ISSUE #128: Andrew Bertaina, Colleen Maynard, Miss Lana Rebel

Posted: Monday, August 29, 2016 | | Labels:


Art by Colleen Maynard

A WOMAN'S LIFE
by Andrew Bertaina


Finally they'd agreed; the house would be painted. They settled on a shade of yellow. She was happy about the color, and he was trending towards ambivalent.

They took breaks to make love while the child was sleeping. Afterwards, she'd sit in the bedroom and watch the starlings drift from the trees like leaves in the fall.


Issue #128 soundtrack: Miss Lana Rebel “When I'm Gone”


Accidentally, she told her husband that she'd fallen in love with the man who was painting their house.

She did not know if it was really love, or if she'd just missed having someone notice her. He told her that he loved the back of her calves, the spaces between her ribs. Also, he had a wondrous ass.

What would become of the child? A mother frets about these sorts of things. Sometimes, she'd lie in bed and fret over the child, patting the locks of his hair while she slept peacefully below.

Things were not going well between her and the painter. He was good in bed, but the main problem was that he wasn't all that bright. She'd ask, What do you think of Hemingway? or the Middle East? and he'd say, "Not often." For a while it was funny. But being stupid wasn't the sort of thing that you could easily forgive.

Bees pollinate a swarm of purple flowers. A robin hops down and pecks at the lawn. She has never felt a particular affinity with the birds. Her mother had told her that birds were dirty. It had a ring of truth.

They met at a cafe near their old house. The courtyard was shaded by a banyan tree of immense size. Their daughter was playing across the street on a pair of monkey bars. She was a dangerous girl. After a while, she said to her husband, "I'm sorry." He looked across the table at her and said, "I'm sorry, too," which was really just a polite way of saying Fuck off. She did.

In time, her daughter started to grow up. She said things like, "I want to grow up to be an oceanographer, so I can help dolphins." Maybe I didn't ruin her, she thinks to herself as the two of them swing on the porch together. They are both drinking from small glasses of lemonade and waiting for the evening to cool down. Mosquitoes are flying around in the grass. She can see them in the purple sunset light.

A couple of years later, her old husband married someone new. The lady was a school teacher. She was short and seemed to be nice. She had large white teeth and smiled readily. People are always getting married, she thought to herself. Why is this marriage making me so sad?

One year she broke her foot while walking down the stairs after an ice storm. For a while, she felt shitty. She stayed indoors with her foot in a cast, and as she struggled to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom, she thought, So this is why people stay together?

For a while, her daughter wanted a tattoo, and she didn't want her daughter to have a tattoo. Eventually, her daughter got a picture of a rose and a vine, strung up the back of her calf. Her mother thought, what a silly thing it had been to care about.

At her daughter's graduation, she sits with her old husband and the new wife. They are all very cordial. She feels lonely. She spent a long time getting ready for the day, standing in front of the bathroom mirror and appraising herself as if she were going on a date. No matter what she did with her makeup and hair, the mirror kept telling her that she'd gotten old. She started to hate mirrors.

Her daughter did not become an oceanographer. She lived in San Francisco, in a little place on Portrero Hill that overlooked the water. She was doing book keeping for a large company of one kind or another. She'd visited her daughter once and remembered feeling very cold.

When her daughter was fifteen, she'd asked about the man who broke up her parent's marriage. Her mother sat in a rocking chair that had been passed down through her family for generations. It was a really dependable piece of furniture. She was holding a blanket, rocking back and forth, and looking at the floor. "Tell me," her daughter said. Her mother thought for a while and then said, "He was beautiful."

"Oh," her daughter said and left the room to cry.

Years passed as years do. Some years were better than others. In the interim, she got older.

"Everyone in here thinks I'm crazy," she said to her daughter, who was old now herself, as she was wheeled around the convalescent home. She was a little crazy. She sometimes made up stories about the squirrels on the lawn that were narratively inconsistent. Her old husband was dead now. The new wife lived in Florida and golfed year-round. She signaled for her daughter to move closer to her. She had whiskers. "I am crazy," she said, "but I can't stand being here with everyone thinking it." Soon thereafter, she was asleep. Her head was tucked onto her right shoulder, and she drooled. An attendant wheeled her away, and her daughter drove to the airport and then flew home.

He'd come up behind her in the kitchen, tracing his fingers along the back of her thigh. Afterwards, he said, "Do you want to come out and check the work?" She did. She was the one who'd wanted to have the house painted after all. There were clouds overhead doing nothing. The work was a bit shoddy. In spaces, she could tell that the brick had only a thin coat of paint. He seemed proud of himself. Three years from now they'd have to redo the whole thing. She could already see it.


Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans,Whiskey Paper, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

Colleen Maynard is a writer and visual artist based in Houston, TX. Her work is featured in Matchbook, NANO Fiction, SHARKPACK, and Sugar & Rice. She currently exhibits at the Appleton Museum of Art. For more, visit the artist online at colleenmaynard.com and follow her on Twitter.

Miss Lana Rebel is a Tuscon, AZ-based musician. She recorded a live session for BBC Radio One in London, was featured on All Songs Considered for NPR, and was chosen as Best Northwest Country Artist at KBCS in Seattle. Her songs have reached top ten charts on college stations, and have been used on soundtracks for several independent films. Check her out on Bandcamp and lanarebel.com.






ISSUE #127: Christine Rice, Max Passler, Rick Rude

Posted: Monday, August 15, 2016 | | Labels:


Illustration by Max Passler

CLOAKING DEVICE
by Christine Rice


The first thing Marine Guard William Goynes, Jr. noticed when he stepped off the plane and onto American soil for the first time in four hundred and forty-four days was his wife’s belly. It strained the buttons of her cream wool coat like she’d squirreled away an enormous nut for the winter. He wanted to ask, Who knocked you up? But how do you ask your wife such a delicate question with a flag-waving crowd of family and friends and hangers-on chanting “USA! USA! USA!” and cameras and mics and that hot brunette reporter from Channel 12 now inches from your face and Gwen throwing her arms around your neck to plant a wet kiss on your lips?


Issue #127 soundtrack: Rick Rude “Sap”


On the way home from Bishop Airport, the glow from the hero’s welcome melting in the furnace blast of reality, snow falling outside like he’d become trapped on the wrong side of a snow globe, his dad driving, his kid sister in the passenger seat, he and Gwen both tucked in the back of the old Buick Roadmaster, she talked a blue streak. It was nervous talk and he knew, from the looks his dad shot him in the rearview, that she wouldn’t stop until they got to Ponderosa. As Gwen’s grackle-chatter continued, his sister turned to fix an insistent stare at Will and he noticed that, during his absence, she’d transformed from a slouching, angry teen into an elegant woman.

Breaking her stare, he buried his face in Gwen’s hair, breathed in the powdery scent of it, felt its silkiness on his lips. Everything was coming at him too fast. He wanted to cry. He wanted to confess. He wanted to tell her what he’d done. He wanted to know what she’d done. He wanted to be forgiven and to forgive her.

His dad’s gnarled farmer’s knuckles, big as walnuts, gripped the steering wheel as he turned into Ponderosa, in front of a restaurant. Throwing the Roadmaster into PARK, he turned to his son. “You two have a nice dinner. Talk. Pick you up in a few hours.”

Alone, side by side at the salad bar, Will stared at his wife’s pregnant profile and wondered who she was. Besides her body, he knew little about her. They’d met only two months before he left for basic training, and, immediately after that, he became the youngest Marine assigned to the Iranian Embassy.

The night they met, he and his buddies used fake IDs to get into a popular yet skanky disco and, because he knew nothing of hard liquor, he pounded gin gimlets. With every drink, the floors glowed brighter. A huge disco ball reflected diamonds of light and Donna Summer’s voice, like sex through speakers, became his personal soundtrack. He’d fallen into a fabulous, almost unbelievable dream where Gwen appeared suddenly, insistently, as if she’d been there forever. After he bought her a few drinks, she dragged him onto the dance floor where her tits bounced magnificently (when she wasn’t rubbing against him) and, later in a dark corner of the bar, she let him pop one in his mouth.

The next day, his head delicate as an eggshell, he found her phone number in his jeans pocket. From the moment she picked up, she talked too fast—like a used car salesman trying to divert your attention from a busted frame. He kept asking, What? and only hung up after requesting a proper date the next night.

Everything with Gwen moved fast. Having sex with her felt like being tossed off a cliff; gravity evaporated until he hit the water hard, went deep, tumbled uncontrollably beneath the surface. He willingly lost himself in the tumult until, oxygen starved and weary, he clawed his way back to the surface. Sadly, he mistook this direct flight to sex heaven for love.

It wasn’t until their third date that he noticed her eyes: bright, clear blue, and big with dark black lashes. The rest of her seemed relatively unremarkable: small lips, stringy hair, a high forehead, stooped shoulders, thick ankles. But those eyes and breasts were something else.

* * * * *

Today, at Ponderosa, Gwen wore a gold locket. The size of a silver dollar, it rested in the very pale indentation just above her sternum, between two perfectly curled tendrils of hair.

It looked new so he asked, “Who gave it to you?”

Gwen’s head snapped to him, her eyes darkened, “What?”

“The locket?”

“Oh.” She relaxed. “Got it for Christmas.”

“Yeah? From who?”

“My sister. It’s our wedding picture.”

He smiled quickly. He didn’t like his teeth. They were too small and closely set.

She opened the locket for him. His head had been sliced in half so that just the right side of his mouth smiled down at her. Her entire face looked not up at him but off to the side as if there were someone more important, someone who’d just walked by and taken her attention.

They made their way back to the table and sat across from each other. And then Gwen did something that Will did not expect: she bent her head to the pale mound of iceberg lettuce, motioned for Will’s hand, and said, very quickly:

“Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the birds that sing.
Thank you, God, for everything. Amen.”

Without lifting her head, she immediately began stuffing salad into her mouth. Will watched the perfectly straight part in her hair move up and down like a fishing line over the salad.

“So—” Will knew it wasn’t the right question, that it was the coward’s question, that it was too open-ended and wouldn’t produce the desired results, but he asked anyway, “What’s new?”

Gwen looked up, panicked, and stood too suddenly. “Excuse me! Everyone!” She tapped a knife against her water glass. “The man sitting across from me, here, is Marine Guard Will Goynes, Jr. just now returned from Eye-raq!”

A bald man, wedged tightly in the booth behind Will, asked, “Eye-raq?”

Will turned, “Iran.”

Gwen continued, “Held four hundred-some days by the Iraqians. A real American hero!”

The customers, about thirty folks intent on choking down some U.S.-standard bovine, looked up from their plates. Within seconds, they’d pushed themselves away from their meals to give Will a standing ovation.

Soft-spoken and polite, Will raised his hand as if waiting to be called on in school. Gwen nodded, “Go ahead, Will.”

Will stood. Everyone cheered. He wanted them to stop. He wanted to tell them what had really happened: that, as the youngest Marine at the Embassy, his captors targeted him to supply information. When he repeatedly gave his name, rank, service number, and date of birth, they handcuffed, blindfolded, and threw him in solitary. They told him they would gouge out his eyes, boil his feet in oil, chop off his thieving American hands. After a few months, they knew his sister’s address at nursing school and promised to dismember her and send her body parts to his father’s farm. After eighty days in a pitch-dark, freezing cell, he started hallucinating, crying, screaming to get out. After more than a hundred days, he stopped moving—just curled in a ball and tried to stay alive. They let him out after two hundred and fifty-one days on two conditions—that he rat out the hostages who spoke Farsi and promise to reveal the code the other hostages used to communicate.

Gwen tapped her glass with her knife to quiet the crowd, leaned over, and demanded, “Go ahead, Will. Say something.”

Will stepped forward—all six-foot-three of him with a freshly-shaven head of dark stubble, round, sweet, freckled cheeks, and huge ears—and cleared his throat. He couldn’t look up from the white and black tiled floor and realized he had nothing to say. Finally, after a prolonged period of licking his lips and swallowing hard, he managed, “It was Iran. Not Iraq.”

The crowd waited expectantly and, when nothing more seemed forthcoming, the embarrassment folded them back in their seats. When Will sat down, Gwen clapped enthusiastically until everyone joined her. To his ears, the clapping sounded uninspired and slow, like the tapping he had been forced to decode. It triggered a dull, pulsing migraine he’d been fighting all day. Will looked at the bloody remains of his porterhouse—the too-white gristle, the curly, charred fat around the edges—hung his head, and began to cry.

* * * * *

His mother, who’d died when he was fifteen, always said, Know thyself.

When he left for his assignment in Iran, he’d thought he had. Now, he didn’t know who he was. Or what he’d become. He kept seeing his interrogator, the one with the sleepy eye and corn kernel mole above his lip. He kept hearing himself telling that guy the secrets he knew about the people he was supposed to protect. He’d lost himself in those tellings. Didn’t recognize himself at all. Now, he realized (and not for the first time) he didn’t know Gwen. Couldn’t tell you her favorite color or dessert, if she drank tea or coffee, if she smoked, if she was a side-sleeper, what she feared. He’d only known her body, and certainly not even that for very long. And after what he’d learned about himself, that didn’t seem nearly enough.

He’d ratted out the CIA guys posing as diplomats. But how did his captors know about his family? Who’d ratted him out?

On the drive home, in the back seat of the old Roadmaster, with the snow falling more heavily now, the wind bullying it into commas that straddled the center line, Gwen shared the patriotic scene in Ponderosa. Every once in a while, Rebecca turned to look at Will. They were Irish twins born one year and one month apart. Shared the same smattering of freckles across their noses, the wide, doe-eyed stare some mistook for stupidity, the widow’s peak of black hair neither could tame no matter how much of their father’s Brylcreem they used.

The story kept going until Rebecca hooked her arm over the seat and looked from Gwen to her brother, “Now, who’s the father of that baby? It can’t be Will. Unless you froze his sperm and turkey basted.”

Gwen gasped as if she’d been hooked in the cheek. “Yes. This. Well …”

Rebecca made a dramatic half-moon with an open palm and pointed to Gwen’s stomach, “Yes. That.”

There was no heat in Rebecca’s voice. No righteous anger or indignation. She knew her brother hadn’t asked. Wouldn’t be able to.

They hit a slick patch and, for a split second, the Roadmaster pointed slightly off-course, became suspended, in motion but motionless, gliding, weightless.

Gwen dug her fingernails into Will’s forearm and didn’t let up, even when the tires firmly gripped the road. He knew how she felt. He’d been sliding, unanchored for what seemed like forever.

“Yes,” Gwen kept her eyes glued to the back of Mr. Goynes’s gray head, “Well, while you were gone, I found Jesus—”

“Jesus?” Rebecca rolled her eyes, “Well that explains it.”

His Dad piped up, “You don’t say?”

“Please,” Will began, “let her finish.”

“I met someone and I’d like a divorce.” As soon as she said it, she adjusted herself away from Will as if he might pull her back into him. “I just didn’t want to ruin your big homecoming. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know. After all you’ve been through. I’m—”

Will held up his hand. He didn’t need to hear it, didn’t want an apology. Didn’t know how to accept it. He wasn’t angry or hurt or humiliated. He didn’t hate her. He simply wanted Gwen and her worn overnight bag out of the Roadmaster. He wanted to crawl into his own bed and sleep until the pounding in his brain, the vice grip of revelation, the sidelong looks from his fellow Marines, the slaps on the back from his captors, the whispering of the diplomats, all of it, simply faded into the terrible, hazy mist of yesterday.


Christine Rice is the author of the debut novel Swarm Theory (University of Hell Press/April 2016). Stories from Swarm Theory have been published in Roanoke College's Roanoke Review, American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes, Farleigh Dickinson University’s Literary Review, Chicago Literati, and Bird’s Thumb. Her essays, interviews, and long­form journalism have appeared in the Big Smoke, the Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, the Good Men Project, the Urbaness.com, CellStories.net, and F Magazine, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago.Christine is an adjunct professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine, and the director of Hypertext Studio Writing Center. For more, visit christinemaulrice.com or follow her on Twitter.

Max Passler is a poet and artist. He lives in a village near Waterloo, Belgium. He earned his B.A. in Music, Creative Writing and Art History at The Open University. For more, visit the artist online at maxpassler.com.

Rick Rude is a four-membered creature based in Dover, New Hampshire, whose tattered robe, four-string guitar, and sand-filled shoes are surrounded by a haze of sweet smoke and empty beer cans. The band is currently on tour; check out rickrudeparty.com for dates/locations, and visit the band on Bandcamp or Facebook.





ISSUE #126: Rachel Ranie Taube, Joshua Finnell, Elijah

Posted: Monday, August 1, 2016 | | Labels:


Photograph by Joshua Finnell

THE SKY PINPRICKED
by Rachel Ranie Taube


We are two women, one man, and two little boys.

“I really need to go to the bathroom.” Tanner’s voice could be a girl’s.

“And me.” Shawn copies him, looking up from the moss he was admiring. Beyond them, patchy grass claws toward the lake and trees are beginning to drop their leaves.


Issue #126 soundtrack: Elijah “The Great Northern”



“I’ll take them this time,” I say.

My older sister Jane nods gratefully, and I leave her to finish unfolding our tent. Her husband Ron is constructing a second tent; he pulls a black rod from the pile and feeds it into the tent’s loop.

“Aunt Amy, I need to go first, I asked first.” Tanner is 6, brown-skinned and sturdy, with a round belly and freckles dotting his chin and forehead. He and Shawn have the same too-long wavy hair, down to their shoulders.

“Come on, both of you,” I say, holding out my hands for them. They come and slip their fingers into mine.

Shawn tugs. “Where?”

“We’ll just go in the woods, remember we told you about that?”

“Amy told you that, dummy.” Tanner reaches around me to poke Shawn’s chest, then pulls back before Shawn can retaliate.

“Cut it out. Here we are.” Both boys struggle with the cords on their shorts, and I have to help Shawn untie his.

“You know, Shawn is a lot smaller than me,” Tanner says as he pees. Tanner is only a year older than his brother, but a good three inches taller and sturdier. Shawn is skinny—when he’s older they’ll tease him for being scrawny.

“Yeah, but Tanner has a smaller penis,” Shawn says matter-of-factly.

Hey.” I know I’m fumbling the response as they finish and pull up their pants. Jane would turn this into a life-lesson moment, spin out some meaning about respect and love and what matters, but I can’t find anything to say that won’t make it worse.

“Help me tie my shorts!” Tanner demands, so I do.

* * * * *

Shawn’s life jacket is bulky, but I manage to shove him out of the water and onto the dock ahead of me. The water-winged Tanner is still giggling and grabbing at my shoulders.

“You are a pain,” I say and send Tanner floating back towards his father, who’s treading water a few feet away. He floats next to a canoe that has long since been overturned. Behind him the lake stretches for a half mile, maybe, with trees, late-summer green and yellow, hugging the circumference. Instinctively I frame a landscape, with that overturned canoe as an anchor in the foreground—there’s humor, tension in it. For a moment I wish I had my camera, but then I let my shoulders relax. It’s comforting to remember that I don’t have to reach for my lenses today.
I catch the metal steps of the dock and I climb up after Shawn, dripping.

“You’re so good with them,” Jane says from her seat on the edge of the dock. Shawn has attached himself to my leg. I dare him with my eyes, and he giggles, so I shove him off and back into the lake. He resurfaces cackling. I sit down next to Jane and swish my toes through the water. The wooden dock, burning the back of my legs, darkens as the wetness spreads underneath me.

“They’re very entertaining.” I almost tell her what happened earlier, what Shawn said.

“I always said you should work with kids. They go nuts around you.”

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I photograph kids.”

“You know what I mean.”

I squeeze water from my ponytail, which is full of knots and smells like the turtles who live in the lake. Jane wipes the splashes off her arm. Even on the lake, she looks every bit the professional. She’s an event planner, and designs her own look like she designs venues: hair set in careful bleach-blond waves, eyebrows combed and shaped, fingers patiently painted navy.

I watch the boys splashing each other, and their yellow lifejackets are bright against the dark water, but maybe too neon. I don’t love it as a portrait but they’re finally getting along, for now.

Jane and I used to play together like that, when we were four and six, maybe. We’d bathe together each night while our mother sat on the closed toilet seat, flipping through a magazine. Our best game was at the end of the bath, when the now-cold water was draining by burps and gurgles. Jane and I would pretend we were being sucked down the drain, and we’d scream and giggle and flop, letting slippery fingers fail to grasp the other end of the tub, while our mother read her magazine.

Jane nudges me. “I’m just saying.”

“What?”

“That you’re good with kids.”

“I know, I got it.” I look out across the lake, where the trees seem to grow right out of the water to bump roundly into the sky. A friend has invited me to participate in a photography show, and as usual, I’m full of doubt, hate every photo I first liked.

“I stand by it, I’ve always said you’d be a great mom.”

But I’m sliding off the dock and my ears are filled with water and my hair is weightless before she can say anything else. I stay under, winging my arms to stay down, and count to ten. When I pop back up I’m already swimming towards the beach. I pull myself out of the water, dripping and cold, and head towards our camp. It wasn’t on purpose that Jane and I hadn’t seen each other in so long. Nearly two years. It was always just…like this.

I shiver inside our tent as I pull off my one-piece bathing suit and pull on my underpants and drag a sweatshirt over my head. I reach for my phone, flick open my camera roll, and scroll through. A bird examining a bright green pile of moss—no, badly framed. A squirrel perched on a root—no, no emotion, plus it’s blurry, and not in a good way. A red-leafed maple branch against the blue sky—definitely no, boring, clich√©, boring. I look through the screen at my own toes, my naked legs. I turn a little so my top leg looks thinner and snap a photo. Then I set both legs firmly against the ground, so my thighs appear thicker than they are, and take another. No. I make a living working events, mostly the gigs I get through Jane’s network, and it gets hard to get back to this kind of photography.

Skin still damp, I struggle into my jeans. Leaving my phone in my bag, I head back towards the lake. Quietly, I watch them from the shore, mentally framing shots in a way I can’t help anymore. The boys splashing each other and Ron floating close and Jane watching from the dock. Snap. The boys coming over to her. Snap. Jane in the water, finally, laughing but careful to keep her hair dry. Jane back at the metal steps, climbing out, water dripping off her legs and arms. Snap. That one I kind of like.

When the boys are done swimming I stand, and they run at me with wet hugs. We all head back to the campsite, and when the boys run ahead, Jane loops her arm around mine.

While Ron helps the boys change, Jane takes a seat next to me. I look down at the rip in my jeans, then at the trees. Jane runs her hands against her jeans and sighs dramatically. The late afternoon sun is still just warm enough that I can pretend to be soaking it in. I lean back and close my eyes.

“What did happen with Justin, then?” she asks. I pretend not to hear, refuse to let my eyelids more or give me away. “You know, I’m just—“

“Mom!” Tanner calls. When I look over his shape bulges against the side of the tent.

“Mom?” Shawn asks. Ron emerges from the tent.

“All yours… I’m going to find wood for a fire.” We had promised the boys a real campfire and s’mores after dinner.

“I’ll come,” I volunteer, quickly. There’s a shriek from the tent and Jane goes to them, not looking at us.

Ron picks up a stone and chucks it towards the trees. It makes me laugh, and he smiles. We leave the camp for the trees, and as we get farther I can enjoy the crunch of leaves and twigs, the shuffle of the underbrush. Ron has collected two fat branches by the time the boys’ yells are dulled by distance. We approach a fallen log and I sit on it with a dramatic grunt.

“Boys wore you out?” he says.

“Aren’t you beat? Or are you just used to it?” Ron leans against a tree. The boys get their hair from him, Tanner his sturdiness.

I run my fingers through my hair and curl one lock around my thumb. My breathing is short and Ron’s is deep. I kick some leaves in his direction. They halt midair—I always forget you can’t kick leaves; that halt is always unexpected—and they flutter back down. I hold my thumbs and forefingers out like a camera and watch the leaves as they swing like cradles.

“You didn’t bring your camera,” Ron says.

“I didn’t want to have to take pictures of the boys all weekend,” I repeat.

“Oh, you wouldn’t have had to take them all weekend.”

“I know Jane wants me to, I get it, I know.”

“Hey, I was just teasing. You know she doesn’t mean anything by that. You just take nice photos, obviously.”

“She does though. I get it. Jane wants to know why won’t I take pictures of the boys, ‘what’s my thing about children.’” I mimic the way her voice gets high when she’s annoyed.

“Oh, that’s not fair.”

I look down and count the mushrooms growing near my feet. Two, four, six, eight, nine white-capped mushrooms.

“She didn’t think you’d come, when she invited you.”

It always feels like she’s bragging, when Jane invites me to spend time with Ron and the boys. Always feels like she’s trying to make up for the time, when Jane was 17 and I was 15, that I had a boyfriend and she didn't. She would never have deigned to date the still-braces-wearing, lanky track runner who took me to the movies once a week before making out with me on a park bench. But she still cracked her knuckles as she paged through the magazines she kept next to her textbooks, alternately dog-earing beauty tips and physics formulas.

I adjust so I can reach into my jeans pocket, and I pull out a ziplock bag. Inside is a thin white joint and a lighter. Ron laughs.

“Smoke?” I offer.

“God, I wish.” I open the zip on the bag anyway, grin and don’t break eye contact as I reach in. Ron moans. “Put that shit away. You want Jane to smell it on you?”

“We already smell like lake,” I say, but I zip the bag again, pressing out the air, and stand so I can shove it into my pocket. “Alright, alright, let’s get the wood and get back.”

We come back with a pile of branches just as it’s getting dark. Tanner screams when he sees us, so Jane yells, so Shawn screams, too.

“I changed my mind,” Ron whispers to me.

Ron and Jane light the barbeque to make hotdogs and I take the boys to the edge of the lake. We see how far we can throw rocks, since they’re too young to learn to skip them. Shawn says he can throw really far; Tanner says he can throw farther, and he does.

Later, after dinner, we stack the branches into a tee-pee in the middle of a circle of rocks. Jane pulls out the marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers as the boys look on. They have already chosen sticks for roasting, which they grasp eagerly. Jane, former girl scout extraordinaire, impresses the boys by lighting the fire with a flint instead of a match.

“Watch closely,” she says, “but stay back,” and Shawn gasps in delight as the spark jumps and catches and, as Jane blows on it, starts to drape the kindling in light.

After we’ve eaten at least two s’mores each, Ron douses the fire with a bucket of water and climbs into a tent to unroll their sleeping bags. Jane and I put away the marshmallows while the boys poke at the now-extinguished pile of wood.

“Don’t touch,” Jane reminds them. “It’s still hot.” Tanner is poking at the last of the kindling with a stick. He breathes in and blows like his mother did, face close to the center, and sees a flick of light. Shawn wants to do better, wants to impress him, and breathes and blows as hard as he can. His too-long hair hangs forward.

“Stop it, you two!” I say.

“You can’t do it,” Tanner teases. “Bet you can’t.” Shawn blows again, and a spark jumps and reaches for him and it looks like it will catch.

Jane is already there, pulling him back, checking his hair and his face, and she’s yelling, “That is enough what did I say that is enough,” and Shawn has started crying.

Mom,” Tanner says, “Mom, it wasn’t my fault!” He’s sniffling too now and Ron has joined them and Jane is yelling at each of them in turn. Then she turns to me and hisses,

“You were watching them!”

Jane banishes all three to the tent, and they crawl in silently one after another, Shawn, Tanner, and Ron, and Ron zips the tent flap behind them. Jane walks towards the woods. She stops with her back to me and musses her hair and then rests her clasped hands on her head. After a few moments she returns and takes a chair near the dying fire, and I do the same.

We can hear Ron’s voice but not his words as the boys’ sniffles quiet, and then the change to a rhythmic tone as he starts to read them a story by flashlight. Jane and I watch as bits of charred wood flick off the logs and float in the wind.

It could have been very different—could have been me, in her place. The week I turned 17 and Jane turned 19, I missed my period and was sure I was pregnant. Jane said only the right things, about how she was there for me, but the silence between her comforting noises was all longing, all there in the way she stretched her knuckles, slowly, while I huddled against her chest. That week I took the best picture I'd taken so far: Jane read a magazine on my bed, her white legs bent underneath her. She was cracking the middle finger of her right hand with her left. Natural light from the window hit her face, making her nose look longer, her eye sockets deeper, her chin stronger. Her hair was tied in a messy bun that draped small strands on her neck.

I turned out not to be pregnant and quite a good photographer.

Jane met Ron a few weeks later at an inter-school dance. They were married and pregnant by 21. Then, of course, the too-late, second-trimester miscarriage. Then nothing and nothing and nothing. And finally, finally, one boy and then the other, quickly, like they’d been waiting in line.

“Let’s go out in the canoe,” I say. Jane surprises me.

“Okay.”

Jane climbs into the canoe first, and I step into the water to push off from the shore. The canoe starts gliding and I jump in, making her clutch the sides of the boat when it rocks. I paddle us out and into the blackness, wetting my knees with droplets of lake as I switch sides. We can’t hear Ron and the boys anymore. When the stars look like they’re everywhere, I let the paddle rest on the bottom of the boat. The metal bar that I’m sitting on hurts, but I don’t move. I tilt my head back and look straight up, until the blood rushes to my head and I feel a little disoriented. I always remember Jane’s pregnant belly at her wedding, just visible when the wind blew her dress against her.

“Ron made a move on me today,” I say.

“What?”

“Yeah, put his hand on my hip. While we were getting firewood.” It’s dark, but I can hear the soft swish of her brushing her jeans with her hands.

“Why would you say something like that?”

“I thought you should know.”

“I don’t believe you. That’s not true.”

“Obviously it’s not true. Ron would never do that.”

“What the hell, Amy?”

“I don’t know.” I laugh. I have an urge to push her into the water. She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. It’s too dark to see her expression.

“I think the boys hate me,” she sighs. “And each other too. They like you, though.”

“You know what I heard them say today? Shawn told Tanner his penis was smaller.” I cackle. “And you know what? I checked. I looked. And it’s true!”

Jane buries her head between her knees and I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying, but the canoe rocks and emits uneven ripples.

I watch the stars and the lake until I can’t take it. I pull the ziplock bag out of my pocket and she looks up. “Want?” I know exactly what she’s thinking about me. Then she turns away and touches the strand of hair she’s been twirling to her lips.

I light it. I breathe and it burns. She chews her hair and doesn’t look at me until I offer it. Then she takes it and inhales herself, making the end flicker. Bugs chirp everywhere and the water ripples as we pass the joint, the canoe rocking a little when I hand off the lighted paper and lean back on my hands to look up and up.

I can see her searching for what to say next, holding the small remaining paper carefully in her fingertips. Jane curses as the burn catches her fingers, and she tosses the remaining paper into the water. For some reason I expect it to stay bright as it goes down, so that we can see the little orange star disappearing, slowly slowly groggily and down past the fish. Of course, the water puts it out as soon as it touches the surface. Instead of sinking it floats, litter on the lake.

“Dammit,” I say. It’s floating away. The paper is floating away and my sister is twirling a piece of her hair again and I can’t take it. So I flip the boat.

The water is much colder than during the day and it fills my eyes and ears and nostrils. I stay down for as long as I can; I open my eyes underwater and I can’t see anything. I pump my arms so I can stay down, letting bubbles escape my lips, liking the small terror of blackness.

Something touches me and my chest contracts. Jane’s grabbed my arm and she pulls me up. The air is even colder than the water.

“Fuck, Amy!” she says. I cough.

“Sorry.”

“No, you’re not!” We both breathe hard. She grabs on to the overturned canoe, feet treading. I float on my back, like I’ve been teaching Tanner to do, with one of my hands gently supporting him at the small of his back. The sky is pinpricked with stars, cut off at the boarder by the deep darkness of trees. It is a relief not to have to reach for my lenses at this moment. The water licks my legs and arms and the corners of my eyes. The lake water is cold.


Rachel Ranie Taube has published fiction and poetry in Cleaver Magazine, Apiary Magazine, and the Penn Review. She was a 2015 Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She works and writes in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

Joshua Finnell is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as the Scholarly Communications Librarian at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His art has been featured in Adobe Airstream, Midwestern Gothic, Psychopomp Magazine, and Banango Street. Visit him online at joshuafinnell.com and follow him on Twitter.

Elijah grew up in Woodstock, New York, and now is based in Brooklyn. While attending the Music Conservatory of Purchase, he recorded an EP under the name Elijah Wolf, which led to major placements in commercials and a featured song on Showtime series "Shameless." Elijah's debut EP, How's Annie, was inspired by the cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and it will release this week both digitally and on CD from Old Flame Records. New Yorkers can also catch his EP release show on 8/4 at Music Hall of Williamsburg with Everything Everything.