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SmokeLong Quarterly

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Zero

Story by Emily James (Read author interview) September 7, 2020

Art by Mei Sa Gou

There’s a five-minute timer on the board behind her as she tells me about the boys who raped her.

The other kids are answering the question: What was one moment from Spring Break that sticks out to you? And she’s standing at my desk telling me about the boys, the apartment, her sister needing to run to Rite Aid, something about a prescription, I’ll be right back, the video games, the rice on the stove, the second room, the lights left on. She looks past my eyes at the windows beyond. The timer on the smart board behind her ticks down. FOUR MINUTES, I yell in between her pause when the room starts to chat. Their pencils keep moving, chins point back down.

The skin on her cheeks is puckered into teenage acne, but I make it disappear. I like to age the kids. I like to take the contours of their faces and the bobbing of their hair and turn them into the young women I know they will become. I put them on a train in the morning with a toddler and three bags of groceries. I put them in scrubs with a stethoscope. Sex that was asked for, that came from love.

Three minutes. I just don’t want to stress my mom, she tells me. She’s so stressed already. My father always drinking. He showed up last night, it was like ten o’clock. His eyes all red. My brother told him to go, you think you’re the man around here now?

Her stories spiral into each other, growing veins. I search for a conclusion, an ending sentence, but they all end with a purse of the lips, another thought, a different direction. She’ll run out of time, I think. Always ticking, always moving, what’s next. My husband laid out atop me, the lights off, the hamper unspooling in a shadowed corner. Time moves so slowly then, each minute looming as he digs inside me, scraping out what’s dry.

Her hands lean onto my desk, the lines on her wrists healed. Last time I referred her, the social worker called home. She didn’t come back for days. Her sweatshirt so fuzzy and cute, just above her waist, belly button peeking in and out. Forever 21. Fashion Nova where the models are 13 and size zero. She’s 13, size zero. The acne will fade.

Two minutes. The memory will not. I fill in the blanks. The boys on the couch, then in the room, a bed? Paisley covers? Maroon. Sneakers probably unlaced, new. The one of them that felt this wasn’t right. He lives with the memory of her jeans at her knees, of her earring backs twisted up when they turned her around. The one whose mother pours him Honey Nut cheerios every morning not knowing about the one afternoon he spent as a monster, because he was too scared to say stop.

The class is quiet now, racing against time. We are all of us, aren’t we? Just racing against everything that ticks. Pain trying to force itself to pleasure. They are writing about Six Flags, Greys Anatomy from a couch. What does the couch feel like? They know I’d ask, so they are using details: soft, crumb-covered. They are writing about Kalahari, their kitten Mr. Bleep, Chick-Fil-A.

I am bubbling the attendance as she stands. The collectors will be by for it any minute, and I need to have it done. I am bubbling in Jaden’s name, he’s absent again. I am looking for Thomas, to see if he’s in his seat, before I bubble him absent too. Your parents’ hurt is not your own, I’m telling her. That a mother’s job is to take the ache her child feels, figure out what to do with it, to make it into her own.

I will email the counselor again, but this last 30 seconds standing at the corner of my desk, one of my ears practically in her palms, this is what she needs.

You have to tell her, I say, putting my hands on her shoulder, a pencil between my fingertips. She nods. And I’m scared that she believes me, because I know her mother’s world will shift, crack, start its slow crumble. Too heavy. (All of us stop breathing under certain weights.) The timer buzzes. Okay, who wants to share? We’ll talk later, I tell her softly, and she knows to go sit down. We know time is up, even though we’ve been running, even though it keeps ticking, waiting for our sisters to come back, waiting for our husbands to groan as they cum all over our bellies, waiting for the blood on our wrists to dry and scab and darken and fade. We know she’ll get a zero on the entry task, but neither of us cares.

About the Author

Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. She’s the CNF Editor of Porcupine Literary and the Submissions Editor at Pidgeonholes. Her recent work can be found/is forthcoming in Guernica, Jellyfish Review, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus, the Atticus Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. You can tweet her @missg3rd.

About the Artist

Mei Sa Gou (美撒郭) is a photographer living and working in Hangzhou, China. His work explores the way in which deception and illusion have become dominant phenomena in the contemporary world, from the nature of the food we eat to the pollutants we’re exposed to in the air we breathe. In a world characterized by surveillance and unknown intentions, his work nevertheless expresses a message of love.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020
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SmokeLong Fitness--The Community Workshop

Next Date to Join: January 1!

On September 1, SmokeLong launched a workshop environment/community christened SmokeLong Fitness. This asynchronous community workshop is happening right now on our dedicated workshop site. If you choose to join us, you will work in a small group of around 10-12 participants to give and receive feedback. Each Monday, you will receive a new writing task (one writing task each week) designed by the senior editor team of SmokeLong. The core workshop is asynchronous, so you can take part from anywhere at anytime. We are excited about creating a supportive, consistent and structured environment for flash writers to work on their craft in a community.