Jolene sleeps with her back toward me, never faces me anymore. Makes sure she goes to bed way before or after me, says that she’s tired or that she can’t sleep. I feel her body radiating heat—my little furnace, I try to joke—but there’s a moat of cold sheets between us every night, and I do not dare step in and freeze.
I dream of a large white fox standing amid the thick, knobbly branches of an ancient forest. The fox burns with a green flame and looks me right in the eye, seems like it wants to speak.
I think about how foxes don’t climb trees. Or speak. But the fire, the green flames licking at the fox’s legs, somehow do not seem impossible.
Jolene pours me lemonade from the fridge. It’s her mother’s recipe, made with real lemons and limes, brimming with sugar. Jolene fills the glass with ice cubes so there is almost no room for the juice. I am about to tell her not to be so stingy, but she is focused on the drink, using only her fingertips to hold it, yet by the time she comes and hands it to me, all twenty feet between the fridge and the porch, the lemonade is warm like bull piss on a summer day.
There is a question mark on my face. She grins sheepishly, mutters she’s sorry about the warm lemonade, and looks at me the way she hadn’t in a long time, like she’s about to say something important.
I see a faint green flicker dancing in the white of her eyes, behind her dark brown irises.
The fox stares at me and says, “Come closer.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I am afraid of the flames.”
“Well, you should be,” says the fox. “Come anyway. I can see you want to touch me. You want to touch the flames.”
“I do. But I cannot.”
“You are a fool and a coward,” says the fox.
Jolene used to want to get married, but I didn’t. She asked me a few times, and I shut her down with blather about how we didn’t need a piece of paper, how love was enough. Every time I did so, she would look down at her folded hands and get really quiet.
I don’t know why I was such a jerk about it. Or maybe I do. I used to think, for the longest time, that I could do better. That the sweet, quiet Jolene, who loved me with the fervor and innocence of a child, would be a step to something else, something greater, magical even, something away from this town that smelled like cow dung and homemade liquor.
But it’s been ages since I thought about anyplace else or anyone else. My dreams of cities unknown, buzzing with people and life, have faded, and I don’t even feel sorry about that. I have accepted the red dirt and the humming of bugs and the job at a car repair shop and our small house with potted flowers and a fridge filled with Jolene’s mom’s lemonade as where I need to be.
My fantasies of strange women, their legs and lips and breasts, have disappeared like the images from old-timey photographs left out in the sun for too long. I think only about Jolene, who becomes more beautiful with every passing day, as if she’s come in possession of some secret power. I swear there is a glowing green aura around her whole body.
Jolene hasn’t asked me to get married in a very long time. I am afraid of what she’ll say if I ask her, so I don’t.
Jolene has worked at the town diner since high school. She’s kind and swift, and she gets good tips.
She tells me she’s thinking about getting another job, at a new location in a town twenty miles over, that it will be more money, more opportunity. I say no, why does she need to do that, we have enough, don’t I provide enough for us?
She says of course I do, then looks down at her folded hands and gets really quiet.
The fox stares at me.
“I know it’s you, Jolene,” I say. “Tell me what’s going on.”
The fox remains silent.
“I don’t understand. Why won’t you talk to me? I love you!”
“You don’t love me,” says the fox. “You don’t even know me. You can’t even tell that I am a fox.”
The green flames rise to envelop the animal and the thick knobbly branches it stands on. They burn bright and wild, and I start to backtrack before they burn me, too.
Jolene hasn’t been home in weeks. She hasn’t worked at the diner either, nor has she ever taken that job at the new place.
Before she left, she made several pitchers of her mom’s lemonade. Filled the whole damn fridge.
I finish them all. As I grab the last one, I find a wet piece of paper stuck to the wall behind.
I slowly peel the paper off. It’s glossy, the size of a palm.
I see blotches of light and darkness, like faint licks of flame, surrounding the shape of baby.
Maura Yzmore writes short fiction, long equations, and goofy poetry poetry. Her literary flash can be found in Bending Genres, Jellyfish Review, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com or on Twitter @MauraYzmore.