portion of the artwork for Heather Austin's story

All Exits Are Final
Heather Austin

“What do the fat brides do?” June asks as the they hitch the dress up over her narrow shoulders. She’s the only customer in the bridal shop; all three clerks are waiting on her. One is looking for a veil while the other two are busy with clothespins, pulling the dress tighter around her chest, nipping it in at the waist. They only carry one size, a ten.

“Oh, the plus-sized girls hold the dress in front of them.”

“Curious. It’s an act of faith then, giving you all that money without knowing what they’ll look like in the end?“

“All brides are beautiful.”

“No, they aren’t. That’s like saying all children are good.”

The older woman, the one with the Chanel glasses and sharp nose shakes her head. “There, all done. Do you like this one?”

June touches the bodice, the tiny pink-hued pearls sewn on by hand, and pushes her fingers into the deep folds of silk gathered at the back.

“It’s fine. I’ll take it.”

“Do you want me to take a Polaroid? You can show your mother, or your fiancé if you don’t believe in bad luck,” the youngest one says. Her voice is high-pitched and uncertain. She wants to please.

“My mother is dead and I believe in bad luck.”

“Well, you’ll just surprise him. When is the big day?” the third one says and helps her out of the dress.

“Soon,” June says.

When she gets back to her apartment June lays out the receipt for the dress on her table and smoothes it flat next to the engagement announcement. Her father sent her the clipping folded up with a faded twenty dollar bill and a note: I thought you might want to see this. Sorry I missed your birthday.

June pours herself a chardonnay and heats three pumpkin raviolis from the fridge. She arranges them on the plate and drizzles them with sauce but hesitates before setting it down.

”I’ll eat later,” she says out loud, holding the plate over the table. The cherry pub set fits perfectly in the corner of her kitchenette, but in the year since she bought it, no one has ever sat in the other chair. Sometimes when she looks at its delicate curved back from across the table at dinner she feels excessively lonely.

Last month this led to drinking too much wine and smiling in the elevator at her neighbor Vic when he made the same stupid joke for the third time—“Hey, stop talking so much”—as they rode in silence.

The smile led to fucking in Vic’s apartment while his girlfriend, Lila, was at work. Lila is a cardiac nurse and wears the same size underwear as June. Tonight when she goes over to Vic’s, Lila’s lingerie is strewn across the bed again even though she told him last time: “Absolutely not.”

“Here, put this on,” Vic says. “She’s never even worn it. She doesn’t do these things for me. Come on, just this once.”

June acquiesces and takes off her clothes. There is a price tag on the teddy and she feels relief that he wasn’t lying. It would have been too much to think of Lila in it—Lila entwined in bed with Vic, his hands on the black lace, on her body. Lila thinking he loves her.

“I love Lila, don’t get me wrong,” Vic says and rips open a condom. “I just need more.” It’s a Magnum even though he doesn’t need it. Sometimes June feels it bunching up inside her. Once it slid off and she had to squat on the bathroom floor next to Lila’s slippers to fish it out.

“Oh, you still love her?” June frowns. “I thought otherwise.”

“You thought otherwise? Who talks like that? Come here and let me see you in that thing. Is it OK if I come in your hair?”

“Yes,” June says, arranging her breasts in the underwire.

Afterwards June nestles herself against his chest and tells him about the chair.

“Why don’t you just eat in front of the TV? That’s what we do,” Vic says.

“I have rules,” June whispers. “I’m not an animal.”

“Are you one of those asshole snobs who don’t own a TV?”

“No, I like it even when I don’t like it. I watch it all the time.”

June has stacks of unread books on her nightstand that she buys from the bookstore on her way home from work. She means to read them but instead she spends the night watching TV until her eyes are rough and her leg cramps up underneath her. She likes the idea that there are millions of other people seeing exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment. Every night she racks up hours of shared experiences. At times she thinks there is something beautiful and transcendent about it. She wants to tell Vic but is afraid he’ll laugh at her. Instead, she asks what he plans on watching tonight when Lila gets home.

The Biggest Loser, DVR’d it,” he said.

“I only watch things live.”

June is glad he doesn’t watch the same show. She imagines Lila and Vic sitting on their Ikea couch with pizza grease on their chins watching morbidly obese people fall off treadmills.

“Listen, if you really feel bad about that chair I can come over and sit in it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says.

“I’ll make you braciole. It’ll be nice.”

June says nothing and gets dressed. She winds around the dirty laundry on the floor. Before she shuts his bedroom door she turns back. He’s smiling, rubbing his chest, watching her go. “I need more, too,” June says.

At home she gets into bed without showering or undressing and pulls the covers over her head. She pushes both hands between her legs. Her breath is hot against the blanket. She inhales and holds it until she comes. She thinks about strangers doing tender/terrible things to one another. She thinks of a mouth whispering in her ear, “I love you, Junebug.”

At three in the morning her phone beeps, waking her up. A text from Vic: Let me come over.

No, she writes back.

Laundry room?

June shoves the phone under her pillow and flips on the TV. It’s a Law & Order: SVU rerun. She clicks info: “Snatched: the clues to a kidnapped girl’s location …” June watches it, biting her thumbnail so low it starts to sting. She licks a smear of blood away. In the end the girl is safe. Sometimes it happens that way. Sometimes all they find are bones.

June doesn’t watch true crime. She hates the scenes of the interrogations. She hates the well-lit dirty rooms, the tired slovenly cops. She hates the weeping parents. There is no atmosphere, no drama, no twist. Only endless questions. Over and over.

“June, we need to take your statement. Tell us what happened to Nathan.”

* * *

Nathan Spencer was stolen from his backyard, stolen while his mother boiled rhubarb on the stove for a pie, dumping in an extra cup of sugar because Nathan liked things sweet. He was stolen from behind the six-foot-high stockade fence his father built himself. He was stolen while June watched open-mouthed and wet her cherry-blossom print shorts.

His parents shook June and asked over and over, “Where’s Nathan?” She knew what they really wanted to ask. “Why wasn’t it you?”

Nathan asked June to marry him when he was five years old. He gave her a pink plastic ring from the vending machine at K-Mart and forgot about it by the time he was eleven. June reminded him the day he was taken while they shared lemonade and oatmeal cookies in his backyard, but he pretended not to hear her over the thwack thwack of his father’s nail gun.

“Let’s hide Misty’s babies again,” he said with his mouth full of cookie. He poked one of the mewling kittens with a stick.

Their eyes were still shut and they wriggled along the ground when the sharp point tapped their fat bellies. There were three of them; June’s favorite was the orange tabby. She named her Calliope and Nathan’s mother told her she could have her once she was weaned.

“Don’t poke Calliope. She’s not yours.”

He picked her up by her tiny tail.

“Stop it!” June said.

“If I throw her into the woods will you still want to marry me?”

“Yes, but please don’t. I don’t like the black and white one. Throw him. Here, I’ll do it.”

He stepped in front of her, guarding the kittens, and placed Calliope next to her brothers. “I was kidding. You were kidding, too, right?”

She didn’t answer.

“You’re crazy, June,” he said and laughed.

“Take it back.”


“Take it back or I'll tell your mom you peed in her spider plant.”

“She already knows I killed it.”

June reached over and put her hand inside his shorts.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

She pulled out his inhaler and puffed it in the air. “Say it or I’ll empty it.”

She stuffed it in her pocket as he reached for it.

“OK, I take it back. Don’t mess with it.”

The two of them jumped at the sudden groan of the air compressor.

“I need a break, I’ve only got one more section to go,” Nathan’s father said, walking over shirtless and slicked with sweat. He flung his damp T-shirt over the back of a lawn chair next to June.

“Are you being nice to June? It looked like you were fighting,” he said. “We’re fine. I’m always nice to June.”

His father rolled his eyes and knelt on the ground to retrieve a pale stone the size of his fist from the dirt. His skin was clammy under June’s hand as she tapped his freckled shoulder.

“What, June?”

“Would you like some water from the hose?”

“No, thanks. It’s unsanitary, sweetie.”

“My father drinks from our garden hose.”

Her father did a lot of things Nathan’s father did not, like talking with his mouth full, and reading Hustler on the living room couch. She decided it was best not to mention them.

“Can I have that rock?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thank you.”

She was surprised by the weight of it. When she rinsed off the soil with the hose the rock turned translucent with thin twisting veins of pure white.

It reminded her of her Aunt Fran’s crystals, how she told June after her mother died, “Here, feel this, feel the vibration. It’s healing.” She didn’t know before then that some adults believed in magic. When her father worked the night shift Aunt Fran came over and showed her cards that she said could tell her the future, the past, and every secret thing.

“Shuffle them, darling. Think of a question,” she said. June did and was told that change was coming. “Look here at the Death card,” Aunt Fran said and tapped it with her long purple fingernail. June waited for the change. She waited for the cards to tell Aunt Fran the things she could not.

“Do you think this rock could have magical properties?” June asked Nathan.

“Are you retarded?”

“Some people believe that kind of stuff.”

“Retarded people.”

At dusk June and Nathan told his parents they were going to collect fireflies. Instead they sat by the new fence and shared a tiny bottle of whiskey that Nathan’s dad brought home from a business trip.

“Nasty. I don’t know how my dad drinks it every day,” June said.

“It’s not bad.”

“Did you ask your mom again, if I could stay the weekend?”

“Yeah, it’s OK, but don’t you ever want to go home?”

June shrugged. She wanted to go back to before, when her mother was there, when things made sense.

Nathan tossed the bottle over the fence into the woods behind the house. It clinked against a pine tree and disappeared.

“I still think you’re crazy but I like having you around,” Nathan said. “I love you, Junebug.” He leaned over and kissed her on the neck.

June smiled. In her lap she had the rock. In her pocket she felt the poke of Nathan’s inhaler. Those were her thoughts right before the man came. Kiss, rock, inhaler. Then he just appeared next to them, his hand around Nathan’s mouth.

“Shut the fuck up,” he said and dragged Nathan to the back gate, the one his father just installed so that he could throw their leaves into the nature preserve instead of bagging them.

June didn’t throw the rock at him; she didn’t scream. She didn’t even see his face. All she saw were the toes of Nathan’s converse sneakers thrashing in the dirt.

From behind the fence June heard Nathan yell, then a door slam and tires. By the time Nathan’s father came running barefoot into the backyard they were gone. Everything was quiet.

At the station they gave her dry clothes. They asked her things she didn’t know. They tried to draw a face she never saw.

“He was wearing jeans. I think he was white.” She felt a hot sting in her cheeks as if they caught her in a lie.

They called June’s father and he took over two hours to pick her up. He told them it was OK to ask her questions.

It was early morning by the time she got into her father’s rusted Thunderbird. As they pulled out of the parking garage they passed a sign. All exits are final. June closed her eyes, blacking it out.

On the way home her father was quiet and June was grateful. She crumpled up empty packs of his cigarettes from the foot well and threw them one by one out the window, watching them tumble down the road. He didn’t tell her to stop.

When they pulled up the gravel drive he put the car in park and said, “I guess it’s lucky for you that kidnapper’s a faggot.”

In the morning Nathan’s father called, crying.

“They found him.”

“I’m so sorry,” June’s father said, putting his cigarette out on the wall next to the phone.

“No, no. He’s alive.”

Nathan was in a hospital one county over. He had been there for hours before they figured out who he was. He had an asthma attack during the abduction; it left him blue-lipped and almost dead. The kidnapper tossed him from the van only minutes after taking him. A Portuguese woman found him and brought him in. Until he woke up, they thought he was her son. Other than a wrist fracture and a concussion Nathan was unharmed. June said it was a miracle, her father said he was lucky as hell. They stopped saying these things when they heard the news about a second missing boy.

For Nathan there was another fortunate event: a doctor at the hospital found a chuck of human flesh caught in his teeth. They ran the DNA through CODIS and found a match; Winston Carter was an ex-middle-school teacher who had spent eighteen months in jail for kiting checks. He coached girls’ soccer and lived around the block from Nathan. When they caught him three weeks later, thanks to a tip from a waitress at the Denny’s on 1-95, there were three bodies in the back of his van. He dug them up from his crawl space when he went on the run.

“Maybe he needed them,” June said to Aunt Fran.

“You shouldn’t read these things. It’s too disturbing.” She took the paper away. One of them was indentified as the second missing boy. The dead boy’s mother was glad he was found. She thanked Nathan in a press conference for his part. June watched it on TV while her father snored beside her. She thought the boy’s mother was very generous. Winston Carter’s van would have driven right past her son if Nathan had still been inside. Her boy would have finished his bike ride. He would have been the one to come home.

“I want to see Nathan. They won’t answer the phone,” June said to her father when he woke up to get a beer.

“Give it time.”

“But nothing really happened to him.”

When June tried to visit, his mother didn’t let her in the door.

“I’m sorry, June, but it’s not a good time. There’s all sorts of things going on with the trial coming.”

“Oh. Can you tell him I said hey? That I miss him?”

“Of course.”

Nathan’s family moved away that fall to a gated community. June didn’t get Calliope once she was weaned.

* * *

June is startled by the da-duh as the credits roll into the next rerun of Law & Order: SVU. She wishes she had someone to call. She wants to talk about Nathan. She dials Aunt Fran’s number even though she died two years ago from colon cancer. She tried to cure it with foul-smelling health shakes and by paying someone to arrange colored crystals on her abdomen. “Is this any worse than watching your mother die bald and emaciated while on chemo?” Aunt Fran asked.

“Yes,” June said.

June quickly hangs up when an angry Hispanic man answers.

She stares back at the TV. She’s seen this episode four times already and clicks it off. Sometimes she imagines what it would have been like if Benson and Stabler had been the ones to interview her the night Nathan was stolen. It would have gone like this:

The room is dim. The single light overhead casts a soft glow on the beat-up metal table top. Detective Benson tells June, “You’re safe now. It’s OK if you didn’t see his face. Just try to remember anything else.”

Elliot gives her a soda and asks her, “Did you hear a car door? What did it sound like?”

“I heard a whoosh-bang. It was a van door, not a car,” June says. She didn’t know she knew that. She suddenly recalls the blue minivan that circled the block three times that afternoon as they played with the kittens. The one with the vanity plate. Something about soccer. SOCRLVR.

They put out an APB and tell her the good news that Nathan was found alive by the side of the road.

June bursts into tears when they tell her about the asthma attack.

Elliot squints. “Empty your pockets,” he says.

He looks at the inhaler on the table with his arms folded, his cross tattoo flexing. “It’s OK, June. Taking his inhaler saved his life.”

“Is there anything else you want to tell us?” Olivia asks.

There is. June tells them everything. She tells them how it started after her mother died. She shows them the scars. She tells them it happens almost every night. There’s a moment when the room gets quiet. Olivia looks at Elliot with wide eyes. They both realize at the same time that June was the real special victim all along. Olivia gives the people behind the glass a nod. They send an officer to arrest June’s father. They call Dr. Huang for June.

And at the end before the credits roll, the captain comes in and says, “We found the van. There was another boy inside. It looks like he’s going to be all right.”

* * *

“Hi, this is Marty from Bridal Fashions. This is our third call. Your dress is ready to be picked up. Um. You have an eight-hundred-dollar balance. We’re going to go ahead and charge the card on file if we don’t hear from you.”

June deletes the message. Nathan’s wedding is in two days. It was a whirlwind romance, according to the clipping. No one falls in love in three months, June thinks. It took Nathan seven years to tell her he loved her.

“You’re getting married?” Vic says. He’s at her stove, in his boxer-briefs, stirring the sauce for the braciole.

June isn’t sure how to answer.

“I didn’t know you were a dirty cheat, too. He in the service or something? I’ve never seen him.”

“Yes, I’m marrying a sailor.”

“Patriotic,” he says. “I like that. C’mere, let’s do it on the counter.”

“What about the sauce?”

“It needs ten more minutes.”

He sets her on top of the dishwasher and opens her robe. This is the last time, she thinks. She wraps her legs around him and hooks her feet together, pulling him in. June wonders if she will miss him. She makes a list in her head while he moans.

These are the plusses: Vic smells like cherry lozenges—her favorite kind. His body is firm. He always stops talking once they get started.

These are the minuses: Vic already has Lila. He goes to the bathroom with the door open. One night he rubbed his finger over the cigarette burn on her thigh and asked, “Someone do this to you?” and when she said, “Yes,” she felt him get hard against her back.

She decides she will not miss him.

The next morning at 8:55, June is waiting outside Bridal Fashions, tapping her boot on the sidewalk. The store opens at nine. If she leaves right from the store she can make it to his house before the rehearsal dinner.

The clerk with the glasses sees her through the door and lets her in.

“Today is the big day. I need the dress.”

“You’re serious?” the clerk says.

“Help me put it on.”

The dress is everything June imagined. It’s simple but elegant. There is no train or tulle to get caught in the car door. She is bringing only three things on the trip. Dress, pink ring, inhaler. She whispers it under her breath like one of Aunt Fran’s incantations.

“You look beautiful.”

June decides that she does, for the first time in her life, look beautiful. She feels everything coming together. Sometimes there are miracles, sometimes people are lucky as hell.

“I’m going to wear it out,” she says.

June reads Nathan and Joanne’s announcement again in the car as she gets up the nerve to ring the bell. Nathan works for Joanne’s father’s company and she’s in her last year at law school. June lingers on the part where Joanne talks about the night they met: “I knew was special the minute I saw him, and when I found out that he was the Nathan Spencer I remembered seeing on the news when I was a child, I had to get to know him. I think he’s supposed to do something great with his life. He’s here for a reason.”

She crumples it up and gets out of the car.

Nathan doesn’t recognize her.

“Is this a joke?” he says, pointing at her dress.

“It’s me. It’s June.” She is prepared for this part. There has to be conflict before a happy ending. You have to think it’s not going to work out until the very last second.

“Oh my God. I haven’t seen you since …” He covers his mouth. “Come in.” He holds open the door and she walks into his townhouse, hitching up her skirt so she doesn’t trip.

“Are you getting married too? I don’t understand the outfit.”

“I’m here for you,” she says and touches his arm. “Haven’t you ever thought about us?”

“Sure, I wondered what happened to you. You were my best friend.”

“Do you remember you kissed me and told me you loved me?”

“I remember. I was just talking about you at my bachelor party. About firsts.”

“Say it again, tell me you love me,” she says and puts her hand on his thigh.

“Ha, I get it now,” he says and smiles. He tips her head back and kisses her on the neck. “I love you, Junebug.”

He pulls her hard into him, his mouth wet on her cleavage, his fingers digging into her back, trying to find the clasps.

“Wait,” she says. “I don’t want to rush.”

“I don’t have a lot of time. Rehearsal is in forty minutes.”

“What do you mean?”

“Rehearsal. I’m getting married. That’s why you’re doing the whole kooky wedding dress schtick, right? Pretending to be June. Let me guess, Smitty hired you.”

June freezes.

“I don’t feel well,” she says.

Nathan is staring at her, undoing his pants. “Oh, do you need to go?” June covers her face with her hands. She thinks about the Death card. She thinks about alternate endings. She thinks about giving her dress to Lila, letting her wear something of hers for a change.

“I’m leaving. I just want to give you something first.”

She reaches into the bodice of the dress and pulls out the inhaler. June presses it into his palm and wraps his fingers around it. “You’re not special,” she says. “It wasn’t fate, it wasn’t divine. It was just a child’s prank—a small, cruel thing that saved your life.”

“June …’” he says and swallows.

“Take it. I don’t want it anymore. It saved you, not me. I never came back.”

My years of L&O viewing definitely inspired my story. I started watching in junior high. It was the gavel that got me. I no longer watch the original but I’m still a faithful viewer of L&O: SVU. There’s just something about Detectives Benson and Stabler—they’re attractive, a little tortured, but always, without fail, good. 

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 27 | Law & Order Issue | Winter 2010