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.”

The Island of Women by Steve Carr

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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.