Straw Men

Bret Farley


      Avery expected her glasses would be an identity-altering accessory. She’d never had to wear them, hadn’t considered how they would change the identity of things as they appeared to her. And even that was a blurred, obfuscated representation of it. They showed her things that no one else could see—and she nearly broke them the first time she saw the creatures. 

      Her parents had just left the kitchen through separate doorways, as was their M.O. of late, when Avery looked up from her oatmeal and noticed a dark splotch, a crack in the surface of the cupboard below the sink. The cupboard wasn’t really cracked; Avery would have seen the bottles of cleaner in there, the swoop of the drainpipe. 

      She yelped when something crawled through the crack and dropped to the floor. Something like a translucent skeleton: cellophane ligaments stretched between its bones; straw-like limbs extended from its torso, which looked to Avery like a spring roll packed with organs and veins. 

      Avery shrieked. Her hands flew to her mouth. Her finger jarred her glasses and they went airborne, bouncing off the edge of the breakfast nook where she sat and hitting the floor with a clatter. She raked them up quickly and looked again, but the thing was gone now—as was the muddy black fissure.

      Avery leaned forward against the table, felt her heart beating against it. She didn’t know when her parents had appeared, but they looked at her now, searching, each from their own side of the room. 

      “I just,” said Avery, noticing the glasses were still in her hand. “I almost dropped my glasses.” And she placed them back on her face. 

      Through them, her parents’ inability to look at each other was sharp, as easily read as the morning paper. 


* * *


      At school, Bernette called Avery’s glasses her “ladykillers.” Bernette was the only other lesbian in the seventh grade, as far as they were aware, so Avery didn’t know what ladies she was killing, exactly. If they wanted to come out, they could go ahead. If not, well, Avery hadn’t really come out, either—at least, not to everyone. She’d only said it to Bernette, and only recently, when the sense of urgency had become overwhelming.

      Widespread was this urgency; the news was rife with talk of WMD’s, which Bernette assured her was just a big straw man. But Avery was the only child in a military family; war was a blemish on the horizon she always imagined she saw. If the blemish hardened into the form of that giant lumbering beast, war, it could descend on her family and rip them apart. 

      “If it’s a straw man or whatever,” Avery had said, “Aren’t they afraid people will figure it out? I mean, why don’t we just… admit it’s all made up?”

      “Pride,” said Bernette. 

      “Hmm. Pride,” said Avery, and she thought how awful pride sounded sometimes, how comforting it sounded at others. She wondered, for example, if she really faced things—really knew she was gay—if she could be proud of that. And if that pride could protect her from people like her mother.

      It seemed to come naturally to Bernette, who fancied herself “queer.” The whole guise suited her: hair slicked and severe, jet black but for the brightly colored tips, the masculine blazers over plaid skirts. Avery would flush sometimes, walking next to her, afraid of what their schoolmates thought and yet comfortable in Bernette’s guard. She couldn’t quite reconcile with the term “queer,” though. “Gay” was hard enough. “Queer” was a term for something odd, something you might squint your eyes at skeptically. The way her parents looked at her, almost knowing. At times, under their scrutiny, she felt like an alien in her own home. A mutant curiosity. As though she were a living skeleton, wrapped in shining membranes, emerging from a crack that could not possibly exist. 


* * *


       Avery saw the things regularly now. She couldn’t help but connect them to her new glasses, could not ignore that they appeared in her parents’ absence, in the spaces they’d just vacated. That was when the fissure would appear, the fabric of her vision peeling back, stretching apart, like it was cracked rubber and her parents were heavy thumbs, rubbing it in opposite directions. 

      Then the Creatures would climb out, eyes and mouths hollow and black. They didn’t seem to care too much about Avery. They were like insects in that way; their awareness didn’t appear to stretch beyond their objective, whatever it was.  

      But they still frightened her. A few times, she’d almost told Bernette about them, but stopped short. She decided if she were going insane, she would rather do so quietly. 

      She would take her glasses off on the walk to the bus, during recess, whenever she didn’t need them. She would keep them in her pocket, if she had one, and they would creak and bend around in there. Sometimes she would hang them from the collar of her blouse. 

      “Nice,” said Brendan Daniels, who was in Mr. Frederick’s class—the same class as Bernette. “I like this,” and he flipped them so they swung back down and plunked her on the chest. 

      Avery wasn’t oblivious; this was flirting. He just didn’t know, was all. She felt moody about it afterward—sorry for him, dumb for having laughed, ashamed for thinking she should have liked getting attention from a boy like Brendan. 

      But she didn’t. Further evidence, she figured. 

      That Saturday, only moments after her father’s car had gone, her mother sat down at the breakfast nook where Avery was having her lunch. The sunlight fell hot across the front page of the newspaper her father had just abandoned. It told Avery it was Saturday, April 26, 2003. Photographs appearing to be aerial images of desert, with some isolated buildings outlined in red, illustrated the headline above: Nuclear Weapons Confirmed, Active.

      “Av,” said her mother. 


      “Do you remember in first grade, when you had that boyfriend? Sean, I think.”

      Avery’s stomach sank. Her mother had waited for her father to leave, to say this. 

      “I remember,” said Avery. “He wasn’t my boyfriend, though.”

      “I thought he was. You used to hold hands with him. Walked to the school bus that way. Sometimes you walked home that way, too.”

      “Mom, we were in first grade.” 

      “How did you know to do it, though? You must have just… wanted to.”

      “We learned it somewhere,” said Avery. “Older kids. The movies. I don’t know—someone else’s happy parents.”

      Her mother, now standing across the kitchen with her butt against the counter, pounced. “There, Av. See? That’s where this is coming from, isn’t it? The music, the language in those books you read. Your… friend, Bernette. You’re just rebelling, because of what happened with me and your father. That’s it, isn’t it?”

      “No, that’s not it.”

      “Then what? What did we do to you? You weren’t always like this.”

      “Like what?”

      Her mother gripped the counter behind her and looked around, her neck strained, her eyes bulging in suppressed fury. “You know what,” she said. 

      Avery felt the tears coming. Her mother was doing it—she was coaxing the thing out of Avery, and Avery had such little control over it. She’d thought she could keep it inside, that she was, even at her young age, at least capable of keeping this part of herself from being ripped from her grasp and laid bare, subject to the light and everything the light does to things not ready for it. 

      “I don’t know what, Mom. I don’t…”

      “Just be honest about liking him.”

      “Who, Sean?” Avery felt her breath coming ragged. “I don’t know. How could I?”

      “Shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t you know, Avery?”

      “What do you want me to say?” Avery shouted, her breath catching, her pitch rising to a squeak. “Do you really want to know? Do you?”


      “Fine! I’m gay, Mom. I’m fucking gay.”

      “Good,” said her mother, leaning forward, aiming the weapon of her body at her daughter. “Tell me how fucking gay you are. But we know better than that. We didn’t raise you this way.”

      “Please don’t bring Dad into this, Mom. He’s not like you.” 

      “And what am I like?”

      Avery’s cheeks went hot. The answers stalled in her mouth, and she only sat, silent, trembling.

      “I see the eye-rolls between you and your father, like I’m some kind of blowhard hick. But I’ve sacrificed for the country. For my family. Did your father fight?” 

      “If you fight,” said Avery, “does that make it okay to judge?”

      “You watch your mouth, Avery. I will judge what I have to. And when your father fucks up, I judge him just like I do anyone. When he quit the firm and we had to sell the car—you remember? They forced him out. I promised not to tell you, but they did. Because he fucked up. And he’ll do it again.”

      “No, he won’t,” said Avery. “Not as a parent, he won’t. Not as my dad.” 

      Her mother only looked at her, then shrugged. When she left the kitchen, Avery half expected the creatures to appear. But they wouldn’t until a few days later. 


* * *


      Avery watched the news, trying to understand it. She got the sense that things were not well between the U.S. and Iraq. She remembered the satellite photographs from the newspaper. It had always seemed like a different planet, even while her mother had been stationed there—a desert planet, so distant that the phone would cut out during their family calls, and she and her father would be alone again. It had felt, during those times, as though even her mother wasn’t completely real. 

      Yet here on the news flashed the footage of a missile launch that had failed. Failed, but that could have—if successful—carried something called a “warhead.” She guessed this was a nuclear something-or-other, and she ran through a mental list of all the unpleasant things that ended in “head”—

      (Maidenhead… blackhead… Godhead…)

      —her parents entered the room, derailing her list. Both seemed to have intended to sit down, and both decided, when they saw the other, not to. As they passed each other and continued on toward the entry through which the other had just appeared, Avery lifted her hands in the air and then dropped them again in flopping surrender. The Surrender Salute, she named it. 

      And as her hands came to rest, the television split and the creatures climbed out, all silhouettes in the glare, as black as the fissure they lived behind. This time, however, they seemed to draw back toward the TV and focus on it.   

      There were three of them. They faced the television screen and began to move, bobbing their heads rhythmically, their scrawny arms dangling and luminous with the TV’s glare. Their motion was unnerving, repulsive, and now Avery saw that they’d begun to drip. A syrupy fluid hung in heavy vines from their rice paper skin. 

      Avery felt the urge to run—an urge stifled by her curiosity. She reminded herself that with the simple removal of her glasses, she could make them vanish, and perhaps this gave her courage, because she pulled herself up from the couch and walked on shaky legs across the living room to where the things were huddled around the television. And as she approached, she realized one of them was mutating: a boiling plume of something was coming off its back like a mushroom—a huge, wet mushroom.  

      Avery stifled a scream and flung her glasses off. This time, her parents did not reappear, and when she’d caught her breath and reluctantly replaced her glasses, the creatures were gone again. 


* * *


      “Shannon, my love,” said Avery’s father. 

      Avery looked up from the table where she and her father sat, her eyes wide. She had not heard him address her mother this way in months—maybe longer. Her mother turned her head enough to show she was listening. 

      “Yes?” she said.

      Her father lowered the newspaper he read. “We’ve entered into negotiations with Iraq. Did you see this?”

      “Of course I did.” She’d turned off the faucet and placed the half-washed plate back into its greasy bathwater. “If I thought it would resolve something, I would have showed you. It just means they need more time.” 

      “Their tests are failing,” said her father.

      “Yes, but they fail for different reasons. You know that; you’re an engineer. Each failure is a step closer to the inevitable.” 

      “What’s inevitable?” asked Avery.

      Her mother turned and looked at her as though she’d forgotten Avery was there. “Oh, it means something that, no matter what you do—” 

      “No, I know what it means. But what?”

      “Oh, you know what it means?” said her mother, turning back to the dishes. “Of course you do.”

      Her father cleared his throat. “What’s inevitable is, well… these countries—they don’t fear war, necessarily. Because death is just a gateway. War can be a means to that end—a deed. And win or lose, live or die, there’s still an afterlife they believe will favor that deed.”

      “Favor it?” Avery asked. “But—so it would treat them better because they started a war?”

      “Yes,” said her mother. “It’s in their bible. When they die, wherever it is they go, it’s better to have started a war than to have done nothing.”

      “And in America,” said her father, still watching his wife’s back, “it only matters if you win.”

      “Not in Heaven, though,” said Avery.

      “No,” said her father. “Just here.”

      “It’s gotten us where we are,” said her mother. 

      Her father looked at Avery over his glasses, his eyebrows theatrically arched.

      “It’s gotten us where we are,” he echoed. Avery looked over to make sure her mother was still turned, then smiled covertly at her father, who smiled back. 


* * *


      Avery and Bernette sat in the grass on the outskirts of the playground, as they always did during lunch, and Bernette was picking grass and piling the blades on her knee. She was slightly chubby, but her legs were soft, without dimples, and Avery couldn’t help but admire them.

      “Are you staring at my legs?” asked Bernette. 

      “Hah,” said Avery. “Is there some lesbian code that says I can’t?”

      “It says the opposite, actually.”

      Avery turned, her face flushing, and noticed Brendan among a group of boys cutting across the grass from the basketball courts. When he lifted his shirt to wipe his face, Avery caught a glimpse of his thin, boyish stomach. He broke off and ran over to where the two girls sat.

      “Hey,” he said. “Hold on. Just let me—” Kneeling, he plucked Avery’s glasses off her face and put them on.

      “Ew, Brendan!” she said. “You’re going to get them all sweaty and gross.”

      “I can’t see anything in these!” he said, and began writhing on his back in the grass. “I’m blind! God Jesus help me, I’m blind!” He looked ridiculous, Avery thought, but kind of cute, with the feminine horn-rimmed frames glittering on his sweaty, angular face. When Bernette took the clippings from her knee and threw them at Brendan, he stopped and got to his feet, wiping Avery’s glasses off with the corner of his shirt. Then he handed them back.

      “Thanks?” she said. 

      “But really, they look pretty on you,” he said. “I mean, they don’t look pretty. You look pretty. In them.”

      “Shut up,” said Avery, rolling her eyes away and over to Bernette. She saw Bernette shoot him the look of death. 

      “Let’s go, Avery,” she said, getting up. “The bell’s going to ring.”

      On their way, they passed the teacher’s lounge, which had, to Avery, only ever been a blur of figures standing or sitting about, usually accompanied by the biting smell of stale coffee. Now she clearly identified a sink, a microwave, the offending coffee pot. Teachers stood in a crowd around the television in the corner of the room, watching a news broadcast—more missile tests, it looked like. The footage cut to a desert-scape, from a distance, blinking white for a second, reappearing as clouds that bulged and swelled as if alive. One of the clouds flumed up into the air and circled out and back into itself as it rose; the other rippled outward along the ground. 

      Avery caught her breath and, realizing she’d been noticed, turned away and began walking again. She heard the door of the teacher’s lounge shut quietly behind her. Bernette had kept walking, and was nowhere in the hall, which was quickly emptying of everyone but Avery.  

      Bernette wasn’t waiting at the benches, either, when Avery came out of seventh period, so she walked home in solitude. 

      Her father’s car was parked on the street behind her mother’s Jeep, and Avery couldn’t help thinking, at first, what a nice surprise this was, both parents home early.  She stepped lightly up to the front door, which was propped open behind the storm door. But she didn’t go in, just sat in the cool of the steps and listened. 

      “Now?” she heard her father say.

      “Yes, now.”

      “Shannon, look—Jesus, I can’t know what it was like for you, growing up with your father. But you’re acting just like him.”

      “I’ll tell him you said so,” said her mother. “It’ll break the ice.”

      “What is so hard about staying? In your own goddamn home? Huh?” He was following her mother into the kitchen, it sounded like. “Do you want us to end up like your parents?”

      “That was their decision.” 

      “We might not have the time.” Her father’s voice trembled with rage. “With all the—you could be deployed soon anyway. And we might not be here to come back to, you know.” 

      “I don’t know, Phil. And you don’t know. Is there really a good time for this?” 

      The question dangled over a stretch of silence, in which Avery bit her lip against the tears she felt coming. 

      “There have been better times,” said her father. “There will be better times.” 

      Avery heard footsteps coming toward the door and stood up in the doorway. Her mother paused with her hand on the storm-door handle, and looked at her daughter’s trembling lip, her red, splotchy eyes. But she only pushed the door wide and brushed past Avery, taking the porch steps heavily, not looking back until she was in her Jeep. 

      Avery watched her mother drive away, then stomped into what used to be her family’s house, expecting her father to be somewhere within, waiting for her. Had she not been so distracted by her mother’s departure, she might have felt the swelling and cracking of air behind her; she would not have stepped directly into the roughly girl-sized fissure that peeled open violently in her mother’s wake. 

      She couldn’t have described it, but it wasn’t like falling. More like being hung delicately by the toes and feeling her body stretch down, like pizza dough succumbing to gravity. Only this gravity seemed to originate from everywhere; she felt her mass being pulled outward in all directions. The smell was like the atmosphere before a storm, and her vision had intensified—she could actually see around things, the lights and darks of which were blown out and reversed. Avery thought of the negatives that would slip out from the pockets in her parents’ photo albums. When she looked down at her arm, she could see her own pocked bones through the skin. The room faded into a blackness murky with something else, as though she’d closed her eyes and yet continued to see those nebulous shapes of color. 

      Out of this blackness emerged one of the creatures. Avery could only watch it approach, until its hollowed eyes and mouth were very near hers. It smelled like a dry wind blowing up from the earth—the air that rose up from the Grand Canyon, that’s what it was like. Not quite organic, neither alive nor dead. 

      Words began to form in her head. It was a painfully slow process. She felt like a child learning to read. They weren’t just words; they were a name. And the name was surrounded by other words, which began to say something—to mean something. They were factual. They became, in fact, all she knew.  


  * * *


      “What happened to your glasses?” asked Brendan. He and Avery sat in deepening twilight, on the bench where she and Bernette would normally meet after school. The bench was pretty well hidden, but Avery still felt as if they were being watched. And they’d just been kissing, which was awkward enough without Avery having decided to reach down and slip her hand up the leg of his basketball shorts. When she’d touched it, it had throbbed, and she’d quickly but subtly removed her hand. 

      “Oh,” said Avery. “I broke them.”

      “What? How?”

      “I… fell.” She laughed. “It was stupid. My mom was leaving, and I wasn’t paying attention.” 

      Avery thought about elaborating, because he looked a bit confused. Probably figured her mom had been leaving, as in, for work, and couldn’t quite understand why that would make her fall. 

      “Do you need new ones, then?” he asked.  

      “Nope. Just a new lens, I think. My dad’s taking them in tomorrow after he drops me off.” 

      “So you can’t really see anything right now?”

      Avery smiled. “I can see.” And although she knew it was a terrible idea, she couldn’t help siding over to Brendan and resting her head on his shoulder. She just wanted to feel his arm pull her close, which it did. And they sat like that a while. 

      “It’s getting late,” he said, finally. “I have to—”


      “Hey. I liked it. I like that you wanted to. You know.”  

      She laughed quietly at her shoes, but she felt that, by touching Brendan, she’d betrayed her parents somehow, had betrayed herself, even. The feeling was familiar; she’d had it before—and recently. But whom had she betrayed? It wasn’t the relief she felt at her mother’s leaving, or even that she’d agreed to meet Brendan. It felt like the residual guilt of something she’d done in a dream.  

      Brendan stood on the bench and pulled Avery up, too, and when they kissed again she felt the eyes of the world on her—imagined that even those creatures were watching, from their own world. When she shuddered, she told Brendan it was nothing; the air was getting chilly, was all.  


* * *


      Three days later, as Avery sat eating her cocoa puffs, the name lit up in her mind: 

      Delores Sorenson.

      Like a character from a long novel, it dripped down her tongue and trembled there at the tip; she felt she would need to speak it before it would fall free.

      Delores Sorenson. But who was that? Why did it feel so familiar? Like any name that inexplicably presents itself, this one festered.

      She stood and searched the kitchen for something to write on, ultimately grabbing the newspaper lying on the table and snatching up a pen from the counter. She’d just scribbled the name, in small print, along the margin, when the headline on that particular page sunk in: 

      Despite Talks, War Still a Threat

      Avery mouthed the word. 


      Her mother had eased her into this without Avery’s realizing it. She must have known it was more probable than it seemed. And if she knew, maybe her father knew, and—was this the crux of all their fighting? 

      Whatever the crux, her mother had not returned. She’d called a few times, and the muffled, one-sided dialogue Avery could hear through her bedroom wall offered only vague clues. All Avery could gather was that they’d been angry, terse conversations—all except one, a few nights before. Her father’s muffled tones had given Avery some hope, the way he’d seemed to ramble, laughing at times, speaking gently at others, as if to a puppy.  

      “Dad,” she said now, as her father stumbled into the kitchen, still groggy from sleep. 

      “Yes, Av.”

      Avery hesitated. She wanted to ask about the phone calls. But it would only be a futile effort to keep her mother in the conversation—and in that way, the house. She wavered, tried to find the right phrasing, failed. Instead, she asked the next question that came to mind.

      “Who’s Delores Sorenson?” 

      Her father turned and stared at her, searching her face. His own face went pale, his red eyes fought to widen. “What?” he finally managed.

      “Delores Sorenson,” said Avery, more quietly this time. 

      “I—well, she—” Her father searched the ceiling, distracted, even desperate. “She works with me. She’s a consultant. Engineering consultant.” 


      “I’ve mentioned her before. She’s been good for the firm. You know, and her name’s got a ring to it. Once you hear it…” 

      “Oh,” said Avery. “Yeah. Delores Sorenson. You’re right. She sounds like a character in a book or something.” 

      Her father turned and looked around a long time before he found the loaf of bread sitting on the counter. He dropped two slices into the toaster and faced Avery again.

      “How are you feeling today, Av?”

      “Fine, I think.”

      “Good,” he said, and took a deep breath. “You know your mother does this. Every so often.”

      “It feels different this time.”

      “It’s not. It’s just that she needs to feel like she’s doing something. Not just being a housewife.”

      “But she’s not a housewife,” said Avery. “And—being a housewife is doing something.”

      “Not to her. It’s not the right kind of sacrifice. It’s not the identity she wants. Her parents were the same, always gone. Career officers. Anyway, she should be here, with you. But she wasn’t raised that way, so I guess neither will you be.” 

      Avery laughed a small, humorless laugh. This made more sense than she wanted it to, and she felt as though he wasn’t only talking about her mother, or housewives. She wondered if he knew his daughter was probably gay, and then thought it wouldn’t have mattered—not to him. But then, as her father left the kitchen, she realized what the conversation had become: an attempt to distract.  

      The toaster kicked up its toast, and at the sound, Avery stood resolutely and found herself walking down the hall to her parents’ room. Her father stood in the master bathroom preparing for a shower, naked from the waist down. When he saw Avery in the mirror he spun away and grabbed his towel.

      “Avery, Jesus.”

      “Delores Sorenson,” said Avery.

      Her father looked at her through the mirror, tightening his towel.

      “What is she, like a girlfriend?”

      “Avery, I’m not dressed.” 

      “I heard you talking to her. On the phone the other night. Is that why Mom left? I mean, the real reason?”

      “Whoa, Av. That is not what you heard, so you can stop right there. I was talking to your mother. We’re working through it.”

      “Why isn’t she here?”

      “That’s enough. Do you realize you’ve just accused me of cheating on your mother?” 

      “Tell me I’m wrong, then,” said Avery, her strength waning. “Please. I need you to tell me I’m wrong.”

      Her father, still in his towel and t-shirt, walked around the bed and stood in front of her. Avery realized how old he looked, how tired. “I know it’s been… confusing, Av. I know you need a reason. But I don’t have one for you. Not even a bad one. Okay? She’s just gone.”

      Before she could sob, Avery walked out of the room and back down the hall. Her cocoa puffs had turned to soggy globs in her bowl. She searched the room for traces of her mother, but she’d disappeared so quickly from the household, from all its objects. She hadn’t missed her mother in a long time, but she realized how achingly she wanted her presence, now—even if it meant she would leave again, even if it meant the creatures would return. 

      And as though she’d summoned them with her thoughts, the fissure appeared. Despite the fact her mother hadn’t been there for days. It opened between Avery and her father.

      The things crawled out as they normally did, and just like the last time, they nosed around until they found the newspaper lying face-up on the table. There were three of them again, and they surrounded the newspaper and began their rigid bobbing, staring down at it. 

      A wind blasted through the fissure and knocked the paper open, tearing at its pages until they came apart and began swirling and flying in all directions. 

      Avery screamed. The creatures vanished. A moment later her father rushed in to see thirty or so individual pages of the daily newspaper drifting down and coming to rest across the kitchen floor. His hands went to his hips, one of them still holding the deodorant he’d been applying. He regarded Avery with the same weariness she’d just seen in the creatures as they surrounded the paper, looking upon humanity, perhaps. He seemed to be searching for a path that would lead her through, beyond all of this, to something good. 


* * *


      Brendan grabbed Avery’s hand over the armrest before the movie had even started, and so she sat, her cold fingers enveloped in Brendan’s warm, sweating hand, the theater’s air conditioning occasionally blowing the smell of popcorn down the rows of seats. They’d gotten a large Coke to share, and halfway through the movie she had to pee. 

      On her way out of the bathroom, Avery caught herself smiling in the large mirror over the sinks. She tried for a moment to imagine that this fluttering emotion—almost like the stirrings of an illness—might be the same thing so many people had come to know, throughout the world and its history. The intoxication of someone unique and mysterious wanting to know her made it easy for Avery to ignore the discomfort of it. It felt too strange, and yet it was something she could wrap around herself, a camouflage in the pattern of normalcy. 

      As she walked back toward the dim wings extending out beyond the lobby she spotted a group of girls by the concessions. They were girls from school, from her own grade, though she didn’t know all their names. A few of them looked in Avery’s direction, holding their candy and drinks, laughing. Avery tried to push away the sense, always on the periphery, that they were laughing at her.  

      One of them waved, then leaned over and squeezed the small pre-pubescent breast of one of her friends. Avery thought her name was Chloe. 

      Chloe was holding one of those cheap, floppy paper boats, the kind they always served hot dogs in at multiplexes. She plucked the hot dog from its bun, unadorned with condiments, and it stood lazily up in her fingers like a rubbery erection. The troupe burst into laughter and Avery turned away, continued to walk toward the theaters. 

      Perhaps if Avery, furious, shocked, had not chanced a last glance over her shoulder, things might have turned out much differently. But she did, and they saw her look, laughed again, and one of them reached over to the hot dog Chloe still held and pretended to stroke it with a fist. 

      This elicited a fresh burst of laughter. The hot dog slipped from Chloe’s grasp and fell, hitting the glossy floor with a smack. More laughter ensued. 

      Avery watched all of this with such clarity that for a moment she hated her glasses. She wanted to fling them under her feet and crush them into the tile. Without them, she would not have known. But did she know? She had suffered her share of teasing; she was odd, her appearance boyish, her voice nasal. She knew she wasn’t popular. Something like this, what these girls were doing, could certainly be just a random instance of meanness.

      And yet she knew; there was no other explanation than this: the boy sitting in the theater, waiting for her return, had exploited her single greatest moment of doubt, her first real wavering of self-knowledge.  

      Avery stopped, turned around, and, afraid she wouldn’t make it out before bursting into hysterics, began to jog past the bathrooms and toward the front of the theater. 


* * *


      Avery’s father must have seen her face as she climbed into the Honda Accord, because he said nothing beyond “Hi.” The large Coke amplified the tension in her stomach, but she still agreed to some Dairy Queen, and the two of them sat in the parked Accord and ate in silence. 

      Finally, her father looked over, a mouthful of sundae, and asked, “Did he try something?”

      “No, Dad. It wasn’t anything like that.” 

      “It just, it would have to be pretty bad, for you to leave him there. He thinks you ditched him. You understand that, right?”

      “I know. He’s right—I did ditch him.”

      “Because of something he did, though?”

      “Yes. That’s all I want to say, Dad. It wasn’t a big thing, it was just… he told people something. I think.”

      Her father lifted his head in a nod of revelation, but said nothing. 

      “I just want to go home,” said Avery. 

      “Okay. We can. But I have to say something. I feel I should apologize.”


      Her father sighed heavily. “Because, the name you mentioned the other day. Delores.”

      “Delores Sorenson.”

      “I don’t know how you knew. But yes. Girlfriend was right, I guess.”


      “I was seeing her. It’s over. And it’s not why your mother left. She doesn’t know.”

      “You cheated on Mom?”

      “Av, honey. I’m sorry. It’s not easy to explain.”

      Avery sat, her lips tight. If her mother hadn’t left because of her father’s infidelity, then Avery and her father had simply not been enough. “I don’t want to know, anyway,” she said.  

      “After that third time she left,” her father continued, as though he hadn’t heard. Maybe he hadn’t. “It was easier when it was just her and I. But when you were born, she was supposed to get out. That’s what we’d talked about. I was stupid to be surprised—she’s different now. She’s not the same person I made those plans with.”

      He paused, getting control of his voice. 

      “It doesn’t excuse it, though. I never should’ve—” He cut himself off, shaking his head.

      “No, you shouldn’t have,” said Avery. She looked out the window. A row of cars lined the back of the lot where they had parked. The lamp lights glinted off the tops of them, glowed brightly in their mirrors. She had always relied on her father, the pragmatic, straight-laced engineer, to make sense of the world’s madness. He was supposed to be her beacon in all of this. But now, how was he any different from her mother? He was here, and she wasn’t, and that was all. 

      “Are you going to tell her?” her father asked. 


      “I’m sorry. You’re not obligated to keep it secret. It’s just—” 

      “No,” said Avery. “As long as it’s over.” But she decided in that moment that her mother could never know, could never see her father as anything but stupidly devoted, faithful to a fault. What mattered was that Avery remained on the more blameless side, vindicated because her mother’s sins, as far as the three of them knew, were greater.

      “Thank you,” her father said.

      There was a moment of quiet, then Avery said, “Dad, let’s go home.” 


* * *


      That night, the Skeletons spoke to her. 

      They approached through the inky, directionless soup, and when she asked them what they wanted, they said, “Only to live.” Which Avery could have guessed. So she asked what they were, and they said, “We are you.”

      Then where was their flesh? And their hair and skin? 

      “These are like pride,” they said. “We are weightless without them.” 

      “You have weight.”

      “Only on your side,” came the answer.

      Then the creatures slipped her new glasses onto her face, and through them, they were more human.

      It had made sense in her dream, but she awoke not understanding. 

      At school she walked up to Bernette, stood in front of her, studied her face. She wanted to know if Bernette knew, or had heard anything. Bernette took a long time coming around to look at her. “Where’s Brendan?” she asked.

      “I don’t give a shit.”

      Bernette lowered her eyelids. “What happened?”

      “Nothing happened. I just don’t care where he is.”

      “You seemed to care yesterday, and the day before.”

      “Well, I don’t today.”

      They navigated the school hallway for a while, not speaking. Then Bernette stopped and faced her. “Serious question: what’s going on with you?”

      “What do you mean?” Avery noticed they’d stopped in an empty, somewhat private section of the hall.

      “You were ready to—” Bernette lowered her voice to a whisper, “to come out. Even to your parents. And now?”

      “What did you hear?”

      “Just that you were seeing Brendan. I wasn’t sure I believed it.”

      Avery began walking again, leading Bernette outside, finally stopping in front of the basketball courts. Students poured from busses and hopped out of cars in front of the school entrance. 

      “I’m still gay,” said Avery. “Don’t worry.”

      Bernette laughed. “To quote a wise man, ‘I don’t give a shit.’”

      “Hey. Being gay doesn’t make me a man.”

      “Makes you wise, though.” 

      Avery smiled. It was late May. School would be out in a few weeks, and it was getting hot. The two girls stood watching the procession for a minute before turning and heading back in for first period.

      In third period, the news broke. 

      Fifteen explosions had ripped through cities across the United States—all within a few minutes of each other. A highly synchronized effort. Al-Qaeda had claimed responsibility, had threatened further attacks. The devices had made their way to Detroit, Las Vegas, San Francisco—very near Avery’s little world. The school canceled classes immediately, and Avery met up with Bernette briefly at the bench, but the bus was leaving and she didn’t want to walk home. 

      As Avery walked from the bus stop, the midday sun cast shadows at unfamiliar angles. One or two cars rumbled by on the quiet lane, but beyond that the neighborhood felt vacant, intensifying the nightmarish quality of the day. Even the birds were silent; the dogs didn’t dare bark. Perhaps, thought Avery, the more perceptive species of the earth could sense that something was coming. The weather was clear, sunny, a slight breeze cooled the air intermittently, but beyond that it was quiet—so when the long mournful howl of sirens broke the still air, Avery began to run. 

      She burst through the front door into her quiet house. She didn’t notice the bag by the door, too focused was she on the fissure that had opened up, smoky and black against the door at the end of the hall. 

      She went numb. She imagined nuclear missiles—warheads—shedding long thin trails of white steam over the expanse of ocean toward the coast-line. 

      Where were the creatures? They were the only ones capable of stopping this; the people who had begun this could not take it back, couldn’t turn it off, wouldn’t have anyway. Avery knew they would not admit their folly: that their religion had not aged well, that their God must be insane, to want this for his creations.

      Drunk with panic, she ran toward the fissure. If she could fall into it again, perhaps she could communicate with them. And barring that, she might at least be safe in there, the other place, beyond the fissure. 

      So she ran down the hall, reached toward the crack, had almost touched it when it vanished, and she fell into her parents’ bedroom door with her shoulder. It swung open, spilling her onto the carpet at the foot of the bed.

      “Ow,” she said.

      She climbed to her feet to see her mother, turned and securing her bra, her jeans mostly pulled up to her hips, and on the other side of the bed, her father, also pulling on his pants, also working to cover himself under the circumstances. They’d been too busy to hear any news reports. And now sirens blared on a clear day, and their daughter was pulling herself up at the foot of their bed. 

      “Avery,” said her mother. 

      “Why are you here?” Avery said. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

      “I do,” said her mother.

      “No, you don’t get it!” shouted Avery. Of course she didn’t get it. Avery had told her nothing. Her father stood, still shirtless, at the side of the bed, obviously not understanding Avery’s anger.

      “Avery,” he said. “The sirens—”

      “You have to leave, Mom!” Avery screamed. “You have to go. Just, at least down the hall.” She was shaking. “Please!

      “Avery—” her mother started.

      “Get the fuck out of here!” Avery screeched. 

      Her mother’s face dropped into a grim mask. She acknowledged the sirens, Avery thought, with a flick of her eyes—as if to say, this is not the time. But what she actually said was, “Give me a reason, Av.”

      Avery looked at her father. It wasn’t pity she felt; it was sorrow, and regret. And she could feel, like she could feel the missiles approaching over hundreds of miles of ocean, the name form in her head: 

      Delores Sorenson.

      Just as she knew it would form in her mouth, in the air, against her mother’s ears. It could not be stopped. 


Bret Farley grew up in northern California, drawing comic books and reading heaps of novels. He worked as an animator for the better part of a decade before leaving the industry to focus on his children and his writing. His work has recently appeared at Rain Taxi and The Corner Club Press. He lives in small-town Minnesota, where he consumes and produces literature in reckless amounts.


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