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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

Emily Rinkema

You’ve Got to be Vigilant, Wes

I think about killing people all the time.

When I’m waiting for a subway, I think about pushing other passengers onto the tracks. I stand with my back against the wall until the train pulls in and distract myself by watching people’s feet.

When I’m on a balcony I think I’m going to throw someone off. I actually imagine exactly how to do it. I picture getting them to lean over a bit first, maybe point out a cat on a lower roof, or a woman throwing a vase at her daughter.

If I’m cutting a lime, I hold onto the knife tightly to make sure I don’t accidentally stab my boyfriend through the heart.

Steve, the boyfriend, signed me up for a First Aid class at the Y. He thinks it might turn things around a little, make me think about saving people instead of killing them. I’m touched by his thoughtfulness, so I go, even though I know it’s not going to change things. I’ve been like this since I was a kid.

The first hour is CPR. I don’t know anyone in the class, so I pair up with the only other woman, figuring I could take her if things turn bad. I can’t go into a room without categorizing everyone within the first few seconds: Those I Could Take and Those Who Could Take Me. It’s usually pretty clear.

Clara, my CPR partner, asks me to go first, so I kneel down next to the dummy and go through the script we just learned:

“I’m trained in First Aid, are you okay?” And then, “CALL 9-1-1!”

I place the heel of my right hand on the rubber pad, place my left hand on top, lock my elbows, and start pushing to the tune of Staying Alive. The instructor yells at all of us to push harder, that it’s impossible to push too hard. I doubt that, and start thinking about how I am certainly strong enough to break through a sternum, especially if I was all pumped up on adrenaline.

Clara is crying. I mean, really crying. She’s not loud about it. In fact, she seems kind of embarrassed and tries to pretend she isn’t. I stare at her.

“I’m sorry,” she says. She takes a gulp of air. “He’s going to die.”

“He’s not real,” I say, still trying to keep him alive.

“In my last class, they said 92% of people who have a heart attack on the street die, even with CPR.”

Four times. That’s how many times Clara has taken this First Aid class. Turns out, she’s a mess, my CPR partner. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She’s sporty, put together, looks like a model out of a Patagonia catalog.

Our instructor is helping some big guy (Could Take Me) across the room get his rhythm right, so I stop saving the dummy and sit back against the wall. Clara gets on her knees and moves over to take her turn.

“What’s the point?” I ask. “Why keep taking the same class over and over if you don’t think it will matter?”

She’s crying still as she gets her hands in the right position and leans her weight on the dummy’s chest. There’s no way she could push too hard. Her nose drips onto the blue plastic chest.

“Because you never know,” she says, starting the rhythm, and I realize maybe we aren’t all that different.

Later, I stand behind a cop in line at the bagel store. I usually don’t let myself get this close to cops because I’m one unintentional impulse away from killing someone at all times anyway, so why add guns and nightsticks to the mix. But I’m starving, haven’t eaten since well before the First Aid class, and I get cranky when I don’t eat for this long.

I could lean to the left, say something to the cop quietly so he has to lean in, then grab the gun off of his right thigh. There’s a safety clip, but I would be quick. Or the nightstick, strapped to his left hip, held in by just a snap. Wouldn’t take much distraction to have that out.

“I just took a First Aid class,” I say out loud, which is something I do sometimes to make sure I don’t do anything stupid. If people are watching me, I figure I’m less likely to do something. My last therapist suggested this strategy, which I haven’t given up on yet.

The cop turns to look at me. He sizes up my arms, checks out my chest.

“Why?” he asks, which I think is a strange response. I mean, why not take a First Aid class?

“I’m going to Haiti on a service trip,” I say, even though those are two things I would never do, go to Haiti, or do a service trip. The guy behind me in line says, “Building a school?” A quick glance back tells me I Could Take Him, particularly with a nightstick.

I don’t love lying, but now I have to keep going, and I’m already out of things that I know about Haiti, or service for that matter.

“No,” I say, and then, “Corneal transplants,” because I had read an article while I was waiting for the First Aid class to start about this doctor who goes to Haiti every year to save people’s sight.

“Are you a doctor?” the cop asks.

I just want to order a bagel without killing anyone.

“Yup,” I say, because who the fuck else could do corneal transplants.

“Then why’d you take a First Aid class?” says the guy behind me. I look at the cop and shake my head knowingly, like we’re in this together, the two of us against all the dumbasses in the universe. He puts his hand over his holster and orders his bagel.

I tell Steve about Clara that evening while we’re having a drink on the balcony. Steve has his feet up on the railing, and I am as far back from the edge as I can be and still be outside. I try to explain how desperate she was, how pathetic. But in retelling the class I start to worry about her, start to think that maybe she just needs a friend.

“Did you think about killing her?” Steve asks.

He really wants to understand me, which I think is a bad idea.

I decide to take the First Aid class again, this time at the community center by the theater. I really think things have been better since I went, though I’m not entirely sure because I thought about pushing a child down the stairs in my apartment building last night. The difference this time, though, is that I also thought about making a splint for her arm from my belt and the takeout chopsticks.

I breeze through the CPR portion of the class, partnered this time with Mark, an electrician (Could Take Me). After my turn, he takes the instructor’s direction that we can’t push too hard as a dare, and before he can save the dummy, he’s popped the bag in the plastic chest.

“You killed him,” I say, a little surprised by how quickly it happened.

“No shit,” he says. He tells me he’s taking the class because his partner died in an electrical accident, and even though he wasn’t with him, he could have been, and then maybe he could have saved him. The guy was sixty-two years old and on Christmas Eve he got paged for an emergency call in Westchester, some rich couple’s new dryer kept blowing a fuse, and he went alone, even though he could have said no, it’s just a dryer, and even though it was Christmas Eve (or maybe because it was Christmas Eve?), and he showed up and screwed up and rewired things wrong and BAM. Dead.

“I should’ve been there,” he says. “I could’ve saved him.”

“You can’t save everyone,” I say. I mean it to sound comforting, but I think it just comes across as cold.

Ten minutes later, I watch Mark through the electrocution part of the required video. I want to hold his hand, which I think is real growth.

When I get home, I tell Steve what to do if I ever get a projectile stuck in my eyeball. You’re not supposed to pull it out, which is counter-intuitive, so I thought he should know in case it happened, because chances are he would just yank it out. He’s kind of a fixer. I tell him you’re supposed to take a Dixie cup and poke a hole in it and place it over the projectile and then tape it to the person’s head until you get to the hospital.

“Got it,” he says, and then, “Your sister called. You should call her back.” He is close with his family.

I think about taking the pen off the kitchen island and jamming it into his neck.

I think Steve’s idea may have backfired a bit. Knowing 50 ways to save someone also means knowing 50 ways someone could die. Yesterday I had to leave the hardware store early because I pictured shoving “Hello! My name is Wes!” into the wall-cutter. I was having some 2 x 4s cut into blocks for a furniture project I wanted as a surprise for Steve, and there’s this wall size saw that only the employees can use. They have to put in a code (3697#--written in pen on his hand) and then they cut the pieces you want. There’s a roped off area around the saw, but who are they kidding? It’s a rope. In less than two seconds I could be under and shoving Wes’ hand right into the blade.

People don’t make sense, Wes. You’ve got to be vigilant.

In the case of amputation you have to stop the bleeding immediately with a tourniquet, and then you have only minutes to get the amputated part on ice before it becomes useless. You’re supposed to put it in a baggie and then write the exact time on the baggie with a Sharpie. I bought a box of Sharpies this morning.

I run into Clara at the grocery store. I am inexplicably glad to see her, and I tell her this. I think she is surprised by my enthusiastic hello. She looks like she may start to cry again.

“I’m sorry,” she says, clutching her cart.

“It’s okay,” I say, smiling. I appreciate people who apologize for no reason.

A man with a baseball hat turns into the aisle and I reach towards the paper towels so I won’t think about slamming my cart into him. I know that if I did, there’s no chance of Clara being able to resuscitate him. Once he passes, I move over to the Dixie Cup section and pick out a box with bees on it. I hand one to Clara, which she adds to her cart.

“For projectiles,” I say.

“Or juice,” she says, which I think is funny.

“Who’s Clara again?” asks Steve, which makes me want to grab him by his hair and submerge his head in the pasta pot.

“My new friend,” I say, starting to feel a little bit proud about not killing him. I add aloe to the grocery list.

Clara and I meet for coffee a few days later because I think I’m going to make a go at this friend thing even though I have not always been so successful in that area. I had gone back to the Y by the waterfront and waited around until the First Aid instructor showed up. I told him I needed to get in touch with a woman from our class, that she had lost her engagement ring and I had found it, and I went on to say how she had given me her number but I lost it, and that I understood it was probably confidential and all. I could have saved all those lies. He didn’t give a shit about confidentiality.

Clara wasn’t surprised I called. It was like she was expecting it, like virtual strangers called her all the time wanting to be friends. I started in on some sort of excuse, but she just cut me off and asked if I wanted to get coffee.

“I don’t really know anyone in the city yet,” she said.

“This is nice,” I say when we sit down the next day at the coffee shop. I’m nervous I’m going to say something stupid so I drink my coffee, which is too hot, and I burn my tongue.

“Fuck,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say. We’re going to be good for each other.

I think I need to break up with Steve. Or marry him. I can’t decide which, so I buy a bottle of tequila and decide to have a few shots before he gets home and let what happens happen without overthinking it. There are too many decisions to make in the world, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance you’ll make the wrong one each time. I had to make at least 10 that I can think of on my walk back from coffee. Eleven, if you count what kind of tequila to buy. Twelve, if you count deciding which credit card to use. Thirteen if deciding not to grab the bottle by the neck and swing it into the 19-year-old cashier’s head counts.

I hear a key in the door, straighten my back so my boobs lift a few inches, and move the tequila bottle so it’s not within immediate reach.

But it’s not Steve who opens the door. It’s my sister, who has a key because she owns the place and never forgets to remind me that I’m 27, underemployed, and underachieving. Her overactive guilt keeps me housed, so I accept the attitude.

“Hi,” she says, and then looks at the bottle on the table. “Really? It’s not even five o’clock.”

“You could have knocked,” I say, not getting up. This is how we are with each other.

Turns out my mother is off her meds. My sister shares what she knows, which isn’t much, just what the neighbors told her.

“It’s your turn,” she says, “I can’t take off work again.” She has an important job.

“You could have just called,” I say.

“Right,” she says.

I invite her to stay, but we both know I don’t mean it and she says she has to go back to work.

“We can’t keep doing this,” she says at the door, and I don’t know whether she means the mom thing or the us thing. “It’s just a matter of time before someone gets really hurt.”

She’s gone before I can tell her she’s a little fucking late with that concern.

I don’t break up with Steve or propose when he arrives. I tell him about my sister dropping by and that I need to go to my mom’s in the morning, and he hugs me in a way that worries me. Even though there are dozens of sharp or heavy objects within reach, I don’t imagine killing him.

Clara comes with me to my mother’s. We were supposed to meet for lunch, the next logical step in our young friendship, and when I called to cancel, she offered to come along instead.

“I’m good with mothers,” she said, as if they were a particular breed of dog. Even though it’s a terrible idea for at least a dozen reasons, I agree to bring her along.

Steve offered to come too, but I told him no, which led to our first real fight. He said something about how I never let my guard down even for one goddamn minute and I said something about how he never stands up for himself and he said something about me being too controlling to let him stand up for himself and I said something about him letting me be controlling because he can’t handle control and then we both just drank tequila until we forgot why we were fighting. The truth is I become fourteen again when I am home, which was not my best age. Not sure 27 is a whole lot better, but if there is any chance Steve and I are going to make it as a couple, which I’m starting to doubt, there are things he shouldn’t see.

On the ninety minute drive upstate, I tell Clara just enough to make her helpful, but not enough to make her pity me. I tell her my mother is mentally ill, has been since I can remember, that my father was gone by the time I was five, that my sister, six years older, was the responsible one for awhile, but then had enough and left us alone, that it was all good, really, in the grand scheme of global trauma.

“She’s fine when she’s on her meds,” I say, as we get closer, and then, because I’m worried I may have sugar-coated the situation, “It may not be pretty,” I say. “She can be mean.”

“I’m sorry,” Clara says, putting her hand on my arm.

“Is what it is,” I say.

When Clara and I get to the house, my mother is in the kitchen. She has painted the walls with paprika–actual paprika, not the color–and nailed lemon slices to the doorway. It must have been hard work, because she is sitting at the island, sweating through her tee shirt, which says Save the Manatees. She is wearing pink sweatpants and no shoes. There is broken glass all over the floor, and I notice that all the frames with the school photos that lined the back wall are missing their glass.

It’s best not to challenge her when she’s this way, you never know what will set her off, so I step carefully through the mess to get a broom.

“Hi Mom,” I say like a fourteen year old.

“Fuck you,” she says like my mother.

“Get me a drink,” she says, and then notices Clara, who is standing with her back against the wall and her hands clutched in front of her as if praying. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea.

“Who the fuck are you?” My mother says, and then turns back to me. “I said, get me a fucking drink.” It’s ten o’clock in the morning. I can hear my sister’s voice in my head, but I shut it down and get the gin out. Maybe I can get her to take her pills with the cocktail. The goal is to either to get her back on her meds or to get her committed, which means things will have to get pretty bad here. Last time I tricked her into taking the pills, so I have hope, which is perhaps the most destructive of my coping mechanisms.

Clara takes a deep breath and carefully pulls a stool up next to my mother. She is making strange little cooing noises, which I’m not sure she is aware she’s doing. She starts rubbing my mother’s back. My mother has never been one who likes to be touched and she makes that clear with something close to a growl. But Clara soldiers on and my mother gives up and goes back to yelling at me, which I am good at ignoring.

I find a lime in the back of the refrigerator drawer. It’s a bit hard, but I’m pretty sure she is not going to notice. I grab the first knife I see in the drawer, a big one, and am too distracted by Clara, who is now hugging my mother, to imagine killing anyone with it.

And then I cut the tip of my finger off.

It takes me a second to realize it. The wedge of lime is halfway to the glass before I notice the blood, and it turns out that despite my overactive imagination, I can’t handle the sight of my own blood.

I wake up on the floor. Clara is leaning over me.

“I’m trained in First Aid!” she yells. “Call 911!” she yells. My mother is standing behind her, hopping up and down like a toddler.

I look at Clara and then at my hand. There’s a ridiculous amount of blood. I try to say something about getting a Sharpie, but I’m pretty sure it just sounds like a scream.

“Give me your belt!” Clara yells to my mother, who is not wearing a belt. “We need to stop the bleeding!”

“Fuck you!” my mother yells back, and I think she is laughing, or maybe crying, always hard to tell. I notice that her bare feet are covered in blood and I wonder if it’s mine or hers or if it even matters.

I remember something from our class about remaining calm, about applying steady pressure, but all I can get out is a barely audible apology.

The EMTs are kind and efficient. Clara apparently pulled it together and wrapped her fleece vest around my hand to stop the bleeding until they arrived, and they praise her as she hands them the gin and tonic glass with the tip of my finger on ice. I see them look around at the kitchen. I’m sure it will be hard to retell this one back at the station. One of them tells Clara on our way out that she may have saved my life, and it strikes me as a kind thing to say.

My mother and I ride in the ambulance together. She is strapped to the gurney, her feet wrapped in white bandages, and I am belted in upright. The EMT in the back with us offers to call someone, but I tell him not to, that we’re fine, that I could really drive myself, that this is really no big deal and everyone is overreacting and that I can take care of it all.

“The fuck she can,” says my mother, and I can tell from her tone that things are about to get pretty bad.

My hand throbs, wrapped tight in bandages and tape.

“I’m so sorry,” I say, maybe out loud. It doesn’t matter.

I’m released a few hours later. My mother is not. We’ll have at least 72 hours to figure out a plan or try to get her committed again. When Steve picks me up, I tell him we’ll talk about it tomorrow, and he just squeezes my hand.

While on painkillers, I don’t think of killing anyone. I even try to imagine it, just to test myself, but the water glass next to me is just a water glass and the balcony is just a nice place to sit with my feet up and watch the rain. It should feel good, this absence of violent thoughts, but I just feel vulnerable. Empty.

Clara comes over to help take care of me. She is different. Confident. She spills my water and doesn’t apologize. Steve laughs at something she says as if he’s sixteen. It’s all a bit too much, honestly, how easy they are. I think once I can feed myself and zip up my jeans by myself and open a bottle of wine by myself, I’m going to break up with both of them.

Emily Rinkema lives and writes in Vermont. Her work has appeared in Syntax, Phoebe, The Newer York, SmokeLong Quarterly, and twice in The Sun Magazine. She has won the Sixfold Fiction contest once before, and her winning story was in the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019. When not working, she can be found on the patio with her favorite human, Bill, her dogs, Frankie and Chet, and Jack Reacher the cat. IG and Twitter @emilyrinkema.

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