Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2020    poetry    all issues

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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


Writer's Site

Edward Mack

Cottonwood

It was bigger in those days, of course, with branches that sailed overhead like ship’s rigging and roots that plunged through waves of earth like the tentacles of a kraken.

As with most boys of that age, climbing was a subconscious thing, a lingering Miocene urge. A wire fence tacked to the tree’s trunk provided a ratline into its lower limbs, a siren’s song I could not resist. After hauling myself over the thick first branch, I scrambled upward, skipping from yardarm to yardarm until they grew too thin to support my weight. From that crow’s nest, I surveyed the map laid out before me: a tidy neighborhood dotted by tidy houses, dead-ending at the untidy backwater of my parents’ farmhouse. In our rear lot, a half-charted pasture slowly consumed the wreck of a tumble-down barn. Several cars in various states of repair and disrepair cluttered the driveway. Our dog sprawled in the dirt below me. On the other side of the fence, however, the neighbors’ grass was meticulously watered and clipped, a smooth sea unbroken by such flotsam of dog turds and jetsam of old toys. The true draw of the neighbors’ yard, however, was an in-ground swimming pool that sparkled under the summer sun.

An oasis.

From my crow’s nest, I spied on the pool and the neighbors. Though my parents brought over cookies at Christmastime and invited them to walk in our back fields, I hardly knew the girl and her father who lived there. The father I mostly only ever saw skimming the pool or mowing the lawn. Nearly every afternoon that summer he cranked up a shiny red ride-on and drove back and forth across the grass for hours, staring into the distance, chewing on the tips of his salt-and-pepper mustache. Only after he had shaken out the clippings and pulled the mower into the shed would she appear, slinking out of a slider on the back of the house to lounge in the sun or slip into the pool. I wondered how that grass felt under her bare feet, so clean and soft and trim. Or how the cool water felt slipping over her skin. When she swam, her long blond hair streamed out behind her, swirling in her wake like golden phosphorescence.

That summer the heat was nearly intolerable. My parents denied me sanctuary in the air-conditioned kitchen, banishing me to the smothering day outside. My only relief was to lie in the shade of the cottonwood with Jake and pant. The tree rippled overhead, an enormous green wave that never broke. As I stared up into its hypnotizing shivering, I imagined myself submerged, fallen from the rigging. The entire world grew muted, filtered through thick water. From that depth, I heard splashing. Surfacing, I looked across the neighbor’s yard to where the girl pulled herself from the pool and prepared for another dive.

The first time Jake tunneled into their yard, my mother sent me to fetch him. The girl’s father had called and complained while we were eating lunch. I came around their yard from the front so I didn’t have to climb the fence, like my mother had told me, and caught Jake rolling, tongue lolling from his mouth in a stupid grin. Leaving him to enjoy his roll, I wriggled my toes in the soft grass. Nearby, the pool sparkled. Time might have slipped away, but the slider screeched open and the girl’s father, all chest and churlish, yelled out, chiding me about responsibility and respect and my family’s lack of it with our filthy backyard and trespassing dog. Grabbing Jake’s collar, I slunk around the house and retreated into our yard and it was back to shade and panting and dirt for us. With longing looks at the pool, I filled in Jake’s tunnel with rocks.

Days stretched into doldrums. Afternoons were interminable, the shuddering stillness broken only by the crank of the mower engine, the drone of Japanese beetles, and the splash of the girl diving into the pool.

One afternoon, she didn’t dive. The slider opened and she sidled out. She lay in the sun for half an hour, she brushed her hair with her fingers, she laughed at something she was reading. It wasn’t until she had nearly reached the tree that I realized she was slowly, coincidentally, approaching.

I sat up from the dirt where I was sprawled.

She frowned at the fence where it was stapled to the trunk of the tree, bent and sagged, permanently disfigured by the innumerable times I had climbed it. “My father says you shouldn’t be allowed to have pets if you don’t know how to take care of them.”

“Jake’s a good dog.” He lifted his head and panted at me.

“I wasn’t talking about the dog.” She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “My father says I shouldn’t talk to you.”

“Why are you then?”

She shrugged and tongued her gums.

I scratched Jake behind the ears, making his leg thump in the dirt.

“So are you coming or not?”

“Coming where?”

“Swimming.” Turning, she said over her shoulder, “Meet me back here in five minutes.”

It only took me three to change into my bathing suit, scoop up a towel, and yell to my mother that I’d be next door. I beat the girl back to the fence. As I waited for her, I pulled my toes through the dirt, drawing indiscriminate patterns, and wrung my towel. Jake watched me from the top of his eyes.

When she finally appeared again, she had changed into a white tank top, loose around the shoulders with deep cutouts, the kind my older sister used to wear to the beach. It hung to her naked thighs.

“Well, come on,” she said and catwalked towards the pool.

I scrambled up the bent fence, finding familiar footholds. This time, instead of pulling myself into the tree branches, I looped my leg back down the other side. The motion felt unfamiliar and awkward, though only for a moment. Then I was down and sprinting across the grass.

“Stop,” she commanded as I reached a scorching concrete patio surrounding the pool. The pool had a ladder, I noted, but no steps. The better to throw myself in. She wouldn’t let me yet, however, and I hopped from foot to foot as she slowly stripped off her top. “Do you like my bikini?” she asked. “It’s the first time I’ve worn it.”

I didn’t care about her stupid bikini. Chlorine filled my nostrils. My feet were burning. The waters beckoned.

“You’re being rude. I asked you something. Do you like my bikini?”

I begrudgingly studied her bikini. It was small, tied with strings around her neck and back, and off-white—the color only adults wore, the color they liked to paint their walls. A color much lighter than her skin. Her chest, I noticed, was already quite large.

“Yea, it’s a great bikini. Now can we go swimming?”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“First you have to watch me dive. I’m the best diver in my class.”

She strutted to the diving board and bounced a few times. Her already-quite-large chest bounced with her. Finally, she leapt, twisted in the air, and entered the water.

Plopping myself at the end of a deck chair, I pulled my scorched feet under me and waited.

She swam underwater to where she had left me then hauled herself from the pool. Smoothing her hair back, she stood dripping water onto my thighs.

“So?”

I didn’t swim that day. I watched her dive, the intoxicating smell of chlorine taunting me, until twilight fell and her father called her in and she sent me away.

The following day, Jake and I waited at the fence hoping she’d appear. When she did, it was to inform me of her latest mandate: “Today you can watch my underwater handstands.”

“What about your father?” He peered out at us from behind the slider.

“What about him?”

Leaping the fence, I trotted after her to the pool. Just like the day before, she dove and swam to the chair where she had bidden me to wait. “Here,” she said, patting the side of the pool, “dip your feet in.” But upon seeing my feet, she frowned. “Wash them first. There’s a hose off the shed.”

I scrubbed the dirt off, but before I had gone a dozen steps, grass clippings had already gathered on my wet feet. I gazed from my feet to the pool, where several limbs pinwheeled through the water with a splash. Running back to the hose, I washed again before tiptoeing across the lawn. Even then, clippings coated my toes, but I thrust them into the water before she could notice. Green slivers bobbed out around me incriminatingly. I splashed them away. The water licked at my calves and the heat of the day, of the summer, siphoned away through my feet.

“Now,” she said, brushing wet hair from her face, “watch this.”

At twilight, when her father called her in and she sent me away, I resolved that the next opportunity I had, I would jump in the pool, no matter what.

So the following day I waited in the cool of the tree until the slider squealed. With a quickness that was becoming habit, I was over the fence and halfway across the yard before I realized that she was leading me beyond the pool.

“Aren’t we going swimming?” I asked.

“Shut up.”

She wore the same white tank top and—I can’t say if I noticed it then or it is merely a suggestion of the memory of what was to happen—an azure bikini bottom, so it seemed as she walked that the sky and clouds had been inverted. She led me to the very edge of the yard and pushed through a hedge of pines to a narrow alley hidden between the trees and the fence bordering the next yard. We sat on the pine-sticky ground. Though we could see her house and the pool through the branches, no one could see us.

“This would be a great place for a fort,” I said.

Reaching out, she plucked at the strings of my bathing suit.

“What are you doing?” I asked, brushing her hand away.

“Don’t act like you don’t know. Here.” She took my hand and placed it on her thigh, just where her white tank top ran out of hem. She held it there and I couldn’t pull it away. Her heartbeat pulsed in her thigh. She pulled my hand along her leg and at some point released it, though my hand kept sliding of its own accord over the soft hair, almost imperceptibly clear, and under the hem of her top. I didn’t know what I was doing, but what I was doing didn’t require knowing.

In as long as it took for a hand to tighten, my innocence flapped away, flushed out from behind the pines. I knew what I wanted. Not exactly, but I knew very clearly that it had to do with her, with suffocating myself in her, drowning in the scent of her hair, the warmth of her skin, the pressure of her body.

“You like it?” she asked.

“Yes.” Yes. “What do I do now?”

She had laid her hand on my leg and now she drew it away. Mine she pushed off her thigh.

I reached out again.

“Nothing.” Again she threw it off. “I didn’t like it much.”

But I did, I liked it, much. In a way that I couldn’t describe, didn’t know that I even realized at the time. Some urge took me, some primality. If I had conscious thought, it had abandoned me. Once more I tried to fit my hand over her thigh, fingertips brushing that fine fur. But she pushed me away and disappeared between the pine palisade.

Several days of torturous expectancy passed before I saw her again. Every afternoon I waited for her as her father trimmed the grass, staring at me like he meant to drive the mower through the fence and over me. I waited for her until I heard the buzz of the mower in my dreams. I learned many things in those days: about biology, love, disillusionment. It was as though I had peeked behind the curtain and seen the chaos. The curtain of the spectacular. The curtain of the trees. The curtain of her shirt’s hem. I did nothing but pine for a return to that neverland, that no man’s land, between her yard and the next.

Jake would get there before me. It was another smothering day and my mother and I had been out shopping. When we got home, I went directly to the fence to wait, but Jake wasn’t in his normal spot below the tree. I didn’t need to search for him in the bushes or the garden though; the pile of fresh dirt thrown up behind a new hole under the fence told me Jake wouldn’t be in our yard at all.

Calling out for him, I heard a weak bark from the swimming pool. I leapt the fence and sprinted across the emerald grass, ignored the scorching concrete patio, and threw myself into the shallow end. Jake’s eyes were wild as he paddled to me, his tongue lolling in the water. I swept him up in my arms.

“You’re ok, boy. You’re ok.”

But even as I carried him to the ladder, he kept swimming, his paws pumping furiously. His nails caught the flesh of my thigh and scraped down my chest. Blood bloomed in the water but I did not cry out, only pushed his rump as he scrabbled up the ladder.

“Come on,” I said, pulling myself out after him, “we’ve got to get out of here before they see us.” He panted at me happily, gave a half-hearted shake, and lay down. “No, come on, get up.” I tugged at his collar and tried to scoop him up, but he was too heavy.

“What are you doing?” I hadn’t heard the slider, hadn’t seen her approach. I looked around but there was no place to hide, only sparkling water and emerald grass. I felt like a mouse in a fresh-cut field.

“Did I say you could go swimming without me?”

“I wasn’t swimming,” I said, trying to cover up the gashes in my leg. Red-tinged water dripped between my fingers and down my knee. My thigh had started to burn.

“You need to train your dog better.”

“It’s not his fault.”

“My father will have to clean the pool now. I won’t be able to swim for days.”

For a moment, I forgot about my bleeding leg. “What were you doing all this time? Why didn’t you help him?” Squatting down, I pulled hard on Jake’s collar and he wobbled to his feet. “Come on, boy,” I said, shooting her a sour look, “let’s go.”

It wouldn’t be until days later, days after what was still to happen at the tree, days after that even, when Jake got out a third time and they fished his body from the pool, that I would realize that I hadn’t filled in his tunnel under the fence. Sometimes now I wonder if I actually did forget or if some part of me rooted for him to get out, to roll in the grass and jump in the pool.

Sometimes, now, when I watch my own daughter playing, I wonder how a child weighs the life of a dog. How does an adult? I wonder how many tragedies are written off as accident because we are manipulative enough to hide our true nature.

Then I see the thin, clear hair growing on my daughter’s legs and wish I had never become a father. Those days, I know it should have been me at the bottom of that pool.

I didn’t feel like waiting for the girl at the tree after taking Jake home from his illicit swim. Instead, I moped around the kitchen, lying under the table in the air conditioning and reading comics. My mother even let Jake inside with us, and I used him as my pillow, my head rising and falling with his breathing. He was never far from me those days.

After three mornings, my mother must have decided that my wounds were healing well because she booted us from the kitchen and told me to go play outside. Even then I had no intention of returning to the tree until I saw her standing at the fence.

She wore cut-offs, red and fringy and very short, gold earrings, and a white blouse. Mulberry bruises, I remember now, ringed her arm and pinched her neck, though I didn’t note them at the time, absorbed as I was in the armholes of her blouse that hinted at a peach bra.

Something quickened in my chest.

“Do you want to go behind the trees?” I asked.

“No.”

The untrimmed fringe of her shorts scrambled her legs hairs, bending them in all the wrong directions. I wanted to reach out, rip the strands away, and smooth the hair.

“Do you want to go swimming?” I asked.

“No.”

“What do you want to do then?”

She leaned against the fence and twisted her neck to look up into the branches. “I’ve never climbed a tree before.” Her neckline dropped, exposing her bruise and her peach bra and the top of her chest. “Show me.”

I don’t know what made me do it, if I had been thinking about it for days or if I hadn’t thought about it at all. I found myself leaning forward, like I had seen a million others do, and reaching out for her lips.

She pulled away and I stumbled into the fence.

“What are you doing?” she snarled before her face opened in mockery. “Don’t be stupid.” Blood surged to my hands. “Now,” she said, placing a foot in the fence, “if you’re done playing games, show me.”

The fence wobbled but held when she pulled herself up, grabbed the lowest branch, and hoisted herself into the tree.

With fingers still clumsy from embarrassment and anger, I followed.

“You’ve never climbed a tree before?”

“My father thinks they’re dangerous.”

“Your father thinks everything is dangerous.”

“He’s probably watching us now. I don’t care. I hope he’s watching.” When I joined her on the fat lower limb, she placed a hand against my chest to check her balance, forcing me to sit to keep from falling. Still, the lick of her fingers sent shivers from the crown of my head down my spine and through my ankles, as if drawing all the hours of watching her and waiting for her out through my skin.

“You should sit,” I said.

“I’m not a child.”

My fingers clenched. “The first thing you need to know about climbing trees is—”

“I didn’t actually mean I needed your help.”

“Fine then,” I said, heat rising to my cheeks. “If you don’t need help, why don’t we bet who can climb higher?”

I just wanted to beat her at something. Did I understand what I was doing? What was I but a kid who didn’t know any better? If I never lied when they asked me what happened, is it still deceit?

“Fine,” she said.

“It’s ok if you don’t want to, you’ve never climbed a tree before.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll still beat you.” She was already up and away, scrambling over the next limb.

I knew the tree. I knew its gnarled trunk, which branches were living and strong and which were rotten and weak. Which were within reach and which were not. I easily caught up to her and passed her.

Faster she climbed, pressing me from below. Faster I climbed, up into where the branches grew thin and springy and unknown. I passed my crow’s nest. The ground became distant and inconsequential. A face appeared in the window at her house; so he was watching, after all.

The red fringe of her shorts flashed by my face as she climbed past me. “Slowpoke!” she shouted from several branches above. “I told you I’d beat you.”

“You haven’t beaten me,” I said. “Not yet.”

She scowled and scampered higher. “Admit it, you lose.” As she climbed, her voice took on a lightness, a freedom.

I paused as she passed into branches that I knew were too thin. “Never.”

She went higher and then higher still.

I can still see her there laughing amidst the leaves, still hear an untamed joy in her voice. On good days, I know I told her to stop. That she was climbing too high. That she had already won the stupid game and she should come back down.

On the bad days, I can still feel a summer of frustrated desire humming through my fingers.

She called out from above, but not to me. “I win,” she said, then laughed. I recognized the pain behind that laugh, the unburdening. It was a laugh that had nothing to do with trees, or races, or me.

She smiled down at me, the first time I’d seen her smile since we met. In that moment, I felt like we might be friends. “Come on up,” she said, “the water’s fine.”

She laughed again, throwing her head back and howling. The branch beneath her foot snapped. Her leg jerked downward. She might have held on even then, but the broken spar sliced into her thigh and she twisted out and away from the tree’s trunk.

The branch in one of her hands broke, followed by the other.

She screamed, high and young.

Thin branches whipped at her body before springing back into place. Others broke and fell with her.

When she passed where I clung to the tree, I saw her face, twisted with confusion and betrayal. Not as though she didn’t understand what was happening, but as though she didn’t understand why. A laugh escaped me then. A laugh that had nothing to do with terror or consequence. Horror stifled a second, but that first laugh continues to haunt me.

The screaming stopped when she crashed into the thick limbs below. Her body twisted, one final glorious dive, and she hit the ground, landing on one of the tree’s largest roots.

Jake got to her first. Licking her face and whining. Then her father, before I had even climbed out of the tree. He burst out the slider like something eternal, something unstoppable, something more than human and less.

I don’t know how he got over the fence. Maybe he simply crashed through it.

“Move,” he said, aiming a white-socked foot at Jake’s belly. Jake yipped, a high-pitched screech more terrible than hers ever was.

“Is she ok?” I asked, but her arms flopped limp as her father scooped her up and lifted her away. Her shirt slid up her abdomen and gathered under her chest. The sun lit the near transparent hairs below her belly button. Blood dripped from her leg.

I sat in the dirt and let Jake clean my face.

Edward is the fifth Mack by that name and the first not to make brick for a living. He feels conflicted about this, but generally content. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Complutense University of Madrid. His most recent publications include fiction in the latest editions of Adelaide, Short Edition, and The Bosphorus Review.

Dotted Line