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Updated: May 10


A BIRD TRAPPED IN THE AIRPORT—something small and desperate and otherwise common, except for the distinction of being a frantic and wild thing amongst so many Jamba Juices. He could hear the breathy flap of wing overhead as the thing swooped towards a wall of glass through which the sun rose into excruciating color. Sickening, the light of this dreaded day.

Sickening, the sound of beak cracking against glass.

No one else had noticed. If they had, they walked onward with only the briefest grimace—busy, late, aware that nothing could be done. Dennis was aware of this, too, but his mother was a woman who thought birds were omens—ignoring a suffering one could land you a curse. 

But they were calling his zone. 

Dennis liked this about airports, the disembodied voice telling him what to do was the closest he got anymore to believing in a higher power. As he crammed into 23B, Dennis added the bird to a running list in his head—a tally of the day’s miseries. He wanted to believe that an army of little shitty things became more than the sum of their parts and hoped that by consolidating and ordering his dull unhappiness, he might redeem it—a collector of mundane suffering, he considered himself, the Patron Saint of Stubbed Toes. So far, he had:

~ airport bird

~ airport mothers yelling at airport children

~ the possibility of seeing the people who used to love probably hate you

~ jaw ache so bad you fantasize about sawing off the bottom half of your face

~ at least everyone would feel sorry for you coming back with half a face like that

~ the fact you had this thought ^ before listing…

~ your mother is in open-heart surgery

~ she’s expecting you

Like misery, Dennis thought of his mother in fragments—the way she walked with her hands curled in loose fists; the panic in her voice when she said, wait, stopped and dug through a purse full of receipts and melting lipsticks and nickels covered in dog-haired grime (they’d never had a dog), searching for keys. There was the sudden appearance of her pale tongue as she licked drips of chocolate-ice-cream-for-dinner from her hand, her brow furrowing like she’d forgotten that ice cream could melt. The way her wrists would glisten—the alchemy of saliva and sugar leaving slug trails over her thin skin. Such thin skin.

It was an unfair and bizarre rule of this world, Dennis thought as the plane lifted, that the bird, longing for open air and origin, was stuck in the airport, and that Dennis, with no desire to return home, was on his way. 

Dennis had given himself one week to make things right with his mother, with the people he hadn’t seen or spoken to since his last time home—the most remarkable and terrible night of his unremarkable life, with the nagging voice he heard when he tried to sleep, whispering, coward, coward, you piece of shit.


Hours later, as he drove his rental car through western North Carolina, he found himself thinking of the bird’s bones. The closer he got to his hometown, his own felt so insubstantial, he wondered if they too might be hollow. It was a feeling of overinflation, as if the place whirring past his window was instead inside his chest—blue mountain air tightening his lungs, poison sumac cracking between his ribs.

The ecosystem inside his body had been dormant since he’d been away, nine whole years of inner winter. Now it was stirring—a bear blinking out of hibernation, a snake finished with old skin.

He added one more bullet to his mental list:

~ being trapped inside your own melodramatic mind

His worrying mind, Dennis was convinced, was what kept the world spinning. He knew he should be worrying about the warming planet, about all the people and all the birds his mother said were dying because of it, but mostly, he worried about his mother dying. His saving grace was that he’d learned there is protective magic in anticipating things—it’s the bad things you’ve never even considered that happen. 

So he made himself imagine every scenario, see it, lie awake at night going through a list of ways he might lose her:

~ car accident

~ mass shooting

~ heart attack

~ murder/suicide

~ regular murder

~ regular suicide

He’d imagined her death so many times growing up, but never the way she was dying now, so ordinary. In a thin bed at the very hospital where she’d worked as a CNA.  

He was so sure someone would kill her, one of the boyfriends she’d fight with while Dennis huddled in his room with headphones on, staring at the blue light from the portable CD player that seemed to have the power to stare back. Dennis remembered begging that blue light not to let the music skip. The disc inside, a mix of his mother’s, was covered in scratches faint as old scars. When his magic failed and the music stuttered, Dennis could hear the specifics of his mother’s fights with men whose names Dennis would forget more easily than the timbre of their voices when the words, you stupid fucking cunt, slipped through a crack in Van Morrison’s “Days Like This.”

The fight was particularly bad on the night that CD finally stopped playing. Dennis left his room, tiptoeing down the short, dark hall. At the edge of it, he got low, his knees and palms pressing into the itchy carpet so that, when he peered around the corner, the half moon of his face wouldn’t catch their eye.

He could see the boyfriend’s back, his mother’s face. His stomach clenched at her expression—the twist of her mouth, vibration of her eyes inside her skull. She was still in her scrubs. Splattered blood would just look like a day’s work.

The boyfriend stepped towards her over shards of a favorite vase—an orange and turquoise thing that had belonged to his mother’s mother, who they did not discuss. A book lay open on the ground beneath them, and Dennis wondered which had been thrown first and by whom. His mother’s favorite poem was in that book, one he’d memorized for her as a Christmas present. She’d cried when he’d recited it for her, so it had either made her very happy or very sad. The line, it cannot hurt me when I’m old, still got stuck in his head. 

“You think you can kick me out?” the boyfriend said. “Who bought the food in your fridge, Naomi? The booze in your cabinet?”

“Take it,” she said. “Take your shitty food and your shitty booze and never bring your succubus energy in my house again.”

“My suck-you-what energy? Look at you,” he said. “Look at you and your shithole house and your retard kid.”

Dennis didn’t even think to be insulted, he was too surprised to hear himself exist in this adult exchange. But his mother’s anger took root in something quieter, more dangerous.

“Get out,” she said. Now it was she who Dennis worried might do the killing. She stepped closer. She did not even seem to feel the piece of porcelain that sliced into the sole of her slender bare foot. “Get out of my house.”

Dennis watched the man’s back rise and fall, waiting for him to strike her, wondering if he would be brave enough to try to stop him. Instead, the man turned and stalked away.

“You,” he said, “are a hopeless woman.” 

Despite her pitbull stance, his mother flinched at the slamming of the door. Dennis flinched at her flinch, and the movement must have caught her eye. She looked right at him, “Did you hear?”

Of course he’d heard. Even if he hadn’t snuck out of his room, their rental was the size of a TV family’s kitchen.

“Do you know what it means?”

He stood, brushing off his stinging knees, nodded.

“Then you know it isn’t true, yes? What he said about you.”

Dennis bit down on his chapped lip, pulled on a shred of skin still attached enough to hurt. Yes, he knew it wasn’t true, but it was evidence of how not normal Dennis was that the man had even thought to say it. 

“It would help if you talked more,” she said. “Stared less.”

Dennis shrugged.

That made her laugh. “Bring me the bottles on the counter, Charlie Chaplin.”

Dennis didn’t know who Charlie was, but he went for the bottles anyway, one tall and full of brown liquid, the other short, orange plastic, like a little round traffic cone that warned of a dangerous route. These bottles had gone away for a while. They’d come back with the boyfriend. Dennis was careful not to step on any piece of the broken vase as he brought them to her. She had collapsed on the couch. Her face was no longer fearsome, but so slack and wet that Dennis wanted to grab fistfuls of her cheeks and lift them, stretch them upward until she either smiled or swallowed her own head.

“Do you love me?” She asked in a small, small voice.

Another nod.

She pulled him into her. Dennis pressed his face against her hot, soft neck, inhaling the mother scent of her, something meaty he associated with his own birth—like blood and shit and sharp first breath. Her arm maneuvered around him to either hold him or twist the cap of the little bottle. Both.

“You don’t know yet, Dennis,” she began, all the strength drained from her voice. “What it’s like to wish for a different version of your life, of yourself, so badly you can feel it living inside your stomach.” She shook two white circles into her palm and took a pull from the other bottle that he felt dribble on his head, the smell like either syrup or carpet cleaner.

“Like you swallowed a magnet,” she went on, “that will rip through your middle trying to reach its match?”

Her voice was pleading.

“I know,” Dennis said, even though he knew he couldn’t understand. But also maybe he did. He felt like maybe he did. His mother returned the caps to both bottles and rested her cheek on the top of his head. 

“But I have you.”

This was not a comfort, he thought. This was a spell, a binding, a disappointment.

“I love you so much, you know that?”

“I know,” he whispered into her neck, now moist with her tears and his own trapped breath. 

“I love you so much it hurts, baby.”

Saying this, she plunged the knife edge of her own hand into the folds of her belly, pushing hard against the flesh there. Digging, Dennis supposed, for the magnet she’d swallowed.


He’d woken at 3am the morning he flew from LAX to the Asheville Regional Airport. Forty minutes in a taxi, six hours on a plane, and twenty-six minutes in his rental car, and Dennis still wasn’t ready. Not to be here, where the melting sun made every glint of window look like a memory and every passing driver look like someone he used to know. Not ready to see her.

Dennis, upon reaching his left turn, the one that would take him past the old rental, through downtown, and toward the hospital where his mother was waiting, turned right. 

It was barely a decision that landed him on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A mere twitch of muscle memory that had him hugging curve after hypnotizing curve of the road’s ascent toward the gaping mouth of the place in this world he once knew best, the summer camp where his mother had dropped him off seventeen years earlier. 

There, smaller now. Camp Pinecrest, est. 1930. The entrance where he’d walked alone on that day he’d first met Fatima, Pete, and Tuck. It was little more than a gravel road, a gate, a vinyl banner, reading Welcome Home. Dennis could not see the camp from here, but he could feel it like a phantom limb or love at first sight, on which Dennis had mixed feelings but had reason to believe was something like swallowing an entire bottle of alka-seltzer or a magnet. 

Through the crayon-scented heat of the still running car, Dennis felt the gravity of the things he could not help but remember: the lake, the creek bed, the house. The Bell House, that Southern Living monstrosity where four generations of camp directors—always Bells—had lived, pruning flame azaleas and laughing on a porch that wrapped around the house like a mother cradling her child. 

That first summer, both Dennis and Tuck’s mothers had been late to pick them up at the end of the session, so they’d been invited inside to Bell Family Dinner.

It had occurred to Dennis then that he’d never eaten dinner at a table. The act of placing his cloth napkin in his lap as foreign to him as the Bell’s salt—not the damp cardboard container of Morton’s above the microwave, but large, fat flakes kept in a wooden bowl at the table’s heart.

After grace, Mrs. Bell lifted her glass of butter-colored wine, “To the best summer yet.”

Coach shook his head, a muscle jumping in his superhero jaw. “Two instances of anaphylactic shock. Down with yellow jackets, I say. Down with peanut butter.”

“Dad’s never happy with camp,” Pete explained to the other boys, adding more parmesan to his spaghetti. Tuck held his fork in a fist like a toddler.

“My husband can’t be proud of something unless it’s absolutely perfect.” 

Pete, almost imperceptibly, flinched.

“He’s obsessive,” Mrs. Bell added with a tinge of pride, as if her husband’s perfectionism reflected favorably on his choice of wife, which, watching her take a small sip of wine, Dennis supposed it did. Even her swallow was lovely—a measured invitation.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Coach asked. “What are we working for if it’s not going to be extraordinary? What do I mean then?”

Dennis paused mid-bite, a saucy onion slipping from a noodle to his lap. He had never heard an adult, or anyone, speak like this. He had never been asked such a big question.

“I don’t know, Love.” Mrs. Bell dabbed at her mouth. “What do you mean?”

The light from their antler chandelier caught in Coach’s eyes like magic, like possession.

“I’m serious,” he said. “What is the point if it’s not exquisite? Why waste our time?” 

The boys sat still and small, feeling the absence of Fatima, the girl who always knew what to say. Whose mother was on time. Who would be halfway back to Florida by now. Then Tuck’s hand shot up. It was always the most erect part of that round boy, his raised hand.

“You don’t have to raise your hand at the dinner table, Tuck,” Mrs. Bell said. 

“Sorry. But you make things as good as you can. Everything you do,” he said. “For the glory of God.”

Coach made a throat noise that sounded appreciative, if not convinced. He looked to his son.

“You asking me?” Pete said.

“I’m asking the future assistant director of Camp Pinecrest.”

“You mean, like, what’s the point of camp?”

The man leaned in, ashen elbows sliding back as he gripped the tablecloth and brought himself as close to the boys as he could without leaving his seat. “What’s the point of being human if not to make something like that?” he asked. “What’s the point of being alive?”

Dennis couldn’t let a question go unanswered. When Pete didn’t speak and Tuck didn’t come to his rescue, he clenched his fists and made himself answer.

“Maybe just to be alive,” he said. “Maybe the point of being alive is just that, to be really alive.”

It was the flustered answer of a twelve-year-old boy, but Coach turned to Dennis, focused all of his Coachness right at him like a beam of tangible heat, and smiled. 

“And what does it mean to be really alive?”

You tell me, Dennis thought. Please. Please, tell me.

It was an accident Dennis was at this table, another consequence of his mother’s chronic lateness, but he felt, even then, like he was entering a conversation that would last the rest of his life. He stared at the candlelight between Coach and Mrs. Bell, the wicks left too long so that the flame flickered erratically, simultaneously threatening to extinguish or catch fire to everything. 

Dennis imagined the heat of it all—the flame, Coach’s question, his own burning desire to remain in this circle of golden people—melting off his lips, his cheeks, then every inch of him. The pale candle of himself dripping off his embarrassing boyskin. It would ooze away from him and slither to the bottom of that shining lake at the center of camp, and he would be left pink and soft and nothing and good.

It would be seven summers after that first dinner that two of the people sitting at the table really would melt. From the inside out, choking on nothing but moonlight and their own failing livers. Their skin would turn as yellow as the wine in Mrs. Bell’s glass as they grew unbearably sleepy under a Silver Oak. It would be like an echo of a story people around these parts liked to tell, a warning to children about wasting time.

Are you standing in the river? Coach would ask the boys if he came across one of them on the grounds, eyes closed to a breeze or squinting up at the night sky. Are you standing in the river right now?

Dennis never understood that question. He was not standing in a river, but on the same gravel road that led up to that house. It crunched beneath him, the sound familiar and hungry like the growl of his own belly. He didn’t remember parking the car or stepping into the air, heavier here than it was in California—thick and tired. He patted his shirt pocket, making sure the car key was there. Though he felt the shape of it against his chest, he could not shake the feeling that there was something he’d lost as he peered up at the torn and mildewed banner.

“Welcome home,” he said to himself.


Mara Aguilar Egan is a fictionist and poet residing in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She received the Sullivan Writing Scholar award for excellence in both playwriting and fiction and her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte where she served as head fiction editor of Qu Magazine. Her work has been supported by Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference and Tin House Workshop. Her Pushcart Prize and Best of Net nominated stories have appeared in Vestal Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litbreak Magazine, and others. Her current writing fixates on ecosystem, on what it means to belong to a land, to a history, and to one another when the world we were promised is not what we’ve inherited.

Want to read more? A full excerpt of Pay Attention, Remember This is published in EXCERPT Magazine - No 2


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