Assumptions by James Mulhern

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(First published with Fiction on the web and previously published in The Writing Disorder Literary Journal)

“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” (Song of Solomon 4:7)

Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia.

Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this:

She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants—”slacks” my grandmother called them—for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

***

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when. After my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk. I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment. Even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course. Years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords, but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming, longing for her husband Jim. I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

***

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father.” Peg passed me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood.

“Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch.

Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us, Peg, Scruffy, and myself, canvassed the neighborhood. It was December and cold. The sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon.

What a sight we must have been. Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer.

I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and they expressed exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home,” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—”Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball.

Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV. Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job. What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise.

Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content. He had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

***

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Beth, with Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to us. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us—Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses—crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately.

I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary.

Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her Lovely Peggy, ” she whispered quickly.

“Lovely Peggy” was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots. There were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off. The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg. The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything. Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.”

I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls’ room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together.” Peg arched her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

***

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck. She shone like a miniature Sun.

Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her. We pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish. We scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl.

For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose, descended over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late, both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake.

Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle—my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried.

We helped lift them in between guffaws and groans that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair.

Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me.

I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

***

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall.

Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother came to my room to wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow.

She told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep.

I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs. I imagined Peggy “over there.” Eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflected the brightness of a blazing fire.

Finally she was home with her Jim. Completely awake—laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine—she rose once again to sing her favorite song. The sun’s great light shone upon and caressed her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting. His crossed arms relaxed to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, became hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.

Love and Extinction by Geoffrey Enright

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Andrew Moore killed my wife, Julianne Woodrow exactly six months ago. Ran her over with his car after drinking all afternoon at some work party. I couldn’t believe how many people took the stand in his defense, swearing up and down what a good guy he was, how “out of character” it was for him to get so lit. Luckily my brother, Jacob Woodrow, was able to present Andrew’s history of similar behaviour: four DUIs with an assault and battery to boot.

Andrew was sentenced to forty years in prison, which would put him close to eighty upon release. Assuming he’d make it that long. But I know he won’t, me neither, or anybody else hanging out on this planet for that matter. 

In exactly eight minutes an asteroid the size of Kansas is going to get into a slugfest with earth and it’s going to kick our ass. As a matter of fact, the radio just signed off; guy made a point to get in a bit about God. We’re about to see who God is and isn’t looking out for. Suppose it’s as good a time as any to start smoking again after three years without. 

***

You see, the federal government and NASA, that’s who I work for, have known about this asteroid for a little less than three hours. Three hours, that’s it? Yes, that’s it. We’ve never seen anything like it before, a “silent” asteroid that was never picked up until it was much too late. And it is very much indeed too late. At least someone had the sense to give a name to the planet we think the asteroid cane from, not that the record will survive: G9V5. 

Stub out a cigarette, light up another.  I know what some of you are thinking, what some of you may be thinking at least: why is everyone so calm if the world’s down to its final minutes?  There’s a very simple answer for that, we haven’t told them what’s going on, only the immediate members of the team are aware any of this is going on. 

“But what about the guy on the radio, the sign off?” you may say.  To that, I will tell you while the sign off was indeed very real, the reason we fed him was not. At this exact moment in our country we are going through something of a health scare, so we used that to our advantage. 

At this exact moment government personnel are flooding the streets to put a “quarantine” into effect in attempts of catching and stopping the supposed health crisis. Believe what you will about the federal government, but this quarantine was put into play in the hope of guaranteeing that nobody, at least in this country, will die alone. We all deserve to have somebody. 

From where I’m at, on the deck of my penthouse, I can see everyone moving inside, empty stores, and men in biohazard suits with assault rifles gathering everyone up in nothing more than an attempt to keep calm. I’m shocked nobody’s noticed the lack of tents, tanks, scientists, and whatever else they’ve seen in the movies. By the time their panic burns out and the rationality sets back in we’ll all be dead. But for now my cat Lacy, sitting on the deck at my feet beside the chair, doesn’t have a care in the world. 

All I can see now is my wife.  Stub out cigarette, light up another.  Julianne had my eyes, my heart, and my soul from the first moment we met at a house party back in our days at NMU together. She was the only person talking that night who had something to say. Being profound by nature was her gift from the god she believed in.

And her beauty, it was radiant and never ending. Her beige skin, straight black hair and brown eyes… the little arches on her long slender feet…the way her eyes always guided me out from the deepest pits of my soul. 

She may have been the only reason for me to ever consider God, because she was an angel. She was my angel. Always was, always will be. For a few moments longer anyway.

I would love nothing more than to reawaken and find her waiting for me but I just cannot bring myself to believe in such things. And for that, Julianne, I am truly sorry.

The sky’s getting brighter, fast. I don’t know if anybody else has noticed it. Like there was a film over the sky but it’s been since removed. Before long we all might live long enough to die from our suntans. That was a bad attempt at humor, none of us will live long enough for such a thing. 

My skin tells me so, Lacy tells me so as she begins to cry in discomfort from the heat that continues to grow rapidly. I reach down and grab her, scooping her up into my lap. She’s crying like birth now. My lips meet the top of her trembling head.

I whisper: It’ll be over soon, baby, I promise. 

It’s getting brighter…and hotter.  Brighter…and hotter.  Lacy is seizing and leaking bodily fluids into my lap, her desperate cries for help are gargled as she continues to liquefy in my arms.  I’m next, oh my it’s getting so hot. I’m going to die any second, it’s so hot, oh my it’s so hot.

OH MY GOD!

Geoffrey Enright lives on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean with his girlfriend and their dog Tasha.

The Albino Kangaroo by Steve Carr

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Perhaps I should have known from the beginning how it was going to end. Perhaps.

My mouth was as dry as the arid scrublands that the highway cut through like a surgical incision. Dust devils of brown soil whirled across the barren landscape, skimmed across the pavement as if purposely dashing from one side to the other. Even with all the windows rolled up, grit invaded the inside of the car, finding its way between my teeth where it settled; an irritant that I lacked the spittle to expel. The glaring sunlight that cooked the earth formed watery pond-like mirages on the highway that vanished just before they were reached.

The only indication that there was life in the region, other than the infrequent truck stops, roadhouses and ramshackle motels or motor lodges was the images of kangaroos, wombats and camels painted on the yellow signs that stood along the roadside. Occasionally, a land train with several semi-trailers pulled by a prime mover sped by, heading east. They were like huge, terrifying, roaring metal beasts. Their tires stirred up clouds of dirt and tossed rocks like solid raindrops against my windshield.   

My sister, June, had fallen asleep in the seat beside me soon after we departed Port Augusta. She curled up in the seat and remained motionless with her windbreaker pulled over her. She slept silently and motionless, inert like a pile of laundry. I fought the urge to shake her awake and remind her that it was her idea that we drive the 1,700 miles west, taking the Eyre Highway to see this stretch of the outback, the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. She had placed the cost for renting the car on her credit card, so there was that at least.

In the rear view mirror I glimpsed the Volkswagen van following behind. It kept the same distance from my car from the moment it suddenly appeared out of nowhere fifty miles back. It was a 1980s model, blue, but in need of a paint job. Its front grill was dented and one of the headlights was missing. I tried to check out the person driving it, but sunlight reflected from the van’s windshield and hid his face. He was male. That’s all I could tell. There was no one in the passenger seat.

For many miles, the scenery rarely changed. There weren’t abandoned structures or remnants of farms, silos, or ghost towns reminiscent of many highways in the American west. Unlike the plains of the United States, the vast space wasn’t broken up by miles of fencing. There were no road turnoffs.

It was apparent from the onset that the Eyre Highway would live up to its billing as the longest stretch of straight road on the planet. Looking ahead was mesmerizing, hypnotic, like staring into a never-ending tunnel filled with light. Miles of seeing nothing but the beige landscape sporadically dotted with a patches of saltbush and bluebush scrub produced the same effect I once experienced when becoming snowblind while trekking in the Alps; I lost my range of vision.

I might have missed the rest stop altogether had June not awoken in time to sit up in her seat and call out when she saw its entrance fifty yards ahead.

***

The heat was all-enveloping, so oppressive it made breathing difficult. It felt as if my lungs were being seared with every breath. Sitting on a picnic table bench in the shade under a corrugated tin awning I watched the visible waves of heat rise up from the pavement in the rest stop. Unlike back home in Seattle where there was always the feel of moisture in the air, on that stretch of the Eyre Highway, there wasn’t the slightest hint of it. The breeze came from the north carrying the scent of baked earth.

I guzzled a full bottle of water and was halfway through another as sweat ran down my back in rivulets. June stood at a map of the area pinned on a corkboard under a sheet of plastic near a row of soda and snack machines. She slowly traced the single black line that marked the highway with her finger as if unable to accept that the line never veered from its two-directional course.

Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail held together with a bright yellow scrunchie. She tilted her head from side-to-side, as if listening to music. Her hair swept across her upper back like the pendulum of a metronome.

It was moments like that I forgot she was only a few years younger than me and we were no longer children. At twenty-nine she had retained many of the same movements and gestures she had when she was a girl of six or seven.

An orange-colored dingo wandered into the rest stop, and she turned to watch it─entranced the entire time the wild canine sniffed about the trash cans and around the doors of the restrooms. June had taken time off from finishing her courses to become a veterinarian to take this trip, so animals of any kind were of special interest to her. When it ran off, returning to the open scrubland, she went into the women’s restroom.

I shifted on the bench to get a better look at the Volkswagen van that had sat parked in the driveway leading into the rest stop, arriving there within minutes after we did. The driver of the van didn’t get out. He sat hidden in the shadows inside the vehicle.

I was considering talking to the driver of the van when June came out of the restroom. She called out to me. “How far to go until we reach The Bight?”

“Another hour or so,” I replied. I looked to the west, uncertain even after looking at the map of Southern Australia a dozen times, where the Nullarbor Plain began and ended, and if we had entered it. The name alone conjured up in my imagination fantasies of places that seemed other-worldly, like the Sahara Desert and Machu Picchu.

June sat on the bench on the other side of the table. She rubbed her shoulder and winced.

“You shouldn’t still be feeling pain there,” I said.

“It’s not actual pain,” she replied. “It’s psychological.” She hesitated before asking, “Does anyone ever get over being shot?”

I looked to where the van had been sitting. It was gone. “I don’t know,” I answered her.

***

I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff holding binoculars to my eyes and looking out over the turquoise waters of The Great Australian Bight. A large pod of Southern Right whales breached the surface, shooting fountains from their blowholes. At the base of the cliffs, small waves washed up onto the narrow strip of beach that extended along the coastline. Seagulls circled and swooped above the white-capped currents. Far out, the white sails of a large yacht gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.

June sat on the ground near me, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. Bits of grass she tossed into the air fluttered above her head like wounded butterflies before being blown inland or sucked into the ocean breeze and pulled seaward.

After a long silence between us, she said flatly, “I miss Patty and Mom.” The suddenness of the statement took me out of the moment and hurled me back to Seattle the year before.

I had just returned from a trip to Iceland and was sitting at the kitchen table in our mother’s condominium drinking a glass of iced tea. She leaned back against the sink stirring a cup of coffee. The sliding glass doors that led out to the balcony that looked out on the Puget Sound were open and a fish-scented breeze blew in. She gave birth to June and I when she was young and as she gazed at me it struck me that she could have passed for a woman in her early thirties. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her face.

“Even when you were a toddler, I couldn’t hold on to you. You always wanted to run off and explore,” she said.

June came into the kitchen at that moment, her arm draped around the shoulders of her girlfriend, Patty. They were giggling like adolescent schoolgirls, which suited June’s bubbly personality at that time, but was unusual for Patty who was usually sober and restrained. They had flown in from Chicago the evening before to join me at Mom’s to celebrate our mother earning her masters in social work.

“What are the two of you so happy about?” Mom asked.

June kissed Patty on the cheek and with a huge smile on her face, said, “Patty and I have decided to get married.”

Just as quickly I was brought back from Seattle to that cliff when I realized June was sobbing. I let the binoculars drop against my chest and hang there by its strap and sat on the ground next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her against me. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat there staring out at the whales until they disappeared from sight.

When we stood up I turned and saw that the Volkswagen van was parked not far from where I had left our car. It pulled away and returned to the highway as we began walking toward our car.

***

Twilight saw the spread of bands of purple and gold across the darkening sky. The Nullarbor Plain stretched out beyond the opposite side of the highway like an endless dirt carpet, looking as if it had been bulldozed. I stopped the car a few times so that we could watch troops of kangaroos crossing the plain, the first large number of them we had seen, which was surprising given that their images were on every sign and their remains littered the highway. The landscape didn’t seem to offer much in the way of vegetation for them to eat.

June got out of the car each time we spotted a troop and took dozens of pictures, then got back in breathless with excitement as she chattered on about them. When we were children it was she who had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, canaries and fish. I was still inside the car when I heard her shout, “An albino kangaroo!”

I got out of the car and standing by her side saw an entirely white kangaroo hopping along with the troop. To me it resembled a large white mouse.

“Do you have any idea how rare an albino kangaroo is?” June asked as she took pictures of it.

“I think an albino anything is kinda rare,” I replied.

Minutes later I realized she was holding her camera up to her eye, with the lens pointed at the albino kangaroo, without snapping anymore pictures. “As rare as I used to think it was to be shot by a mass murderer’s bullet.” She put the camera back in its case and got back into the car.

I watched the albino kangaroo for a few more minutes before returning and opened the map. I spread it across the steering wheel. I had the town of Cocklebiddy circled in red ink. It was about a half hour away.

June rolled up her window and rested against the glass. Her eyes were closed.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She sighed, expelling breath like a punctured tire. “Now that I think about, maybe coming on this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“You got to see an albino kangaroo and you said they’re rare.”

“Yes, they’re rare.”

In the ambient light of night I could see the Volkswagen van following us, maintaining the same distance and always at the same speed.

***

Countless stars glittered in the night sky, distracting me from what would have been an otherwise very boring trip from the time we saw the albino kangaroo until we reached Cocklebiddy. June said only a few words during the long stretch of darkness, keeping her eyes closed during most of it, although I could tell from her breathing that she was awake.

I tried to entertain her with anecdotes from my travels, but after twenty minutes of not getting a response from her, I drove the rest of the way to Cocklebiddy in silence. Upon approaching and entering the small town I had the uncharacteristic response of feeling happy to see lights, my preference being to travel where there was less civilization.

There was a roadhouse in the town for those just passing through and a small motel where I had pre-booked two rooms for us before leaving Port Augustus. When I pulled up to the curb in front of the motel June opened her eyes and gently placed her hand on my arm.

“What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said, despondently.

“I know.”

***

The Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle catered to a gay clientele which is why June and Patty chose it to celebrate Mom’s achievement and their plans to get married. Although it was Mom’s car we used to go to the restaurant, June drove and Patty sat in the front passenger seat. Mom and I sat in the back seat. Along the way, Mom pointed out everything that had changed en route to the restaurant since it had been three years since I had last been in Seattle, which was to attend my father’s funeral. The trees that lined the curb in front of the restaurant were strung with white lights and two large rainbow flags hung from its facade.

We parked a block away and walked to the restaurant, merrily chatting and laughing the entire way. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be, so we managed to get a table by the front window. Before I sat down I looked out and saw a blue Volkswagen van park across the street from the restaurant. I sat next to June. Patty and Mom sat across from us.

We were almost done eating when I saw a man get out of the van and cross the street, but gave it little thought and didn’t see what he was carrying, until he walked into the restaurant, raised a gun and started shooting.

In a moment of disconnect, I thought it was firecrackers I was hearing and not gunshots, and then I saw Mom get hit in the back and Patty shot in the head. June was struck in the shoulder before I had the presence of mind to react. I shoved her from her chair and threw my body on top of hers. The shooting, the killing, seemed to last forever. It was only later that I learned the shooter had been tackled and pinned down by an off-duty policeman until help arrived. The killer owned the Volkswagen van.

***

The motel in Cocklebiddy had a sign in front of it with an image of a young kangaroo peeking out from its mother’s pouch. The name of the motel was Joey’s Motel. The woman at the check-in counter was gregarious and talked non-stop while I checked us in. When she paused long enough for me to answer her numerous questions, I explained that it was June who had decided on the trip across Southern Australia. I didn’t explain anything further. June had remained at the motel office door, staring out at the street as if lost in thought. When we got to the doors of our rooms that were next to one another, June opened her door and went in without saying anything, and shut the door.

My room was nondescript with hardly a suggestion that it was Australian. I threw my backpack on the bed, laid down next to it, and without intending to, I quickly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a few hours later overcome with a sense of dread. I bolted from my room, ran to June’s and pounded on the door. When June didn’t answer back, I turned the doorknob and it opened.

Moments later I found June lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, dead. She had slashed her wrists.

I’ve not seen the blue Volkswagen van since then.

For the Smell of the Rain by Patty Somlo

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If anyone asked, I could say I was on the Granada-bound train for the ride, and for the smell of rain coming into the windowless car. I might mention the bright green banana leaves and peasants waving along the tracks, or the sellers of nacatamales and guayaba juice who boarded at every stop. I could add I was going to Granada to bathe in the sultry saltwater lake or to take a boat to one of the islands, to sleep in a thatched-roof hut and listen to the monkeys cry. Perhaps I could pretend I wanted to go back to the hospedaje where I first stayed, to sit in a rocking chair in the courtyard and listen to Doña Alicia gossip and complain.

The truth is that I was on the Granada-bound train to see Alfredo, only one week after I’d left him for the last time. I sat next to the open door and let the rain dampen my face, just as I had done the first time, when Alfredo took my face in his hands and said, “You look so beautiful.”

“You must see Granada,” the owner of my hotel said on my first day in this country. “And you must go there on the train.”

Granada, he explained, was a replica of its Spanish namesake, a jewel of a city set in a special spot between black volcanic hills and a vast blue-green lake that stretched further than the eye could contemplate. The water in the lake, he went on, was salty, the same as the sea, warm and filled with sharks. Throughout the lake were pristine islands, like emeralds spit into water. Parrots and palm trees, even monkeys, populated the islands, and local artists painted the landscape in colorful, minute detail, not missing a single chicken or banana tree or bright blue bird.

Moments after the train left the capital, I could see why I had been told to travel this way. The landscape we slowly moved through burst with color. The sky was dark, nearly purple in places, and the darkness helped saturate the land the richest shades. Banana and coffee leaves throbbed a vibrant green.

After the rain stopped, the leaves shone. Purple and reddish-pink bougainvillea spilled over fences like bright tongues. Smoke rose in wide circles from the chimneys of small red-tile roofed houses. Even in the rain, people came out. Men with dark faces wearing wide straw hats smiled and waved as we went by.

In the damp air, I imagined Alfredo’s face as I saw it that first day, peeking out under a green rain poncho. His dark eyes. The curls stuck to his forehead from rain blowing in the open door.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

Tiny beads of water clung to Alfredo’s black moustache. A few fragile crystals hung onto his eyebrows.

I smiled and turned away from him, not wanting to miss a minute of the breathtaking landscape rolling past.

When the train stopped to let on more passengers, Alfredo jogged away from my side. I thought he had gotten off and was a little disappointed but also relieved. While I was no longer surprised at how men here could suddenly become enamored with me – a light-skinned, green-eyed blond – I hadn’t gotten used to this at all.

The next thing I heard was the jittery sound of metal scraping against metal that signaled the train’s departure. Then I felt fingers lightly tapping my shoulder.

“You are beautiful, like the bougainvillea.” Alfredo handed me a slender stem with purple petals glittering from the rain.

The car was crowded with men and women, kids and woven coffee sacks, colored straw baskets overflowing with folded shirts and crisp bread and orange-skinned mangoes. The only place left to breathe was next to the open door.

How many times had I sat in this spot on my way to see Alfredo? How many times had I told myself the trip would be my last?

Alfredo was kind enough that first day to take me to Doña Alicia’s hospedaje, a two-block walk from the lake. He rented a royal blue motorboat and we sailed to one of the small islands, where we ate fresh-caught fish under a canopy of palm trees on a wooden porch. He told me that he traveled to the different islands to paint, sleeping in the simple huts, getting to know the peasants who lived there, and living off the fish and fruits and vegetables from the small plots of land they cultivated.

“I went all the way to Paris to study art,” Alfredo said. “Now, I have come back home to find that the peasants of these islands have more to teach me about art than all the world-renowned teachers in France.”

***

When I awoke with Alfredo in the small square room I had rented from Doña Alicia, sunlight slid through the narrow bamboo window slats─fell in lines across our skin.

Alfredo traced the light on my legs, his fingers moving up to my neck, and then my forehead.“What I love about this country is the light.” He kissed me and twisted his fingers in my hair. “The light is so thick and sad. It is impossible not to fall deeply in love here, because of the light.”

Riding the Granada-bound train, I couldn’t stop wondering how Alfredo would paint the passing scene. I felt sure he would want to capture all the details. The skinny dark-skinned boy wearing red shorts, with a scrawny gray and brown dog running behind him. White chickens pecking and scratching in a brown dirt yard. A woman wearing a bright green dress and pink apron, smiling and waving from the doorway of a turquoise stone house.

As the train moved along the tracks, I thought about that evening in the capital when I saw Alfredo’s paintings for the first time. It was raining and just getting dark, as I shook water from my umbrella and stepped inside. Glancing around the gallery, what struck me was the color. Small squares saturated with turquoise, red and a lush, lush green hung a careful distance apart on the clean white walls.

People stood in their colorful clothes, talking and sipping wine in the center of the room. Others, alone in front of the canvases, leaned in close to see the tiny birds and curled bananas hanging from the wide-leafed trees.

I looked for Alfredo and when I found him, I quickly glanced away. I felt his eyes on me until I turned and headed for the door. The quick thunderclap of my thin heels assaulted the floor beneath the steady hum of conversation.

On the porch, I stopped to open my umbrella. Raindrops landed with a smack on the thin curled metal roof.

“You are leaving before you have even seen the paintings,” Alfredo came up behind me, so close, I could feel his breath. “I wanted to introduce you to some people. Why are you going?”

“I can’t see you with her.” I refused to turn around, to see his face. “I’ll see the paintings another time.”

I opened my umbrella and Alfredo turned me around to face him.

“It is only a show,” he said. “What is real is what everyone does not see.”

 “How can it be real if no one sees it? How can I know it’s real?”

“It cannot be controlled. Doesn’t that make it real?” He reached his hand out from under the porch roof and cupped his palm. “If I catch the rain in a barrel, it is no longer rain. Rain must fall. That is the essence of rain. What you think you saw tonight was not love. It is as much like love as water in the barrel is like rain. She is my wife, the mother of my children. You are the woman I love.”

A mist clouded my eyes, brought on by the memories of Alfredo. They rose up whenever I rode the Granada-bound train. The sound of the rain hitting the metal car and the fertile smell of the dark dirt reminded me of an afternoon when I was swimming in the warm salty lake with him and the rain started falling. We watched the rain hit the water from a dark protected spot close to a nearly deserted island. The only sound interrupting the steady beat of rain against the leaves was the song of one lone bird.

Alfredo kissed my wet lips and pulled my bathing suit off in the water and dropped it on the high bank. With the rain wetting my already damp hair, Alfredo made love to me, as both of us listened to the insistent song of that one invisible bird.

“Would you mind if I sit here?” the voice said, almost in a whisper.

I looked up to see a dark face. Perfect drops of rain were clinging to the beige hood of the man’s thin plastic poncho.

“No,” I said and turned back toward the open door.

“It is a beautiful ride,” the man said, after he was seated. “Even in the rain.”

“Yes. I think the rain makes everything more beautiful.”

“I think you are right,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

We sat in silence, staring at the landscape. The train moved slowly south. I felt a light tap on my arm and turned to see the man holding out a long loaf of bread.

“Would you like some?” he asked.

“No. Thank you for asking. I will be having lunch in Granada.”

“So, you are going to Granada.”

“Yes.”

“Is this your first visit?”

“No, I have been there before.”

“Oh, that is good,” he said. “Granada is a very special place.”

“I think so.” I nodded. “But why do you think it is special?”

“It is a wild place. But it is also protected. The volcanoes are silent now, but we never know when they will burst with fire again. The lake is beautiful and warm but filled with sharks. They say that people have been lost on the islands in the lake, never to be heard from again. Once you have been to Granada, you must keep returning. I know. I have left dozens of times, yet I always find myself coming back.”

I sat in silence and thought about what this stranger had just said.

“It’s funny.” I shifted in my seat. “I thought it was just me. Even when I tell myself I am through with the place, I keep coming back. Now, you are saying it happens to others.”

“Oh, yes.” He laughed. “I have gone to many beautiful places in the world. I could practically live anywhere. But I keep coming back to Granada.”

I thought about the last time I was on the Granada-bound train, silently telling myself that the trip would be my last. I walked away from the train to where Alfredo stood waiting near the tracks, told myself to remember the feeling of Alfredo leaving in the night to go back home to his wife.

“I have missed you.” Alfredo held me so close I could barely breathe. “I am glad you have come.”

That night I couldn’t eat, stirring the metal spoon slowly, around and around the thick red broth of my seafood soup.

“You are not eating. Do you feel all right?” Alfredo asked.

“No. I don’t feel all right.”

“What is the matter?”

“I can’t keep doing this, Alfredo. I can’t. This visit will be my last.”

Alfredo made love to me that night like a desperate man. “It is so good with you,” he kissed me between words. “Being with you is like painting to me. Something comes over me in your presence and I lose myself. This is what happens when I am with you. Don’t you see that we must be together?”

“If you feel that way, Alfredo, why can’t you leave your wife?”

“What you and I have is wild. Something free. If we tried to capture it, it would be the same as putting the lion in a cage. He looks the same but his spirit is out there somewhere, running free. If I left my wife and married you, my spirit would be out there, running free.”

The soft voice of the man in the beige poncho suddenly broke through my thoughts.

“Are you in love with someone in Granada?” he asked.

My face grew warm and red beneath the humid dampness.

“Oh, forgive me,” the man said. “It is not my business. Please excuse me. “I always ask too much,” he went on. “It is impolite, I know. I have a curiosity, so I ask.”

“Yes, I am.” I leaned my face out the door to let the wind and rain cool me.

“That is what I thought.” the man smiled. “Why else would a beautiful woman be on the Granada-bound train, alone, again and again? I wonder, though, why he doesn’t ask you to stay with him in Granada.”

I waited in silence for the man to take back his question.

“Oh, I am going too far again,” the man said, almost as if he were talking to himself. “I know that. It is not a lack of manners that makes me ask too much. My mother and father raised me well. It is a game in a way. Like a puzzle really. What else is there to do on a long train ride but put the pieces together?”

I turned to the man and took several quick breaths, trying to calm myself before speaking. “So, you use people’s lives and emotions to amuse yourself. Is that it? And afterwards, what happens then? Do you sit with your friends drinking beer, telling them about the silly woman you met on the train, who goes to Granada again and again, to be with a man who will never leave his wife for her?”

“It is not like that all. You think I see this conversation as something trivial, something unimportant. That is not so. This conversation is everything. I could sit here in silence next to you, walk off the train and be hit by car. My life over, just like that! If I don’t live this moment, there is no point in going on. For this moment is all I have.”

“That’s a pretty morbid way of looking at things.”

“In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. Isn’t it sadder to think about living forever in silence? Isn’t it sadder to think I could ride all the way to Granada next to a beautiful woman and not know a thing about her? Isn’t it sadder to see all the pieces but never try to put them together?”

“You think about life in a way I never do,” I said. “I’m always planning for what’s going to happen next or brooding about the past. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole ride. It never occurred to me to ask you anything about yourself. I don’t even know your name.”

“Mario Pravia.” He held out his right hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”

I shook his hand and looked at him, without telling him my name.

“Okay, then. Let me ask you a question. If you were in love with a married woman who said she was deeply in love with you and not in love with her husband but wouldn’t leave him to marry you, would you keep seeing her?”

“I am not one to ask such questions.” Mario laughed. “I have ideas. Big ideas. But I am the last man in the world who can take these ideas and put them into my life. No, I am not someone to ask for advice.”

“From what you said, the future is irrelevant. Why should we plan for the future if it might never come?”

“Yes, I suppose I did say that. I don’t know what any of this means when it comes to love. Love is like the volcano. Completely unpredictable.”

“Are you in love with someone, Mario?”

“I am always in love.” He grinned. “For instance, right now, I am in love with you.”

I blinked at Mario and when my face grew warm again. I turned away.

“This is what I am saying. I am not a good person to ask for advice about love. But you see how easy it is for two people to get all tangled up. Here, I have only known you a short time and look what has happened to us.”

Mario reached under his poncho into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, holding it out to me. I slid a cigarette from the pack, even though I hadn’t smoked for nearly seven years. With his thumb and first finger, Mario pinched a cigarette between  his lips, struck a match and cupped it near my mouth, then moved it close to his.

Smoke swirled between us as we sat, inhaling and exhaling in silence. For the first time, I noticed the small straw bag set next to Mario, filled with books. I noticed the way his black hair was flecked with several strands of silver. I noticed the way his thick dark fingers curled around the slender cigarette, a breath from the filter.

“It is the same, you see,” he said.

“What is the same?”

“A man can make love to a woman with his body.” He twirled his cigarette in the air, making ever-smaller circles of smoke. “Or he can make love to a woman with his mind.”

I took a long, slow drag and let the heat of the cigarette burn the back of my throat.

“Look,” I said, pointing in the direction the train was headed. “We’re almost there. I know when we pass this farm, we only have a few minutes left.”

“Only a few minutes left?” Mario asked. “What can I say to you with only a few minutes left?”

“I don’t know,” I said, flicking the hair on top of my head with my fingers as I checked my reflection in a small mirror. “What is it that you want to say?”

“Only that I wish you were coming to Granada to see me.”

I gestured with my head as rain fell lightly on Mario’s poncho.

“There’s Alfredo,” I said. “I have enjoyed talking with you. I won’t forget what you said.”

I turned away and Mario slid a small slip of white paper into my hand. “Here is my address. I have no phone.”

Mario looked over to where Alfredo was standing, just inside the covered waiting area, out of the rain. “If you decide not to visit Alfredo anymore but you want to come back to Granada, you will find me there.”

I stared at Mario while the rain soaked my hair and face. He smiled and with his free right hand wiped the water from his chin.

“I have so many pieces to put together now,” I said. Mario glanced over again to where Alfredo was waiting, staying dry out of the rain. “All I know is that this piece is beautiful,” he said.

I watched him as the rain poured down and he stepped away from the train.

Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing); The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing) have been Finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, American Fiction Awards and Reader Views Literary Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times and for Best of the Net once, as well as receiving Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest and having an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014.

Bedtime Story by Pauline Yates

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A creak in Timmy’s bedroom makes an old fear pound at my heart. Wondering if he’s still awake, I hurry to his bedroom. The door is open. The light is off. The window is closed but a glow from the streetlamp outside slices a gap through the curtains. The yellow line falls across the bookcase, a pair of shoes, and the wooden sword I gave Timmy when he insisted he was old enough to sleep alone.  

Visions of childhood terrors race through my mind as I step farther into the room. Timmy lies in bed with the blanket draped over his head. His left foot sticks out from beneath the blanket. His right foot dangles over the side of the bed.  

scritching sound reaches my ears. Needle-thin talons reach for Timmy’s toes.  

Teeth and talons. Needle thin. Razor-sharp— 

I rake my fingers down the wall and flick on the light switch. Bright light floods the room. My heart drops from my throat, allowing me to breathe. Not talons. Pipe-cleaner fingers belonging to a papier-mâché robot, last week’s school craft project, on the floor beneath the bed.  

I stride to the bed and pull back the blanket. Startled, Timmy drops his torch. It falls to the floor and rolls beneath the bed.  

“What have I told you?” I say, pulling the comic book from his hand.  

“It’s Captain America,” he whines. 

“You know that’s not what I mean. Where are your feet?” 

He jerks his foot back onto bed but gives me a defiant look. “I’m not scared.” 

The floorboards creak.  

Fear digs its nails into my throat. I wrestle it with a deep breath filled with reasonable explanations. It’s the aging house. It’s the winter wind. It’s the heat from the fire expanding the floorboards. 

Bullshit.  

Fear wins. I jump onto the bed. 

“Daddy,” Timmy squeals, clutching the mattress. “You nearly bounced me off.” 

I mask my terror with a mischievous smile. “I don’t want to do that. It might be hungry.”  

Timmy giggles. “It’s not hungry. It’s sleeping.” 

“As you should be.” I straighten the blanket and tuck it around him. “Quiet now. It’s past your bedtime.” 

Timmy snuggles into his pillow. “Can I have a story?” 

“Didn’t mummy already tell you a story?” 

“I want another one. Please?” 

“Hmm?” I clear my throat. “Once upon a time—” 

“Not a fairy story.”  

“This story isn’t about fairies. This is a story about a little boy who liked to dangle his feet over the edge of the bed. Now, hush and listen: 

Once upon a time, there was a boy, just like you. He lived in a nice house and had a nice bed, just like yours. He even had a real sword, just like yours.” 

Timmy pouts. “I’ve heard this one. I want a different story.” 

“I think you need reminding why you should go straight to sleep and keep your feet under the blanket. Because if you don’t,” I shape my fingers into claws,“when the light goes out, and the room is silent, it will creep from beneath the bed, grab your foot and eat you.”  

“I’d kick it.” Timmy peddles his feet at my hands.  

“What if it ate your leg?” 

“I’d kick it with my other foot.” 

“Okay, Mister Brave. What would you do if it ate both your legs?” 

“I’d poke out its eye with my sword.” 

I point across the room. “But your sword is over there. You can’t jump that far. It will grab your legs when you step out of bed.” 

“I’ll sleep with my light on. It doesn’t like the light.”  

“The boy in the story slept with his light on. That was his mistake. The light doesn’t reach under the bed. That’s why it lives there. Under the bed is always dark.” 

“I’ll scream so loud its ears will hurt.” 

“Its foul breath will smother your screams. I won’t hear you. Mummy won’t hear you, either. Do you remember what happens after that?”  

Timmy wriggles from beneath the blanket, jumps up and bounces on the bed with a cheeky grin. “It will swallow me whole, and devour my soul, and spit out my body as a dust bunny,” he shouts in a singsong voice. “I’m not scared. I’ll jump so high it won’t catch me. I’ll get my sword and smash its head.” 

I catch him mid bounce and wrestle him back into bed. “You are Mister Brave, aren’t you? No more bouncing. No more stories. And no more Captain America. It’s time to sleep.” 

I swing my legs off the bed but another creak sounding more like a yearning growl reaches my ears. Fear drives its fist into my heart. I draw my legs up and leap from the bed so high I land near the door. I clutch the door frame and look back.  

The light from the torch shines beneath the bed. There’s nothing there but the robot. 

I breathe out my shivers in an exasperated sigh. “Do you want the light left on, Mister Brave?” 

“No. Goodnight, Daddy.” 

“Goodnight.” I switch off the light. My gaze drifts to the sword on the floor near the window. A dark mark on the tip of the blade swallows the streetlamp glow— 

It bleeds. 

I clench my jaw. It’s not blood. It’s not even real. It’s just the story that my father told to keep me in bed—the same story I tell Timmy. Even if it’s true, Timmy’s brave. Timmy’s safe. It only feeds on fear. 

“Daddy?” 

“Yes, son?” 

“Can I have my sword?” 

My heartbeat quickens. A responsible father wouldn’t tell his son scary bedtime stories. A responsible father would show his son that there’s nothing to fear in the dark. “Of course.” 

Leaving the light off, I walk across the room to retrieve the sword.  

“Daddy, what’s that smell?” 

“Daddy?” 

Pauline Yates likes to explore the world on the other side of the improbable and write about what she finds. Her short stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Abyss & Apex, Bete Noire, Sirens Call, Aurealis, plus others. She lives in Australia, loves writing past midnight, and lurks on Twitter @midnightmuser1.

Keep Calm and Carry On by James Mulhern

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My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her. She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt. 

“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror. That’s much better, don’t you think?” 

I touched my scalp. “It hurts.” 

“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind. Now she’s in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous.  

I smelled coffee on her breath. There were blackheads on her nose. She pinched my cheeks. 

I reflexively pushed her hands away. 

“Life is full of pain, sweetheart. And I don’t mean just the physical kind.” She took a cigarette from her case on the back of the toilet, lit it, and inhaled. “You’ll be hurt a lot, but you got to carry on. You know what the British people used to say when the Germans bombed London during World War II?” 

“No.” 

“Keep calm and carry on.” She hit my backside. “Now run along and put some clothes on.” I was wearing just my underwear and t-shirt. “We have a busy day.” 

I dressed in the blue jeans and a yellow short-sleeve shirt she had bought me. She stood in front of the mirror by the front door of the living room, holding a picture of my mother. She kissed the glass and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Then she looked at herself in the mirror and arranged her pearl necklace, put on bright red lipstick, and fingered her gray hair, trying to hide a thinning spot at the top of her forehead.  

She turned and smoothed her green cotton dress, glancing at herself from behind. “Not bad for an old broad.” She looked me over. “Come here.” She tucked my shirt in, licked her hand, and smoothed my hair. “You’d think I never brushed it.” 

Just as she opened the front door she said, “Hold on,” and went to the kitchen counter to put her hand in a glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty single dollar bills. 

“Here. Give this money to the kiddos next door.” 

When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. They were playing on their swing set in the fenced-in yard. In front of the broken-down house was a yard of weeds. A rusted bicycle with no wheels lay on the ground. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. Her brother stood, arms folded, in the background. He had a mean look on his face and spit. 

“This is for you,” I said, shoving the money through the chain links. The girl reached out to grab it, but most of the bills fell onto the dirt. 

“Thank you,” she said. 

As I walked away, her brother yelled, “We don’t need no charity from you.” 

I opened the door of my grandmother’s blue Plymouth; she had the air conditioning blasting and it was already full of cigarette smoke. 

She crossed herself. “Say it with me. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ” 

I repeated the words with her and we drove to her friend Margie’s house, not more than ten minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at me. She always wore the same navy-blue sweater, and was constantly picking white cat hairs off her clothes, while talking about the latest sermon, God, or the devil.  

Nanna told me when they were young girls, their classmates made fun of her. 

“Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, and cats, and mothballs. 

“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent over to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!” 

“Don’t worry. I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He hissed. 

“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the front door? We go through this every time.” My grandmother pushed past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hot as hell out there.” 

Margie placed a tray of ham sandwiches, along with cheese and crackers on the round grey Formica table. I liked her wallpaper—white with the red outlines of trains. Her husband had been a conductor. He died when he got squished between two train cars. 

“I don’t know how I feel about all those miracles Father Tom was going on about.” Margie placed a sandwich on a plate for me with some chips. “What ya want to drink, Aiden? I got nice lemonade.” Her two front teeth were red from where her lipstick had smudged. And as usual she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where the cat sat all the time. 

“That sounds good.” 

She smiled. “Always such a nice boy. Polite. You’ll never have any trouble with this one. Not like you did with Lorraine.” 

“I hate when you call her that.” 

“That’s her name ain’t it?” She poured my grandmother and me lemonade and sat down with a huff. 

“That was my mother’s name, her formal name. I’ve told you a thousand times to call her Laura.” 

“What the hell difference does it make?” Margie bit into her sandwich and rolled her eyes at me. 

“Makes a lot of difference. My mother was a crackpot. I named my daughter Lorraine to be nice.” 

“Well, Laura is . . .” I knew Margie was going to say that my mother was a crackpot, too. 

“Laura is what?” My grandmother put her sandwich down and leaned into Margie. 

“Is a nice girl. She’s got problems, but don’t we all.” She reached out and clasped my hand. “Right, Aiden?” 

“Yes, Margie.” 

My grandmother rubbed her neck and spoke softly. “Nobody’s perfect. Laura’s getting better. She’s just got a few psychological issues. And the new meds they have her on seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being. And that’s what’s most important. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? My Laura has always been different. One of the happiest people I ever met.”  

Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you gotta use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal. 

“Yes, I gotta pee.” 

“Well, you don’t have to get so detailed,” she said. “Just go.” 

Margie laughed hard and farted.  

I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The old banister was dusty. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. I bent down and picked one up to examine it, then rubbed my pants.  

Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of her dresser. I took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. There was also a couple of pretty rings—one a large red stone, the other a blue one. These and a gold necklace with a cross I shoved into my pockets. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. I messed up the towel a bit so it looked like I dried my hands in it. 

 
When I entered the kitchen they were still talking about miracles. 

My grandmother passed our plates to Margie who had filled the sink with sudsy water. 

“Of course there was raising Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then the healing of the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too,” she said raising her hand and splashing my grandmother. 

“Let’s not forget about the fish. And the water into wine,” my grandmother said. 

Margie shook her head. “I don’t know Catherine.” She looked down. “It’s hard to believe that Jesus could have done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?”  

I imagined a fish jumping into her face from the water in the sink. 

My grandmother smiled at me. “Of course there are miracles today. As a matter of fact, I’m taking Aiden to that priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s gonna be cured, aren’t you, honey?” 

“Cured of what?” Margie said. 

“Oh he’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest is gonna take care of all that.” 

“Leukemia! Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, honey.” She motioned for me to go to the table. “We’re almost done here.” 

“You gotta take him to a good doctor,” she whispered to my grandmother, as if I couldn’t hear. 

“I know that. I’m not dumb. God will take care of everything.” 

We said our goodbyes and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets while she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook. Her eyes lit up. 

“Perfect. She isn’t lookin’, is she?”  

I glanced at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap. 

“Now put those in here.” She nodded towards her bag, and I did. 

When we were about to turn onto Tremont Street where the church was, I remembered the gold necklace and cross. I pulled it out of my back pocket and my grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.”  

In a moment, there was a police car pulling us over. 

“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said, as we moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and put her window down. 

“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” The policeman was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes. 

“I know officer. I was just saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross. I got distracted. I’m very sorry.” 

He leaned into the car.  

I smiled. 

“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?” 

“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.” 

“And he certainly did.” She patted my knee and smiling at the police officer. 

“It’s a good thing no cars were coming. You could have been hurt,” he said. “That’s a beautiful cross,” he added. 

My grandmother began to cry. “Isn’t it though?” She sniffled. 

The officer placed his hand firmly on the edge of the window. “Consider this a warning. You can go. I’d put that cross away.” 

“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.” 

The police officer waited for us to drive away. I turned and looked. He waved. 

“Are you sad, Nanna?” 

“Don’t be silly.” She waved her hand. “That was just an act.” 

I laughed and she did, too. 

We parked. “I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over 100-years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. Experts say it’s priceless. I’m thinking if I have your mother drink from it, she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me. 

I looked away, towards the church where an old man was helping a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?” 

“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing it for a little while to help your mother. I think God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.” 

We entered Mission church. It smelled of shellac, incense, perfume, and old people. It was hard to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the twelve or so Stations of the Cross. 

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of an old lady, who looked bewildered.  

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered kindly, smiling down at me. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt. 

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. We have to help a sick neighbor after this. I just want my grandson to get a cure.” 

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who was standing at the altar. He prayed over people then lightly touched them. They fell backwards into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and blue ties. 

“Aiden has leukemia.” 

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, sweetie.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced. 

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?” 

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?” 

I was confused. 

“He’s asking you about your illness, Aiden.” 

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly. 

The priest chanted some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest.  

I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me. 

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered irritably. Then she said extra softly, “Remember our plan.” 

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guy. He toppled over as well. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt bad. “Ow. My head is killing me.”  

Several people gathered around us.  

My grandmother yelled “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus on the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” Then she crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my moaning and fake crying. 

“He’ll be okay.” She put her arm under mine and helped the others pull me up.  

When I was standing, she said to the priest, “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh.” 

“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.  

The priest stared in confusion.  

The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed. 

When we were in front of Rita’s house, our last stop before home, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.” 

She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She opened the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those places are. Somewhere in the Middle East… And a tribulation is a problem.” 

“Oh.” 

After ringing the doorbell a couple times we opened the door. We found Rita passed out on the couch. 

My grandmother took an ice cube from the freezer and held it against her forehead.  

Rita sat bolt upright. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You scared the bejeezus out of me.” She was wearing a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in curlers. “Oh, Aiden. I didn’t see you there.” She got up and kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol. 

“So do you think you can help me out?” my grandmother asked. Rita looked at me. 

“Of course I can.” 

“Just pull me up and I’ll get my checkbook.” I suddenly realized all my grandmother’s friends were fat. 

At the kitchen table, Rita said, “Should I make it out to the hospital?” 

“Oh, no. Make it out to me. I’ve opened a bank account to pay for his medical expenses.” 

“Will five thousand do for now?” Rita was rich. Her husband was a “real estate tycoon” my grandmother was always saying. He dropped dead shoveling snow a few years back. 

“That’s so generous of you.” My grandmother cried again. More fake tears, I thought. 

We had tea and chocolate chip cookies. Rita asked how my mother was doing. My grandmother said “fine” and looked away, wringing her hands. Then she started talking about the soap operas that they watched. My grandmother loved Erica from All My Children. Said she was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and admired that very much. Rita said she thought Erica was a bitch. 

When we were home, listening to talk radio in the living room, I asked my grandmother if she believed in miracles, like the ones she talked about earlier in the day with Margie. 

“Sure, sure,” she said, not looking up. She was taking the jewelry and chalice out of her bag and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight streaming through the bay window.  

“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.” 

She put the items back in her handbag and stared at me. “Of course I am.” 

“Well do you think I’ll have a miracle and be cured of leukemia?” 

“Aiden.” She laughed. “You haven’t got leukemia. You’re as healthy as a horse, silly.” 

“But you told everybody I was sick.” 

“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.” 

“What does that mean?” 

“Make people feel bad so we can get things from them. I need money to take care of you, Aiden.” She spoke hesitantly and looked down, like she was ashamed. “I’m broke. Your grandfather left me with nothing and I gotta pay for your mother’s medical expenses. If Margie notices her jewelry gone, maybe she’ll think you took it to help your Nanna. I told her I was having a problem paying your hospital bills. 

“Sorta like a tribulation, right?” 

“Exactly, sweetheart.” 

“Is my mother a tribulation?” 

This time my grandmother’s tears were real. They gushed like water from that rock in the Middle East. I knelt before her and put my head in her lap. She hugged me, bent down and kissed my face several times. Then she looked out the window. It seemed the tears would never stop. 

“Don’t worry, Nanna. I believe in miracles, too. Someday Mom will come home from the hospital.” 

And we stayed like that until the sunbeams dimmed and the dust disappeared and her tears stopped.  

In the quiet of the room, she whispered, “Keep calm and carry on” to me or to herself. Or to both of us. 

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews,including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, anda Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

 

A Distinguished Fellow By Kevin Finnerty

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I’m a law professor. I teach law classes to law students. I write articles on various legal issues that are published in law reviews. I have a number of books on the shelves in my office that list my name as author. I hold the title of Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.   

Some would say I spend my days in an ivory tower, but my office resides in a blue rotunda in an area of the school reserved for distinguished faculty. It overlooks the lake that borders campus. When students arrive in late summer, a gentle breeze soothes the heated newcomers. In winter, the wind pelts those same students with a cold fury. Every semester, it halts a number of them in their tracks, and the students’ legs churn without making progress until the gusts relent.  

Some faculty have been known to gather in a conference room on the days with the largest gales, which inevitably occur the week before final exams or the days immediately before grades are released early in the second semester, to watch who will be attacked, who will battle through, and who will be turned away. Sometimes dollars have been known to change hands as bets are placed to keep things interesting.

When you’ve been a law professor as long as I have, you have to look forward to the good times.

I was not happy last Fall. One of the reasons for that was Dean required me to teach the very undistinguished class of Civil Procedure because Less Distinguished Faculty member chose to give birth in late August and take maternity leave during the Fall semester. L.D.F.’s planning or lack thereof aside, I was annoyed that Dean, a magna cum laude graduate of an even more distinguished law school than the one over which he presides and I teach, was somehow unable to calculate the likely birthdate and resulting leave request in time to procure Adjunct to teach L.D.F.’s class. Apparently, Dean only realized the impact on the upcoming semester’s teaching load in July, when he came to my office while I was reviewing the proofs for my latest book on the federal courts and told me I would be teaching 1Ls.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’ve taught it before and because you practiced before becoming a professor.”

Dean stood in the doorway with his arms stretched across as if he thought I might try to bolt past him. He is tall and thin and looks ten years younger than me even though he’s actually a year older. It’s probably how he ended up as Dean and why I give him a hard time. That and the fact that he wouldn’t even be among the most distinguished faculty here were he not Dean.

“I know why I could teach it but why do you need me to teach it?”

“L.D.F. is pregnant.”

“You just realized that today?”

“I guess we didn’t focus on it in time.”

“You have a science degree from an Ivy, right? Seems you might have been able to figure it out a little sooner.”    

Dean smiled the smile of one who knew he had options: he could play along and match wits to kill time or he could rely on power for a quicker and more certain victory. “Guess you should dust off and update your curriculum.”

“Am I still teaching…”

“Yep, you’ll get a reduced load in the Spring.”

So I was unhappy because I had to teach a class I didn’t want to teach, because this was the result of the failure of others to plan, and because I had to adjust the professional and personal plans I’d made. They were tentative, sure, but I’d secretly been hoping my book would be well received and I might be invited to speak at various venues throughout the semester.          

Instead, I was assigned to teach a class that met on Monday morning at 9:00 on the first day of the semester. I knew going in what I’d find─a class of 50 students only ten of whom had spent their lives dreaming of becoming lawyers while 40 others were delaying their entry into the non-academic portion of their lives, fulfilling a wish of their parents, hoping to find a partner, or secretly telling themselves spending $200,000 over the course of three years was a worthwhile investment, regardless of any economic return. 

I entered at 8:59, cognizant this was not my target audience at this point in my career. Although it hadn’t been my intention to commence the semester in this manner, when I looked about the room I found myself recalling a story my own Civ Pro professor had imparted early during my experience as a 1L decades earlier.

“Enjoy these last few weeks,” the confident, statuesque woman, who was one of the few female tenured faculty members at the time, said. “This is the last period of your life when you won’t think like a lawyer. Soon enough that will be gone, never to come back.”

After I repeated the story, I offered the 1Ls my take, based on experience, “I agree with my former professor, in part. If we do our jobs, soon you’ll never again think like a non-lawyer. But while my professor implied something had been lost, I contend we are giving you something invaluable. The ability to think like a lawyer, to use logic, to persuade and argue based on facts and the law, rather than relying on emotion and force, is the greatest ability any human can possess. I would expect when all’s said and done those of you who succeed will thank your distinguished faculty for this gift and will not consider yourselves to have lost anything of value.”

***

I don’t hold a title like Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law in my home.  I hardly hold a title at all. Sometimes I’m referred to as “Dad.” Less often as, “Dear.” Mostly, it’s just, “You.”

And much of the time I feel like I’m being visited by Dean in the doorways and non-doorways of my home.

“You are going to do this.”

“Why are You doing that?”

“What are You going to do about that?”

Usually a verbal response is not necessary, just performance of some act I wish there were no need to take.

I have two Children who are not completing their teen years with distinction. I have Wife whom I thought was going to be an achiever when I met and dated her but who, somewhere along the line, placed her career down ballot. Worse, she appears to judge me as if I’d made a similar choice. I suppose I could tell her I did no such thing and that at least on a percentage basis I’ve done a better job accomplishing the goals I’d set than she. 

Come to think of it, I probably have told Wife that once or twice. I seem to remember her responding by telling me I couldn’t absolve myself as a partner and parent because I’d chosen to assume those roles too, while we drove home after meeting with Son’s principal a few years ago.

“I know and I’m not absolving myself but…”

“Ah, the yes, but defense.”

You see, Wife is certainly smart enough to have achieved more in her career, or even have a career instead of just a job. She remembered one of the few things I’d learned during my two years practicing law before I transitioned to become a faculty member─first Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then Professor, before finally becoming Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.

Partner at the firm where I’d worked came into my office late one night when this Junior Associate was typing a memorandum for our Client. He asked to see the draft and placed his feet on my desk while he read it.

“It’s not finished,” I said as Partner dropped page after page over his shoulder after seemingly only skimming each one.

“Understood.  What else have you got to say?”

“I think we have a couple more defenses we could raise.”

Partner tossed the last few pages to the floor en masse.  “Sure defense numbers six, seven and eight.  I’m sure they’ll help.  What about the overall?”

“Overall, everything is defensible.”

“That’s true.  But at the end of the day it’s all ‘yes, but.’”

He must have seen the quizzical J.A. stare numerous times before, so he continued, “Did you do A? Yes, but we had a reason? How about B? Yes, but another reason. And C, D, and E? Sure, but…’ You see, when the trier of fact, be it the court or a jury, gets to reason number three, they just roll their eyes. That’s all they can take.”

So when Wife referenced my tale decades later and somewhat analogously applied it in another context, I was both proud and disappointed: proud because I’d chosen one so capable, disappointed because she never even tried for distinction. She chose to put Kids first, and Marriage and Career suffered. And Kids didn’t turn out great anyway, so what was the point? Why didn’t she cut her losses when she still had time to succeed in other realms? As smart as Wife is, she had to realize that was what she should have done.

I don’t blame Wife for Kids. They are wholly and completely responsible for their own status. Wife and I gave them more than either of us had when we grew up in middle class (She) or lower middle class (Me) families. We gave them opportunities; we didn’t force them to fulfill any unmet expectation either of us had about life; we never denied them any reasonable request they made; we let them try private and public school and then private again.

And yet there we were: Son on his second leave from his university to spend time at a rehabilitation facility. The only positive about that was that at least I knew it wasn’t the same drug because the first time he couldn’t sleep at all and during round two that was all he wanted to do.  Before he could never sit still, he was always moving about, his eyes bulging white. Now, he could barely keep his eyes open and his head slowly descended until it crashed onto the dinner table, prompting Wife and I to look at each other, wondering whether we should lift it and if we would see blood if we did.  

Daughter had just told us (or Me, at least) she was pregnant. I did the math and knew it was going to be a photo finish whether the child or high school diploma arrived first, if either arrived at all. It’s a little hard for me to admit this but from a pure intellectual capacity perspective Daughter probably has everyone in Family beat. She did long division when she was three; read and thoroughly discussed young adult books by the age of five; and spoke authoritatively about theoretical concepts before she entered third grade. And yet she still managed to have unprotected sex with Inferior, a future criminal she didn’t even love. How smart is that?

Maybe it’s my fault. My contribution as Parent when they were younger was to instill competition. Against each other, against classmates, primarily against themselves. I thought it would teach them to excel, to achieve, to distinguish themselves. In the end, it appears they only competed to see who could fuck up worse.

“What about You?”

Daughter’s words snapped me out of one of my frequent dinner daydreams. Her hair was blue. The month prior it was green. Before that, red. None of it was natural.

I said, “What about You?”

I knew she was naturally the most naturally intelligent but doubted she could actually read my mind. 

Daughter asked what You thought she should do about Baby?

I looked at Wife for guidance but did not detect any forthcoming. She apparently wanted me to tackle this one alone. In my experience when one is unprepared it’s usually best to say little, especially when it comes to family matters, lest You say something that would only make things worse. In response to the silence, Daughter sprang to her feet and pushed the table away, which caused Son’s head to fall, then snap back to life. 

“See, You’re only concerned about Yourself. Just as it’s always been. Got something to tell You, we should all wish the worst thing going on in Family was Your having to teach two whole classes in one semester.”

“Dad’s okay,” Son said when Daughter darted towards her room. “He’s got problems too but they’re not as bad as ours and we had advantages he never did.”

Amazed he could speak at all, let alone coherently, I couldn’t tell if Son was being sarcastic or sincere. He was so gaunt, so gray, I genuinely wondered if he’d make it through the night.

“I’m going to bed.”

“All right,” Wife said, “I’ll get up early and pack your things and then wake you and take you to the center before going to work.”

“As busy as you are, you might want to take some of his old drugs if you can find any.”

“Yeah, or You could help out without being asked.”

“Or told.”

Wife opened her mouth as if she had a response ready for my last retort or at least as if she didn’t want to leave me with the last word.  I’m not sure why but she chose not to deliver it.  After half a minute, she got up and left me alone to wonder why she spared me.    

***

My work Neighbor is the second (or third, depending whether I count Myself and whether I’m feeling humble) most distinguished faculty member at the law school. He’s also my best friend, even though we view the world, or at least the legal world, almost diametrically opposed to one another. So I had to share the news.

“It really happened, I got ‘em.”

He had his back to me and was looking out the window but turned around and winced. “The dreaded 1Ls?”

“Guess I should have prepared myself for the inevitable.”

“If you’re looking for a positive, on the whole, 1Ls probably care about their classes the most.” Neighbor was right. 1Ls knew the least and so worried the most and paid the most heed to their professors. 2Ls were too busy interviewing and focused on their future careers to concerns themselves much with classwork. 3Ls didn’t care about anything, except getting through the year so they could get on with their lives. “And it still beats practicing, right?”

Neighbor and I are forever linked. We both came to the law school after practicing as attorneys for two years; we both published frequently following our arrivals; and we both achieved a measure of national recognition in the academic world. Our employer so considered us equals, mirror images, the basis for my receiving a slightly more desirable office due to its position along the curve of the rotunda was simply due to the fact that I appeared on campus a day before him. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered had the undisputed most distinguished faculty member of our school not declined it when it was first offered to him. Top Dog claimed he wouldn’t fully take advantage of it because he traveled so often, but Neighbor and I believed he declined the honor just so he could make a point of bestowing it upon whomever might be considered the second most distinguished faculty member. 

Top Dog joined the law school directly after clerking for a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both before and after receiving tenure, he’d had multiple offers to leave our distinguished law school for even more prestigious ones. While we both presumed this was done with ulterior motives, Top Dog’s choice to stay prevented Neighbor and me from ever needing to compete against one another. There was no point. No one wants to hear anyone shout, “I’m number two!”

“Did you ever tell me if there was a particular case that brought you here?” I asked.

“Six or seven times. Securities fraud, remember?”

Fact was I didn’t give a hoot about securities fraud or stories about securities fraud, but I did sort of remember Neighbor telling me that was the one and only area he’d asked his firm not to assign him a case, so more than anything, the firm’s decision to do so taught him how much he could trust his employer. He quit three months later.

“I remember. You got out without having to acknowledge substantive incompetence.”

“It was a preemptive move to avoid malpractice.”

My departure from Firm had not been as preordained as his. I’d handled a variety of cases for more than a year before taking on an antitrust case. I thought I’d be able to tackle that one as well, but when I stood at the podium before the federal judge on the first motion I realized for the first time I was merely bluffing. Words spilled out of my mouth, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. I feared being made the fool, or worse, that opposing counsel and the judge already knew I was one. I fled to the academic world where I thought I’d be better able to control my fate.

***

I’m a small “c” conservative. I believe in a federal government of limited, enumerated powers, and a system of government that was meant to be difficult to change. I do not believe there should be wild swings after one of the political parties obtains 53% of the vote from the 50% of the population who decided to cast a ballot in a given year. 

I believe the states exist as places for experimentation─for good and bad─and I’m true to this position regardless of whomever controls Washington. A party shouldn’t invoke states’ rights when out of power and then seek to impose its will upon them once it has the ability to do so. That’s intellectually dishonest.

Because I wish to remain true to my beliefs, not party allegiance, I do not consider myself Republican or Democratic. At least I don’t do so per se or all of the time. The parties may change their positions on issues based on their perception of voters, but I don’t change mine. I’d rather be right than popular.

Neighbor’s a liberal or progressive. I forget what he calls himself these days. Either way, he’s a smart fellow. He listens to arguments presented and attacks them rather than the person who makes them. If I had to pick on him for something─other than his entire belief system─I’d say he can be a little too outcome-oriented at times. I think sometimes he determines the result he wants on a particular matter and then work backwards, using his intellect, logic, and reasoning to determine the arguments to put forth to reach that end.

Neighbor’s not the only person with legal training to do that sort of thing.  Most practicing lawyers and judges operate that way.  But I don’t think a distinguished law professor should. 

Dean required me to teach my Federal Jurisdiction class in addition to Civ Pro. Most of my students are busy 2Ls but some 3Ls will slip in. Usually students who only decided late in the day to become litigators or those who didn’t want to take the course─which they correctly heard is difficult─during the semester they were flying around the country to interview for summer associate positions.     

I teach the class in a lecture format because there’s a lot of material to cover and that’s what works best for me, but there’s always one student who has something to say. This semester it was Mousey who was always raising her hand to challenge me or at least my words in front of the class. I don’t know if her actions annoyed her classmates or not, whether they wanted her to speak to break the monotony of solely hearing my voice or if they preferred her high pitch not waken them from their slumber. 

I figured she must have taken Neighbor’s Con Law class the previous Spring because he engages with his students more than I. He likes to hear them make arguments contrary to his own and then joust with them. I have no time and little tolerance for that, and I don’t see the need to showboat. I know I’m right without the need to prove it to a bunch of 20-somethings. So I’d just let Mousey have her say before continuing. The only time I even paid attention was the first time she spoke so I could evaluate her. 

I cover the principle of sovereign immunity early in the semester because I like starting the class by showing students the types of cases that do not belong in federal court, which are courts of limited jurisdiction and not intended to be venues for all the complaints a person may have.     

“I can’t believe how wrong the Court’s been on this issue for more than 100 years. It seems ridiculous to rely on some old English maxim that the King can do no wrong when we’re not England, we’ve never had a king, and our Founders─however much they even debated the principle of sovereign immunity─chose, for whatever reason, not to include it in the text of the constitution. And whatever one thinks of the Chisholm decision, a constitutional amendment was enacted. Arguing that it was ratified so quickly wouldn’t seem to support a broad interpretation but a narrow one. Everyone agreed with the simple, straightforward text, so the Hans court had no business going off on its own and expanding the reach of the Eleventh Amendment. And a hundred years later the Court just kept pushing a theory it wanted adopted, the text of the amendment be dammed. What’s left after Alden? Congress can pass laws and say they apply to states but can’t permit people to sue them in federal court or require the states to be sued in their own courts? What’s the point? The Court shouldn’t have excluded the avenues for relief Congress provided solely on its own judicially invented concept. That’s the sort of judicial activism those justices supposedly oppose.”     

I waited for anyone else to chime in, knowing they wouldn’t, before setting the class back on track. “Thank you. You stated your position quite well. In fact, I know someone who occupies the office next to mine who would heartily agree with everything you just said. I, however, disagree for all the reasons I previously stated.”

***

As disruptive as Mousey could be, I wish my discussions at home were as reasoned as hers. Thoughtful discourse is a rarity at our dinner table. When I learned Daughter might be reconsidering her decision, I believed I had an obligation to speak, to tell her she might not want to keep Baby. 

“You have multiple options.” That was probably the wrong approach. I should have let her get there on her own instead of suggesting it because any opinions I had, had to be wrong by the very fact that they were mine. 

“I don’t want to hear them. I know I’m going to have it and am going to love it.”

“That might be true if you had it and kept it but you don’t have to.”

“You don’t know what I’m feeling. You can’t. You’ve never been a mother.”

“That’s stating the obvious.”

“I can still do other things.”

“That may be true but you’re going to be making things much, much harder on yourself than they need to be.”

Daughter got to her feet. I stared more than I should have because I wanted to know if others would know her secret already. I couldn’t tell. “You,” she said, shaking her head before she left the room. 

Walking away is never the best way to win an argument.

“But it might be the only way to do what you know is right.”

Had I said my last thought aloud or had Wife read my mind? She remained at the table following Daughter’s departure. 

“They don’t know what’s right,” I said. “They just do what they feel is right. There’s a difference.”

“Right and humans act on both.”

“Do you really think doing whatever you feel like, including unprotected sex and drugs, is the way to go?”

“No, but we’re past that now.”

“You’re the parent. You’re stopped them from doing whatever they felt like when they were Babies, when they were Children.”

“And now they’re not. You can’t parent the same way.”

“I can’t tell them they’re wrong?”

“You can tell them. You can’t make them do what You want them to do or not do. And, in any case, You have to deal with what’s happened, whether You wanted it or not.”

I thought Wife was abdicating her role at the same time she was minimizing mine. I got to my feet and carried my dishes to the dishwasher. She was still seated when I came back for round two. I met her eyes. She met mine. I tried to see if I had the same ability as she after all these years together but I couldn’t read her thoughts.

“All right, we’ll do it your way.”

I didn’t hear her sneak behind me, but there she was when I bent up after placing a second load in the rack.

“Don’t You know I wish I could be like You?” I thought for a moment she meant be successful, but it became clear that was not the case when she continued. “Don’t you know I’d like to get away permanently or temporarily as well?”

I looked at her and thought I could read her better this time.

“Okay, not permanently. But I certainly could use a break from all of you every once in a while.”

***

I’ve known Neighbor’s wife almost as long as I’ve known Neighbor, and his kids as long as they’ve been alive. We don’t live very close to one another and don’t socialize that frequently, but we get together at some faculty or social event two or three times each year. Maybe Neighbor and I have stayed above the fray all around us because we’ve shared so much with one another over the years. Still, I think I have a better understanding of his relationship with his kids than with his wife. 

We share all our kids’ achievements and problems. Lately, it’s been his kids’ achievements and my Kids’ problems. But I know his youngest son is on the autism spectrum, and Neighbor worries about him long term, even when he seems to be faring well at the moment. 

We talk about what our spouses are doing but we don’t tell each other how often we fight or have sex or the types of fights and sex we have with our wives. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing distinguished professors of law should share. Or maybe it’s because that would reveal too much about ourselves, even if couched as revelations about our spouses. 

It seems safer to discuss our children. They just landed at our feet; we had no choice as to the type of humans we’d get. But who knows, maybe Neighbor thinks I’m a bad parent because of what I reveal about Son and Daughter. Or maybe he worries I believe he has bad sperm, given his own son’s challenges.

It used to be safe ground to discuss the law, the profession, and politics. It was like a game of chess, intellectually challenging but ultimately just sport. Not so anymore. Tribalism in society has infected our distinguished law school. Neighbor and I might be the last members of the competing tribes to actually hold pleasant conversations with one another. This works more to my benefit since numerically he has many more affiliates than I.

After the election, I probably erred in telling him I’d noticed the change around us. I certainly did by doing so while he was editing. It was a Friday, so I should have recognized he wouldn’t even have been at the office if he didn’t have serious work to do, but I popped in nonetheless. I guess I needed someone. “I’m starting to feel lonely around here.”

“Why’s that?”  He was typing on his laptop.

“There are fewer and fewer people who will talk to me.”

Neighbor looked up and stared, offering me one last chance to excuse myself. When I didn’t, he said, “Maybe you guys should go back to battling on the basis of the merits of your ideas.”

“What’s that?”

“If Republican ideas are so great, why do they spend so much of their effort trying to limit who can vote and supporting anti-democratic gerrymandering efforts? You would think they would have faith that the majority would support their positions if they were truly superior. It’s because they know that’s not the case that they seek to win elections through other methods. And you wouldn’t think there would be a need to discredit the media or prevent research concerning gun violence if they weren’t afraid of objective reporting and studies.”   

“I’m not a Republican.”

Neighbor chuckled at my response and when I stared with what I considered appropriate seriousness, he broke into loud laughter.  

“Do I really have to ask who you voted for?”

“Just because I’ve voted for them doesn’t make me one.”

“Is that how your conscience stays clean?”

“I mainly voted that way for the judges.”

“And as a result you’ve pretended facts and science don’t matter. That’s not worthy of the profession. You’ve bought it all, Bill, not just the judges.”

Neighbor and I had openly matched wits on numerous occasions in the past, but it had never seemed so personal. This one did and I felt unprepared to continue so I retreated to my office, using Neighbor’s work as an excuse for my abrupt departure. 

Some less secure person might say that was when a lightbulb went off in his head and he abruptly changed course. That’s not me and it wouldn’t be intellectually honest. Fact is, long before Neighbor uncharacteristically spoke to me the way he did, I’d been evaluating my political alignment. The Republican Party has moved further and further away from my belief system─no longer expressing genuine concern about moral leadership, fiscal responsibility, or true foreign threats around the world. 

I’ve been reluctant to switch my affiliation for a couple of reasons. First, I had hope (now fading)  that the Republican elite would re-assert their leadership of the conservative movement. At the same time, I’ve had a fear (growing) that the elite Democrats will lose control to their activist wing and soon no one will represent a true conservative position.   

I wish there were a third choice. That said, I understand that at some point one party can become so intolerable that if there is only one other viable option, you go with that, even if you find its philosophy somewhat repellant.

***

When I arrived on campus the following Monday, I found Neighbor in the hallway outside his office speaking with Mousey. They both waved, then followed me. 

“Bill, this is Megan. She was one of the stars of my class last Spring. She was telling me how much she enjoys your class.”

“She’s probably the only one.”

“That’s not true.” Megan’s tone was different than Mousey’s. In my office, it was lighter, more personable, than the one she displayed in the classroom, which I found to be more than a little strident. “You know how it is. Most of those who disagree with you are afraid if they speak up, they’ll get shot down in front of their peers, and those who agree with you don’t want to appear like they’re sucking up.”

“Those things don’t appear to bother you.”

“I love talking in all my classes.” She pointed out my window. “Out there lots of people try to shut me up, put me down. Here, for the most part, people listen, even when they disagree. Like you. And you and Professor Brennan and just about everyone else here are helping me acquire the skills I’ll need for out there.”

Neighbor looked down at Megan but only because she failed to reach his shoulders in physical stature. “I’m glad we’re helping, but I always think I get as much from my students, especially students like you, as I give to them. Would you mind if I speak to Professor Buckley now?”

After Megan excused herself, Neighbor waited until I’d taken a seat and closed my door. We’re essentially the same age, but he still has a full head of hair. It’s long, wild, and gray. I lost most of mine and cut the rest close enough that it looks shaved from a distance. That said, anyone meeting either of us for the first time probably would peg our age within a year or two. “I want to apologize.”

“No need.”

“Yeah, there is We’ve always been friends first.”

“Still are as far as I’m concerned.”

“Me too. That’s why I came to tell you something, though you’ll have to promise not to share it until the announcement’s made public.”

“Sure.” I expected him to tell me he was taking a position at another law school.

“You’re going to be recognized as the Distinguished Law Professor of the Year. I submitted your name and was given a heads-up.”

I jumped to my feet, and, at the same time, my cell phone rang. I ignored it and allowed it to go to voicemail.

“When did this happen?”

“I learned this morning. I submitted your name after reading your book.”

My office phone rang next and I ignored it as well.

“What will your buddies out there think?”

“Doesn’t matter. To me, great is great.”

I answered my cell when it rang again, figuring I’d just tell one of the members of Family that I’d call back in a bit. A voice I didn’t recognize and whose name I didn’t catch told me I needed to go to the local hospital.

“Because of Son?”

“Yes, but not just him.”

“Daughter too?”

“Yes, but not just her.”

“Who else?”

“Wife.”

“Wife?”

“Yes, she’s been in a car accident.”

Neighbor drove me to the hospital, where I made the rounds. Son had overdosed and was recovering. Daughter had miscarried and was sobbing. Wife had suffered a concussion and was disorienting.

***

As Neighbor had promised, I was soon notified that I’d receive an award for apparently being a distinguished law professor. Upon delivery, I used my momentary standing above even Top Dog to tell Dean I intended to take my sabbatical one semester earlier than had been scheduled. Neighbor told Dean he’d cover my class in the Spring if Dean couldn’t find anyone else. I subsequently told Dean he needed to hire someone.  Because I knew he wouldn’t solely on account of my request or Neighbor’s schedule, I appealed to Dean’s politics.  Like me, he leans towards conservativism. I reminded Dean Neighbor surely would teach a course called The Fourteenth Amendment differently than he or I.  

“And wouldn’t it be better if…”

I didn’t have to finish. Dean knew where I was headed and nodded in agreement. It wasn’t much of a repayment, but I thought it was the least I could do, given Neighbor’s role in getting me the award. 

I chose not to attend the faculty gathering for the gusts at the end of the Fall semester. I was no longer interested in seeing students battle against strong forces and feared such a gathering these days might devolve into a Survivor episode instead of good ol’ fashioned gambling on the abilities and perseverance of our students.

Once the semester ended, I scrapped my plan for traveling and writing during my sabbatical. I realized I’d reached a peak in my professional career and my next advancement needed to occur in other realms.

***

Davis is doing well. He and I both understand addiction much better. It’s a disease he’ll live with the rest of his life, but he now recognizes he wants a life and that to have one he needs to fight. So far he’s battling hard. I think he recognizes if he beats back his foe he will accomplish something far greater than Dad ever did or could.

I think the miscarriage was best for Caryn and that although she won’t say so (at least to Me) she might feel the same way. She’ll be a great mother someday. At the right time with the right partner. And I have no doubt either before, after, or both she will offer the world something with her phenomenal mind I cannot yet comprehend. 

Judy still suffers from post-concussion syndrome. She cries for no reason when she never did even though she had lots of reasons to do so before. She forgets things. She worries. Her doctor tell us she will improve with time, but I wish she would be more specific and wish we saw more progress.

I’m better now too. I know I made mistakes. Lots of them. It was easy to see the errors others made and were making and to tell them how they should correct them, correct themselves. Maybe I didn’t think I was immune, but I didn’t really see mine before. I didn’t want to recognize them; I didn’t want to acknowledge their breadth and scope. Maybe that’s not so unusual. But it is necessary.

Perhaps simply acknowledging all the things one has done wrong is insufficient to warrant distinction. But doing so when appropriate would seem to demonstrate a level of emotional and intellectual honesty that had previously eluded me. I hope it’s a start anyway.

Kevin Finnerty lives in Minneapolis with his wife and a pug named Shakespeare.  His stories have appeared in The Manhattanville Review, Newfound, Portage Magazine, Red Earth Review, The Westchester Review, and other journals.

Legend by Jason Powell

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A month or so before the beginning of summer vacation of my freshman year, the homeroom teachers in my high school addressed the recent gang war problem in the city. It wasn’t so much a gang war, as in guns and knives and death and all that, as it was robberies and muggings of people who were wearing the wrong colors.

The two main gangs were relatively new, but there were so many rumors about them that their popularity grew, and everybody “knew” or was “related to” someone in one of those gangs. Whichever color you preferred determined which gang your family was in. None of us claimed to be in a gang ourselves; you were just cooler if you knew someone who was.

Only one guy claimed to actually be a gang member: Travis Brathwait.

I don’t know how it happened, but in the first few weeks of high school your status was determined. travis was one of the “tough” guys. He gained popularity among the guys and girls who wanted to be associated with him.

As for me, I wasn’t a nerd, but I wasn’t popular either. I had my friends, but I wasn’t on anyone’s cool radar which, for me, was fine.

The only person whose radar I wanted to be on was hers. The beautiful Kimberly. Kimberly something-or-other. Her last name wasn’t  important. To everyone she was just “Kimberly.” 

I’d been trying all year to get her to notice me. I was doing everything from, you know, dropping things that would make a loud noise to, like, coughing and… stuff. But they never worked.

A month or so before the end of the term, I decided to just be direct. Be forward. Be brave. I planned to walk up to her and give her a note. And that was the day that my life, as it had been, was over. The new me was born. The Legend.

Everything went according to plan. I wrote the note on the paper and folded it perfectly so that the “Yes or No” boxes on the bottom were separated by a crease. I got the spot I wanted on the lunch line, two people away from her─this way when she reached the end of the line and made a 180 to go to her seat she would pass me and I could give her the note and keep going in the opposite direction.

I was wearing my new cologne. I had a fresh haircut. Everything was perfect.

Then it wasn’t.

As soon as she finished on the line, I got nervous and I started rethinking things. A voice in my head was screaming abort! abort! My palms were sweaty, and my lunch tray shook so violently my macaroni nearly fell. I shuffled to save it and stepped back and accidently stepped on the foot of the person behind me.

Travis. Brathwait.

Travis freaking Brathwait. Wearing white sneakers. Bought for him, I later learned, as a birthday gift. My heart stopped racing. It stopped completely. The air left the room and the noise quickly followed.

A brown semicircle of dirt covered the toes of Travis’ left foot. I was conscience of everyone’s eyes on me and was a little comforted by that fact. No one kills a guy over a dirty sneaker in front of witnesses, right?

“Travis, man, I’m sorry,”  I said. “My bad.”

Travis looked around. He scanned the cafeteria and then gazed on Kimberly standing amidst a group of girls. They were watching us.

My heart started racing again. I could feel it rising in my throat.

Travis turned back to me. He looked back and forth between my eyes. “Clean it.”

I immediately felt my knees start to bend and the voice in my head started to speak. Just take one of the napkins from your tray and wipe counterclockwise swift and hard and you’ll be done in no time. Then you can live and Travis can leave. But before my mind got the signal to bend a knee my ego spoke up. Are you really gonna get on your knees and clean someone’s shoe in front of Kimberly? 

Time froze. I knew that if I knelt down to clean his shoe Kimberly would never love me. I knew that if I didn’t, Travis would kill me. I knew that it was impossible to clean it from a standing position but that if even it were possible my ego wouldn’t allow that either.

So… I killed myself. “I’m not cleaning that.”

There was movement in the air. I don’t know if anyone actually said anything. I wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the pounding of my heart in my ears anyway.

I had to read Travis’ lips to know what he said in reply. “Clean it now.” 

Pause here for a second.

Keep in mind that this wasn’t the movies. I didn’t say “No” and have him get so taken aback by my bravery that he backed up and made an idle threat and left the cafeteria with two of his goons while everyone else applauded me and patted my back. No, no, this was real life high school and we were both guys with egos. He was gonna see how far this would go.

And, don’t forget that part I told you about the gangs.

I had already decided to die to let Kimberly see my bravery. And I’m good with my words so this was gonna go as far as he took it. “Travis, you and I both know that the only way I’m cleaning them is if I’m taking them home with me. But if I wanted shoes like those I could just have your mom get me a pair too.”

Pause, again.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. You think the part about his mom was too much, don’t you? Maybe but… you know, I  might as well have gone out in style. Right?

And it looked like I did. Travis didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath, put his tray down, and walked out.

Now, don’t be too impressed. Travis still outdid me. He didn’t walk out of the cafeteria. He walked out of the school. It was the 4th out of 8 periods and he just left. You needed permission to leave, and he just walked out.

People were impressed with my bravery but the talk of the cafeteria was his exit.

By the end of 5th period the confrontation had spread across the school. By the end of 6th period rumors of Travis’ gang affiliation had spread too. By the end of the 7th I was sitting in the principal’s office surrounded by concerned adults discussing the situation. They all assured me that rumors are just rumors and that there was nothing to worry about but by the end of 8th period my parents had been notified, a cab had been called to take me home and I was given permission to stay home the following day while they figured things out.

When I got home my parents were waiting to discuss it with me. My dad is a genuine tough guy. He laughed when he heard the situation and told me I should go to school the next day and step on the other sneaker. My mom didn’t approve of that plan but didn’t see any real danger in going back to school either. “People talk,” she said. “Legends are made with words and not often earned.”

So the next day I went back. I got on the subway by my house and made the familiar ride to school. There’s a stop, 6 stops before I get off for school, where most of the kids get on. It took them all about a minute to see me on the train with my backpack and start whispering. One of my friends came up to me and asked me why I was doing this. He told me that I should just stay home and let things blow over. I assured him that there was nothing to worry about and we rode through the last couple of stops in silence.

When I got off the train all the other students let me go up the stairs to the exit before them. I know they were doing it so that if there was anything to see they wouldn’t miss it but it felt good anyway. I felt like royalty, you know? 

The subway was two blocks from school. The block that separated the school from the subway had a bodega, a bagel shop, and a barbershop (The B’s are just a coincidence). When I came out of the subway and looked across the street my heart stopped.

Travis was there. And he wasn’t alone.

Lining the store fronts was a group of guys all wearing the same color. Standing like soldiers facing the curb, lining the curb, was an equal number of guys wearing that color all facing the other dudes. It was a gauntlet.

I could feel the crowd stop behind me. The only sounds were the sounds of the morning traffic. I decided then that I’d be crazy to give up a free day off from school and no one could call me a coward for taking advantage of the system. I turned around to run and get back on the train,  but then I saw her. Kimberly. She was standing there eyeing me with a hint of a smile on her lips. Death.

I turned back around and considered my options. I could run through. If I made it to the school I’d have the teachers and the guards to protect me. Or I could just stand there. A gauntlet only hurts if you go through it. Just when I was leaning towards running I spotted a school guard on the corner of the school block, facing us.

Travis may have been brave but everyone feared the guards. I made a point of noticing the guard and Travis turned around and saw her too. He turned back to my block and glared at me.

I looked at Kimberly who didn’t seem to notice the guard and I saw my opportunity.

I dropped my backpack. Just slid the straps off my shoulders and let it fall to the floor. I rolled up my sleeves and turned my head side to side to loosen my neck. I checked for traffic on the street between my block and Travis’ then I walked across. I walked slow.

Travis stood in the middle of the block, 4 pairs of men down the gauntlet.

I walked past the first pair.

They glanced at Travis and then back at me and did nothing.

I smiled inside. I continued slow enough to look at both of them before I passed them. I approached the second pair.

They glanced at Travis. Did nothing.

I looked at both of them too, turned my head side to side and looked them straight in the eyes.

The third pair. Glance. Nothing.

I could hear the crowd of students crossing the street behind me. I could see the security guard watching. A teacher had joined her.

The fourth pair did nothing.

Now, I was standing beside Travis. I stared back at him and walked slowly past. I turned my head to keep my eyes locked on his. I let it turn until it was parallel with my shoulder than I left his gaze and just looked down. In my head the image said, “I’m not concerned enough about you to turn all the way around. You won’t do a damn thing.”

I passed through the rest of the gauntlet looking straight ahead. When I crossed the street to the school the security guard patted my back and I went inside without looking back.

Travis never came in.

By the end of 6th period that day, the story of the morning had spread and evolved. It started true: I came out of the subway and saw a gang of guys lining the sidewalk.

After that though, things took a bit of a turn. Apparently I had stopped in the middle of the guantlet, tossed my back pack at Travis, punched one of the guys, kicked another, flipped a third, used the 4th as a shield, and, well, I was here and Travis wasn’t so…

By the end of the next week people were impressed with how good a fighter I was. Everyone had seen me beat up those guys.

My story had been retold and reinvented a hundred different ways.

The following year, some new kid in the school had taken offence to something I did but quickly got over it when people told him what I could do to him. I got through four years of high school without fighting ‘cause everyone “knew” I was an awesome fighter.

Truth is Travis probably wouldn’t have needed anyone else to beat me down. But, who am I to complain. In my year book, Kimberly wrote, “Good luck in college. I know you’ll do well. You’re cool.”

So, you see? Everything worked out. Kimberly ‘caused the old me to kill himself, and in the void, a legend was born.

Jason Powell is a New York City Firefighter in the FDNY and an avid people watcher. He spends all of his free time and (some of his work time) writing and reading and eating chocolate covered pretzels.

Music Across the Waters by Larry Yoke

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My name is Zeke. I live in the bayous outside of New Orleans. I am proud of being part of the Cajun Navy─as we were dubbed by the news media. Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coastline with the ferocity of an attacking enemy army with a category four. The winds and rain were devastating to anything that stood in their deadly path.

I’d had a similar experience with Katrina in August of 2005. The memory of that awful time is forever burned into my soul. That’s why I volunteered to take my air boat, along with my best friend, Bovary, and try to do some good for those poor folks in dire need. The U.S. government is slow, as usual, to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.

My partner, Bovary, and I talked about making the trip as a team. He’s been my closest friend as long as I can remember and we shared most of our major life experiences together. We considered ourselves rough-and-tough, battle-hardened men after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and living through Katrina and its aftermath of destruction. Helping others in need was in our blood. We’d want them to do the same for us.

We chipped in together and bought a used airboat where we hunted alligators and boa constrictors. We also earned a meager living by taking tourists out into the swamps and bayous to show them swamp wildlife. We felt we had already experienced everything in our lifetime we could endure until we volunteered to help in the rescue effort during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

We packed up the truck hauling the airboat and drove hard for ten hours. The closer we got to the eye of the storm, the fiercer the wind and rain grew. At times we could barely see out of our windshield. We drove on into the storm, braving its worst. We slowly pulled up to I-45 near downtown Houston to find a large segment of the highway already underwater. The rain was relentless and unforgiving, but Bovary and I had been through many violent storms that made lives miserable and wreaked widespread destruction.

We stopped at the water’s edge, unloaded our boat into the rising waters, and headed toward the towering buildings of the inner city. I looked up in front of us and saw something amazing─water crafts of all kinds and sizes scattered along a two-mile stretch of liquid highway. I peered through the grey, misty vision before me and was transported back to Venice, Italy, where there are no streets, only waterways and boats, the only means of transportation in their water world. Only this was no vacation. People were dying.

We drifted out onto the water to the nearest boat carrying first responders, easily identified by their bright yellow life vests and fireman’s helmets.

“Ahoy there!” I yelled. “What can we do to help? We’re with the Louisiana Cajun Navy effort.”

One of the men in the other boat smiled. “Are you on Facebook or Twitter?”

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

“We’re getting inundated with distress messages from people needing to be rescued. They’re giving their names, addresses and situation. If you go online, you can respond to any one of them that you care to. There are thousands of people begging for help.”

“Thousands?” I asked, incredulous. “All I see are about twenty boats out here. How are we gonna help that many people? Where’s the rest of the country? Where is the God damn government?”

The man shrugged as he loaded supplies into an adjoining boat.

I continued through the biting, wind-driven rain. “I don’t understand. We had plenty of warning about this storm! They sure ‘nuf messed us around during Katrina and many died needlessly. You’d think they would have learned.”

The other boatman flatly stated, “My crazy Cajun friend, you’re preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, this is all we have, so we must do whatever we can to achieve the highest level of good. The longer we chat about this, the less people we can help. This storm is here to destroy lives. We need to go, now.”

I was stunned by his words, but they made sense in the dire situation we were wrestling with. The rain came in sideways, stinging our faces like a high-pressure jet.

“Where can we grab a bite to eat? We rushed down here and forgot to eat.”

The man in the other boat reached behind him into a cooler, grabbed a cloth bag and tossed it into our boat.

“Here are some provisions of water and food that should tide you over for a while. Remember to go onto Facebook and Twitter for updates, and God bless you two for coming. I’m glad to see you’ve brought your foul weather gear.”

We said our goodbyes and drifted away on the movement of the rushing waters. We turned the craft to the right and ventured away from the other boats. The wind and driving rain suddenly dissipated as if a faucet had turned off. 

“We must be in the eye of the monster, Bovary. It will pick up soon enough,” I said. It became eerily quiet except for the sound of the water lapping against the concrete walls of submerged buildings.

I turned on my phone and found the Facebook app. There were countless people begging for help. A lady from Florida uploaded a picture of a room full of elderly people with water up to their chests. One lady was holding onto a walker, one was in a wheelchair, another stood with a sorrowful, pleading expression. I showed it to Bovary.

A recorded voice accompanying the photo said, “The residents at the Gladys Hutchings Elderly Center on Ballard Street are in desperate need of rescuing. Someone please help them before they all die!”

I played the recording again for Bovary and said, “This is where we need to be, old friend.”

We fired up the boat fan and tried to get directions on the GPS but electronics weren’t working so well with all the moisture around and under us. We finally got the directions but not to the exact spot as it normally would. There was no sign of the elderly center when we reached our destination so I turned off the motor and we slowed down to a drift. The neighborhood was completely flooded, with cars barely sticking through the surface of the rising floodwaters. Then I saw something protruding out of the water. It was a street sign: Ballard.

We were on the right street, but didn’t know where the elderly home was, and time was quickly ticking away for those folks in the photo. I wasn’t sure when that shot was taken or how much further the water had risen since.My heart began to race as we drifted along through the houses and buildings.

Bovary must have felt the same pang of fear because he began to yell, “Hello! Can you hear my voice? We’re here to help!”

He yelled the same message over and over but no answer came, only ominous silence. The water was so high, it was covering the names of the businesses on the street, including the one we were seeking. We could have passed it without even realizing it was there.

“Where the hell can they be, Zeke?” Bovary pleaded.

I turned on the fan, moving to the right between two brownstone buildings. Panic grasped my chest, squeezing the breath out of me. I had no clue what to do, but turned off the engine once again to listen. Two minutes that seemed like hours passed. Panic traveled to my throat, making me sick with fear that we’d get there too late. Then I heard it. It was faint at first, then the volume of musical notes coming toward us across the water began to grow.

“Bovary, do you hear what I’m hearing?”

“Sure do. It sounds like some mighty fine piano playing to me.”

“Yeah, some good ‘ol gospel music. It’s coming from that direction.” I steered the airboat toward the music and bumped into the front of the elderly home.

“Zeke, can you believe this? That is the sweetest music I’ve ever heard.”

I yelled this time, “People inside, we’re here to help you! Stay calm and we’ll be right there!”

I steered the boat to a window that had been broken by the pressure of the water against it. Bovary and I cleared the jagged shards clinging to the frame and crawled inside. The front door, more than half submerged, would have been impossible to open. We found the room the music was coming from and were greeted by one of the most surreal and beautiful sights either of us had ever seen─an old man sitting on a piano bench, water up to his waist, plunking away at ivory keys. The residents were taking it all in just like this was a normal day and this fine man was there to entertain them on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Truth was, his playing kept them all calm so they wouldn’t be afraid.

He had a captive audience.

Those lovely people were saved, along with many others. We lost count of the people we rescued over the days and nights traversing the waterways of Houston.

Later, we had the privilege of speaking with the “piano man.” His name was Dexter Brown and he was a long-time resident at the home.

He wanted to personally thank us with a grin. “I had the situation well in hand.”

I laughed and replied, “In hand is an understatement.”

As he extended his right hand to me, I noticed that his left hand, partially covered by a black brace, appeared to be mangled. I asked, “What happened to your hand? Were you injured during the storm?”

Mr. Brown told us his story:

“I was a classically trained pianist living in the slums of New York. I was a natural and had high hopes of getting my mother and me out of the ghetto by becoming a professional performer. I was on that very course when the unthinkable happened. Some of the local boys didn’t like the idea of me being so “uppity” in that lowlife neighborhood and decided to take the thing away that made me different from them, and what I loved the most – my ability to play piano.

“I was walking home one afternoon after practice for an upcoming performance. A few agent scouts would be attending to hear me play. I was well on my way out, but the local thugs had other plans for me. I rounded a corner close to our apartment when the boys jumped me from behind, put a sack over my head and knocked me to the ground.

“One of the boys yelled, ‘Hold him down and lay out his left hand!’ At least three sets of hands forced me, face down, onto the concrete. It was dead quiet for a few moments, until I felt the first hammer strike on my opened left hand, then another, then more rained down upon the muscle, tendons and bones. I heard myself screaming. Just as quickly as it started, it ended, along with my hopes of ever playing the piano professionally. The boys ran off into the night, howling like wolves after a slaughter.”

Bovary and I were speechless. “You haven’t played the piano publicly since that happened to you? That was a long time ago.”

Dexter Brown, grinning from ear to ear, quietly stated, “I never had a reason to until that day. Something came over me. I played like I was giving that lost performance, the one I was scheduled to give so long ago. I’m glad I did. I’m happy you two enjoyed the concert.”

Bovary and I are back home now, happy and sad to have taken part in history. We set out to find people in trouble, and we did─but we also found beauty in tragedy, courage in chaos. Maybe God gave Mr. Brown that ability just for that moment, so he could calm the fear in all the dear, old hearts who attended his long-overdue recital that day.

Larry Yoke has been writing short stories and poems since a child. Now his writing entertains and contains current social messages taken from the pages of today’s headlines. His poetry and books have won national awards in 2018, 2019 and his writings have found their way into several anthologies, three for poetry and one for writers. He has proven his mettle as an established author worthy of reading. His books are found on all the online book stores,  his social media and author sites.

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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“I’m saying it happens, mi hijo. It happens more than people talk about. The news certainly isn’t. What about those planes that crashed after taking off and then they grounded all of them? You don’t hear about them anymore, do you?”

I pinch at the bridge of my nose as my father rattles on, trying to keep a headache─that is turning from a yelp to a bark to a roar─at bay.

My dad perks up and glanced around the cabin of the plane. Flight attendants wander up and down the center aisle, closing the overhead bins as they fill with passengers’ overstuffed carry-ons. They tell the same passengers to fasten their seatbelts and ensure their tray tables and seats are in the secure and upright position. A woman two rows in front of me pushes the call button and demands a bottle of seltzer water. The flight attendant acknowledges her request, but continues her process of preparing the cabin for takeoff.

“Do you know what kind of plane this is? Do you think this is the kind that will crash?”

“Dad, you can’t say stuff like that. Not here.”

I look at the man sitting in the aisle seat across from me. He glances up from his phone. I flash him a meek smile, hoping he will not be alarmed by my father’s comments, but he smiles, then returns to scrolling through the feed on his phone.

“Do you smell lilies?” my father asks as a wave of relief washes over me.

“It’s probably just someone’s perfume.” I sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

“I’ve always loved lilies. When I’m buried, that’s what I want around me. Lilies.”

“Okay, Dad. That won’t be for a while, though.”

My father rummages through the side pockets of his tweet jacket. He does this often now. Random moments of urgency causing searches through his jacket. I wonder if he’s looking for something that might save his life in a moment of need, like a parachute.

Within a flourish, like a knight drawing his sword from its sheath, my father lifts a medical mask from his side jacket pocket. I have seen the same kind mask worn by vulnerable patients in hospitals.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

My father pulls the looped straps of the mask behind his ears. “You know that the air on airplanes cause cancer. See, there’s another thing no one is talking about, but we all know it’s true.” He points at the mask now covering his nose and mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I whisper. I scan the people in earshot of us. “None of that is true.”

My father raises his eyebrows followed by a glare I know well. Without warning─though I know it is coming─my father thwaps me in the back of the head with the palm of his broad hand.

“Miguel, no uses el nombre del Señor en vano.” My dad brings his hands together, allowing only a molecule to keep them apart. He turns his gaze to the ceiling of the airplane, though I know his attention is pressing beyond the confines of the metal tube with wings.

“Por favor, perdona a mi hijo, todavía tengo mucho que enseñarle.” He speaks to God as though he is talking with an old friend.

I feel my stomach twist at the sight. I have come to resent God in recent months, seeing him as a vile and vindictive being. My father, on the other hand, worships him daily. Each morning and night, he will kneel before his bed and give thanks, even the days when it was difficult for him to get out of bed.

My father finishes his prayer, then turns his attention back to me. A look of calm stretches across his face, like he knows that God has already forgiven me, and he has nothing to worry about.

“When are you and Julie giving your mother and I grandbabies, Miguel?” My father’s voice is muffled under his medical mask.

“Probably when God tells us to.” I wonder if he will get the sarcasm in my tone. My guess is no.

“I feel like I am going to die of old age before I become an abuelo.”

I sigh. “Honestly, dad, I don’t even know if I want any.”

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

My phone vibrates against my leg. I might be saved from answering more of the questions both of my parents have been pressing since Julie and I started dating three years ago. I rummage through my pockets, struggling to free my phone trapped between the denim fabric and my thigh. I pull my phone free.

The round face of my mother, radiating with joy illuminates the screen.

I draw in a deep breath before answering. “Hi mom…No, I’m on the plane…No, it hasn’t left yet, but we’re getting ready to take off.”

A flight attendant scans one row of passengers and then the other. I lift my gaze from the back of the seat in front of me and our eyes connect.

“Sir, you need to turn off the phone or switch it to airplane mode,” she says.

I nod. “Mom, I really have to go…No, the flight is only three and a half hours…No, I’m flying out of Philly. They don’t have any flights out of Pittsburg today, I have to go…The funeral isn’t until tomorrow, right?…Okay, so why are you worried about me missing it?…No, mom, I’m sorry, I know you have a lot going on. I—What?…Yeah, I think that would be nice. Dad said he always talked about being surrounded by lilies at his funeral.”

Jacob Schornak is a writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for his undergraduate program, receiving a degree in Professional Writing Studies. Most recently, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Augsburg University. He is kept sane thanks to his wife, Morgan, and dog, Tolkien. When he is not writing, Jacob enjoys traveling the world with his wife, seeing the sites and drinking all the beer.

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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Marta—achingly beautiful, worrisome, and stubborn as hell—refuses to let me drive her to the airport.

“You really should stay off that ankle, John,” she says. “Let it heal properly.”

I accept her disappointingly chaste kiss and settle back into my recliner. Marta wheels her luggage out the front door and over the narrow walk that separates my floor-to-ceiling windows from my lawn. She brings her face to the glass and canopies her eyes with her hands, peering from the muggy darkness into the air-conditioned glow of the living room. She grins affectionately.

Seconds later, we hear the choppy bleat of her taxi. We wave goodbye and she hurries off, leaving a tiny smudge where her nose was.

The next day I’m hobbling around my backyard, picking up dog shit and cooking under the relentless sun, when I come across four broken branches at the base of my favorite tree. My tree is pretty squat compared to the towering palms native to Port St. Lucie, but that’s why I love it. To see that it’s been damaged makes my blood boil.

“Son of a bitch.” I stare up through my tree’s network of robust arms and thick greenery. “God damn neighborhood kids act like they don’t have their own yards to play in…. Hey, Tootsie!” I call to my old bloodhound. “Any kids hiding up there?”

Tootsie trots over, throws her nose heavenward for a casual whiff, then snorts dismissively. Well, that settles it. The girl’s sense of smell has never failed me. If she says there’s no one up there, then there’s no one up there.

I spend the rest of the morning in my recliner, flipping between a few different news channels. Since the T.V. is positioned right in front of the windows, I notice when the mailman comes, when the sprinkler goes on, and even when Kimber walks by in those workout pants that make her ass look good enough to eat. But I don’t stare, and I don’t go out there. I’m faithful to Marta, despite what she thinks.

When I finally limp out front to get the mail, I’m shocked to see muddy footprints on the walk in front of my windows. The prints aren’t completely dried, and in this heat, that means they’ve been there less than five minutes. Who the hell could’ve done this without me seeing them?

There’s not a soul in sight. I even circle around to the back to see if the culprit’s hiding there. Nope. Finally, I hose down the walk and go inside.

When Marta calls, I speculate about the day’s one interesting event.

“Are you sure it was kids? I mean, where the footprints small?” Before I can answer, she says, “I’m booking a return flight.”

“You’ll do no such thing. It’s just little kids causing trouble. I think I can handle it.”

After I hang up, I probe my memories for one that reveals the size of the footprints. I find nothing. I just can’t help but think that if the prints were miniature, I’d remember them clearly.

On Thursday morning, my buddy Joe pulls up behind my garage, whistles his way through my sprawling backyard, and raps on my door. I let him in.

“Still letting Tootsie shit up the whole yard, I see.”

“As long as she goes outside.”

Joe flicks his head toward the door. “Why was that thing locked?”

“Oh, it’s these damn neighborhood kids. Yesterday they got pretty ballsy, messing around on my tree and running in front of my windows even though I was sitting right there. I can’t have those little fuckers coming in here.”

Joe’s mouth twists impishly. “No, you sure can’t.” He tosses some worn bills on the counter.

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

“I can’t sleep, man. If I don’t get some shuteye tonight, I’m gonna kill someone. I just need to get back on track.”

I tousle the money. “You just need to get back on track, huh? You brought enough cash for an ounce.”

My pal chortles and rakes his fingers through his thinning hair.

“Tell you what.” I slide some bills back in his direction. “Let’s start out with a half-ounce.”

“Yeah, okay.” Joe shifts his weight. “Sativa.”

“Nope. All outta stock. But don’t worry; I got something perfect for you.” I pour him some decaf and leave him to sort out his cream and sugar.

I lock myself in my temperature and humidity controlled basement. I fetch some Indica, which is far better suited to induce sleep than what Joe requested. I have no idea why he’s buying again, but his order sounded pretty damn recreational to me. I really hope he’s not off to the Keys for another party week with his twenty-year-old “girlfriend.” Dear Joe is too hopeful to realize that he isn’t so much as a shadow in that girl’s peripheral vision (unless he comes bearing illicit gifts).

Before I go back upstairs, I stuff a little baggie of Sativa in my pocket. I deserve to have a little fun, with Marta gone and all.

After Joe leaves, I roll a joint and settle into my chair. At first, I’m euphoric but alert, piqued by the national news. I keep my eyes peeled for sneaky tots in muddy shoes, but after a few hours, my eyelids drop leadenly. Disgruntled, I float off into a sleep that will no doubt be tainted by the Sativa’s unique influence.

I dream of Marta on top of me… of us walking Toots at dusk… of Marta, mistaking my natural friendliness for me flirting with another woman, throwing every tumbler in my kitchen. The sound of shattering glass bleeds into real life, and I’m startled awake. Tootsie is right at my side, eager to go investigate. She leads me out to the garage and bellows up at the roof.

“Hey,” I shout. “Whoever’s up there better come down right now!” I expect to see two grade school boys with dirty faces and bruised limbs peer over the edge, all sheepish apologies. But then my eyes settle on the garage window. “Welp, girl, we’re too late. They broke the window swinging their legs down, and now they’re long gone.”

Tootsie only bays louder.

“What, you think one ran away and one’s still up there?”

The bloodhound barks her assent.

I step back about ten feet and shield my eyes against the sun, but I still can’t locate any trespassers. I circle the garage, my ankle throbbing. “I really don’t think—”

My dog howls furiously.

Sweat sprouts from every inch of my body as I set up my ladder and gingerly maneuver up its aluminum rungs. When I get to the top, I don’t see anyone. I suppose they could’ve escaped down the other side, but Tootsie would’ve heard them if they did. I sigh and pull myself onto the rough tiles. I work my way to the opposite end of the roof and find that it’s completely deserted.

“I checked everywhere, girl,” I say as I struggle down the ladder. “There’s no one up there.”

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

“Knock it off, Toots. There’s no reason to be acting a fool.”

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

“You don’t believe me, do you? Well, if you wanna stay here all damn day waiting for someone to come down, be my guest.”

Tootsie averts her gaze.

Minutes later, I dip one of my keys into the “sugar” jar and take a bump. No more nagging pain, and no more naps. I really need to catch whoever’s been treating my grounds like their own personal amusement park.

I sit on one stool, put my foot up on another, and lower an icepack onto my ankle. Then something occurs to me. It’s the middle of a school day. And yesterday, when I found the branches and footprints, it was during school hours as well. I’m not so sure anymore that it’s kids tearing up my property. Of course, I know that most adults are at work right now, but I think it’s more likely for grownups to be running around at this time than children. Hell, I’m an adult, and my schedule’s wide open.

I fire up my laptop and scour the local news sites for reports of vandalism in my neighborhood. All I find are bulletins about grocery store produce that’s contaminated with E. coli, human interest stories about local veterans starting their own social groups, and warnings about over-treating dogs for fleas. I scoff. I don’t know if Tootsie’s ever been clear of fleas for more than a week at a time. That’s just how it is down here. I take another bump and fix myself a gin and tonic.

Marta checks in. I tell her about the new developments.

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

“Look, I don’t mean to worry you, honey. Actually, I’m glad you’re not here for all this. God only knows what’s going on. But I need to put an end to it before you get back, so don’t go booking any plane tickets. And don’t worry about Toots. My ankle’s actually feeling a little better, and I’m about to head out there with her water bowl.”

“John, you’re rambling. Are you on something?”

I emit a startled croak.

“I knew it. I just knew that as soon as I left, you’d throw all the positive changes we’ve made right out the window. You promised me we’d party on Saturday nights only, John.”

“Baby, relax, I’m just having a little Bombay and—”

“Oh, I already know exactly what you’re up to. First, it’s ‘just a drink.’ But in a few hours, you’ll be downstairs helping yourself to some pot. Then you’ll be blasting through the coke like there’s no tomorrow. You have no idea what the word ‘moderation’ means.”

I can’t help but laugh. My angry girlfriend’s got the sequence of events all wrong. I’m pretty sure I started out with pot, then I got into the coke, and I brought up the rear with booze.

Marta hangs up.

I stare at my phone incredulously. But I’m not mad. I bring my dog some water, then return to the kitchen and top off my drink with gin and lime juice. Five minutes later, Tootsie’s frantic barking sends me clambering outside. When I get to her, her front paws are up on the back gate. Apparently, someone’s jumped off the far side of the garage. And I can hear them. I can hear their feet pounding across the sunbaked ground behind my property. Yet I see nothing.

I squint in the blazing sun, mouth agape. “What in the fucking fuck?” My words are completely inaudible due to the racket of my bloodhound straining against the fence, sounding off in spectacular fashion.

Eventually, we go back in the house. I clean and oil my favorite guns: an AR-15 (overkill, I know, but you can never be too intimidating) and an HK VP9 (yeah, it pinches sometimes, but that’s only when I forget to mind my grip). I thread the U of the lock back through my gun locker, but I don’t click it shut. I may need quick access to my steel babies.

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

“What happened, man? I thought you were gonna turn in early and make up for lost sleep.”

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

“What? What happened to the half-ounce I gave you?”

“I gave it to Rory. She really needed it for spring break with her friends.”

I laugh. “Joe. It’s late May. Spring break for the college kids was two months ago.”

My pal looks down at the floor.

“Hey, man. Don’t worry about it. Have a seat. I’m pulling an all-nighter in case these fucks come back.”

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

“What do you mean, you didn’t see who was running? Didn’t you say it was still light out when this happened?”

“Yeah, I heard feet hitting the ground, but there was no one there.”

“Hmm.” Joe smirks and plops down on a stool. “Shit, man, I’ll stay up with you. Put my insomnia to good use.”

I get out the Red Bull and vodka, which I’m hoping will play nice with the joint I made using the remains of my baggie from yesterday. Joe and I shoot the shit just like we used to. Tootsie watches over us with judgement in her eyes. When my ankle starts bothering me again, I make us some coffee with plenty of “sugar.”

“I gotta thank you for the coffee this morning, John. I took mine pretty, uh, sweet.”

We erupt into drunken laughter.

“Here I was, making you decaf so you wouldn’t be up all night, but then I went and gave you the ‘sugar’ jar. That fucking jar’s a big joke around here, cuz me and Marta don’t use cane sugar at all.”

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

Joe starts, sloshing some of my special brew down the front of his t-shirt. “Holy shit, They’re here!”

“I told you I wasn’t imagining it, man.” I rush into my room for my pistol, then Joe and I follow Tootsie out into the foreboding night.

She goes straight to the garage and bays with urgency. When I finally get her to shut up, I can hear a rustling coming from inside.

Joe tries the door. “Why’s it locked?”

“You know I got two really nice cars in there, man.”

“Christ, so that’s what all this is about. Someone’s after your cars. I bet they’ve been casing the place all week. Then when you finally coulda caught them, you were so fucked up you couldn’t see straight.”

“I was not fucked up.”

Suddenly, we’re awash in the jolting glare of the house’s floodlights. Joe and I turn to behold my girlfriend swiftly approaching us.

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

“Yup, you sure did. And now I can see exactly why. Just look at you two!” Marta turns her icy gaze to my friend. “Hello, Joe. The kitchen looks like a time machine to five years ago. There’re cans of Red Bull and rolling papers all over the place, and the sugar jar’s damn near empty.” She looks back at me. “God help you, John, if you two had that prepubescent whore and her friends in there.”

“Rory’s a legal adult,” Joe says dumbly.

“Me and Joe were just waiting for the trespassers to come back, honey.” I drop my voice to a whisper, “They’re in the garage right now. Must’ve slithered in through the broken window.”

Without a word, Marta sifts through her keys and unlocks the door. I step in front of her, gun in hand, and flip on the lights. Tootsie nudges past me and bellows up at two raccoons that are cowering in a shelving unit.

Marta turns on her heel and storms back into the house. Inside, I find her standing at the sink with her back toward me.

“Marta, please, baby. There were no girls in here, okay? It was just me and Joe.”

“Just you and Joe, partying so goddamn hard that you got to being paranoid that someone broke into the garage. Who knows if anything you’ve been telling me the last few days is even true.”

“Look, I know the raccoon thing is making this look a certain way, but, Marta, I was sober as a judge when all this started.”

“I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. When Tootsie comes back inside, she can sleep with me. But not you.”

I pass out on the couch until about noon, when I’m jarred awake by the loud crash of the metal garbage cans that I keep in the yard for Tootsie’s poop and my grill ashes. I totter out back as fast as my tender ankle will take me. The cans and their contents are splayed across my manicured grass.

“Son of a—”

The flow of my outrage is stopped by the most bizarre sight. There’s a hole in the shape of a hand in one of the cans. When I touch it, I discover that it’s not a hole at all. The garbage can is perfectly intact, though it’s been stamped with some sort of paint. I inspect my fingers, which, astoundingly, look like they’ve been cut off.

I rush back into the house to show Marta the proof that something crazy really is going on, but I can’t find her anywhere. She probably left before I got up.

I call Joe and we spend forty-five minutes marveling at the handprint and my invisible digits. Tootsie sniffs around diligently. Afternoon rain drives us all back indoors. Joe and I make ourselves drinks and wait at the window, revitalized in our efforts. Now we know exactly what to look out for: branches moving, grass flattening, mysterious “holes,” and footprints that appear as if by magic.

“This is some crazy shit.” The ice in Joe’s glass rattles as he speaks excitedly. “Whoever has access to paint like this means business. They’re probably after every last thing you got. The cars, the drugs, the money. We better get strapped.”

This is when I discover that my HK VP9, as well as all my other guns, are gone.

“You think maybe Marta hid them?” Joe asks. “As a revenge thing? She sure was angry last night.”

“Marta hates guns and wouldn’t touch one, let alone move them all. No, it’s obvious that those invisible fucks were in here.” I kick my dresser. “God damn it. God damn it. They know I can’t go to the police.”

“Hey, man. I’ll go back to my place and get my gun. It’s just an old rifle, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Barely,” I quip, but I guess he’s right.

I spend the next half hour spooked that now—when I’m totally alone and unarmed—is the time they’ll strike, using my own firepower against me. I nearly jump out of my skin when the doorbell rings. I peek out the window and see a man who’s a little older than I am waiting patiently.

Tootsie’s going ballistic, so I put her in my bedroom. I open the front door, and when the man moves, I can tell that he’s carrying something in his hand. It’s clearly been painted with the same substance that I’d found on the garbage can. It has an iridescent sheen that gives away its shape: a long duffle bag.

“Hello, sir.” The stranger shakes my hand. “Name’s Jasper Wade. I believe I have something that belongs to you.”

I step aside and allow Jasper in. He lowers his burden to the floor, and a metallic thud reveals what the bag contains.

“My guns.”

“Yep. You really should keep them locked up.”

“I usually do, but… I needed to be able to get at them quickly. There’s been a prowler around here. Actually, I think it’s two prowlers working together.”

“It’s a group.” Jasper sighs wearily, takes a wide stance, and crosses his arms. “I got home early from work just now and found ’em all in my bathrooms, trying to get cleaned up so I wouldn’t know they were in my equipment again.”

“They’ve been in your house, too? Multiple times? What equipment? You say there’re more than two.”

“It’s my son and his friends. They use my cloaking spray for their little hide-and-seek games. Too bad one of ’em was dumb enough to bring the spray can out for touch-ups, then didn’t wait for it to dry…. He’s the genius that made a telltale mess on your trashcan. Yeah, they told me the whole story. It was like they were proud. God damn millennials, man. They live at home, they don’t have jobs, and before you know it, they’re criminals and they can’t even admit it to themselves.” Jasper looks at me like we’re old buddies. “They wanna feel like soldiers, you know? Dangerous and stealth. They wanna play at being hot shit, like me and the other dads were, but they don’t wanna actually enlist. Don’t wanna serve their country. They just wanna waltz into people’s homes and steal shit.”

“What do you mean, hot shit like you and the other dads?”

“We’re vets. Went on tour and lived to tell about it,” Jasper explains. “We started a group, you know, so we can stay connected. We do stuff to improve the community. We have barbeques where all our families get together. But I’ll be honest: Those barbeques are the worst thing we ever did. My son became fast friends with the other guys’ sons, and this is what the fuckers decide to do with their time.”

“So you have spray that… makes things invisible?”

“Not invisible. But damn near. They call it ‘cloaked.’ It bends the light around you or something like that. I don’t know. It’s a whole thing.”

“Interesting.” I couldn’t care less about Jasper’s delinquent son and what the kid’s put me through the last few days. Instead, my mind races with the opportunities that I could create for myself if I had cloaking spray. “Well, thanks for bringing my guns back, man. A lot of people wouldn’t’ve done that. The least I can do is set you up with a cold one.”

“Well, it’s a little early for that, but hell, why not? It’s been a rough day.”

Jasper and I sit at the island with frosty bottles of beer. I won’t offer him a joint or my special brew until we know each other a little better.

When Joe bangs through the back door, I’m surprised that I’d left it unlocked. Jasper doesn’t bat an eye at the tired rifle in Joe’s hands. I can tell that we’re all gonna be good, good friends.

The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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The suicide bomber stood next to me on the tube. My day got worse from there.

Maybe my tuxedo represented the worst excesses of Western civilisation and I was therefore a symbolic person to die first. Perhaps he thought I was a rich banker creaming in millions in commissions from the derivatives market. In truth, the tuxedo was hired because I couldn’t afford to buy one and rather than being a coke-snorting London banker, I am (was) an underperforming bed salesman from Crewe.

I would have told him this, had he asked. I would have explained that I was on the way to the Bedlam! annual sales awards, where I planned to down as much free booze as possible whilst ogling Melissa’s (from Accounts Payable) cleavage, before watching Dave, from the Swindon branch, take Salesman of the Year for the fourth year running.

I didn´t tell him because he detonated his bomb fifteen inches from my nuts. I was atomised instantly, along with any chance of getting my gums around Melissa’s boobs. My DNA was smeared across two carriages, several tube maps and, ironically, a poster advertising male wellbeing vitamins.

It doesn’t hurt when you die, at least not in the ´stubbing your toe´ sense. In comparison, being blown up is like a paper cut, at worst.

The best way I can describe it is this: imagine you are a helium balloon, being held by a child. That child is life, always anchoring you but you are always trying to fly away, curious and ever pulling upward. Now, imagine the child lets go and you are no longer tethered. That feeling of acceleration is immense as a new sense of freedom courses through your body. You can see more than you’ve ever seen before, the sheer scale of the universe.

Then you realise that you quite liked the security of being tethered and the wave of exhilaration is replaced by fear as you watch the child getting smaller. You realise you have no control over your direction.  Then, you just pop.

The afterlife is, I’ll admit, a little fucking underwhelming. Whilst I never really went for cherubic angels and pearly gates, I did harbour a faint hope of something better than where I now find myself.

I’m sat in some sort of hospital waiting room but without the coughing and the tired, murderous looking junior doctors.  The walls are covered with wood chip wallpaper and posters of a bearded man with blinding white veneers, complete with photo-shopped sparkles, grinning and pointing toward the camera.

The text underneath reads, “Jesus wants You!” Horrific lift music is being piped in through a speaker that I can’t see.

The room is busy, but no one seems to be in any pain, including myself. I’m still wearing my tuxedo and seem to be in one piece with no obvious bits of metal sticking out of me or blobs of other people stuck to me. A quick fondler in the trouser pocket of the tuxedo tells me my nuts are still in place.

There are a couple of familiar faces from the tube. I recall a young Chinese couple who were watching something on his phone and giggling at each other when the bomb went off. I only see him now, and he looks lost without his phone.

I consider for a moment that I might not be dead and miraculously survived the blast. Then I see a man walk toward me wearing jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. Actually, walk is the wrong word. He glides and as I look at his feet I see why.

He doesn’t have any.

Instead he has a couple of stumps – but these are not like Viet-fuckin’-nam stumps as if there were once feet there suddenly removed by a landmine. No, these stumps look like the feet were never there. He has feet like an upside-down skittle. 

That’s not even the strangest thing about him; he has a four-inch hole in his forehead and as he glides over to me I see right through his head to a smiling Jesus poster on the other side. He sees me looking at his hole.

“Gunshot. Self-inflicted. I was having a bad day.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, unable to take my eyes from where his frontal lobe should be.

“Where am I?” I ask.

He makes a note on his clipboard and smiles. “Well, the good news is, not in Hell.”

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

The muzak pipes over the tannoy and I´m actually relived. “So…where am I?”

“You’re in purgatory,” he says, before picking at the fringes of a loose flap of skin on the hole in his head.  “God, it’s so itchy.

Suddenly, a majestic and celestial voice booms over the tannoy, filling not just the room but my head. “It’s your own fault for pulling the trigger. And don’t blaspheme me.”

Iron Maiden boy looks up to the polystyrene tiled and strip-lighted ceiling and mouths Sorry before turning back to me and offers his hand. “I’m Alan. I’ll be your case worker.”

Now, I’ve never been dead before but I remember well as a twelve year old, stood at my Grandmother’s open casket and not being able to resist the temptation to prod her face gently. I think I wanted to check she was dead, or whether she would simply turn her head toward me, give me a toothless smile and say, “Hello love, gis your Nanna a nithe kith.” Instead she just lays there whilst I gently prodded at her cheek. Her clammy and doughy skin felt very much like Alan’s hand.

A naked, middle-aged man with damp hair stands at the reception desk and is directed to one of the plastic chairs. He shuffles over, dripping water on to the faded lino and sits down. I watch him as he starts scratching at his saggy balls, which appear to be sticking to the plastic. He looks confused.

Alan sees me looking at him and checks his clipboard. “Shower. Heart attack. Always confuses them. They take a long time to adjust. It’s the sudden change, you see? Five minutes ago he was cracking one off in the shower. He’s a straightforward case though.”

“Straightforward?”

“He’ll be going down.” Alan flips through his clipboard. “Let’s see. Oh yeah, he worked for a charity that helped child victims of war and removed land mines from Angola. I mean, he was guaranteed a place in Heaven, until he started stealing the donations to fund his prostitution habit. Such a shame. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.”

“Or the head!” The majestic voice laughs over the tannoy.

Alan ignores the quip.

“If it’s so straightforward, why is he here?” I ask, not unreasonably, and now starting to wonder what Alan might have on me.

Alan smiles. “It’s just my opinion, having read the file. Sorry, I should have explained. The people here are what we call The Undecided.”

“The Undecided?”

“Yeah. See most people, when they die, there’s a fairly obvious destination.” Alan signals to the ceiling and then the floor with his pencil.

“So I’m Undecided?” I ask, naively as it turns out.

“No,” Alan laughs, before pointing at one of the Jesus posters, but He is. Everyone gets a case worker here. I’m yours.”

Suddenly, Melissa from accounts’ cleavage feels a long way away. “I’m dead though, right?”

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

“I’m not a time machine. You should have gotten a different tube. By the way, I thought you might like to know that Dave did win Salesman of the Year and shagged Melissa in the cloakroom to celebrate.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better.”

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

“Yep. Died yesterday. You’re my first case.”

It’s then that I notice the small badge pinned to his Iron Maiden 1990 No Prayer on the Road Tour t-shirt. It resembles the badge a McDonald’s worker wears but instead of stars it has space for five Dove badges. Alan has none. Great, I´ve got the new boy. I slump into the chair behind me.

Saggy Balls man is approached by a smiling nubile brunette dressed in a short cocktail dress. She’s stunning, other than the rope-mark around her neck.

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

“Yeah. She’s been here a while now. Killed herself over a boyfriend in the nineties. She’s pretty isn’t she?”

I nod and decide that God doesn’t like me very much.

“Alan,” I say. “This is all a bit overwhelming. Why do I need a caseworker?”

He sits next to me. “All of the Undecided are appointed one. It is what it says on the tin really. God hasn’t decided if you’ve been good enough to share eternity with Him.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “I’m a bed salesman from Crewe. I’ve got a mortgage and I drive a Fiat. I’ve never murdered anyone.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“Bloody hell,” I continue, “the last fight I had was at thirteen!”

Alan checks his clipboard. “Neil Sanders. Yep, we made a note of that one at the time. You punched him first.”

“He stole my Gary Lineker sticker for his Panini album.”

“He did, and he got marked down for it, but he’ll be okay, he donates blood platelets every month.”

“How is that fair for Christ’s sake? I only needed Lineker and Terry Butcher for the entire album!”

The celestial voice booms out from the tannoy directly into my head. “Do not blaspheme me. It won’t help your case. Besides, our records show you were also missing Bryan Robson and Steve Hodge.”

I suddenly wish I’d kicked Neil Sanders hard in the bollocks, screaming Donate this, you Lineker-stealing shit head.

“I pray though,” I shout out at the invisible tannoy.

The tannoy responds. “Praying for a Millenium Falcon or a blow job from Samantha Lewis are not what I want filling my inbox.”

Saggy Ball man and his nubile case worker look over with disapproval. I ignore them. “Yeah, well, me and every other kid in that school would have sent the same prayer but whatever. What about my donations? I give to Cancer Research. Check it, it should be there.”

Alan doesn’t look at his clipboard but instead takes a plastic seat next to me. “Look mate. Don’t waste your energy trying to argue the point.”

“But I have a standing order.”

“Yes,” Alan says. “You donate two quid a month.” He scrolls down his clipboard. “And in the last six months of your life you told thirty nine different charity street collectors that you already had a standing order set up for their specific charity.”

I slump a little lower. “It’s been a slow year in bed sale-“

Alan holds a finger up to silence me. “In the last year alone you also walked past three hundred and eleven homeless people, contributing a grand total of fourteen pence to one beggar’s cup because you were drunk and it was snowing. However, you faked being on the phone an impressive two hundred and thirty eight times.”

My mouth moves but no words come out and Alan continues.

“In 1989, you told Alison Ramage that your Nan had died so that she would sleep with you.”

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

“There’s a statute of limitations on these things,” Alan says, offering me a glimpse of a Jesus poster through the portal of his gunshot wound.

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

“We know,” booms the tannoy. “We were watching.”

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

“Yes. And I’m listening sunshine,” booms the tannoy

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

He puts a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been undone by the little things,” he says. “But don’t feel bad. Look around you. This is how busy it is every day. Most people think it’s the big ticket items that make the most difference but it’s the small stuff He sweats about. He likes consistency rather than grand gestures and the thing is, you’ve been consistently underperforming.”

“A bit like your sales figures,” The celestial voice laughs over the tannoy.

I try to ignore it but end up shouting at the speaker, “It’d be nice if someone was on my side!”

“I’m on your side, Alan says. What you’ve got to realise is that for every billionaire philanthropist that suddenly decides to give a shit ton of money to Africa when they get diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer there’s a beggar sharing his Pret soup with another. Who would you rather spend eternity with?”

“So I’m stuck here?”

“No. It’s not all bad. In fact, if it was all bad, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be down there with the nail bomber that took you out, having your nuts roasted like marshmallows on a stick. I’m not even joking man, they do that. You’re teetering on the edge though.”

“And what about you?” I ask, “I mean, why are you here?”

Alan looks genuinely surprised by this. “Me? I…I’m on a trial.”

“What sort of trial?”

“Suicides are a special case,” he says. “We automatically come here, regardless of what we’ve done on Earth. I could have been the Pope but as soon as I pulled the trigger on myself, the score was reset to zero. Basically, I have to earn my way back into His good books by processing the Undecided. He really has a thing for people who waste of a life.”

“I thought you said the bomber was in Hell. Surely he should be here?”

“Murder trumps suicide. Says it on page six fifty-three of the handbook”

My shoulders sag a little. “How long are you here for?” I ask.

He taps his badge on his chest. “Until I get my Doves.”

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

A deep sob pierces the room and I realise it’s coming from Saggy Balls man who has his face buried in Cocktail Dress girls shoulder. She looks across at Alan with a sad face and draws an imaginary knife across her throat.

“Oh dear,” Alan says. “She’s just told him the bad news.”

I watch Cocktail dress girl take hold of Saggy Ball man’s hand and lead him to a door on the far side of the room. He drips shower water on to the floor behind him and leaves footprints on the floor that fade quickly.

It’s a dark green wooden door with a silver knob, shaped like a crow’s head. She knocks twice on it and it swings in-wards, revealing a burning pool of lava and a cacophony of screams, male and female. Cocktail Dress pats him on the shoulder just as a large veiny hand, bubbling under the skin with fire, reaches through the door and skewers his balls with sharp talons before yanking him through to the underworld. There is a bone-snapping scream, cut off as the door slams.

I turn to Alan and say, “We should work on my case.”

At that moment, there is a pling-plong on the tannoy and a soft, mesmerising female voice calls Alan to the blue door.

I can’t see a blue door but then realise the green door has now changed colour.

“Come on,” says Alan. “It’s your turn.”

“Fuck off,” I say, my balls retracting. “Heaven or not, there’s no way I’m going in there.”

“Don’t worry.” Alan glides over to the door. I find myself gliding right behind him, pulled by an invisible force, and it occurs to me that if I could have moved this smoothly on a dance floor in my teens, I might not have had to tell Alison Ramage my Nan had died just to get laid.

We reach the, now blue, door and Alan gives a gentle knock. Again it swings inward but rather than eternal fire and ball-grabbing talons, the door opens to a public park. We glide through.

It’s a hot summer’s day and joggers pound the pavement. Kids are stripped to their waist and splash in the stream. In the distance I can hear the retreating siren of an ice cream van and the air is filled with the smell of hot dogs.

Alan points to a wooden bench underneath the burnt orange of a Japanese maple tree. A woman is sat there. Even from thirty feet away I can see that she’s achingly beautiful.  She’s looking at me and I find her gaze the most excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me. She smiles and beckons me over.

“Come on,” says Alan. “I’ll introduce you.”

We glide over the grass. Either the rest of the world can’t see me, or they think it’s perfectly normal for a man in a tuxedo to glide two feet in the air with skittles for feet.

As we approach the woman, I become utterly transfixed. She has short blond hair and high cheek bones that just encourage you to look at her eyes which change colour, flitting between pools of deep green and grey. She is wearing a halter-neck top that plunges to the valley of her breasts, which glisten in the sun with damp. My mouth is dry.

She smiles at me, and for the briefest of moments I think I am in Heaven. I think that God recognises the anguish and torment of a thirteen year old boy having his Gary Lineker sticker stolen, has let me in to Heaven and that this beautiful woman is my reward for a career dedicated to helping people sleep in top of the range orthopaedic mattresses with in-built memory gel.

Then Alan speaks with a shaky voice. “Miss Fer. You look…different.”

“Hello Alan,” she says. “You’re still on my list, in case you were wondering.”

She turns to me and says, “You can call me Lucy.”

When she speaks to me, it’s like a nest of ants have burrowed inside my head and are eating away at my brain. I keel over in agony but my gaze is drawn to her as her eyes turn to fire and visions of most unimaginable suffering and torment. Her lips part and her tongue is forked like a snake and covered in pustules which ooze yellow fluid onto the grass.

She kneels next to me. I can feel her snake tongue lapping at my ear, as she hisses “I’ve got a special place just for you.”

“Lucy. He’s not yours yet,” Alan says.

She snaps her attention to him but he stands firm, hole in his head and all. “Boss’s orders. It says so right here.” He taps his clipboard.

Lucy smiles and her tongue retracts and the deep fire in her eyes returns to a more placid green. She shrugs and retakes her seat on the bench, and she becomes again a beautiful young woman.

I vomit on the grass.

“Who are you?” I croak, wiping away sick with my tuxedo, relieved that although I might face an eternity in hell, I won’t face a dry-cleaning bill.

“Not someone you want to spend an eternity with,” says Alan.

“Alan, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” Lucy says

Alan smiles nervously at me. “This is…well…you know who this is don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

Alan checks his clipboard. “When I said you were teetering on the edge I meant it. You really were a selfish arse as an adult and it’s only your time in the Boy Scouts and the few charity runs that you did in your twenties that’s saved you. The fact is that JC and Lucy here can’t decide which way you should go. So you get a choice.”

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

Lucy throws back her head in laughter and the veins on her neck bulge and pulse. I realise they aren’t veins, they are worms and they are moving around inside her throat. Then the sky darkens, the children playing in the water disappear and the music from the ice cream van stops. She roars, but her voice is male and full of menace “That’s not the choice boy.”

“She’s right,” says Alan as the sky lightens and the children return to splashing in the water. Fear comes at me from all sides, like a pack of wild dogs circling a limping gazelle.

“The choice is this,” Alan says. “Either, we can flip a coin. Heads you go up. Tails you go with Lucy here. Fifty-fifty.”

“What do you say,” Lucy whispers into my ear. “Wanna take a chance on me?”

I read somewhere that a mathematician from some university had proved that a coin toss is not actually a fifty-fifty chance. That due to the embossed head there is a greater probability of landing on heads, per one thousand throws. I’m mildly encouraged by this, until I recall the image of the hand appearing from behind the green door and grabbing Saggy Balls by his saggy balls and my faith in science and probability retracts along with my testicles.

“Or you can go back for another chance,” Alan interrupts my thoughts.

“I thought you said I couldn’t go back?”

“You can’t. Not as yourself. There’s CCTV footage of you on the tube just before you blow up. Would be a bit of a tricky one to explain away.” Alan says.

I wonder if I could go back as Gary Lineker in his eighties prime.

The celestial voice booms, this time from the trunk of the maple tree. “No. You can’t.”

Alan says, “We originally had you slated for a brain tumour at fifty-three so technically, you’re twelve years early.”

“Great” I say, “I’m really glad I saved extra for my pension.”

Alan just shrugs. “It’s an aggressive brain tumour though. It’ll get you within a few weeks. If you go back, you’ll have twelve years before we see you again but you’ll have to tread carefully. Now you know what’s in store, the bar has been raised for you, so you’ll have to be extraordinarily good.”

“I can do that,” I say. “Make me a priest or something and I’ll pray every day, or maybe I could be a missionary in Africa. I’ve always wanted to travel a bit.”

“Over to you Lucy,” booms the maple tree.

Lucy smiles at me. “I choose. Call it a perk of the job. I’ll see you soon.” Suddenly I am floating upward, like a helium balloon that has been detached from its child owner. I watch Alan and Lucy get smaller before a searing pain stabs my abdomen and darkness takes me.

When I come to, my bones ache with cold and my skin itches with sores. I put my hands to my face and feel a full beard. The fire of hunger burns from within me, but I smile because I’m alive. I feel something running down my cheek and I realise it’s a tear. The only tear ever produced with equal parts happiness and fear.

I pull back the cardboard blanket that covers me and look at my feet. To my relief, they are both there again, and I wiggle the toes that stick out through my battered trainers.

Across the road is the entrance to the park and through the gates I can see Lucy and Alan sat on the park bench, watching me. Lucy waves and blows me a kiss. I give her the finger and Alan laughs. Then they are gone.

The city comes alive with commuters and for a while, I sit in awe at humanity and ignore the hunger and cold that consumes me. A few passers-by throw a few coins into my coffee cup and I mutter a few thank you’s but mostly I just people watch.

I see a face I recognise walking down the street. It’s Dave, Salesman of the Year, from the Swindon branch. He’s dressed in a good suit and looks like he’s had his greying hair dyed but it’s definitely him. He walks with the smugness of someone who nailed Melissa from Accounts in the cloakroom.

As he approaches I see him look at his phone to avoid eye contact, the same move I’d pulled hundreds of times.

He’s a few feet away when I look up and say, “Spare any loose change, Sir?”

He sneers at me and then gobs at my feet. “Get a fucking life, loser.”

He walks off and I smile but say, “Have a great day anyway. And remember, it’s the little things.”

He glances back at me with a look of confusion before smirking and walking away.

He can’t see her, but walking next to him is Lucy.

She looks back at me and winks. I smile back, shaking my head and then go back to watching strangers.

Darren Whitehouse writes short stories as a coping mechanism for the guilt he feels about the novel he is still yet to finish.  He is interested in stories that tap into the darker and less understood areas of human life but tries to do so with a pinch of humour. Most of his ideas come from browsing the news although sometimes they appear in bowls of cereal or jars of peanut butter – usually when he doesn’t have a pen handy.  He lives in Buxton, Derbyshire.

2019 Writing Competition Winning Stories

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Me First Magazine would like to present the winning stories of the 2019 annual writing competition. They were all judged on technical skills, originality, characterization, world building, and plot. All have undergone editing since being entered and so have been improved upon their previously judged submissions.

FIRST PLACE:

Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Pizza by Ronald C. Milburn

“What’s playing at the drive-in theater tonight?” Butch asked.

Though Butch was fifteen and two years older than me, I was the de facto leader of our five-member troop. Inside I was nervous and anxious, but they didn’t know it. My friends looked up to me, so I played the part.

Like me, the other three boys were thirteen. We’d been neighbors for as long as I could remember. But the summer of 1967, the start of my teenage years, would be the most memorable.

Einstein answered Butch’s question, “Cool Hand Luke is the film tonight.”

Einstein was Butch’s younger brother. Though Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the room, his sibling offered even lower wattage. It made no matter; he was one of us. Proximity, not intellect, was the sole condition for membership in our neighborhood gang.

“It’s playing again?” Marshall, my twin brother, complained.

Our father, a World War II veteran, named us after two famous generals. Dad named me after George Patton, and my twin after George Marshall. Since we both had the same first name, George, everyone called us by our middle names. But when our parents shouted for George, it meant they wanted either or both of us.

We’d enjoyed the show the six previous nights. The scantily clad girl washing her car on the big screen grabbed our attention as it did for the ogling convicts. But even good things grow tiresome. We’d memorized many of the lines and repeated them in the afternoons while awaiting the next viewing.

For my entire life, there had been a verbal pact to allow the neighborhood children free admission into the drive-in. It was a concession, so our parents wouldn’t complain of the parade of honking cars and squealing tires leaving the drive-in

.

Two years before, the outdoor theater hired a new manager. He was unaware of the agreement and erupted when we entered without paying. When he told us to leave, we returned home upset.

A sympathetic neighbor aimed a spotlight at the screen and erased John Wayne from the movie Eldorado. Within a few minutes, as the horns blared, the negotiations concluded, and, he welcomed us back. The converted manager even provided free popcorn for his new friends. 

So almost every summer evening, we tom cats wandered toward the projected images. As we lounged on my porch and awaited dusk, I tore a cola cup into a single strip and twisted it.

“These make long fuses,” I said.

I’d ripped it like peeling an apple and made one piece of wax-coated paper. The cup came from our lawn where exiting moviegoers had tossed it.

“So, what?” Angel asked.

“Well, I figure it’ll take about twenty minutes for this to burn. So, if we tie it to a firecracker, we’ll have plenty of time to leave before it explodes.”

Four interested boys watched me twist the wax strip to a whole pack.

“Come to the drive-in, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

As I stuffed the mini bomb in my pocket, the other guys rose to follow.

Angel whined, “I don’t like this. Remember what happened last year?”

He was referring to the incident the previous summer when I threw a firecracker into the women’s restroom. The security officer saw our failed escape after the explosion. Even though it was our first offense, the unforgiving guard suspended us a whole month.

Worse, he made us sit in his office for three hours uncertain of our fate. My anxiety during the silent wait was nerve racking as he stared at us through those mirrored sunglasses. Then after midnight, he instructed us to call home. Our disheveled fathers arose from comfortable beds to retrieve their wayward sons. I know my punishment was worse because of the late hour. I decided the watchman was a sadist who enjoyed maximizing my sorrow.

When we got home, Mom was furious and grounded us. She would have been more upset, but we had co-conspirators. Since she suffered the humiliation along with the other mothers in the neighborhood, she survived the embarrassment.

The thirty days of punishment was the longest sentence of my young life. A prisoner awaiting release, I checked the days off the calendar on our kitchen wall. Evenings during our house arrest, my brother and I sat on our front porch and stared at the distant, soundless movie. My disdain for the bellicose guard intensified each time he drove along the back row of cars with his want-to-be-a-cop, blinking light. As we plotted ways to retaliate, I exclaimed his triumph was a temporary setback, and I’d make him pay.

“But,” I explained to Angel, “We’ll have twenty minutes to get away.”

“They’ll know it’s us because we did it before,” Angel said.

 “Relax, I won’t throw it in the ladies’ room. I’ve got a better idea—we’ll get the blasted guard.”

The watchman was a towering, sturdy man with dry-roasted skin and a distinct limp. His lazy eye wandered without his control, so he almost always wore mirrored sunglasses. He carried a police flashlight in the leg-pocket of his cargo pants which he shined in my face often.

The guard’s primary job was to prevent people from entering the exit, but he patrolled the entire perimeter in his former police car. Since the firecracker incident, we were his prime suspects for any misdeed he couldn’t attribute to anyone else. His suspicions were most often correct, but to his frustration, he couldn’t prove them.

It was my second summer as his public enemy number one, and my friends were, in his opinion, my accomplices. My opponent always tried to keep me in his sight, but his hovering didn’t prevent me from misbehaving. Instead, he made me more feline cautious. The unwitting sentry honed my cunning skills the way a coach might condition an athlete. As I hoofed toward the drive-in, everyone followed, and Angel whimpered.

He said, “It’s nuts. You’re crazy.”

We called him Angel because he was always the first to confess if caught in one of our offenses. 

We ambled along the asphalt road, which was the last street in our town. Our homes were on one side, and a farmer’s field and the drive-in movie were on the other. We slipped into the cornfield to enter the rear of the outdoor theater.

Once inside, we bought candy at the snack bar then settled on a park bench out front. My clique watched Luke eat hard-boiled eggs as other inmates in the penal farm shouted encouragement. My mind wandered from the film to my detestable foe.

For a while, I struggled between my dislike for the sentry and my fear of being caught. In elementary school, I’d been the model student who got the citizenship award most years. But the summer before junior high, something changed. My yearning to satisfy myself conflicted with my wish to please others. The internal, moral quandary tipped as I watched the security officer light a cigarette. The flickering flame reflecting from his sunglasses stirred my anger—a reminder of the long wait in his office last summer.

I exclaimed, “It’s revenge time.”

“You’re still doing this?” Angel whined.

“Yes, sir.”

“Not me!”

“Who cares,” I replied.

I stood, and everyone but Angel rose to follow. Then, Einstein dropped back onto the bench. “Lose your nerve?”

He shrugged.

“Fine.”

With one less coconspirator to cumber me, I left the cowering behind and strolled toward the despised guard. Marshall and Butch joined me as I crouched beside a ’57 Chevy.

“He’s over there,” I whispered.

A rustling came from inside the Chevrolet, and Butch bolted. The stranger removed the speaker from his window glass and placed it on the pole. I put my finger across my lips and made a shhhh sound but was too late.

The door flew open, and the man hovered over us while shining a flashlight in my eyes.

“What are you doing?”

Startled, I fell backward and knocked Marshall onto the gravel. Blinded by the light, I couldn’t see him.

“Ah, hah! Hubcap thieves.”

His baritone accusation terrified me. I suspected rather than call my parents, he’d deliver his painful punishment himself, so I held my arms up to protect myself.

“No, sir. We’re not touching your car.”

He said, “Wait, a minute. I know you. You’re Perky’s little brother.”

Perky was my older brother, a former center on the high school football team. Then, he shined the beam on Marshall.

He cried, “My Gosh, there’s two of you.”

As he scanned Marshall, I could see his face and rust-colored hair. It was Red, the high school quarterback.

“Twins,” I replied.

“Hey, we’re not bothering you, Red. We’re playing a trick on him.”

He followed my pointing finger, and his mannerisms relaxed.

Wow, you two are just alike. I didn’t know Perky had twin brothers.”

Red lowered his head into the driver’s window.

“Look, guys. It’s Perky’s little brother, and there’s two of him.”

Accustomed to the ritual, Marshall and I raised so his friends could marvel at our similarity. Red laughed and slapped my back.

“I’ll never be able to tell you apart.”

“You can call us both, George.”

Red grinned. Marshall nodded his agreement as he forced a smile.

Then Red asked, “So, what’s your prank against Boss Sam?”

“Who?”

Red nodded toward the watchman’s car.

“His name is Sam, but he reminds me of one of the chain gang bosses in the movie.”

Red aimed his finger at the thirty-foot tall image.

“See.”

“So, he does,” Marshal replied.

 “Look at this.” I lifted the firecracker with the eighteen-inch fuse.

 “I’ll put this into the ole buzzard’s exhaust, and it’ll take twenty minutes to detonate.”

Red bent to get a closer look.

“Neat.”

“Perfect, huh?”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. You two Georges wait here while I use the payphone.”

We waited with angst for Red to return. On the screen, prisoner Luke was digging a ditch. As Red returned, Luke was filling it.

Red said, “I called the Frosty Mug and talked to Wendy. She’s a carhop. I told her to spread the word so everyone could get in for free, but they’d have to enter the exit when they heard the firecrackers explode.”

Red pointed to Marshall.

 “As he’s putting the fireworks in the tailpipe, you let the air out of a tire.”

“Why?” Marshall asked.

“So he can’t chase you, man.”

Red grinned as he reached into his back pocket and removed a handkerchief.

 “Stuff this inside the exhaust, so it’ll explode louder. This will be great, and I’ve got a front-row seat. Now get going, Bubs.”

“Wish us luck.”

“Good luck.”

I turned to my brother and held out my hand.

 “Give me the matches.”

 “Matches? I didn’t bring any.”

 “Uh, oh. Me either.”

 Red unrolled his T-shirt sleeve to remove a pack of cigarettes and matches.

 “Don’t worry, George,” Red said as he pitched the matchbook.

Then Marshall and I crawled toward Sheriff Sam. While crouching, I slipped the firecrackers into the tailpipe. Then I pushed on the fuse to slide the explosives further into the exhaust. I left an inch hanging out. As I pulled a match from the book, I looked back at Red’s auto and saw the boys laughing so much, the car rocked.

My cowardly buddies watched from the safety of the bench. I waved at Butch, Einstein, and Angel with limited motion, but they didn’t respond.

“Chickens,” I whispered.

Marshall nodded.

Then he said, “Wait until I get back before you light the fuse.”

He sneaked to the passenger’s side and removed the cap from the valve. With a sharp stone, he released air until the rear tire was flat then shuffled back to me.

“Okay. Light it.”

I struck the safety match and held it steady, but a passing breeze blew it out.

“Shoot.”

I glanced back at Red who eyeballed me, then I removed another match and lit it. This time, I shielded the flame and touched it to the wax fuse. Just as planned, the shredded cup caught fire and burned slow but steady. Then, I inserted the handkerchief. As we turned to escape, I noticed other amused moviegoers laughing too.

We intended for our prank to be discreet, but we had several dozen giggling witnesses. As subtle as possible, we duck-walked back to Red’s Chevy.

“Great job, George,” Red proclaimed. “Now, you’d better scat. Don’t worry; we won’t tell.”

Marshall and I slipped behind Red’s car then walked toward our friends. As we passed the entertained occupants, we got lots of thumbs-up and waves. When we entered the snack bar, we greeted our neighbors who had worried expressions.

Angel whined. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble.”

Butch smacked his ear and growled, “Shut up and stop worrying, and if you confess, I’ll kill you. Got it? Dead!”

I said, “Here’s part two of my plan. We need an alibi, so we’ll order food and wait for it.”

We approached the counter and waited in a short line.

I said, “Hi, Betty.”

Betty had graduated from high school and worked at the drive-in and at the downtown theater too. We were on a first-name basis. As a result, she was one of the few who could distinguish Marshall from me.

“Hi, Patton,” Betty replied. “I see the whole gang is here tonight.”

“Yep, five of us,” I responded. “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

“You know it takes twenty minutes.”

“It’s okay. We’ll each have a cola, too,”

She handed us our drinks, and we paid which required contributions from everyone. A not-so-patient patron waited while we emptied our pockets and aggregated our money.

“We’ll just wait at this table.”

I wanted to be in her constant view. The next twenty minutes were endless, as we watched the film through the large plate-glass window.

Luke had escaped from the prison farm, again, and was hiding in a shadowy church. As I contemplated our similarities, I had doubts about my prank. Could Angel be right, and the joke be a mistake? Would we be suspects? I imagined myself running through rows of corn with howling dogs on my heels.

The fragrance of sizzling toppings distracted me from my misgivings, so I glanced at the clock on the wall. The pizza had been baking for fifteen minutes, and the excitement may soon start. I shouted to Betty because I wanted to document our continued presence.

“Is it done?”

Betty examined the timer as she wiped her hands.

“Five more minutes.”

As the agonizing time ticked past, I slipped back into my apprehensive state of mind. I considered removing the mini bomb from the smoldering tailpipe.

Too late now, I thought.

I tried to suppress my anxiety while watching the scene unfold on the white screen. The police arrived and trapped Luke inside the shadowy church. The cold-hearted prison guard who always wore sunglasses raised a rifle. Captivated, I stared at the officer as he took aim. Luke smirked and mocked the warden from a window.

Bang! Ding!

The oven alarm sounded at the same moment the rifle fired. I jumped as Luke slumped. Betty removed the pizza from the oven, put it in a box, and slid it across the counter.

“Order up, come and get it.”

As I waited for my heart to slow, Marshall rushed to the counter then returned.

I whispered, “The fuse must have gone out. It should have gone off by now.”

Angel replied, “Good.”

It was strange, but I felt relieved too. We relaxed and enjoyed our refreshments until the movie ended. The hot dog and popcorn box danced across the screen to announce intermission as we munched and sipped.

By the time the next show began, my adrenaline rush had faded. The second feature was a British spy thriller. The playboy agent operated amazing gadgets which fascinated me.

 Absorbed in the action plot, I forgot about my dud explosive device.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The rapid-fire blasts weren’t coming from the speaker.

“What the…” Betty shouted.

“A backfire,” someone replied.

“No, too many.”

Everyone ran to the door to investigate except for five boys who didn’t move. Outside, a frantic Boss Sam jumped from his car and looked for the source of the blasts. Smoke was still rising from his tailpipe when the first carload of intruders entered the exit.

A stream of interlopers followed and darted down different lanes. Quick to react, Boss Sam hopped back into his vehicle and flipped on his spotlight.

Thump, thump, thump, his flat tire protested as he began his chase.

To add to the confusion, the parked patrons turned on their lights and honked as the freeloaders hid among them. Blinded by the headlights, the watchman spun in frantic circles unsure what to do next.

Ignoring the commotion, we five stoics pretended to watch the movie. In a while, Betty and her customers returned to the counter, so I mustered the courage to look around the room.  Everything had calmed, and we’d gotten away with our prank.

“It worked just as planned,” I whispered.

“Perfect!” Butch replied.

The others nodded as Angel giggled, but the chuckling stopped when the accursed guard exploded through the door.

“Has anyone seen those twins?”

The furious old man removed his sunglasses and scanned the room. In a flash, he spotted us.  Enraged, he hobbled our direction and wagged his bent, arthritic finger.

“I know you did it.”

We were wide-eyed and motionless.

“You did it,” he repeated.

 From the smell of the brown spittle peppered on my face, he chewed tobacco.

Terrified, I asked, “Did what?”

“You know what you did. You put firecrackers in my tailpipe.”

All the patrons awaited my response. The silence stretched. I removed the smelly splatter with a napkin and regained my composure. Sam’s complexion grew redder as he boiled and waited.

“We’ve been here eating. We couldn’t have done it.”

He resembled my mother’s vibrating pressure cooker, ready to blow off steam. His eyes widened, one eyeball stared at me, and the other scanned my pals. He parted his dry lips and ground his yellow teeth. He appeared to be searching for the proper words to respond.

“Don’t lie to me.” Boss Sam snapped.

He seemed unable to produce a better retort as he swung his crooked finger back and forth.

“You twins are incorrigible.” he frothed.

He growled as he widened the arc of his wagging digit.

“I bet you’re all in on it.”

The manager, a short man with wire spectacles, rushed from his office. He had black hair, greased and combed straight back.

“What’s the commotion?”

Sam answered, “Someone flattened my tire and put a firecracker in my tailpipe. I know these boys did it. Remember the restroom last summer? Now people are entering the exit, and I can’t stop them.”

The manager’s face flushed with immediate anger. We were the splinter under his skin, festering again. Unable to excise us, he had to deal with the occasional flare-ups. The manager glared at Angel, who he knew to be the most probable to confess. Terrified, Angel stared back, wide-eyed.  His wimpy nature benefited us for a change.

Butch, the oldest, appeared as calm as the secret agent on the screen behind him. Under the manager’s intense stare, he casually pointed to the few remaining cheesy slices. But under the table, Butch squeezed Angel’s knee. When the manager looked back to the weakling, Angel made a squeaky sound as he clenched his lips.

“What’s wrong with you, gotta pee?” the manager asked.

Angel nodded.

“Well, go.”

Angel bolted.

Einstein received the next intense stare and responded with droopy eyes and a chin-sagging, open mouth. For a moment, I wondered if he’d drool. The manager assessed Einstein’s lack of mental ability and must have decided it was futile to interrogate him. Then he examined the almost-empty pizza box.

“Betty, how long have these boys been here?”

She looked at the clock.

“Well, they ordered and waited on it. Then they ate it, so it’s been half an hour or longer.”

“They didn’t leave?”

“Nope, they’ve been here, I’m certain.”

The suspicious manager stared at me while still speaking to Betty.

“No one left?”

“No, Sir.”

The boss turned to the seething guard.

“You must be mistaken. Go see if there’s any damage to your vehicle then stop the cars from entering without paying.”

Sheriff Sam’s eyes shot darts at me.

“I’m sure they did it.”

Boss Sam retreated toward his car, but he glared back as he departed through the screen door.  The manager pulled a roll of antacid from his pocket.

“Boys, I better not learn you did this. I’ll call your parents.”

An intemperate stare and uncomfortable silence followed his warning. Five pairs of puppy-dog eyes declared our innocence. Betty’s boss popped a stomach pill in his mouth, turned, and headed to his office.

He muttered, “This job will give me an ulcer.”

When he slammed the door, the wall shuddered, and the clock tilted. Betty straightened it with a broomstick. She had done so many other times. She walked to our table and picked up the box then set our five empty cups on top.

I said, “Thanks, Betty. For vouching for us.”

After she removed the trash, she returned to wipe the table with a damp cloth.

Betty whispered, “I’m sure you boys did this. If he finds out how, he’ll call your parents.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

I glanced at my friends, who were smirking.

“He won’t find out.”

We erupted in laughter which confirmed her suspicion. She could no longer restrain herself, so she giggled too.

After a while, Angel grew tired of hiding in the restroom, so he returned. Once he joined us, we headed toward home. The gravel crunched under Boss Sam’s rolling tires as he followed us.

After my cohorts entered the cornfield, I looked back at the stoical officer who had stepped out of his vehicle. He was still wearing those mirrored glasses. I was emboldened because I figured his seething anger couldn’t exceed my satisfaction. Now by myself, I shook a corn stalk.

“Shaking the bushes, Boss.”

 Boss Sam pulled his flashlight like a weapon and aimed it at me. I returned his silent threat with a Luke smile.

Then I said, “Now what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

His only movement was a curled upper lip. I winced and knew it wasn’t over. After an uncomfortable pause, I turned and left. As I hurried down the rows of six-foot-tall corn, I had misgivings about my momentary victory. But I’d never let my friends know my fear. It’s the burden one carries when he’s cool. 

Second Place:

Inventing the Artist by Adam Scharf

David’s making love to Lana, and I’m not doing anything wrong. Swear to God. There’s nothing wrong about sitting in your apartment, trying to look unalarmed as your roommate makes love in his bedroom.

I’m persuading myself the sounds are platonic and easily forgotten. I move to the kitchen to feel removed. To feel reasonable. I’ve put on Mozart, so they don’t think I’m a warm-blooded pervert lapping it up.

By the sounds of it, she’s spanking the hell out of him. They play rough. You wouldn’t believe it. I find the perfect I heard nothing face for afterward. I’m at the table appearing like a guy who’s deaf and doesn’t lick his lips hearing his roommate do it.

I’m twenty years old. I’ve been here three months and heard David choking the living hell out of his girlfriend at least a hundred times, no kidding. I’m frightened with how far they take it. How routine that’s become. They go to a farmer’s market afterward like nothing happened and pet everyone’s dog. No one detects the consensual flogging or horsewhipping that’s taken place. The dogs know and carry that burden the rest of their lives.

I don’t know what to do with myself. This is when I call Chelsea, but that’s over. I told her I went on a date with someone. The thing is, Chelsea and I’ve been broken up for a year, but we sleep with each other. She’s become something hollow. An ex with benefits. She told me, “Andrew, you’ve made me a shell of a person.”

We came close a few times to really being animals in the bedroom. We got great at sex. That’s why we’ve kept doing it this past year. I wasn’t dishonest either. I told her what this was for me.

She accepted but created this narrative in her head that we’d get back together if we did it long enough. A part of me thought that would happen too, but mostly I wanted to be an animal. This past year I dated a handful of women but always went back to her without the headache of dating.

The date I went on recently, the one that officially ended Chelsea and I, wasn’t even worth the shellacking. Her name was Allison, and she called me, “Dude,” 57 times. She left earrings on my nightstand, and I can’t even look at them.

We’re in this summer acting program, and I haven’t told anyone I dropped out yet. I was told to finish the run of Macbeth then leave.

I play one of the witches. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s sort of humiliating.My favorite line is, “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap.”

This show could have made my career. It’s this hoity toity program rich kids do to impress their untalented friends working as lifeguards for the summer. The program’s run by Michael. Swear to God, he might not have a last name. He wears clothes that no longer fit after a publicized weight loss campaign on social media. He gets a real charge when he wears his fat clothes for everyone. A few of us had dinner with him once. Everyone hit the ceiling when he heroically gave the ole, “I’ll just have the soup, thank you.” He made a girl cry after he told her, “This isn’t community theater, darling.” Christ, he just loves to eat fucking soup.

My family doesn’t like that I’m an actor. The only person who gives a damn is my older brother, Peter. He’s a writer—a tall writer. He plays the bassoon and knows French philosophy. Peter smokes cloves and brings flowers for me when he’s at my shows. He’s that kind of brother.

Chelsea sensed something romantic between Allison and I, who plays, Lady Macbeth. The first thing I noticed about Allison was her height, and I sort of love the way she says, “Line,” when forgetting a line in the script. She says it like she’s saying, “Happy birthday,” to a little kid. I love that. After two of her “Lines” I promised myself to take her on a date.

We went for drinks and got dressed up. She wore this long teal dress that seemed to flicker over her. I loved her in that dress. Any light looks good on that dress: candle light off the walls, or even light in doctors’ offices.

I know how that dress was born: After God coughed up stars to read Adam’s facial expressions at night, he sewed the dress, inspired by light where you can never tell when, or where, it came from. I have no idea what I’m saying. The dress really got to me is what I’m saying.

Allison’s movements were tender in that dress. She never sat down at the bar in that dress. She stood and leaned like she was always receiving a secret that everyone’s dying to know. The room watched her. She gave angles leaning god knows where—into noise, and men’s forgetfulness as to what the hell their date was even talking about. When I hugged her it felt like kissing. I wasn’t met with lips but perfume and everything she put in her hair. Every mirror or polished surface tried to keep her dress’s reflection. It’s a small grief when that kind of beauty walks away. I’ve seen it a hundred times. I don’t know, sometimes you get lucky.

That night she leaned toward me, interested in the stupid things I was saying. Laughing at me. I know it never lasts. Everyone in my family has twelve divorces between them and every time it started with, “Real love.”

I may be only twenty, but I’ve been in “real love” before. I have the landscape all figured out. Beauty gradually leans towards someone else. There’s beauty in brevity and ugly in permeance. It’s the way things has to be.

I’m trying to keep things together here. The noises from David’s bedroom have grown warlike. He sounds like he’s excavating something out of her.

Gods painted on old ruins and their custom to fall apart.

One of the women I dated this year I fell head over heels for, even though we dated for three weeks. She was a singer named Franny. We did a musical together a few months ago before the program.

I played a train conductor. My only line was, “All aboard!”

Jesus, did I yell that line. I got note after note from the director (Pipe down) as if I was being too loud in the family room as my dad tried to read the online menu for P.F. Chang’s.

Is that too much to ask for?

Obstinate, I bellowed louder every performance. I swear people came again just for the line. This wasn’t a good show. It was just the perfect line to say unreasonably loud right after the protagonist had a valorous kiss.

I made the review.

I’m not kidding. 

I never told Chelsea about my love affair with Franny. I loved Franny. I mean, I loved her guts. I wanted to marry her.

Her dad’s name is Abraham. That always had me rolling. I mean, what were they thinking?

Every day he has to be Abraham.

There were a million great things like that about her. She had long blonde hair, and all her dreams take place in London for no reason. We were doing pretty good, then, out of nowhere, she was talking to her “finally more mature” ex-boyfriend again and we haven’t spoken since.

Not to get dramatic, but I thought about becoming a monk after that. Don’t ask what kind of monk. Just the celibate kind with a penchant for woodwork and sneaky liquor bottles under the ole straw mattress. I had to see a therapist to convince myself that Franny’s not the only perfect person in the world. Apparently, there’s no such thing as a soulmate. It’s biology’s way of getting you to reproduce like a rabbit. I’ll tell you right now, Franny doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about me at all. 

Both David and Lana are moaning water buffalos in bed. Sequestered from human decency. Cooped in a paradise of prophylactics.

I’ll give Allison a call.

She was a fine date. Curly red hair and a non-visible tattoo that she’ll occasionally bring up, so that you think about it (and I love thinking about it). I like thinking about her. I love thinking about her teal dress and how the dress had movement even when she wasn’t moving. The dress is like when you stare at the moon hoping that it changes you─when you get caught in how still the moon appears. The moon’s not motionless though. The truth is the moon’s spinning. You intuitively know these kinds of things, and that her teal dress is propelling, even when the dress doesn’t look like it. 

Believe it or not: what made me quit the theater program happened on that date with Allison. She was drunk and loved talking to anyone. She gave bedroom eyes to the bartender, who looked like he’d make a great merman. He had this long, dark hair. He was Asian and loved to talk about me when I was in the bathroom.

“You know, Andrew, the bartender was talking about you just now.”

“What was he saying?”

“What kind of guy he thought you were.”

“Great.”

“You want to know what kind of guy?”

“Absolutely not. Every time he walks by, I can smell him. It’s not good. He smells like car air-conditioning.”

There was this melted candle on top of melted candle with a lit candle on top. I remember she looked great in that light. I kissed her. She was drunk by now and bit my lip. The funny thing is I wanted to be eaten alive. She brought up Franny. “You guys used to date, right?”

“Yeah, briefly.”

“That’s so funny.”

“It’s so funny.”

“You know, she’s moving to the city. She wants to do Off-Broadway in the worst way.”

The dumbest thing started happening. I feel stupid even telling you this. My eyes started tearing. I wasn’t crying. I just suddenly had tears in my eyes. I kept finding anything but her to look at.

The drinks were hitting fast. What the hell. Maybe I’ll cry in the candlelight to really wow her, I thought. I sunk in my stool. She bit my lip again. I acted like I was getting a phone call. “Sorry, it’s important that I take this quickly,” and headed outside.

I called Peter. He would calm me down. The call went straight to voicemail. That part of town was under construction. I could hear a million hammers and machines fastening steel. If you didn’t know anything about construction and you were standing outside of this bar in early evening, you’d think there were a hundred people knocking on doors just to say hello. That made me feel better. Everyone had company.

I waited long enough to charade a phone conversation with an uncle who just has to say goodnight to his favorite nephew every night. I collected myself and went inside.

When I was away, Allison told the bartender that we were actors. As soon as I sat down, he goes, “You’re an actor, huh?”

I nearly told him to drop dead, but he had more to say.

“Actors, actors, actors. There’s something wonderful in acting. I’ve been in quite a few shows myself. I quit, though.”

Allison leans in. “I’m sure you were great!”

“I was decent. Thing is, I found out what was happening. What I really wanted to do was kill someone.”

He let that linger for dramatic effect. I didn’t want to take the bait. He’s one of those guys who looks at his phone and gives a loud fake laugh so that you’ll ask him what’s so fucking funny and can I see?

Allison is tuna-like. She can’t not take the bait. “Kill someone?” she asked.

Now he had her. He leaned his arms on the bar. “There’re two types of people. Entertainers and artists. I was mostly doing dinner theater. A few theme park shows. Occasionally a commercial. Maybe some Shakespeare.”

On that line, he started looking toward the far corner of the room. He kept pontificating toward absence. I glanced toward whatever the hell he was looking at. Kind of like when a cat sees something you don’t, and can’t, and pray you never will.

He goes, “I knew something had to happen. I had to kill someone. I set out to become an artist but became an entertainer. Most don’t know the difference.”

She goes, “Oh? What’s the difference?” The night was a real slaughter. A real victory for people who can’t just tell you what they want to tell you, but also have to make a show. 

“An entertainer performs for the crowd. Most behave as though the meaning of life is the approval of others. Just look at social media. Entertainers aim to please. They want your approval. That’s why most get in the game. That becomes obvious after you’ve had a few birthdays. After witnessing a thousand posts about wanting good vibes for their audition. They’re seeking approval for getting into a scenario where they’re seeking approval, so insane.”

I had to roll my eyes at the way he said, “insane.”

“Now, the artist,” he starts looking at us again. “The artist isn’t in art for approval. The process of being God is all she needs. Her work is neither reliant nor composed from approval. There are no applause breaks. There are no curtain calls. Most never know how to become an artist.”

I know she’d just have to ask so, I bit the bullet for her. “Wow, how?”

“You have to kill the entertainer. You have to slit his throat. Don’t get me wrong. When you have to be the entertainer to pay your bills, be the entertainer to pay your bills. Welcome him in with a gracious attitude. Give him a blanket. Give him a drink, then kill him anyway. Cut his fucking head off. People don’t need you to make them feel good. Don’t do this for people. Only shits do this for people. Don’t make the world peaceful. Start a war. Collect unemployment. Eat eggs and coffee for years. Lure the wolves closer. Strangle life out of the actor doing crowd work, yelling, ‘How we doing? Oh, you can do better than that.’ No one remembers the entertainer. Shoot the motivational speaker. Rape Walt Disney. Fire him out of a cannon. Do you get what I mean?”

He stopped talking and went down the bar collecting glasses. He didn’t wait for my answer.

I turned to Allison for her reaction. She was on her phone. I felt so sad in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to do. I paid the bill. I got us the hell out of there. All I had was this hatred for something inside of myself.

I hated that bartender.

My lip was in pain.

Both drunk, we made it to my apartment. On the bed, she buried her face in my neck and undid my pants. Never looking, not even once, she touched me. She never looked where I was pointed. I finished all over her teal dress. She never wiped off. She drove home like that.

I stared at her earrings on the nightstand. I knew I was going to quit then. I knew it was crazy. I quit. I told Chelsea about the date with Allison. Everything crumbled. She told me what an awful person I was, and that killed me. Chelsea killed me. Thank God.

I’m scared. I need out. I don’t want to be here. I hate that bartender. I hate these mediocre shows. I hate myself.

I’m going to get out of this apartment. I have a month left, but I’ll leave early, when no one’s around, like a racoon. Look at this place: the old stove; the deer head on the wall, an old birthday card, wilting flowers in a vase from Peter; the jungle track sound from David’s bedroom. I won’t be here. I’ll head home before college. I’ll eat three meals, then expect starvation. I’ll meet a girl who will give me hardship, love, and bridges to understanding the loneliness of others. That’s what seems to happen to artists.

I call Peter. He’s one of those guys who will bring you flowers without feeling weird about bringing you flowers. I love that. “Andrew?”

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Oh boy, what happened?” asks Peter.

“God, I don’t know. I just want to talk to someone decent.”

“All right, how are you? Are you good on money?”

“I have a million gold bricks. What I’m saying is, I want to talk to just talk.”

“You sound upset.”

“You think you’re so good. I quit the program. I’m coming home next week.”

“You idiot.”

“I just needed to tell someone.”

“Why’d you do it? I don’t care what anyone says, Andrew. You’re a real actor. Did Chelsea say something again?”

“No, no, it was a bartender. He went on and on about being an artist and how you have to kill the entertainer. That got to me. I feel shaky.”

There’s a long pause, long enough for me to hear Lana screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

After a weighted exhale, he tells me, “Andrew, were you on a date?”

“Yes.”

“He was just trying to impress your date. I wouldn’t listen to him.”

“I already quit.”

“You idiot.”

“It’s fine. The program was almost over anyway.”

“You won’t get the credits if you quit. The casting directors come the last week. You’re blowing your chance.”

There’s a loud spanking sound followed by David yelling a single question dramatically over and over. “You like that? You like that? You like that?” I hear another slap, the loudest slap I ever heard, followed by Lana yelling, “Ow,” They fight, then, “Shit!”

“You son of a bitch, David!”

“Lana. It’s fine. Come back to bed.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, David?”

The night’s a real circus. Lana comes out of the bedroom in a towel covering her left eye with her hand. She’s crying. “Peter, I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

“I’m coming over.”

“That’s crazy. The clock says nearly midnight. You’re an hour away.”

“I’ll let you go. I’m getting in the car. I’ll see you soon.”

He hangs up. Lana’s putting an ice pack on her eye. David runs out. “Lana, I’m sorry!”

“You hit me in the fucking face.”

“I got caught up. I didn’t want to.”

“Caught up? You punched me in the face!” She turns to me at the table.

I whip out the ole deaf boy who hasn’t heard a goddamn thing, look. I add in a blind boy look for good measure. They just have to take everything too far.

Lana goes, “Andrew, look at what he did to my eye. Is it black yet?”

I act like I’m an expert in this sort of thing and give her the once over. They’re both trying to catch their breath. “It’s a little red. You might see a shiner in the morning. I’d know. I was once punched over a guy audibly reading good news on his email, and I never took the bait to ask him what happened. He got so upset over that. He shoved me. I shoved him back. Then he punches me in—”

“Andrew, not the time. Jesus, Lana. It was an accident.”

Lana huffs. “Let’s ask Andrew about getting caught up?”

“Don’t ask him. It was an accident.”

Now she’s really going to get me involved. She sits at the table holding the ice pack on her eye. “Andrew?”

“Oh god.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

 “Have you ever been fucking a girl and suddenly had the urge to punch her in the fucking face?”

“Don’t drag him into this,” says David.

I look her in the eyes. “Only myself.”

“You’re both crazy!”

She’s in tears. David sits next to her and holds her. I’m sitting across from a scene. Lana moves to his lap, and they cry. He’s making promises, rocking her back and forth. “I’ll never do it again, never, ever, ever. Never again. Never, ever.”

I’m just sitting. I’m not breaking any laws. There’s nothing wrong with pretending I’ve turned into the placemat before me. Unaware, dormant, unable to comprehend the violence in love.

He follows her back into the bedroom. They’re going to make up the only way they know how. Passion will be softer. There will be eye contact. I head to my room. It’s like there isn’t a wall between us. I’m in there playing the violin for them.

Peter will be here in an hour. I feel like such a mess. My head’s spinning. There are a million thoughts in my head. Peter will stare at me with his, What are you doing with your life, eyes.

We’ll make coffee and stay up talking. He’ll listen to me making like I’m okay, but he’ll know I’m not. He’ll go with me in the morning to beg for my place in the program back. That will be our little secret. I’ll tell them I made a terrible mistake. I’ll look like a new man, peaceful, but I’ll only look that way.

Peter’s at my front door and yapping on the phone─everyone’s favorite yapper. He always has to, “let you go,” even if you’re the one wrapping up the conversation. He’ll go, “Okay, sure, sure. I’m right in the middle of yard work. I’ll have to let you go,” after you told him that it’s been nice talking to him.

I open the door. Peter holds up a finger and shows off his yapping. He knows what the people want. The man yaps with anyone. When exiting a party, he’ll address the room with, “Goodbye lovers.” He’s pure gold.

When we used to share a room as kids—I never slept. For a month he only spoke German. I never understood a damn thing he said. Peter spoke about nothing and everything. Telling me the answers: when to kiss, what to drink, how to yap, and what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo.

I love him so much I could die.

I pour Peter coffee like a little house husband who just made his man a decent plate of eggs over a roaring fire. I over hear his conversation.

“Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. Hey, I’m at my brother’s place. I’ll have to let you go.” What a slaughter. He’s letting him have it. “Right, yes, talk soon. Okay, I’ll let you go. Goodbye.”

We get cozy on the couch. He’s out of breath all of a sudden. “Man, I got here fast. I rushed to get here.” It doesn’t explain why he’s out of breath, he drove here. I love that, the man drives here and loves to be out of breath.

Peter stares, thinking of exactly what he needs to be said. “Andrew, you need to understand something. I’m not here to persuade you to stay in the program. I want what’s best for you. You need to—what’s happening in there?” He points to the David’s bedroom.

“Lovers being lovers,” I tell him.

“Dear god. Are they all right?”

Jesus Christ, they just can’t help themselves. Nothing is sacred with David and Lana. They hear a nice yapper walk in; they unhesitatingly break out the whips. You should hear David whimpering. The lashing he’s taking─a god smiting the non-believer into, bien pensant, discipleship.

He picks up where he was. “Andrew, I want you to know that I support you entirely. Whatever the bartender told you, he’s wrong.”

“The bartender might not be wrong. I should be doing better things. Better roles. I’m letting everyone down here. I can’t find any purpose.”

Peter pauses and sips his coffee. We’re forced to listen to David squealing into submission. The entire night’s making me sad. The violent love-making. How Peter cares about me, and how fast he had to drive.

 “I know you’re not performing the best role Andrew. I know you aren’t a star on Broadway. You’re the first male to play a female witch in Macbeth history.”

“It’s silly,” I tell him.

“Did you know that Shakespeare’s wife couldn’t read? Isn’t that silly? There’s no purpose to life, Andrew. You should feel good that you know this already.”

“I have to quit the program.”

“You’re not going to find purpose. Good news is, there can be meaning. You see what I mean? You have to make meaning. It isn’t just there like a little flower. Novels, pageants, a broken sculpture, and what have you—they made the meaning. You’re free to make anything meaningful.”

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

“You’re going to be fine. You’re not going to die if you stay here. I rely on you too much for you to hide. I know that’s crazy. I do though. I don’t give a damn if you perform a big role. I only care what you bring meaning to. You bring meaning to insignificant places, and people. Success is bringing meaning to things you never thought were meaningful. The hot shots with all the lines don’t get success because their roles already have meaning. The thrill’s gone. They’re not heroes. I saw you as a train conductor—you made that moment the pinnacle of the entire musical. Honestly Andrew, I talked about that with my friends for weeks. Such beauty. That line got to me! You animated the dead. You brought color to the pail. You threw leaves on your wedding day in the dead of summer. You taught Shakespeare’s wife to read Moby Dick. I’m writing another novel because of you. The mundane, sweet people of life. Fall in love with every one of them. Don’t let yourself be found as an embassy of underdevelopment. You get to bring meaning to things no one else brings meaning to. I don’t know what else to tell you, Andrew. Jesus Christ, I need you.”

It sinks in. I go find the bartender and invite him over. I offer him a blanket, a cup of coffee. I sing Danny Boy in a dulcet tone. I wash his dirty feet like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know why, but I shave his face for him—for the hell of it—for the sheer hell of it. He doesn’t know why. Nobody knows why. Not a single goddamn person knows why.

I slice off his head, throwing it in the cauldron. Can you hear that cackle? A lit match unaware that it’s going to burn out. A funny feeling in my chest. The sound of David and Lana coming together. The brutal worship. Peter and I have closed our eyes, pretending we’re not a pirouetting moon—what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo

THIRD PLACE:

Larry Came to Lunch by Shauna McGuiness

When the doorbell rang I was scrubbing the downstairs toilet.

“Jerry,” I called “Jer! Could you get that?”

My husband didn’t hear me. He was one floor up watching “Mythbusters” with the subwoofer pounding. Almost sounded like someone was stomping the ground above my head. Beyonce was singing upstairs, too.

The music was so loud that there was no way Maya had heard the bell. Not that my sixteen year-old daughter would have come running, even if she had. Alexander was still at softball practice, and the Durneys weren’t dropping him off until after four.

“Damn,” I said pulling blue rubber gloves off of my hands.

The neighbors were always stopping by, unannounced. When we moved into our Santa Clara townhouse a year ago, I didn’t think we would ever see the people living around us. Everyone entered their homes through the garage, pressing the close button on the remote before they even got out of their cars. However, Jeannie and Richard thought sharing a wall gave them license to stop by whenever they felt like it.

My hair was wrapped in a purple scarf, but at least I wasn’t wearing my husband’s faded blue sweatpants like I was last time they appeared. Smoothing my khakis, I took a quick glance in the mirror Not bad for a forty-something, toilet-scrubbing, purple scarf-wrapped old lady.

Ding Dong!

“Coming!” I ran down the short flight of stairs to the front door, and as an afterthought pulled off the scarf and dropped it on our little cherry wood table.

Lawrence St. Paul was wearing navy plaid shorts and a baby blue, short sleeve button-up. I remember him wearing both before. His skin was lighter than mine. If his was coffee with three creams, then mine was coffee with only one. My mother is white and I inherited her blue eyes – the only one of her features that nature had chosen to duplicate in me. My father’s eyes were the coffee without any cream, at all.

He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, and it had been five years since I had looked into those eyes. Five years.

I never realized how much of a resemblance could be found in Alexander. My fourteen year-old son had the same ears and the same easy smile. He definitely had my husband’s chin, though. Everyone has a square chin in Jerry’s family. Daddy’s hair was pure white and cut close to his head. It looked like wool, and I ached to touch it, as I had when I was a girl.

“Daddy? ”was all I could manage.

“Are you ready? You’re gonna to have to drive.”

What? I thought.

My father’s departure had been so sudden that my mother sat in the big antique rocking chair at her house staring at the front door for hours waiting for him to return. Weeks had crawled away, but he never came back. Mama would sit on the flowered cushion, leaning forward and back. Forward and back. The rhythm maddeningly even.

Holding my finger up and ran to the second floor.

“Honey, I’ve got to step out for a while. I’ll be back.” I always said that, “I’ll be back.”

Because sometimes people don’t come back.

Jerry sat on the big, green L-shape sofa, his big tube-socked feet resting on the matching ottoman. “Don’t forget that you have to bring Maya to that party at five,” he said, not looking away from the TV.

“Right. I’ll be back by then.”

I returned to the front door. My father was still there.

My little Brighton purse sat on the table. It was worn around the edges, and the magnetic clasp barely worked, but I couldn’t bear to replace it because the kids had given it to me on a long ago Mother’s day. Little red hearts covered black leather front of it─Maya had said that it was “covered in love.”

“Uhm. I’m down in the parking lot. We bought Maya a car a few weeks ago and I’ve been letting her park in my spot in the garage.” Pointing in the direction of my grey Highlander, I unlocked it with the key fob.

Climbing in, he placed his knobby hands flat on his thighs. A familiar gold wedding band hugged the appropriate finger. How many times had I rolled that ring in my palms, mesmerized by how well it fit my thumb? Wiry gray hairs covered his legs, along with the scars from when he had knee surgery on both legs.

Where have you been?

“The usual?” he asked.

“Sure. The usual.”

Dad loved Carl’s Jr. and used to eat there almost every day. Personally, I would have chosen a nicer place for our reunion, but if he was looking for a Western Bacon Burger I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it.

Although there was probably a restaurant closer to home, I drove the ten miles to the one by the house that he had left, five years ago. I didn’t recognize anyone that worked there. There was a time when I had known most of them by name, due to our weekly lunches.

Because I already knew what he wanted, I ordered both meals. Salad and a Coke for me. He would want iced tea. I filled our cups and found him at our booth all the way at the back in the far right corner. Dropping the little plastic order card down on the table, I handed him his drink and some sweetener.

“Did I ever tell you about the guy who was in his tent, asleep in a sleeping bag?” He gestured at me to continue.

We had been doing this routine for as long as I could remember. Picking up a yellow packet of Splenda, I ripped off the top with a flourish, saying, “The bear ripped his head clean off.” The tiny crystals tumbled into his cup.

As he chuckled softly I realized how much I had to say to him. Things that I had always been meaning to say. Things that I needed to say.

“Have you been to visit Mom?”

Shaking his head, he looked down into his iced tea.

“Where have you been?”

“So many questions. Am I an encyclopedia, all of a sudden?” He grinned.

“What’s the meaning of life?” I asked, only half playing.

“Family. Love. That is the meaning of life. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way.”

He looked so forlorn that I believed him with all of my heart.

The damn kids had changed the ringtone on my phone again, and Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda trilled from my jacket pocket. It was my brother, Darren, and if I didn’t answer he would assume the worst. He always did. I had to find a way to speak to him without blowing his mind with the news of Dad’s visit.

“Hey, Darren,” My voice sounded a little too bright.

“Hey, Sis. What’s up?”

“I dunno, you called me.” I said.

“I was wondering what time you want us over on Tuesday? Gillian thought it was five thirty, but I’m pretty sure you said six.”

“Five thirty, six – either works for me, as long as you bring an appetizer. Tell Gill to bring the little meatballs. We all love them.” I looked at our father. A small curve sat comfortably on his lips.

“Got it. Where are you?”

“I’m…having lunch with a friend.”

“Late lunch.” He grunted.

“Yes. Can I get back to it, now?” I didn’t want to waste any more time talking to someone that I would see on Tuesday. Probably.

“I can catch a hint. See you.” After hearing the click on his end, I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.

“Look…” I didn’t know where to start. I took a deep breath. “Do you remember when I was thirteen and I told you to shut up?” It was the only time I had ever directed those words toward my Dad. I had been so ashamed after yelling at him. His tolerance and forgiveness had been more painful than if he had slapped me.

“I do.”

“I told you I was tired of hearing about your Army days. I said your stories were retarded.” He slowly nodded his head.

“I am so sorry.” I choked.

So warm was the laugh that boomed across the table, that I could almost feel it on my face. I looked up at him, shocked that he thought the memory was funny. It was one that had come back to torture me countless times since he had been away.

“I imagine you are getting it back, in spades.”

He was right. Raising two teenagers was no barrel of monkeys. I thought about how Maya had expressly forbidden me to volunteer as chaperone for the formal dance at her school. She said I was embarrassing, which had hurt a lot more than I let on.

“You’re right.” I used a napkin to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. “I just… I always meant to tell you.”

“I know.”

Our family had never been the hugging kind. Right now I wished we had been because I really needed one.

“Will you go to Mom?” I asked, “She always wondered why…”

I should have added that he shouldn’t visit his wife unless he intended to stay. Leaving again would probably kill her.

“Time to go.” He sighed, standing.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Maya has a party to go to, and I’m supposed to pick up all of her friends on the way.”

The burger remained untouched. I hadn’t eaten my salad, either. I piled everything back onto the orange tray, dumping our wasted food in the trash on the way out the door.

God how I wanted to stop him.

Maybe I should have said something like, “I’ll make Jerry take her to the party, let’s just stay for a little longer,” But he was already standing next to my car.

No words were exchanged on the ride back to my house, and we arrived much too soon. There were too many things that I wanted to ask. So many that I couldn’t remember even one.

I sat in the driver’s seat, trying not to cry, and by the time I opened my door he was already outside. Enjoying the feel of the sun on his barrel-shape body, his eyes fluttered closed. It was something he had always done, worshipping the sun. The skin across his cheeks was taught, and in the orange afternoon light appeared to be made of caramel.

“I’ll see you when I see you.” he said, as was his way.

“Okay.” I dumbly stared at his face, unable to move. “Wait, where are you parked?”

What a stupid, stupid question. I was just trying to delay his departure.

“I’m just down the street.”

His eyes were kind. I hadn’t fooled him, at all.

“Will I see you again?” I tried hard to stop the sneaky things, but the tears came anyway.

“Don’t worry. You’ll see me again.” He gave me a sharp Army salute.

Sturdy legs carried him across the parking lot. I turned to glance at my front door for just a second, and when I looked back he was already gone.

The next morning, I told my family that we had to go to the city. The kids tried to argue their way out of it, but I think they sensed that it was important to me so they folded pretty quickly. Especially once I promised I would take them to Scoma’s for Sunday brunch. Those kids would probably do just about anything for calamari.

Maya texted her friends, and posted selfies to Instagram, the whole way there. Alexander nodded his square chin to something on Spotify. Jerry enjoyed the fifty minutes of rare quiet.

When we arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go. The sun was tucked away, making everything grey – even countless eucalyptus trees, which filled the air with their strange smell. Nearly invisible mist hung in the air, landing on our faces and shoulders. Settled deep into the grass was a small rectangular grave marker. We all stood around it in silence, and I was thankful that Jerry had convinced the kids to leave all technology in the car.

Lawrence St. Paul

Col. U.S. Army Retired

B. December 20, 1921

D. June 15, 2001

When he had gone to the Library to return borrowed videos, it would have seemed inconceivable that he would never again come home for dinner. The Doctor said a heart attack killed him. An apologetic stranger reported that he’d seen Daddy clutch his chest, while standing near the James Patterson section. A librarian called for an ambulance, but by the time Mom made it to the hospital he had already passed away.

Kissing my two longest fingers, I kneeled to touch them to the stone. I didn’t cry. I had done that enough, already. Uncomfortable in this setting, the kids shuffled their feet. When I stood, Jerry put a strong arm around my waist and pulled me close.

As a passenger on my way to Scoma’s I could see the ocean. Why had he come back to visit me?

I didn’t have an answer, but I decided that it didn’t matter. Through the dark clouds, beams of light touched the flat surface of the water, making it sparkle like fine crystal. The beauty of it spoke to me, bringing peace to my troubled mind.

“You know how much he loved you, right?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

Folding my hands in my lap, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the emerging sun.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Doll’s Eyes by Jennifer Dickinson

My mother always told me that families should have secrets. Secrets are the glue, she said. They are healthy and bond the family. We had silly secrets like how Mom stole tiny maple syrup jugs from the Cracker Barrel gift shop and dipped wiener dogs into them as a midnight snack.

My little sister Lauren had a few years where she got diarrhea all the time and Mom let her stay out of school, telling the nurse that she had migraines because Lauren said diarrhea was too embarrassing.

As for me, I have two big secrets. One: I have this weird mole at the top of my boob and one day my mom said I need to have it removed. Gross. But my biggest secret, Lauren’s too, was Mom and how we lived.

You know how on TV shows the living rooms are always palaces? No piles of mail or shoes? No clean clothes that never made the journey from the basket up the stairs? The walls are covered in family pictures at Epcot or posters of Monet gardens? Our living room’s not a palace. It’s kind of the opposite.

Mom took the idea of a living room very seriously. She lived in it all the time. She slept on the sofa. She ate most of her meals there, too. The laundry never made it up the stairs because she changed clothes in the living room. The coffee table was covered in bills and nail polish and a box of Tampons and coupons she never used and magazines.

Sassy magazine, which was very popular in the 90s because the models looked like real teenaged girls and the articles were about bands Mom loved—Lauren and I called them the “screaming ladies.”

Mom was a teenager between 1995 and 1999. She said those years were the best of her life.

She’d get very sad talking about how she and her friends went to a club called Einstein’s that’s now been turned into a Ziggy Doo’s Ice Cream Shack. She spent every Friday and Saturday nights dancing to those screaming ladies. Mom had pink-streaked hair and lived in Doc Martens and striped tights and dresses from thrift stores.

Instead of family photos on the mantle, the mantle was covered in framed pictures of her and her old friends: four girls with pink-streaked hair and nose rings. They smoked cigarettes and drank rum-spiked cans of Orange Crush. They wore purple lipstick and purple nail polish and Mom said now they are all married to doctors and tending to broods of children. The walls were covered in posters of the screaming lady bands. And I mean covered. Like you couldn’t see any paint. In between the posters were pictures Mom cut out from Vogue and Elle magazines. Women with shellacked hair walking poodles, dripping in fur coats and pearls, Mom painted words like “slut” and “kill the system” and “anarchy now” across those women’s mouths.

Only one wall was different. And that’s the wall Mom dedicated to her Dad and it was covered in needlepointed pictures of owls, her dad’s hobby. She never got to know him very well because he died of leukemia when she was six and her mother never remarried and kept trying to fix my mom like Aunt Charlotte did.

Even though Mom never said how we lived was a secret, I’d been to other kid’s houses before. I knew that most people’s moms didn’t have a tape deck in the living room and watch Dirty Dancing at least three times a month. I knew they left the house to play tennis and garden or they had regular jobs where they put on heels and lipstick every day.

My mom only left the house to do three things: buy food, go to the bank to deposit my Dad’s checks, and go to the library to pick up old issues of Elle and Vogue and Rolling Stone off the free table, which she used for her wall collages, which was what she worked on at home.

I never had a problem with the way Mom lived because my whole life it was the three of us and it was fun. Slumber parties on the pull-out sofa bed, piled with pillows for our Oreo-eating and Dirty Dancing-watching. Lauren and I knew all the lines and for Halloween, we both got dressed up in white tank tops and short jeans shorts as the star of the movie, Baby. We both wanted to marry Patrick Swayze in heaven.

Mom never made us clean because she said Grandma made her clean too much. Once a month Dad hired Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady, Esmeralda to come over, and Mom used the time to give herself a mini-facial and wax her legs.

Really, it’s Aunt Charlotte’s fault that everything fell apart because she made us go to St. Andrew’s Academy. Mom wanted us to attend High Falls High, but Aunt Charlotte said she would foot the bill for private school and didn’t our parents want to give us the chances they never had?

Carmela nicknamed me Moldy the first day of school because she said my hair smelled like mildew and a few weeks in triple dared me to eat a chocolate-covered spider her aunt had brought her from Tijuana and when I said no, she pushed me into the lap pool, ruining the shiny penny loafers Aunt Charlotte had gifted me. In our Human Experience class, she glued my face over the green-faced lady corpse in the back of the magazine about drug overdoses and then tweeted the photo to my entire class. This got her into a little bit of trouble, but Dean Walters has always been too busy with the real cocaine problems than worry about my face on a paper corpse.

Mom wondered why I never stood up to such a worthless human being. She’d never let anyone put her down, she said. And sometimes thinking about that made me feel like crap. How did my mom end up with a loser daughter like me?

I’d put with three years of Carmela Fox before Lauren showed up for seventh grade. On Lauren’s first day, she came home crying because Carmela’s cousin, Jessie, a tiny brunette with chopstick legs and a nasty overbite, told Lauren she had the ugliest, moldiest sister ever to walk the face of the earth. And then Carmela and Jessie made up a song about us called “The Ugly Sisters,” a very uncreative name, and one that I wouldn’t have cared about if it hadn’t devastated my sister so much. Even back then, Lauren wanted people to like her.

By the end of the year, Lauren and I were the closest we’d ever been. There are tons of candidates in the yearbook─huddled on the settee in the library─sharing a bowl of chocolate truffle mousse in the student center, walking arm and arm toward the river. We got closer because of Carmela, who took aim at Lauren hard, especially at her locker. Shredded textbooks, spider babies covering her backpack, squished grape jelly in the sleeves of her raincoat.

Lauren saw the school guidance counselor who told her that some girls are just mean and the best thing Lauren could do was not cry or show any emotion. That witch gave Lauren a pin that said: Be brave.

St. Andrew’s was a bad place.

Lauren cried at home. In the shower, in her bedroom. Not in front of our Mom, because part of what Carmela teased us about was our Mom. Carmela thought it was weird that our aunt’s Hispanic maid drove us to and from school and that Mom never came to meetings or all-school dinners.

Is she covered with scales? Warts? Maybe she has two vaginas. Or fucks goats for fun. She has to be a freak to produce daughters like you. Questions like that sound crazy, but they can really wear you down. Especially if they’re asked so much that they become like a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away, even when you sleep.

I turned sixteen two weeks before the end of the year. May 15th.

Mom took me to get my driver’s license and then she let me stay home from school. We went to Donovan’s for coconut pie and afterwards I climbed into the hammock while Mom went on her every-Monday trip to the grocery store.

I yelled “More Cheerios please!” and she shut the back door and I shut my eyes. I wasn’t out very long because I could hear the chorus of “One More Day Please” coming out of Mrs. Blair’s upstairs window. Help us love, help us live, let us stay together, just give us one more day please!

I realized I was home in the middle of the day and maybe I should watch “One More Day Please” right then rather than wait until later. I’d pretend to Lauren I hadn’t seen it.

I stopped in the kitchen for a Coke and then I shoved the swinging door. I didn’t notice anyone was there at first. I love Coke and I love “One More Day Please” and that was enough to keep me focused. But then I heard a giggle.

A familiar giggle.

Evil, tiny, cold. Carmela stared at me, in my living room, by the front door.

Why was she there?

Lauren was behind her, eyes wide. She didn’t expect me to be home.

“Carmela, you were supposed to wait in the car,” Lauren said.

“Oh fuck off,” she said. “You invited me here.” Carmela zeroed in on me. “I offered her immunity if she would just let me see what the fuck is going on in this house.”

I started across the room. I wanted to stop Carmela from seeing everything, but by the time I reached her, Carmela’s eyes were all bugged out and she was grinning. She fixed her attention on the lime thrift store dress with the holes in the armpits hanging up over the television to dry. It’s got these sequined peacocks sewn into the skirt and Mom used to wear it around the house like it was a robe.

“Wow,” Carmela sighed. She pulled out her phone and started to snap a picture and I grabbed her phone and threw it hard on the ground, shattering the screen.

“You’re fucking dead, Moldy,” she said then turned to Lauren. “And if you want to have one good day of high school to remember, you will pick up the shards of my phone and take it to Dean Walters and tell her what a piece-of-shit sister you have.”

It didn’t matter what happened next. Mom would be home soon. I had to get Carmela out. I’m not a physical person. Before that day I’d never touched another person in a mean way, but I had no choice. I grabbed Carmela by the arm hard and yanked her to the door.

“What the fuck, Moldy!” she howled.

I yanked harder.

Lauren got out of our way.

After I’d thrown Carmela out of the house, I turned to find Lauren staring at the pieces of Carmela’s phone. I looked around at all the places in the room where the good memories lived: eating Oreos and watching movies and giggling, and in a flash, all those memories disintegrated.  Our living room didn’t feel like a living room anymore. It felt like a place you went to die.

Aunt Charlotte gave me the money to replace Carmela’s phone after I promised to become a “lady,” which meant manners lessons at the Club and $500 worth of pearl-buttoned cardigans and khaki pants from Talbot’s. (Aunt Charlotte swore “sand” was a better shade on me than “stone.”)

The phone cost twelve hundred dollars. Of course Carmela had the lavender glitter one with a Siri you could program to sound like Taylor Swift. I heard they only have that model in Japan.

Mom wondered all the time about Lauren. Why she stayed late at school instead of watching movies with us. Why she started wearing business suits instead of regular clothes. Swim practice was a pretty good excuse. And a boyfriend, Jasper, from my class. They got voted John F and Jackie O, which guaranteed her a free pass from Carmela. Every girl wanted to wear Jasper’s ascot on weekends.

Dating him meant instant immunity.

Mom said Lauren was growing up and we had to accept there would be changes. Mom told me we were always more alike, anyway. Which was sort of weird since Mom had a bunch of friends in high school and loved it so much. Oh, and she danced in public.

I’ll never do that. Even if I could bring Mom back from the dead if I did it. Well, maybe then. But then only.

I didn’t know before that day I should be ashamed of how we lived. We lived on our own lovely island and then it got fucking blasted to bits and I was never truly able to pick up the pieces. I won’t ever trust Lauren again. No matter what anyone else says. I’m very lucky Mom never found out what Lauren did.

I think she would’ve killed herself a long time ago if she had.

“The Last Cat,” He Said by Peter Toeg

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Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.

The Quantity Theory of Narrative by Colin Dowling

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I’m not an alcoholic. That would be too easy, too simple. I wouldn’t even mind that. At the very least, it’s something people successfully quit. It’s something else, something far worse being drunk on the world─rip roaring with possibility. And yet, it’s real and all around me even if it only occasionally feels like it.

I’m being responsible tonight. No vodka and Ting (perhaps the world’s greatest mixer), no back beat of shots between beers, just slow sipping a Presidente long neck because if I’m honest, drinking is required when you work for the 0.0000001 percent of the world, the global elite. It takes the edge off their ever expanding vacation expectations for this winter in the Caribbean.

It’s straight economics with these people. Why wouldn’t they expect to shell out $275,000 for a week’s worth of vacation?

My job looks great online though, working as a deckhand on a 200 foot luxury charter yacht, traveling and posting photos from the Carib to the Med and where ever the owner fancies. Of course, I’m only anywhere in the most literal, physical sense. I once got to drop some trash off on Santorini, filled some poor cafe’s dumpster to the brim then right back aboard the yacht and gone a half hour later. I’ve got a picture on the quay, so, it counts, technically. That’s what makes a night off worth it being on call 24-7, 365 days a year. It almost feels like I’m here.

I take another sip but can’t quite escape the habit of dulling, or is it deluding into what feels like a livable, soft focus reality? The one that stares out onto the horizon with young, fresh eyes and the sense of the world anew.

It’s still there. Through the bridge, up the channel and past the cardinal mark; endless and enthralling, something beyond the trades and tales that explain life away or make numbers or pixels of it. The dream of a grander fate that awakens the senses like being underway at night, the warm salty breeze and a faint but intoxicating mist, looking up to an innate marvel, a mystical glow in the scattered brilliance overhead as if only a black sheet were draped over the world, the light so bright and full as if piercing through defiantly from another dimension and with another enlivening glass I’ll genuinely believe and even feel that something remarkable happens.

There’s a picture online. Posted away as content, another reminder of the show I can’t quite live.

What do they always say? It’s symbolic? A symbol, a stray moment chasing, insisting a greater… No. Grander whole. Just like the story I keep telling myself I’m living, if even just to feel like there must be an ending to it.

“Did Roz’s boat get a Charter?” Amy asks.

It’s almost a relief in the crowded Soggy Dollar Bar in Saint Maarten, surrounded by screens, flashes and other yacht crews. She’s the Second Stewardess, in charge of the Third and Fourth, Sara and Meg. She’s like Thom, the Bosun ordering Geoff and me around on deck.

I know the answer but don’t want to. I’d rather just not know for a moment and kill the conversation, the one she keeps having at me, the one where I’m a ready excuse to ask about Roz and whatever it is that we’ve got going.

Is it an international friends-with-benefits?

It makes for a good story online though. Everyone back home thinks she’s from the UK. Maybe they want to? Brits really do have currency in America. Still, it’s odd being almost popular.

Everyone from grammar and high school friending and friendly after Roz dragged me back to social media. I feel like a stock character on people’s friends list, the awkward weird kid who spoke French and ended up abroad and is good for an interesting update. I’ll have to jump ship and disappear if I really want to keep it up. Last heard from in the South Pacific seems like the best option. Either that or running of with my Australian girlfriend. Why does it feel like such a cliche?

“Oh, of course she did. Have you seen this?” She continues phone in hand. It’s a picture of Roz and what looks like her crew and some painfully tanned chav throwing an arm around creeping over to the horny side of chummy.

Christ. Why is she showing me this? Is it a message, a symbol?

“Only 74 likes,” I somehow manage, before taking a long sip to wash away that sickening, pitifully human feeling. What smolders as jealousy before the drink seeps in and snuffs it out.

No. It’s nothing. Just another move in the great game every relationship ends up in. Or is this just what happens online? Where life is caught between too much information and too little meaning behind it?

Amy turns and snaps off a photo of our own crew scene then looks it over, pleased with the composition and capture. Another entry of what we post but never caption.

It doesn’t look very exciting, at least compared to that night off back in South Beach, Miami. It’s just a weathered deck overlooking a small basin of tenders and dinghys, ramshackle piers with wooden cleats, the crackling bright paint, the patio wall dark with tropical fungus, the bar made of lacquered plywood, the shower head that soaks anyone on the dance floor and the padded palm tree that still clocks crew on the way to the parking lot and the taxis just off the all hours excitement of Airport Road.

No. It’s just another Tuesday as the crew settles around a table on the deck, just another ice cold Presidente, the sweating glass cartridge and a sip and that starting lift of electric music, like some other current from the speakers, the wave on the DJ’s laptop as real as the one everyone here surfs around the world on an eternal spring break. The bar packed with other yacht crew, all at least sevens.

No one has been stuck anywhere for more than three months. Feral Aussies, wandering Kiwis, non-dom Brits, expat Zafers, roving Canadians and the odd, lost American.

Another drink and it’s not even magic. It’s brilliant. It’s lekker. There could be no other way to spend some time in your 20s. The senses awoken by the weather, the sun, the sea and almost pushing beyond, dreaming that the grand currents of the world, the heights of globalization are being ridden by the crazy, lucky few out there on the exciting edge of reality. Yes. That’s the stuff!

I read about unreliable narrators back in college, playing around with chronology and smudging the facts and jolting the narrative. And yet there’s something dangerously meta about the idea of living out an unreliable consciousness, fascinated at one moment, drifting off with the senses and all their lovely words. Then it’s almost like speaking French, as if someone else orders the drinks and carries them back to the table without a spill. You don’t even realize it’s happening. That comes later. Sometimes.

“Another round of provisions. Good man. Gotta keep morale up,” Mike, the Second Engineer adds, loudly, pulling the crew in like a commercial fishing boat Captain leading a tenth toast.

We throw the drinks together with mild cheer before settling back on course for the evening, chatting and hovering around the waypoint where someone leads the charge and answers the call to greatness and the club and all hours or everyone quietly slinks back to the boat for bottles of spring water and a plate of leftover green curry or the jerk chicken from the other night.

“Thought you said you were gonna pull a Geoff? Ride the settee and skype it up with your what’s her face?” Steve, the Chef grins almost as if he’s supposed to ask and get an answer on the record but just wants to get it out of the way with a little humor.

Should I have checked my messages before I left the boat?

No.

Best to let things steep, let a little scarcity, a little tension build.

Yeah, be canny, calculating!

And if I did go back, it wouldn’t be a quick hit. The little green dot would be on and a volley of messages before I even hit send then a skype with no negotiation or concessions and right into a protracted how-are-you-doing conversation which is really a veiled where-are-we-going that plods along until one of us slips out of the ridiculous play it cool game and admits missing the other.

She won the last one so by some shameful logic I have to let things sit. Maybe she’s on watch and I can slip back and send a quick message? Get some credit at no cost. Then again, she’s out there mixing it up, getting chummy, isn’t she?

And I’m not even flirting or anything. It’s only fair on balance. Two wrongs don’t make it right, but is it consensual?

I shake my head as if I can fling the thought off like a heaving line. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Will it be any different when we get back to shore and settle into a normalcy neither of us can stand the blame for?

How could that not be settling after being out here in the world, swimming in possibility as we stare out to the horizon you can actually see from the veranda?

Another round of drinks materializes and with another sip, suddenly, definitively, there’s no better way to spend your 20s.

***

Then that phantom energy builds, the one that ascends with the music like a building swell, or is it the gravity of the down island tide, a massive body of drink where so many tanned and lovely figures bob and bray and laugh off another Tuesday in January, riding it, reveling it. Fuck. We’re in Saint Maarten. Where’s everyone else? Is this that club on the beach by the airport? I sniffle and clear my nose caught in the lifting, exciting impression of it all, just there and shooting up toward a glorious height.

I order at the bar and look around for the crew before turning back to a pair of vodka tonics. The first washes away the faint chemical drip down the back of my throat with a blast of lemon. I slouch into the second just off the dance floor and the two for $20 suddenly feels like a bargain.

Where are the crew? What course is the evening on? Another sip of indifference for the time and the club exerts itself with a digital thudding that finds a matching, racing beat in the chest.

The sound wobbles through the crowd who revel in a blatant undulation that throws the partiers together like an industrial process, as the last flatulent gasps hammer through and fade to a steady kick and something brushing, hypnotizing, in the foreground but miles off; there is a nodding, slow velocity carrying it all somewhere with a slap, a clap or a snap on the end. Then a stuttering, pushing synth, a melody sweeps in as the bass picks up and that last gulp lifts us into the surround, and fuck that sound, some other sense awakened and there’s nothing outside this ecstatic now carrying us aloft, coursing over the world, the very noise of floating over continents between places, just building, going further to that place, that plateau, that new edge of life itself, disappearing into the soundtrack of a planet; everyone in the room soaring beyond themselves grasping at a universal entrancing us all.

A pair of English DJs stoke up the club and all the other crowds, simulcast from Bangalore to Odessa to Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires. They cheer in unison, the speakers pumping out each city from a different corner of the club, borders crushed as a sheer human exuberance roars through the place. Then it takes flight. It’s not sound. It’s not music. It’s a place, some glorious pattern seducing the neurons and fuck this is it.

This is it. Until it finds another and the slow twist of a dial, a pitch or a timbre as if gravity itself were suspended and still it goes; another order, a pattern jumping across cultures or programming, that ancient yearning of transcendence lifting us from language, from history, somehow pulling beyond an entire club, entire continents, intuiting the fullest sense of a planet, reverberating through the body and pulling me into some other simpler, clearer beautiful space, as if the world and life itself disappear to a feeling, nameless, powerful and beyond. As if that something in the spirit awakens with the majesty of the sea herself…

There is a tap on my shoulder and Steve shouts something as he motions for the door. The pitched music fades as we navigate the crowd and end up out front, the islands return: chatting, cheerfully arguing in the parking lot as Steve turns.

“Yeah, everybody bailed. But it’s still early. Just a little off midnight. You down for a night cap?” He lumbers over to a cab, mumbling a destination, and haggling the price as the driver pulls away.

An indecipherable dancehall song fills out the lurching late model mini cab while the island flashes by in a wash of orange with a faint haze of a purplish sky before we stop in a gravel lot just up from the bridge. We dismount and the strip club bouncers just nod us in, yacht crew spending habits giving us an informal VIP treatment. I take a bar stool, the jaunty sound of Top 40 electro remixes crackle out the last before the DJ’s boredom fades and a soft chime of a melody dances over a digital rush, the lyrics whispering just before a digital symbol, then a fractured synth, expanding, building; the room disperses onto a softer ethereal plain and I can feel someone looking at me and turn. She forces a smile that somehow becomes her and a faint yearning lifts the senses, awoken to a planet, as if the immeasurable distance of culture and country disappears in the glint of our eyes and some other bewitching quality pulls us from ourselves. We’re so far from home, bodies caught in this infernal, global machine, still dreaming and falling with the outro as it fades into the shabby reality of the room.

“It’s kind of funny this is the only spot you can have a drink and conversation,” Steve observes, as a pair of low balls arrive. “I mean, Jesus, the club is like needles poking out your ears, that and they throw down on decent air-conditioning here…” he continues on auto-pilot, lighting another cigarette and toying with his Dunhill lighter.

She’s turned away and chatting with a fellow dancer and…

“Oy. You’ve gotta girlfriend or something like that,” Steve bellows and snaps me back from what suddenly accounts itself as seedy, bodily indulgence.

“I don’t know. Looks like there are some exotic options with very appealing spreads,” I say, and it is kind of funny before I wonder if it is even really a joke at all, or just the reality of everything made into humor coated resignation.

He breaks into a loud and lingering smokers laugh before shaking his head. “You have the most fucked up sense of humor.”

I take another drink and try not to look at her. As if I might cling to the illusion of a gaze and all it might be, feeling some other quality─a seemingly innate allure and mystery to her─that between us is not a game but a simple indescribable spark neither of us will ever understand but savor and cherish…

I must be delusional. She’s right there and oh, so possible. She’s just a few pieces of paper away and a trip up to the knocking shop, putting a condom on me with her mouth then a warm, numb jostling in a worn out bed, drowned in red light like a night watch in the wheelhouse, a pretty face bouncing above me before it ends and all that is left is just a trick for the senses and the body, just a monthly or weekly bodily obligation, like the lifesaving equipment check or the safety drill or the monthly deck maintenance schedule.

“I don’t know how you two do the distance thing, man,” says Steve.

I almost want to explain it. I could outline that not quite acknowledged leveraging of the distance: building up the longing and the want well beyond anything back ashore, anything resembling normal; pent up and instantly redeemed when we meet up, a great surge and rush then the human bits and it rolls over us like a wave. There’s excitement in every little detail, everything so dear in all the scarcity. Something we trade with promises and futures. Every instant dependent on where it is we’re going and not what’s actually happening. And you only fleetingly notice it before another glass and lusty enthusiasm pull you into a horny, helpless now!

I take a large, desperate sip. “We’re just having fun,” I say.

“Listen to you. All downplaying and shit. What would Gordon say? Having a laugh with a slapper,” Steve starts with a mocking but spot on British accent. “You can do way better. Besides, you really want to end up down under?”

“Is she a slapper?” I can’t un-ask. Just having a laugh. Just the sort of relationship that’ll do. Got to do better. Maximize the opportunities, work out the efficiencies, increase productivity and output, optimize, optimize. I realize a surge of energy and don’t want to acknowledge it beating against my rib cage.

Do I really want to settle down in the Commonwealth? South Africa? New Zealand? But isn’t EU the way to go? UK or go Continental? Western Europe? Med? Or what about the East? Language and amusing cultural differences to keep things interesting?

It’s all really for a passport and new place to live. Not a relationship at all but another quiet transaction, covered with charm and posted with novelty, unacknowledged yet inescapable. How to choose? Can you trade looks for the right country? Or personality? Does intelligence even rate? What if she wants to move to the US?

No. It’s so much simpler than that. The answer I know but doubt, that grandest externality of them all, as if some other quality cuts through life with a feeling beyond yet known, when a gaze awakens the senses as if before the sea herself, caught with her in the eternal and seemingly infinite…

Fuck. I’ve got to get out of this. I stare down at the tumbler. I can’t escape any of it.

Did it really happen all those years back? That feeling, that awful sad simple human feeling, almost in spite of the mind and the body, that mythical space between them, that spirit caught in a sheer lift, like the transcendence of a wave, the same exhilarating ride in life itself─just before the crash, wiped out and held under for years, thrown about until it relents and on the surface there is a flat and maddeningly calm sea.

“Getting a little quiet there, bro. Christ. Look at you. Your teeth are chattering. I’m not looking for a late one but this next shot might be medicinal,” he notes clinically, flagging down the bartender.

***

The beat of the marimba throbs with a backbeat through my skull. My eyes are bloodshot. My tongue is completely parched. The third, general alarm fires off and I acknowledge it with a fumbling tap just as Geoff grunts from the other side of the cabin and rolls over, “the fuck, mate?”

There is a several millisecond delay between the thought of moving the limbs and torso and their physical response, stumbling upright and into the morning routine.

I linger in the shower and scrub and scent away the evening, still evaporating from my pores. It almost seems normal quietly making down the crew corridor for the crew galley except for the thirst, that unquenchable morning after soif that will not be slaked.

I grab a cold can of Coke rather than coffee and Vegemite Toast. Oh, that wickedly medicinal sweet crackle and bite. Gotta pace it, I realize with half the can down. Calm, breath slowly. It’s going to be okay.

This isn’t nearly as bad as Monaco last season. Until it isn’t and what feels like a gut punch before a volley of heaves as I land my face in the sink and retch into the basin and fuck, someone heard it. Fuck, someone will smell it. Turn on the water, slosh it around before word of it gets to the Captain and the call to the wheelhouse and it’s over and here’s your ticket home and best of luck out there.

I head up the dock for a cigarette and try dulling the sticky, acrid taste of digestive fluid and Coke. I attempt a mouthful of water. It stays down with optimism before the stomach jumps again and I hang off a piling just out of sight and spill into the lagoon. Getting started is a feat. And, of course, I’m on deck. Even a wide brimmed hat and the best polarized sunglasses are nothing against this tropical light. The crisp optics everyone flies in for, broiling down and expelling whatever water is left in my body, now leaking from every pore.

Everything is flat, the world and everything around me happen in simple mechanical reality, determined, steady and anticipating. The body aches and creaks as a cheery lobe in my brain clings to the training like flotsam on the open ocean. There’s process and the reassuring simplicity of wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and touch up with an absorbent chamois. The exciting trade of my time is gone. It’s just another job.

Do I really need to be here? Setting up the buckets of soap and water, laying out a hose to clean a soiled yacht to perfection? I slip into the routine, struck mute.

Geoff only bothers with the most perfunctory conversation, “Have you rinsed the portlight sill?” He comfortably mocks what is just a passing stage in his life. Just cruising through like a 21st century Redmond Barry, making the best of it and counting the days until he jumps ship and sets up in the UK. He’s certain to land as far from a dairy farm in New Zealand as one can possibly dare.

“Did you wet that bit?”

I would be back home, setting up shop in a condo kitted out with travel artifacts and a mass of volumes. Doing legal scut work with all the other legal assistants going to law school at night, toiling toward whatever simulacrum of a career exists post-2008.

“Where is the Black Streak Remover?”

Would it be different passing the bar, at best scraping together enough work to pass through some non-business expensed income, scouring restos and bars and affably begging for some word of mouth from third link friends of my brother? All of whom would wonder why anyone would give up such an interesting job on yachts to be, at best, a middle tier small town lawyer grafting and grubbing for a house let alone a boat to occasionally sail on the Chesapeake Bay and rekindle the feeling I’m supposed to be having here and now.

“Did you run a hose off the bow?”

It wouldn’t be enough, still clinging to an expired cosmopolitanism, those dated recollections of the world held together with a scatter of foreign newspapers in the browser history, amazon.fr orders, and discerning visits to Whole Foods for cheese. Maybe I would meet another ex-expatriate, obsessed with German of all languages, worldly but stranded, forever referring to that position she took at a gallery in Berlin as a few years back. Both insisting those other selves we knew, those instants we’ll never quite describe and never appreciate outside a yearning shared, powering the story we’ll wear. About it all simply being a layover, the feint then the excuse for coming in last to get a mortgage and a place to decorate with all the artifacts from failed sojourns, lingering in the caustic truth that you can never go home again. Another round of that middle pushing into upper middle game of where we’ve been or are heading, leveraging every place over so many conversations, what we saw no longer matters outside the story, if it ever did.

I’m worldly, a sailor. I’ve got South America and Africa, sub-Saharan, mind you. Back in a conversation it would take a year of BBQs and holidays and parties to wear thin, just sitting there as everyone else chats about the real world and life, just a polite friendship from the old days, whatever was and must be. Then one day casting that foreign eye on it all, that yearning for the world itself, for that feeling out there, almost mythical, as if some force or other. The one that really isn’t there at all kicking about from place to place, quietly making the trade of new, more exciting elsewhere’s against a home never found but perpetually fled. Obliviously, excitedly living out the tale of it all─as mechanical and predictable as the shurhold pole, extra soft blue brush and a frothy five gallon bucket of awl wash in the wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and chammy cycle. That fitting return from another foolish night chasing what must; always remembered as grander possibility, out where things happen and drunk enough to let them and almost believe it.

“Bummer about watch,” says Geoff when we stow the gear in the Bosun’s locker and draw out the task with a quick tidy that eats up the last half hour. Of course, I’m on watch. “Skype your bird at least,” he adds cheerily.

I slip off the boat and up the dock for some air and a cigarette and hide behind a thicket of dense tropical shrubs next to the marina office. A massive Air France flight roars over the lagoon, banks sharply. It levels off and climbs between the low mountains before disappearing into the clouds.

They’ll be in Paris in eight hours, touch down at Roissy then the story through customs and that random schedule for the RER into the City. Catching the express always feeling like a feat, a stoked ride through the banlieu then hop off at Gare du Nord and down to the 11eme or past the labyrinth at Chatelet and St. Mich or on to Luxembourg and into an airbnb, a pleasing room with a kitchenette and bathroom appended to it, a pair of tall windows overlooking a small square at a collision of ruelles, a cafe, a tabac and a boulanger and then what?

It’s not really a dream. It’s just a story and don’t want to realize how necessary as the plane disappears into a cloud bank.

The radio calls me to the wheelhouse and I know where I am.

Colin Dowling draws on his experiences abroad: going to school in France, working on the Mediterranean and sailing the Atlantic. He writes to capture that feeling when you find yourself between borders, cultures and languages. As surfer, writer and sailor, he continues to explore globalization at the personal level. Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, he gets back abroad as soon as he can. He is currently querying a novel about his time working on a billionaire’s private luxury yacht. You can read him at: https://medium.com/@NotesfromAground or find him on Twitter: @NoteFromAground

Movie Night by Marie McCloskey

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I eased myself onto the oversized seat. My back popped and my knees locked up, but I clutched my goodies tight. A few kernels of popcorn sprinkled the floor and I nodded to my assist dog, Sally. “All yours, girl.”

The stiff chair didn’t offer as much comfort as my old recliner, but I hadn’t been to a movie in years. I was determined to enjoy it. At fifteen dollars a ticket I’d have to. I knew prices had gone up, but the concession was so high there should have been gold in the popcorn.

I got extra butter to stick it to them. Piled on the salt and took enough napkins to wipe my mouth for the next year too.

The ex would have glared at me at me. Not that she would have dared to leave her couch. Her precious Netflix shows widened her ass as fast as my injury grew my gut. I shook my head at the thought. I missed being able to walk without pain. Found myself hating the joggers I drove past on the way here.

At least the divorce is almost done. I shook my head and jammed a handful of popcorn in my mouth. The salt danced on my tongue. I gulped my drink letting the cherry coke dissolve the popcorn and fizz before swallowing.

Now I can at least enjoy some of my life again. I patted Sally on the head. She rested her face on my lap and I sat back thinking of all I’d missed out on since I got married.

“No bacon on the pizza if you want me to eat it.” The first time she said that, it was cute. After twenty years of marriage it felt like prison.

I grinned to think of how I handled her walking out on me. “You’re not the same anymore, Chuck!” she shouted.

I can’t believe I was so mad at the time. “Of course I’m not.” I slapped my leg. “I can’t do the shit I love anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore. All we ever do is fight.”

“Only because you won’t accept me as I am. Sickness and health were just ideas to you, huh?” I’d growled.

She stormed out and I ordered and extra-large pizza with triple bacon.

At least now I can die happy, I told myself, shoved more popcorn in my mouth and belched loud enough to make the kids behind me giggle.

I turned to wave at them. “I haven’t been to a movie in years.”

A little five year old girl waved back, but her mom ignored me.

Just like Jillian.

When not arguing, she had pretended I didn’t exist. The pain in my leg stabbed all the way up my spine and she just ignored my groans. I should’ve known not to trust her. She didn’t even like dogs. I can barely trust people who don’t like dogs or at least cats, and she didn’t like any animals.

“We can’t have a dog destroying our nice home,” her fighting words came right after the wedding.

“You loved, Willis.” I gaped at her. “He was the best. Slept at the foot of the bed to keep my toes warm. And I never had to clean up spilled food. He made a perfect vacuum.”

Jillian rolled her eyes.

My loyal buddy was laid to rest in the backyard just before our wedding. He was there now, rotting under the manicured lawn I worked so hard to keep up to my wife’s standards.

“He was nice.” She had scoffed at me. “But named after a terrible actor.”

I could accept pizza without bacon and didn’t really want to replace my awesome dog, but there was no compromising with a woman who insulted Bruce Willis, no matter how type-cast he is sometimes.

Out of duty and the nature of societal pressure, I somehow got through it. Two decades I endured that…that woman. I shoved another handful of popcorn in my mouth. Kernels littered my belly. I tried to grab the ones that fell into the cracks of my seat but they escaped my clutches.

I bent forward to try and contain the mess. A fart squeezed out of me. I sat up and looked around.

No one said anything, but the couple a few seats down got up and moved further away.

More room for me, I guess. I fanned my nose.

Sally lay down and rested on my foot.  

“No woman was ever as good to me as you.” I carefully leaned forward clenching my butt to keep kamikaze gas at bay. “Go ahead.” I waved at the popcorn on the floor and she munched it.

The lights went down and the screen filled with sweaty bodies. They morphed to a woman buttoning her jeans over gaunt hips, then cut forward to a car racing along a sea-side road. I squinted and scratched my head. A single line whispered at the end. The breathy voice confirmed that I had survived yet another unbearable perfume commercial.

And people wonder why no one pays attention to this junk. I laughed to myself. They’re more useless than ever. Anything that’s gonna sell doesn’t need commercials. I marveled at the shiny smiles plastered on the people onscreen.

Jillian hated commercials almost as much as I did, at least. Netflix got that right, but they’ll probably be running ads soon too. Just like cable. The whole point of buying that was originally to avoid ads in the middle of a show, but then the providers wanted more money and killed that dream.

I rubbed my pocket, glad to have a thicker wallet without Jillian. What had started out as seven or eight dollars a month became added packages, more streaming services. Hulu. HBO. All the networks wanted to suck me dry. They left little to help with the doctor bills after the accident.

I had grown so indifferent to new shows: Amazon originals, Netflix series. They lacked something, but I couldn’t describe what. My inability to articulate the emptiness of flat storylines and mass media consumption annoyed Jillian to the point that she wouldn’t watch anything with me.

I guess I had grown a little cynical. But who wouldn’t?

I happily turned to books for entertainment. The classics were still there full of intelligible ideas and characters so real they became trusted friends. This movie was it, the one I had been waiting for, for half a decade. Hollywood finally got off the remake/nostalgia-porn train and put stock into new stories again.

Based on the book of all books, it couldn’t fail me. The story felt so real I empathized with the characters more than the woman I had married.

Thinking of all the attempts I made to get her to read the book still made me shake his head. “Just try the first page and if it doesn’t hook you, I’ll leave you alone.”

A callous cloud darkened the hue of her hazel eyes. She shrugged me off. How could something that meant so much to me not even interest her a little?

I despised how easy it was to imagine her─leaning against the arm of the couch─controller in hand. Her finger hovered over the play button to resume binge-watching her favorite garbage.

I froze in my seat. For a moment, I feared I would reawaken to the nuptial nightmare. But the theater screen plastered a PG-13 rating before us all. My breathing steadied, and the previews began.

I zoned out during scenes for the next big comedy flick. It looked like something from Idiocracy. Poop jokes, and stupid faces were all the comedic world had to offer? I couldn’t accept that. I cracked my knuckles and rubbed my knee.

The other trailers were a circus of explosions, women crying, men screaming, and a one giant eyed alien. None of them impressed me. I checked my phone to see how long we’ve been waiting. Twenty-minutes. I paid to watch twenty minutes of ads trying to get me to watch or buy something else.

I forgot why I even decided to go to a movie.

A hum of hushed voices surrounded me. I scanned the shadowed heads, wondering what they would think of the film. At least this movie will be different.

Sally smacked her lips and rested her chin against my ankles.

I shoved more popcorn in my mouth and gulped some soda. I sloshed the cold liquid around my teeth like mouthwash.

Mouthwash. My old morning routine came to mind like a movie on the screen. Jillian rolling away from me before I could kiss her.

“Morning breath.” She moaned.

She never kissed me unless my teeth were perfectly polished and my mouth was minty fresh. I grew to resent peppermint. I despised fluoride.

I grabbed the mouthwash and stared at its alcohol content. I couldn’t decide if drinking the entire bottle would get me drunk or kill me but either seemed like a nice solution. Anything to stop Jillian from complaining again.

I wondered if any cases of death-by-mouthwash existed. I contemplated experimenting. If it would have gotten her to admit she was wrong, I would have died a perfect martyr.

Now glad to be a survivor, I wore the recollection like a badge of honor. I fought and endured. And now, I have won.

I scratched my receding hairline, glad to be rid of her constant suggestions for fixing that too. I didn’t want to be fixed. Nothing would stop time. Nothing could fix my age or what life had done to me.

I blinked hard. A video filled with cute disabled kids played, asking the audience to turn off their phones. I silenced mine and pushed it back in my pocket but all around, the glow of cell phones flashed like lightning bugs on steroids.

I couldn’t understand it. The theatre had been completely devoid of the damn things until the commercial mentioned them. Now everyone seemed to be checking texts and emails.

I leaned over my seat and squinted at what was so important to the lady adjacent to me. Bad idea. Bile rose in my throat. My ass twitched.  My spit turned sour as the image of a veiny dick implanted itself in my brain.

God strike me blind! I rubbed his eyes. My hands shook, but I managed to grip my soda and suck more down.

“Oh, yeah. It’s finally out,” a nasal voice sounded from behind me.

Everyone sat still, busy wearing out their thumbs typing. Maybe they’ll be done when the movie starts, I hoped, but not even the up-tempo song, or the comical opening credits deterred them.

My mouth went dry. My heart beat slowed to a hard angry thump. No one said anything.

No one was going to stop them.

I grabbed my cane and forced myself up. “I’ve waited too long for this.”

The brilliant illumination of angry faces sat framed with the glow of the screen.

“If you’re not going to watch the damn movie, then go home. I paid too much to sit here while you all ruin the show.”

A couple of people clapped, some turned off their phones and slumped in their seats.

It worked. I jerked my head from side to side. I’d never felt so good.  I was a hero. I had stood up for myself, my rights, and the rights of all mankind.

I stuck out my chest, stretched my chin forward, and drew an enormous breath. They were listening to me. I needed to take the opportunity and further educate them, since no one else would.

“And you know what? I wonder how many of you even read the book. You do know how to read, don’t you? Or are you too busy binge-watching your precious Netflix shows?”

Sally pawed at my leg and let out a low woof. She nipped at my elbow. I know I should have stopped and watched my movie, but I was trying to confront injustice. I couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me sir.”

My heart froze and I turned toward the voice. A flashlight blinded my eyes and I held my hand up to deflect the glare.

“I’m going to have to ask you to sit down and be quiet, or you’ll have to leave.”

My body went cold. A couple of people clapped and I found it difficult to swallow. “Maybe I should go.” I grabbed my cane. But the little girl behind me, the very one who laughed when I burped stood and grabbed my hand.

“No Mr. Guy. You should watch this. It will be fun.”

Her mom grimaced. “Jilly baby, sit down.” She pulled her back.

“Jilly?” I asked.

The little girl nodded.

I apologized to everyone and sat back down. “You have a beautiful name,” I whispered over my shoulder.

I loved bacon. Loved my dog. I had loved my wife for a time. I contemplated that as the movie played.

The acting fell flat. All the best lines never came. My eyelids grew heavy and I nearly fell asleep in public like some kind of retirement home escapee.

I yawned and glanced around when the movie was over.

“Did you like it?” The lights went up and little Jilly smiled with curls tickling her chubby cheeks. “It was so fun.”

“It was perfect.” I waved to her and her mom forced out a smile.

“Okay honey, it’s time to go.” She ushered her away, but I stretched and scratched my knees.

Sally prompted me to rise. My stomach rumbled.

I stood and gasped at the shooting pain that hit my left arm. It burned a bit too, worse than my knee ever plagued me. “Come on girl. Let’s get some quadruple bacon pizza on the way home.”

We got the pizza on the way home. I sat in my chair and licked the grease from my fingers before the pain in my arm climbed to my chest and knocked me to the floor.

And that’s how I got laid up in this hospital. My ex didn’t deserve me or Sally, but maybe I can cut back on the bacon. Just a little.

Marie likes to let her work speak for itself.

Risking Delight by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

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I listen idly to the deep, resonant whoop of a solitary coucal and then to the throaty chorus of coucal calls that follow─each bird call starting when one ends. I sit on warmish grass dampened by freak autumn rains in September and try to discern their feathered presences among trees in the pale ribbon of the evening light. I look for their glossy bluish-black plumages, their chestnut wings and their black, loose, long, tails but they are so perfectly blended within the dense tree recesses that they remain hidden.

I am sitting in my rectangular garden. It that takes over the front of my cottage on the outskirts of New Delhi, with a line of heavenward-shooting trees running along each side and a copse of varied smaller shrubs on the inside. I get the feeling that it is the greenery around that is summoning me with its full tones.

As the leaves of the trees and the shrubs shimmer with the moisture of rain, I wonder what their heightened calls give notice of, what secrets they divulge. A part of the double-dealing cuckoo family, I believe ornithologists when they say, “these coucal calls are more about what they hide than what they say.”

I understand their theatrical masquerades as I understand myself. Dissembling has been among my early survival skills. The first marker of my oddness. The other being my lonely pursuit of choices that lie outside the norm.

Let me start with the smoke screen and the peculiarities of my current profession in the here-and-now of my life. In my early thirties, I work in an intimate market, in the business of buying and selling secrets. I was and still am hired by shocked, betrayed wives who find their husband straying. As a ‘mistress dispeller’, which is my official designation, I befriend the mistress, woman to woman, invade her life, uncover her weakness or her many damaging weaknesses to the wife so as to break up the liaison.

As I see it, I excel in my outlandish job, in the ‘private intel space.’ No one knows better than me of the unbridled excitement of forbidden attachments. If I know how to nurture such connections then I know as much about how to undo them with nonchalance. But more of my own earlier life of sensuality when I unwind the tale of my past from my tale of my today, the life of my yesterday from the life of my today: To a charming gossip columnist, Vidya Jain, who I gave an ’in’ to my world.

 I confessed, “I, unwittingly and to my bemusement, also break up a medley of martial peculiar orders and family arrangements that have come to be in our city’s contemporaneity.”

Vidya, in her column, spoke of my innate sensibilities of a spy that aids me in my job. She said, “She has a keen sense of observation, a knack of idly engaging and finding common ground with anybody, the plusses of a natural liar (you really can’t learn to lie as you will trip up sooner than later), a clandestine, street-wise ability to press the limits of rules and regulations to test how much she can get away with, an artist’s (some would murmur a con artist) ability to talk her way out of trouble and a preparedness to be adaptive toward changing situations.”

To this, she added, “She even uses technology with élan, her spy pen being her most useful aide memoir and infected phones her best spyware, a giveaway of all secrets on her cloned screens.” She also put in what I reiterated in my talk with her. “I know with certainty that every application on the phone has a backdoor and that hacking tools are as easy to access as an Uber cab.”

I, understandably, did not give her permission to use my name. But I must admit she is as much of a deadeye as I am and as able to extract information.

Samir Kaul, a freelance entertainment journalist, was not so charitable about my work. My client foolishly gave him my details, as she was riding on the wave of petulance and peevishness about her husband’s infidelity. His piece said, “Her dishonourable undercover work is conducted using a footloose, freewheeling team─an assorted, deviant, group of hackers, fact-checkers, small-time sleuths, bush-league citizens with a kinship to the underworld, among many other such outliers─ who roam Delhi’s socio-economic borderline.”

I had the piece, which identified me by name, squashed. An editor I knew tipped me of its scheduled date of appearance. I put my rag a tag gang to work. They came up with lurid details of his life that I used to silence him and his piece. “Sweet revenge!” my team exulted.

In an odd-sort of togetherness with my team, I have managed many a coup d’état. For the past four years, I have been carrying my burden of deception lightly, and, as a few who think they know what I do, say, with animation.

Only my psychiatrist has a whiff of my uneasiness, of how, “I get divided within as I enter the troubled spaces of others and become part of the storm within their world,” and how, “the bizarre untruths and dubious acts make me unsure of the condition of my being, my inner core.”

What dragged me to her couch a month ago with this baneful job were the beginnings of small fidgets of anxiety in my mind that worked itself up into a lather of fretfulness. I now suffer from a permanent sense of inner discomfort and unease, impulses that are new to me. My old avatar being one of infinite self-assuredness. But, as I said earlier, more of that when I tell you of my past cocksureness.

Inclined, as a rule, towards guardedness, a dislike of having to share my private predicaments and given the nature of my job that calls for me not to be loose-lipped, it took me long to reveal bits of myself to her.

As I was advised full disclosure if I wanted to heal, I coerced myself to admit more than I wished. “Until now, I have had no qualms about the shape and order of my inner being,” I said, “as manipulating situations and people gets me what I want. As it is the nature of fire to burn, it is my nature to hide what I am.”

I suspect knowing who I am as opposed to who I appear to be disconcerted her. I also suspect that she, who was to render no judgement, did not have kind words for me in her copious assessment notes. As it was only her medicines, not she, who could soothe me somewhat, I discontinued my visits very soon.

Take my last assignment for Leela Sahani as a test case of what I do for a living and as a kind of explanation for my being in this lady’s lair. Leela came to my office on a cold, foggy morning, in ire, determined “to chargrill her husband’s lover into juicy smokiness”. “Stop at nothing to uncover the truth of my husband’s carousals,” she instructed me. “Spy, catfish, break security codes, procure bank records under false claims, read personal correspondences, keep tabs on gifts, install spy cameras and eavesdrop in all manner of speaking. Do what it takes,” she ordered.

In my world that is lived a lot off screens and technology, I did most of what she asked for and some more on the ground with the help of my unholy team. My most invasive technique was to intimately befriend the young, radiantly voluptuous, Ria Mathur, the ‘other’ woman, feigning similar passions and reciprocal altruism.

I went about it with the thoroughness of a method actor, by ‘accidentally’ bumping into her and starting an animated conversation that continued as banter for months on our cell phones where we glittered on thus. I, in my contrarian puckishly charismatic way, and, she, in her typical, abrasive, unrestrained, lippy, narcissistic Delhi way, coating her tongue with an unbearably coarse accent each time she spoke to me.

She believed I found her immoderately charming.

She bargained her way into my affections and onto what she called my “classy way of life” buying sweaters for our iPhone (her iPhone was gifted by Leela’s husband), Guci bags (as she could not afford the missing c in the name) and oily edibles, all of which found its way into my bin. I threw some baubles in her direction.

Our relationship almost took on the contours of an all-absorbing romance. She was hyper-verbal about everything in her life. “I love gol gappas (round, hollow, deep-fried crisp crepes filled with a mixture of flavoured water) and could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” (Yikes!) “My Pomeranian Pinky is my soul mate.” (A breed that is an apology for a dog, if you ask me) “My boss loves my button nose and to peek at my cleavage.” “My family is very strict and I am terrified of my brothers and father but otherwise, I never dodge fights, hold my tongue or mind the rules with anyone.”

She mistook my attentive listening for empathy.

Her candour about her boozy, seductive liaisons with Neel─Leela’s husband─was equally cloying in its details. “I was so open and mast (flamboyant) while his responses were dara hua (scared and tentative). I love the way I melt in my insides like a maum (candle) in the heat of his mohhabat (passion)and the nasha (intoxication)of his tone when he callsme his jaan (life).”

I began to dread her phone calls, their clichéd dreariness and the sheer triteness of her conversations.

It took me no time with my dark art to know her vulnerability. It was as banal as money. I turned in her details and the jigsaw of my team’s findings to Leela who instantly bartered money in lieu of her soiled husband.

Of course, my tidbits on Ria’s family life helped. Leela told me, “I fisted Ria and my husband’s romance in the stomach, once for all, by threatening to tell of the affair to her family of three giant looking brothers and I-can-give-complex-to-a-rhino kind offather. I said to her this is my one-time payment to you and I want you to never contact my husband.”

The outing of infidelity is rarely simple or dignified. The exposed are utterly unshelled which is what happened to Ria and Neel. While I, in my perfect disguise, got to keep my camouflage as armour. They never knew the leak came from me, a fact that holds for all the cases I have handled so far.

I was, however, not completely exempt from downsides. I had to continue to hear Ria’s inane chatter and despairing wails of being discovered for some more time to keep my work’s tell-tale features hidden. For ‘plausible deniability of involvement’, as we call it in our professional parlance. And, two, I had face up to the fact that my head was no longer as steady, no longer as inured to the risks and the insanity of my profession, its masterful puppetry of plying and pulling of others’ life strings. Just to be clear, I was not bothered with my subterfuges being uncovered.

My insecurity arose from my hair-trigger paranoia of my psychological stability. I was assailed by a sense of losing myself, of having gone too far down the void of a rabbit hole, of not being in control of my life and my person, something very unfamiliar and frightening for me. I would never have believed such a thing probable in my life when in my twenties and would have laughed in anyone’s face if they said I would be seeing a shrink in my life.

I have always found camouflage to be a wonderful thing as I am sure you have inferred by now. My seeming to be someone else while concealing who I really am has been a captivating game for me from childhood. I have lived in my shadows of subterfuge for so long that my disguises are now a part of me. They have never felt wrong or dysfunctional but fun like play-acting.

In my early years, my father often worried about me growing up without a mother, the lack of her influences and anchoring. He would point me to a picture of the wheel in our drawing room, say that it should remind me of living my life from the centre. “When we live our life from the rim of the wheel, we focus on externals, what you can see with your eye or hear with your ear. Externals will never make you strong in your inner core,” was something he repeated to me often.

Did he sense my secrecy and cover-ups even then? My little manipulations and the small contradictions in my stories? Was he worried that what he permitted could turn into what he promoted? A number of times, I felt in my bones that he seriously disapproved my lack of a blood bond to him and my tenuous attachments to friends. His constant urging me to “grow more affection and altruism” confirmed his dim view of my lack of filial and fraternal fidelity.

Conflicts of my amoral outlook did register in my furrowed brows at a young age. At fourteen, to the confession priest in my school’s church, I said, “Father, I worry about why moral perfection is not burrowed into my sense of the world. I do try time and again to lean towards goodness, but I fail.”

All he said was, “Mend your ways, child. Find your path towards God.”

The holy water he gave me was supposed to help. It didn’t.

 Such urges simply died when I reached my twenties. The subterranean hum of my true nature became voluble by then and I began to accept the freefall of my basic tendency. One that was to maximise my utility at the expense of others, sometimes even at the risk of bringing about negative outcomes in other’s lives. At this point in my life, I came to a clear understanding that I have been involuntarily following my innate instincts all through my life and that I will continue to do so as this is the only way I know how to be.

My elite life in New Delhi, ten years past the turn of the millennium, was, hence, an indulgence, unbound by any ideological mooring, one persuasion or another. I overheard one girl say of me, “She is simply interested in getting as much as she can for herself, her personal interest acting as her sharpest spur to action. She sees inventive dissembling in the guise of simple naiveté as a good way of getting by as being strategic in choosing when to cooperate.”

She was not wrong.

While at the campus in the northern part of the city, doing a post-graduate course in economics, I never bought into the argument that my economics professor would tout, “that it is in understanding the interests of others that we are able to fulfil our own.”

My counter was, “attempting idealised perfectibility and equality in personal, political, economic and social spheres will always fail. The dark mirror of utopias, dystopias, will show up in fallen social experiments, stringent political regimes and controlling economic systems.”

These beliefs may sound Machiavellian to some but I had yet to read him at length at that point. My beliefs sprung from my own interpretations of the world around me. It surprised me then as it does now that my old professor held on to human goodness while I ingested the meaning of utopia to be ‘no place’ both literally and metaphorically. And that I have always believed that disinterest in gathering personal resources is ideologically unhealthy.

So as I was saying, life in my twenties was a time of riotous springtime joy. My diary noting for this period says, “My life now is a seemingly eternal season of silk cotton fluff fluttering in a breath of wind. A time when ‘adventure’ is the ticket. A time when it feels beautiful to be in my body when a golden heat flows skin-deep, vital and shining. A time to allow passion to take up space within my body’s clear effusive warmth, changing the balance, making ripples in the air that it passes through. A time to throw away the cultural scripts written for women.”

It was easy for me with my erotic loveliness and with my umbrella shadow of luck and privilege to flit fast from liaison to liaison within New Delhi’s gilt-edged, closed-in community. I went on thus compulsively and in secret for eight long years. As I sought transitory physical attachments and never emotional closeness that tended to feelings, my many past lovers were put one by one where they belonged, out of my life and in the past. As I saw that the simplicity and security of one partner was not for me, I cleared each of my lover’s residual impact quickly to reclaim my sexual sovereignty. For me, the idea of taking on inner pain in the name of love was needless torture.

It never happened.

I don’t think it was my attractiveness that particularly drew men to me. There were women with far more beauty and feminine mystique. I think what one of the men in my life said to me explains why men were drawn to me. “You send out subconscious scent signals that urge a sexual response.” So I will go with my all-scented wanton, womanly body as the reason for my appeal and as the reason for why I unwound men.

It was one connection in particular that held me for very long. I note in my diary that it was “pulse-pounding, ardent, dangerous and disruptive.” Dangerous and disruptive as, in our case, we were both married. It was no impediment though, despite the watched and guarded nature of personal and social lives.

My diary entries for this period are uninhibited. “Our lust is on the loose. We taste the excitement of each other’s lives and yearn for another thousand faraway possibilities. It is so exciting to carry on our furtive trysts with note messages tucked into bicycles, furtive calls through the day, midnight meetings and through the courting each other through poetry in well-modulated cadences.”

“The folds of our sheets could tell stories of just how truly bad we are,” we would often joke. Our affair was freighted with lies, secrets and ongoing deceptions that uncontained relationships like this need. We risked our delight as there was no license in my marriage or his to open up our experiences and connections to others. Or to reshape it in any way to our needs.

Thinking back, I realize I must have had holes in my conscience through all my many relationships post-marriage as it remained oddly innocent through all the illicit dangerousness. And my middle-class Indian background, that should have tethered me with moral chastity belts, not even allowing my fantasies to roam freely, failed in its reign-in.

The backlash to our lustful dare devilries arrived swiftly, once we got found out. His wife called me up. “You rubbishy creature, how could you do this to me and my child? I can’t think of another person in the whole world that I despise more than you. You have the morals of an alley cat and I will pray that you rot in hell in a sludge of substances.”

Her succession of emails were far more vitriolic and delivered a tirade of expletives. She threatened to inform my husband and ruin my life.

She did. My marriage and my double life folded.

My life’s deceptions were witnessed by all and my personal stories made public. I was made to map the extent of my misdemeanours. People, especially women, saw me as a “labyrinth of many unknown paths” and I let them live with their belief. I guess because it was true in many ways.

I had to use indifference as a defence mechanism to counter my powerlessness. It is not as if I did not hurt from the inside but the recognition of who I really am insulated me, made me understand that my adventuresome actions and decisions were in many ways ineludible.

In defence of my husband, I think he would have been able to handle “minor palterings” but he could not cope with my “many flat out deceptions’, as he termed them. Once my lover’s wife outed our deception, many other women were emboldened to whisper to him about how I “turned my affections towards him to others.”

And it is also not as if my husband did not try to understand me or my indiscretions. He did. But we were toppled over by another awkward trio that came to be─him, the counsellor and me.

We made efforts to cut through the complications and permanent barriers created but failed. The counsellor felt my reasons for straying and staying were “delusive” and noted that I “felt no guilt that most others would feel when engaging in stuff like this, something hurtful to others.”

Finally, my husband gave up, saying, “I think there is nothing left to save. Now my entire idea of what the world is, and the truth of what is and isn’t, feels like it is on a chopping board and that trust between us is a thing of the past. In fact, I am not certain we had trust to begin with.”

I begged and I pleaded. It was ignominious. “Let’s start afresh. I promise to be true to you. I will make up for the times I let you down,” I beseeched. My moment of complete abasement came when I cried, “Where will I go if you leave me? I have nothing to fall back on, what will I do?”

He remained unmoved. Our marriage came to an end when I reached the age of thirty with two court hearings and a signature. It purged me of all my relationships and friendships.

Looking back, I see that I mostly observed my husband from under closed eyelids through our eight-year connection. All I can say is the mild warmth of my marriage at twenty-two years of age and his unrelenting gravity bored me and I, “could not be demure and domestic,” as my mother-in-law curtly said in her first assessment of me when my father and she met to, “marry me off,” as they call the curious social engineering of arranged marriages.

I know all of this sounds an easy summation of the situation or of why I was not as safe or knowable as other women around. My arguments do lack introspection and show up my inability to face up to the crucial actions in my life as also my casual, cruel displacement of an individual. But that is all I have as that is how I am.

Maybe I should have taken my dead aunt Renuka’s notion of singlehood as a desired way of life seriously and fought with more intensity against being ambushed into marriage. She did, in her sickness, warn me, when my father was pushing me into marriage. “Don’t allow boldness of your aspirations to be bleached into a pastel of family expectations. I know you well and this is what will happen if you marry.”

No one knows how a thing like a divorce will strike you before it comes to you. But one thing was certain; it brought on a dreadful reckoning over which I had no control.

I reeled for months under an unfamiliar sense of insecurity and the harsh realization that I had no particular skills to make a living. The sniggers of those around who said, “She will probably allure a whole organization now,” cut to the bone. But at least I had a place to stay. My father who passed on two years ago, erasing all records of my childhood, left behind a cottage on the outlying part of the city from where I could make a new beginning.

In my thwarted life, I chose to be a mistress dispeller as it fell within my catchment area. I had never known it to be a thing until my marriage was spluttering and I heard whispers that my lover’s wife had employed one to peel away my secrets.

I don’t know if she did.

I do know a woman sought to befriend me around the time of my last affair and that I did reciprocate, meeting her for an odd coffee or drink. I am not sure how much I said or whether she was why I got found out but the idea of the job description stuck in my head. Talk of life’s ironies. It was my lover’s wife in a way who set me up in this covert career.

So I live my life now with a job in the game of seduction, one that is heart-in-the mouth, immediate and fierce in its gaze of the hidden, almost delivered from my societal shame. Or maybe not.

Today, is my new life, four years of age, with its changed balance in my role as a mistress dispeller, a liberation of sorts? A validation and affirmation of self-perceived abilities and a balm for injured self-esteem, as I see it? I earn well, act as a relief worker for many distressed women, mask my own sexuality and keep my own life and its engagements denuded to a minimum, almost solitary, to erase my past waywardness. Or it is really a doppelganger of an earlier existence, a double walk as it were, on the path of stealth and strategy? One with ethically, morally and socially questionable attitudes and behaviours, as many say?

After all, I do freely admit to the buzz I feel when codebreaking and the power I feel when I play God and wreak judgement on others’ lives. This even though I myself have indulged in such a lifestyle with abandon.

If pressed to find language about my current situation, I would say it is uncomfortable. My idea that the ground beneath me is solid, dependable, that I can build on it, that I can trust it to support me, is gone. The gaping hole in my mind, in my life, seems to mock the very idea of solid ground, of trustworthy geology.

I live off-course, in a state of doubtful uneasiness in my mind, rolling over peaks and troughs, splayed by them, and struggle to enter into a stable ground of belief about myself, my life. I look for the easygoing self-assurances of my life in my twenties but they are nowhere to be found.

Is my strife within the beginning of consciousness?

I sit vertiginously atop of a Ferris Wheel, the world beneath me, wondering if the wheel wisdom of my father will work out answers for me.

Will it help me find my way back to things I can trust? Will it help me find my own floor? Should I adopt the wisdom wheel, its love and kindness, as my compass, as a way of coming to terms with myself, as my catharsis? Should I finally now accept my hubris in thinking I can control my life from its rim?

I need to find out fast before I lose myself. Before I don’t fit in my head at all.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist by training, a social development consultant by profession and a creative writer by choice. With decades of experience in writing books on social development, she willfully exploits several creative genres to bring out the exertions of living in modern-day Delhi, caught as people are in its uneven, messy and riotous surges. She understands that finding one’s balance in the city’s whirlwinds is not easy and considers herself fortunate to be living on a farm with her family, a little away from the city, keeping company with her dog, her many feathered friends and fishes.

Babycakes by Dash Crowley

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A few years back all the animals disappeared. We woke up one morning and they just weren’t there anymore. They didn’t even leave us a note or say good-bye. We never quite figured out where they went.

We missed them.

Some of us thought the world had ended, but it hadn’t. There just weren’t any more animals. No cats or rabbits. No dogs or whales. No fish in the seas or birds in the sky.

We were all alone.

I didn’t know what to do. Everyone wandered around, lost for a while. Then, the prime minister addressed us stating, “Our scientists are baffled. But there is no cause for alarm. Just because the animals are gone does not mean that we must abandon our way of life.”

From there we learned. There were plenty of us. We had no reason to change our diets or cease testing products that might cause us harm.

After all, there were still babies.

Babies couldn’t talk, and barely moved. They were not rational thinking creatures. Without intelligent thought they weren’t really people. Why not utilize them properly?

So we made more. The bearers were drugged so they wouldn’t feel any connection or the pain of unnecessary self-sacrifice. Once cut from the womb we took the young creatures.

Baby flesh proved to be tender and succulent. We delighted in consuming it, flayed the skin and decorated ourselves with the silky hide.

Never wasteful, I went into the baby leather industry. The soft and comfy wear made me feel rich and youthful. Sharing that joy with others became my life’s greatest accomplishment.

But not all “babies” were eaten. Some were used for testing.

Companies taped open their eyes, dripped detergents and shampoos in one drop at a time. They scarred and scalded them─burned their sensitive little bodies to protect us from harm─lest we should suffer. They clamped their tiny appendages down and stuck electrodes in their brains. They grafted, froze, and irradiated.

The infants breathed in smoke. Their veins pumped new medicines and drugs until they stopped circulating.

It was hard at first, but necessary. No one could deny that. With the animals gone, what else could we do?

Some religious people complained, but then, they always do.

Everything eventually went back to normal. After a time, the underdeveloped creatures didn’t seem like living beings anymore. That made it easier.

But yesterday, all the babies were gone.

We didn’t even see them go. We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we will think of something. Humans are smart. It’s what makes us superior…

We’ll figure something out.

Dash Crowley is a private man, artist, writer, magician. You might witness him from afar on twitter, @dashercrow, or on instagram @dackcrowley.

The Lilac Thief Legacy By Gloria Buckley

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PEACE

We would walk on the white beach of Marco Island with stale bread wrapped in a recycled red and blue polka dot bread bag. We tossed hardened crumbs while droves of seagulls descended into my mother’s hands peeling shrills of joy.

“Jennifer, get a picture of these maniacs,” My mother laughed with complete abandonment. She would be encircled by seagulls eating right from her hands, like a Hitchcock movie.

I was always afraid of the enormity of my mother’s momentum for joy. I spent most of my life on the sidelines of her social dazzle and sparkle. Her smile and warmth ignited a room like the multitude of expressions from her big blue eyes that seemed to cast an open door into her heart.

People loved her and when she stopped reaching out and retreated; no one seemed to understand why. I found it painful that so many people were annoyed with her seclusion as if at eighty-two she owed the world to remain a star ever infinitely burning. She was burning out. She was afraid to hear about who she used to be.

Sometimes when I speak of a wonderful moment in our lives and the vacant stare is returned which tells me that soon the words, ‘If you say so’, will be uttered from her lips. There is now indifference where there once was a warm, vivacious, soul.

As I stood by her bedside watching her rest, I remembered that my mother and I took such pleasure in holding a stranger’s lilac bush hostage as she clipped away branches leaving them wet with scissor scars. Her laughter peeled through me. Then she would whisper, “Move it, let’s get out of here.”

She shoved me along grabbing hold of my hands as she ran through the yards with me in hysterics. We were lilac thief cohorts filled with glee as the house was fragrant with the smell of free, stolen, flowers. What more spelled spring then the wafting lilacs meticulously placed by my mother in a vase to represent our find.

Once, I had my own Lilac bushes the thrill of the memories seemed to bring a smile to her melancholic, aging face. Yet, this isn’t a story about stealing lilacs. This is a story about stealing the breadth of beauty from a soul. It is that place in between innocence and violation where beauty is plucked thoughtlessly from the legs and sanctuary of a young girls’ hymen.

Because of the pains that my mother experienced, I suffered from night terrors. It seemed to always happen when I was wickedly tired. The dreams rushed fast and furious like a tsunami of images. Some were happy and poetic flights of romance. Strangers and strange settings.

Tonight, was filled with night terrors. Dogs, dozens of them feral, ferocious and biting me. I felt no end to the small boxer like mouths with sharpened teeth like knives ripping at my flesh. I clung tightly to my snowy white toy poodle Adonis. I protected him with my arms wrapped tightly around his little Persian lamb body as the droves of dogs devoured me.

I screamed loud. Horrified yells of “no” escaped as a dark foreign man stood still and watched in disbelief, yet, with a sneer of contempt as I found no end within my sleep. My resolution was only to wake and startled to my dog snoozing with one eye raised at my nocturnal and apparently nonsensical commotion. It was always helplessness, this fury of conflicts literally biting at my legs and consuming me.

My dreams mirrored my inner turmoil. My mother woke in the same turmoil when I would visit and sleep in her bed. “Mom, I’m here, wake up”, I held her crow-like thin fingers and then her blue eyes would peer out at me in warm recognition. We believed we were safe with one another.

We never felt safe. Never.

Only moments in beautiful homes, wonderful trips, moments when we could steal away from the memories that held us hostage like the lilacs wafting in our hands. Sometimes what seems so lovely is filled with the undercurrent of the stench of a sewer.

He ruined my mother’s life. The dreams I had so often were just another legacy of pain passed down. Dreams that haunted me just as much as my mother.

I built my house as if in a dream with a bedroom that contained all the trappings of a spa, perhaps, a hotel suite with living room, sauna, and room to retreat and rest. Yet, I clung to nights of pure terror. I always returned to one thought. I never knew that paradise would feel like such hell. My life was easy in some respects, along with the diffidence. I wasn’t quite sure how being a lawyer was easier than being a poet.

When awake I found a refuge in my books. I felt a sorrow at times that she would never live long enough to read all the books in the world. Yet, my mother and like my wise aunt Dominica before her, she would read each day of her life, each book that she could find. A multitude of words pressed with images that rolled like old Kodak slides. It all seemed so romantic and luminous while the arid stench and steam of the New York subway jostled me awake into my next stop. Such is the life of an aging, melancholic, lawyer closeting a poet in her briefcase.

Cold Case

I sat at counsel table staring out the window watching the cherry blossoms shiver in the chill of the raw spring air. I thought about a poem I once wrote about the cherry tree charades. The judge’s ruling for yet another motion in my cryptic years of lawyering boomed in a monotone white noise back drop to the pirouettes of poetic thoughts. I played the words in my mind the cherry tree charades, milk white bark so bare, and words like I only know today what’s growing and is gone.

I was nineteen when that poem emerged. I loved the deep union of emotions with branches, bark that seemed to tell a story. Like the cuts of wood, a hieroglyphics tale while lawyers spit arguments at one another. Lizards of legal analysis spewing venom in the corridors.

“Counselor, counselor, Ms. Sloan do you have anything to add?”  The judge bellowed.

I replied with grace and decorum, “No Your Honor.”

Another morning of tension, turmoil some form of conflict resolved by dumping the arguments into the judge’s lap for decision. I suppose I somewhat liked the idea of not being responsible. I liked the idea of blending in the dark as a lawyer, never quite making any true waves. Yet, my writing, my poetry screamed truth, dreams, life.

My poetry, my writing was mine. The words were my vibrancy.

I roamed through the old courthouse hall graced with marble pillars as large as a lion’s den at the coliseum. I spotted Jimmy, a sheriff’s deputy and my dear friend. He raced toward me with twinkling Irish eyes and flaming red hair.

“Jen, I need to talk to you,” Jimmy exclaimed half out of breath.

 “Can’t it wait?” I proceeded down the hallway in my usual frenetic pace.

“No, Jen.” Jimmy grabbed my arm so tight my flesh throbbed. “Listen your uncle Harry’s death is being opened up for investigation and family members will be interviewed, I wanted to warn you.”

I stopped dead in the hallway and stared half in terror as if the snarling dogs were at my feet. I felt faint as if someone had stopped the air to my lungs.

“What the hell for, Jimmy, the old coot rapist died from a heart attack?” I almost yelled in a loud hysteria of terror as my panicked squeals echoed against the marble walls. I hated the way everything echoed in a courthouse; like a bag of dozens of marbles had dropped on the floor.

Overwhelming sounds of falling glass that seemed infinite and menacing.

“Apparently, Jen, some new information has come through that your family had some real issues with him.” Jimmy stared hard. “The old man had a nasty blow to the head and then had the heart attack.”

“Issues, he was no good and everyone knew the issues Jimmy. So what.”

“Well this is just shit wonderful.” I sneered. “My mother at 65 years old is a person of interest?”

Now I wasn’t bordering on hysterics. I was inflamed. Demonic, dead Uncle Harry still haunts us.

“Just keep your eyes and ears open, Jen. I wanted to warn you.”

“There’s nothing to observe, Jimmy. He’s dead. Period. Who cares if he was murdered, serves him right!” I ran like wildfire down the hall.

DR. JULIAN

I sat waiting for Dr. Julian in my favorite café on Seventh Avenue. I stared out of the elongated front window watching raindrops slowly descend down the pane like newly formed tears dripping down a sorrowful child’s salty cheek. As Julian crossed the street I felt my mood lift a little.

“Well my dear friend, how are you?” She gave me a warm motherly hug.

“So, so, Julian.” I sighed.

“I suspect you are still sleepwalking or doing your night terror wanderings?” She asked with a knowing nod.

“Yes, it is even worse now at times, and apparently my mother is just as bad.” I looked down at carved initials on the table.

“I don’t know how to deal with this alone any longer and when I mention to my mother that I am suffering from dreams like hers, she dismisses it,” I said.

“You have a sleep disorder, certainly. You belong in a sleep study and I’m sure that any hint of such a course of therapy for your mother wouldn’t fare well with her.”

“Her dreams, Dr. Julian are always the same. It’s him. Harry coming after her. His awful, drooling face tormenting her for years even though he’s dead.”

“Sometimes I wake up out of bed in a room in the house and I don’t even know how I got there. I know my mother is doing the same thing at night. We are running away in unison.”

“Let me ask you this, are you at least recording your movements with the cameras that I suggested?”

“I am when I can. Not always, but when I have, it’s saved in my laptop saved,” I said.

“At some point, my friend, this has to be dealt with if you want to move on in your life”.

The conversations always ended in the same way that I needed to get further help.

HARRY

How odd, that Uncle Harry was always kind to me and yet, he ruined my mother’s life. Harry was a woodworker in his spare time. An undertaker by trade. I believe he was involved in some black-market body part scheme. At least I pegged him for that type.

I would sit on an old wooden stool with paint and cuts from years of abuse while he worked on some creation. I was never alone with him. Aunt Domenica always smiled, half in terror with a shaky voice pretending to be interested in what her husband was doing. I didn’t realize she was watching him, being protective.

It was confusing. Family dinners of amazing Italian food, a jug of cheap red wine always next to Harry’s feet. It thrilled me that the whole family, including my parents, were together eating.

Then out of nowhere my mother and Harry would start an argument.

The last argument was a grand finale. Harry said, “Why don’t you go get yourself a quart and get out of here,” in a demonic voice.

The storm ensued and that was the last time they spoke.

He deserved whatever manner that ended his life.

My brilliant, beautiful mother had more than enough brains. She wanted to be the lawyer, but the money and opportunity didn’t exist.

She made sure I received an education. The sins that scorned and torched her like a California wildfire only blackened any trust in men.

EMPTINESS

My lone wolf lifestyle wasn’t all my fault. Aunt Domenica’s husband Harry was a familial rapist. He created from the 1950’s and on a lineage and carnage of “me too” souls in our family.

Aunt Domenica turned a blind eye and poked her nose into a book rather than kill the demon. She sang and hummed as she cut lilacs in her yard and planted petunias.

The humming may as well have been a mantra to ward his evil bellowing. The fragrant flowers masked the stench of his vile abuse.

He was the man in the dream the other night.

My mother was a brilliant, beautiful teenager who took the wrath of Harry’s menace.

At his funeral I stood next to her. We glared down at the dead man in the coffin.

“I should just spit on him, so long you bastard,” she said.

I swore I heard a spitting sound as I walked away.

Harry’s death was a mystery.

I thought it was a heart attack. Now after seeing Jimmy at the courthouse, I didn’t know.

There was a buzz of new evidence. No one deserved to know how this haunting affected me and my mother. How sad that this went on for an entire life span with no justice.

JENNIFER’S DREAMS

When I left Dr. Julian, I retreated like a lost puppy to my home. I was on edge, worried about why Harry’s death was being raised now. I settled in for the night and decided as I always did to take the Scarlet O’Hara approach and leave it for tomorrow. My life really was a series of stress, dreams, some joy, and then the same cycle.

Harry’s investigation was playing, haunting me just as much as he did in life.

Why did Harry’s death have to come up again now, a good five years later? I thought.

Harry, this black void of nothingness. A dead old man who spent most of his life terrorizing women and carting dead bodies for rich funeral home directors. Not to mention the body parts.

I remembered being in an elevator with my aunt, Harry and a dead body on a gurney. Harry taunted me when I was seven years old. He threatened to pull the sheet down for me to see the body.

 I screamed with no way out hid behind my aunt covering my eyes.

A kindness came over Harry and he said he wouldn’t show me the body.

Out of nowhere the alabaster and blue veined hand like a Halloween hand fell out from the sheet. I couldn’t decide if I felt terror, excitement or wanted to laugh in hysterics.

Harry laughed.

So did my aunt, and so I joined in the morbid joviality.

Harry had big teeth like a horse and he almost drooled at times. His black eyes shifted from kindness to cruelty with the stroke of his temper. He was like a monster man in a De Maurier novel. A towering and lanky undertaker in a cheap white shirt with yellow sweat stains and an ill-fitted dark suit. Yet, he was paternal and kind at the same time. The mixed feelings haunted me always.

 I drifted off to sleep and thought that I must check my lap top in the morning.

Adonis snoozed in the comfort of his luxury bed on the floor and I drifted into a wave of sleep that felt safe and comforting. As I lulled myself into the deep oceanic state of nocturnal bliss, that man, the dark, creepy, contemptuous man appeared from a dark alley. Rain surrounded him, torrential rain bounced off the brim of his Fedora as he leered from under his hat. He opened his hand half visible in the swirling mist of fog and showed me a small carving tool. The tool was carved with hieroglyphic letters and a bleeding heart and scarab drenched in black blood.

I reached to take the tool, but he pulled it away and disappeared.

Adonis’ rapacious snoring as he snorted for more and more air woke me in the early morning.

I felt haunted. I felt watched as I awoke to the dim morning rays that creeped through half open window blinds. The daylight felt daunting as the dream became like a brain worm in my head.

I pulled myself together and greeted the morning with coffee and a walk into the crisp morning air.

The police cars pulled into the driveway lights ablaze.

I saw Jimmy emerge his face a ghastly white and my lap top in his hand.

I snipped a lilac from a bush on my property and had only one thought, Who killed Harry?

Gloria Buckley has been published by Prometheus Dreaming, Red Hyacinth Journal, Sensations Magazine, Alcoholism Magazine, Chimera Magazine, Journal of English Language and Literature, Hermann Hesse Page Journal, Virginia Woolf Blog, Focus Magazine, Chimera Magazine and many other journals of poetry and prose. A self- published collection of seventy five poems is available on Amazon.com.

She is a practicing attorney for thirty years. She holds a BA in English and JD from Seton Hall. She has a Masters with Distinction in English Literature from Mercy College. She is enrolled in the MLA and MA in writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

Flash Fiction by Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois

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Huckleberries

This couple I know: they were high school sweethearts, the Bonnie and Clyde of the northwest San Fernando Valley, undetected.

Some moron had selected the “Chancellor” as the school mascot. A chancellor was some kind of British judge—a little faggot in a long white wig, was how the kids described it. We denied the “Chancellor” and unofficially adopted the Cowboy as mascot. Cowboys were what we were all about, that and the aerospace engineers who were colonizing our living space, taking down small ranches and putting up stucco housing developments. Their kids didn’t walk the roads barefoot in summer the way we did.

The town was changing. Excess warehouses were being taken over as studios for the porn industry. Eventually the town became the PORN CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. The high school cheerleaders made up slutty whore routines, and performed them at halftime, and the Vice-Principal, “Chrome-Dome,” McNellis, supported them. He would not allow a posse of evangelists to deny them their freedom of speech.

Enter this couple, Bonnie and Clyde: he was half man/ half dog, more wolf really, she half reptile/half bird, a plumed serpent in the big-breasted, leather-clad flesh. At least that’s the way they thought of themselves and we, their friends, came to think of them.

On prom night Clyde put his hairy head into the punch bowl. Bonnie slithered across the dessert table like an iguana, her tail flicking aside tortes and meringue. The fat kids grieved the lost pastries. They got on the floor and, under cover of dimness, shoved them into their drooling mouths.

After promming off, B & C smoked dope in the House of Dwarfs. Every one of them had lost their virginity by the age of fourteen. Their garage breathed in and out like a cartoon garage, their soundtrack crazy clarinet riffs.

 I stood out in the road, waiting to be invited in. I was desperate for their acceptance, but the dwarfs had taken a dislike to me, I don’t know why. Everyone in school knew that I suffered from mental illness, but I didn’t think so. I couldn’t act any more sane than I did.

Then Dog Boy and Reptile Girl left the dwarfs to do what dwarfs do after events that are allegedly life-changing, and rode rusted-out dirt bikes into the Mojave to celebrate their Mayan heritage. When the sun came up, they set the bikes down in the cool, exhausted sand, knelt and worshipped the Rabbit in the Moon, then flaaagellaaated themselves like Spanish priests. They pounded their foreheads with chunks of jade with 400-million-year half-lives, royal jade, orange flecked with green. There were blood spots on their foreheads. The sheriff’s squad car roiled up dust in the distance. He wasn’t looking for them.

“I’ll be your Huckleberry,” said Dog Boy.

“I’ll be yours,” said Reptile Girl.

They were ready to move on. They did. They traveled far and wide, but returned for our fiftieth reunion. The rest of us had changed. Even the dwarfs had changed. But they hadn’t.

***

Third

1.

Adelaide of Burgundy became the patron saint of second marriages.

Her first husband, Lothair II, King of Italy, was poisoned. Her second husband called himself great, called himself holy.

Adelaide knew the truth but would not share it. She had taken a vow of silence.

Her husband blessed her for it. He was vexed with loudmouthed women. If it were up to him, he would have all female voice boxes removed at birth. What a different world it would be, he fantasized as he drifted off to sleep.

His silent and good wife, Adelaide was a woman to be emulated, he told his friends at table as their wives looked on with sour expressions.

2.

At age seventeen, I was a good deal younger than Adelaide, whom I’d heard was the saint of second marriages. I was a Paul Simon song: a rock, an island. I was Dostoyevsky’s underground man. I was Camus’s Stranger, who only needed his neighbors’ howls of execration to complete him.

All of this was nonsense to Adelaide.

I was a zombie, undone by a woman I’d met in New Orleans. I was a diamond with a flaw, as described by an Okie girlfriend who, until I told her otherwise, thought The Diary of Anne Frank was fiction.

None of this was relevant to Adelaide. She was a good deal older than me, the saint of second marriages.

I would be her third husband.  

***

My Daughter’s Hair  

Tens of thousands of data centers feed a spiraling multitude of web sites. Rows of servers spread over millions of square feet in warehouses which were once fields with pumpkins shining orange against black soil. Me and my brothers roamed the fields, and had pumpkin fights with the failed ones, trying to be careful not to smash any good ones, most of the time succeeding.

I still live in the old farmhouse, though there is no land around it, not even enough for a garden. The data centers run at max ‘round the clock. I hear the data buzz like bee hives, growl like packs of animals. I smell it burning. I get up in the middle of the night and drink orange juice, but I can’t get the taste of data out of my throat. Nobody thinks of people like me when they turn on their computers.

My daughter’s hair is brown kelp. It streams southward in the current. She stands on the ocean floor eighty feet down. She’s no scuba diver, no mermaid, but she’s invulnerable to drowning, one of the skills she developed growing up with a schizophrenic mother in the midst of data centers. She learned to adapt to being submerged, a massive weight on her shoulders.

Water is heavy. A mere gallon of water weighs over eight pounds, and there are millions of gallons of water pressing on her, yet she wears a serene expression. Her wisdom flows out, flows around her, drifts with the current and blesses people downstream. She is wiser than I will ever be, even if I live a century.

Work by Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois appears in magazines worldwide. Nominated for numerous prizes, he was awarded the 2017 Booranga Centre (Australia) Fiction Prize. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and as a print edition. His poetry collection, THE ARREST OF MR. KISSY FACE, published in March 2019 by Pski’s Porch Publications, is available here. Visit his website  to read more of his poetry and flash fiction.

This is Only Happening by Adam Scharf

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Don’t get me wrong, I like Jane, but God only knows if I like Jane for Jane or I’m just sick in the belly over a breakup. I cling to Jane to make sure that when I snap, hearing voices, raving on the street, it’s at least in front of someone decent. You’d love her. Lovey-dovey as all get out towards me, and anyone who says the right things, believe me. She’s that person you intuitively know things about and have no idea why or how you know them. The friend of the family’s sister who lives upstate. The one you unceasingly heard about since you were a kid, I bet. I’m brainwashing myself into being crazy about her. Into believing all my headaches are out the window. 

Jane’s rich and her bedroom has drapes in it. A walk-in closet to reinvent yourself in. Her house is full of antiques, mostly furniture, and tire tracks through the rose garden. A family portrait advertising an older brother whose piety makes him say dang instead of hell.

She gives monologues unfolding her favorite features on a man. Among other things, a good whispering ear─an ear that’s nice to whisper into. I’ll let slip her least favorite too, sweaty hair on the back of the neck. That’s something we both can agree on.

Jane doesn’t listen, and that’s the greatest thing about her. She doesn’t pretend or anything. After you say something weighty and longwinded she’ll go, “See that lady? I bought that same shirt for my father.”

It’s best to only respond, “Jane, you’re killing me.”

She might, too. In her bedroom I’m usually inches from an unblocked window where I could probably jump out in an “accidental” way.

I know how to do it. I tell her, “Jane, let’s make love with the curtains open.” Then fall out screaming, “Dear God!” the whole way down.

Falling could be the only way out of this. An eye witness might blow it, telling the police, “No, no, he was smiling the entire time.”

Maybe not. Maybe I just read one of those inspirational magnets before tripping and just couldn’t shake the inspiration. You can never tell about a guy who falls the dang out a window.

I’ll break it to you, Jane ashes cigarettes on the carpet, and loves ineffectual questions. Last night she asked, “Gabriel, why are you sad? Can’t you be happy?”

I told her, “Never, I’m a wreck. It being my birthday and all.” It couldn’t be farther from my birthday. I thought it would be funny to tell her it was my birthday. That’s how sick I am.

This morning she asks, “Gabriel, what’s your favorite feature on a woman?”

The free-falling out of a window opportunity looked more and more mouth-watering, but I answered pretending to wield a cigarette in my left hand. “The landscape of the back. The crook of the neck. The curve of the breast. Sometimes I find the scent of the wrist from an old bottle of perfume she put on thinking nobody would smell her that night.”

“What turns you on the most?”

“A cold hand on my chest.”

“That’s boring.”

Boring. Does a boring guy jump out of a window after laughing at the wall for twenty minutes?

It’s nice to hold someone’s hand before falling asleep. The loneliest moment in anyone’s life is when you want to share insignificant crumbs about your day, but no one’s the dang around, or worse they don’t value closeness during mediocre moments. They want everything splashy without sincerity. Kinkade paintings without gusto. I’m going to go ahead and tell you right now what I think: the closest you’ll ever feel to another human being is sharing knowledge of an ending before anyone else knows. Parents knowing they’re leaving the playground before their kids do—it irons them together for eternity, I’m telling you.

Something’s changing between her and me. She’s probably had it up to here with me. I’m a screwball who’s applying her affection to get over someone. It’s a low thing to commit, but I’m sick. She deserves decency. You can tell she’s at the end of her rope when she paces the room like a captive whale in a tank.

She’s told me more than once, “I don’t know why I bother with you. You’re boring,” then places Beethoven on the record player and doesn’t bother starting it at the beginning but right smack dab in the middle of the record. She’s unbalanced, for crying out loud.

This morning it started building, she paced the room letting me have it. “Haven’t we had a nice romance? I dress nice for you. I read your stories. We make love every night. We go ice-skating. Nothing makes you happy!”

She omitted the night I read her diary out loud as we ate grapefruit (according to March 19th of last year. When feeling pointless and unattended, she drives by old boyfriend’s houses without stopping, knocking, or as much as giving a neighborly wave. As though arriving at the

podium without a speech, nodding, and slowly promenading stage left. That’s the sickness I’m talking about. The rat pulls the lever to feed itself cocaine till it dies.

This afternoon, after draining my glass, I could barely stand, but did it anyway. She asked, “Tell me your best move with a woman?”

“Making love with the curtains open.”

I tried holding myself up on her wall. “Eroica,” is the only record she owns because I bought it for her to play something when it rains. Endless rain, and the wind, scare me to death. She told me I was boring, not at all eye-popping like our first night together. I could tell you about that.

That night I wore my wealthy brother-in-law’s clothes to feasibly appear like I’m raking it in.

She was at a table by herself in a flowered dress. Her gestures made me nervous to say anything to her. I couldn’t think what to say. It didn’t help she was beautiful and had style.

She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was an oil man. I kept with it because I thought it would be funny to just keep saying, “Oil man,” all night. I whispered it in her ear and she fell to pieces.

Luckily, she loves soft talking and fossil fuels. I figured when I was drunk enough I’d play the rich cliché commanding her to pack her things because we’re going anywhere in the world tonight, business class. When she’d yawn her mouth in wonder, mingled with perplexity, gushing about how she couldn’t possibly accept a gift such as that, I’d bring up the leg room, and ask for a kiss, then call it a night.

None of that happened. No kidding, she used the word, “Absolutely.” I only had a few dollars left to my name so there was nothing to worry about. She had me drive her home in pouring rain to watch her pack in the dark. I was about to throw up over the matter when the craziest thing happened. I told her, “Jane, I have $12 in my pocket, and I’m incredibly attracted to you.” 

We’ve been together ever since.

With Jane, nothing’s off the table. We talk about the whole shebang: marriage, death, and what not to name a kid to increase the odds they’ll say actual swear words. We tell each other everything we’ve ever been afraid of as though we’re already a part of each other.

Tonight’s her breaking point. It’s 8:30 pm. I pretend I’m asleep to avoid what’s about to happen. After pacing the room she’s standing over me from Mount Olympus. “Wake up. I know your problem, Gabriel. You’re hung up on that young thing you mentioned almost a hundred times. What’s her name? Gretchen. The dancer? You say her name when you’re sleeping. I bet anything you daydream about being hilarious in front of her family. You think you’re in the wrong place, with the wrong woman. Some friend who thinks he’s psychic probably told you it would all work out with her. A great sign of immaturity, Gabriel.

“Let me get this straight, the story of your life isn’t happening according to plan. Terribly original. There is no right place. You have this story in your head, your immortal beloved. Your inamorata. Your story isn’t here. I’m here. You’ll love me, but deep down you know somewhere I’m mediocre, and she is too. Someone should let you in on a secret. My English college professor, who I was very close with, Mark Walters, told me this secret, and I’ll share it with you Gabriel. Everything in your life—those tears, these people, your smile, this rain, your achievements, your epiphanies, your losses—they’re only happening.

“There’s no meaning to any of it. You’re weighing yourself down. The cancer metastasizes, or the cat walks in front of the T.V., without a clue who you are. You thought your feelings were illuminating but they’re garden-variety. It’s only happening! You can go someplace and stand there waiting for everyone to recognize you, but they won’t because you’re the only one filled in on the story. There’s no story, Gabriel. It’s just happening. All this is only happening.”

My head is splitting. “Hannah. Her name is, Hannah. It’s not Gretchen. Hannah.” Goddammit, I love saying Hannah. “It’s Hannah.”

“It’s Mark, for all I care.”

Jane throws a pile of her dresses all over the room. She’s going mad. Scattering dresses everywhere. “Watch, I’m showing you it’s okay to be fine. This is happening. All this is only happening. No good or bad with any of it.”

I’m starting to sweat, lightheaded and achy. We’ve been sick for years. Mistaking a longing in our chest for something good.

“Stop taking yourself personally. Your life has nothing to do with you,” says Jane.

She removes her dress from her body, contemplating where to place this one, before throwing it out the window. Naked. The curve of her breast. “Take off your clothes Gabriel.” Jane takes them off for me, throwing them out the window and closing the curtains.

Mounting me on the bed. Rubbing my chest. Kissing my neck. Biting my ear, her laugh bleeding held down by a sustain pedal, bent along the cut and dried entirely. She smells like lucid dreaming. A rose opens laughing its head off. Am I the only one clapping?

People gather at the foot of Mt. Olympus begging for an answer after a thousand years of famine, hereditary fate, and holy wars. Going up hills to read into stars. Sacrificing all sorts of helpless things like animals, and children for answers. It’s been a long wait. Trying not to grin, the professor of English heroically answers like a waiter who just offered to carry his table’s

water glasses inside after it started raining. He gazes at them with that misty-eyed smile the prophets would fail to capture with integrity. A scribe raises his stone tablet with chisel at hand. Mark Walters lowering his gaze extending his palm. “Friends, this is only happening.”

He pauses for an applause break that never comes. Then has the guts to wink and give them words to describe light. A God that knows nothing. The joke is there’s nothing to tell, but clap at yourself as much as possible. As much as humanly possible. Holy hell, make sure you’re the only one clapping.

“Jane?”

“Yes?”

“I think I love you.”

She doesn’t listen.

“Do you want the lights on when we make love?”

“Honestly, Jane. I think I love you.”

“Whisper it to me.”

Jane. I’m telling you that I think I love you.”

“You don’t really.”

“I want to feel close.”

“Darling, tonight is all we have. We’re breaking up. You’ll leave tomorrow morning, and we’ll never see each other again.”

We’re diachronic, knowing an ending. For the love of Pete, love is manageable. Blushing as though riding the handlebars of my good-looking boyfriends’ bicycle. We’re ironed together from now on. From now on. 

   Adam Scharf was born and raised in upstate NY. He workås as a professional improviser and writer in Orlando Florida. Previous work has been published in Jokes Review Journal and Clockwise Cat Magazine.  

Pancakes and Waffles by Alex Z. Salinas

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I sat across from Columbia at IHOP and gazed into her dark eyes. They were like two shiny, brown M&Ms. I could’ve stared at them all night. Damn fine, I thought, considering she’s blonde. My stomach tingled.

I’ve got nothing against blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, but they’re to be expected. Run of the mill, as my mother would say. But blond-haired, brown-eyed girls? They’re a different kind of beast, as my father would say.

Life for them, I imagined, was an uphill battle. If you ask me, they’re victims of fate—prisoners of predetermination. I’m inclined to call them underdogs, but let’s get one thing straight about Columbia: she was no underdog.

“What’re you looking at?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I lied.

“You were looking at me really weird.”

“I’m sorry. Your eyes, they’re pretty.”

She smiled and said, “I know, right?”

Her teeth were perfect, pure white, immaculate. I could tell she never missed a day brushing them.

She shifted herself in the booth. Her collarbones poked through her V-neck like they were trying to escape.

I thought, What I really want to do is reach across and pull you over here.

“Why’re you still staring at me weird?” 

“I’m not,” I lied.

***

I was a sophomore in college. Columbia and I had met up by pretty much chance. After we’d graduated from high school, we were strangers for two years. Then one day, while I was on my lunch break at the mall—I worked at Dillard’s—I saw her in the food court. She was two people ahead of me in line at Subway. I cut the line and stood behind her for a few seconds until she turned around.

“Oh my God!” she squealed.

“It’s me.”

We bear-hugged.

After we paid for our sandwiches, we small-talked a bit, both of us all smiles. The whole time I kept wondering, Why don’t I have your number?

Then, when we hit a stopping point, I asked for her digits. “Would you like to go to dinner sometime?” I asked, a shot in the dark.

“Dinner?” she repeated.

“Yeah, like, can I take you to dinner? Unless you’re busy or something.”

“Whoa. Take me to dinner. That sounds like a serious proposal, sir.”

I stayed quiet, unsure how to respond.

Finally she said, “I’m messing with you, dork. Of course we can ‘go to dinner.’” Air quotes.

“Cool! Well now that I have your digits, I can call you soon? Does that sound good?”

“Sounds great!”

I waited two days before I called her. This was carefully planned.

“Hey,” I said over the phone, “how does IHOP sound Friday night?”

“Um, yeah, sure, IHOP sounds… good,” she answered.

To me, IHOP was a more respectable option than McDonald’s, and much more affordable than somewhere overrated like Outback Steakhouse, which, on my sophomore budget, was out of the question anyways, even if I just wanted to go there solo.   

“Cool. I can pick you up, if you’d like?”

There was a little bit of silence before she said, “Um, yeah, sure, that sounds good.”

“I mean, if it’s Okay with y—”

“I said yes, silly. Come get me at six.”

After our phone call, I entered her address on MapQuest. It said it would take me forty-five minutes to get to her place from my dorm. Damn, I thought, she lives in Djibouti.  

When I got to her neighborhood, I was still surprised to find myself in a trailer park, in Devine, about thirty miles outside the city. I had no clue she lived in a trailer park, or Devine.

She was standing outside her home, looking absolutely fine in dark blue jeans and a low-cut T-shirt with a faded American flag on it.

Suddenly, an image of her draped in an American flag, with nothing else on underneath, popped in my head. I pushed it away quickly. “I had no idea you lived in a trailer park.” I had no idea how bad the words sounded until they left my mouth. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to say that—”

“It’s all good,” Columbia said, expressionless. “This is where I live. Surprise.”

“Hey, you look great,” I said, changing the subject.

“Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?” She grinned like the devil. My face turned hot.

“I’m just messing with you, goofball. Jesus, don’t be so serious.”

“I’m not,” I said, defensively, childishly. Then I high-fived her to play it off.

On the drive to IHOP, we small-talked some more, and at some point, I played music from my iPod—I’d created a playlist for our date. Columbia and I had both loved punk rock. We’d spent many lunches at school talking about Green Day, Death Cab For Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, Panic! At The Disco, all them. Thus, I’d titled my playlist, “Columbia Records.” When I showed her, she looked at me with glowing eyes, like melted M&Ms.

At IHOP, we were intercepted by an ancient waitress named Doris. I counted legit ten thousand wrinkles on her face. Once Columbia and I had decided on a booth, Doris walked us over it, slowly, very slowly. She called us both “Honey” in a near-man’s voice. From the look on Columbia’s face, she was as amused as I was.

After Doris shuffled off to give us time to order, Columbia said, with a little smile, “Stop being mean.”

“I’m not being mean…honey!”

“Oh God, don’t even start.”

“Seriously, how many packs of Camel do you think she’s put away in her life?”

“You’re evil,” Columbia said, grinning that devil’s grin.   

Doris was back and Columbia’s stern gaze seemed to order me, You better not.

She ordered chocolate chip pancakes.

And I’ll have the Belgian waffle with scrambled eggs,” I said in a heavy smoker’s voice. I couldn’t believe I pulled it off.

By a miracle of God, Doris seemed not bothered one iota by my little stunt. After all, the woman had lived through several world-shaping wars, and Eisenhower and Tricky Dick. She’d probably had a litter of children, all grown now. And lots of grandchildren. Me? I was just another punk ass kid she had to serve on a Friday night to get a halfway decent tip.

Still, Columbia kicked me good in the shin, and not without another glare from her beautiful brown M&M eyes.

The food arrived quick. My eggs were warm and fluffy. The waffle batter practically melted in my mouth. I scarfed down everything fast, like a wolf. Columbia had only taken a few bites of her pancakes when I finished.

“Good lord,” she said. “You’re not that hungry, huh?”

“Nah,” I replied. “I had a big lunch.”

I could only watch as Columbia ate. Surprisingly, she didn’t make a stink about my food voyeurism, like a lot of girls would. She chewed each bite about fifteen times, real methodical. Her lips stayed close shut, real mannered. I imagined her looking up at me and saying, Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?

In between her numerous chews, Columbia made conversation with me, said she’d been going steady to one of the community colleges in town—one that was a Venus flytrap for all the slackers from school. Columbia said she’d also been working part time at a children’s daycare. She loved the job but hated going to school at the same time and was considering taking a year off. College was too much like high school, she said. I wanted to tell her right then and there to not unenroll, to stick with it. Otherwise she’d never go back, But I didn’t.

I just nodded my head and listened.

“And you?” she said. “You planning to finish on time?”

“That’s the plan,” I said. “Two more years and I should be done.”

“You totally will. You’ve always been smart like that.”

For some reason, her comment rubbed me the wrong way. I’d always felt I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I was no different from her.

At some point, I broke up our serious talk by doing an impression of Michael Scott from The Office. Why? Because Columbia and I had both loved The Office. And I was good at impressions.

Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me,” I intoned Steve Carrell.

Columbia almost spit out the last of her pancakes in my face.

“Oh my God, yes.” She pointed at my mouth. “That was really good. And that was a fucking amazing episode.”

Doris was back. As she picked up our plates, I noticed she had the sourest expression I’d ever seen on a human face.

You’re a doll,” I said to Doris, in my Doris voice.

“You’re welcome, my honey,” Doris said, unleashing a frightening smile that revealed a few missing teeth.

Before I could clown again, Columbia kicked both my shins.

Pop-pop!

She didn’t like me making fun of old people.

As we waited for our check, I glanced around the restaurant. Except for an old couple sitting behind us, there was nobody else. The graveyard shift had begun. People had better things to do on a Friday night.

I turned back toward Columbia and caught her picking her teeth with her pointer finger.

“Oh my God, don’t judge me,” she said. “I get food stuck all the time.”

“I’m not judging,” I lied, waving her off.

“This is like, totally inappropriate for me to ask, probably, but can you check to see if there’s anything else stuck in my teeth?”

“Gladly,” I said.

She flashed those perfectly straight, immaculately white chompers at me. Damn, I thought, she could be a toothpaste model.

“Let’s see what we’ve got in here,” I said officiously.

I focused in on one of her teeth. “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

Columbia’s hand shot to her mouth. “Oh my God, shut up. For real?”

“You’d better go see for yourself. Looks like something’s stuck in there pretty good.”

“Oh my God.” She rushed off to the bathroom at a pace that would’ve broken Doris’s hips. Before she disappeared, I did notice Columbia’s jeans spread tightly against her ass, which wasn’t big, but perfect nonetheless.

My stomach tingled.

When Columbia returned, she punched my arm playfully. “You freakin’ jerk.”

“I’m gonna press assault charges on you.”

“Well you deserve it.”

“Usually, always.”

The old couple behind us—I glanced back at them again—both glared at me. They found nothing funny about our company. Perhaps we’d disturbed the final moments of their peace on Earth. For a quick second, I pictured Columbia and me as them, lived past our expiration date.

I nodded at them and they both quickly looked away.

“What the heck are you up to now?” Columbia said.

“American Gothic twelve o’clock, right behind me,” I whispered. “Don’t make it obvious.”

Columbia peeked at them, registered their presence, then said, “Oh my God, you’re so evil.”

Suddenly, her expression changed. It was as though she was contemplating something heavy, something sad. A black cloud drifted across her eyes.  

“You know,” she said, “I love old people. I really do. But they also make me really sad for some reason.”

“What’d you mean?” I said, legit confused.

“Like, it sucks to know that’s it’s all gonna end one day, sooner than we think.”

She snapped her fingers.

“What’d you mean?” I asked again.

“Okay, like, here’s life,” she said, holding out her hands about a foot apart from each other, palms facing inward. “You live for all this stuff in between, then before you know it, you’re here,” she said, shaking her right hand.

I was taken aback.

“What the hell did they put in your pancakes?” I said. “Did you go and snort something in the bathroom?”

Columbia didn’t smile.

“I’m kidding.” I straightened my back. “Look, I think the point of life is to really enjoy all the in-between stuff—like really enjoy it—so that when this comes,” I said, shaking my right hand. “You’re good with it. Cool with it. At peace with it. Know what I mean?”

Columbia looked out the window, to a mostly dead parking lot.

“Yeah,” she answered softly. “I guess. It’s just…I don’t know, I guess I just see things differently. It’s hard for me to explain. I don’t really get to enjoy all the in-between stuff knowing the end’s coming. I’ve always thought that way. I enjoy things to a certain point, then I don’t. For example, I love going to the movies. Like, I love watching people do weird shit in the snack line. I love the smell of movie popcorn. I love picking out the perfect seats in the dark. But at the end of the day, all the lights will come on and I’ll have to go home. And then, later, all the lights will shut off for good. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know…I should just stop talking.”

I wanted to bust out another Michael Scott impression, but it was like the water in my funny well dried up. I had to dig us out of there.

“Listen,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. I totally get it. And I hate knowing all that stuff too. But I think when things are going well, when you’re having a good time, we should just stop and enjoy the moment. Like now, for instance. Let’s enjoy how stupid you looked with all that pancake in your teeth.”

The edges of her lips curled up.

“You know what else?” I added. “Sometimes you make my head hurt, so I reckon you knock it off, lil lady, or else.” My Hollywood cowboy accent was always a hit at parties.

“You’re nuts,” Columbia said, grinning an angel’s grin this time.

If I could’ve frozen time, the minute that followed is what I’d’ve froze. Comfortable silence, satisfied stomachs, infinite possibilities ahead. 

“Just so you know, I baffle everyone,” Columbia said, breaking the silence. “That’s probably why I don’t have a lot of friends. People think they know me, but they really don’t. I guess that’s my schtick.”

“Your schtick?” I said. 

“Yep. My schtick. Funny word, ain’t it? Schtick.”

“Schtick is a funny word,” I agreed.

***

At the cash register, I told Doris to put it on one check.

“It’s OK, I’ll pay my half.” Columbia reached inside her purse.

I gently grabbed her wrist. “I got it.”

“No, it’s Okay, but thank you.”

“No, it’s Okay. I got it.”

“So one check or two?” Doris said impatiently.

My earlier charm meant nothing anymore.

“One check,” I answered definitively.

Columbia squeezed me hard in the area where a love handle hadn’t grown yet.

In my ear, she whispered, “Jerk.”

***

There wasn’t as much small talk on the drive back, so, pretty quick I played the same playlist. The Ramones. The Sex Pistols. Rancid. Black Flag. The Clash. blink-182. All them.

When we got back to Columbia’s, it was super dark. All the lights were off everywhere. Pitch black. For all I knew, I was in another country. And I practically was: in Devine, the hill country. Country living was a different kind of beast, I thought in my father’s voice.

Then I remembered a time in high school when, during one lunch, Columbia had told me that her mom had grounded her once for two months because she forgot to bathe her baby sister. I did the math in my head quick: two months was one-sixth of a year. I soon realized how Columbia had only mentioned bad things about her family. It didn’t seem to me, then, that a girl like her could come from her family.

“Thanks for tonight,” she said. “And for paying. That was really sweet.”

“No problem,” I said. “I had lots of fun.”

Though I could barely make out her face—I’d killed the headlights when I got to her home—the moonlight painted a shape I knew belonged only to her.

That thought made my heart race. My tongue was suspended until she spoke again.

“Y’know,” she said, “I never did thank you for that one time you lent me your shirt junior year.”

“What?” I said, once again legit confused.

“Your shirt. Junior year. Remember? So I wouldn’t get expelled.”

“I remember. I’m just wondering what made you think of that?”

“Because I didn’t thank you, and now, I’m taking the opportunity to thank you. That’s all. Got a problem with that?”

“No, it’s just…you baffle me.”

Her moonlit mouth expanded into a smile.

You kissed me on the cheek outside the computer lab, remember? So you did thank me.”

“I did?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I don’t remember.”

“Harsh. You’d make a great lawyer one day,” I said.

“Oh shut up.”

“Make me.”

There was silence. This time less comfortable.

After a while, I don’t know how long, Columbia said, “Mr. Jenkins would’ve kicked me out of school, Mom would’ve killed me. All for a blouse. I didn’t even have boobs. I still don’t.”

“We all knew Mr. Jenkins had a hard-on for you,” I said, trying—and failing—not to think about her chest. “He just wanted you to notice his little porn ‘stache.”

“Oh my God, gross. Don’t even joke like that, weirdo.”

“Everything turned out fine, calm down.”

“I guess so.”

Outside my window, I saw the dark mass that was Columbia’s home. Inside was her mother—her mother, in bed fast asleep, or perhaps waiting for her daughter to come inside so she could trap her in a cage.

“Well,” Columbia said, breaking my thoughts, “I’d better get going.”

“Alright.”

“Call me again sometime?”

“For sure,” I said. “I’ve got your digits now.”

Another moonlit smile—an orb that shined through the darkness.

“Hey, 1999 is calling. They want their lame lingo back.”

When our eyes met again, different information was passed between them. Damaging, in the wrong hands. My heart pounded through my throat. My brain drilled a single command into me, repeated over and over.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

I put my hand on her lap—she didn’t push it away. My other hand raised her porcelain chin. Her breathing was heavy, labored. 

She pushed my seat back and climbed on top of me.

She clasped my face and bit my bottom lip soft, then hard. My hands slid up her shirt. Then down. She slapped me.

I froze.

“Nah ah,” she said.

Holding both my hands, she forced them slowly south, her control, her pace. She leaned into my ear and breathed hot air into it. “Good boy,” she whispered.

Some things you promise to keep to yourself your whole life. What happened then is one of them.

Back in my car, my windows fogged up, Columbia smoothed out her hair in the passenger mirror.

Silent, I watched her, studied her slender fingers slide across her curls like she was playing the harp.

When she flipped the mirror up, she said, “See ya later, alligator.”

“In a while, crocodile,” I said.  

She stepped out of my car and sauntered toward her front door as if she was never gone. She didn’t turn around to wave me goodbye.

I waited a few seconds, hoping, somehow, she’d come back to send me off with a kiss, but no. She didn’t. There was nothing left for me to do but leave, so I left.

Not once did I look at my rearview mirror. I didn’t play one song on the drive back to my dorm.

I waited for a call, a text, that never came. Three days in a row I texted a single question mark. Three question marks were stacked, one on top of the other. All unanswered. Soon, her voicemail message disappeared, replaced by a robotic voice informing me that the person’s voicemail inbox was full. Sorry, goodbye.

What’s the right way to go about thinking of somebody disappearing?

A terrible car accident? Lost phone? A hatchet buried in her skull, by her mother?

I came to understand something about being dead.

There’s more than one way. 

Basically, I never heard from her again. Not really.

***

After I graduated from college, I saw this girl named Priscilla. Dark skin, short, big mouth, super Catholic. We’d met in undergrad, but we really didn’t know each other.

A game of twenty-one questions on Facebook led to me asking her out to dinner. It was that easy.

Our first date, I remember her saying, “If I ever caught my husband watching porn, that pig would be out of my life so fast his balls would spin.”

When you’re younger, red flags don’t mean as much.

We dated a few months, did the things all young people do fresh out of college. One night, I’d planned to pick her up at her apartment so we could go out for steak. I’d gotten a little bonus at work. I made reservations two weeks in advance. When I got to Priscilla’s place, I called her but she didn’t answer. I called two more times and still no answer. I waited a few minutes before I tried again. Straight to voicemail. I don’t know how long I was out there with my car stalling, my cologne seeping into my nostrils. I got fed up and left.

Halfway home, she called me back.

“I’m sooo sorry.” she said. “Oh my God, I totally crashed after I got home from work. I’m sooo sorry.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re not mad, are you?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“Hey, like, I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re tired, right? So rest up. Have a good night.”

She immediately called me back.  

“You hung up on me? Like seriously?”

“What do you want me to say?” I said.

“You know what, Okay. Have a safe drive home.” Click.

I called her right back. Straight to voicemail.

I had a wild dream that night. It was the middle of day, Africa hot. I was on horse, passing through the middle of somewhere like a desert. Then, at some point, I arrived at a small town, Old West style. All the buildings were wood, blackened by the sun. The townspeople were lined up in two rows on both sides of the main dirt path. I wasn’t sure if they were welcoming me, but I wasn’t scared of them. Halfway through my crossing, I hocked a loogie.

“I own this chickenfinger-lickin’ town,” I said out loud.

Next thing I knew, I was no longer on horseback, but standing with the townspeople, watching along with them as the mysterious horseman passed by. The horseman wore a large black hat, a duster, and golden spurs that sparkled. The sun was in my eyes, so I couldn’t make out the horseman’s face. When he got up close to me, I was shocked to see that he wasn’t a man, but a large ball of weeds. A huge tumbleweed. Where his face should’ve been was just brown tangles. He didn’t have eyes, per se, but I could feel them stripping me down to nothing. Stopped in front of me, the horseman said, to me and only to me, “Best look the other way, pardner.”

Priscilla and I never really recovered after that night. We squeezed two more dates out of each other, and the last one, we were both on our phones the whole time.

What can I say? It wasn’t meant to be. Life moves on.

***

Christmas season, Friday night at the mall. My old stomping grounds. The best time of the year. Yeah, right.

I walk around. I think, Nothing’s changed. The gray floor tiles are lifeless as ever. Dirty, too. Where there used to be an Auntie Annie’s is now space for rent. Waldenbooks is gone. Hardly a soul around. They must have better places to be on a Friday night.

I stop in front of Dillard’s and stare up at the glowing white sign. My old life, I think.

I pull out my phone and type in “Dillard’s” on Google. A CNN Money article pulls up, about the impending downfall of shopping malls, the catastrophic financial health of JCPenney and Macy’s, the zombie-on-life support that is Sears. The American Dream, I think.

Then I look up. I see a woman in the distance, walking with her toddler. She’s holding the child’s hand. They move closer to me. I take note.

Suddenly, a new organ seems to grow in the space between my heart and stomach. It’s the size of a bowling ball, and it’s dense as a motherfucker.

She bends down to tie the girl’s shoes. Says something in her ear.

What immediately comes to mind is, Who’s the dad?

Then, the command comes.

Run.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

You bolt across the mall like Forrest Gump after his braces come off. You hit your stride fast. You’re smiling like an idiot.

Why are you smiling? You’re disturbing the graveyard peace of the mall. You don’t look back. Not once do you look back. That’s the important thing to remember here. You’re at the opposite end of the mall. You’re sucking for air. How sweet and painful the oxygen is. You realize how ridiculously out of shape you are. You’re wheezing, and as you’re wheezing, a strange thing happens: your stomach growls. Loud. So loud you wonder if you farted. You realize you’re starving. That you can eat a cow. Then, a hot stab pierces your right knee, the one you hurt playing league basketball years ago. You grab it, wincing. The pain spreads down your leg. You’re sweating. Blood rushes to your head. You’re losing weight now.

The lights go out. So do you.

I wake to gentle taps on my chin.

“He’s alive,” shouts the little girl. “I knew he was playing dead, Mommy!”

From the ground, I study the girl’s face—not long enough to find the similarities—then I turn toward her mother, who’s kneeling beside her.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hello,” she says. “Are you Okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”

“No,” I say. “I’m fine,” I lie.

A pause. A sentence forms in my head then bum rushes out of my mouth like a Hurricane Katrina looter.

“It’s nice to know you still have a phone, though.”

She stares, baffled, then her expression softens into something unreachably sad. Before she can say a word, her daughter taps my chin again.

“Are you a monster? Is your name Fwankenstein?”

***

 “Hey, do you think you can be ready in fifteen minutes?” I ask my wife over the phone.“What?”

“I’m going over to get you. I’m hungry.”

“Aren’t you out shopping right now?”

“Yeah, but I had a little accident and I just want to go eat.”

“What happened?” “Ran into a brick wall called the Past.”

“What?”

“Mall cops.”

“Are you OK?

“Yeah, I’m OK. Everything’s fine.”

“You’re acting weird.”

“Usually, always.”

“Well, I’m not ready right now. I need at least thirty minutes.”

“Thirty minutes? You got it. How does IHOP sound?”

“IHOP sounds good.”

“Cool. I’ve been craving waffles and scrambled eggs lately.”

“Are you pregnant or what?”

“After last night, I might be.”

“Shut up.”

“OK, be ready in thirty.”

“You know, you’re very annoying sometimes.”

“Usually, always.”

“Bye.”

“Love you.”

Alex Z. Salinas lives on a steady diet of Dairy Queen in San Antonio, Texas. His short has appeared online in publications such as Every Day Fiction, Mystery Tribune, 101 Words, Nanoism, escarp, 101 Fiction, 365tomorrows, 121 Words, Friday Flash Fiction, and ZeroFlash. He has also had poetry published, and serves as poetry editor of the San Antonio Review. 

The Island of Women by Steve Carr

Featured

Sitting beside Rita’s bed, Cecilia takes a red bead from a bowl on the stand next to the wicker rocking chair. She rocks back and forth. She guides the thin piece of leather through the hole in the bead.

Deformed by years of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, her misshapen fingers and hands can string the beads and it surprises me. Making the strings of beads and selling them at a shop in the El Centro and another shop in Cancun is how she makes what little she can to survive. She refuses money or any financial assistance from me even though I have been married to her daughter Rita for thirty years.

 She slides one bead after another. She doesn’t look up or talk to me. She hates me for marrying her only daughter and taking her to America so many years ago, and now for bringing her back to this island to spend her final days.

Cecilia can speak English, but when she speaks to me─which isn’t often─she speaks in Spanish which is not my native language. I have difficulty understanding when it is spoken quickly. Cecilia knows this and exploits it as a way of showing her disdain for me.

For now she is silent, threading the leather through the beads. I want to tell her I am sorry, sorry that her daughter has been brought back to die on this island, but I already told her it was Rita’s wish to return here.

There is a warm, fragrant sea breeze coming in through the open window. It pushes the white lace curtains into the room. They flutter  like the whisperings of children heard from afar. Through the open window I can see but not hear the gentle waves washing slowly over the huge rocks along the nearby shore, a shoreline of thin strips of private beaches and rocky crags below a line of homes owned by mostly American expats and seasonal residents. I also spot the outline of Cancun’s shore miles away across the stretch of bright turquoise Caribbean waters separating it from this island, Isla Mujeres. I rented this house for the final weeks of Rita’s life, and aside from Cecilia, and Amelia who assists in caring for Rita and occasionally cooks for us, no one comes here.

Looking at Rita asleep on the snow-white linens dressed in her favorite baby blue night gown, she seems much younger than her age. Her body is small, thin and frail. The few strands of gray hair among the black stand out almost as a cosmetic fashion statement, not as a sign of her age. Her face is free of wrinkles and Amelia has light pink lipstick on her lips.

“She always want to look pretty for you,” Amelia said in broken English as she applied the lipstick while I sat by the bed holding Rita’s hand.

Gracias, Amelia,” I said, “Muchas gracias.”

“The time is near, yes?” she asked.

 “Yes it is,” I told her. “Si,” I added, uncertain what to say next.

 Now, standing at the window, looking at my dying wife, at the head of her anger-filled mother staring down at the beads she is stringing on the leather strip, I feel the need to escape. “I’m going for a walk,” I say.

***

Above me and to the east, thick white clouds fill the horizon of dark blue sky. It is September, the time of year for battering storms and ferocious hurricanes. I haven’t listened to the radio and Amelia said nothing about an incoming storm. If she had known, Cecilia wouldn’t have said anything even if a hurricane was about to blow me out to sea.

I adjust the white ball cap on my balding head and walk the road headed toward the southern tip of the island. The breeze is much stronger and warmer then felt through the window in the bedroom where Rita lay. The ever-present aromas of fish, salt water and the scents from the palm trees and ferns that surround the nearby swampy lagoon assault my sense of smell. They are rich and exotic smells, like walking into a tropical hothouse. What few insects there are buzz briefly around my head, then are carried away by the breeze. Within a few yards of one another large green iguanas sit in the middle of the road bathing in the sunlight, then scurry into the lush grass along the road as I near them. At the roadside entrance to El Garrafon Park I walk along a line of parked taxis and mopeds.

 “Ride, Senor?” A driver asks lazily from inside his taxi.

 “No, gracias.” I walk faster.

 From the road I spot the tourist-filled water along a small stretch of the park at the bottom of a hill. Brought there by ferries to scuba dive and see the bright colored coral on the seabed, a hundred or so tourists are standing in the water, each wearing goggles, bobbing their heads in and out of the water like strange sea birds to view the coral and whatever aquatic life they can see around their feet. I once did this same thing with Rita, but that was years ago, long before hordes of tourists were brought to the island by ferry from Cancun. In those days, Rita and I didn’t just stand in the water near the shore. We swam and went scuba diving as far out and as deep as we could. She swam here, marveling at the coral and the sea life from the time she was a toddler.

When the tourists came en masse she no longer wanted to swim at this part of the island. During our visit five years previously, we found a private alcove with a very small sandy beach on the eastern side of the island, a place she knew also from her childhood, nearer to the southernmost part of the island, Punta Sur. There in the water a few feet out I was dashed against the rocks by a very rough wave and climbed out of the water, scratched and bruised, and found Rita sitting on her towel, her head in her hands.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

 “Just another headache.” She  looked up and gasped at my injured side. “I told you the undertow and waves were rough here. You could have drowned.”

 Going past the park and entering Punta Sur I am glad to put those things out of my mind, the early days of her illness as well as the tourists here now. Only a few of the tourists are walking among the paths that wind their way all the way to the narrow rocky tip of the island. I take one of the paths stopping only to look at the recently carved statues placed along the way, including one of Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Childbirth and Medicine. The statue’s black painted eyes do little to ease my concern for Rita. Standing on the very tip of Punta Sur looking from high up out over the vast bright blue waters I know the days of simply being concerned about her are over.

On the way back to the house a small light brown mongrel with a stomach bloated from starving or disease or carrying a litter follows close behind me. There are small packs of these dogs, abandoned yet harmless, that roam the island being fed and kept barely alive by well-meaning tourists. This one gets no nearer then a few feet from me and stands cautiously outside the door watching me as I close the door. Inside the house it is very quiet.

“You have been out walking,” Amelia says with the mixed inflection of it being a statement and question at the same time as she comes out of Rita’s room with an arm full of linens.

 “Yes I have. How is my wife?” I take off my ball cap and toss it onto the sofa.

 “She is sleeping. Cecilia has gone home until tomorrow.”

 I want to say “good” but only nod.

 “Your wife’s mother, she not understand why you are here,” Amelia says in a hushed tone as if she will be overheard.

 “This is where Rita wanted to be,” I say. “She wants to die here.”

 “Her mother only interested in her daughter living here. To live is what makes difference to her, not the dying.” Amelia glances over her shoulder, at the closed door to Rita’s room. “Rita and I played together when young girls.” Then Amelia smiles broadly. “That mother not agree with any man ever, so you are in good company.”

“Thank you for that.” I head into my wife’s room. “I think there is a storm coming, Amelia. You can go home. I can take care of my wife.”

Si,” Amelia says. “A storm is coming.”

***

Inoperable seemed at the time like a word a person used when talking about a car they couldn’t get to run, not the inability to remove the tumor from Rita’s brain. After all the tests, the scans, the MRIs, the countless neurological exams, it was the final word every doctor, surgeon and brain specialist used: inoperable. Rita took the news much calmer than I did, thanking them all for giving her some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it wasn’t light at all. She saw the prognosis of eventual death as the eventual ending of the medicated headaches and nausea, periods of confusion and increasing lack of coordination. Three weeks before, when coming to Isla Mujeres, she needed my help and the help of a flight attendant to make it down the plane’s aisle and into her seat. She said very little the entire flight from Virginia, but stared out the window almost the entire time.

“Home again at last,” she said as Cancun and Isla Mujeres came into view as the plane began its descent.

I took her hand in mine. “Are you sorry you left the island?”

“No, because the island never left me,” she said.

 Those first days upon our return went by fast, too fast, and Rita wanted to see as much of the island as possible. At only about five miles from one end to the other and much less than that from the east side to the west, in the past we had easily walked it from end to end. This time we didn’t venture far beyond the ubiquitous taxis to return us quickly home when she became quickly exhausted or was confused about where we were or what we were doing. The throngs of tourists in the narrow streets in the El Centro shopping district overwhelmed her. It led to our quickly retreating to a bar along the waterfront just to find an escape until I could get a taxi to take us home.

 The first visit with her mother also didn’t go well. When we arrived by taxi Cecilia was standing in the open door of her small house on a side street leaving El Centro heading south as if she were guarding it from would-be robbers. Although she took her daughter in her arms and hugged her tightly, she said nothing to me. Sitting in her small living room I realized that nothing had changed or even been moved since our previous visit five years before. She and Rita spoke to each other in rapid-fire Spanish.

I looked at all the photographs on the walls of her and Rita. I was reminded once again that there were none of me, or of me and Rita, or of Rita’s father.

 Within a week Rita suffered a seizure and became confined to her bed. Most of the time when she was awake she knew where she was and what was happening around her, but she slept a lot, as if preparing for eternal sleep by taking frequent naps. On several occasions she awoke very confused and in a state of panic until either I or Amelia or Cecilia could calm her by gently rubbing her hand and talking to her in gentle, reassuring, soothing tones. More than once during the night she woke to grab my hand and ask, “Am I on my island?”

***

 On this night with only a single lamp on, nearing midnight the room is full of shadows. With the curtains tied against the frame of the window I can feel the strong warm winds of the storm as it crosses the island on its way to the entirety of the Yucatan. Rain falls in vertical sheets. It is a storm, but not a hurricane, but the lamp light flickers on and off occasionally. Standing at the window in the darkness, it’s almost impossible to see where the beach along this house and the waters of the Caribbean begin. In the distance I barely make out the lights from homes and hotels along the shore in Cancun.

 “I want to go home,” Rita says from behind me. I turn and see her trying to sit up. “I want to go home,” she repeats.

 I go to the side of her bed and try to gently urge her back against the pillow. “You’re home sweetheart. I brought you home.”

 She is looking straight at me, her face half illuminated in the light of the lamp, the other half hidden in shadow. In her features there is an awareness. She knows what she is saying and as if suddenly punched in the stomach I now know it also. “Are you sure?” I ask her.

 She covers my hand with hers and squeezes it gently. “Yes, my love, I’m sure.”

 Ending her life for her had not crossed my mind until this moment. This room, this house, was not her home. Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women, was. I had brought her back to it, but it was not enough. I slide my arm around her back and slip my other arm under her knees and lift her from the bed. She’s so light. It’s as if the life that was leaving her was carrying with it her weight. I carry her out into the hall and to the back door and then out onto the small wooden deck overlooking a small flight of stairs and beyond that the beach and the sea. At the bottom of the stairs I see in the darkness the dog from earlier that day, its eyes gleaming like shiny marbles from its small head.

 The force of the rain drenches us. Rita’s long hair hangs like dark dripping moss from a dying tree. Before the final step I hear a creaking of wood beneath my shoe, then the wood gives out and my right foot and leg up to my calf goes through it almost throwing me off balance completely. Holding tightly onto Rita I squirm to pull my foot and leg up through the hole. It is the feeling of the dog’s sharp teeth sinking into my flesh just above my sock that propels me out of the hole and sends me lurching forward with Rita in my arms. We land in the soft sand as the rain batters us. I feel the place on my leg where I was bitten and feel the thickness of blood. The dog is nowhere to be seen. I pick Rita up and carry her to the water and pause only momentarily until walking into the waves with her.

 “Thank you,” she says.

I lay her body on the water. She floats for several minutes, then disappears beneath the surface.

Blood and Wisdom by Czar

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The mashed potatoes are a little clumpy. The skins are burnt and interfere with the garlic and rosemary. They could have used more butter; perhaps grandma ran out, perhaps she forgot to tell grandpa when he went out earlier.

The chops, however, are fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. I don’t know where grandma goes from here with these chops. She’s made them hundreds of times in my twenty-seven years. Hundreds. But these are absolutely perfect ─ the sort of meat that men on death row request before they’re strapped to a chair and zapped.

We’re just sharing looks, the three of us, as usual.  Grandpa always said, “If people are talking during their meal it’s because the food tastes like shit.” I’m not saying he’s right, but I can’t say he’s wrong. Certainly at this moment, he’s right.

Every few bites, one of us takes a soft slurp from something wet. Grandma and her wine, grandpa and myself: a bottle of beer. I’m not a drunk, none of us are, we just like a drink or two with supper.

The cutlery clinks and clanks atop the plates. Grandpa is always the first to finish, then myself and grandma last. Grandpa and I may finish first, but we never interrupt grandma’s meal with dialogue. When she finishes, we discuss the luxury we just consumed.

 “My love,” Grandpa says to grandma, his voice sounding as concrete feels, “dinner was exquisite.” He smiles, taking her small hand in his large mitt.

She smiles as he brings the top of her hand to his mouth, leaving a kiss upon it.

Grandma’s face may be withered, her hair white, but her green eyes are still filled with brilliant light as they connect with mine.

“Plans for the night, hun?” She asks, smiling her old white smile.

Studying is what I tell her. I’m not lying either, but she knows that. Gran and Gramps both love so much that I’ve found something to love: teaching. I want to be an English teacher at an elementary school. Open their minds when they’re young so they’ll be wise forever.

Over the next hour, Gran puts on a pot of coffee, the trio remaining at the table.  As per usual, the grandparents rekindle the passion between them by telling old stories that one or both of them have forgotten. It’s actually rare that I hear the same story more than once.

Their love is so infectious.

Gramps is seventy-five and Gran is seventy-two. They’ve been married for fifty years. Five-zero.

Honesty and integrity, faith and loyalty for every year of their five decades together. There have been bad times, bad years for sure. I’ve lived with them forever, but they’ve never given up on each other. 

“…And you’re grandpa’s best friend, Marty,” Gran says, laughing. “Sat outside that poor girl’s house for weeks on end!” Takes a breath.

And then what happened? I say, sipping a mug of java.

Grandma pats her mouth with a napkin. “Well, the two of them got married, stay married for nineteen years, until one day she shot him to death in his sleep.”

“I remember the funeral,” Grandpa speaks low, splashing a bit of whiskey into his coffee. “His parents sobbed for months, died of broken hearts.”

The traumatic silence of the memory dances between the three of us, allowing each warm cup to be drank until it’s dry. Silence. From the corner of my eye I spot grandma opening and closing her hand beneath grandpa’s. Must be sweaty. They flash a smile.

“I think there’s a game on tonight,” Grandpa says to me. “First one following the All-Star break, time to see who really wants it.”

I can’t help but smile, old man loves spending time with his grandbaby so damn much. I tell him that I’ll be more than happy to watch with him.

Grandma shakes her head, smiling. She’ll watch the odd game with us, but that’s about it. She, I guess, just never got the point of “putting a ball through a glorified peach basket.”  I’m sure she’ll end up painting or writing a story, knit up a sweater before halftime. She’s pretty awesome that way.

It’s so perfect, this quaint little dining room. The old table, place mats at each of the four chairs─despite there only being three of us─lace curtains over the windows, little island in the center of the kitchen, a cross here and there. Not to mention the tile flooring that grandpa must remind us of every week. At least once. That’s all because he installed it.

Grandpa fills up our cups of coffee, grinning as he returns to the table. He must have a story to tell, he always does.

“Used to work with this guy Steve.” Gramps places the mugs on the table. “As you both know, men who smash coal like their drink…” he pauses, Gran and I smile.

“…So one day we’re all busting coal when old Steve, drunk as a goddamn skunk, drives a pickaxe into his foot…”

Grandma and I gasp, Grandpa is already laughing, but of course.

“…But we’re all messed up too, so none of us notice until Steve passes out from blood loss!”

“Well, what happened, you old fool?” Grandma laughs.

“Let’s just say it was an awkward conversation with the foreman.”

It doesn’t take Gran long to wear herself out with laughter and wine. She excuses herself to dig away at one of those cozy mystery novels she loves to read.

Never been much of a book person myself. Oh well, as long as she takes pleasure in it.  Probably why she’s gotten things going at once, she never allows her mind to rest.

Eventually Grandpa and I move to the living room with the old tall clock and treasure chest and pictures which tell many lifetimes of memories. Oh, and the plastic-wrapped furniture.

Our team, the Buffalo Beamers, are losing at halftime but manage to pull it together for a blowout once the fourth quarter rolls around. We manage not to wake the dead with our celebration.

And then Grandpa leaves for bed. Now, I am alone in my room.

***

I haven’t heard a peep from the other bedroom for an hour maybe, hour-and-a-half. Can’t imagine being so in love that you can stop having sex with whoever you’re sharing a bed with. Then again, they’re both pretty old; ten-to-one, grandpa’s got a stash of blue pills somewhere.

In his pickup, or in a sock drawer. The beside table, maybe.

Maybe it’s Grandma; perhaps she’s the freak with the whips and the collars and chains and leashes.  Bondage hoods and nipple clamps. Maybe Grandpa even lets her put a strap to him.

Too far?

Too far.

It’s the studying, the impending exam, that carries me for hours into the night. I love this; this small and cozy home, this small and cozy town, but I’ve gotta get the hell outta here. Maybe if I could make enough money to move just outside the town and travel every day for work back into it. I like shopping malls and expensive coffeehouses and chain restaurants, I just don’t want to live in them. 

The watch on my wrist says: 10:15.

I need to be there at one in the morning. Takes ninety minutes to get there. I’ll leave early just to make sure. Most of the snow is gone but it’s mighty friggin’ cold outside. These Midwest winters can be real bitches. 

In a perfect world I’d just take grandpa’s truck, but the world isn’t perfect. He’d notice the mile change, the fresh oil in the morning that never seems to stop running. I’ll just walk. I have to walk. 

Study until 10:45, that’s what I’ll do. Keep up on the importance of positive reinforcement. Reward the child when right, comfort the child when wrong. This all takes time, repetition and comfort. Spoil the child.

I’m hoping somebody will let me intern for them within the next year, eighteen months. I know I’m a little old for such a start, but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Who knows, they might see my age as a good thing; matured, less likely to fold under the stress of all the screaming and fussing and crying and nose picking that comes with children of that age. I just need to be able to hand my grandparents a check so I can pay my way doing what I love. Not waiting tables, not working in the one retail store in town, and not scrubbing toilets.

It’s 10:55.

Wrapping magazines and printing paper, duct tape over for forearms and wrists, thighs and stomach. Multiple layers of clothing. Hoodies and shirts and sweats beneath my jeans. Everything I can think of while remaining within the rules: no throats and no face. Perfect. Only clothing and household items, nothing solid or immovable. Perfect.

11:00

Tie up the last laces of my boot and strap Velcro around the tops, around the ankles, make sure these babies don’t go anywhere. They’re good enough for SWAT teams, better be good enough for me.

All black: hoodies and beanie, boots and pants and the layers beneath. Won’t draw any attention on the long walk to The Venue. I hold my ear to the wall… nothing.

Move out from the room, to my grandparents’ room, ear to the door… nothing.

I’ve got seven-and-a-half hours until they wake up, precisely.

I know exactly which tiles in the dining room and kitchen to avoid. Every third tile from the entrance, without fail, squeaks. As does the fourth of center on the left side following the island. Last obstacle would be the door of the screened porch past the living room, but no worries, I greased it down earlier while Grandma was gardening and Grandpa was at the store.

First concrete step.

Second concrete step.

Open the door slowly, then close it.

The air is cold but the grass is only slightly crisp from the cold weather. Odd. Not enough to wake up anybody in the bedroom behind me from the backyard. The shed is getting larger, even in this black, empty night. Its edges and pointed top are impossible to miss.

By the front door, which is locked, sits a flower pot, there’s pot in it. Within said pot is a key for said locked door. It’s so cold, if I wasn’t wearing these gloves it might stick to my skin.

The key sounds like a pipe, wiggling its way into the lock, clicking when it finds home.

Righty-tighty, left-loosie.

Another click and the old wooden door opens, just enough. Just gotta squeeze through this door, it’s not too hard. Right to the left of the door is another pot; the search goes without luck until I recognize the crinkling plastic. Remove from pot and slip the baggy into my pocket. Step out from the shed, close, and lock door.

Step-step-step. Crunch-crunch-crunch. Back through the yard. Down the little hill that leads into the concrete driveway, up fifty feet and I’m over the gravel entrance, then a left.

There aren’t many houses to either side of me, just dark, deep woods. The road beneath me is smooth, almost entirely quiet and straight. There’s plenty of cracks and crunches circling me, probably deer or little rodents making for home or in search of shelter for the night. Up ahead, some quarter-mile, there’s a light─the Josephson’s porch light, one they always keep on at night. It lets me know I’ll be making a right before long. From there it’s a few miles.

A pair of headlights, probably from a truck, turn down onto the street. I step further onto the shoulder, so much so that I’m on grass. I would hate for the vehicle to stop in efforts of being a Good Samaritan. Nope. Too many questions, lose focus, start questioning what I’m doing out here.

The truck’s getting larger with every step, like they’re only moving with me. A one-sided relationship, a willing patient with a bored therapist. A loving dog with an abusive owner.

It’s kicking up gravel, little putter-patter of shrapnel sticking into the frosted tips of grass. The motor is rumbling. It’s like an old man breathing his last breaths, like I’m the Good Samaritan.

I don’t know if it’s the truck, its owner or me that’s screaming as I’m illuminated from the four-wheeled tank. And then nothing. We just pass each other.

Boop.

I turn back to look at the truck, I don’t know, ten seconds later, and it’s gone. Fucking gone. 

Turning back—oh shit!  I’m thrown to the ground, blam!

Almost right after my ass lands on the concrete I can hear a galloping pack of hooves clacking. First over the concrete and then the grass. The sound disappearing into the woods. I can’t help but laugh aloud at myself.

“You big pussy,” I say into the night. “Stand up.”

Just keep on moving towards the light at the end of the street. There’s a warm bottle of water in my front pocket, I retrieve it and unscrew the cap, sucking back just enough to lube up my mouth before swallowing.

Already, I’m playing the future out in my head. Once I get to the corner I’m going to jog for fifteen minutes. Then I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll jog for ten more. After that, walk, and after that? Who knows.

The air’s burning through my lungs like some little guerrilla soldier just ran down my throat and dropped a grenade into my body. He was probably smiling as it went off, sending dozens of little bits of death through my organs.

Like a driver checking the blind spot, I glance back over my shoulder. It won’t be long until the Josephson residence is completely out of sight. Once it is, then I’ll stop to walk for a spell. Check again, the light’s dying.

And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Breathe, in through the nose and out through the mouth. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride.

I wonder what grandma and grandpa are dreaming of. I hope it’s nice. One time, multiple times, I snuck into the bedroom and read grandma’s diary. She writes about Heaven a lot, dreams about it a lot.

They’ve always been Atheists. Can’t imagine what Grandpa’s diary would be like if he had one, poor guy has a rough time writing down a grocery list.

Glance back. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Glance. Stride, stride.

Another guerrilla soldier dropping another grenade into my lungs. Another explosion and another collection of shrapnel ripping my insides to bits. Another glance backwards: blackness.

The long strides come to a sudden halt. Quick walk slows to a slow trot. The collective sigh of disappointment from the wildlife around me drains out the howling wind. They wanted to watch me run the entire trip, what a bunch of assholes they are.

The steps over the pavement grow however, the clouds leaping from my mouth are short and rapid. Before long, I’ve gained what control I can of my wind in this weather.

Makes about as much sense as pushing a boulder up a hill every day after it rolls back down.

Grandpa was telling me about a book or something. Nihilism or something. The essence of the futility of hope and effort.

I should read something. Something besides a goddamn text book.

***

The Venue, an old abandoned factory, used to be a forge I think. It is packed with pickup trucks and sports cars, motorcycles and four-wheelers. Easily a hundred vehicles. Who knows how many people to each. There’s more than enough light being thrown through the dusty windows to give me an idea as to where I’m to enter. As I get closer to the entrance I begin fiddling with the bag in my pocket. 

What ground of the lot not filled by wheels is trashed with bottles and empty cigarette cartons and wrappers and who knows what the hell else. Maybe fifty yards until I’m stepping through the front door. Might as well be hell.

The shapes around me vary. Some are short, some tall, some fat. Some are small. Some of them are so broad, others narrower than me. Everybody’s wearing boots, it’s obvious from the earth’s crunching. 

From the corner of my eye I can see the breath of those around me shifting direction. They’re sizing me up, scanning who’s first and which ones will be second, who they’ll be seeing thirty minutes after the party gets started.

As if heaven opened, somebody makes it to the front door, allowing a mob of light to shine out into the night, lets me see the pair up front: two men, tall with beards, dawning leather. I wonder where they’ll end up.

Three, four, five more people walk past me towards the door and step into the concrete playground. I’m in next.

Upon entry, there’s a green steel pole with a sign posted on it: FOLLOW YOUR GENDER. I do as I’m told and go in the proper direction, to my locker room. No gender neutrality or transgender victim cards in this place.

As I move through the long, yellow, crowded hall I’m allowed faint glances into the center of the building. Poles and ladders, a floorspace the size of a football field illuminates by portable spotlights.  The sight blinks away as I move in front of a wall. The locker room is getting close. Not too far ahead I’m able to hear waves of hooting and hollering, war cries from those ready to do battle. My hands are shaking by the time I step into the stinky room.

The entrance door has been ripped from the hinges, the floor covered in dirt and grease and definitely shit. The hollering only grows as I step into the first bay of green lockers. The tile walls match the flickering light: yellow. Reminds me of the color of a smoker’s house before they die.

Onto the second bay, less folk but still too crowded for any level of comfort. Not that that’s something I should be looking for this place anyway. Third bay, only one other person, at the end of the bench; dark hair with eyes to match and a granite jaw. We say nothing. Not even a nod. If anything, we might be giving each other a sniff.

Sitting here on the bench, tightening wraps around both wrists, I can’t help but think of the grandparents. Which one of them has woken up first to go to the bedroom, which of them cracked my door silently to peek in on the bundle of pillows they believe to be me. Been checking in on me every night of my life. Twenty-seven friggin’ years old and they refuse to quit.

The locker at the end of the bay slams shut, a deep breath following uneasy. The steps turn back and then there’s a voice, soft and trembling.

“Three—three minutes,” she says. I nod and keep quiet.

Her footsteps carry away once more, this time without return.

The pack of hooting and hollering hyenas grows louder, fading into the hallway which leads into The Venue’s main square. Finally, something that resembles peace and quiet; all I hear now are the whispered prayers of those still in here.

To my feet, push out a breath. I know I am loved.

The first step to my right, out of the bay, leaves me in an uneasy freeze to maintain my balance. From my ankles to the knees are made of granite, up to my hips and I’m nothing but rubber. Stay for just a moment, I can’t fall here. Another deep breath and then a second step. The feeling to my lower half returns slowly.

My strides grow shorter as the exit door comes into view. Looks as if the pearly gate just opened, but they lead to demons. The light grows and then the voices return, coming from the main square. Just louder and louder, like a goddamn moshpit.

If there is a god, I am not asking for your forgiveness. If the devil is real, I do not align with you. Between me and myself, heaven and hell are one in the same.

***

Now that I am here, amongst the demons, I cannot see where the flesh ends; just rows and layers of men and women. Young and almost old. You’d have to be crazy to be smiling, and some of them are. I am not one of those faces. Like a goddamn cow farm, so tightly packed in, so many leather jackets and leggings. Morbid hide.

All the little whispers around me, like rabid bees. Bumping elbows, catching nasty looks for it. Look for them first.

Our little world of two-hundred goes quiet, deathly silent, as a crackling male voice bounces about the bodies like a rubber ball.

“Prom queens and parasites, the soon-to-be-haves and the forever-to-have-nots, I am Gauge.  Only Gauge…”

The man coughs into the speaker repeatedly, chuckling for a moment afterward.

“…By now I will assume all of you know the rules, you should considering you had to read them to unlock this location.  But allow me to refresh my own memory…”

More coughing, this time from Gauge and somebody behind me.

“…Thirty minutes, last cow standing. You’ve all got ten seconds.”

Coughing. More of it and then the speaker slams quiet. Then the beeps.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six; reach into my pocket. Four, three; pull out the knife, two, one.

The buzzer’s not even finished by the time I’m jamming the hunter’s blade into the back of a small woman; two, three, six times. She’s screaming so I shove the weapon into her neck, spraying the crowd with her crimson.

I feel the thud in my lower back. Somebody is trying to stab me!

Spin around, staring back at me is a bearded man covered in blood. The first thing I do is cram the knife into his eye, then slash through his lips. From nowhere another knife enters his cheek.

I thank the aiding man with a stabbing blow. Tear right with the blade. Rip out.

His intestines fall to the floor, he slips on them and crashes lifeless to the concrete below.

A fist, or the palm of a hand, slams into the back of my head, throwing me atop the floor of flesh. I roll onto my back atop the bodies, just in time to move from a long blade being driven downward by a well-built black woman. I reach up and pull her close. Hands clutching her face towards me, legs wrapped around her waist. My grip won’t last for long.

As if the gods of death are watching, the woman is swarmed like maggots to a corpse. They begin to stab and slice and tear at the woman with their knives, her screams canceling my ability to hear.

Whoever killed the black woman, some of them anyway, turn their affection to me. Stabbing at my exposed forearms, only to hit the rolled paper.

Fuck!

One of them slashes my hand—goddamn it.

 Now the other.

I dodge their attacks at my face, their blades sticking into the back of the woman’s head. I squeeze out just enough.

Grabbing at one of the men, I yank him towards me by the wrist and slit his throat, immediately wearing his red. The other flees after I slash his wrist.

Kicking and squirming, I manage to get out from under the body. It’s a matter of moments before the back of my thigh is torn into. My leg is steaming wit heat almost immediately. I hear the boot behind me, so I duck down, allowing the charging body to roll over my back.

They land with a wet thud, their stunned state allows me more than enough time to stomp on their face until it shatters. Their skull slides off the heel of my boot and I step towards the ever-dwindling crowd. Staggering. 

I don’t know if I’m killing or the bodies just happen to be falling as I cross them. I want to be the one killing them. That is until I see her, the girl from the locker bay. 

She’s been stripped down on top to just a green tank-top. Her entire face, neck, and chest are saturated with blood. I swear there’s red rings around her blue eyes. 

In her left hand is a long, serrated machete, in her right a hunting knife that is considerably longer than mine. Hanging from the blade is a chunk of piping-hot flesh. 

Reaching down blindly, ignorant to the death around us, I take hold of another knife in my free hand. Duel-wield.

She and I are screaming as we charge each other.

5 Years Later

It’s a Monday. I step into the third-grade classroom at Borton Elementary School. So many little faces from all races, walks of life, and futures. Nothing to divide us.

Before them, in front of my desk, I wish them a good morning.

They respond as one, “Good morning, Mrs. Gruenwald!”

Czar resides on the small Island of Malta.

           

Birthday Girl by Sharon Frame Gay

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The faces around the table are blurred. They’ve lost their hard edges, my vision deteriorating. In front of me is a cake gaily decorated in pinks and greens with enough candles to set off the sprinklers in the ceiling.

I am one hundred and four years old today; April the 11th, the time of year when spring lambs are born. I came into this world in a small town in North Carolina. Father named me Charlotte, after the city where he grew up. He said he wanted to move to the shadier side of the Carolinas, up into the Great Smoky Mountains, where you hear owls as you fall asleep and count the hills and ridges as they rise from the smoke of dawn. Over a century later, I’m still living in the same small town Daddy moved us to after he and Momma started their family.

When I married, I moved from my childhood farm to a house near Main Street, and from there to a tiny apartment above the drug store. Finally, I came to this retirement home. Not five miles away from my earliest memories it sits near these beloved hills.

To prepare for the party, I was bathed and brushed like a poodle in one of those fancy pet salons. The nurses and attendants in the facility fussed over me with lotions and hair dryers until I was exhausted. Then they stood back, smiled, and flourished a mirror. I stared long at the reflection.

Peering back was a very old woman. My face looked like one of those storage bags they sell on television, where they put a vacuum hose in it and suck all the air out. I have dark brown eyes, but they’re cloudy now, covered with overhanging lids, two tiny orbs peering out of fleshy curtains. There are skin tags and age spots scattered across my face and neck like a map of a heavily populated state. Hair, once long and thick, the color of an oak leaf in the fall, is now wispy and white, scalp shining through like a baby’s bottom.

“Thank God I still have my mind.” I burst out laughing. “That’s what they all say.” I laugh some more.

The gals give a hug then leave me in my room in a wheelchair. It’s not time for the festivities yet, they say, so here I sit, fingers laced in lap. The skin on my hands is paper-thin and fragile. I am afraid of banging them on a doorknob, or bruising them knocking against the nightstand reaching for water, so I wear soft white gloves for protection.

I’m in my best nightgown, light blue with tiny white dandelions sprinkled across it, the bodice smocked and embroidered. It’s my favorite piece of clothing, and I insist on wearing it today. On my feet are pink slippers with non slip bottoms.

I never wear shoes. I only walk to the bathroom and back. The rest of the time, I am in this wheelchair, my feet in retirement.

My daughter Esther knit a yellow shawl that I wear every day. I wrap it around my shoulders and pretend she’s here with me, though she lives three hundred miles away.

She’ll be here today, along with my son Gerald and his wife, kids and grand kids. Esther will bring her sons, too, and their wives and grand children, even a couple of great-grandchildren. Esther’s husband Roy passed away five years ago. She still has to work, well into her seventies. After retirement, she’s moving back here, to be closer to me.

I think to myself, Hurry, Esther.

Four years ago, my hundredth birthday was quite the shindig. I suppose everyone thought they would celebrate my natal day, and have a hail and farewell party all at the same time. It was something to behold. The party was in a rented hall, and over fifty people attended. There were speeches, little kids reciting poetry, live piano music, and a potluck dinner. My birthday was announced on national television. A photo of my face peered out of a Smucker’s jelly jar on the Today Show.

 Most folks don’t make it another four years, but I surprised everybody, including myself. Family and friends have dutifully gathered every April 11th and twisted paper streamers through the dining room of the facility, brought vases of peonies and jugs of lemonade and ice tea, and sang “Happy Birthday”.

While waiting for the party to begin, I glance around the room. My eyes rest on a photograph of Peter, my husband, dead so long ago I barely recognize him. I wonder if that will change in heaven. Will I walk right past him, or run into his arms?

He passed away almost forty years ago. I gaze at his face, so much younger than mine now, and try to remember what it was like to feel the bulk of him wrapped around me as we made love, recall the fights, the kisses and the laughter we had over the years. Would he still think I was pretty if he saw me now? Would he sneak his hand up my leg, a sly smile on his face, and will I slap it away, tired and weary, like I was when the kids were babies?

He went off to war decades ago then came home. We had to learn the map of each others’ body all over again. There were shy moments in the dark, his stranger’s breath on my neck, a warrior now who knew things. Things we didn’t share, because he refused to talk about the battles. It was never the same between us, but over the years things softened, grew more comfortable.

Peter was as dear to me as my next breath. The day he died I begged God to take me with him. I cried and yanked strands of hair out of my head, heart yearning. Over time I learned to talk about him the way you talked about a character in a book, fondly, but able to close the cover and move on.

Now they wheel me down the hall. There’s a singular quietness in the dining room, as though everyone is holding their breath. We push through the door, and the room energizes with children and teenagers, middle aged folks, and the other ancient ones who are on a journey in this tired old place.

They light the candles on the cake and sing right away, as though they want to make sure I live long enough to purse my lips and send weak wisps of air towards the cake. Esther steps in and helps, blowing the flickering candles out before the wax runs down into the frosting, turning it hard and inedible.

I clap my gloved hands together and make a big show of opening presents. Talcum powder that smells like another era, new slippers to replace the ones that I have just recently broken in to perfection. Bath soaps and a fresh Bible, with a white cover that looks like leather, and a rose colored book mark. There are sweet cards with bluebirds and posies. I thank one and all, flash a gummy grin and raise my Minnie Mouse hands in the air, give a thumbs up. They all laugh, hug me, then drift over to the refreshments, cheese and crackers, little sausages in puff pastry, cake for later.

One by one, I am approached by my guests. As always, after they kiss my cheek or shake my hand, they wish, “Happy Birthday,” then ask what the secret is to my longevity.

Truth be told, I have no idea. But they want to know, they are eager to know. Their faces peer at me with such yearning and hope that I set out to oblige them.

I tell the stout, sweating young man who works for the local newspaper that my secret is exercising every day and eating plenty of vegetables. I assure the spinster in the corner that it was years of living alone after Peter died and my children left home that afforded me this luxury. To the tightly wound nursing facility manager, whose very breath comes out in spirals of angst and tension, I say that a glass of wine every night is the key to survival. And once, just to see what might happen, I announced to my fellow residents that daily masturbation does wonders to loosen the body and enhance one’s longevity.

I am not sure why I ‘m still here, or what God had planned for me. I don’t know what I did to maintain my body, and give it cells and atoms that are more robust than someone else’s.

What I do know is this: I lived. I laughed and played as a child, and I grew into a woman. My heart was broken and pelted with the heartache of many storms. I got back up and tried again, and again, and again.

I held sick babies in my arms, and a dead husband in my lap, waiting to hear the squall of the ambulance. There were Little League games, weddings, Christmas trees, and funerals. Quiet, magical days drifted into one another like waves on an autumn pond.

I had friends who helped, friends who hurt. Scares. Oh, so many scares. Frights that kept me up nights, cursed my days.

And joy. The kind of joy you can only get when those frights go away and are replaced by love so magical, so sweet, that the sun pours itself into your soul.

My life is like this old nightgown, faded from many washings, but soft as a summer’s morning, yielding and cozy. I remember when it was bright and starched and filled with promise. Over time, it learned to give in, to fold without whimper, yet still cover with a sense of purpose. Every button knows my fingers, a rosary of sorts, as I twist and stroke them in my hands.

On bright days, I ask the nurse to put it on a hanger, set it on a hook outside for a few hours. It comes in smelling of sunshine and trees. I pull it over my head, bury my face in it. Remember.

I asked to be laid to rest in it. Esther shakes her head. She thinks I’m kidding. I’m not. It’s written in a letter to her, in my dresser drawer. I asked her to lay me down in blossoms of pink peonies, strewn around the coffin like a spring storm. I tell her to wash this gown, set it in the sun to dry and place it back on my body.

Until then, I look around the room, touch my collarbone with a finger, my way of getting God’s attention, and whisper, “How about next year?”

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including: Chicken Soup For The Soul, Typehouse, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at: Women on Writing, The Writing District, and Owl Hollow Press.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.  You can find her on Amazon as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: @sharonframegay

Concealment by Mitchell Toews

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The train, a legacy from the recent Olympic Games, got me within a few miles of my Sunday morning destination. I made the last leg of the journey on a zoo transfer. The shuttle arrived, its exterior fixed up to look like a classic safari vehicle with a painted pride of lions basking on the side.

I passed the day observing the zoo patrons more than the exhibits. The people and the surroundings all served to remind me of my alien status. America is Canada’s snub-nosed angry cousin. It’s especially raw down here in the South, different than northern towns like Grand Forks and Fargo. Those small cities seemed more like Swift Current or Saskatoon – vaguely familiar country towns. Atlanta became the place where my Canadian assumptions concerning Southern social norms were debunked.

The pine forest encircling the parking lot where I waited for the bus back to the train station reflected this sense of strangeness. Invading kudzu vines cloaked the trees in leafy green velvet, and exotic insects echoed in the clearing, creaking, “Katy did, Katy did.” I didn’t know what kind of a bug made that noise but I did know there were none of them in Northern Manitoba where I grew up. I was sure some of my co-workers back in Winnipeg would know; they had come to these equipment shows in Atlanta many times. This was my first.

When the shuttle arrived, it was the same one as before but with a new driver, a heavyset woman with tired eyes under long lashes. She double-checked the date on my MARTA pass as I boarded, flicking a curious look at me when I thanked her.

I found a window seat and settled in. At the first bus stop, we braked to pick up a woman wearing a bright yellow dress, pushing a baby stroller. Two small children followed her as if in tow. I heard the driver mutter something but could not make out what she said.

As the door opened to admit these new passengers, the bus driver shouted at the woman. Once again, I couldn’t understand what she said, but her eyes flashed with anger and her tone was certainly hostile. I felt the crawling insecurity of a stranger in a strange land.

The yellow dress woman’s face registered complete shock, and then I could see a kind of understanding grow in her eyes. All conversation stopped. The occupants included an older man and woman─seniors with a young boy who I took to be their grandson, a young couple with a boy about four years old, and an elderly woman clutching a small wire shopping caddy. And me.

The woman straightened her back and instructed her children to lift the front of the baby stroller up the bus steps. With some difficulty, they hoisted the carriage.

I hopped over to help. The mother smiled her appreciation to me, albeit with some uncertainty, as I sat back down. Then she returned her attention to the browbeating she received from the bus driver. Her demeanor changed. Eyes narrowed. She regarded the driver frigidly and shoved coins into the receptacle, then leaned down and said something in a snarling Southern accent. The children froze by her side.

After a sputtering rebuttal from the driver, the new passenger stood back and said in a haughty tone, “No… you need the Lord!”

At this, our driver drew a great breath, as did I. Deliberate as a chess master, she slid the gearshift into Park and engaged the upright handle of the emergency brake with a ratcheting staccato. After closing the accordion door, she looked squarely at me and said, “First off, I do not remember givin’ you a promotion to the rank of MARTA conductor, did I?” She held a single finger up at me, like a metronome, paused and filled with imminent movement. “Do not get involved where you got no business and do not leave your seat. It’s a safety violation. Sir.”

Confused by being drawn into their fire-fight, I felt exposed. My ears and neck went hot like a schoolboy called out in class. A second later the bus bucked forward.

Still mumbling to herself, the driver picked up the radio mic with a theatrical flourish. She put her gaze on the mirror, focusing on the yellow dress woman.

She lapsed into the sing-song, clipped lexicon of CB radio: “C’mon MARTA station. Claudette in fifty-five. Come back. Claudette in fifty-five here, over.”

The young mother settled herself and her children near me. She sat and glared at the driver in the mirror, watching the stocky woman speaking quietly into her radio microphone.

We drove on in relative calm although it was disconcerting to watch the driver. She sat hunched in her seat, her glaring attention on her adversary. She only glanced at the road when she had to. In time her attention fixed on the mother and didn’t come unstuck.

“I seen you,” the driver decreed in a loud voice, puzzling us all. The bus picked up speed on the winding residential street.

“Seen me what?” the yellow dress woman asked.

“You went to high school with my sister, Suzette. I seen you down there,” the driver said. “You were walking down there.” She poked a careless finger at distant downtown high-rises.

The grandfather stood up. “I do not care to listen to this private conversation anymore. The two of you make yourselves look like the most forlorn and wicked creatures on earth and we have heard enough!”

“Amen,” croaked the old lady with the shopping caddy.

The driver hit the gas, sending the grey-haired man thumping back down in his padded seat in the back row.

“Sit down, sir, or I may have to ask you to disembark the vehicle,” the driver shouted. The top-heavy bus squealed, now on two-wheels for all we knew, as it careened down the road.

In defiance, I too stood up. I grasped the chrome bar behind the driver to steady myself and begged for caution. “Please slow down. There are children on board.” It was my voice, but uncertain and quavering. Just be quiet! I chastised myself, feeling conspicuous once again.

My plea didn’t work. The driver held the pace and scoffed at me. “Don’t take it too far, mister. I won’t warn you again.”

My Walter Mitty thoughts of being the bold stranger who took matters into his own capable hands dissolved. I sat once more and the vinyl-clad seat wheezed in derision, mocking me.

The yellow dress woman quietly cried as the bus sped up. She shushed her children, and checked on her baby. The young lady seated behind her offered a tissue from a large handbag.

She dabbed at her kids’ wet cheeks. “I am not perfect and I’m first to admit it. But I swear the Lord wove these children in my womb, just like it says in the Psalms. They never had to want. I used to stroll down there on the Met, it’s true. But that’s behind me now.”

It had been a long speech for her and she shuddered with emotion, sniffing and coughing a bit. The bus slowed.

Rising now, her body swayed slightly. “I’m not proud, but I can’t take it back. This little one comes out of that time in my life and she is fine. I never seen a better baby for feeding or sleeping, so I know she’s healthy.”

It seemed like she wanted to say more but she stopped. I think we all imagined more as we looked at her, standing in front of us, grasping a dangling leather loop next to her head. We rode on in silence save for the hum of the air conditioner. Beneath us, a stone stuck in a tire tread clattered on the macadam. Like “Wheel of Fortune,” its clicking cadence now in retard.

“My name is Claudette,” the driver said after a long pause. “I had a Metro route a few years back, and I saw you sometimes around the Parkway. I knew who you were and what you were doing. I remembered you from school, see? So, when I saw you and your kids today, and you in that dress, I got pissed, you know” She paused, her eyes wide and searching in the mirror. “Like, I was scared y’all was goin’ down there today with them kids… workin’.”

The bus slowed to a roll and I heard children playing as we passed an outdoor public pool. For a second, I smelled chlorine.  

“I’m Flora,” the yellow dress woman said. Then, seeming to surprise herself she added, “I’m long ago through with the Parkway.” Her son took her hand and she added, “I never did that; I never brought my kids along. Others might have, but I never. And besides,” Flora said, her voice strengthening, “don’t you know that those who did bring ’em – they never had no choice? Believe me.”

Claudette nodded and we continued on in silence for a minute or so.

Flora resumed her seat. “Listen, I’m sorry, everybody. Please forgive me.” She scanned the mirror, her eyelashes up and down, up and down, like the wings of a Painted Lady.

She nodded at Claudette in the mirror and then turned to stare at the older fellow who had spoken up. She let the weight of her gaze rest on him for a few extra beats, then lifted her chin a bit and turned her back.

“Okay. Now, Flora, you listen to me,” Claudette said. “I’m letting you off here ‘cuz I sent a security code – when I say the words fifty-five on the radio, that’s a secret code that means, ‘alarm’ and they are gonna have alerted the MARTA police. Cops’ll be waitin’ for us at the station.” She turned down the air conditioner fan. “I was gonna teach you a lesson, understand? I see now that you shouldn’t have to answer to them like you already answered to me, an’ I’m sorry for that. So, Flora, you and your kids get off here and catch a regular city bus. Should be one soon.” She swung a hand lever and the door folded open. “I’ll just tell ‘em at the station that I got mixed up or what not.”

With the shuttle parked, the driver stood up and turned to face us. She was built like a down lineman, hands on her hips, her polished nails in bright contrast to her navy-blue uniform pants. “Everybody good with that?” Tear streaks marred her rouged cheeks.

No one disagreed. She nodded at the older gentleman in the back. “We good?”

He stared at her, tilted his head and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and answered her in a low voice. “We’re good.”

“Alright, man!” she pointed a bedazzled nail at me. “You able to help Miss Flora get them kids all in order down there on the sidewalk?”

I rose immediately, glad at the chance for redemption.

“That’s fine,” she said. “And for you being so Christian, I won’t report your earlier misbehaviour, distracting the driver an’ all. Alright with you?”

I was about to speak when from behind me came a startling noise. The young father had stamped his shoe on the floor of the bus.

No. That’s not how this ends.” He looked back at his wife. Their young son sat on the woman’s lap. The little boy’s red, wet face reminded me of how terrifying all this must be for him: the adults shouting and the bus swerving down the road, now his father in a rage.

“Stay on the bus please, Miss.” He gestured at Flora. Then he half-turned to the passengers. “I think we should all make a complaint against this bus driver. She’s irresponsible and I don’t think she should be driving a van with children in it. Or driving at all for that matter. She risked our damn lives.”

Then he jabbed his finger at me. “You were right to tell her to slow down.”

I didn’t like the hard look the driver shot at me. We had suffered enough with this issue. No sooner had a truce been called than he broke it.

Jason, please.” His wife grabbed the back of his shirt.

“Leave us out of it,” the tall grandfather rumbled from the back of the bus.

Flora rolled her eyes.

The driver spun around in a rage to get back into her seat. In that same moment the young man lunged by her to grab the keys from the ignition.

“Not again.” He huffed. “You won’t put us in danger again.” He butted against her in his haste, knocking her off balance.

She staggered and stumbled down the steps. She fell on her back and struck her head on the sidewalk. Sprawled half in the open doorway, halfway outside, her eyes were shut and I wasn’t sure if she was conscious.

The children wailed and the older woman behind me screeched, “Stop it, stop it!”

Flora peered down at Claudette, then back at me. “Use the radio. Call for help.” She checked her children then took one step towards the door. As she did, two gunshots sounded.

The windshield exploded. It sprayed kernel-corn pieces of glass. A third shot tore a blooded hole in the young father’s shirt sleeve. He screamed.

The air reeked of gunpowder. Strangely familiar to me, it was like firecrackers.

“Fucker,” Claudette screamed from the sidewalk. Her raised arm stood straight out, aiming a silver handgun at Jason. “You don’t knock me down. Thas assault. You don’t tell me nothin’. I run this bus. It’s a safe bus.”

Holding his wounded arm and wriggling down in the driver seat, Jason tried to hide behind Flora who lay slumped across the transmission hump in the centre of the dash. Head down, eyes closed, Flora did not move.

I could just see the fallen bus driver. Beyond her, a man watered his lawn. He threw down the hose and ran stiff-legged to his front door, water flowing down the white driveway, darkening it like spilled oil.

Bastard. Goddamn bastard gonna take my keys, gonna jack my bus.” Spittle caked on Claudette’s lips and her MARTA hat lay on the concrete behind her. “He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me,” she bellowed from the curb, squirming to hike herself up as she kept the nickel-plated gun pointed in Jason’s direction. One of her pants pockets was turned inside out and her neck glistened from a dripping gash on the back of her head. She strained to see Jason behind Flora’s inert body.

I crouched, terrified and motionless. Bound, incapable of movement, my thoughts plodded. I did not breathe. Jason’s wife stepped by me fast and sure. I saw the glint of something in her hand. She shot three times in rapid succession. The blasts were deafening in the tight compartment. The fabric of Claudette’s starched shirt jumped as the slugs slammed into her chest. A second later dark red florets showed like port wine on a white tablecloth.

The scene in front of me might as well have swung around like it was filmed with a hand-held camera. A sense of vertigo overcame me. I felt like I was slipping backwards and down a deep hole, falling away beneath the chaos. My mouth went dry. I could taste the acrid gunpowder tang in my throat.

Beneath the clamour of the children, my ears rang from the shots. I realized that I was clenching the leg of my bench seat so tightly that my wrist ached. I released my grip, rubbing feeling back into my palm.

The young woman adjusted something on her gun and put it back in her purse. The click of her handbag closure, sharp as a finger snap, brought me out of my trance. She held up her cell phone, flipped open the mouthpiece, and dialled. Her hand trembled as she waited for the call to be answered. Her son stood against her, his small arms ringing her thigh.

“Nine-one-one? I want to report an incident on Hill Street Southeast. Yes, near the pool, not far from the zoo. We need an ambulance. There are three gunshot victims, one fatality, or maybe two. One assailant. Yes, I think she’s dead. Just a second,” she held her free hand over the phone. “Jason, it’s over now. We’re going to be alright.”

***

Afterwards, I sat in the night heat, resting on the bumper of an EMS van. I inhaled a Marlboro that a police officer had given me. Hadn’t smoked in years. American tobacco, smells like a cigar.

With residual guilt, I cupped the cigarette in my hand to hide it, thinking oddly of a long-ago hockey trip to Warroad in Minnesota.

The police detective, a man named Granger, came back with more questions. He wore a crumpled suit and a matter of fact attitude. Squad car lights flashed and “Do Not Cross” police tape encircled us. It felt like we were on a cop show soundstage, running our lines.

“So, you mind if I review, once more?” he asked, palms up like a set of scales.

“Suppose so,” I said. Insects chirped, a droning, constant background chorus coming from dark concealment in the surrounding forest.

“The driver, she gets knocked down the steps by the man, Jason Drury, and then…” the detective reached in his jacket for a pen and paused, allowing me to complete his sentence.

“A lot happened at once and then there were shots. I kind of blanked out.”

“Okay, no problem. So, then the driver, Claudette, she’s down on the sidewalk yelling and then what?”

“The guy, his name is Jason, right? He’s flattened out in the driver’s seat, trying to hide behind poor Miss Flora,”

“The woman in the yellow dress?”

I nodded, exhausted. I had gone through this several times. My gut clenched as I recalled the tall woman falling forward, limp. “Yeah. Say, listen, sir,” I said slowly. “I can’t think straight anymore, and we’ve covered this plenty, right?” It’s this heat – so muggy. I’m built for the cold.

He flipped shut his spiral bound notebook. “Sure, you’ve been helpful.” He clicked his pen.

“Thanks. But, one question. I’ve just been wondering,” I said. “The guns were both legal?”

“They each had legal carry and conceal permits, yes,” he said. “Y’all from England, right?”

“Canada, actually,” I corrected him. “We have guns too, eh, but not so many handguns. I’d never heard a pistol, you know, shoot, before tonight.” God, it was loud.

“That right? Canada? Okay.” He clicked again and made a note.

My ears still hurt from the gunshots. The Detective paused, drawing himself up and rolling his shoulders. “Yeah, those two guns were legal. And, between you and me, I doubt Mrs. Drury will be charged. She did it all by the book, protecting her family.”

I took a last hot drag. I thought of her making the 9-1-1 call, tending to her husband and calmly settling her son in the aftermath. By the book.

“You know, that older fellow on the bus?” Detective Granger said. “He had a handgun too. A Glock in a holster under his cardigan. Also legal. But, maybe this is a good thing. He forgot to load it. He had it unloaded because his grandchild was with them for the weekend.”

The detective shrugged. He pointed at his car. “I can give you a ride. You ready?”

I stood unsteady from the tobacco. In my mind, I saw the grandfather drawing his pistol. Click. Click. The horrible realization. I could see it as a reel of film and then imagined the result.

The detective gave me a grim little look. I noticed grey hairs in his eyebrows, deep creases at the corners of his eyes and sweat on his forehead. “Yeah, tonight was not great,” he said. “Odd too. Two female shooters.” He looked at me, pocketing his notebook. “And tonight we had one female deceased, maybe two – I sure hope Miss Flora makes it. Bullets don’t see gender or race or nationality. That much I’ve learned. Bullets don’t know right and wrong.” Granger patted his hip, finding his keys.

We walked, his leather soles slapping on the pavement, breaking the evening silence as if to signal the end of the event. The insects grew louder as we left the scene.

“Katy did, Katy didn’t,” Granger said, mimicking the amplified refrain from the Georgia woods – a hung jury arguing this or some older unknown crime.

Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin. His writing has appeared in a variety of English language literary journals in Canada, the UK, and the US. Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com 

Mitch is currently at work on a novel set in the noireal forest. He’s also stubbing his bare pedal digits on a screenplay adaptation for a trilogy of his about three fishermen’s lives on the Pacific coast, 1955-1976.

Blessed Are the Little Things by Leila Allison

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There were only four tables in the cafe, and I saw that my date was already seated at one of them. I had figured this out by the process of elimination (there was nobody else in the cafe except her and the young woman behind the counter), and the stretched possibility that my date bore a slight resemblance to the younger, fitter, and brighter-looking person in her profile gallery. A “helpful hint” on the lonely hearts’ site says that you can judge your match’s interest level by the amount of preparation she has invested in meeting you. Interestingly, the lady had gussied herself up to a point which lay between rushing to the convenience store at five in the morning for coffee filters and awakening in a dumpster. And she seemed oblivious to every atom in the universe that wasn’t displayed on her iphone.

“Hello,” I said, extending my hand, “I’m Jim, you must be Daphne.”

She glanced up from her phone and looked at my hand as though I had offered her a dead carp.

“You’re a half-hour late, Jim,” she said with a voice that had a lot of smoke and very little estrogen in it.

Actually, I was forty-three minutes late. I had left three messages in her site mailbox explaining such, and since she was still gazing into her phone I could no longer support the fantasy that she didn’t know about my messages. Regardless, I’d interpreted her forgiving the other thirteen minutes as a good sign. That, however, was to be the acme of my Daphne Experience.

The young woman behind the counter made eye contact with me, glanced incredulously at Daphne, and sent a sad smile. I smiled back and held up my hand as to say, “Please give me a minute to fix this before you bring the water,” although I learned later that it was a place-your- order-at-the-counter kind of place.

I sat down and broke out the charm. The site says never do that, never break out the charm; it also says that the only thing a person can try too hard at and still succeed with is to looking pathetic. For reasons I cannot explain, I tend to test the soundness of good advice by giving its opposite number a spin. All I can say in my defense is that I’m human, and being such I cannot resist putting my foot in it, which is precisely what I did when I told extremely distracted Daphne, “I’m sorry I’m late but one of the little ones got out of his habitat and I had to wrangle him out from behind the radiator.”

Aside from the disgusted glance at my hand, this breaking out of the charm led to the only other time milady pried her attention from her phone to acknowledge my existence. Sneaking a peek at the screen that she made no attempt to conceal from me, I noticed she was in a text string with someone named “SexMachine6969.”

“You got kids? No kids. Got too many thugs of my own in lockup,” she croaked. (This sharing ran contrary to the information in her profile. Although I will allow that she most likely had once been as childless as she most assuredly had also once been twenty-seven.)

Right here my all-consuming passion for my “little ones” rose its paw and erased all trace of the lonely heart site’s helpful hint list from my mind (i.e. “Discuss Shared  Hobbies,” “Listening is the Soul of Conversation,” and “Leave the Babbling to the Brook”). To be fair, however, I couldn’t dredge up the will to feign interest in hearing the rancid thoughts of SexMachine6969 spoke by a voice whose tonal quality was similar to that of Styrofoam dragged across a dusty blackboard on an especially arid day, so I guess I took babbling like a brook as an option instead of a ban.

“Oh, not children.” I instantly found my thoughts transported out of the cafe and into my apartment. “Dwarf hamsters. I mentor six Kazakhstan Roborovskis. They are rescue hamsters named Assault, Battery, Claudius, Hamlet, Big Tony and Bigger Big Tony. You see, Robos, even though they only get to be four to five centimeters long and weigh just up to twenty-five grams–a porty twenty-seven in Bigger Big Tony’s case–can be bred to be extremely fierce. At this very moment there are dwarf hamster fighting rings operating in the remote deserts of Mongolia and China. When I heard about this terrible abuse of animals I signed myself up as a Robo mentor. It’s a challenge I love. Quick little fiends, however; just as I was heading out the door Hamlet somehow  got out of his habitat and made for his Uncle Claudius’ enclosure with revenge and murder in his tiny eyes. But, as always, he hesitated and then ran under the radiator to think about it for a while.”

 I caught myself hogging all the facetime and stopped. “How thoughtless of me, Daphne.” I pulled out my own phone and opened Gallery. “I’ve got pictures. Took them during Battery’s first birthday party. As you see I can bring them together only in a special plexiglass meeting habitat in which each one of them is clapped-up like Hannibal Lecter.” 

I glanced up to find that Daphne had fled the scene during my reverie, as I had hoped.

Even though blind dating disappointment usually gives me a forlorn, childlike feeling of “oh” inside, it’s probably better to accept the fact that you will most likely die alone with your latest generation of rescue dwarf hamsters than it is to spend another minute in the company of someone who has neither manners nor a perceptible desire to put any effort into creating a good first impression.

I sat back and sighed.

The young woman behind the counter waved and jogged over to take Daphne’s place. I blinked in confusion, but our eyes met and she smiled. “I’d like to see their pictures.” 

Leila Allison lives in the menacing Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Union of Pen-names and Imaginary Friends, and, as such, she works only between three and six in the morning, seven days a week, as stipulated in the contract between Leila and her “employer”–a dubious, shadow-like person who only comes out from under the bed to buy cigarettes and feed a parakeet named Roy.

The Script for Daphne Shields by Scott Bassis

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I walked into the Little Havana café. Josh’s radiant smile told me this wasn’t about Time Leapers: The Complete Series. I smiled too, elated by the sight of his gawky handsome face.

“Here it is!” I placed the DVD box set on the table. Josh had lent it to me a year ago, while we were both at Warren University. He mentioned liking it. I expressed my curiosity about it. Before I knew it, he was leading me to his house, offering to let me borrow the DVDs for the summer. If I were able to change the past like the protagonists of Time Leapers, I wouldn’t have hurried away after a quick “thanks.”

“It was good,” I said. I had seen every episode. After receiving Josh’s email sent to my Warren account, I rewatched several to refresh my memory. “That was nice of you,” I added. He kept smiling and staring at me, not once glancing at the DVDs.

“Hungry?” he asked. A leftover onion slice and a glob of dressing sat on his already finished plate.

“No,” I said. I immediately regretted it. I always automatically turned down food. An eating disorder was one consequence of what Hector, my stepfather, did to me as a child. Thanks to him, I had a whole collection of disorders. Unfortunately, I wanted nothing more in the world than to sit here with Josh for as long as possible. “But I’m thirsty,” I said.

I ordered a Diet Coke from the woman behind the counter and tried to think of something to talk about. I planned on discussing Time Leapers until Josh showed no interest in it. TV was how he first got me to speak when I was a freshman and he was a grad student. As a young man, I withdrew into myself. Starting college, my social skills were almost nonexistent.

I wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes.

I hardly spoke.

Josh befriended me. He divulged he used to be as shy as I was, said he overcame it when he realized how dumb everyone was. There was no reason to be intimidated by them. He said them in a way that emphasized they were not the same as us.

At first I resented his efforts to help me. I fumbled with words and felt pathetic. Luckily, he figured out how to be put me at ease. He mentioned Crown of Dragons. He correctly guessed that I was obsessed with it. My shyness evaporated as we debated who would ultimately rule the kingdom.

I returned with my Diet Coke. It struck me I should talk about real life. That the answer wasn’t immediately obvious was a remnant of my former social incompetence.

“What’ve you been up to?” I asked. His email had been brief:

Hi, Pablo.

In Miami ‘til Sunday. Remembered you lived there. I never got Time Leapers back. Want

to meet up?”

There was nothing about why he dropped out of Warren before completing his doctorate.

I’m working in San Fran at Mojo, a software developer. I interned there for the summer.

They offered me a job and I took it. I was sick of Warren. I’d been there for seven years.

The charm of a rich kid hipster haven had worn off.”

I wanted to shout, “What about me?” Of course, it was my own fault for not being his reason to stay. At first, I was closeted. Although socially clueless, I was boyishly handsome, and girls sometimes pursued me aggressively. One day, a dormmate asked me out on a date. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but knew deceiving her was worse. “I’m gay,” I said tearfully, as if I were afflicted with a fatal disease.

She said “okay” and shrugged.

Once I realized that being gay wasn’t a big deal, I grew more confident. Speaking to others and meeting their gaze became easier. Still, I wasn’t attracted to Josh, whom I hardly even considered a friend.

He owed me nothing, I told myself now. Yet, my heart felt otherwise.

“It was spur of the moment.” He must have seen the hurt on my face.

“You don’t feel like you wasted three years, dropping out before you got your doctorate?” I asked. It came out harsher than I intended.

“I feel like I wasted three years instead of four.” He stiffened defensively. “And what’ve you been doing?”

“Working. Saving money. I start film school at Manhattan U in September,” I said.

“Going into the film industry? That takes courage, unless you’re a long-lost Coppola.” He scoffed.

“Nah, my only family connections are in the maintenance industry,” I said.

He laughed, breaking the tension.

“We’ll be paying off loans ‘til we’re dead, won’t we?” He sighed.

I nodded.

We chuckled. While we both clearly harbored pent-up resentment, we had to let go of the past. Our pasts were certainly worth forgetting.

In May of my junior year, it finally dawned on me why Josh was so fixated on me. I gazed outside my dorm window. By chance, I noticed him crossing the field. He stood alone. I realized there wasn’t one time I didn’t see him alone. His posture was bent like an old man’s, as if he had endured a lifetime’s worth of suffering. The heat was sweltering.

Nonetheless, he wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. It suddenly registered how deeply he was scarred. Only one thing could have caused it. What else would make him need to cover the skin on his arms and legs? What else would make him so afraid to be touched?

By then, I understood that I would never recover completely. I would always be ill at ease around others. I would have issues with food. I would cringe when an image, sound, or smell stirred a horrible childhood memory. I would never be like them, and Josh seemed like the only person I could relate to. Almost as soon as I had this epiphany, that I loved Josh, he was gone. If only I told him, instead of prattling on about how good Time Leapers was supposed to be.

Today in Miami it was close to a hundred degrees, and neither one of us wore short sleeves or shorts. The past mattered and it didn’t, because who else would love someone so damaged?

“How was Warren that last year? Snobby as ever? Even the name’s basically slang for ‘rich kid,’” he said.

“Okay, I guess,” I said untruthfully. It was almost unbearable. The hope that I would see him again was all that kept me going. “Everyone there was pretty nice.”

“It’s called ‘patronizing,’” he said.

He was right. Both professors and classmates would speak to me slowly, as if unsure of my proficiency in English. My shyness didn’t help.

“You weren’t patronizing,” I said.

To the contrary, he expected behavior that seemed beyond me. As soon as I mastered “nice to meet you,” he was bringing up the weather, asking about my classes.

“Only to stuck-up brats, but they didn’t talk to me anyway. They thought I was a weirdo,” he said.

“I never thought that,” I said.

“You’re one too.” He smirked.

Thanks.” I wasn’t offended. I was flattered. Calling us “weirdos” was the same as saying unlike them; I didn’t want to be like them anyway. I was perfectly content being like Josh.

“See what I mean?” he laughed. “Ahhh!” he yelped. He jumped in his seat, accidentally banging our knees. It was his cell phone ringing in his pocket. Like me, he had an exaggerated startle response. The term was “hypervigilance,” a symptom of PTSD.

He glanced down at his phone. It displayed a photo of a woman, “Rachel.”

If it were a man, I would have been jealous. I assumed it was his sister. They both had black, wavy hair. He muted his phone, ignoring her call.

Beneath the table, our legs touched. His left knee grazed my knee. His right calf leaned against my calf. Neither he nor I moved. Warmth emanated from the contact between us, spreading through me. It astounded me how good it felt. I couldn’t recall the last time a touch didn’t unsettle me, but his face was contorted with sorrow.

In me, he seemed to see his own pitiful past. I sensed how badly he longed to heal me. Love could heal us both; I was sure of it, just from the feel of his legs against mine, stirring me in ways nothing ever had before.

I jumped as someone tapped the window behind me.

It was the girl, Rachel.

Josh sat up, pulling his legs away. With one hand she held a cigarette, with the other she waved him outside.

“I have to go,” he said. He looked perturbed. I was flustered, too, by all the emotion that touch had evoked. “It was great seeing you,” he said, gazing at me tenderly. He stood and headed out.

“What about Time Leapers?” I grabbed it from the table and held it out to him.

“Keep it.” He held up his hand. “It’s on Netflix anyway.”

Before I could say “thanks,” he was out the door. I gazed out the window behind me at him and Rachel waiting for the light. They weren’t siblings, I decided. She was too short. Their facial features weren’t similar. His sister, if he had one, must have looked like the actress Daphne Shields.

Daphne Shields had Josh’s same smile. Like Josh, her sunken cheeks became suddenly full, her eyes dipped down bashfully, then raised disarmingly. Both Daphne Shields and Josh were frightfully thin. They shared the same pasty complexion, blue in certain lights. Each had huge, melancholy eyes, though Daphne Shields’s were dark brown and Josh’s were hazel.

It occurred to me that Daphne Shields was hurt in the same way as Josh and I. Her skittish demeanor helped make her a horror film icon. Few actresses conveyed fear as convincingly.

When not a scream queen she often played a grieving widow or the mother of a sick child. There was a sorrowful air about her. Still, she had great comedic chops. One of her most memorable roles was as a stand-up comic with cerebral palsy, using humor to mask her pain.

Daphne Shields was like us: it was an intriguing thought, not that it had any bearing on my life. No one even knew where she was. She vanished from the public eye a decade ago.

As Josh continued up the avenue, I lost sight of him. I reassured myself that our separation was temporary. We both knew how the other felt. All we needed now was to find a way to be together. Until then, I would have to make do with Time Leapers, my keepsake to remind me that Josh loved me.

Later, I realized I didn’t have Josh’s cell phone number. I didn’t own a cell phone and he didn’t have my home number. Nevertheless, I wasn’t worried. We could reach each other by email.

Since he was older, it felt natural that he should take the lead. I resolved to wait patiently for his message.

***

New York was exactly what I had been primed to expect from movies and TV: imposing skyscrapers, crowded streets, a multitude of ethnicities and cultures. Although the city had fascinated many a filmmaker, I rarely ventured beyond Tribeca, where Manhattan University was located. Without Josh, everywhere I went ─  no matter how impressive, felt desolate. Classes kept me busy. I studied film theory, learned the basics of cinematography, editing and production design. For Screenwriting 101, a complete spec script was due by the end of the term. Still, nothing took my mind off Josh, or the fact that he hadn’t written.

I checked my Warren email account daily. Other than the occasional junk mail, there was nothing. I tried to rationalize it. Josh wanted me to settle in first, or he didn’t want to seem desperate. Thanksgiving finally forced my hand. Surely, he thought about us reuniting.

After an hour in front of my computer, agonizing over each word, I sent him a “casual” email:

Hi Josh, what’re you up to?

Thanksgiving’s coming up. I got the whole week off! Hope to see you soon. Thanks

again for Time Leapers!

Days passed. He didn’t write back. I moved onto plan B. Thealternative, life without Josh, was too bleak to consider. By Googling his name and “Mojo,” I found his work number. My heart pounded and my stomach swirled with butterflies as I called him in the afternoon, morning in California.

“Hello?” he answered. 

“H-hi, it’s, it’s Pablo,” I stuttered.

He didn’t say anything.

“From Warren,” I added.

“Hi. Hello. Yes, Pablo.” He sounded flustered. It heartened me. Seemingly, he was nervous for the same reason I was, because he was in love.

“I, um, thank you again for the DVDs.” It was all I could think of to say. I didn’t want to bring up my unanswered email. I didn’t want him to think I was angry.

“We didn’t have room in our luggage. My girlfriend went a little crazy shopping.” His tone changed. He sounded cool, calculating. It took a moment to register what he said. Rachel wasn’t his friend, the “Grace” to his “Will.” She was his girlfriend. He was straight. At least that was what he was saying.

“Oh,” I said.

I heard him take a deep breath, perhaps in trepidation, fearing I would lash out. Still, he didn’t hang up. I reflected on our time at Warren. Josh had reached out to me incessantly, not relenting until I spoke to him. As my social skills improved, he encouraged me.

But why was he so determined to mentor me?

Why email me out of the blue after a year?

He wasn’t spurred by desire, as I had believed, but by compassion. I wasn’t his unrequited love. I was his pet project.

What about our legs? I thought. If he didn’t yearn for my touch, why let his leg linger there? Why did it feel so wondrous?

I had sensed what he wanted, what we both wanted, under that table. I knew what I saw in his eyes, not only in the café, but always: love.

“That’s nice. I mean, for her, glad she found so much stuff. Thanks anyway,” I said.

He took heavy, rapid breaths.

“You’re welcome,” he finally croaked. “Is that it? I mean, is there something else?” Confusion and distress clung to the line.

“That’s it.” For both our sakes, I hung up. I stared at the phone on my desk. Despite myself, I ached for it to ring, and to hear Josh’s voice. Of course, there was only silence. He made it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing to do with me.

I had always thought of Josh as so far ahead of me. He was once as shy as I was and he overcame it, but terms of facing his sexuality he trailed behind. Not only was he a coward, he was a hypocrite. He told me not to care what others thought, because they were all idiots. Obviously, he cared more about what they thought than he did about me.

I grabbed Time Leapers from its spot on my shelf.I hurled it against the wall, smashing the case, causing shattered discs to fall out. I threw myself on my bed. I screamed into my pillow. I cried.

I cut my tantrum short upon noticing the time. Screenwriting was in ten minutes. Fending off my despair, I got up, slung my backpack over my shoulder and left.

Today’s lesson was on dialogue. Conversation had once seemed so daunting. I finally got the hang of it, but to what end?

I was still friendless, unloved and alone. It seemed all too apparent that I was irrevocably broken. I spent the class ruing having ever met Josh, having ever been filled with the false hope for a life that wasn’t a tragedy.

Professor Ansel stopped early to hand back the class’s scripts. The first half of the script had been due last week; the second half was due at the end of the term. Before this afternoon, I was eager for his feedback. Professor Ansel was an Oscar nominated screenwriter. He had worked in Hollywood since before I was born. Now, just the thought of my script made me cringe.

Inappropriate Touch was the thinly veiled story of Josh and I. I was Victor, an undergrad student; Josh was Daphne, an adjunct film professor. Writing it, I had envisioned Daphne played by a young Daphne Shields, thus the name. The star-crossed protagonists were supposed to run off to New York to embark on a new life together. Daphne’s spineless betrayal of Victor wasn’t the ending I had been building towards.

“Can you stay behind for a minute?” Professor Ansel asked as I retrieved my script.

I glanced down at the script. There was no grade. While the class filtered out, I sat up front in an empty seat.

Professor Ansel organized the papers on his desk. Once we were alone, he raised his gaze. He had a wry look, as if he knew I knew exactly what I had done.

“I like the part where Daphne films Victor,” he spoke slowly, seemingly under the impression that English was my second language.

“She doesn’t. He won’t let her.” I could tell he was testing me. He must have suspected I plagiarized the script.

“That’s right. The flashbacks to his childhood were quite powerful. Who abused him again, his uncle?” Grinning smugly, he seemed not to consider the possibility that I was the author.

“His stepfather,” I said. 

“It was her stepfather too, wasn’t it?” he asked.

“It’s not stated. He just knows it was somebody. She shows all the signs,” I said wistfully.

He waved me closer with his hand.

As I approached his desk, he looked up and down my body in a way that made me shudder.

“You always hide in the back, but don’t think I haven’t noticed you.” Still leering, he grabbed his red marker. He scribbled an “A.” He winked, as if he and I were sharing a dirty secret. I took back my script.

Walking away, I felt his eyes watching me.

“Acting is more lucrative than screenwriting, you know. A handsome face can go far with the right connections,” he said. “Lucrative means pays more.” He seemed to think I needed that clarification.

As it registered what he was proposing, anguish overtook me. It was the opposite of the tender intimacy I had imagined sharing with Josh. Apparently, though, Josh was only ever a fantasy.

I made it to the door before I stopped. Perhaps I had suffered one humiliation too many today, to be accused of plagiary, to be propositioned like a prostitute, to learn the one I loved refused to love me back.

“It’s my story,” I muttered.

“Excuse me?” he said. I turned to face him.  

“I said it’s my story. I wrote it!” I usually held everything in until I was alone. Now I felt my self-control slipping like a façade unable to contain an explosion.

“I reviewed your undergraduate transcript. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for affirmative action, but I doubt you’re capable of…” His voice trailed off.

With all I was dealing with at Warren, my grades were uneven. Nevertheless, I was positive it was the “Pablo Rodriguez” in the byline, not my transcript, which convinced him it was plagiarized.

“It’s my story. I lived it. I was sexually abused. My voice was stolen from me. Everyone else knew what to say. It was automatic for them. The words wouldn’t come to me. My brain couldn’t find them. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” I groaned despondently.

“Perhaps you should see the campus therapist. Why don’t you go make an appointment right now?” he suggested mockingly.

I ignored him. I thought of something that made me smile.

“It wasn’t complete hell. I had movies and TV.” When I reflected back on my childhood, mercifully, what I remembered most was what I had watched on a movie or TV screen, my consciousness escaping into the lives of fictional others.

“Saved by Saved by the Bell.” He ridiculed me again. He thought I was too crazy to realize it.

“No one cares! No one wants to hear it! I make them uncomfortable!” I snapped. 

“Wonder how that could be.” He sniffed.

“You wanted to screw me.” I sneered. With my self-control gone, I spouted whatever came to me.

His mouth dropped open. He looked horrified, no doubt less by the accusation than by whom I might repeat it to.

“I’ve never been with anyone, not since…” my voice cracked. “I was in love with this guy, the real, Daphne. He says he’s straight.”

“It happens,” he said sympathetically. Bringing up his sexual advances had caused a change in his demeanor.

“He was the only thing that kept me going. I don’t want to live if we can’t be together. I wish I died as a child. It would’ve been more humane,” I said bitterly.

His brow furrowed. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, and I’m sorry for all you’ve suffered.” Compassion flowed from his eyes. Clearly, he had picked up a few acting pointers during his time in Hollywood.

“It’s my story,” I declared once more. It was my own wretched life I had put into that script. I at least deserved the credit for having lived it. Before I left, I crumpled the script in my hands and tossed it in the trash. It felt briefly cathartic, as if it were my life I had casually disposed of.

Upon returning to my dorm, I resumed where I had left off, crying, screaming and throwing things around. Eventually, my roommate, Greg, arrived.

“Whoa, it’s a mess in here,” Greg said. Despite the marijuana odor continually wafting from him and his belongings, I was lucky to have him as a roommate. He spent most of his time at his girlfriend’s, and allowed me liberal use of his fifty-inch TV.

“I was looking for something,” I said.

“All right,” he chuckled, incurious as usual. He only stopped by for a roach. He took off as soon as he set down his pliers, but in the interim I regained my composure.

Still, if my anger seemed pointless, so did life without Josh. I curled up under my blanket. I felt as if I could lie there forever. My carrot on a stick was gone.

I received a call on my campus phone. I let it go to voicemail. I couldn’t refrain from checking it longer than a minute.

Even after everything, I hoped it was Josh calling to see how I was.

It was Professor Thorne, head of the film department. She wished to see me in her office to discuss my “threatening outburst.” I had to admire Professor Ansel’s cunning. He had gone on the offensive, painting me as violent and unstable, thereby discrediting any accusations I might make.

Roused from my bed, I stumbled over to Greg’s television. It was instinctive. TV provided solace during the most abysmal times. I flipped through the channels, landing on a rerun of Lost Island. I was a huge fan of the series. It gave me comfort to spend time with the familiar characters. Not even the commercials bothered me. I enjoyed placing the actors’ faces, figuring out how I knew them.

Suddenly, a face I recognized chilled me.

It was Daphne Shields. Those were her eyes, large, dark, beautiful. That was her long, thin nose, which added drama to her every facial expression. Those were her small, but shapely lips, her oversized teeth poking through them like a rabbit’s. The rest of her was monstrous. A double chin subsumed her neck. Swollen purple bags drooped under her eyes. Her gray hair was stringy and unkempt. Her blotchy, rubbery skin resembled a latex mask. She had been transformed into a Halloween witch.

“They’re out to murder me, like they did the president. The one they got there in the White House is a decoy. I did this film in ’96, The Ballot. That’s what put me on their radar,” Daphne stated matter-of-factly. Suddenly, she gripped the arms of her chair. “They think I can’t tell they’re poisoning me!” she seethed.

“Watch Doc Murray’s heartbreaking interview with actress Daphne Shields as she emerges from years of seclusion,” a voice directed over the ominous notes of a keyboard.

“Do you ever think about returning to acting?” Doc Murray asked.

She leaned back, letting out a wistful sigh. “All the time.”

“Why don’t you?” His faint smile held a hint of mockery.

She grimaced. “The faeries appear to me, chirping I can make your dreams come true. You’ll be a star again! But underworld goblins devour them. I did nothing wrong. Still, they follow me: shadows. I trapped one in my cupboard this morning.”

She clapped her hands together forcefully, demonstrating the action. As Doc Murray flinched back, she laughed maniacally.

“The world is wondering, what have you been up to? Your last onscreen appearance was eleven years ago.” Doc Murray assumed an interested face, as if he couldn’t guess the answer from one look at her.

“Nothing, I’m completely alone. You think anyone wants to see this?” She opened her arms wide, displaying her obese frame. “I should’ve died! I should’ve died thin and pretty!”

“Will Doc Murray get Daphne the help she desperately needs?” a voice pondered.


“Why don’t you [bleep] off! You think I don’t know who you really work for!” Daphne raged at the camera, standing outside a parked car. “You work for them!” she howled.

The screen cut tantalizingly to a still of Doc Murray’s face.

“Find out tonight on a special Doc Murray, nine o’clock eastern standard time, eight o’clock central.”

I felt nauseous.

What had become of the beautiful, talented Daphne Shields? How had she turned into this madwoman?

It made me fearful for Josh. Being closeted had to put a strain on his sanity. Even if I was angry at him, I couldn’t bear the thought of him sharing Daphne Shields’s fate. I was susceptible to that too. We were all survivors, facing similar struggles, carrying similar scars.

Compelled by a need to understand how this happened, I watched the full hour of Doc Murray. Daphne Shields couldn’t provide any answers. She seemed vaguely aware that she wasn’t well. On several instances, she begged for help, though when she tried to articulate from what, all that came from her mouth was gibberish.

Doc Murray failed to shed any light on Daphne’s state. His sole aim was to titillate the viewer. He brought up her costars, her famous former lovers. He encouraged her to elaborate on her more bizarre beliefs.

I could only conclude that something or someone led her to forsake the world, retreat into isolation, where her sanity steadily deteriorated. Perhaps a lover hurt her. She had several well-publicized, tumultuous relationships. Perhaps she grew embittered as her career floundered. By her mid-thirties, she was consigned to “mom” roles in forgettable fluff. Perhaps she was degraded by too many Hollywood creeps.

Having encountered one myself, I could certainly empathize.

For days, I couldn’t shake the horror of that interview. It was what convinced me to stop by Professor Thorne’s office before class. Daphne Shields showed me that running away would only make my problems worse.

Per Professor Ansel’s version of events, the crumpled screenplay I had dropped in the waste bin had been hurled square at his head. Forced to appease the acclaimed screenwriter, Professor Thorne stated I would no longer be allowed in the class.

“However, I did personally run a search using our plagiarism checking software,” she said. Reaching into her desk, she pulled out the alleged assault weapon, flattened back into its former shape.

“I’m satisfied this work is yours.” She handed me back the script. “It shows promise,” she remarked, giving me an impressed nod.

“You’ll be reimbursed the course cost. Your GPA won’t be affected. I suggest you take an extra class next term to complete your MFA requirement on time,” she said.

I stood up to leave.

“Professor Ansel will be on sabbatical next term. I encourage you to take the class then,” she said.

“Thanks.” Even if I had been unjustly ousted from Professor Ansel’s class, I walked out of Professor Thorne’s office relieved, and gratified that she recognized my talent.

While I didn’t get the Thanksgiving break I had hoped for, I got out of returning to Miami, where there were too many reminders of the past. I persuaded my mother it was a waste of money; after all, I had that student loan debt hanging over my head. During my week without classes, I avoided Greg’s TV. There was danger in retreating too far from reality. I spent hours each day roaming the city, down to Battery Park, up along the Hudson River piers, making stops at several Chelsea galleries, through Central Park, all the way up to Grant’s Tomb. In Hell’s Kitchen, I exchanged smiles with a cute blond smoking outside “Fierce.” I promised myself I would order a drink there before the semester was over.

Still, my legs could take only so much wandering. I needed something else to occupy my time. I recalled how impressed Professor Thorne was with my script. Professor Ansel thought it was so good that I couldn’t possibly have written it. It struck me that I might have found my calling.

I felt torn between starting a new script and returning to Inappropriate Touch. After Josh turned his back on me, I couldn’t end it as I had intended, with Daphne and Victor together. Yet, I couldn’t just abandon it. I kept thinking of Daphne Shields, hauled into a psych ward, forcing her release a day later, fleeing with her coat over her gown, Doc Murray’s production crew in tow.

It seemed so unfair. Although I couldn’t help her, I could write for her, for Josh, for myself, a different fate.

INT/EXT. TRIBECA MOVIE THEATER – NIGHT

A film premiere in Tribeca: through the large windowed lobby of an old-fashioned theater, elegantly dressed guests drink champagne, eat hors d’oeuvres. A slender figure in a long coat walks by. It’s Daphne. Her hair has some strands of gray. She’s aged a decade or so. She stops to look up at the marquee. It reads, “Inappropriate Touch: A Victor Sanchez film.” She gasps and clutches her heart. She peers inside.

After a moment’s hesitation, she enters. She slips past a security guard immersed in his phone. She weaves through the crowd towards a figure swarmed by guests. It’s Victor. Seeing her, his expression turns to longing. She waves at him. There’s a wedding ring on her finger. He excuses himself. He approaches her.

Daphne: Congratulations!

Victor: Thanks. It’s been ages. How are you?

Daphne: (Shyly, as if suddenly remembering how long it’s been) Good, I’m a professor at Manhattan U.

Victor: (Glancing down at her ring, a note of bitterness in his voice) And married…he must be special.

Daphne: He doesn’t have every film critic calling him the next big thing. He’s a contractor. He falls asleep during any movie without an explosion. He thinks Speed & Fury 7 is the epitome of good filmmaking.

Victor: (Laughing) I hope he appreciates your sense of humor.

Daphne: He does. And you? I bet you have your pick now, any girl your heart desires.

Victor: (His face turns serious) Not true.

Daphne: (Muttering almost to herself) I never wanted, I never meant to…

Victor: Hey, I’m like an Arabian prince. All I have to do is point, my guards bring her to me.

Daphne: That’s racist. And sexist. Watch out, you’re in the public eye now.

Victor: (With a chuckle) I’m hardly famous.

Daphne: Didn’t you get a Silver Indy nod for Dreamless?You were robbed, in my opinion. 

Victor: That you liked it means more to me than any award.

Daphne: Well, I’m sure you have to get back to selling yourself. Don’t snub a potential distributer for little ol’ me. (She lifts her hand up before he can give her another compliment.) I just wanted to congratulate you on all your success.

Victor: (Sounding hopeful) Well, thanks, maybe we’ll…

Daphne: (Sounding unsure) Maybe.

Victor: (He abruptly grabs her hand)I’m here for you.

They share a warm smile. Slowly, Daphne withdraws her hand. Victor follows her with his sight as she slips out the exit. His eyes linger at the door after she’s gone. A middle-aged woman calls his name, stirring him from his reverie.

Victor’s Agent: (Gesturing to an older man in a suit) I’d like you to meet Rob, from Majestic Pictures.

Victor: (Shakes his hand) Nice to meet you.

Fade out

That “nice to meet you,” of course, would have been impossible without Daphne’s guidance. Others left him to suffer. Not her: she made it her mission to save him. It was the perfect ending to Inappropriate Touch. Yet, it could also occur somewhere in the middle. They might run into each other on the street. Victor could track down Daphne’s address, send her an invitation to his next screening.

I didn’t know for certain where this scene belonged. Regardless, it comforted me merely that it existed. No one was there for Daphne Shields, but Victor was there for Daphne. I hoped Josh realized I was there for him too.

I forgave him.

I loved him. I had no choice.

We needed each other, someone to be “us” with in a world full of them. With that affirmed, I set our story aside to write a new one.

Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras ReviewThe Acentos Review, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Open: Journal of Arts & LettersImage Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.

Hold the Line by Matt Bender

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There’ve been a few times in my life when circumstances led me to consider the chorus of Toto’s 1978 hit “Hold the Line,” which states: “Love isn’t always on time.” When I was young and first started falling in love I thought it was a terrible untruth because love was real, tangible. The chorus is the only line in the song worth pondering. The verses are a slapdash series of It’s not in the way that you ____ me statements, which, while I guess may speak to the elusive nature of love, have nothing to do with whether it’s “on time” or not.

I was driving on I-95 the last time “Hold the Line” came on the radio. One can never be sure, but I believe the frustration I was feeling at that moment and the disc jockey’s decision to throw that song on was the perfect handshake of time and space. If they ever explain String Theory that moment will be in there, along with it being the direct result of me having had an extramarital affair with a groupie for my band, Fit Wizards, in the parking lot after a show.

The band had been playing at this bar called The Brass Teat pretty consistently in the months leading up it. Stan, our guitarist, was renting out a practice space he’d slip into for an hour after work to nail down some of the more difficult, more crowd-pleasing solos required by our repertoire. Our drummer had been playing since he was a kid and could bang out a solo or even a round on the bongos if he wanted to. I played bass. I was not as practiced or experienced as them, but rocked a tremendous and well-manicured moustache, a thing that added stage presence as the other dudes were physically unremarkable. The moustache raised some eyebrows when I first started growing it, but people have since become accustomed. I like to think of it as a mascot, like, “Oh look, it’s the guy with the awesome moustache. Fit Wizards must be playing.”

The drummer’s name is Tommy. My name is Scott. We have a singer, too, but seriously fuck that guy. We’re not going to talk about him.

We had just finished our second set that night at the Teat. I was packing my gear when the Groupie approached me, just walked right up on stage, set her drink on my amp and started going on about how we rock, how our choice of cover songs were the soundtrack to her life. She asked how often we played and if I wanted to go out back and smoke a joint. It’s a cliché at this point: smoking joints leads to heavy petting, leads to her station wagon in the parking lot, a choose-your-own-adventure fest of trying to forget you have a spouse and a kid and probably she does, too, but the sex hasn’t been as wild since the kid came along and wifey sure as hell doesn’t put your dick in her mouth anymore. You wonder if Groupie still does it to her husband. She really does seem to have a knack for it.

Her and I walked back grinning and returned to our respective peoples. I wanted to tell my bandmates, especially Stan, but couldn’t, because our wives were all friends and I didn’t want to risk any rumors getting started. Notice that word: were. Also notice that Stan has a practice space. Sorry to point it all out like that. It’s not that I think you’re dumb, but it’s important to the story and the only thing that’s changed about humans in the last 5,000 years is that our attention span has gotten shorter. I got Stan to lend me a key, exchanged contact info with the Groupie and started meeting her for quick trysts at the practice space.

People get bored. People find something exciting. People fuck. 5,000 years.

I should also point out that I love my wife and kid. Throughout our time together I’ve always tried to be the best dad I could be. The wife and kid aren’t really part of this story, though. Let’s put the whole me having a family thing into the same bin we put the lead singer in.

Groupie was having a great time. She’d been trying to up her meetings at the space and trying to get some free bass lessons while she was at it. Piano had been her mother’s instrument, the one she grew up playing, but something about the way a bass note hums up the spine had an atavistic effect that made her lady-bits shiver.

They say you need to have a real connection to your art – not thinking of it as a job or a hobby, but an essential and serious component of your life – if you were ever going to be truly good at it. She felt she had that for bass, hot in the blood. Fucking at the practice space made sense in that she would show up early to run over some scales and whatever song she was working on for an hour or so before I got there, but then she sucked a bonus year of talent out of me as she pinned me to the floor and took me to the hilt.

She remained a succubus. An artiste. A prodigy.

The only time I ever saw Groupie with her husband was a Saturday afternoon while jogging on the nearby greenway. They were walking on the opposite side of the sidewalk towards me. I only half-recognized her at first and must have had a leering sort of look on my face as I passed them, ogling. I’d forgotten how pretty she is. I started singing The Beatles’ “I’m a Believer” and started one more lap. They were walking behind a big group of older women when I passed them again and I didn’t see them until the last second, slurring “I’m a belieeever!” as I huffed and puffed and jogged and sang like a drunk.

I told my wife I was going to start giving bass lessons a few days a week for some extra scratch, to which she said, “I didn’t know you were good enough to give lessons.”

That hurt. Made it easier to meet with Groupie.

We met so often that going home for dinner felt like stepping out on her. I did start giving her bass lessons, though, and she did pay me. She got some snot-nose kid who lives in her building to also come down for a weekly lesson and he paid me a little more than she did.

I tried to teach him about real music. Got onto James Carr, because he’s one of the most underrated soul singers of all time. His trademark is a track called “Dark End of the Street,” recorded in 1966, and is about a man (presumably Carr) meeting a married (presumably white) woman in the shady part of town. The duality of them having an interracial fling in the 1960’s, meeting in dark locations and fearing they might get caught is heartbreaking and the stuff of real drama in soul music. In the last verse Carr sings about how if they happen to bump into each other on the street and she sees him, she should just “walk on by” and not say anything, kind of like I should have done with Groupie and her man, although it’s very likely neither of them noticed me.

One thing that cracked me up about a lot of the dudes from the Golden Age of Soul is how they would put out records where every song is a testament to love and faith and marriage and the next day you’d see news about James Brown shooting out his girlfriend’s tires, Al Green getting a pot of boiling grits tossed on him, Marvin Gaye’s string of tumultuous and short-lived attempts at commitment. Stan said, “It’s because so much passion is required to belt out some of those tunes that it boils over into their personal lives.”

I think that’s bullshit.

Those dudes lived in a time when famous people could get away with anything, drinking hard liquor and grunting up a gram of cocaine for breakfast. The ladies of soul were, for the most part, much more well-behaved.          

Groupie was an Aretha Franklin fan from way back, back when her parents would put records on and she’d dance around in the living room. When Franklin died in 2018 the whole city of Detroit celebrated for over a week in her honor. Groupie didn’t cry, but she did buy a “Best of Aretha” compilation and listened to it for a week straight while driving back and forth from work. She figured out how to play “Respect” on bass, a skill that caused Scott to laugh and say, “The student has become the teacher.” The whole day had been going well until later that evening when a group of 20-somethings drove by and one of them yelled “Suck my dick, ho!” from the car window.

TLC released “No Scrubs” in 1999 and Gwen Stefani released “Ain’t No Hollaback Girl” in 2004 which, in my mind, makes them thematically-related, the lyrics about dudes (scrubs) with barbed-wire tattoos on their biceps holla-ing from car windows and are you the type of girl who hollas back or not? With all that’s been written and said about street harassment it’s a wonder any dude does it, or even thinks it possible that a romance might begin with a catcall.

The greatest song ever recorded is The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” I’ve argued with friends about whether the album or the live version is better but, honestly, they’re both just fucking awesome and you can take your pick. They have some other good songs, but this one is the best.

The original title of this story was going to be “Liberal Snowflake Freaks Out!” and involve an encounter where I detail how I freaked out on Groupie, got caught on camera and it went viral. The wives might not have all been friends by the end of the story, which may or may not have involved me getting busted for the affair and people taking sides. Groupie was potentially in a polyamorous thing with her man, everything cool with them at the big reveal. But hasn’t that been done before?

At least you got a decent sex scene and helped smash the old archetype of love and death and redemption. No Hero, no Sage, no Quest. The music stuff was fun, too.

Matt Bender is the former host of the online FreeSongProject and has been working in the international school system for the past 10 years. He currently teaches American Literature in the garden city of Guangzhou, China – home of dim sum and the Cantonese language. His work has been published in Perfect Sound Forever, Scribble and Stone Highway Review. He also worked as a journalist for Word Vietnam magazine throughout his time in Ho Chi Minh City. Read his non-fictions online at Medium.com/@benderbbender.

Know Guns by J.L. Higgs

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“Hey, Dad. Grandpa’s got a gun!”

“What the fuck,” Cheryl mouthed to me. Our eyes locked, and I dropped the suitcases.

From where I was, I couldn’t see our seven-year-old son, Jack. We’d arrived at the cabin near dusk. Though we’d been delayed in the Friday traffic heading north from the city, Hank’s car was nowhere in sight. While Cheryl and I had been unloading the car’s trunk, Jack had dashed inside and straight upstairs to the bedrooms.   

Guns had always been a part of my life. I’d grown up in a rural community. As a boy, we played army almost daily. Our fathers had served during the last war. Even though we were kids, we all expected that when the time came, we’d do our duty as well. In the evenings we watched TV on our old Dumont and the good guys always won. Cavalrymen defeated Indians, the Japanese were beaten by our soldiers, and in the shoot’em up Westerns, the lawmen always triumphed.

The one common denominator: guns.

The scales always tipped in favor of the good guys not just because they were the good guys, but because they were also good with their guns. Back then, the fact that the victors were always white never made an impression on me. Few people who looked like me appeared on TV in those days. We knew Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan actually lorded it over white actors in blackface.

Between all the kids in my neighborhood, we had everything we needed for our war games. Helmets, canteens, pistols, machine guns that made rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sounds, and air rifles. I liked the air rifles. You could shove their muzzles in the ground, then blast the compacted dirt out their barrels. Sometimes we’d have to temporarily halt our games to settle who shot and killed who first, but when we were called in for dinner, the living and the dead always arose and went home.   

As a kid, I swore when my time came, I was going to be a Marine. They had the coolest uniforms. When my cousin, Tommy, joined up he’d went into the Marines. He was strong and tough. He carried himself with a swagger us younger kids envied and tried to imitate. 

Through him, I met Roy. Roy was the local Marine Recruiter. He shared a recruitment office in the basement of our Post Office with a Navy recruiter named Sandy. A full-size cardboard cutout of Uncle Sam stood outside it with “I want you” emblazoned across his chest and his huge finger pointing at me. The words seemed less a request than an order.

Despite our patriotic leanings, when our turn actually came around, my friends and I wanted no part of it. There was a real war going on in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many people sent far away returned dead. Others like my cousin Tommy, who survived seemingly intact, came back changed. Whether they were even alive and not the walking dead depended on your point of view and definition of living. That was when I learned that in the real world, being a good guy and good with a gun didn’t always ensure a favorable outcome.

  As I walked to the base of the stairs only one thought went through my mind, Dear God, please don’t let that boy be holding that gun.

“Jack,” I called out. “Where are you?”

“In grandpa’s room,” he said.

“Well buddy, you need to get out of grandpa’s room. I’m not sure he’d want you in there. Why don’t you come down and help me bring the bags upstairs?”

“Dad?”           

“Yeah, buddy.”

“How come grandpa keeps a gun behind his door?” He came into view, half carrying, half dragging the gun.

I glanced at Cheryl. Her eyes were filled with terror.

My throat went dry as I moved closer to the stairs. I’d never imagined ever being on the wrong end of a gun. 

“Jack,” I said. “You know we have rules about touching other people’s things without asking first.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then you know that you shouldn’t be touching grandpa’s gun.” I swallowed deeply. “I want you to lay it on the floor very carefully. So you don’t break it. Because that would make grandpa sad.”

“Okay.”

I held my breath.

Jack laid the gun down. Then he bounded down the steps and into the front room.

Cheryl grabbed him and held him tightly. She kissed the top of his head again and again. 

I walked up the stairs, picked the gun up off the floor, and checked the safety. Then I pulled back the bolt and looked in the chamber. Nestled inside was a live round. I sat the butt of the gun on the floor, leaned it at an angle, and plucked the round out. Then I put the gun back in Hank’s room.

“Was it loaded?” asked Cheryl as I rejoined her and Jack in the front room.

I nodded.

“Goddammit.” She cursed more in the last few minutes than in all the year’s I’d known her. Anger poured out of her so fast I didn’t even try to keep up. Finally, she stopped and stood there with tears running down her face.

“It’s okay.” I  wrapped my arms around her. “Everyone’s fine. No one got hurt and…”

The sound of a car door slamming made Cheryl charge from my arms and out the front door like she was on fire. Before Hank could straighten up she was on him. Though I couldn’t hear a word, from the way her arms were waving around, she was giving him hell.

Hank just stood there absorbing every blow. Finally, she swatted his arm, then steamed off down the path that led to the pond.

I opened the cabin door and Hank, his arms full of grocery bags, came in. He looked at Jack and me. Without saying a word, he sat the bags on the kitchen counter and emptied them. After placing the perishables in the refrigerator, he put the canned goods in the kitchen cabinets.

“Grandpa, where’d mom go?” Jack dragged a stool over to the kitchen counter. He climbed onto the stool as Hank continued putting away the groceries.

“A walk.”

“Why’d she go for a walk now? Doesn’t she know we’re going to eat soon?”

“She knows.”

Hank had grown up hunting. The prior year, he’d invited me to go deer hunting with him. I’d agreed to go. It’d been years since I’d had venison. Some folks didn’t care for its strong flavor, but I did. 

Sitting on the beat up boards of the stand in a tree, our guns lying across our laps, there was nothing to do but wait. Deer hunting required silence and patience. You waited, listened, and hoped. In the days before, Hank had checked for tracks, droppings, and patches on tree trunks where deer had rubbed away the bark with their sprouting horns. Based on what he’d seen, he’d concluded that deer were passing beneath the stand on a regular basis. So, that was where we waited.

Hank and his four brothers had built the stand. The scrap wood steps they’d nailed to the side of the tree had been replaced many times over. Most recently around the year Jack had been born.

The first time Cheryl had said she wanted me to come home with her and meet her father, I’d shook my head and said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I think that’s rather obvious,” I replied.

“Scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as race,” she countered.

“Yeah,” I responded. “Well, this is America, not some science convention.”

She sighed, looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t know my father.”

Damn right and I don’t want to, I thought, envisioning pitchforks and burning crosses materializing out of thin air if he were to lay eyes on me.

Seeing my raised eyebrows, Cheryl had laughed. “Don’t be such a wuss,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”

Despite my doubts, I ended up going home with her and was shocked to be proven wrong. From the moment I met Hank, he never displayed a single moment of concern or hesitation regarding Cheryl and me. His approach to raising her had been to try to equip her with the ability to make good decisions. Then he’d accepted the fact that it was up to her to make her own decisions. Nothing was more important to him than her happiness. That included me, and Hank’s attitude was that was fine with that.

The same had been true when Jack was born.    

“I’ll be back,” I grabbed two jackets from the pegs near the cabin door and slipping one on.

As I walked along the path to the pond, I tried to think of what to say to Cheryl. She didn’t hunt. In fact, she hated guns. When we’d learned she was pregnant with Jack, one of the first things she made me promise was, no guns.

At the time that seemed easy enough. I was familiar with guns, but didn’t own any nor did I feel inclined to, but what I hadn’t realized was that when Cheryl had said no guns, she’d meant, no guns

No water guns, no air rifles, no BB guns, no kind of toy or real gun, period. Even the game at the county fair where you shoot water into the mouth of the clown to see who can get their balloon to pop first and win a prize was banned. No guns meant, no guns.

Once Cheryl’s no guns policy had been established there were times when it had led to some awkward situations. Like when she was ready to return to work after Jack had been born and she wanted to place him in a home daycare. We’d be interviewing potential care providers and everything would seem perfect. Then she’d look at me and I’d know it was time to ask the deal breaker. “Are there any firearms on the premises?” 

A yes answer immediately eliminated that care provider. Rationales, explanations, reassurances about safety – gun safes, locks, ammo kept separate from weapons, etc… were a worthless use of breath. Any guns, no Jack.                    

Cheryl had never mentioned she was a crack shot. It was Hank who told me. He’d said that when Cheryl was a little girl, he taught her how to handle a rifle. According to him, she was a natural. Her hands were steady, she was calm, and she breathed just right. She could zero the sight and barrel with such accuracy that hitting whatever she was targeting was a sure thing.

As Hank explained it, Cheryl never had any qualms when it came to guns until the summer she turned fifteen. That year he’d sent her away to spend time with her grandmother and the rest of her mother, Betty’s family. After Betty’s death, he’d moved the two of them back to the town where he’d grown up and he felt it was time she got to know them. Unfortunately, when a local boy pointed out Cheryl and said, “ain’t she the girl whose mother killed herself”, she learned the truth concerning her mother’s “accident.”

When Cheryl confronted Betty’s family they admitted she had placed the muzzle of a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Hank had arrived home from work that day and found his wife’s brains splattered on the dining room wall and a screaming infant girl. He’d then sold the house and moved back to his hometown.  

Everyone had done their best to reassure Cheryl that what had happened had nothing to do with her. They explained that nowadays people called what Betty had had post postpartum depression. But back then, it had no name. Instead, people figured that sooner or later Betty would stop feeling blue and get back in the swing of things. Following that summer, Cheryl wouldn’t touch a gun.

I knew it was impossible for me to understand how Cheryl’s mother’s suicide had affected her, but sane or not, her mother had made her own choice. Hank then also made his. He’d done his best to raise a little girl on his own and shelter her from the horror of what had happened to her mother.

There was no way he could place the blame on a gun. Guns had been a part of his family’s way of life for generations. Every member of his family that I’d met had a deep respect for guns. They’d established inviolate rules about responsible ownership and passed them down from generation to generation. 

To them, guns weren’t good or bad. They were simply tools in the hands of whoever held them. I respected Hank’s family, and I respected their guns, but in general, I struggled to understand white people’s obsession with guns.

In rural communities where people hunted deer, rabbits, and turkeys, having guns made complete sense to me. When I lived in the country, I’d killed my fair share of destructive varmints, woodchucks that wouldn’t accept the fact your garden was off limits, the same with foxes and your chickens, but Cheryl, Jack, and I lived in suburbia. Why did there seem to be more white gun owners and collectors there? Definitely more than I’d ever known while living in the country, blacks and whites combined. And so many of the weapons they owned were clearly designed for war. 

Were some of these people consciously or subconsciously doing exactly that, preparing for war? Based on daily news reports, things were just as bad in cities. Young black men killing other black men, Latinos killing Latinos. There was nothing to hunt in suburbia or cities, they were just full of people.     

As I came around the bend and into the clearing, I saw Cheryl sitting on the pond’s battered wooden dock. She was staring at the water. I walked up and placed the jacket I was carrying around her shoulders. Then I sat down beside her. Small circles formed on the water’s surface. Each steadily expanded outward like a smoke ring until it could no longer maintain its perfect form. Then it broke apart and disappeared.

“It was an accident,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, a painful sadness in her eyes. “I know Hank would never do anything to hurt Jack.”

“You ready to head back?” I got to my feet.

“Yeah.” She took my hand and standing up.

We walked back toward the cabin side-by-side in silence. At one point I squeezed Cheryl’s hand, and she squeezed mine in return. As we drew close to the cabin, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. A fire was going in the burn pit. Its flickering flames lit both Jack and Hank’s faces and they were each holding a stick with a hot dog over the flames. 

“We’re hungry,” said Jack. “We started cooking.” He smiled. 

Cheryl walked over to the packages of hot dogs and buns on a plate near Hank and took out two hot dogs.

“There’s sharpened sticks over there,” said Hank keeping his eyes focused front.

She grabbed two sticks, shoved a hot dog on the end of each and handed one to me. I grabbed a bun and walked over to Jack.

“Hey, buddy. I think yours is done,” I said. 

“But I like it burnt.”

“No, you don’t.” I took hold of his stick and pulled it from the fire. Then I slid his hot dog off the stick and into the bun. I handed it to him and he took a bite.

“Good?”

“Uh huh,” he said, bits of hot dog and bread falling from his mouth.

“Dad?”

“Cheryl.”

“Yours looks done.”

“So it is.” He pulled his hot dog out of the fire and blew on it. Then he took a bite taking care not to burn his lips or tongue.

Once we all had our fill, Jack’s being two, Hank pulled out a bag of marshmallows. He stuck a single marshmallow on the end of Jack’s stick, then his. Then he proceeded to show Jack how to roast marshmallows without charring them.

After Jack had eaten four or five marshmallows, Cheryl told him he’d had enough and it was time to start getting ready for bed. Jack opened his mouth to begin his nightly negotiations, but Hank stepped in.

“Mind your mother,” he said. “If you’re quick about it, there’s a couple of empty jars in the kitchen we can use to catch some fireflies.”

With that as an enticement, Jack was gone in a snap.

“Thanks,” said Cheryl to Hank. “Any more sugar and he’d be totally wired tonight.”

“Like his mother used to get.”

“Yeah,” replied Cheryl. “Like his mother used to get.”

Jack came charging back out the door. It slammed behind him.

“Whoa,” I said seeing his bare feet. “You need something on your feet.”

“But…”

“Hey, where’s my jars?” Hank rose to his feet. “Come on.” He scooped up Jack in his arms. “We can get something for your feet and the jars.”                 

As Hank carried Jack back inside, I walked over to Cheryl and began massaging her neck and shoulders. 

“Better?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to catch fireflies?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then I guess we should leave them to it and tidy up things inside before bed,” I said.

Cheryl nodded. We wrapped an arm around each other’s waists and walked back to the cabin. Jack and Hank passed us heading in the other direction on their way to catch fireflies.

The next day, Saturday, passed without incident. In the early afternoon, we went swimming in the pond. Later, Jack and Hank went for a nature walk. While they were gone, Cheryl and I stayed behind and drove ourselves crazy working on a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. That evening Cheryl made dinner and things seemed to have returned to normal.

On Sunday morning, I thought it’d be best to get an early start. That way we’d avoid the weekenders, who were also returning home. When I awakened I could smell coffee. In the kitchen, Hank and Jack had been busy making a mountain of waffles. With his eyes as big as platters, Jack had crammed so many waffles into his mouth, he looked like a chipmunk. 

“You’d better slow down, buddy.” I rubbed his head as I slid onto a stool at the counter. 

Hank handed me a cup of steaming hot coffee. “She alright?” He gestured with his head in the direction of the loft where Cheryl was still sleeping.

“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s fine. You know how she is about guns.”

“Yup. Sure do.” Hank took a sip of his cup of coffee. “We good?”

“Of course.” I picked up my cup, toasted him with it, then took a sip. “Good coffee.”

“You know I’d never want any harm to come to the boy.”

“I know.”

“Well, just as long as you know.”

“I do.”

“Dad, what are you and grandpa talking about?” asked Jack, reminding us of his presence.

“Nothing, buddy. You need to finish your breakfast.” I got up from the stool and headed back to the loft, coffee in hand. 

Cheryl was awake but still wrapped in the bedsheets. When she saw me she sat up and scooted backward until her back was against the bed’s headboard. I handed her the cup of coffee.

“You make this?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Your father did.”

“Good. You make lousy coffee.”

“Well good morning to you too,” I said.

She laid a hand on my wrist. “I take it he’s up.”

“Yeah. The kitchen’s waffle world.”

“I better go down there.” She handed me the coffee and leaped out from under the sheets. “He’ll let Jack eat as many waffles as he wants. The last thing we need is Jack getting car sick on the way home.”        

While Jack, Hank, and Cheryl continued with breakfast, I began packing. I’d finished with Jack’s things and started in on mine when Cheryl returned and joined in.

“He seems okay this morning.” She balled up a sweatshirt and tossed it into her suitcase.

“Uh Huh.”

“Look, I know he didn’t mean for it to happen, but…”

“I know,” I said. “It’s okay.  I understand.”

Cheryl resumed packing. I snapped the locks on my bag shut, then went and got Jack’s bag from the other room. Outside I skirted the edge of the burn pit, made my way to the wagon, and deposited the bag in the trunk. As I walked back to the cabin, I stopped at the burn pit for a moment, then continued on.  

Cheryl had finished the packing and brought the last of our suitcases downstairs to the front room. I tucked one of the small bags under my arm and grabbed each suitcase with a free hand.

“Let me help.” She slipped the small bag out from under my arm. She grabbed the door, and I shuffled through. We placed the suitcases in the trunk, then headed back to collect Jack.

“Did you notice?” I nodded toward the burn pit. 

Cheryl stopped and stared. Scratched in the pit’s ashes were the words, Jack & Grandpa.   

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Look there.” I pointed at the large clump of ashes after the final “a” in grandpa. 

Her eyes followed my finger, then stopped. Barely visible was what remained of the stock of the gun Jack had found when we’d arrived on Friday.

“He didn’t.”

“He must have.”

Cheryl shook her head and we resumed walking.

“You all set?” asked Hank as we set foot back inside. 

“Yup,” I replied. “We’ll be seeing you.” I waved, took Cheryl by the elbow and pretended to leave.

“What about me?”

“You who?”

“Me. Jack. You can’t leave without me.”

“Darn,” I said, smiling at my son. “I thought we were forgetting something.”

Cheryl took Jack by the hand and the four of us went outside to say final goodbyes. As Cheryl buckled Jack into his car seat, Hank went over to Jack’s open window, thrust in his hand, then quickly withdrew it.

“I’ve got your nose.” He held the tip of his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger.

“Give it back.” Jack squirmed in his seat.

“Alright.” Hank  reached back in and touched Jack’s nose. “Only as long as you promise to come visit me again real soon.”

“Dad, I love you.” Cheryl, gave Hank a hug.

“I love you too, little girl.” He hugging her back.

“Hank.”

“Jim.”

“You take care.”

“You too. Look after my little girl and grandson,” he added as Cheryl and I got in the car.

I started up the wagon, stuck my arm out the window, and gave Hank a wave as we began making our way down the cinder driveway. In the rearview mirror, I could see Hank standing alone waving goodbye.

“You all stay safe,” he yelled. Then he turned away and headed back toward the cabin.

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  He has been published in over 30 magazines including: Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, Rigorous, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

He currently lives outside of Boston.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262

Tenderloin by Steve Carr

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In this room I’m hidden by a camouflage of poverty. It’s a small room with a bed that pulls down from the wall, a Murphy Bed they call it. To me, my bed is Murphy. There are no sheets or covers on Murphy and the mattress has a tear in the middle and its intestines are sticking out. I have no pillow but I rest my head on a helmet and dream that I’m somewhere else other than this room.

There’s a dresser with five drawers but I only use the bottom one, hiding my papers there: my army discharge papers, high school diploma, newspaper articles about me winning swimming competitions when I was in high school. Everything else I own, my civilian clothes, my army uniform, army boots, two thirty pound dumbbells, and my emptied duffel bag, are scattered about on the floor forming small mounds that I step over like the dead bodies I stepped over in Iraq. The mirror above the dresser has a crack that looks like a scar.

The walls have the wounds of neglect, cracking green paint and peeling yellow wallpaper. There’s a window with torn plastic curtains that looks out on the busy street and the small grocery store across the street. No one going by on the street or in and out of the store knows I’m watching them through the holes in the curtain. This room is my bunker.

I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was. Alone in this room it’s easy to forget a simple thing like my own name. Looking into the cracked mirror; its scar becomes my scar, an injury across the smooth flesh of my muscled chest.

I came back from Iraq, from the army, uninjured but not unscathed. No one can see the damage but me. I see it in my reflection; my blue eyes hold the injuries of witnessing what no man should see. My biceps, triceps, forearms, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, glutes, quads and calves are strong and well developed, but identity isn’t. It has gotten lost along the way.

Lifting dumbbells in front of the mirror I watch the armor that is my flesh ripple with every arm curl. In this room no one can pierce my armor. Out on the streets, it’s a different story. It’s a dangerous place called the Tenderloin. It’s the bruised underbelly of this city and I am now part of the bruise. It takes strategic thinking about when to venture out, so I when it is dark I watch through the holes in the curtains, for the time that is right to infiltrate those who inhabit the city streets.

***

Against this wall at night, one booted foot against it, my knee bent, my back pressed against the heat of the summer-heated bricks, I can only be seen by those looking for me; not me exactly, but the type of me they are looking for. I wear my sand color camouflage fatigues and a tight black t-shirt and black army boots but in the darkness where I stand I am the same color as the shadows.

The warm winds blow and tousle my short blonde hair. Rivulets of sweat run between my shoulder blades down my spine and the middle of my pecs. This is the weather of Iraq without the sand. I inhale the drifting toxins of the city: gas fumes, rotting trash, urine. From this location I spot the window of my room, the light left on like a safety beacon.

“How much?” A middle aged man in khaki shorts and a blood-red polo shirt passing slowly by asks me.

“Not interested,” I say.

“I’ll make it worth your time,” he says.

“My time isn’t for sale.” I shift the other boot against the wall.

He moves on, targeting another inhabitant of the shadows not far from me. Their muffled voices are low and indecipherable until they depart into the alley. The sound of what they are doing with their bodies blends into the multitude of other sounds on this street: seller and buyer.

I separate myself from them and focus on the prostitute across the street adjust her neon pink stockings, Jade. Her hair is down tonight, separated down the middle and hanging around her face like a hajib of hair. I know her, not modest or religious, her hair doesn’t fool me.

A car pulls up to the curb beside her. She leans into the open passenger side window of the car. Apparently there is no agreement on the terms so he drives off leaving Jade now adjusting her halter top. What she wears is her uniform. She catches me and waves. I wave back.

She walks on and I realize how alike we are. Jade and I, both survivors of different kinds of war. Her war is the streets of the Tenderloin and I left the war in Iraq to enter this one in Jade’s territory. It’s a different combat zone.

“Have a cigarette?” a young man in tight jeans, a button down blue shirt and wearing cowboy boots asks.

“I don’t smoke.” I set my jaw.

He leans against the wall so close his cologne and after shave surround me. I’ve seen him before. He is a wanderer, one of the many who are always walking these streets. I’ve seen him through my curtains going in and out of the store, and up and down this street. His brown cowboy boots are well-shined. I notice those kinds of things. I’ve named him, Boots.

“Hot night.” Boots glances up at the starless sky.

“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.

He leans even closer to me. “I have some brown sugar,” Boots whispers as if it was a secret that no one in the Tenderloin had ever heard before. “We could go to my place.”

“No thanks,” I tell him.

The two have come out of the alley. The man in the shorts adjusts his belt and hurriedly walks past me. The other one stands at the entrance of the alley surveying the landscape and in the half-light he looks young, illegally young for what he is selling, which in itself is illegal.

He walks the other direction and escapes into the night. I am an observer, where strangers briefly become allies. I have several lookout posts in the Tenderloin, but this one near my room is where I mainly station myself. Boots nervously taps the toe of one of his boots against a crack in the pavement. He is as watchful as I am, but I can only guess what he is watching for.

 Back in the room I remove my sweat-soaked t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror and while the scar is still there, there are no fresh wounds; not on me or on the mirror.

***

Lying in the dark on my back on Murphy I’ve pushed the helmet aside and am staring up at the ceiling. Light from the grocery store’s white neon sign shines through the holes in the curtains to form bullet holes and grenade beams between the cracks that are like lines on a terrain map on the ceiling.  The ceiling fan does not work and is idle and useless. The room is even warmer than outside.

I’ve taken off all my clothes and deposited them on a mound of other gear. I sweat. It drains from my pores. This being naked, it is a test of my sense of safety. I’m not vulnerable in the room, only when I leave it.

Beneath the naked flesh of my back, Murphy’s protruding innards push into me. It’s a test of endurance, my ability to sustain the feeling of discomfort, so I don’t move. I hear a brief scream from outside as I drift off to sleep. I’ve heard screams before, when awake and not awake.

Morning comes with the subtlety of a tank rolling across hard earth. The sound of heavy traffic breaks through the barricade of my dreams. Eyes open, I glimpse the ceiling as it is in the light of day, a canopy of cracked plaster. I don’t move. My naked body adjusts to the dryness of the daytime heat.

Sweat sticks to my skin; I’m an evaporated salt lake with nothing left but granules. My skin has adhered to Murphy and as I rise up I pull some of Murphy’s insides with me. I sit on the edge of Murphy and survey the landscape that is the room. It’s a wasteland of neglect.

With a towel around my waist I go to the only bathroom on this floor and stand outside it waiting for whoever is inside. Around me is the carnage even worse than that in my room. Everything needs repair. After the sounds of the shower cease, the door unlocks moments later and the old man who lives in another of the rooms, comes out in a tattered purple bathrobe. He wears the difficulties of his life on his face like a mask of despair.

I go in as he goes down the hallway toward his room. I lock the door and undo my towel and urinate in the ringed toilet bowl. There is no brush to clean it with even if I wanted to. Every part of the building outside my room echoes. My urine hits the water in the toilet bowl and reverberates around me like choppers just as they land.

I read the graffiti on the walls as I have every morning. Nothing new is added. The writers moved on or grew tired of deciphering each other’s codes. Finished, I step into the shower, turn it on, and let cool water rinse the night from my skin.

My time in it is brief and after shaving I go back to my room. A yellow note sits pinned on my door. I open it and read: “Rent Past Due. Payment in full required. Management.”

In the room I dig beneath the papers in the bottom drawer of the dresser and take out the white envelope that I keep my money in and flip through the bills counting up the total. There’s enough to pay half the rent if I include what little is in my pants pocket. Sitting back on a mound of clothes, the softness is like a dead Iraqi soldier’s body I sat on while getting my picture taken. I pull one of the articles from high school out of the drawer and look at the picture of me when I was a champion swimmer in a pair of Speedos.

My body has changed.

I’ve changed.

The names of my parents are in the article: Bill and Doris. In the room they are just names on a yellowing piece of newsprint. I fold the article and place it back with all the other emotional contraband and close the drawer. Naked, exposed but unable to be seen, I stand at the window and peek through a hole in the curtain. Even in the brightness of the morning sun the shadows are everywhere in the Tenderloin.

In a different pair of fatigues the same color as the others and a different t-shirt, also black, I leave the room and exit the building to step out into the fury of noise and odors that is the Tenderloin on a weekday. Crossing the street to the store I see a man in a suit standing in my location. He’s reading a newspaper, an innocent occupier in my nighttime territory.

The store is cool and surprisingly quiet. The Korean man behind the counter is Mr. Chin. It’s not his real name. It’s the name I have given him. He has a mole in the middle of his chin and Mr. Chin sounded more Asian than Mole.

His age is hard to determine but his jet black hair is lined with strands of gray and his eyes have the weariness of age. Placing a carton of orange juice and a pack of fig newtons on the counter I don’t call him Mr. Chin. I don’t call him anything.

“How are you today?” he asks in a very formal way as always. “It looks like it’s going to be another hot day today.” He tallies the cost of my two items on the cash register.

“I’m used to the heat.” I hand him money.

Mr. Chin is always here it seems, night and day. He’s a motionless target in the Tenderloin where enemy combatants roam. Without knowing why, I worry about him. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.

“I have insomnia,” he says. “Keeping busy takes my mind off wondering why I’m always awake.”

“Sleeping isn’t all it’s cut out to be.” I refuse a bag for my juice and cookies.

“Neither is being awake.” He smiles and I leave the store.

Finding a place to sit on a wood crate at the entrance of the alley, I sit down and open the carton and fig newtons. The alley reeks of refuse and stagnant water and in the heat is a noxious mixture that kills the taste of the juice and cookies. Stuck on the wall near where I’m sitting is a used condom glued there with bodily fluids like a medal of honor in a whorehouse. I’m unable to finish what I bought for my breakfast. I toss the half-empty carton of juice on top of garbage in an open trash can and wrap the package of fig newtons in my hand to be eaten later.

***

On a street in Baghdad I was accosted by a man who spoke no English but was definitely trying to warn me about something. When a bomb exploded a hundred yards up the street in the direction I was headed, I realized what he was trying to say. Paxton Street is much the same way; I feel like a foreigner always headed for unspeakable danger. I was told that it has improved over the years, becoming in some parts more gentrified, but I see few signs of it.

When I run into Boots coming out of an adult book store he’s more surprised to see me than I am to see him. I look down. He’s wearing the same cowboy boots.

He nods. “You always look like you’re dressed for combat.”

“I am.” I grip the cookies until they’re crushed. “Listen,” I say hesitantly, knowing I am about to enter a mine field. “I need to earn some money.”

“What are you willing to do for it?” he asks.

“Not what you think.”

A car drives slowly by and the driver taps the horn. Boots waves him on and the car continues up the street. “I know this guy looking for just your type,” Boots says.

“I told you, I’m not looking to make money that way.”

“I know,” Boots says. “This is something different. It’s not even illegal and the guy has lots of money and is willing to pay.”

“What does he want?” I ask, feeling as if Boots is that Iraqi but only I am being led into danger and not being kept from it.

“Meet me tonight at your usual spot and I’ll bring him along. You guys can meet and if you two are cool with each other he can tell you himself.”

“What do you want out of it?” I ask.

“I’ll get my take from him afterward,” he says.

***

In the afternoon I put the window up. Hot air blows the plastic curtains into the room. Their ends snap like muted gun fire.

I stand in front of the mirror and do arm curls. This combined with squats and crunches done between the mounds of my belongings is my daily routine. My dog tags tinkle against each other with every lift. On the top of the dresser the empty package of fig newtons rustles in the breeze. I’m readying myself for something; a secret mission.

With each curl I exhale in and out the smells of the Tenderloin and the odors in the room. My clothes lay on Murphy. I haven’t washed them for a week and they’re thick with sweat. When I leave the room and then come back in it’s my scent I smell first, then that of the city. 

Looking into the mirror is therapy. It reassures me along with the scent in the room that I exist, that I fought in Iraq and lived.

It’s me I’m looking at in the mirror when there is a knock on the door. I put on my pants and open it cautiously.

“Did you get the note I pinned on your door?” It’s Beard. That’s not his name but he has a beard that reaches down to his stomach. It was the first thing I noticed about him and before I knew his name. He’s a big man, obese not muscled. He’s proud of his job as manager of the building. I know this because he told me so.

“Yes, I got it,” I say.

“Are you going to be able to pay your rent by tomorrow?” Beard looks around me at the room and grimaces.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’m making arrangements to get it tonight.”

“Good,” Beard says. “I don’t like to throw veterans out if I don’t have to.”

“You won’t have to throw me out,” I say.

He takes another look at the room, the hills of my belongings. “I’ll be back tomorrow and you can give me the rent then.” He turns and walks away.

I shut the door and put on the rest of my clothes. Without me or my clothes Murphy looks naked.

***

At twilight the store is busier. At the freezer I see through the glass there’s one burrito left. I open the door and take it out. I stare at the microwave instructions printed on the back. My diet sucks and the food I put into my body does not nourish me.

In the Army I was fed well and had a roof over my head as well as a steady paycheck. The only cost was the possibility of being shot or blown up. I put the burrito in the microwave at the back of the store and while waiting unscrew the cap on the water. I’m prepared to have my supper even before I get in line at the counter.

After Mr. Chin takes care of another customer, I step up and put the heated burrito and the water on the counter and take out a few dollar bills from my fatigues pocket. Before he puts his fingers on the cash register he says “You seem like a nice guy. I could use some help if you’re interested in working here.”

“Sure,” I say. “When do you want me to start?”

“Is tomorrow morning, okay?” He tallies up the price of my purchase on the cash register.

“Sure.” I pick up the burrito and bottled water and leave the store.

The street is bathed in fading sunlight as I cross it and take up my place at my lookout. In a matter of minutes even before the sun is completely down the young man – the kid – that was here last night takes his place in the same spot he was in last night. I quickly eat the burrito and down the water and walk over to the entrance of the alley and toss the burrito package and empty bottle in the trash can.

I’m looking at him and he is looking at me. He seems as if he stepped out of one of the photos of me in one of the newspaper clippings. I think of him as the me back then and name him, Me.

Me is wearing a tight white t-shirt with gold lettering on the upper right chest that says All-American.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s a free country. I can be where I want.”

“I meant you shouldn’t be using this disgusting alley to conduct your business.”

“You know a better place?” Me asks sounding partially sarcastic and partially honestly inquisitive.

I think about my room, not because I would offer it to him, but it’s the only safe place I have known for the past three months. “No.”

I return to my spot and prop my boot against the wall and watch the shadows turn to night along the street. Me almost disappears in the darkness, his white t-shirt partly visible. I’m lost in thought, thinking about working at the store. It isn’t much but it’s enough.

Jade suddenly pops up in front of me. She has changed her uniform. She’s wearing a tight yellow vinyl skirt and a bright green bikini top. She almost towers over me in her knee high boots with spiked heels. Her hair is wound around her head like a turban.

“I saw you talking to that little sleaze ball who wears the cowboy boots. If you’ll take my advice steer clear of him. He’s connected with some pretty strange dudes.”

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

Au revoir.” Jade crosses the street. Her heels click like small firecrackers on the pavement with every step she takes. It reminds me of Fourth of July parties with Bill and Doris. It also reminds me of the sound of tracers being shot into the night sky.

***

Neither Jade or Me have seen any action. We three occupy our territories being watchful and restless, each for different reasons. The light shines through the window in the room, reminds me I have somewhere to go for rest and relaxation. I have it for now at least.

I spot Boots and the man with him as they walk toward me. In my head I instantly name the man, Swagger. It’s how he walks, as if he owned the world. As if about to undergo military inspection I stand up at parade rest. Boots and Swagger come up to me.

Without really acknowledging me, Boots turns to Swagger and says, “See, I told you, just what you’re looking for.”

Swagger is wearing a t-shirt and jeans and is nearly as muscular as I am. He looks me over from boots to my hair.

I feel like a mannequin in a store front window being examined for the cut of my clothes.

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

“Do just fine for what?” I ask.

He raises his left hand to swat away a gnat and I see a wedding ring on the third finger. “I’d rather not discuss it here,” he says as if what he has in mind will be broadcast by loud speakers throughout the Tenderloin. “You must live nearby. Can we go there?”

Boots shuffles his feet on the sidewalk, the scuff of it is an annoying distraction. “Don’t you have somewhere else you can be?” I ask him.

“Oh, sure.” Boots turns to leave. “I’ll catch up with you later for my cut,” he says to Swagger. He walks toward Paxton Street, stopping in front of Me and whispering to him. They walk on together.

“I don’t do anything sexual,” I tell Swagger.

“What I’m looking for isn’t sexual, at least not in the usual sense. You could make up to five hundred dollars.” He reaches into his jeans and pulls out a roll of money held together by a rubber band. “But I don’t want to do this if you don’t have a place we can go to.”

No one other than me has been in the room since I moved into it. Even Beard has not gotten any further than my open door. “We can go to my room,” I say reluctantly. When the sound of gunfire rings out from Mr. Chin’s store I think it’s noises in my head.

Swagger and I glance in that direction. Within moments the sound of police sirens pierce the night.

“He’s been shot,” Jade yells to me from across the street.

I cross the street with Swagger. Two police cars and an ambulance pull up in front of Mr. Chin’s store. A small crowd of onlookers including Jade are chattering among themselves.

“The guy tried to rob him, then shot him and ran out.”

“He’s such a nice man.”

“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.

“Mr. Chin, I think,” I say. “He owns the store.”

“Is he a friend of yours?” Swagger asks.

“The last friend I had was killed in Iraq,” I say.

Swagger looks at his watch. “I don’t have lots of time. Can we go?”

Going into my building I look over my shoulder and see two paramedics bringing someone out of the store on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.

***

The room is as I left it. It never changes in any noticeable way. The air is hot and thick with the stench of body odor. Swagger says nothing as he comes in and I close the door behind him. He stands feet spread apart between two mounds of clothing. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the roll of money and tosses it on Murphy.

“A hundred dollars every time you punch me,” he says.

“What?” I say, uncertain that I have heard him correctly.

“I want you to punch me,” he says. “And hard. Anywhere but my face.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes.” He removes his t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” I say. “I told you nothing sexual.”

“I’m not wanting sex with you.” He sits on Murphy and pulls off his shoes and socks. “I just want you to punch me a few times. That’s all. I just prefer to be naked when you do it.” He stands up and takes off his jeans and underwear and faces me. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

I punch him on his left chest just above his nipple. He’s staring at me with disappointment written on his face. “Surely you can punch me harder than that.”

I land another much harder punch above the other nipple. The sound of my fist making contact with his bare flesh is like a bullet striking a cardboard target. He reels back slightly, and closes his eyes for a moment. He slowly opens his eyes. They are glassy like a cat in heat. “Oh, yeah that’s more like it.” He reaches over to the wad of money and takes out a hundred dollar bill and hands it to me. “Again,” he says.

I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused. He gives me another hundred dollar bill. I hit him again, this time on his left jaw.

“I told you not the face,” he says.

Then I punch him again, and again, and don’t stop. I am a relentless machine of released anger. He collapses on Murphy in a pile of blood and sweat. His face swells. Bruises already darken the skin around his eyes. His breathing grows labored.

“Why?” he asks. Blood drips from his mouth.

“I was in Iraq,” I say and lay into him again.

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 240 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.

Grove of the Patriarchs by Grace Marcus

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I am the first child my mother never wanted.

That I have two brothers and a sister is a testament to her docility, not her change of heart. My earliest memory is of her perfume, an exotic, spicy scent, and of her dark hair swinging down around her pale and pretty face when she rescued the hem of her dress from my grasp. I was always reaching out for her. This is not selective memory. In photos she is ever lovely, and I am ever longing—one chubby arm outstretched—to touch her.

One day (I must have been five or six years old and whining for her attention) she told me, “I’m not your mother.” And, for a moment, I believed her. It’s when I noticed for the first time my mother’s dreamy blindness and deafness, inhabiting what world I didn’t know. All I knew was that she was unhappy when summoned back to mine.

For all his faults, my father was the one who took care of us when we were sick, stayed with us until we fell asleep. “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques. Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?” he’d chant over and over but I resisted, waiting once more for the ‘Sonnez les matines. Sonnez les matines,’ loving the sweet cadence of his voice, his hand on my forehead.

Since he walked out on her, it falls to me to be my mother’s caretaker, not that she needs one yet. But if it comes down to that, it will be me. My brothers live on the east coast and my sister Sharon, who lives in Vancouver—Washington, not Canada—and close enough to drive down in a few hours, hasn’t spoken to our mother in years.

“You’re a sap, Suzanne,” she tells me. “You can’t change the past.”

I’ve taken today off from my job at the Puget Sound Views (it’s a monthly magazine and we just put the January issue to bed) to drive my mother to a cardiologist in Seattle for a consult about a condition that causes her heart to slow and lurch disconcertingly. She and I live on opposite sides of the Narrows Bridge, I’m in Tacoma and she’s in Gig Harbor. I leave early enough to drive down to Point Defiance Park to walk the waterfront first, a salve for the resentment I will inevitably feel when she fails to evince any interest in those parts of my world that do not intersect with hers.

A mile long crescent of walkway snakes from the parking lot at the boat launch to the beach along Commencement Bay in the penumbra of the Cascades. Mount Rainier wears a corona of clouds, so I can’t see its distinctive ram’s head shape, even though the weather is unusually fine for December. That’s where I planned to be today for my ritual respite after the jumpy rush of making the deadline, in Mount Rainier National Park on a small island in the middle of the Ohanapecosh River, at the Grove of the Patriarchs, filling my lungs with oxygen from the ancient trees. That stand of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and red cedar has been growing undisturbed for nearly one-thousand years, the river protecting the Grove from fire, the gods protecting it from all else. I am fascinated by the elegant symbiosis of the nurse logs, which perpetuate that lush forest. The fallen trees decay by degrees into a carpet of mosses. Then lichens, mushrooms and fern transform them into nurseries for cedar and conifer seedlings. There are nurse logs here at Point Defiance as well, along Five Mile Drive, but I’ve run out of morning.

There’s no bridge traffic at this hour so I can easily glimpse down at the choppy swells and the blue-gray ropes of rip tides in the Narrows. On the other side of the bridge, I take the second exit and drive around the harbor where the marinas are filled with masts soldiering in the breeze, before looping onto the access road to my mother’s house. I turn left at the crooked Madrona tree, drive down the unpaved lane and park on the gravel. Her house, rented since my parents’ divorce three years ago, is shoebox plain, with dated appliances, and drab carpeting but is situated on a sandy spit of beachfront amid grander homes. Inside it smells pleasantly of bracken from the stones and shells and driftwood she has placed on every windowsill, in every shallow bowl, her only contribution to this furnished house. Her decorative stamp is outdoors, in the whimsical sculptures, the tiles embedded in the pathways, a hot tub enclosed by a filmy forest of pampas grass.

My mother beams her hello from the open doorway. Nothing personal. It’s the same smile she offers everyone. She used to be beautiful, with a hint of animal wildness peeking out in the otherwise buttoned-up old photos, her belt tied askew at her cinched waist, a bit of tooth bared between the dark lips, her hip cocked and knees aslant, as provocative as she dared.

Even now at nearly seventy, she is prettier than I. Her thick hair is streaked and cropped spiky-short over espresso eyes and lips that redden as if dipped in persimmons, even without lipstick. She wears an ivory silk blouse with a narrow black skirt and a light wool jacket the color of plums. Two-inch heels and tinted stockings show off her elegant ankles and calves. I am raggedy with lack of sleep and rumpled for lack of clean laundry.

Both my daughters were home over Thanksgiving break: Elise from Boston, where she lives with her father during the school year, and Kit from Ann Arbor, where she lives with her lover, also named Kit, also a woman. When the girls are home, except for work, I put the rest of my life on hold. Not out of obligation or sacrifice but because I enjoy their company; Elise’s mordant wit and discerning intellect, Kit’s dead-on mimicry, her hilarious political rants. I’d like them even if they weren’t my daughters.

We cook together and scout thrift stores, ride the ferries and walk the waterfront. Sail in good weather. They catch up with their friends and each other when they’re home, but they’ve stopped visiting their grandparents.

My father berates my former husband to Elise, who adores him, and crudely mocks Kit’s relationship. “You just haven’t met the right guy, honey,” he told her.  “Believe me, he’d change your tune.”

My mother, on the other hand, pretends that neither the girls’ father nor Kit’s lover exist.

“I had a bad night,” my mother tells me, offering her cheek to be kissed.

“You look wonderful.” I say this as if it were an accusation.

“Oh, well . . .” she waves her hand, dismissive. “I felt it though.” She rests her fingertips in a cage over her heart.

“What? What did you feel?” I always have to shape her language to understand her, she’s maddeningly vague.

“My heart,” she says.

“Felt it what, Mom? Stop, Slow; Hesitate?”

“Just different, you know. Like it’s been.”

My mother has unwittingly chosen my profession. I untangle syntax, un-mix metaphors and interrogate reporters until I know the story as well as they, so their articles will read with clarity and grace. I sigh. It doesn’t matter what she says, anyway. We will have empirical evidence soon. The exam, EKG, the labs.

My mother waits until I pull onto I-5 and am dodging traffic before she tells me she has been seeing my father. The way she says it, I know it isn’t for coffee.

“He’s married,” I say, although that’s not what worries me.

“Maybe it’s better this way.”

“Why? So he can beat her up and date you?”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Suzanne.” Her tone is mild. “Your father never struck me.”

When I feel compassionate, I remind myself that she was constricted in every possible way: by poverty and gender, education and class. What she had in abundance was imagination. It was how, I understood later, she could pretend my father was exhausted or worried when he was overbearing or cruel. How she could reframe his badgering as concern, his insults as instructive. The dreamy quality that kept her removed from me, from us, was how she survived.

*

The cardiologist is bald except for a low-lying fringe of wooly grey hair, and extremely tall. Tall, and good-looking in a coarse, sensual way. His fingers are thick, his mouth wide. He swivels in his chair and rests one ankle on the opposite knee, his thigh a long and solid plank, his shoe like a small boat.

“I haven’t seen you before, Mrs…” he glances at her chart, “Garner, have I?”

“It’s Ms.,” my mother says. “And yes, I had a consult in August.”

He puts down the chart and studies her. “I think I would have remembered you.” He manages to make this sound provocative.

He stands and extends his hand. “Come, let me listen before we do the EKG.”

He helps her onto the examination table, tells her to unbutton her blouse. She’s wearing a lacy camisole. He slips the stethoscope under its frothy trim. Her breast disappears under his cupped hand.

“Fifty beats per minute,” the doctor says. “Any dizziness, nausea?”

“Sometimes.”

“Which?” he asks her. “How often?”

Good luck, I think, trying to understand my mother.

He takes her hand and tries again. “How about now? Do you feel lightheaded now?”

It infuriates me that this man is flirting with my mother—and not in a patronizing way—some remnant of her glory days clings to her, some superannuated estrogen patch or pheromone. My boyfriends, my husband, all of them were taken with her. I don’t know how my father stood it.

No, that’s a lie.

My father is the sort of man who likes his women beautiful. Beautiful and frail. He does, of course, resent them for it later.

“Christ, Adele, must I do every little goddamned thing for you?” he would say after my mother handed him a light bulb or a recalcitrant pickle jar.

“Of course you must, Mitchell.” She’d laugh and rubbed up against him, the sensuous gesture revolted my teenage-self. Was it that or the way in which my father was captivated?

He always got the best parts of her. And when my father was away, at work or on a business trip, it was as though she went away as well. From the time I was twelve, I became the woman of the house in his absence, signing permission slips, helping with homework, defrosting the ground beef for dinner. My mother wore aprons fussily, like a wardrobe in a play. Pots got burned and dinners ruined amid chapters of a book.

I am fulminating about all this when my mother blinks three times then slumps to the floor.

The doctor kneels beside her, bends his ear to her mouth. When he places his hands between her breasts, it takes me a second to realize it’s CPR.  “Get my nurse,” he tells me. “Now. Move!”           

I intercept the nurse in the hallway. “My mother collapsed. He wants you.”

The placid-faced Filipina races past me into a room, then pops right back out, like in a cartoon, dragging a red metal cart behind her. She summons another nurse who rushes into the same room and wheels out a gurney.

It’s only minutes before the doctor is running alongside the gurney, two nurses in attendance, the Filipina straddled across my mother’s chest, her hands like pistons revving up my mother’s heart. I run behind until they disappear into the service elevator at the end the corridor. I’m punching the elevator buttons when the receptionist tells me they’ve taken my mother to the Cardiac Care Unit.

“Fifth floor,” she tells me. “Bear right.”

*

I call Sharon from the family waiting room. “I’ll come down,” she says.

I know she means for me, not our mother. The kindness undoes me. “Okay,” I manage through the knot in my throat. “Good.”

“Suze?”

I can’t speak.

“Suzanne. You’ve done your best, damn it.”

“Her, too,” I say, and hang up before Sharon can tell me that’s bullshit.

While I wait, I close my eyes and conjure the hushed embrace of the Grove of the Patriarchs, immerse myself in its green glory until I am as tranquil and still as the trees themselves.

 I can’t believe it when the handsome doctor comes out with that look on his face, the one that says everything isn’t okay and never will be again.

*

The room has a ghoulish green glow, all fluorescence and scrubs and easily washed plastic chairs. Everything else is white: the crib-like hospital beds, the linens, the bathroom fixtures exposed to passers-by.

I edge past the patient in the bed closest to the door; my heart knocking in my chest, to look for her but the second bed is empty. I double-check the slip of paper in my hand. Room 3605-A. The first bed. I spin around. I didn’t recognize her because this time she has gone so far away that she’s never coming back.

I know this even before the doctor arrives and tells me it wasn’t her heart, after all, but a burst aneurysm that caused the stroke, which has spared her heart but ravaged her brain.

My breath enters my chest through a long narrow tube, one cold milliliter at a time. I back out of the room grateful for the obligation I have to call the others. I call my brothers first. They take it in stride. To them our mother has been as impartial and reliable as a nurse log, giving off nutrients but little else once they took off on their own.

“I’m sorry, Suze,” they tell me, acknowledging the loss is mine alone.

I call Sharon but get her voice mail. I don’t leave a message. I call my father last, reluctant to subject my mother to either his scrutiny or his lack of regard. Until I can make contact with Sharon, I walk the streets, wandering over to Pioneer Square, then into the lobby of the Alexis Hotel where I buy a pack of cigarettes in the gift shop. It’s been a decade since I’ve smoked but I decide I’ve been prudent for too long, that I should have been bolder and said my piece when I still had the chance. Three cigarettes later, I throw away the pack and dial Sharon again.

She cries when I tell her. Great gulping sobs which astonish me. I’d expected her to comfort me but it’s the other way around and when I hang up, I realize that she must have harbored the same secret hope all the years she’d been ridiculing mine.

*

The hospital room is dark now, except for the frenetic flickering of the TV. The remote is pinned to the sheet near my mother’s head, the stagy voices and static-y soundtrack leaking onto her pillow. I can’t tell if she’s listening but she’s not watching the screen, her eyes are closed. Wait. If she turned on the TV, then perhaps she’s trying to work her way back to speech, back to comprehension.

The nurse’s voice startles me. “We turn it on for them. Sometimes it helps,” he says as he fastens the blood pressure cuff onto my mother’s arm.

“Is it helping now?” I ask, a tendril of hope taking root in my chest.

He shrugs. “Hard to tell.”

As soon as he leaves, I stand close to the bed. “Mom,” I say. “Mom. It’s me.”

She looks up at the sound of my voice. Her gaze slides down my face to my hand, which she seizes in a fierce grip.

“Mom,” I try again and this time she doesn’t even look up, but just tightens her hold on me until my hand aches and her nails inscribe their hieroglyphics in my flesh.  One by one, I pry her fingers loose and cradle them between my palms until they slacken.           

“It’s okay, Mom, I’m right here.” I tuck her in and brush the damp hair away from her still lovely face.

I station the green plastic chair where she can see me and settle into its cool, unyielding embrace, prepared to stay until she falls asleep. She reaches for me through the bedrails. I take her hand and sing, “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques.  Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?”

Grace Marcus’s work has been published in Philadelphia Stories, The Bucks County Writer Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, TheWritersEye, and Women on Writing. Her novel, Visible Signs, was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Competition.

The First chapter of her novel, “Visible Signs,” is featured in the Feb 2019 issue of the Embark Literary Journey. https://embarkliteraryjournal.com/issues/issue-7-january-2019/visible-signs-grace-marcus/

She holds a Master’s in Theatre Arts from Montclair University. Her checkered past includes stints as an actress, waitress, social worker, newspaper editor, radio and cable TV show producer. A Brooklyn native, she has resided on both coasts. At present, she lives in North Carolina where she is working on a new novel and a collection of short stories.

AL by Gregg Voss

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The trees. That’s what I remember most. The trees, sailing by under the languid, dripping light of the street lamps. I couldn’t see them well, but they were there nonetheless. I smelled their browning, crackling leaves just beginning their descent to the street, even in those frenzied moments. There were cars, of course, and houses with their own rectangular lights beaming into my peripheral vision, but the trees. They were living things staring down at a grand transformation.

The guy was dark-skinned, Jheri-curled, totally 80s, and hard to pick up in the night made more glowering by the trees. I had seen him in the parking lot as I took out the garbage, the knife, like his hair, glinting as he pointed it straight at Al, who reluctantly handed him her purse. She shrank back on one foot, arms half-raised like bank tellers in the movies who are being robbed.

Now that I think about it all these year later, there was no conscious decision to do what I did. Just a throaty, “Hey!” I dropped the greasy garbage bucket that reeked of fried fish and potato salad, already in pursuit.

He sprinted like a high school track star. Under those normal circumstances he would have blown me away, but here, I gained. I closed in on him. Despite the sucking sound echoing from my lungs in rhythm with the shockwaves of pain in my shins with each foot that hit the pavement, it was liberating.

Life’s training wheels fell off.

From somewhere behind me came Al’s sandpaper cry – “Let him go. Let him go, kid. It ain’t worth it.” I ignored it because it was just another of her orders, a heart murmur of ten minutes earlier when she stormed out of the back door of Jac’s Supper Club, leaving me in a near-tearful fit of rage.

“When’re ya gonna learn, sonny boy?” She had gripped a whisk broom with white knuckles as if she was ready to use it on me. “Ya better wake up and change your ways, or yer gonna be out on yer ear.”

A pause of reflection in the empty kitchen. Even the cooks had punched out, and her next words echoed off the stainless steel of the dishwasher.

“I’m leavin’. Yer closin’ up.”

I had never done that before. It left me terrified. What if I F’d it up? What if there was a big, fat mess tomorrow morning, or worse?

Her purse was almost within reach. It felt near enough to touch as it bounced under the moonlight, grasped tightly in the guy’s hand, the knife in the other. He made a sharp, sudden turn to the right and headed across the open, grassy prairie of a corner house, a juvenile white oak hovering nearby. I tried the same maneuver and spun hard, nearly hitting the ground. My ankle  cracked, but I righted myself.

He bought himself a step or two. That’s all.  

I favored my right leg a little, but I sped up. I was a running back. I was holding an invisible football at chest level, my right arm extended, ready to ward off a would-be tackler, wearing a powder-blue Marshall football uniform, despite the fact that I had never put on a helmet in my life. The Marshall football players were bastards, once tying my hundred-pound frame to the stall in the second-floor bathroom. But they were tough, and in most peoples’ minds, legendary.

I was as tough as they were.

I became the legend.

Jac’s was my first high school job, my first paying job. Sure, I had shoveled snow, raked leaves, cut lawns and whatnot, which put a few bucks in the pockets of my Levi’s as a youth. But there was nothing like that first paycheck from Jac’s, a grand total of twenty-four ninety-one for eight hours of work. (Do the math; that’s when minimum wage was three dollars and thirty five cents.) I had actually done real, bonafide work for those dollars, and the proof was on paper, though I realize now that that work was at the expense of everyone around me. Including Al.

Al’s given name was Alvina, and she stood maybe five-foot, always wearing a black blouse and green apron. She was probably in her late 60s at that time, in fall 1985, but her beehive hair was apple red. The lines on her face cut deeply under her bifocals, craggy rivulets that reminded me of the Grand Canyon that I had never seen in person, only in pictures. She stalked around in a pair of sensible orthopedic shoes, and cussed as if she was a longshoreman, loud and long and laboriously. Even Jac, a hard man who was known to drop an F bomb or two while dropping another load of fish into the deep fryer, had to shake his head.

“Dammit to hell,” Al shrieked earlier that evening as I chatted up a cute hostess that was in my English class at Marshall. “You talk too much!”

I just laughed. It wasn’t because of the statement – I had heard it all before – but because of the inflection, a low, guttural tone that came from deep within her constitution and cut across the chaos that is a Polish supper club on a fish fry Friday night in Milwaukee. In all likelihood, it filtered its way onto the dining room floor, drifting over the sultry deep-fryer steam and the clanging of pots and pans.

“Ah, the hell with it.” She flung up her hands.

That’s what I thought as the pain in my ankle started to shimmy up my leg tendon by tendon. I was still within spitting distance of the purse, a bone-white handbag with red and blue squares on the sides and a pair of spaghetti straps.

The thief  pulled away. Our steps fell out of rhythm. His grew just a tad fainter. Somewhere I realized I wasn’t a running back anymore – I was a defensive back trying desperately to keep a flanker from hitting paydirt. I considered lying out and making one last desperate dive for the purse when I nearly tripped over it.

He dropped the purse. Then came the tinkle-tinkle of something metal hitting the pavement and I realized he had dumped the knife, too. He cut another precision ninety-degree hard right and like a hurdle, nearly vaulted a chain-link fence that bridged two houses, and was gone. The reason was a pair of white MPD squad cars idling on the cross street ahead, the cops jabbering away. Oblivious.

You talk too much!

A maroon Coupe de Ville screeched to a stop behind me, and there was Al, hobbling over to where I was sitting on the curb, ankle throbbing something fierce, but I had the purse and the knife.

“I toldja not to go after him, kid.” No thanks, or even a howdy-do. “You coulda gotten hurt. Dammit, anyway …” She threw her arm around me, helped me to my feet, and I jump-stepped the entire way to her car, shooting pain through my ankle with each impact. The leaves fell from the trees, the smell like burnt toast creeping into my nostrils.

Years later, I was at Al’s wake, her hands clasped in prayer to a God she continuously blasphemed, the nails of her dish-worn hands painted, which felt like blasphemy. A table stood nearby. Littered with photos from throughout her life, I spied something else, the purse. I smirked to myself and recalled the drive we made to St Joe’s Hospital, where I was born and a night when I was reborn in a distinct way.

As Al turned the wheel and drove me and my throbbing ankle for treatment, she left me with the only words that have ever really mattered. “You’re all right, Eric. You’re all right.”


Gregg Voss is a marketing communications writer during the day and covers high school sports most evenings and weekends. In the intervening time, he is a prolific fiction writer – most recently, he had a short story published in the Winter 2018 edition of Door County Magazine, and another published in the December edition of The Write Launch. Additionally, he has completed his first long-form manuscript, a short story collection tentatively titled “The Valley of American Shadow,” which he hopes to publish in 2019. Finally, he’s also working on his first novel.

Violette by Ivan Zoric

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Here’s a name you don’t hear often. Violette Reign. The words rolled effortlessly off her tongue. Her perfect French scattered a pack of wild chills up my spine. No way I was going to repeat it without practicing—Slav roots and hard R’s be damned.

It suited her. One look at her, shivering in the cold February night air, inside the courtyard where we were all gathered, and I knew she had reinvented herself with it. It was not the fact that she was obviously cold (and that thin leather jacket did not help either), no.  She shivered with grace; a delicate tremble of the shoulders, a gentle sway of her hips, all the time standing on the tip of her toes.

The fool that I was, I fell for it. I offered her my coat, which she refused with a smile.

“I am not that cold, really,” she said. “Besides, I hear it is warm down there, like almost 68 degrees.”

Down there were the Portland Shanghai tunnels. An underground network of passageways, holding cells and old opium dens built back in the day when beards were worn by men instead of hipsters and vices were more than just a night of gambling and a buffet at Spirit Mountain Casino. Nowadays, they were home for gutterpunk kids, restaurant pantries and rat colonies. The tour we were on was nothing more than a glorified basement crawl, covering a city block, if that.  I was working on a new story and had to get some firsthand experience. It’s not like I could just go to any basement, at least not without fear of getting shot. The long, cold fingers of the NRA were all over Portland, no matter how liberal it tried to look.

“So I hear; lack of air flow and all those heating pipes,” I said.

“Kind of creepy, right? I mean, getting snatched and taken down like all those people back in the day. I’d die before they even get to sell me off.”

“Make sure you stay in the middle of the group, just in case,” I said.

Her eyes clouded over.

The tour guide interrupted our exchange. The courtyard went quiet, some twenty or so faces starring at him in expectation.

He opened up with a history of the Shanghai tunnels, an almost century old network of tunnels underneath downtown Portland. For all of it’s current liberal glory, the city used to be a real world hellhole not even a hundred years ago. Not all the pirates and smugglers preferred Caribbean. Some of them loved cold waters of Pacific Northwest and Columbia river. Finding  enough people to crew the ships required a bit more unorthodox approach, though. Snatching being the most popular one. Drop and roll had a  different meaning back then.

He followed this with a story of how he had been lost in tunnels as a seven year old, more than once and always in the company of a haggard seaman. He was totally oblivious to how it sounded to the rest of us. Violette shot me a glance, eyes wide open and I responded with a raised eyebrow and shrugging. We both smiled and I put my arm around her shoulders. A jolt of electricity caught us both by surprise. I almost pulled the arm back, but she grabbed it with her hand and pressed it harder into the shoulder. I understood. Her shivers stopped.

Our guide opened the massive trapdoor and led us into the musky darkness.

She drew closer with every nook, every corner we explored. I inhaled her perfume, a faint trace of rose water and something else, much sharper and earthy. Not too strong to be intoxicating, just subtle enough to make me wonder. The tunnels were pitch black, aside from a few holes in the ceiling, so we kept fingers interlocked. Her skin felt smooth and cold, a lake in flesh, so unlike the rough volcanic island surface of mine. From somewhere up above drifted the noise of the rolling bowling balls and pin strikes. The smell of pizzas, baking cheese wafted down through the vents. It was strangely comforting.

There were no hobos or ghosts, though, unless you count those in stories that our guide served with an enthusiasm of an old schoolteacher. That’s exactly what he looked like. He sported a Mr. Rogers sweater, taped glasses and a monotone voice that even Ben Stein would be proud of. He belonged down here, with cobwebs and old sailor boots. His haircut was somewhat of a relic as well.

Not that it was a completely wasted journey. The rope and cans early alarm system worked surprisingly well even nowadays. Especially because our guide did not warn us about it so we got to experience the firsthand how loud and terrifying it is when you walk into it. The room where they broke the young women spirits after being kidnapped was a  box with nothing but a chair and aura of despair completing it. It was a pure essence of claustrophobia.  Violette and I checked the walls for nail marks and messages, but like most of the tour, the original woodwork had been replaced. In these confined halls, the air was heavy and oppressive.

We were happy to be out of there after an hour. The cool breeze was a blessing. A clear spring night, so rare for Portland , opened up all around us. The city rang alive with laughter. Music blasted as we walked by the open bar doors, mixed with drunk shouts and singing. It was still early in the evening, so we grabbed a table by the fireplace at Hobo’s and ordered drinks.

“So, I have to ask – what’s with walking on your toes? I noticed you do it a few times tonight?”

The shadows of the fire danced upon her face as she played with the straws in the cocktail glass.

“I am a ballerina”.

“ That is awesome. I have never met one.”

“ Been doing it since I was three. It’s in my blood. I live for it,” she said.

“Ballet, or blood?”

“Both.”

A devilish smile flashed across her pale face, as she licked a few drops of runaway Ruby Sparkler cocktail of the edge of the glass.

“Have you ever watched anyone dance by candlelight?” She asked.

“I have not.”

“An erotic ballet virgin then? How quaint. Would you like to?”

I did, and it wasn’t just the snark in her voice that I reacted to. I couldn’t dance. It has always been elusive and abstract to me. Magic, when it really comes down to it.  The fire in my belly was more than just the alcohol working .We were out that door before the ice cubes in our glasses even had the chance to melt.

Her ballet studio was off Burnside. A two story building tucked in behind a row of birches, barely visible from the street. She unlocked the front door and we found ourselves in the dark, yet again, only this time the musky smell of the underground had been replaced by something much more appealing. The same rose water fragrance, only that mysterious earthy component much stronger this time. It was not her perfume, I realized, but the studio itself. She must have spent hours there every day. Every night. The sound of traffic came through muffled, nothing but a buzz. This was a temple of the art and I had every intention of becoming a devotee.


“Take off your shoes,” she whispered.

 I obeyed without argument.

She produced a chair, from somewhere deep in the room and I sat down, eager for the show and slightly buzzed. “Wait there, I will be right back. I have to change and bring candles.” She disappeared into the darkness.

I sat for what seemed like an eternity. Time is elastic, any junkie can vouch for that. It has a tendency to stretch itself thin when you really need something, when you want something. At that very moment, I wanted to see Violette dance more than I wanted to breathe.

A small flicker of light appeared in the far end of the room, followed by another a few moments later. She lighted candles along the corners, eight of them altogether. I could vaguely see shapes of barre all along the room.

“Shouldn’t there be mirrors on the walls?” I asked.

“Not here”, she said. “They take away from the magic of it all. Besides, when I dance I can’t see myself anyway.” She stepped into the faint light and I could finally see her, dressed up for the occasion.

She wore a black leotard like another skin, muscles shifting under it as she moved, like panther waiting to pounce. The parts it did not cover were covered by a complex mosaic of tattoos, ranging from simple tribals, all the way to a scene from Le Petit Prince, complete with fox and a rose.

“Le Petit Prince?” I asked.

“Always. So sad, yet so poignant. I identify myself with him. I too have a rose, that takes too much of me, it seems,” she said.

“Your art?”

“You could say so…”

She walked back to the barre and turned facing away from me. Candlelight made her look ethereal, shadows dancing across the floor like licks of dark flame.

“A basic few steps for the first timer,” she said.

“This is Demi-Plié.” Her knees bent halfway as she executed the move.

“Followed by a Grand-Plié.” This time she bent all the way down, her feet apart. I swallowed hard.

She sped up.

“Elevé, Relevé, Battement Tendu, Rond de Jamb.”

And then she took off, like a comet across the night sky.

It was pure magic. All I could do is sit there, my mouth open as she moved across the floor like a living flame.

Her bleached blonde hair whipped back and forth as she ascended into figures I thought impossible to perform by the human body. Pirouettes so precise, so fast that for moment she was nothing but a blur of color. She snapped out of them in jumps high enough to make me question the laws of gravity. Her back arched to the point of unfolding, as she spun and danced her way from one arabesque  into another, fluid like a river.

I swear those tattoos moved as well. Subtle at first, the position of the fox slightly closer to the rose, but as she went on they became a moving tapestry, an animation in flesh unfolding in front of me. The fox ran away and the rose withered, leaving the surface barren, only to be replaced by baobab trees, growing out of it. I did not even get to register surprise when Little Prince himself appeared and started plucking them out, sighing visibly. The snake slithered in soon after and I could see her talking him to him seductively.

I wanted to scream, to warn this new-found miracle she danced into existence for me as I knew very well how the story ends, for now I was sure this was not the work of an ordinary ballerina. Her magic transcended the boundaries of life and death.

What was once a dead painting on the surface of the skin became just as alive and solid as I had been. This was her Piecé de Résistance, this new life she created out her passion. Tears filled my eyes and I glimpsed the bite that would end it all.

“And now for Coup de Grâce!”, she said.

Before I could jump, Violette spun close to me and drew the tip of her ballet shoe to my neck. A sharp pain exploded in my jugular, white heat spreading through my body. I watched, paralyzed, as she pulled a long sliver of a needle, sticking out of her shoe and landed en pointe, finishing her act, glimmering with sweat. The candles began extinguishing, one by one, light dying all around me until there was nothing left but the tunnel vision and a sound of her labored breathing. The darkness came soon after.

                                                                 ***

I woke up to find myself hanging from the ceiling, hands tied to the massive chandelier which was now lit up.

“It’s a shame, you know.” Violette walked in front of me, wearing the same leather jacket I first saw her in. “I actually liked you. There is certain gravitas about you. You seemed genuinely interested in my dance, rather than just hoping for a quickie in a dance studio. Makes what comes next all that more painful.”

She pulled out a long, curved blade and without flinching cut a big chunk out of my biceps.

The pain burned to the bone. I screamed as she licked the flesh and tossed it into a bowl on the floor nonchalantly.

“This gift of mine did not come without a price. It requires sustenance in order to persist.” She sauntered to the massive doors at the far end of the room. “Come out little ones. Time to drink. Allegro!” She she opened the doors.

The rumble of a dozen small feet drew near. Tiny ballet shoes filled the room with ballerinas in training. 

I finally figured out why her studio smelled like earth. She lived for blood.

“He was right, you know? Le Pettit Prince. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

The blade cutting into my flesh again and I am left with but a single thought: The stars on her skin will be my home when I wake up anew.

Ivan Zoric lives and writes in Portland, OR, after living through a more than eventful childhood in war torn Yugoslavia. He has published short fiction in his native Serbian and just recently decided to take on writing in English full time. When he is not writing he spends his days alternating as payroll ninja and a dad to four kids, a Portuguese water dog, four chickens and a squirrel.

A Condition of Absolute Reality by Leila Allison

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10:30, Sunday morning, 21 February 1970

-1-

It was one of those little lost lamb spring days that sometimes wander into the dead of a Pacific Northwest winter. The sky was as clear as the devil’s conscience, and the temperature would reach well into the sixties by mid-afternoon. Almost everyone in Charleston would go out to grab a piece of that little lost lamb spring day; they knew it wouldn’t be long until another dreary storm blew in off Philo Bay.

Tess and I exited our basement apartment. Tess was careful to close the door softly because our mother had been out late the night before. It was Mom’s good fortune that Tess had been the last one out. Even at age eleven, I already made it a point not to show Mom unnecessary courtesy.

As we descended the crumbling stone steps that led to the alley Tess tapped my shoulder and asked if I thought the drunk passed out behind Elmo’s Adult Books was dead. I glimpsed him from our only window earlier and had already forgotten about him. Human messes were common in the alley, and behind Elmo’s in particular. 

“No,” I said, “dead bums don’t fart.” We hadn’t heard anything like that, but the odor was unmistakable.

“Grr-rowse,” Tess giggled. She was eight, and invariably greeted the low and disgusting with a laugh, a smile, and the twisting of “gross” into a two-and-a-half syllable word.

“Whaddya ‘spect, roses?” The way I saw it, since the guy was completely out for the count it really didn’t matter if he was dead or alive. That, as we used to say, was his funeral. Still, it was always a good idea to give winos a wide berth, you never know when one might be playing possum.

“You put your money in your front pocket yet?” I asked after we had placed a bit of distance between ourselves and the man. We departed the alley where it met Burwell and directed our mile long walk east, toward downtown. I knew damned well that Tess hadn’t moved her loot from an immense black purse she rescued from the row of ash cans behind our building a few weeks back. That was always the way it went with Tess, you had to remind her fifteen times.

She stopped with a pout and a stomp. “‘You put your money in your pocket yet?’” she repeated, all rat-a-tat-tat and snotty-like. “Oh, all right, boss of me.” She sneered. “I’ll do it so you’ll shut up about it.” 

“Good call. And toss that dumb thing in the trash while your at it,” I said, giving her purse a good flick with my index finger. “Everyone will think I’m taking a little retarded girl to the movies.”

“Oh, huh,” Tess said. This was a little catch-phrase of hers that meant everything from “You don’t say” to “Fuck off and die” (aka, “Foad”).

I thought I’d heard something close to foad in that particular “Oh, huh” Naturally, I considered correcting Tess’s attitude with a small display of violence, for that has been the right of older siblings since the invention of younger siblings. But I let it go. It was, after all, a fine little lost lamb of a morning that had wandered into February, and for the first time since October warmth glowed in the sunlight. All that, and…well…I guess I had called her a retard.

“Oh, all right,” I said. “But don’t ask me to hold it for you none.” And, yes, I had noticed that she’d taken only a few pennies out of her purse and put them in her front pocket, thus leaving the bulk of her fortune in that silly-ass thing. Under normal circumstances that would have been an insult to my intelligence, making a small display of violence mandatory. But, really, I seldom pounded on Tess. Whenever my quick temper threatened her with actual harm, all the ugliness in my heart would reflect in her innocent, trusting blue eyes. This would cause me to back down and feel bad about myself. It was a hell of a defense mechanism.

Like Rome, Charleston is a city of hills. Unless you are annoyingly athletic (which neither Tess nor I were–then or ever), riding your bike any distance whatsoever requires a great deal of getting off and pushing the damn thing uphill. We had bikes, as they were, but we usually rode them in the flat alley, against the grain of the bounding grades, which typically run west to east. Big Burwell Hill stood directly between us and downtown. The freaking thing sat there like a goddam Alp. Burwell Hill has always questioned the resolve of the humble pedestrian; after a considerable amount of whining on Tess’s part, we proved ourselves up to the challenge.

At the crest, a complete view of Charleston, the shipyard (which is the only reason why there is a Charleston) and the Puget Sound spread before us. I could still see the frigid winter blue in the sea, and farther out a tumble of whitecaps marked where Philo Bay communicated with the wilder, open Sound.  

“How much you got?” Tess asked.

“‘Bout six dollars,” I said.

“I’ve got four-ninety-six.”

“You’d have more if you didn’t give a buck to the March of Dimes,” I said, referring to the large can that used to come round the classrooms two or three times during school year. “They call it the March of Dimes for a reason, Miss Moneybags.”

“I feel sorry for kids on crutches, Miss Stingy-pants.”

“Cripples get their crutches for free,” I said.

Sometimes God punishes you on the spot for the heinous shit you do or say. On those occasions no subtle, ironic payback lies ahead, nor will you be standing at the Pearly Gates and hear that heinous shit mentioned along with similar bon mots from a list that St. Peter reads to you–one which gives a detailed explanation on why you’ll be cooling your ass in Purgatory for a century or three, or however long necessary ‘til you are deemed holy enough for the Kingdom.

On the heels of my “crutches for free” comment, something that happened when I was about four bloomed in my head. Mom (who was carrying Tess, still in diapers, in her arms) and I were walking past the Presbyterian church during Christmastime. Ahead came a man using a rope to tow one of those wooden dollies movers use to transport furniture, and on the dolly sat a boy of maybe eight. The boy had heavy braces on both his legs and he sat upright and spread eagle on the dolly as though he were stuck that way. As we passed I saw that he had hooks for hands. He smiled at me and I screamed and screamed. I think I’d be screaming still if Mom hadn’t given me a sharp crack in face.

“What’s-a-matter-you?” Tess asked.

“Nuthin’,” I said. “C’mon, Woolies should be ‘bout ready to open.”

During the workweek, and to a lesser degree, Saturday, Burwell and downtown Charleston would be extremely active. Three of the ten shipyard gates lay evenly spaced apart from each other on Burwell, and the area was usually a mad tangle of cars, foot traffic, belligerent admonishments, blaring horns, and frustrated people futilely searching for parking. Come Sunday, however, downtown would fall asleep and become relatively deserted. The sound of the wind blowing in off Philo Bay would mix with the ringing of distant church bells, and something deep inside my heart would become sad and anxious and in deep need of consolation.

Back before even the smallest town became like a 24/7, meth-twitching, insane consciousness, nearly every business in Charleston (including Elmo’s) was closed on Sunday. As far as we knew only three businesses would be open that day: Woolworths (from 11-3); the Roxy Theatre (for the Sunday matinee only), and, I think, The Last Chance Tavern (whose patrons were almost exclusively young black men). Being girls of eight and eleven, and as white as Miss America’s smile, Tess and I had only two of the three open doors available to us. And on that day, which I now consider to be the last truly happy day in my life, we would visit both.

***

If I ever get sent to the electric chair, I know what I’d want my last meal to be: a Woolworth’s hamburger, fries and a fountain coke poured on shaved ice. Since the booths were occupied by church-goers (aka, “Christers”), we sat at the counter like proper little ladies and did our best not to eat like swine. Removing the wrapper off the straw at Woolworth’s used to be one of life’s greater small joys. There was a routine I followed and never deviated from: first I’d tear off the paper at one end, blow gently into the opening–as only to move the paper half-way down the candy-striped straw, mind you–and then I’d remove the wrapper and roll it up into a little ball. Looking back, I guess “life’s greater small joys” sounds contradictory; but I have no better phrase handy. I used to feel the same joy about October fog; the way a cat will settle in behind your knees and bathe herself as you lie in bed; checking books out from the library, and the smell of new shoes. The little losses add up to something big. I’m not one who would want to relive a big-ticket moment in my past; I’d settle for five minutes’ worth of seeing the world the way I used to see it.

We paid the check with dimes. Whenever I see a dime I often remember Tess thinking that a nickel ought to be worth more than a dime because it is the bigger of the two. It didn’t matter if she was eight or forty-eight, she never let go of that opinion. However, that sort of thinking never had sway at the Woolworth’s lunch counter; sixty cents apiece was the going rate for what we had and we each kicked in a nickel for a tip–which made us feel like sophisticated young women of the world, indeed.

The counter lady had spared us an appreciative wink and nod as we wiped up our spilled ketchup and salt and laid our napkins neatly on our plates. I wondered if she’d have done the same if she knew that we had acquired the bulk of our fortune from boosting flats of returnable soda and beer bottles from behind the A&P on Sixth Street then redeem them at the Thriftway on 11th, and vice-versa. The backsides of both stores communicated with our alley, and on the other side of the alley lay connected vacant lots heavily covered by blackberry brambles and scrub-foliage. We developed an intricate set of passages for our get-a-ways, which led from lot to lot, and even set booby traps for the few boxboys who had the stones to chase us. Once, when a yo-yo craze had swept our school, Tess and I had been bold enough to swipe the same flat of Hires Root Beer bottles three times in the same day as to raise the necessary yo-yo capital. We never got caught.

And there was the plain fact that we were prepubescent pornographers. Until old Elmo finally got wise, we’d bide our time in the bushes every Friday before school and wait for a greasy-looking fat guy to drop off bundles of magazines at Elmo’s back door. Nowadays, that might seem like madness, but I really don’t see how it was any different from the way Amazon delivers the goods today. Now, we didn’t steal everything that wasn’t nailed down, just a few. I used a pocket knife to cut the ties and Tess snaked out five or six issues of whatever jackrag lay inside and we’d beat it back undercover and stash the swag in one of any one of six hiding holes. Pictures of naked women were very much in demand at Charleston Elementary. Primo denero. Dangerous scam, however.

My classmates knew that I was pretty tough, and not just for a girl, either, this kept the gag pretty much a secret from the faculty. Yet one little fucker got busted and spilled his guts (I kept Tess out of the transactions, she was in advertising). I got detention twice for this, once for selling him a centerfold the second time for pounding the holy hell out of the little fucker during lunch, in front of everyone, as to send a message. Nowadays they would have probably sent SWAT after me and put me in Gitmo Bay. I don’t think I would have liked growing up in today’s world.

On our way out of Woolie’s Tess grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s get some pictures.”

“Make sure it’s okay first,” I said. “Movie starts in twenty minutes.”

The photobooth stood by the front entrance and was almost always OUT OF ORDER, but the sign was off it that day, and after Tess double-checked with one of the cashiers, it was indeed back in service. For a quarter you got a strip composed of four one-inch square pictures. I liked the idea, but only on up to twenty-five cents. Blowing half-a-buck on the machine seemed wasteful to me. So we went in together and made a series of dumb faces.

Tess extracted the strip and handed it to me. I said “cool,” gave it back to her, and it then disappeared in that scroungy purse of hers. I never thought about it again until last November, as I sifted through her stuff two days before her funeral. And there was something written on the back of the thing. Somehow, after nearly fifty years gone by, Tess held onto that damn film strip, even after the loss of everything else good in her life. I had it buried with her, it seemed to me that nothing I have ever touched in life ever belonged more to one person, better displayed the secret heart of one person than the words that lay behind the run of photos.

There wasn’t anything supremely poetic or earth shattering on the back of it. Just the day and date and “Me and Big Boss of Me Having Fun” written in her childish script on it. I came within a lick of scanning both sides of the strip, but something deep inside my mind, that same something which becomes melancholy at the intertwined sound of wind and church bells, told me not to do it.  

Shirley Jackson says, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; katydids and larks are supposed, by some, to dream.” I dream yet I do not exist sanely. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I have the subject and object in my dreams the wrong way round. Maybe I am whom,  and not the who who tells my story and weaves the tapestry of my dreams.

There once turned a world in which I loved Woolworth’s hamburgers. Mainly the bun, the way it had crisped on the grill and how just a little grease got on the smooth top, but never too much as to make it soggy. Now there turns a world in which the memory of such is steeped in a sadness so profound that every description I try to lay on it fails not just miserably but to the degree that it demeans the event.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my imperfect past for the most promising future. It was, and I love it dearly. Since I find my own expressions lacking, I leave you with the final words uttered by Marley’s Ghost: “Look to see me no more.”

Leila Allison lives in the menacing Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Union of Pen-names and Imaginary Friends, and, as such, she works only between three and six in the morning, seven days a week, as stipulated in the contract between Leila and her “employer”–a dubious, shadow-like person who only comes out from under the bed to buy cigarettes and feed a parakeet named Roy.

KITEZH by A.L. Sirois

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The digital clock on my car’s dash read 8:59 am. I took my .380 semiautomatic out of the glove box and slid it in the holster inside my jacket. Not that I thought I’d need it here; I’m simply in the habit of having a gun on me. I walked across the pea gravel to the flagstones leading to the green front door, pressing the doorbell at precisely 9:00 am.

The door swung open, answered by a tall, loose-limbed man with straight dark hair, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. I also noticed the grey patches under his eyes, and wondered how well he had been sleeping of late.

“Miss McNeil. A pleasure. I am Peter Orlov.” His English was ever so slightly accented by his native tongue. “Please, come in.”

Orlov ushered me into a house tastefully decorated in a more or less classical style, with polished wood floors, plenty of light from wide windows, bookcases, and flowers on end tables.

I learned early on that I don’t play well with others. I’m not anti-social—well, maybe a little—or truculent, I like having my way and I’m usually right. Over the years I’ve found that most people don’t appreciate these tendencies.

College wasn’t for me, either, so I joined the Army. Having a natural facility for languages I trained as a cryptologic linguist. The armed services and I turned out not to be such a great fit, either, even though I enjoyed the opportunities provided me. My twin brother, Terry, became a career military man. Fine by me. We have no other family, and as long as he’s happy, I’m happy. After I was discharged I knocked around the West Coast for awhile, grew bored, and came back east.

Terry helped me get into my current line of work. I’m an investigator. I find things, learn things; take risks for those who can’t. Or won’t. Terry is well connected with the CIA and DMS and other alphabet agencies that occasionally need someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. My clientele tends to be high-end. Very high-end.

Which often makes opening e-mails from strangers interesting.

A particularly interesting one hit my in-box two days earlier. It was from Peter Orlov, whom I did not know, and read, simply, Dear Miss McNeil: I want to know where I was. And I want to return there.

He’d attached a scan of a Pravda article from 1987 detailing the disappearance of nine-year-old Pytor Abramovich Orlov while vacationing with his parents and younger brother, and his mysterious reappearance two days later in the center of Arzamas, the nearest city. When asked where he’d been, Pytor lapsed into glossolalia, which ceased only when questioning ended. Otherwise his speech was unimpaired.

Also attached to Peter—Pytor—Orlov’s email were several colored pencil sketches he’d made of strangely dressed people who looked somehow Slavic but wore bright voluminous garments and turban-like headgear. The men donned forked beards, and the women hid their breasts under dozens of strands of wampum-like necklaces. Perhaps in emulation of the male turban, their hair was worn in an up swept all-but-spherical coif, like an expanded Sixties “beehive.” All, men and women, were light of complexion, with dark eyes and dark hair.

I’m well-traveled, and have spent time on all the continents—including Antarctica—doing research for my clients. I didn’t recognize the particular ethnic group depicted in Orlov’s meticulous drawings. They certainly were not Russian, or even Slavic. If anything, they looked somewhat Persian.

Intrigued, I replied, agreeing to see him. Two days later I was in Nyack, New York.

According to my research, both Orlov brothers came to the States from Russia as children in 1989. Peter was now thirty-eight years old, the wealthy if somewhat eccentric and reclusive CEO of a rising pharmaceutical conglomerate. Jurij changed his name to George and took over the day-to-day running of the corporation as its COO. Peter had no wife, no ex-wives, no children.

Orlov led the way through the foyer into a sitting room. “Miss O’Neil, will you take coffee or tea?”

“Decaf green tea would be wonderful if you have it. And do call me Alice.”

“Then you must call me Peter.” He excused himself.

I examined my surroundings. Low bookcases lined three walls, with paintings above them. French doors opened onto a slate patio, brushed this October day by leaves from a black walnut tree. Its spherical seedpods sat scattered on the flags like green golf balls.

I turned as he entered with two steaming cups—Noritake china on a silver tray along with a sugar bowl, tongs, spoons and creamer. Real silver, too, not plate. And he did his own serving. Odd, for such a wealthy person.

I dropped a lump of raw sugar into my cup as he settled into a wing chair opposite the window. “I couldn’t place the costumes in the drawings you sent.”

A half smile. “I would have been astounded if you could.”

“And that’s the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the place to which you were taken.” I took a chair across from his. “Kitezh, or whatever you call it.”

“I was not taken there. I walked there.”

“Walked?” I set my teacup down on the table beside my chair. “Peter.” I switched to Russian. “I know my Russian geography. It’s more than fifty kilometers from where you vanished, near Lake Svetloyar, to where you turned up.”

“Fifty-three.” He smiled with a crooked humor.

“And you… walked there.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In a manner of… at the age of nine?”

He nodded.

“In two days?”

“Ah. No.” He leaned forward. “I was somewhere else, in between. In Kitezh.” His gaze became distant. “At that time it was near the lake. They didn’t want me to get lost, you see, so they took me, teleportedme, whatever, to Arzamas. I didn’t walk fifty-three kilometers.”

“’They?” I gaped. “Teleported?” And what did he mean by at that time?

“The inhabitants of Kitezh.” He sighed, smiling. “It’s such a beautiful place, Alice.”

He wasn’t speaking in the past tense. The place was real, alive, to him.

“There was a fountain, with two and three-story homes all around, peaked roofs, very quaint but overgrown with electric ivy, a blue sky such as I have never seen any—”

“Wait, what? Electric ivy?”

He waved a hand. “I call it that. All the houses were festooned with green wires. At first I thought they were vines because they had leaves, with curling offshoots like Morning Glory tendrils seeking purchase, but the leaves were transparent, with flat electronic components inside them. These vines covered the houses.”

“Solar collectors.” This man was not lying. At least, he didn’t think he was.

“I saw no other source of power while I was there.”

“I see. Go on. And on your return?”

He shook his head as if to settle his thoughts. “I walked from the square at the behest of my… hosts, headed for a street entry, and no sooner did I set foot off the cobbles then I stepped into Arzamas. I was in front of the town hall.”

“The transition was instantaneous?”

“Yes.” His hands grew animated. “And so that was the fifty-three kilometers. In a single step.”

I sipped my tea as he filled in details. Lake Svetloyar was a popular tourist destination among a certain class of Russians. Peter’s parents, petrochemical engineers, had often vacationed there when their boys were young.

“We got off the bus in Balakhna. You say you are good with geography, Alice. Do you know the town?”

“I know of it.”

“Nestled in the arms of the Volga. An historic region, but there’s not much for young boys to do there. My father loved to fish, though, and my mother to sketch. They took us to the lake on the second day. I drew for a while with Mother, but got bored and wandered off, exploring, as boys will do. George adored fishing, and stayed with our father. I skipped stones on the lake, caught a frog or two, let them go and then I got hungry so I turned back.” He frowned and sighed. “And saw a city on the shore of the lake, placed between me and my parents. I had to have walked through it, you see; but I never saw it until I turned back.” He paused, but I said nothing, simply nodded for him to continue.

“I call it a city, but it was more a village. The lakeside path I walked became a cobblestone street. Wood frame buildings lined it. This was Kitezh.” At my blank look, he went on.” He leaned forward. “A mythical city, like… I don’t know, the Emerald City? Or the place where Batman lives. But I believe Kitezh took me, and after I was there for a short time, deposited me in Arzamas.”

In a single step. “You could not discuss this when you were young. Yet now you can speak of it.”

“I could not write about my experience, either, although again I thought I was being perfectly clear.” He shrugged. “Scrawls. Nor could I type coherently into a computer. My parents feared I had a brain tumor. MRIs and PET scans ruled that out. At last I stopped talking about what happened to me and thereafter had no further speech or writing problems.

“My parents were both killed in a train wreck in 1988. George and I were raised by relatives here in America. When we came of age we devoted ourselves to our parents’ business. They had a small pharmaceutical company, which George and I have grown into a multinational corporation. When our corporate headquarters moved to New York City, I came here. George stays in Manhattan.

“Two years ago I was in an automobile accident that left me in a coma for four days. When I came to I found George sitting at my bedside, looking oddly at me. He said I had been raving about Kitezh. Do you understand? I could talk about it at last, even if I was delirious! The accident somehow negated the conditioning, hypnosis, whatever, I’d received in Kitezh. Or maybe the compulsion had worn off with time, I don’t know. I told him I’d simply been dreaming.” He sighed. “I did not want to worry him. About my sanity, you see. He never says anything, but I believe he has his doubts.”

“Mmm.” I knew a little something about that. “So you came to me, to find Kitezh.” I took a last sip of my tea and carefully put the cup down on the table. Outside, a black walnut seedpod hit the patio flagstones with a clunk.

“Exactly.”

“Russia? I’ve never been there. I speak the language, but—”

He waved this aside. “I have friends there who will help you.”

“You’ve tried to find it yourself?”

He frowned, his gaze again growing distant. “I have returned to Russia several times to search for it, to no avail. I would swear Kitezh recedes from me.” He pursed his mouth. “Avoids me.” He went to his computer and called up a sound file. It was forty seconds of a strange melody, simple but with odd intervals, hesitantly played on a piano.

“This is a song I heard while I was there,” he said. “Someone played it on a flute one night. I’ve never forgotten it. I picked it out on a piano and recorded it.” He handed me a flash drive. “Here’s a copy.”

Peter Orlov was no crackpot. Somethinghad happened to him. Something he couldn’t explain.

“It is said, you know,” Peter told me, “that only those who are pure in their heart and soul will find their way to Kitezh.”

I allowed myself a tight smile. “Even so, I am hardly pure in my heart and soul.”

“I have nowhere else to turn. Will you help me?”

“I’ll try.” We shook on it, and the discussion turned to my fee.

He didn’t blink.

*

On the flight to Russia I went over Peter’s notes and drawings as well as the official accounts detailing his “disappearance.” I also obtained his medical records. None of the documentation gave me the least hint how to find Kitezh.

Others had heard of it, however, as I learned after spending a few hours on the Internet. According to legend, as the Mongols swept through the region some eight centuries ago they learned of Kitezh and detoured to sack it. They reached the lake shore town, saw it had no fortifications, and drew their weapons for slaughter. Kitezh’s citizens ringed the village wall, praying for salvation as the horsemen advanced. Like a miracle, water burst forth from dozens of places in the ground. As the Mongols stared in amazement the city sank beneath the lake and was never seen again.

Except occasionally, here and there, at different locations around the lake where young Pytor Abramovich Orlov stumbled on it.

Allegedly.

My first move would be to check out the area.

Two days’ travel later I was in a Volga 3102 with crappy suspension, jouncing along a semi-improved roadway toward Lake Svetloyar. My driver, Mikhail, a laconic chain-smoking dumpling of a man with close-set eyes, had met me at Moscow Airport. He was one of the friends Peter mentioned. He seemed surprised that I spoke fluent Russian.

“Poor Pyotr. He’s been obsessing about Kitezh since he was a child.”

“Yes?”

He nodded, never taking his eyes from the road, for which I was grateful. My insides cramped in an uproar from the car bouncing along all the ruts. “He visited me the last time he was here, a few months ago. He thinks the city flees him, you know.” He blew smoke out of his nose in a gentle snort.

“He did say something about that.”

“Why he thinks you could be of help. I do not know.”

“I’m a professional researcher.”

His glance, eyebrows raised, asked a further question.

“Of the paranormal, you might say.”

He scoffed. “Supernatural?” After that he said nothing more, which was fine with me. I was in no mood to explain how an army cryptologic linguist had become a professional cryptologist. He concentrated on his cigarettes and his driving and I concentrated on not puking all over his bouncing, smoky little car.

At last we arrived at our destination, a small hotel near the lake—more of a bed and breakfast, really, with a dining room. I signed in while Mikhail brought my luggage to my room. As it was not tourist season, I turned out to be the only guest.

Mikhail took his leave in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Jet-lagged and ill, I went straight to bed, wakened the next morning by my cell phone to a misty dawn.

While dressing the next morning, my cell phone rang. I dug it out of my pocket. The LED panel read G. ORLOV.

Aw, crap. I flipped it open. “McNeil.”

“What progress, Ms. McNeil?”

“Hello, Mr. Orlov.” No George and Alice with this brother. “Nothing definite yet.”

Silence. Then, “I expect results, Ms. McNeil. I told you when I hired you: I can’t allow the company to be run by an unbalanced CEO, even if he is my brother.”

Fighting between the Orlov brothers wasn’t my concern. Peter Orlov thought he’d found me on his own, but it was George who’d heard of me and nudged my name and rep into his brother’s ken. Peter took the bait. He believed in me because he wanted to.

“Understood, sir,” I said, as coldly as I could. George’s money was better than good, but he was an arrogant, entitled jerk. I prepared for Peter to be an even bigger one, but found myself surprised: I liked Peter. Which made this subterfuge all the more distasteful to me.

It was all business, yeah, and I had two big paydays coming, one from each brother, but that didn’t endear me to myself.

 “Good,” he said. “I’ll call later.” The line went dead.

*

Breakfast consisted of strong coffee and pastries of a type I’d never seen before: dark braided bread coated with a fruit compote glaze and filled with mildly spiced meat. Scrumptious, but I could no more than nibble at it. My stomach wouldn’t cooperate.

As the waiter, a pasty-faced man in his fifties, cleared the table I flipped my cellphone open to access my media files. “Have you ever heard this tune, my friend?” I played Peter’s little melody.

The waiter’s eyes went wide then became hooded. He spoke but not in Russian. I couldn’t place the tongue. He caught himself and said, curtly, “No. Never.” He hurried away with the dishes.

I left the inn with a backpack containing one of the pastries, some cheese, and water—and a couple of very sophisticated little devices to detect and measure ambient electromagnetic fields. The air blew cool and slightly damp, but with an apple snap to it that I never encountered in the States. Tourist season was past, and I stood alone on the lakeside trail. The water lapped conversationally and birds sang.

Despite the day’s beauty, as I walked the path something seemed off to me. Kitezh, I felt sure, was not likely to be sitting around waiting for me to find it. It would more likely be wandering amid the dark fir forest crowding the lake.

I began thinking of the city as an animal-like entity, something with intelligence and purpose.

The trees around me grew somehow more menacing and I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was being watched. My instruments, however, revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Three times I resolved to turn back; instead, after an hour and a half or so I made it all the way around the lake. I had gotten some good exercise, but learned nothing.

Back at the hotel I ate a good dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning I took the lakeside trail once more, in the opposite direction. This time I got about three-quarters of the way around the lake before I saw a sketchy trail twisting away from the main path, threading into a narrow, steep sided ravine. I was a dozen or so steps into the cleft before an unexpected aroma of fresh bread filled my nostrils. I walked a few meters further, the delicious odor drawing me on despite my unsettled stomach.

Ahead, the way became quite rocky before curling around a dark stand of juniper that obscured my view. As I came round the thick bushes, the walls of the ravine closed in overhead, tunnel-like. The path became a cobbled passageway, the stones rising from the ground like bubbles from oatmeal.

Another twist of the trail hid the further end of the tunnel. The scent of bread grew even stronger. I rounded the corner, and stepped into a garden.

I stood on the edge of acres of trimmed grass framing beds of pale flowers unfamiliar to me. Stands of equally unfamiliar trees dotted the expanse. The way I’d been following continued through this park-like setting.

To my knowledge, there was no tourist attraction like this anywhere near the hotel.

I approached the nearest of several flowerbeds. The blossoms sat cream-colored, as large as saucers, with delicate mauve throats and long tapering leaves. Within each bloom sparkled what I took to be dewdrops. I leaned closer, and saw that each “drop” contained a strange little dark nucleus. As I moved back, these nuclei shifted position, as though aware of me, watching me.

A chill fluttered across my stomach. Then, partially hidden beside another plot of the weird flowers, I saw someone kneeling. A man, obviously, though his back was tome and his face unseen. He wore a sort of tunic and a turban was wrapped around his head. Beside the plants a small box had been affixed to a short post, like a low-sitting wren house.

I sucked in my breath. He could have walked out of one of Peter’s sketches. I drew closer, and saw that he was placing electrodes from a small device to the shrub. Knowledgeable as I was of common (and uncommon) electronics, I had never seen anything like the smart-phone-sized thing he held.

I approached him. He looked up at me. Blue eyes twinkled in a seamed, tanned face decorated by a dark goatee—the face of a fortyish man who spent much if not most of his time outdoors. He climbed easily to his feet and bowed to me.

“Greetings and welcome,” he said in Russian. “I am Benedikt.”

“Thank you. My name’s Alice. Uhm… what are you doing, there?” With my chin I pointed at the wire-festooned plant.

He chuckled. “I’m stimulating this plant to produce a version that will bear pure white flowers. It’s rather resistant, but I think I’ve got the correct settings at last.” He opened the box’s hinged top, placed the hand-held gadget within and clicked shut the lid.

“How?”

“I’m an electrobotanist,” he said, as if that was sufficient explanation.

What the devil is an electrobotanist? I licked my lips. “Is this… Kitezh?”

He smiled. “Come with me, Alice, if you would.” Benedikt set off through the park. Ahead, above a screen of vegetation, I saw the peaked, vine-grown roofs of what seemed to be a quaint Middle European town. The odor of baking bread had grown so strong now that I felt I could chew the air. “Kitezh… you are familiar with some of our local tall tales, I see.”

Tall tales. “I was taking a walk around the lake. I saw a little side-path, and…”

“It’s easy to get lost around here. You’re American, I think?”

“Yes.”

“Hardly a sought-out tourist destination, the lake, for Americans.”

I simply shrugged.

Within a few minutes we passed the screen of vegetation and entered a beautiful village. The lake lapped against a small wharf to which were tied a number of coracles, all appearing quite new, with polished oarlocks and painted a shiny green. It was the most charming little place I have ever seen, complete with a glittering fountain in the town square.

“Benedikt, I walked around the whole lake yesterday. There was no way I wouldn’t have noticed the trail to this place.”

“Yet somehow you did not.” He smiled. “It’s surprising what one can overlook if one is preoccupied.”

“I notice things for a living.” Never mind that I missed the path. “I came here specifically to find Kitezh.” I withdrew my cell phone from my pocket and began taking pictures.

Benedikt said, in a gentle tone, “That won’t work here.”

“Oh, no service, huh?” He was right. There were no bars on the display. While less than a tenth of a mile away I had been talking with George Orlov. Well, cell phones. “That’s all right, I’m only taking pictures.” And a few discreet movies. As well as whatever data the gizmos in my backpack can gather.

He shook his head, smiling. “I’m sorry. It won’t take pictures, either.”

I checked the phone—another point for Benedikt. Nothing in memory or on the card. The damn thing must be malfunctioning. But I knew it wasn’t. Whatever mental blip that caused people to speak in tongues after they left Kitezh apparently had an electronic analog, some sort of jamming field.

“Once you return through the ravine,” Benedikt said, “your phone will work.”

Without waiting to hear more I spun round and ran back the way we’d come. But somehow in my excitement I managed to lose my way. Again.On the path. At last, though I no longer knew where I was, I stopped. I pulled out my cell phone, saw two bars and punched Peter’s number.

His voice: “Hello?”

“Morel muspi. Rolod tisi tema, reutetcesnoc gincsipida tilé. Man h’bin. C’nun suirav sisilicaf soré. Des téra.” Listen to me. I found the place. It’s real. Kitezh is real. It’s all true. I’ve proved it.

“Who the hell is this? Alice, is that?”

“Des téra!” It’s real!

“Alice, you’re talking gibberish. Wait. You… can’t tell me what happened, can you?” He muttered something to himself. “You found it.”

“Mm-hm! Nio ni tilev—” Shaking with frustration I gave up, and walked on with the phone clutched in my hand. I was back on the trail around the lake, out of Kitezh and presumably free of its influence. I turned around, and saw nothing of the path’s offshoot that had led me there. It was maddening.

“Alice, are you there?” from my phone.

I lifted the phone to my ear. “I’m here.” I walked back a few steps and saw the way unfold out of the shrubbery like a live thing approaching me. “Wait, Peter.” I stepped onto the path. “Wait a moment.” I ran as fast as I could toward the ravine. At its mouth stood Benedikt the electrobotanist. He smiled, and tapped his forehead.

Yeah yeah, Yellow Submarine; it’s all in the mind.“You’re not going to let me tell him.”

His smile broadened but remained kindly. And a little pitying?

Into the phone, I said, “Goodbye, Peter. I’ll talk to you later.” I was panting. I faced the electrobotanist. “How much longer do you think you can keep this up, Benedikt? You Kitezhians or, or whatever you call yourselves.”

Benedikt extended a hand, palm up—walk with me. We strolled toward the village. “You’re correct,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to maintain our secrecy forever. It’s harder these days, with modern technology all around us. We regularly take the village to regions in Chinawhere—”

“Whoa. Wait. You take the village?”

“Oh, yes. It’s, well, portable.”

“But how can you move a whole,” I trailed off. “You’re not going to tell me.”

He smiled.

Just like Brigadoon, I said to myself, frowning. “Okay, go on with what you were saying.”

“We go to China, where there are deposits of rare earth elements we need for our own various technologies, including what you’d call a ‘cloaking device’ shielding us from outside view.” He sighed. “But the Chinese are growing suspicious due to ‘unexplained’ depletion of these deposits, and we may soon need to investigate extraterrestrial sources.”

“Well, I can under—wait. Extraterrestrial?”

“Asteroids. Let’s just say we’re working on it.”

“But this is…” I spread my arms and shook my head, at a loss for words. “How can a little lakeside village be capable of such a thing?”

“We’re not, not yet.”

“Not yet? My God.” My head was spinning. George Orlov was going to get his money’s worth, all right.

Peter already had. My very inability to tell him the truth told him the truth.

I would not, of course, be able to tell George what I had learned, that Kitezh was real, but my glossolalia would be sufficiently revealing. I had a pang for what I was doing to his unsuspecting brother.

“I know your circumstances, Ms. McNeill,” Benedikt said. “Why you’re here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Peter Orlov. To our way of looking at things, his boyhood visit here happened only a few weeks ago.”

I thought about the waiter back at the hotel. “Yeah, I think I’m starting to get it. You’ve been spying on me.”

“More like investigating what sort of person you are.”

“If you’re that good, you must know what I am. What I do.” I took a breath. “I’ve killed people, Benedikt.”

“Oh yes, we know. But we feel that in all cases the deaths were justified.” He smiled. “Otherwise you and I would not be talking now.”

“Uh-huh.” We walked a few more steps in silence while I thought. To someone in my line of work, Kitezh was like Paradise. I could learn so much. “Benedikt, listen. Do, do people ever stay on, here? You know, having stumbled in, do you allow some visitors to stay?”

“It has happened. If Peter finds us again, he’ll be allowed to stay. He has knowledge of financial matters that we would be able to use.”

“Yeah. What about someone like me? Could I stay?”

“Alice, the only reason we are having this conversation now is because we have been discussing our need for someone like you.”

“That’s settled, then. You won’t regret—”

He held up a hand. “You do understand that if at some point you decide to leave, you won’t be able to talk about it to anyone outside.”

“Yeees.”

“Nor will you retain the knowledge. We will have to edit your memory to remove any memories of Kitezh or what you did here.”

I swallowed. “Yes. But what about Peter Orlov?” I knew it was a foolish question as soon as the words left my mouth.

“I think he will make his way back here eventually.”

“Hmm. And George?”

Benedikt shrugged without bothering to speak.

I nodded slowly. George would be stuck. No proof and no investigator. On the other hand, if Peter was convinced that Kitezh existed, nothing would keep him from getting back to it. George would get his wish. He’d end heading the corporation.

I thought about the life I would be leaving behind. I had no family left except my younger brother, a career military man. He knew about my line of work, had in fact helped me get into it, being well connected with the CIA and DMS and a bunch of other alphabet agencies that occasionally needed someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. If I vanished he’d assume I had good reason, or got tangled with something bigger or weirder than I could handle.

Aside from him and a few houseplants, there was no one.

And yet.

We stood in Kitezh’s town square, Benedikt and I. There was the splashing fountain, the little houses covered with electric ivy, and a blue sky such as I had never seen. Small catlike mechanisms prowled the square, their metal claws ticking on the cobbles.

The breeze shifted warm and laden with good scents. A melody drifted past me; the same one Peter had recorded. A chill tickled my spine. I might call it unearthly.

I held out my hand and he took it.

“You’re not staying,” he said.

“I can’t just…disappear. I have family.” I released his hand. “A different kind of family. And other clients. Dangling threads that need tying up, you know? Believe me, I’d rather stay.”

Benedikt stared into my eyes for a long moment. Then he nodded. “Very well. Good luck, Alice. Perhaps I will see you again one day.”

I don’t like goodbyes. I turned and walked away.


A.L. Sirois is a writer, developmental editor, graphic artist and performing musician. He has published fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Mystery Weekly, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, et al. His story “In the Conservatory” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a fantasy novel, THE BOHEMIAN MAGICIAN (Dragon Scale Publishing, 2017), and JERSEY GHOULS (Azure Spider Publications, 2018). As an artist, he’s produced hundreds of drawings, paintings and illustrations. He lives in Rockingham County, North Carolina with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus.