Shorter stories from Daniel Smith, Venita Blackburn and more

Art by Joya Logue

The morning they were to leave for Orange Island—he had packed their clothes and beach gear the night before—his wife told him she was no longer attracted to him.

The problem, it seemed, was his moles. He had – since puberty – three dark moles on his lower abdomen, between his groin and his navel on his right side. The moles were arranged in a triangle with a dime-sized dot in the center, and although not very large, they stood upright and sometimes sprouted coarse hairs.

“I’ll have them removed,” he said. “I’ll call the dermatologist as soon as we get back.”

His wife was sitting cross-legged on the carpet.

“What?” he said. “What is it?”

“It’s not the moles,” she said. “It’s how you smell.”

This surprised the man; he had always been meticulous about hygiene.

“How do I smell?” he said. “I stink?”

“Not bad,” she said. “But not good.”

The man asked his wife, as calmly as he could, to describe his scent. She pulled a scarf over her bare shoulders. He asked her again.

“Like carrots,” she said. “You smell like cooked carrots.”

The man was stunned. “But haven’t I always smelled the same?” he asked.

No, she answered. When they met, in his mid-20s, he smelled like Thomas Fine, a boy she’d known in high school. Then everything had changed and now he smelled like boiled carrots.

The man asked his wife to describe the old fragrance to him – the Thomas Fine fragrance.

“Actually, I lied then,” she said. “You’ve always smelled like boiled carrots.”

What could the man do? He agreed with his wife that they should divorce. I am still a relatively young manhe thought, and virile. I’ll wear someone else. For a long time the man and his wife sat without talking. Then the man said he was going to tell the children.

“Be gentle,” the woman said. “They have their tests next week.”

The man put on a shirt and walked down the hall. Their daughters shared a room with a window overlooking the harbor. They sat at their desks studying their test manuals. When Lucinda saw the man at the door, she winced.

“Something grown-up has happened!” she cried.

“Yes, something mature has happened,” he said. “That’s very noticeable. You are a very observant child.”

“And I’m an idiot,” Antonia said.

“No, honey, you’re not an idiot,” he said. “You just have different skills.”

Antonia’s eyes cleared. “What are they, Daddy?” she asked. “What are my skills?”

He answered honestly that he didn’t know. “That’s what the test will tell us.”

“I’m not going to make it,” Antonia said.

“No one fails,” he said. “It’s not that kind of test.”

Then Lucinda said that Billy Bradfield’s older brother had failed his exams and that he had been transferred to a special school far inland where his parents could only visit him on holidays. Hearing this, the man became upset and told both his daughters to shut up, he had something important to say.

Lucinda wiped her eyes on a stuffed dolphin. “It’s about Charles, isn’t it?” she said.

“No, it’s not about Charles,” he said. Then: “Who is Charles?”

Antonia brushed her hair and said, “Mama’s friend. The one she drinks coffee with.”

“On Tuesday,” Lucinda said. ‘While you’re at work. They go to the coffee and mom comes back satisfied.”

“Not happy,” Antonia said, and her face seemed to lengthen. “Satisfied. Mommy comes back happy.”

“That’s right,” Lucinda said. “Satisfied. Satisfied is the better word.”

The man felt weak and the girls grabbed his hands and led him to a beanbag chair in a corner. They let him sit quietly and stood above him. They looked very sweet to him as he stood there, with the light behind them and the breeze in their hair.

“Don’t worry,” Lucinda said. “We won’t forget you.”

“How could we?” said Antonia.

“Impossible,” Lucinda said.

“You’re part of us,” Antonia said.

“Indelible,” Lucinda said.

“Absolutely,” said Antonia.

The man begged his daughters to tell him everything they knew about Charles. He said he hated Charles and wished he were dead. He said he would find and kill Charles.

The girls frowned.

“That’s absurd,” Lucinda said.

“An absurd male fantasy,” Antonia said.

“We expect better from you,” Lucinda said.

They told the man that Charles seemed like a decent person, no better or worse than anyone else. He was lost for a while, they said. He had struggled with an addiction. Pills. But now he was better.

“More or less,” Antonia added.

“Yeah, more or less,” Lucinda said.

“But I want to know more,” the man said. “You have to tell me more. I want to know everything about him.”

The girls looked at each other sadly, then settled into the folds of the man’s arms. They sat for a long time in the beanbag, listening to the seagulls and the harbor master’s horn. Now and then the man pressed his face against the crowns of his daughters and inhaled their scent. The sun was setting and they began to hear the girls’ mother calling from the dock.

“It’s time to go,” Lucinda said.

“We don’t want to miss the ferry,” Antonia said.

Their mother called again.

“We’ve decided it’s best if you don’t come,” Lucinda said.

“It’s an issue, we think, whose grief is worse,” Antonia said. “It will be sadder for us to have you with us than for us to miss you.”

They had each packed a small suitcase. On one was a ladybug, on the other butterflies. The man had bought the suitcases himself and attached hand sanitizer bottles to the zippers. The girls pulled their bags from under their desks and drove to the door.

“Well, until now,” Lucinda said.

“Hello, Daddy,” Antonia said.

The man told his daughters that he would call them every day and that they should check each other for ticks every night before bed, even on their genitals, because ticks love warm places and you can never be too careful.

From the beanbag, the man could hear the suitcases pounding heavily down the stairs. He waited until he heard the wheels rattle across the old dock and faintly up the aluminum ramp to the ferry. The wind had died down. It would be an easy crossing for them. On the other hand, they would have to drag their bags through the sand to the bungalow, where they would be tired from the journey. But the weather would be clear and warm all week—he’d checked the weather forecast—and they’d be laughing and seeing deer. They saw deer every day, shyly poking their faces out of the orange groves, only to pause and run back again, looking for those faint clearings among the trees that must have been the only refuge for their dull animal minds. allowed on that thin, crowded island.

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