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Travis Turner. Holy Ghost Sunday.

2 Apr

Holy Ghost Sunday

Travis Turner

Sweat trickled down his brow, stopping hesitantly in the thick sideburns before rolling down underneath the plain white undershirt. “One more time?” the little boy said earnestly. Just. One. More. Time. The words stuck with him like glue, transporting him back to the sultry afternoon in a backwoods church in southwest Alabama.
St. Stephens Pentecostal church sits about a mile down county road 15 just outside of Melvin. Not a town, just a place close to a place filled with God-fearing folk. Yellow pine stands so thick down there that light can’t crack the canopy resulting in an undergrowth of brush so thick it’s impassable. Smothering to some folks.
Most never saw the Holy Ghost, but some of us were lucky enough to have felt Him. The older ones especially. They still go to the church three times a week, twice on Sunday. As their fathers did, so do they. Family Bible in one hand, covered dish in the other.
Down behind the church past the canebrake through the briars and thick Alabama woods an old pond stretches down about an acre before it back into beaver dams and sloughs. That’s where I first found God. She straddled me and for the first time I knew salvation.

Bethany Jo Charlotte came to live at Mattie’s Manor in the summer of ’67. She liked to be called Bet. Rumor was she was a distant relative, a niece, to Ms. Mattie. People said her mama was doing a stint in Wetumpka and Bet had to come stay as she was the only relative dependable enough to pawn the girl off on. Rumor was that her daddy run off before she was born. Had nowhere else to go but a children’s home in Slidell. Ms. Mattie couldn’t let family down. She ran the old boarding house, a Victorian left to her by her father years ago. Some said Ms. Mattie was too educated for a husband. But she still came to church three times a week. Can’t be too educated for God if you plan on staying in business in Choctaw County.
My old man hauled hay in the summer and at 16 I was free labor. The only relief from the heat were frozen plastic milk jugs filled with water from the overflow well down the road. After a few hours of baling, we would make our rounds to drop off orders, and that’s when I first saw her.
“Unload them bales for Ms. Mattie. I’ll be back as soon as I get a drink & the money,” he said gruffly.
Half a dozen bales into stacking, she came around to the barn.
“Ain’t thirsty are ya?”
“Naw, I don’t reckon so. Got a jug in the back of the truck.”
“Mattie told me to come ask anyway.”
And she was gone just as soon as she had appeared. I unloaded bales as fast as I could and went in to find my old man. He was walking down the front steps before I could catch another glimpse of her.
“Get in the truck, boy. Got a dozen more stops before the days done. Gotta make hay while the sun’s up.”
That Sunday, Bet came to church with Ms. Mattie. She sat on the front row and I burned holes into the back of her curly head before getting up to play guitar in the choir. I listened close through the hymnals trying to single out her voice. When the service was over, I tried my best to get close to her and speak to her before she left but to no avail. I prayed she would be back next Sunday.
The next Thursday we made our weekly drop at Mattie’s Manor and Bet came out again to ask me if I’d like some water. This time I made sure to accept the offering. It revived my spirit.
“Seen you at church Sunday.”
“That right? I saw you too. You play guitar pretty good for a hick country boy.”
“Thank ya, um, I guess. I’ve been playing for as long as I could walk.”
“Probably been baling hay that long too, huh? Probably still be doing it the day you die.”
“Maybe. Don’t mean I ain’t got plans of my own.”
“I thought all you country boys wanted was to get married and have a house fulla young’uns.”
“One day. But I want to see things first. Too much out there. Did you know they got trees out west big enough to drive a car through?”
“I’ve heard about ‘em. We’ve got trees back in Slidell that are just as pretty though. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll see ‘em one day.”
“Maybe if I’m lucky you’ll show ‘em to me,” I said with a wink.
She smiled as she walked back to the porch. Daddy cranked up the old truck and told me to hurry. Before slamming the heavy door to the cab I hollered, “See you at church Sunday. Its revival!”

On the days leading up to it, I practiced playing harder than ever. Every spare minute I had was dedicated to craft. When I played, I kept looking up gauging her reaction. I’d never played with more focus and energy. She never took her eyes off me.
“Are you washed/ in the blood? / In the soul cleansing blood of the lamb…” the choir sang fervently.
After church while everyone was prepping the meal and fellowshipping I asked her, “What’d ya think?”
“Surprisingly pretty good for a country boy. I mean it ain’t the zydeco music back home but I liked it. Meet me out back down the hill by the pond when dinner starts.”
I slipped out with my guitar case across my back and headed down the hill. They used the old pond to baptize people in. On days we ate lunch, I knew we would have plenty of time to get away from all the deacons and elders. She was sitting on the bank waiting for me when I got down to the water. Nervously, I started humming a hymn I had been practicing. On the far side of the pond a moccasin weaved his head through the water and hustled up the bank. We sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity.
“Bet you play for all the girls, don’tcha?”
“Naw. Only in church and for family.”
“Sure does stink.”
“Huh? Whatcha mean?”
“Not you, silly. What’s that smell? It’s terrible.”
“Just the old Indian baths down by the dam. That little spring fills them up after a good rain. They call it egg-water. Say it has healing power.”
“How long you been pickin’?”
“Since I was old enough to pick it up I guess. Mama used to sing in the kitchen an said I’d pinch the strings one by one and let them go. Used to drive her crazy.”
“You’re lucky to have family. Mattie’s all I got for the time bein’. So, you ever play anything besides those hymnals? Somethin’ about fast music makes me feel excited. Makes me forget my worries for a little bit. Is it like that for you too?”
“Sometimes, if I can feel the moment I guess. It takes hold of ya, you know? The light. Kinda like when some folks get in the spirit and ramble in tongues.”
She leaned in and put her tongue in my mouth. A fever burned in her lips sweeter than muscadines. Rolling in the pine straw, eventually she landed on top of me in the edge of the water. She stole my breath. She took her shirt off and unbuttoned mine as well. Spanish moss-like hair tickled my neck. Passion took over.
Our rhythm grew faster and faster. My skin was slick, covered in pond water and wisteria petals, but I was cleansed. Her embrace took control of me, mind, body and soul. Consumed by her, I focused into her kaleidoscope eyes. Above her, the sun split between two clouds and a lone crow circled in the muggy sky. That’s when we heard the little Sunday school kids oohing and giggling.
“Go on! Get out of here!” she shouted back to the handful of children. They kept looking back as they ran up the hill to the sanctuary yelling and pointing.
And it was over. She grabbed her clothes and told me to hurry up. Before I could get a word out, Ms. Mattie was coming down the hill with fire in her eyes. She didn’t say a word as Bet tried her best to cover it all up; she grabbed her by the arm and gave me a look I’ll never forget.
“It’s not what it looks like. We were just-“
“You’re just about to get your hide tore up. Now, come on. Gonna fix you good when we get home,” Ms. Mattie snarled.
Struggling to pull the wet pants back up while trying to button my shirt at the same time, I stumbled after her. By the time I reached the parking lot there was nothing but dust. I turned around and looked back to the entrance in time to see my mother coming out. She was crying. My ass was striped black for a week after Daddy got ahold of me. An embarrassment to my whole family, they said. When we had to make our weekly drop at the Manor, I was left in the field to bale. It took weeks before they let me go back to the church.
When I came back, I was met with stares and whispers. Eyes harrowed with shame and disappointment. I craned my neck back to the entrance each time I heard the door open, longing to see her face. But it never happened. As we were setting up for choir, one of my cousins told me the news.
“I heard Ms. Mattie say she sent her back to Slidell. Said she was too much trouble.”
I was crushed. At first, sorrow flooded my heart. I was lost.
“You gonna plug in? Service is about to start.”
I don’t remember taking my ’57 Les Paul out of the case, but the organ began and I found myself standing on stage. Everything slowed down sounding like a macabre carnival. When it came to my part, I was in a daze. Everyone on stage was looking at me, and I began to strum, slowly slipping into darkness, welcoming it to wash over me in place of the light. Anything just to see her again. Anything? Anything. Strumming as strings hit the fret, the buzzing leading me down. With sound and fury, notes cried into the wilderness with an electric wrath as I connected to something primal. Instinctual. I found myself back at that pond chasing her down the bank under the faint beams of a fingernail moon. Falling down, I glance in the water and there stands the reflected beauty over my shoulder. With a ripple, the face is gone and I’m all alone in the dark. The only thing to do is run. Harder. Faster. Exhausted in the passion.
When I came to, my guitar lay broken into two pieces in front of me; the neck splintered halfway down. The smell of rotten eggs lingered in my nostrils. The congregation was silent. I fell to my knees sobbing. Deacon Semmes put his hand on my shoulder, and I stood and braced myself on the pulpit. “This Do In Remembrance of Me” was etched and grooved into the front walnut-stained panel made by my ancestors. I slithered out never to come back again. Probably been 30 something years since then, maybe more. Even now, whenever I catch a wiry-haired woman out of the corner of my eye, even if I’m lost in my music, I remember and have to do my best not to speak in tongues.

a worksong for the apocalypse. We Do Not Need Wings. Linda Niehoff.

22 Nov

We Do Not Need Wings

 

We tumble over broken streets hand in hand, jumping over puddles. The trees explode in color, the buildings tear themselves down. And then your hollow eyes tremble over a piece of paper, scanning the names of the dead before you fold yourself up and lock yourself away. In all the ditches, sumac blooms red like blood.

*

The old hollowed out hospital is nothing but gray concrete, walls painted in piss and graffiti. It’s used for huddle spots against a metal wind. We are not alone. Shadow heads rise up like black cottonmouths in stagnant water. We call out to them in hope but then they circle around. Their cigarette embers are dangerous stars and we realize in a minute there will be no getting out and so we turn. We run.

*

We were always running.

*

Your voice is a far away hollow tin can sound and you say, it’s fine, it’s fine, I’m fine, and I say, let me see and there is a metal silence and I ask again and the answer back is nothing and so I scream and scream and scream myself dry. Blood blooms up like poison sumac.

*

Somewhere along the night road an owl swoops out from the dark row of trees. He flies over me, wings open in a silent glide andohGod, I’m so tired of running.

 

 

Linda Niehoff

 

worksongs

a worksong for the apocalypse: Dirt. Colleen Maynard.

20 Nov

Dirt

In the evening when mom and dad are making dinner, the best place to be is inside the bottom cupboard where the potatoes and onions are stored. Once inside, you will have to sit with your knees pulled up to your chest, your head against your knees, so as not to scuff the base of the silverware drawer. A molt of vegetable-dirt will cake your shoes. Besides actually digging a hole in the backyard, it’s the closest thing I know to being buried for short periods of time. Deathly black too, and except for the sound of the pressure cooker you can practice for the real thing, so when it happens you’ll already have had a dry run. Sometimes there’s a rolling sound above you, and a tiny slit of light will appear across your arms. Should this occur, you must purse your eyelids because when you are dead there is no light that shows you what your arms look like. Most certainly there are no voices underground that say “oh excuse me dear, could you just move your head for a minute, I’m trying to get to the oven-mitt.” Occasionally the wood-paneled door to your cupboard may creak forward a crack, and then you put your steadiest fingernail underneath the handle’s screw and inch the door toward you, just as you might pull a blanket to your neck. In all these ways you can practice for when you won’t have eyes. Do this soon and you’ll find how little space your body needs to sharpen all the overlooked things unknotting around you. You may find that listening to knives coming down on cutting boards is not unlike sitting in a comfortable back seat inside of a car driven by soft-spoken people you trust.

 

 

 

Colleen Maynard

 

dirt

 

worksongs

a worksong for the apocalypse: William Garland. Honeysuckles.

18 Nov

Honeysuckles

“It wasn’t that long ago I heard about a girl right around your age. She was out sucking on honeysuckles when a man came right out from the woods and snatched her. You see, he was hiding in there. Hiding right there in front of her.”
Lana sank her head and tried to focus her frustration on the crabgrass just in front of the fragrant flower she’d dropped. She was too ashamed to look up, but she took in every word.
“That’s just how quick fortunes can change. Ain’t like it used to be. That world’s gone now. Folks can’t just go around acting like it ain’t.”
She was still looking hard at the clump of grass, trying not to notice the dirt penetrating into her pale white skin. She was lost in the trying as she worked to remember a story that her mother told her about honeysuckles, when her father grabbed Lana’s chin and lugged it up till they met eyes. “You understand what I said?”
“Bad things are out there. I can’t stop to eat the honeysuckles. A bad man might be off hiding in the woods,” Lana responded.
“That’s right. It’s the way it is.”
“There could also be a snake,” Lana added.
“Yeah. There could be one of those in there too.”
They turned away from the bushes and kept walking. The earlier hills had given way to long expanses of flat, country dirt roads, but the overgrown tree canopies kept them from seeing much of anything beyond shadows and dirt.
Further on down the way, there was break in the tree cover and sunlight caking its way into the loose dirt. Lana noticed it first and asked whether that meant there would be houses and people to help them, but her father was hesitant of this kind of talk and warned her not to get too excited. It could be another empty field.
When they got closer, Lana ran ahead yelling and pointing, “Look Daddy, there’s a fence. You see it? It’s right up there. That means there’s got to be somebody nearby, don’t it?”
“Slow up now, Lana. We don’t know nothing about these folks.”
Lana stopped cold. There was a large house peering at them from the backside of the pasture. It was painted white and stood in a brilliant contrast to green grass shimmering all around it. There was an old truck that sat off to the side of the house, and later on Lana would swear she saw a young girl peeking out from an upstairs window.
“Daddy, I ain’t ever seen a house that white. Don’t you think the people in there are nice?” She looked up at him, waiting for approval. “They’ll be able to help, won’t they?”
“We best not mess around with a place like that. If anybody’s in there, they’re liable to be worse than the men that hide up in the honeysuckles.”
Once again, Lana dropped her head as she trudged on down the road.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie. We’ll find us some of our own folks soon enough. They’ll know how to take care of you.”

 

 

 

William Garland

 

Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

30 Apr

(perfection)

 

Danny Powell. Tomorrow Was Hers.

25 Jan

TOMORROW WAS HERS

It had to be a note. The words would have never come out of his mouth the way he wanted. He would have stared at her and sputtered. She would have heard the words in her heart and cried.

The pen ran out halfway through and he hurried to the kitchen drawer where they kept a stash of others. He grabbed one without looking, not realizing it was blue, and missed the irony as he traced over the last fading black word on the page—bruised—and continued writing.

She was sobbing long before the colors changed. The only other time he had left a note for her on the table was the only other time he had left. It was two years before and she had known he would be back. Now, she knew he was gone for good.

They had decided on a name: Erin Emily. Everyone was secretly hoping she would have Rebecca’s smile and Charlie’s eyes. The opposite turned out to be true, but no one mentioned it. Charlie had forgotten about them and they were going to forget about Charlie.

Forgetting wasn’t so easy for Rebecca, and after Erin Emily entered the world she sat down and wrote her own note—

Dear Charlie,

I just want you to know that Erin Emily and I are doing fine. She’s sixteen now and beautiful. More importantly, she’s brilliant and kind-hearted, and she has the most amazing spirit. I thought you might like to know. I also thought you might like to know some of the things you’ve missed over the years. Well, here’s a quick rundown:

Erin’s first smile. Her first laugh.
The first time she crawled, and her first steps.
Her first word: mama. Her second word: milk.
Her first Halloween—she wanted to be an astronaut. I made the costume myself.
Her first day of pre-school. She cried and cried. When I picked her up in the afternoon, she couldn’t wait to go back the next day.
Her first time without training wheels.
Her first broken bone. It was her right arm when she fell off the monkey bars at school.
Her second broken bone. Left ankle. Skateboarding.
Her first straight-A report card. She’s only received two B’s since.
Her first Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy. The pictures are adorable. Her favorite books, too many to name.
Her first crush. Her last boyfriend.
Her first goal in soccer. Her first home run in softball.
Her first spelling bee victory. She went on to win two more…in a row.
Her love of the flute. Her hatred of the flute. Her love for it again (and still). Her vegetarian phase. Her Goth phase. Her poetry phase.
Her valedictorian speech at 8th grade graduation. Funny, poignant, and unforgettable.
Her Sweet Sixteen birthday party.
Passing the driving test on her first attempt. Her first car: my hand-me-down van.
Her smile. The light in her eyes. Her love.

—then folded the paper into a square and placed it inside a small, wooden box given to her by her grandfather when she was too young to remember.

Erin Emily discovered the box at the bottom of a suitcase of clothes in the back of her mother’s closet. She read the note, shed tears, and laughed, the memory of her mom drifting between thoughts of her 5th grade clarinet, the pictures of the pumpkin costume, the broken pinky finger, and her high school valedictorian speech.

Luke Wortley. Sarah.

4 Jan

SARAH

Even as she lay dying, Sarah knew that, when it was over, she must remain dead forever. Sarah also knows that, when she uttered her last syllables, her family gathered round could only hear her as one hears through the crackle of radio while driving through the mountains on the way back from Richmond. She’s since heard the same fizzy murmurs from other people in the house as they died, but for some reason they don’t come to join her. Sarah also remembers the coughing and the tightening of muscles in her face, remembers her mama’s palms, calluses catching in her snowy hair, her daddy’s first tear. She remembers iridescence angling through her window and leaking onto her forearm in a pool of dusty air the way it does down at the mouth of the holler well after the rest of the world has already woke up. She remembers the feeling of light scraping her skin without warmth, and she remembers the cooling band of her grandma’s turquoise-studded ring against her earlobe.

Sarah remembers a building pressure beneath her skin that bubbled up and collapsed inward again, drawing all the tightness to her chest. She was the fish her older brother hauled out of the Kentucky River, jaws opening and closing with such violence, throats bloating and gills flaring as they sucked in the terrible, terrible oxygen. They thrashed on the end of the line. She, too, thrashed beneath her coffin quilt til she bit her tongue, just before her eyes closed and her head folded into the pillows like an egg being cradled by a feathered breast.

She awoke almost immediately and felt unreal. She could see her body crumpled into the sheets, her mama’s hands trembling like tuning forks.

After several years of being dead, Sarah now has an acute awareness of the existence of her own hands, their uselessness. She still imagines they itch, even though she knows she can’t actually scratch them. She can’t feel anything, actually; it’s as though her skin is covered in healed burns. Sarah can walk, can’t glide as she thought ghosts could. She’s gotten used to it, the idea of being a ghost, though complete darkness still scares her. And she’s remained in this form since, unable to see herself as she used to, the clear and colorful way she looked in the vanity while mama touched up her blouse on Sundays.

She has, however, seen her parents die, seen her brothers and sisters leave. And she’s seen two other families move in before this one. Her older brother, Scotty, toasted the first ones with a glass of bourbon. No ice. No chink of the glass. Just the silent slap of caramel liquor against the lips and a sudden swallow. During his final days at the house Sarah watched him smoke on the back porch and rock in a bleached wicker chair. She remembers she could almost hear the bluegrass growing, could almost see the pollen roiling about in the air. She remembers a few cowbirds, dark as the topside of a catfish, nesting in the sycamore trees out back, the smell of honeysuckle.

When Scotty left for the last time, Sarah ran down the gravel drive after him. Something, though, held her back—a pressing force that prevented her from leaving. She went back to cower in the entryway on the tile and cried. In the days following, she prowled around her empty bedroom. Every once in a blue moon she thinks about when her furniture got taken outside. Her mattress folded and thrown in the trash, the wooden headboard tossed on the burn pile in the washout basin lined with stones. Sarah waded through the smoky remains the next morning, unaware of the heat, and watched white smoke rise from the ashes. She wanted to feel the stones poke the bottoms of her bare feet, hoping the fire might rekindle. Though, of course, she felt nothing, and before long, she climbed the bank and walked through the bluegrass and into the thistle which, as most things did, made her miss her mama a lot. She remembers when, before she died, she wandered through a thistle thicket and emerged about a mile from the house at the old Holloway crop line, legs swollen and covered in tiny red gashes. Her whole body itched and stung at the same time, and mama gave her a wet washcloth and slathered something on her shins that eased the burning.

She remembers that, shortly after her own death, she started to lose her mama. Her mama would light candles in the bathroom and soak in the tub without washing herself until her hands turned wrinkly. Sarah thought the water made her older. Her spine started to curl, and her shuffling footsteps became barely perceptible unless you listened real hard. What was most surprising of all, though, was not her mother’s aging. She had always known that old people existed. Her grandma had been old. What was truly strange was that she found herself watching her daddy more and more, and although Sarah knew he mourned her death, she had no specific memory of his weeping other than the dangling thought of a tear. So, the first time she really saw her daddy weep still came as a shock. He drank a lot that night, and each time he brought the bottle to his mouth he unbuttoned another button of his shirt. She saw the big bulge in his throat bob up and down several times before he finally let the bottle back down to the couch cushion. He screamed something incoherent over the top of the television that crackled with black static. And then he started to cry. Sarah remembers his gut jiggling as his shoulders heaved up and down. A shiny wetness slid out from his eyes and clung to his cheeks like dew.

Sometimes, especially when the Kochs are out, she goes upstairs to the guest room, her old room, and cries. The bedspread is crisp, and the paisley pillows match the comforter. The carpet is the color of an ancient map. A school desk sits in the corner; above that is a shelf that houses three bumpy, conical figurines of Santa Claus and a wicker basket with a broken handle. The twigs curl and splay like horsehair.

The first family, the Cunninghams, had a dog that whined when she came near. It cried like an old, rusty swing. They didn’t stay long. Sarah remembers the dining room table that Scotty had left behind, covered in papers with all sorts of numbers on them. Jagged envelopes with more papers stuffed in. Stacks and stacks of papers.

“What did we do wrong?” Sheryl Cunningham had asked.

The Smiths, the family that moved in after, made good food. The smell wafted from the stove and snaked through the air like a living thing. Choir tones lifted up and out of the mouth of a large cleaning woman as she washed dishes with yellow rubber gloves that came up to her elbows. Her flat shoes shuffled silently across the checkered-flag tile. And Sarah would run along the fence line with the children, Mary Ellen and Paul. She always wanted to show them how she could blow all the seeds off dandelions in one breath.

“Watch,” she’d shout at them, her fingers slipping through the stems. Once, she thought they heard, but after a brief pause they just stooped and ripped up clover by the handful.

The Smiths stayed for a while and cleaned up the property. By the time Scotty had left, the land was a complete mess. Out back, the two hulking sycamores had been through two bouts of disease, and though they had survived, most of the bonelike limbs had stopped growing, morphing into spindly fibers that curled like insect legs. Scotty had sold some of her family’s land a few years before he finally left, a few acre parcel that backed up to the highway, unable to take care of it any longer, where kudzu had strangled the cottonwoods, wrapping around the barbed-wire fence and growing up and up, adhering to everything, draping itself like a circus tent over the site where, decades ago, before even Sarah and her folks had moved in, they found rusty shackles attached to a plough, caked in loam.

But eventually they also left.

This is the third family—the Kochs—to live in the house since her family. Don is bald and reads the paper. His wife Kathy bustles around the kitchen in the mornings, clinking together breakfast. And Juniper was about Sarah’s age when they moved in, which is to say that Juniper was about Sarah’s age when she died—about seven. Now ten, Juniper likes bubble baths and calls her parents mama and daddy. They’ve been there a while, and even so, Sarah also has yet to find a way to interact with anyone since her death, though not for lack of trying. She’s been trying for a very long time.

She’s repeatedly tried to talk to the Koch family, even gone so far as to reach her hand through the back of Don’s newspaper; she’s tried to blow out candles, open and shut doors—all with little to no effect. All the things she thought ghosts might do. Yet so far Sarah has failed to make any noticeable impression whatsoever on the world of the living. And after years of complete silence, she wonders if anyone will hear her voice again, a feeling compounded by the sight of cardboard boxes beginning to pile up against the back door yet again.

***

As the day wanes, Sarah seethes and watches Kathy fuss over potholders and hand towels. Upstairs she hears the slamming sound of water hitting the tub. Sarah drags herself up the stairs with the faintest hope that she might, after all this time, be able to communicate with someone before they, too, leave her. The bathroom door is open, and there’s Juniper all wrapped in a towel and sitting on the edge of the tub and feeling the water. Sarah remembers squatting in the hot water and the feeling of just squatting there, uncomfortably aware of the heat on her privates until mama made her sit down and tilt her head back.

Juniper undresses. Sarah looks away, covers her eyes. Eventually Sarah hears the sound of feet squeaking along the bottom of the tub for a moment and the sharp intake of breath as June’s body sinks beneath the steamy surface. She uncovers her eyes and stares at Juniper for several minutes, taking in the sight of her. Juniper’s arms are sudsy sleeves, and Sarah can’t help the rolling sensation in her chest that bursts forth—something like a giggle or a hiccup. A combination of the two. A gigglup, she thinks. And this makes her laugh even harder. Juniper doesn’t respond; Sarah just stands there watching Juniper soak, still laughing and unheard. She hasn’t been this close to anyone in a long time.

“Is the water warm?” she asks as she reaches forward to test it herself. Her hand disappears into the water. She looks at Juniper’s face and detects the smallest hint of disturbance.

She says over and over, “Can you hear me? Juniper? June? Please!”

Eventually Sarah closes her eyes and screams and screams, trying to pummel the water with both her ghostly, childish fists.

“Mama!” yells Juniper. Her voice, though shrill, is good.

No answer. She could be in the garage poking around boxes. Juniper sighs and flips the switch to let the water drain.

Sarah is grasping for a connection. The water must’ve gotten cold. Dead people were cold. She was dead. She must be cold. This thought excites her young mind. She’s never come this close to garnering a direct response from anyone. A shout catches in her throat and sort of tumbles out of her mouth awkwardly, like a cough. Sarah feels what she imagines warmth would feel like, what she remembers warmth felt like.

“Juniper? June?” she says again.

Juniper pauses and looks in the mirror and wipes off a section with a towel. Sarah stands behind her so that she can have a look as well. Not too close. As expected, she can’t see her own reflection clearly, but Juniper, on the other hand, is clear. The valleys of her collarbones delicately stretched and indented like the tops of a drum; the mole above her lip clear as a beetle on the screen door; water beads on her shoulders, refracting her freckles, enlarging them. She smiles. Sarah smiles back, only able to imagine what it looks like. Before long Juniper shivers and turns around. She sidles right through her ghostly friend, and Sarah turns around just in time to see Juniper look back. For the first time in a long while, she questions whether or not she is alive. She spends the night in the guest room and imagines drawing shapes in the carpet as she used to.

The next morning Sarah waits for the family to come downstairs, waits for the sunlight to slide through the bay window of the living room. It feels like Christmas morning. Even the cardboard boxes appear glossy. Don traipses down the stairs first, still in his pajamas. It must be a weekend, because he doesn’t come down in slacks. He mumbles something, slides the back door open, and slithers his belly through. Sarah knows he’s peeing off the deck.

“Don, really?” Kathy asks as she thumps into the kitchen. For a skinny woman, her feet make a lot of noise. She also scrubs the calluses on her feet with a stone hairbrush.

“Hell we’re only in here for another couple days,” Don says over his shoulder, “Might as well.”

Kathy throws her arms up, begins to set out some of the remaining glassware for breakfast. Sarah waits for Juniper.

“Come on,” Sarah says, rocking on the balls of her feet.

Juniper finally comes downstairs, working her knuckles into her eyelids as she tries to get rid the sleep. Sarah remembers that her own dreams were always gone by morning.

“Morning, beautiful,” says Don, edging his way back into the kitchen.

Juniper doesn’t respond. Instead she sits down at the table and buries her face in her arms; a hoarse moan escapes.

“You’re up early,” says Kathy, “You feeling okay, sweetheart?”

Kathy walks over and places the back of her hand on Juniper’s forehead. Sarah remembers her own mama doing this, remembers the first visit with the doctor and the taste of treated wood on her tongue. She remembers a swollen, red feeling and heat crawling along the roof of her mouth.

“Don, she’s burning up.”

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Sarah.

Don walks over and puts his hand on Juniper’s forehead as well. “Come on, sweetie. Back to bed.”

He scoops her up. Juniper’s hands look infantile, as though they have never grasped anything. She sniffles and lets out another gravelly moan as Don hoists her up to get a better grip. Sarah watches them walk away toward the stairs.

“I’ll get her some medicine and some water,” Kathy calls after them.

She busies herself pouring tawny liquid into a spoon and gets a glass of water from the tap. Sarah follows Kathy’s measured footsteps upstairs, watches as she hands the glass of water to Don, lifts Juniper’s head up from the pillow, and angles the spoon between Juniper’s lips. Juniper’s face contorts, and she coughs at the bitterness. Even though it looks like honey, Sarah remembers that cough medicine tastes like metal.

“You should get some sleep now, sweetheart,” says Kathy.

“Is she okay? What is it?” asks Sarah.

Sarah looks to the opposite wall, looks at the shelves. A small collection of trinket boxes winks back at her: a baby carriage with candy pink wheels; a pilgrim with white frilly collar and red, red lips; a gold-studded seahorse; a rotary phone on a chain, also pink. Everything looks rusty; the whole world loses its shine.

“Let her sleep,” says Don.

Don and Kathy leave the room. Sarah creeps up to Juniper’s bedside. “I know how you feel,” she says.

Juniper stirs, reaches over for the glass of water on her bedside, and takes a sip. Sarah reaches out to stroke Juniper’s brown hair. Juniper clears her throat, and Sarah thinks she can feel Juniper’s breath as she fusses under the covers before finally getting up and plodding her way down the hall to the bathroom.

Sarah remembers back to her own sickness, remembers that in the final moments she felt far away from everyone. She knew others were there, but she herself was unreachable. She has replayed her final memories of dying so many times: grandma’s turquoise ring, daddy’s spectral tear, mama’s shaking hands. Sarah remembers these things, and she remembers the tightness, the pressure.

Sarah finds herself in the corner hugging her knees and crying.

She opens her eyes and looks at the glass of water. She shuts them again, screws up her face, and bites on the insides of her mouth, the fleshiness of which she is aware for the first time in years. She remembers how it feels to have her inner cheeks crushed between molars, the jagged feeling of flesh rubbing against teeth. Sarah imagines herself small. Small as a dust bunny. Lithe and thin like a dandelion seed being carried up in the wind. She imagines herself submerged in the glass of water on the table and being tilted back, peering down over the rim of into the back of Juniper’s throat. Sarah careens over the sandy tongue, past the uvula and down the throat where she breaks apart and is forced through ribbed tubules, pumped into an outer extremity, washed over insides.

As Sarah thinks this beautiful thought, she hears the unmistakable thunk of the glass wetly adhering itself back to the end table. She opens her eyes to see Juniper crawling back under the sheets. The comforter rises and falls slightly with each breath. Sarah wonders if, when she breathed her final breath, the quilt floated for a moment before it fluttered down and came to rest on her lifeless body. This, of course, the one moment she can’t remember.

 

 

LUKE WORTLEY hails from the Bluegrass and says yall a lot and can whip up some fried chicken that’ll make a tomcat smack a bulldog. He’s also currently the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal and the co-founder of Axolotl. You can follow him at @LukeWortley.

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