June 26, 2020
The Scent of Roses
By Jennifer Worrell
When my brother, Andrew, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole and a box of hooks, an earmarked copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Hustler magazines.
One dare at a party and all of a sudden you’re a lesbian. Idiot.
He’d packed up his stuff in increments as if he wanted his leaving to slip from our minds. Collected box after box from his job at the dollar store. Didn’t have much to put in ’em, but after work he’d load one up and slip it under the bed. Books one day, CDs another. Desk drawers upended on a third, leaving the blotter and lamp untouched. You’d never notice a thing was changed. Until you walked in and saw all the empty hanging on the walls.
This explains everything, the Post-it on the book read. Thankfully he didn’t write that on the magazines.
Books I liked fine. Didn’t know what the hell I’d do with a fishing pole. Seemed a silly thing to have thrust into my hands after lining his truck bed with boxes, whipping up a sack lunch for the road, barely a minute to say good-bye. He stood in the hallway smirking as I ducked from room to room, no time to sit, no time to think; Drew needed to be in the dorm, settled and squared away, or else all this would be wasted.
Slow down, he said, but the words had about as much effect on me as the other thousand times he’d said it.
His dawdling could make a turtle impatient. If he missed the first day of classes we’d never hear the end of it. The neighbors would nod their heads, yes, we knew he wasn’t cut out for it; lazy, those Pullmans, and I wasn’t having any of that. First in the family to go to college. That was big enough to hold all our heads up.
As the dust of his pickup settled around my feet, I realized I wasn’t holding his pole as much as I leaned on it for support. The sun turned the sky orange and the humidity sank with it. I remembered something he told me about the fish, about how they bite better when it’s cooler and quiet. I sped off—I only moved at two speeds, fast and faster—in the direction of the creek with the ham sandwiches he forgot on the porch, dropping the magazines in the trash where they belonged.
I skidded up to the water’s edge, bewildered for a second on what happens next. Never had more than a minute to dip my toes in.
For a good hour, I’d have to stop.
Stop moving, stop muttering to myself, just stop. Thread up a hook and poke ham on the end of it. Hope fish liked pork. Sit and stare and breathe and goddamn, what a boring hobby. I hoped all that sitting had prepared him for hours of classes.
Nobody was around. Not even a squirrel to watch. Despite the low light I figured I’d crack the book. I scooched up against a tree, set the pole between my ankles, and crossed my legs to hold it steady in case I nabbed a big one.
Animal stories. Lord! A mole cleaning house, no less. Like I needed to read about something I did every chance I got. I skimmed ahead a few pages.
Mole got sick of that life and left, met up with a toad with ADD, and they got to traveling.
When we were kids, Drew made up stories as we walked to secret groves and hidden caves in a county we’d known all our lives. One day we were missionaries, one day pirates, one day ice fishers in remote Alaska. He bought musty atlases at used bookstores and dreamed up such big adventures, his finger traced right off the page, like the world wasn’t big enough to hold him.
He spent hours on this bank, more and more as we got older, needing time alone like the badger in the story. He joked that he applied to college only when we ran out of new to visit.
At least I thought that was a joke.
I twitched my feet every now and then, bouncing the bait on the edge of the line, hoping to attract some customers. Thoughts of chores and gossip and everything faded with the light, and I could catch only the words that lit up between the branches. I had to fill in the shadowy spots with imagination: I replaced the barge with a raft we lashed together, our own dirty feet scuffing side by side, listening to the songs Drew sang so I wouldn’t be scared of the dark.
I never told him that. But he could read my mind, like we shared a secret language.
He’d learn a lot of them now, studying anthropology. His days would be filled with all kinds of words and culture and people, all a thousand roads away.
The light came brighter on the pages, and I realized the moon had rose. My chest felt heavy and the sound of nobody filled my ears. The heat pressed down on me. It took all the air away.
I hadn’t caught a thing and I hated him for it. I raised my arm to pitch the book into the creek. But I couldn’t let go.
I snatched the bag of spoiling sandwiches and used the pole to hoist me up, but lost my balance trying to keep everything in my hands. The book fell and cracked open, and as the back pages flipped closed, a flash of yellow caught my eye.
There were never any fish in that creek.
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