And yes, that is how many children she has, and I’m talking of course about Mrs. Goth, who every year selects one of her children to be her favorite in a ceremony she performs for us: a blessed clique of friends and neighbors. She lines the children up on the lawn in white folding chairs, and we like to watch their faces brighten with tension, their shoulders rigid, and we like the springy carnal heat of late June, which makes us feel pagan. Mrs. Goth is not intentionally pagan. The truth is, she schedules the ceremony while her husband is away at a yearly business conference. He doesn’t know about any of this.

Supposedly, this ceremony started as a joke, though now Mrs. Goth and the children take it deadly serious. Angelina, the eldest at nineteen, came all the way back from her college in California to participate, even though she hasn’t been favorite in ten years. The current favorite is Jacob, who’s eleven. He took the honor from Margo, thirteen, the previous year, and yes, any observer might think Mrs. Goth is transferring the title in a sequence, from oldest to youngest and back again, or that she’s otherwise appeasing all of her children with a soft and predictable pattern, as Mrs. Goth, who never so much as squeaks a word at community council meetings, gives the impression of being a soft and predictable lady. But this is not the case when it comes to her children. Margo was the favorite four years ago when the honor went to Emma, Jacob’s twin, only to jump back to Margo the following year. We knew from the look of shock on the children’s faces—and the specific look of shameful pleasure on the face of Margo—that Mrs. Goth’s choice was unexpected. We knew intimately the demon grin of Oliver, the second eldest, who was favorite two years in a row before finally seeing the title passed along again to Charlotte, the third eldest, who once snatched it so gleefully from the baby she was scolded by her mother in front of us and went to bed early for the shame. The baby is Wanda. Along with Angelina before her, Wanda hasn’t received the title since.

This year, on this evening, the dayglow wanes and the lightning bugs come out. Mrs. Goth has set up a table of pinwheel sandwiches and expensive cheese, which we peck fretfully, and a crystal bowl of boozy punch, which drowns the lightning bugs and makes our conversation sparkle. The children, still stiff in their lawn chairs, are dressed in church clothes. Their feet root to the ground like dandelions. Their mother is a kind and obsequious hostess, but when she’s making her choice, she tucks her hand behind her back like a decorated general. Yes, in the past, we have put money in a pot, though that’s not the point. We have never tried to persuade Mrs. Goth to choose one child over another. The point is that it’s not anyone’s choice but hers, because we don’t know what elegant criterial chart Mrs. Goth goes by, and we have decided that any one of her children are average enough be the favorite at any time, that they are all equal parts charming and irritating, intelligent and stupid, and they vary almost meaninglessly when it comes to their creativity, sense of humor, athletic prowess, political awareness, and physical grace and style. By now, all have made neighborhood contributions they can be proud of—Jacob’s YouTube videos and Charlotte’s paper craft and Oliver’s volunteer campaign work for the county warden—though Emma’s newspaper-worthy success last year with amateur theater told us that measurable accomplishments are not the deciding factor for Mrs. Goth. Or, maybe, Mrs. Goth thought Emma’s performance in The Gondoliers wasn’t any good, and who are we to argue with that.

The children, if they know their mother’s criteria, have said nothing about it to the other neighborhood children, or maybe they have, and everyone involved is sworn to keep it secret from us grown-ups, the same way we’re sworn to keep the ceremony secret from Mr. Goth. But we wouldn’t want to know the criteria, even if we knew how to find out, because we like to think the favorite is more divined than selected, because we have talked about it over drinks on back porches, around fire pits and masonry ovens, and in the shallows of our swimming pools: this is our I Ching, this is the primal blood-spill of chicken entrails, this is our peek through the door of the celestial house. Neither we nor the children have the power to control this outcome and nothing can prepare us for it, but that is where power is, and here in this neighborhood power spirals its infinite coil into the secret mind of Mrs. Goth.

We watch her children, seated with calm and anxious dignity, sweaty hands folded in their laps. Their toes recoil like worms in their sandals as their mother strides by again. She’s still deciding. We watch and hold our breaths as she bends down and opens the ceremonial bin, brings out the dried laurel crown, silk ribbons dangling. Every year, we smell its delicate bay scent spicing the lawn, hanging over the heads of the children. But which head? Whose perfect head? We lean forward to hear Mrs. Goth’s whispers: Who is it this time? Who is it? We think: How long can we hold this ecstatic breath? We think: how will the universe have realigned when Mr. Goth comes back home?

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I remember, there was going to be a birthday party for Michael. He was turning ten. Michael was always interrupting, saying things that weren’t funny or important, because he couldn’t stand not being the center of attention. My mom said it was because he didn’t have a dad.

But Michael’s party meant I could go to the toy store to buy something I wanted, even if I would have to give it away. And the party would be a chance to see Karen. Karen was older and maybe that’s why she didn’t suffer so much from not having a dad. She was tall and skinny and cool. She ate spaghetti with butter instead of tomato sauce, and her laugh sounded to me like water bubbling out of a fountain. 

My mom and I bought Michael a set of plastic cars that sped down a twisting track, and I played with it a few times before she took it away and wrapped it. But in the end, the birthday party got canceled and I got to keep the cars, and Karen and Michael’s bodies were never found. 

* * *

My parents never told me they planned the road trip as an escape. To me it was an adventure, a month-long car ride to the national parks, a month of peanut butter sandwiches and Motel Six. 

We flew from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, my first airplane, and rented a car to drive the rest of the way: in the morning we’d been surrounded by woods and by afternoon we were in a country with no trees at all, just corn all the way to all the horizons. 

We drove and I don’t remember stopping until my dad pulled the car suddenly to the side of the road. He was crying. “I never thought I’d see the Rocky Mountains,” he said. I never thought I’d see him cry.

* * *

I wish I knew how to love people better, how to better be loved.

I’m at a noodle bar across from a waif of a woman who keeps biting her lower lip like she’s trying to tame a smile that’s always getting out of her control. We’ve had a few cocktails. 

This is during one of those breaks that my girlfriend and I keep taking, in between the times that we drive each other crazy with frustration and the times that we drive each other crazy with need, and decide, again, that we can’t live without one another. 

“Tell me,” the waif says, “what’s the craziest thing that happened to you when you were a kid?” 

I don’t tell her about Michael and Karen’s mother, found naked in the trunk of her car, plastic bag over her head, bruised, beaten with chains. I don’t tell her that the entire English department where my mom worked was subpoenaed, that the head of the department was sent away for life, that the principal of the school once bragged to his faculty about being able to dissolve bodies in acid. 

The waif and I go back to her place. We joke about getting married and then we have sex and then we never see each other again. 

* * *

Our month-long family road trip was going, ultimately, to California. Later, as an adult, I would come to believe that everything ultimately goes to California, the end of the continent. The walk of fame, the wax museum, the magic kingdom, the silver screen: nobody wants real things. We want dreams, so it’s the fake things that become most real. 

On the ocean in Malibu, we were as far away from our own lives as it was possible for us to be without flying or dying. 

Then we went home.

* * *

In the end, I got to keep the birthday-present race cars but I never unwrapped them, and when my mother wasn’t looking, I threw them away.

Every day I think of throwing out what I have. I think of getting in my car and racing to the horizon. I think of vanishing.

When you are murdered, you get to live forever. And when your body is never found, the living will never stop looking.

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Though dripping a little, the puddle boys are no longer melting. It is late nighttime. They don’t have to sleep because there is nowhere they have to be for now. They hope they never have to sleep again, but of course this is idealistic. The puddle boys know this too, but it is nice to ignore, it is nice to be fully conscious and in love. Crossing the street is the best excuse for holding hands. Cars echo away from them; some move through and splash people’s face. Everyone forgives them. The puddle boys' backs become green then red. Their hair moves with the wind, so moved, it sheds a tear. 


The puddle boys drip into a cookie dough shop and practice spelling each other’s names. 



“De-von-tay,” blows Rehan. 

“Ray-han,” giggles Devonte. 

The puddle boys tingle as their spirits align and their skins connect. They pass breath between each other. Devonte is excited about mint-chocolate cookie dough and he peruses the menu for a price. Rehan waits patiently behind him with a strawberry sharpie. As Devonte orders for the both of them, Rehan sneaks the marker under Devonte’s shirt and writes, “sanctuary.” Devonte ripples and shimmers. 

The server says the cookie dough will take a few minutes; there was not enough mint left, and she has to get some more from storage. 

“Can I hold the bags under your eyes?”

Devonte considers this and sees a horse outside, muddling through the street with a police officer on his back. “I could never draw a horse.” 

“I never cared for horses very much. I like seashells.” Rehan knows that to be an artist one does not have to know how to draw horses. He reminds Devonte of his beach painting, of the way the seashells seemed to be sharp, yet malleable. How it seemed like a prize just to kiss the hand of the artist who made the world look soft again. 

Devonte describes the feeling of being artistically inadequate as building a house with smaller bricks than everyone else, but the house has to be even bigger than every other builder. “It’s okay if you don’t understand what I’m saying.” 

Rehan sits on the floor because he understands perfectly. The tiles are a jade-blue and white checkered pattern. They’re not innovative, but their simplicity gives the puddle boys a place for standing water. Delicate in their way, the puddle boys hug the grooves of the floor and change the subject. They are masters at subject-changing. They tell each other all kinds of things about shoe sizes and pony rides and simulated car rides at their respective local malls. There is always something new to talk to about. Water accumulates behind Rehan’s nose each time Devonte says the word, “probably.”

The puddle boys talk big, and soon they are shouting but not at each other, as the woman who entered the cookie dough shop would like. She has a son, he is young and smiles at the puddle boys. The woman’s thumb is ready on the record button of her phone. There is no drama to see. The puddle boys shout different animals’ names, but it’s not a spectacle; it’s two boys shouting about animals. Rehan touches Devonte’s laugh and there is no obstacle. Rehan likes donkeys and Devonte likes cows. These are their favourite animals. 


From the outside the store glows white, and an accountant in his office across the street sips his coffee, rubs his eyes, checks his phone for missed calls and finds none. There is a text message that reads: have you eaten today behta? He texts, yes Ma, and puts the phone out of sight. He sees two boys yelling without making a sound. It’s not a dream. He would like to watch them forever but knows this will always be impossible.


Rehan has Devonte’s dark circles in his palms as he licks the cookie dough. A park bench at night becomes a test site of resilience because it’s not clear or dirty; it’s just somewhere to spread and spill. The puddle boys are even darker than before, their calves resting on each other like no simile can describe. It takes forever for a streetlight to come on, but it does. “Your tongue is my fire,” exclaims Rehan. 

Devonte chews slowly, watching a man pee behind a tree. “I’m so glad I’m not that tree,” says Devonte. “I’m so glad I’m not that man,” says Rehan, “Alhamdulillah.” “Thank you, Jesus,” says Devonte. The puddle boys unlearn all the rules and discuss how trees can grow both up and down, but also side to side. They can break through and out of the earth, but they can extend as far as they want to go. It is hard to see the trees in this light. The puddle boys’ eyes are glinting, illuminated the worn skin around their cuticles. 

Devonte sucks in the air to feel the mint aftertaste cool his mouth. “You can give them back now.”

Rehan places his palms on Devonte’s eyes and returns to him the dark circles. 


The streets flex upward and back down again as Devonte and Rehan flood them. Love is big, and there are not a lot of places to hide it. An avenue opens into an alleyway, and the puddle boys crouch behind a crate of onions. They breath droplets and exhaust are the friction in each other’s collarbones. The world’s heat is turning thick and orange. It is not a good sign. 

Devonte notices something behind Rehan’s hair. It is a carving made by a key or sharp fingernail. It reads, “Baby Boy and Baby Girl for life babyyyyyyy.” The many Ys lump in Devonte’s throat because he has too many wordless questions. “I wish I could last a day,” he says. 

Rehan agrees. “I wish I could own a body.”

“It’s not the same as having,” says Devonte. “I’d build a city of Lego for you.”

“Build me legs and arms too, so that I have the strength to build you a better one.”


A tall man arrives. He smells like Vicks medicine, and he sweats out violence and cuss words. He mumbles, “goddamn” and “motherfucker of Jesus.” Tightening the grip beneath his shoes, he lifts the crate of onions onto his right shoulder and carries it away as if it were light. 

“I don’t like men who say ‘goddamn’,” says Rehan. 

“I don’t like men who make heavy things look light,” says Devonte. 

“You are the best.”

“No, I feel myself giving up.”

The cement is a lighter shade. The avenue closes again, and there is nowhere to be but in the bright. Car windshields flash fire into everyone’s eyes. A cellphone reflects the light, piercing Rehan’s chest. He wobbles but is still breathing. “I feel myself giving up.” Devonte holds him by the waist.  It is not easy to keep going when the dawn is so violent.


The sun becomes hotter and people pour into the street. Devonte and Rehan are smaller than they’ve ever been. They share memories of the night so as not to lose its darkness. They subject change to the red lights into green lights and green lights into yellow and then back again, and there are cows, but they are all sick and no milk can be obtained from them. The city is thirsty, and so it becomes careless. The puddle boys grow angry, but never at each other because they have hope and that deflects rays, sometimes. They start to yell again, but no one hears them. They try to laugh, but it is difficult with disappearing chests. There is another police horse, and the puddle boys hide under a car to avoid his hammering hoofs. Weight like that is definitive destruction. The streets flex downward and there is no stopping them. 

“There is nowhere to hold you anymore.” The puddle boys’ backs are missing. All that’s left is the beginning of a name.

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WHAT IT HAD IN ITS MOUTH by Arielle Burgdorf

What can make viewing it so memorable is the fact that as each day passes, the rock changes colour depending on the light and atmospheric conditions, and never remains the exact same permanent hue.


Red, the only color that stays with you. A massive red rock, rising out of a grassy field. Sun warming the stone, casting shadows in the crevices. The golden, reddish-brown fur of a wild dog peeking out from behind a bush. And the final red, rusty, dark splattered all over the white jumper. A baby, missing from the jumper. The same question, on yours and everyone else’s lips: where is the baby? Remember the days when you used to cover your eyes with your hands and whisper to her: Where’s baby? Then you’d remove your hands: There she is. A stupid game. But Azaria loved it, and you would do it for ages before she tired of seeing your face reappear between your fingers. 

And now they ask again: Where’s baby? The question is always the same. The problem, is that everyone has a different answer. 

This is not a story about dingoes, no matter what anyone tells you. It is not even a story about Australia, or media circuses. It’s a story about mothers, and how we punish them. 


For years, you prayed for a girl. You loved your boys, but you wanted another kind of love. And finally, she came into the world. You named her Azaria, meaning “helped by God.” You smiled and sang to her. Three children and a loving husband. You were, you thought, blessed. 

You know the exact moment and place everything changed. August, 1980. Ayer’s Rock. The Anangu people call it Uluru, which doesn’t mean anything in particular. For them, it is a sacred site. The rock is not passive, but a living, breathing entity. 

A family camping trip. Laughter. Like any old day, and then a night like no other. After that night, you would never sleep fully again. 


You remember fragments. You were walking with your son back to the tent. And then: red fur. A lean body, running off into impossible dark. In court, they will ask you: Did you see the dingo drag the baby out in its mouth? Did you see it’s jaws clasped around the head and neck? You don’t know. Where’s baby? You don’t know that, either. 

What you do know, is that you have seen how dingos eat meat. How they ruthlessly strip back the skin as they go. You know, without a doubt, that it was possible for a ravenous wild animal to take warm flesh out of its protective shell, just the way a human would peel an orange. You know this, and so it’s what you tell the press, when they ask how it could have happened. This is your greatest mistake. 

Cold. Calculating. Hard-faced bitch. 

Nothing in your demeanor suggests maternal. What you want them to understand, is that this is maternal. The outback is harsh, filled with poisonous, deadly animals found nowhere else on earth. Every day is a struggle to survive. A mother has to be extremely tough, willing to kill. This is what the dingo knew. That a morsel of red muscle, bone, and fat would sustain her and her young. Salt in her mouth. A minute’s relief, from a hunger that never subsides. 

No one wants to see your stoic acceptance of nature. They want to see you cry. Tears, confirming your humanity. But you cannot help them. You have just lost your baby daughter. You have no more tears. 


You will not believe the atrocities they decide you are capable of. They accuse you of slitting her throat with nail scissors, decapitating her, stuffing her body into a camera bag, performing infant sacrifice for a religious cult. Too much blood, that’s the problem. When a dingo breaks a baby’s neck, it wouldn’t have produced that much blood. And we found no dingo saliva on the jumper, they tell you. The saliva must be on the matinee jacket, you tell them. She was wearing a white matinee jacket, with pale lemon edging. Really? That’s the first we’re hearing of this jacket. 


The men on the jury take some convincing, but the women? The women vote you guilty immediately. The nation agrees: by 1984, 76% of Australians think you killed her. This is the price of telling a story too strange, too unique to be true. 

Up until now, a dingo has never killed a human. But there were signs. A three year old girl dragged out of a car by a dingo, a few weeks before Azaria went missing. The dingoes were getting hungrier, and bolder. There will be many more children killed, or nearly killed by dingoes in the years to come. You will try and warn them, but they are not ready to hear what you have to say. 

The jury chooses to believe the expertise of a dingo expert from London. 

Exactly how many dingoes are there in London? you laugh bitterly. No one appreciates your anger. The women glare at you from the jury bench with a stare meaning,  She has no right to call herself a mother.

 Somewhere, there’s a dingo with a mouthful of blood, grinning. 


No one ever gives a satisfactory explanation of why you want to kill your baby daughter so much. There doesn’t have to be a reason. A baby is gone, and you are the baby’s mother. That is enough. If you didn’t kill her outright, you killed her through negligence. From every angle, her death remains your fault. This is how we crucify mothers. 


There is one group that believes your story. The Anagu people who know and respect the desert, who are aware of what the dingo is capable of. They are the people to whom this place rightfully belongs. The Anagu tracker was the one who found the jumper, who followed the footprints to the dingo lair. But he is not allowed to testify.  We can’t get the right interpreters is the official police line. Besides, they’re all drunks. 

In the movie version of your life, the police show up to shoot the Anagu’s dogs until Meryl Streep calmly assures them that none of the dogs look anything like a dingo. There is too much said in the silence. You can feel the tension tighten like a noose in those few minutes of celluloid, the entire weight of history playing out in the faces of everyone on screen.


You are sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. It feels like you are punished for being punished. Your husband is also declared guilty of murder, but allowed to remain free in order to raise your two boys. This makes very little sense to you. They are saying: he helped you murder, decapitate, and hide the corpse of your infant daughter, but he is fit to raise these children. The father’s crimes are forgivable. But a mother is beyond redemption. A mother should weep more, a mother should’ve protected her child. 

And on this, you agree with the press. 

A mother should’ve protected her child. But you do not need their help being punished for that. 


There is something you have kept from them. Another baby girl, growing inside you. She will never be Azaria, but she will be enough to save you from madness. You would kill for this one, like all the others. 

Another red: an opening. Kahlia. When she is born, in jail, they will allow you one hour with her. One hour to hold her, to touch her skin, to apologize to her for this brutal world that you’ve brought her into. Then she’s gone, and you are alone once more, in the wilderness. 

When she is gone, you will cry, but no one will see it. 


Because you have no other choice, you continue serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not. You’ve lost all sense of true and real. There never was a baby you want to tell the jury. The dingo didn’t have anything in its mouth. There never was a dingo. Just me, out there in the desert. 


One day, a jogger at Ayer’s Rock will come upon a white matinee jacket with pale lemon edging, lying not far from a dingo lair. 


Where’s baby? Six years later, you don’t have answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers. 

Regardless, the matinee jacket buys your freedom. You are told to be grateful. You are “free” from prison, you name is “cleared.” 

But you know these are not accurate terms. You are never free, nothing has become clear. For the rest of your life, you will carry this inside your chest. You don’t know it yet, but your marriage is already over. Strangers, to this day, are convinced of your guilt. Girls call the tabloids, claiming to be your long-lost daughter. I’m Azaria they say. Pulling back their ponytails, trying to show you the twin scars on the sides of their heads. For years, the cause of death on Azaria’s birth certificate will read “unknown,” suspicion lurking. Your life boils down to a national punchline, a quip, a graphic to sell T-shirts. You will go down in history as the woman who cried dingo. 

You are alive, but you have not survived this ordeal. You feel the jaws clamped like a vice around your skull, canines sinking in. You stare down the deep red throat into nothingness. 

Then the light shifts, and you realize you are alone again. A solitary figure in the desert with a giant rock, and a baby with no body. 

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