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  • The Burning
  • Gail Upchurch (bio)

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Photo by Andrew Eick

[End Page 100]

The burning comes right after and all at once. The irony of calling out for a God you swore off back in high school—the day Shawn was shot in the head because his cherry-red Monte Carlo looked just like the [End Page 101] car Keno drove—is not lost on you. It's just that you can't do anything else besides scream, "godgodgodgodgodgodgod" and clench the six-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets in your hands and splay your toes so wide the skin between the third and fourth ones tears and thrash your head from side to side on the down pillowcase whose lavender scent seemed innocuous at first but now crackles, livid and full of ire. You close your eyes against shiny red spears darting beneath your eyelids—your flesh and blood smoldering. You lie on the bed, cauterized, rigid as a board, waiting. And then, just like that, it leaves.

"Cicero," she says, calm and cold like March wind.

Your eyes pop open. Josephine is there. Looking down at you. Cupping your cheek. Wiping your face with the corner of her nightgown. Dismounting. Cautious. You forget she is there and that, yes, you've been inside her.

"Are you okay?" Josephine whispers in your ear, her lips brushing your earlobe as she settles beside you.

You push yourself up, swing your legs to the side of the bed, grope for your underwear and pants. Just to be sure you haven't died, you run your hands down the length of both arms and feel your own touch. Josephine reaches around for your hand, but you recoil.

"I'm sorry. I tried to tell you," she says.

You turn to her, her nightgown pushed up on one side, fully exposing the hip that points to the ceiling. That's when you notice that she's been through something too. Her face is tear stained, her thick black hair wild.

"I've never felt anything like that before," you say to the floor. This is about as insufficient a statement as you've ever made.

She props herself up on an elbow, scooches her gown down. "Cicero," she says, "I tried to tell you this could happen." You press your lips together, try to remember if she gave you any warning. Not exactly.

"Now we know everything there is to know," she says, getting on her knees. "No secrets. Don't you understand what this means?" She wraps her arms around you, placing the palms of her hands flat on your chest like cooling balm.

"Nah, not really," you say. You peel her hands away and stand to get dressed. She walks on her knees toward you, stumbles off the bed. She's tangled in her gown, and for a second you think of offering a hand, but you don't. [End Page 102]

"We don't have to carry it all alone anymore," Josephine says.

You think about the searing pain that announced itself in rivulets from the marrow of your bones. Was that her pain or yours? Whatever. There is a clearing, and you're grateful. You breathe in deep, unadulterated air and return to the bed to help her.

"Right," you say. "Right."


Josephine sits in the set of bleachers adjacent to yours, and if you're being honest, you're figuring out ways to ask her out for a drink the second you see her. But you can't be honest yet because you're there to root for Natalie, who, though she's taken ballet for four years, is still pretty awful. Like whatever the rest of the class is doing—plié-ing, grand jeté-ing or whatever, Natalie is off to the side, skipping, as light as an elephant after a few Rémy Martins. Still, you have your phone set to video the whole time. Even though she sucks and isn't improving one bit, she's Shawn's kid, and you're there for all of it.

Intense freakazoid dance-mom zombies fill the gymnasium. You've come...


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pp. 100-114
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