Hazardous to Sea Life

by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple

Molly said when she stroked books, they purred for her. It sounded sort of dirty to me, and I got a little flushed, to be honest, hearing her talk like that, watching her demonstrate in the library during study hall, holding a book open wide in her lap and running her fingers over the binding, pretending to search for the exact spot that would make the book warm to her, reveal its secret self. Its low voice, like a lover's.

           She was explaining about the purring thing to April. It must have been some sort of inside joke because, though it wasn’t all that funny, April laughed. Then Molly laughed. And with her head thrown back like that, Molly’s mouth was open so wide that you could see all the way back to her fillings.

           It was dark back there, in Molly's mouth, but her fillings were gleaming and wet. I wished I could get a closer look at them. It made me feel a little less lonely to see all that silver marring her teeth. Less guilty, somehow, about sitting alone at the study hall table, eavesdropping, when everyone else around me was paired off, whispering their own private jokes. I turned the pages of the dictionary I was pretending to read. I ran my finger over the columns of “s” words and stopped at "saliva."

           Molly and April laughed again, louder this time, but I didn’t look up because I didn’t want them to know I was listening, because I knew then they would start to whisper, and I would no longer be able to hear what they said. I wanted to be in on their private joke, and some part of me wanted to tell them something private about myself, too. Maybe about the box at home where I kept the rings. The plastic ones that tether six-packs together, the ones that all the nature shows say are hazardous to sea life. At first, I started saving them to cut them up into pieces, but after a while, I started keeping them intact, and now I had this whole collection hidden away in a box.

           Sometimes, when I took them all out and fanned them on the floor, I liked to pretend that I was an animal stuck inside of one. I would writhe around on the carpet until I could practically feel the unforgiving twist of the plastic around my throat, the pressure of it on my neck. Imagining being stuck inside one of those loops made my eyes bulge, and sometimes I’d open my mouth and start to gulp as if I were struggling for air. I’d hold my breath. I wouldn’t let myself blink or swallow. I’d keep going until I felt all dried out.

           Once my mom's boyfriend JR found the box of rings in the closet where I hid them. At first, I thought he was going to be mad because they were really his rings, from all the beers he brought over each time he stayed the night, from those cans he tried to get me to secretly drink with him when my mom was out at work, the ones he said could be our secret, just between “us men.” But that night, he didn’t try to get me to drink. He just stood there in my room with my box in his hands, raking his fingers through the plastic circles, swaying a little, ruddy cheeked, and laughing at me. JR wasn't an angry drunk, in general, and he said one time that I could call him "dad," which wasn't the worst thing except that I had a dad already, and he had run off to the coast and taken my cat with him, a 12-year-old tortoiseshell who used to sleep, not with me, but on top of me, pleasantly suffocating all the bad thoughts right out of my head. I couldn't ever call JR “dad” because it wouldn't feel right with my real dad out there, but I didn’t know how to say it, so JR brought it up again that night, just why I wouldn’t do it. He was slurring when he asked, and the words coming out of his mouth soaked me with a fine spray. He just kept on asking and asking, and spraying and spraying, until I couldn’t help it anymore, and I started to weep a little, not because I had a dad already but because I didn't have a cat anymore, and some nights, it just about killed me to think that she might be somewhere out there, maybe having to fend for herself like all those wild animals on TV, the ones who got themselves stuck on filthy beaches with those rings caught around their necks. Or maybe not. Maybe even sitting, clean and dry, on someone else’s chest at night, purring softly as they dreamed their dreams of choking, or drowning, or any of the other things that could happen to you while you are just trying to do your best, just trying to keep your head above water.

           I shut the dictionary when the study hall bell rang. The girls got up, and Molly put the book she had been stroking back on the shelf. But the thing is, it didn’t even look like she was paying attention to where she put it, or that she cared about that book at all. It looked like she just shoved it any old place, and now, even if somebody wanted it, it would be lost there in the dusty stacks, stuck somewhere it never even belonged.

Author's Note

For a number of months last year, I went through a period of waking up abruptly from a sound sleep to draft longhand stories in the wee hours of the night. Often, in the mornings, these drafts would prove to be messy, entirely illegible or un-salvageable, but occasionally, one would arrive feeling surprisingly intact, with just enough dream logic in it to mark the manner in which it was first drafted but just enough clarity to merit honing during a more lucid time of day. This story is the product of one of those night brain/day brain collaborations.

Alyson Mosquera Dutemple’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications including Passages North, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Okay Donkey, and The Puritan, as well as in The Middle of a Sentence, The Common Breath’s short prose anthology.  She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Alyson works as an Editorial Consultant for CRAFT Literary. Find her at www.alysondutemple.com and on Twitter @swellspoken.