At the time I was notified about the NEA fellowship, I was working three jobs that, while rewarding and challenging, had colonized every corner of my waking and dreaming mind. I hadn't written anything in months. This grant is a lifesaver that allows me to take advantage of opportunities for travel and research for my novel, and to afford the peace of mind and time to rediscover why I write and what I want to express. It couldn't have come at a better time.
From the short story "None of the Above"
She followed the drone of the TV into the living room, where Peter was lying on a brown corduroy sectional sofa in front of Wheel of Fortune. When Alma handed him the glass he took it with his polite, tucked-in little smile/nod, and downed half in a single gulp.
"Did anyone take your temperature?" Alma said.
Peter rubbed his forehead. "It's way down from last night," he rasped.
They sat and stared at the TV. Alma kept looking around for some revealing object. But the only item in the room that stood out to her was a pink ceramic horse on a carousel pole, still in its packaging, clearly a gift, gingerly placed on its side on the coffee table.
"Peter," Alma said, "I'm going to stay here until your parents get home from work. Then all three of us are going to have a talk."
"It's hard for me to talk right now," he croaked, tapping his throat with one finger.
"I know. But I need to know what's happening." Peter reached for the glass again, his pajama sleeve riding up, and that was when she saw it: a small, fresh gouge on his forearm, encircled with dried blood. More stripes overlaid the wound, vertical and bright red. They were embossed in fierce relief. Before he could pull his sleeve down Alma pounced and grabbed his wrist, felt it warm and startled in her grasp--sinewy, like an animal, with an animal's refusal to relax into her touch--and said, "I need to know what's going on with this."
Peter extricated his wrist. Then he said, "I already told you."
Alma could have bowed her head and laughed, or cried. How sick she was of this boy: his cryptic utterances, his ridiculous changeling shtick. How sick she was of all of them. Of the repetitions, the rhyming and chanting, the careful planting of subliminal associations, the brick-by-brick banking of remedial skills that would, if she did her job right, eventually be as effortless to them as breathing, so effortless as to negate their memory of her entirely. She was sick of dressing for them, lying awake for them, planning for them, shaping their twenty-three fragile brains in her hands, trying to reverse the damage already incurred, and failing as they all watched her. In fact, she had never felt more watched in her life as she did right then, sitting on the couch next to Peter. But it wasn't the old feeling of being spied on by twenty-three children. This feeling was altogether different: reptilian and chilling, a sensation of being watched keenly, flatly, with one-dimensional singularity of purpose. And not by Peter. He wasn't watching her at all. He was suddenly looking past her toward the narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms. His wan face slowly flushed, softened, rearranged itself in a gently morphing way that reminded Alma of when her nephew was born, how his head changed shape as it emerged from the birth canal.
Afterwards, Alma would say that she knew what it was before she even turned around. That she knew, with a certainty so age-old it felt primitive, that it could only be one thing. And on some level this was true. But it also wasn't. All she knew, in the split second before she turned her head, was that there was something behind her that did not belong there. She sensed a juxtaposition so audacious and profoundly wrong that it created a ruptured seam at the place of intersection. Beyond that she had no image in mind, least of all the one she, following Peter's gaze, finally beheld: a tiger cub, motionless, sitting on the demarcation between living room and hallway.
The cub was more than half the length of Peter. Alma couldn't tell if it was changing position or if she was imagining it. The air around it shimmered queasily, like a hologram. Then it really did begin to move, stalking slowly and without sound, and Alma, frozen on the couch, watched it come closer: its stiff white whiskers, rigid as quills, the satiny, blockish mitts of its paws, the polar ruff around its face and the spine snaking across its back, painterly black stripes on either side, and finally the fiery liquor of its small eyes, black-rimmed, staring into hers.
What she saw there was neither menace nor bloodlust but something worse: the hard glaze of majestic incomprehension. And everything else about the tiger's posture--the twitching tail, compressed muscularity, the jutting dorsal fins of its perfect shoulder blades--told her she was committing an unforgivable trespass, that she had unknowingly bumbled into the terrible and debased presence of a God gone to seed.