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Friday Feature: Shinelle L. Espaillat

Shinelle L. Espaillat teaches writing at Westchester Community College in NY. She is a 2022 Kimbilo Fellow, and a Best of the Net 2021 nominee. She completed an M.A. in Fiction at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, Minerva Rising, Ghost Parachute, The Westchester Review, Cleaver Magazine and Midway Journal, as well as in the collections Ghost Parachute: 105 Flash Fiction Stories, Shale: Extreme Fiction for Extreme Conditions, and How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems That Illuminate Emotions in Learning and Teaching. Follow her on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

But Did You Die?

By Shinelle L. Espaillat

Shreds of winter sliced the March morning as sunlight struggled to pierce the clouds. Mellen pushed herself to keep running up the hill, though each muscle fiber screamed and her breath came in hard, hitching explosions. Behind her, an angry rottweiler closed the distance, its owner barking toothless threats and commands. There was no tree to climb, no fence to jump. The houses lining the street were all in darkness, and she couldn’t even gather enough air to scream.

A deer bounded into the road ahead. It paused, its hefty body a solid roadblock, and stared at her. She pictured herself bouncing off the brown flank, back into the foamy maw of the furious beast, or impaling herself on a whitened prong. It seemed unfair that this day was demanding her blood.

She skirted around its back end and kept running, despite the sounds of a terrible bleating, a high-pitched howl of pain, and the shrieking cries of the rottweiler's owner. She picked a house and began pounding on the front door, pushing the Ring and waving her arms frantically at the camera even as she turned to see a flailing mass of species, propelled by its own violent momentum.

“What the hell!”

She snapped around to face the barrel of a rifle. She hit the paved walkway on all fours. The man in the doorway wore only flannel pajama pants. He glared at the chaos on the street, then down at her, lowering the rifle so that it pointed at the welcome mat.

She pressed her palms flat to the stone and tried to find the strength to push herself up, but her shaking limbs would not comply. “Help.” Her voice trembled, weakened.

He tilted his head and stared at the street, his face a contortion of confused disbelief. She shifted so that she was sitting instead of crawling, wrapped her arms around her knees and watched as he moved closer to the snarling mess. He didn’t seem too concerned about his own safety. She guessed the rifle helped.

The men worked together to disentangle deer from dog. The red-splotched leash slithered along the asphalt as the men frowned, gesticulated, twisted and pulled. Finally, they managed to separate the animals. The deer bounded off immediately, and Rifleman pointed his gun in its direction. Mellen shut her eyes and tightened her palms against her ears, contracting herself into a tight circle as she waited for the sound of the shot.

It didn’t come. When she opened her eyes, both men were standing in front of her. The dog lay panting in its owner’s arms. She pushed to her feet, managing to stay upright, though her legs wobbled.

“Gotta get this dog to emergency. You coming?” Rifleman asked.

The owner sniffled. “He’s a good dog. He’s just been having a bad time lately. He wouldn’t have hurt you.”

She looked at his blood-streaked shirt, heard him make soothing, crooning noises as he cradled the dog as though it were a baby. Maybe she could reverse the energy of this day—this year—by extending the compassion she herself needed. Maybe all three of them were caught up in chaos and could use a little support.

“Okay.” She followed Rifleman to his truck, climbed into the backseat next to the dog owner, and pressed the dirty t-shirt that Rifleman tossed to her against the dog’s seeping wounds.

A vet met them at the entrance and quickly disappeared with the dog. The three of them sat in the green-tiled waiting room, and the owner broke into dry sobs. Mellen patted his leg.

Rifleman shook his head and crossed his arms. “Hell of a way to start the day.”

Mellen closed her eyes. She’d been trying to follow doctor’s orders, getting a little exercise to clear her mind, so that the copper coils of anxiety that bound her might loosen. She’d been huffing and puffing along, waiting for the calm to kick in, when the good-dog-having-a-bad-time had shimmered into being, like a hellhound behind her, she thought and shivered. She would have to work harder on finding that compassion. She peeked at her watch. She was meant to be at her desk in less than two hours, but her entire body revolted at the thought.

She stepped into the hall to call her supervisor. Fred didn’t drip with sympathy.

“But so, you’re alright?”

She’d been chased by a possibly rabid dog, watched dog and deer mangle each other, and had a rifle pointed at her head. She still needed the tremors beneath her skin to cease. “I’m really—”

“So, what time do you think you can come in? We need those reports today.”

As far as Mellen could tell, nobody ever actually read the department’s reports. What would happen if the reports were a day late, or if she just didn’t do them at all? She lay the shaking fingers of her free hand over her eyes, pressing hard enough to make pops of light appear against the darkness of her lid backs.

“Could I do them from home? I can access everything I’d need. Fred . . . I had a rough morning.”

“Right, some dog chased you. But it sounds like you’re fine. And listen, it’s really better if you come in. That way, we can talk in real-time.”

She pressed her thumb against a tear duct, like a dam against the rising tide.

“Fred, —”

“It’s, what, 7:30? I mean, you could still put in a full day, but whatever. Take a few hours to pull yourself together. So long as you get here by noon, you can charge it as a quarter sick day instead of half. Our little secret. See you then.” She heard a beep, and then Fred talking to someone else. “Yeah, that was Mellen. Some story about a dog and a hunter, or something. I’m like, ‘but did you die, though?’ You didn’t die, you can come to work, right?”

Mellen pressed end and turned to find Rifleman standing behind her.

“This could take hours, and I’m here no shirt, no shoes, no coffee. I need to throw something on, grab some food. You coming, or do you want to stay with Brad?” She shrugged, and he nodded. “I get it. You feel guilty. If you hadn’t run, the dog wouldn’t have chased you, wouldn’t have even seen that deer, probably, but look, I don’t blame you.”

So, Brad did blame her? She’d thought his rambling about the dog not hurting her had been a sort of apology. And when did Brad and Rifleman exchange names? Did they know each other already? She pressed a hand against a sudden queasiness. “I’m supposed to go to work.”

Rifleman shrugged. “Blow it off. I’m damn sure not going in.”

Mellen considered: sit in this animal-scented waiting room with Brad and Rifleman or spend the day compiling data that nobody reviewed? She thought of the truck, likely still scented with blood and sweat, and the unused rifle sitting in the front.

“I’ll just get an Uber.” She was going home. She’d had her fill of white privilege for the day.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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