Kim Magowan & Michelle Ross
My cousin Stephanie, only four months older than me but always the first to do everything, has a boyfriend. This boyfriend lives in a neighborhood so lush and green that when they walk the sidewalks at night, the two of them passing a cigarette back and forth (she’s the first to smoke too), she imagines they are lightning bugs in a forest. “Or it’s like I’m Alice when she shrinks to the size of a flower,” Stephanie says. “Remember? All those bitchy flowers think she’s a weed.” She tells me this on Easter at our grandmother’s house. She’s snuck some of Uncle Nick’s Crown Royal, that magic potion bottle, into our lemonade, and we’re swinging on the porch, biting the heads off yellow marshmallow chicks. Only the yellow chicks, because the other colors are unnatural, according to Stephanie. Besides, the yellow chicks taste better. “It’s like Astroturf,” she says. “Who wants to run around on Astroturf that’s any color but green?”
Uncle Nick is a district manager at Safeway, and he tells us that the groceries in low-income neighborhoods (neither lush nor particularly green) sell three times as much cat food. “Do you want to know why?” he says. “Lots of elderly people live in those neighborhoods.” Uncle Nick always tells stories this way, in stages, waiting for comments. I picture an old lady with a silver-blue bun at the nape of her neck. She’s stroking a masked cat that looks like a raccoon, while another cat slip-knots around her legs. “Old people like cats?” I say. Stephanie laughs like I’ve said the funniest thing. Uncle Nick shakes his head and says, “Cheap protein.” “Oh Nick, not at dinner,” says my aunt Nancy, and then, “Pass the stuffing, please.”
I set a leaf of lettuce and a three-legged cricket before an iridescent green beetle I scooped up off the straw doormat. The beetle had been on its back in the center of the “O” in “Welcome,” his elegant little legs, like the intricately carved neck of my violin, wriggling. He reminds me of a passenger in an inner tube floating down a lazy river. I’m trying to figure out what the beetle eats. Behind me, my friends Jules and Tara talk about boys and sugar and Mr. Fielding, our biology teacher. “Martin’s lips are so soft. Carlos’s dimples kill me. I’d fuck him. You don’t even know what that means. That espresso chip gelato, that’s what his kisses taste like. Ian is so hot for you. Like chocolate buttercream frosting, that’s what I bet Mr. Fielding tastes like. Mr. Fielding can dissect me anytime. Girl, give me some of those jellybeans now or I’ll tell him you said that.” The beetle refuses my offerings, scuttles away.
Stephanie’s phone dings. We’re watching The Great British Baking Show, but Stephanie is in the bathroom. She keeps checking the zit on her chin. Prom is Saturday; she’s in despair. “It looks like a wart. I look like a witch.” Her boyfriend Roy is a senior. She’s the only girl in her freshman class going to prom. Her phone dings again, and I read the text from Roy. “Can’t stop thinking about last night. I want to eat you again.” Eat her? I think of ogres, which makes me think of Shrek, which makes me wish that we were six again and arguing about who got to be dumpy Princess Fiona, legs like green drumsticks.
Jules’s parents make donuts every Sunday morning, punching out the center of Pillsbury biscuit dough discs with a soda cap. I’ve never seen so much oil in my life. The biscuit dough swims in it, turns brown, and then it’s off to roll around in cinnamon-and-sugar sand. Jules says, “Ugh. Please tell me we have yogurt in the fridge.” I eat two donuts and four holes. I stop only because Jules is eyeing me the way she does Tara when Tara drips vinegar onto her French fries. I wonder when Jules stopped eating donuts. We used to wear them around our fingers like engagement rings. In a single morning we’d go through four marriages apiece.
When Mom runs over a rabbit on the way to the grocery store, she screams, pulls to the side of the road. I open the car door. “What are you doing?” she says. “I’m going to go look at it. Why else did you stop?” I say. “Because I’m too stressed to drive. I need to catch my breath,” she says. I leave her in the car, her palm against her sternum like she’s holding it in place until glue sets. The way the rabbit’s legs twitch makes me think of Tim Southward, who lived next door to us up until I started fifth grade. He used to twitch too, his whole torso, like he was being zapped with tiny bolts of electricity. When I get back in the car, Mom says, “Sometimes I don’t know about you.”
“Would you rather be a predator or a prey?” Jules asks. We’ve been playing Would You Rather? since we met in sixth grade. Jules will ask, “Would you rather have a rhinoceros horn in the middle of your forehead, or really itchy genitals?” There’s a pattern to her would-you-rathers: one option is always some kind of humiliating public spectacle, like the horn, or foot-long nose hair; one is hidden, but excruciating. Always, I end up choosing the hidden problem. But now I tell her, “That’s loaded phrasing: ‘predator’ and ‘prey.’ If you’d asked, would I rather be a carnivore or an herbivore, I’d pick herbivore, because being a carnivore would be gross—blood sticking to your fur and flies bugging you. But no sane person is going to pick ‘prey’ over ‘predator.’” Jules shakes her head. “I disagree. Think about it: a predator’s whole life is scheming for the next meal, always on the hunt. A prey can just quietly mind her own business and eat grass. She never has to stress about food. And when she gets killed, it’s so sudden, a chomp to the neck. I bet she doesn’t even know what bit her.”
In French class, we make macarons. I try to pipe the batter into perfect round discs, but my cookies look more like amoebas with multiple pseudopods. And they are tiny. Madame Kawecki says, “Ils sont petits!” Then she says that my cookies are bite-sized, like amuse-bouches. When Madame Kawecki took us to a French restaurant a few months earlier, the waiter described the amuse-bouches in great detail, listing every ingredient. When Tara asked Madame Kawecki why, she said, “Les allergies allimentaires sont très sérieux!” and then asked in English, which she almost never speaks to us, if any of us had any food allergies.
School has been out one week, and Stephanie is in a coma in the hospital. She’d been out walking with that boyfriend of hers again, and a tree limb fell. Struck her in the head. A freak accident. Roy visits while I’m there. He brings a vase of sunflowers. I lie and say that I was just about to go eat lunch. I’m no good at talking to boys. Plus, I figure he wants to be alone with Stephanie. But as soon as I say, “I’m going to go eat,” I think of his text, and I blush. Jules told me what it means. She has an older sister.
Mom spends all day cooking for Uncle Nick and Aunt Nancy: a lasagna, a pan of chicken verde enchiladas, and two loaves of zucchini bread. In between steps, she taps the counter nervously. I think of how I used to pretend to play piano, dancing my fingers back and forth across Mom’s desk. No room for a real piano in our house, though, hence violin lessons. I suck at the violin, like I suck at everything. Even Stephanie’s little sister Gretchen is better than me, and she’s only eleven. Then there’s our cousin Lincoln, who at ten already knows he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. For Grandma Paula’s birthday, he built her a marble chute.
Tracy the Taker
My fortune cookie at Shanghai Palace last month said, “There are makers, and there are takers.” That made Stephanie laugh and laugh. “Tracy the Taker,” she called me. That night I had a dream that the world was divided. The Makers had long blue cloaks and glass beads around their throats; the Takers’ faces were covered in crumbs. They ate like animals, without using their hands. Stephanie had a dab of plum sauce on her chin at Shanghai Palace, from the moo shu pork. I didn’t tell her about it because she was being such a bitch. Now, in my imagination, I hand her napkin after napkin.
It’s good to talk to people in comas. I don’t know if that’s real information, or something I saw on Grey’s Anatomy. I feel too stupid doing it in front of other people, but when Aunt Nancy goes to the cafeteria to get coffee, I hold Stephanie’s hand. “I can’t believe all Roy has is a scratch on his arm. He didn’t even need stitches,” I tell her. “I bet all the girls from your school feel so sorry for him.” But that trajectory sounds too negative. Why would Stephanie want to return to a world where injuries are so arbitrarily divvied? What will make her want to open her eyes? So I take a breath, and then I start reciting to her all the foods she most likes to eat, everything delicious waiting if only she surfaces. Cadbury eggs with the sticky filling, triple-cream cheese, fried calamari. Pickled green beans from Uncle Nick’s Bloody Mary. The first spring plums. Pistachios that dye our fingertips red. Food that requires effort: the soft heart of an artichoke; pomegranates that Steph will only eat after she’s peeled away every last thin bit of skin.
Michelle Ross is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CRAFT Literary, Nashville Review, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, and other venues. She's fiction editor of Atticus Review.
Kim Magowan (@kimmagowan) lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird's Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.