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by Meg Tuite

Words do everything but shut-up. Many times once over is never the same once. Ester loses a spelling bee twice to Thomas the earwig. Three times Ester hooks a backpack around her arms and runs away from home only to make it to the candy store and back. She pees in her bed too many times to count. Every word in the dictionary has more than one meaning.

There was never a

once upon a time

that didn’t say to itself

why not try it again

and time and time

again let the subterfuge

of once

settle into the lukewarm

nether regions of blood and denial

Ester is nine when the uncle moves in upstairs. He creaks and heaves when going up or coming downstairs. He is a greasy elephant who smacks through a Lithuanian honey cake that is made for his arrival. Number nine is sliced across the top. The cake is the only reason Ester remembers her age. She doesn’t get cake any other year. His knees buckle when he bends from his flabby middle. He hides a sweaty gumdrop in a hand behind his back. “Trick or treat,” he says.

Ester reads the dictionary. A letter is randomly picked and she memorizes as many words as her brain can carry. She burps twenty-two times in a row and vomits three times after a meal.

The uncle calls Ester inside when he babysits. She rips branches from trees and tears off leaves. The shredding is violent and the scattering haphazard. Hundreds of herself walk toward the house over and over and she wonders how many trails her feet have made. The branches are dead. The dolls in the house stagnate. Dead. It is the snap of green that compels her. Ester collects branches from each tree. She doesn’t leave bald spots, circles the trees and decimates them methodically with vigor.

Ester’s feet start moving toward the voice. Two times she hears her name. She can’t feel her sneakers beneath her. The sickly smell of lilac bushes that line up one side of the back of the house trail alongside her. Some neighbors are talking through the clip, clip, clip and hack, hack, hack of garden tools. Uncle holds the screen door open burbling words to himself as the sweat of moldy skin marbles light over his mottled pink face. He smiles. It is a curve that surfs across his jowls. He takes Ester’s sweaty hand in his and she hears little nursery bubbles pop out of his glassy eyeballs. Their feet know where to go. The door eeks its hinges closed behind them. The pantry is the place that houses the edibles. Eating elephant snorts as he empties bottles in the dark. The room swallows itself with his flanks, his trunk. Once upon a time there was not a once. The thrumming musk of decayed teeth stifles the room. Today the letter is “E”. Ester follows each word into the next for there is always a next. Egress is an exit. Exit is a way out of an enclosed space. Enclosed is to shut up or in with else. Else is the other, the entity, obey or else, the elder, the enemy, the everyday excess of the evildoer. Exhale, emanate, envelop jars of shadowy apricots, strawberries, pickles, molasses, while e is escalating into excavation, an earthquake that guts slimy eruptions that escape inside of her, and there is no ear, no eye, no end to the pain.

Nothing but a mumbling elephant of a man, a screen door, and endless trees to kill.

Meg Tuite is author of a novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition, a short story collection, Bound By Blue, and won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, as well as five chapbooks of short fiction, flash, and poetic prose. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is a senior editor at Connotation Press and (b)OINK lit zine, and editor of eight anthologies. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, over fifteen anthologies, nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize, five-time Glimmer Train finalist, placed 3rd in Bristol Prize, and Gertrude Stein award finalist. Her blog: megtuite.com.