The Breaks

Mal could barely control her giddiness. She was faint from the anxiety and excitement coursing through her body, running in parallel neon streams from the top of her head to the tips of her tingling fingers and toes.

“I’d like to buy a vowel,” she shouted, her voice hoarse from the effort.

The light shone down on her, illuminating fair strands of hair and heavy globs of mascara. Mal ignored the glare, her pale blue eyes focused on the board before her. She knew this, she absolutely knew it. The answer was “Howling with laughter.”

“An A!” Alex called back. Vanna, resplendent in a red sequined gown that hugged her famous curves, walked gracefully from one end of the platform to the other, her manicured hand pushing the black button on each lit screen.

The audience cheered, the noise reverberating throughout the windowless studio. It echoed around Mal, pulsed just outside her ears. She could feel the air pushing against her, and her heart thumped harder and faster.

“I’d like to solve the puzzle, Alex,” she called.

Howling with laughter, howling with laughter, howling with laughter. She muttered the phrase under her breath, her mind whirling at the thought of what she would do with her winnings. She would get the final puzzle. Obviously. Then she could take her money – taxes, what? – pay off her remaining student debt, the typical albatross of her unfortunate generation, then she was out of here. Leaving behind her nagging mother, her cheating boyfriend. Paradise was just a plane ride away. And she watched enough movies (“The Firm,” anyone?) to know that the Cayman Islands were the place to be. Sun, sand, surf and safe banks. It was a no-brainer.

Mal lifted onto her toes, bounced three times, then cupped her hands around her mouth to clearly and confidently announce, “Howling with laughter!”

She squealed after the announcement, went from bouncing to jumping exuberantly. Her ill-fitting black blazer flapped at her wide hips, her limp curls sprung apathetically. She didn’t care. This was her moment.

So absorbed was she that Mal didn’t notice the audience’s lukewarm applause or the look exchanged between the two other players. All that mattered was that she was the smartest. The fastest. The winner. She was going to win. Win.

Beep, beep.

“I’m sorry, that’s not correct. On to you, Matt. Spin that wheel!”

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The Death and the Cradle

She stood in the closet. Leaning in, she nestled her face among the dress shirts, the flannel shirts, the blazers. She breathed in deeply, comforted by the smell, a mix of detergent and cologne. It was, for her, almost like being with her husband.

She lifted her arms and wrapped them around the clothing, letting the hangers take on her weight. Her knees gradually lowered to the ground, and her body slid from the rack.

Denise curled on the floor next to a rack of shiny leather shoes. With a sob, she rubbed her swollen belly.

Her black dress clung to her clammy skin, and she reached up to pull one of the flannel button-downs. She spread it over herself, a soft blanket to warm and console. She closed the closet door, though filmy light filtered in through the wooden slats. And she rocked herself to sleep, burrowed among her sweetheart’s things.