Leak by Kim Magowan

A patch of wall under the south-facing living room window is driving Polly nuts: damp to the touch, and now the paint is lifting up. The patch’s shape reminds her of one of those vertical Midwestern states, an upright yam. It’s bordered on one side by a hairline crack, and on top, right under the window sill, by a triangular flap like the open spout of a milk carton. If Polly wanted, she could tear away this whole patch of paint.

Of course she doesn’t want to peel it off. Or, more accurately, the part of her that does is the same part that gnaws her nails to the quick, that picks scabs loose, that reads John’s texts when he is in the shower.

Obviously, a leak has damaged the wall. But where is it? Their hot Irish contractor Seamus once told Polly that the origin of a leak is notoriously hard to locate. They seem like they’re coming from one place, but the source is often another weak spot altogether.


Polly has two schools of thought regarding names. One is that naming a thing establishes dominion over it: it’s what parents, gods, and conquistadors do. The other is that the “unspeakable” is the figure or thing too awful to name.

Polly and John’s couples therapist, Dr. Weissman, insists they refer to Evelyn as “the affair person,” rather than as John’s lover or mistress or girlfriend. Those other terms romanticize her, Dr. Weissman explains. Polly appreciates the gesture, but in practice, she finds “the affair person” cumbersome. “How could you use our credit card to charge earrings for the affair person?” It sounds stupid; the accusation lands awkwardly. As often as John, Polly slips up and says “Evelyn.” But then Polly shudders, like she has captured a malevolent goddess’s wayward attention.

After eight sessions with Dr. Weissman, John moves out.


When Polly tells her GP that she and her husband are splitting up, Dr. Chen recommends an STD test. “Really?” Polly says.

“You’d be surprised,” Dr. Chen says.

Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis are all terrible names, and there’s a gratification in a bad thing having an appropriate title. It turns out that what Polly has “caught” is genital warts.

Their daughter Simone had the preventive HPV vaccines last year, when she was twelve and then twelve and a half. Their pediatrician advised all girls get the vaccine to protect them from cervical cancer. “HPV is one of the most common STDs, and with the vaccine, it’s completely preventable,” Dr. Budimir explained.

“Does Owen need to get it too, when he’s twelve?” Polly asked.

Dr. Budimir recommended all children get the vaccine, boys and girls both, but she admitted that most parents of boys didn’t bother. HPV wasn’t dangerous for boys, was their rationale; boys simply transmitted it. Why put them through two painful shots, parents demanded, simply to protect the girls they will have sex with some day?

Dr. Budimir shook her head. She’s Serbian, and some things about the United States still perplex her, she told Polly. The campaign to convince everyone to vaccinate fully for COVID in order to protect the immune-compromised never worked well here, she said. Americans just want to know what’s in it for them.


When Polly takes the kids out to Mission Chinese for lunch, they read aloud their fortune cookies. When Owen doesn’t like what his says, Polly trades. She’ll absorb all bad luck; what else, at this point, can hurt her?

Though now that the house is all hers, Polly feels more worried about that damn leak. She phones Seamus to take a look at it. It makes her laugh to think how guilty she used to feel about finding Seamus attractive, with his sleepy blue eyes. One time when she was masturbating and imagined him, she thought, I’m a horrible person.


Polly is reading Owen the Harry Potter books. She and Owen discuss why Dumbledore and those closest to him insist on calling Voldemort by name. It’s a refusal to be afraid. Yet in the seventh book, that’s how the Death Eaters track down Harry, because Harry utters his name. Voldemort has the foresight to punish those who dare to invoke him.

Simone stands in the door, listening. She says, “Why are you still reading those books? J.K. Rowling’s been cancelled.”


“Evelyn, Evelyn, Evelyn, Evelyn,” Polly says in the shower.

The source of the leak could be the windowsill. The rupture in her marriage could be Evelyn. But it could have so many alternative sources: the way Polly prioritizes her children; the twenty pounds she put on; the twenty-five pounds (at least) John put on; or how, starting with their newborns, sleep became the most sought-after commodity, and bed a place to sleep in. Polly could go back and back and back. The way she chose a selfish man who won’t apologize, who disdained couples therapy.

“Can’t we just say her name?” he said to Polly, a week before he left.

On the new season of The Crown, after announcing their divorce, Prince Charles and Princess Diana have a heart-to-heart. For once, they are vulnerable. He expresses loss and regret, he calls her beautiful; she acknowledges some accountability. But when Charles says to Diana, “Camilla. Can’t you just say her name?” Diana’s face visibly chills. The thaw is over; they revert to their adversarial corners.

The text that Polly saw six months ago, that opened this whole fissure in the wall: “Darling,” John called Evelyn. “My darling.”

KIM MAGOWAN — Kim is the author of the short story collection How Far I’ve Come (2022), published by Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com

Art by LIANA ASHENDEN — Liana is a writer and artist living in the ancient volcanoes of Te Pātaka-o-Rākaihautū/Banks Peninsula, Aotearoa/New Zealand. With a PhD in English Literature and a BSC in Physiology, her writing blends the esoteric and domestic. As an expressionist artist, Liana works in watercolour, acrylic, charcoal and clay. You can find her in Flash Frontier and on Instagram @swampmoa.