Fiction winner

Almost every morning, I wake up with no cigarettes and leg cramps. It's May now and already the heat coats your skin until it feels like you're carrying the entire summer on your body. The magnolia trees have been blooming and sometimes the smell of wilting flowers fills you up so much, it makes the world tilt a little in your brain and the last thing you should be doing is walking around. But I have no cigarettes and leg cramps, and besides, the house starts to whisper things you can never understand when you're alone in there for too long, so maybe I will walk to the corner store.

I will.

On my way there, I see a man in a suit walking his old red dog in the ditch by my house. I like this dog because it looks like my friend's dog and my friend is dead now, so every little reminder, every piece of that time, sinks into my heart a little more and I wave whenever I see them out. I think about saying, "Looking sharp" or maybe something about dressing fancy when you take your dog out to shit, but decide not to. I haven't been talking much this morning and sometimes when that happens, my voice comes out funny. I don't really talk to anyone anymore and I worry that I'll forget how to make sounds with my throat or which parts of my mouth my tongue needs to touch to say certain words. What if someone is dying in a crowd of people and I'm the only one who can see this? How will I get them help? What if I'm dying? I get upset and miss people and my voice, my not funny voice, and everything just seems so far away. So sometimes it's best to not say anything at all.

My eyes are down, watching the trash parade past my line of sight. Kentucky Fried Chicken bag, Coke can, Miller can, white T-shirt with the armpits ripped out, diaper folded like a gardenia, black tail, black hind legs, soft, black stomach. The flies have already begun to swirl around her head like some horrible halo. I can't look away fast enough so I take it all in.

When I hand the clerk my five-dollar bill, I see the blue of the dog's collar in his eyes.

Coming back, I see a black sedan with yellow flashing lights and FUNERAL lit up on the roof like TAXI or PIZZA. It's parked outside the man's house and there are more cars, normal cars with nicely dressed people sitting inside. These cars are starting to line up and you would think people would be yelling directions like "go this way" or "you go ahead of me" but everything is very, very quiet. I think I can hear the ladies' dresses rustling in the stiff breeze, but it's just dead leaves and plastic bags from the corner store.

I slow down and try to remember everything I know about funerals and wakes and is it bad luck to cross in front of a funeral procession even if it's not procession-ing yet? There were a lot of cars at that house last night, pretty late, too, so does that mean there was a viewing? Did the man sleep with a dead body in the house? A dead loved one? Did the old red dog know anything was up or did he just shuffle around and sniff people before falling asleep in the middle of everything, like I know old dogs are apt to do? Did the old dog know the dead person? Is he going to the funeral, too?

Instead of going past the cars, I turn onto a side street and keep walking.

I think that beauty follows death wherever it goes.

In the days following my friend's death, everything was beautiful. Colors became what I thought Christians imagined people becoming when they went to heaven. The red of the hibiscus was somehow better, more pure, like what happens to you when Jesus takes you in or something. I began to understand why black, the complete absence of color, was the choice for the grieving. Everything moved very aware of everything else and all music went along with the flashing motel signs and radio tower lights. My heart was always beating too fast those days.

The first thing I notice are the egrets.

Two egrets, standing four feet apart in the gutter, in identical positions. Legs splayed at a forty-five degree angle, heads tilted up toward the sun with the crest floating behind on the stale air, like I caught them in the middle of a ballet and time stopped because humans are not allowed to see birds dance like that. I feel guilty seeing this, scared that if I move too fast or look too long, they will fly away. So I move slowly, eyes to the left. Keep dancing, I never saw you.


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