Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing, Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As long as she goes outside.”

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

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

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

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tootsie only bays louder.

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

The bloodhound barks her assent.

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

My dog howls furiously.

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

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

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

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

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

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

Tootsie averts her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

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

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

I emit a startled croak.

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

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

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

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

Marta hangs up.

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

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

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

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

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

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

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

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

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

My pal looks down at the floor.

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

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

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

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

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

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

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

We erupt into drunken laughter.

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

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was not fucked up.”

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

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son of a—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My guns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 Writing Competition Winning Stories

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

FIRST PLACE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

“These make long fuses,” I said.

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

“So, what?” Angel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “It’s nuts. You’re crazy.”

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

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

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

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

I exclaimed, “It’s revenge time.”

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

“Yes, sir.”

“Not me!”

“Who cares,” I replied.

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

He shrugged.

“Fine.”

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

“He’s over there,” I whispered.

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

“Ah, hah! Hubcap thieves.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twins,” I replied.

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

He followed my pointing finger, and his mannerisms relaxed.

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

Red lowered his head into the driver’s window.

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

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

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

“You can call us both, George.”

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

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

“Who?”

Red nodded toward the watchman’s car.

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

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

“See.”

“So, he does,” Marshal replied.

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

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

Red bent to get a closer look.

“Neat.”

“Perfect, huh?”

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

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

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

Red pointed to Marshall.

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

“Why?” Marshall asked.

“So he can’t chase you, man.”

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

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

“Wish us luck.”

“Good luck.”

I turned to my brother and held out my hand.

 “Give me the matches.”

 “Matches? I didn’t bring any.”

 “Uh, oh. Me either.”

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

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

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

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

“Chickens,” I whispered.

Marshall nodded.

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

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

“Okay. Light it.”

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We approached the counter and waited in a short line.

I said, “Hi, Betty.”

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

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

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

“You know it takes twenty minutes.”

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

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

“We’ll just wait at this table.”

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

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

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

“Is it done?”

Betty examined the timer as she wiped her hands.

“Five more minutes.”

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

Too late now, I thought.

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

Bang! Ding!

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

“Order up, come and get it.”

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

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

Angel replied, “Good.”

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

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

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

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

“What the…” Betty shouted.

“A backfire,” someone replied.

“No, too many.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It worked just as planned,” I whispered.

“Perfect!” Butch replied.

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

“Has anyone seen those twins?”

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

“I know you did it.”

We were wide-eyed and motionless.

“You did it,” he repeated.

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

Terrified, I asked, “Did what?”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t lie to me.” Boss Sam snapped.

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

“You twins are incorrigible.” he frothed.

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

“I bet you’re all in on it.”

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

“What’s the commotion?”

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

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

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

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

Angel nodded.

“Well, go.”

Angel bolted.

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

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

She looked at the clock.

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

“They didn’t leave?”

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

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

“No one left?”

“No, Sir.”

The boss turned to the seething guard.

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

Sheriff Sam’s eyes shot darts at me.

“I’m sure they did it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

I glanced at my friends, who were smirking.

“He won’t find out.”

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

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

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

“Shaking the bushes, Boss.”

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

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

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

Second Place:

Inventing the Artist by Adam Scharf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I played a train conductor. My only line was, “All aboard!”

Jesus, did I yell that line. I got note after note from the director (Pipe down) as if I was being too loud in the family room as my dad tried to read the online menu for P.F. Chang’s.

Is that too much to ask for?

Obstinate, I bellowed louder every performance. I swear people came again just for the line. This wasn’t a good show. It was just the perfect line to say unreasonably loud right after the protagonist had a valorous kiss.

I made the review.

I’m not kidding. 

I never told Chelsea about my love affair with Franny. I loved Franny. I mean, I loved her guts. I wanted to marry her.

Her dad’s name is Abraham. That always had me rolling. I mean, what were they thinking?

Every day he has to be Abraham.

There were a million great things like that about her. She had long blonde hair, and all her dreams take place in London for no reason. We were doing pretty good, then, out of nowhere, she was talking to her “finally more mature” ex-boyfriend again and we haven’t spoken since.

Not to get dramatic, but I thought about becoming a monk after that. Don’t ask what kind of monk. Just the celibate kind with a penchant for woodwork and sneaky liquor bottles under the ole straw mattress. I had to see a therapist to convince myself that Franny’s not the only perfect person in the world. Apparently, there’s no such thing as a soulmate. It’s biology’s way of getting you to reproduce like a rabbit. I’ll tell you right now, Franny doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about me at all. 

Both David and Lana are moaning water buffalos in bed. Sequestered from human decency. Cooped in a paradise of prophylactics.

I’ll give Allison a call.

She was a fine date. Curly red hair and a non-visible tattoo that she’ll occasionally bring up, so that you think about it (and I love thinking about it). I like thinking about her. I love thinking about her teal dress and how the dress had movement even when she wasn’t moving. The dress is like when you stare at the moon hoping that it changes you─when you get caught in how still the moon appears. The moon’s not motionless though. The truth is the moon’s spinning. You intuitively know these kinds of things, and that her teal dress is propelling, even when the dress doesn’t look like it. 

Believe it or not: what made me quit the theater program happened on that date with Allison. She was drunk and loved talking to anyone. She gave bedroom eyes to the bartender, who looked like he’d make a great merman. He had this long, dark hair. He was Asian and loved to talk about me when I was in the bathroom.

“You know, Andrew, the bartender was talking about you just now.”

“What was he saying?”

“What kind of guy he thought you were.”

“Great.”

“You want to know what kind of guy?”

“Absolutely not. Every time he walks by, I can smell him. It’s not good. He smells like car air-conditioning.”

There was this melted candle on top of melted candle with a lit candle on top. I remember she looked great in that light. I kissed her. She was drunk by now and bit my lip. The funny thing is I wanted to be eaten alive. She brought up Franny. “You guys used to date, right?”

“Yeah, briefly.”

“That’s so funny.”

“It’s so funny.”

“You know, she’s moving to the city. She wants to do Off-Broadway in the worst way.”

The dumbest thing started happening. I feel stupid even telling you this. My eyes started tearing. I wasn’t crying. I just suddenly had tears in my eyes. I kept finding anything but her to look at.

The drinks were hitting fast. What the hell. Maybe I’ll cry in the candlelight to really wow her, I thought. I sunk in my stool. She bit my lip again. I acted like I was getting a phone call. “Sorry, it’s important that I take this quickly,” and headed outside.

I called Peter. He would calm me down. The call went straight to voicemail. That part of town was under construction. I could hear a million hammers and machines fastening steel. If you didn’t know anything about construction and you were standing outside of this bar in early evening, you’d think there were a hundred people knocking on doors just to say hello. That made me feel better. Everyone had company.

I waited long enough to charade a phone conversation with an uncle who just has to say goodnight to his favorite nephew every night. I collected myself and went inside.

When I was away, Allison told the bartender that we were actors. As soon as I sat down, he goes, “You’re an actor, huh?”

I nearly told him to drop dead, but he had more to say.

“Actors, actors, actors. There’s something wonderful in acting. I’ve been in quite a few shows myself. I quit, though.”

Allison leans in. “I’m sure you were great!”

“I was decent. Thing is, I found out what was happening. What I really wanted to do was kill someone.”

He let that linger for dramatic effect. I didn’t want to take the bait. He’s one of those guys who looks at his phone and gives a loud fake laugh so that you’ll ask him what’s so fucking funny and can I see?

Allison is tuna-like. She can’t not take the bait. “Kill someone?” she asked.

Now he had her. He leaned his arms on the bar. “There’re two types of people. Entertainers and artists. I was mostly doing dinner theater. A few theme park shows. Occasionally a commercial. Maybe some Shakespeare.”

On that line, he started looking toward the far corner of the room. He kept pontificating toward absence. I glanced toward whatever the hell he was looking at. Kind of like when a cat sees something you don’t, and can’t, and pray you never will.

He goes, “I knew something had to happen. I had to kill someone. I set out to become an artist but became an entertainer. Most don’t know the difference.”

She goes, “Oh? What’s the difference?” The night was a real slaughter. A real victory for people who can’t just tell you what they want to tell you, but also have to make a show. 

“An entertainer performs for the crowd. Most behave as though the meaning of life is the approval of others. Just look at social media. Entertainers aim to please. They want your approval. That’s why most get in the game. That becomes obvious after you’ve had a few birthdays. After witnessing a thousand posts about wanting good vibes for their audition. They’re seeking approval for getting into a scenario where they’re seeking approval, so insane.”

I had to roll my eyes at the way he said, “insane.”

“Now, the artist,” he starts looking at us again. “The artist isn’t in art for approval. The process of being God is all she needs. Her work is neither reliant nor composed from approval. There are no applause breaks. There are no curtain calls. Most never know how to become an artist.”

I know she’d just have to ask so, I bit the bullet for her. “Wow, how?”

“You have to kill the entertainer. You have to slit his throat. Don’t get me wrong. When you have to be the entertainer to pay your bills, be the entertainer to pay your bills. Welcome him in with a gracious attitude. Give him a blanket. Give him a drink, then kill him anyway. Cut his fucking head off. People don’t need you to make them feel good. Don’t do this for people. Only shits do this for people. Don’t make the world peaceful. Start a war. Collect unemployment. Eat eggs and coffee for years. Lure the wolves closer. Strangle life out of the actor doing crowd work, yelling, ‘How we doing? Oh, you can do better than that.’ No one remembers the entertainer. Shoot the motivational speaker. Rape Walt Disney. Fire him out of a cannon. Do you get what I mean?”

He stopped talking and went down the bar collecting glasses. He didn’t wait for my answer.

I turned to Allison for her reaction. She was on her phone. I felt so sad in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to do. I paid the bill. I got us the hell out of there. All I had was this hatred for something inside of myself.

I hated that bartender.

My lip was in pain.

Both drunk, we made it to my apartment. On the bed, she buried her face in my neck and undid my pants. Never looking, not even once, she touched me. She never looked where I was pointed. I finished all over her teal dress. She never wiped off. She drove home like that.

I stared at her earrings on the nightstand. I knew I was going to quit then. I knew it was crazy. I quit. I told Chelsea about the date with Allison. Everything crumbled. She told me what an awful person I was, and that killed me. Chelsea killed me. Thank God.

I’m scared. I need out. I don’t want to be here. I hate that bartender. I hate these mediocre shows. I hate myself.

I’m going to get out of this apartment. I have a month left, but I’ll leave early, when no one’s around, like a racoon. Look at this place: the old stove; the deer head on the wall, an old birthday card, wilting flowers in a vase from Peter; the jungle track sound from David’s bedroom. I won’t be here. I’ll head home before college. I’ll eat three meals, then expect starvation. I’ll meet a girl who will give me hardship, love, and bridges to understanding the loneliness of others. That’s what seems to happen to artists.

I call Peter. He’s one of those guys who will bring you flowers without feeling weird about bringing you flowers. I love that. “Andrew?”

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Oh boy, what happened?” asks Peter.

“God, I don’t know. I just want to talk to someone decent.”

“All right, how are you? Are you good on money?”

“I have a million gold bricks. What I’m saying is, I want to talk to just talk.”

“You sound upset.”

“You think you’re so good. I quit the program. I’m coming home next week.”

“You idiot.”

“I just needed to tell someone.”

“Why’d you do it? I don’t care what anyone says, Andrew. You’re a real actor. Did Chelsea say something again?”

“No, no, it was a bartender. He went on and on about being an artist and how you have to kill the entertainer. That got to me. I feel shaky.”

There’s a long pause, long enough for me to hear Lana screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

After a weighted exhale, he tells me, “Andrew, were you on a date?”

“Yes.”

“He was just trying to impress your date. I wouldn’t listen to him.”

“I already quit.”

“You idiot.”

“It’s fine. The program was almost over anyway.”

“You won’t get the credits if you quit. The casting directors come the last week. You’re blowing your chance.”

There’s a loud spanking sound followed by David yelling a single question dramatically over and over. “You like that? You like that? You like that?” I hear another slap, the loudest slap I ever heard, followed by Lana yelling, “Ow,” They fight, then, “Shit!”

“You son of a bitch, David!”

“Lana. It’s fine. Come back to bed.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, David?”

The night’s a real circus. Lana comes out of the bedroom in a towel covering her left eye with her hand. She’s crying. “Peter, I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

“I’m coming over.”

“That’s crazy. The clock says nearly midnight. You’re an hour away.”

“I’ll let you go. I’m getting in the car. I’ll see you soon.”

He hangs up. Lana’s putting an ice pack on her eye. David runs out. “Lana, I’m sorry!”

“You hit me in the fucking face.”

“I got caught up. I didn’t want to.”

“Caught up? You punched me in the face!” She turns to me at the table.

I whip out the ole deaf boy who hasn’t heard a goddamn thing, look. I add in a blind boy look for good measure. They just have to take everything too far.

Lana goes, “Andrew, look at what he did to my eye. Is it black yet?”

I act like I’m an expert in this sort of thing and give her the once over. They’re both trying to catch their breath. “It’s a little red. You might see a shiner in the morning. I’d know. I was once punched over a guy audibly reading good news on his email, and I never took the bait to ask him what happened. He got so upset over that. He shoved me. I shoved him back. Then he punches me in—”

“Andrew, not the time. Jesus, Lana. It was an accident.”

Lana huffs. “Let’s ask Andrew about getting caught up?”

“Don’t ask him. It was an accident.”

Now she’s really going to get me involved. She sits at the table holding the ice pack on her eye. “Andrew?”

“Oh god.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

 “Have you ever been fucking a girl and suddenly had the urge to punch her in the fucking face?”

“Don’t drag him into this,” says David.

I look her in the eyes. “Only myself.”

“You’re both crazy!”

She’s in tears. David sits next to her and holds her. I’m sitting across from a scene. Lana moves to his lap, and they cry. He’s making promises, rocking her back and forth. “I’ll never do it again, never, ever, ever. Never again. Never, ever.”

I’m just sitting. I’m not breaking any laws. There’s nothing wrong with pretending I’ve turned into the placemat before me. Unaware, dormant, unable to comprehend the violence in love.

He follows her back into the bedroom. They’re going to make up the only way they know how. Passion will be softer. There will be eye contact. I head to my room. It’s like there isn’t a wall between us. I’m in there playing the violin for them.

Peter will be here in an hour. I feel like such a mess. My head’s spinning. There are a million thoughts in my head. Peter will stare at me with his, What are you doing with your life, eyes.

We’ll make coffee and stay up talking. He’ll listen to me making like I’m okay, but he’ll know I’m not. He’ll go with me in the morning to beg for my place in the program back. That will be our little secret. I’ll tell them I made a terrible mistake. I’ll look like a new man, peaceful, but I’ll only look that way.

Peter’s at my front door and yapping on the phone─everyone’s favorite yapper. He always has to, “let you go,” even if you’re the one wrapping up the conversation. He’ll go, “Okay, sure, sure. I’m right in the middle of yard work. I’ll have to let you go,” after you told him that it’s been nice talking to him.

I open the door. Peter holds up a finger and shows off his yapping. He knows what the people want. The man yaps with anyone. When exiting a party, he’ll address the room with, “Goodbye lovers.” He’s pure gold.

When we used to share a room as kids—I never slept. For a month he only spoke German. I never understood a damn thing he said. Peter spoke about nothing and everything. Telling me the answers: when to kiss, what to drink, how to yap, and what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo.

I love him so much I could die.

I pour Peter coffee like a little house husband who just made his man a decent plate of eggs over a roaring fire. I over hear his conversation.

“Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. Hey, I’m at my brother’s place. I’ll have to let you go.” What a slaughter. He’s letting him have it. “Right, yes, talk soon. Okay, I’ll let you go. Goodbye.”

We get cozy on the couch. He’s out of breath all of a sudden. “Man, I got here fast. I rushed to get here.” It doesn’t explain why he’s out of breath, he drove here. I love that, the man drives here and loves to be out of breath.

Peter stares, thinking of exactly what he needs to be said. “Andrew, you need to understand something. I’m not here to persuade you to stay in the program. I want what’s best for you. You need to—what’s happening in there?” He points to the David’s bedroom.

“Lovers being lovers,” I tell him.

“Dear god. Are they all right?”

Jesus Christ, they just can’t help themselves. Nothing is sacred with David and Lana. They hear a nice yapper walk in; they unhesitatingly break out the whips. You should hear David whimpering. The lashing he’s taking─a god smiting the non-believer into, bien pensant, discipleship.

He picks up where he was. “Andrew, I want you to know that I support you entirely. Whatever the bartender told you, he’s wrong.”

“The bartender might not be wrong. I should be doing better things. Better roles. I’m letting everyone down here. I can’t find any purpose.”

Peter pauses and sips his coffee. We’re forced to listen to David squealing into submission. The entire night’s making me sad. The violent love-making. How Peter cares about me, and how fast he had to drive.

 “I know you’re not performing the best role Andrew. I know you aren’t a star on Broadway. You’re the first male to play a female witch in Macbeth history.”

“It’s silly,” I tell him.

“Did you know that Shakespeare’s wife couldn’t read? Isn’t that silly? There’s no purpose to life, Andrew. You should feel good that you know this already.”

“I have to quit the program.”

“You’re not going to find purpose. Good news is, there can be meaning. You see what I mean? You have to make meaning. It isn’t just there like a little flower. Novels, pageants, a broken sculpture, and what have you—they made the meaning. You’re free to make anything meaningful.”

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

“You’re going to be fine. You’re not going to die if you stay here. I rely on you too much for you to hide. I know that’s crazy. I do though. I don’t give a damn if you perform a big role. I only care what you bring meaning to. You bring meaning to insignificant places, and people. Success is bringing meaning to things you never thought were meaningful. The hot shots with all the lines don’t get success because their roles already have meaning. The thrill’s gone. They’re not heroes. I saw you as a train conductor—you made that moment the pinnacle of the entire musical. Honestly Andrew, I talked about that with my friends for weeks. Such beauty. That line got to me! You animated the dead. You brought color to the pail. You threw leaves on your wedding day in the dead of summer. You taught Shakespeare’s wife to read Moby Dick. I’m writing another novel because of you. The mundane, sweet people of life. Fall in love with every one of them. Don’t let yourself be found as an embassy of underdevelopment. You get to bring meaning to things no one else brings meaning to. I don’t know what else to tell you, Andrew. Jesus Christ, I need you.”

It sinks in. I go find the bartender and invite him over. I offer him a blanket, a cup of coffee. I sing Danny Boy in a dulcet tone. I wash his dirty feet like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know why, but I shave his face for him—for the hell of it—for the sheer hell of it. He doesn’t know why. Nobody knows why. Not a single goddamn person knows why.

I slice off his head, throwing it in the cauldron. Can you hear that cackle? A lit match unaware that it’s going to burn out. A funny feeling in my chest. The sound of David and Lana coming together. The brutal worship. Peter and I have closed our eyes, pretending we’re not a pirouetting moon—what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo

THIRD PLACE:

Larry Came to Lunch by Shauna McGuiness

When the doorbell rang I was scrubbing the downstairs toilet.

“Jerry,” I called “Jer! Could you get that?”

My husband didn’t hear me. He was one floor up watching “Mythbusters” with the subwoofer pounding. Almost sounded like someone was stomping the ground above my head. Beyonce was singing upstairs, too.

The music was so loud that there was no way Maya had heard the bell. Not that my sixteen year-old daughter would have come running, even if she had. Alexander was still at softball practice, and the Durneys weren’t dropping him off until after four.

“Damn,” I said pulling blue rubber gloves off of my hands.

The neighbors were always stopping by, unannounced. When we moved into our Santa Clara townhouse a year ago, I didn’t think we would ever see the people living around us. Everyone entered their homes through the garage, pressing the close button on the remote before they even got out of their cars. However, Jeannie and Richard thought sharing a wall gave them license to stop by whenever they felt like it.

My hair was wrapped in a purple scarf, but at least I wasn’t wearing my husband’s faded blue sweatpants like I was last time they appeared. Smoothing my khakis, I took a quick glance in the mirror Not bad for a forty-something, toilet-scrubbing, purple scarf-wrapped old lady.

Ding Dong!

“Coming!” I ran down the short flight of stairs to the front door, and as an afterthought pulled off the scarf and dropped it on our little cherry wood table.

Lawrence St. Paul was wearing navy plaid shorts and a baby blue, short sleeve button-up. I remember him wearing both before. His skin was lighter than mine. If his was coffee with three creams, then mine was coffee with only one. My mother is white and I inherited her blue eyes – the only one of her features that nature had chosen to duplicate in me. My father’s eyes were the coffee without any cream, at all.

He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, and it had been five years since I had looked into those eyes. Five years.

I never realized how much of a resemblance could be found in Alexander. My fourteen year-old son had the same ears and the same easy smile. He definitely had my husband’s chin, though. Everyone has a square chin in Jerry’s family. Daddy’s hair was pure white and cut close to his head. It looked like wool, and I ached to touch it, as I had when I was a girl.

“Daddy? ”was all I could manage.

“Are you ready? You’re gonna to have to drive.”

What? I thought.

My father’s departure had been so sudden that my mother sat in the big antique rocking chair at her house staring at the front door for hours waiting for him to return. Weeks had crawled away, but he never came back. Mama would sit on the flowered cushion, leaning forward and back. Forward and back. The rhythm maddeningly even.

Holding my finger up and ran to the second floor.

“Honey, I’ve got to step out for a while. I’ll be back.” I always said that, “I’ll be back.”

Because sometimes people don’t come back.

Jerry sat on the big, green L-shape sofa, his big tube-socked feet resting on the matching ottoman. “Don’t forget that you have to bring Maya to that party at five,” he said, not looking away from the TV.

“Right. I’ll be back by then.”

I returned to the front door. My father was still there.

My little Brighton purse sat on the table. It was worn around the edges, and the magnetic clasp barely worked, but I couldn’t bear to replace it because the kids had given it to me on a long ago Mother’s day. Little red hearts covered black leather front of it─Maya had said that it was “covered in love.”

“Uhm. I’m down in the parking lot. We bought Maya a car a few weeks ago and I’ve been letting her park in my spot in the garage.” Pointing in the direction of my grey Highlander, I unlocked it with the key fob.

Climbing in, he placed his knobby hands flat on his thighs. A familiar gold wedding band hugged the appropriate finger. How many times had I rolled that ring in my palms, mesmerized by how well it fit my thumb? Wiry gray hairs covered his legs, along with the scars from when he had knee surgery on both legs.

Where have you been?

“The usual?” he asked.

“Sure. The usual.”

Dad loved Carl’s Jr. and used to eat there almost every day. Personally, I would have chosen a nicer place for our reunion, but if he was looking for a Western Bacon Burger I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it.

Although there was probably a restaurant closer to home, I drove the ten miles to the one by the house that he had left, five years ago. I didn’t recognize anyone that worked there. There was a time when I had known most of them by name, due to our weekly lunches.

Because I already knew what he wanted, I ordered both meals. Salad and a Coke for me. He would want iced tea. I filled our cups and found him at our booth all the way at the back in the far right corner. Dropping the little plastic order card down on the table, I handed him his drink and some sweetener.

“Did I ever tell you about the guy who was in his tent, asleep in a sleeping bag?” He gestured at me to continue.

We had been doing this routine for as long as I could remember. Picking up a yellow packet of Splenda, I ripped off the top with a flourish, saying, “The bear ripped his head clean off.” The tiny crystals tumbled into his cup.

As he chuckled softly I realized how much I had to say to him. Things that I had always been meaning to say. Things that I needed to say.

“Have you been to visit Mom?”

Shaking his head, he looked down into his iced tea.

“Where have you been?”

“So many questions. Am I an encyclopedia, all of a sudden?” He grinned.

“What’s the meaning of life?” I asked, only half playing.

“Family. Love. That is the meaning of life. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way.”

He looked so forlorn that I believed him with all of my heart.

The damn kids had changed the ringtone on my phone again, and Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda trilled from my jacket pocket. It was my brother, Darren, and if I didn’t answer he would assume the worst. He always did. I had to find a way to speak to him without blowing his mind with the news of Dad’s visit.

“Hey, Darren,” My voice sounded a little too bright.

“Hey, Sis. What’s up?”

“I dunno, you called me.” I said.

“I was wondering what time you want us over on Tuesday? Gillian thought it was five thirty, but I’m pretty sure you said six.”

“Five thirty, six – either works for me, as long as you bring an appetizer. Tell Gill to bring the little meatballs. We all love them.” I looked at our father. A small curve sat comfortably on his lips.

“Got it. Where are you?”

“I’m…having lunch with a friend.”

“Late lunch.” He grunted.

“Yes. Can I get back to it, now?” I didn’t want to waste any more time talking to someone that I would see on Tuesday. Probably.

“I can catch a hint. See you.” After hearing the click on his end, I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.

“Look…” I didn’t know where to start. I took a deep breath. “Do you remember when I was thirteen and I told you to shut up?” It was the only time I had ever directed those words toward my Dad. I had been so ashamed after yelling at him. His tolerance and forgiveness had been more painful than if he had slapped me.

“I do.”

“I told you I was tired of hearing about your Army days. I said your stories were retarded.” He slowly nodded his head.

“I am so sorry.” I choked.

So warm was the laugh that boomed across the table, that I could almost feel it on my face. I looked up at him, shocked that he thought the memory was funny. It was one that had come back to torture me countless times since he had been away.

“I imagine you are getting it back, in spades.”

He was right. Raising two teenagers was no barrel of monkeys. I thought about how Maya had expressly forbidden me to volunteer as chaperone for the formal dance at her school. She said I was embarrassing, which had hurt a lot more than I let on.

“You’re right.” I used a napkin to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. “I just… I always meant to tell you.”

“I know.”

Our family had never been the hugging kind. Right now I wished we had been because I really needed one.

“Will you go to Mom?” I asked, “She always wondered why…”

I should have added that he shouldn’t visit his wife unless he intended to stay. Leaving again would probably kill her.

“Time to go.” He sighed, standing.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Maya has a party to go to, and I’m supposed to pick up all of her friends on the way.”

The burger remained untouched. I hadn’t eaten my salad, either. I piled everything back onto the orange tray, dumping our wasted food in the trash on the way out the door.

God how I wanted to stop him.

Maybe I should have said something like, “I’ll make Jerry take her to the party, let’s just stay for a little longer,” But he was already standing next to my car.

No words were exchanged on the ride back to my house, and we arrived much too soon. There were too many things that I wanted to ask. So many that I couldn’t remember even one.

I sat in the driver’s seat, trying not to cry, and by the time I opened my door he was already outside. Enjoying the feel of the sun on his barrel-shape body, his eyes fluttered closed. It was something he had always done, worshipping the sun. The skin across his cheeks was taught, and in the orange afternoon light appeared to be made of caramel.

“I’ll see you when I see you.” he said, as was his way.

“Okay.” I dumbly stared at his face, unable to move. “Wait, where are you parked?”

What a stupid, stupid question. I was just trying to delay his departure.

“I’m just down the street.”

His eyes were kind. I hadn’t fooled him, at all.

“Will I see you again?” I tried hard to stop the sneaky things, but the tears came anyway.

“Don’t worry. You’ll see me again.” He gave me a sharp Army salute.

Sturdy legs carried him across the parking lot. I turned to glance at my front door for just a second, and when I looked back he was already gone.

The next morning, I told my family that we had to go to the city. The kids tried to argue their way out of it, but I think they sensed that it was important to me so they folded pretty quickly. Especially once I promised I would take them to Scoma’s for Sunday brunch. Those kids would probably do just about anything for calamari.

Maya texted her friends, and posted selfies to Instagram, the whole way there. Alexander nodded his square chin to something on Spotify. Jerry enjoyed the fifty minutes of rare quiet.

When we arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go. The sun was tucked away, making everything grey – even countless eucalyptus trees, which filled the air with their strange smell. Nearly invisible mist hung in the air, landing on our faces and shoulders. Settled deep into the grass was a small rectangular grave marker. We all stood around it in silence, and I was thankful that Jerry had convinced the kids to leave all technology in the car.

Lawrence St. Paul

Col. U.S. Army Retired

B. December 20, 1921

D. June 15, 2001

When he had gone to the Library to return borrowed videos, it would have seemed inconceivable that he would never again come home for dinner. The Doctor said a heart attack killed him. An apologetic stranger reported that he’d seen Daddy clutch his chest, while standing near the James Patterson section. A librarian called for an ambulance, but by the time Mom made it to the hospital he had already passed away.

Kissing my two longest fingers, I kneeled to touch them to the stone. I didn’t cry. I had done that enough, already. Uncomfortable in this setting, the kids shuffled their feet. When I stood, Jerry put a strong arm around my waist and pulled me close.

As a passenger on my way to Scoma’s I could see the ocean. Why had he come back to visit me?

I didn’t have an answer, but I decided that it didn’t matter. Through the dark clouds, beams of light touched the flat surface of the water, making it sparkle like fine crystal. The beauty of it spoke to me, bringing peace to my troubled mind.

“You know how much he loved you, right?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

Folding my hands in my lap, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the emerging sun.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Doll’s Eyes by Jennifer Dickinson

My mother always told me that families should have secrets. Secrets are the glue, she said. They are healthy and bond the family. We had silly secrets like how Mom stole tiny maple syrup jugs from the Cracker Barrel gift shop and dipped wiener dogs into them as a midnight snack.

My little sister Lauren had a few years where she got diarrhea all the time and Mom let her stay out of school, telling the nurse that she had migraines because Lauren said diarrhea was too embarrassing.

As for me, I have two big secrets. One: I have this weird mole at the top of my boob and one day my mom said I need to have it removed. Gross. But my biggest secret, Lauren’s too, was Mom and how we lived.

You know how on TV shows the living rooms are always palaces? No piles of mail or shoes? No clean clothes that never made the journey from the basket up the stairs? The walls are covered in family pictures at Epcot or posters of Monet gardens? Our living room’s not a palace. It’s kind of the opposite.

Mom took the idea of a living room very seriously. She lived in it all the time. She slept on the sofa. She ate most of her meals there, too. The laundry never made it up the stairs because she changed clothes in the living room. The coffee table was covered in bills and nail polish and a box of Tampons and coupons she never used and magazines.

Sassy magazine, which was very popular in the 90s because the models looked like real teenaged girls and the articles were about bands Mom loved—Lauren and I called them the “screaming ladies.”

Mom was a teenager between 1995 and 1999. She said those years were the best of her life.

She’d get very sad talking about how she and her friends went to a club called Einstein’s that’s now been turned into a Ziggy Doo’s Ice Cream Shack. She spent every Friday and Saturday nights dancing to those screaming ladies. Mom had pink-streaked hair and lived in Doc Martens and striped tights and dresses from thrift stores.

Instead of family photos on the mantle, the mantle was covered in framed pictures of her and her old friends: four girls with pink-streaked hair and nose rings. They smoked cigarettes and drank rum-spiked cans of Orange Crush. They wore purple lipstick and purple nail polish and Mom said now they are all married to doctors and tending to broods of children. The walls were covered in posters of the screaming lady bands. And I mean covered. Like you couldn’t see any paint. In between the posters were pictures Mom cut out from Vogue and Elle magazines. Women with shellacked hair walking poodles, dripping in fur coats and pearls, Mom painted words like “slut” and “kill the system” and “anarchy now” across those women’s mouths.

Only one wall was different. And that’s the wall Mom dedicated to her Dad and it was covered in needlepointed pictures of owls, her dad’s hobby. She never got to know him very well because he died of leukemia when she was six and her mother never remarried and kept trying to fix my mom like Aunt Charlotte did.

Even though Mom never said how we lived was a secret, I’d been to other kid’s houses before. I knew that most people’s moms didn’t have a tape deck in the living room and watch Dirty Dancing at least three times a month. I knew they left the house to play tennis and garden or they had regular jobs where they put on heels and lipstick every day.

My mom only left the house to do three things: buy food, go to the bank to deposit my Dad’s checks, and go to the library to pick up old issues of Elle and Vogue and Rolling Stone off the free table, which she used for her wall collages, which was what she worked on at home.

I never had a problem with the way Mom lived because my whole life it was the three of us and it was fun. Slumber parties on the pull-out sofa bed, piled with pillows for our Oreo-eating and Dirty Dancing-watching. Lauren and I knew all the lines and for Halloween, we both got dressed up in white tank tops and short jeans shorts as the star of the movie, Baby. We both wanted to marry Patrick Swayze in heaven.

Mom never made us clean because she said Grandma made her clean too much. Once a month Dad hired Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady, Esmeralda to come over, and Mom used the time to give herself a mini-facial and wax her legs.

Really, it’s Aunt Charlotte’s fault that everything fell apart because she made us go to St. Andrew’s Academy. Mom wanted us to attend High Falls High, but Aunt Charlotte said she would foot the bill for private school and didn’t our parents want to give us the chances they never had?

Carmela nicknamed me Moldy the first day of school because she said my hair smelled like mildew and a few weeks in triple dared me to eat a chocolate-covered spider her aunt had brought her from Tijuana and when I said no, she pushed me into the lap pool, ruining the shiny penny loafers Aunt Charlotte had gifted me. In our Human Experience class, she glued my face over the green-faced lady corpse in the back of the magazine about drug overdoses and then tweeted the photo to my entire class. This got her into a little bit of trouble, but Dean Walters has always been too busy with the real cocaine problems than worry about my face on a paper corpse.

Mom wondered why I never stood up to such a worthless human being. She’d never let anyone put her down, she said. And sometimes thinking about that made me feel like crap. How did my mom end up with a loser daughter like me?

I’d put with three years of Carmela Fox before Lauren showed up for seventh grade. On Lauren’s first day, she came home crying because Carmela’s cousin, Jessie, a tiny brunette with chopstick legs and a nasty overbite, told Lauren she had the ugliest, moldiest sister ever to walk the face of the earth. And then Carmela and Jessie made up a song about us called “The Ugly Sisters,” a very uncreative name, and one that I wouldn’t have cared about if it hadn’t devastated my sister so much. Even back then, Lauren wanted people to like her.

By the end of the year, Lauren and I were the closest we’d ever been. There are tons of candidates in the yearbook─huddled on the settee in the library─sharing a bowl of chocolate truffle mousse in the student center, walking arm and arm toward the river. We got closer because of Carmela, who took aim at Lauren hard, especially at her locker. Shredded textbooks, spider babies covering her backpack, squished grape jelly in the sleeves of her raincoat.

Lauren saw the school guidance counselor who told her that some girls are just mean and the best thing Lauren could do was not cry or show any emotion. That witch gave Lauren a pin that said: Be brave.

St. Andrew’s was a bad place.

Lauren cried at home. In the shower, in her bedroom. Not in front of our Mom, because part of what Carmela teased us about was our Mom. Carmela thought it was weird that our aunt’s Hispanic maid drove us to and from school and that Mom never came to meetings or all-school dinners.

Is she covered with scales? Warts? Maybe she has two vaginas. Or fucks goats for fun. She has to be a freak to produce daughters like you. Questions like that sound crazy, but they can really wear you down. Especially if they’re asked so much that they become like a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away, even when you sleep.

I turned sixteen two weeks before the end of the year. May 15th.

Mom took me to get my driver’s license and then she let me stay home from school. We went to Donovan’s for coconut pie and afterwards I climbed into the hammock while Mom went on her every-Monday trip to the grocery store.

I yelled “More Cheerios please!” and she shut the back door and I shut my eyes. I wasn’t out very long because I could hear the chorus of “One More Day Please” coming out of Mrs. Blair’s upstairs window. Help us love, help us live, let us stay together, just give us one more day please!

I realized I was home in the middle of the day and maybe I should watch “One More Day Please” right then rather than wait until later. I’d pretend to Lauren I hadn’t seen it.

I stopped in the kitchen for a Coke and then I shoved the swinging door. I didn’t notice anyone was there at first. I love Coke and I love “One More Day Please” and that was enough to keep me focused. But then I heard a giggle.

A familiar giggle.

Evil, tiny, cold. Carmela stared at me, in my living room, by the front door.

Why was she there?

Lauren was behind her, eyes wide. She didn’t expect me to be home.

“Carmela, you were supposed to wait in the car,” Lauren said.

“Oh fuck off,” she said. “You invited me here.” Carmela zeroed in on me. “I offered her immunity if she would just let me see what the fuck is going on in this house.”

I started across the room. I wanted to stop Carmela from seeing everything, but by the time I reached her, Carmela’s eyes were all bugged out and she was grinning. She fixed her attention on the lime thrift store dress with the holes in the armpits hanging up over the television to dry. It’s got these sequined peacocks sewn into the skirt and Mom used to wear it around the house like it was a robe.

“Wow,” Carmela sighed. She pulled out her phone and started to snap a picture and I grabbed her phone and threw it hard on the ground, shattering the screen.

“You’re fucking dead, Moldy,” she said then turned to Lauren. “And if you want to have one good day of high school to remember, you will pick up the shards of my phone and take it to Dean Walters and tell her what a piece-of-shit sister you have.”

It didn’t matter what happened next. Mom would be home soon. I had to get Carmela out. I’m not a physical person. Before that day I’d never touched another person in a mean way, but I had no choice. I grabbed Carmela by the arm hard and yanked her to the door.

“What the fuck, Moldy!” she howled.

I yanked harder.

Lauren got out of our way.

After I’d thrown Carmela out of the house, I turned to find Lauren staring at the pieces of Carmela’s phone. I looked around at all the places in the room where the good memories lived: eating Oreos and watching movies and giggling, and in a flash, all those memories disintegrated.  Our living room didn’t feel like a living room anymore. It felt like a place you went to die.

Aunt Charlotte gave me the money to replace Carmela’s phone after I promised to become a “lady,” which meant manners lessons at the Club and $500 worth of pearl-buttoned cardigans and khaki pants from Talbot’s. (Aunt Charlotte swore “sand” was a better shade on me than “stone.”)

The phone cost twelve hundred dollars. Of course Carmela had the lavender glitter one with a Siri you could program to sound like Taylor Swift. I heard they only have that model in Japan.

Mom wondered all the time about Lauren. Why she stayed late at school instead of watching movies with us. Why she started wearing business suits instead of regular clothes. Swim practice was a pretty good excuse. And a boyfriend, Jasper, from my class. They got voted John F and Jackie O, which guaranteed her a free pass from Carmela. Every girl wanted to wear Jasper’s ascot on weekends.

Dating him meant instant immunity.

Mom said Lauren was growing up and we had to accept there would be changes. Mom told me we were always more alike, anyway. Which was sort of weird since Mom had a bunch of friends in high school and loved it so much. Oh, and she danced in public.

I’ll never do that. Even if I could bring Mom back from the dead if I did it. Well, maybe then. But then only.

I didn’t know before that day I should be ashamed of how we lived. We lived on our own lovely island and then it got fucking blasted to bits and I was never truly able to pick up the pieces. I won’t ever trust Lauren again. No matter what anyone else says. I’m very lucky Mom never found out what Lauren did.

I think she would’ve killed herself a long time ago if she had.

Babycakes by Dash Crowley

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

We missed them.

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

We were all alone.

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

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

After all, there were still babies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yesterday, all the babies were gone.

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

We’ll figure something out.

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

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.

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.