What the War Was Not by Kate Gaskin

1.

Letters, weeks filing past
between them, long-necked like vees

of geese. Which outpost?
Which outpost?
 You pouring sand

from your boots, your damp shirt
like another skin against 

your skin. You didn’t bring back
photos of the confetti 

bombs made of the building’s
rebar. I never had to imagine

the child’s foot severed
in the roadway. You never flinched. 

I never waited by the phone
for a year to catch 

a few ten-minute calls lobbed
like baseballs from across the sea.

2.

Omaha like Hoth like the ice
castles of Erhenrang, tunnels of it
white        white

in the morning sun, the graveyard
beside our house        unmoored
headstones in a pale

body, undone. You somewhere
in Anbar swatting at flies
on the flight-line. Just outside 

the gate, a father
pushing his son in a wheelbarrow,
the back of his head

just gone.

3.

I didn’t receive your letters
sweetheart sweetheart

sweetheart. You didn’t leave
me at the airport

on Valentine’s Day. I didn’t fall
and hit my head

on the toilet baby’s cries baby’s cries
or peer over hospital sheets,

IV lines, our friends holding
our son. There was no mastitis, no

antibiotic regimen, no mammograms, 
no needles drawing fluid

from my breasts. You were not
beside a dumpster behind Taco

Bell. You did not
tremble in the desert. 

You did not beg
me to stay.

4. 

I woke up on Bayou St. John
beneath the live oaks

and frisbees, the baby
asleep in his car seat. I nursed
in the cab 

of my father’s truck and read
your letters. 

You said
you’d seen the inside
of a heart, the inside 

of two cows, the red inside
of your eyelids

illuminated near-pink,
those mornings in your tent
when sleep left you.

5.

There were no men
in service dress walking up

the front steps to our house
in Omaha, no house,

no baby, no bedroom
lit blue from snow, no chilies 

ground fine
in bowls. There was no 

flag, no thirteen-fold, or sheep
skinned and drained 

into buckets. You weren’t
over a radio

tower in your plane
with no

ejection seat, no parachute
your radio radio. The streets 

of the market
were not damp with blood.

The streets of the market
were not.

The Replacement Wife by Blair Hurley

The job is simple, your prospective employer explains, tapping her fingers together, elbows on her polished minimal desk. You will have no problem carrying it out, and we will take good care of you.

You’re not sure what you expected when you found the ad online: just another cleaning job, perhaps, or home health aid position, helping old folks get a lunch together, washing their hair gently in a bathroom sink. When your cousin came to America a year ago she said there were plenty of jobs like these, jobs that preferred immigrant women because they were quiet, they were uncomplaining, they performed labor that American women did not like to do and had family values American women did not like to think about. You’re not sure that you have these values she speaks of, but the work sounds easy enough.

Now you are in the cluttered second-floor office of a company called Home Companion Solutions in a drab wet suburb of Boston. In winter here the people around you are pasty and clay-colored, their shapeless coats black or charcoal or somber blue. You didn’t realize, after being here only a month or two, how you would miss azure, magenta, buttercup. Your mother, a painter, taught you hundreds of words for colors, and you love to recite them in your mind, taste them like flavors on your tongue.

The job requires little training, your employer explains.

You lean forward, eager to appear eager, knotting your fingers over your bag. Just what will my responsibilities be? You ask as politely as you can. While there has been talk of salary, you’re still not sure what you will actually be doing.

The woman smiles. A big lipsticked grin, confident, effortless. She has run through this routine before, and you have asked your question at exactly she moment she expected. Our clients are mostly men, she says, and they are looking for a service that has a high degree of personalization. If you’re interested, I’ll have you shadow a girl today and see if you like the work. It’s vital, the work that we do.

You feel a chilly sweat on the back of your neck. This does not sound like the kind of job you thought it was; this was what your mother warned you about, when you said that you had to go. You’ll end up in a hotel room, handcuffed to the bed, she wailed. I know how these things work. I know how those Americans are.

You were too smart and brave to listen to her fears. But now you are the one who is afraid. Your employer, whose name you have forgotten in the nervous panic of introducing yourself, comes around the table and lays a cool hand on your head the way a mother would, straightening your unpinned braid that has come loose. “I take good care of my girls,” she says. She slips you a card for a hair braiding salon that she has heard is good. She takes a look at the stiff office wear you have borrowed for this interview. “Wear something a little more relaxed, more feminine,” she says. You notice she is wearing a sleek red sheath.

You still don’t quite understand what is going on. But you suppose that you can always walk away.

*

Hana meets you outside the building an hour later. She is small and pale and wears a flowery headscarf. She is older than you but the scarf makes her look even older, setting her back a generation or two. “You’ll want to iron your hair,” she says, appraising. “They like it better that way.”

“They?”

“Our clients. They’re — what do you call? Old-fashioned.”

You ride in silence in her rattling old Chevy, passing all the little fishermen’s houses, the clapboard duplexes with creaking porches, the lawns still shadowed with gray snow. “I start three years ago,” she said. “Is a good gig.” She keeps her eyes on the road; her mouth is drawn downward in Slavic stoicity. Her accent strong, making her voice sound thick and milky. “When you came?” she asks.

“Just a few months ago.”

“But your English is good.”

You try to explain that English is spoken in your country. Americans always find it so hard to believe, with your accent, your hair and skin. They don’t know where to place you. They don’t know what you know.

You wonder what you have gotten yourself into. But something is preventing you from asking Hana to stop driving, to get out and walk away and find a chambermaid job in a hotel. It might be curiosity. It might be that you want to understand what these Americans are all about, and the strange things they get up to.

Hana parks in front of a nondescript house on a quiet street in Beverly. In the neighboring yards there are kids’ tricycles and see-saws half-buried in snow, but this house looks more desolate. The walks haven’t been shoveled; the curtains are drawn. “Stay quiet and follow my lead,” she says.

“What are we doing?”

“Is different for every client. You’ll see.”

Together, you walk to the door. Hana pulls out a ring of keys, squints at the labels, chooses one and turns the lock.

Inside is the typical New England house you are coming to know: dark creaking hallway, flower-carpeted stairs right in your face as you enter, little front room crowded with furniture. Pictures jammed on the walls and little doilies of Irish lace on the arms of the sofa. Sitting in an armchair with a magazine is an elderly man. He looks up and closes the magazine on his lap.

You are surprised when Hana blows past him down the hall, only chirping a quick, “I’m back. This is my friend.” She is heading for the kitchen like she owns the place, this little mint-green vintage gem, rummaging in the fridge. You pause for a little wave. The man nods. “Hello.”

“You said you would shovel the walk. Now shoes are ruined,” Hana barks from the kitchen. And in the same breath, “I’ll make you sandwich.” She is slapping together something on a plate, turkey on rye, spreading butter lavishly on one side.

“I’m sorry, dear.” The man is in the doorway. He putters to the sunny kitchen table, still reading his magazine; the plate with the sandwich appears at his right hand, along with a glass of ginger ale; he eats one-handed, never looking up. The whole time, Hana hectors him about this and that. You left towels on the floor. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the man around here, you are supposed to keep the walk shoveled and the grass mowed. Lord knows she does everything else around here. You watch in a stunned silence. You’ve seen the badgering style of some nurses before; at home they tutted at you when you cried as your broken arm was set, and the stern treatment made you feel a little better. But this just seems like purposeless nagging, the kinds of things wives do with years of familiarity. There is nothing medicinal about this exchange. But the man eats his sandwich in a content silence, basking in the glow of Hana’s impotent rage.

When the sandwich is done, she takes the plate and washes it, all without letting up her verbal assault; she helps him back to his chair. Then the three of them sit on the couch and she flips through a magazine, commenting unfavorably on each new movie star’s dress. He nods along until the nodding becomes deeper and deeper and finally he is asleep.

Hana stops talking. She pulls the magazine gently from his hand and covers him with a blanket. And then she motions for them to go.

*

Why did you treat him like that? you say when you are back on the road.

That is what the job is, she says. Though of course, every client is different. They don’t want a nurse. Most of them don’t need one; he is one of my oldest. See a few more, before you decide.

At the next house, Hana again pulls out the ring of keys, again barges in the door without knocking. But this time, no one is home. She walks through another dark house. She peels a banana and eats it, then she leaves the peel on the counter. She leads the way upstairs. “This one, he likes the smell of a woman,” she says. In the master bath, she sprays some perfume around the bath from the bottle that is waiting for her on the back of the toilet. She opens the shampoo bottle, dollops a little on a towel, and smears it in the walls of the shower. Then she pats the same damp towel on one of the pillows of the bedroom. Now you are beginning to understand.

“They’re widowers, all of them,” Hana at last explains in the car. “Poor men, they like to pretend. Some of them want their woman, some of them want any woman.” She drives fast and jerky like most Boston drivers, mashing a cigarette into the cupholder, swinging one-handed around a turn. There are far more houses to get to, more lonely people to soothe. She tells you, men are creatures of fantasy, and women are creatures of reality. Men love fantasy. Whether it is the fantasy that a woman, someone younger and lovelier, will love them, or that the woman they’ve grown accustomed to is still there.

“They’re not crazy,” she says. “They know I’m not who they look for. But is nice, for a while, to pretend.”

You get coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts and sit in the car in the ticking silence of the cooling engine, learning the silent way that New Englanders communicate, looking straight ahead instead of at one another. This is another form of the indirect love that the men favor: affection in folded laundry and de-crusted bread, in rehashing old arguments, in smell and sound and shadow. “So you can do the job?” asks Hana.

You aren’t sure. You think they are still a little crazy, no matter what Hana says.

*

By next week you have your own beaten-up car bought in an advance on your first paycheck and your own ring of keys. Your employer says she will start you off easy, with a handful of no-show clients. These are the ones that don’t even need to see you; they just want evidence of a woman’s presence in the house. You are given a detailed write-up of each house, when to come and what to do, when it is permitted to improvise. You treat your hair so it will lie flat and get your own fleet of black stockings. Still not sure if you are nurse or maid or actress. Your first client of the day, you huff up a third-floor walkup in Somerville to a messy, tiny apartment packed with thrift store furniture and signed baseballs under glass. You are not to touch those baseballs under any circumstances. But you are to sit in the ratty armchair by the television long enough to leave an imprint, and perfume from a spray bottle. Out of curiosity (it takes a while, leaving a good imprint), you turn on the television in front of you. It is tuned to the porn channel. Of course. You grew up in a Catholic country where such things are not quite so easy to see. You watch, fascinated, as the bodies churn against each other, something mechanized and dull about it. No one’s heart rate seems to be going up. The women’s bodies are sprayed an unnatural color. The men’s are bizarrely angled and muscular. They take the women almost casually, as if bored. You realize the camera is not on them, is not designed for them. It’s all about the women there, lapping up their simulated pleasure with its lidless eye.

You lose track of time, watching.

Your second client wants a meal wrapped in plastic waiting in the fridge. You sing while you cook the way your mother does, humming old folk songs amiably; this seems like real work. The first week you make saffron rice and jerk chicken for him, and receive a note on your evaluation requesting “less ethnic” food. They want a dry flavorless chicken breast and a soft pile of white rice, or roast beef and a clammy boiled potato. It is all about the fantasy of the normal.

You get a panicked email from your employer after two weeks of work. Can you play piano? This new client is your trickiest. You have to be in the back room playing the piano when he returns from work; you must listen, playing, for the slam of the door and the jingle of keys. He

wants to hear the music as he’s hanging up his coat, and imagine for that brief time that she is there. He will wait there and not advance down the hall. After playing for a minute or so, you will slip out the back door and away.

All your brothers and sisters were sent to the same old lady down the road who had a piano; all of you had to learn Mozart and Chopin. Your mother thought it would help you get into the good private school in the city, and didn’t understand that you had to know someone, or be a general’s child, to get there. Like so many of her hopeful plans, it amounted to nothing.

He never wants to see you, your employer said. Not even the back of your head. He wants to keep her as a ghost in his house.

It’s cruel, isn’t it? you asked. You’d gotten to like your employer, this smoothly assured woman who has found a need and is exploiting it so well. Now when you received a new client and talked over the write-up, you bantered and joked together. These silly men. Is this what they miss most about their wives? Is this? Did they even know them, really? Is it just the smell and feel of a warm body that they miss?

Your employer shrugged. It’s his choice, the way he wants to remember her. Maybe they were always a room away from each other.

All you know about your client is what you can glean from the house itself. You poke through the framed photos on the mantle: a man with salt-and-pepper hair, standing in a yard full of leaves, rake in hand. A woman on a sailboat, squinting good-naturedly. There is only one photo of them together, arm in arm, looking awkward and well-dressed. You stare into it. You have always been curious, even when it didn’t serve your interests to be. That’s what your mother said.

You set about playing a song from the roster he has requested: Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Baby stuff, really. Your fingers move down and back, down and back across the keys; your body remembers this. You are in the steamy room of your neighbor’s house, watching the cat shake its tail as it slides through the beaded curtain, getting a rap on the wrist for not paying attention. The details exact and aching.

There is the sound at the door, the stamp of his feet on the tile, the keys. You play for a minute more, the hair standing up on your neck. Now you are the object of someone else’s painful fantasy.

You nearly fall out of your shoe leaping up, half-trip as you scramble out of the room, through the kitchen, out the back door and away.

Now the day’s job is done; time to go to your apartment and eat leftovers, watch American TV with your roommate studying for her health aide certification. You wonder if you should be studying for something too. You’re not sure if anything will happen next, as long as you refuse to make anything happen.

*

Winter deepens; dirty snow piles on the sidewalks. You watch porn in the armchair of the baseball man, you cook bland Irish meals and leave them in the fridge. For the piano man, you try to vary up the staid list of songs he has selected. You buy a cheap electric keyboard for your apartment and a book of Debussy and work on your technique. Now when you hear the jingle of keys, you’re off into The Children’s Hour or Clair de Lune. You you remember your old neighbor grumbling about passion. She would not let her students play certain pieces unless she thought they had enough feeling. Well, here is your passion. You pound out a work, and go over time, knowing he is standing still, he is listening.

Sometimes you meet Hana for coffee when you both have a job downtown. She is getting tired of all the driving, the irregular hours that the job requires. She has a daughter in kindergarten and the girl has learned at five years old to walk home with a key on a string around her neck. “I don’t like it,” Hana says. “She is too young.”

You nod. At home, you were running home from school at five, but you had your brothers there, and the village was tiny, every face was known to you, every house had an unlocked door. Here a little girl walking home would pass a dozen strangers or more; she would have to learn so young not to smile.

Hana passes a hand over her eyes. “My old one died,” she said.

This is a loss of a client, which is too bad, but you can see that Hana is genuinely affected.

“Grumpy old bugger,” she says, and stirs her coffee.

“Do you get attached?” you ask.

“Sometimes. Not with no-shows.”

You are beginning to realize that you will only be getting no-show work. Too many of these old widowers do not want to see you and think wife. They would find round and circuitous ways to complain to your employer.

You vacuum, leaving shadowy tracks in rugs. You leave brown paper bags on counters with sandwiches inside. You spray yourself with another woman’s perfume and lie in strange beds, rumpling the sheets.

In one house in the suburbs, you are asked to go into a child’s room and neaten up the toys, putting one ragged stuffed bear on the pillow. He wants you to line up the shoes and leave a note on the desk that says Have a great day, pumpkin-head! You write carefully, and then wonder what he’s playing at.

This bedroom is so full of toys you’ve never seen: princess dolls and plastic figurines and jewel-cases with turning ballerinas. This was the richie-rich bedroom of American children you sometimes pictured when you were drifting off to sleep. You want to touch everything: the model horses with brushable hair, the building blocks in their tempting pile.

One day you linger too long and hear the door open downstairs. That’s all right, though; now that you’re a veteran no-show, you’ve learned to mark out your exits beforehand. You slip into the sewing room over the back stairs. This room is dark and cold; it hasn’t felt a person’s presence in months. You see a colorful paisley print still half in the sewing machine.

You hear him talking to his daughter, their chatter bright and nonsensical, the private code of a parent and child. Now they’re coming up the stairs. The father exclaims. “Look, Mommy’s left you another note.” You listen to the little girl slowly read your foolish letter, and tears burn the corners of your eyes. “She’s still here,” the father says. “See? She’s listening to you.” You’re surprised by your sudden, unconscionable rage. You did not think you would be used in this way.

*

You meet with your employer and ask to be taken off the job. “That’s not what I signed up for.” You sit very upright in your chair. You don’t want to be seen as difficult.

The employer folds her hands on the desk, showing her gleaming red nails. “You provide comfort. You soothe.”

“That’s not comfort. That’s a lie.” When you were young you went to chapel with all the other children and learned about heaven and hell, and thought for a little while how just and right it all seemed. Then your mother told you that it was a very nice, convincing, well-meaning lie. It made people feel better when they were lonely and scared and didn’t want to think about going to sleep forever and never waking up, but that was all it was: a lie.

“Of course it is,” your employer says. “Isn’t that what you’re doing with the others?” You find you cannot articulate the difference between the father, and the man listening to

you play the piano. “They know that it’s not really true,” you say finally. “Isn’t it just a game?” The employer sighs. “I don’t know.”

She tells you, she used to think everyone understood what was real and what was fake. It was just a game of pretend, wasn’t it, to stave off the loneliness for a little while. Like imagining for a while that the wife has just stepped away. There is her place at the table, there is her half-full glass, soon she’ll return with the pie—what is the harm in indulging in that wistful fantasy?

“But there have been incidents,” she said. “There was a client who got confused. He started begging the girl to stay the night, to do more and more. I cancelled the arrangement, but the man found out where my girl lived. He followed her to her house.”

“What happened?” You have a right to know, don’t you? But the employer is suddenly brusque.

“What do you care? You don’t know her. We have screening in place now, for clients.” She reaches out and holds your hands with her more beautiful hands. “You don’t have to question what these people want for their lives.”

*

Maybe your employer is right, you think, at home watching Jeopardy! while your roommate weeps on her phone. She can’t afford a ticket home for Christmas.

These funny Americans defy easy judgment. You’d heard coming here how no one cared for the old people, and hired out strangers to do the job for them; but you didn’t expect the wheelchair ramp at every city sidewalk corner. You’d heard about the sinister white-robed racists, the police officers with hands on their guns; but you hadn’t known about the people who volunteered to shepherd frightened women through the doors of clinics, to see them through the scorn and scrutiny like mothers.

You play pieces on the piano that do not comfort or soothe. You switch to jazz and blues, stomp out riffs that throb with longing. Then under the sound of the keys you hear the piano man whistling; he knows this one. You stop, heart pounding, and flee.

*

Hana insists you come to her house for Christmas Eve dinner. You wear all your thrift store layers and bring a hot tray of spiced rum cookies. You wonder how many of your sisters are pulling the same recipe out of the oven now, their houses alive with sounds of children and relatives, every voice known.

You are let up into a hot, steamy apartment crowded with religious icons and children’s toys. Hana shouts hello over the clanking radiators. She’s all warmth and laughter now, hustling you into the room, exclaiming over your limp cookies. A little hand comes up from hip height and investigates the cookies, selecting the largest; it’s Hana’s daughter, wearing reindeer antlers and white little girl’s tights.

Hana’s husband comes out of the cramped galley kitchen and shakes your hand. Somehow you assumed Hana was a single parent, toughing it out alone. On all your coffee dates she seemed so resolutely independent. Even when she and Matvey stand together in the room now, discussing what dishes have to come out of the oven, they never touch or look at each other. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or maybe it’s just how their relationship works.

Why did your mother never tell you there were so many ways to be in love?

You lean close to Hana while drying dishes. “Did you ever get close to a client? Really close?”

Hana looks around quickly. “Don’t tell Matvey. Once there was a client who tried to make me get into bed with him. He said, ‘What am I paying you for, if not to be a wife?’ He took off all his clothes, right in front of me!” Hana scoffed. “I give him a good slap and walk out. If you get a troublemaker, don’t put up with nonsense!”

You nod, and swallow, and don’t say that’s not what you meant.

*

At the piano man’s house, he has scribbled a note at the top of your sheet music. I love jazz piano. Do you know Herbie Hancock? Beside that is a new piece of music. You try a few bars, hesitantly, feeling out the unfamiliar rhythm. This is no Chopin; it’s syncopated but smooth. Then the key is in the lock. Still, you keep playing the new song, leaping up the octaves. You take twenty minutes learning it, your excitement growing, and he waits the entire time, listening.

*

At the house in the suburbs, you come early. No one is home; you slip into the cold sewing room and put your foot on the pedal. There is the sketched-out plan for a skirt in the paisley print, child-sized. A modern woman always delights a man when he discovers she possesses traditional skills, your mother said. You ease the fabric through the chugging machine. This mother had a playful taste in clothes; you saw the bright colors in the girl’s closet, not typical for this city of navy blue and gray. For a little while, you imagine you are making the skirt for your own daughter. Wouldn’t she look lovely, kicking up her heels in her run to school?

You are just holding up the skirt to the light to check the hem when the door of the sewing room opens. You freeze: the little girl is poking her head around the door. Downstairs, you can hear the father rustling about, pressing buttons on the microwave.

Before the girl can speak, you put a finger to your lips. “Ssh. Look, I made this for you.” I hold out the skirt.

She looks at it uncertainly.

“Your mother wanted you to wear it.” You stand up, gathering your things as quickly as you can. “Don’t tell your Daddy I was here, okay? It’s a secret.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m — like the tooth fairy, okay? Yes?”

The girl frowns, not buying it. “That’s not true. Tell the truth.”

You feel that is what you must do. “Your Daddy asked me to write you notes now that your Mommy is gone. He didn’t want you to feel sad. But you must pretend that it’s your Mommy leaving them.”

The girl thinks about this, fingering the skirt. “Why?”

“He loves you very much, and he worries about you. He wants you to be all right.” You stand up and pat her on the head. You can hear the quiet downstairs; you have to leave, now.

You think about how all you kids figured out Santa Claus wasn’t real years before your mother was ready to let it go; and out of kindness, you kept up the charade. That’s what children do, sometimes: they spare their parents sadness.

You aren’t surprised when your employer calls you into her office and says that the account has been cancelled. “Did something happen?” she asks.

You shake your head. You wonder how long the girl decided to keep up the lie for her daddy, or how long she was able to.

Your employer taps one long-nailed finger on a folder. “I’m not pleased with your performance. Another one of your clients wanted to cancel. He’s on the fence.”

“Who?”

She pushes the folder across the desk to you. It’s the piano man. You sit back, stunned; you thought you understood each other. Some weeks, as the winter light fades and you get fewer and fewer emails from home, he is all that you look forward to. “Why?”

Your employer shrugs. “He said something about it getting too personal. You need to respect your clients’ boundaries. You give them just a taste of what they want, you understand? Then you leave.”

You shake your head. “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.”

She frowns, but she is not angry; she is concerned, she wants to help you, to protect you from harm. “Why not?”

In the snowy parking lot of the building, you try to light a cigarette and miss a few times because your hands are shaking. You thought you had made one connection, just one, in this lonely buttoned-up city. But you are the one who is mistaken; you’d forgotten that this was just a game, after all, a financial transaction. All those funny things that Americans are willing to pay for.

You thought — you thought—

*

What was it your mother said when you told her you had to leave? Your sisters were married too young, settled into their lives. But you wanted something different. Fine, go be a stranger somewhere, she said. And it began as a fight but ended as a blessing, as so many things with your mother did. Go on, and don’t come back, she said. She always understood you best, and that was why she worried. But still, she let you go away.

All These Apocalypses by Eliza Smith

For a week in the summer, I sell soda and melted trail mix to the bicyclists who limp over to my tent, their calf muscles spotted with dried mud, tailbones bruised like bullied peaches. These otherwise reasonable adults have gotten it into their heads that biking 240 miles across Missouri is something one should experience—something one might enjoy experiencing—during the hottest June on record.  

The cyclists are riding the Katy Trail, which follows the abandoned corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. It’s an idyllic route, twisting alongside the Missouri River, threading through miniature towns one would otherwise never think to visit. One stretch, the part the cyclists cover on the first day, intersects with the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. I’ve been hired to sell refreshments at each stopping point, usually a park that transforms into camping grounds overnight.

In the mornings I wake early and drive along the bike route to our next destination, trying to memorize each dip and turn, the borrowed and divine town names: Portland, Defiance, Providence. In a few weeks I’ll move out of state for the first time, and I want to remember all of it. Oftentimes the trail is only a dirt path, exposed to the road, and I recognize some of the riders. But then it disappears behind trees or bluffs, not resurfacing for miles. I am always relieved to see the cyclists emerge, to know the tunnels of flora have not swallowed them whole.

Some forty-eight days later, my friend A goes for a run by herself on the piece of Katy Trail that sweeps through the college town where we met. She’s just left work, and her partner is traveling, so she goes alone. Not far into her run, she sees a man who looks out of place. He’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and a backpack hangs from his shoulders. We will never know the contents of the bag, though the police will guess at an object like a rubber mallet.

***

For a time, A’s father called me “the prophet.” This had less to do with any psychic abilities on my part as it did with his blundering pronunciation of my name—what should have been Eliza pronounced as Elijah. The moniker became a running joke between A and me, one of the many gags in our two-person comedy troupe.

There were moments when I did seem to capture a clairvoyant thought. I might dream of someone I hadn’t spoken to in months, only to bump into them the next day. My mother phoned frequently, and over the years I developed a sixth sense about when she was calling with bad news. These were minor intuitions, but they played into our game, so we pinned more significance to them than was due.  

I didn’t bother telling A about the unsettling thoughts preoccupying me in the days after my move to Ohio. The house I’d rented sight unseen was massive, at least to my standards. Built nearly a century ago, the hardwoods creaked suggestively and lighting was sparse, so at night I locked the door of my attic bedroom and willed myself unconscious until morning.

When A asked how it was going, I said fine, just unpacking. My premonitions felt too paranoid to disclose: I was convinced something terrible was going to happen to me, something violent. For ten days, I contemplated what it might be.

My only comfort was the knowledge that most attacks on women are carried out by someone they know, and I was alone. Besides, I reminded myself, I was no prophet.

***

A found me six years ago through my Craigslist ad seeking a roommate. We met in the university library to discuss the three-bedroom house I’d already rented for the next school year. I’ll be the one in the obnoxious flowery shirt I’d texted. Our first conversation was awkward but amenable. We said goodbye and moved in together four months later. 

The story goes that we didn’t become friends until winter—not until the snowstorm that stranded us for five days straight, during which we paraded a plate of brownies around our house in a gratitude ceremony, visited A’s friend in the neighborhood who had a stash of weed and colorful collection of bongs, heard the refrigerator speak to us and decided to create our own house religion based on the first commandment, “No more tuna,” a thinly veiled jab at my weekly casseroles.  

We were roommates for two years and lingered in town for another four after graduation, living alone at first, then with partners. We worked the same shitty mortgage job, though I eventually quit for graduate school and she to work on a produce farm. In a college town the population is always on rotation; while the majority of our friends moved on, we held down the fort, feeling older every year, carving out our own spaces. 

Before I left for Ohio, A came over to replace all the mini-blinds in my house, which my cat had shredded out of cat-love. Afterward, we sat cross-legged on the floor of my empty living room while I presented her with parting gifts: one half-empty bottle of Bailey’s, several nineties cassette tapes, a flowerpot I’d used as a doorstop, a Bingo set made with catchphrases from our favorite TV shows. Also included was a card I’d picked up while traveling the Katy Trail, its message a perfect summation of our friendship: “I feel like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I got turned into a zombie and you didn’t, you’re the kind of friend that would lock me in the basement and feed me rats.”

“I would totally do that,” A said. She shoved a crumpled yellow bag toward me. Inside was a framed print of Missouri and a glass that looked familiar.

“Wait—did you steal this?” It was a pint glass from a local bar we loved. I’d attempted to swipe one months earlier as a keepsake, but nerves interceded and I lifted a generic version by mistake.

“Yep,” she said. “When my parents were visiting.”

I tucked the stolen gift in a basket of miscellany that hadn’t made it on the moving truck: a box cutter, refrigerator magnets, the palm-sized pot of succulents A gave me when I finished my master’s degree. As we stood to leave for my goodbye dinner, A broke the deck of Bingo cards in two, handed me half. 

“So we can play together,” she said. 

***

Would you believe me if I said it rained that night, and well into my moving day? Perhaps you’d find that heavy-handed, too convenient a foreshadowing technique. But it did. 

In the morning, the lawn sprinklers kicked on, and I carried the last of my things through the double downpour to my car. I snuck out of town, feeling neither liberated nor eager to resettle over five hundred miles away, just certain that I would miss something. The sudden death of an elderly relative, my niece’s first broken bone. I had spent my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, but at least I was always close enough to retrieve the shoe.  

Is that how this metaphor goes? 

***

On the evening A is attacked, I stay out past dark. I go to a reading downtown and send A a picture of the high-rises that line the street where I am attempting (and failing) to park. I meet a local woman my age who has a cute dog and is writing a young adult fantasy novel. I consider texting A to celebrate making a new friend but decide against it. The readers all read poems. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, but they surprise me and I enjoy myself. Afterward I meet up with a woman in my program and her husband. They take me to their neighborhood bar and I order fried macaroni and cheese and drink cider and we talk about our mutual love of foxes. They walk me to my car, and I call my mother on the way home because I’ve had a good night and also because I want to be on the phone with someone when I enter the house. I park on the street and speed-walk to the door, use the flashlight on my phone to find my way upstairs, fold into bed and sleep the best sleep I’ve slept in days. I don’t notice that A never responded.

***

Of the six years in our college town, I had only one unsafe encounter—and even then, the man was only after money. He wedged himself inside the car door before I could close it and asked for cash. I scrambled for my wallet, handed him a five.

“I know I saw a twenty in there,” he said.

A couple strolled out of the liquor store just then, absorbed in their conversation. The man stepped back and I closed my door and took off, blaming myself for stopping in this part of town, for being alone, for wearing a dress.

I developed my own safety code after that, the kind all women and girls develop. Walk in groups, or, if you’re alone, trail another group. Not so closely they’ll think you’re strange, but close enough to appear as if you might be with them. Carry your keys in your hand, the sharpest one protruding through your knuckles. Double-check that you’ve locked all your doors at night. Don’t use identifying details in your social media posts, or enable location-tracking features, or mention that your roommate’s out of town. Better yet, just don’t use the internet.

What I am trying to say is that it was a pretty safe college town. But pretty safe doesn’t mean we weren’t always looking over our shoulders. It just means we never considered rubber mallets.

***

The facts begin to appear on my phone, information so incongruous with my current position—leaning back on pillows, fully rested and still thinking about the night before—that the phrases make no sense. Attacked on the Katy Trail. White male. Some object. Focused on her head. Screamed for help. No internal bleeding or swelling of the brain. Recovery. Life changing.

Overall, she’s very lucky, her sister says.

Maybe my brain lingers on that word, lucky, and ignores what came before. Maybe I am so physically distant from where the violence took place that it takes a moment to catch up with me. Maybe I think I’m still sleeping.  

Then a sound emerges from my body, something guttural and desperate, something I don’t quite recognize. I let it take me over for a while. It moves from gut into limbs and leaves them heavy. It vibrates the space between my ears. When it is done with me, I slide off my bed and lie in the foot-wide gap between mattress and wall. The ceiling is at its lowest point in this part of the room; I can reach up and touch it if I want to.

Maybe I’ll stay here a while, I think. I don’t move for three hours.

                                                                            ***        

There are stories we like to perform from our college years, to a bemused audience or just ourselves. There’s the time I looked over my shoulder while leaving a sports bar to witness A lifting a six-foot area rug off the floor as effortlessly as plucking a penny from the ground, rolling it in her arms and marching toward me, muttering, “go go go.” I froze momentarily, then rushed out of the building with keys in hand, frantically pushing the unlock button until I heard my car chirp back. I burned rubber leaving the parking lot, the rush of all those bank robbery movies urging me forward. Neither of us knew why we did it, only that we were in it together.  

There’s senior year, when I called A from my bedroom in the middle of the night, the spasms riding up my back so painful I thought I must be dying. She drove me to the emergency room and perched on a stool near my bed while a nurse placed an IV in the crook of my arm. Later, embarrassed to discover it was only a UTI, I talked A into pulling out the needle while the nurse supervised. She was considering paramedic school and I could tell she wanted to do it, though her outward panic might have suggested otherwise. Finally, she pinched the tube between thumb and forefinger, shrieked, and pulled. Our eyes locked, waiting for the gush of blood that was sure to come. But there was none: I lived, I didn’t feel a thing. We left the hospital triumphant and treated ourselves to pancakes.

And then there’s the night shortly before graduation, when I drank and danced until I puked in the middle of the fraternity-heavy bar I’d so studiously avoided throughout college. A took me by the shoulders and guided me toward the bathroom, nudging me in front of her like a shopping cart. When we rounded a dark corner, a man grabbed for me. He was faceless and looming and I could only register how heavy my limbs felt, how slow they were to respond. And then he was against the wall, and it was A’s hand pinning him there, and I slipped behind her into the women’s bathroom, where we laughed and washed our hands and never said the word threat.  

This is a funny story when we tell it together because we focus on A’s superhuman strength, her Hulk-like protection skills. It’s less funny when I tell it on my own, when I place it inside this context. Maybe that’s the risk of constructing a story that isn’t only yours to tell.

***

I shouldn’t watch the videos, but I do. One network shows A from the neck down, her stretcher being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I can’t find the purpose in exposing her this way. Do they want to show the scraped skin on her knee? Was the producer disappointed in the lack of blood? I trained in journalism down the road from this crime scene, but my newsrooms were print—not broadcast—and words are allowed to be less sensational, if we write them that way. It is only the facts I want.

I tap the screen, zoom in on A’s tennis shoes. Pause, replay. For several minutes this is all I care about: are those her new Nikes, the ones she got around the same time I bought mine? She got a better deal on hers. They were bright blue and lime green, mine navy and pink. These look like they might be an older pair. I find a little relief in this, the knowledge that her new shoes aren’t ruined. 

The broadcasts appall me, one by one. Is it necessary to use the word bloodcurdling? Did we need to know she was crawling away, on her side, when the woman found her? This woman who biked toward A’s call for help, I am indebted to her but also resent the words coming out of her mouth: She was a very healthy looking person who looked like she would have been able to protect herself. Even she was not able to prevent what happened.

I would like her to point me to the person who could.

The next day, of course, they must talk to other Katy Trail users. Gauge their reactions. A blonde woman in a sky-colored tank top expresses surprise: This is definitely not one of the areas I feel unsafe. A white man who has lived in town for thirty years says simply, I’m obviously worried, but it probably won’t change my walking habits. I stare at the man, close the video.

How nice for you, I think.

***

I want to see A immediately, but I’m not sure if her jaw will have to be wired, if she’ll go home or to her parents’, if she wants to see anyone. I think I will never forgive myself for not being there. I think, maybe we would have been having book club that night. I think of the violent thoughts I couldn’t stop thinking about, the ones where it was me on the other end. I think this isn’t about you and get off the floor already and some prophet you are. I am certain this spot is the only place of safety.    

A’s family must know I need proof she’s alive, so they make her FaceTime me from the hospital that evening. I’ve forced myself to drive to the bookstore for a gift to send, something to while away the recovery time, and I awkwardly search for phrases that might be amusing while still eliciting information. Are they giving you enough morphine? I love morphine. Morphine makes her sick, she says, but she’ll have some bottled up for me. She doesn’t look as bad as I expect her to look, but of course I am looking at her face and not the back of her head. I don’t want to keep her long—the act of speaking looks painful—so we end the call and I move to a bench outside, watch couples pass by, safer in numbers.

I know what is coming next. I know I will write about this, and I already resent the impulse, flickering there in its womb: a useless urge perhaps, but there it is, and it won’t go away. I ignore it for as long as possible. 

                                                                            ***       

In another life, A came over every Sunday to watch The Walking Dead. Sometimes our partners joined and annoyed us by asking too many questions. I’ve never been one for horror, but this kind didn’t bother me. It’s one of few depictions of violence that I can point to and say, this? This will never happen.

A and I agreed on a meet-up point in case some sort of apocalypse ever did go down. We ignored the fact that the farm in question was within sight of a nuclear plant. During the off-season, we read books about other forms of apocalypses, talked strategy. I always knew I was the weaker link; I was more concerned with how to feed my cat. But we felt sure we could tolerate each other’s company, which is really the most important consideration.

Is this the part where I relate the attack to an apocalypse? The ending of our friendship as it was, perhaps, or the total reduction of A’s personality?

You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

***

The semester starts and I still haven’t seen A. I’ve been distracting myself by dragging my body between campus and the house, checking out books that languish in my office, making small talk with new classmates who don’t want to hear about violence. 

My brain isn’t working as clearly as I want it to, and one day after class I realize I’ve forgotten my bus pass. It’s a long walk home down concrete and past storefronts, and it’s leaning toward ninety degrees, so I decide to take the trail I’ve heard so much about. At first it’s relaxing, nature I’ve forgotten exists here.

A little further down the trail, I realize what I’ve done. The path has grown increasingly secluded and I’m not sure where the next exit is. I turn my head casually to see if anyone’s behind me, and there’s a man a few paces back. He’s wearing a backpack, so he’s probably like me, a student seeking shade on the walk home. But nothing feels good about this and I’m angry that I’ve trapped myself. I call someone on the phone, speak loudly, tell him where I am and what time I expect to be home. Occasionally a cyclist passes in the opposite direction and I wish I had thought to buy a bike, or signed up for that self-defense class I was talking about, or remembered my bus pass. But the other day a man followed me off the bus and watched as I unlocked my front door, so I’m not sure that’s any better.  

I try not to spiral down this thought-hole, what’s safe and what isn’t, where I am allowed to be a woman without fear of violence, random or otherwise. I don’t want to end up locked in my bedroom again, wedged in the space between bed and wall.  

***

Can we talk about how A’s medical bills were over fifty thousand dollars? Or that she had to first establish care with a primary physician who could confirm to the insurance company that, yes, she needed to have her stitches removed before she could have the sutures unsewn from her face.

We could talk about how it takes weeks before she can eat solid food again, how when she does, she accidentally eats expired noodles and makes herself sick. The nerve damage ruined her senses of taste and smell. The doctors say it might return in a year, or fifteen, or never.

Or maybe we should discuss how I felt the need to describe my closeness to A to justify why I was traumatized by her trauma. Because we hear about violence against women every day, and it’s perfectly ordinary to say what a shame, but she really shouldn’t have been walking on the trail alone. It only hurts when it happens to someone we know, and maybe that’s not because we lack empathy, but because we’ve normalized a world in which women are disposable and stories like this one don’t harm us at all.

If I tell you a therapist called it “secondary trauma,” that I crossed my arms and said I don’t feel comfortable appropriating A’s trauma, you’ll think that’s such a writer thing to say and I bet she never said that in real life.

Maybe you’re right about the crossed arms. Maybe I took a sip of water.

             ***

It’s late September and I’m counting the balloons in A’s living room. I didn’t know helium lasted this long, but it’s six weeks later and they’re still full. I’m supposed to be in Oklahoma for a wedding, but I rerouted my flight to spend a couple days lounging around A’s house. We both pretend that I am not here because she was attacked, that I am just homesick, which I am, and that it was an easy enough change to make, which it was.

At first I find my eyes wandering to the scar that stretches from the corner of her lip to her chin, this mark that is not supposed to be there but keeps on being there anyway. I try not to think about how it looked before the skin was tied back together, if she could feel the outside air filtering into her mouth.

We decide to go to lunch at our favorite cantina. We were regulars here during college, and it’s one of our old servers who takes our order. He asks A what happened just as I’ve bitten down on a chip. She glances at me, and I’m unsure if I should jump in and minimize, or jump in and tell the truth, or wait. She turns back to the server.

“I was attacked,” she says. “On the Katy Trail.”  

He mumbles something incomprehensible, the best we can hope for, and disappears to place our order. We ask for a second margarita, then a third. We talk about the gaps that weren’t in the news reports, like how she’s not sure why she was in the woods when the woman found her, was he dragging her in there? What was his plan? Is his the face the police sent to her, a sketch of a man who’s been attacking women on other trails, in other states? It feels like a relief that she fought back, screamed. In my dreams I am always frozen and mute.

A tells me about a journalist trying to get in touch with her for a story, the same woman who taught me about interviewing trauma survivors. I explain what an interview would look like, who in the newsroom might have access to A’s name. I offer to go with her to the meeting. We try to think of what point the story would serve and come up empty-handed. I confess that I am also writing about it, that I don’t know what point it will serve. She is gracious about it anyway.

“I know everyone else is hurting, too,” she says, and we order another round of margaritas.

At home, A cooks banana bread and I comment on how amazing it smells, and she says does it? and I say yes, like honey. This is a role her partner often plays. We go out to dinner and the three of us share artichoke dip and A says I think it’s rich, is it rich? And we say yes, it is very rich. She comes out of the bathroom and says the soap smells good, and we have never been more pleased at a sentence about soap.

A’s partner leaves for the night, and we turn on The Walking Dead instead of leaving the house. It’s gorier than I remembered but we are quick to accept it. We’ve reached the point in the series where there are few humans left, and the ones who are still around are starting to lose it.

“I think if I survived the initial culling of people, I’d make it,” A says. “But that would be the hardest part.”

I can’t think of a response, or maybe I am thinking of too many responses, so I concentrate on the man we’re following. He is walking through the woods alone, blood-covered spear as walking stick, camera lens distorting the edges of the screen to mimic his mental state. And then, a moment that catches us off guard. He stumbles into a field of flowers, tangled and wild and wholly unaffected by the apocalypse. Sunlight falls softly on each petal. We are both confused by the beauty.