“Leaf Music” by Sudha Balagopal


“Wooden House” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak,
(See also “The 8th of May” by Daniel Nathan Terry from the Fall 2012 issue.)

Ruby’s grandparents, Nana and Papa, say, “Go upstairs and read,” before sliding into slumber on the couch. They nap several times each day.

Upstairs, she opens the window and shouts, “Mama, where did you go?” The wind carries her question away.

She digs her fists into her pockets. Mama would’ve cuddled with her on the couch. She would’ve made grilled cheese sandwiches shaped into little rectangles.

Nana and Papa show her the kindness offered to strangers; distant, polite. She’s never known her father; she doesn’t know his parents now. They shuffle and repeat sentences, they wheeze and count pills. They don’t know she’s allergic, extend sandwiches oozing with peanut butter and jelly.

This stuffy house unsettles Ruby. At night, strange whooshing, clinking sounds keep her awake.

Again, she cries, “Mama, where are you?”

This time, an oak tree waves, beckoning from the forest’s edge. The branches spread like fingers.

Grabbing her coat—it’s small for her seven-year-old frame—she pulls the front door shut behind her.

One morning, Mama hugged her goodbye and didn’t return. After, women wearing suits put her on a plane and said, “You’re going home.”

This is not home. How can it be, without Mama?

Home is sitting in the middle of unfolded laundry and watching The Wizard of Oz; home is tomato soup and chocolate chip cookies for dinner; home is the crimson of Mama’s nails. Ruby feels a pain in her belly, rubs it like Mama used to.

The women in suits hugged her, said, “Just know that your Mama’s in a better place.”

Her ears catch the musical murmur of leaves overhead. In moments, the neighboring trees pick up the chorus, awakening the forest to familiar music—Mama danced to this song. Ruby stretches her arms, closes her eyes. moves to a rhythm Mama has taught her: one-two-three, one-two-three.

An orchestra rises: wind whistling through hollow trees, the strum of bare branches beating out the right notes.

“Come,” the forest calls.

She obeys, walking deeper into the wood where the music continues to allure.

Then, the orchestra falters, the fumbling conductor has lost his baton. She hears irregular rhythms, twigs crackling, the thud of falling logs. A distant coyote howls; her heart freezes.

Thunder claps overhead, lights wink in the sky, and a deluge releases.

She must go back to Nana and Papa. When she swivels to look behind her, the trail’s vanished. Puddles of water snake away from her in every direction. Panicked, she lifts her gaze up to the canopy overhead.

“Mama!” she cries.

Which way should I turn?

“Walk forward,” Mama urges in her ear.

“Where?” Ruby whispers.

“Forward,” Mama says. “Careful! Walk, don’t run.”

She doesn’t heed Mama. Heart drumming, she sprints, soggy coat clinging, shoes squelching in the mud.

She slides and hits her head on a tree trunk. The bang pounds, throbs, brings tears.

Then, Mama’s instruction. “Take the rope ladder.”

With the back of her arm, Ruby wipes the drops from her eyes. They widen.

A ladder dangles before her, inviting her into the tree house above. She gasps, clambering with numb hands and feet.

Do coyotes climb?

She rolls up the ladder and breathes: sweating, listening. The micro burst’s gone. There’s nothing now—only leaf music. She runs a hand over the bump on her head. That’s real enough.

From her perch, she can see the edge of the forest, the chimney of her grandparents’ house. They’ll expect her.

Nah!

On the paint-chipped floor, an ancient patchwork quilt and a book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She pulls the quilt over herself.

Mama’s led her home.

 

 

Sudha Balagopal‘s recent fiction appears in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, and Whiskey Paper among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com

 

“His Grey Hoodie” by Jacqueline Jules


Illustration by FINAL GIRL, anonymous street artist,
see also “God of Thunder” by Brian Kamsoke

Sundown at 5. Chill in the house. I open the hall closet for a sweater.

And I see it. Hanging between my red raincoat and his father’s blue windbreaker.

Our son’s fur-lined fleece hoodie. Grey, except for the Penn State panther in an oval on the right, just below the collar.

It’s been there for six months. Since the morning I washed the contents of the white plastic bag, marked “Patient Belongings.” There wasn’t much inside. Pajamas, slippers, boxers. And the fur-lined fleece hoodie. The one he wore that August afternoon in his 5th floor walkup. New York City. No air conditioning, yet he’s shivering with his hands in his pockets and the hood pulled over his wispy brown bangs.

“How can you be cold?” his father asked. “I’m burning up.”

Just like he was, except from a fever, not the weather.

There is no thermometer in the apartment. I race down five flights to the corner drugstore and back. Panting, I plead until he puts it under his arm.

“Nothing to worry about,” he scoffs at the number. “101.2. A virus.”

But it wasn’t. A year later, he’s living at home again. Like a teenager, not a thirty-year- old man. Chemo twice a month with a doctor neither one of us likes.

“Too blunt. No bedside manner,” he says, slipping a bone-thin arm into his fur-lined sleeve.

We leave that hospital in search of a second opinion.

And feel hopeful for a while. Until the morning he rises from bed too dizzy to walk. Faints on the way to the bathroom.

Waiting in emergency, he asks for his hoodie.

“I’m cold.”

We bring it to the 7th floor, Oncology Unit. It comes home, weeks later, in a white plastic bag.

And now it hangs in the hall closet, between my raincoat and his father’s windbreaker. Should it stay there? As if waiting to be worn again?

I put my fingers against the fleece. Remember all the hours he sat huddled inside it. Mostly on the couch watching Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother. Dozing off at commercials.

For a brief moment, I regret burying him without his hoodie—no less loved than the tattered teddy he had at age three.

What’s done cannot be undone.

Slipping the soft fabric off the hanger, I raise one arm, then the other. The sleeves are a little long but it’s wearable.

I snuggle into his spot on the couch. Turn on the TV. A Seinfeld rerun.

 

 

Jacqueline Jules is the author of three chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum (Finishing Line Press), Stronger Than Cleopatra (ELJ Publications), and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Broome Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Hospital Drive, and Imitation Fruit. She is also the author of 40 books for young readers. Visit www.jacquelinejules.com.

 

“Calling Out” by Izzy López


“Blue Path” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil, paper on board, 2014.

When I typed the number for Counseling and Psychological Services into my phone, I discovered that it had already been saved to my contacts. In truth, it was a relic from orientation week, when overly exuberant upperclassmen had recited the numbers to us from a stage in Irvine Auditorium and I had diligently entered them into my phone, like the ever-prepared Ivy League student I had recently become. Still, as I pressed the formidable green circle to dial, a small voice taunted me. “See,” it sneered, “everyone knew you were crazy. Told you so.”

Exhaling, I waited as the phone rang on the other end. I sat perched atop my too-tall dorm bed, which I never figured out how to lower. That semester, my sophomore fall, I had gone to great lengths to make my single dorm room as cozy as possible. Truthfully, it was a vain attempt to try to reconcile the fact that a four-walled, cinderblock box was the closest thing I had to a home. The paisley sheets on my bed contrasted well with a dark purple tapestry, a trick I had learned in an art class. Across from my bed was a desk and a small mountain of library books and coffee mugs.

The phone kept ringing and my free hand flitted in indecision between my shirt collar and my hair. Finally, the receiver clicked and a voice answered.

“Hi, thank you for calling Counseling and Psychological Services, how can we help you today?”

I couldn’t help wanting to laugh. It was incredible how much a receptionist at a mental health center sounded like a drive-through employee. One happy brain and a side of functional family dynamic, please, oh and a milkshake. I told the anonymous voice that I was looking to set up an appointment with a counselor, anyone really. From there, the call was very logical, as he took inventory of all the things that had or had not lead me to call for help. Age? 20. Student? Full time. Ethnicity? White. Eating disorder? No. Issues making friends? Not that I’m aware of. Problems in class? It’s fine, just too expensive. Issues at home? A deep breath. Yes. With your parents? Yes. Abuse?

I paused.

This was, after all, the reason I had called. To be honest about what had happened, to have someone listen, to tell the truth. My tongue curled behind my teeth, waiting to say no, the answer it had been trained to deliver. In my moment of indecision, I noticed that I had been clutching the comforter of my bed, morphing the soft fabric into a sweaty ball, suffocating the pastel blue and purple that swirled across it. Like lifting a wrecked car off a child trapped beneath, I forced my tongue out from behind my teeth and propelled it forward.

Yes, I answered.

I heard the receptionist pause and shuffle some papers around. A new line of questioning began, asking the particulars of events I had only recently seen as unusual. Had I been sexually abused? No. Had I been physically abused? A few times. Verbal abuse? I paused again.

Yes, frequently.

I released my grip on the comforter.

“Thank you for your honesty”, he replied, his voice soft and calm.

The conversation moved forward to appointment scheduling and an explanation of services offered, but my mind hovered on his gratitude for my sad story. Why would he be grateful? It was his job, I supposed, to care. Still, in all the times I had spoken candidly about my parents, which I could count on one hand, no one had ever thanked me. Maybe, I thought with equal parts fear and hope, this was what therapy felt like.

 

 

Izzy López is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a creative writing student at the University of Pennsylvania. This is her first publication.

 

“Yard Sale” by Nancy Ludmerer


“Orange Horizon Line” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil on board, 2014.

Jackie’s present to Brooke from two weeks before, Richard Scarry’s Mother Goose, was going for two dollars. The baby shoes she bought Brooke were on offer for a pittance as well. “Yard sale! Moving today! Last chance!” clamored the sign.

The screen door hung off its hinge. “Deirdre!” Jackie called softly to her daughter. The only sound was the baby crying. Deirdre’s baby, and Tonio’s. Not yours, Deirdre said last time. Jackie’s ideas about child-rearing were antiquated, Deirdre complained, her gifts well-meaning but off. The pink baby shoes were kidskin — but they were raising Brooke vegan. Mother Goose was sexist.

When she heard they were moving to Tempe, Arizona, to be near Tonio’s people, Jackie said, “I’ll never get to see Brooke.”

Deirdre said she could come visit. She didn’t mention how hard it was for Jackie to travel – how she’d forget her tickets, or her house keys, or even where she was going. Jackie had gone to the library and looked up the city they were moving to, tried to figure out exactly how far it was from Clifton, New Jersey, but couldn’t even find it on the map. An hour later she realized she was looking for Temple, Arizona – a place that didn’t even exist – when the place they were moving was Tempe. She was too embarrassed to tell Deirdre about her mistake, or even what she had learned from her research, which was that Tempe, Arizona was named after the Vale of Tempe in Greece, where in ancient times there was a temple to Apollo. Somehow she knew Deirdre wouldn’t be interested, or at least not interested in hearing this from her.

But she wasn’t there for that. She came to say good-bye to them, and to the baby.

Minutes passed. Then Tonio appeared. He was small and wiry and no match for her Deirdre, who was 5’9” with large, jutting hip bones. “Brooke dozed off before I could feed her,” he said wearily. “At least she stopped crying.”

“Isn’t Deirdre home?” Jackie asked.

“At the gym.” Then he left, too, to gas-up the U-Haul.

Brooke lay on her back in her crib, awake, violet eyes blinking, forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Jackie wanted to say “I’ll make it up to you,” but knew it was a lie. Your parents are your destiny, not your brain-addled Grandma.

Instead Jackie chanted the one rhyme she could remember by heart: “Pussycat, pussycat where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen. Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”

The baby watched her. She kicked her bare feet and moved her small hands like birds, as if she recognized Jackie was her grandmother, as if she knew this was special, like a visitation from an angel.

Little mouse, Jackie crooned, lifting her in her arms.

In the taxi Jackie called to speed her and Brooke to the station, she untied the shoes’ ribbon laces, stroked the soft pink kidskin, and fitted them on.

 

 

Nancy Ludmerer‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Hospital Drive, Litro, Amsterdam Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, and Literal Latte, among other fine journals. Her flash fiction has been published in Vestal Review, North American Review, KYSO Flash, Grain, Night Train, and Blue Monday Review and her flash “First Night” (a prizewinner in River Styx) also appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a brave survivor of Superstorm Sandy.

“A Mother” by Leah Jane Esau


“Margaret’s Tenby Harbor” by Jane Cornish Smith, encaustic, oil, paper on board, 2014.

She and Sam were waiting for the bus when he started to get upset. She knew not to speak to him when this happened: he did not like her voice. He preferred other sounds: nonsensical sounds, and he made them now: ticks, and grunts, and shrieks. He crouched in the bus shelter and rocked back and forth, making noises and hitting his head. Everyone stared.

Why can’t you be normal? she thought, and then immediately hated herself.

Outside, there was a discarded coffee cup, and maybe this upset him. The bus stop was usually very clean. She picked up the cup, flattened and smeared with a muddy boot-print, and discarded it into the bin at the corner. Please calm down, she prayed. She did not have money for a cab, and Sam’s therapy session was the only hour where she got some peace. Where she could close her eyes for just a minute, and not worry about an outburst.

The bus approached and Sam had calmed significantly, but a man in a coat was annoyed. She could tell he was hesitating, which people sometimes did. They debated whether to wait for the next bus, rather than ride with her son.

Sam held her hand, but did not look at her. They stepped onto the bus and she paid the fare, and the man got on behind them.

They took the bus at this hour because it wasn’t crowded: the first seats were usually available, where Sam liked to sit. He sat there now and looked at his fingers.

“HOW OLD?” boomed the man behind her.

“Six,” she glared.

“He shouldn’t sit in the disabled seats!”

Now she was angry. Wasn’t it clear that her son was disabled?

No, she would not apologize for Sam. The man shuffled past, muttering under his breath. As the bus pulled away she fought back tears. She was tired. She needed a hug, but Sam hated that: hated to be touched. A hug would set off an episode, so she would have to do without. Isn’t that what children were for? To give hugs? She turned away, and looked out the window, hiding her tears.

 

 

Leah Jane Esau is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, Bodega Magazine, Monkeybicycle, The New Quarterly, Grain, The Dalhousie Review and upcoming in the South Dakota Review. Her short story “Dream Interpretation” was a finalist for the Writer’s Trust of Canada’s Bronwen Wallace Award.

 

“Gut” by Lucinda Kempe


“Determining” by Jane Cornish Smith, oil on canvas, 2014.

I held his toe in my hand. The toe had become disengaged from its disinterred paw. I hadn’t meant to dig up the body. In my mania for replanting I excavated an empty spot in the garden, completely forgetting what I’d buried there.

I could have had Nick cremated and tossed his ashes, the way I did with half of Mama. But I couldn’t do that to a creature I loved. A body should be returned to the earth in its original state, even if it’s stiff with rigor mortis and bled out.

Nick was diabetic and I gave him insulin shots for years. Not a people-friendly cat, he preferred the other felines, particularly Maxwell who tolerated being sodomized. I’d find them in the basement on a shelf near the towels, Nick on Max’s back happily humping away, and Max wearing a stoic expression. A vet in New Orleans rescued Maxwell, who, in turn, my mother rescued. Mama was kind to strays.

I brought Max and another cat I’d rescued, Miss Mouse, with me when I moved to New York. Nick was a Yankee cat I adopted from an upper west side Manhattan rescue. My husband and I called him “Baby” the first year we got him. Not long afterwards I got pregnant with our first child, a son.

I reburied Nick’s toe with the azalea. His skull I tossed off into the woods. I found it later, after I’d replanted the shrub. I buried the other half of Mama’s ashes with the corpse of a beloved dog named Comus. Nick wouldn’t have minded. Like my mother, he didn’t have truck with boundaries. Mama wouldn’t have minded either. She loved dogs more than anything.

 

 

Lucinda Kempe has had work published Jellyfish Review, Summerset Review, Matter Press’s Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, decomP, and Corium. She won the Joseph Kelly Prize for Creative Writing in 2015 and is an M.F.A. candidate in writing and creative literature at Stony Brook University.

 

“Quantum Mom” by Cezarija Abartis

Quantum Mom_Lands End
“Land’s End” Image by Pam Brodersen

Outside Paula’s window, the leaves were almost gone from the maple tree. She worried about her friend Andrea. Two weeks ago the tree blazed orange and scarlet, and now it was just skeletal branches against the dim and misty sky. And in six months it would bud green and gold. She hoped Andrea would get well. She closed the book that she’d been trying to read, a new translation of the Odyssey for the next semester, closed it on the page where Odysseus speaks with his mother in Hades.

Paula remembered her mother before she died. Young and slender, younger than Paula, who was fifty-two and looking matronly with her big hips. Paula never got to see her mother grow old. She had, at last, forgiven her for dying.

“Paula, dear.” Her mother appeared, wearing the apron Paula had sewn when she was in seventh grade, a cotton print of roses and baby angels with wings. “I want you to study hard.”

“Yes, Mother, I do.”

“I want you to get all A’s.”

“I only got one B. That was in Civics.”

“I know. You hate reading the newspaper.”

“I like reading books.”

“When I was your age, I liked books of fairy tales.”

“Were you twelve once?”

Her mother lightly flicked the tip of Paula’s nose. “Don’t mock your old mother.”

The next year, her slender and beautiful mother drove to the Fifth Street Bridge, got out of the car, climbed over the rail, and jumped into the river. She was thirty-seven. Paula’s brother was ten, and at first he thought she would somehow return. “Mickey expected you to come back a week later.”

“I was truly dead and gone,” her mother’s ghost said. “I missed all of you. Your father, of course, but you and Mickey most of all. I wanted to see you grow up.”

“Look at me, Mother. I’m fifty-two. You must be seventy-seven.”

“You’re beautiful, but I see a thirteen-year-old.”

“I got my Ph.D.” Paula pointed to her framed diploma with the gold-colored seal in the corner. “I’m a professor.”

“Funny, you look thirteen to me.” Her mother touched her own cheek with her familiar gesture of puzzlement.

Paula stared at this young, aproned woman with her chestnut-brown hair and her clear eyes. She wondered what her mother would’ve been like if she had survived depression. Her mother would be judging her: “You should find a nice man and have children.”

“Mother, I’m fifty-two.”

“You could adopt.”

“Mother, that ship has sailed.”

“I liked Evan.”

“You were gone before I met him. How could you have known?”

Her mother shrugged and put on a tricky expression. “I have my ways.”

“He’s dead. Cancer.”

“Perhaps in another pocket of time he would be alive?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I always liked science, you know that. Your father called it woo-woo science. But there are all sorts of things. Horatio says, ‘More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”

“That’s Hamlet.”

“Right.”

Paula shook her head at her woo-woo mother.

Paula’s cat, Schrödinger, trotted in, tail perpendicular, confident, alert, powerful. She bent down to pet him, and he felt warm and solid.

Paula looked up and saw a vase of wilting roses on the nightstand and an old mother lying on a bed, the golden afternoon pouring down on her. But this was not possible. This mother had white, floaty hair. Her eyes seemed cloudy. This was a future that never happened. The living room had become a bed chamber.

Paula’s head buzzed.

Her cat, Schrödinger, ambled in, now skinny and old. Then Atom, her mother’s cat, came in meowing, stropping her ankles. “Okay, sweeties. I’ll get you a fresh can.” But they weren’t interested in food.

Her father had loved that cat, especially after his wife died.

Atom jumped up on the bed, and the old mother petted him until he nipped at her. “He only likes a certain amount of petting. Such a particular, fine cat.” She smiled and turned her creamy, cataracted eyes on Paula. “I saved him from death. I found him as an abandoned kitten, and I saved him. I don’t know where he is now.”

“We put him to sleep.”

“I don’t know where he is now.” Her mother’s face was infinitely sad. “So many things I don’t know. What is love? Will the universe unravel? Will there be a union of body and soul? Will we see again the people and creatures we loved?”

“And have you been healed of your depression?”

She sliced the air with her hand. “My pain is over.”

“Oh, Mother, that’s good.”

“I love to see your happy face. I can take that memory to eternity. Are you happy, dear? No danger? You don’t have my depression?”

Her cat, Schrödinger, trotted in. In this version her mother was young again.

“I just have a bad cold,” Paula said. “My October respiratory infection.” She coughed for her mother, a little, jagged exhalation.

“Don’t make light of it.”

“Only a mom would take this seriously. My friends get colds and we just pooh-pooh their complaining.”

“I used to get those heavy infections around my lungs, hot around my heart and throat,” her young mother said.

“I feel so sorry for you.”

“That’s in the past.” She waved dismissively. “No respiratory infections anymore. All gone.” She opened her arms wide, as if to display her health.

“Andrea has lung cancer.” Paula wanted to rush into her mother’s arms and tell her about her friend. “Will she get better?”

Her mother straightened the hem of her apron. “I was remembering about the past–that is to say, you were remembering. Anyway, you and Andrea were fighting about who was responsible for tearing the apron that you sewed in Home Ec class.”

“Andrea tore it–she pulled it out of my hand and caught it on a doorknob.” The perfect, unimportant memory made Paula shake her head at herself. She wanted to embrace her mother, but knew she was just a shade. “Will you come back?”

The young mother walked to the door, whispered, “Love,” fluttered her fingers, and disappeared.

Schrödinger meowed. Paula turned, picked him up, and hugged him to her chest.

 

 

Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in FriGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Lascaux Review, r.kv.r.y, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/

 

“Mother” by Digby Beaumont

Mother_Clowns Trailer
“Clown’s Trailer” Image by Pam Brodersen

My father stands on a branch high up in the sweet chestnut tree outside, peering through a telescope at the village along the valley. Way past my bedtime, I watch from my window, bare feet turning blue on the wood floor.

Dad leans forward. Maybe he’s searching for my mother. She hasn’t been around so much, and I wonder why. Is it something to do with him? Or me? Shifting his weight, he tries to find a firmer foothold. The branch creaks, then cracks, and he topples headlong. I catch my breath, yell to him, press my palms against the cold glass.

*

Outside the City Library, I’m singing in the school choir. I moved here to live with my foster family after Dad died. It’s Harvest Festival. We’ve drawn a big crowd. Second song in and there she is, standing at the back, my mother, in a red trench-coat and matching red beret. My voice breaks up, I stand taller, try to make eye contact, but she keeps her head bowed. I want to ask, Why are you here? To see me? After all this time?

She glances up. I can’t help myself. I run from the stage, plow through the crowd. Turning, she hurries away. I follow, my eyes on the red beret bobbing among the Saturday shoppers, but she doesn’t look back and I lose her in fog.

*

Christmas, and I’ve heard she’s moved back into the old house. I get up before the family wakes. I cycle all morning. From the top of Snowdrop Hill, the place nestles in the valley. I imagine how it will be inside. Warm. Carols on the radio. A tree, dressed in baubles and lights. The smell of turkey roasting in the oven. And her, standing at the kitchen counter, preparing vegetables, a rich cranberry sauce.

I pedal down and prop my bike against the fence, stopping to gaze at the sweet chestnut tree. From my rucksack, I take the gift I’ve bought her: a bottle of Charlie Blue. Always her favourite perfume. At least, it was. The side door isn’t locked, and I let myself in. Everywhere is cold, silent. No Christmas tree. No cooking smells.

In the living room I find her, crumpled on the sofa, sleeping. Bird’s-nest hair, smudged mascara. I kneel beside her, smooth her creased black dress. Resting my head on her chest, I feel her heartbeat, her breath cool against my face.

 

 

Digby Beaumont‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, KYSO Flash, Literary Orphans, Blue Five Notebook, Bartleby Snopes, Change Seven Magazine, Flash Frontier, Jellyfish Review and 100-Word Story among others. He worked as a nonfiction author for many years, with numerous publications, and lives in Hove, England.

 

“Teeth” by Joe Mills

Teeth_Captiva Inflatables
“Captiva Inflatables” Image by Pam Brodersen

Each kid on the field was just a container for teeth. A big rattling money jar for dentists and orthodontists.

Jan spent the game doing story problems: A dozen kids on a team with thirty-two teeth apiece. If they each needed braces at ten grand a crack

She should have gone to dental school. That would have meant job security and at least then she could have taken Karen to Bring Your Daughter to Work Day or to the office after hours for treatment.

On Thursday, the dentist said Karen would need braces. But first: extractions, expansions, and various other procedures that made her daughter’s mouth sound like a major construction site.

She’d known this was coming. Years ago a hygienist looked into Karen’s mouth and said, “Wow, she has a lot of teeth!”

“Yeah, all of them,” she’d laughed, assuming Karen had the same teeth everyone had, which she did, but apparently not the space.

“Crowning,” Dr. Lucas called it, and now some of Karen’s teeth had to come out. Permanently.

The thought made Jan queasy. Didn’t we need our adult teeth? All of them? Would this be the kind of thing future dentists didn’t do any more? Like tonsillectomies? No one had those done now. Plus, where would she get the money? Dropping dental insurance had been part of workplace cutbacks. Eliminated. Extracted. Their new medical plan: Don’t get sick.

Each year around enrollment time, Jan put a box of tissues by the computer in preparation for the frustrated tears she would reliably shed. The plan descriptions were so bewildering she might as well have picked at random.

There were no “kitchen table” conversations for her. Not anymore. She used to ask Cathy Cornwall what they chose and pick the same plan. Then the Cornwalls got transferred.

Jan asked the dentist if it was just a cosmetic thing with Karen’s teeth. She didn’t need cheerleader teeth. She wouldn’t be entering beauty pageants.

The dentist pointed to the x-ray, said if it wasn’t done now, later treatment would involve breaking the jaw. Dr. Lucas basically predicted Karen’s adult life would be hell if she didn’t get braces now. And even if Jan discounted half of the jargon, it still sounded like something had to be done. Somehow.

Afterwards, in the car, Karen burst into tears. “I liked the tooth fairy better,” she wailed.

Jan reached across the seat and held her daughter, thinking, “Here we are again, crying about teeth.” Years earlier, Karen’s friend Gracie had lost a tooth and been given five bucks from the tooth fairy, leaving Karen heartbroken because she only got a dollar.

Gracie’s parents had thrown the whole tooth fairy economy out of whack, and Jan didn’t know how to explain the fundamental unfairness. What could she say? The tooth fairy loved Gracie more? Gracie was cuter? They’d negotiated a better deal?

These days, Karen knew who the Tooth Fairy was. The last tooth her little brother lost was from going over the handlebars of his bike. Chuck had come home sobbing, with a bloody mouth, a gap in his smile, and a fist clenched around a fragment of white.

Although Jan calmed him down with French fries and chicken-fried steak, she forgot to put the money under his pillow. Karen ran downstairs the next morning to tell her, and together they wrote a note explaining that the Tooth Fairy had been running late, delayed by traffic over Asia and an unexpected number of children who’d eaten taffy apples.

It was the Easter Bunny, that weirdest of holiday animals, its story so thin and its elements so odd, that led Karen to insist, “It doesn’t make sense, Mommy. Tell me the truth.” Even though Jan hadn’t wanted to, she told her daughter and the toppling of one icon brought the rest crashing down. Karen instantly understood that no Easter Bunny meant no Santa Claus, no leprechauns, and no tooth fairy. She crawled onto her mother’s lap and cried.

Sometimes, when one thing was pulled out, everything came crashing down. One fantasy. One tooth. One job. One member of the family. You had to adjust to a different world. If Jan could, she would crawl into someone’s lap right now and have a comforting cry. That’s all she wanted. Someone to be there for her. Some days, that was the best she could do as a parent. Just be there.

That sounds like enough. But you also need money for the teeth. All those teeth.

 

 

Joe Mills is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently Exit, pursued by a bear which consists of poems triggered by stage directions in Shakespeare. He edited the collection of film criticism A Century of the Marx Brothers. With his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he researched and wrote two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries, and his essay “On Hearing My Daughter Trying to Sing Dixie” won this year’s Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition. More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.

 

“Shelby County Courthouse” by Kathryn Kulpa

A Note_Shelby CountyCH
“A Note” Image by Pam Brodersen

I was testifying at the hearing when I saw you sleeping.

Your meemaw beside you looked like an old tree, gnarled and bumpy from too many hard winters. The crocheted blanket that wrapped you round was two shades of pink: odd dye lots from the Dollar Salvage, and I knew just what she’d said as she bought them: “The baby won’t care if they don’t match.” And she was right. You don’t care.

The domed, painted ceiling above you is gold and blue. It looks calm and holy, the way the Sistine Chapel might look inside. Or maybe not. I’ve never been there. The only church I’ve seen is the one I was married in, and that one had a white drop ceiling. His mom picked it. It was near the Olive Garden. And even though we didn’t care about getting married I thank God every day she said what she said about custody and made us go. Thank you, Meemaw.

Because now my mama can’t take you, wherever they send me. My mama who wouldn’t quit that man, even after I told her what he did to me. She swore she was done with him, like she swore so many things, but then I came home and found him alone with you.

Things I always knew about you: that you will make it out of here alive. That you will be better than where you come from, better than all of us. Even if you’d looked like that man whose name I won’t say. I’d dream about that before, worrying I wouldn’t love you if you looked like him. It wouldn’t have mattered—I know that now—but you don’t. You’re caramel and curly. Nothing mean could ever look out of those wide brown eyes. When you dream, you dream a world where even the moon smiles down at you.

You wake, looking up at this gold-and-blue ceiling like it’s a skyful of stars, like you did that time at the carnival when I took you on the Ferris wheel, held close in my lap, and you weren’t scared at all. You looked up and waved your hands at the sky and my eyes blurred watching you, I loved you so hard, and you won’t remember that night, or me, most likely, but that was when I knew. I’d die to keep you safe. That night your face turned to rain.

 

 

Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Girls on Film, a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest, published by Paper Nautilus. Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Reservoir, Monkeybicycle, and other journals. She leads writing workshops for teens and adults in Rhode Island and will be a visiting writer at Wheaton College in fall 2017.