Husband, Baby, Shell

The winning short story from Hey Alma's first ever fiction contest, selected by guest judge T Kira Madden.

It started as a hum somewhere in my lower abdomen. Or maybe it started when I was 8, before I was old enough to think boys were gross and well before I liked them again. I told my teacher — her name was Mrs. Dee — that I planned to marry a guy with floppy black hair.

“How could you possibly know that?” Mrs. Dee asked, peering at me from above her plastic-rimmed glasses.

“I just know,” I’d said, shrugging. I felt bad for her: It was sad to be old and it was sad to be unwise, but to be both simultaneously was depressing.

Stuff like that fades after 20 years, but then the memory flickered back to me at a rock climbing gym in Boise, Idaho — Mrs. Dee and her cheap glasses and her gummy smile and my clarity about my own future — and I tried my very hardest to push it away, because Mrs. Dee is probably dead now and I try not to think about dead people. But then it grabbed me harder, clutching my throat like an aggressive and very determined strangler-type of snake, and I remembered another thing, too: Once, when I was 11, on a beach vacation with my family, I found an intact shell, and I remember tucking it into a padded box and telling myself: I’m going to keep this and give it to my husband one day. I’ll tell him that I’ve been waiting a very long time for him, and that he’s perfect, like the shell.

I’ve never been the kind of woman who believes all men are pigs, which is probably because I was raised by a father who played Boggle with me after dinner and told me I was both smart and beautiful, which set me up to be an altogether very well-adjusted young and now less-young woman.

Anyway, the shell got lost somewhere between moves, either when my parents got divorced or when they moved back in together and got remarried, or when they got divorced again. And then I went to middle school, and then high school, and then college, and then I moved to New York to pursue violin, then realized I never really liked violin even if I was better at it than practically everyone, then I met Benji, who I sometimes call Ben, and we started dating, and then he decided we should move to Boise, Idaho because we could buy a house there, and who was I to resist — it wasn’t like I had friends or a purpose in New York anyway — so we did.

All of this found me at Boise Boulders, Inc., on a smoggy Tuesday evening: the shell, my parents’ divorce, the storage units, the floppy black hair, the hum in my abdomen.


It’s not like I went out hum-hunting, to be clear. It’s not like I made a dating profile behind Benji’s back, or started wearing low-cut tops only when he was out of town visiting his dying mom who I never much liked and who I’m not willing to start liking now just because she’s dying. It wasn’t even like I’d started posting up at cafes, reading and pausing every now and again to look around solemnly as if I was thinking deep thoughts from which I needed to be rescued by a man with strong hands and a rugged yet expensive jacket.

It started, actually, with a routine vaginal checkup, with Dr. Mashaban of Saint Alphonsus Group obstetrics and gynecology, who’d been recommended to me by my only friend in Boise: Sarah, who I don’t like so much as sort of know through a second-tier connection. Sarah said that Dr. Mashaban was decent, as far as gynecologists in a red state go, and as long as I didn’t need an abortion he should be able to service me pretty decently. So I booked an appointment via online portal, then woke up on the day of the appointment with what I think was a pretty reasonable assumption: that Dr. Mashaban and no one else would be speculum-deep in my vagina that day. But then the appointment was canceled, because Dr. Mashaban had an alleged “migraine,” and the reason I say it’s alleged is because I don’t believe migraines are real. In any case, he probably just didn’t feel like seeing strangers’ vaginas that day, and really, I don’t blame him for that.

“Nuts,” I said into the phone when his receptionist told me the news. I was already pulling into the lot; it had taken me 25 sucky minutes driving through the sprawling expanse of Boise to get there.

“Oh, I love nuts! But really, I’m sorry,” said the receptionist, not at all unkindly. There were good things about living in Idaho instead of New York. “We’ll get you rescheduled.”

“Do you know of anything fun to do out here?” I asked, because I was 25 minutes from home, and I had the day free on account of carving out time for an appointment that wasn’t going to happen. Most people don’t know that serving as VP of Marketing for a well-known toys-as-a-subscription company comes with a lot of free time.

“Um — like, around the office?” she asked.

“Right,” I said, pulling into a parking space and turning off the car Ben and I had bought together upon our arrival to Boise, although technically only my name was on the deed.

“Well,” she said. “Let me think. I believe there’s a McDonald’s nearby.”

“Not like that,” I said, shaking my head as if she could see me.

“Hmm,” she said. I could tell she was taking the pondering seriously. “Well, there’s a rock climbing place in our complex. I don’t know if you’re into that kind of thing, but a few of us go on Saturdays, and it’s decent.”

“Interesting,” I said, because I had no idea that gynecological support staff hung out, and because I used to love rock climbing, but hadn’t been in some time.

“Should we get you rescheduled for some time next week?”

“Yes, but I’ll call you back when I have my schedule,” I said, even though I knew I was free pretty much whenever. But I was excited about the rock climbing now, and had a good feeling about the whole thing, which in retrospect was perhaps a premonition that would turn out to be a prescient one. So I hung up, swung my legs out of my Nissan Altima, made my way across the parking lot to the bouldering gym, and paid 19 dollars for a day pass. “I don’t need a tour,” I said. “I’m actually related to a number of very famous rock climbers.”

“OK,” said the front desk guy, his brow furrowing in a way that made me think he didn’t believe me. “Do you—” he paused, looked behind me, as if one of my nonexistent famous relatives would appear. “I mean, I can give you a tour anyway?” He flicked a booger from his nose, and I watched it land on the counter between us.

“No need,” I said. “I’ve been as far as Asia. I think I can find my way around this gym.” Another lie: I’ve traveled plenty, but never to Asia. But it’s a game I play, sometimes: seeing what I can get away with. If he’d called me out, I’d have accused him of sexism. “What, you think women can’t travel alone? Have you no shame?”

But he didn’t call me out. He just said “OK,” then he shrugged, and his mustache quivered above his lip. That’s one thing Boise and New York City have in common: facial hair that deserves to live on better faces than it does. “Shoe size?”

“Eight,” I said, even though my feet are a size nine.

“Here ya go,” he said, handing me a pair of climbing shoes. I went over to a bench, smooshed my feet inside and started sussing out the routes.


The gym was chalky and sweaty-smelling, more crowded than I would have expected for a Tuesday at 11 in the morning. I decided to climb a route labeled orange — it looked hard, but not too hard — and I went to it, bouncing a little on the padded floor as I walked.

I felt that sense of warmth and urgency from the parking lot again. I looked around to see if anyone else noticed the temperature change — faulty air conditioning, maybe — but no, it wasn’t that. The heat wasn’t in the air so much as it was in the reverberations of the entire world. I looked to my left, to see if anyone else could feel it, and that’s when our eyes met. His were piercing and brown, and his hair was floppy and black, and he was wearing cargo shorts with big pockets, and I could see a bulge where his penis had been hoisted to attention by the climbing harness he was wearing. I stopped walking, and wondered if he’d noticed my bouncing, and his lips curled into a smile, and mine curled into a smile, and that’s when I remembered about the shell and Mrs. Dee and the floppy black hair, and I wondered, right away, if he knew about the shell, which of course he didn’t, and then I found myself wondering where the shell had gone, and realizing it was probably crushed on the floor of a storage unit somewhere, but I didn’t even feel sad, because I was just so overwhelmed by the cosmic significance of finally meeting him. The guy I’d been waiting for all along.

“After all these years,” I murmured.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “You want me to belay you?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said, turning towards her. I couldn’t very well say that I was actually hoping to partner up with the specimen of a future husband in front of me, because I’d have to explain to her about the shell and the floppy black hair and Mrs. Dee, so I said sure, and I grabbed at the rope and tied it to my harness in a swift knot. I had lied to the climbing attendant — I didn’t have any famous rock-climbing relatives — but I actually did have some climbing experience, and it was coming in handy now.

I turned back to the man with the floppy black hair, and watched his eyes follow the rope to where it met my body, a few inches from where my harness traced the lines of my thong, and then I watched as he paired up with a man in shorts that boasted exposed zippers that offered the possibility of transformation into pants. They seemed to know each other: They both stood loose and unbothered, without the need to engage in small talk. Maybe they’d through-hiked the PCT together, and he had shared, from his sleeping bag under the hushed pseudo-anonymity of dusk, that he’d always dreamed of meeting a woman who was vaguely good at rock climbing and had an undiagnosed bowel disorder.

“Women with stomach issues tend to be intensely intelligent,” I pictured him saying, pulling at the cord of his sleeping bag to ward off the evening chill, an owl cooing in agreement.

“Only you would know that,” his friend would respond, chuckling lovingly. “It must be such a burden for a guy like you to find intellectual compatibility. It’s obviously easier for me, due to my average intelligence.”

“Don’t get me wrong, bud,” Floppy Hair would say, pulling his arm out from his sleeping bag to pat his friend lovingly on the stomach. “I’d trade my brain for yours any day. It’s exhausting to be this intellectually high-strung.” He’d click his tongue, and his friend would take a second to let it sink in.

“You really are always thinking,” his friend would say, and then they’d both roll over,  pull out their respective books, and flick on their respective reading lights, and read a bit before drifting off to sleep, the hoots of owls and the swirling of stars just a panel of fabric away.

It felt like a betrayal, watching them climb together with me in their presence, but of course the guy couldn’t yet know about the smile that he and I had shared, and it would have been irresponsible for him to take his eyes off the belay in order to shout up to his friend that this was it: the girl he’d mentioned.

So I didn’t take it personally. I climbed with the woman who’d tapped me on the shoulder, who turned out to be named Deborah, and I asked her inane questions: Where are you from? Do you have kids? She said she was too young to have kids, so I asked her how old she was. She was 24, which I told her was technically older than biologically recommended. She furrowed her eyebrows at me.

And then I drove home, and got in the shower and washed my clothes, not exactly so that Ben wouldn’t catch a whiff of chalk, but because I take cleanliness and chores seriously, and laundry is a responsible thing to do. So is showering.


“I found a really good sourdough loaf,” Ben said, gesturing to the breadbox we’d packed into a cardboard box in New York and unloaded here, in the house we owned, although really I owned it and he paid me rent. He was working his way through a Sudoku puzzle, sitting at a Formica table under a window that faced our driveway. I watched our Nissan Altima lazing loyally in our driveway.

“That’s great, Benny,” I said. “You’re really settling in, huh?”

“I’m starting to like it here,” he said, standing from the table and going over to the breadbox, yanking its rolltop upwards, removing the loaf. “Toast?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going climbing. I don’t want to be weighed down.”

“That’s not really what toast does,” Ben said, plugging in the toaster. We keep it unplugged because Ben is afraid of the house catching fire and burning down.

“Where are you climbing? And since when do you rock climb?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I’ll probably figure it out after I grab some coffee.”

Ben nodded supportively, and I shifted my eyes from left to right, which is a little shortcut I have for apologizing to the universe when I lie.


It’s not like I meant to keep from Ben the fact that I’d been climbing at Boise Boulders, Inc. for four weeks in a row, pretty much every weekday, sort of in pursuit of floppy hair guy but more so in pursuit of myself, which I don’t actually mean, but it sounds better to claim boredom — physical activity is a good outlet! — than it does to claim the truth, which is that I never meant to start a life with Ben in the first place.

It’s not like I purposefully left out that I learned to rock climb as a child, and had enjoyed it through college and a few times after we started dating, too. It’s not like there was any reason I had to hide it from him. Ben was supportive of my hobbies and all that, and if I had said, “Hey Ben, I scheduled a routine OB-GYN appointment, but it was canceled, and I went to a rock climbing gym with the time, and I think I’m going to make it a habit,” he would have said, “Nice, babe, good for you.” But the problem was that I hadn’t told Ben I had an appointment with the OB-GYN, because sometimes a woman likes to have things for herself, and I hadn’t told him that I climbed that day, and I hadn’t told him that I went back, and I certainly hadn’t told him that I’d gone back 14 times since then, or that floppy hair guy was there almost every single visit, and each time I saw him I would catch glimpses of a life that he and I could have together, and we never actually exchanged words, but sometimes we’d exchange a look, and between looks I’d hear three words echoing in my head: husband, baby, shell. They echoed like a mantra, over and over again: husband, baby, shell, husband, baby, shell, husbandbabyshell. And I smiled at him and he smiled at me and his hair was as floppy as floppy can be.

It was too late to tell Ben any of this now. It would seem suspicious.


“You know they bulldozed a community to build this place, right?” I said to Ben one night while we stirred our carrot soup around and around in our bowls, mopping it up with rye bread and half-watching the news.

“No, but that makes sense,” Ben said, not looking up. “Typically new construction requires the decimation of old construction.”

“You should have said something,” I said.

“I figured you knew,” Ben said, still stirring his soup.

I stirred mine a little more violently. I’d climbed that day — I’d missed two meetings, and my bosshad messaged me to ask if we could talk — and I’d overheard Floppy Hair and his friend talking about urban sprawl and the Idaho wilderness. It’s not like I was suddenly interested in preservation now that I knew he was. But he’d brought to my attention something that had always been just below the surface of my consciousness. Floppy Hair had that effect on me: He could bring me back to myself.

“Open for business?” Ben asked me while we washed our bowls side by side, scraping scraps into the sink, which came with a disposal so we didn’t even have to busy ourselves with thinking about composting. Open for business is what Ben asks me when he wants to have sex. It’s in reference to my vagina, and I’ve always thought it was funny and even kind of clever, as if my vagina was a car wash and his penis was a car, and he wanted to be respectful of my hours of operation, because sometimes the workers need to go home to their families and make dinner or watch TV or daydream.

“Not so much,” I said, even though I wasn’t on my period or dealing with a persistent yeast infection or anything like that. I just didn’t feel like it. I’d start thinking about floppy hair guy, and wondering what his penis felt like inside of me, and I knew that it would feel better than Ben’s, so if Ben and I had sex and I was thinking about Floppy Hair’s penis then maybe I’d moan a little, and Ben would ask me what was up because I almost never moaned from his penis.

And I was also thinking about the bulldozing thing, and how Floppy Hair would have said something, or better yet, created a parameter on Zillow so that we were only searching for places that were ethically constructed. Maybe we’d just build our own log cabin and live off the grid, exchanging bodily fluids and drinking from a well he’d dug with his own hands.

And then I remembered that I knew Floppy Hair’s real name — it wasn’t like I didn’t realize I knew it, I had just gotten used to calling him Floppy Hair, or even just Floppy, in my head. But really, his name was Matt Selfredich, which I’d seen on a sign-in form at the climbing gym one day when their membership card scanner was down, and forgotten about until just now. And Matt Selfredich couldn’t possibly be very common, and which I could totally Google. I could probably find his email, even. I almost jumped through the roof with the realization.

“No problem,” he said, drying the bowl he’d just washed. He went to the recliner and popped the footrest out. “Do you want to join a synagogue, by the way?”

“Hmm,” I said, opening up my laptop. “Do you?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I think if we’re putting down roots here, then maybe we should. Especially if we’re having a kid one day. Who will need a bris.”

I ignored the assumption that our child would be a boy, and decided not to tell him that I would likely be procreating with Floppy. With Matt.

“There’s Beth-Emanuel,” I said, as if I’d researched the options. Really, I was just reciting the name of the synagogue I’d gone to as a child, because one of the things about adulthood is that you can live a life with someone and they might not even know where you spent your Tuesdays and Saturdays from ages 6 through 13.

“What do you think?” Ben asked.

It was easy. Right there on the first page of the internet: Matt Selfredich at gmail dot com. I sat back and admired my handiwork. Finding what I’d been looking for had been so easy!

I could send him an email. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me sending him an email. My stomach was getting hot. Maybe it was a boundary that I’d be crossing, I don’t know, emails can be sordid and all that, or maybe it was just a version of betrayal that couldn’t really be pinpointed but was betrayal nonetheless. What are the rules for emails? What are the rules for having a crush on a guy who’s not your boyfriend but is also someone you’ve pictured since you were a tiny little girl, and plus you know that he’s almost definitely pictured you, too, because you saw the conversation in your head — you weren’t there, but still — clear as day, including the cinch straps on his sleeping bag and the wind in the flaps of the tent?

Ben turned on the television and started watching “Friends” from the beginning. This was all the permission I needed.

“Can I think about it?” I asked. Hi, I typed, then deleted it. Why say hi to someone I’ve known in every version of my life? It would be like waking up in the morning, looking into the mirror and saying hello to myself. Hello, self, I tried. That didn’t make sense either. He’d probably get it, but maybe he wouldn’t, or maybe he would but he wouldn’t be sure that I got it, and he would think that it was a mistake or a typo instead of what it actually was: an admission of my understanding of the depths of our connection. Our undeniable connection. I deleted it. Hi, stranger, I tried, taking the opposite approach. But it sounded cheeky in a way that our relationship was way beyond. Matt, I tried. That seemed right.

“Yeah, you can think about it,” Ben said. “You mind if I watch something?”

“Why would I mind?” I asked. “And anyway, you kind of already started.”

He ignored me.

Which brought me to the rest of the email. I see you at the climbing gym would be the obvious thing to say. I’ve had a dream about you that started when I was 8 seemed creepy, even if it was true. I’m going through a rough patch in my relationship, or maybe less of a rough patch and more of a prolonged stall, or maybe less of a prolonged stall and more of a realization that my life is getting away from me and I’ve been waiting for you all along, and I’m wondering if you’d want to get coffee as a friend was inconclusive at best.

Maybe I should just lead with what I knew: that I was willing to cheat on Ben. My therapist thought I should — or the version of her that I’d preserved in my notes app after I stopped seeing her, at least. I thought I should, and I was the person I ultimately had to report to. My rabbi from childhood, who I texted sometimes, thought I should, or at least she’d responded of course! when I texted her: should I follow my heart?

I settled on, Matt: coffee some time? Then I typed my number, and then I signed off with just my initials: DMF, then remembered he wouldn’t know my initials, so instead I wrote Dana Madeline Feldman, Madeline in bold, because I wanted him to understand the cosmic significance of his name and my middle name sharing a lot of the same letters. Then, just in case, I added in parenthesis: (from the rock climbing gym).

The email back came almost immediately: Sure! Coffee sounds great. How about Starbucks at 8 tomorrow?

In the morning? I wrote back.


I was disappointed that my soulmate would choose a destination as uncreative as Starbucks, especially for the first official meeting, in which we’d confess the feelings we’d both been stuffing under our climbing harnesses in service of being publicly acceptable adults. I wanted to tell him this, but I understood on some level that he was being purposely ironic. That he thought Starbucks was a funny place to confess that we’d been lovers for all of history already, and that we were sort of sticking it to the man, so to speak, by picking a place as boring as Starbucks to gaze into each other’s eyes and wordlessly agree that we both knew what we were up to.

See you then, I replied.

Matt was funny. Matt was just as funny as I’d imagined him to be back when I was 8 years old and had no idea that penises could go from soft to hard.

“Come sit,” Ben said, gesturing towards the couch that was a few feet away from his recliner.

“I’m exhausted,” I said. “I’m going to bed.” And I did — go to bed, that is, but not to sleep. Instead, I lay awake, looking at the ceiling and caressing the place where my upper thigh meets my vagina. I thought about my climbing harness, how it supports me here, and I thought about Matt’s hands, and I worked my fingers from the inner crease of my legs to my clitoris, and I rubbed one out before falling into a deep, restful sleep.


“Hey,” I said to Matt, who was already sitting at a booth when I got there. He stood up to greet me. His hair was a little greasy on the top.

“Hey!” said. I noticed he’d already ordered something, which struck me as a little bit rude, but we’d probably be combining our finances eventually, so it didn’t really matter.

“I’m gonna grab coffee,” I said.

“OK,” he said. I was tingling, and coffee would make it worse — even make me shit myself, possibly, but Matt already knew about my bowel issues, so it was a risk I was willing to take. Changing my habits in order to please him would have been antithetical to the life we were beginning together.

“Look,” I said when I got back to the table. “This” — I gestured to him, then back to me, to show him I was referring to this obvious thing that was between us — “is undeniable, right?”

“Oh,” he said. “OK.”

“And I’m willing to leave Ben for it. Ben is my boyfriend.”

“Oh,” he said, looking up from his coffee. “Wow.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t take this lightly.”

He took a sip from his coffee, then drew in a big breath. “I — well, I’ve made a habit of believing women.” He held my gaze. “And if that’s what you want — well.” He looked around the room, as if someone else could give him permission. “Sure,” he said. “Not no.”

“Not no,” I said. That was cute. We could weave that into our vows or something.

“OK then,” I said.

“OK then,” he said, smiling. His left incisor was a little crooked, which was fine. I could always poke a little hole in the shell before giving it to him. “See, almost perfect,” I would say.

“Does this mean we’re dating?” he asked, in a joking tone, which was the right way to approach it.

“I think it does,” I said, in a tone that was slightly more serious, which I think was also the right way to approach it.

“I have to say, this isn’t what I expected,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “Ben and I were going to get married, or maybe not, probably not, but whatever. And here we are, and I met you and it feels like I’ve known you all along.”

“Oh,” Matt said. “I meant, like — from this coffee. But cool.”

“Right,” I said. I stood up and Matt rose to give me a hug.

“Do you want to come over after you break up with Ben?” he asked. “You know, to seal the deal?” He did a little motion with his hips, a wiggle, and I looked down at them, and noticed that he was wearing these broken-in Converse that were turned up at the sides where his feet pronated inwards. I’d only ever seen him in climbing pants and climbing shoes, and had no idea that his calves were so bulbous. Like grapefruits. I’d have to remember to make a second hole in the shell: crooked incisor, grapefruit calves.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll email you.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That sounds good.”

“Or we could just do it now?” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Sure.”

“OK then,” I said, my palms going sweaty with anticipation. “Where do you live?”

“Above Starbucks,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “So it wasn’t—” I stopped myself before I could ask about his intention for us, his sense of irony. Obviously he’d chosen to live above a Starbucks because his sense of irony went way deeper than just our relationship. That was Matt for you.

He stood up, leaving his coffee on the table. I grabbed mine and took it with me, and followed him out the door, up a narrow staircase that ran between Starbucks and the haberdashery next door, up to his second-floor apartment, which was lined with books in a way I found enthralling, and covered in cat hair in a way I did not.

“You have a cat?” I asked.

“No,” he said, pulling down his pants and sitting, bare-assed, on his comforter. “Why?”

 “Oh,” I said. “I just — never mind.” Maybe he bought the furniture secondhand because he cared about the environment and also his bank account, which was good, because it meant he cared about our shared bank accounts. The money we’d need in order to raise a happy and healthy family together.

“Come here, you,” he said, and I went to him, straddling his hairy legs with my own, lowering my clothed self onto his naked-from-the-waist-down self, gyrating ever so slightly on him, waiting for him to get hard.

His apartment was dusty, but I’d be able to help clean it up. “I want you to know that I take this really seriously,” I said.

“Me too,” he said, and I felt his penis perk to attention.

“You’re ready,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“I don’t just mean your penis,” I said. “You know that, right?”

“Sure,” he said, pulling my shirt off, then undoing my bra. He kissed my left nipple, then bit at it, a little too hard, which I didn’t hate, but also didn’t love.

“Can I tell you something?” I asked, pulling away from him.

“Sure,” he said, guiding my hand to his penis. It was a bit forward considering we’d just met, but then again, we knew each other, we were each other, his penis was ultimately as much his penis as my own. I thought about Ben for a second, and I almost missed him: his unawareness, the fact that he was at work right now, feet on his desk, marking up essays and inspiring eighth graders and gazing at the picture of me he kept paperclipped to his analogue planner. That was Ben for you: inspiring, good at editing, slim of calf.

“OK,” I said. “I just need to tell you about a shell,” I said.

“Fine,” he said, and I unfurled my fingers from around him, then told him everything: Mrs. Dee and her plastic-rimmed glasses, the shell, the divorce, the second divorce, the storage unit, Dr. Mashaban, the Nissan Altima lazing loyally in the driveway, Ben’s slim calves, my nerves with regards to Matt’s incisor, my excitement for the rest of our lives together — all of it. I watched as his penis withered back into a decrepit sort of worm shape, wrinkly and sad, and then I stopped talking, and I tried to make eye contact with it, as if to say, OK, we’re on the same team now, even more so now that I got all of that out of my system, but Matt pushed me off of him and threw me my shirt, and he told me that maybe this wasn’t a great idea, and I said that it was the only idea, and he said that unless I was going to suck his dick he wasn’t really interested in Mrs. Bee, and I said her name is Mrs. Dee, and then a hot tear started to roll down my cheek, because Matt of all people should remember about Mrs. Dee, but he didn’t, and I asked if I could have a cup of water, and he sighed and rolled his eyes and pulled up his pants and told me that water at Starbucks was free, and I realized that I’d made a terrible mistake: that I should have called Mrs. Dee and told her, before she died, assuming she was dead, that I’d been wrong about floppy hair and that I understood that teachers didn’t make a ton of money and it was reasonable that she couldn’t afford to replace her plastic glasses and that shells are basically just rocks anyway.

I pulled on my shirt and grabbed my bag, took the stairs back to Starbucks two at a time. Ordered a hot chocolate and called Ben while I waited. When he picked up, it sounded loud, like a circus. An elephant, a seven-foot-tall principal.

“Hi. I’m at an assembly. What’s up?

“Oh. Do you — I can let you go.”

“It’s fine, what?”

“Do you remember Mrs. Dee?”

I heard him rustling, the background noise fading.

“That second grade teacher of yours, yeah. The one who — hold on.” He said something to someone who wasn’t me. “Mrs. Dee, yeah. Didn’t she, like, take your dessert away from you at lunchtime, said you didn’t need any more sugar? She was kind of a big part of your eating disorder?” He whispered that last part, as if I wasn’t comfortable talking about it, which I wasn’t. “Your mom tried to get her fired?”

“Right,” I said, although I had forgotten about that part of Mrs. Dee — but it was true, I’d brought Ding Dongs to school once, and I was sucking on one of them at the lunch table, and she said something I don’t remember, but I do remember the feeling: red hot and like I was becoming aware of the world outside my body for the first time, like all this time the world had been spinning and I’d been anchored to it, and suddenly I realized maybe I couldn’t depend on gravity, maybe one day gravity would cease to exist, and all I had, really, was my violin and my self-control and the fact that I was smarter than anyone else in the second grade, and nothing else was sure. Not even my parents.

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah,” I said, sipping my hot chocolate.

And there was another thing, too: She used to stick out her tongue when she concentrated, tell the girls that we shouldn’t play too hard outside or our uteruses would fall out of our bodies, splat onto the cement.

“Benny,” I said in a teeny tiny voice, “can you please come get me? I’m at that Starbucks. That we went to that time.”

He sighed. The assembly sounded louder, everyone was screaming, but happy screaming, like laughing. “Right now?” he asked, then sighed again, louder this time. “Sure, OK, fine. Just — hold tight, OK, Dana?”

“OK,” I said, because I’m good at following directions, and because Ben sounded worried, and if he was worried then maybe something was wrong. “OK,” I said again, then I hung up, tossed my cup in the garbage can, and went outside to wait for Ben.

To learn more about our fiction contest and this winning story, click here.

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