030. Howler Monkeys. Jennifer Loring

I know you were worried about this trip, but don’t be. I’m doing great—doing everything I ever wanted to do. Everyone is happy here, and it’s so beautiful. Remember the time we went on vacation to Acadia National Forest, and we found that lake? The water was so clear that it mirrored the sky, and you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. That’s what the sky is like here.

(The world was not ready to let us live.)

We’ve built a real paradise here. There’s no racism, no hatred. Okay, it was a little weird at first, being in the jungle. Used to hearing traffic at night and instead huddling in our houses because of the horrible growls emanating from the darkness, as though we were surrounded by monsters. We learned later that they were howler monkeys. Once they quiet down, you hear the chirping of thousands of insects, bigger than anything you’ve ever seen at home. They get into our huts, like the cockroaches do back in the city.

(This is the last day of our lives.)

We work hard—grow our own food, build every part of our little commune. Well, not so little anymore! There’s over a thousand of us now. When the sun sets and work is over, we laugh and sing, and praise Father for everything he’s given us.

 (There is quiet as we leave this world. The sky is gray.)

Sure, I’m tired. Sometimes a little hungry. But I’ve never felt like I had a purpose before. Like I mattered before. We just want to live in peace. Please don’t believe the lies they’re telling about us—we’re here because we want to be. You should think about joining us; I bet you’d really like it here.

I love you, Mom. I’ll talk to you soon.

(I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.)

029. Today's Project. Koji A. Dae

Today’s project is a potholder. Something simple. Easy. The constant cleaning and cooking and shouting not to hit or pinch has exhausted me. I need a win. The only thought a potholder requires is counting a chain of forty. Even that’s forgiving, and after the chain my hands can work without thought. Single stitch until the row twists over on itself and becomes a square. A simple magic of shape.

“Mom! I want milk.” Tanya’s shriek pulls my attention away from the yarn.

I stifle a groan and set my work down, the metal hook clinking against the wooden table. In the kitchen I pour her a glass of milk, reminding myself I’m at thirty-four stitches.

The teal yarn is mostly wool, and it scratches as it passes through my curved palm and over my index finger. I finish the chain and relax. My shoulders sink back against the pillows on the couch. They could stand to be fluffed and cleaned. The room, vacuumed. There are dishes in the sink. Always more to do. But not now.

A high-pitched scream sounds from the bedroom.

I pause in the middle of a stitch. Listen, breath held.

The scream shatters into breathless giggles.

The stitch slips, half a length shorter than those around it. I run my thumb over the imperfection and continue. There was a time when I would have pulled it out. Gone backwards.

“Mom, there was a puppet theater in school today!” Kason speaks in hesitations, struggling to find the right words, the first hints of a stutter forming.

I train my gaze on his messy hair and bright eyes as he relates the latest installment of the clever fox. The pattern becomes loose. Free. Each stitch takes up more space but has less substance. My tension fails as I try to grasp the threads of his story.

“Sounds like a fun show,” I say when Kason finishes. “Why don’t you go put together your puzzle?”

I turn my attention back to the potholder. Two rows of uneven, sloppy stitches. Just five years ago, I would have pulled them out. No. I wouldn’t have gotten distracted. Wouldn’t have made a mistake.

The evening stretches on with interruptions to play, to serve, to love. Each time I set down my project and tend to the children. Sometimes with irritation, other times with amusement.

By the time the alarm lets off the crystal chime, signaling the children to pick up their toys and me to draw their bath, the potholder is done.

I turn the square over. It’s not pretty. I couldn’t sell it. But I don’t want to. It’s a gift. I go to the nursery and lift the lid to Tanya’s hope chest.

“Oh, mommy, pretty.” Tanya lays her chubby fingers on the potholder. “Is it for me?”

“Yes, my dear.” I kiss her forehead and place the potholder in the cedar chest. It nestles in among snagged blankets and tablecloths with uneven embroidery—our story, told in imperfections.

028. The Moose. Dave Henson

On a day hot as asphalt, screeching tires and blaring horns grab my attention as I’m rinsing the suds off my car. A bull moose is walking slowly across the highway. I breathe a sigh of relief when it gets safely to the shoulder then realize it’s heading my way.

I see the huge undulate is in trouble. Heat radiating from its bulk quivers the air. It moves stiffly, and the hair ridging its hump glistens. Its antlers are nearly transparent. I’ve heard stories about such transformations, but didn’t believe them. The beast bellows in distress. Easy, big fella, I say, sloshing water toward the moose. This’ll make you feel better. The animal paws the ground and snorts, sparkling dust streaming from its nostrils.

When I turn the hose on the moose, steam hisses from his hot, hardening hide. 

I set up a sprinkler when my arm grows weary. The animal turns so the water splats it from tail to snout.

I leave the sprinkler on all night, hoping to irrigate the moose back to healthy sinew, horn and hair. But by dawn, he’s gleaming in the bright sun. I turn off the water, fearing it might fracture the beast, then break off branches from a tree and push them toward his gaping mouth. The moose lolls out its tongue, which locks in place and prisms a rainbow at my feet. 

I can practically hear the animal’s heavyweight heart punching as he fights the metamorphosis, but it’s hopeless. By afternoon he’s solid glass, his heart like an air bubble in his massive chest. 

As the sun stalks the sky, the sparkling moose begins flashing blinding daggers toward the road. A car skids into the ditch. I go to see if anyone’s hurt and dive out of the way as a second car crashes into the first. No one seems badly hurt. I call for emergency services, but before they arrive, I notice smoke coming from my house. Sunlight through the moose is burning a hole in the siding. I hurry back to the hose, turn the sprinkler on the house to put out the fire and cover the moose with blankets. 

Police and paramedics arrive at the scene of the accident. After a few minutes, two officers approach me. They tell me to get rid of that menace and wait watching as I sledgehammer the moose.  After they’ve left, I slice my hands retrieving the heart, still intact amidst the shards I’ve put in the trash. I place the organ, smeared with my blood, in a closet. Some nights, when 18-wheelers barrel past and shake the house, the vibrating heart of the moose rings like fine crystal.

027. In Transit. Wendy Maxon

Vic was too pedestrian for Helie. Awkward, her roommate Deb insisted. Why was Helie so excited, anyway? Didn’t she notice Vic shoved those stargazer lilies into a cheap old-lady vase?

Deb must be right. Helie hadn’t dated anyone else and couldn’t know what she was doing in relationships; Deb knew better. How could she hang with Deb in Cancun on spring break if she stayed chained to Vic like that? So Helie was on her way to break up with Vic at 3:00 am, driving her silver hatchback, beelining for his crumbling apartment, so she could have a life with far more gold than silver.

Vic wore sweatpants ridged with motor oil and didn’t fit in either. He spent weekends fixing that battered Chevy his dad couldn’t trade in. He and Helie laughed about their shared pasts, penned in like black sheep. They chugged coffee in high-backed diner booths and swapped ideas, dreams, qualms, plans. But Deb swore rags and grease were wrong, and dreams meant nothing if you couldn’t upgrade that Chevy. Helie felt embarrassed she hadn’t realized the truth and thanked Deb for the advice.

Didn’t Helie notice that vase smelled? Pungent, like the glue Vic used to create those mosaics for her, shells and twigs and sea glass in the exact shape of her nose and angled cut of her cheek when she grinned like a madwoman and looked directly into the sun, which she only did near him.

Before Vic, Helie hid her smiles and spent time holed up, nose deep in tales of ocean journeys. Her parents always wondered what was wrong with her. That girl across the street, Deb, didn’t roll her eyes or spiral down into oceans. She wore white jeans and went to parties! Helie could too, if she could just get it right.

Last year in the dorm, the seniors down the hall (Deb too, with her green bikini and permanently arched brow) questioned her looks and instincts. Helie nodded with them, because there was a gold medal ahead that she should be able to see. But Vic held her hair in his paint thinner-stained palms while she sobbed and told her she was the fucking most beautiful thing on earth. And right then, triumphant, wild hair backlit, she was. She should have outgrown that feeling, right? Why wasn’t she brave enough to let him go?

The freeway lights froze into white and red threads, like the stripes on the petals of her stargazer lilies. Helie wove through lane lines, hand trembling on the gearshift. She tried to remember why she was doing this, what the goal was supposed to be. Maybe she didn’t need gold or silver anymore. Maybe just chrome.

She’d pause at the next offramp. Check the GPS. Research a scuba trip. Check Craigslist for ads for new roommates.

Vic lived ten miles up. She’d call him tomorrow to see if he wanted to dive.

026. Pigs Fry. Dona McCormack

“Tubsy want one. Tubsy go flying,” you said and rolled innocent iceberg marbles over my face. They kissed like peeled grapes. Wet smooches. Only we didn’t wade in blue pools and Tubsy wasn’t just a name you called yourself.

“Haven’t you heard? Pigs don’t fly,” I said because I wasn’t about to pick you up and I didn’t understand — even after all the family had done to teach us both — that pigs fry. You stuck your feet into the heated brick BBQ pit and screamed. “Why’d you forget what comes next, Luce?” You scooted further into the ancient stove, deeper into the fire I helped build.

Frying pig just right takes time, but you cooked in a flash. The dinner bell swung and knelled. Because the unctuous roast had belonged to you, all flocked to the table.

You insisted on the Carve and you took the blackened edge of your tibia bone to perfectly cooked meat. Fat crackled and your blood collected on the plates. “Serve, sister,” you said to me. You used your bone to saw your skirts off at the waist, where you ended in iridescent viscera, smoothed over like mother of pearl. With a matching goblet, you toasted the table.

Only Mother enjoyed the meat, surprising no one. She masticated and flicked the nails embedded in Father’s brainpan, making him tick, and twitch, and “ooh,” and finally fall face-first, jaws working, in his plate. A swarm of Tibetan flies beset the Aunts’ portions, so they took up their forks and chased the insects right from the room, trying to pierce tiny black corpses on their tines. Your brother George, I refuse to claim him, took a single bite and then accused you of histrionics and wished to know to whom you’d given your legs. George’s wife cut her share into smaller and smaller bites that she spooned far back on her tongue and swallowed whole. Her twin six-year-old sons stuck their pieces on toothpicks and spoke of making you a doll.

I sat to your right and gazed at the plate you had prepared for me. The blood puddled small and very red. You had cooked well. You had cut yourself into small chunks. Easy to chew. The pieces belonged to me; they spelled my name.

You leaned toward me. Your pearl flashed and lips smiled.

“Pigs fry,” you said, and you looked small. No longer piggy. You’d lost so much.