I fell in love with her on Thursday. It spread warm like broth. Something about the butter curl of her hair scooped under a hat. I told her I read about stew in the war books. She told me war is hell, and we made stew. Her hand pressed over mine mincing garlic. Our breath mingling with broth misting our lips. When I reached to take off my apron, she caught the knot in her hand to draw me close. We piled our bowls steaming with stew. Mushrooms, creamy potato, carrots softened tender. She kissed a spoonful into her mouth. It was like soldiers, how they rest at night.
* * *
Anna Dubey is a college student studying biology. She’s interested in exploring evolutionary and environmental themes through literature. Her nonfiction writing has previously appeared in Encyclopedia Britannica and the Peoplehood Papers, and her creative writing has appeared in Stone of Madness Press.
In the beginning, Brenda worried about earthquakes and floods, disasters she couldn’t predict. But now the world holds new catastrophes, hundreds more than Brenda imagined when she first discovered how easily one thread of fear braids with another, winding into a ball of yarn she could cup in her hands.
Each day is a Russian doll. One worry tucked inside another, tucked inside another. How can she hold them all?
Like this newest trouble. Someone is stealing plants from her garden, and she hasn’t slept in days. Of course she frets over which plant will disappear next, but she worries more aboutwhy anyone would sneak into a stranger’s backyard to dig up hellebores. If gardeners are stealing from other gardeners, what is the world coming to?
After midnight and still no sleep. Brenda climbs out of bed and stands by the window. Maybe it’s time to let someone younger take over. Someone who can predict new troubles, see beyond the usual disease, train wreck, disappointing life. Brenda has many disciples to choose from. But not a weekend worrier, lost in the Sunday paper. She needs someone with vision, an extensive repertoire of anxiety.
Gladys in Cincinnati? One of her first acolytes, prone to getting trapped in one worry well after another. Luis in Guanajuato, who can’t stop agonizing over global warming? Or Felicia from Singapore, fretting about the impact of technology on social relations?
Brenda takes out a sheet of paper and writes “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe” at the top. Gladys is a quick “No.” Luis and Felicia fall under “Maybe.” Brenda hesitates. Both Luis and Felicia specialize. This new reality demands a generalist. She can’t do this now. When the right one comes along she’ll let go.
Turning out the light, Brenda slips under the comforter, tugging it up to her chin. Even with her eyes closed a list of top worriers scrolls through her mind. She lies on her back, turns on her left side, then her right. As Brenda starts to doze, she jerks awake, holding her breath for a slow count to ten. Sure enough, metal scraping against rock.
Brenda parts the curtain and catches sight of a dark figure below. Time to act. She imagines standing in the yard, pointing to an uprooted forsythia, the thief’s head hung low, the shovel at his feet.
But what if the thief has a gun? Just last week there was a fatal shooting two blocks away. What if she dies before naming a successor? She sees her body dumped by the heavenly bamboo, covered by a spray of dirt.
Brenda pulls the duvet over her head, but even the thick down can’t muffle the insistence of the thief’s shovel, uprooting her garden.
* * *
Phebe Jewell’s work appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals, most recently Fiction Attic, Pithead Chapel, *82 Review, Milk Candy Review, and Drunk Monkey. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender non-conforming people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.
“I like your hair.” When she smiled, the pink rhinestone embedded on her incisor caught the fluorescent light, gleaming. The reflection made her mouth look wet and glistening. She emerged from behind the counter with amop and a bucket of sudsy water while I waited by the trash for my order. She ran the mop in tight circles across the floor close to where I was standing, barely avoiding my feet.
I looked down at the toes of my scuffed black Converse and stepped away from her, toward the garbage can. “Sorry,” I said with a tight smile. An apology for standing where I’d been standing, where she’d then decided to mop. Unnecessary, but second nature.
“Oh you’re totally fine! I like your dress too.” Her voice was high-pitched and sugary. If I were Dr. Drew, who I’d been listening to on my drive, I would’ve asked if she was molested as a child. The baby voice was a giveaway, he always said.
“Thanks so much,” I said, instead of inquiring about her childhood trauma. She was cute. Her bleach blonde hair was pulled high and tight in a scrunchy over her McDonald’s visor. She was stick skinny aside from a little pregnant belly bump. She had to have only been 18 or 19, I guessed. Still a baby herself. “I like your –” I started, unsure just what to call the glinting jewel on her tooth, gesturing instead with my ring finger at my own mouth.
“Oh, my tooth gem? Thank you,” she ran the tip of her tongue over her front teeth. “I did it myself.”
Order #273 came up on the screen. I grabbed the brown paper bag and opened it to make sure they got my food right. My cheeseburger sat wrapped in paper. A perfect 313 calorie package I could order over and over again, at every stop along my route. I’d had the same lunch in Kingman, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico and Sterling, Colorado and then here, somewhere between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. “I had a medium Diet Coke, too,” I said to one of the cashiers, who filled a paper cup and pushed it across the counter without a word. “Thanks,” I said, and jabbed a straw through the X.
I ate my cheeseburger in the corner booth, with a view of the grazing cows across the road. When I finished, I crumpled up the last of my napkins and stuffed them in the paper bag. The girl stopped me, again, at the trash can by the exit. “I can do it for you, if you want.”
“Sorry, do what?”
“A tooth gem. If you want, I can do one for you. I’ve got my kit here and everything.” I nodded, surprising myself. “Oh my god, really?” She said, grabbing her phone out of her back pocket, glancing at the time. “I have a break in five. Do you have a toothbrush?”
“In my car, yeah.”
“Perfect! You brush your teeth and I’ll meet you in the bathroom.”
She knocked on the door and I spat and swished, watching the foamy toothpaste swirl down the drain. “Smile,” she instructed, stuffing two cotton balls between my gum and upper lip. “You want it in the same place I have mine?” She asked, and I nodded, unable to speak as she smoothed a cotton ball over the area where the gem would go.
She squirted glue into a Dixie cup, stirring it with a wand, which she took to the surface of my tooth, applying just a dab to the lower right corner. She picked up a pink rhinestone from her kit with tweezers and held it to the spot with the glue, applying pressure as it set. “Last thing.” She said, and flicked on a handheld UV lamp, holding it an inch from where she’d placed the jewel. It was hot and I tasted bitter chemicals. “Smile!” She told me, as she removed the light. “You can take the cotton out too,” and I plucked the two soaked cotton balls from beneath my upper lip. “What do you think?”
I smiled wide and admired the way the light danced in the mirror as I turned my head. “I love it. Thank you.”
When I asked how much I owed her she said nothing, and that she needed the practice. She gave me her number, and told me to call if I got bored on the road or if I was ever back in Nebraska, which I wouldn’t be. I found her on Venmo and sent her $50. For diapers or baby bottles, maybe. A small price to pay for changing my smile forever.
As I turned the key in my car’s ignition, Dr. Drew’s voice came back on my stereo, picking up exactly where I’d left off before lunch. “So, there’s an important link between oral fixation, addiction and unresolved childhood trauma,” he explained. “Freudian psychologists would consider alcoholism to be a form of oral regression that might develop in someone who had experienced trauma during the oral stage of development. Even habits like nail biting, gum chewing, thumb sucking. We would describe all those behaviors as characteristic of oral regression. ” I rolled the windows down and turned the volume knob up all the way.
Corn fields whizzed by and I tongued the stone glued to the otherwise smooth surface of my tooth as Dr. Drew spoke. I couldn’t believe it was my own smile I was feeling, underneath the same pair of lips I’d always had. The gem felt like a candy I might suck on forever. No thoughts but the compulsive pleasure of tonguing its rigid surface. Soon, it would become a part of me. I’d forget it was even there, only remembering when I’d catch someone staring at the sparkle between my lips.
When you squeeze her tummy she no longer laughs out loud, no longer tells you that she loves you. She doesn’t make the slightest of sound, yet she is smiling –always smiling. Her eyes no longer light up when you enter the room, no longer flash to illuminate shadows from underneath a propped-up bedcover. Yet they watch –those eyes– lidless and unblinking. They reflect a grown woman who used to be a small child, a stranger who used to be a dear friend.
Beneath the soft layer of her velveteen flesh, embedded deep within her core, batteries crust over with the old seepage of acidic ooze. Like failed organs, her Duracell D’s mold over with a corrosive substance that eats away at her like grief, like terminal cancer. Heavy things, they weigh her down where she sits, and like the dust that gathers upon her crown, her pink, fluffy ears, they metastasize with caustic film.
Pungent, joyful buds open, alter, heartbreak blooming outward, germinating, festering within, a slow-motion sorrow muted inside a thick tomb of soft, synthetic fibers; the timeline of a once beloved teddy bear. The past echoes with laughter. The present, smudged in dark shadows cast by lights that have long gone out.
Then, one day, you reach out to squeeze her tummy, and though she remains silent, though her eyes do not flash with electric light, you think you hear –perhaps feel– an expression of pleasure exude from her soft body. You think you see –perhaps dream– a warm sheen that glimmers within the depths of her deep, marble eyes. You smile. You remember. Then you sigh as you place her, tenderly, in a box with all the other things that you no longer need in your life, no longer want. You fold over the corners of a cardboard crypt and neatly seal it shut.
Inside, the world falls silent, uninterrupted by laughter or warm words of ardor. Inside, everything goes dark, unlit by flashing lights. Inside, you feel the weight of your past as you carry it to your car. Inside, one last sentiment is delivered, communicated to pink fluffy ears as the felt marker scrawls its message upon a sarcophagus burdened with childhood items.
One last word penetrates the layers of a grave, the synthetic fibers of a teddy bear within. It worms its way straight into her corroded heart as you write out over the secured lid of a cramped chamber of discarded goods: Landfill.
If she had a heart, it would shatter and bleed, it would bear the weight of the world. Yet as you walk back empty-handed, you feel lighter, almost buoyant. Each step carries you away from the past. Unburdened, you feel as though you could fly.
* * *
James Callan grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand on a small farm with his wife, Rachel, and his little boy, Finn. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Maudlin House, Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. His novel, A Transcendental Habit, is due for publication in 2023 with Queer Space, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.
We lost the trail long ago. The path is dusty and overgrown.
I worry about ticks.
Keri Anne bounces ahead of me. Her hair’s still dark at forty plus, and as far as I can tell, she doesn’t color it. She wears a neon lime activewear jacket over a floral print hippie skirt, flipflops on her feet. Trust my former best friend to dress inappropriately no matter what the occasion. Trust her to not question why I called after all these years, and to suggest a hike, like we were both still college kids with dreams of backpacking the Appalachian Trail.
My water bottle’s almost empty, and what was supposed to be an hour-long trek has turned into a purgatory nightmare.
I need to pee. Do I have a tissue in my pocket? And even if I can find a bush to squat behind and not hit my Nikes, my knees aren’t that good anymore—can I straighten up again without toppling over? Will there be enough leaves and soil to bury the tissue? I picture myself like my cat, Scooter, madly clawing the dirt.
Keri Anne glances over her shoulder, gleaming smile still in place.
“I’m sure this loops back to the main trail. I hiked it with Ryan when he was little.”
“How old is Ryan now?” I call as she stretches the distance between us.
“He turns twenty-five next month.” Her little yipping laugh. “Can you believe it?”
She never caught irony.
“Hard to believe!” I yell and try to speed up.
She got pregnant with Ryan at twenty. The surprise twenty-first birthday party I’d planned for my fiancée never took place. Instead, I gave back his ring.
Rising above the endless scrub brush I see a stand of coastal oaks.
“Pitstop!” I yell, using our old code word, and tear through the bushes to the trees, scan for a spot without spikey leaves, buzzing insects and foliage enough for cover.
Keri Anne shouts, “This sunset is just too beautiful!”
Sunset? It’ll be dark soon—we’ll be stranded!
My zipper sticks, my jacket skims the ground, my phone’s about to fall out of my pocket, and stinging nettles graze my butt.
I envision the struggle to find a signal on this god-forsaken hilltop to phone 911—humiliating images of park rangers smirking as they rescue us.
I manage to miss my shoes. My knees creak like the tin man’s as I straighten up. Half a tissue peeks from the soil despite my best dirt kicking efforts. Screw it. And screw my therapist for suggesting this whole encounter. I blunder out of the bushes, only snagging my jeans once.
Keri Anne motions me over. I tamp down my anger, my panic, and gather my forces to inform her I’m making the call.
The sky stops me—an explosion of burning magenta and gold, combed silk clouds edged with sun—but even more glorious is the parking lot directly below us, the trail opening out into it in a short downhill hop.
Keri Anne turns to me. “You know he left years ago,” she says softly.
So here it is—the conversation I was supposed to start, only now I don’t want it.
“Ancient history. I got over it.”
She shakes her head. “No. Neither one of us ever did.”
I gaze into the magenta sky.
The sun’s halo flickers on the back of my eyes. “I’m starving,” I say, and start down the trail to the parking lot. “Maurie’s?”
She laughs, but responds on cue, “Best Pizza in Town.”
I say, “Whoever gets there first—save the table.”
* * *
Shera Hill grew up in California and has written short stories, poetry, and novels, since she was a child. A retired library branch manager, she has published fiction and poetry in such journals as the First Literary Review – East, Everyday Fiction, and Ancient Paths Online.
One thrusts a green shovel into the sand and the other stares at the oncoming waves. A pelican soars overhead, gently down the coast. A low, salty fog envelopes the horizon. One boy runs quickly to his mother and drops a toy at her feet.
Together the two boys splash in oncoming waves, the sound on the shoreline drowning out all other noises. Waves lap at the webbed feet of the gulls patiently waiting for walking tourists to give them a handout. The last wave rolls in, a tangle of vegetation and two green shovels.
* * *
Misti Little is an emerging writer from the Houston area who focuses on environmental and nature writing as well as fiction. Her nature writing has previously appeared in Midwest Explorer Zine. When she isn’t writing she can be found expanding her watercolor skills or hiking in the botanically diverse parks and preserves of southeast Texas with her husband and son. She can be found online at http://www.oceanicwilderness.com and @nyssabiflora on Twitter.