Katie Bockino

Instructions for Clearing

My dad loved forest fires. He loved anything, really, that leveled the land. If we were watching TV and a story broke promising thousands of trees were about to be halved, he’d jump to the fridge. 

“Let’s celebrate,” he’d say, popping open two beers. And just as he sat back down on the couch, crushing pretzel crumbs, he’d laugh. “I always forget how young you are.” He’d shake his head, keeping both beers for himself. I laughed, too, because I knew he really did forget how old I was in that moment. If he weren’t dead, my dad would love to know that all the trees in my new town were about to disappear. 

Trees circle Sound View Meadows, a community of twelve sooty ranches all now shut like safes. These woods used to shelter. Kids left toys on stumps; tentative tree houses sprang up weekly. No bears; no foxes; no mean stray dogs. Parents didn’t flinch when their child asked to go into the woods to play. 

But homeowners have stopped mowing the lawns that border the woods. Shrubs no longer are shaped. Blinds are kept pinched, dogs dragged in by shortened leashes. Kids don’t cry when a ball rolls over to the edge of the bark; they leave it for lost.

Every night before I sleep, I imagine the ninety steps from the ranch to the edge of the property. It has to be done. All of the trees will soon be split, and a storm of sawdust will settle the ground. 

In my dreams, I feel a breeze licking my back, and the long grass teasing my toes; Mary’s voice echoing from the gasping leaves, “Into the woods, Tammy, into the woods.” And just as I take step ninety-one, I wake.  I wake wanting the woods and all their horrors before they’re gone. 

***

My dad died at a rest stop in Ohio. The news didn’t startle me. He was gone so often, and for so long, that I felt as if he had already been out of my short life. He—no, his body—was found slumped over his steering wheel, his lemon-flavored iced tea fusing with the faux leather. According to one woman, they had enjoyed a great day together: pie à la mode, burgers, fries, and some quiet petting behind a fast food joint. A nervous police officer asked me if I had ever met her before. 

I hadn’t.

After my dad left her, he climbed into his eighteen-wheeler, put on his seat belt, and died. He didn’t have time to call for help. Hours later, another truck pulled up beside him. The guy beeped his horn three times before realizing that something was wrong. 

The same police officer kept crinkling his shoulders as he talked to me. He leaned forward with each vowel that dropped from his mouth. I wondered soon if he would become circular and roll around with only his words pushing him forward.

He shuffled, looking around our uninviting apartment, asking when my mom was coming home.

“Your stepmom? Your dad’s girlfriend? Any other adult who lives here?” 

I flashed crooked teeth, the teeth that my dad teased looked like a busted picket fence, and said no, just us. Just us since I was old enough to realize that I didn’t like to ask my dad questions about his time on the road. He had two separate lives, and I only wanted to know about the one that involved me. 

A social worker with rough, armadillo skin arrived next and stayed until Karen appeared to help me pack my things.

“What a wonderful woman, your aunt,” the social worker said, petting my hand as if I was a cat about to be put down. “Driving all night to be here with you.”

I traced my finger over the sore couch material. The lady kept talking, flakes of dry skin twinkling in the air as she gestured. I wanted to be alone. That’s what I was used to. If my dad was supposed to drive for four days, he was gone seven. If he was supposed to drive a week, he wouldn’t call until two went by. 

“Sorry Tammy, but I’ll be back home in time for your school’s flute recital/Christmas/ Father’s Day…” the list went on, smoke from his countless cigarettes somehow traveling the phone, reducing me to coughs on the other, distant end. 

I heard a bottomless rattle from outside the apartment door, and for a moment, I knew it was my dad returning home. But when the front door swung open too fast and hit the opposite wall, leaving another dent our landlord would sweat over, I realized it was only Karen. 

“Tammy, I’m so sorry,” she said, wiping away tears I couldn’t see. She was younger than my dad, only thirty-five, but looked to be in her forties. Smoking does that, my dad said. He could smoke, but he made me promise on an old copy of TV Guide that I never would. Karen was wearing black jeans and a pleated tan shirt that showed her belly when she moved her arms too quickly. It was her hair though, her syrupy smelling hair, that I tasted as she hugged me.  

I detangled myself from the hug as I realized that I was starting to look more like her than I ever would my dad. We had the same build—leggy, skinny—and the same dirty blonde hair. 

“You’ve grown so much!” Karen gushed, her hand stable on my arm. 

“I guess.”

“You’re what, fifteen now?”

“Seventeen.” 

“Right,” Karen nodded again, turning to the social worker. “Her dad and I were close, we were, but this long distance between us, you know how it is. We used to write letters to each other, the old fashion way, for a while. It was fun, especially when we were both young. But, I suppose it just fell away from us. I wish Bobby, my partner, and I could have made it for this past Christmas, or Thanksgiving. I just,” she paused, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”

The air was heavy on my back. I could feel Karen’s eyes on me, hoping I would say something, anything. The air must have felt heavy on her back, too. 

I twisted my hair up, letting greasy strands fall and mop my cheek as I looked away. “When do we leave for Chepstow?”

***

I didn’t know this yet, but her name was Mary. She was beautiful. Beautiful in a way that made you appreciate things like freckles. She had many freckles on her face and arms, but I don’t think she had many on her legs. I can’t tell from the newspaper clippings, but I don’t think so. 

While I was staring at my dad’s body stuffed into a cheap plastic casket, Mary was dying. While I went up and took my dad’s puffy hand, pretending to say a prayer, Mary was laying alone among the trees. She lay there, grass pitted around her, a summer snow angel, and stared at branches that must have seemed miles high. Her eyes, I imagine, closed as I lifted my dad’s open—just to see what would happen. I stared at his gray eyes, my eyes, wanting to see that shiny layer that told me when my dad was happy to be home, and when he was desperate for his truck and the road. But they were only two marbles now. 

When I closed my dad’s eyes again, Mary’s eyes also closed for good.

***

We drove all day.  My boxes were neatly tucked in the back, little ducks in a row.

“Bobby.” Karen blew smoke out the window. She now smelled like burnt syrup. “He’s great. We’ll be together six years this December.”

Karen talked, and sang to the music, and asked about my dad.

“Is it hard to talk about it—him?” 

“No,” I said, flipping down the sun visor. My skin was tainted with scratches I must have done in my sleep. “It doesn’t feel any different—like he’s on another trip somewhere, probably with some random woman.”

Karen opened her mouth to reply, but instead took another drag. She let the smoke hover in the car.

We arrived at Chepstow right as the sun evaporated behind the trees. The trees. They were everywhere. They surrounded the only highway, and its four exits. They dwarfed the school, a one-complex K-12 which Karen drove slowly by. They fenced the deprived business outlets, the shopping holes, the residential zones. 

“This is me, well, you too,” Karen said, flipping her hair as she pointed towards a tiny ranch at the back of a cul-de-sac. A light flickered off, then swiftly on again.

“Bobby?” I supposed, already out of the car and reaching for my boxes.

As we walked up the dirt path towards the front door, it abruptly opened. There stood Bobby, doorknob still in his hand. 

“Karen, you won’t believe what they’re saying on the news,” he said. His voice was deeper than I imagined. Everything about Bobby seemed so young, so unformed, that I expected him to sound like a child as well.  He bounded down the few stairs, almost tripping, his eyes sweeping right by me and locking with Karen’s. 

“What is it?” Karen said, each word dripping out of her mouth. She walked over and tried to hand him a box. He didn’t take it.

“They’re going to cut down the trees behind the house. All. Of. Them. What if we want to sell? The property value will be shit.”

“Were we thinking of selling?”

Somehow Bobby seemed paler. “No, but I mean if we wanted to, in the future.”

The three of us stood stock still for a moment before Bobby finally turned toward me.  He shook my hand, and I watched my fingers be swallowed up.

“I’m sorry. Sorry,” he said, “The news was on and I lost track of time. I was watching about the murder.” 

“Murder?” Karen’s chin went into her neck. A surprised bird.

“It’s everywhere. Some girl was found in the woods a few days ago. They just caught the bastard.”

“Only a few days gone and I miss so much,” Karen said, shaking her head. She swung her free arm towards the house.

“They found her body not too far from here,” Bobby said as I sidestepped him. “A few miles behind this house.” 

The TV was on in the living room. As I walked by, the local news flashed an image of her. She wasn’t the type of girl I would be friends with. So when she showed up that night, you could say I was pretty surprised. 

***

“I went out and bought you some Frosted Flakes. Teens still eat those?” Bobby asked as I walked into the kitchen the next morning. Dad would have hated the ranch. Like a maternity ward, pink and blue was the theme of almost every room. Pink wallpaper next to blue couches, blue walls near hand-painted pink rockers. My room was spared, thank god, but the original white plaster made the walls look limp. 

I poured myself a generous bowl. I was wearing my favorite outfit—Dad hated it, but I loved the distressed jeans, the way my t-shirt screamed, “I can and will fight you if I have to.”

“Where’s Karen?” I asked Bobby, who was squatting as he rummaged through a cabinet. 

“She works down at Patty’s Manicure. She opens Tuesdays.”

“When do you leave?”

“For what?”

“…work?”

He scratched his head. He was still wearing the same black sweatpants from yesterday. 

Standing now, he said, “Every damn segment on the news talks about wanting to tear down the forest.”

“They aren’t part of your property?”

“They’re town property. Buffering lots of places and houses. Councilman Ralph Phillman is demanding that they be cut down since ‘too much can go wrong in such dark places.’”

I could hear the bus coming, scraping along the road, rolling into the cul-de-sac. Smelly exhaust seeped through the open windows.

Bob shook his head, leaning onto the dented wooden table. “It’s bullshit. But she was found close so.”

“I actually had a dream about her last night,” I replied, surprising myself and him at the admission. But it had been eating at me, like a hungry bug, all morning. 

I had woken up, I thought, in my room, and when I visited its only window I saw her outside. 

She had smiled brilliantly, as if I just picked the missing key letter on Wheel of Fortune. Her dirty blonde hair was styled, falling into waves and her teeth were straight like a razor. 

“Hi,” I said, because what else are you supposed to say to a dead girl?

“What’s it like being alive?” Her voice came out in a sigh.

“What’s it like being dead?” The moon was on a lasso, coiling around and around in the sky. But despite that, I knew I was fully conscious. I knew that I was in a dream, or some dream-like state. And while I knew I’d soon wake up, I also knew that I would remember each moment too vividly. 

“You think you’re the only person who wants to know?” Mary tilted her head, reminding me of a curious dog. She turned to face the woods, her long white dress trailing the grass as she took each step. 

Before I could follow, I woke up to the trees whipping around outside. 

“What was it about?” Bobby now asked, intrigued. Instead I grabbed the book bag Karen packed for me with musty notebooks, pens, and folders. I shouldn’t have mentioned anything. I barely knew him. Besides, my dad and I didn’t talk about dreams.  

I turned to leave, my eyes easily sweeping over all of the tiny imperfections the ranch held, when Bobby’s voice blocked me. “Tammy, you don’t have to go to school if you don’t want to. Not today, at least.”

But my hand was already on the door. “I’ll be fine. I am fine.”

A pit was in my stomach for the first half of the day. Bobby’s concern biting on my arms and legs, making the anger grow reckless in my stomach. Whenever someone’s gaze remained too long on my face, I glared back. I refused to smile—to give into some dumb curiosity. But eyes were on me. As I went to the secretary’s office to fill out my transfer papers, I walked into my first class late and stumbled into a seat with my head curved down. Even when I went to the bathroom and slammed the door shut, every muscle was tense like I was ready for a real fight to begin.  

I took a seat in the back of my history class and distorted my hair so it would cover my cheeks. Mr. Davidson began his ramble, but no one was paying attention. All the kids were twisting in their chairs, morphing their bodies like they were in a modern painting to talk about her. I rubbed my hands over and over on my jeans. People die. It happens. Would these kids ever just get over it? When a sob broke out two desks in front of me I left.

I darted down different hallways until I found it. I knew they’d have one. Even the kids I’m sure she bullied would want to pay their respects—especially if cameras were around. In front of her locker were unlit candles, wreaths of parched flowers, and dozens of pictures. I walked closer, my heart thrusting against my chest until I could see the memorial better.

I didn’t want to Google her, but can you blame me? She was everywhere. As I scrolled through countless articles and videos that night, I found out that her body was pulled out from mud and twigs. Mary’s parents, the town’s dentist and dental assistant, were distraught. In the press release, where they listed how smart and pretty, sociable and kind, thoughtful, respectful, and just how damn perfect Mary was; a single line stated that her mother didn’t cry. I understood. Sometimes you don’t want to give people the satisfaction. 

In each article, the reporter mentioned how no one ever thought the woods could be dangerous. One of Mary’s friends even commented that everyone knew she loved going in there by herself. She treasured running through the trees and pausing to write or sketch in her journal. One of the last pieces I read included a copy of a sketch Mary made of the forest. It was rough, but striking. 

I sat back in my desk chair. But none of this was mine. This was Karen’s and Bobby’s, bought at Chepstow’s local furniture store. Or found at some yard sale for half price. This furniture didn’t belong to me, or to them, but to the town. 

Articles focused on Mary were becoming scarce, but blurbs about cutting down the forest kept growing as I scrolled. The trees were compared to wild weeds needing to be trimmed, to “a haven for the misguided.” Somehow every tree now breathed shadows that loitered for too long, allowing sinister people to hide behind them and do sinister things. 

I got up and began to fumble through boxes near my closet, trying to find one of the few pictures I had of my dad and me. The one I wanted was from when I was seven. It was Christmas morning, except it wasn’t Christmas morning. My dad had to leave for a trip on Christmas Eve, so he decided we should celebrate on December 23rd. I remember when I first woke up that morning, the anger I felt went straight to my legs. I refused to get up and eat breakfast with him. I smelled orange juice, the hot butter for the pancakes, and even could hear his low-pitch hum. He was happy; I already could tell this at the age of seven. He only hummed when his mind wasn’t distracted with thoughts I couldn’t and still don’t understand. It was then that my anger evaporated, and mixed with all the other breakfast scents. He was cooking, he was humming, he was happy to be home with me.   

We didn’t have a tree that year. Instead, he purchased two neon-colored plastic ones that were only about three feet high. We cut out magazine pictures and glued them on, and tossed glitter on them instead of stringing lights. We did this all day, listening to everything besides Christmas music. His beard jiggled every time he laughed, like a gritty version of Santa.

That was the year he built me a tiny rocking chair. He hid it at our neighbor’s instead of trying to hide it in our two-bedroom apartment. The entire minute he was gone, I kept wondering what it could be, what could he have had time to make? I think I was trembling, because in my memories the room seemed to be spinning as if I was on a carousel. Around it all went until he came back. He placed the rocking chair by my feet and stood, asking what I thought. 

“I remember your mom had one when she was a kid, she always talked about it. I thought maybe you would like one, too.”

I placed my hand on the rough surface, moving it up and down gently, caressing my prize. A fragment of the unpolished wood got under my nail; blood pooled beneath, but I didn’t care. My dad did this for me.

The picture he took was of us next to the little rocking chair. Half of my face was cut off, but his was in full frame. A smile I had never seen before lit up his face, just like our neon Christmas trees.

I only sat in that rocking chair once. It must be in some junkyard now.

***

“Mary?” I asked a few nights later.

She was sitting in the grass, her white dress stained brown. She placed her palm down and then twisted it, making the grass grow. 

“Yes?”

“Were you scared? You know, before it happened?”

“You already asked me that.”

I was getting irritated. This was becoming a routine, but it was nice to have someone to talk to. I knew she wouldn’t judge me for asking these types of questions. For being curious about death. After all, who was she going to tell?

Sighing, I said instead, “If my dad were here, he would be laughing at the town. He’d say they should be cut down.” I motioned to the laughing trees: our very own leafy studio audience.  

“Why would your dad say that?” Mary asked. She tilted her head, and for a second I thought it was going to spin all the way around. 

“Because he hated anything that he couldn’t see over or around. He said deer used to run out in front of his truck all the time. He liked open land, so he could tell what was coming up next.”

“Where’s your dad now?” 

“He’s out driving, I think.” 

I couldn’t remember exactly where his latest route was supposed to take him. Was it Washington? Nevada? Where was he?

Mary laughed. For some reason, her eyes almost seemed sad. But she stood up and ran into the trees, disappearing fully. 

When I woke, I opened my blinds. The trees were still there, but they weren’t laughing. Mary, of course, wasn’t there. Everything was still until I heard Bobby curse.

“Goddammit,” he yelled again as I entered the makeshift living and dining room. He was sitting in his robe that had John Wayne’s face on it. I could smell Karen’s smoke from the kitchen. 

“What’s it?” she yelled. 

“Construction is starting in less than a month! Less than a month! Ralph freaking Phillman had proposed speeding up the clearing and the Council voted yes. I thought this was the time of the 24 news cycle? Can’t the town move on already?” 

“Bobby,” Karen grumbled. “A girl died.”

“And we have to destroy a forest to move on? When the next murder happens in a parking lot, are we going to get rid of all those too?” No one answered.

In the weeks leading up to the clearing, I started tracing each step from the ranch to the edge of the woods after school. One day I got off the bus and went straight to the backyard. I didn’t hesitate to even put my book bag down. I marched with one foot in front of the other, like I was walking a plank in some pirate movie my dad loved to tune in to. The sun was out, but it wasn’t comforting. It was looming above, peering down at me as if to whisper, “I see you.

One, two, three, I counted all the way until I got to step ninety. The blood was flowing in my legs, and each toe itched with curiosity. The woods were right there, so close, but I couldn’t move.

I heard bees. Their angry buzzing was in my ears, and every news segment that mentioned the senselessness that occurred back there—the violence, the horror, the almost eerie evil that somehow loitered in each tree’s roots—grabbed ahold of me and made me stop. What if everyone was right? What if the woods were bad and needed to be cut down?

I sat down and began rubbing my fingers through the broken twigs and twisted grass. Mary died back there. She took step ninety-one, two, and three. She ran back there, and sat as I was doing now. Did she look up at the sun and hate the feel of its intimidating presence? I bet she didn’t. I bet Mary liked feeling warm, and happy, and liked her friends and parents to be near.

I closed my eyes, but the sun was still there, as well as the outline of the sentenced trees. I wanted to enter them before they were gone, and see why Mary loved them, and why my dad hated them as much as he does—as much as he did.

I took out my phone and started to look up Mary again. Her beautiful face popped up instantly. Her glossed hair, her shiny eyes, and her brilliant smile made me want to smile for a moment, too. I wished I looked more like her. Maybe we would have been friends. 

I felt my eyes closing, but I couldn’t stop them. I was so tired. And I wanted to see Mary.

She was there, of course, the second I closed my eyes. We were back in my old room, hundreds of miles away. The apartment felt the same, smelled the same, and had that same stillness to it where even the dust refused to hover in the air. My dad wasn’t there. He was driving somewhere, probably somewhere far away.

“I like your place,” Mary cooed. She sat on my bed, and smoothed down the crinkled covers. “It’s very different than my room.”

“How?” I went to my window and opened the blinds. Finally, my posters and tapestries were visible on the walls. The purple walls seemed darker though, and most of my furniture was gone.

“My room is bigger. Everything is red,” Mary answered, smiling. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun. She looked too old to be a ballerina, but that’s all I could think of. Innocent and old, all wrapped into one. 

“Why red?”

“Why not red?” she laughed, hopping off my bed. “Do you want to go for a run with me? I think I’m going to go through the woods; that’ll take us directly to the convenience store and we can get ice cream.” 

She headed towards the door, the knob in hand.

“Mary, we’re not in Chepstow,” I started, ushering towards the window. “We’re back home.” But as I looked outside, I saw the trees again. We were at the ranch, with all of the untouched boxes, and the always-cold floor.

Mary shook her head. She ran out, her words echoing in the air for so long that my ears began to pop over and over again.

I followed her outside, running as fast as I could. The sun wasn’t out, but neither was the moon. Was it sunrise, sunset, or did time just not change anymore?

When I got to the edge of the property I paused. I could hear her footsteps somewhere up ahead, somewhere in the woods, but my legs suddenly were bent. I was falling farther and farther into the grass. The colors of red and green flashed like bursting Christmas lights in front of me; I realized my dad wouldn’t be home for Christmas. 

Waking up, I walked inside, and went to my actual room. Sitting on my bed, I rubbed my fingers along the smooth fabric until Karen called me down for dinner.  

Bobby was in front of the TV. He was muttering under his breath, turning up the volume.

“Any day now they’re gonna start.” 

“There’s nothing to do about it now. You should have started that petition,” Karen said, stirring a pot on the stove.

He grumbled something before turning down the volume. We all sat down at the table without saying a word, eating clumps of food at a time.

“When I got home I noticed you were laying outside,” Karen said. I kept eating. “What were you doing back there?”

I shrugged. The pasta was overcooked. It was too soft, too limp. 

Each little breath barely escaped through her lips as she sighed. “We haven’t really talked much, about, you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Your dad’s passing.”

“What’s there to talk about?” I asked, twirling the pasta around on my fork.

“You’re allowed to grieve, Tammy,” Bobby said timidly, looking at Karen for support. 

“I am.”

“He was important to you,” Karen said, reaching out for my hand. I placed them under the table before she could touch me, but her hand lingered over the table regardless. “He’ll live on through your memories of him, through your stories of him.”

“What stories?” I didn’t mean to, but I pushed out my chair with such force I’m pretty sure the kitchen tiles would be permanently scrapped. “I’m not doing this now. I’m not doing this with you. I don’t even know you, I don’t even like you!” 

Bobby’s mouth fell open but Karen’s hovering hand reached for his instead and squeezed it. I let my bedroom door slam and collapsed into my bed. I forced my chest to loosen, and I forced my eyes to stay shut and dry. Especially dry.

When I finally opened them, I knew again I was in a dream. 

Tammy, Tammy, Tammy,” Mary’s voice called from outside. And then I was out there, with her, swinging on a swing set one of us imagined and then created. 

“Why won’t you answer any of my questions?” I asked her.

She shrugged, “Because I know you wish you were asking them to someone else. I know you wish I was someone else.”

“That’s not true.”

“We’re friends, though, right?” Mary asked, stopping suddenly. As she did, the air around us seemed to pause as well. I took a few big gulps to make sure there still was oxygen in the sky.

“Yes.” And I realized it was true. Maybe this Mary, this dream or spirit Mary, was my friend. 

Smiling, she walked to the woods. “I wanted to know, before I left.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to visit you once the trees are cleared.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, leaping and running towards her. But the ground between us expanded. “Please, I need to see if—”

“He’s not back there,” she said, her body so far away but her voice in my ear. “I’m sorry.”

I woke in a sweat to Karen asking. “Are you up? The bus will be here soon.” 

I didn’t answer. I threw on the same outfit as yesterday—Bobby would be proud—and left without saying a word. The school was buzzing with new energy. It was odd to hear people talk about other people besides Mary. About Homecoming and football and Netflix. Maybe the 24-hour news cycle finally had moved on. How soon before they forgot all about her completely? 

It was the first day I hadn’t thought of my dad. Thought of his smile, his belly laugh, his absence. I soon would forget all about him. 

I kept the glue stuck in my throat down all day, but when the bus stopped a few blocks before Sound View Meadows I pushed to get off. As I walked through the neighborhood, a gentle pressure had sprung up at the bottom of my spine before snaking up to my head. My nose felt as if it was being caved in. 

The ranch was so close; I only had to make the turn into the cul-de-sac, but I already could tell many of the trees were now stumps. I didn’t even realize today was The Day. The day Bobby had circled in the calendar with a red sharpie and wrote, “Screw Councilman Ralph Phillman,” on. The tears I didn’t know I was crying were blocking my sight and feet from taking another step. 

I don’t know how long I sat there, watching men not too far away high fiving and whistling as trees were whacked to the ground. I knew they all were smiling; triumphant that the evil in the town would soon be erased. I waited for a person in a black cloak to come running out, for someone to scream when a bloody axe was found, or for Mary’s ghost to appear. But nothing happened. Each tree fell, and fell, and bruised the earth further.

Bobby was right. By clearing the trees, the town was only temporarily solving a problem. They couldn’t ignore the real issue—whatever that may be—forever. One day they would have to truly face whatever they were really scared of. 

I heard a car approaching, driving fast down the road, but I didn’t bother to look. It pulled off to the side and killed the engine. For a moment, I thought she wasn’t going to get out. The pause between the car’s silence and her door opening lasted so long that I wondered if she too was about to drive off and never come back. 

But that didn’t happen.

She walked over to me, and instead of saying anything just sat down on the curb. I pulled at the grass, and twisted it around my fingers. She breathed slowly, a quiet meditation transforming her body. Bobby must have been looking out the window, because soon he left the ranch and came over to us. He, too, sat down in silence.

“I miss him,” I said once the sun began to dissolve.

“I know,” Karen said quietly.

“But he was never there for me. Not even in my dreams is he there for me.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I just,” I said, burying my face on her shoulder. “So I shouldn’t feel—”

“He didn’t know how to show it, but he loved you,” Bobby said, surprising both Karen and I. “And you’re allowed to miss your dad, Tammy.”

The tears started again but I didn’t try to fight them. I cried for my dad, for what could have been, and for Mary. For lives taken too soon.

***

Trees no longer circle Sound View Meadows, a community of twelve sterile ranches that keep their blinds permanently open. The flattened land holds no secrets, allowing eyes to sweep around and around without any hinges. Kids run near the former trunks, skimming up dead leaves. 

The homeowners don’t know when to stop mowing their laws; there is no separation between them and the town land. Dogs run far, getting lost jumping over stumps. Kids don’t come in when the sun goes down. 

I head outside every night, looking for Mary, the trees—my dad. Nothing is out there. I only see the sawdust that mixes with the night air. The same long grass licks my toes, but no thirsty leaves fall.

But the desire to leave isn’t as strong. My dad’s not driving alone on an enclosed road, hoping that a fire will spring up and clear the trees and rocks and land so nothing can hold him back. And that’s alright. I’ll be alright. One day. 

Karen learned to not overcook the spaghetti. Bobby said he might run for a seat on the City Council. And at dinner, when my dad comes up, I tell them about the times we were happy. About the times we weren’t. We laugh and sometimes let the silence speak for itself. 

And when Karen reaches for my hand, I don’t pull away. 

 

Katie Bockino received her MFA in fiction from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Barely South Review, The Satirist, Underwood Press, Prometheus Dreaming, Gandy Dancer Literary Magazine, North Fork Real Estate Showcase Magazine, and Z Publishing House’s New York’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction. Recently, Katie was a finalist for NYC Midnight’s Micro Fiction Contest” as well. Katie is also a professor, editor, and a manuscript consultant who is obsessed with the Byzantine Empire and most TV show love triangles. See more at her website, kathrynbockino.com.