Rat Laughter 
By Robin Crane  

We were so hot those summer nights, in our third apartment there on the main street in the bad neighborhood. It was my third apartment, actually, but it was Desmond's fourth, him being my older brother; mom had the tendency, for no distinct reason, of changing location roughly every four years. It was only Keisha's first apartment.

I hated the little pieces of glitter embedded in the cottage cheese-textured finish of the ceiling, because I was a twelve year old girl and I was accustomed to thinking that glitter was pretty; but those sparkling flecks came to seem of a piece with the hot stagnant air, they were like the gleams of sunlight that ride the quivering waves of a desert mirage. There were only two windows in the living room, and they were too narrow and high up to do us any good. We had a ceiling fan, three box fans, two oscillating table fans and one oscillating standing fan. Still, it never felt cooler than ninety degrees in there, and we just sat around in our bathing suits when there was no company over.

The bedroom window was bigger, and sometimes a breeze came through, smelling wonderfully like the nearby eucalyptus trees. But us three kids shared this room, and each of our bodies generated a heat that immediately absorbed these little gusts. By the end of each unbearable night, we could not help but resent each other's very existence sometimes. Desmond turned his back to us on his futon mattress across the room from me and Keisha's bunk beds. We all lay on our sides facing the wall, staring at our own territory of wall, the space right next to our faces as we slept, that we had each decorated with images we hoped would define the plots of our dreams if we stared at them night after night. Keisha decorated her small piece of wall with drawings of mermaids taken from a coloring book, and my own space was papered with photos of Bell Biv DeVoe ripped out of magazines. In Desmond's corner of the room, he'd covered the wall with practice tags of his signature tag, a fluorescent pink rat whose tail spells "hahaha" in cursive letters.

Mom liked us to stay inside at night, because of the neighborhood. When we couldn't get her to bend this rule, my favorite way for us to be stuck in the apartment was for us kids to be sitting on the couch watching a rented movie and talking over it and eating popcorn while mom sat at the small Formica table nearby, reading a novel or self-help book absentmindedly enough to laugh when she heard us say something funny.

But my favorite thing to do at night, on those summer nights, was to stand outdoors behind the tall wrought iron latticework gate at the entrance to our apartment building, watching the mostly white teenagers and people in their early twenties walk by on their way to Broken Teeth, the artsy club a block away. You all were my carnival. You tall, pale girls in your grandmothers' leopard print coats, you were leopards. You boys dressed like Kurt Cobain, you carried yourselves with the sad, apologetic grace of Kurt Cobain himself. You three blue-haired, best-friend black girls, did you notice me? I know you did, once or twice, though you never said hello. I stood quiet and camouflaged behind the gate, watching. You slender wrists heavy with Saturn rings of bracelets, you guardedly smiling mouths you ears dangling chandelier earrings, you feet in faded Converse All-Stars, you echoing laughter, you echoing clanks of high-heeled boots, you walking down my street, older than me, different from me, appearing to me to be absolutely, wildly free.

​​Robin Crane writes poetry, fiction and personal essays. She has been published in Olympia Literary Yarn, Hourglass Magazine, Poetry Motel, Poetry Superhighway, All Things Girl, Ghoti Magazine, Newtopia, 63 Channels, Evergreen Review, The Hairpin, and The Scrambler. She is working on a novel about a wild mother and daughter.

* * *

By Tim Drugan-Eppich

The tree stood apart from the others, its thickness a testament to its age. Gusts of wind that raced across the flat landscape, ripping through the grass on the plain before slamming into the tree with a scream, made all of the tree’s branches grow on one side. The other was bare. It grew in a crack between two large rocks. The rocks were smooth. A creek ran fast and shallow nearby. Sometimes the creek crested its banks after a storm, flooding the surrounding landscape and rubbing all roughness from the boulders before retreating, apologetically, back into its scar in the earth. The rocks were beginnings of the mountains that cast their shadow over the tree in the early summer evenings. But now the sun’s heat licked the tree, drying its needles, sending the tree’s roots burrowing deeper in search of water that the earth drank from the creek.
A man sat beneath the branches of the tree. He was settled on a patch of dirt littered with brown, dry needles — reminders to the tree of days when it had to die a little to stay alive. The man’s hand was placed on the trunk of the tree as he peered around it, through the gap made between it and the surrounding rocks. Sweat on the nape of his neck beaded into drops. The salt water ran below the collar of his shirt, sliding down his spine until he moved and the droplets were pressed into the fabric, furthering the dampness there. Sweat trickled on his face. His eyes stung though he continually wiped them with a red handkerchief, one given to him by his wife, Laura. Sometimes he could smell her on it. He couldn’t smell her now. A saddlebag leaned against the rock next to him. The horse that carried it lay in the dirt a few yards a way. Several holes in its side, intended for its rider, leaked blood that turned a dark brown as it dripped down the strong body to combine with the dust. The horse still breathed, but the air went in shuttering and came out in a soft moan. Its eyes were closed.
The man also bled. A muffled red showed through the white and black of his shirt, starting just below the collarbone on his left side and dripping all the way down to his belt where he could feel the blood moistening the waistband of his pants. His hat lay by the horse, no longer shadowing eyes the color of turtle shells clenched in pain. The shadow of the tree made the wet on the man’s back cold. It was a welcome sensation. All morning the sun had warmed his back to a burn; the heat coming through his vest and shirt, becoming pinpricks on his skin like bugs crawling with legs of hot needles.
The man sent his vision through the gap against the wind that blew towards him. He watched the dozen men riding with the wind. A sheriff and a marshall were among them on tired and thirsty horses. They yelled to the man to come out from where he hid. Wide hats covered their faces, but the man knew no mercy would be found underneath.
The man turned away, leaning against the tree. He imagined the wood creaking under his feet, loose and ready to open. The rope on his neck felt rough and heavy, fraying pieces digging sharply into his skin. He heard the jeers of the crowd as the bag was put over his head. The floor swung out from beneath him.
The man slid his last two rounds into his rifle. His back still against the tree, he sighted between his horse’s eyes and pulled the trigger. Her nostrils widened as one last breath left her body, her head relaxing against the cool dirt. The man turned the rifle and rested the barrel on his bottom lip.
The bullet buried itself in the tree behind the man. In time, the tree would grow around the lead, concealing the metal it held within. But for now, it stood, wound gaping with the man slumped against it. The sun fell behind the mountains, washing the clouds overhead in yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, until dusk fell completely. The tree was solitary but not lonesome, unwavering on the plain, its branches reaching high, black against the sky.

Tim Drugan-Eppich enjoys listening to other people’s stories, allowing them to influence his own. He has freelanced for several newspapers and magazines, but his only other literary publication appeared in the Random Sample Review. He lives in Colorado.

* * *

By Kristina Fedeczko

I walk into the restroom of my former high school.  It’s empty and I let out a sigh of relief.  I don’t think I can handle one more conversation about their child being smartest in their class, because they don’t pick their nose.
I’m not sure why I decided to attend my ten-year high school reunion.  I never enjoyed the years between fifteen and eighteen.  I just thought catching up with old classmates would be fun, but it’s not. It’s one grueling conversation after the other. Everyone talking about their perfect jobs, hobbies, and families is enough to make me feel like an insure sixteen-year-old again.  It’s not like I’m slacking in life either. I’ve got a full-time job as bank teller, an apartment in the trendiest part of St. Paul, and health insurance (including dental).
I walk to the sink and open my bag to take out my lipstick. I’m hoping the lipstick will improve my mood, however I don’t get the chance to reapply it, because the door to the restroom bangs opens. 
“What the hell are you doing here!”  
I spin around so quickly that I nearly trip.  I regain myself and come face-to-face with the speaker. Elena de Silva is glaring at me, like we are sixteen again and I have a date to the prom and she doesn’t.
“How dare you!” shouts Elena.
“Elena!” I shout back. I rise my eye brows and glance at the stalls. I didn’t know who could be listening. 
Elena stalks over and bangs open every stall door. No one’s in the restroom. My stomach drops in apprehension. I don’t like the idea of being alone with my former best friend.    
“You’re supposed to stay away from here. Do you remember that?” snaps Elena, as she turns her fiery eyes on me. 
“I haven’t forgotten anything,” I say.  I can’t even if I tried and I’ve tried many times.  I even thought about going to see a shrink, but chickened out at the last minute, since I didn’t want to reveal something I’m not supposed.  I’ve been a good friend and coconspirator.
“We made a plan. You left and-”
“I know,” I interrupt.  I don’t need a reminder of the promise we made.
“And you think you can come back here?”
“No one’s going to ask about Eric!”
Elena freezes and I know I shouldn’t have said his name.  Elena glances away from me and her shoulder rise up in anxiety. 
“Sorry,” I mutter.  I clear my throat and say, “I haven’t said anything and I won’t.”
“We still need to be careful,” says Elena, turning her gaze back to me. 
“I’ve always been.” 
“Just remember, we have more to lose now.”
“I kept my end of the promise.” 
“Until now,” says Elena, “Why did you come back?  Did you really enjoy high school that much?”
High school had been hell, but the bright spots had been my friendship with Eric and Elena.  They made those years less painful, of course that all changed with Eric’s death. The official verdict is missing, but presumed dead.  No one ever found the body.
“I am not entirely sure,” I say, honestly.
Elena looks like she wants to say something, however the door opens and two women walk into the restroom.  They are laughing loudly at something and I use the distraction to escape. 

I hurry pass Elena and as I do, I let the back of my hand brush hers as an act of support.  I know she’s suffering that same way I did.  I’ve moved on years ago and stopped apologizing to Eric.  I am alive. Elena is alive.  Eric is dead.  And no amount of guilt is going to change that. ​

Kristina Fedeczko is a graduate from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Lesley University. Her work has appeared in Aji Magazine and Pale Ghosts Magazine.

* * *

A Low-Hanging Fruit
By Paige Ferro

Hers was the first hand I held that wasn't my mother’s. It happened at Bible School.
Her palm was sticky with the remnants of fig. She loved figs, she said. She put a bite between my teeth. 
I expected her to taste like figs. But when it was we kissed, her lips were salty. They tasted like lemon. It was there and gone, the kiss. And still I felt like she had burned me, branded me. No one had ever touched me so.
Something sprouted in me, something of her planting. I could feel it, nestled between my lungs and my ribs, something that squirmed and writhed as she drew near. I could smell her like no one else.
She was musky and sweet, sickly sweet; the sweet of something rotting in fresh dirt. She pervaded me. I longed for her to press against me again. I pretended the flesh of fruit was hers. She didn't come near. 
I dreamed of figs, I craved them. I needed them against my lips. I sought figs among the fruits of the trees and bushes, in the dirt, digging with my hands. How was it there were none to be found? She held that secret like she held my heart, and clenched it so in her grasp. I could not breathe without her.
I found again those fruits in the anatomy of the male—two ripe figs rubbing against one another, and the branch from which they hung. I stared, transfixed, tracing the lines. An anatomy so unknown, the opposite of hers.
Her body was a fig bud, a blossom whose petal lips opened at my touch—here was the final thing, the low-hanging fruit. 
I was torn, confused. I looked up, to her curious gaze. She was the beginning, and here was the end. Which did I seek? What would be sweeter—that which could be, or that which was? 
I grabbed for the low-hanging fruit and took hold. The bloom remained yet out of reach. I never again knew the taste. 

Paige M. Ferro holds degrees in Creative Writing, Literature, and Spanish from the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. She has been writing all her life and her writings focus on Queer Studies, works that depict homosexual or homoerotic themes.

* * *

Open Swim
By Susie Hale

I was fifteen years old when the clearly defined edges of the pool defied me. It was a dreary Ohio winter in 1974, and I was a sophomore. Snow drifted in blankets hugging the high school auditorium where the indoor Olympic-size pool was housed.  It was time for the Swimming Unit in sixth period PE class.  Chlorine smoldered under the big dome, and misty hot steam rose up to greet the rafters. I loved to swim especially during the last period of the day. This meant that we girls could go home with careless damp hair and raccoon eyes. Sixth period PE meant open swimming for those of us skilled in the water. We were free from competition, counting scores and remembering rules. It felt like summer was upon us once again. It felt like those hot lazy afternoons in neighborhood pools where "You're it!" could be called without warning.  And "Marco" would rise up from the chlorine seeking a tag. And "Polo"  echoed the escape.
The swim team girls stretched out three lane markers and did practice laps. The other kids dove and breached in the deep end careful to tug at the bottoms of their Speedos. I filled my lungs with air and dove down to tag the elusive pool drain in the far away bottom. Once successful I would allow my body to relax and slowly float to the surface. I was enveloped in the warm cocoon of water, weightless and wonderful, seconds before bursting onto the surface for a grateful breath.  There were at least thirty teenagers in the pool that day. Between us, we made waves that thundered up and laughed into the troughs around the water's edge.  Water roiled up and crashed in the middle of the pool; the great washer was set on agitate. From the deep end, despite the self-indulgent chaos, the pool looked to me like a safe ocean with no-fail borders. One could swim and play easily, taking refuge within generous walls.
Our instructor was a twenty-five-year teaching veteran. She posted a student lifeguard in the metal bleachers and held a small class for the dog paddlers and rookie swimmers. They circled around her, kicking and taking in deep breaths, practicing how to float and execute choppy overhanded strokes. Some still clung to the safety of the sides; their faces got smacked by the turbulent water.  I have a vague picture of Valerie, an unpopular outcast girl, clinging to the lip of the pool moving hand over hand towards the deep end until her feet could no longer touch the smooth blue-tiled bottom. Then, as if seeking an open window in a high-rise, she scaled back to the safety of the shallow end.
I was home before the news of her death surfaced in the community. Outraged parents stormed the school. The following week my classmates and I were interviewed by police. "I only noticed her once," I told the officer, "she was on the side of the pool holding on to the wall between the shallow and deep end,"  I remember no alarm on her face.  She was as imperceptible as air, a shy quiet girl whom we believed held big secrets. Rumors said she was pregnant but "who could be the father?" We dared not pry.
No one noticed Valerie's body slip below the surface. Neither the instructor nor the student lifeguard was aware that the thundering water would suck her under as it licked the sides of the pool that day. Later I would imagine thousands of tons of water pressing her body down as anonymous bubbles surfaced in between the traffic of the pool. The elusive water betrayed her and gave no resistance against splayed fingers. Her wriggling body became a thicker conspirator once the lungs began to fill. We all were oblivious.  Only after school was out, when a member of the swim team ran back down to the pool for pre-practice warm-up laps, was her brown body spotted on the pool floor. A nervous question was delivered, "Miss Hocking, who left the Resusci Annie doll in the water?" The answer hung frozen as the teacher fled past the locker bay down to the pool.  The safety of those clearly defined edges washed away that day under the enormous pressure of water. 


Susie Foster Hale has been writing and teaching on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest for over twenty years. Her work has appeared in the Shark Reef Literary Magazine and the Soundings Review. She is currently working on a collection of new essays about island life.


* * *

By Toby Tucker Hecht

We each stood for a long time, silent, in front of the painting, “The Victims,” hanging in a Berlin museum, she a woman of about my age, a German, I guessed, and I, a Jewish-American tourist, struck by the stark and honest treatment of the subject by a contemporary Berlin artist. The oil on canvas depicted, in black, white, gray, and mauve, images of people—skeletal in their rendering—stretching their arms up to the top of a barbed-wired wall while a white bird flew across the sky. 

“And what do you think this represents?” asked the woman in excellent English.

“The horrors of the Holocaust,” I said.
“No, my dear,” she said.  “It is a painting about how we Berliners were the victims of the Cold War. Can you not see the wired wall?” 

Pained, I turned away and began to leave the hall when the woman caught up to me.

“Please join me for tea in the café,” she said. 

Perhaps it was the urgency in her tone, or the discomfort I could see in her eyes, but in that moment I thought of all the ways that one’s histories can keep people apart, and how little effort it takes to make a true connection, so I said “Yes.” 

Toby Tucker Hecht is a writer and scientist who lives in Bethesda, Maryland.  Her publication credits include fiction in The MacGuffin, The Baltimore Review, New Plains Review, and other literary journals. When not writing she can be found at the National Cancer Institute where she helps turn molecules into medicines.



* * *


The Frog Prince 
By Carla Kirchner 

Now that he was entering his dotage, Henry often though with fondness about the years when he was a frog--days spent lying in the sun, waiting for his brain to fire; days when he breathed through his skin and spoke the primal language of Pond.  Then, he was all instinct and the singing of the cattails on the banks.  Then, he grew another skin each week and ate the old one, digesting what he once was in favor of something new and wet and glistening. 

How could he have known, on that day that seemed so long ago, what price he’d pay for choosing humanity? In truth, his life as a man had been mostly pleasant, if not a bit dull.  He’d willingly slipped his long legs into a suit; he’d learned to bite his tongue and calm his jumpy nature.  Henry had expected a larger brood, but the two children that survived were both successful, and there were grandchildren that looked at him with smaller versions of his own bulbous eyes and walked upright on their own webbed feet.  He’d eagerly traded water for air, his smooth glide across the pond’s surface for the groan of a BMW convertible across the rigid pavement.  Henry and his wife still had their health, though Henry watched his blood pressure and cholesterol and worried about his arteries.  

If nothing of any substance had come to fill the space vacated by their waning physical attraction, Henry felt he could not complain.  Gwynn, a spoiled princess during their early marriage, had softened into a pleasant, even-keeled companion.  They’d settled in a sprawling Tudor in a gated community of equally sprawling houses and sprawling neighbors who enjoyed poolside cocktails.  Their home abutted a small lake where they had a dock and new ski boat, though Henry didn't often enter the water.  For reasons he could not pin down, the mere thought of swimming produced panic attacks.  Even baths had become problematic. Henry took brief, tepid showers and washed his thinning hair in the bathroom sink.  After his retirement from mid-level management at a pharmaceuticals company five years ago, Gwyn and he had taken a cruise.  Henry stayed in the cabin except for his short forays onto the sand of various Caribbean islands, all of which looked the same in Henry's memory, perhaps because of the overabundance of alcohol, food and sun. 

And yet tonight, as Henry watched the afternoon light filter through the reeds around the eleventh-hole water hazard, he could not help but long for his early life.   Just now--the air already cooling to winter, their dinner of pot roast and carrots finished, Gwynn’s dry hand in his own--he strained to remember his slick, green legs slicing through the water, his tongue spinning and casting, his deep voice rumbling through the mud.  His heart and breathing quickened. Perhaps I’ve lived too long in this skin, Henry thought. And suddenly, his entire life out of the water seemed only a dream, a stupor brought on by dehydration and cold.   Guiltily, he stroked Gwynn’s hair and watched her reflection shimmer in the water.  Once, he was air and sun and mud. He was permeable and quick. Once he was a moist drum thumping against the pond’s bed. And then. Then he became that tender, terrible kiss.
​​Carla Kirchner is a poet, fiction writer, and writing professor who lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her poetry chapbook, The Physics of Love, will be published in the fall by Concrete Wolf Press.  Her fiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Rappahannock Review, Eunoia Review, and Unbroken Journal.


* * *


The Dance
By Denise Mostacci-Sklar

The wedding music played, the dance floor, my green dress. You sat at the bar talking with another guy and I wondered what you were talking about. Then you walked up to me and asked me to dance.
“No thank you.” the matter of fact words tumbled, this was not the way that I imagined it.
I was supposed to be swept onto the dance floor and you’re not supposed to notice me standing here and I’m not waiting for you. And the day flew, the dancing almost done and the bride and groom will be off to Miami soon
And I am older now…
Young boys skirted around the room with their shirt tails hanging loose, my sister’s small feet planted lightly on top of my uncles shoes stepping side to side on the dance floor, woman with their heels flipped off, nylon stockings, tired feet and fancy dresses, the young bride floating around and my new Uncle Jimmy with his dark curly hair and huge laugh echoing.
“What’s the matter, don’t you want to dance with your poor old dad?”
I watched the handsome couple who knew all the steps and were once the ballroom champions of some contest. Their heads seemed to float above their mechanical bodies, dancing as if no one else existed. Then my eye caught the grey haired older couple who had it just right, smooth and sexy… and the rest with swiveling hips and jerking arms, all crowded onto a square parquet wooden floor at Caruso’s Diplomat.
What did I want?
The words choked as I shook my head, no.
I was a junior bridesmaid at my aunt's wedding and at twelve years old, all I knew in these last months was the excitement and preparation, the dress fittings at the small bridal shop, the styles, lunch after the dress fittings at Nandees with my mother and aunts. Finally, the ceremony and posing for pictures​, the flowers, cake, spring pastels and matching colors, the food and drink. Even the party favors that the bridesmaids meticulously assembled, counting Jordon almonds, five per favor, egg shaped and white, now all lined up on silver trays.
Soon my aunt would be changing into her going away suit and we would all gather around the bride and groom as they danced before sending them off on their honey moon flight. Later we would receive postcards with bright beach colors, and cursive letters swirling MIAMI BEACH. The dancing was supposed to happen naturally, but there was nothing natural about the way I was feeling. No one told me how I might miss out on the dancing and how the day would fly if I wasn’t paying attention.
But maybe I was paying too much attention.
The moment froze. Lost behind a veil all my own, I watched the back of my father’s black suit as he walked back to the bar. In the palm of my hand, a tiny sac to take home- the five Jordan almonds nestled together with stiff netting and tiny artificial flowers wired tightly to close it.
I stood alone. No words coming out, yes Daddy, I want to dance.

Denise Mostacci-Sklar has had a career as a dancer and now has had the good fortune to discover writing as another way to move through life. She has been published in numerous journals, some of which include the Aurorean, On the Rusk, The Stray Branch, Ibbetson Street Press, Gravel and Glassworks Magazine. Denise is from Hamilton MA where she is a personal trainer in the GYROTONIC method of bodywork and lives with her husband and two incredible sons.


* * *

The Sonnet
By Charles Rammelkamp

It was demeaning was what it was, a waste of his time and talent.  Fisher was a poet, an artist, not an assembly-line writer of instructions for assembling and operating microwave ovens.
But he was stuck, too.  He had to have the paycheck but more importantly, he needed to be in a work hierarchy.  Belinda made more money than he did, as a lawyer, it was true, but now they also had a kid, and besides, his father was forever magnifying his own importance in the bureaucratic pecking order of his own job and measuring everybody else – Fisher included – by the same yardstick.  Fisher felt the pressure to establish his own “success” on the same metric.
But damn it all, who even read this crap?  Certainly not for pleasure. And they wrote it as a team, anyway, so nobody could really take credit, even if they wanted to.  Fisher reviewed the safety instructions. 



Should that be boldface as well as all caps?  His mind became a blur reading the imperative mood sentences.


  • Remove all twist-ties.


  • Do not cover or block openings.


  • Keep cord away from heated surfaces.

And what was this?  Could this have been Pearl’s mistake?  “Do not let cord hangover the edge of a counter.”    “Hang” and “over" should be two separate words!  Gloating at his find, Fisher noted with a caret that a space should come between the words and drew a funny little cartoon of a microwave oven having drunk too much liquor.  Pearl would be amused. Or not.
But then the satisfaction soon gave way to the usual boredom and frustration.
Just for kicks, Fisher decided to find a place to insert the word “hitherto” in the laundry lists of instructions, and he remembered once, in junior high school, having written the word “shit” randomly in an “extra-credit” term paper he’d written for his Science class, sure the teacher would not even read it.  Sure enough, Mr. Bollinger never called him on it, only returned the paper with a red checkmark at the top, indicating the “credit.”  
Hitherto.  It had such a Nineteenth Century British Novelist sound to it.  Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Austen.  Only where? Where could he put it? Fisher reviewed the categories.  Installation Guide?  Operating Instructions? Nah. Cleaning and Care?  How about in the Cooking Tips section?  He read Pearl’s bullet-point instructions:


  • Turn foods over midway through cooking to expose all parts to microwave energy.

With a feeling of glee, Fisher revised this to:


  • Turn foods over so that hitherto covered parts may be exposed to microwave energy.

Hell yeah!  Fisher felt as though he had just written a sonnet.

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and edits The Potomac, an online literary journal. His photographs, poetry and fiction have appeared in many literary journals. His latest book is a collection of poems called "Mata Hari: Eye of the Day" (Apprentice House, Loyola University), and another poetry collection, "American Zeitgeist", is forthcoming from Apprentice House. 

* * *

By Nathan Wisman 

No light glowed on the horizon in the spaces between the forest’s bare trees. Philip doused the flashlight and paused for his eyes to adjust to the scant moonlight.
“Can you still see okay?” he asked in a near-whisper.
“Yeah,” June said. Framed by the black hood, her face looked waxy and pale. They struggled forward, shovels-in-hand, across a fallen pine.
Philip fought the urge to ask her what had happened out here, so far from everything. She’d said little as they drove to this remote place, instead just flipping obsessively through FM stations.
“You can confide anything in me, June.”
“I promised I wouldn’t ask questions and I’m not. It’s just a reminder.”
They reached a clearing and she paused, then walked to its center. She unfolded herself downward to lie face up with arms and legs outstretched as if to make a snow angel in the dead grass.
“June,” Philip said. “Whatever you asked me to come out here to do…we need to do. Let’s get it behind us.”
She sighed. “He claimed he was bringing me out here to look at the stars.”
It was the first detail she’d given about what had happened. Philip began to reply, stopped himself, then lie down on his back so that he mirrored her—the top of his head touching the top of hers.
After disappearing for a year, she had showed up on his doorstep the day before, filthy and with dark circles beneath her big, bloodshot eyes. She said she’d live with him again and do what he asked—go back to school, quit smoking, eat more—if he helped with just this one thing. She’d stared into him with those damn beautiful, dark wide-set eyes he’d thought of every day since she was born, eyes that made her look so vulnerable and exposed, and made him promise: If he were to help her, he could ask no questions and never again mention it. Not to her. Not to anyone.
They each reached up, almost simultaneously, to point as a pale gray speck streaked across the sky. A faint smile crossed his face.
“I’m sorry, dad,” June said, her voice gentle and weak.
He reached back over his head and she found his hand, held it against her cold cheek.
“I want you to know…he deserved it,” she said. He thought on that for a long moment and wondered if it meant the embargo on questions was lifted. But no, she always meant what she said. It had taken him too long to learn that.
Then her vinyl jacket hissed as she lifted her arm to point. “He’s just over there,” she said.
Philip sat up and saw the outlines of a few leaning, scraggly trees. He turned on the flashlight and pointed it in the same direction. Still just trees. He climbed to his feet and walked over. He would now find out why they had brought shovels. She followed.
On the ground was a contorted lump of clothing and rotting, bluish skin. He glanced at June then back at the lump. He reached down and turned it over, the whole, heavy half-frozen thing moving like a rock. It had a mangled face he’d never seen. A very young, mangled face. The handle of a knife stuck out from where an eye had been, its tip protruding from the back of the head. Philip gagged then walked away quickly, taking rapid, careful breaths.
“What in the…” he began to say but June glared at him. She was just those big, blinking eyes, sheltered and supported by a slender, dark form.
“That took a lot of force, to do that with a knife…,” he said with a catch in his voice. “And people must be looking for him.”
“You promised.”
“We could both go to prison for this,” he said, staring into those eyes, searching for any glow of life, warmth, regret in those eerie pools. Then she pointed over his head. He turned to see another speck with a long ghostly tail streak across the sky then vanish.
“Goddamnit, June,” he said.
She nodded, grinning strangely. “Do you really want to know? Do you want me to tell you every last detail, daddy? Just say so.”
Philip looked down at the corpse again. At its missing fingers. Its feet, twisted at odd angles to the legs, bone exposed where they’d been half-removed.
He avoided her gaze. “Just help me dig,” he said.


Nathan Wisman is a software developer living in Seattle. He has a love for nearly all genres of fiction and has just completed his second novel. See more from Nathan here.