Aimee Nicole is a queer poet currently residing in Rhode Island. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Roger Williams University and has been published by the Red Booth Review, Psychic Meatloaf, and Dying Dahlia Review, among others. For fun, she enjoys attending roller derby bouts and trying desperately to win at drag bingo.
When I called you crosslegged from the burgundy carpet,
I twisted hope through my fingers in the form of an old telephone cord.
This second chance handed to you through the waves,
a distance daughter’s voice could plead with father.
I’m still yours.
I come from your carnal desires.
Take me into your arms and hold me closer than the moment I was born.
I reached through the phone, fingering air.
A 2-minute phone call that told me everything I needed and nothing a baby girl wants to hear.
For three decades, I shuttled along wildly
out of orbit. Spinning faster than
everyone and everything, my breath fogging
the windows, my runaway heart pulsing against cotton. Constellations brought us together
under the Gemini moon and we threaded together — called home after signals lost in the frenzied wind. You pressed your body against mine, melted to me like a precious sweet left out too long in the sun.
Laura Plummer is an American journalist and writer born in Massachusetts in 1984. Her creative writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine and The Topic Journal. Read her work at lauraplummer.me.
Marry young and have your babies;
they’ll give you some sweet memories.
When they lay you under those trees,
that’s all you can take with you.
He lived his whole life Downeast,
trapping lobsters for the rich man’s feast.
A lifetime store of elbow grease--
that’s all you can take with you.
One day I’ll turn to dust within
this rocky shore where lay my kin.
The suit my boys will bury me in--
that’s all you can take with you.
When these bones are laid to rest,
they’ll place some flowers o’er my chest.
I’ll know that I have done my best.
That’s all you can take with you.
Marry young and have your babies;
they’ll give you some sweet memories.
When they lay you under those trees,
that’s all you can take with you.
The Fisherman in the Basement
There’s a fisherman in the basement, or so the neighbors say.
He’s only here a few weeks a year; he never comes to stay.
This is where they send his mail, addressed to number three.
But really he lives nowhere; his home’s the open sea.
His face is creased and leathered like a well-worn pair of shoes,
and he counts the days and hours ’til he receives the news
that captain’s heading out again and he’s gathering his crew.
‘Til then it’s just a waiting game with nothing much to do.
The job is in his blood; it’s the only life he’s known.
He never tried to settle down, though he never felt alone.
How the locals welcomed him whenever he came ashore.
Thirty years he’s fished these banks; he’ll fish for thirty more.
He was a famous bard; these old shores know him well.
As he roamed from pub to pub, the stories he did tell
of his days of roping swordfish and harpooning whales.
But no more do people gather at his side to hear his tales.
Now he lives beneath the earth, not one to live on land.
The concrete walls, they comfort him; his floor is made of sand.
He won’t emerge in daytime or at dusk by lantern’s glow.
Like a deep-sea submarine, he likes to stay below.
Asleep he dreams of swordfish boats steaming out to sea,
the Cape Ann gulls and cormorants his only family.
Perhaps you’ll catch his silhouette in pipe embers glowing bright
or see him slowly passing like a ghost ship in the night.
There’s a fisherman in the basement, or so the neighbors say.
He’s only home a few weeks a year; he never comes to stay.
The fisherman in the basement, he’s waiting for his call.
One day perhaps I’ll see him, if he even exists at all.
A tired breath escaped the gas mask worn. Before him was the job he had been working on for three years: the remains of a city once called Baltimore. Of course, that was before the war. And the bombs. But that was nearly 200 years ago. Aaron walked down the paved streets, a forced smile coming to him as he waved to some coworkers that were about to enter a building.
Aaron, to be frank, hated his job. As a member of the Recovery Corp., they had the pleasure of a job that gave them a unique experience every day. Go into a city and recover items spared from the grand destruction of the bombs. He had seen so many unique cities that were once booming and filled to the brim with people. New York City was the most dangerous because of all the high rise buildings that were structurally unsound thanks to the bombs. San Francisco was a wonderful contrast of the gorgeous blues of the ocean with the dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
To many people, this would be a fantastic job. But nobody told him that he would be away for years at a time from his home. Most of the items he found had already been catalogued and been preserved too. Over the three years he had been in Baltimore he hadn’t found anything of interest and he had a strong feeling that the he wouldn’t over the next month.
Aaron’s job today was an apartment building in mid-town. It was thanks to his experiencethat he got it to himself. No help and more importantly no one to ask questions or bother him. He reveled in these opportunities because of the silence and stopped in front of the four storycomplex to take in the building.
It was a holdover from the time before the war. Brick on the outside. A majority of the windows were broken from either the bombs or looting. A chunk of the building was missing from where he was facing it. He looked to his right at a small sign: Taurus Apartments.
He entered the lobby of the apartment, looking around, no emotion coming to him. The white paint was peeling and a small sitting area had been overturned. In front of him was a hallway with what he assumed were non-operational elevators. To his right was an office that was probably modern back then but in today’s society would’ve be seen as out of place and tacky. To his left was another hallway, which he followed down. He walked by vending machines that he had seen in numerous buildings and found stairs at the end of the hallway.
One slow ascension later and he found himself on the second floor. The first door was on his left and as he approached it he fished out his key-all. One wave in front of the digital card and Aaron was inside. A thick layer of dust covered a majority of the items in the room that he assumed was the living room. A small coffee table, a sofa, couple of chairs and an old physical TV. A sigh came from him, the only sound in the room as he started his work.
He looked around and spotted a few toys laying around and what looked like a video game console long forgotten. He held his left arm up to the objects, tapped two buttons on the metal plate resting on his arm and it came to life. A display popped up, it’s holographic interface waiting for an input. After a few presses a bright, neon blue light shot out and moved over the toys and the console. Aaron’s shoulders slumped when he saw that they had already been catalogued.
This was the process for the entirety of the second floor. Apartment to apartment, room to room, scanning items and if one came up as new it was his job to tag and bag it to be brought totheir headquarters. Sadly there were no such items and with a roll of his eyes he left the last room on the second floor.
As he made his way to the third floor the sun was shining brightly through the windowsand made his white hazmat suit gleam. It also illuminated the hallways, dark green walls clashing horribly with light brown tiling that had seen much better days. It seemed as though people long ago really didn’t care about how things looked.
He did his job, checking the apartments until he came to a room that had the giant hole he spotted earlier. Aaron noted that it seemed as though nature was trying to reclaim this apartment. Vines were spreading out from the hole, trailing along the ground and spreading to other items as the rest of the vine disappeared at the edge.
He moved about the rooms until he got to the bedroom. Nature hadn’t gotten this far into the building, leaving the room nearly pristine minus the dust. He moved around cautiously, opening drawers and moving clothing to the side. Every item needed to be documented so he made sure to set each piece to the side. Amongst the clothing was old newspaper clippings. Peace Talks Fall Apart! read one. Is the End Nigh? was another. Aaron felt his heart drop at the titles. What was it like to see these and think about the end days?
Aaron counted himself lucky to be born when he was. His parents never revealed much about life before and how their relatives survived. It never bothered Aaron, he always assumed it would be too hard to talk about surviving such an event. He had heard stories in school about what some survivors went through. The thought sent a chill down his spine as he returned to his work. As he moved more newspaper clippings he stopped. He slowly and tenderly scooped up an item and rotated it slowly. It was eight inches in width and ten inches in height. The edges were a brilliant dark wood from what he could see through his visor. The frame held a picture of a smiling family, two sons, a mom and a dad. His breathing slowed as he took a step back and sat on the bed.
Aaron turned and could see the room coming to life. He could hear the laughter that these walls heard, the clanging of dishes as dinner was getting ready, the drawers closing as clothes were put away. Aaron looked at himself in the mirror, seeing his reflection as more thing than man. All of this made him miss home. Three years away had taken a toll that no one knew and that his co-workers seemingly refused to understand.
He took the picture out of the frame and dragged his gloved thumb over the family. He hit the same buttons on his arm mounted scanner, ready to catalogue a unique find. He turned the frame over in his hand and undid the latches. He peeled the back off but stopped when he saw the back of the photo.
He stared, his jaw slightly going slack at what he had read. He looked one more time before doing something that could possibly kill him. As quick as he could he unzipped his hazmat suit and shoved the picture into his shirt that was under the suit before zipping it back up. He patted the spot over his suit and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer before getting up. Now, he just wanted to get home.
Thankfully the rest of the day passed by without a hitch and Aaron was able to turn in his hazmat suit without being picked for a random scan. It was part of the standard procedure by the new government: they wanted to make sure that no one brought in any illegal items that could harm others. He made his way to the safe area and up to one of his managers who was looking at all the new items catalogued.
“Hey Henry,” Aaron spoke. Henry greeted him with a smile. Aaron was seen by many as one of the best at this job even though he was relatively young compared to the other workers.
“Aaron, how’s it going? Everything go okay in the complex?”
“Yeah, it did, shame I only got a few new items. I know there isn’t much left to do in the city, like only a few big buildings left. I was wondering if maybe I could take an early leave?”
“Really?” Henry asked, cocking his eyebrow, “What’s going on?”
“Uh…” Aaron said before it dawned on him, “I’m just really homesick. Three years away from home hangs on you. One year here, one in New York and another in San Francisco. I was hoping I could just get a little bit of extra time off by going home early. Think that’s possible?”
Henry looked down at his tablet, pressing on it a few times and swiping in different directions. Aaron waited patiently as others filed in to the residence for the evening. With only a few workers left Henry looked up at Aaron with a smile.
“Go ahead and take off, transport will be here in 30. Have everything ready by the front. Good job here, you outdid yourself.”
Aaron raced upstairs. Ten minutes later he was in front of the makeshift residence, bags on the ground, nervously waiting. Aaron was now on a mission and knew it was an easy one to complete.
An hour later and he was on a magna-train heading home to Central. The new magna lines had been created just 30 years ago thanks to scientists collaborating together after the creation of Central.
That was what everyone called the city nowadays. It was at one point just a simple colony of survivors they called Haven. But as it grew the name was discarded in favor of Central because everything sprung from it. New colonies, the rail line, new sources of power, green technology. Everything sprung from Central and everyone was working to spread it as far as they could.
Large magnets near the rails stopped the train as it pulled into the station. Eight at night was always a dead time and the lack of crowds would make it easier to get home. Aaron disembarked with a sigh of relief as he made his way up the tanned marble stairs and into the main station. The roof above him was a beautiful glass mosaic showing the progress of the city and during the day the colors shined beautifully. He entered the main hub and walked past the circular reception desk made of old mahogany. He pushed through the wooden doors into Central and after being away for three years the city took his breath away.
He walked on the stone pathway to the gold color railing and leaned on it, looking out. Buildings easily reached up to 30 to 40 floors in height. The buildings had large square windows, curved around the corners to allow as much light as possible and every inch of space had an intricate design. Looking up, Aaron could see small wind turbines that were catching every bit of wind to help power the lights. He looked behind him and on either side of the door leading into the train station was a beautiful flower garden, trees and grass that practically glowed in the lightfrom the street lamps. It was home.
Aaron peeled his eyes from the wonderful scenery and made his way to an elevator, getting down from the second floor to the ground level of the city. From there he walked slowly, allowing the air to caress his face as he walked past others. It was a bit harder than usual because of the luggage he was carrying around but he didn’t care. For the first time in three years he was back home. He wanted to go complete his mission but suddenly he was hit with fatigue. A small smile came to his face as he crossed the street and instead of going right he instead went left. A few minutes later he was at an ornate apartment building, which he dragged himself. A familiar face at the reception desk was there to greet him.
“Sir Aaron! A pleasure to see your beaming face again!” K-LPM9 said, rising from its station at the desk and moving to Aaron to assist. All mechanical with solar panels sleekly placed along its arms, it’s official designation was Kinetic-Life Protection Machine, but everyonesimply called him Kelp.
“Hey Kelp, how ya been?” Aaron said, the fatigue hitting him harder.
“Oh perfectly fine sir! New tenants moving in, others sadly leaving and Central continues to grow every day! I thought you weren’t coming back from Baltimore for at least another few weeks?” it asked, head tilted to the side. It’s eyes were black with a small white light that moved around like a human iris. And even though it didn’t have a moving mouth it had a small slot where it would be. It had at this point hoisted all of Aaron’s luggage with ease.
“Yeah I was but work started to catch up on me, you know?” Aaron said as the two moved to the elevator.
“Oh I wish I knew sir but work has never caught up to me.”
“Wait, Kelp, is it okay for you to move away from the desk?”
“Oh it’s fine! I’ve been given a new upgrade while you’ve been gone. If anyone else comes in, I can trigger a hologram of myself to work. It’s brilliant sir!” it said and Aaron was sure if the robot could smile it would. The two continued idle chat until the elevator stopped at the sixth floor. Aaron opened the door to his room and it was a sight for his sore eyes. Aaron went to the kitchen while Kelp laid down his stuff in the small living room. After a tip, which Kelp used to spruce up the lobby, Aaron was laying in his bed, fast asleep in his work clothes, happy to be home again.
Morning came quicker than he would’ve wanted. He groaned at the sunlight that peaked into his room, his automatic curtains closing as programmed. But Aaron forced himself to get up, pulling the curtains open so he could look out at Central. The buildings seemed golden to him and contrasted wonderfully with the planted greenery around the city. All of it was part of a green initiative within the city, with all buildings have wind turbines and solar panels throughout the exteriors. Aaron saw his reflection in the window and gave himself a tired smile. One thing to do then he could crash for a few days. He patted his chest and felt the picture was still tucked inside. With a nod he changed clothes, making sure to take the picture from his shirt and put it inside a vest he now wore.
Soon he was out of the apartment and onto the street. He looked up through the trees that covered the sidewalk. He couldn’t help but take everything in. After three years, he missed everything about this city.
And a smile came to his face when he saw his favorite spot in the city was still open. La Rouge Café, simple design inside and out with the best food that he always swore by to his friends. After going in and grabbing some breakfast food for the people he was seeing today he was back on the sidewalk and striding with confidence to an elevator. One trip to the fourth floor of the city later and he found himself in front of a small building.
Unlike the ground floor of the city the fourth floor was home to houses and mansions for those that could afford them. The one in front of him was more traditional than any other building in Central and was a reflection of the times before the war.
Around the edge was a picket fence that contrasted the look of the city. Grass stood at attention and two trees, one near the fence and one near the house, stood guard with their green leaves. The house itself was a small brick house, two floors total with seven rooms that Aaron knew like the back of his hand. He opened the wooden gate and walked down the small concrete path to the dark brown front door. Aaron knocked and waited, checking his vest again until the door opened.
“Aaron!” his friend Sarah said, quickly wrapping her arms around him in a hug that he returned immediately.
“Hi Sarah. How have you been?” Aaron said with a smile as they separated from each other.
“Great! I’ve been taking care of my mom. What are you doing back? I thought you were going to be gone for a little longer.”
“No, I asked for an early release. Can I come in?”
It was just as he remembered from when he said goodbye. Wooden stairs going upstairs, to the left a living room and to the right a dining room and kitchen in the back. In the kitchen were a couple of large patio doors that lead to the back yard. Nothing had changed: same paint, pictures, furniture, everything was where he had remembered it was.
“Been enjoying the work?” Sarah asked as they walked to the kitchen.
“It’s been… well, fine is the word,” he said with a tired smile as he laid the food down on the table in the dining room.
“Why do you say that?”
“Long hours, everything I find already being found and collected. Feels pointless at times,” he said with a shrug as he took a glass of water from her.
“That’s a shame, but I’m sure you’ll find something cool!” Sarah said with the same optimism that she had when they met as freshman in college.
“Well, that’s actually why I came by. Is your mom around?” he asked. Sarah looked at him with confusion until walking to the patio doors and opening them to the deck. It was a wooden deck that looked recently stained. A few steps down led to a wonderful back yard that anyone would want to run around in, ending at a railing that gave a wonderful view of the city.
“Mom, look who’s here to visit,” Sarah said, her mom turning to them, her features lighting up when she laid eyes on him.
“Oh Aaron, hello sweetie,” she said, getting up slowly, Aaron walking over to her quickly so she wouldn’t have to walk.
“How’re you Ms. Higgins?”
“Fine dear, I can’t complain with a view like this. What brings you back so early?”
“I, uh, was in Baltimore doing the usual recovery work at an apartment complex. I smuggled something out,” he said, the two looking at him with uncertainty. Aaron reached into his vest and pulled out the photo, handing it to Ms. Higgins. Ms. Higgins looked at the photo, confused at first but her face started to change.
“That’s…” her eyes started to water as she turned the picture over in her hand. She put her other hand over her mouth before she let out a small gasp. A smile came to Aaron as Sarah looked at the picture herself.
“Who are they mom?”
“My grandfather and his parents,” she responded as tears started trailing down her face, “My great grandparents didn’t survive the initial blast. He and his brother barely survived out in the wild. They were picked up by a caravan. They found a small home and grew up in it with complete strangers… I’ve never seen grandfather so young.”
The tears continued to fall as Ms. Higgins started to cry out loud. Sarah held her, a single tear going down her face. She looked at the picture herself and saw a phrase written on the back, ‘Higgins Family 2025’.
“I guess you were right Sarah,” Aaron spoke up as he scooted closer and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, “I did find something cool.”
Kill Your Darlings
"You must kill your darlings," my writing teacher paced the room like a preacher. "Be it your favorite passage, favorite chapter or favorite character. If it doesn't add anything to your story - cut, delete, kill it!"
Our stories returned covered with red marks. Death sentences for words he deemed unnecessary.
"You poor thing," my wife comforted me with kisses when I came home. "How can you stand getting so many marks on your paper?"
I shrugged. She wasn't a writer, she wouldn't understand.
I spent hours at the my typewriter ripping out words like tearing off my flesh. Writing in this classic style made me feel a deeper connection to my stories. And there was something more visceral about editing on paper than on a computer screen.
My wife came into my study with a steaming cup of tea. She placed it dangerously close to my latest draft.
She massaged my back and whispered in my ear: "Don't forget to take out the trash."
No time to morn the words I slew. I left them in body bags on the curb.
I spent the week transplanting words until it was time to leave for my workshop.
"Why don't you cut class and we'll got to the movies," my wife suggested. "I haven't seen you all week."
"My piece is being work shopped tonight."
"It's not like you're taking this course for a degree or even a grade."
I said nothing and left for class.
They crucified my piece. Too much useless information.
"I'll say it again," my teacher bellowed. "Kill your darlings! Trust me. It will make you a better writer."
I locked myself in my office, slicing my story to shreds.
"Don't even think about spending the whole weekend in here!" my wife said on Friday evening when she brought in my dinner tray.
I locked the door after she left.
On Saturday night she pounded on it and shouted: "I'm going to knock on this door until you come out."
As she pounded, I had an epiphany.
I had to kill my darling.
“Oh my God!” my wife screamed when I opened to door to let her in. “What are you doing? Stop! Stop!”
But it was too late.
My manuscript burned on my dinner tray. We watched until there was nothing left but ashes.
“Let's go see that movie,” I suggested.
A Cut Above
The blade ripped open his flesh. Blood rose to the surface.
The Trans never disturbed their son when he was up in his room blasting classical music. This meant Derek was doing his homework or studying for a test. He locked himself away for hours with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” repeating numerous times. Derek was the top student of his class, so his parents never questioned his methods.
Naked on his bed, razor blade in hand. The pain was his high. The pain was his secret.
Judy Winters knew she was Derek Tran’s only friend. But even she didn’t feel like she knew him. Judy lived across the street and spent most of her childhood playing with Derek. As they grew older, their interaction narrowed to walking to school together. It seemed the smarter Derek got, the less he wanted to have fun. Even in the summer he wore jeans and long sleeve shirts.
His first cut was at age thirteen. As he washed up in the bathroom, his eyes fell onto a razor blade his father must have left on the sink after shaving. It called to him. Just a little cut. Nobody will know.
The pain was terrifying, exciting and familiar all at the same time.
Derek Tran was the first to finish his test. This came as no surprise to Mrs. Winston. Derek was the brightest student she’d ever taught. He may have been a little shy and withdrawn, but she knew boys like him blossomed in college. When they were surrounded by their equals.
Though tests came easy to him, the anticipation of them was stressful. If he failed, his parents would scrutinize him more. He couldn’t wait to be done with them. He always finished first, channeling his nervous energy into answering questions.
But once completed, he had nowhere else to channel that energy in the classroom. He asked for a bathroom pass and practically ran there to lock himself into a stall.
Razors fit perfectly in his wallet. He rolled up his sleeve and began to slice.
Lucas saw that somebody was in the stall but decided to light the cigarette anyhow. He almost dropped it when he saw it was that nerdy Asian guy. That goody two-shoes would probably rat him out. He thought about threatening him, but the kid looked scared enough when Lucas glared at him.
He wouldn’t say a word.
Derek had cut everywhere: arms, legs, chest, stomach, the small of his back. And once while masturbating, he had an inspiration. As he cut, he climaxed. Blood and semen pooled on his thigh.
Principal Stewart hated making exceptions for students. But he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Derek Tran’s grade-point average. It made the school look good. And if the school looked good, he looked good. The kid didn’t want to take gym class, and Stewart hated the idea of the boy not being active. But he granted the boy a library study period instead. At least he would get smarter as he got fatter.
There were so many places he wanted to cut, but knew he couldn’t. His face, his forehead, his tongue, his neck, his hands, his feet. And the urge to slice his eyelids was almost unbearable. Could he slice his eyes?
Derek’s father was proud of his son, but feared his mother pressured him too much. He worried that his son would have a nervous breakdown. It was happening to younger people more and more these days. So many responsibilities for somebody so young.
He wished his son had more friends and would leave the house more often. He’d love to sit in the stands and watch his son play baseball. Or even look out the window to see his son trying crazy stunts on his bike. Instead of it sitting in the basement collecting dust.
Life was too short not to have fun.
There were others like him out there. He met some on the internet. The dream was to meet them in person some day and cut together. It’d be better than a sex hook-up. The excitement of sharing his secret. And keeping another’s.
Derek’s mother found a blood-splattered washcloth under her son’s bed while she was vacuuming his room one morning. She thought it was odd, but figured he had cut himself shaving and accidentally dropped the cloth under his bed. He’d done it before.
She didn’t mind tidying up his room. It was one less thing he had to worry about and he could focus on his studies. Nothing was more important. He had to get good grades, get into a good college and get a high paying job. She didn’t want him to ever have to worry about money.
She threw the washcloth in the laundry hamper and continued her housework.
Summer was here. A report card full of As. Almost three months of not having to stress over tests (those summer classes his mother made him take were a cake walk). No longer needing to cut. Maybe he could wear shorts this summer.
And maybe nobody would notice his report card was stained with blood.
Madison Culpepper is a sophomore at Northwestern Community College and is 21 years old. She currently lives in Farmington, Connecticut. She studied creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and now studies Psychology with a minor in writing. She won two silver keys and one gold key in the Scholastic Writing Awards, is published by Fictional Cafe, and hopes to publish a poetry book someday.
Dear Old Friend
.....I stumbled upon old photos
.....of you on my Nintendo DS
.....a few weeks ago.
.....You always glared at me
.....because you hated getting
.....your photo taken, but I kept
.....the pictures in case you
.....came over again, so we could
.....talk until 2am and laugh over
.....your emo bangs and my braces.
.....My parents told me you were
.....bad news. They knew you were
.....going downhill after constantly
.....dying your hair and being home alone
.....while your mom worked
.....at the local bar. I know it doesn’t
.....seem like a good reason, but
.....the more hair you lost the more
.....I didn’t recognize you.
.....In high school you rarely showed up.
.....Some days you came in with
.....more cuts dragged across your
.....arms. I shivered at the thought of
.....your thighs and ankles because they
.....were once bare and clean.
.....I knew our friendship was over
.... when you started drinking
.....your mom’s collection of alcohol
.....and stopped lighting up my phone.
.....I texted you often, trying to help
.....you through a heavy depression.
.....I lost sleep when you kept saying
.....nothing will save me, I cut again
.....I’m not beautiful, I want to die.
.....In my eyes, I saw your glow
.....even though you refused to
.....and I cried with you.
.....We saw each other last June
.....at Walmart when you got off
.....your shift. You lost so much weight,
.....more piercings and tattoos made
.....a home in your skin. You said I
..... looked more like an adult.
.....I thought you looked like a stranger.
.....I wanted so badly to ask you
.....to sleepover, talk until 2am,
.....but you weren’t the same girl.
.....In seventh grade you became obsessed
.....with a boy who had Justin Bieber hair.
.....You watched his YouTube videos every
.....night and wanted so badly to be his.
.....I fell for him long before and tried to
.....hide the way my heart fluttered
.....when I saw him and he felt the same.
.....You gave me the nod of approval, it wasn’t
.....a big deal because I liked him first,
.....but you kept abusing yourself.
.....We’ve been dating since eighth grade.
.....You said you would never get over him
.....so you hooked up with all the wrong people to cope.
.....That was six years ago and now you
.....don’t feel any love for him. If anything
.....you’ve been supportive of our love
.....which is all I could hope for even
.....though we went our separate ways.
.....When I saw you last you were still happy
.....for the relationship I share, the person I’ve become,
.....and act like we are still friends when we don’t speak.
.....When I heard you got arrested a few months
.....back I cried. You had cocaine and were caught.
.....The drugs and the alcohol ripped you apart
.....and sent you into the backseat of a police car.
.....I wanted to tell my parents they were wrong,
.....that you were healthy and working towards
.....a brighter future, but all I saw was handcuffs.
.....Behind your icy eyes I still see beauty, kindness,
.....and a girl who deserves love. When I hugged
.....you goodbye that last time I didn’t want to let go.
.....I wanted to go back to 2012 when we were innocent,
.....careless, had endless sleepovers, and told
.....each other everything on our minds.
.....When I got home I took out my Nintendo DS,
.....looked at the photos of you and
.....teared up. I would do anything to go back
.....to that day when we were best friends
.....and not strangers.
I look into the mirror,
alone in my pink pajamas
panda slippers and
glossy blue eyes stare back
asking me the same question:
why don’t you party?
At twenty years old, I haven’t
received an invitation.
They know the minute I stand
in a crowded room, glasses clinking,
people laughing, music blaring,
I want to run away and lock
myself in the bathroom.
I wish I was the girl who knew
how to have fun, loosen up,
take a shot, dance too much,
but I guess I’m not a party girl.
Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Yes, I’m listening to you.
That’s okay, I don’t want to fuck you in the ass.
Looks like you’ve lost weight.
I like your family.
I’m proud of you.
No one else interests me, there’s only you.
Of course I don’t regret marrying you.
I don’t think what your saying is stupid.
This is just a rough patch, things will get better.
I love you.
It was cold in the lab and Celine wasn’t prepared. The icy air scratched with shimmer fingers, insinuating into any clothing crack. She’d thought the tension would keep her warm. Nervous energy agitated through her, twanging like the strings of a marionette. She’d dressed in light layers, the way her mother was always suggesting.
Celine went at night, a thrill time between shadows, when the world was not the same. Wearing all black, to avoid being seen, she let herself in through the hole in the fence and then a window that didn’t shut all the way. Darkness layering over darkness was all that could be seen. It was good to be small, no matter what anyone said. The physical exertion surprised her. She’d already scraped her knee – a woe which had not troubled her since childhood – and broken a nail. Her ribs hurt from resting on the shallow sill.
..........The lab was not at all as she would have supposed. But then none of it was. In her mind, it would smell – of fear and sadness and something baser to remind her of nature and degradation. But not so. The air was clean. Each animal had fresh bedding and full water bottles. The spaces they lived in were large. They had tiny snuggle toys. As she dragged her finger across the bars of the cage, her unsettled eyes took in stimulating pictures pinned against the inside.
..........It was all wrong. Kept like animals, she thought, although now she knew what that meant. She was taken aback, no doubt, but determined to continue with her plan.So what if their pelts had been brushed clean, until they shone, evident even by the low lighting from the underside of the cupboards? An animal shouldn’t be caged.
She wore gloves: brave but smart. No matter how cuddly they might seem, no rat wants to be moved in a cat carrier. Even if it was brand new, without the scent of a previous occupier. Their bodies writhed and swarmed together in a blur of fur. They squealed and bit, clawing and crawling over one another with nauseating undulations.
Getting out was harder because the carrier was not just bulky but heavy now. The animals squealed and snapped their jaws, scratching through the air mesh. Their little claws were like hands, pink on the underside, viciously sharp.
..........The night was against her; wind buffeted the carrier, banging it uncomfortably against her thigh and tripping her, as she stumbled once more through the hole in the fence. The movement of the animals swung the box against her. Her arm ached. She was tired. The pocket of her hoodie snagged on a claw of wire. She heard a dog’sbark, sudden and blunt, behind her. Shot through with energy, she ran.
...........Celine pushed the carrier into the boot of her father’s car and rested for a moment with her eyes closed, her hands ready at the wheel, trying not to hear the shrieks behind. Tiny claws rattled the bars – and so it was with the beating of her heart. All was anguish.
That night, she took the car back, dropping the keys where she’d found them on the front hall table. Sweating and panting, she released the prisoners at the back of her parents’ large garden, where the trailing willows lapped the grass and dropped into the water’s edge. The land rolled here, with secret holes beneath the undergrowth, crowded with overlapping leaves. There was nowhere for them near her flat. The rats swarmed in a shoal of liquid darkness, until they spread, separate and individual, scrabbling and slipping down the bank of the burn.
The first rat she found, identifiable by the blue plastic tag secured around its front, left paw, had been clawed, its intestines pulled through skin and fur. The gape writhed with maggots and, contemplating this, Celine was nearly sick. Frightened that her mother would see, she steeled herself and kicked its body into the burn, where it sank amid gloomy bubbles. She scrubbed her plimsoll against the lush turf to clean it.
.........The second rat was headless – the body concertinaed as though without bone. The third was ripped apart and laid open, skin and fur flapping like clothes around damp insides. The smell of blood hung heavy in the humidity of the summer garden at night. In the days that followed, more carcasses surfaced from the borders of foliage and flower, lying still – a final vulnerability – as though sleeping off the horror amid a tranquil Eden.
It was so early in the morning Vic Breen had trouble keeping his eyes open as he walked to work. Once he just missed tripping on a deep crack in the sidewalk.
“Wake up!” he scolded himself, smacking his forehead with the heel of his right hand. “Wake the hell up!”
A rare afternoon baseball game was scheduled today to make up for one postponed by lightning a month ago so, as a member of the grounds crew at Metropolitan Stadium, he had to report to work much sooner than he was accustomed. He wished he had gone to bed a lot earlier than he did last night but a couple of guys he knew from a tavern he frequented invited him to go with them to the dog track. It was a mistake. Not only did he miss three good hours of sleep but he lost almost two hundred dollars on the six races he put down bets. It was money he couldn’t afford to lose. Not these days.
“You’re up awfully early,” the doorman in front of the Dorchester Hotel remarked as Breen approached him.
“There’s a game today.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.”
He crossed his fingers. “Let’s hope we can get a win for a change.”
“Go, Saxons!” the doorman cheered, tipping his top hat.
As he waited to cross the street, he took a few deep breaths, still trying to recover from the brutal losses he suffered last night at the track. They were, without question, the worst he had experienced all summer.
When he got across the street, he headed to an ATM machine on the corner because he needed to put something in his wallet. He was within a few feet of the machine when he noticed a card lying on the ground beside a Snickers wrapper. Right away, he assumed it was a baseball card because a lot of businesses in the vicinity of the stadium sold such cards. Smiling, he hoped it was a valuable one, maybe a Mickey Mantle rookie card, though he knew that was highly unlikely especially the way his luck was running recently.
As he bent down to pick it up, his eyes widened in surprise. It was a Visa Platinum credit card. A spasm of excitement raced through his stomach. Warily he looked around to see if anyone was watching him, no one was, so he seized the card and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
Finally his luck had started to improve, he thought, as he drove out to the outfield in an electric golf cart.
Always before a game it was his job to smooth out the dirt track located some fifteen feet in front of the stadium wall. It was there to warn fielders running back to catch a fly ball that in a few more feet they would collide into the wall. Back and forth he went over the 700-foot-long track, dragging a thin metal screen that was about the width of a porch mat. By the time he finished the track would be as smooth as a linoleum floor.
Finally, after he didn’t know how many weeks of making bad bets, something had gone his way, he reckoned, as he drove back to the tool shed. It was hard to believe, even though he could feel the platinum credit card in his pocket. Still, he took it out to make sure it wasn’t a baseball card someone had dropped.
Breen got the ancient power mower started on the third pull of the rope which surprised him because it usually took seven or eight pulls. Everything was going right today, he thought, adjusting the brim of his sweat-stained Saxons cap. Then he set out across right field, cutting the grass in the familiar zigzag pattern favored by Caleb, the head groundskeeper. He moved briskly, despite his sore left knee, determined to finish in half the time it usually took him to mow the outfield grass.
“You got ants in your pants?” Caleb asked, approaching him in an almost new golf cart.
He looked at him quizzically.
“You’re mowing so fast.”
“You sure as hell are, Vic, which is fine with me as long as you do a good job.”
He nodded. Today he had to work faster because he knew he had only a short time to use the credit card he found before the owner realized it was missing and called the bank to cancel it. He wished he could use it right away but he knew Caleb wouldn’t permit him to leave the stadium until his lunch break.
Vigorously, with a stiff wire brush, he cleaned the blades of the lawn mower after letting it cool off for a few minutes. As he did, he thought of what he might purchase with the credit card at the Macy’s store six blocks west of the stadium. The other evening he and Caelynn, his girlfriend the past eight months, were in the crowded department store, seeing what there was to see, and she mentioned she could use another handbag. One, in particular, caught her eye: a crocheted bag from Italy that cost nearly two hundred dollars which was a little steep for his pocketbook. Now, however, he could buy it for her if he were so inclined or, possibly, he could buy something like an expensive necklace that he could then pawn and use whatever cash he received to place more bets at the dog track.
What to do, he wondered, what to do?
Out of the corner of his eye he looked at his watch and saw that he had plenty of time to make a decision because lunch wasn’t for another hour and a half.
“You think we’ll get the game in today?” Royce, another crew member, asked Breen as they shared a drink from a garden hose.
“Sure. Why not?”
“There are some mean clouds heading our way.”
He looked up at the overcast sky. “It’s always dark around here. When’s the last time you saw the sun in the morning?”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“I sure as hell hope so because I’m not eager to haul out that tarp.”
“Neither am I,” he chuckled. “I almost got swallowed up by the damn thing the last time we rolled it out.”
Posted in every clubhouse in professional baseball is a sign warning players, umpires, and club employees not to bet on baseball games. It is the most famous rule in the sport because anyone who violated it risked permanent expulsion from the game.
Breen bet on dog races and car races and horse races, on boxing matches, on basketball and football games but, so far, he had no bet on a baseball game. He had been tempted to on occasion, he recalled, as he raked the first baseline. And he didn’t really know if he could have avoided the temptation years ago when grounds crews were known to tinker with fields to benefit their teams. Caleb told him when he started as a groundskeeper he was told to slope the foul lines inward so bunts stayed in fair territory because the team he worked for had several excellent bunters.
“That kind of chicanery might well be the difference between winning and losing,” Caleb remarked, “and earn someone a sizable payoff.”
Someone like me, he thought, grinning thinly.
Not quite forty minutes to go before it was time to go to lunch, Breen calculated, as he sprayed another blast of cleaning agent across second base. Then he picked up a shoe brush and began to scrub the dirt and grime off the base. He knew he wouldn’t be able to leave until all the bases were clean enough to pass Caleb’s inspection. By game time they had to be as bright as fresh new pillow cases.
As he walked to Macy’s, he could not believe how tightly his shirt clung to his back. It really wasn’t that warm out so he hadn’t worked up much of a sweat at work this morning. But now he was dripping with perspiration which was why his clothes felt pasted to his skin. And he knew it wasn’t because of the slowly rising temperature but because he was nervous about what might happen when he attempted to use the Visa card.
Every now and then, when he made a hefty bet he wasn’t confident about, he experienced a similar feeling. His whole body felt damp and clammy as if he had just stepped out of a shower stall. It seemed whenever this occurred he lost and often quite significantly.
Turn around, he cautioned himself. Go back to the stadium.
He continued to make his way to the department store, though, ignoring his own advice.
When he entered the store, he didn’t head for women’s furnishings as he had planned but went straight to the customers service desk.
“Yes, sir?” a bored woman asked, looking up from her cell phone.
He set the credit card on the counter. “I found this outside on the sidewalk.”
“Oh, gracious, it must’ve fallen out of someone’s wallet or purse.”
Nodding, he stepped away, sure he did what was right but for the wrong reason. He was scared what might happen if he didn’t return the card.
Shelby Stephenson is the author of Slavery and Freedom on Paul's Hill.
The page means drafts of poems must be done.
.............Then morning, late,
It’s lunchtime, dessert, a sugary bun.
.............Too soon for ale.
The time shouts always store. Newspapers, books.
He thinks, “I need a library for looks.”
.............O my O me.
The round clock tocks to nap in room alone.
.............The poet feels mute.
“The Edge of Night,” TV, sings void of bone.
.............His breath seems moot.
I did not know him at all, old soldier,
except through stories my father told me,
how he loved to ride his grandpa’s shoulders,
his hands on his head for praises bolder.
I want to get as close to actual
predicaments and be factual,
unplanned, for grieving, I mean, is better
than not: how am I to feel debtor
amid the talk of toppling monuments
when we consider the stone’s dominance
at the warrior’s feet, just a small marker
to say, as descendant, my life’s darker
if I remove the stone with its etched musket.
Shall the seventeen slaves in their caskets
ever keep the back of the family
cemetery luscious with its muffling
crumble and cry for ghostly shrouds in
the numerals? One of nineteen children,
he gave land holdings to neighbors poorer
than he; July, the Slave Girl, her future.
In Memoriam, Manly Stephenson, Private, Confederate States Army
Jimmy lay in bed, on his side. The lamp burned behind him. His shadow reached over the bed and settled on his right hand. He studied the fingers and the folds between each segment. When he curled his fingers, the shadows shifted. The folds darkened. He cupped the hand. The fingers twitched. The hand dropped. He focused on the edge of his bed, where the creases in the sheet became elevations.
“Jimmy,” he said. “Jim. James.”
The bed squeaked as Jimmy rolled onto his back. He started at the ceiling. The stucco created patterns, which the low light accented. His eyes roamed the texture, the dips and curves. He lifted his right hand, and it dropped like a weight onto his chest. He closed the fingers, holding them for a few breaths before releasing them. The hand drifted. He started at a patch of ceiling. The hand reached his mouth. He inhaled the scent of soap mixed with his flesh. He pressed his lips against his fingertips.
“Jimmy,” he said, lips brushing fingers. “Jim. James.”
The hand left his lips and returned to his side. He closed his eyes. He inhaled through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. He frowned and rolled onto his left side. He curled his legs. He dug both hands under his pillow. The lamp burned on the nightstand. He frowned and tensed the muscles in his face. After some time, he resumed his curled position. After some more time, he pulled the sheet up to his chin.
In the car, he looked out the window. The underside of clouds trapped and held shades of purple. The rest of the sky looked pink. When he sighed, his breath fogged the glass. A finger scratched a circle in the fog. The circle disappeared when he sighed again.
His mom drove. He glanced at her. She glanced at him. She moved her head a few degrees, smiled, and then returned her attention to the road. Outside the car, streetlamps passed. Suburban houses stood in rows. The car stopped at a stop sigh. Jimmy peered down the intersecting street, which curved up a slight incline. Another house obstructed the end of the street. He sighed, again, and drew another circle on the glass.
“Okay,” his mom said, “that’s the third time. What’s up?”
Jimmy jerked from the window. He straightened and stiffened his back. He adjusted the seatbelt’s shoulderstrap, but it slipped and rested against his neck. He looked to his mother. She gave another smile. He smiled. A sound tripped in his throat. He coughed.
“Nothing,” he said. He looked at his hands, which sat in his lap. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He ran the fingers on his left hand over the palm of his right. His cheek twitched. He smirked and blushed.
“It’s okay to admit you had fun.” His mom turned to him when the car stopped at another intersection. “See, I told you that you wouldn’t want to leave. You don’t need to feel embarrassed that you were wrong.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. When he looked, she transferred the hand to his head. She ruffled his hair. The car accelerated. He leaned into the seat. He brushed his hair. From behind his raised arm, he saw his mom’s profile. He watched her and the scrolling scenery behind her. His body rocked when the car slowed and stopped again. After returning his eyes to the sky above his window, he brushed fingertips along fingertips.
Jimmy heard his mom call and burst from the closet. Out of breath, trembling, he answered. He checked over his shoulder. Andrea, his cousin, bounced out of the closet, pulling her shirt over her stomach. A rose color sat on her cheeks. Their eyes met. She grinned. His breath caught. His eyes shot to the beige carpet. In his periphery, he saw her slide closer. He turned his head, eyes landing where the carpet met the bed’s skirt. The collar and sleeve of an inside-out t-shirt stick out from under the skirt.
“Take it,” Andrea said, “and think of me.”
Jimmy’s mom called again. He swallowed. Straightened his back, and faced the door as he answered, again. He then turned to his cousin. She combed her hair with her fingernails. With her other hand, she reached and tickled Jimmy’s wrist. He nodded. Her grin grew and showed a few teeth.
Jimmy jogged from the bedroom and then ran to the stairs. Each step echoed. Two steps from the bottom, he jumped and landed in front of his mom. He kept his head down and peeked at her. She raised an eyebrow. She stepped closer. She dipped to the side and examined his face. He blinked and sniffed.
“Are you out of breath,” she said, “just from running down the stairs? Maybe you’re not getting enough exercise.”
His mom looked up, and he followed her gaze. At the top of the stairs with one foot on the first step, Andrea leaned against the railing. She waved to Jimmy’s mom, and Jimmy’s mom returned the wave. She then waved to Jimmy, who shrugged. His mom clicked her tongue. She shook her head. She placed a hand on his back, between his shoulders, and they walked through the house. When they passed Jimmy’s aunt, sitting at the kitchen table with a steaming mug in her hands, she and Jimmy’s mom exchanged nods.
Outside, Jimmy waited by the car. He watched an unmoving cloud while his mom searched through her purse.
“I usually don’t have to call twice,” he mom said. “You must’ve been having fun.”
The car beeped. He opened the passenger-side door and scrambled into the seat. He buckled his seatbelt, sitting with his hands in his lap. His mom sat behind the wheel, checked the mirrors, started the engine, and checked the mirrors again. After putting the car into reverse, she reached over and forced a thumb across Jimmy’s cheek. He winced and tensed. She chuckled. The car rolled backward down the driveway. Jimmy focused on the headlights rolling over cracks in the pavement. When the car backed onto the road, Jimmy leaned his shoulder against the window.
Andrea removed her lips from Jimmy’s. Mouth open, he stood and blinked. Saliva dried and cracked in the corner of his lips. He wetted his mouth. He inhaled the scent of her lips that lingered on his top lip. When he exhaled, breath whistled across peach fuzz. She planted her feet, shifted her weight, and ran her fingernails through her hair. He looked down and saw his fists tremble. The fingers released one at a time. The hands still trembled.
“That’s what teenagers do,” Andrea said. She gathered her hair and draped the bundle over her shoulder. Jimmy wiped the right side of his mouth. Andrea traipsed in a small circle with her arms spread likes wings. A spin lifted her hair. She faced Jimmy. He stepped forward and then stepped backward. She tilted her head. He did the same.
“That’s not all we teenagers do,” she said. She rushed at him and grabbed his hand. “Gimme you hand.” She lifted his hand and folded it, aiming the palm toward her. A chuckle crackled behind her grin. She pulled the hand. The space between her and the palm lessened. Jimmy gulped.
“Wait.” She stopped pulling. She looked over Jimmy’s shoulder, at the door. She twisted, still holding the hand, and looked at her closet. The open door revealed a black, unlit space.
“Follow me.” She went to the closet, dragging Jimmy along. She pushed Jimmy inside. He collided with shirts. Plastic hangers rattled. She closed the door as she entered. A strip of light appeared at their feet. Their breathing echoed. Her fingers found his hand and manipulated it. With her assistance, his arm stretched. His fingers landed on fabric, cotton. The fabric moved, revealing skin. She moved his hand upward. Their breathing grew heavier. He closed his eyes.
“We could get caught,” she said between breaths. A sound from her cracked. He made the same sound. He pressed his fingers. He bit his lip.
Shoulder to shoulder, Jimmy and Andrea left their moms in the kitchen. Jimmy’s mom said something, and his aunt laughed. Andrea rolled her eyes. She elbowed Jimmy and, when he looked, she rolled her eyes again. She grinned. She waved a hand through the air. In the next room, she skipped to a couch and dropped onto a cushion. She stretched and pointed at the television against the opposite wall. Jimmy, hands snug in his pockets, stood by the couch’s corner.
“We could watch TV,” she said. “You probably want to watch some cartoons.” Holding the back of the couch, she crawled across the cushions next to him. She grinned. He shrugged.
“You don’t have to act like you’re older just ’cause you’re around me.”
“You’re only a year older.”
“But that year makes a difference.” She fell onto the cushions and then rolled onto the floor. She stood with a small pop. “I’m a teenager, now. I’m different.”
She poked his chest. He rocked backward. When he settled, her finger pressed on the hard bone in the center of his chest. He swatted the hand, but she replaced it with her other hand. He rolled his eyes. He shifted his weight backward. She kept her hand suspended for a second before crossing her arms.
“You’re not different,” he said.
“Yes I am.”
“Then prove it.”
Her arms loosened. She raised her thumb to her lips and chewed on the nail. Hips swayed side to side. Shoulders dipped from side to side. She gasped. Her thumb left her mouth. Her eyes narrowed. She aimed a finger at Jimmy.
“I’m a teenager, now,” she said, and Jimmy shrugged. “And I can do things that teenagers do. I can show you, but you probably won’t be good at them since, y’know, you’re still a kid.”
Andrea snapped her hand and caught Jimmy’s. She skipped to the stairs, pulling him along. She took the steps two at a time. He watched his feet as he ascended, one at a time. After he reached the second floor, she grabbed his hand again and led him to a door which led to her room.
He stopped in the doorframe while she skipped to the middle of the room. He focused on her, standing sideways with her hands on her hips. He smelled perfume. She pointed at the door. He cocked his head. She rolled her eyes and walked past him. He stepped out of the way and noticed the perfume on her. She closed the door. He saw her hand linger on the knob, fingers poised on the lock.
“We can’t get caught,” Andrea said. “That’s another difference. Kid’s do kid things, but teenagers aren’t supposed to do teenager things.”
Keeping her back to Jimmy, she straightened her shoulders. She swiped her fingernails through her hair which she then gathered into a bundle that she lay over her shoulder. Her other hand dropped from the doorknob. He watched the hand fall and swing. He raised his eyes from her hand, to her elbow, to her shoulders, to the back collar of her shirt, to the back of her head, where a spot of scalp showed. She turned her head, revealing the corner of her eye.
“Have you kissed anybody?” she said.
“Of course.” Jimmy scoffed and looked away from her.
“I don’t mean, like, your mom. I mean a real kiss.” A moment passed. She face him. “See, you’re still a kid.”
Still looking away from her, he started to speak. The sound formed in his open mouth. Then, she rushed him. Her hands landed on his cheeks. Her lips collided with his. She took a step forward. He took two backward. His cheeks slid from under her fingertips. She looked at him without an expression.
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “And that’s not even the realest kiss. There are other kisses which are more real.”
He touched his lips. The skin stuck, but the adhesion faded. She moved closer. She eased his hand from his lips to his side. A second later, he jerked his hand from hers. She chuckled. She shook her head. She dropped hands onto his shoulders. He stumbled. As she moved closer, her arms encircled him. They overlapped on his back. She laughed. She swayed, and then he swayed with her. Beat by beat, their movements slowed. When they stood flatfooted, one of her hands traveled to the back of his neck. He relaxed his arms. He touched her back. She laughed once, her lips next to his ear.
“Maybe after this,” she said, “I’ll call you Jim.”
He gulped. He closed his eyes. The pressure on his chest lessened. He peeked. She, eyes closed, held her head to the side. He tilted his head the other way. Their faces drew together. He closed his eyes. He held his breath.
When they finished, their mouths separated. Andrea still held onto Jimmy’s neck, and he still held onto her back. They looked at each other. She blushed. He bowed his head and looked at their feet, less than an inch apart, pointing at each other.
“That was good practice,” she said. “Wanna try again?”
“Sure.” He voice cracked. He cleared his throat. He used a lower tone. “Sure.” They repeated the same actions.
Jimmy’s mom parked the car in the driveway, outside the garage. She exited. He groaned, opened the car door, and dropped heels on the pavement. He trudged to his mom’s side, and they walked to the backdoor. His mom opened the door and called. Jimmy’s aunt answered. He and his mom entered via laundry room. Jimmy lagged a step behind his mom as they continue to the kitchen. Jimmy’s aunt left her seat at the table and lifted her arms. The sisters hugged. Jimmy’s mom sat while his aunt went to the cupboard. She grabbed two mugs.
Footsteps sounded behind Jimmy. He pivoted and saw Andrea hop into the room. Beside him, she stretched and straightened her back, growing half an inch. Jimmy slouched. She pushed his shoulder with a playful fist. He groaned and inched to the side.
“It’s been a while, Jimmy,” Andrea said.
Jimmy gave his mom a look. She shook her head then shrugged. Jimmy’s aunt returned to the table with two mugs of coffee. After giving one mug to her sister, she returned to her chair. The two conversed in a tone one grade above a whisper. Andrea maneuvered in front of Jimmy.
“It really has been a while,” she said. “What’s new with you?”
Jimmy shrugged. Andrea chuckled. She skipped to the refrigerator, rifled through its contents. Jimmy shifted his weight. He looked at the grid pattern that the black lines of grout made between white tiles. His mom and aunt mumbled. When his mom gasped, his aunt laughed. Andrea danced around the kitchen, opening and closing doors and drawers.
“Mom,” she said, stretching the syllable, “there’s nothing to eat. There’s nothing to snack on.” She skipped to her mother’s chair and shook the back of it. Stopping, she drifted backward a few steps. She pouted.
“Why don’t the two of you,” Jimmy’s aunt said, “leave us alone and find something to do. Go watch TV or something. Just give us some privacy.”
Andrea smiled. She skipped to Jimmy and directed him, with a hand on each of his shoulders, toward the other room.
Hands in his pockets, twisting and untwisting his foot, Jimmy watched his mother search the counter drawers. She pushed aside pens, letters, and pads of off-brand sticky notes. She closed the drawer and moved to a ceramic bowl full of rubber bands and change. She hummed. She scratched her head. She slid the purse of her shoulders, dropped it on the counter, and checked the pockets.
“Why do I have to go?” Jimmy said.
“Because I like to talk with my sister,” his mom said. “Because I feel like I deserve these weekly breaks. Because I can’t leave you home alone.” She found the keys, jiggling them in the air.
“But Andrea will be there.”
“So? You two used to get along.”
“She still calls me Jimmy.” He slouched. He looked at the grid pattern the beige grout made between beige tiles. “My name’s Jim. It’s been Jim for a year.”
His mother bent and put a hand on his shoulder. The keys poke through his shirt.
“You’ll just have to deal with it, dear,” his mom said. She smiled, tilted her head. “Jim.” She turned him around and guided him through the backdoor. Outside, a dark but still blue sky appeared between two, large, gray clouds.