Osprey – A Short Story, Part 3 (Finale)

The next day Alexis told her parents.

“It’s an osprey, I think,” she said at breakfast. “I looked it up online. They’re the only predatory bird that only eats fish.”

She led them upstairs, out on the balcony, where they all stood hip-to-hip.

“Look at that,” her mother said. The babies were alone again. “Aren’t they cute.”
“Good thing we found them early,” her father said. He was still holding his coffee mug—the one with Morgan Radley Real Estate written on it. “It’ll be easier to move them.”
“Move them?”
“Look, there’s already poop on the roof,” her mother said. “And we don’t want them eating into it.”
“The roof?”
“Roof repairs are expensive, Alexis,” her father said.
“They’re not going to eat into the roof. They eat fish.”
“But if their claws rub up against it,” her mother said.
“I’ve been doing research. I think the mate died. Usually there’s two together, and one gets to watch the chicks while the other goes hunting. But there’s only one here.”
“They’ll be better off somewhere else.”
“I can watch the chicks when the mother’s gone.”
“You’re not going to sit here all day and watch birds,” her father said.
“Or—at least they’ll be safer up on our house. It’s less likely something bad will happen to them.”
“Are you going to clean the poop off the roof?” her mother placed her hands on her hips, which she always did when she was ready to walk away, leave the conversation, move on.
“I’ll call in tomorrow,” her father said. He sipped his coffee. Both parents drifted inside. Alexis leaned against the railing, her forehead folded onto her arms.
“Oh, I almost forgot.”
Alexis twitched up from her slump. Her mother was in the doorway.
“Mary-Anne sent me a text-message. She’s going to ask about the interview. Probably Friday, she says.”
“Thanks, Mom. I guess—yeah. I guess I’ll do it.”
“Start practicing. Think of what you’re going to say.”
Alexis nodded.
“You’re good at that.” Her mother smiled. “This will be a good start for you.”
“Yeah. We’ll see,” Alexis said. She returned to her slump as her mother went back inside.

The rest of the day she sat on the balcony. She spread out a beach towel and leaned a pillow against the rail. She ate lunch, read for a little while. It was overcast but not cold. Alexis didn’t want to name the birds—she knew it would be too painful—but she’d started thinking of the chicks as The Big One and The Small One, which soon became Big and Small. She thought of their parent as a mother, even though she could well be their father. Either way, Alexis thought of her simply as Osprey.

Her father announced that the pest control people would be there on Friday. Same day as her interview at the bank. That meant Alexis would have two days with them.

Osprey had chosen this spot because it was the best for her chicks. If she was knocked out, bagged, and moved to some other location—what if the new place wasn’t a good spot for her? They were vulnerable enough already. And, worst of all, this nest was probably all she had left of her mate. At first Alexis thought the mate might show up, but it had been long enough that she suspected he’d died. Maybe accidental electrocution. Maybe pesticides. Maybe a bizarre car crash or a rare bird-illness.

At one point the mated ospreys had shared this nest. They’d most likely built it together, stick by stick, gathering fallen branches after early spring storms. They’d both seen the eggs lain. Waited for them to hatch. They’d expected to follow the long, slow migration when winter came, enjoy the warmth, and fly again to this very same nest next spring when the sun was once again higher in the sky. Osprey usually mated for life. Alexis wondered if birds could feel sadness. She’d taken a class on the philosophy of animals; their rights, their similarities to humans, their varying levels of sentience. Osprey should have rights. It was more important for a living creature to raise its young in peace than for their roof not to have poop or scratches on it.

Alexis tried talking to her father again, but he didn’t understand. He saw Osprey as one would from a distance—sharp, glinting, mean. Talons and fish and soulless reptilian eyes. She asked him to come back to the balcony, look again.

“No. I’ve seen them already,” he said at dinner. “They look like birds.”
“They are cute though,” her mother said.
“What time are they coming tomorrow, Dad?”
“Sometime in the morning. I’m going in late so I’ll be here.”
“I guess I’ll say good-bye to them before I go.”

But the next morning she lingered on the balcony in jeans and a sweatshirt. Light clouds draped over the highest part of the sky, the rest, a substanceless, untouchable blue. Big and Small already seemed older. After only four days their necks seemed more stable, and their feathers looked thicker. Alexis burrowed onto her stomach again. She breathed in the hay-and-sour-wildflower-pollen scent of the nest. It suddenly occurred to her that it hadn’t rained this whole week. Not since the mist during her walk. What would Osprey do in the rain? Out in the open, with no cover? It probably didn’t make her feel young and free. Osprey flew free in the open all the time. She didn’t need rain for that. No—rain was just an accepted part of the world. Water that was sometimes there and sometimes not. A piece of the sky.

Her father and a man in a khaki uniform pushed out onto the balcony.
“Alexis? I thought you left for the interview?”
“I’m not going.” She’d had her words planned, but now they felt stiff. “I wanted to ask, one more time—”
“You skipped your interview because of these birds?”
“Dad, I’m going to fight for them. They have as much right to be here as you do. And they’ll only be here until early fall. That’s it.”
Her father shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said to the man. “She’s on a kick.”
The man leaned over the railing. “Where’s the mother?”
“Out hunting,” Alexis said. She pointed. The horizon of the Swamp Barrens.
“Not the father?”
“He’s dead,” she said. “I’m pretty sure. They’re already at a disadvantage. If you move them—”
“Alexis,” her father said in a low tone that meant enough.
“She’s right,” the man said to Alexis’s father. “It’s happened a few times. We move the single parent nests and they don’t typically recover.”
“Essentially, you’d be killing them,” Alexis said.
“Now, I wouldn’t say that. But there’s a low end-season survival rate.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Up to you, sir.”
“There she is,” Alexis said, and Osprey perched on the edge of the nest. She busily slopped a fish into the middle. One yellow eye tilted toward the balcony and then away. “Dad, she just looked at you.”
Her father raised his eyebrows at Alexis, then he stared at the nest.
“This is a nice set-up they have here. Great place for an osprey, with the wetland down there.”
“I guess they can stay then, Alexis,” her father said. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “And you don’t think they’ll do any damage to the roof?” he asked the man.
“No, sir. They’re fairly low impact,” the man said as he followed her father back inside.

She knelt again. Osprey fed a frayed, feathery fish to Big and then Small. Carefully, one at a time. Alexis knew her mother would be disappointed about the bank job. But she was beginning to realize that, maybe, all the greatness and smallness of the world resided here in the Swamp Barrens; the sunrise, the sunset, the fish, the osprey; everything she’d grown with and had known; everything that she’d loved. This was where her questions came from, where she would soon migrate from. All her perceptions had arisen from this place. This was her beginning. This was her Life World.

Osprey – A Short Story, Part 2

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Behind their house was a sprawling wetland. In the winter its green water came up to Alexis’s knees, but in the summer she walked through it in shorts and rubber boots and only got her ankles wet. Sometimes in her head she called it The Swamp Barrens, but that was only because her freshman roommate had made her read Tom Brown Jr., and he was always talking about the Pine Barrens in his books. That was Tom Brown Jr.’s childhood wilderness, and Alexis’s childhood wilderness was completely different. A rural New Jersey forest versus a freshwater marsh in Washington State. Hers was an open wetland without trees; just grasses, cattails, and slimy, dainty sheets of growing things that she used to slop through when she was a kid. There was no good reason to call it the Swamp Barrens. It wasn’t even barren; fish glinted below the water in curled lines of silver. Nina used to call them swamp-fish.

When Alexis’s father came home, the three of them sat together at the long dining table. Her father untucked his white button-up before sitting down. “Alexis, how was your day?” he asked, still chewing a bite of pasta. “Did you apply for any jobs?”

Alexis swallowed her own bite. “Not today.” She wished she could somehow be transported to Nina’s apartment in California. She was probably still making dinner; something fancy and homemade, like quiche or spring-vegetable-salad-with-lime-vinaigrette.

“Mary-Ann said the bank is hiring,” her mother said.
Alexis stabbed a shiny, olive-oil glazed pasta bowtie. Her mother had told her about that bank job twice already. “I didn’t get my philosophy degree so I could work at the bank, Mom.”
“Philosophy is a transferrable skill. Everyone wants to hire a thinker,” her father said.
“And you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose job goes with their major. That degree is to get you a good-paying job. Like this.”
“Exactly,” her father said. He pointed his fork at Alexis. “It doesn’t matter that much what you majored in as long as you have the degree.”
“But I want to do something with philosophy. I want to work somewhere—somewhere good.”
“Somewhere good,” her mother repeated.

What she really wanted was to write books about philosophy. Really accessible books that would make people wonder and question. She once told her mother about this dream, and her response had been: “That’s not a job, Alexis.”

Alexis crossed then un-crossed her legs. “I want to work somewhere that’s—I don’t know. Good for the world. Good for me.”

Her parents said nothing, but she could tell that they were thinking, Working’s not always going to be fun, Alexis. You need to start making money, Alexis. Suck it up and get a job like everyone else, Alexis. Like everyone else. Like her parents, receptionist for an insurance company and real-estate agent. Maybe she’d chosen philosophy because it was the major most unlike their lifeless professions.

“The bank’s good for the world,” her mother said. “They help people get loans. Get their affairs in order.” A pause. “Mary-Anne can probably get you an interview.”
“I’ll think about it.”

Her mother glanced across the table at her father. We’re getting through to her, they were probably thinking.

She’d only been out of school for a month. They were only being pushy because she didn’t have a name for what she wanted to do. She didn’t have a clear goal. If she couldn’t be a writer, what did she want to do?

Alexis retreated to her room. This had always been her room, right on the top floor, where the windows overlooked the Swamp Barrens in their glistening entirety. She hadn’t gone out on the balcony for a while, so she opened the door. In the open air she saw the diffused blues and purples of watery early-evening; the silhouette of a blue heron, its legs like stilts; a fluttering herd of white songbirds that reminded her of butterflies, mirroring fish as their wingtips painted streaks upon the water. Air like crisp grass and rotten logs. It was usually pretty quiet on the balcony, but today she heard some sort of tapping sound. She crossed her arms against the wind. There it was again. Tap-tap. Kind of hollow. Alexis glanced straight down over the rail. There, on the flat part of the roof, just under her feet, was a nest. Two little birds, nestled in an enormous circle of branches. Those sticks looked too sharp and rough for them, with their wobbly necks and fuzzy white throats and stripes of black along their eyes. Then she noticed the nest was lined with soft fibers of frayed bark. She sank to her knees and peeked out underneath the balcony rail so she could see better. It was all delicate strips of dried grasses and floating cotton from trees or dandelions, everything yellowing, browning, not rotting but crisping and melding into the inner walls of the nest. The chicks looked out toward the water. They moved constantly in a quavering, vibrating dance. Like they were unable to keep still.

Then there were wings. Great, giant, amazing wings. White and curved, a W shape bent at the elbows. Those wings fell from white to black to gray in ombre feathers. Speckled. Not flapping, just out. The bird landed on the edge of the nest. A delicate, pointed beak, and a small head. Alexis thought first of an eagle. The bird glanced at her. There was that same stripe along the eye. For some reason she imagined it lunging at her, claws outspread into daggers as it attacked her eyes. She felt a distant sort of fear, an edginess. Don’t get too close to my babies, she knew the bird must be thinking. If birds could think.

But Alexis didn’t want to leave. The babies screeched in ugly, raspy, pleading voices. Maybe they were hungry. What did eagles eat?

The bird took off. Down, she swooped; like a kite over the Swamp Barrens. Water splashed up as the bird sliced the surface with her talons. She hovered over the nest—her wings blowing the lightest whisper of air against Alexis’s face—dropped a lithe, brown fish in the nest, grasped it with one foot, and tore off pieces with her beak. The chicks gurgled, still quivering. Their mother eased red fish chunks down their throats.

Alexis settled more closely onto the dusty balcony, down on her stomach. She watched the babies’ orange eyes blink sleepily as they swallowed. She watched the mother strip apart the fish until there was just one long spinal bone left on the bottom of the nest. Part of her felt like she shouldn’t be watching them. This was an ancient, intimate ritual. It was for carnivores. It was for birds. It was for those who were non-human. Surely the bird should’ve chased her away by now. Instead she’d simply been forgotten. The mother settled in to the nest, and all three birds faced the dying sun. It had been years, it seemed, since Alexis had been so completely absorbed in something that she’d lost track of time. Sure, sometimes she forced herself not to look at her watch every five minutes, but she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d really, truly not cared what time it was.

Red and pink robbed the water of its blueness. The clouds soaked up all that color, condensing it into pale light. A breeze—just one short gust—clipped the wind chimes downstairs. It smelled inexplicably like summer; some blend of tree and warmth and just the right amount of distant ocean sadness.

Alexis felt like one of the ancient people she’d studied—phenomenologists without even knowing it—trapped in a world of light and darkness beyond human control. They probably watched the sunset every night, and let the sun guide their days. But evidently they didn’t like this deference to the elements, because they’d created religion to give them control. And as religion was dying out, technology was taking its place. Why was everyone so afraid to just—go along with it? Why, when these birds looked so content, all three still blinking and ruffling into tight balls of sleep in the last, gray moments of dusk?

Check back next week for the finale, Part 3!

Osprey – A Short Story, Part 1

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She didn’t like going for walks when it looked like it was going to rain. The rain itself didn’t bother her—Alexis kind of liked the cool droplets pinging against her forehead; maybe because being out in the rain made her feel like a little kid, or like a straight-laced intellectual led to freedom by some mysterious, creative force. One minute reading at a desk in some dark, Victorian study, the next, running through the open air, letting the rain absorb into skin and hair and tongue.

Yes, the rain was fine; it was the pre-rain air that she found annoying. The murky heaviness, the taste of water in the air, the wind suddenly directionless and choppy like ocean waves.

Ahead, just above the yellow house at the end of the street, the pale outline of the sun shuddered through a purple cloud. Another cloud piled on top of it. Then there were three clouds, burying any transparentness and any evidence of sunlight. It was the kind of sky that would not stop moving. Each cloud sailed across small glimpses of blue. When Alexis looked up for long enough, it felt like the sky was steady and, instead, it was the earth that sailed. Of course that was true, tectonically, but not as part of the immediate human experience. The life world.

As Alexis turned down the bark-chip path through the park, she thought back to her philosophy thesis. Two-hundred pages on the history of phenomenology. Most of it focused on Husserl’s Lebenswelt—a theory validating the unique, fluid experiences of all conscious beings, claiming that one’s reality and truth were based entirely on their experiences in the world. She was initially drawn to it, back in her freshman year, because she liked the way it sounded. Life world. Like each person’s life was special enough to create a new world. To phenomenologists, it was the body, too, that counted, not just the mind. For most of human history the sun had risen and fallen. Sunrise, sunset, not Earth-turning-in-relation-to-the-static-sun. That was her favorite part of phenomenology. If the sun appeared to move, then that was your personal reality, your way of knowing the world, your sense of place as a body on the rotating Earth. And it was no worse or better than any other; just, simply, your own way.

She’d completely immersed herself in her thesis. At first Alexis had felt like her place there, in college, was tentative. In some vague way she’d worried she would be fired, like she was among those creaky brick and cement buildings for only a trial period, and at any moment Professor Simmons, her advisor, might send her a solemn e-mail asking her to meet during the last ten minutes of his office hours so he could terminate her. He had a kind-but-creased old man face that she could easily imagine grimacing at her like some cartoon demon.

Every time she actually did visit his office in those first few weeks of class, Alexis secretly worried that he would tell her she hadn’t done enough, hadn’t been enough, and that her scholarship had been revoked. Of course this didn’t happen. Her SAT scores were top notch, her high school GPA was 3.98, and she’d taken four AP classes her senior year. She’d deserved that scholarship. And she’d made good use of it. Four years later she had completed her thesis and earned a BA in Philosophy. She could always get her masters, but she was satisfied with her education. She was ready to get started on real life. Ready to get it over with.

But now Alexis was living with her parents, again. To save money. The scholarship had only covered part of her tuition. Her student loans were simple, easy, such a low amount that she would be independent again in six months, tops—if she could only find a job.

She paused at the thin, mossy tree with the weird hump on its side, and she turned around. That was one mile. Two miles round-trip would be good enough. Light exercise. Something to get her out of the house.

Even in spring, the forest still smelled like dead, fallen leaves. It held the warmth of buried things. She thought she could even smell smoke from winter fireplaces, absorbed long ago into satchels of leaves and peeled bark, as the porous breath of the woods drank in everything.

The pavement told her it was raining. She felt nothing on her face or arms, and the mist was invisible except for the spotted evidence on the road. This was just another form of pre-rain. What she wanted was a full-out rainstorm.

By the time she made it home, the mist had ceased its shimmering, and the sun danced hesitantly between clouds. There was her mother’s red van in the driveway. It had belonged, at certain points, to both Alexis and her older sister, Nina, before they left for college. Well, in hindsight, it had never really belonged to either one of the girls. They were just stewards; renters; borrowers. Back when Alexis drove it to school and volleyball practice, she’d ordained it with a cinnamon-scented clip-on air freshener and a fuzzy purple blanket lining the back seats. But they were gone now.

Recently she’d realized that nothing in her parent’s house was hers. Not really. Most things in her room were vestiges of childhood. Parent-bought, parent-stored. The few things she’d bought herself in college were all she had. A few posters. The rug that once lined her dorm room.

Alexis called hello from the entryway and followed her mother’s voice into the kitchen. Her mother leaned over the sink, washing out her tupperware from lunch.

“Oh, Alexis. This humidity is unforgivable.” She turned off the faucet.
“It’s not that bad.”
“I feel like I’m swimming through mud.”
“How many times have you actually done that?”
“When you girls were little.”
“The swamp doesn’t count.” Alexis laughed through her nose. “Wading through water is different from swimming.”

Check back next week for Part 2!

Premonition – A Short Story

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“Don’t say that,” he said softly. “Why would you think that?”
“It’s just this feeling, Brian. I just— I know I’m not going to make it past the weekend. I just know.”  Her eyes closed, and her shoulders shook as she cried. She brushed away each tear as it rolled to her delicate nose. Soon her fingers were wet and glistening. She looked at him steadily.
Brian moved closer to her on the leather couch. He reached out to stroke her blond hair, but she leaned away from him.
“They made fun of me. They always made fun of me and now I’m going to die. And they don’t even know. What would they say if they knew?” She held her breath.
“If who knew what? Baby, nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re fine.”
“You need to tell them that I knew, alright?”
“Who?”
“Everyone. My family. Everyone I’ve ever met. Tell them that I knew it was going to happen and I had a dream about it. Then they’ll finally believe me. It’s the only good thing that can come out of this.”
Brian turned on the television and stretched his legs onto the vintage ottoman. He unhooked the first two buttons of his collared shirt.
“Babe, I just got home from work,” he said. “Can we talk about it later?”
“Oh yeah, sure, later.” She stepped toward the patio and opened the sliding door. “Later when I’m dead.”
The newscaster read the weekend’s weather forecast— sunny skies with a slight chance of rain in the afternoon. Brian muted the sound. He opened the door a crack and yelled to his wife.
“They say it’s going to be sunny!”
She was sitting on the grass with her legs sprawled out in front of her. The sky held bright wisps of cloud colored red by the sunset. One last ray of light rested on her angled face. The rose bushes surrounding their manicured yard withdrew into shadow.
“Your mom wants us to go, and I don’t see why not,” Brian said. He stepped outside. “Doesn’t it sound like fun? I mean, we haven’t been out to the ranch in a long time. We didn’t even go to the reunion last year.”
“Why not. It’ll be a good place to die,” she said as she plucked at the grass with her fingertips.
“Don’t say that—your skirt’s getting dirty. Don’t you want a beach towel or anything?” Brian walked hesitantly onto the grass, letting only the tips of his loafers touch the earth. He bent over and kissed the coiffed hair above her forehead.
“No. I don’t mind the dirt,” she said. “Not anymore.”
The next morning they left the sunlit halls of their estate. It was a two hour drive through cattle and farmland. He handed her a handkerchief to press over her nose. She wiped her eyes with it instead.
“You’re really upset about this dream, aren’t you?” he asked, glancing at her. “What do you think is going to happen?”
“I can’t explain it and I don’t expect you to understand,” she said, and she crossed her arms.
“Hey,” he whispered. “Lara, look at me.”
She tilted her gray eyes toward him. They were rimmed with thin, red lines.
“I love you,” he said, and then he looked back at the road.
They were halfway to the ranch, where the air smelled more like hay and less like cows, before she spoke again.
“But do you believe me?”
“You’re not going to die. Not anytime soon. Hey, try out the new camera. It’s right there in the backseat.”
She pulled out a heavy Nikon with a long lens. It was the camera all the professionals chose. He pointed out some of the features and which buttons to use. She took a photo of his hands on the steering wheel. The crack of the shutter made both of them jump.
Her parent’s ranch sat at the base of a beige hill, lined by meadows thick with wildflowers. They drove down the gravel road, beneath rows of blossoming pear trees. Pink petals drifted into the car. One landed on Lara’s lap, and she rubbed its velvety skin. Brian rolled up the windows.
The driveway was cluttered with cars. Her two brothers and her cousin had already arrived. Lara’s mother stood in the doorway. She looked hunched and gray beneath the tall, wooden arch.
“Oh, kids. I’m so glad you came.” She hugged them both. “Brian, you look fit. And you’re growing your beard out. And my little Lara. You always look pretty. What’s that in your hand?”
“Nothing, Mom,” she said, and she let the pink petal flutter to the ground.
Her father came out with a beer in his hand.
“Doesn’t that dress look lovely on her, honey?” Lara’s mother asked him.
“Sure does,” he chuckled. “What’re you doing with this guy?”
Everyone laughed except Lara, who only smiled and looked back at the car. She walked into the house arm-in-arm with her mother. Her father and Brian came up behind them with the suitcases.
The house smelled like her mother’s floral perfume. Her brothers emerged from the kitchen with their polo shirts un-tucked and wrinkled. Their cousin came down the staircase wearing tiny plaid shorts that choked her thighs. Everyone hugged and exclaimed how long it had been.
“Great, how about we take a picture? I want to try this baby out,” Brian said with the new camera around his neck. “All of you first. Get together.”
The flash made Lara’s eyes water. She grabbed the camera from him and made him stand between her parents for another photo.
“When are we doing the campout?” she asked.
“It’s either tonight or tomorrow night,” said her brother. “Why don’t we do it tonight, since it’s so nice out?”
They all agreed and gathered their backpacks.  Their excited voices echoed over the polished wood floors. Lara’s mother handed each of them a sack lunch, which they stuffed in among their sweaters, I-pads, flashlights, I-pods, speakers, solar chargers, pajamas, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, tents, and toiletries.
“You all come back if it rains, okay?” her mother said. She adjusted the necklace of black pearls she wore daily.
“It hasn’t rained in a few months, Mom,” her other brother said. “We’ll be fine.”
“See you tomorrow, then,” her father said. “Be careful.”
Lara hugged her parents tightly. She kissed each of them on the cheek and told them she loved them.
“Look at us,” her cousin said when they were marching across the fields. “We’re just like kids again. Except Brian’s here.”
Brian grabbed Lara’s hand and squeezed it gently. They were both sweaty beneath the late afternoon sun. The wind blew over them and brought with it the tired rustling of songbirds. A robin pecked at the dry ground beside them.
By the time they reached the base of the hill, everyone was ready to set down their heavy packs and take a break.
“Brian, I don’t want to go up there,” Lara said. She buried her face into his chest.
“You can’t be that tired already. We need to see the view!” He rubbed her back.
She stared at him, unblinking, for several seconds. Her face was at once pale and ruddy, and there were purple circles beneath her eyes.
“Did we really need to bring so much stuff?” she asked.
“Come on, let’s get to the top before the sunset. We have to keep up the tradition, guys,” her cousin said.
The five of them began their summit. Tall, crunchy grass brushed against their knees, and the occasional oak tree offered shade. Lara coughed. It came from deep within her chest.
“You can do it,” Brian told her. “Almost there.”
They crouched low, pushing their knees against the sharp incline. Finally, they reached the top. Forest and field stretched into nothingness. Hills in the distance made blue waves against the horizon, and at their feet lay the dark reflections of clouds.
“We’re up so high,” Lara whispered.
“Picture time,” Brian said. He positioned them along the edge of the cliff with the sky at their backs. “Perfect.”
Lara knelt down at the rim. She looked closely at the cracks in the rock. Spongy mosses grew out of them. Brian sat next to her.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “I could live up here, right on top of this hill. I could watch the sky, and the birds, and the plants, and the fields, all of it. I could watch all of it forever. Now it’s too late.”
“Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen. Just enjoy the view.” He set the camera down and kissed her.
“I just felt a raindrop!” her brother yelled from the other side of the hilltop. His voice was strange and hollow in the open air. It seemed to come from the low clouds.
The wind changed direction. Fat raindrops stained the dirt.
“Let’s go back down,” her other brother said, squinting.
Brian leaped up and held out his hand for Lara. She stood gracefully. They walked toward them with their hands clasped together. Then he pulled away.
“Wait,” Brian said. “I forgot the camera. It’ll get ruined!”
He ran toward it just as the rain crashed down in its full force. The ground grew slick and sodden. The air was thick with freshly formed mud.
Brian slipped. He skidded over the coarse edge of the cliff with the camera clutched in his hands.
The others watched. They were so entrenched in gray mist that they weren’t sure what had happened. Lara stepped closer and peeked over the edge. Brian looked at her through the fog, but he couldn’t see his wife, nor the rain behind her. He closed his eyes just seconds before he crashed to the soil with a soundless thud. Then he lay there in a twisted heap, and the clouds moved lower and covered him up.
She wanted to scream but she couldn’t. Tears mingled with the cold drops of rain. They ran in hurried braids down her cheeks. She dug her fingernails into her scalp, and she shook her head.
“No… I didn’t think it was him,” she managed to say.
“Lara, what is it? What happened?”
Lara closed her eyes. Then she said, “I was right.”

Volando – A Short Story

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     “Ala,” her boyfriend said with his head turned away. “We need to go.”
She was named after God. Or wings, according to her Spanish parents.
“Uh… just another minute, Sam. Just…”  Her hands were still drying, one resting on each leg. She curled them up like potato bugs. A leaf fell into the water in front of her. Its smooth edges sliced her reflection.
“Look at the shadows. I want to hike out while we can still see,” he said.
He dug the toe of each boot into the soft dirt and exhaled. His green eyes searched the branches.
Ala’s bare feet skimmed the face of the lake. She swallowed the air, clean and full, and pulled an apple from her backpack. When she bit into it, Sam jumped. He stared at her with both cheeks sucked in.
“Okay. Finish that. Then we’re leaving.” Sam crouched beside her. He wiped his finger under his nose and licked his lips.
“You usually wear your hair up when we go for a hike,” he said.
He took a lock of her hair within his rough fingertips. She raised her black eyebrows.
“I didn’t feel like it today. How else could I let the wind comb it through?”
The last time she came to the lake, she had worn it in a bun so tight her forehead throbbed. Halfway through the day she finally just ripped it out. As soon as she did, a breeze came along. It crept over her shoulders, warm as the sun around the strings of her bathing suit. She still remembered how it smelled, like the inner neck of a dandelion.
“It’s all puffy. You can tell you’ve been swimming in the lake,” Sam laughed through his nostrils. “Damn, aren’t you ever going to finish that apple?”
“Look.”
A cloud of chickadees made black silhouettes above the lake. She pointed for Sam. He never noticed those things.
“Do you not think these things sacred?” she whispered.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sam grunted. “There’s some little birds shitting all over the place. You can see that at home. Hurry up. You want me to leave without you? You want to stay here all night by yourself?”
“You don’t love this. You don’t love any of this.” She had written those same words in her journal. Every day he did something to make her angry. She wasn’t even sure she loved him anymore.
“You want little mosquitoes and gnats crawling in your ears? Huh? You want to sleep curled up in the mud?” he asked, turning in circles.
“No. I want the stars, Sam.”
There was a panic in his eye that she didn’t understand. What was so terrifying about a night in the open air, away from concrete hills and car fumes? She remembered spending summer nights in the open fields behind her childhood home. Bats swept from one edge of the trees to the other, swirling like pieces of fabric lost in the wind. She fell asleep as frogs chimed and chirped around her and the stars emerged overhead. The field was her bed nearly every night in the summer. How could Sam fear what she had grown up with?
He paused a moment, then lunged toward his backpack.
Sam. You wouldn’t leave without me. What kind of man would you be?”
She realized that he wanted many things; the convertible their neighbor was selling, an apartment downtown, a plate of ribs for dinner. Their hikes were wasted days in his mind. They were small prices to pay to satiate her and win the prize. He wanted her to be rational, wear a ring, and settle down.
They had been together for two years. What would she have without him? Who would she be?
Her lips curled into a somber smile. The answer was all around her, breathing and flowing in the wind. Maybe he didn’t love Alder trees, or Ruby-crowned kinglets, or the pale moon in the sunlit sky, but she did.
“Do whatever you want,” she said. “I’m staying here tonight.”

The Figure Skater – A Short Story

Photo courtesy of figureskatinginternational.com

Dina stood near the ice with her shoulders hunched over, noting the skater’s lithe jumps and pretty contortions. The rink felt colder than usual on her bare arms. She stumbled back into the lobby.
Ignoring the spicy smell of pretzels and churros, she sat on a wooden bench near the entrance. A line of bodies blocked her view in every direction. Dull heat encircled her.

“Dina?” Abby shoved her round stomach through the crowd. “How’re you? What are you doing all the way out here? I didn’t even know you would be— oh. Oh!” Abby paused, her brown eyes falling to Dina’s feet. “You’re not… are you competing?”
Dina lifted one leg, heavy with her worn skate, and crossed it over the other. Abby smiled. Her teeth were yellow in the weak lighting. She eyed Dina’s sequined dress.
“Of course I am,” Dina replied. “I qualified. Second at Regionals.”
“Yes, but you’re—”
“There’s no age limit.”
They glanced at the ice as the skater’s routine ended. Dina was so nervous she’d ceased to hear the music long before. She swallowed and stretched her arms in front of her.
“You know, I’ve seen you practicing at the rink back home. I thought you might’ve switched to the adult competitions by now,” Abby shouted over the cheering. She sat on the bench across from Dina.
“Why is that?”
“You may be a bit younger than me, but you’re no spring chicken. We all know how hard it is to keep up with the kids. My Bree’s just going to run over you one of these days! You know? They’re a little faster, a little stronger, a little quicker at jumping up when they fall. Out there,” Abby paused to gesture at the ice, and laughed gruffly, “you’re gonna look like an ass stuck in with a herd of horses.”
Dina’s lips trembled as she forced a smile.
The skater pushed into the lobby, hovering near vendors selling jackets and stuffed animals. Chunks of ice clung to the back of her beige tights. A new song chimed soothingly over the speakers, then rose quickly into its majestic chorus.
“Yeah, I’m over thirty,” Dina said. “I’m old for a figure skater. I know that. I stopped skating before college so I could focus on school. Once I graduated I had enough money for food and rent, and that was it. I couldn’t afford to start skating again until my restaurant got going. Then I said, why not? If I can still skate, why not skate?”  She rested her knuckles pensively against her bottom lip.
Abby sniffed.
“If you ask me, Bree’s going to make it to the top before she even gets to high school. And this one,” Abby said as she patted her swollen belly, “if she’s a girl like they say, she’s bound for the 2022 Olympics.”
Dina gripped the bench with her bare, pallid fingers. The skater’s sparkly bun bobbed across the room. Her tears were buried into the armpit of a man— either a coach or a parent— in a black jacket. The results were posted next to them.
“The warm-up for novice is next,” Dina said as she stood. “I better go.”
“Well don’t you know how to dress your age? That little outfit!”
She tugged at her velvet skirt as Abby cackled. It was a custom-made dress, longer and humbler than most.
“Dina, dear. Let the children have their fun. Don’t take it from them.”
“I’m not taking anything from anyone.” Dina held her breath. “If I love it, why shouldn’t I compete? Why shouldn’t I skate? At least I go after my own dreams, instead of making my daughter do it for me.” She walked away with all her muscles clenched.
“You don’t even have a daughter, you old maid,” Abby called after her.
Dina stretched her legs next to the rink. She sipped from her water bottle, trying to quiet her thoughts. She would soon approach the age where becoming pregnant would be challenging, even if she finally found the right guy. After her fiancé broke off their engagement, calling them incompatible, she had given up. There were other things to worry about.
Silence washed over her mind. The door to the ice opened.
A group of tight-faced teenage girls drove through the entry, leaving a cloud of glitter behind them. Dina eased the plastic skate-guards off her blades and stabbed one toe-pick into the ice.
The girls carved away at the clean, white sheet. Their cheeks blushed pink against the biting air. Dina imagined herself out there, glancing nervously at the stands like they were. Her face grew hot. She stepped away from the ice and covered her mouth with her hands.
The skater still sobbed beside her.”I’m quitting,” she whined, wiping streaks of mascara from her eyes.”Dead last… that’s it. I’m done. I can’t— I don’t even like it anymore.”
Abby stood behind the skater and watched her cry. She looked at her, then at Dina.
Dina inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. One of her shoulders pointed toward the ice, the other toward the lobby. Suddenly, a plump hand rested on her shoulder.
“Do it, sweetie,” Abby said softly.
Dina’s smile was weightless. She stepped back toward the ice and glided on. Then she extended her arms proudly, and she skated.

To Hear The Earth Speak – A Short Story

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     They told me I was deaf, but I didn’t believe them. The music was always there. Always strongest at the sunrise, bending the ancient colors of the sky until they were inside me.
I knew sound as I saw it. The yellow sap of cedar trees sang directly into me, gave all the essence of its life into watery sound. I breathed it in, along with rain-soaked wind.
Everywhere I went, the music followed. My parents shined their eyes on me, assured me I was just like Beethoven; composing entire symphonies in our heads, neither of us able to hear them. I tried once to write the music down, but, unlike Beethoven, I’d never heard outside my head. Notes were meaningless without knowing their sound. And instruments were nothing more than pretty things to touch.
My music must have been incomparably unique, unbounded by influence. But no one else would ever listen to it. It belonged only to me and the forest.
Nothing made me happier than dogwood flowers. It meant the sun would soon touch the top of the maple trees, that turkey vultures would paint distant circles in the afternoon clouds.
One summer night when the air was hot I spread my sleeping bag out next to a patch of salmon-berries. Along the river, where the trees thinned, I watched the water darken.
Then the stars sang. Lyra, Corona Borealis, Ursa Major. None could ever rival Venus, nor match the voice that sprang with it from the horizon. All of it came in darts, accompanied by the milky way’s steady pulse. I laid upon the bare ground, forgetting my sleeping bag. Eyes constantly stroking the sky, I let the leaves cluster in my hair. Beneath me was all the curve of the Earth, and I could feel it hum.
Throughout the night I kept my eyes open. I absorbed the swinging lobes of the world above me. Felt the breeze finally cool. In the morning I could still hear it, all of it. Lingering on the bird’s faces. Resting upon the dry fragrance of the soil.
It wasn’t until I went away to college that the music ever ceased. I had no choice but to go to the city. And there, concrete muffled any sound. In long winds after the full moon I could feel music start, sometimes. But it wasn’t joyous, nor did it ache. All I felt was numbness. Cold. So I brushed it away.
Each day another melody dimmed. I had never lived in silence before, and I feared it.

With my hands I could speak, though not everyone understood. I was known only as the deaf girl, softly pitied from afar. Through the window of my dorm room I could see buildings, cars. I was keenly aware that there was no earth beneath my feet.
But there were good things, too, about school. A month into the first term a friend asked me on a road trip to the coast. Her brother was deaf, and she knew how to sign. I hadn’t been to the beach for many years. It had been so long, in fact, that I’d forgotten what it sounded like.
We drove through forests, over hills. I rested my forehead against the car window and watched the branches of douglas firs. Ferns, fallen logs, walls of moss. Just like my forest. My chest opened, music rising. It grew louder, louder. Around a bend we wove until… there it was. The ocean. That beautiful plane of water that sang in deep, eternal sighs.
Never had I heard grander music. Then I knew. It was all the world singing.
By the time we’d reached the water, the rain had come. As it piled over us, I slid my feet into the freezing ocean. Droplets of sea and sky rested on my eyelashes.
In the rain I heard my forest. I listened to the river’s smooth currents. I heard the alder trees bow in the wind.
There was something deeper than memory in which I could carry the music. Something nameless. I would forever be connected to the forest. It had raised me. Sung to me. Given me ears.
While the sun was buried beneath the waves, we sat in the sand. Every string of the sky was red. The opposite of the sunrise, but just as sweet.
Any numbness fell away. It was as though I had never even left the forest.
In all ways it had become a part of me.

Previously published in the 2013 issue of The Ecotone Journal of Environmental Studies

The Wilderness Experience – A Short Story

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Anna dropped to her stomach and peered over the hill. She scooted forward, her forearms itchy from the grass. Some guy about her age—college age—stood in the meadow below, near the water, pulling silver packets of food from an enormous, dusty backpack. He glanced her way and she lowered her chin, desperate not to be seen spying on him like a weirdo.

 

When she looked again, through the slanted light, through the tall grass thick with clovers, he was crouched at the base of an oak. She watched him gather dry moss and sticks into a tinder bundle. That meant he was definitely staying the night. She was hoping he would leave so she could have the river to herself.

No matter what, she would have to camp by the water; it was almost dusk, and the river was the only water source for miles. Her two stainless-steel bottles had been clanging together, empty, for the past day. The best she could do was walk down the other side of the hill and camp farther upstream. But no matter how far she walked or how hard she tried to avoid him, there was nothing she could do about the outline of his tent in the open distance of the plain. So much for her wilderness experience.

It was her last night and she wanted to be alone. Really alone, one last time. She hadn’t seen another human for six days, and she didn’t want to start now. That was why she had decided to go for a week-long backpacking trip in the first place; for the cottonwood fluff blowing over the river, past the bowing heads of scouler willows; for the honks of red-winged blackbirds on their cattails at dusk; for the pale reflection of stars on the water. Not people. She didn’t want this random guy around. He probably didn’t want her, either; as far as she could tell, he was camping alone. Maybe that was because he was secretly a killer, or a rapist. Who knew. Maybe he was just an annoying frat guy. Best to avoid him.

A bug crawled over her thigh. She brushed it off without looking and wriggled carefully backwards, away from the crest of the hill. Then it stung her. She jumped up and screamed—abrupt, high-pitched, echoing against trees and sky. It was her first sting from either a bee or wasp, whatever it had been. She felt like she had been shot in the leg. Anna rubbed the bump as she limped hurriedly to her backpack. She hoisted it to her shoulders and rushed down the hill, her worn hiking boots slipping every few steps. When she was safely under the cover of wide, sun-soaked leaves, she sat and surveyed the sting.

“Shit,” Anna muttered, because the pain had subsided to an ache and there was no bullet wound—it looked like a mild rash. She felt stupid for screaming.

For a moment she listened to the robins’ songs, already shifting from the glistening trills of afternoon to the dusk gathering calls. She felt the earth beneath her and relaxed a little. The winds changed direction, transitioning, too, for sunset. Anna breathed in the sticky, sap-warmed breath of the forest. She stood, unsure of where to walk next, or where she stood in relation to the guy.

She chose a direction and plodded through the forest. Suddenly the branches of a nearby vine maple shivered. Anna froze. The guy, the same guy she wanted to avoid, emerged, looking pale and out of place. He wore a striped tank-top and cargo shorts, and his hair was cropped to near-baldness. To Anna, he seemed especially harsh in contrast to the gentle lighting of the forest; unreal, like a clunky cartoon character.
The guy stepped timidly around the bushes, inching toward her until they stood on either side of a fallen, shin-high, moss-covered log.

“Hi,” he said.

Goddamn it, she thought. Her week-long streak of solitude was ruined. Just leave, guy, she thought. Just leave. “Oh—uh, hi.” Anna coughed, her voice dry and out of use. “Nice to see a fellow backpacker out here.” She waved. It felt robotic.

The guy smiled, exposing slightly crooked front teeth. He didn’t seem threatening. Definitely not a killer or rapist.

“Yeah, how’s it going?” he asked. “I haven’t seen anyone else nearby, but did you hear someone scream not too long ago? I came over to see if they’re okay, but I don’t know where it came from. Sounded brutal.”

Anna wondered if she would go running toward a screaming person. Probably not. “Oh, that was just me,” she said. She tried to keep her voice low and steady. “I got stung by a bee.” She pointed to the top of her thigh, feeling infinitely stupid for screaming—it would be so easy for him to make fun of her.

“Well that is brutal. I hate bee stings—I would’ve screamed like that too. You got the stinger out, right?”

Anna was grateful that he didn’t make her feel worse. She wanted to be polite, but she also didn’t want him to think she was interested in this conversation—she wanted him to leave so she could be alone with the earth. So she could stop making a fool of herself. She rested her foot on the spongy fallen log. It smelled like rot. “There was nothing in there, not that I could see,” she said. “But maybe I missed it.”

“Maybe it was a wasp. They don’t leave stingers,” he said.

“Yeah, probably. I don’t know. It was my first time being stung. I didn’t really see what it was.” She crossed her arms, then uncrossed them and took off her backpack, just for something to do with her hands.

“You’re lucky, then. Wasp stings are always better than bee stings. Last backpacking trip I ran into a whole bee hive. I just barely stepped on it and they actually chased me. It was ridiculous. They chased me until I jumped in the lake I was camped by. I got stung at least thirty times. But I was just like, hey, being stung is part of the wilderness experience, right?”

Everything out here is part of the wilderness experience,” she said, laughing.

“Exactly. That’s why I love it so much.” He looked up. The maples were moving slowly, their branches scratching against each other. “All of it, all of this. It’s everything. Being out here… it makes me feel strong. Alive. Connected. You know?”

Anna nodded vigorously, unsure of how to express how deeply she agreed. “Like we’re animals again.”

“Exactly.” He smiled and shifted his weight.

Anna said quickly, “What was your name?”

“Greg,” he said. “You?”

“Anna.” She crossed the corpse of the fallen tree so they could shake hands. Both of them had dirt under their fingernails. His skin was softer than she thought it would be.
“Nice to meet you, Anna.” He pulled away. “Well, guess I’ll be on my way. Get a fire started before dark.”

“Good idea. Have a good night,” she said, and he walked away, stomping over fallen branches, flailing his arms to brush away spider-webs. Anna crouched down, ignoring the prick of her wasp sting. She pretended to tie her boot, and she watched him wind clumsily through the forest until he was out of sight. She sighed, then, as the color left the trees, as the robins chirped louder for the setting sun. Because she realized having someone around wasn’t so bad after all.

Freedom – A Short Story, Part 3 (The Finale)

Have you read part 1 and part 2?

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I finished my last forkful. Mom held the door open and Jacinta stepped cautiously onto the muddy sand. The three of us walked barefoot toward the rising ocean. My feet and Mom’s turned pink. Jacinta’s faded to a colorless off -white. We followed the shoreline to the barn and the fields. The sand was so cold it burned. Gusts of wind flew so fast that we had to shout to be heard over them.
“It reminds me a little of Portugal, on the north coast where we would go sometimes in the summer.” Jacinta rubbed her arms.
“Are you homesick?” Mom asked.
“I miss my family, yes. But Portugal… that is where I was born, I’m una Portuguesa, but I have spent most of my life abroad. Always moving, always new. I never felt I was tied to any one place.”
“It’s like you’re at home everywhere,” I said, walking backward to face her.
“Or nowhere.” Jacinta laughed. She looked down at the crooked outlines of her footsteps. “But, you know, there is freedom to that mentality.”
“And now you’re going to San Diego,” Mom said.
“Well we aren’t sure. There’s a chance we’ll stay here. I think that’s what Ryan wants, secretly.”
“But do you like being a nurse?” I asked her.
“It’s sometimes difficult, but I do love it, yes.”
“Then you should go. Ryan doesn’t want to hold you back. And neither do we. Right, Mom?”
I expected her to tremble with a whistling, throaty laugh and say something to get back at Jacinta for keeping Ryan from us for so long, like, “Then why’d he marry her?” But instead she shook her head no and walked ahead. The tail of her oversized coat flowed behind her, like the beige sails of the older boats in the harbor. Her forehead glowed orange in the falling sunlight. The sun illuminated her wrinkles, her thick brow bone, her silver earrings with the turquoise jewel that Aunt Jane had brought back from a weekend trip to Arizona.
We reached the barn just as it was starting to sprinkle again. Raindrops echoed against the tin roof. The barn smelled musty, like wood and dried horse poop. Apple, Spirit, and Oriole breathed heavily as we approached their stalls. Jacinta offered her hand to Spirit’s wide black nose. Spirit closed his eyes and lowered his head, and Jacinta stroked the white circle of fur on his forehead.
Mom scooped a bundle of hay from the plastic storage container. I rubbed Apple and Oriole’s ears. They looked at me sadly like they knew I was thinking of leaving them. I grabbed the other shovel to help with the hay. Jacinta hovered near Spirit. She began to hum.
“What’s that you’re humming?” Mom asked.
“When we were living in Spain for a little while we would play with the neighborhood kids. We were near the countryside, and we would follow them to the end of a dirt road where there were two white horses. Every year, they said, on the horses’ birthday the kids sang to them the Spanish birthday song: estas son las mañanitas que cantaba el rey David, hoy por ser día de tu santo te las cantamos aquí. And the horses, they would become very excited. We were there for six months only, but we got to sing with them once.” Jacinta faced us. Her bangs were crooked and frizzy from the wind. “Oh—do you need help?”
“No thanks, dear,” Mom said.  “Margaret and I have our routine down. Don’t know what I’ll do without her.”
I imagined it. I imagined Dad out on his fishing boat for another three weeks, sweaty but cold, falling asleep to distant metal creaks as he stared at the family portrait he kept beside his bed. I imagined Mom at home, wide and bulbous in her chair, squinting at the TV; I imagined her turning down customers who needed a guide because she was too big to ride anymore; I imagined her hunched over, catching her breath and brushing away flies as she shoveled hay; I imagined her halfheartedly rinsing dishes, the carpet left un-vacuumed.
I’d always thought Ryan would be back in town before I left. I never realized Mom would have to be alone.
I kissed each horse on the nose, whispered goodnight in their ears. We closed up the barn and stood for a moment beneath its overhang. The rain had returned. Everything smelled like mud, like metal, like the fir trees on the hill above the ocean. Jacinta and I ran onto the sand. The wind pelted us with water, blown from the tips of waves and from the sky itself. Our feet were buried by the high tide; by the foamy, speckled, freezing sea. My blouse clung to my skin and I clenched my teeth. Jacinta shivered with her shoulders high and stiff. Mom walked behind us as we jumped through the rain. Her eyes followed us carefully, like an adult watching children.
By the time we reached our house the downpour had slowed again. Dad sliced store-bought key lime pie, and we ate, still wet, on the floor in front of the TV.
Later that night, when everyone else had gone to bed, I stepped silently into the kitchen and tucked my college application deep into the trash. It would be less noticeable there than in the recycling. I thought about ripping it up for good measure, but that seemed too loud—Jacinta was sleeping right there, on the fold-out couch in the living room. The envelope was smeared with coffee grounds and pie frosting. I shut the lid, turned away from it, and went back to my room. It took me an hour to wipe the moldy scent of the trash from my nose. It took two more hours for me to fall asleep.
Jacinta and Ryan stayed with us for a month and a half. Then they rented a moving truck and drove down to San Diego. After that life was normal and quiet. Dad divided his life between land and sea. Mom and I worked with the horses. I had almost saved enough money to rent a studio apartment in town.
One particularly stale, windless day I checked the mailbox and found a stack of bills, a Capella’s summer catalogue, and an official looking envelope. It was addressed to me. I ripped it lopsidedly open as I walked back to the house. It was an acceptance letter to the university.
“Mom! Mom!”
She didn’t answer, so I rushed out to the barn. My feet pounded hollowly against the earth. I ran down the path, across the sticky sand. My cheeks felt thin and elastic from smiling. Mom was brushing Spirit’s coat with a round, soft brush.
“Mom.” I bent over and laughed thoroughly. “I got in.”
“Oh, Margaret.” She hugged me with the brush in hand. Her body was soft and still. She smelled like the warmth of horses.
“I’m not really sure if I want to go anymore,” I mumbled, unwilling to pull away. I tightened my arms around her stomach. “I even threw the application away—”
“I know. I could see it poking through the side of the bag,” she said. “Now, I don’t want to hear any of it. You’re going.”
We both laughed. I felt Spirit’s breath on my arm. I felt Mom’s heartbeat on my chest and the morning sun on my back. I heard the distant exhale of falling waves.
“Don’t worry,” Mom said. “You can always come home again.”

Freedom – A Short Story, Part 2

Have you read part 1?

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     There was already a car in the driveway. It was blocking the carport, so I had to park on the street. I leapt over the dirty streams of rainwater bustling along the curb toward the house.
Even though it was afternoon, the automatic solar lights lining the lawn had lit up already. One bulb was burnt out. The grass around it was tall and seeded. Dad had just gotten back two days before, and he only had two weeks to fix things up before his next fishing charter left.
From the doorway I heard voices and running water. The popcorny smell of rice mixed with the dusty, perfumed air that blew out from the dryer vent. Two pairs of shoes were arranged next to the doormat.
I jogged to my room and slid the envelope under my desk. No reason to tell Mom I hadn’t mailed it yet. I brushed my hair, put on mascara, and headed down.
“Are they here already?” I called as I rounded the corner to the kitchen. The air felt warm, and my armpits began to sweat.
Ryan’s wife was standing next to the refrigerator, holding a plastic wine glass. I was surprised by how short she was; how young-looking. Her cheeks were wide, her forehead was coated with stylish bangs, and her lips were painted a dark burgundy. I’d expected her to be wearing a scarf and sunglasses, like in their Canary Island honeymoon pictures, but she wore a white sweater and jeans.
Ryan hadn’t changed since he graduated high school—six years later and he still looked thin, slouchy, unshaven, and too pale from the neck up. I wondered if he’d shown her any old family pictures. I wondered what she had expected of me.
“Marge,” my brother said with a breathy laugh.
He hugged me tightly against his chest. I realized how much I had missed him.
“God, how long have I been gone?” he said. “You look positively elderly. My god. Oh, so—finally—this is Jacinta. Jacinta, my sister Margaret.”
She didn’t rush toward me and coo “Marg-ar-et!” in an overly sharpened accent, or kiss me on both cheeks, as I had expected her to. Instead she issued a brief hug and looped a lock of brown hair behind her ear.
“It’s so lovely to finally meet you,” she said with her vowels slightly drawn-out. “You look so much like your mother.”
I glanced over at Mom in her frilly, pale-pink t-shirt. She had worn that same shirt to all of my parent-teacher conferences, to my solo in the high school choir, and to birthday dinners at Golden Cove—the one nice restaurant in town. It was the closest she ever came to dressing up. I wished she would really dress up for once, but I knew she wasn’t just being lazy.
When I was younger I used to invite her on shopping trips with friends. Maya’s mom was usually the one to take us to the outlet mall. The closest was an hour away, but it was worth it.
“Want to come, Mom?” I asked as I laced up my sneakers. “Maya’s mom said you and her can shop together while the rest of us walk around.”
“No, no, that’s alright, honey.” She hunched over the hall table and began digging through her plain, black purse.
“Are you sure? Look what you’re wearing,” I said with a giggle.
Mom turned toward me. I ran my eyes exaggeratedly over her outfit.
“I know, I’m out of style. But I don’t mind dressing simply. I’m old. You go on and buy whatever you want.” She handed me a twenty-dollar bill.
“Dad already gave me my allowance yesterday,” I said. A car engine rumbled in the driveway.
“I know. Go on, they’re here. Have fun.”
I tucked the money in my cheap, glittery shoulder bag and kissed her on the cheek. I understood, then, that Mom just wanted me to have more.
“You all look very similar,” Jacinta went on. “All of you have the same nose or something.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, nodding. I leaned against the counter. Our kitchen was too small for so many people. The creaking wooden cabinets and yellowing appliances weren’t meant to be seen; they weren’t meant to be beautiful. I wondered what Jacinta thought.
There was a moment of silence. Ryan started telling us about his two years in Europe, even though he’d kept us updated through phone calls, and we’d heard his stories before. He told us about the hostels he slept in; the money he made working as a bicycle-deliverer for a German florist, a cashier at a French market, and a stock boy at a Portuguese bakery; about the trains he took to explore the continent.
“And that was where I met Jacinta, on the train to Portugal. She was sitting right across from me, reading this book in English, and I started talking to her. I would say we hit it off.” He laughed. “So, she got me a job at her cousin’s bread shop. At his Padaria, that’s what they call them.”
“Now, you’re gonna have another ceremony here, right?” Dad asked, thick, nasally. “So the whole family can come and see?”
“Of course,” Ryan said, and he loudly slurped his wine. “I told you, the ceremony in Portugal was just so Jacinta’s family could be there, and so it could be in her family’s church.”
“I still would’ve loved to be there. The pictures looked beautiful,” Mom said.
She had been furious the day Ryan called us. We’d all sat on the couch, listening to his voice rise over speakerphone: he was in love and would be married in a week. “That’s why he’s kept on extending his trip,” Mom muttered after we hung up. “He was only supposed to be gone for six months! She’s trapped him there in her Portuguese lair. ”
But she’d let him free.
Ryan grinned at Jacinta. “We’ll do another ceremony out on the beach over the summer.”
“I just love the beach,” Jacinta said, smiling. “I’ve always wanted to live on the coast.”
They spoke more about Europe and about Jacinta. She was a registered nurse and had published two short stories in a Portuguese literary magazine. She had lived in South Africa, Thailand, Australia, Turkey, and half of Europe with her big family; five sisters and two brothers. Her parents worked in the Portuguese government. That was why they’d moved around so much.
“Well we’re happy to have you here, Jacinta,” Dad said, emphasizing the ‘h’ sound at the beginning of her name. “Hope you don’t mind sleeping on the couch, though. Ryan’s old bed’s too small for two people.”
“And too smelly,” I added. “Mom’s kept it exactly the same this whole time.”
“We’re so happy to have our son back to use it, after he’s been off wandering for what, two years? Two years, Ryan,” Mom said. She put down her knife and turned toward the refrigerator, where he was standing. “About time you came home. And now we’ve got another one who’s itching to leave. Margaret’s on this kick that she wants to transfer to four-year college. One of the state schools.”
“Seriously, Marge, just save yourself some time and go hop across Europe. You’ll learn a lot more,” Ryan said, smiling.
“How would you know? You never went to college,” I said.
“Hey, hey, hey, I’m just kidding. Wait, so, Mom, do you not want your daughter to go to college? Really?”
“I just don’t think she needs to. She has the horses under her belt, she’s practically running the thing by herself. Good pay, too. Why’s she gonna trade that in for some desk job? And pay all that tuition?”
“I just want to have options,” I said steadily. Because, if I
But then the food was ready. It was only four o’clock but we ate dinner anyway—pan-fried salmon, white rice, baked potatoes, and Caesar salad. We served ourselves in the kitchen and ate in the dining room.
When we’d all sat down, Ryan held up a forkful of salmon. “This yours, Dad?”
“From a few months ago. It’s been in the freezer,” Dad said as his jaw bulged.
“Right, I forgot. It’s not even salmon season.”
“Can’t forget that stuff if you want to come back on the boat.” Dad rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.
Ryan nodded. His eyebrows furrowed and he stared at his plate.
“You—uh—you all got a plan yet?” Dad asked. “Know what you’re gonna do?”
“Well, honestly, we’ve been thinking of California. Near San Diego.”
None of us spoke. Mom had left the TV on in the other room. A male newscaster murmured, and then a commercial came on. It spurted twinkly music.
“It’s far, and it’s expensive, but Jacinta has a friend there who can get her a job at one of the hospitals,” Ryan added.
“And what are you gonna do?” Mom asked him. She folded her hands together and placed them on the table. Her lips were tightening with what I recognized as fear.
“I don’t know yet,” Ryan said. “I’ll think of something.”
Forks and knives clanged against plates. The rice was still a little tough, the salmon stringy. It smelled soggy and yeasty.
Why was Ryan allowed to travel the world, and move to another state, but they made me feel guilty just for going away to college?
I suddenly wanted to jump up from the table, knock over the display cabinet in the corner—full of Mom’s glass sculptures and figurines she bought at thrift stores along the Oregon coast—and run outside, out the sliding glass door to the grassy beach path. I wanted to escape. I wanted to visit Aunt Jane again, to eat in the Portland restaurant where she’d ordered a strawberry daiquiri and slid it over to me. “You look twenty-one. And, hey, one year makes no difference.” She winked. “It’ll be our little secret.” Then we both sat there with our matching drinks, and sipped them delicately through neon straws. I imagined others staring at us—at me—admiring my slender waist and my piercing eyes; the black eyeliner Aunt Jane had drawn on for me.
I glanced at Mom. Her cheeks were red with the effort of chewing.
“Tell me, Margaret, what do you do with the horses?” Jacinta asked. She squinted and covered her mouth as she swallowed a bite.
I cleared my throat. “People ride them on the beach. They pay to rent the horses. Sometimes I guide them when they don’t know how to ride.”
“And tell her about the other thing,” Mom said to me. She waved her hand in emphasis.
“Oh, and sometimes we do therapeutic rides for kids with special needs. Half-price. We just stick around here, behind the house. It’s more so they can be around the horses than to actually ride them.”
Jacinta’s eyes remained unblinking. I wanted to look away, but I thought it might be rude. I thought maybe she was staring at me so she wouldn’t have to lock eyes with Mom.
“That would look very good on a college application,” Jacinta said. Her voice grew softer with each word. “They like that stuff; community service, volunteering—”
“Hey, the sun! Finally.” Mom pointed at the sliding glass door; the rain had stopped. Powerful sunlight blossomed between lingering black clouds. The sky was a wave of fiery light. “Margaret, why don’t we show Jacinta the horses after dinner?” Mom said.
“Ryan and I’ll clean up,” Dad offered.

Check back next week for the finale, Part 3!