Home Search

Tunnel Vision - search results

If you're not happy with the results, please do another search


by Ian McGaughey

It’s funny when it happens, when you’re on a long stretch of road and you pass the same car four or five times. Terry had been drinking a lot of coffee and found himself stopping often at rest areas and pull-offs. He’d sometimes see the older blue Ford pickup go on past as he made his way to the SaniCan, only to catch up with it later. Each time he passed, Terry would look over to try and catch the driver’s eye, an older, gray-faced man holding the wheel at 10 and two, but grayface never took his eyes off the road in front of him. He never moved.

Terry was making the two-hour trip from Tok to Delta Junction on a stretch of the Alaska Highway that roughly followed the path of the Tanana River, snaking its way through the snow-covered Alaska Range. He’d planned on making the trip a few weeks earlier, but the weather had been unusually mild for October, and he and his crew stayed in Tok to take in as much construction cash as they could before the long winter. Now into December, he couldn’t put it off any more.

He’d done this drive dozens of times, and never stopped marveling at the incredible beauty surrounding him, the high-reaching cliffs, crystal blue lakes and miles of black spruce. There’d been times when he’d have to wait for a herd of buffalo to amble across the road. Sometimes they would just stop in the middle, planted like big brown furry barriers oblivious to his need to get going, looking a him like a visitor from another dimension. Other times he wouldn’t see a single animal, and he’d clip along the vein cracked highway, fast under the pearl blue sky.

Terry liked these trips to Delta Junction. He wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and his lifelong tendency toward tunnel vision kept him focused on the close and immediate. Hitting the road forced him to open his eyes and expand his view. He’d often ride in silence, forgoing music or talk radio in favor of taking in the expansive beauty around him.

And he would think, letting his mind wander, and remember.

“It’s time,” his father would say every Sunday morning without variation, sticking his large head into Terry’s bedroom, “let’s go.” Terry would roll over with the pillow on his head, trying to stay in dreamland just a little longer, dreading the weekly pilgrimage to the Tok Bible Chapel.

It was when his father died that he started going to church again as an adult, at first to comfort his mother, but later to comfort himself. His father’s death had been a shock, dropping dead in the lumber mill of a heart attack at 49. Terry’s mother followed less than two years later, but by her own hand. Her intense life-long depression raged after her husband’s death, and the accompanying financial woes led her to mix the grim cocktail of twenty-plus Valium and a quart of Yukon Jack.

Now, five years later, Terry was grateful his parents hadn’t been alive to witness the drama of his last couple years. The divorce, his ex getting custody of Meghan, his DUI—the result of his increased partying with the guys after (and sometimes during) work. His younger brother had done well in financial services in Seattle, and urged his brother to get out of Tok and come south. But Terry liked it where he was, he liked his friends, the guys on the crew, he liked the small-town simple life, he had just turned 30 and he wasn’t going anywhere.

But today he was going to Delta Junction, and he relished in the freedom and contentment only a road trip can bring. He shook off the thoughts of his parents and the troubles of the past few years and stared out the windshield. The sky was darkening and the temperature dropping. There was talk of more snow and cold weather coming, but it didn’t sound bad, and he figured he’d probably beat it anyway.

Besides, it had been months since he’d seen his daughter. He’d made so many false promises of a visit that he could hear his ex-wife was telling her, “See Meghan? Haven’t I told you not to get your hopes up about your father?” Terry loved his daughter, of course, but he hated seeing his ex and having to succumb to her rigid rules (remember, she doesn’t get any soda or sugar) and disapproving comments (you know, you’re getting a beer belly). Worse than that was her boyfriend, Alan the bodybuilder, who spoke little but wore a hostile, threatening look. Terry couldn’t believe this jerk was raising his daughter.

“So, you grow up around here?” Terry asked him one day, trying to make conversation.


He turned on his headlights. The glare of the piled up snow on the roadsides contrasted with the dull black blur of the pavement. He was making good time and would be in Delta Junction by 5:30 or so.

There was a chill and he reached down to turn the heat up a bit more. The temperature was already minus 15. There was a movement outside.

He saw it as soon as he lifted his eyes from the dash. Oh no. The moose was big and running in a diagonal across the road toward him. No!

Instinct took over. He swung the wheel hard to the right. He saw the matted hair and black eyes. His truck screamed onto the shoulder. He missed the moose by a foot, but plowed into the high snowbank and lost control, getting airborne for a moment over the slight incline, landing with a hard crunch underneath and stopping some 100 feet off the road, half buried in a snowy depression.

He swore.

His entire windshield was cracked. His hands still held tight to the wheel. He caught his breath and felt pain in his wrists, but was otherwise fine. The fine-grained snow was up over the hood, blowing in mists around his truck. The engine still chugged away, impervious to the situation. He knew there was no way of getting the truck unstuck on his own, but tried anyway, gunning the gas and twisting the wheel.

Something about the lack of motion made him feel colder. He grabbed his heavy jacket off the passenger seat, jabbed his right arm into the sleeve and maneuvered it over his shoulders. He pulled on his ski cap and gloves, leaned hard on the door to push away the deep, light snow and stepped out into the cold.

Through the wind he heard a distant vehicle approaching. The snow was over his waist, making walking a challenge. The sound got closer and he pushed harder, making his way up the incline toward the road. It was the blue Ford. He started waving his arms. “Hey … hey!” He was still some 30 feet off the side of the road but could see the man’s outline in the cab of the truck. The ghostly, gray-faced man stared straight ahead. “Hey!!!” The man never looked, and disappeared into the darkening night.

Terry looked back at his half-covered vehicle. The white exterior of the protruding cab blended in evenly with the snow. He traced the path it made back to the road and saw the moose, standing on a knoll looking directly at him. “Hey, look what you made me do!” The moose stood motionless, offering no reaction. Terry worked his way back toward his truck, turning once to give the moose the finger..

He cleared snow from the tailpipe and got back in the warm cab. Cool blue lights of the instrument panel reported an outside temperature of minus 19. He shivered as he turned the heat up to max, noticing that he managed to get snow inside his left boot. He opened the window slightly to listen for oncoming traffic. Nothing. He checked his phone in case by miracle there was a signal, even though he knew it was at least another half hour of driving until it would crackle to life. Again, nothing.

And then something. A growing sound from the highway. He blasted his door open and retraced his steps up through the snow toward the road. It was an SUV coming from the opposite direction, a deep roar increasing in pitch as it drew nearer. This time Terry reached the shoulder, waving his arms high over his head. The vehicle slowed and the driver pulled across the road to Terry, rolling down his window. “You all right, buddy?”

“Yeah, just got forced off the road by a moose. I’m stuck down the hill.”

The driver looked behind Terry. He was in his early 20s with thumping, bassy rap music coming form the car. “Oh yeah. Wow.”

“Can you call me some help when you get to Tok?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably have a signal if 30 or 40 minutes.” He looked at Terry. “You gonna be all right out here? It’s cold as hell.”

Terry agreed, assured him he’d be fine and thanked the man as he drove off. He turned to look for the moose. It was gone.

Back in the truck, the heat wrapped around his body as he thawed the deep chill from his short time outside. A couple other vehicles went by, neither seeming to notice him. No worries, he thought. That guy will be in cell range in about 20 minutes.

He looked at his fuel gauge. Wait—hadn’t it been around half a tank when he left? Why was it down to a quarter? Maybe he wasn’t remembering right, he thought. He wondered what his wife would think, now that he’s going to easily be a couple hours late. “Just typical, Terry,” he heard her saying. “Typical.”

It was funny and tragic to him how far apart they had grown. He had once been enthralled with her every move, every word she said, every gesture. Now he was filled with dread at the thought of seeing her for five minutes. He asked her once, “What happened to us?” expecting to provoke a sentimental response. Instead she berated him, “What happened to us? You fucked other girls while we were married, that’s what happened to us!”

It was true, of course. He slept with Monica twice, the girl in the construction office, as well as a stripper at a buddy’s bachelor party in Anchorage. She’d found out about Monica (they always find out, he’d been warned, especially in a small town like this), and in a moment of total honesty while pleading for forgiveness, he added the stripper to his confession.

“But that was it. It was stupid. I was drunk. It didn’t mean anything.”

His marriage to Diane had been far from ideal, though its beginning sparked many happy moments. The small wedding reception at the seafood restaurant in Seward, their parents and close friends drawn together by their shared joy. Their first apartment, sleeping on the floor that first night, too tired to unload the U-Haul, holding each other for warmth. The night Meghan was born, looking at each other with disbelief at the beautiful life they’d created.

Yet there had been cracks in the foundation along the way. Her extreme jealousy, his excessive drinking, the arguments about all kinds of things, stupid little things that always became so huge. Still, they’d usually make up with passionate sex, making him wonder if their fighting wasn’t a kind of foreplay.

As good as their sex was, it also represented one of their greatest tragedies. Sometime after Meghan was born, he began shutting his eyes tight, fantasizing that he was with the two college girls in the apartment down the hall.

A tractor trailer roared by on the road above him. The thermometer reported 25 below. It had been an hour since that guy had driven off. Should only be about another 20 to 30 minutes or so until helped arrived. The night had become dark, with no moon and thick clouds covering the sky. The wind was steady.

What the hell? His heart pounded. Why is the gas tank nearly empty? He couldn’t believe it. There must be a leak. Damn it! He thought he saw the gauge move. This is not good.

He started to brace himself for the push outside to investigate, but stopped. What would I do out there? If it’s leaking, it’s leaking. I’ll freeze trying to dig under the car to find it. He opened up the glove compartment, pulled out a mini flashlight and turned it on to see the dim glow from weak, old batteries.

He looked behind him in the cab to gather blankets just in case. He pushed aside yesterday’s newspaper, some cans, an old shirt. Where are they?

The realization that he removed his emergency blankets two weeks ago while helping a friend move hit him hard. You’ve gotta be kidding me! He pounded the wheel with his fist.

The gas gauge slipped to the wrong side of E.

60 miles away, his daughter was dancing, or maybe she was coloring, or maybe watching TV. Meghan had just turned six and this visit was going to be his belated celebration with her. He’d planned to take her to Fairbanks for the day, getting ice cream and going to a movie. He marveled at how much she changed each time he saw her, at times making him feel like a stranger.

Still, Meghan was always so excited when he pulled up. She’d be running down the steps before he even got out of his car, like she’d been watching from the window. It broke his heart to think that she’ll give up waiting tonight, that Diane was likely trash-talking him again, and he was helpless to do anything about it.

The engine sputtered. “Come on. Come on!” He shook the wheel as the comforting purr knocked to a stop. With it, the warmth pushing out of the vents was replaced by stillness. The temperature in the cab immediately began to drop. Terry zippered his coat up past his chin and pulled his cap down past his ears. “I’ll be fine. They’ll be here any minute now.”

But he was starting to think maybe something was wrong. It had been nearly two hours since the young man had driven off, promising to send help. A truck should have arrived at least half an hour ago. The road above had been eerily quiet, and now with his engine gone he could hear the wind race through the valley. He felt a deep chill seep through his truck.

Sometimes he thought he heard something coming up the road, but it was the deep cry of the wind. Terry was cold. The insulation in his old jacket wasn’t what it used to be. The sweatshirt he had underneath was thin. His jeans had gotten wet from his earlier excursions and were still damp. An occasional shiver gripped his body. He rocked back and forth to stay warm. Come on, any minute now. Come on.

He heard it. It was a big truck, maybe a wrecker. He forced himself into the cold, shutting the door behind him to preserve the little warmth still left in the cab. Yes, thank God! He started up the hill, but something caught his left foot and sent him sprawling face-first into the snow. The flashlight slipped out of his glove and deep into the powder. Bright headlights appeared, filling the black spruce with a twisting luminescence. He pulled himself up. “Hey!” The truck was going too fast, he thought. He resumed his climb. Hey!

The oil tanker never saw him, disappearing around a distant curve, its roar replaced by the unforgiving wind.

I’ve got to make myself to stay out here close to the road, he thought. He was maybe only 30 feet from his truck. Under the snow, the blue glow of his dying flashlight beckoned like a fire. He stumbled over and stared. The light made a perfect circle. In the darkness, it reminded him of photos of earth from space, a blue orb perched in pure blackness.

The wind blasted his face. He placed the flashlight into a pocket and worked his way up the hill, chin tucked into his chest. He had to be ready to flag down the next vehicle. The cold seemed to come from deep within him, radiating out from his core. He shivered hard, uncontrollably. He held himself in a tight embrace. His teeth were chattering with such violence he was sure they would break.

Come on. Please.

It had been an hour since the engine has sputtered to a stop. He figured the temperature was minus 30. He tried the old tricks, imagining a tropical beach and a brilliant, hot sun, or pretending to drink hot soup from a thermos, the wet heat falling into his body. Nothing helped. He could barely stand due to the convulsions, growing stronger and more frequent. He was weak and exhausted. He sat down to rest.

He was 15 feet from the edge of the road, down the slight incline but still able to see the barren stretch in either direction. He forced himself into a ball, trying to conserve any heat he still had. The wind pounded him. No matter how small he tried to make himself, it found him and tore into him with unrelenting power.

Minutes passed. He had to get out of this wind. He couldn’t believe how hard he was shaking. He looked back to the truck, the outline of the cab barely visible in the dark. Before the thought fully formed in his mind, he was in motion, half rolling and half crawling, making his way back toward the shelter of the truck.

When he got the the door he noticed he’d somehow lost a glove, the bloated white form of his hand grossly swollen, barely able to grab the handle. It took all the strength he had to push himself into the cab. He pulled the door hard and shut out the wind, laying across the seat, arms pulled tight against his chest.

Fire. Fire! He would build a fire. Why didn’t he think of this before? He’d pile the newspapers on the seat and start a small fire. He reached for the glove compartment, fumbling with the mechanism, trying to compel his fingers to cooperate to push open the release. The compartment door popped open and he reached in, pulling everything onto the seat, desperately looking for matches. Maps, aspirin, Band-aids, vehicle service manuals, oil change receipts. No matches.

He fumbled through the mess again. Come on. Come on! He slammed his bare hand onto the seat. It was then that he felt the weight of despair crash over him. He lay on the seat, muttering “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”

A pale blue envelope on the seat caught his eye, one side torn where it had been opened. He turned on the flashlight to read the return address. It was from his daughter, addressed to Daddy Nichols. He pulled out the card with the words “Thank You” in silver swirly lettering across the top. Inside the card was a photo. Meghan was standing in a bright, green field holding the red plastic boomerang he had given her for her birthday the previous June, showing it to the camera, beaming with excitement.

There was no preprinted message inside the card, just Meghan’s blocky handwriting. I cant wait to play boomerang with you Daddy. Love, Meghan.

The flashlight was all but dead. He let it fall to the floor. As it hit he began to feel a raw surge of heat. He got warmer. Uncomfortably warm. He unzipped his jacket to get relief. Not enough. He took it off and pushed it behind him. He ripped off his cap, pulled off his remaining glove. He felt like someone had lit a fire in his chest, like he was burning.

He pushed out into the wind and fell onto the snow for relief. Just then, a blinding light hit him squarely. The sound of a large vehicle rose above the gale. He crawled toward it through the snow, still sweltering in intense inner heat. The vehicle roared closer, its beam getting brighter. The engine slowed and it pulled over directly in front of him on the shoulder. It was a heavy duty tow truck, bright and white with lights dancing in orange and blue.

Terry pulled closer, snow clasped tightly in both hands. The doors opened. He saw the figure emerging from the passenger side first. It was a woman, a woman in a simple white dress, radiant in the barrage of light. A man came around the front of the truck toward him in simple overalls, the glow of a cigar lighting his face.

Though it had been years, in an instant he had recognized the pair. Mom and Dad. “Let’s go,” his father said. “It’s time.”


Ian McGaughey was born in Virginia and grew up in upstate New York. He’s held elected office, lived in Alaska and currently works in government administration in Arizona. He plays the electric bass, and once considered dropping out of high school to join an Elvis impersonator’s backing band.

Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle



Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.

When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.

His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.

“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.

“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”

“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.

“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”

“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”

“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”

“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.

He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.

She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.

“I can’t believe it,” she said

He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.

“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”

Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this.  He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.

He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.

He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.

Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”

“That’s awful.”

Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject.  Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.

“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.

“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.

He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.

As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.

Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.

“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.

“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”

She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.

“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”

“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.

“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.

“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”

She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.

“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved.  I can drive you back?”

“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.

The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.

“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”

He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.

Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.

“Crap,” Beverly said.  “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.

“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”

They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.

“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”

“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”

“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”


“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”

“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.

He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.

God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.

“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.

“I’m used to it.”

“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.


Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.

It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.




Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.







    The Costume Party
    K.D. Alter

    LarcenySandra Yauch Bendetto

    A Weed in
    the Canyon

    Susan E. Lloy

    Sainte Chapelle
    Joanna Milstein

    He Left Early
    Emily Newsome

    A Hasid in the Park
    Akiva Rube

    Sixty Days in the Hole
    L.D. Zane

    Fall Fiction 2020

    The Marginalia Game – Adam Anders

    Great Spirits – Arun A.K.

    Cabbage Night – T.B. Grennan

    The Sins of Father Rickman – Catherine J. Link

    The Snow Queen – Jennifer Lorene Ritenour

    The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him – Shea McCollum

    Death Rattle – Kristen Roedel

    Savior – Katy Van Sant

    Summer Fiction 2020

    A Damsel in Bedlam
    Kat Devitt
    Three New Names
    Masie Hollingsworth
    The Woman in the Window
    Flora Jardine
    The Affair of the Bird
    Harli James
    Fishbowl Frenzy
    Susie Potter
    Pretty Boy
    Nina Shevzov-Zebrun
    The New Reality
    Tom Whalen
    The Poet Ray Brown
    John Yohe

    Spring Fiction 2020

    Nine new stories from nine talented writers.

    Words May Set You Free – Marco Etheridge
    Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon – Nathaniel Heely
    Separated by Glass – Kailyn Kausen
    The Walker – Martin Keaveney
    The UMAMI Museum Field Trip – Cecilia Kennedy
    Reflections – Regan Kilkenny
    Smitten to Spitten – Madeline McEwen
    The New Girl in Our Office – Deepti Nalavade Mahule
    Assumptions – James Mulhern

    Summer Fiction 2019

    Eight new stories from eight talented writers.

    A Clean Break – Vincent Barry

    Georgey-Dear – Tetman Callis

    Offing Buck – Victoria Forester

    Sore Throat – Carolyn Geduld

    The Two Potters – Norbert Kovacs

    Everyone Smile – Douglas Ogurek

    Recovery – Paul Rosenblatt

    Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am – Rina Sclove

    Spring Fiction 2019

    Seven new stories from some very talented writers.

    Annie Blake – The River Kent

    AN Block – As I Lay Scratching

    James Kincaid – Little Nell Answers the Bell

    Anna Linetskaya – Not a Seamless Lunch

    Priscilla Mainardi – Day Hike

    Anthony J. Mohr – Herman Loves Brooke

    Lily Tierney – Gail

    Winter Fiction 2018-19

    Eight stories from eight writers of great talent.

    Scott Bassis – The Ultra Injustice

    William Cass – Surprise

    Lindsey Godfrey Eccles – Suit Yourself

    Annette Freeman – José María Writes a Story

    Phil Gallos – Snit’s Wife

    Margaret Karmazin – Meetings

    Susan Lloy – Nothing Comes Back

    Stephanie Mataya – The Harmacy

    Fall Fiction 2018

    Six great stories from six great writers.

    Linda Boroff – Let That Be a Lesson

    Laura Fletcher – I Know

    Zachary Ginsburg – Disposal

    John Mandelberg – The Plagiarist

    Evelyn Somers – Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

    Kobina Wright – Invitations

    Summer Fiction 2o18

    New Writing. New Writers. New Stories.

    The Exorcism of Ecphora by Annie Blake

    Lightning by Cleo Egnal

    Invasions by Robert Douglas Friedman

    Defenestration by Martin Kleinman

    Countercurrent Me by Mike Li

    Deus Ex Marina by Megan Mooney

    Baby Fever by Pascale Potvin

    Unconscious Authorship Inc. by Cal Urycki

    Spring Fiction 2o18

    New Work. New Talent. New Visions.

    KETCHUP SANDWICH by Shamar English

    A MARVELOUS PEACE by Joe Fortunato

    IN THE KELP FOREST by Rosemary Harp

    THE CAROUSEL by Maggie Herlocker

    THE TABLE by Robert Klose

    PINK LEMONADE by Michael McCormick

    THE SWAMP WITCH by Megan Parker

    THE BRIDGE by Trish Perrault

    Winter Fiction 2o17-18

    Seven new works of fiction for the cool, dark season.

    HAPPY HOME by Jessica Bonder

    THE WINE SNIFFER by Alexander Carver

    FINDING JESUS by J L Higgs

    SOUNDS OF THE ALLEYWAY by Patrick Legay

    FREE AS THE OCEAN by Rae Monroe

    THE MINISTRY OF BROOMS by Patrick Moser

    HOW NOT TO COME UNDONE by Richard Thomas

    Fall Fiction 2o17

    Amazing new work for the many colors of the season.

    TUNNEL VISION by Nancy Antle

    YOU KILL ME by Emily Johnson

    BLINDFOLDED by James Mulhern

    GLUE by Briana Morgan

    LEFTOVER MUD PIE by Mona Leigh Rose

    ALIEN HONOR by Richard Rutherford

    HAIL MARY by Erin Smith


    Summer Fiction 2o17

    Great new work for the warmest of seasons.

    EXIADON by Jesse Downing

    EVIDENCE ROOM by Megan Fahey

    RESTORATION by Mary Grimm

    ICE by Susan Kleinman

    THAT NIGHT by Abbey McLaughlin

    THIS, IN WRITING, TO YOU by Etan Nechin

    THE DEAD DOLL by Sola Saar


    Spring Fiction 2017

    Nine pieces of fiction for the fresh new season.

    SUPER JOHN by Mark Budman



    THE ART OF LETTING GO by Joshua Dull

    FLINT AND SHANNON by Beth Goldner

    THE END OF IDYLLIC DAYS by Anthony Ilacqua


    MAN IN BLACK by Leah Holbrook Sackett

    MEDITATE AND WAIT by Katie Strine

    Winter Fiction 2016-17

    Spectacular new fiction for the season.

    THE ASTRONAUT by Christopher Branson

    JAGUAR SMILES by Emma Fuhs

    CAR CRASH by Joe Giordano


    THE CROSSING by Mona Leigh Rose


    SIX by Katie Schwartz

    Fall Fiction 2016

    Here are our new fiction writers for fall.
    Please read every one of these unique stories by a talented group of writers.

    SLUSH by Jacqueline Berkman


    FLASH FICTION by Martin Keaveney

    WARNER by M. F. McAuliffe

    MOTHER by Jac Smith

    COGITO(E) by Jennifer Vanderheyden

    PIKKAKE PEAKS by Victoria-Elizabeth Panks

    THE SPOILED CHILD by Tessa Yang

    Summer Fiction 2016

    Here is our new selection of short stories for the summer issue.
    Please take the time to read every one of these talented writers.

    Very Good English – Robert Boucheron

    Art | Climate Change – Mitchell Grabois

    Straw – Stephanie Renae Johnson

    The Adults – Paisley Kauffmann

    Furniture Store – Tom Miller

    A Pretty Smile – Bethany Pope

    Obligatory Silence – Claire Tollefsrud

    i, Clouded – T.E. Winningham

    Spring Fiction 2016

    Here is our new selection of short stories for the spring issue of The Writing Disorder.
    This is a very talented group of writers. Please read each and every one.

    Pushing Michaelmas – Patrick Burr

    Bad Soldiers – Larry Fronk

    Monica in Georgetown – Taylor García

    Drowning Time – Jill Jepson

    Indiana – Bryce Johle

    The Bridge – Matt McGowan

    The Oracle – P.M. Neist

    Ground Control – Janice Rodriguez

    Words in Red – Billy Sauls

    WINTER FICTION 2015-16

    Excellent 8. There are eight new fiction writers in our winter edition of The Writing Disorder.
    The talent level in this group is exceptional. Please read on—and enjoy each and every story.

    Eric Brittingham – Gin Fizz

    Tera Joy Cole – Coyotes Don’t Litter

    Thomas Elson – Midnight Mass

    Vincent Mannings – Not Always Easy

    Jennifer Porter – Army Mom

    Jude Roy – Last of the Cowboys

    Mary Taugher – Crow on the Cradle

    Chris Vanjonack – After You


    Nine new writers and new stories in our fall edition of The Writing Disorder.
    We admire the range and talent of this particular group, and look forward to reading more in the future.
    So read on and enjoy the work — hopefully as much as we did.

    Jacqueline Bridges – J is for Jammy

    Robert Cesaretti – Hyena Salvation

    Dan Darling – I found a Heart

    Tommy Dean – My Grandfather is a Pilot

    Pat Hart – The Vigil

    Franklin Klavon – Darling Weapons

    Susan Lloy – Dylan’s Roost

    Charles Lowe – Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

    Sara Regezi – Space Ex


    Here are nine new stories from a talented group of writers—some published here for the first time.
    We admire each and every writer and look forward to reading more of their work in the future.
    Hope you enjoy reading the work as much as we did.

    Dawn-Michellle Baude – Tell Me About Yourself

    Tim Boiteau – Fugue

    Michael Davis – Cruel Stars

    Joseph De Quattro – Rubric for Getting Up in the Morning

    David Haight – Everyone’s a Fool for Somebody

    Virginia Luck – The Bag

    Daniel Mueller – The Embers

    Richard Thomas – Little Red Wagon

    Ron Yates – Syncretism


    Here are eleven impressive new stories from a very talented group of writers—
    some published for the first time. We love these stories and look forward to
    reading more in the future. Hope you enjoy the work as much as we did.

    Anna Boorstin – Platform of Truth

    Carmen Firan – The Boiler Man

    James Gallant – Andrew the Vihuela-Player

    Mitchell Grabois – Transparency, Angels, Rubber Crumbs

    J Hudson – Ctrl + A

    Evelyn Levine – Adult Jeans

    Veronica O’Halloran – Van Hulse

    Jon Fried – A Little Bit Closer to Water

    John Tavares – Skinny Sister

    Walter B. Thompson – The Roofer

    Aaron Weiss – In the House

    WINTER FICTION 2014-15

    Here are ten exciting new stories from a group of very talented writers,
    with some being published for the first time. We love discovering new writers
    and look forward to reading more of their work. Hope you enjoy the work, too.

    Jacqueline Berkman – Amino Algorithm

    Charlie Brown – Venus Awaits

    Lou Gaglia – The Waiting Game

    John Oliver Hodges – Ethel’s Mountain

    Clarissa Nemeth – The Claiborne Refuge Workbook

    Robert O’Rourke – Date Night

    Ninon Schubert – Day Three is the Hardest

    Samantha Eliot Stier – Plugs

    Suzanne Ushie – We Don’t Sweep at Night

    Norman Waksler – The Tale of Mrs. Yetzik and Mr. Burt


    Featuring twelve great new stories from some very talented writers—
    some published for the first time. We love to discover new writers
    and help spread the word. Hope you enjoy the work as much as we did.

    Jessie Aufiery – Diabolo Menthe

    Bruno Barbosa – The Almond Trees

    Aurora Brackett – The Room

    Richard Hartshorn – Excavation of a Breathing Fossil

    David Hicks – The Romantic Traveler™ presents Your Customized Guide to Narcissa

    Suzanne Hyman – Ginger in the Soup

    Anna Isaacson – The Transition Plan

    Cheryl Diane Kidder – Objects in Limbo

    Amita Murray – Marmite and Mango Chutney

    Ellen Mulholland – Clothed in Flames, novel excerpt

    Scott Stambach – Mr. Bertrand Avery, Owner of Todos Tempos

    Joshua Sidley – Finished


    Writing Bunch 9Featuring nine great new stories from a diverse group of writers—
    some being published for the first time—
    and others with a long resume of excellent work.
    We hope you spend time with each and every one.

    David J Ballenger – Life in the Black Cloud
    (bottom, left)

    RV Branham – The Tiniest of Television Sets
    (bottom, right)

    Beth Castrodale – Con Artist

    Ruth Deming – Suite 1003
    (top, middle)

    Cassie Kellogg – Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes
    (middle, right)

    Sarah Kruel – Coat Tales
    (bottom, middle)

    Joshua Michael Johnson – Lovely Things
    (top, right)

    Pamela Langley – The Politics of Lonely
    (middle, left)

    Jake Teeny – Recalling the Cold
    (top, left)

    When in Rome

    by Abigail George

    (for my paternal grandparents)

    You and that see-through dark-haired girl, you love
    her, don’t you. Let me count all the ways you love her.
    I could be dead, or just missing, or just missing out
    on you. Your name is a song inside my head, and mob
    justice burns bright tonight. There’s so much of you
    in the narrative and context of my stories. There will
    always be so much of you. And we were never lovers,
    nor boyfriend and girlfriend, just a crack in the system,
    and you know how much I love you, and you know
    about my nervous breakdown, that I never finished
    high school, and I know you want to be a family-man,
    I know you want to build a home; I know you want
    to belong, but life means different things to us, to us.
    My home is the world, my home is under Scandinavian
    skies, my home is sexy-Swaziland, minor earth and

    major sky. Your lips are like velvet, and my face is
    made of stone. I think you’re the epitome of cool, want to
    kiss you so much, pull you in real close, but you’re in
    love with a dark-haired girl now, and I have to respect
    you, and remember you, and remind you I loved you too,
    I loved you before she did, I loved you first. It’s
    lonely out here blogging away in this frozen wilderness,
    but writing brings an order to my life, and my neck is
    graceful, and you’ll never see me naked, it has been too
    long, and so many things have gone unsaid between us.
    So, this is goodbye then my loyal friend until I see you
    in heaven. And I’m going to cry Argentina, there’s nothing
    you can do about that. We could have been lovers. We
    could have been lovers. We could have been lovers. And I’m
    not maternal, although my throat has a masculine energy.

    Hemingway is third time lucky

    (for my paternal grandparents)

    I’m lost, I’m lost, I confess. In a minute I’ll be gone. In another
    minute I’ll belong to the past, escape the present. I’ll be stripped
    bare. I’m a stranger to man, and I’m a stranger to woman, and all
    I’ve ever wanted was to be in your arms, and be loved forever. But,
    this relationship, or whatever it is, or was belongs to the past, and
    I’ll count myself forever holy amongst the stars, and the passing of
    time, and the illustration of dust, and the interpretation of prayer.
    And all I ever wanted was you, dear boy, dear man, dear finite space,
    and biological gap, and psychological warfare, and a wish bone to
    lead me home, and universal sanctuary, and a university degree, and
    a high school diploma, and now, and now I have none of these
    trivia, none of these things that makes the woman, that marks the
    career woman. And I have a mother, but she abandoned me at birth
    because my father loved me more, and my sister despises me, and
    my illness, my disease, my Christianity, my radical feminism, and
    most of all me. I’m an extra, I’m a starlet-harlot, I’m a monkey who
    does not want to behave, but I’ll only behave in your arms, except
    that position is filled. It is nearly midnight, nearly turning-point when
    I’m near-death, near-life, and in death I’ll be extraordinary and in
    life I’ll be extra-ordinary. And if I ever get married, I promise to
    submit, I promise to obey, I promise to love in sickness and in health.
    I am in a tunnel fast approaching another bright light, another
    nervous breakdown, and was I really so difficult, so different to love,
    and you tell me in a thousand different ways of how much I’m impossible
    to love, and the hallucinations, and the insomnia leave me bleary-
    eyed, and I look you straight in the eye, I want to try and make

    eye-contact with you, but you look away because you love another,
    and I don’t binge-drink anymore, I’m no criminal mastermind,
    fuck my intelligence, I’ve never slept with a married man, I’ve never
    fallen for a woman, and even though I feel as if I’m a statistic, you
    don’t, you don’t, you don’t love me anymore and I find it all so
    difficult to be on my own, and I can’t bear the loneliness, I can’t
    face you with another woman on your arm, and you say I look
    like your daughter, and then I find it difficult to breathe, to look
    away, because all I’ve ever wanted was you, and you tell your
    secretary to tell me to fuck off and leave you alone. You’re work,
    and I love your superstar personality, you were my sweet escape,
    once my sweet embrace, and now because of the Sylvia Plath-
    effect you want nothing to do with me, because of the mania and
    the euphoric-high, because of the unstoppably catastrophic blue-
    depression I guess I’m no good for anyone, but especially for you.
    I’m a saint walking on water, I am Saul of Tarsus, I am Paul on
    cocaine on the road to Damascus. I am the finite apostle glowing.
    I’m swimming, my body like velvet, head above water rooting
    for all daughters, and then drowning. Body-surfing, and then
    head sinking beneath the vibrations of the waves, drowning again.
    You have genie-daughters, while I have none. The lunar-phases
    of endometriosis saw to my infertility. I have had orphan-abandonment
    issues in the past. You have had abandonment issues in the past.
    We’re both orphans. That’s the one thing that we have in common.
    I can’t bear the rhetoric, the dogma, you can’t bear the church.
    We should be in love, life-falling for each other but we’re not.


    Abigail George’s fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film and television production at Newtown Film and Television School opposite the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. She is the writer of Africa Where Art Thou (2011), Feeding the Beasts (2012), All About My Mother (2012), Winter in Johannesburg (2014), Brother Wolf and Sister Wren (2015), and Sleeping Under the Kitchen Tables in the Northern Areas (2016). Her poetry has been widely published in anthologies, in print in South Africa, and in zines from Nigeria to Finland, and New Delhi, India to Istanbul, Turkey. She lives, works, and is inspired by the people of the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

    A Semblance

    by Mateusz Tobola




    She was a creature of instinct, a being of distilled focus and unbridled appetite. She was determination personified, and she was a seething storm of desire. She was many conflicting things, but above all, she was whole.

    Perched atop a low-hanging spruce twig – her favourite spot, she waited, seemingly idly. Hours went by, and with them came an unrelenting downpour, before she finally took notice of something worthy of her attention. Or perhaps it was just the hunger and weather that finally got to her. In the grand scheme of this particular late-autumn day, the trigger didn’t really matter.

    Her body twitched, ever so slightly, as her focus eagerly shifted from the dead surroundings of her realm to the lone, chaotic movement in the air. The traveler was clearly weary, and looking for shelter, but in her mind – the prey was marked, and blissfully unaware of her presence. She enjoyed that part. The moth circled around the branches of an adjacent pine, frantically dodging the last of the subsiding rain, before it finally settled down against the mossy side of the trunk in exhaustion, a faint glow of fluorescent mushroom below. There, it would safely rest before further journey.

    Plenty of that would be granted, soon.

    It was a short trek, and one she was anxious to take. She retracted along the shaky sprig, and swiftly disappeared into the thick of needles, faint rustle of leaves the only proof of her existence as she made her way down her outpost. The wet mulch between the trees did little to hinder her silent approach, and before long she was scaling the opposite side of the pine. The climb up was a test of patience. She could easily discern the moth’s seductive movements coming from the other side.

    Amateurish. Careless. Sweet.

    She quickly reached well above her mark and coiled along a thick, curvy branch. There was little tactical advantage to be gained, she was well aware, but she was still a slave to her whim – and watch she must. The moth had spread itself flat against the tree and continued to remain stubbornly oblivious. Its dusty, scale wings were in full display, naked, and she could not help but admire them, if only for a bit. It was a tapestry of shape and dim colours, a flowing image she could not hope to imitate, only enhanced by the ever-present moisture in the air. Before she would take the moth’s life – the spider tilted its head rapaciously to the side – yes, she would take it all in, too.

    She followed further up, around the trunk, and directly above her inattentive guest, before she even started closing in. Each step she took from this point on was graceful and calculated. She was soon barely inches away, blending into the moist bark just above her meal with astounding ease, when she suddenly broke her advance. The moth was well within reach, yet she remained motionless, each limb perfectly still – a fleshy extension of the unswerving focus she bestowed upon her target. In that moment alone, the moth was special. And from that moment on, it was all part of a dance. What she really yearned for, however, was a participating partner.

    She tapped her heel just once against the damp of the bark, and bared her fangs raw in budding anticipation – a smile, really. It didn’t take long for her unwitting partner to take the cue, and the grisly festivities to commence. The moth finally realized the peril it was in, but it was a realization hatched far too late. Within half a flick of its wings as it desperately tried to break free, the moth was no more, cuddled oh-so lovingly in the spider’s embrace.

    Day 1

    A sweet, sickly scent brought her out of a long, cold slumber. An unfamiliar element had taken root in her domain during her absence and now shamelessly teased her senses. She was well sated and comfortable, curled up deep in the safety of her nest, but a familiar blend of anger and curiosity washed over her. She started for the surface.

    She cleared the entrance to her mound of the remnants of season past, and confidently peered out, as she did countless times before. In an instant, a barrage of threatening sounds assaulted her. And what followed shortly was a shattering earthquake, one her fragile frame could barely handle. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell under heavy onslaught of steel and muscle.

    Her poise broken, she took a step back. But her curious nature would not be easily swayed. She emerged again, with unprecedented caution this time, and took a quick survey of her surroundings. No immediate threat was spotted, and she quickly realized she needed to get higher. The neighbouring pine served the purpose well, and high up the tree, she understood – her realm had changed. The sea of foliage she remembered so vividly was unmistakably thinner, and the towering, almighty trees, far fewer in number. There was a growing commotion coming in from a glade not far up ahead, filled with growls of hungry steel and animated by a stir of rising voices.

    Her mind was racing.

    She dropped to the ground and darted across the slowly waking plains, quickly closing in to the edge of the clearing. A small rock formation provided a temporary shelter, but for the first time in her adult life she found herself hesitant to advance. She pushed through the uncomfortable sensation with mounting disregard, and forced herself atop a flat slab of stone overlooking the site. What she saw gave her a pause.

    The camp was bustling with life. Gargantuan figures going on about their business, yelling and pointing at each other as they carved the glade a bit wider with each command. Their loud tools did not know rest, it seemed, and the recognizable sickly-sweet scent of labour filled the air. There was a purpose to all of that, she quickly picked up, and the seeming disarray of movement and noise hid something far more sinister under the surface – a working structure. Chunks of the forest were ripped from their rightful places, dismantled on the spot with startling efficiency, and their carcasses hastily dragged in pieces back into the heart of the camp, only to be thrown next to a similar pile. Then, the process would repeat until another area was cleared. The more she observed, the more evident it became – her kingdom had a new master. And she watched for hours.

    As the sun started setting down, a sharp, piercing sound cut the air – a herald of a day coming to a close. One by one, the woodsmen abandoned their posts for a promise of rest. And as she watched the titans retire for the night, and their tools grow silent, her calm renewed, as did her desire to return home.

    Day 4

    The earth trembled a bit more today. Like greedy fingers, the vibrations reached deep into the ground, and shook the foundations of her lair. But she was already awake. Ever since she had scouted the glade, rest eluded her, and thoughts of relocation intensified. The past few days saw the felling advance in all directions from the clearing. The tremors became more frequent, and the hours at which they occured bolder, stretching well into late night now. She had her extremities pressed tightly against the soft soil of one of the tunnels leading to the surface, and dared to miss nothing from above. Least of all the slowly growing, unnerving hum at ground level she just picked up.

    Perhaps she should as the next thundering wave came in with a force unmatched. The tunnel contorted and the earth above her gave way to an avalanche of soil and gravel. Panic struck her as the weight of the world came crashing down upon her. Half-buried, she gasped for air.

    Nature gave up another inch today. The spruce tree she liked to frequent – the one she was so strangely fond of, has just been unceremoniously ripped from where it belonged, its deeply seated foundations tearing deep at the ground in a hollow scream of protest. She knew, there was no going back.

    She worked hard to get herself loose, her free limbs clawing with abandon at the ground, and finally, after what seemed like hours of debilitating labour, she managed to build enough leverage to pull herself out from under the rubble. Still dazed, she dashed deeper into the labyrinth, bouncing off the walls until she regained full composure. She went straight for the pantry. It was an expansive chamber, advisedly hidden deep, and by far the largest in her nest, built that way only to match the host’s appetite. High up the uneven ceiling, strung tightly side by side, wisely preserved, hung the sweets. Her mind was made up, and she would need all the energy for the journey ahead.

    Day 5

    She spent the waking hours of the next day relentlessly digging an exit. And when she finally emerged among moss and flowers, the surface greeted her with eerie silence. She picked up a wing flutter not far up, a bluebird spring-nesting, no doubt, but nothing else of substance made its way into the crosshairs of her acute senses. Confusion quickly settled in, and with it – as it happens, curiosity forced its ugly head into the conscious, taking over the steering wheel almost immediately. The camp was not that far away, after all, she started to muse, and she did not plan on coming back.

    The journey to the glade was a brisk one, almost automatic, marked only by a passing realization of just how much thinner the usually lush, surrounding area had become in the recent days. On the spot, she found herself met with stillness. A carcass of the once thriving centre of giants’ activity stretched far wider now than she had anticipated. The stone slab she had visited previously was no longer at the edge of the clearing. Now, it was sitting uncomfortably close to two sets of brown-stained tents, serving quietly and with humility as a base for someone’s neglected fireplace. Mountains of logs, piled up as high as she could see in the glow of the rising sun, were spread strategically in between the lodgings – a lingering proof of atrocities past. But other than that, the place felt dead. Or just on the verge of dying, because right about that moment she spotted him.

    A giant silhouette, appearing and disappearing between the shabby dwellings – a single man was walking around the corpse of the camp, whistling, undisturbed, as if he owned the place. He made his own pace, a twig playfully dancing in his right hand, and was soon reaching dangerously close to her position. This would not do, the thought crossed her mind with a lightning speed – barely split-second before she scurried between the safety of the tall grass around her. And from within the safety of the only allies she had left in this strange place, she continued to observe.

    The giant sat down near the fireplace, and with the stick still firmly in his hand, he started poking at the fading embers. He let out a loud yawn as he did that, arching his back against the side of the tent behind him, and stretched his legs along the revived hearth. He seemed restless. His eyes wandered all around, undoubtedly looking for a cure for his boredom, before finally setting down, in defeat, on the freshly resuscitated flame once again, and then a bit higher up – upon a steaming, metal container atop the makeshift stove. He was clearly waiting for something. And as the sluggish passage of time could not be defied, he apathetically began to run the tip of his stick in the ground where he was sitting. The dirt under the titan’s feet must have proven a suitable canvas for someone of his talent, because before long he managed a satisfied nod, and a grin appeared on his round face as he inspected his handiwork. And what a marvel of art it must have been that it had distracted him enough not to notice the edge of his pants catch a stray spark from the hearth.

    The fire took eagerly to the linen, like an overzealous lover, consuming as much as it was allowed to before it would be inevitably put out. With time, the spreading heat became too much to ignore, and the man finally became aware that a part of him was in fact on fire. She never heard a pitch that high. He jumped up in the air and started beating furiously at one of his legs, desperately trying to keep the hungry element at bay. And as he did that, the sizzling stove had the audacity to get in the way. A blur of motion and noise followed his fall.

    First, a hollow thud of the massive body hitting the ground, joined shortly after by a clang of the stove falling over, and then another shrill scream as the boiling contents of the metal container emptied itself all over the man’s already panic-struck face. During all of this, to his credit, he never stopped wrestling with the burning piece of clothing. He finally rolled to the side and got the last of it off himself. He threw it away, with all his might, over his head. Right atop the tent behind him. She never imagined flames could shoot up this high.

    Fascinated, she followed him all day.

    Day 11

    Watching the man had become a habit by now. He was a kind, if not a bit daft, creature. The empty camp already bore several scars from his shenanigans, the most recent one – a crushed storage shed, the result of an ambitious attempt to single handedly re-organize one of the largest log piles on the site. He almost died that day. To her surprize, she was even beginning to grow fond of the sketches he left all around the place. He draw in ground and carved in wood whenever tedium and inspiration happened to struck simultaneously. She understood none of the etchings, of course, but some of them did begin to feel familiar somehow. Mostly, though, she was attracted to the process behind it. If she learnt anything from her time spent shadowing the man, it was that his sort and too much free time didn’t mix well.

    When the trips back and forth between her lair and the abandoned glade had become too much of a hassle, she dug up a temporary nest much closer to the vicinity of the camp. The past few days quickly blended all her actions into a singular focus – observation, and little else. She barely hunted, and she did not take to repairing the damage done to her nest at all. The man provided a degree of entertainment, true, but there were increasingly frequent moments when she found herself wishing she could approach him in a more direct way. For whatever reason, she knew not.

    On that particular day, she hardly realized it was close to midnight before she decided to head back. The deep of the night caught her out in the open again, perched atop a tent and watching her subject under a full moon for the first time. She could not help it. He was fast asleep, and his resting, emotionless face finally started making sense to her in the glow of the withering flame he was cuddled by. His body turned, unexpectedly, and she saw burns running the length of his arm, a distant memory of a fire. And then, a sliver of something shiny on his wrist caught her attention before she could even begin to resist, instantly mesmerizing all eight of her usually vigilant eyes. It called out to her, with an undescribed intensity – begging her to draw just a step closer. Just. One. More. Step.

    She slipped.

    The fall was short and far from fatal, but still embarrassing. She rolled down the texture of the tent, much like a clueless child down a slide, and the momentum threw her between two soft layers of fabric, right atop the chest of the resting man. She froze immediately, but he did not wake up.

    She was equally terrified and excited. They were never this close. From where she was sitting, she could feel an enormous power pumping life into the body under her. Up and down his chest went, not skipping a single beat. Suddenly, she felt like a sailor, in a scrappy, little boat, lost in uncharted waters, just barely hanging on against the raging storm under her. She clung tightly to a button on his shirt, with a desperate hope of getting used to the unyielding rhythm. Soon enough, she managed to find her balance. Encouraged, she crept in closer towards his face, a shy length of a button at first, and after a brief, hesitant pause, up the length of another one, nearer still. And she was getting ready to close the distance even more, until she sensed it.

    There was an unseen presence lurking just outside the edge of the light’s reach. A low, hungry growl soon confirmed what she already knew – a different breed of predator was nearby. Not long after, a pair of mercury-liquid, silver discs came slowly into existence against the pitch-black background of the camp. Her body tensed immediately, and she promptly began backing up. She was ready to run, too, but in that decisive instant, she felt the warmth of the man’s breath brushing off against her body. Without thinking, she addressed her initial instincts with an aggressive jump instead, landing flat on the man’s face. The giant woke up instantly, and just before she was surprisingly gently slapped aside, she did find a peculiar comfort in the fact that she probably bought him a precious few seconds to react.

    She was right. The man noticed the encroaching danger just in time. He jumped in front of the fireplace and kicked hard at the pool of embers. Neglected for far too long, the flames replied with indifference, sizzling out in the air way too fast to serve as an efficient deterrent against the feral cat. The cougar responded in kind with a vicious snarl and lashed out, barely missing its mark as it gracefully landed on the other side of the fire. The man ducked to the right and almost lost his balance in the process, the bottom part of him still half-asleep. A brief pause followed, with the two adversaries circling slowly around the flicking hearth, their eyes locked in an uninterruptible exchange.

    During all of that, she managed to put a healthy distance between herself and the two combatants. She found a shelter under a thick layer of canvas, right at the entrance to one of the tents. She could not take part in this struggle, that much was obvious, but if there was a way to tip the scales even a bit, she thought. Backing up deeper into the safety, she stumbled upon the answer. Inside the tent, half-covered under a stained pillow, lay a tool she saw the man use repeatedly before with brutal efficiency. If only he could have access to it now. She mustered all her strength and pushed against the heavy object. It budged.

    Outside, the encounter was beginning to reach a boiling point. Somehow, the man managed to get a hold of a thick branch and put the tip of it on fire, but the hungry animal was having none of it. If anything, its attacks grew more vicious by the minute, and it quickly became clear that its patience, as well as its fear of fire, were growing thin. At this point, even armed, the man was barely capable of holding his own. He was clutching at his burned arm all this time, a thick streak of red running fast down his elbow and onto the ground. There was precious little time left before the curtain call of this grisly play, and both participants seemed well aware of that. The stage was thirsty, and demanding more.

    Soon, the loss of blood started to overwhelm his conscious, and dizziness began washing over the edge of his mind with ruthless ferocity. His vision blurred, and his perception became a slideshow of the events taking place before him. He registered a fall, then, a slowly rising growl started ringing in his ears as he struggled to command his senses back into order. He also felt an immense weight bearing down on his chest with tremendous force, but, surprisingly, it was the sharp, piercing sensation at the tip of his index finger that dared to demand the most of his attention. The supporting actor in this drama had finally entered the stage.

    When the man collapsed, she knew it was the moment to act. And she did make sure she was noticed. She made a dash towards him and bit hard into the flesh of his hand, plunging her seasoned fangs deep into the soft tissue of one of his fingers, almost reaching bone. When he turned to her, she run, just slow enough to make sure his wobbly vision could follow the path she took, right towards the tool she had worked so laboriously to recover. He spotted it – a gentle flicker in the grass just outside the tent, and a faint spark crossed his eyes. Using what little remained of his strength, he desperately reached out, his hand shaking as he did, and greedily grabbed at the blade of the hunting knife. He let out a powerful howl, and even though the strength behind the scream quickly died, turning it into a pitiful yelp mid-breath, he still managed to execute the swing, driving the razor sharp head of the tool deep into the beast’s eye socket. The cougar howled and winced, his paws dancing on the man’s chest as if he were a plush toy, and soon enough its massive, muscled frame dropped to the ground, lifeless.

    The man was breathing hard, weaving in a heavy wheeze every now and then. He was safe, finally, and all he needed was a little bit of rest.

    Day 12

    She did not sleep at all that night. She found a spot up a tree, near the edge of the camp, from where she could watch over the man as he rested through the night and well into the next morning. As the dawn was setting in, she decided to make her presence known. She dropped from the branch she was sitting on, slowly spinning down her thread with growing anticipation of their second encounter – lower and lower, until she finally reached the cool of the ground. She approached the man openly this time, wading through a pool of sticky, scarlet liquid before she gracefully climbed atop of him. He didn’t even notice. Why should he, she was little more than a breeze, and all his senses were occupied fighting off his condition. His breath came in labouring gasps, each next one audibly more shallow than the one preceding it, until all that was left of it was an unsteady rhythm of a drying up puddle. Perched atop his chest, she felt it all, and how wildly different it seemed to her from the ferocious ocean she fought against once before.

    He was still drawing breath, but barely. His eyes were bulging out, unfocused, lips parched, smacking at some illusionary salve, and his hands, no longer at his sides, spread wide, hungrily grabbing at the blades of grass around him. She knew he was ready, and she was there to witness it. A life was coming to its fragile conclusion, but to her surprise, this time, she was not involved, merely an intimate observer.

    She gently tapped at his cheek once. Then, she did it again. And when no response followed, the spider tilted its head curiously to the side and paused. A movement in the air has caught its attention.




    Mateusz found out very early on that there’s a boundless amount of ideas floating just above his head at any given moment. The tricky part was always to pluck one at the right time and gift it with a form it truly deserved. Mateusz works in creative fields as a designer out of Central Europe, and revisits the writing outlet whenever he gets restless.






    The Tenth Nerve v1

    by Deborah Saltman



    Three nerves control my eyes
    My pupils shrink
    In the lightness of your skin
    And grow in the darkness of our nites
    Take a look if you dare
    No need to question the colour of my eyes
    They are filled with the calling cards of the seasons
    Or does the blue-eyed octopus want to hide behind her ink?

    One nerve relays the soupçon of smells
    That cross the tendrils of my trunk
    Still it is the magnolia that moans a scent
    As ephemeral as its Messenger Hermes
    Five nerves form the movement of my lips, tongue, words
    Yet only one controls the index finger
    That types to you

    Is that not risky?

    But is the vague Vagus – the perfect ten
    That can move the four chambers
    To heartstop
    And now sits behind the drawbridges
    We helped each other raise

    There are only twelve nerves in the cranium
    The last two can make my shoulders shrug
    And help me swallow pain

    That is why I want to stop at ten


    Stop and search


    Stop and search my emotions
    I gave you reasonable grounds to explore my interior
    Do not suspect my engaging in the crime of love or even liking you
    Place your hard metal heart against my scarred chest
    Hood my lips, cuff my arms, restrain my legs
    My spittal is distinctive
    You will taste the perfumed bile for centuries

    I’m grateful

    Wherever you go
    My mistress of the inquisition
    Will you always remember
    Searching the bag of my body
    Never asking for my consent
    Travelling eternally and internally
    On the passport you renewed
    After I ran out of time

    Handcuffs, leg restraints, batons, pepper taints
    Little more than glorified sacks, racks and nick knacks

    After all she says
    You doctors don’t apologise
    When the short sharp needle
    Filled with measles enters my buttocks.


    The underground


    After decades
    I think I hear her familiar breathing again
    That click of her rusty diaphragm
    Wrestling under the diseased heart
    Air always struggling to draw in and out
    Beyond the cardiac space
    No explorer would dare to enter
    Or was it just
    The conductor’s raspish call
    Express stop to exit only?

    Pretending to put on the lipstick I never wear
    I took a selfie
    Just to get a glance of her
    There sitting behind me
    In the disabled seat

    I long for her caved chest to rise up and lay down
    Next to me
    Deep with laboured inhaling
    The rhythm section of her tired ribcage freed
    From our past hiccupping
    Could we ever breathe the same air again?

    My station calls
    Now in the long corridor exit to fresh air
    Walking over the top of her departing carriage
    My tunnelled vision unfolds
    If she was the one
    I’m glad she didn’t look up





    Deborah Saltman is a physician and re-emerging poet living across the hemispheres and the Atlantic currently enjoying her London landing. She has had 6 poems published in reviewed US publications in the last year (one in Poetica, one in Off the Coast, and four in BLAZEVOX. After twenty years of scientific writing, she is enjoying her return to her calling.





    Little Traffic Light Men

    by Joan Frank



    You can’t wish away a lifetime’s conditioning—movies, print, Saturday morning cartoons—as if it were some dismal weather system. At least this time, after twenty-two years away from Germany, the language sounded more comic than not. Something-fährt was printed on a huge airfield building as we taxied in on a sunny May morning, and Something-else-fährt on another. That cheered me.

    So this time (clenched into a wad of aching muscles on the nonstop from San Francisco, tramping the sprawling, halogen-lit maze of Frankfurt Airport) I meant to push aside reflexive dread. Time is ripe, I thought, to flip that trope. I already sensed that confronting the language, and everything it once evoked, might no longer knife me.

    Surely it would feel easier this round. Enough years had passed. A new generation had grown up—now itself busy making babies. Things would have changed. Germany, I reasoned, would step forward to meet me more than halfway.

    I also longed to be taken out of my own head, made to look outward. Read on.

    The last time my husband and I walked on German soil was in 1994. The wall had tumbled only five years before. Five years, in the staggering-to-its-feet of a war-raked city, is not a lot. Sun filtered through pale and weak on our first day there: early spring, exceedingly cold, and Berlin looked and felt like a plane crash. Air held a dazed, floating-motes aftermath. People’s faces appeared locked as they hurried past, scrubbed of any readable inflection as they swayed from hand-held straps with the tram’s roll. Cold spaces. Hard surfaces. Conventional niceties nowhere visible. Bulletholes peppered many walls. Alexanderplatz yawped wide and barren then, an abandoned military concourse, windswept and freezing, the infamous radio tower stabbing from it like a spear, its concrete emptiness a space we could too easily fill, in imagination, with platoons of goose-stepping, helmeted troops—or worse.

    We wandered that day, confused: no sense of a there there. Only hodgepodge. Bricks and rubble. Canvas half-draped a gaggle of life-sized statuary huddled at the rear of a vacant lot behind chain-link fencing, like a crowd of refugees trying to shelter itself.  West Berlin, on its surface, felt no more appealing or friendly, no easier to navigate or make sense of, than East. It was only more expensive.

    * * *

    Some disclosure’s in order. Because of my last name and vague sense of family background (my late folks had no more truck with Jewish orthodoxy than an occasional sip of sweet kosher wine), and because of the 50s and 60s I grew up in—that era’s haste to push off from the past, get on with things—I’d guarded all my life a secret terror that fascism, in the form of a resurrected Nazi machine, could spring back at any time, fast and stealthful as a cancer. Never mind I had no clear idea why an evil cabal wanted to kill people bearing my last name. It had done so once; it could again, wasting no time taking over my country and the world. A child could only build upon what she’d grasped in the first ten years of life, from a range of half-buried allusions and images. Thus, all people of Jewish background (however dimly I understood that) would, in my secret nightmare, be hunted down, rounded up and destroyed in ways I had read about or seen enacted in films—starting with The Diary of Anne Frank.

    * * *

    I remember, in those growing-up years, feeling dizzy with it, the blank non-comprehension: How could the kind, loving grownups of this world allow what I’d read about, and what I’d seen that film suggest, subtly but terrifyingly, to happen? How could it have been real—how even conceivable?

    My little sister and I attended Unitarian Sunday school. We trick-or-treated for UNICEF on Halloween.

    Yet before that selfsame world, findable in any library, was The Diary of a Young Girl—breathing quietly beneath its shroud of reverence and fear and yes, titillation. All references to the diary, to the history inseparable from it, made the book itself seem transgressive, hot with controversy, unspeakable implications. Even as a kid you couldn’t not be shot through with queasiness for the reverence, as much as for the implied unspeakable. Somewhere I’d seen photographs; been unable to look away. Living skeletons, hollowed-out animals dying behind cage bars. Tall piles of bony corpses, great mounds of bodies shoveled onto one another by steam-shovel. Arms and legs and feet and ravaged faces sticking out of these piles, mouths frozen open. Tattooed numbers. Piles of gold teeth, wedding rings. Six-pointed yellow stars. Crushed humans by the millions. Families. Children.

    This really happened?

    All of it juxtaposed by turns against black and white snapshots of the young diarist’s face: sweet, sunny, framed by dark curls above her Peter Pan collar.

    My ten-year-old eyes stared at that photo again and again. She’d have loved, I guessed, all the stuff my sister and I loved. She’d have had favorite songs, favorite books, games, a bracelet or necklace, a sweater; maybe a cigar box for keepsakes, an acorn, a marble, a piece of ribbon. I remember trying as a child to imagine how she’d have looked after she and her sister were devoured by the camps: heads shaved, lice-ridden, starved and freezing, death by typhus.

    That part, of course, doesn’t appear in the film. All you see at the film’s end are the characters looking quickly at each other after the fatal alert has reached them. Their hopeful, pitiful gambit, hiding silently in an office attic for two years, is up. Their glances at one another in final moments, like the squeeze of a hand, telegraph their nod to the incomprehensible: This is it. Someone in Amsterdam has tipped off the authorities; the SS knows the group’s whereabouts and is that moment bearing down upon them. Awareness is sharpened by the approaching sound, louder, louder, of the two-note German police siren: eee-aww eee-aww, a hellish, hysterical braying.

    My child’s mind would always shut down at this point. (How my poor little sister’s mind ingested what we’d seen, I can’t imagine. We wouldn’t have known how to speak of it.)

    My adult mind wants to shut down, too—but it’s packed with images, the kind that pop up to terrorize at 3 a.m. for the rest of your life, scored by the sound track of that siren.

    To this day the crazed screaming of European police-car sirens—that two-note wail, that high-pitched, frantic eee-aww, unchanged it seems since the war—still has the power to stop the heart, shatter thought, atomize reason like a lightning bolt. It’s an aural marker and fanfare of death’s jaws gaping, a sound I can never completely dissociate from they are coming for me. Can never flush the closed throat, the adrenaline prickle, the bunched fists and stuttering heartbeat. Can never pretend I am co-existing calmly, indifferently, maturely, with that sound.

    * * *

    We flew into Frankfurt first to visit my stepson, a wonderful young man stationed nearby as part of his military duty. It seemed the right moment for revising the dread that surely now no longer fit. I had rolled up mental sleeves, determined to sweep out biases, see things new. We had all lived—Germany and the world—into new news. Twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Wall. Other horrors now darkened our planet’s once-clean heavens: climate change, ISIS and Al Qaeda, belligerent viruses, internecine tribal atrocities, refugee crises, insane assassins armed to the teeth, maniacs and despots seizing power. Meantime, in Germany, a full generation had come of age: one that appeared well-educated, matter-of-fact about even the worst aspects of the realities they face, willing to invent something better.

    Now comes the “what I supposed versus what I learned” recital. The German contingent of this new (my stepson’s millennial) generation, from what I thought I could discern without language, seems to respect the old nightmare—granting that the nightmare’s after-images still grip aging survivors in bloody talons. But the young adults also seem determined to consider it ancient history, the kind discussed in textbooks. They publicly consecrate the memory of the murdered (now the official word), pledging and repledging themselves, in monuments and speeches, to exemplify vigilance, to safeguard human rights. Markers and museums of every aesthetic, insisting we never forget, crop up everywhere. In Mannheim our son led us to a glass booth on a busy thoroughfare, whose walls bore a kind of foggy transluscence. At closer glance this fog turned out to be inscription, in tiniest letters, of thousands of lightly-printed names covering every inch of the glass. A brief scan confirmed that most of those names were, like mine, recognizably Jewish.

    We stood there a moment, running our eyes over column after column.

    Each name, someone’s beloved darling: now a cloudy mark on glass, in a bustling city.

    We walked the tidy districts and neighborhoods, seeing the young (like their counterparts elsewhere) absorbed by the daily, the necessary pleasures and tasks: showing up to jobs, rearing kids, building communities, savoring arts, sports, landscapes, food, friendship. These people looked smart, humane, preoccupied with survival, hoping (like any species in progress) to make things better.

    They were parents, harrassed and proud and tired, pushing strollers or calling toddlers to their sides in parks, cafes, fast food outlets, sidewalks. They were self-styled bohos, smoking and chattering amid the litter of beers and coffees. They were musicians, painters, boutique owners, bookstore and retail clothing clerks, grocery checkers, museum guides, landscape and building maintenance and construction workers, teachers, researchers, drivers, waiters and waitresses, nurses, cops and firefighters, nannies and caregivers, highway repair workers. (“There are two seasons,” our son told us: “Winter and Road Work.”) They were students, rumpled and sleepy, flirting in parks, playing horns or guitars or cellos, sketching in museums; they were old guys perched patiently on stoops or in cafe chairs or on benches. They were tourists exploring palace grounds, forests, scenic lookouts, truck stop restaurants, patiently escorting aging parents, explaining, cajoling. They coached and scolded and laughed at their own kids.

    I felt no darkness from them. No perfidy. No scorn. Of course I stood outside the culture, outside the language, but say what you will: humans emit force-fields that can often be felt and heard and to some degree, read. I looked and listened. Young bohos in the Germany I glimpsed appeared identical with young bohos in comparable settings; kids and babies and parents as you’d expect to find them. I cannot claim to have felt great warmth from these individuals, but courtesy and mildness ruled. Sometimes strangers offered to explain a sign or menu, or clarify directions. Our son drove us through Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg. I swallowed hard at the sound of that latter name, but the Nuremberg we saw presented as cheerful and handsome, oblivious to the day-of-reckoning thunder its name once evoked. The city has proudly rebuilt itself almost completely—even its cathedrals, which manage to look centuries old.

    We found wellsprings of charm and beauty in Bamberg: its genial mix of locals and visitors, cafe culture, vine- and flower-covered, saggy-gingerbread homes along the river, fairy-tale style. An aged man with thick white hair and patrician features leaned out a high window to prune his roses; the blooms were fat, round and velvety, peach-red. Squinting up as we walked past, on impulse I called out to him that his flowers were beautiful. (This was something my sister would have done, along with stopping to pet and croon at every dog and baby.) The aging man nodded wearily as if enduring a stale gesture, as if he heard those words every day. At once my impulse felt smartly checked. Who might he have been, in a prior century? Who might I have been, as part of the population surrounding him? Might he have as wearily targeted me, or the family or compound that harbored me? Might I have been but one of a steady stream of undesirables, as steadily and casually singled out for exile—or extinguishment?

    During the hours I strolled past the gingerbread homes and hand-built fences along the river, all of it covered with thick-twining roses—afterward sitting down to trocken, crisp white wine in an outdoor cafe packed with families, couples, students, shouting, exuberant—those questions pulsed below the more mundane concerns: where we might next walk, what were we presently seeing, which photos to snap. I pushed the dark questions down before they could unfurl in pretty daylight.

    What, I wondered then and wonder now, has second-guessing ever truly served?

    It can be argued two ways.

    One: Assign no meaning more sinister until there’s evidence for it.

    The other?

    Assume the worst. No point second-guessing is what lots of people told each other in the years and months leading up to 1939, to Krystallnacht. Thoughtful people, good, smart people counseled family and friends, Calm down. Be reasonable. Wait and see. No need to panic; just wait a while. It will come right. It will sort itself out.

    * * *

    Despite those prickling reverberations—inflamed now by the election, in the year of this writing, of perhaps the most frightening proto-fascist ever to assume office in American history, with terrifying implications for the nation and the planet—despite those, I confess that in the halcyon days of touring with our son (and later by ourselves in Berlin) we took refuge in a mental condition we’ve nicknamed a spazz-out of happiness: meaning the arbitrary eruption of a heightened state; antic, glassy, willed jubilation. People are good at heart. History rights itself.  Life and objects may be trundling along having logical, discrete identities and trajectories unconnected with other matters. But the perceiver’s spazz-out corrals, connects, and infuses all it spies in that moment with the meaning necessary to serve the need. The Happy Story we tell ourselves can be a bully and a brute—something Americans do especially well. We do it best, in fact, while we are tourists. We’ve invested a lot in our story. Self-image. Money. Fear.

    Fear of what, you ask?

    Why, fear of the jolly story being otherwise.

    Were it otherwise—they might be coming for me.

    Was any of this grim internal tabulating fair to modern Germany? Did Germany know or care? Of course not. What is Germany or any nation-state but an aggregate of individuals, each toting her and his aggregate of needs, touched inadvertently by pieces of common history and current culture? Germany as a collective consciousness cares most at any given moment—like any other generalized group—about survival; as a close second, about a quality of survival. Each person in its fold, infant to elder, wants to feel well, do well, thrive and prosper.

    All the rest? My imposition.

    But isn’t this the way any traveler moves through the world?

    * * *

    As noted earlier, weather still calls the shots. Never doubt this. Whatever weather happens to be doing wherever we happen to be traveling, that place becomes that weather, in memory. If we’re stuck in Blackburn, England in January, and the dirty snow outside and bitter-freezing temperatures make my husband’s father take one look out the window and climb back upstairs to tunnel back into his bed, that will forever be Blackburn in my brain’s illustrated dictionary. If I am a twenty-year-old living in a Peace Corps trainee dorm in Dakar, Senegal when sudden rains hammer the corrugated roofs like poured nails—and when five minutes later the soaked earth roils steam into a sky white again with boiling sun, while the smell of pummeled leaves and dirt and feces and rotting mangoes and baked bricks and grease and gristly-meat-smoke fills my skull—that’s the permanent imprint, no matter how many years ago it happened. In my mind’s album of emblematic scenes that will be the diorama floating forward, replete with grit and humid stink.

    But recent scenes can, and do, eclipse their predecessors.

    So when in Berlin, twenty-two years after our freezing first visit, with its plane crash tableau, we step into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—a bright blue sky filled with marching bands of cotton-puff clouds—suddenly that becomes the new template, the forever-picture of Berlin (maybe of all of Germany) in the brain’s archive.

    Come with me into the present tense now. My husband and I have traveled here after visiting our son, to have a swath of time together in this city we scarcely remember.

    Our venture seems blessed by weather. As if weather were the Pope in an extremely good mood, it has palmed the crowns of both our heads and declared, Guys, this is gonna be a bell-ringer. I guarantee it.

    We know it the moment we step out of the train into the towering interior of the Berlin Hauptbanhof, a megalopolis of a station serving (from the looks of it) the whole universe. Google it: the Hauptbanhof is a symbol, a machine, kinetic art, a multi-level hive; its entire front wall—three sky-piercing facades—a flashing quilt of blue glass. Not least, the station serves as a multiplex shopping mall, whatever you may think of that—several levels of store upon store offering home decor, clothing, jewelry, pharmacy sundries, sports equipment, chocolate, crystal, groceries, booze. This is how we do it, the German sensibility seems to be declaring. Monolith of glass and steel: seen through half-shut eyes, the structure resembles some hokey science fiction conjuring. Hordes push through in all directions around the clock; people wend their bicycles through swarms of walkers.  Frenzied, roaring futuropolis—and once we manage to thread through the exit doors and step outside, the beauty of heavenly weather falls over us like silk.

    Shining City! Hope of men!

    Because we have allowed ourselves certain occasional luxuries at this stage of our traveling lives, we take a cab to the hotel. Through its windows we gawk at clustered skyscrapers, thronged streets, motorbikes, babies, cafes, businesses, tourists—and everywhere against that sky for three-hundred-sixty degrees, gargantuan building cranes, moving with slow determination like some giant, benevolent aliens tending the expansion of their earthbound nest. Everything’s bathed in sparkling sun. It is June. It is warm. People zoom around on bicycles.

    Spazz-out goes into overdrive.

    * * *

    We loved everything we saw. I can itemize highlights or you can read about them in Rick Steves. Art: dazzling, brilliantly showcased. Architecture: handsome, stately. Streets and parks and buildings, historic and modern, almost always immaculate. Energy: crisp, strong, exhilarating. Ambience: a festive air of good will toward men, fortified by abundant, delicious beer and wine. (Excellent coffee, bakeries, fish.) Best of all, the rollicking momentum of this feckless bien-être felt punctuated and buttressed at every turn by the regular, larger-than-life appearances, inside the cylindrical cones of traffic lights―of a remarkable figure.

    Actually, there are two of them: quite different.

    The stocky, bright-red little man faces you, both arms stretched wide to indicate, unmistakably, no no, go no further! Whereas the walking little green man is silhouetted, mid-step, from the side, so you can appreciate his long, confident stride. Both men appear to wear a pork-pie hat. Except on Red Guy, who faces us, it looks more like a helmet. But if it were a helmet, it would not (I must insist) be a soldier’s. It would be the helmet of civic duty: that of a crosswalk guard or civil defense volunteer.

    Allow me (assisted by Wikipedia) to introduce Ampelmänchen, Little Traffic Light Men, created in 1961 in then-East Germany “by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927–2009), as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout...”

    Ampelmann! My new best friend. Symbol, especially in his Green version, of a friendly friend who cares for my safety―and much more. Ampelmann signals not just when it is time to go forward but—pay attention please—how. Do as he does, he seems to be urging. Set forth with resolve, with full-hearted expectation.

    All that’s often given to us to control, we’re often reminded, is our own response. Response to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unknown. Ampelmann enacts a best-of-all-possible responses, one that recalls the late E. B. White’s analogy for commencing to write an essay: namely, going out for a walk. (One envisions White’s cheerful ur-essayist venturing forth in exactly the posture of Green Ampelmann, alert, friendly, spirited.) Call this state of mind, say, forwardism, a pre-emptive Yes: heading out to meet whatever may be coming with an already-extended arm―as if ready to shake hands with a promising, heartening, equally glad future.

    Ampelmann’s history, easily found online, likewise moves and inspires. How on God’s earth these stout-hearted emblems made their debut in the starved, brutally guarded, beaten-down wasteland of a German Democratic Republic, is tough to imagine. Perhaps the little traffic light men served in some tiny way as encouragement. (Unthinkable hardship and cruelty were givens. Read Joel Agee’s immortal memoir, Twelve Years, a record of his childhood as his then-family struggled to survive in that Dante-esque netherworld.)

    A shameless industry of tokens and goods has burst from these now-beloved images, from key-chains to earrings, T-shirts to beach totes.  It’s an exploitation I can’t begrudge. Even thinking about Green Ampelmann, his sprightly, roving manner—easy to imagine him to be whistling—never fails to lift me, a sturdy cocktail of relief and hope. I’ve pasted a circular bumper sticker bearing his greenly-stepping-out form on my car’s back fender. And every time I lay eyes upon that sane, chipper, striding-toward-excellent-adventure fellow—something in me recalibrates. On the spot I resolve, willy-nilly, to do better, be better.

    * * *

    Only once—in the area near the river called Museum Island, where the city’s most splendid museums align like a set of Parthenons—did a shadow fall over our spazz-out. A busker implored us in winsome sign language for contributions to an apparent charity for the deaf, putting his cheek to mine as a warrant of tender affection. I gave him a couple of Euros. The busker had counted on receiving more than that. In an instant his Peter Pan charm vanished; contempt deadened his face as he turned away. He stalked off to count the afternoon’s take with a female busker. I stared after them, embarrassed and angry with myself as much as with him—I’d been an idiot to fall, even a little, for his false bonhomie, and what was probably a total con anyway to fetch themselves cigarette and beer money. But what right had I to ordain some candy-shell of unilateral cheer as the personality profile for an entire population—a population doubtless as needy and diverse and complicatedly fucked up as any other?

    * * *

    In hindsight, I missed certain cues—a tightness on people’s faces and in their carriage; the ways they moved, spoke, stood. As noted earlier (against my own spazz-out’s sugarcoating), I seldom felt from German people what you’d call innate warmth. The vibe was trickier. You might call it a kind of girdedness: a controlled, systematic tension of readiness-against-whatever-might-drop; getting on with duties while taking generic care not to cause harm. The message I absorbed from individuals we watched or with whom we had any transaction, was I do what I must. In short, they were earning a living, taking care of life and business. Of course that’s how people everywhere talk to themselves about hauling themselves to a job every day and performing, hour by hour, what that work requires. Perhaps the tightness I read was my own projection.

    But surfaces can mislead, or at least rarely tell the whole story. Some months after we returned home, two New Yorker articles appeared. One, by historian Thomas Meaney, focused upon the alarming ascent in Germany of a neo-rightwing movement which tended to scapegoat immigrants. This piece gave the lie—unnervingly—to my breezy supposition that the country had once-for-all morphed into a model of humanitarianism by dint of sheer group will. The other article, by New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, was called “Ghost Stories.” Bilger journeyed to Berlin to participate in a kind of progressive group therapy, designed to help middle-aged Germans (“unaccustomed to self-pity and allergic to national pride”) exorcize the abiding internal pain of connection with all the history I’d so blithely assumed them safely past. “Theirs was a country responsible for history’s bloodiest war and most efficient mass murder: sixty million killed, including two-thirds of all European Jews,” writes Bilger. “They were here [in the therapy session] to wrestle with that guilt.”

    Grown children of German emigrés have not, it appears, escaped the same stigma. “Family history,” Bilger notes, “is an uneasy topic for a German-American…A sense of guilt by association hangs in the air, even for people of my generation.” Bilger was born in 1964. “To be German, it seems, is still to be one part Nazi.” As survivors with direct memories of the war are now dying off, “people began to realize how little they knew about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. They needed to hear those terrible old stories after all…Kriegskinder, they called themselves: children of war.” You need to know the story, it seems, to excise the story: to free yourself. “Evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations has steadily mounted,” observes Bilger. He then recounts the anguish of each therapy group’s participants, as they tried to understand the behavior of a family member who’d been involved at any level with Nazi actions.

    Things had never, apparently, been what they seemed.

    * * *

    In truth, one real trauma did occur in Berlin—the only one of our voyage. Some people might reject that it qualifies as trauma. We weren’t robbed or beaten; not blindsided by a car or motorbike. No one was injured—mortally. The ordeal was interior: a private bomb whose latent power I’d been striving to escape, or bury deeper, with the busyness of travel.

    It had nothing to do with Germany. Yet Germany was its context; therefore, its midwife.

    It, too, happened at Museum Island, when I suddenly discovered I’d lost my special museum pass, purchased and handed to me by my husband only moments before—a pass good in all the museums for three days. We had just two days left in the city. Each pass cost about forty dollars, not a fortune but not nothing, and we were trying, as always, to control expenses. In the swirl of people pushing through the receiving area of our first museum—as we were puzzling out how to stash our belongings in one of those little lockers requiring a Euro coin deposited in a sticky slot—my ticket disappeared. We later guessed I’d unwittingly dropped it, and that someone had scooped it. Next came a panicked fluster: furious checking of all pockets, dumping out of the handbag—followed by that frantic, sickened feeling when each object grasped and set aside is not the desired one nor is it sticking to, or hiding, the desired one. My husband—a good, sane, generous, consummately decent but mortal man—got angry with me, incredulous that within mere minutes of its purchase I could somehow have managed to let that pass evanesce into air.

    In a stroke, I felt crushed.

    Defeated. Emptied. Stupid—not fit to live; suddenly not much caring whether I lived.

    Please now allow for a last, perhaps outrageously late disclosure, introducing the submerged monster in this odyssey—of personal grief.

    My beloved younger sister, Andrea, had died, suddenly and horribly, of apparent pancreatic failure, about a year earlier. The event could not have been more abrupt: a bolt flung by a Greek god. And though my husband and I had eventually resumed life and travel, moving over the surface of the world in customary ways, I secretly felt as though I had to work twice as hard to convince myself (let alone others) that a world without her—lifelong co-pilot, witness, simultaneous mother and daughter, co-survivor of multiple early losses—was still making sense as a world. Not least, I struggled to convince myself that whatever it was that I called “I” was still making sense as a part of that world. Until the moment of the vanished ticket, the world we looked upon had been making a reasonable show of worldness—if never quite fitting together as it once had.

    To be sure, ghost reminders had whispered behind people, settings, objects. The names etched into the glass booth in Mannheim. The aloof, aging man whose roses she’d have praised. The babies and dogs, chotchkes and weather.

    During the months after losing her, I would hold my head with both hands to keep it from breaking open. My little girl, my baby wren, soft brown feathers for hair, sitting opposite me on the cool smooth concrete of our Arizona front porch, repeating my language lessons with eager, smiling, trusting brown eyes. Hamburger. Hang-aber. Spaghetti. Ba-sketti. Yellow. Lellow.

    It is a deeply strange experience to travel after the death of someone as close to you as your own skin. You regress in ways to a blank slate, almost needing to re-learn the most basic assumptions and practices of a modern society. You look around in bafflement at the colossal, intricate, bearing-down life of a world that has neither paused nor changed a jot; you gaze in wonder at the busy, rushed, full-tilt nonstopness of things. Until our hapless halt near the museum’s banks of lockers, the world’s surface—if gossamer, if whisper-plagued—had sort of “held.” When the little ticket disappeared and my husband grew angry, that thin construct shivered, suddenly cross-hatched with a million infinitesimal cracks. In the next moment, like a hurled glass globe, it fell to bits. And so did I.

    I didn’t care anymore where we were, what we did, or whether we had money. I wanted my baby sister back—my second heart, known to me in every pore since they first brought her home in a blanket, she who best knew my own heart and the hearts of her children and husbands and friends, who did everything in her power (sometimes beyond her power) to put her arms around the world, make it happy—the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul I’ll ever know, the only one left who could corroborate everything that had happened to us (early deaths of parents and husbands; gypsy-rover lives eventually made good). In the words of a friend, “a million others should have gone before her.”

    But you see, they had. They did.

    So how do we measure loss? I stared in shock at her motionless form in the hospital room—we’d arrived too late, too late—that adored face still frowning, as if in dismay and perplexion at the terrible pain which had been her last awareness, her last consciousness.

    This really happened.

    I have begged my little sister silently, every day since, to give me any sign that she still somehow, somewhere, is. No sign has come, except for dreams. They give the brief comfort of her presence, which may be all I or anyone can realistically hope for. Staring from my emptied handbag to my exasperated husband in the midst of that museum lobby’s noisy mobs, I wanted only to slip back into one of those dreams, away from the brittle, thousand-arrows-deluge of living, to hold my sister tight, smell her clean, apricot-shampoo scent. Nothing mattered then. Not travel, not art, not food or drink, not even my dear husband. Not Germany, not planet Earth.

    My husband, recognizing what had been loosed, scrambled to stanch and smooth it over—but I’d lost my bearings. Zombified, tear-streaked, I stumbled back to the ticket cage and bought another pass. We entered the museum. It was the Pergamon, I think. Gallantly, my husband (now in triage mode) tried to distract me, pointing out extraordinariness and sublimity in all directions. I could not respond—could not muster a straw of coherent thought, only sickened freefall as I cast my eyes toward magnificent pillars and priceless tapestries, jewelry, glassware, mosaics, weaponry, tools: marvelous things that people (now dust) had bravely made. I can still feel the bottomless cold abyss of it, the outer-space shriek in my ears. What good to me, the riches of ages? She was gone. What good was anything? What could, in fact, any longer be called good?

    To whom, wailed one ancient Egyptian inscription, can I speak today?

    My husband and I zigzagged, at careful distance from one another, through immense rooms. The Germans, to their unending credit, had arranged sarcophogi, statuary, bas-reliefs and sculptured busts so that there was plenty of light-filled space around each piece—each piece lit so artfully and subtly, the works themselves seemed to glow. I tried to hang back, give my husband a long lead, make room between us to allow for my ballooning horror, which I could not seem to control.

    Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: It is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them. Crave as I did to disappear, the thing that is me lurched on in its same, mute, faithful body: carrying case for a wailing soul.

    We kept walking. (He walked. I trailed him.) At last we entered a room in which a massive screen had been mounted on a base of console-height. A long bench was fixed at perfect viewing distance across from the screen.

    People were seating themselves there, to watch.

    A sign above the installation promised simply, Time Travel.

    We sat.

    Then all at once we were seeing a semi-animated, computer-graphics-aided film, panning over a landscape of primitive Earth: cave-dweller years, wintry and raw. Soon, swiftly, the camera homed in on a family going about its then-life: a hefty fire crackling, animal skins drying. Details were visible. Our eyes were guided over tools and implements, weapons and eating utensils, crude clothing. Yet the quality of animation softened the view, the panning camera almost smearing it so that the images came at us like a sequence of half-remembered dreams. Then, above the screen, a sort of chronometer (time-ometer?) fast-forwarded several thousand years. And before we knew it we were watching a small tribe building shelters, fishing, dancing, eating. Little kids scrambled; mothers called to them. Laughter. Hammering. Then the time-ometer pushed ahead again and we watched two villages, or townships, at war. We heard shouts and cries and horses screaming, clanks and clunks of metal and wood. A series of stills showed men struggling in combat; we heard them howl in anger and pain. Eerily, what separated this cinematic dream from other kinds were its sounds: no specific language was ever clear but voices carried, voices like ours—as did the warmly familiar sounds of wind and weather, of animals, human merriment, human anguish, human sorrow.

    We watched an early wedding. A funeral.

    No single word was intelligible: only universally-understood sounds.

    This really happened.

    Slowly my heart and body calmed and gentled.

    Wordlessly, body and heart were absorbing some deep, cellular recognition: the continuum of human struggle, of atrocity, joy, agony and wonder, understood across incomprehensible spans of years.

    Up floated a phrase I’ve never forgotten—the hand-lettered title of a folksy mineral display we’d browsed in the Arizona outback many years ago:

    The vastness of geologic time.

    And the whole of my tired, grieving body recalled slowly, as if by granules through an hourglass, that we had always been part of that. We were part of it—of all we were viewing. Nothing more nor less. We were them. We would fade as they had, this long line of forebears. The time-ometer showed generations blurring inexorably back into a ceaseless, mostly-forgotten past. Me, my sister, her children, their children. All of us sharing a fate stretched along an infinite continuum.

    At last, in a trance, we rose and left the museum; emerged blinking into the dusk-lit city of Berlin, the country called Germany, continent known as Europe, planet named Earth, the year denoted, for reasons now nearly forgotten, by the number 2016. And in sepia light, overlooking wide streams of bellowing cars and buses, cop’s whistles, hordes from everywhere moving across squares and playing music and drinking beer and romping with kids in parks and along the river in tour boats, monstrous building cranes nosed slowly side to side in the background as if nodding along with the human roar, against early evening’s fading sun. People were moving, as they must. We moved with them, waking yet still entranced, striding out into it with intensifying resolve to do, to be. Among them, amidst it. Heading out—why not—like Ampelmänchen to meet whatever might next come, while we could. All that it is given to us to invent, to deploy, is response. Later I would think about the curious weightlessness of those moments, as we joined the surging cars and crowds—but also about how, at the same time, I felt the time-ometer pressing forward: infinitesimal, patient, relentless. And in truth it was not a bad feeling, not bad at all.




    Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards. She lives in Northern California.









    i, Clouded

    by T.E. Winningham


    Pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping;
    good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities.
    On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
    – Herman Melville



    The Company put us way out in the frigging sticks, tripled-up in the cheapest ratty room nowhere near the campus, off the wrong expressway even, in these cornfields stretching must be hundreds of miles in every direction. Nick, Tracy, and me. Checking into the motel we could see it, the campus, standing up from the flat horizon the way state universities make bubbles out of the void like sealed ecosystems. Standing there with shirttails flapping in the wind, a nervous twitch started in my eyelid waiting for the GPS to find us, shock and horror settled in my stomach when it gave up. Walked across the gravel lot in the heat, from the motel to the dust caked gas station where the greasy-fingernailed attendant sold me an actual—never to be folded correctly back to its original shape—paper roadmap. In the room we sat around it at the table in Nick’s cigarette smoke and stale lamplight, marking in pencil. The route of county roads leading from our We Are Here dot to the We Need to Get Here Every Damned Morning dot traced the shape of a lost Tetris game. Then we turned off the lamp and lay listening to flies trapped between the window and screen, stripped down to underwear and sweating, thinking this is only April.

    The library sat square in the center of campus, towering over the stone-columned museumesque buildings and surrounding lawns. Students on foot and bicycle made a kind of swirling vortex around it, a hurricane’s empty center. The first morning we introduced ourselves to the head reference librarian, a small woman with a thick Slovenian accent and papers prepared for us. Call numbers by floor, tutorials for the online card catalogue. Unexpected, really, as this was merely a formality but nevertheless she led us under the arched marble and stained glass of the lobby to an echo chamber of a vacant reading room and sat us down at the first of the long mahogany tables. “You will find the book stack very well ordered,” she said, passing out the stapled pages. “In spite of this area being originally closed to the students.”

    “Closed?” Tracy asked.

    “Yes. The students needed only to bring call numbers of the books they desired to the front desk. An attendant would then return with them. This changed quite some time ago, problems with the staff and with budgets, but we have worked diligently to reorder the entire stack to make it accessible to the students. Who are not often accustomed to library methods.

    “Now,” she continued, and began reading deliberately from the handout. The numbers and decimals and cross-referenced charts were incomprehensible to me. Nick exhaled loudly as he flipped ahead through the pages.

    “Ma’am, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Nick stood, “but we need to get started. Waivers we’ll sign, as our Company agreed, but the rest of this, it isn’t how we work.”

    “But you will not know where to find the books you are looking for.”

    He pointed to the bookstack entrance, a small doorway behind the librarian’s desk, smiling. “They’re in there. We just start at one end and work our way to the other, Company policy. Anyway, with searchable text we’re basically making catalogues obsolete.”

    She gasped; we all stood.

    “Thank you for your time, we’ll let you know if we need anything,” I said as we left her just standing there and walked into the stacks.

    We were scanning twelve hours a day, driving back and forth on the dark two-lanes with drunk pickup drivers, suicidal raccoons, and teens standing on parked cars shooting rifles at God knows rustling in the fields. In the mornings, still dark, the same minus the kids on the abandoned cars. Mists hung low like a ceiling over the corn stalks to either side, long gray nightmare tunnels in the headlights, breath and coffee steaming over the windshield and Nick’s cigarette ash floating up from the backseat. And Tracy, asleep, head bouncing against the passenger window with the smearing noise of skin on wet glass. Three weeks and we were zombified.

    In the motel Tracy got her own bed, tiny and swimming in her flowery pajamas, hornrimmed glasses pushed up as a headband holding red bangs from her face. The paintings hanging around us made me think of some Bob Ross assembly line sweatshop, rows of easels and brushes twitching furiously, making the trees happy or else. Past midnight and the TV options are softcore porn and an advertisement for this new acne-busting home laser system, and between the two it’s hard to tell which paid actors are more excited. Tracy clicks back and forth and decides on porn. Nick sleeps next to me, mumbling something about focused light and ray guns. “Bart,” Tracy rolls onto her side to face me. “We haven’t slept in a week. This has to change.” On her wrist is a tattoo of a band-aid and scissors, a kind of warning against permanent mistakes. Hers is the personality that disappears under sackcloth dresses, the Company simply forgets her, she’s quiet and acquiescent-seeming with authorities and they don’t understand irony. “Hey there, Nickers, wake up! We’re formulating a plan.”

    Nick snorts or coughs or just something wet catches in his throat.

    Tracy takes pen and pad of paper from the drawer with the Bible. Tearing sheets off the pad, she throws them in our direction and they swirl like snowflakes between the beds. “Y or N to the commute,” she says.

    “What’s our alternative?”

    “Either a Y or an N.” She mutes the moaning TV.

    “I mean, if we don’t commute then what?”

    “We’re checked in indefinitely,” Nick’s awake. “We stay here.”

    Tracy writes on one of the sheets. “I’ll mark that as Abstained.”

    “It’s not…” Nick sits up, “it’s clearly an N. Or, wait,” he looks to me.

    “Oh good, settled then.”

    “You mean Y, Nick,” I hand him a slip of paper. “As in: yes we commute.”

    “Too late,” Tracy folds three sheets in her lap. “We’re in unanimous, resounding agreement.”


    We moved into the library at the end of Finals Week when the building’s mostly a ghost town. The lights go off predictably at night and flicker back on in their little metal cages in the morning. Important administrative things are surely going on elsewhere, though I can’t imagine what they are. But the stacks are quiet. We’re contracted with the university to be here “until we’re done” scanning and the Company made it very clear they don’t care to hear from us until then. Assuming we haven’t all died and rotted first. We left the rental car parked next to a dumpster behind off-campus housing and set up camp in the Medieval French Poetry section, confident we won’t be discovered. Sleeping bags, two flashlights, lots of bottled water and energy bars, pizza delivery on speed dial along with obviously plenty to read. The twelve hour days continue, down on the bottom floor where we started, still, eventually working our way up. We’re already chilled in the unbelievable air conditioning fanning constantly from the vents, sitting alone in our aisles scanning page after page until the lights go out and feeling our way back to camp.

    There was at one time a plan for this building, you can tell, but it’s long forgotten. The aisles stretch sometimes forever while others end abruptly against support columns, plastered with yellowed signs taped over each other with call numbers and arrows pointing left or right in the dead ends. The fire sprinkler plumbing and electrical conduits run exposed overhead, the casings for power outlets often hanging empty next to bundles of the multi-colored wires of a newer system. Reflective tape traces paths along the floor where it’s swept clean from the elevators to freshly painted shelves, everything near the stairwells is decaying and dirty. I can only imagine the asbestos waiting to ooze down over us from the cracked HVAC and hot water pipes.

    This kind of isolation, of sensory deprivation, of course we’re all going a little insane getting used to it.

    Nick reminds me of a woman in drag if she overdid the five o’clock shadow and greased a pompadour to its natural limits, he’s from the East coast and I’m telling myself he was going to crack under Company pressure anyway. He started talking about himself in the 3rd person but weirdly, as if relaying messages to all three of us from some fourth, boss-type person coincidentally named Nick. Like, Nick wants us to work American Literature, 1937-38 today. Or, Nick has an updated completion timetable for us. The orders come down without discernable pattern, and the random changes totally screw us up. Tracy usually shakes in place for a second before saying for example Who fucking promoted Nick? and running off down the aisles. She’s right, too, he’s not in charge—just a little older. I like playing along but this invisible Nick can be a humorless ass. I asked him once if we could take lunch outside for a change and all he said was No, no, Nick doesn’t think that’s a good idea, Bart. Then, In fact, Bart, Nick has cancelled lunch breaks.

    Which is really too bad, because this job is boring. Imagine scanning book pages with a handheld gizmo for a living. It’s pretty much the same as holding an extremely docile cat in your lap and brushing it until well after your arm goes numb, then putting it back on the shelf and taking the next cat, then the next, over and over for thousands of hours. The detritus and wisdom, conquests and failures of the world shelved to the ceiling around us. Most of it. Or at least part of it, there’s no way for us to know: for time’s sake, Company policy forbids reading. But I feel the shelves looming so impossibly high, even as I thunk my head on a fire sprinkler standing up. I’ve scanned more pages than I can count, haven’t seen the sun in longer than I’ll admit, and I’m freezing. There are no windows here, no clocks. No floor marked G and I know the one marked 1 isn’t but forget which one is. We take elevators in both directions, stepping off it seems always into basements.

    “It’s worth it,” Nick says, “for the future.” Marking the place in his book, he stands. “We think of libraries as social institutions, as a common good, but the building is just a warehouse. An antiquated system. Indexes, catalogues, all that’s gone now. Our warehouse is virtual. And with tags and searchable keywords it’s the end of systems.” He gets that Rally-the-Troops look. “We’re consolidating the network, and once we’re finished this never has to be repeated. This,” raising the book at us, “I could throw this anywhere because we’ll never need to find it again. It’s in the Cloud now. We’re getting rid of old ideas of organization because they’re holding us back like a dead weight, like hobbling a horse.”

    “Very eloquent,” Tracy says, checking her email.

    Nick looks at the phone in her hand. “By the way, Nick doesn’t want us using our mobile devices anymore. He feels they’re distracting us from our work and so, as of tomorrow, he’s cancelling our internet access. If you want to update your away message, now would be a good time.”

    Tracy looks up at him, eyes almost murderous or dead. She opens her mouth to speak but closes it again, looks at me. She stands and walks off and we don’t see her for the rest of the day.

    Sanity took a turn for the worse without the internet. There is not a thing left to do but scan, and the constant, endless enormity of it all is crushing. The web becomes a phantom limb, a displaced itch or a tapping on my shoulder for attention. It’s there, I feel it there, but our connection only goes one way now through the scanners: up, out, away into the Cloud.

    So for something to break up the day I make lists of new Company slogans, things like Feed the Cloud and We’ll Read For You. I like the Cloud. As abstractions go it’s a good one. An ether-land all around us tethered to a few black boxes, no one knows where, with some demonic genies inside throwing switches and pulling levers, moving little 1s and 0s across magnetic disks buried anonymously in a desert. But it’s a hungry Cloud. It’ll fill the sky and not be filled, though we try—offering what we can, books, pictures and tags, names and where we are, mapping every moment so it can learn. Still it demands more, everything and all of it in three dimensions. And so on the title pages of books I write, very faintly in pencil, The Cloud thanks you for your devotion to its Mission.

    Tracy barricaded herself behind a luggage fort and gets up in the middle of the night. I hear her unzip out of her sleeping bag and creep off down the aisles. At first I only followed to the stairwell, it’s so cramped in there with the low zigzagged flights of echoing metal steps she’d hear me instantly. But I grabbed the door as it slammed, before the latch caught, and stood listening and watching for the flashlight beam above and counting her steps rising up and around and up. I figured she’d gone to fifteen and the next night waited until long after she’d left camp, went up there and walked toward the dim light far off in a corner, the smell of mildew and cardboard in the air and the sound only a typewriter makes clacking through the dark. She’s at it for hours each night. Floors below, I lie awake listening for the hammering keys, and wonder what she could be trying to say. Maybe I imagine it, but all night I hear a river of taps washing down over me while Nick snores by my side. And I keep looking but can’t find the reams of typescript she must have.

    Meanwhile invisible-Nick is driving our Nick to the brink. He’s scanning with a stopwatch in his free hand, going over the same page again and again.

    “Nick, can I ask what you’re doing?”

    “Nick wants us to start training to maximize efficiency,” Nick says. “The scanners read one inch per second, Bart, and if we time ourselves we can commit that pace to muscle memory. We’ll move as fast as we can, and no more error messages. Then once we’ve got that, we can address the problem of page flipping, which is inherently wasted motion.”

    “You’re joking.”

    “Where’s Tracy? Nick would rather inservice all three of us on the new procedures at the same time.”

    “Sure, whatever Nick says. I’ll go find her.”

    She may as well have vanished into the labyrinths of hell. Floor after floor is silent, empty. I check our camp, nothing. I check the dusted-over corner where the typewriter sits quietly, all of fifteen eerie and dim with most of the lights burned out. Boxes upon boxes stacked full of unshelved books and the unfiled remains of everything else, this will be torture when we get to it. It doesn’t look as if anyone’s been here for 50 years. Age and disuse, mold and crumbled plaster dust, and then a door closing and Nick is behind me. “This is why we’re here,” he says. “People build and they forget, leave everything behind to rot. What we’re doing, in the Cloud, there’s no past so no more forgetting. Everything is continuously updated, all this in front of us in the immediate present, always.”

    I open the flap of a cardboard box, lift out a book. The dust jacket’s missing, the black cloth cover frayed, title worn to illegibility on the spine and the binding creaks as it opens. Is it really forgotten, the weight of it left here? Is it lost, I ask myself, as the acid paper dissolves? “Yeah, glad to do my part.”

    “Bart, I’m afraid Nick doesn’t want us up this high yet. We have a schedule to stick to.”

    “No, I know, I was just looking for her everywhere.”

    “We’ll get to this soon enough. Let’s go.”

    She doesn’t come back to camp at all that night and I’m worried. Nick mumbles in his sleep, an argument with iNick, like a man overcome by fever and shivering. We’re not losing control, he murmurs, we’re not skipping ahead. She’s here and we’re on task. I pull my sleeping bag up over me and zip as high as it will go, the clicks of hot water pipes and a ringing in my ears.

    The next day I’m sure someone’s following me. The air feels heavier, colder, I hear doors open and close. My legs cramp, knees start popping every time I stand. I hear a sneaker squeak on the tile and follow what sound like moans for an hour down unfamiliar rows into corners where the lights have burned out. I find empty study spaces, metal cubicles piled with discarded books and imagine students here, weighted down with fatigue as if chained to these desks. Row after row of silent bodies, lips moving soundlessly, pencils scratching in notebooks and fingers dog-earing pages. I read the titles. At this desk an 18th century economics term paper, at this one a Renaissance history of unknown playwrights. I read notes in margins, imagine outlines on scratch paper, the damned straining to absorb all they can remember, and the ghoulish reference librarian passing between the rows with her strict hair and index cards. Handing down call numbers for more, ever more in a cruel parody of assistance. I imagine them, eyes red and malnourished, one by one collapsing onto the bound journals and ancient encyclopediae strewn before them, dead of boredom and insomnia and if Nick’s right the Cloud can save them.


    Turning a corner I almost step on Tracy, curled cross-legged between the shelves among unpublished dissertations. She stops scanning, looks at me, she’s started wearing drastic eye makeup. I cough a sort of apology. “Are you lost?” she asks.

    “Nick’s been looking for you. He thinks you’re AWOL.”

    “I’m not absent; there is no leave. Besides, I’m working.”

    “It looks like you’re reading.”

    “This is fascinating,” she resumes brushing her scanner down the page.

    I sit next to her, “Not the point. We’re already like a century behind, don’t you ever want to get out of here?”

    “Do you?”

    She loosens the drawstrings of the knapsack at her feet, pulls out a typescript page, lays it flat on top of the page she just scanned and begins brushing from the top.

    “What. In. God’s. Name are you doing? That’s going into the same file.”

    “It’s like an abacot. Look it up.”

    I can only stare at her.

    “I’m writing a memoir. Every so often I slip a page in.”

    “And you just put the book back? There’s no way to find which ones you’ve ruined.”

    “Exactly. No one checks.” She holds the typed page away from her body and lights it on fire, watching it curl and flame and smoke into ash. I launch into a coughing fit as orange and red lick across her face, shimmering spots in my eyes. “I’m adding to the Cloud,” she says.

    When she returns to camp Nick’s out cold as he is a bit earlier every day. She drops the knapsack on my shin and leans down over me. “You should start reading before it’s too late. You already missed the beginning,” she kisses my cheek before crawling over her luggage and lying down.


    Summer’s gone, Tracy’s memoir shrinks and grows from the beginning toward the end, whenever that might be, the last page curling up in flame. I hide with a flashlight in my sleeping bag like ten years old, trying to keep pace with it, the tap tap tap from above racing behind her voice reading the words aloud in my head. With the fall comes Work/Study undergraduates making rounds, wraithlike in black polo shirts, with such maddening regularity and I avoid them. It’s the intrusive eyes that bother me. The lights stay on longer now, and the workday stretches to fill the time but the stacks go on interminable as ever, inch of text after inch, line by line, recto and verso, leaf after leaf, book, then shelf, then aisle, floors, and then the abandoned boxes stored where no one’s seen them for decades in the dust and then books left open and kicked under tables with the marginalia of some doctoral student left in 1924 waiting for us to add to the Cloud forever.

    Graduate students are a small but constant presence, as passively nagging as a termite problem. They’re a territorial lot but usually don’t mind if I sit with them, scanning whatever they’re not at that very moment reading, so long as I’m quiet. So godawfully quiet I don’t know how they live like this, sitting in their rows. Some with their own reading lamps plugged into outlets at the desk, fleece blankets over their laps, others getting up every so often to ask the next one to lower the volume of their headphones. It’s unreal the silence they bring onto the floor, they’re living sound dampeners sucking the life out of the air itself. Nick doesn’t have the same rapport with them, and if he’s nearby they move off lumbering in silent packs, grocery bags filled with books, and Nick yelling Wait, we need those!

    Nick’s taping charts and pencil-drawn maps and timetables all around the camp, orders and revisions iNick hands down mercilessly. Nick scribbles the hanging papers to oblivion trying to account for where Tracy’s already been. Dark circles spread under his eyes, he’s losing weight and his jaw moves mechanically, grinding teeth in place of food he won’t eat. His delusion’s skewed a bit on him, he talks directly with iNick in the 2nd person now. He says things like This is a good strategy but we need more procedural freedom to accelerate our progress and We’ll meet whatever deadlines you set so long as ultimate responsibility lies with you but the 1st person pronouns don’t seem to have a referent anymore. He’s fanatical about efficiency and holds morning meetings in the washroom, just for me since Tracy’s away wherever. Today he claims to have solved the page-flipping problem. We’re standing against a wall, looking down an unending aisle, and he hands me a book from the shelf.

    “You’re going to tear the pages out and lay them end to end. No more flipping. I’ll follow you and scan,” he says.

    “I’d literally rather do almost anything else.”

    “It’ll be much faster,” he steps toward me, “no more wasted motion.”

    “Tearing is a wasted motion, just a different one. Not to mention one that destroys the book.”

    “Nick feels the physical object itself is expendable once it’s safely in the Cloud.” He opens the book and starts, slowly and perfectly, tearing out pages. “Fine, I’ll tear. You scan.”

    “I’ll be somewhere else. Doing something else.”

    “That’s insane,” Tracy says when I tell her later.

    “And you’re Miss Rational these days.” She’s grown pale and freckles stand out on her cheeks. We’re sitting among the boxes on fifteen, she’s unpacking and scanning the timecards of some forgotten payroll. “So what is an abacot, anyway?”

    “Doesn’t exist.”

    “Like something made up?” I hold up a timecard in the dim light: Julianne Peterson Feb. 14, 1957.

    “No, the word doesn’t exist. Started as a mistranslation of French, which somebody copied and somebody else changed the spelling a little by mistake. Finally somebody else included it in their dictionary, meaning a crown-type hat worn by kings. Don’t know how they came up with that, then other dictionaries just copied that first one.”

    “So you’re adding mistakes to the Cloud?”

    She looks at me, glasses slipping on her nose, “I’m adding judgment.”

    I arrange the timecards into little stacks and repack the box as she empties it. We sit without talking then until the last card is scanned, the file is uploaded, and the box is again full as though we were never here.

    “Want to see something neat?” She stands, wiping at wrinkles in her dress.

    I nod. She leads me by the hand running up the stairwell. I hit my head, stumble, and follow floor after floor with my hand in hers. I can’t breathe, pain in my eyebrow and fiberglass needles in my lungs. She stops, bends over with hands on knees. “It’s good for you,” she looks at me but her hair hangs all in the way. “C’mon,” she pulls at my hand again, walking now. I use the railing and make her stop three more times, coughing, as we wind our way into smaller and steeper circles. At the top is a landing, a door and a sign. BookStack Stair 2: No Roof Access. And the door shrieks as she opens it.

    It’s a watchtower but with stained glass windows, thick and blue religious figures I’ve never known, the outside light barely coming in. We’re underwater swimming in it, vague shadows of another world darken the glass and I have no idea how high we are, or where. She places her hand against the glass where it looks like the setting sun and I hear the wind pick up just beyond her reach.

    “It’s beautiful,” I say mostly to her.

    “It is. But it’s not what I wanted to show you,” she points to the room’s large center column, to a door in the column I hadn’t noticed. Inside is a small office, dirty and cobwebbed without even a lamp. She shines the flashlight on the desk, on a rotary phone on the desk. “Nick has no idea this is here. It works.”

    I step through the flashlight beam into the room, into a clean swept space on the floor where now I know she’s been sleeping and she follows.

    “Is there anyone you need to call?” she asks.

    I turn to her, the light rising between us, “No.”

    “No one?”


    She switches off the light, the blue filters deeper in from the outer room, and the saints in the windows stand watch until they, too, go dark.

    I wake to whispering, on the ice cold floor, from the best sleep I can remember but cramped all the same. A soft click and rustling and then that shrieking door sends me nearly out of my skin. Her steps fade down the stairwell to nothing, leaving me again to sleep.


    On three, where I left Nick, there’s nowhere really to step, pages line every aisle, blanket every tile square and still the shelves don’t show a dent. I’m afraid to leave the doorway; it reeks of cigarette smoke here. A sweeping noise moves through the shelves, a whirlwind, then waves of paper in the distance. The undergrads. In the midst of swirling pages, black polos standing out in the white like doomed arctic explorers. They’re pushing brooms, shaking out plastic bags, stuffing them full and the reference librarian’s yelling now so loud, so fast it sounds like German. It’s time, I think, to be somewhere else. But she steps into this same aisle, direct line of sight and here I am backing into the stairwell and letting go of the door. It swings shut with the force of a gunshot and through the little window crisscrossed with wire mesh she’s walking this way, all rage and hate. I run.

    The rest of the day I hear her everywhere behind me, and in my poisoned imagination the teenaged furies have grown wings, rushing through the stacks after me with their broom handles poised overhead as flaming swords, their eyes scarlet in the glow and the smoke. I run from every noise, every squeak on the floor and metal click in the pipes above. By lights out I’m utterly lost, under a cubicle desk in a corner, hungry and confused in the freezing air. I lie on my side, arms wrapped around knees, and dream of Tracy when I sleep. She’s bathed in the shades of blue and enfolded in white cloth, her hair turns purple in the light, kneeling and whispering softly over me here on the floor like prayers.

    The lights flicker in the morning and burn, I crawl from under the desk and look for the stairs. In the bathroom near camp feet are visible there in one of the stalls, between the bottom of the door and tiny checkered tiles. I turn on the sink and take off my shirt, put my head under the tap and, straightening up again, call out toward the feet, “Nick?”

    “Bart?” he answers, hiding from I assume himself and smoking, the cigarette plume’s smothering as it reaches me, I bury my face in a paper towel and hack. I don’t like the look of what remains there when I’m done. That goes right into the trash, I splash my face with water and look into the mirror. “I’m in a nightmare,” sounds like something I’d say, “they’re relentless. Everywhere at once.” But it’s Nick speaking, and then banging on the flimsy walls around him. “They didn’t understand, none of them did. And that woman…” I walk toward him while he describes his discovery and eventual escape, the elevators called for and sent away as decoys, the stairwells and utility closets. His cigarette hisses in the water below him. He tells of the furies and fascist librarian, the long night balancing on the toilet rim and an irrational fear of the sound it would make flushing, that they’d hear him.

    “It’s not irrational. They’re really after us, Nick.”

    “I know. But Nick tells me he’s negotiating a truce, with a significant payment involved. We just need to lay low.” He draws his feet up and they disappear above the bottom of the stall door.

    Camp is well outside the usual undergrad patrols and offers some measure of safety, of what at least feels like safety. Nick’s almost completely encased us in walls of hanging paper at this point. I look around and through Tracy’s luggage fort, hoping to find her memoir, something to lose myself in for a while, but instead find layers of complex lingerie folded and sorted by color and pattern. The purpose of certain buckles, snaps, and webs of strappy elastic are beyond me. I close everything and sit on my sleeping bag, facing away from it all but her disappearances feel sinister now. I think I need to watch her movements more closely at night, and during the day.

    Around midterms and finals the stacks fill with actual people around us, but they’re lost and empty in the eyes and we don’t worry. They’re so out of place here they mostly ask us for help even as we wrestle books from them. It’s horrible though, chasing students around this way, their greedy hands trying to take and take from us. Who could know what they’re after? Or when those books would return or how to find them then. I just want them to stay at home, wait comfortably on couches and understuffed beanbag chairs until we’re finished. They’ll never have to come here then, derelict as they are, with the wide eyes and little maps sketched on the damned index cards, the strings of meaningless letters and decimals. Mouths moving dumbly, fingers tracing along the spines for some stitched block of paper, they don’t even know what’s inside, if they need it at all. Wandering, backtracking, they curse the skies for books misshelved or missing altogether. They recall books from each other and fight over limited resources. Just stay home and wait. The Cloud will find what you’re looking for and it will already know what’s inside.

    They don’t wait but do stop coming back after exams are done and then it’s very quiet as the snow deepens along the bottom corners of the watchtower windows. Shadowed flurries swim past the angels there and the wind whistles against the blue glass while I sit waiting for Tracy, who vanished in person if not spirit. She still delivers her memoir every day, I find it waiting tucked inside my sleeping bag at night. It started smelling of perfume and, honestly, needing an editor. It’s hurried, as though she’s rushing now toward some end only she can see. I read for clues, some sign of where she is, what she can be thinking, but the story hasn’t caught up with us yet. We’re still stuck in college with her sister and some vague love interest in a water polo player. She buries me in descriptions of falling leaves on the main quad’s rolling lawns, of the blinding sunshine warming nothing and mittens around steaming coffee cups, of hooded sweatshirts and the heavy backpacks on everyone’s shoulders. She writes of the stone buildings and marble columns and crisscrossed paths between them, halls with amphitheater rows of wood tables and too many chalkboards. These long winded lectures she transcribed, it seems, but probably made up with semesters’ worth of notes she can’t possibly remember, all laid out in paragraph after quoted paragraph for reasons only she can know. Telling me of the suit jackets and leather briefcases, the sound of chalk on the cloudy green boards and bourbon bottles pulled from desk drawers in office hours. I read on, racing along the doomed pages, wishing, begging these leaves before they’re consigned to the fire, to get to the point please.

    The last several weeks Nick’s been in the bathroom already when I wake, in closed-door meetings with iNick. He hasn’t had time to bother with the nuisance of actually scanning, preferring talk of Taylorized efficiency measurements and motivational strategies, of team-building exercises. He says an increased managerial presence is necessary to keep us all on the same page, and he doesn’t seem to notice the pun, or the irony. By noon he’s visibly shaken, collapsing in nervous exhaustion. And with Tracy MIA I’m left to myself, mostly, making almost no progress. I catch myself sitting frozen, staring intently at nothing, with disconnected sentences stuck in my head like songs, a feeling of remembered dreams. I think of the books now as either empty or solid, like prop books on movie sets for all I could tell you what’s in them. Just endless print and a creeping déjà vu, and I feel like that character in a story I’ve nearly forgotten, too poor to buy the books he wanted so the fool took only the titles and wrote the rest himself.


    Tracy reappeared after the lights didn’t come on. Either she took pity on us left with only the one flashlight or she’d been somewhere around here all along. Or she was scared, too. Imagine the sun didn’t rise one morning. We felt nothing, no great tremors, no explosion, no trumpets announcing the end of days. At first I thought a Work/Study teen overslept hungover in a strange bed without an alarm clock, woke up lost and sick and fled straight home in shame. But no, the dark lasted long enough we couldn’t explain it away. We were here, sitting on our sleeping bags in the abyss, and no one was coming.

    “I, for one, am glad we can just sleep in,” Tracy’s voice from the other side of her luggage.

    “You don’t get it,” Nick says. “It was finals last week, this is winter. They don’t have winter classes!”

    Tracy shines her flashlight in his face.

    “It’s probably a month break,” he continues, “turn that light off. We’re going to be so far behind.”

    “Behind what?” is all I can think to ask.

    You can only sleep for so long, sadly. Nick hums fugues to himself, setting some kind of mood and Tracy burns through her flashlight battery revising the memoir until the black is all but complete, the mass of these unseen, mute voices collected around us. They haunt me and terrorize Nick, I hear him taking down books and fingering through them as though they were Braille, whispering to himself and inhaling cigarettes, the burning paper and lingering acid trails of glowing red as he gestures toward nothing.

    “Bart,” Tracy calls, “I’m bored as shit. Talk to me.”

    I feel my way toward and over the walls of her luggage, catching a foot and twisting down to the floor on my back. “There’s no way this is going to last a month,” I say.

    “Does it matter?” she reaches for me, hands I think looking for my shoulder, a sense of occupied space.

    “I don’t want to sit here like this forever,” I move toward her.

    “Then let’s get out of the dark.” She takes me by the arm and stands, leading me shuffling and blind past Nick’s hallucinations up to the watchtower. Every window glows like a lightbox; it must be the middle of the day.

    “I’m leaving soon,” she says, sitting down. “I’m done with scanning, I can’t take it anymore.”

    “I thought you liked it here. I see you reading all the time. Seems like the perfect job for you.”

    “God no, it’s compulsive. If there’s text on a page I have to read it. Can you imagine? Think about all those pages of 8 pt. footnotes, the bibliographies, the indexes.” She leans against the window, breath condensing there under her nose.

    “Yikes. I had no idea,” I put a hand on her lower back, “what are you going to do?”

    She turns, slides down against the wall to sit. “My sister and I are starting a business. Video editing.”

    “Aren’t there already enough people doing that?”

    “Not like us. We’re only going to do home movies, tourist’s vacations, that kind of thing.”

    “Like kids’ birthday parties and stuff? Nobody watches that crap.”

    “Because there’s too much tape to sift through. They already lived it once, who has time to watch the whole thing again? You’d need to live twice as long,” she tucks a lock of bangs behind an ear, brushes an eyelash off a blue cheek. “So that’s why we’re going to go through it and cut out all the boring bits. Voila, the best memories of Florence or nephew’s baptism or whatever. And we’re selling little video cameras that’ll attach to like a hat or coat or something, so people can stop staring into tiny screens their whole trip. You know, if they go to Florence they may as well enjoy it while they’re there.”

    “Genius. How are you going to screw this up?”

    “Haven’t decided yet, probably something to do with the scraps we cut out.” She wraps her arms around her knees and rests her chin there. “You could come with.”

    “I don’t know. I’ll think about it.” And we watch the windows dim and brighten toward blue and fade again four more times before checking again on Nick.


    The lights were anticlimactically on and we heard him in the washroom, revising revisions of iNick’s schedule. No way for him to know how short lived his plans would be as the librarian’s undergrad minions stepped off the elevator en masse, a lynch mob armed with buckets of soapy water and mops, paper towels and these horrid spray cleaners. We hid like rats, bleach fumes overpowering us on every level, muffling coughs and moving camp every night to stay ahead of them, driven upwards on a rising tide of foaming disinfectant. Days spent in closets, climbing stairs and doubling back, curling under desks until finally we were able to move down past them in the night. We slept then in the chemical smell and worked the next day as they continued upwards, Nick cursing after them.

    With Tracy determined to leave, nothing would convince her to just scan a plain old book like a normal person. I followed her around for the company, to spend time with her before insane Nick was the only one left with me here.

    “You know you’re not doing what you think you are,” she tells me.

    “And what do I think I’m doing?”

    “You and Crazy aren’t making some wonderful, liberated world. The opposite, actually. People will look back at this as the moment everything went wrong.”

    “But it’s not going wrong. It’s just taking time. When we’re done the Cloud will be there for everyone—whatever they want, whenever they want it, and free.”

    “And all stored on Company servers. This,” she holds up her scanner, “is just the first step.”

    “A benevolent king benefitting the people.”

    “Right,” she pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose.

    She’s scanning floor tiles now, the signs pointing to call numbers, the bookends and dust covered shelves, scanning desktops and sleeping graduate students, brushing her scanner across the spines of books lined row after row, waving it like a wand through the air, scanning empty light.

    I asked what she thought would happen to her memoir; she said it’s almost done. Written and mostly in the Cloud and almost destroyed. I think we have two different ideas of what done means. Scattering bits of herself on the wind where they’ll never be found.

    I’m about halfway through Holy Alliance: The Unified Force of Church and State Governments in 14th Century Spain and its Effects on the Peasant Population but still thinking about the memoir, my hand freezes. “It’s not that no one will know where to look, but no one will know that they should look.”

    “You think maybe that might be part of the point?”

    “I mean, someone might stumble across the right search terms and see part of it…” my scanner is giving me all kinds of error messages.

    “Somebody will find a page of it while they’re reading.”

    “Nobody is going to scroll through a whole book anymore.”

    “See? That’s what I’ve been telling you. So my book is like a reward, a little mystery for those who do. If you don’t read the whole book you might miss out on a clue.”

    “You’ve got a lot of eggs in that basket there.”

    She looks around at the shelves, waves her arm from left to right. “And if they don’t, so what? Same fate as some of the best minds in history.”

    My scanner beeps erratically; I turn it off and shut the book. Tracy lays out flat on her back and stretches, “It’s comfortable here.”


    In the dream I was submerged in fire, but a movie’s fire, like photographs of the sun, blinding orange explosions and the smoke venting mysteriously somewhere. Instead of being consumed in flame and ash the books glowed white hot and melted into thick lava pools on the floor, rising around me. Nick dissolved into a black heart of coal, iNick the fuel, and Tracy’s eyes reflected the flame, her skin shone brightly through the smoke as I rolled and crawled on my belly toward her. Face to the floor, sputtering and burning in the weirdly melted pages. The noise was like a river, a whoosh, a sliding fluid and a crackle. She was a shining skeleton, her teeth exposed smiling, she turned away toward the elevator. iNick stood, stiff and crumbling, charred and barely hanging together, turning his head after her. Raising an arm, fire dancing along the length of it, pointing after her. I was being washed back on a current, swimming for the elevator against it, drowning. Worry in Tracy’s eyes for the first time. The doors opened and she stepped inside. The watchtower’s angels tore the clothes from their bodies and wept, the bookshelves around me disintegrating. Tracy’s face burned to that skull’s helpless grin, waving goodbye as the doors closed, the elevator car rose through the tunnel behind the burning walls. And iNick, unmovable, laughing now as he swung the charcoal arm around to point at me.

    I woke, I hope understandably terrified, to a flashlight bulb staring down on my face. Nick snoring off in a corner in the dark and Tracy says, “It’s time to go.” She leads me to the ninth floor and sits me down at a desk, she sits across from me and turns off the light. We sit watching the shapes of one another dissolve into spots of color swimming in the black. It’s maybe 20 minutes before the lights click and flicker on and she’s still exactly there at the table across from me, confirming the statue-image of her I had in my mind this whole time. She stands as my eyes adjust, takes Monotheism and Empire from a nearby shelf and returns, opening it on the table in front of me.

    “I’m leaving,” she says.

    “I know.”

    “No. I mean now. I just want you to do one last thing for me before I go.” She pulls my scanner out of her knapsack and sets it next to my hand.

    “Why do you have that?”

    “For this.” She places both hands down on the open book, palms up and perfect fingers outstretched. “Scan,” she says.

    “Why me?”

    “I can’t do it myself, silly. I need your help.”

    Her hands, my scanner, her memoir floating in the ether. “I mean, your fingerprints. They’ll be in my scanner. They’ll come to me for everything that you’ve done.”

    “They never check.”

    “But if they do.”

    “Then I want you to know this isn’t everything. It feels like it right now, because you’re inside it, but all you have to do is step outside.”

    I take hold of her by each wrist, one at a time, and scan.

    “See, that wasn’t so bad. The first step is always the hardest.” She leaves for the elevator then, looks back over her shoulder until the doors open. Inside, she hits a button it looks like somewhere in the middle but it’s hard to tell and she blows a kiss in my direction. She’s gone, I’m coughing again and hard, and since I’m here already I might as well get to work. The scanner blinks, ready for the next file, and I flip back through the pages on the table in front of me to start from the beginning.




    TE WinninghamT.E. Winningham holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Southern California and a BA from the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Anamesa, and the Overtime Chapbook series, among other journals. He currently lives in Los Angeles.




    Maximum Compound: Mug Shots

    by Stephanie Dickinson


    “Anything with glitter is great. The girls go crazy over that. We use it for make-up and art so when you see a card with glitter, send it.” — Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    CLINTON, NJ. Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women

    Maximum Compound revolves around the sun but the air’s darker and more confined. Understand these aren’t the femme fatales and sex selling dahlias, not the thieves and drug dealers, not the welfare cheats or DUI violators, these women are the violent offenders. They don’t pull up in a Porsche; they’re transported under armed guard. They’re young, they’re ghetto, white trash, a few are middle-aged college-graduates, some will get their GED here and take college classes, others will become senior citizens, some will die here. They’ll arrive pregnant, psychotic, post-traumatically stressed, they’ll deliver their baby here, or have a hysterectomy. They’ve got dreads, and natural blonde locks, they’re tattooed like a graphic novel and wearing the last address of their baby daddy inked on their wrist. Many of these women have killed or kidnapped an employer, neighbor, husband, child, a stranger. Maximum Compound women arrive encumbered with their crimes and the weight of their sentences. They arrive put upon and willing to use anyone.


    “I need to get some favors if it’s possible. I’m really struggling. I have not been getting my state pay for the last 2 months. I have 1 bar of soap to my name. Is there anyway you can send me $30 by next Wednesday so I can order? I feel like a bum. Also can you call this number for my friend Shanikah and tell him to write her or email her. He lives in Newark but has a house in Summit NJ. Happy Holidays

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    It’s a rule bound world, a world where dance competitions and making birthday chili and rice for your girlfriend co-exist with fight blood on the floor. Although time is filled with a job, a routine, a mess hall schedule, real time stales. It pools around you, goes stagnant, and doesn’t flow. Each day is similar from the view of a locked world, a day hard and long to get through, and the years flying away. There are no hickories and maples and quaking aspen, no huge-eyed deer. No smell of burning pretzel dough. No strolling into a Starbucks for a coffee tall. No dressing to go out looking edible as tiramisu. The outside world stands still, remembered. The inmates in Maximum Compound count their absence from the outside in decades. Television is their one window. Rules, rules. Yet life teems here—new inmates arrive, new friendships, new loves, new hates. I’ve been a friend to this prison planet, this Maximum Compound where the most dangerous women in New Jersey live, the ones who the media portray as topping the depravity index. EMCF lies outside Clinton, a two-hour trip by car from Manhattan, but for those visitors without vehicles, there’s a prison bus that leaves from Midtown on Friday evening and arrives eight hours later. All must prepare to be searched, and to stow their possessions in a locker, before visiting an inmate. No water, no sodas, nothing but your flesh covered appropriately, i.e. no halter tops or bustiers.


    Can you please find me an image or 2 of Woody Woodpecker, Angry Birds, and Stewie from the Family Guy. My friend needs 3 more copies of gothic lettering. Books must arrive via the publisher or Amazon, but Amazon consistently leaves out the packing slip.”

    —Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C


    mugshot #1: Krystal RIORDAN

    The reason I’m drawn to this world is Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387. She’s pictured here in sneakers and the white, knee-length shorts and white, short-sleeved t-shirt inmates wear in warm weather. Summers in the New Jersey heat there’s no air conditioning to cool inmates in Maximum Compound only the administrators can control their climate. Winters, Krystal wears grey sweats, an undershirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and tie-up boots. Visiting days, blocks of two hours, a photographer comes and the inmates can pay for pictures with their commissary money. Everything runs through commissary, the real food, the fun food, Tampax and toothbrushes, shampoo and stamps, sneakers and underwear. Krystal is a beauty, her height 5’10”, her skin, the plush pale of an eighteenth century beauty whose face never sees sun and whose lady maid dusts it with a lead powder. Incarcerated for nine years, she’s moved farther beyond the headlines that once focused on her as if she was guiltier than the perpetrator, as if a male’s lust and aggression could be understood, but not a female who doesn’t to stop an attack on a fellow female. On July 26, 2006, Jennifer Moore, age 18, was abducted after a night of underage drinking. Jennifer’s friend drove them in her mother’s car to Manhattan from New Jersey, to go clubbing. The girls parked in a No Standing Zone and when they returned, discovered the car had been towed. The night has interested me since first seeing Jennifer Moore’s picture on the New York Daily News cover. Teen Missing after Night of Underage Drinking. Her face appears as if born underwater of the half-fish, half-human species, dreamily sloe-eyed as if she’s looking over your shoulder. It’s a mysterious face, her half smile like the Mona Lisa’s. The next day the teen’s body is found in a Weehawken dumpster and a pimp and prostitute are under arrest. Weehawken, New Jersey. The ménage à trois that ends with one girl dead, the other girl charged as an accomplice, and her boyfriend confessing to kidnapping, murder, and rape. The city built on the rock cliffs overlooks the Hudson, the pristine waterway that Henry Hudson, the great navigator, marveled at like the Hackensack nation before him. Manhattan lies just across the river and from the ferry launch Weehawken’s cliffs appear as pedestals for trees and stone mansions—like dreams half-remembered in the sleeping heads of robber barons.



    “I used to get a lot of mail but I never wrote them back. “I’m glad you’re in my life. I asked my Mom if she would be interested in talking to you. She said she doesn’t want to dig into the past. That time was hard for her. The Media following them. People they thought were their friends stopped talking to them. She said when she goes out people still whisper behind her back. She will be 70 in November.”

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    And it was a mugshot I first saw of Krystal Riordan on the cover of the New York Daily News. Hooker Watched boyfriend kill teen. Arrested at age 20, the prostitute girlfriend of ex-con and small-time pimp Draymond Coleman, she had watched him beat and strangle eighteen-year-old Jennifer Moore in a Weehawken hotel room. Panicked, frozen, she’d not tried to stop him. Although, she’d left the room during the assault, she’d alerted no-one and had used the venting machine to buy a soda. This act was caught on the hot-sheet hotel’s video camera, a shabby black-and-white world where green plants, blue water, and air didn’t exist. Sure he would kill her next, she’d split into two beings, one watching herself from a distance. Not quite a robot programmed to obey him, but loyal to a fault. Wearing a pink tube top with spaghetti straps, a nose piercing, and silver necklace, her lips looked caught in mid-tremble. The mugshot that captures her soft face and frightened eyes speak their own truth. Draymond had cracked wide open, he’d snapped. Terrified, she helped him clean the dead girl’s body, and together they disposed of Jennifer in a nearby dumpster. A public defender represented her. Her sentence: thirty years. The maximum. Tabloids had a field day with the story—the underage girl/victim, a hooker, rape and murder. Fox News blamed the victim, pointing out Jennifer’s scanty attire as if a halter top had made the teen deserving of her rape. What should have been a teenage misadventure, an impulsive flirtation with the forbidden, led to ultimate consequences. Bloggers portrayed Draymond Coleman as a force of nature, bestial, hardly human and uninteresting, while they pilloried Krystal as if she were the murderer. On the escort circuit I imagine her blinking her blue icicle eyes but warm icicles. Later she will tell a friend that Draymond had sex with Jennifer after she was dead. In county jail Krystal stared at the floor for month, not speaking.


    “Please look in the jewelry section for a cross and chain (Walkenhorsts.com caters to Institutions). The cross no larger than 1 inch by 1 inch. The chain no longer than 12 inches. I want to give Krystal a cross for her birthday. It is the only necklace they allow.”

    Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C



    After you’ve befriended an inmate, the Maximum Compound of requests comes at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. “Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart or Toys R Us. Some type of fashion design kit of lip glosses or a cute purse from Hey Kitty.” You who can make duplicates of court documents, who can goggle and download welfare applications, who can Xerox copies in full-color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their pierced tongues, arms thrown around each other; girls in indigo-blue robes graduating, choir girls singing; girls in slinky club clothes blowing lipsticked kisses. Some photos are so taped they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands, many are of children—brown-eyed boys and girls ages 2 to 7, infants in flannel footsie pajamas, many of the children’s photos are old and those pictured have grown and left behind the selves they are here, but to their mothers the children are fixed, they do not change. The new photographs are from the inside of Maximum Compound—a parade of women in pairs standing before colorful wall painting (as if an altar) wearing winter’s grey sweats or summer’s teeshirts, lovers, friends, cellmates. The newest inmates have Facebook pages and you can look up their profile and page and print pictures from their photo gallery, but no pictures with gang signs or middle fingers or else you can color out hand signs with a marker, but please do send information i.e. the inmate number and address to dirt buddies, (friends from the cradle to the grave).

    In Maximum Compound a Santa comes on Christmas. The state pays for the holiday bus that brings children of inmates to Edna Mahan. Here for photographs the inmates wear beige dress slacks and mannish short-sleeved shirts.The pretty mother, heavily tattooed with arms crossed over her chest, stands next to Santa, a scowling black man in red suit and dazzlingly white beard. He’s an inmate from the men’s prison and the baby boy on his lap is howling. On the back of the photo the 20 year old mother Evy Shine has written, “My baby boy don’t like Santa. Me and my Prince Duce.”



    When Krystal first entered the locked land of EMCH she had a cell to herself and worked on the grounds detail. She mowed lawns, painted, waxed floors, took out the trash, and moved people from Maximum to Minimum Security. After almost nine years into her time served her public defender requests through the courts for a sentence reduction. It is denied. Here everyone likes her, both inmates and guards, but that can change in an instant. A slight. A perceived insult. She rarely criticizes anyone and never the prison. Every word leaving or entering the correctional facility is monitored. The Edna Mahan website itself says: “Incoming general postal correspondence may be read as frequently as is necessary to keep safety and security or watch any problems regarding any inmates.” And then a new inmate punches her in the face in the mess hall. Krystal defends herself and finds herself taken to solitary confinement, so too the new inmate who rumor says is psychotic. The only way Krystal could have avoided punishment would be to let herself be hit.


    “Can you send this to Shaniqua Pierre. Hey Puddin Cup, I was going through my stuff and found letters from you. I really miss you and need you in my life. You were and are my better half. You know we always find our way back. I love you so much. I will be down there on Saturday. Maybe we can get some time together. Write me back on here. Stephanie will send it to me. I wish you were with me right now so I can do some things like we did in Ad Seg.) I didn’t want to leave. I could have done my whole time with you in there. Well I love you. I miss you. Love Always. Snuggle Bunny.”

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387


    In solitary you have quiet time 23 hours a day. 3 showers five minutes each a week. No commissary so Krystal stops eating. She lies on her bunk remembering movies she’s seen. In one a jet stream opens the sky with its tail of mist. Clouds herding, long blue tusks and storm brewing. Panning shots of the Greek caves, temple ruins, islands—chunks of burning lamb over the sea’s fire. If you talk like that with the street pimps their eyes roll back. On the third day she starts making her own movies up. She stars in them. The fine restaurant in Acapulco and on her cocktail fork the white of a shrimp with red vessels. Dessert’s a flaming baked Alaska. Dining out takes three hours. She stars herself as the Marriott maid who cleans the room of Tristan Wilds from The Wire, a hot black actor under 30 Soon they’re both sprawled in the chaises, the remains of breakfast, scrambled eggs and muffins, spilled over. Raspberry jam and butter for lube. She wears a long billowing white robe. The robe’s spreads across the aquamarine pool’s surface like a napkin. The blue is the color of her eyes, she dives in. Here is another movie the one in which she escapes Draymond and her own fate. Her blond hair is matted. She’s wearing a long skirt and a tube top. There are red crumbs around her nostrils. The bell clerk is from Guyana, (like the one at the Park Avenue Hotel) and he’s fallen in love with her. It is the Park Avenue Hotel and the murder hasn’t yet happened. “That lout must have hit you,” he says. “I want to take you away from this place.” She’s picked Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls for the role. Funny, it’s a woman she’s cast in the role of a man. “I don’t know how it can be but your face takes my heartbeat away. You are just the right pretty for me.” They are in a tropical country and Krystal’s wearing a thong. She shouldn’t be half naked like that in her fiancé’s Guyana with mosquitoes like small birds and disapproving eyes everywhere. You smack your arm when you feel them drinking their blood meal and your hands come away wet. But soon the woman-man and Krystal are naked and making love.


    “Steph, me and Nicole were damaged when we got adopted. I would always tell the Riordans they weren’t my parents. I just wanted to go home. I feel like I’m losing it. Please don’t think I’m crazy but I’ve been smelling sometimes lately…I don’t know what it is. But it’s triggering something in me. It’s a bad feeling and my stomach starts to turn. I get scared and want to go somewhere and throw up. I think the smells goes back to when I was young and my uncle was touching me.”

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    In solitary there is time for life review. Krystal is 29 years old. The child of a prostitute and a drug dealer, Krystal spent the first five years of her life in a dirty apartment sharing a bed with her two sisters, growing up hungry and neglected, nights the oldest sister would ferry out into the wilds of the kitchen in search of food, pilfering the empty cupboards and refrigerator, coming back with treasures of dill pickles and canned ravioli. Tomato-mouthed little girls nestled against each other. Then the night men would visit, brought to the bedside by her mother. The silver bellied men. There are fishes who build nests in the weed-choked waters, like the stickleback, with its long body and strong jaw. The mother lays the eggs in the seaweed nest, and the father fans water over the eggs, then he guards the hatched offspring until they are ready to leave the nest. Krystal’s birth parents were less nurturing than the stickleback. Once the wan blond girl started school, in the fluorescent’s objective light the neglect was apparent. Now Eva has reached her 49th year and her picture on the people profile finder shows Krystal’s biological mother living in Connecticut and still married to Krystal’s father. The tiny photo shows a black-haired woman dressed in grey stretch pants tights bent over and mooning the camera, so what you mainly see is her buttocks. In Charlie’s photo he wears a white t-shirt imprinted with a pot leaf and exhales a gigantic cloud. When Krystal closes her eyes and tries to remember her early years, there’s nothing there but her uncle stroking her hair and then his fingers moving over her, touching her.


    “As far as the “work” goes, most of the men were okay. A few jerks. The police were the worst. One put a gun to my head. Another put a knife. They would force you to do favors for free. Usually some weird stuff. How would you feel about me putting you on my phone list? It can only be a land line. I think one goes in within a few weeks.”

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387


    Krystal once lived at night and slept days. She worked in the world’s oldest profession inviting strangers to enter her body. I want to ask her about the sex, and while I’ve asked her about the murder, I’ve not gone too near the sex. Did she always use condoms? How did the work make her feel? How much of it was straight sex? When her ad read full-service what did that mean. What kind of men did she attract, and how did she find them? craigslist? I read on-line that one of the escort services Krystal worked for accused her of cheating them out of their percentage.

    “My sister Nicole hasn’t been seen or heard from since December. She’s getting high again. Steph, you send me books. My family hasn’t sent me one book in 8 years. I don’t think they understand the whole commissary concept. I have to order everything, nothing is given out. I need to order clothing, sneakers, food, cosmetics, personals. You’re really my only source of income.”

    — Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    Krystal tells me of being sent to Elan, the exclusive boarding school for troubled teens. Her adoptive parents, partners in the Greenhaus Riordan accounting firm, don’t know what to do with her. She’s ruining their reputations. Once at Elan she’s made to write a letter to them confessing her sins. She’s never had sex, never had a boyfriend, yet she’s forced, this virgin molested before the age of five, to call herself a whore. “It was a lockdown residential school. I was there for three years. If I’d never been sent there, I might have had a full basketball scholarship. The scouts were watching me from junior high on. In group therapy I started to believe I’d done all those things.” And in Elan she meets other troubled teens, many will later appear in police blotters some charged with murder. After graduation Krystal escapes to New York City, moving in with a girl she went to Elan with. The girl works as a prostitute and initiates Krystal into the trade. You don’t need a resume. No references. Men desiring her enough to pay money for her favors makes her feel beautiful. A princess in a fairy-tale. Placing ads on craigslist, calling herself Lisa, offering the $150 special. The good money buys her clothes and a truck; the good money attracts Draymond Coleman, the husky ex-con.


    Please send Antoinette Carter the Cristal Bic Pens. Please send ASAP. Her numbers are #179192E/761091. Well I love the Halloween cards. I can’t wait to use the glitter for make-up. I also received Love Highway today. I will start it tonight. Don’t worry I won’t be mad. Your friend Krystal

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    Sometimes she dreams of returning to the weathered buildings of Weehawken—its sooty cliffs. The Park Avenue Hotel, a single-room occupancy, five-story brick dungeon in the middle of the block, is gone, torn down after the “notorious murder of an 18 year-old girl” in one of its rooms. A senior center has taken its place. Is that a sign that Krystal will be 50 upon her release, almost a senior? Thelonius Monk spent the last years of his life in Weehawken. And Monk’s syncopations might have been playing on WBGO in the taxi ferrying the soon-to-be murdered Jennifer and her Good Samaritan through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the cliff city. The jazz musician’s genius—tinkling piano like the bebop stirring of ice in a mixed drink, like one of the many—the blue licorice, the amaretto—the doomed teen had consumed that night. Across the street from the now senior citizen center there’s still the Dunkin’ Donuts where Candida Moore wishes Jennifer had sought shelter. Krystal staggers into the darkness, “Hey, wait,” she calls to the girl in white mini and black halter. Who doubts that Jennifer is still out there wading into the darkness. Alone.


    “When you love someone too much, you can’t see past that person. That’s how I felt about Dray. I thought I couldn’t live without him. I can’t compare the way I loved Dray to the way you love Rob. But if I did, I hope that wouldn’t offend you. I never considered myself a strong person. People say if they got the time I got. They would kill themselves. They ask how I do it. Why I’m so nice.”

    Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387



    The Krystal who lives behind bars seems freer than the baby-faced prostitute trapped between her pimp/boyfriend Draymond Coleman, the funny charmer, and Draymond, the killer ex-con. Letters still come from him. “You showed me true love and I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought it was all a game, but it was true. You put your name on your body. You had my baby. You gave me everything. Now it’s all gone thanks to my stupid ass.” There are paragraphs of complete sentences with no misspellings, letters written in a delicate cursive. “We’ll be Natural Born Killers,” he told her after Jennifer’s last breaths. It surprises me to see the handwriting, and think of the same hand breaking every bone in a young girl’s face. Yet Krystal’s never forsaken him. You could interpret that as a great weakness or a strength. “I’m no longer in love with him but I still care for him. He has no one else.” Yes, Krystal bore him a baby girl who Child Welfare Services removed after finding marijuana in the infant’s blood. The night of his arrest Draymond claims that he’d picked up a working girl at the Port Authority. “I am not a wholesome man,” he tells police, “but I am no murderer.” Wholesome, such an odd word to choose. My mother’s generation used it to describe a good girl, a wholesome girl, what they hoped for in their daughters.


    “Krystal and I can both have 24 pens sent to each of us, and I found a place that will send 24 pens, including shipping and tax, for about $16.50 in total. The pens would be very helpful in many ways to us. I will e-mail you the info when I get a chance (website, item #’s and costs).”

    — Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C


    Eight years after the murder, the inmate Krystal is bitten by a spider and her elbow and forearm swell up. When the redness starts to fade, another bite appears on her arm, and on her leg. Krystal goes to Medical and is told the spider’s venom has caused a blood infection. The poison is oozing out through those spots. The spots are like weeping red eyes that open on her torso. Where the poison seeps out it eats away at her flesh, leaving deep and painful wounds. The inflamed sore on her leg makes it impossible to walk and then the soaring fever sets in. Antibiotics and Motrin are at last prescribed. I wonder if Dray is finally leaving her body. Pour rum over yourself and strike a match—ultimate flambé. His dark poison, his love.


    * * *




    Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recent novel Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, was released in 2013 by New Michigan Press. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries.




    Coyotes Don’t Litter

    by Tera Joy Cole



    “Let’s talk about the accident. Wasn’t that what brought you here in the first place?”

    “No, it’s the litter.” I sigh while glancing around the office at all of the framed degrees hanging behind Dr. Howard.

    But, maybe it had been the stretched-out cat, on the side of the road, covered in that snow. Trigger. It wasn’t the obvious kind of litter: white, crumpled fast food bags; forty-ounce mostly empty bottles of “Hurricane;” a busted chair.

    We’ve been discussing a time, many years ago, when my dad and I were driving back home from my grandparent’s house. An afternoon lunch on their deck, overlooking the hillside and downtown Glendale, had been tension-filled, and I remembered being pissed that my sister had gotten out of coming along. After my dad downed three scotch-on-the-rocks at an alarming rate, I insisted on driving us back home. Behind the wheel of his Mercedes, I navigated the tight freeway pass by Dodgers Stadium.

    My dad was leaning back in the leather passenger seat. When he let out an exasperated sigh, I knew he was about to impart some wisdom. Apparently, he was concerned about the guy I was dating and, although I hadn’t asked for his advice, he was going to launch into one of his speeches anyway.

    “You can’t marry a poet. He won’t be able to take care of you.” My dad knew a lot about marriage; after all, he was on his third. And, since I was heading off to graduate school in Idaho, the last thing on my mind was finding a man to take care of me. I saw a dead cat on the side of the freeway, and as a means of changing the subject, I quoted one of our long standing jokes: “It’s only sleeping.”

    “Well, how did this make you feel?”

    I want to answer Dr. Howard’s question, but instead I close my eyes. All I can see are dead animals. My mind skips to a camping trip I took about ten years back. I was riding in the car with some friends on our way to Preston, Idaho. I counted fourteen dead deer on a fifteen mile stretch of highway. I also saw a bumper sticker that read: “Smoke a Pack a Day” with a picture of four wolves caught in a crosshair. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. Neither of these things seemed to bother anyone else but me. Dr. Howard wants to talk about the accident, but I am unable to put anything into words. He sends me home with a prescription for something that will help me sleep.

    That night, instead of sleeping, I obsess over some album cover I may have once owned: a bubble gum-pink nightmare of the 1980s fading into a hazy Los Angeles sunset. Looping in the background, I keep hearing that girl’s mocking voice saying to one of my co-workers, “She’s certified loony bin crazy.” I think she is talking about me, but I can’t be sure. That same day, I heard a story about my friend’s dad who got cancer. His cancer was removed, and I all I can say is “what did they do with it?” My friend asks, “What?” And I answer, “The cancer.”

    It’s not safe to drink the water. It’s not safe to breathe the air.


    On my way home from work, I count seventeen incidences of litter: a broken beer bottle, a dirty diaper, a discarded car seat (which I actually scanned, half-way hoping that a baby might still be latched inside), a discarded sweatshirt, etc. I don’t want to count like this, so I stop by the grocery store and purchase a little red spiral-bound notebook. I will use this to catalogue the litter. Dr. Howard will see this as progress. After all, he’s always trying to get me to write things down.

    I finally sleep for a few hours, but when I awake the next morning, I can’t stop thinking of a story someone once told me about the yearly rabbit hunts which were held in the rural Idaho town where he was raised. He described how as a young boy, five or so, he’d been given a baseball bat and was told to walk through the fields as the rabbits were being flushed out. He was supposed to whack as many of these as he could over the head. I guess each person kept track of how many rabbits they’d whacked. Most kills=big prize.

    This story haunts me the next day and makes it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on work. All I have to do is answer a phone and then transfer the call to the right attorney. However, images of crushed in rabbit skulls appear before my eyes each time one of the red lights blinks. The voices on the phone make no sense to me. I keep sending the wrong call to the wrong attorney. Eventually, they send me home for the day.

    Home is no better. I keep searching for my copy of Watership Down. I am convinced that I have it somewhere, so I tear through boxes in the closet. After about four hours of searching, it dawns on me that I’ve never even read it. My mother took me to see the movie when I was about seven years old. I cried so hard and so loudly that she had to remove me from the theatre before the movie ended. I remember her embarrassment and feel ashamed. I get online and order a copy. I will finally find out what happened to those rabbits that were driven out of their homes by greedy farmers who want to plow the land.

    By the time I go see Dr. Howard the following Tuesday, the little red notebook is almost full. I am proud of my record keeping.

    “So, last week, we were discussing your father and the accident.”

    Hadn’t we been talking about the sunsets in Los Angeles and the unsafe air and drinking water? In what strikes me as a mocking tone, he says: “You were last telling me about a car ride on the freeways in Los Angeles. You’d been leaving your grandparent’s house. Your father was not a huge fan of you marrying a poet. I think this is worth further exploration.”

    I hand Dr. Howard the red notebook. “What’s this?” He asks, leafing through it. His forehead wrinkles as he makes a note in my chart.

    “I was sure you’d like this.” I never cry in therapy. I do, however, grab the throw pillow on the couch next to me and dig my nails into it. I imagine that it’s Dr. Howard’s face I am digging into. My fingertips get closer and closer to his eyes. I can almost see myself gouging out his eyeballs. He sees me grabbing the pillow and feels good about therapeutic tactics. He learned this somewhere in college, at some point in a clinical, grab the pillow and tear at it, scream into it if you must.

    “I am not sure how this notebook is going to help you.” He switches tactics, “I mean, how do you see this as being helpful?”

    When I don’t respond, he tries again, “Why don’t we talk about what brought you here in the first place? The accident?

    “It’s the litter.” I respond again, but this time when I close my eyes I can see the twisted metal and smell the burning rubber and spilled gasoline. I see myself driving my Dad and sister home from somewhere near downtown. I’d taken my eyes off the road for just a minute when I saw the spilt box of discarded kittens. I needed to know if they had survived being thrown from a vehicle at high speeds. That’s all it took.


    In my possession are a collection of pictures in which I stand on the fringe of the group. These are my families. Sometimes when I try to make sense of my family dynamics to people they joke, “Maybe we should draw a family tree.” However, trees require roots. Some trees, such as the Giant Sequoias in California, have such a shallow root system that they are often vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: wind, severe weather, fires. Sometimes, huge tunnels are built into these trees big enough to fit a moving car. The ones that still remain are over two hundred feet tall and have survived thousands of years of storms, fires, and humans. I want to be like that.


    Today, Dr. Howard wants to talk about my sister. Apparently he’s found something in his notes that interests him. Instead, I tell him about an insignificant dream I had the night before. The funny thing is, I don’t dream about my sister. I close my eyes and try to recall a single dream with her. My mind is blank.

    As soon as I get home from my appointment with Dr. Howard, I give into my impulse to grab my notebook and start cataloguing the stuff in my closet: a cardboard box of wrapping paper and gift bags, a wooden crate wine box that now contains the pictures from some wedding, a hacky-sack like bag that holds crystals and gem rocks, a book cover from Curious George, a large number of paper clips and thumb tacks, and the love verses from the unmarriable poet. I also come across the wrinkled newspaper article about the accident: “Local Man and Daughter Killed in Tragic Wreck.” For a second, I consider cataloguing these items separately into “useful” and “non-useful,” but I am unsure where to place the article.

    As I am climbing into bed, I find what appears to be a curled up spider ready for spooning. I think about calling someone, but there’s no one to call. I gather up enough courage to poke at it with an unraveled metal coat hanger. It moves. I run from the room and end up sleeping on the dining room table because I figure it is the least insect friendly of all my furniture. When I awake the next morning, I realize that I’ve slept through the whole night, and I feel great. For the first time, since the accident, my back isn’t hurting me and I feel safer sleeping above it all. I head straight towards my bedroom determined to confront the creature. In the unreal light of early morning, I discover that the enigma is only a piece of rolled up string-a castoff from an Old Navy T-shirt. The “spider” was then catalogued as “useful.”


    Dr. Howard sips on a cup of coffee and twirls his pencil between his thumb and pointer finger. He seems to be waiting for me to say something, but I just stare at him. Finally, he can’t stand the silence, “Did you and your sister get along well?”

    “I hated her.” I say as my head presses against the scratchy wool of the pillows that Dr. Howard’s wife probably made for him. I used to imagine her pulling on nude colored, run-resistant pantyhose in the mornings before she headed down to the kitchen to make him three fried eggs, a piece of half-burnt sourdough toast with marmalade and a cup of black coffee. I was later surprised to discover that she is also a doctor who works in the pediatrics unit at the hospital. I was mad at myself for my sexist vision of Dr. Howard’s better half.

    Hate is a pretty strong word.

    Before Dr. Howard can launch into any more questions about my dad or my sister, I tell him about my new sleeping arrangements, “I’ve been sleeping on the kitchen table for the past week.” Now this, this interests him.

    He leans forward so far that his rear end is nearly slipping off his leather chair. “What? What’s this?” As if he hasn’t really heard me. “Wasn’t it uncomfortable?”

    “It’s the best sleep I’ve had in months. I am thinking about sleeping there from now on.”

    “Does this have something to do with the accident?”

    Laughter escapes through my nose with a snorting sound, “No, it was because of the spider that wasn’t really a spider.”

    He is perplexed now. “Spider?”


    Over the weekend, I set to work on the move, but it takes a lot of effort to turn the dining area into a bedroom. I am ill prepared for the difference in the elements of place that I encounter. In the dining room, I have an antique hutch that I acquired through some divorce. It was previously filled with my grandmother’s china, knick-knacks, and crystal stem wear. This all had to be moved up to the bedroom and placed in the dresser drawers.

    Side note: the hutch works really well as a wardrobe. I use the drawers (reserved for silver which I don’t have) for socks, underwear, bras, etc. In the large bottom area, (reserved for crystal dishes, soup tureens, platters, etc. which I also don’t have) I place my neatly folded shirts, jeans, skirts and sweaters. I have to get a little more creative with the two upper cabinets that used to hold the glasses and knick-knacks. In this area, I place my shoes.

    Then, all of the stuff from the dining room has to be moved to the bedroom. This is where the real challenge began. Although, the hutch could easily serve a dual function for dishes and clothes, the dresser was not as cooperative in its design for the china and glasses. In one drawer, I place six of my grandmother’s china cups. I use another drawer for the six plates, and in the last one, I put the remaining five bowls (one broke in the move). I end up having to place all of the crystal stemware on top of the dresser. If we ever have an earthquake, I’ll be screwed. But, this isn’t California.

    In the middle of my move, I get a phone call from an old friend, and I let it go to voicemail. She leaves a message asking me to meet her at a bar near my neighborhood. Her voice sounds so artificial, and that is one of my new rules: avoid anything artificial. I’d spent a few hours the other night throwing away everything in the kitchen that had any artificial ingredients, but I had to Google so many of the ingredients because I didn’t know which ones were real or not, so eventually I ended up throwing away everything that came in a package or a box. It’s a little harder to throw away people, but I’d been forced to do it before.

    At my last session with Dr. Howard he had given me a challenge to get out of the house more and possibly reconnect with people I used to know, so I figure this is my best chance. But, it has been so long since I’ve done anything social that I’m not even sure what to do. When I turn on the light in the bathroom, and stare into the mirror, I can literally see right through my image into the medicine cabinet. I see all of the products lined up in there, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see my face. This starts to concern me, and I consider calling Dr. Howard. He’ll probably answer, but he will be filled with resentment at being forced to come to my rescue on a weekend.

    So instead I dig up an old photo album from college to remind myself of what I looked like when I’d been normal. If I hold the image in my mind for long enough, and meditate with enough intention, maybe my face will morph back into this image. But these photos were taken before the accident, so my meditation technique can not break the barrier.

    I am late to the bar after all, so I have to make my way through a maze of smoke and drunk people. The music is loud and someone is horribly singing a karaoke version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There’s still time to turn around and get the hell out before anyone notices me.

    Diane and her date are sitting at a corner table off to the right of the stage. They see me just as I am about to turn around and walk out. With the jangling of a thousand arm bracelets, she waves me over.

    “Hey you!” she exclaims too loudly over the sounds of “…show them what’s funky; show them what’s right. It doesn’t matter who spoke up right. Just beat it!”

    She pats the seat between her and some guy I’ve never met before. He is kind of my type which is definitely not her type, at least not that I remember. He has dark, wavy hair which hangs just over his ears, dark eyes (I can’t tell what color), and he is wearing a beat up Joy Division T-shirt. Justin.

    “Grab a drink, or get a pitcher to share!” Diane shouts at me.

    Getting to the bar is like walking the gauntlet. I have to push past half-drunk girls standing in the aisle yelling over each other, and then maneuver around a fat guy who is sitting in a barstool two sizes too small for him. “Excuse me,” I half shout although no one seems to hear me. I imagine myself as thin as a sheet of tin foil and then feel as if I have been crumpled into a ball. The guy behind the bar is shirtless and both his nipples are pierced. He won’t even look my way as he mumbles, “What do you want?”

    I want to be home. I want to be home arranging my collections. “Two pitchers of Killian’s and three glasses, please.” The “please” sounds superfluous after his rude greeting and his complete inability to make eye contact. As he slams down the two pitchers, beer froths over the sides, and he says “Eighteen bucks.” I handed him a twenty.

    The walk back to the table is easier because most of the people who had been blocking the aisle are now on the dance floor, shaking it to some Lady Gaga song. Justin and Diane are engaged in a kiss as I approach the table. I have to stand there for several seconds before they realize there is another human being in the room.

    “Oh, sorry,” Diane apologizes, “we get so carried away sometimes. But don’t worry, Justin’s buddy Nate should be here any minute.” Great a double date with Nate. It isn’t even funny.

    Justin is in the middle of filling up our beer glasses when I feel his leg brush against mine. It has been way too long. Maybe this guy Nate will be cute and half-way intelligent. But, then I remember my place. There’s no way I can take anyone back there. How can I possibly explain all of the bedroom stuff occupying the dining room area?

    I don’t have to worry after all. Nate is sporting a “Smoke a Pack a Day” T-shirt. He is loud and obnoxious, too. He does, however, buy the next few rounds of beers and shots. I get drunk pretty quickly because I am not really in partying shape, and before I know it I am on the dance floor sandwiched between Justin and Nate. Nate keeps grabbing at me and trying to kiss me. I’ve been out of this game so long that I’ve forgotten the rules. Am I supposed to just let him grope me?

    I have no clue where Diane had gone off to, and a vague feeling of concern quickly passes through me. Apparently, there’s nothing to worry about. I look over towards our table in time to see her taking body shots off some girl. At least, I am pretty sure it is a girl. We are all swept up in the lights and the bass, grinding against one another, and then the next thing I know we are back up at the bar. The bartender seems much friendlier now, and he has a shirt on. Maybe it’s a different guy. I can’t tell. Nate orders copper camels-a shot I’ve had a few times before. I am not really fond of it. He keeps calling it a bitch shot. I’m not sure who the bitch is supposed to be. I catch a blurry glance at the digital clock above the cash register, and it looks as if it reads 1:32. This sets off a panic in my mind. There is no way I can drive home, and it is getting pretty late to call a cab.

    I manage to slur out the words, “I gotta go….”

    “What’s your rush,” answers Nate, grabbing my arm, “the bar doesn’t close for another twenty minutes. Justin will give you a ride home. He’s hasn’t had that much to drink.” I am not too convinced, but I also lack the energy to fight it. I head towards the table to see about Diane. She’s out on the dance floor again and appears to be in no hurry to go home.

    “Diane!” I call out. “Let’s go!” The room starts to spin, and I see Justin heading towards me with a blaster. Drink up…

    I awake to my head bumping against a cold window in the backseat of someone’s car. The floor is littered with trash of all sorts: crushed beer cans, empty Rockstar cans, and food wrappers from any number of fast food places. I’m sitting on something hard. I reach under my butt and feel a wrench of some sort. Through a drunken blur, I see Diane next to me, messing around on her phone. “Ha, ha! That’s a great picture of you.” Please, not Facebook!

    Nate is driving the car. I guess he’s the most sober of all of us. Or the most drunk. “Where are we going?” I ask cautiously. Something has happened between the time we left the bar and the time I woke up amongst the garbage. I just can’t remember what. I’d been dreaming of the dirty cement waterways that connect the Los Angeles River to the ocean. Someone had painted colorful cartoon pictures of cats on the giant metal drain covers. Filthy water flowed through their wrenched-open mouth holes.

    “We’re hunting coyotes! Don’t you remember? It was your idea.” Nate boomed from the front seat. I try to protest because it really doesn’t sound like an idea that I would come up with, but something tells me to keep my mouth shut. If only I’d stayed home where I would be safe from all of this consumption and rejection.

    Diane quickly comes to my defense with a challenge to Nate, “Ahhh…no one said anything about shooting coyotes. You guys were bragging about guns, and she suggested we go out and shoot at cans.” I don’t remember any of this.

    I pull my phone out of my purse, but it’s dead. “What time is it?” I ask Diane.


    The darkness outside of my window is impossible to penetrate. Nate takes a sharp left and suddenly we are traveling at high speeds down a very bumpy, dirt road. “Those little fuckers always hang around my uncle’s farm. We’ll find some out here.”

    Justin cries out, “Slow down, dude! You’re going to get us all killed.”

    “Don’t be such a puss!”

    The car swerves into another left turn and then Nate slams on the brakes. We nearly run into a barbed wire fence, and I see clouds of dust through the high beams. Nate kills the engine and gets out of the car. I hear him open the trunk and begin rummaging for something. I am guessing the trunk is filled with more garbage. I think about getting out of the vehicle and running, but I have no clue where we were.

    “Son of a bitch!” Nate yells out as he slams the trunk shut.

    Diane opens up her door and slurs, “Wassa matter, Nate?”

    “Just about busted my goddamn knuckle on a tire iron is all.”

    By now, we are all out of the car. Justin leans against the front end and Diane is trying to mount the hood of the car like she’s eighteen, but she’s not, and I’m not either. We’re too far past the point of hiking up skirts. I can see a dark bruise on Diane’s left thigh. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” I protest. “Some of us need to get some sleep.” No one is listening. Justin and Diane are back to making out again, and I work to steady myself against the car. Then, I hear a coyote howl.

    Nate is barely able to control his enthusiasm, “I told you those bastards were out here. They’re all over this farm land. When I was a kid my uncle used to take me out here in the summer to shoot the little shits. In a good night, we might get five or six of them.”

    I am feeling a little sick to my stomach. I try to run an inventory in my head of all the drinks and shots I’ve had, but I lose count. I wish that I’d written them down in my notebook. Nate walks out across the field; Diane and Justin follow. The moon is almost full, so once my eyes adjust to the darkness I can just barely make out their shapes. What choice do I have but to follow? I’m about 50 yards behind them when I hear the sound of a gun and then a yelp. “Hey, I got one!” Nate calls out excitedly.

    Diane and Justin run over to see the damage. I can’t bring myself not to look. The little brownish colored coyote looks more like someone’s pet dog than a wild animal. The tongue hangs out of the mouth and is covered in blood and gravel. It’s still alive. “You gotta kill it…” whispers Justin, “You just can’t let it suffer.”

    “Oh, look who all of a sudden works for PETA. Diane’s made you soft, huh?”

    “Yeah,” Diane chimes in, “It’s not right. You can’t just let it lay there in pain.”

    “If you assholes are so hooked on this thing dying, you shoot it.”

    Diane leans in closer to Justin and loops her arm through his. None of them are making any moves towards putting this creature out of its misery. It’s only sleeping.

    “How ‘bout you, sweetie? After all, this was your idea to begin with.” Nate is looking right at me and offering me the gun. He is practically forcing it into my right hand.

    The handle is warm, and I feel my whole palm close tightly around it. Suddenly, I am ten years old again, at a family reunion in Montana. We’d spent a week there at a one of those dude ranches that was popular in the early 80s. At first, I’d been resistant, but after a few days, I was shooting guns with the rest of my cousins. We started out shooting beer cans, but then someone got the bright idea to shoot feral cats. I never really took pleasure in that game, but my sister sure had seemed to enjoy it. By the end of the week she’d tallied up how many cats she’d shot: eight. She was proud.

    In this moment, the gun feels right in my hand. My body is electrified. Blurred images of trash, bloodied road kill, filthy water, smog stained skies, and twisted metal fill my mind. I turn the gun towards Nate and aim at his chest.

    “Coyotes don’t litter,” my words echo through the blast of the gun.




    Tera Joy Cole is the author of the short story,Tera Joy Cole “Where Things Are Made” which was published by in Blunderbuss Magazine (April 2015). Additionally, her article “Occupy,” which chronicled her visit to Zuccotti Park, New York City, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, appeared in the magazine The Bannock Alternative (December 2011). She holds an M.A. degree in English and teaches composition and literature at Idaho State University.





    Dylan’s Roost

    by Susan Lloy


    The man burst into the shop like he was running for his life. Causing the bell on the door to jingle erratically as if it had been jolted from a deep slumber. He brushed himself off from the rain that had settled on his jacket and water dropped to the floor like big tears from a sad tale. He proceeded to the fiction section to examine titles.

    I recognized him by his photograph, Penvro Davis, a well-known author. He comes in sporadically, but never engages in conversation. I suspect he’s aware that I know who he is. Though, each time he approaches the counter to pay for a book, he silently hands over the money or bankcard without a single word except, ‘thank you’, before exiting.

    I like Penvro’s books. They are cerebral and edgy with characters on the brink with unusual habits and uncommon dreams. But, he hasn’t published for some time now. I often think about him while sitting behind this counter surrounded by second hand books. This is my shop. I’ve been here fifteen years. It isn’t a good living, but I only answer to myself and that pretty much seals it for me.

    There is a tiny bell that jingles each time the door opens or closes and I can hear it from every crevice in my shop. Sometimes it barely jingles at all. The space is open and square with a large antique leaded glass window all the way to the back and a glass front that faces the street. Bookshelves run along each wall, divided by author. I always wanted to be a writer and have attempted a novel and a short story collection, but have never completed anything. I roll in a constant state of perpetual planning, jotting down notes for this and plots for that. Putting them in my folder under the counter. Beginning a Word document, rendering words that have no conclusions. Eating a sandwich. Waiting for the door to jingle.

    Penvro studies sleeves. Finally, he slides over a collection of three plays by Eugene O’Neill. I’m surprised. He hands over a twenty-dollar bill without words or gestures. As I give him back his change, I flirt with the idea of asking him to look at my work. Yet, this doesn’t seem likely. He leaves briskly – like he entered. The door shuts and the bell jangles enthusiastically.

    I decide to make tea. It soothes my nerves. I prefer strong, black tea with a bit of milk. Sipping away, encased by books with the smell of paper lingering. It is a cozy space with atmospheric lighting and a few comfortable reading chairs next to the paned window at the back. Folks are welcome to hang about and sample a book. See if the words touch or penetrate, humor or shock. It probably isn’t good for business permitting customers a taste beforehand, nevertheless I think it’s nice and that’s what counts. However, I know the other merchants talk about me.

    “I don’t know how that Dylan doesn’t go broke. Mind you now, he’s a good fella and all, but he has no head for making a buck.”

    I’m not bothered. Everyone has something to say. But I must admit – it isn’t easy to be a bookseller when so many are reading online. My psychiatrist called today and informed me he must reschedule. An emergency. Doesn’t upset me. Most sessions there isn’t anything exciting to discuss. My life has been rather dull for some time now. In fact, I can’t remember when it wasn’t dull. No, that’s not true. My youth had been fairly wild. There were lots of parties, women and many illicit goings-on. Though, now that middle age has straddled me, these memories seem far away. Perhaps, three incarnations ago.

    There’s always books to put away. People often come in to sell books. Most of the time there isn’t anything compelling, but these books waiting to be shelved aren’t too bad. I pick up each book with care, catalogue it and dust the cover before slotting it according to genre and author. I don’t live far away and the rent has been stable. The landlord is an old guy with a good heart. A rare commodity. But, he is getting on and I worry what will happen when he dies and the property is sold. How will I manage? There’s always something to fret about and my thoughts are diverted by the jingle of the door.

    The woman nods when I look in her direction. She comes in often, though we never talk. Sometimes when I sit here and the door remains silent, I think about my customers’ lives and secrets. I write notes about them. Inserting them in my folder that sleeps under the counter.

    She’s looking in the self-help section. I find that women prefer these type of books. They don’t much interest me. This particular woman’s weight fluctuates. Often she buys a book about dieting or weight loss recipes. Today she has one about getting rid of guilt and accepting the ‘real you’. I wonder what is real about her. She never says anything either. Only a mutter, perhaps a thank you, as I slide her change across the counter. After she leaves the shop I see a folded paper lying on the floor. It must have slipped out of her pocket. I walk over, pick it up and return to my counter to read the words.

    It’s a grocery list containing various processed cakes and ready-to-go prepared dishes: macaroni, lasagna, Pad Thai, butter chicken, prunes and a laxative product – Senokot. Normally I’d throw it in the garbage, however, there are several phone numbers at the end and I ponder whether to return the paper if and when she comes again. I put it in another drawer under the counter. I open a Word document. The wind had picked up scattering litter throughout the city streets. Rain began to fall heavy from the sky. I wondered what to do with my afternoon, for I was out of money and without plans….

    I heard the door jingle again and it is the same woman who was just here. She scans the floor. Probably for her lost paper.

    “Miss, are you looking for this?’

    “Yes. I believe so.”

    “I found it on the floor after you left.”

    “Thank you very much.”

    She took the folded paper and put it in her pocket and left immediately. I looked out the window and watched her walking vigorously down the street. Wind lifts her skirt as she walks away. She’ll wonder if I’ve read it. It will play on her. I now know her secret, or at least something more about her.


    The rain has stopped and the sun edges itself through the front windows. It highlights all the defects on these old wooden hardwood floors. Scratches and wear marks from thousands of shoes that have scuttled about. This shop has had many tenants, first a tailor, followed by an accountant and then a comic bookshop owner. I took it over in 2001. I had just moved back from Amsterdam. Amsterdam had been my home for several years. But, a relationship faltered and my visa became problematic. I had a small amount of money put aside and secured this lease within one month of my return. Not at all convinced of my decision. But I’m still here. And the door jingles.

    It’s Lee. He has his own apartment, which his family pays for, but enjoys the streets and comes in frequently. At times he rambles, yet is often lucid. Sometimes I let him rest in one of the reading chairs or let him wash up in the bathroom behind my counter. He stands in front of the cash register and tells me about the aliens and predators that are after him. Today he is far away…

    “Dylan. Dylan. How are ya man? There are ships all around us. Those cunts have been tracking me for days. I’ve seen them in the sky, between the clouds and stars. They’re in the sewers. When I’m on the streets I hear their beacons signaling far below the earth. I know they’ve put something in my ear. It buzzes all the time and if it doesn’t stop I’m heading for Chow Mien right after this and jabbing a chopstick in my ear. I know the guy who washes the dishes and feeds the stray cats. One, two, three, many, many man… He’ll give me food and I’ll ask for the sticks. I’ll plan my revolt. But, here I know I’m safe. This shop is a force field and the books are my shields. Hey, got tea? I know your tea short circuits the stray trackers. Fucks their coordinates.”

    “You’ll be safe here. Don’t worry, Lee. I’ve got an extra sandwich. Are you hungry?”

    “No, No. I just ate with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Cats know. Yup. Yup. Cats are cleaver, man. Hiss – purr, don’t matter. Yes. Yes. The cats are with me, Dylan. They’re with me.”

    I brought him tea and the wrapped sandwich.

    “Here, take this for later on.”

    He drank the tea and put the sandwich in his pocket.

    Lee had fallen asleep. Two hours had passed and the door had barely jingled. But, I’m closing up and must wake him.

    “Lee. You got to get going now.”

    He opened his eyes widely, as if in the midst of some horrible thought. He blinked several times and stood up like he had just been zapped by a cattle prod.

    “No worry. No worry. I’m energized and ready. Ready. Ready. I think the nap fucked their trackers. The buzzing is gone from my ear.”

    “That’s great, Lee. Shall we walk out together?”

    “OK. OK.”

    I gave him five bucks and wished him luck from the creatures beyond the sun. Locked the door.


    I walk towards my flat. The rain has stopped, but the sidewalks remain wet and glisten from the streetlights shining above. It’s about a twenty-minute walk from the shop and the air smells fresh and the sea close. Halifax is surrounded by water. I’ve tried living in other places, but I need to be close to an ocean.

    A ferry’s horn drones in the distance. I think about Lee and wonder where he’ll sleep tonight to avoid the damp and cool air that will settle in from the harbor, or if he’ll bunk at home. Sometimes he disappears for a while, but he always comes back and I sort of miss him when he’s gone. My flat is on the top floor of an old building and I can see the lights of the city fuse into each other.

    I’m single and have been for years now. That’s one of the reasons I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I can’t seem to initiate anything in my life other than opening the door of my shop and waiting for the bell to jingle. He has me on an antidepressant. Dysrel. It’s an older generation pill and helps me sleep. I pop one after brushing my teeth. Fall into bed. Reach for my groin before falling off.

    I wake up to a foggy morning. Make coffee and have a slice of toast with rhubarb jam. I don’t open my shop until ten so I have time to leaf through the pages of the New Yorker to see what I’m missing. Today, I’ll open later because of an appointment with my shrink. The fog hangs making the morning appear Film noir.

    His office isn’t too far and I reach it within fifteen minutes. There are a few patients in the waiting room as I pick up a magazine and drink my takeout latte. The psychiatrist’s door opens and I see Penvro exiting. He looks directly at me, but doesn’t smile or nod and leaves rapidly as if late for another appointment. My doctor motions me to come inside his office.

    “Hello Dylan.”


    “So? Have you thought anymore about what we discussed at our last session?”

    “A little.”


    “ I just don’t see myself going online to meet a woman. It’s just not me. I know that’s what people do these days. But, like I said, it’s not me.”

    “Well, what about joining a group. You enjoy writing. How about a writers’ workshop or a course at one of the universities in creative writing? There’s always the chance of meeting some new people there.”


    I look around the calm and uncluttered office. Medical degrees hang on the walls with framed photographs of nondescript geographical locations. The furniture has a modern feel. I have another twenty-five minutes to go without anything to say.

    “How are you sleeping?”

    “Not too bad. You know. Not great every night, but most are OK. Better with the medication.”

    “You know, we can always up your dosage. The maximum is three hundred milligrams, however, it may make you groggy in the morning.

    “I’m all right with the present prescription. Let’s leave it at that.”

    The remaining time passes and I leave feeling that these visits are a complete waste of time. Still, it’s something to do and someone to talk with and that keeps me coming back.



    Whiskey and scotch line the table and smoke washes the room reminiscent of noctilucent clouds at polar twilight. It’s a bright room with windows that face east and west, but they’re covered by drawn blinds that block the sun like great warriors of a past world. His head is heavy and listless, without thoughts or words. Powerless to express or dream. He doesn’t attribute these afflictions to the booze, for this is the reason why he drinks.

    This slump has sucked him up like a starved pilgrim refusing to spit him out. His last novel, ‘Treaty of Thought’, was published in 2011. Several new novel drafts were attempted, but his ideas were transient and the characters moved about without accomplishing anything of much interest, unable to stir any emotion. Although, he has published three books to date, the royalties aren’t sufficient to sustain him. He must produce. Therapy was initiated with the hope that it might dislodge his lettered constipation.



    Arial kicks open the door of her apartment with a high-heeled shoe, struggling from the burden of grocery bags. She gently drops them on the kitchen floor enjoying the new weightlessness like a freed paratropper.

    Her clothes and hair are disheveled from the wind and rain that falls relentlessly. Before removing her jacket, she reaches in her pocket and gently removes the wrinkled paper examining the phone numbers that are smudged, yet, still legible transcribing them in a little red book that she keeps in the kitchen drawer. She doesn’t own a cellphone and is proud of it, something that separates her from the others. Though, others think her odd.

    Arial stands before the hallway mirror and lets out a disapproving sigh. Her stomach is extended inhibiting her skirt zipper from completing its course. After changing her wet attire, she checks for telephone messages; “You have no new messages” and returns to the kitchen. She cuts a large section of ice cream Oreo cake. Plunks herself on the sofa, turns on the television and furiously eats the cool desert. Following the cake she chooses lime taco chips and onion cream cheese spread. She turns up the volume on the screen as her crunching is drowning the sound.


    She stares at her name on the unopened mail. Arial. It’s ethereal, though she is far from light. Eating is merely something to do. Breaking up the monotony of her days and nights. Following the taco chips and spread she swallows two Senekots. This is her ritual.

    She sits before the computer and checks for emails. Little red dots are absent from her mail icon. She remembers discussing funny names of places that pepper the Nova Scotian shoreline with a guy from an online dating site.

    Shag Harbor, for example, probably some sailors got laid there…. Sober Island, perhaps someone moved there to straighten out…. Bush Island and Beaver Harbor, well what can be said about them?

    Arial thought these trivias comical and interesting, but he stopped chatting without reason. Now, her emails were mostly advertisers and the occasional far-away friend. She reopens the drawer and takes out the red book. Examines the phone numbers and closes the book again. Recently she had gone on a speed dating session and asked for a couple of contact numbers.  No man requested hers.


    I open the shop following the appointment with my psychiatrist. The sun has broken through the fog and light scatters throughout, igniting the space with rich warmth. I sit at the counter and wonder whether when Penvro comes again if he will he give me some kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more kind of look. I expect the day to pass sluggishly.

    The outside mailbox rattles from a drop and I immediately gravitate towards it. There are a few advertisements and a legal-looking envelope squeezed in between. Steward Taylor & Wexler is on the top left hand corner of the envelope in a dark blue font. It is an end of lease notice for this shop, stating that Mr. Riley has died and the property is now the under the proprietorship of his son, Randall. It says that I have six months to vacate. The door jingles. It’s Lee.

    “Dylan, my man. Dylan. You’re late today. I’ve been waiting the long, damp night and morning. I hung out with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Been doing smooth journeys through my starry nights and bright days. It’s been awhile since we took in each other’s eyes. Eyes of brown and blue. Colors of the sky and earth. That’s what they want – our sky and earth. The salt of the seven seas. But, it’s been quiet for days now I must say.”

    “That’s good, Lee.”

    I put the letter on the counter. Dread boils. I head to the small alcove next to the bathroom and plug in the kettle. Grab two mugs.

    “Hey, Lee. Feel for tea?”

    “Yup. Yup. Yup. Thanks man.”

    Tea won’t help me much today. My fear has bloomed. It always seems if we worry about something enough, it eventually becomes a reality. At least now there is something tangible to discuss with my shrink.

    The door jingles and a young woman enters. Her hair is a brassy blond with dark roots. Her clothes are tight fitting and worn.

    “I bet her pussy stinks.”

    “Shush, Lee. That’s not nice.”

    “Sorry, sorry Dylan.”

    “Ya know my girl Hazel is as perfect as a girl ever could be.”

    “Oh yeah. How come you never bring her around Lee?”

    “She’s not social. She’s shy. She’s….”

    The girl approaches the counter with a collection of poems by Allen Ginsburg.

    “Now that’s a good choice,” I say as she approaches the counter.

    She smiles, hands over the money and exits. Lee quietly sips his tea in the corner.


    Lee has left the shop and I’m filled with fearful thoughts. I have to get a hold of Randall and discuss the possibility of extending the lease. He’ll want more money. But where will I get it? I’m barely managing now. I sit for a long time in the shop. The door doesn’t jingle.


    Penvro opens a bottle of scotch, pours a drink and stares at the blank page on his screen. He begins with a dialogue between two characters he overheard at the tavern. They discuss buried treasure and possible extraction sites along the Nova Scotian shoreline. After about fifteen minutes he stops. He has maps and costs, equipment and Nova Scotian history wandering his thoughts. Maybe this is something to play with? He recalls Captain Kidd’s words, “After my death, you may find treasure I have buried in a place where two tides meet.” He becomes enthusiastic and pulls the blind up; daylight enters, bathing him in white heat.


    Arial is at work. She’s an assistant to a lawyer. Let’s say a bit more than a secretary and less of an assistant, but a space between these two worlds. She has more to do than just secretarial tasks. She must arrange dinners and procure tickets, book hotels and sometimes purchase a gift for the wife or children. It makes her feel superior to the other ladies, yet she’s bored and feels stuck.

    Arial goes for lunch and has a light salad. She must make more of an effort. Her bowels haven’t been too happy either and her stomach is bloated and full of gas from overeating and purging. She’s finding it difficult today, glued to the chair at her desk. Her belly in revolt. She flirts with the idea of calling one of the men she met at speed dating in her little red book.

    Upon arriving home Arial lets out great expulsions of gas. She’s certain there’s enough to take her to Saturn and back. Her behavior towards her body, a temple besieged by famine and plenty, is delinquent and requires scrutiny. She feels shame wash over her. Her agitated belly is swollen and round. She looks at least seven months gone.

    She retrieves the little red book from the kitchen drawer. There are two names with contact numbers from her speed-date soirée. Kevin and Eric are written in a careful pen. She remembers their faces – Kevin, kind of rugged with a graying beard and Eric more artsy, tall and thin sporting black attire.

    Arial asked for their numbers because they had been curious and seemed to exhibit some degree of concentration when she spilled her precious five minutes sitting opposite them with a cocktail in hand at a bar called ‘The Cranky Duck’.


    Stretching herself flat on the sofa she picks up the telephone and dials the first number. It rings four times.



    “Yes. Kevin here.”

    “This is Arial.”


    “Arial, we met at speed-dating.”

    “Oh, OK. Sorry, but I’m not sure I remember you.”

    “I wore a midnight-blue dress. My hair leans a little to the auburn shade. I work for a lawyer. More curvy than thin.”

    “Yeah, I think I know who you are.”

    “Listen Kevin. I was wondering if you’d like to hookup? Have a drink, or a meal, a movie or whatever?”

    “I can’t Arial, sorry. I’ve been seeing someone since that evening. I’m, how can I put it, on lockdown you might say.”

    Disappointment spreads like spilt ink.

    “OK, then Kevin, well it was nice talking to you. Bye.”

    “See ya.”

    She puts the phone on the coffee table and rubs her stomach with the palm of her hand.


    I’ve been ringing Randall all morning, but it continuously goes to voicemail. Maybe he’s avoiding me, even though we’ve never met. I look around my shop envisioning empty shelves and a space where voices echo. A door that opens, yet doesn’t jingle.

    I divert my worries by turning the radio to the chamber music channel. A string quartet encircles the room. Penvro enters and comes towards me, which is unusual taking me by surprise.

    “Hi.” He says with a clear toned voice. A voice that can send words across auditoriums and digital platforms.

    “Listen, I’m not sure how to approach this, but I’d really appreciate it if

    you’d keep my psychiatric visits to yourself and away from your customers.   Let’s face it – this is a small town. I don’t want people knowing my business.

    “No problem. It’s nobody’s news.”

    “What’s your name anyway?”


    He offered his hand.

    “Penvro. Thanks Dylan. And by the way I enjoy your shop.”

    He tapped his hand on the counter and left abruptly. The door jangled. I try to reach Randall. I’ve left several messages, but he never returns my call. I search the white pages to see if I can find his father’s address. Perhaps he’s staying there. If the house is in the vicinity I intend to walk there after I close. At the very least, put a note in the mailbox asking him to give me a call. The day passes slowly and I feel swallowed by dread. I make an appointment with my shrink.


    “I have no solutions for my life if lose the shop. There aren’t any reserves. A little put away, but certainly not enough to start something new. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”

    “Yes. Change is always challenging. Dylan if you didn’t have money issues and you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?”

    “That’s just it, I don’t have a clue. I’m in a total rut.”

    “Well when we’re under stress, decisions and life changes can seem ominous, but we have to sort out what is possible. Don’t you agree?”

    “I suppose so. But, let’s be frank. I initiated these visits because I can’t start anything. What makes you think I’ll be able to accomplish that now?”

    “We’re at a junction where these issues must be accelerated. How has your sleep been since you’ve received your lease termination notice?”

    “Not great.”

    “Shall we up the medication during this transition period? It only adds more anxiety to the pot if we’re sleep deprived.”

    “OK. Whatever. I don’t care.”

    We continue without any resolve. I take my new prescription and make a new appointment before exiting the empty waiting room.


    I made my journey to the Riley residence. It was in darkness when I rang the bell, leaving my letter in the mailbox with the hope of hearing from Randall soon. Limbo isn’t a great spot to linger.

    The next day Lee is waiting for me when I approach the shop.

    “Dylan. Dylan, my man. I’ve been waiting for ya.”

    “Yes. I can see that Lee. What’s up?”

    “Me Dylan. Me. I feel good today. Energized and ready. Ready for whatever comes my way.”

    “That’s good, Lee.”

    I turn the key and the door jingles. Lee follows me inside.

    “Want tea?”

    “You bet.”

    “You don’t seem yourself, Dylan. I see all things. Anything and everything. See. See. See. Tell me what’s on your troubled mind.”

    “Oh Lee, I don’t want to bother you with my troubles.”

    The door opens and Arial enters the shop. She doesn’t look in our direction, but heads to the books.

    “She’s nice. Maybe I should ask her on a date?”

    “Thought you had a girl Lee? Isn’t her name Hazel?”

    “Hazel’s no more. No. No. No more.”

    “What happened Lee?”

    “They got her.”

    “Who’s they, Lee?”


    He points his finger towards the ceiling.

    “She doesn’t contact me anymore.”

    “That’s too bad, Lee.”

    “Yeah. Too bad. Got to find another girl now.”

    And he looks towards Arial.

    “Maybe her?”

    Arial observes books. Not taking any notice of our discussion and Lee’s sudden interest. She chooses a romantic novel and brings it to the counter.

    “That looks good!” proclaims Lee.

    “We’ll see.”

    Arial continues smiling at him as she slides seven dollars towards me.

    “Thanks again.”

    She saunters slowly out the shop and down the street. Lee records her direction of walking from the bookstore window and says without a doubt…

    “She’s the one.”

    Lee’s a handsome dude. He’s tall and thin with dusty, blonde hair loosely haloing his head. He has striking blue eyes and a good nose. Sensual lips. If he didn’t speak there’d be a buzz of ladies around him. I tell him if he’s serious about getting a new girlfriend, then he must adhere to his medication. Otherwise, he’ll scare them off.

    “Right, right, right, Dylan my advisor and confidant of all internal workings. I shall heed your wise instruction.”

    I sit gloomily looking out the storefront window waiting for the rain to fall. Sometimes it’s good for business when it pours. People come in to escape the weather and look at books while waiting for a break in the downpour.

    Lee is hanging around. I don’t mind. I often hijack his fractured thoughts, travelling to other galaxies, forging the unknown. It disrupts the tedium of my day.

    Arial takes her book purchase to the office. She puts it in the drawer of her desk with the image of Lee’s face in her head. His beautiful smile and interest in her book or her, perhaps. As the day lingers he becomes fixed in her thoughts, like a favourite sweet or new pasta dish, something that she can’t get enough of.


    After multiple phone messages and the letter drop-off, Randall finally responds. He left me a message stating it wasn’t merely a question of more rent, but that he intends to sell. Now that his father has gone, he has no intention of maintaining the family home and buildings. He’s selling up. I feel the bottom of my stomach fall to the ground. That’s that. Now what?

    Penvro comes into the store and for the first time says,

    “Hello Dylan.”

    Not another word was uttered. He went to the historical section, grabbed a couple of books and slumped in one of the reading chairs by the paned window. I had bought a bag of clementines on the way here and began to peel one. The aroma of orange laced the air. I saw Penvro’s head look in my direction.

    “Want one?”

    “Sure. They smell awfully good. You have a long face today. Therapy not working?”

    “That too, but I’m going to lose my shop. The landlord is selling.”

    “I’m truly sorry. A lot of people will miss this place, including me. Are you going to look for another space?”

    “I don’t know.”

    I forgot that Lee was still here and he came darting around the corner knocking a book or two off the shelf as he frantically raced to the counter.

    “Dylan. Tell me it’s not true. What will we do? This is the center of all things.”


    I sit before the counter in a daze, my thoughts moving about sluggishly and without intent. The door jingles and Penvro walks in.

    “I’ve got an idea that may shift your mood. How about coming with me to scout possible buried treasure sites? I could use an assistant.”

    “Oh yeah! Why me?”

    “Maybe it’ll cheer you up. There are several sites; I’ve done some research already.

    “If you’re referring to Oak Island, there’s been enough said about that.”

    “I know, but maybe there’s a twist.”

    “Penvro, I’m not even sure that we can access the site.”

    “That’s why I need you. To alert me if someone comes. You’ll call me on my cell. So how about it… you in?”

    “Sure, I guess. When?”

    “As you know I’m flexible. When is your next day off?”

    “Sunday, Monday.”

    “Well, think about it. Sometimes an adventure is good. Clears the head.”

    “OK then, it’s a date.”

    “Sunday it is.”

    Penvro left and I stood there wondering why he had invited me along. For all one knows he may want to discuss our shrink. That must be it.


    It’s a small city with streets brushing each other north and south,

    east and west. The weather was warm and the Atlantic breeze softly blew throughout, licking the faces of the citizens and twirling weathervanes of sailing ships on building tops. Arial left the office, her stomach growling. She took an outside sidewalk table and ordered lunch. Lee was present in her head. He was something she wanted to sample, finish and enjoy every piece. It had been some years since she’d been with a man and although she wasn’t thrilled by the state of her current physical condition the contemplation of his touch and what appeared enthusiastic gesture, would hopefully prompt her to get it together. Roadblock this gorge and purge act. She went back to work, though her thoughts were not on her afternoon duties, but of Lee and how she might approach him. She envisioned him in motion, dancing before her as if he were a Twirling Dervish, handing over a rose, a piece of jewellery or chocolate with each whirligig.

    I stand in front of my shop waiting on Penvro. He arrives on time, pulls in fast, and is hard on the breaks.


    “Well, I’m here right?”

    I got in and looked around his vehicle, which was on old Volvo. It was cluttered with papers, empty Styrofoam cups and a full ashtray.

    “Don’t mind the mess. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

    He asks me if I want the music on and I tell him I don’t care either way.  Penvro turns on a seventies music station and my thoughts are returned to youth, long hair and reefers. Hallucinogens. Fun times.

    “So, what’s your angle gonna be on this story?”

    “I don’t know yet. That’s why I want to explore the site. See if it can ignite vision. Are you still going to our shrink?”

    “Yeah, for now. But I won’t be able to afford it for much longer. Anyways, I find it a waste of time.”

    “I know what you mean. Most of the time I feel the same.”

    We take the old road instead of the highway, which sweeps along the coast past little villages, wharfs, boats and fishing gear. The sun burnishes the dark blue ocean and the whitecaps dance tangos.


    We cross the narrow causeway, which leads to Oak Island. All is still, save for the birds in the sky and the surf that washes against its irregular shores.

    There were a couple of buildings facing us when our wheels first touched the island’s soil, but there nary a vehicle in site and the place looked deserted and silent. We take the road that travels the east side of the island and then head west where the road divides the island in half. We drive towards the Money Pit that was first discovered in 1795 where six people have lost their lives and others squandered entire fortunes attempting to locate the suspected treasure that lies deep within, protected by booby traps and flood tunnels.

    When we arrive at the pit there isn’t much to see, only a wire fence with a dilapidated shaft in the middle. Penvro asks me to wait at the road. There has been much speculation as to what lies down there: from Captain Kidd’s treasure to Shakespeare’s original works to Naval treasure. Maybe even the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant. I wait for a bit then head towards the Pit to join Penvro. Although, after jumping the fence and standing before the opening looking for any hint of something undiscovered, there were only weeds and brush to greet us and the occasional deerfly nipping at our exposed skin.

    There is a large sign outside the fence. It chronologically outlines the first discovery in 1795 and the original elevation of thirty-two feet to present at one hundred-seventy feet and where it has since been gridlocked. We take a look around listening for sounds for this is a privately owned island and trespassing will be met with fines or possible prosecution.


    I head to my shop where Lee is waiting for me. His hands are theatrical as he looks up and down left and right

    “Lee. What’s up?”

    “Dylan. Dylan. Dylan. What are we going to do about this shop?”

    “Lee, we aren’t going to anything. There isn’t anything to be done. The owner wants to sell. That’s it. Can’t control that.”

    “Control. Control. Control. He’s part of them man. He’s with those cunts that place the trackers in our heads. Mine has been acting up since you’ve told me about the shop. I want to find him. Make him answer to this unforgiving buzzing. And I’ll make him answer. Yup. Yup. Yup.”

    “Calm down Lee. Have you been taking your medication? I thought you were interested in finding a new girlfriend? You seemed quite taken with the lady who you were chatting up last week.”


    “Substantial. You said she’s the one.”

    “Yes. Yes. Yes. I do want to ask her on a date”

    “Then you best clam yourself. You’ll have no chance if you’re wound up like this. Have you seen your doctor lately?”

    “No. He’s a cunt too.”

    It’s lunchtime. A few customers linger about browsing through the titles, reviewing the backs of book covers. Lee has left and I worry about him. He’s seems more off-kilter than is customary for him. I call and cancel my appointment with my shrink.


    Arial leaves the office for lunch in the park facing the harbor. She spots Lee sitting on a park bench as she makes her way up the steep hill. Her stomach begins to flutter and she feels more alive than is customary. She is undecided whether to say hello, walk by, or maybe drop her purse before his feet. Arial decides to take action and approaches Lee.


    Lee lifts his head in the direction of her voice and looks directly at her.

    “Hello too.”

    “Have you been to the shop recently?”

    “I just left. Neither one of us can go there for much longer. The owner is going to sell the shop. My man Dylan will be no more.”

    “Oh, I didn’t know that. I have a fondness for that bookshop myself. In fact, that’s were we met. I’m on my lunch. Do you want to go for a coffee and discuss it?”

    “OK. You lead the way. I shall follow. Maybe to the ends of the earth.”

    They walk a couple of blocks towards a small restaurant and choose a table with a red-checkered cloth facing the street. A busker plays a guitar and sings on the sidewalk, while blowing a harmonica between lyrics.

    “You know, we haven’t formally met. I’m Arial.”

    “Lee, who rides with glee. Said, he, he, he.”

    She looks at him, thinking his remark was rather odd, but instead takes in all of his beauty. Tossing his words to another hamlet, to a place that won’t be troubled or questioned. She wonders what he makes of her. Does he find her desirable and interesting? She envisions herself as a ripe maid needing to be feasted on without delay. Though, he appears somewhat nervous and his eyes never settle on her entirety.


    “What do you do Lee?”

    “Do? I do everything and anything. Do. Do. Do.”

    “What I mean is, what is your line of work?”

    “I don’t work. Not in a conventional way at least. I’m the sentinel of the city. Alerting the citizens of predators who lurk below and fly above.”

    “I see, sounds like fascinating work.”

    “It is, most definitely.”

    “Who are these predators you speak of?”

    “The ones who place the trackers in our heads. The ones who create the intolerable buzzing. The ones who want our earth. The ones who want us.”

    “I must say they sound extremely menacing.”

    “Oh, we must be diligent. You bet. You never know when they’ll appear. They’re sneaky and calculating and must be stopped.”

    “Lee can I ask you something?”

    “Ask away.”

    “Do you suffer from a mental illness?”

    “Suffer. No. Mental illness, yes. I’m schizophrenic so they tell me. Does this information alarm you?”

    “No, not at all. I find you charming and eccentric at best.”

    He was quirky, to say the least, yet a lot more engaging than most of those dull lawyers in her office. Overhearing the events of their boring weekends and family holidays. Trying to squeeze by their polished shoes and their beer bellies hidden by three-piece suits. As a result, she chooses to find him unique, rather than ill.

    “Lee, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

    “That sounds good. Good. Good. Good.”

    “How about Thursday? We could go out, or I could cook for you. Which do you prefer?”

    “Home cooking. Then I know it’s safe. They haven’t gotten to it.”

    “Are you always so suspicious?”

    “Yes. As should you be, my fair Arial.”

    They exchange numbers and part ways. She follows his footsteps as he heads towards the bookshop Dylan’s Roost – where she had initially spotted him.

    Lee comes into the shop and tells me about his coffee date with Arial.

    “That’s great Lee. But don’t skip on your meds. Don’t want to scare her off. Right?”

    “Right. Right.”


    Penvro enters and walks directly to me.

    “Dylan. How are ya?”

    “OK. Same old.”

    “Did you know that there are three hundred and fifty islands off Mahone Bay and Oak Island? The treasure could be on any one of them.”

    “Is that your angle?”

    “Not sure yet.”

    “Now tell me, why would anyone go to all the trouble of building that pit with its hosts of booby traps and oak castings every ten feet?”

    “Perhaps that’s the key. To throw folks off. Keep people busy.”

    “I dunno Penvro, sounds stupid to me.”

    Penvro looks at me and I think that even though I’m surrounded by books I haven’t read most of them, nearly none of them. I feel like a total fraud. It’s not that I don’t like books. On the contrary I love books, but my concentration level has been disabled for a long time. At least ninety-six full moons, one eclipse, three direct-hit hurricanes and countless sub-tropical storms.

    When someone approaches me and inquires about words I usually wing it. I have a visual memory for book covers and can usually recall some hint of content by remembering bits of the back flap pitch. So who am I to question Penvro’s ideas?

    “Sorry Penvro. I didn’t mean stupid. What do I know?

    “That’s OK, Dylan. I haven’t sorted it out myself yet, but I value your opinion.”


    Arial thinks about her upcoming date. Should she be wary? Naugh. He seems spirited and sweet. She went for a Brazilian bikini wax; had her hair done and a pedicure, for she wanted to be prepared. And ready she was. She had rehearsed the evening over in her head, first a cocktail, dinner and then Lee for dessert.

    In fact, she had thought about him so much she had fallen behind with her work had been questioned by her boss, Mr. Stewart. He had inquired with concern, not malice. Arial had been at this office for thirteen years and she and Mr. Stewart, who was the head partner in the firm and a highly respected criminal defense lawyer, had formed a close working relationship. She was highly efficient, but he felt sorry for her, jammed in her snug attire and never a new story about a man, trip or anything to speak of.

    Arial assures Mr. Stewart that all is well, but that she had just received news about an old friend who lived an ocean away and was saddened from the sudden death. She had always been a good fibber and she willed her nose to keep its small, thick position as Mr. Stewart voiced his concern for her. Telling her to take the rest of the week off and sort herself out. She sheds a false tear and thanks him. He rubs Arial’s shoulder like a loving father instructing her not to think about work. She gathers her purse, leaving a desk absent of personal touches. Not one photograph or any indication that she spends most of her hours behind it.

    She goes directly home and begins preparing dinner, roast-beef and potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables. She figures any man would like this standard meal. As Arial checks the slow cooking roast she worries that he may be a vegetarian. She forgot to ask.

    Lee was to arrive at seven o’clock. She checks the time and sure enough, five minutes before, the doorbell rings. It is Stella her next-door neighbor wanting to borrow a light bulb.

    “Smells awfully good in here Arial.”

    “I’m cooking roast.”

    “I wish I could muster a dinner like that, but it’s hard to do the all the work just for oneself, as we are. I should take a cue from you.”

    Arial brings the light bulb and feels like Stella is waiting for an invitation, or at the very least, a dinner plate sent over when it’s done.

    “Sorry Stella, I’ve got a date. Got to get back to the kitchen.”

    “Oh lucky you, Arial.”

    Just as Stella turns, she comes face to face with Lee.


    “Hello. Hello.”

    “Lee, how nice to see you. Come in.”

    Stella looks behind trying to get a better glimpse as Arial closes the door behind him. Lee is casually dressed, appears calm and less fixity than she recalls.

    “How are you, Lee? Care for a glass of wine? I hope you eat meat. I’ve prepared a roast beef dinner.”

    “No for wine. And yes for meat.”

    “Can I offer you something else instead? A port perhaps, or a cocktail?”

    “Just water, please.”

    “Sparkling or uncarbonated?”

    “Sparkling, like a clear night sky or a sun-kissed sea, topaz and tears.”

    Arial brings the water gesturing Lee to sit, staring into his light blue eyes wanting to know every detail about him.


    Lee is hungry, wants to eat right away and doesn’t feel like making small talk. He thinks, ‘I won’t stay long’. It’s not that he’s uninterested in Arial, but, there is something of greater importance pending. When Dylan was chatting with Penvro, Lee spotted the eviction letter in Dylan’s drawer and memorized both the address and name of Randall Riley. He plans to visit old Randall and ask him outright, why he wants to take away the place of refuge and ideas, dreams and escapes.

    “Your dinner smells delightful, Miss Arial, I must say.”

    “Miss? Don’t be so formal.”

    “I’m rather famished as I’ve been skulking the beasts all day. Their bastard captain has sicked the sleuthhounds on me.”

    “What captain?”

    Lee points towards the ceiling light.

    “Oh come on Lee, you don’t really believe that do you?”

    “Yes. Yes. Yes. I certainly do. Often I see and hear them. One could say we schizophrenics are either cursed or blessed. I choose the second.”

    Arial gestures Lee to take a seat at the dining room table. She brings the steaming roast with gravy and side dishes and invites Lee to help himself.

    “Can these ‘sleuthhounds’ see us now? What about our privacy?”

    “No. No. I ditched them at Dylan’s Roost. That’s the only place they can’t control. And do you know that Dylan will lose his shop? The landlord is selling the building. Lee eagerly eats. All the while saying …“Yum. Yum. Yum. Arial you are a gifted cook.”


    When Dylan arrives at his shop he sees the ‘For Sale’ sign standing erect and determined in front of his store by an established real estate company. His stomach feels nauseous and he is filled with shuddersome thoughts. Thoughts that take him to dark places without exits or armour. He opens the door; the bell jingles and he decides that once this shop is gone, he never wants to hear a bell jingle again. But, the door does jingle and a few customers saunter in listlessly pulling the odd book from its shelf.

    He looks at the empty chair in front of the lead-paned window and wonders how Lee’s date went, or if he even showed up. He can’t imagine Lee on a date and Dylan runs scenarios in his head. He sees Lee excited rambling on about predators and preventative measures. He sees Lee looking wide-eyed saying, “You’re the one.” He sees the disenchanted woman exploring his handsome face thinking,

    ‘Why do you have to be like this?” as Lee repeats his words, solidly cementing them in the ears of his listener.

    Lee heads to the Riley residence passing streetlamps dimmed by the incoming fog that hangs low smacking the cool sidewalk with lusty moisture. Arial wasn’t at all pleased when he gulped down his coffee after the last mouthful of tart apple crumble, repeating, “Why so soon? Do you have to go? Can’t this wait?” As he tried to explain the calibre of the situation. Blurting out, “No time to waste. No leniency for Riley. No to invasion. No to control. No to spending the night.” Her sad face trailed his quick footsteps.


    The Riley house is majestic, standing proudly at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac and set a fair distance from the road by a well-groomed lawn. There are a few lights burning as he begins his approach, not sure what steps his plan should follow.

    Lee slowly cases the place peeking in the ground floor windows. The house appears empty and lifeless. He tries the double-hung wooden window frames, then struggles with a set of French doors facing a terrace hosting a swing chair and dining area, which is stuffed with olive-colored cushions and potted ferns of varied growth.

    Tonight the sky is bursting with stars and Lee feels panicked swinging in the squeaky chair fully exposed to danger, viruses, beams and radiation, horrible strange creatures, noise and torturers. His head boils with electricity and uncontrollable buzzing. He’s convinced the cunning cunts above and below shall launch their crafts and come not only for him, but others as well.

    He runs for cover under a willow tree letting the soft branches dust over him as he becomes highly agitated and frenzied. Lee has a direct view to the house interior and spots a man drying his hair with a bath towel while pouring a drink at the same time. He scurries to the house and peers in, but the figure has his back to him and is unaware of his presence.

    Lee begins to knock on the door gesturing the man towards him. Randall takes a swig of whiskey squinting his eyes exerting to see who is the shadow before the glass. He grabs a fireplace poker, finishes his drink with one swift gulp and walks towards the doors and tapping the poker on the highly polished floorboards.

    “Yeah. What do you want out there?”

    “Are you Mr. Riley?”

    “Yes, who’s this?”

    “My name is Lee, may I come in?”

    “Lee? What do you mean banging on my door at this late hour?”

    The knocking becomes harder and hurried.

    “Please open!”

    Randall lifts the poker while turning the knob of the door. Before he has a chance to question him, Lee rushes through, pushes him aside, locks the door and pulls the blue velvet curtains tightly together.

    It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen Penvro, whom I imagine is preoccupied with pirates, treasure, shipwrecks, canons, gangplanks, swords, mutiny, eye patches, taverns, parrots and ship rats, plus the random damsel here and there. But, that isn’t so. Penvro sits in an old sailors’ pub down on the waterfront hearing yarns about sea travels, disasters and triumphs.

    Arial hasn’t heard from Lee for several days and strolls the streets hoping to catch a sign of him. But, Randall knocked him on the head with the fire poker and rang for help. Now Lee lies sedated in the Psychiatry ward. She calls his cellphone but he never picks up. She lets several weeks pass before heading to the bookstore unsure of what she’ll do if she runs into him. She climbs the hill to the familiar street, but Dylan’s Roost is vacant, absent of any forwarding address. She looks in the window and examines the cleared-out store void of books or any sign that it was once a haven from wind and rain and comforter of words. She turns away missing a postcard stuck in the doorframe from a foreign land.

    “Dearest Dylan,

       Sorry I didn’t stop to say good-bye, I left quite unexpectedly, jumping a freighter to parts unknown. You might say to clear my head…Take care, my friend and guardian of thoughts. Penvro.”

       Dylan sits before his psychiatrist, his head empty of words.




    Susan LloySusan Lloy has honed her perceptual skills working in diverse environments; from handling nitro and explosives in the Canadian North to slinging drinks in Halifax, she now coordinates a Cardiac Surgery Unit in Montreal. A graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, Susan has published twice with Revolution House, Production Gray Editions, Penduline Press, PARAGRAPHITI, Beecher’s, The Prague Revue, The Round Up Writer’s Zine and this September with The Writing Disorder based in Los Angeles and the Amsterdam Quarterly. She will be published again in late October with Blue Crow Magazine out of Australia. She has just finished a short story collection.




    Tim Boiteau


    by Tim Boiteau




    Dawn at O’Hare, foggy autumn morning, waiting for my connection. Spent the night on a bench with my jacket pillowing my head, tie pulled loose, tossing the platinum wedding ring into the air, trying to catch it on the tip of my finger.

    Eventually it caught.

    Coffee and bagel for breakfast. Pull out my tablet and stare at the photo of us in Thailand, the sea and sky contending blue. Make it my new wallpaper. A superficial gesture.

    The woman on the bench beside me eyes the picture for some time before finally saying, “She is so adorable,” and then looking at me: “Looks just like you.” The woman is dark-haired, thin, but with all the wrong facial features, as if there had been some glitch in replicating my wife.

    “Thank you.” The noncommittal response ends the conversation.

    We look out over the tarmac at the fragile jet, its nose poking out of the rolling mist, written in the stars to deliver us to our destination.

    She holds in her hand a tablet as well but after having pulled it out had merely paused forgetfully, her finger hovering over the surface. There is a picture there on display for me to see, obscured by the desktop icons: her, a man with a cleft chin, two sons, neither with cleft chins, all precariously set on the edge of the Grand Canyon, a gust of wind threatening to disperse them like spores over an impregnable land.

    I look back up at the jet vanishing into the mist, appearing safer now with its frailty cloaked.




    Four thousand feet, en route to Detroit Metropolitan, by coincidence she is still beside me, her tablet out, awaiting my response.

    “Good-looking kids.” I offer, thinking I should add something to that delayed reciprocity. But maybe it’s enough. She’s smiling anyway.

    “How many is this for you?” I say, turning, engaging her.

    She purses her lips, sighs, her tongue feeling around the teeth. “The big 2-0.”

    I nod. “A seasoned pro.”

    “Weird during this in between time, a little nerve-wracking, invigorating, then . . . you adjust.”

    “Sure . . . then comes 21.”

    “What about you?”

    I pause. “Lost count.”

    At times I feel like I exist at the junction of hundreds of conflicting memory lines, a disconcerting feeling, an inappropriate topic for light, get-to-know-you conversation.

    Probably she feels the same way.

    “Come on. Don’t be shy,” she says, her hand flirting with the fabric of my jacket.

    “Let’s just say I’m getting up there.”

    “That’s either charming or pathetic. Not sure which.”

    The flight attendant comes by.

    “She’ll have a screwdriver, I’ll do a greyhound, both light on the juice.”

    “That’s a bit presumptuous of you.”

    “What? I’m buying you a drink. If you’d like it can be the toast to the end of our brief relationship. You do like screwdrivers, don’t you?”


    “Thought so.”

    The flight attendant hands us our drinks.

    “I gotta ask you something—”

    “Let me guess: did we ever . . . ?”

    “You look so damn familiar,” I say, snapping my fingers.

    “To be honest, I don’t know. I thought the same thing about you.”

    “If I really focus, close my eyes, I can see your face, I can see our daughter, Jenny, seven, wearing a white dress for her first communion, her knees are scabbed, you pull up these—uh—these little white stockings to cover the scabs, put these small, white shoes on her feet, she kisses you on the cheek . . .”

    I open my eyes and find her smiling, shaking her head. “I’ve never had a daughter.”

    I look into her Eye. “Maybe you just haven’t closed your eyes long enough. Cheers.”





    McNamara Tunnel, Detroit Metropolitan, leaning against the moving walkway rail, massaging my eyes against the rainbow light art.

    Twenty feet ahead of me is the woman, hand resting on the handle of her carryon, not turning back to acknowledge me. What did I say exactly? The memory of our conversation had already faded into uncertainty. Whatever may have happened, she has ignored me ever since I woke at landing. No matter: she’s already fading out of focus, the words that passed between us cooled air.

    A relaxing pulse throbs out of the tunnel walls. Shut my eyes and envision my family. How long has it been?

    A scrambling force knocks me over onto the tread, shocking me out of the trance.

    My eyes flash open, stare into one large blood-red Eye, prodding me with urgency. After having satisfied itself with me, it removes a distance, and I can see the whole head of the man, disheveled, scraggly bald, the other eye static, diminished and gray with the sagging atrophy of neglect.

    “Where’s my family?” he mumbles as I push him off and then, as an afterthought, help him up. “Have you seen them? Flew all night here to see them.”

    “Christ, buddy. Don’t know if I can help you there. What do they look like?”

    He stares at me for a moment and then says, clawing at my jacket to reach my full height, “I’ll remember when I see them.”

    Then he veers away, knocking into the woman first, and then, it seems, by turns into everyone else in the tunnel, as if whatever kind of attack had done that to his Eye had rendered him blind as well.

    When she has recovered, the woman turns toward me, and then—something in the way she looks at me in her moment of recovery: a buried memory—I know it for sure.




    Four feet, the desolate city rolls past: crumbling graffitied walls, urban prairies, abandoned skyscrapers, boarded up groceries, iridescent black clouds of grackle swirling above, splintered roads rendered lunar by neglect and merciless winters, wind pounding against the car.

    “Headed home, man?” the cabbie asks.


    As I look out at the remains of the city, I superimpose images of my family over them. Tech doc advice: first few weeks, cycle through as many images of them as possible, play and replay recordings of their voices, vacation videos, every chance you get, until the word vacation is a beach in Thailand, home an abandoned city you’ve never cared for, wife a long-haired woman you’ve never touched.

    “You use an Eye?” I ask after some time.

    “No, don’t believe in that kind of thing.”

    “Good man.”

    “Tell that to my wife,” he laughs.




    Late Sunday morning, my car, a Ford Taurus, gleaming red in the early light, my lawn neatly trimmed, surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, my house, an immense three-story sprawl, well-maintained, several Japanese maples spaced around it, their leaves reddening with the weather.

    Next door, a black-fried mutant spider of where the neighbors used to live, wind gusting through the remains into our yard—cold—the grainy odor of carbon.

    Across the street, the windows smashed, the place looted, maybe thirty dead dogs strewn across the overgrown lawn, the corpses in various states of decay, but the weeds alive with other things—oily rats, skittish bugs, unapologetic birds—feeding on the reeking piles.

    I walk up the brick path to my home and present my Eye to the peephole.

    The door opens.

    “Welcome home,” the house intones.

    I lay my suitcase at my feet and wait for a minute in the foyer, listening for the sounds of family. My daughter does not scramble to greet me. My wife does not bear a bottle of cold beer to me. The place looks as I remembered: clean, polished wood; minimally decorated; bathed in sunlight. The layout, however, is off: doors in doorless walls, halls for rooms. How is it that these sorts of things slip by? Smells different as well, but then odor is such a difficult thing to pin down and maintain, a more ancient system than sound and vision, like some druidic cult shrouded in myth and rumor inaccurately catalogued in history texts.

    Experiencing this house and comparing, reconciling it with the memory house is one of those moments surreal in the junction, but then, as the woman from the plane had said, “you adjust.”

    “Where’s my family?”

    “In the living room,” the house replies.

    “What a homecoming,” I mutter under my breath, turning vaguely towards where I remember the living room to be.

    The hallways in this house interminable, after passing under several staircases and making a number of wrong turns, I eventually find the living room and spot the back of their heads, separated by a great distance on the long couch, Daphne with crow black hair, Chloe blonde.

    “Hi guys.”

    “Hi,” they say out of turn, their heads still directed towards the far wall.

    I shrug my shoulders, dropping my luggage. “What’s up?”


    “Catching up on news.”

    “All right.” I pause, expecting something more. “Well, I guess if you need me I’ll be in the study doing some work.”





    I roam around the house for an hour or so, finding several kitchens, guest rooms, libraries, before I finally find the study just as I remember it: a long wooden desk by the window; a bird’s-eye view of the course at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club hanging on the wall behind the leather couch; an eye-brain schematic on the other; a giant torch cactus planted in the corner; a few odds and ends strewn about the desk.

    I sit down and for several hours code and analyze Eye data, replaying memories from the trip and categorizing them according to valence, arousal, and a number of cognitive dimensions. The episode with the woman I rate as highly arousing but neither positive nor negative, highly thought-provoking as well, but with only a small number of memory associations. The incident with the man I spend several minutes pondering over, and in the end mark it neutral, sensing I could deliberate over it for the rest of my life without ever coming to a firm conclusion. With the image of the man now paused in my field of view, I can zoom in in great detail until the near-transparent circuitry of the Eye lens is apparent, yet there is nothing telling in the appearance of the network, and certainly no analyst would be able to decipher problems so superficially. The man’s problem must be originating from some source higher up in the system. I send a short message to the Eye troubleshooting department.

    Next I examine the scene of my homecoming. Upon entering the living room and spotting the back of their heads, the pupil responded by dilating several fractions of a millimeter, triggering a series of autonomic interactions eventually leading to a nearly undetectable increase in heart rate and skin conductance, and following this an over-compensatory constriction of the pupil and subsequent slowing of the heart rate to below baseline, the entire physiological event recalled as being the subjective experience of familial intimacy.

    Nevertheless, I rate the scene as unpleasant, though certainly rich in memory associations.

    “Honey?” a voice calls out from behind me.

    “Yes?” I respond, staring into the computer monitor, at the reflection of my wife’s silhouette, my breath catching: a reaction that will have to be analyzed later.

    Daphne, my wife, a flood of bittersweet images and sounds.

    “Just wanted to let you know Chloe and I are doing a girls’ night out tonight.”

    I spin around in the chair and regard her. “Girls’ night out?”

    Tall and delicate, her eyes bright gray, just as I remember her, she leans into the doorway. My first reaction is to stand, walk forward, and slide a hand around her waist. Instead, I remain seated, staring at her.

    “She’s going through something right now. I think we need some one-on-one time.”

    “Fine. I guess I can rummage up something around here.”




    After an evening of wine and cheese and reading in the cool air of the back porch, I finally call it a night and wander around the house until I find the bedroom with my wife in it. She is wearing a white silk robe I bought for her years ago while on a business trip in Japan. Everything else from that trip has now faded from memory—business contacts, hotels, food, temples, prostitutes—but I remember clearly the robe and the market where I purchased it, a touristy, lantern-lit street sunken into the crevasse between obelisk skyscrapers. I remember the pink cherry blossoms stitched into the back. She is simultaneously reading—a kind of unnatural green sparkling in the Eye—and watching me as I unpack.

    “How was dinner?” I ask her.

    “Excellent. Italian.”

    “Chloe likes Italian,” I mumble to myself.

    “I’m worried about her.”

    “Hold on,” I say, entering the bathroom and turning on the shower. Thirty minutes later I re-emerge clean, fresh-shaved, naked, and climb into bed.

    Daphne is asleep, her back turned to me. I pull up close and wrap my arms around her, feeling beneath the silk her soft body against mine, her scent exciting, long hair stimulating my skin and nose.

    “Can we not?” she murmurs.

    “Honey . . . I just got home. I missed you.”

    “I need some time to adjust,” she says, her voice more limpid.


    “I have a very sensitive nose. You just don’t smell right. I’m sorry, but not yet. I know me, it’s not going to happen. For me this kind of thing takes time.”

    “I used the soap you like,” I say into her neck.

    She turns toward me, her face a crescent moon of streetlight and shadow. “You know what I mean.”

    I pull away from her and let the cool air cleanse me. In one final attempt my hand reaches out to touch the back of her neck, but she recoils from the touch.

    My eyes, dry and red, crave to be shut.

    Eye clicking with overuse, my mind fades fast with sudden jetlag blackout.




    When I wake I update my Eye, lying still for several minutes in complete blackness, which begins to fill with those nebulous submemories and primordial hallucinations, images and sounds by turns disturbing, peaceful and cathartic, some flies flitting in and out barely discerned, others lumbering behemoths unfathomable in scale.

    When I come to I find the bed empty.

    Two in the afternoon.


    I brush my teeth, standing naked in front of the window, watching the wind tear across the crumbling, verdant flyovers looping in and out of the city. Somewhere in the distance there are fires: the horizon underlined in brown.

    Downstairs I find a kitchen and make some eggs and coffee.

    Daphne appears wearing a sports bra and pants.

    “Busy day?” she says.

    “Where were you?”

    “The gym. Must have lost track of time,” she says grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.

    “Listen, I feel kind of bad about last night. It was really, uh, insensitive of me.”

    “You were fine.”

    “Well, even so—”

    “Forget it.”

    “Have you?”

    “Buried deep in the dark,” she says.

    “Great. I was thinking we should, I don’t know, do something together.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Go out somewhere, maybe see a movie or something.”

    “What’s the point?”

    “What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’”

    She leans back against the counter, guzzles the water, and shrugs her shoulders. When I don’t respond, she decides to help me out.

    “With us, at the beginning, it’s like this,” she says, struggling to find the right words, “and then just when I feel our time is the most ripe, there’s no fruit, there’s nothing.” She shakes her head and takes a sip. Finally she says, “I’m making dinner tonight. Any preferences?”

    “Well, I’m allergic to shellfish, so maybe steer clear of that, huh?”

    “No shellfish. Good to know.”




    Chicken and sesame noodles for dinner. My two girls stare at their plates as they eat, only occasionally glancing in my direction.

    “So, Chloe, how’s school?”

    She shrugs her shoulders. “Last week a new girl joined our class.”

    “Oh yeah. Where’s she from?”

    “From here. Sort of. It’s complicated. I don’t really want to talk about her.”

    “Suit yourself,” I say, rolling my eyes, and turning towards Daphne. “Great dinner, honey.”

    She licks her lips. “What do you think, Chloe?”

    “I decided today I’m going to be a vegetarian.”

    “I’ll use tofu next time,” she smiles, looking at her.

    “Okay, guys, what’s going on? Fill me in here.”

    “Chloe, do you want to tell your father something?”

    Chloe looks up from her plate and turns towards me. “Dad, are you going to leave us?”

    “What?” I pause mid-chew. “What are you talking about?”

    “I don’t want you or Mom to leave anymore.”

    I turn to Daphne. “Did you two already discuss this?”

    Daphne nods slowly, her eyes still on Chloe. “We had a little talk at dinner last night, just us girls.” She reaches out and squeezes Chloe’s hand.

    “Come on, guys. Lighten up a bit. Honey, have you been doing your updates?”

    “I never forget to update. Mom, I’m not hungry anymore. Can I be excused?”

    “Sure. Go finish your homework.”

    After she leaves, her footsteps faded up the stairs, I say, “What the hell’s going on?”

    “She’s tired. Her mind is scattered. I don’t think she knows what she wants, and how could she?” She prods a piece of chicken with her chopsticks, then sips her wine. “Haven’t you noticed that after a while, not everything takes? Little pieces slip through. First a lamp disappears, then a rug, then one day there’s a new door in the hall, opening up into some wing you’ve never stepped into. People are trickier in some ways, but in the end it’s just like finding new doors in your house.” She looks up at me. “Sometimes I feel . . . like a jellyfish, like a jellyfish with impossibly long tentacles, dropping down so far into the abyss you can’t be sure whether or not they have any relation with each other down there in the past, only that you know they connect in the present up above because you can feel them tugging on the bell, but maybe they’re joined in a web if you travel down far enough into the dark, meeting at the vanishing point, or maybe they taper off into nothing without ever connecting.”

    Junctions, I think, realizing what she is requesting is help, but all I can do is chuckle, “Honey, a little weird—”

    “You don’t sense it? Almost like we are living with multiple memory realities where we aren’t whom we say we are, and our family aren’t whom they pretend to be. But then at the same time, we must be, we can’t be anything else than what we say. Otherwise, what else is there? What else can I be? I can’t be connected to so many inconsistent memories, so I have to pretend the others don’t exist. Can you imagine what it’s like for her? What are we doing to her?”

    “She’s updating. It’ll be fine—”

    “She’s too young,” she protests. “Her mind is growing too fast, maybe faster than she can update. What would that mean? Waking up and having outpaced the update? How would that feel? We need to do what’s right for her, for all of us.”




    Later that evening I am sitting on the back porch in the cool autumn air, drinking a beer and reading a paperback thriller from one of the libraries: a vintage amusement. As I read, snippets of what Daphne said suddenly burst out of the darkness like fireworks, and, though I flinch at first, they fade just as fast, ignored by my undeterred mind.

    “Dad? Can I talk to you?”

    I look over my shoulder and find Chloe standing in the doorway, wearing a sweater and jeans. Small for her age, her skin a little too pale, faint bags under her eyes. I’ve never seen her so clearly before as I do now in the dim light.

    “Hmm? What’s up, honey?”

    She approaches, sits down on the wicker chair beside me, and gazes out at the backyard.

    “Dad, I want to go on a Fugue.”

    I choke on my beer and put it down on the side table.


    “A Fugue. I want to do it.”

    “Where did you hear about that?”

    “You know the new girl at school I mentioned?”

    “How could I forget?”

    “She told me. She remembers all of us from before. She says she was a cheerleader here last year. She won second place in the science fair with a tsunami model. I remember Sam did a tsunami model last year, and she got second place for it.”

    “Was Sam a cheerleader too?”

    She nods.

    “Did she tell you what it means to go?” I proceed cautiously.

    She nods. “She says it’s exciting. Everything’s new, but at the same time you remember everything, except it’s not like really remembering. It’s like remembering anew or like a memory from so long ago it feels new. And then when the new becomes old, you move again. That’s what I want.”


    “She says she was finally reunited with her parents.”

    “She sounds a bit melodramatic.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “Overly dramatic.”

    “Oh. She’s popular, even though no one believes what she says. Boys like her.”

    “Well, they like her because—”

    “She’s new.”

    “Honey, forget what she told you about Fugues. Just at dinner you were saying you don’t want us to leave anymore, and now you want to do a Fugue? This is something for grown-ups. One day, maybe after college, you might decide to try it out, and that’ll be fine. If at that time you want to give it a try, I promise you I’ll pay for it.”

    “Except it won’t be you, will it?”


    “It won’t be you when I’m in college.”

    “Well, who else would it be?” I laugh, hearing and denying the falter in my voice.

    She shakes her head, confused. “Someone else, but someone like you. I don’t know.”

    “Hey, don’t talk about your Dad that way,” I say, running my hands through her long blond hair. “You know he loves you. He’ll always be here for you.”

    “I’m not happy here with you and Mom,” she cries, burying her head in her hands.

    I sigh and take a sip of the beer.




    In the morning I update.

    Afterwards I discover Daphne’s spot on the bed empty, still warm. I go down to the kitchen and have eggs and coffee, sitting in the breakfast nook with the paper, looking out over the front yard. More dead dogs across the street today. Even from inside you can start to smell the rot in the air when the wind blows right.

    As I clean the dishes, I notice a post-it from Daphne on the counter: “Took Chloe to get a makeover. Don’t wait up.” Why she would write a note and not just send one is beyond me.

    I proceed to the study and spend several hours working, when my Eye becomes irritated and I feel I must nap before it projects hallucinated memories or other unwanted oddities into my mind.

    I dream my Eye has swollen to the size of an apple, pushing its way oblong out of the socket. I am afraid to touch it for fear of making the obtrusion a reality. Inside, interfacing with my brain like some parasite feeding off its host, is an infected network, wherein live my wives and kids, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all altered by degrees from several prototypes, the real ones perhaps, the originals, sources so ancient, so far removed in time from the present, they seem more like the Eves, Cains and Abels of human genetic memory, and somewhere deeper still in the untested extremes of consciousness they fuse together into something both incoherent and unpleasant in its unattainability .

    The Eye balloons outward even more, and I clench the bed sheets in pain, calling out for Daphne, but she does not respond, pulling away from me and receding to the door where she and Chloe whisper together, their faces growing into blank swaths of flesh. Then long hair sprouts out of the blankness, their chests flatten, their arms and hands, legs and feet invert, till their fronts are their backs, and that is all I can see of them.

    Finally, when the Eye pops in a hot rain of blood and aqueous humor, and the fibrous peels of sclera lash against my face, I scream out once again, except it is no longer Daphne’s name I am calling out for, but some ancient word from a dead language.




    It is dusk when I wake.

    Time for an update. For the first moment in years, I stare at the light blinking in my periphery without immediately reacting, wondering what would happen if I waited and then just continued to wait.

    After a time a lanky, dark silhouette appears in the doorway of my office. My peripheral vision recognizes it as Daphne, but as I turn and as the voice calls out, that perception is shattered.

    “Dad, Mom said dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes,” the boy says in a voice cracking with adolescence.

    I update.




    Tim BoiteauTim W. Boiteau has published stories in a number of journals, including Every Day Fiction, Write Room, Kasma Magazine, and LampLight. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Fiction Open contest. He is currently finishing a PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of South Carolina.




    Audrey Iredale

    What They Don’t Tell You About Cancer

    by Audrey Iredale


    What they don’t tell you about cancer is that some healthcare establishments may not have your best interests at heart. The solutions with the most opportunity for success in your personal situation may not be the most profitable for the medical community.

    Many questions arise after discovery of a life-threatening illness. If you were diagnosed with cancer today, what would be your reaction? Who would you tell first? Would you keep it from your loved ones in an effort to shield them? If you believed your days were numbered, how would you decide to spend them?

    Would you panic or approach the issue with a scientific focus and begin educating yourself about the options? Would you blindly trust doctors to select treatment for you, or would you research different methods and their statistics of success and make your own decisions? Would you look for support from your closest friends and ask for advice, or keep it quietly to yourself? You may think you know how you would react, but a life threatening diagnosis can scare you into doing things you would never contemplate otherwise. What they don’t tell you about cancer is that knowing the answers to these questions before receiving a diagnosis is critical.

    I have experienced this emotional journey from the perspective of being a close relative of the patient. I have watched several people from my family succumb to cancer after conventional treatments failed to save them. Poisoning the body with toxic substances, in an attempt to eradicate cancer cells, does not appear to have a good long term success rate.

    My father suffered a horrible death after receiving chemotherapy and radiation, when I was in my early twenties. I watched him disintegrate from a healthy rock of a man into a frail thin bald apparition of his former self, isolating himself and withdrawing from everything and everyone he loved. I listened to him take his last ragged breath, as I sat with him for hours that turned into days, in the V.A. hospital room on the 5th floor.

    Due to the severe emotional trauma induced by the carnage I had witnessed in close proximity, I decided then and there that I would not submit to extremely invasive and damaging medical procedures if a future cancer was discovered in my body. Throughout subsequent years, I kept a constant vigil of cancer prevention measures and it remained one of my darkest fears.

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2014, I was only three years older than my father’s age, when his monster was discovered. It is a gut-wrenching feeling, when you hear the words. The finality of it crashes down like a boulder. I sat in the hallway outside the imaging suite, still in my hospital gown and cried, feeling more alone than I ever had in my life.

    The truth of your own mortality is overwhelming. What they don’t tell you about cancer is how many extreme states of emotion you will experience, in a very short time span, and how many times you will change your mind about how to handle the situation.

    I found myself faced with many difficult decisions about treatment. Medical advice sounded frighteningly familiar and ultimately unsuccessful. Traditional cancer treatments have evolved into a one-size-fits-all scenario created by a for-profit pharmaceutical industry.

    “Cancer happens to other people,” you lament, “this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.” This wasn’t part of the script in the epic adventure of your life. All plans must change, all dreams are forfeited. Your world will never be the same again.

    The primary concerns, flooding your mind, will be of your children and who will look after them and champion them after you are gone. Even if they are grown up, with children of their own, they were not supposed to be obliged to continue without your guidance and assistance, at least not at this early stage of the game. The sadness is suffocating.

    You firmly instruct your spouse, (through your hiccups and tears) of his vital responsibility to watch over them and support them in your absence. Then you begin to cry uncontrollably, when you think of him, your best friend, who will be left buried in so much debt after you are gone that recovery will be near impossible, and you feel ridiculously helpless.   You have already seen what happens to people as they endure mainstream cancer treatment procedures. You fear that soon, you will no longer be capable of doing physically demanding work. You wonder if, in the near future, you will be able to maintain employment at all.

    Suddenly the realization hits that all future financial projects and expenditures must be of the sort he can pay for and maintain by himself. You begin to initiate estate planning procedures. You explain that now, he must be organized and begin doing more things for himself.

    “Yes dear,” he chirps, rolling his eyes. He drops his shirt and socks on the floor beside the chair and leaving his dirty dishes on the table, shuffles off to watch Family Guy on Netflix.

    You show him where your journal files are kept, in the computer. You tell him that your oldest daughter is to take possession of your data archives and millions of digital photos.

    Then you begin to look at your single friends and imagine planning for your own replacement. Laughing, you tell him, he will be “given to Cindy, or Debbie, or Kathy,” whomever you have deemed worthy to step into your shoes and complement his life.

    “But don’t I get to try her out first?” he laughs, with a playful jab.

    “Not ‘till I am gone,” you frown, wondering if it is such a good idea after all.

    There is a critical need to shed light on some of the events that transpire in the lives of real people who are living with cancer. Many of my own questions went unanswered due to the lack of explicit information available to the general public. I demanded graphic details from medical providers, regarding what would or could happen, in every imaginable scenario. I insisted on being provided with a photograph of the monster upon removal. A full color, life sized print of the primary tumor was produced and contributed by the surgeon.

    However, some of the treatment details were not explained, such as how it really feels when lymph nodes have been removed and your arm fills up with painful fluid, all the way to your wrist, or to lose underarm sensation due to intercostobrachial nerve damage, making it difficult or even dangerous to shave.

    Drawing on the statistics I have seen in my own personal life, I made the extremely difficult decision to reject recommended cancer therapies. It became my primary focus to survive despite the overwhelming odds. I decided if my time on this earth was greatly reduced, I did not want to spend it in my bed, or crawling to the toilet bowl to puke. Cleaning up great chunks of my hair from the shower floor, did not sound attractive. I did not want the elation of six months of remission, followed by the heartbreak of an aggressive onslaught of secondary cancer, brought on by the very radiation used to destroy the remnants of the primary tumor. As a singer and photographer, I could not afford cataracts and vocal cord damage to plague my final hours no matter how brief they may prove to be.

    Already possessing halfway decent research skills, and an impressive arsenal of mental data, regarding nutrition, gained by years of chasing recovery from an emotional eating disorder, I was armed with the necessary tools. Medical personnel spewing frightening statistics from a tunnel-vision perspective, failed to persuade me to submit to their latest forms of torture and permanent mutilation. The surgeon righteously insisted that she must administer some tough-love regarding her recommendation of endocrine therapy and post-surgical radiation. Ultimately, against medical advice, I refused all of the above in favor of less-invasive holistic medicine.

    Futile negotiations commenced with the insurance company to allow coverage for guidance from a naturopathic physician, but I stood my ground and paid out of pocket for the support and validation that told me I was indeed on the right path. Google and I burned the midnight oil for many hours, scouring experimental alternative-healing and specifically targeted nutrition solutions.

    I reflected upon the despised biology course from the past college semester, for knowledge of cell function, mutations and relationships between protein and enzymes. Because cancer cells are a mutation, they do not have the capability of adapting to using fat for fuel. Therefore they can be forced to commit programmed cell-death, by replacing all or most carbohydrates with high quality fats and moderate proteins.

    What they don’t tell you about cancer is that it doesn’t just happen to one person, it happens to whole families. Your significant other, or persons close to you, may disagree with your treatment choices.

    “You should not rule out western medicine,” advises a good friend, and senior histologist of 30 years.

    “I’ll support whatever choice you make,” promises your husband, but when he hears your decision, the fear in his eyes is unmistakable.

    “So you’re just going to DIE!” your daughter shrieks, “Is that it? Then WHAT are the rest of us supposed to do? YOU are the mastermind! YOU are supposed to live ’till you are eighty-something, like HER!” pointing to her grandmother.

    “Well, considering that no one listens to me most of the time anyway, I think you will all be fine,” you accuse.

    “Well, you’re going to need chemotherapy and radiation and your hair will fall out, but maybe it won’t be so bad,” warns your Aunt, matter of factly.

    We’ll see about that.

    Self pity and reclusive tendencies beckon. Some days after work, it is unclear if you are capable of climbing the stairs to your bedroom. You are unable sleep for more than a few hours before awakening with emotional dread or some new physical symptom, whether imagined or legitimate. The mood swings are vicious and agonizing.

    “I can’t do this anymore!” you whimper to your girlfriend, in full melt-down mode after work one afternoon, “Nobody cares if I am dying! And you better not tell anyone at work I am sick, because I could lose my job, if they think I will be a flake and not show up!”

    “I care,” she corrects, “you are just hungry and too afraid to eat.”

    “You’re right, I want to eat an entire extra cheese pizza, WITH crust, but I can’t,” you admit, “so I am going to bed.”

    She stands by you, no matter how rude you have been to her.

    “If we can have solar panels installed at no cost to us, we should do it for the green impact,” admonishes the husband.

    “What do I care about the planet? I’m dying and nobody cares about helping me! I cannot deal with any more stress. I will not tolerate construction crews crawling all over this house!” you snap.

    “I hear ya,” he agrees.

    “I don’t even want to go to work anymore,” you blurt, “what’s the point anyway?”

    “Then don’t go,” he soothes, shrugging.

    You get a little bit of rest and things look different in the morning. You continue working, but the accelerated fatigue at the end of the day is frightening.

    “Let’s buy new furniture!” you squeal, abruptly opening the garage door to startle your husband into dropping a wrench. “We could max out the rest of the credit cards, because you will have to file bankruptcy anyway, after I’m dead!”

    “Ok, whatever you want dear,” he grins.

    Five minutes later you are more interested in figuring out how to pay the latest stack of hospital bills and deciding whose feet are small enough to fit into your outrageously extravagant shoe collection, in case the monster ultimately returns in triumph.

    What they don’t tell you about cancer is that the rest of your life continues, regardless of your physical illness or your mental state, and you must find a way to compartmentalize the emotions and move forward. No matter how healthy you feel right now, or how encouraging your latest test results, evil could be stalking you around the next corner. You will never be free from the shadow.

    Every twinge of pain, every headache, every symptom of any kind strikes a note of terror in anticipation of the monster’s return. The horror of your own mortality is a powerful incentive for change. Efficiency of familiar crutches and comfort mechanisms fade in the face of your predicament. The fact that it is “five o’ clock somewhere” loses its delicious meaning. You can no longer have a Margarita at the end of a stressful day because your body will metabolize the alcohol as sugar and may feed stray cancer cells. You are obliged to eat cold meals at work because using the microwave would compromise the nutritional value of the food, by changing the shape of the proteins.

    Removing as many carbohydrates from your diet, as is possible in a first world setting, eliminates the majority of food cravings. Eventually you begin to lose interest in meals, because most seem to contain one luxury or another that you can no longer afford. You find yourself unable to consume enough calories to support your daily activities. Eating for survival rather than entertainment dominates reality.

    Supplements of raw plant-based protein shakes and concentrated whole-food capsules replace many meals and snacks. Your habits have undergone a drastic makeover. Blood work reveals astounding results. Your cholesterol is down 30 points and tests show no evidence of disease. You may be healthier than you have been in your entire life, as long as you can stay one step ahead of the monster’s encore.

    The distractions of time-consuming guilt-induced activities disperse as survival takes priority.   The weight melts off you by the hour and when you can find energy, you jubilantly dig into the cavernous depths of your closet, finding long lost treasures of clothing you haven’t been able to wear in decades. People remark how good you look.

    At what cost?

    The relief is exhilarating; the renewed hope intoxicating. You decide to document your journey in a blog, utilizing that abandoned domain you bought last year. The posts will contain all the graphic details you had been denied about this most terrifying disease. You will provide others with answers to some of the questions about physical symptoms, making difficult decisions, dealing with family and friends and all the emotional issues that happen along the way.

    If you survive five years or more, the alternative treatments you have selected will be immortalized for those who choose to follow. If you do not live to tell the tale, at least you will have illuminated critical aspects for those behind you on the path.

    What they don’t tell you about cancer is that nothing has really changed. We are all dying from the day we are born and none of us know how long we may dance on this planet. Everyone must seize the opportunity to live in the present and not waste a minute feeling sorry for ourselves. Maybe this year could be the best yet?


    NOTE: Inspiration for this article is credited to Philip Gerard for his essay, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes.” (from Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter. NY: Pearson Longman, 2007. pp 151-156.


    Works Cited

    Campbell, N. Simon, E. Reece, J. Dickey, J. Campbell Biology Concepts & Connections, Seventh Edition. Boston MA: Pearson Education, 2007.

    Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com Take Control of your Health. 16 June 2013. 06 11 2014 <http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/16/ketogenic-diet-benefits.aspx>.

    Moore, Dinty. The Truth of the Matter. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.




    Audrey IredaleAudrey Iredale lives in the beautiful Sonoran Desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and three precious rescued kitties. They have three daughters and two grandchildren. She studied Language Arts at community colleges in California and Arizona and graduated Phi Theta Kappa with a 4.0 GPA. She has been writing and singing since childhood and works in technology manufacturing.



    John Tavares

    Skinny Sister

    by John Tavares


    Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.

    After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.

    The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.

    “How much coffee have you been consuming?”

    She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.

    His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”

    The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.

    At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.

    After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.

    “I need to speak with my mother first.”

    “I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”

    She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”

    “Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

    “Sudden cardiac death?”

    He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”

    After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.

    By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.

    Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.

    Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.

    “She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.

    The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.

    Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.

    “What a waste.”

    “The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.

    Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.

    Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.

    “This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”

    “I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”

    “Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”

    “That’s not true.”

    “You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”

    “You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”

    “You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
    “You’re just being bossy. You love power.”

    “Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”

    Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.

    The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.

    “Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”

    Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.

    Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.

    “I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”

    “You’re still in the right age group.”

    “I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”

    “Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”

    “Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”

    On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”

    “And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”

    “Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”

    “They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”

    “But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”

    “Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”

    “Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”

    “And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”

    “You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”

    “She was the head nurse.”

    “You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”

    “I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”

    “Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”

    “Mom, I want out.”

    “No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”

    “I don’t care about school anymore.”

    “You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”

    Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.

    After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.

    She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.

    As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?

    “Do you want some speed?”

    “I don’t do drugs.”

    “Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”

    “You don’t look like a narc.”

    His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”

    She glared at him.

    “Do you want to mess around?”

    “No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”

    “I’m having my period.”

    “Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”

    He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”

    A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.

    The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.




    John TavaresBorn and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.



    john oliver hodges author

    Ethel’s Mountain

    by John Oliver Hodges


    Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”

    Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.

    Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.

    Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.

    Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?

    In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.

    I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.

    Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.


    “I can dig you a hole,” I said.

    “Are you serious?”

    “Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

    “I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”

    “I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”

    “That doesn’t sound right.”

    “I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.

    Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”

    “How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

    “Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”

    “I’m a woman of the new world.”

    “The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.

    “The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”


    “Don’t listen to me,” I said.

    “Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

    “What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”

    “That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.

    The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.

    It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.

    “They bit you?” Ethel said.

    I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.

    “You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”

    The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.

    “No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.

    “It hurts,” I said.

    “I know.”

    “They attacked me. I was just—”

    “You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.

    “Careful,” I said.

    “The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”

    “I remember Uncle Stanley.”

    “Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”

    “He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.

    “I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”

    “I don’t mind.”

    “Yes, but I do. I mind.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said.

    “You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”

    Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.

    Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.

    “What?” I said.

    “I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”

    “Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”

    “Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”

    I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”

    I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.

    Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.

    Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?

    Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.

    “Can’t say.”

    “You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”

    “Is that Rumi?”

    Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

    “Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”

    Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”



    “Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”

    “I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”

    “So what would you like to do with your life?”

    “Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

    “You’re just like your mother.”

    “No, really,” I said.

    “The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”

    “I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.

    “When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”

    “She wants to be a queen,” I said.

    “You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”

    The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”

    We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”

    “Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”


    “Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”

    “That’s okay,” I said.

    “No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said.

    “You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.

    What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.

    “Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.

    I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”

    “You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”

    “No, no, nothing like that.”

    “Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”

    Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.

    My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.

    As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.

    “There you are,” Ethel said.

    “The one and only.”

    “Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”

    “Sleep sounds good.”

    “Wait a second,” Ethel said.

    “What, what is it?”

    “I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”

    “No, uh uh.”

    Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”

    “I’m sorry,” I said.

    Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”

    “I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

    “Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”

    “No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”

    I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”

    I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”

    “That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”

    “Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.

    “Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.

    Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”

    Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.

    But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”

    “Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”

    “I’d like to give you money.”

    I thought about it.

    “To talk,” he clarified.

    “I see.”

    “You look dead broke,” he said.

    “You wanna talk about what?”

    “I just need voices in my life is all.”

    “My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

    By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.

    “Ouch,” I said.

    He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

    “I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”

    Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.

    “For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”

    “I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.

    I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”

    Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.

    “Pain,” Abby said.

    I sat up. “What?”

    Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”

    “For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”

    “Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.

    “You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”

    Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”

    “Sure,” I said.


    “I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.

    Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”

    “Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?

    “Do you know what a scumbag is?”

    Please don’t do this, I thought.

    “A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”

    “Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.

    Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.

    The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.

    My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.




    john oliver hodgesJohn Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.



    Discordant Song

    by Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper


    My currents defied gravity,
    wallowing fingers of thought
    dazzled the discordant silence,
    washed out the urgency
    and freed themselves.

    I lost the way and my voice
    was just leftover dregs
    and gums bled from grinding,
    tasted only the bitterness of silence.
    An unzipped brain draped
    those tumbled feelings,
    wicked silhouettes brushed
    the corners of my mind
    leaving emotions dulled and murky.

    A fool to not pry thoughts open,
    I never wished them to see daylight.
    Hope struggled in a tight dark space
    in those hours of silence.





    We became attentive to needs that tumbled
    as pale fingers stroked with vibration.

    Efforts were wrapped in extensions
    of ourselves and hands tangled hair
    as we drank with fevered yearning.

    Awareness climbed higher,
    clenched my muscles and passion
    was just a stroke of the brush.

    We linked fingers teasing in their touch
    and my song was a gift of giving
    that burst forth at last.

    What a voyage it was – riding high
    on the crest then slipping over the falls
    into oblivion.






    I wore his anger…
    envisioned my hair smelling of violets

    his words were a windstorm…
    I wanted my voice to break into song

    a tunnel of noise erupted…
    I hungered for the fringe of daisies
    in the meadow

    we lived where continents divided…
    I needed to run and catch
    fireflies to tease my senses

    sound bruised my ears…
    I longed to swim in the patter of rain

    mangled pulses belched…
    I yearned for a warm breeze
    to touch my face.

    An imp of fate alive in a storm drain
    rose – my fury now my cudgel.





    Pieces of me disintegrate
    like flakes of paint,
    shards ground to dust
    devoured into quiet flatness.

    Drops map a path
    weightless and inevitable
    my countenance washed bare.

    The days peel away
    worn and indistinct
    and the ancient pain broods.



    Fall’s Bright Flush


    Wind song flutters
    through clinging leaves

    as they slowly lose their grip
    and are whisked away to strafe
    the windows with pure bright images,
    whisper secrets in my ear
    and breathe sweet smells
    with autumn’s breath
    in the days of dying.

    Fluid breezes brighten
    me and brush away the sound
    that sweeps a faded summer.

    Downy seeds fill the air
    and drop into warm earth
    to lie dormant
    under a forecast of snow

    a sampler of a season
    losing its vibrant flush.



    Sweeping Gestures


    Seasons push us back and forth
    like a giant swing with highs that gleam
    like a crystal cylinder – lows that are
    mud-spattered after long solitude.

    Time’s skin perspires
    long and languorous, wishes tangled
    and leftover dregs blown asunder
    then – up again with a radiating smile
    that blinks away dusk and flickers
    into flame.
    Rain raises its curtain
    and nostrils breathe the splintered air.

    In clear silence and anticipation
    I lean forward with a sweeping gesture
    and bring my song with perfect timing
    toward the fallow season.




    Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper is an active member of the Friends of the Oregon Symphony, an active participant in the Well Arts Institute devoted to mental health, poet-in-residence at The Argonauts’ boat and soldiersheart.org, and is very much a today’s woman.  An astrological Leo, this lady thrives on poetry and music.

    Sharon has been published in ‘lingerings’, Horsethief Journal, Wired Art from Wired Hearts, The Foliate Oak, Painted Poet Literary and Art Journal, Fluid Ink Press, Ophelia’s Muse, Poetry Magazine, Vinland Journal, Poetry Niederngasse, Poetic Reflections, Wilmington Blues,  Rustlings Of The Wind,  Erosha Literary Journal, Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry, The Informant, Short Stuff, Creations of Today,  Mi Poesias E-Zine, Swan Dive, Wicked Alice, Verse Libre, La Rosa Blanca, Muse Whispers, The Circle of Addiction, Sound and Silence Magazine, Mosaic Minds, Sol Magazine, Australian Poetic Society, Poetic Voices, Women Beat Poetic Journal, Epiphany Journal, Ascent Magazine, The Flaneur, L’Intrigue, Tryst, Le Zine Poetique, Maegara, Reflections, Skyline Magazine, Earth Echoes Galleries, Perigee Publication for the Arts, Petals, Subtle Tea, Blue Frederick, The Prose Toad, Interpoetry, The Moonwort Review, Miller’s Pond, Scorched Earth Productions, TMQ OnLine, TPQ OnLine, The Argonauts’ boat, Soldier’s Heart, Mannequin Envy Quarterly, The Other Voices International Project, The Ultimate Hallucination, Poetry Quarterly, Voices In Wartime, International Poetry & Art, Purple Dream, Falling Star Magazine, BluePrint Review, Interpoetry, ‘remark’, Kritya, Cracked Lenses…, Underground Window, Ancient Heart Magazine, Sage Of Consciousness, The Arabesques Review online, Taj Mahal Review, Falling Star Magazine, LYNX, Flutter, Alameda PDX.org,  Stride Magazine and many others.

    Hard copy: The SP Quill Quarterly, In The Eyes Of The Wild, Emerging from Twilight – Vol. 2, Before the Last Shadow Fades, Vol. 3, Panda Poetry Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Battle Stars’, Backstreet Poets Quarterly, Providers in Partnership for Kids, MiPo~Print, WRITE ON!!, Ancient Heart Magazine, Book of Remembrance Poetry Anthology Vol. 2, Peshekee River Poetry, and The Arabesques Review.

    Two e-chapbooks of her poetry, Mood Magic and A Slice Of Life, were hosted by Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry and also archived on Origami Condom. Her chapbook, Reach Beyond, was the winner of the International Chapbook competition by MAG Press. Three poems published in mo(nu)ment, and twenty-three of her poems performed in the play ‘Soldier’s Heart’ to sold out audiences with the performance recorded on DVD. Her latest poems can be found featured in the Summer issue of Poetry Quarterly and also in the October issue of Flutter.