Music Across the Waters by Larry Yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had a captive audience.

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Brown told us his story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing, Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As long as she goes outside.”

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

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

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

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tootsie only bays louder.

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

The bloodhound barks her assent.

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

My dog howls furiously.

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

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

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

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

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

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

Tootsie averts her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

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

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

I emit a startled croak.

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

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

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

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

Marta hangs up.

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

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

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

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

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

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

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

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

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

My pal looks down at the floor.

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

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

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

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

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

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

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

We erupt into drunken laughter.

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

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was not fucked up.”

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

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son of a—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My guns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t have any.

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

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

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

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

“Where am I?” I ask.

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

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Straightforward?”

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

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

Alan ignores the quip.

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

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

“The Undecided?”

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

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

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

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

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

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

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

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

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

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

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

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I have a standing order.”

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

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

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

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

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

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

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

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

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

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

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

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

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

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

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

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

“So I’m stuck here?”

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

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

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

“What sort of trial?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I vomit on the grass.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

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

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Last Cat," He Said by Peter Toeg

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Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.

The Quantity Theory of Narrative by Colin Dowling

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I’m not an alcoholic. That would be too easy, too simple. I wouldn’t even mind that. At the very least, it’s something people successfully quit. It’s something else, something far worse being drunk on the world─rip roaring with possibility. And yet, it’s real and all around me even if it only occasionally feels like it.

I’m being responsible tonight. No vodka and Ting (perhaps the world’s greatest mixer), no back beat of shots between beers, just slow sipping a Presidente long neck because if I’m honest, drinking is required when you work for the 0.0000001 percent of the world, the global elite. It takes the edge off their ever expanding vacation expectations for this winter in the Caribbean.

It’s straight economics with these people. Why wouldn’t they expect to shell out $275,000 for a week’s worth of vacation?

My job looks great online though, working as a deckhand on a 200 foot luxury charter yacht, traveling and posting photos from the Carib to the Med and where ever the owner fancies. Of course, I’m only anywhere in the most literal, physical sense. I once got to drop some trash off on Santorini, filled some poor cafe’s dumpster to the brim then right back aboard the yacht and gone a half hour later. I’ve got a picture on the quay, so, it counts, technically. That’s what makes a night off worth it being on call 24-7, 365 days a year. It almost feels like I’m here.

I take another sip but can’t quite escape the habit of dulling, or is it deluding into what feels like a livable, soft focus reality? The one that stares out onto the horizon with young, fresh eyes and the sense of the world anew.

It’s still there. Through the bridge, up the channel and past the cardinal mark; endless and enthralling, something beyond the trades and tales that explain life away or make numbers or pixels of it. The dream of a grander fate that awakens the senses like being underway at night, the warm salty breeze and a faint but intoxicating mist, looking up to an innate marvel, a mystical glow in the scattered brilliance overhead as if only a black sheet were draped over the world, the light so bright and full as if piercing through defiantly from another dimension and with another enlivening glass I’ll genuinely believe and even feel that something remarkable happens.

There’s a picture online. Posted away as content, another reminder of the show I can’t quite live.

What do they always say? It’s symbolic? A symbol, a stray moment chasing, insisting a greater… No. Grander whole. Just like the story I keep telling myself I’m living, if even just to feel like there must be an ending to it.

“Did Roz’s boat get a Charter?” Amy asks.

It’s almost a relief in the crowded Soggy Dollar Bar in Saint Maarten, surrounded by screens, flashes and other yacht crews. She’s the Second Stewardess, in charge of the Third and Fourth, Sara and Meg. She’s like Thom, the Bosun ordering Geoff and me around on deck.

I know the answer but don’t want to. I’d rather just not know for a moment and kill the conversation, the one she keeps having at me, the one where I’m a ready excuse to ask about Roz and whatever it is that we’ve got going.

Is it an international friends-with-benefits?

It makes for a good story online though. Everyone back home thinks she’s from the UK. Maybe they want to? Brits really do have currency in America. Still, it’s odd being almost popular.

Everyone from grammar and high school friending and friendly after Roz dragged me back to social media. I feel like a stock character on people’s friends list, the awkward weird kid who spoke French and ended up abroad and is good for an interesting update. I’ll have to jump ship and disappear if I really want to keep it up. Last heard from in the South Pacific seems like the best option. Either that or running of with my Australian girlfriend. Why does it feel like such a cliche?

“Oh, of course she did. Have you seen this?” She continues phone in hand. It’s a picture of Roz and what looks like her crew and some painfully tanned chav throwing an arm around creeping over to the horny side of chummy.

Christ. Why is she showing me this? Is it a message, a symbol?

“Only 74 likes,” I somehow manage, before taking a long sip to wash away that sickening, pitifully human feeling. What smolders as jealousy before the drink seeps in and snuffs it out.

No. It’s nothing. Just another move in the great game every relationship ends up in. Or is this just what happens online? Where life is caught between too much information and too little meaning behind it?

Amy turns and snaps off a photo of our own crew scene then looks it over, pleased with the composition and capture. Another entry of what we post but never caption.

It doesn’t look very exciting, at least compared to that night off back in South Beach, Miami. It’s just a weathered deck overlooking a small basin of tenders and dinghys, ramshackle piers with wooden cleats, the crackling bright paint, the patio wall dark with tropical fungus, the bar made of lacquered plywood, the shower head that soaks anyone on the dance floor and the padded palm tree that still clocks crew on the way to the parking lot and the taxis just off the all hours excitement of Airport Road.

No. It’s just another Tuesday as the crew settles around a table on the deck, just another ice cold Presidente, the sweating glass cartridge and a sip and that starting lift of electric music, like some other current from the speakers, the wave on the DJ’s laptop as real as the one everyone here surfs around the world on an eternal spring break. The bar packed with other yacht crew, all at least sevens.

No one has been stuck anywhere for more than three months. Feral Aussies, wandering Kiwis, non-dom Brits, expat Zafers, roving Canadians and the odd, lost American.

Another drink and it’s not even magic. It’s brilliant. It’s lekker. There could be no other way to spend some time in your 20s. The senses awoken by the weather, the sun, the sea and almost pushing beyond, dreaming that the grand currents of the world, the heights of globalization are being ridden by the crazy, lucky few out there on the exciting edge of reality. Yes. That’s the stuff!

I read about unreliable narrators back in college, playing around with chronology and smudging the facts and jolting the narrative. And yet there’s something dangerously meta about the idea of living out an unreliable consciousness, fascinated at one moment, drifting off with the senses and all their lovely words. Then it’s almost like speaking French, as if someone else orders the drinks and carries them back to the table without a spill. You don’t even realize it’s happening. That comes later. Sometimes.

“Another round of provisions. Good man. Gotta keep morale up,” Mike, the Second Engineer adds, loudly, pulling the crew in like a commercial fishing boat Captain leading a tenth toast.

We throw the drinks together with mild cheer before settling back on course for the evening, chatting and hovering around the waypoint where someone leads the charge and answers the call to greatness and the club and all hours or everyone quietly slinks back to the boat for bottles of spring water and a plate of leftover green curry or the jerk chicken from the other night.

“Thought you said you were gonna pull a Geoff? Ride the settee and skype it up with your what’s her face?” Steve, the Chef grins almost as if he’s supposed to ask and get an answer on the record but just wants to get it out of the way with a little humor.

Should I have checked my messages before I left the boat?

No.

Best to let things steep, let a little scarcity, a little tension build.

Yeah, be canny, calculating!

And if I did go back, it wouldn’t be a quick hit. The little green dot would be on and a volley of messages before I even hit send then a skype with no negotiation or concessions and right into a protracted how-are-you-doing conversation which is really a veiled where-are-we-going that plods along until one of us slips out of the ridiculous play it cool game and admits missing the other.

She won the last one so by some shameful logic I have to let things sit. Maybe she’s on watch and I can slip back and send a quick message? Get some credit at no cost. Then again, she’s out there mixing it up, getting chummy, isn’t she?

And I’m not even flirting or anything. It’s only fair on balance. Two wrongs don’t make it right, but is it consensual?

I shake my head as if I can fling the thought off like a heaving line. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Will it be any different when we get back to shore and settle into a normalcy neither of us can stand the blame for?

How could that not be settling after being out here in the world, swimming in possibility as we stare out to the horizon you can actually see from the veranda?

Another round of drinks materializes and with another sip, suddenly, definitively, there’s no better way to spend your 20s.

***

Then that phantom energy builds, the one that ascends with the music like a building swell, or is it the gravity of the down island tide, a massive body of drink where so many tanned and lovely figures bob and bray and laugh off another Tuesday in January, riding it, reveling it. Fuck. We’re in Saint Maarten. Where’s everyone else? Is this that club on the beach by the airport? I sniffle and clear my nose caught in the lifting, exciting impression of it all, just there and shooting up toward a glorious height.

I order at the bar and look around for the crew before turning back to a pair of vodka tonics. The first washes away the faint chemical drip down the back of my throat with a blast of lemon. I slouch into the second just off the dance floor and the two for $20 suddenly feels like a bargain.

Where are the crew? What course is the evening on? Another sip of indifference for the time and the club exerts itself with a digital thudding that finds a matching, racing beat in the chest.

The sound wobbles through the crowd who revel in a blatant undulation that throws the partiers together like an industrial process, as the last flatulent gasps hammer through and fade to a steady kick and something brushing, hypnotizing, in the foreground but miles off; there is a nodding, slow velocity carrying it all somewhere with a slap, a clap or a snap on the end. Then a stuttering, pushing synth, a melody sweeps in as the bass picks up and that last gulp lifts us into the surround, and fuck that sound, some other sense awakened and there’s nothing outside this ecstatic now carrying us aloft, coursing over the world, the very noise of floating over continents between places, just building, going further to that place, that plateau, that new edge of life itself, disappearing into the soundtrack of a planet; everyone in the room soaring beyond themselves grasping at a universal entrancing us all.

A pair of English DJs stoke up the club and all the other crowds, simulcast from Bangalore to Odessa to Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires. They cheer in unison, the speakers pumping out each city from a different corner of the club, borders crushed as a sheer human exuberance roars through the place. Then it takes flight. It’s not sound. It’s not music. It’s a place, some glorious pattern seducing the neurons and fuck this is it.

This is it. Until it finds another and the slow twist of a dial, a pitch or a timbre as if gravity itself were suspended and still it goes; another order, a pattern jumping across cultures or programming, that ancient yearning of transcendence lifting us from language, from history, somehow pulling beyond an entire club, entire continents, intuiting the fullest sense of a planet, reverberating through the body and pulling me into some other simpler, clearer beautiful space, as if the world and life itself disappear to a feeling, nameless, powerful and beyond. As if that something in the spirit awakens with the majesty of the sea herself…

There is a tap on my shoulder and Steve shouts something as he motions for the door. The pitched music fades as we navigate the crowd and end up out front, the islands return: chatting, cheerfully arguing in the parking lot as Steve turns.

“Yeah, everybody bailed. But it’s still early. Just a little off midnight. You down for a night cap?” He lumbers over to a cab, mumbling a destination, and haggling the price as the driver pulls away.

An indecipherable dancehall song fills out the lurching late model mini cab while the island flashes by in a wash of orange with a faint haze of a purplish sky before we stop in a gravel lot just up from the bridge. We dismount and the strip club bouncers just nod us in, yacht crew spending habits giving us an informal VIP treatment. I take a bar stool, the jaunty sound of Top 40 electro remixes crackle out the last before the DJ’s boredom fades and a soft chime of a melody dances over a digital rush, the lyrics whispering just before a digital symbol, then a fractured synth, expanding, building; the room disperses onto a softer ethereal plain and I can feel someone looking at me and turn. She forces a smile that somehow becomes her and a faint yearning lifts the senses, awoken to a planet, as if the immeasurable distance of culture and country disappears in the glint of our eyes and some other bewitching quality pulls us from ourselves. We’re so far from home, bodies caught in this infernal, global machine, still dreaming and falling with the outro as it fades into the shabby reality of the room.

“It’s kind of funny this is the only spot you can have a drink and conversation,” Steve observes, as a pair of low balls arrive. “I mean, Jesus, the club is like needles poking out your ears, that and they throw down on decent air-conditioning here…” he continues on auto-pilot, lighting another cigarette and toying with his Dunhill lighter.

She’s turned away and chatting with a fellow dancer and…

“Oy. You’ve gotta girlfriend or something like that,” Steve bellows and snaps me back from what suddenly accounts itself as seedy, bodily indulgence.

“I don’t know. Looks like there are some exotic options with very appealing spreads,” I say, and it is kind of funny before I wonder if it is even really a joke at all, or just the reality of everything made into humor coated resignation.

He breaks into a loud and lingering smokers laugh before shaking his head. “You have the most fucked up sense of humor.”

I take another drink and try not to look at her. As if I might cling to the illusion of a gaze and all it might be, feeling some other quality─a seemingly innate allure and mystery to her─that between us is not a game but a simple indescribable spark neither of us will ever understand but savor and cherish…

I must be delusional. She’s right there and oh, so possible. She’s just a few pieces of paper away and a trip up to the knocking shop, putting a condom on me with her mouth then a warm, numb jostling in a worn out bed, drowned in red light like a night watch in the wheelhouse, a pretty face bouncing above me before it ends and all that is left is just a trick for the senses and the body, just a monthly or weekly bodily obligation, like the lifesaving equipment check or the safety drill or the monthly deck maintenance schedule.

“I don’t know how you two do the distance thing, man,” says Steve.

I almost want to explain it. I could outline that not quite acknowledged leveraging of the distance: building up the longing and the want well beyond anything back ashore, anything resembling normal; pent up and instantly redeemed when we meet up, a great surge and rush then the human bits and it rolls over us like a wave. There’s excitement in every little detail, everything so dear in all the scarcity. Something we trade with promises and futures. Every instant dependent on where it is we’re going and not what’s actually happening. And you only fleetingly notice it before another glass and lusty enthusiasm pull you into a horny, helpless now!

I take a large, desperate sip. “We’re just having fun,” I say.

“Listen to you. All downplaying and shit. What would Gordon say? Having a laugh with a slapper,” Steve starts with a mocking but spot on British accent. “You can do way better. Besides, you really want to end up down under?”

“Is she a slapper?” I can’t un-ask. Just having a laugh. Just the sort of relationship that’ll do. Got to do better. Maximize the opportunities, work out the efficiencies, increase productivity and output, optimize, optimize. I realize a surge of energy and don’t want to acknowledge it beating against my rib cage.

Do I really want to settle down in the Commonwealth? South Africa? New Zealand? But isn’t EU the way to go? UK or go Continental? Western Europe? Med? Or what about the East? Language and amusing cultural differences to keep things interesting?

It’s all really for a passport and new place to live. Not a relationship at all but another quiet transaction, covered with charm and posted with novelty, unacknowledged yet inescapable. How to choose? Can you trade looks for the right country? Or personality? Does intelligence even rate? What if she wants to move to the US?

No. It’s so much simpler than that. The answer I know but doubt, that grandest externality of them all, as if some other quality cuts through life with a feeling beyond yet known, when a gaze awakens the senses as if before the sea herself, caught with her in the eternal and seemingly infinite…

Fuck. I’ve got to get out of this. I stare down at the tumbler. I can’t escape any of it.

Did it really happen all those years back? That feeling, that awful sad simple human feeling, almost in spite of the mind and the body, that mythical space between them, that spirit caught in a sheer lift, like the transcendence of a wave, the same exhilarating ride in life itself─just before the crash, wiped out and held under for years, thrown about until it relents and on the surface there is a flat and maddeningly calm sea.

“Getting a little quiet there, bro. Christ. Look at you. Your teeth are chattering. I’m not looking for a late one but this next shot might be medicinal,” he notes clinically, flagging down the bartender.

***

The beat of the marimba throbs with a backbeat through my skull. My eyes are bloodshot. My tongue is completely parched. The third, general alarm fires off and I acknowledge it with a fumbling tap just as Geoff grunts from the other side of the cabin and rolls over, “the fuck, mate?”

There is a several millisecond delay between the thought of moving the limbs and torso and their physical response, stumbling upright and into the morning routine.

I linger in the shower and scrub and scent away the evening, still evaporating from my pores. It almost seems normal quietly making down the crew corridor for the crew galley except for the thirst, that unquenchable morning after soif that will not be slaked.

I grab a cold can of Coke rather than coffee and Vegemite Toast. Oh, that wickedly medicinal sweet crackle and bite. Gotta pace it, I realize with half the can down. Calm, breath slowly. It’s going to be okay.

This isn’t nearly as bad as Monaco last season. Until it isn’t and what feels like a gut punch before a volley of heaves as I land my face in the sink and retch into the basin and fuck, someone heard it. Fuck, someone will smell it. Turn on the water, slosh it around before word of it gets to the Captain and the call to the wheelhouse and it’s over and here’s your ticket home and best of luck out there.

I head up the dock for a cigarette and try dulling the sticky, acrid taste of digestive fluid and Coke. I attempt a mouthful of water. It stays down with optimism before the stomach jumps again and I hang off a piling just out of sight and spill into the lagoon. Getting started is a feat. And, of course, I’m on deck. Even a wide brimmed hat and the best polarized sunglasses are nothing against this tropical light. The crisp optics everyone flies in for, broiling down and expelling whatever water is left in my body, now leaking from every pore.

Everything is flat, the world and everything around me happen in simple mechanical reality, determined, steady and anticipating. The body aches and creaks as a cheery lobe in my brain clings to the training like flotsam on the open ocean. There’s process and the reassuring simplicity of wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and touch up with an absorbent chamois. The exciting trade of my time is gone. It’s just another job.

Do I really need to be here? Setting up the buckets of soap and water, laying out a hose to clean a soiled yacht to perfection? I slip into the routine, struck mute.

Geoff only bothers with the most perfunctory conversation, “Have you rinsed the portlight sill?” He comfortably mocks what is just a passing stage in his life. Just cruising through like a 21st century Redmond Barry, making the best of it and counting the days until he jumps ship and sets up in the UK. He’s certain to land as far from a dairy farm in New Zealand as one can possibly dare.

“Did you wet that bit?”

I would be back home, setting up shop in a condo kitted out with travel artifacts and a mass of volumes. Doing legal scut work with all the other legal assistants going to law school at night, toiling toward whatever simulacrum of a career exists post-2008.

“Where is the Black Streak Remover?”

Would it be different passing the bar, at best scraping together enough work to pass through some non-business expensed income, scouring restos and bars and affably begging for some word of mouth from third link friends of my brother? All of whom would wonder why anyone would give up such an interesting job on yachts to be, at best, a middle tier small town lawyer grafting and grubbing for a house let alone a boat to occasionally sail on the Chesapeake Bay and rekindle the feeling I’m supposed to be having here and now.

“Did you run a hose off the bow?”

It wouldn’t be enough, still clinging to an expired cosmopolitanism, those dated recollections of the world held together with a scatter of foreign newspapers in the browser history, amazon.fr orders, and discerning visits to Whole Foods for cheese. Maybe I would meet another ex-expatriate, obsessed with German of all languages, worldly but stranded, forever referring to that position she took at a gallery in Berlin as a few years back. Both insisting those other selves we knew, those instants we’ll never quite describe and never appreciate outside a yearning shared, powering the story we’ll wear. About it all simply being a layover, the feint then the excuse for coming in last to get a mortgage and a place to decorate with all the artifacts from failed sojourns, lingering in the caustic truth that you can never go home again. Another round of that middle pushing into upper middle game of where we’ve been or are heading, leveraging every place over so many conversations, what we saw no longer matters outside the story, if it ever did.

I’m worldly, a sailor. I’ve got South America and Africa, sub-Saharan, mind you. Back in a conversation it would take a year of BBQs and holidays and parties to wear thin, just sitting there as everyone else chats about the real world and life, just a polite friendship from the old days, whatever was and must be. Then one day casting that foreign eye on it all, that yearning for the world itself, for that feeling out there, almost mythical, as if some force or other. The one that really isn’t there at all kicking about from place to place, quietly making the trade of new, more exciting elsewhere’s against a home never found but perpetually fled. Obliviously, excitedly living out the tale of it all─as mechanical and predictable as the shurhold pole, extra soft blue brush and a frothy five gallon bucket of awl wash in the wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and chammy cycle. That fitting return from another foolish night chasing what must; always remembered as grander possibility, out where things happen and drunk enough to let them and almost believe it.

“Bummer about watch,” says Geoff when we stow the gear in the Bosun’s locker and draw out the task with a quick tidy that eats up the last half hour. Of course, I’m on watch. “Skype your bird at least,” he adds cheerily.

I slip off the boat and up the dock for some air and a cigarette and hide behind a thicket of dense tropical shrubs next to the marina office. A massive Air France flight roars over the lagoon, banks sharply. It levels off and climbs between the low mountains before disappearing into the clouds.

They’ll be in Paris in eight hours, touch down at Roissy then the story through customs and that random schedule for the RER into the City. Catching the express always feeling like a feat, a stoked ride through the banlieu then hop off at Gare du Nord and down to the 11eme or past the labyrinth at Chatelet and St. Mich or on to Luxembourg and into an airbnb, a pleasing room with a kitchenette and bathroom appended to it, a pair of tall windows overlooking a small square at a collision of ruelles, a cafe, a tabac and a boulanger and then what?

It’s not really a dream. It’s just a story and don’t want to realize how necessary as the plane disappears into a cloud bank.

The radio calls me to the wheelhouse and I know where I am.

Colin Dowling draws on his experiences abroad: going to school in France, working on the Mediterranean and sailing the Atlantic. He writes to capture that feeling when you find yourself between borders, cultures and languages. As surfer, writer and sailor, he continues to explore globalization at the personal level. Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, he gets back abroad as soon as he can. He is currently querying a novel about his time working on a billionaire’s private luxury yacht. You can read him at: https://medium.com/@NotesfromAground or find him on Twitter: @NoteFromAground

Babycakes by Dash Crowley

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A few years back all the animals disappeared. We woke up one morning and they just weren’t there anymore. They didn’t even leave us a note or say good-bye. We never quite figured out where they went.

We missed them.

Some of us thought the world had ended, but it hadn’t. There just weren’t any more animals. No cats or rabbits. No dogs or whales. No fish in the seas or birds in the sky.

We were all alone.

I didn’t know what to do. Everyone wandered around, lost for a while. Then, the prime minister addressed us stating, “Our scientists are baffled. But there is no cause for alarm. Just because the animals are gone does not mean that we must abandon our way of life.”

From there we learned. There were plenty of us. We had no reason to change our diets or cease testing products that might cause us harm.

After all, there were still babies.

Babies couldn’t talk, and barely moved. They were not rational thinking creatures. Without intelligent thought they weren’t really people. Why not utilize them properly?

So we made more. The bearers were drugged so they wouldn’t feel any connection or the pain of unnecessary self-sacrifice. Once cut from the womb we took the young creatures.

Baby flesh proved to be tender and succulent. We delighted in consuming it, flayed the skin and decorated ourselves with the silky hide.

Never wasteful, I went into the baby leather industry. The soft and comfy wear made me feel rich and youthful. Sharing that joy with others became my life’s greatest accomplishment.

But not all “babies” were eaten. Some were used for testing.

Companies taped open their eyes, dripped detergents and shampoos in one drop at a time. They scarred and scalded them─burned their sensitive little bodies to protect us from harm─lest we should suffer. They clamped their tiny appendages down and stuck electrodes in their brains. They grafted, froze, and irradiated.

The infants breathed in smoke. Their veins pumped new medicines and drugs until they stopped circulating.

It was hard at first, but necessary. No one could deny that. With the animals gone, what else could we do?

Some religious people complained, but then, they always do.

Everything eventually went back to normal. After a time, the underdeveloped creatures didn’t seem like living beings anymore. That made it easier.

But yesterday, all the babies were gone.

We didn’t even see them go. We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we will think of something. Humans are smart. It’s what makes us superior…

We’ll figure something out.

Dash Crowley is a private man, artist, writer, magician. You might witness him from afar on twitter, @dashercrow, or on instagram @dackcrowley.