THE CALIBER OF HOPE • by Michael Pikna

I work a mixture of peat and shredded leaves into the hole, then arrange the bulbs pointy end up before blanketing them with a few inches of dirt. Planting crocuses is supposed to keep me from offing myself in the winter. Thebe’s idea, not mine. My sister, the social worker. The youngest of five sisters, the only one to make anything of herself. But she never had to work the stroll. Never had to leave her own body and watch herself from above. Never had to store her love outside herself to keep it safe. By the time Thebe was old enough to earn her keep, the rose gray horse our mother shot into her veins had ridden her out of our lives forever, and our father had been put away for knifing a john. Never mind that he had pimped out his daughters, telling them that if they wanted to eat, they had to work — those charges had been dropped in exchange for a plea.

“Picture it, Gina,” Thebe said. “Just when you’re thinking winter will never end, up pop these little goblets of color through the snow. And suddenly there’s hope.”

She’s always saying stuff like that. About coping ahead and creating opportunities for positive experiences and building a life worth living — blah, blah, blah. When she talks like that, I want to strangle her with the lanyard she wears around her neck. The one clipped to the badge that opens the doors in the offices where she sees clients. The one she wears, even after she gets home, as if it’s a talisman that protects her from my wickedness. Thebe, with her simple solutions to the shit show of my life. I wish she’d done the things I had so we could share our misery. So I could tell her about my own talisman, the one that belonged to our mother. The one buried like a time capsule in my closet. It was yesterday when she said that, the hope of an innocent burning in her bright blue eyes, and at least I could warm myself by it. Today, with her at work and me sitting on my fat ass alone in the cold flowerbed, I wonder how these bulbs, smothered with dirt through the fall and winter, will be able to fill with life again. So much can go wrong.

I look up and see two people coming up the hill, a man pushing someone in a wheelchair. As they get closer, I recognize them. Sal is still huge, even in the wheelchair. Sid puts his back into it, practically laying himself out. It’s been ages since I’ve seen them.


I was seventeen, old enough to tell my father off. Not with actual words, but the three days I holed up with this guy in a motel with no money changing hands was a fuck you just the same. I’d climbed into his rig without any worries — truckers are a working girl’s bread and butter. Tired, no sleep, coming down from whatever they took to keep them awake, they’d come in a hurry, and I wouldn’t have to spend much time in the closet-sized sleeper stinking of cigarettes and ass. I expected the usual gear jammer — red eyes and nicotine-stained fingers, horniness edging out the bible-bred hesitation on his five o’clock face. I’d met a lot of men already by that time in my life, and they were all bad air from a popped balloon. But this one seemed different. Maybe it was the smile, or the look in his eyes that spoke to me in a way I’d never heard before. He stopped being a kerb crawler at that point. Just what he was — kidnapper, rescuer, or something else — I never had the chance to find out. We were in bed, and I was stroking the feathers of the eagle tattooed on his chest when Sal, the big meathead, kicked the door in, followed by Sid, his beady-eyed pit bull of a brother. Sid made eye contact with me, shrugged an apology. It was then I knew my father had sent them looking. “Wait,” I screamed as I wrapped the sheet around myself. But they didn’t. And I did nothing while they beat my trucker until he was just a shape the eagle had once occupied.


I shake myself. I collect as many stones as I can, then stand at the edge of the lot. I wait until the brothers get close enough. I can’t throw for shit at first, but my aim gets better and a few connect. Sid flinches but keeps his hands on the chair. Sal may as well be made of stone for all the reaction I get from him. He doesn’t blink, duck his head, nothing. The stones fall off him as if he’s shedding them. Sid keeps pushing. He looks at me and gives me that stupid fucking shrug, like he has no choice in what he’s doing. It isn’t long before they’re out of throwing range of a used up ex-hooker.

I take a stuttering breath, go back to the flowerbed, and finish planting the bulbs. I feel better.

When Thebe gets home from work, I tell her I’m planning on spending more time working the flowerbed, that it really has given me hope.

She pulls me in for a hug. “That’s wonderful,” she says, her eyes welling up.

That night, while my sister snores softly in the next room, I get the snubbie from the shoe box in my closet. It’s small but has the heft of redemption. It fits my hand perfectly, the way it did my mother’s. I thumb the cylinder release to make sure it’s loaded, then stash it in the inside pocket of the old denim jacket I wore in the flowerbed. Tomorrow, I’ll bury more bulbs. Maybe some irises. Maybe the brothers will come by again.

I sleep better that night than I have in years.

Michael Pikna is the son of European highwire walkers. Grounded by his parents’ desire for a less peregrine life, he now pursues the more figurative heights of writing. He is a transplant from the wilds of New Jersey, living in Colorado with his wife and an unruly schnauzer. His stories have appeared in Bryant Literary Review, The MacGuffin, Water~Stone Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Hobart, and others.

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