh, how lovely! Is that how you guys met?” “Yes, actually!” Sarah says with artificial sweetener in her voice, looking at Todd with shining eyes. “We both reached for the same cucumber seeds, our hands touched, and the rest was history.” Todd remembers the day they met well. It was in high school when they were both sixteen. Todd came into class with a drop of bird blood on the hem of his white t shirt, and this girl with freckles on the bridge of her nose and long, blonde hair leaned over to him and whispered, “Vinegar.” “Are you from Oklahoma? Your accent sounds different,” Mary asks Sarah, tilting her head slightly. “Oh, no, I was actually born and raised in Tennessee, I just moved west for a change of scenery. Todd’s originally from Kansas though.” Mary opens her mouth to ask another question, but Sarah interrupts. “Isn’t the sauce just delicious? It’s store-bought but I added some tomatoes and herbs from my garden. This soil has done wonders for my veggies so far.” Mary forgets about whatever probing question she had next and launches into a story about how one year, her tomatoes were as big as Liam’s head. By the time dinner is over, it seems like Mary and Sarah are actually friends—that or they’re both drunk. They offer to clean up and suggest that the boys play outside for a bit. 56


“So,” Todd tosses Liam a ball that he brought from home. “Are you going to school?” “Mhm! I’m going into second grade!” “What’s your favorite subject?” “I really like reading.” “Really? I hated reading when I was your age. Good for you, kid.” Liam beams and then immediately goes into a long spiel about his favorite book and how a high schooler read it to him in school one day, and how he wants a dog just like the main character’s, and how his mom is always too tired to read it to him but it’s okay because he learned how to read last year... By the time Sarah calls them back in, Todd has heard about every book Liam has ever read in his life. When Todd makes it through the doorway, Sarah pulls him aside and whispers, “Mary’s thinking of stay over for a bit and sending Liam home. We still have that pot leftover from that last guy’s car. I suggested to her that we should smoke it.” “Okay, but aren’t you pretty drunk?” “I’ll be fine. It’ll be fun! This is the first time I’ve had a friend in ages.” “Alright, I’m up for it then.” Sarah grins and goes to tell Mary the good news. Mary nods and turns to Liam, who’s crouched down and petting Wichita. She tells him to head home, that it’s his bedtime, that she’s going to stay behind and she’ll be home later. Liam looks up at his mother with big eyes and says that he’s scared to walk home alone in the dark—and that’s when Todd notices Sarah’s twitching fingers. Mary tells Liam that there’s nothing to be afraid of here. There’s plenty of streetlights so he won’t miss any snakes or scorpions, and it’s not like there’s anyone around here that’s going to hurt him. 57


Liam’s eyes start to well up, “But Mom, I’m scared. Will you please walk with me?” “No, I’m tired. I worked all day. You’re a big boy and you can walk home yourself.” Liam begins to protest again but Todd interrupts. “I’ll walk him home, I don’t mind. I could use the exercise.” “Thank you, Todd. That’s very kind of you.” He leads Liam out the door. When they reach the pavement, he looks at the little boy and shouts, “Race ya!” and takes off, leaving Liam giggling and running after him. Todd hopes that Mary isn’t a screamer and that, if she is, her son’s laughter and footsteps will be enough to drown it out. He knows that when he returns home he’ll find blood spattered walls and his wife bent over the mutilated body, sobbing. He knows he’ll sigh and find the mop, then take the knife from her hands and drop it in the sink. He’ll help her wash her hands and wipe away any drops on her face. She’ll barely be able to stand for the tears and the exhaustion and she’ll be mumbling about her mother, but Todd will pretend he never heard it. He’ll tuck her into bed and she’ll fall asleep nearly instantly, while Todd will stay up the whole night dismembering and burying the body of a six-year-old’s mother. So he stays with Liam as long as he can. He washes him up and makes sure he brushes his teeth, gets him into pajamas with dinosaurs on them, reads him that favorite book, tucks him into bed, and rubs his back until he’s sure he’s asleep. Todd can already hear Sarah crying before he even enters the house. The sun has barely risen and the body has barely been buried when Liam knocks on the door. His crying can be heard from inside, and Sarah bolts upright in bed. She walks into the dining room where Todd is frantically wiping all the blood off the table. 58


“Don’t bother. We’ve gotta kill him,” she states, unfeeling. “We have to what?” “You think he’s not going to piece it together? He’s a kid, not stupid.” Liam’s knocking gets louder and he calls their names. “We can’t kill a kid,” Todd whispers. “You should’ve shown some fucking restraint and not killed his mother!” “She was going to make him walk home alone! He was scared!” “Well now he’s gonna be alone and scared forever! What kind of logic is that?” Sarah ignores him. “She was obviously negligent. Who makes a six-year-old walk a mile home alone at night?” “Who kills a six-year-old’s mother for making one mistake?” It bursts out of Todd before he can stop it, before he can think better. He watches her retreat inside herself. Her face hardens into an expression more placid than the anger it showed before, she leans away from him. Somehow, this is more threatening. “We do not have time for this.” She grabs a knife from Todd’s tool set and lunges for the front door, but Todd is faster. He grabs her floral shovel from where it leans against the wall and swings—once, twice, three times. Sarah’s skull caves like a depressurized basketball. She crumples to the floor with a heavy thud and for a moment, all Todd can do is stare at her. The woman who looked like she was carved by Michelangelo on their wedding night looks like nothing more than an empty costume. Like clothes someone shed and left misshapen and used on the floor. Liam is still banging frantically on the door and Todd rushes to the bathroom. He rummages through the cabinet until he finds what he needs. He soaks a cloth, opens the front door, and presses the cloth to Liam’s face. 59


Todd drives fourteen hours straight with his wife’s brains on his hands, a drugged child, and a carsick cat. He has to keep the chloroform on hand in case Liam wakes up, which he only does once. He leaves the boy and the cat on his mother’s doorstep with a letter. May 9th, 1974 Dear Mama, I’m sorry to leave them with you but I couldn’t think of anywhere better. I hope he can be the son you deserve. His name is Liam and he loves to read. He doesn’t dissect squirrels and he doesn’t get blood on any of the towels, not even the bad ones. He’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking. My wife killed his mother and I killed my wife. I don’t think his dad is in the picture. I don’t know what you’re going to tell him. If you ever end up in Williams, Arizona or Cashion, Oklahoma or Lesterville, South Dakota, look for abandoned gardens with bones at the roots. Look for stray dogs with femurs in their jaws. I’m sorry this is the legacy I left behind. You would have held them down for her, too. You would have watched as she drove a knife into their throats, or held their heads underwater, or snapped their necks. You would have watched every one of her movements and categorized them each as the most beautiful thing you had ever seen. You have to understand, when she’s seventeen and crawls through your window at night, crying because her dad beat her, you learn you’ll do anything for her. When she’s eighteen and lets you inside and she kisses your neck, you learn you’ll never leave. When she holds your hand and looks right into your eyes and asks you to hold a man still so she can slit his throat, you don’t say no. You want her to hold your hand and look at you like that again. So I’m sorry but there wasn’t anything I could do. 60


Turns out all that’s inside a skull is slime and trauma, grey matter and pain, blood and bloodlust. I saw it there all spread out on the floor. Love, Todd

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AUTHOR BIOS CASSANDRA MARTINEZ is a Latina writer from Richmond, Virginia. She writes about the magic, horror, and beauty of life and the terrible things we do for love. She hopes to bring more diversity to literature and you can usually find her in a museum or drinking coee. Her piece published in this issue is dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Maria.

MICAELA PRYOR is a BFA Creative Writing student from Tehachapi, California. She spends most of her time playing Dungeons and Dragons, and most of her money buying books she doesn't read for months.

LAUREN LOPEZ is a Writing, Literature and Publishing major. They are from Long Island, New York and have a continued passion for bagels and the Yankees. They're going to thank their family in this bio but especially their brother because he'll complain otherwise. Thanks, Chris!

SOPHIE LYNCH is a sophomore Writing, Literature and Pub-

lishing major from Uxbridge, Massachusetts. She works as a cat sitter and has ten times more tastebuds than the average person. She would like to thank her mother for hating her last story, inspiring her to write a much better one

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ABOUT THE TYPE The running text for this issue is set in Adobe Caslon Pro, designed for Adobe by Carol Twombly based on specimen pages by William Caslon between 1734 and 1770. The display type for this book is BANAUE, designed by Ieva Mazule, and ANDIS LIGHT, designed by JAM Type Design.

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CASSANDRA MARTINEZ MICAELA PRYOR LAUREN LOPEZ SOPHIE LYNCH

Stork Magazine Issue 24  
Stork Magazine Issue 24  
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