On Halloween, it takes June and Phil well over an hour to make it from Echo Park, down through Santa Monica, and up the PCH toward Topanga where June’s sister Irene hosts her annual Halloween party. June—nearly nine months pregnant—is dressed as a horse, and Phil is dressed like a shirtless Vladimir Putin. They are both terrible at Halloween, at parties in general, but Irene was insistent.
“After the baby, you’ll never leave the house,” Irene told June, and if the baby-having aftermath of her friends was any indication of her impending reality, June is sure Irene is right.
When Phil turns onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a man on stilts in a grim reaper costume stops traffic. The sun turns the windshield crystal for a second, and the backfiring of a motorcycle in front of them sounds like gun shots echoing in the canyon.
Every woman at the party appears to be dressed as either Wonder Woman or Stevie Nicks. The young children swarm the stone patio, their hands and faces and hair smeared with chalk paint. June hears a woman in too much 70s jewelry yell to a pack of early teenagers who’ve scooped a handful of gummies from a bowl of edibles, “Consume responsibly and watch out for snakes,” as they disappear down an overgrown path that leads away from Irene’s house.
There is food on a long farm table under strings of outdoor bulbs and June is far more uncomfortable than she thought she’d be. She can’t sit and she can’t stand. The horse costume is itchy, and the joke of her husband, Phil, Putin, riding her shirtless has grown very old very quickly.
She doesn’t tell anyone or look back when she starts down the path. She steps out of the horse costume, so she’s just in one of Phil’s giant white t-shirts and her running shoes, and the costume looks like an actual dead animal on the path. She doesn’t want to imagine the pattern of bites and scratches that will be her legs tomorrow. She doesn’t want to hear Phil saying, “What in the hell were you thinking?”
After what feels like ten minutes of wandering through ungroomed land, she walks around an iron gate and into a darkening field of lemon and pomegranate trees next to a house where there are no cars. An outdoor light flickers on, exposing the wide mouth of a perfectly round pool. A month before, a couple survived a wildfire immersed for hours in a swimming pool.
She takes off her shirt and her shoes and gets in. June has approached motherhood with some ambivalence. She hasn’t amassed tiny clothing or even gotten the room ready. In a week she will have a daughter, and the fierce protectiveness she feels will surprise no one more than her.
The moon has made itself visible, and she can hear coyotes and all the night animals. She floats on her back for several minutes. The stars are not twinkling. They are not magical. They don’t report back from other galaxies the strange goings-on of some unseen astral plane. As her daughter will one day tell her while she eats a mini strawberry tart and sits in her swimming suit, still dripping from the hot tub and before an open window into which a glaring pink arm of bougainvillea reaches: stars are merely glowing spheres of plasma held together by their own gravity. June watches them for just another minute, and then she goes under.
Amy Stuber’s short fiction has been published in many journals, including American Short Fiction, The New England Review, Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, West Branch, and The Antioch Review. She has new work forthcoming in Wigleaf, J Journal, Arts & Letters, Joyland, Split Lip, and Hobart. She serves as a flash fiction reader at Split Lip. Find her on Twitter at @amy_stuber_ or online at www.amystuber.com.