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Fiction Winter 2020    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2020

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Cover
French silk sample book

Elisabeth Chaves
The Skin of Things

Daniel Gorman
The Last Lion in Mosul

Esem Junior
The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard

Edward Mack
Cottonwood

Bill Pippin
Texas Swing

Ryan Byrnes
One Last Lemon Soda in Tunis

Brittany Meador
The Eating of Apples

João Serro
The Lesson

J. Williams
False Truth

Janet Barrow
The Crossroads

Kathryn Li
Kingdom of Bees

Jan Allen
Outsourced

Jens Birk
The Church


Elisabeth Chaves

The Skin of Things

I watch fellow volunteers scour the ground to my left. Their orange vests and bright pinnies stand out among the bare trees. When we started an hour ago, the line was in tight formation, its members spaced no more than ten feet apart. Already the line wobbles and sways. Melanie Houseman has been missing more than a month. I have never joined a search party before. I don’t expect to find anything.

These woods have been combed. As has every other inch of town. People have looked for the missing teenager in their own basements, the trunks of their cars, behind sheds and woodpiles. As if Melanie has simply been misplaced.

They printed her photograph in the paper and showed it on the news. The town is small but not so small that you know everyone in it. Some days I go to the grocery store and don’t see a single familiar face.

I first met Melanie in the woods. I’d enrolled in a nature photography class offered through the community center. There were maybe ten of us. Melanie, the youngest, was a junior in high school. The oldest, a man who hummed when he walked, must have been eighty. The instructor showed us photographs on his iPad from an artist’s gallery show. Two-dimensional slices of forest. The edges removed. Nothing to see but trees.

We had an hour to wander. The woods were bounded on one side by a parking lot, on the other side by a creek. Past the creek was a small meadow. On the other side of that was a subdivision. You could hear traffic. But it wasn’t loud enough to drown out the man’s humming.

We all wandered our separate ways, our paths crisscrossing. You were never really alone. I took photos of trees that looked interesting, ones that leaned, ones with unusual bark. I took a whole series pointing my camera at the sky, trying to capture the pattern of the branches against it.

A white oak dwarfed the other trees. My fingers fit inside the furrows of its bark. I tried to snap off a chunk, but it wouldn’t budge. The bark adhered to the wood underneath, like a secret it wouldn’t release.

I backed into Melanie while I stared up at the tree, at its branches reaching higher. Her head came to my shoulder blades. I stared down on her, a girl destined to look forever young. I left her there and continued to wander. My pictures began to seem all the same.

When the class hour was over, the instructor blew a whistle. We wandered back along the deer trails to the parking lot’s edge. He admired the photos on Melanie’s camera and transferred them to his iPad so he could share them with us. In hers, I saw something other than forest, than limbs and trunks and dead leaves. In hers, I saw something alive.

It was a one-session class. Twenty-five dollars for an hour and a half. Twenty dollars if you lived in town. I complimented Melanie on her photos. She knew they were good. “Thanks,” she said, “I want to be a photojournalist.” I offered her a ride home, because her friend had texted to say she was running late. I was a middle-aged woman. I drove a Subaru. She said yes.

I tremble in my parka on this January morning. An Eastern Towhee trills two short notes. Until today, the parka occupied a space in the back of a hall closet. An unwanted present from my husband; the coat is neon pink with lime piping. They told us to wear something easy to spot, something not the color of deer.

Armed with walking sticks, we work deliberately through the woods. We poke at tangles of underbrush or clumps of leaves. We aren’t to lose sight of one another, because the authorities don’t want to look for anyone else. Also, keeping an eye on the person to your left and right ensures all the ground is being covered, systematically. Some people brought their own vests, people who jog or hunt. For the rest of us, there were scrimmage vests, pinnies the colors of ketchup and mustard that belong to the high school football team.

Melanie was last seen at a football game, the news said. Her parents believed she’d come home that night, but they hadn’t bothered to check. They weren’t in the parking lot this morning. But it has been more than four weeks, and we are using sticks to poke at piles of dead debris. No parent would want to poke and hit something.

That Saturday after the photography class Melanie hadn’t wanted to go home. She was buzzed from the praise. I was hungry and suggested stopping at a frozen yogurt place.

She asked for tart yogurt with fruit. My order was brownies and caramel sauce. We took them outside to a metal table with an umbrella that hadn’t been raised. It was almost lunchtime. The sun was high, giving off late September heat. I popped open the shade. We ate our yogurt and talked about photography, about the other people in the class, speculating. We ran out of things to say. She kept checking her phone, sending messages. She had a nervous smile. She was bored with my company. I wasn’t surprised.

“I’m in love,” she blurted out.

It was embarrassing, hearing that from someone you hardly knew, even if she was only a kid.

“That’s exciting,” I said.

Melanie wasn’t especially attractive, too snub-nosed and freckly. You didn’t have to be beautiful to be in love. But her love didn’t seem like the type inspired by a pimply classmate or a high school geek, which I’d pegged as her cohort. They had been mine after all.

“He’s incredible,” she said.

The taste of the yogurt went flat in my mouth.

“We’re meeting the week of Thanksgiving, when he’s on his break from school.”

“You haven’t met?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t bursting her bubble.

“No, but we talk all the time. It’s like we already know each other.”

“How did you find him?”

She said she’d stumbled across some of his photography online and messaged him as a fan. Then he’d blown her mind by saying his parents had moved to our town last year. He’d been away on study abroad and had started the fall semester without a visit. That’s how she knew it was meant to be.

“Those kind of coincidences,” she said, tapping her white plastic spoon now shiny with saliva on the table, “don’t just happen.” Then she put the wet spoon back inside her mouth.

I’d been surprised to see the old man from the class join the search party this morning. We’d exchanged pleasantries, even if they felt out of place. He took up a position to my right, at the end of the line. It seemed like he’d done this before. And he gave me an inquiring look, as if wanting to know why I hadn’t.

As we walk, he shuffles along, scanning the ground in front of him with his stick, making rainbows. He wears a broad-brimmed hat that seems excessive for the shade of the woods. Its drawstring dangles down past his concave chest toward his convex stomach. Every so often the back of the stick catches in the string, and he stumbles forward.

As we press on, the vegetation grows denser. The trees stand farther apart. The low canopy of the understory begins to envelop us. Tendrils of plants seeking sunlight wind around me. Brambles claw at my legs. I could hang myself on the vines that meet my neck, some thicker than any rope I have encountered. They dangle in great loops, weighting down trees and branches, choking things.

A large maple interrupts the arc of the old man’s stick. He steadies himself against a round burl bulging from the tree like a tumor. The wood is blackened and bumpy, covered in scales. Still leaning, the man uses his other hand to reach around and pat the maroon-colored bag he wears on his back. The connection reassures him somehow, and he pushes off the burl. I slow to keep pace.

Melanie reminded me of myself when I was young. Something in the eyes. Eyes like invitations. Mine seem to have gone unanswered.

“I guess you’ll send him the photos you took this morning,” I said, wiping a smudge of caramel from my chin.

“Already did,” she said and put her hand on her phone.

“What do your parents think?”

She frowned. “They wouldn’t understand.”

“They might worry,” I said.

She stared at me for a moment, maybe thinking she had told the wrong person.

“Only because they wouldn’t get it,” Melanie said.

My yogurt cup was empty. Hers remained half full. She wasn’t in a hurry to leave. It was as if she’d been waiting a long time to tell someone. Someone safe, who wouldn’t diminish what she had to say.

“And your friends?”

She wrinkled her nose.

I tapped my spoon on the edge of her cup. “You want him all to yourself.”

Her face brightened.

“I promised my husband I’d be home by lunch,” I said with a frown. “I have to help him build a fence.” A tall privacy fence I wasn’t sure I wanted. “Anyway, I should get you home.”

Her house sat atop a hill in an expensive neighborhood. A woman outside gardened in a floppy hat.

“Thanks for the yogurt,” she said from outside the passenger side window. Her mother stopped pulling weeds to look at my car.

“No problem.”

“Do you have SnapChat?” she turned back to ask.

“What?” I said. But Melanie was already up the path.

I waved at her mom and did a U-turn in the street. Then I made sure to wave again as I drove past.

Since Thanksgiving, I have followed the story of Melanie’s disappearance on the news. The false leads. The ups and downs. I studied the mother’s face during the press conferences, how the skin under the eyes darkened, the skin covering the cheeks tightened. The mother’s face changed shades with each report the sheriff gave, from pink to green to ash gray.

The effort put into the search dwindled after a few weeks. The professional search and rescue team was sent home. Some stayed on, dedicated volunteers. They helped organize people from the town and the surrounding area, anyone who wanted to help. For the past two weeks I’ve been on the verge of joining them. The Housemans started a GoFundMe page and use the proceeds to support those willing to continue. Their intermediaries hand out maps and fliers, pack lunches, make sure everyone has whistles and water bottles, fresh batteries for headlamps in case they are caught out late. I took my whistle from the person who handed it to me. I put on my red pinnie. I tried to make small talk with the others as we waited to begin.

After spending the weekend digging fence postholes with my husband, it had hurt to type at work that first Monday after the class. I wouldn’t be able to pick up my camera for a while. Still, the physicality of the digging awoke something in me.

My hands, covered in Band-Aids, hunted and pecked while I inputted billing information for Dr. Patti Nolan. She was a dermatologist, which was fortunate, because abnormal moles appeared out of nowhere on my husband’s back. I’d bring in digital photographs on my phone for Dr. Nolan to examine between patients.

It was snooping and illegal, but I searched for Melanie’s name in Dr. Nolan’s records. She’d been in to see her a few years before for a rash. Something fungal. There was just the one appointment. I had hoped for more.

Dr. Nolan poked her head into my windowless office, asked if I wanted to get lunch. Melanie’s patient record still filled my screen.

I liked lunch with Patti, because we usually ate somewhere expensive and she paid. It was like a vacation from the day. But I had brought my lunch and was feeling guilty enough.

My husband Tom met me in a downtown park equidistant from our offices. He worked for the planning department. That’s why we’d moved to Chilton three years ago. I’d found the medical billing job without much trouble soon after.

Tom waved at me with his brown bag from across the square. I waved back with mine. We met at a weathered bench, our bench.

The park was an afterthought. There was no shade, no trees. Paved sidewalks sliced through a field of grass. A few benches ringed a round brick structure that may have hosted a fountain once or was meant to. Its bottom was littered with cigarette butts and candy wrappers.

As we ate, I picked at the Band-Aids whose corners already curled upwards. Beneath them my palms were rubbed raw. My skin unable to withstand the friction of the same repetitive motion, succumbing to stress between its surface and the rest of my body. A pocket of liquid filling in as protection until it burst. And now the old skin hanging there by a thread.

Tom told me the hearing he had to attend that night would go late. The zoning permit was controversial.

We kissed goodbye, a flat kiss on the lips, two pieces of cardboard coming together.He walked back the way he came. I stayed on the bench. He must have been staring at his phone, because his foot caught on an uneven bit of sidewalk and he was thrown forward.

For a second I thought I would have to help, pick him up, check to see if anything was bloody or broken. But he steadied himself without falling and turned around to stare down the offending spot. “Almost lost it there,” he shouted. Then he turned back around and left.

The old man blows past me, his stick ticking back and forth like a metronome. A tree covered in pale green lichens captures my attention. I pick at the edges where the lichens curl. When I was a girl, I liked picking or pulling at the skin of things, like bark, or dried scabs, or the matte surface of butterscotch pudding, my favorite. A small amount of lichen flakes off and falls down onto my shoe. I learned about lichens in biology. They are symbionts, organisms that require a host, but not the way a parasite does. A parasite feeds.

I look up and watch the man pushing forward in his steady rhythm. His humming grows faint before it disappears. To my left, shuffling leaves replace the humming. A bough breaking in the distance makes a hollow crack. Snatches of bright color appear. The others aren’t so far. The old man, however, I can no longer see.

That week after the photography class I searched for Melanie on the web. Her high school announced she’d made honor roll. An old photo of her softball team printed in the local paper celebrated a tournament win. Her Instagram page was set to private, and I lingered for a while, my finger hovering over the mouse to make my request. I got up and poured myself a glass of milk. The cold glass felt good in my hands.

I googled “SnapChat.” It was for kids, and I felt silly installing it on my phone. Melanie, though, was easy to find. Within minutes, she sent me a Snap, an exaggerated picture of herself in cat-eye glasses and kitten ears blowing a kiss. I kept the photo open until it vanished.

She’d saved Snaps in her Stories. There were photos from around town, although it looked less familiar. Photos from beach vacations—reeds on top of dunes flattened by the wind, the shadow of a bird on the water. I remembered a breeze moving the leaves on the trees during our class so that the leaves resembled tickling fingers. In my photo they are just leaves. A chipmunk like an inverted comma sitting on a stump is nothing more than a brown knob. She had a photo of a man in a bucket hat standing next to his anchored fishing pole in the sand. Maybe it is her father. It is dawn or dusk, and it looks like he has spent the night or day fishing. His pail remains empty. I became overcome with emotion. I swiped up to start a chat. “Beautiful,” I typed. She replied with a heart.

I glance up from time to time to check for the other volunteers. There are hints of movement, intimations of presence. There is no use trying to resume the line’s formation. The sloppiness of the search seems to belong to it.

After a time, I stop checking. My other senses take over. I hear every twig snap, every wing flutter. The forest groans as the wind moves through stiff branches. I touch everything, the bark of every tree, some smooth and cold, some thick and rough and temperate. A few brittle leaves remain stuck to otherwise naked branches. One droops in front of me, and I almost take it in my mouth. I imagine its bitter taste. How it would crunch before dissolving into dust.

Melanie and I agreed that those class woods hadn’t been nature. They were too tidy, as if someone had taken a broom and swept away anything interesting. Melanie knew of a different forest, in another part of town. Dark woods, the kind you could get lost in.

We left my car on the shoulder of a gravel road. A neglected trailhead pointed the way in. The forest wasn’t as dense as I expected. Leaf litter piled feet deep in places. The trail sloped downward, and we slid along it. Melanie giggled every time she lost her footing. Her arms flailed out, looking for something to grab hold of, and her camera swung wildly from her neck.

Maybe it was the brisk October air or the majesty of the woods, the towering trees that enveloped us. Maybe it was the air and the forest that aroused me, stinging my spine. I smelled life, in the decay of the forest floor, the humus, more life than I ever smelled behind the fiberboard desk at the dermatologist’s office or beneath the polyester comforter that covered our bed. I lunged out to grab Melanie’s hand as she began to slip, but she snatched it away before I could take hold.

At the bottom we crossed a creek and began to trudge upward through thick rhododendron. I let Melanie get ahead of me. Truth is I couldn’t keep up. I stepped off the trail to photograph a rotten stump that had taken the form of a hollowed triangle. I crouched low to capture it from different angles. I heard Melanie calling. She retraced her steps down the trail. Her voice growing more eager, almost frantic, as she approached. After she passed, I emerged from my hiding spot.

Melanie smiled, her eyes shiny, relieved.

“Sorry, I had to go,” I said.

She looked like a child who’d lost her mother in a grocery store. A small bundle of raw need.

“Why didn’t you answer?”

“I didn’t want you to see me pee.”

We posted the photographs we wanted to show off to our Instagram accounts. I had started one, too. Her photos attracted comments. Mine were ignored. I edited the photo of the triangular stump. Made the stump darker, increased the contrast with its surroundings. Brightened the background. Until the stump sat like a malevolent force, an energy-hungry black hole.

Mid-search, my stomach growls. I was so busy accepting whistles, maps, and thanks that I had forgotten to take a bagged lunch. I don’t know how far out into the forest I am, but too far to turn back. I chug from my water bottle, reflexively pausing to poke with my stick. When I pull the bottle from my mouth, my elbow grazes a snake sunning itself along the top of a bristly bush. I stumble to the side, tripping over a pile of brambles, and snare my stick on some tangle of flora. A sapling breaks my fall. My head makes a dull thud when it strikes against it.

I force myself up from the forest floor. The snake is nearby. Only now I see that it isn’t a snake, but a snakeskin. The molted remains of a creature moved on.

In college, I begged my parents to let me go to Mexico for spring break. I returned the color of a vine-ripened tomato. After a while, my skin began to peel. I stood naked before the floor-length mirror in the bathroom of my dorm room. Starting from the shoulder, I peeled away long strips of translucent dermis. Not able to reach my back, I left the better part of the job to my roommate. Once we finished, a fluttery cloud of both soft and crunchy skin lay on the bathroom tile.

I rub my hand along the snakeskin, and its scaliness makes my stomach turn. Ahead is a small clearing. Running pine fills it with a thick green carpet. A fairy garden tucked back into the woods. I am no longer hungry or thirsty, only drowsy, and I let the sun wrap around me.

Always we went to the woods. My laptop filled with images of trees, bark, and branches. A palette of browns and grays as fall marched on. Pale fungi and sinewy vines. Mounds of scat and lost feathers.

Melanie showed me how to create a Story together on SnapChat. When we were apart, we shared details from our day. I snapped photos of my husband’s back. Under a filter, it looked like the surface of the moon. She snapped photos at school. Rows of lockers that she made tunnel on forever, windows that she covered with bars.

One Saturday, with Thanksgiving only a couple weeks away, she thrummed in the woods, and I could sense her vibrations. I reached out my hand to steady her as we slipped down another trail. It had rained all week. She gave me a grateful smile and reached out her hand to squeeze my elbow. She left it there, and I left my hand on her side just below her armpit. We walked like that for a few more yards until we were past the worst of the mud. Then she dropped her hand, and I let mine fall, my fingertips dusting the length of her spine.

“He’s not coming,” she shouted when I met her the last Saturday. Her face was splotchy, the freckles fused together into large dark clouds. I gave her a hug.

“He can’t get away from school over Thanksgiving. Because of his job.” Her voice grew noisier, discordant. “And his car has been sounding funny. He doesn’t have the money to fix it. He doesn’t trust it to make the long trip.”

“I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to it.”

This made her cry. She began to pace until her walking sent her in circles. Her breathing became shallower as she choked on her sobs.

“You’re hyperventilating.”

Now she began to panic. Her hands flapped, willing air toward her. I dumped the contents of my packed lunch onto the ground and held the empty paper bag to her mouth. She shoved it away, her eyes bright with fear. I tried again, but her hands kept coming between us.

“Stop,” I said and slapped her face.

Stunned, she forgot to resist me.

Now I could bring the bag to her mouth. She still struggled, so I hugged her close.

Her breaths began to slow, deepen.

The crying hadn’t subsided.

I took the bag away and said, “Maybe you should go to him.”

Melanie waited in a booth for me at a McDonald’s. A duffle bag sat upright beside her.

I expected her to be all smiles, giddy with anticipation.

She said nothing when I sat down across from her. An uneaten apple pie in its paperboard sleeve rested on the table between us.

She pushed it toward me. “I can’t,” she said.

“They serve these this early?” I asked.

Melanie’s face was drawn, her eyes bloodshot.

“What is it?” I wanted to know.

“Maybe I shouldn’t go,” she whispered.

My stomach rumbled. There hadn’t been time for breakfast. I opened the sleeve and slipped the pie out. Filling burned the roof of my mouth.

I recognized the look on her face. Second-guessing what you want because you are afraid.

“Will you regret not going?”

“Yes,” she cried. But her hands gripped the table like she dared someone to remove her.

There was a parking lot. Maybe a mechanic’s shop. Some building dingy and gray. Melanie took her bag from the rear of my car.

“I’ll wait with you,” I said through my window. “I don’t mind.”

“He’ll be here,” she said. “He’s just running late.”

We were in a small town about an hour from his university. He’d offered to meet us there because he felt bad about making me drive all that way. It was the least he could do. He thought his car could handle it.

She’d shown me his photo. Dark hair and blue eyes, striking. A dimple on his right cheek where he smiled.

“I can wait, really. I don’t feel comfortable leaving you here.”

Her phone lit up with a text.

“He’s just ten minutes away,” she said, now unable to stop the smile.

“Good, then I can wait.”

Light snow began to fall, dusting her head.

I got out of the car and pulled my beanie over Melanie’s dampening hair. It was two in the afternoon. Other cars passed on the street.

“You should go,” she said.

“No.”

“Please leave.”

A car with its turn signal flashing slowed in front of the parking lot.

Anticipation rose in my chest.

But the car increased its speed and drove on.

We waited thirty minutes more; no one showed. Melanie sent messages. She tried to call. There was no response.

“This is your fault, you know,” she said, pointing her phone toward my heart.

“Let’s go, Melanie,” I said, motioning to the car.

“No.”

I wish I could say I left her there because I was angry or hurt. In truth, I wanted her to have her chance.

As I left her behind I found it hard to breathe. I got back into my car and turned the ignition as my hands shook. Reversing out of the space, I watched Melanie typing furiously on her phone. Snow fell harder as I drove out of the parking lot; I could feel its chill inside my car. Waiting to turn, I looked back once. Melanie waited patiently, but I knew her heart raced, too.

A few cars driven by young men passed me as I made my way out of the town. I stared hard at each. Is it you? Is it you?

My hands began to grow numb, and I feared the car would slip on the snow. That I wouldn’t be able to control it. And then I thought, maybe my car will drift and slide right into him.

I pulled over when I could. I sat in the still car while the wipers winked back and forth. I tried to slow my heart to their steady rhythm. The snow was erasing things, wiping them clean.

I managed to turn without spinning the wheels. When I arrived back at the parking lot, I found it empty. Everything asleep beneath a white blanket, except for the quickly filling tracks where the tires had been.

The forest is growing warmer. The sun makes columns of light in the gaps between the trees. I remove the pinny and let it drop to the ground while I unzip my parka.

I come to a wide creek. Algae-covered stones make the shallow water green. A dead tree lies across it. I step up and balance myself on the narrow trunk. I am not high up but high enough that I don’t want to lose my footing. As I inch along the makeshift bridge, I can only think about falling.

My head has begun to throb, and once safe on the other side, I slump down against the base of a tree. An insistent hum occupies my ears. I look around for the old man, but if he is there, he looks just like a tree. I reach out my hand, and my fingers become his branches.

Then a series of sharp blasts on a whistle pierce through the hum. I grope around in my sweatpants’ pocket for my own whistle, thinking I should answer. As soon as my hand closes around the metal object, the other whistle stops. The forest lapses back into its still quiet.

Ever since I heard Melanie was missing, I expected the police. When they come, I will tell them everything. They will stand in my living room, ask questions about the class, our trips to the woods. They will make notes about the phantom boyfriend, but what they will really want is to see my photographs. I will fan them across the coffee table, printed up as eight by tens. One officer will point to a close-up of white lichen. Magnified, it resembles an aerial photograph of snow-covered trees. “Where is that?” he will want to know. I will tell him it’s not a place, but a thing. Or two things that now exist together. He will rub at the surface with the rough pad of his finger trying to reveal the secret underneath.

Elisabeth Chaves lives in southwest Virginia with her family. Her story “Drummer Grrrl” appeared in Sixfold’s Winter 2019 issue, and another story “Maggie” placed third in Bethesda Magazine’s Fiction Contest. She received a graduate certificate in creative writing from the Humber School for Writers and recently completed a novel.

Dotted Line