Second Look

Artwork by Annelise Gray

Second Look

            I have maybe a dollar in change in my pocket. Steph wants a Slurpee and is irritated that I don’t have enough money. I would’ve stolen my dad’s car for her. I would’ve donated a kidney. Our mothers were in the same birthing class. Steph was my oldest, sometimes only, friend. We had known each other before we were born but she doesn’t like it when I tell people that.

            God, it’s so creepy, Cat, is what Steph says. Just don’t. It’s not like that is even possible anyway. Gross. Just don’t, she tells me. So, I don’t tell people that anymore but I still wanted to believe it.

            Here. Here is a quarter, Steph says. Get me a Diet Coke. And hurry up. I gotta be in Adams Morgan in like five minutes, she orders me. Steph leans against a postal box and reapplies lip gloss.

            I step inside the 7-11. It smells of processed meat, burnt coffee and patchouli. The air conditioning is set so low condensation has formed on the plate glass windows. I am damp with sweat and immediately begin shivering.

            Yo, Cat. You riding a bender or something? You’re like totally wet, says Derek at the cash register. He graduated two years ago. We were in Chemistry together. Steph let him feel her up at a party last summer in exchange for some edibles.

            Hey, D, I say. There’s just a great disparity in temperature, you know. Derek looks at me blankly. Maybe now is not the best time to practice my SAT vocab.

            I try again; It’s hot outside. I need to get Steph a Diet Coke.

            Yeah, alright. So, you still hang with her, he asks me.

            I’m walking back to the wall of refrigerated beverages and I laugh at this question. What do you mean, D? She’s my best friend. I’ve known- Derek cuts me off.

            He says, Yeah, yeah. ‘you’ve known her since you were in the womb’. I know. It’s just that she talks shit.

            I feel cold and then a searing blush spreads over my face. I want to be stunned by what Derek is telling me but I have sensed this for a while. I put the cola on the counter. Looking down at my feet, I manage to ask, About me?

            Derek rings me up. He’s not hot but he has soulful eyes. He looks at me over the register and I am reminded of Buster, my dog. 

            Jamming his hands in pockets he says to me, Hey, look Cat. I shouldn’t have said anything, you know.  I figured you had heard. Just surprised to see you’re still hanging with her. That’s all.

            Angrily, I respond, Yeah, well I’m surprised you’re still working at 7-11, ok? I mean, jeez, aim high, right?

 Derek’s Buster eyes open wide with disbelief. The level I aimed for hit the mark.

            Ok, Catherine. Diet Coke is on me. I don’t need this high school shit, he retorts.

            I immediately regret being rude. I’m embarrassed. I wanted to make Derek feel as small as I do. Instead, I’ve made myself feel worse.

            I plead, Listen Derek, I’m really sorry. That was crappy of me to say. I apologize. I- I don’t know why I said that. I think to myself though that I do. 

Derek exhales audibly and his curly bangs briefly lift from his forehead.

            It’s cool, Catherine, he says. This is kind of what I mean. Like, if Steph had said that I would’ve expected it. She’s only out for herself, you know.

            I am about to refute what he has said. I am about to stand up for my best friend, tell Derek that Steph is more than just a set of DDs and a pretty face but the bell jingles and Steph leans in.

            She spits out, What the fuck, Cat? You sucking his dick or something? I’m thirsty.

            I reach for the cola and Derek looks at me plaintively, as if he’s asking me, See?

            Thanks D. I’ll see you around, I manage to squeak out to Derek.

            Yeah, ok, Catherine, he replies in a dejected voice.

            Steph grunts as she reaches for the cola; You gonna hang out with that loser later, Catherine, she mockingly asks me.

            I am about to laugh. I am about to capitulate. I am about to savage Derek and castigate myself and allow Steph to drag me around and keep humiliating me behind my back. I am about to relegate myself to being a backup plan. I let the door close behind Steph and then I turn back to Derek, immediately locking eyes with him. I am struck again with how emotive, how Buster-like his eyes are. The thing about Buster is his eyes tell you everything you need to know. I used to tell my secrets to Steph but when I talk to her now, she only blinks and brings up the boys she’s been hanging with at GW’s summer program. Lately, I’ve only shared my secrets with Buster. I take a deep breath.

            I say to Derek, The Uptown is running a Studio Ghibli marathon this week. Do you want to go see Princess Mononoke with me tonight?

            Derek smiles broadly. His eyes are only a little less brown than Buster’s. 

He replies, Ghibli! Right on. I… I wish I could but I am taking night classes at NoVa. I’m, um, I’m actually enrolled at American this fall. I just needed to make some money first.

            I flush hotly. I look quickly toward the door so Derek doesn’t see. Steph is on her phone crossing the street. I am certain she has no idea I am not behind her.

            Hey, I am off tomorrow. You think we can catch a matinee?

            I turn back to Derek. He is still smiling. Actually, he is kind of hot.

            Indubitably, I say.

            He says, Right on; It’s a date.

This work was first published by Sledgehammer Lit in June 2021.

Advanced Degrees

Up until this summer, I had never really been sexually promiscuous. In June, I fooled around with three boys in the summer stock of the local theatre. Also, I have managed to keep my high school flame, Boyd, racked upon tenterhooks; I still climb the old magnolia outside his bedroom window for late night rendezvous. I cast these lines into the shallow dating pool in Maycomb because I am bored, or because I am lonely but mostly, I guess because I worry about my ability to succeed on my own. It is the end of August and I am 22 years old. I graduated from college in May with a B.A. in Philosophy and because the economy is slower than a blindfolded sloth, I am unemployed, languishing in this southern backwater where job opportunities vacillate between nothing and next to it.

The locust trees are now dropping their crisp little leaves, more from drought than an early autumnal advent. I am on the deck in my father’s backyard, plotting how to make Boyd propose marriage or how to escape Maycomb forever. What I am really doing is drinking too much beer, sleeping in too late and lamenting my wretched station in life.

I finish another Michelob and successfully peel the label from the bottle in one perfect, intact piece. I lick it and apply it to my forehead. Picking up a sheet of sandpaper, I begin to vigorously scratch off the black glossy paint on the chair I bought at yard sale the day before. I don’t really have the money to spend on something like a chair and I don’t even have a place to put it. I feel productive sanding it though and I get a small thrill as I glimpse the natural wood from under a well-scoured patch. 

The chair is interesting, arresting even, with legs rounded out like a horseshoe. When I bought it, I pictured myself sitting in it. I thought of a sun-filled room, coffee cup in one hand, book in another, and I would feel complete, satisfied. I envisioned a tabby cat at my feet on a brick floor dappled in sunlight, partly covered by a tattered colorful kilim.  I do not own a kilim nor do I have a tabby cat and I certainly do not have a sun-filled room with a brick floor. Curiously, I was alone in that room, in my chair. No summer stock boys, no Boyd. The room was distinctly mine: my books, my cat, my refurbished and reupholstered horseshoe legged chair.

My father comes out onto the deck. 

“Michelle, Boyd’s on the phone.”

I know that I can’t honestly tell anyone, most especially myself, that I still want Boyd Jennings. Boyd is honest and patient, kind and perfectly suited to being a 6th grade History teacher. He wants to live in Maycomb for the rest of his life. He wants children and an annual beach vacation on the Outer Banks. He is mostly soft-spoken but can be a bit pompous when talking about the Civil War. I had entertained a thousand ways to break it all off with him but when he called in February to tell me he thought he might want to a date a girl at his own college, I could not release him. I gathered in the tether, bringing him back to me, closer than before. I wanted Boyd to want me whether or not I wanted him.

I briefly consider asking Dad to tell Boyd I’m not home but I look at his face and know that I cannot ask him to be part of my deceit. 

“Okey doke; I’ll be there in a minute.”

I put down the sandpaper and stand up to go inside, kicking over the trio of Michelob bottles at my feet. Somewhat ashamedly, I glance at my dad, prepared for a withering look or some sneer of derision, but I find him staring at my forehead. As I walk past him, he plucks the forgotten beer label off my face. I scurry into the dark air-conditioned kitchen where I become immediately and intimately familiar with my own stench.

“Hey Boyd. I’m a little busy right now; what’s up?”  I brush my damp, matted hair from my forehead.

I know the minute I hear my name this isn’t Boyd on the line. I feel nauseated and I brace myself on the kitchen counter as Matt, a college infatuation, continues speaking. Matt, all dark curls and mahogany eyes, the business major who somehow wrote the most brilliant and disturbing piece in Short Story Seminar, causing half the class to fall in love with him instantly. 

“Hey Michele. Sorry your Pops assumed I was some Boyd dude. I didn’t want to take the time to correct him. I’m on my way back down to Atlanta. My summer internship in New York just ended. I remembered you complaining about living in some hole called Maycomb. My luck, there’s only one Harmon in the book at this payphone. I’ve got a couple of hours; is there some place around here to grab an early dinner? You’re not busy or anything, right?” 

I am staring at my bare feet and notice that my toenails are still painted Dusty Rose from my graduation day. I smell rank. I see fine grains of wood dust in the golden hairs on my arms. There is dirt underneath my short, bitten fingernails. I know I am supposed to go to Shanghai Garden with Boyd and then catch the early showing of Shawshank Redemption. A small voice tells me that I should bid Matt safe travels and stick to the original plan for the evening but intrigue, lust and three Michelobs silence that reason.

“Busy in Maycomb? No such thing. I could be coerced into grabbing a bite”. 

I try to sound nonchalant but I spoke quickly, belying my eagerness. Maycomb is not exactly right off the Interstate. I allow myself to ponder why Matt came here but I know why; he came for me. The cassette stuck in the tape deck of my Jetta is one Matt mixed for me. All summer, Morrissey had crooned “It was a good lay” from Suedeheadwhile I sat in the car, sweaty thighs stuck to the seat, as I pressed rewind again, and again.

I don’t realize that I am holding my breath until my dad walks in and gives me a worried look. I put my right hand over the receiver and exhale. I flash Dad a quick smile, giving him the thumbs up. Matt, of course, is oblivious to my tumult. 

“Yeah, ok. I can just as easily hit a drive-thru but if there is some….”

“No, don’t do a drive-thru! I mean, unless you are pressed for time or something. There’s a place right on Main Street that makes pretty good burgers. You’d hate yourself if you missed out on a Brogan burger”. I sound desperate. The song in my head: It was a good lay, good lay. It was good lay, good lay.

“Brogan’s? Ten minutes.”

He doesn’t bother to ask me if that is copacetic. I hang up the phone and rush to my bedroom. I am peeling off my shirt and hopping on one leg trying to disengage myself from my filthy jeans when Dad walks in and then turns abruptly to face the hallway. 

“Oh! Sorry! I didn’t realize you’d be stripping down. I guess you’re going out? Rebecca invited us over for dinner but I told her you’d probably have a date with Boyd. Try not to crawl in too late tonight, ok?”

“Hhmmm,” I mumble back at my father. I’m not thinking about him and Rebecca, his longtime, patient girlfriend or Boyd or my curfew. My mind is on Matt. Matt leaning close into me. Matt’s cigarette dangling from his full bottom lip, a smoky basement, The Pixies wailing Gigantic. Closing my eyes, I can smell the tobacco and stale beer and can still feel an electric tingle as Matt slurred in my ear, Too bad you and me never got together. I leap into the bathroom and turn on the shower. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I am both amused and mildly horror-stricken. Well, at least I am tan, I think.

It is much later now. I have paid the check for three beers, a Cobb salad and a Brogan Burger with the works. The waiters have already pooled their tips and clocked out. The dishwashers are putting away the last pots and pans. Matt has probably gotten back into his late 80s Saab, crammed with CDs, tattered Hemingway paperbacks, his one good suit and headed down I-81. He’s going back to Atlanta and his undoubted future working for an uncle or his father’s fraternity brother.  He will most likely never write another utterly provocative and heart-rending piece of fiction. He will be an account executive or a marketing director until nepotism catapults him to his pinnacle position, establishing him as another captain of industry.

Here is how my infatuation with Matt Mason comes to its’ spectacular demise: Me, standing outside Brogan’s in a short sundress, the right strap slightly off my shoulder, my hair still damp thanks to our southern humidity. Matt, satiated from a free meal and swollen with pride from citing his accomplishments as an intern at “a notable firm”, lifts my errant dress strap, his thumb casually brushing my nipple, electrifying my fiber. 

“So, I’ve got time for a quick fuck. Your house close?”

I hear a thousand simultaneously deflating balloons, the snap of a rubber band to an exposed thigh. I am not indignant so much as I feel awakened. I don’t bother to verbally respond. I turn and run, Matt calling out my name. Each step, right, left, right, left, as Morrissey wails the ending refrain; I’m so very sickened. I am so sickened now.

I’m standing on Summit street, not quite underneath the streetlight but just out of its’ golden halo. A trickle of perspiration snakes its’ way down between my breasts. My dress clings to dampness at the base of my spine. Boyd’s light is still on. I know that if I climb the magnolia tree and rap lightly on the windowpane, he will let me in. I know Boyd will accept my apology; I was just so busy! I can’t believe I forgotLet me make it up to you. I look at my sandaled feet poised on the periphery of the circle of light on the pavement.  I don’t see Boyd come to the window but when I look back up, he has closed his blinds and only a sliver of golden light from his bedside lamp peeks out. The light winks at me, a signal telegraphing that all I need to do is climb the tree.

The cicadas screech into the thick summer air. The few stars visible in the soupy sky pulse. Maycomb, Boyd, Matt and all the other minnows in my shallow little pond are caught in the ebb; I am standing in clear water. 

A version of this story was first published in K’in in June 2021.

Nest of Thorns

Artwork by Annelise Gray

On the floor, about two feet away from my face, are the remnants of the crack pipe I found earlier. Its splintered shards wink in the light of the late afternoon. Still sitting upon my chest, he lowers his furious face inches from mine. His breath is sweet and sickly: it reminds me of when he was an infant. I couldn’t produce enough milk and he didn’t tolerate Enfamil well. 

 Your son is a “failure to thrive” baby, the pediatrician had lectured me. 

Jeremy’s hands tighten around my neck. Failure. Thrive. My hand finds the largest shard. Blood.

A version of this microflash appeared in Versification’s Misfit Micros in June 2021.

Personal History

            Maybe I was just tired of bleeding, I say to my husband the morning after my hysterectomy. He has brought me toast and weak tea. I am lying in our bed petting our cat Schrödinger.

            Jess, he says, it was bit a more than that. He puts down the breakfast tray next to the cat and heads back downstairs.

            He is probably right, I say to Schrödinger. Quint is usually right. Still and all, I never did care much for the bleeding. It didn’t help that I started so much earlier than my friends. I was barely nine and got my first period at recess. I wasn’t even aware that girls bled. It was my dumb  luck that Richard Atwell’s dad was a gynecologist and Richard announced to the whole fourth grade that I had started menstruating. 

            Reflecting back on all of it now, it strikes me as terribly sad that I was always so ashamed of my body, the swelling and the hair and the blood. I was supposed to be tightlipped – what an expression. What a metaphor. Mom handed me a Wal-Mart shopping bag with boxes of Kotex and I could have made better sense out of being handed the Dead Sea Scrolls. You’re a smart girl, Jessica; read the directions on the box, my mother said. No further instruction. I suffered embarrassing accidents almost monthly for the rest of that school year. It wasn’t until summer, at Girl Scout sleepover camp, when Jenny Hill brought a calendar with her that I understood I did not have to wait in agonizing horror for the next blood to come. The red dot on July 16th marked her last period and the green dot roughly four weeks later signified her next. Planning, she said. Later that will be important when I am married and planning on babies, Jenny confided. Jenny Hill was catholic but her mother was an obstetrician.

            It was so simple really. I was good at planning. Upon returning home from camp, I told Mom I needed a calendar and a box of markers. I never had another accident again. I certainly didn’t embrace bleeding and I didn’t relish the idea of having babies but I found a new power. I started planning my escape. I mapped myself a future, brighter and less bloody, far away from a home littered with empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts. My planning took me to Quiz Bowls and forensic debates and quickly enough to an academic scholarship from a lovely school where the girls wore pearls and the boys had roman numerals after their surnames.

            It was at said school that I met Quinton. How odd that I began to bleed, unexpectedly, unplanned the night we met. I probably should’ve realized then that the cavity of me had begun its slow fester but at 21 what could I have known? I was as clueless then as I had been at 9, hanging upside down from the monkey bars in soiled shorts.

            Later, after graduations and first jobs, and LSATs and law school and engagement and a hasty marriage and an ectopic pregnancy, later after the D&C, we would hear the word cancer. The word uterine. Hysterectomy. Hyster. Hysterical. I had always loved etymology but this was a bit too on the nose for me. I was stoic. I took it all in with more recognition than realization. While Quinton drove us home, weeping silently hunched over the steering wheel, undoubtedly mentally bidding goodbye to long-desired tow-headed toddlers, I pressed the seat warmer button. I began planning my bloodless future.

A version of this story was first published in Sledgehammer Lit in April 2021.

Parlor Games

Celeste shifts uncomfortably on the wicker loveseat. She wishes she had worn a sundress or at least a skirt. Her shorts are tight and pinch across the width of her thighs in this seated position. Fortunately, the loveseat has a cushion but equally unfortunate, the cushion is plastic or some sort of waxed fabric and Celeste is aware that the backs of her thighs are slick with perspiration. She peels one thigh from the cushion and spills some of her lemonade. Celeste jumps to her feet.


“Celeste! What seems to be the problem, Honey?”

“Ms. Mason! I just…”

“Clarice, Honey. Call me Clarice.”

Clarice Mason breezes back onto the porch, having fetched two linen cocktail napkins from the butler’s pantry. She hands a napkin to Celeste, who towers over her. In her flat sandals, Celeste stands five foot nine. The unflattering short haircut she received at the beginning of the summer is further compromised by the withering humidity and her dark curls are a frizzed mass. She has a wet streak of lemonade down the front of her white tank top and she is suddenly, appallingly aware that she has not shaved her legs for at least a week.

Clarice Mason on the other hand is the very picture of cool composure. Her smooth chestnut bob falls straight and gracefully just beneath her chin. She wears a pink pleated sundress which despite the muggy atmosphere remains remarkably unwrinkled. Her dainty feet are shod in Ferragamo flats and a delicate strand of pearls encircles her small neck.

Clarice neatly tucks herself into a rocking chair facing the loveseat.

“Sit down, Honey. I believe we have much to discuss.”

Celeste begins to hiccup, a wretched nervous trait she acquired in early childhood. 

“Oh my, you are a hot mess, aren’t you?” Clarice flashes a treacly smile. “ Relax. I don’t bite. We’re just going to have a little conversation about you and my girl Tinsley. You two have had quite the time this summer, I believe.” Clarice smooths the pleats on the lap of her dress and looks up coyly through her fringe of dark lashes. “Sit down, Honey. It seems like you have been over here every day since coming home from your college.” She leans forward and pats Celeste’s hand. “Y’all are always playing something! Playing records, playing cards, all sorts of fun and games! Isn’t that right?” Clarice pauses, pursing her lips and cocking her head to the left.

Celeste feels sick. The screened porch tilts and she closes her eyes. Visions from last night before swim before her. She and Tinsley, slightly drunk on rum and Coke. Laughter, almost hysterical. Trey, Tinsley’s little brother, calling out the contorted positions for Twister. Reggae and dim lights, an overhead fan softly ruffling the steamy air. Tinsley, in impossibly short cutoffs, a faded Tipitina’s t-shirt, the neck gaping open. Celeste, struggling to steady her long legs in a triangle pose, also struggling to keep her eyes averted, trying so hard not to stare down the neck of Tinsley’s shirt. The other girl’s lithe body, golden, caressed by the summer sun. Tinsley is not wearing a bra. Trey calls the next move for Celeste and she is reaching her left hand, tremulously, through Tinsley’s thighs. The laughter. The heat from the girl’s body. Celeste shifting, her face so close to Tinsley’s breasts. The smell of baby powder and rum and some muskier, enticing scent, the girl’s own body, the essence of her skin, fully in Celeste’s nostrils as the two bodies strain to remain apart. And then the searing touch, the electric exchange as Tinsely, convulsing with laughter, leans into Celeste’s body, her mouth on Celeste’s bare neck. And as their bodies slide into each other’s, Trey laughing riotously, Celeste aware of her hands on Tinsley’s breasts, aware of her rosy nipples hardening beneath her palms, the shrill staccato of Clarice Mason’s voice piercing the fabric of the night, “Tinsley Mason! That is enough! This instant! Get up off that floor!” Celeste opens her eyes now.

“Sit down, Celeste.” Clarice commands, inclining her head toward the loveseat.

Celeste looks at Clarice. She has heard before what this woman will say. Ugly words. An eighth-grade moniker: Celester the Molester. Her friends suddenly suspicious and uneasy in the gym locker room, taking care not to change into their uniforms in front of her. Her precipitous fall from the pool party and sleepover guest lists. Her high school best friend’s mother tersely telling her to stop coming around. As if she had something catching. As she if would turn their gold to dust. Celeste hears the old taunts and rumors, feels the sting of all the other times a mother, a sister, a boyfriend threatened her, rebuked her, condemned her. Celeste looks down at pretty, polite Clarice Mason, poised like a viper. 

Celeste frowns. This summer had been different. She had not tipped her hand toward to Tinsley. She had been so careful when Tinsley had asked her if she had a college boyfriend; Celeste had demurred and Tinsley, stretched out upon the lawn, a lithe feline in repose, dappled by sunlight underneath the fragrant mimosa, had coquettishly inquired if she had a girlfriend. Even then, as tempted as she had been, Celeste felt the fluttering uncertainty deep within her. “No, don’t be silly” Celeste had said.

There is a giggle from the butler’s pantry and Celeste snaps from her revery as someone, most likely Tinsley, shushes the laughter. 

Clarice Mason smiles a small patient smile. She gathers her stature like pulling in a tether and thrusts her shoulder back.

“Sit.Down.Celeste.” Clarice practically whispers the words but manages to spit them in rapid fire.

Celeste, profusely sweating now, can smell the mimosa’s intoxicating scent from the lawn. She closes her eyes for a just a second.

“No Ma’am, I don’t think I will.”

A version of this story was first published in Sad Girls Club April 2021.

How To Leave Home

We need to talk. 

The most feared words in the English language or I guess I don’t know shit. Ruth is standing in the kitchen still wearing her Rusty Spoon Apron. She sighs and shakes her head, bends down to untie her shoes. When she stands up, she squares her shoulders, fixes me with her milky eyes. 

Ruth says, start pulling your weight around here or get the hell out. I told your mom I would take care of you but part of taking care is making sure you become more of a man than your deadbeat dad. I can’t take no more of you sitting on your ass, playing that Fortnite and googling on your phone. You need to get a job. 

In reply I manage a weak Yes Ma’am. I know better than to say much more than that right now.

Ruth takes off her Dollar Tree glasses and massages an angry red stripe on the bridge of her nose. Reaching into her apron pocket, she fishes out a packet of BC Headache Powder. She grunts and points at the tap so I get her a glass of water.

 Ruth is my mom’s favorite cousin and when Mom got busted in the meth lab, Ruth took me in. She doesn’t have much besides regrets. Nobody in Big Stone Gap has much. I’m not unlike most kids here; everybody has somebody they love doing bad. Floyd’s parents are dead. Cheryl’s mom is turning tricks at the Super 8 on Galaxy Highway. Daryl’s dad is doing 15 years for killing his mom. 

I tell Ruth that I been thinking of pawning my PS4, getting a job as a line cook, or maybe in a bakery. I hold back some other stuff, the part about me thinking about taking classes at the community college. I don’t rightly know yet how to talk to Ruth about The Plan. People always say they want the best for you but the truth is, if the best is about you leaving them, they don’t really want it. I don’t know how to tell Ruth about things I’ve been learning, the things about the hospitality industry and The Culinary Institute of America. Nobody in Big Stone Gap can see much past The Gap. So, I tell Ruth I’ll pull my weight just not about The Plan, the part about pulling up my roots.

Ruth didn’t expect none of this anyway. She opens her mouth and closes it. And then does it again, like a fish you just hauled out of the water and thrown in the boat. She makes that old fish mouth a few more times before she wipes her glasses on her filthy apron and manages to reply.

 Well. Cal, I’m glad to hear it, she says to me.

I ask her, You hungry? I know these words mean more to her than “I love you”. Ruth has been slinging hash and mopping up spills at the Rusty Spoon for 30 years. No one ever asks a waitress what she needs. Ruth sits heavily in the kitchen chair, places her red raw hands on the cracked vinyl tablecloth.

What you got, she asks me, smiling wearily.

I say, you just sit back and be prepared to be amazed. I been watching Gordon Ramsay on YouTube, I tell her. Ruthie, it turns out we been making scrambled eggs the wrong way; you got to cook them low and slow, I say.

Ruth’s tired smile grows a little wider. 

I ain’t got nowhere to be, she says.

A version of this story was first published in Flash Fiction Magazine in June 2021.

Last Damsel

Our men were gone; the last one, Uncle Chick, left six months after my birth. I was the firstborn of a third daughter, who bled out as I entered the world. Growing up, I ran wild in a female pack with my aunts and cousins.

“Tell me a story.” To hear my aunts, you’d think those were my first words. “Tell me about Pawpaw. Tell me about Red Boy. Tell me about the time Uncle Chick wanted to marry Little Lady.” I’d sit at the hearth with Aunt Ang and Aunt Diddy, the two closest to my age, stretching skins on the fleshing beam. There had to be more, I would think.

We all belonged to each other yet each to no one. I longed to be an Other, a somebody’s someone.

“Diddy, tell me about PawPaw. Did he love Mam? Did she love him? How did they love? Did they hug and tickle? Did they wrestle on the floor? Did he kiss her nose?”

“Where you get such notions, Maisie? You seen Mam. She ain’t any differn now than she was when the mens were here, asides the hair. Her hair was reddern then, I guess. You think anyone be fool enough to plant a kiss on Mam’s nose? Not while she’s breathin’, I reckon.”

I couldn’t see no one ever putting their arms around Mam. How had we all come to be though? We had to have been born out of something softer than red rocks and dusty wind. All these hard women around me, I came to think men had to make the world gentler.

“Ang, how was it between us and the menfolk?”

Ang wasn’t so hard as the othern. I’d seen her once with a fledgling that had fallen from an eaves nest. Any day in the season, there’d be five or so fledglings outside the large house. Mam made use of all things, fledglings no differn, so we’d offentimes have Baby Birdie Stew when the snows weren’t high. I saw Ang though and she built that fledgling its own nest from scraps of otter pelts. She didn’t know I watched but I seen her fetching worms and meal bugs for it. I seen her too on the third day, crying, when she found the bird dead and I watched her bury it, nest and all.

Ang fixed with me with a hard stare and I started to thinking I best not ask such questions of any of us. 

“Men do things for reasons we won’t ever have no answers for. I seen Chick and kill a cat just cause he could. It was Chick’s own cat. He’d had it since he was done suckling. I heard him crying for it later but he’d done it hisself. That’s when Mam said it’d be best if he was out off to fighting with the rest of ‘em and we ain’t heard nothing from any of ‘em since. There’s not much accounting for what’s in men’s hearts.”

So I am standing in the creek swollen with fresh snowmelt, scrubbing the rusty iron-smelling stains from my britches. I don’t reckon I have heard the sound of horses hooves in quite a stretch so at first I am looking at the sky, blue as kittens’ eyes, searching for thunderheads. Then I see ‘em. I know these aren’t womenfolk. Three people big as bears, with fur on their faces, ride their snorting beasts to the edge of the creek. I see foam on their animals’ necks, steam coming out their nostrils. I shield my eyes from the sunlight and peer up into the hairy faces of weathered skin and bloodshot eyes. Men, I think. These must be men.

Gone. My notions of softness coming from menfolk leave me the minute I see their twisted ugly smiles. I don’t even smile back. The red bearded one spits a stream of brown and rubs the back of his hand over his tobacco-stained lips.

“Well don’t this look like a picnic?” I know he is speaking of me and not to me. I feel hot piss running down my legs and I can taste something sharp and salty in my mouth. Fear. Before I can think of anything to say, anything that might be friendly, I have tilted back my head and howled. It is not a cry like the wolf, hungry and alone, would send out into the cold night, looking for companionship. It is the scream of the rabbit as my arrow pierces its’ hindquarters. It is Ang holding a dead baby bird in her hands. Run. Run, I think, and I am off.

“Hot DAMN! We got us a chase!”

“Get her, Chick!”

Panic. They are on me like vultures on a carcass, rending clothing from limb, flesh from flesh, pieces of me torn and scattered in the short dry grass of the riverbank, which is just beginning to green.

I am above them now, watching as they push and shove one another off of my tattered self. There is blood and spittle, tears which were mine, and a mess I cannot name over all of us. 

Gone. I am no one’s Other.

A version of this story was first published by Tatterhood Review in December 2020. Also, many thanks to @TatterhoodRev for nominating this work for @SundressPub 2021 Best of the Net.