The great moray eel whips her head out of the cave, demon-faced, cursing, a prehistoric ghost.
Even with the glass between us, you pull back from the glittering eye, the thirsty mouth, this spectacle of ruined survival.
I want to say, yes, death comes like this— powerful-jawed and unrelenting— to remind us, by contrast, how fragile the anemone is.
Watch how it waves, tentacle-bright. That kills, too. Just in brilliant color.
Death always comes out stinging— bite & poison, eel or flower, disguised and hidden in the craggy reef.
I want you to know I see the coral is the same color as the bedsheets at the nursing home, the same color
as the scrubs of nurses who wipe your mother’s mouth and wheel her to Mass. And I want to say, yes, I, too, see her face in the moray’s—
the mouth gasping open and closed, the trembling jaw that spells mortal. We will all have our moment like hers,
we will all be spit out into that unfathomable blue. The cave’s invisible veil will float us into primordial sea. But until then, slip
back into the darkness with me. Hold my hand among all the glowing tanks,
all this breakable glass, hold me close in the water until the inevitable last.
Christine Butterworth-McDermott’s latest poetry collection is Evelyn As: Poems (Fomite, 2019). She is the founder and co-editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. Her poetry has been published in such journals as Alaska Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, Prime Number Magazine, and River Styx, among others.
Lena McCuskey took Danny’s virginity on a hot Friday afternoon an hour after last period. He’d pulled his car into a shady corner beneath the cherry blossoms at the edge of campus, his car half-hidden by the dumpster situated next to the back door of the gym. It was all thanks to the car that he found himself splayed in the back, Lena pulling down his pants with one hand while managing to yank up her t-shirt with the other. He was sweating and trembling, his hands shaky as they reached up and cupped Lena’s sides. Her mascara was running, not because she was sobbing with regret or fear but because of the melty heat; it grabbed her hair and slapped it against her face, like tendrils of dense, rotting seaweed. The car’s interior was already humid like a greenhouse, the windows gathering condensation, which Danny could barely see thanks to their dark tint.
Danny drove a hearse.
When his parents bought the car, surprising him on his eighteenth birthday, a heavy snowstorm came through in the middle of the night. They brought him outside in the morning, blindfolded. He could tell his parents were proud of themselves, both grinning above their steaming coffee mugs, wearing their matching pajama suits and puffy slippers. They stood in the jaw of the garage while Danny tiptoed out into the driveway, his feet crunching through the chunky, ice-slicked snow. He uncovered the recognizable humped vinyl roof.
“Really?” he said.
His mother frowned. “It’s what we could afford.”
“The driver’s seat is actually really luxurious,” his father said. “It’ll make you interesting and different.”
Danny resisted the urge to say, It’ll make me a freak. He knew his parents cared, that they worked hard. His father managed a Walgreens, and his mother worked at the local university’s health center doing medical coding. They must have saved and discussed and searched and searched to buy him this car.
As if reading his mind, his father said, “We got a good deal.”
“Thanks,” Danny said. “Really. It’ll be, uh, unique.”
“That’s the spirit,” his parents said in tandem. They drank their coffee. His mother said, “Now let’s get inside. It’s cold. I’m pretty sure you have a snow day.”
That cold was gone as Lena pulled off his underwear. Danny was semi-hard, and she took it in her hands without a word. When he’d first shown up in the hearse, his classmates had guffawed and elbowed him in the ribs, making jokes about how the goth kids would love it. Danny’s parking spot—he’d paid for one at the start of senior year in the hope that he’d have a car before school was over—buttressed the walkway between the school’s two buildings, and word of Danny’s ride spread fast. The popular kids made jokes about Danny’s parents changing careers (not that any of those kids had any idea what his parents actually did for a living) and one of the football players started calling him Mort.
“Get it?” he said one day, sidling up next to Danny at his locker. “For mortuary.”
“Yes,” Danny said, shoving his physics book into his locker. “I do.”
“Oh, come on,” the beefy red-headed linebacker with bloated arms and a beer belly said. “It’s funny.”
“Ha,” Danny said.
The football player wandered into the scrum of students. Scuffed lockers opened and closed, students laughed and jawed one another, sneakers squealed against the tile floor. Danny threw himself into the din, marching toward his AP English class, where his teacher tried to get them to discuss Timequake, asking what they would do if they had to relive the last ten years of their lives without being able to change anything, knowing exactly what was coming.
“Be pretty awful for everyone who died,” Lena McCuskey said. “Imagine getting on an airplane you knew would crash.”
Lena was the leader of the goth group. They all wore dark, monochromatic pants with t-shirts that looked like they’d been sucked through a wood chipper. Their lips were black, their eyes heavy with mascara. Lena’s backpack was strangled with safety pins. She was smart, the English teacher’s favorite despite the deadpan delivery of her conversation-halting comments. Danny had been paired with her as a junior in their college composition course. They’d written a partnered research paper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike murders, leaning over microfiche machines to read four-line blurbs from ancient copies of the New York Times. She’d been studious, not one for chit-chat, and had driven them to the St. Louis Public Library off Lindbergh because their suburban dinker, while full of paperback romance novels and a vibrant children’s section, suffered a dearth of archival materials.
Lena’s Buick LeSabre smelled of clove cigarettes and McDonald’s fries. She didn’t speak while they drove, nor did she play music. Instead she rolled the windows all the way down despite the cold that spun her hair into her face. She didn’t push it away from her eyes as she navigated I-270, passing cars left and right, engine rattling as she broke eighty, eighty-five miles an hour before at the last second, at the Olive Boulevard exit, careening off. Danny had expected her to perhaps relish in the grisliness of the Turnpike murders, the mystique, but no: when she spoke, it was only to call out roll numbers and dictate how the order of events should unfold in their paper. They received an A.
She approached him months after he started driving the hearse, after his new nickname had spread like an infection. Everyone was calling him Mort, as if he were old and balding and clammy. Lena stood next to his locker just like the football player had, slouchy against the neighboring steel grille. Her hair was glossy in the hard light, so dark it looked like a wig, her pale skin like porcelain.
“I like your car,” she said.
Danny blinked at her. It was the nicest thing she’d ever said to him.
“Could I check it out?”
“There aren’t any dead bodies.”
“Well that’s disappointing.”
Danny shut his locker. They started walking toward English.
“I think it suits you.”
Danny wasn’t a jock, though he did go jogging on weekends and grunted through pushups and crunches every morning, so he was in better shape than anyone would have guessed. He wasn’t a band geek, or a drama nerd, or a gamer. He didn’t count himself among the stoners, and definitely wasn’t among Lena’s goth crew. Danny liked to read, but he didn’t carry thick tomes into the cafeteria. He had a smattering of friends from various cliques. His best friend went to the private high school a few blocks away, and on weekends they sat on one of their back porches, playing cribbage.
“After school, then?” Lena said when they arrived at the classroom door.
She said little that first time, looking over the interior, which was clean: beige leather seats, onyx accents on the dash and radio consoles. The casket rollers and bier pins were still installed, but Danny’s mother had helped him cover them with some blankets and had even made jokes about him bringing girls back there; that’s why she’d chosen a muted gray color: “We don’t want the back to be too romantic.”
Lena fiddled with the evergreen air freshener dangling from the rearview and then toyed with the radio, letting staticky whisper fill the interior.
“I expected it to smell like embalming fluid.”
“I think they cleaned it pretty thoroughly before it went up for sale.”
She stretched out her long legs. “Lots of space here, at least. What’s it like to drive?”
“Like steering a boat.”
“You’ve steered a boat before?”
“Metaphorically, I guess.”
That made Lena McCuskey smile.
On their second afternoon together, Lena said, “Do you ever wonder about the bodies that have been in here?” She looked around as if doing an appraisal.
On the third occasion, she turned to look in the back and said, “Can we sit there?”
“Sure, I guess.”
A stud winked in Lena’s left nostril, and Danny asked about it.
“New,” Lena said. “Did it last weekend.”
“Did it? Yourself?”
Lena laughed. “I have a cousin who works in the mall. Does it all for free.” She pointed up at her right ear, which was a panoply of stones and tiny gold hoops that munched all the way up to the cartilage at the top.
“Tough time getting through airport security.”
“I’ve never flown anywhere.”
She shook her head. The interior of the car was warm thanks to the sun. Lena’s upper lip was dotted with the lightest bit of sweat. “My parents are homebodies. They went to fucking high school here. They live in the house my dad grew up in.”
“What about you?”
Danny shook his head.
She kissed him then. Danny could taste the perspiration on her skin. Her breath was warm and smelled of strawberry. Her tongue plied at his lips and he opened them just so. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he kept kissing her, his hands pressed against her sides, where he could feel trim, sinewy muscle.
When she gripped his erection, he shuddered and said, “Do we need—”
She shook her head. “I’m good.”
She blinked at him. “I’m on the pill.”
It was over quickly, which made Danny feel sheepish. Lena tilted her head and said, “That was your first time, wasn’t it?”
He felt a flare in his cheeks, which were already flush from the heat inside the car, their bodies’ mingled sweat. He could smell his natural aroma: salty and fuzzy and faintly tart.
“You were gentle,” Lena said. “Boys stop being gentle fast.” Her voice was different as she spoke, as if she was holding back something that she didn’t want Danny to hear, a bit of broken glass in her throat. Maybe it was her real voice. Or maybe it was an invention. He didn’t know for sure whether she was or wasn’t who she made herself out to be. Lena pulled on her clothes and smiled at him, her teeth bright and clean. Danny was still naked. He tugged his pants to his crotch in a ball of denim, his underwear tangled in the legs.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You were fine.”
“Trust me,” she said. “That’s a positive.”
Then she crawled over the center console and sidled out the passenger-side door, letting a burst of afternoon air in after her, leaving Danny alone with the sticky air and a shuffling feeling inside him. He sat still for a long moment before pulling on his pants, his crotch swampy. When he dragged himself into the front seat, his foot caught on one of the rollers underneath the blanket and he flew forward, nearly smashing his face against the dashboard.
He gathered himself and turned on the ignition, leaning into the air conditioning that crusted the sweat on his forehead. Danny gripped the wheel, stared forward at the rotting wooden fence at the edge of campus that separated it from the neighboring private property. A strong afternoon breeze danced the branches of the trees that loomed above the fence. He felt spent, empty, tired. Instead of the starry endorphin-laced euphoria he’d always thought would come after sex, he felt a thick malaise, like he’d eaten too much.
He drove home in a daze. Every light was red. At each stop he felt the eyes of the drivers idling next to him sliding his way and—though he knew the hearse was the source of this staring—Danny was convinced he must look different, that the stink of sex must be vibrating out of him, illuminating his skin with a blinding alien glow. But when he glanced down at his hands, they were the same as always.
When Danny came through the front door, his father was slumped back in his Barcalounger, grumbling at the television while he played video games. Danny didn’t know any other parents who still dug Nintendo, and it was a seesawing point of both pride and embarrassment; sometimes Danny thought it was nice that his father felt youthful enough to navigate Mario and Link and Samus around on screen, but other times he thought he was the one who should be obsessed with those pixelated adventures.
“Happy Friday,” his dad said. Danny’s father was a big man; he’d played football in high school, though he hadn’t been good enough for the college level. His face was always a shag of a full, thick beard, and he had hairy arms that seemed to go on for days. He appeared to have trouble finding polo shirts—that’s all he wore: endless polo shirts, even when relaxing in front of the television—that fit his barrel chest. Danny’s mom, on the other hand, was a petite woman, tiny with sharp features and close-set eyes. Danny didn’t really look like either of them but he knew this was how genetics worked: you were generally some weird amalgam of your parents. Even so, Danny looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t see a single trace of either of them, nor any of his massive relatives on his father’s side—he was lankier than any of his cousins or uncles—nor the more gnomish, stout members of his mother’s family. His hair was somewhere between his dad’s dark curls and his mother’s straight strawberry blond, and he had green eyes, unlike his parents’ blue and brown.
“Some lucky recessive genes you got,” his mom had said when he mentioned this. He’d smiled, but Danny had felt even more at sea.
His father paused his game and asked if Danny was hungry for a snack. His dad’s schedule was a chaotic, unpredictable mess, constantly changing thanks to the unreliable twenty-somethings in his employ. He was perpetually on-call, forced to leap from the dinner table whenever some crisis came through on his phone. They’d once had to leave a Cardinals game in the middle of the fourth inning because his store had been robbed at gunpoint.
“No,” Danny said. “Thanks though.” He felt swampy in his crotch, the slime of sex still rotting on his inner thighs. He was sure his father would notice something was different; he was observant, good at catching sight of would-be shoplifters. He’d majored in English but had never managed to find a job where he could really make use of it. He had studied poetry and the Renaissance, even had a small bust of Shakespeare that he kept on the fireplace mantel next to a trio of family photographs. His father didn’t write much anymore, nor did he read, and Danny wondered if this was out of necessity or transformation, time and transition warping him into a different person than he’d been.
“Everything okay, bud?”
“You seem tense. It’s the weekend.” He finally seemed to realize that Danny had been late getting home. “Were you studying?”
“Some library research,” Danny said.
“Studious. Good for you.”
His father unpaused the game. His character, some kind of monk, stood in the middle of a dark forest, carrying a bo staff. Danny watched his father walk up to a lantern hanging from a tree branch and whack it with the staff, which started a small fire.
“Whoops,” his dad said, sending his character running away from the growing flames. “Any exciting plans for the weekend?”
Danny shook his head. “I thought I’d catch up on homework. I have work tomorrow night.”
“No parties or anything?”
“None that I’m invited to.”
His father pursed his lips. “You could always throw one here.”
“I don’t know who I’d invite.”
“Kids will come to a party even if they don’t know who’s hosting.”
“That did come out wrong.”
Danny left his father on the couch and slipped upstairs to his bedroom, a small space with robin-egg blue walls and a bare dresser where he left spare change in messy heaps. He pulled off his clothes and stared at himself in the mirror hanging from his closet. Danny’s pubic hair was matted, his thighs were chafed bright red. He poked at his stomach and the curve of his nascent pecs. Aside from his gluey groin, he looked normal enough. This felt both like a relief and a disappointment.
On Monday, Lena asked if they could drive around after school.
“I have work at five,” Danny said.
She raised an eyebrow.
“I wash dishes.”
He’d taken the job after convincing his parents, who had wanted him to focus on school work, that his last semester of high school didn’t really matter; his college applications were in, and he had nearly perfect grades (junior-year chemistry his lone B) and had done well on all of his standardized tests. He promised he wouldn’t fail out in his last year, and he could use some spending money for when he went off to school. Danny hadn’t told them his real goal was to work his ass off, take as many eight-dollar-an-hour shifts as he could so that, by the end of summer, he could dump the hearse and buy something else. Anything else.
He told this to Lena as he guided them through the grid of neighborhoods behind the high school, where brick-sided ranches and vinyl split-levels with basketball hoops above their garages were arranged in neat, wide streets with ample room for curbside parking. The car’s acceleration felt heavy and elephantine through the gas pedal. Soccer moms unloading their kids and businessmen checking their mailboxes frowned at the hearse as Danny passed by.
“I can’t see you washing dishes for a living.”
“What can you see me doing?”
They had sex again. Danny pulled up next to Lena’s car, the hood smattered with samaras from the blooming maples. He could see a skull-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. This time, she laid down in the back and pulled him on top of her. When she strummed her fingers down his torso along the small gulf at the center of his abs, she said, “These are a nice feature.”
He wasn’t in love with her; Danny knew that much. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that sex with Lena meant that much to him. When Danny tried to remember the feel of Lena’s skin beneath his fingertips, and what it felt like to be inside her, the way her body moved in response to his, it all felt like a distant memory. He could, if he concentrated long and hard, recall the fruity smell of her body and her sweat, the way the interior of the hearse almost went briny. But he didn’t pine for her when they weren’t together.
He kept waiting for something to happen: for Lena to disappear, for Lena to come sobbing to him that she was pregnant, for Lena to ask him to go on a real date. She continued sauntering the halls with her coterie of pale-cheeked, dark-lipped friends, their fingernails the color of tar, their eyelids bruised violets or violent, shrieking green, then meeting up with him after school. He would tootle her around like a chauffeur, zigging and zagging through town, making turns at random, always ending up back at the school, always moving into the rear of the car.
Graduation loomed. Senior superlatives were announced, and Danny braced himself for something ridiculous. None of the slots on the sheet that had been distributed in homeroom—Most Liked, Most Studious, Best Haircut—had seemed like a fit, but, he noticed, there was a space for miscellaneous write-in superlatives. When the class president’s voice buzzed through the intercom system and read off the list—the football player was crowned class clown, of course—Danny never heard his name (somehow, no one on the student council had thought of Best Car).
He felt mostly relief, but bubbling underneath was a kind of sorrow. There weren’t nearly enough superlatives for everyone, he wasn’t alone in missing a wink of immortality. Watching his fellow unremarkable seniors, he saw not a trace of disappointment. They went about their business, slogging through the final days of the year with the same half-excitement, half-disdain as always. Danny wondered if he was the only one feeling the weight of anonymity, his unwanted nickname—even the horrible, half-senile AP history teacher had started calling him Mort—excepted.
On the last day of school, Lena said, “I don’t even know where you’re going to college.”
Danny told her: one of the cheap state schools, where half of their class was probably going, too. Twenty-thousand students, a sprawling campus, gargantuan lecture halls and TAs that didn’t care what your name was.
“What about you?” he said.
“I’m driving out to California for the summer.”
“To do what?”
She looked out the window, as if something interesting was happening in the nearby dumpster. “To be not here.”
“It’s that bad, is it?”
She smiled at him, which looked strange on her. “It’s just not somewhere else.”
“You don’t want to go to college?”
“Someday. There’s no expiration date. What are you going to major in?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what do you like?”
Danny looked down at his hands, surprised at their tight grip on the wheel as if he was in the midst of a high-speed chase. He relaxed his fingers. “I have no idea.”
“You could be a poet,” she said.
“My dad wanted to be a poet.”
Danny shrugged. “Life. Me, I guess.”
“You could write poems about driving a hearse without dead bodies inside.”
“I’d read them,” Lena said.
Graduation day came: sun bleary, humidity a thick gravy. Danny’s armpits went soggy fast thanks to the unbreathable material of his cap and gown. Parents assembled in the air-conditioned gymnasium while the senior class gathered in the parking lot, students’ faces flush, girls’ makeup starting to smudge, the boys smelly despite their deodorant sprays. Danny stood in his spot between two people who were essentially strangers even though he’d been in at least one class with each of them every year; they spoke over him, as if he were a hedgerow or a park bench, about a party that night. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and when he turned, there was Lena, ignoring that everyone needed to be in their proper spot because the procession would begin any second now.
“Oh,” Danny said. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Lena said. Her cap was fitted tight to her skull. Lena wasn’t wearing heavy black lipstick for once, and her eyes were bare; she looked like a completely different person. How easily, he thought, she could transform herself.
“I have something for you,” she said. “A graduation present.”
“Find me after, okay?”
The ceremony plodded along, the principal and dean of students saying the things they were supposed to say. The valedictorian gave a brief speech that everyone applauded. Danny fanned his face with his copy of the program; his gown’s polyester was like a shroud. When he crossed the stage for his diploma, his parents whistled even though they weren’t the type. His classmates and the strangers in the audience clapped politely for him just the same as everyone else. When he shook the principal’s hand, Danny could tell the man had no idea who he was. He turned his tassel at the same time as everyone else.
At the end, his parents gave him a hug. His mother wore a plum-and-white dress, colors in vaguely floral slashes across her body. His dad’s tie was cinched too tight. They looked like all the other parents, proud of their kids, wearing their slacks and holding their purses, beaming. As they left the gym, Lena caught his eye and he told his parents he needed a second. They glanced at each other and smiled.
Lena stood by her car. If her parents had come, Danny didn’t see them.
“Here,” she said, holding out a black picture frame. “Sorry it isn’t wrapped.”
“That’s okay. What is it?”
He took the frame. Inside, printed on cream-colored cardstock, was a poem: “The Hearse Song.”
“It turns out there are a few hearse poems,” Lena said. “But I thought this one was funny.”
Danny read: Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by / For you may be the next to die. / They wrap you up in a big white sheet / From your head down to your feet.
“Thanks,” he said. “When do you leave?”
“No reason to wait.”
Danny nodded and held the picture frame to his chest.
“Thanks for this,” he said.
“I guess I should go find my mom and dad,” he said.
Lena nodded. “Take care of yourself.” Then she got in her car and shut the door. Danny backed away so she didn’t run over his foot as she pulled out of her parking spot. She paused, rolled down the window, and said, “Bye, Mort.”
Danny should have hated her for saying that, but out of Lena’s lips, it wasn’t so bad.
Danny didn’t know it yet, but in just two weeks, the engine in the hearse will putz out. The cost to replace it will be prohibitively expensive. He will spend the rest of the summer working at the restaurant, sloshing dirty dishwater onto his torso, his hands drying and cracking from the blasting heat. He will bank enough money to help pay for a used Civic that will remind him of Lena’s clunker.
When he arrives at college, he will join a fraternity. He’ll tell his new friends that, for a short while, he drove a hearse, and that his classmates called him Mort. His fraternity brothers will start calling him that, too, and, just like when Lena said it, he won’t despise them for it. He’ll tell them about Lena and the poem she gave him. He’ll find more hearse poems—by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Francis Beaumont, James Whitcomb Riley—and he’ll do what Lena said and start writing his own. His friends will find them odd, but magazines will publish them. He’ll wonder about Lena, but he won’t ever hear from her again. He’ll meet his first boyfriend. He’ll have sex with him, and when they share their virginity stories, Danny will tell him about Lena and the hearse and they’ll laugh. Danny will laugh and be warm and happy and he’ll know, finally, who he is, and when he graduates from college, headed off for graduate school—for an MFA, not to become a mortician—he’ll pull the framed poem down from its place on the wall where it has stayed with him for four years. He’ll bring it with him into the next place, and the next, and the one after that.
He watched Lena go, sunlight flashing off her car’s hood and windshield. He’d have waved, but he was holding the picture frame with both hands.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3,and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His first short story collection, The Plagues, will be released by Cornerstone Press in 2023, and his debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.
When I told my daughter I’d take care of her dad while she had knee replacement surgery, I didn’t think she’d be laid up in a rehab center for this long, or that her dad’s urn would look so urn-like, or that my second husband would be so creeped out by it, so I put her dad’s urn in my closet beneath a red, perfume-soaked scarf and an old army jacket to remind him of how things used to be—or maybe, to remind me—and every night I’d wink at where he was hidden and say, Hank, you behave in there a while longer and maybe I’ll let you see what I do with those toys tucked in next to you.
Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest, US. Some of her work is available online at Lost Balloon, matchbook, Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Cease Cows, and others. Her piece, “Salty Owl”, will be included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2021. In 2019, she was awarded Editor’s Choice from Arkana for her CNF piece, “A Pocket of Air”. If you tweet: @kriskozlowski.
The thing about being the murdered newlywed is you set the plot in motion.
You and your wife will be found together, days later, where he left you, where he disposed of you, he thought of it as a disposal, out there in the cold by the river, with all the small, scurrying things.
There will be a fund set up to bring you home, there will be photos of you and your wife on social media, in the news, they were so happy together, they were so in love. In the obituary in your hometown newspaper: She is joined in death by her wife.
You will be joined in death by your wife.
You will be taken home in the cargo hold of an airplane, your wife left behind in the town where you met, your wife left behind in a county cemetery, in a soft, cold grave. You will go home nestled in your casket, closed tight in the dark, you will be picked up by a mortuary attendant in a pressed white shirt and polyester tie. He’ll only know you by your last name on his clipboard, the slide of your body as he loads your casket into his van. He will never see your face, never speak your name, never see the clothing your family has chosen for you to wear. He will go home that evening and kiss his three children on the tops of their heads, think how soft and small their little heads are, how soft and small and round.
There will be the closed casket and a church full of mourners, your father holding your stepmother’s hand in a velveted pew, your mother standing at the back, no, I don’t need a seat at the front, no, I can stand, twisting the strap of her purse, untwisting it, twisting it again, nodding glaze-eyed at the offers of sympathy, flinching when the minister pats her shoulder.
Thank you for coming, she will say to people as they pass her, smiling like it is a happy day, like this is somewhere she wants to be, smiling, smiling, smiling.
A girl’s mother should be there for her, she will say, to no one, to everyone, and later, she will go home and pour herself a shot of bourbon and look at the photographs from your wedding, my beautiful girl, she will say. My beautiful girl.
Your father will look back in her direction from time to time, his hand limply caught in your stepmother’s grasp, look from your smiling mother to your silver-grey casket, he will think when will it be all over? He will think oh, but it will never be all over.
There will be no service for your wife, a county-paid burial, a line with her name in the local newspaper, a slip and a quiet and a nothing at all.
There will be the drop of dirt onto your casket, fistful by fistful, your littlest brother pinching his eyes shut as he stands above that hole in the ground, your littlest brother thinking of the snap-snap-snap of gunshots, your littlest brother’s hand going slack and letting the dirt fall, your littlest brother, that night, muffled crying into his pillow in the dark.
There will be the long wait for your gravestone to be placed, beloved daughter, beloved wife, and your mother’s daily vigil at the cemetery till it arrives, in dangling-hem nightgown first thing every morning, soon as the sun rises, the sky opening up purple and red and pink and finally, blue, blue, blue over the quiet, empty yawn of your grave.
Cathy Ulrich knows the wait for grave markers is longer than TV makes it seem. Her work has been published in various journals, including Mayday, Leon Literary Review and Juked.
Your body grows and grows. You somehow get the foreign thing out, the thing that is yours and also, where did it come from?
There’s no way to know until it’s too late.
They tell you it’s hard. They say you don’t know until it happens to you. I’m telling you because no one else will. The truth is that they need need need need need. It’s relentlessness, the need. I wasn’t prepared.
They say it will change your life. What they mean is you will never be the same. Fucking hell. They don’t tell you the whole truth. And why would they? They’re drowning. They’re sad all the time. They’re nothing, they’re ghosts.
Do you remember the person you were? Being responsible for only your own body, your own breath? One night stands, sweating lovers, slipping away in the night?
I see a ledge, steep rocks on a cliff and dizziness looking down. I wonder about slipping. How would it feel, free? Like love rushing up to meet me?
I am here to tell you that when I wake up I die, and I put on a perfect mother mask, and I fetch breakfast and socks and backpacks, and cheery-eyed I send them to school. Need need need need need. I wake up and die and I make lunch, run the vacuum, click out a grocery order, zombie-drive to the lot, find a spot, park between lines, and wait for someone to bring it out. Thanks so much. Do you have any paper coupons? I have slips of paper but they don’t save me anything. Paper can’t save me now.
What no one tells you is that you’ll dream about death like a lover, dream of the escape, of the nothingness, the quiet mouth of an empty grave. How peaceful to feel the dirt shoveled on. Oh praise! Oh, warm heavy earth blanket! How wholesome to think of worms and maggots and fungi singing through your flesh.
I wake up and die and remember it’s trash day recycling day picture day field trip day farmers’ market day birthday Saturday. Need need need need need. I wake up and die knowing need is constant and collapsing us all into two dimensions, need is dragging me down to the dirt and putting her mouth on my mouth.
If anyone told me, would I have understood?
Jessica Bates lives in middle Tennessee, and lately she enjoys studying abolition and witchery. She’s a 7-year member of The Paper State Writing Club, and she’s working to open a magical brick and mortar children’s bookstore in Nolensville with one of her best friends. Find her on IG @_jessicabates and Twitter @seejesswrite.
Isobel sets a vase of tulips on the windowsill. She folds back the edge of the blanket on the bed and smooths the wrinkles from the sheets. She checks the clock. 11:55 p.m. In five hours, Hannah will be sixteen. Isobel imagines her daughter’s hands, the length of her fingers. She pictures Hannah’s legs, long and smooth, freshly shaven. Her breasts, two swollen nubs at twelve, now likely round and fuller, marking the start of her shift into womanhood. Isobel straightens the books on Hannah’s shelf. She uses the cuff of her sleeve to wipe the thin line of dust accumulated along the edges of each spine. The heat comes on with a whoosh and Isobel starts. She takes a breath and rubs her hands over her thighs to settle herself. There is nothing left to clean or straighten, not that it would matter anyway. By dawn the whole room will be different, morphing suddenly into a space Isobel is expected to recognize as if three years have not passed since she last saw it.
She checks the clock again. 12:01. It is February 29. Isobel lowers herself to the floor and sits with her legs crossed. She rubs her thumbs into her palms. One hand, then the other. She pulls her hair into a low bun and releases it again. Up and down. Her scalp tightening and relaxing. Tightening and relaxing.
She watches the bed and waits for her daughter to return.
Isobel had misunderstood the plan or failed to read the fine print. Though it wouldn’t have made a difference really. By that point, she would have said yes to anything.
When Isobel told Henry what she had agreed to, that they would finally have a baby, he thought she had lost her mind. They would need to move every three years, she explained, so their daughter would always be the new kid and the different rate at which she aged wouldn’t be as obvious. In the off years, she and Henry could travel, disappear so no one would catch on or inquire into the whereabouts of their child.
“You always said you wanted to travel,” Isobel pointed out. Henry returned to that idea after every failed attempt and heartbreaking loss. More time to travel right at the top of his pros column—the weight of the whole world trying to tip the scale toward giving up, moving on. But Isobel’s longing was heavier.
“That’s no way to live,” he told her. She didn’t bother to point out she was barely living to begin with. A shadow of herself—those had been Henry’s words. Nothing left there for him to hold at night, to pull into the warmth of his body and soothe. She didn’t want to be soothed. She wanted to do the soothing. A quarter of motherhood was better than no motherhood at all, she told him. Twenty-five percent of her life lived the way she wanted.
“I want more than that,” Henry said in return. He packed up his boxes and was gone by the end of the week.
Isobel went through with it on her own. In the end she tried to game the system, pushing with all her might to force Hannah to slip from her body before the day turned over, but to no avail. Hannah had been stubborn, waiting for the rising sun to officially welcome a new day. She was destined to be born at a specific date and time. That was the agreement.
Isobel clung to Hannah that first year like a buoy; the intensity of her love kept them both afloat. The days ticked by, the restless nights whizzing along until it was March 1 and Isobel awoke to the bed empty beside her, Hannah delivered to an unknowable space where she would remain frozen in time for three years until she appeared again, only hours older than when Isobel last held her. Or at least that’s how Isobel had understood it. She cut herself off from the world around her. Broke ties with friends. Rarely left her home. She watched the chunky-thighed infants around her slowly grow into noisy, lanky four-year-olds, as she held fast to the memory of Hannah’s body in her arms and waited to officially celebrate her daughter’s first birthday.
But the child who woke up in Isobel’s house on the morning of the next February 29 was not a wide-eyed one-year-old, delighted and mesmerized by the colorful balloons Isobel had hung from the ceiling. No, this was a child without baby fat. Her long legs stretched out across a twin bed that had mysteriously appeared in place of the crib that had been there the night before. Her thin, patchy hair had become thick locks that trailed over her shoulders and across her pillow as she slept. Her lips were parted and Isobel could spy two full rows of teeth. When Hannah awoke, she was not excited by the decorations, nor confused about the who, what, where of her surroundings as Isobel expected. She was simply furious with her mother for reneging on the promise to spend her fourth birthday at Disney World, a promise Isobel didn’t remember making. A promise she could not possibly have made.
The rest of the day proceeded like that, as did much of the year to follow: Hannah constantly frustrated by her mother’s confusion. Isobel no longer knowing how Hannah liked her toast, unable to recall Hannah’s favorite bath time song, Isobel performing the bedtime routine out of order, insisting Hannah brush her teeth before they read books, Hannah repeatedly throwing herself to the ground in a fit of tears and irritation. Isobel had worried that after three years apart her bond with Hannah might feel diminished, but she didn’t anticipate feeling like a stranger in her own body—Hannah demanding her mother be a version of herself Isobel had never known.
By the time Hannah returned again at eight years old, Isobel thought she understood. It was Isobel, not Hannah who existed in a sort of liminal space, or they both did, but not together. There was only one Hannah, forever inhabiting the same body, waking each morning in the same bedroom no matter the day, no matter the year. But somewhere beyond her own consciousness, there existed another Isobel. Schrödinger’s Isobel, Isobel called her. A version of herself that was neither alive nor dead, as far as she could tell; a ghost, but not a ghost. In the years when Hannah was out of Isobel’s sight, she grew and changed under the guidance of Schrödinger’s Isobel, forming memories of a shared experience Isobel couldn’t access.
Hannah resented Isobel for things Schrödinger’s Isobel had done. She raged against her for breaking promises Schrödinger’s Isobel had made, for contradicting the advice Schrödinger’s Isobel had given.
“God, you’re so stupid,” Hannah screamed at her once, on the last day she was eight years old, just before she was set to vanish for another three years.
“I know,” Isobel replied, her frustration getting the better of her. The unfairness of it all, her resentment of Schrödinger’s Isobel cresting inside her, pulling her under. “You think I don’t know how stupid I am?”
She crawled into Hannah’s bed that night and pressed her face into her daughter’s hair, wrapped her arms around Hannah’s sinewy frame. It was so odd to Isobel: the reality of her daughter. The bones and the skin and the heat of this person who not that long ago had not even existed, who remained so unknowable. The ferocity of her love for this child, the way it beat inside her like a second pulse, another life force flowing alongside her own.
“I love you,” she whispered to the back of Hannah’s head.
“I love you too,” came Hannah’s groggy reply.
Which me, Isobel longed to ask, but didn’t.
She decided she would bring it up the next time Hannah came. Twelve seemed old enough for Hannah to learn the truth. But as she waited for morning to arrive, for Hannah to miraculously appear again in the empty bed, like a stranger, wholly transformed into a new stage of adolescence, Isobel realized she didn’t even know where to begin.
“I am your mother,” she imagined herself saying. She could picture Hannah rolling her eyes, saying, duh, in reply.
Your mother is not your mother. I am your mother.
I know you think you have one mother, but you have two mothers, except that your other mother is not your mother, I am your mother. You only have one mother and that mother is me.
She waited for the right moment to present itself over the course of the year, searching for any sign that Hannah could sense the difference between Isobel and Schrödinger’s Isobel. Like how Isobel suddenly hugged her too tight and too long at bedtime. Or how she asked so many questions, wanted to know so much—Isobel needing to catch up on three lost years compared to only one. But Hannah reacted to Isobel the way she always had, loving and hating her in equal measure depending on her mood, and in the end, Isobel awoke again to an empty house, having said only goodnight instead of goodbye.
But now it really was time. Hannah would be sixteen and this was the last year Isobel would spend with her before she was officially an adult. She would begin with the story of Hannah’s birth, the story she told her daughter every February 29, the story Schrödinger’s Isobel could never tell, the one story that tipped the balance in Isobel’s favor.
“She may be your mother more of the time,” Isobel would say, “but I was your mother first.”
Only Isobel could recall the tingling numbness that spread through her thighs as Hannah’s head dropped down into her pelvis. Only Isobel felt the ache through her lower back in the place where the structure of her body had irrevocably shifted. Only Isobel could close her eyes and still hear the faint echo of Hannah’s first wail. Desperate and primal, an aching, needful sound.
She would tell her about the choice she made. How desperately she’d wanted Hannah. How she loved her so much she was willing to suffer three long years without her again and again if it meant getting to have her at all. How she held each moment, each memory tight to her chest like a treasure, a precious, glowing gem sustaining her through the period when Hannah was gone.
If motherhood was measured in loving, no one could claim Isobel wasn’t fully and rightfully Hannah’s mother. If it was measured in sacrifice, Schrödinger’s Isobel had no stake to the claim. Hannah needed to see the truth, to understand that Isobel was the one deserving of her daughter’s love.
“I chose you,” she would tell Hannah. “I made you. I am your mother.”
“I am her mother,” Isobel whispers to the dark, empty room. It is 4:42 in the morning. Fourteen minutes until Hannah arrives. Isobel always stays awake for the moment of Hannah’s arrival, to watch her daughter suddenly materialize before her eyes. It reminds her of Hannah’s birth—a moment far more exhausting, but no less miraculous: Hannah suddenly there, a whole person emerging from the dark, brought into being, blinking to life. That is another thing Schrödinger’s Isobel doesn’t know: the exact time of Hannah’s birth. Or perhaps she does. Perhaps Schrödinger’s Isobel is right now sitting on the floor of Hannah’s bedroom, waiting for the moment when Hannah disappears. Perhaps she does this every February 29, trying to soak up the last few hours of Hannah’s presence, to imprint the image on her mind, hoping it will carry her through a year of Hannah’s absence.
Isobel knows how it feels to watch Hannah vanish, like a kind of death witnessed repeatedly. A wretched, cyclical grief. But she will not feel sorry for Schrödinger’s Isobel. She refuses.
“I am her mother,” Isobel says again, louder this time.
“Is that so?” The voice comes from a dark corner of the room where Isobel cannot make out the speaker, but she recognizes it immediately, knows it like she knows her own voice, because it is her own, except it’s not. “You think you love her more because you were there first.” Schrödinger’s Isobel steps out of a shadow and through the fading darkness of the bedroom, Isobel is just able to make out her face, Isobel’s face, her rheumy, bloodshot eyes, red cheeks streaked with tears.
“If you are her mother,” Schrödinger’s Isobel goes on, her voice pointed and sharp, ready to strike. “Then tell me, where is Hannah?”
She pierces Isobel with a stare that makes Isobel’s breath catch in her chest. She knows nothing about this woman, Isobel realizes, but Schrödinger’s Isobel knows everything about her. She can feel it in the intensity of her look. Every thought, every heartache; Schrödinger’s Isobel knows them all. Every burst of anger, every throbbing pulse of love she’s ever felt for Hannah, Schrödinger’s Isobel felt too.
Isobel looks at the clock. It is 4:58 and Hannah is not here. “What have you done with my daughter?” she says.
“Our daughter,” Schrödinger’s Isobel replies, but she softens under the weight of the words. Her shoulders drop and her head curls forward. She begins to cry.
“Isobel,” Isobel says. She is afraid now. The way Schrödinger’s Isobel slumps forward is too familiar. How her body folds in on itself, pulling inward, trying to plug a space that appeared suddenly, to fill her emptiness with something tangible, something human. It is useless, Isobel knows—her body a square peg, the loss, a round hole. “What happened to Hannah?” She braces herself for the answer, but still, it hits her with the force of a pile driver, the words reverberating down through her toes.
“There was an accident. Hannah was out with her friend. A new driver. Probably texting,” Schrödinger’s Isobel says, the sharp rage creeping back into her voice.
“Did she—how did she—?”
“On impact.” Schrödinger’s Isobel saves her from saying the word. “Or at least that’s what they told me.”
“When?” Isobel asks, and Schrödinger’s Isobel has to look away from her to answer.
Now it is Isobel’s turn to crumple, all the air pulled from her lungs in a single breath. She collapses to the floor but just as suddenly she is up again, propelled across the room by her anger, her grief.
“How could you let this happen?” She is screaming at Schrödinger’s Isobel. “You’re supposed to protect her! You’re her fucking mother!” She pushes her as hard as she can and Schrödinger’s Isobel crashes back against the wall.
“She’s a teenager,” Schrödinger’s Isobel yells back. Isobel charges at her again, but this time Schrödinger’s Isobel grabs her arms and pins them to her sides. “What was I supposed to do?” she says. “Lock her in her room? Barely let her live? You have no idea what it is like to raise a teenager.”
Isobel falls to her knees from the impact of the words. She feels both weightless and immovable. Real and unreal. Alive and dead.
“Yes, well,” she says, looking up at Schrödinger’s Isobel who is still standing, hovering above her. “You have no idea what it is like to lose your only reason for living.”
“Yes I do,” she replies. Schrödinger’s Isobel lowers herself to the floor beside Isobel. She wraps an arm around Isobel’s shoulder and gently guides Isobel’s head to rest against her chest. Isobel feels the rise and fall of breath, perfectly in time with her own. She listens to the quiet thump of her heartbeat, both of their heartbeats, pulsing as one. “I do know,” Schrödinger’s Isobel says, as she runs a hand over Isobel’s head, gently combing her fingers through Isobel’s hair.
Isobel pictures her daughter, the sweet bulge of her infant belly, the thick fat of her baby neck and thighs. Then Hannah’s slim, lithe body, her second toes, longer than her big toes, her pale, sparse eyebrows, chapped lips, rough elbows, the small scar under her chin, the one across her right knee; Isobel never knew where they had come from. Then Hannah as a grown woman. Isobel imagines the sharp angles of her face softening with age, the gentle crease of the forehead that made all the women in Isobel’s family who had come before her look perpetually skeptical. The same crease settled into her own skin a few years ago, and Isobel reaches up and touches a finger to it. For a moment she imagines that she is Hannah, her head resting in her mother’s lap, Isobel both mother and child, soothing and being soothed.
“What do I do with all of this pain?” Schrödinger’s Isobel cuts through her reverie.
Isobel does not want to help Schrödinger’s Isobel. She wants to blame her, hold her responsible, to let Schrödinger’s Isobel be the receptacle for all of her pain, a magnet for her grief, let her pull all the misery out of Isobel, and have it stick to her instead, weighing her down. We are not the same, she wants to tell Schrödinger’s Isobel, I cannot help you, but of the two of them, Isobel is the expert on loss.
“You carry it,” Isobel says.
“For how long?”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Schrödinger’s Isobel replies.
Isobel looks up at her own heartbroken face.
“You have to,” Isobel tells her. “You are her mother.”
Claire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of a children’s lit collection, Little Thoughts, as well as two microchapbooks: A History of Rats (Ghost City Press, 2021) and, As Long As We Got Each Other (ELJ Editions, Ltd., 2022). Claire is the founder and editor in chief of Little Thoughts Press, a quarterly print magazine of writing for and by kids. She serves as a staff reader for Capsule Stories. You can find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com or Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.
this time i slip the curve under my tongue to curl, this etched morning, this slow creaking light
that lisps a leak, that creeps in easy to kiss your lip, that weaves your lock and loops a leg across
your body. this time you wake me up. you pick my body up off the gallery floor, having
gathered the shoes i kicked into the corner while eating the exhibition with an open mouth,
a flat tongue. you walk my eyes down what i can’t remember; i duck into the curve of your neck.
you will always clean up after me in the morning. you will always pull my socks on for me. this time either
leaps or lingers but it is not wasted, looping lightly over and over, a trace light that
peeks or peers, a teethed grin that makes lofty plans. i do not step outside this morning or any.
Jessica Anne Robinson is a Toronto writer and, more tellingly, a Libra. Her poetry is featured or forthcoming with MacroMicroCosm, untethered, Diagram, and Room magazine, among others. Her debut chapbook, Other Mothers’ Funerals, is being published with Frog Hollow Press. You can find her anywhere @hey_jeska.
In the last 20 years, nearly that many feet of snow had fallen and melted over the grave of William McIlroy. Not one footstep had ever patted it down; not one flower had ever given color to the gray snow in winter or the patchy dirt in summer.
Twenty-one years ago, the bones that lay there now had heated his kettle, steeped his tea, and turned newspaper pages on the back porch every afternoon at almost exactly 5:30. They did, for a few more months. Those afternoons, William remarked on the highlights of his reading to the dove nestled in the joint of the crossbeams, or to the fireflies that floated by. They didn’t say much in reply, though he wished they would. He had reached an age when old friends were long gone, and new ones were hard to make. So, he sat on his porch, accepting this with weary resolve, and solved the weekly crossword. At the end of May, he went with a whisper, and that November the first 5 inches of snow fell.
Jim Hoss had a red pickup truck and not much else to speak of. He was a journeyman and had been since he finished trade school. He felt it suited him alright, but wished it didn’t. Going to trade school was the last bit of advice his father had given him. Jim felt it was his duty, so he went.
When Pop died, there was no money to bury him. Jim and his younger brother split a case of Pop’s favorite, Busch Light. They drank it on the bank of the pond where the three of them used to go fishing, and said goodbye to their father.
It was October, and Jim found himself putting up lines in west Illinois. When his work was finished one Friday, he stopped by a convenience store, then drove, looking for a church. He found one at dusk. No stone bore the name William Hoss in that graveyard, nor at any other he had visited every October for the last 12 years. Any William would have to do. He finally stumbled across one: William McIlroy. But tonight, he’d be William Hoss.
Leaning against the headstone, Busch Light in hand, Jim recounted the happenings of the last year to his father. And with a bouquet of dandelions over his grave, William McIlroy received his first visitor.
Andrew Weinert is a new writer, working in a kitchen full time and writing as much as time allows. This is his first published piece.