Jenn Hollmeyer

Ozone

( O1 )
Joe

 

It was the seventh day of hundred-degree heat, and it was starting to feel like some kind of un-creation story. We ate bowls of chilled applesauce and went to bed at noon. Val sprayed our sheets with water and taped freeze packs to the air conditioner in the window. My electric oxygen machine hummed in the corner of our room. We did not sleep.

The brownouts started again around three o’clock. The hot woman on Val’s soap opera became a flickering flame. I hit the power button and snuffed her out. It was a rerun anyway, Val said, and the same instructions kept running across the bottom of the screen. Turn off all unnecessary appliances. Stay inside. Check on your elderly neighbors. But everyone on this block was elderly, so no one checked on anyone.

The air conditioner quieted to a growl. I felt a pull in my chest and adjusted the tube in my nose. I propped myself up on pillows, but the heat kept rising like stuffing in my lungs. Whenever it got like this, I had to get out. Even if that meant out into the sun. Even though Val would only go as far as the door.

She uncoiled the tube that connected me to the machine and kept a hand on my back as I stepped onto the porch. I eased into the wrought iron chair under the awning and let the breaths come in raspy bursts like TV static. Don’t worry, the reception will get better, I used to say when I started to wheeze, when I still had breath to spare. Just wait for the signals to settle. But there was no breath to spare anymore. Val stayed at the edge of the kitchen and pulled the screen door shut between us, leaving just enough room for the tube to pass. When the wheezing and coughing subsided, I patted the empty chair beside me, but she pretended not to see.

“I wonder if he’ll study this,” she said, meaning our son, Lou. He was an environmental scientist in California, and he was always talking about global warming. He’d called earlier this week when he heard about the heat wave setting records in Chicagoland, and we’d assured him we were fine. And we were. I was good at survival. I’d been through Korea, a few cases of Evan Williams, near-divorce, the death of our daughter, the removal of half my left lung, a car fire, and two tornadoes. I knew the emphysema was what would finally do me in. It was kind of nice to know.

“You just want him to come,” I said. Come fix the air conditioning, buy us a generator, and let her bake him a chicken pot pie. “We should go there. Cool off by the ocean.”

She ignored me. Lou called it air-goraphobia, what she had. She wouldn’t go to the mailbox, much less the West Coast.

I breathed in as deep as I could and felt my chest expand. I missed the magnolias that used to shade this street and the fresh eggs we bought from the chicken farm until the owners died and it was bulldozed. People had complained about the chicken shit, but it never bothered me. It smelled real. Now, with its culverts and three-hour rush hours, the neighborhood reeked of prestige and progress and other things it was not.

One of the mailboxes down the street began to move. I blinked and saw it was Tommy, the kid who lived with his grandmother on the next block. Though he wasn’t a kid any more than he was a mailbox. He was a tall skewer pulling a marshmallow on a leash.

“You shouldn’t be out in this heat,” I said when Tommy turned up our driveway.

“Neither should you,” he said. He waved to Val and lifted the pup onto my lap. Tommy shifted his weight and worked his lips against his teeth. He’d be kissing girls in another year.

“I still scare you,” I said. “After all this time.”

Tommy’s cheeks flushed. He’d once told me I remind him of his father, and I’d told him he reminds me of my son.

Lou was only fourteen when he asked what happens when you fear the thing you need to live. The air. The sun. The person who’s supposed to protect you.

We all find out eventually, I’d said, shrugging off the chills he gave me. I deserved it, though, his cold stare. I’d missed out on three years of his childhood. I couldn’t remember much of what happened during that time — just a blur of whiskey and women — but I knew he could. You can’t make up for something like that, no matter how hard you try.

“You seen the coyote around lately?” I asked Tommy now, rubbing the pup’s ear like a rabbit’s foot.

“Day afore yesterday,” he said. “Running in the alley behind our house.”

Guess my shot hadn’t hit it.

“You keep him away from that beast,” I said, handing the pup back to the boy. I could feel the sweat on my leg where it had sat. “You stay safe, too,” I added, adjusting my tube. “And look out for your grandma.”

“Yessir.” Tommy wiped his brow and went back down the driveway with the pup blurring beside him.

I watched him go, him attached to the pup and me attached to the machine and the machine attached to the wall socket.

Just before suppertime, the brownout became a blackout. I felt the drowning sensation in my lungs, thinking at first that the tube must have gotten a kink in it. I smoothed it in my hand like a piece of shoestring licorice, but that didn’t help. I hauled myself up out of the chair, went inside, and saw that the clock on the microwave was dark. I called for Val, but she didn’t answer. Then I heard the slosh of her shifting in the tub — she kept it full of cool water for quick dips throughout the day — and I wondered if she was drowning, too. There was a window in the bathroom, so she wouldn’t have turned on the light or noticed the power shutting off.

A few years ago we saw a news segment about how every household should come up with a secret word to use in case of emergency. We tossed some ideas around until we realized we could just use “help,” but we went on with the suggestions until we were laughing so hard the syllables came in spurts. Pancake. Barbiturate. Beaverlick, Kentucky.

I pushed the bathroom door open and peered in. Val clutched the shower curtain to her neck in modesty, as if it would be anyone but me.

I didn’t have to say anything. She knew.

She heaved out of the water like a great, smooth fish and wrapped her wet body around mine. Holding me up by the elbows and armpits, she staggered with me, dripping, toward the bed. It felt like we were finally melting.

Val pulled the tube away from my face. Reattached me to the oxygen tank I’d kept in case something like this happened. Opened the valve. Adjusted the flow meter. The oxygen hushed, reassuring us, and I breathed. No electricity required. But eventually the air got trapped in the mucus clogging my lungs. Val misted the sheet she billowed over me, and suddenly I was a boy again, helping my mother pull the laundry from the clothesline at the start of a rainstorm. I was a boy being tucked into bed. I was a boy getting pummeled on the playground, my sweatshirt held over my nose and mouth until I pushed with strength I didn’t know I had and sat up in the dirt, gasping.

But this time I had to fight the adrenaline. I would be okay if I stayed still and calm. The power wouldn’t be out for too long. The tank would buy me five hours. That would be enough. It had to be.

I willed the oxygen to fill me, but the stuffing in my lungs seemed to expand.

I hadn’t been to bed without supper in fifty years, but I couldn’t have eaten if I’d wanted to.

Val tried to stay awake and I tried to sleep. But when I closed my eyes, I saw the fear on Tommy’s face, on Lou’s face. The nervous twitch of the pup’s whiskers. The coyote in the crosshairs. I reached for the alarm clock, thinking I’d set it in case we both nodded off, but of course its face was blank.

Val’s breaths came in heavy, apple-scented puffs.

I’d watched her sleep like this the day I came back home. The day she called to tell me a car jumped the curb and our daughter was dead. The day that ended the three-year separation that sat like a blank space in our marriage. In that time Val had gotten thinner, and I’d gotten fatter. We’d both grown old and pale.

It took months for us to get used to me being there and Casey being gone.

“I still can’t believe you’re back,” Val used to say. “You’re a ghost.”

I was. Lou was still afraid of me, even though I kept telling him I was back for good.

One day I asked if Val wanted to visit any of our old haunts. Maybe that old truck stop near Sycamore that served the best pecan pie you ever tasted. But no, she couldn’t. She said the last time she walked out the door, she lost her daughter. She wouldn’t leave again.

But I walked out the door to work every day for thirty more years. Some days I almost didn’t come back. It was the same way now for the air in my lungs. I was forced to sit at the door like Val, waiting, hoping, and welcoming home each breath like the prodigal son. I deserved that fate. It’s dangerous territory, thinking of what people do and don’t deserve.

Val’s stomach rose and fell, a dark contour under a damp sheet, and I thought again of the pie and then swimming pools. The house smelled like chlorine, like those long-ago summer nights at downtown hotels with women who had no clue what I’d left in order to be with them.

The breathing in was getting harder.

The breathing out felt like sparklers on the fourth of July.

At some point the air was going to leave for good, taking me with it. The word “freedom” came to mind. Not my freedom, but Lou’s and Val’s. If I wasn’t around, maybe he’d visit more often. Maybe he’d convince her to step outside her fear. Maybe it wouldn’t take much convincing. Because here was my fear: that I was the real reason she’d stayed inside all this time. Keeping house, keeping vigil. Knowing I’d always come home as long as I knew she depended on me for groceries.

It’s a hard thing, realizing that your absence has more value than your presence — that you can protect your family more as a memory than in the flesh.

I touched Val’s arm, sticky with sweat.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

She didn’t stir.

After a while I pulled the phone off the nightstand and dialed Lou’s number. I waited, picturing him on a couch. It bothered me that I didn’t know what color to make it in my head. I waited longer, thinking of the three-hour time difference, but the phone didn’t even ring. I tried again, but then I realized there was no dial tone. It was a cordless phone, useless without electricity, the batteries gone dead hours ago.

Val slept soundly, and I decided, conclusively, not to disturb her.

The reception will get better, I thought, feeling the air rattle in my chest.

Just wait for the signals to settle.

 

 

( O2 )
Tom

 

Every time I walked past the Martins’ driveway, I had to yank on the leash to keep Blanco from turning in and begging for an ear rub. It went like that for weeks, until one day there was an extra car parked out front. We walked by half a dozen times to scope out the situation. Someone stood in the kitchen window. A man. Then one of the times we passed, the man was standing by the mailbox, waiting for us.

“I keep seeing you,” he said. He looked just like Mr. Martin, but with hair and without tubes, his face only beginning to crease. Blanco jumped up and pawed his calf.

“Sorry about your dad,” I said.

“You must be Tommy.”

I didn’t bother explaining that I wished people would call me Tom. In two days I was going to go live with my dad, and none of this would matter.

“I was hoping I’d get to meet you,” he said. “I could use your help, if you got a minute.”

I’d never been inside the Martins’ house. It reminded me of a hospital with its pale green walls and sheets tucked around the couch cushions. An oxygen tank sat in the corner like a kid in time out. Mrs. Martin stood in the kitchen, cutting a green pepper into postage stamps. I’d never seen her without a screen between us, and I saw now that she might have been pretty at one time.

“You’ll eat lasagna and salad,” she said, not asking. “Lou brought chocolate milk.” She smiled, as if she somehow knew it was my favorite thing. I wondered if my grandma had told her, maybe at the funeral a couple weeks ago. I imagined the two women talking about me, and it made me wish I’d been there so they wouldn’t have been able to do that. I’d been surprised my grandma went, since she only knew the Martins by name. And I’d been surprised Mrs. Martin went, since she never went anywhere. But I guess you can’t skip your own husband’s funeral. My grandma said the woman brought her blue armchair to the funeral parlor and sat in it all night. I spotted it by the window now and imagined her sitting there, watching me walk Blanco past her house every day.

“That chair will be the last to go,” Lou said, following my gaze. “For now we just have to box up the books.”

I didn’t see any books.

“Will he eat some plain hamburger meat?” Mrs. Martin asked, pointing at Blanco.

“He’ll eat anything,” I said, setting him on the kitchen floor and unhooking his leash.

I left Blanco eating out of Mrs. Martin’s hand and followed Lou down the hall to a library that smelled like peanuts.

“You get to guess which books belonged to which person,” he said. He hefted cardboard from a stack in the corner and began shaping it into boxes with a screeching tape gun.

“Your mom,” I said, pulling a row of bird guides off a low shelf. The words sounded like the punch line to a joke.

“Nope. Me.” I thought he was joking then, but he didn’t smile.

I settled the books in a box and moved on to the thick leather-bound classics. “Your dad.”

“Nope. My mom.”

When I got to the environmental volumes with titles about atmospheric gases and molecular structure, I paused. “These are yours.”

He shook his head. “My dad bought those. Said he wanted to understand what I do.”

“What do you do?”

Lou sat back on his heels and thought for a second. “I study contradictions. Like how ozone is good when it’s up in the atmosphere, but bad when it’s down close to you. How we take in goods and give off poison.”

It made me feel weird, like he knew about every Coke can I’d thrown in the trash instead of the recycling.

I moved on to an old set of encyclopedias that looked like they’d never been read.

When we finished boxing the books, we carried them to the back door and sat down for dinner. No one asked me to wash my hands or take off my hat or say grace.

“We should have been having you over for dinner this whole time,” Mrs. Martin said. I was thinking the same thing. Blanco lay curled up in the blue armchair like it belonged to him.

“When are you moving?” I asked.

“I’m moving?” she asked.

Lou closed his eyes and shook his head like he was trying to get rid of a yellow jacket. “Not till you’re ready,” he said, opening his eyes. “We’ve talked about this. I’m just going to pack a few things every time I visit so it’s not overwhelming later.”

She looked relieved. I wondered if they’d have to move the house with her in it.

I’m moving,” I said. “Day after tomorrow. To Florida, with my dad.” So far, I’d only told my two friends at school and my homeroom teacher. I felt like I still needed practice saying the words.

“How will that be?” Lou asked.

“Hotter than blazes,” I said, using my grandma’s phrase, and immediately wishing I hadn’t. I imagined Mr. Martin being steamed alive in his bed. But Lou just laughed. He sounded like his dad, but without the coughing. I wondered if it would be like this in Florida, laughing over dinner.

Lou and I ate bowls of chocolate ice cream on the couch while Mrs. Martin cleared the table. “I was never close with my father,” Lou said. “That’s how it goes sometimes between fathers and sons. It’s nothing like what you see on TV.”

“I don’t know much about mine,” I said. I tried to picture him in my head, but all I saw was Mr. Martin, plugged in like a lamp.  

“I wish it had been different,” Lou said.

“So did he,” Mrs. Martin said, appearing in the doorway with a jar of cherries. She dropped one into each of our bowls. Lou stared at his for a moment like it might explode.

 

That night I packed my own books into an old duffel bag. They were just the stained second-hand novels my grandma bought me for English class. Books that had belonged to everyone. I didn’t even want them anymore, but without them all I had was thrift-shop clothes. Enough to fill the floral suitcase my grandma said I could keep, as if I’d want it.

She’d gone to work and left me a frying pan of burned stew meat, along with a note telling me to empty the dishwasher. I carried the pan out to the side yard and flung its contents into the night, like they do in lacrosse. The meat rained through the trees. Then I waited, wondering if I’d hear the coyote padding through the brush.

I’d been feeding it ever since it showed up in our neighborhood. Ever since Mr. Martin began threatening to shoot it, telling me it would eat Blanco if it got the chance. The food was a peace offering and the only secret I had. I tried not to worry about what the coyote would do without me around. At least Mr. Martin was gone, too. I felt bad that part of me was glad about that.

I wondered if my father had ever shot anything. I thought about what Lou said, about those fathers on TV. I didn’t play baseball or soccer or football. I was no Cub Scout. I’d never been fishing. I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem.

I’d only talked to my father twice on the phone since my grandma told me I’d be moving in with him. She told me he read ads over the radio for a living, and that’s what he sounded like. Excited about me the way he’d be excited about meatball sandwiches and clearance sales. Everything must go. It made me feel like a prize.    

Tomorrow came and went, and then it was the next day. I brushed my teeth over the pink sink for the last time, put my toothbrush in a baggie and zipped it into the suitcase. I put Blanco’s food and Milk-Bones in a grocery bag. I tried to make room in the duffel bag for my other pair of sneakers, but in the end I stuffed them in the garbage. I brushed my hair and then Blanco’s. We sat by the door like outgoing mail.            

He was supposed to be here at noon. But the phone rang at two o’clock, and my grandma answered it. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew. He just needs a little more time, she said. Give him another couple months to get ready. Then we’ll figure something out.

She got me a hamburger from Petey’s for dinner because she felt bad for me, but then she had to go to work. I ate half of the burger alone at the kitchen table and stopped when I remembered the commercials. Petey’s puts a smile on every face. The tingling started in my nose and I knew what would come next, so I pinched off a piece of meat for Blanco, ran outside and hurled the rest of the burger into the woods with so much force, it felt like my arm went with it. I sat on the grass, breathing hard and listening to the racket of the cicadas and the waves of traffic on Ogden Avenue, wondering what it would be like to live on the Gulf or the ocean — I wasn’t sure which side he lived on — where the water wasn’t too polluted for swimming. I wanted to live anywhere other than this frayed edge of a city where nothing happened but blow-out sales and spelling bees and ozone alerts. But I was beginning to realize I’d never get to leave.

A twig snapped, and I held my breath.

I imagined the coyote sniffing my hamburger, holding one paw up like Blanco did, and then swallowing it whole. Assuming it was there for him, as if hamburgers grew on trees. Didn’t that animal know how hard my grandma worked to pay for that and everything else I ate, and all the schoolbooks and shoes and clothes I kept growing out of? Didn’t he know how hard it was to take in a boy and dog no one planned on having? I picked up a rock and threw it where I’d thrown the hamburger. Then I threw another and another, sending them crashing into the darkness and ripping through the leaves and shutting up the cicadas, wanting to wrap my arms around the furry neck of this creature I’d protected, but also wanting it dead.

Later, after Blanco ran away, I’d think back on this moment and wonder if my tantrum is what made him leave — if this was the universe’s way of telling me I didn’t deserve him, and if the same kind of thing had happened to my father.

 

 

( O3 )
Lou

 

When I arrived on Thanksgiving morning I assumed there’d at least be pie, but the refrigerator was practically empty. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast in Sacramento. I found a piece of grocery-store coffee cake sitting on a plate by the stove and picked it up, thinking it was for me, but it had clearly been there a while.

“I set that out for your father,” Mom said. “Don’t look at me that way. He’s back.

Those two words. She’d said them thirty years ago when he reappeared after Casey died. Your sister is gone, but your father — he’s back. Like it was a fair trade.

“Mom.”

“I always hoped he’d come back to haunt me.” She dropped the coffee cake in the garbage and set the dish in the sink. “Last time I left a piece of this out, it was gone in the morning. Guess he knows it went stale.”

I knew then I’d made the right decision about bringing her home with me at the end of this long weekend. I was still surprised she’d agreed. It would be hard, but she couldn’t keep living like this.

“You’ve been through a lot of change this year,” I said.

“You say that like I don’t know what change is.” She wiped the counter even though it was spotless. Her arm had never been so thin.

I wanted to point out that she hadn’t left the house since I was a boy. But I knew better.

“Why don’t I go get us a turkey,” I said.

She shook her head. “I had Tommy bring one last week.”

I opened the freezer and saw the Butterball sitting in a nest of TV dinners. It would take two days to thaw.

I told her I’d get the mail, and I came back with a roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, a fifth of Jack, a bag of rolls, and a pumpkin pie, all from the deli down the street. She put out the fancy plates with the gold edging and we ate, trying not to look at the empty chairs beside us.

When we’d each had seconds, she put down her fork and stared at me. “I guess my point is, I can’t leave now that he’s back.”

“He’ll know where to find you,” I said. I remembered her saying the same about Santa Claus the year she took Casey and me to visit a cousin in New York for winter break. We’d left a plate of gingersnaps on the counter with a note explaining where we were.

That was the last trip we took together. Two days after we got back was when Casey died.

“What will I do in Sacramento?” she asked.

“What do you do here?”

She motioned to the boxes lining the hallway. She’d labeled them in her explicit cursive. Holiday Kitchen Towels. Hairbrushes and Cosmetics. Candlesticks and Table Linens.

“Plus, I’ll be in the way of your personal life,” she said.

I didn’t tell her that my days of hosting activists at my condo were over. I hadn’t been to a rally in years. And she’d stopped asking me about girlfriends long ago, so I didn’t bother telling her I’d just broken up with someone. Maybe she would use the tea bags and shower gels I kept finding in my cupboards.

“It’s only temporary,” I said. “Till we find you your own place.”

I mixed a whiskey and ginger in a coffee mug.

“We used to have cocktails by the window overlooking the backyard,” she said. “We used to see deer.”

I handed her the mug and she smiled, taking a sip. “You buy the good stuff,” she said.

I mixed another one for myself and we took our drinks to the back window. Dad’s old Winchester .22 still hung like a branch above the valance, the way it had for as long as I could remember. He’d taken it down once when I was in grade school, before he left, and made me shoot a rabbit in the woods behind the house. For years it was the worst thing I’d ever done.

“We’ll have to find someone to take the gun,” I said. “But who knows if it still works.”

“It does. Dad used to shoot coyotes. Got one about a year ago.”

I stared at her. “From the window?”

She nodded. “Shot at least two of them that way.”

I imagined him tied to his oxygen machine, squinting down the barrel. All I could think was how lucky for him that he hadn’t ended up in jail. And how lucky for the neighbors that they hadn’t ended up dead.

“There’s one living back there now that’s the biggest we’ve ever seen. Dad went after it for months, but kept missing it.”

I used to tell people I went into conservation to make up for my father. But whatever I did would never be enough. He’d caused too much damage.

I could still hear the sound of the door slamming when he left, the way it made Casey and me jump. The silence that followed.

“Did he ever tell you what happened during those three years he was gone?” I asked.

She didn’t answer for a long while. “It’s what you’d expect.”

I hadn’t expected anything at the time. I was eleven. What did a man do in the world if he didn’t have a wife and kids? He’d put on his shoes, go to work and take his shoes off when he got back home. That’s what he did. The rest was emptiness.

Three years of emptiness.

And then one day I was twelve, playing flag football after school when the call came. My teacher came out and yelled my name on the sidelines, and I thought she was cheering me on. Cheering, of all things! I’d had a crush on her.

She yelled again and motioned me to come. Told me there was some bad news, that she needed to take me to the hospital. By the time we got there, Casey was gone.

When I woke up the next morning, he was standing at the kitchen sink. Here, in this house. Where he knew he needed to be.

“He’s gone, but he’s not,” I said. The oxygen tank sat in the corner like an apparition.

“That’s it exactly.” She turned to me. “Like air.”

“Same as when he was alive,” I said, feeling the old anger rise inside me. I was a little boy again, wanting my father but not wanting the disappointment.

He’d tried with me, organizing hunting and camping trips, but I was too old by then and the silence between us remained. And with it, the fear. Fear that he’d drink too much again, slam the door again, leave again. On my own, I knew I wouldn’t be enough to keep him there. And I wasn’t enough to help my mother leave, then or now.

“He was a sad man,” she said.

I started to argue, but stopped. I’d never thought of his quietness as sadness.

The wind picked up and set the maples swaying. It was like a silent movie, watching them move on the other side of the glass. The lights of the neighbors’ houses winked on and off as the branches passed in front of them.

“I can’t leave,” she whispered.

This was going to be harder than I’d thought.

“I scheduled the cleaners to come next week,” I said. “The house is supposed to go on the market as soon as possible.”

I saw the fear in her eyes, and something shifted.

“You don’t really believe he’s back,” I said. “It’s just your excuse.”

“It’s not an excuse. It’s gratefulness.” She set her glass on the coffee table and looked at it instead of me. “Maybe in the morning you’ll feel it, too.” She got up and went to bed.

If I felt grateful for anything, it was for people who offered more than just their presence. And for people who demanded more than that from others. But if I said any of this to my mother, she’d just ask why I didn’t have a girlfriend. I couldn’t tell her how long it had taken me to start expecting more out of people than she ever did. Or that I knew, deep down, that my father had stopped expecting more out of me. That he’d felt my absence, too, all these years since I’d left home. And that I’d enjoyed the pain it caused him.

I finished my drink and hers.

Something moved in the bushes. Something pale and scrappy, sniffing. A scavenger looking for leftover thanksgiving.

Casey and I were walking to Petey’s for hamburgers one day after school when she stopped on the sidewalk and pointed to where some men were laying bricks for a new office building.

“That’s him,” she said, and I knew right away who she meant.

We ran up to the chain-link fence, curled our fingers around the metal and watched our father smooth mortar the way our mother frosted cakes. He was tanner than I remembered, and more muscular, but he had the same round face and hair the color of our lawn in August.

Casey shouted something, and then I did too, but as he turned the muscles in his jaw reconfigured and he became someone else’s father. Someone taller and happier and younger than ours. He squinted and gave an uncertain wave, as if he could almost remember us from a dream. Then he went back to work and we walked on to Petey’s, though we weren’t hungry anymore.

She was lucky she never knew she had to die in order for him to come home.

The animal moved along the edge of the woods. I slid a finger under the lip of the window and pulled. There was no screen. I breathed in the wind, stood and reached for the gun. The safety wasn’t on. I was a boy again, crouching in the brush with my father breathing whiskey in my ear. A twig snapped under a paw.

You can’t make up for everything that goes wrong, but you can do some things.  

I pulled the trigger. The smudge of fur recoiled and slipped between the trees like a fog.

*

The wind calmed later that night, and a new silence closed in. A boy walked along the street with a leash coiled in his hand, calling for the color white. Like calling for absence. A coyote padded along Ogden Avenue, fat, strong, unafraid of the cars and the people and all that they do. A widow glanced at her adult son sleeping on the couch and wished she could help him understand her fears. How easy it is to spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from the wrong things.

She nudged the front door open, tested the air with her bare toes, and stepped outside, the cement patio biting her tender feet.

She sat in the wrought iron chair and strained to feel the imprint of her husband’s body through the cool metal. She lifted her face as if waiting for a signal. Approval to stay or permission to leave.

It wasn’t your fault, she said, looking at the sky. It was never as simple as that.

She filled her lungs and held the autumn air as long as she could before letting go.

Jenn Hollmeyer

Jenn Hollmeyer writes and paints in the Chicago area. She was a finalist for the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and a past prizewinner in The Missouri Review’s Art of Omission Contest and the Bevel Summers Short Short Fiction Award competition. Jenn’s stories and essays have appeared in AGNI Online, Shenandoah, West Branch Wired, Post Road, Salamander, Meridian, Etchings, and other journals. She is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Jenn has completed a story collection and is working on a novel. Read more at jennhollmeyer.com.