Red on Yellow

Steph Grossman
| Fiction


Satan was in the sunset the night Jaiq didn’t come home.
Earlier that day, Liv, Jaiq’s mother, left work at 2 pm instead of 5. Under normal circumstances, her husband Jeremy would close his chili truck in the middle of the afternoon, siesta-like, and grab Jaiq from the school bus. He’d walk the kid—his stepdaughter—up the driveway and into the house, give her chocolate Teddy Grahams, and help with homework until Liv returned at 6. Liv worked an hour away, at an MRI clinic over in Alpine. Once home, Liv would take over. This meant Jeremy could head back to his food truck in time to catch some Big Bend tourists hoping to try his famous ghost pepper chili.
That was the routine.
But on that Thursday, Liv decided she could afford to leave work early. She’d accrued a spare 3.6 vacation hours that month, so she wouldn’t need to dip into sick leave for their trip to Galveston the next week. Liv and Jaiq had only ever been to river beaches, never to a real one with waves and gulls and dunes. Jeremy, who was from Corpus Christi, was going to show them how to body surf.
Before leaving the clinic, Liv called Jeremy and told him to keep the truck open—that she’d be home in time for Jaiq. On the way back, she stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru and ordered fries for Jaiq from the dollar menu. Jaiq loved fries, but especially when they’d gone cold. She stirred them around in her iced tea, making “salt tea” instead of “sweet tea.” Liv already had a jug of fresh tea waiting for Jaiq, homemade and steeped in the desert sun. She pictured Jaiq coming into the kitchen and seeing the oilstained McDonald’s bag, the glass tea jug, ice cubes; pictured her running and sliding across the kitchen floor in her socks, howling and air-guitaring.
In Terlingua, the outdoorsy ghost town they called home, there were more school buses converted to camping rentals than actual school buses. Most of the elementary school’s 40 students lived far away—not as far as Alpine, but just about. One bus covered the entire county, and it was chronically unreliable. Jaiq could get dropped off anytime between 3:30 and 4:30, depending on how many students were on it.
And so, once home, Liv waited for a while. First in the sitting room with the TV on, watching a Cheers marathon without watching it. Then out front, car keys in hand, as it became 5 pm.
She knew something was wrong—but then again, she’d “known” something was wrong hundreds of times. Liv pictured it at least once a week. Hundreds of times a year, for ten years: when Jaiq missed the bus; when she was dropped off late from a friend’s; when Liv called for her to come eat or clean up her Troll dolls and Jaiq took her sweet time; when Liv passed her room at night, pricking her ears for signs of life, and Jaiq was always, somehow, between breaths.
Those hundreds of times before, panic had clambered up inside Liv’s throat and stayed until she had proof that Jaiq was fine. And Jaiq had always been fine.


Steph Grossman’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and CRAFT and has been recognized by The Masters Review’s 2020 Flash Fiction contest (shortlisted), CRAFT’s 2020 Elements: Conflict contest (finalist), and Fractured Lit’s 2023 Flash Fiction OPEN contest (longlisted). Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Paste Magazine and in The Masters Review. She lives in the Austin area and works as a composition and creative writing lecturer in the English department at Texas State University, and co-hosts the Basement Girls podcast with poet Bianca Pérez, where they take an academic, craft-oriented approach to reviewing film and literature across the horror and mystery genres.

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