Bedtime Story by Pauline Yates

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

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

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

Teeth and talons. Needle thin. Razor-sharp— 

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

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

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

“It’s Captain America,” he whines. 

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

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

The floorboards creak.  

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

Bullshit.  

Fear wins. I jump onto the bed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want another one. Please?” 

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

“Not a fairy story.”  

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

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

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

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

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

“What if it ate your leg?” 

“I’d kick it with my other foot.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Goodnight, Daddy.” 

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

It bleeds. 

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

“Daddy?” 

“Yes, son?” 

“Can I have my sword?” 

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

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

“Daddy, what’s that smell?” 

“Daddy?” 

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

Keep Calm and Carry On by James Mulhern

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

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

I touched my scalp. “It hurts.” 

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

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

I reflexively pushed her hands away. 

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

“No.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds good.” 

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

“I hate when you call her that.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Margie.” 

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

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

“Yes, I gotta pee.” 

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

Margie laughed hard and farted.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cured of what?” Margie said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He leaned into the car.  

I smiled. 

“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?” 

“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sad, Nanna?” 

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

I laughed and she did, too. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden has leukemia.” 

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

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

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

I was confused. 

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

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly. 

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

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

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

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

Several people gathered around us.  

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

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

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

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

The priest stared in confusion.  

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

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

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

“Oh.” 

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

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

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

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

“Of course I can.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.” 

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

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

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

“But you told everybody I was sick.” 

“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.” 

“What does that mean?” 

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

“Sorta like a tribulation, right?” 

“Exactly, sweetheart.” 

“Is my mother a tribulation?” 

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Distinguished Fellow By Kevin Finnerty

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

“L.D.F. is pregnant.”

“You just realized that today?”

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

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

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

“Am I still teaching…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“You are going to do this.”

“Why are You doing that?”

“What are You going to do about that?”

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

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

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

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

“Ah, the yes, but defense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Overall, everything is defensible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about You?”

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

I said, “What about You?”

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

Daughter asked what You thought she should do about Baby?

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to bed.”

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

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

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

“Or told.”

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

***

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

“It really happened, I got ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a preemptive move to avoid malpractice.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s stating the obvious.”

“I can still do other things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right and humans act on both.”

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

“No, but we’re past that now.”

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

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

“I can’t tell them they’re wrong?”

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

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

“All right, we’ll do it your way.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“I’m not a Republican.”

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

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

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

“Is that how your conscience stays clean?”

“I mainly voted that way for the judges.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“She’s probably the only one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No need.”

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

“Still are as far as I’m concerned.”

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

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

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

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

“When did this happen?”

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

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

“What will your buddies out there think?”

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

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

“Because of Son?”

“Yes, but not just him.”

“Daughter too?”

“Yes, but not just her.”

“Who else?”

“Wife.”

“Wife?”

“Yes, she’s been in a car accident.”

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

***

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

“And wouldn’t it be better if…”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legend by Jason Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it wasn’t.

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

Travis. Brathwait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause here for a second.

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

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

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

Pause, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis was there. And he wasn’t alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walked past the first pair.

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

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

They glanced at Travis. Did nothing.

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

The third pair. Glance. Nothing.

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

The fourth pair did nothing.

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

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

Travis never came in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Across the Waters by Larry Yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had a captive audience.

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Brown told us his story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing, Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As long as she goes outside.”

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

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

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

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tootsie only bays louder.

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

The bloodhound barks her assent.

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

My dog howls furiously.

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

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

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

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

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

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

Tootsie averts her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

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

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

I emit a startled croak.

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

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

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

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

Marta hangs up.

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

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

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

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

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

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

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

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

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

My pal looks down at the floor.

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

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

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

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

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

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

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

We erupt into drunken laughter.

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

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was not fucked up.”

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

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son of a—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My guns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t have any.

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

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

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

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

“Where am I?” I ask.

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

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Straightforward?”

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

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

Alan ignores the quip.

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

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

“The Undecided?”

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

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

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

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

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

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

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

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

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

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

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

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan doesn’t look at his clipboard but instead takes a plastic seat next to me. “Look mate. Don’t waste your energy trying to argue the point.”

“But I have a standing order.”

“Yes,” Alan says. “You donate two quid a month.” He scrolls down his clipboard. “And in the last six months of your life you told thirty nine different charity street collectors that you already had a standing order set up for their specific charity.”

I slump a little lower. “It’s been a slow year in bed sale-“

Alan holds a finger up to silence me. “In the last year alone you also walked past three hundred and eleven homeless people, contributing a grand total of fourteen pence to one beggar’s cup because you were drunk and it was snowing. However, you faked being on the phone an impressive two hundred and thirty eight times.”

My mouth moves but no words come out and Alan continues.

“In 1989, you told Alison Ramage that your Nan had died so that she would sleep with you.”

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

“There’s a statute of limitations on these things,” Alan says, offering me a glimpse of a Jesus poster through the portal of his gunshot wound.

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

“We know,” booms the tannoy. “We were watching.”

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

“Yes. And I’m listening sunshine,” booms the tannoy

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

He puts a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been undone by the little things,” he says. “But don’t feel bad. Look around you. This is how busy it is every day. Most people think it’s the big ticket items that make the most difference but it’s the small stuff He sweats about. He likes consistency rather than grand gestures and the thing is, you’ve been consistently underperforming.”

“A bit like your sales figures,” The celestial voice laughs over the tannoy.

I try to ignore it but end up shouting at the speaker, “It’d be nice if someone was on my side!”

“I’m on your side, Alan says. What you’ve got to realise is that for every billionaire philanthropist that suddenly decides to give a shit ton of money to Africa when they get diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer there’s a beggar sharing his Pret soup with another. Who would you rather spend eternity with?”

“So I’m stuck here?”

“No. It’s not all bad. In fact, if it was all bad, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be down there with the nail bomber that took you out, having your nuts roasted like marshmallows on a stick. I’m not even joking man, they do that. You’re teetering on the edge though.”

“And what about you?” I ask, “I mean, why are you here?”

Alan looks genuinely surprised by this. “Me? I…I’m on a trial.”

“What sort of trial?”

“Suicides are a special case,” he says. “We automatically come here, regardless of what we’ve done on Earth. I could have been the Pope but as soon as I pulled the trigger on myself, the score was reset to zero. Basically, I have to earn my way back into His good books by processing the Undecided. He really has a thing for people who waste of a life.”

“I thought you said the bomber was in Hell. Surely he should be here?”

“Murder trumps suicide. Says it on page six fifty-three of the handbook”

My shoulders sag a little. “How long are you here for?” I ask.

He taps his badge on his chest. “Until I get my Doves.”

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

A deep sob pierces the room and I realise it’s coming from Saggy Balls man who has his face buried in Cocktail Dress girls shoulder. She looks across at Alan with a sad face and draws an imaginary knife across her throat.

“Oh dear,” Alan says. “She’s just told him the bad news.”

I watch Cocktail dress girl take hold of Saggy Ball man’s hand and lead him to a door on the far side of the room. He drips shower water on to the floor behind him and leaves footprints on the floor that fade quickly.

It’s a dark green wooden door with a silver knob, shaped like a crow’s head. She knocks twice on it and it swings in-wards, revealing a burning pool of lava and a cacophony of screams, male and female. Cocktail Dress pats him on the shoulder just as a large veiny hand, bubbling under the skin with fire, reaches through the door and skewers his balls with sharp talons before yanking him through to the underworld. There is a bone-snapping scream, cut off as the door slams.

I turn to Alan and say, “We should work on my case.”

At that moment, there is a pling-plong on the tannoy and a soft, mesmerising female voice calls Alan to the blue door.

I can’t see a blue door but then realise the green door has now changed colour.

“Come on,” says Alan. “It’s your turn.”

“Fuck off,” I say, my balls retracting. “Heaven or not, there’s no way I’m going in there.”

“Don’t worry.” Alan glides over to the door. I find myself gliding right behind him, pulled by an invisible force, and it occurs to me that if I could have moved this smoothly on a dance floor in my teens, I might not have had to tell Alison Ramage my Nan had died just to get laid.

We reach the, now blue, door and Alan gives a gentle knock. Again it swings inward but rather than eternal fire and ball-grabbing talons, the door opens to a public park. We glide through.

It’s a hot summer’s day and joggers pound the pavement. Kids are stripped to their waist and splash in the stream. In the distance I can hear the retreating siren of an ice cream van and the air is filled with the smell of hot dogs.

Alan points to a wooden bench underneath the burnt orange of a Japanese maple tree. A woman is sat there. Even from thirty feet away I can see that she’s achingly beautiful.  She’s looking at me and I find her gaze the most excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me. She smiles and beckons me over.

“Come on,” says Alan. “I’ll introduce you.”

We glide over the grass. Either the rest of the world can’t see me, or they think it’s perfectly normal for a man in a tuxedo to glide two feet in the air with skittles for feet.

As we approach the woman, I become utterly transfixed. She has short blond hair and high cheek bones that just encourage you to look at her eyes which change colour, flitting between pools of deep green and grey. She is wearing a halter-neck top that plunges to the valley of her breasts, which glisten in the sun with damp. My mouth is dry.

She smiles at me, and for the briefest of moments I think I am in Heaven. I think that God recognises the anguish and torment of a thirteen year old boy having his Gary Lineker sticker stolen, has let me in to Heaven and that this beautiful woman is my reward for a career dedicated to helping people sleep in top of the range orthopaedic mattresses with in-built memory gel.

Then Alan speaks with a shaky voice. “Miss Fer. You look…different.”

“Hello Alan,” she says. “You’re still on my list, in case you were wondering.”

She turns to me and says, “You can call me Lucy.”

When she speaks to me, it’s like a nest of ants have burrowed inside my head and are eating away at my brain. I keel over in agony but my gaze is drawn to her as her eyes turn to fire and visions of most unimaginable suffering and torment. Her lips part and her tongue is forked like a snake and covered in pustules which ooze yellow fluid onto the grass.

She kneels next to me. I can feel her snake tongue lapping at my ear, as she hisses “I’ve got a special place just for you.”

“Lucy. He’s not yours yet,” Alan says.

She snaps her attention to him but he stands firm, hole in his head and all. “Boss’s orders. It says so right here.” He taps his clipboard.

Lucy smiles and her tongue retracts and the deep fire in her eyes returns to a more placid green. She shrugs and retakes her seat on the bench, and she becomes again a beautiful young woman.

I vomit on the grass.

“Who are you?” I croak, wiping away sick with my tuxedo, relieved that although I might face an eternity in hell, I won’t face a dry-cleaning bill.

“Not someone you want to spend an eternity with,” says Alan.

“Alan, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” Lucy says

Alan smiles nervously at me. “This is…well…you know who this is don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

Alan checks his clipboard. “When I said you were teetering on the edge I meant it. You really were a selfish arse as an adult and it’s only your time in the Boy Scouts and the few charity runs that you did in your twenties that’s saved you. The fact is that JC and Lucy here can’t decide which way you should go. So you get a choice.”

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

Lucy throws back her head in laughter and the veins on her neck bulge and pulse. I realise they aren’t veins, they are worms and they are moving around inside her throat. Then the sky darkens, the children playing in the water disappear and the music from the ice cream van stops. She roars, but her voice is male and full of menace “That’s not the choice boy.”

“She’s right,” says Alan as the sky lightens and the children return to splashing in the water. Fear comes at me from all sides, like a pack of wild dogs circling a limping gazelle.

“The choice is this,” Alan says. “Either, we can flip a coin. Heads you go up. Tails you go with Lucy here. Fifty-fifty.”

“What do you say,” Lucy whispers into my ear. “Wanna take a chance on me?”

I read somewhere that a mathematician from some university had proved that a coin toss is not actually a fifty-fifty chance. That due to the embossed head there is a greater probability of landing on heads, per one thousand throws. I’m mildly encouraged by this, until I recall the image of the hand appearing from behind the green door and grabbing Saggy Balls by his saggy balls and my faith in science and probability retracts along with my testicles.

“Or you can go back for another chance,” Alan interrupts my thoughts.

“I thought you said I couldn’t go back?”

“You can’t. Not as yourself. There’s CCTV footage of you on the tube just before you blow up. Would be a bit of a tricky one to explain away.” Alan says.

I wonder if I could go back as Gary Lineker in his eighties prime.

The celestial voice booms, this time from the trunk of the maple tree. “No. You can’t.”

Alan says, “We originally had you slated for a brain tumour at fifty-three so technically, you’re twelve years early.”

“Great” I say, “I’m really glad I saved extra for my pension.”

Alan just shrugs. “It’s an aggressive brain tumour though. It’ll get you within a few weeks. If you go back, you’ll have twelve years before we see you again but you’ll have to tread carefully. Now you know what’s in store, the bar has been raised for you, so you’ll have to be extraordinarily good.”

“I can do that,” I say. “Make me a priest or something and I’ll pray every day, or maybe I could be a missionary in Africa. I’ve always wanted to travel a bit.”

“Over to you Lucy,” booms the maple tree.

Lucy smiles at me. “I choose. Call it a perk of the job. I’ll see you soon.” Suddenly I am floating upward, like a helium balloon that has been detached from its child owner. I watch Alan and Lucy get smaller before a searing pain stabs my abdomen and darkness takes me.

When I come to, my bones ache with cold and my skin itches with sores. I put my hands to my face and feel a full beard. The fire of hunger burns from within me, but I smile because I’m alive. I feel something running down my cheek and I realise it’s a tear. The only tear ever produced with equal parts happiness and fear.

I pull back the cardboard blanket that covers me and look at my feet. To my relief, they are both there again, and I wiggle the toes that stick out through my battered trainers.

Across the road is the entrance to the park and through the gates I can see Lucy and Alan sat on the park bench, watching me. Lucy waves and blows me a kiss. I give her the finger and Alan laughs. Then they are gone.

The city comes alive with commuters and for a while, I sit in awe at humanity and ignore the hunger and cold that consumes me. A few passers-by throw a few coins into my coffee cup and I mutter a few thank you’s but mostly I just people watch.

I see a face I recognise walking down the street. It’s Dave, Salesman of the Year, from the Swindon branch. He’s dressed in a good suit and looks like he’s had his greying hair dyed but it’s definitely him. He walks with the smugness of someone who nailed Melissa from Accounts in the cloakroom.

As he approaches I see him look at his phone to avoid eye contact, the same move I’d pulled hundreds of times.

He’s a few feet away when I look up and say, “Spare any loose change, Sir?”

He sneers at me and then gobs at my feet. “Get a fucking life, loser.”

He walks off and I smile but say, “Have a great day anyway. And remember, it’s the little things.”

He glances back at me with a look of confusion before smirking and walking away.

He can’t see her, but walking next to him is Lucy.

She looks back at me and winks. I smile back, shaking my head and then go back to watching strangers.

Darren Whitehouse writes short stories as a coping mechanism for the guilt he feels about the novel he is still yet to finish.  He is interested in stories that tap into the darker and less understood areas of human life but tries to do so with a pinch of humour. Most of his ideas come from browsing the news although sometimes they appear in bowls of cereal or jars of peanut butter – usually when he doesn’t have a pen handy.  He lives in Buxton, Derbyshire.

2019 Writing Competition Winning Stories

Me First Magazine would like to present the winning stories of the 2019 annual writing competition. They were all judged on technical skills, originality, characterization, world building, and plot. All have undergone editing since being entered and so have been improved upon their previously judged submissions.

FIRST PLACE:

Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Pizza by Ronald C. Milburn

“What’s playing at the drive-in theater tonight?” Butch asked.

Though Butch was fifteen and two years older than me, I was the de facto leader of our five-member troop. Inside I was nervous and anxious, but they didn’t know it. My friends looked up to me, so I played the part.

Like me, the other three boys were thirteen. We’d been neighbors for as long as I could remember. But the summer of 1967, the start of my teenage years, would be the most memorable.

Einstein answered Butch’s question, “Cool Hand Luke is the film tonight.”

Einstein was Butch’s younger brother. Though Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the room, his sibling offered even lower wattage. It made no matter; he was one of us. Proximity, not intellect, was the sole condition for membership in our neighborhood gang.

“It’s playing again?” Marshall, my twin brother, complained.

Our father, a World War II veteran, named us after two famous generals. Dad named me after George Patton, and my twin after George Marshall. Since we both had the same first name, George, everyone called us by our middle names. But when our parents shouted for George, it meant they wanted either or both of us.

We’d enjoyed the show the six previous nights. The scantily clad girl washing her car on the big screen grabbed our attention as it did for the ogling convicts. But even good things grow tiresome. We’d memorized many of the lines and repeated them in the afternoons while awaiting the next viewing.

For my entire life, there had been a verbal pact to allow the neighborhood children free admission into the drive-in. It was a concession, so our parents wouldn’t complain of the parade of honking cars and squealing tires leaving the drive-in

.

Two years before, the outdoor theater hired a new manager. He was unaware of the agreement and erupted when we entered without paying. When he told us to leave, we returned home upset.

A sympathetic neighbor aimed a spotlight at the screen and erased John Wayne from the movie Eldorado. Within a few minutes, as the horns blared, the negotiations concluded, and, he welcomed us back. The converted manager even provided free popcorn for his new friends. 

So almost every summer evening, we tom cats wandered toward the projected images. As we lounged on my porch and awaited dusk, I tore a cola cup into a single strip and twisted it.

“These make long fuses,” I said.

I’d ripped it like peeling an apple and made one piece of wax-coated paper. The cup came from our lawn where exiting moviegoers had tossed it.

“So, what?” Angel asked.

“Well, I figure it’ll take about twenty minutes for this to burn. So, if we tie it to a firecracker, we’ll have plenty of time to leave before it explodes.”

Four interested boys watched me twist the wax strip to a whole pack.

“Come to the drive-in, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

As I stuffed the mini bomb in my pocket, the other guys rose to follow.

Angel whined, “I don’t like this. Remember what happened last year?”

He was referring to the incident the previous summer when I threw a firecracker into the women’s restroom. The security officer saw our failed escape after the explosion. Even though it was our first offense, the unforgiving guard suspended us a whole month.

Worse, he made us sit in his office for three hours uncertain of our fate. My anxiety during the silent wait was nerve racking as he stared at us through those mirrored sunglasses. Then after midnight, he instructed us to call home. Our disheveled fathers arose from comfortable beds to retrieve their wayward sons. I know my punishment was worse because of the late hour. I decided the watchman was a sadist who enjoyed maximizing my sorrow.

When we got home, Mom was furious and grounded us. She would have been more upset, but we had co-conspirators. Since she suffered the humiliation along with the other mothers in the neighborhood, she survived the embarrassment.

The thirty days of punishment was the longest sentence of my young life. A prisoner awaiting release, I checked the days off the calendar on our kitchen wall. Evenings during our house arrest, my brother and I sat on our front porch and stared at the distant, soundless movie. My disdain for the bellicose guard intensified each time he drove along the back row of cars with his want-to-be-a-cop, blinking light. As we plotted ways to retaliate, I exclaimed his triumph was a temporary setback, and I’d make him pay.

“But,” I explained to Angel, “We’ll have twenty minutes to get away.”

“They’ll know it’s us because we did it before,” Angel said.

 “Relax, I won’t throw it in the ladies’ room. I’ve got a better idea—we’ll get the blasted guard.”

The watchman was a towering, sturdy man with dry-roasted skin and a distinct limp. His lazy eye wandered without his control, so he almost always wore mirrored sunglasses. He carried a police flashlight in the leg-pocket of his cargo pants which he shined in my face often.

The guard’s primary job was to prevent people from entering the exit, but he patrolled the entire perimeter in his former police car. Since the firecracker incident, we were his prime suspects for any misdeed he couldn’t attribute to anyone else. His suspicions were most often correct, but to his frustration, he couldn’t prove them.

It was my second summer as his public enemy number one, and my friends were, in his opinion, my accomplices. My opponent always tried to keep me in his sight, but his hovering didn’t prevent me from misbehaving. Instead, he made me more feline cautious. The unwitting sentry honed my cunning skills the way a coach might condition an athlete. As I hoofed toward the drive-in, everyone followed, and Angel whimpered.

He said, “It’s nuts. You’re crazy.”

We called him Angel because he was always the first to confess if caught in one of our offenses. 

We ambled along the asphalt road, which was the last street in our town. Our homes were on one side, and a farmer’s field and the drive-in movie were on the other. We slipped into the cornfield to enter the rear of the outdoor theater.

Once inside, we bought candy at the snack bar then settled on a park bench out front. My clique watched Luke eat hard-boiled eggs as other inmates in the penal farm shouted encouragement. My mind wandered from the film to my detestable foe.

For a while, I struggled between my dislike for the sentry and my fear of being caught. In elementary school, I’d been the model student who got the citizenship award most years. But the summer before junior high, something changed. My yearning to satisfy myself conflicted with my wish to please others. The internal, moral quandary tipped as I watched the security officer light a cigarette. The flickering flame reflecting from his sunglasses stirred my anger—a reminder of the long wait in his office last summer.

I exclaimed, “It’s revenge time.”

“You’re still doing this?” Angel whined.

“Yes, sir.”

“Not me!”

“Who cares,” I replied.

I stood, and everyone but Angel rose to follow. Then, Einstein dropped back onto the bench. “Lose your nerve?”

He shrugged.

“Fine.”

With one less coconspirator to cumber me, I left the cowering behind and strolled toward the despised guard. Marshall and Butch joined me as I crouched beside a ’57 Chevy.

“He’s over there,” I whispered.

A rustling came from inside the Chevrolet, and Butch bolted. The stranger removed the speaker from his window glass and placed it on the pole. I put my finger across my lips and made a shhhh sound but was too late.

The door flew open, and the man hovered over us while shining a flashlight in my eyes.

“What are you doing?”

Startled, I fell backward and knocked Marshall onto the gravel. Blinded by the light, I couldn’t see him.

“Ah, hah! Hubcap thieves.”

His baritone accusation terrified me. I suspected rather than call my parents, he’d deliver his painful punishment himself, so I held my arms up to protect myself.

“No, sir. We’re not touching your car.”

He said, “Wait, a minute. I know you. You’re Perky’s little brother.”

Perky was my older brother, a former center on the high school football team. Then, he shined the beam on Marshall.

He cried, “My Gosh, there’s two of you.”

As he scanned Marshall, I could see his face and rust-colored hair. It was Red, the high school quarterback.

“Twins,” I replied.

“Hey, we’re not bothering you, Red. We’re playing a trick on him.”

He followed my pointing finger, and his mannerisms relaxed.

Wow, you two are just alike. I didn’t know Perky had twin brothers.”

Red lowered his head into the driver’s window.

“Look, guys. It’s Perky’s little brother, and there’s two of him.”

Accustomed to the ritual, Marshall and I raised so his friends could marvel at our similarity. Red laughed and slapped my back.

“I’ll never be able to tell you apart.”

“You can call us both, George.”

Red grinned. Marshall nodded his agreement as he forced a smile.

Then Red asked, “So, what’s your prank against Boss Sam?”

“Who?”

Red nodded toward the watchman’s car.

“His name is Sam, but he reminds me of one of the chain gang bosses in the movie.”

Red aimed his finger at the thirty-foot tall image.

“See.”

“So, he does,” Marshal replied.

 “Look at this.” I lifted the firecracker with the eighteen-inch fuse.

 “I’ll put this into the ole buzzard’s exhaust, and it’ll take twenty minutes to detonate.”

Red bent to get a closer look.

“Neat.”

“Perfect, huh?”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. You two Georges wait here while I use the payphone.”

We waited with angst for Red to return. On the screen, prisoner Luke was digging a ditch. As Red returned, Luke was filling it.

Red said, “I called the Frosty Mug and talked to Wendy. She’s a carhop. I told her to spread the word so everyone could get in for free, but they’d have to enter the exit when they heard the firecrackers explode.”

Red pointed to Marshall.

 “As he’s putting the fireworks in the tailpipe, you let the air out of a tire.”

“Why?” Marshall asked.

“So he can’t chase you, man.”

Red grinned as he reached into his back pocket and removed a handkerchief.

 “Stuff this inside the exhaust, so it’ll explode louder. This will be great, and I’ve got a front-row seat. Now get going, Bubs.”

“Wish us luck.”

“Good luck.”

I turned to my brother and held out my hand.

 “Give me the matches.”

 “Matches? I didn’t bring any.”

 “Uh, oh. Me either.”

 Red unrolled his T-shirt sleeve to remove a pack of cigarettes and matches.

 “Don’t worry, George,” Red said as he pitched the matchbook.

Then Marshall and I crawled toward Sheriff Sam. While crouching, I slipped the firecrackers into the tailpipe. Then I pushed on the fuse to slide the explosives further into the exhaust. I left an inch hanging out. As I pulled a match from the book, I looked back at Red’s auto and saw the boys laughing so much, the car rocked.

My cowardly buddies watched from the safety of the bench. I waved at Butch, Einstein, and Angel with limited motion, but they didn’t respond.

“Chickens,” I whispered.

Marshall nodded.

Then he said, “Wait until I get back before you light the fuse.”

He sneaked to the passenger’s side and removed the cap from the valve. With a sharp stone, he released air until the rear tire was flat then shuffled back to me.

“Okay. Light it.”

I struck the safety match and held it steady, but a passing breeze blew it out.

“Shoot.”

I glanced back at Red who eyeballed me, then I removed another match and lit it. This time, I shielded the flame and touched it to the wax fuse. Just as planned, the shredded cup caught fire and burned slow but steady. Then, I inserted the handkerchief. As we turned to escape, I noticed other amused moviegoers laughing too.

We intended for our prank to be discreet, but we had several dozen giggling witnesses. As subtle as possible, we duck-walked back to Red’s Chevy.

“Great job, George,” Red proclaimed. “Now, you’d better scat. Don’t worry; we won’t tell.”

Marshall and I slipped behind Red’s car then walked toward our friends. As we passed the entertained occupants, we got lots of thumbs-up and waves. When we entered the snack bar, we greeted our neighbors who had worried expressions.

Angel whined. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble.”

Butch smacked his ear and growled, “Shut up and stop worrying, and if you confess, I’ll kill you. Got it? Dead!”

I said, “Here’s part two of my plan. We need an alibi, so we’ll order food and wait for it.”

We approached the counter and waited in a short line.

I said, “Hi, Betty.”

Betty had graduated from high school and worked at the drive-in and at the downtown theater too. We were on a first-name basis. As a result, she was one of the few who could distinguish Marshall from me.

“Hi, Patton,” Betty replied. “I see the whole gang is here tonight.”

“Yep, five of us,” I responded. “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

“You know it takes twenty minutes.”

“It’s okay. We’ll each have a cola, too,”

She handed us our drinks, and we paid which required contributions from everyone. A not-so-patient patron waited while we emptied our pockets and aggregated our money.

“We’ll just wait at this table.”

I wanted to be in her constant view. The next twenty minutes were endless, as we watched the film through the large plate-glass window.

Luke had escaped from the prison farm, again, and was hiding in a shadowy church. As I contemplated our similarities, I had doubts about my prank. Could Angel be right, and the joke be a mistake? Would we be suspects? I imagined myself running through rows of corn with howling dogs on my heels.

The fragrance of sizzling toppings distracted me from my misgivings, so I glanced at the clock on the wall. The pizza had been baking for fifteen minutes, and the excitement may soon start. I shouted to Betty because I wanted to document our continued presence.

“Is it done?”

Betty examined the timer as she wiped her hands.

“Five more minutes.”

As the agonizing time ticked past, I slipped back into my apprehensive state of mind. I considered removing the mini bomb from the smoldering tailpipe.

Too late now, I thought.

I tried to suppress my anxiety while watching the scene unfold on the white screen. The police arrived and trapped Luke inside the shadowy church. The cold-hearted prison guard who always wore sunglasses raised a rifle. Captivated, I stared at the officer as he took aim. Luke smirked and mocked the warden from a window.

Bang! Ding!

The oven alarm sounded at the same moment the rifle fired. I jumped as Luke slumped. Betty removed the pizza from the oven, put it in a box, and slid it across the counter.

“Order up, come and get it.”

As I waited for my heart to slow, Marshall rushed to the counter then returned.

I whispered, “The fuse must have gone out. It should have gone off by now.”

Angel replied, “Good.”

It was strange, but I felt relieved too. We relaxed and enjoyed our refreshments until the movie ended. The hot dog and popcorn box danced across the screen to announce intermission as we munched and sipped.

By the time the next show began, my adrenaline rush had faded. The second feature was a British spy thriller. The playboy agent operated amazing gadgets which fascinated me.

 Absorbed in the action plot, I forgot about my dud explosive device.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The rapid-fire blasts weren’t coming from the speaker.

“What the…” Betty shouted.

“A backfire,” someone replied.

“No, too many.”

Everyone ran to the door to investigate except for five boys who didn’t move. Outside, a frantic Boss Sam jumped from his car and looked for the source of the blasts. Smoke was still rising from his tailpipe when the first carload of intruders entered the exit.

A stream of interlopers followed and darted down different lanes. Quick to react, Boss Sam hopped back into his vehicle and flipped on his spotlight.

Thump, thump, thump, his flat tire protested as he began his chase.

To add to the confusion, the parked patrons turned on their lights and honked as the freeloaders hid among them. Blinded by the headlights, the watchman spun in frantic circles unsure what to do next.

Ignoring the commotion, we five stoics pretended to watch the movie. In a while, Betty and her customers returned to the counter, so I mustered the courage to look around the room.  Everything had calmed, and we’d gotten away with our prank.

“It worked just as planned,” I whispered.

“Perfect!” Butch replied.

The others nodded as Angel giggled, but the chuckling stopped when the accursed guard exploded through the door.

“Has anyone seen those twins?”

The furious old man removed his sunglasses and scanned the room. In a flash, he spotted us.  Enraged, he hobbled our direction and wagged his bent, arthritic finger.

“I know you did it.”

We were wide-eyed and motionless.

“You did it,” he repeated.

 From the smell of the brown spittle peppered on my face, he chewed tobacco.

Terrified, I asked, “Did what?”

“You know what you did. You put firecrackers in my tailpipe.”

All the patrons awaited my response. The silence stretched. I removed the smelly splatter with a napkin and regained my composure. Sam’s complexion grew redder as he boiled and waited.

“We’ve been here eating. We couldn’t have done it.”

He resembled my mother’s vibrating pressure cooker, ready to blow off steam. His eyes widened, one eyeball stared at me, and the other scanned my pals. He parted his dry lips and ground his yellow teeth. He appeared to be searching for the proper words to respond.

“Don’t lie to me.” Boss Sam snapped.

He seemed unable to produce a better retort as he swung his crooked finger back and forth.

“You twins are incorrigible.” he frothed.

He growled as he widened the arc of his wagging digit.

“I bet you’re all in on it.”

The manager, a short man with wire spectacles, rushed from his office. He had black hair, greased and combed straight back.

“What’s the commotion?”

Sam answered, “Someone flattened my tire and put a firecracker in my tailpipe. I know these boys did it. Remember the restroom last summer? Now people are entering the exit, and I can’t stop them.”

The manager’s face flushed with immediate anger. We were the splinter under his skin, festering again. Unable to excise us, he had to deal with the occasional flare-ups. The manager glared at Angel, who he knew to be the most probable to confess. Terrified, Angel stared back, wide-eyed.  His wimpy nature benefited us for a change.

Butch, the oldest, appeared as calm as the secret agent on the screen behind him. Under the manager’s intense stare, he casually pointed to the few remaining cheesy slices. But under the table, Butch squeezed Angel’s knee. When the manager looked back to the weakling, Angel made a squeaky sound as he clenched his lips.

“What’s wrong with you, gotta pee?” the manager asked.

Angel nodded.

“Well, go.”

Angel bolted.

Einstein received the next intense stare and responded with droopy eyes and a chin-sagging, open mouth. For a moment, I wondered if he’d drool. The manager assessed Einstein’s lack of mental ability and must have decided it was futile to interrogate him. Then he examined the almost-empty pizza box.

“Betty, how long have these boys been here?”

She looked at the clock.

“Well, they ordered and waited on it. Then they ate it, so it’s been half an hour or longer.”

“They didn’t leave?”

“Nope, they’ve been here, I’m certain.”

The suspicious manager stared at me while still speaking to Betty.

“No one left?”

“No, Sir.”

The boss turned to the seething guard.

“You must be mistaken. Go see if there’s any damage to your vehicle then stop the cars from entering without paying.”

Sheriff Sam’s eyes shot darts at me.

“I’m sure they did it.”

Boss Sam retreated toward his car, but he glared back as he departed through the screen door.  The manager pulled a roll of antacid from his pocket.

“Boys, I better not learn you did this. I’ll call your parents.”

An intemperate stare and uncomfortable silence followed his warning. Five pairs of puppy-dog eyes declared our innocence. Betty’s boss popped a stomach pill in his mouth, turned, and headed to his office.

He muttered, “This job will give me an ulcer.”

When he slammed the door, the wall shuddered, and the clock tilted. Betty straightened it with a broomstick. She had done so many other times. She walked to our table and picked up the box then set our five empty cups on top.

I said, “Thanks, Betty. For vouching for us.”

After she removed the trash, she returned to wipe the table with a damp cloth.

Betty whispered, “I’m sure you boys did this. If he finds out how, he’ll call your parents.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

I glanced at my friends, who were smirking.

“He won’t find out.”

We erupted in laughter which confirmed her suspicion. She could no longer restrain herself, so she giggled too.

After a while, Angel grew tired of hiding in the restroom, so he returned. Once he joined us, we headed toward home. The gravel crunched under Boss Sam’s rolling tires as he followed us.

After my cohorts entered the cornfield, I looked back at the stoical officer who had stepped out of his vehicle. He was still wearing those mirrored glasses. I was emboldened because I figured his seething anger couldn’t exceed my satisfaction. Now by myself, I shook a corn stalk.

“Shaking the bushes, Boss.”

 Boss Sam pulled his flashlight like a weapon and aimed it at me. I returned his silent threat with a Luke smile.

Then I said, “Now what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

His only movement was a curled upper lip. I winced and knew it wasn’t over. After an uncomfortable pause, I turned and left. As I hurried down the rows of six-foot-tall corn, I had misgivings about my momentary victory. But I’d never let my friends know my fear. It’s the burden one carries when he’s cool. 

Second Place:

Inventing the Artist by Adam Scharf

David’s making love to Lana, and I’m not doing anything wrong. Swear to God. There’s nothing wrong about sitting in your apartment, trying to look unalarmed as your roommate makes love in his bedroom.

I’m persuading myself the sounds are platonic and easily forgotten. I move to the kitchen to feel removed. To feel reasonable. I’ve put on Mozart, so they don’t think I’m a warm-blooded pervert lapping it up.

By the sounds of it, she’s spanking the hell out of him. They play rough. You wouldn’t believe it. I find the perfect I heard nothing face for afterward. I’m at the table appearing like a guy who’s deaf and doesn’t lick his lips hearing his roommate do it.

I’m twenty years old. I’ve been here three months and heard David choking the living hell out of his girlfriend at least a hundred times, no kidding. I’m frightened with how far they take it. How routine that’s become. They go to a farmer’s market afterward like nothing happened and pet everyone’s dog. No one detects the consensual flogging or horsewhipping that’s taken place. The dogs know and carry that burden the rest of their lives.

I don’t know what to do with myself. This is when I call Chelsea, but that’s over. I told her I went on a date with someone. The thing is, Chelsea and I’ve been broken up for a year, but we sleep with each other. She’s become something hollow. An ex with benefits. She told me, “Andrew, you’ve made me a shell of a person.”

We came close a few times to really being animals in the bedroom. We got great at sex. That’s why we’ve kept doing it this past year. I wasn’t dishonest either. I told her what this was for me.

She accepted but created this narrative in her head that we’d get back together if we did it long enough. A part of me thought that would happen too, but mostly I wanted to be an animal. This past year I dated a handful of women but always went back to her without the headache of dating.

The date I went on recently, the one that officially ended Chelsea and I, wasn’t even worth the shellacking. Her name was Allison, and she called me, “Dude,” 57 times. She left earrings on my nightstand, and I can’t even look at them.

We’re in this summer acting program, and I haven’t told anyone I dropped out yet. I was told to finish the run of Macbeth then leave.

I play one of the witches. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s sort of humiliating.My favorite line is, “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap.”

This show could have made my career. It’s this hoity toity program rich kids do to impress their untalented friends working as lifeguards for the summer. The program’s run by Michael. Swear to God, he might not have a last name. He wears clothes that no longer fit after a publicized weight loss campaign on social media. He gets a real charge when he wears his fat clothes for everyone. A few of us had dinner with him once. Everyone hit the ceiling when he heroically gave the ole, “I’ll just have the soup, thank you.” He made a girl cry after he told her, “This isn’t community theater, darling.” Christ, he just loves to eat fucking soup.

My family doesn’t like that I’m an actor. The only person who gives a damn is my older brother, Peter. He’s a writer—a tall writer. He plays the bassoon and knows French philosophy. Peter smokes cloves and brings flowers for me when he’s at my shows. He’s that kind of brother.

Chelsea sensed something romantic between Allison and I, who plays, Lady Macbeth. The first thing I noticed about Allison was her height, and I sort of love the way she says, “Line,” when forgetting a line in the script. She says it like she’s saying, “Happy birthday,” to a little kid. I love that. After two of her “Lines” I promised myself to take her on a date.

We went for drinks and got dressed up. She wore this long teal dress that seemed to flicker over her. I loved her in that dress. Any light looks good on that dress: candle light off the walls, or even light in doctors’ offices.

I know how that dress was born: After God coughed up stars to read Adam’s facial expressions at night, he sewed the dress, inspired by light where you can never tell when, or where, it came from. I have no idea what I’m saying. The dress really got to me is what I’m saying.

Allison’s movements were tender in that dress. She never sat down at the bar in that dress. She stood and leaned like she was always receiving a secret that everyone’s dying to know. The room watched her. She gave angles leaning god knows where—into noise, and men’s forgetfulness as to what the hell their date was even talking about. When I hugged her it felt like kissing. I wasn’t met with lips but perfume and everything she put in her hair. Every mirror or polished surface tried to keep her dress’s reflection. It’s a small grief when that kind of beauty walks away. I’ve seen it a hundred times. I don’t know, sometimes you get lucky.

That night she leaned toward me, interested in the stupid things I was saying. Laughing at me. I know it never lasts. Everyone in my family has twelve divorces between them and every time it started with, “Real love.”

I may be only twenty, but I’ve been in “real love” before. I have the landscape all figured out. Beauty gradually leans towards someone else. There’s beauty in brevity and ugly in permeance. It’s the way things has to be.

I’m trying to keep things together here. The noises from David’s bedroom have grown warlike. He sounds like he’s excavating something out of her.

Gods painted on old ruins and their custom to fall apart.

One of the women I dated this year I fell head over heels for, even though we dated for three weeks. She was a singer named Franny. We did a musical together a few months ago before the program.

I played a train conductor. My only line was, “All aboard!”

Jesus, did I yell that line. I got note after note from the director (Pipe down) as if I was being too loud in the family room as my dad tried to read the online menu for P.F. Chang’s.

Is that too much to ask for?

Obstinate, I bellowed louder every performance. I swear people came again just for the line. This wasn’t a good show. It was just the perfect line to say unreasonably loud right after the protagonist had a valorous kiss.

I made the review.

I’m not kidding. 

I never told Chelsea about my love affair with Franny. I loved Franny. I mean, I loved her guts. I wanted to marry her.

Her dad’s name is Abraham. That always had me rolling. I mean, what were they thinking?

Every day he has to be Abraham.

There were a million great things like that about her. She had long blonde hair, and all her dreams take place in London for no reason. We were doing pretty good, then, out of nowhere, she was talking to her “finally more mature” ex-boyfriend again and we haven’t spoken since.

Not to get dramatic, but I thought about becoming a monk after that. Don’t ask what kind of monk. Just the celibate kind with a penchant for woodwork and sneaky liquor bottles under the ole straw mattress. I had to see a therapist to convince myself that Franny’s not the only perfect person in the world. Apparently, there’s no such thing as a soulmate. It’s biology’s way of getting you to reproduce like a rabbit. I’ll tell you right now, Franny doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about me at all. 

Both David and Lana are moaning water buffalos in bed. Sequestered from human decency. Cooped in a paradise of prophylactics.

I’ll give Allison a call.

She was a fine date. Curly red hair and a non-visible tattoo that she’ll occasionally bring up, so that you think about it (and I love thinking about it). I like thinking about her. I love thinking about her teal dress and how the dress had movement even when she wasn’t moving. The dress is like when you stare at the moon hoping that it changes you─when you get caught in how still the moon appears. The moon’s not motionless though. The truth is the moon’s spinning. You intuitively know these kinds of things, and that her teal dress is propelling, even when the dress doesn’t look like it. 

Believe it or not: what made me quit the theater program happened on that date with Allison. She was drunk and loved talking to anyone. She gave bedroom eyes to the bartender, who looked like he’d make a great merman. He had this long, dark hair. He was Asian and loved to talk about me when I was in the bathroom.

“You know, Andrew, the bartender was talking about you just now.”

“What was he saying?”

“What kind of guy he thought you were.”

“Great.”

“You want to know what kind of guy?”

“Absolutely not. Every time he walks by, I can smell him. It’s not good. He smells like car air-conditioning.”

There was this melted candle on top of melted candle with a lit candle on top. I remember she looked great in that light. I kissed her. She was drunk by now and bit my lip. The funny thing is I wanted to be eaten alive. She brought up Franny. “You guys used to date, right?”

“Yeah, briefly.”

“That’s so funny.”

“It’s so funny.”

“You know, she’s moving to the city. She wants to do Off-Broadway in the worst way.”

The dumbest thing started happening. I feel stupid even telling you this. My eyes started tearing. I wasn’t crying. I just suddenly had tears in my eyes. I kept finding anything but her to look at.

The drinks were hitting fast. What the hell. Maybe I’ll cry in the candlelight to really wow her, I thought. I sunk in my stool. She bit my lip again. I acted like I was getting a phone call. “Sorry, it’s important that I take this quickly,” and headed outside.

I called Peter. He would calm me down. The call went straight to voicemail. That part of town was under construction. I could hear a million hammers and machines fastening steel. If you didn’t know anything about construction and you were standing outside of this bar in early evening, you’d think there were a hundred people knocking on doors just to say hello. That made me feel better. Everyone had company.

I waited long enough to charade a phone conversation with an uncle who just has to say goodnight to his favorite nephew every night. I collected myself and went inside.

When I was away, Allison told the bartender that we were actors. As soon as I sat down, he goes, “You’re an actor, huh?”

I nearly told him to drop dead, but he had more to say.

“Actors, actors, actors. There’s something wonderful in acting. I’ve been in quite a few shows myself. I quit, though.”

Allison leans in. “I’m sure you were great!”

“I was decent. Thing is, I found out what was happening. What I really wanted to do was kill someone.”

He let that linger for dramatic effect. I didn’t want to take the bait. He’s one of those guys who looks at his phone and gives a loud fake laugh so that you’ll ask him what’s so fucking funny and can I see?

Allison is tuna-like. She can’t not take the bait. “Kill someone?” she asked.

Now he had her. He leaned his arms on the bar. “There’re two types of people. Entertainers and artists. I was mostly doing dinner theater. A few theme park shows. Occasionally a commercial. Maybe some Shakespeare.”

On that line, he started looking toward the far corner of the room. He kept pontificating toward absence. I glanced toward whatever the hell he was looking at. Kind of like when a cat sees something you don’t, and can’t, and pray you never will.

He goes, “I knew something had to happen. I had to kill someone. I set out to become an artist but became an entertainer. Most don’t know the difference.”

She goes, “Oh? What’s the difference?” The night was a real slaughter. A real victory for people who can’t just tell you what they want to tell you, but also have to make a show. 

“An entertainer performs for the crowd. Most behave as though the meaning of life is the approval of others. Just look at social media. Entertainers aim to please. They want your approval. That’s why most get in the game. That becomes obvious after you’ve had a few birthdays. After witnessing a thousand posts about wanting good vibes for their audition. They’re seeking approval for getting into a scenario where they’re seeking approval, so insane.”

I had to roll my eyes at the way he said, “insane.”

“Now, the artist,” he starts looking at us again. “The artist isn’t in art for approval. The process of being God is all she needs. Her work is neither reliant nor composed from approval. There are no applause breaks. There are no curtain calls. Most never know how to become an artist.”

I know she’d just have to ask so, I bit the bullet for her. “Wow, how?”

“You have to kill the entertainer. You have to slit his throat. Don’t get me wrong. When you have to be the entertainer to pay your bills, be the entertainer to pay your bills. Welcome him in with a gracious attitude. Give him a blanket. Give him a drink, then kill him anyway. Cut his fucking head off. People don’t need you to make them feel good. Don’t do this for people. Only shits do this for people. Don’t make the world peaceful. Start a war. Collect unemployment. Eat eggs and coffee for years. Lure the wolves closer. Strangle life out of the actor doing crowd work, yelling, ‘How we doing? Oh, you can do better than that.’ No one remembers the entertainer. Shoot the motivational speaker. Rape Walt Disney. Fire him out of a cannon. Do you get what I mean?”

He stopped talking and went down the bar collecting glasses. He didn’t wait for my answer.

I turned to Allison for her reaction. She was on her phone. I felt so sad in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to do. I paid the bill. I got us the hell out of there. All I had was this hatred for something inside of myself.

I hated that bartender.

My lip was in pain.

Both drunk, we made it to my apartment. On the bed, she buried her face in my neck and undid my pants. Never looking, not even once, she touched me. She never looked where I was pointed. I finished all over her teal dress. She never wiped off. She drove home like that.

I stared at her earrings on the nightstand. I knew I was going to quit then. I knew it was crazy. I quit. I told Chelsea about the date with Allison. Everything crumbled. She told me what an awful person I was, and that killed me. Chelsea killed me. Thank God.

I’m scared. I need out. I don’t want to be here. I hate that bartender. I hate these mediocre shows. I hate myself.

I’m going to get out of this apartment. I have a month left, but I’ll leave early, when no one’s around, like a racoon. Look at this place: the old stove; the deer head on the wall, an old birthday card, wilting flowers in a vase from Peter; the jungle track sound from David’s bedroom. I won’t be here. I’ll head home before college. I’ll eat three meals, then expect starvation. I’ll meet a girl who will give me hardship, love, and bridges to understanding the loneliness of others. That’s what seems to happen to artists.

I call Peter. He’s one of those guys who will bring you flowers without feeling weird about bringing you flowers. I love that. “Andrew?”

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Oh boy, what happened?” asks Peter.

“God, I don’t know. I just want to talk to someone decent.”

“All right, how are you? Are you good on money?”

“I have a million gold bricks. What I’m saying is, I want to talk to just talk.”

“You sound upset.”

“You think you’re so good. I quit the program. I’m coming home next week.”

“You idiot.”

“I just needed to tell someone.”

“Why’d you do it? I don’t care what anyone says, Andrew. You’re a real actor. Did Chelsea say something again?”

“No, no, it was a bartender. He went on and on about being an artist and how you have to kill the entertainer. That got to me. I feel shaky.”

There’s a long pause, long enough for me to hear Lana screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

After a weighted exhale, he tells me, “Andrew, were you on a date?”

“Yes.”

“He was just trying to impress your date. I wouldn’t listen to him.”

“I already quit.”

“You idiot.”

“It’s fine. The program was almost over anyway.”

“You won’t get the credits if you quit. The casting directors come the last week. You’re blowing your chance.”

There’s a loud spanking sound followed by David yelling a single question dramatically over and over. “You like that? You like that? You like that?” I hear another slap, the loudest slap I ever heard, followed by Lana yelling, “Ow,” They fight, then, “Shit!”

“You son of a bitch, David!”

“Lana. It’s fine. Come back to bed.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, David?”

The night’s a real circus. Lana comes out of the bedroom in a towel covering her left eye with her hand. She’s crying. “Peter, I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

“I’m coming over.”

“That’s crazy. The clock says nearly midnight. You’re an hour away.”

“I’ll let you go. I’m getting in the car. I’ll see you soon.”

He hangs up. Lana’s putting an ice pack on her eye. David runs out. “Lana, I’m sorry!”

“You hit me in the fucking face.”

“I got caught up. I didn’t want to.”

“Caught up? You punched me in the face!” She turns to me at the table.

I whip out the ole deaf boy who hasn’t heard a goddamn thing, look. I add in a blind boy look for good measure. They just have to take everything too far.

Lana goes, “Andrew, look at what he did to my eye. Is it black yet?”

I act like I’m an expert in this sort of thing and give her the once over. They’re both trying to catch their breath. “It’s a little red. You might see a shiner in the morning. I’d know. I was once punched over a guy audibly reading good news on his email, and I never took the bait to ask him what happened. He got so upset over that. He shoved me. I shoved him back. Then he punches me in—”

“Andrew, not the time. Jesus, Lana. It was an accident.”

Lana huffs. “Let’s ask Andrew about getting caught up?”

“Don’t ask him. It was an accident.”

Now she’s really going to get me involved. She sits at the table holding the ice pack on her eye. “Andrew?”

“Oh god.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

 “Have you ever been fucking a girl and suddenly had the urge to punch her in the fucking face?”

“Don’t drag him into this,” says David.

I look her in the eyes. “Only myself.”

“You’re both crazy!”

She’s in tears. David sits next to her and holds her. I’m sitting across from a scene. Lana moves to his lap, and they cry. He’s making promises, rocking her back and forth. “I’ll never do it again, never, ever, ever. Never again. Never, ever.”

I’m just sitting. I’m not breaking any laws. There’s nothing wrong with pretending I’ve turned into the placemat before me. Unaware, dormant, unable to comprehend the violence in love.

He follows her back into the bedroom. They’re going to make up the only way they know how. Passion will be softer. There will be eye contact. I head to my room. It’s like there isn’t a wall between us. I’m in there playing the violin for them.

Peter will be here in an hour. I feel like such a mess. My head’s spinning. There are a million thoughts in my head. Peter will stare at me with his, What are you doing with your life, eyes.

We’ll make coffee and stay up talking. He’ll listen to me making like I’m okay, but he’ll know I’m not. He’ll go with me in the morning to beg for my place in the program back. That will be our little secret. I’ll tell them I made a terrible mistake. I’ll look like a new man, peaceful, but I’ll only look that way.

Peter’s at my front door and yapping on the phone─everyone’s favorite yapper. He always has to, “let you go,” even if you’re the one wrapping up the conversation. He’ll go, “Okay, sure, sure. I’m right in the middle of yard work. I’ll have to let you go,” after you told him that it’s been nice talking to him.

I open the door. Peter holds up a finger and shows off his yapping. He knows what the people want. The man yaps with anyone. When exiting a party, he’ll address the room with, “Goodbye lovers.” He’s pure gold.

When we used to share a room as kids—I never slept. For a month he only spoke German. I never understood a damn thing he said. Peter spoke about nothing and everything. Telling me the answers: when to kiss, what to drink, how to yap, and what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo.

I love him so much I could die.

I pour Peter coffee like a little house husband who just made his man a decent plate of eggs over a roaring fire. I over hear his conversation.

“Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. Hey, I’m at my brother’s place. I’ll have to let you go.” What a slaughter. He’s letting him have it. “Right, yes, talk soon. Okay, I’ll let you go. Goodbye.”

We get cozy on the couch. He’s out of breath all of a sudden. “Man, I got here fast. I rushed to get here.” It doesn’t explain why he’s out of breath, he drove here. I love that, the man drives here and loves to be out of breath.

Peter stares, thinking of exactly what he needs to be said. “Andrew, you need to understand something. I’m not here to persuade you to stay in the program. I want what’s best for you. You need to—what’s happening in there?” He points to the David’s bedroom.

“Lovers being lovers,” I tell him.

“Dear god. Are they all right?”

Jesus Christ, they just can’t help themselves. Nothing is sacred with David and Lana. They hear a nice yapper walk in; they unhesitatingly break out the whips. You should hear David whimpering. The lashing he’s taking─a god smiting the non-believer into, bien pensant, discipleship.

He picks up where he was. “Andrew, I want you to know that I support you entirely. Whatever the bartender told you, he’s wrong.”

“The bartender might not be wrong. I should be doing better things. Better roles. I’m letting everyone down here. I can’t find any purpose.”

Peter pauses and sips his coffee. We’re forced to listen to David squealing into submission. The entire night’s making me sad. The violent love-making. How Peter cares about me, and how fast he had to drive.

 “I know you’re not performing the best role Andrew. I know you aren’t a star on Broadway. You’re the first male to play a female witch in Macbeth history.”

“It’s silly,” I tell him.

“Did you know that Shakespeare’s wife couldn’t read? Isn’t that silly? There’s no purpose to life, Andrew. You should feel good that you know this already.”

“I have to quit the program.”

“You’re not going to find purpose. Good news is, there can be meaning. You see what I mean? You have to make meaning. It isn’t just there like a little flower. Novels, pageants, a broken sculpture, and what have you—they made the meaning. You’re free to make anything meaningful.”

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

“You’re going to be fine. You’re not going to die if you stay here. I rely on you too much for you to hide. I know that’s crazy. I do though. I don’t give a damn if you perform a big role. I only care what you bring meaning to. You bring meaning to insignificant places, and people. Success is bringing meaning to things you never thought were meaningful. The hot shots with all the lines don’t get success because their roles already have meaning. The thrill’s gone. They’re not heroes. I saw you as a train conductor—you made that moment the pinnacle of the entire musical. Honestly Andrew, I talked about that with my friends for weeks. Such beauty. That line got to me! You animated the dead. You brought color to the pail. You threw leaves on your wedding day in the dead of summer. You taught Shakespeare’s wife to read Moby Dick. I’m writing another novel because of you. The mundane, sweet people of life. Fall in love with every one of them. Don’t let yourself be found as an embassy of underdevelopment. You get to bring meaning to things no one else brings meaning to. I don’t know what else to tell you, Andrew. Jesus Christ, I need you.”

It sinks in. I go find the bartender and invite him over. I offer him a blanket, a cup of coffee. I sing Danny Boy in a dulcet tone. I wash his dirty feet like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know why, but I shave his face for him—for the hell of it—for the sheer hell of it. He doesn’t know why. Nobody knows why. Not a single goddamn person knows why.

I slice off his head, throwing it in the cauldron. Can you hear that cackle? A lit match unaware that it’s going to burn out. A funny feeling in my chest. The sound of David and Lana coming together. The brutal worship. Peter and I have closed our eyes, pretending we’re not a pirouetting moon—what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo

THIRD PLACE:

Larry Came to Lunch by Shauna McGuiness

When the doorbell rang I was scrubbing the downstairs toilet.

“Jerry,” I called “Jer! Could you get that?”

My husband didn’t hear me. He was one floor up watching “Mythbusters” with the subwoofer pounding. Almost sounded like someone was stomping the ground above my head. Beyonce was singing upstairs, too.

The music was so loud that there was no way Maya had heard the bell. Not that my sixteen year-old daughter would have come running, even if she had. Alexander was still at softball practice, and the Durneys weren’t dropping him off until after four.

“Damn,” I said pulling blue rubber gloves off of my hands.

The neighbors were always stopping by, unannounced. When we moved into our Santa Clara townhouse a year ago, I didn’t think we would ever see the people living around us. Everyone entered their homes through the garage, pressing the close button on the remote before they even got out of their cars. However, Jeannie and Richard thought sharing a wall gave them license to stop by whenever they felt like it.

My hair was wrapped in a purple scarf, but at least I wasn’t wearing my husband’s faded blue sweatpants like I was last time they appeared. Smoothing my khakis, I took a quick glance in the mirror Not bad for a forty-something, toilet-scrubbing, purple scarf-wrapped old lady.

Ding Dong!

“Coming!” I ran down the short flight of stairs to the front door, and as an afterthought pulled off the scarf and dropped it on our little cherry wood table.

Lawrence St. Paul was wearing navy plaid shorts and a baby blue, short sleeve button-up. I remember him wearing both before. His skin was lighter than mine. If his was coffee with three creams, then mine was coffee with only one. My mother is white and I inherited her blue eyes – the only one of her features that nature had chosen to duplicate in me. My father’s eyes were the coffee without any cream, at all.

He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, and it had been five years since I had looked into those eyes. Five years.

I never realized how much of a resemblance could be found in Alexander. My fourteen year-old son had the same ears and the same easy smile. He definitely had my husband’s chin, though. Everyone has a square chin in Jerry’s family. Daddy’s hair was pure white and cut close to his head. It looked like wool, and I ached to touch it, as I had when I was a girl.

“Daddy? ”was all I could manage.

“Are you ready? You’re gonna to have to drive.”

What? I thought.

My father’s departure had been so sudden that my mother sat in the big antique rocking chair at her house staring at the front door for hours waiting for him to return. Weeks had crawled away, but he never came back. Mama would sit on the flowered cushion, leaning forward and back. Forward and back. The rhythm maddeningly even.

Holding my finger up and ran to the second floor.

“Honey, I’ve got to step out for a while. I’ll be back.” I always said that, “I’ll be back.”

Because sometimes people don’t come back.

Jerry sat on the big, green L-shape sofa, his big tube-socked feet resting on the matching ottoman. “Don’t forget that you have to bring Maya to that party at five,” he said, not looking away from the TV.

“Right. I’ll be back by then.”

I returned to the front door. My father was still there.

My little Brighton purse sat on the table. It was worn around the edges, and the magnetic clasp barely worked, but I couldn’t bear to replace it because the kids had given it to me on a long ago Mother’s day. Little red hearts covered black leather front of it─Maya had said that it was “covered in love.”

“Uhm. I’m down in the parking lot. We bought Maya a car a few weeks ago and I’ve been letting her park in my spot in the garage.” Pointing in the direction of my grey Highlander, I unlocked it with the key fob.

Climbing in, he placed his knobby hands flat on his thighs. A familiar gold wedding band hugged the appropriate finger. How many times had I rolled that ring in my palms, mesmerized by how well it fit my thumb? Wiry gray hairs covered his legs, along with the scars from when he had knee surgery on both legs.

Where have you been?

“The usual?” he asked.

“Sure. The usual.”

Dad loved Carl’s Jr. and used to eat there almost every day. Personally, I would have chosen a nicer place for our reunion, but if he was looking for a Western Bacon Burger I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it.

Although there was probably a restaurant closer to home, I drove the ten miles to the one by the house that he had left, five years ago. I didn’t recognize anyone that worked there. There was a time when I had known most of them by name, due to our weekly lunches.

Because I already knew what he wanted, I ordered both meals. Salad and a Coke for me. He would want iced tea. I filled our cups and found him at our booth all the way at the back in the far right corner. Dropping the little plastic order card down on the table, I handed him his drink and some sweetener.

“Did I ever tell you about the guy who was in his tent, asleep in a sleeping bag?” He gestured at me to continue.

We had been doing this routine for as long as I could remember. Picking up a yellow packet of Splenda, I ripped off the top with a flourish, saying, “The bear ripped his head clean off.” The tiny crystals tumbled into his cup.

As he chuckled softly I realized how much I had to say to him. Things that I had always been meaning to say. Things that I needed to say.

“Have you been to visit Mom?”

Shaking his head, he looked down into his iced tea.

“Where have you been?”

“So many questions. Am I an encyclopedia, all of a sudden?” He grinned.

“What’s the meaning of life?” I asked, only half playing.

“Family. Love. That is the meaning of life. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way.”

He looked so forlorn that I believed him with all of my heart.

The damn kids had changed the ringtone on my phone again, and Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda trilled from my jacket pocket. It was my brother, Darren, and if I didn’t answer he would assume the worst. He always did. I had to find a way to speak to him without blowing his mind with the news of Dad’s visit.

“Hey, Darren,” My voice sounded a little too bright.

“Hey, Sis. What’s up?”

“I dunno, you called me.” I said.

“I was wondering what time you want us over on Tuesday? Gillian thought it was five thirty, but I’m pretty sure you said six.”

“Five thirty, six – either works for me, as long as you bring an appetizer. Tell Gill to bring the little meatballs. We all love them.” I looked at our father. A small curve sat comfortably on his lips.

“Got it. Where are you?”

“I’m…having lunch with a friend.”

“Late lunch.” He grunted.

“Yes. Can I get back to it, now?” I didn’t want to waste any more time talking to someone that I would see on Tuesday. Probably.

“I can catch a hint. See you.” After hearing the click on his end, I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.

“Look…” I didn’t know where to start. I took a deep breath. “Do you remember when I was thirteen and I told you to shut up?” It was the only time I had ever directed those words toward my Dad. I had been so ashamed after yelling at him. His tolerance and forgiveness had been more painful than if he had slapped me.

“I do.”

“I told you I was tired of hearing about your Army days. I said your stories were retarded.” He slowly nodded his head.

“I am so sorry.” I choked.

So warm was the laugh that boomed across the table, that I could almost feel it on my face. I looked up at him, shocked that he thought the memory was funny. It was one that had come back to torture me countless times since he had been away.

“I imagine you are getting it back, in spades.”

He was right. Raising two teenagers was no barrel of monkeys. I thought about how Maya had expressly forbidden me to volunteer as chaperone for the formal dance at her school. She said I was embarrassing, which had hurt a lot more than I let on.

“You’re right.” I used a napkin to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. “I just… I always meant to tell you.”

“I know.”

Our family had never been the hugging kind. Right now I wished we had been because I really needed one.

“Will you go to Mom?” I asked, “She always wondered why…”

I should have added that he shouldn’t visit his wife unless he intended to stay. Leaving again would probably kill her.

“Time to go.” He sighed, standing.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Maya has a party to go to, and I’m supposed to pick up all of her friends on the way.”

The burger remained untouched. I hadn’t eaten my salad, either. I piled everything back onto the orange tray, dumping our wasted food in the trash on the way out the door.

God how I wanted to stop him.

Maybe I should have said something like, “I’ll make Jerry take her to the party, let’s just stay for a little longer,” But he was already standing next to my car.

No words were exchanged on the ride back to my house, and we arrived much too soon. There were too many things that I wanted to ask. So many that I couldn’t remember even one.

I sat in the driver’s seat, trying not to cry, and by the time I opened my door he was already outside. Enjoying the feel of the sun on his barrel-shape body, his eyes fluttered closed. It was something he had always done, worshipping the sun. The skin across his cheeks was taught, and in the orange afternoon light appeared to be made of caramel.

“I’ll see you when I see you.” he said, as was his way.

“Okay.” I dumbly stared at his face, unable to move. “Wait, where are you parked?”

What a stupid, stupid question. I was just trying to delay his departure.

“I’m just down the street.”

His eyes were kind. I hadn’t fooled him, at all.

“Will I see you again?” I tried hard to stop the sneaky things, but the tears came anyway.

“Don’t worry. You’ll see me again.” He gave me a sharp Army salute.

Sturdy legs carried him across the parking lot. I turned to glance at my front door for just a second, and when I looked back he was already gone.

The next morning, I told my family that we had to go to the city. The kids tried to argue their way out of it, but I think they sensed that it was important to me so they folded pretty quickly. Especially once I promised I would take them to Scoma’s for Sunday brunch. Those kids would probably do just about anything for calamari.

Maya texted her friends, and posted selfies to Instagram, the whole way there. Alexander nodded his square chin to something on Spotify. Jerry enjoyed the fifty minutes of rare quiet.

When we arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go. The sun was tucked away, making everything grey – even countless eucalyptus trees, which filled the air with their strange smell. Nearly invisible mist hung in the air, landing on our faces and shoulders. Settled deep into the grass was a small rectangular grave marker. We all stood around it in silence, and I was thankful that Jerry had convinced the kids to leave all technology in the car.

Lawrence St. Paul

Col. U.S. Army Retired

B. December 20, 1921

D. June 15, 2001

When he had gone to the Library to return borrowed videos, it would have seemed inconceivable that he would never again come home for dinner. The Doctor said a heart attack killed him. An apologetic stranger reported that he’d seen Daddy clutch his chest, while standing near the James Patterson section. A librarian called for an ambulance, but by the time Mom made it to the hospital he had already passed away.

Kissing my two longest fingers, I kneeled to touch them to the stone. I didn’t cry. I had done that enough, already. Uncomfortable in this setting, the kids shuffled their feet. When I stood, Jerry put a strong arm around my waist and pulled me close.

As a passenger on my way to Scoma’s I could see the ocean. Why had he come back to visit me?

I didn’t have an answer, but I decided that it didn’t matter. Through the dark clouds, beams of light touched the flat surface of the water, making it sparkle like fine crystal. The beauty of it spoke to me, bringing peace to my troubled mind.

“You know how much he loved you, right?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

Folding my hands in my lap, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the emerging sun.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Doll’s Eyes by Jennifer Dickinson

My mother always told me that families should have secrets. Secrets are the glue, she said. They are healthy and bond the family. We had silly secrets like how Mom stole tiny maple syrup jugs from the Cracker Barrel gift shop and dipped wiener dogs into them as a midnight snack.

My little sister Lauren had a few years where she got diarrhea all the time and Mom let her stay out of school, telling the nurse that she had migraines because Lauren said diarrhea was too embarrassing.

As for me, I have two big secrets. One: I have this weird mole at the top of my boob and one day my mom said I need to have it removed. Gross. But my biggest secret, Lauren’s too, was Mom and how we lived.

You know how on TV shows the living rooms are always palaces? No piles of mail or shoes? No clean clothes that never made the journey from the basket up the stairs? The walls are covered in family pictures at Epcot or posters of Monet gardens? Our living room’s not a palace. It’s kind of the opposite.

Mom took the idea of a living room very seriously. She lived in it all the time. She slept on the sofa. She ate most of her meals there, too. The laundry never made it up the stairs because she changed clothes in the living room. The coffee table was covered in bills and nail polish and a box of Tampons and coupons she never used and magazines.

Sassy magazine, which was very popular in the 90s because the models looked like real teenaged girls and the articles were about bands Mom loved—Lauren and I called them the “screaming ladies.”

Mom was a teenager between 1995 and 1999. She said those years were the best of her life.

She’d get very sad talking about how she and her friends went to a club called Einstein’s that’s now been turned into a Ziggy Doo’s Ice Cream Shack. She spent every Friday and Saturday nights dancing to those screaming ladies. Mom had pink-streaked hair and lived in Doc Martens and striped tights and dresses from thrift stores.

Instead of family photos on the mantle, the mantle was covered in framed pictures of her and her old friends: four girls with pink-streaked hair and nose rings. They smoked cigarettes and drank rum-spiked cans of Orange Crush. They wore purple lipstick and purple nail polish and Mom said now they are all married to doctors and tending to broods of children. The walls were covered in posters of the screaming lady bands. And I mean covered. Like you couldn’t see any paint. In between the posters were pictures Mom cut out from Vogue and Elle magazines. Women with shellacked hair walking poodles, dripping in fur coats and pearls, Mom painted words like “slut” and “kill the system” and “anarchy now” across those women’s mouths.

Only one wall was different. And that’s the wall Mom dedicated to her Dad and it was covered in needlepointed pictures of owls, her dad’s hobby. She never got to know him very well because he died of leukemia when she was six and her mother never remarried and kept trying to fix my mom like Aunt Charlotte did.

Even though Mom never said how we lived was a secret, I’d been to other kid’s houses before. I knew that most people’s moms didn’t have a tape deck in the living room and watch Dirty Dancing at least three times a month. I knew they left the house to play tennis and garden or they had regular jobs where they put on heels and lipstick every day.

My mom only left the house to do three things: buy food, go to the bank to deposit my Dad’s checks, and go to the library to pick up old issues of Elle and Vogue and Rolling Stone off the free table, which she used for her wall collages, which was what she worked on at home.

I never had a problem with the way Mom lived because my whole life it was the three of us and it was fun. Slumber parties on the pull-out sofa bed, piled with pillows for our Oreo-eating and Dirty Dancing-watching. Lauren and I knew all the lines and for Halloween, we both got dressed up in white tank tops and short jeans shorts as the star of the movie, Baby. We both wanted to marry Patrick Swayze in heaven.

Mom never made us clean because she said Grandma made her clean too much. Once a month Dad hired Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady, Esmeralda to come over, and Mom used the time to give herself a mini-facial and wax her legs.

Really, it’s Aunt Charlotte’s fault that everything fell apart because she made us go to St. Andrew’s Academy. Mom wanted us to attend High Falls High, but Aunt Charlotte said she would foot the bill for private school and didn’t our parents want to give us the chances they never had?

Carmela nicknamed me Moldy the first day of school because she said my hair smelled like mildew and a few weeks in triple dared me to eat a chocolate-covered spider her aunt had brought her from Tijuana and when I said no, she pushed me into the lap pool, ruining the shiny penny loafers Aunt Charlotte had gifted me. In our Human Experience class, she glued my face over the green-faced lady corpse in the back of the magazine about drug overdoses and then tweeted the photo to my entire class. This got her into a little bit of trouble, but Dean Walters has always been too busy with the real cocaine problems than worry about my face on a paper corpse.

Mom wondered why I never stood up to such a worthless human being. She’d never let anyone put her down, she said. And sometimes thinking about that made me feel like crap. How did my mom end up with a loser daughter like me?

I’d put with three years of Carmela Fox before Lauren showed up for seventh grade. On Lauren’s first day, she came home crying because Carmela’s cousin, Jessie, a tiny brunette with chopstick legs and a nasty overbite, told Lauren she had the ugliest, moldiest sister ever to walk the face of the earth. And then Carmela and Jessie made up a song about us called “The Ugly Sisters,” a very uncreative name, and one that I wouldn’t have cared about if it hadn’t devastated my sister so much. Even back then, Lauren wanted people to like her.

By the end of the year, Lauren and I were the closest we’d ever been. There are tons of candidates in the yearbook─huddled on the settee in the library─sharing a bowl of chocolate truffle mousse in the student center, walking arm and arm toward the river. We got closer because of Carmela, who took aim at Lauren hard, especially at her locker. Shredded textbooks, spider babies covering her backpack, squished grape jelly in the sleeves of her raincoat.

Lauren saw the school guidance counselor who told her that some girls are just mean and the best thing Lauren could do was not cry or show any emotion. That witch gave Lauren a pin that said: Be brave.

St. Andrew’s was a bad place.

Lauren cried at home. In the shower, in her bedroom. Not in front of our Mom, because part of what Carmela teased us about was our Mom. Carmela thought it was weird that our aunt’s Hispanic maid drove us to and from school and that Mom never came to meetings or all-school dinners.

Is she covered with scales? Warts? Maybe she has two vaginas. Or fucks goats for fun. She has to be a freak to produce daughters like you. Questions like that sound crazy, but they can really wear you down. Especially if they’re asked so much that they become like a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away, even when you sleep.

I turned sixteen two weeks before the end of the year. May 15th.

Mom took me to get my driver’s license and then she let me stay home from school. We went to Donovan’s for coconut pie and afterwards I climbed into the hammock while Mom went on her every-Monday trip to the grocery store.

I yelled “More Cheerios please!” and she shut the back door and I shut my eyes. I wasn’t out very long because I could hear the chorus of “One More Day Please” coming out of Mrs. Blair’s upstairs window. Help us love, help us live, let us stay together, just give us one more day please!

I realized I was home in the middle of the day and maybe I should watch “One More Day Please” right then rather than wait until later. I’d pretend to Lauren I hadn’t seen it.

I stopped in the kitchen for a Coke and then I shoved the swinging door. I didn’t notice anyone was there at first. I love Coke and I love “One More Day Please” and that was enough to keep me focused. But then I heard a giggle.

A familiar giggle.

Evil, tiny, cold. Carmela stared at me, in my living room, by the front door.

Why was she there?

Lauren was behind her, eyes wide. She didn’t expect me to be home.

“Carmela, you were supposed to wait in the car,” Lauren said.

“Oh fuck off,” she said. “You invited me here.” Carmela zeroed in on me. “I offered her immunity if she would just let me see what the fuck is going on in this house.”

I started across the room. I wanted to stop Carmela from seeing everything, but by the time I reached her, Carmela’s eyes were all bugged out and she was grinning. She fixed her attention on the lime thrift store dress with the holes in the armpits hanging up over the television to dry. It’s got these sequined peacocks sewn into the skirt and Mom used to wear it around the house like it was a robe.

“Wow,” Carmela sighed. She pulled out her phone and started to snap a picture and I grabbed her phone and threw it hard on the ground, shattering the screen.

“You’re fucking dead, Moldy,” she said then turned to Lauren. “And if you want to have one good day of high school to remember, you will pick up the shards of my phone and take it to Dean Walters and tell her what a piece-of-shit sister you have.”

It didn’t matter what happened next. Mom would be home soon. I had to get Carmela out. I’m not a physical person. Before that day I’d never touched another person in a mean way, but I had no choice. I grabbed Carmela by the arm hard and yanked her to the door.

“What the fuck, Moldy!” she howled.

I yanked harder.

Lauren got out of our way.

After I’d thrown Carmela out of the house, I turned to find Lauren staring at the pieces of Carmela’s phone. I looked around at all the places in the room where the good memories lived: eating Oreos and watching movies and giggling, and in a flash, all those memories disintegrated.  Our living room didn’t feel like a living room anymore. It felt like a place you went to die.

Aunt Charlotte gave me the money to replace Carmela’s phone after I promised to become a “lady,” which meant manners lessons at the Club and $500 worth of pearl-buttoned cardigans and khaki pants from Talbot’s. (Aunt Charlotte swore “sand” was a better shade on me than “stone.”)

The phone cost twelve hundred dollars. Of course Carmela had the lavender glitter one with a Siri you could program to sound like Taylor Swift. I heard they only have that model in Japan.

Mom wondered all the time about Lauren. Why she stayed late at school instead of watching movies with us. Why she started wearing business suits instead of regular clothes. Swim practice was a pretty good excuse. And a boyfriend, Jasper, from my class. They got voted John F and Jackie O, which guaranteed her a free pass from Carmela. Every girl wanted to wear Jasper’s ascot on weekends.

Dating him meant instant immunity.

Mom said Lauren was growing up and we had to accept there would be changes. Mom told me we were always more alike, anyway. Which was sort of weird since Mom had a bunch of friends in high school and loved it so much. Oh, and she danced in public.

I’ll never do that. Even if I could bring Mom back from the dead if I did it. Well, maybe then. But then only.

I didn’t know before that day I should be ashamed of how we lived. We lived on our own lovely island and then it got fucking blasted to bits and I was never truly able to pick up the pieces. I won’t ever trust Lauren again. No matter what anyone else says. I’m very lucky Mom never found out what Lauren did.

I think she would’ve killed herself a long time ago if she had.

“The Last Cat,” He Said by Peter Toeg

Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.