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Fiction Winners

What Was Janie Looking At?

Second Place

Tom Chalkley

Fiction & Poetry Contest 2009

And the winners are... City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest

An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places First Place | By David Iaconangelo

What Was Janie Looking At? Second Place | By Rachel Monroe

Female Problems Third Place | By Shannon Dunn

The Cockerel (On the shores of the Chesapeake Bay--1960) First Place | By E.C. Vojik

Exhibitionist Second Place | By Lauren M. Campbell

Multitasking (For Mike Brenner) Third Place | By Dyane Fancey

By Rachel Monroe | Posted 12/2/2009

WHAT WAS JANIE LOOKING AT?

Her feet in the water like big pale dumb fish; the sun burying itself between two mountains, two mountains like breasts. These kinds of images popped into her head all the time now. She tried them out nervously, holding them like secret treasures in her brain. She thought new things while sitting on the dock, dangling her feet in the water, watching her brother Marshall fish from a canoe in the middle of the lake. She could wave to him and he could wave back and she could be thinking cock cock cock the whole time, and smiling. Her feet got adjusted to the water and she swished them around, thinking about thinking about cocks. She had pointed out something as phallic imagery (using those words: "phallic imagery") to her family for the first time on the 12-hour trip up here. No one seemed to notice anything. This is maybe because they were all too busy watching Marshall while pretending not to watch him.

They would be here for two whole months and already, after one week, Janie thought she might not make it. There was no one to talk to, now that Marshall just went fishing all the time or otherwise read books about Nazis. He seemed to be going slowly rotten, and nobody was doing anything about it. So far, it was the worst vacation Janie could remember. She couldn't remember a bad vacation at all before this one; she hadn't really thought they could be bad.

 

LIKE MARSHALL AT DINNER THAT NIGHT, FOR EXAMPLE:

"So Dad, remember that thing we were talking about?" Marshall said. He pulled a folded paper from his pocket, a page from a catalog.

Janie's father took his glasses from his pocket and made his reading face. "Oh, the knives," he said. "How could I forget?" Janie thought: phallic symbol. They were everywhere, once you knew what to look for.

"So I looked into it a little bit, like you said," Marshall said. "And this one, I think, is really the best option for my circumstances." He reached over her to point at the corner of the page.

Her dad's voice changed a little as he read; he sounded like a television announcer. "The Code 3 Mantis Crosslock Tactical Knife: engineered for trained professionals in military, search and rescue, first responders, as well as other demanding situations when 'failure is not an option.'" He paused and frowned. "That's in quotation marks, 'failure is not an option,' not sure why."

"The one-handed opening feature is standard, but this model has one-handed closing, too, which is essential in survivor situations," Marshall said. "Because what if your other hand is bound or maybe injured?"

"I do not think this is appropriate," her mom said. "Especially as dinner-table talk."

"It's also rated 'excellent' in edge retention," Marshall said. "And is relatively economical, without sacrificing quality."

"Mmmm," her father said noncommittally.

"You're the one who took us out here to the woods, and I'm just trying to be prepared to respond responsibly and with maximum safety precautions to any situation. There are unforeseen events all the time," Marshall said, standing up suddenly. There were tears in his voice and a strawberry-milkshake colored patch on his neck, and Janie was embarrassed for him.

"Any situation," Janie's dad repeated. "Like what sort of situations?"

"God," Marshall said quietly. He sat down again and put his face in his hands.

 

JANIE KNEW WHAT KIND OF SITUATIONS:

Enemy situations. When he was in a friendly mood they'd talk about it. In a true survival situation, an enemy can be anywhere. Anywhere, anything. He'd gesture out the window. Like that bush--it can look like a bush, but actually it's an enemy, disguised.

 

WHAT COULD JANIE HEAR AT NIGHT?

Marshall in his room, reading. Sometimes, he would read his books out loud in a voice that she didn't like, a growly rasping werewolf voice. The walls were thin--she couldn't hear whole sentences, only phrases: famished bodies, walking skeletons, twisted experiments. Dwarfs and twins the preferred victims. Led into the dissecting room. Nightmare words in his new nightmare voice. She tried to breathe as shallowly and silently as possible, and not rustle too much in her sheets, because if he heard her, he would know that she could hear him reciting things in this strange man-monster voice. Sometimes, afterward, she heard him crying, his snotty and embarrassed sounds. It took forever to get to sleep.

 

AND WHY WAS THIS STRANGE?

Before this summer, she and Marshall had done things together: made up the rules to old board games they found in the family room, or filled out Mad Libs, or explored. Once, they'd found a dead fox with half its face gnawed off, jittery insects scrambling out its nose. Now, he went fishing without her, or did pushups in his room. He could paddle the canoe across the lake by himself, the muscles in his arms ropy and long, like something that might belong to a man.

 

BUT WAS MARSHALL RIGHT?

Janie began reading the paper to gather evidence. Evidence: Nazis, the man in Austria who carved up kids, the beheader on the bus, the cat killer exposed in the local paper (he was 15, Marshall's age, and had skinned cats, but only in rich neighborhoods, which he had gotten to on his skateboard). And the molesters--they were everywhere, and those were just the ones they caught. Or her father with his thumb on a fish's face, frowning as he slid a thin knife into its belly, the long straight cut he made.

Her mother glanced at the murder news over Janie's shoulder. "Don't worry, nothing like that happens around here," her mother said. "I've never been anywhere more peaceful." Somehow she made it sound like a complaint.

"That's why we come here," her father piped in. "To get away from all the molesters back home. It gets so crowded."

"Well, anyway, sweetheart--stop reading those articles, you'll scare yourself," her mother said. But wasn't that the point? A rush of too much feeling and a new idea about the world.

 

BUT WHERE WAS MARSHALL GOING?

Janie didn't know. Fishing? One day, her father uncovered a bucket of rotting, silver-skinned fish under a tarp in the garage. Why hadn't he thrown them back, or brought them inside so her dad could clean them? Marshall dug his toe into the dirt, said he had forgotten. Janie watched the slow way he moved his mouth and knew he was lying. She didn't say anything; she just resolved to watch him more carefully. She began to notice things: the knees of his jeans were always dirty. There were often twigs in his hair.

 

AND WHAT DID JANIE DO INSTEAD?

She went to town craft center with her mom; they took workshops on tie-dying T-shirts and making pinhole cameras. One afternoon, they went into a field and were supposed to write poetry. After an hour, they all sat in a circle and read what they had written. She wondered if her mother's poem would be about her father, something romantic and embarrassing, but instead it was about wildflowers--just like Janie's. The meadow was dotted with them, fuzzy purple poetic-looking things, and it was hard to think of anything else to write poetry about.

Or she went on nature walks with her dad, and he explained everything to her: the lichen, the tiny toads, why pine needles had to look like that. The book he was supposed to be writing was about a scientist; her father loved scientists. "If you have the right kind of mind," he said fondly, "then there are no mysteries in the world."

 

WERE MOM AND DAD NAZIS?

No no no.

 

CAN I TRUST YOU?

"Well, can I?" Marshall said. It was before dinner and they were standing in the yard, at the edge of the woods. She said of course. "Say it again," Marshall said. "For real this time."

"Of course," she said.

He stepped closer to her. "Those fish dad found in the garage. It wasn't that I forgot them. I was saving them to use as bait."

"OK," Janie said. Something in his voice, in his new stretched-out body, in his secrets, made her not want to ask any questions.

"Do you want to see the thing I caught?" he asked. "It's not far. It's dead, don't worry."

"OK," she said.

"It's dead, don't worry," he said, sounding proud.

"OK," she said again, and followed him into the woods.

 

AND IN THE WOODS:

The thing Marshall had killed was under a blanket. It was a blanket from home, was the first thing she noticed. And then how the thing under it was big--long like a man but with wider shoulders and haunches like a horse. It was lying face-down, sprawled forward, its legs in a V behind it, and when he lifted up one corner to let her peek she saw that its legs were feathered, and that its feet were hooves.

"Of course this means I can't go back home," Marshall was saying. He was crouched next to the blanket, speaking matter-of-factly. "I've been stocking a cave. I know which mushrooms I can eat. What I need are some supplies." He looked up at her.

It was a short list: can opener, flint, rope, Oreos. He made her recite it back to him four times before he told her she could go.

"I want to see its face," she said. Marshall nodded, tender all of a sudden, and he was gentle with the blanket when he lifted it for her.

Janie bent down close to the thing's head. It was like a face in a dream, like nothing she had seen before and so the picture of it wouldn't stay in her brain. A triangle face like a fox; a bearded bird-fox with wide shoulders. Though how could that be? Marshall tugged the blanket back over it and already its contours blurred in her mind. How big was it actually? Surely not as big as she thought. But a monster none the less. Right?

She had to saw at its skin for longer than she'd expected to get the ear to come off. When it did, there was no blood. It fit neatly in her palm, and was covered with short, gold-tinged tufts of hair. She held it pinched between her fingers, touching the barest tip of it possible. Then in a rush of bravery, she tucked it into the swimsuit she was wearing underneath her clothes, felt it bristling against her bare skin. As she ran home, she chanted Marshall's list in her head until the words stopped meaning anything: can opener flint rope Oreos can opener.

 

WHAT SHE DID WITH THE EAR:

Kept it until she was an old woman. Took it out sometimes and held it against her cheek.

Related stories

Fiction Winners archives

More Stories

And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest

An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
First Place

Female Problems (12/2/2009)
Third Place

More from Rachel Monroe

The Art of Murder (5/5/2010)
Death-scene diorama documentary also explores what forensic science can and can't reveal

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