Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Winner of $1000 for 1st-place-voted Story

Tristen Chang


My brother Luke meets me at the Allentown airport, his arms knotted over his chest and his guitar slung across his back. He shuffles toward me and lifts my duffel bag onto his shoulder.

“Hey,” he says, “Let me see it.”

We are here because yesterday I got a letter from my father saying he had committed suicide. I tweeze the letter out of my purse with two fingers and hand it to Luke. It is written on graph paper, in my father’s engineer-caps, and reads:


Come to Bellasylva right away. I have taken a bottle of sleeping pills and died peacefully on our lake. I don’t like the thought of growing old. Don’t be upset. Get your brother, swim out to the boat, and bury me under the gazebo. Come soon. I left the water on in the house and don’t want the pipes to freeze.

I love you, I had a great life, I’ll be pissed if you’re sad. Take care.

Love Dad

“Jeezus,” Luke says. He slaps the letter against his chest and says he can see why I panicked.

I shrug. “I told you.”

“He wrote this two weeks ago,” he says, pointing at the date printed in the corner.

“I know,” I say. “Dushore mail.”

Luke re-reads it, tapping his finger over the paper.

“Eighty words,” he says, “He summed up his whole life in eighty goddamn words.”

We rent a car and spend most of the four-hour drive squinting at the snow. We’ve spent about twenty percent of our lives out here, but always in summer, and everything looks so different when it’s dusted in white.

“Do you remember when he told us he had cancer?” I say. Luke never takes his eyes off the road, but he shakes his head and pushes his hands against the steering wheel to dig his shoulders against the seat.

“Yeah,” he says, “That was so fucked.”

I scrub my palms over my knees, rocking slowly in the passenger seat, remembering the phone call I got a few years ago. I had been in college, Dad called and told me to sit down, he had something important to say. I sat in the middle of my bed, and tucked my thumbnail between my teeth. “Go ahead,” I said.

“I went to the doctor today.”


“Ry, I don’t want you to freak out now.”

“Okay. What’d they say.”

“They said it’s treatable.”

“What’s treatable.” I pulled the cuff of my sweatshirt over my hands, covered my mouth and chin.

“I have cancer.”

I sucked in my breath in what sounded like fast, staccato hiccups, set the phone in my lap, and bit down hard on the heel of my hand. I didn’t want Dad to hear me cry, so I took a few deep breaths, swallowed hard, and raised the phone back to my ear.

Dad was laughing.

I swallowed again.

“I’m just kidding, Sweetie. I don’t have cancer,” he said. “But I got laid off.”


“I just wanted to remind you that things could be a lot, lot worse.”

I am remembering that moment, the seizing clench of my ribs, when Luke says, So, hypothetically, what do we do. His left arm is straight and flexed on the steering wheel, like he’s trying to push it away from him.

“I mean,” he says, “So we get there. And he’s on the lake in the boat. And he’s dead. Or he’s sitting in the living room and he’s alive. Either way. What’s the plan.”

I slide off my shoes and pull my feet under me until I am sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat.

“You do whatever you want,” I say, “But I think if he’s bullshitting I won’t talk to him again. For a long time.”

Luke shrugs. “Sounds good.”

“Well no,” I say, “That’s just me. You react however you want.” I pause, trace my finger through my fogged breath on the window. “I can’t believe he wants us to swim in the lake when it’s freaking snowing outside.”

“I know,” Luke says, “What an asshole.”

We are quiet for a while and then Luke says, “I want us to do this together, though. United front, right?”

I nod. “For sure.” I reach toward him and we bump fists without looking.

“But if he is alive, that fucker’s paying for my plane ticket,” he says.

We pass through Hickory, then Dallas; I ask Luke if he wants me to take a turn driving but he shakes his head. Only once we get to Ricketts Glen, two hours later, do I start recognizing things. The waterfall is frozen, and the trees are packed so tightly that not even the moonlight filters through, but I know we’re only fifteen minutes from Lopez, then another fifteen to Dushore, and once we turn off Dutch Mountain Road and pass the water tower and cross Mehoopany Creek, the asphalt turns to dirt, that point in the drive where Dad would stop the car when Luke and I were little, and Luke and I would clamber into the trunk and drive the rest of the way squealing with laughter, and once we’re on those familiar crunching roads we’ll only have thirty minutes until we get to what Google Maps now calls SR 3001, which we’ve always called Bellasylva.

Bellasylva started as a 900-acre parcel in 1811, and got its name because my great-great-great grandfather misheard his Spanish friend describing it as a “bella selva.” Straddling the borders of Wyoming and Cherry counties, Bellasylva isn’t a town, though we do have our own cemetery, home first to my great-grandparents who died ten days apart, now also home to my aunt and uncle, and the baby sister I never knew. There used to be a post office as well, but it closed, and now we have to drive thirteen miles in to Dushore to pick up our mail. The only sign is the faded lettering on an old barn, where “Bellasylva” used to hang, but someone took the letters down years ago and now all that remains are the sun-bleached outlines. Bellasylva is much smaller now, and the lots keep shrinking and subdividing with each generation, but the lake still looks the same.

The Bellasylva lake has been in our family for over 200 years. So has the crumbling green house at the end of the road, and the outhouse behind it, that my great-great grandfather built in 1837. Pennsylvania ferns and birch trees fringe the lake, there is a beaver house at the north end, you can hear the beaver cubs squeaking on summer nights. At the south end, there is a cherry tree that hangs over the water; Luke and I used to climb out onto the lower branches and spit down at the sunfish. The mist gathers in clouds and drifts over the surface each morning, and on still nights, you can hear leaves falling on the water. There are blueberries and water lilies, two mattress-sized rafts Uncle Jerry built, and the gazebo Dad and Luke and I hammered together last year.

The dirt roads don’t crunch in the winter. They slush. I look at Luke, about to joke about getting in to the trunk, but he won’t look at me so I stay quiet. We’ve never driven ourselves out here, without Dad.

When we finally get to the house, it’s past midnight, and pitch dark. There is a rental car in the side yard under a few inches of snow. The water is on, like Dad said, and his suitcase is sitting empty in his closet, clothes put away into drawers. Like he just walked down to Uncle Jerry’s for chain oil. The kitchen lights are on, there is bulgokee in the fridge, and milk that is starting to sour. Firewood is stacked. The sheets in our rooms freshly washed. Luke stands in the doorway of Dad’s room, pulls his beanie off and rakes his fingers through his matted hair. “Fuck,” is all he says.

I leave our suitcases in the hallway and grab the big flashlight from the basement.

“You ready?” I ask, and Luke nods, pulls his pilled brown beanie over his head. We take off sprinting toward the lake, kicking tree roots, pitching forward and catching ourselves, leaving naked handprints in the snow. We’re both still in our California wear, just jeans and sweatshirts, which barely blink at this November Pennsylvania cold. But we hardly notice.

Luke gets to the shore before I do; I come up behind him panting and swinging the broad beam flashlight at knee level. He grabs it from me and holds it at his chest, aims it over the lake. The fog is so thick, we can only see a few feet in front of us. Luke paws at the fog with his hands, as if to move it out of the way.

“Dammit,” I say, “That’s not going to work, Stupid.” Luke turns and shines the flashlight straight in my face.

Back in the living room, Luke builds a fire and I cook bulgokee and rice. It’s ten p.m. California-time, and neither of us can sleep, though I realize I haven’t slept since I opened my mail yesterday. Almost exactly twenty-four hours ago. I had torn the letter open hastily, already nervous, because I got exactly one piece of mail a year from Dad and it was always a Christmas card, blank except for “Dad” and the slant-eyed smiley face he always drew next to it, which he had drawn on our lunch bags as kids. I read it twice and then called Luke and told him Dad may have committed suicide. Luke said Yeah right then I read him the letter and he said Ryann, he’s fucking with us and I said Maybe but I’m going out there, please please please come with me and Luke groaned and I said I’d pay for his ticket and he said no and then we booked our tickets, mine from San Francisco and his from Sacramento, and then we were in Allentown, and then we were in Dushore, and then we were on the dirt roads, and then we were here. Then the lake. Then here. Now.

“Remember last summer?” I say between bites of rice, “The fish hook?”

Luke groans and asks why I keep bringing up these fucked-up memories.

“I think it was actually worse for you than it was for me,” I say.

“Oh, absolutely,” Luke says, “No question.”

“Actually, maybe it was worse for Dad. Remember how much he cried?”

Luke shakes his head. “Drama queen,” he says, “but I’m the one who had to get it out.”

I shudder, remembering the three of us on the lake, Dad casting drunkenly, snagging his lure deep in the skin of my outer thigh, just above the knee. At first, Luke’s eyes widened in alarm, but when he saw I wasn’t bleeding, he laughed, called Dad an idiot, and cast along the edge of the water lilies. But when I went to pull it out, the barb snagged, and I sucked in my breath. Luke looked at me and wrinkled his eyebrows. I tried pressing down on the barb again and my gasp sounded like a windstorm in the quiet stillness on the lake.

“Oh shit,” Luke had said, “That’s not good.” He rowed us home and he and Dad helped me hobble up to the house and I winced with every step, and by the time they got me up the porch steps Dad was crying softly.

“I’m so sorry, Honey,” he said, “I can’t believe I did this to you.”

I said it was fine and Dad turned to Luke and said Take care of her, Luke. Take care of your sister.

They got me into a chair; Luke snipped the other two barbs off the three-pronged lure. They tried to give me vodka, but I waved them away, and asked for a washcloth. There was hardly any blood, but I dabbed at it anyway, then put a clean corner into my mouth to bite on. Luke knelt beside me and watched in vain as I pressed and winced, pressed and winced, making no progress but gasping with the effort each time. After half an hour, he took the pliers from me.

“Ryann, I hate to say this, but that’s not coming out like that,” he said.

He told me we had to push it all the way through. I shuddered and shook my head, eyes glistening. “Okay,” I said, “I don’t care, just get this thing out of me.”

Dad wiped his eyes and asked again if I needed a drink. Luke pulled up a chair next to me, clamped the pliers around the barb, and pushed until the other side raised a small mound in my leg. I screamed so hard my whole body shook.

“Oh my God,” Luke said, turning away from me to catch his breath, “I am so sorry Ry, this is going to hurt like hell, but it’s too deep to just come out like that. I’m going to have to push the skin around it down and oh man it’s going to hurt like hell.”

“Okay,” I said, “It’s okay. Fishermen must do this all the time.”

I held my breath and stiffened; Dad held my shoulders; Luke pressed the skin taut and tweezed the barb through. I screamed through the rag in my mouth, screamed my cheeks red, screamed until snot flew. But the hook was out, it was out, and Luke lay face down on the porch, pliers still in hand, and Dad kept crying and pouring rubbing alcohol on the wound, but I didn’t feel it, didn’t feel a thing, not a whisper of sting but the full blow of sore, of dull pain I welcomed, anything but the sharp tear of the last almost-hour. I blew my nose on the washcloth, stood and walked over to my brother, still face down and breathing against the wood of the porch.

“I’m so glad that’s over,” I said, laughing.

Luke nodded, eyes closed, and dropped the pliers.

Early the next morning, we go back down to the lake. We pull our snowboarding pants and jackets over our clothes, roll wool socks up our calves, stretch the laces tight across our boots. Luke brings a rope. I don’t know why.

The lake is only a few hundred yards from the house, but by the time we get there, my nose is already bitten with cold. Luke folds his arms across his chest and clamps his gloved hands in his armpits, the rope coiling around his elbow. The lake is quiet, humming with a soft wind, the water lilies gone and replaced by a veil of pale silver and white. It’s not snowing, but the breeze unsettles the snow on the trees, and it falls around the lake in small flurries. The trees are bare, branches twisting like wires, trunks dusted with frost. Luke and I stand shoulder to shoulder at the bank. Our aluminum rowboat is alone on the lake, twenty yards from the shore.

“Oh my god,” I say.

Luke is silent.

We stand there for several minutes, not saying anything. Then I start to cry and step onto the frozen lake with one foot. I put my full weight on the ice, and don’t feel any give beneath me. I step forward with my other foot, crouching low, and my heel slams through the ice. Luke grabs my arm and pulls me back; I land hard on my elbows.

“Don’t be stupid,” he says.

He drops the rope and pulls me to my feet. The whites of his eyes are red, the irises sea-turtle green and brown, glassy as the lake under this finger-thin layer of ice. He is much taller than me now, almost six feet, with dark brown clumps of hair framing his face, and stooped shoulders. He turns around, raises his foot, and kicks the gazebo, then turns again and faces the boat.

“Dad?” he says, as though Dad were across the dinner table, chatting with one of his waitresses, clinking his glass against hers.

Still. Quiet. The wind drops snow onto our cheeks.


He covers his mouth and coughs into his hands.

I stand next to him and scream Dad toward the boat, loud and long, my voice raw with the cold. Luke yells with me, wheels around and kicks the gazebo again, harder, until the lattice work splinters. He kicks forward and back, like a man in flames, until the whole thing shakes and rattles the nails loose.

We hike to Uncle Jerry’s and carry his canoe to the edge of the lake. Luke chops the ice with an oar, settles the canoe on the water, and I climb in behind him. We tap the ice until it breaks, gently so we don’t tip, and paddle slowly toward our boat. As we get closer, I can see the blue tackle box, a fishing pole propped on the bench. We can almost touch the boat now. I see the metallic shine of a cardboard six-pack. The hood of a sweatshirt.

My father is lying in the middle of the boat, head turned away from us, body curled in like a fist. And without thinking, I am stepping toward him, foot in the air, in a panicked leap, then crashing into the water, breath frozen in me like a cast spell, arms chopping ice once, twice, pulling myself into our boat, arms shaking. I can’t grip the sides, Luke is yelling and waving his oar at me, canoe rocking. I heave my hips against the lip of the boat and it tips toward me, my father’s body pitches forward, face-up and into the water next to me. His eyes are closed, his mouth open, his skin the color of a rain cloud. I yell and Luke yells and jams his oar against the floor of our boat and steadies it, I fall inside, Dad falls outside, still curled, and floats between us like the red and white bobbers we clamped to our fishing lines as kids.

After Luke jumps in our boat screaming about what an idiot I am and rows me back to the house and throws me in the shower, boots and all, we sit in front of the wood-burning stove, passing whiskey between us, and talk about what to do with Dad.

“We should call the cops,” I say, “File a report or something.”

He waves me off, says nobody is going to come out here anytime soon, that the weather will just get worse, that we’d be better off dealing with this from California.

“We have the letter and records of our flights and stuff,” Luke says, “in case we have to prove that we didn’t kill him.”

That hadn’t occurred to me. I sip my whiskey and nod.

“We’re not going to be back here anytime soon,” he says, “Let’s just do this now and figure out the rest once we get home.”

I nod. “Should we call Mom?”

“What’s she going to do?”

I shrug. They had been divorced for over twenty years.

“Call her if you want,” he says.

We stay quiet for a few moments. My head is spinning questions about what we should do, who we should call, how likely we are to be suspects of a crime. The rules have always felt different in Bellasylva.

Finally I speak. “We should bury him,” I say. “Like he wanted.”

Luke shakes his head. “No. We’re not ending on that note.” He stares at the air in front of him and shakes his head gently. “He fucked with us too much.”

“Not under the gazebo then. Somewhere else.”

“Just let him sink. He wouldn’t care.” Luke swallows his whiskey with pursed lips, staring straight ahead.

“But that’s just gross. And I could never swim in there again because I’d be scared of finding him.”

We decide to bury him in the Bellasylva cemetery. We take the rope out in our boat, row out, tie Dad to one end, and the canoe to the other. We row back to shore, towing Dad and the canoe, then put Dad in the canoe, and slide it up the trail to the cemetery. We pick a spot, to the right of the big sister we never met, and hack at the dirt with a shovel until our hands are sweaty and slippery inside our gloves. The ground is almost frozen, and chips away like rock. After two hours, we’ve only gotten a few inches deep.

“This isn’t going to work,” Luke says, “We should come back in spring and bury him when the ground is softer.”

I don’t answer him.

After a few minutes of silence, I throw down my shovel and stomp back toward the house. I boil a kettle of water, and grab a hoe and posthole digger from the basement. I trudge back to Luke with the kettle in one hand and tools clamped under my arm, and suggest we pour hot water over the dirt to soften it. He is dubious, but lets me trickle the hot water over the ground. Steam hisses up like a geyser and we stand over the warmth, unwinding our scarves and dropping our faces into the warm vapor, which cools and condenses on our cheeks almost instantly, and leaves us colder than we were. But the ground is softer, even though it’s muddy, and we work quickly to shovel the muck before the water can refreeze. Every half hour or so, I hike back to the house, boil more water, and sprinkle it over the ground, like Saint Teresa warding off the devil.

It takes us two days to dig deep enough. Even through scarves, the air is so cold, our windpipes feel stripped and dry. At the end of the second day, the sun is sinking below the tree line over the lake, the forest looks like a black and white photograph. We’ve carved out a pit, the size of a long coffee table, deep enough for Luke to stand up in and not be able to see anything.

“Okay,” Luke says, “I think that’s good.”

I nod and ask how we should get him down. Luke says we can drop him in gently.

“That just sounds awful.”

“Well, what do you propose, Ry. What are the options.”

I tell Luke that we should straighten him out, cross his arms over his chest, gently drop his feet in, then lower his head slowly, using the rope.


But the body won’t straighten. My dad is curled, with his knees to his chest, arms clasped over his knees, chin tilted toward his left shoulder. The bald spot on the crown of his head is a pale beige tinted blue, like the bottom of a swimming pool. Snow has collected on the curly black hairs around it like a halo. It looks like part of his right ear is missing. Luke pulls on his ankle while I push down on his knee, but we both feel like something might crack. We decide to leave him curled up.

“Do you want a lock of hair from him or something?” I ask, “I don’t think he’d mind.”

Luke shakes his head. We fold the rope in half and thread it behind Dad’s neck. Because he is still curled, we lower him in knees-up, his forehead pressed toward the dirt wall. We lower his head down, pull the rope back up, stand there looking at each other.

“We should pray or something,” I say.

Luke shrugs. “Go ahead.”

I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, but all that comes to me is For health and strength and daily food we praise thy name O Lord, the jingle prayer our mom has sung with us each dinner since we were kids. For food and friends and family we praise thy name O Lord.

I nod at Luke, squeeze my eyes tight for a few seconds, then start scraping the dirt over my father’s body with my boots.

That night, Luke and I sit out on the porch, wrapped in blankets and watching the clouds blow past the stars. Luke smokes; I hold a flashlight straight up and breathe deliberately into the beam of light, my mouth open, breath crystallizing in front of me.

“Do you want to come back here?” he says, “In summer? Like normal?”

My heart seizes for a moment; I hadn’t thought that far.

“I guess we have to,” I say, “I think it might be ours now.”

“Holy shit,” Luke says.

I sweep the flashlight slowly across the yard in front of us, picturing it during the summer: knee-high grasses and the wild daisies Dad always mowed around, the fallen birch trees that line the path to the lake, the moss-covered rock that Luke and I scrambled over as kids. The years Dad would stand below us, his arms wide, and tell us to jump.

I click the flashlight off, turn my face to the right, toward the lake, and to the left, toward the cemetery. I think about my father, my sister, and wonder where we can go to buy a headstone. I wonder if he’d want a headstone. What he’d want it to say. The porch lights are off and the only light comes from the moon, and the fire in the living room flickering through the window. The lake reflects the moonlight like a broken mirror, patches of ice bright silver, throwing the light back to me. Two choppy lines on the edge of the lake look dark, converging like the heart line of my palm, taking the light in, underwater, to somewhere I can’t see.

Tristen Chang grew up in Woodland, California, and received her MA in English from UC Davis. She appeared in The Best of Pif Magazine: Offline and was recently awarded the Chip Northrup Fellowship for fiction. She now lives in San Francisco and teaches creative writing.

Dotted Line