By E.M. Paulsen

The laundromat looks crowded, which is surprising for a Wednesday afternoon. The boy in uniform stands outside the glass door, sees himself in it, and squares his shoulders. He shifts the weight of the duffel slung across him, swings wide the door and steps through it. Despite the crust of snow covering the mountains, the laundromat has a steamy jungle heat. As he enters, he ducks his head and removes his cap. He expects to feel eyes on him, but no one is paying attention. Clustered around the washers in the center of the room is what appears to be an extended family, four women of varying ages and a number of small children. One little boy is perched atop a washer, while around and around the washers his siblings—or maybe cousins—chase each other, shrieking and chattering in another language.

From the far corner of the laundromat, away from the foreign family, wafts the stinging scent of cigarette smoke. An enormous woman is slumped in a white plastic chair, a large black dog and a baby sprawled on the floor beside her. He tries not to stare, tries not to think about how she’s smoking, how she has her dog, no less, in a place where people clean their clothes. He wonders if six months ago he even would have noticed or cared. He’s home on leave for the holiday, but he’s also spent the morning doing recruitment down at the high school. Hard to believe he was there himself just last spring.

The boy in uniform sets his duffel on top of an empty washer, begins feeding it rumpled uniforms. He digs in his pockets for coins, stirring up lint. He pushes them into the slot one by one, waiting for the clink of metal on metal that tells him the coin has reached the belly of the machine and hasn’t gotten stuck. After he starts the washer, he lowers himself into one of the plastic chairs lined up along the front window. The legs of the chair shift beneath him as it struggles to accommodate his weight. He sits still, hands folded in his lap, sharply aware of the large body he has yet to feel at home in.

It feels strange to him to come in here and not see anyone he knows. These must be people come down from even higher in the mountains to do their washing. He wonders what language the family is speaking. Russian, maybe? Despite their chatter and noise, and the fact that they’re right in front of him, his gaze drifts back to the corner of the room. The woman is ignoring her baby, staring into the middle distance, a pair of glasses resting at the end of her nose. His own nose itches, looking at her. She has long, thin hair the color of dust, and her sides spill over the edges of the chair like thick drips of candle wax. The baby is gripping a chair, standing on wobbly legs. It is barefoot, wearing only a blue tee shirt that hangs almost to its knees. It tugs on its mother’s leg. Slowly, from some bag hidden to him by her girth, she removes a chocolate chip cookie and offers it to the baby. When it raises its arms to reach for the cookie, the tee shirt reveals a sagging diaper.

The boy in uniform realizes he shouldn’t be staring, even if they haven’t noticed him. He lowers his eyes to the floor. The linoleum has a deep, ragged crack running across it, as if the earth split just here. Through the clear round door of the washing machine, he watches his clothes spin in frothy circles. Every now and then, he catches a glimpse of grey camo, but mostly it’s just bright clean white. The color of the snow. He could have taken his laundry home. His mother would have been glad to do it for him, but she has his four siblings to care for, and his sister says his mother’s still sick. Her cough now sometimes brings up blood, but still she smokes half a pack a day. In her letters, his mother tells him a hero, that she’s proud of him for getting out of here. His mother’s never even been out of these mountains. She’s lived her whole life here. To her, town is this crumbling strip mall with the laundromat, the diner, the barbershop, the wide, low-slung church across the street that each Sunday holds all the people she knows. He wishes he could tell her about this one weekend, the first weekend they were on leave, when they drove three hours to Virginia Beach. He’d like to tell her about how the sand felt, how soft and unstable it was, how when you took a step it felt like the earth was shifting beneath you. He wishes he could tell her about the morning they got up early to run on the beach, how the sun came up over the water like a runny egg, and the color of the water changed from pearly grey to brilliant blue. He wishes he could tell her about this place they went at night, where he ate crab for the first time, cracked the shell himself and let the sweet juice drip out of his mouth. The band was playing jazz, the gold horns gleaming in the dim light. He wishes he could tell her how there’s more color on the coast than she can imagine. But she’d just worry. She’d be afraid of the things she’s never seen.

Two of the Russian kids have gotten one of the laundry carts and loaded two of the others into it. They push the cart in circles around the rows of washers, laughing and shouting wildly. The smallest child, the one perched atop the washers, scrambles back and forth, following their progress, his knees drumming on the metal washer lids. The women are paying no attention to them. They’re holding onto opposite corners of large greyish sheets, coming together to fold them. They’re immersed in their own loud conversation. The kids in the cart hurtle around the washers again. This time one of the girls is standing up in the cart. When he sees the cart headed for the crack in the floor, the boy in uniform half-rises to his feet. He’s about to fling an arm out, sure the girl will tumble from the cart. But somehow she doesn’t fall. The cart lurches over the crack, and the little girl screams a little and crouches back down in the basket. From across the room, the black dog barks once.

He falls back into his seat. The plastic legs sway under his weight. He feels a prickling at the back of his neck, a delayed feeling of fear. He was certain the girl was going to fall and crack her skull on the dirty linoleum. Why aren’t the mothers paying attention? But he knows the answer. The women are tired; they’re using what is likely their one day off to do all the laundry. They have too many kids to keep track of. The older kids are supposed to be looking after the younger ones, and if one of the younger ones ends up with a bloody nose or a broken arm, it will be the oldest child’s fault.

His laundry has stopped, puddled clean and wet at the bottom of the washer. He gets a cart, dodging the Russian kids. He fills it with his clean clothes and trundles it over to a dryer, starts his stuff spinning again. On his way back to his seat, he waits for the Russian family to pass him on their way out the door. All of them, even the smallest, are laden with armfuls of clothes.

“Take care,” one of the women says, startling him, on her way out the door.

With the Russians gone, the laundromat is quiet, except for the clunking and whirring of the machines. There’s nothing to do but wait. He glances at the corner where the mother is leaning back in her chair, eyes closed. The baby is bent over, tugging on one of the dog’s ears. The boy in uniform lets his eyelids drift shut. He thinks about going home, about how his mother will press him gladly against her soft, sick body, how she will breathe into his ear with her failing lungs. He thinks about lying at night in his old narrow bed, his eyes tracing the cracks on the ceiling, listening to her cough, listening to her insist in the morning that she’s fine, she’s fine, that it’s just the cold, you know how it is this time of year.

He thinks about if—when. His sisters are seventeen, fifteen, thirteen. His brother, the youngest, is only ten. His sister will be eighteen soon enough. Maybe he can rent a little house for them near the base. Maybe even on the base. Would they let him do that, let him live with them there, in a little house, the way the married men do with their families? He can’t come back here, and they won’t be able to stay here without him, in their damp house with the floors that slope down with the mountain.

He feels something against his leg. His body jolts and he opens his eyes. The baby from the corner clings to his pants, holding up half a cookie. The baby’s eyes are fever-bright blue, and there are two slick trails of snot running from its nostrils to its upper lip. The baby is smiling at him, revealing an uneven row of pebbly grey teeth. He tries to smile back, but his smile is a clammy one, with no warmth.

“No thanks,” he says, resisting the urge to shake the baby’s tight grasp on his leg. “That’s for you.”

“Hank,” calls the baby’s mother. “Let the soldier be. Come share your cookie with Dog.”

“No! Not for Dog!” the baby cries, waving the cookie in his fist. He turns and stumbles back toward his mother.

The boy in uniform sees it right before it happens. The baby’s bare foot caught in that crack just as he jams a piece of cookie into his mouth. The baby falls. The boy stiffens, anticipating the cracking of bone against linoleum. Miraculously, the baby lands on his hands and knees, not flat on his face. The moment after he lands, there’s silence. No gasping breath, no rising wail. Just a stuttering hiss of air as he tries to breathe, the cookie stuck in his throat.

The boy in uniform’s eyes meet the mother’s across the room. For a moment they are both still, each waiting for the other to act. Then the mother rises and rushes to her fallen child, her fat bobbling as she runs. The old dog rises stiffly to his feet and follows her, wagging his tail stupidly.

“He’s chokin!” she cries. “Hank!”

The mother grabs her son by one flailing arm and raises him to her chest. The baby makes sputtering noises, spurts of air struggling up and down from his panicked lungs. The baby’s face is an ashy color, his cheeks darkening to a purplish-brown as he searches for air.

“What do we do?” the mother cries, looking at the boy in uniform. But he is still as a drift of snow. His feet have become part of the floor, part of the mountain itself.

The mother begins shaking the baby, up and down, up and down. All the boy can do is stare. Suddenly, she stops. She raises her hand and hits her son square on the back, with a surprisingly deep thump. A glistening chunk of cookie flies from the baby’s mouth. He gasps and starts coughing, which quickly turns to wailing.

“Oh-Jesus-thank-God-Hank!” the mother exclaims, pressing the baby to her chest, almost obscuring him with the drapey folds of skin hanging from her arms. She, too, starts to cry, slow tears that drift down her sagging cheeks. She murmurs to her child, and gradually his crying quiets. They’ve forgotten about the boy in uniform, trapped in his chair by the weight of his own body.

Suddenly, he lurches to his feet. He strides over to the dryer. He yanks it open, the clothes still spinning. He shoves the damp uniforms into the duffel. When it is full, he hurries past the woman, the baby, the dog. He can feel their eyes on him, and he slouches his shoulders. He opens the glass door and steps out into the cold air, crunches across the parking lot. It isn’t until he reaches the bus stop that he realizes he’s shivering. The mountains hunch before him, black and wet with bone-white patches of snow.

E.M. Paulsen lives and teaches in Austin, TX. She grew up on the Monterey coast of California, a setting that influences much of her work, including the novel-in-stories she is currently revising. Most recently, she lived in Roanoke, Virginia, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. This story was inspired by Roanoke and the Blue Ridge Mountains. She chose not to name the protagonist in order to emphasize that his story is not just his, and not just the story of soldiers returning home, but the story of anyone who has had the disorienting experience of returning to a place they knew well when they themselves have changed.

Issue 2.1

The Ferry Back

By Morgan Crooks

It is the only thing I bring of Dad’s, the only thing I can bring. Everything else is too dangerous for college or brings me too much grief. But this small white circle of cloth is different.

It is about the size of a half dollar, bearing a simple blue boat in front of a waterfall. I was proud of it once, sure it meant something to him. Then I showed it to my grandfather.

He took it from my hand, inspected it for a long moment, his face crinkled with some dry, kindling fury.

That night was Thanksgiving, the first time in many years we had gone to my paternal grandparents’ for the evening rather than my maternal side. The crowd was smaller, the food cooked by one person rather than several. I dug into cranberries as Dad stood to help ladle gravy onto each pale slice of meat. He gestured for Grandfather’s plate, tipping the spoon forward to let all that runny brown stuff spill out when he looked up at Dad and said, “No one’s forgot.”

“Excuse me?”

Grandmother shot her husband a look. “Oh, you let him be.”

“I’ve let him be. I’ve let him be his entire goddamn life. I’m not going to hold my peace one more night.”

Color came to Dad’s face. “Say what you’re going to say.”

“You’re a coward. A piece of fabric isn’t going to change that. I don’t break bread with cowards.”

He got up with his dry turkey and ate his dinner in the living room, watching his beloved Orangemen.

Dad didn’t say another word the entire dinner and fumed during the car ride home. Before I went to bed, he sat me next to his desk.

“I want it back.”

He eyes did not shift from mine. I fished it out of my pocket and gave it over.

“You disappointed me.”

My eyes burned in shame. “I didn’t know what it meant.”

“I bought this when I reached the other side of the border. I was there three weeks before I came back. I changed my mind and enlisted. I couldn’t live with what he would think. But he already had his mind made up. You see that, don’t you?”

Later when mom asked him to leave, I found it in a box he left behind. Now I take it out and imagine him on that lonely ferry across the Niagara. I wonder which action was braver, crossing for this patch or wearing it on the way back.

Morgan Crooks grew up in the Finger Lakes of NY, a beautiful part of the country carved into being by indifferent glaciers. He lives now with his wife outside of Boston, teaching ancient history. Find him online @raponikoff on Twitter and on his personal website: ancientlogic.blogspot.com. About “The Ferry Back” he writes, “This is one of my shortest and most painful stories. While this is meant as fiction, the situation draws its conflict from personal experience: a war never truly ends, not within one lifetime or many.”

Abra’s Price

By Katja L. Kaine

Once I was not the person I am.

I had little. I was poor. But I was not unhappy. The days were hot and dusty, the food simple but good. I had a tin roof to sleep under and a school with brick walls.

English was my favourite. The language, the people, the tea. The whole ‘kit and caboodle’ I would say and my friends would giggle at the funny sounds.

Abra the English, that is what they called me.

I brought a pencil and old newspapers to the movies – that was really just an old TV on a table in a shack - and I would write down all the words I didn’t know so I could learn them later. I got a reputation as the one who could translate the movie for you. If there was a lot of talking, people would look at me, and I would tell them what was said. Or sometimes I would think of something even better.

I always wanted to move to England, even before the trouble started.

The Harbingers come. They say we are either with them or against them. If we are against them, we die.

Many, many people leave my country. We travel like a river that has burst its banks.
They are not happy about this, these countries who are our neighbours. They say we are dangerous, that we will cause trouble, hurt people. We try to tell them we are here because we do not want to hurt people. If we wanted to hurt people we would stay at home.

But they do not listen. Or they do not care. I do not know if it is one thing or the other thing. I do not know if it matters.

So we move on. We become nomads, a people with no home.

The next place we stop to rest, they want to put us in camps. Perhaps you think this is a fine idea, and we should be grateful for somewhere safe to live. Let me tell you about these camps.

You have a tent with a broken zip, so you can never close it. You cannot keep out the cold, and you have only a certain number of blankets, so you must pile your clothes on your children to keep them warm at night. You cannot keep out the bugs. Have you ever woken up in the morning and picked insects from the skin of your children? The insects will crawl all over you all the night. You have no privacy. You share a one-room tent with your husband and children, and inches away on each side are more tents with more families. You feel too covered in filth. You cannot have a conversation. You cannot even talk to someone in a private way. And because of the cold and the bugs and the dust and the dirt you can never clean, no matter how hard you scrub, your children get sick. So you must carry them across the camp to the medicine tents, where you must wait for the whole day, or half the day if you are lucky. And when you see the doctor, they say, yes. I know what medicine your child needs. But we have none of it left. I am sorry. You must go home now. So you take your sick child back to your cold, filthy tent. There is nothing you can do to help them.

Living in a refugee camp is like having to die very slowly.

If it does not kill you in your body, it takes you the other way as your mind rots inside your skull and you don’t care if you live or die. Then it is better to stay at home and die quickly.

I did not want to go to the camps. We had to keep moving. Travel further away.

This is the time I start praying to God.

There are no trains, no buses going to other countries. Not for us. Everybody knows this. The other countries close their doors. They say you cannot come in.

So when you look into the eyes of your children, look into their faces and know that they bring to you more joy than anything else in this world, know you would do anything to keep them safe, you know you have to pay the man with the black mask. You have to pay him everything you have, and then you can go on his boat in the dark.

So we pay. Every last coin we have, for five tickets. Me, my husband, my three children. My oldest is six, my youngest not even two years old. Too young for such danger. Children should cry because they do not want to go to bed. Because their stomachs hurt because they ate too much honeycake. Not because they are sick and cold from night chills and starving from having nothing but damp biscuits to eat for days.

I lost friends on these boats before. Three of them. One of my friends had an infant only six months old. My friend could swim, but she was trying to save her husband, who could not, and her child. The waves, and the dark, it was too much.

So yes, I am not stupid. I know it is dangerous. But it is dangerous for maybe one, maybe two hours. At home it is dangerous all the time. Until you are dead.

Death is in every direction.

The boat is worse than your nightmare. So many people crush in so you cannot move without standing on someone’s foot. Screaming, vomiting, children crying and covering their eyes. If you are in the middle you can’t breathe. If you are at the edges you might get pushed out. If you complain the men in charge beat you. Not everybody makes it, but by the grace of God and thanks to my prayers, my family places our feet on the mud of Europe.

In my country the world consumes the people, but in this place people consume the world.

Europe is supermarkets with rows of colourfully packaged processed food with abundance, water piped to your home, cars that are clean inside and out and never rattle, trains that shoot like arrows. Cheap coffee in expensive cardboards cups with your name written on. Ice cream, soft seats, songbirds, plastic bins with wheels.

But this is not our Europe.

Our Europe is metal barriers and heavy armoured policemen in long black masks. It is white people looking at us with nothing, and clutching their riches closer to their chests. People spitting at us, or simply looking away.

More camps.

Parents collapse from exhaustion, their children crawl into the street, scraping up crumbs from the tarmac, cracking their teeth on the crumbs of concrete they pick by accident. Screeching in the purest of innocent agonies as blood-pinked saliva trickles from the corners of their mouths and shards of tooth cut their lips.

And what about my beloved England? It is further away from me than ever. Not only in steps across land, but its heart and mind, I learn very quickly. England does not love me.

They ask me to translate the newspapers, my new community. They see the big photographs of themselves with tears and pleading and outstretched arms and the big black letters so thick on the thin paper above them.

I tell them I do not understand the words. How can I tell them? They believe that people with so much would be happy to share a little. To offer sanctuary, as their kind God said they should. To be our saviours.

How can I tell them that these saviours call them parasites? That they say we swarmed, thinking only of what we could get for free, of how we could steal what was rightfully theirs. We want only things the earth gives for free. Food. Water. To sleep at night without the worry that someone might put a machete to your throat. Or that they will cut your children in half, or riddle the mattress of their cot with bullets.

Will you go to bed without fear tonight? If yes, you are lucky.

My children pile on top of my husband in the tent. I look at my family and they look already dead to me, and then I know. They will die in front of my eyes. Every last one. And I will be helpless to stop it.

I walk among the heaps of half-alive bodies lining the tent streets, needing to go somewhere to breathe. Needing to find space, find escape. But there is none.

Only bodies, crushed. The layered, dirt streaked sweat of weeks of travel. The blood of barely-survived attacks from inside the body and outside. The exhalations of fear and desperation. No way forward and no way back. No way in, no way out.

Discarded newspapers haunt and taunt me like fluttering wraiths, their words, their pictures, their messages washing the brains of the rich, clean people. Telling them to be afraid. My English is my curse. I do not wish to understand the words that surrounded us. I become ashamed of my nickname. I am glad there is nobody left to remember it.

I watch the crowds come to gawk at us through the bars. Tell us to go home.

There is one different. A little child with her mother, too young to read. She holds a toy rabbit, with long floppy ears and buttons for eyes. Her own eyes are wide and round to see humans such as us. She cocks her head and asks her mother a question. The young mother’s eyes fill with tears and she nods.

The little girl pushes the rabbit through the wire fence, crushing its soft head for a moment, and calls to a boy about her age on our side. The boy looks up, at first not understanding. Then he comes to take the rabbit. He clutches it to his chest and the little girl smiles. The mother takes a picture with her phone.

The papers tumble by. The girl and her mother turn away to go home.

I stand, dizzy, like God has just whispered in my ear.

I am not helpless. I can save them.

After I know my choice I weep for days. My husband does not ask what is wrong. He looks around. My children do not ask what is wrong either. They are too tired. Too old.

When I have cried all the water from my body and all that is left is stone, I take my youngest daughter to the water’s edge. Little more than a baby.

“We must give them a vision,” I whisper to her.

I hold her against my chest, hugging her so tightly she squeaks. I find some more tears, from somewhere.

Then I wade into the water and lower her in. I hold her down.

Then I let her go.

The next day there is a new picture printed on the papers.

Those people who looked away now stand up. Those that stayed silent now shout. Those who shut their doors pound on the doors of the powerful.

The dam opened a crack.

The floods forced through.

A picture was enough.

Katja L Kaine lives in Yorkshire, England where she develops novel writing software and writes novels and short stories. You can read her short fiction, essays and rants at www.katjalkaine.com as well as various print and online publications. On “Abra's Price”, Kaine says, “I wrote this story as a pressure valve to release some of the heartbreak and frustration I felt at true events that took place at the height of the refugee crisis and the depressing attitudes that seemed to pervade the narrative.”

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