S T I R
When Max remembers her sister’s drowning, Prisca’s body was limp and pale as Papa dragged it ashore. Papa pumped her diaphragm then placed his head on her chest. Again and again until finally collapsing, screaming wordlessly.
Max did not cry. She gathered Prisca’s slowly stiffening body into the form dead people are supposed to have, feet together and hands folded on the chest. She could not close Prisca’s eyes. Prisca’s body was cold and clammy, so Max stroked her sister’s wet hair because that was the only part of her that felt real.
A jolt pulls Max back into the train cabin. She looks to the seats across her, at the mother with a baby, whose gray-blue eyes are so like Prisca’s.
Alice shushes her baby. Teething, keeping her awake all night. She feels angry at the baby and this troubles her. Still, she’d read that when you smiled, even when you didn’t mean it, you felt better. Smile at the nice lady in the seat across from her. Smile at the man in a shabby suit who nods and smiles back, sympathetic.
Frank wants to tell the frazzled mother to hang in there, that things will get better, even if he only sees his teenage daughter on weekends and in the summer. He pulls out his wallet. His daughter smiles radiantly. First in her class.
“She wants to be a microbiologist, can you believe?” he says, showing the picture to the woman with wavy black curls and a stunningly symmetric face.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be at that age,” Max says, smiling.
Frank shows the mother the picture too while drinking Max in glances. Alice is saying that her husband is a biologist—marine. Frank nods absentmindedly.
Alice first met her husband when he emerged from the ocean in his scuba gear.
“He looked ridiculous,” she laughs. “Exhausted and flopping around in his flippers. Not at all Baywatch.”
Max smiles, but shudders inside. She tunes out the conversation, but the damage has been done. The river spills into her imagination.
“Baywatch,” Frank says. “That takes me back.” He laughs nervously.
A stop. An old couple amble in.
Frank offers his seat, even though there are others available. He wants to sit next to the woman with the perfect face but hesitates too long, and a young man takes the seat, music leaking out his headphones.
But Max only hears Papa’s screams, feels only Prisca’s wet hair. The train is filling up, stop by stop.
The wife clutches her husband’s hand and nods again at the portly man who gave his seat up for them. He smiles and Jennifer senses loneliness there. He has forgotten how to look convincingly happy. She pats her husband’s hand. The trick to marriage is knowing how to look happy.
Taylor is glad to be sitting. His hip is hurting again, but he doesn’t mention this to Jenny. No need for her to worry. To nag. Taylor closes his eyes. There is a pool in the Bible stirred daily by an angel, after which the first one in got healed. He hums tunelessly to distract himself from the pain.
Frank nods at the young man, mouths R.E.M. The young man grins and gives him the thumb’s up. Frank ponders what generation has good taste in music but doesn’t have the manners to turn it down.
The train shudders roughly at the next stop and the baby wakes up, crying. Alice is embarrassed, upset. She gathers her things and heads out the door just behind the young man.
Frank waves at her, but she does not see. He looks around and somewhat shyly, somewhat triumphantly, sits down.
Max’s skin is glowing from a thin layer of sweat. “Where are you headed?” Frank asks.
Max stands up and rushes out the doors just as they close. Drinks the air as if it were fresh, a hundred feet beneath Manhattan, where there was no ocean to force back.
The train departs. Frank watches wistfully from his seat until the tunnel-black. Taylor begins to hum tunelessly. Jennifer smiles.
Max begins to dance to the man playing guitar. The man and her grin at each other. He does not need the tips; he just appreciates the audience. She gives him five dollars anyway.
The baby has calmed down and is now sleeping on Alice’s shoulder. She makes her ways up the stairs and is dismayed at the steady roar of rain. She takes off her jacket and wraps it around the baby, braves the downpour.
Gregory sees his daughter dancing and feels a mixture of shame and pride.
“That will be two-fifty please,” he says absentmindedly to a customer, takes a five, hands back change.
Max dances to his stand, grinning. “Hello, Papa!”
“Maximillia,” he says, frowning. “What are you doing?”
“It feels good to be alive, Papa,” she says.
It is the wrong thing to say, and they both know it at once.
Every day, Nicola Koh experiences a persistent and coherent nightmare of a world where hatred and violence are the powers that be. To cope with this, Nicola writes, reads, spends time with loved ones, and plays tetris. They are in their final year of Hamline University's MFA program.
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