Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2016    poetry    all issues


Cover Joel Filipe

Casey Whitworth

Mike Beasley
Childish Things

Dan Timoskevich

Brandon Barrett
No Weapon Forged Against You Will Prevail

Martine Fournier Watson
The Box

Abby Sinnott

Kim Catanzarite
At the Light on 17 and King

Louise Hawes
Bend This Page

Mike Karpa
The Link

Sandra Wiley
Bullfrog Stew

Melanie Unruh

John Etcheverry
If God Were a Woman

Matthew Callan
I Need to Know If You Have the Mask

Shannon L. Bowring
Still Life

Shoshana Razel Gordon-Guedalia

Writer's Site

Melanie Unruh


We weren’t one of those families that paid attention, not to each other anyway. Ours were superficial bonds, often centered on the outside world. Together we watched in dismay when the Phillies choked in the 1993 World Series. We all shook our heads as Bill Clinton backpedaled away from Monica into his impeachment trial. On September 11th, those of us still at home gathered around the television again, staring dumbly at the chaos on the screen, unable to find the words to comfort ourselves, let alone each other. From the outside we looked like any other suburban nuclear family: father-mother-daughter-daughter. But the façade fell away once Jenna left.

We were sad when she went away but none of us commented on the real effects of her absence. Instead, we noted the little things. Our water bill went down. The boy next door stopped cracking his blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jenna with her clothes off. We no longer bought pears or licorice, not when she was the only one who ate them.

I was sure she was having the time of her life. At 14, she had left me, her nine-year-old sister, alone with our train-wreck parents to live with Katherine and Ed Cooper, family friends who lived hundreds of miles away, and who were all too happy to accommodate her escape from us. They were ten years younger than our parents, the fun, surrogate aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm and belonged to a community Scrabble league. Late at night, the downstairs floorboards would creak while my mother paced, waiting for my father to get home, and I would lie awake, trying to imagine my sister’s new life: riding horses, learning unique words that began with q, planning themed birthday parties.

When she lived with us, Jenna’s favorite thing to do was provoking our parents. She failed two classes and had to take summer school after 7th grade; she tried to shave her head but Mom heard the buzzing of the clippers and managed to stop her before she could do more than her bangs; she showed up at dinner one night with a little black heart on the inside of her wrist, which my father tried to scrub off, only to realize that Jenna had found someone willing to tattoo a 14-year-old. The walls shook at night as my parents fought and threw whatever was at hand: a hairbrush, a clock radio, a glass of half-melted ice. But as soon as they made the decision to send Jenna away, as soon as Katherine and Ed stepped in and said We can help her, it was as if someone had sucked all the rage out of our house. For two weeks before she left, my sister went to school, did the dishes after dinner, and watched me while our parents muddled through therapy.

Everything seemed great until she got on the bus and headed west. Once it was just the three of us, the fights stopped, only to be replaced by silence. My parents tried to use me as a medium—Claire, tell your father the garbage can stinks. Claire, tell your mother her tumblers are leaving rings on the coffee table—so I made myself scarce. I was clumsy and prone to sunburn, but I joined the soccer team and ended up playing for five years just to have a reason to be gone. When I was home, I had my nose in a book. Our only “family time” was on Friday nights, when we ate pizza and watched the news or a baseball game together.

My sister had left no trail of breadcrumbs to follow. The first year, I called her once a week, eager for the words I knew she was going to say. You can come live here, too. Instead, she would tell me about a football game she went to or how the Coopers were paying her an allowance for helping in the garden and mucking horse stalls, and she was saving up to buy a leather jacket.

I began telling people I was an only child.

It’s been three years since Jenna moved out of the Coopers’ house and went to Penn State. She’s home with us now for winter break. My parents’ divorce has been final for a year, and Dad just moved to Virginia with his new wife and baby. The Coopers drove in from Ohio yesterday and are staying in town with Katherine’s cousin. Mom wants to do something nice for them—they helped raise her daughter, after all—so she’s arranged a dinner for three days after Christmas. Katherine thought it would be fun to surprise Jenna, who hasn’t seen them since she moved back to Pennsylvania for school.

Mom sends me to the pizza place down the street and when I return, straining to carry the unwieldy stack of boxes, my shoes full of melted snow, the Coopers have arrived. The children, Kyle and Casey, are chasing our senile cat Henry around the living room. I set the pizzas down on the dining room table and approach Katherine and Ed, who are chatting with Mom.

“Claire Bear!” they exclaim in unison. No one else is allowed to call me this, not even my own family. Katherine and Ed still look the same. She’s a diminutive woman, whose large chest and bright blue eyes compete for her most striking feature, and he’s brawny and tall, his grin half-hidden by his copper mustache.

“I have a new word for you,” I tell them. Once upon a time, I played this game, hoping they would realize I was more valuable than Jenna, but now I do it out of habit.

“Lay it on us,” Katherine says, her eyes fixed on me.

“Quixotry. Q-u-i-x—”

“Claire,” Mom calls, coming up behind me and tugging on a strand of my dirty blond hair, as though this is a regular affectionate gesture between us. “Go help your sister in the kitchen.”

I find my sister in the pantry, blank eyes fixated on canned goods. “I think Mom moved the plates,” she murmurs. After I show her that they’re in the same place they’ve always been, I ask if she’s okay.

“Yeah,” she says. “Still just decompressing from this semester.”

I gather cups from the dishwasher. “Isn’t it great they’re here? I can’t even remember the last time we saw them. Do you think Ed will tell the story about—?”

“I’m tired,” she says flatly. “I hope this doesn’t become a late night thing.”

When we enter the dining room, everyone is all smiles and anecdotes, even Jenna. It isn’t until later that I recall the way she looked when Ed hugged her, like the rigid exoskeleton of a bug that crawled away.

Diary Dear,

You would probably accuse me of lying. Embellishment. Whatever you want to call it. I know what I’ve said, though, so I don’t need you to dissect me for the truth. Can you spot the lie, anyway?

A. I put my little sister, Claire, in the freezer once. It was a huge one and she was only in there for a second, but her eyes were almost bugging out of her head when I reopened the door. I offered her a grape Popsicle and she burst into tears.

B. My family was supposed to drive from PA to Ohio for my high school graduation. Two days before the ceremony, Claire called to say that Dad had spent the trip money on a new set of golf clubs. They sent me a card instead.

C. Ed’s penis was uncircumcised. It tasted like sweat and sometimes underwear lint, but never like Katherine.

What’s that? I didn’t think so.


On New Year’s Eve the temperature drops to ten below zero. People interviewed about it on the news complain, but one woman declares that it’s a sign we are freezing out our troubles so we can start over with a clean slate. Mom says she can’t believe they put nuts like her on TV.

Jenna is out buying booze for a party she and her friend Stephanie are going to in the city. Stephanie arrives before Jenna and I hunker down on the living room couch with Henry and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle so she won’t see me. She and my sister have been friends since middle school, and she has the most obnoxious, high-pitched voice I’ve ever heard. The last thing I want is that voice asking me about my “high school experience.” Mom invites her into the kitchen, and neither seems to notice me. Their voices hum like grating white noise, until Stephanie uses the word secret, and my ears perk up. The book drops onto my chest, forgotten. Henry rubs his whiskers against my hand and I absentmindedly stroke his coarse, bony back.

After I can’t listen anymore, after Mom starts weeping, I sneak outside to the porch swing and pull my knees into my chest. Overhead, the moon looks like a fat, white hole ripped in the night sky.

Did I mishear them?

Jenna’s blue Honda skids into the driveway. She’s on her phone so she doesn’t see me sitting beneath the dim porch light. Even in her thick brown pea coat, she is tiny. I could never wear her clothes, the leftovers she dumped in her closet when she visited, because I have my mother’s “wide-set hips,” as Dad likes to say, and my father’s “elephant feet,” as Mom calls them. My sister can’t be more than a size two.

She and Stephanie emerge from the house and jog down the steps. Their breath looks smoky in the cold air as they talk. I study their body language. Does Stephanie have any idea I heard? Does Jenna know Stephanie told Mom?

“Jenna,” I call out.

They both look up, startled.

“You better go inside or you’ll freeze,” is all Jenna says before they get into her car and drive away. Stephanie never once makes eye contact with me.

I find my mother at the kitchen table, a tall, clear bottle of Absolut Vodka in front of her. “Mom, you shouldn’t—” I begin, and she holds up her hand to silence me.

On my way upstairs, I hear the freezer door creak open as she rummages for ice.

We were driving to the mall to go Christmas shopping. I was seven and Jenna was twelve. Mom found a station playing “Silver Bells and turned it up. Dad glared at her. He spun the knob back the other way so the music was inaudible. “I have a headache,” he said.

“Jesus, what was I thinking putting on Christmas music in December?” Mom smacked her forehead.

“Seriously?” Dad muttered.

“You know what, Leo? Fuck you. Fuck you and this holiday.”

Dad’s dark eyes found us in the rearview mirror. “Did you hear that, girls? Your mother just canceled Christmas.” He got into the left lane and made an abrupt U-turn.

“What are you doing?” Mom demanded. “We still have to—”

I tried to think of the lyrics to “Silver Bells.” I began humming it, forcing out any sound I could manage.

Jenna blew on the window and traced a flower on the steamed glass.

“. . . some fucking nerve . . .”

“. . . probably shouldn’t be at the mall anyway . . . just steal something again . . .”

I stopped humming and elbowed my sister in the ribs. But she shook her head, refusing to look at me. She had already checked out.


I have a boyfriend. His locker is above mine in the underclassman hallway. He invited me to his house today and made me a peanut butter sandwich. Then I let him put his little mushroom dick in me. Not sure if he could tell he wasn’t the first. None of this counts, anyway—I can do this thing now where I’m not even in my body when someone else is inside me. They can do anything and it’s like I’m not even there.

He wanted to get drunk on Friday but I didn’t feel like it. I told him that when I was seven I lost half my liver in a bad car accident, so now I can’t drink alcohol. I hope he doesn’t ever catch me drinking with my friends because then he’ll call me a liar. He wouldn’t be the first. I could have been in a bad car accident when I was seven. It sounds familiar, actually. Maybe he’s not really my boyfriend . . .


I don’t go out for New Year’s. I know of one party, but the thought of being around a bunch of drunk, handsy varsity soccer players turns my stomach, so I stay home and go to bed early, trying to ignore the sounds of my mother’s unrest. Well past midnight, the bottle of Absolut half empty—nothing she touches is ever half full—Mom picks up the phone.

I don’t know when Katherine realized Mom had a drinking problem. Maybe she always knew. But then why didn’t she try to rescue me, too? It’s easy to discredit the rantings of a drunk. In fact, if you first hear of something so unimaginable from a lifelong alcoholic, you can shut down any further discussion, no matter where it comes from. I know the kinds of things that Katherine, an attorney, who Dad once said had a reputation for being a courtroom bully, must have said, those ice blue eyes narrowed. It’s pathetic that instead of trying to understand your own family’s problems, you’re trying to create them for us. Why would Jenna have continued to stay here if something like that happened?

When Jenna gets home the next morning, Mom is a mixture of anger, grief, and pride as she tells her about the phone call. Jenna’s hair is in a ratty ponytail, her eyes bloodshot and sleep-deprived. I don’t dare tell her how much she looks like Mom after a binge. Mom sits hunched on the couch with a red and black afghan over her shoulders, her hair matted to her head like clumps of gray-brown seaweed. “This is all my fault. Why did I let you go?” she wails.

I creep back into the kitchen to finish making eggs for my mother, and to arrange the orange juice, water, and Aspirin on the calico kitten breakfast tray. Jenna appears beside me. “Get your coat,” she says, pulling her boots back on, grabbing her keys from the table.

She drives too fast on the icy streets. I don’t tell her to slow down.

“I guess you know what’s going on,” she says and I nod. “Goddamned Stephanie. I can’t believe I even told her. I was wasted. I’m no fucking better than Mom.”

“Are you okay?”

She rounds a corner and we fishtail, just missing an embankment.

“Oh, I’m great. You got to stay with Mom and Dad and I went to live with a beloved pedophile. Fantastic.”

“Why didn’t you come back?” I ask.

“Did you know that my name isn’t Jenna?”

“Huh?” I say, clutching my seat as we take another sharp turn.

“Dad left Mom when she was pregnant with me. He wasn’t even there when I was born. So Mom decides to call me—get this—Rose.” She lets out a hollow laugh. “A few months later, Dad’s back and he hates the name, so they change it without even making it legal. I just found out last year when I needed my birth certificate.”

I feel sick. The list of the things I can’t begin to process is getting too long. Jenna makes a hard right into the local park. She cuts the engine and gets out, headed toward the wooden bridge that arches over the half-frozen creek. I watch her, unable to move. She might throw herself in, I think, and then I’m out the door, slipping on the thin coating of snow on the ground as I chase her.

She reaches the bridge and swings her short legs over the railing. I sprint the last fifty feet and throw my arms around her waist. “What are you doing?” she asks, but doesn’t try to move me. We remain that way, her sitting on the edge of the bridge, me with my arms around her midsection, my forehead against her back. It’s the most physical contact we’ve had since we were kids.

I relent first, releasing her and rubbing my gloveless fingers together. Jenna straddles the railing. Tufts of her wavy brown hair protrude from under her purple knit cap: a gift from Katherine and Ed, I remember. Their presence is everywhere. How can she stand it? I tear the hat off her head and throw it. It lands in the creek, and instead of rushing away, it lies there undisturbed, a purple stain on the frosted surface of the water.

She gazes down at the hat. “Maybe I wanted to keep it.”

I fight the urge to shove her over.

Dear Much-Neglected Diary,

I’ve had this recurring dream for years. It starts with Claire painting my toenails. At first I think she’s painting them red, but then I realize I’m bleeding. She’s elbow-deep in my blood, but she keeps sweeping the wand across my bloody nail beds anyway. I can’t seem to tell her what’s wrong.

Dad appears and turns on the TV. He laughs. I’m rooted in my chair, unable to speak, and now my feet burn, as if they’re being sawed off. I glance down and instead of Claire, my mother is there on her knees, gnawing on my feet. Claire has joined Dad in front of the TV. They laugh. I try to wave at them, to kick Mom away, but it’s no use.

Someone speaks. I can’t understand what’s been said; it sounds like a nonsense language, all vowels or something, but I turn. There’s a man at the door with his hands extended toward me. He is a dark, faceless shadow, but I know him. He takes me in his arms and together we melt into the gloom.


Jenna and I sat on the Coopers’ leather sofa watching The Price is Right. She was fifteen; I was ten. I thought all grandfathers must be like Bob Barker—gangly, tan, clad in three-piece suits—because I never knew either of mine. Mom and Katherine had gone outlet shopping to celebrate Katherine’s first pregnancy. Dad and Ed were in the barn, ostensibly looking at Ed’s new tractor, but probably smoking cigars.

“Is the baby going to be like a little sister or brother to you?” I asked Jenna.

She shoveled a handful of popcorn into her mouth and chewed. When she didn’t respond, I continued. “What’s it like being here all the time? Is your school nice? Does Ed snore as bad as he did that one time we all stayed at that hotel?”

Jenna snatched the remote from me. “Shut the fuck up, will you?”

I didn’t understand. The handful of times my parents and I went to Ohio, my sister would never leave my side, even insisting I sleep in bed with her. But then she acted like she didn’t even want me there.

When Kyle was born, the Coopers sent a picture of Jenna holding him. She was smiling, but she had dark rings under her eyes. Both of their faces had a raw, pink look, like the underside of a scab. I threw the photo away without showing it to my parents.

The yelling wakes me early in the morning. I drag myself to the top of the stairs and slump against the wooden banister.

“That’s it? He just gets away with what he did?”

“What do you want from me? It’s too late now.”

“So you preferred living with a child molester over your own family?”

My sister laughs. “Maybe I did. What’d you ever do for me?”

Mom gasps.

“I’m going. Tell Claire bye for me.”

The front door slams. I run back to my bed and feign sleep, but Mom shakes me until I have to pretend to wake up. “I need you to go to the store for me.”

“I’m not buying you vodka.”

My mother draws her lips into a tight, pale bow. I think she might strike me, but instead she hands me a wad of money and a grocery list. She doesn’t seem to care that I only have my permit, so I take the keys and drive her dingy Chevy to the Acme.

I have to circle the store multiple times because her list is so disorganized. Each time I pass the same pyramid display of reindeer-shaped cookies, I want to ram my cart into it. As I examine a package of “cheese product”, and debate if Mom will notice it’s not cheddar, a man calls out, “Hey, Claire Bear!”

I turn to find him towering over me, grinning, and I fight the urge to recoil. I imagine bugs nesting in his thick mustache, the stench of old sweat on his breath, the dead skin of a teenage girl lurking beneath his fingernails. I’m rooted behind my cart.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

Ed laughs. He holds up a plastic jug of maple syrup. “Pancake run. I drew the short straw.” When I make no response, he frowns. “Is everything all right?”

“Uh-huh.” I grind my nails into the cart handle and nod.

“Well, c’mere and give me a hug. Who knows when I’ll see you next?”

I allow his heavy arms to crush me against him. He pulls back and tweaks my nose. “You say hi to everyone for me,” he says.

I sprint to the check-out line. Mom can live without split pea soup and jelly. I drive around until I end up at the park. The car idles in the January chill, clouds of exhaust billowing up behind me, whiter than the snow, now discolored from footprints and dog piss. My cheeks burning with tears, I beat my fists against the steering wheel. I picture Jenna sitting on the bridge railing and recall my desire to shove her. I might as well have.

Dear Soon-to-Be-Burned-Diary,

The first time, I’m listening to Radiohead. Exit Music (for a Film). Headphones over my ears, sprawled across the bed on my stomach, facing the window. I never hear the door. Never hear it when he comes in. His sudden weight on the bed jolts me. “You startled me,” I say. Or maybe I say, “Hey” or “What’s going on?” or “Why are you staring at my ass, Ed?” Or maybe I just punch him in the face. Isn’t that the story everyone wants to hear? The girl that something bad almost happens to, but she fights back? Let’s go with that. Let’s not say that the first time he ties me to the bed with my own scarf and shoves my face down, down, down under the pillows. The headphones at my neck, the music faint. Let’s not imagine that afterward, he yanks the scarf until my wrists, chafed, but not the worst of it, fall slack at my sides. Let’s believe that he never says, “You say anything, and I’ll hurt your sister,” before leaving. My face still down, down, down beneath the pillows. Let’s not suppose that I’m stupid enough to think that if I stay here, my head submerged, then nothing has really happened at all. I never even hear the door.


I call my sister and it rings half a dozen times before she answers.

“What?” Jenna mumbles, and I can’t tell if she’s drunk or half-asleep.

“Can I come visit you at school?”

She clears her throat. “I’m fine, Claire. I don’t need your help.”

“Not everything is about you.”

The line goes quiet.

“I’m not allowed to be angry at anyone. What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know,” she says, her voice flat.

“I just needed someone. Any single one of you. For fuck’s sake, I—”

“Don’t call me again,” she says and hangs up.

In my sister’s room, I sit on her narrow childhood bed and wonder what the shape of our lives would have been if she had just stayed.

The summer Jenna turned 17, she came home to visit for three weeks. She took me to get my hair done at a real salon. I don’t recall the name of the place anymore, just that I had tea in a Snoopy mug and everyone there called me “sweetheart.”

Jenna let me get my hair done like hers, shoulder-length with layers and wispy bangs. After, we stared at ourselves in the mirror. Though our bodies were different, our eyes were the same shade of hazel, our noses prominent, aquiline; even the pattern of freckles on our cheeks had an eerie similarity. The hair only accentuated our sameness.

“We do kinda look alike, don’t we?” I said, fluffing my new hair.

Jenna’s eyes grew glassy and she shook her head. “You don’t want to look like me. What if we had them go a little shorter?”

And so we did.

Melanie Unruh’s work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Post Road, Philadelphia Stories, and Cutthroat, among others. Her nonfiction received notable mention in Best American Essays 2013. At present, she is working on a cycle of essays and her second YA novel. Melanie lives in New Mexico with her husband, son, and their two cats.

Dotted Line