The lodge sits in the middle of cornfields, the cornfields sit in the middle of the Midwest, the moose sits on top of the lodge, and Ray and I sit on top of the moose. Ray’s in front, my arms looped around him as if I’m a passenger on a motorcycle. On a motorcycle, the wind would be whipping through our hair, mouths clamped tight against bugs. But the moose is stone still, made of molded plastic, and my mouth is open, licking the back of Ray’s neck.
“See, over there.” Ray points to a small fire in a nearby field.
“Bonfire?” I ask, leaning back to adjust the straps on my lavender taffeta bridesmaid’s gown, third one this year, all of varying pastel colors and equal never-to-be-worn-again hideousness. Ray left his tux jacket in the pickup he drove us in from the reception to the Lodge. We waited long enough for Betsy, my college roommate, and his cousin Ben, to drive off, their car trailing aluminum cans, before making out in his truck.
When we came up for air, he said, “You gotta see the moose,” and with a few shots of tequila in me, I said, “Sure, show me the moose.” And now here we are.
“Not a bonfire,” Ray says as we survey the fields, the first fire burning in a perfect circle, another spot of flames appearing in a neighboring field.
He twists toward me, one hand holding onto the moose’s antler for balance. I lean forward to kiss him, but he grabs my chin with his free thumb and forefinger. “Aliens,” he says, and my tequila haze subsides for a moment as I consider that I’m sitting on a roof with someone I met the night before at a rehearsal dinner, who I know virtually nothing about other than he’s Ben’s cousin and he lives in this town where they grew up and works at the paper mill.
I laugh, but he says, “Really,” and turns my face to purview the fields as small fires sprout around us. “I think they’re aiming for the animals,” he says, “like a game.” I picture the computer game my mom plays obsessively that involves collecting livestock. In the field closest to us, I see what I think is the outline of a cow go up in flames.
“I’ve asked them about it,” Ray continues, “but there’s a language barrier.”
I kicked off my lavender-dyed heels at the bottom of the metal ladder we climbed to get to the roof. I think I could make it down myself if I had to, even though one of the rungs is split in half and Ray had grasped my forearm and pulled me up. I saw a pay phone inside the door of the Lodge, but who to call? Betsy and Ben on their way to the Bahamas?
I lean back, size Ray up. His black hair curls up slightly over his tux shirt collar, his blue eyes shiny from the reflection of the neon 1384 sign. He might be crazy, but I want to kiss his chiseled cheekbones.
“See?” I say. “My married friends can’t do this,” and I rip open the buttons of this almost perfect stranger’s shirt. “Tell me about the aliens,” I say, touching his chest. We rock atop the moose, and he recounts how they only come to him here, in this place. How their forms are pure light. I reach forward and grab an antler, crawl over Ray so that I’m in front, lean forward and hug the moose’s neck. Ray hikes up my dress, whispers in my ear, says that sometimes when they come he goes with them, and I let myself go, watch the burning circles and imagine they’re fireflies.
He drops me off at my hotel that night and I stand on the sidewalk, my heels dangling from my hand, and watch him drive away. There’s a faint scent of smoke in the air.
The next day I help Betsy’s mom with post-wedding activities, fold the wedding dress into a box, offer to drop it at the dry cleaners. Betsy’s mom touches my hand before I leave, says, “It’ll happen for you, too, dear, when you find the right man.” I swallow hard, hug her. I hear my own mom’s words before I left to come to the wedding, when I told her about my latest breakup: Men don’t buy the cow when the milk’s free. My dad: She’ll get married when pigs fly. They’ve never set foot on a farm, yet they throw around farm animal idioms like they’re the McDonald’s.
On my way to the airport that evening, I stop at the Lodge. I don’t see Ray’s truck, but I walk inside and the woman tending bar says, “He’s not here. Disappeared last night. Probably on a bender again.” I nod and walk back outside. I look up and wonder, but the only thing hovering above me in the dusk is the moose head.
It’s almost dark by the time my plane takes off. I’m alone in my row, in the window seat. I slouch, look toward the ground. Bright circles light up the fields, perfect circles of flames. I sit up straight, lean forward for a better view. Could it be? Off to the side of one of the circles, there’s a smaller fire, an organic shape. I press my face against the window, stare at the misshapen spot. A campfire? We inch higher into the sky. Streaks of color emanate from the smaller fire, liquid lavender fingers bleeding orange. I imagine starch-stiff taffeta melting into earth. From this height, a membrane-thin rim of pink lines the horizon, and I reach toward it, but my hand meets glass. On the other side, blackness. But further off, just beyond, white light beams.
Lisa Ferranti’s fiction has been a Top 25 finalist in a Glimmer Train Family Matters contest, twice short-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Reflex Fiction contest finalist, and highly commended in the 2018 Hemingway Shorts contest and National Flash Fiction Day 2018 micro competition. Recent stories have appeared in Literary Mama, FlashFlood Journal, Hemingway Shorts, the 2018 NFFD Ripenings Anthology, and Reflex Fiction. She lives with her husband, son and daughter near Akron, Ohio.
You should have leapt the instant you heard the splash. But in that breathless, urgent moment, you hesitated, scanning the murky water, waiting for her to bob to the surface so you could get a better fix on her location. You didn’t see her fall, you weren’t looking – there was just that smack of something hitting the water, and you knew before you whirled around that it was she, that she was gone, her tiny pink parka a crumpled chrysalis on the weathered boards of the dock.
You waited–just a second or two–any reasonable man would have done the same. And then, the second splash, as someone else jumped in first.
You wish you hadn’t thought about how cold the water would be, how filthy, churning with grime and bacteria, even as you prepared to jump. No one knows what you were thinking. How could they? The papers reported you shedding your phone and wallet along the way, implying that you were concerned about losing them, damaging them, instead of focusing on your daughter–your baby girl!–drowning in the dark, frigid waters of Elliott Bay.
And whose fault was it she fell in the first place? You hadn’t planned to bring her along, but your wife wanted a break, and she thrust kid and coat at you and pushed you out the door. You’re not stupid: you should have been watching, not fiddling with your phone, checking your email. You know that. You know! But that’s how kids are–ask anyone–look away for half a second and off they go, palming the hot stove or tumbling headfirst down the stairs or dropping like a stone into the goddamned freezing filthy Elliott Bay, with everyone watching and judging and that Frenchman diving in and reaching her first, saving her first, then disappearing like Superman from the scene, humble and gracious and noble and strong.
Your daughter is fine, and you’re grateful. You are. You held her, your coat tugged around her tiny, shivering body, as she choked and sputtered and wailed, and then someone handed her a stuffed rabbit, and she stopped crying and clutched it and smiled, tears and filthy bay water sparkling in her eyelashes.
A miracle. You don’t need to be told; you know it could have been so much worse, the worst.
But when she wakes in the night, gasping, afraid the waters are closing over her head, you can’t console her, no, only the rabbit will do, named for the rescuer, her savior, that Frenchman. She clutches it, tiny fingers working the tip of an ear, eyelids fluttering as she murmurs his name, syllables soft and sibilant: François, François, François …
François. The Frenchman is there, in your daughter’s room, in her bed, in her arms. He’s there in the moment before the meat on the grill turns from done to burned; in the seconds before your wife has to ask you (again) to take out the trash, for god’s sake; in her sidelong glance while you’re fucking, just before you come and she does not; and you know what she’s thinking, she’s thinking about him, the Frenchman, that fucking François, everywhere and everything that you are not.
Didi Wood’s stories appear in Smokelong Quarterly, Cotton Xenomorph, Vestal Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She’s fond of the serial comma, board games, and creepy dolls. Often she is festooned with cats. Find her on Twitter @DidiWood.
She couldn’t choose between one balloon planet or two. Saturn with its lush rings beckoned to her like a siren in the sea, but she pitied Uranus a bit because it wasn’t much to look at and had an unfortunate name. In the end she settled on Jupiter. The size almost made her capsize, but the eye of the storm hypnotized her. She held on tight. In some small way she imagined it would take her to the outer depths of space, although she did not know how it would do such a thing.
Skipping down the New York City sidewalk, she gripped her Jupiter balloon. It bashed into other people’s heads, a planet far too large to keep on a string. She failed to notice the disgruntled looks of those whose days had been disrupted by her round joy. Jupiter and her, a team uncaring and unbeatable.
Most thieves think to steal purses, but this city slicker with his callous lean and his sideways stare saw gold in the Jupiter balloon. He swiped at the string as she skipped on by, causing the girl to scream and scramble to reconnect with her planet. The thief’s satisfied sneer came a moment too soon, for they both lost in the end.
On that New York City corner, they each watched with regret as Jupiter flew back into the sky. They both felt the weight of having touched something of immense value release, though they would later disagree on what that value was. As they watched it float away, the girl wished she had selected the Uranus balloon after all. At least then it would have felt a little love for a little while. Plus the pain of loss would have been less acute, for Jupiter’s size meant she had to watch it disappear into the sky for that much longer.
Kristen Seikaly is a Michigan native discovering the culture of city-living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Thrice Fiction. With two degrees in music, she now works as a freelance writer and voice teacher. Find her at www.KristenSeikaly.com or @KristenSeikaly.