Marlie Steiner was sixteen when she found the edge of the world in her backyard. She lived in a tiny house on the east side of the Clinch River, folded between a grassy hill and a sharp outcropping of rock. The house itself was little more than a wooden shack, with creaking floors and a sloping roof. All were held together only by hope and a few ten-penny nails. There was a tree growing right at the edge of the house with branches that looked like they were about to break through the second- story windows. Wild weed-flowers grew in patches along the front porch. Beyond the backyard fence was a forest so deep she couldn’t tell where it ended.

Marlie lived with her insane Aunt Ketchie and two younger twin sisters, Toddie and Jenalee. A year before, her parents had died in a car accident on the interstate. Afterwards, social services had taken a flurry of “investigative measures.” Men and women who were suddenly worried about their living conditions had come pouring into their house. It wasn’t until Aunt Ketchie stepped in as their guardian that everything settled down. Only, it didn’t. Taking responsibility for them was apparently the only responsible thing their aunt was capable of.

Aunt Ketchie had always been odd. She spent most of her time collecting bits of glass from junkyards or along the side of the road. After Marlie’s parents died, she seemed to have spiraled deeper into her own world. She rarely spoke, and when she did, it was only to mumble random phrases until she ran out of breath. In some ways, Ketchie needed more looking after than the children did. She probably belonged in a hospital, where someone could take care of her. But, if she left, they would all be taken away. They had barely found her in time to avoid becoming wards of the state. And so, crazy or not, Ketchie had to stay.

Marlie had quit school soon after Ketchie arrived. With Ketchie incapacitated, it was Marlie’s job to pay the bills and keep them all fed. She worked weekends at a little general store down the road and had a little vegetable garden in the backyard she tended with painstaking care. At the end of each month, she squeezed all the produce into neat little jars old ladies would buy at the farmer’s market. It wasn’t much, but they got by.

Most evenings, with Toddie and Jenalee for company, Marlie sat on the porch with a bucket at her feet and shelled green beans, methodically stripping away the soft, yellowing skin. The sky was pink or orange or some other sun-soaked shade, and Marlie watched until twilight stripped the rest of the color from the world. The twins eventually went back into the house, but Marlie stayed outside, a half-peeled pod in her hand, watching the stars blink their way into the sky. Just a little while longer… she always thought.

As she sat there, she searched for the edges of things. Marlie had long felt the world was made up of seams, scars left where the earth had folded and rearranged itself. There were fault lines that ran for miles and miles, places where the continents had met and split, where you could trace the evidence of their being together with your fingertips. Those boundaries were everywhere. They were in the cracks in the sidewalk, where one block pressed against another, between squares on a checkerboard, in the curious separation between water and air. She liked the idea of a mottled world, all those different things piled together to make it stronger.

She’d started hunting for seams when she was very young. Finding them seemed to make sense of the world, as if it was possible to arrange everything in its appropriate place. Even the sky was broken into planes which knocked into one another—the stars, the clouds, the darkness beyond them. She thought her family was like that sometimes, just bits and pieces thrown together that somehow managed to stick.

When all the beans were shelled, Marlie went back into the house, locking the door behind her. Toddie and Jenalee were too young to remember their parents’ deaths, or much about their parents at all. When Marlie came to tuck them in at night, she was their mother. She was perhaps a little young to fill the role convincingly, but she filled it all the same.

Her sisters always asked for stories about dragons and knights and elves and all the strange magic of the world. Sometimes, they wanted her to play guessing games, and sometimes they fell asleep before they could think of anything at all. But mostly, they wanted to know if Marlie would be there when they woke up.

Marlie always promised she would.

When Aunt Ketchie had moved in, she brought two suitcases full of nothing but shards of glass. In her room, she had one full-sized bookshelf lined with broken cups and tiny figurines. Marlie didn’t like the idea of Ketchie being alone in there with all those sharp objects, but Ketchie seemed happiest when she was picking up some trinket or another and spinning it through her fingers. So, her collection stayed.

Sometimes, Marlie caught herself counting the edges of those pieces of glass or finding the places where the prisms split and scattered the light. It was only when Ketchie came back into the room that Marlie shook herself out of it. She always hated to think that she and Ketchie had anything in common, despite the fact they were both obsessed with broken things.

During the day, the twins walked with some of the neighborhood boys to preschool and stayed most of the day. Marlie stayed home with Ketchie and cooked and cleaned and gardened and did whatever else needed doing. It was too much sometimes. Occasionally, she just needed to get out of the house, even if that meant leaving Ketchie alone.

“Bye, Ketchie!” Marlie called through the open screen door. “I’m going for a walk!”

Ketchie mumbled a reply, nodding her head vaguely in Marlie’s direction. Marlie eased the door shut, spun on her heel, leaped off the back porch, and hurried toward the edge of the yard.

Marlie was fairly certain she was the only living soul who had ever been inside the woods behind their house. The branches were so thick and twisted they were impossible to get through without receiving a few scratches on her arms and hands. She crawled through them and landed on the other side of the fence, breathing in the sharp scent of wood.

The forest seemed to have changed since her last visit. Dead leaves skittered along the ground, most of them dried out by the summer heat. Bright red berries grew between tree roots, and occasionally she spotted clusters of tiny, yellow flowers. The canopy overhead was lit by a tired, green light, which filtered down through the leaves, speckling the tops of her arms and cutting shadows across her legs.

Being outside made her feel alive, free, reckless and all the things she wasn’t allowed to be when looking after two little girls and a senile aunt. She made sure to keep herself together around them, but out here she could slough off her responsibilities like an old skin.

She pulled a long strip of bark off the nearest tree and began to chew on it, a mindless habit she had picked up as a child. It tasted slightly bitter, quite unlike the sugary grass that leapt up around her mailbox. The woods seemed quiet, she thought, as she continued to walk. No birds swooping through the trees, no animals shuffling in the undergrowth. It made the world seem empty.

The air felt heavy with the threat of rain. The sky grew darker by the minute, but the humidity hadn’t quite broken. Marlie’s shirt clung to her skin, and she absently brushed her damp hair off her neck. She wished God would stop shaking his fist and hit something already.

The air felt heavy with the threat of rain. The sky grew darker by the minute, but the humidity hadn’t quite broken. Marlie’s shirt clung to her skin, and she absently brushed her damp hair off her neck. She wished God would stop shaking his fist and hit something already.

Her eyes hunted out edges instinctively—the spot where the green of the leaves faded into the brown bark, the light and dark threads of a bird’s nest lying on the ground. She breathed in a gulp of wet air and thought about all the seams she had crossed to get there—the barbed wire fence, the neat rows of frail, little vegetables she’d planted in the garden. She kept walking, allowing her mind to wander aimlessly. After about fifteen minutes, she stopped and bit down hard on the bark, looking around to see where she was.

In front of her was a fallen tree, its surface dark and damp, propped up at eye level against other living trees. Moss spilled off its side like some kind of spongy waterfall, so thick she couldn’t see the ground beyond it. The tree stretched a good fifty feet in either direction, too far to go around easily. She reached up, hooked her elbow around the trunk, and hauled herself over. Her arms started to ache as her feet scrambled for a foothold.

Just as she was about to swing down on the other side, she froze. The blood slowly drained from her face. She flung herself down on the tree, her stomach flat against it. Her fingers tore at the slippery moss, desperately searching for a better grip. Adrenaline surged through her body, locking her muscles into place. Her breath came out in small, strained gasps.

There was nothing on the other side of the tree. A vast, blinding, incredible expanse of nothing. The ground was gone. The trees were gone. It was like the earth had just suddenly unraveled, leaving a bright, white light flickering in time with her pulse.

Marlie grasped the tree tightly, the left side of her face stuck firmly against the moss. She stared straight ahead into the woods she’d just come through. She had to memorize it, hold it in her mind, convince herself it was real. She pulled the piece of bark through her teeth, letting the taste of it fill her mouth.

As Marlie clung to the tree, her eyes fastened hungrily on what had been ordinary only moments before. Only one thought entered her mind. The world ended at the edge of the woods.

It took her several minutes to work up the courage to look back. God, it was still there. Or…not there. A white stillness, a horrifying empty space was as far as she could see. She thought she could hear a sound coming from it, a low humming noise. But at other times, she couldn’t hear anything at all.

She wondered if maybe this really was the edge of the world.

Maybe Columbus had been wrong. Maybe the earth wasn’t really round but spiraled, and this was the place where it plunged back into itself. Or maybe this was the seam of the world that finally broke under its own weight.

The longer she stared at it, the more uncomfortable she felt. It seemed wrong in a way she felt all the way down her spine. Looking at nothing-scape hurt, deep on the inside.

She found it was almost impossible to stop.

When Marlie was sure her muscles were working again, she ran.

She didn’t slow down, not even when she tripped and skidded on her elbows. Not even when she had to thrash her way through the branches. Not even when she couldn’t draw any more air into her lungs. She scrambled over the barbed wire fence, dashed through her yard, and slammed into the house. Finally, she collapsed on the warped wooden floor.

Thoughts crowded inside her head. She had to get dinner ready. She had to go out into the garden and find some potatoes big enough to eat. But she couldn’t bring herself to move. The house was too empty and still, too much like the seam. It was an emptiness that grew, filling the hollows between the walls and inside her lungs. She coughed. The silence swallowed it up. After that, the only sound she could hear was the clock ticking. A few moments later, she heard the soft shushing of rain against the roof. She listened intently, head tilted up to the ceiling, as it grew to a roar, blanketing the world outside.

She tried not to think about the seam. But, it burned in the corners of her eyes, no matter how much she tried to shake it off. Maybe she needed to do something else, just to clear her head.

She got up slowly. Her hands instinctively found a worn dust rag. She began to clean the tables, the chairs, the sink, the floor, every square inch of the place. She counted the regular seams as she went—cracks between floorboards, dark outlines around nails, holes in drains, Ketchie’s door…


Where was she?

Marlie ran toward Ketchie’s room. She imagined Ketchie collapsed on the floor, with broken, bloody bits of glass all around. When she stepped inside, everything was as she’d left it. The glass collection was lined up on the mantle, untouched. The room empty.

“Marlie?” a voice said behind her. Marlie jumped, her heart pounding. Ketchie stood behind her, a half-smile on her face.

“Ketchie! You scared me. Where were you?”

Ketchie’s eyes shifted to the floor as she mumbled something under her breath. Marlie sighed and guided Ketchie into a small, wooden chair in the corner of the room.

“Just sit there for a second, okay? I’m gonna dust for a minute.” Marlie shook out her dust cloth and began dusting the tables, bedposts, and bookshelf edges. Somehow it seemed normal to be worrying over Ketchie and not world-edges that appeared in otherwise ordinary forests. With Ketchie, at least she had an idea of what she was dealing with.

When she looked around, Ketchie had disappeared again. Marlie let out a sigh of frustration and did a quick turn on her heels.

Ketchie had started moving toward the bookshelves, her bony hands stretched toward one of the glass pieces. Before Marlie could stop her, she had picked up a long shard of green glass and was sliding it across her hand.

“Ketchie, stop it,” Marlie said as firmly as she could.

Ketchie ignored her, poking the sharp edges of the glass into the tips of her fingers.

“Ketchie!” Marlie grabbed the broken piece. The glass pierced her hand and a line of red suddenly appeared across her palm.

“Look what you did, Ketchie,” Marlie snapped, the glass slipping from her fingers. She rushed to the bathroom adjacent to Ketchie’s room to rinse off the blood. “You can’t play with these things anymore. They’re too dangerous.”

“They’re pretty,” Ketchie said, as if that was all there was to it. She bent over to retrieve the glass from the floor.

“I know you think so, but they could still hurt someone. Look, they already hurt me.” But Ketchie didn’t look. She only looked at the shiny, broken thing in her hands.

“I’m gonna get more,” Ketchie murmured, spinning the bloodstained piece on her lap.

Marlie sighed, wiping her hand one last time on a towel. It was still a little pink, but there was no more blood gushing out. Marlie glanced in the mirror, watching Ketchie’s reflection as she toyed with her glass.

She was hoping she wouldn’t find it again. But somehow she did, as though her feet knew exactly where to go. When she climbed onto the fallen tree, the world was still washed with that bright, bleached light, like someone had taken an eraser and rubbed it out.

Marlie usually didn’t have the time or inclination to study her face in mirrors. Today though, she couldn’t help but wonder if she would look different somehow, after staring into the grave of the world. Maybe she had finally grown into her too-large nose, or maybe her ears lay flatter against her head. Neither was true, she found as she looked into the mirror’s foggy surface. She had the same stick-thin hair and washed-out gray eyes. The same nose, same ears, same crooked smile.

Maybe it would all stay the same forever—her face, the slumped house, the sun hanging in the exact middle of the sky, gravel dust billowing behind car wheels on the road. Three mouths to feed and nothing to feed them with but a garden of skinny vegetables. An aunt who liked to stick sharp things into her skin. Maybe this was it. For a moment, she felt like collapsing in on herself until she was too useless for anyone to rely on.

No, Marlie thought. The world did change and it had seams where you could see the changes. Sometimes, those seams broke and the world fell inside them. Not everything stayed the same.

For a while, she thought she must have hallucinated the seam. Maybe she’d just eaten something bad that morning, or maybe it was sleep deprivation or stress or some other kind of disorder that had an impossibly long name. People just didn’t stumble into the end of the world.

A few days later, while Ketchie was safely napping and the twins were away at school, Marlie pulled on an old pair of sneakers and crawled back into the woods. The forest looked the same as before, only now she could hear the faint rustling of birds flitting through the branches. She felt somewhat cheered by their presence.

She was hoping she wouldn’t find it again. But somehow she did, as though her feet knew exactly where to go. When she climbed onto the fallen tree, the world was still washed with that bright, bleached light, like someone had taken an eraser and rubbed it out. For a moment, she just stared at it, and then she kept staring and staring and staring, waiting for it to move or something. But the only thing that moved was the sun in the sky, and it wasn’t until hours later that she finally stumbled out of the woods, unsure of where she’d been.

When she got home, Toddie and Jenalee were sitting in the kitchen together, their blond heads bent over a pair of stuffed animals they shuffled silently across the floor.

“Hey, guys,” Marlie said. The memory of the seam vanished from her mind as soon as she saw them. “How was your day?” She didn’t have time to worry about a hole in the world when she had real people to look after.

“We made paste-it people,” Toddie said proudly. She dug in her pocket and pulled out a little paper doll with ragged, glued-on clothes.

Marlie smiled. “Looks great. Will you make one for me?”

The twins’ eyes grew wide. “Yes!” Jenalee screamed, and they both jumped up in unison, ready to make a whole army of paste-it people if she asked.

“Not right this minute,” Marlie laughed. She paused, frowning. “Hey. Where’s Aunt Ketchie?”

Both girls shrugged, their minds already on other things. Marlie's stomach seemed to plunge all the way down to her toes.

Marlie didn’t allow herself time to think. She checked all the rooms in the house—the bedrooms, the kitchen, the den, even the little crawlspace beneath the stairs—wrenching doors open and looking under beds. She flung open the door to Ketchie’s room and found nothing but the little glass pieces catching sunlight in the window. Her throat began to tighten. Each breath she took felt sharp in her lungs. She staggered into the kitchen and slumped down in the floor, pulling her hands through her hair.

She had to find her.

“Girls, can you please go upstairs and stay there for a while?” Marlie said, her voice almost too soft to hear. “I’ll lock the door so no one can get in.”

“Did you find Ketchie?” Jenalee asked. Marlie shook her head.

“I don’t know where she is. So I have to go look for her. Promise me you’ll stay here until I get back.”

They both nodded, their large blue eyes trusting, and hurried up the steps. As soon as she heard their bedroom door close, she grabbed a jacket and ran out the door.

She searched for hours. She went to all the neighbors’ houses and asked if anyone had seen her. She went into town and checked the stores. She walked along the road, looking for Ketchie and her bits of glass. Marlie tried very hard not to think about the woods or the seam or the possibility of Ketchie finding her way into either of them.

The sky began to darken, the sun slipping beneath the mountains. Marlie felt like her entire body grew heavier with each step. She kept calling Ketchie’s name, but her voice barely carried past her lips. If she didn’t find Ketchie soon, she’d have to report her missing. If that happened, they would take “investigative measures” again. Ketchie might be dead somewhere. They’d take the twins away and then she’d have nothing left but her own tenuous sanity.

She was about to turn around when she saw something up ahead—a small, bent figure with short brown hair that curled in the wind. Ketchie.

“Ketchie!” Marlie cried. She started running, her legs shaking with each step. As Marlie got closer, she made out another figure beside Ketchie, a tall man in uniform. He held a small flashlight in his palm, and his cruiser was parked a few feet away.

Oh no.

“Marlie?” the man said, squinting in her direction. She recognized him now—Deputy Hall. “That you?”

“Yes, sir,” she mumbled. She staggered forward and took hold of Ketchie’s hand.

“I was just cruising through the neighborhood and found, uh, your aunt here. She—”

“Yes, thank you, I appreciate it,” Marlie said before he could continue. “We should probably be heading home, actually.”

He hesitated. “Well… here, then, let me give you two a ride home.”

Marlie paused, then nodded curtly. She pulled Ketchie toward his car, helped her into the backseat, and slid in beside her. She made sure to buckle Ketchie’s seatbelt, which was difficult since Ketchie refused to loosen her grip on the little broken bottle she’d found. Marlie resisted the urge to tear it out of her hands.

Deputy Hall climbed in the driver’s seat, casting wary glances over his shoulder. They rode in silence. Marlie’s eyes followed the beam of the headlights, watching as the world briefly lit up and skidded back into darkness, out of existence. Marlie wondered if the seam was just a part of the world that the sun had failed to touch. She shook the thought out of her head. No matter how hard she tried, she kept thinking about it. She and Ketchie were both slipping.

The cruiser pulled into their front yard a few minutes later. Marlie unbuckled her seatbelt before the car had stopped moving.

“Thanks,” Marlie said flatly. She opened the door for Ketchie and eased her out of the car.

“You wanna tell me why I found your aunt collapsed in a ditch, Miss Steiner?” Deputy Hall asked, getting out of the car.

Marlie gritted her teeth. “She was just feeling sick. She’ll be fine soon.”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid there might be more to it than that…”

Marlie frowned. “I’ve got to get her inside. Maybe you could come back later… please?” Her voice broke a little on the last word. She felt too tired to argue. Too tired to do anything, really.

He sighed. “All right, sounds good. Make sure she gets her rest.”

“I will.”

The world, unraveled. Or was it more clinical than that? Had something simply sliced the universe into two perfect halves? Pruned away the bad from the good, giving the earth a fresh, new start? Which side was she on?

She never really thought of any answers.

Marlie took Ketchie’s hand and walked beside her all the way to the house. Once inside, she took off Ketchie’s shoes and tucked her into bed. With some effort, she pried the broken bottle out of her grasp and set it on the shelf.

“Ketchie?” she whispered. Ketchie’s eyes opened a crack. “Ketchie, look at me. You can’t go wandering off on your own like that. If they don’t think you can take care of us, they’ll take us away. Do you understand?”

Ketchie gave a slow, almost imperceptible nod.

“I’m…sorry, Marlie,” she whispered. Her eyes were wet with tears. She reached up to stroke Marlie’s hair, tucking a few strands behind her ear. “I can’t find you sometimes. I can’t find…me.”

Marlie blinked, fighting the sudden burning in her eyes and throat. She’d cry later, if she had to. Now she just smiled slightly and kissed Ketchie on the forehead.

“That’s why you have me to find you,” she said.

Marlie didn’t sleep at all that night. Ketchie had had lapses in memory before, but never quite like this. It might be only a matter of time until someone else found Ketchie, until someone realized there was no way this woman could take care of three girls. Marlie stared at the ceiling, her muscles tense and aching. Something had to change. She kept trying to think her way out, find some kind of solution. An escape. But all she could really think about was the clicking of the fan overhead and a humming that never seemed to leave her ears. She stared at the ceiling fan as it rotated slowly above her, the dark blades giving way to a white ceiling, over and over and over.

She went to the seam the next day, after giving the twins careful instructions to keep Ketchie inside. She didn’t know why she kept going back, except it no longer felt strange to her. True, the very sight of it made her stomach lurch against the back of her spine, but it felt somehow familiar. Here it was—the ultimate boundary, something wholly unconnected to anything else. The world, unraveled. Or was it more clinical than that? Had something simply sliced the universe into two perfect halves? Pruned away the bad from the good, giving the earth a fresh, new start?

Which side was she on?

She never really thought of any answers. Something about the seam made it easy for thoughts to slide away, unrequited.

The next day, there was a knock on the door. Deputy Hall stood outside, his uniform pressed into neat, perpendicular lines. Marlie’s heart dropped down into her stomach.

The cop cleared his throat. “Miss Steiner, think we can have a little chat now?”

Marlie nodded. The deputy motioned her outside until they were both standing on the porch. The summer air hummed with heat and cicadas.

He wouldn’t look her in the eye.

“You know your aunt’s kind of in a bad way…” he began, then cleared his throat. “I was thinking maybe you oughtta think about putting her somewhere with… professionals.”

Marlie didn’t respond.

“Things’d be better for ya,” he continued. “They’d take good care of your aunt up in New Haven. That’s not too far.”

Marlie stared at a button on his shirt but not at his face. “And Jenalee? Toddie? What about them?”

“I’d say foster care,” he said. “’Course you don’t need to get too worried about that, either. There’s some real nice families out there. They’ll be taken care of, and so will you. You’d only be there for a couple of years, anyway…”

Marlie bit her lip. “We won’t be together, though.”

He ducked his head. “Well, you could be. It’s just not likely. Hard to find a family willing to raise three kids at once.”

Marlie nodded. The humming in her ears grew louder.

“You’re not gonna have much of a choice, though, you know?” The cop said, rolling his shoulders. “Your aunt’s your legal guardian, but she’s just not fit to look after y’all right now. I mean, this is just my impression, but we’ll have to get some people out here to say for sure. If your aunt’s sick, you have to tell someone. You need someone to take care of you. You can’t do all this on your own.”

Deputy Hall sighed. “It’s the law, Miss Steiner.” He tipped his hat in the direction of her shoulder and walked back to his car. “I’ll be coming back in a day or two, and we can get some more people in here to talk to you about it. I just wanted to let you know…”

As he drove away, Marlie imagined the pop of gravel in the road was actually the splintering of the world.

He was right, Marlie thought, her throat tight. She couldn’t. Not anymore.

“I promised them, though,” she finally said. “Toddie and Jena…that we’d stay together.”

Deputy Hall sighed. “It’s the law, Miss Steiner.” He tipped his hat in the direction of her shoulder and walked back to his car. “I’ll be coming back in a day or two, and we can get some more people in here to talk to you about it. I just wanted to let you know…”

As he drove away, Marlie imagined the pop of gravel in the road was actually the splintering of the world.

When Marlie walked back into the house, she found the twins gathered around Ketchie in her rocking chair. They were playing with dolls on her lap, twirling paper feet across Ketchie’s knees. Ketchie had a wistful smile on her face, and she laughed as the twins made little sound effects to go along with the dolls’ movements. Marlie’s eyes suddenly clouded over with tears. She pressed a fist against her mouth to keep herself from making a sound. She had worked so hard to keep them all together. None of it mattered now. She was beginning to think nothing was meant to be whole.

Marlie ran forward, leaned down, and wrapped her arms around all three of them. She suddenly felt like if she let them go, it would be for the last time. So she held them tighter and tried to find the words to say I love you, don’t leave, just a little while longer, but she couldn’t make a sound.

The next day, the house was full of newly concerned citizens—policemen, lawyers, and social workers, all pretending to care. They wrapped their arms around Marlie and the twins, and they clucked and petted and said how very, very sorry they were things couldn’t work out.

Once all that was finished, they crowded into the den. A woman from the foster agency, Rebecca something, pushed the twins’ toys off the small coffee table, clearing a space for several large stacks of paperwork. Aunt Ketchie sat on the couch with a slightly dazed look on her face. Rebecca pressed a pen into her hand and helped her swirl her name over line after line. Marlie watched from the kitchen door, her thin arms folded around her.

Another social worker stood beside Marlie, patiently explaining all the details to her. She assumed he was trying to be reassuring. The foster agency had already worked out a plan for them. There were two families interested in taking Toddie or Jenalee; the agency would try to keep the girls together, but it seemed unlikely. They were having trouble locating a place for Marlie. Until something turned up, she’d have to stay in a group home with the other undesirables. Ketchie would go to New Haven, the assisted living facility in the next town over. The lawyers thought they could declare all four of them wards of the state to take care of expenses.

Whenever Marlie asked a question, the man answered in the same quiet, syrupy voice.

Yes, you’ll be able to stay in touch with your sisters and aunt. You can visit once a month, at least, if everything goes well.

Yes, there’s a possibility this could be temporary, if your aunt gets better.

No, we don’t think she will.

No, you’d have to be 21 before you could be a foster parent. It’s better if we get your sisters in good families now and hope for the best.

Yes, we’re sorry about this. We’re really, really, very sorry.

They weren’t, though. The whole situation was routine for them. As far as they were concerned, the Steiner family had already broken apart, and only the agency knew what was best for them now. They were concerned, but they weren’t sorry. The twins were crying and Ketchie was scared and none of them seemed to care. They just kept their eyes on Ketchie and her shaky signatures.

“When will we go?” Marlie asked, her voice soft.

“Today,” the man said. “You can’t stay here anymore, that’s for sure. Hear me?”

Marlie nodded, but she wasn’t sure she had heard him. The voices in the next room were starting to spill over one another until they no longer formed words. She could see the man’s mouth moving, but she couldn’t understand him. She felt trapped behind a wall of glass, empty air bubbling up around her. There was a familiar humming in her head that seemed to come from inside her ears. She pressed her hands against her forehead, trying to wipe the noise away.

She didn’t ask any more questions.

The rest of the day passed strangely. The social workers were cheery, bobbing from room to room, spouting optimistic predictions about how wonderfully everything was going. One of the workers took the twins by the hand and led them out to her car. Marlie just stared after them, frozen where she stood. Her ears buzzed. Distantly, she heard Ketchie wailing for them to give her glass back. Then, the humming grew louder and sucked Ketchie’s voice away.

The next thing Marlie knew she was sitting in the backseat of Rebecca’s car, the edge of a seat belt digging into her neck. She twisted her head around to stare out the window just as they pulled away, her gaze lingering on the little wooden shack.

She hadn’t heard anyone say it was time for goodbye.

The group home, a long one-story building, was just a short distance from their house. Rebecca parked on top of the hill, squashing a few small flowers.

“Wait here. I’m going to get your papers, and then we can come back and get your luggage.”

Marlie didn’t remember bringing any luggage. It didn’t matter, anyway.

Her hands were already on the door handle. As soon as Rebecca disappeared inside, she threw open the door and ran.

At first, she wasn’t sure where she wanted to go, but that question resolved itself fairly quickly. She headed for the seam.

It took her twenty minutes to find her way back to the house, weaving as far away from the road as she could to prevent anyone from spotting her. She paused for just a moment in the yard to catch her breath. The hope-and-nails house was empty now, the windows dark and silent. She flew past it angrily and ducked under the barbed wire fence, pushing her way through the forest until she found the seam. She needed time to think. It was only there time seemed elastic enough to fit all her thoughts inside it. But once she sat down, she found it hard to concentrate on anything but that warm, buzzing sound.

She wondered if this was how Ketchie felt all the time, so ready to accomplish something but unable to do anything but sit, stare, and wait for something to happen. Marlie smiled ruefully to herself. The seam was her roadside glass, her shiny, broken thing. She didn’t quite feel like letting it go.

And she suddenly understood why Ketchie closed her door and played with her pretty toys. It was so much safer than living. Those dirty shards couldn’t hurt you unless you wanted them to. Life didn’t give you that option.

She stared at the seam, letting the familiar humming wipe away her thoughts. What would happen if she just walked into it? Would she fall, or float, or simply fizzle out into the emptiness? Would she be able to feel it?

She thought about the other seams of the world, how she used to think they kept the world in one piece. She knew better now. The things patched together were the weak points, the places that could shatter with any delicate touch.

And she thought about the sun hanging in the exact middle of the sky and the gravel dust and the hungry mouths and the skinny vegetables and the sameness-sameness-sameness that followed her like a second shadow. She’d wanted something to change. Now everything was different.

And here was an end to it. The end of the world.

The idea of escape suddenly burned itself into her mind.

Could she do that? Could she really just leave them all behind, everyone who needed her, everyone who had lost her already, and walk off into the ether?

She took off her shoes and stood up slowly, wobbling on the balls of her feet. Her body balanced on a question. The void suddenly didn’t feel like a void at all but something that was full and alive and changing. She inched closer, her toes hanging off over empty space.

She needed to find a place that was whole again, not broken, or wrong, or held together only by hope and nails.

She took a step.


Chelsea Gillenwater, from Gate City, Virginia, has a double major in English and Communication with concentrations in creative writing and print journalism. In the future, she hopes to obtain an MFA in Fiction Writing before going on to become a novelist, continuing to write in whatever capacity possible. The inspiration for “Seams” came from a single image of a girl standing on the edge of the world. Like Marlie, Chelsea found the idea irresistible. She thanks Robin Allnutt for his thoughtful comments and his help in revising the piece.