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.