by Michelle Reale

Spongey's mother helps her get ready for her first date. The man is almost twice her age, a friend of her uncle's. Her mother admits that it's an irregular practice, but everyone is prepared to look the other way. "Go show your father," Spongey's mother tells her, pushing her toward her father's subterranean refuge in the basement. "Ignore Uncle Rabbit," she advises. The collective stench of disappointment and unnamed desire hits her like a wall. The angry voice of her uncle is telling her father how it ought to be while her father's head bobs mechanically: "yeah, yeah, yeah." She stands behind them, quiet like, until they notice her. "Well," her uncle says, twisting his body around with difficulty. Her father tells her to go upstairs and wipe the shit off her face, which is only cream blush and her mother's black velvet eyeliner, the one she never lets Spongey touch. "Clean the dirt out of your fingernails while you're at it!" her uncle barks, then looks at the embedded grime on his own shaky hands and shrugs. Her mother brings Spongey's date downstairs, where they treat him like an unwanted guest. Spongey twirls herself around and around on the vinyl seat of the bar stool, making herself dizzy. Her father pours her date a whisky, then another. She drinks a diet Dr. Pepper pretending it's the strong stuff. Gary signals he is ready to go by scratching his wiry beard and clearing his throat. He leads the way up the steps and Spongey follows behind. He reaches for her hand, but instead she pushes her fingers into the torn pocket of the wool slacks her mother let her borrow. When Gary returns Spongey home, she leans on the car door with her body, pressing it closed as if it is the door to the room of a sleeping baby. She doesn't know what time it is. She notices the sky is not dark and not light. It is somewhere in between. She likes that she can pretend it is either very early or very late. She knows it cannot be both. The light is still on in the basement. A space inside of her is expanding faster than she can keep up with. She hears her mother's cough, like someone shaking a rattle in her throat. Her own throat burns. Spongey rubs her hand up and down the borrowed pants, which her mother will sniff with disgust. "Spongey?" her mother calls. "Is that you?" she insists, curling the edge of her voice. "Is it you?" she calls again. Spongey leans her hot cheek against the door. Disenthralls herself from a future that belongs to someone else. She doesn't trust herself to speak. Wouldn't know what to say if she did.

BIO: Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work has been published in a variety of venues including Eyeshot, Pank, Smokelong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, Dark Sky Magazin and others. She was included in Dzanc's Best of the Web 2010 anthology. Her fiction chapbook, Natural Habitat, was published by Burning River in 2010.