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GRIP by Claire Hopple

Let us tell you about Louise. At the moment we started to really pay attention, she was stuck behind a vehicle that read “Criminal Transport Unit – Dept. of Corrections” on the highway.

When traffic cleared and she finally made it to the park, she was handed a universal key to all the glass showcases by her father.

“Add more furnishings to the blue-tongue skink cage,” he said, gesturing toward an open box on a picnic table.

Louise pulled what looked to be a mini tiki hut and micro lounge chairs out of the box and headed toward the showcases. The skinks did not seem to react to the new arrangement, though Louise thought it could’ve been because they were far too large to fit into the chairs.

Here she was working with her father and living with her father and somehow her brother Bill had made it all the way to Colorado, even if he was transporting dead bodies for a living.

Naturally, he loved to tell everyone about picking up Joe Cocker’s body, who passed away on December 22, 2014 in a place called Crawford, Colorado, population 431.

“Too many cigarettes,” Bill always said, like he and Joe were buds.

Just as Louise noticed how the park pavilion smelled exactly like camp in some murky way, her father came back over.

“If things get…if they go…if things become cumbersome today, the code word’s sarsaparilla,” he garbled.

She opened her mouth to reply and he said “what” in a way that wasn’t really a question and she said “nothing,” but it was really that if something actually went down today, she would panic and not remember any real, helpful words let alone any code words, especially one like sarsaparilla.

He was off to prep the leopard geckos. She wasn’t allowed to touch them because they could lose their tails if handled too roughly.

Sure, Louise was offended that her father thought she wasn’t up for a task like that, but she was also relieved. One of the leopard geckos had this pendulous tumor that she couldn’t help staring at.

This party was for some family friends of theirs. Mitchell, the father of Chase the birthday boy, used to be the older kid on the block when Louise was at her most aesthetically vulnerable.

She noted that she’d first seen him practice-making-out with a front door screen, and now she was watching him unclasp his son from a carseat.

Even these days, he would take his glasses off and Louise found that looking at his actual eyeballs would be this very personal thing. He would seem naked in a way that was more naked than nakedness, and she couldn’t look at him but also couldn’t not look at him.

The crash was more of a beginning than an ending. In the early party pandemonium, no one saw who did it. But the smashed cage was a reality nonetheless.

The Pacman frog’s cage was shattered, though it looked like he (she? it?) had escaped. Of course, the amphibian with “an easygoing nature ideal for a life of captivity” was the one set free. We had witnessed Louise do a little research of her own on these creatures, though we’re not sure exactly why she wanted to impress her own dad.

A pink Post-it lay beside the glass with the words:

For E.G.

As if the destructive behavior were lovingly devoted to this person.

Well, that was what we called the tipping point for Louise. A crowd had formed. She turned the moment into a confessional.

“I have a habit of stealing phone books off of my neighbors’ stoops,” she began.

We knew this, and the neighbors did too, but they were so thankful they didn’t have to dispose of them that they didn’t say a word.

“I stack them in the basement closet that houses the water heater,” she continued.

She was losing them.

“I – I think it’s because things have gotten out of hand. I was fired. The woman who replaced me was supposedly hired just because the CEO hit her with his Range Rover while she was crossing the street. This phone book collection is my only grip on life.”

There was a pause.

“Well, we all knew that,” said her father from somewhere in the group.

She didn’t know what to make of this.

The glass shards fell through the slits in the picnic table, landing somewhere just behind her and the memory of her pride.

As soon as we heard her outward yearning we knew no more exotic animal birthday fun would be had that day.

We found that Louise had reached that point in adulthood where she thought everyone flying planes and cutting people open should be older than her, but they were not. Not always.

Meanwhile, she spent her time doing things like compiling lists of words that were rarely unpaired. Like how nothing ever seems to “spurt” except blood.

That, and we knew for a fact she was waiting out the crinkly man four houses down. He was bound to die soon or at least move into a home, and she was preparing a way for them both. She thought he had no mortgage or family left and that this would work out for her. She helped him paint his siding three weeks ago and we think she was really helping herself.

Anyway, it was easy for us to see that her one regret in life was not just one but multiple. And that maybe she was secretly hoping that we were all axolotls, who have cannibalistic tendencies but if bitten, can regenerate their body parts over time.

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