Stew

By Anna Dubey

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.

The Woman Who Invented Worry

 

By Phebe Jewell

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 about  why 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.

Tooth Gem in a Nebraska McDonald’s

 

By Emma Burger

“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 a mop 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.

                                                   *   *   *

Emma Burger is a writer, healthcare professional, and end-of-life doula who splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. She is the author of Spaghetti for Starving Girls (2021), and her work has been featured in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, Memoirist, and more. You can find her on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com.

Unburdened

By James Callan 

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.

Pitstop

By Shera Hill

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. 

Okay. Okay.

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.

Shoreline

By Misti Little

Two boys, yellow swim trunks.

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.

Office Party

By Lisa Molina

Except for the pie, Janet hated David’s office parties.

Smile, chit chat, shake hands, suck in belly. Why did I wear this dress?

Where’s David?

Wait. Who is that young brunette? Is David whispering in her ear? I think I’m going to vomit.

Janet rushes outside, gasping and gulping in the frosty air, and sees the dark clouds unfurl from the bright full moon. No longer in the dark, she sees a large stone sitting in the middle of the sidewalk that she hadn’t noticed when they had arrived earlier. She walks over to it for a closer look.

A few minutes later, Janet slowly opens the front door, and notices David and the brunette have disappeared.

Conversations are suddenly being hushed among the now-tipsy and giggling party-goers, who huddle together, not acknowledging her entrance, and avoiding eye contact with her.

I know they’re talking about me. But that’s OK. Just smile.

She walks over to the dessert table, slices herself a large piece of pie, and releases the belly she has been sucking in all night as she walks to a chair in the corner, and sits down alone.

She will just enjoy her pie here alone, as long as it takes for David to eventually reappear, and tell her it’s time for Janet to drive them home.

As she takes her first enormous bite of delicious cream pie, Janet closes her eyes, and visualizes the large stone now hiding in the trunk of their car.

Chew. Wait. Patience. Savor. Smile.

It will be over soon enough.

* * *

Lisa Molina is a writer/educator in Austin, Texas. She is a 2022 “Best of the Net” nominee for poetry, and her digital chapbook “Don’t Fall in Love with Sisyphus” launched in February 2022. Her poems, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in Bright Flash Literary Review, The Potato Journal, Sky Island Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Epoch Journal, and Beyond Words Magazine. Her next chapbook is slated to launch in spring 2023 by Finishing Line Press. In addition to writing and reading constantly, she works full-time with high school students with special needs.

How to Eat a Strawberry

 

By Elizabeth Kleinfeld

My mother staggered across the lawn in short shorts and a halter top, barefoot, with a mason jar full of gin in her hand, to harvest the strawberries for my father’s favorite dessert. That night, she would slice the berries directly into our bowls at the table, her turquoise mood ring catching the light. Even dulled by gin, my mother sparkled. We sprinkled heaping spoonfuls of sugar over the berries before passing around a carton of heavy cream. “This is how you eat strawberries,” my father said with authority while my sister and I rolled our eyes at each other from across the table. He always thought he was right. 

My husband preferred strawberries pulled from the plant and devoured on the spot with no adornments, warm from the sun, their green leafy tops tossed into the soil to fertilize the next crop. After his stroke, he carefully maneuvered his bright yellow motorized wheelchair around the retaining wall, easing up to the plants. With just one functioning hand, he had to work hard to pull a single berry from its stem without crushing it. He never stopped loving the feel of dirt in his hand. We learned to measure victory in berries harvested, hurts forgiven, and pain that made sleep difficult but not impossible. 

Later, victory was a gentle death. After taking my husband off life support, I wandered through the house made unfamiliar by his absence. On the kitchen counter, I found a white ramekin filled with a handful of strawberries he had harvested two days before. I imagined him picking the berries, resisting the urge to eat them, bringing them into the house on his lap and leaving them on the counter for me to find. I held the ramekin, feeling the ribs of the pottery under my fingers. Just a few hours earlier I had held my husband while he drew in his last breath and let it out just like any other, only there was no next breath. I leaned my nose in, inhaling the luscious scent of the bright red berries. 

I put the ramekin in the fridge, and every time I opened it for the next month, I thought, “Tom’s last strawberries.” One morning, I stood in the kitchen, his plaid flannel shirt shrouding me, wedding band still on my hand, opened the fridge, and carefully took the ramekin off its shelf, the berries resting inside now shrunken and dark. Their tiny seeds popped against the shriveled flesh. I ate them quickly, afraid I would lose my nerve. Even a month old, even shriveled, they were sweet and lush, the little seeds bursting in my mouth like bubbles in the sun. 

The next spring, a cousin will remind me to begin watering the garden. I will hire a friend to weed and maintain the beds. Strawberries will appear again, as if Tom were still alive, tending to them. They will not know he is gone. They will not care. They will glow like jewels against the mulch and drop me to my knees in the dirt. Even in my mouth, even as they are being thrashed apart, the berries will seem joyful and exuberant. 

                                                              *.  *   *

Elizabeth Kleinfeld is a writer and professor living in Denver, Colorado. She blogs about grief, disability, and Buddhism at https://elizabethkleinfeld.com/revisionspiral-3-0/. Her superpowers are killing plants, embracing paradox, and Swedish death cleaning.

Chance of Showers

A Memoir by Erica M. Dolson

You decide on the carafe. You found it on the back shelf of a Crate & Barrel, as you referenced the printed wedding registry in your hand. Or, maybe it’s a decanter. At this point, you can’t remember. At the time, you didn’t know the difference. Large and made of glass, the carafe-decanter was so nondescript that its blandness gave it personality. It seemed appropriately fancy and elegant to give as a wedding gift to your first friend to be married, a woman you met in kindergarten. 

On the morning of the bridal shower, you rifle through recycled gift bags at your parents’ house, where you are living for the next few weeks before starting graduate school. Just as you think there won’t be a bag large enough for the carafe-decanter, you find one. 

“Aha!” you exclaim as you pull the bag out to examine it. It is white, with a giant exclamation point in the center. Rows of smaller, brightly colored exclamation points dance in the background. You have no idea where this bag came from, though, if you had to guess, you’d say it had been used for a gift from a student to your mother, a middle school English teacher and a lover of grammar. It’s the perfect size for the carafe-decanter. 

You create a cushion of tissue paper on which to place the carafe-decanter and add more paper on top, so it rises from the bag like peaks of soft meringue. It looks exciting, festive, happy.

“No,” your mom says when she spots the wrapped present on the kitchen table. “You can’t bring a bag like that to a wedding shower.” 

She explains that exclamation points are inappropriate, and your father runs out for something more fitting. He returns with a roll of wrapping paper: white, with shiny, delicate silver hearts. 

You arrive at your friends’ parents’ house, a place you remember playing as a child, where you sometimes hung out as a teenager, for the shower. In the backyard, you sit at a picnic table with the bridal party, women your friend met in college and graduate school. They live in the same city, nearly 3 hours across the state, and are part of your friend’s life in a way you no longer can be. This is the first time you’ve met these women, and they are gracious and kind. They ask about your grad school plans. They tell you living alone takes some getting used to, but assure you you’ll love it in time. 

They have apartments and advanced degrees and jobs and boyfriends/husbands/fiancés. They understand the etiquette for wedding showers and wedding shower gifts. They seem so wise. 

As your friend and her future husband unwrap gifts, you’ll think back to that moment in Crate & Barrel when you chose the carafe-decanter. 

“I like watching people open gifts at their shower,” the friend who was with you said. “You can see what their home will look like.” 

In your head, you replace “home” with “life.” What will their life look like? You wonder that day at the shower. A mixed bag, but, hopefully, mostly good, you think as your friend unwraps present after present – the carafe-decanter, towels, a memory foam mat to stand on while washing dishes. 

You look at her and see your future. This is what happens when you leave home. You find a partner. You make a new home somewhere else. 

In the coming years, you’ll attend many more weddings and showers. Eventually, you’ll tire of being a guest. Again and again, you’ll find the gift table and understand just how tacky an exclamation-pointed gift bag would have been. Sometimes, you’ll giggle about it, because it was so out of character for you – you always do what’s expected. But sometimes you’ll feel sad, too, because you are not married – or even close – and gift wrapping is just the start of things you don’t understand about marriage and partnership and long-term commitment. You worry it means you don’t understand something fundamental about life and love. 

Later, after graduate school, still living alone, you’ll realize that the bridesmaids at that first wedding represented one version of a future, not the only version. 

You’ll become a teacher and work hard to be a good one. You’ll try to write. You’ll buy a house and get a dog. You’ll adjust to living alone and – like the bridesmaids had said – learn to love it, most of the time. You’ll even acquire your own carafe-decanter. One that belonged to your grandparents. Or maybe it’s a carafe-vase. Still unsure how to use it, you store it with your flower vases. On weekends, you’ll sit on your porch or prepare dinner while an audiobook plays in the background. You’ll enjoy the occasional glass of wine, poured straight from the bottle.

                                                    *   *   *

Erica M. Dolson lives in Pennsylvania and teaches in the English Department at Elizabethtown College. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and her nonfiction has been published in Culinate.com (now defunct), Full-Stop Magazine, Critical Read, Hippocampus (“Writing Life”), Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere. 

A View of the Water

By Alexander Holcomb

Back and forth. Back and forth.

The cabin belongs to him for the weekend: timeshare.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

It has been three years since he visited the timeshare. His mother and stepfather took it the previous times, but this year, when he tried to give it up, she said he needed this. But this cabin with a view of the water drowns him with memories he cannot forget. His work is a faceless office job that requires less than ten hours of work a week, but he stretches it to fifty.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

The back porch hammock is new since the last time he was here. And here he rests—back and forth—with a Business Book in hand. Rest, he tells himself. Read this book. Smell the warm tree air. You’ll feel better. Listen to the birds cawing.

He knows he should have brought something better for rest. A business book is a wasteful book, but the material assuages the guilt he feels for leaving work. He plays an important role as the Manager of Company Resources.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

Two years ago his mother told him that the owners had added a row of trees at the front of the cabin to hide it from the road. The precocious conifers have a long life to lead at the timeshare that will be, if he can’t rid himself of the cabin, a mark of his own time passing.

A bird croaks, and a boat passes by. He flips the page, and a gust blows it back.

When his wife picked the place ten years ago, he liked it. He adored anything she suggested. His ideas and her ideas flowed in such a way that it was impossible to remember who was the originator, but the good ideas he always attributed to her. They were in sync. That summer they brought the children—grown and disenchanted by cabins now—to enjoy swimming in the lake and warming in the hot tub. Playing pool was the crowning activity in those days. He and his wife made love on the table most years before laughing and spraying bleach so the children could play in the morning.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

She’s gone now, and he wonders if that was a good idea. The woman he sees now doesn’t know he’s a survivor. They meet a few times a week to commiserate about their jobs, the weather, and the difficulty of living. She was not invited to the timeshare. He couldn’t bring her.

Dead, he thinks, she’s dead. She was here once. Here with me. It’s holy ground. Stop. Flip the page. 

I’m tired of telling you this story. How did she die? She died by suicide. What more could you want?

Back and forth. Back and forth.

He puts the book down and closes his eyes. The kids weren’t there. He smells bleach and thinks of pool tables and blood-covered linoleum that won’t clean. Bleach is a perversion of water––breaking the flow, removing the mess. She never cleaned up after herself. The pool table was covered before the trip, and he won’t play.

Hard work removes the bleach. But it’s Saturday, and he’s on vacation with an inbox he emptied last night. Alcohol smells too much like bleach, and weed was never an option. Smoking he gave up when the children came, and he promised her. He can’t bring himself to let the promise go.

A bird lands on the porch, but he does not see it because his eyes are still closed. He lives in a haze, and he imagines her face above him wider than ever. She wears the hoodie from their first trip here that she bought at the gas station because August was colder than expected. Her hair is graying, and in a few years, it will all be gray. Her face drips. She swam in the water, and I am tired of telling you this story because it is true.

The water drips from the face. He lifts his hand without looking. He asks: you went without me? Can I come with you tomorrow? She nods, but he sees that the hand is red. The water turns to bleach, and the woman changes. She’s lost weight, and her haggard eyes are damp. The child has died again, and she will too. He twitches, and he’s awake. The Business Book sits on his stomach. His hypnagogic hallucinations are always her. His dreams are too.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

He goes to the kitchen to find salt and vinegar chips. His mouth is wet from drinking too much water, and the tartness dries it out. For a while, he kept buying her favorite chips, to taste the memory. But neither sour cream nor onion alleviates grief.

April is when it happened. The season changes were always hard on her. Depression feeds on inconsistency, even temperature. But the winter change had been smooth; spring to summer was the killer. She died of temperature change. I tell myself it was more—that her death was deeper than the fear of hot weather. But searching for rationality in the irrational is a fool’s quest. And do I want suicide to be rational?

He turns on a documentary about living with purpose. It’s religious in a subtle way. He falls asleep to the sound of an old man talking about the search for meaning.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

In the morning, he rocks on the hammock, reads, and sips coffee. At lunch, it will be time to go, and he will hope he can pass the timeshare to someone else next year. He will not come back. It will be empty if no one takes it. If he progresses with his partner, maybe they’ll find somewhere to visit.

Until lunch, he reads the business book, taking breaks to cry.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

                                                            *   *   *

Alexander Holcomb is a marketing specialist working in the technology industry. His work has been published in Poets’ Choice, The Friends of The Knox County Public Library Newsletter, and various student publications. He lives in Knoxville, TN with his wife and editor Olivia.