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Issue #11 |

Story Problem Problem

Of the three people on the riverbank—Janice, Anton, and Fiona—only two have magical powers. Anton is extraordinarily tall, but excessive height is not in and of itself a magical power. Janice is rather pretty for a woman of her age, but despite her looks, Anton cannot be alone with her. Fiona has a broken arm, but she knows most of the lyrics to many Paul Simon songs. All three must cross the river to the other side before nightfall, or at least one of them will die.

Night will fall in approximately one-half hour.

They have a kayak, but it can carry only two people at a time or it will tip itself over into the river.

Which is, of course, infested with crocodiles.

They have been trying to formulate a plan, but so far, no real solution has suggested itself, and all three have grown frustrated. And angry. And alarmed.

Suddenly, without a word to the women, Anton strides to the boat and climbs in. He stretches his legs the length of the kayak and picks up the oar from the hull. Then he motions to Fiona to get in.

“I’m sorry, what are you doing?” Janice asks. She’s trying to be reasonable, but fuck Anton, really. If he takes Fiona and leaves Janice alone on the bank of the river, he won’t come back to get her, since he’s made it clear that he cannot be alone with her. And with her broken arm, there’s no way Fiona can row.

Fiona chews her lower lip. With the exception of the ability to vocalize many Paul Simon lyrics, she is entirely mute. Confounding the problem is the fact that she can sing only one line from one song at any given time, so she has to choose carefully when she’s trying to make a point.  “‘God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson,’” Fiona sings, gazing searchingly at Janice. She stabs her index finger at her own chest, then points down at the muddy riverbank.

Anton shakes his head. “Hurry up.”

Near the bank of the green and frothy river, a croc rears its bumpy head.

Janice, furious, gives the boat a little kick. “Get out,” she says to Anton.

After a moment, Fiona follows suit. “‘Make a new plan, Stan,’” she sings, rocking the boat with a surprisingly emphatic thump of her hip.

In turn, Anton fastens his large hands around Fiona’s waist and hauls her into the boat. Before Fiona (or, for that matter, Janice) can react, Anton jabs the oar into the mud and shoves the boat out into the filthy water.

 

Janice’s magical power is that she can fly.

But, honestly, she’s not all that good at it.

In fact, it’s been years since she’d last thought of herself as a flier at all, which is why it didn’t immediately occur to her as a solution for their predicament. She’d experimented with flying in high school, and in her twenties she’d made a bit of a name for herself in the insular world of fliers. But then she got married and had a bunch of kids, all very close together, and she just couldn’t carve out the blocks of time that were needed to hone her craft. Every now and then, if the kids were all magically asleep at the same time, she’d climb out onto the roof and tilt her gaze to the sky and picture herself there, arms spread, legs pressed tightly together, zipping over the neighborhood toward the river, where she would glisse and tendu over the snapping jaws of crocs before chasseing back up to the clouds.

Occasionally, she’d take a few preparatory hops, jarring shingles loose and startling nearby birds. But she just wasn’t the sort of mother who could leave her children alone in the house. What if they woke and cried out? What if someone broke in? What if a mouse chewed through the old wiring in the attic, the roof in flames when she returned?

By the time the kids were old enough to be left safely on their own, Janice, quite frankly, didn’t even want to fly anymore. Flying well was hard. You had to practice all the time, and Janice hadn’t practiced in years. What if she messed up and fell into the river? What if she crashed into a building and crumpled to the ground? What if she’d never actually been any good at it in the first place; what if Janice as Flier was a lie she’d been telling herself for so long that she’d begun to believe it, and now she’d have to meet her self-delusion as she tumbled toward the earth? It just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t as though she even needed to fly.

Until now, of course.

 

“I don’t hate her,” Anton says to Fiona as he plunges the oar rhythmically, swiftly, though the water. “I’ve never hated her.”

Fiona nods. But she’s only pretending to understand. She’s known Janice for years: they are neighbors, their backyards divided by a low brick wall. They’ve hosted summer parties together, drinking countless coffees and glasses of wine, their children freely clambering over the wall and slipping into one another’s yards to play. Fiona has glimpsed the saggy nudity of Janice’s husband when he forgets to draw the curtains, has seen the pin-point flickering of joints in their teenagers’ rooms, has watched with anxiety as Janice slips out the attic window and stands on the slim ledge above the gutters, her face tilted toward the moon.

Fiona checks the watch she’d moved to her right wrist because of the cast on her left: at this rate, there is still time for Anton to deposit her on the opposite bank, then turn the boat around and go back to retrieve Janice and return again. If he’ll go back to retrieve her. Which, most likely, he will not. Fiona has never felt so helpless: with her broken arm, she can do nothing physical to fix the situation, and her ability to persuade Anton to do the right thing is limited by the extent of the Simon she can sing.

She taps Anton on the leg. “‘Everybody sees you’re blown apart,’” she sings, tentatively.

“Yeah,” Anton says.

He doesn’t elaborate.

Fiona wants to tell Anton how great Janice is, how neighborly, how helpful, how thoughtful. How Janice has never even once complained about the way Fiona communicates; in fact, Janice sometimes gets so caught up in their conversation that she’ll jump in herself with a random lyric, usually from Graceland, but sometimes going all the way back to Bridge Over Troubled Water. How just last week, Janice had helped Fiona take down her Halloween decorations, and they’d sung about aging to one another, harmonizing on “Old Friends” as Janice was leaving, blowing Fiona a kiss.

Fiona searches “Hearts and Bones” for a way to convey any of this, but Anton is rowing so swiftly that they are already more than halfway to the opposite bank, heading toward what appears to be a rocky outcropping, the beginning of land. As they approach, however, the rocks shift, sliding apart to become a trio of crocs, their hooded eyes trained on the little boat.

Bewilderingly, Anton continues to row straight toward them.

Desperate for a warning lyric, Fiona lands on “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” but before she can even utter the word “Whoa,” one of the crocs rears up from the others, jaws snapping, and rises slowly into the air, its tail coiling around its thick torso and stubby legs.

Even the croc himself seems startled by this development. He is swirling as he rises, his forelegs flapping, his lids retracted, his eyes bulging and wild.

Anton drops the oar. It cracks against the side of the boat as it falls, spraying foul water all over Fiona before it slips into the river and is carried swiftly away.

 

The reason Anton can’t be alone with Janice isn’t that he hates her.

He doesn’t hate Janice.

He doesn’t.

He hates what she’s become: timid, gormless, lazy.

He knows what she can do. She used to show him when they were in college, rising on the balls of her feet, then en pointe, then, arms in parentheses above her head, drifting inch by inch until, eyes on a level with his, she’d lean in to give him a peck on the cheek, triumphant, saucy, deliriously sexy in the way that only a tiny, levitating woman can be. Back then it was all he could do not to pluck her from the air and pull her into his arms, but she was his best friend, practically a sister.

Inspired, he’d tried his hand at flying himself (when no one was around, of course), but it was too hard. Once, hopping off the third rung of a ladder he’d set up in his apartment, he’d felt a little shiver of lift, of buoyancy, but it swiftly gave way to gravity and he tumbled to the floor.

It was this, his own failure, that he eventually held against Janice.

It wasn’t fair. He couldn’t even pretend it made sense. But he began to avoid her. He stopped returning her calls. Where they’d once spent time together both in and outside of class, he now arrived deliberately late, taking a seat at the back instead of the empty one next to hers, which she saved for him anyway with her lime-green backpack or her old winter coat.

He’d still see her from time to time, but only from afar.

And below.

Sometimes she was a large bird, circling for prey.

In the moonlight: a rippling-haired witch, sans broom.

Most often she was a Janice-shaped shadow, flitting low over the courtyard when classes changed.

He continued to watch for her in the years after graduation, but even though they both stayed in the city, his Janice-sightings grew increasingly rare, until they ceased altogether, decades ago.

He found her on social media, of course. Photos of delicate-featured children, most with eyes of Janice-blue. A slender boyfriend became a sturdy fiancé became a chubby husband, his hair (thick, wavy black) unchanged. Travel albums. Pages of local businesses, liked and occasionally reviewed. Memes: parenting, politics, wine. Book clubs. Booster clubs. Dance clubs. Golf clubs.

Not a single flight club.

No close-up images of clouds.

Anton watches the current carry the oar away.

His plan was that he’d get Fiona safely across the river, then wait for the moment Janice would solve the problem by getting over herself and finally launching her lazy or flabby or fearful ass back into the swiftly darkening sky. Five minutes in the air, tops, and she’d land on the riverbank beside them, and no one would have to die.

A light rain begins to fall.

“‘When you’re weary,’” Fiona murmurs, her gaze flitting from the swirling oar to the levitating crocodile. The boat dips and rocks, drifting.

 

Janice first removes her gloves, then her jacket, then, hesitating, her boots. She shivers on the riverbank, the temperature falling with the night and the rain, but it is important to make herself as light as possible.

In the old days, she’d kept a couple sets of flying clothes next to the door to her apartment’s fire escape, moving them to the highest shelf of the closet she shared with Sonny when they’d bought their first house. She’d thrown them out rather than move them when they’d bought the second, disgusted by their heavy layers of dust and the certainty that after four children, they would never fit her properly again. But in their time, they were the most perfect things she’d ever owned: as thin as promises, as warm as rage. It was often cold when she went, aloft, sometimes bitterly so, but the last thing a tentative flier needs is extra weight. A bulky sweater could mean the difference between soaring easily from rooftop to ridge to plodding along, barely skimming the surface of the river.

Now, without her outerwear, she’s still wearing what is probably at least seven pounds of clothing: boyfriend jeans that are rolled at the cuffs, a tank top, a chunky turtleneck, Sonny’s old fisherman’s sweater. Socks, underwear, bra (padded and wired). Her Fitbit. With the twenty or so extra pounds she’s gained since her last real flight, she’ll be lucky if she can even launch herself from the riverbank, let alone stay in the air.

She turns her back to the river and strips it all off, yanking, unzipping, unhooking. She fumbles with her Fitbit, her fingers already numb, and notes the time as it flashes.

Fewer than twenty minutes left.

6,242 steps. Flight miles: 0. Heart rate: 108.

The rain pelts her skin, stinging.

She can’t remember how to start. She bounces on the balls of her feet, her breasts, her little flap of belly, loose, resistant, pain signals rising from her arthritic toes.

The last serious, sustained flight she can remember taking was more than twenty years ago, when Chayton and Skye were toddler and baby, and Sonny’s mother had taken them to the Children’s Museum for the day. Janice had finally weaned Skye and was at least a month away from becoming pregnant again, and she’d spent the morning tingling, all of her nerves on fire.

She’d paced the house once Sonny’s mother had finally left with the children, Chayton’s shoes found at last. She had two, possibly three full hours to herself, but all of the projects she’d planned to complete—cleaning the bathrooms, organizing the playroom, hanging family photos, paying bills—felt daunting, or pointless, or both. She felt scattered, uneasy, the nerve tingling now given over to a full-on, systemic itching, especially in her feet.

Pacing made it worse. She tried sitting in the living room with a book she’d been meaning to read for more than a year, but the pillows were covered in cat hair and there were Legos visible beneath the breakfront from her position on the couch. Sonny’s jacket dangled from the doorknob; Skye’s binky on the coffee table was an indictment of her diaper-bag-packing skills.

Suddenly she was on the roof, and then, more suddenly still, in the air.

The thing about flying was that anything you were thinking about immediately fell away. You had to pay attention; you summoned forces and you rode them, but you could just as easily drop from the sky if you didn’t sustain your focus.

The world from above was orderly; it made sense. Chimneys rose from predictable places in predictable rooftop grids; no matter how chaotic the traffic might feel while you were in it, from above its movement was elegant, inexorable. The low-flying eye found the bright colors first—the cherry-red sports cars, the tangy green sedans—but the higher one rose, the more indistinguishable the cars became, until the roadways themselves appeared to flow, like the river.

Janice’s roof became a patch in the quilt of her neighborhood, then a stitch, before it disappeared entirely, swallowed up in the mass of land that ran beside the water. The day was warm, so, even though she hadn’t had time to change into her flying clothes, Janice parted the air in comfort, a light wind rippling the loose sleeves of her shirt. She dove and rose effortlessly, pointing her toes to speed herself up or paddling her legs to slow down.

She returned to the roof with moments to spare, Sonny’s mother’s car already in the driveway. In the time it took for her mother-in-law to detach the car seats, Janice had latched the window, shaken the bugs from her clothing, and brushed out her tangled hair. She made her way slowly down the stairs, each step more leaden than the last. When she took Skye in her arms, they sagged with her weight. Chayton grabbed Janice’s left leg and refused to let go, his face mashed into her jeans.

She’d taken only a handful of flights since then, each bumpier and more fraught with danger than the last, until a night three or four years ago when she’d yanked open the attic window in a drunken rage. She’d been angry at all of them: Sonny, Chayton, Skye, Zephyr, Tori, even Squito, their cat. No one helped her, even though all of them except Squito were essentially fully grown humans, capable of doing laundry, capable of passing a broom over the floor, capable of leaving Janice the fuck alone for ten fucking minutes without asking her to find their wallet or scoop the shit from their shit box so they could shit in it some more.

She’d stumbled on the launch and was immediately in trouble, her arms flailing wildly as she plummeted toward the rock garden in the backyard. She managed to pull up at the last minute, just enough to keep herself from a face-first landing, but she’d tipped over onto her knees and ripped holes in her leggings, in her flesh.

That had been her final flight.

Until now.

She can do this. She has to do this. She thinks about the hundreds of blankets Fiona has knitted for babies in the NICU. She thinks about Fiona’s cupboard of wine, always full, and the blondies she bakes once a week, just for Janice. She thinks about Fiona’s daughters: Carrie, getting married in the backyard next summer; Leigh, pregnant with Fiona’s first grandchild.

She tries to think about Anton, tries to imagine him with a family, but she knows nothing about the life he’s lived since college, and she fills with rage again over the position he’s left her in.

Still. He’d been such a good friend, once.

She tries to convince herself she’s warm, in order to still the shivering. There can be no resistance, no hesitation.

She takes a deep breath, then rises on her toes and flings her naked self into the sky.

 

Despite his fear, Anton finds himself feeling great empathy for the crocodile in the air.

He looks so frightened, so confused.

So, too, do his two companions. Their snouts revolve almost comically as they follow their friend’s twisting ascent.

“Fuuuuuck,” Anton mutters, the current carrying the kayak even closer to the trio. He shifts his position and the little boat rocks dangerously.

The riverbank lies just ten feet or so beyond the crocs, though the entire landscape is blurred over in the increasingly heavy rainfall. If Anton squints, the crocodile becomes a product of the elements: a brownish water spout, rising; a brownish funnel cloud, swirling down.

Anton contemplates jumping into the water. He’s a strong swimmer. There was a time in his late thirties, after a knee injury, when he’d replaced his usual five-mile run with daily laps at the JCC. True, this was nearly twenty years ago, and he hadn’t spent much time in the water since, but if muscle memory kicks in and the crocs remain distracted, there’s a good chance he could make it to the riverbank in time.

Provided, of course, that these are the only nearby crocs.

This would mean Fiona’s certain death, unfortunately. But he barely knows her. It’s not Anton’s fault she has a broken arm. And there was nothing in the story problem that suggested all of them had to die if one or two didn’t make it to shore in the next fifteen minutes. Just that at least one of them would. In this case, that one was pretty clearly going to be Fiona. And/or Janice, depending. Group death was just a possible result.

He’d rather be a hero, but this is simple math: if Anton stays in the boat much longer, his own death is a given. The crocs are now just yards away.

He contemplates telling Fiona what he’s about to do, but this strikes him as cruel. She can’t even argue with him. Better to just do it. He’d tried to save her. He’d risked his life to save her. Deep down, this is something she’ll understand, in the end.

He braces his hands against the seat to push himself up, but before he can unfurl his long legs, Fiona leaps to her feet, the boat rocking wildly.

 

When Fiona was little, the music of Paul Simon was everywhere. Her parents were great fans of his work with G, though they mistakenly thought G had co-written all or most of it. The songs floated from the stereo as accompaniments to dinner parties, G’s high notes lending an almost spiritual quality to the evenings: a call to reverence, Fiona used to think, listening from her bedroom; a call to prayer.

And so she would pray (in her head, of course, and in her bed; kneeling felt stupid and overly official, and what if, as was usually the case, she woke to unanswered prayers? At least this way she could pretend nothing very real was at stake). Dear God please make me taller. Dear God help me pass the Social Studies quiz. Dear God let me speak. Dear God carry me over troubled water. Dear God parsley sage. Dear God rosemary. Dear God thyme time time.

One morning late in her eleventh year, she opened her mouth at the breakfast table and a snatch of Simon tumbled out: “‘What a dream I had, pressed in organdy,’” she sang to her mother, before both of them turned to see whose creaky, feeble voice had made these sounds.

Fiona clapped her hands to her face at the same time that her mother clapped hers to hers.

At her mother’s urging, she tried to follow up with the song’s next line, but nothing came out this time except for a faint grunt. Her mother ran to the stereo cabinet, pulled out an album, and set the needle to the song. She grabbed Fiona’s hands and swung her around to the music, singing along, enunciating the syllables, but though Fiona tried as hard as she could, spraying spittle, wheezing and gasping, she couldn’t utter another lyric.

They sank to the couch and Fiona put her head in her mother’s lap. They listened to the rest of the album in silence, her mother stroking her hair, smoothing it behind Fiona’s ear. “‘Oh my mama loves me, she loves me,’” Fiona croaked, when her mother stood to turn the stereo off.

The Simon came quickly after that, one lyric at a time, Fiona’s voice gaining strength as her vocal cords adapted to their new use. Soon, she was bantering with her father, arguing with her brothers, raising her hand in class. Late at night, she wrapped the phone’s cord around her arm while she gossiped with friends.

The Simon grew with her as she aged, new albums giving her a greater vocabulary, a richer voice. She dated to Hearts and Bones, fell in love during Graceland, gave birth to her daughters to The Rhythm of the Saints. So Beautiful or So What came along when she needed it most, her parents dying months apart.

By this point in her life, there was very little Fiona couldn’t communicate in Simon, if the goal was to let someone know how she was feeling about a thing.

It was harder, of course, to communicate immediate needs.

For example, there is nothing she can say in Simon right now that can quite convey to Anton the following facts:

—that another crocodile has just taken to the sky,

—that unlike the first, this one is moving with obvious intentionality, its forelegs pumping, its tail undulating from side to side, its bumpy snout pointed at its floating companion,

—that this flying crocodile is much larger than the first (nearly twice its size, in fact), and when it reaches the smaller, it circles it, bellowing, as though to attack,

—but then the smaller crocodile flattens out of its vertical state, its throat puffing rapidly in and out,

—at which point, the floating crocodiles, big and small, nuzzle one another,

—suggesting that the larger is the smaller one’s parent.

Which means, Fiona knows with a sudden, electric certainty, that the danger she and Anton face in the boat has increased by an order of magnitude, given the likelihood that the larger crocodile will behave like any other wildlife parent would if it believed its offspring was at risk of harm.

From them.

It is too much for Fiona’s Simon to communicate any of this, though she lands, briefly, on “Mother and Child Reunion” as she searches her mental files.

But the song completely fails at indicating to Anton that the third crocodile, even larger than the second, is at this very moment also slithering into the sky.

He parts the air with his forelegs and, kicking with his hind legs, begins to swim—no, to fly—directly toward the kayak.

Fiona leaps to her feet and blurts the first Simon she can think of —“‘It’s a turn-around jump shot, it’s everybody jump start’”—before diving over the side of the boat.

It is only once she’s underwater that she remembers her broken arm.

 

At first, the air feels like a thick, soggy cloth. Janice tries to push herself through but it resists, tangling up her arms and nearly snapping her neck. She crumples to the ground, the cold mud of the riverbank a shock to her naked ass.

She can’t do this.

She doesn’t have to do this.

She can just stretch out in the mud and wait for death.

It’s a shitty, pathetic way to go, but it’s not like she’s even in charge of this narrative. She didn’t make these stupid rules; she can’t control the variables. As story problems go, this one makes even less sense than the one about the farmer and the chicken and the fox and the corn, where the farmer has to cross the river with only one at a time but he can’t leave the fox alone with the chicken or the chicken alone with the corn, and you’re not supposed to ask what the farmer’s even doing with a fox; you’re not supposed to wonder why a Chicken, Corn, & Fox farmer wanders the riverside with his livestock and feed, oblivious to the concept of cages.

For the life of her, Janice can’t understand how Anton got mixed up in this, nor why he’s decided—why he’s allowed to decide—that they cannot be left alone together.

She hasn’t seen him in more than thirty years. If it hadn’t been for his voice, she wouldn’t have remembered him at all, the rest of him so changed, so aged. But his voice holds the same timbre, shapes the syllables in the same way, as the words Janice has heard in her head since he’d uttered them: You’re young and you’re pretty. Who cares whether or not you can fly? Anton’s parting words to her, though it had taken her several weeks (months, really) to realize that they would never speak to one another again.

Until now.

And still he gets to be both farmer and fox, while she and Fiona become corn and chicken. Or, more accurately, the reverse, since Janice is clearly the bird that cannot fly.

It’s not her fault Anton hates her guts; it’s not her fault Fiona’s broken; it’s not her fault they’ve been written into a riddle that simply cannot be solved.

And just because someone was good at something once upon a time, that doesn’t mean that they will always be. You can be great and then, without practice, you can, eventually, suck. Even with practice. That’s just the way life is.

Or, rather, that’s just the way death, her death, is: night falling, a cold rain falling, Janice flailing, Janice falling. The end.

Except she has to pee.

She contemplates just holding out for death, but the need is too urgent (she’s had four kids, after all). She then imagines just peeing into the mud as she lies there (since there are no pants to ruin, no lacy, expensive underwear), but the thought of the urine pooling around her is ultimately just too disgusting and sad, and so she shoves herself up from the ground and into a squat.

Except her knees refuse to bend, refuse to lock, jamming her toes into the mud. And then she is in the air.

 

Poor Anton, alone in the boat, unable to save even himself.

The largest crocodile is now just a few feet above him, circling, the flicking of its mammoth tail intermittently blocking the falling rain. Not far away, the other two crocs, big and little, appear to be playing a game of chase in the sky: the smaller one scoots, zagging when the larger one zigs, both emitting noises Anton has never heard before: a rumbling, guttural purr, along with occasional bellowing and a near-constant hissing; the soundtrack of nightmare.

He should have jumped in the water immediately after Fiona, but he is completely incapable of moving. Ironically, the water is the one place where he stands the best chance of surviving, provided the crocodiles remain in the air. But this is not how Anton works. It takes time for him to adjust to changing conditions; he is and has always been a planner, methodically working through the variables before arriving at most decisions.

But he no longer has the luxury of anticipating outcomes.

Above him, the crocodile’s rumble is like metal grinding on gravel. Anton can feel the animal’s breath when it lowers its head.

His life should be flashing before him, he thinks, but there is shockingly little of it scrolling by: a grade school award for best Haiku; his mother, crying while opening a Christmas gift; a book so good that he’d stayed awake through an entire night, reading it; the first time he’d slept with his first wife after they’d smoked pot together, and he’d experienced a sort of synesthesia where each act had translated to the taste of different foods: bread pudding, filet mignon, a very tart cherry cider.

The last time he’d slept with his second wife, and they’d both cried.

He tries not to look at the crocodile, but the noises it makes keep drawing his eyes skyward, and now he is reliving the first time he’d seen Janice fully in the air, her blonde hair blackened with mud, her body pale and naked in the fading light.

Except this isn’t a memory.

He has never seen Janice naked.

Until now.

 

The water is murky, viscous. Fiona falls through it on a slant, the blue cast on her left arm growing heavier as its plaster expands.

She knows she should be concerned, and she is, on some level. But also, she isn’t. It isn’t a magical power, exactly, but Fiona has spent much of her adulthood in a state of serenity that her husband, Duncan, attributes to the Simon. “Something about the rhymes,” he has said, more than once. “How they let you know what comes next.”

Sinking, Fiona finds herself thinking in Simon.

“What is the point of this story? What information pertains?”

 

Janice has never flown this well before. Never. Her body pulses with power; she has only to think of a movement and it complies, her fingertips extended, her toes pointed, her arms and legs graceful, her torso lithe. She doesn’t feel the rain, the cold. She has rocketed straight into the air, into the falling night, and if she keeps going she will breach the clouds and soar on into the shimmering dark.

And she will never, ever, come back down.

For the moment, she is fiercely, bewilderingly happy. For the moment, it feels as though this is where her life has been heading all along: its apex and its conclusion, at once, despite the many detours she’s taken along the way.

Despite the fact that she has failed to solve the story problem.

Though maybe she has solved it, in a way: if she disappears forever, if she fails to return to Earth, then at least she has saved Anton and Fiona. According to the problem, only one of them has to die.

Janice isn’t stupid. She knows that “at least one” and “only one” are not the same things. She feels herself lying to herself, which has the weird effect of speeding her up in the air, as though she can leave this knowledge, along with everything else, behind.

The higher she rises, however, the heavier her thoughts become.

She becomes aware, for instance, that among what she has described to herself as “detours,” as “everything else,” are Chayton, Skye, Zephyr, and Tori, that jumble of brilliance and sass and beauty around which she has shaped nearly every single day of her last twenty-five years. Sonny, against whose body she has curled in sleep for nearly thirty. Squito, who is perfectly striped, whose nose is almost distressingly pink.

Just last week, Janice had been telling Fiona how weird it felt that her body kept aging while the Janice in her head stayed twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven. Fiona, a wreath of plastic pumpkins tucked under her good arm, had nodded vigorously. “‘I am remembering a girl when I was young,’” she’d said, the wreath sliding to the ground as she’d pointed at her own head.

“Yes,” Janice had said, bending to retrieve the wreath. “Like that.”

But that wasn’t what she’d meant, not exactly.

She wasn’t remembering the girl she used to be.

She was that girl, wearing a sloppy suit of spotted flesh.

The children, like the Janice in her head, are all in their twenties now. They will be okay without her, all of them, though someone will have to take over feeding Squito, and Sonny will have to work harder on personal grooming if he wants to find himself another wife.

But Sonny won’t want another wife, she is pretty sure. Sonny will probably long for her always, the way she longs, even now, especially now, for him.

And if the children, like Janice, will be who they are now inside their heads for the rest of their lives, her disappearance at this stage will forever define them: inside their own sloppy, spotted flesh suits, their mother will have always just vanished into thin air.

Panicked, Janice tries to slow herself down, tries to turn toward the riverbank, but she’s been thinking too much and has completely lost focus. She feels the power draining from her body, her arms flapping absurdly as she swiftly descends.

 

The force of Janice’s landing in the boat is enough to all but launch Anton out of it. Luckily, he takes up so much space that she can’t help but land on some part of him, thus breaking her fall while she holds him in place. The boat plunges precipitously, but Janice is small and has landed in the middle, so it doesn’t sink, it doesn’t overturn.

 

The crocodiles have also begun to fall, plopping one by one into the river. The largest yelps mid-bellow, clawing at the air, then dives head-first and very nearly lands in the kayak along with Janice. As he breaches the water, his tail smacks against the side of the boat, hitting it with such force that it is propelled the few remaining feet to shore.

 

Anton and Janice leap out of the kayak, scrambling up and over the rocks of the riverbank.

Then they stand, panting, and stare at one another, until Anton shrugs off his woolen coat and, eyes averted, extends it Janice.

Janice sticks her arms into the sleeves, where they disappear a foot or so short of emerging. The coat is longer than she is, and warm, if damp.

She turns and peers through the haze of rain and swiftly fading light for Fiona.

Then she raises her gaze to Anton.

The strings of what is left of Anton’s hair are plastered to his skull.

Below them, his face looks gaunt, stricken.

 

In the water, the young crocodile struggles to right itself. Then it noses about, looking for its mother, its father.

Instead, it finds Fiona.

As it happens, just before he’d found himself suddenly, bewilderingly aloft, the young crocodile had been thinking about a story he’d learned in school the week before. In it, a crocodile and a monkey are best friends, until one day the monkey rides his good friend crocodile down the river, toward what turns out to be his good friend crocodile’s hungry and demanding wife, and the monkey’s certain death. The monkey ultimately betrays the crocodile in turn, but of the betrayals, his good friend crocodile’s is clearly the worst.

While the point of the story had been to teach the students about avarice and irony, the truth is that it mostly made the young crocodile feel bad about being a crocodile. And confused, since he’d never actually met a monkey, and wasn’t even sure what a monkey might be. In fact, he’d been asking his parents about monkeys just as he’d found himself launched into the air. Mother, Father, he’d said, thrusting his snout at Anton and Fiona in their tiny boat. Monkeys are they, there?

And because he is so very young, he can’t help but see a sort of cause-and-effect relationship in the terrifying events that followed. The swirling, the lifting, the frantic chase. His father bellowing, his mother shrieking, the river billowing below, instead of above, or around.

He studies Fiona, sinking, her brown hair fanned and undulating like a watery crown.

Maybe it would be best to move on.

And yet he cannot help himself. Monkey? he thinks, opening his jaws to test the weird, thick plaster of Fiona’s cast.

Fiona’s bright brown eyes snap open.

 

Fiona’s magical power is telepathy.

But because it is limited strictly to crocodiles, she’s been unaware of her gift. Until now.

The croc’s thoughts arrive in her head as a low hum, a growl of jumbled words—fall scare fly sky mother monkey blue—so it takes her a moment to understand. The fact that she is actively drowning doesn’t help with her comprehension; at first, she mistakes the young croc’s thoughts for her own, which, like anyone’s thoughts, also tumble about, flitting from idea to feeling to snatches of music to fear to sorrow and so on, circling back or arcing away.

But Fiona has not been thinking about hungry wives, nor has she been reliving the moment when the sky pulled her from the water and flung her into itself.

She listens carefully to the young crocodile as he tugs her about, her own thoughts a swift Simon scroll for something that might reassure him, might calm him down. “‘The monkey stands for honesty,’” she thinks at last, her lungs burning, her limbs leaden, her torso trembling with cold and shock.

What is it mean? the young crocodile thinks back. Why is it sing?

To her surprise, Fiona discovers that she can freely explain.

 

Janice, alone with Anton on the riverbank, realizes that she is alone with Anton on the riverbank. For a moment, her mind blackens over with rage.

The thing about story problems is that, no matter how stupid the variables, the solution requires that the rules be observed. The farmer cannot allow the chicken to eat the corn, even though the corn is most likely intended for the chicken’s actual feed. The farmer cannot suddenly realize that the whole concept of his Chicken, Corn, & Fox farm is deeply flawed, and simply release the fox into a patch of weeds by the river before he takes his chicken and its feed back home.

Janice takes a moment to squat, ever so slightly, and pee, deep inside Anton’s overcoat. Then she shrugs off the coat, letting it fall to the damp ground.

She flexes her calves, digging her toes into the mud, and rises into the air, flying just high enough and hard enough that she hits Anton in the sternum, shoving him off the bank.

 

Anton, at last, is flying.

Though not for very long.

Still, as he soars through the air, backwards, it comes to him that of all of his life’s many bad choices, hating Janice because she could do what he could not was absolutely not one of them.

The wind whistles. His limbs flutter. His heart surges, battering his breastbone. Then he splashes into the river and waits for death.

Then, remembering that he is very tall, he stands up, and wades through the water to the shore.

 

Janice flutters the few feet back to earth just as shapes emerge at the crest of the riverbank. Nightfall is nearly complete, but she can still make out a crocodile, mouth agape, dragging something large and heavy that bumps and thuds over the rocks. Behind the crocodile is Anton, long legs trudging through the shallows.

The crocodile picks up speed once he’s cleared the rocks, and the something large and heavy becomes a soggy pile of Fiona when the crocodile finally drops it at Janice’s feet.

Unburdened, the young crocodile rears his head and snaps his stiff jaws, trying to loosen them up.

Which is why, when Fiona begins to sing, Janice at first mistakes her voice for his.

Photo courtesy of Sue Slick; view more of their work on Flickr.

Heather Aronson’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, CRAFT, Farmer’s Market, Mid-American Review, and Witness. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and was a Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. She is a co-curator of the Page reading series …

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