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by Embe Charpentier

The blah-blah-de-blah of her parents’ arguments shook Thea from her ears to her toenails. They fought about the value of communicating, walking the dog, and the weather. Constant rancor should be a crime punishable by exile, not torture.

Grandma Peters told her ten-year-old grandbaby she was lucky to be alive. “Stopped fighting just long enough to have you,” Grandma said. “Someday, those two’ll listen to a judge grantin’ them freedom from each other. Better listen to the damn lawyers since they don’t pay me no mind.”

Six months later, an early fall snowstorm unlike any other caused a thirty-two car crash on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Grandma drove Car Number Two, her rust-bucket Ford.

Pa suggested it would have been simpler to make it her coffin.

Ma swathed herself in a black veil and wept tears that dripped loud as tin roofs without drainpipes.

“When you gonna walk the dog? No one to clean up after her unless you do it,” Pa told Thea.

After the funeral in Maple Grove Cemetery, Thea remained silent for fourteen days, no surrender. Ma took her to the doctor. The specialist in Norfolk was seven hours away, so Pa and Ma flipped to decide who’d take her.

Ma lost, so she made the trip with Thea. Country songs soured in Ma’s thick Eve’s Apple. On the Parkway, gold leaves fell early, not crinkled like old-woman-skin or peeled up like birch bark. The land collided with the ocean. Thea kept her eyes glued to the naval base where distant ships once spoke in simple terms, in semaphore flags, red and yellow.

A lens at the horizon saw everything as the same distance away.

At the doctor’s office, Thea ripped out two random coloring pages. The world of the boy with the train metamorphosed into horizontal maroon and goldenrod. The girl with the doll received its mirror image.

The code: left arm straight up, right to the side for no; right arm straight up, left to the side for yes.

Doctor Simmons had fancy diplomas on her walls, one with gilded letters. She said girls could talk as much as they wanted to in her office.

Thea figured other girls wanted to.

Doctor Simmons made Ma leave. “It’s just a phase, isn’t it,” Ma said. Doctor Simmons twisted the doorknob shut.

At first, Thea nodded and shook her head to train Doctor Simmons. After the doctor understood the flagging system, Thea took away the head-wagging clues.

Doctor Simmons wanted sentences and syllables, commas and periods, even explanation points! Thea gave her Lazy Susan Yellow and Dried Blood Red, arms to the side and arms straight up.

An apology from her parents? Insufficient. Too late, too cheap, too easy. Left arm up, right arm to the side.

Doctor Simmons gave up after three sessions. Return in a month. Nothing to do but wait.

When Thea arrived home, Pa said Ma wasted money they didn’t have.

Thea learned to sew.


Embe Charpentier teaches by day and writes by night. Her novel Beloved Dead is published by Kellan Books. Her short stories have been published online in diverse literary magazines, including Polychrome Ink, Indianola Review, Poydras Review, and The Quotable. Her work has also been included in two YA anthologies. She invites you to visit her website, www.embecharpentier.com, and to follow her on Twitter, @embecharpentier.

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