Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2017    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2017 Issue


Cover Thought-Forms

Derek Rose

H. Fry

Slater Welte
Our Last Summer at the Lake

G. Bernhard Smith
Bread and Water

Sarah Blanchard
The Bus Driver

Dalton James
Butter Teeth

Joshunda Sanders

T. B. O'Neill
The Court Martial of Darren Sweet

Faith Shearin
Island Ecology

Jess Greenwald

Eileen Arthurs
Limbo Babies

Rosy Tahan

Chris Brewer
Good People

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

Derek Rose


The wolves are out again tonight, roaming a place that no longer exists. They knife between hollow limestone houses, tracking, pitching their heads toward each new scent. Their pelts are slick with moonlight, their eyes malignantly agleam. Even on the cobbled streets, their paws are silent. A single howl, low at first, almost sorrowful, incites another howl, then another.

Unable to ignore the noise, Marion splays her book across her lap and shuts her eyes. She’s had little to do these past few weeks other than read by the fireplace. Now even this comfort is being stolen from her. There was a time after the Great War when wolves had been driven out of France, killed off either for sport or as collateral. It’s the first spring since the Second War ended, and wolves have only just begun returning to the country.

Her husband, Lucas, paces upstairs in the bedroom, a crudely-rolled cigarette dangling at his hip and molting ash onto the floorboards. He knows where the wolves are headed: Monsieur Bernard’s old house, right across the street. He tries to gauge their distance, to trace their path in his mind, and soon they arrive—two or three, at first—but more appear, gnashing at Bernard’s front door and scarring his stone walls. They writhe around the house, a mass of hackles and teeth.

From downstairs, Marion hears Lucas call her name. “Come quick,” he says. “They’re outside again.” She pauses before entering the bedroom, leaning against the doorframe and watching her husband, so focused and forcibly still beside the window. She loved the symmetry of their ages when they first met, and the kilometer-long walk from her house to his—that worn patch of grass midway where they waited for one another. But she is no longer twenty-three, he no longer thirty-two, and they no longer meet each other midway on anything, instead choosing to draw lines further and further onto their own sides, waiting for the other to give in by degrees.

When construction on the dam began, she and Lucas watched everyone around them siphon their lives into suitcases and leave. Most went to Paris, hoping to begin anew like the city itself; some went east across the Alps and sought Swiss citizenship. Soon the streetlamps cast no shadows. Soon the cobbles fell quiet as headstones. Now they are the only ones left in Génissiat.

“Wouldn’t you like to head to bed?” she asks. “It’s late.”

“Look at them. Why are they so fixated on that house? They have the entire village for themselves.”

“They’re animals. There’s no reason for anything they do.”

But Lucas’s mind is on the pistol stowed in the dresser. Despite having been on tour for two years, he has fired it only twice. The first shot was in a civilian living room in Le Havre; a member of Lucas’s troop accused a Flemish family of treason, lashing them up by their wrists, tossing them to the floor, and squaring his gun against the youngest’s cheek. Lucas fired at the ceiling to restore order. The second shot was in a barn on the French-German border. Lucas went inside to rest but found a German soldier there, sleeping behind a stack of hay bales. He pulled the trigger before the man could wake.

“What are you doing?” Marion asks, seeing him hunt through the dresser drawer.

“They’re pests,” he says. “Same as rodents or weeds.”

He opens the window and holds the pistol in front of him. Three shots split the belly of the night; three tendrils of smoke climb from the barrel. The bullets land meters from the pack, skipping up soil as they lodge into the earth. Just enough to make the wolves perk their heads and scatter.

Lucas turns, grins, and says, “Now we’ll be able to sleep.”

“Very smart. After we’ve gone deaf, we won’t have to listen to the wolves when they come back.”

“I can fire a few more for good measure. Make sure I get the job done right.”

“With that aim? You’re more likely to blind us.”

There are suggestions these are the same two people from before the war. She still leaves the bathroom light on. He still adjusts his watch like a marksman, waiting for the seconds to align. She still hopes to learn piano. He still avoids learning how to poach eggs. She has never been on a boat. He has never been ice skating, successfully. But that’s all these things are. Habits. Idiosyncrasies. Quotations of what makes a person.

They noticed each other’s changes as soon as Lucas returned home, three months ago. His body had been pared down, made gaunt; now his cheekbones press like knifepoints. The parentheses around Marion’s mouth have furrowed deeper. There is something exhausted in the way she speaks, something rageful in the way he laughs. They fumble trying to hold hands and knock teeth trying to kiss. It is the decay of time and war and distance. They stand before each other now, forcing their smiles but feeling like strangers, and even when Lucas agrees to sleep, to leave that spot beside the window, his presence comes in measurements. He asks to leave the curtain open.

The village is preserved in a thin frost the next morning. Chutes of light fall between the clouds, shifting across the red clay rooftops. Marion heads leisurely toward the edge of town, untroubled by the raw lashes of April wind. She has made up her mind. She is going to the dam, partly to be around the hum of other people and partly because of a dark need to see the structure forcing her from her home. She told Lucas she was going for a walk but didn’t say where, knowing he would object. These tailored truths give her a tiny thrill.

She has adored the woods since childhood, finding freedom in their expanse and clarity in their silence. She knows well the feeling of briars catching at her ankles, drawing blood. Even though there was little sign of the occupation during the war—Génissiat being too innocuous and remote for German attention—she hasn’t ventured this far in years, knowing not to wander outside the village by herself. The confinement warped her. Weeks passed where she went without a conversation; she sang nursery rhymes, once in the morning and once at night, to keep her vocal cords from atrophying. Trapped alone in her house, the war felt like an endless, unbroken winter.

Soon she hears the distant chime of construction. Shovels strike soil. Hammers align rebar. Then she sees it. Even from afar and even unfinished, the dam is monstrous, towering over the ravine, still draped in a network of scaffolding. Workers cluster at the base of the dam and, as she gets closer, Marion notices they are either too young or too old to be there. The war took the middle aged and able bodied, leaving only these teenagers with reedy arms and these bent and quivering old men to toil away.

As compensation for relocating, Lucas, along with all other men in Génissiat, was offered a job building the dam. The choice was either that or a flat fee of four hundred francs. Everyone took the money. Lucas refused both options at first—it was the principle, he said—but Marion eventually breached his stubbornness and convinced him to take the money too. She doesn’t know when, or even if, he’ll agree to leave Génissiat, but she’s comforted knowing they will receive the money soon. At least he’s being reasonable in his unreasonableness, she thinks.

Captivated by the dam, she doesn’t notice the worker approaching until he, only steps away, asks, “Can I help you?” He is young, perhaps a teenager himself, but speaks with confidence.

“I’m just out for a walk,” she says.

“Curious about the dam? Other people have come just to get a look.” His manner suggests he is selling tickets to a budding tourist attraction. “Where are you from?”

Lucas told her to say she lived in the nearest town over if asked—no one can know they haven’t left Génissiat yet.

“Injoux,” she says.

“Christ, really? That’s, what, five kilometers from here?”

“About that far, yes. But the walk isn’t so bad.”

“Half our men down there,” he gestures toward the construction, “couldn’t make it half that far.”

“I don’t know about all that. Look at the work you’ve done here. The dam really is as large as they said it would be.”

“That’s right.” The boy turns to admire the structure. “Boss said it’ll be the largest in Europe once we’re finished. Before we start work each morning, he tells us what a great symbol it’ll be to the rest of the world.”

“And to us.”

“Yes, yes. Us too, of course. Rise from the ashes and all that.” A sharp, two-fingered whistle suddenly climbs from the ravine. Marion sees someone, an old man, slumped over, gripping a shovel for support. Workers begin knotting around him, offering water, bringing him to his feet. “I should go,” the boy says. “You’re fine to stay here as long as you like, I just have to ask you not to get any closer.”

“Of course,” Marion says. “I can see it perfectly from right here.”

She looks at the dam again and imagines torrents of water rushing through its cavernous sluiceways. She pictures its cement balustrade rising high as the surrounding hills.

“Just make sure you get home before dark,” the boy says. “The wolves have been going mad lately.”

Lucas sits in the living room that same morning, smoking and listening to the radio—comforts lost to him during the war which he savors now. The broadcaster’s unhurried voice feels like a single thread running through every home in the country. Sonata interludes rise from the speaker. Chopin’s light, tumbling fingers. Bach’s patient and precise hands. The melodies urge themselves upon Lucas like a sedative until he starts dozing in his chair.

A knock comes at the door. Three hard raps, jolting him from his half sleep. He sees a figure in the windowpane, impossible to discern. It can’t be Marion. She said she’d be gone for hours. He stamps out his cigarette, runs a hand through his hair, tightens his bathrobe.

He has never seen the woman at the door before. She wears a twill, knee-length coat and has a felt hat angled on her head. “Mr. Lucas Mercier?” she asks.

Lucas straightens his shoulders, trying to make himself broad as the doorway. “Yes. Lucas Mercier. Private First Class.”

“I’m with the rezoning commission,” the woman says. “Our records show you have yet to file for your relocation check. This was the only address we had for you and I’ve been ordered to give you this.” She presses a letter into Lucas’s palm and leaves with a brisk nod. Lucas has the envelope open before the door swings shut.

Dear Mr. Lucas Mercier,

The Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development has been alerted to the fact that you have not filed the necessary paperwork to receive your relocation check (₣400), and we have reason to believe you may still be residing at 21 Rue de Vieux Bourg. You will be given two weeks, or until 15 April, to collect your belongings and leave. If you choose not to do so, you will incur all appropriate penalties: a forfeiture of your relocation compensation, a fine of ₣80, and a maximum of ninety days in prison.

It feels like something chemical is frothing in Lucas’s chest. He can’t tell Marion about the letter. She would want to leave Génissiat immediately, and they still have so much time before the dam will be finished, months even. If only they could stay until then.

He decides to get out of the house, clear his head. Wandering through the village, with its vacant stone buildings on either side, feels like walking down an abandoned corridor and there is a foreign, ominous echo each time Lucas’s heel strikes the road—a stark contrast from when the cafés were lined with old men sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, a time when handcarts clacked along the cobblestones. Génissiat is the only home Lucas has ever known, and it is this image, one lost to the years between wars, which he clings to.

Here is the corner where a one-armed fisherman sold his catch on a rickety, two-wheeled cart. Here is where, as a boy, he saw a woman’s purse split open and shower coins into the street, and where he grabbed whatever he could before running home, his heart beating madly. Here a group of old women met every Sunday for pinochle. Here is the alley where he and his boyhood friends waged imaginary war; sticks replaced carbines, twine was looped over shoulders instead of bandoliers. Soon it will all be underwater.

No one will remember this tiny river town or the people who lived here. Lucas heard the buildings are so small they won’t even be demolished; it’s more cost effective simply to submerge them. He looks up and pictures the keels of cargo ships carving water forty meters above his head. He imagines his entire village at the bottom of a reservoir—perfectly intact, but discarded forever.

While at the front, Lucas saw whole cities gashed open by the war. Buildings disemboweled by toddler-sized artillery shells. Schoolhouses stripped to their skeletal frames. A bookstore burning until daybreak, thousands of lit pages fluttering through its glassless windows, cartwheeling higher, kindling their own flames. He has seen worlds end all across the country, but he finds himself unprepared for the end of his world. He consoled himself during the war by thinking there was some tacit promise: live long enough to return home and your home will be there when you return.

He tracks through the village, following familiar contours and age-abraded footpaths, until he is standing outside his own house again. From across the street, Bernard’s house looks lifeless, withering faster than it should be after only a handful of weeks. Lucas went inside Bernard’s house only once, just before he left for the front. Bernard was a tunneler in the Great War and Lucas believed the old man could offer advice, or at least solace. His living room was melancholy and cluttered. Dirty clothes were strewn about. A soup bowl was repurposed as an ashtray. There was a rumor in the village that Bernard had been caught in a tunnel collapse, that he was never the same after returning home, and Lucas, who has known this rumor since he was a boy, could not help thinking of it during their conversation, a conversation in which Bernard said many untethered things. He gave cryptic anecdotes and scraps of advice: carry dry socks to avoid gangrene, never pet a stray hound because the Germans lash landmines to them. When they shook hands to part, Lucas pictured Bernard clawing through a meter of soil, suffocating, thrashing, fighting to find light.

The mantel clock notches seconds into the silence while they cook dinner. Lucas scavenges through the kitchen for stray ingredients he can add to the stew, leaving all the cupboard doors open and wavering, phantomlike. Marion follows behind, closing each one, concealing their emptiness. It has been three weeks since the baker left, four since the butcher. She has nearly forgotten the taste of milk. He longs for a peach.

Whether it’s because of their dwindling food supply or the solitude of their empty town, dinner now has a sense of sacrament. Marion sets the table with great care, using china once reserved for holidays and entertaining house guests. Lucas slices bread and pours wine with the gravity of a man attempting to crack a safe. A fire is lit. Prayers are said quietly and in unison.

Tonight, as both try to veil their guilt, dinner is especially solemn. They speak in platitudes, discussing the agreeable weather, the flavor of the stew. They chew without tasting. Smile without feeling. If only he could show her the letter without making her want to leave. If only she could explain the marvels of the dam without angering him.

They finish dinner quickly—choosing, at some point, to eat rather than speak—and are left raking spoons against the bottom of their bowls, trying to salvage the tawny dregs of broth. For the first time since they have been alone in the village, they cannot bring themselves to go to the cupboards for more, despite their hunger, believing they must ration what they can.

“I think I should go to the market in Lyon tomorrow,” Marion says. “We need food.”

Lucas straightens in his chair, surprised she is the one to suggest this, a promise of more time, and says, “Yes, I think that’s a fine idea.”

“I can take the train.” Truly, she wishes to go on the long, liberating ride to Lyon. To be around all those people, all that life.

“Should I go with you?”

“If you’d like. But I think I can manage alone.”

“I’ll walk you to the station.”

Relief buoys him. While Marion’s away, he will decide on a plan. Maybe he can board up the windows to make it seem like they’ve left, find a way of explaining it later.

“You know, I had a thought earlier,” he says. “We could go anywhere tonight. We could break into any house in the village. We could even eat in the middle of town square if we wanted to. No one is around to stop us.”

Though she’s stunned by his spontaneity, Marion tries to match it, playfully burning to outdo him with her own suggestions.

“What if we sit on the riverbank, beneath the stars?” she asks. “Or climb the bell tower of the church.”

An energy begins effervescing between them. Lucas rises from his chair and retrieves the last bottle of wine from the cupboard. Marion puts their bowls in the sink and douses the fire. The room is lit only by a lunar-blue dusk and, in this near dark, maybe they are smiling. Maybe they are five years younger and hurtling toward love instead of stumbling past it. But as Lucas reaches for the door handle, they hear a deep, wailing howl.

The energy wanes. The room grows still. “Tomorrow night,” Lucas says, and Marion nods. She finds her way to the couch, flicking on the lamp and escaping into her book. He drifts upstairs and begins pacing around the bedroom. Every so often he looks out at the wolves and questions what they are searching for.

Later they prepare for bed, brushing their teeth side by side, taking turns washing their faces. They undress on opposite sides of the room and both wonder why they aren’t looking at each other, relearning their bare bodies in the lamplight. Lucas spent the war thinking about the mark Marion’s bra makes between her shoulder blades. Marion spent the war picturing how Lucas’s jaw clenches as he undoes his shirt cuffs, and praying a mortar round can’t travel as far in the rain.

They lie in bed, knowing this is supposed to be what they waited for: a hand on a chest, an arm beneath a neck, the space between their bodies no more than the length of a grenade pin. But each barely recognizes the figure lying next to them. It’s as if they were two people passing on the street who once met in a dream.

Together they fall asleep and together they dream of the house filling with water. It pools beneath the door. It pours between the ribs of their shutters. Cutlery ascends from the drawers; forks follow knives follow spoons. Throw pillows writhe against the walls. Their bed rises from the floor, its four posts pinned to the ceiling, forever caging their bodies in that house.

Together, they drown.

The platform is clotted with people awaiting the day’s first train—mostly briefcase-touting commuters or couples looking forward to a short trip. The tracks are still glossed with dew. Marion and Lucas wait side by side, shivering, their breath forming helixes in the air. Neither can help but think of the day, now two years past, when Lucas left for the front. They stood at this same platform, too upset to speak. When the train entered the station then, it sent a tremor down both of their arms and met, midway, in their clasped hands.

As the steel rails begin to judder, the two embrace. It is quick, awkward, almost unfamiliar. The train arrives, dragging a kite string of smoke above it. The doors slide open. People file out. People file in. The world staggers on. This time, it is Marion who walks to the door, steps up the ramp, and leaves with a gentle nod and a half smile.

Once she finds her seat, the train begins tracing through unfettered farmland. Tulip stems push through the soil. Birds form perfect chevron patterns in the sky. She smiles at the mustachioed ticket inspector. She eavesdrops, shamelessly, on the conversations brimming and overlapping around her. The dusk-toned silhouette of Lyon grows in the distance and Marion knows Génissiat is far behind.

Lucas watches the train until it is no longer in sight, until he is the only person left at the platform. He turns for home, back through the hills, down the ravine, to the familiar. There are paw prints in the dirt half a kilometer outside Génissiat, each one roughly the size of his palm, and he follows the tracks to their end, just in front of Bernard’s house. Deep and frenzied gashes have been worked into Bernard’s door. Lucas bends, runs a finger across the grooves, and puts his ear against the wood, as if checking the house for a heartbeat. Nothing. It takes him two tries to kick the door in. He smells the body before he sees it.

It happens at the same moment, as if, from kilometers away, an invisible cord is cut between them. She is standing in line at the grocery. He is standing in Bernard’s living room. She is holding a basket of peaches. He is holding his breath. She for the first time is anonymous. He is realizing there was no need for Bernard to leave a note. She sets down the basket, heads back outside, into the lively street. He shuts Bernard’s door, walks into the solitary spring morning, back home. She is eager to lose herself in this new city. He hopes to be packed for when his wife returns.

Derek Rose is an MFA candidate at Columbia University and a recipient of the Felipe De Alba Fellowship. His fiction has appeared in the Atticus Review, Sink Hollow, Potluck Literary Magazine, and has been shortlisted by New Millennium Writings and the Hudson Valley Writers Guild.

Dotted Line