national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014


Sarah Christensen  • 
Brown University


On the first Wednesday of May it rained with such ferocity that Washington Avenue was closed, and the school bus was forced to travel the long way around. Everyone from the west side of town was ten minutes late to class. Phone calls were made to the parents of more than a dozen students. Later in the afternoon an open apology was posted on the school website, citing a managerial miscommunication as the reason for the calls. Unfortunately, the parents of a certain second-grader were away on vacation at the time. When informed by voicemail of their daughter’s fourth tardy violation in three months, they made a drastic decision without further inquiry into the unjust state of affairs.



There was now an extra puppy. The Carters had endeavored to get them all settled before the start of the summer. Arthur would be coming down for two months with the whole family and they couldn’t have the puppies to worry about with seven grandchildren underfoot besides. The final arrangement had fallen through suddenly, after weeks of discussion, and now all was thrown into confusion. A male was left over, the biggest of the three, colored a deep coal-black and doomed to imposing enormity. There wasn’t much demand in the town for puppies that might grow into real animals. The Carters agreed there wasn’t anything else to be done even though afterwards they both felt rather ashamed and stayed up late regretting it in silence.



He had booked the dinner half a year in advance, but in the end only his mother showed up, as usual. They talked about the weather until dinner was served and then ate with exaggerated slowness, hoping to prolong the period of acceptable silence. During the yawning space between dinner and dessert she haltingly asked after his late wife. He gave perfunctory replies, described himself as ‘out of the woods’ and ‘on the mend,’ and proposed a toast to the deceased woman’s fading memory. His mother bared her near-invisible braces and raised her third glass of red wine. He stared at her teeth while she smiled, and noticed that the translucent plastic was taking on a faint purple hue. He left the restaurant feeling nauseous, swallowed an extra Ambien before bed, and turned off his alarm.



On her way out of the lab she remembered to grab an umbrella. She felt ridiculous holding the hulking black thing overhead in the height of summer, but the doctor had told her not to get any more sun until the rash cleared up. Sunscreen only made it worse. She wondered, as she paused with a hand on the door, if it was the sunscreen that had started the whole thing. The stuff was full of carcinogens, parabens, chemical fragrances—maybe she could sue. Anyway, if it weren’t for the increasing absence of her boss she wouldn’t be forced to spend so much time outside in this season. She had never been suited to fieldwork, but the technicians would flounder without her expertise. The overtime pay was something, at least. So she thrust the umbrella out into the glare and ducked within the protective pool of its shade. On the ten-minute walk down to the riverbank she caught at least four people staring but was determined to ignore them. The rash had already made her immune to those kinds of looks. If the suit went her way, she’d get out of this town and never come back.



It had to be listed under “Miscellaneous discarded items of non-industrial origin,” because no one had thought to add such a grisly category to the standard form. The intern had not intended, when applying for a job with this tiny, underfunded subset of the watershed management department, to encounter such glaring evidence of human callousness and cruelty on her first day. This was the twenty-first century. People were decent nowadays. The intern was directed to collect it in a plastic bag labeled “Biohazard.” She kneeled in the mud, encased in her thigh-high waders, and grimaced at the combined unpleasantness of powdered latex pinching her fingers and waterlogged, slick-furred flesh sliding under her palms. It was tiny, dark, and repulsively fetal, the aborted offspring of the river itself, yet it stirred some semblance of sympathy in the back of her throat. Later, after the coordinator-on-call had gone home, the intern extracted it from the “Biohazard” bag and buried it herself on the grassy bank in a shallow, sun-warmed grave.