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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 4

"Big or Small"

written by

Dona McCormack

Clothing carpeted the muddy grass in patches for miles. Televisions showed their guts. Roofs stood with no feet and tires with no bodies. I learned about “big” riding home from summer camp through the carnage of the 1992 tornado, part of the twenty-eight-tornado system that ravaged Ohio while I slept in my cabin in Michigan. I stared out the backseat window as kids mourned a punctured trampoline with shredded blue matting. Victims of one of the forty-four tornadoes to hit the state that July, sixty-one that whole year. The stuff everywhere gave the town a sense of spread. The fact the storms claimed no lives and few injuries and broke several records drove everyone out and into their neighbors’ yards, seeking gossip and their missing belongings. I spent my first day home from camp collecting the remainder of my clothes and mementos. A twisted iron weathervane. A green glass eye I was convinced the tornado sucked right out of a person’s face. And stories; I believed even the one about the witch-killing Dorothy. But her giving up magic to go back to Kansas sounded farfetched. Tall tale. Whopper. Big fish. A giant fat lie.


Metal canteen shoved into the sand. White grains, hot from the sun. Conch shell with a perfect pink lining. Sponge Bob beach towel stretched taut. I learned about “big” from the Atlantic and about “small” from my last swim in it. I had always been a strong swimmer, but I hadn’t been in the ocean since childhood. I still rushed the surf like we’d just played yesterday, and within minutes of stroking out from shore, I looked back to discover a huge swath of roiling water between me and land. I didn’t panic until I realized I couldn’t see my things. I had drifted. Fast.

Rip tide came to mind, and Philip, the news’s latest cycle sensation and the rip tide’s latest lunch, who’d gone under within finger-lengths of his grasping parents. I once heard of a way to swim out of a rip tide, but I couldn’t remember. I stared at the drifting coastline and reflected on myself that morning. Sitting on the hotel bed in my bathing suit. Watching the news report about Philip. Holding my phone. Typing into the Google bar, “How to swim out…” and the search bar filled the rest. Blue waves, all I could think of as I read the simple advice. Getting to the beach (swim parallel). Worshipping the tide (then diagonal).

I swallowed mouthfuls of salty water. Against a greedy yank at my hip, my legs, I stroked. Parallel to the yank. Until it diminished, and then diagonal. Until my hands slammed on sand. I landed on my knees on an abandoned area of the beach. Black speckled sand. Smell of fish, fish corpses. I puked up death and the ocean. A half mile back down the sand, the bright umbrellas and beach towels glittered. I stood up and started to walk.

On my left, the waves broke on the sand. The breakers looked like grinning teeth, gouging the beach, the waves like tongues. I gazed at the expanse of the ocean and trembled. It had swallowed me, spit me back out in this dark corner of the beach. I wondered if I was shrinking, if I would ever stop.


Most of my shoe collection. A great deal of clothing. My brownie pan, because it didn’t fit the oven. Most of my books. My desk; my whole office for that matter. I lost all these things. My grandmother’s Corelle dishes because they weighed nothing. Only the clothes and shoes I needed. Only my favorite books. My cat, Sausage. I salvaged and found space for these things. I learned about “small” from a four-hundred-square-foot RV — a big space, for a rig — where I lived for four long years.

Before I moved into the RV, people wondered. My mama asked where she would sleep when she came to visit. I assured her the pullout in the sun-drenched living/kitchen area would do in a pinch; no, I wouldn’t cook while she slept. My best friend asked if I wouldn’t ever want a bath again. I told her I couldn’t imagine when a shower wouldn’t do just as well. I never anticipated the mountains of hotel cash I would spend during illnesses to give myself access to that wonderful watery panacea: bath. And closets. I forgot to ask the saleswoman about the closets.

How could I forget to ask about the closets? Like any of us, I consider good closet space crucial. I mean, I always retreat with a pillow to my closet when I get to thinking about tides. Tornadoes. But in the RV, crawling in the closet felt like spelunking in my home’s nose. I could tell I had blundered into someplace the designers never intended me to go — bald staples and crunchy silver foam everywhere, greasy slide mechanisms and strange smelling fabrics — I felt behind and over and under my domicile’s cold viscera. The space echoed and ticked and clunked, never quiet. The RV couldn’t welcome me into its closet space, the hole inside its heart.

In the end, I backed the rig off a cliff. The people concerned with investigating took one look at my psych file and believed me when I said I’d dashed off with Sausage on a pee emergency and forgot to engage the trailer brake in Grand Canyon National Park. My entire history tumbled through that tiny home and smashed into the window at the back end. Sounded like a scream. The RV croaked out into the open. Then, all was silent until the fireball lifted over the lip of the cliff. I learned about needing something bigger than myself. Maybe bigger than I could handle, something to push me from behind like an explosion. Something like the little house the insurance company bought for me. The closets fit, and Sausage and I have room to grow.

Dona McCormack is a disabled writer living with her devoted partner in Northeast Ohio. She recently earned her M.A. in English and Creative Writing at SNHU. She writes Realism and Weird/New Weird and her publishing credits include Saturday Evening Post’s Friday Fiction Series, Tahoma Literary Review, Bourbon Penn, Fabula Argentea, NEBO Lit, terse Journal, and Red Coyote. She won 3rd Place in Reflex Fiction’s Summer 2019 Flash Fiction Contest.

Find Dona at, @DonaWrites <>, and @DonaWritesInsta <>.

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