by Margaret Emma Brandl

Honorable Mention, 2020 Fiction Collections

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She danced to a song on a Great Lake beach when she didn’t like the beach—too much sunlight, too much sunscreen-smell—because that’s how she thought things worked. His hand went down her front and pawed at a breast and she giggled, excited. There was a nuclear power plant just south of them; they could see across the shore. They barely touched the water (cold) and picked up rocks. He walked her to the bathroom down the shore because he said he was worried about her; she indulged the stupid songs he loved on the radio. He pledged his love to her from his dorm room bed but she wouldn’t let his hands do what they wanted to do.

She wished it had ended like a story, with something mutated or contaminated washing up on the shore of the beach, something from the nuclear waste putting a damper on their forever—a fish with two heads, a piece of kelp with eyes, a bobby pin that glowed in the dark and leeched deadly particles into her hair. If only it could have ended before it began, trudging awkwardly through Warren Dunes in tennis shoes—she would’ve taken that. Calling a friend from the barren parking lot, abandoning the boy half a mile down in his “secret” spot, standing miserable in direct sunlight.

But the story was much more ordinary. She stopped his hands on the zipper to her jeans; she wouldn’t let him into the shower. She still wasn’t ready, but he thought he’d waited more than long enough. He’d finally agreed to meet her again, but only after weeks of trying to get out of it . Something about money—something not just about money. She didn’t know it then but their last kiss was in Boston Logan Airport; he rode the tram in with her and she cried without tears. He hadn’t been the same.

And for months her dreams were the beach on rewind, the beach in revision, so unrelenting that she began to believe the mutations were real—a Coke can with gills; an orange squid with a giant black beak; a gull growing out of its foot a single, cartoon-sized human tooth. The gull blinked up at her from the sand, shaking its foot in a way not unlike the way dogs walk in snow boots. “You should meet me in Boston,” her dream-self told the gull. It cocked its head at her, shook the toothed foot once more for good measure, and flew away.

end of story

© 2021, Margaret Emma Brandl Also by Margaret Emma Brandl