Still Literary Contest Fiction Winner: Rachel Hale Drew
Rachel Hale Drew holds an MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. She writes stories because the phrases persist in foaming up from the grey matter, the fence line, along the highway. Her work is published or forthcoming in several journals, including ElevenEleven, Mad Hatter’s Review, and The Single Hound. She hails from Central Kentucky and writes, teaches and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, far too many cats, and the dog.
Fiction contest judge Connie May Fowler writes of Rachel's story: "'Squatters' is beautifully written, is fully manifested, and I love the chances it takes. I was laughing out loud in places, and the ending, for me, was pitch perfect."
I’m a passenger in a Mustang in Cincinnati, and I’m wondering why Daddy had to die in the living room. Was that really better for everyone? Derek is getting more irritated in the driver’s seat. I know that he can’t find the turn, and we’re getting more and more lost. I know, but I have to admit that I care more about other things—Daddy dying, Mama being too quiet, animals and their peculiar familiarity, the way TV light is always day-glow and frightening on people’s faces. Very tangibly, I feel nothing about this little drama in the car. I care more about everything else in the world than I do about Derek and whether or not we get to the clinic on time.
“Look at the map, damn it,” he’s saying. “Just look at the map! Where are we?”
I’m not looking at the map. I’m remembering sunbathing in the front yard of our old house. Mom next to me in a green string bikini her pregnant belly shining with baby oil, me in my Wonder Woman Underoos, our yard encircled by wild bushes and trees, our garden and tobacco base just over the hill, cicadas singing. Why is it always summer in memories of childhood? The map is in my fists, oily and damp, the corners scrunched into balls. Not even close to the consistency of oily sheets. I know it seems I’m behaving in an irrational, childish manner, but I don’t want to explain my silence. The buildings are close together, brick and old. We could be in Lockland, some other borough, certainly not downtown. Who cares? My toes are frozen in my sandals, but I refuse to ask Derek to turn off the air conditioner, because I refuse to speak, because I’m afraid I can’t.
“Cora!” he screams. He pauses, and I still feel nothing. He tries again, softer. “I don’t know why you haven’t said a fucking word in the past fucking hour, but I am at the end. I’m at the end; I’m going to kill us both.”
I ponder this, ignore the flinch of fear in my gut (I suppose I really am still feeling things). Is it possible he would really kill us? Whirl us straight into this oncoming Greyhound, that bus-stop booth? It might be better to die now, just the two of us—three if you count the squatter in my uterus—rather than wait until later this morning so we can kill the squatter; then I can kill myself; then he can kill himself. Maybe the logical thing to do, the rational thing to do, would be to crash now.
“Maybe you should,” I say.
Derek veers to the side of the street so fast, slams that steering wheel to the right with such force it seems we might actually die. We lurch forward, my knees hit the dash, and we stop. There is something about the size and shape of things in the car that doesn’t make sense. It’s probably just impact-oriented, bruised knees, confused perception. I sit so still, so quietly and calmly, telling myself, “you are strong and cold, you feel nothing, the world doesn’t matter,” like I’ve been doing all day. The little silver mustang on the hood is as still as I am.
Our first night alone we drove to a lock on the Kentucky River. We walked out over the water, sat on the concrete, stared at stars. In the sky, some 500 yards away a train bridge’s silhouette blocked the moon. His smell was sharp, animal. There was a rumbling in my chest like galloping, like hooves, like I was two seconds away from learning the meaning of life, but I no longer cared about the meaning of life.
“Can you hear that?” he whispered.
“There are no coyotes here.”
“Sure there are.”
All I heard was water, loud water, rushing, falling, swirling. A loud, eternal water scream.
“I hear water,” I said. And that smell of Derek, of animal, it mixed with the smell of river and the water’s screaming, and I could only think of my father in camouflage pants. The smell of canvas and rifle oil.
“Your eyes. Look at your eyes,” Derek said.
“What?” I said, and I thought about dying things.
“You’re a bug-eyed angel.” And he put his lips on mine and his hands at the back of my neck, and he exhaled into me.
Maybe that’s all it takes to make me fall in love: sensations and memory; water, animals, bourbon.
Derek slams the door and starts pacing around the car like a circling wolf. He opens my door, letting in the strange city noises, the world at large, I suppose: all this talking, running together, car engines, cars honking. Then he rips the map from my hands and shuts the door again. I touch my stomach reflexively.
“I don’t love you,” I say to no one in particular.
At the clinic there are herds of girls and herds of women, but Derek’s the only guy. I suppose I should feel grateful. He shifts in his seat, leans away from me. I look more closely at the form and clipboard in my hands. The words run together and form almost perfect, gray rectangles on the white paper.
“You’re not writing anything,” Derek says into his shirt collar, looking away.
“No, I’m not,” I say a little too loudly. If my mother were here she’d fill the form out for me. The girl across the hall looks up. Her eyes are red. Her hair is long and stringy, and she’s wearing a shirt that reads, “I’m with stupid.” She’s staring at me like I know something, like we have connection, like she’s waiting for me to tell her what it is.
“We’re all pregnant,” I say to her.
“Shh,” Derek, turning toward me.
“It’s no secret. We’re not alike or anything. Lots of women end up here.”
“Cora, shut up.”
The girl is crying again, head in her hands. If I feel remorse I must feel it somewhere other than the usual spot in my chest. Perhaps, if I try I can feel it down lower, where that life force is, the one that’s sucking mine. I wonder what my mother would think if she knew about it, knew I felt this way about it. I can imagine for a moment that I feel its form inside, the imprint of its head against the wall of my belly. Derek takes the clipboard, starts writing things, words, numbers. The pen is shaking in his hand.
The day after I took the pregnancy test Derek said that what happened between us was like a detour. His life took a detour and he felt like he needed to get back on track; like he didn’t even belong in this version of things. He stood there with his fat head and his freckle in the frenum and he said that. His life took a detour and that trajectory threw my life onto a completely different path. In yet another stream I didn’t tell him I was pregnant. I took the test alone and decided what to do alone. I didn’t let him touch me and then touch other women and then me again. In an alternate universe I didn’t meet Derek at a keg party where I ignored much more decent guys because they lacked his vocabulary. I didn’t let him kiss me at the lock. In a simultaneous reality no second body exists inside my body, and so deleting it from this version too seems natural.
In the counselor’s office I sit straight and tall in my seat. This is how I will be, I’m thinking, straight and tall. The counselor is fat, which is odd to me, but I’m not sure why I think it’s odd. I also expected someone older, more hardened to the ways of the world. Someone really hard. Derek sits in the chair next to me. His knee bounces to some sticky rhythm only he knows.
“Why did you decide that an abortion is the right choice for you?” the counselor’s asking.
I hate diapers, rattles, thermometers, baby-sitters, potties, dollies, anything that ends in “ies,” baby stories, welfare, mini vans, colic, visitation rights, baby daddies, that time Mom said, “The doctors say it’s just a matter of time for your Dad,” Sunday school, day-care centers, sales on baby lotion, ripping vaginas, my feet in metal stirrups, teddy bears, Dr. Spock, muumuus, house shoes, scheduled sex, marriage, single parents, those judgmental stares, and living in sin.
“I’m not financially or emotionally ready to be a mother.”
“And what about you, Derek, is it?”
“Were you part of this decision, Derek?”
He’s turning red, saying something that we planned to say. Telling her how he’s not ready to be a father, doesn’t have a stable job, wants to finish college, doesn’t want to be stuck with me for the rest of his life, fears he’ll commit suicide. Whatever.
“Did you hear me, Cora?” The fat lady again, smiling.
“Do you have some sort of support for when you leave here? Someone to talk to?”
“My therapist,” I lie. Is it possible that they won’t let me have an abortion? Can I be deemed unfit to get an abortion?
“Oh, good,” she smiles, “very good. Now I just need you to sign this release, and we’ll be all done.”
“What does it look like right now?” I ask.
The floor is wavy. The pattern on the floor is purple and blue, beige and green in waves.
“It’s so early. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Well, at two weeks it’s just a cluster of cells. It looks like a blob of snot.”
Derek’s face is calm and white.
“Blob of snot,” we say almost in unison. I’m a little slower. I can hear my “t” carry in the sterile room a second past his. Would I have said it at all if he didn’t start it? Did I hear him subconsciously? Bl…then almost together…ob of snot. The counselor looks concerned, flushed. I wrap my arms around my stomach and cradle it, the snot blob.
After the procedure I’m riding in the car again, only this time I’m in the back and Derek seems to know where we’re going even though I can’t believe we’re really headed anywhere anymore. Something’s not right, and it’s not just the drugs. My nipples are still distended and this stung pink color that showed up after the blue line in the test. Pink and blue. Was it a boy or a girl? Was it distinguishable? Was it a he, a she? A litter?
I press my hands into my sore abdomen. Is it possible that the blob escaped the suction? Could it still be clinging, nestled into some minute part of my uterine lining? I tap the back of Derek’s head.
“Do you think it worked?”
“Don’t scare me with questions like that.”
“Seriously, what if they missed it? What if I’m still pregnant?”
“They don’t make mistakes like that!”
“How do you know? I’m serious. I don’t feel right.”
“Cora, please shut up.”
He’s right, of course. I press my stomach again, and I don’t feel anything but sore, not even hungry. It’s dead. It must be dead; there could be law suits, scandals. The doctor must be careful. So it’s dead, disappeared, and there sits Derek, and how is that? How is it that Derek didn’t want to create anything and neither did I really, but we did? And then how can we just decide to end what we started? How can something like semen make and break a life like that? If it can get inside my egg, make me pregnant, could it be in other parts too? Is it in my brain making me crazy?
I’m half sperm, my father’s half. He came home from the war with a benign tumor (the same one that came back malignant 14 years later), got my mother pregnant, seemed just fine. I rub the pointy anomaly on my wrist and the one on my knee. My bone spurs, my benign, hard, completely inconsequential birthright. I can’t get this stupid cliché out of my head, “The buck stops here.” I don’t even know what it means.
Derek’s looking strangely cheerful and saying something about how I can drink now if I want to. His apartment is quiet and dark. The plan was to take me back to my dorm, but for some reason he has brought me here where I don’t belong. Some machine is whirring softly, probably the air conditioner. I’m less groggy, more sore, throbbing like menstrual cramps. Derek’s still looking strangely cheerful, pouring shots of bourbon into his UK mug and drinking them down. He seems a little less horrible, but I’m afraid it’s an act. Some machine is roaring occasionally. The air conditioner? I want to touch Derek’s hand, see if he’s still shaking.
“I love you,” he says so softly it’s barely audible.
I pretend I don’t hear, nudge his hand, which is lying across the pillow, with my forehead and smile into my own closed eyelids. He must buy it, that I’m not coherent enough to respond, because he stays here, his hand calm but chilly, stroking my forehead.
I rubbed my dead father’s forehead the same night he died. It had to do with brains, with something Mrs. Montgomery said in science class about emotions. We feel with our brains, not our hearts. I stroked the taut, cool skin, felt the bone beneath, hard and strong, the only part of his body that had not become a dried-up foreign landscape, because it was bony to begin with. He opened his large blue-grey eyes, and though he didn’t smile, I knew he saw me. I balanced on the edge of the hospital bed, which was strange and large in our cramped living room, and avoided his pointy shoulders and ribs, his shrunken arm, his still chest. I rubbed his forehead.
“You’ll be okay” Derek whispers. “I got you.”
“For how long?”
“It’s not the time for that, Cora.”
“When is the right time?”
“Just don’t worry. Okay? Everything will be fine.” I roll away from him and point my forehead at the wall. I’ve seen death before, and it doesn’t get fine.
I dream I’m a warrior, leather, chain mail. The labyrinth is dark, enclosed, like a cave. My men are really men, no women in sight, following my words, which mean something to someone I’m sure, but all I hear is an impenetrable music, loud and raucous horns, like something out of Indiana Jones.
We’re cutting them down, the enemy, me with a sword so heavy, heavier than my arms. I raise the sword and drop into a belly in one smooth motion, feel the gentle resistance of wet gut and crackly bone. The upper half of the body, this hairy, male torso, falls forward over the sword then slides off. I wipe the blade across my pant leg and leave a wide, near-black smear of blood on my thigh. I start to run, hopping, jumping, then leaping high and long, gliding over bloody stumps, mouths twitching on heads disconnected from bodies. A man gnaws into the flesh of his hand, absently, like a dying bee, eating its own spindly leg. I leap higher, longer, so fast and furious, there is no control, until I’m gliding, and then flying over a mountain as pure and rocky blue as anything I’ve ever seen. I abandon the men, the mission, a sickening feeling in my soaring abdomen.
“Wake up,” Derek says. “You’re dreaming.”
“I will not regret it,” I whisper, and suddenly aware of my words I feel myself glow embarrassed and sullen.
“Were you having a nightmare?”
“Don’t worry. We’ve got this.”
I do not nod.
“You were screaming. Do you need some water?”
“I don’t know what I need.”
The check-out line at Wal-Mart is backed up into the women’s apparel section. I’m still bleeding in line behind a pimply teenager, and in front of an old lady with blue, draw-on eyebrows.
“Can you hold this box, honey?” She’s saying, shifting her weight around behind masses of heavy items, trying to rearrange the order in her cart.
“I’m still bleeding.”
“What honey? Here, this box, if you don’t mind.”
“It’s been almost a week.”
She’s so distracted like everyone, doesn’t hear a word I say. I shift my own box, the maxi pads, underneath my arm and take hers, a humidifier, into both hands.
“The doctor said it’s my nerves. Nothing’s wrong with me.” I say.
“Come again? Do I know you, dear?”
Behind her in line is a young mother, Gap t-shirt and khakis, hair in a bun, fat pink baby on her hip. The baby is staring directly into my eyes. In their cart: Pampers, Soy formula, all pink and white boxes with fat blank-faced babies on the labels. The picture on the humidifier shows a garden, a pond, and some “fresh as spring” flowers.
I drop the humidifier into the old coot’s cart and head off toward the door, the pads under my arm like a prize, past all the people in line, who give me perfected annoyed looks. I walk right out the front door; it even opens for me on its own, swings wide, come on out. I go on out into the parking lot full of noise and cars, people rushing about, and sanctioned cubicles for trees. The city is so foreign—whatever made me think I would be okay here? I walk past Derek’s Mustang, through the uneven lines of parked cars, diagonally toward the highway. I’m thinking, of course, of death. Walk straight out into the traffic, get pulverized. Feel the sensation of a shiny Mercedes ornament piercing my side, right through to my spine, crack, and I’m dead in the middle of nowhere Middle America.
Standing on the curb, the wind blowing up my shirt, whipping my hair into my eyes, sharp strands cutting, I think I should cry. If I could cry maybe I could feel bad about what I did instead of feeling bad about feeling nothing. People would not have to stare, honk, wonder why I’m sticking my arms into traffic. Or maybe they would, but I wouldn’t have to watch them watching me, because my world would be washed out. But I don’t really deserve to die a martyr’s death. It’s not like something beyond my control has happened, like cancer. And then it hits me. Somewhere else, this is just a possible detour in my life that didn’t happen at all. And though in some other life my uterus is punctured and I’m dying, in this one I am not. And just like in this life my child does not exist, everything that is possible must be happening. In another reality, my child lives and will grow into a man with eyes like my Dad’s.
I let my right foot hover over the road, a couple of feet from fast moving machine and metal, in the warm hanging gray of car exhaust, and I hurl the package of pads with all my might.
The box soars through the air, all lightness and pink, until cut short by a semi. The massive grill slams into the cardboard. The box ricochets upward, kisses the truck’s bright blue hood, and slides off the side into the current of wind and motion. It blows back into a red pick-up, the box cracked and the pads popping up like stuffing. The fractured box smacks into the windshield, and a couple of pads fling out, flutter against the glass. All the parts, pink and white, cotton and cardboard, bounce up and out, back into the flow of traffic, and then out of my view.
I turn back toward the parking lot, expecting a Wal-Mart employee or the police. No one has come for me. No one cares that I stole pads and threw them into traffic. The electronic doors of the Wal-Mart Supercenter open and close, sucking in and spitting out people. The spongy pad between my legs is leaking, not because I’m really dying, but because I’ve been wearing it for two days. I can see that I am vile and yet I cannot believe I am evil. I don’t know who lives in this body, and from where I’m standing, I don’t know if I’m falling through the earth or standing on solid ground. It seems in this ill-defined state I could press through my abdomen and caress the bones of my spine like Buddha. But I can’t. I’m still whole. I’m still made of meat and sinew that hurt when I push on them. And this is the body and the time I’m in, so I have to choose this life. I have to belong here.