Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2022    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Summer 2022


Emily Rinkema
You've Got to be Vigilant, Wes

Kent S. Nelson
Where's Far Away?

Belly Up

Ronita Sinha
The Days of Phirianna

Camille Louise Goering
The Taste of Sand

David Simpson

K. Ralph Bray
Heart With No Companion

Joanna Galbraith
July 13, 1995

Natalie Shaw Evjen
Cost-Benefit Analysis

William French


Belly Up

It’s fall now. I watch the TV reflecting in a glass bowl, where your face is a fish. You sit on my kitchen table, your picture next to a man reporting the news. And I look through the water, which could just be time. And your face is not your face, but something warped and backwards. My hand moves. Glass is everywhere.

You fall from the TV or maybe it’s just the bowl. You are a dozen glass shards staring at me. And the man delivering the news is still delivering the news. My hands shatter, they pick at your body. The more I try to touch the more we both break. That’s what your death felt like. But the man doesn’t care. He says the name of our town, Coshocton, just like my mom. Like it’s a sneeze on his tongue. He says it with the beginning of his breath.

Then he is off the TV and the story ends, but it’s really your story. And they quit talking about you. I don’t know what to say, so I tell you I hate this man. This man who only knows you through scripts of paper. Every one of your faces nod. I say he is just like the people in this town, the ones who look like upside down fish. There is no water now, so I touch you with all my pieces to try and save you. But this touch is time and it turns us back to June.

A year in Coshocton taught me the town runs going backwards. Mom said it’s a place where stupid goes and stupid does. Even stupid bugs that didn’t have enough sense to find the Ohio River, where breeding was better. When I asked why we were there, she said, “Stupidity doesn’t exclude you or any other boy, Junior.” Then she paused, “It doesn’t exclude me, either.”

I stopped trying to understand her a while ago. She was the kind of woman to put salt on her melon and sugar on her peas. I didn’t think the town was that bad, anyways. It smelled like the next season coming, and everyone said hello so much even the trees were doing it.

We moved here after dad left us alone with the Mississippi bugs. Mom said he went away for work. Somehow, that meant we had to leave too. She still talks with him on the phone sometimes. They yell and I pretend not to hear. I’m not supposed to tell anyone about their fights, not even the trees. Not that I would, considering how they spread their hellos.

Everything was that way for a long little while. We were in a nowhere town with nowhere people. The kind of people who sleep-walk through county jobs and noon lunches. The kind I saw my mom becoming.

Then June before seventh grade came. The whole town woke up on the first day of summer to find the air smelled just of that—summer. It was as if overnight everything finally got tired of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and changed without so much as shaking a leaf. Something was wrong.

We learned why when those county workers took their noon lunches. Cooper H. Harley’s small body was found swimming belly up in the Walhonding river. The coroners, or officers or maybe just my mother, said he’d been like that for sixteen hours. It was enough time for those stupid bugs to make home of his body. Only the bugs weren’t there anymore. They chewed the boy up and finally left like mom said they were supposed to.

That night, she sat me down at the dinner table to talk. We had peas with salt this time. “It doesn’t feel like that kind of day, Junior,” she said. That was okay with me. I didn’t want to eat peas with sugar anyway.

She told me what all the other mothers told her, speaking more seriously than when we were sitting at this table in Mississippi, talking about divorce over spaghetti. She explained it like cutting a meatball in half, one that was too big to fit in your mouth.

This time, I rolled peas around my plate. Mom talked about Cooper. I didn’t want to look at her, so I watched an ant crawl over the wood. I thought that was okay, because there was a grainy spot on the table that kind of looked like her frown anyways.

The ant twisted over her mouth. I thought about how easy it would be to kill. I could do it in a single touch. Like my hand wasn’t my hand, but the hand of God. Instead, I watched it enter mom’s mouth where the conversation stopped.

I guess Cooper’s parents thought he was at my house, or Curt’s, or Al’s. They thought he was anywhere, really, but in the Walhonding river. So with Coop blown to the size of a balloon, and turning a funny color, mom said the officers were going to start an investigation. The trees shook at that.

We watched TV for the rest of the night. Then I didn’t feel like watching TV anymore, so we went to bed. Only sleeping didn’t really feel like sleeping. And thinking only felt like “Cooper H. Harley wasn’t stupid at all.” He wasn’t like the rest of us. He was smart. So smart he was going to jump a year ahead in math, smart enough to ask for a locker next to our English class, so there would be more time to talk between the bell. He was going to get out of the fish bowl.

I spent the whole of that night trying to convince my eyes to close. But their flutters kept me awake, like they had more to say. I finally had to pull them down with my hand.

I guess morning didn’t care too much, because it came anyway. Just like that, the first day of summer was over: quick as death.

Unlike Cooper H. Harley—Allen J. Fillmore was stupid. He was as stupid as stupid does. Stupid enough to call a meeting in the treehouse and think it could still be our place, even without all of its people there.

I watched Al munch on potato chips. He acted like something mighty, waving salted fingers in the air as he spoke, “It just don’t make sense to me. Harley hated that river. He said there was no place on Earth mud stuck to you more than down by that river.” Al talked in the mimics of his father, like a boy playing an adult.

He wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand. It was no use. All the real crumbs were stuck to his tongue.

“I’m telling you guys, Coop hated that river.” Al wasn’t saying anything we didn’t already know. He was just saying it for himself, saying it to feel like his words mattered when nothing else did. But those words fell like fat flakes from his mouth. They weren’t going to take us anywhere.

He looked to Curtis for support. As always, Curt found footing in Al’s boot marks.

“He’s right, bad things aren’t supposed to happen to people like us. They’re only supposed to happen to idiots in big cities, like Philly.”

When the body was found, Curtis’s mom told him he was a gift from God. She said there was no way God could take away a gift like that. Curtis believed it too. I saw it in the way he made temples with his hands, pointing them high to the sky. But the way he spoke of Cooper made it seem like he wasn’t a gift at all.

“All I know is someone has to spin us back around, because this place has gone all out of whack since Coop died,” Al spoke and the leaves rustled outside. For a moment, something felt too alive.

I wanted to ask them how the unfamiliar salt on your peas could be worse than your friend floating in the Walhonding. I wanted to say none of us were out of reach of the stupid. But these weren’t my friends, not really. Cooper was my friend. And I was the one stuck with them in a town beginning to feel not so great.

I saw Curt’s eyes begin to tear up. I thought something from our conversation must’ve gotten through to him. Like he finally realized God had the power to take him away, too. It didn’t even matter if he was still wearing the pretty little bow his mom gave him. It was more likely he just got salt in his eyes.

That night, mom made potatoes with gravy. We watched something on TV only she liked, and sleep came as it had the night before, slow like tossing and turning.

In the morning, my dreams whispered funny things into my ear, “Junior? Junior,” and they shook me a little. Then they started to shake me harder. “Junior P. Raymond, get up. Your friends are at the door,” I felt a pull on my ear, making me yelp. “I am not gonna have any more moms talking behind my back about you. So, get up and play with your friends.” For a moment, mom’s face wasn’t her face, but the face of a trout. I decided my dreams were leaking into reality. I blinked. The water went from my eyes and she was herself again.

Curt and Al dragged me to play kickball with other kids in the neighborhood. I went, hoping it would get mom to pull my ear a little less.

It wasn’t so bad. Our team was up a few points, and the sun was warming my skin like I forgot it could. And when I got hit in the face with a red ball, it made red blood come from my nose. And when I closed my eyes, I felt something real for the first time in a while. I felt pain.

Curt’s mom watched the whole thing happen. She called my mom and suddenly I felt more embarrassment than I did pain. Everyone watched the blood drip from my nose while I stood still, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Maybe this was how Cooper felt when his body went belly up. Like the trees, the bugs, the sky were all watching him.

Mom drove me to the doctor, even after telling everyone in the neighborhood I was fine. I was careful not to get any blood on her seats. I didn’t want her pinching my ear again.

At the doctor’s office my nose got the most attention it had ever seen. It was cleaned with Q-tips and set with a metal beak. When the doctor finished, she smiled kindly at me, which made my nose fall into a small throb. The pain was better.

The doctor grabbed a mirror to show me the work she did. I told her I looked like a bird, and we laughed together. Then she left me alone for a while, so I listened to mom speak with a nurse outside my door.

“He’s just — he’s been having a really hard time with it.” She said, her words leaking through the crack under the frame.

“Oh my goodness, poor thing. How long has it been?” The nurse asked.

“Oh, about three weeks.” I could almost hear mom chewing on her nails. I thought I must still be dreaming from this morning. Mom was a fish, and I was under water because it didn’t feel like a few weeks. It felt like a couple of days.

“Here.” A piece of paper was ripped, and we were going home.

I realized I forgot to ask the doctor if they had extra wings laying around. That way maybe I could meet Cooper in the sky somewhere.

We had Chinese for dinner. Mom picked the sesame seeds off of her chicken.

“Junior?” She asked.

“Yeah?” I ate the last of my rice.

“What do you think about seeing a special kind of doctor? Not like the ones at the emergency room or anything, but one that helps with something different.”

“Like what?”

She closed her eyes, “They’re the kind of doctors that help dreams feel more real. They help with reality.” She spoke softly, not in a whisper like this morning. She spoke like her words would shatter into glass, leaving me to touch the pieces.

The doctors today weren’t so bad. I could see more of them if it made her happy. I told her that would be okay.

She said, “Okay.” And the conversation was over.

I started to see the doctor that came from a ripped piece of paper, and things were getting better. Summer was halfway through. Mom and I kept our routine of watching TV and eating dinner every night. Curtis and Al found something for us to do almost every day. The blood that came from my nose was red. I knew all of those things were real, but I don’t think they were what Dr. Calhoun wanted to hear.

“Junior,” he treaded carefully. “Do you know how Cooper passed?” His pen tapped against some papers on a clipboard. Pass. I kept hearing that word. Like death was a ball thrown to your face. A missed moment with a red consequence.

I shook my head. Dr. Calhoun had funny things in his office. There were yellow walls and lines of blue books on the shelves. There was a bobblehead of someone whose name I should probably know, but I couldn’t think of it.

Dr. Calhoun wasn’t a funny guy. He always talked with my mom after we talked, using more serious words than we had, while I would think about those yellow walls and blue books. And the baseball player I didn’t know the name of.

I was looking at yellow for some days before mom told me Dr. Calhoun had a recommendation for us. He thought it might be helpful for me to see Cooper’s parents. A reminder that something was real.

Mom and I had a very serious talk that night.

“Junior, do you know how Cooper passed?” She asked. And I couldn’t remember why those words sounded so familiar. We were sitting on the couch, without the TV on this time.

“No.” I didn’t really care how it happened, just that it did. I think she already knew my answer before I gave it, though.

“Well, you know Martha, his little sister?” I nodded. “She was playing down by the river the day before it happened.” Mom poked at her food. “Her grandmother had gotten her those earrings last Christmas. You know, those silver ones, because she just got her ears pierced?”

I knew. Martha showed them off to me whenever I’d come over. They weren’t much more than cheap sterling silver, but she liked them.

“Well, while she was playing by the river, she lost one of those earrings.” Mom touched her own ear, almost like she was remembering.

“The next day, just after supper, she and Cooper went down to the river to find it. They were hoping to get it back before their parents found out.” I didn’t want to listen. Yellow walls. “Spring had just ended; all that rainfall made the river rise and the mud even muddier. At least that’s what the officers said.” She was talking about the same ones that made the trees shake, the officers responsible for the announcement that flipped this whole town upside down. I didn’t like them very much.

Mom continued, “Cooper’s shoes had gotten stuck in the mud, right by the bank. And when he finally pulled them out, he lost his balance.” I noticed she wasn’t using her hands to speak like she normally did, they were just laying real pretty in her lap. The bobblehead is Bob Brenly. How did I forget?

“He would have been fine, but —” she choked on her words or air or something I didn’t see. “He fell right into the river. The rapids were so strong that day. Well, he just got carried away.” Away with the water.

Just like that, quick and without much reason. Like your hand reaching to crush an ant.

“But, Martha?” I asked.

She smiled a little, “Martha was scared, the poor girl didn’t know what to do, so she ran home.”

“Why didn’t she tell her parents?” Suddenly those cheap silver earrings were the ugliest things on the planet.

She grabbed my hand, “Well, Junior, I guess for the same reason she didn’t tell her parents about the lost earring. I think she was afraid of getting into trouble.” I didn’t like Martha much anymore.

Mom took her hands out her lap, so they could be stern now, “At dinner tomorrow, I don’t want you saying anything to Martha, okay? She’s only six, the poor girl doesn’t really know what happened. She doesn’t understand, and it needs to stay that way, Junior.”


“Okay.” Mom sounded back.

I didn’t sleep so well that night. My dreams were feeling real this time, and they came as quick as it takes to get your foot out of mud.

Dinner at the Harley’s looked okay on the outside. They set out the china they had stored away, organizing the table in a way that made me wonder why people don’t always do this. I guess everyone saves pretty things for sad occasions.

Mr. and Mrs. Harley hugged me so tight I thought my stomach might pop out of my mouth. They made a pot roast with plenty of potatoes and green beans. It was pretty good for what the Harleys normally make.

After dinner, Cooper’s mom walked with me around his bedroom. She asked if I wanted any of his things, something to remember him by. I wanted to tell her I needed to forget.

I looked around because I thought it would make her happy. There was an attendance trophy on his bookshelf, and some baseball cards he tried to teach me. He asked me to come over that day. The day he walked around with God’s hand like a shadow over him. Cooper wanted to show me a new card he got. I didn’t like baseball very much and I was a little tired of doing what he always wanted to do. I said no. Maybe if I had been there, my hand had been there, it would’ve counteracted God. And I would be looking at my best friend.

I shook my head instead of giving Cooper’s mom a real answer. I think she had her own answer in mind anyways. Her eyes darted to Bait, Cooper’s pet fish.

“Would you mind taking care of Bait for me?” She asked. “I’m not very good at feeding him. It keeps slipping my mind. Cooper was better at taking care of him than me.” I looked at the fish, who didn’t really have eyes. At least not any like the kind that look full of life. His small fins darted to the left and he went with them. I nodded my head yes, because it was faster than saying any words.

We walked out of the room and I held on to the fish bowl. Mom smiled at me and continued talking with Cooper’s dad. I sat next to Martha and we watched TV. I could’ve set the bowl on the coffee table, but I didn’t. I held on to it until mom and I got home.

It’s fall now. There is glass everywhere. I knocked the fishbowl off the table. I did it because I could. Its small body is flapping, looking for life. I did it because I never killed the ant. I did it because this was the last news report on Cooper. The one where they announced the cause of his death, after the town finally pressured Cooper’s mom to talk about it. I did it because today I spoke the words out loud to Dr. Calhoun.

“Cooper is dead, and I am not.” a graduate from Colorado State University with a degree in English. Her writing focuses on expressions of human emotion through images of nature. Her work in Sixfold is her first published fiction.

Dotted Line