“That Was Me Once” by Megan Cummins

Mara and I are trying to do normal things in the time I have left, so on Sunday afternoon we take Brian to lunch in town.

Harper, Michigan is one of those places that for a long time could have been anywhere. There was a main street with a few dull shops and a Greek diner, but recently people have been trying to make it a more specific place to live. We go to one of the new restaurants that have sprung up in recent years: a tavern with wooden booths and bric-a-brac on the walls, twinkle lights strung from the ceiling, a menu full of dishes more expensive than we expected. We have to connive with the waitress to get her to admit the chicken medallions are close enough to chicken fingers, one of the few things Brian will eat, but when his food arrives he tears it apart and not much of it makes it into his mouth. Mara keeps saying he can sense the tension in our lives, that the big approaching changes are bearing down on him. I can never tell with Brian: he’s three-and-a-half but doesn’t talk much. He’s frustrated with the limits being a toddler places on him. I’ve been with him since he was born but he seems to sense I could depart at any minute. I sometimes have this feeling he can tell when my eye is wandering from our little family, like it has been lately.

Mara sits next to him, across the booth from me, and her hands worry over him: chasing spills and wiping ketchup from his face. I’m supposed to enjoy moments like this, quiet ones, but instead I’m ready to dive into something reckless. For this feeling I blame my moribund chances of avoiding jail time. My hopeless outlook, Mara tries to bulldoze with optimism, but some days, like today, she can’t muster it. So she sits and steams frustration—with me, with Brian—and punctuates her scowling with anemic smiles.

It doesn’t help that the restaurant is bonfire-hot. I twist in my seat to look at the completely-still ceiling fan. As I’m about to turn back, my eyes fall on Dani, sitting in a booth by the back window.

She’s grown up, though I know that already from the Internet, where for years, and lately more often, I’ve searched her name and lurked on her social media profiles. Reading every post and comment, clicking through every photo. I’ve seen her here and there over the past three years, rarely speaking, but I feel like I know her still, like we’ve been circling each other, just waiting to reconnect. I’ve been hungry for more of her, but online she comes off as cynical. Not the sweet Dani I knew.

She was only eighteen when we got married, nineteen when we dissolved the thing. I was older, too old: twenty-four when we met.

Now she’s twenty-one, and she has a foaming mug of beer in front of her. Her head is bowed toward her phone, and her hair has been electrified with curly blond extensions, new since I last saw a photo of her online. The change rolls me like a whitecap: who knows what else I’ve missed while I was underwater, out of her real life?

She wears a chunky sweater with elbow patches despite the heat. The sweater blots out her shorts. Only a twig of denim peaks out, and strappy sandals vine up her ankles. It’s May and she must be home from school for the summer.

Nostalgia makes quick work of me. It’s like I want to ride a motorcycle without a helmet: I forget all the terrible ways hearts and brains can get smashed, all just for a simple feeling. Wind in the hair.

“Is that Dani?” Mara asks.

She knows about Dani, but they haven’t met before. I’ve worked hard to make sure of that. I keep my Internet sleuthing secret, but Mara’s probably done her own. Mara’s not a jealous person, but we don’t talk much about our pasts. We’ve made mistakes, accumulated victims. Our biggest transgression: we both disguised ourselves as fun people, people you’d want to hang out with, when we were really just careless and stupid and we brought people down with us. Mara got collared by the world first, in the form of Brian, a baby she wasn’t ready for. We were seeing each other when she found out she was pregnant, and we never shared the results of the paternity test. I was willing, and I felt guilty for what happened with Dani. Maybe I thought being his father was a kind of penitence, or that it would bring me reward.

Brian might not be my biological son, but whatever karma I earned from not leaving Mara in favor of a less-complicated paternity situation has dried up. The number of times I’ve been busted with weed has surpassed the number of times anyone cares to forgive me.

“Yes, that’s her,” I say.

“Dani,” Mara says, her voice almost a whistle. She looks almost excited as she appraises my ex-wife. I can see her making judgments about Dani’s looks. She’s critical of people who put in a lot of effort. Her own, which are good, are nonetheless a nuisance to her. She has permanent accessories—tattoos on her shoulders, wrists, and ankles—and she dresses to show them. Otherwise she leaves the house with wet hair, no makeup. She never asks me how she looks. She knows she looks good.

“Would she write you a letter?” Mara asks.

“You’re kidding,” I say dryly. She knows the marriage ended badly.

Mara’s been bugging anyone she thinks will help us, most recently for letters of character to give my lawyer. The two don’t speak, Mara and my lawyer. They’re similarly obdurate. Mara thinks I should take the case to trial, but the lawyer’s saying my best chance is a plea bargain. I haven’t decided yet. I’ve been out on bail for three weeks, and the clock is ticking.

“You always think it hurts to try,” Mara says. “That’s your number one problem, I’d say.”

I’m about to say something mean—you’re my number one problem, Mara, which is far from true—when another phantom glides through the door. It’s Catherine, who at least when I knew her was Dani’s best friend. I’ve seen her posts on Dani’s pages, but those I avoid reading. She was one of the main crusaders against me back when Dani and I were together. Her eyes knock against mine for a second, but they skip right past, and I gather she saw me looking at her but didn’t recognize me herself. Enough time has gone by, I guess, and more worthwhile fights have made her raise her banner.

Catherine’s swift to cross the room to Dani’s booth. The girls exchange a high-voltage greeting, clasping hands over the table as they take a seat opposite one another. Dani throws her head back and laughs. I see nothing of the girl I convinced to marry me. She was a senior in high school when we took up together. I was old enough to know better.

We both worked at the CVS in town. We stole cigarettes and smoked by the dumpsters out back after our shifts. We made out in the boring Midwestern evenings. She had homework waiting for her, homework she didn’t do. I’d done two years of college, even wrote some poems while I was there that won awards, but I’d dropped out of everything in my life except for cashiering and her. I don’t know why, really. Just a thing I did. A mistake, I guess.

Brian is growing bored; he arches his back and slides down the booth, a whine like a fly’s issuing from his mouth. He hits his head on the table as he tries to slip underneath, and the whine turns into a sob. He reappears on my side of the table, his eyes trying to press upon me his sudden toddler misery.

“Come up here.” I lift him awkwardly by his arms. He doesn’t like the way this makes his shirt ride up, and he cries harder. I rub the crown of his head, plant a kiss against the side of his closed eye. “Shh,” I whisper, and he starts to quiet. I’m no great consoler, but I can approximate comfort. Eventually his red-washed face breaks into a rare smile. Mara stands up and takes him from me.

Despite myself, I look over at Dani’s table. She and Catherine return my gaze. A brief, unsmiling moment passes before I realize they know about my arrests and the current charges. In a town this size, of course they know.

“I’ll go talk to her about the letter,” Mara says. She’s up before I can protest.

It’s something like a nightmare I’ve had: all the people I managed to turn joyless in one room, talking to each other. Brian is still in her arms—her empathy card.

The girls stare at Mara and Brian. Catherine’s open-mouthed; she and Dani trade openly incredulous looks.

Mara doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. She has no ability to estimate how people will receive her, which makes her bold, but also leaves her open to ridicule, which she absorbs like UV rays. You can’t see it right away, but it must be working its slow annual damage. I suppose I’m the same way, though. It’s part of why we love each other. This thought softens me, and as she walks back across the room toward me I realize what a dick I’ve been, not just today but in general. It’s a miracle Mara’s with me. I try not to think that it might be because she thinks I’m her only option, the man who accepted her son, lied to her conservative parents, and helped her so she wouldn’t have to go to his real dad—a bigger loser, if you can imagine—for support.

I turn away from Dani, but the idea that I would go to her, if beckoned, keeps a steady pace with my love for Mara.

“She says she’ll think about it.” Mara sets to work eating Brian’s uneaten meal, which makes Brian want it again, and the tears begin anew.

“Thank you,” I say.

Mara’s own eyes mist. I seize up, just like when Brian cries: I feel particularly handicapped when it comes to soothing their emotions. She’s holding back tears, and soon she clears her throat.

“Just a little bit of effort goes a long way, Jordan,” she says.

We finish eating in silence. Outside of the restaurant we get ready to part ways—me to work down the street, Mara and Brian back to my dad’s house, where we live. She rummages my blue CVS polo from her purse, where she bunched it up for me. The afternoon is hot, and the sky looks torn between sun and storm, and we say goodbye beneath it.

I go to work and try to forget about Dani, though it crossed my mind to wait outside for her and Catherine, talk to her again after all these years. Instead I scan and bag the usual drugstore purchases: aspirin and bandages, gum and cold drinks. A shame-faced teenage boy comes up to my register to return a big box of condoms—the biggest quantity one can buy them in—and since the refund amount exceeds ten dollars, I have to call the manager up for approval. The boy looks ready to flee. I try to give him a look that says I’m not passing judgment.

I imagine Dani’s left downtown by now, back to her mom’s house in the wealthier part of town, or maybe driving the country roads with the music blaring like she and I used to do. But then, a few hours later as I’m paying for a Snickers bar and bottle of ginger ale to take on my break, I hear the bell chime above the door. There’s Catherine, with Dani a few paces behind. She’s sending quick missives from her phone.

“Jordan,” Catherine says.

Dani looks up at me. She blinks and smiles. A year after we split we exchanged perfunctory apology emails, as limp as dissected frogs, and since then it’s only been stiff hellos in passing.

Their eyes are guarded but curious, like cats. I expect anger, but I don’t receive it, then I feel a sense of opportunity. It’s been a long time; maybe I stand a chance to recover a shred of grace with Dani. Things had just gotten too heavy between us. We lived together in a narrow, moldy railroad apartment: no doors, each room leading into the next. We had no money and no way to escape each other.

“I didn’t know you were still working here.”

This is the first thing Dani says to me. I doubt it’s true. From her Facebook I can tell she pretends not to know what’s going on in town, as though she’s risen above it.

“It’s true,” I say. “I was just about to go on my break.”

Catherine breaks the silence, which is full of judgment. “Sell us cigarettes first, and then we’ll join you.”

I’ve already clocked out but slip behind the counter, ignored by the other cashier, who’s taking a personality test on her iPhone. Catherine points to the kind she wants, and I scan my employee discount for her. Then I hurry them outside, to the back alley where Dani and I used to go, as though they’ll change their minds if I’m not fast enough. Once we’re outside, the feeling is euphoric. I’ve just slipped back in with them.

“I guess you only have a few minutes?” Catherine speaks around her cigarette. She snaps her lighter but the alley is a wind tunnel, and breeze keeps catching the flame.

“Let me do it,” Dani says. She cups her hand around her friend’s mouth. For some reason they giggle once the cigarette is lit.

I look at my watch. I have fifteen minutes until I should be clocking in.

“I’ve got some time,” I say.

The lie is a foot thrust forward to stop a door from closing. Dani bunches her hair between her hands and looks sideways at Catherine. I used to hate watching Dani defer to Catherine, but now they seem conspiratorial, telepathic. Maybe they were always that way and I just never understood them.

Catherine presses her lips together. She resembles, in personality and physique, an office supply—useful and precise, maybe a ruler.

“Okay,” she says. “We’re meeting a few friends at Old Harper Village if you want to join for a little bit.”

“Haven’t been there in ages.”

Old Harper Village is a park in town, with a circle of preserved turn-of-the-century buildings: a one-room schoolhouse, a church, a general store, and a blacksmith’s. A stream runs behind it; it leads you out into the country if you follow it. I remember school field trips when we were made to dress up as Victorian children and, later, getting into trouble after hours. It’s closed Sundays, the buildings locked but unattended.

Dani starts down the stairs. “You coming?” she asks.

Dani’s simple words beckon me back into her life. Leaving work—just walking away—is everyone’s fantasy at some point, and it turns out it’s easy to do. Maybe it helps that I’m already outside. I’ve already given them half my day, I justify. I’ve already helped them with the after-church crowd.

I follow the girls as they walk single file through the alley, leaving the cool, darkened tunnel with only a small strip of sky overhead. Dani and Catherine don’t make room for me to walk beside them once we’re on the sidewalk so I walk behind them, feeling the breeze of their quick movements.

My head is somewhere up in the sky—high enough for me not to think about Mara, not to think about work. The clouds are getting dark, but the sun is still bright behind them, turning their image into an x-ray. A bird flies across the storm-ready sky. When I think of Dani, I always think of conflicting things: how it was wrong to be with her in the first place, but how could I have been so stupid as to let her go? She was the biggest mistake of my life, though I can’t say which mistake I mean: being with her or losing her.

The confusion sucks me in again, and I look for the easiest answer to it: here is this girl walking in front of me. She’s invited me back into her life again, even if only for an afternoon. She’s pretty. Things ended badly, but we’d abandoned a ship that still might be out there somewhere, floating. Dani’s texting again, and I imagine it’s me she’s writing about, me who’s making her fingers speed over the keys.

The village is deserted when we arrive. The displaced buildings stand in a horseshoe before us, quiet and dark. A rocking chair, empty, shifts vaguely in the hot breeze on the wood-plank porch of the General Store. The iron hitching post outside of the blacksmith’s hasn’t hitched a horse in nearly a century, but someone keeps giving it a fresh coat of paint.

The first raindrops begin to fall, and soon they quicken into a stream.

Catherine hops up the stairs of the schoolhouse. “If you can believe it, they keep a key underneath the flowerpot,” she says, nudging the ceramic pot of petunias aside with her foot. There’s a skeleton key beneath it, which fits into the building’s original lock. Ill-advised, it seems, to keep the key—an antique itself—outside, but this town is backwards in more ways than one.

The door swings open with a squeal, and we shuttle inside. Wooden desks with lacy ironwork are arranged in neat rows. A half-erased block of cursive script is on the blackboard, a lesson about the Pilgrims. The smell of old wood haunts the place.

“Ballsy,” I say, “to come inside the buildings. I always just drank behind them.”

“Since when are you afraid of a little danger?” Dani asks.

“I think I’m good on danger. I got myself into some trouble not too long ago. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.”

Dani nods. “I did. My mom told me.”

It doesn’t surprise me that Dani’s mom is still keeping track of my transgressions. When I proposed to Dani, right in front of everyone at Dani’s high-school graduation, her mom’s face looked like a fly on which someone had slammed a dictionary. She did her best to get between us, but Dani was as stubborn then as she seems to be now.

“I think they’re bullshit, the charges. Anyway, it’s not true, right?”

I shrug. Clouds cover the sky outside and the last of the sun is siphoned away. There’s no electricity in the schoolhouse and the room grows dark.

Catherine has returned. She’s been lingering on the periphery of our conversation. “Oh my god, it is true. You’re a dealer.”

“I only sold to consenting adults. And only pot.” I’m ready to defend myself. I’m so tired of people looking at me like I was selling heroin to toddlers.

“I know that,” Dani says. She looks defiant. I remember that look: she gave it to me whenever I underestimated her.

“Are you really going to jail?” Catherine asks.

The door swings opens before I can answer, and standing there is a group of kids, six or seven of them, all Dani and Catherine’s age. The rain offers them laughing into the schoolhouse. Their shoes leave muddy prints on the old wood floor. I don’t know any of them, though I might have met them years ago, when Dani and I were still together.

“Listen.” Dani sidles close to me. “I know you’re probably flying the straight and narrow, but if you do have any stuff, we’d pay a premium. To help with your legal fees.”

I think of what Mara or my father would say. My father is trying hard these days to resist me, but he keeps caving and offering me help. Money for the lawyer, whatever food Mara, Brian, and I want from the fridge. Mara and I don’t pay rent, and my dad and I have an unspoken understanding that she and Brian will keep living at his house if I do go to prison. My transgressions are mounting, though. I’m getting to be beyond help, even beyond the help of my complicit, loving dad.

I do have an ounce in my pocket. I was planning to sell it to a teenage co-worker at CVS, who’s probably wondering where I am with his weed. My intentions are well meaning if wrong-headed: I want to leave Mara and Brian with as much money as I can. Even with my dad’s help, we’ve been struggling.

Instead, I take the bag out and hand it to Dani. “On the house,” I say. “With the understanding that you’ll buy from me when the trouble has been smoothed over.”

Her fingers graze mine as I hand over the bag, and there’s heat in my heart like a beggar’s fire burning.

“Awesome,” Dani says, but she sounds almost bored. She turns the bag over in her hands, inspecting it. Then she smiles, but perfunctorily.

For everyone else, though, it’s like I’ve produced a diamond the size of a fist from my pocket. Dani hands off the baggie and doesn’t seem concerned with the conversation it produces: Who has rolling papers? She wanders to the corner where there’s a stool with a dunce cap perched on it. She knocks off the dunce cap and sits, legs crossed, elbow resting on her thigh, chin resting in her hand. She’s changed. She’s doesn’t look for anyone’s approval anymore.

Catherine appears with a backpack from one of the newly arrived guests and tears the zipper open. Inside, it’s impossibly full of beer, with a bottle of whiskey perched on top. It’s like Mary Poppins’ bag: inside is every medicine we need. Watching Dani, trying to analyze her voice and eyes and postures, has made me anxious for an elixir. In other words, ready to get fucked up. I’ve skipped work, lied to Mara, and I’d rather delay the regret I know I’ll feel.

Rain streams down the windows. I take a swig of whiskey, then a beer, and sit in one of the too-small desks. Time falls away in big chunks, though a small part of me believes I’ll be going back to work. But the more I drink, the less I entertain the idea.

It stormed on our wedding day. Catherine was there, and my father because he couldn’t stay away. Dani had sewn a short white dress using the fabric from her graduation robe. It had a satiny sheen to it that glinted with light on the courthouse steps even though there were clouds cemented to the sky. When the tornado sirens wailed around town we had to go inside and crouch in the hallway with the clerks and everyone else waiting for a marriage license.

I bet she’s sold the ring I gave her, or tossed it into a lake, but my eyes search her finger anyway. It’s bare. She and Catherine are running their tongues up and down rolling papers, pinching the weed into place. I finish my beer quickly and reach for another. I take a puff of a joint that’s passed to me. I’m starting to feel the relief I needed, the soothing feeling like a teacher’s reassurance I haven’t made that big of a mistake. That people will forget about it. That I’ll get another chance.

A chill tumbles down my spine. There’s a thin song in the air. I look up and see Dani standing above me. She’s whistling into my scalp. It’s something she used to do at night and now it hangs between us like an invitation. She bites her chapped bottom lip. There’s lipstick on her front tooth and I reach up and wipe it away. It doesn’t feel like me doing it, not really, though that must be the excuse all cheaters use when they reach out, asking permission to touch someone they shouldn’t. The one-room schoolhouse helps along this feeling, as though we’ve slipped back in time to a completely different past. I remember lining up during school trips here to sit on the corner stool and wear the dunce cap so the teacher could snap a photo. To avoid singling out a dunce, everyone had to be one. Right now we’re all dunces. Or none of us is a dunce. Whatever it is, I’m allowed to touch Dani. My thumb lingers on her lip.

“Easy,” she says quietly, stepping back. Her tongue licks the spot where my thumb was. She looks around her. People are eavesdropping, and she knows it, and I know it.

“Tell me about Mara,” she says. “What’s going on with you guys? To be honest I was surprised to learn you were still together.”

“There’s Brian to think of,” I say. To her blank stare I respond, “He’s my son.”

“Sure. That makes sense. Is that the only reason?”

“No.” But I don’t offer any others.

“It’s easier to just tell people what you really want,” she says. “Like with me. You should have just told me you wanted to fuck other women.”

It takes me a minute to figure out what she’s saying. She’s talking about me as though she knows me better than I know myself, better than Mara knows me—but instead of feeling resentful, I’m grateful for the attention. Maybe it’s true that people from your past have the right to offer insight based on the differences, or lack of them, they detect between the person you were then and the one you seem to be now.

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying you’re a dunce.” From behind her back she produces the dunce cap and jams it on my head. Flashes snap around the room as Dani’s friends take out their camera phones, capturing my stunned face, a joint wedged in the crook of my fingers.

“Hey.” I tear away the cap.

“Hey, yourself. Don’t be so gloomy. We were just having fun.”

I expect her to remove herself from my company—I’m the sullen one, sitting by himself, getting too drunk too fast—but instead she sits in the desk in front of me, turns and folds her arms over the back of her chair. She fits her pinky into the groove meant to hold pencils. The wind picks up outside and the eaves utter above us.

She wants to know if I still live with my dad, and what that’s like. Does Mara resent me for it? Have I thought about moving someplace else?

Yes. It’s awkward. I don’t know. Planning is sort of on hold at the moment.

“Oh my gosh. Of course.” She brings her palm quickly to her chest—a mea culpa gesture—and in doing so she knocks my bottle of beer to the ground, where it shatters. The group goes quiet but then someone drops another one. Soon there’s a chorus of shatters. So it’s this type of party: one that revels in destruction.

Dani and I all but destroyed the apartment where we’d lived—drinking every night, dishes growing crusty in the sink, a window swollen with humidity, stuck open, so weather, dirt, and pollen blew in. We never cleaned. Once her mom showed up unannounced; we were naked in bed when we heard her on the porch. When we finally let her in, Dani gave her a half-hearted tour. Her mom stopped and stared, aghast, at the still-wet condom in the bedside trash.

“Let’s move,” Dani says. “These desks are uncomfortable.”

She slips from her seat to the floor, slides along the wood until her back’s against the wall. When she does this it’s all one fluid movement. When I follow, two new beers in my hand, my joints crack and I scoot until I’m seated next to her. Strands of her hair extend toward my face, touch my cheek.

All these little touches: these are what lead to bigger things. I was also drunk when I first started cheating on Dani. Dani believed whatever story I made up that first time, but then Catherine caught me outside a bar with my tongue in a stranger’s mouth.

Things were not going well by then, in a lot of ways. Dani’d started to realize I’d taken advantage of her—there’s no better way to put it, when someone that old marries a teenager. We wore ourselves out with the screaming matches, and I moved back in with my dad, and she went to college the next fall. I found Mara, and things got serious fast, even more so when we found out Brian was on the way—but now when I look at Brian I think all I’ve done is let him down.

I blink him away, grope about in search of the empty feeling that’s allowing me to be here in the schoolhouse in the first place. My gaze settles on Dani.

“So the only time you lived away from home was with me, for six months?” She looks concerned for me. A thoughtful frown pulls at her lips. Then lightning shocks the room, slashes Dani’s face for a moment, turning the frown into a flat-line of ridicule, and I think she’s trying to get me to admit I’m a fool.

I start to push back. “There’s nothing wrong with living at home. It saves money.”

“I can’t imagine not being able to take off on an adventure, though,” she says. “That’s the nice thing about not having anyone tying me down.”

“There are nice things about having people,” I say.

“Oh, I have people,” she says.

Catherine joins us. She slides to the floor, grabs Dani’s feet and shakes them.

“I love you so much!” she says. They both laugh, as though Catherine has said something sidesplitting.

“We’re talking about kids. I don’t want any ever. I’ve decided.”

“You might change your mind,” I say. The truth is I’m trying to add something to the conversation that shows I’m older than they are. That I know more. But lackluster father that I am, I’m not the one to be advocating for parenthood.

“What’s your son going to do while you’re in jail? Will you tell him?” Dani asks. She puts her hand on my shoulder as though she’s comforting me, but her long nails start to feel like a falcon’s grip.

“I don’t know.” My voice is higher than I want it to be. Now that Catherine is here, Dani is inciting my exasperation. It’s a familiar joust, the two of them trying to see who can unseat me. “We can’t plan for anything. Nothing’s for sure yet.”

“True,” Catherine says. Under her breath, she adds, “Couldn’t even plan for the baby in the first place.”

“Tut, tut, Catherine!” Dani says, but she laughs.

To me, she says, “You seem angry. We’re joking.”

“It’s not funny,” I say.

“It’s a little funny.”

“Look, he’s not even my kid.”

Catherine and Dani lock gazes; their faces are keyed with surprise. They’ve been needling me all afternoon for details, but this was gossip they did not expect.

“Oh shit,” Catherine says. “So you’re taking care of a kid that’s not yours?”

“Well, he’s mine, in a way.”

This makes them laugh. I’m the joke sitting on the floor. I always imagined telling someone about Brian, and having that person—some shadowy version of Dani—tell me I’m a hero. But these girls think I’m an idiot.

More importantly, I’ve betrayed Mara. I’d promised her if we ever told anyone, we would tell it together. I broke this promise once already and told my father, who said it didn’t matter and he wouldn’t tell. Now, with a few words in a room full of teenagers, I’ve changed her life. People talk; they’ve just come to accept us as a family, and now gossip will get built like slipshod houses.

Dani has beckoned more people over. “This is the guy I told you about,” she says.

“I’m going,” I say. “I’ve just been waiting for the storm to end.” But Dani doesn’t hear me. Catherine waves.

“We’ll think about what to put in our letters,” Catherine says. She’s sneering.

I slip away feeling ashamed, and close the door behind me in time to see the cop car pull into the parking lot.

“Shit,” I say aloud. I bolt just as the cop is climbing from the car and telling me to freeze. I’m fast, and he’s a big guy. I’m across the stream—splashing through the water while he runs for the bridge—and it’s not until I’m through the village and across the field, into the cover of the woods, that I hazard a backward glance and see he’s stopped, his chin jutted toward the radio on his shoulder.


I run until I’m halfway home, and only then do I check my phone. It’s an hour past the end of my shift, and Mara’s called ten times. She was going to pick me up, I remember. I have to figure out what to say about the afternoon, though on the surface it’s pretty obvious: I followed an old lover around because I’d charmed myself into thinking there was something there, or maybe because I was desperate to turn back time, only to realize Dani thinks of me as a joke. She might not have meant to be cruel—or maybe she did—but either way, I’m just a story she tells now, one that keeps getting better.

Every so often since my arrest I’m struck by bouts of terror, and I feel one coming on.

I wonder if the police will come for me, if Dani will tell them where they got the pot I’m sure they found. If the photos of me with the joint will get wrested from the hands of the kids by the police. Or maybe they’ll just give everyone a slap on the wrist and assume I was one of the kids. Dani and her friends are first timers, suburban kids. Among their parents there have to be at least a few lawyers. The police probably yelled at them, maybe tossed them around a bit, but by now the kids are likely back in their homes. That was me once.

Mara must be home. The basement light spreads on the lawn in a glowing orb. The three of us live down there together, in something like an apartment. Going inside feels impossible, so I creep to the tilt window that looks down into the basement. I seize up when I see the suitcase on the bed.

But Brian’s sitting inside of it, his hands gripping an imaginary steering wheel. He likes to pull the suitcase from beneath the bed and climb in, pretending it’s a car. It’s a game he plays: careening around corners, feet pumping the pedals, until the car crashes and he hurls himself onto the bed.

Cummins_AuthorPhotoMegan Cummins lives in Newark, New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space, Hobart, and Hanging Loose. She has an MFA from Rutgers-Newark and an MA from UC Davis. She is a fiction reader for both the New Yorker and A Public Space.


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