Literary Orphans

Unbecoming by Jessica Cooper

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I had a dream a few nights ago that our house caught fire. I stood watching from my childhood garden, long overgrown—though why that garden appeared in our backyard I’m not certain, a relic from my old house on Bridgewood St. I thought I had forgotten. I watched and I watched and I couldn’t move, could only stand looking as smoke billowed around me. Ash fell like snow, a strange sight for August. I think I looked best while burning.

I called your name but you didn’t answer, and truthfully I’m not sure you were ever there at all. Maybe it was better that way because you somehow would’ve made a joke of the whole thing, talked about stars and bad luck and salt scattered across a tabletop you never tossed over your shoulder. Said something likeI’m burning up for you, baby,or maybe sang it like the Jonas Brothers song I loved when I was a kid. I would have criticized you for your menial mistakes, then, like forgetting to make the bed before all of this happened. In the end we would have laughed. Maybe about how you never took anything seriously, maybe about something different, like how the soot in your hair made you look like your old man and I told you early graying ran in the family. What else is there to do when you’re dreaming of your burning house? I would have fallen to the ground from the stitch in my side, I’m sure of it.

As it was, I stood and watched and tried to listen for things crumbling inside. A crack in the kettle my grandmother gave us for our wedding, the charred edges of photographs from our honeymoon. I was a bit disappointed when I couldn’t hear much past the crackling, flames leaping bigger every second. I thought maybe our unbecoming would have its own particular sound, one I could bottle and remember, like a warning bell if I ever heard it again. I suppose all ruin sounds mostly the same.

The air was getting pretty thick with smoke at that point, and hot, too. I wondered vaguely why none of our neighbors noticed, the rest of our road a tidy row of sleeping houses. My old garden really did look out of place there, with all its weeds and tangled vines. The homeowner’s association would have both of our heads for it, although I know you never cared much for that sort of thing, made me feel silly for how I constantly fretted over chipped paint or dead leaves. I never did appreciate that, you know, was only ever trying to keep us in good standing. I thought I could build a life for us, neat and suburban, full of Sunday night football and potlucks.

Anyway, our roof caved in and so did our floors, and everything tumbled down in a spot that was too bright, and the rest of the world too dark, that salt pricked from the corners of my eyes and I had to look away. And I burned, too, dressed myself in bones and thought about things like making the bed and taking out the trash and finding the shears we had buried somewhere in the garage.

And then I woke up, darling, and it was like pulling your head above water you hadn’t realized you were under, like I was only just realizing how thick the air had been in my lungs, and how real it felt, too. I swore I were made of cinders but there was my arm next to yours, and there was the steady rise and fall of your chest beneath the covers, undisturbed. I think I’ll start a garden tomorrow. I think I’ll grow orange tulips with buds that smell like smoke.

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Jessica Cooper is currently pursuing her bachelor’s in communication and minoring in professional and creative writing at the University of Maryland. She most recently had poetry published in the literary magazine STYLUS, and was recognized as a finalist for the Jimenez-Porter Literary Prize.

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–Foreground Art by Milton G. (Paradise Found)

–Background Art by Nicu Buculei