What Comes After

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hey enrolled her in a grief course, after she left him. Stages of denial and sorrow and pleading, but for her her grief was nothing more and nothing less than the wonder that her husband might do what she now saw he had done. It was nothing to do with her own lost self. Down below there was a certain camaraderie among them, this shared feel of their selves ripping away from their selves, as if part of them was being held somewhere they could not ever access again. They assigned themselves new names in place of the ones they had forgotten, and she took “Violet” because it felt like the world to her, or the world as it should be, or the world that he would one day discover but so far had not.

By the time she came back it had been years since he’d seen her. She could not say how many, just as she could not say how she had found him or how she knew she had found the right him. She sat in the arm of their old oak tree, legs hanging and crossed at the ankles. She leaned forward, let her left breast rest against the bark, her arm circling the branch. There was a physicality to this act, something so pure she could not believe she had forgotten it. She watched him with a woman and though they never touched, just stood there talking, with their coffee mugs, she could know, she could know, that there was a long and comforting past between them, that there was more of value there than she had ever offered him or could ever offer him again. She didn’t know how long he had been with her, but they had had only had two, three years together; she couldn’t remember exactly, though her inability to remember was a persistent worry to her.

The weather that day was like it was down below, only not as dark. The sun might have warmed her back if not for the leaves above; the wind had gone elsewhere; the temperature was neither hot nor cool but just was. This absence of weather, the way things that should not be comforting become comforting. She could forget where she was as she watched her husband casually touch the hair of some spoon-banging toddler not her own. There was a comfort and correctness in the tree, in the spider she watched walk along her arm and in the bugs so small she saw them not for themselves but as miniscule rents in the world around them. There was a comfort and correctness in the tree that she did not want to detect between her husband and that woman.

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own below there was not weather and neither was there time and neither was there tiredness. When she found herself yawning and legs and shoulders aching and a boredom layering under that other feeling she had forgotten, she did not know what to do. Every time she moved the bark pressed into her in new and uncomfortable ways, leaving its brown crumbs across her dress.

He had gone to work, the blond woman staying home with the girl. She had thought to go down, to ring their doorbell and to say, “This is my house, that is my husband, this is mine.” But she could not think of what could come after that, so she stayed in her tree. Could she push the woman aside, step through that peeling red sunburned door to wait for her husband to announce his arrival home with the one-two hop of a man attempting to remove his loafers without his hands, as he had done before? If she flipped over the sofa cushions would she find the one with the cigarette burn, the one thing she could remember doing in that house?

When he came home it was dark, she was cold. He sat in the coupe she had helped him pick out, door open and feet on the pavement, unlacing his shoes and balling his socks in one hand, stretching his toes. He looked up at her tree as he walked the lawn to the door, but just once, just long enough that she could feel the lack behind his gaze. Her old car was gone from the drive, and she could not remember enough to know where it had gone – if it had become an absent thing the same night she had, or if her husband had sold it. From the neighbor’s yard, a cat mewled.

Her husband went home and she climbed down from the tree. She cracked her neck, she stretched her arms above her head, liking the feel of her body for that moment. She went back down below, by a path she might be able to describe but would not even if you were to ask. She went back down below, not to the place where she belonged but to the only place she knew to go.

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Ellen Rhudy is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in the Republic of Macedonia. Her short fiction has previously  appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, SmokeLong Quarterly and Hanging Loose. She writes a blog about literature, Fat Books & Thin Women. Her other posts at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

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Crust

hat year the ground gave out from under us. We went to the flats behind the 7-11 every day after school and took turns jumping – first individually, then in pairs, then threes, seeing how far our nerve would take us. The earth buckled and yawned open in places and when we jumped it sometimes cracked to reveal a shelf and one time threw Susanne Laurence back up in the air like it was spitting her out. There were other places in town you could do these things, but behind the 7-11 was the best place.

Some mornings when we walked to school the ground seemed unsteady all around us, gas leaking from the vented earth. Our school was small, it fit our town, five rooms that we shared in shifts with the younger students. We packed our day into five hours and would pass the first- through fifth-graders on their walk in as we headed home, the janitors emptying trash cans and scrubbing blackboards in preparation for their arrival.

We were at a party in Jason Dunbar’s basement when the alert was issued, seismic activity or something. This is the sort of thing we should remember but Jason Dunbar had the best basement for Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven and we were fifteen, when we knew all the things worth remembering were going to happen in his parents’ game closet or laying on the cement floor behind their bar, well-stocked with watered liquors.

Sometimes we couldn’t sleep at night for the groaning that went on all around us, the sounds of the Earth gawping its maw. We wanted to know things like why was this happening to our town, of all towns. In front of the bookmobile’s parking spot a steady fissure of steam that grew and grew until we all, even the librarian, became reluctant to bypass it to open the door of the blocked and reimagined mobile home.


hen Jenny Wells disappeared we all of us knew where she had gone. She never came with us to the flats and it only made sense she would go alone. That was the way she did things. We told our parents we had heard she went back there after school to test the earth, that she would jump up and down in one spot until something gave. The sheriff went back there and when he returned said it was like walking across a sea of jello, that he thought he’d seen a new fissure but it was hard to say because he had felt the ground might at any minute quit its wobbling and decide whether it wanted to throw him out or take him in. He was young and his wife was pregnant and none of us was surprised when a week after Jenny Wells vanished he vanished too, but with his wife and his truck and his house stripped of all its valuables.

We went back to the flats one more time. We jumped singly, then in pairs, then three at a time, howling as the earth returned to us what we gave in steam and a viscous brown liquid that leaked from its crust. The sun slapped our backs, doubling us over with its strength, and between turns we stood hunched with our hands on our knees, sweat dripping from our foreheads to the cracked earth. What made it so bad was that the heat came from above and from below, and we said that this must be what hell was like, this place right here, the not-being-able-to-get-awayness of it all.

The earth rolled that day, the flats undulating and never ending. We jumped four together, then five, then six, imagining Jenny Wells somewhere under us, then all seven of us, lined up and holding hands and sweat staining the armpits of our shirts as the earth threw us higher with each go. There was never any wind and the stillness of the air made it feel like there wasn’t any at all and we would have to gasp for breath when we came back to earth.

We imagined that under the crust, down where Jenny Wells was so persistent in her hiding, was another vision of our town, only with green things and a bookmobile that had wheels, a school with a gym and ten classrooms, a grocery store so the people down there didn’t have to drive ten miles to the Food City just for a frozen pizza. The earth down there was still and coated with grass that didn’t wither and die the minute summer hit but stayed green all year round. We said that while we were up here clutching hands and jumping Jenny Wells was down there on lunch break from school, sitting under a tree watching the sky shudder and release the rain clouds we were making. Everything in that town down there was good and better and the way it should be, but all the same we ran home after we were thrown so high we landed in a tumbled aching heap with rivulets of the brown mud working their paths around us. We didn’t tell our parents about the under the crust town but stayed at our windows watching the mud coming down the edges of the streets, widening and widening until all the pavement was taken over and we couldn’t do anything besides sit with our families and listen to the news. We all of us went back to our windows again and again, watching to see if Jenny Wells had come back to tell us how things were down there, but there was only the mud and the sun and the still, cracked air.