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Michael Simonds 

Michael Simonds was born and raised in Houston before leaving to attend Oberlin College where he majored in Computer Science and Film Studies. He is currently based in Austin where he works as a software developer. He is a reader for the online publication Split Lip Magazine and writes in his spare time. You can find him on X @msimonds95.

After the volleyball game, with her two daughters absent, Betty Ramirez glanced into the rearview mirror. She had wanted to make sure everyone had their seatbelts on but was greeted by the sight of the vacant minivan instead. She felt embarrassed, for a moment, as she stared at the two rows of stained seats and the emptiness around them. It looked so much smaller now.

Betty was thankful for moments like these when she caught herself on autopilot. They were reminders, like looking for a relative at a family gathering before realizing they had passed away months before. It was better this way.

Betty took one last look in the mirror before she straightened up in her seat, shifted into reverse, and peeled away from the school’s gymnasium.

The girls had played well that day, Sara especially, even though it was only her first year. She had never been interested in sports before and Betty remembered her surprise when Sara announced she would be trying out. She figured Sara just wanted to be closer to her sister, Angela, who would be moving on to high school the following year.

It was the start of a weekend, and the girls were buzzing as they ran up to hug Betty before being whisked away by their father for the next two days. After their goodbyes, Betty pushed through the gymnasium doors and was temporarily blinded by the sun. Outside she could breathe again—she was happy about that—but she noticed a new heaviness had settled somewhere in her chest.

Far from the gym now and driving alone, Betty missed the smell the most. It was an acrid odor—a mix of sweat, uniforms, and kneepads that permeated the air in the van after her daughters’ games. She missed how she would attempt to breathe through her mouth for as long as possible until she inevitably got distracted, caught up talking to the girls, or fiddling with the radio. She missed how she would accidentally take a breath through her nostrils inhaling the full scent of the girls, how she couldn’t ignore it, eventually giving in and rolling down her window. She missed how it made her appreciate the fresh air even more.

It was a beautiful day. The girls were with their father, they were safe, and it was a beautiful day. She rolled down the windows to feel the wind hit her face and drove over the speed limit. Betty considered taking the highway home but decided to wait and try another day.

Betty approached a neighborhood dive bar. It was happy hour, and she craved a fish taco. She was about to turn into the parking lot when she remembered the laundry waiting for her at home. She still had to think about dinner, too and Angela would be mad if she found out she had tacos without her. She could feel the heaviness in her chest begin to tighten, yet she continued driving.

There was no homeowner’s association in Betty’s neighborhood. The development was something between the suburbs and the city nestled right off the interstate between a chemical plant and an office park. Betty was only a mile from home when her rear bumper was suddenly struck, the van sent spinning.

By the time her car had settled and she realized what had happened, Betty was only able to catch a glimpse of a jet-black truck in the distance, its paper license plate flapping in the wind as it sped away.

She sat still and assessed herself. She held her shaking hands out in front of her and noted the copper taste of blood in her mouth. She looked in the mirror and saw that her lip was split; other than that there were no visible signs of injury. She was alive and was fine enough.

After stepping out of the car and inspecting the damage—a broken taillight and a large dent next to it—she put the keys into the ignition and drove the rest of the way home. These things happen, she thought to herself as she rolled down her windows again. These things happen.

The first steps Betty took when she got home were towards the laundry room. She started the washer, set it to a large load, poured the detergent, and stripped off her t-shirt, bra, and shorts tossing them all into the basin. She grabbed the rest of the darks from her hamper and threw them in too. When she closed the lid, she had already begun to feel better.

She grabbed an ice pack in one hand and her phone in the other before settling on the sofa to call her insurance company. Afterwards, she continued about her chores, attending to each item off her checklist with a sort of desperation. Once she had completed them all she began to add more.

By the time nightfall arrived, Betty was getting hungry. She filled her sink with hot water and threw a package of frozen salmon into it. She set a pot of quinoa to boil and began chopping vegetables. No cars passed by the house, no planes overhead, and there was no commotion outside of her small kitchen. Betty became aware of the quiet that surrounded her, a glimpse into her future that would one day become a norm.

As Betty finished chopping the zucchini, her phone rang. She put down the knife, wiped her hands, and grabbed it from the counter.

Her heart skipped a beat as she read the words “Jerry Ramirez” splayed across the screen. It was late, but not late enough for her daughters to be calling to say goodnight. She experienced this panic anytime there was an unexpected call now.

Betty let the phone ring twice more before she answered.

“Jerry, is everything alright?”

“Hey, Betty. Yeah, everything’s fine.”

Betty was relieved, but she couldn’t relax. “So why are you calling?” she said with a twinge of regret as the words spilled out.

“Here, I’ll let Angela tell you.”

Betty waited as she heard the phone being passed to her daughter, thankful that Jerry didn’t call her out for her tone, thankful she didn’t have to apologize for it either. She heard from one of the girls that Jerry had started going to therapy; she was also thankful for that.

Jerry was used to her snippiness by now. Something had changed in Betty a while back. He wasn’t sure when it started but he knew it was before they lost their oldest daughter, Kris, in a four-car pile-up on the interstate last year. It was the afternoon, stop-and-go traffic for miles. Kris was caught in the middle. It happened on one of Jerry’s weekends with the girls.

But the change happened before all that. It was before their divorce, before his affair. If he had to guess, it must have been right around that night he found her in the kitchen. She was leaning up against the counter, drinking a cup of tea, and staring out the window. She wasn’t scrolling through her phone or reading or nothing—just standing—standing and sipping.

When Jerry asked her what she was doing, she said, “The moon—it looks like it’s too close tonight.”

Jerry walked to where his wife was standing and bent his head down to her ear, as close to her vantage point as possible, before looking out the window. It looked like any other night to him. Still, he gave her a kiss on her neck and said he agreed.

“Hey Mom. How do you get the smell out of kneepads? We tried washing them, but they still smell.”

“Sometimes they can be stubborn,” she said, “Reminds me of someone I know.”

“Mom, come on.”

“Does your dad have any vinegar? —Okay, good. Pour a few cups of it in a full washer and let them soak for an hour. Then just wash them again like normal. Soak Sara’s, too.”

“But they don’t smell.”

“Soak them anyways.”

Angela agreed and said her goodnights before handing the phone to her younger sister who did the same.

She considered mentioning the accident but couldn’t bring herself to broach the subject. She would take the van to the shop tomorrow. It would be fixed by the time she had to pick them up after school on Monday. They wouldn’t need to know.

Betty hung up the phone and put it down. She looked over at the chopped zucchini and listened to the cicadas humming around her. She picked her phone back up and called in an order for fish tacos to be delivered. She looked down at herself sitting naked on the sofa, and she realized she could smell her underarms, which made her laugh.

Betty got up and began to draw a bath with Epsom salt and lavender oil. As the tub filled, she went back to the kitchen to put away the scatterings of her abandoned dinner. When she finished, she grabbed a glass from the cupboard and opened a new bottle of Moscato. She poured out a serving and took her time drinking it right there in the kitchen. She poured out another glass and carried it to the bathroom with her.

When she got in the tub the water bordered on scalding, but she didn’t get out. She could feel her blood pressure dropping from the heat, the scent of lavender unraveling her. She closed her eyes and sank as far into the tub as she could. Betty was at peace.

She lay there and thought of nothing.

Suddenly, from under the water, she could hear the muffled sound of her phone ringing from above. Betty's heart skipped a beat, and she fought the urge to rise. It’s probably nothing, she thought; they could just call back if it was that important. She wasn’t going anywhere.

The phone continued to ring, like a distant trill from a world Betty no longer belonged to. There will always be another call, she thought, the words echoing around her head like a new mantra. There will always be another call.

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