by Kristin Werstler (Univ. of Mount Union)

First Place

Marina used to tell everyone she came from a family of ten until we started calling her mom a whore. At sixteen, Marina found out she was pregnant in the girls’ bathroom of our high school. Her back was pressed against the cement wall when Tori and I stumbled upon her, the plastic stick in her hand, the smell of piss in the air. Tori dragged her wide eyes across Marina’s body – picking over her thick, bent knees that left her church dress hiked up and sprawled around the tile. She halted at Marina’s face. It was swollen and red, her trembling lips like an open gash across her skin. The Metallica tee shirt that clung to Tori’s chest stretched at the shoulders as she straightened her spine.

“Must run in the family.” Tori stated. Without hesitating, without turning back, Tori swiveled on her heels and walked out the bathroom door.

I grimaced and followed, but did not remind her that Marina and I were cousins. I mean, second cousins once removed. We hardly ever went to the same family Christmas party anymore, but a dull guilt clipped the edges of my thoughts when I pictured her chapped lips pinched in a sob, a baby growing inside of her.


Tori didn’t feel guilt. At least she didn’t act like it. Every Friday after school in the sixth grade she and I would steal snacks and gum and lip gloss from the local Dollar General. We had a system. Tori would wear a hoodie that hung from her scrawny frame like wet clothes on a line. Then I would buy two .50 cent Zebra Cakes to distract the cashier while Tori stuffed Slim Jims and Monsters between her skin and the sweatshirt’s thick fabric. We’d say hi to the toothless manager on our way out. He’d raise his eye brows at us and we were careful to be swift, but not too hasty. Then we’d leave together, thrilled. Exhilarated. Breathing heavy and choking on giggles, half-way skipping through the quarter-mile trek to The Wall.

The Wall was the remains of an ancient bridge that crossed over the train tracks. Most of the bridge had been eroded away by weather, leaving only a portion of stacked bricks that ran parallel to the tracks. Graffiti coated the wall, little ants marched along the bricks.

The Wall was the first place Tori and I ever hung out. We met in detention. Me, for talking back to a teacher. Her, for punching the kid who taped a Proactive ad to her back. In the classroom, as echoes of laughter and bus engines came in through the window, we whispered about how dumb the football players were and how Mrs. Sullivan gave out the most impossible homework quizzes. Afterward, she took me to The Wall. I had only moved into town last summer and hadn’t made any friends yet. She kept saying, “when you have a friend like me, you only need one.” That night, when I looked into the mirror and saw mountain ranges of pimples and acne scars surfacing underneath, I decided she was right.

A mix of broken cement and dirt acted as steps to the narrow line of bricks we sat on, our legs dangling ten feet over the active tracks. Tori always went first, leading the way, then she divvied up the snacks between us.

“Did you say you wanted Funyons?”

“I saw you.”

The air in my lungs jumped to my throat, but I caught the gasp between my teeth. When I turned, Marina was standing at the bottom of The Wall, looking up. Behind her was a brush of trees that hid us from the main road, but we could still hear the clanking engines and dragging mufflers whizzing past us.

Tori furrowed her brow at Marina. “That’s cool.” She turned to face me. “Did I give you the habanero Slim Jim? Because I definitely called that one in the store.”

“Did you hear me?”

Tori slowly turned back around, her eye brows raised. The same thin arch her mother gave us the night she caught Tori stealing her vodka for a slumber party at Corrin’s.

“Did you ask if I give a fuck?”

I laughed, more out of shock, I think, at Tori’s voice; it rang smoother than the Jim Bean her dad bought us after her mom confiscated the vodka.

We turned back to our food, the presence of my cousin’s glare stinging my back.

“I could call the police, because I saw you steal that stuff. And there’s proof.”

“Right.” Tori drug out the vowel, but it seemed like she was pulling it along with her teeth. The tension rose in the air as Marina stared at me, smiling.

It struck me that the only reason Tori’s dad bought us whiskey was to get back at her mom for filing for a divorce. I don’t know why, as Marina stared us down from her spot in the grass, that I remembered the way Tori slurred her words, telling me that her parents haven’t slept in the same bed for three years.  

“I could tell on you.” Marina’s words sounded rehearsed. Like she stood in front of the mirror mouthing them to her reflection.

Tori sighed and rose to stand on the edge of The Wall, towering over Marina. Her eyes drooped in boredom, but next to my face, her fists clenched.

“Call the cops. I dare you.”

In the silence, Marina stared at me and smiled. Her eyes were bright, looking the way they did the time she brought her new Barbie to the family Christmas party. The kind with bendable knees and elbows.

“Why would I do that if I could just tell your daddy?”

I was so jealous. Mom had lost her job and couldn’t afford to get the Barbie play set I wanted, but Marina spent the whole night waving hers around the Christmas tree. I hated her for it.

“The fuck did you just say?”

Her Barbie even came with a purple horse and saddle set.

Marina bounced over to the edge of the stairs, taking one step closer to us. I stood, and as I did Tori pushed past me, causing my knees to buckle.

“I just mean, your daddy wouldn’t want to hear his daughter stole stuff-.”

“You don’t know anything,” Tori’s shoulders straightened. “You just some whore’s daughter.”

Marina took a few more strides up the mound. In the distance, a train horn chanted at us, called out our names. “You’re right.” Marina said. “My mom is a whore. I bet you heard that from your dad, right?”

My jaw unhinged as a sharp red color rose under Tori’s skin.

“You don’t know anything,” Tori repeated, but her words trembled. Her cracking voice seemed to fuel Marina, who kept inching toward us, chin cocked upward.

“Yeah, shut up, idiot.” I hissed.

Marina’s laugh was covered by the sound of the horn stomping toward us. The gates at the rail road crossing began singing their warning song from behind the thicket of trees.

“Oh shut up, Amanda.” She spat at me. “You’re no better than this new friend of yours.”

Heat rose in my cheeks, as Marina’s unwavering smile bore into me.

Marina turned back to Tori.

“If my mom’s a whore, then so is your daddy.” Her voice was muffled by the sound of wheels clicking down the railway. She pressed her face closer to Tori’s, their noses nearly touching. Her dark eyes were sharp enough to peel the skin from our bodies. “Must run in the family.”

Tori’s arms flung toward Marina’s chest in great flashes. Marina’s steady foot jolted back as Tori advanced on my cousin. The gasp freed itself from my teeth and liberated itself as a scream. My ears stung as the locomotive’s wails whizzed past, kicking up dust and shrieking wind. Marina’s body rolled like the metal wheels down the dirt steps, her limbs flailing in every direction, trying to stop, trying to miss a collision with the train.

My heart vibrated in my ribs as my mind began conjuring up the images of a dead family member. Of my responsibility.

There’s this framed picture on a dresser in mom’s room. It’s been there for years. It’s of me and Marina, ice cream cones in our hands, rings of chocolate coating our lips. Our shared grandma sits between of us, her right hand on my back, her left on Marina’s. Mom says we were about five, and the ice cream was from McDonalds. I don’t remember taking the picture.

But the train passed and the sound of its horn and its wheels faded as the locomotive weaved its way out of town. I glanced at Tori. Blood stained her front teeth as she gnawed on her bottom lip. When her mouth finally parted, she twisted her expression into a scowl.

“Let’s go.” She stated blankly.

“Go? What?” My head was spinning.

Tori took long strides down the steps, passing Marina. My cousin sat slouched, her legs sprawled out. We stared at each other, bulky tears clearing a path through the dirt on her cheeks.

Slowly, I walked down the slope. Bright red blood swarmed from open wounds on Marina’s knees. The same blood inherited from our shared grandma. I kept walking, though her eyes stabbed at my back as I jogged to catch up to Tori.

“Should we go back? I mean,” My words rushed out in a hot breath. “I mean, we should go back, right? She might need help, she might tell-.”

“Oh my God,” Tori snapped suddenly. “Go back if you want, she’s your cousin, right? She’s your family, right?” Her shoulders tensed and her footsteps fell heavier against the Earth. “She is not my family. She’s not my problem.”

I kept my lips pressed together, focusing instead on matching my footfalls with Tori’s. But just before we slipped through the thicket of trees, my eyes crossed the field, to the Wall, the tracks, to Marina, her body still perched on a mound of dirt. Her eyes pressed into me, and even when her facial features dissolved in the growing distance between us, I could tell half of her face was perked up in a smile, no, a smirk. Her finger nails were probably crusted with dirt, blood matted in her hair, her body sprawled along the tracks; but she won.

And we both knew it.

Once Tori and I were walking along the road again, my brain caught up to my trembling hands. I thought about myself, and wondered if I still looked the same in the mirror as I did that day after detention.

“Hey,” My voice sounded too serious. I coughed. “Hey, so I’m going to head home now, if that’s cool.”

Tori pulled a new pack of gum from her back pocket and ripped off the plastic. She must’ve stolen that when I wasn’t looking. “Yeah, I don’t care.”

A “see ya,” formed on my lips, but I never let the words taste oxygen. I just nodded and veered left when Tori veered right, letting her and the thicket of trees and my responsibility fade away behind me.