SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Shoshana Surek (Read author interview) January 14, 2019

Art by Maureen Mcdonagh

Sarah felt overwhelmed by the pressures of the world, with politics, and with the workload assigned by her AP Physics teacher. She had watched a documentary about twelve-year-old girls being sold on the black market as sex slaves. After that, she swore she would never have sex. Once, during an active-shooter scenario at school, when she was crouched below her desk, she watched a muted YouTube video about the opiate epidemic. The people interviewed were desperate-looking, lost. Allyssa Johnson was eating cream cheese and chive crackers during the drill. She had bought them at Rite Aid. Sarah’s mother wouldn’t shop there. Allyssa said the crackers tasted good going down and coming back up. Her laugh was contagious and beautiful, her stomach flat.

Sitting in her room, Sarah thought about Allyssa’s flat and beautiful stomach. Sarah felt her own stomach, soft and round, and then finished off her third package of cream cheese and chive crackers. She slid the wrapper under her mattress.

In her AP Physics notebook, she wrote:

  1. I am not enough.
  2. I want to die.

She paused. There were two more packets of cream cheese and chive crackers. She opened one package with her teeth and took a bite. She felt a triangle of plastic on her tongue and she swallowed. Chew with your mouth closed, her mother would say, if her mother still talked to her. Were you born in a barn?

Sarah remembered a movie about a horse who fell in love with a boy, or maybe it was the boy who fell in love with the horse; either way, the two loved one another. The boy slept with the horse in the barn until it caught on fire and the horse was stolen. In the 1940s, planes were different, and he stowed away, flying across the world to save his horse. Instead of bringing the horse home, he set it free to run with a herd of wild Arabian horses. Sarah wondered about the Middle Eastern countries in the movie, some of which had changed since 1940, but many of which still stone women to death for travelling without husbands or for reading a book. She was glad the horse hadn’t fallen in love with a girl.

Sarah imagined someone reading her list after she was gone. She opened another packet of crackers. Allyssa wouldn’t eat so many packets of crackers. She wondered what it felt like to be Allyssa. She wondered what it felt like to run free with wild Arabian horses. She wondered what it felt like to be stoned to death. She wondered what it felt like to be loved. To have sex. To be loved.

  1. I am not enough.

Her mother sighed in the other room. Through the walls and despite the chewing, Sarah heard her mother’s sigh. Yesterday, Justin, a boy in her Western Civ class, sent a group message to twenty-one people about Sarah’s odd habit of blinking. She did blink her eyes, he was right. Maybe she blinked her eyes more than other people. Maybe Allyssa laughed, a glorious laugh rattling her flat stomach, when she read the text. Stop blinking, Sarah’s mother would say. Sarah knew that Justin was not referring to her eyes but she wasn’t sure what blinking meant.

  1. I want to die.

Her AP Physics teacher would notice her being gone. Sarah never turned in assignments past the due date. Maybe dad was a blinker. He didn’t say things anymore. The world got to him, too.

Sarah finished the last package of cream cheese and chive crackers, hurried downstairs, and exited the house. She headed toward Riverfront, her stomach churning on cracker and cream and chive. She imagined Allyssa on her knees, her beautiful stomach even tighter as she lost her lunch. She imagined two young girls huddled in metal containers, chains around their ankles. She imagined the horse draping his head over the boy’s shoulder, the long mane entangled in the boy’s fingers.

Making her way to the concrete barrier that separated factories from the Mississippi River, she balanced on rows of river rock angling downward. Water moved in three speeds, murky and filled with debris, looking much like she thought the cream cheese and chive must look in her stomach.

  1. I am not enough.
  2. I want to die.

Sarah wondered if an active shooter would ever invade her school. If one ever did, she certainly wouldn’t watch a YouTube video under her desk. A Sprite bottle floated by followed by a dark elm branch. Sarah’s father used to race sticks down Dutch Creek. He told Sarah stories about how he and her mother met at college, about how she studied the brain and about how he wrote books. Sarah would ask,

Is Mommy’s brain sick? or

How come you never write anymore, Daddy?

He didn’t even write a note or a reason.

Maybe he was a blinker, too. Maybe that’s what made a brain sick. Sarah had gained forty-two pounds since Dad gave up and walking along the river made her hungry. She headed back down Riverfront and went home. She still had two hours of AP Physics homework.

Before bed, Sarah tore out the list, crumbled it into a ball, and shoved it under her mattress with the cracker wrappers. She sat on the floor and carefully pulled at the small white pieces of paper left in the notebook’s coil. She imagined herself running wild with Arabian horses, loved. She wrote,

  1. I am not enough.



Notes from Guest Reader Hillary Leftwich

When I read ‘Blank’, the vulnerability immediately hit me like a punch to the gut. Layering of absolute surreal imagery and brutal language made this story stand out in all its gorgeous darkness.

About the Author

Shoshana Surek is a first-generation American and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She earned an MA Creative Writing and an MFA Creative Writing in Poetry and Fiction from Regis University. Her short stories, essays, poetry, and flash fiction can be found in Malahat Review, Vestal Review, Cease, Cows, 3Elements Review, University Press, and others. She was a two-time finalist in the HBO Comedy Arts Open and Aspen Comedy Festival. In 2017, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She stays busy with three whimsical children, a dozen or so animals, novel writing, and teaching after-school creative writing.

About the Artist

Maureen Mcdonagh is a self-taught painter; living in the UK, she works mainly on canvas and paper, working exclusively with gouache and water color these days. She mainly allows the creative process to happen without any deliberation, not focusing on the outcome or end product just the physical experience and movement of painting. Change is important in her work so she shifts when she sees a particular style or technique taking hold, the art of painting does not then become premeditated, as a consequence, it seems to have a silent, powerful quality of its own.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Three

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