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Trouble and The Good Girl

By Lena Kotler-Wallace

I was born a Good Girl. In sweet, pinafored dresses, hair tied neatly with a ribbon, hanging down straight and shining to the small of my back – because I brushed it every night 100 times like someone from somewhere once said to. I was precocious, but not in that obnoxious way, so as not to challenge the adults around me. Like a good Southern child my “pleases and thank yous” were always followed by a “ma’am” or “sir” strung out with a charming drawl that hinted at more of the kind of genteel South, sweet teas sipped on porches, than it did of the banjo-playing, cousin-screwing hillbilly variety.

I was a Good Girl, and good girls got praise. They got love. They got fathers who paraded them proudly in front of friends to recite their multiplication tables or mothers who hugged them tightly as they stood tall, a perfect doll-like trophy. Good girls got parents who told stories hinting not so subtly that their daughter was not just pretty but SMART.

Good girls did not get the terrifying father who slammed doors while their hand was still in the frame, or who left them sprawled out on the floor, his handprint welling upon their cheek when they corrected his math.

Good girls did not get that glaring look from their mothers. The ones that let them know that with a single childlike misstep such as forgetting to clean their room or making a B on that quiz, they could be too much for the Good Girl persona to bear.

That look and those words inevitably let me know I had suddenly slipped from being The Good Girl to (capital T) Trouble.

I learned very early on that I did not want to be Trouble.

As a child growing up in one of those houses that the neighborhood kids were told they couldn’t play at as their parents pretended they couldn’t hear the horror show going on behind closed curtains, I learned bad things happened because you deserved them, and, if only I had been a Good Girl, then daddy wouldn’t hit, and mommy wouldn’t say those mean things that honestly left wounds much deeper than any punch my dad could throw.

I avoided trouble like it was my sacred mission. The Holy Grail of Good, however, proved to be a difficult thing to achieve. Turns out living in a fear-filled, abusive household tends to give a person some mental health issues, and things like depression and bipolar disorder are not something that Good Girls contract.

I soon learned that Good Girls also only come in sizes like thin or straight. They are only that 1990s kind of liberal that’s really just a Republican in a blue power suit. They are not radicalized. They are not queer. They don’t fucking curse. They are not any of those things that can’t politely be put on the family Christmas card.

Good girls are silent trophies you put up on a shelf. They aren’t me.

Now, staring down the barrel of 35, those people who taught me to fear trouble are all dead and buried. The monsters in the dark are gone, and I can finally face the truth that chasing the phantom of the Good Girl won’t protect me. That actually it never did.

And maybe that’s okay.

Being silent. Being good. Well, it’s no longer an option.

Because life can’t be lived in perfection. The very act of living and existing in our world means that at one point or another you will be too much for someone, not enough for someone else.

You will be too smart.

You will not be in the right body.

You will be tired, and you will say the wrong thing.

You won’t be tired at all, and you will still say the wrong thing.

No matter what you do. No matter how carefully you try to pass in our fucked-up world, you will somehow not fit in that straight cis/het mold of the Good. The day will come when it is your turn to be trouble, and that is not something we should be scared of.

We can’t.

I can’t.

Not just because I deserve that kind of unconditional existence. I do. But so do those three kids who now call me Mom, who are looking to me for love.

And I’m going to love the ever-living shit out of them. I will love them when they bring home A’s, and I will love them when they forget to do their homework entirely. I will love them when their rooms look like a hazmat team is needed, and I will love them through all of the messiness of life. They will know that they are safe and celebrated, and, no matter how much trouble they may be, they will know this is not a home that worships at the altar of The Good Girl.

This is a house that makes trouble.

Worn Thin

By E. Wilson Young

White with “guest” written on their front in calligraphy and framed by embroidered leaves like early spring shoots poking up from beneath snow, the napkins blanketed the backseat as though deposited by a freak storm.

My friend Maggie was the first person to notice them. Happening to glance behind her as I was driving us from my place to My Parents’ Basement, she said, “Oh. You have napkins in your backseat.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Mom gave them to me. I just… I still haven’t gotten around to taking them inside.”

“Do they… do they say something?” she said, reaching back.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Oh my god, they say ‘guest!’”

“Yeah, they say ‘guest.’ They’re guest napkins!” I said.

Giggling, Maggie asked, “Why do they say ‘guest?’”

“What do you want them to say?”

“I don’t know! But it’s so weird that they say ‘guest.’”

Catching Maggie’s giggles, I said, “Well, as a guest, feel free to help yourself to some napkins.”

Other passengers have had similar reactions. But only after that initial question had been addressed would guests think to ask why the napkins are there in the first place.

Before they’d been strewn about the backseat, they’d resided for months in my car’s trunk where I’d left them – unable to transport them inside. The napkins’ promotion to the backseat came about because, one random afternoon in the middle of the week, I happened to notice that my car’s rear right tire had become flat. A regular MARTA rider, I didn’t necessarily need my car and waited until the weekend to see about it. The next Friday evening, to reach the spare, I took off the detachable ledge that covers the trunk, aiming the felt board for the space in between the backseat headrests. Underneath sat the loose mound of guest napkins. I grabbed clumps of them, tossing the napkins into the backseat, letting them flutter wherever they could.

After digging the jack out and removing the spare, I positioned the jack underneath the car and slowly raised it until the car let out a disconcerting metallic-sounding shriek. I lowered the jack, repositioned it, and tried again. The car remained silent this time. With the car in its lopsided position, I tried to loosen the lugs, but they were on too tight. Thwarted, I called the number on the back of my insurance card to request a repairman, scheduling it for early the next day in hopes that I could score a walk-in appointment at a mechanic’s.

Before sunup the next morning, the repairman and I surveyed my car – the repair man, sitting on the ground. “This tire ain’t flat. It needs air.” He leaned forward to peak at the others. “They all do.”

Not knowing what to say in response and feeling ridiculously formal, I presented him with the spare, like I were handing him an award. He snatched it from me, grumbling, “Spare needs air, too.”

With everything he said, I heard an unspoken, You damn fool.

Once he’d put the spare on and I’d signed a form for my insurance, I headed for Pep Boys. I soon noticed an ominous looseness in the rear of the car that became worse the longer I drove. At the Freedom Parkway intersection, I considered my options: the longer route on side streets or the faster highway.

The longer route seemed more perilous, and I decided on the Connector where the looseness quickly evolved into fishtailing, and no matter how hard I pressed the gas, the car would barely reach higher than sixty. With every curve and lane change, I careened more wildly, but, as alarmed as the drive made me, I thought it best to press on. At least Saturday morning traffic meant I could go a little slower. The connector split, and I took I-85 North. Soon, I rounded the curve of the expressway and could see my exit when a terrible scraping noise filled the car. I put on my hazard lights and headed for the breakdown lane – the only thing I could think to do. On the shoulder of the highway, I turned the car off and watched traffic for several moments, catching my breath, before I climbed to passenger side and stepped outside for a look around the car. The spare had been shredded, broad ribbons of rubber unfolding from the rim. I called my insurance again to request a tow.

After the call to my insurance, I called Dad. It seemed like something I should do. “I can come pick you up, son, and we can get you some tires out here.” “Out here” meant back home in Covington – about forty minutes east of Atlanta.

“Dad, that – I appreciate that – I really do – but that doesn’t make any sense. I can see the exit. I was so close. I almost made it.”

“I can pick you up, buy you some tires, and put ‘em on for you.”

“Dad, I’ve already called a tow. It’s okay. I only – I wanted you to know what was going on.”

“There’s some great tire prices out here, son.” He repeated his offer: he could pick me up and buy tires for me out in Covington. The news had short-circuited him. He didn’t know what else to do. It must have reminded him of Mom and how all he could do was sign the DNR. That had only been five months ago.

“Dad, I have to go. There’s a cop. Someone’s getting out.”

A massive truck with flashing lights had pulled up behind me on I-85’s shoulder. Wearing a reflective vest and with a walkie-talkie on his belt squawking away so loudly I heard it above the roar of the highway, a man climbed out. Carefully walking on the shoulder, he approached the front passenger’s side door and knocked on the window. “Is everything okay?”

“I have a tow coming.”

“Oh okay,” he said, visibly relieved — an attitude made me question whether he
was a cop. “Man, what happened?”

“The spare shredded.”

“You’re kidding? Really?”

“No, really!” I said, nodding vigorously, happy that someone else – an official of some nebulous sort, no less – also appeared taken aback, dumbfounded at how such a thing was possible.

He looked at the rear tire and let out a whistle. “Man, you know you’re having a bad day when that’s what the spare looks like! It’s barely hanging on!”

“Yeah.”

“Do you need me to stick around?”

“No, … Officer,” I said, but if I was wrong, he didn’t correct me. “I’ll be fine.”

“Well, take care. Glad you have someone on the way,” he said, and, staying on the shoulder, walked to his truck. He flipped on the truck’s flashing yellow lights and merged back into traffic. It was the benign and reassuring – yet simultaneously vague – encounter Mom would have attributed to an angel.

Waiting for roadside assistance, I noticed early white blossoms on a tree a few feet away in the median – the first early sign of spring. The wind tugged a few petals loose, and I saw, already, a smattering of white on the ground around the tree, like my napkins on the backseat.

Soon, the tow truck pulled up behind me like the last vehicle had. “It almost looks like you hit a pothole going too fast,” the driver said in a rather accusatory way after he had conducted a preliminary inspection to confirm that I did require a tow.

What pothole? I wanted to ask. I wished the non-officer were still there; he’d believed me. The driver escorted me to the cab where I sat and watched traffic while he secured my car to the truck’s bed.

“So where we goin?”

“The Pep Boys up on Ponce.”

“What’s the address?”

“Um…”

“You drivin’ your car, and you don’t know where you was goin?”

“I knew where I was going. I just don’t know the address.” Shouldn’t a tow driver know that address anyway? Where was he taking all these cars? Out to Covington?

A few minutes into the drive, sensing that we had gotten off on the wrong foot, the tow truck driver said, “So what else you got going on today?”

Sir, when this interminable errand is done, I’m going home to cry, I thought. Aloud, though, I said, “I don’t – I don’t really have any plans. I might go to a board game thing.”

“Board game?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. I hear they got some bars with video games you can play at the bar.”

“There’s one like that – Joystick – near where I live.”

“Man, that sounds great. You play video games?” We hadn’t driven far but were already on the exit, slowing down for the sharp curve that would spit us out on Piedmont.

“I go through spurts where I play.”

“Where’s this Joystick at?”

By the time I gave directions to Joystick, he’d swung around to the service area of the Pep Boys. While he set to work unloading my car, I went to the help desk inside and explained what I thought to be the problem – a flat – and requested a patch. I had made it by ten in the morning – only an hour later than I’d intended, but there were already several people ahead of me in line.

Still dazed by the accident, I sat in the waiting area and read and drank coffee, before calling Dad to update him. I assured him I was fine and then told him my plan about getting the tire patched. “Son, I really think you need to ask them to see what’s wrong,” he said before offering to pick me up and buy tires in Covington as an alternative to the whole rigmarole.

I considered what he’d said and finally approached the service desk to ask the technician if she would take a look with me and let me know what she thought I needed.

“Oh, they all look low!” she said as we approached the car. “They might be dry rotted.”

“What?” I had never heard of such a thing.

“Dry rotted. It’s from being out in the air and not being driven a lot.” She gripped one of the tires, squeezing. “Oh yeah. This is dry rot all right. Feel,” she said, inviting me to grab a hunk of my tire like I was judging the ripeness of fruit. “Feel how there’s no give, and it’s so hard?”

“Uh…”

“That’s dry rot. Yeah, if you park it outside or don’t drive it too much, it can get like that. Now, I can patch the worst one. Or I can have all them patched, but really you need new tires.”

“… Let’s do that then,” I said numbly. I took MARTA to work! I lived in Cabbagetown and walked to Little Five! I used the Beltline! I would sometimes go weeks without driving! Now, I was being punished for doing the right thing.

Queasy from adrenaline and the thought of buying four tires, I couldn’t concentrate on reading. I began pacing up and down the aisles instead.

Usually, at this point in a car trouble episode, I’d call Mom and vent all my fears about the money. She would offer to help; I’d refuse, and I’d feel better. I’d remember that I could handle it and would then find myself reassuring her.

But now I couldn’t talk to her.

The reality of it all hit me then.

That’s how, early on a Saturday morning in January, I wandered throughout the Pep Boys, among the aisles of Looney Tune mud flaps and cherry-scented air fresheners and shiny rims and tires and batteries.

And cried.

As I walked all over the store, I realized how easily I could have died and that I’d gone almost as quickly as she had. Mom had been so busy attending to others, being the perennial hostess, and seeing to everyone else’s needs that she never saw to her own health. Once her sepsis infection became insistent, she went quickly.

Meanwhile, I had almost died because my tires had dry rotted from disuse.

Unable to call her, unable to be comforted by her, I had no other choice. I summoned up my own strength and talked myself down.

Hours later, my tires had been changed and aligned. I signed more forms, and then, finally, headed outside to the car. As I called Dad to let him know I was on the way home with new tires, through the car’s windows, I saw the backseat full of the Mom’s guest napkins.

any kind of home

By Jeremy Maxwell

They’ll tell you the Panhandle is part of Florida, any map or GPS will say the same, but anybody that lives around here knows it’s just more Alabama, and it’ll stay that way for the next fifty or sixty miles. It stretches out in either direction and it doesn’t much matter if you’re headed east or west, it’s all just loblolly pines and the slow creep of kudzu tearing everything down. Two-lane roads that lead god knows where and tattered billboards that haven’t been legible for years.

I drain the last of the beer from the can and toss it out the window, watch in the mirror as it sails neatly into the bed of the truck. You would think I’ve been doing this forever, because I have. I crack open another and take a long pull.

Pantera gives way to Behemoth and I hear the tires move across the paint, feel the truck begin to shake as it starts whipping through the grass. I snatch it back onto the asphalt and take another pull from the beer. By the time Behemoth is giving way to Hank III, I’m flicking my half-smoked cigarette into the wind and tossing the empty can behind it.

There is no destination; there’s nowhere out here anyone would want to go.

I’m standing beside the truck staring at my phone, smoking a joint and trying to figure out if I still have service. I haven’t decided one way or the other when it rings in my hand.

“Hello, wife,” I say.

“Hello, husband,” she says, and I hit the joint and wait. “Are you at the show?” she asks.

“You know, I don’t think I’m gonna go.”

“Scared they won’t let you in?” she says, and I stand there, stupid. I flick the roach into the weeds and watch it burn; unbuckle my pants and piss on it, stagger back against the truck.

“Why the fuck wouldn’t they let me in,” I say, putting my pants back together and reaching through the window for another beer.

They’ve all rolled into the floorboard and I have to climb in up to my waist to get ahold of one. I pull myself out and walk around the back of the truck, open the tailgate and sit down.

“It hasn’t been two weeks since you blacked out and started doing snow angels on the floor in front of the merch table,” she says.

“I don’t remember doing that.”

“Well, they do,” she says, and I know she’s right.

I’m staring at the woods listening to her tell me it’s fine, to be careful and come on home when I see the cut. You could drive by a million times and never notice it there, even if you were looking for it. I tell my wife I love her and end the call and climb back in the truck, start it up and turn toward the ruts between the trees.

The road goes on forever, it even forks a couple of times and I’ve got no idea where I’m going, just picking left or right and hoping I don’t get stuck in the mud out here in the middle of fucking nowhere in the middle of the fucking woods. The truck is bouncing back and forth and the daylight’s fading and there’s only one more beer rolling around in the floorboard. I’ve just about decided to turn the whole thing around if I can find someplace to do that when the trees open up into a giant clearing of freshly mown grass. It happens fast and I hit the brakes at the treeline and sit there staring straight ahead and wondering what in the hell I’m doing out here. The Kills are singing loud and I turn them down and down and down until the sound is gone.

Out in front of me, seven single-wide trailers are set in a wide semicircle. They’re pushed back almost against the far edge of the trees with very little space between one and the next, enough for a clothesline and a couple of plastic chairs between each one. Some of the chairs have been turned over and there are no clothes hanging on the lines. A pair of jeans and what could be a sundress are strewn across the ground like everything was snatched down in a massive hurry and I get the feeling there were people out here moments ago.

“What the fuck is this, then,” I say, and I want to turn around and get the fuck out of here but there’s not enough room to do that without leaving the trees. Large vegetable gardens line both sides of the clearing. I’m getting visions of meth cooks and cartel weed trimmers and I reach under the seat for the pistol, set it on the center console.

I pull forward and I can see that all the windows are covered and the doors are closed and I know I should just go but now I can’t help myself and I keep moving toward the trailers. I stop a few yards short of the middle one and before I can get it in park the door snatches open and a woman comes storming down the steps with a shotgun. I’m out of the truck before I know what I’m doing and she’s got the thing leveled at my chest and I didn’t even pick up the pistol so I just stand there in the grass and put my hands above my head.

“Put your goddamn hands down,” she says. “Who did you come out here for?” I lower my arms and glance around and now there are bends in all the blinds but I still can’t see inside.

“I didn’t come out here for nobody,” I say, and she doesn’t say shit so I tell her I’m just trying to turn around. I’m drunk and stoned and I should’ve just gone to the goddamn show where the bouncers and bartenders all hate my fucking guts but nobody wants to shoot me.

She asks if I have a gun and I tell her in the truck and she asks what I’m really doing out here and I tell her, really, nothing. A young girl comes out of the trailer behind her with a walkie talkie in one hand and puts the other on the woman’s back. “Nobody knows who he is,” she says, “nobody’s ever seen him.”

“Jesus Christ, you stupid bastard,” the woman says and points the shotgun at the ground. “Well come on in and at least get some tomatoes.” She backs toward the steps without turning around and the girl disappears through the door and I don’t even like tomatoes but here I go inside.

When I ask what they’re doing out here, the woman glares at me as the girl piles vegetables into a paper sack. “Growing tomatoes,” she says, and takes the bag and shoves it against my chest. The place looks more like an office than any kind of home, and again I ask what’s going on.

“Look, I’ve got a dozen ladies out here hiding from assholes just like you,” she says, “and you’ve got them all scared half to death. Couple of bad decisions and you end up married to some prick with shitstains halfway up his back from twenty years of wiping his ass in the wrong direction. Creeping through the woods that way,” she says, shaking her head. “Got them all scared to death. Now please,” she says, “take these and go.”

She follows me out and watches as I climb in the truck and stow the pistol, open the last beer and set out for home. When my wife asks what I’m doing with tomatoes, I set the sack on the counter and pull her close, saying, I love you, I’m right here. I love you. I’m here.

The Undead Have No Dignity

By Jessica Nettles

Lily stood at the weathered wooden door of what had been Marvis-Dorna funeral parlor back in the day. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress and adjusted her hat and veil with her gloved hands. The dress was uncomfortable and hot, not one you’d wear on a late spring afternoon in Alabama, but it was the only one she owned. Had Mary Kat, her daughter, still been with her, she’d have teased Lily about clinging to traditions that no longer mattered to anyone else in town. She wore the dress, hat, and veil to assure herself that she was respecting Edwin like a good Southern wife would. Rules may have changed when folks started going off, but that didn’t mean she had to.

A tear rolled down one cheek, and she reached into her small black purse and pulled out one of Edwin’s handkerchiefs she’d nabbed before she left to make this final step in the ritual of the dead. Her family had always said she was a bit cold, but that wasn’t true. After people started going off, grief was something that just held her back from helping others, so she shut it away altogether. Can’t be strong if you’re a blubbering mess. Loving Edwin meant being strong once again. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and knocked. The door opened.

“Ah, Miss Lily, come right on in, we’ve been expecting you,” said The Coroner. He was wearing an immaculate black suit with a matching black tie, as was the custom. His hair was slicked back like an old-time Baptist preacher’s.

The Coroner took her arm and led her to an office, which was fine by her since her arthritis was acting up something fierce since Edwin’s fall in the kitchen only an hour or so before. Even though she’d taken one of her pills, her hips and feet were aching. She sat down in a floral wing chair while he moved behind his polished teak desk.

“Would you care for some coffee or tea?” he asked with a gentle smile.

“Iced tea? Oh, I’d sure like some,” she answered.

The Coroner rang a tiny silver bell. A girl in a clean apron and a black dress brought in a tray holding a sweating tea pitcher decorated with blue and purple mophead hydrangeas like the ones in full bloom by Lily’s porch and two tall glasses filled with ice cubes. She smelled of gardenia and walked with a small shuffle. Lily studied the girl’s pockmarked face. The last of the children went off last year after a wicked wave of chicken pox, a disease once eradicated. Was that the Dickerson girl? Maybe not.

The ice clinked in the glasses as The Coroner stood, took the tray from the girl, and nodded for her to leave. She hissed softly through her bared teeth as she stood, hands still extended. The Coroner snapped his fingers right at her nose, and her hiss stopped short.

“You may leave now, Rose,” he said.

Rose Dickerson. I was right, thought Lily. She remembered when the family had Rose in lockdown before the little thing had gone off. The girl was the last of the chicken pox group. Folk were chattering for weeks after, saying that maybe whatever caused the going off was moving on. Lily had almost believed this was a possibility, and then a whole cluster of folk who lived by the depot at the edge of The Community, went off on Saturday afternoon for no good reason.

The girl’s pox-scarred arms dropped to her sides. She walked right into the doorframe, backed up and did it again. The Coroner set the tray on a serving table next to Lily’s seat. He approached the girl from behind and set her in front of the door, patting her back as she exited.

“Rose is still … in training,” he said, approaching Lily, who fidgeted with her hat, trying not to stare. “Shall I pour?”

“Please,” Lily replied, charmed that she could hear music in the background. It was a song from back in the day, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Canned music was a luxury these days.

She took the cool glass of tea and sipped it, pleased that The Coroner took his duties seriously. She considered what she’d written in his job description after his role was deemed necessary in the changing environment.

Civility is a skill The Coroner must have since he will deal with the citizens of The Community daily.”

Not only had this particular Coroner been civil, but he’d also proved to be proactive in ways they’d not dreamed of three years ago. He brought changes that, at least in her observations, had made The Community a better place for everyone, including the Gone-Off. As she sipped iced tea, which was perfect in the teeth-cracking way tea was at Homecoming dinners when preachers were still sent here and church was still a thing, The Coroner sat back down, folded his hands, and smiled at her.

“My Edwin. He passed earlier, but he ain’t gone off yet,” Lily said. “I’m sure you know that.” She knew what he was going to say but felt like she needed to speak the words anyway.

Edwin hadn’t ever liked the way this was done, but she’d told him it was the best they could manage considering the way things had gone, and it was better than folks doing things that would worsen their predicament. He’d voted against the changes suggested by The Coroner after he was hired, but she’d stood with The Council, especially since she was the head at the time.  That one thing had become the one bone of contention between her and Edwin till an hour or so ago. As much as she knew that what The Coroner did was the best thing for all involved, for some reason losing Edwin was harder than she’d dreamed it would be.

The Coroner frowned and said, “We can’t take him if … “

She hung her head and said in a whisper, “If he ain’t gone off.” She took a sip of the iced tea, letting it run down her throat. Then she asked, “What if he didn’t want you takin’ him?” She knew she’d gone off script now but didn’t much care what The Coroner thought about that. She knew what he’d say. It was law.

“Mrs. Smith, you of all people should understand how this works.”

She nodded, and said, “But he never wanted all this.”

“None of us did, Lily,” responded The Coroner. In another time, folk might think he was one of those Baptist evangelists who did tent revivals in August.

He moved from behind the large, shiny desk and pulled a chair up next to her. Then he took her hand in his own. Even through her gloves, his hands were like ice and made her own hands ache the way the cold from Edwin’s body had when she’d moved him earlier.

“You and The Council wrote the rules for a reason. Making exceptions wouldn’t serve The Community,” he said.

She pulled her hands away, rubbing them.

“Can’t I keep him at the house? I need the help. We got no kin left to help. He won’t be any trouble, I promise,” she asked.

“The entire community needs him. Keeping him home is selfish, Miss Lily,” he said.

The grief she’d packed away over the last three years, flushed over her and took her off guard. This wasn’t the first going off she’d attended to, but of all of them, this was the worst. She started gasping and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was losing Edwin twice. She’d been able to manage herself better when Mary Kat went off by pretending her girl had gone off to Auburn for school again. This time, pretending wasn’t an option and besides, Edwin deserved to have his wishes respected after all he’d had to accept the last few years. She dabbed her wet cheeks with Edwin’s monogrammed handkerchief as she fought to regain some self-control.

“I just want to give him some dignity,” she whispered.

“And he will be treated with the utmost in dignity just like your Mary Kat and all the rest. He’ll be of service to The Community, just like he’s always been.”

“So if something … like a tooth or somethin’ falls off while you’re workin’ on my Edwin, could you save it for me?” she asked.

He shook his head but snickered. “No, ma’am. Unfortunately, you know we cannot allow keepsakes.”

Lily nodded and took one last sip of tea, which soothed her. Business concluded, The Coroner stood. As he guided her to the door, he picked up the tablet off his desk. Lily could see the screen, which was filled small photographs of members of The Community. Lily could see Edwin’s photo flashing red.

The Coroner tapped his tablet and said, “I can see that you locked Edwin down. That’s excellent. Now, you just go on home. You wouldn’t want to miss the grand event.”

She looked up at him and said, “Edwin won’t be hurt?”

“I promise.”

Lily saw little comfort in this promise. The Coroner guided her by the elbow to the front door and bid his goodbye as she stepped out. The sky faded from fuchsia to deep azure dotted with pale clouds as she walked down the as-of-yet unlit street back to her house. By this time, she and Edwin would have had supper and been sitting outside on the porch, watching the sunset. It was one of her favorite times of the day because they would sip the last of the tea from supper, have dessert, and talk about the day. Or they would reminisce about the days before the wall when they could go to the movies or go to the famous fish fries at Screamer Church nearby. Sometimes Edwin would sing hymns with her, and the neighbors would come and sing too. After the wall, the hymn singing happened less and less, as they seemed pointless to most of their friends. Edwin would still sing them once in a while, especially at sunset. Now Lily wasn’t sure she could handle a sunset without his growly voice.

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As she passed her neighbors’ houses, she could see some of them eating supper at picnic tables in their back yards. It was cooler to eat outside this time of year, especially for those without air conditioning. A few sat out on the porch and waved as she got closer to her own home. Now that they’d seen her in the black dress, it wouldn’t be long till everyone knew one of the elders had passed. She imagined that some of the men would be taking bets on when Edwin would go off even before she began eating her own supper.

The house was quiet and shadowy when she unlocked the door. She was used to Edwin listening to the local radio reports in the evenings before supper, so the silence emphasized the emptiness of the house, which echoed through her. As she walked by the radio, she turned it on. The warm light of the console chased away the darkness spreading through the living room, and the voice of Chuck Landers from down by Screamer filled the air as he reported the safest parts of the lake to fish. At least she could pretend that Edwin was with her for now.

Lavender-scented Pine Sol made the entire house smell like Friday cleaning day even though it was only Tuesday and she’d only scrubbed the kitchen floor and counter where Edwin had fallen hours before. She touched the yellowing page touting the rules of The Community posted on the pantry door and thanked the Great Whosit that she’d done her best to follow the law. She also gave thanks that Edwin hadn’t gone off and tried to take a hunk out of her arm – something The Coroner would fix – while she bathed his body to prep him for the lockdown room.

The law was for the best, but right now she hated every part of it. Edwin was right when he voted against this new order, and she knew, if he could, he’d be shaking his head and saying he told her so. He’d also tell her she’d done her best and that he couldn’t criticize that.

She remembered how deaths were handled before the wall was put up and The Coroner came to town. Sometimes caskets would be open so that everyone could take a last look at the deceased, all made up, dressed up, serene in his or her repose. They’d be surrounded by family, friends, onlookers, and a mountain of flowers in all shapes and forms. People would bring food to the family of the deceased, sit around and tell stories after gathering at the church to tell everyone how wonderful the person who passed had been in life. She tried to remember the last one of these affairs she’d attended. Jo-Jo Walsh. It had been a quiet affair at the funeral home where The Coroner now lived. Quiet until Jo-Jo sat up and bit Reverend Jackson as he stood for the benediction.

After that, funerals weren’t considered exactly practical by The Community. Death could no longer be a sentimental moment. As she ate her supper and listened to Mimi Landers, Chuck’s wife and co-owner of WSCR, talk about the latest murder at the Screamer Hardees, she mourned those days as much as Edwin’s passing. After she joined The Committee, she had to be strong. No more weeping. The Coroner was right. Her request to keep any part of her husband from The Community was selfish and so was any sentimentality she may feel about Edwin’s death.

She had no time or option to go to pieces or sit with friends and remember Edwin’s kindness and the happy moments they’d shared over the last fifty years. Instead, her memories of his last moments would include how she grumbled as she dragged his death-weighted body from the tub to the lock down room, knowing that if he went off, she’d be gone too.

When people started going off after they died, the living had to take steps to take care of them before the town suffered the fate of other nearby towns. At first, Lily remembered voting to turn people out on the far side of the lake in what used to be Comer. The Council figured that they could keep them out of town with one of those invisible electric fences till they could figure out how to control things better.

That didn’t work. Electric fences worked for dogs and horses, but not for those gone off.

The dead returned home. Once that happened, there was an emergency vote. The Council got all the men together and they first built the wall around town The Community. Then they required lock-down rooms in every home. There were gatherings to help build the lock-down rooms each weekend all that first year or so. The ladies would put out a spread of food at the community center and the menfolk would work till they connected the room to the grid at what was the funeral home.

She could see part of the high metal wall from her light green porch glider, where she sipped on a glass of sweet tea and watched the moon begin to rise and cast a silver glint on the pines on the other side of the fence. A slight breeze blew, and she heard the rustling of her pink and blue hydrangea, which was in full bloom. The delicate scent of sweet olive wafted past, and Lily breathed it in. At least some things were evergreen, she thought to herself.

In the gloaming, Lily could see her oldest friend, Mary-Walton, wearing her cat-eye glasses, which glinted silver-purple in the brightening moonlight. Her curly silver hair made her look like she had a halo around her head.

“I brought y’all a pie,” she called to Lily.

“Mary-Walton, he’s passed,” Lily said.

Her friend paused halfway up the walk. “Oh my Lord, Lily! You shoulda called me! Has he Gone-Off yet?”

“Not yet,” Lily said.

Setting the pie down on the porch rail, Mary-Walton joined Lily on the glider. She pushed her foot forward to start a little rocking movement. Lily smiled at the comfort it brought her but said nothing because there was nothing to be said. Her friend understood, and they sat together for a spell. One street light fluttered at the corner down by Mary-Walton’s house, and the radio had gone fuzzy in the background. A white truck marked with a large blue C rolled by. The back of the truck was filled with hoes and baskets of ripe tomatoes. Fred Whitmore, one of the Community farmers, waved from the driver’s seat. There was groaning coming from the trailer it pulled behind it. Both women waved at Fred because that was part of porch sitting and it was just plain polite.

“Edwin’s going to a better place, Lil’,” Mary-Walton said.

“I want to believe that,” Lily said. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her friend looked surprised but pulled out a tissue from her flour-powdered apron.

“It’s better than turning him loose,” she said.

Lily patted Mary-Walton’s hand and said, “You mean turning him out.”

“You wouldn’t want him comin’ back after you.”

“He said to me that he didn’t want to go this way. Ain’t his wants important?” said Lily.

Mary-Walton frowned and said, “You wrote the laws, you know.”

Lily nodded. She’d wrote the rules with The Council. They’d all thought this would be over after a spell. The laws were meant to take care of everyone, even those who’d gone off.

“If there weren’t laws, we’d have to shoot ‘em all. You coulda shot him instead.”

“Yes. I could have,” said Lily.

When the Coroner offered to upcycle the gone-over, The Council immediately voted and approved the motion. No one discussed how he would do this because the idea would serve The Community in a positive way and keep people from having to shoot their kin.

The green light next to the kitchen door began to flash. Lily looked over at Mary-Walton.

“Well, I guess it’s time.”

“Well, I guess it is.”

After just a few minutes, a white panel van bearing the familiar blue C arrived. Two men got out. One had a noose stick, and the other wore a shoulder holster.

Both said, “Evenin’, Mrs. Smith.”

“Mighty fine evening, Phillip,” she said.

“Mighty fine, Mrs. Smith,” the brawny man replied.

“You okay, Mrs. Smith?” asked his partner Darrell Grover, who was younger and blond. Lily remembered dragging the boy to his mama after Sunday school the day he said a word she wouldn’t repeat to Angie Daniels. Any other time, she’d ask how his mama was.

She nodded. Mary-Walton put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. The men entered the house. Lily could hear one of them unlock the metal door. All Pallbearers had master keys for Lock Downs. She heard loud snarling and she heard someone say, “Whoa there!” Then there was a scuffle. Soon the young man led Edwin out onto the porch. Gone-Off Edwin turned his head and snarled at Lily, reaching toward her. His face was gray.

“Oh God…”

Mary-Walton snatched her away quickly.

The second man came out of the house, and quickly put a snub-nosed shooter at Edwin’s back. There was a thwip followed by a grooooan.

“Dammit, Darrell! You weren’t supposed to bring him out here without the hood!” he yelled.

“Sorry, Phillip,” said Darrell.

Lily couldn’t stop staring. That…thing…wasn’t…couldn’t be…no…not Edwin…not…

“Mrs. Smith…” said Phillip.

“I’m…I’m fine. What—” said Lily. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen someone gone off, but this was different. It was her Edwin.

“He’s going to a better place, Lil’,” said Mary-Walton.

“There is no better place than The Farm,” said Phillip.

Edwin had become placid, his snarl replaced with a blank stare that went right through Lily.

Philip looked at Lily, tipped his hat, and stepped off the porch. Young Darrell led the slow-moving Edwin to the van, where he was loaded in the back. Phillip drove the van into the gloaming as Lily stood and watched silently. Mary stood with her.

“Mary, I think I’d like some pie about now,” said Lily.