Blood and Wisdom by Czar

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The mashed potatoes are a little clumpy. The skins are burnt and interfere with the garlic and rosemary. They could have used more butter; perhaps grandma ran out, perhaps she forgot to tell grandpa when he went out earlier.

The chops, however, are fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. I don’t know where grandma goes from here with these chops. She’s made them hundreds of times in my twenty-seven years. Hundreds. But these are absolutely perfect ─ the sort of meat that men on death row request before they’re strapped to a chair and zapped.

We’re just sharing looks, the three of us, as usual.  Grandpa always said, “If people are talking during their meal it’s because the food tastes like shit.” I’m not saying he’s right, but I can’t say he’s wrong. Certainly at this moment, he’s right.

Every few bites, one of us takes a soft slurp from something wet. Grandma and her wine, grandpa and myself: a bottle of beer. I’m not a drunk, none of us are, we just like a drink or two with supper.

The cutlery clinks and clanks atop the plates. Grandpa is always the first to finish, then myself and grandma last. Grandpa and I may finish first, but we never interrupt grandma’s meal with dialogue. When she finishes, we discuss the luxury we just consumed.

 “My love,” Grandpa says to grandma, his voice sounding as concrete feels, “dinner was exquisite.” He smiles, taking her small hand in his large mitt.

She smiles as he brings the top of her hand to his mouth, leaving a kiss upon it.

Grandma’s face may be withered, her hair white, but her green eyes are still filled with brilliant light as they connect with mine.

“Plans for the night, hun?” She asks, smiling her old white smile.

Studying is what I tell her. I’m not lying either, but she knows that. Gran and Gramps both love so much that I’ve found something to love: teaching. I want to be an English teacher at an elementary school. Open their minds when they’re young so they’ll be wise forever.

Over the next hour, Gran puts on a pot of coffee, the trio remaining at the table.  As per usual, the grandparents rekindle the passion between them by telling old stories that one or both of them have forgotten. It’s actually rare that I hear the same story more than once.

Their love is so infectious.

Gramps is seventy-five and Gran is seventy-two. They’ve been married for fifty years. Five-zero.

Honesty and integrity, faith and loyalty for every year of their five decades together. There have been bad times, bad years for sure. I’ve lived with them forever, but they’ve never given up on each other. 

“…And you’re grandpa’s best friend, Marty,” Gran says, laughing. “Sat outside that poor girl’s house for weeks on end!” Takes a breath.

And then what happened? I say, sipping a mug of java.

Grandma pats her mouth with a napkin. “Well, the two of them got married, stay married for nineteen years, until one day she shot him to death in his sleep.”

“I remember the funeral,” Grandpa speaks low, splashing a bit of whiskey into his coffee. “His parents sobbed for months, died of broken hearts.”

The traumatic silence of the memory dances between the three of us, allowing each warm cup to be drank until it’s dry. Silence. From the corner of my eye I spot grandma opening and closing her hand beneath grandpa’s. Must be sweaty. They flash a smile.

“I think there’s a game on tonight,” Grandpa says to me. “First one following the All-Star break, time to see who really wants it.”

I can’t help but smile, old man loves spending time with his grandbaby so damn much. I tell him that I’ll be more than happy to watch with him.

Grandma shakes her head, smiling. She’ll watch the odd game with us, but that’s about it. She, I guess, just never got the point of “putting a ball through a glorified peach basket.”  I’m sure she’ll end up painting or writing a story, knit up a sweater before halftime. She’s pretty awesome that way.

It’s so perfect, this quaint little dining room. The old table, place mats at each of the four chairs─despite there only being three of us─lace curtains over the windows, little island in the center of the kitchen, a cross here and there. Not to mention the tile flooring that grandpa must remind us of every week. At least once. That’s all because he installed it.

Grandpa fills up our cups of coffee, grinning as he returns to the table. He must have a story to tell, he always does.

“Used to work with this guy Steve.” Gramps places the mugs on the table. “As you both know, men who smash coal like their drink…” he pauses, Gran and I smile.

“…So one day we’re all busting coal when old Steve, drunk as a goddamn skunk, drives a pickaxe into his foot…”

Grandma and I gasp, Grandpa is already laughing, but of course.

“…But we’re all messed up too, so none of us notice until Steve passes out from blood loss!”

“Well, what happened, you old fool?” Grandma laughs.

“Let’s just say it was an awkward conversation with the foreman.”

It doesn’t take Gran long to wear herself out with laughter and wine. She excuses herself to dig away at one of those cozy mystery novels she loves to read.

Never been much of a book person myself. Oh well, as long as she takes pleasure in it.  Probably why she’s gotten things going at once, she never allows her mind to rest.

Eventually Grandpa and I move to the living room with the old tall clock and treasure chest and pictures which tell many lifetimes of memories. Oh, and the plastic-wrapped furniture.

Our team, the Buffalo Beamers, are losing at halftime but manage to pull it together for a blowout once the fourth quarter rolls around. We manage not to wake the dead with our celebration.

And then Grandpa leaves for bed. Now, I am alone in my room.

***

I haven’t heard a peep from the other bedroom for an hour maybe, hour-and-a-half. Can’t imagine being so in love that you can stop having sex with whoever you’re sharing a bed with. Then again, they’re both pretty old; ten-to-one, grandpa’s got a stash of blue pills somewhere.

In his pickup, or in a sock drawer. The beside table, maybe.

Maybe it’s Grandma; perhaps she’s the freak with the whips and the collars and chains and leashes.  Bondage hoods and nipple clamps. Maybe Grandpa even lets her put a strap to him.

Too far?

Too far.

It’s the studying, the impending exam, that carries me for hours into the night. I love this; this small and cozy home, this small and cozy town, but I’ve gotta get the hell outta here. Maybe if I could make enough money to move just outside the town and travel every day for work back into it. I like shopping malls and expensive coffeehouses and chain restaurants, I just don’t want to live in them. 

The watch on my wrist says: 10:15.

I need to be there at one in the morning. Takes ninety minutes to get there. I’ll leave early just to make sure. Most of the snow is gone but it’s mighty friggin’ cold outside. These Midwest winters can be real bitches. 

In a perfect world I’d just take grandpa’s truck, but the world isn’t perfect. He’d notice the mile change, the fresh oil in the morning that never seems to stop running. I’ll just walk. I have to walk. 

Study until 10:45, that’s what I’ll do. Keep up on the importance of positive reinforcement. Reward the child when right, comfort the child when wrong. This all takes time, repetition and comfort. Spoil the child.

I’m hoping somebody will let me intern for them within the next year, eighteen months. I know I’m a little old for such a start, but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Who knows, they might see my age as a good thing; matured, less likely to fold under the stress of all the screaming and fussing and crying and nose picking that comes with children of that age. I just need to be able to hand my grandparents a check so I can pay my way doing what I love. Not waiting tables, not working in the one retail store in town, and not scrubbing toilets.

It’s 10:55.

Wrapping magazines and printing paper, duct tape over for forearms and wrists, thighs and stomach. Multiple layers of clothing. Hoodies and shirts and sweats beneath my jeans. Everything I can think of while remaining within the rules: no throats and no face. Perfect. Only clothing and household items, nothing solid or immovable. Perfect.

11:00

Tie up the last laces of my boot and strap Velcro around the tops, around the ankles, make sure these babies don’t go anywhere. They’re good enough for SWAT teams, better be good enough for me.

All black: hoodies and beanie, boots and pants and the layers beneath. Won’t draw any attention on the long walk to The Venue. I hold my ear to the wall… nothing.

Move out from the room, to my grandparents’ room, ear to the door… nothing.

I’ve got seven-and-a-half hours until they wake up, precisely.

I know exactly which tiles in the dining room and kitchen to avoid. Every third tile from the entrance, without fail, squeaks. As does the fourth of center on the left side following the island. Last obstacle would be the door of the screened porch past the living room, but no worries, I greased it down earlier while Grandma was gardening and Grandpa was at the store.

First concrete step.

Second concrete step.

Open the door slowly, then close it.

The air is cold but the grass is only slightly crisp from the cold weather. Odd. Not enough to wake up anybody in the bedroom behind me from the backyard. The shed is getting larger, even in this black, empty night. Its edges and pointed top are impossible to miss.

By the front door, which is locked, sits a flower pot, there’s pot in it. Within said pot is a key for said locked door. It’s so cold, if I wasn’t wearing these gloves it might stick to my skin.

The key sounds like a pipe, wiggling its way into the lock, clicking when it finds home.

Righty-tighty, left-loosie.

Another click and the old wooden door opens, just enough. Just gotta squeeze through this door, it’s not too hard. Right to the left of the door is another pot; the search goes without luck until I recognize the crinkling plastic. Remove from pot and slip the baggy into my pocket. Step out from the shed, close, and lock door.

Step-step-step. Crunch-crunch-crunch. Back through the yard. Down the little hill that leads into the concrete driveway, up fifty feet and I’m over the gravel entrance, then a left.

There aren’t many houses to either side of me, just dark, deep woods. The road beneath me is smooth, almost entirely quiet and straight. There’s plenty of cracks and crunches circling me, probably deer or little rodents making for home or in search of shelter for the night. Up ahead, some quarter-mile, there’s a light─the Josephson’s porch light, one they always keep on at night. It lets me know I’ll be making a right before long. From there it’s a few miles.

A pair of headlights, probably from a truck, turn down onto the street. I step further onto the shoulder, so much so that I’m on grass. I would hate for the vehicle to stop in efforts of being a Good Samaritan. Nope. Too many questions, lose focus, start questioning what I’m doing out here.

The truck’s getting larger with every step, like they’re only moving with me. A one-sided relationship, a willing patient with a bored therapist. A loving dog with an abusive owner.

It’s kicking up gravel, little putter-patter of shrapnel sticking into the frosted tips of grass. The motor is rumbling. It’s like an old man breathing his last breaths, like I’m the Good Samaritan.

I don’t know if it’s the truck, its owner or me that’s screaming as I’m illuminated from the four-wheeled tank. And then nothing. We just pass each other.

Boop.

I turn back to look at the truck, I don’t know, ten seconds later, and it’s gone. Fucking gone. 

Turning back—oh shit!  I’m thrown to the ground, blam!

Almost right after my ass lands on the concrete I can hear a galloping pack of hooves clacking. First over the concrete and then the grass. The sound disappearing into the woods. I can’t help but laugh aloud at myself.

“You big pussy,” I say into the night. “Stand up.”

Just keep on moving towards the light at the end of the street. There’s a warm bottle of water in my front pocket, I retrieve it and unscrew the cap, sucking back just enough to lube up my mouth before swallowing.

Already, I’m playing the future out in my head. Once I get to the corner I’m going to jog for fifteen minutes. Then I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll jog for ten more. After that, walk, and after that? Who knows.

The air’s burning through my lungs like some little guerrilla soldier just ran down my throat and dropped a grenade into my body. He was probably smiling as it went off, sending dozens of little bits of death through my organs.

Like a driver checking the blind spot, I glance back over my shoulder. It won’t be long until the Josephson residence is completely out of sight. Once it is, then I’ll stop to walk for a spell. Check again, the light’s dying.

And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Breathe, in through the nose and out through the mouth. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride.

I wonder what grandma and grandpa are dreaming of. I hope it’s nice. One time, multiple times, I snuck into the bedroom and read grandma’s diary. She writes about Heaven a lot, dreams about it a lot.

They’ve always been Atheists. Can’t imagine what Grandpa’s diary would be like if he had one, poor guy has a rough time writing down a grocery list.

Glance back. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Glance. Stride, stride.

Another guerrilla soldier dropping another grenade into my lungs. Another explosion and another collection of shrapnel ripping my insides to bits. Another glance backwards: blackness.

The long strides come to a sudden halt. Quick walk slows to a slow trot. The collective sigh of disappointment from the wildlife around me drains out the howling wind. They wanted to watch me run the entire trip, what a bunch of assholes they are.

The steps over the pavement grow however, the clouds leaping from my mouth are short and rapid. Before long, I’ve gained what control I can of my wind in this weather.

Makes about as much sense as pushing a boulder up a hill every day after it rolls back down.

Grandpa was telling me about a book or something. Nihilism or something. The essence of the futility of hope and effort.

I should read something. Something besides a goddamn text book.

***

The Venue, an old abandoned factory, used to be a forge I think. It is packed with pickup trucks and sports cars, motorcycles and four-wheelers. Easily a hundred vehicles. Who knows how many people to each. There’s more than enough light being thrown through the dusty windows to give me an idea as to where I’m to enter. As I get closer to the entrance I begin fiddling with the bag in my pocket. 

What ground of the lot not filled by wheels is trashed with bottles and empty cigarette cartons and wrappers and who knows what the hell else. Maybe fifty yards until I’m stepping through the front door. Might as well be hell.

The shapes around me vary. Some are short, some tall, some fat. Some are small. Some of them are so broad, others narrower than me. Everybody’s wearing boots, it’s obvious from the earth’s crunching. 

From the corner of my eye I can see the breath of those around me shifting direction. They’re sizing me up, scanning who’s first and which ones will be second, who they’ll be seeing thirty minutes after the party gets started.

As if heaven opened, somebody makes it to the front door, allowing a mob of light to shine out into the night, lets me see the pair up front: two men, tall with beards, dawning leather. I wonder where they’ll end up.

Three, four, five more people walk past me towards the door and step into the concrete playground. I’m in next.

Upon entry, there’s a green steel pole with a sign posted on it: FOLLOW YOUR GENDER. I do as I’m told and go in the proper direction, to my locker room. No gender neutrality or transgender victim cards in this place.

As I move through the long, yellow, crowded hall I’m allowed faint glances into the center of the building. Poles and ladders, a floorspace the size of a football field illuminates by portable spotlights.  The sight blinks away as I move in front of a wall. The locker room is getting close. Not too far ahead I’m able to hear waves of hooting and hollering, war cries from those ready to do battle. My hands are shaking by the time I step into the stinky room.

The entrance door has been ripped from the hinges, the floor covered in dirt and grease and definitely shit. The hollering only grows as I step into the first bay of green lockers. The tile walls match the flickering light: yellow. Reminds me of the color of a smoker’s house before they die.

Onto the second bay, less folk but still too crowded for any level of comfort. Not that that’s something I should be looking for this place anyway. Third bay, only one other person, at the end of the bench; dark hair with eyes to match and a granite jaw. We say nothing. Not even a nod. If anything, we might be giving each other a sniff.

Sitting here on the bench, tightening wraps around both wrists, I can’t help but think of the grandparents. Which one of them has woken up first to go to the bedroom, which of them cracked my door silently to peek in on the bundle of pillows they believe to be me. Been checking in on me every night of my life. Twenty-seven friggin’ years old and they refuse to quit.

The locker at the end of the bay slams shut, a deep breath following uneasy. The steps turn back and then there’s a voice, soft and trembling.

“Three—three minutes,” she says. I nod and keep quiet.

Her footsteps carry away once more, this time without return.

The pack of hooting and hollering hyenas grows louder, fading into the hallway which leads into The Venue’s main square. Finally, something that resembles peace and quiet; all I hear now are the whispered prayers of those still in here.

To my feet, push out a breath. I know I am loved.

The first step to my right, out of the bay, leaves me in an uneasy freeze to maintain my balance. From my ankles to the knees are made of granite, up to my hips and I’m nothing but rubber. Stay for just a moment, I can’t fall here. Another deep breath and then a second step. The feeling to my lower half returns slowly.

My strides grow shorter as the exit door comes into view. Looks as if the pearly gate just opened, but they lead to demons. The light grows and then the voices return, coming from the main square. Just louder and louder, like a goddamn moshpit.

If there is a god, I am not asking for your forgiveness. If the devil is real, I do not align with you. Between me and myself, heaven and hell are one in the same.

***

Now that I am here, amongst the demons, I cannot see where the flesh ends; just rows and layers of men and women. Young and almost old. You’d have to be crazy to be smiling, and some of them are. I am not one of those faces. Like a goddamn cow farm, so tightly packed in, so many leather jackets and leggings. Morbid hide.

All the little whispers around me, like rabid bees. Bumping elbows, catching nasty looks for it. Look for them first.

Our little world of two-hundred goes quiet, deathly silent, as a crackling male voice bounces about the bodies like a rubber ball.

“Prom queens and parasites, the soon-to-be-haves and the forever-to-have-nots, I am Gauge.  Only Gauge…”

The man coughs into the speaker repeatedly, chuckling for a moment afterward.

“…By now I will assume all of you know the rules, you should considering you had to read them to unlock this location.  But allow me to refresh my own memory…”

More coughing, this time from Gauge and somebody behind me.

“…Thirty minutes, last cow standing. You’ve all got ten seconds.”

Coughing. More of it and then the speaker slams quiet. Then the beeps.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six; reach into my pocket. Four, three; pull out the knife, two, one.

The buzzer’s not even finished by the time I’m jamming the hunter’s blade into the back of a small woman; two, three, six times. She’s screaming so I shove the weapon into her neck, spraying the crowd with her crimson.

I feel the thud in my lower back. Somebody is trying to stab me!

Spin around, staring back at me is a bearded man covered in blood. The first thing I do is cram the knife into his eye, then slash through his lips. From nowhere another knife enters his cheek.

I thank the aiding man with a stabbing blow. Tear right with the blade. Rip out.

His intestines fall to the floor, he slips on them and crashes lifeless to the concrete below.

A fist, or the palm of a hand, slams into the back of my head, throwing me atop the floor of flesh. I roll onto my back atop the bodies, just in time to move from a long blade being driven downward by a well-built black woman. I reach up and pull her close. Hands clutching her face towards me, legs wrapped around her waist. My grip won’t last for long.

As if the gods of death are watching, the woman is swarmed like maggots to a corpse. They begin to stab and slice and tear at the woman with their knives, her screams canceling my ability to hear.

Whoever killed the black woman, some of them anyway, turn their affection to me. Stabbing at my exposed forearms, only to hit the rolled paper.

Fuck!

One of them slashes my hand—goddamn it.

 Now the other.

I dodge their attacks at my face, their blades sticking into the back of the woman’s head. I squeeze out just enough.

Grabbing at one of the men, I yank him towards me by the wrist and slit his throat, immediately wearing his red. The other flees after I slash his wrist.

Kicking and squirming, I manage to get out from under the body. It’s a matter of moments before the back of my thigh is torn into. My leg is steaming wit heat almost immediately. I hear the boot behind me, so I duck down, allowing the charging body to roll over my back.

They land with a wet thud, their stunned state allows me more than enough time to stomp on their face until it shatters. Their skull slides off the heel of my boot and I step towards the ever-dwindling crowd. Staggering. 

I don’t know if I’m killing or the bodies just happen to be falling as I cross them. I want to be the one killing them. That is until I see her, the girl from the locker bay. 

She’s been stripped down on top to just a green tank-top. Her entire face, neck, and chest are saturated with blood. I swear there’s red rings around her blue eyes. 

In her left hand is a long, serrated machete, in her right a hunting knife that is considerably longer than mine. Hanging from the blade is a chunk of piping-hot flesh. 

Reaching down blindly, ignorant to the death around us, I take hold of another knife in my free hand. Duel-wield.

She and I are screaming as we charge each other.

5 Years Later

It’s a Monday. I step into the third-grade classroom at Borton Elementary School. So many little faces from all races, walks of life, and futures. Nothing to divide us.

Before them, in front of my desk, I wish them a good morning.

They respond as one, “Good morning, Mrs. Gruenwald!”

Czar resides on the small Island of Malta.

           

Birthday Girl by Sharon Frame Gay

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The faces around the table are blurred. They’ve lost their hard edges, my vision deteriorating. In front of me is a cake gaily decorated in pinks and greens with enough candles to set off the sprinklers in the ceiling.

I am one hundred and four years old today; April the 11th, the time of year when spring lambs are born. I came into this world in a small town in North Carolina. Father named me Charlotte, after the city where he grew up. He said he wanted to move to the shadier side of the Carolinas, up into the Great Smoky Mountains, where you hear owls as you fall asleep and count the hills and ridges as they rise from the smoke of dawn. Over a century later, I’m still living in the same small town Daddy moved us to after he and Momma started their family.

When I married, I moved from my childhood farm to a house near Main Street, and from there to a tiny apartment above the drug store. Finally, I came to this retirement home. Not five miles away from my earliest memories it sits near these beloved hills.

To prepare for the party, I was bathed and brushed like a poodle in one of those fancy pet salons. The nurses and attendants in the facility fussed over me with lotions and hair dryers until I was exhausted. Then they stood back, smiled, and flourished a mirror. I stared long at the reflection.

Peering back was a very old woman. My face looked like one of those storage bags they sell on television, where they put a vacuum hose in it and suck all the air out. I have dark brown eyes, but they’re cloudy now, covered with overhanging lids, two tiny orbs peering out of fleshy curtains. There are skin tags and age spots scattered across my face and neck like a map of a heavily populated state. Hair, once long and thick, the color of an oak leaf in the fall, is now wispy and white, scalp shining through like a baby’s bottom.

“Thank God I still have my mind.” I burst out laughing. “That’s what they all say.” I laugh some more.

The gals give a hug then leave me in my room in a wheelchair. It’s not time for the festivities yet, they say, so here I sit, fingers laced in lap. The skin on my hands is paper-thin and fragile. I am afraid of banging them on a doorknob, or bruising them knocking against the nightstand reaching for water, so I wear soft white gloves for protection.

I’m in my best nightgown, light blue with tiny white dandelions sprinkled across it, the bodice smocked and embroidered. It’s my favorite piece of clothing, and I insist on wearing it today. On my feet are pink slippers with non slip bottoms.

I never wear shoes. I only walk to the bathroom and back. The rest of the time, I am in this wheelchair, my feet in retirement.

My daughter Esther knit a yellow shawl that I wear every day. I wrap it around my shoulders and pretend she’s here with me, though she lives three hundred miles away.

She’ll be here today, along with my son Gerald and his wife, kids and grand kids. Esther will bring her sons, too, and their wives and grand children, even a couple of great-grandchildren. Esther’s husband Roy passed away five years ago. She still has to work, well into her seventies. After retirement, she’s moving back here, to be closer to me.

I think to myself, Hurry, Esther.

Four years ago, my hundredth birthday was quite the shindig. I suppose everyone thought they would celebrate my natal day, and have a hail and farewell party all at the same time. It was something to behold. The party was in a rented hall, and over fifty people attended. There were speeches, little kids reciting poetry, live piano music, and a potluck dinner. My birthday was announced on national television. A photo of my face peered out of a Smucker’s jelly jar on the Today Show.

 Most folks don’t make it another four years, but I surprised everybody, including myself. Family and friends have dutifully gathered every April 11th and twisted paper streamers through the dining room of the facility, brought vases of peonies and jugs of lemonade and ice tea, and sang “Happy Birthday”.

While waiting for the party to begin, I glance around the room. My eyes rest on a photograph of Peter, my husband, dead so long ago I barely recognize him. I wonder if that will change in heaven. Will I walk right past him, or run into his arms?

He passed away almost forty years ago. I gaze at his face, so much younger than mine now, and try to remember what it was like to feel the bulk of him wrapped around me as we made love, recall the fights, the kisses and the laughter we had over the years. Would he still think I was pretty if he saw me now? Would he sneak his hand up my leg, a sly smile on his face, and will I slap it away, tired and weary, like I was when the kids were babies?

He went off to war decades ago then came home. We had to learn the map of each others’ body all over again. There were shy moments in the dark, his stranger’s breath on my neck, a warrior now who knew things. Things we didn’t share, because he refused to talk about the battles. It was never the same between us, but over the years things softened, grew more comfortable.

Peter was as dear to me as my next breath. The day he died I begged God to take me with him. I cried and yanked strands of hair out of my head, heart yearning. Over time I learned to talk about him the way you talked about a character in a book, fondly, but able to close the cover and move on.

Now they wheel me down the hall. There’s a singular quietness in the dining room, as though everyone is holding their breath. We push through the door, and the room energizes with children and teenagers, middle aged folks, and the other ancient ones who are on a journey in this tired old place.

They light the candles on the cake and sing right away, as though they want to make sure I live long enough to purse my lips and send weak wisps of air towards the cake. Esther steps in and helps, blowing the flickering candles out before the wax runs down into the frosting, turning it hard and inedible.

I clap my gloved hands together and make a big show of opening presents. Talcum powder that smells like another era, new slippers to replace the ones that I have just recently broken in to perfection. Bath soaps and a fresh Bible, with a white cover that looks like leather, and a rose colored book mark. There are sweet cards with bluebirds and posies. I thank one and all, flash a gummy grin and raise my Minnie Mouse hands in the air, give a thumbs up. They all laugh, hug me, then drift over to the refreshments, cheese and crackers, little sausages in puff pastry, cake for later.

One by one, I am approached by my guests. As always, after they kiss my cheek or shake my hand, they wish, “Happy Birthday,” then ask what the secret is to my longevity.

Truth be told, I have no idea. But they want to know, they are eager to know. Their faces peer at me with such yearning and hope that I set out to oblige them.

I tell the stout, sweating young man who works for the local newspaper that my secret is exercising every day and eating plenty of vegetables. I assure the spinster in the corner that it was years of living alone after Peter died and my children left home that afforded me this luxury. To the tightly wound nursing facility manager, whose very breath comes out in spirals of angst and tension, I say that a glass of wine every night is the key to survival. And once, just to see what might happen, I announced to my fellow residents that daily masturbation does wonders to loosen the body and enhance one’s longevity.

I am not sure why I ‘m still here, or what God had planned for me. I don’t know what I did to maintain my body, and give it cells and atoms that are more robust than someone else’s.

What I do know is this: I lived. I laughed and played as a child, and I grew into a woman. My heart was broken and pelted with the heartache of many storms. I got back up and tried again, and again, and again.

I held sick babies in my arms, and a dead husband in my lap, waiting to hear the squall of the ambulance. There were Little League games, weddings, Christmas trees, and funerals. Quiet, magical days drifted into one another like waves on an autumn pond.

I had friends who helped, friends who hurt. Scares. Oh, so many scares. Frights that kept me up nights, cursed my days.

And joy. The kind of joy you can only get when those frights go away and are replaced by love so magical, so sweet, that the sun pours itself into your soul.

My life is like this old nightgown, faded from many washings, but soft as a summer’s morning, yielding and cozy. I remember when it was bright and starched and filled with promise. Over time, it learned to give in, to fold without whimper, yet still cover with a sense of purpose. Every button knows my fingers, a rosary of sorts, as I twist and stroke them in my hands.

On bright days, I ask the nurse to put it on a hanger, set it on a hook outside for a few hours. It comes in smelling of sunshine and trees. I pull it over my head, bury my face in it. Remember.

I asked to be laid to rest in it. Esther shakes her head. She thinks I’m kidding. I’m not. It’s written in a letter to her, in my dresser drawer. I asked her to lay me down in blossoms of pink peonies, strewn around the coffin like a spring storm. I tell her to wash this gown, set it in the sun to dry and place it back on my body.

Until then, I look around the room, touch my collarbone with a finger, my way of getting God’s attention, and whisper, “How about next year?”

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including: Chicken Soup For The Soul, Typehouse, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at: Women on Writing, The Writing District, and Owl Hollow Press.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.  You can find her on Amazon as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: @sharonframegay

Concealment by Mitchell Toews

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The train, a legacy from the recent Olympic Games, got me within a few miles of my Sunday morning destination. I made the last leg of the journey on a zoo transfer. The shuttle arrived, its exterior fixed up to look like a classic safari vehicle with a painted pride of lions basking on the side.

I passed the day observing the zoo patrons more than the exhibits. The people and the surroundings all served to remind me of my alien status. America is Canada’s snub-nosed angry cousin. It’s especially raw down here in the South, different than northern towns like Grand Forks and Fargo. Those small cities seemed more like Swift Current or Saskatoon – vaguely familiar country towns. Atlanta became the place where my Canadian assumptions concerning Southern social norms were debunked.

The pine forest encircling the parking lot where I waited for the bus back to the train station reflected this sense of strangeness. Invading kudzu vines cloaked the trees in leafy green velvet, and exotic insects echoed in the clearing, creaking, “Katy did, Katy did.” I didn’t know what kind of a bug made that noise but I did know there were none of them in Northern Manitoba where I grew up. I was sure some of my co-workers back in Winnipeg would know; they had come to these equipment shows in Atlanta many times. This was my first.

When the shuttle arrived, it was the same one as before but with a new driver, a heavyset woman with tired eyes under long lashes. She double-checked the date on my MARTA pass as I boarded, flicking a curious look at me when I thanked her.

I found a window seat and settled in. At the first bus stop, we braked to pick up a woman wearing a bright yellow dress, pushing a baby stroller. Two small children followed her as if in tow. I heard the driver mutter something but could not make out what she said.

As the door opened to admit these new passengers, the bus driver shouted at the woman. Once again, I couldn’t understand what she said, but her eyes flashed with anger and her tone was certainly hostile. I felt the crawling insecurity of a stranger in a strange land.

The yellow dress woman’s face registered complete shock, and then I could see a kind of understanding grow in her eyes. All conversation stopped. The occupants included an older man and woman─seniors with a young boy who I took to be their grandson, a young couple with a boy about four years old, and an elderly woman clutching a small wire shopping caddy. And me.

The woman straightened her back and instructed her children to lift the front of the baby stroller up the bus steps. With some difficulty, they hoisted the carriage.

I hopped over to help. The mother smiled her appreciation to me, albeit with some uncertainty, as I sat back down. Then she returned her attention to the browbeating she received from the bus driver. Her demeanor changed. Eyes narrowed. She regarded the driver frigidly and shoved coins into the receptacle, then leaned down and said something in a snarling Southern accent. The children froze by her side.

After a sputtering rebuttal from the driver, the new passenger stood back and said in a haughty tone, “No… you need the Lord!”

At this, our driver drew a great breath, as did I. Deliberate as a chess master, she slid the gearshift into Park and engaged the upright handle of the emergency brake with a ratcheting staccato. After closing the accordion door, she looked squarely at me and said, “First off, I do not remember givin’ you a promotion to the rank of MARTA conductor, did I?” She held a single finger up at me, like a metronome, paused and filled with imminent movement. “Do not get involved where you got no business and do not leave your seat. It’s a safety violation. Sir.”

Confused by being drawn into their fire-fight, I felt exposed. My ears and neck went hot like a schoolboy called out in class. A second later the bus bucked forward.

Still mumbling to herself, the driver picked up the radio mic with a theatrical flourish. She put her gaze on the mirror, focusing on the yellow dress woman.

She lapsed into the sing-song, clipped lexicon of CB radio: “C’mon MARTA station. Claudette in fifty-five. Come back. Claudette in fifty-five here, over.”

The young mother settled herself and her children near me. She sat and glared at the driver in the mirror, watching the stocky woman speaking quietly into her radio microphone.

We drove on in relative calm although it was disconcerting to watch the driver. She sat hunched in her seat, her glaring attention on her adversary. She only glanced at the road when she had to. In time her attention fixed on the mother and didn’t come unstuck.

“I seen you,” the driver decreed in a loud voice, puzzling us all. The bus picked up speed on the winding residential street.

“Seen me what?” the yellow dress woman asked.

“You went to high school with my sister, Suzette. I seen you down there,” the driver said. “You were walking down there.” She poked a careless finger at distant downtown high-rises.

The grandfather stood up. “I do not care to listen to this private conversation anymore. The two of you make yourselves look like the most forlorn and wicked creatures on earth and we have heard enough!”

“Amen,” croaked the old lady with the shopping caddy.

The driver hit the gas, sending the grey-haired man thumping back down in his padded seat in the back row.

“Sit down, sir, or I may have to ask you to disembark the vehicle,” the driver shouted. The top-heavy bus squealed, now on two-wheels for all we knew, as it careened down the road.

In defiance, I too stood up. I grasped the chrome bar behind the driver to steady myself and begged for caution. “Please slow down. There are children on board.” It was my voice, but uncertain and quavering. Just be quiet! I chastised myself, feeling conspicuous once again.

My plea didn’t work. The driver held the pace and scoffed at me. “Don’t take it too far, mister. I won’t warn you again.”

My Walter Mitty thoughts of being the bold stranger who took matters into his own capable hands dissolved. I sat once more and the vinyl-clad seat wheezed in derision, mocking me.

The yellow dress woman quietly cried as the bus sped up. She shushed her children, and checked on her baby. The young lady seated behind her offered a tissue from a large handbag.

She dabbed at her kids’ wet cheeks. “I am not perfect and I’m first to admit it. But I swear the Lord wove these children in my womb, just like it says in the Psalms. They never had to want. I used to stroll down there on the Met, it’s true. But that’s behind me now.”

It had been a long speech for her and she shuddered with emotion, sniffing and coughing a bit. The bus slowed.

Rising now, her body swayed slightly. “I’m not proud, but I can’t take it back. This little one comes out of that time in my life and she is fine. I never seen a better baby for feeding or sleeping, so I know she’s healthy.”

It seemed like she wanted to say more but she stopped. I think we all imagined more as we looked at her, standing in front of us, grasping a dangling leather loop next to her head. We rode on in silence save for the hum of the air conditioner. Beneath us, a stone stuck in a tire tread clattered on the macadam. Like “Wheel of Fortune,” its clicking cadence now in retard.

“My name is Claudette,” the driver said after a long pause. “I had a Metro route a few years back, and I saw you sometimes around the Parkway. I knew who you were and what you were doing. I remembered you from school, see? So, when I saw you and your kids today, and you in that dress, I got pissed, you know” She paused, her eyes wide and searching in the mirror. “Like, I was scared y’all was goin’ down there today with them kids… workin’.”

The bus slowed to a roll and I heard children playing as we passed an outdoor public pool. For a second, I smelled chlorine.  

“I’m Flora,” the yellow dress woman said. Then, seeming to surprise herself she added, “I’m long ago through with the Parkway.” Her son took her hand and she added, “I never did that; I never brought my kids along. Others might have, but I never. And besides,” Flora said, her voice strengthening, “don’t you know that those who did bring ’em – they never had no choice? Believe me.”

Claudette nodded and we continued on in silence for a minute or so.

Flora resumed her seat. “Listen, I’m sorry, everybody. Please forgive me.” She scanned the mirror, her eyelashes up and down, up and down, like the wings of a Painted Lady.

She nodded at Claudette in the mirror and then turned to stare at the older fellow who had spoken up. She let the weight of her gaze rest on him for a few extra beats, then lifted her chin a bit and turned her back.

“Okay. Now, Flora, you listen to me,” Claudette said. “I’m letting you off here ‘cuz I sent a security code – when I say the words fifty-five on the radio, that’s a secret code that means, ‘alarm’ and they are gonna have alerted the MARTA police. Cops’ll be waitin’ for us at the station.” She turned down the air conditioner fan. “I was gonna teach you a lesson, understand? I see now that you shouldn’t have to answer to them like you already answered to me, an’ I’m sorry for that. So, Flora, you and your kids get off here and catch a regular city bus. Should be one soon.” She swung a hand lever and the door folded open. “I’ll just tell ‘em at the station that I got mixed up or what not.”

With the shuttle parked, the driver stood up and turned to face us. She was built like a down lineman, hands on her hips, her polished nails in bright contrast to her navy-blue uniform pants. “Everybody good with that?” Tear streaks marred her rouged cheeks.

No one disagreed. She nodded at the older gentleman in the back. “We good?”

He stared at her, tilted his head and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and answered her in a low voice. “We’re good.”

“Alright, man!” she pointed a bedazzled nail at me. “You able to help Miss Flora get them kids all in order down there on the sidewalk?”

I rose immediately, glad at the chance for redemption.

“That’s fine,” she said. “And for you being so Christian, I won’t report your earlier misbehaviour, distracting the driver an’ all. Alright with you?”

I was about to speak when from behind me came a startling noise. The young father had stamped his shoe on the floor of the bus.

No. That’s not how this ends.” He looked back at his wife. Their young son sat on the woman’s lap. The little boy’s red, wet face reminded me of how terrifying all this must be for him: the adults shouting and the bus swerving down the road, now his father in a rage.

“Stay on the bus please, Miss.” He gestured at Flora. Then he half-turned to the passengers. “I think we should all make a complaint against this bus driver. She’s irresponsible and I don’t think she should be driving a van with children in it. Or driving at all for that matter. She risked our damn lives.”

Then he jabbed his finger at me. “You were right to tell her to slow down.”

I didn’t like the hard look the driver shot at me. We had suffered enough with this issue. No sooner had a truce been called than he broke it.

Jason, please.” His wife grabbed the back of his shirt.

“Leave us out of it,” the tall grandfather rumbled from the back of the bus.

Flora rolled her eyes.

The driver spun around in a rage to get back into her seat. In that same moment the young man lunged by her to grab the keys from the ignition.

“Not again.” He huffed. “You won’t put us in danger again.” He butted against her in his haste, knocking her off balance.

She staggered and stumbled down the steps. She fell on her back and struck her head on the sidewalk. Sprawled half in the open doorway, halfway outside, her eyes were shut and I wasn’t sure if she was conscious.

The children wailed and the older woman behind me screeched, “Stop it, stop it!”

Flora peered down at Claudette, then back at me. “Use the radio. Call for help.” She checked her children then took one step towards the door. As she did, two gunshots sounded.

The windshield exploded. It sprayed kernel-corn pieces of glass. A third shot tore a blooded hole in the young father’s shirt sleeve. He screamed.

The air reeked of gunpowder. Strangely familiar to me, it was like firecrackers.

“Fucker,” Claudette screamed from the sidewalk. Her raised arm stood straight out, aiming a silver handgun at Jason. “You don’t knock me down. Thas assault. You don’t tell me nothin’. I run this bus. It’s a safe bus.”

Holding his wounded arm and wriggling down in the driver seat, Jason tried to hide behind Flora who lay slumped across the transmission hump in the centre of the dash. Head down, eyes closed, Flora did not move.

I could just see the fallen bus driver. Beyond her, a man watered his lawn. He threw down the hose and ran stiff-legged to his front door, water flowing down the white driveway, darkening it like spilled oil.

Bastard. Goddamn bastard gonna take my keys, gonna jack my bus.” Spittle caked on Claudette’s lips and her MARTA hat lay on the concrete behind her. “He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me,” she bellowed from the curb, squirming to hike herself up as she kept the nickel-plated gun pointed in Jason’s direction. One of her pants pockets was turned inside out and her neck glistened from a dripping gash on the back of her head. She strained to see Jason behind Flora’s inert body.

I crouched, terrified and motionless. Bound, incapable of movement, my thoughts plodded. I did not breathe. Jason’s wife stepped by me fast and sure. I saw the glint of something in her hand. She shot three times in rapid succession. The blasts were deafening in the tight compartment. The fabric of Claudette’s starched shirt jumped as the slugs slammed into her chest. A second later dark red florets showed like port wine on a white tablecloth.

The scene in front of me might as well have swung around like it was filmed with a hand-held camera. A sense of vertigo overcame me. I felt like I was slipping backwards and down a deep hole, falling away beneath the chaos. My mouth went dry. I could taste the acrid gunpowder tang in my throat.

Beneath the clamour of the children, my ears rang from the shots. I realized that I was clenching the leg of my bench seat so tightly that my wrist ached. I released my grip, rubbing feeling back into my palm.

The young woman adjusted something on her gun and put it back in her purse. The click of her handbag closure, sharp as a finger snap, brought me out of my trance. She held up her cell phone, flipped open the mouthpiece, and dialled. Her hand trembled as she waited for the call to be answered. Her son stood against her, his small arms ringing her thigh.

“Nine-one-one? I want to report an incident on Hill Street Southeast. Yes, near the pool, not far from the zoo. We need an ambulance. There are three gunshot victims, one fatality, or maybe two. One assailant. Yes, I think she’s dead. Just a second,” she held her free hand over the phone. “Jason, it’s over now. We’re going to be alright.”

***

Afterwards, I sat in the night heat, resting on the bumper of an EMS van. I inhaled a Marlboro that a police officer had given me. Hadn’t smoked in years. American tobacco, smells like a cigar.

With residual guilt, I cupped the cigarette in my hand to hide it, thinking oddly of a long-ago hockey trip to Warroad in Minnesota.

The police detective, a man named Granger, came back with more questions. He wore a crumpled suit and a matter of fact attitude. Squad car lights flashed and “Do Not Cross” police tape encircled us. It felt like we were on a cop show soundstage, running our lines.

“So, you mind if I review, once more?” he asked, palms up like a set of scales.

“Suppose so,” I said. Insects chirped, a droning, constant background chorus coming from dark concealment in the surrounding forest.

“The driver, she gets knocked down the steps by the man, Jason Drury, and then…” the detective reached in his jacket for a pen and paused, allowing me to complete his sentence.

“A lot happened at once and then there were shots. I kind of blanked out.”

“Okay, no problem. So, then the driver, Claudette, she’s down on the sidewalk yelling and then what?”

“The guy, his name is Jason, right? He’s flattened out in the driver’s seat, trying to hide behind poor Miss Flora,”

“The woman in the yellow dress?”

I nodded, exhausted. I had gone through this several times. My gut clenched as I recalled the tall woman falling forward, limp. “Yeah. Say, listen, sir,” I said slowly. “I can’t think straight anymore, and we’ve covered this plenty, right?” It’s this heat – so muggy. I’m built for the cold.

He flipped shut his spiral bound notebook. “Sure, you’ve been helpful.” He clicked his pen.

“Thanks. But, one question. I’ve just been wondering,” I said. “The guns were both legal?”

“They each had legal carry and conceal permits, yes,” he said. “Y’all from England, right?”

“Canada, actually,” I corrected him. “We have guns too, eh, but not so many handguns. I’d never heard a pistol, you know, shoot, before tonight.” God, it was loud.

“That right? Canada? Okay.” He clicked again and made a note.

My ears still hurt from the gunshots. The Detective paused, drawing himself up and rolling his shoulders. “Yeah, those two guns were legal. And, between you and me, I doubt Mrs. Drury will be charged. She did it all by the book, protecting her family.”

I took a last hot drag. I thought of her making the 9-1-1 call, tending to her husband and calmly settling her son in the aftermath. By the book.

“You know, that older fellow on the bus?” Detective Granger said. “He had a handgun too. A Glock in a holster under his cardigan. Also legal. But, maybe this is a good thing. He forgot to load it. He had it unloaded because his grandchild was with them for the weekend.”

The detective shrugged. He pointed at his car. “I can give you a ride. You ready?”

I stood unsteady from the tobacco. In my mind, I saw the grandfather drawing his pistol. Click. Click. The horrible realization. I could see it as a reel of film and then imagined the result.

The detective gave me a grim little look. I noticed grey hairs in his eyebrows, deep creases at the corners of his eyes and sweat on his forehead. “Yeah, tonight was not great,” he said. “Odd too. Two female shooters.” He looked at me, pocketing his notebook. “And tonight we had one female deceased, maybe two – I sure hope Miss Flora makes it. Bullets don’t see gender or race or nationality. That much I’ve learned. Bullets don’t know right and wrong.” Granger patted his hip, finding his keys.

We walked, his leather soles slapping on the pavement, breaking the evening silence as if to signal the end of the event. The insects grew louder as we left the scene.

“Katy did, Katy didn’t,” Granger said, mimicking the amplified refrain from the Georgia woods – a hung jury arguing this or some older unknown crime.

Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin. His writing has appeared in a variety of English language literary journals in Canada, the UK, and the US. Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com 

Mitch is currently at work on a novel set in the noireal forest. He’s also stubbing his bare pedal digits on a screenplay adaptation for a trilogy of his about three fishermen’s lives on the Pacific coast, 1955-1976.

Blessed Are the Little Things by Leila Allison

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There were only four tables in the cafe, and I saw that my date was already seated at one of them. I had figured this out by the process of elimination (there was nobody else in the cafe except her and the young woman behind the counter), and the stretched possibility that my date bore a slight resemblance to the younger, fitter, and brighter-looking person in her profile gallery. A “helpful hint” on the lonely hearts’ site says that you can judge your match’s interest level by the amount of preparation she has invested in meeting you. Interestingly, the lady had gussied herself up to a point which lay between rushing to the convenience store at five in the morning for coffee filters and awakening in a dumpster. And she seemed oblivious to every atom in the universe that wasn’t displayed on her iphone.

“Hello,” I said, extending my hand, “I’m Jim, you must be Daphne.”

She glanced up from her phone and looked at my hand as though I had offered her a dead carp.

“You’re a half-hour late, Jim,” she said with a voice that had a lot of smoke and very little estrogen in it.

Actually, I was forty-three minutes late. I had left three messages in her site mailbox explaining such, and since she was still gazing into her phone I could no longer support the fantasy that she didn’t know about my messages. Regardless, I’d interpreted her forgiving the other thirteen minutes as a good sign. That, however, was to be the acme of my Daphne Experience.

The young woman behind the counter made eye contact with me, glanced incredulously at Daphne, and sent a sad smile. I smiled back and held up my hand as to say, “Please give me a minute to fix this before you bring the water,” although I learned later that it was a place-your- order-at-the-counter kind of place.

I sat down and broke out the charm. The site says never do that, never break out the charm; it also says that the only thing a person can try too hard at and still succeed with is to looking pathetic. For reasons I cannot explain, I tend to test the soundness of good advice by giving its opposite number a spin. All I can say in my defense is that I’m human, and being such I cannot resist putting my foot in it, which is precisely what I did when I told extremely distracted Daphne, “I’m sorry I’m late but one of the little ones got out of his habitat and I had to wrangle him out from behind the radiator.”

Aside from the disgusted glance at my hand, this breaking out of the charm led to the only other time milady pried her attention from her phone to acknowledge my existence. Sneaking a peek at the screen that she made no attempt to conceal from me, I noticed she was in a text string with someone named “SexMachine6969.”

“You got kids? No kids. Got too many thugs of my own in lockup,” she croaked. (This sharing ran contrary to the information in her profile. Although I will allow that she most likely had once been as childless as she most assuredly had also once been twenty-seven.)

Right here my all-consuming passion for my “little ones” rose its paw and erased all trace of the lonely heart site’s helpful hint list from my mind (i.e. “Discuss Shared  Hobbies,” “Listening is the Soul of Conversation,” and “Leave the Babbling to the Brook”). To be fair, however, I couldn’t dredge up the will to feign interest in hearing the rancid thoughts of SexMachine6969 spoke by a voice whose tonal quality was similar to that of Styrofoam dragged across a dusty blackboard on an especially arid day, so I guess I took babbling like a brook as an option instead of a ban.

“Oh, not children.” I instantly found my thoughts transported out of the cafe and into my apartment. “Dwarf hamsters. I mentor six Kazakhstan Roborovskis. They are rescue hamsters named Assault, Battery, Claudius, Hamlet, Big Tony and Bigger Big Tony. You see, Robos, even though they only get to be four to five centimeters long and weigh just up to twenty-five grams–a porty twenty-seven in Bigger Big Tony’s case–can be bred to be extremely fierce. At this very moment there are dwarf hamster fighting rings operating in the remote deserts of Mongolia and China. When I heard about this terrible abuse of animals I signed myself up as a Robo mentor. It’s a challenge I love. Quick little fiends, however; just as I was heading out the door Hamlet somehow  got out of his habitat and made for his Uncle Claudius’ enclosure with revenge and murder in his tiny eyes. But, as always, he hesitated and then ran under the radiator to think about it for a while.”

 I caught myself hogging all the facetime and stopped. “How thoughtless of me, Daphne.” I pulled out my own phone and opened Gallery. “I’ve got pictures. Took them during Battery’s first birthday party. As you see I can bring them together only in a special plexiglass meeting habitat in which each one of them is clapped-up like Hannibal Lecter.” 

I glanced up to find that Daphne had fled the scene during my reverie, as I had hoped.

Even though blind dating disappointment usually gives me a forlorn, childlike feeling of “oh” inside, it’s probably better to accept the fact that you will most likely die alone with your latest generation of rescue dwarf hamsters than it is to spend another minute in the company of someone who has neither manners nor a perceptible desire to put any effort into creating a good first impression.

I sat back and sighed.

The young woman behind the counter waved and jogged over to take Daphne’s place. I blinked in confusion, but our eyes met and she smiled. “I’d like to see their pictures.” 

Leila Allison lives in the menacing Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Union of Pen-names and Imaginary Friends, and, as such, she works only between three and six in the morning, seven days a week, as stipulated in the contract between Leila and her “employer”–a dubious, shadow-like person who only comes out from under the bed to buy cigarettes and feed a parakeet named Roy.

Know Guns by J.L. Higgs

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“Hey, Dad. Grandpa’s got a gun!”

“What the fuck,” Cheryl mouthed to me. Our eyes locked, and I dropped the suitcases.

From where I was, I couldn’t see our seven-year-old son, Jack. We’d arrived at the cabin near dusk. Though we’d been delayed in the Friday traffic heading north from the city, Hank’s car was nowhere in sight. While Cheryl and I had been unloading the car’s trunk, Jack had dashed inside and straight upstairs to the bedrooms.   

Guns had always been a part of my life. I’d grown up in a rural community. As a boy, we played army almost daily. Our fathers had served during the last war. Even though we were kids, we all expected that when the time came, we’d do our duty as well. In the evenings we watched TV on our old Dumont and the good guys always won. Cavalrymen defeated Indians, the Japanese were beaten by our soldiers, and in the shoot’em up Westerns, the lawmen always triumphed.

The one common denominator: guns.

The scales always tipped in favor of the good guys not just because they were the good guys, but because they were also good with their guns. Back then, the fact that the victors were always white never made an impression on me. Few people who looked like me appeared on TV in those days. We knew Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan actually lorded it over white actors in blackface.

Between all the kids in my neighborhood, we had everything we needed for our war games. Helmets, canteens, pistols, machine guns that made rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sounds, and air rifles. I liked the air rifles. You could shove their muzzles in the ground, then blast the compacted dirt out their barrels. Sometimes we’d have to temporarily halt our games to settle who shot and killed who first, but when we were called in for dinner, the living and the dead always arose and went home.   

As a kid, I swore when my time came, I was going to be a Marine. They had the coolest uniforms. When my cousin, Tommy, joined up he’d went into the Marines. He was strong and tough. He carried himself with a swagger us younger kids envied and tried to imitate. 

Through him, I met Roy. Roy was the local Marine Recruiter. He shared a recruitment office in the basement of our Post Office with a Navy recruiter named Sandy. A full-size cardboard cutout of Uncle Sam stood outside it with “I want you” emblazoned across his chest and his huge finger pointing at me. The words seemed less a request than an order.

Despite our patriotic leanings, when our turn actually came around, my friends and I wanted no part of it. There was a real war going on in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many people sent far away returned dead. Others like my cousin Tommy, who survived seemingly intact, came back changed. Whether they were even alive and not the walking dead depended on your point of view and definition of living. That was when I learned that in the real world, being a good guy and good with a gun didn’t always ensure a favorable outcome.

  As I walked to the base of the stairs only one thought went through my mind, Dear God, please don’t let that boy be holding that gun.

“Jack,” I called out. “Where are you?”

“In grandpa’s room,” he said.

“Well buddy, you need to get out of grandpa’s room. I’m not sure he’d want you in there. Why don’t you come down and help me bring the bags upstairs?”

“Dad?”           

“Yeah, buddy.”

“How come grandpa keeps a gun behind his door?” He came into view, half carrying, half dragging the gun.

I glanced at Cheryl. Her eyes were filled with terror.

My throat went dry as I moved closer to the stairs. I’d never imagined ever being on the wrong end of a gun. 

“Jack,” I said. “You know we have rules about touching other people’s things without asking first.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then you know that you shouldn’t be touching grandpa’s gun.” I swallowed deeply. “I want you to lay it on the floor very carefully. So you don’t break it. Because that would make grandpa sad.”

“Okay.”

I held my breath.

Jack laid the gun down. Then he bounded down the steps and into the front room.

Cheryl grabbed him and held him tightly. She kissed the top of his head again and again. 

I walked up the stairs, picked the gun up off the floor, and checked the safety. Then I pulled back the bolt and looked in the chamber. Nestled inside was a live round. I sat the butt of the gun on the floor, leaned it at an angle, and plucked the round out. Then I put the gun back in Hank’s room.

“Was it loaded?” asked Cheryl as I rejoined her and Jack in the front room.

I nodded.

“Goddammit.” She cursed more in the last few minutes than in all the year’s I’d known her. Anger poured out of her so fast I didn’t even try to keep up. Finally, she stopped and stood there with tears running down her face.

“It’s okay.” I  wrapped my arms around her. “Everyone’s fine. No one got hurt and…”

The sound of a car door slamming made Cheryl charge from my arms and out the front door like she was on fire. Before Hank could straighten up she was on him. Though I couldn’t hear a word, from the way her arms were waving around, she was giving him hell.

Hank just stood there absorbing every blow. Finally, she swatted his arm, then steamed off down the path that led to the pond.

I opened the cabin door and Hank, his arms full of grocery bags, came in. He looked at Jack and me. Without saying a word, he sat the bags on the kitchen counter and emptied them. After placing the perishables in the refrigerator, he put the canned goods in the kitchen cabinets.

“Grandpa, where’d mom go?” Jack dragged a stool over to the kitchen counter. He climbed onto the stool as Hank continued putting away the groceries.

“A walk.”

“Why’d she go for a walk now? Doesn’t she know we’re going to eat soon?”

“She knows.”

Hank had grown up hunting. The prior year, he’d invited me to go deer hunting with him. I’d agreed to go. It’d been years since I’d had venison. Some folks didn’t care for its strong flavor, but I did. 

Sitting on the beat up boards of the stand in a tree, our guns lying across our laps, there was nothing to do but wait. Deer hunting required silence and patience. You waited, listened, and hoped. In the days before, Hank had checked for tracks, droppings, and patches on tree trunks where deer had rubbed away the bark with their sprouting horns. Based on what he’d seen, he’d concluded that deer were passing beneath the stand on a regular basis. So, that was where we waited.

Hank and his four brothers had built the stand. The scrap wood steps they’d nailed to the side of the tree had been replaced many times over. Most recently around the year Jack had been born.

The first time Cheryl had said she wanted me to come home with her and meet her father, I’d shook my head and said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I think that’s rather obvious,” I replied.

“Scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as race,” she countered.

“Yeah,” I responded. “Well, this is America, not some science convention.”

She sighed, looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t know my father.”

Damn right and I don’t want to, I thought, envisioning pitchforks and burning crosses materializing out of thin air if he were to lay eyes on me.

Seeing my raised eyebrows, Cheryl had laughed. “Don’t be such a wuss,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”

Despite my doubts, I ended up going home with her and was shocked to be proven wrong. From the moment I met Hank, he never displayed a single moment of concern or hesitation regarding Cheryl and me. His approach to raising her had been to try to equip her with the ability to make good decisions. Then he’d accepted the fact that it was up to her to make her own decisions. Nothing was more important to him than her happiness. That included me, and Hank’s attitude was that was fine with that.

The same had been true when Jack was born.    

“I’ll be back,” I grabbed two jackets from the pegs near the cabin door and slipping one on.

As I walked along the path to the pond, I tried to think of what to say to Cheryl. She didn’t hunt. In fact, she hated guns. When we’d learned she was pregnant with Jack, one of the first things she made me promise was, no guns.

At the time that seemed easy enough. I was familiar with guns, but didn’t own any nor did I feel inclined to, but what I hadn’t realized was that when Cheryl had said no guns, she’d meant, no guns

No water guns, no air rifles, no BB guns, no kind of toy or real gun, period. Even the game at the county fair where you shoot water into the mouth of the clown to see who can get their balloon to pop first and win a prize was banned. No guns meant, no guns.

Once Cheryl’s no guns policy had been established there were times when it had led to some awkward situations. Like when she was ready to return to work after Jack had been born and she wanted to place him in a home daycare. We’d be interviewing potential care providers and everything would seem perfect. Then she’d look at me and I’d know it was time to ask the deal breaker. “Are there any firearms on the premises?” 

A yes answer immediately eliminated that care provider. Rationales, explanations, reassurances about safety – gun safes, locks, ammo kept separate from weapons, etc… were a worthless use of breath. Any guns, no Jack.                    

Cheryl had never mentioned she was a crack shot. It was Hank who told me. He’d said that when Cheryl was a little girl, he taught her how to handle a rifle. According to him, she was a natural. Her hands were steady, she was calm, and she breathed just right. She could zero the sight and barrel with such accuracy that hitting whatever she was targeting was a sure thing.

As Hank explained it, Cheryl never had any qualms when it came to guns until the summer she turned fifteen. That year he’d sent her away to spend time with her grandmother and the rest of her mother, Betty’s family. After Betty’s death, he’d moved the two of them back to the town where he’d grown up and he felt it was time she got to know them. Unfortunately, when a local boy pointed out Cheryl and said, “ain’t she the girl whose mother killed herself”, she learned the truth concerning her mother’s “accident.”

When Cheryl confronted Betty’s family they admitted she had placed the muzzle of a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Hank had arrived home from work that day and found his wife’s brains splattered on the dining room wall and a screaming infant girl. He’d then sold the house and moved back to his hometown.  

Everyone had done their best to reassure Cheryl that what had happened had nothing to do with her. They explained that nowadays people called what Betty had had post postpartum depression. But back then, it had no name. Instead, people figured that sooner or later Betty would stop feeling blue and get back in the swing of things. Following that summer, Cheryl wouldn’t touch a gun.

I knew it was impossible for me to understand how Cheryl’s mother’s suicide had affected her, but sane or not, her mother had made her own choice. Hank then also made his. He’d done his best to raise a little girl on his own and shelter her from the horror of what had happened to her mother.

There was no way he could place the blame on a gun. Guns had been a part of his family’s way of life for generations. Every member of his family that I’d met had a deep respect for guns. They’d established inviolate rules about responsible ownership and passed them down from generation to generation. 

To them, guns weren’t good or bad. They were simply tools in the hands of whoever held them. I respected Hank’s family, and I respected their guns, but in general, I struggled to understand white people’s obsession with guns.

In rural communities where people hunted deer, rabbits, and turkeys, having guns made complete sense to me. When I lived in the country, I’d killed my fair share of destructive varmints, woodchucks that wouldn’t accept the fact your garden was off limits, the same with foxes and your chickens, but Cheryl, Jack, and I lived in suburbia. Why did there seem to be more white gun owners and collectors there? Definitely more than I’d ever known while living in the country, blacks and whites combined. And so many of the weapons they owned were clearly designed for war. 

Were some of these people consciously or subconsciously doing exactly that, preparing for war? Based on daily news reports, things were just as bad in cities. Young black men killing other black men, Latinos killing Latinos. There was nothing to hunt in suburbia or cities, they were just full of people.     

As I came around the bend and into the clearing, I saw Cheryl sitting on the pond’s battered wooden dock. She was staring at the water. I walked up and placed the jacket I was carrying around her shoulders. Then I sat down beside her. Small circles formed on the water’s surface. Each steadily expanded outward like a smoke ring until it could no longer maintain its perfect form. Then it broke apart and disappeared.

“It was an accident,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, a painful sadness in her eyes. “I know Hank would never do anything to hurt Jack.”

“You ready to head back?” I got to my feet.

“Yeah.” She took my hand and standing up.

We walked back toward the cabin side-by-side in silence. At one point I squeezed Cheryl’s hand, and she squeezed mine in return. As we drew close to the cabin, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. A fire was going in the burn pit. Its flickering flames lit both Jack and Hank’s faces and they were each holding a stick with a hot dog over the flames. 

“We’re hungry,” said Jack. “We started cooking.” He smiled. 

Cheryl walked over to the packages of hot dogs and buns on a plate near Hank and took out two hot dogs.

“There’s sharpened sticks over there,” said Hank keeping his eyes focused front.

She grabbed two sticks, shoved a hot dog on the end of each and handed one to me. I grabbed a bun and walked over to Jack.

“Hey, buddy. I think yours is done,” I said. 

“But I like it burnt.”

“No, you don’t.” I took hold of his stick and pulled it from the fire. Then I slid his hot dog off the stick and into the bun. I handed it to him and he took a bite.

“Good?”

“Uh huh,” he said, bits of hot dog and bread falling from his mouth.

“Dad?”

“Cheryl.”

“Yours looks done.”

“So it is.” He pulled his hot dog out of the fire and blew on it. Then he took a bite taking care not to burn his lips or tongue.

Once we all had our fill, Jack’s being two, Hank pulled out a bag of marshmallows. He stuck a single marshmallow on the end of Jack’s stick, then his. Then he proceeded to show Jack how to roast marshmallows without charring them.

After Jack had eaten four or five marshmallows, Cheryl told him he’d had enough and it was time to start getting ready for bed. Jack opened his mouth to begin his nightly negotiations, but Hank stepped in.

“Mind your mother,” he said. “If you’re quick about it, there’s a couple of empty jars in the kitchen we can use to catch some fireflies.”

With that as an enticement, Jack was gone in a snap.

“Thanks,” said Cheryl to Hank. “Any more sugar and he’d be totally wired tonight.”

“Like his mother used to get.”

“Yeah,” replied Cheryl. “Like his mother used to get.”

Jack came charging back out the door. It slammed behind him.

“Whoa,” I said seeing his bare feet. “You need something on your feet.”

“But…”

“Hey, where’s my jars?” Hank rose to his feet. “Come on.” He scooped up Jack in his arms. “We can get something for your feet and the jars.”                 

As Hank carried Jack back inside, I walked over to Cheryl and began massaging her neck and shoulders. 

“Better?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to catch fireflies?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then I guess we should leave them to it and tidy up things inside before bed,” I said.

Cheryl nodded. We wrapped an arm around each other’s waists and walked back to the cabin. Jack and Hank passed us heading in the other direction on their way to catch fireflies.

The next day, Saturday, passed without incident. In the early afternoon, we went swimming in the pond. Later, Jack and Hank went for a nature walk. While they were gone, Cheryl and I stayed behind and drove ourselves crazy working on a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. That evening Cheryl made dinner and things seemed to have returned to normal.

On Sunday morning, I thought it’d be best to get an early start. That way we’d avoid the weekenders, who were also returning home. When I awakened I could smell coffee. In the kitchen, Hank and Jack had been busy making a mountain of waffles. With his eyes as big as platters, Jack had crammed so many waffles into his mouth, he looked like a chipmunk. 

“You’d better slow down, buddy.” I rubbed his head as I slid onto a stool at the counter. 

Hank handed me a cup of steaming hot coffee. “She alright?” He gestured with his head in the direction of the loft where Cheryl was still sleeping.

“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s fine. You know how she is about guns.”

“Yup. Sure do.” Hank took a sip of his cup of coffee. “We good?”

“Of course.” I picked up my cup, toasted him with it, then took a sip. “Good coffee.”

“You know I’d never want any harm to come to the boy.”

“I know.”

“Well, just as long as you know.”

“I do.”

“Dad, what are you and grandpa talking about?” asked Jack, reminding us of his presence.

“Nothing, buddy. You need to finish your breakfast.” I got up from the stool and headed back to the loft, coffee in hand. 

Cheryl was awake but still wrapped in the bedsheets. When she saw me she sat up and scooted backward until her back was against the bed’s headboard. I handed her the cup of coffee.

“You make this?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Your father did.”

“Good. You make lousy coffee.”

“Well good morning to you too,” I said.

She laid a hand on my wrist. “I take it he’s up.”

“Yeah. The kitchen’s waffle world.”

“I better go down there.” She handed me the coffee and leaped out from under the sheets. “He’ll let Jack eat as many waffles as he wants. The last thing we need is Jack getting car sick on the way home.”        

While Jack, Hank, and Cheryl continued with breakfast, I began packing. I’d finished with Jack’s things and started in on mine when Cheryl returned and joined in.

“He seems okay this morning.” She balled up a sweatshirt and tossed it into her suitcase.

“Uh Huh.”

“Look, I know he didn’t mean for it to happen, but…”

“I know,” I said. “It’s okay.  I understand.”

Cheryl resumed packing. I snapped the locks on my bag shut, then went and got Jack’s bag from the other room. Outside I skirted the edge of the burn pit, made my way to the wagon, and deposited the bag in the trunk. As I walked back to the cabin, I stopped at the burn pit for a moment, then continued on.  

Cheryl had finished the packing and brought the last of our suitcases downstairs to the front room. I tucked one of the small bags under my arm and grabbed each suitcase with a free hand.

“Let me help.” She slipped the small bag out from under my arm. She grabbed the door, and I shuffled through. We placed the suitcases in the trunk, then headed back to collect Jack.

“Did you notice?” I nodded toward the burn pit. 

Cheryl stopped and stared. Scratched in the pit’s ashes were the words, Jack & Grandpa.   

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Look there.” I pointed at the large clump of ashes after the final “a” in grandpa. 

Her eyes followed my finger, then stopped. Barely visible was what remained of the stock of the gun Jack had found when we’d arrived on Friday.

“He didn’t.”

“He must have.”

Cheryl shook her head and we resumed walking.

“You all set?” asked Hank as we set foot back inside. 

“Yup,” I replied. “We’ll be seeing you.” I waved, took Cheryl by the elbow and pretended to leave.

“What about me?”

“You who?”

“Me. Jack. You can’t leave without me.”

“Darn,” I said, smiling at my son. “I thought we were forgetting something.”

Cheryl took Jack by the hand and the four of us went outside to say final goodbyes. As Cheryl buckled Jack into his car seat, Hank went over to Jack’s open window, thrust in his hand, then quickly withdrew it.

“I’ve got your nose.” He held the tip of his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger.

“Give it back.” Jack squirmed in his seat.

“Alright.” Hank  reached back in and touched Jack’s nose. “Only as long as you promise to come visit me again real soon.”

“Dad, I love you.” Cheryl, gave Hank a hug.

“I love you too, little girl.” He hugging her back.

“Hank.”

“Jim.”

“You take care.”

“You too. Look after my little girl and grandson,” he added as Cheryl and I got in the car.

I started up the wagon, stuck my arm out the window, and gave Hank a wave as we began making our way down the cinder driveway. In the rearview mirror, I could see Hank standing alone waving goodbye.

“You all stay safe,” he yelled. Then he turned away and headed back toward the cabin.

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  He has been published in over 30 magazines including: Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, Rigorous, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

He currently lives outside of Boston.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262

Tenderloin by Steve Carr

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In this room I’m hidden by a camouflage of poverty. It’s a small room with a bed that pulls down from the wall, a Murphy Bed they call it. To me, my bed is Murphy. There are no sheets or covers on Murphy and the mattress has a tear in the middle and its intestines are sticking out. I have no pillow but I rest my head on a helmet and dream that I’m somewhere else other than this room.

There’s a dresser with five drawers but I only use the bottom one, hiding my papers there: my army discharge papers, high school diploma, newspaper articles about me winning swimming competitions when I was in high school. Everything else I own, my civilian clothes, my army uniform, army boots, two thirty pound dumbbells, and my emptied duffel bag, are scattered about on the floor forming small mounds that I step over like the dead bodies I stepped over in Iraq. The mirror above the dresser has a crack that looks like a scar.

The walls have the wounds of neglect, cracking green paint and peeling yellow wallpaper. There’s a window with torn plastic curtains that looks out on the busy street and the small grocery store across the street. No one going by on the street or in and out of the store knows I’m watching them through the holes in the curtain. This room is my bunker.

I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was. Alone in this room it’s easy to forget a simple thing like my own name. Looking into the cracked mirror; its scar becomes my scar, an injury across the smooth flesh of my muscled chest.

I came back from Iraq, from the army, uninjured but not unscathed. No one can see the damage but me. I see it in my reflection; my blue eyes hold the injuries of witnessing what no man should see. My biceps, triceps, forearms, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, glutes, quads and calves are strong and well developed, but identity isn’t. It has gotten lost along the way.

Lifting dumbbells in front of the mirror I watch the armor that is my flesh ripple with every arm curl. In this room no one can pierce my armor. Out on the streets, it’s a different story. It’s a dangerous place called the Tenderloin. It’s the bruised underbelly of this city and I am now part of the bruise. It takes strategic thinking about when to venture out, so I when it is dark I watch through the holes in the curtains, for the time that is right to infiltrate those who inhabit the city streets.

***

Against this wall at night, one booted foot against it, my knee bent, my back pressed against the heat of the summer-heated bricks, I can only be seen by those looking for me; not me exactly, but the type of me they are looking for. I wear my sand color camouflage fatigues and a tight black t-shirt and black army boots but in the darkness where I stand I am the same color as the shadows.

The warm winds blow and tousle my short blonde hair. Rivulets of sweat run between my shoulder blades down my spine and the middle of my pecs. This is the weather of Iraq without the sand. I inhale the drifting toxins of the city: gas fumes, rotting trash, urine. From this location I spot the window of my room, the light left on like a safety beacon.

“How much?” A middle aged man in khaki shorts and a blood-red polo shirt passing slowly by asks me.

“Not interested,” I say.

“I’ll make it worth your time,” he says.

“My time isn’t for sale.” I shift the other boot against the wall.

He moves on, targeting another inhabitant of the shadows not far from me. Their muffled voices are low and indecipherable until they depart into the alley. The sound of what they are doing with their bodies blends into the multitude of other sounds on this street: seller and buyer.

I separate myself from them and focus on the prostitute across the street adjust her neon pink stockings, Jade. Her hair is down tonight, separated down the middle and hanging around her face like a hajib of hair. I know her, not modest or religious, her hair doesn’t fool me.

A car pulls up to the curb beside her. She leans into the open passenger side window of the car. Apparently there is no agreement on the terms so he drives off leaving Jade now adjusting her halter top. What she wears is her uniform. She catches me and waves. I wave back.

She walks on and I realize how alike we are. Jade and I, both survivors of different kinds of war. Her war is the streets of the Tenderloin and I left the war in Iraq to enter this one in Jade’s territory. It’s a different combat zone.

“Have a cigarette?” a young man in tight jeans, a button down blue shirt and wearing cowboy boots asks.

“I don’t smoke.” I set my jaw.

He leans against the wall so close his cologne and after shave surround me. I’ve seen him before. He is a wanderer, one of the many who are always walking these streets. I’ve seen him through my curtains going in and out of the store, and up and down this street. His brown cowboy boots are well-shined. I notice those kinds of things. I’ve named him, Boots.

“Hot night.” Boots glances up at the starless sky.

“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.

He leans even closer to me. “I have some brown sugar,” Boots whispers as if it was a secret that no one in the Tenderloin had ever heard before. “We could go to my place.”

“No thanks,” I tell him.

The two have come out of the alley. The man in the shorts adjusts his belt and hurriedly walks past me. The other one stands at the entrance of the alley surveying the landscape and in the half-light he looks young, illegally young for what he is selling, which in itself is illegal.

He walks the other direction and escapes into the night. I am an observer, where strangers briefly become allies. I have several lookout posts in the Tenderloin, but this one near my room is where I mainly station myself. Boots nervously taps the toe of one of his boots against a crack in the pavement. He is as watchful as I am, but I can only guess what he is watching for.

 Back in the room I remove my sweat-soaked t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror and while the scar is still there, there are no fresh wounds; not on me or on the mirror.

***

Lying in the dark on my back on Murphy I’ve pushed the helmet aside and am staring up at the ceiling. Light from the grocery store’s white neon sign shines through the holes in the curtains to form bullet holes and grenade beams between the cracks that are like lines on a terrain map on the ceiling.  The ceiling fan does not work and is idle and useless. The room is even warmer than outside.

I’ve taken off all my clothes and deposited them on a mound of other gear. I sweat. It drains from my pores. This being naked, it is a test of my sense of safety. I’m not vulnerable in the room, only when I leave it.

Beneath the naked flesh of my back, Murphy’s protruding innards push into me. It’s a test of endurance, my ability to sustain the feeling of discomfort, so I don’t move. I hear a brief scream from outside as I drift off to sleep. I’ve heard screams before, when awake and not awake.

Morning comes with the subtlety of a tank rolling across hard earth. The sound of heavy traffic breaks through the barricade of my dreams. Eyes open, I glimpse the ceiling as it is in the light of day, a canopy of cracked plaster. I don’t move. My naked body adjusts to the dryness of the daytime heat.

Sweat sticks to my skin; I’m an evaporated salt lake with nothing left but granules. My skin has adhered to Murphy and as I rise up I pull some of Murphy’s insides with me. I sit on the edge of Murphy and survey the landscape that is the room. It’s a wasteland of neglect.

With a towel around my waist I go to the only bathroom on this floor and stand outside it waiting for whoever is inside. Around me is the carnage even worse than that in my room. Everything needs repair. After the sounds of the shower cease, the door unlocks moments later and the old man who lives in another of the rooms, comes out in a tattered purple bathrobe. He wears the difficulties of his life on his face like a mask of despair.

I go in as he goes down the hallway toward his room. I lock the door and undo my towel and urinate in the ringed toilet bowl. There is no brush to clean it with even if I wanted to. Every part of the building outside my room echoes. My urine hits the water in the toilet bowl and reverberates around me like choppers just as they land.

I read the graffiti on the walls as I have every morning. Nothing new is added. The writers moved on or grew tired of deciphering each other’s codes. Finished, I step into the shower, turn it on, and let cool water rinse the night from my skin.

My time in it is brief and after shaving I go back to my room. A yellow note sits pinned on my door. I open it and read: “Rent Past Due. Payment in full required. Management.”

In the room I dig beneath the papers in the bottom drawer of the dresser and take out the white envelope that I keep my money in and flip through the bills counting up the total. There’s enough to pay half the rent if I include what little is in my pants pocket. Sitting back on a mound of clothes, the softness is like a dead Iraqi soldier’s body I sat on while getting my picture taken. I pull one of the articles from high school out of the drawer and look at the picture of me when I was a champion swimmer in a pair of Speedos.

My body has changed.

I’ve changed.

The names of my parents are in the article: Bill and Doris. In the room they are just names on a yellowing piece of newsprint. I fold the article and place it back with all the other emotional contraband and close the drawer. Naked, exposed but unable to be seen, I stand at the window and peek through a hole in the curtain. Even in the brightness of the morning sun the shadows are everywhere in the Tenderloin.

In a different pair of fatigues the same color as the others and a different t-shirt, also black, I leave the room and exit the building to step out into the fury of noise and odors that is the Tenderloin on a weekday. Crossing the street to the store I see a man in a suit standing in my location. He’s reading a newspaper, an innocent occupier in my nighttime territory.

The store is cool and surprisingly quiet. The Korean man behind the counter is Mr. Chin. It’s not his real name. It’s the name I have given him. He has a mole in the middle of his chin and Mr. Chin sounded more Asian than Mole.

His age is hard to determine but his jet black hair is lined with strands of gray and his eyes have the weariness of age. Placing a carton of orange juice and a pack of fig newtons on the counter I don’t call him Mr. Chin. I don’t call him anything.

“How are you today?” he asks in a very formal way as always. “It looks like it’s going to be another hot day today.” He tallies the cost of my two items on the cash register.

“I’m used to the heat.” I hand him money.

Mr. Chin is always here it seems, night and day. He’s a motionless target in the Tenderloin where enemy combatants roam. Without knowing why, I worry about him. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.

“I have insomnia,” he says. “Keeping busy takes my mind off wondering why I’m always awake.”

“Sleeping isn’t all it’s cut out to be.” I refuse a bag for my juice and cookies.

“Neither is being awake.” He smiles and I leave the store.

Finding a place to sit on a wood crate at the entrance of the alley, I sit down and open the carton and fig newtons. The alley reeks of refuse and stagnant water and in the heat is a noxious mixture that kills the taste of the juice and cookies. Stuck on the wall near where I’m sitting is a used condom glued there with bodily fluids like a medal of honor in a whorehouse. I’m unable to finish what I bought for my breakfast. I toss the half-empty carton of juice on top of garbage in an open trash can and wrap the package of fig newtons in my hand to be eaten later.

***

On a street in Baghdad I was accosted by a man who spoke no English but was definitely trying to warn me about something. When a bomb exploded a hundred yards up the street in the direction I was headed, I realized what he was trying to say. Paxton Street is much the same way; I feel like a foreigner always headed for unspeakable danger. I was told that it has improved over the years, becoming in some parts more gentrified, but I see few signs of it.

When I run into Boots coming out of an adult book store he’s more surprised to see me than I am to see him. I look down. He’s wearing the same cowboy boots.

He nods. “You always look like you’re dressed for combat.”

“I am.” I grip the cookies until they’re crushed. “Listen,” I say hesitantly, knowing I am about to enter a mine field. “I need to earn some money.”

“What are you willing to do for it?” he asks.

“Not what you think.”

A car drives slowly by and the driver taps the horn. Boots waves him on and the car continues up the street. “I know this guy looking for just your type,” Boots says.

“I told you, I’m not looking to make money that way.”

“I know,” Boots says. “This is something different. It’s not even illegal and the guy has lots of money and is willing to pay.”

“What does he want?” I ask, feeling as if Boots is that Iraqi but only I am being led into danger and not being kept from it.

“Meet me tonight at your usual spot and I’ll bring him along. You guys can meet and if you two are cool with each other he can tell you himself.”

“What do you want out of it?” I ask.

“I’ll get my take from him afterward,” he says.

***

In the afternoon I put the window up. Hot air blows the plastic curtains into the room. Their ends snap like muted gun fire.

I stand in front of the mirror and do arm curls. This combined with squats and crunches done between the mounds of my belongings is my daily routine. My dog tags tinkle against each other with every lift. On the top of the dresser the empty package of fig newtons rustles in the breeze. I’m readying myself for something; a secret mission.

With each curl I exhale in and out the smells of the Tenderloin and the odors in the room. My clothes lay on Murphy. I haven’t washed them for a week and they’re thick with sweat. When I leave the room and then come back in it’s my scent I smell first, then that of the city. 

Looking into the mirror is therapy. It reassures me along with the scent in the room that I exist, that I fought in Iraq and lived.

It’s me I’m looking at in the mirror when there is a knock on the door. I put on my pants and open it cautiously.

“Did you get the note I pinned on your door?” It’s Beard. That’s not his name but he has a beard that reaches down to his stomach. It was the first thing I noticed about him and before I knew his name. He’s a big man, obese not muscled. He’s proud of his job as manager of the building. I know this because he told me so.

“Yes, I got it,” I say.

“Are you going to be able to pay your rent by tomorrow?” Beard looks around me at the room and grimaces.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’m making arrangements to get it tonight.”

“Good,” Beard says. “I don’t like to throw veterans out if I don’t have to.”

“You won’t have to throw me out,” I say.

He takes another look at the room, the hills of my belongings. “I’ll be back tomorrow and you can give me the rent then.” He turns and walks away.

I shut the door and put on the rest of my clothes. Without me or my clothes Murphy looks naked.

***

At twilight the store is busier. At the freezer I see through the glass there’s one burrito left. I open the door and take it out. I stare at the microwave instructions printed on the back. My diet sucks and the food I put into my body does not nourish me.

In the Army I was fed well and had a roof over my head as well as a steady paycheck. The only cost was the possibility of being shot or blown up. I put the burrito in the microwave at the back of the store and while waiting unscrew the cap on the water. I’m prepared to have my supper even before I get in line at the counter.

After Mr. Chin takes care of another customer, I step up and put the heated burrito and the water on the counter and take out a few dollar bills from my fatigues pocket. Before he puts his fingers on the cash register he says “You seem like a nice guy. I could use some help if you’re interested in working here.”

“Sure,” I say. “When do you want me to start?”

“Is tomorrow morning, okay?” He tallies up the price of my purchase on the cash register.

“Sure.” I pick up the burrito and bottled water and leave the store.

The street is bathed in fading sunlight as I cross it and take up my place at my lookout. In a matter of minutes even before the sun is completely down the young man – the kid – that was here last night takes his place in the same spot he was in last night. I quickly eat the burrito and down the water and walk over to the entrance of the alley and toss the burrito package and empty bottle in the trash can.

I’m looking at him and he is looking at me. He seems as if he stepped out of one of the photos of me in one of the newspaper clippings. I think of him as the me back then and name him, Me.

Me is wearing a tight white t-shirt with gold lettering on the upper right chest that says All-American.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s a free country. I can be where I want.”

“I meant you shouldn’t be using this disgusting alley to conduct your business.”

“You know a better place?” Me asks sounding partially sarcastic and partially honestly inquisitive.

I think about my room, not because I would offer it to him, but it’s the only safe place I have known for the past three months. “No.”

I return to my spot and prop my boot against the wall and watch the shadows turn to night along the street. Me almost disappears in the darkness, his white t-shirt partly visible. I’m lost in thought, thinking about working at the store. It isn’t much but it’s enough.

Jade suddenly pops up in front of me. She has changed her uniform. She’s wearing a tight yellow vinyl skirt and a bright green bikini top. She almost towers over me in her knee high boots with spiked heels. Her hair is wound around her head like a turban.

“I saw you talking to that little sleaze ball who wears the cowboy boots. If you’ll take my advice steer clear of him. He’s connected with some pretty strange dudes.”

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

Au revoir.” Jade crosses the street. Her heels click like small firecrackers on the pavement with every step she takes. It reminds me of Fourth of July parties with Bill and Doris. It also reminds me of the sound of tracers being shot into the night sky.

***

Neither Jade or Me have seen any action. We three occupy our territories being watchful and restless, each for different reasons. The light shines through the window in the room, reminds me I have somewhere to go for rest and relaxation. I have it for now at least.

I spot Boots and the man with him as they walk toward me. In my head I instantly name the man, Swagger. It’s how he walks, as if he owned the world. As if about to undergo military inspection I stand up at parade rest. Boots and Swagger come up to me.

Without really acknowledging me, Boots turns to Swagger and says, “See, I told you, just what you’re looking for.”

Swagger is wearing a t-shirt and jeans and is nearly as muscular as I am. He looks me over from boots to my hair.

I feel like a mannequin in a store front window being examined for the cut of my clothes.

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

“Do just fine for what?” I ask.

He raises his left hand to swat away a gnat and I see a wedding ring on the third finger. “I’d rather not discuss it here,” he says as if what he has in mind will be broadcast by loud speakers throughout the Tenderloin. “You must live nearby. Can we go there?”

Boots shuffles his feet on the sidewalk, the scuff of it is an annoying distraction. “Don’t you have somewhere else you can be?” I ask him.

“Oh, sure.” Boots turns to leave. “I’ll catch up with you later for my cut,” he says to Swagger. He walks toward Paxton Street, stopping in front of Me and whispering to him. They walk on together.

“I don’t do anything sexual,” I tell Swagger.

“What I’m looking for isn’t sexual, at least not in the usual sense. You could make up to five hundred dollars.” He reaches into his jeans and pulls out a roll of money held together by a rubber band. “But I don’t want to do this if you don’t have a place we can go to.”

No one other than me has been in the room since I moved into it. Even Beard has not gotten any further than my open door. “We can go to my room,” I say reluctantly. When the sound of gunfire rings out from Mr. Chin’s store I think it’s noises in my head.

Swagger and I glance in that direction. Within moments the sound of police sirens pierce the night.

“He’s been shot,” Jade yells to me from across the street.

I cross the street with Swagger. Two police cars and an ambulance pull up in front of Mr. Chin’s store. A small crowd of onlookers including Jade are chattering among themselves.

“The guy tried to rob him, then shot him and ran out.”

“He’s such a nice man.”

“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.

“Mr. Chin, I think,” I say. “He owns the store.”

“Is he a friend of yours?” Swagger asks.

“The last friend I had was killed in Iraq,” I say.

Swagger looks at his watch. “I don’t have lots of time. Can we go?”

Going into my building I look over my shoulder and see two paramedics bringing someone out of the store on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.

***

The room is as I left it. It never changes in any noticeable way. The air is hot and thick with the stench of body odor. Swagger says nothing as he comes in and I close the door behind him. He stands feet spread apart between two mounds of clothing. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the roll of money and tosses it on Murphy.

“A hundred dollars every time you punch me,” he says.

“What?” I say, uncertain that I have heard him correctly.

“I want you to punch me,” he says. “And hard. Anywhere but my face.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes.” He removes his t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” I say. “I told you nothing sexual.”

“I’m not wanting sex with you.” He sits on Murphy and pulls off his shoes and socks. “I just want you to punch me a few times. That’s all. I just prefer to be naked when you do it.” He stands up and takes off his jeans and underwear and faces me. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

I punch him on his left chest just above his nipple. He’s staring at me with disappointment written on his face. “Surely you can punch me harder than that.”

I land another much harder punch above the other nipple. The sound of my fist making contact with his bare flesh is like a bullet striking a cardboard target. He reels back slightly, and closes his eyes for a moment. He slowly opens his eyes. They are glassy like a cat in heat. “Oh, yeah that’s more like it.” He reaches over to the wad of money and takes out a hundred dollar bill and hands it to me. “Again,” he says.

I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused. He gives me another hundred dollar bill. I hit him again, this time on his left jaw.

“I told you not the face,” he says.

Then I punch him again, and again, and don’t stop. I am a relentless machine of released anger. He collapses on Murphy in a pile of blood and sweat. His face swells. Bruises already darken the skin around his eyes. His breathing grows labored.

“Why?” he asks. Blood drips from his mouth.

“I was in Iraq,” I say and lay into him again.

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 240 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.

KITEZH by A.L. Sirois

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The digital clock on my car’s dash read 8:59 am. I took my .380 semiautomatic out of the glove box and slid it in the holster inside my jacket. Not that I thought I’d need it here; I’m simply in the habit of having a gun on me. I walked across the pea gravel to the flagstones leading to the green front door, pressing the doorbell at precisely 9:00 am.

The door swung open, answered by a tall, loose-limbed man with straight dark hair, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. I also noticed the grey patches under his eyes, and wondered how well he had been sleeping of late.

“Miss McNeil. A pleasure. I am Peter Orlov.” His English was ever so slightly accented by his native tongue. “Please, come in.”

Orlov ushered me into a house tastefully decorated in a more or less classical style, with polished wood floors, plenty of light from wide windows, bookcases, and flowers on end tables.

I learned early on that I don’t play well with others. I’m not anti-social—well, maybe a little—or truculent, I like having my way and I’m usually right. Over the years I’ve found that most people don’t appreciate these tendencies.

College wasn’t for me, either, so I joined the Army. Having a natural facility for languages I trained as a cryptologic linguist. The armed services and I turned out not to be such a great fit, either, even though I enjoyed the opportunities provided me. My twin brother, Terry, became a career military man. Fine by me. We have no other family, and as long as he’s happy, I’m happy. After I was discharged I knocked around the West Coast for awhile, grew bored, and came back east.

Terry helped me get into my current line of work. I’m an investigator. I find things, learn things; take risks for those who can’t. Or won’t. Terry is well connected with the CIA and DMS and other alphabet agencies that occasionally need someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. My clientele tends to be high-end. Very high-end.

Which often makes opening e-mails from strangers interesting.

A particularly interesting one hit my in-box two days earlier. It was from Peter Orlov, whom I did not know, and read, simply, Dear Miss McNeil: I want to know where I was. And I want to return there.

He’d attached a scan of a Pravda article from 1987 detailing the disappearance of nine-year-old Pytor Abramovich Orlov while vacationing with his parents and younger brother, and his mysterious reappearance two days later in the center of Arzamas, the nearest city. When asked where he’d been, Pytor lapsed into glossolalia, which ceased only when questioning ended. Otherwise his speech was unimpaired.

Also attached to Peter—Pytor—Orlov’s email were several colored pencil sketches he’d made of strangely dressed people who looked somehow Slavic but wore bright voluminous garments and turban-like headgear. The men donned forked beards, and the women hid their breasts under dozens of strands of wampum-like necklaces. Perhaps in emulation of the male turban, their hair was worn in an up swept all-but-spherical coif, like an expanded Sixties “beehive.” All, men and women, were light of complexion, with dark eyes and dark hair.

I’m well-traveled, and have spent time on all the continents—including Antarctica—doing research for my clients. I didn’t recognize the particular ethnic group depicted in Orlov’s meticulous drawings. They certainly were not Russian, or even Slavic. If anything, they looked somewhat Persian.

Intrigued, I replied, agreeing to see him. Two days later I was in Nyack, New York.

According to my research, both Orlov brothers came to the States from Russia as children in 1989. Peter was now thirty-eight years old, the wealthy if somewhat eccentric and reclusive CEO of a rising pharmaceutical conglomerate. Jurij changed his name to George and took over the day-to-day running of the corporation as its COO. Peter had no wife, no ex-wives, no children.

Orlov led the way through the foyer into a sitting room. “Miss O’Neil, will you take coffee or tea?”

“Decaf green tea would be wonderful if you have it. And do call me Alice.”

“Then you must call me Peter.” He excused himself.

I examined my surroundings. Low bookcases lined three walls, with paintings above them. French doors opened onto a slate patio, brushed this October day by leaves from a black walnut tree. Its spherical seedpods sat scattered on the flags like green golf balls.

I turned as he entered with two steaming cups—Noritake china on a silver tray along with a sugar bowl, tongs, spoons and creamer. Real silver, too, not plate. And he did his own serving. Odd, for such a wealthy person.

I dropped a lump of raw sugar into my cup as he settled into a wing chair opposite the window. “I couldn’t place the costumes in the drawings you sent.”

A half smile. “I would have been astounded if you could.”

“And that’s the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the place to which you were taken.” I took a chair across from his. “Kitezh, or whatever you call it.”

“I was not taken there. I walked there.”

“Walked?” I set my teacup down on the table beside my chair. “Peter.” I switched to Russian. “I know my Russian geography. It’s more than fifty kilometers from where you vanished, near Lake Svetloyar, to where you turned up.”

“Fifty-three.” He smiled with a crooked humor.

“And you… walked there.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In a manner of… at the age of nine?”

He nodded.

“In two days?”

“Ah. No.” He leaned forward. “I was somewhere else, in between. In Kitezh.” His gaze became distant. “At that time it was near the lake. They didn’t want me to get lost, you see, so they took me, teleportedme, whatever, to Arzamas. I didn’t walk fifty-three kilometers.”

“’They?” I gaped. “Teleported?” And what did he mean by at that time?

“The inhabitants of Kitezh.” He sighed, smiling. “It’s such a beautiful place, Alice.”

He wasn’t speaking in the past tense. The place was real, alive, to him.

“There was a fountain, with two and three-story homes all around, peaked roofs, very quaint but overgrown with electric ivy, a blue sky such as I have never seen any—”

“Wait, what? Electric ivy?”

He waved a hand. “I call it that. All the houses were festooned with green wires. At first I thought they were vines because they had leaves, with curling offshoots like Morning Glory tendrils seeking purchase, but the leaves were transparent, with flat electronic components inside them. These vines covered the houses.”

“Solar collectors.” This man was not lying. At least, he didn’t think he was.

“I saw no other source of power while I was there.”

“I see. Go on. And on your return?”

He shook his head as if to settle his thoughts. “I walked from the square at the behest of my… hosts, headed for a street entry, and no sooner did I set foot off the cobbles then I stepped into Arzamas. I was in front of the town hall.”

“The transition was instantaneous?”

“Yes.” His hands grew animated. “And so that was the fifty-three kilometers. In a single step.”

I sipped my tea as he filled in details. Lake Svetloyar was a popular tourist destination among a certain class of Russians. Peter’s parents, petrochemical engineers, had often vacationed there when their boys were young.

“We got off the bus in Balakhna. You say you are good with geography, Alice. Do you know the town?”

“I know of it.”

“Nestled in the arms of the Volga. An historic region, but there’s not much for young boys to do there. My father loved to fish, though, and my mother to sketch. They took us to the lake on the second day. I drew for a while with Mother, but got bored and wandered off, exploring, as boys will do. George adored fishing, and stayed with our father. I skipped stones on the lake, caught a frog or two, let them go and then I got hungry so I turned back.” He frowned and sighed. “And saw a city on the shore of the lake, placed between me and my parents. I had to have walked through it, you see; but I never saw it until I turned back.” He paused, but I said nothing, simply nodded for him to continue.

“I call it a city, but it was more a village. The lakeside path I walked became a cobblestone street. Wood frame buildings lined it. This was Kitezh.” At my blank look, he went on.” He leaned forward. “A mythical city, like… I don’t know, the Emerald City? Or the place where Batman lives. But I believe Kitezh took me, and after I was there for a short time, deposited me in Arzamas.”

In a single step. “You could not discuss this when you were young. Yet now you can speak of it.”

“I could not write about my experience, either, although again I thought I was being perfectly clear.” He shrugged. “Scrawls. Nor could I type coherently into a computer. My parents feared I had a brain tumor. MRIs and PET scans ruled that out. At last I stopped talking about what happened to me and thereafter had no further speech or writing problems.

“My parents were both killed in a train wreck in 1988. George and I were raised by relatives here in America. When we came of age we devoted ourselves to our parents’ business. They had a small pharmaceutical company, which George and I have grown into a multinational corporation. When our corporate headquarters moved to New York City, I came here. George stays in Manhattan.

“Two years ago I was in an automobile accident that left me in a coma for four days. When I came to I found George sitting at my bedside, looking oddly at me. He said I had been raving about Kitezh. Do you understand? I could talk about it at last, even if I was delirious! The accident somehow negated the conditioning, hypnosis, whatever, I’d received in Kitezh. Or maybe the compulsion had worn off with time, I don’t know. I told him I’d simply been dreaming.” He sighed. “I did not want to worry him. About my sanity, you see. He never says anything, but I believe he has his doubts.”

“Mmm.” I knew a little something about that. “So you came to me, to find Kitezh.” I took a last sip of my tea and carefully put the cup down on the table. Outside, a black walnut seedpod hit the patio flagstones with a clunk.

“Exactly.”

“Russia? I’ve never been there. I speak the language, but—”

He waved this aside. “I have friends there who will help you.”

“You’ve tried to find it yourself?”

He frowned, his gaze again growing distant. “I have returned to Russia several times to search for it, to no avail. I would swear Kitezh recedes from me.” He pursed his mouth. “Avoids me.” He went to his computer and called up a sound file. It was forty seconds of a strange melody, simple but with odd intervals, hesitantly played on a piano.

“This is a song I heard while I was there,” he said. “Someone played it on a flute one night. I’ve never forgotten it. I picked it out on a piano and recorded it.” He handed me a flash drive. “Here’s a copy.”

Peter Orlov was no crackpot. Somethinghad happened to him. Something he couldn’t explain.

“It is said, you know,” Peter told me, “that only those who are pure in their heart and soul will find their way to Kitezh.”

I allowed myself a tight smile. “Even so, I am hardly pure in my heart and soul.”

“I have nowhere else to turn. Will you help me?”

“I’ll try.” We shook on it, and the discussion turned to my fee.

He didn’t blink.

*

On the flight to Russia I went over Peter’s notes and drawings as well as the official accounts detailing his “disappearance.” I also obtained his medical records. None of the documentation gave me the least hint how to find Kitezh.

Others had heard of it, however, as I learned after spending a few hours on the Internet. According to legend, as the Mongols swept through the region some eight centuries ago they learned of Kitezh and detoured to sack it. They reached the lake shore town, saw it had no fortifications, and drew their weapons for slaughter. Kitezh’s citizens ringed the village wall, praying for salvation as the horsemen advanced. Like a miracle, water burst forth from dozens of places in the ground. As the Mongols stared in amazement the city sank beneath the lake and was never seen again.

Except occasionally, here and there, at different locations around the lake where young Pytor Abramovich Orlov stumbled on it.

Allegedly.

My first move would be to check out the area.

Two days’ travel later I was in a Volga 3102 with crappy suspension, jouncing along a semi-improved roadway toward Lake Svetloyar. My driver, Mikhail, a laconic chain-smoking dumpling of a man with close-set eyes, had met me at Moscow Airport. He was one of the friends Peter mentioned. He seemed surprised that I spoke fluent Russian.

“Poor Pyotr. He’s been obsessing about Kitezh since he was a child.”

“Yes?”

He nodded, never taking his eyes from the road, for which I was grateful. My insides cramped in an uproar from the car bouncing along all the ruts. “He visited me the last time he was here, a few months ago. He thinks the city flees him, you know.” He blew smoke out of his nose in a gentle snort.

“He did say something about that.”

“Why he thinks you could be of help. I do not know.”

“I’m a professional researcher.”

His glance, eyebrows raised, asked a further question.

“Of the paranormal, you might say.”

He scoffed. “Supernatural?” After that he said nothing more, which was fine with me. I was in no mood to explain how an army cryptologic linguist had become a professional cryptologist. He concentrated on his cigarettes and his driving and I concentrated on not puking all over his bouncing, smoky little car.

At last we arrived at our destination, a small hotel near the lake—more of a bed and breakfast, really, with a dining room. I signed in while Mikhail brought my luggage to my room. As it was not tourist season, I turned out to be the only guest.

Mikhail took his leave in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Jet-lagged and ill, I went straight to bed, wakened the next morning by my cell phone to a misty dawn.

While dressing the next morning, my cell phone rang. I dug it out of my pocket. The LED panel read G. ORLOV.

Aw, crap. I flipped it open. “McNeil.”

“What progress, Ms. McNeil?”

“Hello, Mr. Orlov.” No George and Alice with this brother. “Nothing definite yet.”

Silence. Then, “I expect results, Ms. McNeil. I told you when I hired you: I can’t allow the company to be run by an unbalanced CEO, even if he is my brother.”

Fighting between the Orlov brothers wasn’t my concern. Peter Orlov thought he’d found me on his own, but it was George who’d heard of me and nudged my name and rep into his brother’s ken. Peter took the bait. He believed in me because he wanted to.

“Understood, sir,” I said, as coldly as I could. George’s money was better than good, but he was an arrogant, entitled jerk. I prepared for Peter to be an even bigger one, but found myself surprised: I liked Peter. Which made this subterfuge all the more distasteful to me.

It was all business, yeah, and I had two big paydays coming, one from each brother, but that didn’t endear me to myself.

 “Good,” he said. “I’ll call later.” The line went dead.

*

Breakfast consisted of strong coffee and pastries of a type I’d never seen before: dark braided bread coated with a fruit compote glaze and filled with mildly spiced meat. Scrumptious, but I could no more than nibble at it. My stomach wouldn’t cooperate.

As the waiter, a pasty-faced man in his fifties, cleared the table I flipped my cellphone open to access my media files. “Have you ever heard this tune, my friend?” I played Peter’s little melody.

The waiter’s eyes went wide then became hooded. He spoke but not in Russian. I couldn’t place the tongue. He caught himself and said, curtly, “No. Never.” He hurried away with the dishes.

I left the inn with a backpack containing one of the pastries, some cheese, and water—and a couple of very sophisticated little devices to detect and measure ambient electromagnetic fields. The air blew cool and slightly damp, but with an apple snap to it that I never encountered in the States. Tourist season was past, and I stood alone on the lakeside trail. The water lapped conversationally and birds sang.

Despite the day’s beauty, as I walked the path something seemed off to me. Kitezh, I felt sure, was not likely to be sitting around waiting for me to find it. It would more likely be wandering amid the dark fir forest crowding the lake.

I began thinking of the city as an animal-like entity, something with intelligence and purpose.

The trees around me grew somehow more menacing and I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was being watched. My instruments, however, revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Three times I resolved to turn back; instead, after an hour and a half or so I made it all the way around the lake. I had gotten some good exercise, but learned nothing.

Back at the hotel I ate a good dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning I took the lakeside trail once more, in the opposite direction. This time I got about three-quarters of the way around the lake before I saw a sketchy trail twisting away from the main path, threading into a narrow, steep sided ravine. I was a dozen or so steps into the cleft before an unexpected aroma of fresh bread filled my nostrils. I walked a few meters further, the delicious odor drawing me on despite my unsettled stomach.

Ahead, the way became quite rocky before curling around a dark stand of juniper that obscured my view. As I came round the thick bushes, the walls of the ravine closed in overhead, tunnel-like. The path became a cobbled passageway, the stones rising from the ground like bubbles from oatmeal.

Another twist of the trail hid the further end of the tunnel. The scent of bread grew even stronger. I rounded the corner, and stepped into a garden.

I stood on the edge of acres of trimmed grass framing beds of pale flowers unfamiliar to me. Stands of equally unfamiliar trees dotted the expanse. The way I’d been following continued through this park-like setting.

To my knowledge, there was no tourist attraction like this anywhere near the hotel.

I approached the nearest of several flowerbeds. The blossoms sat cream-colored, as large as saucers, with delicate mauve throats and long tapering leaves. Within each bloom sparkled what I took to be dewdrops. I leaned closer, and saw that each “drop” contained a strange little dark nucleus. As I moved back, these nuclei shifted position, as though aware of me, watching me.

A chill fluttered across my stomach. Then, partially hidden beside another plot of the weird flowers, I saw someone kneeling. A man, obviously, though his back was tome and his face unseen. He wore a sort of tunic and a turban was wrapped around his head. Beside the plants a small box had been affixed to a short post, like a low-sitting wren house.

I sucked in my breath. He could have walked out of one of Peter’s sketches. I drew closer, and saw that he was placing electrodes from a small device to the shrub. Knowledgeable as I was of common (and uncommon) electronics, I had never seen anything like the smart-phone-sized thing he held.

I approached him. He looked up at me. Blue eyes twinkled in a seamed, tanned face decorated by a dark goatee—the face of a fortyish man who spent much if not most of his time outdoors. He climbed easily to his feet and bowed to me.

“Greetings and welcome,” he said in Russian. “I am Benedikt.”

“Thank you. My name’s Alice. Uhm… what are you doing, there?” With my chin I pointed at the wire-festooned plant.

He chuckled. “I’m stimulating this plant to produce a version that will bear pure white flowers. It’s rather resistant, but I think I’ve got the correct settings at last.” He opened the box’s hinged top, placed the hand-held gadget within and clicked shut the lid.

“How?”

“I’m an electrobotanist,” he said, as if that was sufficient explanation.

What the devil is an electrobotanist? I licked my lips. “Is this… Kitezh?”

He smiled. “Come with me, Alice, if you would.” Benedikt set off through the park. Ahead, above a screen of vegetation, I saw the peaked, vine-grown roofs of what seemed to be a quaint Middle European town. The odor of baking bread had grown so strong now that I felt I could chew the air. “Kitezh… you are familiar with some of our local tall tales, I see.”

Tall tales. “I was taking a walk around the lake. I saw a little side-path, and…”

“It’s easy to get lost around here. You’re American, I think?”

“Yes.”

“Hardly a sought-out tourist destination, the lake, for Americans.”

I simply shrugged.

Within a few minutes we passed the screen of vegetation and entered a beautiful village. The lake lapped against a small wharf to which were tied a number of coracles, all appearing quite new, with polished oarlocks and painted a shiny green. It was the most charming little place I have ever seen, complete with a glittering fountain in the town square.

“Benedikt, I walked around the whole lake yesterday. There was no way I wouldn’t have noticed the trail to this place.”

“Yet somehow you did not.” He smiled. “It’s surprising what one can overlook if one is preoccupied.”

“I notice things for a living.” Never mind that I missed the path. “I came here specifically to find Kitezh.” I withdrew my cell phone from my pocket and began taking pictures.

Benedikt said, in a gentle tone, “That won’t work here.”

“Oh, no service, huh?” He was right. There were no bars on the display. While less than a tenth of a mile away I had been talking with George Orlov. Well, cell phones. “That’s all right, I’m only taking pictures.” And a few discreet movies. As well as whatever data the gizmos in my backpack can gather.

He shook his head, smiling. “I’m sorry. It won’t take pictures, either.”

I checked the phone—another point for Benedikt. Nothing in memory or on the card. The damn thing must be malfunctioning. But I knew it wasn’t. Whatever mental blip that caused people to speak in tongues after they left Kitezh apparently had an electronic analog, some sort of jamming field.

“Once you return through the ravine,” Benedikt said, “your phone will work.”

Without waiting to hear more I spun round and ran back the way we’d come. But somehow in my excitement I managed to lose my way. Again.On the path. At last, though I no longer knew where I was, I stopped. I pulled out my cell phone, saw two bars and punched Peter’s number.

His voice: “Hello?”

“Morel muspi. Rolod tisi tema, reutetcesnoc gincsipida tilé. Man h’bin. C’nun suirav sisilicaf soré. Des téra.” Listen to me. I found the place. It’s real. Kitezh is real. It’s all true. I’ve proved it.

“Who the hell is this? Alice, is that?”

“Des téra!” It’s real!

“Alice, you’re talking gibberish. Wait. You… can’t tell me what happened, can you?” He muttered something to himself. “You found it.”

“Mm-hm! Nio ni tilev—” Shaking with frustration I gave up, and walked on with the phone clutched in my hand. I was back on the trail around the lake, out of Kitezh and presumably free of its influence. I turned around, and saw nothing of the path’s offshoot that had led me there. It was maddening.

“Alice, are you there?” from my phone.

I lifted the phone to my ear. “I’m here.” I walked back a few steps and saw the way unfold out of the shrubbery like a live thing approaching me. “Wait, Peter.” I stepped onto the path. “Wait a moment.” I ran as fast as I could toward the ravine. At its mouth stood Benedikt the electrobotanist. He smiled, and tapped his forehead.

Yeah yeah, Yellow Submarine; it’s all in the mind.“You’re not going to let me tell him.”

His smile broadened but remained kindly. And a little pitying?

Into the phone, I said, “Goodbye, Peter. I’ll talk to you later.” I was panting. I faced the electrobotanist. “How much longer do you think you can keep this up, Benedikt? You Kitezhians or, or whatever you call yourselves.”

Benedikt extended a hand, palm up—walk with me. We strolled toward the village. “You’re correct,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to maintain our secrecy forever. It’s harder these days, with modern technology all around us. We regularly take the village to regions in Chinawhere—”

“Whoa. Wait. You take the village?”

“Oh, yes. It’s, well, portable.”

“But how can you move a whole,” I trailed off. “You’re not going to tell me.”

He smiled.

Just like Brigadoon, I said to myself, frowning. “Okay, go on with what you were saying.”

“We go to China, where there are deposits of rare earth elements we need for our own various technologies, including what you’d call a ‘cloaking device’ shielding us from outside view.” He sighed. “But the Chinese are growing suspicious due to ‘unexplained’ depletion of these deposits, and we may soon need to investigate extraterrestrial sources.”

“Well, I can under—wait. Extraterrestrial?”

“Asteroids. Let’s just say we’re working on it.”

“But this is…” I spread my arms and shook my head, at a loss for words. “How can a little lakeside village be capable of such a thing?”

“We’re not, not yet.”

“Not yet? My God.” My head was spinning. George Orlov was going to get his money’s worth, all right.

Peter already had. My very inability to tell him the truth told him the truth.

I would not, of course, be able to tell George what I had learned, that Kitezh was real, but my glossolalia would be sufficiently revealing. I had a pang for what I was doing to his unsuspecting brother.

“I know your circumstances, Ms. McNeill,” Benedikt said. “Why you’re here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Peter Orlov. To our way of looking at things, his boyhood visit here happened only a few weeks ago.”

I thought about the waiter back at the hotel. “Yeah, I think I’m starting to get it. You’ve been spying on me.”

“More like investigating what sort of person you are.”

“If you’re that good, you must know what I am. What I do.” I took a breath. “I’ve killed people, Benedikt.”

“Oh yes, we know. But we feel that in all cases the deaths were justified.” He smiled. “Otherwise you and I would not be talking now.”

“Uh-huh.” We walked a few more steps in silence while I thought. To someone in my line of work, Kitezh was like Paradise. I could learn so much. “Benedikt, listen. Do, do people ever stay on, here? You know, having stumbled in, do you allow some visitors to stay?”

“It has happened. If Peter finds us again, he’ll be allowed to stay. He has knowledge of financial matters that we would be able to use.”

“Yeah. What about someone like me? Could I stay?”

“Alice, the only reason we are having this conversation now is because we have been discussing our need for someone like you.”

“That’s settled, then. You won’t regret—”

He held up a hand. “You do understand that if at some point you decide to leave, you won’t be able to talk about it to anyone outside.”

“Yeees.”

“Nor will you retain the knowledge. We will have to edit your memory to remove any memories of Kitezh or what you did here.”

I swallowed. “Yes. But what about Peter Orlov?” I knew it was a foolish question as soon as the words left my mouth.

“I think he will make his way back here eventually.”

“Hmm. And George?”

Benedikt shrugged without bothering to speak.

I nodded slowly. George would be stuck. No proof and no investigator. On the other hand, if Peter was convinced that Kitezh existed, nothing would keep him from getting back to it. George would get his wish. He’d end heading the corporation.

I thought about the life I would be leaving behind. I had no family left except my younger brother, a career military man. He knew about my line of work, had in fact helped me get into it, being well connected with the CIA and DMS and a bunch of other alphabet agencies that occasionally needed someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. If I vanished he’d assume I had good reason, or got tangled with something bigger or weirder than I could handle.

Aside from him and a few houseplants, there was no one.

And yet.

We stood in Kitezh’s town square, Benedikt and I. There was the splashing fountain, the little houses covered with electric ivy, and a blue sky such as I had never seen. Small catlike mechanisms prowled the square, their metal claws ticking on the cobbles.

The breeze shifted warm and laden with good scents. A melody drifted past me; the same one Peter had recorded. A chill tickled my spine. I might call it unearthly.

I held out my hand and he took it.

“You’re not staying,” he said.

“I can’t just…disappear. I have family.” I released his hand. “A different kind of family. And other clients. Dangling threads that need tying up, you know? Believe me, I’d rather stay.”

Benedikt stared into my eyes for a long moment. Then he nodded. “Very well. Good luck, Alice. Perhaps I will see you again one day.”

I don’t like goodbyes. I turned and walked away.


A.L. Sirois is a writer, developmental editor, graphic artist and performing musician. He has published fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Mystery Weekly, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, et al. His story “In the Conservatory” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a fantasy novel, THE BOHEMIAN MAGICIAN (Dragon Scale Publishing, 2017), and JERSEY GHOULS (Azure Spider Publications, 2018). As an artist, he’s produced hundreds of drawings, paintings and illustrations. He lives in Rockingham County, North Carolina with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus.