Frigid

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

In January the first of the planes fell out of the sky. It was a gentle descent, and we watched with about as much concern and mitgefuehl as a crowd of middle-aged sightseers at an aquarium. There was a vague murmur as the mass of metal shone and flashed through a series of acrobatic twists. Only when the plane threatened to kiss the ground did we think to shield the eyes of our children. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. They didn’t know what caused the fall. Most put it down to sheer bad luck. My wife, Lucille, called it a reverse miracle, as if the inclusion of religion might lighten the burden for the rest of us.

It’s cold in Wisconsin most of the time, even in the summer. This particular January, though, was a real record-breaker. The snow piled up to the lintels. We dug tunnels through it like arctic gophers. Icicles caught up with the ground in free fall.

In the fall, our younger daughter Joann had started kindergarten. I didn’t like the teacher much. She kept giving Joann right-handed scissors even though Joann was left-handed. It reminded me too much of those Catholic schools that thought the left hand belonged to the devil. Lucille and I went in for a parent-teacher conference.

It went something like this:

Teacher: Joann is actually doing very well-

Me: I thought as much.

Teacher: Except for one, I hesitate to say problem here, but-

Me: If you give her right-handed scissors you can’t be surprised.

Teacher: It’s a problem.

Me: I’ll say it’s a problem.

Teacher: She won’t speak to blondes.

Lucille: What?

Teacher: She won’t talk to blondes. She’ll talk to redheads, brunettes, jet black, gray. Even, when Sylvia’s mom dyed her hair blue last week so she could audition for that toothpaste commercial.

Me: Sylvia’s mother dyed her hair blue?

Teacher: Sylvia’s hair, yes.

Lucille: Well, have you tried getting her one on one with a blonde?

Teacher: I’ve done sharing buddies, napping buddies-

Me: Tried giving her the right kind of scissors?
Teacher: I think it might be good if you two would talk to her.

Me: We’ll get right on it. You’ve left us no choice really.

Lucille didn’t talk to me on the ride home.

Our house is set back from the road on a driveway that’s hell to clear in the winter. On top of that we had to start clearing frozen air. The weatherperson said that it was so cold that the molecules of gas were becoming solid. So we got frozen air: air that thickened and dropped to the ground in little invisible hunks.

We sat Joann down in the kitchen, away from the hubbub of the living room. Dover, who was supposed to be pure golden retriever but turned out to be mostly mutt, had gotten into Kathy’s National Geographic collection. She had been saving back issues for four years to create a giant collage made entirely of faces. She wanted to make a face out of faces. What a kid. Now hunks of glossy magazine paper stuck to the floor and sofa, glued by sticky dog slobber. Kathy was incon

solable at the moment so we thought it best to begin with the simpler problem.

“Joann, honey,” Lucille started, “we need to ask you a question.” Lucille always approached things from the side. Never one for a frontal assault. It had taken me several days to realize that she had proposed to me. She still hadn’t quite forgiven me for that.

“It’s about school,” Lucille continued.

“Uh huh,” Joann said. She stuck a finger on the counter-top and pressed down until the fingertip turned white.

“We talked to your teacher,” Lucille said.

Joann nodded understandingly. She tilted her head to one side and then the other. I had to fight the urge to follow her example. What would the world look like from this angle? What about from that? Could things fall upwards if you stood on your head?

“She said you won’t talk to blondes,” Lucille said. “Honey, do you have anything to say about that?”

“What’s a blonde?” Joann asked.

“It’s a person,” Lucille said, “who has light colored hair.”

“Like grandma?” Joann asked.

“No,” Lucille said, “like-” She paused trying to think of famous blondes.

“Like Marilyn Monroe,” I said. Lucille kicked me under the table.

“Like Big Bird,” Lucille said at last.

“Big Bird is a bird,” Joann pointed out.

“Yes,” Lucille said, “but the color of Big Bird’s feathers is the color of blonde hair.”

“Okay,” Joann said.

“So,” Lucille said.

“I like Big Bird,” Joann said.

“Okay,” Lucille said, “what about the kids in your class?”

“They like Big Bird, too,” Joann said.

Kathy came into the kitchen. Her hair clip had slid down the side of her head so that her hair was pulled over to the side. Her face was pale from crying.

“Can we put Dover down?” she asked.

“No, honey,” Lucille said.

“He’s a monster,” Kathy said.

“You call him a monster,” I said, “and then wonder when he becomes one.”

“Bill,” Lucille said, “please be helpful.”

“But look what he did,” Kathy said holding up what was once a special issue on primate evolution. A grinning chimp face peered out between gaping tooth holes.

“Yes,” I said, “our ancestors weep in their shallow graves.”

“Bill,” Lucille said.

“Is Dover a blonde?” Joann asked.

The second plane fell on Presidents’ Day. This one was closer. We could hear the crunch of metal on earth as the cabin folded in on itself. The sirens beat their way through the frozen air for hours; ambulances from Madison and Milwaukee and even for some unknown reason Green Bay.

The kids were in school for this one, but apparently the teachers turned on the news so that they could watch. Kathy came home from school crying. Joann came home with a note that said she was still not talking to blondes and would we please do something about this.

A special investigation was begun. Men and women in suits began to ask questions at the doors. Had we seen any suspicious people in the area? Heard any strange rumors? Did we believe in God as much as our neighbors thought we did?

And we locals did not sit idle. Faced by the seriousness of this local tragedy we came together as a community, bonding in ways mysterious and powerful. I signed up for the Committee to Support the Victims. CSV. I thought if nothing else worked we could perhaps form a counter-culture drugstore. Lucille said this wasn’t a time for jokes. CSV met in the basement of Joann’s teacher’s house. Her husband Mitch, led the meeting from the confines of his rocking chair.

“The primary concern, of course,” Mitch said leaning back in his chair ruminatively, “is how to be prepared for the next event. We need to get ahead of this. Start making pamphlets. Talking with our children. Rallying.” He was a big man with quite a paunch and what was people called “big-hearted”. He was always volunteering for things: chaperone duty, bake sales, coaching Little League. I felt an immediate deference towards him.

“Excuse me.” The man next to me raised a thin hand. He had been here six years. Still an outsider. “What next event? Shouldn’t we look to the survivors and families of these past crashes? Shouldn’t we investigate the cause?”

Mitch rocked forward, asserting his power. “It stands to reason,” he said to the air, “it stands to reason that we want to be proactive in a case such as this. Proactive not reactive.”

“It just seems odd to be doing nothing–” the outsider started.

“Bill.” Mitch barked out my name. “How would you feel about heading up the pamphlet-making portion?”

“Sure, Mitch,” I said. My standard response. “Sure, boss.”

He leaned back in his rocking chair satisfied.

“We don’t even know what caused this,” the outsider mumbled. “What good is a pamphlet?” If it had been the fifties we would have called him a communist, as it was the best we could manage was to deny him cookies at the end of the meeting.

Lucille and I didn’t have sex for the month of February. It’s a short month, thankfully. She stayed up knitting blankets for the children of families of the crashes. I stayed up designing pamphlets. I learned Adobe InDesign and Photoshop and then back to Adobe for the Illustrator. I picked a font. Microsoft Himalaya. It seemed to invoke climbing, heights, challenges met. I stared at the computer screen late into the night, letting the light wash over me with its cleansing glow. I crawled into bed long after Lucille had drifted off, and I lay next to her listening to the sound of her breathing. I wondered if I’d be around when the breathing finally ended.

Kathy finished her collage in early March. It was grotesque. A grinning human face made of grinning human faces. It was overall a white face, with bits of color in the cheeks and one Aboriginal in each pupil. It looked to me more like a skull than anything, but of course I played the role of supportive father.

“It’s hideous,” I said.

“Bill,” Lucille said.

“What?” I said. “It is.”

“Thanks, dad,” Kathy said, “I’ll take my critique from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. You can’t even make a stupid handout. ”

It was true that I still had yet to finish even a draft of the pamphlet. Mitch had been calling the house recently especially around dinnertime and sometimes Kathy would answer the phone.

“The next accident could occur at any time,” Mitch said. “We can’t be unprepared.”

“I know, Mitch, I know.”
“I just want to be sure your full effort is in this,” Mitch said.

“Sure, Mitch, sure.”

“We’re all counting on you here,” he said, “I can’t stress the importance of this.”

“I’ll have it done before the next crash,” I said.

“Excellent,” Mitch said. “That’s what I like to hear.”

It got colder throughout March. The snow got so cold that it turned directly to ice. Towers of ice stood on either side of our driveway, threatening to collapse at any second. Driving through them daily was a testament to my faith in modernity. See me, the modern man with my four wheel drive and snow tires, see me unafraid of my impending doom, oblivious to the fate waiting to engulf me.

The frozen air had also started to become a problem. Dogs and even some children were beginning to swallow it. The air cracked under the stress of expanding and broke into little bits just at the correct height and of the correct dimensions to choke small animals.

We talked to Joann’s teacher again to see what measures we could take.

“Don’t let her outside unsupervised,” her teacher said.

“Well, of course,” I said.

“I mean it,” her teacher said, “not even for a minute. The Everson’s Rottweiler escaped for a few seconds yesterday. Dead before the Everson’s even knew he was out.”

“We’re very vigilant,” I said.

“And how are the pamphlets coming?” her teacher asked, as if the two things were related.

“Almost done,” I said. I had chosen a color palette, bright orange and light blue. Calming, but with hints of warning for the observant reader.

“We need to be prepared,” the teacher said. I wondered if I even had the energy to hate her.

The third plane crashed before Lucille and I had had sex again, before the pamphlets were done, before we had a chance to look away. This one came down in the center of town. It crashed into city hall, setting the frigid trees ablaze for a few seconds. The sap had frozen solid, their wood simply fell away in smoldering hunks as though dipped in liquid nitrogen. The mayor was not in his office, but his secretary and two pages were sent to the hospital. All those onboard the airplane perished on impact.

The smoke from the crash wrapped through the air and came down on the school. It surrounded the ice towers at the end of our driveway. It triggered Kathy’s asthma. She stayed up the whole night coughing. Joann sat beside her, stroking her hand. I wondered what she would have done if Kathy were blonde. Lucille just sat watching the two of them. Occasionally she got up and walked downstairs and then came back upstairs a few minutes later driven by the same secret animal impulse that leads moths to the flame and lemmings to the cliff edge.

I drove to the crash site the day after. Most of the CSV were there standing around the yellow-police tape perimeter. They were muttering and nodding their heads, examining the angle of the plane, the vectors and velocities, reenacting the moment of impact with their hands. I walked around to the other side of the square.

The plane was closer to this side, surrounded by cranes and crews of men hacking away at the metal in an effort to clear the area of its existence. This did not happen, they said with their cranes and metal-cutters, their hard-hats and yellow-orange safety jackets. And if I looked away for

long enough, I almost believed them.

The bodies were gone, of course, taken to the local mortuary where their families could come collect them. Wives, husbands, children, cousins, from distant places like Maine or Hamburg. From the county over where the accent sounded almost the same. The bodies would be cleaned, restructured, dressed in the right sort of clothing. Perfumed like ancient Egyptians.

Lucille’s father died when she was in grad school. We had just begun dating, it was in the stages before sex was consistent, when we still approached each other hesitantly. The news came in the form of a phone call from Lucille’s mother.

I did what I had to: I held Lucille until my arms fell asleep, I drove her to the airport, I packed her belongings, I answered her phone calls, and when she came back the next semester, I told her I wanted to move in with her. All this time I never saw the corpse. I wasn’t at the funeral. I felt the loss from afar, through the hollowness in Lucille’s voice, the desperation of her hands on my back. Even if I had seen the body I’m not sure I would have felt anything.

I asked a police officer if there was something I could do.

He looked at me with his head cocked to one said. “Who are you?” he asked.

I explained that I was a member of the Committee for the Support of the Victims.

“What’s that?” he asked.

I explained that we were a committee interested in supporting the victims.

“Sure,” he said, “I guess. Donate blankets or food or something? What is there to do? Some of them was kids.”

Not anymore, I thought.

That night I stared at the pamphlet template for a long time. I put in a clip-art picture of a pl

ane. I put in a clip-art picture of a family. I cut out the father and then the child. I put them at either side of the plane. I put little clip-art flames on the wings. I saved it to my desktop and shut off the computer.

I crawled into bed. Lucille was awake next to me. Down the hallway I could hear Kathy wheezing. I put my hand on Lucille’s stomach. It was warm under my icy hands. I leaned over to kiss her. She turned away.

“I’m worried,” she said.

The next day, Kathy’s breathing had not improved, despite the fact that the smoke had blown away towards Minnesota. We took her in to the doctor. Joann came with us, because school had been shut down until the weather improved. Education did not have the same standards as the postal service.

The doctor listened to Kathy’s lung for a long time. He went out of the room. Lucille showed Kathy pictures of faces in the magazine, but Kathy didn’t pay any attention, she simply sat with her bum lungs pumping up and down. Joann kept kicking the legs of the chair. The doctor came back in. He had a thick white mustache smeared across his lip like powdered sugar from a donut. His forehead was creased with concern.

“May I talk to the two of you alone?” he asked.

Lucille looked at me. I looked at her.

“I want to stay,” Kathy said. Joann kicked the chair legs. Lucille nodded once.

“You can tell us all,” I said.

“It seems,” the doctor said, “as far as we can tell, that there is frozen air caught in your daughter’s lungs. Tiny particles have attached to her alveoli. We’ve had a few cases like this.”

“Well,” I said.

“There’s not much we can do,” the doctor said. He ran a hand over his upper lip. I expected sugar to come away on his fingers. “Keep her warm. We’ll give you some herbal remedies that might help alleviate the cough.”

“And?” I asked.

The doctor looked at me. His forehead remained creased. “We’ll keep you updated,” he said.

We set Kathy up in the family room, next to the fireplace. We covered her with blankets and comforters. We gave her a stack of National Geographic. She asked to see Dover, their feud of a few months ago apparently over. Dover leapt up on the sofa with her and wagged his tail like an idiot.

Lucille sat up late pointing out interesting pictures with Joann on her lap. The only time she smiled was when Joann noticed the image of a blonde woman and stroked it with seeming affection.

I went out that night to look at the crash site again. The plane had been mostly cleared away. Only a few folding pieces of iron stuck up out of the ground near the front door of the hall. The holes in the building had been covered with sheets of plastic. I walked around and around the square, forcing my boots through the layers of ice. I looked up at the sky through the cracks of pale cloud cover, barely move against the cold. Between the peaks, for one moment I saw starlight, a single point of light in the velvet. But it was a cold light, and I went home uncomforted.

The doctor called us late the next day. “Your daughter will need to be moved,” he said. “There is a treatment facility. It’s in Fort Worth, Texas, where it’s warm enough to work. Time is of

the essence. She has only a day or two at most.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I said.

We sat staring at the computer trying to decide.

“It’ll be less expensive if just I go,” Lucille said.

“No,” I said.

“It will be,” Lucille said. “We’ll save five hundred at the least. And we need someone to stay with Joann.”

“You stay with Joann,” I said.

“Bill,” she said.

“I mean it, Lucille.”

There was a night, when Kathy was very young and Joann had not yet been born. Kathy had gotten the flu, and Lucille stayed up with her all night. Sitting and holding her, rocking her back and forth, stroking her head even as Kathy bawled her lungs out. I had put in earplugs and gone to sleep. I had never been a spectacular father, and knew now that I never would be. There were some times when I could not rise to the occasion, some places where I could not go, but this was not one of them.

We got to the airport two hours early. We drove slowly through the winding Wisconsin roads. Every few miles we saw a car that had slid off the road, and I drove even more carefully after that. Kathy held onto her bag all through security. She let go of it reluctantly when it had to go through the X-ray, and clutched it to her again as soon as she was through. I had only a small suitcase. I rolled it along behind me clacking against my heels.

We sat in the waiting area. I thought about calling Lucille but didn’t. Kathy read her book s

ilently beside me. Sometimes her mouth moved, forming words. I wondered if she was aware that she was doing this. Something in her seriousness reminded me of looking in the mirror for gray hairs.

The flight crew showed up at last. I watched them surreptitiously, looking for signs that things weren’t right. They seemed normal, in a hurry and grouchy. They were wearing dark orange uniforms with light blue highlights.

We boarded the plane. Outside the snow was falling softly. There was little wind. I wondered if they’d cleared the runway of frozen air.

The captain spoke on the intercom. “Have a nice flight,” he said.

“You too,” I said as I always do.

I tightened Kathy’s seatbelt next to me. She looked up at me and smiled. If I could have taken a picture she would have fit perfectly into her own collage, but I couldn’t help seeing the skull beneath her skin.

“We’re gonna make you better,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

The engines started, and we backed out from the platform. We turned onto the runway. Snow swirled in and out of sight, flickering in its macabre dance. The flight attendants readied for take-off.

We began our run. The wheels jolted on the ground beneath us, I felt the lurch of the plane as it attempted to shake free of its own weight. It surged. It lunged. The engines hit a higher gear. The wings bounced alongside us, like birds hopping up and down in anticipation. We were about to take off, to cut ties with gravity, when it happened.

The sound of propellers hitting ice, a crunching deadening noise. We were sliding then and someone was screaming. The plane was tilting and the world with it. Metal was twisting against metal.

My thoughts did not go to Kathy sitting beside me. Kathy whose lips were moving gently and wordlessly so that I wondered if somehow she had learned how to pray. My thoughts did not go to Joann who would grow up fatherless as well as using the wrong scissors and perhaps forever silently hating the Aryan race. My thoughts did not go to Lucille whose body was more familiar to me than my own. Lucille whose only fault had been loving something incapable of loving her back.

I went back instead to the first winter I could remember. I was eight and living in Monroe. We went out skating on the pond. I had mittens tucked into my sleeves. My breath hung before me in the air, a dragon in the snow. I skated clumsily, barely able to stay upright even without my older brother pushing me down.

I just wanted to skate around the pond one full circle. One single perfect brush with infinity. I focused hard. I put all my thought to it. I skated around and around, each time falling just short of the goal. The afternoon wore on, and I grew tired. The pond refused to yield, eternal in its frigid circularity.

The sun began to set, and my brother went inside. It grew colder. Snow got in between my mittens and my coat and bit at my skin. Tears froze in my eyes. I skated and fell, skated and fell.

At last the moon began to rise. Once more, I told myself, once more and it would be over. Once more and the world lifts under me and flies me off and away. I pushed my legs back and back against the clear ice. I made it around half, three quarters, five sixths, I was within sight. My

skate caught the back of my heel and I fell.

I landed hard on my back, the breath knocked out of me. Above the sky hung laughing. A single star looked down between the layers of cloud. It was a cold light, a brutal light. It knew me. It knew the ice lodged even then inside, the frigid weight that I was destined to pass on to my children and on and on through the generations. The distance that would define me for the rest of my life. Wisconsin is cold even in the summer. We breathe it in and damn it if we’ll ever breathe it out.

As I waited in the plane for the flames that started in the engine and worked their way back through the cabin, consuming everything in its path, devouring passengers and melting seats, metal and plastic, I felt the ice again in my chest, and knew that even in death there could be no thaw.

Advertisements

Clear Water, Bright Lights

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I remember the date when I first realized I was drowning. December 19, 2014. It was written in violent pink on the bachelorette party invitation email. Eunice missed the wedding season, I’ll give her that, but there’s something cruel about inviting a bunch of twenty-somethings to go out drinking in the dead of winter in Chicago.

The wind was already clipping in off the lake with a sting, and I realized that this would be the first time I’d seen Clara in three months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Clara. I mean, she was my best friend in college. We’d lived in the same house our senior year, with Eunice, of course. We all three spent the last week together in a drunken haze hitting pieces of fruit out the window with tennis rackets. The sharp snap of an apple against wire. The spray of juice and fruit flesh.

And we all three ended up in Chi-town. Only a bus and a Loop apart.

But there’s something about living different lives, or there’s something about living no life at all that stifles conversation.

And I was living no life at all.

What do you call selling your soul to a non-profit? Waking up every day as if it were Wednesday. The blue glare of the computer screen. Styrofoam coffee cups with bite marks along the rim. The printer asking again and again if you’d remove the goddamn paper, please?

Squabbling with my roommates about rent. Telling my mother that, no, I wasn’t going to be producing grandchildren just because I turned twenty-three which is, yes, the same age she had been when she had me.

So, I hadn’t talked to Clara in a while. Three months. Since John proposed.

I mean I had to have seen it coming.

We took the train out to the Dunes, because John has always had this weird idea that I want to return to Indiana. That I hadn’t been running from it for four years. That I could forget the smell of burning trash out in the neighbor’s back yard. That I didn’t remember the depression of an endless cornfield. The dead white sky.

Yeah, we went to the Dunes. And idiot that I was, I was surprised when I turned around and he was on one knee. There was sand and wind whipping into my eyes, so I didn’t have to pretend to cry.

I said yes, because he’s a nice guy, and my mother would be happy. I hadn’t told Clara about it yet.

The bachelorette party was at a kind of dive-y bar. It used to be a stage for improv groups, people just spit-balling, coming up with crazy shit. I guess it didn’t really change that much.

They still had old posters for shows, a few pictures of the celebrities who had once been there. I showed up a little too early so it was just me and Eunice and Eunice’s sister for a while.

Eunice asked me about John. I asked her about her soon-to-be husband, even though I wanted to ask about her instead. That was the way it was when you were in a relationship. Your status suddenly revolved around this other person. This other life.

John was a consultant, making good money. I’d move into his apartment when we married.

I’d slowly submerge my life into his, forgetting the little peculiarities about myself. My urge to talk through movies, my desire to be a painter, the way I still couldn’t tell left from right without using my hands. But I was happy. And Eunice was happy. So what was the problem?

Other people began to arrive and I lost Eunice. It was dark. The stools were uncomfortable. I was nursing a white Russian in the corner while the others were taking shots of whatever. There were little white Christmas lights hung over the bar and everything felt soft and out of focus and I couldn’t give a fuck about anything.

Until Clara walked in.

What can I say about Clara? She has one of those faces that’s full of energy, like every line is dynamic and moving and if you could trace the path of just one of them you’d find the little buzzing center of the universe. Her eyes are the deepest, softest brown I’ve ever seen. They remind me of soil and the smell of spring. Or something.

So in walked Clara wearing her classic amazing style: a black jumpsuit that would look tacky on anyone else but looks like she just got off the plane from Paris. Which maybe she did, because it’s Clara. And she’s kind of really fucking rich.

She didn’t notice me at first, because I was hunched. I’m a huncher, and I liked watching her before saying anything. But eventually she caught me staring and smiled her smile that’s just for me and walked over.

“Ellie!” she said and we were just the two of us together and alone.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up with you?”

“Oh goodness,” she said, “what can I say? I just got a new job and you won’t believe it. I’m working in this basement with this guy who smells like lima beans and it’s top secret and

ridiculous. And the other night I got called back to be in this toothpaste commercial. And I just got invited to spend Christmas in Florence. So things are pretty normal. You?”

“Yeah,” I said, “similar stuff going on here. I just got a new Swiffer, but I don’t like to brag.”

Clara laughed. I stood up and we hugged. We gave each other the traditional it’s-been-so-long hug. Arms around each other, pull tight, not long enough to get comfortable, just long enough to remember how comfortable it used to be.

In college we had a turtle for a few weeks. Not for very long. It mysteriously disappeared out of our modified fish bowl and we never figured out what really happened. We pretended it was our child. Decided what religion it would be. Reprimanded it for smoking in the room. Gave it the sex talk just to embarrass it.

“What kind of party is this?” Clara asked. “Everyone looks all washed up.”

It was true that everyone, myself included, looked like they were trying just a little too hard. Dramatic make-up, dramatic dresses, dramatic laughter. We needed this fix.

“Yeah,” I said, “well we can’t all leave lives of romance and adventure.”

“Not from what I hear,” Clara said and looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“How’s John?” Clara asked even more pointedly.

“Okay, okay,” I said.Yeah, he proposed. How did you hear?”

“Eunice, John, John’s friend Brian, Kelly…” Clara said ticking them off her fingers.

“Yeah,” I said, “I need new friends.”

“Yes,” she said, “you do.” She paused. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a tinkling of ice in a glass somewhere behind me. The soft lighting seemed to flicker.

I exhaled. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“Well,” she said, “here I am.”

“John got down on one knee,” I said. “And then I said yes. And we’re getting married in June.”

“Classic,” Clara said. “You’re gonna have to get your claws out if you want to get anything good.”

“I haven’t really started thinking about it yet,” I said.

“For real?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why not?”

But then Eunice found Clara and we got pulled into doing a reminiscent shot of Patrone. And then someone pushed another mixed drink into my hand. And enough people had arrived so that a dance party started on the tiny dance floor.

Around midnight we moved on to the club that Eunice’s sister had picked out. It was loud and there were more shots and things were spinning just a little when Clara found me again.

“Maid of Honor?” she asked.

I pretended not to hear her the first time.

“Maid of Honor?” she shouted.

“Yes,” I said.

“Who is it?” she asked.

Lights of red, yellow, green, blue danced along the wall and dropped onto Clara’s shoulders, arms, legs, feet. They jumped onto her face, speckled her hair.

We went to Mid-Winter Ball together our junior year. We danced until one. The DJ was awful and someone peed from the upper floor down onto the crowd. I was drunk but not drunk enough to forget that she kissed me on the cheek when we were staggering our way out into the cold. The cold felt like nothing compared to the burning of her lips on my cheek.

“You,” I said, “I mean…you… if you…”

“Oh,” even over the bass it was not a happy sound. “Ellie,” she said, “I can’t be there. I’m gone in June. My new job. I’ll be traveling.”

“Oh,” I said. I turned towards the bar. “Let’s do a shot,” I said.

“Ellie,” she said.

“Shots,” I said.

“Sure.”
Next thing I remember we were on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rest of the party was scattered down a ways from us. Someone was vomiting behind a bush. Eunice was being lifted on people’s shoulders. She had left her coat somewhere and was now wearing the coat from the guy at the club. It flapped against the wind.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Clara was saying, “but I just felt a connection you know?”

“What?” I asked.

Jeremy,” Clara said.

“Oh right,” I said trying to get back to the thread of the conversation.

Eunice rose and fell screaming in the wind.

The waves pushed up against the shore little and icy. I couldn’t feel my feet or my face. The pebbles stood out, etched by moonlight.

“Yeah,” Clara continued. “Like, I’d never felt that way about anybody before? It was strange because I knew it couldn’t last. Like,” she stopped and swayed a little. “Like, if it did last I’d burn up too soon or something.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Like a star,” Clara said, “stars when they go supernova or whatever. They’ve gotten to big and their atoms like just can’t bounce that fast anymore, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. She swayed a little more and bumped into me. She rested her forehead on my shoulder.

“So,” she said and inhaled deeply, “I ended it, right? Because I can’t supernova, man.”

I nodded and looked out at the long swathe of dark water. It rose up over me and for a second I wondered if it would come crashing down.

The night before I turned twenty-two, my senior year of college, Clara and I went down to the river and jumped in together. It was early March and freezing. The water knocked the breath out of me, and when we emerged the stars were out and my body was cold and on fire and alive and dancing. And hers was too.

The next day I went back and picked up a feather that lay on the spot where we jumped in. I never told her about that part. That day before going to the bachelorette party, I put the feather into my purse. It was still there burning a little hole against the lining.

“Clara,” I said. Her name felt so good against my tongue, so I said it again. “Clara.”

Mmmm,” she said from my shoulder.

“I— ”

“That’s how you feel about John, huh?” Clara said and turned her face to me. Her eyes so brown, the bottom of the lake, so deep. “You feel like you’re burning all the time? Super-fucking-nova?”

“No,” I said. I pushed her off my shoulder gently. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I said.

“Huh,” Clara said. She took a step to the left and looked at me. “Drowning. Love is water, Ellie.

“Yeah, Clara,” I said, “love is water.”

The next morning I woke up in Eunice’s apartment with the biggest hangover of my life. My head split into two equal halves, each half screaming at me for my stupidity.

Clara was on the couch across from me. Her hair swept across her face like the shadow of a shadow.

I left without waking anyone else up.

It was bright outside. Gray and white and bright bright bright.

I staggered down a few streets and took a taxi down to the shore again. In the daylight the lake looked smaller, bleaker.

I took off my shoes. Each step stung, each pebble felt like a knife. I walked down to the edge and let the waves hit my toes again and again. They lapped up the tops of my feet, my ankles, my shins. I walked further in. It grabbed at the edge of my skirt.

I looked across the water towards the place where John proposed. The other side of the waves. A different lifetime a different universe. Supernovas, man.

I opened my purse and pulled out the feather. I dropped it into the waves and walked back

out.

My legs screamed at me all the way home.

I called John from the cab.

“Hey, honey,” I said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I had a good time. I love you, too.”

I looked out the window of the cab up at the skyscrapers so high above my head, the bright sky so high above my head, and I was drowning, drowning, drowning and could never come up for air.

Girl Cries Alone With Camera (2017)

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I’ve been here a year, a sun-soaked spotless year, the light bleaching memories until I return to a blank-page, useful for writing on, useless for writing with.

There is the Bay which is fertile and degraded, there are the hills which are aspiration and struggle, and then there is the Pacific, that’s for forgetfulness. You must wear your Pacific with a difference.

Bathe in the impure crystalline waters, sinfully blue and the mind becomes as unused as the virgin body.

I drown myself in the purposeful amnesia, because too many things have scarred and bruised me and I have grown weary at twenty-four.

***

It is a night job which means I have the days free should I want them. And I do want them.

I want it all: the innocence, the guilt-free living, forgiveness for a past I never wanted.

I take BART west, leaving right around sunset. I enter the bay tunnel with the last rays of the sun and emerge to a sunless night. One star dies to make way for millions. Is it such a bad thing?

But I am not a star.

I think I might be a sort of fish. The creepy big-eyed type that live their lives in total darkness. Their only use to ogle and be ogled in return.

I found the job on craigslist, one of the many ads I thought to be scams. But running on empty in a new place leaves you desperate, and, hell, I’ll try anything once.

I depart at 16th and Mission, make my way without making eye contact through the tangled web of homeless people. Their working legs walking wheelchairs in endless loops. Women sucking long slow death out of cigarettes, men with penises limp and barely concealed under sagging pants.

I try to remain small and quiet, unseen in the constant breathing city.

I walk the four blocks to the empty building. Corner of Valenica and nowhere.

There is a lock on the door with a key code. 1279. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but it reminds me of a sign I once saw.

“Please don’t break in,” the sign read, “there is nothing left to steal.”

I enter the key code. I enter the building.

There my equipment waits for me.

One (1) chair. Standard type stool with back, requires me to fold my legs onto the top rung to sit comfortably.

One (1) video camera. Possibly linked to the internet. It is always on when I enter. Always the blinking red light, the cords running off like so many dead blue veins into the shadowy rest-of-the-room. A dark and pulsing heart residing in the Somewhere Else.

I sit in the chair facing the camera. And then I cry.

***

Before I was the sobbing mass of a blob of a human that I am today, I was just a human.

Who can say when exactly your trauma creeps up on you and takes over and whether it was the big things, the sexual assault, the cheating and emotional abuse, the betrayal and lies and years of making yourself invisible, or the small things like the stranger on the street shouting “Smile, sweetheart! Why don’t you smile? You’re gorgeous!”

And when or where the snap happened exactly doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it did.

And it did.

I moved here for you. The you who held me as I cried about my broken body no longer sure if it was even mine. The you who watched my self-loathing crawl up and over my arms and told me that I was whole, that I would not die by my own hand, that you would be there for me, would always be there for me, whenever I called, you’d answer, like my shadow, my lungs, my heartbeat.

I moved to be with you, to get a beagle, and to grow old and happy and healed.

Until you woke up to love someone else. Someone who held water. Someone who reminded you of me, so you told me, but a younger and sexier me. Me 2.0.

And I, foolish heart that I am, was happy for you.

And only a little sad for me, left without an apartment, friends, or a job in a strange city that might have been the other side of the world.

I suppose I should pick up smoking. End it all a bit sooner.

***

I cry for two hours, have a ten minute break, cry another hour then I get my lunch. I bring water, snacks, and my book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in case I need a spark to set me off.

I stretch my legs during this time and walk around the space. It is your typical empty warehouse/industrial space. The streetlamps shining through dust encrusted windows. I watch a spider dancing in silhouette, spinning, spinning away in darkness beautiful.

Another two hours of crying, sometimes faking it, sometimes unable to stop, another ten minute break a final hour, and then home around 2:00.

BART is long since closed so I take Uber or brave it out on the night bus.

I sleep like the dead, losing myself in uncounted dreams, populated by men and women I don’t know but whose faces I have seen, the brain being incapable of creating faces of its own.

Or so I’ve been told.

***

It pays well, whatever else it is. The money appears in my bank account every week like clockwork and I have managed to pay the bills so far.

If it stops, I tell myself, so do I.

But I wonder if I wouldn’t show up to the building anyway, addicted as I am to the catharsis. Banging on the door to let me in, let me in, please, god, let me in.

***

I don’t know a soul in this city except you. And you’re too busy exploring your new life-changing love, enjoying your mind-blowing sex with Me 2.0.

I don’t harbor any grudges against her. I only hope she might die an early and excruciating death.

***

I have weekends free and I spend them as a zombie tourist, wandering stricken from the Golden Gate to Strawberry Hill over to City Lights Bookstore. The same empty expression, the same panic-stricken numbness in my chest.

I watch the fog creep down over the hills, deep and blanketing as the snow we used to see in Minnesota.

When we walked out on the frozen river and I split open for you, spilling drops of blood like so many pomegranate seeds for you to crush between your perfect teeth.

The irony of explaining the monstrous to a monster.

I wonder now which is worse: to bruise and rip a body or to break the wings of a soul.

***

San Francisco, city by the bay, take the past from off my shoulders, I have no more use for it. Make me washed clean, unburden me of these twenty-four years, meagre offering that they are.

Saint Francis, make me whole.

***

I get a croissant from Tartine Bakery. It is a little thing, but I am trying to give myself bright little things, trying to give myself space. Trying, in the end to heal in whatever ways are left open to me even if only between the flaky layers of a pastry.

I walk to the building early, thinking to stretch my body loose before the evening. Perhaps sit and draw the spider, sit and draw my own reflection spinning and spinning against the darkening sky.

I enter the key code, my prayer to the gods of empty buildings.

But for once the building isn’t empty.

“Whoa hey,” says a voice.

I have a bite of croissant melting in my mouth and nearly choke on it. “Hello?” I say.

My eyes are adjusting to the chiaroscuro, the shadow depths made two-dimensional and suddenly close.

“Hey,” the voice says again.

My pupils dilate and the voice solidifies into a man: youngish man, somewhere between twenty and thirty, white and, therefore, almost indistinguishable except for his beard which is streaked red. He is about my height, but stocky, with the thick neck of a bull that so many women my age seem to find attractive.

“Hey,” I say. “Um, sorry. I didn’t know-”

“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m almost done. Um.”

“Done?” I ask. “You do something here?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m, like, the AV guy, I guess. Mark.”

He extends a hand, and I see curled in the other hand the thick blue line of cord that I’ve only ever seen sprawled out as a snake. It occurs to me for the first time that they wouldn’t leave the camera running all day. That someone must come and check on it. That there is someone else involved beyond myself and the cheerful emails I received at the beginning, written in all caps comic sans.

“Lucia,” I say.

“Like the light,” he says.

“Like the saint,” I say.

His hand is thick, firm, warm. It feels like what I imagine shaking hands with a tree would feel like.

“I’ll just get out of your way,” I say.

“No worries,” he says. He smiles.

I eat the rest of my croissant.

“So you’re the girl,” he says as he unfurls the cord, plugging it into the outlet in the back of the room.

“Woman,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” I say suddenly self-conscious. It occurs to me for the first time that other people—that strangers—what I had known but never allowed myself to imagine—

I bring my attention back to the present to prevent myself from descending into madness, or perhaps from beginning the climb towards sanity.

“I am the woman,” I say more confidently.

“That’s really cool,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig, right?”

“I guess so,” I say. “It’s something.” A pause. “So, um, what do you do? This can’t pay for everything.”

“I do tech,” he says. “Couple small theaters. Worked for an event planning company for a while.”

“Cool,” I say. “I didn’t even know that was a job.”

“Sure,” he says. “There’s plenty of stuff that pays. It’s just that most people don’t know about it.” He winks at me, and I feel my face redden. It feels good. I also feel like vomiting.

“Cool,” I say again. I look at my watch. Mark is continuing to fiddle with the camera, adjusting it for the chair, I assume. It’s getting close to show time and for the first time I consider it a performance. I feel light-headed.

“Are you, um?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. And not sure what I want the answer to be. Mark’s hair is flecked with gold in the dying light.

“I’ll be out of your way in a sec,” he says and my heart stops pounding.

Moments pass in near silence. I walk slowly to the chair. I sit.

Mark looks up at me from behind the camera.

“Okay,” he says. “Looks good.”

I smile.

“I’ll see you around,” he says. And then as quickly as he appeared. He is gone.

I wonder about his last statement, if he is watching, whatever it is, wherever it is. That night I see his face above the camera and I find myself fake-crying more than usual.

***

I take another week before I show up early again. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m at the building that Mark may not be the only AV person. That there could be a whole team, a swarm of strange faces, waiting for me.

But I’ve already punched the final 9 and I’m opening the door.

Mark has his back turned.

“Hey,” he says. “Lucia, right?”

“Hey, Mark,” I say before remembering to have forgotten.

“How you been?” he asks.

“You know,” I say.

“Actually, I don’t,” he says. “It’s why I’m asking.”
I laugh.

“That wasn’t that funny,” I say. “Sorry.”

“A woman apologizes for laughing at a man’s joke,” Mark says. “Might be a first.”

“I doubt it,” I say. “People have done crazier things.”

“Really?” Mark says. “Can’t imagine what that would be.”

I laugh again and set down my bag by the door. I brought a beer tonight. I’m not entirely sure it’s allowed, but I felt like a beer and so I brought it. I actually brought two.

I reach into my bag, hesitate, and then offer one to him.

“Want one?” I say.

“Oh,” Mark says, “actually, I don’t drink. But thanks.”

“More for me,” I say and feel foolish.

“So,” I say. Just that word and the heat rises to my face again. I look anywhere but at his face. I do not want to look at his face, I tell myself. I do not want to make eye contact.

“Yeah,” he says, and out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is grinning.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says. Then, “You’re here early.”

“Maybe you’re here late.”

“You can have my number if you want it.”

“Who says I do?”

“All right.”

“All right.”

A pause.

“What’s your number?” I ask.

***

“I love the ocean,” I say, “but I haven’t been out there as often as I’d like.”

“Oh,” he says. “Baker Beach.”

“I’ve never been,” I say.

“You should,” he says. “I’ll take you sometime.”

He doesn’t drink, but he smokes, the chink in his perfect knighthood, the trail of dragon smoke drifting up into late spring sky.

You didn’t smoke. I revel in this newness, as close to touching another person as I’ve come. I haven’t kissed Mark. I don’t think I can. Don’t think my lips can form those shapes anymore. I am afraid of him, the way I am afraid of most things.

He’s as harmless as any human being, which is to say a ticking time-bomb.

“I’ll take you,” he says. And I have no doubt that he could.

***

I feel as if I am back in high school. We go on dates, Mark and I. We take walks in parks, we drink coffee, sometimes we eat food. I drink wine while he watches, the stain of rotting fruit against my lips.

We do not kiss. I never touch him for longer than an awkward hug at the beginning and ending of these little sessions. We meet in the daylight. He walks me to work when I have work.

I can’t tell if I’m happy with this chasteness. Or if I am frustrated.

My body is ready for the dry-rot of sensuality. It yearns for that burning touch, for the holding and stroking, the worship and adoration of hands against skin. My body does all it can to reach towards intimacy. But my mind keeps it chained.

Every link is a memory, of you, or of him.

You: the taste of your mouth on mine when we are together in the shower, soap and hot water.

Him: the rush of blood to the surface of the skin and I know there will be another bruise tomorrow.

Between the two I could go insane.

Wait, I tell my body. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for, and as I wait, I am drying up.

***

DEAR PARTICIPANT!!

WE ARE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE THE CONCLUSION OF OUR PROJECT “GIRL CRIES ALONE WITH CAMERA”!!!

WE COULDN’T’ HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU! 🙂

PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE SHOWING ON JULY 4TH. WITH RECEPTION TO FOLLOW.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION!!

WE WISH YOU SUCCESS ON ALL FUTURE ENDEAVORS!

SINCERELY,

 

“BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.”

-GANDHI

***

“Are you going to the reception?” I ask Mark.

We are on the bunker, that one that’s really close to the Golden Gate, so close I could reach out and touch it. Mark has told me the name, but I’ve forgotten and perhaps don’t want to know. I prefer to think of it as just another ruin, like Machu Picchu or the pyramids, great stone wastes growing up out of the moss.

It is hot out, getting on towards summer. My lease will end sometime and I might need to find another job.

We still have not kissed.

“I don’t know,” Mark says.

“Aren’t you curious?” I ask. I am sitting with my legs tucked under my chin, my head turned sideways to look at him. He has such a solid face. I let myself imagine it. We start dating, and for once it is simple and sweet and I don’t have to burn myself to feel.

I turn away and bury my face between my knees. I scratch the back of my neck.

“I mean,” he says. “I helped edit it. So I’ve seen it already.”

“What’s it like?” I ask.

“You haven’t seen it?” he says.

“I’ve just lived it,” I say.

“That’s weird,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s pretty much what you think it is.”

“Huh,” I say. “Are there other girls?”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

“I meant you,” I say.

“What?”

I sigh. It is the thing that stops me most. Mark is not quick. You were quick. He was also quick.

“Never mind,” I say.

He smiles as he does when he knows he’s missed something but doesn’t seem to care that he has.

“So what’s it all for?” I ask.

“What the project?”

“No,” I say. “The all of it.”

Mark looks at me. “I don’t know,” he says. “I try not to think about it too much.”

“What do you think about then?”
“Nothing,” Mark says. “I try not to think at all.”

I raise my head. I look out at the bridge orange and glowing against a backdrop of fog. Closer at hand a violet has pressed its way up through the cement. It is sharp and close. I realize I haven’t looked at something, really looked at it in so long.

Since I looked at your face, as near to me as my next breath.

“What are you doing then?” I ask.

Mark shrugs. “I’m just trying to have a nice time,” he says. He makes eye contact. I make eye contact back.

But I don’t lean in.

***

I wear a dress that is too short to the reception. All my other clothes are packed up.

It’s held in some tiny art gallery/trinket shop in the heart of the Tenderloin. I take a Lyft to the place and manage to only be catcalled twice on my way to the door.

There are about ten people there. The space is dominated by the screen. It hangs from the upper level, clear and big and bright.

There is my face in a hundred thousand pixels.

I don’t know if I expected sound, but there isn’t any.

It’s just me, silent, my shoulders shaking.

I watch myself with an odd feeling of detachment. My body, suddenly huge, my grief seems almost, laughable at that size.

What are you doing? I want to ask myself.

My big on-screen face leans up and I see the path of the tears from whatever day, whatever moment, whatever pain I felt then, dripping down my puffy red face.

And then I can’t help myself, but I do. I start laughing.

Everyone turns to look at me. Three or four men with soul-patches, a woman with half-shaven head, there may be a beret or maybe I just want there to be a beret. They all look at me confused, scandalized.

A moment of recognition, a few glances back to the screen. They see me now, the girl.

But I am not crying. I am laughing, so hard it hurts my ribs, so hard its cracking out my fingers, so hard I double over.

It’s hilarious.

I am laughing on my way outside. I am laughing as I get on a bus headed somewhere. Laughing my way down a few winding paths into the heart of the Presidio.

It is clear out. There are a few couples on the beach and a homeless man sleeping down a ways. But the ocean is empty and above it hang a thousand crystalline stars, brighter than the pixels, closer than the violet pushing through the cement.

You are a pebble and I throw you to the waves, he is a laugh and I release him to the sky, Mark is the feeling of water against my calves and I allow him in.

I can feel the weight of all the eyes, pulling me apart, placing upon me, and I laugh and scream and am until it is all very clear.

 

 

 

 

Modern Horror for the Modern Woman

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I first noticed it under my bed a few months ago, but who knows how long it was there before. It was small at first. I only found it because of the bump.

It was about midnight, and I was tossing and not sleeping as I tend to do when Charley is out of town. I had woken from dreams of digestion, luminescent glowing fluids, and tentacles, when I felt the mattress lift ever so slightly and fall with a bump back onto the bedframe.

It reminded me of sharing a bunkbed with my older sister as a child. Sometimes at night if she was angry or more often if she was bored, she would lift the mattress with her feet and let it drop, so that I, sleeping in the top bunk, awoke with the sickening feeling of falling.

Here I was, an adult woman, with the same feeling of falling.

I got up, lowered myself onto my hands and knees and peered into the darkness.

It was small then, a lump half-hidden in the darkness, but I felt it watching me.

Charley came home the next day.

“There’s something under our bed,” I said.

“Hello to you, too,” he said.

“Just look at it,” I said. “Also I missed you.”

He kissed me.

“Under the bed?” he said. “Are you sure it isn’t on top?”

“Come and see,” I said and dragged him to the bedroom.

Charley dropped to his hands and knees beside me. He sat still for a moment. There it was, staring back at us. I forced myself to breathe evenly.

“I don’t see it,” Charley said at last.

“What?” I said. “Are you serious? It’s right there.”

Charley looked again. “Sorry,” he said. “I just don’t.”

I looked at the thing. It looked larger than the day before. I wondered whether it could laugh.

That night I felt the bed rise again and drop with a bump. Charley, sleeping soundly next to me, didn’t stir.

The next few weeks, I kept my eyes open. It hadn’t, as of yet, done anything more sinister than jolt me awake every once in a while. Still, I didn’t like that I alone could see it.

Or so I thought. Until one day when my niece was over to visit.

I love my niece. She’s a nice niece. I don’t get to see her as often as I want. As a teenager, she has a bit more going on in her life than hanging out with her aunt.

“Jenny,” I said. “I need to show you something.”

“Okay,” she said.

“It’s under the bed,” I said.

“You’re weird, Aunt Margot,” she said. But she followed me anyway.

I held my breath this time. Hoping against hope that it had indeed disappeared, that it was nothing more than my imagination. I didn’t say anything as Jenny took a look.

“Ew,” she said. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s scary,” Jenny said. “You should get rid of it.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll try.”

The exterminator was as kind as he could be under the circumstances.

“Ma’am,” he said, “there’s just nothing there. I can set out the traps if you’d like, standard cockroach and mouse. But really I can’t do more than that.”

“Please,” I said. “Maybe you’re not looking hard enough. It’s there. Right there. Why would I be making this up?”

“I don’t know,” the exterminator said. He glanced nervously towards the door. “Why would you be making this up?”

“Can’t you just poke at it with a net or something?” I asked.

“I think you’re thinking of animal control,” the exterminator said. “Or a psychiatrist.”

“Come on,” I said. “This has to be a joke.”

He might have been joking, but his bill certainly wasn’t.

“Margot,” Charley said when he found out. “Are you okay? Is this about something else?”

“No,” I said. “It isn’t about anything else. It’s about that weird thing that’s under our bed. It’s getting bigger. And I swear the other day I saw it grab one of my socks.”

“Margot,” Charley said. He ran a hand through his hair, his thick beautiful hair. Probably one of the reasons I fell in love with him in the first place. I looked at his face, so trusting, so trustworthy. He couldn’t be lying to me. He just didn’t see it.

“It’s there,” I said. “Please, just believe me. It’s there.”

By April it was so large I could see it every time I walked into the room. It had started to make little hissing noises whenever I walked by, something like air escaping from a tire, or hysterical giggling. One morning I found a pile of little bones next to the bed.

“We should move,” I said. “Please, Charley. Let’s move.”

“Margot,” Charley said. “It’s okay. Whatever this is, it will pass. I promise. It will go away.”

I tried to lure it out with cheese, raw meat, beer. Nothing worked. It stayed where it was glowering under our bed. I took to sleeping on the couch. I couldn’t persuade Charley to join me. I was scared all the time. I ate fewer and fewer meals. Started pulling out strands of my hair as I’d done in college.

Jenny came over again.

“Aunt Margot,” she said. “Are you safe?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It hasn’t done anything yet.”

“I’m scared,” she said.

“Let’s go see a movie,” I said.

We went to the local theater that was playing old-fashioned flicks. We watched a back to back screening of Roman Holiday and Sabrina. For a little while I forgot to be worried.

Until I got home, took off my shoes and felt it watching me.

I looked up and there it was in the doorway of our bedroom. It was larger than ever. Looking at me. Watching. Waiting. Hissing gently. Oh so gently. Mocking. Watching. Waiting to—

I grabbed my shoes and flung them as hard as I could. It hissed when they hit and sprang towards me.

I screamed and raced towards the kitchen, reaching for a knife–

It was on me before I made it two steps. Sharp claws and a heavy heavy weight. Dragging me down.

I screamed again, pushing it away, beating at it with my hands. It was so heavy. My lungs were in agony reaching for air. Its smell overpowering, I felt it sucking the oxygen out of me. Cutting into my arms and belly, my legs, my face. This was how I would die and Charley would have no idea.

Charley if only you’d believed me.

I woke up in the hospital. My arms in bandages. Charley sitting next to me.

“Margot,” he said. “Hey there.”

My head hurt. The sun was too bright. Everything hurt.

“Where?” I asked. “Where is it?”

Charley dropped his gaze to the floor. “Margot,” he said. “I love you so much, baby. I just love you so much.”

“Is it dead?” I asked. “Is it finally dead?”

“The doctors aren’t sure,” Charley said slowly.

He was talking from a million miles away, the bottom of the ocean.

“They’ve seen cases similar, but not exactly like this. I should’ve said something sooner. Picked up on signs.”

“It’s dead,” I said. “Just tell me it’s dead.”

“There was nothing there,” Charley said.

Outer space. His words could barely reach me.

“Margot, you did this to yourself.”

“No,” I said. “No.”

That night in the hospital, I lay awake, tossing and turning. When I closed my eyes I saw it again, smelled its breath on my face, the sharp claws, the suffocation. I heard Charley saying, “There was nothing there.”

I lay there in the hospital bed listening to the machines beep-beep-beeping away. The traffic outside my window. The ticking of the clock from the nurse’s station.

I felt the mattress lift ever so slightly under me.

And fall with a bump.

 

Accidents

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

He hit the dog almost without knowing it. He might have driven on had it not been for Charlene’s screams from the seat beside him.

“What? What?” he shouted.

“Out there!” she said, pointing a trembling finger. So, Sid pulled the rented Jeep to the side of the road and got out.

The dog was panting still, incredibly, its tongue hot, red and pink, its stomach splashed across the hard-packed dirt road.

“The most dangerous things in Australia,” Sid remembered the rental agent saying back in Sydney, “are the roads. You hit the edge wrong, it’s raining, you’re a goner.”

It had sounded quaint in Sydney. Everything had sounded quaint: the roads and the honeymoon and the whole rest of their lives together. Driving up the coast to Brisbane and then scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef. But that was before and this was now and the dog was dying on the road in front of him.

“Do we bury it?” Charlene had gotten out of the Jeep now. She was walking hesitantly towards him, her high heels wobbling. “Can we find its owner? Maybe it will live.”

This last came out plaintive, and Sid almost hated her for it.

“It’s not going to live,” he said coldly.

It was a dull yellow dog, the same color as the miles and miles of countryside they’d been passing through. Flies the size of pennies were landing dark and angry where the tire had burst through. Sid wondered where the flies had come from in all that great distance.

Australia was bigger than he’d imagined. Sure, there were kangaroos, but there were kangaroos in the zoos back home. This was a country, a continent of heat and desolation. He felt the sweat beading at the back of his knees and under his wide-brimmed hat.

“Your adventure hat,” Charlene had called it when they were packing. It had seemed cute then. Now it sickened him. He noticed that the key was still in the Jeep and the doors were standing wide open. The air-conditioning that had been blasting since they left civilization was now streaming out into the strange December summer.

“Go close the doors,” Sid said. It came out an order, and he could feel Charlene silently adding it to the count. Only eight days married and they already had a count.

“I’ll move the body,” Sid said.

“It could be diseased,” Charlene said.
“I’ll move the body,” Sid said already walking towards the dog.

It wasn’t as heavy as he thought. By now the life had run out of it and its eyes were dull. The flies swarmed his hands and arms. He hoped they wouldn’t bite, unlike everything else in the damned country. When he reached the edge of the road, there was a trail of blood thick and dark as oil running behind him. He pulled back and threw the body as far as he could. Flies flew up like a black cloud on the wind and settled again a few yards from the road.

Sid felt his arms go slack from the heat. It was only once he was back in the Jeep, the radio turned up, and the AC pummeling him in the face that he noticed the red stain on his shirt sleeve.

Charlene was beautiful. Everything he’d ever dreamed of in a girlfriend, and then, in a wife. She had long blonde hair, the kind you’d expect on models or pornstars, but not on real honest-to-goodness women. Her body was firm in the right places and soft in the others, as was her mind. She was a smart woman and he loved her for that, but she was also, in many ways, a child. She took spiders outside on napkins. She talked to fish in the aquariums. She was obsessed with babies, even the ugly ones.

He knew it would only be a matter of time before they produced offspring of their own. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see copies of himself, his own face smiling up at him. He wondered whether he’d like them.

They had met in grad school. Which was better, he supposed, than his brother, Josh, who had met his girlfriend on Tinder. Their mother hadn’t understood when Josh explained.

Sid and Charlene’s first date had been awful. They could laugh about it now. Charlene thought Sid was stuffy, and Sid thought Charlene was a ditz. They had agreed to a second date only because they had found each other physically attractive.

Love blossoms in the most adverse of circumstances and with the most inauspicious of beginnings. So had theirs grown from such humble roots until neither could imagine a future without the other. If that wasn’t a sign, Sid didn’t know what was.

Sure, there had been other girls before her, especially in college when he still had his athlete’s body. There had even been one woman in the early stages of dating Charlene. But Charlene was the clear winner if only through her persistence.

They had been married in a church more out of tradition than any real belief system. Her father had died when she was twelve, so her grandfather walked her down the aisle. She had wanted for a time to walk down the aisle unaccompanied, but Sid thought it better to bow to custom.

Her vows had been simple and sweet. “I will love you now and forever.”

His vows had been copied out of a book he found in Barnes and Noble.

And then they were off to Australia.

“Did you see any farms nearby?” Charlene asked a few miles down the road. She had been silent since the dog.

“No,” he said, “why?”

“Just wondering if there was an owner,” Charlene said.

“It didn’t have a collar,” Sid said. He didn’t actually remember, but he was feeling tired. The weight of the dog was hanging over their honeymoon in a way he didn’t particularly appreciate.

“We can call about it when we get to the hotel,” he said. The matter would be forgotten by then, he hoped.

“I suppose,” she said.

He took her hand from where it lay clenched on her knee. He pressed it to his lips. She smiled faintly and continued to stare out at the road.

Eucalyptus trees wove by in endless uniformity. Sid decided he loathed the country and everything in it.

They reached a small town near six o’clock, a very American time to eat dinner, Sid knew, but still they were hungry. They found the restaurant most likely to cater to tourists.

“Welcome to the Outback Steakhouse,” their waitress began. “My name is Abby and I’ll be taking care of you all tonight. Any drinks to start you off?”

“Just water for me,” Charlene said.

“What beers do you have?” Sid asked. Charlene gave him one of her looks. They still had several hours before the hotel, and he had agreed to drive that day. But it was only a beer, and he needed it. He ignored Charlene and pretended to listen as Abby patiently prattled off a list of beers. He ordered the one that sounded least like piss.

“What a day,” he said when Abby had walked away. She was cute, her hair bobbed short and an intriguing tattoo that started just above her knee.

“Sure,” Charlene said.

“What? Are you mad?” Sid asked.

“If you have to ask-” Charlene started.

“It’s not my fault,” Sid said.

“Who said it was your fault?”

“Why are you acting like I’m some kind of villain?”

“I’m not. But it would be nice if you showed some kind of emotion.”

“What would it help if I cried?”

“Maybe.”

“Look, Charl, I’m torn up. I’m real fucked up about this dead dog, are you happy?”

“It’s not just that, and you know it.”

“Do I?”

“Come on, Sid, don’t play stupid.”

“Listen to the pot calling the kettle black.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlene’s forehead crinkled a sign of real danger. It had crinkled like that when she found out about the other woman years ago. Instead of feeling afraid, though, Sid almost smiled. It felt good to get a rise out of her, this perfect woman he had married, this angel of a creature. In their years together he could count the number of arguments he’d won on a single hand. That persistence again.

He recalled in particular when he had wanted to drive across the country for a month, she hadn’t said no, but she hadn’t said yes either and the end he hadn’t gone simply because of the strength of her will. She never even raised her voice. He admired her for that power.

“Are you ready to order?” Abby had appeared again. Sid saw that her teeth were slightly crooked. He wondered how old she was.

“I think we’re going to need another minute,” Charlene said not taking her eyes off him. Sid felt certain they would not be having sex that evening, which should be illegal on a honeymoon, he thought.

“What about it, Abby?” Sid asked before she could turn away. “What’s your favorite?”

“Oh, gosh,” Abby said with actual surprise. “I don’t know. I guess I like the coconut shrimp pretty well.”

“Two plates of the coconut shrimp,” Sid said grandly, and began to hand Abby the menus.

“Actually,” Charlene said, “I’d just like the house salad.”

“Two plates for me, then,” Sid said.

“Okay,” Abby said. She smiled uncertainly, flashing her crooked teeth again.

“Why are you such an asshole?” Charlene hissed.

“It’s a free country,” Sid said. “You’re the one who married me.”

Charlene just shook her head.

The coconut shrimp was sticky and overly sweet. Sid ate both plates even though it made him feel sick. He left an outrageous tip and a smiley face on the bill. He tried to catch Abby’s eye as they were walking out, but she was greeting another table.

Charlene put in her headphones when they got to the hotel. It was a fancy place. Too fancy for their budget, but it was only for a night. In the heady stages of planning the honeymoon this was to be their night of luxury, an escape from the otherwise narrow limits of their life. But that would not be the case tonight.

Sid opened the minibar and took out the whiskey. It was nice to know no matter what continent they were on, every minibar came stocked with at least one bottle of Johnny Walker.

Charlene stared at him from the bed. He poured a shot and swallowed it.

How had it all gone wrong? Had it been the flight when she saw him checking out the stewardess? Or in the rental agency when he made a joke about dying of cancer rather than living in Australia? She was still sensitive about her dead father.

It could have been before that, though, the times when she looked at him as if she were seeing something she’d never quite seen before, as if some part of her understood what he was deep down.

He knew what he was deep down. He had known it since he was a child. His mother had told him over and over again.

And when he was in high school, the first girl he ever had sex with. When he held her down and she closed her eyes and he wanted to stop and couldn’t all at the same time. Knowing himself and running from it, frozen in a constant state of loathing.

Until Charlene had told him she loved him. This beautiful perfect woman who loved him and shouldn’t. Who knew him and loved him anyway. A woman he could never fully comprehend. A woman who he loved and despised.

Did he hit the dog on the road on purpose? He couldn’t remember.

He took another gulp of whiskey.

It was hot in the room, they were on the top floor with thirteen rooms of heat accumulating, pressing up from beneath. Pressing. Neither of them moved to turn on the air conditioning. Sid couldn’t tell if they were in a state of war or not.

At last when he’d finished his whiskey he moved to the bed. He struggled to remove his shirt and then his shorts. He crawled onto the bed and over to Charlene.

He placed his head in her lap, and she gently ran her hands through his hair. She took out her headphones. A point of submission.

“Don’t leave me,” he mumbled.

“Never,” she said.

He buried his face in her goodness.

Once there was a world that made sense. Green trees and an office to work in, classes to take and Charlene to marry. Once there was a world in order and a life of progress and potential. Then there was waking up and there was Australia a great desert surrounded by the greater wasteland of the ocean. What was life but an island surrounded by the greater ocean of death?

Sid woke up the next morning with a headache. The air conditioning had been turned on in the night. Charlene was gone. The keys of the Jeep were on the bedside table.

He waited until noon, checking his phone every five minutes. At noon he took the elevator down to the lobby, left a message at the front desk and got in the Jeep. He started driving north towards Brisbane.

Sid sang songs to himself. “We Are the Champions” played on the radio. Kangaroos fought in the distance. He sped through farms, past green fields and palm trees. Children playing in the front lawns. At one point he met the coast and whipped past cliffs falling down to the spray of salt water.

Sid forgot for a time that he was married and that he had no idea where his wife was. He might have been in college again, on one of his many solitary road trips. From Massachussetts to Idaho from Florida to Maine from Texas to California. Life could continue on a moving plane the same as it could continue in the static. He could run away faster in a car. He always could. Since he first learned how to drive.

At around four Charlene called.

“Where the fuck are you?” she asked.

“Almost to Brisbane,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“What?” he said back.

Charlene started cursing.

“Calm down,” Sid said. “You left. So, I left. It’s as simple as that. Just take a bus and meet me.”

“Fuck you,” Charlene said. Her voice slurred slightly.

“Are you drunk?” Sid asked.

“No,” Charlene said.

“Liar.”

“Fucker.”

Sid started laughing. “This is the first time I’ve heard you drunk in years.”

“Fuck you,” Charlene said. She started crying. “He’s dead,” she said. “Just like that.”

“Who’s dead?” Sid asked.

“You know,” Charlene said between sobs. “I know you meant to do it.”

“Do what?” Sid asked.

“It died like a dog,” she said. “Just like a dog.”

“It was a dog,” Sid said.

“Not the dog,” Charlene said. “Before—when you said—the baby.”

“There never was a baby,” Sid said. “You told me there wasn’t a baby.”

“There was a baby,” Charlene said.

Things slowed down. Outside the sun pulsed in slow motion. He felt the sweat accumulating on his neck and when it finally ran, it ran cold.

“Come back.” Charlene said, “Pick me up.”

Sid hung up.

It hadn’t been a conversation as much as a feeling.

“If I were pregnant,” she had said.

“Are you pregnant?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Well, I know what we’d do,” he said.

“Do you?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It might be different if I really were pregnant.”

“You’re not, though, are you?”

“No,” she said, “I’m not. But if I were—”

“You know what we’d do,” he said, “I mean right now. If you were pregnant right now. It wouldn’t be the right time. Not just for us, but for the baby. You know? Timing matters.”

“Yes,” she said, “timing matters.”

She looked at him then, as if seeing past his skin, past his flesh, past his bones, to the pulsing darkness that lived inside him. And did she feel that same pulsing darkness within her?

“Are you pregnant?” he’d asked.

“No,” she’d said.

He drove back with a feeling that his head was being held in a vice. He couldn’t shake it. His pulse pounded. He was angry, he knew, but he couldn’t tell at who or what exactly.

It started to drizzle halfway there. The road slickened to a dark gray. Sid didn’t slow down.

It was his fault and it wasn’t. He cared and he didn’t. He would divorce her and run away to start a new life. People did it all the time. It didn’t matter in the end. Whether she’d killed the thing or not.

Sid wiped his forehead with his sleeve. It was the same shirt he’d been wearing yesterday. He hadn’t changed that morning. A dark stain stared up at him.

It wasn’t his fault. None of it. Could he change what he was, what he had always been? Could he see past the smear of rain on the windshield? Could he see anything coming down the road towards him?

So how could it be helped?

California: Year One

Today, July 4, 2017, marks one year since I arrived in this strange world of California. It has been a year truly unlike any I’ve ever experienced in my near quarter-of-a-century life.

What a roller coaster. I spent a month in Palo Alto working every job that I could find. I moved myself across the Bay to Oakland. I got a job with Blue Bottle. Started working in San Francisco. Met my Ferry Building family. Celebrated Christmas with my sister. Jumped in the ocean. Ate a doughnut. Visited Portland. Got mugged. Joined my first ever real-world writing class. Gave my first ever reading. Adopted a kitten. Moved jobs. And, as of yesterday, moved houses once more.

Note to self: I know you think you can do anything, and you can, but next time don’t move all your stuff and then work a seven hour shift. That’s a recipe for a zombie-Laura.

I’ve been thinking about the United States a lot, you know, and the Bay Area in particular. And recently I saw a sign that says “America was Never great.” Which is both true and also not true.

The state of the United States is one founded on the removal of Native people, the enslavement of Africans, and the general principle that anything is okay if you have enough money to justify it. So, yes, the state of the United States has never been great.

However, when it comes to the people who happen to be living here, then it becomes more complicated. At least for me.

Because the people of the United States have done some pretty cool things. Like fighting for black liberation, women’s liberation, gay rights, trans rights, prisoner equality, and generally human rights across the board.

If the United States is anything, it’s the constant struggle of its people against the state.

This has come into the light upon my arrival in Oakland. I wrote about this before, but I’ve never felt more strongly the feeling and embodiment of community. This is a place where people are living out their beliefs.

Is there rampant gentrification, horrible landlords, a brutal police force and insidious racism? You better believe it. But I also firmly believe that the community is more powerful.

So this July 4, I am celebrating my arrival into this joyous community. I am celebrating the power of people everywhere to struggle against the oppressive forces that seek to destroy them. I celebrate the Native people who have endured, survived and thrived into the present. I celebrate black freedom and black community. I celebrate the Asian immigrants who built and are building the country. I celebrate women, cis and trans, strong enough to keep fighting. I celebrate all people working towards universal equality.

And that’s a lot worth celebrating.