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A quarterly international literary journal

No, Marty is Not on Instagram




/ First Place, 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction /

Mom visited Marty in a dream again.


In the dream, Mom was standing in the east barn, wrapped in the oatmeal and cream-colored layers of knitwear that had been her trademark for the last fifteen years of her life. Somehow her clothes stayed immaculate as they had in real life, despite the mud and dust and animal feed.


“Look at this mess you made,” Mom said. She gestured to a pile of hay and cow dung, lit by nothing but a naked bulb overhead. Marty watched as Mom opened a can of white paint, drew back, and sent the paint flying. It arced through the air in a high parabolic streak and splattered onto the pile, covering it in a layer as even as snow.


Marty looked back to see that her mom was now holding a pitchfork in her hands. She used it to stir the paint into the mess.


Mom smiled. “Now it’s beautiful. It’s family.” She glared at Marty and pointed at the pile of white mess. “Eat it.” Marty shook her head. No. Even in the dream, she knew that she had no voice. “Eat it,” Mom repeated.


Marty startled awake.


She slipped out of bed, careful not to wake Stephen. She brewed some coffee, poured herself a mug, and tipped in some whiskey. She sat at her desk and stared at the article on her screen. Enough stalling: the article was written, read and reread, tweaked to death. Two weeks earlier, she’d reached out to one of Stephen’s friends at Buzzfeed. He’d read Marty’s early draft, fired off some edits, and told her they’d publish it whenever it was ready.


Her eyes scanned the title. “My Mother Made Money Off of My Image, and That’s Not Even the Worst Thing About Her.” Was it too long? Too clickbait-y, even for Buzzfeed?


Maybe the article would be a blip. Maybe no one would even read it, or maybe they’d read it and simply not care. She didn’t know which was worse.


She pressed SEND.


* * *


“Martha, stop swaying,” Mom said as she set a hand on Levi’s shoulder to still him. “Wade, your top button’s come undone. Martha, sit still.”


Seven-year-old Martha made a face and wriggled one last time, pulling at the neck of her cotton dress. Mom had lined the six of them across the front step the way she did every morning, oldest to youngest. She liked to take pictures of the kids early, she’d explain to her followers, when their clothes were cleanest, their faces brightest. Afternoon and evening chores—the mucking and milking and feeding—spoiled the entire look.


“Almost done. Almost.” Mom crouched in front of them and tilted her phone to the side, snapped several more photos in succession. “Quit poking each other. Now a few pictures with me.”


She handed her phone to Dad. “We have to be in town in twenty minutes,” he said, but held the phone up and ready.


“Laugh, everybody,” Mom said. The older kids laughed automatically. Mom poked Martha and Jonathan, the two youngest, who gave quick giggles in response.


“Think I got it,” Dad said.


“You sure?” Mom asked. Dad nodded. Martha felt snot sliding out of her nose and licked it away with the tip of her tongue. “A few more,” Mom said. A chorus of protests rose from her children, and she snapped her fingers once, twice. “Enough. Hey. Enough.” The protests quieted down into sullen silence. “No more complaining,” she said, her head swiveling first to the left, then the right, as she gave each of her children a hard look. “I just need one good photo. Just one.” Her face morphed back into a toothy smile as she turned back to Dad. “Here we go now.”


There was no sound as Dad snapped a few more pictures. Even the animals seemed cowed by Mom’s reprimand. Dad lowered the phone. “Alright?” he asked her. He usually spoke in a smooth drawl, but now his voice was tight, a buzzing guitar string pulled taut.


“A few of me, then we’ll go,” Mom said. She turned to the children, directing them each to various tasks. “And Martha—” When her gaze landed on Martha, she looked stricken. “Your face is a mess.” Martha frowned and pulled her forearm across her face again to wipe at her nose. Mom’s nostrils flared. “We have to take more. Why are you always—” She turned to where the boys had run off. “Boys!”


But Martha’s siblings had all scampered off. Mom closed her eyes, breathing through her nose. Martha didn’t move. She was already learning to track and file her mother’s moods, a taxonomy that would serve as one of the most important wells of information her entire childhood.


“Can I be in the picture with you?” Martha asked.


Mom looked at her. “I told you that your face was dirty. Go inside and wash up.”


* * *


Now, Marty pulled her foot up so that she could rest her chin on her knee. She did it. She wrote the article, and she sent it to Stephen’s friend from Buzzfeed.


“Already working?” Stephen asked as he entered the room. His hair was still wet from a shower.


“I couldn’t fall back asleep.”


He took a sip of her coffee. His eyes widened as he tasted the whiskey. “Yeah, that’ll keep you awake.”


“I just needed a little bit.”


“You need to be drunk at six in the morning?”


“I sent it,” Marty said. “The article I was telling you about. Where I talk about Micah.”


Marty reasoned that he probably did remember. She and Stephen been hanging out for almost a year, after all. Met up for dinner a couple nights a week, after which he’d sleep over at her place. It’s true that he never invited her to his apartment, and still introduced her as his friend, but Marty was fine with it—she never actually asked if they could go to his place, and at the end of the day, weren’t all romantic relationships comprised of people who were friends first and lovers second?


“You’re always in a bad mood after thinking about that article,” Stephen said.


“I’m not in a bad mood.”


“Aren’t you?”


Marty frowned and turned back towards the computer screen. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”


He smiled. “Don’t you?”


Marty was a server at a diner in Times Square, a real touristy dive and yeah, she needed to get going too. “Pad Thai tonight?” she asked.


“Can’t. Tomorrow?”


“Sure.”


He grabbed his jacket and ruffled her hair. “See you later, you little drunkard.”


* * *


It had started when Mom downloaded Instagram. Her first post was a picture of her six children lined up oldest to youngest, which also happened to be tallest to shortest. A creamsicle sunrise was painting the sky above the grand expanse of mountains and fields behind them. Each child had held a different animal in their arms while beaming at the camera, and somehow every animal had been looking at the camera, too. The piglet in Martha’s arms looked like it was smiling. It was a perfect snapshot of productive, ruddy-cheeked children (so many of them!) and the calm, steely-eyed contact of the six beasts they held.


The caption was cloying and genuine both. It touched on Mom and Dad’s marriage, their children, and the beginning of their farming journey. “It’s been sixteen years and we regret nothing,” Mom’s caption ended. “We have our beautiful land here at Talented Ranch. Our beautiful kids. Farming is never easy, and certainly not the easiest place to raise children, but it has never stopped being rewarding.”


The photo took off. “Why Do I Suddenly Want to Quit Everything and Move to Talented Ranch?” one headline asked. “This Farming Family is Taking Social Media by Storm,” another gushed. “Homesteading 101: Why Ranching is the New Elite,” and “How One Woman Singlehandedly Revived the Prairie Woman Aesthetic,” and “This Woman’s Instagram is Both Aspirational and Inspirational.” Think piece after think piece, dissecting and opining and probing.


The landline and cell phones were flooded with calls, and soon Mom was being interviewed two to three times a week. She was flown to New York City and Texas and Los Angeles, appearing on morning talk shows, posing for magazine spreads. The more intrepid publications sent reporters out to Talented Ranch, with photographers and stylists and lighting assistants tagging along.


It certainly helped that Mom was gorgeous with makeup on and, impossibly, even more gorgeous without. It certainly helped, too, that Dad wore the farmer costume well, his body brawny and his forearms thick, settling into a handsome middle age the way society allows men to do.


* * *


“That article I wrote has been shared over a hundred thousand times,” Marty told her brother Jonathan over the phone three days later.


She was on her break, huddling over a sandwich. It was nice having some privacy, sitting here unseen in the small alley behind the diner. Within hours of her article going live, someone had tracked down where she worked, and the diner had a constant stream of reporters ever since. None of them stayed to eat.


“A hundred thousand?” Jonathan repeated. He was the only sibling she still talked to.

“Marty. Wow.”


“I know. It’s kind of scary. Or weird, or…” Marty looked down the alley to the patch of sidewalk and city. “I don’t know. I guess I didn’t know what to expect.” She watched as someone dressed like a children’s show character waved and posed for photos. The character’s costume was a dingy neon blue.


“You wrote an expose of a famous TV personality who died only four months ago, and you didn’t know what to expect?”


Marty let loose a little laugh. “No, it—I mean, when you put it that way, yeah. Maybe I should’ve known.” She watched the children’s show character reach for a man who pivoted and practically spun out of the way to avoid being touched. “I don’t know if ‘expose’ is the right word, though. It’s the truth. A bunch of the comments say that they suspected a darker side to Mom all along. That we were more like her farmhands than her kids, that sort of thing.”

“Well,” Jonathan said. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.”

“You think I’m wrong?”

“No. I’ve just never heard it put like that.”

“Because that’s what we were, Jonathan. She turned us into props. Characters in this big happy farm family, when really we did all the work while she got all the credit. And don’t even get me started on the whole Micah thing. You read my article, didn’t you?”

Jonathan was quiet, then said, “I read it. Have you talked to any of the others about it?”

The others. Her siblings. “No. I mean…you know. They’re too busy running the family business.”


Talented Ranch had been a small village of bustling industry for years. There were buildings for meat order fulfillment, a soundstage for the TV show, kitchens for recipe testing and cookbook writing, a cabin for Dad’s movie production company, and a café.

“Marty, do you—” Jonathan paused. “Do you worry how it looks, the fact that you’re only talking about this now that Mom’s dead?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m wondering why you’re doing this now. Why you’re doing this at all.”


“I have to tell my truth.”


“Mom’s not around to read any of it. I don’t know, it—” Marty could almost see Jonathan on the other end of the line, running a hand through his straw-straight blonde hair as he searched for words. “—it seems disrespectful.”


“She treated us like we were hired hands, and you’re worried I’m being the disrespectful one?”


“All I’m saying is that no matter what Mom did, she’s gone now. Maybe we can let the past…I don’t know, stay in the past.”

“What do you know?” Marty stood up quickly. The sandwich toppled out of her lap onto the ground. “You like to play the victim right along with me, but when I actually do something about it, you decide that you’re uncomfortable? Seriously, Jonathan, grow a pair.”

“That’s rich, coming from someone who couldn’t stand up to Mom until after she died.”

“At least I—” Marty stopped short. The blue children’s character out on the sidewalk had taken its giant mask off. The person below it shook out her blonde curls and turned to look right at Marty.

It was Mom. She didn’t break eye contact, and neither did Marty. They just stared at each other. Mom was almost…smirking. Like she knew a secret that Marty didn’t. Like she was laughing at Marty.

The honk of a taxi blared, and Marty blinked and inhaled sharply. Life sped up around her. She looked back to Mom, but all she saw was an unrecognizable woman with black hair, smiling and putting the mask back on her head before walking away.

“Look, Marty,” she heard Jonathan sigh on the phone. “I’m on the train. I’ll talk to you later.”

Marty stared at the spot she had seen Mom. When she went back into the diner, her boss told her that her sudden notoriety was a bad look, and to leave her apron in the employee room on her way out.


* * *


Thirteen-year-old Martha sat cross-legged in the barn and stared at the newest cut on her hand. It was a gash down the middle of her palm, a slice made when she was gutting the pig. Everything about her hands was dirty. Browned nails, cracked knuckles, calloused fingers, skin raw and red from over-washing in cold mountain weather.

She looked up to see her older sister filming a segment with Mom on the other side of the barn. Martha marveled at how clean Mom’s clothes were. Oh, she’d let her overalls get some muck on them, but her face was always flawless, her nails shaped like creamy almonds. Mom’s hands were never dirty. She never smelled bad.

Martha hadn’t realized she smelled until last summer, when the whole family took a rare trip to see family in Denver. She’d overheard two of her cousins whispering to their mom that Martha smelled like a cow.


“Blinky hates this, you can tell,” she now heard a voice say. She looked up from her dirty hands to see Micah taking a seat at her side. “Look at her.” Micah gestured to the milk cow who was being filmed as part of the segment. “I can barely get her to stand still to be milked. She’ll kick the bucket any minute now, in protest.”


Martha gave a shy smile. She didn’t know exactly how old Micah was. Nineteen? Maybe twenty? He was only hired a few months ago, part of the new wave of farmhands with what Mom called “TV-ready faces.”


He was so cute that Martha had a hard time looking him in the eye, so she kept her gaze down as she said, “Blinky’s always been a diva.” She was relieved when Micah laughed.


Five minutes later, Blinky kicked over the milk bucket with an impatient bellow. Mom laughed; the segment was already over. As they left the barn, Mom swiveled, her eyes searching until they fell on Martha. With a quick gesture of her hand, Mom indicated for Martha to clean the milk, before turning and letting the barn door close behind her.


* * *


Messages clogged up Marty’s voicemail. She barely knew where to start. She picked the one at the top of the queue.


“Hi Marty, this is Claire Chen with Simon and Schuster. I read your piece on Buzzfeed. You’re a great writer. Have you ever thought about writing a book? Give me a call.”


“Given your mother’s fame, I anticipate your book reaching a wide audience,” Claire told Marty two days later. They were eating lunch at a place in Tribeca. “Your article is shocking, and I’m guessing it’s the tip of the iceberg. People will read your book, Marty. Not all of them will like what you have to say, but…” Claire leaned forward over her green salad. “…curiosity sells.”


Marty nodded as she chewed. She’d ordered the steak, medium. Jobless for a week now, she hoped lunch with Claire would leave her mostly full until breakfast the next morning. Normally she would’ve met up with Stephen to get him to pay for her food, but she hadn’t heard from him for a few days, and she didn’t want to seem desperate. The longer the lunch went, though, the more she found herself persuaded by Claire. Inspired, even.

She asked, “So you really think I could write a book about all of this?”


Claire nodded. “I do. From what you’ve told me about your mom over this lunch alone, I think you have more than enough to fill an entire book.”


“Okay, yeah. Wow. So, I’ll …start writing it then. Right?” She couldn’t help the grin spreading across her face. “Sorry, I’ve never done anything like this before. I never really got into the book writing like—” Like my mom, she almost said.


“It’s alright. That’s why I’m here. We’d start you with a generous advance so you can devote all your attention to writing.”


“An advance?”


“Something to help you write the best book you can.”


“How much would the advance be?” Marty said. “I’m sorry. I mean, if you’re allowed to tell me.” Claire told her. Marty had to struggle to maintain her composure at the large sum.


“The money would come in three installments,” Claire said. “Essentially a signing bonus. Like I said, we believe in you. Now, I took the liberty of drafting a writing timeline…”

Claire continued speaking as she looked down and rummaged in her purse. Marty’s gaze landed on a couple entering the restaurant. The woman shed her coat as the man spoke to the hostess. When the woman turned to hang her coat up, Marty nearly choked on her steak.


The woman was Mom.


She was looking straight at Marty, so calm as she surveyed her daughter. So beautiful. Red lipstick, flawless and bright, camera-ready. As Marty coughed, Mom gave her that smirk again.


“Everything alright?” Claire asked. She was looking at Marty with concern.


Marty attempted a thick swallow and took a long drink of water. “Yeah.”

Claire smiled; she almost looked relieved. “Wonderful.” She handed Marty a small stack of papers. “Now, like I was saying—”


Marty desperately tried to pay attention as Claire spoke, but how could she, when her mother was across the room? When Claire indicated something on the paper, Marty’s eyes found Mom again.


Only it wasn’t Mom. This woman had lavender chin-length hair. Marty found herself admiring the bold choice (should she dye her hair lavender?) when she noticed the man at the woman’s side.


Stephen, Marty’s kind-of boyfriend who hadn’t responded to her texts in a few days, rested his hand on the woman’s back as he led her to a small table in the corner.


Marty turned back to Claire and nodded. Yes, she was listening. Still listening. Stephen wasn’t really there, just like her mom wasn’t really there. But when she turned to look at the table in the corner again, there was Stephen, real as ever, smiling as he swilled a glass of wine in his hand. His eyes were bright as he looked at the lady with the lavender hair, as he ordered for her the same way he did for Marty.


“—so, you know, we hope that will be an easy transition for you,” Marty heard Claire say.


“Transition?” Marty asked.


“To Instagram,” Claire clarified. “You’re not on Instagram, right? I searched for you high and low.”


“No,” Martha said slowly. She felt like she was several minutes behind something very important. “No, I’m not on Instagram.”


Claire nodded at the confirmation. “That’s what I thought. Like I said, you’ll need to create an account and start cultivating a robust online presence.”


“You want me to create an account?”


“It’s part of the contract.” The way Claire said this made it sound like she had already explained it. “We require all our authors to stay active on social media.”


“But I…” Marty tried to collect her words. “I don’t do Instagram. I don’t have any social media.”


Claire’s brow furrowed. “Why is that?”


Marty squeezed her hands into fists under the table. “Never had any interest, I guess.”


“Hopefully it won’t be too hard to convince you to find some interest in it now,” Claire teased.


“But I—”


“Compared to writing a book, posting on Instagram should be easy. You might even think it’s fun.”


Fun. From across the restaurant, Marty heard Stephen share a gentle laugh with the lady with the lavender hair. Marty knew that she and Stephen weren’t exclusive. And even though Mom wasn’t there in the restaurant, it sure felt like she was.


“Instagram ruined our family,” Marty said. Her voice was louder than she intended it to be. “Ruined it.”


Claire’s eyebrows shot up. When Marty darted out a quivering hand to grab her water, she missed. The glass fell to the ground and shattered. She looked up to see Stephen watching her, his mouth an O to match Claire’s.


Marty grabbed her bag and ran out the door, leaving her half-eaten steak behind her. She would be hungry tonight.


* * *


The hugs came first. Micah, the cute farmhand, had started giving seventeen-year-old Martha hugs. Not every time he’d see her—only sometimes, like after they talked, or if she lingered by the soundstage, watching as he filmed something with her mom. Micah had become something of an expert in cattle husbandry—he had been promoted to Talented Ranch’s assistant lead handler a year earlier—and was now a regular on the show. The show had even caught a few calf deliveries live on air, with Micah at the helm. Audiences loved Micah, and for some reason, Micah seemed to like Martha.


Martha liked him back. She liked when he kissed her for the first time by the passenger door of his truck. She liked when he whispered things in her ear. She liked the way he would talk to the pretty executive producer after a taping but that he’d find her, Martha, afterwards. She liked that he wanted to keep their kisses and touches a secret, adding a gauzy veil of mystery to their meetings.


She liked it all, until one night when she didn’t.


Martha sat by herself in the east barn that October, staring down at the raggedy Sebastopol geese settling down for the night. A barn cat ran its spine along Martha’s hip. Nearly all the animals kept to this old, heated barn when the weather turned cold, hunkering down in its various nooks like water filling up a barrel.


She didn’t look up when she heard the door swing open, the hinges whining their familiar melody.


“Yeah,” her mom said, her head leaning on one shoulder to hold her phone in place at her ear. “No, that’s—that’s right, in two days.” Martha watched her mom cross the barn and grab a bag of feed. “Great. And remember to…yep. Thanks, Brian. Night.”


After Mom hung up and turned around, her eyes landed on Martha. “Martha,” she said. There was no inflection to her voice. “You scared me.” She balanced the feed on her hip like it was a baby. “You finished your chores?” Martha nodded. “Helped Jonathan with that tractor engine? And checked in with Bud?” Martha nodded, but stayed silent. “Well, get some sleep,” Mom finally said. “No complaining tomorrow.”


“Mom,” Martha said. She could hear the desperation in her voice. Maybe that’s what made Mom pause by the barn door, her hand outstretched to pull the latch. “Mom, do you…could you—” She didn’t even know how to start. Tears brimmed at her eyes. “Is there a way to—”


Mom put the feed on the ground. “Spit it out.”


With her eyes still aimed at the geese, Martha said in a small voice, “Can you fire Micah?”


“Fire Micah? Why would I do that?” When Martha didn’t respond, Mom took a step towards her. “Martha. Why would I fire Micah?”


“Because I want him fired.”


“You two are such good friends.”


“I don’t want to see him, okay?” Martha could feel her and oMom returning to that dull, muggy place they always did when they talked (which rarely happened these days). Frustration, sarcasm, impatience. It all bubbled up like thick cream rising to the milk’s surface.


“You’re not giving me a reason to fire Micah,” Mom said.


“Why do I need a reason?”


“I’m not going to fire one of my best employees because you tell me to.”


“You’d pick an employee over me? Over family?”


“Our employees are family.” Mom turned and opened the door.


Martha felt her desperation peak. “Mom!”


“I’m going to bed.”


“Stop! There’s a reason, okay? I have a reason. Wait.”


Mom kept her fingers on the door handle. Martha tried, haltingly, to tell her mom what happened. Really tried her best. Her mom’s face seemed to tighten, a lasso pulled taut around a calf’s neck.


Martha’s words finally hobbled off into silence. The only sound in the barn was the snuffling of the pigs, the wind stirring outside.


“Martha. Those are very serious allegations. Micah has been with us a long time.”


“You don’t believe me,” Martha said.


“It’s not about belief. Don’t be so dramatic.”


“Mom,” Martha said slowly. “I’m telling you the truth. And if you—”


“What’s this really about, Martha? Are you trying to get attention?”


“It’s not about attention, it’s about the fact that tonight he—”


“Micah pulls in a lot of viewers,” her mom said over her. “What do you think would happen if anyone else heard what you’ve been saying? What would happen to this ranch? Our livelihood?” She shook her head. “You can’t tear it all down with your stories.”


“Are you really choosing him over me?” Martha asked. She felt frantic; her head was throbbing like the heat of a late afternoon summer sun. “How can you do this?”


“You’ve never been grateful for the life I’ve given to you,” Mom said. Her voice was low, almost radioactive with venom. “And this proves it. Your constant whining, and now”—Mom gestured in Martha’s general direction—“this.”


“Either you fire Micah,” Martha said through gritted teeth, the vision of her mother blurry through her tears, “or I’m leaving. I will leave Talented Ranch, and never come back.”


* * *


Marty tipped her head back to pour the rest of the granola crumbs down her throat. It was the first time she’d eaten in almost two days. She’d been out of work for over a month.

She learned forward and scrolled again, re-reading comments from her Buzzfeed article.


“This girl is an attention-hungry psychopath. I don’t believe a word of it.”


“I got chills reading this. All my thoughts go out to Martha and the next step in her journey.”


“Who does this nobody think she is?”


Marty hadn’t heard from Stephen since the restaurant. He hadn’t called her, and she hadn’t called him. She had, however, heard from Claire again.


“Hi Marty, it’s Claire Chen. I wanted to touch base one last time to see if you’d be interested in putting a book together. The social media element of the contract is still non-negotiable, but please give my offer some thought.”


Sitting at her desk, Marty’s hand skimmed over the paper she had found slipped under her door this morning. It was from her landlord, informing her that she two days to get rent in.


She had tried calling her brother Jonathan. No answer. She still hadn’t heard from any of her siblings, or her dad, since the article was published. Desperation was piling up around her, driving her to consider something she swore she’d never do.


She called Claire.


After their conversation, she took a shower and scrubbed her face until it was red. She put on mascara and lipstick, and got dressed.


She went outside and walked to Central Park. She downloaded Instagram. The app’s interface swiftly lead her through steps she’d hoped would take longer. Username @just_marty, 0 followers, 0 posts, 0 following.


“Would you like to take a photo?” a jolly little popup prompted her.

As she stared at her phone screen, she felt a presence behind her. She didn’t even have to look. A part of her had thought that setting up Instagram would put an end to it, that it would exorcise Mom from showing up like this. But she was wrong. Mom was standing right behind her. Marty tucked her hair behind her ear, then decided against it. Held her camera up and tried to pose, turning this way first and then that.


It was like Mom had crept up right behind her and was whispering in her ear. “This angle captures the sun on your face. You’ll want a soft smile. Not too much teeth.”


After finding the angle that made her skin look like she was glowing from within, Marty snapped a photo.


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