january 10, 2018| ISSUE no 228
crack the spine
Sarah Broussard Weaver
James William Gardner
"Dragon Fly" by Mick Ó Seasnáin
Something That Would Last a Hundred Years
short fiction by Will Donnelly
In the veterinary hospital, I sat at a desk behind a teller’s counter with an open window as if I dealt with customers face to face, but in reality, people were rare in the billing office. I did my job through the phone or the computer, and the vast waiting room outside my office usually stood empty, its outdated magazines arranged in perfect fans on the glass coffee tables and coated with dust. Late afternoons, the sun came through the massive windows and cast a quiet, orange glow through which motes rose and fell like slow minnows.
Our customers were mostly large farms and corporations, entities with money to invest and to be made by the health of their animals. They gave their horses names like “Ares’ Arrow” and “Three Strides to the Wire,” names that implied anonymity to me, or worse, impermanence. Once, a California software firm’s Arabian called “Something to Say” tore a meniscus and was flown across the country in a private jet for surgery, then flown home again. The day I billed them for the procedure – forty-five thousand dollars – they wired the money back without a word.
Mrs. Arnold was unusual for us. Her hair askew, her clothes limp against her skinny frame, faded and thin. She brought in a male painthorse called Dylan. “When I first got him, they said he was too old to run,” she said. “But he ain’t too old to ride.”
Painthorses aren’t race horses. He might have been used in some local rodeo or barrel run, but nothing like the Triple Crown. Compared to those horses, those taller, faster animals, Dylan’s legs were squat, his muscles fat, his stomach low-slung. He was beautiful in his way, but you couldn’t call him sleek.
“He’s been at pasture four days now,” said Mrs. Arnold. “But we been watching him, and he ain’t been eating. That horse is the world to me,” she said. “The entire world.”
“How long have you had him?”
“Coming up on three years.” She sniffed and wiped at her eyes.
A colic horse was nothing new. Horses are strange animals to begin with. They don’t sweat; they lather. On cold nights, they run to keep warm. They can lie down, but usually they sleep standing up, if they sleep at all. When they break a leg, they’re often shot, the injury too much for them to bear.
I flipped through the diagnosis book, which told us what to do and who to call given a client’s complaints. “I’ll get a surgeon,” I said, and I paged Dr. Loeb, a surgical resident on call that evening.
“I’m in the building,” said Dr. Loeb. “About to do an esophageal, but I’m here.”
“We’ve got a colic,” I said.
“Be there in a sec.”
Dr. Loeb spoke with Mrs. Arnold in the waiting room. Dylan stood outside the windows in his trailer. I could barely see him through the vents – a nostril, an eye, a bit of mane. The truck that had pulled him in sat idling, its engine humming through the building.
“Okay, tell them to meet me out back,” said Dr. Loeb, finally. On her way outside, Mrs. Arnold winked at me and made a pistol with her hand before getting in her truck and pulling out of view.
The job at the veterinary hospital didn’t mean anything to me. I was home for the summer, between my freshman and sophomore years in college, and while I’d told the people at the clinic that the work would be a good experience because I wanted to forge a career in hospital administration, that had been a lie. I planned to quit in August, just as I always had in high school, and head back to college. But my bosses didn’t know that yet.
I worked afternoon and evening shifts, so I didn’t get to leave the clinic until eight, and when I did, I hardly ever went straight home.
My girlfriend’s name was Jessie. I had known her during high school, but had never had the courage to ask her out. It seemed unfortunate to me that only now, here, had I fostered the strength to approach her, because now I only saw her in the summers or on breaks. We were studying at different schools. We’d been a couple for about six months, ever since a bonfire party back at Christmas when we’d walked off into the woods together to be alone.
I liked meeting up with Jessie after work at a place called the Rock Castle. It was a dark bar with walls of cut pine and cypress and wisps of tobacco smoke curling beneath the chain-hung lamps. She was working that summer as a waitress across town.
The night after Mrs. Arnold brought her horse in, we were there sharing a pitcher of Miller High Life. Jessie was complaining about work. She used to like to talk about the mean customers, the ones who didn’t tip, who snapped their fingers to attract her attention, and who sent their orders back to be re-cooked. I listened, but more than anything I liked to watch her face when she was angry, the way her eyes moved, the shapes she made with her mouth, the way she would get mad, and then start laughing. “You must think I’m crazy,” she’d say.
“Yeah, I do,” I’d say. And then I’d watch her talk some more.
When we polished off the pitcher, I said, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where do you want to go? It’s only nine.”
We drove out into the country, out to near where she was living with her parents. The night was warm and clear, and we rode past the long, black fences of horse farms and ranches, my VW purring in the wind. I rolled the windows down so we could smell the fresh-cut hay. Jessie put her arm out the window to feel the breeze. Crickets sang at us from the fields, hidden in the tall grass and giant oaks that blossomed darkly out of the soft earth.
“We’re going to the playground, aren’t we?” Jessie said. I could hear her smile.
“I’m not telling,” I said, but she was right.
The playground at Elkton Elementary was my favorite place to sit and watch the stars. Elkton served the farm children in the area and was closed and deserted over the summer. In the shadows of the park, slides and monkey bars stood like the silent skeletons of dinosaurs in museums, looming and still. To the north, opposite the highway, there stood a line of dark woods.
I pulled my little hatchback onto the grass. We got out and slid up onto the hood, still warm with engine heat, and lay back against the windshield. Jessie rolled up a sweatshirt to hold against the backs of our heads. I had an arm around her. We found Orion’s Belt and the Little Dipper, Sagittarius, Castor and Pollux, all the constellations we could remember. The stars trembled in the heated air, and as the warmth of the engine and the night around us seeped into our bodies, Jessie turned her head into my chest and, within a minute or so, was asleep.
I felt threads of her hair against my mouth and considered seriously never returning to school. Why not get a job in town, I thought. Why not keep the job I had and just move up? We could make a life. So many folks have made their lives on so much less. We could save up, build a country home, something small, and maybe even buy a horse someday. He would be nothing fancy, I decided, but an animal we raised. I tried to picture Jessie atop a pony, reaching around his neck, clicking her tongue to make him gallop through the fields and kick up limestone dust. I imagined myself standing on a porch, a slow summer morning, mug of coffee in my hand, the sun turning the sky gray and then pink and then pushing all the clouds aside. I imagined working in a field, my head dripping with sweat, my heart pounding in my chest. I thought about a house that I would build with Jessie’s help, a building that reflected both of us, and something that would last a hundred years or more if we built it well.
We stayed out on the playground for what must have been an hour before she awoke and we stood and slid off the car. Later, in the car while I was driving her home, I told Jessie what I’d been thinking.
She laughed. “You’re such a romantic!”
“I’m serious, though. If we both dropped out, we could work, save up.”
“Save up how? You don’t just go out and build a house on minimum wage. What do you make now? Eight bucks an hour? Nobody can survive on that. And besides, don’t you want to be an engineer?”
I did. I liked the inner workings of machines and buildings. I liked the way a thousand tiny parts could come together to produce a single machine.
“And you?” I said. “What’s college doing for you these days?”
“Still undecided, but I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching. Not sure which grade, but I’ll figure that out. Maybe high school chemistry? In any case, I need a degree.”
“Okay, so you’ll be the high school teacher, I’ll be the engineer, we save up and buy the materials—“
“Ifwe’re still together,” Jessie said.
“What do you mean, ‘if’?”
“It’s a long time off. A lot can happen between now and then, you know?”
I looked at her for what must have been too long, and I knew it had been too long when there was a noisy bang, and the whole car lurched. Time slowed for a few seconds. The impact felt as if it has lifted the rear wheels off the ground, then bounced them back down. The airbag deployed, socking me in the side of the head, and the seatbelt ground hard against my torso through my shirt. When it all stopped, we sat together, stunned and silent, looking at each other and feeling our bodies for injury.
“Are you okay?” I said to Jessie, and she broke into tears.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she kept saying.
We unbuckled our seatbelts and got out. She ran around behind the car to embrace me.
Again I said, “Are you okay?”
“I think so. Are you?”
We stood apart, stretching our arms and legs for a moment. “I think I am too,” I said.
“What did we hit?”
The damage to the front of the car was minor – a dented bumper and grill and one broken headlight, but that seemed to be it. The remaining headlight, though, cast its solitary beam across the gravel by the roadside and showed a heaving heap of something in the grass. When we got closer, I could see it was a doe, her mouth agape, her tongue lolling as she breathed.
Jessie put a hand across her mouth and said, “She’s still alive.”
“I don’t think she’ll be breathing much longer,” I said.
“Who do you call about this? Can anybody at the vet’s office help?”
“Not at this hour,” I said. “I’ll call nine-one-one.”
I described as best I could to the operator where we were, and she told me they’d have someone coming out soon, that in the meantime I should move my car out of the road. “Will they be able to save the deer?” I asked.
“Sir, I don’t know the answer to that,” she said. “Just hang tight. Somebody’ll be along shortly.”
Jessie and I watched the doe crane her neck and pant. She watched us, too, her eye a perfect sphere of wet glass.
Jessie reached down to touch her neck. The doe trembled at first, and then relaxed as Jessie stroked her soft fur. Jessie said something into her ear that I couldn’t hear, but it sounded almost as if she were singing a lullaby.
By the time the sheriff arrived, swaggering around our car and the doe, his light bar strobing through the air, the doe had died with a final shiver of her ribs. Her eye was still open, but it had gone utterly still, and her tongue had disappeared into her mouth.
Jessie said to the sheriff, “What happens to the body?”
“Well,” he said, “main thing’s that her body’s out of the roadway. We’ll order a pickup for disposal to stop by tomorrow.”
“And then? What dotheydo with the body?”
The sheriff scratched his head and said, “Ma’am, I don’t really know.”
Jessie reached down to touch the doe once more.
“Is your car drivable?” the sheriff asked me.
I got in, turned the key in the ignition, and drove forward a few feet. Nothing scraped, nothing dragged. The car seemed in good order.
“Just be sure and get that headlamp fixed,” the sheriff said. “Y’all drive safe.” He got back in his car and drove away.
I pulled the car over to the roadside and got back out. Jessie was still crouching near the doe.
“I don’t want to leave her here,” she said.
“They’ll come get her tomorrow.”
“We killed her. This is a life gone because of something we did. She deserves better from us than this.”
“What do you want us to do, Jessie? I mean, she’sdead. And she might be dangerous. Somebody else might swerve and hit the body.”
“She could be a mother, Greg. Look at her.” Jessie stood and pointed at the doe’s dead face. “She might have a fawn out there somewhere.”
“Look, if there’s anything I’ve learned working at the vet hospital, it’s that animals just die. So do we. It happens all the time.”
Jessie paused, then said, “Sounds like you’ve just learned to be cold.”
“I’ve gotten more realistic is all.”
She looked at me then, hands on her hips, her mouth agape. “And what if that were you?” she said. “Hit by a car, left to die out here. Somebody’d give you some dignity, for Christ’s sake. Somebody might even feel bad about what they’d done.”
“I didn’t mean to hit her, Jessie.”
“But you did hit her. We both did. You know, Greg, in the car, when I said we might not make it until we could save up and build a place for ourselves? It’s differences like these, like the one between us now.”
A car flew past on the highway just then, its lights blinding me, and in that moment, it was as though Jessie had disappeared. I couldn’t see or hear her, everything drowned out by the wind and the engine of the car blowing past, and I felt for some strange reason as though I might have lost her for good. Finally, my eyes adjusted and I found her again in the darkness. I felt relieved.
I sighed. “Okay, so what do we do? Bury her? Give her a funeral?”
“Something like that, yes. We treat her like we’d want to be treated.”
“First,” Jessie said, “we drag her over into the trees, because if we leave her here, they’re just going to pick her up tomorrow and cremate her or grind her up or whatever else they do.”
I grabbed the doe’s hind legs with both hands. Jessie grabbed the front legs, and together, we dragged her through a small ditch, across the grass and up onto the forest’s pine-needle floor. She was heavy, and as we pulled her body, her head bounced across roots and stones. At one point, Jessie stopped and dropped the doe’s legs.
“We leaving her here?” I said.
“No. We need to get her far enough back from the road that they don’t find her. I just need a little break.”
We rested a moment and then kept moving. Moonlight dappled the forest floor. Somewhere far away an owl cried out. The aroma of wisteria hung sleepily in the air.
“Here,” Jessie said, finally, when we’d moved perhaps twenty yards further from the road. She began to collect pine straw in her arms and toss it on the doe’s body, and so I did the same. We covered her as well as we could, a burial of sorts, and then we stood beside her, tired and sweating.
“We should say something,” Jessie said. I couldn’t think of anything to say, though, and so for a long minute we stood in silence, listening to the wind sway the pine trunks.
Jessie took my hand, then, and said in a confident voice, “We are sorry for what happened. We didn’t mean for you to die, and we didn’t want for you to suffer in the process. We hope that you’re not leaving anyone else behind, alone now that you’re gone, but if you are, we are sorry for that loss, too.” She paused. “Greg? You want to add anything?”
I thought about it, not knowing what to say at first, but squeezed Jessie’s hand and began speaking anyway. “I’m so, so sorry that I looked away from the road. It was the wrong thing to do. I want to apologize to you, and I promise I’ll try my best never ever to do that again.”
Jessie mumbled, “And the babies,” between her teeth.
“And to your children, or the husband, or the parents, and anybody else, I’m sorry too.”
It didn’t feel like much. If anything, it felt a little silly, standing out there in the woods, talking to the body of a deer and to a bunch of other animals who probably couldn’t hear us or, if they did, wouldn’t understand what we were saying anyway. But for Jessie, it seemed to provide a kind of relief. Her breathing slowed, her hand relaxed inside mine, and in the end, with her head bowed, she closed her eyes, released her grip, and said, “Okay.”
The drive back to her parents’ house was silent. She stared out the window into the dark, and I paid attention only to what was in front of me – the ticking by of the highway stripes, the lonesome glow of my single headlight. When we got there, I put my arms around her and held her for a moment, but when we kissed, it felt as if I were kissing someone I didn’t know. “Jess,” I said, but all she said in return as she turned and walked toward her parents’ door was, “Good night, Greg.” She didn’t even look at me when she said it, and that’s how I knew.
I drove myself back home. When I got there, my parents were in bed, and the house inside was like a den of hibernation. The air was still and stagnant and cool. Down the hall, I could hear my father snoring.
I took a quick shower and changed clothes, and then I turned on the radio in my room, the volume way down, and listened for a song, for voices, for anything. But I couldn’t pay attention to whatever was coming through, whatever might be traveling through the night air and into my room, whoever else was out there that night, alone and speaking into darkness, and so I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling until morning bled through the windows.
A few days later at work, I was packing up my things and getting ready to go home for the evening. I hadn’t seen Jessie since the night we’d hit the deer, though we had shared a terse phone call. The summer was coming to a close, and already I was trying to figure out how to defend myself against the office staff and the doctors, to all of whom I’d lied about wanting the job and about not being in college, when Mrs. Arnold arrived.
“Oh, hey,” I said. “Dylan’s doing better. He ought to be ready to go.”
“I know, I called earlier.” She smiled. “I didn’t know if he was going to make it. I never been through this before.”
“Horses get colicky all the time. Usually just some kind of blockage they have to take out of the stomach.”
Mrs. Arnold nodded. “Glad they fixed him up. So,” she said, taking in a deep breath. “What’s the damage?”
I checked the computer for her account. “Sixteen-thousand, even,” I said, and as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew that I should not have been the one to tell her. A corporate representative wouldn’t have minded, but for Mrs. Arnold, I should have called a surgeon, someone who could explain things about the special equipment, the blood they had to buy, the tools, and how expensive it all was.
Mrs. Arnold left the window and wandered out into the room. She walked over next to the waiting room chairs, her hand against her throat, her mouth agape. “What am I going to do?” she said. “How am I supposed to pay for this?”
“We might be able to work out some financing,” I said, but Mrs. Arnold remained where she was, as if my words hadn’t gotten through.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said, her voice shaking like an autumn leaf. “No insurance, neither.”
I paged Dr. Loeb, who was, again, on call. She called me back, and I explained the situation.
“I about to be tied up,” she said. “We’ve got an emergency coming in. Either we get the money or the horse stays. She’ll have to come back if she wants a full explanation of the charges. But let her know that we’ll be charging for more nights if that happens.”
The phone went dead.
I did my best to explain the situation to Mrs. Arnold.
“No,” she said to this. “No, I’m taking Dylan home tonight. I can’t pay this bill, and I definitely can’t add any more nights to it. I’m taking my horse home today, and ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
“You know I can’t allow you to do that,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”
“Then don’t allow it,” she said. “But he’s my horse. And I’m taking him home.”
I picked up the phone. They told us that, in situations like this, situations which were rare, they said, but might someday happen, that we should just call the police, and so I started dialing nine-one-one.
“No!” she said, and before I finished dialing, she thrust an arm through the window to hold the receiver button. “Look,” she said, her voice growing quiet. “Ten minutes. Just give me ten minutes. That’s all. Please. I know you got to do your job and all, but just give me ten minutes before you do it. That’s all I need.”
Sweat bloomed against my back and forehead. I rubbed my chin and breathed hard a few times. I thought of my bosses, of my parents. No one would be here to see this happen. No one locked the horses or the gate. No one had ever needed to before.
I thought of Jessie, of what all she might do had she been in my place. It was not because I wanted to or even tried to think about her right then, but she had been inside my head so much those past few days, and I had gotten tired of fighting her away. In my mind, I could see her face, first annoyed, then worrying, then happy, then flickering with firelight and cold at the Christmas party, asking me to walk off into the woods with her. I saw our house together and knew, finally, that it would never be built, or not as I’d imagined it, but that I’d never forget what it had looked like to me that night as we lay out on the hood of my car, or how the air had felt against our skin, her hair against my mouth. I wanted to remember what had been between us as a good thing, a happy thing, and so I tried as best I could to think back to better times. Summer would be over soon.
“Ten minutes?” I said. My voice shook, and something in my inflection almost sounded like Jessie when I spoke. I cleared my throat.
Mrs. Arnold nodded, her hands worrying each other.
“Okay,” I said, my voice deeper this time, my back straight, my fists flexing at my sides. I was as certain in that moment as I have ever been. “Ten minutes.”
Mrs. Arnold ran outside, and at first, I wanted to call Jessie and let her know what was happening. I wanted to make her proud, even if we were about to fall apart. But in the end, I decided that I’d never tell anyone about this. This would be between me, Mrs. Arnold, and Dylan.
I figured I ought to get out of the office and go someplace where I couldn’t see what was happening out behind the hospital, someplace that might give me an alibi. I walked back toward the offices and examination rooms, down the white-lit halls that buzzed with an artificial glow. I decided to try to find Dr. Loeb, wherever she was, to let her see me in the building, to inform her that I wasn’t at the front. When I found her, though, she was walking into surgery, her hands gloved and washed, a mask across her face. Only her eyes were visible between the fabric.
“What is it?” she said, and then, “I can’t really talk right now.”
“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
I had hoped that I might hold her up somehow, but it wasn’t necessary, so I walked past her and on down the hallway toward the other operating room, the one that they weren’t using. The doors were metal and painted a deep green. They weren’t locked. I could see through the windows that no one was working, but I’d never been inside one of those rooms before. I pushed open the doors.
In the middle of the floor there sat a large metallic platform with a raised lip all the way around. The platform was low and wide, and above it stood a pair of cranes, their joints run through with steel cables and pulleys. Spotlights hung from stands around the table, aiming down at the table’s gleaming surface. This was where they laid the horses down, asleep, and cut them open. A bank of computer screens lined one wall, all of them blank and black like wide open eyes. Wires ran from them all the way around the room and disappeared into the ceiling. The walls were white and all bedecked with tiny polished tiles. I worried for a moment that a team of veterinary surgeons might come rushing in, interrogating me about why I was standing there and commanding me to leave. Was I even allowed to be inside this place without clean clothes and a mask? But I pushed the thought aside.
For the longest ten minutes I can remember, there I was, alone, and for the length of those ten minutes I was more awed by all the things that human beings, mere animals ourselves, could build and love and heal.
He sits in a room littered with litter, surrounded by his own dirt and sweat and engulfed in the most animalistic scents of his flesh. He sits there writing. Music blaring. Bouncing his foot. Oblivious to the world.
This stench, this smell of the human body, smell of "I'm going to do something that matters,” smell of running from parents, of a new will and testament, a ghost, a Holy Ghost in me—outside of me—watching over me and tallying the wrongs versus rights against the buzzer... That is what I smell like. I smell like a woman not from this place, with clothes in a different closet and a wedding ring gathering dust next to my blush which touches me more than any man probably will till the day I die.
What does it all total now? Wedding KitchenAide’s against bottle littered rooms against a million other roads to take. Who am I supposed to turn in to? If it is a journey like in Wild I would take it. Hike a trail to realize that “thing” about yourself that was oh so close to the surface but you couldn’t reach it till you walked a few thousand miles. If it is a prayer or blessing I would gladly receive it.
That won't be it, because for some reason the way it should be, the way that fixes people, will come up to the mark but never really work. That magic combination that will fix it, will show me the path, or help me understand how to be a good person who will one day raise children and have a house and a good man.
Seems as far away as ever right now. Naked. On this dirty mattress. Betrothed at home waiting for me so we can move in to a new apartment. Fix things, grow things. New memories. Old hat. What is new that will grow from me now is this distance. This expanse. Between me and him, for the first time, and me and everyone else, in a different way, but in a way that's always been there.
And who knows about this man on the dirty mattress? Cock out, snoring in his sleep. Acne from youth. Carefree, too. He doesn't know what it means to love something like I have. He doesn't know what it means to leave something like I have. If he did he wouldn't be so quick to invite me over and tell me how I should start a new life for myself. How many new lives can I start before I miss the one that I am supposed to have? Always another path, always an unexplored corner, always a cock you haven't fucked. Who is content and not just lazy?
Tear it with a hatchet. Sink it in a bag filled with rocks. Hammer it to oblivion. Just move. Change. Don't stay here.
flash fiction by Jennifer Fox
poetry by Cathy Porter
even the warm winds
of summer can’t salvage
this memory --
when we would talk
all night, never run out
find new ones
to call out the prophets
who locked us
in blind faith
to Saturday night infidels,
the ones doing everything
in full view of streetlights
where the bugs circle underneath,
on the lookout
for exposed skin –
a couple of worn faces
all out of beer and change
passing the hat
to anyone keeping score
The logger had tacos with a girl he’d known growing up. He’d lusted from yards over for a bikini-wearing babysitter of hers, and other than that all he’d done was find the girl when she got lost in the woods.
“How ya been?” He meant: Why are we doing this? She looked like now she usually drank lunch.
“Do you know if anything happened to me? Like, before you found me?”
In lieu of saying no he said, “You know I’m cutting them trees down,” and for a moment he saw the look he’d seen before: plagued but hero-seeking, hopeful.
micro fiction by Merry Mercurial
Monsters in Trees
Though he never would have admitted this to anyone, Nicholas Peterson had an addiction to what he’d dubbed “soft self-pity.” Had a habit of easing into sleep each night by imagining himself in a traumatic scenario. Bombs in shopping malls, for instance. Or pile-ups on the highway. Earthquakes opening below his office building. Scenes that were nothing more than brain bonbons—akin to falling asleep in front of an action flick—held for Nick all the soporific reliefs of self-solace and fake heroism.
But that was before the accident. No one with such a dramatic idling gear ever believes himself susceptible to real catastrophe. As it happened, it was a pile-up on the highway. Fate did him the conventional way, and if his pillow talk with disaster had been altered to tarots, Fate, then, would have been passed a deck stacked toward car calamity in any case. And just as he had always envisioned its outcome, the reality didn’t kill him.
Nicholas was thrown through the windshield of his Toyota Hilux, the final irony being as obvious as everything else: that his negligence with seatbelts saved his life. He flew over the hood of a hybrid and soared past the guardrail and face first into the cushion of a drainage pond, which caught his broken neck and held him in a fragile abeyance so perfect that doctors later made distasteful jokes about amniotic fluid.
If not for the medical team that arrived minutes later, Nicholas would have had no self to pity. Two of his cervical vertebrae were crumpled; he had a constellation of glass in his brain; and, despite this exquisite trauma, there was very nearly a more urgent issue with his lungs. He was saved by a paramedic who reasoned that he could realistically survive face down in water for a minute or two longer while she dealt first with the position of his neck.
Nicholas was lucky enough to be oblivious to this and the next four days—as well as nearly all of days five through eight—and when he finally woke after untold epochs of spinal and cerebral scrutiny, the days no longer mattered and time was a dream.
He arose into the post-world of his dreaming: the events that might have followed immediately after his old imagination had lulled him to sleep. Hospital walls. Scent of antiseptic. The coarseness of elastic bandages. These things infinitely more troubling than the scene of the accident, and already too much like sleep for sleep to follow.
Some multitude of days later: Nicholas, discharged with a neck brace and a warning about metal detectors, his eyelids still gummy and his skin vaguely transparent and a noise like an electric can-opener in his head. His grandmother pushed the wheelchair, and by the time she had helped him up the three steps to her house, Nicholas was dumb with exhaustion. Before he could collapse on the floral couch he had to suffer the hallway, which seemed to make a treadmill of itself until he tipped over its edge and into blessed oblivion.
When he woke, he was fine. Finding it necessary to inspect the nuances of that word—fine—he would later look it up in a dictionary and discover that he did indeed feel “of superior or best quality; of high or highest grade.” Nicholas stood up expecting vertigo and getting clarity. He glanced at the cuckoo clock, which read ten o’clock and meant absolutely nothing to him. Sunlight promenaded with dust between the curtains. Smells from the kitchen summoned him, and he found Grandma at the stove with sausage and eggs.
“You look well,” she croaked, disturbed.
“I feel well.”
“Well you shouldn’t. You broke your head.”
“My neck, Gran. It was my neck. What about we discuss this after breakfast?”
Nicholas ate all she offered, which was considerable, and she continued to cook, unable to think of anything better to do. She wondered if he might explode in her kitchen. This notion, a product of a growing suspicion that what she had wasn’t Nicholas at all but an incubus in his form. Suddenly the thought of killing it with poached eggs became plausible self-defense, so by the time she had emptied the fridge she was frantic. The grocery store being too far away, and he still complimenting the chef, Gran armed herself with a windbreaker and went rapping at Sue’s door for gastronomic assistance.
Nicholas, for his part, was preoccupied with his condition; and, really, Grandma’s hovering had begun to tire him. So eager was he to test the unwrapping of the bandages around his head—that lofty litmus—that he threw himself toward the bathroom with too much haste and slipped and dashed his head on the porcelain lip of the tub. The bang and the bright sunspot of pain.
Picked himself up slowly, assuming 1) that he was dead, and 2) that he had been unconscious for a long time. But by the digital display on the shelf it was apparently the same morning, the same minute.
He didn’t have any pain. Pain wasn’t with him. He faced the mirror like a man expecting horrors, but there was little blood. The bandage was loose and left him without a hitch or hair, and otherwise absent of any obvious wound. Hadn’t they opened him up along here and here to pick out the glass? No tenderness where his fingers probed. Hadn’t his neck been broken? It took him a while to remove the brace, but by then he knew he had full range of motion. He’d read of the region of brain that registered pain, but if that had been severed he still wouldn’t have been moving the way he could, and yet—. Some detective work here. Nicholas the sleuth. There was a spot of blood on the porcelain where he’d hit. He probed his head but failed in his quest for tenderness or mark, and how could there be blood without the breaking of skin? He searched and found grandfather’s old razors in the cabinet, and he could always say he’d cut himself shaving if he just put a little nick right—about—there!
Blood! And ghosts didn’t bleed, no sir. He was elated and then frowning because the cut had closed. He saw it! What in God’s name? Nicholas swiped with the razor. Caught himself a good one that time and deep, but so fleeting it barely wept red before it vanished again. Oh, no you don’t. Slash. Hello blood. What? Too shy to stay? Slash, slash.
No matter what he did, he couldn’t keep a cut; couldn’t gain a gash; couldn’t land a laceration. It was simply too remarkable and terrible and impossible. He threw up.
When his grandmother returned with the eggs she’d worried out of her neighbor’s parsimonious pantries, Nicholas was where she had left him and looking morose and also green.
“Grandma, I think I need to go to the hospital; I’m not feeling well.”
She was relived so much that she had to sit down. “I was so worried about your health. You were acting so strange.”
“Yes, Gran, strange.”
“Strange,” she emphasized again because she couldn’t bring herself to apologize for her attempt to murder him with breakfast, and she was so out of sorts that she didn’t ask when Nicholas took a dollar from her purse and told her he’d take the bus and that he’d hospitalize himself.
Of course he didn’t go to the hospital; what could they do for him? Nicholas hadn’t been to his apartment since the crash, and it was in this fusty sanctuary he found himself. The electricity had been cancelled. Old cereal bowl on the counter and a roach nestled in a bed of corn flakes. The tap was dripping. Nicholas crossed the room and pulled a steak knife from its holder and held it.
If anyone had been there watching they would have seen a patchy-headed gowned man staring into nothing. They might have assumed he was reliving the crash. Crumpled metal and spinning glass. Noise and inertia orbiting the stunned body. They might have wondered what those memories could possibly look like or if their subject missed those innocent reveries with which he used to sooth himself to sleep. In all that potential chaos of thinking, there’s no way of knowing whether Nicholas had full control or if his abrupt knife motion was partial flinch. He broke his trance by slamming the steak knife through his palm.
“Oh—GOD! Hell’d you do that for? and why and damn, that hurts hurts hurts!” He had other observations. Twisted to the sink and grasped the handle and groaned and pulled and dropped the knife and breathed. He breathed like that for a long time, holding his hands in a dry sink and blinking doleful at the curled wallpaper before he allowed himself to believe he hadn’t actually any pain. He made his eyes look. No wound. No trace. His hand had no memory of being stabbed.
As it was, his brain could barely remember if it had happened; he needed pain to make it real and the scar to make it significant. He had neither, so he stabbed himself again. This time watchful, curious, investigative. He pulled the knife out and watched the hole erase itself—not a stitching, but an undoing as though time reversed in the locality of his grip. He closed his fingers around whatever it was he’d snared.
The experiments that followed were born not so much out of bravery or even madness, but from a banal, mechanical process of study. Days pierced the frame of his windows without his noting, but time still acted upon him. It was barely there for him in some ways, and yet it scratched away at the veneer of his self-restraint. The steak knife withered in shame with all its failed butchery. Arteries mended as fast as anything else. Fingers and toes rebuilt themselves in seconds, and the segregated digits turned to dust. He tried his jugular, his heart, his lungs, even his brain through the eye—stabbing and grimacing at himself in the mirror as if at someone else’s body. In due time Nicholas discovered he couldn’t even starve. His hunger only spread him so thin.
In the constant film we all have running around in our heads about our lives—where we imagine other points of perspective than our own—Nicholas, in his own set, saw himself from his lower neighbor’s eyes. (It is a flashing moment: the point in the story when the camera angle shifts to some oblique and nameless specimen of everyman. This character lives three floors below Nicholas, oblivious of the fact, and all we know of him is that he is currently spacing out to pot and British prog when some wacko in a spotted gown zooms past his window. Disturbed with the notion of overdose, he trips to the pane and fumbles with the lock for enough time that when he finally has it open and is goggling at the ground he sees no one. This is an errant act of the mind’s treason, meant to provoke the audience to laughter or else to existential queries. He makes a wry expression. His act is over without any kind of transition.)
In reality, Nicholas was still above, one leg hoisted ponderously over the iron balcony of his eighth story apartment and peering down on said nameless point-of-view whose head he imagined rotating from the side of the building, hair fluttering around the nicotine patch bald spot of his diminished crown. Seeing himself from this angle—finding himself unwitnessed by the clueless world and assuming, correctly in this case, that this vision would par with reality—Nicholas shrugged and tipped out into the air.
No ambulances mustered, and when Nicholas arrived back in his apartment (he hadn’t forgotten to fall with his key, expecting to be back) he had nothing more than dirt and dumpster grime to deal with. His bones had mended. Interesting to feel them shatter, but he could no better remember what the blast of pavement felt like now than he could recall the pain of spraining his wrist when he was seven.
He reentered his tiny balcony and considered the scene again. These micro-apocalypses of the self in which he was star, prop, stuntman, and director also allowed him to be the audience and the critic. The problem was that in the cinema of the mind he had no witnesses other than himself. Nicholas was alone because he couldn’t die; and because he couldn’t die, he wanted to.
It might have been difficult to tell from his expression then if these thoughts had occurred to him while he stood in his dark apartment. Certainly, he understood that his life couldn’t be the same, but had the desire for the unattainable manifested in that moment? Impossible to say. He felt weary, but not tired.
Nicholas making lists as he wandered the mania of city. He knew he could test the limits of his immortality, and there were many ways to do it. The easiest being drowning. He wondered if it would work. There was fire, too. A scattering of his ashes. One had to pause at the elementals for the poetry of it. More modern modes of death struck him as needlessly destructive: incineration in an air crash or a bomb. If the Empire State Building fell on him, that might do it. Old age he’d have to wait for, but he doubted his body knew what that was; and he felt, in any case, that he needed some final flash to fit his ontological case. He demanded, like everyone, that his death be equal to his life.
He went down bad streets looking to be shot, but no one shot him. Night after night the city seemed effervescent with its own trauma of ending. Each day another death and every night a final exhalation. He didn’t sleep because he couldn’t even dream of death, and so wouldn’t wake again renewed by the unexpected oddity of life. Before the accident, Nicholas had thought that no one ever anticipated the end—that when death came up to us it was always a surprise, but on the phantom side of things he understood that it was just the opposite: life astounds us every time we encounter it anew. It had stopped astounding him.
He made token visitations to his apartment only often enough to assure the landlord he was still living there, and it was one such appointment that he ran into a neighbor coming down the hall.
“Hi,” she said from around her mound of laundry. “I think we’re wall-mates.”
“Wall-mates?” not comprehending. And then he laughed. “Of course. I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Oops. Underwear.” Something lacy made an embarrassing escape from hamper, and Nicholas watched her while she repositioned and picked it up.
“Sorry. I would have offered to help, but…”
“No-yea, you’re fine; it’s ok. Just laundry,” she said.
They exchanged a second ruddier nod, and Nicholas went and hid in his room, wondering if embarrassment would be the actual end.
A knock at his door startled him while fiddling with a noose. Didn’t know how to tie one anyway, and he’d only been fiddling. It was Alice with cupcakes.
“I thought I’d make amends for my social blunder earlier.” She held them out and grinned self-consciously—the mustard-colored hallways behind her made radiant by association.
He welcomed her in and apologized for no reason and looked for forks without finding any.
“You don’t own a fork?”
“I must have lost it.”
“Your apartment is sort of—basic.”
Now that he looked at her she appeared nervous, not taking a third step into his space and still proffering cupcakes like a shield.
Gently, he took them from her, set them on the counter. “I’m not here often. Work long hours. Irregular.”
“What do you do?”
“Uh, janitor. Actually, several jobs. I’m also a security guard at a museum. Night shift.”
“Oh! I’m an art student. Which museum?”
Nicholas looked at her. “You know what, I’ve forgotten its name. Thanks for the cupcake; it was good.”
But now that he wanted her to leave Alice had built up the courage to remain against both of their better judgements, and she told him so. “You know, I read stories in the news about people getting abducted by strangers and killed in random acts of violence all the time? So-and-so friendly neighbor knocks on the door of a serial killer. That’s a dumb thing to say, isn’t it? But you wouldn’t hurt me, would you?”
“I wouldn’t harm anyone! I can’t even harm myself.” Meant this as a joke, but how else would she take it in a setting such as this?
A wide and vulnerable look came over Alice’s eyes, impulsive giver of confections, and she tugged at the sleeve of her sweater to reveal her wrist.
Nicholas didn’t know his own mind then when he asked her to see and inspected her scars. Her skin felt cold. Sadness. If anything could end him, it was sadness. The latent cinematography that ran his life was giving a challenging meaning to this moment. He felt there should be a tender soundtrack and tried to make up for its absence with a tender look at which she laughed.
“I don’t do this to get sympathy from strangers.”
“We’re not strangers. We’ve shared cupcakes.” He asked her to a movie.
“Just so you don’t go and harm yourself if I reject you,” she accepted. “These scars are in my past, but I wear them kind of loud sometimes. Sorry I bothered you with them.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“You look so sad, you know?”
He was sad. He realized that in these past few weeks he’d been suffering and self-absorbed and that his sufferingwasan absorption of the self, and that his body, unlike other bodies, could absorb infinitely both its punishment and its pride and leave him curiously empty. He envied Alice her scars and coveted her pity even as he was wary of both.
They committed to that first movie and then another with the familiarity of long dependents, clasping hands in the fitful exposure of headlights. The weeks left in him the cotton candy aftertaste of a montage—a blissful bridge that carried no hint of any refrain and a new quality of timelessness. Desultory snowflakes. Gentle breath fogging polished shop windows. Symphonic catastrophes on theater screens: city skyline at the brink of this end or that. Nicholas was never colder than he could bare, and he had someone to keep warm, and they passed a month, two, three in this fashion of serene confusion—cheating time the way they cheated the ticket booth, sneaking from theater to theater with the crowds of soda pop teens and brushing aside their shared sense of dread.
At night, Nicholas lay awake while Alice pretended to sleep: he on his back with one arm notched behind his head and the other curled around she who was curled against him. They slept like this because this was how they expected to witness each other had they been able to look down on themselves. The movies saturating them with these meta-meditations. Nicholas with his eyes open most nights all night. He figured thinking wouldn’t kill him either, and he thought about death just in case it did. He thought about disaster the way he used to, but now the dream never ended before the ground greeted his fall, and it didn’t put him to sleep either.
He got up one night without her and wandered in his undershirt through the winter until he came to the bridge they had pondered over the night before. Counseled the black water. Alice had told him that everyone in the world, when drawn to a high place, had thought about jumping at one point or another.
He said aloud to himself, “You are going to harm someone. You’re going to harm Alice; you have to stop being.” Nicolas swung one foot over the balcony and then the other. He sat like that and thought about indulging the sensation of falling and doing it again and again just because he could. How selfish had he become to pander to these forbidden thoughts and to offer them then for Alice to taste?
He removed his shoelaces and with them tied his ankles together and filled his pockets with stones until he had to hold his pants up and hop back up the steps to the high arch of the bridge, sweating and swearing in unwitnessed humiliation. Haste and invincibility had made him stupid and clumsy, his laughing body always finding new ways to prove this to him. He didn’t bother with grace at the top, just sort of fish-flopped over the balcony and plunging, head smashing metal on the journey down, still conscious to see himself impaled on rebar, but the current scrapped him off, making his insides cold for a moment before that mended, but it didn’t matter because the weight had brought him to the bottom. Nicholas watched his orifices vacating bubbles of air that were needed for life, so he must die. He must die.
But he didn’t. Death, like a cow, regurgitated him, preferred to spin him around in its mouth like cud, munching. Nicholas woke to the sound of gulls. Old taste of oil and brine. His hair was longer than it had been: his body telling time for him, betraying him again. His clothes were gone, so he waited within a sordid green pipe for night, mind working slowly at memories. It had been winter when he jumped, but now it wasn’t. He’d been eaten out of his clothes and his ropes by fish or chemicals only to be reassembled and buoyant as he’d always been when the ice set his body free to bob. He sniffed his pits and laughed out loud.
The apartment didn’t belong to him anymore. A phonebook told him this, and it told him too that Alice was now a stranger’s wall mate. In stolen clothes he waited for dark, wondering, despite having seen her name on paper, if he had imagined her and when he’d wake up from this whole horrid dream.
Nicholas had never been a great climber in his boyhood, but self-preservation no longer being a barrier, he attempted squirrel behavior on the brick detail in the dead of night. Oh, how the fates must have laughed to endow such an inept knucklehead with the gift of unquenchable hit points! God could not resist a little more comedy at Nicholas’ expense. But neither could He allow the man to fail before the final seconds of such a witching hour. All Nicholas’ prior failures were forgotten when he rose above the lip of her window and saw her un-sleeping and with sharp object by means of the mirror of her bathroom.
Alice: fantasizing by knife-glint, eyes waxed to inward, seemed an utter alien to him. Had she always stroked this blade in her mind? Had she frustrated temptation all winter, or had this pain been a frequent, small-time visitor since his departure? She had said to him once that suicide wasn’t so much self-destruction as it was a last resort self-defense, and in his state of madness and selfishness, Nicholas had confused poetic surrealism with wisdom. The two of them had been plugged together by the coaxial of that mutual respect for the reaper, fingers intertwined with the tragi-comic singalong Blue Öyster Cult delusion, fed on a steady diet of fabricated theater. Outside her window looking in, he realized that his arrival and his disappearance had only harmed her further, and not until now had he taken death seriously. Not until another’s actual danger had he granted it any stature above the whimsy of his daydreams.
Nicholas couldn’t stand to watch her toy with the knife any longer. He thought, absurdly, that the sight of blood might destroy him, and he knew what he had to do. If self-inflicted suffering was the ultimate arrogance, then to find that he wasn’t worthy of his suffering seemed the greatest humility. And to show her that suffering wasn’t worthy of her…well, perhaps he could put his body’s facsimile of death to some use. Create some more profound theater.
There were five floors above Alice’s eighth: plenty of space to become gravity's minion. If someone were to leap from that height, he reckoned, and clip her balcony on the way down, she might be startled into rushing out to see a body crash into the fence below. As morbid as that was, he couldn’t fathom a better way to intervene. Alice’s febrile imagination was as his own had been before the accident. That is: unable to think of real tragedy as real because where had it been before it had arrived? But now—ah, now he was equipped to be the accident for her.
Nicholas backed out of view and began to climb again. This time he was goaded by some sort of eccentric heroism, and when he reached the balcony above hers he was grinning. He was almost like the superheroes they’d loved so much to watch on screen. He even had a hood to hide his face when he fell.
And fall he did. He leapt back and out, twisting in a kind of dopey summersault, hammering her railing with midback and folding, jack-knifing loudly, and in an excruciating and mindless tumble he made his wet landing in the alley. Face up, staring into the polluted aurora-night of the light-drenched city. Momentarily crushed and splayed, he saw figures, screams. There she was, leaning in her bathrobe over her bruised railing, hands to mouth. Nicholas noticed the horror and care in her motion. She didn’t want to fall and wouldn’t jump, the knife forgotten by the bathroom sink.
Heads were vanishing behind the veils of their curtains, and some of them would make their way down to him. Nicholas waited until she stepped back into her own room, shocked from the edge. She didn’t wish to look at death any longer than anyone else, and in the spaces between alarmed shouts and sirens, he lifted his undeterred body from the pavement and fled.
Sleep visited him where he came to wait for it below a bridge. He was as comfortable here as anywhere else, thinking of craters and toxic spills and the fallout of human failures—the elemental mishaps of our collective fever dream. It was tempting for him to feel like a bastion of life since death couldn’t touch him, but he didn’t have to play by the rules, and life didn’t electrify him. But Alice. Alice could fall in love with life again if she let life court her. He could only hope that she’d had a bad breakup with death, since it had so crudely cheated on her. But he might never be sure if even that had been a selfish move for him to make.
He wouldn’t see her again. He was an infant banging around in a nursery-world of padded walls, and not even loneliness could kill him. He breathed in the dark of city shadow, listening to the world breathe back; and he thought long, rewinding to the accident where he had been born. Had he become the damaged thing he had dreamed up for himself? Caught in an Alighierian Comedy and believing not in the glorious going up in flames of a hero death, but in an unraveling. Alice had always liked those endings. Music and camera angle. A slowly retreating vantage: bridge to street to block to city and he, just a speck among specks somewhere in that last scene before credit role while the picture held for another second. This was the way his consciousness told him to see the non-event of his future. It was scary, but it wouldn’t kill him. He felt himself slipping away from himself. In a miasma of eternity. Undead and unwitnessed. Alive.
short fiction by Andrew Reichard
You know, there ain’t nothing more depressing than a funeral where you know the guy is going to hell. That’s how it was today at Roland’s funeral. Aunt Julia said she didn’t have no money for no casket or nothing so the city cremated the body. It was all very disheartening. They had some Chaplin from the homeless shelter come. He talked for about ten minutes, then we sang a hymn and that was it. There weren’t but maybe fifteen people, me and Momma, Roseanne and Aunt Julia. The rest were friends of Roland’s from off the street. The guy from the mortuary wanted to know who was going to take the ashes. Finally Aunt Julia said she reckoned she would. After all, she was Roland’s Mother.
“It’s a mighty sad thing,” said my Momma as we were walking out of the church. “But, I suppose he brought it on himself.” She said it loud so everybody could hear. She said it with an unbecoming, self-righteous tone of voice. It made me about half mad.
“Momma, you can’t say that. Roland didn’t choose the life he had.”
“Everybody has choices, Raymond.”
Hell, Roland Cook wasn’t but thirty-six. He’d lived on the street for the last ten years or more, from when he got out of prison. I guess he was strung out on drugs. I don’t know for sure, but something was wrong. I’d see him once and a while downtown. I think he was shacking up with some woman up on Mims Avenue for a while at some crack house. Momma said that his was a meaningless life. I was thinking about that. Her words just kept ringing in my head.
After the service we went up to the cafeteria for supper. I got fried liver and onions. Momma had fish. It was like the funeral never even happened. We talked about other things. We stopped by the liquor store after that. Momma got her a bottle of wine and I bought me some bourbon. I aimed on getting drunk that night, getting drunk and thinking about my cousin Roland.
It was a haunting thing to think about a meaningless life, but I reckon that was the truth. Roland never really accomplished nothing. He never owned a car or a house. He never had no children that I know of. I wondered if he had ever done anything worthwhile in his adult life. You know, when he was in middle school he was a right good basketball player. He was tall for his age. Then he got all messed up on drugs. I think that he dropped out in the tenth or eleventh grade. Then, I sort of lost track of him.
I guess that Roseanne and Aunt Julia loved him. At one time I know they did, but when a person gets down and stays down it’s hard. Aunt Julia ain’t a bad woman. She and Momma still see each other regularly. Roseanne used to think the world of Roland when they were little. She turned out okay. She finished school and got married to a guy named Travis and they live over in Arcadia Hills by the airport. She was eight years younger than her brother. Roland used to call her Pumpkin.
That night I sat on the front stoop and drank and smoked cigarettes. I didn’t want to be with nobody. I hadn’t really given Roland much thought over the years. Oh, I’d sit at night sometime and wonder where he was and what he was doing. When he was up in Tyger River I wrote him a letter once, but he never answered. I guess prison changes a man.
Still, you’ve got to wonder, why the hell God ever put him on this earth in the first place. Was it to fail, to live in misery and then to die and go to hell? What possible sense did that make? I mean, it goes against everything you think you know about the Lord. All that talk about love. Where’s the love in that. It’s enough to make you doubt.
Then too, Roland’s death couldn’t help but make me consider my own life. What had I accomplished in thirty-five years of living? I was still in the house with Momma, still sleeping in the same bed I slept in growing up. I wasn’t married and I didn’t have no children. There was about twenty thousand in the bank and I had a right nice Ford pickup, but I hadn’t done very much with my life. I don’t do drugs or live on the street. I’ve held down a job at the tire store for going on six years, but it ain’t much. I don’t think that I’ll go to hell when I die, but I ain’t one hundred percent sure. Momma says she knows she is going to heaven, but to tell you the truth, I ain’t completely sure of that either.
Then, I thought about that photography class over at the technical college. I’d been saying I was going to take it for the last three or four years. That would be something worthwhile. Maybe I could get a job taking pictures somewhere. It would be a damn sight better that putting on tires. I took another drink of bourbon and lit a cigarette. Hell, I might actually be a good photographer, but when you get right down to it I don’t reckon God cares about photography one way or the other.
flash fiction by James William Gardner
I slink from my pelt,
grains of sand chafe
and suit as I claw my way out.
Finally, naked, I wobble in the dark,
stash my hide under a rock,
memorize the families
of barnacles so I can find it again—
I try to remember how to walk.
People in these villages
know my kind
viscous shimmers for shoes.
My father is a Selkie,
we’ve never met
but I know that he came
to these shores
to find my mother.
She's not like us,
winces when I tear into raw fish
or drip slime on the dinner table.
My oozing reminds her of him.
I borrow a sheet off a clothesline,
sweep it over my waterlogged bark.
I am grotesque—
shed my seal coat to
be like my mother but
it's his skin I'm trapped in,
his mucus clings darkness to me,
try as I might to let go, grow up,
I’m always wading into towns,
half woman, half beast,
looking for the pub with the prettiest girls
searching for my father.
The Selkie's Daughter
poetry by Jessalyn MacGuire
Turquoise and Tiger's Eye
When the time came and I felt a needle pushing through my nostril, I examined the feeling closely. This allowed my mind to escape, helping me separate my fear of pain from the reality of the pressure—not quite pain but so near it as to allow panic. I longed to leap away and run. The sensation was clearly wrong, something a body shouldn’t feel. My mind knew I had paid good money for this woman to shove a needle through my cartilage, but my muscles tried to move into survival mode. The slow pierce, a breaking and entering, seemed to last an hour, but my daughter’s iPhone—used to video the event—later revealed it had not even been two minutes. What would we do without technology to tell us what really happened? I suppose I could claim to you an hour of pressure, or twenty minutes of pain, whatever my body interpreted as truth. You wouldn’t believe me—would you?— but you would have no authority to argue. But a preteen’s iPhone, wearing a plastic case bearing the motto “Faction before blood,” has authority over my experience. I dare not demur.
Afterward, examining my body’s newest hole in a turquoise hand-held mirror, I was surprised to realize that my main thoughts were of impermanence. If I removed the stud—a small yellow tiger’s eye—immediately, after being in its place for only two minutes, would my nose look the same? Would it bear a mark? How long until the hole knit its sides back together? And if I wore my stud for a year, what then? How long did I have before my decision would mark me forever?
I stared at my nose in the mirror and wondered at the lack of blood. There had been one drop, wiped away quickly by my piercer. Was it the quickness of her needle or did my nose hold few blood vessels? Had the hole been neutralized, consoled, by being quickly met with a platinum stud to fill the loss of flesh?
There had been one blood-drop and one teardrop. I didn’t cry, not really, but somehow a salty one-tear-trail had leaked from my clenched eyes as I dissected my feelings and she pushed the needle. Involuntary and embarrassing. I felt betrayed by my body. I told the woman, still holding a barely bloody tissue, that I didn’t know why I’d cried, that I hadn’t done it, that it had just happened. She said it was normal and told me not to worry. I felt like telling her I wasn’t worried but wasn’t sure if that was true. I wasn’t sure why it seemed so important to appear unruffled and unhurt to this woman who makes her living by pushing needles through people’s bodies. Surely she would not remember me, whether I cried or not. Unless my muscles had won and shoved me out of her chair, I’d fade away into a cozy blur, the newly pierced, the ruined or bettered bodies, the way she earns her daily bread.
Eventually I dealt with my thoughts of impermanence in my usual lazy way, by just ignoring them. What does it matter if a mark remains? My body is 39 years old, already the canvas of my life, bearing scars and freckles, moles and lines. I resolved to enjoy my new acquisition without thinking of its aftermath. I’ve already spent too much time in my life worrying about my choices and their consequences. Whatever comes with my body’s new hole will be fine with me. By overcoming fears of what family and friends will think, by urging my muscles to ignore their response, by paying $75 and bringing my official state ID, by not ripping the eye of a tiger out after two minutes of staring in a turquoise mirror, I’ve earned the right to wear this jewel.
by Sarah Broussard Weaver
Will Donnelly’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Barrelhouse, decomP magazinE, the Potomac Review, and elsewhere, and he is a fiction editor for Juked magazine. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston, and he teaches creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
Jennifer Fox is a Texas born filmmaker and writer.
James William Gardner
A native of Southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south. The writer explores aspects of southern culture often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society. His work has been nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. Gardner is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Deep South Magazine, Newfound Journal and The Virginia Literary Journal.
Jessalyn Maguire is an actor, writer, and filmmaker based in New York City. Most recently she wrote, produced, and starred in her feature film:Maggie Black, which is making the rounds on the festival circuit. Jessalyn graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in English and Theatre. She also trained at The London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art and The British American Drama Academy. Currently, she’s writing her next film.
Merry Mercurial’s work has appeared in, or is slated to appear in, Front Porch Review, Literally Stories, The Short Tale 100, and Pif Magazine, among other journals. Find her online atMerryMercurial.com.
Cathy Porter’s poetry has appeared in Plainsongs, California Quarterly, Homestead Review, Hubbub, Kentucky Review, and various other journals. She has two chapbooks available from Finishing Line Press: “A Life In The Day” and “Dust And Angels.” Her latest chapbook “Exit Songs” was released in 2016 from Dancing Girl Press in Chicago. She serves as a Special Editor for the journal Fine Lines, and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Omaha, NE.
Andrew works in the marketing department at a publishing house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as LampLight Magazine, Columbia Journal, Into the Void, One Throne, The Airgonaut, and others.
Mick Ó Seasnáin
Mick Ó Seasnáin is a Teaching Consultant for The National Writing Project and an English Language Arts and Composition Teacher for the University of Akron Wayne College and Edgewood Middle School; he holds a B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University and an M.A.T. from Miami University. His works have been featured in multiple print and digital journals and anthologies. Read more of his work athttps://tinyurl.com/MickOSeasnain.
Sarah Broussard Weaver
Sarah Broussard Weaver is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared in Full Grown People, The Nervous Breakdown, The Bitter Southerner, and Hippocampus, among others. She lives in the hills of Portland, Oregon.
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