Alec Osthoff — “The Tomb of the Pharaoh”

Caleb’s kitchen table is covered in penises. There must be hundreds of them. Some are inked in red, some in blue, some are carved. A few notable specimens are bordered with glitter. They are almost all flaccid and uncircumcised—so crammed together they look like fish scales. No matter where you sit, there is at least one wrangling member pointed at you.

The tenants of the house claim the dicks came with the table. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, though some of these guys have the knack for sketching a quick erection on benches or bathroom stalls. My question is: who steals a table with a battalion of dicks drawn on it? These guys, apparently. Not only that, but they were willing drag this exhibit of preteen expressionism all the way from south Powderhorn. It must have been fifteen miles roundtrip. This kid, Julius, bragged that it took them two days to carry it home. They slept on it in the middle of the sidewalk so no one would steal it during the night. I asked him who could possibly want to steal the thing, and he said, “Well, we stole it. Didn’t we?”

Caleb and the rest of his friends suffer from the delusion that all the men in the world wants to be just like them. They’re convinced that every night the executives from Wells Fargo and what-have-you drive home and become restless because they’ve never thrown a brick through a window, or spray painted “GOD HATES ANTS” on the back of a bus. I’m excused from this rule because I have a uterus, which is an awfully enlightened perspective for them to take.

Julius isn’t his real name. They all go by pseudonyms. Caleb says it’s like getting a saint’s name for confirmation, except you can change it whenever you want. Currently the hard-on of the week is pointed at Ancient Rome. Caleb is going by Caligula, but I still call him Caleb because I think this nickname bullshit is fucking bananas. They all put up with me calling him by his civilian name, but when they say “Caligula” in conversation they all look at me like I’m pronouncing it wrong. I don’t know anyone else’s real name, but I refuse to call them by their aliases because I’m not in a comic book. One boy corrects me after I call him “you over there” by saying, “My name is Nero. Nero. Like the emperor who let Rome burn down.”

I say, “Hi. I’m Grace. Like Will and Grace, or a hundred thousand other people with that name.”

Nero is perched on a ladder next to a column of phonebooks. Four of these columns act as crutches for the sagging roof. The roof sags because of what must have been an orgy of destruction when they knocked down the interior walls of their house. Caleb was the only member of the crew who thought about the structural repercussions of this “elimination of needless privacy,” but he didn’t have the heart to tell them to stop. He’d already stolen all of the phonebooks in the neighborhood a month prior when the city had delivered the updated edition. He claims it’s because people should be discouraged from using the phone, but really it’s because he likes to steal shit. He always has. When we were kids he’d sometimes bring me Ziploc bags full of Steel Reserve Two-Eleven, or some other malt he’d lifted. And I’d be grateful I’d scored anything, and that I had a cool younger brother who’d help me out, but I’d also ask him why he couldn’t steal a red wine, or anything that was at least a full step up from gutter piss. He never could steal anything worth anything. He probably still can’t.

He already had the phonebooks piled in the yard soaking up rain, so it was just a matter of moving them inside. The roof more or less settled itself. They were a few feet short on phonebooks, so everyone had to donate a novel or two to the relief effort. Nero is perched on the ladder so he can read his copy of Atlas Shrugged, which is part of the southwestern crutch. Without the novel, there is a two-inch gap between the column and the ceiling. I keep imagining that the roof is going to choose this moment to buckle, that those two inches of space on the fourth pylon are what will bring the roof down on us. I take a pull from the bottle of wine on the table. The bottle belongs to what was once an expensive chardonnay, but the contents have been replaced with a much cheaper red wine, probably MD Twenty-Twenty. Generally Caleb would do without the bourgeois bottle, but he wants to make me feel at home. At a certain point he had to stop giving it to me in Ziplocs. I’m still his sister, but I’m also a guest now. I decide not to tell Caleb that chardonnay is a white wine. I’ll let him think he’s being a good host.

The handful of AA meetings I’ve gone to have taught me that one of the best cures for alcoholism is to stare at a wall until you don’t feel like drinking anymore. They call it meditating to make it sound less stupid. You just wait until you aren’t thirsty, until the party leaves, until you’re too hungry to drink. Because of this, I am unspeakably grateful that I’ll never be an alcoholic.

Every so often a series of shrill beeps cuts through the air. It’s pretty annoying, so I say, “Hey, you over there.”

He corrects me. “It’s still Nero.”

“Sure, what’s that beeping? I think it’s telling me to kill the humans.”

He waits for another clump to come along. Then he nods in recognition and says, “Monoxide detector is low on batteries.”

Now it makes sense. Somewhere in the house a potentially lifesaving device is being neglected, and it resents it. So it marches out this ponderous staccato rhythm that in Morse Code would read “s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-” like the hiss of a punctured gas pipe. I stare at my hands resting on the table, try to keep the wine out of my vision, but all I see are the dicks. They wrap around one another, forming a solid wall of proboscises. I try to see the tabletop as having a unified design, but all I can see is one penis, then another penis, then another. The detector nudges me in the ribs to remind me that I’m inhaling poisonous gas. The room gets smaller as the roof moves imperceptibly down, down, just waiting to come into our laps.

The wine doesn’t help me shake the nerves, and it’s awful stuff. The worst I’ve had since I turned sixteen.

Nero laughs, says, “This Rand chick sure is a kooky bitch,” but I don’t reply because I’m already walking out the door.

We’re having one of those Minnesotan days that make us think spring has arrived for good. The snow has almost all melted. The yard gives off the smell of churned mud. The earthy tones mix with the stink of barbequed rot pouring out of a charcoal grill in Caleb’s yard. Yesterday this kid Cassius pulled a dying carp out of the Mississippi with his bare hands, screaming “Carpe carp! Carpe carp!” and ever since it has sat under the front porch waiting for him to cook it. Now it’s laid out over the coals, unskinned and unwashed, ruining the whole neighborhood with its smell. Cassius turns the fish over with a rock and Caleb says, “You can’t eat carp, man. They’re bottom feeders. They live off shit and dead things.” But Cassius just keeps smiling, and says, “A real man can eat anything. You hear I didn’t even need a pole to catch it?”

It’s the perfect train wreck. All alcoholics should have a Cassius to watch. I hardly even notice the smell until Caleb grabs my attention. He wants me to see this book of poems he bought from one of the neighborhood punks. The first one reads:

I am an electric joke
plug me in you will laugh
ain’t a vibrator
also not a bird
buzz zoop-ba-di buzz
HAHAHAHA

“Caleb, what the fuck is this?”

He laughs the way he has always laughed, says, “Yeah, they’re out there. Pretty much all like that.”

Un-fucking-believable. “How much did you pay for that?”

He doesn’t answer me. He’s watching Cassius make a mess of his neighborhood, no longer feeling the homeowner’s instinct that should tell him to put a stop to the shenanigans. He bought the house when he was even more of a kid than he is now, and he had these big dreams about how he was going to fix it up. It’d been skirted by a massive tornado— one of those freak incidents that aren’t supposed to happen outside of the Old Testament. The pressure broke all of the windows. Most of the shingles flew off. It was in the process of being condemned when he bought it. He promised some city inspector he’d get up to code in the next sixty days. He tried at first. He replaced some of the windows, stapled plastic sheets and insulation over the ones he didn’t get to. But that was two years ago, and he’s been living on borrowed time and government negligence ever since.

He’s still smiling when he slaps me on the shoulder and says, “Wanna go grab a bite to eat?”

I nod. We start walking towards the Holiday gas station a few blocks down. I’ve been slipping off to it a few times a day since I arrived here almost a week ago for a quick meal, or so I can change my tampons without an audience. At the edge of the yard I see Constantinius II trying to teach Valens how to trick a padlock with a cut up pop can. It’s a pretty simple move, but Valens is a god damned drip, so he can’t seem to get the hang of it. I’m tempted to step in and show him how it’s done, but no one likes a showoff.

Caleb never asks me what I’m doing at his house, or in Minneapolis for that matter, either because he wants me to have my privacy or because he doesn’t care. But his home is a halfway house for fuckups and morons, so I’m sure he can put two and two together. Instead, he halfheartedly feigns a semblance of normality whenever I’m around. He doesn’t care about poetry, but he thinks I do, and he wants to trick me into thinking that his lifestyle has culture.

He puts his hand on my shoulder, massages it once. Passersby must think we’re a bizarre looking couple. There’s an alchemy symbol tattooed to his hand, a relic from when he dated Rachel (she pronounced it Raquel) who worshipped trees, and goat people, and shit like that. She said the tattoo would help him find ghosts. I don’t know if he’s ever had any success, so I ask, “Has that tattoo ever shown you anything?”

He smiles down at me. “Nah. I think you have to believe in ghosts for that to work.”

“Why’d you get it if you don’t believe in them?”

He shrugs, “Inertia.” We walk a few paces before he says, “I really just wanted to fuck something.”

I elbow him in the ribs. He’s still a scrawny punk. He hasn’t put on any muscle since he turned eleven. We’re both smiling now because we’re siblings and we’re both horny and lonely for people we aren’t related to. I say, “So if you don’t believe in ghosts, what are you looking for in those abandoned buildings?”

“Atlantis,” he says, “I’m looking for Atlantis.”

I’m glad no one is around to hear him say this. It’s hard to see why the others look up to Caleb. Sure, he’s the only one among them who can hold onto a job, but he’s far from inspirational. “Well you’re looking in the wrong spot, Mr. Caligula. Atlantis is underwater.”

He looks off down the railroad tracks as we cross them and says, “They’ve sounded the ocean, and it isn’t there. Now we have to start looking for it on land.”

I always feel bad about trivializing his stupid fantasies, so I try to turn the metaphor, and say, “I bet you’re looking for the pharaoh’s tomb.”

He winks at me. If I had a photo of him smiling and winking, I could sell it to the Walker Art Center. They’d call it ironic. He says, “I thought the pharaohs lived in Egypt.”

“They’ve found all the ones in Egypt, smartass.”

“Well, what were these long lost pharaohs doing in Minneapolis?”

I look back at the grain elevators and depots along the tracks we just crossed for inspiration. I know that Caleb has been inside them all. I draw a blank, so I rely on my go to response. “Following Mormon Jesus.”

Caleb laughs, “Right, along with wooly mammoths, Amelia Earhart, and the soulful songs of the seventies.”

“Exactly, the pharaohs just got tired and decided to stop here.”

When we enter the store Caleb asks the woman at the register to let him see one of the Hustler magazines they keep behind the counter. While her back is turned he steals three Nut Goodies from the rack. I don’t see him do this, but I know from routine that it is happening. He’s done it every day this week. We’re up to our necks in Nut Goodies.

I step into the bathroom. A woman is changing her baby boy. They’re both screaming because he is covered in his own shit again. She composes herself when I open the door, but he goes right on screaming. She says, “Don’t have kids,” and I smile because I have nothing to say to this. I sit in the stall, pants still on, just relishing the normalcy of the situation, perfectly content to see people being people without senseless destruction and make-believe notions. The stink of the bathroom brings me relief— the scent of sweet chemicals trying to combat how disgusting we humans can be; it gives the illusion of attempted cleanliness, and I’d forgotten how much I’d missed that.

When I step outside Caleb is waiting for me by the Holiday sign, listening to a bum tell him about how at the end of the world everything will turn into pillars of salt except for his hometown of Plato, Missouri. He listens with rapt attention. Bums are always telling Caleb shit, but never asking him for money. Caleb asks him if Plato is a nice town, and the bum says, “It’s a shithole, man. An absolute fucking shithole.”

I flag Caleb over, and he says, “Find any Egyptians in there?”

“Nah, just the usual.”

The bum shouts to Caleb that he should “slow down for love.” Caleb salutes him. He turns back to me and says, “Where do you think it all went? The stuff besides the pharaohs, I mean.”

I say, “It just kept going. It kept going until it found out it wasn’t anywhere anymore.”

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“Sometimes we have no way of knowing how much we mean to someone.” That’s what mom told me after Mark and I broke up. It’s one of her more choice clichés. When I told Caleb about it he laughed. Mom and Caleb don’t talk. She’s convinced that he’s a drug dealer, which he isn’t. But she’ll call me every now and again because she’s convinced I’m a screw-up.

Back at the house the boys are gearing up for war. Tiberius suggested they break into the abandoned St. Paul Island Power Station. There’s a rumor going around that some business mogul wants to convert the place into condominiums. The guys have made it their holy mission to spray-paint penises over the brickwork and smash the windows before the construction crew moves in. There’s a mad dash to pick up flashlights, lighters, lengths of rope. Tiberius grabs a hatchet and whoops like an Indian chief from a nineteen-fifties cowboy flick as he flails across the yard, missing knees and necks by a margin of inches. You wouldn’t know they were sober by looking at them.

Caleb watches this ocean of drifters ransack his house for anything that could remove a bolt or shatter a window. He smiles at them as they turn his possessions inside out. He asks me again if I’m sure I want to go with them. Breaking and entering goes on your permanent record. I say, “If I don’t go with you, you’ll keep all the pharaoh’s treasure for yourself.”

Caleb herds us onto the sixty-one crosstown bus like we’re in elementary school. We pile in with our crowbars and leather gloves, and I move towards the back of the bus in silence while trying to avoid eye contact with the other passengers. Their looks remind me that we aren’t children, that we are a nuisance, that we should have better things to do. I’m recently unemployed and living in a house with no walls. What are we doing? The sixty-one travels about as fast as I jog, so it takes us almost an hour to get to St. Paul. It gives me plenty of time to wonder whether or not Caleb put me in this position on purpose.

It’s a short walk from where the bus drops us off to the plant. Cassius leads us through the dense woods along the riverbank. The boys charge after gangs of wild turkeys in the underbrush. We tromp through homeless squats, both vacant and occupied. Sometimes the vagrants ask for cigarettes; one asks to see my tits, but we leave them all disappointed. When the plant finally comes into view, it comes as a bastion of sanity in the jungle. It comes as civilization.

The doors and windows have been boarded over with thick lumber and “No Trespassing” signs, but Nero leads us to a basement window by the riverside that he managed to saw open earlier in the week. He’d been on an expedition to spray-paint “BONER” down the length of the smokestack. We clamber into the basement one at a time. I go in last except for Caleb. By the time we’re in the others are already bored, playing with their flashlights and making ghost noises.

The basement is frigid. With the exception of the hole we crawled through, it is completely bricked in, and winter is still living here. I feel like I’m submerged in soil, breathing in the dirt as though it were oxygen. The air feels cleaner than outside, even though I know there is asbestos in it. It’s like walking on the moon, the bottom of the ocean, like nowhere I have ever been.

A flight of stairs leads up to the main floor of the plant. The boys rush to see who can get to the top first. Caleb and I wait for the others to clear out before moving up. By the time we get there Julius is already perched on a set of aging scaffolding that once held up the plant’s catwalks. The windows are only boarded up for the first twenty vertical feet, above the intact glass lets the sunset in. My childhood attendance of Catholic mass compels me to fall silent as I enter the room, which stretches for a hundred feet in every direction. Caleb’s friends have no such compulsion. They swing their crowbars against the brickwork, hoping they’ll bring the building down. Valens chases two pigeons away from the corpse of a cat. He picks it up and looks for a conspicuous place to put it, shouting something about curiosity.

Cassius finds the guts of a podium microphone and throws them up to Julius on the scaffolding, yelling, “Speech. Speech.” This becomes a chant until all of the boys are caught up in the fever, and Julius yells, “Brothers and sisters—”

I can hear the earth move. I feel the grains eroding from the brick that will bring the walls down. “A reading from Leviticus, chapter eleven, verse fifty-two.” Each boy cheers something different. Huzzah. Hallelujah. Thanks be to God. Mercy, please. “Jesus of Navarro came to the village of Judea with his disciples on the twelfth day of the ninth month.”

I’ve never been so thirsty in my life. I no longer want to be here. “It was here that he came upon an adulteress.” Lord have mercy. Crucify her. “And the elders of the village said, ‘We must throw rocks at her until she is dead, as the scripture commands.’” Thanks be to rocks.

I wasn’t even this thirsty after Mark left and I quit going to the meetings he thought were necessary. “But Jesus bent down, and started drawing figures in the dirt.” What’d he draw? Sing it brother.

Although, I was pretty thirsty then.

“So they said again, ‘Jesus of Navarro, we must throw rocks at this woman until she is dead.’” Sing it again. Keep singin’ brother. I always sympathized with the woman in this story. I’d sleep around too if I lived in the middle of the desert where there was nothing else to do.

One of the last times Mark and I had sex it felt like the sun had risen inside of me. “And Jesus said, ‘Let those of us who are without sin throw the first stone.’” Play your old stuff. I don’t remember thanking him, but I must have, because I remember him rolling over and saying, “You don’t have to thank me. Really, I like this too.” Then I must have told him that I wanted to thank him anyway, because he said, “I mean it. Don’t do that.”

“And one by one the men walked home. They saw they weren’t going to be throwing any rocks that day.” Thanks be to rocks. And sometimes, that’s all it takes. I faked it for a few weeks, but I don’t think it fooled him at all. Julius, let us see your muscles. Then he took my keys and I left Chicago. It’s just that simple.

“And Jesus bent back to the dirt, picked up a rock, and chucked it at her,” BAM! “Right in the fucking eye.” This room is getting smaller. I can feel the walls moving down, down, waiting to entomb us alive. How long until we run out of oxygen? How many years will we lie here before someone digs us up? “She never saw out of it again.” Thanks be to rocks. Marx was right. Fuck the police. “And he told her to quit sinning and grow up.” I don’t want to grow up. I stare at the concrete floor, but I can’t stop myself from thinking about how they’re going to shout until the walls come down. “Father, son, and the holy spirit,”

I’m going to die thirsty.

Ahhhh-men. Ah, fucking men.


Alec Osthoff received his MFA from the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Up North Lit, and as winner of the Blue Mesa Review Fiction Contest. He can be found on Twitter @AlecOsthoff.

Daniel Paul — “North to the Future: A Sourdough Lovestory”

Theirs was a sourdough love; it was freshly made, but tasted aged. Though Haley and Rick had only just met, and though they were each only nineteen during that summer in Alaska, they both felt as if they had stumbled into a love that was sudden, yet permanent: new to the world, but certain to endure. She was a local—Talkeetna born and raised—and he was from New York City—one of the hundreds of tourists who had started coming to the town for the sole purpose of eating pancakes since the recent invention of teleportation technology. Their friends told them it was fleeting. His friends said it was just a fling, that she would never leave the town; her friends said he was just another teleporter, that he would never stay. But Haley and Rick trusted that what they felt was real. And so every day he would teleport to Talkeetna, and, after her shift working at the Roadhouse, they would sit and eat pancakes and talk and giggle and smile. It never seemed like there were any pauses in the conversation—their words clung to each other’s with the same fierceness that their hands did when they walked about town—but if there were moments of silence, it was only because their mouths were full of pancakes.

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iTeleporter described Talkeetna as having RUSTIC CHARM, FRONTIER CHARM, and MOUNTAIN CHARM. (A programming intern had written a subroutine which added the word CHARM after every description. His bosses had liked this and put him on salary. The intern celebrated by replacing his cat’s dry food with a more luxurious wet brand.)

Zagat’s Guide to Pancakes said this about the McKinley Roadhouse: FRESHLY MADE PANCAKES FROM HUNDRED YEAR OLD SOURDOUGH STARTER AND FRESHLY PICKED MOUNTAIN BERRIES MAY BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD

The teleporting community said this about those pancakes: YUM YUM.

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Haley had been working at the Roadhouse since she was fourteen. She saved her tips, hoping to leave Alaska for college, knowing that she wasn’t likely to get any farther than University of Alaska Anchorage. She knew that the guilt of leaving her family and the fear of being on her own would be too much if she had to build up to leaving. If she was going to rip the mountains from her heart, she would have to do it in one quick pull.

What was she running from, you ask? Surely a girl growing up in the most beautiful place on Earth—which Talkeetna may have been: in the shadow of the mountain, with glacial rivers rushing through valleys of blooming wildflowers—surely a girl raised on the greatest flapjacks known to man—which they most certainly were; the people at Zagat’s Guide to Pancakes were not exaggerating—surely this tall and strawberry blonde girl would be endlessly content with wide spaces to stretch her long legs and strong winds to mess up her hair and force her to reaffix it behind her ears. Surely this ALASKA GROWN girl would need nothing more than the last frontier to prove she was as tough as she acted with the boys at her school. But this was the problem. Talkeetna was a town of fewer than a thousand people. From kindergarten through high school she shared a grade with the same nine kids, the same five boys. The only time she’d ever left Alaska had been to go to her grandfather’s funeral in Scottsdale. All Haley could remember besides the cold and still body of her plaid-loving grandfather in a stiff black suit, was the indoor swimming pool of the motel.

In the first two weeks after teleportation technology had been invented, over two hundred teleporters had come to Talkeetna. And even though Haley served most of them, she did not think any of them were worthy candidates to run away with. Until Rick.

Rick was a sophomore at NYU who had been to Alaska once as a child. He had purchased an iTeleporter with his student loan refund check, justifying the expense by telling himself (and anyone who would listen) that it would open up a lot of ‘journalistic’ possibilities, though Rick was not a journalism major. Really, he was just tired of New York. He had no doubt that the first place he wanted to go was to Alaska. He thought back to the trip his parents had taken him on, over a decade ago, and thought first of Mount Denali. Unlike the animals, which his parents had told him would soon be extinct, and the glaciers, which he was told would soon be melted, nobody told him that the mountain was going anywhere. He was able to look at it one bit at a time, not feeling like he had to strain his eyes to remember it all at once. So ten years later, when he was scanning his iTeleporter guide for prime rematerialization spots, he searched for the mountain. WORLD’S BEST PANCAKES. VIEW OF MOUNT DENALI, it said.

It was his plan to go there only once. Teleporting to Alaska is not cheap. But that all changed when he caught a glimpse of a strawberry blonde waitress.

He fell in love with her immediately. True, he had fallen in love with three other girls earlier in the week—an Asian girl who had more ribbon than hair, a French barista whose accent was as fully extracted as her espresso, and the new comic on SNL whose name he couldn’t remember—but this felt different. Maybe it was the ALASKA GROWN sweatshirt. She looked like a girl who knew how to catch fish and though he couldn’t explain why, this seemed like the sexiest thing in the world. Images of sexy, post-apocalyptic, desert islands flashed in his mind. She could teach him outdoor living skills, and he could lie and tell her that he was really street smart—even though in four years at NYU he did not get farther into Brooklyn than Dumbo, nor farther north Manhattan than the Seinfeld diner on 112th.

If his first sight of Haley was enough to get him to come back for pancakes the next morning, his second visit, in which she chatted him up, sharing with him her comedic impressions of some of the other teleporters (and implying that he was not like them), was enough to get him to purchase a three-month New York/Talkeetna teleportation pass.

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May was the beginning of Talkeetna’s tourism season, around the time that travelers began to flood the dry riverbeds of the mountain town, which sat roughly halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park. They showed up in cars, buses, and RVs, and to Alaskans they seemed almost to spring out of the ground like wildflowers, their NorthFace jackets in forget-me-not blue and fireweed fuchsia. So finding that there was a new technology to deposit tourists up north was not hugely surprising. And while some could not help but be impressed by the wonder of teleportation and the possibilities it implied, others had darker thoughts: specifically, couldn’t one of these fancy scientists figure out a way for Talkeetna to get the money from tourism that its seasonal economy depended on without having to actually get the tourists? (The owner of the local pizza café, in particular, had a fantasy of robbing the tourists at gunpoint before piling all of their t-shirts and fanny packs in the town square and setting them ablaze.)

Some thought that the influx of teleporters would be a boon for every business in Talkeetna, not just the Roadhouse. The flightseeing companies printed new rack cards with a more futuristic feel they hoped would be attractive to teleporters: block lettering and so forth. The crafts stores and gift shops put some of their finest objects on a cart and wheeled them just in sight of the teleportation zone. But no business followed.

No, no. Just here for the pancakes, said the teleporters. If I wanted to see the mountain I would teleport to the summit. If I wanted to buy jewelry I would order it online. All of this I could get in New York except the pancakes.

Do you want to do a tour of Denali? A boat tour of the Nenana? asked the locals.

No, no. I’m just here for the pancakes. I was in Alaska a few weeks ago. I teleported to that Into the Wild school bus. You got some beautiful country here.

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Over the years, Haley had lied to a lot of tourists. She saw the boys and girls her own age, each of them only going to be in town for a day or so, as a blank slate to reimagine herself. Many of them who visited Talkeetna from places like Texas or Montana found themselves talking to a strawberry blond girl who insisted that she was from New York. She lived in the Empire State Building. Her dad worked at the Statue of Liberty. She had private lessons on the giant piano from Big. Etc. As she got older, the lies got more precise (aided by research) but no less romantic. So, on their first date outside of the Roadhouse, as she sat on the banks of the Nenana River with Rick and asked him to tell her about his life, her excitement at discovering the real New York was tempered by the sadness that she was losing the part of herself that had lived there in fantasy: an alter ego she considered a close friend.

And as Rick answered her questions about New York with his own questions about Alaska, he found himself torn as to which fantasy of her to indulge. After all, could he really think of her as a small town girl when the mountain in her back yard was the biggest thing he’d ever seen? Could he imagine her as a rugged explorer when she had never left home?

He told her about Real New York, which, it turned out, did not include any tourist attractions, and was (as far as Haley could tell) localized exclusively in two or three pizza places and one particular block of Chinatown.

I bet he’s experienced, she thought as she kissed him. New York is so cool that people must be having awesome, cosmopolitan sex there all the time. I bet it wouldn’t be awkward, like it was in the back of Jimmy Thompson’s truck.

I bet she’s inexperienced, he thought as he kissed her. I bet that she wouldn’t really know that I didn’t know what I was doing. I bet that I could just worry about kissing her, without worrying if I was kissing her in the right places in the right order.

As they wrapped their arms around each other in the seemingly endless afternoon of Alaskan summer, they each wondered if they might have a future together.

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By the second week of June, teleporters were lining the street. The large, family style tables of the Roadhouse were packed, and there was not enough room in the screened in porch for the waiting patrons to congregate. They spilled out onto Main Street. Is this the pancake line? they would ask each other.

The other shop owners looked at the line with jealousy. The owner of the pizza café around the corner wondered how hard it would be to set up a griddle in the kitchen. He didn’t have sourdough starter, but he decided that he might be able to pass off a counterfeit if he got store-bought pancake mix and cut it with Kodiak Brown ale to synthesize the yeastiness that was in such apparent global demand. He dispatched a couple of his J1 Slovenians to Fairbanks to procure Bisquick and spatulas.

While waiting in his increasingly empty pizza shop for them to return, he began to wonder how difficult it would be to burn the Roadhouse to the ground.

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They made a deal. Haley would take Rick to her favorite “non-tourist” place in Alaska, if he would teleport her somewhere exciting, somewhere away from Talkeetna. They would prove their doubters wrong, prove that their love was bigger than the small town where it had been sparked; they would show each other places that were as authentic and unique as their love.

She took him to the Ghost Forest in Girdwood. The 1964 earthquake had dropped the ground, flooding the roots of the forest with saltwater, killing the trees instantly, but preserving them. She told him how she loved staring at the gray and leafless trees, how whenever her problems seemed big she would come here and see proof that people—to say nothing of a person, to say nothing of her—were small and humble. He nodded as if he understood, but all he could really think was that if you take away the trees—which were ugly, and looked burned—Haley’s favorite place in Alaska kind of looked like the part of upstate New York where he had gone for summer camp.

He had hoped to take her to Hawaii or Europe—places that he had always wanted to go to, and that seemed to evoke sex in their syntax alone. But he quickly realized that he could not afford them. His teleportation expenses had tapped out his student loans, and all of his credit cards were maxed out. He could not afford to go to Maui or Paris, even by such pedestrian transportation modes as air travel, nor could he even afford to add a companion teleportation fare to his unlimited Talkeetna/New York pass. He did, however, have enough iTeleporter rewards points for transport and lodging for two in an off-season golf resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.

He was so effusively and pathetically apologetic for taking her somewhere so unexceptional that she was unable to sustain her resentment. In the end, she slept with him partly out of pity, and partly because it was July in Arizona, and the room was the only air-conditioned place for them to go. As he kissed her in a sequence that was so counterintuitive she was forced to conclude it was just how folks in New York did it, she remembered with clarity and surprising nostalgia the smells of pine and diesel in the back of Jimmy Thompson’s truck.

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By the time of the first big teleporting accident, Talkeetna was on the verge of open war. The hope of a teleportation boom bringing prosperity to the entire town had proved false. Not only were the teleporters just interested in pancakes, they were driving away normal tourists. More and more, the RVers and tour groups were going straight from Anchorage to Denali.

It was the end of July, everyone besides the Roadhouse was behind on their numbers, and drastic measures were being taken. J1 seasonal workers from all across Eastern Europe were let go from their posts. They could be seen walking with wet eyes to the park connection bus which would take them to Anchorage or Fairbanks. Most of the Bulgarians—famed for their shirt folding prowess—tried to find gift shop work in Denali Park. The Slovenians headed south, hoping to find work in one of the fisheries in Homer or Seward. Besides laying off their seasonal staff, every business—from the tour boats to the craft shops—now offered AUTHENTIC SOURDOUGH FLAPJACKS, which in reality were some mixture of regular pancake mix and alcohol. Despite several iTeleporter web posts warning of this deception, many teleporters were fooled. The notion that Talkeetna was a crooked town began to spread up and down the Parks Highway, further depressing business. More than a few locals were overheard worrying that “in the future, people won’t come here for anything but pancakes.”

The future:

On the first day of August, a British man with a falafel craving tried to teleport to Jerusalem. Due to some combination of technical failure and human error he materialized in Lebanon, where the blue light he appeared in was confused by a Hezbollah soldier for an explosive. He was shot three times in the chest, and died soon after. All of this for falafel? his wife said to reporters. I offered to make him a sandwich. Now I’ll never be able to make him a sandwich, ever again. I know I should be sad about a million things, but all I can think of is how I’ll never make him a sandwich again. The reporter thought that this was very profound.

This was also the same day that the New York Times ran a story about perceived discrimination in the iTeleporter company. One of its reporters had been about to teleport to the Sudan in order to conduct some interviews, when he had seen his proposed rematerialization coordinates described as having WAR-ZONE CHARM and PANDEMIC CHARM. When he was asked about this apparent fetishization of tragedy, the iTeleporter CEO blamed it on a salaried programmer who, as an intern, had written a rogue subroutine. The programmer was escorted from the building by security with all of his belongings in a cardboard box, including a framed picture of his cat. How am I going to break the news to you, Fluffy? he asked himself, struggling with the weight of the box as he squeezed through the narrow opening of the subway car. I guess we’re going back to dry food for a while, he practiced. Dry food was ok, wasn’t it?

That night, the iTeleporter company sent out a mass message that they would be suspending service indefinitely, effective 12:00 PM EST the next day.

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Rick woke up late the next morning. He saw the message, and realized that he had less than an hour before he would be shut off from Talkeetna, perhaps forever. He materialized on Main Street, and started running through the empty streets towards the place he knew he would find her: the Roadhouse. Being forced to leave meant that, despite what the dreams he had of them together, they might need to split up. But being star-crossed only made the love they had feel all the more real, and helped to erase the awkward Scottsdale trip from his memory. They would have a passionate, tear stained goodbye. A long, Clark Gable length kiss. Perhaps they would even figure out a teleportation equivalent to running alongside a departing train. Their love was, perhaps, running out of time. But there was time enough to share one last pancake.

He hoped that Haley would be waiting at their regular table. Instead, he saw her standing across the street from the Roadhouse, which was ablaze, the orange flames blooming in the summer wind.

She was in tears when he embraced her, though neither asked how much of her weeping was for their at-risk love and how much was for the Roadhouse, its first home. After a long hug, he moved to stand beside her, watching the fire, their hands clasping tightly as they did on their first day by the river. His hand squeezed hers three times (“I love you”), and hers squeezed back four times. This was part of the unspoken language they had developed. It was this language that they spoke in, as they looked from the flames to each other’s eyes, and agreed that they would let neither man nor nature tell them their love was not real.

And so, noon Eastern Time passed with Rick and Haley where they started: in Talkeetna, together, breathing in the smells of fire and flour, dreaming of the future.

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The future?

The Roadhouse will burn all the way to the ground. The pizza café owner will go bankrupt, with only the spiteful memory of the smell of burning sourdough to comfort him. The Roadhouse owner will be too traumatized to start again; she will take the insurance money and retire.

The Roadhouse will burn, the town will go broke. People will move. Others will stubbornly stay. Years will pass, and life will give people other things to worry about. There will be wars; there will be terrible storms. Maybe Alaska will secede. Maybe it will be taken over by whatever new country takes over Russia. The clouds will part and the future will blow down from the mountains.

But here’s the thing: the flapjacks will endure. The sourdough starter will not perish in the fire; the Roadhouse owner—who hated the government and sang Nenana speedboat chanties about the end times—always kept it in a fireproof lock box. She will continue to make flapjacks, even when she can only make them for her children. Those children will make flapjacks for their children and so on, and long after there is a place called “Alaska,” there will be something called “Alaskan Sourdough Flapjacks.”

Around that time (hundreds of years after the Roadhouse fire) an alien will materialize on what used to be Talkeetna Main Street. His society will have been studying Earth for a long time, but, because of the difficulties of light-speed surveillance and travel, they will not have gotten word that this is no longer the site of the flapjacks that may be the best in the world (or the universe?). The alien, equipped with a universal translator, will ask the first person he sees, a young woman wearing a RUSSCANAMERICAN GROWN sweatshirt, where he can find the flapjacks. She will think of the old woman who lives down the road who occasionally has people over for flapjack vigils.

The alien will fall in love with the pancakes, tell all of his alien friends, and soon Talkeetna (the name the alien uses for the town) will become the capital of Earth. Alien technology will reinvigorate Earth’s economy. There will be no poverty, no famine, no wars. Pancakes will bring peace. At least, until a rival planet’s aliens find out about this most precious of resources (sourdough) and start a war that brings all those terrible things back.

Thousands of years later, the same sort of thing will happen with trans-dimensional travelers. In a historical irony that no one will be able to appreciate, they will materialize in a ball of fire that leaves a burn mark in the exact shape of the NYU logo.

Thousands of years after that, a group of time travelers will discover that the greatest pancakes in the history of existence were on a world called Earth, in a town called Talkeetna, in the beginning of its third millennium. They will travel to the Roadhouse and end up preventing its destruction.

(Though, if history is any kind of indicator, they will probably end up bringing that destruction about. Perhaps they left something behind that ended up being the original source of iTeleporter technology in the first place! That would fit, wouldn’t it? That’s a pretty classic recipe.)

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The day after the Roadhouse fire, Haley and Rick will sit down to a breakfast of fried eggs, potatoes, and uncertainty. Rick will be unsure how to explain to his parents that he is staying in Alaska, that he cannot return to college. Haley will be uncertain as to how to convince her parents to allow Rick to stay in their house for more than a day or so, or where they can go and what they can do if they refuse.

They will both be so uncertain as to whether love is enough to overcome the obstacles between two people that they will misunderstand their own story. For while theirs was a love story, it was not between a boy and a girl, a local and a tourist, or a New Yorker and an Alaskan. No.

Theirs was a love affair with the pancakes, with the feeling of invincibility and possibility that comes from seeing the world through morning eyes, and tasting it with the buzz of fresh sourdough still on your tongue. And, together or apart, they will be chasing that taste for the rest of their lives.


Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and humor writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta ReviewPassages North and other magazines. He has been awarded prizes for his work from Briar Cliff Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati. Find his work at danpiercepaul.wordpress.com

Siân Griffiths — “sk8r”

June, 1985.

If it had been night, the neighbors wouldn’t have stared at Ilsa in the back of the squad car. In darkness, the blue and red lights overhead might strobe her mother and Harold into sight, but Ilsa would have remained invisible. The fight was between those two anyway; it had nothing to do with her, but California’s fierce late-afternoon sun exposed them all.

“Sit tight,” the officer had said as he shut her in. Ilsa imagined he wanted not so much to protect her as to contain her until the on-call social worker arrived.

On the lawn, her mother looked, as usual, like everything was under control. Even though it was Saturday, she was wearing one of her office skirts, always a little too tight. Ilsa’s mother believed that, if she squeezed in, her clothing would remind her hips and waist that they were supposed to be smaller. Her thighs would snap to once they saw that she wouldn’t give in to laxity. That’s why she was so valued at Clemmons, Stein, and Barco. In battles of will, she always won.

On the opposite side of the lawn, in the middle of a ring of officers, Harold bent over with loud, shoulder-racking sobs. His grey ponytail hung limply down the back of his Hawaiian shirt. Hate filled Ilsa’s belly like soup, hot and substantial, a food she could live on. Weeks ago, she’d found the gun while looking for scissors. From the back of the squad car, Ilsa now wondered if the moment she first touched her finger to the cool metal had set all this in motion.

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On the morning of the last day of school, she’d been digging through the forbidden drawers of her mother’s armoire when her fingers hit the heavy barrel—so much to know, too quickly. No matter how many times she turned the gun over in her hands and in her mind, it wouldn’t make sense.

She got on the bus, went to class, and after school ended and yearbooks were signed, she rode the bus home again and walked through the development to the hill because it was the one place she could think of where the world was large enough to hold what she now knew. She always loved the moment when she passed the last hedge at the end of the neighborhood, the moment when the lush green lawns abruptly stopped. The lemon trees and lime trees and orange trees and grapefruit trees, the ivy and the olives, the power-washed pavement and crisp blue swimming pools and chlorine-tinged air, the manicured palm trees and the oleander—everything that made her neighborhood her neighborhood suddenly ended, and the place revealed what it really was: dry brown hills and sage, rattlesnakes and coyotes.

Though she looked and saw her hands were empty, Ilsa could not make them light again.

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The boys were there that afternoon. They weren’t always. Sometimes, Ilsa walked through the construction and all the way to the top of the hill only to watch the lines of cars waiting at the light where Central teed into Chicago Avenue, but that day, they were there, starting their summer the way they would continue it. Four of them. Three sitting at the edge of the drainage ditch watching the fourth ride his skateboard up and down the curve of the concrete, the closest thing to a half pipe the suburb had to offer. The skater touched the lip of his deck to the lip of the ditch, clipping it or kissing it, depending on how you looked. The move would have been cool if he had pulled it off, but the board caught, sending him running down to the dry bottom of the ditch while the other three laughed. The sun shone in their hair as they flipped it from their eyes. The helmets that their mothers insisted on sat in a tumbled heap.

Ilsa wanted all of it: a skateboard, a group of friends to laugh when she fucked up, a mother who gave enough of a damn to ask her to be careful.

She hadn’t expected anyone to sign her yearbook. She hadn’t asked. Becky Mills, too popular to even know Ilsa’s name, had seen it on her desk and assumed, scrawling her standard “2 cute + 2 be = 4gotten” before handing it to Vince, who added “L8r sk8r.”

The boys’ laughter was soft as it floated up to where Ilsa knelt at the top of the hill, the grit biting into her knees. When she first started watching them, she was afraid they would catch her. The dry desert grass and tumbleweed were hardly enough cover. But she had watched them for a year now, from when they first got their boards and tried to ride, and not once had one of them ever thought to glance up the hill. The worry that they would see her had grown into a wish that they would. She wanted nothing more than for them to look up and spot her spying on them. They would know her as the girl they went to middle school with, another Gage Gator, the quiet girl blending in at the middle of the class. But in this light, they would also see her as something more. They would recognize her as one of their own and would invite her down into the ditch. They would lend her a board and teach her to skate. Vince’s note would be true, whether he meant it or not. sk8r: what she was. sk8r: the word not filled with a stupid, meaningless number but with an upturned infinite loop, with wheels that spun forever, rocketing away.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, her grandmother used to say. Maybe it was enough to be invisible. The scissors were there, in the forbidden drawer, thrown in among the tumbles of condoms, a half-used coke vial, lace and satin lingerie, and, Ilsa now knew, her mother’s gun. The hot day hummed with wheels rolling over concrete. Then more. Footsteps.

Ilsa recognized the steps running up behind without having to turn. They belonged to Angie, the foster kid who’d come to live with Susan next door; Angie, forever wearing heavy brown orthopedics with a yellow and white Humpty Dumpty on the side, shoes any right-minded six-year-old would have been embarrassed to wear; Angie who was ten, two years younger than Ilsa and stunted small as a first grader; Angie, who every other kid in the neighborhood avoided. Their parents forbade them to hang with her. She had too much history, too much experience. They moved to this neighborhood in the first place to keep their kids safe from her kind. Bree, the little snot who ran the fifth grade, spread rumors of all the things she was supposedly too innocent to know: Angie fingered herself under her skirts during Social Studies; Angie gave some Mexican kid a hand job in the bathroom; Angie pressed her flat chest against the principal and said she’d suck him off if he let her sit on his lap and call him Daddy.

“Guess what?” Angie said.

Ilsa started back through the development, kicking up dust as she went. She couldn’t remember the last time it rained. Angie followed her. Clomp, clomp, clomp. “Mom says we’re going camping this weekend and you can come.”

Ilsa stopped and gazed at the wide holes that would be pools or crawlspaces and the narrow holes that would just be the spots where something buried went, a box for electrical lines or water mains. Someday this would be all groomed and finished and neat, another expensive neighborhood adjoining their own. Stucco and Spanish tile. The honest brown of the dirt would be made green with grass and flowering shrubs and automatic sprinkler systems. Someday, these places would be off limits, but they weren’t yet. The closest hole was deep and narrow as a grave. Ilsa jumped in. The earth was cool around her, and she thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be buried alive.

Angie stood, illuminated by sun, at the top of the hole. “So, do you want to? Go camping?”

“No.” Ilsa lay down and closed her eyes a moment. She imagined the roll of wheels, and the pull of gravity carrying her up and down the sides of a ditch. She felt the freedom of the air as she left the concrete, letting her board kiss its rough lip, then leaving it quickly, stomping back down and travelling away. Skating would be a love affair. The concrete might betray you, but it was always there. Dependable. If you skated long enough, maybe you could master it. Maybe that’s how love worked. Love could be bright and shining as the California sun in the sky over her hole.

“Mom rented Dark Crystal. Want to come over and watch?”

“She’s not your mom.” Ilsa squinted up at Angie, who looked away. In profile, she wasn’t so weird.

Angie said, “She’s mom enough.”

Ilsa closed her eyes again and let the cool of the hole seep in deep. “She could give you up any time. She could take you back.” If someone looked across the land, they would not see her. She’d vanished. She could disappear altogether.

When Ilsa opened her eyes again, Angie was still there looking down at her. If only Angie would go away, Ilsa wouldn’t have to be like this. If only Angie would realize that Ilsa was no more her friend than Susan was her mom.

Angie sat down on the side of the hole and dangled her legs, swinging them in and out of the shadows. Susan said Angie had been through two rounds of parents before she was fostered out. Her own father raped her before she was two, so the state gave her to an adoptive uncle who did the same. “He saw rape as the ante and raised the bet,” Susan had told them the day Angie was due to arrive, laughing as if poker jokes could make the whole thing a funny anecdote from the past. “Broke her femur and cracked her skull.” Angie had been in ten homes before Susan’s. Ilsa couldn’t see how anyone who’d lived through all that could still be so fucking clueless.

“Is your mom going out with Mr. Gillespie tonight?” Angie didn’t wait for Ilsa’s answer. “Seems like he’s over every night. Mom said she saw him crying by the lobelia yesterday. Grown man and everything, she said. I thought he was in a band or something. Can you cry if you’re in a band?”

Ilsa scrunched her eyes tighter and wished Angie a million miles away. She wished Harold had even one bit of the self-control that her mom did. The guy was all enthusiasm. Smiles and energy one moment, horse tears and self pity another. He had no in between, no normal. Her mother said he had an artist’s temperament, but Ilsa knew better. His guitar was a front, a way to fake coolness when you weren’t actually in any way cool. Harold had the liquid eyes of a Spaniel. They might work on her mother, make her think she was loved, but Ilsa knew he’d turn those same eyes on anyone. He was too stupid to love for real. He loved like a dog loved: everywhere.

At school, he was “Mr. Gillespie.” Leave it to her mother to date a substitute teacher. And not just any substitute teacher, but one with a greying ponytail. He’d filled in for their art teacher in their last week of school and was all uptight about scissors, showing the kids over and over how to hold the blades and pass handle first, as if seventh graders weren’t old enough to know, as if scissors even ranked a spot on the scale of threats at Gage Middle. The kids carried the scissors open, blades out, breaking into short jogs just to cheese him off. “Isn’t this right, Mr. Gill’s Pie?” they would say. Kids could smell weakness, and Harold was too dumb to realize that he made things worse by being kind. He bought in every time, hurrying over saying “heavens no” and turning the scissors gently in their hands, tears already trembling in his eyes. Heavens no. Good heavens. He was always bringing heaven into it—but that didn’t stop him from taking Ilsa’s mother to one dive bar after another to watch him and his stupid surfer throwback band.

Angie’s voice pulled Ilsa back into her hole. “Mom and I never see a babysitter when they go out. You’ve got one though, right? Does your mom pick her up or something?”

They were spying on her. Spying as if any of this were their business, as if Ilsa weren’t old enough to take care of herself, or to babysit other kids for that matter. Ilsa was damned if she was going to give Angie or Susan one bit of gossip.

Ilsa’s silence didn’t matter. Angie ran on and on. “You hear the Night Stalker struck again? Shot a man and raped his wife. Mom says it’s only a matter of time before he hits Riverside. She says no one is safe anymore, not even here. It doesn’t matter where you live.”

Ilsa opened her eyes and pulled herself out of the hole. What would Susan think if she knew her mother had a gun? Would that shut her up? What if Ilsa stuck the gun right in Susan’s face and fired? A blank maybe. Just enough to give her a scare.

“I’m going home,” Ilsa said, wishing that were enough to make Angie leave her alone.

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Her mother’s black BMW was parked in front of the house, shining hot in the late afternoon sun where people could see it and remember that, single mother or not, she had made her way. Angie was saying something about the elementary school talent show, about Bree and her friends dancing to the new Madonna, chattering on as if Ilsa cared. Ilsa shut the door in her face while Angie was mid-sentence, the only way to make the talking stop.

“You can fix yourself dinner tonight?” her mother called. “Heat a burrito or something? I have to go out.”

“Harold? Again?”

“It’s our anniversary. Two months.”

“Anniversary means a year, not a month.”

“Can you just be happy once in a while?”

Her mother rounded the corner and froze. Her thick eyebrows, red from where she’d plucked them back, met in a crease. Her nails were painted purple. Her lipstick, an even darker shade. “Ilsa, those had better not be your new jeans.”

“No,” Ilsa lied.

But her mother already had her, nails scratching the belly skin as she pulled the waistband searching for the tag. “Fuck, Ilsa. Those were Gloria Vanderbilt.” Like cutting the legs off changed what they were. It had been hot that morning, and Ilsa didn’t have clean shorts. She could point out that her mother hadn’t done the laundry in a week. She could say that the girls who mattered wore Guess now anyway. She could say that, looking for scissors, she found a gun.

“Tell me you at least have a bra on.” Her mother snagged the collar of Ilsa’s tee shirt to expose a bare shoulder.

Ilsa squirmed away. “God, mom. Get a grip.” Heat rushed over her. She didn’t want breasts, let alone a bra. She didn’t want clean clothes or to be the kind of girl men leered at. Who needed jeans in the summer in the desert? She liked them better now that she’d cut them off below the knees. Maybe if the boys in the drainage ditch saw her in them, they would see her as a girl with potential, a girl they could hang out with. Better yet, maybe they would not see her as a girl at all. Maybe she could be just another skater without all that sex crap messing things up.

“I don’t know why I buy you anything nice.” Her mother pulled off her work blouse and threw it across the sofa. Standing in front of the window in her emerald green bra, she dug through the pile of plastic-wrapped dry cleaning and selected a beaded sweater two sizes too tight. The neckline dipped low, offering her cleavage. Ilsa supposed that’s why her mother had chosen it, as if Harold needed incentive.

Her mother pulled the sweater down over her hips, trying to cover the roll at her waist, lowering the neck further. Pursing her lips in the window’s reflection, she puffed her hair and pressed in the fat at her sides. “We’re going to get dinner before his show.”

“The Night Stalker struck again,” Ilsa said. “Killed a man and raped his wife.”

“Ilsa, don’t start.”

“Could be Harold for all you know.”

“Christ.”

“OK, but if you come back and find my stomach guts all over the living room, just remember I’m not the one who decided you should go out with Harold.”

“I don’t fucking need this.”

“We don’t need Harold either.” Ilsa was named after a movie she had never seen. Her mother had once told her that the movie contained all you needed to know about love: a lot of bustle and drama leading to heartbreak. The goal was to look classy throughout the whole disaster, to be stronger at the end.

“Damn it, Ilsa, can’t you think about what I might need once in a while? You think I can spend all my time working and shut up like a nun with a twelve-year-old who thinks she knows it all? Think again.”

“You only like him because he does what you say.”

“I’m not having this conversation with a child.” Her mother rummaged through her purse. She pulled out her kit and chopped coke on the mirror, moving the powder into a line that Ilsa knew better than to cross. She hacked at the coke as her teeth clipped her words: “I work damned hard. I get you everything you need. Nice clothes that you cut to shreds. Pretty little bras you won’t wear. A good house in a good school district. Don’t you dare deny me my little bit of happiness.” She snorted quickly, leaning her head back so that nothing was lost.

For a moment, everything was still. Then, a smile began to pull at the side of her lips. She wiped her nose quickly and glanced at her watch, all poise and power, once more in control of herself and the situation, just as she liked. The last five minutes might never have happened. She scooped everything back into her bag. “I need to go. Don’t stay up past ten.”

Her mother rarely snorted at home. Coke was her work friend, the one she could call on when things got intense, when the hard deal had to be made and she needed an extra edge. Even so, the coke didn’t bother Ilsa like the gun did. She couldn’t say why. Maybe because she knew the coke was off limits. She thought about it from time to time, how it turned any moment happy. There was something to that. If Ilsa took the smallest amount, though, her mother would notice it missing. But the gun? Ilsa had taken the gun from the drawer and held it in her palm and felt every piece of her changed by its weight and no one knew any different. She could do it again. She could take the gun whenever she wanted.  

Ilsa put a frozen burrito in the microwave, then locked the front door leaving the chain unfastened. Even with the Night Stalker out there somewhere, Ilsa knew that her mother and Harold would stagger in some time in the early morning. If she left the chain off, if she was lucky and they didn’t laugh too hard as they crashed into the walls and fumbled for the light switch and for each other in the dark, Ilsa might sleep through the whole thing.

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Was it a week later that she found the puppy head? She’d gone again to watch the boys, and there it was: nestled amongst the dried weeds and dirt, the head of a yellow Lab that had been no more than a couple months old, sitting at the base of a telephone pole at the top of the hill. The golden fur shone softly in the sun. From the front, it looked like it was sleeping. From the back, it was cleaved. She wondered if they used an axe, or maybe a knife. It must have happened recently. The round bone of its skull was still pink with blood, and only a few flies buzzed around the red meat of its neck.

Below, the boys were skating. They didn’t know about the dog’s head. They didn’t know about Ilsa. They didn’t know that Harold had been over every night that week. They didn’t know about guns. They knew about gravity and wheels and nothing else.

Ilsa couldn’t understand what the head meant or what it was doing there. Why would anyone kill a puppy? Why would someone leave its head at the edge of a housing development at the edge of a neighborhood? She supposed she should be frightened, but she wasn’t. She wanted to pick it up. She wanted to stroke its little head and make it come back to life, grow a new body, something, but if she touched it, she would only make the head that much more dead. Even sitting there, absorbing the sun, it wouldn’t have a living puppy’s warmth. If she touched it, she’d know all the breath it didn’t hold. It would be too light or too heavy for its size. She wouldn’t be able to look at the eyes anymore and imagine it to be sleeping, or to forget that the back of its skull was open as a head should never be.

Thank god Angie wasn’t there. Angie would jump straight to the nightly news her foster mom never missed. Susan would say it was Satan worshippers or the KKK or kids who listened to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. She’d say again as she always did that no one was safe. She delighted in how unsafe they were, how much less safe they were everyday.

Laughter floated up from the boys. One of them had fallen again and lay on the bottom of the ditch, hugging his skinned knees to his stomach and calling his friends a bunch of fuckers before he rolled to his feet and laughed with them.

She could go to them. She could tell them about the puppy head and bring them up the hill. They’d be bound to her then. They would have all seen something amazing, something incomprehensible, and they would not ever be able to disown that knowledge. In the fall, at school, when they saw her, they would nod hello—and in that nod would be the knowledge of the puppy head and a world that was beyond what anyone could fathom or explain.

Even as she had the thought, she rejected it. Telling would be a form of buying them, and she wouldn’t buy the boys, not even with the horrible currency of that head. She wanted and didn’t want to share this knowledge. She folded her arms tight over her braless chest. No, she thought, the dead puppy wasn’t a way to buy friends, but a kind of poison. Spreading it might bind them, but in a way that would only fester and corrupt.

She should bury it. She should kick it down the hill a little ways into the sage where no one would ever know about it except for her. Instead, she kneeled and watched the boys try their tricks for one another, always ultimately failing but trying again. She let the sun and the boys’ laughter soak into her.

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The fight that ended with police cars started over Saturday lunch. School had been out three weeks. Ilsa was bored with summer but more bored with Harold. She’d have taken any excuse to get away from the table that day, but her summer was empty, so they ate their sandwiches together, like a family, her mom had said. She smiled across the table to him and went back to spreading her mayonnaise.

Ilsa had slid the gun into her back pocket that morning, an oversized tee shirt hiding it from sight. She didn’t know why she had taken it and didn’t want to think about what her mother would say if she found out that Ilsa had been through her stuff.

Or maybe she did want her mother to find it. Maybe it would remind her mother that she existed, that she wasn’t just a moving doll to dress up in designer clothes. Maybe Ilsa needed her mother to see that the world did not revolve around Harold. The gun in her back pocket was a kind of truth or dare, asking how much her mother loved her and what she would risk to prove it.

Harold dabbed a glob of mustard from his mouth with a paper napkin. “Goodness, I’ve been here so often lately, I might as well move in.”

Even as Harold said it, they all knew the failed joke for what it was. A hint. A request. He’d smiled that stupid, sheepish smile, like he was apologizing for even having an opinion. Ilsa was terrified that her mother would agree. He’d come home with her the night before and seemed to settle in for the weekend. He brought a bag.

But when her mother’s head shot up and she stared at him with her I’m going to make partner confidence, a joy rose in Ilsa like she hadn’t felt in as long as she could remember. This was the moment. It came sooner for some than for others, but her mother was about to crush Harold as she had crushed other men who tried to infringe on her power to define the terms of their relationship. The smile had already spread over Ilsa’s lips as her mother said, “I really don’t think you’re the one to make that call.”

Later, Ilsa would realize that she had misjudged just how tenacious a weed Harold was. The man dug in his roots. He might snap, but he wouldn’t pull. The curtains were drawn against the afternoon sun, and in the dim light of the stained glass lamp hanging over their kitchen table, his Hawaiian shirt looked all the more tragic: the optimism of it, the false insistence on youth, the gentle flowers in the face of her mother’s glare. He said, “I just meant that I care about you. I want to spend my time with you. I thought you felt the same.”

“Don’t you think you’re moving awfully fast?”

No, Ilsa thought. No. Her mother could not soften.

“If we’re moving fast,” he said, reaching out to take her mother’s hand in his own, “it’s because I love you.” Ilsa felt herself folding inside, a kind of perverse origami, her stomach becoming a crane or a cup. Harold smiled across the table, looking all gentle and kind, and her mother smiled back. She was going to give. The toughest deal broker in the firm was yielding to a pony-tailed man with flowers and parrots on his shirt.

Then hopeful Harold went a step too far. “My lease is up on Friday. My landlord says if I want to renew, I need to tell him tomorrow.”

“That’s what this is about,” her voice was dead level. She dropped his hand.

“No, sweetheart, no.”

“Don’t fucking sweetheart me.”

“I’m just saying that the timing is good. It’s like a sign.”

“Sign my ass. I notice you’re not offering to cover any of the mortgage payment.”

“Well, I figured if you were paying that anyway. I mean, it’s your house.”

“I see.” Her mother got up and started pacing.

Ilsa quietly gathered her plate and put it in the sink, the gun’s grip grazing the skin of her back as she moved. Neither Harold nor her mother noticed. “I think I’ll go out for a little while,” Ilsa said to no one. They could be at this all day. If blades could shoot from a face, they shot from her mother’s. Harold tried the teary eyes defense, a poor choice. Ilsa slipped away.

“You’re taking this all wrong,” Harold said behind her. “I’d like us to move to the next step in our relationship.”

“The step where I pay for all our shit?” her mother said. Ilsa heard a crash. “Whoops. There’s one new plate I’ll need to buy.” A second crash. “There’s another.”

Ilsa shut the door before she had to hear more. She turned to find Angie in her face. “What’s going on in there?” Angie asked, straining her neck to look around Ilsa as if she could see anything through the closed door.

“None of your business.”

“Sounds like they’re having a fight.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious. Ilsa started walking towards the development. Angie stood rooted, unable to decide between the drama of the fight she’d clearly been spying on and the lure of Ilsa herself.

Ilsa walked. An old man aimed a rifle, shooting the pigeons from his palm tree, as Ilsa had seen him do on many afternoons. She supposed it was one way to spend retirement, though what was so precious about his palm tree was anyone’s guess.

For the first ten years of her life, she thought her father died at sea. In hindsight, she didn’t know where she got this idea. They were watching TV one day and a commercial came on for aftershave and somehow that bottle with the ship sailing across it, or maybe the actor himself splashing his face and hugging his daughter, or maybe something else altogether made Ilsa say, “I wish I’d gotten to know him before he died.”

“Know who?” her mother said.

“My dad.”

“Who said your dad was dead?” And that’s when the whole story came out. He wasn’t the rugged sea captain Ilsa imagined. He hadn’t fought wind and sea trying to get back to them. He hadn’t even fought traffic. Her father was just another loser in the long line of losers her mom would date, a man who left when his knocked-up girlfriend was eight months along, saying that he was moving to Alaska to be closer to the fishing grounds and to get the hell away from her—one of the last men to say when the relationship was over. He told her she could send his stuff along or donate it to Goodwill or burn it for all he cared because he wasn’t coming back.

Had he stayed, Ilsa might have been just another Jennifer, just another Heather. Instead, he left her mother to binge on black-and-white movies all night for the last month of her pregnancy. Ilsa could picture her mother staring coldly at the failed romances, absorbing them all as she rebuilt her strength. Her mother would pick herself up, take control, transform her life, but not before Ilsa became Ilsa.

Angie’s feet slapped against the pavement as she ran to catch up. No one that small should run so loudly. The girl had no idea how to move in her own body. Every motion was awkward. The Humpty Dumpty shoes didn’t help, but Ilsa doubted Angie would be any quieter in sneakers. “Leave me alone,” Ilsa said. “I want to think.”

“I’ll think with you.”

Anger churned in Ilsa’s throat, setting in her jawbone with every slap of Angie’s shoes. Ilsa stared ahead and walked faster, hoping Angie would give up and go home. Ilsa wondered if the skaters were out. She wondered if the puppy head still lay where she’d found it, hidden under the weeds she’d piled on, or if the crows had pulled it out to peck its eyes.

Angie was going on about the Night Stalker again, delighting in the danger of darkness. “Mom says most people break into houses during the day so they can steal stuff while people are at work. Not him. He looks for places where people are home so he can rape them before he hacks open their throats. You can’t protect yourself. You just have to hope he doesn’t come to you. Hope he picks some other house. Then one day, they find the prints of his Avias outside your window, and you’re done.”

Ahead, a group of girls meandered through the holes, their heads bent towards one another as they giggled. Angie hesitated, then hurried on before Ilsa could leave her. Ilsa didn’t really know them well, but she knew who they were: Bree, Laura, and some girl whose name began with an M or maybe an N.

Bree, a skinny blonde with a sour smile, turned as they got closer. She put her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes like some gossipy socialite housewife, a stance undoubtedly learned from her mother. The neighborhood was full of mothers like hers. They’d sip Long Island ice teas after playing a round of tennis at Victoria Country Club, but their favorite sport was judging career women. Sure, Ilsa’s mother could buy into the neighborhood. She could buy herself a Beemer and buy her daughter clothes every bit as expensive as their daughters’, but at the end of the day, she couldn’t belong. As much as Ilsa wanted to be fine with that, as much as she wanted to scorn them right back, at that moment all Ilsa could feel was anger at her mother for what she was: a coked out trader who serial dated losers.

“Ho-ly shit,” Bree said. “Angie finally found someone desperate enough to hang out with her.”

“We’re not hanging out,” Ilsa said. She should have kept her mouth shut. She should have kept walking. She knew even as she stopped that it was a mistake.

“Could’ve fooled me.”

“She’s following me. Won’t leave me alone.”

In the stark heat of the afternoon sun, Angie’s face blanched. “We are hanging out,” she said.

The girls laughed. Their carefully brushed hair, home-highlighted with lemon juice, shone white in the sun. Ilsa looked at Angie. She had a chance to do the right thing: to let Angie have that little bit. Why not allow her the one friend she had in the world? Who else would ever value Ilsa as much? Only, the fact that Angie worshipped her was exactly the problem. Ilsa was no one to admire. “Get away from me,” she said. “Leave me alone.”

Angie’s eyes trembled with tears. “We’re friends.”

“No, we’re not.”

“We’ve always been friends.”

Under the glaring sun, the hot stares of the watching girls burned Ilsa, as did Angie’s groundless faith. Ilsa felt the day closing up around her, folding like an envelope to seal her in. Saliva swam hot around her tongue. There was nothing to say, and she did the only thing that came to her. She built that saliva into a ball and spit.

Angie stood trembling, the blob of goop and bubbles sliding slowly over her cheek, mixing with her tears. The other girls bent over with laughter, and Ilsa walked away toward the silence of the hill overlooking the ditch.

For an hour or so, she turned the gun in her hands as she watched the boys skate, knowing that she would never walk down that hill to join them and that they wouldn’t have her even if she did.

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Harold’s blue VW Beetle was still in the driveway. Fuzzy dice hung from the mirror because he was a cliché, because he was the kind of person who believed that you could substitute teach and be in a band. Because he was the kind of guy who played Beach Boys songs like they had relevance. Because he was the kind of man who cried over his eggs in the morning for no reason at all. Because he was just another cheese dick boning her mom.

Inside, her mother was yelling again, or still yelling. Her voice carried through stucco, past the bougainvillea and bottlebrush. Ilsa considered her options. It had to be three o’clock. The afternoon was hot, and she was thirsty. Maybe she would hide out in the backyard, see if she could find any last oranges on the tree and wait for things to blow over.

No. She needed a tall glass of water, heavy on the ice. Then maybe she could sneak in to get her swimsuit and sneak out again to pass the rest of the afternoon in the pool. From the sound of things, her mother and Harold weren’t likely to notice her.

She went to the side door of the house and crept into the kitchen. The gun had worn her back raw, so she took it out from under her shirt and laid it on the counter, wondering again why she hadn’t had the guts to point it right in Bree’s face and imagining what might have happened if she had done just that. In the living room, Harold had resorted to suicidal threats. “You’re what I live for.” He was crying so thick and hard that his words came out gurgled. “You’re all I live for.” This over a woman he’d known a few months.

“More like, I’m what you leech off,” her mother said. Ilsa rolled her eyes as she crossed the kitchen. They were still stuck in the same part of the argument where they’d been when she left. “Put your fucking pills away and go cry your river somewhere else. I’m done.”

“I’m serious. I’m doing it.”

“I’ll get you the water to wash the bottle down.”

Good, Ilsa thought. It was over. The only thing left was for Harold to leave. She stood by the water cooler, calculating how much she could pour before its glug gave her away. The last thing she needed was Harold coming in and trying to enlist her to his cause.

But it was her mother who came into the kitchen. She froze in the entry, her eyes locked on the gun. Ilsa couldn’t move, her mind consumed with calculating how much trouble she was in. A lot. More than she’d ever faced. Her mother strode across the kitchen and grabbed the gun.

“I can explain,” Ilsa said, but her mother didn’t seem to hear her. Ilsa might have been another fruit basket or bar stool to her mother, who strode in the living room before Ilsa could figure out what had just happened.

“You think you want to die?” her mother’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Ilsa pulled the cooler’s tap, her hands shaking almost too much to hold the glass still. Every molecule of her body needed that water, something to steady her. Her mother’s voice was hurricane strong, unswerving and relentless. “You really do? You think you can test me? Let’s see how much you mean it.”

The gunshot startled the glass from Ilsa’s hand. It smashed on the Mexican tile at her feet, a shard grazing her ankle as it flew.

“You still want to die?” her mother said. Ilsa ran to the doorframe to see her mother fire two more rounds over Harold’s head. The wall behind him was ruined, three bullet holes surrounded by flaking plaster, but Harold seemed to have pulled himself together as her mother shot.

“You’re trying to kill me,” he yelled.

“If I wanted to kill you,” she said, “I wouldn’t have missed.”

That was the line she told the cops when they arrived. By then, Ilsa had finished a Dr. Pepper, sitting on the front steps and watching Harold drive his Beetle over their yard and Angie’s and on to the Winchester’s and the house beyond them, going up the block and back, tearing everyone’s grass to shit. The policeman talked kindly to Ilsa before closing her off in his car to wait, but he was less forgiving of her mother.

“My daughter wasn’t home,” she told him. “I would never have fired the gun with Ilsa in the house.” When she saw the disbelief in his face, she changed tack. “That bastard was threatening us,” she said.

“As I understand it, ma’am, he was threatening harm only to himself.”

“Exactly,” she said, thrusting her chin at the cop as if he’d just proven her point.

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In the back of the car, Ilsa closed her eyes. It all would have been OK if it weren’t for everyone watching. Then she might have been able to figure out the degree of her guilt. She liked the contained world of the cruiser, its cocoon. Maybe if she could stay in here long enough, she could grow into something beautiful, but that did not seem likely. Didn’t girls grow up to be like their mothers, whether they wanted to or not? She had practically put that gun in her mother’s hand. She would have been happy to pull the trigger.

Only a little sound leaked in over the hum of the air conditioner. She liked the way it made everything outside unreal, a movie with the volume muted. She liked the distance it created. The only problem was the light, how it let the neighbors line up and witness. She couldn’t turn off their eyes. She couldn’t mute their memories or their mouths.

Next door, on their front steps, Angie held Susan’s hand. Maybe this disaster made Ilsa and Angie even, but Ilsa doubted it. She could no more understand why she had spit at the one friend who wanted her than she could understand why a person would behead a puppy or why her mother would fire a gun at a man she loved or why a stranger would break into someone’s home only to slit his throat or why a father would leave his daughter before she was even born. Ilsa watched Susan and Angie’s delight. Maybe the only thing threading people together was a deep, unfathomable ugliness.

This would all be over soon. Harold would go back to his sad apartment, wherever it was, and renew his lease. Ilsa almost allowed herself to feel sorry for him. If this went to court, her mother would hire a good lawyer and Harold would not. In the end, nothing was actually harmed except for the wall.

She closed her eyes and again imagined the pavement rolling below her feet, letting it carry her over its ups and its downs, feeling it moving in her hips and shoulders. The pavement and wheels spoke to each other in that voice she loved, hushing only as the board reached towards the sky, speaking again when it stomped back to the ground.

Except she knew neither the ditch nor the board was her place. Her place was on the hill, not quite above it all. She was the girl who sat where the dead dog’s head looked over the lanes of traffic, watching one wide intersection of lives.


Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she teaches at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewCincinnati ReviewAmerican Short Fiction (online), Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her novel Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press) was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com

Hunter Garrison — “Silverbell Ranch”

The sky is a light pink with lines of orange darting through, as birds chirp out of sight. It’s still calm, though Lyon knows it won’t stay that way much longer. He stands on the front porch with his arms crossed as he gazes out at the ranch. He eases his way down the porch steps with a deep sigh.

“What are you doin’ out here so early?” Jace asks, the screen door creaking as he exits the house.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Lyon replies. “I’m going to check on Ikra and Luva before the new arrivals get here.” Jace falls into step with Lyon as he strides towards a large enclosure ten feet from the house. Most of it is taken up by dense trees except for a clearing closest to the gate. Up against the fence to their right is a building with an opening for animals to get in and out as they please. Water troughs and two metal tubs sit a few feet from the opening, but the animals are nowhere in sight. They pause at the gate as Lyon looks for them.

“They’re lazin’ about this morning,” Jace observes. Lyon doesn’t answer, opening the gate just enough to slip through.

“Stay out there,” he says. “Tell me if one of them comes up behind me.” Jace grunts, already focused. Lyon moves towards the building, moving his head constantly as he gets closer to the trees and the building. Something emerges from the structure, crouching to get through the opening. Lyon stops walking, straightening as a large wolf locks its gaze onto him. Its head is longer than modern wolves, it stands about five inches taller, and its teeth hang past its lower jaw. Its light gray fur begins to stand on end and its hackles rise to show its pink gums. Lyon crouches closer to the ground, lowering his eyes to ensure that he doesn’t look into the golden eyes sizing him up.

Jace lets out a sharp bark, drawing the wolf’s attention to him. Its ears twitch as its head cocks to the side slightly, sizing him up. Lyon responds with a low yip, drawing its attention back to him as the wolf relaxes, approaching him with careful steps.

“Easy, Luva,” Lyon says, keeping his voice soft. The wolves tend to be on edge when the men enter their enclosure, whether it’s for feedings or vet appointments. Luva stops a foot away from Lyon, lowering herself just enough to let her stomach brush the powdery dirt. She whines up at him, her nose quivering as she takes in his scent. Lyon’s lips twitch into a small smile as he reaches his hand to her slowly, waiting for her to lift her snout to him. She does so, her tail swishing once in greeting.

“You see Ikra?” Lyon asks, keeping his voice level.

“He’s comin’ out of the trees now,” Jace replies. “I’m comin’ in.” Luva’s ears swivel, listening to the gate creak as Jace opens and closes it. Ikra growls and Lyon sees Luva’s muscles tense.

“Calm,” Lyon murmurs, his heart fluttering. These creatures could snap at any moment and they’d be doomed. Luckily, Dires aren’t just known for being dangerous – they’re also fiercely loyal once they’ve bonded to a human. Luva trots towards Ikra, whining as she goes. Lyon straightens up, glancing at Jace.

“They know we’re up to somethin’,” Jace says. Lyon nods.

“They smell our emotions,” he agrees. Ikra approaches them slower than Luva, though he’s stopped growling. He stands a foot taller than the other wolf and his coat is thicker and darker, more easily blending into the shadows cast by the trees. He hovers near the feeding tubs, his yellow eyes studying them. His gaze slips down to the tubs expectantly and Lyon smirks.

“Someone’s hungry,” he says. “Get some food. I’ll make sure they haven’t been fighting before the new arrivals get here.”

“You sure?” Jace asks, a note of worry in his voice. Lyon nods, shooing Jace back towards the gate. He snaps his fingers, the crack bringing both wolves to attention. He moves his hand palm out from next to his leg, towards his shoulder. Luva studies him for a moment before sitting, but Ikra continues to stare at him. Lyon barks, drawing his lips back from his teeth to show the wolf that he’s serious. He makes the motion again and Ikra lowers his rear to the ground, licking his chops.

Lyon approaches Ikra, knowing that the male wolf will put up more of a fight if he watches Luva being examined first. Ikra growls low in his throat in warning as Lyon gets close, making Lyon glare at him.

“Calm,” he says, his voice stern. He offers his hands to the wolf, allowing the wolf the chance to sniff him before touching him. Ikra turns his nose away, sliding his pupils to the side of his eyes to continue watching Lyon. Shrugging, Lyon moves his hands down Ikra’s sides gently, taking a moment to admire the softness of his fur and the mass of his muscles. He backs away once he’s satisfied that the wolf is healthy and uninjured, letting out a soft whine of affection. Ikra lets his tongue loll from his jaws, the closest he’ll get to showing affection.

Luva’s tail pats the ground once as Lyon sinks his fingers into her fur and she lifts her muzzle towards his face. Lyon lets her lick him once with a smile before continuing his exam. Both wolves tense for a moment as Jace returns with the food, though they recognize him with ease.

“Wait until I’m done,” Lyon says without pausing his exam. Luva is slimmer than Ikra, though her muscles are just as strong and she fights just as hard. Lyon backs away, giving both wolves plenty of space, before raising both of his hands with palms facing out to release them. Jace slips back into the enclosure as they stand, crowding the feeding tubs.

Jace and Lyon lean against the fence as the wolves eat, nipping at each other if they get too close. The sun has finished rising, causing sweat to bead their brows though they don’t notice.

“What time are they supposed to be here, again?” Jace asks.

“Nine,” Lyon replies. “We’d better head down the drive so they don’t miss it.” They stroll down their wooded drive, the trees sheltering them from the sun. The drive twists and turns, vines creeping onto the gravel.

“Do you think we’re doin’ this too soon?” Jace asks. “Luva and Ikra have just learned the commands and begun to trust us.”

“We fail if we don’t grow. Most Dire farms start with a small pack,” Lyon replies.

“You say ‘Dire farms’ like they’re everywhere,” Jace chides. Lyon lifts his left shoulder in a shrug.

“The point remains,” he replies. Jace looks up at him, baffled by his calmness. The sound of gravel crunching under their boots and insects buzzing are the only sounds for a few moments.

“Heard from your parents?” Lyon asks at last, still not looking at the younger man.

“They’re well,” Jace says. “They wanted to know when we’d be home to visit.”

“I hope you didn’t say anytime soon,” Lyon says. Jace reaches his fingers out to brush his fingertips against the leaves of a bush as they pass, covering his nails in dew.

“No,” he replies. “I told ‘em we have a lot of work ahead of us still; that the ranch was in pretty bad shape when you inherited it.” Lyon sighs, noticing the hint of sadness in Jace’s voice. They stop at the end of the drive, looking up and down the quiet road. Lyon leans against a tree, closing his eyes, while Jace stands almost as if he’s at attention.

“Two weeks,” Lyon murmurs. “And then you can go home for a bit. Okay?” Jace raises his eyebrows, crossing his arms.

“The Dires will still be adjustin’ then,” he says. “I can’t leave you alone.”

“I’ll be fine for a week or so,” Lyon replies, opening his eyes. “We probably won’t put them in the same enclosure until you get back.” A white truck with a large silver trailer pulls into view, moving down the road with caution. They can see a woman bent over the steering wheel as if searching for her turn. She pauses next to them with her window rolled down and leans out, asking, “Are you the boys from Silverbell Ranch?”

“That’s us,” Lyon replies, motioning her down the driveway. “The drive’s a bit hard to find the first time.”

“Hop in and I’ll take you back down,” she offers. They take her up on the offer, squeezing onto the bench seat, Jace in the middle and Lyon against the window.

“Name’s Grace,” she says. “What got you boys in a business like this?”

“The ranch was left to me,” Lyon replies. “The two Dires we have now were all that was left.”

“It’s been somethin’ of a family legacy for Lyon for a long time,” Jace adds. “When he told me he was goin’ to get it up and runnin’ again I insisted that he let me help.”

“Seems that’s how most people find it,” Grace says. “So, your parents are gone then?”

“No,” Lyon murmurs. “They don’t like this work, say it’s pointless. They’d prefer me to be a teacher or a lawyer, something mainstream.” They pull into view of the house and the corral.

“Follow the gravel back to the right; we’ve got a smaller enclosure set up close to the main one while they adjust,” Lyon adds, gesturing as he gives her directions. Grace does so, slowing down as the road turns to dirt.

“That’s a shame,” Grace replies, glancing at him. “I’m assuming they haven’t seen what you’ve done to the place?” Lyon shakes his head, muttering, “No.” Grace stops near an empty corral about five feet from the bigger enclosure.

“You choose the name Silverbell?” Grace asks.

“It was named after the first Dire this ranch saw,” Lyon replies.

“The gate’s right there; you can back up to it,” Jace says, pointing as he talks. Grace does so, maneuvering carefully so that the trailer lines up even though the truck is at an angle.

They pile out of the truck and Grace leads them to the back of the trailer. She leans against the big door as they listen to the Dires moving inside. Ikra and Luva are standing at their fence, eyeing them with suspicion. Luva whimpers, her nose quivering as she scents the air.

“They tend to be pretty calm; they’re from the same litter so they’ve been together all their lives. They know basic commands as well,” Grace says. Lyon grunts, opening the gate to the corral.

“Ready?” Grace asks.

“Yup,” Jace replies, taking a few steps back. Grace unlatches the trailer and pulls the door open. A large, brown wolf darts to the door with its hackles raised and its head lowered to look under it. Grace stands at the end of the door so she’s in sight of the wolf. She snaps and points towards the gate, capturing the wolf’s attention. It cocks its head, its yellow eyes staring at her.

“Roas, go,” she commands. The wolf steps down from the trailer with caution, its eyes moving between Jace and Lyon as it pads towards the gate. A second brown wolf steps down from the trailer without hesitation, though it pauses to look up at Grace with a question in its eyes. When it sees Grace’s fingers poised to snap it trots into the enclosure, nuzzling the bigger wolf’s muzzle for reassurance. Lyon closes and latches the gate before shuffling to the left about a foot and poising himself on the third slat of wood up so he can see into the corral.

“Roas is the male, right?” He asks, glancing back at Grace. She nods, smiling at the passion that shows in Lyon’s eyes. Jace joins Lyon on the fence, climbing a slat higher to crane over the top to see.

“Paoq’s coat is the easiest way to tell them apart,” she says. “Roas is all brown, but she has a distinct ring of black circling her neck, around her shoulder blades and her paws are black.” Lyon nods, studying the new wolves. The two wolves pad around the corral, scenting the air with their hackles raised as they register the presence of other wolves. Ikra and Luva are yipping and growling in their enclosure, getting as close to the fence as they can to try and see the new Dires.

“How’d you choose their names?” He asks.

“Roas is named after his grandfather, who we lost earlier this year, because he looks just like him. Paoq is my people’s word for serenity, which my husband felt fit because she is always the calmest,” Grace explains. Roas and Paoq approach the fence, tails tucked between their legs, to gaze up at the two men. Roas lets out a low growl, his fur rising just enough to be visible.

“I can introduce you to them,” Grace offers. “It may make your lives easier if they see that I trust you before I leave them here.” Lyon hops down from the fence, nodding. Jace follows suit as Lyon begins unlatching the gate once more. Grace enters first as the men follow, keeping themselves crouched so they appear as less of a threat. Jace shuts the gate, turning just in time to see Paoq trotting towards Grace. The wolf nuzzles her affectionately, whining at the woman.

Lyon kneels on the ground, stretching his left hand out to let the wolf sniff him. She does so, keeping her eyes locked on his face as she does so. She touches the tip of her nose to his palm after a moment of hesitation, making Lyon smile. Paoq slinks towards Jace, cocking her head to the side. Roas approaches slower, going straight to Lyon. He sniffs his outstretched hand but pulls back.

“Calm, Roas,” Lyon says, his voice low. Grace raises an eyebrow at the uncommon command. Roas touches his nose to Lyon’s palm after another moment of hesitation, swishing his tail once. He follows Paoq to Jace, who’s grinning from ear to ear. Lyon stands after a few more moments, his face serious.

“I should check on Ikra and Luva,” he says. He exits the corral ahead of Grace and Jace, entering the main enclosure without hesitation. Jace watches him go, latching the gate to the corral as he does so.

“Sorry, he gets spacey sometimes,” Jace says, scratching the back of his head.

“He cares for them deeply,” Grace observes. “How long have you had your Dires?”

“A few months,” Jace admits. Grace nods, watching Lyon interact with Ikra and Luva.

“Most Dire ranchers get attached to their first wolves,” she says. “Especially in the first months they have them, because they often become their only or biggest companions.” Jace nods, remembering the first few weeks they’d gotten the Dires. Lyon had slept outside, no matter the weather, to be sure that the wolves were adapting.

“What are you planning to use the ranch for?” Grace asks. “Hunters, war, breeding?” Jace shrugs.

“We aren’t sure yet,” he admits. “Lyon refuses to use them for war or breedin’, but he isn’t sold on huntin’ either. I think he wants to start a new branch, but I don’t know what.”

“He keeps you out of the decision making?” Grace asks. Jace answers with another shrug.

“Other branches do exist, but they tend to be less successful,” Grace adds.

“I know,” Jace says. “I’ve been lookin’ into them, callin’ some of the ranches that exist, but I think Lyon wants to change the way Dire farms are seen.”

“He’s got quite the task ahead of him if that’s what he truly wants,” Grace replies.

“And that’s why he can’t do it alone,” Jace agrees. “But we’re just startin’ so we’ve got time to figure it out.” Lyon keeps Jace at a distance with decisions so that the younger man doesn’t get attached, doesn’t feel obligated to stay.

“You can pull up to the house and I’ll get your check,” Jace offers.

“I’ll meet you up there,” Grace agrees, strolling back to her truck. Jace watches Lyon for a moment longer, watching as Ikra nuzzles him – a rare show of affection from the male wolf.

Jace jogs back up to the house, the uneven gravel crunching under his feet. Sweat begins to break out on his forehead due to the sun’s glaring heat. He pauses on the porch to catch his breath and wipe the sweat away before entering the house. He rummages through piles of paper on their kitchen table, shaking his head.

How many times do I have to ask him to clean this up? He thinks to himself. The kitchen faucet drips, the water making a small splashing noise every few seconds, almost keeping in time with the ticking of the grandfather clock in their living room. He finally uncovers the check and grabs it, hurrying back outside. The floorboards creak and groan under his feet and the AC starts up with a metallic whirring. Jace takes a moment to enjoy the cold air, almost dreading the heat he’s about to step back into.

“Sorry,” he says as he steps onto the porch with the door creaking. “It was buried under a bunch of papers.” Grace smiles, waving away his apology.

“Not a problem,” she says, taking the offered check. She glances at the amount, nodding as she places it in her pants pocket.

“Breeding isn’t all bad, you know,” she says. “Not everyone treats the Dires like they’re worthless in that branch.”

“We know,” Jace replies. “Lyon’s been taught that most breeders do though.”

“He’s in for quite an awakening,” Grace says. “This world has a lot of curveballs.” Jace nods.

“We’ll figure it out,” he says.

“Never forget that Dires are fiercely loyal once they bond with you,” she says. “They will always be dangerous – they’re wild animals – but there have been very few Dire attacks since humankind has begun using them.” Grace gets in her truck without saying goodbye and makes her way down the driveway, moving faster now that the wolves are out of her trailer. Jace wipes more sweat from his brow, growing impatient.

I’m never going to get used to this heat, he thinks.

“Thanks for paying,” Lyon says, lingering at the bottom of the porch steps. Jace jerks out of his thoughts, grunting.

“Of course,” Jace replies. “I want in on figurin’ out what we’re doin’ with this place.” Lyon opens his mouth to protest, but Jace motions for him to be quiet.

“If I wasn’t serious about stayin’ here long-term then I wouldn’t have insisted on comin’,” Jace continues. “And I’m already attached to the place, even with the heat, so save your breath.” Lyon smirks at him.

“Fine,” he replies. “You can start by telling me what you’ve found out from the other ranches.” Jace’s eyes widen.

“Just like that?” He asks. Lyon nods.

“We’ll know soon enough if you mean it,” he points out. “Let’s start building the meeting corral so we can introduce the Dires.”

Lyon and Jace spend the next four days constructing a new corral spanning the space between Ikra and Luva’s enclosure and Roas and Paoq’s corral. Jace fashions the gates while Lyon cuts the boards and digs holes for the posts, taking frequent breaks to escape the dust that the dirt kicks up. They spend the evenings and early mornings researching other Dire ranches and drawing diagrams of their own ranch to determine the best way to grow and incorporate the thick trees around the land. They visit both pairs of wolves daily, reassuring Luva and Ikra that they are still secure and working to earn the trust of Roas and Paoq. They spend the fourth night sitting in old lawn chairs on the porch to stargaze.

“Training them to be like service dogs could work,” Lyon suggests. Jace laughs, shaking his head.

“People would be terrified,” he says, still laughing. Lyon glares at him.

“They’d be good at it,” he retorts. Jace’s eyes widen.

“We don’t have to create an entirely new branch, Lyon,” he says. “Think about it. You don’t want to send ‘em to wars because it’s a death sentence, but police animals are looked after. Domesticated dogs have limitations that Dires don’t. They’d attack anyone they were directed to and they’d never abandon their handlers. They’re faster, stronger, smarter, and more loyal than modern dogs too.”

“They could work in similar lines too,” Lyon continues, chewing his lip. “Like bomb dogs and stuff. They wouldn’t be mistaken as average dogs either.”

“This generation probably couldn’t,” Jace comments. “Especially not Ikra.” Lyon sighs.

“I know,” he admits. “Maybe Roas and Paoq since they’ve been with humans their whole lives.” A small breeze stirs up and Jace closes his eyes, enjoying the chill that settles over his skin.

“Missing the mountain air?” Lyon asks. Jace nods.

“I don’t know how you stand the heat,” he admits. Lyon lifts his left shoulder in a small shrug. He watches a shooting star plummet through the sky, its tail fading from view faster than it appeared.

“I used to spend the summers out here,” he replies. “Before my parents stopped talking to Mam and Pops. And the mountain air has always been too cold for me – I prefer the drier weather. Winters will be more like home.” Jace reopens his eyes, glancing at Lyon. His Mam had died three years ago, and his Pops died three months before Lyon made the move to the ranch. He had thought about changing the ranch’s name but chose not to in order to honor the memory of his grandparents.

“You miss ‘em?” Jace asks. Lyon’s eyes slide to him, his eyebrows rising.

“Your grandparents,” Jace adds. Lyon nods, his eyes moving back to the darkness.

“I feel them here sometimes. When I’m with Ikra and Luva or when I get out into the woods surrounding the ranch,” he admits. He stands slowly, arching his back as he stretches.

“We should get some rest,” he says. “I want this done tomorrow.” Jace follows him inside.

“Goodnight,” Lyon murmurs, disappearing into his room.

“G’night,” Jace replies.

Lyon gets up early on the fifth day to finish the corral and examine their work, ensuring that it’s of top quality. The sun is hidden by clouds, rain threatening with a steady wind keeping the day cool. Dust swirls around the ranch, though Lyon doesn’t seem to notice, and the wolves spin around and snap their jaws at it playfully.

“It can’t get any better,” Jace says, joining Lyon in the empty corral.

“Something can always be better,” Lyon replies. Jace rolls his eyes.

“You know what I mean,” he retorts. “Are we starting the process today?” Lyon nods.

“When?” Jace asks, noticing that Lyon hasn’t stopped inspecting their work yet. Lyon straightens, gazing up at the sky.

“This afternoon,” he decides. “The rain will have passed by then, hopefully.”

“How do you know it’ll rain?” Jace asks.

“You can smell it,” Lyon replies. Jace sniffs the air, raising his eyebrows.

“All I smell is dirt and wolf,” he says, making Lyon chuckle. “I’m gonna call some places, see if our idea from last night is even plausible.” Lyon nods, already walking away.

Lyon joins Jace inside when the downpour begins. Paoq is the only wolf still outside, prancing around in the rain while the other three wolves seek the dryness of their shelters. The pattering of the rain on the roof seems to calm Lyon as he sits still longer than two minutes for the first time in five days.

“Any luck?” He asks, picking at the sandwich Jace had set in front of him for lunch.

“Bigger stations and organizations expressed interest,” Jace replies. “They’d want a trial first, understandably. Smaller stations weren’t so sure. I think they’d have to see it first.” Lyon nods.

“Understandable,” he says. “It could be a big transition.”

“What do you say?” Jace asks. “Different enough from war, but still purposeful enough?” Lyon grins.

“Definitely,” he says. “Once we get them integrated then we’ll start training.” The rain subsides after a few hours and the men waste no time getting back to work. The previously dusty ground is now muddy. Lyon avoids the puddles as they trudge towards the enclosures, but Jace marches through them without hesitation. Lyon inspects the center corral one last time before deciding it’s ready.

“Ikra and Luva should be put in this corral first,” he says. “It shows that they’re the alphas, so to speak.” Jace nods, following Lyon to the gate attaching to the main enclosure. Lyon unlatches it and opens it wide, motioning for Jace to stand back. Ikra darts into the corral, heading straight towards the other gate. Luva enters slower, pausing to greet the two men before following her brother. Roas and Paoq stand at their gate, whining at the other two wolves. Ikra growls, his tail tucked. Lyon strides over, snapping his fingers.

“Calm, Ikra,” he says, drawing the wolf’s attention to him momentarily. Lyon crouches, reaching his fingertips through the gate to Roas, who licks them. Ikra watches the exchange, his hackles lowering.

“Maybe we should introduce Luva and Paoq first,” Jace says, gesturing to the two female wolves checking each other out from between the fences. “They’re calmer and will be less likely to fight.” Lyon nods, biting his lower lip.

“The boys could get defensive of their sisters,” he thinks out loud. “Or they could see that they get along and follow suit.”

“Exactly,” Jace agrees. “It could speed up the process.”

“Let’s do it,” Lyon decides. He snaps again, directing Ikra back to the main enclosure. He closes the gate firmly before returning to Roas and Paoq’s gate.

“Climb into the corral so that Roas doesn’t force his way in,” Lyon says. “I’ll distract him while you get Paoq in.” Jace nods, following Lyon up and over the fence. They jump to the ground, landing in a small plum of smoke. Paoq trots over to them, her tail wagging and her head cocked to the side. Roas gazes at them, but doesn’t leave the gate, his tail still tucked between his hind legs. Lyon directs him away from the fence before moving his hand with his palm facing out up from his leg to his shoulder. Roas sits and Lyon stretches his hand out, palm facing him directly to instruct him to stay.

“Now, Jace” he says, keeping his voice even. Roas’s ears swivel as Jace opens the gate and Lyon sees him begin to stand, but he steps into the Dire’s main point of view. Lyon growls, forcing Jace’s full attention to him as he coaxes Paoq into the meeting corral. He hears the gate latch and relaxes, stroking Roas and raising both palms at shoulder height to release him. Roas bounds back to the gate, peering at his sister and whining at her.

Lyon climbs the fence and lands a few feet from Luva and Paoq, who stand on either side of Jace. The two females scent the air with unease, their tails tucked. Lyon approaches with caution, staying in a crouch to seem less intimidating. Once he’s close enough, he offers each wolf a palm and strokes each of them when they accept it. Luva takes the first step closer, sniffing Paoq’s neck. Paoq returns the gesture, barking gently. Jace grins, folding his arms.

“Told ya they’d get along,” he says. Lyon rolls his eyes.

“I didn’t doubt you,” he replies. “The boys could still be harder.”

“I’d introduce Luva and Roas first,” Jace says. “If Ikra sees that he doesn’t pose a threat to her then he’ll be less defensive when we bring him in. But I’d introduce him to Paoq before Roas because he’ll still assert his dominance. When she submits to him I think Roas will be more willin’ to recognize Ikra as the leader since this is his territory.” Lyon nods.

“We’ll start that tomorrow,” he agrees. “The girls meeting is probably enough excitement for one day.” Luva and Paoq relax after about five minutes, returning to their normal habits. They interact with each other, the two men, and the male wolves through the fences. Luva approaches Roas through the fence, backing away quickly with a growl as he lunges at the gate. Paoq trots over and barks at him, brushing against Luva’s side reassuringly. Roas stops growling, whining at her for a moment.

When Paoq approaches Ikra he doesn’t growl, but studies her closely. He stays low to the ground, his tail held straight up in the air. He takes in her scent and raises his hackles but goes no further. Paoq whimpers, wagging her tail at him playfully but Ikra turns and trots away. He disappears into the trees, clearly over the new female.

“Maybe we should change our plan,” Lyon observes.

“Maybe,” Jace agrees. They return the females to their enclosures after about twenty minutes and return to the house, sitting down with identical sighs.

“Thank God that went well,” Lyon murmurs.

“I thought it’d be rougher,” Jace admits. “Even with Luva and Paoq.” Lyon nods in agreement, closing his eyes.

“Go home next week, see your family,” he says.

“You sure?” Jace asks, his eyes widening. He thought Lyon had forgotten about that conversation.

“Yes,” Lyon replies. “We’ll be okay here, assuming the boys get along in the next few days.”

“Thank you,” Jace says. Lyon grunts.

“But tell your ‘rents to come to the ranch next time,” he adds with a smirk. Jace rolls his eyes, laughing.

Jace and Lyon introduce Ikra and Roas to each other two days later. Both men wear protective gear, fully aware that the male wolves could get rough and that they’d be in danger if they did. The meetings between Ikra and Paoq and Roas and Luva had gone well so they’re confident that the males will integrate well – hopefully. Ikra begins circling Roas as soon as the gates are closed, his hackles raised. Roas stays close to the ground, his head lowered just slightly. Ikra inches closer, sniffing Roas and bumping him as a small show of dominance.

After a few tense minutes the males calm down, rough housing and chasing each other. Lyon and Jace break up a few minor fights, but it becomes clear that there shouldn’t be any lasting problems. They introduce Roas and Paoq into the main enclosure, smiling as they race around the huge space, sniffing the air as if in a completely new place and urinating on the trees. Paoq and Luva bound around together, yipping and taunting the males once they settle next to the shelter, lounging in the sun. Lyon joins the Dires in their celebrations, stripping off his protective gear as he goes. Roas pins him playfully, though Lyon gets up quickly, knowing that a playful attack can easily become deadly.

Roas begins getting rough with Luva after about twenty minutes, drawing Ikra’s attention. The male beelines towards his sister, already baring his teeth. Luva yips in pain as Roas bites her neck and Ikra lunges, knocking the other male wolf off her. Jace begins to get to his feet, but Lyon is much closer. Luva runs from the skirmish, her tail tucked between her legs, but Lyon doesn’t hesitate to get closer. Roas shoulders Ikra, but the bigger wolf barely budges as he tries to snap at Roas’ throat. The younger wolf scrambles away, his sides heaving. Lyon yells and barks, clapping his hands loudly to draw their attention. Ikra growls at him as he gets too close, but Roas doesn’t acknowledge him.

Jace rushes towards them, noticing that Paoq is also approaching rapidly, her own hackles raised. She snarls at Ikra, but plants herself a few feet away as if to show that she doesn’t intend to attack him. Dust spirals in the air, causing the scene to look almost hazy as Jace rushes forward. He freezes in shock as Lyon places himself between the two males with no protective gear, keeping low to the ground and forcing his body language to stay calm. Ikra eyes him, his long teeth still bared as Roas finally backs off, seeming unwilling to attack the man. Luva bounds between Lyon and Ikra as the wolf takes a step forward, growling at her brother. He stops mid-step, cocking his head to the side. He whines at her, his eyes shifting to Lyon once again. Luva growls again, backing up until her tail is touching Lyon.

Jace shakes himself out of his daze and approaches the fight with caution, his heart beating wildly. Lyon motions for him to stop, standing up slowly. The man’s eyes never leave Ikra as he places a hand on Luva’s back. He approaches Ikra with an outstretched hand, the only sign of his fear the shaking in his fingers. Ikra accepts his scent after a few more tense moments before nuzzling his sister, assuring himself that she isn’t injured. He turns and trots away, brushing past Jace as he goes.

The wolves separate as Lyon checks Roas over silently, his hands still shaking as Jace feels along Luva’s neck. She slinks towards Paoq once he’s done, her fear lingering behind her. Roas disappears into the trees when Lyon finishes, the tension still palpable. Lyon glances at Jace, muttering, “Could have been worse.” Jace scoffs.

“You coulda been ripped to shreds,” he retorts. “What were you thinkin’?”

“I wasn’t,” Lyon admits. “Thank God Ikra didn’t just attack blindly.” Jace and Lyon watch the wolves intently, determined to see signs of more fights before they can happen, but the incident isn’t repeated. Roas, Paoq, and Luva begin playing once more though they’re more careful than before. Lyon joins them once more, laughing and jumping around the wolves. Ikra continues lying near their shelter, watching the others with half-closed eyelids.

Jace eventually settles near Ikra, observing the others as they expend energy. The air cools as the afternoon wears on and flies buzz around them. Lyon plops down beside him, covered in dirt. He lies backwards, staring up at the sky as his breathing calms.

“Think we should leave them together tonight?” He asks, his eyes sliding up to Jace.

“They could start fighting again,” Jace says.

“I don’t think they will,” Lyon replies. “I think Roas realized he was too rough.” Jace hesitates, watching the other man.

“Are you gonna sleep outside if we do?” Jace replies. Lyon shrugs.

“Seems like it’ll be a nice night,” he says. “Might be good to get some fresh air.”

“Like we don’t do that every day,” Jace retorts. “Leave ‘em together.” Lyon makes a makeshift bed near the enclosure, hovering like a worried mother as Jace watches from the porch. He makes a bed of his own next to Lyon’s silently.

“You don’t have to sleep out here,” Lyon says.

“You’ll need help if they fight,” Jace replies, lowering himself onto the hard ground. “Assumin’ I can get off the ground to help.” Lyon laughs, lowering himself onto his own bed.

“Quit whining,” he teases. The night goes by smoothly, the men falling asleep as the wolves howl at the moon and pace their enclosure, the familiarity of their panting soothing.


Hunter Garrison is an alumni from Ball State University. She has work published in Blackberry Winter. When she isn’t writing she’s reading, working, or binge watching Netflix.