It was the summer of secrets. My brother Mason, withdrawn and glassy, only appeared from his room at dinnertime, blinking. He had a new odor about him that made me think of that smooth robot from Wall-E, what her metal belly must smell like with that plant and its soil and the weathered boot all stuffed inside. And at the table, leaning over the weird meals Dad made, like ground turkey with marinara sauce as the only accompaniment or raw carrots served with cheese toast, Mason shoveled food into his mouth like it wasn’t just for him, like he was growing something in there. He ate so fast that night after night, I failed to track more than a few bites. I’d look from him to Mom and back, and just like that, a full plate of food had vanished. My brother, the illusionist of dinner time, his performance concluded, would exit the stage.
Mom kept to herself, because she found them embarrassing, the symptoms (constipation, terrible gas pains) of something that would eventually kill her. Our one bathroom had an old toilet that often didn’t flush properly, and one day in June, after my mother had been there a long time, I found a turd rotating in a lazy circle. On it was a spot of blood, like a dab of ketchup on a sausage, like the round red circle on the flag of Japan. I finally flushed it successfully down, to carry away that sight.
But that night I Googled “blood in stool.”
And my best friend Kelly wore long-sleeved shirts to hide the notches she cut into her arm. They reminded me of hatchmarks movie prisoners scratch onto their cement walls. Not that Kelly showed them to me exactly. I saw them when I spent the night at her house. I woke to use the bathroom, and the sleeve of her night shirt had slipped back just enough to reveal three angry lines wrapping around the inside of her forearm like a barcode. I wondered how many more lines there were, but I didn’t ask. The next morning, I watched her carefully at breakfast. Her mother had made cinnamon rolls with cream-cheese icing from scratch. Kelly ate two of them. After she licked the icing from her fingers, she stared back at me. “Why are you acting weird?”
The ridiculous question might have made me laugh if it hadn’t made me feel so lonely.
I suppose you could say that not asking Kelly directly about the notches means I have secrets too, but it’s a sad kind of secret if it doesn’t even belong to you.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com