“Battle of the Pink Balloons” by Desiree Diaz

2014 Salveson Prize in Prose 

Emma leans back in the corner of the booth, tapping her manicured nails on the edge of the Formica table, gazing at her reflection in the tinted window to her left. A few minutes pass, and she turns her attention to the woman sitting across from her, who has recently turned sixty. The old woman has dull gray hair, green eyes framed in wrinkles, and lines around her mouth. But it isn’t the gray hair that bothers Emma─ neither the crow’s feet, nor the laugh lines─it’s the flat-chested figure.

Sitting to Emma’s right is her daughter. Emma turns to study the wavy locks of chestnut hair, framing a pretty round face set with bright green eyes. Stephanie looks so much like her that Emma thinks, It’s like gazing into a thirty-year-old mirror. Hovering just above her daughter’s head are two pink balloons filled with helium, tied together with pink ribbon, attached to a loop on Stephanie’s jeans.

Interrupting Emma’s thoughts, the waitress places a menu in front of her, fills the water glasses, recites the Tuesday specials, and says she will give them time to decide on their order. They thank her, and Emma watches her walk away.

“Well,” the old woman says, “what shall we have to eat, dear?”

“I’m not really that hungry,” Emma says.

“You need to eat something, to keep your strength up.”

Emma rolls her eyes. She leans forward, places her elbows on the table, and says, “Will you please stop talking to me like I’m five years old?”

“Momma, you can’t be five, ‘cause I’m six,” Stephanie says. Emma gives her daughter a stern look, and Stephanie slouches in her seat.

The old woman leans forward. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?” Emma clenches her fist so tight that her nails dig into the palm of her hand. “You don’t have to coddle me, Bernice.”

“I know that,” her mother says. “And stop calling me Bernice.”

“If you know, then why do you do it? Coddle me, I mean.”

Her mother closes her eyes, takes a deep breath in, and slowly exhales.

Breaking the silence, Emma says, “Stop it. Stop coddling me.”

Bernice shakes her head. “So damn stubborn, just like your father.”

“Nana, don’t swear,” Stephanie says, shaking her index finger.

“Sorry, Sweet Pea.” Turning to face Emma, Bernice says, “So stubborn, just like your father.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Emma Jean, you have to deal with it.”

“I’m dealing with it.”

“By not eating? That’s not how I dealt with it.” As she says this, Bernice points to herself, a habit that’s always irritated Emma.

“Fine, Mother. I’ll order something.”

The waitress returns, and the two women place their order. Emma looks at her daughter as if to ask whether or not she’s made up her mind.

“Tell the waitress what you want, Sweet Pea,” Bernice says.

Stephanie studies her kids’ menu. She glances at Emma, eyebrows arched, and places her order. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and a large Dr. Pepper.”

“We already had breakfast,” Emma says, “and lunch. It’s dinnertime. Order off the dinner menu, and have lemonade, not Dr. Pepper.”

“But I don’t want dinner and lemonade.” Stephanie sits back, arms folded over her chest. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and Dr. Pepper!”

The waitress offers to give them a few more minutes, but Bernice shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that won’t be necessary. Bring the child what she wants.”

The waitress looks up, admiring the balloons, and asks the girl where she got them. Stephanie’s face beams, her eyes lighting up. “Momma had a ‘pointment in the city, and then me and her and Nana went to the fair, and I got balloons and I got a teddy bear with a big pink bow─” She pauses, taking a breath. “─but Momma said I had to leave him in the car.”

“We had great fun,” Bernice says, “didn’t we, Sweet Pea?”

“We had sno-cones and cotton candy and I went on rides and everything!”

The waitress smiles and then tells the girl she’ll be back soon with the pancakes.

Emma lets out the frustrated sigh she’s been holding in─for so long, in fact, that she’d been thinking her cheeks would burst from the pressure of it. Her eyes are drawn to the pink balloons. So round. So full. She blinks to hold back tears as she studies the figure of the woman sitting across from her. Slowly, she moves her gaze upward until she meets the old woman’s eyes, anger building inside of her as she tries to give her mother the meanest look she can muster. “Why do you always have to do that?”

“Do what?”

“Let her have her way like that. You know I don’t want her filling up on junk food.”

“It’s just pancakes, not like it’s going to kill her.”

“Mother! She’s my daughter!”

“Stop bein’ mean to Nana.” Stephanie rolls her eyes. “Just ‘cause you’re sick, doesn’t mean I’m gonna be. I don’t hafta eat healthy all the time.”

Emma slams the palm of her hand on the table and glares at her mother. “See what you started?”

“Don’t sass your mother, Sweet Pea. Tell her you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry, Momma, but you’re not bein’ very nice, and Daddy says it’s a sin not to be nice.”

“Well, it’s not a sin when you’re sick,” Emma says. “When you’re sick, it’s okay not to be so nice sometimes.”

“But Momma, are you gonna turn into a boy?”

Emma gasps. “Where on Earth did you get that idea?”

“My friend Betty,” Stephanie says. “She told me that after you get ‘em, then if you lose ‘em, you turn into a boy.”

Bernice nearly chokes on her drink of water, struggles to get it down, and breaks into a fit of laughter.

Emma frowns. “Well, your friend Betty is wrong. I’m not turning into a boy.”

“Good, ‘cause I sure don’t want my momma to be a boy.”

Bernice, still trying to regain her composure, laughs so hard that tears run down her wrinkled cheeks.

Eyeing Bernice, Emma says, “It’s not funny.”

“Momma, I gotta go to the bathroom.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll go with you.”

“But I’m six already,” Stephanie says, “I can go by myself now.”

“Are you sure?”

“For Heaven’s sake, let the girl go by herself,” Bernice says. “We can see the door from here. Go ahead, Sweet Pea.”

Stephanie heads for the bathroom, and the two women watch until the door closes behind her. “There you go again, Mother,” Emma says.

“You know, this pissy attitude of yours is getting quite tiresome.”

“You don’t understand.”

“I do too understand. I’ve been there, remember?”

“I said, I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Well, you damn well better do something, before you piss off everyone around you!”

The other customers in the café turn to stare at the two women. Emma looks down, her face heating up. As the other patrons lose interest and return to their own conversations, Emma begins to cry. Bernice looks at her daughter, her own eyes pooling with tears. “Emi, dear,” she says, “please don’t cry. I’m not trying to fight with you, only help you.”

“I know.” Once again, Emma stares at her mother’s flat chest. “I just don’t want to look like, like─ ”

Bernice reaches across the table, covering Emma’s hand with hers. With her other hand, she wipes the tears from Emma’s eyes, searching them with her own. “Like me?”

“Oh Mother, I’m sorry. I really don’t mean it that way.”

“Yes you do, and I don’t blame you. Do you really think I wanted to look like this?”

“Well, at least you were okay with it.”

“Oh no, I wasn’t, not even close. I was just like you. Didn’t even want your father to touch me.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“I never knew you felt that way.”

“How could you? You were just a little girl.”

Emma leans back, rubbing her temples. “So,” she says, “how did you get over it?”

“You think I’m over it?”

“Aren’t you?”

Bernice looks up, seeming to be searching for the right words. “You don’t get over it, not ever.”

“But you had Dad, and us kids.”

“And you have me. And a husband. And a daughter.”

“I know.”

“And you also have options I never had.”

Emma looks down─the dainty, wrinkled hand covers hers once again, tightening its grip. Their order arrives, just as Stephanie returns from the bathroom. Once the waitress has gone, Stephanie looks up at her mother with puffy, bloodshot eyes. “Momma, I popped a balloon.” She cries, her eyes puffing up even more, cheeks flushed.

Emma fixes her gaze on the balloons. One remains round and full, the other reduced to a shriveled rubber morsel. She turns her head, locking eyes with her mother. “Don’t cry, honey,” she says, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders, “losing a balloon is not the end of the world. We’ll get you another one.”

Bernice smiles and says, “Now, how about some Mickey Mouse pancakes?”

 

“Hidden Mickeys” by Andrea Slonecker

Hidden Mickeys

By Andrea Slonecker
 

Karen rolled the scent of new carpet around the back of her nose before she exhaled. She traced her hands along the pure white walls; freshly painted to hide greasy shoe marks. Over the past year Karen had started to hang pictures, covered with glass, on the walls. It thrilled her to set something fragile on the mantle, or on top of a carefully arranged stack of books. It was as if she was doing something illicit. When she dusted the rooms that had been bare for so many years, she would whisper, like a litany, where and when she purchased each item. She wiped the whorl of a crystal monkey’s tail and recited “Biltmore, last December, our trip to the mountains.”   She held a pair of champagne flutes etched with double hearts she said, “Macy’s, early May, to celebrate our 25th anniversary.” They reminded Karen of the ones, long broken, from their wedding. She lifted a heavy glass flute in each hand and tapped them together. They gave a dull clank. The originals were thin crystal and shuddered a chime even when empty. Still, these would work for toasting Glen at his retirement party tonight. The guests should start arriving in just over an hour.

Karen noticed a thin fiber that dulled her plaster Madonna. She wiped away the sticky web. She traced the ridge of the blue veil. She had passed a junk store, the kind of place she used to troll through with her old neighbor, Char Huber, when they were both newlyweds. The Madonna in the window had called out to her. Something in the statue’s gaze said that she knew what it meant to have a child that people whispered about. Karen wondered if, like Eileen, Jesus was Autistic. Was Mary left to gather the remnants of her social life, constantly damaged by her son’s odd actions? She saw the words in the tired plaster eyes: “No touching lepers honey, they have germs,” “stay close to mommy and daddy at the temple; I am not coming to look for you if you get lost this year.” “No, that isn’t a nice lady, they are throwing things at her for a reason.” She began speaking to the Madonna whenever they were alone. Silly things. Karen would ask the statue’s advice on the placement of a brooch, whether she should make tuna casserole or a roast that night.

Once, Karen loved antiques. She’d invent a story for every chip on an enamel bowl. Then Eileen was born. As the girl grew, every thing she touched was ruined. Either she broke it in a tantrum, or drew Mickey Mouse ears on it. Karen became tired of worn things

Karen knew that she should hide the Madonna now, but the statue transformed the empty house into something warm and still. Without the Madonna, being alone was simply lonely. Some magazine, probably Martha Stewart, said that a hostess must plan well and finish all her preparations one hour before the guests arrive then she should sit down with a glass of wine to refresh herself. Ever since Eileen was born, Karen wished for that serenity, just for an hour, and now she had it. A glass of wine, not dumped in a plastic tumbler from Disney World, late at night, after Eileen had finally gone to sleep, but in a real glass, with a stem and yellow wine charm.

***

The Hubers, who used to live two doors down managed to have a child and a perfect, quiet life at the same time. The Huber’s baby had sat on a thick quilt and chewed a wooden train. If he attempted to move off his quilt, Char Huber picked up a yardstick and tapped the oak floor at the fringe. The baby returned to the center.

“It’s so much more humane than a play pen, we can interact more easily here,” Char had explained as she glanced at the baby. “In the beginning I had to rap his knuckles, but now he knows to stay as soon as I touch the floor.” The women drank tea while the baby listened to Mozart and played. Yes, Karen thought, perhaps it was time for a baby.

Both Char’s son and Karen’s daughter were grown, or at least trying to be. A year and a half ago Eileen had moved into a supported-living apartment. A nurse stopped by twice a day to distribute meds. Eileen attended a life skills support group with others from her apartment once a week. At this meeting, everyone worked on a meal plan and shopping list for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. The apartment complex had a large dining room, and Eileen ate there every night.   She worked twenty hours a week at a nearby grocery store. She’d never gotten a driver’s license, but she rode the city bus to her job.

***

The doorbell rang, half an hour too soon. Two women stood on the porch with arms linked. Beth, Karen’s mother-in-law, tapped her powdered cheek, warm from the heated car, against Karen’s face and made a kissing sound with her red lips. Karen’s eyes itched from Beth’s perfume, Red Door.

“I know you won’t mind that we came early, dear, the traffic on I-40 was so much lighter than I planned for, and Eileen was ready to go when I got to her apartment.”

Karen nodded as she took the older woman’s coat.

“I brought you some pimento cheese; I know how much you like it.” Karen grew up in Vermont, the land of sturdy cheddar. The year she and Glen were engaged, Karen spent Christmas in Raleigh with her future in laws. She concealed her horror at the speckled blob that was presented at a cocktail party by dipping one Wheat Thin after another into it and chewing with her tongue tucked away in the upper corner of her mouth. Some of it she swallowed, but when no one was looking, she spat into a paper napkin. She spent the next twenty-seven years complementing her mother-in-law on her pimento cheese.

The younger woman wobbled into the room. The tight skirt on her red cocktail dress pinched her knees together. She wore black heels and short white gloves. Her hair, freshly dyed black, was arranged in two large masses on either side of her head. Karen walked over and embraced her.

“My goodness, Eileen, you look so dramatic. And beautiful. Dramatically beautiful.”

“Three circles, Mom.” Eileen pushed Karen away and curved the tips of her fingers as she tapped the top of her head. This had long been her sign for Mickey Mouse. Karen mimicked Eileen’s motion and tapped. So did Beth. Karen slipped her hands off her head, and crossed her arms as she turned around.

Beth walked into the kitchen; she pushed trays of Karen’s appetizers aside, and placed her pimento cheese next to the stack of plates.

The doorbell rang again and Karen excused herself. Everyone was arriving before Glen. Buzz and Char Huber, their former neighbors, stood on the porch with arms outstretched. Karen leaned in to hug them. Their wool coats soaked up the contrary hot and cold smells of winter–wood smoke, frost, cinnamon, and scotch. It beaded into droplets that Karen shook off before she hung the coats. Even though Buzz and Char had moved to a gated community fifteen years ago, they still ran into each other occasionally, at Costco or the Olive Garden. They didn’t go out to dinner any longer, just the four of them, but they’d invite each other to parties, the kind of parties you throw to make up for the lack of intimate meetings with friends who drifted away. Karen hung the Huber’s Christmas photo on the fridge each year, and each year remarked to Glen how handsome their son was getting to be. Karen pointed the way to the dining area where she had shared many meals with the Hubers before their lives began to separate.

The bell rang again; Karen took the coats from the latest guests, offered hors d’oeurvres and drinks. Glen slipped in through the garage and pulled a seat next to Buzz and Char. Karen patted and smiled her way through clots of guests to join them. Buzz rose, pulled a chair out for Karen, and offered to fill empty glasses. Karen sighed from the relief of sitting. She scanned the room to see if the party was a success. With all the vanilla candles and butter-flavored shortening, it smelled like a meal created in a beaker, but everyone was smiling. Sharon, one of Glen’s former colleagues, leaned towards a man from Karen and Glen’s church and tapped his shoulder with her glass. She could hear Buzz near the bar, his voice filtered through party chatter, telling the story of his son’s quick rise up the corporate ladder at IBM. The sounds and smells layered and blurred as light ricocheted off the candles.

The new dinning room table and chairs shone in the candlelight. They were a splurge, part of the remodeling that happened after Eileen moved out. Sometimes, when Karen was alone, she would sit in one of the chairs and lay her face on the table, feeling its perfection on her cheek. Now she splayed out her fingers to gather the sleek surface. Holding the table felt like holding the life she wanted: poised and smooth. Karen sat in the large chair with armrests. When she was a girl, Karen called this type of seat the “daddy chair.” When Eileen was little she sat in the armed chair from the old dining set. Karen and Glen felt that the arms had given Eileen boundaries and Eileen became used to it. Last year, they threw away the old one, crusted with wood glue in every joint, but each Tuesday when Eileen came to dinner, she chose the new chair with armrests.

Eileen returned to stand in front of the Madonna. She rocked back and forth on her high heels; the bridge of her nose almost brushed the glaze with each forward movement. Karen jumped up and ran to her daughter. Her daughter must not break anything today. In the months since Eileen moved out, Karen restored her home, and the peace she felt from that was too great to lose. She twisted Eileen’s arm backward and caught her as they both almost fell to the floor.

“What do you think you are doing?”

“I was just looking.”

“You could have crashed into the shelf. You can’t keep your balance in heels when you stand still, much less if you rock like that.”

Eileen pulled her arm away, and both women looked at the silent crowd.

“I was just worried that you would fall and hurt yourself sweetie,” Karen said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Why don’t you come get some of those egg rolls you like and sit down next to your father? He’s been looking forward to seeing you.”

It was true; Glen was the one who pushed to include Eileen in the party. He always had more patience than Karen did.   Karen didn’t think that this was really her daughter’s type of event. Eileen didn’t like small talk.

Once she saw that Glen would keep an eye on their daughter, Karen checked the supplies in the kitchen. Her head ached from the noise that only a few minutes ago thrilled her. Why must people use such shrill voices at parties?

Only a few pale celery sticks were left on the veggie tray. The mini quiches had disappeared down to crumbs. Karen put the last greasy egg rolls on a plate, and brought them to Eileen’s chair. Karen opened the kitchen door that led to the garage to grab more appetizers from the extra freezer and escape the noise of the party.

 

***

Neither Glen nor she were good at fixing things or building things, but they’d both been given a small Craftsman tool set as a high school graduation present, and another when they married. The three identical hammers lay in a drawer next to a larger, worn hammer that had belonged to Glen’s father. Karen picked up the old hammer and smelled it. She looked at the heavy head, black with age and full of nicks. She touched the tip of her tongue to its grime, tasted its tang and shivered. Their own hammers had never been used to build anything. They had tapped a few nails into drywall, but never found a stud.

Glen’s dad had been a busy small town doctor, but, unlike Glen, he always found the time to build things. The kind of things that lasted. He built the home that Glen grew up in, and bookshelves for this house. He built a rocking horse for Eileen. She rocked on that horse for hours, wearing out the carpet. It was the only thing that calmed her some days. She’d rock for so long that she’d throw up, then climb back on again. Karen’s own father had cut and sanded a set of wooden blocks for Eileen. Like everything else she loved and claimed as her own, Eileen branded both these toys with an outline of Mickey Mouse’s face. Unlike most of the defaced toys and furniture, Karen kept the blocks and the rocking horse. At the time, Karen was horrified when Eileen marked these toys. She threatened to put them away. But now, it seemed as if Eileen’s marks were a partnership with her grandfathers. The blocks and rocking horse were incomplete without the girl’s decorations.

Karen squeezed her short brown hair in her hands as if that would remove the idea from her mind. She remembered that she was irritated with Eileen; she didn’t want to leave space for sentimentality. She set the box of frozen appetizers down on the hood of the car while she opened the kitchen door. She re-entered the party, refreshed from her brief escape.

The crowd had gathered around Buzz and was laughing at a story about his secretary. The girl usually wore out of date glasses, stained rayon skirts, and had stringy hair, but last week she’d had a makeover, and the results were more disastrous than her original dowdiness. Buzz puckered his lips and rubbed his upper teeth, showing where her garish lipstick landed. He pinched his knees together and splayed his loafers to demonstrate her new hobble, caused by a miniskirt and high heels. He waved his arms to steady himself. Amber beads flew from the glass in his hand; they sparkled in the air, landing on the carpet and his shirt. Karen looked at Eileen and bit her lip to staunch the idea that that Buzz’s description of the awkward secretary dressing up reminded her of her daughter.

She looked at her guests staring and smiling at Buzz. He warmed the crowd, made them love him. Karen remembered how, when she first met Buzz, being admitted into his circle filled her. She could see the expansion in each of her guests. Watching Buzz, each one of them smiled a little bigger, or stood a little straighter than she had ever seen before. Buzz was always full of praise; he must have complimented the young secretary on her new hairstyle, just as he had to Elaine tonight, to every woman in the room.

Suddenly, Karen was tired of Buzz’s endless humor and charm. Looking back on all the dinners they had shared, Karen realized their laughter always followed mockery. She wondered if she and Glen, or even more likely, Eileen, were ever the objects of the Huber’s ridicule. Karen wanted to run to her guests, shake each one of them, and say, “It’s not real, this warmth, this confidence you feel. You think because you are laughing at someone else, you are protected. It could be you next time.”

Through the haze of guests, Karen could no longer hear Buzz’s flattery or even see him, until he rose above the crowd. He pulled one of the dining room chairs, the one with the arm rests, in front of the bookshelf and was dancing on it. One guest thumped a beat on the side of the couch, and another hummed a tune. Buzz turned away from his audience and faltered. At first, Karen thought the stumble was apart of the act, but then she heard the brittle collapse of porcelain and a man’s voice cursing. The guests dispersed, averting their eyes, muttering about approaching weather, forgotten until now.

“We must be going now before it hits; could be icy soon you know,” guest after guest murmured into Karen’s ear. “Don’t worry about me, dear, I can show myself out.”

She caught Glen’s look, and knew that he was headed to the bathroom to get the first aid kit. Although, first she watched Karen pulled the dustpan out from under the kitchen sink. They had followed this routine before. Glen returned with band-aids and a glass of water, he nodded his head, smiling to calm Buzz down.

“Sorry Buzz, old buddy, we’re out of bourbon,” Glen said, “how about some water instead?”

As Karen swept up the remnants of her broken statue next to Buzz, she noticed the faint, warm scent of good whisky that he had carried in the door with him had morphed into something sour and garish on his breath. She turned her head away to try to find fresh air and saw Char slumped on the sofa, squeezing the arm-rests, eyes closed. Karen could see her lips moving, muttering something too low to be heard. Karen picked up the chair the Buzz knocked over, and felt a roughness under her fingertips. She didn’t need see it to know what caused the cuts in the silky wood. The three circles were familiar to her fingers. Hidden Mickeys.

 

***

Karen returned to the garage with the dustpan and opened a box labeled “off-season clothes.” She lifted a single sweater off the top. Underneath the sweater, the box was filled with shattered colors. She dumped the remains of the Madonna with the rest, and sifted her right hand through the shards she had been collecting for twenty years. The splinters of glass scratched and stuck in Karen’s winter dry hands. She pulled one of the larger Madonna pieces out again, two thin layers of blue sandwiched the pasty interior that no one was supposed to see but now revealed its nakedness.

In the beginning, the box was proof. She never showed it to anyone, not even Glen, but she always thought about it when other parents pretended to complain, but were, in truth, amused by their child’s antics. The daughter of one mother Karen met at the playground had written the entire alphabet! In upper and lowercase! At the age of two! On the wall! The only brilliance her own child displayed at two, and at twenty-two, was that of destruction.

The box was an accumulation of individual moments of Karen and Eileen’s shared anguish–shattered, dumped, and mixed together–increasing in volume as the years went on.

When Eileen was six, she thought she might log all the remnants in a journal, but by the time it had occurred to her, the box was already established; she couldn’t remember what all the earlier items were, even though each destruction seemed horrid at the time.

And, perhaps, the reminder of this forgetting was why she still continued to add to the box. Perhaps the box was also a monument to her early vision of the perfect child, the ideal family. During Eileen’s early teens, Karen thought if she could collect, and then forget the exact moment of these pieces of her family’s brokenness, they would be that much closer to perfection themselves. Tonight, she realized that despite the Mozart, despite the shiny floors this other dream family never existed. She reached both hands into the bin and pushed with eyes closed, searching for the bottom. The first aid kit would be waiting when she went inside.

 

 

“Forgive Me” by Ashley-Nichole Holland

Forgive Me

By Ashley-Nichole Holland

 

Can you feel that? Can you feel the breeze rolling off the blue water? Close your eyes, feel what I am feeling. My heart beats faster with every crashing wave. Sailboats rock back forth in the distance as I anticipate the hurt that is about to take place. Do you hear that? It’s the bell from the orange buoy. Ring. Ring. Ring. Sit here with me, sit still. Breathe in the salty air; let it sink into your lungs. Bury your toes in the sand, its cold, I know. Give me your hand, feel what I am feeling.

It’s pushed too far back onto the shore, this old boat. It probably hasn’t been out on the water for a whole decade. We lean against it; its white and turquoise paint is chipped. “Point No Point” is written in black script, it’s still there. It’s still here. Can you feel what I’m feeling? Can you feel the blood pumping through my veins as seagull float above the glassy ocean? Can you feel the tear in our lives? The wind pulls the clouds away from the shore. The sun glows against your skin. Look at the daisies, they’re my favorite. It’s funny how well they complement each other; the ocean and the daisies. Tell me you can feel what I am feeling.

The red roof of the lighthouse is vibrant with the sun setting behind it. If we wait, we can see the light from the tower chase falling stars in the night sky. But we cannot put this off any longer. Listen to the ocean. Listen to the field of grass behind us. Can you hear the tall blades move against each other in the saline airstream?

I want you to know that my intention is not to hurt you, but this will never be; you and I. As much as our hearts might break, for as long as you have anticipated the rest out our lives together, I can’t. I sit down in the old boat and I ask you to sit next to me. You don’t know why we are here; I’ve never brought you to this spot before. You do not know that this is the place that I used to run to when we would fight.

Some call it cold feet, but I’m positive that this is not that. I can’t marry you; it wouldn’t be fair to either of us if I did. You no longer make sense in the life that I am trying to create for myself. I don’t want to live the life of an Officers wife. Our past complicates my feelings for you; there will always be memories of when you loved me and I loved you in return. You bought me a Tiffany’s necklace for me to wear to the prom, and I held you in my arms when you learned about your grandfather’s stroke. A year later I cried my eyes out when I found you with Haley Carlson at my best friend’s birthday party.

Here we are, three years later. You’ve apologized more times than I can remember, you’ve begged for my forgiveness. For a while, I thought I forgave you; I thought I had moved passed it and saw something more important than what happened in the past. As I sit next to you on the altar of abandonment, I try to gather the words to forever change our futures. I couldn’t give you what you want; there was no way I could live up to your expectations. I can’t be your military wife.

With tears rolling down my face I think about the moment you proposed to me. The way I had always hoped for, and you knew it too. In the middle of the seventh inning stretch, right after “Take Me Out to the Ballgame, you got down on one knee and told me to look up at the score board. “Julianne, will you marry me?” The crown surrounding us cheered as my face turned a darker shade of pink than that of the vendor’s cotton candy.

The sky fades to a deeper blue as the sun lowers over the Hood Canal waters. You ask me what is the matter and I tell you that I don’t know if you will ever forgive me for what I am about to say. You hold my hand, waiting for your heart to break. My eyes lock on the small breaking waves against the smooth sand as I tell you that I could never be all that you need me to be.

At first you don’t understand, you tell me that I am all that you could want for the rest of your life. But I’m not here for you to convince me to marry you; you shouldn’t have to convince me. I tell you that I am not fit to be a wife or mother. I tell you that settling down isn’t a part of my plan anymore. I love you, but I know that I am no longer right for you.

You stand up and brush sand from your clothes. You take a moment staring off at the lighthouse; the light just turned on and was dancing at the top of its tower. You want to leave because we have a two hour drive ahead of us. Without saying a word we walk across the cold sand, no longer resting in the sunlight. I take deep breaths, letting the salty air absorb into my lungs. Crickets off into the distance play music and harmonize with the wind rustling through the tall beach grass.

You unlock and open the car, still in silence. With the keys resting in your hand and your eyes locked on the steering wheel, you tell me that I am being selfish. I wish I could tell you why, but I don’t want to hurt you anymore than I already have. I don’t want to disappoint you in the years ahead of us.

Trees pass by in a blur; the tall evergreens dancing through the frame of the passenger side window. I think about you, the kids that you want to have with me and the home. You want two dogs and a boat to take fishing. I wish I could be the all American wife for your vision of the all American family.

The sun turns the horizon deep sienna and I close my eyes, picturing the ocean and the sailboats. Images of daisies and cotton candy clouds play back in the pictures of my brain. I’m too weak to say anything more and I know you want me to explain. I remember the time when I knew nothing more than the life that I would create with you. My time is running out and I needed you to move on from me.

You don’t know, but my body stopped responding to the medication. My body is breaking down and I don’t have much time. My body won’t be able to bear a child; I won’t have the strength to build a home. I love you with all my heart, but I cannot create this life with you and leave you because I am too weak. Each time I close my eyes, I pray to God to give me the strength to wake up the next morning. Just know that I am not doing this because I do not love you; cancer is a monster that I could not defeat.

Today might have been that last time I felt the wind rush off the sweet salty ocean. I cherish each moment I have, especially the ones with you. I hope that you can feel what I feel for you, and I am sorry that I will be leaving you. But when it’s time, just remember me; forgive me.

 
 

“Dark Glass” by Britney Ott

Dark Glass

By Britney Ott
 

The shrill cry of a school bell echoed in the empty hallway, which suddenly filled with all the hoots, howls, squeals, cheers, insults, and laughs that came with the end of high school on a Friday. Even the teachers would wipe their brows, gather up homework, and bid the other staff farewell before they skittered to their own cars, racing the busses out of the parking lot. The only two who resisted the call of the weekend vacation were the secretary and a tenth grade boy.

While he normally waited inside the school building, this day, the teen boy went out onto the front steps. It was a tame, warm kind of afternoon, with only light wisps of clouds daring to brave the journey through the oceanic sky, no wind to guide their paths or to push telephone lines into a steady swing. With any luck, the teenager would be able to do some homework on the steps before he was ushered away by the well-meaning secretary. Not that it would matter much: Monday would arrive and present incomplete work, something that his teachers never failed to point out. The boy would just shrug and mumble “whatever”.

So he sat on the steps in front of the city’s public school doing homework on a Friday. Even so, no one would have looked twice at him. His blonde hair scratched his ears and eyebrows as though begging to be cut or, at least, combed. Behind a pair of thin glasses patched in two or three places with electrical tape, his hazy blue-grey eyes hid desperately from judgment. While not quite thin, he had an air of frailty about him that showed in the slender length of his fingers and the way his mouth and eyelids drooped. The paleness of his skin was not out of place among the North Iowan community, nor was the red bump on his chin where a pimple was attempting to form out of place among the other teens. Perhaps the only thing that would even tempt a person to stab at a conversation with this child was the yellowed blue blush trying hard to blend into the sleeve of his tee shirt.

Somewhere between the area of a circle and the surface of a cube, the boy’s fingers became too stiff to move his pencil well. With a sigh, he shoved his books into a backpack that had, in his opinion, the look of being used since his parents were toddlers. At least he had finished the history assignment, which he was failing. The boy pulled his knees up to his neck and propped his chin on them as his thin arms clung tightly to his battered jeans.

He glanced nervously over his shoulder but did not see the secretary locking up the building, so he settled back into his ball-self, dull eyes dancing over the empty grounds until he saw a woman riding an old red bicycle.

She was a bit like his mother: light brown hair falling lightly to her shoulders, dark, mossy eyes. But she was different, too. Her lips were pale and curled into a soft grin of enjoyment. Her clothes were clean, her shoes carefully matched. She had on a waist-pouch as well, a black one with a grey plastic star ironed onto one pocket. As he watched her, she glanced quickly at him and tipped her head, slowing the bike to a halt as she did. For some time, they just stared at each other, but, sensing that nothing was going to happen, the boy cast his eyes at the ground and away from the young woman. She was too young to be anything like his mother anyway.

Sitting on the steps in front of the school, seeing this young stranger, he reminded himself of what was waiting at home. He shuddered and gripped his jeans tightly once more.

A mechanical click and a whir reached his ears, causing him to jerk his head up towards the woman. In her soft hands, she held a professional-looking, sleek black camera. He watched her slip the lens cover back on. Had she just taken a picture of him? Why would anyone do that? He was nearly certain that his own mother did not even have a picture of him. But this woman just eased the camera into her waist-pouch and zipped it shut, glanced up at the boy again, and smiled. It was different than before, though, like a memory had taken her by surprise and she was not even looking at the boy on the stairs.

“Mark, time to go home.”

The boy looked over his shoulder again. The secretary was finally closing up the doors to the school, locking the entrance with little difficulty, given that one arm was full of files. Mark sighed and slipped his backpack onto one shoulder. Before he rounded the corner towards his mother’s house, he peered back one last time at the young woman on her red bike. She waved, and then he was gone.

The woman pushed the bike forward again, though she changed her destination. She had been going to talk to a man about pictures for his magazine, to show her portfolio to him, to try to get out of Iowa. But, suddenly, she didn’t want to leave. Actually, there was someone she wanted to see.

The woman did not stop until she was nearly outside of town. There were few houses, a handful of small businesses, and one low hill on which many, many dark stones stood, marking the dead of the city since 1904. It was here that the woman ended her voyage, here that she dropped her bike, and here that she sought out a name that no one spoke to her anymore. She found it carved on black rock and set between a nameless aunt of hers and her grandfather, her brother’s name: Corey Hutchinson, June 13, 1978 to October 22, 1995.

The woman smiled gently at her big brother’s grave. Someone was taking care of it, even if it wasn’t the most decorated. She leaned against the dark stone, remembering how they had never needed words, how silence had always been enough. She remembered how they would go to the park every night during the summer just to watch the birds dance on the grass in their jumpy way.

She thought back to how, when he got older, his eyes died. In high school, he had taken on the most advanced classes and a part time job to help take care of his family. The woman sighed, wishing that her father had made him stop working so hard. He stopped smiling. Then he stopped sleeping. Then he stopped eating. In October, the woman, then a girl, had gone into his room to find a book that she needed but instead found Corey on his bed, silent, eyes half shut.

She thought of the teenaged boy on the stairs in front of the school, how is eyes had the same dark-glass glare, and she begged whatever god she thought would possibly listen to let him live.

“Moon Master” by Elyse Erickson

Moon Master

By Elyse Erickson

 

For twenty-three years, Holly had gone quite comfortably through life thinking she was an only child.

She walked up to the porch, humming quietly, trying to shake away the aftereffects of the mind-numbing Philosophy 101 lecture she sat through earlier in the afternoon. The pale yellow siding on the small, old house needed to be replaced. So did three of the four windows facing the street, small cracks were creeping up from the corners, and Holly knew there was lead in the paint. The neighbor’s fat toy poodle was piddling in their narrow garden in front of the sagging porch. The autumn’s frost had already taken care of the few weeds a week ago. Holly and her mother never really had a talent for keeping any sort of plant alive.

“Good boy, Gershwin,” Holly’s neighbor, Randy, called while she unlocked the front door.

She yawned, scratched her freckled cheek, and kicked the door shut as she stepped out of her shoes. Her faded red backpack was tossed into the computer chair. She heard the sounds of her mother getting ready for work, opening and closing her dresser and closet, probably looking for her slacks.

Holly was in the middle of unsnagging her dark red braid from a button on her gray pea-coat when she noticed someone watching her. A small, pale-faced, button-nosed someone, no older than six or seven.

She could not tear her gaze away from his dark, empty-looking eyes. The first thing she thought of was all of the horror movies where the creepy, hollow-eyed child was the root of all Evil. The boy did not blink, he hardly appeared to be breathing. His blond hair needed a good brushing, it was knotted above his eyebrows and stick¬ing out in matted clumps.

“H-hello,” Holly let her coat fall to the floor and sidled away from the boy, eventually pressing her back into the wall by the desk¬top computer as the screen changed from one picture of kittens to another. He said nothing. The kid slowly turned away from her and stared across the dirty room. Blankets were balled up on the old leather couch, and the coffee table was covered with textbooks and papers. The dining table was fairly clean, some mail was sitting beside strawberry scented candles.

“Mom?” Holly called, still inching away from the boy.

Her mother, Jean, creaked through the kitchen and leaned into the narrow doorway. Like her daughter, Jean was plump, but pre¬ferred to call herself curvy and busty and always telling Holly to do the same. “Yeah?”

“Who’s this?”

Jean, busy twisting her hair into a silvering bun, glanced over to the boy.

“Ah, that’s Ethan,” she seemed satisfied with her hair and quick¬ly hitched up her black pants, then bent down to tie her shoes. When she stood up, Holly was still waiting for a more complete answer as she leaned against the wall. “Orson’s son.”

Holly slid to the right slightly, nearly losing her footing. “Dad was here?” She asked stupidly. Orson was only her father in the biological sense, leaving when Jean was about three months pregnant. Holly only knew him from a faded Polaroid folded in the depths of her desk; a tall, barrel-chested man with an out of control beard and narrow eyes.

“He dropped the kid off before I could even say hi,” Jean started to call him a name, but stopped and glanced over to Ethan. She hardly spoke of Orson, Holly knew it was stupid to push the subject. The only thing she ever got out of her mother was that he was a wandering soul and it was a terrible idea to get involved in the first place. She only learned that information because her mother was slightly tipsy after an evening out with friends and in a sharing mood.

“I tried to tell him to wait until you got back from classes,” Jean continued. Holly’s shoulders sagged. She slumped into the computer chair, bumping the mouse with her elbow, causing the desktop screen to pop up. “He told me Ethan was my problem now, then jumped in his minivan and left.” With her chin cupped in her hand, Holly stared at the space be¬tween her and the rickety dining table. She had never even spoken to her dad, not even on the phone. “Honey,” Jean side-stepped through the narrow space between the table and the window and hugged Holly tightly, rocking a little. “I know, it sucks.”

“So we’re keeping him?” Holly asked, her voice shaking a little.

“He’s not a dog, Holly,” Jean snapped, then sighed slowly. She left Holly and walked over to Ethan with a warm smile on her always tired face. “Hey bud,” she patted the top of his head like he was a dog, “I told you that you could watch some television.”

His only reaction was turning his empty stare towards Jean. Hol¬ly shuddered, her mom sighed again and rubbed his shoulder lightly.

 

The kid hardly moved for a good ten minutes, except to only look over his shoulder a few times before returning to his eerily static posture. Holly was wolfing down a bologna sandwich, sitting at the tall kitchen table. “Could you take him to work with you?” Jean asked as she rushed in and out of the kitchen, searching for her favorite purse. “Kam would fire me if I brought him in with me.”

Holly knew Jean would be perfectly fine with losing her job at Casey’s. Jean hated everything about the place, and ever since she read about the string of gas station robberies on the internet, she kept on telling Holly that Huxley was next. A man was going to burst through the doors with a gun, demanding for all the money and cigarettes. Highway 69 cut through the town, right in front of Casey’s, it would be an easy getaway.

“Sure,” Holly said, finishing her sandwich and wondering when Jean’s “in-between” job that had stretched into over two years would be over.

 

Working at the local dry cleaners had never been a thrilling job. Holly would dump clothes out of brightly colored bags into the old wire basket, staple paper tags to the clothing, toss the dirty clothing into respective piles, tally up the tickets, and repeat until all of the bags were gone. The only excitement coming in was when she found forgotten money. Like a waitress’ tips, it was where most of her cash was made. When a guest or coworker was present, Holly could chat instead of swear at the clothing for being so damn dirty, crusty, or bloody.

With Ethan sitting at the desk, she still felt utterly alone. He busied himself with a coffee-stained notebook and a rainbow of colors which included three black sharpies, a red pen, and an orange highlighter.

Every day, Holly tried to get the radio to work, it would only fuzz, even if she popped in a CD. The only noises filling the air were the machines and pipes randomly kicking on and rattling. Ethan flinched every time one of the sounds rattled through.

Holly stole a glance at the drawing Ethan was concentrating so hard on while hanging a ruined leather jacket on the rack by the desk (the coat smelled like it had been hit by a healthy shower of vodka and vomit).

He was quite the artist, even with the limited color supply Holly could easily see a night sky full of highlighter orange stars and a white moon over the red and black silhouette of a city. Close to one corner was a boy, stick arms spread wide, and a too-big smile on the almost circle face. He was flying.

“That’s fantastic, Ethan,” Holly said, then pointed to the boy in the corner. “Is that you?”

He was small in comparison to everything else in the drawing.

Finally, some emotion flooded into his features. A cherub smile sparked to life, dimpling his tiny cheeks. He was missing a front tooth. “Yeah,” his voice like a whisper singing. Beautiful and small.

“And he speaks,” Holly said before she could stop herself. She flashed him a kind smile. “I was starting to worry.”

Ethan nodded and returned to his art. Holly stepped over the mass of clothes, back to the wire basket and bags of clothes. He swiveled in the wobbly chair. “My name’s not Ethan,” he said quietly, Holly hardly heard him. “It’s Kite.”

It took a second for Holly to recognize what he had said. “That’s a nice name,” she commented vaguely while turning out the pockets of mud-caked jeans, hoping to find money.

“My mother gave it to me,” Ethan continued, turning in the wobbly chair and kicking his feet.

“Really?” Holly was more focused on adding up the cost of three pairs of jeans and two light starch shirts. “D’you know where you mom is?” If she found out a bit about his mom, they could be reunited.

He gave her a strange look and pointed to the ceiling. Before Holly could figure out a way to gently ask him if she was dead, he said, “She’s the moon.”

 

Holly and her friend Mari were leaning against the hood of Mari’s beat-up blue Oldsmobile, finishing their gas station lunches. They watched leaves cartwheel over one of the University of South¬ern Ankeny’s (DMACC to anyone other than Holly, Mari, and three other students) parking lots with ten minutes to spare before need¬ing to head to class. Mari, shaking her wrist so her small collection of colorful plastic bracelets click-clacked together, asked if anything interesting happened the other day after classes.

“You have a brother?” Mari asked, tearing her mouth away from her thirty-two ounce blue raspberry slushy and choking a little. Holly wondered if Mari heard her explain how Ethan thought his mom was the moon and how if he wasn’t drawing, he was staring.

“Mm-hmm.” Holly nodded, then took in a deep breath, inhaling the thick smell of burning leaves. Mari teased her dark fly-away hair, making it look as messy as possible, and took a long, rattling drink. “That’s insane.”

“Yeah,” Holly kicked at the pavement and stared over to build¬ing six, where the auditorium was.

“What are you going to do?”

Holly shrugged. “We haven’t figured it out yet, but he’s sleeping on the couch for now.” Ethan seemed to like sleeping on the couch, at least for his first night. He was able to curl up under a window with a good view of the stars.

“You’re not calling anyone, like the police or child services?” Mari fiddled with one of her many necklaces, a red stone pendant.

“Mom doesn’t want to,” Holly said, tracing circles on the hood of Mari’s car. When she suggested the same thing to her mom, Jean became touchy, almost defensive, and told Holly to drop it, she would handle it.

Mari took a long rattling drink, nodding as if she agreed with Jean. “When do I get to meet your little moon brother?” It still felt weird, having a brother, even a half-brother. Holly shrugged, “whenever.”

*

The weather was getting too cold to stand barefoot outside, but Ethan insisted, even if it was a silent gesture of kicking his shoes off after Holly forced them on his bony feet. He stood. He was very good at remaining absolutely motionless, only the wind stirred his freshly combed hair and too-long sleeves of the red shirt Jean bor¬rowed from the mother of three across the street. Orson left Ethan with only a backpack, a tiny ratty thing stuffed with three day’s worth of grimy, ill-fitting t-shirts. They went into the trash on the first night of Ethan’s stay.

Holly watched him from the porch, leaning against the chipped siding. He had to move sometime. He didn’t even look up to a squir¬rel as it bounced along a branch above him. He seemed just fine the previous day, drawing on any slip of paper Holly would give him.

Eventually, Jean’s pineapple yellow truck chugged to a stop in front of the house. She did not take her eyes off Ethan as she walked by him and stood on the steps beside Holly. “How long has he been like this?” She asked quietly. Holly felt like they were scrutinizing an unfinished piece of art.

She checked the time on her phone. “Two hours.” Jean may have looked concerned, chewing her fingers and ad¬justing the strap of her black leather purse, but she made no move to go disturb the boy, even though the sun would be setting soon. The sky was already turning pink.

“What are we going to do with him?” Holly asked, tapping the siding of the house with her heel. They didn’t have an extra bed, and Holly felt bad just leaving him to sleep on the couch. Even though it had a good view of the sky, it was an uncomfortable, lumpy old thing.

Jean pulled her thumb away from her mouth and snapped her fingers quietly. She sighed painfully and her thumb returned to her mouth. The back of her head rested against the house, her shoulders rolled forward and back, as her thumbs slid into her belt loops. “I guess I could try to track that bastard down,” She said quietly, “Get his email or something, see if he knows where Ethan’s mother is.” If Orson had any sort of digital paper trail on the internet, Jean would be able to find it, she had a mysterious gift with computers that eluded Holly. “But I’m not responsible for anything I say outside of asking about Ethan.”

Holly agreed, “as long as you don’t get arrested.” She wondered how long it had been since Ethan had seen his mother and why in the world she trusted him with Orson. Ethan scratched the back his neck with a quick movement. Finally, signs of life.

“Maybe we should take him to see a doctor,” Holly said slowly, stuffing her hands in the pocket of her blue DMACC sweatshirt. “See if he’s allergic to anything, you know?” Jean thought about it, biting her lip and humming. “No, not yet, I have a feeling that a strange man poking and prodding him would just end badly.”

She may have only been a receptionist at a small dentist’s office before working at Casey’s, but Jean still had plenty of horror stories involving wailing kids on their first visit. “We’d better do it soon though,” Holly said before retrieving Ethan and trying to get him to do something a little more entertaining. Maybe dusting or cleaning the windows, or watching the linoleum peal in the kitchen, just as long as it was warm and inside.

 

“So he’s a little off.” Mari said, picking up another paint-filled balloon and lobbing it at the whitewashed section of plywood leaned against a tree. Blue splattered across it, then dribbled down to the gray tarp Mari had laid out. “He sounds awesome.”

Holly palmed a red balloon, watching the darker paint swirl inside. Talking about Ethan had become Mari’s new favorite subject, she asked about him every day since he dropped into Holly’s life four days ago. With her job at Ballard Creek Nursing Home, then volun¬teering in the afterschool program at Ames Elementary, Mari had not been able to meet him.

After the whole mother moon situation, Holly learned the only thing he ate was banana, pickle, and strawberry jam sandwiches (with a dab of mayo), and nothing else. He still would not speak to Jean, no matter how much she chatted with him, or what Dr. Seuss book she would read to him, or which Disney movie she would pop in the DVD player. The only things he said to Holly were along the lines of “yes, please” and “thank you.”

And as far as Holly could tell, he hardly slept. He spent most of the hours looking at the night sky through the window.

“I think it’s ready for another one,” Mari said. Holly handed her the red balloon and Mari pitched it at the plywood, hitting it with a satisfying splat. A buff, college-aged boy in a yellow and red football jersey stumbled over Mari’s tarp after chucking a football to a thinner boy in a matching shirt. He nearly knocked the plywood over.

“Sorry!” He called, making sure it was still leaning against the tree before running off. The park they were in was a busy one, it wasn’t the first time someone had stumbled over the tarp. Earlier, a middle-aged jogging man face-planted into the pooling paint, he was up and running again before they could ask if he was alright.

“Can I call him Moon Master?” Mari asked, grabbing a green balloon and balancing it on the top of her hand. She was waiting for the splattered paint to dry a little. She did not click and clatter as much without most of her jewelry on her wrists.

“I think he wants to be called Kite.” Holly took a turn, lobbing an orange balloon. Most of the paint was mixing into a brown in the center of the board. She could not believe Mari had actually con¬vinced her to help with her “paint project.”

“But Moon Master is so much more fitting,” She made a funny little flourish with her free hand every time she said Moon Master. Holly was already sick of it. “Hey, do you think he’d like seeing a farm? Granny loves it when kids visit.”

Before Holly could tell her that having Ethan get out of the house might be a good idea, a boy wearing clothes that would better fit an elephant sauntered over to them for the third time that after¬noon. “Bet you can’t hit me with one of those!” He stood with his arms wide, his bright yellow shirt making a perfect target.

“Ignore him,” Holly warned and grabbed Mari’s arm when she moved to throw a balloon at him. A gang of pre-teens wearing the same sized clothing were walking up behind him. If she ruined his clothing and made him angry, they would be outnumbered.

“Idiot,” Mari growled quietly, “Can you believe I want to spend the rest of my life teaching art to those little bastards? I should go into music, like you, Miss Saxophone Performance Major, no kids to deal with.” She finished in a nasally mocking tone. The boy in the yellow shirt either lost interest or found another person to heckle, he was wandering away.

Holly’s saxophone was collecting dust in its case by her bed. Her plans of attending a school with an actual saxophone performance major were moving at a snail’s pace. “But you at least have a future career.”

Mari waved her comment away and handed Holly another bal¬loon. “Your turn.”

 

Holly’s out-dated laptop whirred and ticked at the effort of keeping the blank Word document open. She was supposed to be writing a paper over the beginnings of the Vietnam War. The need to clean her saxophone and play a few scales had distracted her when her mother meandered into the room. “How’s Ethan doing?” She asked, stepping over a pile of dirty clothes. A few movie posters were about ready to fall off the water-damaged walls, she pushed one cor¬ner of the cast of Across the Universe against the wall with the pad of her thumb.

Holly pressed a few keys on her tarnished saxophone, the small drum-like thuds echoed through the instrument. “He hasn’t come up here.”

Jean became too calm. She licked her lips several times while rubbing the palm of her hand with her thumb and looking around the room. “Ethan?” She said loudly. “Kite?” No response.

Holly first looked under the bed, finding only Mr. Tubs, her watermelon-shaped cat cleaning himself. It was a small house, after a few glances, they pounded down the stairs. “How could you lose him?” Holly yelled while she checked in the shower.

“I’m a little out of practice, honey.” Jean said calmly as she looked under the sink.

“Isn’t it like riding a bike or something?” Holly was starting to panic after not finding him under any of the tables, or behind the couch. She ran her fingers over her braid and glanced out the window. Through the warping glass, she spotted a certain small boy.

“He’s outside!”

She had never witnessed her mother move so fast. Holly had taken two steps towards the front door when her mother flew by, vaulting the three cement stairs and crunching over the leaf-covered yard. The only thing Holly could do to help was hold the door open as Jean carried a shivering and purple-lipped Ethan back to the house.

He would not answer any of Jean’s questions as to why he was outside. She found him staring skyward, mouth open slightly. Jean left the room in a quiet huff, muttering something about finding the kid some socks. Holly asked the same questions and his answers were all the same “I dunno.”

He didn’t know he was standing barefoot in the front yard, he didn’t know how long he had been out there, he did not know that his lips were purple. Jean returned with a pair of yellow woolen socks and slipped them on his feet.

He pulled something out of his pocket, a smooth white stone. “Mom wanted you to have this.” He said quietly, pushing the rock into Holly’s fingers. Jean was oblivious to the exchange, too busy making sure heat was returned to Ethan’s toes.