During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
by KJ Rovka
A soft-spoken, tragic story focusing on two children and a grave mistake. This story made me think of the moments when children are forced to grow up too soon, no matter how much we try to protect them. Yet, as Rovka and this saddening yet gentle story remind us, there is always hope. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
When I think back to then, the first thing I remember is the rock. Its pitted surface was now glazed with congealing blood, filling its mini craters with ponds of crimson. I look at the figure to my side. Poor little Rebs. To her credit, she said not a word. At any other time, this would have been unusual. She was always quick to run home, telling Grandma Evelyn what a bad boy Owen was being. Now though, she had hidden away her 7-year-old smile by pursing her lips firmly shut.
"I need to go away," I said, and she murmured an unintelligible sound as a response. “Now.” I knew she understood. She had to. I had to run, to take myself as far away from that place as swiftly as possible. Maybe I could outrun my guilt, my fears and the thoughts that turned poisonous on me. I couldn't bring myself to look at the body, crumpled in the distance between the patches of sweet smelling sage. I didn't want to believe what I did. If I didn't look at it, I wouldn't have to face the hopes and dreams I ended with one blow. I didn't want to contemplate the thousands of happy futures I ruined in my one act of selfish thoughtlessness.
"You run home now," I commanded in the most adult voice I could muster, but she must have only heard the words of a scared boy. She shook her head ferociously, clinging to her tattered skirts with white knuckles.
"You can't come with me," I pleaded with her, begging that she’d leave and forget about me. "Don’t worry about me. I’ll become a wild man like old Uncle Eddie did." That’s what they told me and Rebs what happened when my father’s eldest brother stopped coming by the house. I knew they were lying then. Uncle Eddie died after the mine collapsed. But it sounded better than the truth, and I think Rebs believed it. I hoped she still believed it. She needed to believe it for me.
"I'm leaving, and there’s nothing you can say about it. So just go home!" I screamed at her, in her face. She brought her little cherubic face down and pulled her skirts even tighter, as if she was turning herself into a ball of iron; immune to my anger. I put my back to her, put my back to the sun, and sprinted. Dead twigs of buckbrush and artemisia crunched beneath my feet as I tried to outrun everything. Outrun the accusations and guilt of the dead body as much as the unquestioning loyalty and unconditional love from little Rebs. Both were equally painful.
I already knew what I was capable of. Murderer at age 12. What other horrors would await my cousin if she stayed by my side?
I stopped and turned around, hoping to see that she had decided I was never coming back for her. I pleaded with God that now she had the sun in her face, and the bright future she always deserved on her path. Of course, she hadn't made a move. I knew she wouldn't, and she knew I wouldn’t leave her out there all alone. She had probably called my bluff before I took my first step into the darkening east.
"Fine," I yelled to her. "You can come. But don’t slow me down." I tried to be mean in one last attempt to get her to leave me. This time we weren’t hiking the hills for fun. We weren’t going to catch lizards or find bits of old Indian obsidian. But not even my coldness would deter her. I waited for what seemed a lifetime as she slowly paced through the desert following the dusty steps I had run in haste. Her hands still stayed by her side, not moving at all while she gripped those dirty skirts.
Hours ago, she was skipping around patches of dead, yellowed grass, landing on bare soils so dry that every step produced a tan cloud at her feet as we played tag and chased each other. I took that away from her when I threw that rock. I stole the spring in her gait.
Bu the time she rejoined my side, the sun had already engulfed the top of the mountain with an orangey halo.
Her left hand released her tattered skirt, and caked with sweat and grime, the skirt kept its crumpled form. Forcefully, she grabbed my arm with her free hand.
"I did it," she whispered.
"Don't be stupid," I rebuked her, more forcefully than I intended.
"Owen, I did it. I killed that little boy." I winced. Rebs stabbed me with the description of my victim. I hadn’t known he was a boy; I didn’t see. I didn't want to know. Dead bodies weren't human; they weren't little boys and girls. They were bloated, rotting flesh, nothing more. Dead bodies won't run and play in the sun, they won't tease their sisters, they won't climb trees and get read bedtime stories at night. Little boys will.
"Rebecca, listen to me." I turned to her, knelt down and looked her straight in the eye. "You didn't do anything wrong. I threw the rock where I wasn’t looking. The rock that hit his head was mine. Not yours. None of this is your fault. You never touched it. You didn't do anything."
"It’s my fault. I laughed.” Tears were streaming down her face but she held back sobs. “I told you to throw the rock as far as you could. I bet you that Lily's brother could throw it further."
I pulled her into my scrawny arms and hugged her tightly. She didn't resist, but she didn't melt into my embrace either. Everything in her little frame told me she needed love and support, but she was too deep in guilt to think she deserved any of it. I didn't care.
I let her go and looked into her eyes again. "I love you Rebs." I wiped the tears from her eyes with my dirty fingers, but I knew she wouldn't mind. "Cousins take care of each other and I am going to take care of you. I'm never going to let anything happen to you." Rebs' eyes looked unfocused, as if she were dwelling in another, distant world comprised of her own imagination. I knew she was getting scared by the quiver of her fingers so I squeezed her hand gently, just to remind her that I was there.
She sniffed. "We are in this together, right?" she asked, but really it was more a statement than a question.
"Yeah." I sighed as I placed her tiny right hand into my left, "I guess we are."
The second thing remember, when my mind floats back to this time, is the campfire ablaze against the blackened sky. The sparks flying off the brittle desert sage branches joined their sparkling cousins, the stars in the sky for brief moments of orange brilliance.
This was when I could no longer run away from my thoughts - when the clarity of the cloudless sky couldn't obfuscate my sin to God, to myself. And I found myself staring deeply into the glowing coals of the fire, hoping for some kind of purifying burn to cleanse my heart of my deed. I hoped in vain.
Murderer. It was a cloak I now donned. It was a word that yesterday could not be used to describe me, but today the word was written in blood, next to my name in St. Peter’s book in heaven.
I was so many things before today. I was the second baseman last week, the catcher on Saturday. I was a student, I was cowboy in training. But now I would be nothing but murderer. Even if I could return, even if nobody knew of the crime, the God and the angels would judge me. I'd never just be a student again. I'd be a murdering student, a murdering cowboy. It was inescapable.
Perhaps this was simply somebody else's story I was living. I began to ponder such questions when hunger and fatigue addled my mind that night. I could believe that, so long as I didn't have to look at the face of that boy’s murderer. What questions would that mirror reflection have to answer?
"Owen?" my own cousin whispered quietly, shaking me out of my reverie.
"I'm hungry." Yet even then my thoughts returned to that boy who would never be hungry again. A boy who would never get to satiate that hunger with a savory bite of chicken leg, or grilled rainbow trout.
"I know," I admitted to her eventually. My own stomach growled at me angrily, though I was too consumed in guilt to care for it. "We'll find something tomorrow. I swear it."
Surely, I knew my promise was a hollow one, but I had to make it. I had to convince myself more than I had to convince Rebs, or I'd not be able to lie to her so easily. But reality wasn’t so kind and neither the next day nor the following did we find so much as one morsel to share in the empty desert. It was mere luck that we found the snow melt stream or we would have died. Though at the time, I thought, perhaps, the greater luck would have been to die quickly and die together.
"I think," Rebs muttered to me in a fugue state after we had laid down for the night, "I think we would have been friends with him."
"Go back to sleep, " I shushed her, re-positioning her small body along the rocks of the cave we had started to call home for the past couple of days. She looked so uncomfortable, but she wouldn't move a muscle on her own. She couldn't anymore.
"A friend in exchange for a rock. We exchanged a friend for a rock," she continued, delirious. I don't know if it was her stomach, or her heart that was talking. "I think I would rather have the friend. I think I'd rather have the friend, than the rock. It would have been better that way."
I wish I could have answered her, but I was never strong enough to speak plainly to her. I couldn't comfort her, so I said nothing. I couldn't be her armor, so I didn't want to risk hurting her. I was too afraid to see her cry.
But mentally I screamed. There are no take-backs. There is nothing we can do now to bring that boy back! But there were so many points, so many junctures that day where a different choice could have meant life instead of death. All I had to do was say I wanted to eat lunch on the porch instead of suggesting we play by the boulders that afternoon. I could have offered to play cops and robbers, one of Reb’s favorite games, instead of showing off my throwing arm. If I hadn't thrown that ball to third base, if Robbie hadn't been able to tag Jeff out, if we hadn't won that game Saturday, I wouldn't have been so full of bravado. I wouldn't have shown off to Rebs. We'd be begging Grandma for a bedtime story right now instead. That little boy would be tucked in bed, sleeping soundly as his mother looked on.
My mind reeled back to the minutes and hours before I threw that rock. We were laughing. How is that even possible? We were running and playing, smiling only moments before it left my hands. What gave us the right to smile? Ten minutes before I killed, I was no better a person than ten minutes after I killed. Ten minutes before, a little boy played in the desert, living the very last moments he ever would live. Blissfully unaware that his existence was about to come to a violent end. How could I have been so callous? How could I have let my selfishness roam so unchecked?
The third thing I remember are words I never thought I'd hear escape her lips. The creaked out of parched lips and blew through emaciated cheeks.
"Do you want to die?"
I panicked. "Don't give up on me Rebs. I know you are hungry. I'll find you some food. I'll go back to town tomorrow and get help. I promise."
Her little head shakily turned to me. "Not me Owen. You. Did you want me to go home so you could die?"
What was a 7-year old speaking of life and death like this for? Was she yet another victim of mine? To murder a little boy's body and a little girl's spirit!
"I never intended to die," I told her, and it was the truth. I never wanted to kill myself. I never wanted to again take a life, any life, and I certainly never wanted to face my own mortality.
But I did want to stop living. I wanted to quietly quit life. It was the only way I could stop being a murderer. I wanted to stop thinking of that boy, but as long as I was living, I didn't deserve to bury my guilt in forced amnesia.
"Ok. Don't die then. I would rather be friends." As if she were reading my very thoughts she added, "You can't change your mind if you die."
Those were her last words to me. When I woke up the next day, she didn't respond. I shook her gently, but her eyes remained shut. I whispered in her ear to get up, but she didn't stir.
The last thing I remember was laying naked in the snow. The high-altitude sun was shining on this late spring day, so my body couldn't have been that cold, but I wouldn't have felt it anyway. I didn't remember climbing that high. I don't know how I did it, got up so high, being so hungry and tired and worn. But I remember the perfect indent my body made upon the old snow. On occasion, I gently tested the confines of my iced mold to see how much effort I'd need to make to break this outline of my body.
I was exposed, ready to let the sun purify my soul and bleach my bones. Let the crows take bites of me and fly to away spread this murderer to parts around the world, I thought. I destroyed a human being and all the promise he offered the world. I took away the future husband of the mother of his future children. I robbed his parents of his love and affection as they grew to old age. Let me offer myself in sacrifice, to honor his loss, I thought.
I thought to close my eyes one last time, to let the sun’s rays blanket my body while I left it quietly. I thought to let the cold wet moisture of the melting snow creep through my skin and slow my blood to a standstill. I thought of the world beyond to shut down my ears, my fingertips, eyes nose and heart.
That is probably why I didn't hear the grunts she made. It is probably why I didn't hear her boots hit the rock fall, even though she did so with little grace.
First the woman’s head went to my heart. I am sure she heard something; a slow, faint beat, growing weaker by the second.
Next her fingers went to my head, examining for injury and blood, but settling on my eyelids, which she pulled open to examine my dilated eyes.
"Wake up," she commanded and slapped me in the face, hard, but I didn't respond.
She pulled a thick woolen blanket out from her pack, and began to wrap it around me. She produced a water skin and brought it to my parched lips, and finally, I felt her presence. The cool water flowed down my warm, dry throat, pumping new life where hope had all but been abandoned. I coughed, and opened my eyelids as far as I could.
I saw my rescuer. She had dark, taut olivine skin etched with faint creases and raven black hair which she bound in a simple braid. And her black eyes bore through my delusion and my mental fog, but offered no judgment.
"Don't bother," I croaked, "Don't waste your time with me."
She shushed me, harshly. "Your daddy thought you'd been murdered, boy. Don't make me make it so."
She picked me up. I must had lost a lot of weight because she bore me with little trouble.
It was nightfall by the time we made it down. A lone horse served as my welcoming committee, upon which she unceremoniously foisted my weak body.
"Don't make me go home. I killed them. I killed them both. One with my hands, Rebs with my words. I don't deserve to live. Rebs. I can't take you back," I started mumbling before I finally, mercifully, lost consciousness.
The first thing I remember was the eyes of Rebs' uncle on me, scanning my body in the hospital bed with concern. He grabbed my limp hand and held it tightly. The warmth of his palm spread through my fingers and shot up my arm.
Father, I wanted to say, I'll never be the man you wanted me to be. I am a murderer. But I couldn't. Every time I tried to get the words up, my body failed me. Every time I felt my lips move, I lost the words.
The second thing I remember was turning my head away from my father, in shame. Instead, my gaze was forced to fall on the twin bed at my side, and the tiny body with blonde hair that occupied it. The white sheet rose and fell slowly, but rhythmically. Her eyes were still closed, but I could see the color in her cheeks.
That little boy was never coming back. His family would have to mourn him, and I would have to spend the rest of my life honoring his memory. Nothing was going to change that. But across from me, lying peacefully on that bed, I realized finally, that hope still lived.
KJ Rovka has been writing for over 12 years, but newly seeking publication. She writes fantasy and science fiction novels that are usually exciting and literary short stories that are usually depressing. When she's not writing or at her day job, she's usually learning a new language, hiking a new trail or playing a new video game. KJ graduated with a BA in International Relations in 2006 and an MA in Environmental Science and Policy in 2010, so you might call her a jack of all trades and master of absolutely none. You can peruse her scribbles, short stories, and musings on her blog at http://strawbeaner.blogspot.com/