Sunday, March 30, 2008

BURN PILE by Todd Powell

Late in August, smoke drifts through the open window, entering the house well after the Uhlman dog has quit barking at the raccoons. Even the late-night yokels—the half-drunk teens lucky not to veer off the road down below, the middle-aged thunder riders leaving the local biker tavern—have gone home to bed. The valley is silent as Janice rises to the window and sees the glow beyond the trees.

When she wakes him, Ollie has been dreaming of inconsequential acts, neither troubling nor erotic. He’s so groggy and REM-ed up by trivialities that he forgets, momentarily, where he is.

“What stinks?” is all he can muster.

“I’m calling 911. Get your clothes on and run over there.”

It takes a second before the outline of Janice’s body develops before his eyes. Head over shoulders over breasts over belly. Legs cut off at the thighs by the edge of the bed as if she were wading at the beach.

“Over where?”

“The Eggerts’. I think their house is on fire.”


He’s in jeans and a shirt in seconds. His shoes take twice as long, but soon Ollie’s out the door and racing through the grass.

The stars have been pure for weeks, but now the smoke is thickening into low clouds as Ollie approaches the fence that Walt Eggert helped him build last year. Unable to see the gate, he finds a post, sets a foot on a board and hoists himself over. He lands on both feet and a hand, then bounds onto the gravel road. Reaching full speed, Ollie leaps the ditch and lands in Eggert’s pasture. (Once, maybe the day after they moved in, he met the retired English professor here for the first time; Eggert was sitting on an idling lawn tractor, drinking a Dr. Pepper.)

Ollie races up the pasture, the glow annealing behind a grove of apple trees, the smoke swelling through the branches. There’s a trail, Eggert’s mowing path. He scoots past an Adirondack chair, a picnic table, a small greenhouse. Through an arbor and past the lawn, Ollie sees the two-story building, nearly half of it dressed in flames. Despite the smoke, the other half seems oddly serene, untouched, as if a lion has knocked out two gazelles and one lies quietly in the grass while the other is being devoured.

The intensity of the blaze is more than Ollie has ever experienced. He draws sideways, attempting to flank the heat, to find a window or door. He yells their names, screaming into the heat and catching smoke in his lungs. Dropping to the grass, he crawls across a patio toward a side window opposite the flames. Here, he finds a terra cotta planter, about the size of a volleyball, which still holds the cool of night on its underside. Ollie hurls the planter at the window and hears the pop and shatter of glass, the sudden influx of oxygen filling the room. A rake leans against the house near the window. He grabs it and clears the remaining shards from the sill.

Ollie leverages himself up and into a utility sink, next to the washer and dryer. He turns on the water and douses his head and shirt. There’s a door, which he touches to check for heat. He pulls it open.


Eggert’s wife is found in the family room on what was once the davenport. Next to her, on the floor, lies Walt. In the kitchen the firefighters discover Ollie, still alive but unconscious from the smoke.

At the hospital when Ollie first wakes up, Janice says how sorry she is for sending him there. She didn’t think he would actually go into a burning house, yet she hoped he would do something brave. “You did both,” she says, “or at least you tried.”

According to Ben Uhlman, the pile had been there for months. One day he saw it—a stack of brush—and noted, casually, that it seemed too close to the house. That was in June, though, when rain still pelted the valley walls at regular intervals. But with the dry spell and all, you can see how one spark might do it.

Other neighbors add their own ideas. The fire was set on purpose, a burn that got out of control. Someone even suggests that maybe the fire didn’t start in the pile but inside the house, that maybe she was in there sleeping as he set it off. During the investigation, Janice confirms that Eggert was distraught about the health of his wife, who had been ill for a long time and never left the house. Maybe she died from her illness, and he couldn’t bear to live without her. The fire was his way for them to go out together. “It’s just so tragic,” she says. “It seemed like he loved her very much. And there was the music.”


Yes, she explains, Eggert liked to sing. They heard him sometimes in the pasture warbling Neil Young tunes. “Heart of Gold” and a breeze full of cottonwood fluff would come their way late in the spring. In August, you might hear Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” In fall, it was back to Neil Young and “Harvest Moon” or “Cinnamon Girl.” Come winter, though, they were all inside, but chances were Eggert was still singing.


As the heat wave ends, Ollie recovers. His lungs take to the cooler air. From the bedroom window, he sees all the scattered fir boughs from a recent storm, the blackberry vines that have gone unchecked. Usually he’s on top of the yard work, but Janice has made him take it easy. She watches him; he can feel her gaze coating him as if he were a child.

In the tool shed Ollie finds the machete. Outside, he walks the fence line and stops at the gate Eggert helped him construct. Not as simple as it looks, building a solid gate that can bear enough stress. He studies the slats and the diagonal support, tests the swing. It glides smoothly, easily.

Ollie follows the line of the fence, which runs the length of his property. When the two men finished building it, Ollie offered his hand. “Thanks. It’s a good fence.” The professor grinned. “Good neighbors make good fences,” he said. When Ollie didn’t catch the reference, Eggert added, “It’s a literary joke. You know, Robert Frost?”

Now, Ollie closes the gate and walks toward a bank of blackberry vines. His eyes trace their entanglements as they weave randomly through the Oregon grape—thorns consorting with glossy, serrated leaves. It’s hard to say whether they’re choking or embracing each other. Janice, he concludes, would opt for the slow, uncultivated dance.

He brings the machete back, holds it up for a second, the tip pointing toward the house, then swipes it hard through the lattice of vines and branches. The separated pieces ride high with the blade before dropping to the ground. Ollie gathers them up and tosses them into a pile. To these he adds all the fir boughs he can gather from the property.

In the afternoon, he lights a fire and watches the flames grow long and toothy. Every so often he tosses on a new bough, choking the flames until the fire bites into the needles and their moisture releases. Hundreds of crackles erupt with ardent applause. Waves of rapid claps, speeding up as if for an encore. He turns and gathers more boughs, enough to occupy both arms. Swinging these around, he dips at the knees to lift them airborne. When the boughs land the fire gives off a stunned exhalation, as if someone nearby has been clocked in the gut.

Smoke furls out the edges. Ollie steps forward, looking for a limb to adjust, when, suddenly, the blanket of green bursts into a riot of marigold flames. Ollie stumbles back, dazed by the rush of heat and frightened by his carelessness. He hasn’t forgotten, of course. He could have died that night. He came that close. Yet somehow this burn pile feels necessary.

After confirming that he hasn’t been singed, he looks back toward the fire. The orange flame surges, and, eventually, the plume thins out. Limbs will char black before crusting white.

Janice calls him into dinner, and he knows that she’s been at the window. When they sit down, she tries to read his mind. “You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”


“Building that fire. Does it help?”

“I’m not thinking.”

“Then you must be re-enacting, maybe subconsciously?”

She’s not a therapist, he reminds himself, just a lawyer. When they met at the courthouse twelve years ago, he was certain she was looking right through him to the jock-jawed attorney by the elevators. She was, but not for long. Ollie, a half foot shorter than the other guy and considerably less experienced in the courthouse layout, asked where the ex parte courtroom was located. Janice volunteered to show him. He immediately fell for her voice. In the elevator, as the inevitable questions arose, he couldn’t believe that someone who heard all those abysmal stories in family court—the deadbeat fathers, the crack-addled mothers, the abusers, the abused—could sustain such a mellifluous tone about life. Nor could he believe that she was engaging him in a conversation about his legal practice. Encouraged, Ollie told her about the tricked-out Ford Econoline with a balance far in arrears, about the whacked-out customer who had a penchant for holding his client’s repo man at bay with a shotgun. Ollie needed a writ of replevin to authorize the sheriff to intervene.

Looking at Janice this evening, Ollie thinks he knows why she took an interest in him back then. It was the story he told. She liked the stories of family court, depressing as they could be. And she liked his story. After Ollie took a corporate post with an actuarial firm, she could have dropped him because the stories were far less interesting. But she didn’t. He knew she loved him and would plunge, as did he, into a state of despair whenever they were separated for longer than a few days. He had seen it, had felt the yearning in her shoulders when they reunited after business trips. And when it all got too much for him, when he needed to relieve himself of the city, she had seen that in him. The fretfulness bordering on panic—a quick change of the radio station in heavy traffic, a sudden interest in chewing gum, his jaw vising faster and faster the worse the roads got. She, Janice, a thoroughly urbanized woman who held tickets to the symphony and who had once dated a professional baseball player, suggested they move to the country.

“You’ve been through a lot,” she says now as she clears the plates. “Maybe you should consider speaking with a professional.”

“I’m fine,” he says. “Really.”


Ollie sits next to the low fire in a white, plastic chair. This time, instead of adding more fuel, he rearranges it, closing in the circle, making certain that every last part of a log or branch gets consumed and turned into a husk of ash.

The embers remind him of the city lights they left behind, clicking off and on. He takes his poking stick and flips a limb. Small medallions leap and tumble like distant acrobats bounding from platforms, lanterns in hand. Staring long enough, he makes out causeways and empty lots. Restaurants open all night. Rooms going to sleep. Floors shutting down, save for the lone custodian. With his stick he scatters the remaining fuel. Inside the house Janice sits by the living room window, feet perched on the ottoman, cup of tea on the end table.

Later, as the last of the fire smolders outside, Ollie joins her in bed. He’s still warm, his ears flushed, his forehead simulating fever. He sleeps with the sheets knee high while she pulls the covers tight over her left shoulder.

By the middle of the night, Ollie grows cold, his bladder swollen as a grapefruit. He stumbles to the bathroom and back, adjusts the covers, and sleeps until morning.

When he wakes, Ollie finds her right arm angled across his chest. He listens to her breathing inches from his ear.

She has watched out for him all these years. Ollie can’t imagine having to take care of anyone like that. He’s afraid of failing somehow, of letting love turn into a burden. He might not be able to handle it.

Janice stirs briefly, removing her arm and rolling onto her back without waking. There’s a strange beauty about this state of slumber. Janice with eyes closed, mouth split open, as if she were about to speak then thought better of it. It must be what their friends with kids mean when they say how much they like to watch their children sleep. He’d always assumed it was because all the activity—the noise, the chaos—was gone from their day, and so they were more relieved than anything. No more parenting. No more responsibility. But maybe it’s more than that.

Ollie watches her, waiting for the next intake of air and the rise of the sheets around her chest. He watches her at length, observing the repetitions in her breathing, how she follows a pattern, and how she breaks it every now and then.

It’s good practice, he tells himself. Just in case.


BURN PILE earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Todd Powell received an M.A. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a paralegal, magazine editor, and freelance writer. In addition to his honorable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, he took first place in The Writer magazine’s 2007 short story contest. He lives in Duvall, Washington.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

SHUT-INS by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

It's hard to get used to the centenarians; their faces are no more lined than someone in a really bad mood; they can rise from chairs as fast as the newly retired; they don't like it when I let myself in or suggest in any way that there is something they cannot do for themselves.

Sweet Millie has just finished reading Chekov's plays—for a third time. Though I drive the bookmobile, I haven't read anything more meaningful than the backs of cereal boxes since I arrived in Betty's Cove.

"Do you know where I was when this play was written?" she asks.

Millie’s hands, gripping the white book, remind me of tissue paper my grandma wrapped presents in, pink and delicate.

"I was entering the world, honey."

The date on that Chekov volume is 1904. One hundred years ago.

"The world has changed a lot since then, eh?"

"Out there it has," she says, pointing through her window at the sparkling harbor. Millie's husband died nearly thirty years ago. Her only daughter died last year at the age of eighty. Eighty!

"Oona," she says after I have declined tea and made sure she got the nicer copy of Madame Bovary, "Do you know that unmarried women live longer?"

The sun-dappled water outside her window is hypnotic. I have come to imagine that the inside of my husband Robert's head is like this placid flush of water, an eternal cove off the ocean where he rows in circles, waiting to awake.

"I didn't know that, Millie." I find myself saying her name often; I like the feeling of it in my mouth. For someone who is used to having people tilt their heads curiously at me when I offer mine, these wonderful hundred year-old names are a pleasure.

"My daughter was married five times. Can you imagine so many weddings? I only went to three—the three men I liked the most," says Millie, her delicate salon-given white curls jiggling. "She lived her whole life serving those men."

I’ve edged my way nearly out the front door, which is when Millie gets talkative. If not for the sunrises and sunsets, I think she would have no sense of time.

"Maybe you could stay here in Nova Scotia," she says then, braiding her fingers together. "It would be good for your peace-of-mind."

"It's worth a thought, Millie." One thought, which I’ve had many times over: I can't stay here much longer. Even if Robert himself were to die in my absence, we can't afford a stable-manager permanently; I'm using up our savings paying the temporary one. I miss the horses, anyway.

"See you next Saturday!"

Millie smiles at me and I close her door behind me, comforted by the bite of fishy-salt air in my nose. My sister, Lulu who has no love for him, not even now that he is as harmless as a baby, refers to him as "dope-on-a-rope." Sometimes, I even laugh. He's fed by IV and stomach tube. Some tired night nurse gets the task of moving his limbs around to stave off permanent atrophy. The cranky doctor calls me every week to report that his stats are all the same. His brain activity indicates that he could snap out of his coma any second. Or not.

Lulu convinced me to join her up here where she’s studying the unusually high numbers of centenarians in Betty's Cove, Halifax on a federal grant. I took the fine job of delivering books to the shut-ins rather than sitting around all day, hypnotized by the water's suggestion that I dive in, never to resurface. Lulu hates it when I call them the shut-ins, but this is what they call themselves.

It only took three days of him lying there, immobile and pale, for me to realize that I had rarely gotten to take such a close look at my husband's face and body. He was always in motion, taking some new horse out or working in the stables with such determined action that I didn't dare try to get close to him. And of course, there were all those other times when I did nothing but try to get away from his fists or the sheer bulk of his body which, when thrust against me, had the force of two men. He was good at knocking me down, and only because my fear kept me on the plump side did I keep from breaking ribs or wrists or any of the other delicate bones that are Lulu and my heritage.

Robert has a funky oblong mole at the top of his right temple for instance, just under the hairline so you can barely see it. Like a target.

Hedda always wants to know about my family—so I’ve gotten good at lying. She's one of the few centenarians whose memory really is in decline.

Today her little dome is capped in Lucille Ball style copper waves. She has an entire closet of wigs, at least thirty. She likes to show them off, as if she made them herself. She wears her husband's boots and three layers of thick socks to make them stay on. This would, perhaps, seem funny to some, but to me it makes perfect sense, and though she has to hobble around her house in those heavy shoes, I think I would do the same thing.

"Honey, how many sisters do you have?" She beckons me to open the wig cabinet.

"Just one," I say, though Lulu is ambitious enough for three sisters. As I open it, mannequin heads spill out, bonking into things, the wigs in a tussle on the floor.

"Oh dear," she says, wringing her tiny fingers. "I have been getting so clumsy."

I pat her shoulder kindly, thinking, you don't know clumsy. Clumsy is a man who grew up with horses, who worked with them all of his thirty-six years, standing on the mounting stool one year ago, throwing his muscular leg over Dorsey, a tall, chestnut stallion, a gesture he has made thousands upon thousands of times. Except this time he has thrown back too many shots of whiskey and has just finished shouting, "I won’t bring more of your fucked up genes into the world.” I’m red-eyed and sore at two spots above my breasts where he grabbed my shoulders and shook me for emphasis.

Not watching what he is doing, concentrating too much energy on shooting me a nasty glare, he doesn't notice Dorsey catch sight of his mortal enemy Pal, another macho stallion. If he had been paying attention to the horse and not glaring at me, Robert would not have been half-on when Dorsey bucked at Pal. He would not have fallen backwards in a twist, would not have hit the new wooden fence behind him, would not be in coma.

Hedda pinches my cheek. "You must not have slept well either, eh?" she says, calling me back.

Hedda requested The Death of Ivan Iliyich, which we had to get on interlibrary loan since the last copy of it made its way into the harbor when the reader "was taken up by God" according to the Betty's Cove librarian. Lulu clarified for me: "Mr. Watson had a heart attack."

"All of us girls started to go bald at the age of forty-five. Such a curse," Hedda says.

"Yes, that's what you said," I remind her. I don't mean to get impatient with her, but in the month I've been shepherding books around she's told me the same ten or fifteen facts about her life over and over again.

"Your sisters don't have this trouble," she laments, forgetting I have only one and gripping a strand of my long non-descript hair. Hairdressers are kind to me, they tell me it's "dark blonde" but I know dishwater when I see it, and no matter what Lulu-of-the-golden-curls says, it didn't take Robert to make me believe this.

"Your wigs are lovely, though.”

Hedda smiles like a little girl who has just gotten a kitten. She pats her hair.

"They are, aren't they? Willard was ashamed that I had no hair, but I told him ‘Willard, I may not have any hair but I'm the prettiest thing you've ever had walking at your side, now aren't I?’ And Willard never could argue with me there. His girlfriend before me had moles covering her face and a mustache that she had to bleach twice a week."

The girlfriend gets slightly more repugnant each time Hedda tells it, reinventing her past to suit her.

I am too tired to really get to know the centenarians, though I realize that each one of these people is like a library unto themselves. There are wars and family secrets, traditions passed down and special remedies I could learn if I only asked. But I ask only the things that help my sister in her work: their history of disease, how many siblings they had, how many children, and I am working up to asking them if there are any benefits to living so long.

Lulu is a corpse at the end of the day just like our father used to be, except she doesn't help it along with a bottle of red wine.

"Nothing new from Hedda," I tell her. "She's starting to repeat herself more and more."

Lulu shakes her head as if I have been a very bad research assistant. I know she's not really relying on me, that she'll go back for any information she doesn't get, but I do like to feel useful.

"Hedda is one-hundred and four—the oldest."

"Do you think it's their diet, the ocean air?" I ask.

Lulu bites her lip. She is always careful about saying what she thinks unless she has the hard facts to back it up. But I can tell she's worn down by something, maybe having me around.

"You know what I think? I think the women live longer up here because their husbands died," she says.

"That’s cynical! Are you and Lars fighting?"

"Lars and I only do two things: fight and fuck.”

My forty year-old sister suddenly looks eighteen again, or maybe I'm just flashing back to when she left home, me just barely fourteen, alone with daddy and his fits and mother, who took pills first just to sleep and then for good.

"You know, Oona, you could just take a pillow to his face and it would all be over. Done."

"Lu you don't mean that."

"Tell me Mom wasn't happier after Daddy died? Tell me we weren't all happier!"

"You were," I say.

My sister shakes her head. She has always walked a fine line with me. She can't get too angry at me; that was Daddy's job. She has to protect me, even from herself.

"Oona, what if he wakes up and goes right back to being his old bastard self!"

I stand up and back out of the room the way I used to back away from our father, leaving Lulu to weather the first blows.

“Coward!” she cries out. Though I hate her for saying it, oh how right she is.

I leave the cottage to the sound of her frustrated groan. I walk to the docks and listen to the wind through the sails, things rattling and banging, the water splishing at the bottoms of the boats. It would be so easy to drown. You wouldn't even have to try, just open up your mouth and swallow too much water. It would be easy to finish it off for Robert, for me. A pillow over his face. He probably wouldn't even buck or kick.

The thing is, Lulu doesn't realize that I'm not waiting for Robert to wake up. And if he does, I'm not waiting for him to have one of those change-of-personality situations.

It's just nice to be in control for a change.

People always want to know how a nice girl gets hooked up with a bad boy. They always think the fault lies in the abuser because he's the easiest one to pin down, what with all his fits of rage and his physicality. They want to believe in innocence and evil the way I want to believe that just because you live to be a hundred years old, you are wiser than the rest of us.

One month is not long enough to get attached. But Hedda's death still hurts because it is so sudden.

Hedda's niece from Miami is holding two wigs, sitting on her bed. Hedda's niece herself is seventy years old, and I realize she is coveting the wigs, not just admiring them.

"I don't suppose you'd like to read a copy of Great Expectations while you're here?" I ask.

The niece adjusts her glasses and sticks her finger in her ear.

"I'm sorry," she says. "This hearing aid is on the fritz. Must be the salt air. What did you say?"

"Books. Do you want a book to read? I'm here with the bookmobile. I used to deliver to Hedda."

The niece shakes her badly-dyed orange hair. "Oh god, no, my glaucoma makes reading a chore. Do you know where the funeral home is? I've only been up here once and I get so lost."

"I don't live here.”

"Oh," she says. "Well…" she tries to push up from the bed but fails.

Accustomed to letting the likes of Hedda and Millie help themselves I am surprised when the woman glares at me.

"Can you please give me a hand?"

I help her up and she shuffles out of the room calling after someone named Maury.

I am left with Dickens and a bed full of wigs. I have a very strong urge to hear Robert's voice, the tender way he clucked to the horses as he went to feed or groom them. He was wonderful with animals, it figures. A bunch of rangy goats, a handful of barn-fed cats and even one lonely lop-eared bunny are waiting for me back in Oregon. So is the silence, the dread of flat moments. No more highs and lows, just stillness and all the books I planned to read, now waiting for me, without excuses.

I lie back on Hedda's bed, but the smell of the comforter is sharp and fetid, reminding me of the physicality of her death. I hurry out and return to my sister's cottage. To my surprise she isn't bent over books or charts. She is stretched out on the ratty chaise lounge on the tiny deck. Her long blonde hair, usually up in a ratty frizz atop her head is down around her shoulders. She has rolled up her pant legs to let the weak sunlight dust them.

"Hedda passed," I say.

Lulu frowns but doesn't move. She tilts her head up to the sun. "One hundred and four," she says, in a tone of reverence. "That gives me sixty-four more years to live if I'm so lucky," she says.

"That doesn't sound like very much time all of a sudden," I say.

Lulu looks at me like I'm nuts, but then, I'm used to that.

"I'm going home, Lu."

"I'm surprised you stayed this long."

It's stupid to be offended, but I am. "Why?"

She crooks a pale eyebrow up at me.

"Come on Oona; I don't feel like doing this sister dance. We know how we are."

"Well maybe I don't know. Maybe you just assume I know."

Seagulls circle us and then scoot down to the water in the harbor. I'll miss this water.

"You are a glutton for punishment. You're terrified of being alone. And I prefer it that way.”

I don’t remind her that Robert is still alive.

"Do you really think unmarried women live longer?" I ask.

"Well," she says, stretching her arms overhead, "I guess I'll be the first to know."

"Hedda wore her husband's boots, you know. All the time. With layers of socks to make them fit."

Lulu frowns at this withheld detail. I knew she wouldn’t understand.

"So maybe the key is having lost a husband," she says.

"Or maybe it's having had one at all," I counter.

Lulu grimaces. "Right,” she says, all sarcasm.

"Will you feel gratified when you isolate the ingredient or gene or habit that makes these people live longer?"

The bark of seagulls sounds startlingly like horses whinnying.

"Sure," she says. "But most of science is about the pursuit of things, not the finding of them."

Usually I’m the resigned one. It’s amusing that for the first time in years, I feel hopeful.

"Well, I guess I should let the library know I'm leaving.”

She mumbles okay and I turn away from her to face the harbor, shaped like a horse-shoe, thinking it will be a long time before I see her again. She won’t miss me, not much. Not the way Robert missed me if I went to a horse show for a weekend. He would throw me to the bed with fierce passion if I was gone for more than a day and make love to me until our bodies were bruised and satiated.

I turn back to look at her, She is clutching her sides as if they hurt from laughing too hard.

“I’m not going home to go back to the way it was,” I say.

She waves her long fingers as if shooing off a small child. “You don’t have to justify it to me.”

She’s right. So I don’t tell her that what I look forward to most is riding Dorsey, the horse that set me free.


SHUT-INS earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of two books for writers, Make a Scene, and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. She is a contributing editor and columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and a regular book reviewer for NPR-affiliate KQED Radio. She holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

LAKE EFFECT by Kelley Walker Perry

Fifteen years. So much water under the proverbial bridge…yet as I walk this wooded trail that leads to the lake I can still hear him screaming.

In another season, I would not be able to see it up ahead—Upper Fish Lake. But it is winter, and the leafless trees make scraggly black lines against the diamond-studded snow. Hoosier winter: all is a brilliantly frozen wonderland.

If it were not for the somber task before me, I might enjoy it.

I pause for a moment, puffing out foggy gusts of breath. In another time, I would have been able to keep trudging on another quarter-mile or so, until I reached my destination. I might be less than 30 years old, but I haven’t seen the inside of a gym since mandatory physical education class in high school.

Besides, I reason, sliding my hands down my thighs to my knees, I am carrying quite a load.

An estimated 50 pounds rests on my back in a navy-blue backpack. The bag is not the same as Charlie’s had been that day; I couldn’t find one the same shade of blue. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, it makes no difference what color the damn thing is, as long as I have the contents right.

I unzip the backpack, suddenly worried that I have not chosen well. Each item has untold meaning and significance. Each item holds the promise of redemption—an end to the nightmares that plague me. An end to choking every night in my sleep, dreaming of swallowing dark, icy water and screaming myself awake with its flat mineral taste still in my mouth.

I check the bag.

One ruler: the clear plastic kind you can get in the school bookstore for ten cents, or could in those days. I don’t know what the going rate is now. A defective drawing compass with a dull point.

Five spiral-bound notebooks, wide-ruled, in various garish colors. No pictures of 3-D tigers or underwater scenes or professional sports teams. They aren’t “cool”—but then, they aren’t supposed to be.

Two of those trusty Old Yeller pencils: Eberhard Faber, Number Two. A Pink Pearl eraser. A blue Bic ballpoint. Nothing fancy. Certainly none of those slick gel-ink pens or mechanical pencils.

All items you can find in any school bookstore, although I purchased the majority of these during a harried, and rather furtive, shopping spree at the Walgreen’s in Fort Wayne.

Digging deeper, I pull out a couple of dog-eared sixth-grade textbooks: Science & Technology (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), Everyday Mathematics (McGraw-Hill). The usual. Also a box of Spectrum language flashcards, the kind they use if you stammer or have dyslexia and go to once-a-week speech therapy during homeroom. That last one took me longer to find than the others. Thank God for Ebay.

More important than all the rest of the bag’s contents is a jumbled collection of rocks. The bottom of the bag holds a veritable treasure trove, geologically speaking. I tried to gather what I figured Charlie must have carried around with him all the time: shale, limestone, sandstone, gypsum, and coal. Chipped arrowheads by the dozen. Dust-covered fossils.

Once, I thought of them all as just frigging rocks; and a totally craptastic hobby, besides. Most of us back then had collections of one thing or another, yeah, sure—Pokémon trading cards, video games for Super Nintendo, maybe some Star Wars or Star Trek figures. Whatever. None of it mattered; it was all just something to do, right?

Charlie’s mom told me later—after—that he had lugged those rocks around with him all the damn time for a real reason.

He and his dad started collecting on fishing trips. Trips, ha. Like their family ever had enough money to go on a real vacation. They were LaPorte County’s crème de la trailer trash; everybody knew it. Adults looked at Charlie and his folks with a mixture of pity and superior disgust; kids, unfamiliar with these advanced emotions, wanted to either ignore him or kick his teeth in. Anyway, they’d picked up a rock here, a fossil there…pretty soon old Charlie had himself quite a hoard.

He’d brought ‘em in to class once, and got so worked up telling us about finding an amethyst geode during the summer of 1990 that he lost his perpetual stutter. Most kids might stammer when they get excited; with Charlie, he had to be excited to stop. Come to think of it, that was the only time I ever saw him excited about anything, but I never paid much attention. Nobody did. Hell, it was just Charlie. Ole Chucklehead. Or Upchuck, as I affectionately thought of him: the kid spewed on a fairly consistent basis in elementary school, and I just happened to get unlucky enough to sit behind him and smell a combination of vomit and the janitor’s spearmint-scented Absorb Dry for three years straight.

His dad got killed in a car wreck sometime during our fifth-grade year. After that, the kid kinda weirded out on us. Not that he was really normal before. But after his old man died, Upchuck started wearing the same raggedy clothes all the time—and not because he was going for the ever-popular grunge look, either. He began to reek. I mean, he smelled god-awful, like rotten Limburger cheese and
year-old gym socks. His dishwater-colored hair hung in greasy strings across his be-pimpled forehead.

And those stupid rocks. He always carried that lame collection; you never saw him without that raggedy blue backpack. At about 75 pounds soaking wet, the weight of the bag caused him to walk slightly bent, like an elderly hunchback. He always had this look on his face, this look of grim determination mingled with something else I could never quite put my finger on. Not that I gave Upchuck a great deal of thought in those days.

He was always our favorite geek to torment, but that collection made it worse. He was such an easy mark; all you had to do was pretend to touch that bag of his and he’d go off the deep end. That was why after school on January 25, 1991, Trevor, Kyle and I decided it might be fun to indulge in a friendly game of keep-away.

It was a Friday, we were headed home along the edge of already-frozen Fish Lake, and we were in high spirits. School was out, always a plus; and, a huge snowstorm had blasted down fresh powder from Lake Michigan earlier in the week. What the meteorologist on TV called a “lake effect.”

We had big plans to screw around all weekend long on snowmobiles, ATVs, sleds, inner tubes, and anything else we could get our grubby, 12-year-old paws on. All except Trevor—as one of the oldest kids in our class, his paws were already 13, since he got held back in fourth grade.

Trev wasn’t a bad guy, don’t think that. He was just a kid, trying to make folks forget he wasn’t very bright. Kyle wasn’t bad, either, not really. Just a follower. He would have done anything Trev said, I guess, short of being queer with him. Sometimes I wondered about that, too, ha. And me? Me, I’m not so sure about. See, I knew better. And still, I went along.

“Hey, Chucklehead, got any big plans for the weekend? Gonna duh-duh-do your mama?” hollered Trev.

No response from Charlie, a.k.a. Chucklehead. He just plodded onward, having resigned himself to this kind of treatment years beforehand.

Kyle—who always reminded me of Chester the Terrier shadowing Spike the Bulldog in the Looney Tunes cartoons—joined in, eager to impress: “Nah, he’s gonna be too busy getting his rocks off all by himself, right, Numbnuts? Get it, Trev? His rocks—?”

Again—no response from Charlie, alias Numbnuts, who continued to move ahead of us with the subtle dignity of those exploited from birth.

“How ‘bout it, Chucklehead? You got a hot date with Mrs. Palm and her five lovely daughters?” Trev inquired politely.

This last clever witticism was followed by a very mature humping gesture involving Kyle and his own trusty backpack.

“Heh, you are such a total jerkoff, Kyle,” Trev noted. “Sincerely, dude, you’re a fag.”

I just snorted, but didn’t say anything. It was kind of embarrassing, really. Especially the way the poor guy never fought back, never even tried to defend himself. Where was the sport in that?

After a flinging a barrage of tasteless comments like crude linguistic Frisbees—none of which were granted so much as a reply from the impassive recipient—Trev got bored.

“Dude, it’s nipply out here. I need to get my groove on before something important freezes and falls off,” he said, to no one in particular.

We walked on, kicking up skirls of new-fallen snow.
Trev scooped up a handful, frowning and petulant.

“Well this sucks.”

It wasn’t the good, easy-packing kind—which rendered weekend snowball combat impossible. A giant booger in the nose of progress, Kyle and I concurred.

“Hey, you guys, keep-away! Yeah!” Trev cried, as if he’d just had a sudden burst of creative inspiration. Like he was friggin’ Leonardo da Vinci.

“Rock on, dude!” came Kyle’s immediate and predictable response. I often wondered, years later, what he ended up doing. Probably turned to a life of crime, or else politics. He’d have made some lucky senator a fantastic yes-man.

Trev glided forward, lithe as a Doc Martens-clad speed skater, and grabbed the infamous backpack by one of its black nylon shoulder straps. This came as a surprise to its wearer, who staggered with the sudden shift of balance. He went down a pathetic loser…and got up a fighter of considerable substance.

“Give it back,” he said. His calm voice belied the deep-seated pain and anger behind his narrowed eyes as he judged the distance between himself and Trev, who was the closest offender.


“Nah, I don’t think we will, my good man,” Trev said gently. He smiled, cocky as hell as master of his innovative game. “Bitch, ain’t it?”

Righteous indignation aside, a wimp like Upchuck was no match for a tag-team like Trev and Kyle. They slung the bag across the ice to each other, cheerfully screaming obscenities into the frosty air.

Still, I had to hand it to Upchuck: that boy could really shag ass when the need arose. Who knew such speed and grace could be found in such an unlikely package? He flew across the ice with a vengeance, each time landing with a dull thud immediately after his backpack transferred hands.

“Heads up, Josh, ya friggin’ wanker!” Trev shouted, bypassing his Number One fan to shoot his new-found hockey puck to me.

Startled, I did a little sidestep: a conscientious objector. It slid past me beautifully, heading out to virgin territory toward the middle of the lake.

Upchuck lunged for and seized his precious backpack, but fell hard. I heard a crackling sound and instinctively winced: that had to hurt. He stayed in the same fetal position for what seemed like minutes, but must have been mere milliseconds. Less.

He screamed shrilly as he crashed through the ice. The rest of us stood around in frozen shock, and watched him go under. Our eyes—mine and Charlie’s—locked for one agonizing moment. The bag took him down mercilessly, but as far as I know he never let go.

Our fearless leader panicked and ran away. Kyle goggled—first, in the direction his shining hero had gone, and then at the jagged hole in the ice. Then back to the long-vanished Trevor. I regarded him for a moment, saw that he was of no use on the scene whatsoever, and briskly told him to go for help. He seemed grateful for instruction, only hesitating for one final darting glance at the dark water where Charlie had disappeared, then scrambled up the bank. I watched him go. He fell only once.

I grabbed a heavy branch from an overhanging tree nearby, planning to extend it out toward the hole. Hoping Charlie would see it and grab on. But, as I inched closer to the middle of the lake, I realized I had no idea where the ice was thin and where it was safe. Most of the time, the lake was frozen several inches solid the better part of the winter; in fact, Fish Lake once was the center of a booming, pre-refrigeration ice business, selling mainly to Chicago meat packers.

I had thought it was plenty safe to walk across. We all had.

I considered the prospect of crawling across the ice on my belly, stretching out the branch toward “the victim,” like I’d seen them do on TV. Instead, I just stood there, staring blankly at the sharp-toothed, yawning cavity that had swallowed Charlie whole, feeling helpless and scared. Impotent.

Volunteer EMTs came, along with a water rescue team from the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department. Their wailing sirens arrived about ten minutes before their vehicles did. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they used ropes, poles and a rescue sled and frantically worked to find him.

By the time they found Charlie and pulled him out of the water, it was too late. They tried, they really did. Forty-five minutes, they worked. They zipped him into a hypothermic stabilizer bag and kept on trying. But I could see his blue lips and the way his head lolled almost bonelessly on his neck, and I knew. I acknowledged it with
sick dread before the EMTs wanted to admit it. He was pronounced en route to the hospital.

Trevor and Kyle worried quite a bit about their own skins, about someone finding out what we had been doing at the time of the so-called accident.

I just felt morose and partly responsible. A lot responsible, actually, although the newspapers called it a “tragic juvenile fatality caused by stress fractures in the treacherous, snow-covered ice.”

Never the best of pals, we talked less and less, after. What else was there to say?

No one ever said anything. Not one word of reproach or condemnation.

Paul F. Boston Middle School held a special winter-safety convocation the week after Charlie died. The same EMTs came to demonstrate their equipment. I managed to sit through it without puking.

Usually an A-B honor roll student, my grades plummeted. I barely made it through that year.

And to be honest, it’s taken me awhile to get to this point.

Maybe it’s been a long time coming, but I made it, Charlie. I’m here.

I take a handy ice-fishing saw—$25, online—and cut a neat circle in the ice.

I lay down the saw and prepare to heft the bag, the one which contains a reasonable facsimile of Charlie’s short, sad life, into the hole I have made. I pray he is watching, and that he can finally forgive me. That he understands this is all I know to do.

Unbelievably, I hear the frozen water splinter beneath my weight. The ice caves; I hear myself shriek once before I am plunged into water so cold it takes my breath away.

My entire body feels as if it is being stabbed by a thousand needles.

Although I am wearing weather-resistant gear, my clothing soon becomes waterlogged. I go under, spluttering, still clutching that damnable backpack. When I let go to grasp for purchase on the edge of my icy prison, one of the shoulder straps slips around my left ankle, dragging me down.

Something tugs hard on the backpack, and on the collar of my L.L. Bean parka. I sense, rather than see, a dark presence under the ice with me. Panicked, I imagine retribution dealt by Charlie’s cold, bony fingers covered in decaying flesh and strings of the lake’s slimy moss. This much and more is easily imagined, even in a state of abject terror, for it is the stuff of my nightmares.

Just before I lose consciousness and fall into utter blackness, I feel my body being propelled upward.

I come around seconds…minutes…possibly hours later to droplets of cold water splashing my face. Peering up, I locate the source: sunlit glints of ice, their droplets melting off overhanging branches. I breathe deeply into my lungs the unexpected gift of crisp, clean air. I breathe in the knowledge of my atonement.

“Thank you, Charlie,” I gasp, voicing aloud my gratitude to the lake, the sky — the universe.


LAKE EFFECT earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Kelley Walker Perry is a former Hoosier State Press Award-winning journalist and personal columnist. She currently is a freelance writer. She feels inspired to write for children and at-risk teens, to share her experiences and insight; as such, her personal testimony, Premeditated, was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of At the Center magazine. She is the single mother of three children.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NOTICED by Tracey Lion-Cachet

The small apartment sits perched on the corner of a dilapidated tenement block - overlooking a sea of windows patched onto the façades of countless other buildings, it stands out as no different from the eleven above it or the eleven below. Inside, the day is soon to start like all other dreary days. The woman in 1209 will awake at precisely 5:47 a.m. Turning on her back, and staring at the yellowing ceiling, she will wait anxiously for the next three minutes to pass until the alarm clock sounds at 5:50 a.m. After pushing the Sleep button she will then allow herself two sets of 5 minute intervals to clasp her hands on her chest and breathe. Deep inhalations. Deeper exhalations. She remembers reading an article about how focusing on ones breathing can help with all sorts of things, from anxiety to depression. She has been practicing this for a while now and still waits for something to happen, anything at all to happen. Yet nothing ever did. Instead of uplifting her, all that air seemed to fill her with an encumbering heaviness. After wondering whether she is doing the-dreaded-breathing-thing correctly she will sit up, sigh, and turn her legs to meet the worn, once pink, once fluffy Wal-Mart slippers. Placing a hand on the faded nightstand to ease herself up from the night before, she will leave a soon to vanish handprint on the glass surface that protects an array of images from fashion magazines. These, once brightly colored images, have been cut out and painstakingly interlaced into a neat collage. Their edges have yellowed and their surfaces warped. Good-looking men and women in dated clothes and hairstyles lie captured beneath a slab of glass, a ceaseless reminder of the perfect life.

Then, for the next ten minutes, she will sit with a cup of weakened instant coffee and a bowl of Fruit Loops at the plastic kitchen counter. She will watch the rainbow colors drain from the circular shapes leaving yellow sponges in a bluish pool of milk. And one by one she will begin picking the small nylon balls that have formed from too much wear on her synthetic turquoise dressing gown. Before placing them neatly in the cup’s chipped saucer she will glance up at the clock and appreciate how every minute brings her closer to the end of the day. She will then begin the quick and imprecise routine of getting her aging body ready for work. No shower, a careless brush of the hair and teeth, and dressed in a uniform that remains the same each day, she will quickly leave with a perfunctory glance in the mirror, a mere 25 minutes after the first sound of the bedside alarm.

And so the woman’s day began like all the featureless others. Her life had quite unintentionally left her behind. Besides some distant cousins in Florida she had no family or friends. She had often felt how her loneliness was so profound it were as if she did not exist. No one ever noticed her, from the shopkeeper where she had been buying her groceries for nearing thirty years, to her fellow employees at the post office where she had been working for close on the same time. Even her mute pet Canary named Lulu wouldn’t notice if she - nor anyone else for that matter - came home at night. In the past, more out of boredom than anything else, she had tested the degrees of her invisibility to others. She had walked the streets with an uncharacteristic boldness and watched whether people would move or walk right through her. Sometimes, at the last minute, she would shuffle out of their way whilst other times she would feel the cold, hard bump of a shoulder as someone enthusiastically rushed to meet the day’s end. This comforted her of the fact - as unfortunate as it might have felt - that she was still alive. Once she even attempted leaving a shop without paying for her produce. Although she lost her nerve, and awkwardly took her place behind a line of paying customers, she was convinced that nobody would have even noticed had she slipped out the main entrance.

As promised the day would come to an end with the train station bench momentarily relieving her heaviness. Despite her large physique she would somehow appear quite small. While arms rested neatly in her lap, disproportionately small feet would be kicked up and down in an unconvinced attempt to reach the floor. Shoulders hunched forward as if trying to reach the head that held the stare up and up toward the enormous clock’s arm as it moved toward 6:00 pm with the calming precision of time passing. She would wait here with all of five minutes and try not to watch the busy commuters around her. They saddened her with their hurried sense of purpose to reach a better place that she had no means of getting to. Women with briefcases and heels that rang clickety-clack through the station halls; their faces – soft expressions spilling with memories of breakfast cereals and children, of the pain of leaving for work and the excitement of returning home to warm shrieks of delight. Of men in suits that wore far away looks in their eyes that she always found harder to read. Of cars waiting to collect that someone who had been missed. And so it was these five minutes of her day that her emptiness would fill her up like an enormous balloon and she would be forced to anchor herself a little harder and hold onto that cool hand of time with all her strength. At the sound of the distant train she would quickly gather her belongings: manila envelops with blank competitions enclosed (boasting prizes of anything from free face creams and weight loss formulas to exotic locations) that still needed to be filled out, a worn through work bag filled with an assortment of KitKat wrappers, various celebrity magazines, the latest Weight Watchers edition, old sticky mints, a wallet bound with brightly colored elastic bands, and the latest Danielle Steele book from her library. She would be the first in line to claim the same seat by the window. Here she could rest her head against the glass and watch the world go by.

At home she would switch on the small portable T.V - which hovered half way between floor and ceiling on a legless wooden shelf attached to the corner of the room, giving the ambiance of a hospital waiting area - feed Lulu, whose yellow was dulling by the day, and open a bottle of Diet Pepsi. With a gentle sigh she would look around her living room before microwaving her dinner. It was neat and appeared at first glance to be somewhat clean. Due not to her efforts but rather to being unlived in, like a window display. Plastic floor runners followed the major routes through the living room, which helped eliminate all major household work. A small stiff couch and two just as uncomfortable looking chairs in aging floral designs sat positioned outwards, in an almost straight line, to face the center piece T.V. A few sparsely covered bookshelves attempted to appear that they bore some purpose in holding up a pair of candle sticks, a pile of Reader’s Digest magazines, a vase of dusty plastic flowers and a glass Weight Watcher’s statue of a bathroom scale that held the engraved words “You Too Can Be A Winner By Losing”.

This was the night that she would be in the middle of eating a pre-prepared Lean Cuisine Macaroni dinner as quickly as possible, in order to get to dessert, and watching her nightly game-show of “Win-Win”, when the knock came at her door. She had known the word before any of the contestants, but the fright she received from the prospect of a visitor startled her to the point of near total, albeit brief, amnesia. She shook her head, as if to validate her surroundings, and stared at the door in disbelief before beginning the arduous process of placing her half-eaten dinner on the side table and shifting her body up to a standing position.

“Evening miss. Sorry to bother you,” said the tired young man, “my wife and I saw it necessary to warn you that we think there might be a Peeping Tom in the building across the way from ours. I don’t wish to startle you in anyway but we are warning the four apartments whose windows can be accessed by the person living on the tenth floor in the building fourth from the left. My wife has suspected something strange for weeks and we have finally notified the police who will be looking into the situation.” The man hesitantly darted his eyes over her shoulder and into the room behind her before continuing. “Once again I don’t wish to concern you too much but you might want to keep your blinds drawn, maybe both day and night, until the situation has been properly looked into.” The woman thanked the gentleman for his concern and robotically returned to her seat to finish her dinner.

She sat dead still. Inside her mind sparkled. She felt both terrified and fascinated. Slowly she considered the prospects of the world outside. After some time had passed she stood up and moved over to the window. Without looking into its darkness she frantically drew the blinds and stood back to lean against the wall. Hesitating, she gently pulled the side blind ajar and peered toward the building that the young man had directed her toward. It did not take long to identify the possible culprit. The moonlight had fallen full, and mirrored itself in a small circle in one of the opposite windows. She quickly slid back to the comfort of the cold, hard wall. Her breathing had become pant like and she was beginning to shake as she watched the white circle of what appeared to be a lens bounce from below up to where she was. Decidedly unsettled she shuffled along the sides of the room keeping her back to the wall until she reached the light switch and plunged the room into darkness. She then followed the passage of light coming from the bathroom and locked herself into the safety of its interior.

She found herself disturbed not by the fact that someone could be watching her, but rather by the fact that she had quickly come to like the idea. Someone might be taking the time to notice her, even if this was just for an instant while on route to someone more worthwhile. She had seen movies that embellished this theme and found herself comforted by the fact that others had similar attractions to such perversities. She contemplated their rather stereotyped outcome of a woman, conscious of her faceless voyeur, undressing before him like an offering. She turned to look at herself in the bathroom mirror. She appeared decidedly neglected. The face stared back like a Polaroid capturing a surprised, plump middle-aged woman who appeared many years older and far more tired than she in fact was. She tried, with difficulty, to see herself as the object, covert or not, of someone’s desire. She opened one of the neglected bathroom cupboards and pulled out an old dirty make-up bag. She carefully applied some of her once frequently used pale orange lipstick and smiled demurely back at herself. The given effect was clown like as the lipstick attempted, and failed, to hide her skinny lips. Once the smile shrunk back, and upon closer inspection, the orange had begun to slip up and out from the tiny cracks around her mouth - highlighting her age instead of concealing it. These small inconveniences were however minor in the face of her newfound excitement. She pulled out blue mascara and attempted to scrape its remnants onto her faded stubby eyelashes, but it had hardened and dried. After combing out her thinned, springy hair the woman stood back to look at herself. She imagined standing at the window and taking off her clothes like they did in the movies. First she took of her over sized, white stained T-shirt and then removed her tan bra. She could not hide the expression of dismay at its contents. Her body had long been left to its own outcome. Her breasts were long, cucumber-thin and lay plastered to her sagging stomach. Her posture, like a question mark, accentuated the overall effect of closing down. She turned side profile and considered the momentary effect of holding in her stomach and stiffly pulling her shoulders back. Although the woman knew she would never have the confidence to provide a true movie ending she felt a surge of fresh happiness as she quickly dressed, touched up her lipstick and left the bathroom to reenter the living room.

She confidently walked over to the bookshelves to light candles before going into her bedroom to change into something special. After soon realizing that she owned nothing at all smart enough for the occasion she settled on an oversized black T-shirt together with black work trousers and pumps. Before she returned to the living room to open the blinds she frantically roamed various radio stations to find something to set the ambiance. The static turned from news bulletin, to Hip Hop, to weather, to adverts until she finally settled on the possibilities of silence. As she opened the blinds and sat at the dining room table opposite the window she watched the white circle quickly move into her space. She sat, frozen, for a number of minutes. Once the shock had subsided she soon began to bask in the joy of being noticed - the endless possibilities of being seen. Lost in a world of imaginary makings she no longer wondered if the circle of light still shone on her life. She had turned her chair slightly to look at the other end of the kitchen table, which would have been hidden by a pillar to any onlooker. And so, as realistically as possible, she pretended that she was not alone. She chatted and laughed like she saw people doing on T.V. sitcoms. She became the person that she had always wanted to be: coquettish and languid, flirty and delicate, giggly and light.

The day had ended with the best evening she had had in a very, very long time. And for evenings to come, although the apartment from across the way seemed abandoned from then on, she would play out a similar performance. This soon became her nightly ritual. The feeling that someone was watching her gradually seeped into her daytime hours too. She found herself beginning each day two hours earlier in order to carefully ready herself with pale peach lipstick, outlined with a liner so dark it appeared to disconnect her mouth from the rest of her face, blue eye-shadow that expanded like bruises up to meet the darkened, plucked eyebrows, and a whitening base too light for her skin that clashed with overly zealous rouged cheeks. The overall effect was not unlike a Harlequin clown. And so she came to be the fascination of many onlookers. Sitting on the train, on a park bench or wandering the streets she would cock her head, flutter bright blue, stuck together eyelashes and smile with the warm prospect that someone, somewhere, might just be watching her. People tried not to stare, yet mostly they failed, as she chatted and giggled to herself; each set of eyes becoming a spotlight for her to perform in a show all of her own.


NOTICED earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Tracey Lion-Cachet was born and educated in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has lived in London, Florence, New York, and Sao Louis, Brazil. Tracey first moved to the United States in 2001 to pursue a Master’s degree in Art History and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children and is working on her first novel. In 2007, she received an honorable mention for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition and was nominated as a finalist for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Competition for her short story “Noticed”.

THUMP by Cecily Anders

You wake up late. Only twenty minutes until your first class of the day, Abnormal Psychology. Run out the door, without taking a shower, and catch the bus just in time. You don’t want to miss a second of this lecture; this is your sexiest professor.

Once on campus, run to the classroom and take a seat, near the back, as the teacher begins. Try to hide your disappointment as the professor runs a hand through his wavy brown hair and puts up an overhead of a family tree. Normally, you are able to sit closer so that his royal blue eyes are visible from your chair.

In this transparent, paper-thin world, squares are people. The overhead is littered with black boxes, with self-inflicted gun shot wounds, swinging ropes, and 100-foot falls off the tops of buildings. Each family has at least ten or twenty dark suicide squares. This topic makes your palms moist.

As the professor continues to lecture about the hereditary nature of suicide, you find him less and less attractive. His smile doesn’t seem nearly as radiant as before. He’s too secure in the genetic origin of this disorder. He doesn’t even show one example of a lone suicider. On him, confidence is not sexy.

It seems as if you are looking at these tree transparencies for hours, as if five class periods have passed and he won’t dismiss you because there are still more tree examples to display. Why aren’t the dismissal bells ringing? Nervous sweat drips from your forehead into your eyes. By now, you find him repulsive.

From the row behind you, someone taps you on the back. You refuse to turn around because this is the distinct finger maneuver of your dead brother; this is the middle-of-the-spine poke your sibling used to wake you with in the morning. When you don’t acknowledge him, he leans in towards your ear, “Hey, we’re related. Did you remember that? You have my genes and I have yours.”

Flustered, you stand up and grab your backpack. As you leave the room, mumble something to your neighbor about needing to be at work. Even though no one else is leaving, you’re certain that several class periods have passed. Your fellow students must not have any obligations outside of this room. The neighbor glares at you as if you are irresponsible.

In the hallway, reach into your backpack and pull out the syllabus. You have to determine the very next time this teacher will hold office hours. The “how would someone be able to find out if they have the suicide gene” question is best asked in private. Tomorrow at 10 AM. You will be there at 9:45.

As you pick up your backpack to leave, look at your watch. There are still forty-five minutes remaining in the class. Do not think about what this means. Instead, decide to go to work early. Being early is a sign of dedication. You want the restaurant manager to know how committed you are to food service.

As you leave, your brother’s brisk footsteps echo behind you in the long hallway. As his pace increases, walk faster. Even when your brother was alive, he scared you; always so negative, always so angry at the world. But now, you’re afraid to see the bruise marks on his neck. The fingernail scratches might still be there. You’re not sure how long it takes for the dead to heal.

But he won’t be ignored. He screams out, “We’re related. Are you listening to me? We’re related!”

Begin running. Exercise keeps people from wanting to kill themselves, right? And one can never get to work too early.

As you’re jogging, think about how your family is not like the overhead examples. There is only one suicidal person, instead of ten or thirty. And what have you ever had in common with your maladjusted brother, anyway?

At work, your first table is a larger table of eight. Your brother is sitting at the table, along with seven other strangers in horribly outdated clothes. Some are older, some are younger. Instead of taking their drink order, duck into the kitchen and approach the manager.

“So, you came to work early and now you don’t want to work? You just want to get paid to sit here, while other people work. Is that it?” Apparently, the manager is in a bad mood. Maybe he woke up this morning and realized he has a worthless, dead end job. Regardless, you’d still be willing to trade places with him right now.

“I’ll take the next table.”

“That table is yours. Everyone else already has a table except for you.”

“I’ll switch with someone then.”

“Oh, so you want a smaller table. You want to work, but just not that hard? Get out there and take their drink order! Are you trying to get yourself fired?”

Panicked, you scurry out of the kitchen and over to the table. Unemployed people kill themselves. You have to keep this job.

“Sis, do you remember our Aunt Becky?” Your brother points to the woman sitting next to him. She’s wearing clothes from the seventies. Not the new retro clothes, fresh from a factory; but rather, something that can be purchased at a thrift shop from a previous era. “You probably don’t recognize her. She jumped off a bridge when you were only two. But I remember her.”

“I think we’re scaring her, Hon. Maybe we should just leave,” comments this Becky person.

“No! She’s going to be like us some day. She might as well get used to us now.”

Another relative with a Victorian collar and long sleeves jumps in, “Yes, let’s just go. She’s looking awfully pale. And her hands are shaking.”

“No! I want a glass of water!”

“But your esophagus is crushed,” pipes in an older relative wearing a derby hat and a suit.

“My mouth is dry. I am not leaving until I get some water.”

Your ears fill with the sounds of the kitchen as your eyes slowly drift open. The manager is fanning your face with some papers. “If you didn’t feel well, you should have just told me. I would have let you go home.”

At your apartment, turn all three locks closed. Once you sit down on the couch, the phone rings. It could be your brother. You let the machine pick it up.

“Honey, this is your mother. I was just calling to say hello…”

Run over to the phone. “Mom, wow, I’m so glad you called. Did you have a sister that killed herself?”

“No…, but your father did. Why are you asking me about that?”

“Besides your son, did you ever have any relatives that killed themselves?”

“No… Are you feeling okay, sweetie? Should I come visit you?” Good, it’s all on your father’s side. Your mother isn’t one of them. You can trust her.

“Do you think I look more like you or Dad?” If you look like your mother, you’ll have her sane genes. You desperately want her long nose and non-suicidal tendencies.

“Like your father, honey. You and your brother have always looked more like your father.”

Your throat goes dry as you try to swallow. “Why are you asking me so many questions about suicide? Are you ok? Is this about your brother?” She has fear in her voice, as if she already knows you’re one of them, as if she might need to hang up immediately to call 911.

Someone knocks at the door. “Mom, I have to go. My friend just got here.”

Don’t even bother to look at the door. Instead, turn on the TV and increase the volume. Unfortunately, the movie that pops up is a western. On the screen, there’s some criminal clawing violently at the rope around his neck. Inside yourself, every cell in your body is taking notes. From outside the apartment, your brother yells, “What’s on TV, Sis?”

Turn off the TV and run to the radio. Increase the volume to blaring. Sit in the corner and suck on your thumb while weeping uncontrollably. If only you could call your mother right now, but you don’t want her to know for sure you’re one of them. You want her to still love you. Eventually, your lids become heavy.

In the morning, your eyes feel puffy from last night’s tears. Forgo taking a shower for the second day in a row. As it is, you barely have enough time to make it to your professor’s office by 10:10.

In his office, without the bright enhancement of the auditorium lights, his dark blue eyes are dull and flat. His beauty was just an illusion, a fabrication. He’s as disappointing as life itself.

“What can I help you with today?”

“Is it possible for someone to kill themselves without a genetic predisposition?”

The professor’s rate of blinking increases. Before answering, he stares at you with his fluttering, dull eyes. “Yes, suicide can be a purely environmental phenomenon. It’s less common though.” Right outside the professor’s door, your brother is whistling.

“How would a person be able to find out if they have a suicide gene?”

The professor’s eyes widen slightly. He clears his throat. “There isn’t a genetic test… There’s only the action of the patient.” Your foot begins to twitch. “But environment always plays a role. Genes have to be triggered. Nothing is set in stone.”

You think about your brother’s tombstone and how your mother cried over it. She looked directly at you in the middle of her tears. Did she already know you were one of them? Did she regret having married your father?

“When was the last time you took a shower?” Your brother’s whistling grows louder.

“Two days ago.”

He hands you a Campus Mental Health Services card and suggests that you might want to ask them some additional questions. This is a great idea. Someone with real world experience is bound to have better answers.

Five minutes later, walk into the Mental Health Services building. Your brother’s footsteps are still behind you.

This is a newer building compared to the professor’s run down office filled with dusty books, inadequate lighting, and a cracked leather couch. Here, under the glow of soft-white bulbs, the floor is shiny and bright, modern furniture decorates the lobby, and there doesn’t appear to be a spec of dirt in the entire building. These people are going to say something you want to hear.

On the fourth floor, the receptionist is young and pretty with strawberry blonde hair, freckles, and pink lips. Despite your unshowered appearance, she smiles at you as if you are normal and asks you to fill out a questionnaire so that she can determine which therapist you should see.

Sit down and happily fill in several survey bubbles with your pencil. You’re intrigued and entertained by the answer pattern that emerges on the right-hand side of the page. This is much more fun than you anticipated.

Toward the end of the questionnaire, you stop when asked about your family history of suicides. Your brother, sitting next to you, says, “Make sure you mention me. Don’t forget about me.” He points to the suicide question to make sure you understand what he means. His fingers are white, almost transparent.

Place the clipboard on a nearby table. You already know the answers to your questions. You’ve heard the death thoughts before. You’ve heard your genes expressing themselves.

Once, you even had to call your best friend to come sit with you. The genes were moving your limbs. They were hunting through the house in search of weapons. Like a heart attack, you were helpless to stop your body from killing itself. When she finally got to your apartment, she wanted to take your blood-streaked arms to the emergency room; but instead, the two of you came to a compromise. She caressed a warm washcloth against your skin, trying to close the surface wounds, trying to calm what was deep inside.

Walk out of the building and towards your car. Drive to the grocery store. You’re going to eat better, exercise more, and sleep nine hours every night. You’re going to take better care of yourself.

At the store, fill your basket with fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grain bread, fish, and egg whites. These are the foods that will keep you happy. Pass by the cookie aisle warily, keeping your hands firmly by your side. Sugar will only make you crash into mental misery. You need to stay balanced, well tuned.

At the checkout, your healthy foods are rung up. The beeping makes your heart feel joyous. It beats in unison with the checker’s rhythm. You can fight this disease.

Then, the skinny checker picks up a package of twisted, coiled rope and brushes it across the scanner. The chubby bagger snatches it up and places it into one of your homeward-bound bags. Your face goes white. Your throat closes up. You can’t even protest that this item isn’t yours. From behind you, your brother says, “I put that in there while you weren’t looking, Sis. Thought you might need it some day.”

In the parking lot, dig through your bags until you find the rope. Toss the unwanted item as far away from your car as you can. People in the parking lot stare at you. A young mother pulls her infant close to her chest and walks quickly away from your general area. But you don't care. You’d rather be a freak than die from rope-induced suffocation.

At home, grab a garbage bag and start tossing items into it: toilet cleaner, Drano, Windex, knives (even the butter ones just to be safe), your razor for shaving, and the entire contents of your medicine cabinet. You’re no different than a diabetic throwing out sugar; there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Run out to the garbage room and toss the bag down the chute. The whole time, check to make sure no one else is around to notice or ask questions. As the bag hits the pile of trash in the dumpster, let out a deep breath. You’re safe now. Your home will be a suicide-free haven. Nothing will sneak up on you.

When you get back to your apartment, you’re exhausted. Lie down on your bed and close your eyes. You’re driving in your car towards a bridge. Your head is drowning in DNA-induced thoughts of death. They’re filling up your skull. They’re spilling out through your nose. Your genes take over, park the car, and walk you to the edge of the bridge. They look down at the royal blue water which reminds you of your professor’s eyes, under the right lighting. If you let your genes dive in, that bright, fake world will be yours. Place your hand over your heart for the last time. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump…

Wake up sweating. Your brother is sitting on the corner of your bed with his legs crossed. “The others thought it would be rude to just barge into your apartment. But I’m your brother. I have certain privileges they don’t.” He always was somewhat inconsiderate.

There’s something around your neck. He’s torn up one of your sheets and wrapped it around your throat in a hangman’s noose. There is something horrifyingly comforting about the feel of the material tight against your skin. “I put a dining room chair in the living room, under that fan. You could hang yourself there.” He stares at you, waiting for a response. “It’s easier than you think.” When you don’t move, he continues, “You might as well get this over with now. You can’t stop it from happening.”

Jump up and run into the living room as the sheet flaps behind you. Your brother follows. Grab the chair, raise it up off the ground, and swing it at him. Your brother ducks as you scream at him. “It’s just a genetic disease!” Swing and miss again. “Lots of people have diseases waiting inside them and they don’t die!” Swing unsuccessfully a third time. “I can fight this! I’m just like everyone else. I’M JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!”

Continue to swing the chair until you realize your brother is no longer in front of you. “I’m over here, Sis.” Set the chair down, turn around, and grab your brother by the throat, right in the bruised part. He yelps and coughs as you escort him out of your apartment by his neck. He doesn’t put up much of a fight. As soon as you shut the door in his face, he begins knocking.

Sit on the floor, against a wall, and untie the knot. Toss the ruined sheet into a corner. You’re just like everyone else. Cancer, high blood pressure, kidney failure, heart attack, diabetes. You’re just another person with a genetic disease.

The knocking continues. It mimics your heartbeat; it is your heartbeat. Knock knock. Knock thump. Thump thump. There is no dead brother right outside your door. You’re just like everyone else.


THUMP was awarded Third Place in the 2007 Competition.


Cecily Anders, currently a compensation analyst for a non-profit healthcare system in Houston, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001. An enthusiastic participant in creative writing workshops, Cecily credits her loving and imaginative grandfather for being responsible for the development of her creative abilities.