Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2013    poetry    all issues


Sarah Einstein
Walking and Falling

Jessica Bryant Klagmann
In the Forgotten Corner of the World

Melanie Unruh
Bend, Convolute, Curve

Aliya Amirh Tyus-Barnwell
Love and Marriage

Charles J. Alden

Ann Minnett

Amy Foster
Cripple Creek

Amy Dodgen
A General Rule

Joseph Hill

Lisa E. Balvanz

Ellen Darion

Erin Flanagan
The Learning Theory

Walter Bowne

Chris Tarry
Dairy Barn Angel

Gordon MacKinney
Death of a Motor City Talk Jock

Christopher Cervelloni
Tipping Superman

Daniel C. Bryant

Jane Deon

Justin J. Murphy
The Petrology of South Dakota

Erin Flanagan

The Learning Theory

Meg tucks her coffee mug in the crook of her arm as she unlocks her office door, a permanent stain on the inner elbow of all her work clothes. Stacey, her neighbor one office over, slips the mug out of Meg’s arm and takes a sip as Meg drops her backpack on her chair.

“You’re here early,” Stacey says and Meg bites back her irritation. What Stacey means is she’s on time.

“It was Martin’s night with Nella so I only had to get myself out the door.”

“That’s right,” Stacey says, leaning against Meg’s door frame, Meg’s coffee still warming her hands. “Did you do anything fun last night?”

“Ate popcorn for dinner. Went to bed. What about you?” In actuality, Meg stayed up past three watching reruns of abusive reality TV. Her insomnia is now clear on her face, her eyes sunken, the skin at the sockets dark and papery. The popcorn wasn’t for dinner but a late-night snack after dinner, chased with a few glasses of wine to help her sleep.

“Yoga, then book club.”

Meg has to keep from rolling her eyes, saying: what, no time to adopt a puppy? Stacey is fresh out of graduate school and only six months into this job at Daybreak, a day treatment office for juvenile sex offenders. Meg pulls a box of Kleenex out of her bag and replaces the near-empty carton by her client chairs. She checks her calendar. First appointment: Jerrod Greek—as if she’s forgotten, as if she wasn’t up watching TV until the middle of the night thinking how the stories she hears in life could easily qualify for a show, only her clients are too ugly to pass as entertainment. She began working with juvie sex offenders eight years ago when she completed her MSW, a caseload she regards as one of the most difficult in social work, although her friends in HIV/AIDS and children services feel the same.

Jerrod knocks on the door frame and Stacey scoots to the side. Meg wants to tell Stacey to stand her ground, to not move over because it sends a message to Jerrod that he’s calling the shots. What the hell kind of training has Stacey received anyway? Doesn’t she know it’s a battleground here? That every move needs to be strategic? Jesus, no wonder so many men see women as the weaker sex.

“Hey, Ms. Meg,” Jerrod says and Meg looks pointedly at Stacey—my session is starting—until Stacey hands over Meg’s coffee cup and returns to her own office. Jerrod flops into one of the two client chairs, the door left open. He knows by now she’s not allowed behind closed doors with clients.

“How’s your week been?” she asks and Jerrod shrugs.

“About the same.”

“Same how?”

He tells her about an incident at his friend Hector’s house—something about a female cousin, or maybe just a friend, showing up without panties on under her skirt. The story is hard to follow and not very interesting, but Meg gathers that Hector said the girl was baiting him, showing her snatch in hopes of getting it popped. “Is that what you think too?” she asks. “That the girl was baiting you?”

“Me? No. I just think she’s a skank.” Meg takes this as a good sign: he doesn’t think everything revolves around him. It’s one of the first things she looks for in empathy training, one of the treatment programs she follows along with anger management, cognitive restructuring, and social and interpersonal skills training. Much of it comes down to the learning theory and providing a new environment and thinking patterns to emulate. Often it works, but these days it seems to less and less. Already she thinks Jerrod is an unpromising case. She’s worked with him for a few months now after he was sent to her for finger-banging a girl in his sister’s third- grade class in front of two of his friends.

They talk about how things are going at school both socially and academically, how things are with Jerrod’s father whom he sees on Tuesday nights when Dad comes to the aunt’s house for dinner. Jerrod’s aunt has two kids of her own—a junior in high school and a freshman in college, both boys or Jerrod wouldn’t have been placed there—and at the same time Meg honors the woman’s decision, she thinks she’s an idiot for putting her own kids in danger. The learning theory works in both directions. Meg’s not surprised though that someone would take Jerrod in; he’s a disturbed boy, that’s obvious, but he’s also funny and quick, charming in a way you don’t often see in teenage boys. He has a soft spot for word play and a boyish handsomeness Meg can see her daughter Nella falling for. His running joke with Meg is to use phallic sounding words in conversation, one of the few things that still amuses her about her job even if, or maybe because, it’s somewhat inappropriate. Dictation, the thrust of his argument, getting discharged from the hospital. At the end of his session today he says, “I’m glad you’re my therapist. You keep me from going off half-cocked.”

“I saw that one coming,” she says as she adds her notes from the session to his file.

He pauses and smiles. “Nice.”

Meg makes it through two more sessions, her hangover receding to little more than a throb behind her left eye, then closes up some paperwork on clients she is glad not to see any more—two boys, both hopeless cases. The numbers show that treatment is more effective than many might guess, with recidivism low compared to nonsexual crimes, but Meg figures someone is cooking the books. These boys come in honestly with no idea that what they were doing was wrong. They know it’s wrong to rob or murder someone, but forcing their sister to have sex or raping a neighbor girl? Somehow that’s a blurry moral line, behavior passed down from uncles and fathers and brothers. Meg knows their own abuse doesn’t excuse the behavior, and besides, she isn’t in the business of excusing behaviors, she’s in the business of changing them. In therapy she sees a side of the boys that is both horrifying and innocent. She tells them, when you force boys and girls to perform sexual acts with you it hurts them both emotionally and physically, and these boys look at her slack-jawed and say, “Really? But I did it and came out just fine.”

She heats an expired can of soup in the break room, sitting down to her crappy lunch as Stacey comes in with a pita full of greens and something that smells horrible in a Pyrex dish. “Cabbage,” she says. “I used the microwave on the second floor so I wouldn’t stink up the room but I guess it followed me.”

“That seems hostile to the second floor,” Meg says.

Stacey ignores the comment and settles at Meg’s table even though there are three more and all are empty. “How’s Nella doing?” she asks and Meg gives her a brief update. When Stacey was hired, Meg did the polite thing and invited her over for dinner to welcome her to the agency. She regretted it immediately, watching her sixteen-year-old daughter bond with her co-worker only seven years older, a girl who wears stretchy pants whenever she isn’t at work because she actually works out, not because all of her real pants cut her off at the waistband.

“She called me the other day, you know,” Stacey says and Meg puts down her spoon. “Things are heating up with Zach. She said she asked you to take her to Planned Parenthood and you said no.”

“Is that any business of yours?” Meg asks and Stacey keeps her face calm and composed.

“It is now because Nella called me.”

Meg knows it was wrong not to take her daughter—she should thank her lucky stars she has a kid who is responsible and trust her with the decision—but Jesus Christ, this is her child. Nella isn’t old enough to be making this kind of substantial decision; Meg is thirty-seven and under-qualified. She knows Nella’s boyfriend, even likes him, but that doesn’t meant she wanted him fucking her daughter. She likes Jerrod too, for god’s sake.

Stacey continues. “I know it’s not my place but I think you should take her.”

“Is that what you’d tell your client?”

“No. I’d help her weigh the pros and cons. But if anyone should know the difference between how social workers treat their friends and family versus their clients, it’s you.” Meg knows all about the lines between the job and the home life. She let Martin hit her when they were married, and more than a few drunken nights in their fourteen-year run constituted rape. Who knows. It was a hazy time. For the most part those days are as separate from her as the kitchen sink, no more measure of her worth than a road sign. “You work with sex offenders,” Stacey continues, “yet you won’t even take your daughter for birth control pills.”

“Of course I’m going to take her,” Meg says, crumbling a Saltine to dust on top of her soup. “I was caught off guard, that’s all. Regardless, it’s not your business.”

“I don’t know why you’re so rude to me. I’m only trying to help. You know,” Stacey says, her head cocked critically. “Sometimes you’re just not very nice.”

“I didn’t know it was part of my job to be nice.”

“I’m not talking about your job, I’m talking about you.”

“Is there a difference?” Meg says it to be obstinate, but there’s a ring of truth. Who is she without this job, and if she hates her job so much, what does that say? There was a time when she’d wake before the alarm went off, humming in the shower while the coffee brewed. Was it just that her life with Martin had been good back then? It feels like more than that. She knows all about burnout, every social worker does, but this feels worse. Not just a case of the job blues, but a black sludge that is creeping into every crevice of her life, something sticky and heavy, drowning her. She is more than a woman burned out on her job, but a woman who wants to burn everyone else down, too. No wonder she hates Stacey, all gleaming and new and optimistic. It’s like working with that new car smell burning inside her nostrils, or with a golden retriever as a colleague.

Stacey begins talking again but Meg gathers her dirty soup bowl and sets it unrinsed in the sink, almost knocking her chair over as she bolts for the door.

“Fine,” Stacey says. “We don’t need to be friends if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to,” Meg says and turns around to see Stacey’s eyes fill with tears. Meg snorts. If she’s enough to make Stacey cry, what must her clients do to her?

Meg and Martin met when she was nineteen. Marty was working at a garage, Meg at a jewelry store in the mall. She wore blouses straining at the buttons and he came in one weekend to buy a cheap locket for his mother and Meg was the one, tottering in her heels, to help him pick it out. They began dating a few weeks later after he kept stopping by, bringing her slushies from Orange Julius and fries from Steak and Shake, his hands chapped red but clean, the grease still caught under his nails. “You can’t have this much jewelry to buy,” she teased him, and he said there was something else shiny he was after. A few months after she moved in, which was only a few weeks after they began dating, she found the locket from his mother bunched in the back of a bathroom drawer, the chain knotted. She never had the heart to ask him what happened; most likely it had been for a girlfriend and he asked for it back when they broke up. Meg remembers thinking how glad she was he never gave it to her, that he didn’t forget who sold it to him in the first place. Early on he never called her names beyond what she knew, from her own childhood, were acceptable forms of castigation. She wonders how her standards got so low that she’d date and eventually marry a man because he never called her worse that what she was, that he was kind enough not to re-gift her another woman’s jewelry.

That night she listens at Nella’s bedroom door for her daughter’s breathing. When Nella was a baby, Meg would pray for her to fall asleep, and as soon as she did, Meg would have to sit on her hands so as not to wake her daughter back up to make sure everything was still okay. When Nella was two, she awoke to find her mother’s face an inch from her own—Meg suspended above her, listening for breathing. Had this happened to Meg she would have screamed in terror—waking to a face so close—but Nella had stared at her calmly as if to say, where else would you be? and quickly fell back asleep. Over dinner that night Meg had told Nella she’d call her gynecologist and set up an appointment. Nella’s reaction was to throw her arms around her mom’s neck and kiss her with a cartoonish smack. “Thank you thank you thank you!” she said, the same reaction Nella gave only a few short years ago when Meg finally bought her an iPod.

As a teenager, Nella sleeps with the door closed but Meg is consumed with the dormant fear her daughter has died in the night. It’s almost four a.m. and Meg hasn’t been to sleep yet. Her heartbeat accelerates and her palms leak sweat as she closes her eyes, images flashing of her daughter, strangled in her damp sheets, hair across her face, her chest still. Meg resists as long as she can before opening the door. Nella is lying on her back, one knee cocked, a faint wet spot illuminated by her mouth from the hallway light. Her chest moves up, then down. Up, then down. Meg closes the door, but with the door closed once again, there’s no guarantee Nella’s still breathing. And if she’s not, there’s nothing Meg can do about it anyway.

The next morning Meg gets Nella off to school after promising once again to call her ob-gyn. Then Meg calls in sick to work, the sixth time in a month. She calls just before eight, before anyone will be answering phones at the agency, resisting the urge to frog up her voice and make herself sound congested. She is an adult; if she needs to call in sick she can. Most of the social workers she knows take mental-health days every eight months or so, but six days in a month is unheard of. She knows the rules well enough to not take three days in a row, although it’s tempting. The only thing that will get her back the following day is knowing that the fallout of being backed up in cases wouldn’t be worth it. Still, today. She can’t face it—anal rape stories involving four-year-olds; vaginal penetration of an infant with a Barbie head; a pre-teen boy telling her that at his first sleepover he thought he’d offended his friend’s parents because the father didn’t come in and butt-fuck him. In the morning he apologized to his friend and that’s how he ended up in her office. She hangs up the phone and switches on the coffee pot before remembering she forgot to make it the night before. She unplugs the pot and goes back to bed, crawling in deep. In the past when she’s taken sick days, she’s done something to treat herself—driven a town over and browsed bookstores with an expensive coffee in her hand, or slipped into a matinee by herself and ordered a popcorn, a Diet Coke snuck in her purse. Now all she wants is to sleep, or at least try to. Now all she wants is to be able to turn off her head, to not think about those awful boys.

The next day she meets with Jerrod again. “You were gone yesterday. Feel better?”

“I do.”

He pushes his feet against the backside of her desk and pulls the front legs of his chair off the ground. It’s something she’s asked him not to do at least a dozen times, but today she just watches the chair lift up, rocking back and forth in a hypnotic fashion.

“I’m not going to rag on about it,” he says. “But yesterday I was seeing red I was so mad you missed our session.”

“That’s enough,” Meg says. “Period.” And Jerrod laughs.

He then starts in on the normal bullshit about what’s going on at home with his aunt—the oldest boy is home for a three-day weekend and he and Jerrod are having territory issues—and Meg looks out her one office window to the parking lot at the back of the building. It’s late fall, the leaves wet on the ground in the disgusting consistency of paper mache. She remembers doing paper mache projects with Nella when she was a child, back when she was just starting school. Hard to believe there were boys in the world even then that wanted to fuck her daughter. Some days Meg thinks nothing good can happen anymore, that it’s a miracle she makes it home everyday without getting assaulted or raped, working in this environment as little more than a paid babysitter.

She blinks and looks from the window to Jerrod, aware suddenly that the room has grown quiet. “Did you even hear me?” he says and, by rote she says, “Tell me more about that,” an answer in therapy that’s appropriate ninety percent of the time.

“You want me to tell you more about how I want to move to Alabama and be part of the Crimson Tide? You’re not even listening to me, Ms. Meg.”

“Maybe you should stop playing games and say something important.” She closes the manila file on her desk, her hands shaking. “Stop wasting my time until you’re ready to really start.”

Jerrod shakes his head. “Jesus, you really are on the rag.”

Toward the end of the day, Nicole, Meg’s supervisor, calls Meg into her office and asks her if she’ll take a seat. It’s not really a question although no one would call it a demand. Meg sits down.

“Feeling better?” Nicole asks.

“Yes,” Meg says, keeping her eyes locked on Nicole’s, no wavering. She won’t blink first; she has done nothing wrong.

“I’m glad,” Nicole says and stares back—an old social worker trick: if you stare long enough, the client will have to speak—but Meg holds her ground until they are bordering on the ridiculous, the silence like a live thing in the room. Nicole breaks first and Meg has to work at not smiling. “You’ve missed a lot of work in the last few weeks,” Nicole says and holds up a hand to let Meg know she doesn’t need her excuse. “We all need a break, I understand that, and if you’re sick I hope you’re feeling better. What I want to talk to you about, Meg, are Javier and Michael’s cases. You closed both of these in the last week just shy of four months of treatment.”

Meg squirms a bit in her seat. “Yes?”

“You know the protocol,” Nicole continues. “Four months is the absolute minimum we allow, and in the past you’ve worked with clients at least eight months on average before moving them on.”

“I’ve been doing this long enough I know what’s going to happen,” Meg says. “These boys aren’t making any progress, never will. End of story.”

“Two cases in a row?” Nicole says, her eyes in a skeptical squint. Meg feels her stomach drop, a reminder of last night’s wine.

“Are you saying I’ve behaved unethically?”

“I’m saying you can see it from where you’re standing.” Meg stares at her, dumbfounded. “And while it certainly isn’t an ethical violation, I noticed you skipped the birthday potlucks the last two months.”

“You can’t hold that against me.”

“I’m not holding that against you. I’m saying, as a friend and a colleague, I’m worried about you. This isn’t the easiest line of work we’re in.” But what Meg hears is that Nicole can handle it but doesn’t think Meg can. There was a time when Meg kept her worlds separate, when she was able to leave work at the end of the day and go to the grocery store like a normal person, but now all she sees is danger. A bag boy helping an old woman to the car could easily push her in the back seat and rape her; the skeevy manager who helps a teenage cashier by bagging groceries isn’t running an efficient ship but grooming. Everyone is a victim and a perpetrator, it’s just a matter of where you are in the food chain at any given moment.

“Maybe I’m just burned out,” Meg says, although she doubts that’s the case. She’s felt burn-out in the past—on and off for most of her career, in fact—and that’s when the matinee and bookstore came into play. Now these just seem like more useless ways to spend time.

“Could be,” Nicole says, but she doesn’t look convinced either. “You need to keep an eye on this, Meg. While I don’t like to see you detaching from others, and I hate to not get my hands on your famous Greek salad every month, I’m most concerned with the service to our clients. It’s unacceptable to be closing cases that aren’t ready.” She holds up a finger. “Unacceptable, not unethical, but like I said, you can see it from here. Do you understand this warning?”

“Yes,” Meg says, and under her breath on the way out whispers, “Bitch.”

At home, Nella is lounging on the couch, a piece of hair twirling aimlessly around her finger, caught in a helpless loop. “Hey,” she says to her mom. “Did you call about my appointment?”

“I did,” she lies. “The computers were down so they couldn’t schedule anything right then. I would have called back in the afternoon, but my day filled up.”

Nella slumps back toward the TV and Meg comes up behind her to squeeze Nella’s shoulder, impressed when her daughter doesn’t jump but also leery of a girl grown so relaxed.

“What’s for dinner?” Nella asks and Meg grips her car keys until she feels an individual key dig into the palm of her hand. Nella was supposed to cook tonight; Meg can make a big deal about this or not, she reminds herself.

“Why don’t we order a pizza?”

To her surprise, Nella turns around with a smile on her face. “Can we go out for Chinese?”

“Sure. Whatever. You pick.”

Nella jumps up. “I should forget to make dinner more often.”

“So you knew it was your turn?”

Nella waivers then comes over with another of her cartoon smacks, Meg laughing. It’s not until Meg looks down that she realizes Nella has swiped her car keys.

At the restaurant, Nella pulls the chopsticks from the paper tube, breaks them apart, and rubs them together. “This always reminds me of crickets,” she says. “Their legs?” It’s just the kind of inane, chatty thing she rarely says to Meg since Martin moved out.

“I always think of wishbones,” Meg says. She smiles at her daughter and unfolds the cloth napkin meticulously into her lap. She used to think of wishbones, but now what she imagines are girls snapped in half. “So,” she begins, and Nella holds up a hand.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“I was going to ask you what you’re thinking of ordering.”

“No you weren’t. You want to talk about my sex life. I can see it on your face.”

Meg tries to deny it, but what’s the use? Honestly, she’d rather talk about food. “Have you and Zach discussed this?”

“What, like, out loud?”

“Yes, out loud. Did you think I meant over texts?”

Nella shrugs again. “We discuss a lot of things that way. Yesterday he helped me with my algebra homework over text.”

“Did you get it right?”

“I haven’t gotten it back yet.”

“What I mean, Nella, is have you discussed this as two rational adults?”

“You keep telling me I’m not an adult. I’m only fifteen.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, we’ve discussed it.”

“And you’ve weighed all the pros and cons? You’ve discussed the possibility of pregnancy or STDs? And you’ve discussed that you still need to use a condom in addition to the pill to be sure you’re protected?”

“We discussed whole hazmat suits, does that make you happy? We’re thinking florescent orange, or maybe silver. That might be easier to accessorize with a handbag.”

“Your sarcasm isn’t helping.”

“It’s not? Are you sure?”

The young Chinese woman comes over and bows as she places their platters of Mala Chicken and Kung Pao Shrimp on the table, as well as a communal bowl of rice. “Everything look fine?” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, staring at the food as if expecting it to answer. No wonder women get raped, Meg thinks, and feels an immediate wave of nausea rip through her stomach.

“Excuse me,” she says and throws her napkin on the chair, barely making it into the restroom stall before throwing up what’s left of her undigested lunch. No wonder women get raped? It’s so incredibly hostile, so incredibly wrong. It is like someone else has wormed its way into her head and created the thought.

Awhile later she comes back and Nella sets down her chopsticks. “I was getting worried,” she says and Meg points at Nella’s plate, the food half gone.

“I can tell.”

“Listen,” Nella begins as Meg slides in her seat. “I appreciate you being all concerned about the sex decision, but to tell you the truth, the virgin ship has sailed. We did it the first time a few days ago—and yes, we used a condom—and we decided if it’s going to be a regular thing we should get back up.”

“I’m just wondering what you did to get yourself in this situation in the first place,” Meg says. “What kind of signals you’ve been putting out.”

Nella drops her chopsticks. “That sounds an awful lot like victim blame.” Raised by a social worker, she knows all the terms.

“So you’re say you’re a victim?”

“No, I’m saying you are acting like a therapist, not a mom, and a shitty therapist at that.” Meg still hasn’t touched her food and signals to the stupid waitress for a to-go box. Her daughter is right.

On the way home though, Meg can’t stop herself from warning, “He says it’s back up, but mark my words: in a few weeks he’s going to start in on the it-feels-so-much-better-without-a-condom-talk, the if-you-really-loved-me-you’d-let-me-go-bareback crap.”

Nella looks out the window. “When’d you get so jaded, Mom? Not every man’s a shithead you know.”

“Two weeks,” Meg repeats. “And all you’re giving him won’t be enough.”

Meg gets up early to finish making the Greek salad, her “famous Greek salad,” although there’s really nothing special beyond the homemade croutons she salvages from crusty bread. Nicole acts like Meg created the whole idea of Greek salad instead of giving credit to the Greeks, which irritates Meg more than it should. What doesn’t? she thinks as she crumbles extra feta on the greens to make it extra famous.

At the office, Nicole beams at the bowl in Meg’s hands, a look Meg finds so condescending she wants to slap it off her boss’s face. Stacey comes by, clapping together just the tips of her fingers. “The famous Greek salad!” she says and follows Meg into her office. “I got a text from Nella this morning saying you’re getting her the pills. She’s a smart kid. You’re doing the right thing.”

Meg has to busy herself at her desk, straightening a pile of papers to keep herself from hurdling a stapler at Stacey’s head. “I know she’s a smart kid. I raised her.”

“I’m just saying. I’m sure it’s hard to hear your daughter’s sexually active but you’re doing what you can to help her grow into a mature and responsible woman.”

Meg stills the papers in her hand. “How long have you known Nella and Zach have been having sex?”

“A few weeks?” Stacey says. “A month? Maybe two?”

There’s a knock at the door. Jerrod. “Can I talk to you for a second?” he asks and Stacey steps back two, three times to let him in Meg’s office.

“We don’t have an appointment,” Meg says and Jerrod closes the door behind him. “Keep that open,” she says, but he ignores her.

“It’s an emergency,” he says. “Remember that girl I told you about at Hector’s? The skank? I think I might like her, like, like her-like her. How’m I supposed to ask a girl out on a date?”

Meg feels her throat closing up, adrenaline shooting through her chest like a brush fire. “You need to open that door, please,” she repeats.

“You hearing me?” Jerrod says. “I like this girl. Or lady. I don’t even know what to call her. Am I supposed to take her to the movies and shit?”

Meg sits down to keep the room from spinning, her eyes closed. “What do you like about her?”

What don’t I like? She listens to the same kind of music as me and you can see her thong out the top of her jeans. Last night I was at Hector’s playing video games and when she bent over in front of the TV I blew my load in my pants. Bam! Just like that. Didn’t even see it coming. I’m telling you, I love her.”

Meg opens her eyes. Outside the window, a dog trots through the parking lot, ribs so thin Meg can see them from her chair. She looks at Jerrod, his handsome young face. “If you really like this girl, stay away from her. You’re not ready to be dating anyone. It’s only going to lead to trouble with a boy like you.”

Jerrod shakes his head. “I hear you, Ms. Meg. I wouldn’t trust me either.” He opens the door and Meg feels the hall air rush in like a hot breeze. “Guess that goes to show I don’t like her as much as I think, because I’m still going to ask her out.”

Meg comes home that night to an empty house and a note from Nella: over at dad’s—staying the night. Meg thinks to call Martin and confirm, but what will it prove if she’s right or wrong? Either she’s a bad mother for doubting her daughter, or she’s a bad mother because her daughter is out having sex. She pours a glass of wine and drinks it standing up in the kitchen, then pours another an inch from the rim. She kicks off her heavy shoes and sits down on the couch with the TV on, still dressed in her ten-year-old blazer and a too-tight pair of slacks. She should buy some new clothes, try to do something with her hair. Stacey had the audacity a few months ago to suggest Meg try internet dating and thinking about that now, Stacey budding into her life, makes Meg wish someone would teach Stacey a lesson about boundaries. Bitch, she thinks. Stupid cunt. She lays her head on the sofa arm, her eyes so heavy she feels them water and burn under the weight of her lids.

Sometime later, against the glow of the TV, Meg hears an unidentifiable sound somewhere in the house, pulling her from sleep that’s been days coming. The engine of her heart starts up, a quick jolt of pain in her head. She’s certain the noise came from upstairs, maybe a door slamming shut. She grabs the phone off the coffee table and dials 911 as she stands at the bottom of the stairs, no doubt in her mind there is someone in the house. She tells the dispatch operator someone’s broken in. Jerrod flashes in her mind, his unexpected visit today. Or maybe it’s Zach looking for Nella, or Martin looking for her. She explains she is a social worker working with juvenile sex offenders and she has a teenage girl in the house. She sees Jerrod rocking on the two hind legs of his chair—back and forth, back and forth—telling her with guileless sincerity that all women, starting with girls, deserve what they get. She takes a step up the stairs.

The operator tells her to stay where she is, she’ll send a nearby police officer immediately, but Meg is already in the upstairs hallway, the phone in her hand, her damp blazer stuck to her back. She opens Nella’s door and the bed is empty, the sheets twisted and cascading to the floor. Meg rushes to the window and flings it open, sure she’ll see Nella’s lifeless body in the grass one story down. Jerrod has done this. Marty has done this. Zach has done this. If she could only calm down she could think straight.

She runs down the steps and out of the house, her stomach twisting as the red and blue lights begin to circle the neighborhood, casting all the houses in a blurbly red and blue. The officers shut off the lights. Meg tries to breathe, tries to lift the invisible weight from her chest. Two more men. Why are they here? What good can they do?

“Are you the one who called?” one of the officers asks, and Meg backs up, holding the phone out like a weapon.

“Get away from me!” she yells. “Don’t you touch me!”

“Ma’am,” he says calmly, and his hand moves to his holster. From the corner of her eye, she sees the other approaching her house. They are all of the same country, all of the same tribe.

“Nella,” she yells. “Nella, can you hear me?”

There is nothing, only silence. Nella has already gone missing. Meg has raised Nella to question logic, to trust the thread of unease worming its way through her stomach, but what good will that do in the face of something as utterly convincing as a man? Meg puts her hand on her chest, unable to breathe. Her legs weaken and she collapses to the ground. One of the officers enters her house as the other rushes toward her, kneeling on the pavement, his face above hers as he shines a small flashlight in her eyes.

In his shadow she can imagine Zach kneeling over Nella, or maybe it’s Jerrod, his face an inch from her daughter’s. Nella, foolish Nella, will smile into his mouth as if to say, where else would you be? Meg knows she should stand up, run, try to find her daughter, but what would be the point? The flashlight snaps off and Meg’s world goes black, just one more stupid girl getting what’s coming to her.

Erin Flanagan is the author of the short story collections The Usual Mistakes and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories, both published by the University of Nebraska Press. Her most recent work appears in Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of English at Wright State University in Dayton, OH.

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