Heat Index by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade
In the 16th century, shipping companies often paid sailors in rations of rum. The sailors (always wary of the bosses) learned how to see if they were being ripped off…”
Quả Hồng Vàng by Kelly Morse
“That first autumn in Hanoi I didn’t eat persimmons because I’d mismatched books and life. A Chinese apple, your teacher said…”
The Radiators in Ellen Reed House by Liz Ahl
“have been pushing their ancient water
through these plaster walls…”
The Radium Girls by Liz Ahl
“Time used to tick, to trip,
to click between …”
Saturn V by Liz Ahl
“Unlike grief, escape
has only three stages…”
Honeysuckle by Maggie Bailey
“is taste not scent,
Alternative Air Source by Bobby Bolt
“If the ocean is only a sequence of shared breaths,
Then you may dream your way across…”
Physical Geography Lecture by Bobby Bolt
“I hope you’re taking notes: The nature of nature
is to move,…”
He’s a wildflower by Austin Eichelberger
“jaw decorated with soft thorns…”
Heat Wave by Jennifer Highland
“Bronx summer streets
smelling of piss and petunias…”
The Insulators by Jennifer Highland
“We try to keep the weather here controlled,
and so we softly barricade…”
Climate Change my Body by Jenny McBride
“The warmest years on record
and my body is coming into its own…”
Last Day to Save on Sarah Jaeger’s “Throwing and Alternative Video” by Andrea Witzke Slot
“sign me up for the master class of how.
Train me to…”
The Palm of Proprioception by Andrea Witzke Slot
“The sense of touch arrives early, long before the others…”
Unpacking by Larry Thacker
“My father is fresh back from Vietnam.
I see this in a memory I shouldn’t…”
Recipe by Patti White
“Say it began with an oven so hot…”
Boûts-Rimés: God’s Grandeur (1934) by Katherine Williams
“In black-and-white, five children in a god-
forsaken shanty of loose boards…”
For My Father, Who Will Someday Die by P.J. Williams
“Likely because his lungs
have turned umber, lost…”
Candling by Annie Woodford
“Short and sort of defeated even then…”
Melisma by Annie Woodford
“You love the radio,
love the thump & pop…”
Part I: The Photo Album
Luckily, Becca rescued the family photo album before Mother could X-acto all of the pictures. She hid it on the shelf above her bed, slipping it in between her First Communion Bible and the Great Illustrated Classics that Daddy used to get her for her birthdays. She likes to look through it and trace the story of two turned three turned two as if she were a stranger, making up explanations for the occasional headless torso. A scientist’s experiment gone wrong. The invisible man in love. A magician. A circus. But it ends so unexpectedly—the little girl still a little girl, the mother’s hair still long—trailing off into white-pocket limbo. What next? Daddy left the camera. Becca could fill the pages if she wanted, but she prefers the ambiguity.
Daddy used to tell her how when she was a baby, he would take her on long car rides when she woke up in the middle of the night. He’d put her in her car seat and drive until she quieted, taking the highway to nowhere in particular, continuing even after she was asleep. There was no room in the car for her the day he left, though. Too many suitcases and bags of things Mother had tossed down the stairs and into the lawn.
“I want to come,” she told him, but he just kissed her forehead and told her to take care of her mother.
“She needs you,” he said.
“Where will you go?”
It’s been years, so he must have found somewhere nice. An open space, probably, with plenty of room to breathe. Mother holds on too tight sometimes. Becca’s felt it too, like she is drowning in midair. It always helps to imagine a strong wind or an open window. It helps to count the wrinkly bills that she keeps tucked away at the back of the photo album. They live inside an envelope with a California return address, the kind Mother tries to hide when they come each month. Becca found it in the trash under the previous night’s spaghetti. Who else but him? It was empty, but California was all she needed.
Tonight, she counts the money for the third time, already certain, feeling more and more electric. It had been a good shift at the diner. A fat stack of tips. Tonight, she has enough. She’s tallied the days until graduation and done the math: taxi ride from the high school to the bus station, ticket, food. She will be weightless and smooth, a single backpack with some clothes, travel-sized toothpaste, and shampoo. She can see it now: a cap and gown falling empty to the ground, a ghost girl vanished, the way the trees blur in a speeding car.
“Rebecca,” Mother calls from downstairs. “Dinner is ready.”
“Coming.” She stops in front of her mirror and stares, counting her breaths until her face and the lightning in her belly settle and clear.
“What took you so long?” Mother asks when Becca enters the kitchen. Her skin is slick with sweat, eyes wide, and her glasses have slid to the end of her nose. She’s squeezing two handfuls of tablecloth so tight that the place settings in front of Becca’s chair are creeping towards the middle of the table.
“I’m sorry,” Becca says. “I was finishing some homework.” She picks up Mother’s silverware from the floor.
“You know I need you to do things when I ask,” says Mother. She releases the tablecloth and folds her hands. “Will you say grace?” She bows her head and closes her eyes, but Becca stares straight ahead at the white plaster wall. There is a painting of Jesus in a white robe with red and white streams of light shooting from his outstretched hands. Jesus, I Trust in You is painted in gold letters under his feet. She’d like to scratch it out in Sharpie, draw on a wig. George Washington, I Trust in You instead. With “amen,” Mother deflates like a pin-pricked balloon. All is calm. The world righted. Becca helps herself to a pork chop. It is overcooked.
On her days off, Becca comes home right after school. Mother is asleep in front of the TV, jaw hanging slack and wide as a deep-sea angler. Becca half expects roots in her bathrobe pockets and potato sprouts corkscrewing along her hairline, but only her knitting needles protrude from her lap.
She hurries up to her room. After studying maps for her entire free period, she can trace the bus routes on the back of her eyelids, the red and blue lines crissing and crossing through uneven squares and cutout shapes. California’s soft pink elbow. LA stands for angels. Becca drifts with them, floats with them. The sunshine is different. It is golden like a church. She sees stained glass windows and wooden pews. Feels stifled in the smoky, hot air like the last time she and Mother went. Becca sat in Daddy’s spot on the aisle.
“Sit up straight,” Mother said, squeezing Becca’s arm as the priest walked past. Becca did. Mother kept squeezing. “Be good. They’re all watching.”
No one was looking. No one cared. Her arm hurt. She rubs it now, shakes her fingers loose. George Washington looks like he could use some ChapStick when she takes him out. Those cracked, immovable lips get drier and drier every time she shuffles the stack.
The first dollar came from a man with a beard so long she worried it would get in the whipped cream of his pie. He asked how a girl like her was already the best waitress in town, and she told him Mother needed the money.
“Then why isn’t she here?”
“She doesn’t like people to see her anymore.”
“Their eyes hurt.” She took his dirty plates to the dish room, and when she came back, he set five dollars on the table and handed her one more.
“This one is only for you. You’ve earned it.”
She fiddles with the stack of bills in her hands. How much they’ve grown. Sneaking a dollar or two or three for herself, giving Mother the rest. There was always enough for groceries and bills. How would she know? The rubber band slips off and they spread like a fan. Tossing the money into the air, she lets them whisper over her ears and the back of her head. A snort rips up her throat before she can cover her mouth. And then a laugh. God, it’s so funny. It’s all a big joke. Money is falling from the sky.
“Rebecca?” Mother’s voice from the stairs. She’s awake. “Rebecca, is that you?” Moving closer.
“It’s just me,” Becca calls, heaping the money into an untidy haystack beneath her quilt and flopping down on top of it.
There is a knock and her door opens.
“What are you doing?”
There is a dollar bill on the floor next to Mother’s feet.
“You’re doing nothing awfully loud.”
“I’m sorry.” She watches Mother’s eyes.
“I was napping.”
“I didn’t mean to wake you.” Her body sweats like there are too many covers over her.
“Then be more considerate.”
“I will. I’m sorry.” Get out, get out, get out.
Mother scans the room. Becca joins her, scans the moment. She sees a girl draped over a mattress with a bowling-ball bulge in the middle. She sees a dollar bill the size of a rug slithering under her bed. What’s next? She wishes she had a bowl of popcorn. Either the woman will leave or the girl will turn into a metal claw.
“What is it, Rebecca?”
“What’s going on?” She’s looking too closely. Everything will come apart.
“I was thinking about Daddy,” Becca says, and Mother jerks like the pan is too hot. “Remember his muffin joke? And the one about the pirate?”
It’s all stuck in Mother’s throat. Becca can see it, convulsing right underneath her chin. His laughter, his socks and sandals, how he made up words to the songs on the radio and cooked French toast after church on Sundays. She could poke it with a pin and squeeze it out like puss.
Mother swallows and coughs. Buries him down in phlegm. “I’m going to start dinner,” she says, backing away. The door closes.
Becca counts to thirty and then crawls down to fetch the escaped bill. Too close. She feels flushed with the shame. Flushed with the color of Mother’s cheeks. She wishes it didn’t taste so badly going back down, but she can feel the nausea radiating through Mother’s gut. I’m sorry. I had to. George Washington is wearing a dry half smile and a pair of red plastic devil horns. Becca stuffs him out of sight.
Saturday is diner day, eight to five. It’s busy. The air is rich with syrup and coffee. Becca feels lighter as the day wears on, the bustle and the people clearing her mind of anything else. There are so many lives in the world. So many combinations of things. Guilt can only burn as long as she lets it.
“Someone’s in a good mood today,” one of the other waitresses says as she hands Becca some glasses to take to the dish room.
“What do you mean?” Becca asks.
“You’re just glowing,” the waitress says.
Becca feels the heat in her cheeks. You’ve looked that closely? It’s like she’s naked and the windows have no curtains. The waitress’s eyes stare in, enormous and unblinking.
“I just—I’m just excited that’s all. For graduation and everything.”
The waitress nods. “Whoever said those are the best four years of your life is full of shit.” She winks at Becca and steps back out the swinging kitchen door.
When her shift is over, Becca scrapes two turkey dinners into Styrofoam containers and walks home, savoring the dimming light. It feels good to kick her shoes off when she gets inside, and she lies down spread eagle on the carpet. There are cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. When was the last time we cleaned? The past is one quiet day, a silent hallway with identical doors on both sides and sterile, fluorescent lights that never even flicker.
“I brought dinner,” she calls. Mother does not answer.
Nothing. No television, no running water, no shuffling, no creaks. Nothing to announce a second body. The clock titters, Where? Where? It’s too polite to say what it really thinks. You. You. Mother never leaves. Something’s happened. A push. The cut to start the exodus. Becca sees a flash. Mother in a bathtub full of blood—dull eyes. Or on the ceiling fan turning slow circles. Take care of your mother, he said. Remember?
Jumping to her feet, she runs. Maybe it is fresh. Maybe there’s still time. The master bedroom is empty, the bed made, the fan off. The bathtub is dry and spotless.
“Where are you?” she shouts, flinging open doors and rifling through closets. She brought Daddy’s ghost back inside, sent him charging at Mother head-on before she could even put her hands out to stop him. Was she cowering in a corner? Waiting for it to stop? Becca searches the cabinets for missing pills, wonders if Mother has scrunched so tight she has shrunk into wispy cotton and taken solace among the Q-tips.
The back door squeals open. Becca bounds down the stairs two at a time, nearly toppling over as she takes the corner in her socks.
Mother takes off her jacket in the kitchen and hangs it on the back of a chair. There are sweat stains in the armpits of her blouse and her face is pinched and pale.
“You’re back,” says Becca. “Thank God.”
Mother slumps into a chair.
“Are you okay?” Becca kneels down next to her, puts a hand on her knee just to make sure she’s solid.
“I had to go to the bank.”
“I could have done that for you.”
“No.” Mother rubs her face, peels strands of hair off her sweaty forehead.
Becca gets up and pours her a glass of water. “Here.”
“Where’s it from?”
“Just the tap.”
“Not that. The money.”
The kitchen walls begin to spin. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster until the floor drops out from under her and she is pinned, arms at her side. The nausea is worse when she closes her eyes.
“What money?” she murmurs.
“Don’t you dare lie to me.” Mother tosses the water into Becca’s face. “What have you done, you dirty little slut?”
“It’s tips,” she says. “It’s just extra tips. I was saving them. That’s all.” Have her ribs snapped and poked holes in her insides? It burns like lemon juice on a sliced finger.
“You were saving.” Mother sags over the table, face in her palms. “I thought you were—you scared me, Rebecca. All that money squirreled away, like something your father—oh, you silly, stupid girl. You were saving!” She laughs. She pounds the table with her fists. “Why keep it in an envelope? It should gain interest. Grow on its own. But it will now. It’s safe now. You’re safe now.” She rises and kisses Becca’s wet forehead, wraps her arms around her. “You’re welcome.” Her fingernails run up and down Becca’s spine, and for a second it’s just a thunderstorm, Becca’s bedroom window open to rain spatter and the rusty smell of wet screens. She’s safe now. Time goes backwards, sand moving up her toes and through her capillaries, pressing her head down deep into the pillows. Mommy and Daddy kiss her goodnight. Leave her with low rumbles and pitter patters, dancing drops on the sill. Everything will be all right. Except—
There, there it is again. A flit of shadow across the wall. A monster. A ghost. A question.
“Something my father what?” asks Becca. It was a slit of light in a doorjamb that had long been padlocked, leading to a room she had never seen. She would taste the apple if it were handed to her.
Mother’s eyes have tired, dark circles, dry riverbeds, bus routes at the corners. Becca reaches out a finger to trace where they lead—to a hill, to an ear—but Mother tilts her head back and lets go.
Becca waits for her to run, waits for her to hide from him like she always does, but she stands perfectly still, takes a shallow breath. It helps to imagine a strong wind. But Becca doesn’t dare speak. Not when Mother is this close.
“He was good at hiding things,” she says. “That’s all. But you’re a good girl, Rebecca. You’re not like him.”
“What did he hide?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s better that he’s gone.”
“Something broke. There was nothing we could do.”
Becca pictures him, skin lesions and sweat, pulling himself along an alley wall. All alone. Collapsing. “How could you leave him like that?”
“He left us. He didn’t want us. He wanted things he shouldn’t. We’re the lucky ones, sweetheart. We’re good people.”
“But what if he’s all alone?”
“He could have come back. But he didn’t. It’s not our fault. He didn’t want us.” Her voice trails off as she stares at the wall, sighing so deeply her body curls into itself, and Becca watches her standing there, dissolving like wet paper. “Dinner.” She rouses herself. “You didn’t need to bring anything for dinner. I cooked.” She sweeps the Styrofoam containers off the table, and lukewarm gravy and potatoes splatter Becca’s socks. Mother opens the oven to a cloud of thick smoke and the pungent smell of burning plastic. With her oven mitts on, she pulls out a cookie sheet of pooled goo and black-singed photos glazed in bubbled ooze like a wax Halloween mask.
“We’re the lucky ones,” she says.
Part II: Becca Awakens and Remembers That The World Has Ended
It’s all over. She cannot feel anything. Her body has disappeared. She is a gray cloud, transparent. Empty smoke. What will the smoke do now? Will it spread so thin it disappears or will it hover, a clump of dark, thick enough to touch but not to hold? Will it float away on the breeze?
The smoke grabs hold of the molecules in the air and swirls through and around them like a ghost, brushing men and women’s faces, and little children’s Sunday shoes stomping over cracked, white sidewalks. Cars drive by on the street and exhaust fumes grab the misty fingers and twirl like old-fashioned girls in glitter and bobs. It lingers, invisible drifting caught in a smoker’s lungs, and then expelled.
Glitter. Something glitters now. Something new. The cloud of smoke percolates, hovering like chilled winter breath. Someone is rapping on her shoulder. There is no one there. The knocking is an echo. It is her heart. She opens her chest and sees it pumping like a madman’s telegraph. S.O.S. COME QUICK IT’S GONE. She is dizzy. Glitter. Something glitters. Something new.
A bell tinkles as Becca pushes open the door of the shop.
“Can I help you?” A woman with dark red lipstick smiles from beside the display of pants she is folding.
“No.” Becca’s cloud glides to the window where a mannequin stands wearing the red dress. It glitters in the sunlight. She strokes the pattern of tiny beads curving like a snake from shoulder strap to hem.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Becca jerks when the lip-sticked woman’s arm brushes hers. With a grunt, she walks away between the racks, her eyes searching for a flash of red.
“That’s the only one left in the store,” Lip-sticked woman calls.
“This dress. It’s the last one.”
“Why don’t you try it on?”
“There’s no point.” It glitters. Something untouchable.
“You’re just window shopping?”
Becca shrugs. “I just needed to get out of the house.”
Lip-sticked woman unzips the dress and wiggles it off the plastic hips of the mannequin.
“It won’t hurt to try then,” she says.
“There’s no point,” Becca repeats, smelling burning plastic. She turns towards the door, but suddenly there is red silk in her hands, soft against her fingers, cooling like a breeze before the rain. She lets herself be lead to the back of the store, and when the door to the dressing room closes, she strips off her clothes, her mottled bra, her threadbare underwear, wanting to feel it against all of her. The silk slides over her, contains her; she is smoke no longer.
The thin straps over her shoulders reach towards the back of her neck, where they meet and crisscross below her shoulder blades before halting at her lower back. The neckline dips into a V, both sides clinging to her breasts. The skirt hugs her hips and legs, the hem circling the middle of her thighs. She is solid. She is seen.
There is a knock on the dressing room door.
“How’s it fitting?” Lip-sticked woman asks.
Like a dirty little slut. But the voice in her head is not her own. Mother is standing with her hands on her hips frowning through Becca’s eyes as they take in her body in the glass.
Becca steps out of the dressing room.
Lip-sticked woman whistles. “Here, let me zip it the rest of the way.”
Becca spins in front of the three-way mirror in the hallway.
“What a fit,” Lip-sticked woman says. “That dress was made for you. And lucky enough, it’s on sale.”
We’re the lucky ones. Becca falters and sinks. “I can’t.”
“But it’s such a steal!”
“No, I really can’t.”
“Ah, well. Who can? Still, it’s a shame.” She reaches to undo the zipper, but Becca jerks away.
“I’ll get it myself.” She goes back inside the dressing room and sits down on the bench, stroking the dress against her legs.
“Alright, then. Do you need anything else?” Lip-sticked woman’s voice is muffled now.
“No, thank you.”
Footsteps retreat down the hall, and Becca counts to one hundred and stands up.
You’re a good girl. Remember that? The burning. The high-pitched stench of gas. She slides the lock. The hallway with the mirrors is empty except for her reflection and her clothes lying strewn about the dressing room. Peeking around the corner, she scans the space and bolts, feet slapping the wood floor.
The bell tinkles, and she almost trips on the pair of red high heels sitting on the threshold, waiting.
She has never worn heels before. They go click click on the slick floor. They go tap tap on the concrete. People hear the tap taps, and they look to see whom they announce. Becca pretends like she doesn’t notice them, but she holds a smile on the tip of her tongue with her teeth. She tap taps and bites smiles and walks down sidewalks that don’t connect to her street, because if she can get lost enough she won’t have to go back.
But her feet start to whine. The tap taps slow and soften. She lifts, sets, waits, grinds her teeth against the ache in her toes.
There’s a bench in an empty playground. Her clammy hands grasp at the wilting body inside her red cocoon. Maybe if I sleep for a while I’ll grow wings. But what if I grow pincers too? And sticky little hands and feet, and my tongue turns black? She licks her lips. Dry black. There is a water fountain near the swings. Her feet exhale when she kicks off the shoes and walks towards it, barefoot on the squares of rubber padding the ground beneath. When she presses the button, it gives an empty gurgle that makes her throat even drier. She’s suddenly in a hot, hot desert. Heat shimmers on the black rubber. The metal jungle gym glows bright and hot. It melts like crayons, red and blue wax swirling into slow-reaching puddles that grow thin river arms and creep towards her. They want to cake on her skin and make her a wax doll with a red-lipped smile. Wax lipstick. She leaps back, slides her feet into the shoes and tap tap tap taps away.
There. A glass filled with green light. Veda’s. The green light becomes purple. Becca opens the door and smells cigarette smoke and sour rot. She slides onto a barstool and looks at all the pretty bottles.
“What can I get for you?” A man stands across from her on the other side of the bar. She hesitates. They don’t have Christmas wine here, and that’s all she’s ever tasted. Sips of Mother’s Christmas wine while Mother was in the bathroom.
There is another man on Becca’s side of the bar gulping down some amber juice and puckering his face.
“I’ll have that,” she says, pointing. A glass is placed in front of her, and she swishes the liquid around and sniffs it. It bites. It is not sugar water. When she drinks it, it burns her throat like the door of the oven, but she swallows it down and lets it fill her belly like a candle— warming her, glowing her—the light inside her intestines. The man watches her shine. He has shaggy black hair and dark stubble on his face like Daddy sometimes did, but his eyes aren’t brown; they’re washed-out blue like his shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, dark hairs on his forearms. He has a nice smile.
“Can I get you another drink then?”
“What are you drinking?”
“I don’t know.”
He laughs and waves a hand at the bartender. “Can I get a whiskey and water and a vodka cranberry?” He moves to the barstool next to Becca. “I’m Lane.”
He slides her the drink.
She takes a sip and lets the sweetness linger on the back of her tongue.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around here before.”
“You haven’t,” she says.
“Well, I’m glad you decided to change that.”
Tracing a finger around the rim of her glass, she watches Lane’s eyes follow the neckline of her dress downward. She tugs at the edge of the fabric underneath her collarbone. He wanted things he shouldn’t.
“Something wrong?” he asks.
He laughs again. “Sounds about right. Do you want to talk about it? I hear it’s supposed to help.”
She sets her glass down on the table and watches how the drops of condensation slip past her fingers and disappear into the wood grain, rich and slick with the sweat of ice and people and spit.
“I don’t know you.”
“That’s why I’m the safest place for a secret.”
Safe. It’s safe now. You’re safe now. Mother smiles so big. So proud. Such a good mother.
“Oh shit,” Lane leaps up. “You okay? Hey, can we get a towel over here? It didn’t cut you did it?”
Becca looks down and sees broken shards on the bar where her glass used to be. A slit in her palm shows red like her dress.
“Cheap glasses,” says Lane. “Here, let me see.” He takes her hand in his and leans in close. “It’s not deep. You’ll be okay. There’s a bathroom right around the corner. I’ll get a clean towel for you to wrap it in.”
“I’m leaking,” says Becca. “It doesn’t even hurt.”
“Well, thank God for that. Oh, thanks, man. Here.” He hands her a towel and then turns to help the bartender clean up the glassy puddle spreading over the bar.
Becca follows the sign to the ladies’ restroom. The water looks pink in the basin when she sticks her hand under the faucet.
“It doesn’t even hurt,” she tells her reflection. My insides are out, just like that. It becomes just a dull, red line outlined in soggy skin. Dead-looking. We’re so breakable in our little white boxes. The restroom is a little white box. Dimly lit. Only one of the stalls has a door, the other two gape like missing teeth.
He fucked them in here, Mother says. And Becca takes a deep breath and she can smell it, that stale smell. That filth. Two desperate, broken bodies in a dirty white box.
The smell follows her out of the restroom, trapped in her hair, soaking in her pores, in her broken hand, stealing its way inside of her, to become her, and finding out it’s been there all along.
“Becca? Hey, wait.” Lane’s hand is on her elbow, so soft, but it holds. If he lets go, she’ll shatter.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
He touches her forehead with the back of his hand, and she grasps it and holds it there.
“Your hand is cold,” she says.
“So is yours.”
“It feels good.”
He puts his other hand to her cheek. “No fever.”
“No,” she says. “I don’t know what it is.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Just in my head.”
“Here.” He hands her a baby glass of cherry wood. “This’ll help.”
“Is it my medicine?”
“You’re a strange bird, Becca.”
“I can’t see my way out is all.”
“Out of here?”
“Here. There. Everywhere.” She empties the glass.
“Sounds suffocating. I take it you don’t travel much?”
“Please don’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not. I’m sorry.”
“You’re broken too,” she tells him. “I can smell it.”
“I don’t feel broken.”
Becca leans against him, her nose in the crook of his neck. “No, but it’s there. All of us in our little white boxes. We’ll never get out.” The weight of knowing is so heavy, even the strands of her hair can feel it pulling. She buries her face into Lane’s shoulder, lets him hold her up, his arms around her waist.
“Are you sure there’s not a window?” he murmurs in her ear.
She frowns, closes her eyes. The box is there, all around. She runs a hand over the walls. They’re glass. And on the other side is pale skin with little brown hairs and three freckles that make a triangle. An arm. Two arms. The arms squeeze. The glass creaks. She will be crushed. Anaconda arms to slither and hold and choke out a delicious death. A snake smile and a flitting tongue. You’re welcome, Mother says.
“I see it now.” She steps back and teeters, grasping the edge of the bar. “I have to go.”
“Take me home.” His hand is in hers, and she leads him out.
Black cars at night. Keep in the lanes, Lane. Keep in the veins, Lane. Keep right.
It’s just a pit stop. Just a pit. Stop.
It’s just a house.
“Wait here,” Becca says, and opens the passenger door of Lane’s car. “I’ll just be a minute.” She floats up the driveway, her toes singing to the wavy night air tune.
I like the way the dark is so dark it’s blue. And the blue drapes over shadow lines like silk sheets. And the shadow lines could be anything: a railing, a chair, a Mother—
The light switches on.
“You didn’t need to wait up.”
Mother does not speak, but when she stands, two fistfuls of tablecloth collapse limp and wrinkled like tired meringue.
“Where have you been?”
“What are you wearing?”
“Isn’t it pretty?”
“Are you drunk?” Mother leans in close.
“I was thirsty.” Becca huffs into Mother’s face, and Mother slaps Becca across hers. A millisecond of contact but the sting grows sharper once the fingers are gone.
“Should I turn the other cheek?”
“What has gotten into you?”
“You. Shut up. You’re—giving—me—a—headache.”
“Stop that!” Mother grasps at Becca’s wrists, holding her fists back from pounding her temples. “You’re going to hurt yourself.” They tug and pull and lose their balance, falling to the floor in a tangle.
“You’re hurting me. Get off.” Tears well in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Rebecca? Tell me. We can fix it.”
“I need you to stop, okay? Just stop.” Becca wrenches her hands free. “Let me out.”
“Your box. I can’t do this anymore. Let me—out.” She hobbles to her feet, kicking off her shoes and scuttling up the stairs. Locking her bedroom door behind her, she grabs her backpack and turns it upside down, notebooks and pencils scattering over the carpet. She replaces them with underwear, socks, a pair of jeans—
Mother pounds on the door. “Unlock the door, this instant, Rebecca.”
“I’ll send you a postcard from the coast,” Becca yells, yanking a jacket off its hanger and folding it into a messy ball. “LA stands for angels.”
The pounding stops.
Becca pulls on a pair of sneakers, tying them in loose bows. It’s time. She leans against the doorframe, her mouth up against the crack. She can feel Mother right there on the other side, cheek to cheek.
“I just wanted to say goodbye first. And I’m sorry. That’s all. Goodbye.”
With a click and a crack, the door swings open and slams against Becca’s forehead. Heat radiates through her skull and there’s blood in her eyes. Mother tosses a bent hairpin away and kneels down next to her.
“Look at what you made me do. Here.” Mother pulls a t-shirt from Becca’s dresser and presses it against the cut. Becca takes it from her hands and sits back on her heels.
“Why Los Angeles?” Mother asks.
“Why do you think?”
“You don’t believe me.”
“What do you want me to say?” says Mother. “That he’s out there waiting for you? That he’s loved you all along? What do you want?”
“I want to find out for myself.”
The room tilts as Becca climbs to her feet and fumbles for the doorway, out to the stairs.
“Stop this.” Mother follows, reaching out and tangling her fingers in Becca’s hair. They scramble and twirl, grasping and pushing on the landing.
“You’re going to get hurt,” says Mother.
“I’m not scared,” says Becca and shoves against her, Mother’s eyes widening, her lips forming a soundless O as she falls.
Mother and me, and I’m missing a tooth.
Us in front of the Christmas tree, Mother in her Santa sweater. His beard was made of cotton balls.
Swinging at the park. Her hands were so gentle, but the sky kept getting closer.
She lies perfectly still at the bottom of the stairs.
The ticking of the clock answers Becca—magnified up the stairwell, filling her ears—the loud, painful beats striking erratically, slurring the seconds. She counts them as they escape, one by one.