Art by Mark Evan Walker
by Steve Hockensmith
Monday, December 31
Gas Leak Wipes Out Morgantown Family
The headline stared up at Paul as he knelt in the garage. A family stared up at him too. A mom, a dad, and a boy Paul’s age, all in shorts and T-shirts, at a picnic table, smiling.
Once they’d been just another family in the park. Now they were news.
Being news is never a good thing. Paul knew that from experience.
He folded the left side of the newspaper over so that it blotted out the parents.
“Like this, right?” he said. He folded the right side over, and the boy disappeared too. “Then this?”
The newspaper was now a tube about a foot long. Paul held it up to show the older kid hovering behind him.
“Got it on the first try,” said Dirk. He took another newspaper off the stack on the garage floor and plopped it in front of Paul. “Now do that fifty-four more times. Then the really crappy part starts.”
Dirk was right. The folding wasn’t that bad, though the garage was so cold Paul could see his breath, and ink from the newspapers smudged his numbing fingers. It was when he got up and opened the garage door that he knew, rather than suspected, that his first job was going to suck.
It was dark. It was cold. Snow was drifting down from the clouds to settle onto the six inches already covering the neighborhood. And though the road he and Dirk would be walking along had been plowed the day before, it was still coated in a layer of dirty gray slush.
Dirk looked this way and that as they stepped out onto the driveway. He was wearing a black ski mask and a parka with the hood up and puffy, pleated, insulated pants, all fashion crimes Paul would never commit no matter how cold it got. He was in a black-and-yellow stocking cap and a bulky jacket with the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on the back—both pulled from his father’s closet—and that was as tacky as he intended to get.
“This is the southeast corner of the route. Pain in the ass place to start,” Dirk said. He shrugged and pointed to the right. “Let’s go this way. You’ll figure out what’s best later.”
Dirk started down the road. All he was carrying was a small, three-ringed binder holding a stack of yellow notecards. Paul was wearing the bulging canvas bag with BRIDGEPORT HERALD-DISPATCH printed on it. It didn’t weigh that much despite all the papers stuffed into it, but it bumped off his left thigh with every step, tugging him off balance.
Dirk looked back at him. “You good at memorizing?”
“Some things,” Paul said. He’d just met this Dirk guy forty-five minutes before. He wasn’t going to say, “Directions, no. Poems and lyrics, yes.”
Dirk didn’t look like a poems-and-lyrics guy.
“Well, take this with you till you’ve got it all down,” Dirk said, giving the binder a shake. In it were names and addresses and payment records for every customer on his old newspaper route—the one Paul was taking over. “I didn’t need it after, like, a week.” He pointed at a small, one-story house with white lumps near the front porch that might have been snow-covered lawn gnomes. “Twelve thirty-three Briarcliff. The McNeals. Old and crabby. No tip at Christmas. That’s your first house. Go.”
And so it began.
They went up and down hills, winding along the curvy, tree-lined roads. As they trudged along, the sky’s dark, predawn gray brightened to a dull, cloud-muted pink, like cotton candy covered in gauze. Yet they saw no other living thing except the occasional sparrow or crow. Paul didn’t have much to say. Dirk did.
“The Erdmans. Watch out. Barky dog.”
“Mr. Loomis. Always stick his paper in the screen door, even on a nice day, or he’ll bitch.”
“The Gorleys. The kid’s a junior. Tricia. Snob, but a nice rack.”
Dirk was a talker, full of anecdotes about the customers and himself—the time he stumbled on an ancient stash of Playboys in the woods, the time he had to crap so bad he dropped trou in someone’s backyard—but he only asked about Paul once.
“Damn, it’s cold,” Paul had said as they walked along the little length of highway—West Virginia Route 131—that separated the first twenty-
something deliveries from the second.
“Yeah. Duh. December,” Dirk replied. “You’re new here, right? I haven’t seen you around.”
“I used to live with my mom in Florida. But then . . .”
Paul sighed. It was a sigh he could see—a little cloud of regret that puffed from him, then swirled in the wind and dissipated.
“I had to come live with my dad,” Paul said. “He’s the one who’s making me do this.” READ MORE
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
by Stacy Woodson
Marcella knew agreeing to watch her niece had been a bad idea. She was good at fixing engines, but fixing kid issues—not so much.
“It’s only six months. How bad could it be?” Marcella tried, hoping logic would work with an eight-year-old.
“It’s only six months, this time,” Lucy said, her words muffled behind the door. She’d managed to squeeze herself into a linen cabinet in the master bathroom, in an effort to hide from school, life—something. Marcella wasn’t sure the exact reason, except that her mother’s recent deployment to Afghanistan was part of it.
“At least open the door, kiddo.” Marcella’s eyes drifted to the mint-green tile above the bathroom sink, and she remembered the brake job on the mint-green Maverick at the garage. If this continued much longer, she’d be late for work and her niece would be late for school.
Her niece sniffled. Then finally, she pushed the door open. Her legs were tucked to her chest. The Denim to Diamonds Barbie Doll, a doll that once belonged to Lucy’s mother, was clutched in her hand.
“Look on the bright side. At least you don’t have to stay with Grandma,” Marcella said. “No canned asparagus with dinner. No trips to the senior center. Of course, if you miss watching Wheel of Fortune . . .” She winked, tried to coax a smile.
Lucy’s eyes remained fixed on the doll—the denim jacket perfectly tailored, the hair perfectly smoothed. It was the only thing that seemed to have order in Lucy’s perfectly broken world. Her bottom lip trembled.
And a piece of Marcella died inside.
She sat on the bathroom floor next to Lucy, pulled the little girl from the cabinet onto her lap, and wrapped her arms around her, desperately trying to think of something to cheer her up.
What would make an eight-year-old happy?
Marcella knew her own childhood wasn’t the best place to look for answers. She was an introvert. Solitary activities, like riding skateboards or turning wrenches on go-karts, had made her happy. But Lucy wasn’t the kind of kid who liked those things.
“I’m sorry, kiddo. The situation sucks.” Marcella went with the truth because she didn’t know what else to say.
A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek.
Marcella’s heart broke again. And there was anger. Not toward her niece, but at her sister—at the mistake she’d made trusting Lucy with her. Marcella knew zilch about kids, and despite living in proximity to Fort Bliss, she hadn’t exactly been a fixture in her niece’s life.
Not that it mattered. None of it did. The only thing that mattered, now, was Lucy. Marcella needed to figure out a way to cheer her up before school.
She tried to imagine what her sister would do. Her mind went to pictures she’d seen on Facebook. Lucy’s happiest moments seemed to be when she was surrounded by kids her own age. “Why don’t you invite a few friends over after school? We’ll eat ice cream. Find something fun to do.”
Lucy’s face brightened. “Really?”
More eight-year-olds. Thinking about it made Marcella’s palms sweat.
“Sure,” she said, with more confidence than she felt, just grateful Lucy wasn’t crying anymore. She lifted Lucy off her lap, and they both stood. She tugged a Kleenex from a box on the bathroom sink and dabbed Lucy’s cheeks.
“Now, we better hurry, or you’ll miss the bus.”
They rushed through her sister’s house, looking for Lucy’s backpack. Marcella opened the hall closet, went for the light switch, and was zapped—the electric shock mild, yet still enough to make her grimace. It seemed like nothing was updated in the 1950s house, including the electrical. She made a mental note to put duct tape over the screws on the switch plate and call an electrician.
She turned her attention back to the bottom of the closet, found the backpack tucked behind a gym bag, and they headed to the door.
Outside, mid-twentieth-century Spanish-style homes with concrete yards and palm trees lined the street. It was El Paso’s hot season. The kids wore shorts and T-shirts, including Lucy. The bus was already at the curb, kids piling inside.
“Look at Lucy. Playing with dolls,” a boy snickered while pointing at the Barbie still in Lucy’s hand.
Marcella shot the boy a look that could melt car wax. She glanced back at Lucy, hoping she wouldn’t slide into that dark place again. But Lucy didn’t seem affected by it. She was actually smiling.
And Marcella felt a flicker of hope.
The morning had started out rocky, but they’d managed to get through it. Lucy seemed fine, now. Nearly happy. Maybe Marcella could handle this kid thing after all. READ MORE