A Loudness of Screechers

By Rion Amilcar Scott

Prompt, by Tara Campbell: Banquet of beasts: beasts could be literal/figurative/whatever. And they could be on either side of the table: eating or being eaten. Or they could be underneath the table doing whatever it is beasts do best.

The first of the screecher birds appeared that year over the town like a hero in the sky during a cold walk home from the bus stop. Josh had just grabbed my butt and dashed off as a dare. He looked back with a dumb smile and there the impressive thing coasted overhead, massive wingspan spread wide.

Nigga’s childish as shit, said Andrew, the boy who dared Josh, as he sidled up next to me, too close; his breath smelled of peppermint, cigarettes and tooth decay.

I breathed the cold air deeply, hoping it would freeze and then crack my heart. One more week until Christmas break and Josh and Andrew wouldn’t be in my face everyday and I could ignore them more easily. Just ignoring them is what my mother would advise anyway. Daddy would tell me to punch them in their heads. That’s far too angry, my Uncle Charles would say: Smile and don’t let them dumb niggas see you sweat.

Go somewhere before I call that screecher down to snatch y’all, I said. There was a smile on my face that poisoned my words, made them sound joyful.

Josh mumbled something about the birds never straying so far from the Wildlands while I looked at the claws on the circling thing and imagined it swooping down and snatching the boys, piercing their chests with sharp talons before flying off to feast, digging into the boys’ chests, pulling out their intestines to gobble them like early birds gobble worms from the dirt.


Just before Christmas the sky turned black with a loudness of screechers flying in impossible patterns. Cracks of light peeked through their ragged feathers. Their impossible wingspans took our breath from us, my little brothers and me, and we pointed and ooh-ed by the window. Every so often the birds would flap their massive wings and we wondered how they stayed up there with so little effort. Both day and night the bawling from the sky left us awake and red-eyed. Mahad and Jamal ran about flapping and squawking until Umi told them to shut their mouths. This is not the joke you think this is, she said. My father, my uncle and  about six or seven important men—Josh’s dad was there as was Andrew’s mother (the only woman in the bunch)—sat in my dad’s study talking real low and from time to time they raised their voices in anger, but it would always settle to a low grumble.

Do ‘em like the wolves, a voice, not my father’s called. Bang. Bang. Do ‘em like the wolves.

Sorai, my mother called. Take your brothers downstairs, please.

It wasn’t at all fair of Umi to tell me to wrangle two curious five-year olds. Seems to me now that was her job, but I didn’t complain back then, I just said, OK, you little rats, you heard Umi, downstairs.

The little rats ran about—one clockwise, the other counter--squawking, squawking, squawking, saliva running down their chins.

My father stepped from the room looking taller than usual, his face disturbed and heavy. I froze, grabbed the fleeing Jamal as he dashed by and pulled him close. I’d seen this face before and a beating usually followed.

He called our names and knelt so he was eye level with my brothers. He pulled us all in, hugging us too tight. The boys squirmed. My back hurt, but I didn’t fight. Daddy pressed his face to my stomach. I felt the wetness of his tears soaking my shirt.

I love you all and your mother loves you all and your Uncle Charles does too, he said. My uncle walked by, a silver platter in his hands, atop it the charred wolf that was to be our holiday centerpiece.

Charlie, my father called, but my Uncle didn’t look back as he moved swiftly out the door.  

We watched by the window as Uncle Charles bowed before the flying birds in an exaggerated gesture of respect. The important men mumbled amongst themselves while my parents watched stoically and when my father could take no more he turned and shambled away. One of those big, black things landed in front of my uncle. With its beak, the bird knocked the wolf from the platter and stared down at Uncle Charles with a condescending glare.

Good lord, Josh’s dad said, the offering—

It screeched in Uncle Charles’s face, a sound like ten air raid sirens. I could feel the sound vibrating at my feet. Another landed behind my uncle and let out more screeching. The two birds rose above Uncle Charles’s head beating their wings into one another, pecking at feathers and flesh.

My uncle raised his arms in protection.

My father burst into the room, shotgun in hand. No, Andrew’s mother called. This is the ritual.

Fuck the ritual, my father cried. That’s my only brother. Some of the important men snatched at him, he held firm to his weapon, swinging it all about. I’ll shoot, he called. I’ll shoot.

My brothers held tight to my legs, tears staining their cheeks and shirts. I assured them things would be fine, but my wet face was no better than theirs.

Reynold, my mother said, finally. Reynold. This is the ritual. He held his gun at her, the only thing between him and the door, but the tension had broken, we all knew my father couldn’t shoot my mother. This is the ritual, she repeated.

Fuck the ritual, my father said, lowering the gun, tears in his eyes. That’s my little brother.

By then one screecher lay dead and the other had snatched Uncle Charles, talons piercing his sides, blood dripping to the streets. He flopped about like a doll in that bird’s embrace as it took him to the sky. The layer of screechers that blocked the blue cleared, first slowly and then all at once.

The loudness flew off, leaving nothing but birdshit and ear-splitting wails in its wake. For the first time in weeks we could see the turquoise and the clouds and we could see the sun and now I hated them fiercely.

Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and PANK, among others. His linked story collection, Wolf Tickets, is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press and his short story collection, People in Motion, is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. Currently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.


By Dana Diehl

Prompt, by Rion Amilcar Scott: Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hannukkah/Three King's Day after society has ended and civilization is struggling back to life.

Jenna and Lily can’t agree on the rules of New Christmas.

In this version, Lily says, Santa’s elves will curse and be politically incorrect.

In this version, Jenna says, Santa’s elves will have overtaken Santa and started their own holiday where they pilot hot air balloons instead of reindeer.

In this version, we will decorate our windows with pigeon bones.

In this version, we will make snow angels in the ash.

There is no one to break ties. There is no one to break ties, because Jenna and Lily are the last girl on earth.

They are allowed to say girl because they are sisters and they are conjoined. Two spines, two hearts folded inside a single torso that binds them together. Two brains, two faces, two noses, four ears. One pair of legs. One pair of arms. One ass. It’s funny how you can be separate in so many ways but only some of those ways matter.

“We’ll agree to disagree,” says Jenna.

Lily hates the way Jenna uses platitudes to end arguments. Jenna hates the way Lily can only end an argument by winning.

Since the world ended, Lily and Jenna have been living on abandoned television studio stages in LA. They sleep on the Central Perk couch, eat dry Ramen lunches in the Full House kitchen. They like how these stages were designed to look alive, even when they weren’t. Unused coffee mugs on counters. Crayoned drawings of sunsets stuck with magnets to fridges containing plastic foods.

In the Old World, Jenna and Lily had their own reality show. They had make-up artists who would powder their shared skin peach between takes, reapply Jenna’s very-berry-pink lipstick, touch-up Lily’s silver eye shadow. “To us, you’re just like anyone else,” the producers assured them. They pitched episodes to Jenna and Lily’s parents: In this episode, the two-headed girl rides a bike in their cul-de-sac. In this episode, the two-headed girl joins the softball team and strikes a homerun. In this episode, the two-headed girl crams for a biology final (encouraging the question, if a student has one ass but two heads, does that student have an unfair advantage?). The producers flew Jenna and Lily to LA, flew them to a set that had been designed to look like the girl’s living room back in Cincinnati, framed childhood photos placed on a mahogany bookshelf, a sofa that forced their parallel spines straight. Jenna and Lily liked that in LA, when the camera was around, people on the streets stared openly. In Cincinnati, people would pretend to text while they took pictures, they’d avoid eye contact and wait until Jenna and Lily passed to turn to their friends: “Did you see that?” Jenna and Lily liked that the camera makes people less polite. When everyone was looking, there was no point in trying to hide.

As they brainstorm rules for their New World, their New Christmas, Jenna and Lily walk Hollywood Boulevard. They watch their reflection in empty shop windows. Since the world ended, they’ve let themselves become satisfyingly monstrous. They’ve burned their brushes into piles of plastic, let their hair tangle together into a single knot. They loot film wardrobes to dress themselves—today they wear a blood-stained wedding dress from a zombie flick. Yesterday they wore a space suit that felt like pajamas.

In white lace, they skip over a palm frond, they spit on Stars of Fame. The high sun turns the gray buildings white. They can smell the not-so-distant ocean, and the briny scent of it makes them both dizzy at once.

When Jenna and Lily were younger, they were obsessed with learning about themselves and girls like them. They memorized all of the different ways two people could be joined. By hip, by back, by belly. This line on Wikipedia haunted them: In the case of Thoracopagus, two bodies are fused from the thorax to lower belly, a heart is shared. Separation of twins cannot offer survival to two twins. A designated twin may survive if allotted the heart, sacrificing the other twin. They are obsessed with the word choice of designated, of allotted, of sacrifice. To allot is to give. There were no words that showed what was being taken away. They wondered, if it came down to it, which of them would be sacrificed.

During that same period, Jenna and Lily went through a phase of hurting each other in secret. Jenna would punch Lily in the meaty part of her thigh. Lily would retaliate by drinking coffee before bed, letting the caffeine zip through their shared bloodstream, keeping them both awake until dawn. They wanted to find ways to hurt the other without being hurt themselves, wanted to locate the boundaries, if any, that separated them.

Once at dinner, the evening before a flight out to LA, Lily almost asked their parents, “Did you ever consider separating us? Did you ever have to consider, which one of us to save?” Jenna could feel the question coming, could feel it in the thump thump of their shared heartbeat. She clutched the hand that belonged to Lily. She was afraid of that small possibility that there was an answer.


            The night before New Christmas, Jenna and Lily struggle to fall asleep in a bedroom with only three walls, a bedroom made for people who weren’t real, dead lights suspended overhead instead of a ceiling lamp.

In the Old World, Christmas always came two month early. Their producers would want to air special holiday editions that would have to be shot weeks in advance to be done in time for December. So Jenna and Lily’s parents would set up their plastic tree. They’d wrap empty boxes to place under the branches. More boxes than Jenna and Lily ever received on real Christmas. Then the lights would come, the microphones stuck against skin, the hum of the camera.

“We have no secrets between the two of us,” Jenna would tell the camera. “And no, we’re not scared or sad to be the way we are. We’re just grateful to be alive.”

All of those platitudes Lily could never stomach. It was never true what Jenna said, about them not keeping secrets. Especially now, especially when they were the only girl left.

Lily’s secret: When the world ended, she was glad. Glad that there was no one left to stumble over pronouns (she…I mean they…I mean it?).  Glad that there was no left to wonder, “If you add two brains and one vagina, do you get one girl or two?” Glad that the thing that was considered a handicap had actually been a super power, had been the thing that protected them, like a girl in a horror movie saved by her virginity.

Jenna’s secret: She dreamed about confronting their old producers, producers who had smoothed their skin flawless with cream, made them look normal with softball teams, with sparkly eyeliner. In her dreams, she’d cry to them, “We’re not like anyone else. You only wanted to pretend that we were.”

The secret they both share, though neither of them knows it: They fantasize about sitting in front of the camera one last time. In the fantasy, the cameraman counts down with her fingers, the red light blinks on, and the two-headed girl goes wild. Tears paper from wrappers with their two pairs of teeth. Splits of seams of their cord-knit sweater to jump naked on the faux-leather couch. Because isn’t this what everyone wanted of them all along? To see them grotesque. To see them breaking. To see the monster come out.

A Very Mario Lopez Christmas

By Megan Giddings

Prompt, by Dana Diehl: Write a story with the plot (or could-be plot) of a made-for-TV ABC Family holiday special. 

It’s my Christmas to fall in love. I will spend the holidays terrorizing and romancing Mario Lopez. I buy a permed blonde wig to wear as a disguise. I knit a long, soft pink scarf to tie him up. I instruct my mom to rent a cabin out in the woods: at least twenty miles away from everything, with terrible cell service, and make sure that it’s cute as fuck. 


She says, “I’ll do it, but you need to put five dollars in the curse word jar.”

The f word is worth five times the usual amount. I ignore her and list off everything else I need: It should have a well-maintained skating rink. One with glowy lights that make me look extra beautiful. It should be lined with perfect fir trees, the kind that even when they’re seen in July make someone whistle “Angels We Have Heard on High.” She should take me aside sometime and give me a talk about being a woman and the future and family if it seems like I’m considering letting Mario go free before he’s fallen in love with me. And everyone should pretend that every time Mario says he’s been kidnapped or begs to be set free that it’s a hilarious joke.

My mom writes all this down. Her cursive makes the whole list look like an antique. She’s never looked more excited for me.

“Should I give your father any instructions?”

“Tell him to be really condescending to me about my art. And maybe he should threaten to cut me off if I don’t get a real job. But make sure that he only does it in front of Mario. I need Mario to feel like he’s the only one who really gets me.”

“Oh, Trudie. I remember when I met your father. He lived inside a magic Christmas snow globe and you know how your grandma was. I would’ve gone anywhere to get away from her. Especially during the holidays.”

It’s almost a curse in my family: the women can only find love at Christmastime and only through the most convoluted of means. We are always lightly kidnapping, pretending to be other people, falling into snow globe universes, or meeting men who have been transformed into police dogs that need to be cured by the power of a holiday kiss. And if not that, we end up loving some of the most handsome ding dongs to ever survive until adulthood. The kind of guys who would love to become YouTube stars. Who know they’re handsome and aren’t ashamed to admire themselves in the shiny sides of a well-kept toaster. The kind who have to learn how to appreciate their incredibly rich and handsome lives filled with great families and beautiful women every single Christmas. I used to hate this about us. But then I tried meeting men at bars or online and realized how boring it was. At least when my family falls in love, it feels like a miracle each and every time.

*     *     *

I decide I have to make my kidnapping of Mario seem extra-impulsive. I begin a relationship with a complete jerk who I know will dump me right before Christmas, so he doesn’t have to buy me a present or pretend he likes my mom’s cooking. I know this, but I tell my friends I really, really think he might be the one. They say half-hearted nice things to my face, but I know they text each other that I’ve lost my mind. I stake out all the restaurants Mario frequents to see which ones have the items on hand for what will feel like a spontaneous kidnapping. I get a job at an Indian buffet/old-timey diner that uses fully loaded antique pistols for decoration. It’s very strange that the owner does this. It seems illegal, but I shrug it off. What is serendipity? Finding a job that gives you the perfect, quirky weapon for your holiday kidnapping. The night before, I pour water in the dumpster area to make black ice in case he tries to escape. I go to Mario’s apartment and leave a romantic note on his door pretending to be his dumb girlfriend inviting him out for lunch the next day.

I toss and turn all night. Keep waking up and thinking about kissing his soft pink AC Slater lips. Dissolves into listing off everything that could go wrong. My downstairs neighbor is loudly listening to “Blue Christmas” on repeat. I imagine her floor covered in bourbon bottles. When I finally sink back into sleep, I am in a casino. I argue with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mortimer, about how everyone will skateboard in the future. She tells me I am a failure for thinking that way. I open a door and I’m in an amateur strip club. Men slowly, sadly strip to “Wonderful Christmastime.”  They strip down to baggy, unflattering green and red striped boxers. None of their butts look good.

*     *     *

            On schedule, my boyfriend breaks up with me while a family is trying to order strawberry milkshakes. He insults the wig I’m wearing and leaves. I almost want to tip him for being so efficient and dramatic with our break-up, but I have to get ready for Mario.

            He’s here. Black hair somehow glistening underneath the fluorescent lights. Does he put something in it or is it just that healthy? A beautifully tailored jacket as if he’s on his way to a magazine photo shoot. Nice shoes too, the kind that’ll make walking on ice hard.

            When Mario gets up and goes to the bathroom, I pull an antique pistol out of its case.

            “You’re coming with me,” I say.


            I press the gun into his back. No one notices.

            “Let’s go. Out back.”

            I lead him to the dumpsters. The black ice is waiting. My car is the only one parked out back here. It was so slick everyone else moved their cars into the customer parking lot.

It smells like onions and garbage and clouds—I think of it as gray scent, I’m not sure why—cooking up powdery snow.

            “This is insane.”

It takes a lot of willpower to not tell him I know. Mario says some dumb thing about not wanting to hit a woman. And he’s talking and talking, but I’m not listening because I am freaking out. It’s like I’ve gained the ability to see the back of my head at all times. I am shocked and uncomfortable about knowing the true shape of my head, the exact curly mess my hair makes. I can see how bad this looks. I should drop the gun and run away. Apologize. Then run away. Mario slips on the ice. He hits his head. It makes a terrible noise like a can of vegetables falling down steps. I stoop and check. He’s unconscious.

            How can I explain this to anyone who doesn’t already love me?

            I could leave now. He has a head injury. He’ll probably doubt all of this really happened if he wakes up alone back here.

            But everything is going exactly how I planned it.

            Five minutes later, he’s in the car. I’ve bound his wrists together and blindfolded him with a pink scarf. He snores a little and it’s the least cute he’s ever been. If someone tries to ask me what’s going on, I’m going to tell them it’s a fun, cool sex thing.

*     *     *

            What does it say about me that I couldn’t just ask him to get coffee? Why couldn’t I have done the other things people do for love: I could’ve been artistic and aloof. Painted my lips red, wore a low-cut shirt, and leaned over his table while taking his order. I could’ve sat alone at his favorite bar drinking a glass of Scotch, frowning at everyone but him. I could’ve been nice and sweet and kind, a woman who loves kids and never thinks look at that little asshole when I see a child yelling at his mom in the grocery store. Instead I’m driving a captured Mario Lopez hundreds of miles away.

*     *     *

            Mario tells my family he’s been kidnapped.

“Help me, “he says.

“He’s so funny,” I say and nudge him. My family laughs and laughs. We all looks so cute in our festive sweaters. You’re so funny, Mario Lopez.

            He escapes into the night. Walking until he almost has frostbite. I drive slowly next to him. Big snowflakes are beautiful in the car’s headlamps. The sky so black I squint and pretend I’m in space. Warp speed. When he gets too cold, Mario gets in the car.  At home he drinks a cocoa, stares at me in a way that makes me sure he’s wondering how far he can push himself. How long can he live in the cold? Can he hurt someone much smaller than him? Can he punch a woman?

            “Can I have more marshmallows?” He asks and maybe that was it.

            Mario locks himself in the bathroom.

            “Is he OK?” My brother asks.

            “He gets stressed out about away from home pooping,” I say, “he’s fine.”

            I hide or smash all the cellphones I can find with a meat tenderizer. Their metal insides hit my face. Scratches my left cheek.

            “I called my girlfriend,” Mario says when he leaves the bathroom. “And she’s going to find me and bring the police.”

            Mario throws a cellphone—I think it’s my brother’s—at me. It hits me in the chest and clatters to the floor. He is very handsome when he’s mean.

            “Sure,” I say.

            Mario outlines a plan. He’s going to be the best boyfriend ever. He’s going to make my family fall absolutely in love with him so they can see how rotten I am when the police come and arrest me for kidnapping. I get hung up on the word rotten. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in real life describe someone else as rotten. It feels so formal. Like something written on a report card. Trudie is excellent at spelling, but rotten at math.

            “Are you even listening to me?” Mario asks.

            “Have fun,” I say.

*     *     *

            Mario is so good at baking cookies. He perfume bombs the cabin with molasses and almond and hot raspberry sauce.

            He charms my mom and sister and brother by taking off his shirt and revealing his abs.

            He charms my dad by speaking the language of rich white men: stocks, golf, and agreeing that yeah, the estate tax is bullshit.

            And the more he does it, the more my family turns on me.

            “You seem a little out of your league,” my mom says.

            “Think of how great life would’ve been if I’d had a child like Mario Lopez,” my dad says.

            “Cool it,” I try.

            “Also,” my dad waves some eggnog at me and a bit splashes down on my shoes, “your art is stupid. Why do all the men you paint look like Frankenstein?”

            Is that true? I wonder.

            “It’s the holidays,” Mario says, “we should all try to be a little nicer.”

            I can’t tell if anyone is saying what they really mean or following their plans.

            I am reminded of how I’m wasting my potential. And why can’t I wear more pink? I am not attractive enough to wear all black. Men, but just people in general, would like me more if I seemed a little more cheerful. Pink would help. And why are all my friend so weird? I should go get my MBA. Actually learn what a dollar means. What values do I even have? Why is my life so off track? They should’ve known I was always going to be weird. My mom tells everyone again about how I used to stand outside rooms people were sitting in and peek my head in and yell, “I’m going to kill you, Mom.” I would do it to people in my family, sometimes I would slam my hands on bathroom stalls while old women were peeing and whisper it. I was only five years old, but they tell it as if they suspected I was spending most of my adult life wandering place to place, slamming my hands on doors, and threatening my mom.

            I want to take all the cookies and sit in a closet. I want to smell dirty shoes and only think about their stench rather than hear all this. How do parents know how to find the flimsiest, most toothpicky version of you to pull out for everyone to see?

            Somehow, in the middle of this, Mario Lopez has taken my hand.

            He leads me away from my worked up parents.

            “That was deeply uncool,” Mario Lopez says. “Your paintings are beautiful. They make me feel like I actually know you.”

                                                                        *     *     *

            We stay up all night talking about families and expectations. He tells me about his parents who died, his strange grandfather who raised him, and what’s it like to feel so alone. Mario Lopez is saying smart, sad things in his dumb dude voice. I tell him about wanting to be an artist ever since I was a little girl. I would paint and marker my body so I could feel like a small part of me was beautiful. And everything I say I actually mean. He smiles and listens.

            “I’m so sorry about all this,” I tell him. “Do you want me to take you home in the morning?”

            “No.” I can tell he actually means it.

            The next morning he takes me ice skating on the pond. We glide on the ice. I think about the colors I would have to mix to paint the blue the sky is. Even when he’s ice skating, he’s so sexy. My nose is red. Snow makes the tree branches droop close. They remind me of how when my family went to baptisms, we would all pray for the child’s new life in the church and raise our hands in the air as if our prayers needed extra force. Here are these trees adding their blessings on our weird love.

            I alternate between feeling soda pop fizz attraction and excitement when looking at him and wondering if all of this is because Mario has a severe untreated concussion from his fall the other morning.

            Be happy, I tell myself. Be happy. We walk in the snow. Chess in the attic. It’s Christmas Day. We go back to the pond. Somehow, I can only believe through magic, Mario has hung up hundreds of perfectly tasteful white lights on the gazebos and all the surrounding trees. And for a moment, it’s like I’ve been replaced by a woman who looks like me if you squint. One who is confident and is just spending time with her boyfriend, not someone she has forcibly abducted. I perform an elaborate, romantic ice skating routine.  A triple axel, toe pick, glide, camel. It’s the best I’ve ever skated, will ever skate. Love me I try to etch into the ice. Love me.

*     *     *

            Then the police come and arrest my entire family. We somehow get to sit in a jail cell together, waiting to find out if Mario is pressing charges. He doesn’t. We say goodbye in the parking lot. I notice he blinks five times less than the average person. I would tell him, but he’s already striding back into his old life.

*     *     *

            It snows. It sleets. I don’t know the date, but I know the shape of today’s and yesterday’s clouds. The exact gray of the old snow next to my parking spot. I paint the night at the skating rink. The warm glow. The perfect gazebo. A tiny me in mid-leap.

*     *     *

            I sell my ice skating painting. After I celebrate, I walk alone to a car. A man grabs me from behind and pushes me against the car. He blindfolds me and puts handcuffs on me.

            “I know how to fight,” I say. It sounds so dumb. I wish I said as if I were five years old again, “I’m gonna kill you, Mom.” It would’ve at least been a weird enough thing that it might’ve been a little threatening.

            “Payback,” says Mario Lopez.

            He leads me through the city. Why does nobody notice him leading around a blindfolded and handcuffed woman? He takes me into a building. In the elevator, I count at least fifteen floors.  Is he going to push me off the roof? I see myself suspended above the city, a poorly dressed cloud. Then, splat. He takes the blindfold off. My painting is there. He’s strung up more lights. I’m not sure how this can go on for much longer. Can we spend the rest of our lives kidnapping each other? But isn’t that what love is? A series of being whisked away by someone your dumb heart has decided is right for you? I lean in, still handcuffed, for a kiss.

Megan Giddings is an MFA student at Indiana University and the Executive Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. Her flash fiction chapbook, Arcade Seventeen, will be published by TAR: The Atlas Review's chapbook series in 2016. She has stories forthcoming or that have been recently published in Passages North, New South, Big Lucks, and [PANK]. 

When You Were Here

By Claire Lombardo

Prompt, by Megan Giddings: A family wakes up on Christmas morning to find all their chosen holiday gifts are gone. They instead find unwrap weird objects (an old pipe, a sock with a weird stain, etc) and become very, very confused.

He wanted to explore the world.

It was something she’d seen gnawing at him since his infancy, the desire to pull away, push the limits, move until something stopped him—first the bars of his crib, then the space-age gates she and Pete put up in all the doorways, and then a series of less tangible barriers, all of which he scaled with startling competency.

The night Josh left for good he’d been talking to them about Allen Ginsberg, about his revolutionary worldview and his candor and his individualism. He was flunking seven of his eight classes. The principal had called Carolyn in for a meeting earlier that day. Pete was beside himself and Josh was apathetic.

 “Allen Ginsberg went to college,” she said, lifting her voice over the sound of Pete’s are you fucking kidding me. She wished her husband would calm down. She wished Josh would stop making that face. She wished the two of them, for once, could unite. Pete and Josh had very little overlap, but Carolyn saw herself as the link, the shaded space between two adjoining circles. They both loved her, fiercely, and she wished they would stop yelling at each other long enough to notice the commonality.

“College isn’t what it used to be, Mom,” Josh said. “It’s become another empty rite of passage for the fucking brainwashed elite and I refuse to waste my time or your money finding myself with a bunch of bourgeois suburban asshats who just want to—”

 “Would you watch your mouth,” Pete said, hypocritically.

 “It’s a means to an end,” Carolyn said. “Yes, you’ll be better off in the world if you get a degree and yes, that’s problematic, but there’s so much to be gained from it, sweetie, there’s so much that can happen during that time and then when you finish you can do whatever you’d like. You can use what you learn to—you can make a difference, honey. And you’re not going to be wasting our money, okay? Money’s not—” She refused, as much for her son’s sake as for her own, to become a woman who could straight-facedly utter the phrase money’s not an object.

 “Of all people,” Josh said, fixing his gaze on her, the one that unnervingly contained both his father’s capitalistic pride and Carolyn’s own innate skepticism, “I thought I could count on you to not be a fucking automaton about all of this.”

 This was followed by a lot of don’t you dare talk to your mother like that and do you have any idea how lucky you are and you’re grounded, of course, but if you don’t get your goddamn grades up to passing standards by the start of next quarter there’s a boarding school with your name on it, kid. And she hated him then, Pete, for doing that, for sounding like that, but when Josh was sent to his room Pete was the only one left and so she leaned into him a little and forgave him when he said I’m sorry, I just want him to understand that he’s capable of more than this clichéd hippie bullshit because she knew, underneath the parts of him she couldn’t stand, that he loved their kid as much as she did.

*      *      *

Pete is snoring, and each time his lips pillow outward on the exhale she contemplates pouring her bedside glass of water on his face. Instead she rises early, goes straight to the kitchen to put on the coffee. She’ll be waiting when the rest of them awaken, bright-eyed and jovial, appropriate beverages in vintage glass Marshall Field’s mugs, playing her part for at least this one day of the year.   

 She likes occasionally to imagine herself as being domestically inclined. The inkling blooms quarterly, appearing in the form of festive spring jams, glitter-encrusted nondenominational ornaments, politically relevant adages carved into pumpkins, labor-intensive summer cocktails with big basil garnishes. The rest of the year she’s apathetic, lazy, and earth-toned, but sporadically she shines, assembles artisanal tins of truffles and crochets tiny vests that her children will never wear because they do not live in Dickensian England. This year she hasn’t had the energy, though she did, however, indulge the girls in an afternoon of paper-snowflake-making; the resulting chains are draped across every doorway in the house. She ducks beneath one as she enters the kitchen.

Their new house feels vacuum-sealed and stuffy, with none of the drafty nooks they took great pains to tamp when they lived in the creaky old Queen Anne three blocks away. It’s supposed to be one of the perks of living in a fancy house but it makes her feel frequently claustrophobic, hypoxiated. She cracks a window over the sink and feels the chill seep in, snake its way through the folds of her bathrobe. She revels in the cold as she scoops in the coffee grounds, forgetting to use the special Holiday Blend that Pete brought her from his Secret Santa exchange at the office.

 She goes to turn on the tree, the tree that her daughters believe to be lit continuously because they go to bed before her and rise after. She vacillates lately between ruing their ignorance and embracing it with fervor.

 They’ve gone overboard for the kids this year. A bevy of electronics for Ellen, a tiny Casio keyboard for the girls to share. And Carolyn has bought Pete a new watch to replace his aging Timex, a fancy, formidable piece with a tiny diamond anchoring the hands to the center, with love, your C engraved on the underside of the band. She’s made it clear that she loves him, she thinks, but she knows that reminders are important.

 Pete stayed awake into the wee hours assembling a dollhouse for Amelia. Carolyn—smaller hands—helped to construct all of the tiny pieces of furniture, the microscopic cardboard boxes of cereal to fill the kitchen cabinets, but she left him after one a.m. fiddling aggressively with the scalloped roof of the carport, kissed his hair and told him not to strain himself. It’s a huge house, the approximate height and width of their kitchen table, and it’s hidden in their bedroom. Pete has an endearing vision of surprising Amelia after the rest of the presents have been opened, asking her if she’ll run upstairs under the guise of retrieving his cell phone. He still remembers to do things like this for them, and Carolyn is grateful.

 In the dark living room she toes with slippered foot for the switch on the surge protector, and it’s not for several seconds after the lights go on that she notices the packages beneath, not the overcompensatory bounty that she and Pete laid out last night but a collection of smaller gifts, shoddily wrapped in what appears to be the finance section of the newspaper. She picks one up, roughly the size and shape of a perfume bottle, and woozily scans the headline arching partway across, THE SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS: ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WIDENING W—. The ends of the package are neatly sealed and she imagines briefly an intruder armed with Scotch tape, a red sand-filled dispenser like the one on her husband’s desk. It’s then that the realization sweeps over her—an intruder—and she feels her insides wake up, feels the kind of alertness normally afforded to her only in the late morning, when she’s alone in the house and consuming the final silty dregs at the bottom of the coffee pot. She looks around her with alarm, eyes with suspicion the shadows cast by the end tables. Then she darts up the stairs, silent in her slippers, to check on the girls.

 Ellen, prone to nocturnal migration, is longwise at the foot of her bed, her thumb in her mouth. She’s eight and they’re supposed to be discouraging it. It started in the spring but Carolyn hasn’t had the fortitude to read When You Love Thumbody: Helping Your Child Overcome Oral Fixation, gazes at it wearily on her nightstand each evening before the falls asleep. She goes and pulls Ellen’s blanket more tightly around her shoulders and stoops to kiss her forehead. 
 Amelia, who just turned five, is in the same position Carolyn left her last night, curled onto her side, hugging a stuffed platypus. Her breathing is deep and phlegmy—the congested remainder of a weeks-old cold. Carolyn rests a hand against the sleepy heat of her daughter’s cheek. 

The girls are fine.

She passes the closed door next to Amelia’s room and stops for just a second, thinks about turning the knob, changes her mind. She peeks in at Pete again, though she can hear his snoring from the hall and knows he hasn’t been murdered in the five minutes since she left him. She sinks into the corduroy glider in the corner of their bedroom and shifts the weight of the package around in her hands. There’s something wet seeping out of one end and her immediate thought, in her heightened paranoid state, is that maybe it’s blood, but the residue it leaves on her fingers is sticky and clear, fragrant, familiar. Gardenias. She carefully peels back the tape and removes the paper. Hand soap. Half-full, gummy around the rounded tip, pink liquid oozing from the opening. Theirs, from the upstairs bathroom. She’d bought it from Target last month. Pete hated the smell, said it made him feel like he’d been molested by an Avon lady. She insisted that they finish the bottle, that they not let Pete’s recent promotion ruin their historical frugality.

She entertains the momentary possibility of some household-product fetishist, a twisted interloper who derives sexual satisfaction from—what, smelling the hand soaps of distressed suburban families? But then she sees the small markered notation over the newsprint, written in Sharpie, left-slanted handwriting that she’s committed to memory. mom.

*     *     *

After the girls were born, Josh had started giving them practical gifts to counteract the cloying toddler artwork—he knew, she supposed, that he couldn’t compete with their popsicle-stick picture frames and their alarming abstract portraits. He gave Carolyn shampoo and batteries for her Walkman and Pete economy-size packs of Dial soap and bundles of athletic socks.

She and Josh had come to bond over their shared hatred of Christmas in the last few years, would sit back and watch with tolerance as the girls tore into their gifts, as Pete bopped around the kitchen in a green apron, humming the classic rock versions of carols and making pancakes shaped vaguely like Santa hats. Last year they’d taken a walk together, trudged through the snow, knee-deep in the woods beyond the backyard, a couple of curmudgeons.

“I thought,” she said, easing into it. “As your Christmas present this year, I thought we might go on a trip.” Pete had allowed her to handle the reveal. He and Josh were barely speaking at the time; he was willing to care for the girls in her absence, support her last-ditch effort to corral their son, mold him into something protectable.

 “You already got me a bike,” Josh said. They were the outdoorsy ones, she and he, the ones who didn’t mind the cold, who rode their bikes through the rain, hoods pulled down tight over their ears. Pete and the girls were homebodies, finicky and temperamental and bookish. She’d thought the new Cannondale—expensive, forest green, made to withstand the elements—might mean that she could see more of Josh. But the trip was her trump card.

“I know that,” she said. “But I was thinking maybe California. Seattle. Out west,” she added, with air quotes, smiling at him.

“What for?” he asked.

 “Break away from the—you know, the daily grind. Take a little breather.” She understood her son’s desire for distance, but if he was going to go far, she wanted him to be padded by something, an expensive dorm room, an illustrious dining hall, a verdant quad.  “And maybe—maybe look at a college or two.”

“Mom.” Josh stopped walking, turned to face her. It was the first time she’d ever beheld him as a man; his face looked startlingly like Pete’s but also like her father’s, a formidable mix of forehead and insubordination.

“Just to look,” she said meekly, starting to walk again, slowly, kicking up clouds of snow with her boots. But Josh stayed put behind her, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his fleece.
 “Mom,” he said. “You know me better than that.”

He disappeared in March. Left her a note tucked among the teabags in their metal canister that she didn’t find until three weeks later, finally detoxing after nearly a month of nothing but strong black coffee. thanks for trying, sorry for everything. She never bothered showing it to Pete; she knew he’d only fixate on the comma splice.  

*    *    *

She wraps herself in Josh’s old oversized Westbrook Wildcats hoodie and goes to the back porch, crunches over a layer of frozen snow in her slippers and watches the steam rise from her coffee. The backyard is polka-dotted with the children’s erratic footprints, Amelia’s snow angels, impossibly small squirrel tracks zipping across like traffic lines. 

Before coming outside she’d opened a few more of the packages—discovering an opened box of Cheerios, the bag inside sealed with a chip clip; a stack of folded pillowcases from the linen closet upstairs; her forgotten package of Holiday Blend from Pete. And the sugarbowl from the kitchen counter, its lid affixed neatly on top with four pieces of Scotch tape. She feels a flutter of hope when she remembers the tape dispenser—perhaps they can dust it for Josh’s fingerprints! But the thought is extinguished quickly, dismissed as inane—firstly because they have his fingerprints already, a cardstock grid from the frightening FBI Child Find initiative that happened when he was in preschool; but also because they already know the perpetrator.

Could he still be around? Is there a possibility that he’s stayed in the area, is crouched in the neighboring bushes, watching her, waiting for her to respond to his offerings? But it’s too cold for a stakeout. She reminds herself to check the mudroom when she goes back inside, certain that Pete’s new gray parka will be missing.

She’s searching for meaning in the objects, poetics in the soap dispenser, a cry for help in the sugar bowl. But all she can think of is what Pete said to her two weeks after Josh went missing, one night when they were together on the couch, twined together in a hug that was purely palliative, both exclusively concerned with the comforting ballast of the other’s warm body.

“He’s always been kind of an asshole.” 

Her brother had just visited for the afternoon so she assumed, initially, that her husband was talking about him. He’d brought them a cookie bouquet and a bottle of scotch and had asked Carolyn, fifteen days after her firstborn went missing, if she’d always been so sensitive. She pulled Pete closer, rested her cheek against his abdomen.

“Since he was a baby,” Pete continued, and she loosened her grip in confusion. “He’s—I know we’re not supposed to say things like this, but he’s selfish. He’s a selfish kid. He’s never—he’s incapable of thinking about things that don’t immediately affect him.”

“He’s seventeen,” she said, moving away from him entirely, feeling her heart start to race. “What seventeen-year-old isn’t selfish?”

“It’s more than that with him.”

“Did you really just call our kid an asshole?”

But he was right, kind of. Josh had always been difficult, a contrarian, prone to the most clichéd kind of youthful nonconformity. He had a poster of Magritte’s pipe above his bed. He sometimes wore a beanie. And Pete—who wanted nothing more in life than a comfortable house, a steady job, to provide for an affable wife and cooperative kids—struggled to see past it, was never quite able to regard Josh with anything other than discernment. Pete was a hard worker, restraint and determination and bootstraps. And like many successful men before him, he’d raised kids who took it all for granted.

“I thought you liked free spirits,” Carolyn said. “You told me when we met that you liked that I was—”

“You,” Pete said, pulling her against him again, “would never do something like this.”

*    *    *

She is sitting at the kitchen table, her chair pushed back, third cup of coffee cooling in the leaky ceramic mug that Ellen pieced together during her fine arts elective. She’s done a sweep of the first floor and found a few other items missing—the wad of cash they keep in Pete’s desk drawer to pay the landscapers and the housekeeper, and the engagement ring that she stopped wearing a few years ago because it began to turn her skin beneath the band scaly and red. If they really wanted, they could track him using that. Send out an alert to pawn shops. Did people still use pawn shops?   

“Mama?” Amelia is in the doorway, bafflingly small in the Ho! Ho! Ho! pajamas she insisted on wearing last night though she outgrew them two years ago. The cuffs at the bottoms of the legs expose her tiny white ankles, the flecks of blue polish on her toes from when Carolyn took Amelia and Ellen for a girls’ day, trying to compensate for her recent distraction, overcaffeination, absenteeism. Her youngest daughter has come down the back stairs, bypassing the dearth that awaits her in the living room. Carolyn tries to smile at her.

“Merry Christmas, pumpkin.”

Mama what time is it,” Amelia says, worming her way into Carolyn’s lap, resting her heavy head against the sharpest part of her collarbone; her children have always known and targeted the parts of her that incite the most pain.

“Early,” Carolyn says, reaching for her mug around her daughter’s body.

“Was Santa here,” Amelia asks. Her inflection flies out the window when she’s tired; all of her sentences are declarative.

Carolyn can only imagine what the other parcels contain. The saltshaker, which appears to be missing from its usual space on the kitchen counter? An errant toothbrush? The nightlight that Ellen no longer demands be lit when she falls asleep? Amelia smells like sweat and nutmeg and stale oxygen.

“Of course,” she says.

“Did he eat my cookies.” Carolyn and Pete nibbled their way through the plate of Jingles at midnight, toasted each other, as was their custom, with bourbon-spiked cider. It had almost been nice, being with him like that. It had almost felt normal.

“Every single one,” Carolyn says. Pete consumed more than half the plate alone while laying the flagstone of the miniature front walkway.

She’s forgotten to check on the dollhouse. Of course she and Pete would have noticed Josh smuggling it away in the night—wouldn’t they? And it would be difficult to balance something so large on the handlebars of the Cannondale. Though if anyone could do it, Josh could. She rises from her seat, hugging Amelia to her chest for a few seconds.

“Do me a favor, my little elf,” she says, “and go read in your bed for about ten minutes, okay? I’ll come get you. Let’s let Ellie sleep a little bit more. I’ll go wake up Dad.”


“No buts,” she says. She’s become a mean mom since Josh left. She kisses Amelia’s forehead in apology. “It’s good to do nice things for each other on Christmas, okay? It’s nice to let Dad sleep in a few minutes; he works so hard.” Amelia pouts, but only for a second.

“Can I read The Grinch?”

“Can you ever,” Carolyn says, and she carries her daughter back to her bedroom.

*    *    *

The dollhouse is intact in the corner of their room, but some of the more expensive furniture is missing, the little antique pieces she picked up from a flea market, justifying the cost to Pete by making the face that makes him do whatever she wants, the face that she discovered in the weeks after Josh left, the face that she didn’t even have to make an effort to arrange at that time but which is now premeditated and feels manipulative and untoward. That face has gotten her a new garbage disposal, the repulsive guinea pig that Ellen so desperately coveted, a couple nights of Pete losing himself between her legs while she rested against the pillows and did nothing, and a specific name-brand kind of Breakfast Blend that’s easier on her stomach than some of the darker roasts.

Pete had covered it with a sheet before he went to bed, tucked it away from view in case one of the kids came in during the night like they tended to do. The intruder has recovered it, folded the sheet with care around its intricate eaves and microscopic shrubbery. The bathroom is missing a juicebox-sized porcelain sink; the floor of the living room is bare without its Oriental rug the exact dimensions of a playing card; one of the bedrooms lacks a brass four-poster turned down with pale green Egyptian cotton sheets.

He must need money. How can he not? It’s not selfishness, she thinks, but survival. He’s newly eighteen; his birthday passed quietly in September. She’d spent the day in bed, wondering what he was doing, imagining him showing up, throwing his arm around her shoulders like he did sometimes, towering over her, demanding genially to know where his funfetti cake was.

He never appeared that day, but today he’s been here. He still has his keys. He still has enough of a heart to not deprive his little sister—she thinks of him the day Amelia was born, his awkward pubescent pelican form holding the baby in his arms like a Cabbage Patch Kid—of the dollhouse she’s desired since she could speak, even if he’s content to rob the rest of them blind.

She goes over and sits on the edge of the bed next to Pete, examining the flop of his hair, the pillow he has clutched against his chest, the few inches of exposed calf sticking out from the blankets. She traces a finger around the angle of his elbow, cold to the touch; he likes to sleep with his limbs outside of the bedding.

“Honey,” she says. He stirs but doesn’t wake, reaches out as if to take her in his arms but then hugs the pillow closer to his chest, her substitute, her formidable goose-down stand-in. She lies down next to him and cups a hand to the side of his face. “Pete, sweetheart, wake up.”

His eyes flutter open and he blinks a few times before he smiles at her.

“Hey, Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Darling,” she says. “We’ve got a bit of a situation.”

 *    *     *

They’ve agreed to avoid the police but Pete has already contacted an untoward acquaintance of one of his work friends who’s a private investigator, a guy who was more than happy to receive a phone call at 7am on Christmas morning, who is probably, at this moment, skulking around the pedmall between Madison and Greenfield, looking for an athletic kid with auburn hair and a bike that cost more than some cars.

 “I just don’t want him to get in trouble,” she says to Pete once he’s hung up the phone, once he’s looking at her with a face that says Only for you but even for you I’m questioning this, you see?

 “Might not be such a bad thing,” Pete says.

“What might?”


“He has to be desperate, Pete; he has to be—”

He leans in and kisses her forehead. “I know, Car.”

When the girls join them, she watches Pete lift Amelia into his arms and guide Ellen over to observe the empty cookie plate on the mantle, to check out their stockings, which Josh has left—thoughtfully—untouched. It isn’t quite as simple as this, but Pete has always been a better father of girls.

“Mom, can I open one?” Ellen asks, eyeing the motley collection of newspaper parcels under the tree. Carolyn meets Pete’s eyes across the room and he shrugs.

“Sure,” she says. “Have at it.”

Ellen lunges to the pile, searches for one with her name on it. Josh has labeled them all, an even number of secondhand gifts for each of them. Carolyn watches her daughter tear ruthlessly at the wrapping, watches her pull out the stuffed bunny that’s resided in her bed since she was born. She frowns.


“I should tell you,” Carolyn says, going over, kneeling beside her, placing a palm on her daughter’s back. “We decided to do something a little different this year.”

Amelia joins them, selects one of her own gifts, discovers a half-used set of Colorforms.

Mama?” she says, sheer accusation.

“Yes,” she says vaguely, a nauseated smile on her face, her eyes fixed dimly on a spot above Pete’s head. “Yes, I thought we’d all think about conservation. Get a jumpstart on our New Year’s resolutions.”

“I don’t get it,” Ellen says.

And why should you, Carolyn thinks meanly. 

Amelia begins to mewl in protest but Pete silences her, rises from his chair and goes to put his hands on Carolyn’s shoulders.

“Listen to your mother,” he says, squeezing. “She knows what she’s talking about.” 

Pete takes their bereft progeny upstairs to show them the dollhouse and while they’re gone she sits by the tree and breathes in the quiet. She weaves an artful narrative in her head in which all of his offerings bear some great celestial weight, in which he’s telling her—in the coagulated soap, in the dusty spaces between the Cheerios, in the fibers of the pillowcases—I’m still here.

*    *    *

The night he left she’d gone back into his room to continue their conversation and found it empty, a damp breeze coming in through the open window. Before she could panic, he called, “I’m out here,” a disembodied voice from out on the roof. She went to the window and found him stretched out on the diagonal, residual wisps of cigarette smoke wafting away from a butt in the gutter.

“God, do you have any idea how nervous it makes me when you come out here?”

He flexed his muscles, did a little flutter kick with his legs that made her instinctively jerk forward to catch him. He turned back and grinned at her. “Catlike reflexes,” he said, and then he extended a hand out to her and helped her onto the roof, where she settled beside him with shaking knees.

“Those you get from your father,” she said. “Come on. You’re grounded.”

“I’m still on the property,” he said.

“Don’t be a smartass.”

“I just wanted some fresh air.”

“Smoke isn’t fresh air.”


“I wish you wouldn’t do that to yourself,” she said.

“I’ll quit soon.” 

“When’s soon?”

“Not as soon as today but not as far-off as next year.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“I’ll have to check my schedule.”

She shifted herself, tentatively, and craned her neck to look down at their lawn, the luxuriant blooms of the lilac bushes.

“You know Dad’s just looking out for you, right?”

“Yeah, what a guy.”

“Stop that.”

Josh would be moving on, she thought, one way or another. But Pete wouldn’t. Pete was in it for the long haul. Pete was the one who’d continue to be there when the children grew up, to keep her company in the big airless house. Pete, her hearty New Englander who wasn’t going anywhere, who told her so frequently that she worried too much, who misguidedly thought that tough love would be the thing to keep their eldest around, who looked out for all of them, even in his sleep.

“If I do end up—like, if I went somewhere, it wouldn’t be because of you.”

“Please don’t be dramatic,” she said, because he usually liked it when she ribbed him.

“Just saying,” he said.

“Life will become less boring, sweetheart, I promise. Sometimes you have to go through the motions in order to—you know, find things that are meaningful.”

“What, like you did?” he asked, and she shifted away from him a little, stung.

“Sure, like I did,” she said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You really like your life?”

She wished, fleetingly, that Pete was around to tell him to watch his mouth.

“Of course I do,” she said.

“Because you seem kind of—blasé a lot of the time.”


“It means—”

“I know what it means. I’m not the one who’s failing English.”

“Jesus, Mom.”

“I’m not blasé,” she said. “I’m an adult. I’ve got three unruly children to take care of.” She nudged him a little with her foot, apologizing. “Not everything’s exciting all the time, okay? That’s just life, kid.”

“But it doesn’t have to be.”

“You say that now,” she said. “But come see me in twenty years and I promise you’ll have a different perspective.” Josh regarded her warily and she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “This entire conversation is a cliché, love, do you realize that?”

“I’m kind of tired. I think I might go back in.”

Josh helped her back through the window and she hugged him goodnight and then she went and joined her husband in their bedroom, and when he asked why she was crying she told him, simply, I’m just tired, and Pete—bless him—knew what she meant, and he hugged her to him, and they fell asleep, together, and as they slept Josh slipped back out the window, down the slope of the roof, across the lawn—stopping, maybe, to pick a bushel of lilacs, his mother’s favorite?—and he kept going, further and further and further until he had to return.

Claire Lombardo is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Little Fiction, Oyez Review, Burrow Press Review, Atticus Review, Wyvern Lit, Luna Luna Magazine, and other journals. She lives in Iowa City and is currently at work on her first novel. You can find her online at, or on Twitter @clairelombardo.  


By Helen McClory

Prompt, from Leah Umansky: Write in the second person. Include one or all of the following images: star, snowflake, owl, a famous tv character.


            Christmas Eve finds you sitting alone in an emergency bothy on the side of the mountain in the Scottish Highlands, soaked to your underwear, poking at damp logs and trying to get a fire to catch. It’s taken you all day to get here, though it was not at first a strenuous journey. This is a families-and-their-dogs type of summit, busy most holidays and weekends in good weather. The hut is only provided on the off-chance of bad weather and foolishness, which there are plenty of in this instance. The day started out blue and frosty. You dawdled, ate snacks, took breaks to cry into your sleeves when there was no sign of other walkers. Towards noon, a sudden turn. Sleet and driving rain, to the point where people were muttering on their way back down, turn back, pal, it’s not going to let up tonight. But dreich was what you needed. Any excuse to put your head to the ground and trudge onwards. Whatever was it possessed you, at the summit, to leap down off a last rock, like you were someone with a need to be leaping? Then over on the ankle, the pain stratospheric. You rub the swelling. Not serious; pathetic, mostly in the pantheon of bodily injury. Leaving a dull throb; you hold that throb to yourself like a gift. True you could have louped down the mountain on your good leg, or caved and called for help. But you have your reasons.

            Somewhere in a secret pocket there’s one of Janno’s lighters. It takes a while to locate, while you shiver open the rucksack’s knots and zips. You’d love a nip of something brash and peaty, though you don’t drink, you remind yourself. What else? No lantern, no sleeping bag, not much in the way of food. A gritty energy bar and some old teabags from another trip. No pot or stove to coax the worth from them. There though, the fire’s catching. You get to work on your damp boots and your wet socks, then rub at your slab-cold feet. After an hour, misery ebbs, and you take the measure of everything around. In the firelight you can make out dirt floor, doorless cupboards, log basket, rough ladder up to the sleeping loft. You won’t be sleeping up there, not with your ankle the way it is, and so far from the only heat.

            There’s a knocking at the door – who knocks at a bothy? It’s meant for all comers. You wince over, getting your feet clarty. At the door, there’s nothing. Winter dark and its stars in a weatherless sky. The barely visible windsheltered side of the hill. Then, there’s an owl. It is standing right in front of you, looking up.

            You’ve never seen an owl in the wild before. You don’t even know if their range is this far North. Certainly high up on a mountain seems unlikely. What species is this? It’s very large, almost the size of a toddler, though that implies something weak and awkward. You are unsure of owls, in general. You are the awkward one here. You hop to one side, and the owl walks in. Perhaps it has a broken wing. Disorientated. It moves to the fire, and jumps onto one of the wooden benches. You close the door and slowly seat yourself back down where you were. The owl gives you a friendly glare. Eyes like amber in a hunched mottled body. Nothing happens. For some time, you both sit watching the fire, which smokes and crackles. You wriggle your toes at the grate, and then stop, in case the owl is offended, or mistakes them for small baby mice.

            Eventually your eyes grow weary, and you pull on your dried socks and stretch out on the bench, mindful of the creature beside you. As you sleep you dream brilliantly of the owl. In the dream, the owl, grown larger still, removes its coat and balaclava of feathers. Under it all is a squat-necked woman, or a man, or a child of any gender – you can’t be sure. The owl-person, still seated by the fire, takes out a set of knitting needles and begins to tick away on them. You want to ask something, but if there’s anything worth asking, the heat of the fire and your reluctance to break silence hides the words away in the back of your mouth. Nothing but a sigh escapes, full of ambiguity as sighs always are. Are you content? Stymied? It is not the time to lock your emotions into any particular definition.

            At a point before dawn you wake feeling a sudden pressure on your shoulder. You try very carefully not to panic. The owl flaps its wings a few times, and the door creaks open. You are sure the owl’s head must turn all the way round to check on whoever is here now. You don’t have any power of motion, beyond moving your legs, which seems risky. Now you think, what if the owl is insane and attacks you in a frenzy. This presumes owls can go mad. Rabid, then.

            The pressure lifts: the owl is walking over to greet the new guest. You get up. Flurries blithering in. A snowflake lands in your eye, not that there is much to see anyway. Water trickles down your cheek. Nothing has come; the door stands open with the owl on the threshold. And then, in a moment marked by no sound, it is gone. You wait, then close the door after. The fire falls in on itself while you sleep. In the morning you look around, packing, telling yourself not to look. Time to go.

            You stand at the door now. It’s Christmas day. Whiteness like down spreads soft below, as far and far as you can see.

Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press and won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. She can be found @HelenMcClory. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.