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Table of Contents
- Title Page
- Introduction: Resisting Acclimation
- Invasive Species By Amanda Baldeneaux
- The God of the Sea By Barakat Akinsiku
- Plasticized By Kathryn E. Hill
- The Drifter By J.R. Burgmann
- The Lullaby-Dirge By Mason Carr
- Driftless By Scott Dorsch
- Galansiyang By Sigrid Marianne Gayangos
- Those They Left Behind By Jules Hogan
- Redline By Anya Ow
- Field Notes By Natasha Seymour
- About the Contributors
- Honorable Mention: 2020 Semifinalists
By Scott Dorsch
Rai Olmstead stepped out onto the back porch that evening to bury his wife during a lull. The air seemed still, stagnant, though still blowing forty knots out of the west, pulling groans from the last of the gaunt pines and cedars lining the property. The sun, difficult to see, cast lazy pinks and opals on the horizon. A coffee can full of nails held the door.
With his beard whipping like a windsock, Rai chipped at the earth with a spade, working the same spot for several minutes without a puncture. The ground, over many years of lashings, was more like tarmac than loam. His efforts were useless, dumb. A job like that required a mattock or rock bar. Jackhammer even.
“Use the right tool for the right job, boy,” his father would say.
Rai cursed and threw the shovel into the wind, knelt to say a final word to Vesper, his wife of twenty-eight years. She lay wrapped in their old blue bedsheets, lumped on the earth. Not even a fly in attendance. He wished there was more to offer, something proper—a song, maybe. Could have worn a tie or thought to fold a paper flower to tuck behind her ear.
Yet the cry of a distant squall rumbled overhead. Twin vortices revved and spun dust in the distance. The shovel inched back. Tears lifted and blew from his eyes. Time was up.
He ran back to the house, reaching for the shut door, can and nails both blown away. When his fingers met the knob, Rai was upended by an undertow, a rip current of a draft that boosted him up like a sack of onions and drug him, slowly at first, past the house and down along the empty river. He took a chance to look back, to see her one last time, but Vesper was already claimed by the storm.
The airstream rushed him heels-first across the once lush, riparian pastures, the eye-level wires that once held in all their sheep and cattle. He felt an extreme sense of vertigo—a county-fair-Scrambler-like nausea—and a deep pain in both ears. Hallows of tree cavities and boulders plugged the ground ahead.
It was a slow process, this to-and-fro in the wind, an airborne limbo that allowed Rai plenty of time to consider his own death as well as his wife’s, their two dogs. Offered time to pray for their two girls, to wonder where they had gone after the storms came, after the phone lines severed and the radios signed off.
The trip took less than ten minutes, but it was tortuous—this back and forth in a dried-up tide pool, never drowning. Finally, Rai gave in and settled on a thought—a recall of a night at the Scrappy Badger Bar. It was triggered by a scent up in the troposphere of dust and mildew, late autumn. Of a cold night, first snow falling, and a Packers game hissing above the bar. Rai’s childhood friend, Artie, who was married at the time and more than half in the bag, lost a round of high-stakes, call-your-shots billiards to Rai: winner got first word with the mystery woman seated alone in a corner booth, drinking a Labatt. She wore a flannel and ballcap, with black hair slung over her shoulder in a braid. Tall when not seated.
It happened fast: Rai swept the table as Artie swayed and swore with his eyes on the television. Lions were up at Lambeau for the first time in years. When Rai tapped in the 8 ball without a sound, Artie made a stink and jabbed Rai in the face, sore loser that he was. Rai hit the floor, nose broken and bleeding. Known locals carried Artie out and left him in the snow. The woman, Vesper Plunket, unaware of the cause of the stir, helped green-eyed, loose-toothed Rai Olmstead off the floor. Asked for his name and held a napkin to his nose. She’d later move up to his fourth-generation home in Wisconsin from Chicago, sacrificing a career in theatre to help Rai save the farm and family business. Not dairy, just eggs.
But, that smell, that feeling of his face pressed into beer-soaked sawdust on the barroom floor, was on his lips, in his mouth. Dirt. It was dirt. Rai was no longer flying, but back on earth—terra firma—saved by a shrub. A nasty, leafless thing sprung out from underneath a rock and grabbed his ankle as he passed. The whip-crack landing knocked him out, setting off a ringing in his ears that never quite turned off.
He hung there, waving like eelgrass until the wind took a breath. While it sputtered and regained its strength, Rai unhinged his boot from the bush, and began the trip back home, back to where Vesper once waited for him under blue blankets.
Wind tossed him half a mile downriver that morning. Took him one day and one night to worm back on his belly. With a frothing eddy of black clouds and heat lightning throbbing overhead, he swore he’d never leave his goddamn house again.
Early or late, he couldn’t tell. Dark, anyway. The wind was still out haunting the world, cooing and howling like some feral dog caught in a bear trap. A lemon sky presaged sleet, hail, cyclones. Even with all the windows taped along their seams, fruit flies still found their way in.
Rai started a fire in the woodstove with only cardboard left to burn. For breakfast, he dug through the boxes lining the walls, looking for a certain MRE: Menu No. 15: Beef Enchilada, his second favorite. The boxes were stacked up around the windows, packed with knickknacks and provisions that had washed up along the side of the house. Rai’d tie his leg to the stove and lean out wide with a fishnet to grab whatever sounded on the wall. Too often it was garbage: open cans of peaches or mufflers ripped from their mounts. But sometimes box-worthy rations like MREs or tiny bags of potato chips, musical instruments that he’d never learn to play.
He tossed package after package onto the sofa, rooting for No. 15. Finding it, he tore it open with his teeth and went straight for the white chewing gum he loved so much. They came in a pack of two with all MREs. The flavor reminded him of spring, when the apple mint began its takeover of the garden and spiced the air.
After setting a pot to boil, he leaned on the counter and chewed with his eyes on the window, humming the tune of “Georgia On My Mind,” singing only the name—Georgia. Though neither he nor Vesper had ever been to Georgia, they named their first daughter after the state because of the song. She lived out in California last he knew. Left with a university boy from Eau Claire, as did their youngest, Sandie. They couldn’t write or call due to weather, but he thought of them often: kissed their pictures before bed. Sang their names at breakfast. Spoke at the foot of their twin beds on exceptional days of broody weather.
Keeping the tune, Rai shuffled to the back door and pissed in one of the many coffee cans that washed up against the house. The septic was long gone, and the toilets were terrifying with their sucking and whistling, so Rai was left with only creative means for excretion. He opened the screen door with a snap, kicked the can out into the wind like therapy, shouting a cathartic Bless it! to the wriggling clouds.
Rai was never lonelier than when he waited for the water to boil. Just him, the wind, and the race of the bubbles. He opened a can of fruit cocktail and spooned for the cherry that, too, reminded him of spring. Of Vesper. Imagined her out there watering the butterfly weed and columbines in the yard by this time of morning with a dull forgiving sun above where there was now hot lightning and maybe the moon.
Rai’d be in running the numbers, ordering feed, the like, waiting for the high whistle of the kettle.
Vesper’d shout in to him. “What about today, Rai? What do you say we sell this old place? Get the hell out of here?”
She’d smile through the window with her gapped teeth, black hair blowing.
Rai’d laugh and shake his head, say, “Who’d go broke raising these hens if it weren’t us? The girls?”
He laughed. Startled himself with the sudden guffaw in that big empty house.
He said to no one, “I mean, look how beautiful, Vesper. Just look at it. No place like it in the world.” He gestured to the torn, near-empty hills still set in green in his mind.
The water boiled over, spit-hissed on the stove. Rai was lost in dreams again, hunting for that half a cherry and the moments he took for granted. He smiled and found a new sore in his mouth. Stirred and checked, stirred and checked the contents of the can of fruit cocktail for that one slice of cherry. Found it. But before he could stab that loose red flake amongst all of those pears, he dropped the can. Something happened out there.
Besides the usual clicks and thuds of god-knows-what ramming his home, Rai heard a great snap and groan out of the west. He looked out the window just in time to see his century-and-a-half-old tree line get plucked and chucked well out of view by the quickening storm. The wind whistled as it carried each tree, one by one, past the house like a procession of sorts. It was a windbreaker—a three-row situation of conifers lining the west side of his property. Rai’s great-grandfather planted the trees back when cars were windowless and started up with wrought-iron cranks. The roots, with nothing but loess and limestone to grip, just needed a firm shove to make it to the next county line.
Rai was furious, then amazed.
The trees left large holes like missing teeth in the earth, and beyond the sockets was a house, a house Rai had never seen or had forgotten after all these windblown years. Besides his own, this house, a sour-apple green, was the last one standing in the valley. And in the window was a glowing figure silhouetted by candlelight, looking back.
Rai had been alone in the valley for what felt like years. The feeling of seeing and being seen was revelatory. He shook out a flood of smiles and hand gestures, paced the floors. Looked for something to pick up and put down again. There was someone—a person—right over there on the near side of the valley where rye once grew. He was ecstatic, nervous. Then worried. What if they wanted to come visit? What would he wear? What MRE could he share? Rai spoke to himself fluently and kindly, but what if he couldn’t get along with this new neighbor across the way? It wasn’t a question of whether they would come to meet, but what worried Rai is that he may have to be the one to make the trek.
“What if I had to go to them?” he asked the mirror.
He didn’t want to leave again. Not after last time. It was insuperable, the thought of being stuck in midflight, caught in that cold in-between, that purgatory, mooring alone again in the dry-tongue tide of the wind …
He stopped pacing.
What if they aren’t real? he thought. Perhaps he was seeing things just as he heard things. Maybe it was all just a ruse, some mirage like the ones he saw in films as a boy that, too, were full of wind and dust? Relief. Maybe there was no need to leave after all, nor a need to spruce the place up.
“Don’t be a fool, Rai,” his father said somewhere in the back of his mind, still haunting his thoughts. The person was real. They stood with one hand on the window, the other gripping a candle plate, watching as a stooped man of fifty-eight paced his oak floors with his hands on his head no less than a quarter mile away. But how could someone be right over there after all this time? —all this time he’d been speaking into a telephone with nothing but his own tinnitus ringing back? There was no news to share and nothing to say, yet he wanted to tell somebody something. Hear a voice other than his own—hear something more than the ghost notes of hurricanes, scraping and beckoning at the walls.
Rai shut the blinds and tried to forget them all the same. He peered through a corner. Sat. Again, peered through a corner. Ripped open the blinds. Impossible, he thought. He’d have to tunnel through bedrock. He didn’t want to risk the storm. Not again.
His thoughts made him sweat, ache.
Rai hesitated before running up the stairs to find his father’s binoculars. He didn’t like to go up there: a feeling, dense as fog, shrouded the top floor. A grief that the wind could not, would not, carry away. Driven by action, something to do, he went to his and Vesper’s old bedroom and found the binoculars he once used to spy on hawks in the field.
The person was still there, standing in the candlelight like a beacon. The lenses of Rai’s binoculars were fogged by mildew, scoured by dust, yet he could just make out the color of their jacket and the clods of waist-length hair. A woman. In a red puffy jacket. Thin as a string bean. Hair, thick, gray and dark as a robin’s back. She stood with binoculars, peering back at Rai. Hands shaking, candle lapping at the sill.
Rai dropped the binoculars to his chest. The woman did the same. Tried to look busy. Together, they shut the blinds and sat down. They didn’t know it, but they breathed in time. Heavy, ragged breaths, pushing out balloons of cold. In tandem, they stood, reopened the blinds, and observed their respective houses from across the valley, the strangers in the window.
She pressed a sooty hand to the glass. Rai obliged.
Rai dumped the contents of a box onto the countertop. Canned foods panged then rolled out into the kitchen, knocking over a framed picture of his girls in front of the Olmstead house: Georgia and Sandie holding a puppy each under their arms, carved pumpkins between them on some warm October day before they were teens. Rai reached for his multitool in his side leg pocket. Trimmed the box into a dozen placards. Thought about what to say.
Hello there! My name is Raimond Olmstead. How about you? I am was a farmer born in this valley. My favorite color is blue.
“Only use what you need,” his father said. Maybe Rai said it to himself.
He was right. Rai needed to conserve the cardboard for weeks—maybe months—of sign-making. Needed to shorten the phrasing. He started over:
Good meet you. Where from?
Found a marker and began to write.
Her name was Norma Mild and she had been living in the valley for either 52 or 62 years. Her fives looked like sixes. Between her penmanship and Rai’s eyes, their mode of communication left something to be desired. 55 or 66, 56 or 65 years old. About his age. She had kids of her own: two boys and a girl. He didn’t get their names. Maple syrup was her favorite food. Bivalves—her word—were her least favorite.
Rai gleaned all of this in small doses. Single-word questions and answers on handwritten cardboard read by 9×40-strength binoculars lacked detail to say the least, but Rai and Norma filled in the gaps with imagination and inference. They had a board each for the five w’s and one for HOW? A Y and N board for yes and no, several boards for numbers, and a board for YOU? as in, How about you? or What do you think? A smiley face for good measure.
Easy. Georgia OMM.
For weeks Rai woke early to write Norma and Norma, Rai. Their conversations were pared-down and paratactic, often repetitive. Rai blamed it on a bad memory, but he liked to ask her favorite color, again and again. He loved that answer. Water. What a soul, he thought.
He began by loving her subtleties first: the way her g’s looped back on themselves, the way her i’s never had the dot, the way she spelled Twain like Twane and Macbeth without the a. Then, it became more explicit: the way she hipped into the window frame at night, tossed her hair; the slightness of her frame in the flickering light; the way she stayed watching Rai as hail, sleet, or whatever sky refuse pounded pocks into her roof. The way she danced as if for him, smiled as if for only him.
22 yrs a.
Norma’s questioning about their collective doom inferred her hopelessness. Telling her that he didn’t think they were doomed was the first sign of Rai’s attraction. He laughed. Thought about a how-to title: How to Flirt in the Apocalypse from a Quarter-Mile Distance. He hadn’t smiled this much in ages.
Glad for you.
Rai didn’t know what to say. Glad I don’t feel doomed or glad you met me? he thought. Lifted and scratched under his beard. Made a new sign, changing the subject.
She smiled. Walked away from her window. Rai watched as she ripped out the side of a new box. She prepared for a longer message than usual.
Only if you’re buying, Mr. Olmstead.
Norma could see all his teeth for the first time. Noticed he shaved. She smiled. Covered her mouth, embarrassed by the incisors she ground to little pearls due to environmental stressors.
How about Enchiladas? On me.
Norma held up a finger as if to say, I’ll be back. She closed her blinds. Thought about how she should make a sign for such occasions. She could hang it in the window like a friendly Do Not Disturb.
Rai dusted off his worn chamois button-up. Found a long, gray hair. Found it to be his. He went to the mirror and smiled wide.
Rai brushed his hair down in rungs, knotted a handkerchief around his neck, pulled the errant eyebrows and fluffed his beard.
How to Hide Ugly in the Apocalypse from a Quarter-Mile Distance.
Rai Olmstead and Norma Mild ate in relative silence. They didn’t need binoculars to know the motions of food to mouth. Rai with a No. 15 on a plate instead of the confines of the pouch. Norma, a can of vegetarian chili in a mug. Through the off-and-on-again surges of wayward thunderheads and side-pulled rain—wind—they forgot what it meant to be alone.
I miss cake.
Ice Cream Sandwiches?
Don’t say blueberry.
Some days, Rai was all in. Other times, he felt guilty and lonelier than ever.
His daydreams of Vesper were replaced with Norma: Norma in the side yard in the butterfly weed. Norma at the sink with a soap-bubble beard. Norma catching chickens by their toes. Norma tucking in Vesper’s children at night.
He shaved regularly with cold water. Clipped his hair and nails and tossed the trimmings in the wind. He stopped kissing the family photos before bed and stopped singing for Georgia and Sandie during breakfast. Smiled more, drank less.
Some days his heart hurt like his lungs. A low fire. How could he forget them so easily? He tried not to look into Vesper’s framed eyes on the wall.
“I’m so so sorry,” he said to the big empty house one night. A bruised, vertical flame in the hearth. Rai took the pictures of Vesper lining the stairwell off the wall, placed them in a drawer. Laid down. He hit his head twice putting them all back up. He took one back down, Vesper and him on their wedding day. Kissed it and brought it to the window, wondering if he should show Norma.
When? Come? Here?
Dry knocks of chicken-head hail ticked, then poured onto the house one afternoon. Diffused light from outside shifted from gold to lead. Rai ate canned beans and anchovies at the window. Norma cleaned her view with a damp rag, held up a sign. He couldn’t read it through the streaks of hail, but it started with an N.
“N for news? N for nothing? N for never mind? N for what?” Rai asked the empty house.
To the sky he said, “Damn it, would you just stop spitting, just this once?”
The storm hacked and spat back, tugged at what was left of Rai’s roof. The picture of the girls holding the puppies toppled over. Glass danced on the counter. Upstairs, something large fell, pounded the ceiling above. Rai ran to the window. Ripped up a new box.
Something’s different. Buckle up.
The wind stalled. He could read her sign.
Now, it said.
The pictures lining the stairwell slid off the wall—Vesper receiving her degree, Vesper as Juliet on stage at a local production in Viola, Vesper holding her arms in cold Lake Michigan, Vesper holding a new, purple Sandie with a half-toothed smiling Georgia, Vesper and Rai swapping smears of cake—and crashed on the oak floors. The flies stopped buzzing. Then, the roof.
A muffled chewing sound at first. A ship grinding on coral. The Olmstead house ached and shuddered. The wind tugged and sucked the roof nails right out of their holes above. The world’s largest vacuum was stuck on a carpet seam. Then, an explosion, the cabin exhaled pressure. The roof leapt into the sky—gone in an instant—ripping through the valley, out to the clouds.
The storm was inside above Rai, extracting the top-floor furniture, smashing windows and crushing walls. Smoke from the oven escaped up the stairs. The downed pictures shook and lifted like ghosts. Think. Think. Be resourceful. Be quick.
Rai rifled through the boxes. They were beginning to lift and pull toward the stairwell. Tossed out a layer of MREs and canned sardines onto the couch. He found heavy metal objects: nails and cast-iron skillets, kettlebells and encyclopedias. In another box he found bungee cords and tow straps with hooks on the ends. He had an idea but wished it away as soon as it came.
“No,” he said. “I’m not doing it.”
But just as he stuffed the idea away, his old chicken-chores coveralls riffled on the hook by the door. It was as if the house or the universe had read his mind, egging him on. Weigh down your coveralls, strap yourself to something, and walk your ass over there, was his original thought. But Rai was stubborn as much as he was scared.
“I’m not leaving!”
The fridge fell on its side. China and mugs sprayed the floor, tore at his feet. The oak boards above him were extracted one by one. Pricks of rain stung his cheeks and eyes. Rai stilled and looked to the void above him, puzzled. The coveralls ripped from their hook and streamed to a gap in the ceiling, pulled by the invisible hand of the wind. Rai lunged and brought them under his feet.
“Do it and be done with it, Rai,” he said, parroting his father.
With a roll of electrical tape left on the sill, Rai taped up the sleeves and ankles of the coveralls, crammed them with three-inch nails, skillets, dumbbells, until he could barely breathe. In one box, he found old railroad spikes he’d pulled from the bottom of the river as a child. He’d thought they were dead fish. He grabbed all three and a hammer.
The plan was to pound a stake in the earth, strap on a bungee, then walk the length of it; pound another, strap to that, then go back for the last one. Over and over, all the way to the green-apple house with a secure roof and some company.
The remains of the ceiling shook, about to come loose. He scrambled in his heavy-metal suit to make a lifeline, tying bungees and ratchet straps onto dog leashes. He secured two lengths, about twenty feet each, and hooked them to his belt loop. Hooked one to the woodstove. Fumbled forward, teetering from one foot to the other, moving like his little girls when they first learned to walk on those very same floors. Sweat swamped his everything.
Rai pulled up his hood and pushed through the threshold. The door was now torn and gone, flipping out into the storm. Clouds loomed low overhead, looking charred and heavy as obsidian. Black cherries. The barometric pressure could pop a grape, a vineyard. Sleet blasted down and swirled bluely in the wind. He held and pounded the first spike. The blows bit into his cold hands. It wasn’t easy, but there was no other way. “Good, not perfect,” he kept muttering. Another of his father’s mantras for when they’d fix things around the farm. It described almost everything in his life. Rai drove the hammer down with all his weight. The spike moved, split the subsoil. He stole a look at Norma, whose face was smeared to the window.
He knotted a strap around the spike and tested the line, hung back with all his weight, laughing. He was unmoved by the storm. Its big eye neared, twisting into itself like a worm on a hook.
“One down,” he yelled to her. Pressure built deep in his ears.
Rai stuck to the plan and trundled on into this moonscape of ruins and weather, pounding one stake in at a time, strapping on, then walking to the next stop. Pounded another, and then hightailed it back for the last spike. It was a competition, a game, a duel against the storm and whatever cruel god was in the clouds chucking lightning like javelins.
Norma watched on with a thumb in her mouth, biting.
Rai come run!
Rai could almost make out her sign from where he stood. Recognized his name. His ears and quadriceps burned and cramped. Calves over-gripped bone. He turned back for a spike and saw that his house was missing. Didn’t even hear it whoosh.
He slid to his knees, ignoring the little metal edges of nail heads and screws breaking his skin. The hail stilled. The wind cranked, cackled. The Olmstead house was gone:
Generations of skillets and cradles. Blankets and shoebox photos. Hallways and memories. All the loud, packed Thanksgivings and door-slamming tiffs. The baseball-broken windows and happy cries with his mother. The seconds of hard-earned hugs from his father. The minutes of sucking down spaghetti and garlic bread after a long day of bucking hay. The years spent watching his children grow old enough to walk and skin their knees. The nights he’d wait with his hand in hers, wishing there was another way, another world without wind and weather. Gone.
All that stood was the cast-iron oven. It sat right in the middle of the excavation, stubborn as a damn ox.
Rai felt like releasing the cord and letting the storm take him up and out again—to just let it carry him through the valley and ding him on an old feed tank or outbuilding. To just put him out. Shut off the lights. Offer mercy.
About to release the line, Rai heard a shout, a voice, a language. Not a bark from the wind, or a crack of thunder, but vocal cords sounded by breath, saying, “Here!” or “Hurry!” Norma’s voice was deeper than he expected. Fried, direct, longing for a response.
“Hyah!” he said, like you’d say to a horse. Sand filled his throat. He pried himself to his feet. The sky was ready to overtake and shred him. With his head down, Rai pushed through the unseen fortress of the wind with a hammer in hand, a spike in the other.
“This is good,” he said. Not perfect.
“Slow down, Rai. And mind the flowers,” Vesper once said to him, her voice now deep in his ear. She wore a soft, summer dress that day with her hair pulled back in a knot. Bees hummed. Crickets, too. Dandelions were about to puff, apple mint spreading. The valley seemed vast and restless with its ocean of dancing grains bent in the breeze. The soil, warm, yet damp with dew, smelled like a spice drawer of early summer. She showed Rai where to pull the weed, how to tease out the taproot without it pricking, without it breaking.
He knew, he knew, he said. He was rushing—wanted to get on with it.
“What’s the hurry?” she said. She looked up and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a lick of dirt. “Where else you have to be?”
She pulled a thistle. Then, another.
Rai closed his eyes and took another step. The green door opened to a honey glow of lamplight. He imagined his boots were long and milky as a thistle’s roots, boring into the earth, holding steady in the wind. A soft hand reached out.
Her hand was warm, with dirt under the nails. The pop-pop of freed rootlets sounded in his ears. With one hand, she pulled up a big thistle with roots that went way, way down.