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Life Cycle

by Joshua Jones

Zara has backward parents, their nightclothes always mixed up. Turned inside out and upside down. Her mother in her father’s boxers, her father in her mother’s nightie. Zara tells us this—shouts this, or as near as a shout as she can make—and we laugh imagining her father in women’s underwear. A fourth grader says it’s because they’re doing S-E-X and furiously stabs his curled fist with a forefinger as if that explains everything. Zara says that’s not it, that we know nothing. Zara shouts this with great authority and refuses to get off the swing. She pumps her legs and goes higher and higher and still swings after the bell rings, still swings when the buses arrive, still swings the next morning when we file into the cafeteria for our free breakfasts and morning games. Zara plays the best games: Burn the House, Murder the Mommy, Bury the Corpse. We dig in the mulch, and she shouts Deeper, breathing against our necks with breath that smells like ash. We all fight over who gets to go down the slide first. When she buries us, we try to count to one hundred before folding our bodies and gasping for breath and joining Zara in her aspirated laughter. She sprinkles sand in our hair and says You’re a ghost now. Then the bell rings and we float into our classroom to listen to the teacher talk about the life cycles of moths. She always glosses over the dying part, something Zara would never do. The classroom’s saturniids still haven’t emerged, though our teacher says any day now. Zara says they’ll never fly, and we believe her, until three days later we see a cluster of newly born luna moths drying their wings. We want to tell Zara that for once she doesn’t know everything, but we cannot find her, not at the playground, not at the science fair. Parents drift among the trifold cardboard displays. They point to our squiggly drawings of caterpillar eggs and garish wings, to the yellow participation ribbons beside the steady hand-lettering they insisted on doing. Their eyes are dead. They look right through us. We search for Zara’s parents there, imagining her mother with Zara’s frizzy hair and translucent eyes, her father with her jittery limbs and knobbled elbows. Where’s Zara, we ask the next week, the week after. The luna moths have flown away. Did she see them go? At first, we tell each other that she’s sick, that she’s hiding, but the fourth grader says she left because her parents are D-E-D and makes a choking noise and sticks out his tongue. But we know that it’s Zara who is really the ghost, a ghost who has tired of playing with us, and years later, after the school has been torn down and rebuilt as an assisted living facility, we will listen for her wheezy voice and the fluttering of moth wings.

Author's Note

This is an example of how an opening line, a voice, can be tugged on, like a loose thread from a frayed cuff which I can never not pull at, even though I know I should snip it off with a pair of scissors. Instead I pull and I pull, the cuff fraying ever so slightly, until what was a centimeter of thread stretches to the length of one finger, two fingers, my entire arm, and then I look in dismay at what’s left of my sleeve and think, what have I done, before I finally find the scissors, trim the string, ball it up, and shove it in my pocket.

Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CRAFT, The Cincinnati Review, Pidgeonholes, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.

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