Alden Jones’s debut short fiction collection, Unaccompanied Minors—out from New American Press on June 15—received the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. And rightly so; the stories are dark, funny, raw, and surprising. Following is an excerpt from the collection’s final story, “Flee.”
by Alden Jones
We were always hungry, all of us. We fought over food. We tried to trick each other out of fair shares. Elliot said he had never seen anything like it.
“Most groups have so much extra food they have to bury the leftovers,” he’d told us, shaking his head.
Eating, we watched each other’s mouths, wondering whose mouth was fullest.
Anna Verges cooked for us. The idea was we would cook together, but as long as Anna did it, no one else had to. She made our dinners, and she got up early to start the stoves. The orange cylinder of strike-anywhere matches was essentially all hers.
Had she asked for help, I would not have offered mine. I was not in training to be another woman in another kitchen. When it was time to clean up, I pretended I had to go to the bathroom and disappeared into the woods.
“That green powder was pea soup?” Deirdre said, disappointed. “I was sure it was pistachio pudding.” Some complained about pea soup, how could they give us pea soup when it was something that so many people hated? But when Skylar and Ryan asked for the shares of the complainers, they bent down into their cups and ate.
“Are there any seconds?” Skylar asked. I found a small pebble in my rice and picked it out. Three or four spoonfuls remained in the bottom of my cup; I looked around the tarp for other edibles, and saw none.
“Skylar can’t have seconds until the rest of us finish,” Ryan protested.
“I was just asking if there WERE any, dickhead,” Skylar said.
“No,” Anna said, “I dished it all out,” which reminded us to thank Anna for cooking.
“I wish I had a cigarette,” Carlyn said.
Elliot, trying for irony, said, “That’s the attitude,” but it came off as condescension. Our other leader, Cath, cleared her throat.
“I wish I had a big slice of peanut butter pie right out of the freezer, with globs and globs of hot fudge on it,” Deirdre said, as she licked her spoon clean of pea soup, and looked down into her metal cup to see if there was anything left to scrape out of it.
“That would kill me,” Ryan said. His blue eyes came alive in the beam of a headlamp. Someone groaned. “Get that light out of my face,” Ryan said, and shielded his eyes with his hand, sending a shadow across himself briefly before Skylar screwed his headlamp off.
“I’m going to kill you if you don’t stop talking about what could kill you,” Skylar said, sending Ryan into an instant sulk.
Peanuts were dangerous to Ryan. Kitchens were dangerous to me. Drugs of any kind were dangerous to Jim Jacobis, a skinny guy from Alabama who was here because of them. His counselor said Rehab or FLEX; his parents said choose, and Jim chose FLEX because it came without twelve steps or therapy, and he wasn’t ready to give up drugs, or even think about it hard.
“Percocets and a twelve-pack would be nice,” Jim said, looking at Elliot, and smirked.
“Someday I’ll tell you what that does to your blood pressure,” Elliot said, looking dark and frustrated, like a kid squirming in a dirty diaper, unable to articulate his discomfort.
“Which might give me a whole new reason to do it,” Jim said.
“Jim,” Carlyn said, warning him. If he talked like this too much, Cath and Elliot might go through his bags.
Skylar was here because he’d dropped out of college and didn’t know what else to do. Carlyn was here because she’d dropped out of college and was trying to figure out what to do next. I was here because I’d dropped out of college and was trying to figure out how to get back. I’d liked school. What had gone wrong?
In the beginning we were 11, but a couple who’d come together had been kicked off for having sex, and now we were nine.
Anna Zec was lost and sad. Veronica didn’t want to go to college at all, but didn’t know how to have a job, didn’t feel ready; she was seventeen, and where she was from no one worked a real job until they were at least twenty, done with college. Deirdre was using this as her Semester Abroad, and was even getting college credit for it. Cath and Elliot led trip after trip.
“It sure beats being in an office,” Elliot had said, at the top of a peak, while the rest of us glared at him, sucking for breath.
The official acronym of Florida Expeditions was FLEX, but in the outside world we called it FLEE.
But there was Anna, Anna Verges, who did yoga stretches on her sleeping mat before she rose to start the pots boiling and stayed serene all day. We didn’t trust her. Her unruly armpit hair had alienated the boys the minute they laid eyes on her, in the airport, where Anna Verges had hovered at the periphery of our circle in a pair of shorts that already looked dirty.
Anna Verges. She was the last one eating while the rest of us rubbed our cups out with water and pine needles. She knew how to measure out the bites, make it last. She knew no greed. We turned our backs on her, because she made us look bad. Only the maladjusted were social with her, and Anna returned their stabs at kindness; you could tell she didn’t know how to do otherwise.
“Who’s going to clean up?” Cath asked, and was greeted with silence.
“I will,” Anna Verges said. Anna Zec, who was off-kilter, friendless, offered to help. Anna Zec had chunks of hair missing because she had decided to cut it all off, but the scissors on her Swiss Army knife were tiny, ineffectual, and cutting with them was tedious; they sliced through only a few strands at a time, and she made the first cut without considering this. She cut it off bit by bit, in shifts. Sometimes, Anna Verges helped her, cutting the places in back where Anna Zec couldn’t reach.
Veronica gave names to people: Anna Zec was Flipper for the many times she’d flipped. Skylar was The Bullet for his tenacity and speed. Anna Verges was Mom.
“Thanks for dinner, Mom.” The boys went to the sleeping tarp. If I ever entered the kitchen tarp to work, I would do it only after every boy had done it first. I would not clean for any man before he cleaned for me.
Here is the one thing I would do: fill the water jugs down at the river. Veronica and I volunteered to fill the water jugs every night because Veronica had smuggled in a pack of Marlboros in a Ziplock bag and the river was way down trail, where they wouldn’t be able to smell us. We cleaned our cups, took the four empty jugs, and hiked down the trail, stopping for our fleece jackets. It was getting cold, even in Tennessee; it was early October. We were somewhere in the mountains. Our landscape was a densely treed pocket of the South with trails cut through it by decades of hikers. The treetops were so tall it was usually hard to locate a peak; we were always lost because of this. There were snake dens and bees’ nests and magical-seeming caterpillars with bright bodies and stingers. Branches grazed our arms as we hiked. It rained here more than it didn’t. If you had handed me a map five miles wide and asked me to pinpoint our location, I could do it, as long as I had a compass and had been paying attention during the last hike. If you’d handed me a map of Tennessee as asked me to point to the general area of our campsite, I’d be lost.
Veronica was a spoiled girl from northern California, freckled, adorable, a baby. She missed her stereo, her television shows, and the smell of her mother’s laundry soap.
“Should we smoke another one?” Veronica always needed someone to tell her when to stop.
“We only have ten cigarettes left,” I said.
“How many days until break?” Veronica asked, counting the cigarettes to be sure and putting them back in the pocket of her fleece jacket.
“Twenty-three,” I said. “Isn’t it interesting, how they make these sessions the length of a menstrual cycle?”
“Fascinating, Zoe. Be sure to tell that one to Jim and Skylar.”
I closed my lips. I was about to bleed, then; I could feel the tug on my nipples, the cringing in my uterus. It was the time I most craved contact with skin, and when the blood came, I would crave the thrust; and I would not hide my blood, especially not from the ones who feared it, who reveled, glibly, in that learned disgust.
“Misogyny,” I muttered.
“Huh?” Veronica said, with a tone that meant she didn’t really want to know.
For now, I opened my lips only to blow smoke. Honesty only got you so far when you were trying to make friends. Veronica was a friend I made over cigarettes and shared interests: we both wanted spots at the center of the tarp, and took turns saving each other places. She was hilariously funny, especially on the trail when humor was most needed, and told stories in a confident raspy voice.
Veronica and I filled the water jugs, giddy from the nicotine, in the shallow part of the river, where it ran fast. We counted twenty drops of iodine into each, and left them in the kitchen tarp for Anna Verges to boil for breakfast. The sediment began to sink.
I crawled into my bag in the middle of the tarp, the only position I would tolerate, surrounded by bodies on both sides, and took off everything except my underwear and turtleneck, stuffing it all into the sleep sack that was also my pillow. Skylar had already lifted his arm for me to crawl into his armpit, and as I snuggled in he reached for my breast over the slippery sleeping bag, and we kissed once, a long kiss, his growing beard scratching like hairbrush bristles pressed into my skin, making no noise at all, so silent that we could hear Anna Verges, alone in the kitchen tent, scraping out the pots, one of which had a burned bottom; she’d never get that pot clean. I fell asleep to cicadas and strange tree creaks and the scrape, the scrape of Anna Verges’s endurance.
Veronica was like the rest of us: coddled, tired, shocked by what was being asked of our bodies. Anna Verges was not.
Anna Verges had big, black eyes so dark the target of her pupil was lost. She was small and lithe, tiny, but strong; the hair that grew under her arms and like fur on her legs gave her a sense of virility. She was flexible and had what Elliot called “core strength,” meaning she could take a big, uneven step up a chunk of rock with ease and grace when the rest of the girls had to scramble up using our hands. She smelled like she’d crawled out of an ocean, briny and ripe.
When I tried to talk to her, I couldn’t get my tongue out of the way. It was swollen with the salt that I knew was on Anna’s skin.
Anna Verges came from a family of hippies who lived in Vermont. She slept naked, but she wanted to run naked, swim naked, just be unwrapped; only under the cover of her sleeping bag was this allowed.
“There are a few reasons why nakedness is prohibited,” Cath said. “The first one is in case hunters accidentally stumble on us.” We had to wash in our jog bras and underwear, when we got a chance to wash. It frustrated Anna, and she washed naked when she thought no one was looking. I did look. She was stunning, animal, as she squatted to dip her long hair in the water, her knees apart.
Anna hadn’t eaten meat in seven years. She didn’t care that we weren’t allowed to wash our hair. She didn’t wear deodorant.
“All it does is attract bugs,” Anna said. “You’re going to smell anyway.”
Veronica covered herself with deodorant just to spite Anna, putting it behind her knees, behind her neck, and woke up covered in welts.
Anna knew because she’d lived outside before. She’d spent months sleeping in a tent, following the Grateful Dead with her sister, Jessica, and her adopted sister, Naomi, which is what she’d been doing before she’d come to FLEE.
No one knew exactly what I’d been doing before Tennessee. I thought it would be best to keep it brief. I said, “I lived in New York,” which impressed them; they were from Iowa, New Hampshire, Alabama, the suburbs of New Jersey. I’d said, I’d lived in a dorm my freshman year, and then I’d moved into an apartment in the East Village with some friends, which made me sound independent. So far, a good story. I’d told them how I dropped out of school. They nodded their heads.
I even told them about how, in the end of my time in New York, I was smoking pot every day, all day, watching television all day, chain smoking cigarettes, which, after smoking pot, actually felt like they were cleansing my insides; I’d told them how I’d lost interest in things, in school, in my friends—I didn’t try to tell them why. Just that I’d wound up back in the house of my childhood. In Darien, Connecticut.
Florida Expeditions cost money. Carlyn had a scholarship, and Jim had paid for half of it himself, out of guilt for what he’d put his parents through. The rest of us were from big houses, white neighborhoods, high tax brackets. We had credit cards in the FLEX house, stored with the rest of the stuff we’d left behind before the course began. This privileged crowd, they chafed at the idea of need. Florida Expeditions was self-punishment, in a way, but it was voluntary. They liked their friends familiar: white, wealthy, straight and kind. I played the role and the costume scratched and strangled.
For starters, I was not always kind.
Anna Verges played no role. “Sometimes, I feel like I should be at home,” Anna said on the trail. “I miss my sister Jessica. I feel like she needs me right now. Naomi’s about to take off, hitchhike to California, and I’m afraid Jessica’s going to drop out of high school and go with her.”
Veronica looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Imagine that was your life,” she muttered, out of Anna’s earshot. “When I go home, all I’m going to be concerned about is how fast my mom can do my laundry.”
She snorted, thinking my home was like her home.
Alden Jones is an award-winning writer and faculty member at Emerson College’s department of Writing, Literature and Publishing. Since 1995 she’s combined teaching and writing with extensive travel to destinations such as Cuba and Costa Rica, where she lived for extended periods. Her 2013 memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia was named a “Top Ten” Travel Book by Publisher’s Weekly, has been nominated for a PEN Award, and won the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award in Travel Essays. Other awards Jones has received include the latest New American Fiction Prize for Unaccompanied Minors. Jones’ short stories and travel essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner and The Best American Travel Writing.
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