Creative Writing

Creative Writing


Davin DeAngelo


I still look at the ring that he bought for me our second Christmas together. It’s a simple gold band decorated with a princess cut stone. Even after nearly twenty years, the stone maintains the deep ocean blue that it had the moment that I opened the box to look upon it for the very first time.  It’s the only piece of jewelry that he’s ever given me, but now it means something different than it once did. Twenty years is a long time for any two people to be together. It certainly isn’t for everyone, and in some way John and I knew that it wouldn’t be for us, either. And rather than be a symbol of a promising future together, it sits as a mere idol of memories and the love that we no longer share.

We never fit into one another’s lives in just the right way to have a marriage that would survive for very long. When we first met, I was nineteen and working as a bartender, and John was twenty-two and in the army. Despite numerous cautionary tales of the duties of a military wife, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that he would be gone for months at a time, and I knew that he would have a dangerous job that would always hold the possibility that he may be killed, but that didn’t stop me from marrying him. To be fair, we did make it longer than any of our friends or families had predicted.

We began our married life spending long durations of time apart. He was sent to various areas of Europe and sometimes countries in Asia. Truth be known, I never asked exactly what he did and he was always happy to avoid discussing work life when he was at home. Whatever it was, it kept him busy and difficult to get a hold of. Our primary communication had been only by letters and packages.

When he was gone, I lived on base with other army wives and their families. They were all very nice people, but I was in no rush to have children, and this was the only element of their lives that they would ever communicate with one another about. The cute thing that little Johnny did or how Tim was having trouble with fractions. It was simply something that I couldn’t and didn’t wish to relate to. It took only two weeks until I found myself uninterested in them at all and requested to find housing somewhere else, anywhere else in Virginia.

For about eight years, things were okay. We weren’t miserable by any means, but we’d started to drift apart. It had gotten to the point that when he would come home from a tour, I would see him about as much as I would while he was away. He had his own plans with his own friends, and I kept on with the life I had built to keep me busy while he was gone. Instead of registering us for vacations or weekend getaways like I had some years before, I continued to work long hours and have lunches with friends. College classes kept me busy the rest of the time.

There was only so much longer that a marriage like this would last. Some small talk, a dinner or two, a passing peck on the cheek as he came into the house we’d saved up for years to buy.  We began to realize that our interests had strayed elsewhere and we were only existing beneath the same roof.

The divorce was a simple one. He offered to let me keep the house, but I only asked for the car, my books, and the dog that had kept me more company throughout the years than he had. And that was that.

I did come out of the marriage with something else, however.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when I became pregnant, but it was somewhere within the last year of our marriage. Like many other things during that time, the pregnancy wasn’t typical. I didn’t gain weight or possess any telltale signs that I was with child. The only way that I had even made the discovery was because of a fit of dizzy spells that drove me to see a doctor.

It’s almost shameful to say, but John was more receptive to the news than I had been. It was by no means an unwelcome pregnancy, and I was nervous about the idea of carrying someone inside of me. I was fearful of the fact that my actions would directly affect a new being and that when it was born (and the birthing concept was a completely horrifying prospect for me at the time) there would be a tiny person, helpless and completely dependent on me. I was going to have to mold it into a decent person, and all of this pressure was sitting on top of me during such an uncertain point in my life. Both John and I were aware that things were in the midst of changing, but the idea of sharing a child renewed our hope for a happy and complete family.

Within a few months, my stomach was growing and our lives were almost entirely refocused. We began to work on ourselves and our marriage. Even John made an honest, noticeable effort. His friends suddenly became less interesting to him, and when he was home he went to every doctor appointment and checkup that I made. Timing even had it so that he was there the day that I went to the hospital with labor pains.

In the end, even a child couldn’t be the glue for a marriage that was in the process of breaking apart. To be fair, I don’t think that either of us had truly expected that to be the case anyway. Once we began to realize that the only love that we had was the love for our daughter, we knew that it was time to go our separate ways. About five months after her birth, the divorce papers were finalized and I was heading south while John left for a six month deployment overseas.

Today is Anna’s twelfth birthday. The older that she gets, the less that she looks like me and the more that she’s started transforming into a tiny, prettier version of John. She shares our adventurous side and she’s fascinated by animals, even the ones that can kill her. If I have to tell her one more time that rattlesnakes don’t make good pets, I think my head will explode.

If we didn’t live out in the middle of nowhere, I’d be willing to bet that she’d be a social butterfly. Whenever we decide to go into town or, even less common, actually go and stay at our house for a few weeks, she usually finds some child her age from God only knows where and invites her over for dinners and sleepovers. In a sense, I know that it’s cruel of me to keep her out of the school system and restricting her interaction with other kids. I feel guilty that we live out of my truck and camp nine months out of the year rather than giving her a nice, secure, anchored-down home with a packed schedule of extracurricular activities. But to be fair, I tried that for the first few years. After John and I went our separate ways, I rented a townhome in Pensacola, kept a steady job, put Anna into daycare, and adhered to a strict schedule of activities and family time to give her the structure that all of the books and medical professionals insisted she would need.

It shocked even me how quickly that had gotten boring. I managed to hold off my desire to travel until she was roughly five years-old and when that time came, I moved us out to a town so tiny that I still don’t know that it’s on any maps or even technically named. It’s the last town before a large span of dry, cracked ground, heated rocks, and merciless sun of the Yuma desert. My guess is that our population is roughly ninety-something people.  With one gas station, grocery store, and about the saddest excuse for a bank I’ve ever seen, if someone doesn’t work in these three places then they don’t work. So I usually don’t. I’d saved enough money while I was working in Pensacola to live comfortably without a steady paycheck, but if money ever gets tight, I do odd jobs around town to get by.

Today, however, we’re not on a long term camping trip; instead, we’re at home. After a divorce, I normally only hear about how horrible a father the ex-husband is. There’s nothing but horror stories about forgotten birthdays and back-owed child support, but I’ll say this: John is a damn good father. When Anna came along, we both did a lot of growing up. John most of all.

Every year for her birthday, Anna receives at the very least a card filled with money, and all of the holidays usually include a pile of gifts that would turn any child rotten. Should he be in the states, he always goes out of his way to travel down to our neck of the country and pay us a visit. I see him more now than I had during our eight years of marriage, and as a courtesy, I always make sure that Anna and I are back in our two-bedroom home so that we’re easier for him to find.

“Do you think Dad’ll like my hair?” Anna’s standing in front of me, putting herself in the spotlight for observation. I look her over to see just what she’s done to it this time. The last time that she asked me that question, she’d gotten a hold of some scissors and chopped over half of it off with no shame or trace of self-consciousness.

By now, all of her hair has grown back. Usually her thick, dark brown locks are hastily tied back in a ponytail that hangs just above her shoulder, but today it’s pulled neatly away from her face. She turns to the side so that I can admire the French braids that apparently one of the three children in the town had decided to put into her hair today. “It brings out your natural highlights. He’ll love it.” Of course, John would love her hair no matter how it looked. In their father-daughter relationship, Anna was most certainly daddy’s little girl. She could dye it bright pink and he’d still say that she looked like a model.

“Michelle did it for me,” Anna announces with a bright smile. Like most children, she isn’t perfect. Her teeth are crowded and a little crooked, and she has long, lanky limbs that she’s yet to grow into, but she maintains these childlike qualities well, and it keeps her pretty. Still, should we ever put the time into our schedule, I’ll be pestering John to invest in braces. “I’m gonna go find the pictures that we took of our trip to Last Chance Canyon. I wanna show Dad the size of that rattler that we saw on day sixteen!”

That’s how we keep track of our days now. It’s her idea, of course. She knows how to properly count the days of the year, but ever since we began exploring she’s taken to counting our days, the way that someone might in their camping log. She keeps one of those as well, and I’m sure that when he arrives John will get to read it all. “Day 12- We went down to the river today!” Or better yet, “Day 16- We saw a rattler today! It was as fat as a garbage can. I named him Winston.” If the girl wants to journal and scrapbook in her free time, why should I discourage it?

The most awkward parts of his visits are the beginning. At times, I worry that he might not come alone. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he didn’t. I’m not naïve enough to believe that after twelve years he hasn’t had a girlfriend or any other woman in his life. In fact, I know that he’s had a few and he’s even showed us pictures and talked about the past two that he’s had. My only concern with John not coming alone stems from concern for Anna.  I’ve no problem with the opinions that other people form of me. I’m a recluse, I’m an unfit mother, whatever they might want to say, but Anna’s twelve years-old, and a nasty opinion of her is quite another thing.

So a part of me is relieved when John pulls up in his dusty, red Wrangler and he has no one in the passenger seat. The canvas top is pulled down, low volume ‘90s music playing on his stereo. I know that it has to be a CD. The only reception that the radio stations pick up in this area play country and for the most part those are static filled anyway.

When he steps out, he looks about the same as I remember him from Christmas. He’s the type of guy that can eat whatever he wants and will never gain a single pound. Despite me always nagging him that it would eventually catch up, it hasn’t. He still has that naturally thin stature which is bulked up by of his daily gym visits. It annoys me that he can make me self-conscious. He still looks like he can compete in the twenties division of an Iron Man competition and here I stand, aged horribly by the unforgiving sun that I spend hours a day beneath.

“Hey, Roz.”

I don’t get much of an opportunity to provide a greeting of any sort because the moment that I open my mouth, the screen door opens up and a particularly excited pre-teen starts across the dirt coated front lawn. For someone wearing sandals, she’s actually pretty quick. Maybe those long legs of hers will serve a purpose after all.

Regardless, that’s it for awkward moments. I stand, looking over the pair and studying them. She really is beginning to look more like him, and in a way that is disappointing. Beneath his sunglasses sit a pair of beautiful hazel eyes. They’re the same eyes that Anna has, as well as the angular jaw. The only traces of me in her anymore are the dark hair and the olive skin tone that’s been passed down to everyone in my family. I suppose I should at least be thankful for that much.

“I hope you don’t mind the presents.” John and I are sitting alone at the kitchen table. The sun’s set and Anna’s expended all of her energy bouncing around the house with the gifts that John’s given her. She’s lying in her bed with a new laptop resting on her stomach and a black, furry mass curled up next to her. I’m fairly sure that she’s asleep now.

“We always agreed on no living gifts.” It isn’t that I’m angry about her receiving a dog for a present, but after my last dog I never really wanted another puppy. They were too small and required too much training, and I have no idea what a Newfoundland thing is. What if they are impossible to train? What if it gets out the door and never comes back? Then Anna would spend weeks looking for the poor thing, heartbroken the entire time. “I don’t know how you expect her to keep that thing here. It’s got so much hair that it’s panting in the house with air conditioning. How is it supposed to go outside or go camping with us without dying?”

“You can shave it,” John offers as he takes a sip of his glass of sweet tea and I find myself doing the same. It’s addictive and I love it. The older woman in Florida that taught me how to “properly” brew a batch always insisted that this was why Northerners had no soul. They had no sweet tea. Ever since then, I drink as much as possible and the more that I drink, the more that I think she might have been right. “But if you really don’t like him, I can just take him home with me.”

“She’s already gotten attached to it. You can’t take it away now.”

A long silence falls between us. All that we really have to talk about now is Anna, and that’s both a good and bad thing. I wouldn’t mind if he mentioned his other girlfriends or life plans. I still like to think that we’re friends, but he never really does mention these things, if only because it’s really none of my business. In the end, maybe it’s best we don’t discuss those things after all.

“I’m moving to Alaska.” This isn’t news to me. I’m more surprised that he’s lasted as long in Texas as he has. It’s convenient and keeps him close. Last year, there was barely a holiday that he missed with Anna, but it seems that today is going to be the last of the leisurely trips across state to see us. Still, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed. She enjoys his frequent visits, and in a way so do I. “There’s an Air Marshal position that I’m going to take.”

“That’s a little far, isn’t it? Will you be able to visit on the important holidays at least?”

There’s something on his mind. I can see it but I don’t push. It’ll come out eventually.

“I was actually thinking that Anna could come with me.” And there it is. I’m trying to keep a straight face but there’s a sinking feeling in my stomach and a tightening in my chest as the seconds pass by. The only sound in the house is the DVD that Anna’s left playing on her laptop. I’m trying to avoid being defensive and remind myself that this is his daughter as well, but it isn’t helping. Instead, I’m just growing even more tense.

To avoid saying a few of the choice things coming to my mind (a Fuck you and Hell no were certainly at the top of the list) I take a long drink of tea and let it sink in a little while. “You know what I’m going to say to that.” There. That wasn’t too terrible of me, was it? Almost diplomatic, I think.

John’s always been a little bit more impulsive with his thoughts. If he wants to say something, he blurts it out, and if he thinks that I’m holding back something, he just has to know what it is. This time, I don’t think he needs any prying. He knows exactly what I’m thinking. “I don’t think it’s fair for you to dismiss this so quickly. I know that I’ve been away a long time. I know that I’ve missed a lot, but things are changing. I’ll be home a lot more and I think I deserve a chance to have time with her.”

“Air Marshals still leave, John. What are you expecting to have her do if you have to leave for a week?”

“Jennifer’s coming with me.” Jennifer. It takes me a minute to think about just who that is but it comes back to me after a few moments. That’s one of the girlfriends that he was getting more serious about. Anna said that she received a few letters, cards and gift certificates for her past two birthdays from this woman and even spoke to her a little bit over the phone. I don’t understand how that’s supposed to make me feel better. Leaving Anna with a woman that she’s never met is no different than leaving her with a stranger. And what if they didn’t even like each other? I never doubted John’s intelligence until now. “We’ve talked about it and she’d love to get to know Anna a little bit better. We’ll get a house big enough for everyone, maybe three bedrooms or something, and she can enroll in school up there. Make some friends and be normal.”

“Normal?” I’ve stopped drinking my tea and place it down onto the wooden table with a little bit more force than I should have.

“That’s not what I meant. She’s perfectly normal, but if she comes with me for a year or two-“

“What makes you think that she’s going at all?” He is trying to hold his temper. I can see the tiny vein in his forehead pulsing, and the way that he chews on the left side of his jaw to somehow crush and swallow whatever nasty words are trying to come up.

We stare each other for a long while. A battle of wills. I don’t want to say that he has no rights to see his daughter, but I don’t want him to think that he has the right to take her all the way across the country where I won’t be able to see her, just so that he can play family. Things don’t work that way, and I wish he’d just let us keep on the way that we are.

Never once did he complain about the way I was doing things before. So long as he could call us or visit, things were great. He knew that I was doing a good job educating Anna, and she is well adjusted and friendly. Hell, she even has the chance to actually look at the world around her. Why is that so bad? Why is conventional suddenly such a good thing? There have been times in the past that I wanted to slap him, but I can’t remember a moment with as feeling that’s a powerful as the one that I’m having now.

“She’s getting older. One day this Man vs. Wild stuff won’t be cute anymore. She’s going to want to have friends, to be around people, and get a job. She can’t have you and only you for the rest of her life.” He’s made a point and looks considerably calmer now. Meanwhile, I sit and that void in my stomach continues to grow deeper and deeper. “She’ll still be able to call you and you can fly you in or she can come and visit you for holidays. I’m not trying to take her away.”

“It certainly seems that way.”

“Don’t say that. That’s not what I’m trying to do at all.” There’s a few minutes of quiet. A laugh track fills the silence between us, and a few seconds later it picks up once more. Whatever DVD that Anna’s left playing, I wish it would break if only because of that obnoxious sound. At the moment, it’s as irritating as fingernails on a chalk board. “Sometimes change isn’t all bad.” I’d rather listen to more of the laugh track than whatever John is trying to think up to say now. “It can be good for everyone.”

I watch him for a short while longer. I want nothing more than to argue with him and pinpoint all of the reasons why this is a horrible idea, but I don’t want to fight with Anna sleeping in just the next room. I’d rather say nothing than for her to be awoken by her parents arguing on her birthday. I finally break my gaze from him because suddenly the ice cubes bobbing in my sweet tea are more fascinating to watch than he is. I steady my hand and pick up the glass of tea without it trembling or being thrown into his face. “I’m shaving the damn dog tomorrow.”

For the following two months I heard nothing, and that was exactly how I wanted it. I never did mention John’s request to Anna, and so long as he wasn’t bothering me about it then I wasn’t going to. This was the first problem in decades that I hadn’t rushed straight at to put right, but in all honesty it was because I didn’t know how. There were only two ways to go about it. I could tell her that she wasn’t allowed to go and live with her father, knowing that in some way I was punishing not only John but also stealing away an opportunity for Anna to grow as a person. Or, I could tell her that she could go. Every time that I ever thought of doing such a thing, the void in my stomach would open up and I’d feel an uncontrollable loss. She was the only person that I’d loved over the past twelve years. The idea of sending her away someplace else, someplace so far away to depend on someone else? I didn’t even know the beginnings of how to deal with something like that.

Still, it was a difficult thing to live with. With every phone call that Anna received, I would expect an excited shriek to echo around the walls of our house, or for her to face me with a baffled and hurt expression, phone limp in her hand, and asking why she hadn’t been told sooner.

It was the worry of it being presented to her before I could fully process it and make a decision that finally had me calling John. With the phone call alone, he must have known that I was seriously considering the request that I, for the longest time, had considered unreasonable. He was being horrible and unfair. Any excuse that would bring out the fact that I was a victim in this situation was a thought I had at some point over those two months. Self-pity is a horrible thing, and it was difficult to avoid after thinking of the possibility of a life that would leave me completely alone again. Hadn’t I had enough of that during our marriage?

I was very proud of myself in the fact that those thoughts and selfish ideas hadn’t come out of my mouth during our phone call, but it was mostly because John wasn’t pushing me. He didn’t demand an answer right away and we spoke about various aspects of what would happen should I allow her to go. I insisted that Anna meet Jennifer before our daughter would travel anyplace with them, and requested that he keep quiet about the trip until I had the opportunity to speak to her about it. He agreed to my terms and informed me that he was looking to move in roughly three more months. He was already searching for houses that would be big enough to accommodate her should she at least be allowed to visit.

In the end, there was no question about the decision I was going to make. It had been decided long ago, probably the day that John had originally asked me about it despite my reluctance to acknowledge it. Anna is an adventurer, just like myself. She needs to roam so that she can grow. She needs to see new places and experience new things to mature and reach the potential that sits dormant within her, temporarily rooted in the dry dirt of this dessert.

If I had never listened to my adventurous side and virtually undeniable urge to roam freely, I would still be in Virginia. I would probably still be at a job that I hated, I never would have seen the Gulf Coast or the Painted Mountains of Arizona. There were even times that I’d considered heading north. I’d wondered about the Rocky Mountains and the constant sheets of rain that haunted Oregon’s boundless forests. I was sure that not only would it be beautiful, but Anna may have gotten a kick out of looking for Sasquatch. How could I have followed all of my own impulses and expect to deny her the very same thing?

“Anna?” Today, we are at home again. We ran out of supplies for our week-long trip, but this is one of the first times in a long while that I was looking forward to coming back. It had been hard for me to enjoy the time out there with numerous worries hanging over my head, and I’m looking forward to a small break from exploring and thinking.

“Yah, mom?” She is sitting cross legged on the living room floor with her dog resting next to her. The poor thing now has about a quarter of its hair, but continues panting despite the air conditioner’s best efforts. Anna absentmindedly runs her hand over the dog’s black coat as her eyes remain glued to the television set. I notice immediately that my kyanite ring is on her finger. Loosely fit and dangling there, but she’s always enjoyed wearing it around the house and out into town so I say nothing. I turn my attention away from it and to the television instead. For a long while it stays there.

I’m delaying the inevitable, and I know that I’m doing so if only because there’s a knot already forming in my throat to halt my words. How am I supposed to even start? “Pack your things, you’re going to Alaska?” No, that makes it sound like she had no say in the matter.  I can’t start off with something like that.

“I talked to your dad today.” My voice is distant and my eyes remain on the television for a few moments more. Anna’s gaze finally pulls away from the colored screen and she looks at me expectantly.

“He didn’t want to talk to me?” She stops petting the dog and moves her hands behind her to lean against it instead.

“We were talking about you.” I finally look at her and she’s lost in a moment’s pause. I can see her thought process. Has she done something wrong? Has she done something good? She’s  probably trying to recall all of the errors she’d made along the way that I might have seen worth mentioning to her father. She is a teenager and she still does stupid things from time to time, but rather than ease her thoughts I let her continue to ponder it over for a little while more. It gives me more time to think of how I want to proceed. “He’s taking a new job up in Alaska.”

Immediately, the reels in her mind cease their playback of her most recent mistakes and triumphs. There’s a look on her face that I haven’t seen in a very, very long time. A sadness, a disappointment that I only ever remember from the time that I promised to take her to the ocean for her birthday but hadn’t been able to because the truck decided to break down about halfway through California.

“Will I be able to see him anymore?” Despite her own best efforts to hide it, I can hear the small tremor in her voice. She’s spent the past few years expecting a visit every major holiday, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for her to suddenly realize that it won’t be happening anymore.

“He and I were actually thinking,” I have to pause. By now even the damn dog is watching me, and I lick nervously at my lips that suddenly felt very dry. “We were thinking that maybe you’d go and do some visiting for a while. If you wanted to.” I tack on the last sentence as a rushed afterthought and through her hurt emerges something else. She stares at me for a few long moments and slowly rises to her feet like it might somehow help her comprehend the situation by standing at my level.

“Like, go up to Alaska?” There’s something resembling eagerness creeping into her voice. Thanks to the internet and television, there has been a lot of exposure about living in Alaska over the past few years. She spent a good short while fascinated by the families that lived out in the middle of the forests with no grocery stores or neighborhoods. She’d gone so far as to compare it to our own relatively nomadic way of living. As the shows continued and movies became available online, she’d order books and entire television series about people that left their busy lives and wandered into the wilderness with nothing but a backpack of supplies and a twenty-two.

I can see her desire to run to it. She’s ready to go someplace entirely new and join these people in their log cabins. In her mind, she’s already beginning a whole new camping journal and filling it with pictures of bears and moose that she’s expecting to see while away.

I can’t help but smile at the creeping enthusiasm for the proposal. I remember looking the very same way when leaving Virginia. “He’s buying a house that’ll be big enough for the two of you and Jennifer. You’d have your own room and he’s even offering to let you stay longer if you’d like.”


“Well, if you like it there and wanted to spend more time, we were discussing the possibility of letting you stay there for a few months. Maybe, if you were interested, you could even go to school.” Her excitement is growing. For about a year or so, she was asking about public schools. Were the television sitcoms close to the real thing? Were they really that big? Were school bus drivers really as crazy as the ones in the cartoons?

“I really get to go to Alaska?” She’s almost hopping with excitement. Her eyes become bright and her entire face lights up with a sudden energy. “I’ve always wanted to see it! Do you think there’ll be snow when I get there? When am I leaving?” She’s rushing into her bedroom now and the dog jumps to his feet to follow after her.

I walk the few steps to her doorway and watch as she jumps on her daybed. The springs squeak in protest as she reaches for some books on the shelf above her bed. As I predicted, she’s picking off every book on survivalist living that she’s ever bought and she even drops a large, hard covered book filled with pictures of various areas of the country onto her bed. “I want to go hiking and see a bear and maybe I’ll even get to see a volcano! I read once that Alaska has more volcanoes than any other state in America! Do you think I’ll see whales? Oh, and glaciers?!”

Anna drops down onto her knees and nudges the dog away as he begins tugging at the corners of her books for attention. She’s flipping the pages of the hardcover book and looking for the entire section of panoramic views of the snow topped terrain of Alaska. Once she finds a particular page, something seems to hit her. Her enthusiasm drops and she looks slowly in my direction.

“You won’t be coming with me, will you?” There’s that sadness again. That way that she speaks that breaks my heart every time that I’ve ever had to hear it. I only shake my head in answer.

She stares at me for a long few moments before pushing herself off of the bed. Within a few steps, she’s crossed the entirety of her bedroom and her arms wrap tightly around me. Instinctively, my arms fold around her as well and she buries her head into my shoulder. It’s only now that I realize that maybe it isn’t as one-sided as I was assuming it was going to be. She’s the only person that I’ve loved for twelve years and in some way, I am the only consistency that she’s had as well. I don’t want to let her go, but it seems that at this very moment, she doesn’t want to let me go either.

I put the last clean glass onto the towel to dry when I smell the smoke. Backyard pit fires are not an uncommon thing in these parts, but I always check the origins to be sure that there are no looming wildfires or a neighbor’s home being engulfed in flames. I wipe the suds from my hands with a dishtowel and walk to the porch. There is a bright orange glow in the center of my front yard and the silhouette of teenaged girl sitting in front of it. Anna’s designed her own fire pit in our front yard. She’s carefully constructed a small, manageable fire and she’s placed a log in front of it to sit on. A few feet away, sitting just outside of the reach of the fire’s glow, is a tent that she’s erected. I can see that Anna’s had a very productive afternoon.

It occurs to me that she’s probably bored. It’s been almost a month since we’ve embarked on any adventures and it’s intentional. After discussing her move to Alaska, I’ve been trying to dial back the exploring to help her grow accustomed to a more traditional lifestyle. If she’ll be in school, then her camping will be limited to weekends and summer vacations. It’s difficult for the both of us, but I can see that she’s finally taken matters into her own hands. If she can’t camp out in the wilderness, then it’s obvious that she intends to do so in her own backyard.

I walk to sit on the log next to her and nearly step on the dog along the way. He’s tucked just behind the makeshift bench, as black as the shadow that he sits within, and he’s chewing on a piece of firewood that Anna’s kept from the fire to give to him. I take a long step over him to finally sit down and I drape the red checkered dishtowel over my knee. She’s staring at the burning wood with a great deal of interest and we sit in quiet, listening only to the crackling of the wood in the fire until she finally speaks.

“Do you think Dad’ll be mad at me if I don’t want to go?” I had wondered for a few weeks if this was coming. For someone bubbly and full of energy, she’s become very quiet and lethargic. She’s the very essence of a teenager that I had always dreaded would someday emerge.

“Are you sure that you’re not just nervous about going to the city this weekend to meet Jennifer?” John and I have finally made arrangements for them to meet and spend time together. Anna will spend a week in Phoenix with her father and Jennifer, who, according to Anna, is now John’s fiancée. It seems now that the time is approaching, Anna is turning into a bundle of nerves, though much like me, she’s stubborn and won’t admit it.

She shrugs and leans away from the fire. Her back is curved and she sits slumped over. If one was to guess by looking at her, she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. “I’ve just been thinking about it, that’s all. I have a lot down here. I’m not sure that I want to leave it all.” I think about asking her to list everything that she’d be leaving behind, but I know that there’s only one thing on the list. She’s afraid to leave home. She’s afraid to leave me behind and I don’t have to ask to know that’s exactly what she means. “I still want to go next week to meet Jennifer. She seems really nice and she promised to take me shopping, but it’s the other stuff I’m not sure about. Going to Alaska and maybe going to school. I’ve never been in the cold. I might not like it and what if I go to school and I don’t like that either?”

I had anticipated some hesitancy. This was normal for any drastic life change, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m not relieved to hear it from her. I hate to imagine she’d be so eager to leave without the faintest trace of reluctance or doubt. My only question is how to proceed. I know that beyond her nerves and fears, she wants to leave. Ever since we spoke about her leaving, she’s been dedicated to researching Alaskan wildlife and camping grounds, national parks, outdoor activities, and the average winter climate. There isn’t a child in this town that hasn’t heard of her expected adventures or seen the list of things that she wants to try. I know that this is nerves talking and I know that once she pushes through it, she’ll be happier to have left than to have stayed.

“Do you remember Mrs. Laurette?” Anna turns to me, chewing on the inside of her cheek while she tries to put a face to the name. “You may not. We left just after you turned five.”

“Is that the lady from Pensacola?” I nod and she looks back to the fire. “I only remember the stories you told me and the few pictures that you showed me. I wish I could remember her.”

“She absolutely adored you.” I smile at the memory of the woman and the way that she would go on and on about what a beautiful baby that Anna had been. That she was such a happy child, sweet as they came. “I remember that for a long while I wanted to leave Pensacola and come out West. Not because it wasn’t beautiful there, but just because I was ready for something completely different.”

“Weren’t you scared of leaving everything behind?”

“Every time.” I reach forward and feed a few small sticks into the fire to add heat and light into the darkness around us. “I was particularly scared of the idea of leaving Pensacola. I didn’t know the first thing about the desert, and I really didn’t want to leave Mrs. Laurette. I always called her my southern mom and I knew that I’d miss her and didn’t want to leave her behind.” It doesn’t sound like a laughing matter, but I have a broad smile on my face and shake my head. “And I remember what she said to me when I told her that after months of planning I wouldn’t be going. She looked right at me and said, “Rosie, there’s an awful big world out there and Pensacola don’t have all of it. If you don’t get out there and start looking at it now, too much time’ll pass and you’ll get old and not have seen a thing.”

For a long while, a silence sits between us. We watch the fire but my mind’s replaying the memories of the scene I’ve just described. It still sits fresh in my head, every detail vivid enough that it might as well have happened yesterday. Anna is the one that breaks the silence. “Is that your way of telling me that there’s a big world out there and Yuma doesn’t have all of it?”

“And that you’d better start looking at it now or before you know it, you’ll not have seen a thing.” I can hear her swallow. She’s processing something, and I can tell from her stiff bottom lip that she’s trying not to get emotional over it.

“What if…” she pauses, fishing for the correct way to pull her thoughts together. “What if I just go up there for a little while at first? You know, give Alaska a test drive and see if I like it? And if I do, maybe then I could stay?”

“I don’t think anyone would have objections to that.” The weight on her appears to lessen. She straightens up a bit and stretches her legs out. Her sandals sit at the edge of the fire and she nods her head. It appears that assurance was all that she was looking for. Maybe all she needed was confirmation to the fact that she wasn’t being shipped away regardless of her happiness. Neither John nor myself would ever force her to stay in a place that she wasn’t happy, but hearing it seems to ease her nerves.

“What about Mrs. Laurette? Wasn’t she lonely after you left?”

I think about this for a few minutes. It’s clear to me why she’s asking, and I’m not entirely sure how to go about answering. “I’ll miss you a lot, Anna, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go.” She looks at me again and gives me a small smile. I pull her into a brief hug and stand, running my hand through her thick hair. “Don’t forget to check your sleeping bag for snakes before getting to bed.”

She leans forward to pick up the dishtowel that’s fallen to the ground and offers it to me. “I always do.”

I haven’t been in an airport in years. I never liked to fly. I always preferred driving and seeing the scenery along the way. I stand in front of the security check point with Anna and I force back the urge to cry. It‘s there and it’s blatantly obvious. My bottom lip is stiff, and there is water collecting in my eyes that won’t go away no matter how much I will it to. I’d tried to come to terms with the empty feeling that I knew would hit me once she leaves, but no matter how hard I tried to prepare, it still feels completely out of my control.

“They’re really loud.” Her voice is quiet and it isn’t like Anna at all. She looks around briefly. I can see the anxiety that rests within her hazel eyes as they soak up something so very strange to her. I can only imagine what they’ll look like once she gets to see Alaska. Once she sees the mountains, when she’s surrounded by green trees and plants instead of dust and dirt. “Is it scary?”

“No, it’s exciting. The takeoff and landing are the best parts.” I hand her a pack of gum. It’s her favorite. It’s the gum that miraculously changes taste halfway through chewing it. “Make sure you chew this to keep your ears from popping.” Anna nods and looks back at me with a sad smile. She is on the verge of crying too and suddenly I don’t feel so bad. “And when you get there, make your dad buy you a really nice, heavy jacket.” It is still summer, but finding any article of clothing that has long sleeves is virtually impossible in our general store. Flannel is the closest thing I had been able to find, and something tells me that won’t work well in -40 degree weather.

“And you’re sure Jack will be okay?” That damn dog. He’s grown into a monster in the few months since she’s gotten him. He is easily close to or at the very least topping sixty pounds now, and he isn’t even finished growing. Finding a carrier to fit him for the flight was almost impossible.

I nod and just the smallest bit of relief is visible on Anna’s face. “He’ll be really happy to see you when you get to Anchorage. He’s meant to be someplace cold. He’ll run around with you all of the time in the snow and probably never get tired.” I’m convinced the only reason he ever stops running down here is because the heat overtakes him.

“There’s dad.” I look over and sure enough John is standing there. This time, he has a woman with him. She looks to be in her late thirties and has the brightest head of natural blond hair that I’ve ever seen. She looks about as nervous as Anna does, but by no means are there any red flags that instantaneously say to me that she’s a witch.

“I want you to keep this, okay Mom?” She reaches into her shoulder bag and removes her camping book. I buy her a new book every year from a local trader. He makes his own paper and binds it in leather that he makes himself. I bought her a new one to take to Alaska with her and the one that she offers me is from the last few trips we’ve taken. “You have to keep filling it up with stuff and send it to me, okay? And when I fill up my Alaska book, I’ll send it to you so you can see.”

It’s painful to do so but I smile, and it forces a few of those tears I was fighting off to slide down my cheek. “You should take this, too.” I reach into my pocket and reveal the ring that I’ve kept for twenty years, through marriage and divorce.  It’s hard for me to let it go, but it’s even harder for me to let her go. In comparison, the ring is nothing. “You’re old enough to take care of it now, and you know me. I never really wear jewelry anymore anyway.”

Anna takes it into her hands and looks it over. She’s lost in her own thoughts for now, but I know that she has to go through security and find her gate in order to board her plane in time. At least she won’t be on her own. She’ll have an entire flight to talk to her father and Jennifer about where she’ll be heading and what to expect. She suddenly snaps out of it and straightens herself up.

There’s a deep breath between the both of us and she hugs me so tightly that I almost can’t breathe. I cling to her for a long while and want to take it all back. I want to grab her, throw her back into the truck, and drive her straight back home. I want to pretend that this isn’t happening.

But thinking and doing are two different things. I step back as she braves a smile and tries to find the confidence that she’s so determined to portray. She turns from me and I watch through cloudy eyes as she walks from me and into the embrace of her father and her future.



The Healer

Kelli Rissky

President Delaney was sleeping with her neighbor again. Her excitement and guilt were exhausting as I leaned back in my chair, removing my hands from hers. She looked happy and peaceful now, not anything close to the emotional wreck she had been when she entered my office. It is a good thing too, as I suspected that she would be hosting another assembly for the Gathers soon. The President smiled as she thanked me for my time and left, shutting the door behind her.

As I reached for my water bottle, my camisole and denim skirt clung to my damp body. I pushed the hair away from my face as I quickly drained the bottle, savoring the rejuvenating taste of the pure, cool water. This was turning into a very long day. I stood, shaking slightly as I moved to my mirror. The raised silver and gold tattoos that usually highlight my eyes only seemed to amplify the exhaustion that clung to my body. My once pretty face was deathly pale and my eyes seemed sunken. Eight so far this week. Thankfully, I only had one more this afternoon, and after that I would be able to fall into my weekend slumber.

I turned away from the mirror and surveyed my office. It seemed like the perfect haven for anyone who was stressed or troubled. The light blue walls were painted in such a way that they appeared to be made of a calm ocean. I have an ornate, though useless, rock sculpture sitting on my desk; it usually soothes me to look at it, freeing my mind to wander after I have finished a purge. Right now, it does not help me; I am still agitated and filled with adrenaline from President Delaney’s affair.


I never wanted to be a Healer. I started transferring people’s feelings onto myself before I could even walk. It was not something that I had been programmed to do, like the others in my profession. I am a Natural; I am unique, and I am cursed.

My parents were delighted to find out about my “talent.” It is an honor to be chosen for the Healing profession, and being a Natural Healer is almost unheard of now. We are the best of the best – our minds automatically shifting the extreme feelings from others onto ourselves. We are called heroes, saviors, and the blessed. We allow our world to remain unblemished by rash actions, prejudice, and hatred; all we have to do is touch someone.

Carrying someone else’s feelings inside you is difficult. There is no control, no reasoning behind your emotions. We are excited for a date that we aren’t going on, we love those that we’ve never met, and we are filled with the indescribable joy of new baby without ever having given birth to a child. According to our medical teams, it takes a certain type of brain to be able to safely hold additional feelings. Normal people would go insane from the chaos in their mind.


I may be a Healer, but I still frequently feel run-down and overwhelmed. I clutch to the purges that give me joy. I remember one from my first years as a Healer, long before I had been promoted to The Core. There had been a young girl brought to me on her fourteenth birthday. She had been so excited, so full of life. I remember her black hair creating a wispy halo about her face. Her mother had needed to reprimand her several times after they entered my workspace, but this girl was too buoyant to care. As I purged her, I saw the wonders of her life – the wonders of being a child. I felt in her the presence of a Healer’s mind; there would be no doubt of her future occupation. She was so pure, so good-hearted, that it lightened my soul to brush against her emotions. She would make a good Healer someday.

After the purge had been completed, the girl was quiet. Her mother looked relieved and thanked me as she herded her daughter to the doorway. They were almost gone when I stopped them, asking the girl for her name. It was Molly.


Healers have to dump the excess emotions each day, using the durusmaters to discard the feelings and thoughts we have accumulated. It keeps us sane, healthy.

I am not certain when it was, exactly, that the durusmater stopped working for me. All of the data is still accessed and recorded, but not everything is erased from my mind. Certain memories hover in my subconscious and I dream of them at night. I wanted to ask someone about it, but I knew that I could not. This phenomenon was virtually unheard of, and I had learned in my History of Healing classes that “broken” Healers were discarded as soon as the Core caught wind of a problem. If they knew that I still remembered everything that I purged from them, there would be hell to pay.


I was only 26 when I was chosen to be the Core’s Healer. It was unprecedented. Until then each Healer chosen had been one of the Elders, well established and trained for at least ten years. I broke the record of being the youngest chosen by over twenty years. Since then, I have only worked with the Presidents, which is why the name “Mr. White” on my schedule today startled me.

He does not have the President title, and there is no Group listed after his name. He must be more than a standard civilian though; I only purge members of the Core.

I heard a soft knocking at my door and I say “Come in,” without turning around. The door opens behind me and I hear someone settle down on the leather couch. I gaze out the window for a few more seconds, trying to compose myself before I start working again. I plaster a weary smile on my face as I turn around,

“Hello, Mr. White. I’m —–“

My voice fails me as I stare at the man sitting before me: it’s him.


The first time I met Mr. White I was seventeen years old. It had been a day off from the Learning Center and I had been out shopping at the market when he had stopped me. He was an elegant man, tall with salt and pepper hair. His clothes were immaculate, and his face bore no marks of his work. He was beautiful.

My gift had only recently begun to bother me, and I was being particularly cautious on this shopping trip not to brush up against anyone. I had been shopping for some tuberosum when I saw the beautiful man across from me. I smiled tentatively at him, feeling uncomfortable at the way he looked at me. Instead of moving on to a new section, this gorgeous creature had walked right up to me.

“Hello, Iris.”

I had instinctively frozen. I did not know the man before me, and the way he spoke my name sickened me, despite his smooth tone.

“Um, hello, sir.”

I remember staring intently at the bag of carambola he held in his hand, desperately wishing that I could leave but not wanting to risk insulting him. The conversation that followed was mostly one-sided and felt rather like an interrogation. This man knew so much about me; my childhood, my grades at the Learning Center, he even knew that I had a cold several weeks before. Warning bells were going off in my mind so loudly that I couldn’t think straight.

His speech was soothing yet vile. Every attempt that I made to excuse myself he easily thwarted, intent on continuing our conversation. It was just when I thought that I should cry out for help that he suddenly broke off his speech.

“I’m so sorry, Iris. I shouldn’t be keeping you when you have an entire evening to yourself. How very selfish of me. You may run along now; I am certain we shall see each other again soon.”


Despite his promise, I had never seen that man again, until now. There was no mistaking the man who stood before me; he had not aged a day since I saw him in the market some sixteen years ago.

“I see you remember me.”

His rich, melodic voice broke my trance and I quickly shook my head to clear away the memories.

“Forgive me, Mr. White. You caught me off-guard. Shall we get started?”

I desperately needed to get this man away from me. My memory had not distorted the aura that came from this man; there was something about him that made me feel unclean. I wanted to get this purge over with as soon as possible, to be done with it.

Mr. White smiled as he stretched his hands out to take mine.

“Of course, Iris. I would like that very much.”


It’s a dangerous thing to poke around in other people’s heads. Our job is to remove extreme emotions, but as we do so we are able to glimpse the inner workings of each mind. This is startling at first, but we learn to ignore the trains of memory and push past them. It hurts to be in someone else’s mind. There is no privacy there, not anymore. After years of practice, I am able to keep expressionless as I sift through the information.

Now that I work for the Core, my purges have gotten significantly easier. The Presidents are able to withhold any emotions or visions from me, selecting what I am able to access and what they want to be kept secret. Most do not bother hiding from me. I am a great convenience to them, and they don’t know that I can remember anything after my mandatory visit to the durusmater. I know all of their secrets, all of their fears.


Mr. White’s conscious hit me like a victus truck. A shock ran through my body as his horrific, bloody visions came to me. Usually, we are able to nudge visions aside as we purge, but Mr. White’s came crashing down around me like a tidal wave. I couldn’t pull free from him.

The harder I tried to pull away from this dark, terrifying mind the more it pushed back at me; forcing me to delve deeper. I couldn’t breathe. There was so much blood, so many young girls. A sob chocked my throat as Mr. White suddenly pulled away from me.

“Interesting; I think that will be enough for today, Iris. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Through my tears, I could see him smiling to himself as he walked out of my office. My whole body was shaking as I tried in vain to stand; I retched into the small garbage can beside me.


What is it about the dark that gives us such fear? Is it not so much the dark itself as what might be lurking in the blackness? Something unholy that cannot show itself in the light of day? It is the unknown that troubles us; being able to put a name to our fears is half the battle.

Sometime, we encounter something even worse than the agony and death of everyday life; there is something sinister that lays just below the surface of some, deep-seated anger and twisted obsessions that control a few who walk among us.

You cannot tell who these people are by looking at them; they have no distinguishing marks. They are invisible, but surround you entirely. They are your neighbors, your teachers, your gardener, your friend. Many never acknowledge their presence, and some may not honestly know they exist. But others, the unlucky ones, know all too well. They have been caught unawares by the monsters that walk in the light; they were too busy looking for monsters in the shadows.

I have met a monster and I know his secrets.

But he also knows mine.


My visits from Mr. White became more torturous as the weeks went by- each image more graphic and horrifying than the last. I would wake each night screaming as the images coursed through my mind. I couldn’t stop seeing all the blood and pain and terror the spawned from Mr. White’s consciousness.

Each day, he would come into my office and I would have to endure a new brand of hell. There was no escaping it, no way to quit. I obsessed over him, over the images that jumped before my eyes.

The durusmater was no longer working at all. I could remember everything that Mr. White showed me; none of the details were spared. The hatred that I purged from him, the glory of his disturbances constantly threatened to overtake me.

I must be going mad.

I remember passing out one evening after a particularly bad day and having a dream come to me. It was about the Original Healer, Matrea. We had only briefly studied her in History of Healing, but I remembered that she had been a focus of study for our Scientists. Apparently, she had not been able to rid herself of visions- just like me. She had jumped out a thirty-eight story window.


At my request, I was able to take a four-day Renewal leave. Instead of going to the Healing Baths, I went to our History and Learning Center. I received strange looks as I entered the doors- Healers rarely are seen outside their sectors. The Core’s gold dots that surrounded my silver facial markings made me stand out further; I could see the Workers whispering as I entered.

I pulled up the Catalogue of Records and searched for Matrea’s documents. The pages flashed passed my eyes as I scanned the files on her; her Healings, her torments, and eventually the suicide report.

I was in a shock as I left the History and Records Center. Everything that I had read about Matrea could have easily been written about me. How could this be happening? Why wasn’t the durasmater working?

Over the coming months, I became obsessed with Matrea’s story- it was the only thing that pushed the Mr. White’s visions from my mind. And the suicide; her suicide tormented me, intrigued me.


My thirty-seventh birthday came and went, unnoticed by me. The Presidents in the Core had not said anything when they handed me papers indicating that I was being removed from the Core’s Healing position. Mr. White was my only client now, as ordered by the Core. I begged to be removed from the Healing rosters all together and was refused. Molly, that sweet birthday girl from years ago, became the new Healer for the Core. I didn’t see anything more of President Delaney, or any of them. The Artist showed up at my office and took the entirety of the afternoon removing the gold tattoos from my face. It must have been some new kind of record, a Core Healer losing her position before death.

None of this registered with me; none of it mattered. My weight dropped rapidly as my health deteriorated. The visions Mr. White provided haunted my days as well as my nights. This snake of a man tormented me with the demons he so readily shared. He gave them to me with a smile, as if my physical torture gave him the utmost satisfaction. Knowing his thoughts as well as I do, this was probably quite accurate.

My only escape from them was The History and Records Center. At some point, the Workers stopped staring at me- I think that I had become as fixed a feature there as the archaic fluorescent lights that hung from the ceiling.

The Chief Historian started to help me find more records on Matrea as I came in more and more frequently. It was he who found the box of diaries kept in the storage lockers.

Matrea had documented her entire life.

I was able to skim past most of the entries – I had no interest in her love life. It was on the forty-seventh book that I found what I was looking for:


March 16th, 2107

Something strange happened to me today. I was out walking Piper when I literally ran into the paper man, Joshua, on the street. I was just saying “Excuse me” when I had the strangest vision.  I was suddenly sad – I wanted to end my life. I think I must have fallen down, because the next thing I knew, Piper was licking my face and Joshua was peering down at me, asking me if I was all right. I wasn’t able to shake the depression all day. It was strange.


As I continued reading, more entries caught my eye.


April 25th, 2107

Joshua (the guy who works at the paper) killed himself today. I don’t know what to say. All I can think about is bumping into him last month. He had seemed so concerned when I tripped; he seemed like his caring and normal self. I can’t believe that he could have wanted to die.


February 3rd, 2108

I cannot keep my mind straight. I am feeling so many different things, all at once. I yelled at Piper today just for being near me. I cried for no good reason before lunch. I just seem out of control. I think I’m going to have to talk to Dr. Parsons again. The stress must be getting to me…


I virtually lived at the History and Records Center over the next few months. I read through all the years of Matrea’s journals, skipping over nothing.

She had no idea what was happening to her. There was a man following her now, showing up at her work and loitering around her house. She thought she was being paranoid. She kept writing things like, “He came back today. The doctor keeps upping my meds – but he is there! They aren’t listening to me; I am not crazy! There is something wrong. Why won’t he leave me alone?”

“Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am not crazy! I am normal. Why is this happening? Why can’t anyone help me?”

Matrea’s entries started to get further and further apart. She must have been on the antipsychotics by this point. It was hard to read, watching her lucidity slowly slipping away as the Gift dominated her being. It was growing late one evening when I found a small, leather notebook I had missed before. In it, the following was written:

“I think I found something today; I finally understand. The window is the key. I know what I have to do now. I will go there tomorrow night. I have to. Tomorrow will be the day. Tomorrow, I am free.”

I turned the page in the notebook with excitement filling me. She found something, a way to make it stop! But the next page was blank. I flipped through the remaining pages of the journal. There was nothing.

I sat back, perplexed. What had she found out? I read the entry again; over and over. It made no sense. Why didn’t she say what happened?

It was then that I noticed the date on her last entry: September 8th, 2120. Recognition swept over me as I read it – that was the day before Matrea had killed herself.

But why would she have killed herself? What did she find out?

I shook my head; she was probably just as insane as my History teachers had said. Something tickled the edge of my brain, a fleeting memory that was not my own. It was like waking from a dream and having the impression that I was supposed to remember something, but it was just beyond my grasp.

That night, for the first time in months, I had no sleep terrors. There were none of Mr. White’s visions to find my tormented mind. I dreamed instead of Matrea’s suicide.


For weeks, all I could think about was Matrea. I looked out my own glass pane, thinking and trying to find out what she had known just hours before her death. There was something I was missing. I poured over the now-worn entries, trying to make sense of them. Despite being in an unknown hell, Matrea had not been suicidal – not at the end. Why had she jumped?

I rubbed my eyes, her words still swimming before my eyes. As I opened them, I saw a brief flash of light outside. I went to the window and looked down. The flash came again, and all of a sudden, I knew why Matrea had jumped. I knew how to beat Mr. White and his visions.


The next morning, when he came into my office, I held Mr. White’s gaze as he sat himself in the chair opposite me. I saw a flicker of doubt cross his features as he noticed my newly regained confidence. He opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off:

“Good morning, Mr. White. Shall we begin?”

This time, it was me who was smiling as I took his hand.