Bourbon Penn 1

Make Believe

by Joshua Daniel Cochran

It started with somebody else’s dreams. About a month ago. A particularly brutal day at work, being tax season and all, everybody with their damn last-minute returns. I got home late and fed Spooner, my ancient cat. Well, he’s my last girlfriend’s cat. She gave him to me after leaving for San Diego with that guitar player four years ago. So I fed Spooner, gave him his medication, and as we were in the backyard looking at a nearly starless sky paled from the lights of Phoenix spread below, I heard a hissing sound. A child’s voice.

“Mister Collins,” it said in a whisper.

Looking around, there was nothing. Just the yard, a few struggling bushes and leaning cacti, the three-foot dividing wall between my house and the one next to it, Spooner licking his ass. By that time, I’d had a few beers and had been talking to myself, out loud and at great length, about this or that account, all the things I couldn’t think of saying at the time but now could — I was always at my best in hindsight. I shook my head and opened another beer.

“Pssst! Mister Collins,” the little voice said with more urgency.

“What — who’s there?” I said at the sky.

“Over here,” the voice said meekly. “Next door.”

Looking up, I saw her elvish face grayed through the screen, the window slid open an inch. The dark-haired neighbor girl, maybe eight years old. Last name Hernandez, I met the father once, a square man with the handshake of a corpse. Their house was eight feet from mine, our dilapidated subdivision never based in any notion of privacy. The walls were thin, the backyard nothing but a patio really — a pathetic square of struggling grass — and I could often hear the Hernandez family argue or laugh while I watched TV, with each of us in our own homes.

“What — ” I finally managed to say, but she would only stare at me with the strangest expression. It was strange because the situation was strange. Eleven at night, I’m drunk, and the little neighbor girl is talking at me out her window, hair tousled from sleep and eyes squinting from shadow.

“I heard you talking,” she said. “Who were you talking to?”

It took me several moments to finally motion toward Spooner still licking his ass, but she would only stare at me. She yawned and rubbed at her eyes.

“I like your kitty. He’s so old. Do you talk to him a lot?”

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I am in bed.”

“I mean asleep.”

“I’m not tired, and you were talking so loud. Who’s Carpenter?”

“Nobody. Nothing,” I said, more than a little embarrassed. The Carpenter account was my biggest pain. The man was an idiot, and it was my job to fix his idiocy. Remembering this, I must’ve muttered something under my breath.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing, nothing.”

“Well, this Carpenter guy seems to have you pretty mad. Did you know Jesus was a carpenter’s son?”

“Actually, I have heard that,” I said distractedly.

“Have you ever seen Jesus?”

Surprised in mid-drink, I spat up a little beer and coughed. It dribbled down my shirt. “Goddammit — ”

“What?” she said.

“Nothing. Um, no. Sorry kid, never seen him.” I got up unsteadily and collected a few of the empty cans. The conversation was over in my mind. I started walking away.

“Well, I have,” she said gloatingly. “In my dreams.”

I paused for just a moment. “Good for you,” I said. “Tell him ‘hello’ for me.”

“Okay, Mister Collins, I will. I promise. I see him almost every night. He told me to talk to you, and I always wait, but you always seem to be talking a lot. Sometimes you don’t say nice things.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Sorry, kid.”

“My name’s Alexandria.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, swaying in pause. “Time to get sacked now.”

“Okay,” she sang, missing my little joke.

And I turned away to go inside, where I could drink and talk in peace and quiet.

• • •

They say dreams can be a portal to the ‘Other’ of life, a secret place where visions into the ethereal world take place, where your soul is pure, etc. But I always thought this was bullshit. Dreams are nothing more than the flashing remnants of conscious thought, snapping static, and I base this on my own empirical evidence, the fact that I’ve occasionally had the same dream about cheese since I was a child. Well, the dreams are never about cheese, really. It’s just a block of cheese — cheddar, it’s always a huge ten pound rectangular block of cheddar, a deli brick — and it always manages to find its way into my dreams a few times a year. An erotic dream involving the too-young secretary? (I’m always thinner and have all my hair.) In the midst of groping, our flesh mingling, I’ll reach under her and feel the familiar cold clamminess, feel the smoothish sides and the rounded edge. The damn cheese. The waxy smell. Nightmares too; it’ll be there sitting on the bed when the murderous thief climbs through the window and wakes me up, or as I run screaming from a clown with tears burning my cheeks — I’ll look down, and there it is as I run by, staring at me, defying me, orange and terrible. I don’t even particularly like cheddar.

So, is this some kind of cosmic connection to the spirit world? Give me a break. If I were a mystic, though, the cheese would represent something, my hidden desires, my spirit talisman. No… this is one of those instances where psychological theory and other pseudo-science break down. But that doesn’t mean I won’t let others have their fun.

“So, I saw Jesus again,” she said at me a few nights later, rubbing her eyes. “Just now.”

“Oh, yeah? That sounds great, kiddo.”

“I know you don’t believe me, Mister Collins, but it’s true.” She put her face against the sliver of opening, her voice almost beside me now. “And you want to know the funny thing?”

She paused, waiting for me to respond or something so I shifted in my patio chair.

“The funny thing is that, at first, I didn’t even know who he was. He doesn’t look like the pictures in our living room, you know? With long blond hair and blue eyes and that sad look? He doesn’t look like that at all. He’s really short and dark, almost black, and his eyes are beady and close together. He smiles a lot and laughs really loud, really high too, like a girl. He’s not like you think he is.”

“So, how do you know he’s Jesus?”

“Well, he told me. Plus, that’s what another guy called him.” She stared at me with her eyebrows raised expectantly, barely able to hold herself in. And I felt tired all of a sudden.

“There’s other people there, huh?” I said, preparing to leave, but her words came in a rush.

“Yeah, but I don’t know who any of the other people are, people I’ve never heard of or seen before. Lots of them. Lots and lots. Men, ladies, some different kinds of people I’ve never even seen. This one sick-looking guy is always coughing and arguing with everybody, especially Jesus. He’s all sweaty and kind of short with this droopy mustache. They call him… they call him Neech?”


“Well, if you want, I can ask Jesus who they — ”

And she stopped suddenly and disappeared from the window. I could hear a booming voice, muffled from within, her father’s gruff orders in Spanish for silencio. There was an edge to his voice — beyond demanding — something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Almost fear.

• • •

The next time I saw her, over a week later, was an accident. Ambrose came over after work under the pretense of having a drink, but it turned into a one-sided diatribe about how I was about to lose my job. Since he works in administration now, he keeps me abreast of all the changes coming down upon us lowlier accountants. Ambrose and I started at the same time in the same position, but he’s just so much more, I don’t know, personable. Maybe it’s because I just can’t pretend that, for all my dreams of youth, I’m happy being an accountant. My one time living on the earth, and that’s it… I’m an accountant.

Anyway, I’d gone outside to escape our conversation — he’d been rather insistently telling me that I couldn’t continue my habit of showing up late, belittling Melissa (the recent college graduate who was my supervisor) and creating ‘an atmosphere of hostility’ at work by all the horribly stupid things I say and do — and when I went outside, she was already waiting for me, and the sight of her shape in the window, formed of shadow, was almost a welcome one.

“Where have you been, Mister Collins?”

And I looked at the ground. Perhaps she knew I’d been avoiding her. Just like all the other people in my life, all the friendships I’d ever have that I’d smothered while they slept, unknowing. Now I was trapped: Ambrose inside and pacing the floor, trying to talk sense into an insensible person, and this little girl, starved for attention from an anonymous neighbor.

“I’ve been busy. You know,” I finally offered.

“Yeah, well, I have a lot to tell you.” She shifted and moved closer where the window was cracked open. “There’s a lot of things you need to know.”

“Believe me,” I moaned. “Nobody knows the trouble I seen.” And I didn’t finish the line. The little girl only stared at me with a frustrated, saddened face and then looked up at the sky jutting over our neighbor’s roof.

The moon was out, and low clouds passed slowly above, turning the sky to mottled white and darkness. In one moment of moonglow among the sleepy drift of clouds, I looked at the little girl closely, for the first time, really. She rested her chin on her knees drawn up to her chest. I may have stepped up to the wall, I can’t remember really, all I know is that we could’ve reached out and touched each other, we were so close, just glass and night between us. And though she tried to hide it, one eye was unmistakably blackened and nearly swollen shut. She tilted her head away from me, giving me her pixie profile.

“Can you tell me about that,” I said quietly, my voice strange, but she only turned her head away a bit so it fell into the shadow of her room.

“I really need to talk to you, Mister Collins. Something really weird is happening.”

And I stood there biting my lip, not knowing what to do or think about this little girl, how I might help, imagining confrontations with her bellowing father. I’m no fighter, but the sight of her face so swollen and her body hunkered there, like some kind of frail bird in pajamas, filled me with an unfamiliar rage.

“Listen,” I managed. “You can tell me anything, anything. But I need to know — ”

“Jesus and Neech, that sweaty guy, got into this huge argument — ”

“What happened to you?” I watched her face go through a series of changes as if figuring out what to say.

“I, um, made a mistake,” she said carefully. “I talked to the wrong person, is all — but Jesus said that you and I need to talk.”

“Jesus with the beady brown eyes…”


Ambrose opened my back door and questioned my name. Looking, his silhouette was framed by the light; an angular thing. When I turned back, the little girl had disappeared, and only a curtain of awkward floral pattern stared back at me, grayed with shadow. So I went back inside. Ambrose wouldn’t leave until he rattled off his opinions about how I needed to assert myself more, especially at meetings, about how my comments to Lauren (the principal of the company) at the last Christmas party had left a lasting impression. She wanted to fire me outright for no other reason than she didn’t like me. That I never smiled. That I said things best left unsaid.

When he finally left, it was almost one. The little girl’s window was dark and empty of face. Below it, lying on the ground, a piece of paper fluttered — a drawing of an awkward flower colored in crayons and cut out raggedly. Something for my desk at work.

• • •

She didn’t show for many nights. When I came home, the window would stay dark no matter how much I talked to myself, and I worried about the girl and stared at the window and cursed myself for being such a fool. I thought about calling the police, but didn’t. It might make it worse for her. And sometimes, in the morning while getting ready for work, I would hear the father yelling, the sound puncturing the thin walls easily, the angry voice now familiar as the sound of rain. It was almost a week later when I saw her again, and her eye looked normal but for a darkened ring beneath it. She chatted on, rattled on as if nothing had happened, no time had passed.

“Jesus is getting impatient with you, the other people too,” the little girl said after breathlessly describing an encounter between Neech and a pointy-bearded man. “They know what you think about all the things I tell you. They told me. Jesus told me.”

“And what did he tell you, Alexa?” I asked, watching her eyes flash wetly in the darkness. She wouldn’t let me call her Alexandria or ‘little girl’ or anything other than Alexa. She fidgeted with excitement and folded her hands on her lap.

“He said that you don’t believe in anything. He said you used to be a very nice man, thoughtful and caring and kind to all things, but now…” she stared at me a bit before turning her attention to her hands; they twisted and twiddled a bedsheet or pillowcase. “But now you’re lost and you need help.”


“He said that all you do is spin and spin and you’ll be dead soon and — ”

“I’ll be dead soon?” I sat up in my chair at this.

“Everyone will be, you know? Because we’re only alive for a little bit and then poof! It’s over.” She held herself tighter. “He said I should help you.”

“Why…” and I thought about how to put it nicely. “And why do you have to help me? Why can’t he just help me?”

“Come on,” she said as if I was stupid. “You know why.” She waited there, staring at me from behind her window, letting the bait sit there until she could see I would not bite. “Jesus can’t help anybody, really. He’s been dead a long, long time.”

“Aha,” I said and opened another beer. Maybe he can manifest in a tortilla or grilled cheese sandwich for me. That’s what I felt like saying.

“Oh! One time Jesus took me to this place that was all made out of little itty bitty lights. Lights everywhere, even the floor was made of these little lights. Itty bitty. Like this.”

I could make out her hands behind the glass making some pinching gesture.

“And he took me to where my little brother is — he died you know, in his sleep — and my grandma and grandpas and a whole bunch of other people. Oh! But the best place is still the wall-less room I told you about. I know it doesn’t sound that good, but for some reason…” She trailed off and remained silent long enough for me to finish off my beer and crack open a new one.

“That’s the place you always end up?” I finally asked.

“What? Oh, no. No, no, no. That’s the place I always start. And even though it smells weird, it’s still my favorite place. That’s where the flower is — you got the present I drew for you, right? Anyway, that’s where Jesus always finds me, always acts surprised to find me there and says, “You shouldn’t be here, Alexa,” every time, even though he sees me almost every night. At first I thought he didn’t remember me from the night before, you know, like I was just dreaming, but that was before I knew it wasn’t a dream. Oh! Once, he took me — ”

“And how do you know it’s not just a dream?”

“How do I know? Well, for one thing, Jesus told me about you. He told me your name and that I had to talk to you about something. He said I needed to help you and that I should trust you because even though you don’t seem that nice or very clean or healthy or — ”

“Okay, okay.”

“ — smart or pretty or — ”

“Okay, jeez,” I said over her trickling laughter.

“You’re right, he didn’t say that stuff about you not being pretty, but all the rest he said, I swear. Don’t get mad at me, get mad at him.”

Suddenly her body became distinct in a holocaust of light and the father’s voice boomed into the room. I watched the familiar cartoon flower pattern of her curtain, but she wouldn’t come back to the window even after it went dark, even though I whispered her name a few times.

• • •

The next night and the next she wouldn’t come and I stayed outside of her window drinking beer, clearing my throat a lot to let her know I was there, but nothing. The window stayed dark and I worried about her.

But it gave me time to think about all the things she had rambled on about, all her make-believe stuff. The wall-less room. There’s no roof either, she had said, but it can be felt up there, bending down, and the walls aren’t there either but swell up to meet the roof. And the ground is like walking inside a giant balloon, always going uphill, nothing flat. Or maybe always going downhill? It took her a while to walk there without getting tired. And then the smell; she said it smelled like wet bread, almost enough to make you sick. All the people there. The flower.

She described the central, flower-like plant that everyone seemed to gather around, and also seemed to be the source of the smell. Though she never came close enough to touch it, she put it on the level of ‘gigantic’ and said it seemed to be alive. The center of the flower was absolute darkness, a descending and gaping maw that, whenever she looked into it, would make her feel sick inside. Sometimes it made a kind of hissing sound, but usually it was silent. Nobody really seemed to pay it much attention, even though they all stood around it, within view and range of the constant odor.

After the fourth night and still she wouldn’t come to the window, I couldn’t stand it and decided to go over there the next day, a Saturday, and see if I could find anything out. All I needed was a pretext of some kind, a reason to knock on the neighbor’s door, even though we’d never done more than exchange waves or a nod of the head. In the morning, after calling Alexa’s name a few times to make sure she wasn’t there, I threw a golf-ball at her window hoping to crack it, but it shattered completely. So, I counted to ten and then marched around to the front door. As I knocked, I could hear the father’s rumbling voice quiet a bit, and he opened the door with a scowl. Though a little shorter than me, he was obviously in much better shape. Secret thoughts of kicking his ass wisped away.

“Sorry, er, lo siento,” I said, drudging Spanish from the gray fuzz of memory. “Mi polenta, er, ball? You know? Pol, pol — pelota! Mi pelota es. . . um, mi pelota — ” I held my fingers apart to indicate the size of a golf-ball. “Mi pelota es, um, es en su ventana?”

He made no change in expression, just looked at me with those dark eyes and slowly lifted a hand up between us. He twirled the golf-ball between his fingers.

“Aha,” I said. “Lo siento, pero — ”

“This is your golf ball?” he said, and I instantly reddened.

As an answer, I gritted my teeth for a few moments and then raised the toolbox in my hand.

“What are you doing, playing golf in the backyard?” He looked at me suspiciously for a minute, and I began to sweat. He could see through my ruse, it was obvious. I hate golf; the balls were a lame Christmas gift from Ambrose. And so I throw a golf ball through this man’s window and show up ten minutes later with my toolbox? “You should be more careful,” he said with a shake of his head. “If my daughter was home, she’d be covered in glass.”

I felt my shoulders deflate a bit at this, but eventually he let me in.

The house was warm, a little dingy, but held together with some kind of care. Across the living room, a woman stood in the kitchen who only briefly looked past her dark hair as she busied herself over something. The father guided me down the hall with its worn-down carpeting, the shag now a mat of indiscriminate color. I passed a larger room (what would be my room in my house) and noticed that the bed wasn’t made, then passed the bathroom and reached the girl’s room. I paused when I stepped inside, as if entering some sacred space. The air smelled like a kind of stale, fruity candy, and the curtains looked unfamiliar so awash with color. There below the shattered window her bed rested against the wall. The father stood framed in the doorway.

“You going to fix this mess?” he asked and sighed.

“Yeah,” I said and looked at his steady gaze, the eyes that showed nothing but hardness. “Of course. I’m… I’m really sorry.” Going to the bed, I started picking up the shards that had scattered across her blanket. “You know, I didn’t think that it would bounce so — ”

But there was only a doorframe. He had gone.

• • •

Several nights passed with me staring at the new, shiny glass where she might suddenly appear. During the days, I tried to recall some of the other stuff she had said.

The flower. The stinky, flesh-flower — whatever it was — she said it will bloom again soon. She said the reason she gets sick looking at it is because, on the inside, there is another flower-looking thing, but it’s a little different and there’s another wall-less room around that flower. Strange-looking people can even be seen milling about it and then — this is where she draws her knees up to her chin and whispers — inside of that flower there is another, another wall-less room and more people and another flower and inside that one... another flower until the eyes don’t work anymore and it’s this infinite tunnel of blossoms. Whenever at work, I find myself staring at her crayon drawing for minutes at a time, the dark spiral shape at the center.

And then all the people there. Jesus, Neech, all the others. Something made me print out some pictures — people at work, some famous people, some random people, in the hopes she might recognize a couple of them. They were in a folder at my side each night as I waited.

The next time I saw her, my heart almost leapt out of my chest. The sun had just gone down, and her window lit up briefly then went dark. Another two hours later, she appeared at the window for the first time in over a week.

“Where have you been?” I whispered harshly, almost demanding, and instantly felt stupid.

“At abuelita’s… it was spring break, you know.”

“Aha,” I breathed out and picked up the folder with all the pictures. “Can you see this?” I turned on the flashlight and watched her sit up to see better. The first picture was Nietzsche.

“That’s him! That’s Neech!” She wriggled in excitement. “Show me the next one.”

I stiffened a bit in my chair and could feel the hair go electric along my limbs. I lifted up a picture of David Hasselhoff and she furrowed her brow a moment.

“He doesn’t seem too familiar, Mister Collins. I mean, he might be there, but…”

“Okay, okay,” I said and lifted another. Mother Theresa.

Yes, I’ve seen that lady. Gandhi. He’s a nice man. Hitler. There’s lots of bad people there. A painting of Joseph Smith. Oh, I don’t know. Dr. Martin Luther King. Oh yes, he’s there and has a nice voice. John Merrick, the elephant man. Um, I think I’ve seen him there somewhere, but we’ve never talked. Sigmund Freud. Oh, that’s just Sigmun. I like his beard. He’s very interested in you. A picture of Laura, my ex-girlfriend.

“Um, no, never seen her.”

I put down the pictures and felt my jaw tightening, a tremor beginning in my hands. A shadow of thought settled over me, a pall of uncertainty or knowing — the sick and sinking feeling that comes when you learn something you don’t want to know.

“Is this a test?” she finally asked. “Am I doing good? Do you believe me now?”

“I — I don’t know,” I said. “Do you see leprechauns or fairies or anything?” I could hear the fear and petulance in my voice.

“No,” she said as if it were a stupid question. “No leprechauns.”

“Is there a guy there named Mohammed? Or Lao Tsu? A woman named Gaia?”

“That one name sounds familiar, the La Sue… I can ask maybe.” She suddenly became animated and bounced on the bed a few times. “You do! You believe me now! And now, I can finally help you, just like Jesus — ”

¿Hablas con quién?” her father’s voice boomed with the sudden light. Alexa turned toward his shadow growing toward the window.

And I should’ve turned the flashlight off, I should’ve dived to the ground perhaps, but he saw me and filled the window, staring at me like a poised cat. It took him quite a while to finally speak, and his voice was leaden, cold, and trembling with poorly concealed rage.

“What are you doing out here? With my daughter?”

“Listen, I really — ”

“What’s that in your lap, huh?” He was almost yelling now in his familiar voice. “What are you showing her?”

“I was just… well, I — ” and the picture I just so happened to lift up was of Merrick, the one where he’s naked.

“You sick son of a bitch — ” and he disappeared from the window. His voice could be heard yelling through the house, then the distant sound of a door slamming. He was at my gate in a matter of seconds. “Open up. Right now,” he said darkly.

But I could only sit there with my mouth hanging open, the words wouldn’t come.

“Open this gate!” His arm came over the gate and fumbled with the lock frantically. “Open it! Open this fucking gate!” He shook it and thrashed at it with both arms, and the thing tore off the wall completely, the bolts pulled through the thin pine and stucco façade. And he held it for a few moments, surprised perhaps, and then threw it to the side and took three heavy steps up to me, still sitting there with my mouth open, the folder of pictures still on my lap.

“Listen,” I managed to say before his fist slammed into my face. Then again, and again. I tried to cover myself and could hear myself saying things — listen, just listen — but it didn’t stop. The blows came one after another, in near slow motion, until I was on the ground staring at the blurred patio brick an inch from my face, a rust taste at my lips, eyes burning in tears from a broken nose. He kicked me in the back once, a final thought, then collapsed into my metal lawn chair. Eventually, beyond the sound of my own ragged breath, I could hear him huffing through tears and moaning an almost animal sound.

When I managed to raise myself off the ground, I looked at him sitting there with his head in his hands. I could barely see through the tears. The blood wouldn’t stop dripping from my nose, and I had to hold my shirtsleeve against it. But still he just sat there crying. His shoulders heaved.

“Listen, I — ”

“Why don’t you people leave my little girl alone?” he said, looking at me with anguish in his face. “She won’t stop talking, always talking about her stupid, crazy dreams, and you — ” He broke down again into sobs and tried to restrain them.

“I didn’t… I promise you, I only talked with your daughter,” I said with my voice muffled in the shirt. “All we did was talk about — ”

“She’s just a little girl!” he yelled at me, an arc of spittle flying. “She doesn’t know, doesn’t know how the world is. Ai, dios,” he put his head in his hands and sat there heaving breath for a while. But when he spoke again, it was almost a whisper and pointed at the ground. “If she didn’t hit that other man and run away, she would’ve gotten a lot worse than just a black eye, she would be dead. Or, or worse.” He moaned and grabbed at his hair. “She’s just a little girl. Ever since Paulito died… She doesn’t know. Why doesn’t she know?” And he sat there, shoulders heaving silently.

“Is that what happened to her eye?” I asked, but he didn’t stir — the rise and fall of his chest slowly resumed a normal rhythm and he cleared his throat. “I was going to call the police, but — ”

“We should be out within a week or so,” he said as if speaking to someone else, to the ground. “Maybe we can start over. Maybe it will help.” He raised his head up at me and I tried to focus on him. “If I even see you again, if you even so much as look at my daughter.” He leaned toward me, fixing me with his tear-swollen eyes, and whispered. “I’ll kill you.”

And that’s when he sniffed once and got up, brushing at his thighs. He looked up at the city-grayed sky, nearly starless, and walked out through the ruined gate and back to his house. I think I sat there for quite a while, but don’t really remember.

• • •

And I had to watch through a crack in the blind, I watched Alexa’s window every night as they packed their home up and got ready to move. I stayed home from work, and Ambrose called the third day to tell me that I’d been terminated, to come get my belongings. It didn’t matter.

Sometimes I saw her little silhouette at the window, looking out. Sometimes her father’s form would fill the square with darkness as he peered out into my empty patio. I hadn’t even gone out to pick up the beer cans from that night. The folder and the pictures blew about. The gate still there, unrooted.

During this time, I wouldn’t let myself start drinking until noon. I had to be rigorous. And yes, part of me questioned what I was doing, why I stared through the blinds until my neck stiffened and lost my job all to watch this house, these people. But I couldn’t help it. There might actually be something in her dreams, something we could never understand. Or maybe she watches a lot of television, reads a lot, just has an overactive imagination bordering on the insane. I tried to get the courage up to clean myself up and go over there, try one more time to apologize, but the man’s voice, the look in his eyes when he whispered those words at me, kept me smartly planted there on the couch. Plus, I had a corpse’s face from the beating. I wouldn’t even let Spooner out, no matter how much he meowed hoarsely or licked his ass in front of me.

On Friday morning, the moving van came and quickly filled. I watched from the living-room window. Eventually, Mr. Hernandez stood there with his hands on his hips and gave a glance toward my house before his wife came out with Alexa. He buckled her in the backseat of their dented Honda and mouthed some silence at them both. He stood there as they pulled away. Then, with a final glance at his former home, he climbed into the moving van and groaned away.

A strange sadness washed over me for some reason as I sat there, that I couldn’t make him believe me, that I didn’t get to ask any more questions, get any more answers. I was alone again, even more so than before. My ears hurt straining to hear, but there was only silence — silence and a constant droning. But at least I could finally go outside.

Spooner limped out with me and rolled in the small square of struggling grasses and dust. I stood there for a long time looking at her window, strange in the daylight, and eventually went to the wall and stepped over. Shielding against the glass with my hand, her bedroom was empty and void, even the flowery curtains were gone. And it was when I started picking up the beer cans and what pictures that didn’t blow out the opened gate and down the street, that I heard a car horn in my driveway. It honked and honked again. Something wasn’t right.

Turning the corner of the house, I recognized their car and saw the mother sitting at the wheel as it idled. When she saw me, she made the sign of the cross, and I was thankful that somebody else humored the girl, too. Alexa was walking back toward the car from my porch, and it seemed strange to see her walking out during the day, in the light. I yelled out a sound and she turned.

“I really have to go, Mister Collins,” she yelled across the distance between us and grimaced. “Sorry about your face. My mom barely let me come back. I had to beg and beg.” She turned her head sharply as her mother said something to her. Alexa gave me a saddened look and got in the car.

“Wait,” I yelled, coming toward them, but the mother already put the car in gear.

“I had to spend my savings,” she said as they began to back away. “But Jesus said — they all said it was the only way. They told me what to do.”

“Wait!” I said again, but they were in the street now. The mother shifted into drive and paused a moment, and Alexa pointed toward my porch.

“By the bushes!” she yelled. The mother pulled away but Alexa poked her head out the window, her chirpy voice fading in distance as they drove away. “Oh! And Gaia is so big! And Mo is there! So is Lao Tsu! They told me to tell you that the only thing — ” But the car turned the corner and they were gone, she had flitted away.

And standing there felt strange, the way I feel when dreaming that I’m standing. After a long span of thoughtless moments, I looked to the porch. Walking toward it, floating, it felt like somebody was watching me move. There, at the base of a struggling sage bush was a paper bag, and my heart leapt at it in a sudden wash of something like panic or exhilaration. I kneeled down slowly, like my body weighed nothing, and watched my hand, a hand stuck at the end of my arm, reach down to pick up the bag. My hand trembled, and I knew even as I touched it, knew the weight and feel of it with the familiarity of a lifetime. And peering inside, there it was. I stopped breathing and stared at the enormous, rectangular block of cheddar cheese.

Long before receiving an MFA from City College of New York, Joshua Cochran was busy writing and winning awards for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He has been published in a wide array of literary journals, trade magazines, travel guides, and anthologies. His first novel, Echo Detained, was published by Fractious Press, New York, in 2007. Currently, he teaches English at Pima Community College in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona.