Thursday, April 30, 2015


            There is no reality but this one; it’s fun to pretend anyway. The rules are the same everywhere and the only thing that matters are the decisions you made. Everyone else remains the same. You can’t change the minds of people who aren’t you, not even if you love them so much you fall asleep imagining their arms and the curve of their spine. It’s hard enough to change your own mind.
            You can whisper the details of those other worlds right before you close your eyes at night. Say them again and again, invoke another reality with this simple incantation. You know what these places look like, can feel the hot breath on the back of your neck, the thrill of bravery flutter through your heart. The imagining is easy. The loss that follows is hard.
            There’s another place where I didn’t let the words drop from my mouth. I traced the edge of that stone table and kept it all inside. The memories danced through my brain and joined hands, but they never met anybody new. They never carved rivers into that skull I worshipped. Instead, I am who I need to be. I pull people in and love them until they forget who they are. Every day I wake up knowing I am doing right. That I am functioning out of selflessness and justice.
            And it is a lie, but it doesn’t matter. My life is all-consumed by those delicate fingers and the twitch of his mouth. I follow him across continents and into arid lands. My life isn’t my own, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t, I swear it doesn’t . . .
            Until I wake up one day, look at the thin comforter spread over our bed and realize it really does matter. That I can’t recognize the sentences prepared in my lungs. There was never an opportunity for betrayal because there has never been anything real. It isn’t love until somebody can see you for all the brokenness that you are and still want to be near you. So it isn’t love.
            Why is it so easy to slip into this world? To say everything would have been fine if I had just leaned a little farther in? That maybe my throat wouldn’t be so constricted, maybe this aching fear wouldn’t drip down the back of my neck, maybe I could still draw people into my life and welcome them home, never knowing what it meant when they left.
There’s somewhere else where all of these sheep evaporate before my eyes. They don’t exist for me, and it doesn’t matter because it is better not to have known them. The air is cold, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. It hasn’t for a long time. I know the shape of the snowflakes that nestle in my hair; we have become intimate friends after all these years and I see them even when I close my eyes. I know them as I know the blonde spiral curls, the pale curving cheeks, and the dusty long lashes. Even though I was born in a heat so cruel it melted tarmac, these things were burrowed in me before I first tasted air.
            The fear has become a shaggy doglike monster in the corner of my mind; it scuttles back and forth occasionally, but it is no longer cause for alarm. I figured out how to reach into my own chest and get my heart to pump again, how to scream until I recognize my voice, how to focus my eyes and make them stay focused. I am still volatile and angry, but the hand on my wrist has become somewhere I escape.
            There are three places where I no longer exist, but it is impossible to think about them.
            There is a world where everything I could ever want is laid at my feet. I sit on a throne of bourbon and salt water taffy and laugh as the planet continues turning. People quiver when they say my name; they faint when I say theirs. We were not born to live in the same city, and yet we do. The daughters of the less fortunate resent me, they wish me dead when they rake me with their eyes. It doesn’t matter. None of it really matters.
            The path beneath my feet is made of solid gold and shines only for me. The accent I was never meant to have slips off my tongue and wraps around my ankles. When I look into the eyes of my loved ones, we don’t really see each other. We don’t quite inhabit these bodies we were given. We reach for each other with tired hands, but our skin is made of paper. This isn’t something that matters, though. All that matters are the diamonds that line my arms and the steel that runs down my spine.
            There’s another world where my body was never broken. My hip doesn’t click when I walk and there isn’t a dull ache in my back. I’ve never known what it feels like for all the energy to drain from my body, for the sweat to drip from my temples down the back of my neck to my lower back. Instead, I am angry and unmovable. All I know is how to rail at a world that did not shape itself for me. Humans were made for flight, but I don’t know this. I don’t know what it feels like to be weightless. I don’t know that every atom of me should miss this every day for the rest of my life.
            I don’t know what ice smells like at 7 AM. I don’t know the satisfying crunch that comes when a blade digs in after the first rain. My brain is empty of these experiences, and it is wanting. It has boundless energy and passion and nowhere to put it. It steals secrets from everybody else before turning on itself and atrophying. It is alive, but it doesn’t know it.
            There are no worlds where I am still lying in your bed, where my hair and lips and skin smell like you.
            The final place is the hardest to talk about. Its smoky fingers weave their way through my life and try to drown me. In this place, I wander like a zombie. There is no help coming for me, no Lexapro slipping through my veins to keep me calm. There is only the pressure pushing up against my temples. There is only that faint ringing sound; it won’t leave me alone. My parents try to reach me wherever I am, but my eyes stare blankly. I can’t eat, I can barely stand up. Life continues to pass and weeks go by before I look up and realize I haven’t once left the apartment.
            Lying at the bottom of this well is painful and familiar. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to climb up and let myself out either. I’ve done that too many times. I know what the world outside looks like, and I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it. The girl that sits in my lungs screams to get out, but I push her down. Soon she will be a memory, the person people talk about when they talk about me. The goal is to be hidden by the end of the year. To be so far buried under my downy quilt that I lose myself.
            And all the while ghosts dance around my room and sing that this is the end. It has to be. There has never been and there will never be anything but this. My path here was fated. Raise your hand and say goodbye because soon you won’t be strong enough to lift it.
            These places do not exist; or if they exist, they exist somewhere far from here. As far as the edge of the universe or the back of my brain. It is useful to think about them sometimes, to fall into them and live there a while. But they do not have a hold on me. They do not form the buildings and the mountains of my world.
            I know exactly where I am when the sun beats down on my shoulders. When my skin starts to turn red from the angry, cancerous rays I know that I have come home. In these moments, the decisions that made me harsh and difficult must have been worth it. They scream through my brain and keep me up at night, but how could I give them away? There are no realities but this one. And for now, this one is all right.

The New Discipleship

            You bastard. You snake dressed as a lion. If I didn’t get stuck on you every time I saw you I would rip the chair out from under your body. I would smash my water glass into your face. I want to break everything that you ever loved and ask you why. Why why why. Why would you take my words and twist them until they were unrecognizable? I’ve been waiting for two years, and still I look for a response.
            So I sew your mouth shut with scissor blades and barbed wire. If I don’t get to talk, then you don’t get to talk; that’s the deal. I watch with pleasure as your life drains from the bottom. you become a shell of the man you once were and I bite my nails as I watch it happen. I’m not happy to see this transition, but I can’t imagine anything else. Twelve angry shadows dance in my head.
            And still your poison snakes its way into my ears and into my bed. I’m struck down because I think of you. I can’t move. The day I get to leave you behind will be the day I finally grow up. I pour whiskey down my throat and all I wish for is to grow up. I want to leave your eyes behind, your fingers and your smile. I never want to think of you again. I taste the blood that runs down my throat before I realize I’m going to drown.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

These Old Bones

            She felt it in her knees and hips before she woke up. It was always there, that dull aching that meant she was still alive, still able to get up and keep moving. Mona stretched out her legs and tried to make it go away. It receded for a brief moment, then returned more insistently. She had been still for too long. Mona opened her eyes and glanced at the clock. 6:27 AM. She sighed and stretched her hip.
            She spent a familiar few minutes trying to get her body to feel normal. It was this nagging ache that made her crazy. Mona thought she could handle it if it happened all at once, if she was flooded by a wave of dizzying agony for a day and then was free of it. But this ongoing irritation at the back of her mind made her someone else.
            There was no use in denying it any longer: she was awake. Mona sat up and tried to stretch her lower back. This only made the pain in her hip worse, so she stopped and reached for the corner of her bedside table. After she had time to catch her breath, Mona leaned against it and pushed herself out of bed. The lamp’s cord swayed under the pressure and the back of the bedside table it hit the wall.
            The first few steps were always the hardest. The pain that shot through the middles of her knees and torso made her want to vomit, but it gradually lessened until it was only a fire in her joints. Mona sighed in relief. She ran a shaky hand over her forehead and smoothed out her eyebrows. Then she walked to her bathroom and flicked on the light.
            Mona winced as her eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. She stared at the grumpy creature in the mirror, eyeing her jealously. Then she heard a noise come from her bed so she walked back.
            “What time is it?” Aaron said. His arms were twisted around his face to block the light. “Is it time to get up?”
            “No,” she said, “I’m just up. Don’t worry about it.”
            “Okay,” he said, his body relaxing again. She walked back to the bathroom and closed the door. This time her reflection’s expression was more relaxed, like someone had come and smoothed out its edges. Mona moved her face until it was almost touching the glass.
            She wondered how many years were left in her. She wondered if there would be a time when she didn’t wake up in pain. She combed out a strand of her hair and held it between her fingers. But no, it was still there. Still chocolatey brown and straight as straight can get. It didn’t match the way she felt, but there it was.
            Mona could already see the bags forming under her eyes. She touched them with cool fingers. Then she took a deep breath and formed her mouth into a line. This wasn’t where she thought she would be, either. In all her dreams of athletic prowess and record-breaking glory, Mona never thought she’d be angry at her reflection before the sun had come up. She never thought she would be walking like an old woman who had spent too many years chasing unruly children by the time she was twenty-four. But these things were true, and here she was.
            Her mood improved once Mona had caffeine flowing through her veins. She then spent forty minutes straightening her hair, taking advantage of the extra time the pain had provided her. She burned her hands twice and in the end she only looked like a slightly more put out version of herself. By the time she made it back into the kitchen, Aaron had gotten up, too.
            “Morning,” he said. “You look nice.”
            She shrugged, then realized he was being sweet. “Thanks,” she said. “I . . . tried.”
            He nodded. “Why were you up so early?”
            She shrugged again and shook her head. “My hip’s been bothering me. And my knees.”
            “I’m sorry, babe.”
            “It’s okay,” she said, even though it wasn’t. “I just needed to move around, you know?”
            He nodded and started making breakfast. Mona thought he was on to other topics, but she caught him looking her over. “What?” she said.
            “Do you think it’d be good for you to go back to physical therapy?” he said.
            Pain shot through her hip. “I don’t want to do that,” she said. “It’s too expensive.”
            His face seemed set against this reaction. “It is expensive,” he said, “but you should be able to sleep through the night.”
            She shrugged and walked to the cabinet to get a mug and avoid meeting his concerned eyes. “Yeah, I should,” she said. “I shouldn’t’ve been so hard on my body. People aren’t meant to hit the ground that often.”
            He suppressed a sigh. Mona could feel his frustration build and she wanted to reach out and touch his shoulders. She also wanted to grab the frying pan out of his hand and dump the contents onto the floor. “No, you shouldn’t have,” he said, “but you did. It happened. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it now.”
            “Yeah,” she said, “you’re right.”
            “But if you’re still in pain, we should do something about it.”
            “I’ve done everything I can about it.”
            They painted the familiar expressions on their faces. His said: I’m only trying to help you. I think there’s more you can do. Hers said: I get it, but I don’t want to hear about it anymore. He looked down and focused on cooking the eggs in front of him.
            Mona felt sorry she didn’t have a better response for Aaron. Her stomach twisted. “Anyway,” she said, “I should get going.” She grabbed her bag from where it sat on the kitchen table. “I’ll see you tonight?”
            He nodded, his mouth set in a line. She went up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. The warmth of his skin comforted her, and she wanted to fall into it. Mona hesitated a few moments and leaned into his back. She felt Aaron start to relax. She pushed her forehead into his shoulder. Then she turned and walked to the front door.
            By lunchtime, the only thing that was still hurting was her hip. She could feel it click when she walked, but she knew the only thing that would help was a hot bath. Mona didn’t have time for a bath, so she popped a few Advil and settled into the short journey to the café on the corner.
            Her phone started to buzz in her bag and she scrambled for it. As soon as she found it, however, she wanted to throw it across the street and watch it smash into pieces. It was her mother. She slid her finger across the answer button.
            “Hi, honey,” the syrupy voice at the end of the line said, “is this a good time?”
            “Not really,” Mona said. “I only have a few minutes to grab lunch and get back.”
            “Then I’ll be quick,” her mother said. Mona rolled her eyes. “You never have time for me.”
            “I barely have time for myself,” Mona said. “I’m always working, and when I’m not working I’m at home, so tired I can barely stand.”
            “Still, you can make time to call your mother.”
            Mona sighed. “You’re right, mom.”
            “Anyway, did I tell you about who I saw on Monday? June’s mother. You remember June from middle school, don’t you?”
            “Yes, mom.”
            “Well, her mother was always a stuck-up old bitch, but guess what?”
            “What, mom?”
            “You would not believe how much weight she’s gained. I barely recognized her, but then I could pick out that sour expression from a mile away.”
            “That’s not nice, mom.”
            “What? It’s true!”
            “Even if it’s true, it’s not a good thing to say. Karma catches up with you. What if someone called you a stuck-up old bitch?”
            “Well, let them! Let them talk! I don’t care.”
            Mona rolled her eyes again. “Okay, mom.”
            “She really has become a bitter old heifer, though,” her mother said.
            Mona crossed the street with the phone pressed to her ear. She stepped the wrong way onto the curb and felt the mistake as a painful twinge in her hip. “Is this really what you called me to talk about?” she said, unable to cut the edge out of her voice.
            “What? Do I need to call you with a prepared list of topics now? Mona’s too grown up and busy to listen to her poor mother talk about her life?”
            “No, mom, of course not.”
            “Well that’s what it sounds like. Jeez, I was just trying to chat with my daughter.”
            “You don’t chat with me, you chat at me,” Mona said under her breath.
            “What was that?”
            Mona thought about making something else up. Then she didn’t. “You don’t chat with me, you chat at me,” she said, firmly this time.
            “Why would you say something like to me? That’s so mean. Well, you certainly are in a mood today.”
            “That’s because I’m in pain, mom.”
            “Pain? What pain?”
            “My knees and hips are bothering me again.”
            “I’m sorry, dear, I really am, but I don’t see that as an excuse to talk to me the way you are.”
            Mona paused, and enjoyed the silence that briefly existed between them. Then she said, “Do you wake up every morning because you can’t sleep through the pain anymore?”
            “Of course not.”
            “I wonder what that must be like,” Mona said. She reached the café so she took a seat on the curb outside its entrance. “I can’t remember the last time I was completely out of pain.”
            “Well, honey, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what that has to do with this conversation.”
            Mona bit the insides of her mouth. “It’s hard to think clearly when you’re in pain,” she said. “It’s hard to control your temper.”
            “So, what? You’re just going to go through the rest of your life as an angry person?” her mother said.
            “Maybe I will,” Mona said. “I don’t know yet.”
            “Well that’s no outlook to have.”
            “I’ll have whatever outlook I want.”
            She heard her mother sigh. “I know you will, honey. You’re just like your father.”
            Mona glanced back at the café. “Look, mom, I really have to go.”
            “Of course, just get rid of me as soon as you can. I hope you look back at this conversation later and feel good about it.”
            It was Mona’s turn to sigh, although it slipped out as a sort of growl. “Please, I just want to go.”
            “You know, you really shouldn’t be taking your pain out on other people this way. It’s not their fault you’re in pain. You injured yourself.”
            Mona gritted her teeth. Then she said, “I know it’s not their fault I’m in pain. I know it’s mostly my fault, but it’s also your fault.”
            “What the hell do you mean by that?” The sharp edge slipped onto her mother’s voice so easily that Mona knew she had prepared for this. “How is it in any way my fault?”
            Mona didn’t take the bait. Her voice stayed low. “Who pushed me to try harder? Jump higher? Who took me to practice and drove me home and watched me cry and screamed at me when I said I wanted to stop?”
Mona could almost hear her mother roll her eyes. “Oh please, that’s such an exaggeration.”
Mona ignored this and continued. “I did things to myself, I know that. But I was also super young. Where was the adult in my life? Wasn’t it your job to make sure I wasn’t hurting myself? Where was my protector?”
            Mona’s voice was starting to break. Her mother still wasn’t hearing her. “I did the best I could. I couldn’t control you. You signed up for it every time you put on your skates.”
            “I didn’t sign up to be in pain for the rest of my life!” Mona screamed. “I’d give it all back if I could!”
            Silence. Then, “You’re clearly too emotionally flooded right now to talk about this. Call me back later when you’re feeling better.” Pause. “Love you.” Mona heard the phone click as her mother hung up. She let her hand fall to the ground next to her. Then she stood up.
            Mona’s hip still hurt and she knew her knees would be dead in a few hours. Still, the end of the phone call had provided her with some kind of emotional release. She felt like she could say anything, like she should look people in the eyes as she passed them in the street and tell them exactly how she felt about them. She felt like she should go to Aaron’s work and enumerate all the issues she had with him, followed by all the reasons she had stayed. Her voice had found its way out of her mouth and she wanted to keep it coming. She wanted to tell them all that she changed her mind, it hadn’t been worth it. That the only thing that hurt worse than her damaged joints was the lonely feeling that came from abandonment.
            But even as she imagined saying these things, Mona knew they didn’t have a place in her world. She didn’t want to break down all her relationships for a moment’s vindication. She would eat and then call her mother back and apologize. She knew she would.
            And yet, there was still a spark of something left. Something that said things could be a little better, that she’d eventually get tired of this charade. Maybe.
            Mona went inside to get her lunch.

The Feast

            Your gangly arms reach for me, but I shrink in disgust. It isn’t really happening, we aren’t really here, but I shrink nonetheless. Your voice grates away at my ears and your eyes, that part of you that was the only part I really loved, are empty and dark.
            And yet, I’m not the person I wanted to be either. These limbs that were once filled with forest fires have trouble making it up the stairs. My greedy mouth reaches for $15 cupcakes and I hear the rough slap of my thighs when I walk. The mornings when I woke up excited to see the rest of the day have long gone. Was I really ever brave enough to walk through the most dangerous parts of town at midnight, arms extended for what I knew would probably just be more cold air?
            And once I’ve decided that no, I wasn’t ever that woman, no, you two, my lovers, were figments of my diseased brain, I feel your ghostly fingers sneak around my waist. There is no giving you up or going back, not anymore. We all sway together as the ravenous wind clips my hair.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nineteen Winters

            She climbed into her bed and waited for him. The sky was dark and she felt faintly dizzy with fatigue. Some nights she tried to stay up as long as she could so that she would be gone as soon as she closed her eyes. But tonight she needed sleep. How she felt tomorrow would have to be worth their battle tonight.
            Beatrice rolled onto her back. Staring at the smooth blue surface of her ceiling, she wished there were cracks that she could trace to distraction. Anything, anything to keep him at bay.
            Beatrice felt his fingers run through her hair and she knew it was all over. He tucked a stray strand behind her ear and chills ran down her spine. Her stomach twisted and she felt sick with anticipation. She pulled her comforter over her head, and suddenly her bedroom couldn’t be dark enough.
            He ran his hand up her hip towards her belly button and then traced that with his index finger. “You need to stay awake,” Anxiety whispered in her ear.
            “Please,” she whispered back. She hated herself for how much it sounded like a whimper. “Please just leave me alone. Please just give me this one night.”
            As an answer, he placed his right hand over her heart and they both felt its beating quicken. Beatrice rolled onto her side and looked into his eyes.
            “Alright, what have you got for me?” she said. She knew he didn’t care whether or not she wanted to hear it. Still, it gave her a small sense of control.
            “Do you remember your junior year English class?” Anxiety said and leaned in closer until their noses were almost touching. Beatrice couldn’t help the dread that slipped down her kneecaps in response to his unnerving smile.
            “Of course I do,” she said. “That was what, four years ago? I’m not senile.”
            “Funny,” he said. “Do you remember that time you had to go up in front of the class? When your teacher made you divide your life up into eras and describe them?”
            “I . . . ummm . . . yeah,” Beatrice responded. She tried not to think about it, but it was too late. She would have to ride the memory out.
            “Everyone else was so confident,” Anxiety said. He began wrapping a strand of her hair around his finger. “Everyone was getting laughs. You thought you would be so clever. That this would be the way you made them love you. But that’s not what happened, was it?”
            “Stop,” Beatrice said under her breath, knowing that he wouldn’t.
            “You got up there and you tried to make jokes about your screwed up childhood. Nobody laughs at that shit, you dumb bitch. Your voice started quivering and everyone thought you were about to cry. You made them all so uncomfortable. You made them all wish they were anywhere but listening to your stupid fucking stories.”
            “Stop it,” she said again. “Why are you doing this? That was so long ago. It doesn’t matter now. I’m not that person anymore.”
            “Who told you that?” he said. “You’ll always be that person. You haven’t changed. You think that, just because you can look people in the eyes now, you’re suddenly all different? No one will ever enjoy being with you.”
            “Be quiet,” she hissed. “I don’t need to hear this anymore.” Beatrice flipped onto her other side and pulled her knees up to her chin.
            “And yet you can’t shut me out,” Anxiety said. “You say you want me to go away, and yet you continue to invite me in. It’s all right. I, at least, will always be your faithful companion.” He crept closer and slipped an arm around her waist. She could feel his breath on her neck and her body began to shiver.
            “I’m better than this,” she said.
            “Shhhhhh, quiet down, my love,” he said. “Close your eyes and try to make me leave. You can’t. Picture yourself on a plane. You have completely lost control, your life is in someone else’s hands. With every batch of turbulence your stomach tightens and you wonder if this is it. The statistics don’t matter. All you can think about is what it would feel like if that plane started to plummet down, down, down . . .”
            Beatrice’s lungs began to tighten and her breathing quickened. She made one last attempt to remove herself from these thoughts, but she knew she couldn’t do it. He had built a cage of her fears and trapped her in it. She threw herself against the bars over and over, struggling for freedom. Each attempt was weaker than the last. Finally, her resolve gave out and she lost the fight.
            She lay there, alone in her bed. Her body trembled as fear descended upon her and tears fell uselessly on her pillow. Helpless, Beatrice existed there until her mind emptied and she was given away to sleep.
            Peace found her during the night, a friend only to her unconscious brain. She awoke the next morning in a wonderful haze. Beatrice had twenty seconds of confusion and unconcerned bliss before she remembered where she was. But even when she did, things made much more sense than they had the night before.
            Sun streamed in from her window and warmed the back of her neck. Beatrice stretched her arms and legs. If only she could stay here longer, be sucked into something solid and rooted to the earth. She cracked her knuckles one by one and waited.
            Beatrice opened her eyes. Some days she forgot where she was and woke up expecting the stark white walls of her old dorm room. She woke up expecting to roll over and see her roommate sleeping dreamlessly across the carpeted expanse. Sometimes Beatrice was disappointed when she realized she was back in her old room. It was hard to remember that she had given up the clear, bright path for a much murkier future.
            This morning, however, Beatrice was just glad it was light outside again. Her thoughts wandered back to what had caused so much panic a few hours before. Her brain danced around the shape of an airplane and she could feel the knots return to her stomach. She pushed it all away. The best solution to controlling her fear, it seemed, was to try to think of nothing at all. It was much harder to worry about the future when you didn’t exist in the present.
            Her heart was heavy and angry as she shuffled around the house. Shower, make breakfast, get dressed, find something to keep her occupied. These tasks were simple and easy; the same things over and over, purposeless. She hadn’t wanted this to be her life, and yet it was what she needed to do to survive . . . Was this surviving?
            Beatrice finished getting ready before she realized she didn’t know where she was going. Her parents were away at their jobs and she was alone. She needed to distract herself before she lost it and jumped off the balcony of their third story apartment. She wondered if that would actually kill her, or if it would just maim her in new and exciting ways.
            Beatrice grabbed the car keys from one of the hooks by the door and let herself out.
            Beatrice drove for half an hour without a specific destination. Frustration began to seep into her brain. In moments like these, she missed her older sister. Usually, she didn’t. Usually, it didn’t occur to her that her life was any different when Marie was in it. But Marie loved adventures, even those that ended in nothing. She would know what to do right now. Then, thinking of her sister, Beatrice was met with inspiration and pulled off at the next exit.
            There was an amusement park not too far south of where she lived. Situated right along the beach, this park was unique in the fact that you didn’t have to pay to enter, but rather paid for each ride you went on. You could wander freely among the crowds or you could stake out a spot on the sand and no one would charge you for it. Beatrice knew she should be with people, and suddenly this was the only place she wanted to go.
            The road was windy and lined with trees. Beatrice fell into a sort of careful monotony that made time pass quickly. Soon, she pulled into the amusement park parking lot and found it almost half empty. It took her a moment to realize it was the middle of a weekday. She pushed down her embarrassment at seeing this place so exposed.
            She stepped out of her beat-up Honda Civic and stretched her arms. She began walking and the small patches of sand made a sharp, comforting sound under her shoes. It pulled her heart to the ground and made her realize she was alive. Then the feeling left as quickly as it had come.
            As Beatrice walked in, she was startled by the bright clown and animal decorations covering the rides. Did those horses always have garishly twisted features? The bright reds and yellows seemed incredibly out of place in such gloomy weather. She passed the old roller coaster, its wooden limbs angling out over the walkway. The ride worker at the entrance stared at her, a dull expression on his face. Beatrice wondered how long the park would stay open before they finally decided to call it on account of weather. It was California, but this was getting ridiculous.
            She made her way to the edge of the walk and climbed down the few stairs to the deserted beach. The wind blew and Beatrice remembered how cold she was. Just before she got to the place where the water reached and pulled back, she sat down. The top of the sand was cold, but then she dug her hands into it. The sensation of the sand against her bare skin, seeping into her clothes and leaving traces of itself there, drew her back.
            Beatrice sighed, then and now, “This is the way the weather always is back home,” she said as she stretched out her arms to feel the sun. It was mostly the truth and her friends would never know any differently. She had quickly learned that growing up east of Nevada often left people with delusions about what the west coast was really like. No, she wasn’t blonde and didn’t surf to school, but she liked how the mythical California weather could incite envy in even the most resistant.
            But Allison was used to this bragging. Instead of verbally responding, she grabbed a handful of the Pixie sticks they had stolen from the dining hall and threw them at Beatrice. Beatrice grabbed one, ripped off its top and poured the candy down her throat. She glanced at Allison and they both howled with laughter. The sugar was going straight to their heads.
            They were freshmen in college, but it was weird how often they were encouraged to act like children. Alongside the heightened level of schoolwork came sleepovers with their hall, the consumption of mass amounts of junk food, staying up late because no one was monitoring them, and making poor decisions because they knew they wouldn’t be able to later. Everyone embraced this life with the knowledge that it would soon end and the world would expect them to grow up.
            Beatrice heard Lauren sigh. She exchanged a glance with Allison and then looked away to stifle the laughter that was again bubbling up her throat. Beatrice put her arm through Allison’s and they skipped together towards their residence hall.
            Beatrice shivered as another wind blew past. Looking back was both difficult and involuntary.
            “What happened to Allison? Where is she now?” Depression asked from where she was sitting at Beatrice’s left.
            “Gone,” Beatrice replied. “I messed it up.”
            Depression crawled until she was in front of Beatrice. She put both arms around Beatrice’s knees and laid her head on top of them, “You always mess it up,” she said quietly.
            “I know.”
            “You’re never going to find another person who will know you the way Allison did,” Depression continued. “And she’s not coming back.”
            “I know,” Beatrice said, her fingers digging deeper into the sand.
            “She knows who you are. She saw you for real and she knows that you’re not good for her. You’re not, you know?”
            “I . . .” Beatrice hesitated. “Is that true? I mean, the hurt was pretty mutual. . .”
            Depression laughed her wild, insensitive laugh. “Do you really believe that?”
            Beatrice stared at her and was pulled into her memories.
            “We both made mistakes, but if I hadn’t made mine, we would probably still be friends,” Beatrice told Depression. She sighed. “I was so ridiculous.”
            Depression sat up and pulled herself over to sit beside Beatrice, “You broke it, you, yourself,” she said, “and there’s no way that you can ever make things completely right again.”
            Beatrice watched the waves silently. Then she stood up and headed back to the stairs.
            She felt stupid for having come so far when she didn’t really want to be here. This place was fun when you had friends to share it with, but Beatrice had no one. She could cry, but that seemed exhausting. She replayed those memories over and over until they were worn thin, and still she could not let them go.
            And then something made Beatrice stop. Something pulled her away, and she tried to grab at what it was. Then she became conscious of that odd funnel cake/cotton candy smell that was intimately linked with her childhood. She stood there for a few moments and felt the hopelessness retreat. There was something here. Something so fleeting that Beatrice was terrified of looking at it too hard. She hadn’t been truly happy for a long time, but she could remember what it felt like. It felt kind of like this.
            She walked farther and tried to stay buoyed to this small peace. But as she passed the carousel, she saw Depression sitting on a bench a hundred feet away. Distressed, Beatrice turned and ran back the way she had come. When she reached the park’s entrance, Beatrice slid on the sand and fell forward to her knees, ripping the left leg of her jeans. She got back up and bounded towards her car. When she reached it, Depression was waiting for her in the front seat.
            “Jesus, why do you always waste your time like that?” Depression asked as they flew down the highway towards home. “I mean, seriously, what did you accomplish? Why can’t you move forward like everyone else instead of spending your days doing these stupid, selfish things?”
            “I don’t know,” Beatrice whispered back. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
            “It’s okay,” Depression said. She reached out to pull a lock of hair out of Beatrice’s eyes and tuck it behind an ear. “Just stay here with me a little while. Anyways, there’s nothing you can do that’s actually worth doing. There’s no point. Just stay with me.”
            “I need something,” Beatrice responded. “This isn’t what I wanted my life to be like.”
            “Nobody gets what they truly want from life, especially not someone like you. Let it go.”
            “But I don’t . . .” Beatrice stopped. She knew if she tried to argue any further she would lose.
            Beatrice exited the highway, slowing the car a little. She watched as the fork in the road approached, a tree sitting solidly in the middle. She needed to go right to get home, but ambivalence stayed her hands. She watched as the tree grew closer. She didn’t go right or left. Beatrice drove straight until it was too late to change her mind.
            Years later, Beatrice would say that she didn’t remember the crash or being pulled from the vehicle. She would say the first thing she saw after she closed in on the tree was the hospital room and her parents standing over her bed, her dad crying. The truth was harder to explain. Her memories were weird.
            She distinctly remembered the face of the EMT who had been with her in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His curly brown hair had fallen over his ears and his icy blue eyes were edged with concern. He had had a scar that ran from the end of his jawline to the side of his mouth. Of these things, Beatrice felt certain.
            She remembered waking up in her car and hearing the radio play, which seemed odd because she never listened to it anymore. The sound of it began to grate on her, so she reached over to turn it off, only to find herself stuck and unable to hit the button.
            She remembered the noise the small crowd had made when her body was removed from the vehicle. It was sort of like a muffled gasp. They hadn’t expected a whole person to be removed from the muddled, metal mess. And then she had briefly wondered what she might look like.
            She remembered being pinned to her steering wheel and being able to move her fingers and toes. They cracked and stung in pain, but they moved. Beatrice had felt vaguely disappointed, but she couldn’t say why.
            Two days after the accident, Beatrice lay in a hospital bed. Her mother sat in the chair beside it, frowning and wringing her hands. There was a brace on Beatrice’s right knee, but other than that she was just covered in bruises and scratches. The doctors said she was incredibly lucky.
            “Dr. Johnson said you could probably go home tomorrow morning, so I had your dad go back to the house and get things ready,” her mother said. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs.
            There was a short silence between them. “That’s good,” Beatrice finally said.
            “Mmhmm,” her mother responded absently. She looked around and considered the room. “If you want to go anywhere, you’re going to have to get a ride from one of us, I guess,” she said. “That’s going to be a hassle. I mean, not that that’s your fault or anything. But life’s going to be a little harder for all of us for a while.”
            Beatrice heard the door open, and looked over to see Anxiety walk in. He met her gaze, smiled, and went to sit down in the chair beside her mother.
            “I guess this also rules out you getting a job for the time being,” her mother continued. She sighed. “We really could have used the extra money.”
            “A moment’s decision made you a huge burden on your family,” Anxiety told Beatrice. “You’re going to be even more useless than you were before.”
            “I know, but I didn’t do it on purpose,” Beatrice said, although she wasn’t sure that was true.
            “Well, obviously,” her mother replied, “but that doesn’t really make a difference. Things are going to be tighter, that’s all I’m saying.”
            “At least now you have an excuse for your laziness,” Anxiety said. “What were you doing before? Just hanging out? How far do you think that will get you in life? How do you think you’ll feel two years from now when all your old friends start graduating and you’re still just here?”
            “I know,” Beatrice said. “I know I need to start thinking of legitimate ways of investing in my future, but I’m scared of making a mistake.”
            “Listen, I don’t care what you do as long as you do something,” her mother said. “You’ve been given all the freedom you need to figure out what you want to do. I’m starting to feel like you’re taking advantage of our hospitality.”
            “You’re becoming a waste of space with an unpromising future and everyone’s getting a little sick of you,” Anxiety said.
            “I’m doing my best,” Beatrice said weakly. She couldn’t explain the problem when she didn’t know what it was. She closed her eyes.
            “Well, at this point your best isn’t good enough.”
            “If this is the best you’ve been able to do under the circumstances, things are never going to get better.”
            “You’ve been given everything you could possibly need to be successful. You should be grateful, but instead you’re throwing it away.”
            “Everyone has problems, and yours are just that you’re sad and scared. Guess what? You’ll probably never stop being sad and scared. It’s become a part of who you are.”
            Their voices blurred together and it became difficult for Beatrice to tell which was which. Her head began to throb. “Stop,” she said, barely above a whisper.
            “What did you say to me?” her mother said, blinking.
            Beatrice suddenly felt dizzy and wished she had stayed quiet. Anxiety leaned in so close she could feel his breath on her face.
            “I’m only telling you these things because I think you need to hear them,” her mother said. “I’m just trying to be helpful. How else are you going to figure it out? It’s my job to let you know when I think something’s wrong, and I think something’s—“
            “Stop,” Beatrice said again, this time louder. “Do you really think this is the time or place? Please just stop talking at me. I’m really tired, and I’m not actually hearing anything you’re saying. Please just leave me alone for a little while.”
            Her mother made a disapproving noise and Beatrice knew her brow would be furrowed, her nostrils flared. But without saying another word, she stood up. Beatrice could hear her footsteps fade as she left the room.
            She opened her eyes to find that Anxiety had also gone.
            Beatrice lay in her hospital bed for half an hour and enjoyed the silence. For the first time in a long time she wasn’t being hounded by Anxiety or Depression and she figured she might as well appreciate it. One of the nurses came in.
            “Hey, how are you feeling?” he asked her.
            “Okay,” she said, a friendly smile coming easily.
            He was distracted and didn’t notice. “That’s good,” he said. “You’ve been recovering well. We’re hoping to send you home tomorrow. Won’t that be nice?”
            The thought of going back caught her and made her hesitate. “I guess,” she said.
            “Alright, well someone should be in with your lunch in an hour or so. If you experience any pain, please press the call button and let us know. Do you have any questions?”
            In spite of her recent resurfacing, Beatrice could feel herself being steadily pulled back down. She trained her eyes on her knees and kept them there as she slowly shook her head no. She looked back up to watch him leave.
            Beatrice closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop,” she said aloud. “I’m not going back, I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I haven’t had long enough, please . . .”
            She heard the door open again. She opened her eyes.
            “Hey,” Anxiety said, smiling. “How’s it going?”
            “Hey,” Beatrice muttered.
            “Now don’t be like that,” Anxiety said. “What would you do without me?”
            “Fuck you,” Beatrice said as she lifted a shaky hand and placed it on her stomach. “Why won’t you just leave?”
            Anxiety shrugged. “Don’t know, just can’t. Would you really want me to if I could?”
            “Yes. Yes, absolutely, things could be so different for me.”
            “You don’t really believe that. If I weren’t here, there would be something else here instead. There’s always something. But for now it seems you’re stuck with me.”
            Anxiety sat down in one of the chairs next to her bed. He gazed at her fondly and Beatrice found herself shivering. She sat up.
            “I can’t. . .” she started to say. “I don’t. . .” She found her body was convulsing uncontrollably. Suddenly, she ripped the IV from her arm and swung her legs over the side of her bed. She lowered her bare feet to the cold floor and felt a wave of calm run through her. It ran up from her ankles through to the back of her neck and the shaking stopped. She stood up and closed the distance between the two of them. Anxiety watched her the entire time, curious, but unsurprised.
            She lowered herself down into his lap and wound her arms around his neck. Beatrice felt the familiar madness return to her and was comforted.
            “If you must stay, then please don’t leave me,” she whispered.
            “No, I won’t, not like everyone else,” he said softly. “We can run together, you and I. Keep connecting, disconnecting, keep moving. We’ll escape, then return and escape again. I can whisper in your ear while you laugh wildly and scream until your lungs turn bloody. We will startle and confound, but yes, we will be together.” He ran his fingers through her hair. “We will always be together.”
            Beatrice grabbed the chunk of hair he had touched and pulled. She pulled until she felt the strands rip from her scalp and lay limply in her hand. She held them up to the light and examined them. Then she let them drop to the floor, oddly satisfied. Anxiety smiled.

Empty Acoustic Night

            Shiny patent leather shoes tap in time on the floor. Pointed toes and straight laces, this is where it all begins. His fingers pluck desperately along the taut strings, begging for something, anything, any type of feeling to make his heart beat faster. But it’s too busy keeping time, pumping blood to the tips of his toes.
            The voice that curls around the back of his tongue insists that he just needs to sing louder. He tilts his head back and projects the notes to the ceiling. Something, anything. The girl sitting on the floor looks down, embarrassed. She smirks at her phone and taps two fingers in time to music he is not playing.
            He feels the heat in his cheeks and the pressure at the back of his neck. A word chokes through his parted lips. In this moment he feels not long for this world and like time will go on forever. He searches the crowd. The best he can do is the rapt attention of a dull-eyed man, so he studies this person. His expression says he thinks you would love him if you really knew him.
            He shrugs this performance off like one too many coats. As he locks his guitar back in its case, he tells himself that this is a part of the process, this is what he expected. Yet he never thought this steely sense of loss would fill him so completely. He whistles to remind himself he is not alone: he has his brain, his hands, his spirit. Next time will be better, he thinks. Next time he will see them for what they are, and they will know it. He will shape mountains with his fingers and grab the sun from the sky. Next time it will be okay.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Truck Stop Tears

            She left with every car that passed the truck stop. There weren’t many; few people came this far west anymore. When they did, it was like Anna could feel them. She wanted to be them so badly that she slipped on their skin for a few minutes. She watched through the thick glass windows as another version of herself put the gas pump back and wiped her hands on her jeans. She climbed into driver’s seat, laughing at something the man in the back seat had said, and turned the key in the ignition. She felt the soft purr of the engine beneath her and threw the car in reverse. Alternate Anna cast a glance back to the short brown building, her eyes flickering over the dimly-lit windows. Real Anna met her gaze and broke a little as she watched her unreachable twin drive away.
            She sprayed the window with cleaner and wiped it with a stained rag. The smell of the chemicals clung to her nostrils and made Anna cough. She turned and looked around. Her father’s establishment didn’t know what it wanted to be. Half the building was made up of booths and a counter, squeezed together like a miniature version of a diner. The other half was a convenience store, the dinginess almost hanging from the walls. The two were separated by some invisible boundary, the point at which her father decided he couldn’t make up his mind.
            He passed her, muttering under his breath, as she crossed the boundary into the diner half. An older couple sat in a booth in the corner. They looked up at Anna in her cheap, bright pink uniform and their frowns deepened. The man leaned into his folded hands, his greasy hair crawling down the back of his neck. The woman peered at her with red-rimmed eyes, her maroon lipstick smudged at the edge of her mouth. Her lips parted as though she was about to say something, so Anna raised one polite forefinger. She smiled and nodded. Then she turned and headed into the kitchen.
            “Molly?” she yelled, although she knew where her sister would be. The lanky blonde, dressed in an identical pink uniform, was bent over the counter talking to the cook. The fifteen-year-old smiled and let out a low laugh. “Molly,” Anna said again.
            “Hmmm?” she said, tilting her head in Anna’s direction.
            “It’s your turn, Molly,” Anna said, readjusting the tacky cotton gathered around her shoulders.
            “Cute?” Molly said, winking.
            “Sure,” Anna said, moving out of the way as Molly hurried past her. She waved at the cook and said, “How’s it going?”
            He shrugged. “You know,” he said.
            “Yeah,” Anna said. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. The cook forced a smile and turned back to the stove. Knowing there weren’t any orders for him to fill, Anna left the kitchen. Molly brushed past her again.
            “Thanks a lot,” she said, intentionally hitting Anna with her shoulder.
            “What?” Anna said, smiling. “They’re cute.”
            Molly rolled her eyes and went to deliver the order. Anna heard a crash come from the other side of the building and ran towards it. When she crossed the boundary, it took her a moment to adjust to the sight in front of her. Her father was sprawled out on the floor, packets of trail mix and sunflower seeds scattered around him.
            “Dad?” she said, hurrying forward. A woman clutching a fake Louis Vuitton was standing nearby with an expression of overproduced horror on her face.
            “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, crawling onto his hands and knees. Anna put her hands at her father’s elbow as he stood up. He jerked away. “Stop it. I’m fine.”
            “Okay,” Anna said, “uh, what happened?” She tried to reach out to him again.
            “Seriously, stop it,” he said. “I don’t need any help.”
            Anna glanced from the woman, who quickly shook her head, to the display that now lay on its side. Her gaze returned to her father’s face.
            “I just leaned on the display and it tipped over, okay?”
            “Okay,” Anna said, and folded her arms over her chest.
            Her father stared at her for a moment. “Well?” he said.
            “Well, what?” she said.
            “Well, aren’t you going to clean it up?”
            Anna opened her mouth and then closed it. She summoned all the wisdom of her sixteen years. “Of course,” she said, and bent to the ground.
            “Here, ma’am, I’ll help you out over here if you’re ready,” her father said to the woman still clutching her purse. She nodded meekly and held out a bottle of Smart Water. Anna’s father grabbed it and placed his hand on the woman’s back when she got near him. A shiver ran down Anna’s spine and she righted the display. She tried not to glance up as her father returned the woman’s change and briefly ran a finger along her wrist, but she couldn’t help it. Anna started to feel nauseated.
            “Why are you moving so slowly?” her father said, coming up behind her when the woman left. “We can’t let our customers see this mess.”
            Anna glanced in the direction of the old couple in the booth and looked back down. She nodded and gathered the scattered food faster. Her father watched in silence as she organized the bags and brushed the specks of dirt and hair off the ones that had been on the bottom of the pile. She could feel the back of her neck start to burn.
Her father nodded in apparent satisfaction and went to stand behind counter again. Anna brushed her hands on the skirt of her dress and quickly walked back across the boundary. The old woman was chewing and eyeing her suspiciously. Anna smiled brightly at her and said, “Is there anything I can get you two?” The old man shook his head and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. Anna’s smile stayed glued onto her face as she made a beeline for the kitchen.
            Molly was back at the counter, leaning against her elbows and listening to the cook tell a story about . . . something.
            “Molly,” Anna said. “What are you doing? You’ve got customers.”
            “Please,” Molly said, “I’ve got them under control.”
            The cook cleared his throat. “So like I was sayin’, we were chasin’ that pig all over the yard and Matt finally had it cornered when that godforsaken creature got a board in the fence loose and—“
            “What the hell is everyone doing in here?” Anna and Molly’s father said as he threw open the kitchen door. “Do I pay y’all to stand around and shoot the shit?”
            Molly straightened up, her face going white. “No, dad, but it’s pretty slow so I just thought . . .”
            “You thought what? That you could sit around and waste my time?”
            “No, of course not—“
            “Then why are you doing it?” Their father took a few steps into the kitchen and Molly took a few steps back. “Good God, no matter what we do with you, you never cease to be completely useless.”
            Anna stepped into the space her father had just occupied and slipped out the kitchen door. She made eye contact with the cook as she left. He was standing by the flat top and nervously tapping a fork against his open palm.
            “Can we get the check please?” the old woman said when Anna reappeared. Anna raised her forefinger again and continued walking until she was across the boundary. She headed straight for the space behind the register and felt around in the drawers underneath the outdated machine. Anna’s fingers wrapped around the familiar metal container. She pulled it out. Her father’s flask. She needed to be quick.
            Anna exited the convenience store and unscrewed the flask’s lid. She dumped the entire contents of it onto the pavement in front of her, startled by how the smell of the whiskey both nauseated and comforted her. She screwed the lid on and hurried back inside. Anna locked eyes with her sister, who was walking out of the kitchen. Molly lifted one shoulder and smiled as she handed the old couple their check. The man pulled out his wallet, retrieved a single bill, and slapped it down on the table. He and the old woman got up and made for the exit, the woman pulling her cardigan close to her round body. The door swung open and they were gone.
            Anna walked to the window and watched them leave. They made their way to a predictably rusty Honda, opening their doors at the same time and slumping inside. The man put the car in reverse and sped out of the parking lot. As the bumper of the vehicle disappeared from sight, Alternate Anna turned and waved from the back seat. Real Anna tilted her head forward until her nose was resting against the cool surface of the glass. She wanted to leave, even if it meant leaving with them.
            Night fell and still the girls were there. Molly was pacing back and forth in the diner, twisting her hands and sighing every few steps. Anna was sitting in a booth, filling sugar containers and studying the cracked table in front of her. Their father was slumped over against the broom closet in the back of the convenience store, snoring lightly.  
            The silence stretched out between them until Molly finally said, “You know, if we wanted, we could just leave right now.”
            “Where would we go?” Anna said. “We don’t have any money.”
            “It doesn’t matter. We could take it from the register and have enough to live on for weeks.”
            “Molly,” Anna said, looking up from the sugar containers. “What are you talking about? We can’t take money from the register. That would be stealing. Dad would report us in a heartbeat and we’d get caught.”
            “Why?” Molly said, massaging her bruised wrist. “Don’t you think we’ve earned it?”
            Anna sighed. “Since when has what we’ve earned made a difference?”
            Molly rolled her eyes and Anna saw they were starting to fill with tears. She stood up and walked to her sister, putting her arms around her bony shoulders. “Please don’t cry,” she said. “We just have to dig in a little longer and things will change. We can leave then.”
            “’Then’ isn’t soon enough,” Molly said, a tear dropping down her cheek. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and wiped her face with her hands.
            “Please, it’s okay, we’ll be able to—“
            “Girls?” their father’s sleepy voice came from the back of the building.
            They both froze. “Yeah?” Anna said.
            “Kim’s going to be here soon. Get out front.”
            The girls looked at each other and Molly wiped her face on the sleeve of her dress. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said.
            “We’ve never wanted to do this,” Anna said. “It doesn’t matter. Where else do we have to go?” She walked to the diner’s entrance and let herself out. Sure enough, Kim was standing on the curb, smoking. Her blonde hair was thrown up into a messy bun and her eyeliner had fallen down her face. Her reddened skin was pulled tight across her cheeks, but was baggy under her eyes, and harsh lines met on her forehead and at her mouth.
            “I’ve been waiting for five minutes, what have you two been doing?” Kim said.
            Molly stared at her shoes. “Refilling sugar containers,” Anna said.
            Kim rolled her eyes and stuck her cigarette between her lips. She grabbed Anna by the wrist and pulled her off the curb. Anna looked back at Molly. Molly’s eyes had grown round in fear, as they always did. Anna set her mouth in a firm line and nodded. If she would be okay, then Molly would be okay. But then Anna watched as their father walked out of the convenience store. He hung an arm around Molly’s shoulders and seemed to lean on her. Anna thought she saw Molly’s knees shake.
            Kim dragged Anna towards the line of dark trucks. Their customers were waiting.
            The next morning, Anna quietly wiped the tables down before the store opened. Molly was washing dishes in the kitchen and their father was sleeping off his customary hangover behind the register. Anger pulsed through Anna, as it always did. She imagined herself grabbing a butter knife and running it along her father’s throat, patiently repeating the task until she smelled blood. It would take a while, but then that might be okay.
            But no, she couldn’t do anything like that. She would walk out, and when she did no one would be able to stop her. She pressed her hand into the plastic in front of her and scrubbed. A crash came from the kitchen. Anna stopped what she was doing and went to check on her sister.
            The cook was crouched on the ground, carefully picking up pieces of ceramic and placing them in his hand. Molly stood over him, completely still. Anna came up behind her and put a hand on her back. Molly looked at her, narrowing her eyes and then yawning. “I don’t know,” she said, in response to Anna’s silent question.
            Molly absently ran her finger along the counter. “Just a little bit longer,” Anna said. Molly nodded and took a deep breath. She pulled at the skirt of her dress until it was neat on her tiny frame. Then she crouched on the ground beside the cook and started picking up pieces herself.
            “Hello?” someone called from the diner. Anna went out to investigate.
            It was a man, maybe in his late-twenties. He had shoulder-length black hair and held himself with a sense of power that had never been crushed. The expression on his face was kind enough, though. Anna had gotten good at sensing the intentions of greedy men.
            “Hi! Sorry!” she said.
            “Is the restaurant open?” he said, indicating the deserted building around them.
            “Yes, yes it is,” she said. “Please, take a seat.”
            He nodded and made the for the nearest booth. Anna went to pour him a glass of water and added a lemon wedge as an afterthought. She immediately regretted it as she watched the small, slimy rind sink down into the water, but it was too late. She brought the glass to his table. He was studying the menu.
            “What’s good here?” he said.
            “Nothing,” she said.
            He laughed and looked up at her. “What? Really?”
            She shrugged. “I think the cook is about ready to give up on life,” she said. “That’s what it tastes like anyways.”
            “Aren’t you supposed to be selling me on this place?”
            She smiled. “We’re the only truck stop for a hundred miles. There, I sold it.”
            He laughed again. “You’re a smart girl,” he said.
            She shrugged. “Relative to here, which means next to nothing,” she said. He frowned. “I’ll get you a burger. It will definitely be overcooked, but I promise it won’t make you sick.”
            He stared at her. “What a wonderful promise,” he said. Anna walked to the kitchen and delivered his order. She came back and made a point of slowly wiping down the counter. “I’m Jack,” he said from across the room.
            “Okay,” she said, continuing her task. Then she looked over her shoulder and said, “Anna.”
            “What are you doing a hundred miles from civilization, Anna?” he said.
            She shrugged again. “Doing what everybody does. I’m working.”
            He blinked. “That wasn’t really the question.”
            “I know,” she said, and smiled. Jack studied her face, but she knew he wouldn’t find anything.
            Five minutes passed of her working silently while he stared down at his blank phone and toyed with the straw container. Then Molly burst through the kitchen door, burger in hand, and looked from where her sister stood cleaning to the man sitting in the booth and back again. She strode up to his table and slapped the plate down. “Here you are!” she said. “Enjoy!” Anna heard the chirp in her voice and warmed. At least this was something else.
            “I’ve been assured that I won’t, but thank you,” the man said, and picked up the burger.
            She thought Molly would return to her cave with the cook, but Anna was surprised when her sister’s voice came from her left. “What are you doing?” Molly said.
            Anna glanced at Molly and tried on an expression of false innocence. “Cleaning,” she said.
            Molly shook her head and walked back toward the kitchen. “You always waste the cute ones,” she said, making sure Anna could hear her. Anna rolled her eyes, finished the end of the counter, and returned the cleaning supplies to their hiding place.
            “I know what I’m doing here,” Anna said, breaking the silence, “but I want to know what the hell you’re passing through the middle of nowhere for. Nobody should have to be here.”
            She looked over and saw Jack’s eyes light up at this invitation to connect. “I’m a grad student,” he said. “I’m on my way back to school after doing some field work.” He paused. “Sometimes the best places can be a little hard to get to.”
            Anna pulled at the corner of her uniform. “I know that’s true,” she said. “What are you working on?”
            “The effect of the use of genetically-modified seed on biodiversity in the agricultural world,” he said. He set his burger down in anticipation of the fascinating conversation they were about to have.
            “Sounds important,” she said.
            “Everyone thinks what they do is important,” he said, “and they’re usually right. Just in a different way than they think.”
            Anna laughed and Jack frowned. He didn’t understand that every morning she put on that sickly, pink cotton uniform and tied her hair into a bun she thought about the dead-ended pain of her life. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just think we’ve had very different lives.”
            He took a bite and drummed his right hand on the table. “I don’t doubt that’s true,” he said. “But you’ll end up surprising yourself.”
            Anna shrugged and didn’t know what to do with her hands. She was filled with the sudden urge to tell him everything. To tell this stranger, whose last name she didn’t know, what it felt like when a man older than your father pulled you into the cab of his truck. About the way her wrists ached when she woke up in the morning, about how her hair always smelled like Kim’s cigarettes and about the burn mark on her back. She wanted to express how painful it was to watch her little sister devolve into a spiritless being, how worried she was that Molly would be broken. About how empty her life had become when her mother died, how much light had gone out. More than anything, Anna wanted to talk about the trap she was always fighting, about the life she dreamed for herself and how she didn’t have a clue how to get there. She opened her mouth to say all these things. Then Anna heard her father’s guttural voice boom from across the boundary, and they shrunk on her tongue. Jack was staring at her now. “I don’t know,” she said.
            “That’s okay,” he said, “it’s just something to think about.” He shoved a few fries in his mouth. “This burger is truly average.”
            She gave him a weak smile, her heart pumping in the pit of her stomach. “Told you so,” she said. She turned and walked to the kitchen door, letting herself straight through past Molly and the cook to the tiny hallway that led to the freezer. She leaned against the wall, hearing Molly grumble as she finished up the table and brought Jack the check.
            “He’s gone,” Molly said eventually, walking back to where her sister stood. “What’re you doing back here?”
            Anna studied the freckles covering Molly’s face and imagined them pulled tight across her cheeks, but baggy under her eyes. “This isn’t forever,” she said, running her hand through Molly’s stringy hair. “This isn’t even for much longer. You know that, right?”
            Molly was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “I know,” she said. “I trust you.”
            Anna leaned her head forward and tapped it lightly against Molly’s. “Our moment will come, and we will go. And we will never have to see this shithole again.” They stood there for a moment. Then Anna could hear Molly’s breath get ragged so she pulled away. She passed her sister and walked back out into the diner.
            Jack had left a generous tip, despite the fact that she had abandoned him halfway through his meal. Anna picked it up and quickly tucked half of it into her uniform. They were supposed to give all the money to their father, but Anna had started relying on his pessimistic view of humanity. What did another tiny tip matter if it was consistent with the rest? Besides, he would never see these customers again.
            Anna would put these bills with the rest; she would collect them until the stack was big enough to get her and Molly past the state line for good. It was just a matter of time.
            Anna looked out the window and caught a glimpse of her other self. Alternate Anna stood and leaned against the hood of a car, patiently waiting for it to be filled with gas. She jingled her keys in her hands and stared at the toes of her boots. She was nothing and she was everything. Real Anna placed her hand on the glass in front of her and could almost feel it. The steady pulse of this other girl thrummed through her head and kept her awake.
            She watched as Alternate Anna removed the pump, closed the flap covering her gas tank, and got back into her car. The car made its way to the edge of the parking lot and drove off. Real Anna could have sworn she heard herself laughing.