2019 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
Short Fiction judge: Pinckney Benedict
Pinckney Benedict is the author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories; a novel Dogs of God, and two other story collections, The Wrecking Yard and Town Smokes. His next collection, The Redneck Gospel: New & Selected Stories, will be published by Press 53 in 2020. Benedict’s stories have appeared widely in various publications including The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses; New Stories from the South; and Best American Short Stories.
Our winner and runners-Up
First Prize: “Wild Kingdom” by Robyn Carter of San Francisco, CA
Runner-Up: “Seven Is the Square Root of Survival” by KT Sparks of Greenville, VA
Runner-Up: “Theories of Simultaneous Love and Loss” by Charles Duffie of Claremont, CA
Congratulations to our finalists:
“Fight or Flight” by Brian Crawford of Redwood City, CA
“Minty” by Laura Farnsworth of Denver, CO
“The Death Cart” by Kent Nelson of Ouray, CO
“Fugue with Little Green Men” by Zachary Williams of Hattiesburg, MS
$1,000 First Prize: “Wild Kingdom”
Followed by Author Bio
So Shut Up
Mindy is cursed with a name for skinny white girls even though she’s a big fat gook. She towers over the tallest of the other sixth graders by several inches and outweighs them by at least thirty pounds. Most of the time she moves with a thick, syrupy wobble, but when she’s provoked her limbs get all jerky and mechanical. You usually feel them before you see them: the sting of her nails raking your cheek, the throb of a bruise forming on your shin, then out of the corner of your eye, Mindy’s red plastic clogs stomping out secrets underneath the monkey bars. The Jungle Gym Girls laugh at Mindy and call her a retard, but the teachers say she’s special and you can see why. At lunchtime recess she throws back her head and sings radio songs at the sky, her voice snagging itself on her kitty-cat teeth, so tiny because they-just-grow-that-way-so-shut-up. At lunchtime, Mindy’s voice coating the playground like color, the trembling shade your lips turn when you are so cold you have to get out of the pool and too bad if you’re wearing a two-summers-ago swimsuit and your boobs came too soon. Every day at noon: gray-green cafeteria beans then Mindy’s blue-red voice and the other kids snickering and you wondering what’s wrong with them and wondering harder what’s wrong with you.
There’s a rumor going around that Mindy lives above a basement swarming with hornets and wasps. Today at lunch you hear John Pons stop her behind the batting cage and ask her if what the kids are saying is true. He’s only twelve, same as you, but he tells everyone he stole a Camaro out of someone’s open garage. You don’t know if he really did, but a few downy hairs have sprouted above his lip and he wears a jacket that says Disco Sucks, so there’s no question he’s tough. So is it true or what? he’s saying, shaking a greasy lock of hair out of his eyes. You shut your dog-eared copy of The Sky Phantom and watch his act from a nearby bench. Mindy crouches down next to him, her back pressed against the cage, shoulder flab spilling through the chain-link in diamond-shaped cushions. She tells him it is true and brags about how she walks down the basement’s dark staircase and offers her flesh up to the stingers. I tell those thing, get me, I dare you, she says. If you prick me, little bug, you gonna die. That how nature work so shut up.
The bad word falls in a whisper from John’s mean-pretty mouth but Mrs. Gillespie’s got animal ears, snaps her neck in his direction, keeps her gaze to herself. Her mirrored sunglasses bend the yard at the edges and turn it into fishbowls. Lipstick cakes up in little clumps at the corners of her mouth and leaves frosty pink kisses on the butts of her Virginia Slims. She drags on the one between her red-licked claws and tosses it at John’s feet. Its embers scatter along with news of Mindy’s inquisition, and when the jungle gym in left field starts to rattle with threatening squeals, Mrs. Gillespie turns and plods bison-like toward the sound.
You Never Know
Loud noises are forbidden and soft noises are suspect, but the rhythmic sound of rope slapping concrete is always there, and nobody notices it until it stops, and it never stops while Mindy’s jumping. Despite her big elephant stomp, she jumps double-dutch better than any of the smaller, quicker girls, her legs a whir of ribbed polyester, her braids like wobbly blender blades. The beads in her hair are pretty—and dangerous. Sometimes they double as a shiny plastic arsenal but right now all they do is cling to her braids in obedient pastel towers. From the other side of the yard the ropes call her name. Mother-fucker, titty-sucker, two-ball bitch / Mama’s in the kitchen cooking red-hot dick / Daddy’s in hell, Brother’s in jail / Sister’s on the corner with pussy for sale. Mindy closes her eyes and a dumb-kitty smile cuts her face fearless, leads her across the asphalt, follows her feet in between the spinning arcs. Mindy never waits in line to jump; it’s always her turn. The day is sunny, but still cold enough to see your breath, and behind you the Jungle Gym Girls suck on candy cigarettes. One of them exhales pretend smoke through gossipy lips, throws you a look, her knee socks shimmering a cruel silvery-pink. The others point at you, alone on the bench, Nancy Drew facedown on the prickly fiberglass beside you. You ditch her there and cross the yard, melt into the double-dutch line curling around the water fountain. When your turn comes, you make it through the intersecting ropes, but within seconds you trip, too close to Mindy, who has jumped in beside you, and you catch a braid full of beads in your mouth, lick blood from your teeth. Mrs. Gillespie is on it, and with her cigarette she motions you toward the girls’ bathroom. Above the sinks, a dull sheet of aluminum serves as a mirror, turning girls into fleshy smears and the row of stalls that lines the opposite wall into a pale blue fog. Under the dim-witted gaze of a Hello Kitty eraser perched on top of the paper towel dispenser, pat your lip and check for blood. On your way out, you swipe the little rubber cat. You know it belongs to Mindy because it has her halfway-between-cinnamon-and-leather smell. Hello Kitty has no mouth but nobody talks about this. Some shortcomings are unspeakable.
The girls’ PE teacher is Mrs. Hyde, but behind her back the girls call her Mrs. Naugahyde because she spends so much time at the tanning salon. She wears velour sweat suits that match her eye shadow. When it rains she checks your back for scoliosis and tells you about a spray you can buy to eliminate “feminine odor.” When it doesn’t rain she makes the class disco dance on the playground. Every day she lugs a clunky, gray record player out of the storage closet and sets it on a folding chair beside one of the hoopless backboard posts. Today Mrs. Hyde hands you the end of a long orange extension cord and says, Honey, plug this in for me, so you pull it across the playground and scan the locker room walls for an outlet. You don’t find any right away, but you spot three new black-and-white photographs taped onto the windows of Mrs. Hyde’s corner office. Up close you can see a daisy at the center of each shot. You stab your palm with the metal prongs at the end of the cord, and your eyes trace the pictures until you realize that they are not actually photographs of daisies but X-rays of daisies, and the longer you look at them the clearer it becomes that they aren’t actually X-rays of daisies either but highly detailed paintings of X-rays of daisies, their petals transparent as tissue, their leaves mosaics of busy-hearted cells. You want to tear them down but they are taped onto the other side of the glass and the office door is locked.
Today Mrs. Hyde brought in a man to help her demonstrate some new moves. The way he sweats makes his cheeks resemble pinkish-gray slabs of steak, and the Listerine on his breath makes him smell guilty.
Mrs. Hyde drops the needle onto the record and says, Find your partners, girls. You glance at Mindy and brush your finger over the scab on your lip. She is your dance partner because you two were the only leftovers after all the other girls paired up at the beginning of the year. Toot toot, hey, beep beep. Okay girls, follow us, Mrs. Hyde says, and gives the Listerine Man a flirty pat on the shoulder. One two three, kick. One two three, spin. You try to copy Mrs. Hyde but wind up kicking Mindy.
Why you do that? Mindy says. Her eyes get squinty and she clucks her tongue, but nothing else happens until you sneeze, mid-spin.
What? you say.
You sneeze. Right here.
I have allergies.
You want me die.
You both freeze and the rest of the class hustles past you, the familiar flap of propellers in the distance snipping the music to synthy shreds. Your eyes cling to a candy wrapper stuck in the fence behind Mindy and you wonder what she means. You know that if she died you would probably have to dance with the Listerine Man.
When I live in Laos, I go my auntie’s funeral, Mindy tells you. My uncle give me some flower that make me sneeze and sneeze, and he say now you gonna be my new wife, I got two baby that need a mommy. He give me the stink eye and say never sneeze or someone else gonna die now.
Mrs. Hyde and the Listerine Man have moved on to the next set of kicks and spins and now the med-fly choppers are too close to ignore. When the spraying started back in October, the teachers made a big deal about it and said to come immediately to the breezeway if you happened to be outside during one of the sweeps. Everyone knows the drill by now. The Listerine Man heaves the record player off the folding chair and Mrs. Hyde summons the class to the breezeway but Mindy’s not following directions. Alone on the basketball court, she swivels and spins, picks up the lyrics where Donna Summer left off. Do you wanna get down? / Now don't you ask yourself, who they are? Mrs. Hyde screams for Mindy to get off the playground but she won’t listen. She closes her eyes and sways her hips, twirling in the toxic rain. Like everybody else, they wanna be a star.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
Sixth period is a class called core. The word makes you think of the part of an apple you throw away, but the teacher, Mrs. Papovich, says it means the main part, the thing you really, truly need. It’s Monday but the weekend homework is already on the board: Sunday night’s episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. She is always telling the class to watch this show, probably because she feels a sisterhood with the program’s tortured cast of antelope. Her eyes shine with a hopeless, almost-why-bother panic, and her lips screw themselves up into a scared little knot as if her face is saying, Why are you doing this? Why not go for the limping wildebeest over there instead? Take notes, she says. Next week you’ll be writing about what you learn. Next, she splits the class up into reading groups named after the colors and animals that appear on the cover of each group’s textbook. At the beginning of the year the kids moaned that they were too old for that kind of thing but Mrs. Papovich said animals and colors are timeless classics like Chanel Number 5, which is a famous perfume from France that she must not use because she mostly smells like Dittos, the damp ones fresh from the machine. Mindy’s reading group is called the Purple Lizards, but everyone knows that’s code for Going Nowhere Fast; the only kids in that group are swamp rats or heshers like Mike Doorman and John Pons. You are a Blue Oyster but John Pons calls your group the Blue Oyster Cult, and doesn’t ever say any words to you, just sings, Come on, baby / Don’t fear the reaper. And he sings right into your ear, his Lucky Strikes-school-lunch breath all over you. Blue Oysters get worksheets with riddles just like the ones Mrs. Papovich says will be on an important test they make you take for college. The principal appears in the doorway, waddles across the room on his big clown feet and murmurs something into Mrs. Papovich’s ear. She pulls off her earrings (dangly clip-ons) and shakes them in her fist like dice as she calls for quiet. She has an announcement. Someone shot the president and even though he isn’t dead you still don’t have to do worksheets. (Yay!) Who did it? John Pons wants to know. We don’t know yet, Mrs. Papovich says, but I imagine he is someone who, in the final analysis (this is her favorite way to say nothing), is a very damaged person.
The Greater Good
On the way home from school you cut through the Stop ‘n Go parking lot. Mike and John are there as usual, hunched next to the dumpster, sharing half a cigarette someone threw on the ground. They are trying to set Pop Rocks on fire but the candy only melts and sizzles a little. They inhale the strawberry-flavored smoke, pushing each other out of the way to get their mouths over the fragile plume. They also like to burn and crush and inhale things behind the batting cage at the edge of the playground. This is their hobby. Basically, their hobby is form of breathing, which is stupid, but also fascinating, and you hate yourself for thinking this. Mrs. Gilespi never notices the smell of scorched tea bags or powdered diet pills, but when they set a bicycle inner tube on fire she sent them to the principal’s office. The med-fly choppers are back again, circling directly overhead. California is working so hard to save its fruit from this terrible plague. The man in the apartment across the hall from yours is mad about what the spray is doing to the paint job on his car but your mom says individuals must sometimes make sacrifices for the greater good. What would happen if we ran out of fruit? she says. What then? There seem to be plenty of Pop Rocks, and those cans of gray-green beans from the cafeteria are huge. You don’t worry so much. The noise is what bothers you more. The buzz above is deafening now, too loud for scientific inquiry. Mike and John glance at the sky and ditch their experiment, hop on their chromed-out Redlines and speed off into the chemical mist. You hurry past the sticky pink inkblot they leave at the edge of the parking lot and duck under the stairs of the apartment building next door. You wait for the spray to settle and watch the pale green droplets spatter the Pop Rock mess. Now it looks like a tricky sea creature, the kind that seems like a plant but is really an animal.
When you get home, the apartment’s empty because your mom’s at her new job, answering the phone in the classifieds department at The Fresno Bee. Her desk sits beside a window that looks into a room full of nothing but rubber bands. She brings a handful home for you every day. You’re making rubber band balls and so far you have three, each one the size of a grapefruit. This is a legitimate hobby, you remind yourself whenever you snap a wormy pink loop into place, a hobby that has nothing to do with breathing. You could do it holding your breath. It wouldn’t matter. You drop your books on the couch and a little puff of dust floats up from the thump. The living room looks different. Something is missing. The TV. It’s not in its spot in the corner, on top of its rickety cart, a piece of furniture made out of plastic trying to look like wood. There is a dustless rectangle where the TV used to sit. You pick up the phone attached to the wall in the kitchen and dial the number people call when they lose their pets or want to sell a used refrigerator or need someone to wash dishes at their restaurants. Even though you expect your mom to answer, it still surprises you when she does. It’s hard to imagine your mother’s tender and exhausted voice as the voice of wish fulfillment for the entire county, but in a way, it is. It is, more than any other voice. And it is the same voice that tells you, Goodnight, Sweetheart; the smoky, heavy-lidded lilt that says, Later, Baby, your mother has a headache; and the hurried quarter-to-five voice, the voice straining over typewriter clack on the other end of the line right now, the one telling you, Sorry, Honey, things are a little tight right now. You tell her about the Wild Kingdom assignment, and she sighs and then doesn’t say anything. She is so quiet you can hear the determined whisper of graphite on paper, the sound of people leaning over the counter behind her, writing down the things they’re looking for or trying to get rid of. Sheila, your mom finally says, can’t you watch it at a friend’s house? You don’t say anything. Instead you poke your finger into each hole on the dial then with both hands hang up the phone, so quietly, with so much care, as if her question is a sleeping monster you do not want to wake.
The next morning the jump ropes are still, sunning their dead selves on the asphalt. The Jungle Gym Girls must be at it again, ruining things for everyone. Mindy jiggle-lopes through the wall of their stare. Here she comes, her jawbone screaming, Make me, her gaze the one that makes teachers say, Now, don’t get smart. (Stay dumb is what they mean, what she does.) Wanna see me faint? she’s asking, and Nancy Drew is facedown on the fiberglass again. Mindy strokes the book’s cracked spine then brings her palm to her heart, and says, Push on me here when I stand up. She leans against the batting cage, bent at the waist, breathing fast, gulping air. Her braids hang over her face, the beads clicking like mouse claws on tile, and her lungs make big and desperate sounds. After a few deep inhalations she flings her head back and slides down the chain-link into a squat. Now, she says. Do it now! You watch as your instincts take over and go in reverse. Your hands are pressing on her sternum, one on top of the other, the way you’ve seen people demonstrate CPR in health class filmstrips. Her eyes close and her head slumps over to one side. The Jungle Gym Girls have been swarming on the other side of the cage. You don’t look, but you feel their eyes prick your forehead. You shake Mindy a little and she comes back around. Your finger gonna be tingly, she says. And you dream like when moth come, how they do to the light. She makes a flapping gesture and a sound that goes fft, fft, fft. Try it, Sheila, she says, but you shake your head and pick up your book because dreams like those sound like the ones where you try so hard to scream but no sound comes out. Across the yard the double-dutch ropes are spinning again and behind you the Jungle Gym Girls take turns passing out inside the cold, steel ribs of their fortress, dreaming dreams that sound like insecticide. Mindy slips across the yard, her old stay-dumb gaze back in place, limbs droopy and slower than her usual slow. Then she stops and turns, sucking her thumb, watching Mrs. Gilespi watch the girls. And you, watching her watch. If the playground were a picture you wouldn’t be in it. You’d be the one holding the camera. You wish this moment would last forever.
When you show up for Core, Mrs. Papovich has more information about the assassination attempt: the gunman, she says, is as I surmised, a very damaged person who I happen to know has also been causing problems for Jodie Foster. Who is that? this girl Jennifer W. says, but you know who Jodie Foster is. Jodie Foster was in a movie called Foxes your mother took you to see by accident the time she had a black eye and fingerprint-shaped bruises on her neck and could only take you places that were dark. She thought the movie was going to be about animals but it turned out to be about disco and losing your virginity and how these things are probably connected in a life-threatening way because in the end they bury a dead girl under a pear tree. Your mom says the implication is that they didn’t use embalming fluid and that’s unsanitary. Just filthy.
After school today nobody is burning anything beside the Stop ’n Go dumpster but Mindy is inside the store. You see her dark shape roaming the aisles, picking things up, putting them back, combs, barrettes, a can of Miss Clairol. From behind the counter, dandruff-shouldered Mr. Chudasama watches Mindy in the big round mirror above the dairy case. You push through the heavy glass doors, make your way to the spinning rack of Harlequins, their holographic covers like candy. You choose the one with the swirliest script, open it at random and skim the page for anything vaguely pornographic. You find a reference to the heat of someone’s loins then peek up from the page. Mr. Chudasama is restocking cigarettes behind the counter and from the opposite end of the aisle Mindy is wandering up to the romance rack. She stops in front of it and gives it a little spin. You ask her what she’s doing and she tells you she’s spinning this thing, what does it look like?
Oh, you say, and return the book to the rack as it slows to a stop. You stand there, wincing a little, thinking Mindy might do something painful next, but all she does is give the rack another spin. Little snatches of her stay-dumb face flash through the empty slots. The next time you catch her eyes you ask her if she has a TV. Since the rack is spinning between the two of you it’s almost like you’re not really asking her. You are just asking this swirly holographic blur.
Why? She says from her side of the blur. Do somebody say I don’t?
No, you say. So you have one?
Yeah, she says, giving the rack another push. Don’t you?
Yeah, well, the thing is—
And you go on like this until the med-fly choppers flap overhead, blotting out your voice, turning the parking lot air to mist. As the roar finally thins to a hiss you welcome the minty glow that fills the sky, the now audible squeal of the spinning rack, the eerie peace that settles on the ground, bewitching the Stop ’n Go shelves and aisles, magically orchestrating a one-time deal: You can watch Wild Kingdom at Mindy’s house if you do her one little favor. You check the mirror above the dairy case. Mr. Chudasama has moved on to menthols. Mindy grabs the rack and holds it still, finds your eyes in the mirror and smiles her bad kitty smile. Meow.
Steal down the candy aisle, palm a Snickers bar, suck it up your sleeve. Act casual. Wander past cough syrup and Band-aids, the sliver of shelf devoted to Feminine Needs. Wait, stop. There is a paper bulletin taped above the empty spot between Summer’s Eve and Tampax. It says Mrs. Hyde’s special spray has been recalled for causing ovarian cancer in lab rats. Rat ovaries. Try to picture them. They must be tiny, maybe the size of pinheads. Why would cancer waste its time on something so small? Rat ovaries are just little snacks for cancer. Mom always says to think big. Go for the brain. Go for the heart. The guts and bones, the blood, the skin—it’s the largest organ, you know. Go, go, quick, before Mr. Chudasama gets done fixing the Slurpee machine. Lucky for you, something is wrong with one of its parts. Sweet blue syrup clogs the nozzle, and its thermostat clicks with the memory of cold.
Mindy’s uncle, here he comes, lumbering down the hall. Big man feet crammed into ladies’ slippers, teeth like polished wood. He slaps the TV’s dumb glass face and tweaks its tin foil ears. The babies watch him from a cage on the floor, the kind with webby walls that collapse. Now Uncle’s magic is finished and the gazelles are drinking from that pond again. The babies suck their toes and mumble sticky words. Chubby arms raised high, fat fists gobbling air, whirlwind eyes and gimme mouths. Up, they say, up, as Uncle’s lumpy shape fades to a stain at the end of the hall. Mindy sighs and hoists the loudest child onto her hip and Marlin Perkins says, Just as the mother lion protects her cubs you can protect your children with an insurance policy from Mutual of Omaha. Mindy gives the TV a crushing look and hands the whimpering toddler to you, tucks its squirming body into your arms. You have never held one of these before and its hot density is shocking. You bring its head to your shoulder and pat its back like the lady in the Pampers commercial does. Mindy’s doing the same thing with the other baby, but her gone-eyed daze tells you she’s done this a million times and doesn’t need the Pampers lady to teach her. She dances the baby over to the TV, flips around the dial. All the channels are news about the guy who shot the President. He says he did it to express his profound love for Jodie Foster and everyone says this doesn’t make sense because normal men just buy flowers or jewelry, but you know there are some things you can say with blood and bruises that you just can’t say as well with roses or diamonds. Duh. You pat the baby some more and watch Mindy’s fingers work the dial.
I don’t really get what the big deal is, you say.
You reach over and hit the off switch and all the outrage and confusion on the screen shrinks to a tiny dot of light that disappears with a soap bubble pop. Show me the basement, you say. I wanna see the wasps’ nest.
Mindy shakes her head and says, Where the Snicker?
I have it, you say, and sit down on the creepy, old-lady couch where you left your windbreaker. You hold the baby on your lap with one hand and shake the candy bar from your jacket pocket with the other. Here, you say, and hand her the treat, its paper wrapper wrinkled but intact.
When you and Mindy set the babies down in the cage they wail and this brings thumping from Uncle’s room. Mindy swallows a sigh and now you understand how tiny new lives are built from a series of smaller, fleshless deaths. A mundane and terrifying open secret. You’re getting the hang of this now. The one Mindy put you in charge of straddles the flange of your hip, and the easy way it slips into place stuns your eyes shut, wags your head. Follow Mindy through the basement door and down the stairs into the echo-y damp. Hold the rail, careful, careful, even though the shrieking makes you crazy, makes you want to throw the baby down the stairs. But you don’t, and make it safely to the landing. A cobwebbed stream of light filters through the only window down here so you can see okay but it’s easier to smell. The air is thick with a metallic mustiness that climbs up your nose and curls up in the back of your throat. The babies are quiet. Their eyes grab the room. A rake lurks in the shadows, two pointy-headed spades caught in its claws. Beneath the long-necked tools that dangle from wall pegs, an overturned washer gawps at the dark. Defanged, its agitator rests nearby. See? There, under one of those card tables, the splintery one that stands on rubber-hoofed legs. The one with a litter of transistor radios riding its back, their metal feelers reaching toward the center of the room where a rusty-finned car is beached up on blocks, tires gone, taillights smashed. Its hood ornament: a hornet whose silvery wings drip with light. There are no actual hornets here, though. No wasps. Mindy switches on one of the radios. You don’t recognize the song, just the pulsing disco beat. She twirls around the basement, baby balanced on her hip, singing at the ceiling, her voice pummeling the floor beneath Uncle’s lady-slippered world. Come on, Mindy says, dance with me, her free arm extending out to yours, her legs step-kick-stepping just like Mrs. Hyde taught you. Mindy is your dance partner and you each have one free arm, and after months of exposure, you feel yourself finally coming down with disco fever. All you can do is surrender. You take Mindy’s hand and you let her spin you and you don’t kick her on accident and she doesn’t stop and cluck her tongue. You are all grace and vigor. The beat-up car is poised to fly on tiny silver wings, and the gutted washer strikes you as a good place to hide, and there are Mindy’s kitty-cat teeth, so spiky-shiny, tearing off the Snickers wrapper and gobbling down the candy bar, all of it except the last little bite. This she hands to you and then sashays away. You eat it and it tastes like she does, like no-mouth Hello Kitty and leather-flavored cinnamon, all hide and bark and missing core, a grainy sweetness that goes thwack. The music fades and the man on the radio says the med-fly choppers are heading back, but not all the way back. Their next sweep is over someone else’s town. Listen for their northbound purr.
~ ~ ~
Judge’s note: From the first sentence, the unbridled vitality of this piece enchants and beguiles. There's just no way to resist. As I read, I forgot that I was supposed to be a judge and simply kept turning pages until I was done, a sure sign that a story has worked its magic. I was strongly reminded of Margaret Atwood's "The Man from Mars," which is one of my favorite stories.
Robyn Carter’s writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Colorado Review, NanoFiction and other journals. She serves as a San Francisco WritersCorps teaching artist in residence at a public school in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
Runner-up: “Seven Is the Square Root of Survival”
Followed by Author Bio
Seven Is the Square Root of Survival
Why this is so:
1. My name is Galaxie, seven letters, and also the name of Ford’s full-sized option the year I was born, 1968. My dad is a Ford dealer.
2. I have seven brothers: Fagon, Samuel, Hank, Gabe, Buddy, Liam, Dino.
3. I am seven years younger than Dino, my youngest brother.
4. My seven siblings have seven mental illnesses: severe depression (Liam and Samuel), hyperactivity (Hank), anorexia (Hank), childhood schizophrenia later reclassified as autism (Dino, Liam, and Fagon), borderline affective disorder (Samuel), panic disorder with agoraphobia (Buddy), and Briquet's syndrome (Gabe).
5. My mother spent seven months in an institution seven years ago when I was seven. Dad said Gamps should have paid for it, but he didn't because of stagflation.
6. 7th Heaven. Seven-year itch. Seventh seal. Seven Samurai. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Seven deadly sins. "And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.”
7. Seven is the most detentions you can get at Pierpoint Public Middle School before they put you in the Special Ed room.
I am about to get my eighth.
Here's what happened: I was smoothing down the leg hairs poking through my white nylon knee socks while Mr. Riley was giving a lecture on some Civil War thing. Lately, I've become interested in regularly spaced compartments and their contents. Like the cubbies in the kindergarten room, with those adorable yellow rubber rain boots and tiny parkas. Or the way fabric is made up of a gazillion squares, teeny boxes holding often just air but just as often a touch of thread or fuzz. My favorites, though, are the cellule sets that occur naturally. Like honeycombs, each wax unit filled with its own perfect teardrop of liquid copper. Or the pores in human skin. If you look at them with a magnifying glass, they dapple the epidermis like indents in an egg carton.
So once I spotted the leg hairs, singular black bristles poking through evenly spaced threads of polyester, I had to pay them heed. I didn't mean to cause a disturbance, but I did need to look closer, as close as I could. I stretched my leg into the space between my desk and Maurice Venderhoven's and bent my head. My nose was so near to my sock, I could smell the bleach. Mr. Riley called my name, but it was like a telephone ringing three doors down. His voice trembled (I assume because he assumed I was barfing. I would not be the first to barf under my desk in third period U.S. History).
"Galaxie," he said. "Is there a problem?" Snickers around the room like distant machine gun fire. A chair leg scraped, metal on linoleum. A textbook fell to the floor with a windy thump.
"She can't hear you," sang out Maurice.
I could, in fact, hear Mr. Riley. But I was more focused right then on looking. And touching. With the tip of my index finger, I flattened a row of hair. One stroke. Two. The line I defined lay smooth for less than a second, then popped up again, trembling with static. I did it once more. I would need to stroke the sock seven times before I could refocus on whatever Mr. Riley was on about. It was not a process that could be amended or hurried.
The need swallowed me. It's like when they brought Jerome Donahue up from the river after he blew off his hand holding on to a lit firecracker. Dad told us not to look, but we all did, Dad included. The sleeve of Jerome's jacket was scorched to the middle of his bicep with one charred strip of fabric hanging down past his elbow. The skin on his arm was black and bumpy, like a flaming marshmallow that you let burn until it bubbles. And where his hand should have been, just a stump of charcoal that Gabe swore was still smoking. That stump, Gabe said loud enough for the ambulance man to scowl in our direction, was what was muddying the air and stinging our eyes and stinking like seared steak.
The urge to look, when it strikes, sticks at the top of the throat and blocks my air. It wriggles through my gut, shaking off electric flares like a dog shakes off beach sand. It lands in my groin, where it burns like I have to pee.
"Galaxie, sit up straight," said Mr. Riley. He was near enough that he cast a shadow on my sock and turned it dingy gray.
"In a minute," I said. One of the banana bike boys who sit in the back barked like a Pekinese, and I hoped he would distract Mr. Riley.
It's not like I was the only one ignoring his account of the battle of whatever-run, something about gutted bovines and boys losing their feet to gangrene. Just before I noticed the hair, Cathy Dudley and David Switowsky had been kicking a wadded-up note back and forth, probably figuring out what time they'd have sex that night, like everyone knows they do pretty much every night, screwing behind the tires in the Esso where David works for his uncle. The paper ball skittering across the flecked linoleum attracted the attention of Lars Johnson, this year's exchange student, and he kept putting his foot out to block the missive and flip it into the air, Pelé style. Chico Perez, one desk over, hissed at Lisa Brill to stop staring out the window and watch. Lisa did not. She kept her narrow face turned toward the wood-framed panes, old glass, the kind that, toward the bottom, scrabbles the sightline and refracts the colors. Later, she will whisper to the boy in the seat behind me on the bus home that she was watching the copse where Chico and David would sneak out to smoke as soon as the bell rang. The trees there, silver birches and one tall oak, agitated in a stiff wind, and because they had no leaves, looked to Lisa like wet brown skeletons of multiform extraterrestrials shifting to keep warm while they waited for their spaceship to land and take them back to a planet closer to the sun.
"One more minute," I mumbled. I was pretty sure Mr. Riley couldn't hear me over his own emphatic sniffing, bulldog-style, which was meant, I bet, to indicate to me the intensity of his frustration. His puffs seared the bit of my scalp left bare by my center part. His breath stank of burnt coffee and vinegar, and I could feel each exhale trickle around the sides of my skull and drip past my ears.
And yet I couldn’t move.
Seven is the only way I could break free from a glue trap like the one I was in. I would prefer it to be eight because symmetry is important. Eight is an even number and well-designed, two identical circles, one atop the other. But it's only seven that matters, unfortunately, so I try not to mind the imbalance of it—it's essential oddness, the way it looks like a cliff about to topple off a rickety stick.
"There." I sat up, smiled my best let's-get-on-with-class smile.
"In the hall," said Mr. Riley at the exact same time.
It's not until the tardy bell for fourth period rings that Mr. Riley joins me out by the lockers. He doesn't speak right away, instead stares at me with drooping eyes, like I'm the lone dog at the pound, a twelve-year-old mangy pug, when he had come for a beagle puppy. He's in his usual uniform, a pastel yellow crinkly shirt untucked over chinos. Embroidered diamonds run up and down either side of the shirt's buttons. No tie. Bulky, coffee-brown loafers that might be orthopedic. He puckers his pudgy lips and twists his pukka bead necklace. Still studying me, he tilts his head to the right and clutches a hank of his wavy blond hair. It's thick now but looks like it’s ready to start thinning. Mr. Riley’s younger than most of the teachers, but he won't be for long.
For now, his hair hangs in, glinting from between surprisingly stumpy fingers with ridged nails that would appear more natural on toes. Mr. Riley says nothing, waiting for me to go first. He fancies himself a good listener, someone who understands today's kids, capable of communing with us. He lets us see that he reads Carrie and Rolling Stone during our silent work on Michigan history mimeographs. He told Miss Winthrop that he was thinking about getting adult braces. He reminds us constantly that he’s a lot closer in age to us than to Vice Principal O'Henry, whose erect carriage and pointed bald head made him look like an ICBM.
Mr. Riley believes he's one of the cool kids.
A righteous friend.
A superbad guy.
An awesome man.
A gnarly buddy.
A mind-blowing dude.
A with-it teacher.
A door slams. Down the hall, a filmstrips starts, the muffled wah-wah of a concertina interspersed with mechanical beeps. Tomato sauce fumes float from the cafeteria one floor below.
It occurs to me that I can use Mr. Riley's imagined affinity with my age group. He probably doesn't know this would be the detention that sends me to 15-B. Doing so would be decidedly uncool. Cluing him in might be my salvation. Free the Chicago Seven!
"Please don't," I say. "It would be my eighth."
Mr. Riley leans back on a green metal locker, 7478, two sevens, not bad. One eight, could be better. He looks up at the line of twin florescent tubes affixed to the ceiling's asbestos tiles and shuts his eyes. He makes a fist without looking, taps on the locker to his left, 7477, three sevens, no eights, excellent.
He taps one time, two. . .
"I know," he says. "I don't take this decision lightly."
Three taps. My breath quickens. I ball my right hand up tight in solidarity and swing gently at the air. I fix my eyes on his. They are lined with red at the bottoms, little blood saucers for his eyeballs. He knows what he's about to do to me, and he doesn’t seem to care, but neither do I, anymore. Not if he gets to seven.
He leans away from the lockers. The metal snaps back into place with a thump like a muffled bell.
"There's no shame in getting some extra help," he says. "No shame in..."
He doesn't finish. He's searching for, and not finding, a hip-to-the-teens teacher equivalent of "mental illness." He steps away from the lockers, looking past me, waving at Mr. Lincoln, the janitor who's missing his left ear.
"Hey man," calls out Mr. Riley, but Mr. Lincoln keeps going, pushing his industrial orange mop bucket away from us. He hears fine with his good ear, so he must be ignoring us. He's probably afraid Mr. Riley's going to start talking about the union movement and the minimum wage, like he always does around the custodial and cafeteria workers.
I have a bigger fear. That Mr. Riley's done with our conversation. Which means he's done tapping the locker.
"Sins of the fathers," I say, the first thing I can think of. He didn't teach any of my brothers but surely he knows about them. Everyone does. A stain from Liam's blood still rings one of the drains in the boy's locker room.
Mr. Riley turns to me. "Excuse me?" he says. Mr. Lincoln disappears into the stairwell and bangs down with his bucket, a series of hollow shots from a distant hunting rifle.
"It's in the Constitution. There's no such thing as bad blood in America. You taught it," I say, trying to remember the details. Something about Philadelphia and James Madison, I think, but I'm sure about the blood. "Just because my bothers are..." I hesitate too. The words do come hard, jagged rocks, shards of pottery, mouthfuls of shattered glass.
"Mentally ill," I say.
"Article Three," Mr. Riley says. He leans back on 7478, hits 7477 with the flat of his palm.
"That has to do with traitors, but I take your point."
And again. Six.
The heat clicks on and whooshes hot desert air out of the radiators lining the wall behind me. I can't see the cloud, but nonetheless I sense it: the blue centers of a million flames, undulating and licking, shining but not burning.
Mr. Riley coughs. We are not at seven yet, I remind myself. He raises his hands and clasps them in front of his breastbone, prelude to pleading, not to knocking on a locker.
"I hate having to make this call," he says and shakes his joined hands. For some reason, I expect them to rattle, like the outsized maracas Dad brought us all back from a Ford dealers’ incentive trip to San Antonio.
"Then don't," I say and put my hands over his. They feel like kneaded dough, and I resist the urge to squeeze to see if they flatten like pizza crust. Mr. Riley is short for a man, but I am short for a girl. I have to pull down to try to separate his hands, like apple picking. It will count even if I am the one to force his right fist into the metal.
I don't make the rules. I just play by them.
"Don't touch me," Mr. Riley squeaks. "Don't kiss me."
That slows me down. I haven’t kissed anyone, and Mr. Riley was not who I envisioned as the first. I would tell him, but it's taking all my breath to get his right arm in position. I yank on his wrist.
I am not sure what of the next bit I say out loud and what I just think, but some of it must be audible because Mr. Riley goes limp. I focus on his right hand, my face almost in its palm, so if he wanted to stop me, or even just shut me up, all he’d have to do is curl his fingers in. He doesn’t.
"We have so little power," I say. "Not how we're born or to whom or where we live or whom we serve. We eat carrots if there are carrots and chicken if there is chicken. We walk left then right, step step, and run the same because that's how we walk and that's how we run. We love the people we are meant to love and they love us or not and carry us or not and cut us with the rusty tops of old tin cans.” I am thinking of Fagon here. “We don't fly because we aren't birds. But sometimes, like the green flash at sunset, that rare, the world lets us know how it's made. And what can we do then but follow along?”
His left hand is on the back of my shoulder now, and I lean into him and he lets me. I shove at his right arm, and his hand crunches into the steel with a crack and a clang as clear and bright as a starter's pistol.
I stand tall. Like I have wings. Like I am whooshing up through the ceiling tiles, through the roof's tar shingles, clear of the smog that settles every midday, clear of the stink of chalk and sour gym that envelopes the school.
Mr. Riley's strangulated sob brings me back but not down. He’s not moved, and his right hand shakes like an oblong bobber off a fishing line. Down the hall, a door opens, and Mrs. Tether, seventh grade life sciences, says, "Philip, are you fine?" which makes me giggle, it sounds so formal.
"I thought you were going to kiss me," Mr. Riley says to me. Mrs. Tether shuts her door with a clunk and the frosted glass in its front shudders an echo.
"I could," I say, feeling generous, having gotten what I need.
I lean to where his hand dangles, definitely damaged, the wrist most certainly broken. The skin on his palm feels damp and hot to my parted lips, and smells of soap and flowers.
Kissing it, seven times, is like seven sips of jasmine tea.
~ ~ ~
Judge’s note: There is wonderful joy and vitality throughout this compact, neatly structured story. Galaxie’s voice and observations charm us even as her difficulties multiply, and so we are caught in a splendid dilemma: do we laugh or do we weep? In the end, a little of both, and that’s the ideal outcome.
KT Sparks is a farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She has nonfiction upcoming in the Kenyon Review, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Pank, Word Riot, Jersey Devil Press, WhiskeyPaper, and Jellyfish Review. KT received her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, where she served as an assistant fiction editor of Qu (a literary magazine). Her novel, Four Dead Horses, a story of cowboy poetry and the obese pet mortician who loves it, took first place in the James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest, was excerpted in Richmond Magazine, won Regal House Publishing’s 2019 Petrichor Prize, and will be published by that press in spring 2021. Read KT’s writing or contact her at KTSparks.com
Runner-Up: “Theories of Simultaneous Love and Loss”
Followed by Author Bio
Theories of Simultaneous Love and Loss
EXT. FOOTHILLS — DAWN
High in the foothills, a lonely cul-de-sac cuts into the pines. Five houses sit on either side of the oval street.
Built in the '70s, the homes show their age. At the far end, where the street runs into boulders and scrub, stands an enormous avocado tree. SAM BEAUMONT (67) walks toward the tree. Tall and thin, with white hair and gray eyes, Sam looks forlorn desperate adrift like a man lost in the woods, searching the ground for a trail of breadcrumbs.
I know I promised to keep working. Write your way back, you said. I’m trying, Rosie. I’m even using your pocket recorder now because some of the real writers you worked with talked their first drafts. But it doesn’t matter. Turns out I’m a cliché after all. Sam Beaumont, retired English teacher, still chasing his literary dreams. I don’t think I have what it takes. I’ve started dozens of stories, poems, screenplays, one-acts. I rewrite and cross out until the sentences break down like faulty bridges and I sit at the end of a line or paragraph, stranded. I wish I could go back to the stories you were editing before you passed on. Remember the one about a kid who loves owls so much he volunteers at a bird rescue? One day he’s cleaning cages. An owl hocks up a pellet and inside, with the grain of insect legs and mouse bones, is a bus locker key. God, I want to know what’s in that locker. But I can’t work on those manuscripts anymore. Something about your final edit marks in purple ink. If I could just finish something new.
The last five years are digital, so I digitize the old photos
and watch random slideshows, you out of order, you free from time,
then choose a moment and zoom down, down to the pixels of you,
nucleic patterns geometric heart atomic ashes
We’re all senior citizens up here, empty nesters, a few widowed, a few divorced. Most of us have family in other cities and states. We’re not alone, but on a day-to-day basis we feel lonely, like we’re orbiting the planet where we used to live. So we evolved into a geriatric family of our own. Potlucks every Friday. Matinees every Tuesday. Thursdays I do a grocery run for those who struggle getting down to the city. On Sundays, most caravan to church, Millie heads to her Zen temple, Hank and I retreat to Denny’s. I still hear you getting ready for worship. Sometimes I lay out a dress before I remember you’re not here. You know the routine, Rosie. But something different happens today. On my morning pilgrimage around the cul-de-sac, the only exercise I get these days, I find half a dozen avocados under the tree, chewed by little teeth. With all the development in the foothills, we haven’t seen a bear, coyote, raccoon, or even a rabbit in ten years. Maybe I can turn this into a short story: an old man, heart so broken everything runs through like water, finds hope in a few grubby avocados. I’m laughing because I’ve been trying to write big, wrestle death down to size, and here I’m thinking about avocados. But before getting started, I want to know what kind of animal it was. That’s a detail I don’t want to make up. The way the hillside spills down into boulders and scrub, I can’t get a clear view of the avocado tree from our house. So I set up a tripod ten feet from the tree, attach that wireless security cam you gave me last Christmas, run an extension cord, link my laptop to the camera, and just like that I have 24/7 live video. I go door to door, inviting our last neighbors over for an impromptu potluck. Millie’s especially excited because her husband planted that tree thirty-odd years ago. Now I’m thinking of a one-act play: senior citizens watching a video stream, breaking their end-of-the-road hearts like bread, waiting on the miracle of a fox or deer. What do you think?
Sam: Retired English teacher struggling with the recent
death loss of his wife. Rosie: Sam’s wife. Fiction editor. Appears as a ghost, seen only by Sam.
Millie: Rosie’s best friend. Retired biology professor.
Hank: Retired insurance agent. In poor health. Uses a walker to get around.
Eva and Tom: A conservative couple in their mid-70s.
Other Senior Citizens have occasional lines, representing the small Community.
Scene: Sam’s living room. Nine women and seven men have arranged sofa, love seat, and dining room chairs into a half circle. Live video streams to a laptop on the coffee table.
I know it’s impossible. But we all saw it, Rosie. It’s on video. Start with the details. That’s what you always said. All right. So we’re in the living room. The security cam streams to the laptop. Software corrects for night vision so it’s like watching a black-and-white movie. We see the avocado tree and scrub, and farther back, the slope of the hillside. The app is set to record so we won’t miss anything, but we’re barely paying attention. We’re talking about travel plans and grandkids, current events and medical procedures. Around 9:30 PM, I notice three hamsters the size of poodles sitting under the tree, chewing avocados. Millie leans close and touches the screen. That’s impossible, she says. Those are Sardinian pikas. They’re extinct. She hobbles outside on bad knees and thirty seconds later we see her on the video, a petite woman with short gray hair, print blouse, flood jeans, and sandals. The pikas stare at her, crouched like scared rabbits, wary but unwilling to abandon the avocados. Millie glances at the camera, says, You have to see this. Then she backs up out of the camera’s view. The pikas relax, like Millie’s not there anymore. We walk out into the moonlight. There’s Millie, the camera on the tripod, and the tree behind her. But no pikas. It takes a couple seconds to realize the avocados are floating a few inches off the ground. Tiny chunks dig out of the green flesh as if chomped by invisible animals. Hank catches up, pushing his walker. Millie leads us forward. As we step past the camera and under the branches, the pikas appear like an edit, avocados held like green bowls in their paws. It’s disconcerting because they really do look like enormous hamsters. Startled by so many intruders, they hop away—and just vanish, like they hopped right out of existence. Like a magic trick. We all look at each other, little smiles of confusion on our old faces. The video, Millie says, let’s check the video. Hank is so shaken I have to help him back. In the living room, I pull up the recorded video file, fast forward to the moment we appear, pause as the pikas run, then advance frame by frame or whatever it’s called with digital video. The pikas vanish in a click, Rosie. Click, they’re here. Click, they’re gone, leaving only the tree and scrub and that haunting angle of hillside. We all start talking at once. It’s impossible, what’s going on, it’s a glitch in the video. Millie quiets us down. I think we’re all relieved she’s taking charge. We’ll meet tomorrow night, she says, see if it happens again. Then she looks at me and says, Keep recording, Sam, so we don’t miss anything. I notice Hank by the door, sitting on his walker’s padded seat. You OK? I say. He gives me a hard grin then stares down into his clawed hands as if he just dropped something precious.
EXT. END OF THE CUL-DE-SAC — NIGHT
all alone to the tree and stares at the half-eaten avocados, bulbous seeds scarred by sharp teeth. He follows small animal tracks across the dirt. The tracks end abruptly, as if the animals leapt into the sky. He looks up. Half the night is blotted out by the umbrella of the tree, the other half bright like spilled salt like the shattered spine of the Milky Way with connect-the-dot constellations.
I wish you were here, and not just for the usual lonely reasons. You were more at home with the supernatural. You truly believed you were phasing out of that hospital bed into glory. But you’re just atoms now, Rosie, and these one-way conversations are hard to sustain sometimes. Anyway, I can’t sleep, not after what happened tonight. I lay on the couch and watch the live video stream, waiting for the pikas to return. They were beautiful, eyes large as dimes, shiny as ink. It’s almost dawn now. I open the recorded file and fast forward to the frame before the pikas vanish. I copy/paste that moment into a photo app and zoom in, looking for a difference, a transparency, some sign that the pikas are less substantial. I keep leaning in, past the point of recognition, but don’t see a thing.
I told you my last check-up was good. Full remission. Truth is, old doc Isaac gave me six months. This time the quack is right. I feel myself going, and each morning less of me comes back. I’ve always been afraid of dying. Long as I can remember. Told myself over and over I’d go in my sleep, trying to program my subconscious. So what happens? I take the scenic route. Open heart, chemo, stents and pills, and still I hang on. But last night, when I saw those animals appear and vanish, something came loose. I felt released, like I let go of a rope I’ve been clutching. I’m not afraid anymore. So tonight I’m leaving on my own terms. Don’t hold it against me, Sam. I called my daughter, told her I loved her, but of course couldn’t tell her what I was planning to do. Will you call? Make sure she’s OK. And just between us, I hope your Rosie was right about the nature of things, because dying is an awful way to go.
I check on Hank this morning. Through the window I see him slumped sideways in his walker. The paramedics call it an overdose of pain meds. After the coroner takes the body, I find a sealed envelope with my name on front, his daughter’s number on back. I call and listen to her cry. I cry too, for Hank at first, then for myself. You’ve been gone six months and I still feel like my heart has been hulled from my chest. Jesus, laughing and crying at the same time. I’m sorry, Rosie. I just had an image of my heart popped out of my chest like an avocado seed.
We gather again in the living room. Hank’s reaction to what happened last night hits everyone hard. He was family, and we didn’t see it coming. To comfort ourselves, we tell stories about all the hobbies he took up when he retired. Most of us bought one of his awful paintings, and that crooked birdhouse still hangs on the fence in the backyard. Birds won’t go near it, I say, and everyone laughs. And cries. Around 8 PM Eva points at the laptop and says, It must be windy, look how the leaves are moving. Her husband Tom says, That’s not wind, it’s birds. He’s right. We were expecting the pikas to reappear on the ground so we missed the birds already in the tree. They’re beautiful, like doves but wilder. I turn up the volume on the laptop. They coo a loud rhythm like an enormous heartbeat. Here we go, Millie says. Those are passenger pigeons. They once flew in mile-wide flocks across North America. They’ve been extinct a hundred years. We walk out into the night. The leaves are trembling here and there but the branches are empty. No birds. No cooing. Millie stops us behind the camera, then steps forward until she’s under the tree. She says something but we can’t hear her. I touch my ear and shake my head. She steps back. Make a circle, she says, so we can find the area of the anomaly. Millie, always the scientist. We stagger ourselves around the tree, a few yards beyond the reach of its branches. Now move forward, Millie says, and stop when you see a bird. Some of us take a single step, others walk until they’re under the tree. The birds just appear on the branches, tucked in and around the big leaves. They’re beautiful, Rosie, tall and regal, with spotted wings and peach-colored breasts, like Plato’s ideal form of a pigeon. There must be hundreds of them, purring like cats, so loud I cover my ears. Millie has to call my name twice. Put a stone behind our heels, she says. I find big stones along the hillside and mark everyone’s place, including my own. As we step back, the passenger pigeons vanish. The branches are empty again, the night quiet, only a few crickets and a lonely night bird crying up in the foothills. I look at the crooked line of stones. They make a lopsided circle, enclosing scrub, the tree, and the camera. Even though I placed the stones myself, the ring looks ancient, like something you’d find on Easter Island. Back in the living room, I play the video and it’s all there. I toggle to the live stream. We watch like a jury with our notions of reality on trial. One bird flies off, triggering a chain reaction. When they pass outside the area marked by our circle, they vanish. It takes Millie half an hour to convince us to keep this to ourselves. This is our home, she says. This belongs to us, whatever it is. If we go public, it means an investigation. Government agencies, corporations, universities. They’ll take it away from us. Bring in equipment, cordon off the area. But I’m not ready to let go, she says. And looking right at me she adds, Don’t you want to see what happens next? I know what you’d say, Rosie, so when Millie puts it to a vote, I vote to hold on to the mystery. The vote passes eleven to four.
Scene: Denny’s All American Diner. Stage left, a claw machine piled with unreachable toys. Stage right, an empty counter. Center, Sam and Millie sit in a booth.
MILLIE: You’re trying to make this personal, Sam. SAM: I’m not making it personal. It is personal. Look at Hank. MILLIE: Everyone reacts differently to the unknown. SAM: You’re the one who brought up parallel universes. MILLIE: About that, I called SAM: Just hear me out. We evolved opposable thumbs because tools made it easier to survive as individuals. We evolved faith in the supernatural because belief made it easier to band together and survive as communities.
MILLIE: That’s basic evolutionary psychology, Sam.
SAM: I know. I looked it up. But. What if belief is more tangible than we assumed? Go back far enough and all the continents were one land mass, right? What if the same is true for alternate realities? What if all realities once overlapped, and belief evolved as a response to that dimensional experience? A merged reality where things could be dead and alive at the same time. Then over millennia, our continental realities drift apart. We continue to evolve in our single reality, but belief is still there like a psychic opposable thumb, grasping for something it can no longer see or touch.
Maybe that’s why faith ran so deep in Rosie. Maybe she tapped into that primal sixth sense in a way I couldn’t.
You’re developing a story, Sam, not a theory. I called an old colleague at the university. Told him I had read an article about parallel universes. He laughed it off. Said there was no consensus on the multiverse. Then he told me about something called the Block Universe Theory. Said it’s widely accepted among physicists. The theory holds that all moments, past, present, future, exist simultaneously. We’re experiencing this moment (raps knuckle on table) because that’s our perception in this moment. But all moments are relative to each other. So right now, I’m also being born. Right now, I’m also teaching my first graduate class. Right now, I’m also dying. Each experience is as real to the me in those moments as this table (raps knuckles) is to us right now. He compared history to a book, each moment a page, one on top of the other. So there’s no Hollywood time travel paradox nonsense. Every moment is simultaneous, interacting with and influencing every other moment in some as yet unknown way. We’re not a line, we’re a stack. He called it being “temporally distributed.”
SAM: Could the pages in the stack get mixed up?
MILLIE: Those Sardinian pikas were indigenous to the Mediterranean and went extinct three hundred years ago. The passenger pigeons were indigenous to North America and went extinct in the 1930s. My husband planted that avocado tree here in 1989. That’s pretty mixed-up.
SAM: So can we read this book of simultaneous time? Can we turn to any page?
MILLIE: Don’t get literal, Sam. The book is just a metaphor. In a quantum universe, knowing is a long process.
SAM: But how does it work? Can only two moments overlap or MILLIE: We don’t know. SAM: But why can we see ourselves in the circle but not hear when MILLIE: We don’t know. SAM: But could other MILLIE: Sam? SAM: What? MILLIE: We don’t know.
Pikas, passenger pigeons, what next? Some of us are excited, some scared. Expectations are running high. We gather in the living room, picking at our Tupperware potluck, and watch the laptop. You’ll never guess what happens, Rosie. The most unexpected thing of all: nothing. For hours we stare at tree, stones, scrub and hillside. Everyone goes home and my heart drops like a sinkhole. I think it’s gone. The mystery passed over us like a cloud. Then, tonight—I wish you were here. Tonight a group of women walk into the circle. They wear sleeveless vests, colorful wraps around their waists, bands of metal on their necks and wrists. They stare in awe at the tree. I bet, Millie says, the tree wasn’t there for them yesterday. The women talk in a language none of us recognize. We go outside and it’s just the tree. We can’t see the women, can’t hear them. We stand behind our stones like we’re going to step across together, but we just look at each other. I notice the gap where Hank stood last night. I think of you. You wouldn’t wait here. So I take a breath and, as Millie calls my name, I step into the circle. The women stare at me, terrified. I must have just appeared like magic. They approach, fear blushing their brown faces, talking in their hypnotic language. I look around the circle but everything is the same. I don’t see their world, I see our cul-de-sac. Our friends outside the circle, the hillside, houses. So the women must see their own reality too. Whatever’s happening is limited to this ring of stones, this common ground. The women kneel at my feet, whispering, pull bands from their wrists like offerings. I accept one. The metal is warm, the surface hammered with runic patterns. If I take their hands, could they lead me out of the circle into their time and place, or could I pull them into ours? That scares me. I back out of the ring and they vanish. No one crosses over, not even Millie. From our point of view, Millie says, you were alone. Everyone wants to know what I saw and heard. We go back to the living room and watch the recorded video. I pass around the bracelet. Switch to the live view, Millie says. The women are gathered around the tree now, hands raised. They offer a last melodic prayer then walk away, vanishing as they leave the circle. We can’t take our eyes off the screen. My heart is pounding. You’d say that was a tired phrase, a heart pounding so hard it’s in your ears, but that’s how it is. Because if lost civilizations can walk into that circle, what about more recent loses? What about lost husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children? What about you, Rosie? I look around at my cul-de-sac family and see my own ache in their eyes. Don’t make mystery personal, Millie says. But that’s exactly what we’re doing.
I can’t believe only four days have passed since this began. I loop ten seconds of the recording, watch the women offer their bracelets like a scene in a movie while holding one of those bracelets in real life. The two don’t seem connected. I press my fingers into the bracelet’s interlocking runic patterns until it hurts. The women on the video, their eyes are wide with belief, an instinct that was native to you but foreign to me. I take a screenshot, paste it into a photo of you, compare their pixels to your pixels, zooming in, trying to see a difference. If matter can’t be destroyed but only converted into other forms of matter, if energy is constant, if we live in a Block Universe where past, present, and future are pages in a book, if we’re simultaneous stacks and not one-way lines, then you’re still here. I keep zooming in. Laid side by side, the pixels look like a code of light and dark. I don’t know what story they’re telling but find comfort in the patterns. Don’t let the tears fool you, Rosie. I’m happier right now than I’ve been in a long time.
Tom and I have decided to spend a few weeks with our son in Arizona. We don’t feel safe here anymore. Especially Tom. This whole thing has unnerved him. And I’m not in such great shape myself. We’re scared, Millie. What if the circle expands and swallows us up like a temporal black hole? I’m sorry. I’m just writing whatever comes into my head. Keep us posted, will you? We’re curious. We just need to be curious from a distance. We’ll abide by the vote for now. We won’t tell anyone. But something has to be done, Millie, and soon.
With love, Eva and Tom
After Millie reads the note aloud, the Thompsons admit they’re thinking of doing the same thing. By morning they’re gone. Our family is down to twelve, Rosie. In this moment, here and now, it’s eleven. But I’m counting you, wherever you are, so it’s twelve. We keep meeting in our living room. After the women, nothing happens for five days. Millie tells us about the Block Universe. I talk about continental reality drift. Everyone has a theory. We exchange science articles like kids doing homework, share links like treasure hunters. We’re on a sliding scale, the more religious of us on the miracle end, the more scientific on the quantum end, the rest of us tumbling in-between. Each morning I fast forward through the previous twenty-four-hour video file. But it’s just tree, stones, scrub and that tilt of hillside. I upload an audio clip of the women to Google Translate. Even Google doesn’t know what to do with those ancient cadences. An estate sale sign appears on Hank’s lawn. We know we can’t keep the mystery to ourselves much longer. Millie says we should turn everything over to her friend at the university, but we vote her down. Not yet, we say. We bring scrapbooks and photo albums to our nightly vigils, pass around old pictures, tell stories with details we thought we had forgotten. Somewhere along the way we stop using past tense. We talk about the dead as if they’re standing just outside that circle, waiting to cross the line of stones. Millie keeps saying, Don’t make this personal. First, she says, we don’t really know what’s happening out there. And second, even if this is some accidental tunnel through simultaneous experience, it’s clearly in motion and at random. You have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing lost family walk out under that avocado tree. But didn’t you once tell me, I say, that the odds of life on earth are too astronomical to calculate? Yet here we are. Shut up, Millie says, and we all laugh. We know she’s right but we can’t help it. These last few days heal something inside us. Death isn’t a one-way street anymore, loss isn’t so wide. We meet each night with our scrapbooks and our stories like we’re planning a family reunion across the borders of time.
This morning I almost go for a hike. You loved these foothills.
I remember you staring at a tawny deer like it was God’s burning bush,
and I felt that too, that sacred love, but I wasn’t looking at the deer.
I thought I missed you so much because you were gone forever.
I thought I clutched my grief because I was sliding down that slope too.
But maybe that’s backwards. Maybe I can’t let go because you’re still here.
If past present future share one space, then the heart’s density
is undeniable. By comparison, a neutron star is light as air.
You should see us, Rosie. Our odd little clan. We still do the everyday stuff. Take our morning walks. Stay in touch with friends and family down the hill. We even went to the matinee on Tuesday. People drop by the living room day and night to watch the laptop. I almost offer to connect everyone’s phones and tablets and computers to the camera’s signal. But then we’d lose our community, our shared stories. We talk about the past like it’s news and act as each other’s priests, forgiving lost sins. We laugh and cry and watch and wait. The unreasonable hope is still there. Hope that we’ll see our loved ones again, that I’ll see you again. But it’s deeper than that. Something is happening. A subtle evolution. I miss you in a different way. It’s grounded now. As an editor, you’d say that’s too vague. But I don’t know how else to describe it.
For the first time I’m glad you’re not here. Oh, Rosie. I don’t know if I have the heart to describe what happened. The details. Always start with the details. We meet as usual, our little church of longing. Tonight a group of bare-chested men walk into the circle. They point at the tree, prowl around it, hefting crude stone axes. The first blow takes a piece out of the trunk and we jump like the axe punched into our own chests. No, Millie says, her voice a gasp of pain. Her husband’s tree. We go out into the night and stop a few feet from the circle. We can’t see or hear the men, but we see pale scars appear on the trunk, chips of bark fly, big leaves spin to the ground. I grab at Millie’s arm but she’s already across the stones. She raises her hands in a gesture of peace. She’s talking but we can’t hear what she’s saying or see how the men are reacting. It happens so fast, Rosie. She’s smiling, waving her hands, gesturing at the tree. And then… then she snaps around, a gash in her forehead, crumbles like her body is just clothing. I start to move but hands grab me, pull me back. Someone whispers, They’ll kill you too. I slap myself loose but Millie looks up at me. She holds out a trembling hand and I stop like she pushed me back. Then a red line opens in her throat and her eyes dim and we do nothing. We just stand and watch, tears filling the cracks in our faces. We watch as she dies. Watch as invisible axes hack our tree down. Branches fall, the wide trunk breaks into segments, pieces float away on unseen shoulders, vanishing outside the circle. Someone calls 911. I don’t know who. I hear a siren. Someone goes to check the laptop, comes back and says, They’re gone. I step into the ring and sit on the ground by Millie, lean over until my eyes are in her vacant line of sight. Blood darkens the dirt under her silver hair. The tree stump looks like a splintered stake driven into the earth’s heart. I stagger away as the paramedics work. I come back here, to our house, get your pocket recorder and pace the living room, talking and sobbing until the police knock on the door.
It’s rough going at first, but with the video files and camera our story proves itself. Millie was right, of course. Government agencies and private companies roll in. We’re put in quarantine for a few weeks, tested and observed, then released with a paycheck, our houses purchased out from under us at twice their market value, our personal items moved into storage. The cul-de-sac is secured but it’s not some trope conspiracy. They hope to explore it. They show us hi-tech instruments placed around the stump, in the ground, on guide wires overhead, recording every spectrum and wavelength. They even share new video clips of peoples and animals I don’t recognize. One clip, I swear, Rosie, is of a dinosaur, that one with the horns on its head. This discovery, they say, is going to change the world. They intend to go public in a few months and ask us to keep quiet until then. We sign an agreement. Millie’s death is reported as local crime, which from a simultaneous point of view it is. We all meet again at her funeral. It’s a beautiful service, Rosie. We take turns telling stories. She was one of us. Is one of us. Afterwards, most go to live with kids or siblings, but we’ll keep in touch. Belief is an evolutionary bond. I rent a small place halfway down the hill. I want to stay close. I write every day, and I’m hiking again. I play the old slideshows, you out of sequence, you free from time, but it doesn’t feel nostalgic anymore. It feels closer than that. As real as here and now. As now as now. Maybe my perceptions have been altered by proximity to the mystery, or maybe it’s all simpler than that. Maybe the heart itself is a Block Universe.
EXT. FOOTHILLS — DAWN
Sam climbs a rocky path. He stops on a ridge and looks across the folds of land rolling into hills, and beyond that a few snowy mountain peaks, and beyond that stars fading in a purple sky, and beyond that the invisible universe stacked forward and back to the Big Bang and beyond like pages in a book too big to read let alone finish. Sam catches his breath and continues along the path.
~ ~ ~
Judge’s note: What do you do when something uncanny and inexplicable shows up in your neighborhood? If you're a writer, even a failed one, you write about it! The form is inventive, and it significantly enhances the narrative. This story feels like a humorous homage to Tarkovsky's Stalker, if it's possible to imagine such a thing.
Charles Duffie is a writer and designer working in the Los Angeles area. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Spelk, Meat for Tea, Exposition Review, Scribble, Swimming with Elephants, Third Street Writers, Role Reboot, and American Fiction by New Rivers Press.