Dead Dove In The Freezer

Karen didn’t understand alternative universes. “It’s a soul-mate A.U.,” her daughter Sophie said, draping herself across two chairs while Karen washed pots. “Peter and M.J.’s soul marks turn colors the first time they touch.” Karen guessed she was referring to fan fiction but didn’t recognize the characters or which series they were from. Sophie was talking at, rather than to, her mother. Still, this was better than Will, who barely spoke to her at all.

Their turning from her was normal; Karen knew that. She and Frank had strived to raise children secure enough to venture, to push off from their parents as from the side of a pool. Race away. They were teenagers, preening, though Will tried to hide it; criticizing and reveling in themselves as she once had. Both had inherited her almond-shaped dark eyes and Frank’s blond waves. They were beautiful, and this was their time.

At least it should have been. Corona-19 had stymied everything. How long had they been in lockdown, six months? Seven? Will should be at NYU, not hiding sullenly in his room doing classes on Zoom. Rather than be confined to his dorm, Will had opted to stay home. He could save money and get home-cooked meals. Cooking was one of the few ways Will still let Karen take care of him.

Sophie, doing remote seventh grade, had taken over Karen’s computer in the living room, forcing Karen to buy a refurbished one and set up a work station in the basement. She didn’t mind. The kids came first. Besides, she was lucky to still have a job. Frank’s position at the museum had been cut to part-time. He updated the catalogue and filmed virtual tours. At least it got him out of the house. When he was home he watched TV or played on his phone. During screen-free meals he jiggled his leg and met her attempts at humor with a curt “Ha.” She wondered if he was depressed.

Karen was thrilled at how well she was coping. No desire to drink, and her mood was stable. The pandemic had even removed Claire, an assistant curator Frank spoke of a little too casually, who had moved to Ohio to “bubble” with her aging parents. Karen was fine. Better than fine.


“Mom! Mom!”

Karen bounded up the stairs toward Sophie’s voice. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“You bought the wrong cream cheese. I like low fat,” Sophie said, jabbing a butter knife toward the offending tub.

“Well your father likes this one.”

Sophie made a show of throwing her newly-toasted bagel into the trash. “Can you make pancakes?”

“Sophie, I’m in a Zoom meeting. Why don’t you ask Dad?”

“Dad’s busy. He’s watching Storage Wars. If Will asked, you’d make them.”

Jelly splotched the counter; something lay shriveling beneath Will’s chair. Karen exhaled loudly. “I’ll make pancakes when my meeting’s done.”


 “Why did you wait so long to have kids?” Sophie asked, out of nowhere. “Now you’re old. I’m going to be a young mother.” There was no meanness in her tone. Often the most hurtful things Sophie said didn’t seem to come from malice, just Sophie’s belief in their truth. In this case, the truth was that her parents were outdated and irrelevant. Karen remembered feeling that way about her own parents, but they had been virgins when they met. Neither had lived much before marrying and having her. Karen and Frank had been out in the world. They were more similar to her children’s generation than her parents had been to hers.

 Of course, Karen had given up a lot of that world. She didn’t resent it; the kids came first. Still, when she read the other day that an old friend from her MFA program had published a book, Karen was surprised by how the news rankled. Karen had placed a handful of stories in literary magazines, one in a top-tier journal. She’d even had an agent. But no publisher had wanted her manuscript and she got tired of scraping by, living on rice and beans and wearing knock-off clothes. Once she and Frank decided to have kids, she had applied for a job at a media company, working her way up to a decent salary, plus the family’s health insurance.  Hearing about her classmate’s success, she thought about how Emily Dickinson’s sister had made sure Emily’s work was published after her death.

“You know I used to write fiction, right?” she asked her daughter. “After I die, will you try to get my stories published, like Emily Dickinson’s sister did for her?” Sophie shrugged. “If people don’t want to read your stories now, why would they want to read them then?”  Sophie wrote stories herself, though she wouldn’t show them to her Karen. And she was an avid reader, though lately she’d switched almost entirely from books to fan fiction.

“Isn’t that just a lot of characters having sex?” Karen asked. Could that be what her daughter wanted?

“There’s some of that,” Sophie informed her, comfortable in the role of teacher to her mom. “But you can bypass those if you put in the right tags. Mostly it’s shipping. Or fluff.” From context, Karen understood  that “shipping” was when you paired characters together, usually different couples than in the original work. “Fluff” was when the characters, free from angsty or dangerous plot lines, cooked together or had movie night.

Sophie talked about fan fiction a lot. She didn’t seem to care if Karen understood. Karen nodded, asking questions when she could figure out what to ask. If fan fiction was helping Sophie through the lockdown, she would support it.

The weeks passed. Karen tried to keep some sense of order to counteract the feeling of one endless, repetitive day. Mondays she baked. Will, especially, loved her brownies. Tuesdays she painted her nails. Thursday, masked and gloved, she bought groceries.

Friday was movie night. This week Sophie chose a cartoon. Wasn’t she too old for cartoons? With a slight lip curl, Sophie corrected, “It’s not a cartoon, it’s anime.” Whatever it was called, the show was awful. Undeveloped characters, lazy animation, a plot that was both silly and overwrought. Karen focused on her popcorn. The only bright spot, which was supposed to be tragic, was when the superhero got injured and became shriveled and bony. Karen thought that was a much better aesthetic. He looked punk. “Did you like that?” she asked when the show finally ended.

“Well, no,” Sophie said. “But the fan content’s so good, I’m going to keep watching it.”

“You should write a story about the shrunken guy starting a band. He looks the part.”
 “That’s dumb, Mother. You write it.”

Sophie had been joking, but Karen found herself playing with the idea. After Frank went to bed, she just started typing, and quickly finished the story. Unlike when she used to write “for real,” this was effortless and fun. The story was played for laughs, a send up of the show, but she tried to add heart, giving another disabled hero a place in the band as well.

“You didn’t, Mom! That’s embarrassing,” Sophie said the next morning when Karen told her about the story.

“You made me watch that show, and it got stuck in my head. Can you help me put my story online?”

Grudgingly Sophie helped her set up an account and post “Never Mind the Heroes” to a fan fiction website, explaining about the tags in her superior tone. “I won’t read it, though.”

The next morning, Karen got a message from the website. “You’ve got kudos.” A bunch of them, from different readers. Karen guessed they were similar to “likes.” Someone had left a comment as well. “Great story. Thanks for posting.” Karen felt buoyant. Years ago, after Frank’s affair, the counselor had asked what they were missing from the marriage. Karen had asked for appreciation. Frank had said attention, despite the fact that they had both agreed the kids came first.

Karen wrote back to shadow324x, whoever that was. “Thank you. It’s my first fan fiction. But I’ve written other stories.”

Sophie walked by and looked over her shoulder. “You got bookmarks!”

“What does that mean?”

“It means someone wants to read it again. Your story must actually be good.”

Karen hadn’t seen that look on Sophie’s face in years, a surprised pride both kids had shown her often when they were young and she fixed a toy, or solved a problem, or showed some physical skill. Karen felt buoyant and warm. She would start another story.

What would shadow324x want to read next? Or the others who had kudo’ed her? She couldn’t tell much from most of their screen names, though Emosoul457 gave a picture of dyed black hair, maybe a nose ring. From Sophie, Karen gathered that most readers were tween and teen girls. The idea of having a waiting audience excited her. These kids were trapped inside, isolated, probably scared as well. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were dead, the country was sliding into fascism, and that awful man was about to be reelected. How could they not be terrified? Karen could at least entertain them for awhile.

Maybe she could even do more than that. Girls were still being taught to twist themselves into the shape of others’ lives. Onscreen heroines were put in skimpy costumes, even to fight wars. They suffered over selfish men and called it love.

 “Soph, who’s that girl from Percy Jackson, the smart one?”


“Yeah, thanks.” Karen wrote a story where Annabeth threw Percy to the monsters after he cheated on her, then headed off on a quest. Judging by the kudos, her readers could relate.

Writing and seeing kudos became the bright point of Karen’s day. The occasional comment was a special treat, pulling her out of the torpor of pandemic life. These kids listened to her.  They needed her. Karen thought about everything she’d been through in her teens, the bulimia and depression and bad men, turning all of it into “fics” that could help someone else. In one story, Captain Marvel called out Antman for taking The Wasp for granted. In another, a wandless Hermione, almost date raped by Draco, used her wits to escape and dropped a rock on his head.

DarkSaphic274 kudoed all her stories. Karen gathered from the screen name that she was gay. She would give her a girl/girl romance. Karen also made sure to choose characters of different races and body types, so everyone felt included. No sex of course. Just flirting and misunderstandings, then finally a declaration of love. Maybe a kiss. Sweet relief from the lonely monotony of lockdown.

At first Frank thought it was funny. “Look what you’ve started,” he joked to Sophie. But after a few weeks he complained, “Aren’t you spending a lot of time on that?” She knew what was bothering him. Despite their agreement, he’d always been jealous when she put the kids first. She started switching tabs when he walked into the room.

“Kar?” Frank asked one morning as she dressed for work. “Are you dieting?”

By sheer will, Karen had kept herself thinnish during the early part of her marriage, since she’d stopped taking the Prozac and Buspar that made losing weight impossible. Strangely, Frank’s affair had freed her. Since he’d gone elsewhere anyway, why struggle?

Now he was looking at her with concern, not approval. “I’ve been working hard. No time for lunch.” Or breakfast some mornings. Coffee eased the hunger pangs. She needed time to write.


On Monday, Will looked around the kitchen. “No brownies?”

Oh right, brownies. Karen had forgotten. “Sorry, Sweetie. Maybe we can bake some together tomorrow.”

“Whatever.” Will turned away. Karen was relieved. Baking would take time away from her writing, and she had several stories she was fleshing out. Will could eat something else. The kids needed her.

Karen was barely sleeping five hours a night, but she wasn’t tired. The words poured out, energizing her. Mothers always got extra strength. True, she had messed up an important project at work, but that was just a paycheck. Mothering had always been her real job.

Karen researched popular fandoms and Googled characters she didn’t know. She had no time, or desire, to watch the shows. The characters were merely scaffolding. She could put them anywhere, into any alternative universe useful to the plot. Even change their ages or genders. Endless possibility! The claustrophobic feeling of the pandemic fell away.


One night Sophie stomped out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. “I told you I was out of conditioner!”

Karen noticed Sophie had dyed a pink streak in her hair. “You told me yesterday. Things don’t magically appear.”

“It was two days ago. Did you even order it yet?”

Karen had meant to, but it slipped her mind. “Can you order it yourself? My credit card’s saved on the website.”

“Why did you have kids if you don’t want to take care of us?” Sophie said, slamming the bathroom door.

Once, that would have pushed Karen into guilty obsession. She would have replayed scenes of sacrifice as evidence to refute Sophie’s charge. Natural childbirth because she’d read an epidural stressed the baby. Nursing Sophie while reading to Will so she could serve them both. Working the 2-10 shift so she could be part of the cooperative nursery school. Class mom every year. Birthday cakes in the shape of each kid’s latest passion. But today she cut her mental defense short. She was writing a redemption arc for Bellatrix.


“Karen? What are you doing? It’s 2 AM.” She hadn’t heard Frank come in, but by instinct had switched windows when he spoke. She stared at the spreadsheet on her screen. “Big project at work. I told you.”

“Well get some sleep.” Frank looked worried. “You’ve been so tired lately.”

If only she could tell him. Maybe he could write some stories, too. There were so many children, so much need. He’d realize sleep was trivial compared to this. But she couldn’t tell him. To him, “the kids” were Will and Sophie. He didn’t understand that there were so many others relying on her guidance, her words.

She could feel them there, in the room with her. Not the children exactly, but their needs. Their sadness, their insecurities, their confusion. Their hunger and anger and fear. They surrounded Karen, pressing in on her, demanding  attention. The pressing hurt her, but she was strong. She was a mother. She knew how to pull what they needed from inside herself, even when she felt nothing was left.

“Don’t worry.” Had she said that aloud, or in her head? She couldn’t tell anymore. She barely registered when Frank left her and went back to bed. He was just jealous. She’d expected rivalry from Will and Sophie. For so long they’d been her only children. But Frank was worse. He actually wanted to stop her! She couldn’t let him. Whatever it took, she’d keep on. The children were out there. They were hurting. They were calling out, and she heard them. 

Which story would help them the most? Jiro overcoming anorexia? Meredith and Christina falling in love?  Or had she written those already? Things were blurring and converging. Karen had to focus. This was necessary. Nothing else had edges anymore, not her body, not her marriage. Not even Will and Sophie. They didn’t need her anymore, but these children did. They wouldn’t have to be alone anymore. She would guide them. “Don’t worry,” Karen repeated in the soothing tone she once used with Will and Sophie. “Everything’s OK.” She pressed her fingertips into the cool plastic keyboard.  “It’s all going to be OK.” She started typing faster. Faster.



Alison Stone has published seven full-length poetry collections, Zombies at the Disco (Jacar Press, 2020), Caught in the Myth (NYQ Books, 2019), Dazzle (Jacar Press, 2017), Masterplan, a book of collaborative poems with Eric Greinke (Presa Press, 2018), Ordinary Magic, (NYQ Books, 2016), Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award; as well as three chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and many other journals and anthologies. She is also a painter and the creator of The Stone Tarot. A licensed psychotherapist, she has private practices in New York City and Nyack, NY., Alison recommends Planned Parenthood.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, December 16, 2022 - 13:01