Kate Doyle

Grace says, Not me, I just like hitting things with my squash racquet.

Cinnamon baseball coyote

In the middle of a fight when she is 10 and Grace is 6, Helen writes I hate my sister and puts the piece of paper in her desk. Three months later Grace finds it, while Helen is taking a shower. Helen with her wet hair wrapped up in a towel says, Well I wrote it a long time ago, Grace, and why were you looking in my desk! Their father, intervening, has been frowning. He says, Are you saying you forgot you had this, Helen? Grace is crying excessively, wiping her tears and nose on the pink sleeve of one bent arm. Helen says, I knew I had it, but I don’t mean it anymore. I only kept it because I meant it once.

In their home there is a no-hitting rule, observed without exception, but their mother’s sister could not possibly know it. This is why Helen, in the back seat of Aunt Eileen’s car, on the Pennsylvania interstate, reacts with startling, thrilling physical violence to Evan’s singing. One flat palm slapped across his upper arm, she says, Stop it that is not a real song, you are making that up, be quiet.

Age one: impossible to remember. Their parents have Helen, and on her first birthday put her in a blue dress with smocking around the ribs and chest. There is a picture of it, framed, and they keep it hanging in the stairwell. One Christmas Eve, in college, Grace is dressed for dinner and, descending, pauses on the stairs. She says, unprompted, I do like this picture, Helen, but I feel like there are better baby photos of you.

Evan is born. I am a sister now, joyful Helen tells the neighbors, famously.

Grace is born. Evan, age 2, tells their father, Now I have two of these.

On the one day of winter break when it snows, Grace says with a small nose-wrinkle of distaste, These two are the artsy ones in this family, not me. Helen feels annoyed but Evan is fine. He just laughs and opens the fridge and looks around for milk, saying, We actually think Grace could be an actress, if she tried. Helen says, I disagree, she’s too purposely not caring. Grace says, How dare you, I was great that time you made me be your Peter Pan, remember how convincingly I cried? Grace’s squash team friend is there—I’ll have you know I wept, Grace tells her. The squash friend sips her glass of water. She says, I’ve never been artistic myself, but of course I have to admire it. Grace says, Not me, I just like hitting things with my squash racquet. And she thumps one palm down hard on the countertop, which makes the nearby toaster give off a tinny, wild shudder.

Their parents meet just after college, in a bar, and it’s raining. Later, their mother gives up her career to be at home with them. In middle school, Grace becomes incredible at squash. Of the three of us, says Evan over sushi one New Year’s, Helen is most doomed.

Evan’s plan is not to make the kind of mistakes Helen makes.

Pick yourself up, says her father, gently.

Helen cannot sleep all night and calls out sick from the coffee shop. This is not what people do, says her mother. What people do is, they go to work.

The three of them try to remember an alphabet book they loved as children. S is for Serious. T is maybe for Timid, but they are not certain. Evan is trying to find the Yankees game on television. T is for Tearful, he says. Grace, flung out on the sofa, wearing one of their mother’s old college sweatshirts, elaborates: T is for Tearful, like Helen is.

In high school, their dog gets old and dies. Her gums turn very pale and her small heart races, visibly beating under the skin. They and their parents take her to the vet, where they sit around her on the floor and stroke her until she falls asleep. The part of her Evan can reach is the small, warm armpit. They leave before she has the injection that will euthanize her. This is what the vet recommends they do.

The ground is too cold to dig into, and so, for now, their parents keep their dog’s ashes on a shelf, next to their mother’s lightweight spring sweaters.

Evan, in elementary school, often tries to get a look at the top of his head. He thinks if he looks up quickly enough, he’ll catch a glimpse. He stands in the family room and tips back his head, repeatedly.

When they first get their dog they are children, and argue incessantly about what to name her. Evan says, I am going to pull your hair. Grace says, I hate you both. In the end, the name is a kind of mash-up of their disparate suggestions.

College icebreaker: My name is Helen, and a fun fact about me is, my dog was named Cinnamon Baseball Coyote.

They are children, and their father is taking them with their Christmas present racquets to learn the game of squash. From the front seat, turning off the engine, he says, You all are going to really like this. Helen presses her face to the clouded glass of one window. Snow circles from the white sky, accumulates like pale moss on the asphalt. Under his breath, Evan is singing a made-up song. Grace says, Fine but if I don’t love this, Dad? I am not ever forgiving you, ever.

Kate Doyle’s writing has been featured in No Tokens, Meridian (Flash Fiction Award winner), Pigeon Pages, Bodega, the Franklin Electric Reading Series, Lamprophonic, and Sundays at Erv’s. She lives in New York and received an MFA from NYU.




Chloe N. Clark

We are paying for our sins, the writers declared as if they were street preachers in apocalyptic movies.


The lake looked beautiful that time of year. Trees swooned in towards the water, heavy with leaves and fruit, and algae bloomed the color of liquid emeralds. I watched the wind send shivers across the water’s surface and each hint of breeze filled the air with the smell of catalpa flowers—so pungent that the scent could almost be seen. I breathed in. I breathed in. Somewhere, behind me, I heard something call out. But maybe it was only a bird.


Years before, I listened to a different kind of water: the recordings of the Mariana trench. Shrieks and moans from the deep. They sounded so disembodied, so alien. Rahul walked into my office. “What is that?”

“The recordings from the Mariana Trench. It’s how things sound underwater: listen you can hear ships way above and whales. Even the earth moving.”

He leaned over my shoulder, reading the text on the screen. “It sounds like outer space does in movies. You know when someone’s on a planet or something?”

So close to me, he smelled of peppermint soap. “It makes me kind of sad,” I admitted.

“Sad?” He turned to me. Our faces near enough that I could count his eyelashes.

“That even so deep into the earth, there’s still so much sound. It’s like you can’t escape from noise.”

He smiled. “That should make you happy. Even in the darkest, you can still hear life.”

Often, I went back to this memory, searching through it for signs that the world would end. I wanted to know if even then things were shifting around us. But, mostly, all I see is Rahul smiling. The color of his eyes, the shape of his lips.


Anna Moritz was the first I watched die. It was the second year of the plague and things were already going to hell. We’d worked together for years. She was my friend. I sat there as she lay dying, watching her body shake and jolt and I couldn’t do a thing to help her.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god. I can see them in my blood, Rissa! I can see them in my blood! Such tiny teeth they have!” Her voice was so high-pitched, so breathy. She gasped for air between every word.

I held her hand. They always said not to touch the sick, but she needed someone and nothing I’d done so far had gotten me sick. She needed some grasp of life.

“I loved him so much and I never told him it was our fault,” she said. Her moment of clarity. All the sick got one moment. I’d noticed it over and over. They didn’t, maybe, know it was clarity, but I saw it. Anna’s eyes cleared and she stared up at the ceiling as she said it. I wanted to ask her what she meant. Then she returned to gasping, moaning, muttering.

In the last moments, she dug her fingernails so deep into my palm that she drew blood.


I was twenty-seven when the plague began. I worked in a laboratory, studying plants. My degree was in ethnobotany and I wasn’t truly one of the scientists, more of a glorified researcher for the company. Mostly we were looking for the medicinal benefits in plants that had not yet been fully studied. An Emerson quote was framed on one of the walls: What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. However, sometimes, we helped out labs that were less well-equipped: studying contaminant species and the like.

I was there on the day they brought the samples back. A kind of algae-like bloom spore that had been found in a lake in the Pacific Northwest. People in the neighboring town had started getting sick. At first it was headaches, then fevers that brought vivid hallucinations, then pain, pain, and finally death. Everyone thought it had something to do with a chemical company on the edge of the town or possibly some sand blasting going on nearby. Then they found the algae. It slicked the top of the lake, like an oil spill, glimmering and tinted blue. I’d seen pictures and it looked like nothing I’d ever seen before.

“Do you really think it could be algae making everyone sick?” I asked Rahul. He leaned against the wall next to me, drinking a mug of coffee, and watching three of the lead scientists crating a box of samples into one of the labs. Our shoulders touched.

He shrugged. “I suppose if it got into their drinking water. During a bloom, cyanobacteria can be quite toxic.”

One of the scientists pulled out a glass sample container, filled with water and blue tendrils of slime. It was no algae I’d ever studied before.

Next to me, Rahul shifted forward. He stared at the container with a mix of fierce concentration and worry. “Something’s not right.”


Two years later, in the car as I raced to get to somewhere safe even though I knew no such place existed, I saw a man walking alongside the highway. His clothes were ragged and his hair disheveled, but from behind, I thought I knew him. Something about his walk, the steadiness of his pace. I slowed the car, begging my vision to be right.

Please, please, please, my mind said over and over. The man turned to look at me and it wasn’t him. Just a man, dried blood under his nostrils, and a look on his face so close to madness that I pressed my foot onto the gas pedal and sped past him in a blur.


“What did they say?” Anna and I were eating at the deli we often went to. They made their own bagels and spread them thick with avocados and fresh goat cheese.

“Nothing they’re willing to tell me,” Anna said. She was a lab assistant. Two years younger than me, but already ahead in most “adult” aspects: she had a husband, a mortgage, and plans to start a family in the next couple of years. Her husband would die before her. She’d scream his name when the fever first took hold of her.

“Rahul said they looked worried,” I said. Taking a bite of the bagel, avocado filled my mouth. The taste was so rich that it seemed wrong with the conversation, with a town dying only a few hundred miles away.

“Rahul is a worrier. It’s why you’re so perfect for each other,” Anna said.

“I’m not a worrier.”

“Exactly, he worries and you’re the voice of calm, of reason.” Anna pulled the edge of her bagel off, popping it into her mouth. “What is he like in bed, by the way? He seems like he’d be either good or gentle.”

“He can’t be both?” I thought of Rahul’s hands, of the way he’d run one up and down my thigh, almost absentmindedly, as we watched something.

Anna laughed. “Not in my experience.”Only later would I realize that she’d been changing the conversation on purpose, that the scientists had told her more than she said. She’d admit it to me one night, a year later, as we watched bodies being taken away from the street in vans. They knew, Rissa, they fucking knew so much.


The town was quarantined. The situation has been contained, newscasters reported. The lake sanitized. The death toll was in the hundreds. A shocking number, but the word “contained” made us feel safe.

At work, I noticed more meetings going on than normal. Once a scientist brushed past me in the hall, and I turned to apologize, only to see that he had tears in his eyes.

“Are you alright?” I asked. His name was Dr. Perrin. I never knew his first name, but I remembered that he had a daughter who liked horses and Pixie Stix. The facts that stick in our mind are sometimes astonishing.

He shook his head. “Tell everyone you love them.” He hurried past. I hoped his daughter was fine. I hoped it was nothing serious.


The first time I met Rahul was my third day of work. I was lost in a back hallway of the lab, trying to find a man with a sample of a prairie grass that he wanted me to look at. I saw a man coming out of a side room. He was tall, thick dark hair, and wore sneakers the color of the sky—a soft blue that seemed incongruous paired with his white lab coat.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked me. His voice was soft.

“Prairie grass?” I responded.

“Maybe try Iowa?” he said. His tone not mocking, just playful.

“So, you are not the prairie grass man, then,” I said.

“I’m mostly the lake weeds man, but people often call me Rahul.” He extended a hand. His shake was firm, but not pressing.

“Rissa,” I said.

Once, later, Anna asked me if I’d known right away that I’d love him. I shook my head, said I’d been attracted to him, yes, but no one can know love right away. She had laughed, relieved, and said that she hadn’t loved her husband for months and she always wondered about it. If it was something wrong with her, with her relationship.

The truth was, though, that the minute I’d seen Rahul, I had thought something strange. I’d thought: one day, I’ll want to remember this. And, at that point, I hadn’t known why.


A month after the quarantine, another town became sick. The river running past it was thick with algae. The news stories did slow pans over the water. In the sun, the algae seemed to glow, pale blue as sapphires.

As we watched the news, Rahul shifted next to me. “It’s not algae, Rissa. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not algae. I looked at it, under the microscope. It’s something else, the spores, they’re mutated or something. I think someone may have tampered with them. It seems engineered.”

I turned to him, he looked so scared. “We’re going to fix it. We have the best lab in the country, top scientists. We’re going to fix it.”

He stared at me for the longest time before saying, “I want to believe you.”

Later, in bed, his body pressing into mine, our breath fast, he said that he loved me. I wanted to believe me then, too. I wanted to believe that everything would be fine.


One night, when the nation had first gone into a state of emergency, I woke up to my phone buzzing. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I whispered, not wanting to wake Rahul.

The person on the other line didn’t say anything at first, but I could hear them breathing. Gulping in air, as if they’d been crying.

“Hello? Who is this?”

“Jesus, someone, someone, they burned it down,” Anna said. Her voice shuddering and shaking.


“The lab, Rissa. Someone burned it down,” she shouted the words. “All that work. We could’ve found a cure. I mean, we . . . ”

I never knew how she’d finish the sentence. She hung up.

In the morning, Rahul and I drove to the building. Its carcass still smoking and the remains so charred that it had to have been burned with something fiercer than gasoline. I walked as close to it as I could without being overwhelmed by the smell. Someone had spray-painted something on the sign that used to hang over the door, but only half of it was now visible: Gui. Just the three letters and nothing else.I walked back to Rahul, who stood staring at the wreckage, and I didn’t tell him what I saw. I didn’t say, I think it must have said ‘Guilty.’ At that point, I thought that the arsonist had just meant that we were guilty of not being able to help.


It only took months for it to be most places. Some of them cities that weren’t even near bodies of water. The newscasters warned us not to panic. The CDC said that it was now an illness, spreadable through contact with the sick.

Stories ran on blogs about how this was not sickness but a cleansing. We are paying for our sins, the writers declared as if they were street preachers in apocalyptic movies.


A few months after the State of Emergency was declared, after the rioting and the burned cities, I took shifts volunteering in one of the makeshift hospital tents that were set up wherever people could find space. There was no cure, there was just an attempt to ease suffering, to keep the sick contained where the bodies could be easily rounded up after death.

Walking through the beds, looking for anyone in need of more pain meds, I recognized someone. Doctor Perrin, from the lab. He looked so hollowed out, so fragile.

“Dr. Perrin,” I said.

He looked up. “Rissa, you’re still you.”

I wondered if he meant still alive. “Yes, I am.”

He coughed. “I thought you left, went under the sea with some of the others. God, it’s probably so dark and cool there.”

“Under the sea?”

“You know, where it came from, right?”

“What? The algae?”

He shook his head, wincing. “No, dear, the algae came from us. I thought everyone knew that. It was supposed to eat, eat, eat up all the output. You know we put so much into our water and we needed to get rid of it. Clean the water. We were going to be helping. Helping. Funny word, really, that helping has hell in it.”

“We did this?” I whispered.

Dr. Perrin smiled at me, as if I were a student who had gotten the answer to a particularly challenging question. “Did I tell you about the sea? No water. No not water. No, I meant the cure. It’s under the sea. No, not the sea,” he said. Then he coughed again, harder, and blood speckled the sheet he was laying on. “The lakes. It’s in the lakes.”

“There’s a cure?” I wanted to keep him talking, keep him present.

He smiled. “God, you look just like my mother. You’re so pretty, Gretchen.”

That was the name of his daughter. I remembered it then. A girl I’d met once at a Christmas party. She’d been hiding in the corner, tapping a Pixie Stick against her hand, like it was a cigarette. She was years and years younger than me and looked like she’d grow up to be an elegant looking woman. The fever must have been deep at that point.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Oh, love, you’re forgiving me, right?” He asked. Blood leaked from his mouth, tiny red trickles of saliva.

“Of course, Dad,” I said.

It took a year before the country was in ruin. Longer than I think anyone would have predicted.


It was a year and a half when Rahul never came back. I woke up and he was gone. A letter on the table, saying that he’d heard of something. A lab to the North. Right now, you’re safe here. I’ll come back to get you when I know it’ll be safe there, too. Always, I love you.

I wondered why he’d think I was so safe. Our doors had locks, but wouldn’t we have been safer together?

Outside, I’d heard rumors as well. Hushed voices saying that someone was going to cure us, that there was a place working on the cure. I’d never have been stupid enough to think there was truth there. I’d have never left him. Sometimes, I’d wake up from a dream that he was sleeping beside me, and find that he wasn’t there. I’d curse him. Yell every foul thing I could think of to the air, to the space he wasn’t.


When he first asked me to move in with him, he’d baked a cake. It wasn’t particularly good: dense chocolate with too-sweet frosting.

“I’m not very good at this,” he said. “I just wanted to see if I could even bake.”

My mouth was full of cake, I was trying to swallow it down, to assure him that it tasted good.

“If you move in here, I’ll promise to never bake again,” he said.

And I laughed and we left the cake uneaten on our plates. And years later, when I searched through empty cabinets and the city outside was dying and Rahul was gone, I thought of the cake. I could taste it in my mouth. Sweet and rich.


I found Anna again not long before her death. She was living on the street at that point, unable or unwilling to go back to the house where her husband died.

“He kept saying that he could see God. That God was a fish with sharp teeth,” she said to me one night after she came to live with me. “Like one of those Angler fish. God as some ugly-ass creature down at the bottom of the sea. That’s all he talked about toward the end.”

I didn’t know what to say.

Some nights Anna would climb into bed beside me. She slept in fitful bursts, whimpering sometimes and I would shake out of sleep thinking she was crying. It was only dreams, though. Probably nightmares.


It was almost three years after the plague began when I found what I needed. I moved steadily, unable to stay still. Loss hung over every place I went. I’d seen the man collapse along the side of the road and I went to him.

I poured some water into his mouth, hoping it was just the heat. But he pushed my hand away. “Too late for that, darling. I’m a goner.”

“How long have you been sick?” I asked.

“A week or so, longer than most get to stay.” He smiled. “Why are you out here?”

“I heard about a place near here,” I said. I wasn’t sure how much to say. I had grown cautious, grown to be someone who didn’t show their cards until I was sure.

A look passed over the man’s face, like he’d been looking for something in a crossword puzzle and then the answer had revealed itself. “The lake is real you know.”

“What?” I asked, studying the man’s face. He looked kind, like he was someone’s grandfather. The kind who’d keep coins in his pocket, just so that he could do the trick where he made one appear from behind an ear.

“To the North. Not far. That’s where the lab is. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?” He asked.

“How do you know?”

“Everyone’s looking for someone.” He frowned, pausing. “No something. That’s the saying, right?”

“But, how do you know about the lab?”

“I was there once, before all of this. Worked there. Sometimes, I go back and I watch them. From a distance. I never liked being locked away, though I think I see their point now.” He tapped his sweaty forehead. “Once you go in, they don’t let you out, though. Keep a strict eye. They want to keep everyone safe. They’ll have the cure soon. Maybe, even, they already do.” He smiled, again. Not happy but not sad either. Wistful maybe would be the best word to describe the expression on his face. I wondered if he was hallucinating. I found I didn’t care.


After Anna, I fled the city. Cars still went aways, if you knew what to do. I drove north because I didn’t know where else to go. Some nights I still dreamed of him coming back, but mostly I nightmared that he was dead. He died in so many ways in my dreams: killed by a looter along the road, of the sickness, of exhaustion. Sometimes, even, he’d die in the most normal pre-plague ways: car accident, cancer, slipping in the shower.

I drove until the car gave out. I passed graffiti-covered stores: It comes for us all, one store window stated in red paint. I passed the dead in piles and cars abandoned.

When the car finally stuttered to a stop, I got out and began walking. I wondered if I’d simply walk until I stopped.


The man gave me directions, as best as he could, between coughs, as his fever began to rise. His words began to lose meaning, but I had enough. In his moment of clarity, he looked at me and said, “my mother used to sing me that song. The one about sunshine.”

I sat next to him as he died. I sang, “the other night dear, while I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms.”

My voice cracked, too long without singing. The words felt sharp, like a bruise being pressed. The man drifted into nothing. He was the most peaceful one I’d ever seen at the end.


“Look at this,” Rahul said. He stared into one of the tanks in his office. There were so many water plants, he was always adding new ones. I walked up next to him, leaned to stare into the tank. He pointed at a tendril of a green grass-like plant.

“What am I looking at?” I asked. “Isn’t it just water celery?”

He smiled. “Yes, but, it’s doing so much and we can’t even see it. Think of water, think of these systems set up naturally: everything working with everything else. It purifies the water, filters sediment, feeds the fauna. And it didn’t have to be engineered to do that, taught to do it. It just does it. What miracles the world has wrought.”

“How long have you been staring into this tank?” I asked, laughing.

He slipped an arm around my waist, pulling me closer to him. “When we’re old together, and we’re retired, and living somewhere warm, let’s fill a pond with life: fish, frogs, all the water plants of my heart’s desire. What do you say?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to imagine us old. A life behind us instead of ahead of us. But I liked the thought of staring into water, of the sun glinting off of it, of Rahul dipping his fingers into the pond and splashing me. “Okay.”


The walk was long. It took me days and then I stumbled into a clearing and there was the lake. It was beautiful in the half-light of the rising sun.

For a moment, or maybe much longer, I just stood there. I breathed in the catalpa-scented air. I studied the water. The algae was algae: green and tendrily, but just algae.

Finally, I walked up to the surface. I bent down and touched the water. It was warm. I took off my shoes and stripped out of my pants and shirt. Stepping into the water, it felt like a nice bath, like comfort.

I walked in up to my shoulders. The algae smelled almost sweet up close. I dunked under the water, let my body still. I kept my eyes closed. It was just the dark and me. I couldn’t hear anything.

Then something. Someone calling out. Muffled, way above the deep, the sound filtered down to me. Even in the darkest, I could still hear life.

Chloe N. Clark’s poems and fiction appear in Booth, Glass, Hobart, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is out from Finishing Line Press and she can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.




Mita Bordoloi


Anamika’s in-laws’ last visit made for a great deal of preparation and smoke-screen arrangement. They stowed the bottles away. Even the ones lining the top of the kitchen cabinets that started off as a collection of mementos from early consumption. Those had to be removed with care and kept in box in the basement. They also hid the ashtrays and cigarettes, completely transforming their space. They bought a new TV for the family room and subscribed to Indian channels to make the guests feel at home. They added a study table with lamp and chair, and a plush recliner for the comfort of the visitors in the guestroom too.

The three months seemed like a brief period of vacation in their dreary life. Anamika was astounded to see Bipul becoming a different man. He played scrabble or chess with Ina or his dad while the family lounged together. It surprised Ina, besides Anamika, and it showed on her happy face. She spent more time at home talking to her grandparents and Anamika got busier in the kitchen, cooking meals for them from scratch as they didn’t eat food with preservatives. A surge of hope engulfed her like a warm pashmina shawl as if things would really change forever.

But after a month Bipul became restless. Anamika noticed that he came home late and always gave excuses of having caught up at work even though residue of the rum still lingered in his breath. He avoided standing near his parents on these occasions. He called his father from the office. He said, “Our project is running on a very strict deadline. Please don’t wait for me, okay? Eat dinner without me.”

After their afternoon siesta Anamika’s in-laws tended to lie down in bed and engage in a kind of pillow talk. She noticed this routine when she came in to ask if they were ready for afternoon tea. Sometimes she ended up having conversations with them and bringing tea to the room and chatting and drinking together. She tried hard in one such occasion, to avert her eyes, when her mother-in-law, Purnima engaged in mining her nose with her finger, lost in deep thought, and pasting each of the rolled mucus on the sage-colored emulsion-painted wall. She invariably lost track of the thread of their conversation at that time and searched frantically in her mind for the best cleaning agent that would erase the thoughtful lady’s nosily waste like a swish of white-washing during Diwali in the back country, or a gentle mud-plastering of cow-dung in the wall.

One day Purnima asked her, “Does Bipul drink?”

“Yes, every day,” said, Anamika.

“But he never did at home.”

“Maybe not in front of you,” said Anamika.

“You think he’ll drink in front of you? He’s not stupid not to know what will transpire if he does such a thing,” said Bipul’s father.

Alcoholism had ruined many families in the old country. Purnima had to know its impact first hand. Her father died from it and her two brothers suffered from it endlessly.

“But I would have some notion,” she said. “He must be unhappy about something, how are you two, happy?”

“What do you mean?”

“She means how is your marital life, good?” said Bipul’s father.

“Oh, that, I suppose so,” said Anamika, a raw incumbent in the art of family façade.

“Why does he drink, then?” said Purnima.

“I think you should know better. Because he has been drinking since the day one of our marriage,” said Anamika not caring, letting the ball roll back into their court.

She witnessed an exchange of glances between the two. Purnima was not immune to addiction either. Her vice of choice was the betel-nut wrapped in paan leaves with a touch of lime and tobacco that was chewed and relished in the cavity of the mouth. It made her face red and ripe like an elephant fruit, scorching heat oozing off the round vermillion sun on the forehead. Her supply of betel-nuts grew in tall trees in her own backyard, the vines of paan wrapped to it, clinging and mounting. For her trip to the States she substituted them with the dry kinds that didn’t satisfy her as well as the raw, fresh variety she got plucked from her own kitchen garden.

The night of their marriage, Bipul whom she met only once, a week prior, entered their room with a bottle of Vat 69 and two glasses. “At last I see my beautiful bride,” he said. “See this?” he said raising the bottle with a boisterous guffaw. “This is Pope’s phone number in the Vatican. You may dial directly to him.” This was the first time they were alone in the intimacy of their bedroom. Since the length of their three-day marriage, they belonged to the public as objects of abject tamasha or ridicule, for others to enjoy. 

They came together in life like meat sold in the market. He divorced from an American woman with a son, yet, still a prospective catch from the United States; she, not good-looking, but fair-complexioned and healthy, not wealthy, but with upper-class pedigree. Anamika did not know the consequence of this until after the marriage when Purnima scrutinized her body parts as if she were a mule. “Her nose is ugly, but teeth are good,” she professed. She looked for the parts that would offset her son’s fragile health which was a result of not so immaculate ancestry and social rank that grew only in increment with relations formed through marriage. They would not take dowry, unfashionable in that part of the country, also, to establish good reputation. Yet, they would subjugate and humiliate by deriding one’s standing and what they were after themselves, which was a place in the upper echelon of society still defined by the established aristocracy. They constituted the up-start, the upward mobile, the kind of people known as the new money.

Their marriage was arranged by a woman who knew both the families. She told her parents, “Your daughter Anamika will have a good life in America. The boy is bright and has an excellent job. There is no demand for material things. Thank the stars. He’s off the hook from the clutches of an older woman. Other than that, it’s a perfect match.”

At twenty-five, a peak marriageable age, Anamika was her parents’ burden and object of worry. When they told her about the match, she agreed to meet Bipul and didn’t mind that he was divorced because who knew if the single ones were any better.

When a certain man went to his native country to acquire a wife, he had special specifications in mind. She would be healthy to bear children. She would be a maid glorified into a wife who would do all the domestic work without any help from her spouse/master, unlike his American counterpart. If one wanted to test such macho husbands all one had to do was shake their soft hands that never ever wetted to wash dishes that piled up at a busy ethnic kitchen.

A few days after their marriage Purnima and her daughters instructed Anamika as if she were a nurse for hire. “Always cut his nails and toe-nails short. He likes to keep them trimmed. Look how long and beautiful fingers and toes he has?” They fussed around his hands and feet and the thirty-two-year-old prince melted languorously in their attention. They gave Anamika lessons on cooking and taught her to make bread pakoras in hydrogenated Dalda ghee which they served dotingly to Bipul who sat guzzling chilled beer, one after another, broadening the girth of his raunchy paunch.

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was filled to capacity on her arrival with passengers landing and departing to various parts of the world. It was no different than New Delhi’s busy Indira Gandhi airport. Her husband was waiting to receive her as she followed him after a month, his protruding belly before his self, reminding her who needed her the most.

Her sordid, humdrum life began in a claustrophobic apartment building in the northern suburbs. The alimony to his ex-wife gave her the house and they lived in the apartment. The two-bedroom flat was stark. A sofa, a coffee table, a chair and the TV stand completed the living room. The dining area comprised of a rectangular table and four chairs and one bedroom had a king size bed and a chest of drawers and the other bedroom a desk, a bookshelf, a chair and a futon bed against the opposite wall. Anamika decorated the rooms with the things she brought with her: cotton cushion covers in batik design, bamboo table mats, and woven Manipuri bedspread.

Bipul would leave for work in the morning and would return home in the evening. He worked at a small firm in the city. She settled down to make the house a home. She put the small Hawkins pressure-cooker to use straight-away. She made for herself a khisiri of lentils, rice and vegetables in the cooker that she ate with a boiled egg, and started adorning the house. She borrowed a sewing machine from the neighbor and made curtains for the rooms from the fabrics she bought with her husband in the weekend. Plastic blinds did come with the apartment but she was used to curtains like Muslim women were to burkha. It threw a sense of security and modesty and gave personality to the rooms. She bought cushions, covered them with hand-woven covers and tossed them over the sofa, chair and the extra futon bed in the study room. She bought plants for each room and a few carpets to define and anchor the coffee table, the beds, and the entrance.

Before Bipul returned from work she would cook rice, vegetables and a dish of chicken curry or fish for him and attempt to make his eating habits healthy by using less oil and variety of vegetables. He would tell her that before she came he ate at the restaurants or grabbed food hurriedly from the fast food places.

He would also arrive from work with a bottle of Johnny Walker, change into his pajamas and house slippers, pour himself a glass on the rocks, and go out into the balcony to smoke. She would say, “Dinner is ready.”

“Dinner now? This early? Make some spinach pakoras, the night is young,” he would say, and then proceed to put on the CD of old Jagjeet Singh songs and eye through the Time magazine. She would make the batter with chickpeas flour, sliced onions, spinach leaves, ginger slits and a can of beer from his stock in the refrigerator, and then sprinkle salt and paprika and serve it with cilantro and mint chutney made earlier. He would shower her with praise on such occasions and encourage her to try out more new recipes and serve him to his heart’s and stomach’s content in the ensuing days.

One day she said, “I could work part-time.  I have a commerce degree, and it could be worth something.”

“Got your wings already, eh? Sure, you can. You can use your training, socialize a bit and bring in some money too,”he said.

Soon she found bookkeeping work at a Montessori school owned by a woman from Calcutta. She got to know people from other walks of life. She marveled at how much this country had to offer and failed to understand why some people squandered it. She delighted in being with young children and soon she had daughter Ina who brought pure joy to her life.  She quit working till her daughter was nine months old and when she was four she accompanied her mother to the school. Bipul’s nightly rituals before dinner continued and grew longer. She didn’t eat with him anymore. She and Ina followed the American supper time at six and Bipul started eating late, first at nine, and then, at 9:30 or ten or even later in the night. His persona also changed as he increased his alcohol intake. He yelled, “You women, you think you rule the world? You put on feathers and you think you can fly? You think it’s that easy?”        

Bipul resented his supervisor, Kim. It crushed his macho ego to have a woman boss. So, he lashed out on Anamika at home, she taking in Kim’s quota as well, even though Kim would never tolerate such things. Liz didn’t either. She married him briefly after breaking up with her boyfriend with whom she had a two years old son. She sold the house that she got as alimony from Bipul and moved to California with her boy. Instead of feeling jealous, Anamika was envious of the women for their influence on her husband, for she was suffocated by the weight of his taunting remarks, paralyzed from the inside out.

By now they bought a house in Downers Grove and Ina started going to a public school. She would bring in flyers of smoking risks and hazards, slap it on to the refrigerator and say, “Dad, you need to quit smoking or else you’ll die,” or “Dad, please don’t drink tonight.You’re so much nicer when you don’t drink!” But Bipul would just laugh it off or deny that he ever crossed the limits. On his own, afterwards, he would try gums and nicotine patches but nothing seemed to work.

Gradually, Anamika and Ina stopped staying at home in the evenings. They kept themselves busy with activities. Ina took violin, tae kwon do and swimming lessons, and Anamika drove her to these places and waited with her. Still they had to return to their home and Ina took to shutting herself in her room. Bipul sat for hours in the patio drinking and smoking.  He developed diabetes and hypertension and still he didn’t quit. If Anamika told him to cut down, he yelled, “Don’t nag woman, take care of yourself.”

Many times, she wanted to call her parents and pour her misery into them as a punishment for arranging a wretched match even though the actual risk-taker was herself. They had some inkling too but she didn’t push it as their life seemed full and happy with her brothers and their families.

They had only a few friends whom they saw in the weekends for dinners or other occasions. Anamika became closer to Veena who always told her not to hesitate if she ever needed any help. Of course, many women talked that way but Veena’s words seemed sincere and coming from some depth of understanding. There had been many times when Anamika felt like running to Veena and talking to her about her frustrations. But she kept things to herself and said nothing. Yet, Veena and others noticed in the parties that Bipul drank a little bit more than others, and his tell-tale behavior didn’t go unnoticed.


The day before the in-laws left, as Anamika brought the tea tray to their bed, her father-in-law invited her to sit down with them and talk.

“We feel sorry we are leaving you with such responsibility of our son. We apologize that this couldn’t be taken care of at its bud. But how could we, we didn’t even know,” said her father-in-law.

Purnima just sat there with a grouchy face either because of her husband’s show of humility to the daughter-in-law or because of the matter’s direct connection to her side of the genes.

“It’s too late to do anything, unless he owns it,” was all Anamika said.

Later when she busied herself in the kitchen cooking their last meal, Purnima walked in, in the pretext of providing unsolicited help. She lingered, admiring the walnut bowl in the upper shelf of the see-through cabinet. “That’s a beautiful bowl,” she said tip-toeing to get it off the shelf for close examination when the collection of wine corks it contained spilled out helter-skelter on the floor. 

“And these are Bipul’s cork souvenirs from all the wines he consumed,” said Anamika putting the keepsakes back into its place.

Purnima scurried away to her room to pack without another word.

Once the parents were gone her husband returned to the habit of drinking in the evening and late into the night. In the morning, along shower and a quick breakfast fixed him somewhat for the day and come evening, the routine continued.

Mother and daughter too carried on their various evening activities and shut themselves in their rooms the moment they were back in the house. Their situation forced Anamika to give herself a separate bedroom. Ina turned eighteen by this time and had her own growing pains to deal with. But he didn’t leave them alone. He screamed at them. He demeaned them. He picked fights with them. And that made them ever determined to avoid him even more.

Veena and Anamika stopped for coffee one day. Veena told Anamika about Nina. How she couldn’t take it anymore and left her husband of twenty-five years. She told her about the organization Sakhi that helped women of Southeast Asia.  

“We make donations to them,” said Anamika. “How can I go ask for help for myself?” 

“Have you tried AA?”

“Who can drag him to the meeting?”

“You know Renu, don’t you, Anamika?

Anamika nodded.

“She has had enough of it and separated from her husband. He has come to a state when he cannot keep up with his jobs any longer. Didn’t he study at MIT or Harvard?”

Later Anamika came to know how Renu’s husband was found unconscious on the floor and taken to the hospital. The news spread soon after about his death. Renu came back, stoic and dutiful, to conduct the funeral ceremony. She put the lavish house in the market, then left.

But the news of Renu’s husband’s death turned their house into a live stage of angry opera. Bipul was in his baritone best. He could be Rigoletto rendering Verdi’s aria, Cortigiani, vil’ razza dannata! He paced back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. He fumed, slammed doors, pushed the bills tray so hard it landed on the floor.

“I know how it’s going to get analyzed. He drank too much. He started his day with the drink first thing in the morning. And that is going to come from the old matrons back in the old country who have nothing else to do but dissect people’s lives,” he said.

Ina was in her room. Anamika hurried up the stairs to see that she had her music plugged to her ears.

Ina smiled, “See? Already tuned out.”

Then unplugging the earphones, she said, “He is treating you like a doormat, Mom, you have to do something. You know he doesn’t behave this way with his parents.”

Anamika said, “You wouldn’t understand. He needs help. You go to bed.”  

Before she closed the door, Ina yelled, “He manipulates you, Mom, this is called Stockholm syndrome, don’t you know?”

“The old ladies are going to have a field day now. They’ll find another dead cock to peck on,” said Bipul from downstairs.

Walking down the stairs Anamika imagined one of those pecking ladies would be Purnima. She would be presiding over her circle of gossip-mongers like a queen, or not, if she had the sense to know that her son’s turn might come next. Anamika saw an enactment of a scene where her mother-in-law reigned as the Goddess of kitchen politics. A feast was being prepared to bless the women with fertility. A big cauldron of rice pudding was being cooked. Women passing or hovering gave it a stir in the spirit of camaraderie. When a young woman did her stirring round, Purnima descended upon her with the red betel-chewed mouth, “Oh no, our paayox is going to curdle now.” Swallowing the juicy chew that trickled a tiny tributary down the corner of her mouth, she said, “This is contaminated. Start a pure batch without any trace of her ominous shadow.” The women exchanged glances and smiled with incredulity. Apparently, the young wife had risen to her rights and had spoken against the ills in the household and this was Purnima’s way of ostracizing the guilty one in full view of her kitchen constituency.

“What are you looking at?” Bipul directed his tirade at her. “I bet when I die the same kind of gossip will go around. You’re going to add to it. I don’t care, I’ll be gone.”

“Of course, if you keep drinking like this you will be gone too,” She said.

“You are waiting. I know it, you’re waiting. Why don’t you leave, now? Do you have the guts? Nincompoop, Parasite, a good for nothing free-loader!”

He rushed to her closet, snatched her clothes and dumped them on the stairs. He pulled out wires from the phone jacks.

Writhing and shaking she said, “You, drunken fool, I am leaving you right now!”

She stepped out of the house and took a long walk in the cold without knowing where she was going. A gusty wind swept by but she didn’t care. Her cheeks became icy but she kept walking in the neighborhood, and then slowly jogging, to keep warm. Several voices percolated in her mind vying to get her attention. The first one said, dump him, he deserves it, let him run to his mama, Mother Fucker! You can make a living, you have your daughter, and you both deserve a better life, without the daily abuse and condescension. Another teased, your daughter will go to college soon and you can be anything you want, have anyone you want. One crept up pushing every other one out of the way.  You love him, admit it you love him and love means you never let it go! The practical one said, come on, good or bad this is twenty years of your life, you’re not going to let it go this way, you have to salvage the loss and make the best of it.

But the other, the domineering one kept coaxing at the loving husband and father that Bipul was, when not drinking, sober, in the brilliance of daylight. This Bipul made his daughter laugh, and wonder without reservation, and put her to sleep with the confidence and security that came with the knowledge of the unconditional love of a father. This same Bipul also showed his wife the only love she knew from a man even if it was just the saved office cookie sometimes he brought home to her because he knew about her sugar cravings.

When the cold became intolerable and she came back inside, she saw Bipul in a pathetic posture, ruminating with droopy eyes and a sunken face, leaning against the kitchen counter. Despite everything, it broke her heart to see him lining up his portioned booze in little sample bottles. It was his way of controlling and managing his addiction. It did not matter that the contents of all those tiny bottles and more from the big booze reservoir routinely got deposited into his system. But this time she knew that something drastic was in the offing as it became clear during her in-laws’ last visit that the baton had indeed been placed on her hand and there was no illusion of intervention from the immediate family.

She grabbed his shoulder and looked hard into the depth of his eyes and said, “You are at my mercy, mister. You have nobody but me. Your parents have long before handed you over to me. You are not going to pull us down like this. You are my liability and you’re going to listen to me. Now!”

She pulled him to the stairs. They walked up the flights leaning on each other, trampling on the strewn clothes in the landing, and along the way. Tucking him into his bed she whispered into his ears, “tomorrow is a new day.”

Mita Bordoloi writes stories for both adults and children. She has a BS from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She has worked and taught in India, China and the U.S. Born in NE India, she is a resident of the U.S. most of her life and now lives in southern Illinois. Her website is mitabordoloi.com.