Better than Starbucks

    Fiction Page (Also check out our new Better than Fiction Non Fiction section!)

Marriage Files

 

Like God and freedom and Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing, I believe in unrequited love.

My father conducted the move. An anesthesiologist, he had been transferred to a semi-prestigious medical center in Wilmington which he actually seemed quite pleased about. Little pleased my father, so as he praised the quaintness of our house twenty or so miles outside Wilmington and the invigorating ocean spray, my sister Sarah and I raised our eyebrows at each other. My mother, who was strangely supportive of the move, was typically obstinate against all change. My grandmother, who I suppose intended to make Sarah and me laugh, once told us that my mother cried at both our births because she so feared the unknown of bringing two different people into the world. I suspected my mother’s support of the move stemmed from her own desire to blend into the woodwork, which had been difficult for her in our previous town. She was a kindergarten teacher and would be working at the local elementary school that Sarah would be attending. I was to be on my own at the middle school. Partially alone, at least, until I could make some new friends.

We were unpacking brown cardboard boxes, all labeled with my mother’s soft, rounded handwriting, when Sarah pointed Charlotte out. Her house was larger than ours, a little grander, but separated only by a tiny plot of land scattered with smooth stones that the real estate agency generously referred to as a tranquil rock garden. Charlotte was thirteen, in seventh grade, but with some lipstick could have easily passed as someone at least old enough to have her license. She was wearing a pink tank top and white sneakers and a ponytail; I was very surprised when I got up close to her for the first time and saw she had a line of faint freckles on her olive skin. Sarah, in fifth grade, asked me how old I thought the neighbor girl was. She was sitting on the porch of her own weather-beaten house and reading a novel, but her eyes would occasionally wander over to my quiet family unpacking our belongings. I told Sarah that she was definitely too old to want to be friends with her. Sarah went off and pouted and I unpacked the last of my boxes, attempting to soak in everything about the neighbor girl without her noticing me staring.

 

My new room was in the attic, a cramped corner of sea air loosely held together by our gaping wooden siding. There were two skylights, one per slanted blue wall, and no air conditioning. I never resented being shunted to the far confines of the house though, as my mother was often too tired to climb the stairs and clean my ever-cluttered bedroom. I didn’t hear my mother calling for me the day Charlotte first came over. Sarah pounded on the door: “Collin, what are you doing? Ms. Smith and Charlotte have been in the living room for ten minutes and mom’s been trying to get your attention.”

I froze, deer in headlights eyes widening in horror, “She’s over? She’s at our house?”

Sarah rolled her eyes and began tripping down the steep staircase, “Get your butt downstairs!”

            I wanted to check my curly hair in the mirror, but didn’t pass one on my way to the living room. As I entered shyly, my mother stuck out both her hands and motioned me over. She had combed her hair, she was wearing lipstick, she looked vaguely nervous. I could almost feel her begging me to put on a good image. Perched on the armrest of our couch, she draped one arm around my waist and squeezed, “Ms. Smith, Charlotte, this is Collin. Collin, these are our neighbors. Please say hello.”

I swallowed twice before I could form words, “Hello ma’am. Hello Charlotte.”

Ms. Smith reached over and touched my face, “What a sweet boy he is.” I glanced at Sarah, as we both often noted how strange it was to be talked about in third person and addressed at the same time, a technique all adults seemed to pull out of their arsenals at some point. “Loretta,” she said, addressing my mother who looked ready but uneasy, “tell me, where is he going to school?”

Soft-spoken, my mother replied, “Just the local middle school. Does Charlotte not attend?”

Slightly behind her mother, Charlotte now looked up from inspecting her hands and trained her dark eyes on me, “Oh no dear, we moved Charlotte into the private school down the road a couple years back. We wanted more breathing room. For her brain. If you catch my drift.”

My mother, a public school teacher, gave a quizzical smile, “No harm in that.”

Ms. Smith grinned and stood, “Well I was right in thinking you all are good folk. Excellent to meet you sweet girl,” addressing Sarah first and then me, “and what a fine young man you are; you’ll have to come round now.”

Charlotte’s eyes hadn’t moved from my face, but now she broke away to make eye contact with my mother— “so nice to meet you”—and stand to leave, still slightly behind her own mother.

 

We settled into a routine largely devoid of my father and his life of anesthesia and anesthetic: our mother wrestled us out of bed every morning, although I now had to rely on an alarm clock because she still wouldn’t climb the stairs. She made us breakfast, walked to the elementary school with Sarah and me, and then sent me on my way to walk the extra mile to the middle school alone. I was one of many new students, as all the elementary schools in the area filtered into this one middle school. I slipped into different seats at lunch, hoping no one would notice, hoping someone would notice.

The private school Charlotte attended was about a mile farther south but got out twenty minutes earlier, so almost every day we were within eyesight of one another walking home. As the leaves started to turn, she began wearing a denim jacket with frayed cuffs and leaving her dark hair down, as if to create insulation. It never got truly cold in North Carolina, and I enjoyed the slight chill the days had inherited. I liked to think it emboldened me.

“Charlotte!” I called one day, maybe ten feet behind her on the sidewalk. “You dropped…” I knelt to pick up a sparkly keychain that had fallen off her bag.

She flushed a little, despite the weather, “Oh, thanks. I would have never noticed.” She looked to the left and then the right. “We should walk together; I see you every day.”

My mouth went dry as I nodded.

 

Charlotte would show up at my door every Sunday evening at 8:50 and beg my mother to let me come over and watch X Files. The first couple times my mother was hesitant—it was awfully late to be out on a school night—but once she realized we had established a routine, she relented.

Charlotte continued to pick me up and ask permission, inverse roles for a traditional date, a year into our routine. I once asked her why she did it, both of us seated on the short, white carpet in her basement that her mother warned us against staining. She simply shrugged. Although a girl of few words, I felt she always had an agenda.

She finished her Latin homework while watching the program every Sunday night. I, son of a schoolteacher, had been hardwired not to procrastinate and finished my work far in advance. Once her mother came downstairs, presumably to make sure we weren’t breaking the expansive set of rules upheld in her house, and noticed the homework on the floor. Charlotte tilted her head up towards her mother with big, beguiling eyes and said innocuously, “I’m helping Collin. He doesn’t understand subjunctives.” Her mother smoothed her hair and smiled condescendingly, but before I could react, Charlotte winked at me from under her mom’s hand. I would have looked ridiculous winking at her age, at any age, but she was so sly and natural, I could only flush and agree. I didn’t understand subjunctives; I didn’t understand a lot of things.

Sarah once asked to accompany me to the Smiths and my mother answered before I had the chance: “He wants his alone time, baby, let him be.” She gave me a knowing glance and a smile, one hand methodically wiping a rag across the kitchen counter. Our father’s absence, especially on Sunday evenings, had crowded us out of the dining room. My mother served dinner for three at the kitchen counter and kept food in the oven to stay warm for when, if, he came home.

“I won’t say a word, Collin, I promise,” Sarah would plead until my mother shooed her from the room.

I did want my alone time. I wanted to watch Charlotte reflected in the blue light from the television set she always sat too close to. I wanted to be of use and look up “boat” or “senate” or “farmer” in her English to Latin dictionary until she got distracted from her homework and would point something out on the screen. Mostly though, I didn’t want to bring anything from home with me across the tranquil rock garden.

 

            I was reading a novel in the living room and Sarah was doing a puzzle on the floor one Sunday night when my father came home drunk. A quiet man, this had never happened before. Although Sarah and I could detect the general scope of our familial issues, we never knew the extent. This evening though, he barged in the front door and called my mom’s name. Cold in his anger, in his inebriation, all we heard was a terse, “This isn’t right,” before my mother yanked him into their bedroom.

            We gave each other wide-eyed looks but didn’t move from the living room, eyes occasionally darting towards the second floor landing where my parent’s bedroom door stayed shut.

Charlotte rang the doorbell at 8:50, just as she always did. “Oh Collin no, please stay home tonight.” I glanced at Sarah and rolled my eyes on instinct. I wouldn’t leave her though, not with the yelling leaking from the doorway and trickling down the stairs, as fluid and bitter as cough syrup.

I opened the door and apologized, “I can’t come over tonight. We’re… doing a family thing.” As if they had heard me and were laughing at the absurdity of my lie, my parents’ voices rose like a wave and crashed with the crunch of glass exploding against a wall. Charlotte’s eyes darted upward, detecting the noise, and my face turned bright red.

“Collin, I’m so sorry,” she began, backing away with her top lip between her teeth.

“No it’s nothing—”

“I shouldn’t have interrupted—”

We both stared at each other. I jerked my head back to look at Sarah, to look at something, and then returned my eyes to Charlotte’s face. She shook her head and turned around, stumbling across the yard into the dark.

***

Sarah, twenty-five and lovely in white, headed towards me, standing with my tie already loosened at the open bar. “That didn’t go so badly, did it?”

“The ceremony was nice. As far as weddings go, I guess you could say this is a success.”

She rolled her eyes and gave me a slight push, ready to gossip about the patrons of her special day and take off her heels. Someone stopped us to congratulate her and I waited, stirring my drink and staring off into space, when I saw Charlotte. She was older, undeniably, but was wearing pink and still had the bridge of freckles that so surprised me. Two kids, identical both to each other and their mother, marched along beside her. Perhaps because of the cocktail of liquor and joy and melancholy I had been siphoning sips off all night, as the band started a slow song, I approached her.

She introduced me to her husband, introduced me to her children, and accepted my hand when I asked if I could steal—borrow, really—her for just one dance.

 

“She told me if she ever is considering divorce she’ll give you a call.”

I looked over at my sister sharply, sunken in the endless folds of lace her wedding dress was comprised of. “What? Why would anyone say that?”

She pulled a cigarette from the depths of the dress and lit it, careful to hold the flame out of way of all the material. “It does seem pretty fucked up, but I think she meant it as a compliment.” I offered my hand, palm up, in plea for my own cigarette and Sarah shook her head, “I’ve just the one. I didn’t want dad telling me it was unladylike to smoke a pack on my wedding day.”

She could barely see me out of the corner of her eye. Her head was resting on the countertop behind her chair, weighed down by the heavy coils of hair pinned up. It was just the two of us in the little kitchen where earlier in the night the catering company had been preparing veal and cheesecake and plates of figs. I pinched the lit cigarette out of her hand with two fingers and inhaled until my lungs burned. “Little bride,” I told Sarah, unable to stop the inevitable coughing, “I hope he loves you like he has everything to lose.”

Maddie Woda is an undergraduate student at Columbia University, majoring in English and American Studies. She is a board member of the Columbia Review and is currently working on her first novel.

Dusty Withering

Mother

 

            She’s expected soon. I should probably give more background information. Four years ago, I traveled to Mars on a one way expedition. Our plan was to settle on Mars making it inhabitable for humans upon arrival. The journey was long and difficult and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was thoroughly prepared for all the technical and mechanics of the mission to Mars. I spent seven years in training, for god sake. I don’t exactly know how it happened. I mean, I do a little bit, of course there was quite a lot of research. The scientists found out I was pregnant on the way home. I experience the same external symptoms as every other pregnant woman of our century. Some nausea, uncomfortable pain, less energy and overall drop in motivation. At first, I didn’t even think of being pregnant. I honestly thought I was dying from the atmosphere on Mars. The change in temperature and overall environment around me had to have done something to me. I immediately assumed that the trip was wearing me down and an unknown pathogen had entered my body. The symptoms started coming in relatively strong when I was about 1 year and 14 weeks into my pregnancy, no visible physical traits, but the cramps, nausea and appetite hit me hard. On the spaceship I was expected to eat half as much as I usual due to the need for a second helping of nutrients and food. The continuing weakness and instability I was feeling throughout the trip home with little to no exercise was concerning. Though the spaceship wasn’t equipped with the proper technology to check for an ultrasound to examine my abdomen for any internal complications. Due to the reduced technology and no way to understand the predicted illness taking over my body, I was extremely confused because I had no idea I was conceiving a child. As time passes, I cannot quite understand how I will feel when she arrives. It is an excitement along with nervous, yet most of me cannot even interpret what is occurring within me. The longer I wait, the more I worry about my affection leading to attachment to a daughter I will not be allowed to care for.

Scientists

 

            This new encounter will give us more information than we could ever draw from the atmosphere of Mars. The extensive research our head scientist has prepared will embark our space center on the most recent and equipped knowledge for combating outer space. This information will lead us to inhabit the new planet of Mars. With this discovery, we will now know how to survive and adapt to Mars’s atmosphere. Her particle like skin gives her the adaptation to Mars desert-like environment. The only time we've ever experienced Mars’s conditions was the most recent trip resulting in little to no helpful data regarding our survival. Though Mary doesn't understand the entire situation of what data she will be providing to us, her gesture will result in major steps for mankind. The child’s appearance on Earth will finally give us the opportunity to revisit Mars with life of its own kind. Though the research may in fact be born with a mental capacity of a human and developed on its own, our scientists will be prepared for all complications with resistance and producing this child for solely scientific purposes. Our experiment has been fully laid out to describe the child’s entire life on Earth. Though we have not been able to grasp the knowledge of when or how she may become extinct, our research can only rely on her survival for data collection. Our head scientist, Dr. Vinklestrauf, will lead the team in discovering and examining her anatomy along with how her senses and organ structure allow her existence on Mars. Most of us are still in shock for her growth and progress inside our fellow astronaut, let alone the birth of her into the world. Our incubator located in the NASA research station is able to examine her anatomy and bodily systems immediately after birth to register the accurate room temperature and gas exchange to keep her stable when alive. When commander Mary Hollum returned from Mars, she was sent into multiple experiments for exploration. Her willingness to participate in research has been exceptional, yet our prediction for her child’s arrival may not include Mary’s survival. This entire process can only be measured and understood to its full extent once the creature enters the human world. Until then, we can only use our hypothesis of utilizing her life to further the human race.

Mother

 

            I welcomed Olivia Grace onto Earth exactly two years ago today. Her beginning seconds on earth were the most conflicting moments of my life. We’ve learned a lot from her development over the past two years, yet I only get to see her once a day during her third eating hour. Her skin is an auburn color, a red mixed with a lighter brown. The rough texture is held together with rocks, a feeling of sandpaper when I first held her. Her eyes sparkle blue and green reminding me of stars in the middle of a darker sky. The only part of her facial features that mirror mine is her nose. Its smaller complimenting her wide set eyes. Her smile radiates, yet she seems to have slowly lost it throughout the years. Her physical and mental growth is almost four times as rapid as ours leading her to only two years of life on earth, yet reacting and living as a six year old. Her constant joy started to decrease when the research got most intense. Due to the fact that we have absolutely no insight on what will happen each coming day, her daily interactions consist of the scientists, nurses, and myself. I do my best to bring the outside world into her living quarters, yet every item must be checked and thoroughly examined before she can interact with it. A few stuffed animals and coloring books have been approved, yet her lack of diversity in interaction and eating habits leads me to wonder how curious she might be. However, all six year olds are curious about the less detailed, less important things, which is normal. My biggest struggle will be her education. How can the scientists learn from her if she has no access to the knowledge that every other young girl does? Will this research be her whole life? Or will she be able to provide enough information for the scientists to release her eventually? As her mother, the scientists have given me few rules and some decisions. I explained the things I wanted access to and the important parts of life that I wanted to provide for my only child: some education, no matter how in depth it is, she should know what they are doing to her and what she is contributing to our society, time with her, whether it be once a day to eat and talk or less speaking time, I want to have a role in her upbringing. The research will last her entire life, but NASA allowed me to sign an agreement of allowing her to go to school once she turns seven to introduce other human interactions and track development and growth in the outside world. Her first six years of life on earth have been heavily influenced by research and data collection proving her survival on earth, mars, and almost every extreme condition our society is aware of. Her survival skills stem from her dust-like skin to trap and absorb all external and foreign pathogens keeping her immune system completely in tact. The dust collects as a membrane across the skin to change the external layer of her body causing almost nothing to affect her. With more human interaction, we will understand how her brain will interpret social situations. As her mother, I value her life as my daughter above any experimental design.

Daughter

            Today was my first day of school. I was so excited to be able to attend school with other people and interact with other students. Though I’m only seven years old, I went into fifth grade right away because of my intellectual superiority of my fellow classmates. I wasn’t exactly sure what my day would entail. I had read a lot of books about going to school, like Junie B. Jones and David Goes to School, but I never actually knew what it would be like without experiencing it firsthand. The scientists allowed me to travel to school with my mom completely alone and without their influence or supervision the entire day. This new way of life originally scared me because I was thrown into a situation that I wasn’t familiar with. The school was bigger than I imagined. There were children everywhere, filling all the empty hallway space. Each child held a book with a backpack on their back or in their locker. Each child greeted another immediately with smiles and laughter. Everyone rushed around, as if there was too much to get done in not enough time. I wasn’t familiar with the quickened pace and over enthusiastic greetings. I've only interacted with scientists and my birth mother: all people that were smarter than me. I wasn't used to be the only person to understand what was going on and I completely didn't get why I should put my hand in the air to be able to talk. This school system made absolutely no sense and I didn’t really want to return the following day. We had to stay in lines and walk behind each other. The teacher overlooked everything we were doing, yet didn't provide very much guidance when we actually needed it. The first person I talked to greeted me when I got to the front door after stepping out of the car. The principal introduced herself and invited me into her office. The school was loud and full of color, no wall was left empty. The bright colors and loud laughter echoed through the hallways as I took it all in following the principal. My mother followed quickly behind me, yet didn't interpret the school building in the same awe as I did. This was because she had had a life before me and grew up in the same environment as these other children.

My isolation was immediately noticeable as each child scanned me with their bright and colorful eyes. Each had the same facial expression and thought process: A new student! Why is her skin red? Why does she look differently than I do? Each child’s face contorted into a confused look as if I was a completely new species that had never walked the earth. At first I thought why would they question me, but then I remembered I was a new species that had yet to walk the earth. I fit their stereotypes perfectly. I was aware that the children had been warned in advance my story, my appearance, and where I've come from. It's been all over the news. Yet I never thought I would have such an impact on the human world. People don't understand me because they don't know how to comprehend where I came from and who I am. This immediate idea they put up in their minds about what I am blocks all other further judgements when they could really get to know me. It's only been the first day, so I am doing my best to not let their first reactions undermine my success. However, the predicted isolation and the unfamiliar social situations have led to complete loneliness—

“Hey Olivia, what did you get on the math test?”

“Oh Hi Riley, I got a 99/100 which is a 99% keeping me at the top of the class.”

“Uh of course! All you do is brag about your scores and how great you think you are. No one cares and no one asked.”

“Why are you rolling your eyes?I was just answering your question, Riley.”

            —As tears began to well up in my eyes, I started for the door. Hoping no one would notice the mud sliding down my face after it was mixed with my tears. No one could know the affect that sadness and words of hate had on me.

poetry magazine, modpo south

ModPo South 

For those who can't make it to the mecca that is Kelly Writers House, we gather once per month, in a traveling show sort of migration around South Florida to enjoy the companionship, the intellectual stimulation and the pure exhaustion of the mental challenge of a live close read!

Join Us!

If you are part of such a group in another region, please share your information and we will promote your gathering, too!