Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of 
Press 53
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Tell a friend about this page
Issue 79, October  2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
by Amy Wissekerke

followed by q&a
The pill made Sara sick, and even though we were scientists we took stupid chances. It wasn’t long after I signed our Hell’s Kitchen lease that Sara was pregnant and sick all day thanks to a nose that could detect every sulfurous hard-boiled egg in a three-block radius. One evening I came home from work and found her weeping, head on the cracked toilet seat. 

“Charles, I can’t live like this,” she said. “No college wants to hire a pregnant professor.” She pushed the heels of her hands into her eyes, taking a deep breath. “Not even in New Jersey.” She looked at me, her eyes red-rimmed and hollow. “I should have had an abortion three weeks ago.” 

“Don’t say that,” I said. I sat down on the side of the tub and brushed her dark hair back from her face, wiped her eyes and mouth with a wet cloth. “We could do this right,” I told her. I thought of my mother, who had put the phone down to whoop and dance when I’d secretly told her about the baby. I thought about the ring hidden in my sock drawer. “We could get married.”  

Sara looked at me like I had suggested handcuffing her to the kitchen sink and burst into fresh tears.

Let me tell you about my girl and me.  

When I met Sara, the only girl in our chemical engineering class, the first thing I noticed was her rack, buoyant enough to make you a believer in self-levitation. But she was sharp, too, and by the second week of class, she and Professor Schulz had already drawn their weapons.  

“What was that word?” she said. “The one that rhymed with ‘frefrimmer fries?’” The whole class broke up, and Dr. Schulz’s bald spot turned a dull red next to the glowing overhead projector. The room went quiet enough to hear the hum of the fluorescents. He enunciated, slowly.  

Epimerize.” He put his pen down, raised his gaze to put her in her place. 

“And that means?” she asked, holding his eye. 

Never once had I asked in class what something meant. Some of the other guys shifted in their seats and coughed. If you missed a word, it meant you hadn’t done your homework. You did not call out The Schulz as a mush-mouth.  

Schulz went to the board. “As you should have found in Chapter 6, to epimerize…” Here he attacked the board, spelling out the word with hard chalk strikes. “To epimerize is to change one epimer into another—to take a compound, and without changing its chemical formula at all, alter its physical configuration in space.” He held up two splayed hands, joined together at the thumbs to resemble a bird’s wings, and keeping them joined, flapped one wing down as if broken, hanging from the thumb. “Switch the three-dimensional position at a single atom…and what effect would this have? Hodges?”  
I started at my name. Sara looked at me, giving an eye-roll in Schulz’s direction: What an asshole

I looked down, tried to decide where to start. Stereochemistry was my thing. “Never mind. Gupta?” 

Dev Gupta answered in the kind of suave British accent I’d coveted since middle school. “It would change the compound’s reactivity. As when glucose epimerizes to galactose.” Dev looked around the room, as if we were all there to have tea and delightful conversation and someone might like to chime in. He adjusted his cuffs, blindingly white against his brown skin, and sighed, adding, “It can no longer be used as blood sugar—it passes right by glucose receptors.”  

“Indeed, Gupta,” said Schulz, returning his attention to the projector. “Astute application.” 

Sara raised her eyebrows at Dev, as if to say, Well, how do you do? Dev made a little bow to her from his seat: At your service, milady.  

Goddamn Gupta. 

Looking back, I try to laugh at that moment. As it turns out, the ways molecules contort and shift are how I make my living. One of my lab techs made a hand-lettered sign calling us the Decay Detectives, and hung it next to the HPLC machine. We track how a drug, a clean chemical, can twist itself into something new in the hot soup of the cell, turn away from doing the work it was designed for and become ineffective. Even toxic.  

I worked my way in from the outside and got Sara. I was a new man when I went away to college. So what if I used to have the kind of acne that makes you think of The Day After or The Incredible Melting Man? So what if all I did besides study was shoot solo baskets in the driveway and read X-men one-handed? Show me a man who loved high school, and I will show you a total prick. 

I joined her study group, and one day in early December when Dev was running late, I found my opening.  

“Dev’s mother can’t stand me,” Sara said, staring at her textbook. “She doesn’t want him dating a white girl.” She paused. “I would wear a sari,” she said.  

I snorted. “I’m not sure that’s what she’s looking for.” 

“I know,” she said. “It’s hopeless.” She sighed and flipped an index card across the table at me. “Make yourself useful.” 

Then Dev showed up, striding down the aisles of walnut tables and burgundy chairs like the Duke of Brookingham Library, and she turned back to making flashcards and quizzing me, smiling daggers and putting on a show contrived to make him eat his fist. On the really good days she’d laugh at my jokes and lean over to touch my arm, which I would flex in an unobtrusive way.  

I knew I wouldn’t have to wait too long for Dev to call it off. Enough heat will break any bond. 

After graduation, Dev moved back to London and I followed Sara to Massachusetts for grad school. I wasn’t the kind of guy to make a move, but when she suggested we work at her place, a monstrosity she shared with three musicians who were always out at gigs, I brought beer, and Sara took matters from there.  

An hour into our studying, she sat down next to me on the couch. “We’d be good friends if you weren’t so attracted to me,” she said. 

There was no easy way to play that one. My face got hot. I looked down at the coffee table. Someone had painted it in psychedelic swirls. “We’re not good friends?” 

“No,” she said, and squeezed my thigh, hard. “Friends don’t look at each other the way you look at me.” She laughed. “How am I doing? Is this the way you hoped it would go?” 

She slid off the raspy couch and knelt between my thighs, massaging them. I tried not to panic. The blood rushed to my groin so fast I felt dizzy. “It’s okay, Charles,” she said. “I know.” She bent my head and laid a gentle kiss on each of my closed eyes. I wrapped her in my arms and buried my face in her warm neck and sent up a brief prayer: Please, let this not be the only time.

It wasn’t, but it wasn’t everything I wanted, either. Sara wouldn’t commit—she just kept me on the hook. But the way she came back to me, over and over, like I was medicine, taught me how that laser-focus, that look that says, There is nothing I want that is not you, is like a heat-ray. A slow melt. 
In the end, the academic market was bad for her, but industry was looking great for me. I took her out to dinner at the nicest restaurant I could afford and wore a fitted shirt. Ironed. I put product in my hair. 

“I’ve got an offer in New York,” I told her. She’d always loved the city. 

“Manhattan? You poor thing,” she said, taking a deep swallow of champagne. She smoothed her hands over the white tablecloth, took in the bar in the corner, bottles glowing gold against the dark wood. “Say hello to Central Park for me. I’ll never forget the time I saw Paul Simon there.” 

“Stop making shit up,” I said, taking her hand.  

“Look,” she said, “his old partner is behind the bar.” She raised her glass to the curly-haired bartender, polishing a martini pitcher. He winked at her and saluted. 

I went out on a limb. “You could come with me.” 

She pulled her hand back and took another sip. “Convince me.” She set the glass down on the table and dipped her finger into the champagne, running it around the edge of the glass to make it sing. “Convince me it’s not pity.” 


She took my hand back in hers, petted it, then brought it to her mouth and bit my knuckle. “I won’t play wifey. And I won’t cook you dinner.” She looked up at me, serious. “I’ve got my own job to find.” 

“I know,” I said, “I get it.” I kissed her fingers, one at a time. “You can pay me rent.” My heart was pounding in my chest. “But you can’t have your own bedroom.” 

Later on, when I tried to figure out what was our peak, I had the feeling it was right then—when our real life together was all in my imagination.

My mother took to Sara. She came to the city a week before the wedding, stayed in a hotel, did all the errands so Sara could lie down while I was at work. Sara’s mother slipped her a check for $10,000 with only Sara’s name on it. “Keep your own bank account,” the card said, which Sara left out on the dresser for me to find.  

It was fine. Really. 

Especially after Sara hit the second trimester and her illness faded like a half-life, hormones working in my favor as Sara craved to be touched and held and loved. It seemed like the nameless baby had given me everything I had ever wanted. As the due date neared, I took her for a long weekend to a B&B out in Montauk, one with a booming summer garden and a berry patch. Sara picked warm blackberries with purple-stained fingers. 

“Have you ever had anything so good?” she said, eating every other berry she picked.   

“Never,” I said, though I didn’t like blackberries. Too sour. I examined my own pint, the berries asymmetrical and deformed, the globules too large in the wrong places. The next day we drove back to the city, enjoying the quiet period, the waiting that remained.

Our daughter Nora arrived, late, small, and curiously sleepy after the grisly natural birth. Sara cried and laughed over her in the hospital bed, swept up in an ecstasy of motherhood I could not share. I watched from the nursery window as Sara palmed the back of Nora’s head and dipped it into the stream from the faucet, the nurse’s red hands lathering the whisper-fine black hair into suds. The nurse was grandmotherly, and smiled with satisfaction as Nora began to scream under the faucet until she turned herself blue. Their smiles both faded, Sara’s into confusion, the nurse’s into an unreadable wall.  

Nora’s heart had a hole in it. Three out of four parts of Tetralogy of Fallot, they said, which made me wonder why it was not the Trilogy of Fallot, or the Amazing Epilogue of Fallout, or the Incredible Prequel of Despair. She would need surgery before she was a week old. 

That first day, post-op, the baby barely looked human to me, more like a white-bellied Xenopus frog, splayed on a dissection tray. Tape and a ventilator obscured her tiny face, her thorax expanding and contracting like a wrinkly balloon. More tape covered a long bumpy line down the center of her chest. Holding her wasn’t permitted; Sara could barely breathe. “There, there,” I said, standing behind her. Pat, pat. Big Bird smiled obscenely from the baby’s diaper. 

Sara only came home from the NICU to cry. No one could tell us why it had happened, but Sara had her own explanation. “All those years of radiation in the lab,” she said in a dead voice. Sara had worked with radiation all the time, we all did. Back in organic chemistry, our professor washed his cracked hands with benzene, almost like a dare. Carcinogenic, sure, but it dissolved all the other stuff off your skin. Mutagens, clastogens, teratogens. Our world was a dangerous place, full of frame-shift mutating intercalating agents, x-rays, and goddamn acrylamide French fries. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed that any group of cells could go from morula to blastula to baby without a catastrophic glitch. We like to think of DNA as a reliable blueprint, but if it weren’t so mutable, the last three billion years would have been a long and drawn-out story about bacteria. 

Sara slumped on the couch at home, pumping her breasts in endless cycles of wheeze. My mother, a retired nurse, came to hold down the fort, and I went back to my job. A few days after the surgery I arrived home from work, roses in hand, and found my mother and Sara in the kitchen. Sara had taken a bottle of pumped milk out of the fridge and held it up to the light of the kitchen window. The milk had separated, fatty cream sticking to the sides. She opened it to pour it down the sink, saying “It’s poison anyway.” My mother took the bottle from Sara and looked at her, gray eyes steady and calm, then set it gently on the counter. Sara made a high-pitched noise and covered her face. My mother put her arms around her and rocked her against her own breast, shhh, shhh, shhh.  

I placed the roses on the counter, cellophane crinkling. They turned to look. Taking in the flowers, Sara’s eyes went hard. With a resigned sigh, she took a vase from the cabinet, filled it from the faucet, and dumped the still-wrapped roses into the water.  

I left. I meant to go back to work, but found myself on the way to the NICU instead. I hadn’t gone with Sara for the last couple of days, but I felt drawn there; I wanted to see the baby without the weight of Sara’s grief. I signed in and at the nurse’s direction, scrubbed my hands and put on the gown that would protect her from all that clung to me.  

The baby was asleep. I stood there, watching her chest rise and fall inside the clear plastic tub, so different from the Moses basket Sara had prepared at home. Glossy vaseline covered the line of exposed black stitches in the center of her chest, where they had cracked her open like an egg. I could almost hear the little bones separating, and the thought made a draining sensation swirl from the base of my skull all the way down my spine.  

“Would you like to hold her?” a pretty nurse said at my elbow. 

“I can?”  

The nurse laughed. “She’s doing great. She might be able to go home tomorrow.” She pointed to the little tubes that had replaced the ventilator. “She’s breathing on her own. You won’t need to come back until the second surgery in a few months. Her prognosis is actually very good.” 

The nurse put Nora in a blanket and into my lap. I felt like an imposter, but my arms seemed to know what to do. For the first time, I noticed her squashed little nose, like a boxer’s. My nose, made in miniature and set in her tiny doll face. She opened her eyes then, dark, still pools that regarded me with passive patience. “You see me,” I whispered. The blips and beeps of the room faded away, and I could only hear her soft, steady breathing, the whisper of air in and out. She blinked slowly back at me, a Yes, Grasshopper, I have always known you. Sloppy tears poured down my face, and my own chest cracked open with a sweetness too strong to bear. All I could do was laugh.

Nora grew strong, into a girl who could run and play, but would rather paint than catch. Sara treated her like she was breakable, but to me the white line that faded more each year made her look tough. Like a survivor. By the time she was ten her favorite building in the city was the big New York Public Library with the stone lions out front. I’d pick her up there each Wednesday after I got off work, and we’d experiment with dinner on our own while Sara taught her night class.  

One fall evening I surprised her, showing up on foot, kicking up leaves on the sidewalk. She stood underneath Fortitude, her head centered beneath its heavy paws. Watching people getting in and out of cabs on the street, she was as still as the stone. Time slipped. I saw her again, three years old and sitting in the yellow observation chair at her new preschool, chubby hands folded in her lap, slippered feet swinging. I could see it through her eyes, the fuzzy, dun-colored carpet, Francine and Jeffrey saying, “Stop it,” and “You stop it,” the sweet smell of wax and glue and expensive wooden blocks. With a wave, I dismissed the teacher’s concern about Nora’s supposed lack of engagement. My girl was engaged, all right. Just another outsider from Day One.  

For Nora, I dropped my resentment of Dev Gupta enough to try every single Indian restaurant on East Sixth Street, one week after another. We’d order paper masala dosas that arrived at the table three feet long, lamb vindaloo so hot we stole napkins from the next table to blow our noses, desserts that looked like pink jelly pretzels. One week Nora would stroke the batik tablecloths and explain to me how they were made, the next, tell me about the pastel series of gilded elephants she had begun in art class. Every little thing delighted her, the crystals hanging from electric wall sconces, the patterned tin ceilings covered in flaking paint, or in one place, the owner’s collection of snow globes, stacked in risky pyramids behind the cash register.  

Nora loved art; Sara loved her job. Sixty-hour weeks at Barnard took their toll, new lines forming between her brows, late nights spent with her laptop, not me. We argued sometimes. But it was the winter when Nora was thirteen that scorched the earth.  

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that fall. At first, I wasn’t worried. Surgery, chemo, radiation; there is an obvious sequence to these things. Cut out the mutation, then burn down the countryside and wipe out the rogue soldiers. When she got a second opinion, we found it was a lot worse than we thought. Sara and I went with her to meet the oncologist. Stage four, the doctor said. My mother looked grim.  

“The cancer has moved into the lungs and bones,” he said, indicating bluish blobs on the scan with a ballpoint pen. “That explains the difficulty you’ve been having walking up stairs.” He adjusted his glasses and looked at my mother. “You’re lucky. Bone cancer can be very painful, or mostly asymptomatic, as yours has been so far.”  

“Lucky,” she said. 

“Can I talk to you outside?” I asked the doctor. 

We walked out into the hall. Through the sliver of doorway I saw Sara take both of my mother’s hands in hers. They touched their foreheads together, Sara’s dark curls swinging against my mother’s limp, gray-blond strands. The door clicked shut and I turned to the doctor. 

He and I made a plan together, the stages of attack. It felt good, like suiting-up to win all-out war. We laid it out for my mother. She was in shock, nodding and looking at the floor. But I let her know I would take care of her, the way she had always taken care of me.  

The next day Sara informed me she’d taken leave from work. She and my mother were taking a trip. 
“A trip?” I said. “My mom needs to have surgery yesterday.” 

Sara took my hand, led me to the couch. “There’s not going to be any surgery,” she said. She threw around a lot of phrases that meant nothing to me, like Quality of Life, like Death with Dignity, but the truth is, there is no such thing. Maybe we imagine looking out the window at some goddamn tree branches silhouetted against the sunset, an eagle soaring into the great beyond while the morphine drips and drips, but the reality of a super-shit diagnosis is panic, is trying to upload your consciousness to the cloud before your organs turn to black ooze and leak out, stinking, onto the bed.  

After I ripped their plan apart, Sara took a deep breath and gripped her knees with tight hands. Her mouth was drawn in a hard line. I knew that face. That face was the end of patience, the face of when Nora was three and banging her head on the kitchen floor, Sara ready to lose it, and it was my turn to be the adult. Instead, I stood up and slammed out the door. 

She left me a note. I considered cutting off our credit cards, but in the end I just sat in the old rocking chair each night and nursed one beer after another, getting up only to pee off the fire escape so I could ruin someone else’s day.  

On Wednesday, Nora picked up samosas for me on her way home from school, handing me the bag with an expectant half-smile. 

“No thanks,” I said. I could smell the hot grease through the paper bag, the cumin like an old yogi’s armpit. “God, I can’t fucking stand Indian food.”  

Her face fell like I’d punched her in the gut. After that she went to ground, hiding in her room and reading, but not my old comic books. Nora had found my collection, and worked steadily through them. At dinners, she’d start long, frame-by-frame discussions about why Jim Lee was better than Frank Miller, or ask me what would be my special power. She wanted to be invisible. I wanted mind control.  

I can be a sentimental man; when she told me she was going to embrace her scar, and wear v-neck t-shirts, that her scar was special the way Rogue’s white streak of hair was special, I’ll admit, I almost cried. So when I saw my comics piled recklessly outside her door like trash, I wanted to cry again. I paused, ready to knock on her door, some music I’d never heard of blasting from the other side. My eyes dropped to the stack, Professor X, impotent in his wheelchair at the top of the pile. I turned and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. Cracked open another beer. 

Sara and my mother did come back, eventually. My mother had filled out a DNR.  

She lasted three months, the shortest time in my life that ever felt endless. She traveled, spent time at the beach with Nora. I went once, took them all out to Cape Cod for a weekend. I don’t know how anyone does it, pretending to make bittersweet memories while a person they love is drying out like a time-lapse study of decomposition. After that, I told them I needed to work weekends, anything to escape the hospital bed in Nora’s room. Sara stayed home with my mother, watching movies during the day and administering medication at night, until the night my mother didn’t need the medication anymore, and two men in long wool overcoats came from the funeral home. The big man in black leather gloves covered her body with a white sheet, picked her up like a little straw baby, and carried her to the long car parked in the halo of a streetlight.  

We went back to my hometown for the memorial, held at a Unitarian church my mother had frequented since I left home. I faked through the reception, indistinguishable pale strangers touching my arms, my hands, praising my brave mother for taking death straight on rather than hooked up to forty machines like a cyborg.  

When Sara looked at me, her eyes said it: That’s what you wanted to do to her.  

That look, her contempt, withered whatever I had left for her. It was like coming home and finding the locks changed, and deciding, whatever this place is, I don’t want to live in it. 

I stayed late at work, of course. But not just working.  

There was a new receptionist on our floor. Young. Flirty. Not too sweet. Not too smart. But she did something for me. She gave me that same look I used to give Sara. I can’t tell you how intoxicating it was, after so many years, to be the object of someone else’s laser. I was still young. And she was smooth and rubbery, with pert little breasts that wouldn’t implode like a silent bomb, death from the inside out.  

I knew I was in for it that first time I shared a cab with her, when she licked my finger and dragged it up under her skirt. Everything she knew about sex she learned from porn, so we fucked nasty on her ironic leopard-print sheets, and I’d burn and scrub myself after, the shower like a scene straight out of Silkwood

She blew up my phone with texts I could not delete fast enough. When Sara found the one that said I LOVE THE WAY YOU EAT MY ASS, the one with the emoji with a tongue sticking out, she decided we were done.  

Maybe Sara was waiting for me to give her a reason. It tore me up to see Nora wonder if the divorce was her fault. “No,” we told her. “Of course it’s not you.” But I took it a step further, and told her the fault was mine. Notice how once infidelity enters the picture, nobody digs any deeper. It’s as if the complex series of reactions that led to total disintegration, to the obliteration of us, could now be neatly summed up in two words: I cheated. And with those words, the only girl who really loved me looked right through me and said, “I don’t even want to know the person you are now.”  

It’s tough to argue with that.

The first time I went to pick Nora up after I moved out, Sara met me at the door. 

“Look,” she said, “she doesn’t want to go.” 

I stuck my finger in her face. “Don’t you dare turn her against me,” I said, my voice higher than I expected. “The agreement was for the whole weekend.” 

Sara looked at me with pity. “Charles, I wouldn’t do that.” She leaned against the door and rubbed the lines between her beautiful brows. “Talk to her. Just try not to take it personally, okay?”  

I walked past her into the apartment and found Nora sitting on the couch, phone in hand. I sat on the coffee table across from her. There was no duffel bag packed, no pillow, no art case. Her glossy hair was held off her forehead by a red headband, small pimples just starting to appear by her hairline.  

“Nora,” I said, “It’s time to go. I’ve got a cab waiting.” 

She didn’t look up. Her jaw was set, her chin more prominent than the last time I’d seen her, braces subtly changing the shape of her lower face. She kept her eyes cast down at the phone, one finger scrolling and scrolling. 

“Nora, look at me, please,” I said, ready to lose it. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sara watching carefully from the doorway.  

Nora’s finger continued to scroll. “Goddammit, Nora,” I said, and snatched the phone out of her hands.  

“Charles,” said Sara.  

Shaking, I carefully set the phone down beside me. “I’m still your father, Nora.” I steadied my hands on my knees. “You’re coming with me.” 

She crossed her arms and met my eyes briefly, then colored and shifted her gaze over my shoulder. 
“Nora!” I said.  

“Charles, just come back here,” said Sara. “Come back, Charles.” 

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about custody and visitation—it’s hard to visit someone who won’t see you. I watched her face a moment longer, hoping for a flash of concession, but she gave me absolutely nothing. The most common degradation pathways aren’t explosive. A single internal twist and the reactant flies away, predictions overturned, hypothesis void.  

The cab took me to my new, empty apartment and I waited for Nora to call me. 

I waited over two years.

She’s sixteen now. Goes to one of those magnet schools for the arts. It’s just right for her, of course. 
Work has been good to me. The first year after the divorce was messy, and I don’t like to talk about it. I spent most of my downtime as a drunken troll on the internet, whipping up anyone who would take the bait. Anti-vaxxers. Tea partiers. Defenders of the black widow spider, Crossfit cultists, and my personal favorite, vegans. But I still showed up every day at work, and for some reason, people there acted like I had something valuable to add. It helped.  

I saw Dev Gupta at a conference six months ago. He acted unsurprised to hear about the divorce, but he always was a smug bastard. My therapist, Dr. Pierce, called the two months after that a bit of a step backward. Lots of time spent imagining Dev and Sara finding each other again, now that I, the competitive inhibitor, had been dislodged, but Dr. Pierce said there is such a thing as taking an analogy too far.  

In any case, that’s not the story I really care about anymore. 

On my birthday this year, I received a large, flat brown package in the mail.  

It was a painting of me. 

It’s in the comic-book style, very Jim Lee, and I’m in the lab, wearing my white lab coat over a three-piece suit, something I have never owned. I am dapper, tall, shoulders powerful, standing at my lab bench with a micropipettor lying as if forgotten in one hand, and an Erlenmeyer flask full of bubbling, purple liquid in the other. I’m looking out of the frame at something hidden from view, my eyes turned down at the corners and wistful, like my mother’s. My brow is creased, my hair is full of wind. Electrified. A radioactive-pink, late afternoon sky lined with sooty gray buildings fills the window behind me. Other figures populate the lab with blurs of movement—at the centrifuge, leaning into a chest freezer, entering data into a computer, all holding black lab notebooks except one—a still girl in the background with long brown hair, sitting on a stool with one leg tucked up underneath her and a sketch notebook in front of her on the lab bench. She’s looking at me and drawing.  

I look at that painting and feel it again, that small satisfying chock as a key turns and the lock-pins fall into new positions. She is older now, and I hope something has resettled in her. The nerves that connect heart to brain to eyes have formed new synapses perhaps, the ones that show you are grown, and can look at your father and see a man, and maybe forgive him for not yet being the best man.  

So I sit back in my booth at one of our old restaurants and I wait for her. She is coming, she said. And I feel a pain in my chest like a man caught underwater and wait for the clear, silver ring of door chimes, the rush of rain-scrubbed air into the room, for the sway of her long dark hair as she turns and sees me, once again, seeing her. 

Amy Wissekerke is an award-winning biology and chemistry educator specializing in youth mentoring, laboratory research, and sarcasm. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her family and is currently at work on a novel. This is her first fiction publication.


Q: What inspired this story?
A: An Amy Bloom story with an unreliable narrator caught me while I was reading lots of Junot Díaz—all I could find, books, interviews—and I got excited to attempt a voice and POV that wasn’t at all mine. Charles came out, sharing my obsession with molecules that won’t behave.

Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury planted the first seeds, the desire to write stories. Lately I can’t read enough Lauren Groff, Kelly Link, or Margaret Atwood, and I just started a Karen Joy Fowler kick. But knowing that the author of The Hundred Year House (Rebecca Makkai) would read my story compelled me to actually enter the contest rather than saying, “Oh, I’ll just keep working on this.”

Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this story?
A: Octavia Butler’s succinct essay, “Furor Scribendi,” encapsulates all the best advice. “First, forget inspiration…habit is more dependable. Forget talent…. Persist.” Without encouragement like that, I wouldn’t write at all.

Q: Where do you write? 
A: I write at a quiet desk in the hall outside my bedroom, or in an easy chair, or sprawled on the floor of my friend’s home office while she writes in her husband’s office. The floor is best. The carpet is soft, so when I bang my head on it or roll over to stare at the ceiling, I’m still pretty comfortable.

First Place: Short Story

Our Judge, Rebecca Makkai, had this to say about Amy Wissekerke's story, "Epimers":

​"Epimers" is an intelligent, psychologically astute story. The loose, expansive structure is harder to pull off than it looks, and it yields something unusual for a short story: the evolution of characters over many years. Beautifully done.