Stephanie Carpenter

Stephanie Carpenter’s work has appeared in Storyscape, Quiddity, Crab Orchard Review, Big Fiction, Midwestern Gothic and elsewhere. She teaches literature and creative writing at Michigan Tech University. Stephanie is currently at work on a pair of novellas about female artists in nineteenth-century New England.

Starting Out
fiction (excerpt)

I’ve been lost in this place before, taking the girls for walks back when they were small. The lanes all look the same, with practically-identical trailers. It’s easy to see how a child could get turned around. The little boy doesn’t seem panicked, though—not like I had felt, that time with the Haley and Nicole. Instead he glances around the kitchen like he’s the tax assessor. Why doesn’t he call out for his ma again? Why isn’t he scared, here with us strangers? He just sits down on the linoleum to wait. He’s wearing a pair of denim shorts and a pink-stained t-shirt, little sandals with Velcro straps. They’re on the wrong feet, but he won’t let Nicole fix them. The boy looks like a kid who was playing outside or eating a snack. Like a kid who was going about his normal business until somehow he got lost.

            “Come on, sweetie.” Nicole takes the boy’s hand. She’s smart and practical, heading off in September to nursing school. “We’re going to find your house,” she says. “Your mama.” The boy only blinks at her. Maybe he’s an Asberger’s.

            Most of the nearest neighbors have stopped by at some point today, bringing cards for my granddaughter. Most of them are nice, decent people—just starting out, or retired to the trailer park for lack of better planning. The boy doesn’t belong to any of those folks, my granddaughter says. We widen our circle, keeping their trailer at the center. We knock and knock, and sometimes people answer. Some of the places smell like strange food or cigarettes; sometimes you can tell that too many people are living in one trailer, none of them speaking decent English. Sometimes men come to the door who think that my granddaughter has come alone, looking for them. You wish—but maybe girls like that do live here. Maybe this boy belongs to a girl like that. We talk to many people; no one recognizes or claims him. He is like the stray kittens forever dumped at our farm. What kind of person could abandon a child? But how could such a young boy have gotten lost, otherwise? I know Nicole is thinking this, too—I can tell she’s worked herself up from the way her lips are set. The only one of us that doesn’t seem bothered is the boy himself. He scuffs his feet and kicks stones and drags on my granddaughter’s hand, but he doesn’t call for his ma again. How would my boy have acted in a situation like this? If somehow he’d run away from the farm, past me and his father and his grandparents, how would he have reacted to being on his own? At three, my son was noisy and rough and I was afraid he would grow up to be even worse—a juvenile delinquent; a proof that I wasn’t good enough to raise a child. But my son got nicer the older he got. He was a good brother when my daughter came along; he was the world’s best son.

            “Grandma,” Nicole says. We’ve reached the gates of the trailer park. “Grandma, what are we going to do?” She stops walking and picks the boy up. She’s wearing a dress today—a sundress that’s a little too skimpy for her figure—and from this walking around she’s gotten pink across her chest and shoulders. The boy tugs on the dress’s neckline like a baby might, a child still nursing. He looks in her face and finally he starts to cry. Big sobs, not scared but sad. As if he’s just realized that he’s lost.

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