Every year, the pine tree would leave needles and cones on the lawn for me to rake.
My older brother woke up with tears not yet crusted. He ducked his head to avoid the bars from the top bunk, and ran down the hallway to our parents’ room. He stood over our sleeping dad. “We’re all going to die,” my older brother said.
Dad briefly opened one eye before he nodded his head, “I know.”
Mom lay between me and my brother. She read from a drawn-on storybook. Dad threw the door open, which made the coil vibrate. His open hand swung across the tall wooden dresser. I got out of bed and knelt next to the plastic gold man. The batting baseball player was split in two. I held both pieces in my hands, and did not hear he said after.
I picked up the clear-chorded phone, and heard Mom on the other line, talking to a man whose voice I did not recognize. She repeated his words back. Those three words, that are supposed to mean so much.
The bathroom was dark, so I turned on the light. Jag was hanging from the air vent by yarn. His whiskers were still crinkled, and his nose had long fallen off. The pimpled boy in the mirror should not still care about his childhood friend.
An orange and white truck parked close to the garage. Rain made the cardboard soggy and hard to grip. Eventually, everything was packed. The tires backed over the sliver stream that formed in the gutter, the haul of the truck prevented me from seeing the house as we rod off.
Years later, I drove past the home. There were no more needles, no more pine tree.
Night after night, the darkness brings chaos and cold. Frigid wind paralyzes my limbs. I wish they’d just keep my damn door shut. Pacing, mindless pacing, keeps irrational sanity intact. Numbed fingertips leave hands no longer useful for someone in my profession. A sigh slip my parted lips, breathing turning to ice. Cinnamon pelts steal my gaze to the ultimate temptation, but I can’t sleep yet. Another breeze runs through my tent, caressing my cheek before making its way out. My brown eyes meet Bearded Grimy-Face’s black ones as he delivers another black and blue body. I set to work but supplies are low. Beard hurries away, distracted by the nearby screaming, leaving the cold standing in his place. Something bright, blinding, erupts just outside. Glass falls, shatters. My saucer eyes cloud over. We die tonight.
She adjusted her apron and admired the platter in front of her. Grilled cheese cut diagonally. A glass half-filled with 2% organic milk, a bowl of fifteen green grapes and sixteen red grapes. A small vase with a single tulip. She added a dish just big enough to fit two of each of the five medications he takes with lunch. Satisfied with her work, she hefted the tray and headed upstairs.
Her husband had needed round-the-clock care since the accident. Specific calorie intake, timed meals and medicine, scheduled rest, at-home physical therapy plans. He would be as good as new by the end of the month if Mallory had anything to say about it. She knocked lightly on the door. “Gabriel? Are you awake?” She gently cracked the door and saw him sitting up on his pillows. She grinned. “Hello, darling! I hope you slept well.”
Mallory crossed the room and laid the tray on the bed. “I hope you’re hungry! I made your favorite. Grilled cheddar, mozzarella, and pepper jack cheese sandwich with extra butter.” She brushed his hair from his face, “Your mom called today. She’s worried about us. Keeps offering to pay for professional help. And you know what I told her? The same thing I always tell her! I sad, ‘Mildred, really, we’re so grateful for the offer. But I can handle it. Gabriel is doing fine.’ You know how she is.” Mallory poured the pills into her hand. “Mothers can’t help but worry.” She pried open Gabriel’s fingers and carefully placed each capsule into his palm. “Oh! I forgot a glass of water!” Mallory shuffled back out of the room and called over her shoulder. “You sit still and wait right here.”
Gabriel’s corpse sat still and waited, just as it always did.
Bright sunlight shone through the window and onto the bed, rousing Emilia from her sleep. Her body moved from its curled up sleeping position and lay stretched out on the bed. The lavender silk sheet slid off her like floating water and exposed her naked body to the sunlight. Her eyes remained shut as a smile formed on her face from last night’s memories. Emilia slid her hands down her tan body slowly, tracing the memory of the hands that touched her. A sigh passed her lips. Her cheeks flushed bright red as the words spoken to her last night swarmed in her head,
She turned over on her side she faced the window. Pushing her cheek into the softness of the pillow, she yawned. Emilia reached her hand over to the other side of the bed to caress her lover, only to feel nothing but coldness under her fingertips. Her eyes shot open. The spot next to her was bare except for the fresh indent of a body. She sat up and looked around the room, her previous mood slowly leaving. The hotel room she was lying in was nice and comfortable with its cream colored walls and royal blue carpet. She hated it now. She gently moved her body into a sitting position and dug her toes into the soft carpet, soaking up the remainder of the moment before reality kicked in fully. With a stretch, she stood up and pulled on her ragged jean shorts and her white half-shirt, foregoing the bra. She glanced around the room. Her eyes landed on a pile of crisp, green $100 bills, and a bitter smile formed on her face. Emilia grabbed the money and shoved it into her pocket, making sure to wrinkle and damage it as much as she could.
The phone buzzed and showed the text saying, “Going to the store. Be there after.”
I replied fast with, “I missed you. I can’t wait to see you.” On the screen, three dots appeared, shuffling, but went away.
I reached for the sun god-scented body spray, and misted it on my tee shirt. She hated the one I used to use. I wanted to clean the clutter up a little before she came and noticed a few unpacked bags remaining on the swept tile floor.
I sat on the sofa and put my feet on the table while I waited for her to text back. It reminded me of the last time we were together at the end-of-semester party at my friend’s house. We made out on the glass table in the shed. The glass broke and we fell through and hit the cold cement floor. She laughed and I took out a speckle of glass caught in her tawny hair. Her hair always smelled like cheap strawberry shampoo, but I liked anyway. Her smile stretched the mole on her cheek. Mosquitoes could be fossilized in those amber eyes that looked down at me.
My phone still had not vibrated, and I bit my fingertips because the nails were already chewed down. There was a knock, and I opened the door. The “Welcome Back” poster was still taped over the peephole. She walked in, and I went to kiss her. She turned her head quickly and nudged me away to arm’s length.
Her heels make a streak on the mopped dark floor. Sun-soaked hair and Bobby shades do not forgive. In her own world, she is unaware of neighboring gaze. Audible saturation, trance and voices swirl in the small clouds.
Wrinkled nose takes in the man-made scent. Lights blink at her presence, briefly leaving her in the dark. Counterfeit existence accommodates my mockery. A cleaned collared shirt should not be able to hide me. My veins grow and try to sit me down. I act as a journalist to my sinew architecture. Company subdues the monster, but there is no cure for the wild.
Jimmy knelt in the sand and held the rifle by its barrel. The desert cooled as the falling sun stained the sky orange, pink, and red. Jimmy stared at jagged mountains that rose like shark’s teeth in the distance. His grip on the rifle tightened as the noise of shuffling feet and murmuring voices inched up his neck. He would have to go soon. Go back to the mountains, back to crawling up scree, ducking behind boulders, and trying not to get devoured. Jimmy rested his head against the rifle for a long moment before standing. He took a step back and came to attention. Raising his hand to his helmet, he saluted the dog tags that hung from the rifle and the boots that stood empty on either side.
We waltzed around the smoldering pit until the last embers zipped upwards. You twirled and said you wanted another dance, twisting my arms, tangling into me, interlocking our limbs, soldering together. I dipped you right before taking the flashlight out of my pocket. Tiny sparkles responded to the high-powered ultraviolet beam cast into the umbrage, wood and her shadow. I grasped your hand and brambled forward through briar, brush, and branches; we stumbled to the ancient tree where a duet of spiders watched us dance through octancular amethyst. We weaved as vines, our fingers laced creepers, back to the campsite.
We extinguished the fire before withdrawing into the freezing tent. Blazing venom spat from our mouths. Rattling teeth and bones played a dirge. Though metronomes in sync, I shimmied in solo, forcing you to do the same. When we stopped the dance, the warmth between us ceased to spark, never to kindle again. A pair of thermal ghosts promenading into cold dark, our fire died in the middle of nowhere, our body heat lost in the unknown forest.
The man pressed his back against the warm stucco wall and dripped to the ground. Cool concrete rested underneath the store letters. From his bag he pulled out a dog bowl with coins in it. Kids came out of the store, each with a different style of pubescent facial hair. The second boy walked by and kicked the man’s bowl. Change clanged on the ground until the metal circles flared on top of the gutter grime. The dogs of doom laughed past him and left no quarters. His stained fingernails tried salvaging any coins that were left.
The storeowner walked out. “You can’t be here,” he said. He stood over the loiterer, but stepped back because of the dark patch of fluid that had formed underneath the man. The storeowner looked away and wiped his nose.
The loiterer looked up and cleaned a nickel on his tired shirt. “I’m not doing anything.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The loiterer got up and left the store. Wind made air pockets swivel underneath his shirt. Dirty tangled hair, like bruised banana phloem bundles, scattered across his eyes. Each step he made down the public sidewalk was his own.