Featured in Colorado Review
Island RuleFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2017
Winner of the 2017 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Richard Bausch
I tell my students: On islands, small omnivorous animals tend to get bigger while large predators tend to get smaller. Island rule, they called it for a time.
Some of them write this down. Others don’t. They sit in the arena-style lecture hall shoulder to shoulder and still. The last-row boys spit tobacco into cups and whisper about football practice.
I tell them: Take the rats of Flores. Isolated from the mainland population, they have grown up to four feet in length.
I flick my slideshow to an image of a dead rat lying sprawled on the ground like a giant cat. The students suck in a collective gasp. In its claws someone has put a coffee can to render its size indisputable. I can’t help smiling.
A boy from the third row says: Rats are smart. If they all got that big, they could take over the world.
The boy next to him says: I heard they can sniff your mucus and know if you have tuberculosis.
Ewww, a girl says, I can’t tell who. Everyone is smiling, but what are they learning? I haven’t gotten to MacArthur and his math, searching for patterns in nature with differential equations and conceptual models, or Case’s rule, that fundamental factor, the reason for any change in size of an insular species, the net energy that can be gained.
Instead we talk about the rat floods in India, only I can feel it at the back of my throat, that old story, the one I’ve been told couldn’t be true, the reason why I started studying island ecosystems in the first place.
The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific, situated on the ring of fire. Its beaches are black, its volcano core still active, though it’s been decades since the last eruption. My mother’s house was built into the side of the volcano, where it was green and too thick to take anything but the machete-cut paths. We were field-workers. That is, until the men in uniform came. They didn’t take her, though my mother had made certain I knew to avoid them, to run or hide when I spotted them on the street. They will disappear a little girl like you no problem. Instead they told her she’d been selected for hotel work, an honor on our island. The next day she reported for work at the hotel casino in her tropical uniform, a flower planted in the bun at the nape of her neck, her lips painted red and shining like blood spilt in slaughter. After school, I would toil in the fields until dusk. Then I’d wait for her in the hotel’s kitchen, seated near the dessert station and starving, my fingers tingling with a thief’s impulse.
It’s a relief when I realize I’ve run overtime. I dismiss my students, reminding them about next class’s exam, and they groan and shuffle out of the lecture hall.
* * * * *
My office door is decorated with a single Far Side comic, gifted to me from a colleague, of a doctor and a duck trapped on an island. The caption reads: “So Professor Jenkins! . . . My old nemesis! . . . We meet again, but this time the advantage is mine! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
I am reading it again, not laughing like I once did, but smiling, when Claire, the department chair, passes in her many scarves and expensive orthopedic shoes, silent as a ninja. Research interests: climate dynamics of the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctic sea ice.
She calls over her shoulder: Don’t you have an exam this week?
She’s shut in her office before I catch her meaning: no students, not a one, here for my office hours, and on the week of an exam, no less.
Her office hours are always booming, but I know for a fact she offers extra credit to the kids who come with questions. I could never do that. If you don’t have questions of your own, I’m not going to bribe you. I watch the students from my window, congregating in little huddles. They laugh and smile and lean in and touch each other and bounce and run off to class, and I am exhausted just watching them. When I was a child we didn’t spend so much time tending to our friends, our social engagements, to our own happiness. At school the only subject any of us cared about was English. When we grew old enough, those of us who could stand still and smile, who could greet our foreign guests with comforting idioms in smooth English, were given jobs in the hotels and casinos. The rest of us continued our toil in the fields, too tired to tend to homework, piling into bed together at night, our wages too low to afford lives of our own, our mothers dead of disease or malnourishment or disappearance. I was lucky; I had mine longer than most. But in the boarding house, we learned to hate one another, to be mean. It is a natural reaction to close quarters.
On my desk sits the rejection letter for my research proposal, received last week from the island’s travel board. I’d been hopeful, my proposal fairly benign. I wanted merely to examine the presence of invasive species, given the island’s physical and political isolation. The us government had approved of my trip despite travel restrictions, but the island’s travel board had rejected me due to my status as one who fled. The government doesn’t take kindly to those of us who escaped. The bureaucrats who sit on the board are my age, my peers—maybe some of them even remember me, hold a grudge.
Something I know: As much as I miss the feeling of home, if I’d stayed, I’d still be in the fields, or worse.
At fourteen, I’d woken on a foreign beach just outside Auckland with a bullet lodged in my shoulder. I was taken to a hospital for treatment and tests, so small for my age they assumed I was malnourished. A nice family sponsored me, let me live in their grown child’s old bed, which still held the vapor traces of pee, their son the bed wetter. I ate meat pies flecked with sea salt in front of the television, and no one asked me who I came in with, if I wanted to call home. Better to forget. To forget, I learned, is easy for a time, to billow and spill memory, to open up and let your insides float away, to feast on things new.
And when I tried to tell my story, how it was I’d traveled all those miles across the Pacific, my sponsors pursed their lips and told my tutor to talk to me. Solemn and speckled in sunspots, he said it couldn’t be true, scientifically speaking, and I knew, of course, that he was right.
No one comes, not a single student, for the whole of my office hour. I nudge my desk, the plastic cat given to me by a Chinese student bats its paw in my direction, hefting me good luck.
* * * * *
I take a spin class at the university gym with a colleague, Samantha Hamwich, who studies the impact of border lights on the migratory patterns of songbirds. She works harder at the classes than I do; sometimes I barely break a sweat. I like to coast at my own pace and the instructor has long since given up on me. I won’t be coached into going faster or pushing harder. I drift, the pace finding me more than me finding it, my legs gliding more than pumping.
After, Samantha buys me a tuna salad sandwich and an iced tea and we take a table outside the university cafe, where she tells me she has news.
Big news, actually. I got the grant. I’ll be spending nine months in Cyprus!
No one else in the department knows she has a boyfriend there, but her papers about birds and borders have earned her public interest outside academia, even a few NPR interviews and invitations to speak at big birding conferences, and it helps that she’s beautiful and an extrovert. So the department will grant her leave for a whole academic year, nine months of beaches and great sex and, sure, some research. I’m not jealous, not really, not even as I face two semesters of a heavy teaching load, sifting papers out of old research to stay current, to keep Claire off my back.
Samantha encourages: You should do something with the Channel Islands. They’re close enough you won’t need much in the way of funding.
I nod, like it’s a good idea. And, really, it’s not a bad idea. They have that adorable kit fox and there were those pigs they slaughtered, but Samantha knows what it’s like to pick a project. Like love, it’s hard to give up on it, to move on.
She says: Well, you’ll have to do something.
I don’t think she means to sound so ominous.
* * * * *
I catch myself saying this on the way to my dinner date, arranged neatly on the internet: The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific.
My Yaris is the color of sea foam, the freeway dreamy with marine layer. Though I’ve lived in San Diego for three years, it still feels like foreign territory. I can still get lost. Last week I was on the colossal spread of the I-5 when I missed my exit and got caught up in the border-crossing line. There was no way to turn around, nowhere to pull over. I had to sit in the line for three hours, missing my classes, telling the border-patrol guard my stupid story. He frowned at me for wasting his time, flagged over another guard, who lifted a cone and sent me coasting northward, away from the mass of waiting cars and Chiclet girls, women begging at closed windows and men carrying wooden crosses strung with piñatas of Donald Trump.
I’m not sure why I tell my dinner date, but I tell him, this stranger: The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific. The people there, some of them anyway, they grew.
Like obese? I’ve heard of that, how the heat can make people—
I interrupt before he can say something offensive: Like giant.
He laughs uncomfortably, really going for it, because he wants to believe this is a joke, but I am not joking. We’re still waiting for our calamari appetizer, and I am maybe moving too swiftly past the bad-jokes stage of our date to the backstory stage, so I ask him if he thinks God created carnivores, and he blinks feverishly like he’s got something in his eye or forgotten his contacts before delivering an actual answer with actual details about the day of the week upon which God created predatory beasts.
I say: Huh. You saw in my profile I’m a scientist, right?
Are you kidding? I love science.
Tell me more about this science that you love.
He starts in about nature and its divinity. In fact, once he says the word divinity I’m off, sort of drifting in my head, across the ocean maybe, maybe like before, coasting on the raft Shasta made, clinging to her bloated shoulder.
When my dinner date is done telling me about the things he loves about science, I ask him, Are you religious, terrified of the answer.
I seek truth, he says, and I stay through dessert just to find out if he’s joking.
As we’re signing receipts on our split bill, he says: You’re much smaller than I anticipated.
Oh? I say, like tell me more.
Like nearly a dwarf, wouldn’t you say?
We don’t hug at the door. I say thanks, and he says, sure, have a good night, and I say, you too, and I know I’ll never see him again, whatever his name is, adrift, drifting, gone.
I coast home in my Yaris, thinking of my cousin Shasta, once so small and meek she’d hide in closets at holiday parties. There were others like her, who swelled so big they couldn’t leave the house, much less work. Our newspapers called it an epidemic, gross malformation of the body, a disease we had to combat collectively. They recommended reducing caloric intake and getting off soda and longer hours in the fields or fisheries. I would visit Shasta from the garden, window open, staring in at her marvelous heft, her many folds, the shine of her skin, too much of it to be covered despite her efforts at modesty. She’d long since grown too big to leave the room, for actual clothes. I’d watch her lift an arm, observe the way the meat shifted with the pull of gravity, and I’d cringe, worrying for her bones, wondering if she would ever walk again.
I’ve got a pretty nice place in Encinitas, just a little in-law along the side of my landlord’s house, near enough to the ocean I can smell it even on a still day. He’s a former marine, a little needy, likes flowers. I see the way he cares for them, and I can’t help wondering if he’s making up for the dirty things he did when he was in the military.
I take a shower and listen to college radio. It’s minimal techno tonight, which suits me fine. I’m not in the mood for words. I shampoo my hair and sort of dance in the spray, when my doorbell buzzes. It’s my landlord.
Oh, sorry, were you in the shower?
It’s okay. What’s up?
I made ice cream. With the new ice cream maker? You wouldn’t want—
Well, I made a vanilla base. Then I added sort of a fudge peanut butter kind of rainbow—
Could you bring it over?
He brings it over and we sit at my tiny two-person kitchen table and he says: You know, it’s nice having you here. Did I ever tell you about the previous tenant?
I shake my head, my face going numb as I shovel-eat.
He’d break into my place when I was gone. Never took anything, but I knew he’d been inside.
How’d you know?
He had a scent. Like an old cheeseburger? I could smell him everywhere.
Was that part of your military training?
He laughs, says: Not exactly.
I’m curious about his military background and bring it up whenever I can. I can tell it makes him uncomfortable, but that’s sort of the point. On the island, we learned to hate the men who marched our streets in uniform, who broke down our doors and took the loudest of us, the most articulate complainers, because our leader didn’t like to compete to be heard. We called him Sam because he asked us to and we were afraid of him. I didn’t know then how he became our leader. It was before my time, history a thing written, a story, and Sam our narrator, all my life. I knew only what my mother told me,
that Sam took the people who could tell any story contrary to his, hundreds of people, which is a lot on a small island like ours.
Where did he take them, I asked, only seven at the time, before I learned to bite back my questions.
They’re not here, are they? She spun around angrily with her sun-scorched bone arms, offering me an empty room, as if to say: Where do you think?
I learned later that Sam had taken my uncle, a scholar, though my mother refused to talk about him, to tell me what it was he studied. I knew for certain it was science by the way she hated my curiosities, the questions I asked about the seasonal storms, our island’s volcanic origins, the stars that showed in patterns.
Glen’s finished off his bowl and is watching me stirring my spoon, turning my ice cream into soup.
Who gave you the ice cream maker?
That’s right. Named for that amazing runner with the fantastic nails?
I have no idea who he’s talking about, but I nod and lift the bowl to my mouth, slurp back my ice cream soup noisily, and I don’t ask him where his daughter lives or what she does, and he doesn’t ask me why I’m alone, and I get to wondering: can you calculate loneliness? Is it a measurable quality? It is hard, being away from home, on the outer rim of a huge landmass. I picture it tipping, consider a regression analysis.
When I was a kid, I loved The Guinness Book of World Records. During “Library” I’d shine my attention on those record holders, the exceptional, always lingering on the tallest woman in the world, the largest. I wondered why it was Shasta grew, the others like her, and not me. I wasn’t the only one to wonder. I was fourteen, living in a boarding house, my mother long gone. One of my bunkmates, Georgette, grew in normal human terms, and she, like many of us, felt angry that she would be small all her life, the unfairness of it, when some got to be so big, so she chucked a rock at Little Dina, who had only begun to grow big and could still go outside and walk. She retained her nickname due to our collective nostalgia for a time before we were divided into two. Georgette was the star center fielder on our high school’s softball team and had fantastic aim, beaning Little Dina right on the crown of her head. She crumpled. Big or small, a rock going at that velocity is going to knock the stuffing out of you. It’s not something we joked about, because Little Dina was concussed and because of what came later.
After supper, we watched at the windows of the boarding house for the men in uniform, for them to take Georgette away for what she’d done, but darkness fell and the men—they never came.
* * * * *
On Thursday, I diddle on my phone while my students hunch over their exam. I can tell by their grim faces they haven’t studied enough. The back-row boys are spitting a steady stream into their empty energy-drink bottles, nerves tightening their faces into angry masks of concentration, and I picture them on the football field, snarling at one another behind protective headgear like mastodons from another epoch ready to collide.
I get up only to erase and rewrite the time remaining on the board: 45 minutes, 30, 20, 10, marking time’s slippage. It’s then that some of them begin to finish, to give up, drop the exam on the edge of my table, and leave the classroom without so much as a goodbye. I don’t understand their rudeness. It’s as if I’m not human to them, not animated flesh and pumping blood, but a mere puppet, an instrument of this institution that will own them for decades, given their student loans. I’m pretty sure they treat all their professors like this, despite Claire’s proclamations at faculty meetings that we’re simply not trying hard enough to connect with them, that we’ve got to really put ourselves out there. But there’s a part of me, a tiny needling curiosity, that wants to grab hold of them and ask: Is it my size?
No one knows why some of us started shrinking. Maybe it was to make room for the others. At least that’s what the working theory was. The big ones had pushed our island to capacity and now we would have to make room.
We didn’t want to admit what we knew: our housemistress, Georgette, the worst of the kids were all losing mass. It was a selection process—I was sure of it, especially when the ugliest of us all, our very leader, stepped up to his podium, visibly smaller. Sam hadn’t been very big to start, and the shrinking was definitely hitting him at a faster rate than the rest of us. By the time he needed a step stool for the podium, I had lost only a quarter inch. It gave me hope; maybe the island would find its balance before it took much more from me.
One night shortly after, fires dotted the island. We got out of our plank beds and watched through the window. We could see the houses that burned in the dark ruin of our generator-run shantytown, and no one said a thing save the housemistress, who shouted: Back to bed! We listened, but I could feel it—no one, not a soul sleeping. We lay silent and alert, ears perked at the distant screaming.
Before the sun came up, the smell of fire still in the air, I went for the outhouse and snuck off, running to Shasta’s. They hadn’t wanted me—my aunt and uncle—after my mother died. They didn’t say why—they didn’t need to. My own mother had nearly thrown me out when she’d learned what I really was, a thief, a coveter of sweet things and silver. I’d been taking them from the hotel where she worked. I’d wait for her in the kitchen after sundown, sitting on the stool near the trashcans buzzing with flies and smelling of sweet decomposition. I was always hungry, and the dessert station was not far, the dirty cutlery scattered on the counter for anyone to take, and I’d only done it a few times before one of the dishwashers caught me slipping a shiny salad fork up my sleeve and proudly handed me over to hotel security. My mother was sanctioned and I was beaten and taken from her, stuffed in a juvenile facility with kids who’d held weapons in their hot hands and lunged, plunging flesh. She never recovered, not even after they gave me back, and I wondered: what had they done to her while I was gone? Within six months she was bedridden, and by the end of the year she was gone, her body burned, her ashes buried in the cluttered cemetery where we made our own grave markers, and I went to live at the boarding house when my aunt and uncle refused to take me in.
My uncle was a fisherman, their house near the water, but even with the ocean breeze, I was sweaty and terrified by the time I got to Shasta’s. My aunt and uncle sat on the front steps. A shotgun rested on my uncle’s knees, and it looked enormous, and that’s when I realized that he was shrinking too.
I told them: We have to get her out. We have to hide her.
They looked at each other and snort-laughed, giddy from a night without rest. To bed, I shooed them, insisting I’d sit at the ready. I told my uncle: Give me the gun.
They listened and I was alone until Shasta called for me and I went to her window.
She whispered: What’s happened?
I told her what Sam had done, lifted the rifle to show her, as if to say: We won’t let them burn you.
She cried then, and I went back to the porch and waited, examining my hands, which I was certain had shrunk some in the night.
I didn’t mean to be angry at my aunt and uncle—they had Shasta to care for, after all—but I was. They’d refused to take me in, made me sleep on a plank bed with all the other thieves and miscreants and indigents who weren’t quite bad enough for prison. We held hands in the dark, our skin marked with the
calluses and cuts of fieldwork, and we promised someday to get even.
I got up from the porch steps and went into the garage for a hammer, went along the side of the house.
Shasta asked: What are you doing?
I wedged the hammer under a board and used my weight to pull it loose.
I told her: I’m taking this wall down.
* * * * *
After the exam, I feed the Scantrons through the machine in the faculty lounge, listening to the markings, all those incorrect answers.
Claire comes in to check her mail. How’d they do?
I doubt there’ll be a problem with grade inflation in my class.
She screws her mouth up tight, tilts her head at me. Do you have a minute?
I follow her to her office, decorated in thank-you cards and pictures from her students, some photos of her last trip to Antarctica, cheeks red like apples from under her fur hood as she soars across the Southern Ocean in a Zodiac.
She asks: Is something the matter?
I tell her: I’m pretty disappointed about my research rejection, but I’ll get over it. I just need to come up with something else to study, to get excited about.
She adjusts her scarves with long, withered fingers, gives me a sad smile: You wanted to go home.
I did, I admit, though I can feel my body clenching, turning smaller I’m so uncomfortable.
It’s understandable that you’d be upset, but I’m concerned for you. Very few faculty, even our biggest stars, can get away with poor student evaluations for more than one semester.
I want to say: So you want me to pander to them, is that it? Instead I ask: What do you suggest?
Encourage them. Let them in. You’re so, you’re so—
It hangs there a long while, this space where a quality should be, me.
All right, I say, I’ll try.
It would be interesting, sharing my story with the faculty. They would challenge me, of course, reduce me again to a girl whose mind is trying to make sense of trauma, like my tutor, my sponsors. It’s easy to say that, almost easy enough to believe.
* * * * *
I skip my spin class with Samantha and go to the beach, feeling lighter, like I might lift up, the water pulling me, so close to the edge. It’s cold, windy, nothing like the heat I grew up with. I try to picture it, the island, but it’s a feeling I get more than a visual, the heft of humidity, the earth in my nails, the scorch of the sun on the crown of my head, the feeling of a hand collaring the nape of my neck.
I see my dinner date jogging toward me. He is shirtless, lean and sweaty, and there’s this slow-motion effect, like Bo Derek in braids, one of the first movies I ever saw, sitting on the couch with my sponsors. It is startling and I avert my eyes, hoping he’ll pass without noticing me. I had expected to never see him again—that is the glory of internet dating.
You, he says, jogging in place.
Hi, I say.
How are you?
Good! Great day, isn’t it?
Do you jog?
He frowns. Does he think I’m making fun of him? Is it because I took God’s name in vain? Is he concerned for my wellbeing? Two words, and we’re lost, afloat, the gravity of our banter broken.
He says: Don’t go that way. Beached whale. Been there a while by the smell.
I ask: What kind? But he’s running away from me, this man who knows more about my story than any of my colleagues or friends.
I go in the direction of the beached whale. The sand is slowing me down, and I never run, but I am running, and there it is, a gray whale, probably a juvenile by its size. Still, it’s massive. A man is on top of it, hacking at it with a knife. I run faster.
Panting, I practically shout: What are you doing?
The man sighs. We’re taking it away piece by piece. If it’s uncomfortable, we recommend you avoid this stretch of beach for a while.
The smell is strong. I run a hand down the whale’s great tail fin, its flesh hot in the sun, thinking of Shasta. As I come around its side, I see that it’s been hacked at for some time now, thick skin spilling the whale’s insides onto the sand.
* * * * *
When my aunt and uncle woke, they were angry. I’d made a hole in the wall of their home without asking. But Shasta was happy. She whispered: Make it bigger.
My uncle waited on the steps with his gun while my aunt helped me with the boards. By nighttime, we’d taken down the wall.
I could see Shasta now, the whole shape of her. Her toes and fingers had grown so plump they’d nearly disappeared. Her neck was gone too.
Help me onto my stomach, she said. We tried for some time but it was impossible, so we called for my uncle, who came around the house irritated and tugging at his oversized jeans. What, he shouted, but when he saw Shasta he stopped short. His daughter, once so tiny, so quiet, was this—I don’t know what words he used in his head, but I could tell he didn’t see her the way I did. He wasn’t in awe. Startled, afraid, a little repulsed, and Shasta—she could see it too. It was etched in her tiny, sunken eyes. She reached out of the house and grabbed hold of the dirt and pulled, and I pushed, my aunt too. My uncle came running, and the three of us hefted her onto her stomach. She lay there heavy-breathing, my aunt adjusting the sheet over her body for propriety’s sake, asking: Are you all right, dear? After a time, Shasta tried to push herself to sitting, to stand, but her body had lost all definition. I couldn’t identify her joints—ankles or knees or elbows. They were all lost to the folds, and my uncle noticed too, turning his back.
Shasta cried. My aunt cried. I remember not crying. I remember saying: We need to get her off this island.
My uncle had a fishing boat, and they knew I was right; she wouldn’t be safe there.
No one said: Where will we take her?
We hefted her into the back of his truck. She was so big by then, we couldn’t close the bed. My uncle whisked a tarp over her and we climbed into the cabin, fitting easily given our reduced size, my aunt in the middle. I watched out the back window the whole way, my uncle going slow, all of us terrified Shasta would spill out onto the dirt road, that someone would see.
It wasn’t far to the water, and my uncle was reversing down the dock, going slowly, when my aunt screeched: Stop!
But by that point gravity was working on the weight of Shasta’s body, the slope of the dock, and she slipped out of the truck bed, rolling down the ramp and into the water. We all erupted out of the truck, calling her name, certain she was gone to us. Heavy as she was, we’d never be able to lift her out of that water.
* * * * *
On Thursday, the lecture is overwater dispersal, and I can’t get my students excited by anything, the spread of seed or disease, even rats, which I thought was a nice way to build on last class’s excitement. They’re all waiting for their exam. Most of them expect to receive a B- or better, even though deep down they know they deserve worse. That’s why they’re agitated in their seats, the back-row boys spitting so quickly I want to warn them about gum disease, mouth cancer. So I give up and hand back their exams as they shuffle out the door. Their smiles crash, heads shake, one kid cusses loudly—at me? It was a Scantron exam, and I can’t control what it is he knows or doesn’t know about the material. The exam hasn’t changed for semesters, with the exception of the order of answers. If he really wanted to do well, he would’ve hunted down an exam from the previous semester, studied that at least.
The mean is a healthy C-. The department will be pleased—well, everyone except Claire. They’ve been complaining about all those As and Bs, which couldn’t possibly be an accurate reflection of their, of their, they stutter. No one wants to say it, to admit that the kids are getting dumber—what would be the evolutionary benefit of that? At a recent faculty meeting, I made a joke about island tameness, kids too dumb to know how dangerous it is to be dumb, to walk right up to you, only to get whacked on the head, the dodos. It was a loose analogy. In truth, I just wanted to say it out loud, to make it known that I think they’re all so very dumb.
In retrospect, that was probably a bad idea.
* * * * *
I spin with Samantha. After, over iced teas and scones, my treat this time, she asks me: Where were you last class?
I went to the beach.
I can’t believe you, she says, like missing spin class is a big deal.
I tell her about running into my dinner date, then about the dinner date itself, and we have a good laugh about that, and she asks me if I’d let her set me up, but the thought of going on a date with a person one degree removed from my orbit fills me with dread, and Samantha reaches under the table and pats me on the knee.
Or not, she says, and I feel it—a current of understanding, my best friend. I’m almost embarrassed realizing it; we barely know each other. And yet it’s true. She is my best friend, this woman I ride a stationary bike next to twice a week, who I drink tea with. I snatch up my tea and tell her I have to go.
I know now: The tallest women in the world are such because of a tumor in the pituitary gland, causing it to release growth hormones perpetually.
I know memory is a living thing, like an organ. It is light and synapse and timing, a miracle, really, and changing daily. I have never written down my story; it lives only in my head and I will never get it right—trauma, doubt, natural decay, all of it working against me.
Often, I catch myself wondering why the island took from me and gave to the others. Yes, I’d stolen, but had that been so bad? I was a child. It hardly seemed fair to be judged based on that. Then the scientist in me shakes her head—couldn’t be. Yet my life, the whole shape of it, changed when that dishwasher decided to turn me in. He probably hoped for a promotion, for a ray of sunshine in our dense-forest island. I hope he got it.
* * * * *
Glen is working in the yard when I pull up in my Yaris. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows and I can see his faded marine tattoos. You’re home early, he calls from his padron plants.
Oh? he says, like tell me more.
I don’t want to talk about it.
I shut myself inside, let the guilt mount and dissipate, before he knocks.
Ice cream? It’s mint this time, with chocolate chunks and cookies?
I can’t tell, but it tastes incredible and I’m nearly crying and Glen reaches across the table, collapses his hand around mine.
It’s nice, he says, having you here, and the way he says it, staring at me with big, hopeful eyes—I pull back, cinch smaller. Then I stand.
Thanks for the ice cream, I tell him, and he stands and I go to the door, open it, wait for him. It doesn’t feel good, shutting him out, but what he’s proposing, no. I can’t be unclear on this. I can’t shake it either, the guilt, the pained look on Glen’s face. I could tell him about Shasta bobbing to the water’s surface, buoyant and floating on her back, my aunt wringing her hands at her chest, the men in uniform shouting from the road. I could tell him about the crack of the gun, my aunt’s scream, the feeling of falling. How I woke to the stretch of ocean, cradled on Shasta’s chest, her body bending and moving us through the water as I bled from the shoulder. I still feel it, the long float, the fluid motion coursing through me, the bullet too, even though they long ago removed it. I could tell him everything, show him the scar, still there—that part of my story inarguable—but he’d never believe me.
* * * * *
Everyone is sulking in the next class, so I decide to take a play from Claire’s book, offering extra credit. A paper, I say and they groan.
I tell them: It’s not as bad as that. Pick any ecological theory or concept we’ve discussed to date. And tell me a story about how it’s affected your life, your choices.
The third-row girl who eats her hair raises a bony arm into the air.
She asks: How long?
Not long. Two pages. Any other questions?
The third-row girl says: I don’t get it.
These things we study, they’re not just concepts in a textbook. They happen all around us, impact our lives. Think about it. We’ve talked about ecological disturbances, fire, wind, floods. We’ve talked about climate, water. We live in a state of perpetual drought!
They all bend over their notebooks, scribbling madly.
Don’t all write about that! Jesus. In fact, no one write about that. Come up with your own idea, your own story. Do you get it?
They don’t get it, I’m guessing by their blank stares, but no one raises a hand, calls out a question. In the silence, I think of Claire’s warning, and I tell my students I’ll be in my office after class if they want to run ideas by me. I’m more than happy to help. Then I smile, or try to anyway, as I dismiss them, and no one says goodbye to me as they shuffle out the lecture hall.
* * * * *
I woke cold, sand in my eyes, up my nose, on my tongue, something wet on my face. A distant shout, and I pushed myself to sitting, my shoulder blazing in pain. I saw the blond dog in my face, picked up a smooth handful of soft yellow sand, and I knew I wasn’t home. I sat there a while, unsure what to do, where to go, light-headed from the hunger, the loss of blood. Shasta, I said to the dog, its owner upon us now. She was speaking to me in English, her face leathery orange. An ambulance came. I was taken to a hospital. When I regained my voice, I asked, embarrassed by my English, never good enough for hotel work, if they’d found my cousin.
The nurses looked sideways at one another.
No, doll, you were found all on your own.
This is where the story starts to fail me, where imagination has to set in to tell the rest, and I’ve never been good at imaginary things. I like to picture Shasta taking to the sea like it was her natural habitat, disappearing in its depths, all those miles to drift and roam. My skin prickles thinking of it, wanting it to be true, for her to be alive somewhere, at home in the ocean.
My aunt and uncle have no phone, and the mail system is heavily censored, but I doubt they’d be there to receive a letter even if I sent one. Disappeared like the others, the island’s population regularly culled, overcrowding never a problem. The tourists still come, jumping through hoops to get there, to its black pebble beaches, the untouched coral jungles and women who laugh at your jokes and speak perfect English. Even though Sam has died, his son has assumed leadership, and he is perhaps worse, even more brutal than the father, if the traces of news I find on the internet are accurate. He is in his forties and quite fit, often photographed on his presidential yacht wearing his signature red Speedo, and I know he’ll never let me come home.
I am looking at a photo of him when there’s a knock at my door, which is open, and I glance up, see one of the back-row boys standing before me. I tell him to come in.
He hovers near my desk and I tell him to sit and he perches on the edge of the seat, still wearing his backpack, as if preparing for a speedy getaway.
He says: I want to write about this bird. It’s really annoying. Makes a sound like a doorbell?
Does it have a white band on its wings, like a stripe?
Yeah, I think so.
Mockingbird. It probably is making the sound of a doorbell. It’s an excellent mimic.
I want to write about that.
Well, what ecological theory were you thinking about?
I don’t know. I want to know how to get rid of it.
Hmm, so you’re interested in species eradication.
Well, you could look into local eradication programs, but those are focused primarily on invasive species. Your mockingbird is a native. It was here long before you.
Could I talk about that?
Yeah, like maybe how the mockingbird evolved and, like, spread? Maybe that would help me figure out how to get rid of it.
Sure, I tell him, feeling a teaching moment here but not having the energy or focus to embrace it.
Cool, he says, bumping my desk as he goes, the plastic cat on my desk triggered, batting good luck.
* * * * *
It’s raining on the way home, heavy, one of the first real storms of the El Niño cycle we can expect this season. Traffic is terrible, accidents every five miles, the giant freeway whittled down to one lane. Everyone is pissed and slamming horns and it’s a rage of red brake lights. Nearly an hour passes before I reach my exit and I feel such relief as I escape my car.
The streetlight is humming, though it’s not quite night yet, the sky that cool navy color it gets in last light. I hustle to the front door, wanting to shut myself inside, cocoon under blankets.
On the doormat is a plate of cookies and a note that says only: Sorry.
I knock on Glen’s door. Why are you sorry?
I feel embarrassed. I overstepped. I’m sor—
Don’t say it again.
I sit down on the porch steps, pat the step next to me. He sits down, careful not to touch me. I turn my knees to face him, careful not to touch him either, the space between us being a carefully kept thing.
I say: Tell me your story.
I think: Maybe I’ll tell you mine.
Katie M. Flynn’s stories have appeared in Carve, Hobart, Joyland Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Recently, she finished her first novel about love, revenge, and uploaded consciousness, the first chapter of which is forthcoming in Indiana Review. She lives in San Francisco and can be found on Twitter: @other_katie.