Concealment by Mitchell Toews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rose immediately, glad at the chance for redemption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flora rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The woman in the yellow dress?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed Are the Little Things by Leila Allison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sat back and sighed.

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

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

The Script for Daphne Shields by Scott Bassis

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I walked into the Little Havana café. Josh’s radiant smile told me this wasn’t about Time Leapers: The Complete Series. I smiled too, elated by the sight of his gawky handsome face.

“Here it is!” I placed the DVD box set on the table. Josh had lent it to me a year ago, while we were both at Warren University. He mentioned liking it. I expressed my curiosity about it. Before I knew it, he was leading me to his house, offering to let me borrow the DVDs for the summer. If I were able to change the past like the protagonists of Time Leapers, I wouldn’t have hurried away after a quick “thanks.”

“It was good,” I said. I had seen every episode. After receiving Josh’s email sent to my Warren account, I rewatched several to refresh my memory. “That was nice of you,” I added. He kept smiling and staring at me, not once glancing at the DVDs.

“Hungry?” he asked. A leftover onion slice and a glob of dressing sat on his already finished plate.

“No,” I said. I immediately regretted it. I always automatically turned down food. An eating disorder was one consequence of what Hector, my stepfather, did to me as a child. Thanks to him, I had a whole collection of disorders. Unfortunately, I wanted nothing more in the world than to sit here with Josh for as long as possible. “But I’m thirsty,” I said.

I ordered a Diet Coke from the woman behind the counter and tried to think of something to talk about. I planned on discussing Time Leapers until Josh showed no interest in it. TV was how he first got me to speak when I was a freshman and he was a grad student. As a young man, I withdrew into myself. Starting college, my social skills were almost nonexistent.

I wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes.

I hardly spoke.

Josh befriended me. He divulged he used to be as shy as I was, said he overcame it when he realized how dumb everyone was. There was no reason to be intimidated by them. He said them in a way that emphasized they were not the same as us.

At first I resented his efforts to help me. I fumbled with words and felt pathetic. Luckily, he figured out how to be put me at ease. He mentioned Crown of Dragons. He correctly guessed that I was obsessed with it. My shyness evaporated as we debated who would ultimately rule the kingdom.

I returned with my Diet Coke. It struck me I should talk about real life. That the answer wasn’t immediately obvious was a remnant of my former social incompetence.

“What’ve you been up to?” I asked. His email had been brief:

Hi, Pablo.

In Miami ‘til Sunday. Remembered you lived there. I never got Time Leapers back. Want

to meet up?”

There was nothing about why he dropped out of Warren before completing his doctorate.

I’m working in San Fran at Mojo, a software developer. I interned there for the summer.

They offered me a job and I took it. I was sick of Warren. I’d been there for seven years.

The charm of a rich kid hipster haven had worn off.”

I wanted to shout, “What about me?” Of course, it was my own fault for not being his reason to stay. At first, I was closeted. Although socially clueless, I was boyishly handsome, and girls sometimes pursued me aggressively. One day, a dormmate asked me out on a date. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but knew deceiving her was worse. “I’m gay,” I said tearfully, as if I were afflicted with a fatal disease.

She said “okay” and shrugged.

Once I realized that being gay wasn’t a big deal, I grew more confident. Speaking to others and meeting their gaze became easier. Still, I wasn’t attracted to Josh, whom I hardly even considered a friend.

He owed me nothing, I told myself now. Yet, my heart felt otherwise.

“It was spur of the moment.” He must have seen the hurt on my face.

“You don’t feel like you wasted three years, dropping out before you got your doctorate?” I asked. It came out harsher than I intended.

“I feel like I wasted three years instead of four.” He stiffened defensively. “And what’ve you been doing?”

“Working. Saving money. I start film school at Manhattan U in September,” I said.

“Going into the film industry? That takes courage, unless you’re a long-lost Coppola.” He scoffed.

“Nah, my only family connections are in the maintenance industry,” I said.

He laughed, breaking the tension.

“We’ll be paying off loans ‘til we’re dead, won’t we?” He sighed.

I nodded.

We chuckled. While we both clearly harbored pent-up resentment, we had to let go of the past. Our pasts were certainly worth forgetting.

In May of my junior year, it finally dawned on me why Josh was so fixated on me. I gazed outside my dorm window. By chance, I noticed him crossing the field. He stood alone. I realized there wasn’t one time I didn’t see him alone. His posture was bent like an old man’s, as if he had endured a lifetime’s worth of suffering. The heat was sweltering.

Nonetheless, he wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. It suddenly registered how deeply he was scarred. Only one thing could have caused it. What else would make him need to cover the skin on his arms and legs? What else would make him so afraid to be touched?

By then, I understood that I would never recover completely. I would always be ill at ease around others. I would have issues with food. I would cringe when an image, sound, or smell stirred a horrible childhood memory. I would never be like them, and Josh seemed like the only person I could relate to. Almost as soon as I had this epiphany, that I loved Josh, he was gone. If only I told him, instead of prattling on about how good Time Leapers was supposed to be.

Today in Miami it was close to a hundred degrees, and neither one of us wore short sleeves or shorts. The past mattered and it didn’t, because who else would love someone so damaged?

“How was Warren that last year? Snobby as ever? Even the name’s basically slang for ‘rich kid,’” he said.

“Okay, I guess,” I said untruthfully. It was almost unbearable. The hope that I would see him again was all that kept me going. “Everyone there was pretty nice.”

“It’s called ‘patronizing,’” he said.

He was right. Both professors and classmates would speak to me slowly, as if unsure of my proficiency in English. My shyness didn’t help.

“You weren’t patronizing,” I said.

To the contrary, he expected behavior that seemed beyond me. As soon as I mastered “nice to meet you,” he was bringing up the weather, asking about my classes.

“Only to stuck-up brats, but they didn’t talk to me anyway. They thought I was a weirdo,” he said.

“I never thought that,” I said.

“You’re one too.” He smirked.

Thanks.” I wasn’t offended. I was flattered. Calling us “weirdos” was the same as saying unlike them; I didn’t want to be like them anyway. I was perfectly content being like Josh.

“See what I mean?” he laughed. “Ahhh!” he yelped. He jumped in his seat, accidentally banging our knees. It was his cell phone ringing in his pocket. Like me, he had an exaggerated startle response. The term was “hypervigilance,” a symptom of PTSD.

He glanced down at his phone. It displayed a photo of a woman, “Rachel.”

If it were a man, I would have been jealous. I assumed it was his sister. They both had black, wavy hair. He muted his phone, ignoring her call.

Beneath the table, our legs touched. His left knee grazed my knee. His right calf leaned against my calf. Neither he nor I moved. Warmth emanated from the contact between us, spreading through me. It astounded me how good it felt. I couldn’t recall the last time a touch didn’t unsettle me, but his face was contorted with sorrow.

In me, he seemed to see his own pitiful past. I sensed how badly he longed to heal me. Love could heal us both; I was sure of it, just from the feel of his legs against mine, stirring me in ways nothing ever had before.

I jumped as someone tapped the window behind me.

It was the girl, Rachel.

Josh sat up, pulling his legs away. With one hand she held a cigarette, with the other she waved him outside.

“I have to go,” he said. He looked perturbed. I was flustered, too, by all the emotion that touch had evoked. “It was great seeing you,” he said, gazing at me tenderly. He stood and headed out.

“What about Time Leapers?” I grabbed it from the table and held it out to him.

“Keep it.” He held up his hand. “It’s on Netflix anyway.”

Before I could say “thanks,” he was out the door. I gazed out the window behind me at him and Rachel waiting for the light. They weren’t siblings, I decided. She was too short. Their facial features weren’t similar. His sister, if he had one, must have looked like the actress Daphne Shields.

Daphne Shields had Josh’s same smile. Like Josh, her sunken cheeks became suddenly full, her eyes dipped down bashfully, then raised disarmingly. Both Daphne Shields and Josh were frightfully thin. They shared the same pasty complexion, blue in certain lights. Each had huge, melancholy eyes, though Daphne Shields’s were dark brown and Josh’s were hazel.

It occurred to me that Daphne Shields was hurt in the same way as Josh and I. Her skittish demeanor helped make her a horror film icon. Few actresses conveyed fear as convincingly.

When not a scream queen she often played a grieving widow or the mother of a sick child. There was a sorrowful air about her. Still, she had great comedic chops. One of her most memorable roles was as a stand-up comic with cerebral palsy, using humor to mask her pain.

Daphne Shields was like us: it was an intriguing thought, not that it had any bearing on my life. No one even knew where she was. She vanished from the public eye a decade ago.

As Josh continued up the avenue, I lost sight of him. I reassured myself that our separation was temporary. We both knew how the other felt. All we needed now was to find a way to be together. Until then, I would have to make do with Time Leapers, my keepsake to remind me that Josh loved me.

Later, I realized I didn’t have Josh’s cell phone number. I didn’t own a cell phone and he didn’t have my home number. Nevertheless, I wasn’t worried. We could reach each other by email.

Since he was older, it felt natural that he should take the lead. I resolved to wait patiently for his message.

***

New York was exactly what I had been primed to expect from movies and TV: imposing skyscrapers, crowded streets, a multitude of ethnicities and cultures. Although the city had fascinated many a filmmaker, I rarely ventured beyond Tribeca, where Manhattan University was located. Without Josh, everywhere I went ─  no matter how impressive, felt desolate. Classes kept me busy. I studied film theory, learned the basics of cinematography, editing and production design. For Screenwriting 101, a complete spec script was due by the end of the term. Still, nothing took my mind off Josh, or the fact that he hadn’t written.

I checked my Warren email account daily. Other than the occasional junk mail, there was nothing. I tried to rationalize it. Josh wanted me to settle in first, or he didn’t want to seem desperate. Thanksgiving finally forced my hand. Surely, he thought about us reuniting.

After an hour in front of my computer, agonizing over each word, I sent him a “casual” email:

Hi Josh, what’re you up to?

Thanksgiving’s coming up. I got the whole week off! Hope to see you soon. Thanks

again for Time Leapers!

Days passed. He didn’t write back. I moved onto plan B. Thealternative, life without Josh, was too bleak to consider. By Googling his name and “Mojo,” I found his work number. My heart pounded and my stomach swirled with butterflies as I called him in the afternoon, morning in California.

“Hello?” he answered. 

“H-hi, it’s, it’s Pablo,” I stuttered.

He didn’t say anything.

“From Warren,” I added.

“Hi. Hello. Yes, Pablo.” He sounded flustered. It heartened me. Seemingly, he was nervous for the same reason I was, because he was in love.

“I, um, thank you again for the DVDs.” It was all I could think of to say. I didn’t want to bring up my unanswered email. I didn’t want him to think I was angry.

“We didn’t have room in our luggage. My girlfriend went a little crazy shopping.” His tone changed. He sounded cool, calculating. It took a moment to register what he said. Rachel wasn’t his friend, the “Grace” to his “Will.” She was his girlfriend. He was straight. At least that was what he was saying.

“Oh,” I said.

I heard him take a deep breath, perhaps in trepidation, fearing I would lash out. Still, he didn’t hang up. I reflected on our time at Warren. Josh had reached out to me incessantly, not relenting until I spoke to him. As my social skills improved, he encouraged me.

But why was he so determined to mentor me?

Why email me out of the blue after a year?

He wasn’t spurred by desire, as I had believed, but by compassion. I wasn’t his unrequited love. I was his pet project.

What about our legs? I thought. If he didn’t yearn for my touch, why let his leg linger there? Why did it feel so wondrous?

I had sensed what he wanted, what we both wanted, under that table. I knew what I saw in his eyes, not only in the café, but always: love.

“That’s nice. I mean, for her, glad she found so much stuff. Thanks anyway,” I said.

He took heavy, rapid breaths.

“You’re welcome,” he finally croaked. “Is that it? I mean, is there something else?” Confusion and distress clung to the line.

“That’s it.” For both our sakes, I hung up. I stared at the phone on my desk. Despite myself, I ached for it to ring, and to hear Josh’s voice. Of course, there was only silence. He made it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing to do with me.

I had always thought of Josh as so far ahead of me. He was once as shy as I was and he overcame it, but terms of facing his sexuality he trailed behind. Not only was he a coward, he was a hypocrite. He told me not to care what others thought, because they were all idiots. Obviously, he cared more about what they thought than he did about me.

I grabbed Time Leapers from its spot on my shelf.I hurled it against the wall, smashing the case, causing shattered discs to fall out. I threw myself on my bed. I screamed into my pillow. I cried.

I cut my tantrum short upon noticing the time. Screenwriting was in ten minutes. Fending off my despair, I got up, slung my backpack over my shoulder and left.

Today’s lesson was on dialogue. Conversation had once seemed so daunting. I finally got the hang of it, but to what end?

I was still friendless, unloved and alone. It seemed all too apparent that I was irrevocably broken. I spent the class ruing having ever met Josh, having ever been filled with the false hope for a life that wasn’t a tragedy.

Professor Ansel stopped early to hand back the class’s scripts. The first half of the script had been due last week; the second half was due at the end of the term. Before this afternoon, I was eager for his feedback. Professor Ansel was an Oscar nominated screenwriter. He had worked in Hollywood since before I was born. Now, just the thought of my script made me cringe.

Inappropriate Touch was the thinly veiled story of Josh and I. I was Victor, an undergrad student; Josh was Daphne, an adjunct film professor. Writing it, I had envisioned Daphne played by a young Daphne Shields, thus the name. The star-crossed protagonists were supposed to run off to New York to embark on a new life together. Daphne’s spineless betrayal of Victor wasn’t the ending I had been building towards.

“Can you stay behind for a minute?” Professor Ansel asked as I retrieved my script.

I glanced down at the script. There was no grade. While the class filtered out, I sat up front in an empty seat.

Professor Ansel organized the papers on his desk. Once we were alone, he raised his gaze. He had a wry look, as if he knew I knew exactly what I had done.

“I like the part where Daphne films Victor,” he spoke slowly, seemingly under the impression that English was my second language.

“She doesn’t. He won’t let her.” I could tell he was testing me. He must have suspected I plagiarized the script.

“That’s right. The flashbacks to his childhood were quite powerful. Who abused him again, his uncle?” Grinning smugly, he seemed not to consider the possibility that I was the author.

“His stepfather,” I said. 

“It was her stepfather too, wasn’t it?” he asked.

“It’s not stated. He just knows it was somebody. She shows all the signs,” I said wistfully.

He waved me closer with his hand.

As I approached his desk, he looked up and down my body in a way that made me shudder.

“You always hide in the back, but don’t think I haven’t noticed you.” Still leering, he grabbed his red marker. He scribbled an “A.” He winked, as if he and I were sharing a dirty secret. I took back my script.

Walking away, I felt his eyes watching me.

“Acting is more lucrative than screenwriting, you know. A handsome face can go far with the right connections,” he said. “Lucrative means pays more.” He seemed to think I needed that clarification.

As it registered what he was proposing, anguish overtook me. It was the opposite of the tender intimacy I had imagined sharing with Josh. Apparently, though, Josh was only ever a fantasy.

I made it to the door before I stopped. Perhaps I had suffered one humiliation too many today, to be accused of plagiary, to be propositioned like a prostitute, to learn the one I loved refused to love me back.

“It’s my story,” I muttered.

“Excuse me?” he said. I turned to face him.  

“I said it’s my story. I wrote it!” I usually held everything in until I was alone. Now I felt my self-control slipping like a façade unable to contain an explosion.

“I reviewed your undergraduate transcript. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for affirmative action, but I doubt you’re capable of…” His voice trailed off.

With all I was dealing with at Warren, my grades were uneven. Nevertheless, I was positive it was the “Pablo Rodriguez” in the byline, not my transcript, which convinced him it was plagiarized.

“It’s my story. I lived it. I was sexually abused. My voice was stolen from me. Everyone else knew what to say. It was automatic for them. The words wouldn’t come to me. My brain couldn’t find them. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” I groaned despondently.

“Perhaps you should see the campus therapist. Why don’t you go make an appointment right now?” he suggested mockingly.

I ignored him. I thought of something that made me smile.

“It wasn’t complete hell. I had movies and TV.” When I reflected back on my childhood, mercifully, what I remembered most was what I had watched on a movie or TV screen, my consciousness escaping into the lives of fictional others.

“Saved by Saved by the Bell.” He ridiculed me again. He thought I was too crazy to realize it.

“No one cares! No one wants to hear it! I make them uncomfortable!” I snapped. 

“Wonder how that could be.” He sniffed.

“You wanted to screw me.” I sneered. With my self-control gone, I spouted whatever came to me.

His mouth dropped open. He looked horrified, no doubt less by the accusation than by whom I might repeat it to.

“I’ve never been with anyone, not since…” my voice cracked. “I was in love with this guy, the real, Daphne. He says he’s straight.”

“It happens,” he said sympathetically. Bringing up his sexual advances had caused a change in his demeanor.

“He was the only thing that kept me going. I don’t want to live if we can’t be together. I wish I died as a child. It would’ve been more humane,” I said bitterly.

His brow furrowed. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, and I’m sorry for all you’ve suffered.” Compassion flowed from his eyes. Clearly, he had picked up a few acting pointers during his time in Hollywood.

“It’s my story,” I declared once more. It was my own wretched life I had put into that script. I at least deserved the credit for having lived it. Before I left, I crumpled the script in my hands and tossed it in the trash. It felt briefly cathartic, as if it were my life I had casually disposed of.

Upon returning to my dorm, I resumed where I had left off, crying, screaming and throwing things around. Eventually, my roommate, Greg, arrived.

“Whoa, it’s a mess in here,” Greg said. Despite the marijuana odor continually wafting from him and his belongings, I was lucky to have him as a roommate. He spent most of his time at his girlfriend’s, and allowed me liberal use of his fifty-inch TV.

“I was looking for something,” I said.

“All right,” he chuckled, incurious as usual. He only stopped by for a roach. He took off as soon as he set down his pliers, but in the interim I regained my composure.

Still, if my anger seemed pointless, so did life without Josh. I curled up under my blanket. I felt as if I could lie there forever. My carrot on a stick was gone.

I received a call on my campus phone. I let it go to voicemail. I couldn’t refrain from checking it longer than a minute.

Even after everything, I hoped it was Josh calling to see how I was.

It was Professor Thorne, head of the film department. She wished to see me in her office to discuss my “threatening outburst.” I had to admire Professor Ansel’s cunning. He had gone on the offensive, painting me as violent and unstable, thereby discrediting any accusations I might make.

Roused from my bed, I stumbled over to Greg’s television. It was instinctive. TV provided solace during the most abysmal times. I flipped through the channels, landing on a rerun of Lost Island. I was a huge fan of the series. It gave me comfort to spend time with the familiar characters. Not even the commercials bothered me. I enjoyed placing the actors’ faces, figuring out how I knew them.

Suddenly, a face I recognized chilled me.

It was Daphne Shields. Those were her eyes, large, dark, beautiful. That was her long, thin nose, which added drama to her every facial expression. Those were her small, but shapely lips, her oversized teeth poking through them like a rabbit’s. The rest of her was monstrous. A double chin subsumed her neck. Swollen purple bags drooped under her eyes. Her gray hair was stringy and unkempt. Her blotchy, rubbery skin resembled a latex mask. She had been transformed into a Halloween witch.

“They’re out to murder me, like they did the president. The one they got there in the White House is a decoy. I did this film in ’96, The Ballot. That’s what put me on their radar,” Daphne stated matter-of-factly. Suddenly, she gripped the arms of her chair. “They think I can’t tell they’re poisoning me!” she seethed.

“Watch Doc Murray’s heartbreaking interview with actress Daphne Shields as she emerges from years of seclusion,” a voice directed over the ominous notes of a keyboard.

“Do you ever think about returning to acting?” Doc Murray asked.

She leaned back, letting out a wistful sigh. “All the time.”

“Why don’t you?” His faint smile held a hint of mockery.

She grimaced. “The faeries appear to me, chirping I can make your dreams come true. You’ll be a star again! But underworld goblins devour them. I did nothing wrong. Still, they follow me: shadows. I trapped one in my cupboard this morning.”

She clapped her hands together forcefully, demonstrating the action. As Doc Murray flinched back, she laughed maniacally.

“The world is wondering, what have you been up to? Your last onscreen appearance was eleven years ago.” Doc Murray assumed an interested face, as if he couldn’t guess the answer from one look at her.

“Nothing, I’m completely alone. You think anyone wants to see this?” She opened her arms wide, displaying her obese frame. “I should’ve died! I should’ve died thin and pretty!”

“Will Doc Murray get Daphne the help she desperately needs?” a voice pondered.


“Why don’t you [bleep] off! You think I don’t know who you really work for!” Daphne raged at the camera, standing outside a parked car. “You work for them!” she howled.

The screen cut tantalizingly to a still of Doc Murray’s face.

“Find out tonight on a special Doc Murray, nine o’clock eastern standard time, eight o’clock central.”

I felt nauseous.

What had become of the beautiful, talented Daphne Shields? How had she turned into this madwoman?

It made me fearful for Josh. Being closeted had to put a strain on his sanity. Even if I was angry at him, I couldn’t bear the thought of him sharing Daphne Shields’s fate. I was susceptible to that too. We were all survivors, facing similar struggles, carrying similar scars.

Compelled by a need to understand how this happened, I watched the full hour of Doc Murray. Daphne Shields couldn’t provide any answers. She seemed vaguely aware that she wasn’t well. On several instances, she begged for help, though when she tried to articulate from what, all that came from her mouth was gibberish.

Doc Murray failed to shed any light on Daphne’s state. His sole aim was to titillate the viewer. He brought up her costars, her famous former lovers. He encouraged her to elaborate on her more bizarre beliefs.

I could only conclude that something or someone led her to forsake the world, retreat into isolation, where her sanity steadily deteriorated. Perhaps a lover hurt her. She had several well-publicized, tumultuous relationships. Perhaps she grew embittered as her career floundered. By her mid-thirties, she was consigned to “mom” roles in forgettable fluff. Perhaps she was degraded by too many Hollywood creeps.

Having encountered one myself, I could certainly empathize.

For days, I couldn’t shake the horror of that interview. It was what convinced me to stop by Professor Thorne’s office before class. Daphne Shields showed me that running away would only make my problems worse.

Per Professor Ansel’s version of events, the crumpled screenplay I had dropped in the waste bin had been hurled square at his head. Forced to appease the acclaimed screenwriter, Professor Thorne stated I would no longer be allowed in the class.

“However, I did personally run a search using our plagiarism checking software,” she said. Reaching into her desk, she pulled out the alleged assault weapon, flattened back into its former shape.

“I’m satisfied this work is yours.” She handed me back the script. “It shows promise,” she remarked, giving me an impressed nod.

“You’ll be reimbursed the course cost. Your GPA won’t be affected. I suggest you take an extra class next term to complete your MFA requirement on time,” she said.

I stood up to leave.

“Professor Ansel will be on sabbatical next term. I encourage you to take the class then,” she said.

“Thanks.” Even if I had been unjustly ousted from Professor Ansel’s class, I walked out of Professor Thorne’s office relieved, and gratified that she recognized my talent.

While I didn’t get the Thanksgiving break I had hoped for, I got out of returning to Miami, where there were too many reminders of the past. I persuaded my mother it was a waste of money; after all, I had that student loan debt hanging over my head. During my week without classes, I avoided Greg’s TV. There was danger in retreating too far from reality. I spent hours each day roaming the city, down to Battery Park, up along the Hudson River piers, making stops at several Chelsea galleries, through Central Park, all the way up to Grant’s Tomb. In Hell’s Kitchen, I exchanged smiles with a cute blond smoking outside “Fierce.” I promised myself I would order a drink there before the semester was over.

Still, my legs could take only so much wandering. I needed something else to occupy my time. I recalled how impressed Professor Thorne was with my script. Professor Ansel thought it was so good that I couldn’t possibly have written it. It struck me that I might have found my calling.

I felt torn between starting a new script and returning to Inappropriate Touch. After Josh turned his back on me, I couldn’t end it as I had intended, with Daphne and Victor together. Yet, I couldn’t just abandon it. I kept thinking of Daphne Shields, hauled into a psych ward, forcing her release a day later, fleeing with her coat over her gown, Doc Murray’s production crew in tow.

It seemed so unfair. Although I couldn’t help her, I could write for her, for Josh, for myself, a different fate.

INT/EXT. TRIBECA MOVIE THEATER – NIGHT

A film premiere in Tribeca: through the large windowed lobby of an old-fashioned theater, elegantly dressed guests drink champagne, eat hors d’oeuvres. A slender figure in a long coat walks by. It’s Daphne. Her hair has some strands of gray. She’s aged a decade or so. She stops to look up at the marquee. It reads, “Inappropriate Touch: A Victor Sanchez film.” She gasps and clutches her heart. She peers inside.

After a moment’s hesitation, she enters. She slips past a security guard immersed in his phone. She weaves through the crowd towards a figure swarmed by guests. It’s Victor. Seeing her, his expression turns to longing. She waves at him. There’s a wedding ring on her finger. He excuses himself. He approaches her.

Daphne: Congratulations!

Victor: Thanks. It’s been ages. How are you?

Daphne: (Shyly, as if suddenly remembering how long it’s been) Good, I’m a professor at Manhattan U.

Victor: (Glancing down at her ring, a note of bitterness in his voice) And married…he must be special.

Daphne: He doesn’t have every film critic calling him the next big thing. He’s a contractor. He falls asleep during any movie without an explosion. He thinks Speed & Fury 7 is the epitome of good filmmaking.

Victor: (Laughing) I hope he appreciates your sense of humor.

Daphne: He does. And you? I bet you have your pick now, any girl your heart desires.

Victor: (His face turns serious) Not true.

Daphne: (Muttering almost to herself) I never wanted, I never meant to…

Victor: Hey, I’m like an Arabian prince. All I have to do is point, my guards bring her to me.

Daphne: That’s racist. And sexist. Watch out, you’re in the public eye now.

Victor: (With a chuckle) I’m hardly famous.

Daphne: Didn’t you get a Silver Indy nod for Dreamless?You were robbed, in my opinion. 

Victor: That you liked it means more to me than any award.

Daphne: Well, I’m sure you have to get back to selling yourself. Don’t snub a potential distributer for little ol’ me. (She lifts her hand up before he can give her another compliment.) I just wanted to congratulate you on all your success.

Victor: (Sounding hopeful) Well, thanks, maybe we’ll…

Daphne: (Sounding unsure) Maybe.

Victor: (He abruptly grabs her hand)I’m here for you.

They share a warm smile. Slowly, Daphne withdraws her hand. Victor follows her with his sight as she slips out the exit. His eyes linger at the door after she’s gone. A middle-aged woman calls his name, stirring him from his reverie.

Victor’s Agent: (Gesturing to an older man in a suit) I’d like you to meet Rob, from Majestic Pictures.

Victor: (Shakes his hand) Nice to meet you.

Fade out

That “nice to meet you,” of course, would have been impossible without Daphne’s guidance. Others left him to suffer. Not her: she made it her mission to save him. It was the perfect ending to Inappropriate Touch. Yet, it could also occur somewhere in the middle. They might run into each other on the street. Victor could track down Daphne’s address, send her an invitation to his next screening.

I didn’t know for certain where this scene belonged. Regardless, it comforted me merely that it existed. No one was there for Daphne Shields, but Victor was there for Daphne. I hoped Josh realized I was there for him too.

I forgave him.

I loved him. I had no choice.

We needed each other, someone to be “us” with in a world full of them. With that affirmed, I set our story aside to write a new one.

Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras ReviewThe Acentos Review, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Open: Journal of Arts & LettersImage Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.

Update

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Tenderloin by Steve Carr

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Not interested,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t smoke.” I set my jaw.

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

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

“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.

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

“No thanks,” I tell him.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My body has changed.

I’ve changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Not what you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want out of it?” I ask.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I got it,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

“Do just fine for what?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s such a nice man.”

“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes.” He removes his t-shirt.

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you not the face,” he says.

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

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

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

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

KITEZH by A.L. Sirois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which often makes opening e-mails from strangers interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you… walked there.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In a manner of… at the age of nine?”

He nodded.

“In two days?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what? Electric ivy?”

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

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

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

“I see. Go on. And on your return?”

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

“The transition was instantaneous?”

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

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

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

“I know of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

“You’ve tried to find it yourself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t blink.

*

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

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

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

Allegedly.

My first move would be to check out the area.

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

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

“Yes?”

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

“He did say something about that.”

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

“I’m a professional researcher.”

His glance, eyebrows raised, asked a further question.

“Of the paranormal, you might say.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What progress, Ms. McNeil?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

I simply shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His voice: “Hello?”

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

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

“Des téra!” It’s real!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa. Wait. You take the village?”

“Oh, yes. It’s, well, portable.”

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

He smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re not, not yet.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeees.”

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

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

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

“Hmm. And George?”

Benedikt shrugged without bothering to speak.

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

I held out my hand and he took it.

“You’re not staying,” he said.

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

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

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


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