Thank you to all who submitted to our Spring 2016 contest, and congratulations to our winners:
First Place: “High Tide” by Aubrey Haskell
Second Place: “Occupational Disappointment” by Mal Sklar
Third Place: “Tree Trough (Raised to Die)” by Nick Porcella
Find the winning submissions below.
It just seemed so wrong.
The sharp, slimy rocks that had sliced his left foot open, leaving a raw, jagged gash soon gritted and salt sore. His hasty and unsatisfactory remedy, six Adventure Time Band Aids. The muffled stillness of the beach, sky bare save for the pale mid-morning sun and a few wispy cloud puffs. The cold, tightly-packed sand. The initial echo of their voices, now long passed. The tidal pools and nooks and crannies that should have been teeming with life, somehow underwhelming. But it was only May, after all. Perhaps he was expecting too much.
Her mother lay stretched out on her beach towel about ten paces behind him, wide-rimmed sunglasses shielding her eyes and the latest issue of Vanity Fair shielding her mouth. It was no doubt curved in her characteristically lopsided frown, the one she always hated him for laughing at. She had rolled up her jeans to just below the knees, but kept her thick white sweater on. Allie’s sweater had been discarded and lay in a rumpled, sandy heap next to her tall green bucket. He could hear the faint clicking and scuttling of the fiddler crabs Allie had caught earlier, still held captive by walls of plastic. Clack clack. Click clack clack.
He stood watching, motionless, where the sand ended and the broken rocky carpet began. It seemed these days all he could do was watch. The wind battered Allie’s little yellow top like a makeshift sail, but she stayed firm, unyielding. He knew she was aware of it all, his eyes on her back, her mother’s Vanity Fair, the cloying smell of a long-dead relationship, the sheer ridiculousness that was divorce.
She had cried when they first told her, hazel eyes wide and confused. “Please fix it, Daddy,” she said. “Mommy, Daddy, can’t you please fix it?”
“Goddamnfuckingshit,” his wife had muttered under her breath, hands twisting the split ends of her hairs as she jumped up from the armchair and left the room. Allie’s quivering, hopeful attention had turned to focus on him.
He had not seen her cry at all since then. He was never sure exactly what her eyes held anymore, because they always seemed to be cast at a safe distance, focused on the peripheral.
She was seven years old.
She had always been good about homework, but now she sat down after coming home from school and completed it all in twenty minutes or less. How was your day? one of them would ask. Fine. Gym was dumb. It’s always dumb. She did all of her own dishes after dinner without being asked, making a beeline for her room afterwards. Through the sliver of insight her barely-open door provided, he could see her reading, sometimes coloring, always surrounded by a wall of stuffed animals. Sometimes he would stand there, trying to garner the courage to knock and gently push the door open, but he never did.
She was like him in so many ways. Stubborn, silent pragmatists the both of them, stumped by a problem that couldn’t be fixed. So they directed their energies elsewhere. Dishes. Homework. Divorce papers.
“Michael,” his soon-to-be ex-wife called, stretching her arms out behind her head, “go get her. We need to go.”
Nothing, not even a flicker of movement from Allie.
“Michael, the tide’s coming in, and she’s just sitting there. Go get her while I pack up.”
He wanted so desperately to give Allie an answer. Something, anything. But she was like him. She would see through the platitudes.
“Yeah, I’m going.”
He glanced around distractedly before remembering the crabs trapped in Allie’s bucket. He gingerly hoisted the bucket up by its bright yellow strap. Clack click clack, the crabs snapped irately.
“Another voyage,” he murmured, wincing as he lowered his injured foot onto the perilous bed of seaside rocks. Slowly, cautiously, he headed towards the large rock Allie was crouched on.
“Hey.” He was close enough now to reach out and touch her shoulder. He placed his hand on the rock instead.
“Watcha doin’, Allie-o?”
A pause. “Watching the ocean.”
“Mmm. Pretty quiet, huh?”
Allie propped her left elbow on her knee and cupped her chin in her hand, still staring straight ahead. “It only looks quiet, Dad. Don’t you know there are sharks out there?”
“Sharks, huh? What kind of sharks?”
“Great Whites. Mrs. Catelli said that they like shallow water, near the beaches. And they travel as far north as Canada. Canada, Dad.” Her tone contained the grave importance of a seven-year-old trying to impart some bit of life-changing information.
“Well, I’ll be sure not to wander out too far.”
“Good.” Allie closed her eyes. “They have, like, three hundred teeth.”
“Oh, jeez. What if they’re nice sharks, though?”
A pause. “No, I don’t think they are.”
Unsure of how to respond, he reached out, offering her the green bucket. “Speaking of ocean life…I think your critters are due to be released, Allie-o. We’re heading out.”
“Oh.” Her eyelids fluttered open. “But Dad, can’t I—”
“No, they can’t come with us.”
He sighed. “Because, kiddo. Not only would they be hard to take care of, they belong here.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Allie uncurled her limbs and reached for the bucket with both hands. She pulled it towards her chest, peering down at her captives. Allie lowered a hand into the bucket. Clack. Clack. Her fingers followed the crabs idly, not yet intent on capture.
“Dad?” Allie turned to look at him suddenly, expression serious.
“Will they be safe?” Her eyes seemed to be seeking something. They were soft again, inquisitive.
“Well, honey…” He scratched the back of his head, caught off-guard. “Uh, no animal is ever really safe out in the wild. You know, it can be dangerous. They’ve got a lot of other critters to—”
“But they won’t get eaten by sharks?”
He laughed. “No, they won’t get eaten by sharks.” With two steps, he had clambered on top of the rock and was sitting next to her. “You want to know why?”
Allie blinked. “Why?”
“Because,” he said, “while I’m no expert on fiddler crabs, I do know this—they’ll never be far out enough in the water to have to worry about sharks. Fiddler crabs have their nests on the beach, right around the high tide mark. They spend some of their time on land, some of their time in the ocean, but never too far in either direction.”
“So they stay in the middle?”
“They stay in the middle.”
“Oh.” A brief moment passed. “Okay. I guess that works.”
She reached into the bucket, scooped up a single crab, and with great care lowered it onto the rock beneath them. It scuttled away indignantly. One, two, three, four crabs later, the bucket was empty.
“That the last one?” She nodded. He felt strangely sentimental. He wondered how many more times they’d all be at the beach together. How many more obligatory monthly roadtrips, planned solely for Allie’s benefit. How many more silent, awkward dinners, the clink of silverware echoing off the walls, eyes fixed on their food, minds wandering elsewhere.
At what point (perhaps not too far in the future) his wife would find someone new. What Allie would think of him. If he would call her by her nickname, and appreciate her crab-hunting skills. If he would have the courage and the grace to talk to her about all the things he couldn’t. If she would one day call him Dad.
Allie had jumped down from the rock and was slipping on her flip-flops. She glanced down at his feet.
“Uh, Dad?” she began, eyebrows raised.
Oh, right. His foot. He had forgotten about the gash, though it was still bloody and very much in need of disinfecting. He winced as he tilted back onto his heel, the pain returning.
“You owe me six Band Aids.”
He looked at her, momentarily taken aback.
“Dad, those were my Adventure Time Band Aids.”
“Oh.” He looked down at his foot again. “You’re right,” he said, smiling. “I think I owe you some new Band Aids, Allie-o. Why don’t we stop at the store on our way back?”
Allie grinned. He took her hand as they began walking towards the cold dense sand and the car and her mother waiting with her frown.
“I can do that,” he said quietly, more to himself than anyone else. “I can definitely do that.”
I was nine when I told my parents that I liked boys. Dad shouted at me until he was red in the face, called me a fag and a pussy and a disappointment. Told me they hadn’t raised me to be one of “them.” Accused me of doing it on purpose to hurt my mom. The usual. Mom finally put a timid hand on his arm to remind him of his bad heart, but by that point I figured that everyone in the cigarette-smelling kitchen knew the exact nature of his heart.
That night they shipped me off to my grandmother’s. Just packed up my toothbrush, pajamas, and a change of church clothes and sent me on my way. I never saw my Thomas the Tank Engine nightlight again. It’s weird the things you miss.
Gram welcomed me with a critical look at arm’s length and a comment that I was too skinny. I said she was too old. She said she couldn’t help that. I reminded her that I couldn’t help being skinny. She said that was fair enough.
The first spell Gram taught me was one for protection. I had told her I was afraid of monsters in my closet.
She said, “Aren’t we all,” and laughed until she realized I was still standing there with a nine-year-old’s sincerity, tears on my eyelashes.
“Here’s what you do,” she said through a cloud of menthol fumes. “Take a whole cinnamon stick and put it in a baggie. Whack it apart with a rolling pin. Don’t use the pre-ground stuff, it’s no good. Wait until after a good rainstorm, then go outside and sprinkle the cinnamon under your window. While you do it, chant, ‘Spirits, frights, fly-by-nights, held back by dark, confined by light.’”
I wrinkled my brow. “What does it do?”
Gram smiled, a maze of whiskery wrinkles and stained teeth. “Those scary bastards won’t be able to ever find where you sleep, not in the day, and not at night.”
Her use of a curse word shocked and excited me. Not that I hadn’t heard worse from my foul-mouthed father, it was just something about the way her soft, old lips had curled around it with such care. That night I went to bed and mouthed ‘bastard’ to myself in the darkness.
Gram taught me lots of stuff like that. Little spells, hexes. Poultices to clear up my skin. Charms for luck and wealth and charisma. I was fifteen before I saw her actually raise the dead, though.
I had come home sobbing, cradling a tiny sparrow. I babbled that I knew it was bad luck to bring dead things inside the house, but that I felt so sorry for it that I had wanted to bury it. Gram had smoothed my hair, long by then, and assured me that there was no bad luck, as the bird wasn’t dead. She passed a hand over the sparrow, muttered something, and its tiny heart whirred to life. It struggled and scratched at me. I dropped it and it took off, out the still-open door and into the wide blue yonder.
I had yelled at Gram for the first time in my life, running to my room and slamming the door. “It’s unnatural! You should have let it stay dead!”
I didn’t emerge for a long, long time. I’m not even sure why it upset me so much. I just remember the feeling in the light bones of my hands, the whirring of that spindly heart, the heat of it bursting outwards, the blind panic of the little sparrow, and the stinging talons.
When I finally showed myself, I begged forgiveness from Gram, which she grudgingly granted. Then I begged to be allowed to learn how to bring back the dead. That was less easily won.
She finally gifted the knowledge to me the night before I left for college.
Of all the spells she taught me, that one was the easiest.
I met Alex at college. He’s one of those people who are always cool in a crisis. He wears floral print skinny jeans. Sometimes he writes bad poetry on purpose, but mostly he writes really good poetry with little to no effort. Gram called him an airhead and a flirt after she first met him, but revised her opinion when he came down last Christmas, bearing shortbread cookies. Neither of us has ever had the heart to tell her that he bought them in the airport on the way over.
Alex keeps asking me if he’s ever going to meet my parents. I tell him that I haven’t seen my parents since they kicked me out.
It’s not true. My mom insisted on seeing me one Thanksgiving, when I was ten, a year after the enactment of my exile. Dad was there.
Gram had never asked if I wanted a haircut, so I’d been growing it out for near a year come November.
The moment Dad saw me, he dragged me into the bathroom by my hair and made me sit on the toilet seat while he hacked it off with mom whimpering and begging in the background, dialing up Gram. I sat very still, not daring to cry until Gram arrived to pick me up twenty minutes later. I sobbed, humiliated, and she gave dad the ugliest look I have ever seen a person make as she left with me. She hasn’t let me see my parents since.
But I’m an adult now. I figure I owe them a visit. As a courtesy.
I’m living in an apartment with Alex, but I still visit Gram in the drowsy, menthol-scented summers. She tells me she doesn’t plan on dying anytime soon, and that I’m on no account to try and reel her back in when she finally does give up the ghost.
I’m rangy and broad-shouldered these days, arms laddered with bead-and-string charms, and I figure that if dad tries to cut off my stubby little ponytail now, I could deck him pretty handily.
I knock on the frame of the screen door, and the first thought I have on seeing mom is how she looks even older than Gram. Fatter than I remember. Shrunken. She’s glad to see me, or she says she is. She invites me inside, potters around getting me coffee.
The kitchen still smells like cigarettes.
“When’s dad getting home?” I ask.
Mom jumps like she’s forgotten I’m there. Shoots a nervous look at the digital clock over the oven. “Any time now,” she says.
I nod, hiding my smile in my coffee. “Good,” I say. “I want to talk to him. To both of you, actually.”
After an intermittent continuum of awkward moments, my mom asks how I am. I say I’m fine. She asks what I majored in. I tell her Business. She asks if I have a girlfriend.
“I’m gay,” I remind her. That’s why you kicked me out, I don’t say.
“Oh. I thought maybe you would have grown out of that silly phase by now.” The words sound harsh, but she’s distracted, means nothing by it.
Nope, still gay, I don’t say. I drink tepid coffee instead.
She plays with a cigarette, tapping the white tube against the tabletop, bringing it up to her lips and then lowering it guiltily, as if remembering that they’re bad for her. Dad never liked that she smoked, was always on her about kicking the habit. I like to think that’s why she’s never quite got around to quitting: her one tiny act of rebellion.
When dad does get home, he’s just how I remember him, only uglier; a network of broken veins maps his nose, and his breathing wheezes and gusts. His breath smells like undercooked meat.
He stops when he sees me, brows diving in an angry vee.
I’m taller than him, so I stand up. He has to crane he neck to look at me. The fact of it makes me crack a grin.
“Hiya, Dad. Gram sends her love.”
He grinds his teeth. He doesn’t know how best to turn on the offensive.
“I bet you’re wondering why I’m here,” I say, and I can tell that only then does it occur to him to wonder.
He hates to seem stupid, as stupid people so often do, so he growls, “Come to finally apologize for what a little shit you were to your mother and me as a kid, boy?”
I shrugged, keeping my tone light. “Not even if you paid me.”
Dad advanced a step, the vein in his temple already throbbing, but mom stopped him. I don’t know if that was her intention, but she suddenly declared that she was making tomato soup and toast for lunch and I was going to join them. That was fine by me, and dad, temporarily distracted by the promise of food, sat down heavily in the nearest chair.
The toast was burnt. The soup was burnt too, crusty and brownish at the surface. I played with my napkin, watching my parents eat. The air was humid and I was sweating bullets, but I kept still, waiting.
At last, mom asked me why I was there.
“I wanted to show you something,” I said.
I laid my knotted napkin on the table and their eyes followed me as I made my way over to one of the plastic mousetraps that sat in the corner of the kitchen. There was a tiny, bloated mouse corpse in it. God only knows how long it had been there. It felt soft and a little slimy as I worked it free and laid it on the sticky, cracked linoleum. Mom moaned quietly. I ignored her.
Concentrating hard, I passed my hand over it, muttering.
There were two tiny snaps as the mouse’s neck jerked back into alignment. It’s little toes twitched. It stood somewhat drunkenly, the film of its eyes clearer and clearer every moment. Its whiskers whiffled, silver in the smothering air. Then it turned and tickered away on tiptoe.
My dad’s words caught me like a right hook. At that volume they were almost unintelligible, but I got the impression he was less than impressed with my little display. I smiled at him as his face purpled. Eventually he stopped speaking altogether, mouth flapping uselessly. He teetered for a moment, then crumpled where he stood.
Mom screamed. I got up, grabbed the phone, dialed 911, and pressed it into her hand. She looked right through me. I left her there, kneeling over dad’s convulsing body.
As I stepped outside, there was a mouse waiting for me on the front step, its downy hairs picked out in the low, pink light. I nodded to it. It whiffled wisely.
Tree Trough (Raised to Die)
As we dropped our tree off
to landfill this year, I couldn’t help
but scoff. A pile of xmas trees,
ex-masted. Piled high, piled dry,
pile sly and deadgreen extremity.
like a pig’s: a pig’s been bred and
reared and raised to be repurposed
on my plate, that xmas ham tasted
so damn good…
And now I couldn’t
help but think that I see me reflected
in this trough of trees, cornucopia’d
cantankerous cancer abutting earth.
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