He was going to ask again. She could feel it in the way he pulled her more firmly against him, wrapping the covers around them both. He buried his face in her hair, breathed her in, kissed the crown of her head. This dance was the preamble. Placing a finger under her chin, he tilted her reluctant face towards his, open and hopeful.
“I love you, Grace,” he said.
As he breathed in for the question that followed, she abruptly took his mouth into hers, stealing his air. As one, they rolled until she was on top of him. Her auburn locks fell tangled around their faces as she bit his bottom lip. They were already naked and it didn’t take long. He knew it was a distraction.
“Coffee,” she murmured into his shoulder afterwards, rolling out of bed. She picked a t-shirt off the floor, last night’s shed skin, and grabbed a pair of underwear from the top drawer. As she pulled them on, she caught his eye – full of hurt, and longing. She pulled her phone from the charger and left, closing the bedroom door behind her.
She was pleased to find an unopened coffee can on the counter. She pulled back the plastic lid, inhaling in the earthy scent of fresh grounds.
As the coffee machine gurgled, she took a seat at the small kitchen table against the bay window, a suburban street full of Saturday mornings unveiled before her. She started to scan her phone and a message appeared—a reminder to call Nana today.
“It didn’t work,” he said. She’d been so absorbed in her phone, she didn’t hear him come out of the bedroom. Wearing a pair of plaid boxers and blue socks, his hair mussed perfectly, he was a vision—tall and lean, olive-skinned. His heavily-lashed blue eyes looks steely, angry.
“What didn’t work?” she asked, returning to her phone. “Coffee’s in the pot. Pour me a cup?”
He sat down at the small table across from her, ignoring the request. Morning light from the bay window highlighted the pale, thick scar on his left shoulder.
“Your diversion attempt,” he said sharply. “We need to talk about this, Grace. I’m sorry you don’t want to, but it’s important to me.”
Grace sighed and placed her phone on the table. “I don’t know what there is to talk about,” she said, rising and walking into the kitchen. She pulled two mugs from the cabinet and turned to look at him across the kitchen island.
“I understand you’re not ready, but I need to know why,” he said. His eyes had lost the steel, left confusion and sadness in its wake.
Grace filled the mugs and took the milk from the fridge. She mixed his with two teaspoons of sugar and a dash of milk. She returned to the table, placed the cups in front of them. Hers, black; his, pale and sweet.
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” she lied. “I just know I’m not ready.”
“When will you be ready?” he asked. This circular conversation was so familiar, it had become a sick role-play.
“Chuck, you know I can’t answer that.”
He rose and retraced her steps in to the kitchen, snatching the milk off the counter. He jerked open the fridge door and replaced the carton.
“Don’t leave the milk on the fucking counter, Grace,” he spat.
And just like that, the performance ended as it always did: with him angry and her leaving. She took a first and last sip of her coffee, then went into the bedroom to slip on some sweatpants. She grabbed the car keys from the kitchen island and slipped on her crocs in the foyer. As she shut the door behind her, she heard him say, “Grace, wait.”
The morning air still had a bite of winter, but it would burn off by mid-morning. Grace climbed into the creaking Four Runner and cranked the engine. With no destination in mind, she took a left out of the driveway. She could feel Chuck’s eyes on her from the bay window.
It was Sunday, so she had nowhere to be for a few hours. She had a short list of activities that always followed these arguments. Her favorite, musty-smelling bookstore downtown, wasn’t open yet. Depending on what time their argument concluded, Grace would sometimes belly up to the neighborhood bar a few blocks from their house, but Chuck had started to find her there. It was too close to home. Plus, things hadn’t gotten bad enough to start drinking in the morning. Yet.
It was a perfect morning for her third and final option: a visit to the dog park. It wasn’t just a dog park – people without dogs went there, too, so Grace didn’t feel out of place. Chuck was allergic to dogs and had offered to get her a hypoallergenic puppy, but she declined. She’d always wanted a big, hard-to-identify mutt from the pound. Maybe one of those “Who Rescued Who?” decals for the back window of the Four Runner. A labradoodle just wouldn’t be the same.
Instead, they compromised with Max, a fat orange tabby cat who had perfected the art of disinterested feline. He lay warm and heavy on her lap when they watched TV at night, but other than that, Grace could nearly forget he was there.
The dog park was across town, so Grace merged onto the highway. Traffic was light. She glanced sidelong at the other drivers in neighboring lanes, trying to guess what put them on I-80 at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Most were laborers – those for whom a Saturday was just another weekday. She caught sight of one young girl in an ancient Volvo. Her silver dress, glazed eyes and mussed hair harkened of a long night. Grace peeked at her again and saw a pair of strappy platform heels in the passenger’s seat. Smiling to herself, Grace merged the Four Runner into the exit lane.
The dog park’s location, this far from home, was very important. If Chuck ever found out about her secret, feel-good trips here, he’d show up at their door with a puppy that same day. He’d be convinced that a poodle was the answer to their problems; that a puppy to care for would trigger some domestic instinct in Grace and leave her begging for a white wedding and a house full of babies. Grace kept a lint roller and perfume in the car, to erase any evidence of her visits.
Grace pulled into a spot and cut the engine. She sighed, leaning her head back against the seat. This wasn’t the dog park. She wanted to go to the dog park.
She stepped through the pharmacy’s automatic doors. They sealed shut behind her. A bored, middle-aged woman behind the registers gave her a flat hello. The dog park would be packed right now – lots of wet, furry snouts with happy, waggling tongues. Retrievers and terriers and bull dogs and hounds.
Oral Care. Cosmetics. Foot Care. First Aid. Family Planning. As she stepped away from the entrance, the automatic doors opened again, releasing a waft of cool, fresh air. Some of the smaller dogs would be wearing sweaters and jackets this morning. The door shut once more, sealing her inside.
The air was sterile, the lights too bright. She turned down the aisle and scanned the rows of boxes, looking for a signature bright pink one she’d purchased once before—a different pharmacy, a different city. A different life.
She found it, tucked away on the bottom shelf. She bought a pack of gum and a water bottle, too, smiling at the deadpan cashier. She headed for the automatic doors, bracing herself for the welcome release, then stopped.
“Can I use your bathroom?” she asked. She certainly couldn’t do this at home.
The morose cashier shrugged and pointed wordlessly to the back corner of the store.
The bathroom was single-stall, thankfully. Grace locked the door behind her and unwrapped the pink packaging. A quick glance at the instructions told her that, despite all that had changed in the past decade, this process was the same. Women were still subject to the unique humiliation of peeing on a stick.
She closed the toilet seat and sat down. Within seconds, a second blue line appeared in the plastic window of the test, confirming what she’d known for weeks. She sighed and tossed the test into the trash.
She pulled out her phone and scrolled through the contacts to find Greg’s number. A father had a right to know.
The Other Side
Your mother roared
And your father cried
And you slipped clumsily, wetly out into the world
with a silent, gaping scream
PUT ME BACK
A rude and rough entrance
They say being born
Isn’t that different from dying
Just leaving one warm, small cocoon
For something much larger—
A vast, untouched world,
right on the other side.
Before me, there was Plano.
An expanse of Texan flatness. Spindly, adolescent trees, hashmarks on a new suburb.
A house and a lawn, a country club with a pool.
Before me, there was Pete - my grandfather, my brother’s namesake.
A man of large stature, with a broad chin and broader shoulders
A man who fought the war and swung my grandmother around a dance floor
Before me, there were camping trips
My parents curled up in sleeping bags, dirty and in love
The river rushing beside them, lulling them to sleep
Before me, there were boys, so many boys
Wild twins wreaking havoc down the hallway
Brothers stealing wallets and breaking furniture, tumbling and fighting
Before me, there was the house on Christopher Drive
The brick foundation splattered with blood after our cousin tripped and fell
The strange neighbor with the comics in his basement
Before me, my aunt was married
To a man I’ve never met
My mother calls him “Ivan the Terrible”
Before me, there were miscarriages and stillborn babies
Siblings and children that our family will never know
The ghosts that leave me questioning my purpose
How They Lie
This is how lovers lie
Limbs curled around sheets
Backs against bellies
Toes to shins
Knees tucked into crevices
This is how lovers lie
Hands over hearts
Noses in hair
Lips finding mouths
Smiling on a shoulder in the dark
This is how lovers lie
Sweaty with sex, smoking weed and cigarettes
Or dry on a cold evening
Bundled in long underwear and wool socks
Or before the sex and smoking and winters together -
Just hoping parents don’t knock
This is how lovers lie
Shaping physical untruths
In the matching of their bodies
That seem to fit so well
If you look from the right angle
But this is how lovers lie
In the Hole
Two rocking chairs on a front porch, brimming with two large women. The wet-blanket heat coats everything it touches in a slick sheen, salty and condensed. A brown paper bag propped open between the chairs is filling steadily with stringy corn husks. Dirty white aprons hold piles of unshucked cobs. The women work silently. A dog barks, far off.
The dog has jaunted ahead of its owner, who pauses in his walk to the forest’s edge, pulling out a rag to wipe his brow. He glances up at the sky, measuring time. He shrugs the shotgun up onto his shoulder and returns the rag to his pocket. Walks.
Behind the man is a barn, old as sin. It was once red, but is now a splotchy, dirty brown. Nails poke out half-hazardly from the slats, through which you can peek to see the inside of the barn. There’s the nameless cow, standing on a rug of shit and hay. She grunts and mews, shifting her weight from hoof to hoof. Her udder is swollen like a full, pink moon. No one came to milk her this morning.
Beyond the cow, there is the stifling heat of the closed-door barn. Like a tactile, menacing creature, it fills the room with its fury, rising to its climax at the second-floor hen house. The hens purr and cluck gently, ruffling feathers and readjusting over their eggs.
Feathers float down from the hen house and land on the pale, round face of a girl, splayed out on the haystack. Beside her, a bucket that was flung from her hand. Her crystalline eyes look up at the barn ceiling, her pink mouth slightly ajar, its edges turned down in a nearly comical frown. Somewhere in the mass of hay beneath her are three small, blue buttons that popped from her shirt as it was ripped open. Her mud-streaked jeans and white underwear languish in a pile around her ankles. In her stomach, a cavernous hole, meaty and dark red.
In the hole, flies feast.
Not Of This World
I watch the rain splatter on his brown, leather loafers. His wrinkled hands, dotted with age, are clasped between his knees. Gray wisps stick out under his bowler hat. He has a properness about him—British, perhaps. In a city as large as Portland, it’s not uncommon to encounter expatriates at the bus stop.
“It’s a rainy one, eh?” he asks, eyes trained at the sky. Not British. Irish, maybe?
“Sure is,” I answer, leaning against the plastic back of the shelter.
We sit in silence for a moment, listening to the staccato of droplets. A few simple words exchanged, and I like him. I place great weight on first impressions, and this unassuming, well-tailored old man has my heart. He reminds me of Dad before the cancer.
I look at my watch. The chemo appointment starts in thirty minutes. Where is the bus?
The old man leans forward, places a hand out into the shower. An odd thing to do, but endearing—to touch the water as it falls from the sky, as a child might. An act of wonder.
He turns back to look at me, his hand still stretched in front of him.
“I’m going to make it stop raining now,” he says, his foggy blue eyes driving into mine.
And it stops.
The rain just… stops. In an eerily abrupt way, the air is suddenly dry. The droplets that were mid-air never even made it to the ground. The rain disappeared. I gasp and sit up.
“Wow, some timing there,” I say. “How…” I shake my head.
“Shall I make it come back?” he asks.
I simply stare.
“Yes, I think I will,” he says, and just as the words leave his mouth, the rain suddenly returns. Droplets that had disappeared moments before return to their place in the falling order and splash upon the ground. It was as if we were watching a movie and this old man had the remote control.
I am glued to my seat. My body is still as my mind tries desperately to process what I’ve seen.
“How… how did you know?” I ask.
“I didn’t know it was going to happen, Emma. I made it happen.”
“But…” I shake my head.
What did he just say? Panic sets in. I stand up and start gathering my things.
“Please don’t be afraid,” he says.
“How do you know my name?” I demand, slinging my backpack over my shoulder. I take several steps back and glance around, looking for other people. Who will hear me if I scream? If it came to it, I could probably disable him. He’s old and appears frail. A knee to the groin would probably do the trick. Adrenaline surges through my body; I’m suddenly sweating.
“I mean you no harm at all,” he says calmly. His hands have returned to his lap. “I can understand your confusion, but I promise you there is no reason to be frightened.”
He hasn’t moved.
“Emma, I’d like to give you something,” he says. “A gift.”
As a practical, city-raised, street-worn woman, I know this is out of control. This man is a total creep. He’s getting progressively weirder and I need to get out of here immediately. Right?
But my intuition says otherwise. The brief panic has disappeared, and I am left with a supreme sense of calm and well-being. The warmth and affection I felt when I first met this stranger—it has returned.
“Tell me how you know my name,” I say softly.
“I know many things,” he responds casually. “I am not of this world.”
Resisting an urge to roll my eyes, I collapse onto the bench beside him and sigh.
“Well, obviously not,” I say. If nothing else, this encounter will make one hell of a story. “So, what is this gift?”
He glances at me and grins. “My gift to you,” he says, “is that I will solve your problem.”
Well, that’s not what I was expecting. “What do you mean?” I ask.
“Just what I said. Pick a problem, only one, and I will solve it for you.”
“Ah,” I say. “This is a genie thing. You want me to make a wish.”
“No, not at all,” he says firmly. “I want you to choose a problem for me to solve.”
“But, when people make a wish, don’t they usually wish for the solution to a problem?” I challenge. “Money solves the problem of being poor. Companionship solves the problem of being lonely. I feel like we’re talking semantics here.”
“No.” He sits up straighter, clasps his hands tighter. “On the contrary, wishes are often for material items, which often cause more problems. Instead, I want you to choose a problem, and I will provide a solution.”
“Alright,” I concede. “I’ll play ball.” I pull my feet up onto the bench and hug my knees. My jeans are wet from the rain. I bury my face in my arms to think.
“I’m sorry, Emma, but we don’t have a lot of time.”
I unfold out of my ball and stare at him with frustration.
“I’m convinced whatever I choose will have unintended consequences,” I say.
He looks at me with a gentle smile, kindness in his eyes. “Dear girl,” he says, “that’s a risk you must take.”
I’m on the brink of tears. The words tumble out before I can stop myself.
“Cancer,” I whisper. “Solve the problem of cancer.”
I hear the bus approaching. The old man stands and adjusts his hat, looks down at me. “Nice to meet you, Emma,” he says. He walks away down the sidewalk, rounds a corner, and disappears.
I wipe my eyes and gather my things. As I’m counting out coins for the bus driver, my cell phone starts to buzz. I dig it out of my bag, sinking into a seat at the back of the bus.
“Hey mom,” I say. “Sorry, the bus was late. I’m on my way. You’re not going to believe-“
“Emma,” she sobs. “He’s gone. Daddy’s gone.”
Apple and Eve
A serpent watches from the branches, silent and brooding, but she does not fear it. In fact, she invites an audience as she reaches upward. Her slender fingers encase the round fruit, hanging low and fat from a twig. The skin is blush-red, pulled taut across juicy flesh. She jerks; it comes loose with a small snap.
She stares at the apple. Such a tiny thing with such heavy implications. The word whispers in her ears: knowledge. She scoffs.
Her teeth rip into the fruit. It is a savage act and she revels in it, eyes closed and grinning. The skin pops loudly. Juice drips down her chin, onto her neck and chest, sticky. She chews, saliva pouring forth from the glands in her throat, shocked by the apple’s sweetness.
She turns, the apple poised in front of her mouth, and locks eyes with him. The juice tickles its way down her stomach, towards her groin. For now, his innocent eyes do not follow.
She saunters towards him, the weight of her hips swaying rhythmically. The downy hair along her spine stands up with eager anticipation, the thrill of a well-laid plan being realized. She arrives in front of him, holds up the bitten apple on raised finger tips. A mere suggestion.
He is on her before the bite is fully swallowed. Mangled, the apple falls into the grass nearby. She watches it as he mounts her violently, ripping into her as her teeth ripped into the fruit. Odd, she thinks, that God made this so simple. She smiles. He shudders with climax, and it is over.
From her womb, scores of children will pour out into the world, filling it with torment and pain. The histories will write her as weak and ignorant, unable to resist the temptation of the tree. Just a simple woman, fallen from grace, manipulated by evil. They will be wrong.
She is the evil.