Unfortunately, I didn’t get to interview Ashely. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate her contribution to the anthology with a nice, long excerpt.
From “Fire Song” by Ashley Nicole Hunter:
Walking on firm land again improved my mood, but the tension in my shoulders since leaving the photo shoot refused to ease up. That was nothing new; I couldn’t relax unless I was working, and for a photographer, I had an unfortunate dislike of travel due to all the restrictions. The flight from Indonesia to China hadn’t been terribly long, but the one from China to Los Angeles had been sheer murder. If not for the recording of the song I’d made, I might have gone unhinged with the need to take out my lighter. Now, settled into the airport to wait for the taxi I scheduled, I removed my earbuds and tucked them into my jacket pocket. I still couldn’t indulge the way I would prefer to, but neither could I afford to keep them in and risk missing my taxi. Instead, I pulled a file up on my battered phone, taking solace in the looped video of a crackling fireplace I’d downloaded. The real thing was better, of course, but beat the silence every time.
I hummed the song under my breath as a sixty-something woman sat down on the bench beside me and settled her bags around her feet. A large, red maple leaf was emblazoned across her chest.
“Well, I’m off to Canada,” she said, surprising absolutely no one. “Going to visit the grandkids before my daughter and her good-for-nothing husband finally end this sham of a marriage.” She inclined her head in my direction, making it clear that I was going to serve as her confidant until a taxi or the apocalypse rescued me.
This was another peril of travel. I switched off my phone, turned to face her, and waited. I had not volunteered to enter into this conversation, and I was determined, after seventeen hours in the air, to participate as little as possible in it.
Ignoring my bloodshot eyes, three-day beard growth, and my “Lick it or Kick It” t-shirt, Mrs. Maple happily pressed ahead with forging a connection between us.
“You know, if she had listened to me from the beginning, she could have saved a lot of money…her father’s money, anyways…and just stayed in Utah.” She laughed too loud, like the silence bothered her, too. “But kids never listen, do they? Think they know better.”
Reasonably certain that I was as old as her daughter, maybe a little younger, I was uncertain what she expected me to contribute.
To her credit, she must have realized this, because she nudged me with one plump elbow. “Don’t be shy, young man, speak up. Where are you off to?”
After ten years working freelance, I had prepared a method of self-defense for situations like this. Pulling in a deep breath, I leaned in towards her.
“Well, I am taking the advice of my therapist and going to stay with my brother, who I have not seen since I had a penis surgically attached and changed my name from Tracey to Trevor, to talk about family matters even more uncomfortable than who I like to screw.”
Mrs. Maple opened her mouth, closed it, opened it, then picked up her bags. She moved down to the next bench, nudged an elderly man trying to open his medication bottle, and nodded in my direction before she loudly whispered and made several phallic hand gestures. I thanked the gods that was done with and returned to my phone, not resurfacing again until my taxi deposited me at my brother’s door.
Craig, three years older than me, lived in a monstrously-large imitation of a ranch house that looked like it belonged back home in North Dakota rather than here in California, surrounded by Spanish-tile roofing and terra-cotta pots. I gave a low whistle as I got my first look at the place, wondering how much my sister-in-law’s dad had paid for it. The house was painted a searing shade of blue, and the door—a glossy, black thing with a sunflower wreath hanging from it—was tucked so far back in an alcove that I spent the first few minutes knocking on one of his three garage doors before I found the entrance.
I hadn’t been lying earlier; it had been ten years, plus or minus a few months, since I had been in the same room as my brother. After I’d dropped out of college and moved to New York to begin my career, I’d also started my transition process. Craig had been supportive over emails and phone calls, but we’d both had a pretty strict upbringing, and I used my coming out as an excuse for avoiding not just him, but all of our family. I hadn’t even attended his wedding; I’d just had Amazon ship him a set of mixing bowls and a few hand towels. I treated my brother terribly, and I hoped it gave him a reason to hate me the way that he should have, wouldhave, if he’d known the truth.
To my shame, Craig had assumed the blame was his. He often watched his words when he called or emailed me, and sometimes, when he was drinking, he would ask me to tell him what he’d done wrong so he could apologize for it. I tried to be more of an asshole to him…I missed birthday calls, mailed him gifts I knew he would hate, trash talked the wife I had never even met. Craig was a good person and a better brother than I deserved; he always took the blame and believed he deserved whatever I threw at him. He was so sweet and forgiving that I began to hate him for it, which only deepened my self-loathing.
When he had emailed me the previous month to ask if I would come stay with him after filming an eruption at Mount Merapi, I called my therapist.
“I think you should go.” Her voice crackled over the bad connection. “You’ve been carrying this burden since you were a child, Trevor. And your brother has a right to know.”
Physically closer to my brother than I’d been since I’d left home in the middle of the night, a cold pit settled in my stomach. Call the cab back, I thought, but just as I was shifting my bags to fish my cell out of my pocket, the front door burst open with a shout.
“Hey, buddy. Long time no see.” I barely had time to look up before my overweight brother, with his embarrassing fondness for plaid button-ups and Nickelback t-shirts, came barreling out and into my luggage-filled arms. “Here, let me help you with that.”
Ashley Nicole Hunter is the assistant editor for the Vortex literary magazine and the editor for the Arkansas Pagans website. She is currently writing a novel about werewolves on food stamps and a web serial about jogging naked through the woods. Her passions include community service, awkward conversations, and arguing in favor of ellipses and the interrobang.