Winner's Circle | Fiction

Art Journal Page 5, mixed media by Davney Herriges Stahley

Valentine

“I think she likes you.” Remi tilts her head, keeping the movement subtle so as not to attract the guard’s attention.

I snort. No one likes anyone here, at least not in the daylight; relationships are a death sentence. I scoop a shovelful of dirt, loose it over the wheelbarrow, let my eyes drift to Devon. Remi’s right; the woman is looking right at me, bold. A slight smile curves her mouth before she breaks contact, bending to pick up a bag of soil, tossing its fifty pounds over her shoulder as if it’s a child.

The whip sings; fabric parts over my left shoulder, and skin, freeing blood. Remi’s mouth tightens, but she’s facing the ground so the guard doesn’t see.

“You there! Sixty-three! Back to work!”

The guard’s name is Jimmy. I know more than that about him, and I wish I didn’t.

“It’s like he hates you.” Remi whispers it.

Ignoring the burn, I thrust the shovel into the thin soil and curse under my breath. I won’t be able to sleep on that shoulder for days—and sleep is hard enough to come by, packed in the dorm as we are, no air, no linens, no hope.

The official line is, we’re building a garden. For us, for the slaves. I’ll only believe it when I eat the first tomato.

“The Fundies have advanced nearly to Elmhurst.” Remi. “I heard it from a newbie.”

“They want us to believe that,” I scoff. “They say they’re better equipped, but they forget the Libs have guns, too.”

“You know they gots a tank? They gots a few from some armory out west. Smart. Can’t nobody stop a tank with just a rifle. I hear the Libs—”

“Better take that load.” I nod at the wheelbarrow, sand waterfalling over the edge. “One more shovel and we’ll have to do it together.”

“You always telling me what to do.” She frowns, picks up the handles.

I can’t do heavy stuff because of my back. The guards forced me, then whipped me, and I was in bed for a while—I don’t remember how long. It was Jimmy who stopped them, and now it’s Remi, with me, helping. Jimmy and the rest look the other way, Jimmy acting like he doesn’t know anything. I’m not stupid enough to think it’s compassion. Remi’s just young enough to do the heavy lifting. She grumbles, but she does it. And Jimmy—

I pick up both shovels and follow, wiping away sweat, and take the opportunity to squint at the horizon. There’s a fence, electrified, but not much to see beyond; this part of Illinois looks like it’s been run over by a hot iron a mile wide. The sky’s a muffled blue, heat crisping the edges white, not a cloud in sight. It used to be farm country, this hardpan. Drought’s mostly ruined it, drought and the war, but the guards say they’ll truck in water for the garden. Kim laughed when they said it. She’s a corpse now, in the pit with the rest.

“Who were you before?” Devon falls in beside me, says it low, and surprise makes me turn. She’s a head taller, muscles like worn metal, but thin like the rest of us, weight falling off with time. The only heavy women here are the newbies. Remi thinks Devon was a bodybuilder before. We women, we talk sometimes—at night, real quiet—but I’ve never talked to Devon.

“Who cares?” It’s dangerous, talking about the before time, and Devon should know it. We lost our identities at the door; now we’re numbers. Mine’s 107763. I was arrested five years ago. They started with 1, so the math’s easy. A lot of us voted the wrong way—in the before time, when there was voting. What year was that? I don’t remember. We forget, to survive.

“I do,” Devon whispers. “A lot of us do.”

“You shouldn’t.” Quiet but harsh. Stop it. Stop talking. Stop caring. I eye the guard. They’re rounding us up, all fifty of us, prepping for the noon meal, handing each of us a hard roll and water. Then it’ll be a stop in the piss pits and back to work. My stomach cramps hard.

“You were a teacher. Social science or something, right?”

I shrug.

“I taught phys ed. High school.”

Curiosity rustles awake in spite of the alarm bells. “Which one?”

“New Trier.”

“I started at New Trier.”

“You don’t remember me.”

And then the memory comes rushing back. “God. Yes, I do.” The staff meetings. Of course. Devon Reynolds. Nice woman, competent, great teacher. Actually cared about the kids, even the ones who couldn’t do push-ups, couldn’t run more than three steps. I have to bite back the smile, keep it in.

She smiles. “I’m glad.”

“We don’t have friends here, Devon.”

“I hear Jimmy—”

“Don’t.” Harsher than I mean it, and the smile dies. I move away, find Remi, who’s wolfing her roll, cross-legged in the dust. Trees are a far-off memory, most reduced to stumps; there’s no shade for miles.

Jimmy walks toward me through the heat, his badge reflecting sun into my eyes. One head-jerk from him and Remi scatters.

“Hey, sixty-three.” He sits on the hard ground next to me. Out of his sight, Devon frowns, then clears her face. I look away from them both. “You know I can get you sprung.” He says it low, so the other guards won’t hear. “Easy. You know God loves you, right?”

“I’ve heard it.” I focus on a bird, up high, circling, cruising. Is that a hawk? Are there still hawks? Is there still a—

“God spoke to me this morning.” Jimmy whispers, but the words shriek. “He told me you’re my wife. The one I been waiting for.” His head tilts. “Hawk. See? God sent a sign.”

“Jim, I’m Jewish.” He knows that. He watched as my parents refused to renounce their faith, watched as his buddies murdered them both in front of me that Sunday afternoon and took me away, no time to mourn, no time to chant the Kaddish.

“It ain’t a permanent condition, Ellie.”

“It is for me.”

The man scratches in the dust, and I watch, curious, but it’s a random pattern—nothing as dangerous as words. “You could be . . . they call it a Messiah Jew, or somethin’ like that. You’re still a Jew, you just got the light of truth.”

A tendril of temptation beckons, and I rise so quickly I stumble. One of the other guards—Toby, the mean one who put me in the infirmary—he blows his whistle, and women uncurl slow from the places they’re sitting, stuffing the last bites of roll into their mouths or gulping water from plastic cups. Hastily, Jimmy stands, as if he was herding me back in line. But as I move away, he grabs my arm. “I can’t protect you here, El.”

“You can’t protect me at all, Jimmy.”

He recoils, his face darkening, and I wonder if I’ve gone too far, talking back to a guard. And all at once, I just don’t care. I’m tired of lying, tired of the pressure to convert, tired of trading sex for the illusion of safety in a deal that wasn’t my idea to begin with. “And neither can your God.”

I leave him where he stands and weave my way back to Remi, back to shifting dust.

That night, at lights out, it isn’t Remi in our bunk, but Devon. “We traded,” she whispers as I slide in beside her, my face a question mark. She puts her arm around my shoulders, avoiding my injury, and I shrug and snuggle close. Women murmur quietly around us; we learned long ago that too much noise brings the guards, and we don’t want the guards in here at night. Despite the prohibition, friendships happen, relationships form. But only at night. The guards come, we break apart. “You’re tired.”

“Well, yeah. It’s night,” I point out, and she shakes her head.

“I mean the one with the whip. You’re tired of it.”

I frown. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“You’re beautiful, Eliana.” Gently, she touches my lips. “Still beautiful. No wonder he’s gone on you.”

“Beauty is a curse here.”

“It always was.” Dropping her hand, she looks across the dust-stippled room at the women holding each other, touching hair, comforters and comforted. A newbie two bunks over sobs into her neighbor’s shoulder, confessing sins former and present.

“You ever marry?”

Devon nodded. “Married, had two—” She gulps, screws her eyes shut. “God, I miss him. I miss them.” A tear traces her cheek. I smell her breath, feel her exhale on my cheek. I wipe the tear away, put it in my mouth for the salt.

“Maybe after—” I stop. I don’t want to know, don’t want to hope.

Her eyes open, lashes wet. “I can stop him. Jimmy.”

Hope flutters, dies. “He’ll kill you. He’ll kill us both.”

She shakes her head. “Not that way, Ellie.” Her arm tightens around me.

I consider crying, but tears have long since abandoned me. “What do you charge?” Fear knots my gut. There is only so much currency here.

She smiles, gentle. “Consider it a professional courtesy. Just one favor?”

Somehow I nod, and my throat closes at the look in her eyes.

Devon bends over me, and I accept her kiss, the softness of her lips on mine, a hesitant tongue, her hands stroking my body in desperate caress, and then there is a mighty wrench, a soft floating into darkness, and I have only a moment to wonder if anyone will ever know, will ever chant the Kaddish over me.

In the Christian States of America, where religion rules, one woman discovers the only rules are about survival. Although she’s legally an adult, eighteen-year-old Meryn Flint must live at home until her stepfather, Ray, finds her a husband. That’s the law. But when Ray kills her mother and Meryn must flee for her own safety, she quickly discovers there’s no safe place for a woman on the run. Unless she’s willing to marry her former boyfriend—a man who’s already demonstrated his capacity for violence—she’ll be forced to live on the street. And that’s a dangerous option for a woman alone. As time runs out, Meryn is offered a third path: build herself a tiny house, a safe place to call home. Even though it’s a violation of her Family Duty as well as every moral law on the books, Meryn seizes the chance. But even a tiny tin house might not be enough to save her . . .
"A dystopian science fiction novel that is a believable extrapolation of current social, cultural, and religious attempts to restrict and roll back the rights and freedoms of women, Tiny Tin House is a masterfully crafted and riveting novel populated throughout by memorable characters.” ~ Midwest Book Review
L Maristatter has published poetry in the web journal Defunct and fiction in The Saturday Evening Post online. She is on Facebook and Twitter (regularly), and Instagram and TikTok (when she's feeling brave).
Support independent booksellers by finding Tiny Tin House on Bookshop.org or in your local bookstore. It’s also available on Amazon.

Bios

L. Maristatter has published fiction on the Saturday Evening Post website and poetry in the online journal Defunct. She holds both a BA and an MA from Arizona State University, and is a member of the Author’s Guild, the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Realm Makers. In 2022 she published her debut novel, Tiny Tin House, through NiffyCat Press. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and gardening.
Davney Herriges Stahley describes herself as a non-traditional artist who doesn’t take herself too seriously. Using paint, ink, paper, cloth, cardboard, junk and natural items, she creates collages, paintings and mixed media works in her Milwaukee WI studio. Her practice often features whimsical creatures and fantastical places.

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