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Mary Means writer

Crossing Cattleskin Bridge

by Mary Means

I’d always been able to see things when I closed my eyes. Whole galaxies. Whole universes exploding in and out of existence easier than breathing on a crisp autumn afternoon stroll. Sometimes when I’d close my eyes, I’d see a dark and endless hallway. A strong current would sweep me down through it so fast that the iridescent doors on each side of me would streak past like a dim, pulsating lightshow. I’d always been a good swimmer—since before I can remember. So, by the time I was six, I’d learned how to swim against that current well enough that I could reach out, catch ahold of the handle on a passing door, open it, and climb inside.

I used to go to my hallway a lot as a kid. On the loud, sticky bus to school a town over. Behind the pig barn at recess. Under Cattleskin Bridge when I’d sneak away from home or Sunday school or wherever I was supposed to be. Under my bed when my mom wasn’t doing well.

She’d cry a lot sometimes. Sometimes she’d start yelling. Sometimes she’d start throwing things. Sometimes she’d call me “Ann” instead of Mia, and I’d know it was time for me to hide. To see the universe. To explore my hallway. 

Of course, I never knew when or where I’d find myself when I did. Some of the doors had people behind them. A few of the people spoke English, but most didn’t, which was fine. I generally tried to avoid people as much as I could anyway. A lot of the doors had dinosaurs behind them. Some had volcanoes bursting with ash and lava. Some worlds had giant fires or storms or wars. When things got too dangerous, or I’d been in a world for too long, I’d feel a tug. More than a tug. It felt like some invisible unimaginably long bungee cord was hooked around my waist. Like it had been stretched across time and space to its absolute limit. It would dig into my gut, yank me out of the world I was exploring, fling me back through the hallway, and drop me back where I came from feeling like I’d just had all the wind driven out of me.

But most of the doors opened to more peaceful worlds with flowering fields and old abandoned cities. I could explore the ruins of long-dead civilizations and listen to strange birds sing their songs for each other until the cord reached its limit, decided I’d been away for too long, and dragged me back to where I came from.

I loved listening to birds. I’d never heard people sing for each other the way birds do. I’d sing sometimes. Sometimes for the birds—quiet, timid, knowing that I wouldn’t measure up. Sometimes I’d sing to (or probably, more accurately, at) God. Loud—as loud as I possibly could—afraid He wouldn’t be able to hear me otherwise. I’d go for long walks and sing everything I had to say until my voice was gone.

One day my dad heard me singing on my way home, “Jesus Christ. Shut the fuck up. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The next time he heard me singing, he gave me enough swats that I figured God had probably heard enough from me.

I wandered off a lot. I’d sometimes get swats for that, too. But I never left for too long. There wasn’t anywhere for me to go. Most of the time I’d just walk a mile or so down the gravel road that went by our house. Then crawl through a barbed wire fence and watch my step for cow patties as I cut across a pasture to get to Cattleskin Bridge.

I tried hitchhiking from there a few times. The highway that ran over it was the only road within walking distance of town that actually went anywhere. Of course, that was before I realized that most people weren’t willing to drive a six-year-old to the nearest big city.

It was way too dangerous to stand on top of Cattleskin Bridge, anyway. It was supposed to be haunted by all the people and animals who’d been killed on it. A lot of people claimed to see these ghosts while driving over it at night, but I never saw any ghosts when I was out there. A few teenage ghost hunters every once in a while, but no ghosts. The real danger of Cattleskin Bridge was that everyone seemed to like to drive 80 miles an hour around the curve just south of it.

One time, I’d just barely dove out of the way of a big white truck only to get swept away by the current of my hallway. After that, I gave up on hitchhiking and decided to practice finding my hallway instead. I wanted to learn how to conjure it whenever I wanted to.

At first, I’d just wait for a car to speed around the curve. I’d stand just far enough in the lane that the cars would just barely miss me. That worked pretty well for a while. Aside from the long wait between cars. But after a while, I wasn’t so afraid of getting hit, and it stopped working.

When I was scared, I would find my hallway without meaning to. I would just close my eyes, and it would be there. But as I got older and braver and went on more adventures, I didn’t get scared as often. When something bad happened, I didn’t get scared. I didn’t feel much of anything. When I did feel something, I’d get angry instead. I’d close my eyes and see stars exploding or galaxies colliding or universes giving birth violently and expanding out of control. I couldn’t find anything in the chaos of it all.

I’d run out to Cattleskin Bridge and sit on a pink patch of dirt in the shade underneath. I’d pull my knees up to my chest. The nasty stench of the creek would fill my nose and flies and mosquitoes would bite at my arms and legs. And I would make myself breathe so I wouldn’t pass out or throw up or start punching and throwing things.

It took a while, but I learned to force myself to breathe deep and even, in and out, until the horrifying lightshow I saw when I closed my eyes started to feel like a dance that I could find the rhythm to. Until I could relax enough to follow its lead. Until it felt more like floating than dancing. Until I let myself get lost in its currents and taken in by its waves. And in its depths, engulfed by churning echoes of lights, I could explore any hallway I chose. 

That newfound control didn’t change much at first. I could travel more often, but I could only stay away for a few minutes before the cord would drag me back. Over the next year, I slowly worked my way up to staying away for an hour. Then a couple hours. By the time I was eight, I could stay away for an entire day. By the time I was nine, I could make it up to two days.

Before I really started to practice, I thought I only went to those other worlds in my mind. And maybe I did. But afterwhile, I started to get in trouble for running away even when I hadn’t gone anywhere. I’d sometimes gotten in trouble for wandering off before, but this was different. All of a sudden, I was getting in trouble for running away when I hadn’t even left my room. Or at least I thought I hadn’t.

At first, my dad tried locking my door, but he kept coming back and finding my room empty. Then he tried nailing my window shut. Then he took everything out of my closet looking for a hidden crawl space. Then he moved my bed and dresser looking for holes. He even boarded over the vent in my floor even though he’d measured to confirm it was way too small for me to fit through.

My trips leveled off at around two days. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay away any longer. But I did discover I could bring things back. At first, it was just a little sand in my shoe. But after a few failed tries, I was bringing back small rocks. Sometimes I’d even find coins or small bones or bits of old jewelry and bring those back, too. I’d sneak out to Cattleskin Bridge as often as I could and bury my treasures in tin cans next to the tree line.

My dad finally decided I had to be watched at all times.

My mom had stopped working that winter, anyway, so she watched me at first. Or I watched her. She never seemed to want to look at me anymore. She would tell me stories, though. Wild, absurd, scary stories about ghosts and demons and curses. I loved them. I’d never known my mom was such a great storyteller.

It wasn’t until after she went to the hospital that I realized she’d thought all her stories were true. When she got back, she didn’t tell me stories anymore, and she’d yell at me for trying to tell her my own. She’d drag me by my hair and wash my mouth out with soap. She told me my stories were evil. That stories like mine were how demons got ahold of people and led them into darkness. Then she stopped talking to me at all. And I began to feel like one of the ghosts in her stories.

She didn’t stay home with me much after that. She had to go back to work, and I went to stay the summer with my grandma a few towns over. Even my grandma was stricter with me than she’d ever been. Yelling at me about how I wasn’t supposed to leave her apartment. Yelling at me for getting into stuff when I didn’t leave her apartment.

One day found a shoebox filled with photographs in her living room closet. I hadn’t seen many photographs up close before. My parent didn’t have any anywhere in our house. Not even ones from picture days at school. My dad said they were a waste of money. And the photos in that box were the only ones I’d ever seen in my grandma’s apartment. I flipped on the light to get a better look at them. When I did, I felt a sudden rush of excitement and confusion. It was me. In the photos. Me. Where did she get so many pictures of me? She never took pictures of me. No one ever took pictures of me.

I sat down next to the vacuum, beaming, ready to go through all of them. I tried to wipe a piece of gunk off of one of the top pictures, but it wouldn’t come off. It was just as smooth as the rest of the picture. Part of the picture. A dark oval on the corner of my forehead. When I looked at the next picture, I saw the same oval in the same spot on my face. I saw it again in the next four or five pictures I picked up. I reached up and felt my head where the oval was in the pictures. But my forehead was smooth and sweaty. I wondered if I’d gotten mud on it before the pictures were taken. But when were the pictures taken?

I didn’t recognize the places in the background. My grandma’s quilted throw pillows were in one of the pictures, but that picture wasn’t taken in her apartment. The pillows were on a couch I didn’t recognize up against a wall of picture frames that were lit up by the bright flash of the camera. I was just over nine-and-a-half at the time, and I couldn’t have been any younger than nine in that picture. Why couldn’t I remember? I turned the photograph over, looking for clues. All I saw on the back was the name “Ann” handwritten next to a series of numbers that I didn’t have time to make sense of before my grandma swung open the closet door and started yelling at me and whopping me with a flyswatter.  

I figured out pretty quickly after that that the only way to keep her from yelling at me was to tell her I was going to something at one of the churches in town. I didn’t even have to show up for whatever it was. I could even make up some church-related event that wasn’t even happening. And then leave and do whatever I wanted. I’d just have to tell her about some Bible story when I came back. Which was easy. I’d been to enough Sunday school by that point that I had plenty of material to draw from. So, I’d usually just walk down the street past the smoke-stained stone husk of the haunted old gym and hide out under the bleachers by the gravel mile track. That was the best place in my grandma’s town to find my hallway.

When the summer was over and I went back to stay with my mom and dad, my grandma told them that I’d come to the Lord. When I wanted to explore my hallway, I’d tell them I was going to church just like I had with my grandma. There were a lot of churches in our town to choose from. A third of the buildings that still had roofs were churches or had been churches at one time or weren’t technically churches but regularly held bible studies or fellowship potlucks or home services or prayer meetings or youth outreaches or tent revivals in the backyard.

With my mom and dad, I made a point to at least stop by the places I said I was going. I was sure they would figure out I was lying sooner or later. They didn’t. They didn’t seem to care. I didn’t understand why they’d made such a big deal about me wandering off in the first place, but the sudden shift felt weird. I wondered if maybe it was because they thought I was saved. That I wouldn’t go to hell. I got the sense that meant it didn’t really matter what happened to me anymore.

One day I overheard the ladies at the quilting club in the basement of the Free Will Baptist church. After they saw me sneak past the doorway, they started telling each other about how child services was gonna take me away if my mom didn’t start making me go to school and keeping me from wandering off all the time.

They started saying more stuff about my mom. I usually didn’t listen much to what the quilting ladies talked about. Their stories were all so boring. Boring in the way that a lot of church ladies’ stories are boring to someone who’s not quite ten years old and not quite worldly enough to fill in all the things they won’t just come out and say.

But then they said something that made me pause.

“…Beth used to let her sister wander off, too.”

“And we all know how that turned out.”

I had a sister? No one had ever told me I had a sister.

“Poor thing.”

“Never had a chance.”

“Wait, what happened to her sister?”

“You don’t know?”

“Of course, she doesn’t know. She just moved here from over by Ark City…”

I crept back a little closer to the door. I want to know where my secret sister was.

“It’s a horrible story.”



“Beth had a little sister.”

“Years ago. Before Mia was born.”

I sighed. Disappointed that my mom had a secret sister out there somewhere and not me.

“Beth was supposed to be watching her.”

“Except she never actually watched her.”

“Let her wander all over kingdom come by herself.”

“Too busy getting herself pregnant.”  

They all murmured in agreement.

I let out a bigger sigh. Wondering why I’d stopped to listen. The quilting ladies never said anything interesting. And the least interesting thing in the whole world was yet another story about someone getting pregnant or being pregnant or wanting to get pregnant or trying to get pregnant or wanting to not get pregnant or wanting to stop being pregnant…

“Anyway, it was back when they lived out at the McKenzie farm.”

“Where Alan and Charlotte live now.”

“They had a pond out there at the time.”

“Long since covered over now”

“They had to.”

“So, Beth wasn’t watching her.

“And she wandered out to the pond.”

I was headed for the back door, annoyed. They always talked like they had some mind-blowing story to tell. Then all they’d ever say was “so and so use to live there” or “so and so redid their yard” or “so and so lost his job” or “so and so can’t keep her legs together.” I didn’t know why I’d expected anything different. 

“The poor thing walked in and never walked out.”

“Oh no.”

“Bless her heart. The water wasn’t any deeper than she was tall.”

“How horrible.”

“Charlie said she must have gotten to the middle and just panicked.”

“She’d never learned how to swim.”

That last part caught my attention. I had always known how to swim. I thought everyone was born knowing how. Like breathing. It just seemed dangerous for anyone to be born any other way. 

I’d always argued with my mom—and sometimes my grandma—about swimming lessons every summer: “It’s too early, and the water’s always freezing early in the morning, and I’m already a better swimmer than anyone else there, so there’s no point in me being better, there’s not even a swimming team anywhere, and it costs a bunch of money and you’re always worried about spending too much money, and you have to wake up when it’s still dark outside to drive me twenty miles to…” I’d lay out my arguments every year with even more skill and precision, but the most I ever got for it was a mouth full of soap at home or swats in the pool parking lot.

It had never occurred to me that some people went to swimming lessons to learn how to swim. It didn’t make sense. I thought swimming lessons were like track practice. The people I saw at the gravel mile track didn’t go there to learn how to run. They went to practice running faster, longer, and better than everyone else.

I knew people could drown, but I thought people only drowned if they got too tired because they were out of shape or ate too much or the current was too strong. The same way you could die if you couldn’t outrun a murderer or get out of the way of an angry bull or a speeding car. I rarely went to school at that point, but the few times I did go that fall, I spent my days surveying the other kids, teachers, lunch ladies, the janitor about how and when they learned how to swim.

 One afternoon in mid-December, my mom was making herself a sandwich before she left for work. I was doing a handstand against the backdoor, and I asked her how old she was when she’d learned to swim. For months, I’d asked my mom all the same questions I’d asked people at school, but she never answered. Aside from a few outbursts, she’d barely said a word to me since she’d gotten back from the hospital that spring.

I’d been feeling more and more like a ghost haunting my parents’ house. A ghost they were trying to will away by pretending as best they could that I wasn’t there. Sometimes I’d wonder if I really was dead. I’d think back trying to remember when I might have died and what might have killed me.

But that time she answered me. Sort of.

“I never learned how to swim.” She said it like she was talking to herself. Pretending that the thought had just popped into her head. Never looking up from her sandwich. Careful not to give any indication that she knew I was in the room.

That was the only way she’d talk to me on the rare occasions she’d say anything to me at all. It’d been long enough since she’d acknowledged me that much, that her words hit me harder than I was prepared for. And a part of me that had gone dormant was jolted awake.

“What? You didn’t have to take swimming lessons?” I swung my feet back down to the floor and stood up. She had forced me to take swimming lessons every single summer since forever.

“No,” she whispered, not looking up. 

“But you can float and doggy paddle and stuff?” My confusion was giving way to something hot rising up in my chest.

“Never been in water deep enough,” she said, still not looking at me. Her voice was soft, distant. Her body was tense. The way it always was when I was in the room. Like she was using every muscle in her body to will me out of existence.

The heat in my chest turned white-hot. 

I screamed.

But she didn’t react. She was still looking at her sandwich like I wasn’t there.

I screamed louder. Loud enough it felt like I was tearing my throat apart.

My mind was so overtaken by rage that I couldn’t think of any curse words. I wanted so bad to be able to say anything that would make her react. Make her treat me like I was anything other than a ghost or some figment of her imagination. Any word that would make her snap, scream, throw things, hit me, drag me by my hair, and wash my mouth out with soap, anything.

I screamed and screamed until my voice broke, and when it did, I grabbed my favorite mug off the counter and threw it against the wall as hard as I could. It shattered, and my arm shot with pain. But she didn’t flinch. She just turned and walked over the shards like they weren’t there. She picked her purse up off the couch and walked out the front door. 

I was too angry to find my hallway. I closed my eyes and saw violent explosions of light. So, I ran out to Cattleskin Bridge and climbed underneath. I tried to catch my breath, focused on breathing in and out deep and slow. I closed my eyes. The lights were even more chaotic. The more I tried to force myself to relax into their rhythm, the more erratic they seemed. I focused harder on my breathing and tried again. Tiny shards of light swirled around me as dense and violent as a dust storm. They stung my face and filled up my lungs. I gasp for air clutching at my throat. Then coughed until it threw up.

I tried again and again and again and then opened my eyes and screamed. I punched the ground in front of me. Picked up rocks and threw them into the creek. I kicked the trunk of a tree only to realize I had run all the way there barefoot. I collapsed onto the ground again and tried to breathe deep and even, in and out, on and on into the cold night.

When I finally gave up, my body was shaking so hard I couldn’t have found the rhythm in anything. I didn’t know how much of it was from the cold and how much was from the anger that still wouldn’t leave me. I climbed back up from under the bridge. I heard a familiar noise, but for some reason didn’t realize what it was until I saw my shadow appear tall in the bright white that suddenly lit up the road in front of me. And then my shadow was gone. And the light was gone. And I was in my hallway.

The current that swept me away was too strong. I couldn’t swim against it. Couldn’t slow myself down. The doors flew past me so quickly that they all blurred together and became endless, luminescent walls closing in on either side of me. Any sense of direction I’d had was gone. The current didn’t feel like it was pushing me forward like it always had before. I felt like I was in freefall.

I clawed blindly for a handle to grab ahold of. When one of my hands finally met a handle, it hit hard. So hard my bones should have shattered. The pain was bright and throbbing, but when I looked at my hand, it seemed fine. I made a fist and wiggled my fingers then tried again. The first impact must have slowed my descent a little. I caught ahold of a handle just long enough for my body to swing around and slam against the wall. My fingers slipped. I tumbled through the hallway somersaulting and slamming against doors and door handles. My whole body lit up with pain like fireworks in the dark. And then there was nothing but darkness.

I woke up motionless on a hard floor. It took me a minute to gather the courage to open my eyes. When I did, I saw that I was still in my hallway. I’d never thought of my hallway as having a floor. I ran my hands over my body checking for injuries. The only new ones I could find were on my feet—probably from my barefoot run to Cattleskin Bridge—and they weren’t so bad that I couldn’t walk on them.

There was a door next to me. I’d never had the chance to really look at one of the doors before. It was big and looked wooden. But it wasn’t the color of wood. I studied the texture of the not-exactly-wood. I saw its curves and shades dance and grow and change. Like there were worlds more diverse and alive than any place I’d ever explored pressed up against each other and folded into the grain. I traced them with my fingers. The door was smooth and soft. Softer than my grandma’s pillows. Softer than my favorite pair of pajamas. I wished that the door could be a blanket instead. That I could take it off the wall and wrap it around my body, curl back up on the floor, and fall asleep for a day, a week, forever.

I reached for the handle. The metal felt warm in my hand. I hoped that whatever world was beyond that door was a peaceful place where I could rest. I opened the door and heard birds singing. A warm gust of wind brushed my hair back out of my face, and I stepped through the door onto the rough dry grass of a small country cemetery. I looked out on a sea of pale green wheat rising and falling with the wind just beyond the narrow, reddish orange dirt road that passed by the graveyard.

The three other sides of the cemetery were bordered by trees. I climbed one of the taller oaks and looked around. The patch of trees jutted into the field behind it and led to a small pond partially shaded from the sun. There was a farmhouse and a small pasture not far down the road. Other than that, there was just more pale green wheat for miles in every direction. Interrupted only here and there by faint tree lines, streams, dirt roads, and maybe a highway off in the distance. I felt like I’d marooned myself in the middle of some unforgiving green ocean.

I heard what sounded like a loud truck’s engine in the distance and nearly slipped out of the tree. I started shaking again despite the heat. I made my way down the tree and over to the pond. I was covered in sweat and dirt by the time I got to it. I wanted to jump in and cool off, but it stunk worse than the creek under Cattleskin Bridge. Before I could decide whether a swim would be worth the smell, I heard a rapid, crunching noise cutting through gentler sounds of rustling wheat. Something was running towards the pond.

I stepped back behind a tree and looked in the direction of the sound. I saw a small figure that looked like it was probably human, but I couldn’t make out much more than that until it reached the small patch of orange clay at the edge of the pond. And then I could see it clearly.

 It was me—or it looked like me—standing there in the clearing. My likeness was out of breath. My…its…her face was red and smeared with tears and dirt. I watched her collapse to her knees and beat her fists into the ground. She knelt there rocking for a few minutes then crept into the water. She sat down just far enough into the pond that her knees barely poked up out of the water when she pulled them up against her chest.

After a while, the other me stood up and walked deeper into the water. She started making strange movements with her arm. I thought she was trying to do some sort of weird water dance. I wondered if she might be a witch. But something about those movements seemed so familiar. I thought for a moment that maybe I had been there before. That maybe I’d just forgotten somehow. Or maybe she was me from the not-so-distant future. I’d never really thought about time travel before. It opened up so many new possibilities I couldn’t keep up. Why was she crying? What had happened to her? Was she looking for me? Had she come to warn me about something?

Her splashes got louder and more erratic. I remembered where I’d seen those movements before.

Swimming lessons.

There was a kid a couple summers before who’d never taken swimming lessons. He’d walk out closer to the deep end and had started moving his arms the same way my double moved hers. The teacher had jumped into the pool and pulled him out of the water. Several of the kids made fun of him. I’d laugh a little before I saw him start to cry. I felt guilt creep back into my stomach remembering it.

Then I realized the girl in the water couldn’t have been me.

She didn’t know how to swim.

Who was she then? What was she? It?

I began to suspect my double was actually some kind of monster that could make itself look like me. I’d never encountered such a thing, but it seemed just as possible as time travel.

Maybe this was a trap.

I looked at her again. Her head was barely bobbing in and out of the water. A belated realization shot through my chest like a surge of electricity and radiated out to my fingers and toes.

She was drowning. 

I’d never seen anyone drown before. But I’d been told what it looked like my last summer of swimming lessons. They’d finally let me join the older kids in the advanced swimming class. One morning, the older kids dove down to the bottom of the deep end to pick up heavy weights and swim them back up to the side of the pool. The teacher told me I was too young to do that part just yet. And then he told the older kids that it was much harder to carry a person to safety especially if they were panicking. And they would be panicking.

I was waist-deep in muddy water before I realized I was running towards her. The clay beneath the water went up to my ankles, and it was hard to lift my feet. So, I swam through the shallow water to get to her. I thought that if I could just grab her by the arm and pull her back a few feet or so. Just far enough that she could stand up with her chin out of the water. The water where she was wasn’t even deep enough to cover the top of her head. It’d only take a few seconds. Then she’d be able to find her footing, catch her breath, and explain to me what was going on. 


I reached out for one of her flailing arms. As soon as I caught ahold of her wrist, she latched onto mine. Within a second, she was trying to climb on the top of my head. She shoved me underwater by my hair. Before I realized what was happening, my mouth was full of that awful-smelling, awful-tasting pond water.

She must have been a monster after all.

I tried to fight back, but by the time I could react, she had her legs wrapped around my neck. She was forcing my face down into the clay. I sucked water and mud up into my nose. My chest started burning like I’d been under for much longer than the few seconds I had been. I started clawing at her legs, yanking at her arms, hair—anything I could grab ahold of—and trying to shove her down beneath me.

I finally got on top of her. But instead of making my way up to the air I desperately needed, I started to cling to her the way she had been clinging to me. Even when her grasp on me loosened and her struggling body began to slow and I should have been able to make it the few feet to the surface easily, I couldn’t. Something had taken over me. I couldn’t let her go. 

My lungs felt like they were packed with lava and ash. My brain was screaming so loud I couldn’t hear what it was telling me. But I clung to her limp body, my muddy nails digging into her skin. Utterly helpless in water that couldn’t have been any higher than my eyes if I could just stand up.

And then the world shifted.

The cord had reached its limit. I felt it pluck my body out of the pond and fling me back through the hallway to Cattleskin Bridge soaked, shaking, and coughing up mud and water onto the road. I collapsed on the cracked concrete. The rough pavement felt comforting pressed up against my cheek. I just wanted to lay there. I wanted to fall asleep. Stay asleep.

But I opened my eyes and saw my body lying on the road beside me. Its lips looked blue in the moonlight. It wasn’t breathing. I thought I was a ghost floating next to my own corpse not quite ready to leave it completely. I tried to shake it awake. And when that didn’t work, I slammed my fists into its chest in anger and fear and frustration until it started coughing up mud and water.

That was when the pain hit me, and I realized I was still alive and that the convulsing, semiconscious body in front of me wasn’t my own.

I heard the familiar sound of a car rounding the curve way too fast. And that time, I recognized what it was. Somehow, I managed to drag my double over to the big tree next to the gully before the car flew by. I leaned her up against the trunk. Then fell to my knees and coughed until I threw up. My chest had never hurt like that before.

When I was finally able to speak, I looked over at my double and asked her who she was. She didn’t answer. She was in worse shape than I was. Still coughing and vomiting up mud and water. I asked her if she was okay. She just sat there doubled over shaking and struggling to breathe. I reached over and tucked a clump of muddy hair behind her ear. I wondered if I looked half as rough as she did. Another car sped by, and I caught a better glimpse of her. She had a dark brown oval on the corner of her forehead. I traced it with my thumb. Recognition hit me hard in my gut a few seconds before I remembered where I’d seen it before.

“Ann,” I whispered without meaning to.

She looked up at me, and I jumped a little.

“Is your name Ann?” I asked shaking even harder than I had been.

She squinted at me like she was trying to see me clearly but couldn’t. “Yes?” It was the first word that she’d said to me. It was quiet and hoarse. More like a whispered squeak than an actual word but it was just clear enough to understand. 

Pieces were starting to fit together in the fog of my mind. I double over and coughed up chunks of what I thought must be mud. Then I turned back to Ann. My next question caught in my throat, but I finally forced it out.

“Do you have a sister named Beth?”

“Yes?” she managed between coughs.

Despite the pain and the cold, I broke out into a muddy smile.

“Come with me,” I said and took her hand. “Hurry!”

I dragged her along behind me through the dark. I wanted to run as fast as I could the whole way home. Driven by new and strange fantasies. I had saved Ann. Ann. My mom’s sister. Ann. My aunt. My Aunt Ann. I had brought her back from the dead.

That had to change things. That had to change everything. I imagined a world where Ann was the missing broken piece that would fix it all. My dad. My grandma. My mom. Ann would make them love me. Make my mom want to look at me, hold me, say sweet and beautiful things to me.

But neither of us could run that far. We kept having to stop—on the frost-covered grass of the pasture and along the side of the gravel road into town—to cough, to throw up, to try to breathe.

When we got to the house, I threw the door open. “Mom! Mom! Dad!” I yelled between gasps and coughs. I ran through the house looking for them, but they weren’t home yet. 

Ann was coughing and out of breath, too, but she finally asked me, “What’s happening? Where are we?”

I stopped and looked at her. She was soaked, coated in mud, coughing, shaking violently. So was I. But when I saw her in the light of the living room, I no longer saw myself or my double or my aunt or my salvation. I saw a small, fragile little girl who had nearly died and needed someone to take care of her. To make her feel safe. To let her know that everything was going to be alright. 

I paused for a moment blinking back tears I didn’t quite understand. I cleared my throat as best I could. I tried to change my voice. Soften it. To something like the voice I sometimes used to whisper songs for the birds I wished would sing their songs for me.

“It-” I said, and she started crying. “Hey, hey.” I stepped closer and wrapped my arms around her. She started sobbing into my shoulder, and I held her tighter and stroked the back of her wet mud-matted hair. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay,” I told her, unable to hold back my own tears anymore, “We’re gonna be okay.” 

I helped her take a shower. She was too tired to do it on her own. When we were both reasonably clean, I let her wear my favorite pair of pajamas, and I did my best to comb some of the tangles out of her hair.

When my mom got home, we ran to meet her at the door.



My mom dropped her purse and fell to her knees. She touched Ann’s face and then mine.

“Ann,” she whispered and started to cry. She knelt there in tears for a moment before she whispered, “Go to your room.”

“But mom, it’s Ann. I saved her.”

“Go to your room,” she screamed this time refusing to look at us. “Go to your room,” she repeated over and over her voice breaking and her eyes squeezed shut.


She screamed louder throwing her keys, billfold, some coins, a fork at Ann and me. We fled into my room and waited for my dad to get home. He was the only one who could talk sense into my mom. Maybe he could get her to calm down enough to realize that this was a good thing. A miracle.

 I showed Ann the pieces of my collection that I didn’t have stashed away at Cattleskin Bridge. She was shivering, so I wrapped her in my blanket.

“Sorry my room’s so cold,” I said, embarrassed that my vent was boarded over.

We looked at small rocks and fingerbones on the floor trying not to listen to my mom wailing in the other room. We didn’t talk much. Tried to cough as quietly as we could. When my dad got home, we listened through the door.

My mom told him in between sobs that she’d seen the two of us together.

“…both of them…at the same time…they ran up to me…Ann had her birthmark…”

I opened the door to show him that she was telling the truth, but I’d only cracked it a few inches before he started yelling. He slammed the door back into me. I heard the door lock from the outside as I hit the floor. He was yelling at my mom now. She yelled back, and I heard a slap. They were quiet for a few seconds. Then my dad started yelling again.

“If you don’t snap out of it right now—right fucking now—you’re going back to the hospital. And this time I will divorce you. I’m sick of this shit. I’m not paying for it anymore. You hear me?”

I stumbled to my feet and tried to yell loud enough for him to hear me.

“Shut the fuck up, you stupid piece of shit,” my dad yelled kicking the door hard enough it cracked in the middle.

All the dreams I’d started piecing together of a happy life and a happy family were falling apart faster than I’d cobbled them together. The room was spinning. I thought I was going to throw up again. Then I felt a feeling I’d never felt on that side of the hallway.

I felt the cord stretching to its limit.

“No, no.” 

This was all wrong. Everything was all wrong. None of this was supposed to happen the way it was happening. All the rules of reality as I understood them were bending and breaking themselves. The cord was what kept me tethered to where I came from. It was what brought me back. If it took me away, where would I go? How would I get back? How would I fix this? I had to fix this. I had to stay. It was too important that I stay.

“No,” I said one more time, reaching out to grab ahold of Ann’s hand as if it could have possibly kept me there. But she was already gone. My room, my world was already gone. I flew back through a dim blur of colors and emerged under the warm water of a muddy pond. Alone.  

This time I didn’t have any trouble swimming to safety. I climbed out of the pond and looked across the endless ocean of wheat. I coughed up more mud into my hand.


It was my mom. I felt the same cold feeling in my stomach that I always felt when she called me that name.

 “Ann!” She sounded angry. I froze. Not knowing where to run. She stomped towards me. She looked a lot thinner than I’d ever seen her. Too thin. Her oversized t-shirt kept sliding down her shoulders. “And, of course, you’re covered in mud.” She grabbed my arm too tight and yanked me along behind her.

She dragged me to the farmhouse I’d seen from a distance a few hours before. I studied it for a moment up close as I tried to piece my situation together. I felt a giant slap of cold against the right side of my body. I jumped and stumbled over.

 “Don’t you dare run off,” my mom yelled. “We’re already late enough as it is.”

She was spraying me down with a garden hose.

I stood there shaking. More obedient than I’d been in years. 

“Okay, go get ready.”

I stared at her trying to figure out what she meant. 

“Hurry up. Shower and get changed. You better not make me late.”

I still wasn’t sure what to do.

“Go!” she yelled, and I ran inside the strange house without knocking.

I almost tripped over a chair on my way in. I tried to orient myself. Look for clues that would tell me where to go and what to do. The living room was dim compared to outside, but I saw my grandma’s throw pillows on the couch and the quilt I used to sleep with when I stayed over at her apartment. The walls were covered with framed photographs. One of them was a picture of Ann that I’d found in a shoebox several months before.

“Hurry up and stay out of our room!” my mom yelled from behind me.

There were three closed doors at the far end of the living room. I was pretty sure one of them had to be the bathroom, but I didn’t know which one. I opened the door closest to me and saw a white dress hanging on a bunk bed.

“You stay out of our room until you’ve had a shower!”

The next door I opened was to the bathroom. I let out a sigh of relief. When I’d finished my shower, I realized I didn’t know where the towels were, and I got the floor all wet looking for one. When I stepped out of the bathroom, my mom was standing in front of me holding the ugliest dress I’d ever seen.

“Jesus Christ, Ann! How are you this fucking messy?”

She pushed me towards the door I hadn’t opened yet and said, “Get dressed in Mom and Daddy’s room. I don’t want you ruining my dress.”

I went in, dried myself off, put on the stupid dress she gave me—it was as uncomfortable as it was ugly—and looked at myself in the mirror. I wondered how long I was going to have to pretend. How long until all of this was sorted out?

In my mind, the universe had made some kind of temporary mistake. That it would notice and fix things as soon as possible. It wouldn’t be long before Ann and I would switch back to the right times and live the right lives. I started to imagine what it would be like to have an aunt.  

The door flew open.

“Hurry up! We’re already late.”

My mom was zipping up a graduation gown over her white dress. I followed her out to an old, rusted truck, and we climbed in. She started cussing the truck out before she even tried to start it.

“Come on, you stupid piece of shit…”

It started up after a few tries. She sped down the long driveway cursing each time she had to shift gears. 

She drove us to my grandma’s town—or the town she lived in in my world. My time? My universe? We drove past her apartment. The building looked nicer than I remembered it, and it was painted a pretty peach color. For a moment, I felt lost. Completely adrift in some infinite unknown. I felt so much farther from home than I’d ever felt in any of the other worlds I’d ever visited. I took a few breaths—as deep as I could between much deeper coughs—hoping the feeling would pass.

There were a whole bunch of cars parked around the haunted old gym. Except the haunted old gym didn’t look old or haunted anymore. The smoke stains were gone, the windows weren’t boarded up, and the roof hadn’t caved in. My mom parked a block away and dragged me half running to the side door. She shushed me for coughing before she opened it and told me to go sit by “Mom and Daddy.”

I looked for my grandparents in the back half of the gym while my mom slipped into a seat with the robed people in the front row. I didn’t know what my grandpa looked like, but I found my grandma pretty quickly. My dad was sitting with them. He gave me a quick smile and a wink as I sat down. He didn’t seem like himself. His hair wasn’t as grey, and he was acting too friendly. 

My metal chair was uncomfortable. It was made more uncomfortable by the pain in my chest and the dress my mom had made me wear and the long, boring speeches and long, boring line of people in robes waiting to walk under the basketball goal and then some more long, boring speeches… My grandma kept shushing me louder and louder each time I coughed until she was shushing louder than the boring men with the microphone could talk.

Then my dad and grandparents got up and walked to the front dragging me along with them. Nobody else had gotten up, and I was afraid we were doing something wrong. Then one of the very boring men handed the microphone to my grandpa. My mom walked up to join us and held my dad’s hand. She never held my dad’s hand.

Then my grandpa said, “For those of y’all who don’t know, my oldest daughter here isn’t just graduating high school today.” He put his arm around my mom. “And since all y’all fine folks are already dressed up so nice, you’re all invited to walk down to the River of Life Church and join us. The preacher said we’ll be getting started around seven, and we’ll have cake and fixins for everyone after in the Fellowship Hall.”

The wedding was even more of a blur than the graduation. I was the flower girl, but aside from the fact that my dress was itchy and the preacher’s bolo tie was crooked, all I could really process was that my cough seemed to be getting worse and that it was getting harder to breathe.

I remember falling asleep under a table while my mom and dad were cutting their cake. I remember my mom being mad at me after for coughing so loud.

“You were doing it on purpose! Why do you have to ruin everything?”

A few days later, I wasn’t sure how many, I was laying down in the seat of my grandpa’s truck. He was driving way too fast and turning way too hard. Back then the Masonic Hospital was still open, so it was only a forty-minute drive to the emergency room, but he was driving so fast he probably made it in half that time. 

I don’t know how long I was in and out of the hospital, but they said I’d be well enough to go back to school when the summer was over. When the time came, I was sure that everyone would realize I wasn’t Ann. I’d been surprised they hadn’t figured it out sooner. But they all seemed to think I had brain damage instead. So, it didn’t really matter what I said or did. Or which friends or teachers I couldn’t remember. Or that I didn’t know how to add and subtract fractions. I only got looks of pity—not suspicion. 

After a while, I felt like I was coming out of the fog I’d been stuck in all summer. I could think more clearly. Breathe more clearly. I started going for walks again. At first, they were pretty short, but they got longer. Cattleskin Bridge was way too far away to walk to, but there were so many hay bales to jump on and birds to keep me company I didn’t mind too much.

I also started forcing myself to be friendlier and try harder in school than I ever had before. Partly because I was worried that I’d do or not do something that Ann would end up trouble for once we’d switched back. And partly because I was sick of everyone treating me like my brain was broken.

I was also trying to avoid my hallway for the first time in my life. I was worried that if I traveled too much, it might confuse whatever force was supposed to come and put Ann and me back in our right times.

I started reading up on time travel. Or as much as I could given the state of the school library and the fact that my teacher thought time travel was demonic. I couldn’t find any definitive answers on what I should do next, but all my sources seemed to be warning me: don’t mess with the timeline.

So, I just went through the motions pretending to be Ann as best I could until my birthday that October. I was used to not celebrating my birthday, except at school. But we didn’t celebrate there either. It wasn’t Ann’s birthday. I realized that I didn’t know when her birthday was.

That seemed like information I needed to know, so I spent most of that evening trying to figure out a way to get someone to tell me without arousing suspicion or worse, pity. We were at the hospital again. But this time, I got to hang out in the waiting room while my mom got all of the attention. Which was a huge relief for me. I was so caught up in concocting a complicated web of birthday espionage that I didn’t realize what was happening just a few rooms over.

My grandpa walked back into the waiting room and announced that I was an aunt now. He asked me if I wanted to come meet my new niece, Mia. I was horrified. From what I had gathered in my ongoing research into time travel, going anywhere near a younger version of myself would probably destroy the universe. I panicked and ran for the front exit. I made it about halfway there before I slipped on a small stack of magazines that someone had left next to a chair. I cried and refused to hold her. I told my grandparents, my parents, the nurses, I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. It was too dangerous.

At first, they were sympathetic.

“It’s okay you won’t hurt her. Just make sure to support her head.”

After a while, they were less sympathetic and told me that I had to hold her whether I wanted to or not. I cried and begged them not to make me, but it was no use.

When they finally put her in my arms, that was it: the universe was destroyed.

But not in the way I’d expected.

I looked down at her, my face still hot and wet with tears. I took her tiny hand in mine expecting the worst. Her fingers latched tight onto my thumb. She was so small, fragile, helpless. I thought back on the life I’d lived so far. Everything that had happened. All the things I’d seen and done and gone through.

It all collapsed in on me. All of it.

I felt the rhythms of galaxies, the strong currents of my hallway, the vast reaches of time and space compress into a singularity in my chest.

This baby wasn’t me yet. And I would do everything in my power to make sure she never had to be.

Nothing else mattered anymore.

I babysat Little Mia every chance I got. My mom was more than happy for me to take her off her hands whenever I wanted to. I fed her, bathed her, and changed her diapers. I helped her take her first steps. I potty trained her when I realized she was more than old enough. I even taught her how to swim.

I didn’t travel through my hallway at all anymore. I was too afraid of leaving her behind. But I did tell her stories about my old adventures. When she was three or so she started parroting my stories back to me and to our parents and grandparents. They didn’t approve.

“Come on, Mom.” I’d started calling my parents Mom and Dad and my grandparents Grandma and Grandpa pretty soon after Little Mia was born. They didn’t like that either. “The fact that Little Mia is telling stories like this is a good thing. It’s good for her development. It means she’ll be good at school when she’s older. That’s what all the parenting books say.”

They didn’t buy it, but they let it slide in part because Little Mia decided she didn’t want to tell them her stories anymore anyway. She’d only tell me and a few of her friends. Before long, her stories became less like mine and took on a life of their own. I nearly cried when she told me a story about how she made friends with a treasure-hunting mermaid.

Not all of her stories were imaginary, though. Sometimes she would come to me in tears about something that happened at home. I’d do what I could to mitigate things, but usually, the best I could do was find excuses to keep her out of that house.

I also taught her how to breathe deep and even to help her relax and feel safe. She saw the lights too, and it didn’t take her long to learn how to dance with them. The first time she disappeared in front of me, I felt like I was going to die. I was so worried. She came back a few seconds later excited to tell me what she saw. I was terrified. I hadn’t ever really considered how dangerous my adventures had been until then. I forced a smile and asked her all about it, but I made her promise only to travel under my supervision. And only when she had all her homework done.

I was determined to be a good influence.

I did my best to get good grades in school. And I read as many books as I could get my hands on. On Ann’s fourteenth birthday, I’d gotten a farm permit. After that, I drove myself to the only public library in the county as often as I could. I read through most of their good stuff pretty quickly, and I had to read their boring stuff while I waited weeks or months for interlibrary loans to come in so I could read about time travel and alternate universes and people and culture more foreign to me than aliens riding around on spaceships. Every so often, a time and place I read about would remind me of a world I’d traveled to when I was little, and I’d wish that I’d paid more attention to the people who lived in them. I taught Little Mia how to bring little artifacts back from her travels. I would research them and try to figure out where and when they’d come from.

But I was relieved when she eventually told me that the hallway was too much work and that playing with Rachel and Olivia was much more fun. She was in first grade by then, and she had a lot of friends to play with when she wasn’t at school. I vaguely remembered a few of them from my past life, as classmates I’d barely talked to. Little Mia wasn’t anything like me. And I was glad. Even if that meant I didn’t get to spend as much time with her.

I was becoming less like me too. I made a few new friends when I was a freshman—the high school combined five towns instead of just two so there were a few more potential friendships to stumble into. My new friends were mostly older kids who talked about wanting to leave the state after graduation. I wasn’t super close to any of them, but we’d sometimes talk about books or how we didn’t belong. They didn’t go anywhere after they graduated, but somehow, I still lost touch with them before the summer was over.

By the time I was a senior, a girl named Heather was the only one of my friends that I still spent time with. I assumed the same thing would happen to us when we graduated. The thought scared me more than I expected. We had gotten much closer that last year of school. Sometimes we’d talk about renting a house together and having Little Mia come live with us. I started to want that more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, but I had this nagging fear that she was just talking. The same way our friends had all talked about leaving.

A few weeks before graduation, we went to a track meet a few counties over. Both our races were over, and we were camped out under the shade of some bleachers eating PB&Js talking about a small stone house with a garden when, out of nowhere, she leaned over and kissed me on the mouth.

It had been years since I had been able to find the rhythm of the stars, to follow their lead dancing and floating and sinking deep into the unknowable. But when her lips touched mine, I felt every atom in my body shift and slide into place. I felt the current of the universe flowing through me and every particle of my being surrendering wholly to it.

I kissed her back.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” Our coach stomped over. He grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me to the parking lot.

I had to spend the rest of the semester in in-school suspension. The principal told me I was lucky they were letting me graduate at all. My grandparents kicked me out of the house. My parent told me I wasn’t allowed to see Little Mia ever again.

I spent a couple months camping out in the heat and couch surfing with a couple of my old friends who didn’t mind my new sordid reputation.

My friends told me I should leave. Apply for colleges. Get as far away as I could.

“You’re smart enough. You could actually have a life.”

Instead, I got some shit jobs and saved up for a shit apartment nearby. I thought I’d get to hang out with Little Mia again soon. That my parents would get over it after a while.

Heather had clearly gotten over it. The next time I saw her was late that summer. She was making out with one of the Doyle twins outside the gas station. They’d gotten married not long after graduation. Of course, I’d heard all about it by then, but it wasn’t until I saw them like that that it hit me in my chest so hard I thought I was drowning.

But that was nothing compared to losing Little Mia.

At first, I thought my parents and grandparent would cool off after a week or two, or a month or two or three or four or five. I was shocked when they wouldn’t let me into her ninth birthday party. When I showed up to my grandparents’ house, Little Mia ran up to me her eyes bright with excitement. My dad grabbed her arm and yanked her away from me. He told me to leave.

“It’s my birthday,” yelled Little Mia, “and I want her to say!”

He slapped her across the face.

It took both of my grandpa’s farmhands to drag me out of there.

I spent the next year trying to navigate child custody laws on my own. The woman at child services told me, “You have to bring us evidence of actual abuse,” and “Even if her parents did lose custody, she’d never be placed into the custody of someone like you.” I wasn’t sure if she meant because I was a notorious homosexual or because I was single or too young or too poor or because I seemed increasingly more unhinged each time I came into her office.

When I tried to crash Mia’s tenth birthday party, I only caught a short glimpse of her. She was sitting slumped back on a rocking chair. She was a few inches taller than when I’d last seen her, but she looked like she’d lost weight. She looked my way as the Connally brothers dragged me out again. Her eyes were dark and hollow.

That winter, I read about her death in the paper. No one invited me to the funeral. When I show up to the church anyway, the Connally brothers met me at the door. 

“Her family doesn’t want you here.” 

“I am her family,” I said trying to push my way through.

They grabbed me by the arms and started dragging me away from the church. I tried to yank myself free.

“Let go of me,” I yelled, “Let go.”

Their grips were so tight that a week later I still had the bright purple silhouettes of their fingers on my skin. But I barely noticed in the moment. I was too filled with grief and rage, and I was channeling it all towards regaining my footing. Then, to forcing one step, then another, and another against the strength of two farmhands twice my size. 

My mother saw me and started marching my way fast. My grandpa and Bruce had to hold her back.

“You fucking bitch. You killed my daughter. …”

For a moment, I couldn’t process the accusation or who it’d been hurled at. I looked around for my dad, but I didn’t see him anywhere. My mom yelled for a while before I realized she was yelling at me.

“How could I have killed her? I haven’t been near her in a year and a half because you…”

“Is that why you fucking killed her? Because I wouldn’t let you get your nasty pervert hands on her anymore.”

My grandpa and Bruce were having trouble holding my mom back. She was scratching and biting at the air between us. 

“What the fuck are you talking about? I would never hurt Mia. You’re the one who-”

“Don’t you tell me how to discipline my daughter.”

“Your daughter?” My confusion left me. “You were never a mother to Mia a day in her life. I was more of a mother to her than you ever were. All you ever did for her was let a thirty-year-old shoot his load in you when you were seventeen. Your maternal instincts began and ended right there.”

My mom let out a shriek and lunged at me hard enough to dig her nails into my face. By the time my grandpa and Bruce were able to pull her back, she’d drawn blood.

I don’t remember what I said after that, but I kept going—screaming, voice breaking, barely pausing to breathe—for I don’t know how long until I was suddenly aware that my lungs were completely empty. Emptier than they’d ever been. Emptier than felt possible. But I dug my feet into the ground, clenched every muscle in my body even tighter to force out whatever air was still left in my throat. I was drowning in all the words I had left to say.

But rage and grief can only force a body so far past its limit. My lungs and legs gave out. My vision was mostly black, but I saw my mom. Something I’d said must have gotten through because she was slumped down on the concrete with her knees pulled up against her chest. She looked small, crumpled on the ground with spots of my blood on her pale arms. I remember thinking she looked like a used tissue. 

That was the last time I saw her. 

No one ever talked to me directly about what happened. Everyone seemed to do whatever they could to avoid talking to me at all. But from the rumors I’d overheard at work, I expected police to come and arrest me at any moment.

Over the next few months, I lost all my jobs. Some because of the rumors. The rest because as soon as Ann’s birthday came around and I could buy tequila from the liquor store outside of town, I spent most of my time trying to get wasted enough to pass out. Most of the time I’d start throwing it up faster than I could get drunk. I’d end up on the floor covered in vomit, dry heaving and sobbing until I fell asleep. When I ran out of money, I spent most of my time doing the same thing without trying to get drunk first.

It took me almost a year to visit the grave. It was late fall. Most of the leaves had already fallen. My landlord had just kicked me out, so everything I had left was packed into my car. I left it parked on the side of the muddy road. The cemetery was small, and I’d spent a lot of time there a decade before, but it took me a while to find her grave. Everything was covered in red and orange leaves, wet and matted down from rain the night before.

When I pulled a clump of soggy leaves off a gravestone and saw my name and birthday carved into it, I was placidly aware that I should have had some sort of profound reaction to it. But I didn’t feel anything. The name on the grave wasn’t mine anymore. It didn’t belong to me any more than the name on my driver’s license did. It hadn’t in a long time.

I sat on the wet ground and waited for all of the proper feelings to hit me.

They didn’t.

I’d wondered before. Hoped. I’d tried so hard to get a look in the casket so I’d know for sure, and I hadn’t even made it through the church doors. But out there on that blanket of wet leaves, somehow, I knew. Little Mia’s body wasn’t in that ground. She had left. Followed in my footstep. To another world. Another time. Another universe. Maybe one a little better than the one she’d left behind. And maybe she was a little better off for having had me as long as she did.

Or maybe I just needed to know that. Maybe I needed to know it bad enough that any thought of the alternative had to wither and die inside my mind.

I leaned back onto the rough trunk of the tree that had dropped its leaves on the grave. I took a few deep, even breaths of the crisp autumn air and closed my eyes.

All I saw was black. Deep and empty. Like I was right on the edge of an endless void.

I heard a couple birds call out for each other. Or to each other. Or maybe at each other. For a moment, I thought I might sing along with them, but I didn’t. 

I stood up and walked to my car. I zigzagged my way through muddy dirt roads past fields of bright green winter wheat forcing its way out of the ground. When I got to the highway, I turned left. I drove past the sign for the town my grandma never moved to. Drove past the gravel road that led to the house I didn’t grow up in. I sped over Cattleskin Bridge and kept driving.

I drove until the gauge was well past E and coasted into a gas station. I filled up the tank with what I had left in coins and a credit card. Then kept driving into the night. Kept driving into the next day. I just kept driving. Not knowing if I’d ever be able to drive far enough. Not knowing how long I could make it. Always preparing myself for the moment when the cord would reach its limit. Always expecting it to drag me back to where I came from.

But it never did. 


Mary Means is a writer and editor who grew up in and around small towns in rural Kansas and Oklahoma. They earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Central Oklahoma. They write literary and speculative fiction, poetry, and children’s educational content. Their work has been published by Litnerd, petrichor, The Gayly, and more.