The Old House by Frank Kozusko

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I drove by the old house last year; it had less than a week to live.

It was the first and only house my parents ever owned. My father used his WWII GI Bill benefits to buy the Rose Gardens cookie-cutter house in Linton, Arizona. Linton, 20 miles west of Phoenix, was one of the many suburbs that sprang up after the war to house the families being created by the post-war baby boom. Rose Gardens contained 500 identical one-story ranch houses. My 1948-pending arrival prompted my parents to follow the crowds leaving the cities.

The 1000 ft2 house was adequately spacious even after my sister, Lisa, was born two years later. Over the years, several modifications were made to enhance the creature comforts. A covered back porch provided a big indoor play area. A master bathroom, a previously undreamed-of-luxury for my parents, left Lisa and me alone to fight over the original single bathroom.

For most of my seventy-two years, the house was the anchor of my life. The 1950s were my “Leave it to Beaver” years, grade school, and black-and-white TV. High school and girls highlighted the 60s. My college years of living at home and commuting to U Arizona led from the 60s into the 70s when I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. My parents unselfishly endured my years of PTSD until I was able to get a grip on myself in 1981.

When I married, I bought a big house in a luxury development a short traveling distance from the old homestead to ensure many grandkids’ visits with the folks. Lisa and her family were close by too. I once asked my father if he ever thought about getting a newer house.

He answered, “No! I like this house, and it’s good enough for me. It’s where I raised you and Lisa.”

The lure of a more modern house wasn’t going to outweigh his sentimentality, or his depression-era developed frugality. So, the house continued through the decades to host the holidays and family events. The birthday celebrations were first for me, later adding Lisa, then our children and, finally our grandchildren.

In her later years, Mom needed a wheelchair to get around. Dad had a ramp added to the front of the house. It wasn’t much of a ramp; the stoop was only two steps up. A little later, he added another ramp to the back door so he could take Mom out to her garden.

When Mom died in 2009 at the age of 84, Dad refused to leave the house. Lisa and I knew he was still active enough to function on his own, we just didn’t like the idea of him being alone in the house. When I recommended that he might be happier in a seniors’ development with lots of available activities, he strongly protested, “This is my home and I am staying right here.”

Dad lived and cared for himself until he passed in 2019 at 95. I inherited the house, which needed a lot of work. Not able to get passed my emotions and make a reasonable decision about the fate of the house, I let it slide further into disrepair. Over the next year, it was vandalized several times; I had it boarded up, doors and windows. Sadly, it wasn’t the only house in the old development that was succumbing to age.

My dilemma was solved when Windem Homes, a nationwide builder, decided to buy every house in Rose Gardens with plans for building upscale homes. Each new house would occupy four of the Rose Garden lots. When Windem offered to buy the house, I sold it. I didn’t have a choice. The owners who fought the buyout were forced into submission when the city of Linton invoked Eminent Domain.

I drove by the house that day as the last look. I knew Windem had scheduled the razing to begin in a few days. Mom and Dad had been early Rose Gardens buyers. Their house was near the entrance; it would be one of the first to go.

As I drove away, I was overcome by emotion, nostalgia, not quite tearing. I made a U-turn. I needed more than a drive-by. I parked at the strip mall across the road and made my way into the ghostly remains of past dreams.

I approached the house from the front then circled through the tall grass to the back. The area of my mother’s garden was distinguished by the weeds. I walked up my Mom’s ramp; so many times, I had pushed her up that ramp. The plywood covering the back door came off easily as if it had been pried loose and partially reattached.

The inside was dimly lighted by the narrow rays coming through the cracks around the plywood sheets. The one exception: the kitchen where the west-facing, and now open door, let in the late afternoon sun. It had been one of my father’s bragging points that he had been able to get a house where he could sit in his backyard and watch the sunset.

As I walked around from room to room, it struck me how small and simple the house was compared to my own and my kids’ even grander houses. In each room, I stopped to let the memories surface. Sometimes, I tried to force a chronological order to them.

My last stop was the front room, which my mother called the parlor. I stood at the spot where the old man had his chair for over sixty years, positioned efficiently for a view of the TV, and a look through the picture window across the lawn to his car parked on the street. There was no view for me through the boarded-up window.

I remained there for a while, contemplating my last departure. My head back, staring at the ceiling, I took and held a deep breath. I had the sensation that something external was mingling with my thoughts: a communication, not of words but feelings. It was the spirit of the house. There was loneliness. There was sadness. The best that I could do was to say out loud: “I am sorry old friend,” as I turned to leave. As I was about to step out the back door, I got an idea. I turned briefly to inform the house: “I’ll be back.”

I drove directly home. Luckily, Janice, my wife, wasn’t there to delay or stop me from what I had planned to do. In my study, I searched through digital copies of years of family picture albums, picked and printed the photos I needed.

I drove back, and once again parked at the shopping mall. I hurriedly retraced my steps to the house. It would soon be sunset. Inside the house, I went from room to room taping pictures to the walls. In my bedroom and Lisa’s were pictures scanning the years from infancy to adulthood. In my parents’ room: the picture of them toasting the last payment of the mortgage. In the kitchen: my mother pulling a turkey out of the oven. In the dining room: birthday parties and cakes. In the living room: Christmas trees and Easter baskets, and one picture of the old man in his chair.

I had one more thing to do, and that was the hardest. I gathered, in a pile, all the flammable material left after the last squatters had been evicted. Before I lit the match, with no forethought or reason, I started to sing.

“Goodnight, … Irene.

Goodnight, …Irene.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

It was a song Dad would sometimes sing to Mom, though her name was Margaret.

I threw the lighted match and headed for the back door. Halfway across the threshold, I turned, and over my shoulder made my final farewell, “Goodbye house. Thanks.”

In the twilight, I quickly made my way to the car. I sat and waited for the flames to light the night sky. A crowd gathered to watch, I joined. The firefighters came; they let it burn. The area had a long-time drought, no reason to waste water on a house that was a few days from scheduled destruction. Just a little water was used to wet down the nearby houses.

I watched as the flames engulfed the house. When the walls could no longer support the weight of the roof, the structure collapsed.

Janice must have detected my sullenness at dinner that night. She made no objection when I cocooned myself in my study, where I went through more old photos from my days in the house.

The evening TV news reported the fire, noting the scheduled razing. The blaze was attributed to vandals.

To save it from the wrecking ball, I had destroyed my family home and in doing so killed the spirit of the house. It wasn’t murder; it was euthanasia, a mercy killing.

I never drove down that street again.

The Absolution by Leila Allison

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“Is it fair?”

Those were the last words Eddie said to the man he had thought I was before he drifted back into the only honest sleep of his final days. A smiling sleep caused by my youngest daughter, who did one of the finest things I have ever seen a human being do.

Eddie died yesterday, and his parents have asked me to speak at his Celebration of Life this Sunday. I have plenty of harmless Eddie anecdotes to warm hearts and kill ten minutes with. It may be cynical of me to say it, but even though the most timid human being tends to live an R-rated life, few celebrations of such are anything less than family friendly.

What I Won’t Be Saying Come Sunday

When we were kids, slow was the polite term to describe what had been up with Eddie, while retarded had been the “scientific” word for it. He spent his entire fifty-five year run at the same house in Crestview Drive, two doors down from my childhood home. It’s one of those faux ranch-style houses that had been so popular in the suburbs during the early days of Camelot, NASA and Bonanza. Those homes have always reminded me just how cheerful and prosperous things had been, and how the future, even that for guys like Eddie, glittered with great promise. I catch a permanent sense of Sunday when I look at Eddie’s house nowadays; and his death isn’t the only cause of it.

Eddie was that kid. Everybody gets one of those in life, and everybody is told by their parents to be nice to that kid if you know what’s good for you. For whatever reason, I became the closest thing to a best friend that Eddie ever got (here I must add, except his dad, for they did everything together). And although I eventually went off to college, a career, marriage and family, we still lived close enough to each other as to allow the continuation of our friendship, which had lasted something around fifty years, until the same condition that had held back his mind at last silenced his heart.

All right, before I allow the current to sweep this thing off to the Purple Sea of Sentimentality (where it seems determined to go), it’s dishonest to fit the dead (even the special dead) with a harp and halo, and speak of them as though they were saints. Eddie could be hell, annoying, a petulant little asshole when he didn’t get his own way, and there were times when his handicap made being with, and looking out for him as burdensome as dragging around a wrecked Buick.

And there had been that terrible time when his in no way diminished sexual awakening had almost got him “sent away.” At twelve or so, he’d fallen into the habit of pulling down his pants and underwear around the girls and hoped (I guess), they’d do the same. Although Eddie had never touched anybody, and although his dad had somehow finally set him straight on the subject, there is no doubt in my mind if the trouser dropping had happened now and not in 1970-whatever, he would have been sent away. My opinion here is mixed: I cared for and perhaps loved Eddie, but was this part of himself that he (nor any other child about him─or herself, for that matter) could never possibly understand harmless? For the record I’m the father of three girls whom I never allowed Eddie to do more than shake hands with, even after they had grown up.

Still, Eddie was what he was. The older kids used to call that sort of a statement a “cop out.” Whatever. It really doesn’t matter anymore. Eddie was. He did the best he could with what little he had.

The Stuff I Should Say Come Sunday

Eddie’s parents had been told that their only child might live thirty, maybe thirty-five years, and never on his own. His parents are, I think, what Christians are supposed to be. They have a gentle and loving faith, and humor and kindness. His parents are the only lucky break Eddie ever got; thus he didn’t need a second. And I guess that this part might sound hard, but I’m glad he died first. His folks are “getting on,” as the old saying goes. I have a pretty good idea what happens to guys like Eddie after their parents die.

Eddie had nearly doubled his life-expectancy when his wheezy heart finally found itself no longer up to the routine of its master’s small life. He was abed in his room the last time I saw him. It had been three months or so since our last meeting, and he had lost a huge amount of weight and nearly all his hair.

Our youngest daughter, Trina, had been home from college when I got the call from Eddie’s mom. Although Trina had had the scantest relationship with Eddie─save for what I had told her over the years─she asked if she could come along.

We visited him for awhile in that same room where we had played trucks and drank Kool Aid all those thousands of years ago. We spoke of those times, and Trina listened. There were Seahawks and Mariners and UW Husky posters on the wall, as well as the various trophies and medals Eddie had earned in all the Special Olympics he had participated in. A little kid’s room; sweet and nostalgic.

After his mom (who at nearly eighty was still cheerfully caring for her little boy) came in and gave him a blue pill and said something about five minutes and left the room, we made as to say our goodbyes. Eddie had been shifting between the now and a fuzzy delirium for a bit by then, and he had confused me with the church deacon who had recently come by to visit every day. In Eddie’s mind everybody associated with the church was “father.” And toward the end, Eddie uncharacteristically complained about the fact that he had never gotten married. He called me father, and asked “Is it fair?”

This is when Trina drew close to where he lay and gently kissed him on the lips and said, “No, it isn’t. But it soon will be.”  

The sun came out in his face. He knew he had been kissed; first and last. He settled into a deeper and healthier sleep than what I guessed he had had in days. Maybe that kiss caused secret dreams to go on in there until the end. If so, it’s all right.

Fight for Me by L.T. Ward

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Geoffrey sneezes on my face as I bend to give him the kiss he’d pleaded for. My sassy four-year-old, my fourth child, has always been demanding of my affection, but this stage of still being unaware of anyone’s needs but his own is breaking me.

It has only been over the past year that I’ve been reclaiming me and who I want to be. Who I need to be.

I hand Geoffrey a tissue and he taps it to his nose before snorting the dripping vulgar mucus from his upper lip back into his nostrils. I gag but press the tissue to his face. “Blow,” I say.

He does lightly, the tissue fluttering from the air out of his mouth.

“Blow!” I say.

This time, I’m rewarded with a sopping tissue and a son without a clogged nose. “Good job,” I sigh.

Geoffrey wipes his nose on his sleeve then runs from the room. My wild children are always bringing home their school-cultivated viruses. Blech.

I roll my eyes as I toss the tissue into the kitchen garbage then go to the sink to wash my hands. I’m so stressed from being confined to my home over the last month. Pain. Degradation. Misery.

Two more months and I should be healed. That’s what the doctor said from the very beginning. The tummy tuck would be four weeks of hell followed by two months of restrictions.

But my doctor lies. She omits details, waiting to warn me until whatever horror would come is already here. First, about what came right after the surgery, then, at each follow-up appointment.

The worst were the two drains collecting my blood and other fluids from behind the incision for the first two weeks of recovery. Dr. Denali had mentioned them briefly at a pre-op appointment, but it wasn’t until the hour before the surgery that I was told exactly what was to happen. Two tubes stretched beneath my cut and sutured skin. From both of my hips dangled a tube that fed into a bulb─each needing to be strapped to one of my thighs by pinning them to the bottom hem of my full-body compression girdle.

In my oversized pajama pants post-surgery, I was at my least sexy with what looked like droopy testicles hanging between my legs. Hearing the muted sucking from them doing their job, knowing that they were filled with my fluids, I was furious and heartbroken at having to endure more humiliation and pain.

A heads up from Dr. Denali would have been appreciated. But the thing she did get right was the swelling. My skin had been tight and choking my entire body until a few days ago when it simply subsided. Now, I’m like my old self.

My new self.

I walk into the living room and ease myself onto the sofa. My belly is still sore, and after being on my feet for the last few hours─wrangling my children through homework, making dinner, and convincing them to stop killing off each other’s digital sheep in Minecraft─I need a break.

“Geoffrey?” asks Brian.

I nod. “He’s fine now.” Brian grunts, ignoring the television show across the room to flick a finger absentmindedly over his tablet. “Can you put the kids to bed in a half-hour?” I ask.

Brian grunts again. He lets out a deep sigh. “Sure.”

I roll my eyes and pick my phone from my pocket. A text from Seamus: How’s your night?

I smile and text back a censored version, noting how the villain sitting further down on the sofa is ignoring me and leaving out the snot fest that is my youngest.

***

After I drop the kids off at their two schools─because of course we live too close for the bus services─I make my daily phone call to my mother, my daily Russian roulette of either loving support or crushing judgment and unwanted advice. “Kristen, are you sure I can’t take the kids next weekend?” Mom asks.

Today, I am trying to recover from a bullet wound. “I’m sure, Mom,” I say through gritted teeth.

If I keep my cool, I can get her off the phone and get on with my day─my worthless day of trying to get a job somewhere in my small town where I’m nowhere near as connected to the local business owners as I need to be. I wasn’t born here and I’m no one’s cousin.

“But couldn’t you use the break?” Mom asks.

I pick up the socks from the living room floor. My teenager, Megan, had thrown them at me before telling me I was ruining her life because I wouldn’t allow her to leave the house dressed in denim shorts in the middle of February. Three feet of snow outside and ice on the roads, but I was the one being unreasonable.

“I’m sure, Mom,” I say. I could use the break, but a break would mean being alone with Brian, and my plague monsters being underfoot has been the only thing keeping Brian’s libido at bay. It certainly wasn’t the scabbed incision running across my belly. Or the fact that I had rebuffed every flirtation he’d made in the last three months.

“It’s just that you and Brian need to find a way back to each other,” Mom says.

I close my eyes until the darkness bursts to stars. “Mom, I told you that I don’t want to find a way back to Brian. I want out. I’m done.”

“But you’ve been married so long. Twenty-two years is nothing to throw away.”

I inhale and hold my breath for a few seconds before saying, “I’ve tried. For twenty-two years, I’ve tried. I want out. I want someone who wants me to be more than his family’s personal assistant.”

“But it’s hard out there. And you’ve been in so long. Why end it now?”

I feel my heart pound as my honesty pours out to my mother. “Because I no longer hate who I am and I want better.” My eyes sting and my stomach tightens.

Mom has another bullet in the chamber. “Honey, you’ve been through so much over the last year. You lost all that weight, and now you’re starting that new hobby.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. “Mom. It’s not a hobby. Singing is my career.”

Mom sighs. “There are so many perfect voices in the world. And you’re so old. I know you think you can become a professional singer, but I don’t want you to be disappointed. Wouldn’t teaching at Megan’s school be better for you?”

I flex my jaw and stare at the ceiling. “The high school isn’t hiring for the Music Department. Besides, I told you that I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to be on stage and sing.”

“Sweetie, you need to be pragmatic.”

“Mom, I love you, but I need to get going,” I say.

“Okay. Love you, too. Have a great day.”

I disconnect the call before she can slip more round into the chamber. I stare at my phone’s screensaver─a picture of my kids at an apple orchard last fall. My tweens, Mason and Abigail, smile happily for the camera, but Megan scowls as her usual pissy self, and Geoffrey is turning away from the camera, trying to ditch the picture to resume climbing the trees. Brian hadn’t bothered coming because he claimed he needed more downtime after a long work week. An outing with the kids wasn’t downtime, he said.

I head to my text messages and tap on Seamus’s name. Seamus, my unexpected and unplanned reward for the new me. His picture appears and I smile. My lower belly clenches with excitement. I bite my lip as I quickly type up a dirty text. He’ll be at work and arousing him gives me a thrill I haven’t had since I was a teenager.

I hit Send, then head to my sofa and laptop to search for any job that will allow me to earn income while I satisfy my soul, singing.

***

“What’s for dinner?” whines Abigail.

“Food,” I say. I’m standing at the stove, stirring spaghetti noodles in a pot. The sauce jar is on the counter, as is a cheese grater and a mountain of shredded mozzarella. My ten-year-old is somehow oblivious to the food before her.

“Fine,” she huffs, leaving me to prepare the rest of our dinner.

A faint rumble of the garage door catches my ear. Brian’s home. At least he’s on time for dinner tonight. The door to the garage thumps, and, seconds later, he’s in the kitchen, dropping his keys and phone into a bowl on the counter.

“How was your day?” I say.

Brian grunts. My apathetic caveman says, “Dinner almost ready?”

“Yep,” I reply.

“Cool,” he says, then leaves me to my domesticity while he heads to our bedroom to change into his lazy man’s attire. No kiss. No hug. For the last few years, Brian’s only attention to me is to work out the logistics of our lives. And, on occasion, to tell me I’m sexy a few moments before he wants me to perform wifely duties.

Before, I lived for those comments. Now, my stomach roils at the idea of being touched by Brian. Even before Seamus, I was done with Brian. Twenty-two years of begging for scraps of affection from my partner and being rebuffed over and over again.

I strain the steaming noodles into the sink and hear my phone ding. I blush. It would be Seamus on the other end. His daily check-in.

As the noodles drain in the strainer, I check the text. Good day?

I smile and text back: Same old. Same old. No luck on the job hunt, but I’m hopeful. How was your day?

Him: Fine.

I wait for another reply, but when one isn’t forthcoming, I brush it off. I assume he’s busy with a life thing, and I go back to prepping dinner.

***

It had been Brian’s idea that I take vocal lessons. Megan had been giving me a hard time for not going after my dreams, and, for once, Brian suggested something that was about me and for me.

As I’d attended the weekly sessions with Marjorie, I found myself liking myself more and more.
Then the pounds started falling off. I was no longer feeling the vacancy in my life’s purpose. The emotional, lonesome snacking was replaced by hours of studying music theory and working my diaphragm for the right pitch in a ballad. My self-image morphed into a fierce warrior who walked into a room carrying a big stick with a wall of fire behind her.

I was feeling amazing until I’d lost around seventy pounds. That’s when things changed. The slack skin was a particular brand of hell. I had developed a stomach apron that I had to lift to wash, and my bottom became a laundry line of skin sheets that folded and pinched when I sat. I watched as my warrior became a shrunken old woman identifying more with Sophia Petrillo than Wonder Woman.

My kids remind me of this with their own aging. Megan is my fifteen-year-old teenager and my mini-me in every way except her mouth. Her smile is Brian’s. Next year, she and I will be searching for colleges because I’m about to become a mother to an adult. I am old and I missed out on my life.

Trying to ignore my wrinkles and self-disgust, I refocused on my singing career. My research on becoming a professional singer required me to create an account on Instagram. Pictures and videos needed to be uploaded for my skills to catch someone’s eye. I needed to be visible and have a following in order for anyone outside of my hometown to give me a chance. For my profile pic, I chose one that Megan had taken of me that actually reflected the momentary goddess I had been, and I opened my account.

Enter Seamus. A songwriter I mutually followed.

I had posted a video of me singing The Streets of Laredo, and he’d sent me a direct message telling me how impressed he was with my rendition. After spending two hours cooking dinner, then convincing Geoffrey that the broccoli wouldn’t make him barf, followed by getting soaked as I washed the massive dish pile, I sat on the sofa to watch television with Brian. But he’d turned on Firefly several episodes past where we’d left off. When I asked him if he’d been watching ahead, Brian told me he figured I wouldn’t mind. The only thing we do together is watch a series, and he’d left me out.

So I got lost in my DMs with Seamus. For the next few weeks, we messaged daily. He lived in Ohio while I was in Vermont. Single, but divorced for six years. One child in college. Mid-forties and passionate about classic rock while enjoying diversity in genre from spirituals to punk to K-pop music.

Our DMs drifted from casual life and professional discussions into flirtations. One day, I became his “Kit.” He texted that I was an amazing woman while I carefully walked the line between flirting and remaining a faithful wife, but the messages that man sent about how gorgeous I was in my pictures and videos made me feel seen in ways that I’d long thought were impossible.

After a few app glitches, we decided to exchange phone numbers and became regular texting buddies. He knew I was married, but I let him in on a secret.

I’m going to divorce Brian. I have plans and they are in motion.

Seamus didn’t ask about Brian after that. Instead, he sent me a sext that I reciprocated. Our deliciously naughty words fell right into place. Sure, we continued texting about music and books we loved and the travels we wanted in life. Ninety percent of our conversations were about mutual interests, but that other ten percent was hot, dirty, and made me feel sexy as hell, despite the collapsing skin shell over my improved body.

Once the sexting began, platonic conversations between our digital dates were satisfying. The sort of discussions between friends where you both share so much of the same ideals, but the differences are easily discussed. He didn’t want a serious relationship or romance, wasn’t even looking. I was still shackled in matrimony. Everything about us clicked.

Our sexting trysts were initially impromptu, but after a few dates, we started scheduling with one another. On his end, it was when he was home. On my end, it was when the kids were all distracted and Brian was out with his buddies doing who-knows-what-and-I-no-longer-cared.

The highlights of my day can be broken down into five moments: morning hello text from Seamus; singing practice; my kids coming home from school, eager to tell me about their day; evening check-in from Seamus; and Brian going to bed before me.

I want out of my marriage. I want to feel alive. Singing started that feeling in me. But being seen again was taking my vitality to a whole other level.

***

“How’re we doing today, Kristen?” Dr. Denali says. I’m sitting naked apart from the full-body girdle and a cotton waffle-weave robe on the patient’s table before her.

“Fine,” I say. “When will I be ready for the next surgery?”

Dr. Denali smiles in that way I do when Mason asks if he can have an ice cream sandwich for breakfast because it is technically a sandwich. “Let’s see how you’re recovering from the tummy tuck before we get to the lower lift. Can you lower the girdle?”

I nod with my heart in my throat. I can’t leave Brian until I get through the second surgery and I land a job. I need this surgery. Vanity be damned. My soul is in pain.

I stand from the table and slip the robe back from my shoulders. My breasts are on display and I unhook the over-the-shoulder straps. I unzip each side of the girdle, then unhook each of the dozen eye hooks. I lower the girdle I’ve worn all day, every day, since my surgery to reveal my perfectly flat stomach. My first win in regaining my life.

“Looks good,” Dr. Denali says as she eyes my abs, oblivious to my nudity. She looks at my reconstructed belly button, the original having been tossed into a medical waste receptacle during the tummy tuck. Most of the scabs have fallen off, but there is still a little bit left within the superficial indentation which is otherwise a beautiful shade of rose.

Then, Dr. Denali lowers her gaze to my incision. She cocks her head to one side, then to the other, taking in the angled line. Still more scabs on my right side, which had the drain in longer, but the left side of the incision has been fading from red to a muted pink. My stretch marks run perpendicular to my scar. The tattoos of motherhood crossing paths with the scar of the New Me.

“You’re free from all restrictions unless your belly hurts. Then stop. And no more girdle except when you do something strenuous. Your muscles will want that support, at least initially. But, I think we can schedule the second surgery for eight weeks from now,” says Dr. Denali. My chest swells as I inhale a deep breath of excitement. “Go ahead and get dressed. Cleo will check you out at the front desk and schedule your next appointment in four weeks as well as your lower lift surgery.”

I squeal, “Thank you.” The good doctor leaves the room and I re-dress. My mind swirls at taking the next step toward freedom. I slip on my winter jacket and weave through the hallway until I reach the front desk.

“Kristen Yonce. I need to schedule two appointments.”

Cleo taps her keyboard, then pauses to look up at me with a smile. “Ah, the Mommy Surgeries,” she says.

My face flushes. I hate her. Her friendly demeanor and that horrific label. A tummy tuck and a lower lift. Common surgeries for any woman who has borne children. A breast lift would be the trifecta.

My abs tense and I feel the tight skin across my navel. Since my tummy tuck, I’ve worn a belt of pained-turned-desensitized skin. This is my championship belt for losing weight. For finding myself.

It’s not about my kids or motherhood. It’s my achievement.

“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth. “I need to schedule my follow-up and then the lower lift.” For the next five minutes, I ignore all impulse to tell off Cleo who is only doing her job.

When I leave the doctor’s office with my faux-fur hood pulled tightly around my face, I hear my inner mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

Home over the next two weeks is almost unbearable. Brian works late and texts with Seamus have been falling to the wayside. His wayside. I’m still keeping up with reaching out.

He claims he’s busy and that he hopes I’ll understand, but I miss him, and it hurts that the person who once saw me now seems to be dismissing me.

It’s not helping that the winter snow and ice keeps generating travel warnings and making any outings nearly impossible. I want to escape anywhere, even if that means driving forty-five minutes to the nearest Target with no interest in buying anything. Instead, my confinement at home continues.

Then, the kids’ extracurricular activities are canceled. One by one, my children are stuck at home with me and they’re bored. So bored that they fight over who sat on the spinney chair last until one of them is flung off said chair and is crying. Or they come up with disgusting games like who can spit in the sink with the most mucus.

The screaming and crying, followed by the banshee wails for Mom, are piercing into my spine. The dreadful secret I’ve held onto over the last year floods my brain as I break up Mason and Abigail from trying to bind Geoffrey to one of the kitchen chairs. They use Megan’s belts, which means all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are in my kitchen and screaming.

I wish I’d only had one child. I wouldn’t trade any of my four for a specific one of them. I don’t regret the people who are smaller versions of Brian and me. I resent the responsibility of raising plague monsters into adulthood─never-ending and exhausting. These are the people I chose to create when I wanted more people in my life to love me, but the moments of stress, constant worry, absolute grossness, and prioritizing all of them before myself are breaking me.

As I have discovered who I am, I realize that I was never meant to be the mother of four. Instead of my children fulfilling me, I have no one to build me up. All I want is to be saved. Even if it’s for a moment. Someone to care enough to take the burdens off my back. The most loving act, and I have no one.

With another shriek in the air, I’m fighting tears. This regret is my greatest shame.

***

The next Wednesday, school is canceled due to an ice day. Megan screams at Abigail for stealing her makeup without permission and using it to paint her whole face as a gothic fairy when my phone dings and I have a plausible reason to ignore the chaos around me. I open the email to see that I’ve been accepted to perform with The Vermont Chorale in the upcoming summer season.

Accepted.

Accepted!

My first singing win. And the ensemble practices are due to start five weeks after my next surgery. It pays almost nothing, but it’s a professional credit and I can make the schedule work. Another step forward in my plan to leave Brian.

“Kids,” I say. The mob ignores me. “Kids!” I try louder. They all turn, equally indifferent.

“Mom’s got her first singing job.”

Geoffrey says, “Does this mean you will be on YouTube?”

“What? No,” I say.

“Pfft,” says my baby.

“Congrats, Mom,” Mason and Abigail say flatly in unison.

“Megan, don’t you have anything to say?”

My beautiful eldest rolls her eyes and sasses, “Congrats.”

I shake my head to turn back to my phone while my children resume their fight for dominance over one another. I text Brian: I got the Chorale gig!

Then I text the same to Seamus. I want more rush from my acceptance, so I reread the email. And reread it. And reread it.

My phone dings. Brian: Congrats!

I shrug. Not the respondent I wanted, but at least someone congratulated me.

The day passes, and it’s not until I’m cooking dinner that I hear from Seamus. Nice. You up for a date later tonight?

My chest tightens. My big win and that’s all I get? But Seamus has been busy. Tone and context are hard in text. I exhale and text back: Sure.

Closing my eyes, I focus on my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

March has rolled into April. I’m two weeks away from the lower lift. My NOT-Mommy Surgery surgery. Over the last month, I’ve lost myself in prep work for the upcoming performances. I spend my days rehearsing and doing yoga to work my lung capacity. My evenings, I wrangle children while an exhausted Brian ignores the family chaos from the sofa. Always with the television blaring and his focus on his tablet.

After Brian leaves the house without saying good-bye and I’m left to contend with Mason who now requires and doesn’t want pinkeye medication, I desperately need something to cheer me up. Brian had pointed out all the hours I was putting in for my low-paying gig last night. Now, looking at the sheet music infuriates me. Brian has tainted my small win.

Instead of rehearsing, I reread the last texts between Seamus and me. My expectations for a pick-me-up fizzle as I see them with fresh eyes. My texts are full sentences, usually two or three. His responses are less than three words. He has stopped initiating the contact.

And I am no longer “Kit.” I have no name.

My throat clenches. He’s bored with me. I’ve annoyed him. What happened for him to lose interest in me?

I scroll through our texts. My heart races as the words lay out the story before me. I’m there for him with support about his songwriting. He never asks me about my singing. I ask about his day and follow up with questions. He asks about my day without anything more than a one-word comment.

Even our last few dates were all about him. Focused on his desires.

Choking on my breath, I head to my bathroom and lean over the sink. I rip off my shirt to view myself in my bra. I strip until I’m standing in only my socks before my mirror. I can only see my body from my hips up. My battle scar and motherhood tattoos glare at me. My belly is flat and the marks are soft silver.

I twist to check out my backside. The sagging horrifies me.

All of this work. All of this pain, and I’m a middle class mother of four who no one ever sees as anything but a mother of four. Even when I’m seen, I can’t hold anyone’s attention.

I re-dress and fling myself onto my bed to sob. I have three hours until I have to pick up Geoffrey. I cry for the next two, mourning my wasted life. My faltering dreams. My destroyed body. My worthless value.

***

“But if you leave him, how are you going to make ends meet?” Mom’s a pro at Russian roulette.

“Mom, Brian doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t notice me. Don’t I deserve better?” I say quietly from the kitchen. Abigail is in my bedroom, home with strep throat and watching a YouTube Fortnite video.

“How will you afford to live without his money?” Mom’s go-to worry. “You have four kids, Kristen. You chose to have them. It’s irresponsible if you leave.”

Steadying my voice, I say, “I’m leaving for them.”

“But…”

“Mom, my kids can’t keep watching their mother be weak because it’s easier than fighting for herself. Myself.” I’ve said this repeatedly to my mom for the past few months, but my explanations fall on deaf ears.

“Kristen, you think this will be better, but it’s going to be so hard.”

I sigh. “I know, Mom. But how can my kids ever think they’re worth anything if I don’t show them that I’m worth something?”

“It’s all my fault,” Mom says.

Tears choke my throat. “Not at all. This is about me. I’ve made mistakes in my life, and I need to fix them. I’d rather be alone than with a partner who never notices me. That’s it.”

“Mommy,” whines Abigail.

“Mom, I gotta go. Abigail needs me,” I say.

“Alright, sweetie. Give my angel a kiss and tell her Grandma wants her to feel better.”

“I will.” We hang up, and I compose myself before I enter my bedroom. My poor sick darling sits propped up against a pillow throne. “What do you need, baby?”

“Mom, can you snuggle me?” she says. Her pale face pleads with me.

I climb across my bed to wrap my arms around my fevered child. “Of course, baby.”

She nestles herself into the crook of my arm. “You’re my favorite mom ever.”

The words of my own mother in my mind are replaced by my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me. Fight for them.

***

“Welcome, Kristen,” Cleo says with her bubbly smile. “Doctor’s running on time. It should only be a few minutes. Have a seat and we’ll come get you shortly.”

I curtly nod then sit in the waiting room, avoiding eye contact with the other patients. I open my phone and scroll through my Instagram notifications. Seamus has been liking my recent posts. I smile.

I go into the main feed. He’s been liking a lot of other singers’ posts. All female.

Then, his responses populate. Kissy emojis. “That’s hot,” and “You’re incredible!” are his comments.

My mouth drops as a purple scrubs-clad nurse calls, “Kristen Yonce?”

I rise from my seat and slip my phone into my winter coat pocket. I follow the nurse as he leads me through the hallway, my mind in a haze. He ushers me into a patient’s room. “Go ahead and take your coat off.”

It’s my pre-surgery appointment, so he has me fill out several pages of medical history on a tablet. While I tap away, the nurse runs through the usual vitals check─temperature, blood pressure, and one blood draw for my hemoglobin levels. I barely notice the questions on the screen. When I hand it back to the nurse, I wonder if I marked that I have an infectious disease.

Turning to leave the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts, the nurse says, “Doctor will be in soon.” He flashes me a smile and adds, “You’re just a week away from your second Mommy Surgery.”

And the hits keep coming.

***

That evening, I plate the kids’ meals while I try to ignore my phone. I don’t want to see something that I can’t unsee, and I’m tired of checking for new messages that aren’t there.

As I sit at the table, my phone dings across the room. I shift in my chair, conditioned to get up to check the message, but it’s dinner time. With my kids surrounding me and babbling about their day, I don’t want to think about anything else.

Even Brian’s presence is far less grating. He’s actually jabbering on with Megan about something from her sociology course. Watching their animated faces, my heart winces. He’s a good dad, even if he is a terrible husband.

We finish eating and I clear the table. Setting the dishes on the counter near the dishwasher, I finally check the message I’ve obsessed over for the last twenty-five minutes. It’s a DM on Instagram.

I apprehensively open it. Then I read it, twice. Then a third time.

It’s an offer for a voice-acting gig! And it will pay me $500. With a possibility to add more gigs.

Sure, I’d be a singing rabbit in a commercial, not on stage, but it’s paying work for my voice.

I rush to Brian in the living room, his feet on the sofa and his finger swiping up and down the tablet. I tell him the offer and show him the email.

Brian stands from the sofa and hugs me. Then he places a chaste kiss on my lips and says, “Congratulations. I’ll take care of the dishes. You enjoy your win.”

I shake my head at his version of a supportive response and text the one person who I know will understand what an accomplishment this is. Moments later, my phone dings: Congrats.

That’s it? I text Seamus again. It’s big, don’t you think?!?

Several moments pass before he answers.

It is. Congrats.

My weighted sadness bubbles until it rages into my fingers. I type. I emotionally vomit everything into one massive text that I had previously held back while hoping we’d get back to what we had been. His distance. His indifference. His public flirtations with other women. His apathy.

I hit Send.

I stare at the screen and heartbreak floods my veins. I skim through what I’d written. Autocorrect and my fury had transformed several sentences into gibberish. But the rest, very clear. Very angry.

My eyes still fixed on the screen, Seamus’s response pops up: I’ve been meaning to bring this up for some time. I think we both know this isn’t working and we should just stop. This is too much drama. You took all the fun out of this for me. Congrats on the gig.

I swallow hard. I meant what I’d said, but Seamus viewed my pain as an attack from a madwoman. Except that I’m no madwoman. I’m a madwoman. A hurt woman.

I want to hide, but there’s nowhere to go. I resign myself to the living room. Brian’s not there for once, so I plop myself onto the sofa. Megan sits on one end, posing for selfies, having taken Brian’s usual seat. Geoffrey lies on his back on the floor, his feet in the air and his hands holding a Kindle above his face as he twists it around.

Mason and Abigail run in screaming. “Mom! Blabigail won’t let me play on the PS4!” Mason wails.

“Don’t call me that!” Both of my middle children push each other as they stand in front of me, waiting for my ruling on which child is in the right and dooming the other to shame.

“Hey, kids,” I say softly. “Mom has some happy news.” I hear the sadness in my voice, but I need to tell them. “Mom got a job today. I’m going to be the voice of a cartoon bunny in a commercial.”

“That’s so cool,” Mason shouts simultaneously to Abigail’s, “You’ll be famous!”

Geoffrey climbs off the floor and onto my lap. “You’re turning into a bunny?”

I smile and chuckle with tears ready to fall. “No baby. I’m going to sing for a cartoon bunny.”

“Okay,” he says and presses his back against my chest to resume play on his tablet.

“That’s really cool, Mom,” Megan says.

I turn to look at my daughter, shocked at the lack of sarcasm. I hear the click of her phone. “Had to take a pic. It’s a big moment,” she says. “Gonna post this.” Her attention leaves the room for the digital world.

Mason leans over his brother and hugs me. “Proud of you, Mom.”

Abigail overlaps her brother’s embrace. “I’m prouder.”

Next week, I will resume a state of pain from another surgery. As soon as I recover, I will tell Brian that I don’t want to be his wife. First the physical pain. Then the emotional.

But today, it’s a battle won for me and my plague monsters.

Fight for me. Fight for them.

Assumptions by James Mulhern

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

Her story goes something like this:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

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

“Not really.”

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

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

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

“Cure for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Extinction by Geoffrey Enright

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH MY GOD!

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

A Distinguished Fellow By Kevin Finnerty

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

“L.D.F. is pregnant.”

“You just realized that today?”

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

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

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

“Am I still teaching…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“You are going to do this.”

“Why are You doing that?”

“What are You going to do about that?”

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

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

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

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

“Ah, the yes, but defense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Overall, everything is defensible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about You?”

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

I said, “What about You?”

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

Daughter asked what You thought she should do about Baby?

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to bed.”

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

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

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

“Or told.”

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

***

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

“It really happened, I got ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a preemptive move to avoid malpractice.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s stating the obvious.”

“I can still do other things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right and humans act on both.”

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

“No, but we’re past that now.”

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

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

“I can’t tell them they’re wrong?”

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

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

“All right, we’ll do it your way.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“I’m not a Republican.”

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

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

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

“Is that how your conscience stays clean?”

“I mainly voted that way for the judges.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“She’s probably the only one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No need.”

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

“Still are as far as I’m concerned.”

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

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

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

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

“When did this happen?”

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

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

“What will your buddies out there think?”

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

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

“Because of Son?”

“Yes, but not just him.”

“Daughter too?”

“Yes, but not just her.”

“Who else?”

“Wife.”

“Wife?”

“Yes, she’s been in a car accident.”

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

***

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

“And wouldn’t it be better if…”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legend by Jason Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it wasn’t.

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

Travis. Brathwait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause here for a second.

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

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

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

Pause, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis was there. And he wasn’t alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walked past the first pair.

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

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

They glanced at Travis. Did nothing.

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

The third pair. Glance. Nothing.

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

The fourth pair did nothing.

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

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

Travis never came in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Across the Waters by Larry Yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had a captive audience.

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Brown told us his story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As long as she goes outside.”

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

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

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

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tootsie only bays louder.

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

The bloodhound barks her assent.

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

My dog howls furiously.

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

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

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

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

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

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

Tootsie averts her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

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

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

I emit a startled croak.

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

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

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

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

Marta hangs up.

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

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

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

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

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

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

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

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

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

My pal looks down at the floor.

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

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

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

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

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

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

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

We erupt into drunken laughter.

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

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was not fucked up.”

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

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son of a—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My guns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t have any.

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

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

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

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

“Where am I?” I ask.

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

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Straightforward?”

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

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

Alan ignores the quip.

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

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

“The Undecided?”

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

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

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

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

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

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

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

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

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

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

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

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I have a standing order.”

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

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

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

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

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

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

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

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

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

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

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

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

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

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

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

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

“So I’m stuck here?”

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

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

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

“What sort of trial?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I vomit on the grass.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

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

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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