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A quarterly international literary journal

Smiling in Igneous

/ Fiction /

What kind of beauty lies latent? Dormant? In the morning you walk outside to see gray. A haze that doesn’t envelop the whole sky. The volcano in the distance. Both beauty and beast. You imagine the eruption, the show. The screams of those you love but don’t yet know. You’re a stranger to this city and it to you.

What did you leave behind? Your own disasters. Tornado Alley; the tornado of your life. You couldn’t see it before, but it’s glaring as magma now: Everywhere you go and everyone you meet is their own disaster. You think this shouldn’t feel comforting, but you can’t help being warmed by the thought. Like when you were younger, the older sister, avoiding the floor because it was lava. When you failed, you’d fail fully, lying stretched out on the cool hardwood. You’d bask in the imagined glow of the hot, goopy ooze.


There was a time when you looked at people. Now you don’t know where to look, but you know what you see: a lot more than you did when you were looking. Distance breeds perspective, you know, but surely so does proximity. Why couldn’t you see anything at home? Up close? You thought your sister lacked love for you. No, she’d only lost sight of herself. Love for herself.


As a child, you imagined lava as earthbound sun. A good source of Vitamin D. But what is it composed of? Sulfur, water vapor, carbon dioxide. Iron, magnesium, calcium.

You’ve been taught the sun’s gasses are plasma. The sun is helium, hydrogen, a mix of metals.

When you first relocated you were penniless. The plasma bank was your first stop. At the height of her addiction, your sister sold her plasma. You tried to guess how much Xanax would be passed on to the person getting the transfusion. When you arrived at the donation center, they pricked your finger to test your protein. You passed out when the techs said, laughing, “We’re going to drink this with dinner.”

She was tougher than you. More like magma, solid matter. You were more like the sun, plasma.


The view is breathtaking. There’s no one around to save you in the event you pass out from your breath being taken from you. No one would ever know the story: She died from beauty. The thought makes you hyperventilate. A self-fulfilling scenario.

But you will not die here. You will not die young, not like Les. You will prove to her it was possible to keep going. Though you won’t, not really, because she’s not here to prove it to. She was smarter than you, more stubborn than you. You wonder if that stubbornness showed up in her plasma. You hoped so.


When Les died, for a moment you felt nothing had changed. In a way, she was dead to you. You pretended she was gone already, to cope, though you’d never say it.

Your second week here, a woman matched your pace as you walked to the Unitarian church for a free meal. "You gonna let me use your phone or just leave me here on the road?"

You turned to her, pulled your phone from your jacket pocket, considered the risk versus reward of handing a stranger your phone in a brand-new city, in your brand-new credit card debt.

"My sister. 206 —" She wanted you to call for her. She said the next three numbers, and for a moment you thought you’d lost her before she spilled out the last four.

A man's voice. "Voicemail," you told her. "What do you want me to say?"

She met your eyes again, gave you a look like why are you talking to me? But something in her broke a touch. Her eyes softened, and you thought she might cry. As she walked off, you saw Les’s awkward but self-assured gait.


You amend a thought, or not really: Maybe you are like the sun, like plasma, but you have to acknowledge that the sun is not all serenity. You’ve heard of such things as solar flares, solar storms. You know the big, bright star’s endlessly spewing, sputtering, sparking. Not too unlike a volcano.


They think they don’t need me. They think I’m meant only to stir fear, set fire to storms. I smile in igneous and they think I’m scowling, you imagine the volcano before you thinking.


You keep seeing him. She gave him so many passes, and you keep seeing him. She let him into her heart and into your life.

You try not to obsess over the idea he was responsible. You try not to beat yourself up for shutting her out. How could you have known? Or, how did you know? You knew you would lose her so you stretched the losing out.


You wake up outside the tavern. You don’t know how you paid, but you feel the acids and the bile and the sugars swirling. You remember Laura passing you some kind of citrusy cocktail. God, what was it? But Laura is beautiful and she only lets uncreepy men buy you drinks. You imagine she’s an older sister, just like you. She knows what it’s like to be part-mom right out of the playpen.

You think about Tom Hanks’s braincloud in that volcano movie. You think about how you’re the opposite of a hypochondriac and how there must be a medical term for that, but does that thought undo itself? You wonder if his descent into the volcano felt like a jump into golden honey. Maybe, with Meg Ryan at his side.

It comes back in flashes: You freaked out on Laura. No, you cried in front of her. This is why you don’t drink citrusy drinks. Stevie Nicks whispers “Landslide” from the speaker in the canopy above you. The streets here are never quiet. Sometimes you love this.

If you’d been more sober you could have scored a warmer place to sleep, but it’s not bad out. You’ve been warned the next few months might be a lot worse. That wind, they say.

Other memories come bit by bit: a woman in Dolce & Gabbana hurling her dinner, not unhappily. Your judgment: How much did that cost? But that was harsh. If you hated to eat—or to have eaten—maybe you wouldn’t be so stressed about money.

Oh, and you stole nuts from the bar. You dig them from your fuzz-lined jacket pocket, careful to remove most of the fuzz.


From a bench you dream of mountain goats. You dream of getting a job and being fired the first day. But you know come true winter you’ll have a place to stay; you won’t be in a sleeping bag in the entrance of a juicery. You won’t be asking someone to call your dead sister for you, will you?

While awake your dreams are different: You’re teaching Les to play school, play house, play grocery store. You were cruel sometimes then, threatening to punish her for putting off pretend homework. You remember biting her wrist, denying it ever happened despite the marks on her skin. You were the sweet, quiet one.


Back to the tavern. You ask Laura if she has a library card, but she says she hasn’t gotten around to it. You push your pride aside and ask if she might be willing to send a piece of mail to her own house but addressed to you. She asks no questions. “Sure,” she says. “Can I draw a dick on the letter?” She doesn’t smile.


At the library, there’s a section on “The Earth’s Wonders,” so you start there. You aren’t trying to learn. You’re just trying to live.

When Les was diagnosed, you thought it was a stupid little joke. Like the tornadoes that used to threaten your hometown but never showed up. In one of the books from the library, you read about how a twister’s winds can dominate a two-ton vehicle. You read about volcanic glass and lava flows. These are not jokes.

Les treated it like a joke when you tried to tell her about the time with the glass, Mom’s scream, the blood. She would have been too young to remember, and though you were too young to make sense of it you tried to years later. “Dad wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Les said, scrolling on her phone. You felt fire, but you never brought it up again. Still, she must have kind of known. It could explain her torment.


You try to sleep at the library. You fail. The janitor finds you just before she heads out. So you try again later, this time showing up at 9 a.m. to sleep during daylight. This works. But it means you have to be on the streets at night. It’s not so bad, but soon you realize a well-lit public place, even a quiet one, isn’t ideal for sleep.

After weeks of half-assed rest, you start to wake-dream scenarios precariously placed between fact and fiction. You know you got wasted the night you learned about Les’s diagnosis. But now you can’t be sure if you cried in a man’s arms, yelling, that bitch. You can’t be sure your father shoved your mother that morning and that’s why the glass broke. Was there actually blood?

And it’s Les you want to talk to now, even though you don’t know what she could say. She’d been checked out years before her death, and at some point you didn’t do anything to request more. You crave — and resent — her calming presence despite her full-on fucking chaos.


You have just enough money to take the train home, eat along the way, and ride back. It’s the first sunny day in weeks, and home sounds as much like an adventure as anything. In the traincar you read about how lava flows aren’t what we make them out to be. This makes sense to you. Fire isn’t water. Still, you love those Hollywood representations: drippy, elegant despite their power.

You fall asleep to a chapter on copper, reading about how you have underwater volcanic activity to thank for your thumb ring.

You wake to what you think must be one of your strange little dreams: a thin, towering flash of fire in the distance. You watch for a moment as if in the theater: intrigued but, in the most literal sense, detached. It’s not until the person in the seat in front of you is on their knees, phone camera against the window, that you realize this might not be the cinema of your dreams.

Someone behind you laughs a bubbly laugh, blurts out, firenado. But is it possible? The tube whirls as high as you can see. You’d forgotten it was still fire season, forgotten the hot danger hiding in these woods. It’s the first sunny day in weeks, even though it’s the season for sun.

It’s a haunting scene, but no one around you seems afraid. And why should they be? They’re not in the woods. But you are. You spurt from the flame into the ether. The ground isn’t lava, but the sky is sizzling. Up there beyond regret, above reason.


Your father looks the same. Your mother looks lighter. You don’t know what to say to them, but you’ve arrived with bagels in hand. Three everythings.

You imagined you might confront one or both of them. Prove yourself right, Les wrong. But you were already right, and Les is already gone. Together the three of you eat bready goods that line your teeth with sand. You know you’re not alone, not really, but you also know you are, even here. Especially here.

You think about copper, about the ocean’s floor becoming jewelry. You think about shooting into the ether, leaving this earthy stuff behind. You hate that you’re sure about this, though: Somehow, some way, you’d end up right back here. Sand, dirt, ash in the earth, whatever. But would you be alone?


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