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The Affair of the Bird

by Harli James

            From the third floor window of the lurking mansion, I spied a hulking black form in the distance. I peered beyond the estate grounds, where the forest stretched into farmland and a brown river ran through the valley. And there, the strange figure presented itself—an obscure mass against the spent and shorn cornfields.

            What is that? I wondered. Was it a bird statue? A tall haystack darkened with rain? The form seemed almost chimeric, an absurd creature imbedded in a landscape that was not its own. The other guests were arriving, bumping their luggage down the hallway outside my room. But I could scarcely notice them, and before I knew it, I’d laced my boots and was heading outside for inspection.

            It was necessary to stretch my legs after the long trip down from Boston into these blue ridge mountains. I found that as I ventured further from my home, and the rolling hills of Virginia turned to brown walls of mountain, my chest tightened. The topography looked like heavy blankets bunched against the sky, and my head grew dizzy with acrophobia. I’d consoled myself, believing that once I arrived at this conference with the other botanists, the grounding of science and intellectual discussion would cure me.

            As I walked along the damp path I felt myself subsumed by the landscape, hemmed in by the loping river on one side and the open fields on the other, where a few rows of dead cornstalks remained. I reminded myself I had to be back shortly for dinner. Though when I’d first arrived, a steady drizzle pelting my collar and my bags deposited at my feet, the staff informed me that my hosts would not be attending the conference.

            “I regret to inform you that your hosts were called away on a family emergency,” the woman at the door had said, her cheeks bitten pink with cool air. “But I assure you the week’s activities will not be interrupted. The staff has been instructed to carry on the workshop as planned.”

            When I stepped inside the home a stunning marble stairwell spiraled upstairs to my left. To my right was a conservatory—a room chock full of plants where in the center stood an over-sized onyx sculpture that resembled a large, leering bird.

            “Your name, sir?” the woman asked with a slight southern lilt.

            “Edwin Carver,” I said, self-conscious of the rain dripping from the hem of my coat onto the polished floor.

            “Mr. Carver, I’ll show you to your room.”

            As we ascended the stairs, I glanced another attendant scurrying to open the door. A rush of sweet, wet air lifted through the stairwell as the guest stepped inside. Her boot entered first, a pointed toe and silver buckles, then the rim of her hat. She was probably one of just a few women attending this botany conference. As I rounded to the top step she looked up, and I caught her lovely eye.

            I was looking forward to meeting her and the other guests at dinner. But without our hosts, I wasn’t sure if it would be much of a formal affair. We were all just botanists here after all, not dignitaries. There were no Rockefellers among us. A hunk of bread and jam with hot coffee was enough for me on a damp evening like this.

            The nip in the air cut through my jacket, and I decided I should turn back, but just then a black mass caught my eye. An enormous dark figure sat—or stood—in the middle of the field. I jerked to a stop. It was a gigantic black bird. It was taller than a man, nearly ten feet as it perched.

            “Dear God,” I muttered. The thing was preposterous. Too afraid to take a step closer, I strained my eyes and jutted my neck. I tried to transform the vision into something more plausible. Could it be a large water trough for cows? A grain bin? Perhaps some type of irrigation system? I stared, heart banging, and tried to believe it was farm equipment. But, no, it was a bird.

            The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and a melancholy gold had cast through the gloom. A gleam of rifted feathers textured the side of the bird. Yes, they were definitely feathers. Again, I transfigured the image in my mind. It was too still to be alive. I wondered why they’d put a statue in a cut-down cornfield, but it was the only possibility.

            The air felt suddenly cold, and the evening was growing dark. I rushed away from the statue back down the path I’d taken. My legs moved briskly, but I couldn’t shake the unease of having the giant figure behind me. I glanced backward.

            Its head swiveled toward me, a lone eye in my direction. I shrieked. Its sheer size! The wings it bore! Those scaly feet that could slice a heart! As I barreled away from it, I couldn’t help but look back. Its wings expanded a shocking width. The great bird raised into the air, lifting in my direction.

            I stumbled forward, arms out to protect myself from a fall. The great bird soared overhead, its draft bearing down on me. Then it surpassed me and flew over the trees and out of sight. I raced back to the side door of the house and slipped in, shaking but unnoticed. I careened to my room, slammed the door behind me, and fell against it, heaving and bewildered.

            An hour later I had composed myself enough to join the group in the dining room. I had spent the last hour gathering my wits and putting on dinner attire with shaking hands. I felt like a mad man trying to make normal.

            A long table ran the length of the room, punctuated by a giant stone hearth with a blazing fire. With luck, the woman I had seen arrive earlier sat across from me. Her eyes were slightly askew, and she had an unusually strong jawline, but nevertheless was pretty enough that she was hard to look at.

            “It’s a beautiful place, don’t you think?” she said. “The isoprene really does make the mountains look blue.” She placed her hand beside her mouth as if to reveal a secret. “Though I did feel a bit queasy driving in through the twists and turns.”

            “I too had a difficult ride in.” I reached for the salt but knocked it over with the back of my hand. She picked up the shaker, offering it to me. The tips of her fingers brushed mine, and I was seized with attraction. “However, I got some fresh air during a walk around the estate,” I said as I over-salted my soup. I stole a furtive look at her, embarrassed somehow of her asymmetrical beauty. She had slight lines around her eyes, which had probably spent as many hours peering through a microscope as mine had. She bore no ring on her finger.

            “I walked a bit myself this afternoon,” she said, “around the back of the home. Did you go far?”

            “I made it down to the river. The landscape makes a subtle shift in the valley.”

            “Did you see any notable specimens?” She sipped a spoonful of broth.

            I racked my brain, trying to blot out the bird and focus on the plant life. “Loblolly pines and a couple of Carolina Hemlocks.” The names of other plants I might have seen escaped my mind. “I suppose I was distracted and didn’t explore very closely.” I felt my cheeks flush.

            “It would be easy to get distracted in such an unusual place. I imagine a long walk on the grounds would provide much to see. There’s plenty of time for documentation later this week.” Her warmth settled my frayed nerves. “I think it’s because it’s such an unusual place,” she continued. Her hair was plaited to the side, and the shadows from the dinner candles created darkness below her eyes. “It’s almost mystifying.” Her words felt heavy with meaning.

            “Indeed.” I attempted to convey a similar sentiment. “Almost peculiar.”

            Her face lit up. “Yes! Peculiar. This place is gloomy, and well,” she leaned toward me, “I know the estate is renowned for its botanical specimens, but I saw animals too. Do you know if they have a breeding program?” She lifted her glass to drink, as if to take the place of her words.

            Had she seen the bird as well? If not, I didn’t want to mention it and have her think me a lunatic. I considered my response a moment too long. 

            “Evening,” the man next to her butted in with a solid western twang. “I’m Bennett. I couldn’t help hearing your conversation.”

            “Hello, I’m Rebecca. And this is,” she hesitated.

            “Edwin,” I said, running my hand against the back of my head. The stiff tangle of my too-long black hair brushed against my neck. This Bennett was dashing. He loomed over Rebecca in a familiar way—the way these sorts of men do.

            “I took in the grounds by horse today,” he said. “I saw the wildest creature down by the river. A bird so large I could barely believe my eyes!”

            Rebecca jumped in her seat. “I saw it too!”

            “That bird?” said a man two seats down, a pair of pince-nez glasses firmly in place. “I’m glad someone else saw it. That thing was downright abominable!”

            “Perhaps they are studying ornithology here?” asked one of the other women.

            “It’s Frankenstein stuff. Genetic manipulation,” said the bespectacled man.

            A frail-looking man next to me interjected, “Your eyes must have deceived you! It’s the altitude.” He swept his hand across his brow, as if exhausted.

            “You’re all trying to reason it!” a blustery man with a bow-tie bellowed from the end of the table. “We scientists demand rationality in everything, but there are dark forces in the world that can’t be explained.”

            The table fell into an awkward silence until the man with glasses broke the tension. “Nonsense,” he said, slamming his fist on the table.

            The room erupted in a jumble of conversation. Rebecca was at the center of it, engaging each new observer. The moment had been ours, but it had vanished in the cacophony of voices. I sunk back, shaken by my own encounter with the bird. I couldn’t reason it. We were scientists. We couldn’t be taken by fantastical ideas that had no empirical merit. The more the bird din grew, the more I wanted to slink away from it. My body stiffened with discomfort.

            Before long the porcelain bowls of soup grew cold. The staff brought plates of pheasant and soft potatoes. I searched their faces for signs of secret or worry, but detected nothing.

            After dinner the group retired to the billiard room. Rebecca perched in a chair, drinking from a crystal glass. The light from a nearby lamp reflected gold in her hair. She had the studious look of a botanist, but her arms and hands had the softness of milk and honey.

            My boots still had a little mud from the estate on them. I had not brought a change of shoes for dinner. My jacket was rumpled. I knew I was not to her standards.

            “Edwin!” she waved me over with a smile that overlooked my shortcomings.

            I crossed the room. Through the muted air, matches scratched to light cigars and billiard balls tapped one another. The chair she sat in was covered in a patterned fabric, and when I sat next to her I noticed the unravelling of the seam in the upholstery, a trail of thread hanging down.

            “I wanted to ask you at dinner,” she said, “is your last name Carver?”

            “Yes,” I said eagerly. Did she know my work?

            “I’ve read your articles in Botanist Quarterly! You’re brilliant!” Her eyes flecked with excitement.

            A desperate warmth rushed through me. “That’s kind of you, but I’m not—”

            “Don’t be humble,” she interrupted. “I’ve been an admirer of your work for years. I live just outside the Boston area too. We’re practically neighbors! We should meet sometime after this retreat to discuss our work.”

            It struck me then—she should be my wife. We’d sit in the parlor after dinner reading scientific article togethers, laugh at the new-fangled ideas, and seriously discuss our own studies. Yes, she was the perfect woman for me, the pink of her lip, the slightly askew eyes, a too-square jaw line that made her just less than exquisite.

            “Yes, I’d like that,” I managed. “And how has your evening been?”

            “Well,” she leaned in, “some of us were talking in the powder room about this bird. The group sitting at the far end of the table during dinner know what’s going on.”

            “They do?”

            “The poor creature is a captive!” She was flush with the secret.

            I felt my eyebrows turn down. “I can’t imagine that’s the case,” I countered.

            “No, it is! Each one of us saw it in a different location, each time tethered with a chain on one of its legs. Someone on staff must have been instructed to move it to and fro, like feeding a cow, or a goat. It probably eats bugs and worms. Can you imagine what it would take to feed that beast?”

            “I saw it fly,” Bennett boomed from behind me. “It wasn’t chained.” His evening jacket fit stiffly over his wide frame and his hair was slicked back.

            “You did not!” said Rebecca, perturbed.

            “I most certainly did.” He stood in front of us.

            Rebecca glared at him and then turned back to me. “We’re going to do something about it.”

            Bennett laughed and shook his head. “You can’t do anything about it.” He swirled the ice in his glass. “It’s foolish to tangle with wild creatures. You all should just let it alone.”

            I couldn’t shake the chill of the bird’s draft when it flew over me that afternoon. It had not been captive, and it had chosen a flight path directly over my head, as if a threat. I wanted nothing to do with it, whatever it was.

            Rebecca crossed her arms and looked away. I didn’t want to think of her as a person given to fantastical notions. But too, shame flickered within me. How could this woman be so bold to be willing to get involved in the affair of a beast twice her size? I looked at my hands and thought of the years spent turning pages, studying the physical world, and suddenly I couldn’t bear the question of how Rebecca viewed me. So I excused myself for bed. But as I left the room, I felt her eyes on me.

            That night, I slept fitfully. A few hours in, I heard a whisper in the hallway, then footsteps. The covers tangled at my waist and I fought to remove them. I stepped onto the cold wood boards with my bare feet. The moon through the window lit the room enough to find my pants on a nearby chair. I slipped them on and pressed my ear against the door.

           More footsteps trod down the hallway, and then came a timid knock. As I turned the knob I imagined Mr. Bird on the other side, head cresting the threshold, beak careening down at me. Shivers ran down my arm as I opened the door. But it was Rebecca.

            “May I speak to you a moment?” she asked. I imagined her inspecting my wild hair that must have stuck out like Albert Einstein.

            I stepped into the hallway. “Is anything wrong?”

            “One of the men found the bird chained in the stable. The poor creature! It’s just cruel.”

            “We don’t even know what it is.”

            “Yes, but it doesn’t belong here. Perhaps it belongs up north in the icebergs.  Keeping it here is unnatural. It’s not right.”

            “I saw the thing fly. It’s not captive. If it wants to leave, it will.”

            “We’re going to set it free.” Heat emanated from her. She smelled like wet leaves and night air.

            “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

            “Birds don’t live in stables,” she said.

            “Birds don’t grow that large!” I put my hand on her arm. “Rebecca, please, don’t go down there.”

            The faint light of the moon allowed me to see the outline of her cheek and the fine frame of her hair, a few strands standing out from her head. The smell of her, the fire in her cause, it rushed on me and I pulled her toward me, surprised by how easily she drew in. In a second her lips were on mine. I kissed her brazenly, and she reached her arms around my back. But then she stepped away.

            The darkness in the hall pulsated between us. The brief encounter left me puzzled by the elephantine emotion I felt for this woman standing in the hall, asking me to join her on a dangerous nocturnal mission. Was she goading me? Was I a fool? My chin trembled.

            “Please come with me,” she said between breaths.

            I considered it, imagined us creeping to the stable with a group of botanists to release the man-sized bird. But I couldn’t do it.

            “The creature can manage itself.” I was resolute.

            She stepped away from me. “Then why have it chained in the stable now? It’s unconscionable to stay here as guests and condone this cruelty. If you won’t help me, so be it.” She spun around and marched down the hallway.

            My voice caught in my throat. I wanted to call her name, but nothing came. The fabric of her dress ruffled through the dark. I sank back against the wall as a chill spread through my heart. Footsteps to the far left revealed someone coming out of the shadows, perhaps from the servants’ stairwell. I stiffened.

            “They think that damn bird is trapped,” said Bennett, stepping into view. “They’re going to get hurt.”

            I looked back down the long hall toward the emptiness where Rebecca had departed.

            Bennett continued, “These people are crazy. I heard them conspiring after dinner. They got no idea what that bird’s capable of. One time, when I was traveling out west for work, I had a nightmarish encounter with a gila monster. You ever seen one of those things?”

            I shook my head. A draft came through the hallway, and I imagined air wafting up from the door downstairs as Rebecca stepped outside.

            “My crew wouldn’t pay me any mind when I told them to watch out for them suckers. I tied my sleeping hammock between two Joshua trees, but the rest of the men slept on the ground. Sure enough I woke to one of them screaming, I mean screaming like hell. I nearly fell out of my hammock trying to turn on my flashlight. A gila monster had bit the toe clean off one of my men!”

            The sweetness of bourbon on Bennett’s breath drifted toward me. “It’s best not to interfere with wild animals,” I said.

            “There was blood all over our damn camp. You wouldn’t believe it. I mean it looked like a war zone. The guy was screaming and hopping around. I wanted to puke when I saw blood smeared all over the place, and Joe leaping around with nine toes and a hole at the end of his foot. God!”

            “Should we stop them, then?” I asked.

            “The guy finally passed out. That’s how the screaming stopped.”

            “Let’s go stop these folks.”

            “I’m not getting involved. They’re idiots.” Bennett turned and shuffled down the hallway.

            My heart pounded as I returned to my room. I peered out the window again, as if I’d be able to see the bird through the darkness. Though fearful, I was gripped by a need to stop Rebecca and cage this madness. My hands clutched the window sill. Wet night fogged against the glass panes. Epiphanies are rare. They require the carved grooves of our beliefs to slacken, and for us to admit we’d been wrong. It requires us to relearn ourselves, but it happened. I realized right then, I’d been lonely for years. I’d only been pretending to be saved by science.

            I laced up my boots and did not recognize my fingers as they worked. When I reemerged into the hallway my legs moved on their own accord. What am I doing? I thought as I descended the stairwell. This was madness, but I was compelled to stop Rebecca from engaging in an act that might get her kicked out of the house—or worse, hurt.

            At the foot of the stairs, plants loomed in the conservatory, like arching arms embracing the foul bird statue that stood there. I wanted to return to comfort of my bed, but instead I slipped out the front door and down the stone steps.

            The enormous front lawn spread bluish-green before me. The moon was at its full power as I traversed the grounds toward the stable, a sense of indignation rising in me. It was foolish of Rebecca to vex a wild animal about which she knew nothing.

            The fact that I was out in the cold in the middle of the night to stop this crew of vigilantes drew my ire. How inconsiderate of them! Rebecca had seemed bright and warm in the house, but the memory of our clandestine kiss faded as I grew angrier with each step.

            My feet crunched through gravel. What kind of woman kissed a man for no good reason in a hallway? We’d just met! It was improper. True, I had initiated it. But it was as if I was under some spell—her hair and the cloaked darkness outside my room. Now we had to spend an awkward week together. And had Bennett seen us?

            Outside the stable, three people stood—the two men who had been standing in the corner of the billiard room earlier, and Rebecca. I cleared my throat.

            “Ed! You came!” The curl of Rebecca’s voice constricted my breathing.

            “I came to stop this madness.”

            One of the men stepped forward. “It’s already in motion. Frank here has located the key to the bird’s shackles, and Veronica is standing watch at the barn.”

            “Why are you doing this? Leave the thing alone.”

            “This bird deserves its freedom!” he said. “The Society of Botanists could find out we sat idly by while it was held captive. And if that’s not enough for you, consider the risk to our own lives if we agree to stay here for a week in its presence. It’s safer to let it go under our watch than allow it do God knows what.”

            “Have you seen it?” The man with the bow-tie at dinner stepped forward. His pasty complexion shone queer in the moonlight.

            “Yes. It flew right over me earlier today,” I said. “It paid me no attention.”

            “It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s something grand, something,” he turned to a whisper, “special.”

            I recoiled. Everyone looked greenish in the dark, the whites of their eyes flecking anxiously, as if they’d all been transfixed with the notion that unleashing the beast was an inevitable course of action no matter the consequences. The key dangled in Frank’s grip and my palm itched for it. I told myself that I could grab it and run away with it, but some alternative course furrowed through my mind—an image of myself unlocking the barn door. I shivered.

            Frank leapt forward, wild-eyed. “Let’s go!”

            “No!” I murmured, but my voice was weak.

            The crew headed to the stable but Rebecca hung back, re-examining me for a brief moment. I managed a step backward toward the house, still hoping we might leave this calamity together. But as I did, Rebecca turned and darted toward the stable.

            Muffled, disorganized voices emitted from the barn. Someone shouted and a chain clinked. I imagined them crowding around the bird and wondered which of them would be brave enough to approach it and handle the lock—they could be pecked to death. I was angry at Rebecca, that reckless activist, for putting me in this position. But I couldn’t compel myself to leave.

            A great fluttering came from the barn, like the sound of ship sails whipping in a storm. Rebecca cried out. I ran toward the stable in a frenetic attempt to save her. But just as a I did, a wild shuttering sounded and the stable doors burst open.

            The enormous bird erupted from the dark interior, lumbering to exit the confines of the doorway. It shot into the night, its wings flinging open, knocking me down. The men and Rebecca stumbled from the stable after the bird, which careened past the bare Dogwood trees.

            “You stupid people!” I screamed, jumping up. The men stopped, seemingly satisfied that the bird was free and could choose its own course, but Rebecca chased after it. She tore through the field, following the low-flying bird.

            How could the bird keep the enormous burden of its body lifted at such a slow speed? Rebecca could be crushed under its weight if it stopped.

            “Rebecca!” I yelled. I hated her at that moment.

            I sprinted after her. The wretched woman darted through the grass. As I followed, the uneven surface roughed my ankles, and shoots clawed at my pant legs. Rebecca was like a dark apparition in the moonlight, her green dress a thrash of fabric through the pasture.

            The bird was just ahead of us, its massive wingspan lording overhead, plodding and slow relative to Rebecca’s wild flailing. She reached her hand out to pluck its feathers—whether to stop it, or possessed by some madness to have a piece of it, I don’t know.

            I lunged for her, filled with disgust for this woman, readying myself to take her down and lash out at her for all of her moral failings. How dare she put me in this position?

            My fingertips touched the fabric of her dress just as her hand reached the oily feathers of the bird. I cinched my grasp on her gown, yanked her back, and saw her hand slip away from the bird, clutching a handful of feathers.

            We tumbled, my body lurching toward hers, and her body, stopping in mid-run, spooled back by my hand. We landed with a thump on the scratchy ground.

            “Oof,” she said when she fell.

            I toppled over her, rolling to the side, my body crashing on the cold ground. I dropped my hand and it fell on top of her arm. When I felt her skin, warmth jolted through me. I remembered the touch of her arms around my back in the hallway.

            The bird flew on, rising steeply in elevation. I remembered the sound her dress made when she walked away from me.

           The giant bird was far away now, black against the black sky, almost unseen. My hand still rested on Rebecca’s arm as we caught our breath. In that mad dash, how had I forgotten who she was? She was lovely. She was imperfectly lovely. She was the woman with the jaw line that was a little too strong, falling just short of exquisite

* * *

      The little courtyard behind my cottage is small, but private. Ivy clings to the tall brick walls. Ferns bush in the corners and Snowdrop Anemone edge the back perimeter. The shining crown, however, is my gilded bird cage. Its ornate door is embellished with a portico, and the runged dome gleams in the sun.

“Hello my sweet,” I say, offering a palmful of food through the sunlit bars.

She nips the kernels I’ve dropped at the bottom of her cage. She preens her feathers, which with careful study, one can see are truly forest-green, especially beneath the clear sky, which jewels above. She tends to her grooming studiously, one eye on her plumage, another on me.

When her back is to me, the silky luxuriance of her feathers calls to my fingertips, and I hazard a touch. Just as I grasp the texture of them she jerks around, and I retract my hand. Her glare is impenetrable.

“There, there,” I console her. “You’re safe here.”

She ruffles, and I decide this is understanding, though her eye is sharp. In truth, there is sharpness every where—the clinch of the talons, the curve of the beak, the square-like shape of her head.

I tug on the lock to test its surety, then step back and take in my sanctuary. The molting of her feathers gather in the crevices of the walkway and bunch at the flowerbeds. My garden is complete, and even the Lily of the Valley have grown beautifully this year.


BIO

Harli James is a writer living in Asheville, NC. Her stories have been published in Jabberwock Review and Bangalore Review. Her hometown is known for the grand Biltmore Estate, and one time while visiting, she saw a watering trough that she could have sworn was a large bird.




Pretty Boy

By Nina Shevzov-Zebrun

           Pretty boy, oh the number of times I’ve been called pretty boy. Sounds arrogant but causes me such problems. It’s a blessing to be attractive don’t get me wrong but it’s also a plague. I watch my movements because I’m always being watched and held to higher standards. Women assume the worst no matter what and the divide grows. In reality my intentions are just like yours. I try to wake up and feel good and keep my insides from squirming out of my mouth. But no matter what, as I’ve said, women assume I’m triple dipping or a player or an eat and run. Those facts aren’t true at all most days.

           As you might imagine, all these assumptions get in the way of finding a relationship and that’s unfortunate. If I do catch a partner it’s always short-lived. She says it’s hard to trust me and calls my friends to tell them all her assumptions. I end up distrusting those I trusted. Jealousy motivates them to undermine me and I lose so many this way. They leak a secret or make my private public. And all because of assumptions about me a pretty boy with a faithless cold heart. If you know me well then you know I’m the complete opposite.

           I thought for instance Martha knew me. I bought her a watch and a sunflower for her birthday, but it turns out she was just dating me for my hair. My blonde hair gets attention that’s for sure especially because I’m tall. Martha was with me for two months, but then said it could never be serious and the only options in life are marriage or breakup, so breakup it was. I know she chose that option because of her assumptions about me which as I’ve made clear are wrong.

           I tried to get her back and can you believe it she called the police. She told them I was following her, another gross assumption, when in reality I was giving her the attention she deserved. The police brought me to the hospital because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I don’t think the officers had any assumptions so they treated me fair. The doctors asked me some questions, and I could see how they looked at me especially the female one with the wider hips making the scrub pants tight in good places. She was looking at my hair when she told me she’d keep me for twenty-four hours for observation to observe me. I can take anything for a day so I did what she wanted. I drank the apple juice and ate the turkey sandwiches and wore the blue gown and watched the patients. I tried not to make assumptions about them. Even about the guy crawling around the floor removing his underwear and licking the door handles because maybe he’s just misunderstood too and people are jealous.

           After one day the doctors held up their bargain and let me out. I went back to Martha because obviously she deserved my kindness despite all her wrong assumptions about me a pretty boy. I found her in the kitchen pouring a bowl of Cheerios and I grabbed her and smashed her against the counter. I told her she was wrong about me and that pretty boys can be serious loving and loyal. She asked me to let go but I needed her to believe me so I kept her down and breathing hard for a while. When I freed her kindly she tried to call the police again. Can you believe it? But I left before anyone could catch me and went back to the hospital to find my favorite doctor.

           By now that doctor definitely had assumptions about me as people always do. She probably thought I was with another woman. But like I said, I mostly only go for one woman at a time. I asked the doctor if she could trust me. She said of course because I had eaten the turkey sandwiches like I was told. This was a good sign so I sat on the floor outside her office waiting for her to be off work. Doctors passing by gave me and my hair jealous looks. One of them tried to undermine me as usual with an injection of something, probably to turn my hair black like his. I grabbed the stuff and stabbed him instead and he went to sleep. He was a pretty boy too, I decided. I locked my pretty hands around his pretty neck and thought of what Martha or my favorite doctor would think if they could see me now. I bet their assumptions would change. I bet they would think I was an ugly boy, trustworthy and so easy to love. 


BIO

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun grew up in Northampton, MA. She attended Deerfield Academy and Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 2016. She is currently a medical student at New York University, where she recently completed a fellowship in the Medical Humanities. She is happiest living at the intersection of medicine and art.



The Woman in the Window

by Flora Jardine

            Mike kept telling his acquaintances that the new house was fine.

            “How’s the new house?” everyone asked.

            “Fine,” said Mike.

            The neighbourhood was nice, the garden cute and the rooms spacious, Marla had told him on the phone. She and her mother found the house while he was working abroad. They had already discussed the need for a bigger house, what with the twins growing so fast, and then Marla found one.

            “It will be perfect,” she and her mother told him. They sent pictures of course. Many pictures.     

            “Fine,” he said. Then they sent documents. He signed them and sent them back.

            Now they had moved in. Sophie, Marla’s mother, had her own “quarters” downstairs.

            “Just be glad it’s not her own ‘halves’,” Marla joked. Sophie’s investment, of course, had made the purchase possible.

            “I don’t want to hang on to a big house of my own at my age,” Sophie had said. “Inter-generational consolidation makes sense for all of us.”

            Inter-generational consolidation, thought Mike: good phrase. Sophie was good at coming up with le mot juste.

            Marla went along with whatever her mother said. Marla was too busy with the four-year-old twins to give much thought to everything else as well. The world outside, which used to contain places that were real to her, was now mere scenery, a set for the drama of the twins’ growing up. She found stage-managing four-year-olds demanding enough, without bothering with the world.

            When Mike finished the contract in Germany, the house was theirs. The others had already moved in. It took Mike weeks to find all the rooms, meandering around when his wife, kids and mother-in-law were out. So many alcoves, bathrooms, walk-in closets, utility rooms …

            “The sitting room has a wonderfully dynamic ceiling,” said Sophie, which to Mike sounded exhausting. He tended to avoid the sitting room.

            “Which room do you want for your studio?” asked Marla.

            It took him a few weeks to decide. He was a commercial artist, an illustrator working mainly from home. One day he found the small guest bedroom tucked away behind a walk-in linen closet in the upstairs hallway. It looked out over the back yard.

            “Here” he said. This felt separate from the rest of the house, a quiet place to work in, with a pleasingly un-dynamic ceiling.

            He moved his tilted work-table upstairs, placing it beside the window where the light was good. He put the computer behind him and the printer in the corner. In the other corner was a sink and counter top. “A dear little place for you to make coffee,” said Marla. She bought him a little portable fridge as an office-warming present.

            They had moved in during early fall, before the leaves had done any falling. At first Mike looked straight into the leafy crown of a tree outside his studio window, but gradually its leaves shrivelled and fell, slowly revealing a view of the back of the house behind theirs. Like theirs it had two stories and tall gabled roof lines. It faced the street one over from Mike’s street. He looked across the gardens toward a sundeck which no one used. There was a carport to the left but no car was ever parked there. No one, during this chilly blustery autumn, ventured from the house into the back garden, and the windows were heavily curtained. That suited Mike well; he had no need of distractions from neighbours while at work in his studio.

            There was one window however which was often lit up, a small one at the corner of the second floor. Framed within he often saw the silhouette of a female figure. When daylight faded in the late afternoon the glow of a single lamp appeared, and he could make out the figure’s head bent over a book. Mornings, when daylight came from the other direction, the woman was reading again. Mike when he arrived in his studio each morning, coffee mug in hand, would check that she was there. She always was. Sometimes she too held a mug, and sometimes what looked like a pen. Always a different-sized book: sometimes a paperback held in one hand, sometimes something heavy, propped up in front of her. Mike became distracted by curiosity. What did she read that so absorbed her, day after day? She never looked up, never noticed him in the window of the house behind hers. Poetry, he decided. She’s  carried off by the enchantment of verse into realms far from the ordinary world.

            Woman Reading, as Mike began to call her, seemed oblivious to the world. Woman Reading didn’t know that Mike existed. She lived in some other, literary place. Was she a scholar? A book reviewer? Her pale hair fell like a curtain over the side of her face as she bent over the pages, and he couldn’t make out whether she was young or old.

            One day the woman in the window in a sudden gesture swept her hair up on top of her head, and as far as he could tell at a distance she seemed young-ish. Early middle age perhaps? Whatever that is, thought Mike. What counts as middle-aged today? It used to be forty, now it was sixty. This woman looked about forty, but could be twenty. Or sixty. The age question mesmerized Mike. “But why?” he asked himself briskly, getting back to the tasks at hand. I’ve got my own work to do, I can’t be worrying about a phantom figure in a window all day.

            Yet he began to sketch her, in the middle of assignments he should be getting on with. He thought that by sketching quickly, not thinking too much, the act of drawing would reveal the woman’s age, and character. I’m becoming obsessed, he chided himself.

            “How did your work go today?” Marla asked conversationally at dinner. “The illustrations for the children’s book. About knights and towers, wasn’t it?” The twins were rocketing around, spilling food and arguing with each other. Sophie took her meals in her own “quarters”, when she was at home. Usually she was out. “She’s acquired a gentleman caller,” said Marla.

            “Not bad,” said Mike about his day. In fact he might have said: I spent the day staring at a woman in a window, wondering what she was reading … But to Marla he said nothing about Woman Reading. He had made a ridiculously large number of sketches of her, which he kept hidden in a folder in a drawer.

            He liked to take a walk around the neighbourhood each day about noon. He often walked along the street fronted by the house behind him, but he never saw anyone coming or going. Once he even rang the front door bell, just to get the woman in the window to come down and show herself. He had made up a story about searching for his missing cat – had she seen it? — but she didn’t answer the doorbell. Yet he knew she was up there in the second floor back room, he had seen her silhouette before he went out and it was still there when he got home.

            So, a recluse. A person who lived wholly in books, in stories other than her own, which was the story of a woman living alone (alone?) in a big house, never going out, apparently not employed. Mike became daily more intrigued. Winter came on. No leaves remained on the tree between them, and then one day something amazing happened. Woman Reading looked up, and gazed straight into Mike’s eyes. Immediately he glanced away, surprised and guilty, as if he had been spying. When he dared to steal another glance, she was looking down again, her eyes on the page in front of her.

            Had he been spying, these last two months? Had she been more aware of him than she let on? If she didn’t like it, why didn’t she pull her blinds? If she had clocked his observation, would she consider him a “stalker”? Would she call the police, one day? Suddenly Mike was nervous. Had he indeed been, mentally, a stalker? Harmless of course, a casual observer. But an obsessed one? And was she obsessed with being on show?

            Maybe he should draw his own curtains. But then she would wonder why he did that the very day their eyes had finally met. It would seem like an admission of something — but what? Mike was rattled; everything had changed in a moment. Now he and Woman Reading seemed to have a relationship. The space across their two gardens had shrunk. Now they sat together — yet not. Mike was finding it hard to concentrate on his work, and with several projects coming due this was not convenient.

            “How’s the kids’ book illustration coming along?” asked Marla at dinner.

            “Fine.”

            The twins pressed their current favourite animal-tale book upon him with two sets of sticky hands. “Read this book Daddy! Read this one!”

            “Stop that!” Mike leapt from the table, “Get your sticky hands off me will you? Stop jabbering in my ear, I haven’t even finished my dinner. Marla, why don’t you tell these ruffians to sit down at dinner time?”

            “Michael!” Marla stared at him. “What’s the matter with you? You’re so distracted, you never speak, okay fine if you don’t want to speak to me but don’t you dare be cruel to the children …” She was on the brink of tears as she gathered up the twins, their books and toys and bits and pieces, and swept them out of the room.

            Cruel? She was calling him cruel, for wanting a bit of peace? Did she really mean that he was cruel not to the twins but to herself, by being moody and remote? Better make amends, he thought.

            He got Sophie to babysit one night, and took Marla out to dinner.

            “No need for that,” Marla had said, I like being at home with the kids, why don’t we have pizza in the family room, watch a movie the kids will like, a Disney movie …?”

            “Marla, I’m taking you out for dinner, okay? To a restaurant. With no Disney movie.”

            “Okay, fine then,” she said.

            In the candle-light, twirling his wine glass, Mike made an effort to be chatty. The wine made him expansive. “Why don’t we have a few neighbours over?” he suggested. “Have you met any of them yet? Do you know who lives in the house behind us?”

            “I’ve met a few. The ones two doors down have kids, a bit older than the twins but I had them over to play. The mom seems nice. And on the other side of us is a sweet retired couple, Meg and Bill. They’ve lived here for decades, they know everyone.”

            “And who lives behind us?”

            Marla frowned. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone behind us. No, wait … that’s the person Meg was telling me about … a woman lives there who keeps to herself, she’s really stuck up, has a gardener doing the lawn, a cleaner doing the housework. Pretends she hasn’t seen you when she does go out. Takes taxis everywhere.”

            “You seem to have learned a lot about her. Is she much discussed, then?”

            “I guess so … she has a certain fame.”

            “For what?”

            Marla shrugged. “Nothing really.”

            “So, famous for having no fame.”

            “Whatever.”

            Woman Reading seemed even more intriguing to Mike when next he studied her profile in the window. It seemed her crime – the thing which made the world dislike her – was to keep to herself. Maybe she had agoraphobia. Maybe she preferred the world of the mind, of books, to the social one. How can I figure out a way of meeting her, he wondered? Or why don’t I get on with my work, he thought next, dragging his attention from the silhouette.

            He didn’t have long to wait before he got more information. At dinner Marla said “Oh by the way Mike, remember that woman Meg told me about who lives behind us? It seems the police were at her house yesterday. An officer went right inside, came out twenty minutes later. I wonder why?”

            “Didn’t Meg have a theory?”

            “Well yes, actually. She thinks the woman’s a paranoid schizophrenic who called the cops to discuss some slight she thinks she suffered. She doesn’t like anyone so I guess she thinks no one likes her.”

            “And is Meg right?” Mike doubted Meg even knew what paranoid schizophrenia meant, but it was a phrase often in the media. His mind was racing. What if Woman Reading had called the cops about himself? What if she considered him a spy, a stalker, a peeping Tom? But why now? Was he even that visible when he saw her? He now kept well back from his own window. She hadn’t seemed bothered before. Did she somehow know that it had been him at the door, the day he’d rung her bell? But surely it’s not a crime to ring a neighbour’s doorbell? That’s what doorbells were for. It wasn’t like he’d tried to break in.

            But that night he had a dream in which he did break into her house. At least, he was in it … and she said ‘oh, it’s you’. Then she started pecking at her cell phone and he said please don’t call the police I just want to know where you work. The house was full of cobwebs and shadows, and then she said the gardeners are coming to fix that. Then they were in a conservatory full of bright exotic flowers. “You can sit here and draw, if you like, it will be a quiet place to live.”

            He woke up shaking. Why did he say “I want to know where you work” when really he wanted to know what she was reading? (But what did it have to do with him?) Weeks of watching her read had created an intimacy between them, in his mind if not in hers. But maybe it was in her mind too? Maybe he was an invader, a window-breacher? Maybe Meg was right and she had called the cops about someone spying: himself.

            And why in the dream did she say “this will be a quiet place to live”? Didn’t he already have a quiet place to live: his own house, standing stoutly behind hers?

            A day later, the cops did come to the door. “We’re doing a house-to-house,” they said. Mike froze, then broke out in a sweat. Thefts had been reported from carports and patios, they went on. “Lock your garden sheds.” Mike was trembling. What if they wanted to search his rooms, what if they went straight to the room they would know overlooked the house behind? What if they found the drawings he had done of Reading Woman? How incriminating they would seem. He pictured himself in court, an accused peeping tom.

            To the police at the door he mumbled unintelligibly and they looked at him oddly. Suspiciously?

            “Who was that?” said Marla when he shut the door on them.

            “No one.” She too looked at him oddly.

            “Someone looking for odd jobs? Distributing literature? JW’s?”

            “Yes.” Shakily he went back upstairs. Once there he took the drawings of Woman Reading and shoved them into the recycling box, well under the other cast-off papers. He wanted to close the blinds of his window, but that would make him look guilty, like someone who had just been visited by police. He stole a glance at the window across the gardens. There she sat, as usual, bent over a book. As if nothing had happened. Pretending.

            Christmas was coming. Marla was out a lot, “Christmas shopping,” she said, but Mike noticed she got dressed up first and came back in a cheery mood with alcohol on her breath. The twins she’d leave with Sophie, although Sophie too was often out, with her “gentleman caller”. Did Marla too have a gentleman caller?

            He’d been neglecting her. “Maybe we should have a Christmas drop-in,” he suggested, to make amends, reviving his idea of entertaining the neighbours.

            “Yes, let’s! It’s time we offered some hospitality.”

            When it was time to do what she called the “big shop” for the food for the buffet table, she asked Mike to mind the kids. He took them up to his studio, giving them coloured pencils to draw with.

            His son went straight to the window. “Hey look, there’s someone in that window over there.” He waved. “She’s not waving back. Look Daddy, it’s a lady, she saw me but didn’t wave back.” He semaphored again.

            “Stop that!” said Mike. “Come away from that window!” The boy looked astonished at his tone, and the blinds on the window across the garden came down. Mike felt bereft. What if they never went up again?

            His daughter was rummaging in the recycled-paper box. “Get away from there!” Mike shouted. She had uncovered sketches of Woman Reading. She too looked baffled at his tone. “Mommy always lets us use paper from the recycle box.”

            “Yes, well this is an office, it’s different, now let’s go downstairs. We’ll have lunch.”

            “It’s much too soon for lunch.”

            But down they went, and were soon quarrelling and in tears. Marla walked in, bag-laden, and began soothing them. Mike stole up to his studio. The window across the way was still covered.

            Later Marla came up. “Honestly Mike, I can’t even leave you for an hour with your own kids. What’s got into you? Maybe I’ll take them for a holiday after Christmas, you obviously don’t want us around.”

            “Oh come on, Marla, when did I imply I don’t want you around …” But maybe it was she who wanted to get away, he suddenly thought — away from him. Where to? Who with? For the first time in months he fretted about her doings.

            On the day of the party he chatted with guests, filled glasses, circulated dutifully. A splendid Christmas tree glowed with light and colour in one corner. Sophie appeared arm in arm with an old Hungarian gent named Joseph. A younger man, dark and hunk-y whom Marla introduced as “Ben”, was helping her open wine bottles in the kitchen. It was taking them an unnecessarily long time, thought Mike. Children as loud as the twins ran about and spilled food, but Mike remained serene until everyone departed and peace was re-established. He enjoyed the clean-up more than the party, and Marla retired to put the twins to bed. Afterwards he went up to his studio and saw that the window across the garden was uncovered once more, and the woman sat reading.

            He sighed with relief and poured a last glass of wine. He noticed that she too held a glass as she read. Suddenly she looked up, and glancing out the window raised it slightly. To him? Could she see him, where he stood a little way back from the pane? Or was she just drinking her wine?

            In the New Year Marla took her holiday with the kids. “To give you some peace,” she said curtly.

            “Where are you going?” he asked. “Where will you stay?”

            “With my cousin at first, then with some old friends.”

            “Do I know them?”

            “No, I knew them at university, before I met you.”

            Sophie too was going away, taking a cruise with Joseph. “So you’ll have the house to yourself.”

            At first it was blissful. Marla phoned and the kids took turns on the phone telling him what they’d done that day (“went to the fair, went to the beach …”). Marla herself shared no information, and after a few days the calls became less frequent, and then stopped. She sent an email saying she was extending the holiday. Was Ben with her, Mike wondered? But soon he forgot all about her, and spent his days wandering around the house, day-dreaming, staring at Woman Reading, sketching her and at night dreaming dreams about her which he forgot every morning. His sketches became fantastical, archetypal, full of abstract symbolism. He heard nothing from Marla for days and then weeks. When was she due back? Would she even come back? Where was Sophie? Surely her cruise should be over by now?

            Then, one cold morning in late January the doorbell rang. Puzzled — for the doorbell never rang – Mike swung the door open. There on the step stood a short,,chubby, fair-haired woman who kept glancing agitatedly over her shoulder.

            “Look,” she said in a deep course voice, “sorry to disturb you, but my phone’s gone dead and I can’t charge it, the electricity’s turned off, because I’m moving. I have an urgent request for the movers, before they arrive.”

            Mike stood motionless.

           “They’re late though.” She glanced down the path behind her again. “They’ll be coming this way, and then turning right.” Mike said nothing. “It’s an emergency,” she said impatiently “…could I possibly borrow a phone for a moment?”

            She was so short, much shorter than he’d imagined. Her face was half-covered by a wide scar, it looked like a knife scar, the skin deeply puckered – or the result of a burn perhaps? He would have recognized the curtain of blond hair anywhere. Despite the cold, her feet were bare inside a pair of ancient sandals. And dirty; he saw grime on her toes. He looked away.

            A moving truck hove into view, and she turned toward it. “Never mind,” she snapped in her harsh voice, scuttling down the path. “They’re here. Sorry to bother you.”

           He shut the door. The world had tilted oddly, as if emptying itself. She disappeared into the big van which would be turning right … But no: she had already disappeared. No: she had never existed. Something was missing thought Mike as he sank unseeingly onto the sitting room sofa. Oh yeah: myth, magic. Beautiful women mooning in a solitary towers, dreaming their lives away over books of poetry. The life of imagination. How did all that go again? He couldn’t remember.

            He looked around the room where he had dropped onto the sofa. It looked like the room of vague acquaintances, but not one he would live in himself.

            The doorbell rang. Twice in one morning, thought Mike. This never happens. This time Sophie stood on the porch, a suitcase beside her and a taxi pulling away.

            “What’s up? You look absolutely dazed,” she said in greeting.

            “Sorry.”

            “Where have you been? She’s been calling. Her phone died and you never answer yours. I wanted to catch you before I went round to my own door. Is yours turned off?”

            “My what?”

            “Your phone, Mike! You’re more distracted than ever. She’s due back today you know.”

            “No. She just left.”

            “What are you talking about? Her plane lands in an hour. Don’t you remember the schedule?”

            “Her plane? Who are you talking about?”

            “Marla, of course! Mike – you’re a million miles away. Whatever’s the matter with you? Pay attention!”

            He paused, and dredged the memory of something from the bottom of his newly-empty mind.

            “Oh. Right. Marla.”


BIO

Flora Jardine writes plays, stories and nonfiction on the west coast of Canada. Some of her recent prose has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Short Humour Magazine (UK), pif Magazine, Corner Bar Review (US),  Island Writer Magazine, and Wandering Words: an Anthology of West Coast Writings, 2018 (Canada).



A DAMSEL IN BEDLAM

by Kat Devitt



Bethlem Royal Hospital
London, 1869

As patients paced the halls and wailed in corners, William never imagined finding his childhood sweetheart in Bedlam. She’d behaved with high spirits when they were young, always taking his hand and leading him astray, but there’d been no indication of insanity.

Even now, as William watched her, he saw traces of his darling as she sat rooted in a chair, her flesh pale like ivory against the satin blue of her dress. Her bronze hair cascaded over her shoulders like waterfalls. She looked very much as she had ten years ago, when they’d loved each other with all their hearts.

“William, come see.” Her smile flashed as she sat on a stool, her hand waving him over. “I’m rather proud of this one.”

Rays curled about her cheeks in the sunlit drawing room. William wanted to run a finger along her soft flesh, to inhale her rosy perfume, but he couldn’t, not with her parents lurking in the parlor down the hall. “What have you done now?”

Her moss green eyes turned on William, and he found all the world’s happiness locked within her gaze. He craved nothing more than to share in it with her, but it was near impossible. She was a gentleman’s daughter.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asked. “It’s you.”

William tore his gaze from her long enough to look at the canvas set on the easel before her. Staring back was his likeness: a lad of nineteen with naïve, blue eyes longing for something beyond his reach.

William turned to her with an ache in his gut. “It seems as if the student has surpassed her teacher.”

“And an excellent teacher you’ve been.” Her gaze returned to her work. “You may keep it if you like.”

“I will, if you don’t mind.”

A few curls fell against her nape as she shook her head. “Not at all.”

He couldn’t resist. He blew, making those tendrils fly.

She whipped around in laughter. “How silly you are.”

Her smile filled William’s small world, and without thinking, he acted. Her skirts shushed as she slid off the stool and into his arms. She didn’t hesitate, because it wasn’t the first time they’d kissed

“You’re mine,” William whispered as he brushed his lips against hers. “You always will be, no matter the challenges.”

And as she laid her head on his shoulder, the door creaked open. Her father appeared with death in his face. A death marked for William…

Her beauty was a specimen preserved in time, but her spirit was changed. Somehow broken, forgotten.

Patients sat along the walls of the female ward, talking to others, real or imagined, while Eleanora languished alone. Her thick eyelashes spread against her cheek like a fan as she watched her hand move in circles. She held nothing, and nothing rested before her, but she made strokes in the air as if she painted a picture begging for freedom from her head.

She glanced up from her invisible work.

William took a sharp breath. Does she see me?

He stepped into the hall, hiding himself from her view—if she even noticed, if she was even coherent.

His first day in Bedlam’s employment, and she was here. He’d thought about her constantly over the years. What happened to her after her marriage? How does her husband treat her? Does she ever think of me? He’d never forgotten about her as if her shadow walked alongside his every day.

Now she was one of the hundreds of women in his care: buying clothes, food, bedding, and whatever else they might need. It wasn’t the reunion he’d imagined every night for a decade. She might not remember him—or herself. She might think of herself as another person or in another time.

William peeked around the corner. Her magnificent eyes were hidden away as she gazed at her lap. Her head hung low, as if she was a broken doll. If she did have any concept of reality, she looked too fractured to repair.

A patient screamed. “Death to the queen!” She climbed onto her chair and punched a fist at the heavens before a caretaker pulled her down.

How could Eleanora thrive in such decay? he wondered.

William clutched his chest as his heart banged against his ribs. He walked down the hall to his office, the head steward’s office, and continued his work for the day, but Eleanora never escaped his mind. 

****

“There’s our Willy!” Oscar boomed for all the pub to hear as he stumbled out of his chair, already halfway into his spirits. “Come sit.”

“Slow down, Oscar.” A groan came from Charles, Bedlam’s doctor extraordinaire, the most sensible of their trio. “Harriet will not like you staggering home.”

“I need to drink to be able to go home to her and our three brats.” He raised his mug in a salute, then drank heartily as if he was a Viking of Valhalla.

William pulled out a chair, its scratch along the floorboards lost in the singing, celebrating, and chatter. His shoulders relaxed as he embraced the noise after a long day of insanity. His mind was still emblazoned with the image of a man being wrestled to the floor as he wielded a handmade knife, claiming he needed to slay the dragon standing in the courtyard.

“I need a drink,” William announced.

Charles passed him a cup. “Here’s your brandy.”

“Ah, you know what I like.” William lifted it toward his friend in thanks.

“You know what else you might appreciate?” Oscar winked as if he had the most original thought in the history of thoughts. “A beautiful woman in your bed.”

“What I need is a machine to take me back five or ten years when I had the chance at a successful painting career.” William tipped back his glass. “And love.”

“I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist, but what I can do is fetch you a bit of skirt.”

Charles leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “And how will you supply him with this woman, Oscar?”

“Why, look around you.” He stretched out his arms. “There’s a bounty of breasts.”

Oscar smiled as he scanned the dimly lit pub. He lingered on a brunette lounging on a balding man’s lap. Her ringlets fell over her breasts, exposed by a nice dip in her emerald green dress. He seemed to forget all about finding William a woman as he stared at her décolletage.

Charles gave William a sidelong glance and a shrug. The somber lines around his mouth seemed to say: What will we do? It’s like trying to control a dog in heat.

Poor Harriet. She’d not be pleased when her husband came home tonight.

“How was your first day at Bedlam?” Charles asked.

William’s fingers tapped against the half-empty glass. “Unique,” he said. “Thank you for securing me the position.”

“No need.”

“I would’ve never gained it on my own credentials: the failed painter following his father’s footsteps into stewardship.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. You’ve worked as a steward for a few reputable places.”

“For private families. Never for a large institution.” William sipped. “Or an asylum. If you hadn’t given me a recommendation, I’d be bleeding my hands in the workhouse.”

William allowed himself a peek at a few of the doxies strutting about. Oscar was right. There were plenty of women seeking company for the night: short ones, tall ones, slender ones, fat ones, pale ones, dusky ones, French ones, German ones—an assortment like sweets at a baker’s shop.

He sighed. “Maybe I do need a woman.”

Especially if he was envisioning pies and pastries sauntering about the pub, but none of them tempted him. 

“What you need is a wife.”

William steadied his gaze on Charles. “Why do you think so?”

“You’re not the sort to spend a night with a woman and move on.” He waved a hand at Oscar, his mouth agape. “This is not who you are. You need a companion and lover.”

William nodded. “Someone to hold at the end of each night.”

“Precisely. My darling Emma gives me comfort after a long day doctoring patients.”

Oscar tore himself from his leering long enough to rejoin with, “And my Harriet gives me a good swat when I come home.”

Charles arched a brow. “You deserve it with your dallying.”

“Oh, every bit. It keeps our passion alive.” A buxom blonde stole his attention as she sauntered by, leaving a fragrant trail of lavender. “Excuse me for a moment.”

“Oscar, think of Harriet.” William made to grab his wrist, but he was too quick. Oscar slammed his mug on the table, shaking it on its legs, and pushed himself up, his boots clunking as he staggered after her.

Oscar’s voice trailed off as he asked, “Come here, darling. What’s your name?”

The blonde turned around with a shy smile. A few of her teeth were missing, but it didn’t seem to dissuade Oscar. Her breasts strained against her bodice, which more than compensated for her lack of pearly whites.

“She’ll murder him one of these days,” Charles said.

“Aye.” William took another sip of brandy as he watched Oscar cozy up to the buxom blonde. He drew her close and whispered into her ear. Her cheeks colored, and she slapped him straight across the mouth.

Oscar grabbed his face. “What was that for?”

“I’ll no’ d’ such a filthy act, ye mongrel,” she shouted as she stormed towards the door.

“Not even for a guinea?” he called.

She stopped long enough to spit in his direction before leaving the pub. A round of laughter rang out at Oscar’s expense, her cloud of lavender polluting the air long after she disappeared.

William choked on the odor. “I must be on my way. I’ve had my fill for the night.” He replenished his lungs with a breath, but it ended on a cough. Damn lavender. Eleanora always smelled gentler, softer, like a rose garden.

Charles swatted the air in front of his nose. “Early rise tomorrow?”

“No, I wish to paint for an hour or two before falling asleep.”

William thought of Eleanora in the women’s ward, alone, her hand moving in circles. He remembered teaching her to move her hand in such a way, to flick and flourish with a brushstroke.

“I’ll tell Oscar you left.” Charles lifted his glass toward William. “Enjoy.”

William stepped out into a warm drizzle as fog filled the streets with gray. Few tarried on the road, ducking into doorways and pubs to keep dry, but he risked an illness to make it to his doorstep.

He picked his way on the slick cobblestones as his thoughts drifted toward Eleanora. No other woman could fill the hole she’d left in his heart. He’d tried many times over the last decade to replace her: an affair with a widow, a liaison with a shop girl, an engagement with a poetical protégé. But no one could replace Eleanora.

William started to move his hand in circles. “What is it you need, love?”

William turned up his coat collar to keep his neck dry, but with little success as raindrops splattered on his hunched shoulders. He hurried home and into his dark, dry parlor.

Droplets sprinkled onto the floor as he removed his coat. He threw it over a wingback, a true-blooded bachelor, when a set of eyes drew his gaze. Over the mantel, he found a naive, blue-eyed lad immortalized on canvas.

Looking at Eleanora’s paintings through the shadows, he knew. In an instant, he knew.

William smiled as he shook off raindrops and retreated to his parlor—not to paint, but to gather supplies for Eleanora.

****

“Give these to her.” William handed a paintbrush and palette to Charles. “Her easel, canvas, and paints are by the window at the end of the hall.”

Charles stared at the tools in his hands. “Why am I handing these to a patient?”

“She enjoys painting.”

“Yes, but then, why don’t you give these to her?” Charles shoved them against William’s chest. “It’s your responsibility.”

“I can’t.” William shoved back. “Please, I’ll buy you an extra round of drinks tonight.”

“You know I only ever have the one.”

Somewhere in the ward, a caged bird beat its wings. It chirped through the bars, as if frustrated by its imprisonment.

William huffed. “I’ll take Oscar home tonight.”

This gave Charles pause. “For the remainder of the week.”

“You have a bargain.”

Charles looked down at the brush and palette he held awkwardly. He took a breath, puffed himself up, and started for Eleanora. William edged closer to the fretful bird. It wasn’t the most inventive hiding place. However, it was far enough away where Eleanora couldn’t see him, but he could watch her.

She sat in the same chair, making the same gestures as yesterday. A bronze curl fell at her cheek, her breathing steady. She wore a cream-colored dress, highlighting her emerald eyes.

Eleanora didn’t look when Charles approached. She didn’t speak when he said a few words, but when he placed the paintbrush under her nose, she emerged from her spell.

Her chin tipped downwards as her gaze fell on those bristles, the silver band at the base glistening in the sunlight. Her raspberry lips curved into a smile as if a gem gleamed temptingly before her.

She reached out and grabbed it.

Warmth spread through William’s chest. He wanted to rush across the ward with a whoop, collect Eleanora into his arms, and swing her round and round at this little breach into her world.

But mental leg irons restrained him.

She might not remember him. She might think him a villain attacking heror some other hallucination. Seeing her happiness would need to be enough.

Charles waved a hand towards the window, and Eleanora’s gaze followed to the easel and its effects. She stood up, clutching the brush against her bosom.

William read her lips. “For me?”

“Yes,” Charles said.

Charles left Eleanora to explore her new wonders. He settled at William’s side, opposite the bird, as William watched her brush her fingertips against the blank canvas. Soon, it’d be filled with her imagination.

Charles cleared his throat. “By the way you look at her, I’d think you’re in love.”

A smile grew on William’s lips as she dabbed bright paints onto her palette. Those colors would give blood to her life’s veins.

“I’m only happy to see the pleasure on her face,” William said.

“Why?”

“I knew her when we were young.”

Charles stepped into his view, his charcoal brows arched in judgment. “How do you know her?”

“My father served as a steward in her household.” William peeked past him. “When I was enjoying some success as an artist, her parents hired me to give her lessons. They trusted me as the son of their respected servant.”

Charles cleared his throat again. “Stop staring at her. Others will notice.”

“Who?” William asked. “We’re the only staff here at the moment. Only the insane watch.”

“Not all the patients are lunatics.” Charles directed his gaze to the bird on its perch, chirping till its last breath. “Damn bird never quiets. It’s supposed to soothe the patients, but all it does is irritate my nerves.”

William waved at the bird, and it fell silent. It’s eyes followed his hand as if it was a great beast come to capture it.  “Are your nerves better now?”

“Sorry, it’s been a long day. This morning a patient tried to convince me she was the Virgin Mary come again, and that the baby in her belly was our precious savior. However, she’s not with child.” He rubbed at his temples. “What happened?”

“Regarding?” William asked, mentally off balance after that implosion.

Charles jerked his head towards Eleanora. “Her lessons.”

William slipped through his memories and returned to that fateful day in the drawing room. He’d forever remember her smile, the feel of her lips, and her father’s footsteps. Her lessons ended with his dismissal, right there as she warmed his arms. A week later, she was betrothed.

But William couldn’t tell his friend. At least not the whole truth. “Her lessons ended around the same time my art began to fail.”

Charles studied him. “Do you know why she’s here?”

William shook his head.

“Her husband had her confined based on a moral defect of her character.” His voice lowered a degree. “She sought a divorce from him.”

William numbed. His mind blackened as if he’d been dumped into a vat of icy water. Divorce? And that bastard had her locked up instead?

His fists tightened as anger thawed him. If Gideon James stood before him, he’d direct a blow at the bastard’s jaw. Hell, he’d choke Gideon for imprisoning his wife in such a place.

But this meant something else. Eleanora wasn’t insane, only considered morally criminal.

Charles tapped his shoulder. “Stop looking at her like a lad in love. Gossip will start.”

“She’s an old friend.” William smoothed out his hair. “Nothing more.”

“Mhmm.” Charles pursed his thin lips, not believing a word he said. “I have patients to tend to. I’ll see you tonight, and remember our bargain.”

Charles clapped William on the back, his gaze expressing don’t talk to her, leave her be. And with that bit of unspoken wisdom, he exited the ward. His whistle echoed in the hall, fading with his footsteps.

William stayed a few minutes longer. It seemed a lifetime watching her as she took the paintbrush and dabbed it into the blue. She slashed it across the canvas, like a river being born from her imagination.

Even if she still had her sanity, William didn’t know her feelings. Did she still love him as he loved her? Or was he a dalliance she remembered fondly while drifting into sleep? Or worse… Did she not remember him at all?

It was enough to enjoy her from a distance. At least, William tried to convince himself of this as the bird started to chirp again—and louder than before.

William tapped a finger against its cage door. “Shh, my little friend.”

It’s head turned from side to side, watching William’s finger like a worm. This, at least, shushed the bird.

“Now stay quiet.” William pressed a finger over his lips, as if it’s tiny brain could comprehend the gesture. Then he looked up…and met Eleanora’s deep green gaze.

****

A chill crept through Eleanora as she sat perched on a stool in her airy room. While sunlight poured through the window, the bars in front of the glass reminded her of her imprisonment. Even as her soul sang for freedom, her brush stroked the canvas, and she pretended to not notice William standing in the doorway behind her.

He’d been watching her for weeks now.

In the halls.

In the garden.

In the female ward. William thought he could hide behind a birdcage, but his gaze hadn’t escaped her.

She’d chosen to ignore him. He was the reason behind her newly acquired art supplies, but this small freedom came only by the grace of his love. She had no other liberties in this dark place, and she’d rather not risk losing these few treasures.

Because what if he’d hated her for marrying Gideon James? Eleanora’s brushstrokes wouldn’t be creating the longing in her trapped damsel’s gaze nor the plumes of the dove she held on her finger. Not the window swelling with sunlight, nor her unspoken wish for freedom.

Eleanora wouldn’t be painting her likeness.

Maybe she owed William her thanks for the oils and brushes. Maybe he deserved a display of excitement, such as her whirling around on her stool and informing him a lucid brain worked under her skullcap.

But Eleanora couldn’t do it.

After her father caught them and forced her hand into an unwanted engagement, William never fought for them. He never answered her letters pleading for an elopement. He never came on his white horse and whisked her away to Gretna Green. Eleanora’s girlhood dreams died with his silence.

But now, ten years later, standing in her doorway, he was anything but quiet as his foot scuffed against the wooden floor.

“I know you’re there, William.”

An electric intensity whipped through the room. “Eleanora?”

“I haven’t any other name. Unless you’d like for me to adopt a new one, like so many of my companions here.”

“Where’s the humor in such a statement?”

William’s steps tapped up to her stool. He hesitated, and so she did for him what he couldn’t for himself. She turned to face him for the first time in a decade. He stepped back, as if startled by her sudden movement.

“Your wit has dulled if you cannot see the irony in the freedoms I have behind these walls. I can be whoever I want.” She tapped the brush handle against her mouth. “I could be Joan of Arc whispering to the saints in her head, but there’s already one here. Maybe Eleanor of Aquitaine overseeing her court of love?”

His nostrils flared. “You’re none of them.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Why stay a woman? I could easily adopt the persona of a man, but who shall I be?”

Eleanora’s gaze roved over William. He looked much older than his twenty-nine years. His waistcoat hid a small gut, and his eyes carried a sadness never there before. His fingers were long and slender, perfect for holding a brush, but he was a failed painter if he worked at Bedlam. Despite his melancholy, he clung to claims of handsomeness in his gentle, blue eyes, full lips, and tangled, coal-black hair.

“You’re Eleanora James, wife of the respected barrister, Gideon James.”

“I could’ve been your wife.”

William jerked back as if she’d slapped him. She sorely wanted to for his long absence from her life, but violence wasn’t necessary. Her verbal strike made his cheeks flush with crimson.

“I choose to be Henry VIII,” Eleanora continued. “I can cut off the heads of two of my spouses. I only have the one, so I’ll start with Gideon, but that still leaves me a head.”

“Quit talking madness.”

“But I’m in an asylum. I’m supposed to act like a lunatic.”

“You’re not.” William stepped closer, his breathing quick and steady. “You’re the woman in your painting, even if you did change the color of her hair.”

Eleanora turned to her fair damsel resting in the canvas, cascades of chestnut hair falling over her shoulder. “Don’t I look lovely as a brunette?”

“Even if you were bald, you’d still be the most beautiful of women.”

“You haven’t held too many women then.”

William brushed his knuckles against her cheek. “Because I’ve only wanted you.”

Eleanora’s heart fluttered as if a butterfly was caged within her ribs. He still spoke like a youth in love. She wondered how he romanticized her, and how often.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Eleanora asked.

He blew on her nape, sending chills crawling down her spine. “Only that you asked Gideon for a divorce.”

“Anything more than that?”

“No.”

“He had an affair with his clerk’s daughter, a young girl not long out of the schoolroom. He’d lavished her with gifts and pretty baubles. Eventually, he got her with child.” Eleanora bit her bottom lip, drawing blood into her mouth. “I’d turned my cheek to many of his infidelities, but I couldn’t handle this last betrayal. It was worse than the other women, because he’d given her a permanence when he set her up in a house in Cheapside.”

William lowered himself to his knees. He grasped Eleanora’s chin, forcing her to look at him. “Why did he send you here instead?”

“He’d rather dispose of an inconvenient wife by manipulating his connections in London’s courts and institutions than risk his good name in a scandal.”

Her chin quivered at the truth that lived with her here in Bedlam. Even though she never loved Gideon, his betrayal hurt. They had said vows before an altar, and he had defied them with each woman he charmed into his bed. It’s as if she never mattered, as if she was a pawn he married for a substantial dowry.

“Eleanora,” he murmured, “I still love you. When I lost you, I stopped painting. My art suffered, because I hadn’t my muse to inspire my work.”

“I don’t give a damn about your art.”

Eleanora’s eyes misted over as she shook her head. It couldn’t be. She had no love to give in this madhouse, and least of all, for him. He had abandoned her. He hadn’t the right to beg at her knees.

“Maybe I’m bitter. Maybe I’ve had too much time to think during my stay here, but you were never far from my thoughts, William.” Eleanora wiped away angry tears.  “You ask for my love after years without you, when it was you who left me.”

William squeezed her hands as if he might wring away the last decade. “I needed to protect my family.”

“I sent you a dozen letters, and you never wrote back.” She shoved his clawing hands away. “I choose to be Henry VIII, giving me two heads to cut: Gideon’s and yours.”

His gaze crystalized into sadness. She saw him, her sweetheart from all those years ago, but their childhoods were dead, and she had no flowers to leave on their graves.

“Eleanora, please listen to me,” he said, his voice shaky. “I couldn’t risk my father’s place in your household, because he cared for my mother. I had little fortune as an artist. I couldn’t support them if my father was sacked, much less a wife. I never wanted to hurt you.”

“And yet you did.”

Eleanora’s  eyes sought out the blue skies beyond the window’s bars. She wondered what it might be like if she sprouted wings. If she could break through the glass, find a flock to join, and fly far, far away from here.

“Let’s try again. Let’s at least be friends—”

“Thank you for the canvas and paints.” Eleanora made a little salute. “But I, Henry, now send you to the block.”

And with that, Eleanora turned from William. She took up her brush and continued painting, shedding those years of resentment. Eleanora focused on the damsel and the dove in her hand, because in this horrid place, her imagination was all that existed.

****

Eleanora never liked when he visited. His polished boots clicked on the floor, and his smirk gave her migraines. He’d stay to brag for hours about a successful court case or the love for his new sonof course living far apart from him, so as to not jeopardize his career.

Here and there, she’d jab him with a bit of wit, but he knew full well she couldn’t do more than sit idly and listen. She was a caged bird for display. Nothing more.

But today was different. His mouth pinched at her painting. His eyes blazed with annoyance. She wondered if he looked like that when arguing in a courtroom or with his darling mistress.

“What’s this?” Gideon asked.

“A square with colors on it.”

“None of your sauciness.” He spun on his heels like a lieutenant about to give orders. “Why do you have this?”

Eleanora folded her hands together. “The new steward provided supplies for me to paint. What you see is my work.”

“I never approved this.”

“Must you? I thought you left me here to languish, like the husbands of so many other patients.”

He prowled closer, his steps soft and slow. “Who gave you the right to paint?”

“Someone kinder than you.”

Eleanora and Gideon stood inches apart. He towered over her with his Frankenstein-like height. If bolts jutted from his neck, he could be Mary Shelley’s creature, except his hair was too light. He leaned closer, a thread of gold falling over his forehead.

“Give me a name,” he murmured, his breath hot on her cheek.

Eleanora kicked up her chin. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

“Now, now. None of your nonsense.”

“What?” she asked, smiling sweetly. “Do you not like Shakespeare?”

He snarled in reply. She had quoted the great Bard to him, and all he could do was look like a bear with its paw caught in a trap. No wonder their marriage crumbled.

“Well, then.” His knuckles brushed along her cheek. “I’ll find out on my own.”

Eleanora turned her head away. “You’ve taken everything from me. Why this, too?”

“Because you wished to leave me.” Gideon glanced at the painting. “But I’ll take a part of you.”

Gideon grazed her arm as he walked past her. He posed with his hands on his hips as he studied her damsel. Being married to him for ten years, she could hear his thoughts in her head. She knew what he was after.

Eleanora stormed up to him, her hand falling on his shoulder. “Leave it alone, Gideon.”

He shook her off.

“It’s a lovely piece.” Gideon’s paws clutched the canvas and lifted her damsel into the air. “I think I’ll take it home and hang it over my bed, so I might look on it and think of you.”

Hah! Remember his imprisoned wife as he led throngs of women into their—his—bedroom. Her artwork deserved a better home than over his head—unless it came crashing down on his skull.

Her eyes burned. She tried to blink the tears away. “You won’t take this from me.”

“And who will stop me?” He grinned. “You?”

“Leave it.”

He continued on. “Or maybe I’ll take this to Marianne’s home and hang it in her parlor. She’ll adore this piece.” His lover, the mother of his child. Eleanora’s heart burst into a fit contained for too many years to count.

“Leave it,” she shouted, her voice rising. “Leave it, leave it, leave it!”

Gideon looked down at the gold band on his finger and then to hers. They were linked for all time, till death do they part, whether they wished it or not. They’d said the words, even if they rarely acted upon them.

“I’m your husband,” he said. “You’ll do as I say. Be who I command.”

“I will do no such thing.”

“I’ve owned you since the day we married.”

Eleanora slapped him across the face, a crack echoing through the room. She took a breath, finding her lungs featherlight and her migraine gone. “A ring doesn’t signify ownership.”

His black eyes glowed like embers. “It’s your behavior,” he said, his fingers grazing the red handprint on his cheek, “that has led you to this place.”

“Then I suppose I’ll be here for a very long time.”

“It’s your choice.” He smiled. “I’m going to the head steward straightaway. You won’t be painting anymore.”

“I’ll find other pursuits.”

“And I’ll crush them all.” He strode toward the door. “Thank you for the painting, my dear. Marianne and I will treasure it.”

Gideon’s footsteps clicked down the hall. He emptied her world in one stroke.

Eleanora fell onto her bed, a thin cot on a metal frame tucked against a whitewashed wall. It creaked in protest at her weight. A sound for her ears, and then nothing but silence to feed her thoughts.

Her gaze dwelled on the empty easel; her fingers entwined in her lap. Her paints were scattered on the table beside it. Her palette was wet with fresh paint, and her brushes were lined up according to size. It was familiar. It was home, but Eleanora’s damsel was gone, taken captive by a giant ogre.

Eleanora collapsed onto her dusty white sheets, her wings clipped. She cried for what seemed like hours as the sunlight faded, the shadows shrank, and her tears dried. If she had anything to give before, her soul was now stripped into a desert.

“He’s taken everything.” A tear loosened. “Why not my sanity, too?”

“He hasn’t taken me from you.”

Eleanora bolted upright. She still clung to her pride as she found William in the doorway, his knuckles white from gripping the knob. She had sent both men to the block, but yet they kept reappearing into her little world.

“Why are you here?” she asked, wanting nothing but loneliness.

“Gideon came to my office.”

“Did he recognize you?”

“No. He was too deep in his tirade to notice.” He paused. “May I come in?”

“Don’t bother. I know why you’re here.”

Eleanora slipped further into her sadness. Away from Bedlam and into her mind. Her hand started to move of its own accord as she envisioned her sorrows. Nighttime sprang into her mind, and a woman—wretched and alone.

“Eleanora,” he whispered.

A tower. Eleanora saw a woman trapped watching as fireflies waltzed across a field. She wanted to dance with them, but how did she leave her home? How did she escape from where the ogre had placed her?

“Eleanora, love.”

“Yes?” she whispered.

“Why do you think I’m here?”

“To tell me I can’t paint anymore.”

In the world outside her own, Eleanora heard the door close on a creak. Footsteps approached. Someone stopped her hand with a firm grip.

She blinked.

William knelt on the floor, his two hands creating a shell around hers. His thumb stroked along the ridges of her knuckles. “Don’t retreat again.” He squeezed her hand. “We’ll hide your painting from him, and you can use my office for space.”

“Won’t that jeopardize your post here?”

“I don’t care.” William’s gaze gripped her, lonely and forgiving. “I still love you. I’ll do anything for you.”

It struck Eleanora. He was on his knees professing his love. This was a marriage proposal without the question.

“What will you have me do?” he asked.

Her wedding band glimmered in the sunlight peeking through the window’s bars. If only she could be rid of it.

“Free me, William.” Eleanora touched his cheek, her heart softening. “Please.”

“We’ll find a way.” William kissed her fingers. “And this time, I swear to you, I won’t abandon your side.”

He smiled up at her, the first she’d seen on his lips in a decade. It was the sun emerging from behind a long storm, it’s light chasing images of lonely damsels from her mind.


BIO

Kat Devitt’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Tales to Terrify, The Weird and Whatnot, Corvid Queen, Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, TWJ Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and other venues. Kat is a Puschart Prize nominee, Best of the Net nominee, and placed as a runner-up in OPQ Press’s 2019 Spooky Samhain Contest. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. If you’d like to learn more about Kat or her writing, please visit https://katdevitt.com/.




The Poet Ray Brown

by John Yohe

Billy Kidder read the poet Ray Brown for the first time in his first-year creative writing class at Michigan State University. His teacher made everybody do a presentation on a famous contemporary poet, and gave the class a list of names to choose from. Billy chose Brown by chance, then went to the Barnes & Noble on Grand River Ave., in what pretended to be a downtown of East Lansing but was really a three block section of street across from the university. The poetry section had three of Brown’s books of poetry: Streets of Cruelty and Shame, Grey Sky Forgetting, and Children of Rust Belt. Billy chose Streets of Cruelty and Shame and opened it randomly to the poem “and you too” and at first was confused because it didn’t seem like poetry, or not like the poetry that he’d had to read in his high school english books, which amounted basically to Edgar Allen Poe. First of all, this poem didn’t rhyme. And, it was funny, about the poet getting in an argument with a “whore” who lived in the apartment above him.Billy looked at the cover again, to double-check. A poem about whores? He checked the back cover, with a black and white photo of Brown, a middle-aged african-american man standing next to an old boxcar, looking cold and miserable. He read the short bio at the bottom, and learned that Brown was from Michigan, from Jackson, the city half an hour south of East Lansing.

He bought the book, and went over to the Espresso Royale café a block east, where he bought a coffee and sat down to read. The next poem he flipped to randomly was a conversation between two guys who worked at a factory, about a third guy’s wife who they had both slept with. Again, funny. Though also sad somehow. Or that’s how Billy felt, but he wasn’t sure that’s what a person was supposed to feel about poetry. That is, he’d been expecting that, since it was poetry, he wouldn’t understand it. That was what made poetry good, right? Or if it rhymed and had ravens in it. And yet, he also felt like there was something that he wasn’t understanding about the poem. Something lurking in the background.

For his class presentation, he brought in copies of the whore poem for everybody, and said something about how important Brown was because he was from Michigan and worked in factories and represented that life. But when Billy’s creative writing teacher asked the class if there were any questions, Billy was surprised to find out that people hated the poem. Not like he hated Poe, like about how boring Poe was and therefore he hated having to read him, but like Brown was a real person. One girl said Brown sounded like an asshole. A boy tried to sneer (though really he was too young to truly know how) and say that this wasn’t poetry. Another girl said it was racist for Brown, a black man, to write about a white woman like that, to which a black boy on the other side of the room asked, what’s wrong with a black man fucking a white woman? The girl, surprised that no everyone felt exactly the same way she did, didn’t know what to say, and almost started to cry, and their teacher interrupted, thanking Billy and asking who’s presentation was next.

Rick Cassidy’s first Brown book was Factory Blues, the first book Brown ever published. He found it used in an independent bookstore in Toronto in his third year of university. What Rick liked about Brown’s (and this was true mainly only of that first book, but also of Grey Sky Forgetting, his second book, a little too) was the mix of gritty realness (cold miserable city streets, the suffocating old efficiency apartments, the dirty melting snow) juxtaposed with the strange images of animals of animals like tigers and Kodo dragons that appeared, with violence, out of sewers and refrigerators. Plus the poems about beautiful women.

Rick had studied biology at university, but also semi-secretly wrote poetry, even before he’d discovered Brown, and when he graduated, as a treat to himself, he decided to enter into one of the multiple Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in the United States, to give himself two years to devote to poetry. The fact that Brown, his favorite poet, had never gone to college, and wrote poetry without having devoted himself to it for two years at the master’s level didn’t really seem ironic to Rick. The only way he could do it would be to obtain a TA-ship to cover all expenses, and of the places he applied, in New York and Michigan, only Western Michigan University offered a good stipend along with free tuition. He accepted without even visiting the campus, intrigued by the city name, Kalamazoo, where WMU was located, and leaving things up to fate. His choice of Western was also made in part by it’s nearness to Jackson, where Brown continued to live and write. Though he didn’t say it to anybody, he secretly thought that maybe he would be able to meet Brown in person and show him his poems, which he felt sure Brown would like.

Guadalupe Rodríguez Ochera, Lupe for short, grew up in an affluent neighborhood of the Districto Federal (el DF) which is also called la Ciudad Mexico, or in english, Mexico City. Her father was a successful businessman, the owner of a fleet of trucks, whose business boomed with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also owned a house in San Diego, where he made sure that his three children (Lupe had two older brothers) spent plenty of time, so they could learn english and prepare themselves for moving into the family business, though with Lupe, his not so unobvious goal was to marry her off to a well-connected american.

Of course Lupe, and to a lesser extent her brothers, rebelled against her father’s plans for her by hanging out with the most horrifying groups of people her father could imagine: creative liberals. In San Diego she made friends with tragic goth girls who wore lots of black despite the fact that the sun shone almost every day (Lupe had the advantage of not having to dye her hair black). But in Mexico City, where she spent most of her time, she liked to hang out with the older college kids, or the college dropouts, and smoke lots of mota and talk about painting and poetry and writing and independent film from all over the world.

Lupe herself wasn’t a poet. She liked to paint, and also dabbled with creative graphic design, and if she didn’t spend so much time talking in smoky university cafes she might have been more productive. But product wasn’t the point. She liked the creative process, which was just as fun as anything else, so if anything was going on, she was just as likely to be doing that.

Lupe discovered Brown through her older guy friends, the poets, who raved about him as the new black Kerouac, though she wasn’t really clear on what that meant at first. Brown, they claimed, spoke for the real America, for the workers, the proletariat, instead of the canned capitalist America forced down the throats of the world through Hollywood movies and tv shows. Things got kind of deep with the pot-smoking mexican poets and she wasn’t sure about it all exactly, but she liked when guys got passionate about things, that’s where they’re most interesting and attractive. She borrowed a copy of Streets of Cruelty and Shame (Calles de crueldad y verguénza) to see what was so interesting. The translator was actually spanish, the book published by a Spanish publishing company, so the spanish was a little different, like when Brown would call women tías instead of chavas, but Lupe decided that added to the humor.

Brown appealed to Lupe in part because (like her friends had said) he did reject upper class people, the owners of the factories, the landlords, the rich people eating in nice restaurants while los pobres walked by outside in the cold. But she also liked Brown’s celebratory attitude, of finding beauty in the ugliness of being poor. Lupe liked the idea of the poor life being beautiful, which tied in with rejecting her father, and her father’s world.

Lupe didn’t choose to go to the University of Michigan because Ann Arbor was nearby Jackson. She didn’t get to choose at all really. Her father just wanted all his children to go to good american schools. Her oldest brother had gone to the University of California, Berkeley, and her other brother to the University of Texas, Austin. Both of the brothers majored in International Business. Lupe was only allowed to major in something ‘practical.’ Which meant no art. The only interesting thing she could convince her father to let her major in was english, by arguing that english was the international business language and a valuable skill to have in the globalization of business markets.

Lupe was surprised to discover that none of her fellow english majors even knew who Brown was. When she asked her professor of Contemporary American Literature about him, he rolled his eyes and started to talk about Thomas Pynchon and the postmodern american novel. Not even in her African-American Literature class did they discuss him, mostly because la profesora seemed to prefer female authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

Gabrielle du Mont actually preferred Brown’s prose to his poetry. Or rather, his short prose. She felt that he would eventually be thought of as one of the most incredible short story writers on the early twenty-first century. She also liked his collection of ‘essays’ or ‘articles’ (if they could really be called that, since some were fiction (she hoped) which she liked to call ‘structured rants’ that he’d written for a weekly magazine out of Detroit called the Jam Rag. But it was his first collection of short stories, Break The Glass With Your Fists, that had made her fall in love with him, especially the first, and maybe most traditionally written, story, an autobiographical story about a black factory worker who falls in love with a white alcoholic divorcée coworker.

Though there weren’t many black men in Quebec City, Gabrielle had been attracted to black men all her life, and her interest in Brown’s work was how the lives of black men and white women intersected, both sexually and romantically, and even politically, and she felt that only in american literature could this subject really come up and be spoken about, though learning about his lack of popularity in his own country made her second guess that idea.

Again, Gabrielle hadn’t planned on coming to grad school in Michigan because she would be close to Brown. It was that she planned on becoming a public school teacher and wanted to supplement her Canadian teaching degree with a Master’s in Children’s Literature, which was only available in the US, because the US is weird and non-traditional that way, at least as long as there are upper middle-class people who actually want to study Children’s Lit. And one of the only Children’s Lit programs in the country was at Eastern Michigan University, which is the ugly little sister of the University of Michigan, just east of Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti.

Rick realized his mistake soon after coming to Kalamazoo: that there just wasn’t much to do. He lived in an apartment in the student ghetto east of campus, which was somewhat more safer than Gabrielle’s in Ypsilanti, but far from any cultural center, though then he realized that Kalamazoo didn’t have a cultural center. Like Gabrielle, he was used to hanging out with friends in quieter taverns or cafes over pints of beer (at night) or coffee (in the afternoon) but Kalamazoo basically consists of isolated strip malls on corners, some of which might have a bar or two, or a take out chinese restaurant. Undergrads living off-campus tended to fill this gap by playing a drinking game called beer-pong out on the front lawns of the house they were renting, while playing loud rock and rap music.

For how small Kalamazoo was compared to Toronto, Rick found it amazing how spread out everything was. For example, he had to head to a Barnes & Noble by an I-94 exit in order to buy a book, but then go downtown if he wanted to hang out at Club Soda for live music. And since he didn’t have a car, and busses in American just don’t run as well or conveniently as they do in Toronto, he did a lot of walking. Which was fine, except he was the only one that seemed to be doing it off of campus. But it was fall, the air cool but not cold, the leaves starting to change. He always carried a notebook, since he found poems tended to come to him when he walked.

At the time that Billy started his Ray Brown fan club group on FaceBook, he was twenty, in his sophomore year. When she joined that next year, Gabrielle was twenty-four, in the first year of graduate school. Rick was also in the first year of his MFA Program and also twenty-four. Lupe, the youngest, was nineteen. Although Billy had a group of ‘real life’ friends, the others were foreigners and new, using FaceBook to make connections, though Billy, as the only american, had been on Facebook ever since high school. None of them had known about each other, or had met online before joining the fan club group.  They each tended only to browse people in their own cities, though of course the girls got invitations to be what are called ‘friends’ from guys all over the state, and even the country.

Lupe liked to go out every weekend (which in Ann Arbor starts on Thursday) to bars like The Red Hook and Ashley’s, or for music, clubs like The Eight Ball and The Blind Pig. Gabrielle tended to stay in her apartment making notations in the margins of Harry Potter books, not because she wasn’t unsocial (in fact as a quebecoise she prided herself on her european culture of sitting in cafes and smoking and actually talking with people) but because around her one bedroom apartment on Washtenaw, west of campus, the only culture was a couple of take-out pizza places, and a Starbucks about a mile away in front of a strip mall. There was a downtown Ypsilanti, on Michigan, about two blocks long, with one cafe and four bars, filled with drunk undergrads, but she’d been advised by other GAs at EMU never to walk over there, that she risked being shot, stabbed, mugged, or worse. Which was true, but it was also too bad because on some nights there was jazz and blues music, and black men.

Rick did use FaceBook, but as a guy, he didn’t get invitations and he was kind of shy anyways, and at twenty-four he was starting to feel a little old for online social networking. Lupe accepted every invitation she got. To Lupe, FaceBook was just another extension of her social life at U of M. The more friends the better, and she’d already known people online before she even got to Ann Arbor, so that she already had invitations to parties her first weekend there. Gabrielle didn’t accept any invitations. She would never have admitted to her fellow EMU GAs that she was even on FaceBook, since it seemed to her a place where people who didn’t have any real friends could go and pretend they did. The problem was, she didn’t have any real friends, at least not there, and there are only so many quiet nights home alone with The Golden Compass Trilogy that a girl can take. She thought putting herself ‘out there’ (where ever ‘there’ was) and looking at other people’s pages, would give her a sense of being social. But it didn’t really. Sometimes she thought being online made her feel more lonesome. But then she’d think that the next invitation to be ‘friends’ would be from that someone special she’d been expecting. But no, it would be a middle-aged married guy from Toledo.

When Billy started the Ray Brown Fan Club Group on FaceBook, he was surprised at how active it became, and stayed, with people from all over the country, even other countries. Especially other countries. In fact, Brown seemed more popular on the two coasts, and in Europe, than he seemed to be in Michigan. Some of the more popular post topics for the group had titles like “Favorite Poem and Why”, “Favorite Lines”, “Brown’s favorite authors” and “Who should I read next?” Billy also started a Michigan Fan Club post, where the four of them first started getting to know each other.

The group had been up and running for over a year before Rick finally joined in the beginning of October, followed by Gabrielle and Lupe. Once the girls joined and began posting, both Rick and Billy started to post more, though truly everyone did want to talk about Brown, his poetry, his stories, even his novel, RUST, set in his home town of Jackson, Michigan, about a young white boy named Danny. Though never a best-seller, it had an underground reputation, Like some of his shorter work,, there was no resolution, nor was the book even linear. Most people on that thread agreed they loved it, but they also agreed that it wasn’t his best work, nor very accessible to the general public, though there were some diehards, especially from France and Germany, who thought it was the best thing he’d ever done. Lupe put it best in a post: Our expectations of wanting a resolution is the point. The lives of people in a mid-western rust belt cities don’t really connect. Everyone feels separated from everyone else. Life is ambiguous and non-linear.

Because he had the time, and the place to do it, Rick decided to see if he could get his department to host Brown at WMU. And, because students rarely show the initiative about anything like that, the director of the MFA program gave him a budget of three hundred dollars and said if Rick would do all the organizing, he was more than ok to do it. The only catch being it had to be in December at the end of the semester, because the program had already organized other poetry readings in the preceding months (including two poets from U of M, one from Central Michigan University, and one from MSU).

Rick got online to find Brown’s publisher’s website, which was an independent company called Black Crow Press out of Cleveland, run by the editor/publisher Martin Birch. The website just had one page, with no links, listing the various writers they had published, who Rick had never heard of, with Brown’s name at the top and an excerpt from a magazine review talking about Black Crow’s philosophy of publishing (which could be looked at as ‘we basically have no plans to ever make any money doing this’). At the bottom of the page was the mailing address, which actually was the same one at the front pages of Brown’s books. So Rick wrote out a short letter explaining that he wanted to host Brown at Western and asking how he could get in touch with Brown. At the beginning of November he got a letter back from the publisher stating Brown’s reading fee, which was $500, and if Rick could come up with that, to send Birch the date, time and place, and have the check waiting.

Rick quickly had to beg $200 more dollars from the department, which the director approved only if Rick could promise him that Brown would attend a party at the director’s house afterwards, since the director was having some poet friends and he thought it would be interesting (and a feather in his cap) to have a meeting of the minds. Rick wasn’t sure he could do that, but lied and said yes, and sent Birch back a letter saying ok, and giving all the info, then sat worrying whether the event would actually happen or not, not receiving back a reply break that Brown would be there until just before Thanksgiving.

Rick informed his Facebook clan in a new topic thread, and invited them over for the reading, and of course they all said they would come. Gabrielle and Lupe decided to go together by bus until Billy wrote, horrified, that in America, busses are for crazy poor people and that he would drive down to Ann Arbor and pick them up.

The two girls were already real life friends by then. When she had seen that Gabrielle was from Ypsilanti, Lupe PMed her, inviting her out with some friends, and though they were all younger than her, Gabrielle appreciated the opportunity to get out of explore Ann Arbor, which was really only five miles away by bus, but ended up seeming like a different country to people in Ypsilanti.

Gabrielle had taken to coming over to Ann Arbor on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes on Fridays, to study in a cafe downtown, Espresso Royale, just so she could not go crazy in her apartment and get out and be around people talking and interacting and studying. Even if she wasn’t exactly doing anything with them, it made her feel at least somewhat social, somewhat human. So at least once a week Lupe would find her in the cafe with all her books and drag her out for drinks.

On the day they went to Kalamazoo, Billy picked them up in his old Ford Escort, after a little confusion about how to find Lupe’s apartment once he got in town, because Ann Arbor is basically almost all one way streets, except not in a grid system kind of way, just all over the place, and neither of the girls really knew the town beyond the major streets, and even then only by pedestrian-friendly landmarks.

The reading ended up being on Friday night, a horrible night to have a poetry reading on a university, because most of the students who might have drifted in out of curiosity and/or boredom were either gone for the weekend, or full-on into a night of drinking and in no way interested in coming back to campus for an event.  It was also maybe in the worst place to have a poetry reading: the blackbox Gilmore Theatre, which Rick requested because it held more people than a room at Waldo Library. But the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was playing next door in the Miller Auditorium, so there were people in tuxes and black dresses everywhere, staring down their noses at the college kids in jeans and t-shirts.

The three of them met Rick early for dinner at a Bilbo’s Pizza and found him to be a nervous wreck. He hadn’t received any word that Brown would actually show, though he’d already reserved the hall, spent the department’s money on flyers, put ads in the local papers, even had the check for $500 ready, and his professor was expecting everybody to come to a party later. The only thought that made him feel good was when Gabrielle congratulated him on what a great organizer he was. Anything a man can do to get a woman to smile at him is worth it. And Gabrielle was more attractive than her FaceBook picture.

Rick wasn’t even sure he would recognize Brown, since all his books featured the same photo (Brown cold and miserable in front of the boxcar) which had to have been years old, until Gabrielle pointed out that, at a college poetry reading in Michigan, Brown would probably be the only black man in the room. To which they all nodded.

The crowd in the hall was more than Rick had feared it would be. A couple of Rick’s professors were there, the Director of the Program, as well as the Chair of the English Department, with his wife and his two guest poets and their spouses. Some curious MFAers, and at least a dozen undergrads, dressed in army surplus clothes and reeking of pot. Plus also three well-dressed black students, a boy and two girls, looking a little uncomfortable. So overall, a good crowd.

There was a table on the stage, with a mic and three bottles of water. The reading was supposed to started at seven, but by seven there was no Brown and Rick started to sweat. —Jesus I need a beer.

Billy opened his backpack and showed him the six-pack of Bud he had stashed inside. —I was going to give this to Brown, but maybe you could have one.

Rick tore off a can, ducked behind a column, and downed it. Just then there was commotion at the double doors leading into the hall.

—I’m here! I’m here! Where’s Dick at? I need Dick! Hey, that’s a good one. I need Dick!

Brown still looked exactly like his book photo. Tall, wide, with a big beer belly, only slightly balding and with more than a touch of grey hair. He was holding an old beat up backpack in one hand, and had his other arm around a younger black woman in a tight black dress and high heels, looking incredibly bored already.

All heads turned around to look at them and they stopped. Brown looked around the room. —God damn, is this a KKK meeting? I thought I was coming to a poetry reading. Who’s got the noose?

There were whispers and mutterings from the adults and giggles from some of the undergrads. Rick ran back —Mr. Brown, hello, welcome.

—Are you Dick?

—Rick. Rick Cassidy.

Brown smiled even wider. —Rick. My man.

Brown held out his hand and Rick shook it, smiling. —Welcome Mr. Brown.

—Mister? Man, just call me Ray.

—Ok Ray. We’re um, all ready for you.

—Aw shit. Here we go. Where’s my check?

—Um, it’s right here.

—Let’s see it.

Rick took the envelope out of his back pocket and held it out to him, hearing the people in the room talking louder and laughing. Brown grabbed the envelope, opened it, looked at the check, then smiled at Rick. —Alright Rick my man. Let’s get the crucifixion underway.

As they walked to the front of the hall, Brown looked around some more and did a double-take on the three young black people. —Oh shit, there is some black folks here. How you doing? I didn’t recognize you at first, you all dressed up like white folk.

The black kids stared at him, silent, with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. He shrugged and kept walking.

Ray dropped off his girlfriend (or whatever she was) in the front row next to Lupe, Billy and Gabrielle, and walked up to the table. From his other pocket, Rick produced an introduction he had written and unfolded it. Brown saw it and waved his hand. —Aw man, you’re kidding me. Let’s just start the blood-letting and get it over with. Either they know who I am or who gives a fuck.

Gasps from the audience.

Rick, red-faced by then, kind of stepped to the side of the stage. —Ok, um, ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!

All the younger people clapped and yelled. Billy whistled and Lupe did the high-pitched mexican ay-ay-ay thing that can’t be described with words.

Brown sat in the chair, hands on the table, looking out at the audience, though the lights had been dimmed. —Alright motherfuckers, I’ve come from Jackson to put Kalamazoo on the map!

The kids laughed and clapped again. The poet guests of the director had started giving him sidelong looks, while he sat in his chair, rigid. From his backpack, Brown took out a few of his books, tossing them on the table. He had started to sweat. —Goddamn I need a drink.

He looked at the bottles of water, then down at Rick, who had taken a seat next to Gabrielle. —Rick my man. Is that actually water in those bottles?

—Um, yeah? Sorry.

Brown sighed, and looked at the bottles again. —Oh fuck. This is going to  be a long night.

Suddenly, from the back, somebody yelled, —Read a fucking poem already!

Brown peered into the darkness, trying to find the person. —Finally, an honest person. Rare in the world of poetry. Ok, this one’s for you motherfucker.

He grabbed his latest book, Winter Madness, and seemingly at random, opened it and started reading his poem, “black pussy white pussy” (96).

By the end, the director of the MFA program was pale, the Chair’s face crimson, and his guests and their spouses silent, though actually Rick’s poetry workshop professor and some others had laughed halfway through. The three african-american kids got up and started to leave.

Brown wiped some sweat from his forehead and looked at them. —What’s the matter? Not black enough for you? Should I announce that I’m converting to Islam and  changing my name to Amiri Farrakhan or something?

The kids said nothing and hurried out. He set his book down. —Fuck I need a beer.

Billy reached into his backpack and tore off one of the cans of Bud, holding it up. Brown saw it and smiled —My man. Toss that motherfucker up here.

Billy threw it and Brown caught it, cracking it open immediately and taking a long swig.

The Chair of the Department stood up. —Mr. Brown, there are no alcoholic beverages  allowed in the hall!

Brown looked at him while sucking down the rest of the beer. When he was done, he crushed the can and threw it on the floor. —Shut the fuck up motherfucker. Have a drink. Kid, you got anymore tasty beverages in that there backpack of yours?

The Chair remained standing. —Mr. Brown, I’m serious, we can’t allow the drinking of alcoholic beverages!

—Man, fuck you.

—Mr. Brown, I’m the Chair of the English Department here. I’m serious.

—The what? The Chair? Well, I’m the couch, motherfucker!

The undergrads cheered. Someone in back started to chant, —Let him drink! Let him drink!

Billy took out the other four cans and put them up on the table. Brown grabbed another can and cracked it open. The director looked around at what was becoming a mob and his wife pulled him back down in his seat, where they whispered to each other, arguing.

Brown re-opened Winter Madness and read two poems, one right after the other. The first was “against the clock” (10) which ends with his floor supervisor at the factory getting drunk and admitting he is gay, which some people laughed at, though Brown didn’t smile, and the second was actually a poem about a girlfriend who “had the best legs he’d ever known” (13) dying in the hospital, coughing up blood. The room became silent after that. Brown opened up another beer.

Someone from the back, a girl actually, yelled out, —Read one of your whore poems!

Brown flipped through his book. —That was one of my whore poems.

—Read one of the funny ones!

—None of my poems are funny, bitch.

The crowd laughed. He grabbed Streets of Cruelty and Shame and started thumbing through it. Lupe took out a bottle from her purse and put it up on the table. Brown looked at it, then at her. —What’s this?

—Un regalo para tí! It’s tequila!

—Tequila! Oh shit. What kind?

—El Patrón!

—Oh fuck girl, you’re trying to kill me. Where you from? You sure ain’t from Michigan.

—Mexico!

—Mexico? I’ve never had mexican pussy before.

There were some gasps, but Lupe laughed. —Best you’ll ever have!

Everybody roared. Or, most everybody. Two more people, and older couple, got up and left.  Brown grinned, opening the bottle of Patrón. He smelled it, making a face. —Goddamn!

Then he upended it, taking three big swallows. Even Lupe gasped. Brown sat back, tequila dribbling down his chin, coughing. —Oh fuck!

The Chair stood up again. —Ok, that’s it! Mr. Brown, please. That is not allowed, and I can’t have you talking to people that way.

People started to boo, though it wasn’t clear at who. Some more bodies were getting up to leave. Gabrielle turned around and yelled at the director, —Let him read! Who cares!

An empty bottle of beer flew out of the darkness and landed on the stage, miraculously not breaking. Brown, tequila in hand, thumbed through to another page. —I’m gonna read another goddamn poem you fucking white motherfuckers. Not because you deserve it, but because it’s true.

He started into “freeway commute fantasy” (73), one of Rick’s favorites actually, but only got about halfway through before the Chair and his wife got up and left, though their guests actually stayed. A half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew came sailing up on the stage. Brown went on to another poem, sweating and sucking the tequila between stanzas.

The whole time, his girlfriend (or whatever she was) sat with her purse in her lap, legs crossed, looking bored.

Brown had gotten through two more poems, with no more people leaving, before the Chair came back into the hall with two campus police officers. Brown saw them and rolled his eyes. —Alright, here we go.

The room erupted in screaming. The cops looking horrified. One of them started talking into the radio mic attached to his shoulder. The Chair pointed at the stage. —Mr. Brown! You will leave the stage now!

Another Mountain Dew bottle flew out of the dark and bounced off of the Chair’s head. Kids cheered. Brown leaned down so his mouth was right next to the mic and said, —Can’t we all just get along?

The lights came on, and everyone was already standing, some people out in the aisles trying to leave, while others were trying to come down to the stage. Rick leaned over to Billy and Lupe and Gabrielle. —You guys, we’ve got to get him out of here. I think there’s an exit backstage.

While Rick hopped on stage, Billy took the girlfriend (or whatever) by the hand and started leading her to the side of the hall, while Gabrielle and Lupe tried to run interference. The two campus police were trying to find the Mountain Dew thrower, and two Kalamazoo city police officers had appeared at the door. Rick went over to the back of the stage where there was a master light switch and shut every light off, leaving the whole hall dark except for the entrance doors. People screamed. Rick led Brown to the side door, and Gabrielle held it open while they all slipped through. By then Billy had found an emergency exit door and led them to it. The six of them stood there, Brown still holding the Patrón, his other arm back around his lady’s waist while she rolled her eyes. The four kids were smiling at the poet. He turned to them. —Well?

Billy pushed open the door and the alarm started sounding. They walked outside and the door slammed shut behind them. Rick shook Brown’s hand. —I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. Thank you. You were great.

The air cold and wet, though still above freezing. The parking lot lights just over a small grassy hill. Rick pointed. —I think your car is probably over there. You should probably hurry.

Brown whispered something to the woman, and without even looking back at them, the two of them started up the snowy grass out into the gloom.

Rick put his face in his hands. —Holy fuck.

Billy slapped him on the back. —Dude! That was the best fucking poetry reading I’ve ever been to!

Gabrielle smiling, still looking after Brown. —I thought it was wonderful.

After meeting the ladies in person, both Billy and Rick thought they were even more attractive than before, though they didn’t know what the girls thought. They never knew what girls thought.

Rick was a little in love with both of them, in part because, how many girls actually would like Brown’s poetry? That meant they would/might like Rick’s poetry. That meant they would/might understand him and like him for what he truly was, which is what guys want. Plus hot sex. And both Lupe and Gabrielle seemed to exude the promise of hot sex. Lupe more obviously, because she was more outgoing and flirtatious (she smiled a lot) but Gabrielle more because she was obviously fucking smart, and there’s nothing hotter than a smart woman who likes sex. Like, that she likes it almost knowing she should know better, like she can’t help it and must give in to her carnal desires. Hot.

Unfortunately, one, he didn’t have a car, and two, he was in grad school (though it was only a MFA and not a real degree) and therefore busy with teaching a comp class and reading lots and writing lots, and three, both girls were outside his acceptable line of logistical dating, which most men put at around 45 miles/minutes. Note that the acceptable line of guaranteed sex is much more extensive, with some men up to an eight hour radius.

The girls were within Billy’s acceptable line of logistical dating, just barely, though actually not really, but close enough to make it tempting. But though he did think Gabrielle was hot, she was also, one, smarter than him, and two, a couple years older than him, which in about five years would not matter so much (and in fact he might even discover the pleasure of a much older woman at some point, if he was lucky) in college, two, or even one year’s difference, when the guy is the younger one, can feel like a decade.

But Lupe was hot and he became totally infatuated with her and eventually PMed her one time and asked her if she wanted to ‘hang out’ sometimes, that maybe he could come down to Ann Arbor sometimes. And…she said yes, but in the context of him hanging out with her and a bunch of her friends. Which Billy took to mean that she only thought of him in the context of a being only a friend, which may not really have been the case but he felt like if he was driving all the way to be with her that if she were really interested she’d just hang out just with him, which potentially betrayed where his thoughts were perhaps, as in sex, but to be fair Lupe was just a social butterfly type person and might not have been uninterested. In Mexico it was very common for younger people potentially interested in each other romantically to hang out in groups, but that’s where the acceptable line of logistical dating proves to be not so acceptable. That is, if Lupe had lived in East Lansing and proposed the same thing, Billy would have probably  at least tried it, but the potential for driving all that ways and not even really being able to talk with Lupe that much was enough to make him politely decline.

Still, a bond had been established between the four of them, and after they had all come back from the holidays and were back in school, it was Billy who first proposed (in a FaceBook thread) a pilgrimage to Jackson to visit Brown. It was centrally located to all of them, Rick would have the longest bus ride, an hour from Kalamazoo, and worse case scenario: they could share a motel room for the night and go back the next day.

They had to decide how to get a hold of Brown, since he didn’t have an email address that they knew of. Rick didn’t want to have to write another snail mail letter to Brown’s publisher, though if only he’d not hogged the idea (that he was the only one who could now write Black Crow) with any authority, Gabrielle or Lupe might have gotten a response, especially if they’d included pictures of them in their underwear. Poets like that kind of stuff.

Gabrielle half-jokingly suggested they pinpoint his apartment from the directions he left in his poems and stories, since he was famous for describing the routes, including street names, that he took to bars and strip joints and court. Rick took her seriously and tried to draw lines over a city map of Jackson he bought, but soon discovered that the apartment locations varied from book to book.

Finally, in an act of research that would have made his first year composition instructor proud, Billy went over to the MSU library, found a Jackson phone book, and looked in the B’s. And there it was: Brown, Ray. He copied the phone number down and got online to share his discovery with his friends, though he himself was too chicken to call the number. He thought Rick should call since Rick was the reading organizer and Brown would recognize him. Rick wasn’t even sure Brown wanted to hear from him again after that fiasco, and thought Lupe should call him because she was cute, and mexican, and had brought the tequila, which he certainly would remember. But Lupe said she couldn’t because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking on the phone in english for something as important as that. So then it came down to Gabrielle, who would do it, except she didn’t think he would remember her at all. There was never any discussion about whether they should call. They automatically assumed Brown would want to see them, because what writer wouldn’t want their fans stopping by to visit?

She called on Saturday afternoon at around twelve-thirty, since she figured he would be awake by then if he had been drunk the night before. So she sat on her living room floor and called on her cellphone.

He answered on the third ring, sounding like she’d just woken him, and that he wasn’t happy about it. —Hello?!

—Hi, Mr. Brown?

—Who the fuck is this? How much do I owe you?

She paused, in shock, and almost hung up, but knew her friends would never forgive her. —Nothing. My name is Gabrielle.

—Do I know you? Are you that married chick I fucked on New Year’s?

—Um, no. I’m a fan.

He moaned, as if he had a migraine. —Oh fuck.

—Are you ok?

—Yeah. Ok, you’re a fan.

—Yes. I was at your Kalamazoo reading last month.

He laughed. A short, bark-like laugh. —Ha! And you’re still a fan?

—Yes actually.

—Wait a minute. Are you that mexican chick that gave me the tequila?

—Um, no, actually she’s my friend. I was sitting next to her.

—Well, where you from? You sound like you got some kind of accent.

—I’m from Quebec.

—Ah, ma belle!

—Mais, vous parlez français alors?

—Nah, I just remember that line from that Beatles song. You sound sexy when you speak french though. Say something else.

—Like what?

—Like I want to suck your cock.

—Excuse me?

—Nevermind. Where you at right now?

—Ypsilanti.

—Too bad. Want to come over?

—Well actually my friends and I were wondering if we could come visit you sometime.

—Girlfriends?

—One of them is. The mexican girl that bought you the tequila.

—Oh christ yes! When can you get your asses over here?

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say, what to commit to, without consulting her friends. —Well, um, would next weekend be ok? Perhaps Saturday? In a week?

Brown sighed. —Yes. Perhaps.

He gave her his address quickly, she almost wasn’t able to copy it down, and she told him they’d be there for dinner and drink afterwards.

—Man, what, are you fucking planning a cocktail party or something?

They hung up and Gabrielle immediately called Lupe to tell her what had happened and Lupe wanted to hear every detail, though that took a while with their English. Afterward Gabrielle got online and wrote a group email to Billy and Rick, and Lupe again, just in case she had left something out.

Gabrielle and Lupe took the Greyhound bus together to Jackson, Lupe felt weird about Billy picking them up again, and Rick took one from Kalamazoo, arriving a little after them. Billy drove his car down and met them all at the downtown bus station at around five-thirty. The temperature in the low 40s, and dropping, the sky grey, like it had been for about a month. the streets wet, with only puddles in the gutters. Downtown Jackson almost seemed like a ghost town. Nobody out on the sidewalks, most of the parking lots deserted. The only life from where they were was the occasional mostly empty city bus pulling into the station. But all the taller buildings they could see, a few up to ten stories, all looked deserted and old. To the foreigners, it was bizarre to have a city center so empty, but Billy, who was from Flint, said that was normal in America.

They were sitting in his car, drinking beer from the case of Bud he’d brought with him. Gabrielle looked at the three big old churches to their north, which also looked deserted and miserable. —But…je ne comprends pas. What do people do? Like, for fun? It’s saturday.

Billy thought about it while he sipped a beer. —Well, I don’t know. Rent a movie. Somebody will probably have a party later. And there’s like, bars and stuff. Like, somewhere.

—But there’s no one place where everyone goes?

He shrugged. —Um, no. We just hang out with our friends. I’m not saying it’s exciting. I fucking hate Flint. I was glad to leave. This place reminds me of it.

Even though they had Brown’s address, and Billy MapQuested directions, they decided to have Gabrielle call him before they went over, but no one answered, and there wasn’t a message machine. So they decided to drive around and see more of Jackson, if there was more.

And they discovered there was a little bit, once they drove over to Michigan Ave and found a small two-block area of three restaurants and two bars, one of which was a strip bar. They took a right on Mechanic and found another restaurant, a mexican place, The Crazy Cowboy, and a tattoo shop, along with some other greasy spoon places that were closed, and adult bookstore, and a pawn shop. And a small real book store that was still open, which they found bizarre and therefore had to get out and look inside. Billy parked in a spot right on Mechanic, and they went in.

There was a small cafe, so Lupe bought everyone some variant of coffee and they asked the two employees about Jackson and what there was to do there. The employees laughed and recommended the mexican place a few doors down for dinner, but other than that they didn’t know, they weren’t actually from Jackson, and were just students at a small christian missionary college nearby. Rick checked the poetry section, which turned out to be about half a shelf next to comedy. No Brown. He asked the employees if they carried his books but they’d never heard of him, and were surprised when they learned he was from Jackson.

Gabrielle tried calling Brown again, but there was still no answer. They went into the restaurant and immediately felt weird because although there were people, most of the tables were occupied actually, everyone stared at them when they came in. They got a booth and asked Billy why. He smiled and said he thought it was because they looked like college students. That is, like they didn’t belong in Jackson.

Gabrielle tried calling one last time while they were eating, and Brown finally answered, sounding just as grumpy as last time. —Hello?!

—Mr. Brown?

—Check’s in the mail.

—Mr. Brown, this is Gabrielle du Mont. We spoke last week.

—Who?

—Gabrielle—

—Oh yeah! That french chick!

—Quebecoise.

—What?

The restaurant had turned up the music and she had to yell over The Rolling Stones. The others silent, listening. —I’m from Quebec!

—Oh yeah. Michelle ma belle. How you doing?

—I’m fine! We’re here in Jackson!

—We? Oh, you and that mexican señorita chick?

—Yes. My friends Billy and Rick too.

—Oh, well, got any tequila?

Gabrielle covered the phone with her hand. —Lupe, did you bring tequila?

—Of course!

Gabrielle continued. —Yes, and Billy brought beer. We’d like to come visit you?

—Yeah, I figured.

—Would that be alright?

—Do I have a choice?

—Well, we don’t want to bother you.

—No. Well, you got a car?

She verified the directions and hung up, telling them what he’d said. They finished eating and paid and got back in Billy’s car. Brown’s apartment was in an old three story building not too far from downtown, further east down Michigan Ave, near the hospital. They parked, got out, went in the building, Billy carrying the beer.  The hallway smelled like piss. They went up to his apartment on the third floor, and knocked on the door, Gabrielle and Lupe in front. When Brown opened the door, he saw them first and smiled. —Ladies! Welcome.

He looked at the two guys and his smiled lessened a little. Rick held out his hand. —Mr. Brown, I’m Rick Cassidy, I organized that reading at Western.

Brown nodded. —I remember you. That was a night. Stop with the mister bullshit. I’m Ray.

He shook Rick’s hand and focused on the case of beer in Billy’s arms. —My man. That’s what I’m talking about.

Billy held out the whole case, like an offering, and Brown took it, reaching in for a can. They stood awkwardly in the living room. There were two couches, and one end-table with a lamp. Off to one side a little L-shaped nook with a table and chairs, leading into a small kitchen, with and old dirty gas oven and even older refrigerator.

Brown sat with Gabrielle and Lupe on the bigger couch, in between them. Billy and Rick sat on the other couch. Brown handed a beer to each of the girls and tossed one each to the two boys. He lifted the box and smiled at Billy. —My man, we’re running low already. You might have to do a beer run soon.

Billy nodded, smiling. —Ok. Cool. No problem.

Brown sipped his beer with one hand and rubbed Lupe’s thigh with the other. —Hello baby. Aren’t you kinda cold all the way up here in Michigan?

Lupe smiling. —Yes. I really like your poetry.

—Of course you do. You understand me and all that bullshit, right?

She nodded. —Yes. I think when you read someone, no matter what they write about, it is really about them.

—Your parents paying all that money for you to learn that in college?

—I think what you do is an act, but I can tell the sadness in your poetry. You are a sad man.

—Oh christ….

He crushed his can and threw it across the room.

Gabrielle had been watching him, half-facing him. —It’s true. Your poetry is very sad.

He cracked open another beer and took a long gulp. —Baby, I don’t want to talk about poetry. You ever been with a black man before?

She kept studying him. —No.

—You’ll never go back.

—I’m sorry?

He looked at Lupe. —Explain that to your friend.

Lupe kept smiling. —I don’t know either. Go back to what?

He rolled his eyes and looked at Billy and Rick. —Boys, would you care to explain to your girlfriends what it means to never go back?

They squirmed on the couch, looking down at the floor, or the walls. Gabrielle said, —Actually, we’re all just friends.

Brown nodded. —Sure you are.

He looked at Billy again. —Son, I think we’re needing that beer run.

Billy jumped up. Rick got up more slowly, trying to make eye-contact with Gabrielle, but she was still watching Brown closely.

Brown got up and showed the boys to the door, opening it and stepping out in the hall with them. He put a hand on Rick’s shoulder and smiled. —Boys, why don’t you take your time? I’d like to get to know the ladies a little better, ok?

Rick tried one last time. —Mr. Brown, I just wanted to say that your poetry has really influenced—

Brown put up his hand to stop him. —Take your time fellas. Take your time.

He went back in his apartment and closed the door. The bolt clicked. They stood there a second, staring at each other. Rick shrugged. —Well….

Billy shrugged and nodded. Then he smiled. —Yeah.

They went out to Billy’s car. Snow had started to fall, covering everything, softening the background city noise. It was almost beautiful.

BIO

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, bike messenger, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Fiction Editor for Deep Wild Journal. www.johnyohe.com

Fishbowl Frenzy

by Susie Potter

“You’ll never guess who I saw the other day,” my mother says.

“Oh really?” I am somewhat distracted. My mother likes to ramble. Before I left her and here, before I left her here, I don’t think I noticed it much. But, now that I’m away at college most of the time, whenever I come back, her chatter seems incessant.

“He was holding a sign, begging for money,” she continues.

As I pull her dusty-smelling Buick into a narrow parking space, something in my gut clenches.

“Kyle?” I ask.

She nods, painting a look of sorrow and remorse on her face. I want to smack it off of her.

She doesn’t know a thing about Kyle, about what he was to me. We weren’t true loves or anything like that, but he was a good friend, a good boyfriend, someone who rescued me from her all-encompassing, clinging need.

I don’t say anything as I help her unload her shopping bags. I’m silent still as we walk up the stairs to her apartment, the one she’d moved into after selling my childhood home, the home she’d always promised would be left to me.

I help her put away her groceries, the blouses she bought that look just like the blouses she already owns.

“Do you have to be getting back now?” she asks. There’s a look in her eyes like she expects me to say yes and like she’s already judging me for saying it.

I’m here less and less. I help her less and less. But it’s not my fault that my mom is seventy and needs help. She’s not forty or fifty like all of my friends’ parents. She’s old. She acts more feeble than she is. She still acts like she needs me. I don’t want her to need me. I never wanted her to need me the way she did.

“I don’t have to go quite yet,” I tell her.

“Oh,” she says,“good. I’ll make us some coffee.”

As she goes and bustles in her tiny kitchen, my mind wanders to Kyle.

We’d grown up together. We were best buddies in elementary school until, suddenly, all the girls had cooties.

Then, junior year of high school, I’d run into him at a kegger. He’d offered me a beer, smoked me up. We’d had a brief fling. We’d had fun, and God how I’d needed fun.

We’d lasted longer than anyone thought we would. He was too hot for me, too cool, everyone said. But we’d had a nice effect on each other. A calmness, a gentleness seemed to envelop us when we were together.

But still, a couple of months before graduation, things had petered out.

I had been kind of talking to Greg Olsen behind Kyle’s back. Greg was so nice and dependable, while Kyle smoked pot all day. He’d already dropped out of school, sacrificing a degree for delivering pizzas, at least when his gas money hadn’t gone to weed.

Before Kyle, Greg never would have looked at me. But dating Kyle, with his soft blonde hair and his Ryan Gosling features, had elevated me in the eyes of my peers. It had made Greg see me, and, the way I saw it then, there was nothing real ahead for Kyle and me. There were other options.

Kyle had called me one night.

“Listen” he’d said. “Are you into Greg Olsen? That’s what I’m hearing.”

“I don’t know,” I’d answered honestly. “Maybe?”

“So,” he’d said, “this thing between us, is it over?”

“I don’t know,” I’d told him, even though part of me did. “Do you want it to be?”

“No,” he’d answered, “not really.”

“Okay,” I’d said. Maybe we could drag this on for a few more months, at least until I left for college.

“I think it should be over,” he’d said, after a pause, “even if I don’t want it to.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”
            “I don’t know.” He’d sighed then, heavy. I could picture him raking his hand through his hair.“It’s just done, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.” He’d paused for a moment. I’d known he was toking. “I’ll always care about you.”

“Me too,” I’d said, realizing that I meant it.

When we’d first gotten together, there had been those teenage girl dreams. Yes, I’d scribbled Mrs. Kyle Johnson on a notebook or two. But, there was something in Kyle that wouldn’t let me dream too big, that wouldn’t let me make up an entire future. I just knew he wasn’t the one, couldn’t be the one, couldn’t help make me into the person I wanted to be. It didn’t mean I cared about him any less.

“You know,” I tell my mother, coming out of my thoughts,“Kyle is the only nice breakup I ever had. We didn’t fight or throw things.”

I think about my most recent ex, Dylan, who cheated on me at a frat party and then had a bonfire with his buddies to burn all the bras and panties I’d left at his house.

“Hmm,” she mumbles. “Do you want cream?”

“Yes,” I tell her, “a lot.”

 I remember Kyle making us coffee at his apartment.

“I’m going to make us a surprise,” he’d said.

“Okay.”

He’d come back with two cups of coffee, a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in each. He’d looked so proud of himself.

“Delicious,” I’d told him, beaming. He’d smiled and smoked his morning weed.

That was the thing with Kyle. Morning weed. Afternoon weed. Pre-date and after-date weed. It was all the time.

He’d taken me out to a restaurant once, early in our relationship.

Over chips and salsa, feeling romantically swayed by the lilting music, I’d asked him, “What are you thinking about?”

I’d hoped he’d say something like “being with you” or “holding in you in my arms later.”

Instead, he’d said, “I’m thinking about going to get some weed after this. I wish I had it now. This would taste even better.”

I’d just shook my head, laughed it off.

Once I left for college, he quickly faded from a boyfriend-turned friend to a guy from my past, a harmless but sweet pothead. He’d be okay. There were plenty of guys like him, mucking their way through life at minimum wage jobs, smoking pot, partying. They’d stop at forty and get real lives, usually after finding the right girl. Or, they wouldn’t and they’d be slightly-sad, later-creepy dudes who partied with high schoolers à la Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.

“Mom,” I say, as she brings in our coffees. Mine doesn’t have enough cream. Definitely no ice cream. “Did it seem like he was on drugs? When you saw him, I mean.”

“Oh, Hannah,” she says. “You know I don’t know anything about that stuff.”

“I know,” I tell her, “but he always had a thing for pot. It can’t be that. I mean, it’s just pot.”

My mother pauses for a moment, giving her coffee a blow-sip. “I’ve heard,” she says finally, a trace of a sensationalist thrill in her voice, “that we have a major meth epidemic in this town.”

I sigh. I hate the thrill in her voice as much as the smug look on her face.

“How did he look?” I ask finally, as if the answer can tell me something concrete.

“He looked like Kyle,” she says, “only his hair was all long, and he looked kind of dirty.”

I nod. I remember the time he didn’t have any toilet paper, any soap, any of the essentials in his house. He’d had weed and Ramen, but nothing else. So, I’d taken a few items from my mom’s couponing hoard.

She’d noticed. It was just a tiny dent in her stash that she housed in the shower, a shower we didn’t use, couldn’t use anymore because of her “bargains,” but she’d noticed.

“Why would you give that boy my stuff?” she’d raged, irrational tears streaking her eyes.

“It was just a few-”

“Hannah, you had no right,” she’d cut me off, angry that I’d taken from her. More angry that I’d wanted to give something to someone other than her.

“You never liked him, did you?” I say now, sipping my coffee.

“He was okay,” she says.

Without meaning to, I make a noise with my throat, a noise that sounds like scoffing.

“Where did you see him?”

“By the mall,” she says. “I think he’s staying in the woods behind it.”

I put my coffee down. I feign a look at my phone.

“Mom,” I tell her, “I do have to get back. I forgot about this project, and . . . ”

“I see how it is,” she says, “you’ve got more important things to do than hang out with me.”

I don’t answer her as I gather my bag, rush out the door, because, for once, she’s right.

I don’t really have a plan as I settle into my car, crank the engine. I just want to see if I can catch a glimpse of him.

I drive the few blocks from her place to the decrepit mall. Not many people go there anymore, haven’t for awhile. The small town is changing, dying even, but people like my mom don’t seem to realize it. And there are lots of people like her here.

I circle the parking lot, scanning for people, scanning for him.

After two times around, he’s nowhere to be found. I sigh. Why am I doing this anyway? I have a life now, a life that’s only two hours from here, but that seems like a world away. I wouldn’t even come back here if it wasn’t for her, and sometimes I think about abandoning this place and her as well. He doesn’t matter to me anymore. He shouldn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m telling myself all these things as I leave the mall lot, get in the line to turn onto the highway. And then, I see him.

At first, I don’t register that it’s him. It’s just a guy, and like my mom says, he does look dirty. Dirty and hard and old, much older than he is, which isn’t that much older than me.

He’s holding a sign that says “Homeless Veteran. Anything Helps.”

It’s a lie.

He walks up to the car in front of me, collects a dollar.

I will him not to look my way.

I wanted to see him, but suddenly, I don’t want him to see me. I can’t.

I look down, fiddle with my phone, the radio buttons, anything to keep him from seeing me.

The car in front of me goes, and I speed after it, too fast.

My hands are shaking. I shouldn’t care this much. It shouldn’t bother me so much to see him like this, but it does.

I pull into the McDonald’s, the one just before you leave town. I need a minute to collect myself, to get my hands and my brain to stop rattling.

Instead, I’m assaulted by a memory. Kyle and I went to this McDonald’s many times, but one particular time is jabbing at my brain, begging me to really see it.

It was a Friday night.

I was playing a free trial of this game I’d downloaded. It was called Fishbowl Frenzy, and it was awesome. You managed this fishbowl. You fed the little goldfish. They pooped gold coins that you collected. As the levels progressed, you had to buy a carnivore to eat the goldfish. The carnivore pooped diamonds.

I don’t know what happened next in the game because that was as far as I’d gotten. I’d only signed up for a one-hour free trial. And, while I loved the game, it hadn’t been worth spending money on, not when I had college to save up for.

I didn’t think Kyle had been paying much attention. He was high, watching television, zoned out. This was how our Fridays went. I was getting tired of coming over just to sit and do my own thing while he got high, ignored me. What was the point? I hadn’t yet said any of this to him.

But, when I’d closed the computer, he’d reached out a hand to stop me.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I was waiting for my turn,” he said.

“Oh,” I told him, “you can’t. I mean, it was just a one hour free trial.”

“Oh man,” he said. “I really wanted to play.”

“Well,” I told him. “You could do it on your laptop. I think they track it by device.”

“Oh yeah.” He smacked his head. He ran into his messy kitchen, retrieved his laptop from the table, plunked it on his lap as he sunk into the couch.

I helped him download the trial and, for the next hour, he didn’t stop playing. He couldn’t take his eyes from the screen. He clicked. He made it way further in the game than I had, but I was bored, watching television. All I know was there was something about a “Queen Fish” who saved all your money so you wouldn’t go bankrupt. Going bankrupt meant your whole tank died.

I knew when his trial ended because he let out a loud, “God damnit.”

“What?” I asked him anyway.

“I can’t play anymore,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “too bad.”

“Maybe they track it by email,” he said. “I had to put my email in to play.”

“Maybe.” I was thinking about leaving. Kyle didn’t know it, but I was texting Greg.

“Nope,” Kyle said, after a moment

“Sorry.” I was completely distracted now.

“Did you download the game here?” he asked

“No,” I said, “at school.”

Greg had texted a funny picture of himself at a bar, holding up his fake ID with a wry grin.

“I googled it,” Kyle said, after a minute.

“Googled what?” I was busy telling Greg that maybe I’d come out, if he thought he could get me in without a fake.

“How the free trials work,” Kyle said exasperatedly.

What I wanted to say was, really, you care that much about this, but I bit my tongue.

“They work based on connection, not device,” Kyle explained. “So, if I get on a new connection, I can download another free trial. I can get further. I can win.”

“That’s cool,” I said, “but I was thinking about heading home.”

“No,” he said. “You can’t. Please. I have to play.”

I sighed. He had that look in his eyes, that desperate want that you could never say no to.

“Drive me to the McDonald’s,” he said. “They have free Wi-Fi.”

“Kyle,” I told him. “I don’t feel like it. I had a beer . . .”

“Just one,” he said. “You can drive. Please.”

I sighed.

“Okay, but after that, I’m dropping you off and heading home.” Greg had already promised he could get me in, no problem. He’d done it before, he’d said.

So, I drove Kyle to the stupid McDonald’s. It was closed, at least the inside part was. So, we’d parked, getting as close to the building as we could for maximum WiFi exposure.

He’d started the download and then, a few minutes later, before it could complete, his computer had died.

“Shit,” he’d screamed, suddenly irrationally angry.

“I just need to charge it,” he mumbled. “Let me see if they’ll let me in.”

“Kyle,” I put a restraining hand on his arm, “you can’t. They’re closed.”

“They might let me in,” he said, and there was a fierceness in his eyes, a determination like I’d never seen before.

I hunkered down in my car, as low as possible, not wanting anyone to see me. Kyle had marched right up to that door, knocked. When no one came, he’d yelled out a loud, “Hey.”

Finally, a bored looking girl came to the door, didn’t open it. She just mouthed, “We’re closed.”

I could hear Kyle, loud, trying desperately to explain what he needed, but she was already walking away, shaking her head, ponytail swishing.

He came back to the car.

“Fuck,” he said, slamming my door.

“It’s no big deal,” I told him. “It’s just a game.”

“Not to me,” he’d said, “not to me.”

I’d driven him home, and that night had marked the decline of us. Our connection, once so real and vibrant, had faded away, bit by bit, after that night.

And now . . . he was this guy I didn’t really know, who I heard about from my mom. This guy begging on street corners in our hometown.

I look at the phone in my hand. I think how, now, just a couple of years later, you can download a game in an instant . . . if you have the cash. You don’t even need WiFi. You have data . . . if you have the cash. The world, I think, is different, but Kyle is not.

I think for a minute about what I could do for him. Brief thoughts of bringing blankets, food, all the things he might need, out there, swimming alone in the world, not eating enough to poop gold.

I decide against it. I hate to admit it, but a part of me is scared, doesn’t trust him. Sure, he’s Kyle to me, but he’s also a homeless guy, and homeless people steal. They hurt you.

I hate myself for thinking it, but I think it nonetheless.

Ultimately, I just pull out of the McDonald’s, head back toward the safety of my college campus, the friends who laugh and who only smoke pot recreationally.

When I get there, collapsing in the warm safety of my room, my soft bedspread, the familiar pictures tacked up on college-chic corkboard, I feel weirdly panicked for a moment, like I’m gasping for breath, flopping around and confused. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, but it’s terrifying, like a weight pressing down on me, telling me I’m going to die. And, then, just like that, it passes. I take in a deep breath. I take in the non-threatening room. I’m not dying. I’m fine.

It’s then that I decide, firmly and immediately, that I won’t be going home again for awhile, maybe not ever.


BIO

Susie Potter is a writer with works in The Colton Review, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Reveiw, NOD, Existere, and Grasslimb. When she’s not busy writing, she enjoys spending time with her family and pets and volunteering in her community. She wrote this story to open a discussion on the drug epidemic affecting her hometown.



The New Reality

by Tom Whalen

I told everyone the new reality would be easy to understand, there was nothing to worry about, our lives were soon to be made richer, fuller of promise, strange songs we would sing throughout the rest of our days. The new reality would eliminate self-isolation and the difficult. Hard to grasp concepts, four-dimensional chess, calculating the recession rate of stars would be a breeze. And the new reality wouldn’t play favorites, wouldn’t have citizens who would benefit more than others or look down upon those who were dumber, because no one would be dumb. The new reality would elevate us all.

Then the map of the new reality arrived, we pored over it, and I had to eat my words.

I visited the Museum of the Old Reality with its long arms of lists and thick blue veins. I walked through the Door of Ego and down the Corridor of Why with its vines trailing away into a horizonless distance. I looked in the glass cases of the Museum of Old Reality, hoping history would answer some of my questions, my doubts and anxiety about the future of life and the afterlife. In the stairwells of the museum I paused to admire the paintings of the wisdom of the pre-Socratic masters wherein donkeys and sheep grazed and slept in meadows and the sun peeped over the hills. In the closed stacks of the Museum of the Old Reality that I snuck into, I took delight in a moment of prayer. An inestimably sweet infusion of eternal praise, full of warmth and learning, hummed in my bones. Later, in the museum’s coffee shop, Cardinal Newman and I had a long, edifying chat on the cultivation of the intellect and drank several pots of black tea. Then, after I used the toilet, I stepped back into my own unchosen century, none the more prepared for the new reality.

The new reality has cracked my skull, said Edmund. The new reality has cracked my skull, too, said Yoshi. Mine, too, said Richard. It’s cracked my skull and the organ of cognition contained therein, said Gilbert. And mine, said Naguib, scratching behind his ear. And mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, and mine, said Eunice, Mechilde, Maeta, Dino, Ilse, and Gottfried.

Everywhere, as best I could tell, people walked around lamebrained by the new reality.

Meanwhile Gertrude was unhappy. I’m unhappy, she said. Which is to say I’m sad. I’m not happy about anything. I’m not happy about this book I can’t read. I’m not happy about social networking which changes its apps and offerings by the minute. I’m not happy that our children are being weaned on Jack Daniels by nanny-bots, though often I’m not not happy about it either. I’m not happy that the cost of air per ounce has increased by several creds, and if it had not been I wouldn’t be happy about that either. I’m not happy that the eternal coming of the bridegroom has been indefinitely delayed, I even expected as much. And I’m not happy that the postman has died on our stoop of COVID-919, it displeases me that he died on our stoop rather than another. And I’m not happy that Lowell’s Memoir on a Trans-Neptunian Planet is out of print, never to be printed again. And let me add that I’m not happy that you’re an idiot. I’ve always known that that was what you were, and I’ve never been happy about it. And I’m not happy that I’m not one, too. I’d love to be an idiot, but I can’t deny my smarts. And I’m not happy that I’m not larky, even if I don’t believe larks are really happy, though I bet they’re not unhappy. In a word, I’m like totally fucking miserable. In fact, I think I’m depressed.

Are you happy about the new reality? I asked.

How can I be happy or unhappy about it, she said, when I don’t know what it is?

I received a catalogue of new courses offered at the University, a catalogue on parchment with a gold trim and fish head insignia. Courses now required included New Genetics (for those born under the old genetics, the system of the lamb, the catalogue said the course was free), Basic Banking, Mysticism 101, and Twirl. New electives included Gestalt Text Messaging, Swiss Soups, Color Separation, and Life Cycles of the Ootid, a haploid cell formed by the meiotic division of a secondary oocyte, especially the ovum, as distinct from the polar bodies.

I flew to Zurich to visit Neue Zentralbibliothek and was led by an assistant down a flight of stairs into a cave-like enclosure where its mainframe was incaved.

Of what does the new reality consist? I asked it.

The mainframe sang a vaguely familiar theme I couldn’t place; its lights lit up, followed by a sound like the clacking of a typewriter, then its answer.

Of this that and the other, it said.

That’s it? I asked.

Only one question allowed, the assistant said, ushering me out.

At night we sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle, damaged and adrift in the glow of our screens.

Then the Professor spoke to us.

Fluidics, he said. Fluidics and algorithms. First, wash your face, then wash your hands, then your face, then dirty them up again. How have the questions come to be so confused? Don’t ask the darlings of this earth, darlings with lapwings for shoulders and interstitial eyes. Have you consulted the ghost in the machine? If your comments have been tabulated, investigated, digested and interfaced with the sounds of the year 1918, then slip into your harnessed minds and proceed with your development, first cutting the semantic cord. The ozone is the occult, the sky detonates. There has been a categorical error, I repeat there has been. Once wonder seized me, then faded away into introspection. I have come to you with news, a shower of tweets and hoaxes, veritable observations that the path you lead is not of your own making. If you believe there’s no good to resist, then why resist it? My heart aches, penance may afflict you, Venus has vanished. Now look at life non-optically. The mind reports its own affairs, Ryle tells us, and nothing else. Isn’t that enough? Are you sipping the spinal fluid through plastic straws? I’m lonely. I don’t feel well. You’ve been warned—then he collapsed over the podium, and a thick blue fog descended from the rafters and devoured him.

I had imagined that once we had obtained the new reality, had taken it fully in, it would replace the outworn, message-laden, utilitarian old, crises would dissolve like clouds and a new life would flourish on the planet like a garden grown wild. But I was wrong. The question is: what can we do to ward off the feeling of helplessness that comes upon us when confronted with even a portion, a script, a remnant of the new reality no one seems to understand? A qualitative analysis of imprecision might help, as might making sure the lenses on your glasses, if you have glasses, are clean. It’s possible the so-called new knowledge will help, but I have my doubts. Isn’t the new always only wrapped in the old, like a child decked out in a tuxedo? Still, I sense there’s much to be done, this side of acquiescence. Disasters to prepare for, dreams to disentangle, deaths to mourn. The orange rain, for example, that has begun to fall—orange, triangular rain the size of birdcages—might also bear examination.


BIO

Tom Whalen’s books include The President in Her Towers, Elongated Figures, Winter Coat, and Dolls. His translation of Robert Walser’s Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories is forthcoming from NYRB Classics in 2021.

Photo © Kim Graser, 2015.

Three New Names

by Masie Hollingsworth

An umbrella. I’m about to lose eight years of stealing, saving, and lying through my teeth to my own mother because of one stolen umbrella, may the moons curse me.

The officer jerks me forward, and I clench my jaw tighter to swallow down more than just the pain of my shoulder being practically ripped out of its socket. I feel his cold gaze on me again, and I risk a glance in his direction. It’s the same teasing glint in his eyes, the corners of his mouth curling upward in a cruelly pleased sneer—one I want with every fiber of spite left in me to match, but even I wouldn’t dare it in this place, every square inch alive with legions of bored and armed officers. It’s the same expression he wore when he first snagged me from behind by the hood of my jacket; I hope whatever muscles hidden by the fat of his face are as aching as I’d imagine they’d be to hold such an expression for so long.

But then again, maybe I deserve what’s coming to me. I’m disappointed at my own self that I made the bright decision to try and escape. Resisting arrest; I hear it’s a pretty major offense, enough to drag out the minor offense of stealing an umbrella. But if they find out the reason why I stole it, why I resorted to petty theft to hide from the rain, why I was wandering the streets of the capital this time of night alone and without a job as far as they could tell, at least…

A large man at the front desk waves away a woman in front of us, her report of a crime apparently not worth their time. I’m not-so-secretly rooting for her to lose it and make a scene to distract everyone, but I’m not so lucky.

Which means it’s our turn to step forward. Me, the dreaded umbrella thief.

Another jerk from my officer, and I’m for once thankful for the handcuffs serving as the impulse control I certainly lack. The officer and the round red bull’s eye of his nose better be glad too, whatever his name is. My eyes flick to the pale formation of sylwei marks curling over his forehead: “Urilhispaisolian,” in common letters. Giving him the sole ability to communicate with swamp-joie birds. My eyes almost water as I disguise a snort; letting on my fluency in the patterns of sylwei would be about as incriminating as strolling in with five case-fulls of stolen alpit spilling from my pockets.

Or wearing nothing but a thin layer of non-waterproof makeup to hide a whole scribble of stolen names crowding my face outside, in the rain, in broad evening daylight.

Dakotyzen will kill me if Sol doesn’t.

I try to cast the thought from my mind. But one tear in my sleeve, a flash of my unpainted collarbone, even if they make me pull up my hair to reveal the back of my neck—a day’s mission’s worth stolen names, powerful or not, killed for or pledged with albeit forced compliance—they’d finally lock up their sylwei thief before I could even get the name “Lord Sol” out of my mouth. Not that he hadn’t made it clear he wouldn’t spare a coin to claim me if the event of my capture ever did arise.

If. I savor the hope of the word, chewing my lip in feigned boredom. I still have a chance, a good one at that, to get away without much more than a fine or even a night in prison. Right now, I can’t afford to let my fear or pessimism shake me. Or the damp pressure on my wrist of one old, brutish officer and his apparent lack of a responsible anger management outlet.

The whole front desk sags at the weight of its occupier, as well as the fierce boredom reeking from the clerk man’s tight-lipped expression and watery eyes. “What’s this one done?”

It’s as if the whole area emanates the weight of his apathy; I try to let it soak into my bones to calm them if I can’t hope to cry my way out of this one. He asks the question more like he thinks he works in a cheap second-rate market vendor than a police station. “Tysedelphawen,” the name on his forehead would appear to the untrained eye. But those swirled symmetrical sylwei letters all combined would mean… the ability to know a person’s heart rate by simply looking at them. Despite the subordination his name’s length might suggest, it could be useful—to detect extreme nervousness. Or lies. Whatever parent named him must’ve been clever to find such a useful name that hadn’t been taken yet.

Officer “Urilhispaisolian” clears his throat, shoulders already set with alert but confident ease, interrupting my internal debate of whether his friends would call him “Uril,” or “Soli,” or whatever else. “Caught her sneakin’ around, trying to pickpocket folks on the streets. Gave me a good chase when I went after ‘er.”

I change my mind. He probably doesn’t have any friends. Awen, as I’ve elected to call the clerk officer, huffs a bored sigh as if to confirm my conclusion. “She take anything?”

“Mm hm. She had this,” Uril’ continues, hoisting the umbrella into the air with enough triumph to spatter a mist of raindrops and startle me (but not to make a dent in my concealer thank the moons), “And who knows what else!”

I let loose a little eye-roll, not enough to seem undermining of his authority but just the right trick to sell myself as a bored, moody preteen. Despite my height, I can easily pass for one.

The front desk man, Tysa-delph-whatever, narrows his eyes at me, then to my forehead. I stifle a shiver.

“Sat-i-al… kala.” He purses his lips, suspicious of the relatively short name that usually earns me extra respect, orjealous stares. I can only pray he can’t read what my power really grants me. “Explain yourself.”

It’s common knowledge anywhere that the recipe for a man’s sympathy is runny mascara and a pair of extra-pouty lips, but there’s no way I’ll be able summon tears with the mood I’m in at the moment. So I settle on a different approach.

“It was just the umbrella.” I turn out my pockets, shrugging off my satchel and dumping all the contents on the front desk for effect. He visibly winces as my Official rations receipt plants face-up on the desk, and I bite down a smile at my luck. And the status working for Sol all these years has brought me. “And I’m not a pickpocket, I just ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This had better be worth having to pick up all those dropped alpit coins once this is all over.

Awen reclines back in his chair as he clasps his hands together, and I’m not the only one to wince at the strain it squeaks under his weight. “Just the umbrella. Hmph.”

 I’ve changed my mind—the risk of them discovering my various pistols and back-up pistols disguised as a squarescreen and two compass-tracker sorts of equipment was definitely worth it. But Uril officer doesn’t seem as convinced. “So I suppose the umbrella just happened to fall into your hands?”

I struggle to keep my breathing easy. It’s a question I can easily explain, one I actually expected, but it’s his narrowed gaze on one of the spilled items that offsets me; there’s suspicion there for sure, stuck on the compass-tracker-gun like a splinter in my chances of escape, the one weapon slightly less artfully hidden. The pressure of my eyelids as I close them in an attempt to collect myself doesn’t do much to calm me, in a situation where calmness is key.

But I tell myself it’ll be okay anyway. Let him search the blasted gadget; it takes a whole pattern of buttons to lock into place as a weapon, a clever design by whoever Sol pays to plan his dirty-work. And besides, the bright red button in its center still works as a tracking beacon—unless it stopped working in the time between now and about five minutes ago when I sent a little SOS to Dakotyzen. I only wish my partner could spare the effort to arrive just a little bit faster.

I set my jaw, reminding myself of the current predicament. “I didn’t say I took it by accident.” The officer copies my stance, crossing his arms in suspicion. “What I meant was I shouldn’t have hung around with… a certain group. Forced me into stealing the umbrella on a dare, and I’m sorry, but I really didn’t feel like ending up a stain on the sidewalk, so,” I scoop up most of my coins, piling enough to be a worthy fine in front of Awen’s lamentful expression, and pick up my satchel to leave.

The old man sighs, accepting the alpit and reaching for a records file most likely to log my name in. I try to remind myself that this was the better alternative to every other disaster that could’ve happened. It takes Awen a painful amount of time to find my name, and I curse Kota for being so slow to come get me. I’d rather be out of here before the swell of rain from outside succeeds in its plan to ruin my life, by sweeping in to reveal each of my hidden names or whatever other reason it seems so intent on pounding the roof in right from above.

Awen’s chair groans as he finally sets the file on the table after finding my name. Good. maybe they won’t think twice about me when it shows that my power is nothing more than rapid-healing: powerful, but nothing too threatening. After all, I didn’t lie when I said it was my gift. It was one of them and at some point, at least. I just left out the part about killing that drug lord to get it, and selling it months ago to the corrupt estate lord of my hire. Awen’s almost hefted the enormous file onto the desk, but the grumpy officer, Uril, hasn’t had enough.

“Sir, I hardly believe—”

“We’ll still have to log this on your record,” his co-worker, who apparently must out-rank him in this field, says. Completely ignoring him. I’m beginning to grow deeper and deeper indebted to Awen, though he wouldn’t miss the chance to lock me up if he knew it.

Sure enough, he gives a slight nod of his head when his eyes fall upon my name and its meaning. “How’d you get it? Your name? It’s pretty short, I mean.” and therefore powerful.

“Oh,” I have to snap myself out of my reverie. I can’t afford to be complacent at the moment. “My grandmother was a nurse, back in the war. A higher-ranking general pledged it to her before he died, and she passed it on to me before she passed away some years ago.” I look up, with a smile almost as small and tender as the melancholy I’ve poured into my voice.

And only then do I realize my mistake in telling the truth rather than just lying to be over with this. “Well, of course, he was so deeply wounded his gift of healing couldn’t fix him. It was a tragic war, really was, really was.” I curse myself for babbling on like an old gossip, but I can only hope it’ll work. And that neither of them recall about two minutes ago when I mentioned not wanting to… what were my words? ‘End up a stain on the sidewalk.’ My luck’s just getting worse.

Awen’s eyes narrow from across the desk counter, and I look down pretending to be bashful. But now I’m met with another gaze; the countertop’s shiny enough that it’s my own reflection like a wide-eyed shrum caught in a trap staring back at me. I quickly snap my ridiculous gaping mouth shut, and look back up.

And then my eyes catch something I wish for the sake of my heart rate they didn’t. It’s a mighty feat if not an impossible one not to wince as Awen’s sylwei mark glows slightly red; he’s using his gift, reading my pulse at the very moment.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

“Oh, Kala, mom’s going to kill you.”

The words catch me off guard as much as they do the guards. My mom would kill me if she knew what I’ve done to send them money all these years.

My tight-lipped smile when I whip around isn’t anything short than threatening, but it’s real and relieved. “Only if she finds out.” I say, walking with stiff joints away from the front desk, but at least I’m not shaking.

Dakotyzen even ruffles my hair in the way an older brother would, smile wide and unfaltering. “I’m deeply sorry for any damage this little mell-monger did. We’re both sorry. I’ll be taking her home to let our mother deal with her.”

“Will not,” I punch his arm. It’s something I’d do if my real brother had said as much, and the nearest officers buy it with low chuckles.

Kota mouths something like, “Don’t worry, I will,” to Awen, and he nods to let us go. Once again, the age-old sibling act has proven successful, and I’m battling down a smug grin on our way back through the line from the front entrance. At least this time, it’s my own colleague jerking me by the arm, and he’s even brought his own umbrella.

“That was too close for comfort.” Any trace of humor in Kota’s voice is gone, abandoned for a light but dry inquisitive tone. Though I wouldn’t have it any other way; either this, or his wrath. Which I probably deserve, having risked both of us and Sol’s whole band of sylwei thieves at that, all because of a stupid mistake. Or two.

I tighten my jaw, voice low as we join the horde of side-walkers, though it’s not like anyone could hear us through the conundrum of the storm. I knew this was coming, but I still would rather avoid more criticism. “Yeah, they barely bought it. Next time you ought to be my little brother.” Thanks to our conveniently similar dark eyes and hair, it isn’t true that the officers barely believed that we’re siblings, but I needed something to bring the conversation away from my mess-up.

Kota makes a sound like an unimpressed snort, clearly having caught on to my attempt at diverting the blame. But I risk a glance next to me, and sure enough his pride has taken a hit; I almost regret that it worked. Almost. Though he knows I was just teasing, he takes about as kindly to remarks about his height as he does mentions of his… less-than proud origins. Just as I predicted, he doesn’t say anything for at least another minute.

When he does eventually ask the dreaded question, I explain the umbrella situation with as much dignity as I can. I’m just glad I at least had time to relax my tense muscles and feel myself fade into the crowd, a network of busy street folk snaking around every corner under a roof of all shades of umbrellas that almost look like multicolored scales in the distance. It’s times like these when the streets are really dangerous; so much pushing and shoving it’s not uncommon that some passersby meet disaster under the wheels of speeder-traffic, and it wouldn’t be a safe gamble at all to assume anybody with as powerful a gift as some sort of healing would be wandering these streets.

• • •

“Where are you going?” I quirk an eyebrow, though I follow Kota around a curve too soon to be the turn that leads to Sol’s hidden domain.

Kota offers the slightest of grins. “While you were busy getting arrested, I found a short-cut.”

“Alright then.” I highly doubt he actually did, but whatever he’s got up his sleeve, I’ll play along.

Another turn, and we’re in an even less-populated alley-way. No road, nothing but a sidewalk only three-persons wide. I haven’t heard this much quiet, or had this much personal space on the street since a particularly successful mission during last year’s Moons’ Festival.

“So what really happened? Before your genius act of getting yourself caught in the rain, not the other even brilliant-er idea of petty theft, I mean?”

I jerk my chin up away from him, buying a little more time to organize my thoughts, and then allow myself another pause to wrinkle my nose as a particularly fat shrum darts away through the shadows, sending ripples in the puddles in its wake. This is a sketchy side street if I’ve ever seen one, and the darkness from storm clouds overhead doesn’t help.

“Found my targets soon enough, and then a couple of unexpected targets. The four original ones were members of a small little gang, but who knows who they killed to get such powerful names.” Not that anyone Sol would target would have a name any less than priceless, of course. Kota hisses an understanding laugh along with me. “They had two others who weren’t on the target-list with them, so I, ah,  convinced them to pledge their names to me easy enough, too. Sol never objects to extras.”

Extras. For a moment, I wonder if he’ll ask what they are. For a moment, the last decent part left in me wants him to.

But he doesn’t. Maybe he really is cursed.

I bite back a relieved smile, cursing my own wickedness. Though when I turn to him, something in the subtle smirk of Kota’s expression unsettles me; nonetheless, I keep going. “My turn now. What job did Sol have you on today that had you forging your sylwei again? Or should I start calling you… ha, Eglezdipalien?”

I’ve gotten Kota to laugh for a second, the fake name drawn onto his forehead creasing as he raises his eyebrows. The ability to gauge how long it’s been since someone has picked their nose, just by looking at them. An effective alias for Kota in diverting suspicion I’m sure, but I hope for the sake of whoever that it’s not a real name; I’d sooner be nameless.

But then, just like that, Kota’s lost all his humor again—I hope he can’t see that I’ve nearly frozen in place, biting my lip. “How’d you know I was on a mission? Thought you left HQ early?”

“Sorry. Sol tells me everything.” I’m cursing myself inside for the mistake, though I didn’t technically lie after all. Omission of details is a sort of guilty specialty of my own, it seems.

Kota huffs. “‘Course he does. I don’t see how you can stand him, let alone being his little pet.”

I purse my lips, holding back a laugh that could end this all if I let it tumble out. Sometimes I forget how little he—they all—know. How little I’ve told him. There it is again—that little knot of guilt in my stomach, a knot I myself am tightening with every word I’ve said these past few moments. I tell it to go to Harva—I don’t have time for this. Let him think I was just startled by his comment, that I’m still sucking up to Sol for better pay, or whatever the rest of what he’s got in his head that I’ve been doing for months.

“Don’t talk like that,” I hedge, and it’s true. Kota himself once stole the ability of super-hearing for the man, and who knows what else.

Kota’s expression falters, only for the moment that he adds, “I just thought Loma meant more to you than that.”

I have to suck in a breath not to recoil at the mention of our late friend. Of course that’s why he’s been of so little patience with me lately. I should’ve known. I should’ve expected it, seeing as how I’ve manipulated his view so much that I really do deserve such shame in his eyes; but the coward in me still won’t let the act go, even after this. And not to mention his worsening relationship with Sol; it’s really no wonder. The man didn’t even bother to hide his sudden gain of the power—Loma’s power—of emotion-reading, even a day after her mysterious disappearance. Salomachieth deserved more, if not from him then from me.

“It’s not like that,” I shrug away the accusation. “I just need you to trust me for now.” I let my stare linger, once again conflicted as that one last uncorrupted part in my mind begs him to ask just one right question. But soon, it, too, is drowned out by the rest.

And to my surprise, Kota takes it after one long, hard stare. “Alright then.” He even changes the subject, causing me to even cringe on the outside. “My turn to ask questions again: what’s got you so upset about your mission today? I can tell something happened, don’t bother lying.”

Back to that again. Of course he can sense my hesitance. I force myself to relax my shoulders, taking a second’s pause as we dodge around a speeder parking to purse my lips against the thirst in my suddenly dry mouth. “The last one I was assigned to, the most powerful, refused to pledge his gift to me—temperature manipulation. I was lucky I’d snuck up on ‘im without any problems, but in the end I was forced to kill the vain—” I shake my head, stopping myself. Mom always told me to respect the dead.

We continue on a few steps, Kota saying nothing. He just swallows a deep breath. It’s no secret our job has its difficulty; and he knows I don’t like being forced to kill. I just have to remind myself the now cooling corpse mustn’t have felt the same about whatever noble-blood he must’ve murdered for the name’s gift in the first place.

Kota finally regains his voice, though it’s as dark as the alleyway we’re in and much more dry. “Some of them just… would rather have their throat slit than their name taken. Sometimes I wonder if that is better than living nameless…” I risk a glance at Kota, admittedly shocked by his mention of the nameless. Sol himself plucked him out of the Syltana district of the city’s overflowing nameless population, where Kota’s own parents had been graced with the extraordinary luck of few: finally finding a name that wasn’t already claimed, and a powerful one at that. A true Syltana to Sylwei miracle. They kept his gift of shadow-bending a secret on behalf of their son over the course of several years, but in the end no one can keep the secret of a powerful name from Lord Sol.

Since his ability’s pretty powerful for even Sol’s standards, I’ll admit that I was initially smug that he was impressed, ever-so-slightly jealous, even, when Sol brought me for hire into his band of name-thieves. Dakotyzen’s a full letter shorter than my name, but my namesake grandmother’s namesake had resourceful parents; Satialkala, the gift of being able to share a name with someone else, is similar in a way to Sol’s gift. Until me, only Sol could possess more than one gift at once. But here I am, sharing hisgift, after countless years of training and building trust, his greed having finally out-weighed his pride. Or maybe my offering of the first name I ever stole for him—the power to read sylwei and the only other power he allows me to share with him—was just icing on the cake of my cycle of endless dependence on him to feed my family. Even the ability to shape darkness to one’s own will isn’t as effective as the ability to steal multiple names at once, and thus I owe Kota my loyalty at least for the fact that he doesn’t hold too much envy in his heart to even associate with me. Unlike all the rest of Sol’s personal band of sylwei-smugglers. For that I owe him my true honesty—and only that. If only for his sake he knew the right questions to ask.

I’m about to ask where we’re going once more when Kota speaks again. “It wouldn’t have to be like this, if Sol allowed you to use your power to share with your victims. You wouldn’t have to kill them, or even threaten their lives.”

A long pause, more splashing shrum up ahead. The dirty rodents must be nearly the size of men creeping through the darkness—downright obese off of city-scraps and who knows what else.

Snapping out of my distraction, I tilt my head, reminding myself to act puzzled by the suddenness of such a profound notion. And a dangerous one, too. “Yeah, and? He can’t let me, because then someone might actually trace it back to me, and then to him.” And he likes the power of it, to have thousands of names all to himself anyway. Though I wish I could, I can’t say that last part, of course; Kota’s mocking me for “sucking up” to Sol was one thing, but undermining Sol’s own methods? The both of us are rather fond of our heads. One can never be too safe when it comes to Sol’s various surveillance abilities. And I can’t have Kota realizing just how shallow my true loyalties really are in the interest of our employer.

“We both know that isn’t why.”

I feel my brow twist in confusion. “What’s—” I meant to finish with “gotten into you,” or “crossed you with a death wish,” or something, but my words die in my mouth when I see his teeth bared in a grin—and then a flash of silver almost as bright as the glint in his eyes, and then—nothing.

The first thing I register is my eyes are closed. So I open them.

I’m on the ground, staring up at Kota and… Ennerilsha? And Kaltsyll? That explains the ringing in my ears, and why I can even see through the fog of my blurred vision that I’m on the ground. Drenched with rainwater, and—so that’s what hit me. I flinch at the sight of a small bloodstain on the brick in Kaltsyll’s hand—my own blood washing away in the rain.

My breathing speeds up even more when it dawns on me. He’s brought Sol’s other top smugglers to help him threaten me. Two people he’d claimed to hate with me. Two people who are working with him now, who have been for who knows how long. “You—” the words choke in my throat as it constricts on my panting breaths.

Neither Kota nor Ennerilsha nor Kaltsyll even flinch when I wake up, don’t do a thing to stop me from standing. Maybe they know I’m in no shape to, after what must at least be a minor concussion. Or maybe they know that just the three of them is enough. Shadow-bending, lie-detection, and illusion-manipulation, respectively.

I do best to juggle between the three stares, each their own shade of cruel smugness. But each twisted smile is calm. They’ve been planning this for a long time, I think. “Whatever you want, I won’t give it to you.”

More movement, more pressure and disorientation as Kaltsyll lands another blow with a kick to my chest, meant to force my head back into the alley sidewall. I expected the strike, but was in no position to block it or even dodge it—all I can do is bring up my hands behind my head to cushion it from the surface of that grimy wall. They’re careful to leave me conscious, though; they want me awake, they want to see me cowering below them in an upright fetal position. I feel not much more than dizziness and stinging—and cold. I can’t even hear the rain any more with the sharp pulse of my ears. The pain hasn’t quite penetrated my damaged brain yet, but the adrenaline has.

In a blink of movement, Kota jerks me up by the collar, a shiny dagger to my throat. So that was the flash of metal I saw. Not a gun. No, a gun’s too quick, too clean, too merciful for his practice. His eyes reflect the cold metal like a pair of mirrors; he’d always had the slightest tendency toward a deeper-held cruelty—one I should’ve feared. He punches me again, but I just smile through the blood raining from my nose. I hope my face cut his knuckles good too.

“Did you trust me?” His voice is a taunt.

I refuse to take the bait, to look down at the knife he holds right under my jaw. I can feel as its liquid coldness reaches into my skin, but it hasn’t drawn blood, not quite yet. “I—”

I almost say no. Almost.

But that would be too harsh a truth, too soon. So I tell him… not a lie, but a different sort of the truth. “I trusted that you weren’t as shrum-brained as you look. That you weren’t actually stupid enough to do something like this. That you… were better than…” I stop myself. I can’t afford to pity him, not any longer. He’s torn my trust to more pieces than there are stars in the moontime sky, and it was my own foolishness after all that led me to hope that… I’d be able to fit him into my plans. Another cough wracks my body as I struggle to stay sitting up.

I look to the ground, regaining my composure in a disappointed laugh. “I was wrong.” He goes for another punch, but this time I turn my head to miss it, baring my nearly knocked-out teeth like a crazed animal. I hope they’re as bloody as they feel, my smile as wide and gruesome as I can make it to startle them.

I brace for another hit, but Kota just smiles. And something glints in his eyes again, too—I don’t like it. “Pledge me all your names. Maybe we’ll let you come with us, be the nameless little tagalong.”

He doesn’t smile as widely when I spit in his face, deep scarlet with blood. But to my surprise, he doesn’t bend the shadows to his face to hide his shame.

They want me to cower, to beg for mercy. Or put up a brave and valiant-hearted fight, only to fail. I’ll give them the satisfaction of neither. “Do you care about me? Do you want me to live?” I let loose a hacking laugh this time, shifting acute eye-contact between all three traitors. Kaltsyll glares back with menace, but I relish in my success in making Ennerilsha flinch. She knows this isn’t just an act.

“Maybe I should be honorable—come with you and get torn to pieces by Sol. Or I could just stay here—It’s a shame to die at the hands of a bunch of soft-hearted traitors, but it would sure hurt less—” I’ve got to buy myself time, and fast. Lucky I know just the words. “Poor, sad Syltana over here can’t even land a punch—” the pain of the next blow, which Kota does land, brings tears to my eyes. I can only keep my split-lipped smile with the knowledge that they won’t see my tears through all this blood. I pray the rain doesn’t wash it all away—and it’s almost as if it listens, still showering down from outside the covering but not too loud that they can’t hear my taunts.

“Last chance.” Kota jerks my collar even higher, choking my already-shallow breaths. I would’ve laughed in his face if he glared, if his eyes darkened with hate. But they’re bright—not just with cruelty of bloodlust, but with something else. Arrogance. Confidence. Like he knows what he’s doing.

And then my malicious grin fades, every sore and stinging muscle in my face pulsing with the effort. “You found it.” I don’t have to pretend to be surprised. Or intimidated. Maybe I really am becoming a coward, having second thoughts about my own plan.

He seems to thrive on the fear in my eyes, the shock released with the drop of my jaw.

“You shouldn’t have called me that name.” His dark eyes tear into mine, still the same brown flecked with bronze, ringed with black. But now I see another dark shape, my own silhouette close enough to reflect against the menace of his eyes. I breathe in and out, the smell of my own blood so strong it’s as if I’m breathing it in, that it’s what’s choking me by filling my lungs. Rather than the grip of someone I’d thought was a friend.

He found it. He found the name, the power I’ve been searching for ever since I discovered it’s already been used. Immunity to outside powers—yes, I’ve been waiting for this one.

I’m careful not to let the look of terror in my eyes waver. I’ve always been a good actress. But in the end, my smugness wins out in a silent grin.

Kota flinches with the rest.

So that’s why the shadows now betray him—he abandoned his shadow-bending for the new name.

But I’ve still got a few tricks of my own. And he still thinks he found that name all by himself.

I breathe in a last deep inhale, reviving on the feeling of lightness, finally rid of a weight I’ve carried for the past years of waiting for this. Kota’s confidence flickers as I let my smile expand, breathing out a small, disappointed sigh, even shaking my head just the slightest bit. If only he and the rest of them had learned patience. I wish they had, I really do.

“You shouldn’t have threatened me.” My voice sounds unhinged, drunk—and maybe I am, high off of my imminent victory.

I see the focus dissolve from Kota’s eyes, pupils dilating in panic as I toy with his balance, but not before they flash his surprise that his new little name hasn’t worked—even immunity isn’t perfect. Just like Loma had first guessed, the name apparently can only be cancelled out by one other name. One name of the two I found unexpectedly just hours ago.

But I’m not finished. “You should’ve asked what the two extras were,” I say to his slumped form on the ground, writhing out of control with wave by wave of vertigo. Who knew intense dizziness would be almost as useful a tool as name-stealing?  I hear the groans of Kaltsyll and Ennerilsha on the ground, but don’t bother to look their way. Thanks to Kota, theirs or any other powers in existence won’t be a problem any more. Three unexpected targets, now, three new names—one for vertigo, one for name-swiping, and now, one for immunity. Three test runs at once. I think it’s safe to say they all work.

I would have told him if he’d asked. I would have joined him if he asked with his words instead of his knife. I sigh again, allowing myself to pity them all one last time.

I can’t say the idea doesn’t cross my mind, but I decide not to kill Kota that easily. No, that wouldn’t be a proper enough revenge—just as how just killing Sol won’t suffice enough on behalf of Loma, once I get the pleasure of cornering him. But I’ve stolen Kota’s name, without having to kill him or force him to pledge it to me—a useful gift indeed. Same for the others, I think, as I bend down to touch Ennerilsha on the forehead, gentle as I take her precious lie-detection, Kaltsyll and his prized illusions next.

“Thank you.” I say, finally drained of any sarcasm, my voice now brittle with condolence. Even if I remind myself they wouldn’t have spared the same courtesy to me.

I really hope they don’t drown in the pools of liquid gathering on the alleyway ground, its clear rust color just diluted enough to reflect the coming moons; gold even through the conflicting blend of rainwater, my blood, and the grime of the city. The Sylwei side of the city, that is, that they’ll never see again if they don’t drown. I hope their fellow Syltana treat them well.

At the glow of the first night’s star, I remember the final remark I’ve had planned, the one I’d been dreaming of saying, practicing in silence for longer than anyone knew. “And lastly, you should’ve known that Sol would never send the likes of you after the power-immunity.”

Poor Sol might not have even known such a power existed. What he does know, by now, though, is that I’ve broken his topmost rule, I’m sure.

You are mine. The names you steal are mine, too—don’t even think about using them.’

‘Of course, master.’

I laugh after my last parting grace, smearing the blood from my chin onto my sleeve. But then I drop my smile, one more string of words on the tip of my tongue. And I’ve decided I think I will say them, whether or not Kota can even hear me any more. “Loma wouldn’t have been proud. I was right not to let her tell you.”

I glance at my twisted reflection in the pale red puddle at my feet. Vibrant even through my thick but smudged layer of concealer, the mark of Satialkala glows bright red. But this may be the last time it will.

Why share a name when one can take without asking? The three marks around my wrist glow even brighter. No, Sol won’t like that at all.

My giddiness is back. I laugh in time with the swift splashes of my footfalls through the rain. Salomachieth may indeed get her revenge. And after that?

Mother will never lack money for the family ever again.


BIO

Masie Hollingsworth is currently a High School student at Hillcrest High School, as well as the Creative Writing program at Greenville Fine Arts Center. Masie is an avid writer and reader in her free time and enjoys making and sharing all kinds of art as one of her many hobbies. She currently contributes as a reader for the Crashtest magazine and hopes to continue to pursue her passion for writing in the future.

Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon

by Nathaniel Heely



The conspiracy was in. The first reaction from the literary public was one of impending death. Why else would a hermit break silence? For there was no new book coming out, no new tome that might define and brand an adolescent century. Thomas Pynchon was sick. Thomas Pynchon was dying. Finally being sent off to see what was beyond the zero, soul ready to investigate the deep web of religious afterlives.

It was even more peculiar whom he had chosen. The young writer/coffee barista had no prior familiarity, indeed had only published a handful of George Saunders knockoff stories, and was more famous for her voluminous output of book reviews on Goodreads. Her most notable contribution to the literary world was a Salon article roasting James Frey and a listicle on Electric Literature: “10 Underexposed Indie Press Female Works of Fiction 2016.” As far as anyone could tell she had never even mentioned Thomas Pynchon by name. Her lone review on Goodreads of his work was a brief paragraph on The Crying of Lot 49—seemingly the book Pynchon had most derided, saying of it years earlier, “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

Rochelle [J’est un] Autry’s full review of CoL49 to wit:

Funny story overall. Afraid much of it went over my head, or else I feel as though the feeling of much information going overhead is required reading for this novel based on reviews I’ve seen. Am told the unusual names (uh, Mike Fallopian? Oedipa Maas?) are kind of par for the course. Was a fan. This book about conspiracy invites us to conspire over its own bookness by use of several MacGuffins factual and counter-factual, real and imagined. It reads like a circus performance. At no point did I feel the crushing disappointment of mystery—of failed detecting—I think I was supposed to on Oedipa’s part. I felt like too much of a watcher.

Further hypotheses were postulated. Rochelle lived in Williamsburg, only a half hour’s drive from The Hermitage. Paths could be crossed, backroom deals long in process. A rumor was traced back to an editorial intern at Penguin that Rochelle had a novel-in-progress that Pynchon believed his interview would help elevate. A literary agent publicly pondered on Twitter whether Autry was a long-time mistress to Pynchon, perhaps inspiring—at least in part—the character of Maxine Tarnow. A white male blogger accused Autry of being a notorious bed-hopper, providing a list of authors and editors she had dated, and was then attacked viciously himself by the Internet horde over everything from his unprofessional and libelous conjecture to his white male blogger privilege.

It was Melanie that contacted Rochelle on Tom’s behalf. She acquired the email via Rochelle’s personal website and stated merely that she was Pynchon’s “agent” and nothing further, and that Tom was interested in exploring the “landscape of digital interviews.” His stipulations were that he not be asked why he was granting an interview, nothing on the nature of his reclusiveness and that all the questions remain literary in topic.

It had been over 40 years since Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus. What does one do for forty years knowing their best work and days are behind them? She considered questioning him more upon this line but felt it would be disrespectful. Knew it would be disrespectful. Tom would come out a victim of this question. That was another thing she was doing nowadays. Thinking of him as Tom. It’s how Melanie always referred to him. Rochelle always wrote back referencing him as “Mr. Pynchon” but fully conscious of it, and feeling that one day she would boldly replace it with “Tom.”

There were so many ambiguities in the world. She could not read people’s sincerity. Everybody acted as though this were a big project, something ambitious that she had chosen to work on. She was all the more ashamed that she had no grand ambitions. She rode the subway every morning hoping to make it through the day with enough energy to ride back in the evening and maybe fall asleep amidst the noise and clamor and rude bumping. Now when she rode back into Brooklyn, she felt a needle in brain’s stem, pressing hard, keeping her awake, trying to re-engage with the active and creative side that would compose what several literary outlets were calling “the Millenials’ finest hour.” Written of course by Millenials themselves, proving no one loves torturing a generation as much as one of its disbelieving members. Not that a belief had anything to do with when you were born, but then what was a generation in the twenty-first century if not a pseudo-cult exclusive to birthdates?

As Flavorwire put it, “Autry and Pynchon are ostensibly two voices of a generation clashing: Tom with his tome-atic ecstasy of printed word, while Rochelle, in contrast, is a mere mendicant producing idle, uncollected thoughts in 140 characters.” n+1 made a vigorous extended metaphor about orphanage and absent fathers in regards to Pynchon’s noted silence and the constant prattling, neuroticism and triple-coated irony that came from Rochelle (or really a conflation of the entire ‘Blogging Generation’) and her perceived lifestyle.

Within a week of receiving the email, word got out, shocked, settled and was forgotten. Rochelle was getting invites to book launches, requests from magazines both large and ignored to write reviews, agents offering their services for her own book writing ventures. She was invited to a launch party for Jonathan Lethem’s latest book. Her boyfriend, Havik Tanner, an editorial assistant for the independent press, Albino Alligator, worked the room, handing out his business card while she hovered over the punch bowl, sipped complimentary champagne and followed the hashtag #LethemLaunch on Twitter and Instagram trying to identify people in the room by their various posts and deciding which ones she despised the most.

Coming home she received an email from a man who identified himself as Richard and as a former friend of Thomas Pynchon.

Dear Rochelle

My name is Richard. Forgive me if this is too forward. The news of your upcoming interview with Mr. Pynchon has made quite a stir in our tiny literary community. If you are interested I would like to speak to you about your subject as I have some information that is very pertinent.

Kind Regards,
-R

She emailed him back with some reserve—that reserve that any young person holds in her head when she feels she is being peddled a scam. Her place in the literary world was one of phantom power, receiving lots of correspondence and requests to meet the man, while she herself was only to have electronic correspondence. Her iPhone dinged at 1:01 AM with a reply:

Rochelle,

What I’m about to say will seems an absolute fabrication, and you’ll likely regard me as the crazy hippy I am. Tom was not very close with many people and even less so with writers, but since we were friends before his genius was ever pronounced to the world, I was lucky to be in that close circle and I kept his silence along with him for many years. It’s very apparent to me, though, that something quite nefarious is going on and I believe that it would be Tom’s wish to communicate to you what I know.

The real Thomas Pynchon died, like the prophets of old, on his birthday, 8 May 2007. He was 70. I was at his funeral. Against the Day was his swan song, and a beautiful one at that. He died of congestive heart failure. Since then his literary trust has remained more secret than most government agencies. Tom was always very fascinated with technology and the modern world in his literature as well as his personal life, and in his last years he developed an early AI program that could compose its own literature. It was based upon the same kind outputs you’ll get from SPAM emails, often the ones that send out those fake prince from Nigeria schemes (sidenote: those programs are actually compelled to riddle their emails with typos and bad grammar to target people who are less intelligent, but think themselves smart that they realize it’s a person speaking in a second language). His family made a discovery of this and has since developed two books: Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge.

Sounds improbable, I know, but if you’ve read these books you’ll notice that they’re very similar to each other. Both involve private investigators, both rely on typical rehashed Pynchon tricks of the search for ambiguous entities (The Golden Fang and hashslingrz) and many critics have gone on to refer to these books (along with a book he wrote in his 20s) as “Pynchon-Lite.” The construction of the books is quite simple. It’s actually a basic 1000 monkey at 1000 typewriters type of scenario. Much of what The Typing Monkey produces is gibberish, but it creates a lot of gibberish. Volumes. Reams. Something like ten full length books a day. The Hermitage actually employs nearly a dozen readers simply to rifle through these manuscripts and select coherent passages, plots, characters etc. I’m giving you just the superficial tie-ins. I can give you more information, but my security in this matter is extremely delicate. I will provide further and substantial proof, but you must not tell anyone about me.

Again, I know I’m crazy, but this is not what Tom would have wanted: his life being exploited for this. It was contrary to everything he was. He was dirt poor for many of the years I knew him, living in squalor and just happy to write. Now everything that Tom created in his life is undermined with the publication of these two novels. At this point only the grave can keep me silent, and I’ve let that day crawl these eight years closer and closer, hoping and praying (to many manner of gods I didn’t believe in, perhaps they are all real, perhaps only some) that someone else would come forward. But I’ve heard nary a word. Perhaps they’ve tried and been silenced. Please contact me. Please take this seriously. Please believe me. I will provide everything you need to prove this. I promise.

Regards,
Richard

PS. If you still need convincing look at this:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/algorithm-human-quiz.html?_r=0

Rochelle’s first instinct was to be afraid. She was caught up in something she didn’t want to even be aware of. The link provided an eight question quiz to see if humans could decipher between human and computer produced writing. She got a 4 of 8. If there was such uncertainty between these simple sentences then of course there was an argument to be made that AI could already write books. Just a few years ago a man named Phillip M. Parker had revealed his own patented system for algorithmically compiling raw data into book form. Because of it, Amazon now had nearly 1,000,000 books for sale from his company. It was ridiculous to believe, but also ridiculous to not at least consider it.

She emailed him back in the dead of that night, hoping that he would still exist outside of it. He replied that it would take a little while to establish more secure communication and that he would write to her soon.

There were other considerations. In the 70s many people judged William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon to be the same person. Gaddis wrote The Recognitions in 1955 and promptly disappeared from the literary scene for twenty years, also never giving interviews. A man identified as William Gaddis would eventually consent to some interviews in the 80s, most notably with The Paris Review and Malcolm Bradbury. Up until Ted Kaczynski was arrested, the popular theory was that Pynchon was the Unabomber. There were those that believed he used the name Wanda Tinasky to write a series of letters to Mendocino Commentary and Anderson Valley Advertiser. He was Bob Dylan’s best man. He met Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City in 1963 over a meal of shredded chicken gorditas. He had crippling agoraphobia.

She was firing off all these theories one night to her boyfriend in bed. She rattled through them all off during sex and found herself unable to judge whether the sex was good or bad, only that it had happened. Havik held her quietly listening to the prattle and stroking her thin chestnut hair.

“And then there’s the Richard Farina theory,” he said passively inspecting the hair as though looking for a magisterial, almost angelic quality.

“The what?”

“Richard Fariña. Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me?”

“Never read it.”

“Oh, well he was friend of Pynchon’s. Some say they’re the same person.”

“Friend? Wait that…what was his name?”

“Richard Fariña.”

By the last syllable of his last name she was already digging through her gmail. She confirmed what she believed to be true. “He emailed me! Holy Christ, Havik, he emailed me. I mean I’m not supposed to tell but frankly I didn’t believe it to be true and he told me not to tell anyone and promise you won’t tell anyone but he was telling me all this stuff that sounded insane but he wrote a book you’re saying?”

“Woah, calm down. Who emailed you?”

“Richard. Richard Fariña, look at this email address. RFarinaphobe at gmail, I was wondering what the hell a Farinaphobe was but—”

“Rochelle, Jesus. That can’t be Richard Fariña.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Richard Fariña died in 1966.”

Her blood ran not just cold, but felt like microscopic beetles composed of frozen nitrogen; disappointment, madness, claustrophobia. “What are you—?”

“They went to Cornell together, yeah. Pynchon wrote the Introduction—”

“But that can’t. He emailed…”

“Probably just someone being smart with you.” Her shoulders dragged down to her hips. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you. I’m sorry.”

She wept and buried her face in his bony neck. “What is going on with me? Who the hell…but he can’t…”

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Don’t say that you asshole.”

“What?”

“Of course you should have said something. You shouldn’t have had to say anything. I’m just an idiot. I know nothing about what I’m wrapped up in.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“For all I know someone did this just to show how clueless I was. God, Jesus, I’m so embarrassed. I’m so fucking stupid…”

Havik had a copy of the book, but she swatted it away, it being a scepter of her stupidity. He held her and told her he loved her as she struggled against him.

The five questions she sent to Melanie were composed in a flurry the next morning. She just wanted the thing behind her, to be completed. She abided by the stipulations and came up with: 

1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest piece of American fiction of the past twenty-five years?

2. What is your writing schedule like?

3. Your name is brought up constantly as a Nobel hopeful, particularly in light of the fact that it has been more than twenty years since an American won it. How do you respond to this?

4. Some of your more recent books Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice have been relegated, by some critics, as being genre or cross-genre fiction. How do you view genre fiction in the world and as it relates to your own work?

5. What did you think of P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice?

A day later Melanie responded.

Ms. Autry,

Please forgive me but I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject these questions. I realize how frustrating this must be! Mr. Pynchon is very peculiar in what he wants…or rather what he doesn’t want to answer. What am I saying? Perhaps that he knows it when he sees it. There’s no rush to this sort of thing. He told me to relay to you that it may take several attempts and to not be discouraged. He would never want to discourage you. In addition he gave some reasoning he thought might be helpful for why these questions seem inadequate:

1. This seems the type of insular question that I ought to avoid. There are a great dozen or two dozen books I could list but I don’t want to come across as a promotional advert. There are many authors I like, some books I’m rather fond of, and even a few I’ve felt necessary to blurb, all of which you can find with a cursory google search. But I don’t wish to single anyone out.

2. The only reason one might answer this question is because some people think I have access to an El Dorado of Writing. I assure you this is not the case. The best answer I could give, which I do not feel is an answer, is that I write enough to produce eight novels in fifty years.

3. Commenting on the Nobel seems to be a dangerous sort of thing. I’d rather the Nobel committee pretend I don’t exist and vice versa.

4 Nope. Sorry, try again.

5. Let Paul’s work have a chance to stand and resonate before I come in with some overbearing and completely unnecessary critique.

He requests you do not make this reasoning public.

Best,
-M

She would have been insulted had another email from the Richard Fariña address not appeared just two minutes before. It simply stated to check her mailbox downstairs. With eyebrow twitching in her kitchen, Havik came strutting in, blinded by the morning glare.

“Morning.”

“Can you see if the mail’s come yet?”

“Babe it’s just past 8:00 I don’t think…”

“Just check please,” she snapped. Havik stood there waiting for her to come to her senses, but she just stared with pupils the size of her iPhone. He walked silently pretending to be angry and not hurt. He came back with a single envelope, her name written in calligraphic grace, and no postage stamp.

“Friend of yours?”

She opened.

It’s me. I told you this would be arriving. For my safety it’s best I don’t deal in specifics. Meet me at the place you and your boyfriend had dinner last Thursday. Tonight. 8 PM. Make sure you aren’t followed.

-R.

She was now thoroughly insulted and realized it was a massive prank. She and Havik had eaten in last Thursday and the letter was clearly a furthering of some perverse internet prank. She flicked it once toward the trash, brought it back, admired the calligraphy—she had always admired calligraphy and was even jealous of it despite its source—and flicked it again into the trash.

Havik was working late that night. In his text he termed it “babysitting an author.” She invited friend and coworker, Connie Quetzalcoatl, to her place for the evening for dinner, which ended up being white wine, pita chips and a tom-sized drum of hummus.

“I want to die,” Connie said opening a second box of pita chips and cramming one in her mouth on the final word.

“Mistakes were made,” Rochelle countered.

“Starting with my parents having sex.”

“We’re better than this.”

“To think I was one hump away from never existing.”

“If only one of us had learned self-control. It might have been enough.”

“I’m not of the mind that quantum physics leads to a multiple Universe theory.”

“But how else do you learn self-control without self-control?”

“It’s just this one. And most of the things, most of the people that could have existed. Just didn’t. And I was the one that existed. Man.”

“I mean if you’ve had no experience with it, how will you ever be able to withstand it?”

“Mistakes were made.”

“I’m out of wine.”

Connie said she ought to be going. They buoyed up off the vinyl couch like pregnant mothers and shuffled to the door. Connie ordered an Uber. At the apartment door they bid each other goodbye. Turning around, Rochelle saw a man in a tan trenchcoat, grey fedora, wayfarer sunglasses and hair so jet black it looked dyed with car grease.

“Rochelle,” he nodded.

She stood stunned. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Richard. Can we talk?”

She looked about her. For what she couldn’t name. Cameras? Exits? Police? None of the Above? She ascended in a dreamlike manner, taking everything at face value. Sitting back on the vinyl couch the man sat down, looked nervously and began speaking without taking off his coat or hat and without Rochelle offering. He spoke the past to her: how until Tom had married Melanie he had considered himself retired from writing. She was the one who convinced him to release Slow Learner. Vineland actually started as an inside joke between he and Tom. Mason & Dixon had sputtered sometime around ’79 and its publication owed credit to at least three other ghost writers. This was why Tom had invented the Monkey Typewriter. To get out of writing once and for all. The goal was to publish a perfect mimicry of his writing mind…

“You’re supposed to be dead!” Rochelle said.

Richard stopped, straightened himself and said in a calm demeanor. “Yes. I am. It was a…dangerous time for me then. It was necessary to die and as far as the world is concerned I am Robert Feddlestein. I didn’t think I’d live this long.”

“But you’re supposed to be dead!”

“Shh. Be quiet, Jesus.”

“Out. I don’t know how you found out where I live but you need to leave.”

“No Rochelle, please. For my friend.”

“What proof do you have? How can I know you are who you say you are”

“You can’t.” He said coldly. “If I hadn’t destroyed any identifying evidence about myself you’d just assume it was a fake. If I showed you an old letter from Tom in the 60s, you’d assume I wrote it last night. Everything that is,” here he gestured to the apartment, the floors, the kitchen, “is taken on faith.”

Rochelle was on the border of hysterics. “Get out. Just get out I’m calling the police.”

“What you want. What I want is at the Hermitage on the 14th floor facing the street, third window from the right.”

“I don’t want anything! Nobody ever asked what I wanted!” She was shoving him toward the door, slapping his chest which was thin and frail, and it took little strength at all to move his elderly body.

“Shh. Quiet. Mother of Christ, I just need your help on one thing.” He brought her hands together as though in prayer.

“What? What could I possibly give you? Because I don’t have access to him. That’s why it’s an email inter…”

“Just tell Melanie that you’re having a little difficulty and that you’d like to meet her in person. That’s all I need. Her out of her office for a few hours.”

Rochelle stood mute, wounded, angry.

“That’s all I ask.”

“If you don’t leave right now I’m calling the cops.”

He turned, flinging the coat like a cape and whisking the door all but one inch to the jamb. “On the day you do it. Please. Just leave a note in your mailbox. It will get to me.” He closed the door and Rochelle went to cry on her couch.

In researching for her questions she found the sheer fanaticism of Pynchon fans even more frightening and lurid. There were vigils held every May 8th at his old Manhattan Beach house. Fans staked him out for days snapping pictures of old men fitting Pynchon’s description and comparing them on internet forums. Periodically “Missing” posters with his old Navy portrait appeared on the streets of Manhattan. It was obvious that Pynchon feared his fans. In 1989 an 1800 word autobiographical sketch for an application to the Ford Foundation was released to a few scholars. He quickly had them rescind this action, but not before Steven Weisenburger from the University of Kentucky published the article: “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch” by Duke University Press. There was tale that in 1997 a drunken group at a Pynchon lookalike competition ran down a fellow doppelganger they suspected to be the author, only to trip him and flee when it was found not to be him. He bled on the sidewalk for the next two hours before a New Yorker finally offered to call him an ambulance.

And Rochelle rationalized that perhaps what she was up against was nothing more than a method actor, probably fanatical in his own right. Never mind how he got her address, the Internet existed. These things happened daily, even to those who take intense precaution. She took the criticism from the first email and wrote five new and fresh questions and sent them off to Melanie:

Mr. Pynchon,

1. Paranoia is persistent in your work. For those of us coming of age in an increasingly Orwellian society where the government can ostensibly track us in real-time, how best do you think we can handle this?

2. For you, personally, is fiction an inherently moral art? What is the best way of going about creating art that is moral? And what does it mean?

3. What was your writing education at Cornell like?

4. Does the fact that your characters rarely, if ever, find meaning for the things they most seek indicate a reflection of your own beliefs?

5. Do you still keep in touch with Irwin Corey?

Melanie wrote back exuberantly that Tom had answered one of the questions and encouraged Rochelle not to despair that four others were rejected; that it was “great progress.” The notes sent to the questions:

1. You’re asking about something a little outside my work. I’d prefer if we could stick to that.

2. Nice try, but there are three questions here. Not that I would answer any of these, but I won’t accept multiple question marks in a “Question.”

4. See #1. I’d rather not talk about what I believe. I’m probably wrong as it is.

5. I’m sorry I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about

3. It’s not so much the where I was educated, but when. 1958, to be sure, was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time. Sure we wrote letters, rallied, demonstrated, marched, rocked, smoke bombed, egged, yet there was no sense of sanctuary there, or eternal youth. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the brutal winter winds, but death always felt close to us in those days.

She took momentary solace in the one success she had. Perhaps progress existed. She worked her days at the coffee shop, giving old men an extra look, wondering if Pynchon was a coffee drinker himself, wondering if she might as well ask him this since nothing else worked. Havik remained increasingly busy. Their time together was blurry. They fell together at night sometimes for sex, more often in exhaustion.

They had a date night. Dinner at Isabella’s, short walk to Dive 75 where they met some friends and then plodded south to the Wine and Roses Bar. It was 11 PM and she was walking west on 72nd street toward the park babbling to Havik incoherently who was near sleepwalking himself when they passed the Hermitage, ominous and stretching beyond comprehension so that halfway across she was exhausted and they sat down. Here she could think up more questions while the moon burned a hole in the sky and The Ruggles himself lapsed into failed memory of old age. What she hoped was failed memory. Afraid it was more sinister. He toying with her precisely because she was a nobody, picking her at random, coming up with dubious responses to her questions to…to what? To prove a point? To produce an echo of bone-rattling paranoia from inside that mausoleum? To speak death to her as apparently his whole life had to him? To feed some inane desire for performance art? It was all a joke. Everything was a joke to him. He had hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf, never having met the man, seen the man, known the man, heard the man, discussed with the man what he ought to portray. And she was like that befuddled audience laughing only to show they were hip to the joke, but not getting the joke, terrified of not laughing, of a world full of silence and nervous coughs. Silence is the essence of meaninglessness. What was the point of asking questions? Of course he didn’t want to talk about the Nobel. Likely he just wanted to win so he could make a mockery of it too and not even show up. Respond, perhaps, by donating the money to a Waco Davidian cult that no longer existed. To answer the question would forewarn the Swedish Academy and permanently blacklist him from the nominations. And then he would no longer be practical joker Pynchon, but angry and bitter Pynchon. The Pynchon that excoriated his former love Lilian Landgraben in his first novel. The Pynchon who rescinded that 1800 word autobiographical sketch. The Pynchon who was so exasperated by the reading public that he escaped to Mexico, an entire country and language barrier separating him from his identity.

And she too began to scowl. There were now watchblogs commenting and updating on her daily internet activity: her Twitter updates, her Instagram photos, her Goodreads progress, all questioning why she hadn’t questioned. As though asking questions were easy work. A Facebook fan page of her popped up and people discussed in the open forum all the salacious rumors that surrounded her. Rumors that, of course, had no origin, came out of nothing, as did the whole Universe. She scaled back, deactivating her Facebook, taking down her Instagram, not posting to social media any longer, but only watching. She wanted to deprive the web of gossip—its oxygen.

Her silence was well noted. Her silences. People began wondering if she was in fact a Pynchonian hoax. One of the watchblogs aggregated data of increased sales of Pynchon’s books and pointed to it as nothing but a clever marketing scheme. But why would he need money? Again, fans feared the worst for the ex-sailor.

1. What is your next book about?

2. Is that really your voice in the Inherent Vice book trailer?

3. Did you ever end up writing those opera librettos proposed in your application to the Ford Foundation?

4. Do you think there will be a time when there are no humans to write books and that you are of the last generation to compose literature?

5. What do you think of the eventual heat-death of the Universe?

More non-answers. More “refer to note so-and-so in email so-and-so.” More and more and more and yet always less.

She finally got around to reading Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Or rather she read the Introduction and was heartbroken. The one answer she had received, the lone scrap of authenticity she held of Thomas Pynchon was actually a few extant sentences cobbled together from Tom’s most rare of autobiographical acknowledgements. She curled up on the vinyl couch crying, surprised she was still capable. 

Thomas Pynchon was identity in full entropy. An equilibrium across all people where one never knew if their dinner date that night was actually Thomas Pynchon. In a manner, Rochelle could consider herself to be Thomas Pynchon.

She relented to Richard Fariña’s request and asked Melanie if she could possibly take her out to lunch and get a better idea of what he wanted to answer. To her surprise Melanie assented, even encouraged the visit. It was a Tuesday, and Rochelle and Connie worked the morning shift beginning at 4:00 AM working straight through until 11:00 AM. In the Uber on the way over Rochelle commented to Connie that she hadn’t seen Havik in three days and asked if she should be worried. Connie responded by asking if she had been sleeping regularly. Rochelle looked vacantly at the back of the driver’s balding head hoping it would speak for her instead.

They arrived early and informed the lady at the desk of their appointment. They stood in the lobby waiting.

“Y’know I was googling her today.”

“Who?”

“Melanie Jackson. The lady you’re here to—”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just didn’t—”

“There aren’t any pictures of her either.”

“Of Melanie?”

“Yeah. That’s a bit weird don’t you think?”

“Considering who she’s married to, not really.” Rochelle ran fingers through her hair and stared at the elevator, the elevator’s lips, waiting for truth to emerge.

“But both of them. I mean, it’s like he’s got his whole family now in this sort of secret cult of privacy.”

“Is privacy a cult now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No but,” she said directing eyes now at Connie, worried look on her face. “Is it?”

But there was no answer. At that moment a screaming came from the ceiling, childlike and full of terror. The whole building began to wobble and the two dashed to the exit and looked up. A plume of dust and orange claws leapt from a window near the top, hail of glass and a resonant pounding from the heart of the building resolute and final. People were running in no discernable direction: toward the building, away, some walking as though deaf or else too bothered to be afraid. A cascade of flimsy paper, some of it burning, eschewed from the floor and there were little children nearby trying to catch it on their tongues like snowflakes.

They went back to Rochelle’s place and lay on the couch emptying their eyes into the TV. MSNBC to CNN to FOX NEWS to ABC to MSNBC…Havik appeared only a few minutes later, kissing her and picking glass from her cheeks asking questions that got no answers. They sat like that for hours. When it was dark, Rochelle noticed there were bandages on her cheeks she did not remember being put on. Connie had left. She asked Havik if there was any mail and he said he would go check. She opened her laptop and typed the only thing she felt possible.

What happened at the Hermitage today at approximately 11:53 AM?

Do you have any reason to suspect that Richard Fariña is still alive?

Why me, Mr. Pynchon?

Are you there, Tom?

Are you alive?

Havik returned. “There’s no mail today.”

Richardson-Orange 2015-2017


BIO

Nathaniel Heely is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He has published over two dozen stories, appearing in in Burrow Press Review, decomP, Identity Theory, the Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and many others. He is currently working on his first novel. For more visit nathanielheely.com

Word May Set You Free

By Marco Etheridge



Sweeney thought the kidnappings would be the difficult part, but they proved to be the easiest. What he discovered is that people are disconnected from their surroundings. Each of the abductions went down more or less the same way. One of the agents would be walking down a city sidewalk; strolling from the office or the subway station. Their faces were invariably glued to their smart phones, oblivious to the world around them.

Buck Mulligan and Sweeney worked as a team. They slipped up from behind while the agent was busy reading texts or yakking into the phone. Sweeney zapped their target with a stun-gun. Buck grabbed the sagging body under the armpits before their victim turned into a rag doll. While Buck held them upright, Sweeney popped a sack over their lolling heads. The van pulled up, side door already open, Stephen’s strong torso leaning out. The wobble-legged agent was thrown to the yawning door of the van and Stephen Dedalus snatched the hooded body into the shadows. After scooping up whatever belongings the victim had dropped, Buck and Sweeney followed. The van door slid shut and Molly Bloom drove them away. It was as simple as pie. No one seemed to notice or care. Maybe that was because it was New York City, or maybe because even in NYC, nobody likes a literary agent.

No, the hard part wasn’t snatching them off the street. The hard part was the long van ride from the City back to the warehouse in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. That first drive, after they snatched Jeff Lyons, that was the longest. The guy whined and babbled like a little girl: What do you want from me, I don’t want to die, please, please. It went on forever, over and over, until Sweeney wanted to club him like a baby seal, which would have spoiled the plan.

After that first interminable ride, Banshee said she was damn sure going to show them another use for duct tape. She did just that. The second drive was quieter; mostly just inarticulate moaning and nose breathing. Leave it to the mystery writer to have a practical solution.

It was blind luck that they got two of the bastards in one day, or, more correctly, a bastard and a bitch. In retrospect, Sweeney realized they shouldn’t have been all that surprised. The literary agencies in Manhattan are grouped in clusters, like infected buboes in the armpits of the island. Set off a big enough bomb on West 21st Street, and you were liable to take out four or five agencies. Not that Sweeney would consider that as an option. Bombs were far to random, far too anonymous. It was a much more specific revenge that he craved.

When Allie Stark ducked into the alley behind Greenburg-Golden, she practically stepped into the van. The crew had just snatched the Reuben guy, so why not?  Bad luck for the stylish Ms. Stark, and one less trip into the City for them. At least the Stark chick was quiet, unlike Mr. BJ Reuben. He blubbered and made eyes at the Stark woman like he knew her. She ignored the crybaby, keeping her eyes focused on her abductors. All that long drive to Jersey, she didn’t make a sound.

*  *  *

Molly leaned through the heavy steel door, her voice coming thick and dull from under the latex mask.

“Are you ready for the opening monologue? I want to lock these parasites in their boxes. Everybody is sick of listening to their shit.”

Sweeney rose from a battered steel table, five manila folders in his left hand.

“Yes, Ms. Bloom, I am ready.”

“It’s Mrs. Bloom, as you know all too well. Don’t forget your mask.”

“Right, the mask.”

Sweeney dropped the folders onto the chipped tabletop and reached for a crumpled pile of latex. It was the distorted face of a nightmare leprechaun; a corpse face without an Irish skull. He stretched the thing over his head, letting it snap into place around his neck. The latex pulled against the stubble on his cheeks.

“How do I look?”

“No more of a fool than the rest of us.”

Molly Bloom raised a hand to either side of her distorted head, miming alarm. A fake orange beard wobbled below an exaggerated nose as she rolled her costumed head in a show of alarm.

“Oh, the humans, they be after me pot of gold! C’mon, Sweeney, let’s get this show on the road.”

Molly disappeared through the doorframe.

Sweeney watched her go, this woman he loved, the woman who would always be his best friend and never more.  He stood alone in the room, his breath was hot under the latex of the mask.

Sweeney’s mind wandered back to the conversation that had changed everything, before she was Molly or he was Sweeney. They were celebrating the completion of her latest work, some of the most poignant and beautiful memoir he had ever read. Over drinks in the corner of a favorite bar, their talk was of the usual frustrations, and the struggle to get published. Then the words were coming out of his mouth: It’s time to teach these bastards a lesson, change the rules of the game.

More than a year of planning followed, with endless discussions over endless pints of beer. Sara was brought into the scheme and became Banshee, then Joe became Buck Mulligan. What began as a formless fantasy of revenge took on sharp edges. By the time Stephen Dedalus joined the group, the thing had become real. Sweeney shook himself out of his memories and looked through the open doorway. And now it all comes down to this. Are you ready?

He grabbed the five file folders from the table and stepped past the rusted steel door.

*  *  *

Evening light leaked into the warehouse through jagged holes in the painted-over windows. Layers of surplus industrial paint peeled from the concrete wall; huge patches of pea green sloughing away from baby-slime yellow. Water dripped into puddles at the windowless back wall. Time had not been kind to this abandoned hulk, and it had been abandoned a long time. A collection of five small shipping containers stood in a rough row; ten-foot long steel boxes in faded colors of blue and red and green. The doors of the containers were standing open; eight-foot-wide by eight-feet-tall.

In front of the containers sat a row of five aging steel chairs. In the chairs sat two women and three men, all looking decidedly worse for the wear. Each of them were manacled; one ankle hand-cuffed to a heavy chair leg.

Sweeney crossed the chipped concrete floor, taking his place beside four masked figures standing in front of the seated line. He slapped the file folders against his thigh. Five sets of eyes looked up at him, eyes that were angry, or confused, or frightened. Sweeney ran his own eyes across the faces, looking for the cracks.

The Collin woman looked scared; just plain, ordinary scared. The first one they’d snatched, Jeff Lyons, he looked ready to burst into tears. The BJ guy was a bluster of anger and indignation. It was the last two that mattered. The older guy, Peter Schear, his eyes were taking everything in, looking for a way out. But the Stark woman, her eyes never moved. They were staring straight into Sweeney’s. He smiled at her, just to see what would happen. What he got in return was the slightest raise of an eyebrow, nothing more.

“Right. Let’s get started, shall we? Some of you have been with us for a few days. Others have just arrived. Now that we are all here, we can begin by laying out the rules. I…”

The BJ Reuben character interrupted him, his voice loud and angry.

“What the hell are you talking about? What rules? Are you some kind of crazy terrorists, or what?”

Banshee started forward, a Taser gripped in her left hand. She aimed her outstretched hand at the crotch of Mr. Reuben’s expensive slacks. He became suddenly very quiet, wide eyes staring at the thing Banshee held.

“Well, then, let’s move straight into introductions. BJ Reuben, I’d like you to meet Banshee. She will be your handler. I would advise against any more outbursts. I don’t think she likes you very much. Ms. Banshee, here is Mr. Reuben’s file. And would you pass the rest of these down, please?”

Banshee reached for the files. Through the holes of her grotesque mask, Sweeney caught the bright gleam in her eyes. Someone is enjoying this far too much. He had no doubt that Banshee would turn this whole escape into a cutting edge mystery novel. Sweeney turned his attention back to the seated captives.

“Moving right along then, let’s get to the rules. I am sure most of you are aware that you are in the same business. In fact, I am reasonably sure that some of you know each other quite well.”

He watched for any furtive glances and was not disappointed.

“Think of these rules as submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules, exactly as they are laid out, your stay here will be a long one, and more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Each of you will be paired with a handler. You will speak only to your handler, understood?”

“Ms. Collin, you’ll be working with Stephen. I think you’ll find Mr. Dedalus to be quite a gentleman. Peter, you’ll be with Buck Mulligan. He’s a bit hard at the edges, but I’m sure you two will hit it off.”

“Jeff Lyons, you’ll be working with Molly Bloom, you lucky devil you. That takes care of everyone but Ms. Stark, who will be working with me. My name is Sweeney. Ah, yes, Mr. Schear, thank you for the raised hand.”

“Mr. Sweeney, I’m guessing that we’ve been abducted for some reason, but I’m struggling to figure out what that reason is. I mean, we’re just literary agents; not exactly high ransom targets if I understand the situation correctly.”

The man’s voice was calm and smooth, probing for an advantage.

“If we could just hold off on the questions, I think this will go faster.”

Peter Schear shrugged, his hands in his lap.

“You are here for one reason, and that is to write. The way you are going to get out of here is to write your way out. Your choice of project is up to you. It can be a novel, a collection of short stories, even a play if you like. Buck, what would you think about the choice to write a stage-play?”

The answer came rough and hard.

“Delusional.”

“There you have it folks; and from a source that should know. Buck writes some of the best dramatic dialogue out there, but I’m sure none of you have ever heard it. His work is performed so far off Broadway it might as well be Uzbekistan. As you can see, Buck is a large man, and I can assure you he has no love for agents. I would not cross him if I were you.”

Sweeney paused to let his remark sink in.

“Now, back to why you are here. Whatever project you choose, it will be submitted to a jury of your peers, namely other agents. We will, of course, have to submit your work under assumed names. If an agent, any agent, asks to read a full manuscript, or further chapters, or expresses the slightest interest in representing your work, you will be free to go. One simple, positive response is your magic key.”

“Wait, you want us to write something, submit it to an agent, and wait for a response?”

“Another country heard from. Yes, Mr. Lyons, that is exactly correct. You will write, your handler will transcribe the manuscript into a computer file, and then we will send it off with as perfect a query letter as we can conjure.”

 Sweeney watched the change in the man’s face; the look of a little boy about to cry replaced by the look of a little boy struggling with his maths. Jeff Lyons swung his eyes up as the difficulty of the problem dawned on him.

“But, but, that could take months!”

“Yes, it could, Mr. Lyons; all the more reason for you to write well and quickly.”

“Ah, Mr. Reuben, you wish to comment?”

“Is this some crazy stunt to get published? Some elaborate piece of performance art?”

“An astute and hopeful question, Mr. Reuben, but no, this is not a stunt. Besides, each of us have published work, though perhaps not to your standards. After all, you are the gatekeepers, are you not? You judge who is worthy to walk the hallowed ground and who will remain out in the cold, dark night. No, we are well past stunts or trickery. This is about something much simpler; it is about getting even. I admit that there is some thought of making it better for the writers coming after us, but mostly this is just revenge. Banshee, do you have Mr. Reuben’s wish list?”

Banshee swung the folder open with a flick of her right hand, the Taser still held in her left.

“Got it right here, Sweeney. BJ Reuben, always willing to take a chance on a debut author. Looking for something that makes him miss his stop on the subway. Likes literary fiction that is quirky; surprise him. The usual rot.”

Sweeney raised a hand to cut off any more comment. I should just let Banshee Tase this bastard in front of the others. That would move things along. Just a nod and she would be so happy to oblige. She’s angry and ready. Sweeney knew he could count on Banshee to do her part.

“We are wasting time here. Forgive me, perhaps I have not been clear. If you wish to leave, you will write. Behind you are your accommodations. Think of them as monastic cells. Each has been furnished with a cot, a desk, and writing materials. Chairs you already have. Meals and other essentials will be provided for you so long as you write. If you want to eat, you write. If you want to shower, you write. It’s quite simple, really. Three thousand words per day, seven days a week; in four weeks you will have a novel of eighty-four thousand words. That is, I believe, your optimum length for a debut novel, yes?”

“And what if we refuse?”

Lauren Collin has found her voice. Sweeney looked into her brown eyes; attractive eyes. She may be scared, but at least she is thinking.

“That is a very good question, Ms. Collin. There must be penalties, of course, else how would the system function? If you refuse to write, you will not eat. You will not shower. You will not be allowed out of your comfortable cell. There are some other penalties as well, which I should make clear. You may write whatever you wish. Your work can be tailored to your own wish list, or the wish list of an agent that you know. But do not try to plagiarize someone else’s work. If you do, we will know it. The penalty for plagiarism is death, and I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense. You will be shot, and your body will be dumped in a place where no one will ever find it. Likewise, for any attempt at escape or mutiny. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The words seemed to sink in. There was a silence from the line of chairs, then one raised hand.

“Yes, Ms. Stark, you have a question?”

“I just want to clarify. I write a novel. You send that novel out to other literary agents. If one of those agents requests additional material, or expresses any interest other than a rejection, then I go free?”

Sweeney smiled to himself, making note of the careful choice of pronouns. There is no ‘we’ with this woman.

“That is exactly correct, Ms. Stark. I couldn’t have put it more succinctly.”

There was that same barely raised eyebrow, the slightest nod as if she were confirming something she already knew; then nothing. I like this one, even if she is an agent. Careful, Boyo, this is not the time or place.

“Very well, if there are no further questions, we need to get you back into your cells. We must start the dinner preparations. There are some good cooks amongst us, as some of you already know. You will not suffer unduly. Tomorrow is our first work day, so you will want to get your rest.”

Sweeney turned to his companions.

“If you will, please; one at a time of course. Escort our guests back into their cells.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan bounced his ass down the bench between the concrete wall and the long table. He pushed a plate of breakfast down the worn surface. Once the big man was settled, he smiled across at the others.

“G’morning Banshee, morning Ka… sorry, Sweeney.”

“Morning, Buck. What, two weeks of practice and you’re forgetting your lines? You’re the stage professional.”

“Yeah, sorry, a momentary lapse. Your two shining faces put me off my guard. Banshee is smiling like a cat in a canary factory.”

“Understood, of course, but no mistakes in front of the guests, please.”

The bigger man grunted, stabbing a fork into a mound of scrambled eggs and roasted peppers. He chewed and nodded before he spoke again.

“Mmm… that’s some fine tucker. I don’t know if the original Dedalus could cook, but our modern version is a wizard. What is the line? God made food, the devil the cooks, or something like that.”

Banshee smiled at Buck from across the table. She was curled around her coffee; a soft smile gleaming through a tent of dark hair and bare forearms.

“You have it exactly, Mr. Mulligan.”

Buck looked between the two of them, Banshee’s dreamy smile and Sweeney’s smirk. His suspicion grew in spite of the known facts. He pointed his fork at them as he spoke.

“Okay, what’s the deal? Have you two been laying pipe?”

The first response was laughter, then more smirking.

“You have a suspicious mind, Buck Mulligan. Banshee and I have done no more than sit here and enjoy each other’s company.”

Sweeney leaned into Banshee’s shoulder.

“Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, my dear, if proclivities weren’t what they were.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll send you a memo if something changes. As for you, Mr. Mulligan; laying pipe, really? This is how a man of the theater speaks?”

Buck waved them off with his free hand, reaching for his coffee with the other.

“Theater is the art of the people, don’t you know, written in the language of the common man. Unlike the fancy prose of your highbrow novelists like Sweeney here. So what’s with all this bliss and happiness then?”

Banshee pushed herself upright, raising her coffee mug between thin, spidery fingers.

“I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this good in years. Almost three weeks of dealing with that whiny shit Reuben, and yet I feel fantastic.”

“Is he actually writing anything?”

“Just enough to eat, and what he’s scribbling down is crap. Worse than you would expect. Bitching, moaning, and scribbling shit; that’s pretty much his daily agenda. It’s a good thing we aren’t actually submitting this garbage to anyone.”

Buck nodded, savoring the tang of the peppers against the smooth taste of the eggs. He looked between the two faces sitting across the table, his fork poised midair.

“So what do we do with him?”

Sweeney turned to the smiling Banshee.

“He’s your guy. What do you think?”

She smiled even more, wrinkling her forehead as if it were a stupid question.

“Look, I signed on for the long-haul here, just like the rest of us. But I don’t have two years to waste on this little bitch. He doesn’t have a bad novel in him, much less a decent one. I have my own projects to write, and lovely maidens to chase. So I think it’s obvious: We kill him.”

The two men nodded their heads. Buck shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth. Sweeney spoke first.

“Sounds reasonable to me. When do you want to do it?”

“After breakfast tomorrow. I’m feeling too relaxed right now.”

“Who do you want to help you?”

“I don’t need any help to shoot him, but Stephen can help me dump the heavy lump of shit. I’ll have more free time after that, so I can play in the kitchen. I’ll bake you some biscuits, Buck.”

“I like biscuits.”

Buck pushed the empty plate aside, reached for his coffee.

“Listen, I’m worried about this Peter Schear cat. He’s the exact opposite of Banshee’s BJ. Pardon the pun.”

“In your dreams, Buck Mulligan.”

“I only dream about flying monkeys. Anyway, my guy is following the rules like a hall monitor. I swear, it’s like he’s analyzed the entire program, trying to figure out how to unlock it.”

Sweeney sipped at his cooling coffee.

“What about the stuff he’s writing?”

“Well, that would be worse news. It’s pap, pure and simple. Setting that elitist judgment aside, it’s the kind of pap that would sell in very respectable numbers. A dog, a pretty girl, a mildly shocking conflict; every element is lifted from somebody. But we can’t shoot him for plagiarism. He’s not lifting from one person; he’s lifting from everyone.”

“Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. It’s not unreasonable that one out of the five would turn out to be a writer. Maybe we just handed him an opportunity. At least he’s not trying to bust your balls.”

“No, but he’s a calculating bastard, I can tell you that. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of a negotiation with him. A fella would come out short on that deal.”

“Think about what we should do with him, Buck. Banshee will have a bit more time after eliminating the annoying Mr. Reuben. When she’s not baking biscuits, perhaps she could give Peter Schear’s cage a bit of a rattle?”

Banshee shook back her hair, grinning a wicked grin.

“I’d be delighted.”

*  *  *

It was after breakfast when they came for him. The captives were all in their cells, but she could hear every word. The steel boxes did not hide sounds as much as magnify them. Every noise, every groan or fart, was broadcast across the open concrete room. Allie Stark heard the outside door open, the footsteps heavy across the floor. This wasn’t part of the routine. The handlers usually stayed away in the morning. No one had shouted for a bathroom privilege. Allie sat absolutely still, the tip of her pen hovering above a yellow legal pad. The footsteps passed in front of her box, the sound of two people moving further up the line. She heard the wrenching creak of a steel handle, then the groan of a heavy door opening.

“Okay, Reuben, on your feet.”

It was the woman, Banshee, with that voice like soft gravel. The other one was silent; maybe one of the men.

“What do you want? What’s this about?”

Allie shook her head at the tone of BJ’s voice. You poor idiot, three weeks and you still haven’t figured these people out. As if you were still in charge of everything. You never were much for learning things. Banshee’s voice cut across her thoughts, harsh and metallic.

“Shut up. I am sick to death of listening to you. Turn around and put your hands behind your back. We’re going for a little walk.”

“But I…”

“I said shut up. I won’t say it again. Turn around, hands behind your back, or I stun you right now. Dragging you will be more work, but if that’s the way you want it, fine.”

There was the creak of a chair, the muffled sound of movement, the faintest click of steel on steel. Then the sound of shuffling feet, footsteps being retraced. Allie Stark sat quite still, listening to the quiet that followed. She knew the others were listening as well.

The first gunshot cut through the silence, rolling like thunder against the concrete walls. Two more shots followed, the echoes mixing and dying. The thunder fell away, replaced by the sound of weeping from the next cell.

*  *  *

“Dammit, Stephen, couldn’t you two keep your hands off each other for a few more weeks? I thought you were the writer who wanted to reinvent the modern love story. Instead, you get involved in some pulp romance.”

Molly Bloom stood in front of Stephen, her hands on her hips. Dedalus raised his hands from the arms of the chair, shook his head, dropped the hands to his lap. Molly blew out a huge sigh, turned to the others.

“Does someone want to help me out here? Anyone?”

Sweeney was slumped over the long table, silent. Banshee leaned against the wall casting dangerous looks. Buck Mulligan sighed and scratched at the stubble on his jaw, thinking of where to start.

“I think it’s safe to say that this changes things a bit. Stephen, can you give us the quick version? But please, without any graphic bits, because I am really not in the mood for that.”

Banshee laughed out loud.

“Yeah, I’m dying to hear this. At least someone is getting laid. Please tell me that you took that stupid leprechaun mask off.”

“Look, I’m sorry; really I am. It was after you took that Reuben prick out. Lauren was scared; I mean really freaked out. We were just talking, you know. We had to whisper, so we were leaned in close. Then it just happened.”

Sweeney raised his head from the table.

“Yes, it just happened. The Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, or the earth moved beneath the two of you. It doesn’t matter at this point. This pretty much tears it. Ms. Collin has to go, and so do you, Stephen. Then you two can live happily ever after, or she can hand you over to the Feds.”

“I don’t think Lauren would do that.”

“Sure, of course. Buck, would you care to script this one out for us?”

“No, Sweeney, I most certainly would not. But I agree that they have to go, and they have to go quickly, which means we have to close up shop. The question is, how long is it going to take to clean everything up?”

Sweeney’s laugh was sour.

“When we were planning this thing, we weighed out a lot of contingencies, but I swear, I never thought of this one. But at least we have an evacuation plan. I need to go over the checklist, but I originally figured two days at the outside. We can probably get it done in one. After we serve our guests their dinners, we can start packing up the gear. Stephen, you’re going to have to wait a day or two before we can spring you two lovebirds. Can you live with that?”

“Sure, of course we can. Look, I’m sorry. I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone. And you guys can keep my share of the profits.”

“No, Mr. Dedalus, a deal is a deal. We spent an entire year planning this thing. One of the rules was that if there were ever any royalties, we split them evenly. You did your part, just like everyone else, so the deal still stands as far as I’m concerned. Besides, you may need some money when you finally get out of the slammer. As far as talking goes, never is a long time. But we can’t kill you; we all go back too many years. Is everyone okay with that?”

There were nods around the room. Sweeney shook his head.

“Right. There’s not a lot more we can do tonight besides packing up the miscellaneous stuff. Tomorrow we move everyone out. Buck can drive Stephen and Ms. Collin to the Denville Station. That’s in the opposite direction of where we dumped Reuben. They can get to the city from there, or wherever they choose to go. Stephen, you need to do whatever you can to keep a lid on your new girlfriend until we can get clear of here.”

 Stephen Dedalus nodded his head, still slumped in his chair. Sweeney rose from the table.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we better get to it.”

*  *  *

Hers was the last dinner to serve. Sweeney rapped twice, his knuckles ringing on the steel door. Heavy cams groaned as he rotated the thick handles. Before he fully opened it, Sweeney peeped through the gap in the door. There was no need. Ms. Allie Stark was not poised to attack, sharpened pencil raised to stab. She was sitting at her makeshift desk, as always, her eyes calm and waiting. Vaguely disappointed, he retrieved a tray of food and pulled open the door, edging into the steel box.

“Good evening Ms. Stark; here is your dinner.”

“Good evening, Mr. Sweeney. Mmm… it smells like curry. It must be Stephen Dedalus’ turn in the kitchen. He is a very good cook, Mr. Dedalus. I may actually miss his curries.”

Sweeney set the tray on the desk and took one step back.

“Are you leaving us, Ms. Stark?”

“Everything must come to an end, Mr. Sweeney, even this little vacation.”

“Yes, well, I will leave you to your meal.”

Her voice stopped him before he could move.

“Would you mind very much staying for a bit? I am sick of eating alone, truth be told.”

Sweeney shrugged, seated himself on the narrow cot.

“A bit of time is all I have, I’m afraid. Lots to do, dishes to wash; you understand.”

“Yes, and love affairs to see to, I would imagine.”

She caught his harsh look and gave him back a half smile.

“Relax, it’s no business of mine. The walls are quite thin, that’s all. But it would make a very good party story, don’t you think? A wonderful response to that awkward ‘how-did-you-two-meet’ question. Speaking of questions, do you mind if I ask you one?”

“I believe you just did.”

“Alrighty, let’s make it two.”

Sweeney raised his hands palm up.

“Your name; how did you choose it? I mean, I understand the others, the Joyce characters: very clever. And Banshee, that requires no explanation. She has the sexiest voice on the planet, all gravel and threat. It is a treat to listen to her.”

“She would be pleased to hear it.”

“Yes, I’m sure she would. But back to your name. Which version of the Frenzy of Sweeney are you? Were you cursed for insulting a holy man, or broken in the shock of battle.”

“I am impressed, Ms. Stark. You are well-versed in your Irish literature.”

“Allie, please; I think we are long past the formalities. And yes, I have a little something to show for all of that money my parents handed over into the coffers of the Ivy League.”

“Brown University, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, six years of it; and you?”

“I spent a bit of time in academia, but nothing so prestigious.”

The woman ignored her food, her eyes fixed on his.

“Tell me, Sweeney, what do you think of my story?”

You asked for this, Boyo, engaging in a serious conversation with this woman. All you had to do was drop off the food and go on about your business, but no.

“To be honest, I like what you’re writing. It’s good, edgy, but it will never sell.”

“I wasn’t thinking about it selling. You never had any intention of submitting our manuscripts, so what does it matter? I may as well write what I want. Isn’t that the way to create something real?”

Sweeney rose to his feet in one motion.

“Damn you, Allie Stark. Damn you to hell.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan stepped into the room. His crumpled leprechaun mask dangled limply in one hand. The other three looked up from the cramped table. Molly was the first to speak.

“Did everything go okay, Buck?”

“Sure, by the numbers, just like we planned. I dropped the two lovebirds off at the Denville Station and came straight back here. But the clock is ticking. We need to wrap this up if we want to stay out of prison.”

Sweeney looked up from a pad of paper.

“Buck’s right, of course. We need to get the others out of here and clear out ourselves. Let’s run through it one more time. Banshee, is the pistol taken care of?”

“It’s handled, Sweeney. I ran the tap thing down through the barrel. There were metal shavings everywhere. No one is getting ballistics from that pistol. I swept up the shavings and mixed them in with some other piles of junk.”

“And you dug the three slugs out of the hay bale?”

“You know I did. We can’t be leaving any bullets for the cops to find. They went down the toilet.”

“Good work, thank you. We can toss the gun when we leave. One more pistol in a New Jersey ditch; no one is going to notice or care. I can smell the chlorine, so the bleaching must have gotten done, right?”

“Yes, we made Stephen do it. It seemed only fair. He doused the toilets and the kitchen like a madman. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of DNA left. Better if no one ever finds this place at all, but we did our best.”

“Okay, Mrs. Bloom, that’s checked off the list as well. Everything went to the storage unit this morning. I paid three months rent on that thing, so no one will be opening it anytime soon. I don’t think anyone will ever connect a bunch of pots and pans with a kidnapping, but if they do, we will have a long head start.”

“Do we tell them anything about the cel phones, Sweeney?”

“Sure, tell them the truth. We’re not thieves, but we couldn’t have the cops tracking us. Their phones are in a package buried in the mail room of the Reuben Park Group. It’s disguised as an unsolicited manuscript. If they look hard, they may find it in a week or two.”

There was grim laughter around the table. Sweeney pushed the legal pad away and looked at the others.

“You know they’ll never stop looking for us, right? Kidnapping, a Federal offense and all of that; we need to get this last part over with.”

Everyone nodded. Buck Mulligan’s voice cut across the group.

“We need to be careful about the finger prints. Everything has been doused with WD-40. All the doors will be open, so there should be no need for anyone to touch anything, but make sure you keep the latex gloves on until we are in the van and driving.”

Sweeney nodded his head.

“You all know what to do. You three take the van. You dump Lyons and Schear near the train station. Their hoods don’t come off until you push them out of the van. I do the last wipe down, then I take Ms. Stark in the car. Once we’re all clear, we head for Philadelphia. Remember to watch the speed limits and all of that. Any questions?”

It was Molly Bloom who spoke.

“The wild card is that prick Reuben. Banshee, you dumped him in Patterson, right? He’s had a few days to do whatever he’s going to do. What do you think?”

“We gave him the spiel, about how we know where he lives, where his family lives. I think he’s scared enough to keep his mouth shut, at least for a little while. I told him that if he talks, someone will find him and kill him for real; slowly and painfully. Stephen said there is a lot about this that Reuben wouldn’t want made public, but who knows.”

“I suppose we will find out soon enough. We give the same talk to the others, of course. Let Banshee put the fear of all the gods into them. Buck said it best; the clock is ticking. You guys get a move on. As soon as you’re clear of here, I’ll do the last walk through and follow. See you in Philadelphia.”

Without a word, the crew rose and set to work.

*  *  *

Sweeney crossed the concrete floor, a canvas bag in his hand. The warehouse was in shadows. Steel doors gaped open on four of the shipping containers; empty mouths on empty cells. The nearest, the fifth, was shut tight. Sweeney rapped twice, then pulled at the heavy handles. The door wrenched open, the handles clanged. A feeble light trickled in from a small overhead vent. The generator was gone and the lights had gone with it. 

Allie Stark was seated on her narrow cot, hands in her lap, as if she were waiting on a bus. She held a hand to her forehead to fend off the sudden light, weak as it was.

“Good afternoon, Sweeney, or evening; whichever it is.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting Ms. Stark. Late afternoon would be accurate, I suppose.”

“If you call me Ms. Stark one more time, I’m going to scream. And I can scream really loudly, so fair warning. Not that it matters, since everyone is already gone. They are gone, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Allie, everyone else has left, as I’m sure you heard. “

“Then I should be terrified: Trapped alone with a legendary Irish madman.”

Sweeney did not think she looked at all terrified.

“What is it you’ve got there?”

Stepping into the gloom, he held out the canvas bag.

“I brought you your things; your purse, wallet. You’ll have to do without your cell phone.”

Allie Stark took the bag with one hand, motioned to the cot with the other.

“Have a seat while I pack.”

Sweeney shrugged and sat, leaning against the steel wall at the far end of the cot.

Allie rose, took three steps to the desk, reached for a stack of legal pads. She fit the pads into the canvas shopping bag and returned to her place on the cot. It creaked under her slight weight as she sat.

“I’m packed.”

Her smile flashed in the dim light. Sweeney reached into a side pocket of the work coat he was wearing.

“You should add this to your packing. It’s your manuscript; as best as I can transcribe it.”

“Oh, a thumb-drive, how sweet. Now I will have something to remember you by.”

“Right, a keepsake. I didn’t want you to lose all of your hard work, that’s all.”

“One of the lessons I have learned in the last four weeks is that I rather like working with paper and ink. I had forgotten that lovely scratching sound the pen makes as it slides across the paper. Speaking of lessons, did you learn yours?”

“And what lessons would those be?”

Allie Stark turned away from the bag in her lap, giving Sweeney a frank stare.

“You know exactly what I am talking about. This elaborate abduction; weeks of watching and listening. There must have been some surprises, lessons you weren’t counting on.”

Sweeney looked away from her probing eyes.

“I’m going to need to get back to you on that. I wish I had something profound to say, but I’m still trying to sort it out in my head.”

“I suppose that’s fair. Did you at least get what you wanted out of this whole thing?”

“No, not so much, or rather yes and no. I think there was more of the unexpected than the expected. Let’s just say that things didn’t stick to the outline.”

“Maybe not as much as our friend Banshee? Direct anger, driver revenge; she is very good at it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. Banshee got exactly what she was looking for, exactly what she was needing.”

“Are any of the others really dead?  Mr. BJ Reuben in particular?”

“Dead?”

“Yes, you know, shuffled loose the mortal coil: Dead.”

“No, no one is dead.”

“Good, I’m glad for that.”

“You’re glad for them?”

“No, I’m glad for you, Sweeney.”

She raised a hand, pointing to his face.

“Since it’s just the two of us, would you be willing to take off that stupid mask? It’s most unflattering, you know.”

“No, Allie, I would not be willing to take off this stupid mask.”

Her eyes were on him again; grey, serious eyes.

“Then I am stuck with the image of a horribly disfigured man; saber scar across the left cheek, a crooked, broken nose.”

“That is remarkably accurate. We should be going now.”

“All right, Sweeney, but just one more thing before we go. When you send me the query letter for this novel, make sure you put in a line, a code word, something I can recognize. I know, use this sentence: And your words may set you free. I’ll make sure my assistant is looking for that.”

“What makes you think I’m going to write a novel about this?”

“You’d be a fool not to.”


BIO

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, Five on the Fifth, Storgy, Inlandia Journal, Manzano Mountain Review, Every Day Fiction, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Literary Yard, Mobius: A Journal for Social Change, Czykmate, Cleaning Up the Glitter, and Fleas on the Dog. His non-fiction work has been featured at Route 7 and Bluntly Magazine. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers.

Reflections

by Regan Kilkenny



It was always empty at this time of night. Everyone else had gone home to start their weekends – see their kids that they had visitation rights to see – although had no custody over. The addiction had made it that way.

I dragged the chairs out of the little circle we had set up and back into their proper formation. A chill had set in. The heating turned off at nine each evening and the old, poorly insulated walls did little to nothing in order to help keep it warm. The cold wind managed to trickle in through the cracks in the single-paned windows and, at the same time, created a high pitched howl that echoed around the room. The artificial light that had been shining down on me for the last few hours was beginning to give me a headache. The muscles behind my eyes had been working too hard and had started to become strained, forcing the unpleasant soreness that wrapped it’s way around my head to intensify.

I dreaded the drive home. Navigating the winding country roads that remained unlit at this time of night, the darkness that set in would always crowd her, the blanket of black creeping its way in, suffocating me. I hated it.

The isolated town hall, that was far too elegant to just be a town hall, was situated outside of town which unfortunately meant a grueling drive for me every other Friday. It had once been home to an eccentric, elderly man who had supposedly donated it once he had died. Whispered rumours informed us all that he had gone mad in his old age and when he died there had been no next of kin and so the council deemed it the new town hall.

Most of his belongings were still here since no one had bothered to clear it out. The antique furniture that had a permanent layer of dust settled on its surface, the unpolished marble floor. The grandfather clock that stood proud at the top of the carpeted staircase and yet always chimed at the wrong time. A forgotten plate was still placed on the dining room table. I passed it as I walked to the coat room to grab my gloves, coat and bag, glad to be done for the day.

I whipped my head round when I heard a noise from another room. A high-pitched squeak, like worn shoes dragging across a too-shiny floor.

“Hello,” I called out, my voice confident despite my shaking hands. I told myself it was just the cold.

Expecting the noise to be from some kids that had snuck in as a joke, I walked in the direction that it came from – behind a pair of large double doors that stretched all the way up to the high ceiling. The wood that the doorway was made of had cracked and discoloured in places. The corners had even rotted slightly. The gold handle had been well worn, rust settling into the delicately sculpted design. Grabbing the handle, the cool metal sent shivers up my arm. I turned and pushed. 

The floor was made of mirrors. As I walked across the room, a deep pit eroded away my stomach. A weird tingly feeling spread over my arms and legs. Like fireworks, except I felt nauseous. My fingers were numb.

Looking down at the floor beneath me, the mirrors began to move. Ripples spread out from under my feet, the mirrors sliding over each other like a reflective pool of water. Yet I seemed to still be standing on solid ground.

I jumped back when a pair of hands reached towards me, through the pool of mirrors. More ripples spread over the surface. The skin on the hand was grey, almost translucent and rough; patches of dry flaky skin chafing against my own smooth skin. Long black talons pierced into my wrist along with a burning sensation – a handprint burning into my flesh. I screamed as the hand began to pull me down.

I was pulled through the river of mirrors, an icy chill settling over my skin as the unusual liquid splashed around my body. An indistinguishable pressure encompassed me – as if being squeezed through a tube that only just allowed enough space for me.

The claw was still wrapped tightly around my wrist, tugging me along; branding itself deeper and deeper into the flesh on my arm.

I struggled against it, pulled with the weight of my body. But with nothing else to pull myself towards, my efforts were futile. The hand pulling my body along as though i was a limp ragdoll.

The pressure around me began to grow tighter. Tightening around my chest, my ribs, my lungs. It became harder to breathe. The effort it took in order to get air into my lungs was unbearable and when I opened my mouth to attempt to breathe, a foul taste of iron entered my mouth and coated my taste buds.

I was drowning in metal. And then I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, the tightness around my chest released and my feet had found purchase. I was no longer falling through the river of mirrors. Instead I was in a room of mirrors, with multiple versions of myself staring back at me. My hair was now a wild nest on top on my head; completely windswept. My jumper had ripped, the stitches up my left side that held together the purple polyester had come apart completely.

In the dim light, the figure behind me was barely visible. It was all but a shadow that towered above me. It lifted a clawed finger and point towards one of the walls that was coated in mirrors. Though these mirrors had gone dark and cloudy. A dark inky mass spreading across the once crystal-clear wall and with it, the last of the light that lingered in the small room. It pulled all the light away and me along with it, I couldn’t seem to look away. When I dared to try and look at the creature behind me, I just couldn’t. My vision was fixed. I felt a cold hand rest on my shoulder.

In a rapid movement that lasted all of a second, the inkiness cleared and a brief spark of yellowing light flashed across the wall; a scene from a film, playing in front of me.

A younger version of myself stumbling down an alleyway, visibly intoxicated. It was nighttime; a full moon stood proudly in the pitch-black sky. No stars were out that night.

A man was following me, the glint of a knife reflected off what little light the moon provided. He walked with purpose, towards her, me, as I continued to stumble down the alley, wanting to be home. The me on the screen pulled out her phone. I remembered that I had tried to call a taxi, but the screen of my phone danced around, my eyes wouldn’t focus. The man had reached me now, grabbing my arm and roughly pulling me around to face him. I almost fell over with the force that he enacted onto me.

“Give me your money,” he said. My own mouth, the one in the room made of mirrors, mimed along to his words, like it was me saying them. The cold hand clutched my shoulder even tighter.

“I don’t have any,” My words were slurred as I tripped over my own feet. I pulled him with me as I fell. His body landing on top of me with a grunt. I struggled under him, trying to move his heavy body off me. I remember feeling as though he was suffocating me. I remember passing out. I remember the feeling of his dried blood clinging to my jeans that made it even more impossible to move. I remember his body crushing me.

I had still been drunk when I left him there. With a knife sticking out of his chest. It had somehow managed to lodge itself inside him when he had fallen on me. I was left limping away covered in a stranger’s blood.

The wall went black, like a television turning off. My cheeks were sticky with tears, but when the lights came on, I was back in the town hall, with nothing around me except the howling wind. And a burning handprint scarred into my wrist.


BIO

From the U.K., Regan Kilkenny is a young aspiring author currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Staffordshire University.

The Walker

By Martin Keaveney



            I stop walking on the hard shoulder. There is a light flashing in the distance. It’s different from the yellow glow of the streetlights. A silver torch beam from the bog, over the sparkles of tarmac, through the hue of the blue moon. Now it lights up the canvas of a small tent. There is someone inside. It’s a female. I know by the shape of the shoulders. I better be careful.

            I always leave the city when the buses stop running. The clubs are starting, there’s queues of youngsters lined up, perfumed, heels tapping, phones blinking, excitement of the night to come. I hit for the ring road, past the 24-hour service station. Around the big roundabout and onto the east route. I walk fast. I go if it’s dry, if it rains, if it snows. I take what comes. I go no matter what. I probably shouldn’t walk on the dual carriageway. But I live with risk.

            There isn’t much notice taken out here after dark. The night has its own laws. I could go by the old road. There’s a lot of hills that way. But I’d get over them. Or I could go cross-country. I have done. Squelching across the bog, trawling through streams, climbing over fences. The world slows you down. It’s never in a hurry. Nature is always on time.

            But my old boots are leaking this last while. You can get no wear out of anything these days. I only have them a few years. I can feel the damp coming in already. Even though the shape of this road rolls down from the centre, there is still a film of dampness across it. I sense it coming in my woollen socks. Around the toes. The reeds and marsh are out for now. I’m afraid I’ll have to get new boots for the winter. Then I might take on the cross-country. But the motorway is the most direct. As-the-crow-flies.

            They knew what they were doing when they set it out. I know all about road-making. I did an exam on it. I studied the production of road coverings, bridge-building, urban and rural planning, infrastructural strategies and policies, waterways, dams. The route was well planned. On certain parts of the road, you can see the track of it for miles by the lights each side. You can see things better in the darkness of the night.

            It’s hard to get silence in the world these days. I’ve tried lots of places. The church. The last morning, I found a couple of parishioners by the devotion candles. Chatting as I knelt and prayed. Down the library. A row broke out one day over an unpaid fine while I was looking for a history book. You can’t even walk along the canal in the daytime, without whooping children rattling crisp bags, beeping mobile phones. People racing everywhere. Round in circles.

            I’d only be about during the night if I could. Sounds that were hidden all day come alive at night. The rustling on leaves, doors banging, bins emptying, dogs barking. You couldn’t hear them things during the day. Not with all that goes on. But I wouldn’t be the first to throw light on that.

            No cars have passed for a while. Awful waste of a good road really. Lying dormant here for hours. It’s funny to be walking slow on a surface designed for great speed. The road tries to hurry you. But I’ll not be hurried.

           It’s like you are in slow motion. The big white and yellow lines, the flat bitumen skin, the crash barrier of two aluminium channels running all the way. The massive green and blue signs. The smaller yellow ones with bars showing how many hundred metres before the next turn-off. Billboards at the slip roads. Designed for people zooming by. You get a glimpse of a woman using a shiny lawnmower or a man filling a sleek washing-machine. Happy people that have something the drivers of the cars should buy. You see it. You want to buy it. But I’m looking at these pictures for a long time as I walk. When you come up close to the giant board, you see them better. You see it as a flat sheet of colours and shapes. If you look really close, you can see it’s just lines of coloured full stops.

           The hostel lobby clock put temperatures at between 4 and 5 Celsius tonight. The autumn is dying. The leaves won’t be rustling for much longer. Except in the Copper Beeches. And the evergreens. I’m an evergreen. I don’t lose my leaves in the winter. I don’t hibernate. I keep going all year round.

            I’ve decided I’ll move out of the hostel as soon as I can. I’m in one of six bunk beds in a room. The people change every night. But even so, they’re the same. Rattling plastic bags. Fiddling with zips. Blowing hairdryers. Flashing phones. I get cold with those noises. Scratching at you. Great silence out here. I was always fond of the night.

            I didn’t want to go to bed at all when I was a boy. The old man would tell me it was time. I’d spell ‘N-O’. He would spell ‘Y-E-S’. But I couldn’t spell ‘Just another half-hour?’ The old man was good at spelling.

            There’s always hassle in the hostel. One night in there I thought I heard the cuckoo. I never heard one, even though I lived in the country until I grew up. I was awful excited. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and in the city. I jumped down off the bunk, the man sleeping below groaned, rattling the wooden bead necklace he wore. I ran to the window. It was like waking up Christmas morning, running to the bottom of the tree to see what the man in red had brought.

            I looked across the roofs. There were owls hooting by this time as well. Another first. I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t see any birds. I thought they must have all their nests under the eaves. Then I saw a square blue light reflected in the glass. The man with the wooden necklace was sitting up in the bed. He had his phone out. He turned off his alarm. The owls and cuckoos stopped.

            I don’t need to find anywhere else when I leave. I’ll firm up for the winter. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Surprising what the skeletal structure, the muscular tissue, the organs can withstand. It’s a durable design. Almost limitless. You’d be minted if you owned the patent.

           I’ve tested it well already. I was able to hop sixteen foot when I was sixteen years. The long jump at the village sports day. The sports field was green grassed. White fence posts and blue ropes marked out the running track. Crease suit lines ran in huge decreasing circles for the laps and relays. Wooden swing boats rose high into the blue sky. Children laughed. A man in a suit walked around speaking into an orange spongy microphone with a short piece of wire that wasn’t connected to anything. His voice came out of two blue loudspeakers attached to the top of a telegraph pole. I always wanted a go on that microphone. You could hear him speak all over the village, giving the results of the under-10s three-legged race. But I didn’t mind the noise then. I always loved the night though.

            The schoolmaster in the village shook my hand and gave me the winner’s trophy. It had a small golden statue of a man in sports gear. The master’s name was Joe. But he wasn’t my teacher anymore by then. When he gave me the trophy, I could have said ‘Thanks, Joe’, if I wanted. But I didn’t. I said ‘Thanks, sir.’ The master told me I should take sport more seriously. I had a real talent, he said. I could jump very high as well. And I could run fast. I looked at the trophy as he talked, my fingers on the marble base, the little golden plate glued on, inscribed with the year and the word: ‘Winner’. The man in the suit said my name into the orange microphone. It came out the two blue loudspeakers on the telegraph pole for everyone in the village to hear. They took my photograph. Everyone clapped for a long time.

            But I didn’t take sport more seriously. I went learning about the roads instead. The old man told me it was more secure. One of the arms broke off the trophy figure a while later. I never did any sport again. That was fifty years ago.

            I’m still fit enough. I walk most of the day as well. It’s surprising what the body can train itself to do. Imagine all the miles I could walk over another twenty years if I keep in good shape. No one should ever be in any hurry. Nature is always on time.

            I moved out of the flat in the city a month ago. The crowd I was living with were fairly lively. ‘Sticky People’ the landlord called them. He didn’t mean me. If they were all like me, he’d be elected, he said. But they’re not all like me. That was the problem. He was getting rid of the lot of them.

            The buck from down the country that called a kettle a ‘kittle’. The foreigner that was trying to learn English from him. The father of three whose family lived in a different continent. There were a few women there too. I didn’t know much about any of them. They’re all sticky people, the landlord said. He wanted to clean the place up and get in a family. Every landlord wants a family.

            I didn’t mind. I was glad to be getting out of there. I took a top bunk in the hostel. But I’ll be getting away from there soon enough too. Sticky people in it and all. Out here on the road, there’s none of that. It’s all left to you. Freedom.

            I looked at a few places last week. But I didn’t like the terrain. I’ll firm up for the winter instead. I’ll wear two trousers and two shirts if temperatures go below zero. My woollen cap. Thick socks and gloves. I’m fit for anything. I’ll sleep behind the crash barrier on the motorway. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to if the mind is right. The mind is a powerful tool. The old man told me that once.

            I’m getting very close to the torch beam in the bog. I can see the tent better now. It definitely wasn’t there last night. Someone sleeping by the motorway. Moved in under cover of the day. Someone with my idea. I can see the woman inside. I can make out the jawline. The shape of the hair. It would be funny if I hopped the barrier and called in to her. Tell her I pass this way every night. Maybe she could do with something brought from the city 24-hour next time I’m passing. A carton of milk. Or a pound of sausages. Or a bottle of 7up. But I don’t talk much to women. Never did. It’s hard to know what to say to them. They’re not straightforward. The old man told me that once. They can be sticky. The night is not sticky. The night is straightforward.

            But it would be funny if I told her I was going to be her neighbour. That I’d the same idea. Except without a tent. She’d probably call the law. Say I was some weirdo. There’d be a court visit. A cell at the finish. That’d be the end of the freedom. I value my liberty. I pass by her tent and keep going. Good luck to her. She’ll have to do her own shopping.

            I turn onto the slip road after the last yellow sign. I walk up a little hill to the bridge overhead. I walk across, looking over and back at the carriageway, streetlights stretching out into the dark. I can see the tent in the bog. A small triangle of canvas-shaded light. I go by a little roundabout. Then I come into the suburbs. Streetlights shine torch beam silver here instead of the motorway yellow. Security alarms flash in industrial estates. Lines of trucks parked up all night. Awful waste really. The night is a neglected space.

            Near the town centre, I cross an old bridge. I stop in the middle, go to the wall, look into the canal. The water never stops flowing here, from dusk to dawn. I hear it splashing against the bank. On the stone cut cap someone has written a small message in white paint: ‘Don’t Jump’.

            I get to the main street. I pass the traffic lights, a post office, a supermarket, a clothes shop, a bank. I walk into the town square, cars parked around it.

            I get to the statue in the centre. I stand by the square concrete base. There is a gold plate at the front inscribed with the words: ‘J.M. Barrie 1757-1845 – “The Walker”’. I look up at the bronze sculpture. I can see the outline of the boots, the jacket, the big bag on the back, the hat on top. The arms are outstretched. The wall lights of the town hall behind shine against the statue and the head is a black shape as I look up. But I always imagine The Walker is smiling.

            I pull my bag off my back. I sit on the concrete base. I look down the street. I have the freedom of the town. There’s always sticky people around the city. But not out here at night.

            I’ve walked ten miles on the dual carriageway. But I feel like I could walk forever. I stand. Better not to sit for too long. Hard to get going again. I bend each leg. I rub the backs of my thighs and calves. I’ll have to get new boots for the winter.

           I walk down the main street to the traffic lights. They change every thirty seconds, even though there’s no drivers to come and go. Changing colours all night to an empty street. Awful waste of electricity really. I go up close to them.   The lights are just circles of coloured full stops. I stare at the amber when it comes. It means prepare to stop. It reminds me of the torch beam yellow. I walk back up the street and sit under The Walker.

            I pull off my shoes and socks. I wiggle my toes and stretch them out. I take off my high-viz jacket. The jumper with ‘Champion’ written across the front. The check shirt. The vest.  I sit in my skin. It’s good and cold. I look around. Not a sinner, not a sound. I scratch an armpit. I walk out to the middle of the main street. The road is wet on my feet. I stand on the white line in the centre. I flex my biceps. After a minute, I let off a roar. The silence falls again in the town. I let off another roar, louder. I’m coughing after this one. Heart thumps. A light comes on somewhere.

            I go back to the statue. I put on the vest, the check shirt, the ‘Champion’ jumper, the high-viz jacket, the socks and the old leaking boots. I put my bag on my back.

            I walk by the bank, the clothes shop, the supermarket, the post office. I stop at the traffic lights. I look to the town square. I can see The Walker, the arms outstretched. Smiling down at me. I smile back.

            The walk is always easier on the way back to the city. A car whizzes by outside the suburbs. Boxy lads squeezed inside, music beating, a purple light shining from the underbelly. They circle the little roundabout a few times. Then they zoom back by me toward the town. They beep as they pass. Sticky people. I shouldn’t be walking out here at night. But I live with risk.

            As I walk across the motorway bridge, I see her leaning against the crash barrier. She is looking up at me. The only trouble with the motorway is there is no cover. But usually there is no need to hide.

            There is nowhere to turn off on the slip road. I have to keep going toward her. I don’t let on to see her at all. I keep my eyes down on the sparkling tarmac. But as soon as I set foot on the hard shoulder, I hear her say ‘Excuse me?’ I say nothing. I keep walking. She has the torch in her hand. It shines on the road. But she could flash it in my face, if she wanted.

            ‘Excuse me?’ she says again.  I’m close by now. She says it so loud I couldn’t miss it. Unless I was deaf. But that could be dodgy to pull off. I stop. ‘Yes?’

            ‘Did you pass by here a while ago?’

            ‘Pass by? Where? Here?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘No. No, I wasn’t this way before. Not for a long time.’

            ‘I thought I saw you pass by earlier. From my camp.’ She nods back to the bog, ‘I thought it was you.’

            ‘No. That wasn’t me.’

            ‘You don’t normally pass this way?’

            ‘No.’ I look back toward the little town. ‘My car broke down. Back there. In the town. But there’s no one about. I’m going to the city. To get help.’

            ‘That’s awful, can it be fixed?’

            ‘What’s that?’

            ‘Your car, can it be fixed?’

            ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much about cars.’

            ‘Can you ring anyone?’

            ‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t use them.’

            ‘I’d give you mine, but the battery is flat.’

            ‘That was it.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘The battery. In the car. It’s flat.’

            ‘You poor thing. There wasn’t a phone box in the town?’

            ‘Vandalised. I must be on my way.’ But I’ve hardly gone two steps and she calls me again.

            ‘Excuse me! Really sorry to bother you when you have enough trouble, but I’m very stuck, and I wonder, do you, by any chance, have such a thing as a tin-opener? Maybe in your bag there?’

            ‘A tin-opener?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘You need to open a tin?’

            ‘Yes, do you have one?’

            ‘I do.’

            ‘Great! Could I borrow it? Just for a couple of minutes?’

            She has a funny accent. She’s not local. Her voice is like the current under the bridge, where they tell you not to jump, she gets higher pitched, same as the water splashing against the sides of the bank, as she reaches the end of each sentence.

            She must have grown up in a place hundreds of miles away from here. She picked up that twang in the schoolyard.  Pushing, pulling, shouting, screaming. Bouncing balls, stones grazing your arms, a busted nose. I hated them places.

           I pull off my bag from my back. Everything I need is within. Three pairs of trousers, three shirts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks, my wellingtons and a belt. Three cooking pots of different sizes, a frying pan, one knife, one fork and one spoon. A mug. A razor, a comb and a toothbrush. A shirt, tie, suit jacket and black shoes. A football jersey. My woolly hat. A bar of soap. A penknife with a tin-opener. Carrying all this around probably makes the walk harder. But I never leave anything in the hostel with the sticky people and their sticky fingers. ‘You have a tin and no tin-opener?’

            ‘Well, yes.’ She could be smiling, but her face is a black shape in the streetlight.

            ‘If you get the tin, I’ll open it for you,’ I say, taking out the penknife. ‘There’s a knack to this.’ A penknife is a valuable item when you live in the bog. She might not want to give it back.

            ‘Thank you so much!’ She sounds young, but she could be old. She climbs over the crash barrier. I hear the boots squelching over the bog. I know they are boots by the stamp. I wonder where she bought them. I will ask her that before I go. The torch flashes out the opening, lighting up a part of the night. The tent looks to be of decent quality. I wonder where she bought it. But I’m not getting a tent.

            When I move out of the hostel, I’ll lie directly onto the bog. There’ll be nothing separating me from the elements. It can get as cold as it wants. I hope it does. It’s welcome to. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Strange machine really. If you ever built something as durable, you’d be minted.

            But no one has yet. It’s a long way off. I’ll take full advantage of the skeletal and muscular structure I was born with in the meantime. Firm up the body. Away from all those racing sticky people. Nature is in no hurry. It’s always on time.

            If I fit with nature, I’ll be alright. That’s what they mean by staying fit. Fitting in with nature. Everything makes sense at night. You couldn’t ever get your head straight during the noise of the day.

            She’s coming back now with a pile of tins in a plastic box. She must have strong arms. ‘I may get a few opened while you’re here. Do you mind?’

            ‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ She takes out the tins and lines them up along the top of the crash barrier. I take the first one and clip the tin-opener onto the top. It bites into the rim. I wiggle the handle until it grips the little wheel. As I twist, it clicks around the circle.

            ‘This is so great,’ she says. An articulated lorry whizzes past. The gust lifts her hair high into the moonlight. There’s a smell of oil and burning rubber.

            The moon goes behind clouds. She shines the torch on the tin-opener. I look over to her. ‘If you turn off your torch, I’ll see better in the dark.’

            ‘Really?’

            ‘Once the eyes become accustomed.’

            ‘Ah-hah.’ She turns off the torch. I stop twisting the handle and the lid comes off. I can smell sweet fruit juice.

            ‘Good man,’ she says. She takes the opened tin from me and pours it into the plastic box. I start on the next one. ‘Do you like peaches?’

            ‘Peaches? Is that what these are?’ I fiddle with the handle. The wheel catches and the teeth chew the rim. I guess she nods, her hair moves around her shape.

            ‘They’re not fresh fruit, but still they’re good,’ she says.

            I get them all opened. I hand her the last one. She’s happy. ‘Thank you so much.’

            ‘You’re welcome.’ I push the tin-opener back into the bottom of my bag.

            ‘Would you like a bowl?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Would you like a bowl of peaches?’

            ‘No, thank you. I’d best be on my way. My car, you see.’

            ‘Of course. Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘I do. I do like peaches.’

            ‘Don’t you want a bowl?’

            ‘I’m not sure I’m that hungry.’ I’m beginning to wonder if maybe she is a bit sticky after all. ‘But where are the bowls?’

            ‘Actually, I use mugs. They’re back there. In my camp.’ She points to the bog.

            ‘I’d better not.’

            ‘Come on! You’re safe enough.’ I guess she is smiling now by the rise of her voice. ‘What’s your name?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Your name?’

            ‘My name is Jeremiah.’

            ‘Of course it is. Come, I’ll get you a mug of peaches for all your hard work.’ She climbs over the crash barrier. She carries the box of peaches to the tent. She is fit enough. You have to be to live in the bog. Her boots squelch. She stops at the tent and turns. ‘Come.’

            I climb over the crash barrier. My old boots sink. The ground is soft. It wasn’t the best spot to pitch up. With no tin-opener and no bowls. People get very confused. But that’s because of the day.

            She has gone inside the tent. I stop at the entrance. ‘Welcome to my camp!’ she says. Her voice sounds different in there. She’s kneeling on a sleeping bag. There are lengths of beads hanging everywhere, all different colours. Some are wooden but most are plastic.

            She has the torch set up in the corner. She has two mugs on a small wooden table. They are three-quarter full with peaches in fruit juice. The plastic box with the rest is now covered with a lid, beside a pile of folded clothes. ‘Are you coming in, Jeremiah?’

            ‘No. I’m fine here.’ I kneel at the edge of the floor cover.

            ‘Fair enough.’ She hands me the mug. It’s a fisherman’s tin. They use them mainly for worms as far as I know. Good for little else. Burn the lips off you if it were hot. But it’s not. It’s ice cold. Pieces of peach float around in the juice. I sip it. It’s sweet. I suck up one of the peach segments, making a slurping sound, breaking the silence of the night. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’

            ‘They’re good. Not like fresh fruit. But not bad.’

            ‘Not many peach trees around here, Jeremiah.’

            ‘Not many.’

            She sips the juice. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything to smoke?’

            ‘No.’

            ‘Pity.’

            ‘Are you going to be here long?’ I say. I’ll have to change my route by the looks of this. Get new boots for the winter and get off the motorway. Take the old road.

            ‘It depends. I don’t make plans anymore.’

            ‘That’s about the best plan,’ I say. She slugs the mug. I look around the tent. There’s a pillow with blue strawberries on the case and a photo sellotaped to cardboard on top. There are two children in the photo. Beside the pillow, there’s an alarm clock with two silver bells on the ears. The woman keeps track of time.

            I finish the mug. ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Thank you so much for the use of your tin-opener.’

            ‘You’re welcome to it. I better be going. My car.’

            ‘Of course.’

            I hand her the empty mug. ‘Hope to see you this way again, Jeremiah,’ she says and shakes my hand. She doesn’t let go. I don’t know what to do. Her hand is warm. I couldn’t say what age she is. She’s not that young. She’s not that old. Hard to say with women. They’re not straightforward. Then she takes her hand away.

            My old boots squelch on the bog as I walk back to the dual carriageway. The water seeps into my socks when I hit deep puddles.

            I’ll take the old road tomorrow night. The buck from down the country told me it had been upgraded. New surface, yellow lines for the hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes. Nearly as quick probably. There’s no crash barrier on the old road. But I live with risk.


BIO

Martin Keaveney’s debut collection of stories, The Rainy Day, was published  by Penniless Press in 2018. Short fiction has been published in  many literary journals in Ireland, UK and US. He has also written for the screen and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international  film festivals and on broadcast television. His  scholarship was recently published in the peer-reviewed  New Hibernia ReviewJournal of Franco-Irish Studies, and Estudios Irlandeses. He has a B.A. in English and Italian, an M.A in English (Writing) and a Ph.D. at NUIG (Creative Writing and Textual Studies).   He was awarded the Sparanacht Ui Eithir for his research in 2016 and the NUIG Write-Up Bursary in 2018. See more at www.martinkeaveney.com    

The New Girl in Our Office

by Deepti Nalavade Mahule



The New Girl in Our Office arrives for the first time one rainy morning with glistening raindrops splattered like stars on the lenses of her glasses. She is without an umbrella or raincoat. This indicates that she is clumsy, but it could also mean that she’s very excited to start her first day at work. 

Her manager introduces her to all of us. She shakes all of our hands in turn and furrows her brow in concentration as we tell her our names. 

Although not exactly a beauty, she has the rosiness of youth and a face that many might label “moderately cute”. She smells of lemon and lavender, a mix of two commonplace fragrances, which suits her personality just fine.

The New Girl sets up her desk on her first day. Among her personal items, there’s a picture frame of her green-eyed tabby cat and two palm-sized red dice with white dots on them. 

The New Girl asks many questions about her job responsibilities but during lunchtime banter, she is mostly silent and only answers when asked a question. Because she keeps her mouth shut for so long, it emanates a slightly unpleasant odor when she opens it to talk.

She’s fresh out of college and has touched down onto this bustling city as if she were a fledgling landing after its first flight from its nest. However, even after weeks in office have passed, with her sitting among different groups of people during lunch hours, she doesn’t seem to be part of any particular flock. When we talk to her, we cannot help but look away from the loneliness in her eyes staring back at us unabashedly.

On most evenings, when we’re leaving for the day, the New Girl is still at her desk. She barely looks up from her computer as she murmurs a “good night”. Sometimes, she’s not there with us at lunch. We find her later, devouring an apple in the break room while she scrolls through work emails on her phone. She does not interrupt others in meetings, but after everyone else has gone silent, she offers creative solutions to most problems. The New Girl’s earnestness in applying herself to her given tasks grates on our nerves and makes us question our own efforts.

At a team dinner one night, which she’s forced to attend, as the alcohol flows freely and tongues loosen, someone pesters her during a game of Truth or Dare to share the purpose of the dice on her desk. She finally discloses that they are containers to hold her antidepressant medication.

Months pass and the New Girl is fading into Just Another Go-Getter Girl at our office when hushed whispers are heard at the end of one workweek. Words like “New Girl”, “New Girl’s boss’s boss”, “sexual misconduct” are thrown around, followed by “brushed under the carpet”, “consensual”, “too ambitious” and “The Girl of Questionable Character”.

On Monday, the New Girl calls in sick and does not show up for work. She is absent for the rest of the week and at the end of Friday, we learn that she was last seen at dusk the previous evening by her landlord. She was standing on the bridge overlooking the rushing waters of the river that runs through our city. She’d already given her notice of resignation at the office and had probably stopped by at our workplace in the early hours of the previous morning to gather her things from her desk. Having cleared out her belongings from her rented apartment as well, she was presumably planning to be on her way back to her hometown.

The Monday of the next workweek comes and goes, and it is confirmed that The New Girl will no longer be with us. Gone from her desk are her dice. One of our colleagues who has a cousin in the police force tells us what he’s heard. He says that two red dice — one of them with four dots and the other one with two dots on the sides facing up —  were found when they plummeted from the top of the bridge and landed in the bushes near the river bank instead of on the rocks jutting out in the middle of the surging downward current of the river. It’s surprising how much detailed information the colleague has about the position and location of the dice and yet he doesn’t know if they were thrown down first by the girl or came down with her.

We rack our brains about the four and two on the dice and talk excitedly among ourselves theorizing about the meanings that they might have tried to convey. In the end, we give up and look away from the blank space that they’ve left on her desk and talk about her cat instead. In our minds, we convince ourselves that the New Girl in Our Office has gone on to a higher paying job at an ideal workplace and that her dice-like containers are sitting on her new desk with nothing but breath mints inside them.  

      

BIO

One of Deepti Nalavade Mahule’s short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared in Daily Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 words, Kitaab, Aphelion webzine, Women’s Web and elsewhere. 

Originally from India, Deepti currently lives in California, where she spends time developing software, reading aloud to her five-year-old daughter, submitting short fiction and fretting about what to put in her author’s bio. 

Her website is: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/

Smitten to Spitten

by Madeline McEwen



If only we’d had a prenup, none of this would have happened, but we didn’t and it had.

The first hint of something amiss was when I couldn’t pay the hackney cab driver with my credit card. The second hint, after I paid with cash, was when my latch key wouldn’t fit in the lock. It took a few seconds for the light to dawn.

I stuck my finger on the bell and hammered on my front door. Nothing. No response. Was anybody home?

Bending down, I lifted the flap on the letterbox and peered into the empty hall.

“Kevin! Are you in there? Open the bloody door, I’m freezing out here.”

Turning, I checked the street. Where was his precious car, a prestigious, gold colored Infiniti? Our two-story, Edwardian terraced house had no garage, and only a tiny garden the size of a picnic blanket currently full of Kevin’s dismembered motorcycle—a Royal Enfield Bullet, which lay buried beneath a season’s worth of soggy leaves. The man had a million projects, none of them ever finished. Although, changing the locks might signify the start of task completion and the end of our stagnant relationship.

I grabbed my phone, dangerously low on power, called Kevin, and put my ear to the letterbox. If he was hiding, I’d hear him since he never switched his phone to vibrate. Like a surgeon on call, his inflated ego demanded 24-7 availability. CyberTex, his fledgling business enterprise, swallowed his attention and energy.

Listening to the silence, I sighed in defeat. Where was he? Then I remembered the app—TrackMyPhone—which Kevin installed even though they’re illegal in the UK unless the trackee consents. The red battery icon flashed and died, the screen turning black.

Typical. Now I was stranded, powerless, homeless, and carless—my battered jeep was in the local repair shop–on the coldest February evening I could remember.

How had this happened? Where had I gone wrong? What should I to do next?

That’s when I heard a snuffling sound from inside the house. Oscar must be waking from his late afternoon nap. I’d come home early, thirty minutes earlier than my schedule permitted. Usually, Oscar was awake and ready to play for a few minutes before I prepared dinner and tackled the other chores I had to conquer. But now I couldn’t get in, entry barred, and banished from the house I’d learned to call home over the last eighteen months.

What would happen to our little family? Divorce was inevitable, but Oscar was the innocent party. He didn’t deserve to suffer. Somehow, I must maintain his routine and stability. Obviously, that goal was best achieved if Oscar lived with me, his primary caregiver, in a new home, somewhere far away. No chance of accidental meetings causing endless grief and unnecessary heartache.

Hearing the clunk of a car door, I glanced behind me.

“Kevin! Where have you been?” He stared at me, his expression unreadable. “No matter. Don’t tell me, I don’t care.”

“You’re home early.”

“Shut up. I’m not here for a debate. Just give me Oscar and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“You’re spitting in the wind if you think I’ll give up Oscar without a fight.”

“I’ll take you to court, sue you for custody.”

Kevin leaned against the front door and swallowed hard. He spat a wad of phlegm onto the concrete.

“That’s all you’ll get from me.”

#

I fled without further pointless protestations. His words were lies, but I didn’t want to make a scene for my neighbors’ entertainment. Instead, I opted for a safe harbor, walking distance from home until I could collect my jeep.

I charged along the road and into the next street where the old terraces had been torn down and replaced with luxury, single-dwelling homes with double-garages and generous gardens. Lydia, my friend since childhood, lived in a mock-Tudor monstrosity with her numerous, obnoxious children.

What can I say our friendship?

Things were great until the twins were born, but after that I couldn’t compete for her attention, the woman caught baby-fever. At least this meant she was almost always home.

On the doorstep, I listened to a peel of bells announcing my arrival.

Lydia threw the door open and gaped at me open-mouthed.

“Clare! What have we done to deserve the honor of your presence.”

Sarcastic as always, Lydia’s face broke into a hospitable smile. I missed her company and her witty mind, but I’d given up on our friendship when her brain was over-taken by child development milestones and a never-ending pile of baby related trivia. No longer a corporate lawyer, she’d betrayed her sex and settled for domestic suburbia. But as ever, Lydia was a sucker for a sob story. I dabbed my eye with a crumpled tissue.

“What’s wrong, Clare? What’s happened? Come in.”

I picked my way over the carpet strewn with discarded toys, sippy cups, and assorted primary-colored clothing while Lydia cooed words of soothing solace to me. She swept the sofa clear of detritus, and I sank into its soft, supple warmth.

“It’s Kevin,” I explained. “We’re finished.”

“Oh dear. How ghastly. Are you sure? I always thought he was the one.” A frown fluttered across her face. “Let him cool off for a couple of days and maybe you can patch things up. I’ve always liked Kevin, he’s so good for you, so stable, so calming.”

“Calming?”

“You know what I mean. Your personality traits are complemented by his. Together you make the perfect couple. Yin and yang.”

“Don’t give me that romantic claptrap. We’re like chalk and cheese, incompatible, and now we’ve have an irretrievable breakdown. But I need your advice, legal advice, on what to do about Oscar. What are my rights? Will you represent me in court?”

“In court? I don’t practice any more, and even if I did, that’s not my field of expertise.”

Damn. I’d spat it out too quickly. I should have played the pity card first.

“But,” I said, using the gentle tone of a sympathetic plaintiff, “I remember you saying that everything in law boiled down to contracts, didn’t you?”

Lydia’s deep wrinkle of concentration distracted me, which was when I noticed the palpable silence.

“Why is it so quiet, Lydia? Where are,” I trawled my memory for the kids’ names, came up blank, and whitewashed my question, “all the children?”

“On Wednesdays after school, kindergarten, and day care, they spend the evening with their paternal granny. Why do you ask?”

“I’m interested. Being a mother is such a huge part of who you are and because of that, I’m hoping you can understand my desperation about Oscar.”

Lydia’s eyebrows jumped. She pursed her lips.

“It’s hardly the same thing.”

“It stems from the same desire to nurture.”

“I don’t wish to be unkind,” Lydia said, “but you can’t equate giving birth to six children with buying–”

“I thought you of all people would be aware of the politically correct terminology. I didn’t buy Oscar. I adopted him.”

Lydia raised her hands in a gesture of exasperation.

“Whatever,” Lydia said. “The point is, no matter how smitten you are and how cuddly he is, Oscar is still a dog.”

#

I spent the rest of the evening in Lydia’s luxurious guest bedroom ostensibly weeping in private while watching Netflix on my phone. Fortunately, Lydia lent me a posh, silk nightgown—price tag still attached–and a charging cable. She’d also called the repair shop and paid the bill for my jeep’s repairs—ready for collection tomorrow.

After a fitful night’s sleep during which I had formulated a plan of action based on Lydia’s advice, I crept out of the house before dawn with a sheaf of paper from their copier machine. If I used my flexi-time hours at work by starting at six, then I could clock off at two leaving the afternoon free and clear. With luck and a handful of intimidating copied receipts, Oscar, once again, would be mine exclusively.

#

At the park, I left my jeep at a discrete distance and lay in wait for my victim, Hamish, a self-employed dog-walker, as wiry as a whippet.

Before too long, Hamish appeared, or rather eight dogs barreled into the park like a pack of working huskies dragging Hamish behind them.

Oscar, my favorite, ninety-five-pound, Old English Sheepdog puppy was flanked by three other large dogs, none of whom I had seen before. Judging by Hamish’s struggle to control them, they, or rather their owners, were new clients.

I stepped into their pathway. The dogs surrounded me, a single sheep in an overgrown litter of barking, bouncing, salivating dogs frantic in their excitement.

“Clare! You shouldn’t be here. Kevin warned me.”

“Warned you?”

Hamish was flushed, sweating, and breathless from exertion. He was both outclassed and outnumbered as I had hoped.

“He said you might try to dog-nap Oscar.”

I unrolled my sheaf of papers and flapped them in front of his face.

“These,” I said, “prove Oscar belongs to me.”

“No, no, no.” Hamish wrestled with the tangled leashes. “I can’t get involved in another custody dispute.”

“There is no custody issue.” I unhooked Oscar’s leash, and he leaped free. I hurried away, Oscar following my outstretched hand dangling a bag of his favorite treats. I called over my shoulder, “I’ll let you know my new address”—if I ever found a dog-friendly landlord.

#

My jeep chirped and unlocked, which was when Kevin’s tires screeched into the curb. He stomped toward us, fists clenched, jaw locked.

I had a spare leash in the jeep. Without it, I had no chance of reining in my powerful puppy. Instead, I dodged around Kevin, dashed toward my car, and yanked the rear door open.

 “Enough,” Kevin shouted, spittle bubbling at the corner of his mouth.

He blocked the dog’s path as Oscar ran toward the jeep. Kevin grabbed him by the collar and lugged him toward the Infiniti.

“You can’t take him,” I said, stuffing the treat bag in my pocket.

I was yelling too. A man wearing a bike helmet leaned against his motorcycle, arms folded across his burly chest, enjoying the show. A group of mothers and children in the play area stood gawping at us too. Kevin bundled Oscar into his car and gripped his key like a lethal weapon.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he said.

“No, UK law treats pets as property. Money changed hands. I’ve paid for his food,” I counted them off on my fingers, “his vet bills, the microchip, and all his other paraphernalia.” I saw Mr. Motorbike striding toward us. “In contract law, he’s mine, and I have the proof in this paperwork.”

“Hey, you!” Mr. Motorbike stood too close, spitting distance from Kevin. “Is that her dog?”

“No,” Kevin said, “get the hell away.”

“Wait a minute, Mate.” Mr. Motorbike opened the Infiniti’s door.

“Take your hands off my car.”

With his shoulder, Kevin shoved Mr. Motorbike, but the guy barely flinched, an immovable buffer.

“Call your dog,” Mr. Motorbike said. “We’ll see who’s his owner.”

I slipped my hand into my pocket–a secret, visual cue to Oscar. “Here, boy!”

Oscar bounded toward me. I flung the treat bag inside the jeep, and Oscar followed. Sometimes I too acted like an animal, thoughtless and instinctive, occasionally unkind when I was with Kevin, but Oscar brought out the best in me and made me a better human.

With Oscar’s tail safely inside, I slammed the door, jumped in the driver’s seat, and reversed. I sped off in triumph with my love-smitten pup drooling on the backseat, showering gravel in our wake, and Kevin, no doubt, spitting nails in defeat.

BIO

Madeline McEwen is the author of three stand-alone novelettes, numerous short stories published both traditionally and online, and is a contributor to several anthologies. Currently, she is focused on two cozy mystery series, one set in the UK and the other in San Jose, USA both featuring a significant character with a disability, and a senior female amateur sleuth. She is an ex-pat from the UK, now settled in San Jose, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Bi-focaled and technically challenged, she and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. In her free time, she walks the canines and chases the felines with her nose in a book and her fingers on a keyboard.

Separated by Glass

by Kailyn Kausen

 

He’s a slice of a red hot velvet cake. She’s a creamy chocolate cheesecake with many layers and curly hair made of chocolate shavings. They are each surrounded by others like them, but they don’t want the others. They want each other, the one on the other side of the glass, the plate standing vertical, separating the cakes from the cheesecakes.

It started out like this. They were formulated one after the other by the same hands. First it was him, the red velvet, mixed together with his brethren in an old silver pot. Those were the velvet’s youthful years. He was poured into a pan along with his brothers and warmed from a gross gooey boy to a firm, but sensitive man. While he was cooked to perfection, she was mixed, settled into layers, refrigerated, and transformed into a woman.

After maturing, they were carefully separated from their brothers and sisters, individually wrapped, and placed into specific rows – he with the other red velvets, and her with the other chocolate cheesecakes. They ended up in the back of their rows and learned each other’s expressions as they moved forward in line, unable to speak or touch, but learning more about each other than a cake and a cheesecake ever cared to.

His brothers made fun of him.

“You won’t ever get her. Look at that glass! Might as well give up now and accept your fate.”

“Why would you want a cheesecake, other than her being rich, of course?”

“She’s not one of us.”

Her sisters had a similar reaction.

“He’s dry, honey.”

“He’s only got two layers. And buttercream!  He’s a simpleton, sweet heart.”

So they learned to ignore the others. They grew worried as they approached the front of the line, nearing their inevitable deaths, but also grew more in love. They stopped hearing the buzzing sounds of the others making fun of them. Nothing mattered except the other.

The worst times were when they weren’t next to each other, when too many of her sisters or too many of his brothers were purchased for the pleasure of the moving giants. They grew nervous the other would be taken away for good long before they could devise a plan to be together, to touch each other just once. The rows always evened out eventually, so they approached the end together.

She reached the end first. She hung onto the edge of the slanted shelf, nothing but the lip holding her in place, covered in the sweet remnants of others trying to save themselves, the lip that said, “Chocolate Cheesecake,” like that was all she was. Everything that had settled to the bottom while she matured threatened to explode out of her. She couldn’t look away from the vast chasm before her even though she knew if she looked back at the velvet, he’d give her that reassuring look. She thought she should look back. If she did, she would see his face. That’d be the last thing she’d see, whether she dropped over the edge of the cliff because she wasn’t good enough anymore, or if she was picked up by a customer. His face would be a happier sight than either of those, buts, she couldn’t look away from the scrawny boy with the crumpled five-dollar bill waving in his hand.

The boy was coming for her. She knew it. If only she knew the red velvet’s name, if only he’d be able to hear her say it. The dirty fingernails snaked towards her and she closed her eyes, waiting. But the boy didn’t reach for her, he reached for the red velvet next to her – not her red velvet, but the one preventing them from being side to side.

So, the red velvet and the chocolate cheesecake were side by side again, each waiting for their deaths, each scared on the side of the cliff, each wanting to speak, and each staring at the other from the corner of their eyes, both waiting for the ring of the bell at the door that would signal their end.

When the ring did come, it was much louder than either of them expected it to be because it rang for both instead of one. A young woman and a young man walked into the store, laughing and so involved in  each other they could barely tear their eyes away from the other’s face.

The chef, hearing the bell, came to the front of the store. “When you’re ready,” he said, smiling.

The young man grabbed the red velvet.

The young woman grabbed the chocolate cheesecake and two plastic forks from a cup on the table.

“Will that be it?” asked the chef, placing the two cakes into a white bag.

The cakes shivered in fear and their proximity, now able to touch and speak, but they didn’t want to speak. They were afraid of what to say and too frightened at what would happen to them in the next moments. It was simultaneously the best and worst time of their lives.

The young man handed the chef a bill. “Yes, thank you,” he said. The chef returned his change and the young man dumped the coins into the tip jar.

“Anytime,” said the chef as the young couple exited the store.

The young man stood behind the woman and fumbled with the bag, slipping a ring into the plastic wrapping of her cheesecake. She chose a table and sat down. He sat across from her and pulled the cakes from the bag. She handed him a fork and began unwrapping the plastic. When she uncovered the ring, she stopped unwrapping.

He got down on one knee and looked up at her like he was the earth and she was the moon. “Will you marry me?”

She smiled and tears filled her eyes. “You know I can never say no to cake,” she said, laughing and crying.

He took the ring from her hand, slipped it over her finger, and kissed her knuckles. “That’s why I asked you like this,” he said.

They smiled and talked a while more with excitement before settling in once again on opposite sides of the table to open and eat their separate cakes.

This is the moment the chocolate cheesecake and the red velvet had been dreading from that very first moment they were created. But, at least they would go together.

The fork sliced into the red velvet first, his buttercream filling smearing over the fork and across the lips of the young man. Crumbles of the cake dripped from the man’s mouth like drops of blood.

Next, the young woman pushed the cheesecake onto her side, slowly ripping her apart before the first bite was taken. This bite stripped the cheesecake of her form, reducing her to a pudding-like consistency, which flowed down the woman’s esophagus into an acid bath.

The cakes were forced to watch as the other was eaten by the couple, pieces of red velvet flying across the table and onto the floor, smears of chocolate against the plastic wrap, chocolate shavings rolling away like unwanted ornaments after Christmas. Dismembered and dissected, the cakes hoped each other would leave this world quickly and find peace in the next world as a brown reincarnate.


BIO

Kailyn Kausen commutes between Santa Barbara and the Central Valley of California, and spends her evenings imagining the secret lives of inanimate objects. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Spectrum literary journal. She has been published in Disturbed Digest and Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentorship.

Assumptions

by James Mulhern


“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
(Song of Solomon 4:7)


Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia. Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this–She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants–“slacks” my grandmother called them–for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when, after my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged, as most grandparents do, that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk; I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment, and even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, remembering too, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course–years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords–but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming–longing for her husband Jim–and I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we had retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father,” Peg said, passing me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood. “Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch. Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us–Peg, Scruffy, and myself–began canvassing the neighborhood. It was December and cold; the sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon. What a sight we must have been! Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer. I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and there were looks of exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home!” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—

“Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball. Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV? Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job? What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise. Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content–he had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to Beth and me. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us–Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses–crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately. I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary. Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her ‘Lovely Peggy,’ ” she whispered quickly. ‘Lovely Peggy’ was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsk tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots; there were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off! The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg! The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything! Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.” I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together,” Peg said, arching her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck; she shone like a miniature Sun. Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her; we pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish, and we scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl. For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose; then it began to descend over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late; both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle–my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses, just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried. As we began to help lift them, my grandmother and Peg, in between guffaws, groaned that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair. Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me. I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall. Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother would come to my room and wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow. When she told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep, I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs.

I imagined Peggy “over there,” eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflecting the brightness of a blazing fire. Finally she would be at home with her Jim. Completely awake–laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine–she rises once again to sing her favorite song. And the Sun’s great light shines upon and caresses her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting His crossed arms to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.


BIO

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals or anthologies over eighty times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has earned a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.

The UMAMI Museum Field Trip

by Cecilia Kennedy



A swarm of children from the St. Lawrence Catholic Elementary School—all dressed in blue and white plaid uniforms—descended upon the University Museum of Art, Muses, and Inspiration (UMAMI) in the center of town one afternoon.  They were on their best behavior, having previously been banned from field trips.  (Henry and Justin, as the story went, had startled the monkeys at the zoo by throwing “snap-its” fireworks into their cages.  The teachers and parents in charge of the trip thought that someone was shooting a gun in the area, so they made the children run for cover.  However, security cameras in the vicinity caught the two St. Lawrence boys throwing the fireworks.  Shortly thereafter, the second-grade class was banned from the zoo for life, and the school administration decided that the children shouldn’t be treated to anymore “experiential learning opportunities.”  However, the school administrators also realized that they couldn’t keep them from cultural experiences.  It just didn’t seem right.  A zoo was one thing; art was another.)

            At the same time that the children entered the museum, the Senior Citizens’ Home was treating residents to a trip to this very same museum.  The occupants of that bus filed out in orderly fashion, and promptly expressed their disappointment that they’d have to share their outing with a group of school children who, at the moment, were not misbehaving, but who could turn on them at any moment.  They just knew it.

            The featured exhibit at the museum was called “More than ‘Eats’ the Eye”—a clever nod to a particularly talented food photographer/artist who happened to be presenting a lecture on his work.  He was especially eager to speak to impressionable children.  How precious! How delightful!  He would certainly rock their world.

            Meanwhile, the principal of St. Lawrence Catholic School, who was called in as extra back up if things turned ugly, directed her gaze upon the children.  Many were smart, but many of them came from what she considered “broken homes.”  No wonder they acted out, the poor dears.  And, the ones who didn’t have strong reading scores, could probably excel at something. Some were showing great promise in art.  They could grow up to be artists, perhaps . . .

            The children began to form a circle in the central gallery. The artist—Reginald Piper—stood off center at a distance to gauge their reactions.  They stared blankly up at the walls of photographs, which included a shiny stream of milk pouring out onto cereal flakes in a bowl, colorful ice cream scoops perfectly stacked upon one another inside a waffle cone, shiny red apples in a basket, enchiladas dripping with cheese and sauce, and fluffy pancakes covered in syrup. 

            They’d seen these things before. They’d probably eaten them too. What made this art?  Reginald could read their presumptuous little minds, but he couldn’t stifle his laughter, which spilled out into the gallery and made the children turn around.

            There, in a dark corner near the exit, they saw a strange, thin man dressed in a rather garish Kelly-green suit that was paired with a pastel pink and yellow checkered tie. He wore exceedingly round spectacles, which made his face seem small.  Certainly, there was much that the children could make fun of. However, there was also something about him that they didn’t quite trust. Perhaps he knew their weaknesses and could gut them with humiliation. 

            “Yes, yes. Gather ‘round,” Reginald said, as he moved closer to the center of the circle.  The senior citizens edged in closer too. They knew the presentation was for the children, but who would kick them out?  Who would dare tell them to leave?

            “I suppose this exhibit bores you,” Reginald began.

            Truthfully, the children were bored.  The zoo was better. 

            “I suppose you think you could take pictures of food that are just as good—” Reginald continued.

            “I could take a better picture of Mrs. Motley’s face,” one of the children said.  The others erupted in laughter.  The senior citizens frowned.

            “That’s enough!” Mrs. Motley, the principal said. She knew she wasn’t what the children would consider “pretty,” but she believed she was the most successful adult in the room. She had a job. A good job.  Still, it hurt.

            Reginald—not one to lose control of a class—stood right next to the boy who made the comment about Mrs. Motley’s face.  All Reginald did was stand there quietly. The boy grew silent—not out of respect—but because he thought Reginald, standing so close to him, was creepy.

            “Good. That’s good,” Reginald said, smiling.  “Now that everyone’s paying attention, I can tell you that there’s more than ‘eats’ the eye in these photos. 

            Pointing to the photograph of the cereal in the bowl, Reginald said,

            “I didn’t just snap a picture of a bowl of cereal.  This photograph took nearly four hours to shoot correctly.  Children, do you know what happens when flakes of cereal just sit in a bowl of milk?”

            “They get wet and limp like Mr. Zenkins’ p—”

            “Stop it!” Mrs. Motley shouted to the boy who made the comment.  “I will send you home on the city bus now! You’ll be the only child on it, and I won’t care what happens to you!”

            Reginald just raised his pointer finger and smiled. The children turned their attention back to him.

            “Let me ask you a question—a simple one.  How many of you have a bottle of glue in your desk at school?”

            All of the children raised their hands.

            “Well, glue looks a lot like milk. And, if you use enough of it and let it harden, it won’t ruin cereal flakes.  Lots of things I use in these photos can’t be eaten—or maybe you could eat them, but you wouldn’t want to.”

            During the rest of the presentation, the children learned how the ice cream scoops were really mounds of mashed potatoes, dyed in different colors. The maple syrup was actually motor oil, simply because it was thicker and more luxurious looking.  The shiny red apples in the basket had been lovingly doused with hairspray.

            “And now, we come to the enchiladas. Don’t they look delicious?  Who likes enchiladas?”

            A few of the children raised their hands. 

            “Well, many of us food photographers know, that in order to make the enchiladas look like they are stuffed with incredibly tasty ingredients, we could use mashed potatoes for the filling. But I found something better, children. Much, much better.”

            Now, the children were paying attention.  This was what their deranged little minds craved. By the time Reginald finished his story about how he found his enchilada stuffing in the alley, behind this very museum—on a body covered with boils that, when squeezed, looked like ground beef—Mrs. Motley was convinced that the children could definitely make something of themselves someday.

            After the presentation, the children filed past the museum’s cafeteria, which displayed perfectly formed sushi rolls in the window.  Little Rosie thought that the cubed pieces of tuna looked like the tip of her grandmother’s tongue, which she stuck out slightly when she would thread a sewing needle.  And, for the first time, Rosie thought that maybe she had what it took to be an artist.  Oh, if she could just get a hold of that tongue! Just the tip—sticking out from a roll of sushi—would make for a lovely photo.


BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish from The Ohio State University, and she taught Spanish and English Composition in Ohio for 20 years before moving to the state of Washington with her family. Twenty-three of her short stories have appeared in 17 literary magazines. She also writes a blog called Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks, where she details her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair:  https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/

Natural Burial

by J.L. Moultrie

With a will buried beneath the conditioning and walls of childhood, he rode his bike behind the ice cream truck. As he veered into the middle of the street, sudden regrets about being poor stood in his mind, then his body collided with the front end of an accelerating Lincoln town car. He flew into the air, his frame falling upon the summer scorched asphalt.

The children and parents of the neighborhood either gawked or gathered around him as he crawled out of the street onto the sidewalk grass. The car kept going. A sense of shame covered him because he was the center of attention. His lower back and head were ringing with a burning sensation. The crowd dissolved after he managed to walk into his older sister’s home.

He winced as he slid onto the far dining room wall. He followed his sister’s eyes as she walked past him without uttering a word. No one took him to the hospital.

At moments like this, upheaval rose in him that he could not understand nor accept. His limited sphere of understanding was constantly demolished and slowly rebuilt. He didn’t know it, but these things would be planted in the fertile soil of his recollections.

Unable to circumvent the monoliths of familial history and expectation, he found himself at the center of his 5th grade teacher’s Academic Game’s team. After he tried to quit his teacher refused saying he, “Did not like quitters”. He tried his best to avoid the event, asking his mother if he could stay home for two days in a row. However, on the third day, at his locker, his friend asked him if he was, “Ready for the big day.” He stood on stage shocked, looking for his parents in a sea of faces, but seeing none.

After spelling a few words correctly he failed and retreated to the bathroom, where he relieved himself after holding it for a long time. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders as expectations and attention towards him dissolved. Later, he found himself in the principal’s office – she congratulated him on making the honor roll and principal’s list, then she asked him if he’d like to go to a hockey game. He said yes but couldn’t go because his parents had no transportation.

After a day of school, he went over to his friend’s house, but his visit was cut short when his parents began shouting at one another in the bedroom. His friend’s mother emerged into the living room with fresh blood covering the white of her eyes. She told him that he’d have to come back another time.

An ache, resembling a futile longing, was all that he’d inherited from his parents who ran the streets and worked enough to support their habits. The dimensions of his days were steeped in the heavy brine of neglect. He saw and felt too much until he sought emotional blindness. He played and spent time with kids his own age, but an incurable distance ebbed between them.

His experience afforded him no reference for how to interpret the phenomena surrounding him. He entered middle school sulking, barely speaking a word. In this silence, his body began a slow transformation. As his inner world began to split at the seams, his emotions slipped beyond recovery. He barely made it through each day, subsisting on the morsels of wavering possibilities.

He slept on the floor in the projects, finding himself languishing further and further into and undeveloped self. He found himself in a situation where many were not afforded self-belief. The quality of his potential remained unkindled embers, dangerously close to being extinguished.

One night his father, who he remained largely a stranger to, stopped by. He took him to get pizza, but they barely spoke. His hunger for genuine connection superseded any desire for popularity. This orientation engendered scorn and derision, even from some of his adult relatives.  His experience felt tenuous and ephemeral, as if it could be supplanted at any time by anyone. The adults in his life feigned warmth and recognition, but he knew they did not see him. He, in turn, developed a healthy mistrust.

That same night, he waited outside of the bathroom as his mother came in and out of consciousness after injecting heroin. This event etched shame and anger upon his young soul. As his performance in school began to decay, he withdrew into numbness; lying by saying he was “okay” when he clearly was not. Talking amongst themselves, the adult speculated if he were inarticulate or simply withholding his thoughts.

In truth, his mind was full of chimeras and inhospitable expanses. The features of his psyche were nebulous, sharp to touch and as ubiquitous as stars in a clear night’s sky. When he walked into a room, people noticed. When he spoke, many paid attention. His eyes were penetratingly innocent; these qualities of gravitas were lost upon him. He was frightened and confounded by the sensations that passed through him. Each step resembled a perilous leap into the unknown.

While walking alone in a desolate field, he heard mewling amid the tall, wind swept grass. Nestled in a small clearing was a litter of newly born kittens, their eyes barely letting in the pale, fall sunlight. They were an assortment of limbs and mouths, splotched with white, black and orange. They grasped and gaped at the newly entered world.

Buried under the bronze veneer of his flesh were turbulent waters where many sunken vessels lied. He softly grabbed the nearest rock; its rough texture pushed tightly against the sweaty center of his hand.

He tossed the first stone at the scrum of fur and murmuring. He walked around the field, picking up rocks and scanning his surroundings, making sure no one was watching. He tossed them as hard as he could, connecting several times with the heads and chests of the litter. He stood in the field, aware that what he’d done was not good, but his body persisted. He slowly took steps toward what he created.

Warm streaks of scarlet lie spattered on paws, whiskers and multicolored rocks. He pushed the long-idle torment back into the spacious compartments of his subconscious. He scoured the large field for a suitable object. Upon finding it, he returned to the site and began using it. With a fallen tree branch and his hands, he dug a shallow crevice in the cool, coffee-colored soil. With one hand, he shielded his eyes from the quickly setting sun, he used the other to push the still murmuring pile into a shallow grave. He hastily filled it and returned home.

That night consciousness was wrested from his body only partially. Vague, dissonant impressions startled him back onto the terrestrial plane. That morning as he through the field on his way to class, his face darkened, and his heart began beating rapidly. It went on this way for several weeks to the point that he began having mild convulsions – trembling whenever his surroundings became too loud or moved too quickly.

As his headaches and backpain persisted, he became more submerged in the rapids of deterioration. He rode his bike and took walks aimlessly, going as far as he could from home. His interactions were skeletal – he spoke with his eyes downcast, his voice a tenuous thread of sound. That fall, he was taken to churches, roller rinks and libraries, but none of thee excursions managed to take his attention away from recollections of the field and stones.

On Halloween, he went out collecting candy with some cousins in a werewolf costume. It was a rainy evening, punctuated by barking dogs, careening headlights, droning thunder and vacant alleyways. His interpretation of these phenomena mingled with his senses, putting him in a state. The coarse sonic fabric of voices, distant aircrafts, locomotive horns and rustle of fallen leaves momentarily subdued what was ever present.

After hours of walking and eating candy, he got into bed. But before he got settled, he vomited onto the floor. The result resembled gasoline on concrete – liquid hues of green gold and purple bled into one another. Even when he was sitting still, he was sprinting into the night across ambling terrain. Even when he was silent, one got the sense that he was on the verge of screaming.

It went against every fabric of his being to try to be other than who he was, despite the subtle and not so subtle urgings of his relatives and schoolmates. When class became inhospitable, he began spending long days walking and taking the bus across the city. Though he was alone, he enjoyed the absence of expectation mixed with repulsion. He refused to grow buoyant upon the trauma but allowed himself to sink beneath it: it was the only way he could get out.

As his volition had not grown to a level that could sustain his world, he remained dependent on these around him. The barriers between him and others had only grown more intense and glaring. His rare episodes of anger and defiance were largely dismissed as him, “needing an outlet”. Thus, he grew more intangible by the day, only holding long conversations when he saw fit.

He was plagued by a confounding curiosity; questions ruminated in his mind to the point that he couldn’t sleep. In his pajamas, he’d wander inaudibly into the early morning. Once he was found by his mother having a conversation with a homeless man in front of a library. His silence would not relent as she berated him. When she questioned the man, he told her that, “The boy was only concerned about me and how many books I’ve read”.

That night he slept soundly but continued to live under the doubt and suspicion of those around him.

BIO

J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. His work appears or is forthcoming in  Datura Literary Journal, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Visitant, Backchannels, The Free Library of the Internet Void and elsewhere. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

20/20

by A.L. Bishop

I woke with limbs full of wet cement, head woolly and hot, wanting only to go outside and lie down in what was left of the snow along the fence. Instead, I went to see the police, as I had promised to do.

“So, you were driving southbound to Fort Erie on the QEW?”

“I was going to the Falls.”

“Why?” He leapt on it. This was one hungry traffic cop.

“That’s where I live.”

“And there was a back-up on the Garden City Skyway? All three lanes?”

“Yes. The Friday of March Break—the exit to the outlet mall—”

“And you knew the young woman?”

What? “No. I didn’t know her.”

The officer watched me closely, a canary feather dangling from his mouth. “You weren’t acquainted in any way?”

“No. She just rear-ended me.” A crunch, bewildered squeaking as my car rocked back and forth, and when I got out—which took forever, because I would have done anything to just sit there and pretend that nothing had happened—when I got out, I saw her behind the wheel, eyes wide as tulips about to drop their petals. I’d never seen someone so young driving a Caprice Classic.

“She ‘just rear-ended’ you.”

“Yes.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “She ‘just rear-ended’ you and then jumped off the Skyway. Just like that.”

Not just like that. First she had crawled over to go out the passenger side door, but then she was up and gone, scrambling over the guardrail like a centipede, translucent, indifferent, disappearing into nothing until, after about half a kilometre, she hit the surface of the canal, though I didn’t know that at the time. I looked into the empty air where her head had just been, catastrophe streaking out into the sunny sky and through every nerve path in my body. I ran to the spot but couldn’t bring myself to lean forward against the wind and the horror and look. So whether we were over water or roads or trees or industrial wasteland at that particular point on the elevated highway was a mystery, but not the most pressing one, in that moment, which was also occupied by intense salivation at the roots of my tongue and puking onto the grit left behind by a winter’s worth of salt and ploughing, near the faint scuffs where she’d gotten out of the car. How small she must have been, to turn in that tiny space. “Pretty much.”

Traffic Columbo decided to change tack. “And you hit the car in front of you?”

“Yes. Tapped it.”

He lunged once more. “Did you exchange words with the young lady?”

“No.”

“Were you carrying a weapon of any kind?”

“What?”

“Did you lose your temper? Was she trying to escape? There will be footage,” he warned. “Traffic cameras.”

In the preceding sixteen hours, I’d replayed what had happened in my head hundreds of times, often with tiny tweaks, trying to conjure up a different outcome. In all those versions, never once had I imagined what would have happened if I had stayed in my car like I wanted to. “Wait. You think she jumped to get away from me?”

“Is that what the witness statements are going to tell me?”

My impression from the cops at the scene had been that it was just a routine public suicide, insofar as suicides in Niagara, a land of waterways and bridges, are more often routinely public. The scene cops were the ones who told me that she’d landed in the canal. I looked it up in the middle of the night—the Skyway is 130 feet at its highest point, and the Welland Canal is about 25 feet deep. I don’t know anything about physics, but I saw a Canada goose get hit by a sports car once on the 401 and just explode. If the girl hadn’t burst when she hit the surface, she might have hit the bottom, like landing on concrete twice, breaking, then breaking again. Could the skin be expected to hold together? She was so small. “I didn’t say anything to her. There wasn’t time to—”

I don’t remember much else that he said after that. He wound up by noting he might need me to come back for further questioning, that I shouldn’t go very far—a moot point, since they still had my car, were keeping it as part of the investigation—but he’d already lost me deep in the notion that the girl might have been frightened. Of me. Most people barely register me, and I’ve certainly never scared anyone, certainly not to death.

If anything, I was on her team. Who hasn’t thought about it, a final exit, on your own terms? Living in a tourist town can do that to you, knowing that everyone else gets to leave and you have to stay right where you are. But I think I would have paused for a look around, sat on the edge for a bit, surveying the sky and then maybe just leaning back, a scuba diver. Not straight up and over, like her, a GIF on autoplay—up and over, up and over.

What if it wasn’t up and over, but simply away, and not simply away, but away from me?

+ + +

At work, I drank the stale water from the steel bottle in my locker left behind after my last shift. As always happens at this time of year, I could taste fish. Today I wondered how much of the taste was actually fish—scales and waste—and how much was from other animals—the great blue herons in the gorge, the twenty or so gull species that pass through—and how much was from people—spilled food and drink, dissolved sunscreen, flaky skin, sewage, the rot of the unembalmed. I stared at the screen, tried to make sense of the delivery schedule, chatted with the FedEx guy like any other day. But it was like a smudge on my glasses, the image of her face behind the windshield, impeding my view whether my eyes were open or closed. Only now, I couldn’t remember where she was looking. We hadn’t made eye contact, but had she seen me at all? Or was it always that vacant stare?

Instead of fading out or lumping together, the questions in my mind got sharper and multiplied and developed taunting laughs, so that when I overheard one of the women on the morgue staff chatting with a mortician outside the dock—for in hospitals, you’ll almost always find shipping and receiving next to the morgue—I locked on like a lamprey.

“Can you imagine? I mean, traffic gets under my skin, too, but…” Ha, ha.

“Well, let’s make it official, shall we? Williamson, Agnes, female, 24…”

“No, never anything quite like this…”

“And they’d only just opened the canal for the season…”

“Interment, yes, small service. Eleven o’clock Tuesday at Fairview. Will that be a problem?”

“Amazing that they recovered enough to inter…”

“I hate talking to my insurance broker, too, but…” Ha, ha, ha.

I stepped into the hallway. “Did she leave a note?”

Elaine—who would have needed a more self-contained temperament in her line of work, I’d have thought—jumped.

“Are you speaking to me?” said the mortician, mortified.

“Ms. Williamson.” Saying her name felt like a betrayal and a consummation at the same time. “Did she leave any indication of why she—?”

“I’d best be on my way,” the mortician told Elaine.

Elaine, now recovered, forced a smile at me.

I wandered back to the computer terminal, thinking about remains. Through the dullness of lingering shock and the faint and constant diesel fumes of the dock, an idea sprang into my head, a motion-sensor light triggered by scurrying rats. If I were to go—pay my respects—what could her people tell me? Or, perhaps, not tell me, overcome with grief and not paying any attention to the nondescript stranger who seemed so broken up about things, but let me hear and see and learn—what clues, what skeleton key?

So, I would go to the burial. That’s what I decided. After work, I got all the way out to the employee parking lot before remembering where my car was, that I had to walk home.

+ + +

My attic apartment is in an old neighbourhood close to the Niagara River, one that used to be something before the bottom fell out of downtown. The street’s leafy quiet butts up against a garish wall of tourism, so that you step out of this creaky old enclave straight into the plastic fantastic if you’re going anywhere on foot, which I was now, heading to the graveyard. It was a bit like having to pass through Disney World to get anywhere, but with more smut and fewer people tasked with cleaning up urine.

Dirty snow clung to the ground, defiant of the brightening sun, and my face felt hot from the cold by the time I arrived at the cemetery. I surveyed the scene as I approached along the walking path. People weren’t thick on the ground—a minister, attendants from the funeral home, though not the giddy mortician, and a few middle-aged women in parkas and matching black pants. Those matching black pants, a uniform, gave me pause. If Agnes Williamson had no one to bid her farewell apart from a few work friends, my already-uncomfortable status as an intruder on a fact-finding mission felt shameful, obvious, and futile, worst of all.

I stopped and someone ran into me from behind.

The woman had a face dried out from too much nicotine and eyes like amber, glistening through as much mascara as I had seen one person wear at one time. Her red scarf had catches in it. She looked at me, put out and expectant.

Under her gaze, I felt unable to go anywhere except forward, toward the gravesite. Panicking but anxious to blend in and escape her, I left the path, stepping onto the colourless, snow-flattened grass. She fell in beside me. She stood where I stood, not far from the minister, who appeared to take our arrival as a signal that he could begin. The wind moved his greying hair off his head. He patted it down.

The woman sniffled quietly at first, but soon began to sob. Christ, was this Agnes’s mother?

The service, which couldn’t have lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, took a thousand years standing next to the weeping woman. As soon as the minister wrapped up, all of the black-slacked ladies on the other side of the grave hastened over en masse to huddle around her and, beside her, me.

The heaviest one grasped both her hands. “You must be Agnes’s mom. My name is Maria. I was her supervisor at the restaurant.”

Agnes’s mother nodded but didn’t speak.

“We’re all going to miss her. She always helped out if one of us needed a break. Never complained. Good worker.”

Multiple sympathetic gazes landed on me.

Overwhelmed with guilt, I dropped my head, but this somehow implied confirmation of a relationship, elevating me from rubbernecked gawker to full-on imposter.

“Ah, Agnes never said much,” said Maria, patting my shoulder. “Agnes was not a big talker, either, was she? But she did good work. We’re all going to miss her.” Then she said to me in a low voice, “Can you come by the restaurant? Agnes left a few things in her locker. We wasn’t sure who to give them to.”

Agnes’s mother looked up at me with blackened eyes.

“You should have that,” I said to her. She burst into fresh tears.

“It’s Sunny Side Up, on the Lane,” Maria said, trying to keep her voice down and be heard over Agnes’s mother’s wailing at the same time. “I’m on morning shift, next four days.”

Maria stepped away and I seized the chance to peel off with the work friends, but Agnes’s mother put her hand on my wrist, a burr.

“Won’t you help me?” Her voice held me, though I wanted only to be away from her.

Everyone else, even the minister, had hoofed it. “What can I do?”

“A drink, to start.” Didn’t she care that I was a complete stranger? “I’m staying downtown. So, close to that.”

“I don’t have my car.” I felt lucky that my knees didn’t give out as I spoke.

She hadn’t let go of my arm. “You have a couple of casinos in this town, don’t you?”

I held out a slight hope that if I started moving, she might let me go. Instead, she clasped my elbow and walked with me out of the cemetery.

“I’m due in for my shift at the hospital,” I said, which wasn’t true.

She ignored me. “You knew my daughter?” The word “daughter” stuck in her throat.

“Not really.” Her sharp glance drove another lie from my lips. “Not—well.” It took my breath away.

“You’re here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be here if she didn’t mean something to you.”

As we got closer to Bridge Street, a man who should have been wearing a coat passed us on the sidewalk, too close.

“I need to understand what happened to her,” she said.

So did I. Ever so much. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” I took my arm away from her, anxious to commence the likely interminable process of forgetting that I had ever crossed this line. I put my hands in my pockets, keeping an eye on the coatless man.

“What’s your name?”

I met her eyes as briefly as I could, dropped them to the lipstick bleeding up into the skin around her mouth. “Alex.”

Her face lit up. “She talked about you!”

I can’t imagine what I looked like when she said that.

“She did! All the time, she did.”

“It must have been another—”

She grabbed my wrist again. Flecks of mascara floated in the tears collecting over her heavy lower lids. “I know you were good to her. I know she would want you to be good to me. We’re both hurting, here. I think we can help each other.”

“I’m sorry. I have to get to work.”

She made a sort of huffing noise, and then fumbled around in her purse and came up with a pen. She scribbled down a number on a business card and handed it to me. It was for Leopold Drewe of Drewe Financial in Halifax. On the back, she’d written “Vi” and a telephone number. “I’m here for a few days.”

The man with no coat lurked a few feet away. The thought of learning more about Agnes, maybe finding answers—not just for me, but for Vi, too, for both of us—wrapped itself around me in slow, sticky loops, like the pulled candy they used to make behind a window on Queen Street when I was a kid. I held the card for a few seconds, scraping its edge against the winter-dry skin on the inside of my thumb, staring at the man.

“I can come with you for a bit.”

She smiled, then wilted, out of relief, I guess.

+ + +

We went to the old casino, what was once Maple Leaf Village, and ordered drinks in the restaurant, scotch and soda for her, tea for me.

“You came from Halifax?”

Vi frowned. “Who told you that?”

“Oh.” I pulled the card out of my pocket. “It says—”

She took it and peered at it, then tossed it on the floor. “Some man in a bar gave me that.”

“Oh. So did you have to travel far to—?”

Vi cleared her throat. “I was already on my way here when I got word. I wanted to see her—Agnes—about something.” Her shoulders crumpled in an exhausted, hollowed-out way. “Well, I’m sure she told you all about it. You know the bind I’m in.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Andrew?”

Vi drained her glass. “My son.”

“I didn’t know she had a brother. She—never mentioned him.” And there I was, manufacturing Agnes, my mouth so sour from it I thought my gums might start to bleed.

Vi held up her empty glass as a signal to our server. “Half-brother.”

“Older or younger?”

She paused. “He’s 24. They weren’t close.” She looked at me through bitumen-encrusted lashes. “How long have you and Agnes been friends?”

I took a big sip of the mug of tea the waiter had brought me and felt the fingers of hell on the insides of my cheeks, my tongue, my throat, the boiling water claiming what felt like many layers of tissue. Trying to recover, I took off my glasses and cleaned them on my shirt, then resettled them on my face. When I blew on the tea, they fogged up.

Vi smoothed back her thin brown hair, pressing the skin at her temples. “Are you all right?” She let it hang, my mounting discomfort.

“Yes. Sorry. You were saying, about going to see Andrew?” The inside of my mouth was still on fire. “Where is he?”

“Switzerland.”

“That’s why he’s not here today.” Not the right thing to say. “For Agnes. For you. It was too far to come.” Disdain weighed down her heavily plucked brows. “When does he expect you?”

Vi’s face contracted into helplessness. “I can’t afford it now.”

Sure. Funerals. “That’s terrible.”

“He’s ill. He needs me to take care of him.” Vi touched her cheekbone with her ring finger, blotting tears I couldn’t see in the patchy casino lighting. “I just don’t know what I’ll do now. If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t lose another—”

“That’s terrible,” I said again.

She trained her golden eyes on me. “I don’t need your pity. I need your help.”

“How can I help you?”

“You said you’re a doctor.”

When had I said that? Is this what people meant when they talked about losing track of your own lies? “No. I’m not. A doctor.”

“You said you had to get to the hospital. For work.”

“Oh—no. I work in shipping.”

I hadn’t seen anyone look so disappointed in me since I’d last seen my parents.

“The mail room?” She let out a little bleat of laughter. Our server walked by, a young man with broad shoulders and purplish white teeth. She waved him over. I thought she might be checking on the status of her refill, but she asked for the cheque. He started to fish through a wad of papers.

I grabbed the bill when he held it out. “Here, I can—”

“You don’t want to help me. I don’t know why you would pretend.”

The server handed me a portable card reader. Vi rolled her eyes at him under her laden lashes and he put his hand on the back of her chair, brushing her shoulder, giving her the smile he almost certainly saved for women like her. He flirted out of habit, to while away his shifts and maybe wring a few extra dollars out of the perpetually sad clientele. But Vi had just buried her daughter. I cancelled the tip I’d been about to confirm on the device and handed it back to him.

“Do you want to go anywhere else?”

“With you?” Vi pulled on her coat, tied her ratty red scarf. It seemed that the answer was in the question. I followed her out of the restaurant anyway, through the casino, into the parking lot, where a light, icy rain flicked against the awning overhead.

“Was Agnes going to come with you overseas?”

“Are you trying to upset me?” She was small, like Agnes, but not at all frail.

“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m just—I just wish I knew why Agnes was so sad.”

She unleashed that bitter laugh again. “You sound like a terrific friend.”

Desperate to hold her there, desperate to atone, I said, “I wasn’t her friend.”

Her face went still.

“I was just there. When she did it. And I wanted to—”

“Did what?”

I dropped my voice. “When she killed herself.”

“Killed herself,” Vi said, almost as though she didn’t believe me. “What does that mean, you were there? You watched your friend die?”

“She wasn’t my friend.” I kept running out of air when I tried to speak. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know your daughter. I only happened to be there when she—I just need to know why, I need to know what made her do it.”

Vi’s yellow eyes flared, twin matches. “You’ve been lying to me.”

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

A taxi pulled up from the nearby taxi stand. She turned away.

“Vi, please—I’ll give you anything. But please, can you just tell me what was going on with—why she was so—”

Vi stopped, holding the door handle, and said, “I need money.”

Her voice sounded different, so it took me a minute to process. “To get to Andrew,” I said at last.

She threw her arms around my neck, back to herself again. “I knew you would understand, honey. Agnes was going to give me the money. She’d been putting it by to try and help me out. But I can’t get to it. Everything’s all tied up.”

I tried to catch up. “I’ve heard that sort of thing can take forever.”

“I can’t wait. I thought that if you knew how much she wanted to help me, that you might step up.” When I didn’t immediately volunteer, she hardened. “That was when I thought you two were friends. And here it was all a filthy lie.”

“You want me to give you money?”

Lend it to me,” said Vi, hurt. “Just for a while.”

No one had ever asked me for money before for what, to me, were obvious reasons—nine hundred of them, the sum total of my personal assets. I didn’t know the correct reaction, or the protocol for agreeing or refusing. “How much?”

“Ten grand.”

“I don’t have—”

She cooled off again. “Right. The mail room.”

Agnes wasn’t my friend. Agnes wasn’t my anything. And yet, if I had only stayed in my car, she might—

 Vi made a move for the taxi.

“I didn’t know that’s what you wanted,” I said, stalling.

“It isn’t what I wanted.” She pouted. “You’re abusing me terribly. I thought you might like to try to make it up to me. If I could trade it all and have my daughter back, you know I would.”

She opened the cab door. I spotted a standalone ATM near the lobby entrance. “Wait.”

I went over and withdrew my daily limit, four hundred dollars. The taxi was just starting to pull away as I got back but I yanked open the door and jumped in. I thought she would have the driver throw me out, but when I handed her the money, she started counting it. I nodded at him to go.

She rolled her eyes and put the cash in her bag, stonewalling me all the way to a mouldy motor inn downtown, where I got out with her and paid the cabbie, hoping she might relent and ask me in and tell me all about her dead kid.

Fluorescent lights shone over each numbered door. As Vi stood before her cabin, one lit up her hair from behind, sad and wispy. “You know, you have my number,” she said. “If you actually want to help.”

She closed the door in my face. Halfway across the parking lot, I remembered that I didn’t have her number anymore—it was on the floor under the table at the casino. I went back and knocked, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she was taking a shower.

I wandered around downtown for a while, through the underpass where all the stray cats live, imagining Vi’s next few days. There would be lawyers to deal with, perhaps police procedure, not to mention scraping together the money to pay for the burial. She would have to go through Agnes’s home, her things. And all of it would be worse than just the fact of doing it—it would all be compounded by why she was doing it. And what had I given her, for all that misery? A pack of lies and a few hundred bucks.

+ + +

Sometime in the night, I remembered Maria and the bag of Agnes’s belongings waiting for Vi at the restaurant.

I set out first thing. I still hadn’t heard from the police about my car, so I walked again, the cold, damp air clamouring for the space between my clothes and my skin.

The restaurant’s ‘please seat yourself’ placard was up. Everything looked tired—the plastic plants, the stained upholstery. I ordered toast and then thought of Agnes with her goggle eyes bringing toast to liars in the early morning and lost my appetite. When Maria came out of the men’s room with a mop and bucket, I snapped my face toward the window, filled with regret. I took a sip of water but choked on it when I heard her say, “Is it you?”

I coughed and sputtered. Maria yanked napkins from the plastic dispenser on the table and handed them to me, then wiped down the table. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to startle you.” Her mild accent gave her words a plunging rhythm.

My eyes watered, which I’m sure made her think I was crying. “It’s OK.”

“It is you. I didn’t mean to—of course, you wouldn’t remember me. We met the other day.”

“I remember. You said you had some stuff that was—”

A small man stalked out of the kitchen, his hair greased back over the popped collar of his tracksuit jacket.

“Yes, yes, I’m glad you were able to come,” Maria said. “I wondered how you and your mother are doing. Oh, how we miss your sister.”

Maria couldn’t see the little guy hopping up the aisle toward us, so when he spoke, she recoiled.

“Maria? What’s the problem here?”

“She’s helping me,” I told him. “I was choking.”

“Tony.” Maria bunched up the soggy paper napkins in one hand. “This is—you remember poor Agnes—”

“Who?”

Maria, horrified, said, “Agnes!”

“Get this cleaned up.” He returned to the hostess stand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He’s the manager, but I usually take care of anything to do with the staff.” Her troubled smile fell apart, and she opted for retreat. “I’ll only be a moment.”

I watched her head toward a back room. Then my eyes settled again on Tony at the cash register and stayed there until she got back with a grocery bag. She whispered, “There’s money. I made sure no one touched it.”

The shame at being so unjustly trusted threatened the integrity of my skull. Still, I couldn’t help myself. “Can you tell me anything about her? About why she was—like she was?”

Maria shook her head. “It can be hard, families. I know. I wish I could tell you more. She was so quiet. Worked hard, never complained. I didn’t know her better than that.”

“Maria!” Tony hit the side of the register with the flat of his hand.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk no more,” Maria said. “But I appreciate you coming in here. Agnes was a good girl. Now, you give our best to your poor ma.”

Head spinning, I left a ten-dollar tip for the two-dollar toast that hadn’t arrived and managed not to throw up in the bushes. Maria thought her dead friend was my sister, and now I had swindled her out of Agnes’s last worldly possessions.

I took a deep breath. After all, a work locker is hardly the place for worldly possessions. Mine had cough drops and empty hand sanitizer bottles. If there was a letter or a will or a manifesto, it wasn’t going to be in this bag.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten Agnes’s things for me. I’d gotten them for Vi.

+ + +

Downtown, a heavy, damp chill trapped foul smells in the road.

I walked to Vi’s motel, stopping only at an ATM to get out another $400. It was still early, but I knocked on her door. She didn’t answer. I waited next to the overgrown and yet mostly dead cedar shrubs lining the parking lot, holding the bag of Agnes’s things, switching it back and forth between my hands as they got sweaty in spite of the cold. Apart from a few meandering derelicts, there wasn’t much foot traffic. A patrol car passed without slowing down. Cracked, faded plastic bowl chairs, stacked up at one side of the motel waiting to be set out for the summer, or maybe for garbage collection, were my only companions, apart from a parked silver Mercedes and Agnes’s legacy.

My phone rang.

“Alex Larson?”

The lead investigating officer, not the keener who had taken my statement, wanted to inform me that I had been cleared of all wrong-doing, and that no charges would be filed by the driver of the car I’d hit, either. I could collect my vehicle later in the day.

He was starting to say something about insurance and estates when the door to cabin five opened.

“Great, thanks.” I hung up.

Vi’s dusky head appeared in the weak sunlight. She had on her dressy coat, the red scarf with catches in it. Behind her, a bald man in a suit followed her out. The Mercedes chirped.

Her coal-rimmed eyes went stony when she saw me approaching. “What do you want?”

I held out the bag. “I went to the restaurant where Agnes—you remember, her coworkers said we should—these things belonged to her.”

Vi moved toward the passenger door. 

“Agnes’s things,” I said. “From her work.”

“Friend of yours?” The man looked me up and down, grinning.

“No.”

“You can join us, if you like,” he said.

“I’ll just be a second,” said Vi.

He shrugged and got behind the wheel. She grabbed the bag and dug around, pulling out an envelope and emptying it of the money Maria had safeguarded. The car started. Vi tossed everything else onto the pavement.  

Grief makes people do strange things. I bent over to rescue the bag and the discarded envelope. “I’m sure it must be so hard, going through all of her stuff and every—”  

She got into the car, which pulled out and away.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but the motel owner came out of the office and hollered at me. “Hey! You can’t work here!”

With no idea where to go, I started to walk, the bag bouncing against my leg.

+ + +

At the cemetery, the grass was crunchy with frost, the ground cold and hard as I sat across from the temporary marker that read “A. Williamson.”

People who die in freak accidents have all kinds of half-finished detritus kicking around afterward. Their loved ones have to decide about every single piece, whether or not to donate the teach-yourself-to-play-harmonica book to charity or to teach themselves to play, in honour of the dead person, who may have gotten the book as a gift and never had any intention of learning. If, on the other hand, you’re making an exit, you make sure things are sorted—you don’t want people stumbling across something you’d prefer left unseen, or swooping in and claiming a memory or memento that shouldn’t be theirs. If you’re on your way out, you get your house in order. Unless, of course, you’re on the fence about leaving when out of nowhere, you find yourself faced with an opportune moment. Or scared out of your wits by some stranger you’ve just hit with your—

I wrapped my arms around my knees and pressed my forehead against them, shivering at all of the horrors I’d come to see in the last few days, most of them perpetrated by me.

Then I sat up again and opened the bag.

Inside, there was a black cardigan that smelled of kitchen grease. I didn’t pull it all the way out. A few coloured elastics and bobby pins fell off of a sleeve, with one or two long brown hairs still in them. What would Vi have done with the hairs? Take them out of the elastics? Drop them onto the ground or release them to the wind—when these were the last, the very last ones?

Under the sweater was a coupon for a local uniform manufacturing store, and the envelope, which had a word that might have been “index” scribbled in pencil. At the very bottom was a folded piece of paper, a printout of Agnes’s obituary. Had Maria printed it? Unauthorized use of the office printer hardly seemed characteristic, from what I knew. I hadn’t ever seen the obituary, was surprised there was one. I couldn’t imagine Vi at a keyboard, hunting and pecking out a death announcement for publication.

A sharp breeze caught the paper. I thought about letting go.

Instead, I read it—several times, without making sense of it—loving parents, both deceased. Edgar and Carolina. No siblings. Not survived by anyone. Loving parents, both deceased.

I knew those names. They were on the stone next to Agnes’s marker.

I squinted in the sunlight to read the stones again. Edgar and Carolina Williamson, different birth days, same death day, three years ago. They died on the same day? How? A fire? Car accident? Atrociously bad luck?

I forced myself up into a crouch, then willed my knees to straighten as I stood. My numbing fingers lost their grip on the obituary, which almost refolded itself as it skittered away. I rolled up the bag and tucked it between a small shrub and the headstone for Edgar and Carolina. Then I drove my fists deep into my pockets, punching something. My right hand opened and closed again around cold polymer, heedless and aloof, a wad of ATM twenties.

BIO

A.L. Bishop is a writer in Niagara Falls, Canada whose stories have previously appeared in Book Six of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and The Forge. Learn more at www.albishopiswriting.com.

A Better Parent

by Alison Gadsby

Niki is smiling. Just in case. She’s not happy, but when her son Jeremy sees her sitting in the stands she wants to look it. She got up at 5:00 am, tossed frozen fruit and some green protein powder into the blender (as instructed by her ex-husband Chris) and swirled up a nutritious smoothie that was immediately rejected as being too green, too wrong. Jeremy scrambled up his own eggs and slurped the barely cooked mess into his mouth as she drove downtown to the university pool for his first swim meet of the season.

His eyes wander up every few minutes, not to Niki, but to the empty spaces around her. No Dad. He’s had his headphones on since he woke up. She knows she shouldn’t be here, but it’s her weekend. She hasn’t been to a swim meet in two years. Ever since Jeremy got fast and started qualifying for bigger and faster meets, he always chose his dad.

It started with the dog. The thing she’d hoped might save her marriage. One parent had to stay home with the puppy while the other did swim practices and meets. Niki got the dog.

Jeremy needs to take six seconds off his 200 Fly to qualify for Provincials. That feels like a lot to her, but Niki knows nothing. Chris was the swimmer. When Jeremy started with the club three years ago, he was just a small, keen eight-year-old who had a knack for it. Good genes, Chris joked. But it’s no joke now. He swims nine times a week and Chris is some kind of swim official. The early mornings, when Jeremy is with her, are a killer. Some days she asks him to go back to bed and not tell his dad he missed practice. She figures it will make him a more flexible person. Chris’ philosophy is, ‘there’s no point in doing anything if you’re not going to do it right and do your best’. That was their marriage. Niki didn’t do it right. She never remembered to ask him about his day, she drank too much wine, and she couldn’t get up before eleven even one day on the weekend so they could get shit Chris wanted done, done.

Jeremy is bobbing his head back and forth to whatever song is playing in his ears. The rhythm of the imagined race moving his body.

Margaret, another mother, is screeching “Aidan, Aidan” like a fox looking for a lost pup.

Niki can see Aidan trying to ignore her, but her shouts are so loud the other swimmers start poking him to get her to shut up.

Aidan tilts his head slightly and his father yells, “20 seconds.”

Niki flips through the heat sheet for Aidan’s name. They want their eleven-year-old to go well under three minutes in the 200 Backstroke. Seems outrageous, but what the hell does she know?

Margaret turns to Niki, “Jay going for Festivals, too?”

Her using Chris’ nickname for Jeremy is irritating. In the buffet line at the awards banquet last year, Niki asked if she preferred Maggie or Margaret. Her reply was a terse ‘while some call me Maggie, it’s Margaret’. Niki was granted Maggie status last spring, but has stuck with Margaret.

“I have no idea,” Niki says. It must drive Margaret bananas to know someone like Niki exists. A parent who doesn’t spend hours poring over time standards and calculating Olympic probabilities for her kid.

The Olympics. That had been their biggest fight. After a particularly good swim meet Chris ruffled Jeremy’s wet hair and said, “Kid stands a good chance at going in 2028, maybe even 2024.”

“God help him if he changes his mind,” Niki said.

“Well I’m sure if you could weasel your way into his head, you’d change it for him.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t waste your time,” Chris had finally said, “Haven’t you got better things to do, wine to drink?”

They went on for over an hour, and when they paused for a second, she’d looked at the clock. She wanted to know the exact minute it ended for her. At 11:46 am on a snowy December Saturday morning, she officially hated him.

“Aidan!” Margaret shouts again waving her hands wildly. When he finally looks up, Niki can see fear crawling all over his face. Blotches of red over pale grey skin. Someone announces they’re marshalling the 200 Backstroke. There’s still loads of time before his race. But Margaret is spewing her panic all over this kid. His father’s fingers are frantically scrolling up and down his iPad at the time standards.

Niki wants to say something, but instead looks away and pulls a magazine out of her bag. Who was she to judge bad parenting? Everyone has a story to tell about their shitty parents. Jeremy won’t be any different.

“Nothing therapy won’t fix,” Niki’s mother used to say. “It’s not like we locked you in the closet or tied you to the bed.”

“Mama,” she hears Jeremy’s voice, but he’s no longer sitting where he was. Hawk-eyed Margaret pulls on Niki’s t-shirt pointing to Jeremy directly beneath them.

Jeremy holds up his goggles. He has chewed at the ends and anxiously twisted the rubber so that now they’re broken.

 “There’s a spare in your bag,” she shouts quietly.

“These are them,” he says.

Margaret interrupts, “Aidan has an extra pair.”

Jeremy looks to Margaret and then back to Niki and shakes his head. They are not the right kind. He can only wear some Swedish brand with silicone pads. Chris found them, of course and they can only be purchased at the swim store miles outside the city. Niki points at her watch. She doesn’t have time. He’s terrified. She nods her head, but taps on her watch to tell him it’s too late.

Jeremy puts his hands together and pleads with her. She knows if Chris were here, he’d have a dozen pairs in the glovebox of his BMW. In his back pocket.

Niki collects her things and as she puts her sweater on she asks Margaret to give Jeremy a pair just in case she doesn’t get back in time.

“47 minutes,” Ken says. He counted the number of heats and the average times and gives her what is likely the exact time of Jeremy’s heat.

As Niki pulls open the doors to the gallery, a man falls through, almost tripping down the stairs. A small boy, about four or five years old, stands holding the door with his small body while the man struggles to get back up using the railing. He reeks of alcohol, a familiar blend of freshly drunk beer and stale old whiskey. Niki’s Dad had the very same smell. It’s as overpowering now as it was when she was little.

The boy’s eyes are glued to a bright pink Nintendo DS. He follows his father as he weaves between the backs of cheering and whistling parents and the wall, falling down on his butt beside Margaret and Ken. Niki can’t take her eyes off the boy who doesn’t miss a step walking and playing his game. The drunk man scans the deck and when he sees someone, he waves awkwardly. Niki follows his gaze to a girl about the same age as Jeremy. She doesn’t wave back until the young boy lifts his eyes from the game. They share a smile as the girl bends her wrist back and wiggles her fingers. The boy gives her one small thumb up, before sinking back into his game world.

Niki can hear Nana Mouskouri blaring in her head with that tinny car radio voice.  The CBC playing full volume while her Dad slips on and off the gravel shoulder of Highway 7.

Niki’s unblinking eyes start stinging and she goes back to where she was sitting. Jeremy is waving his hands, but Niki doesn’t look down.

Margaret lifts her phone points to the drunk Dad and mouths to Niki, ‘Should I call the police’? Niki shakes her head aggressively, no. Aidan is in the water and Ken is shouting over the railing. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. AIDAN. Kick. Even the drunk Dad is startled each time Ken yells. Margaret puts down her phone and joins her husband at the railing, blocking the view of anyone else who might want to watch the race.

Niki sits. She sees the young boy is playing a word game. He’d already found a bunch of four and five letter words from an eight-letter anagram. She looks closer.

“Did you get, SPILL?” she says.

The boy tilts the game away from her.

Aidan finishes his race and Ken is shredding the heat sheets.

Ken looks up to the clock and shouts, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before he turns to leave.

Aidan goes under the water and then comes up and starts banging his head on the wall. He took off eight seconds, won his heat and now has to wait for the other boys to finish. Not good enough he’s the fastest kid here. Jeremy approaches him after he gets out of the water and whispers something in his ear. They share a handshake that includes a fist bump, a side fist and a high five.

“Fucking high fives. Are you kidding me?” Ken says to Niki as though she’s to blame for the gesture.

Jeremy holds up Aidan’s goggles and gives her the okay sign.

Then from across the gallery, at the deep end of the pool, she hears Chris’s whistle. He used to do it in the playground when Jeremy was little. Like their son was a dog. Chris shouts Jay’s name and holds up a pair of goggles. Ken uses Niki as a handrail as he steps up and walks out of the gallery, mumbling more profanities and throwing the ripped and crumpled sheets to the ground.

The drunk Dad stirs and Niki can see it before it happens. He’s choking on all the drink, trying desperately to not spill his guts, swiping at the saliva dripping from his mouth. Liquid vomit fills the concrete floor at his feet.

It takes over twenty minutes for two security guards to turn up. One of them steps down and kicks the drunk Dad in the lower back. The man opens and then closes his eyes. The boy slowly slides to sit beside Niki, never once turning away from his jumbled words.

“Sir, can you stand on your own?” the other guard asks. The man shakes his head. The guards bend on either side of him and put an arm under each shoulder and lift. On the count of three they step up and drag him to the top leaning him against the railing as one speaks into his walkie talkie asking for help.

Niki’s head bounced off the wall. She was thirteen. She listened as her father tried to crawl up to this bedroom. He fell backward twice, landing on the hardwood floor with a thud that shook the house. When she had dared leave her bedroom to help him navigate the narrow flight, he had just enough strength to give Niki a good shove down the stairs.

As the guards turn the dad toward the exit, Margaret shouts after them, “Hey, his kid’s here too.”

The boy shrinks into Niki. “He’s fine here,” she says.

“He’s from some club up north,” Margaret says, “We don’t know them.”

“How’d you get here, son?” One of the guards kneels beside them.

“Did your father drive?” he asks.

Niki says, “We can hang out until his sister finishes swimming. I can get them both home.”

Margaret says, “You can’t do that.”

Niki tells her to shut up.

“I can get him home,” she says again.

“Unless you’re a relative or friend of the family, I’ll have to take the boy with me,” the guard says.

The Dad is mumbling something, barely able to keep his head up. It’s as if he’s gotten drunker.

The boy stands up and robotically follows the guards. Niki wants to grab him, stop them from taking him away, but her throat tightens and she cannot take a breath. How she always dreamed of punching her father back but the best arguments happened after he died. Minutes after the dad and boy disappear, Niki still has her eyes on the door.

They announce the boys 200 Fly. Jeremy is in the last of three heats.

He swings his arms around as he takes his place behind Lane 4. He unplugs an earphone gives his name to the timekeeper and steps back, intermittently slapping his legs and swinging his arms.

Niki can’t speak. She wants to cheer him on.

Chris has moved closer to the starting blocks. Go Jay Go. Jeremy claps his hands and throws two fists in the air toward his dad. Happier than a pig in shit, Niki’s mother might have said.

Chris was filling a suitcase with clothes when Niki stumbled into their bedroom at two in the morning last January. It was a post-holiday holiday party she had to attend, but she was angry he was leaving. What gave him the right to pack his bags? It was over. Long over. And don’t think because you’re packing up all your shit that it’s you who’s come to some suddenly wide-eyed decision that this isn’t working. You massive mother-fucking dickhead. She’d gone off the deep end, she knew it and all the while she helped him throw his crap in a couple more suitcases, she was stripping off her own clothes. As he stopped at the front door, Niki stood naked in the living room applauding him and his big move.

Margaret is still talking about the drunk father. All disgust, pity and shame as they wonder who his swimmer is. Niki looks down to the girl, who is beside her coach staring blankly at the gallery’s exit doors. Niki knows that face, lifeless because any twitch or slight movement will trigger tears and with tears comes a full-blown breakdown.

The race starts and Jeremy kicks fast and furiously before he comes up with his first stroke, a full body length ahead of the swimmer next to him. His first turn brings him even further ahead of the pack. Niki rocks back and forth to the rhythm of the stroke. It soothes her. This is what she will tell him after the race. She will thank him. How the grace of his swimming calmed her.

As Jeremy turns again, Margaret asks Niki if she knows the drunk asshole. Niki shakes her head without looking at her. Margaret keeps talking anyway. How she demands people don’t speak to her when Aidan swims and yet she yacks and yacks now. Margaret adds, how sorry she feels for the drunk man’s kids.

Jeremy finishes. Niki’s eyes are clouded. When she stands to cheer, tears spill down her face.

“You wonder why some people become parents,” Margaret says.

Jeremy glances up at the clock and throws his hands in the air before diving backwards under the water.

Niki watches Chris whooping and hollering, wiping his own eyes. He stares back at her. If only once he could look like he doesn’t know he’s the better parent.

BIO

Alison Gadsby is a Toronto-based fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from York University, where she was awarded the bp nichol award for exceptional achievement. She was also recently awarded a two-week residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts. 

Alison is an active participant in the literary community and is the founder, curator and host of Junction Reads a monthly prose reading series in Toronto. 

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