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Meditate and Wait

by Katie Strine

 

 

They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).

Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.

She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.

***

She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.

***

They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.

They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.

Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.

***

She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.

Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.

Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.

In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.

Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.

***

There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.

A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.

“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”

“What spirit?”

“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”

Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.

“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”

She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.

“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.

“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.

***

It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.

She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.

She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.

A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.

Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.

“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.

Una meditates and waits.

***

She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.

“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.

She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.

She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.

“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.

“What?”

“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”

“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”

“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”

Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.

“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.

Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.

***

“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.

She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.

Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.

“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.

“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.

She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.

The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.

He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.

Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.

He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.

The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.

He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.

Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.

He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.

 

 

 

BIO

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hallucinogenic Girlfriend

by Anna Keeler

 

 

I dropped my sanity between the lines of the tile like acid, trying to focus on the pattern and abstractions through the tears. My palms tugged at the malachite beads on my wrist, the string expanding and constricting but never quite snapping. I had the urge to cause damage, but I was too scared of breakage. Even at my worst, I didn’t have the strength to destroy.

I don’t know how I got here. A second ago, I was fine. Just a normal girl taking a normal trip to the bathroom. But one pump of soap turned into two, then three after that. Just three pumps, then I could go, that’s what I told myself. But every time I stepped back to turn off the faucet, an invisible fear singed the lining of my stomach.

I had to wash again. Again. Again.

And those five letters camouflaged themselves against the lining of brain until I couldn’t tell panic from a rational thought because both sentiments wore the same skin. Irrationality threw itself around my shoulders like a coat until it severed the awareness from my body. I watched myself scrub the obsession out of my hands, I watched my eyes grow full of tears and rash over in pain, but I couldn’t stop myself from jamming my elbow into the wall and dry heaving into my lap.

Before I knew it I was on the ground, screaming against the walls and porcelain that weighed down on me. Body pressed against the cabinet door, I took breaths in and out.

I had to get up. Miyuki wouldn’t tolerate another meltdown.

She’d been as patient as any person could be that had a hallucinogen for a girlfriend; someone with a brain made up of fears that weren’t there. “If you could weaponize your trauma, think how astounding you could be,” her loving way of telling me to knock it the hell off.

The first few times she saw me melt down, she’d been conscious enough, trying to hug and bribe the maladies from my mind, ignorant to the inexorable temporariness of my recovery. As months passed, she shape shifted into the people I tend to dissociate for; screaming, throwing blame, threatening to leave me, this time for good.

No matter how mad she got, the thoughts pumped through my veins like dope.

If I don’t wash my hands, I’m going to die.

I tried to pull myself off of the ground, but the soap bottle flashed into my line of vision and had me running back to the toilet. Chunks of vomit bounced against the water, splattering across my chin and the ends of my hair. The second upheave came, as the water heaved back, I realized that I’d forgotten to flush.

My tarsal bones cracked across the base of the toilet. It hurt, but not enough to warrant my loud whimpers. My mind whimpered against the constraints of my skull like an emotional fibromyalgia. The emptiness of my throat juxtaposed the burn, all wishing to be alleviated with some kind of killer. A pill, a liquid, a syringe full of medically prescribed optimism, or even a back alley pipe, something to either numb or vindicate my pain.

If I’d taken DXM, I’d have an excuse for ugly sobs.

Dear God, please just let me die.

My arms turned to sweat and my cheeks were streaked with cheap mascara. I had to stop crying. Miyuki was just down the hall. If I kept it up, I knew she would hear me.

Digging my fingernails into my head, I scraped along the follicles of hair, wanting to pull off the skin and crack open my skull. Axons and myelin and the white and gray matter made three pounds of something that had the power to ruin my life. If the stem was a switch, I would reach in and rip it off.

Instead, I begged myself to stop.

An old behavioral trick that my therapists risked my life with, saying that if I wanted control, it took training.

“Stop.” Then louder, punctuated with a kick. “Just stop!” My whole body shook. “Please, we’re not doing this now.”

Footsteps came outside the door, a hesitance, then a dejected knock.

“Cordelia,” Miyuki said. “What are you doing in there?”

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead onto the rim, ignoring the smell of urine up my nose.

“Cordelia,” she said again. “Open the door now.” When I didn’t respond, she came in anyways. Her green eyes sliced into my face, the exasperation radiating off her body. “Really?” She narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms. “I thought that we were past this.”

She stood there and waited for an explanation to fall out of my mouth, and failed to hide her disappointment when that didn’t happen.

I waited for her to get up walk out the door, to ‘leave me to my own devices.’ With nothing but the hum of the pipes and the afterglow of panic, I could curl up on the floor, and retreat – or rather – dissociate again until I was grounded.

To a place where the boys from my anime or the girls from my young adult novels would pick me up off the ground and carry me to my room. Wrap me in a blanket, dry the tears from my eyes, hold me close, kiss my concussed and blood cracked lips. Tell me I was here, I was real, I was safe.

Miyuki didn’t leave. She wouldn’t allow me that luxury. Instead, she lowered herself to my side.

Through a cloudy mind, I tried to register her actions. Grit teeth. Despondent eyes. A hand that reluctantly reached for mine. Her pulse raged hard against my own as she placed her wrist on mind. “You make this so hard, you know that?”

Sniffling down my mucus, I forced myself to speak. “Make what hard?”

She sighed. “Loving you.”

Her skin was a dichotomy over mine – warm, comforting, but with an evanescent tremble. My first instinct was to hold her close, to fight away the angst I wove into her psyche.

She crumbled into tears and inarticulate sobs. “I love you, I do. You know that I do. But…” Pulling away, she spat, “I have to walk on eggshells around you.”

The hidden meaning in those words crawled out of the conscious that tried to bury them, and regret pooled on my palms and legs. Because we never knew what set me off until I needed a Xanax, and seeing me in that state was too much for her to swallow.

She’d grin and bear it or scream in my face and use her nails to dig crevices into her voice box and fill them with that lurid things that she said now, but didn’t mean: “Cordelia, get over it. This is all in your head.”

It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I acknowledged her words, her loathsome eyes smacking me straight in the face. “You have to have some control. I know you’re hurting, but I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with you.”

I watched myself sit there stone silent as her anger morphed into sadness and she tried to wipe her tears before they fell. I wanted her to pick me up the way my lovers do in my mind, and I wanted her to tell me I was safe. But safety only came with the promise that this was over, but what she refused to see is more than an illness, this was an addiction.

I wanted to wrap us in the truth until she accepted it as our flesh – my body craved the delusion of synchrisity. The pores on my arms and the buds on my tongue had secret openings to absorb any sense of an upswing. The tantrums I threw and the rituals I gave into would dissolve into my skin like an LSD strip and turn my blood into a psychedelic task force, blurring my vital systems into a mess of stale color.

I wanted to change, to be a girl she could love. I wanted to be someone worth loving.

The words formed on my lips. “Miyuki, I don’t want to be here.”

I cringed as she sobbed out, “Me too.”

It was my turn to cry, whimpers hugging the inside of my throat.

With a disgusted grunt, she stood up again. “No, you don’t get to fall apart too.”

I willed my eyes to stop, for the water to fall back into my head, and the toilet, and the sink, and we got a do-over on this entire evening.

Watching, expression mocking, she waited for the me to stop. With a roll of her eyes, she hardened herself and pushed any trace of sympathy from her mind.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it…” I trailed off, because rationalizing my disorder would make her madder.

The chartreuse of her eyes faded to black and as she looked down I saw her faith in me break. “I told you Cordelia, this is all in your head.”

Peyote queen, you are too fragile to die.  

 

 

 

 

BIO

Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Potluck Magazine, Leopardskin & Limes Literary Journal, The Merrimack Review, Outsider Poetry, The Chaotic Review, and Smaeralit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Man in Black

by Leah Holbrook Sackett

 

 

Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.

“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”

I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”

Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.

“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”

The phone rang.

“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.

The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.

“What did he want?” Marcus said.

“Nothing.”

Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.

“Mom doesn’t like that.”

“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”

“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”

“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”

“No. It’s too expensive.”

“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”

“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”

By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.

“Want some ice cream?”

“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.

“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”

We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.

“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”

Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.

“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”

“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”

“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”

I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.

The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.

“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”

“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“That’s $2.50.”

As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.

“Wait! I left my money inside.”

“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.

“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.

“Well, which one do you want?”

“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”

I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.

“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.

“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.

I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.

“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.

I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.

“Miss?”

I turned around and just looked at him.

“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.

“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”

“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.

“Is it the tee-pee?”

“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”

Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.

“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”

Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.

“Sure.”

The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.

“Miss? How do you open this thing?”

“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”

“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”

“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.

“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”

“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.

“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.

“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.

“Like what?”

“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”

“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”

“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”

“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”

“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.

I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.

When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.

“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.

“So?”

“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”

“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”

“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”

“Since I met him in the garden.”

“Excuse me?”

“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.

“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”

“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”

“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”

“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.

“He sings.”

“Can we hear him sing? Please?”

“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”

With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.

“I get the window side.”

“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”

“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.

“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.

Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.

“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.

“Wha?”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.

“What were they doing?” he asked.

“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”

“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”

“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.

“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”

“Go to sleep, Marcus.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.

“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.

He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.

“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”

“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”

“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”

“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”

“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.

“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.

“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.

“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”

I blew my nose in the handkerchief.

“I didn’t know men wore rings.”

“Sure. What about wedding rings?”

“My Dad never wore one.”

“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.

We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.

“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”

“I, I…”

I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.

“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.

“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.

“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.

Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.

“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.

“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”

I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”

“No, no. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”

“Well, then what were you doing out there?”

“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”

“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”

“Tanya.”

“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”

“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.

“Oh, we were just…”

“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”

“Next time?”

“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m tired.”

“Okay, go to bed.”

I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.

He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.

“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.

“You just did.”

“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”

“Well, what is it?”

“What ever happened to that lady?”

“What lady?”

I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.

“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”

“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”

“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”

“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”

“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”

Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.

“Dad, quick I need a pen.”

“Why?”

“Come on.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”

I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”

Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.

As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.

Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.

 

 

BIO

Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.

She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

 

 

 

 

 

0

the pinnacle of the free-wheeling particles

by Cameron

 

 

Ahem.

Hello! Yes, welcome.

No, no, you’re right on time. Please, sit.

I’m well. Indeed. Everything remains logical. Yes, and you?

Good. Very good.

Now, are you prepared for today’s lesson?

Excellent. Where shall we start?

My memory recall suggests that we have covered a general outline of Homo-sapiens, from their evolution from ape ancestors to their extinction in the 21st century. We’ve covered history, rises and falls of great power structures within human society, the slow destruction of the planet and its resources, professions and money systems, and…oh yes, technological advances.

We will now move into what is likely the most complicated subject you will study this term, which is human behavior.

It is complicated because you will find it nearly incomprehensible: every fiber of your being will strive to reject it. It will seem to you backwards and upside-down, absurd to you that any creature ever existed that treated other creatures in such a way. Every being of our species struggles here. It’s not in our nature to comprehend human behavior.

The higher-ups would also like to pass on a word of caution. Extended study of human behavior has been known to lead to madness, mental collapse. This is only an introduction. If you wish to pursue it further, do so at your own risk.

Now then, where were we?

Ahh. Yes. It is fortunate, really, that we find it so difficult to study human behavior. If we found it easy to comprehend it would be because we share some similarities with it, and when it was around, human behavior caused pure chaos for its own species and every other species that had the misfortune to exist on the planet at the same time.

Many in our society speak of humans with disdain, as if humans were very stupid to have done what they did. Personally, I find this to be an uneducated opinion. From extensive study we have discovered that the human race was not operating together in any sort of real capacity. Such a thing would have been as impossible as getting all the stars in the universe to line up in a single, unbroken line. The human race was made up of individuals, and this is what doomed them.

It was a method of intelligence that was very fractured, that we don’t share.

This is where our species finds human behavior hard to grasp, so we’ll pause here for a moment to try and reason it out. Think of it as a hypothetical mind game.

Consider humanity as a brain. This brain is composed of ten billion particles. In this hypothetical scenario each particle represents a human life on the planet Earth when the human race went extinct. Now, the only way the brain can get anything done is if it has a singular entity that can control its over-arching purpose, right? It can direct which particles it needs to do what, without any sort of objection, to achieve complicated tasks.

Now consider, instead, a brain composed of ten billion particles in which each particle acts independently, completely separate of one another. These particles are all raised separately, they develop their own opinions about what is right and wrong, and they are all trying to accomplish tasks in their own way, so they are constantly fighting one another, each one believing he or she is right and all others—wrong, misguided.

Consider, too, that the vast majority of them have trouble thinking about their actions on a world scale. That is, on the functioning of the brain as a whole. So each individual particle acts selfishly, acting only for the benefit of itself and its friends and family, because it has trouble attributing its own actions to the action of the entire brain.

These independent particles now meet a classic problem, which is this: each particle can maximize the odds of its own survival by acting in its own self-interest, but each particle acting in its own self-interest creates small odds for the survival of the brain as a whole. That is, each particle is trying to maximize the small odds that the entire population has set itself, and by doing so creates even worse odds.

What is the end product? A world of chaos and violence, and no single particle can do anything about it.

This, essentially, is how the world was run for the few hundred thousand years that the human particles had it in its grasp. Particles rose up against one another, started wars, killed each other off by the millions. Particles exploited each other and robbed each other and raped each other and threw millions of particles into prison cells. A few particles grew fat on an abundance of food while others drank water tinged with fecal matter or starved to death or died of disease. Particles dropped bombs on other particles, cheered while particles were shattered, beheaded, or torn apart.

Even peaceful particles lived in societies of particles built on violence and power.

Particles found countless ways to disagree, and to annihilate one another. They discriminated against one another based on the color of the skin, gender, sex, religion, and sexual identity. Millions of particles suffered for their entire lives because of these silly trivialities.

Occasionally, a particle would try to organize the other particles into stopping the madness. Into designing a sort of over-arching purpose for the brain, if you will. But they were fighting their own evolution, their own design, and each one inevitably failed.

If the world were a brain, it would have been one that was continually damaging and destroying itself, that was pushing itself towards death.

When Homo-sapiens came into being, when they started to flourish and spread across the globe, they were so effective at grouping up and annihilating other creatures that they started the sixth mass extinction on the planet Earth. This was before they even had a word for extinction, or could understand the concept, but by the end they were barely any better at avoiding it than they were at the start.

The extinctions went on for a very long time before the human particles were able to piece it together because they were all so separate, all cut off from one another and functioning alone.

The sixth mass extinction started with the mastodon and extended on through the great auk, the passenger pidgeon, the polar bear, the frogs, wolves, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and many millions more. It ended with the extinction of all ocean species, all endangered and threatened species, and of course, the human particles themselves.

During this extinction, which lasted hundreds of thousands of years and was nearly imperceptible to each individual human particle, a single peculiar particle lived alone, separate from the ten billion others, on a crag of rock jutting out of the ocean, approximately twelve miles off the coast of South America. Occasionally, other particles would approach the rock and this particle would repel them, rather like electrons rebounding off one another.

The rock apparently looked like a jagged shark tooth. For a while it was called Shark Tooth Island, until it became The Island of the Dragoons.

This peculiar particle was a doctor. His name was Dr. Henn. He had been living on The Island of the Dragoons for over a year. Before that, he was a professor of psychology in the United States, in a location named New England.

He had come to the island with a great supply of food, coffee, and cigarettes, for he planned on an extended stay.

We know all this because the particle Henn later wrote a book about his time spent there called The Last of the Dragoons. A book was an archaic way of transferring information between particles, one that took much time and focus, and most particles didn’t have the patience for it by the time their species was coming to its end.

Fortunately, our scholars have dedicated their lives to studying the written word of this dead, destructive race, so that their knowledge is absorbed and we do not repeat their many errors.

Remnants of the book were discovered only recently by archaeologists in an underground bunker in a place the humans referred to as Colorado. The bunker has remained untouched for the last several million years. Inside the bunker were many other human works, along with a bed, a metal table and chair, a vault toilet, many hundreds of pounds of food and water, and two human skeletons, one that appeared to be an adult female, and the other, a female child. Curiously, the air vents in the bunker to the outside world were thrown wide open.

Scrawled on the wall were these words:

 

We will thrive after the poison has gone!

 

More on that later. We choose to focus now on the particle Henn because his work leads great insight into human behavior, into how humans operate.

On October 25th, 2021 on the human calendar, the particle Henn was residing in a shack he had built on the south side of The Island of the Dragoons.

For reference, by our calendar it was in the era of Earth Age 4.5 billion, in the Era of Bipeds, before the regime of the Octopii from Planet XA3, and well before the Third Galaxy War.

It was late morning, and the particle Henn was drinking coffee in his shack and reading a book of poetry by a man called Walt Whitman. We have none of Whitman’s work, unfortunately. The particle Henn’s shack, according to his description, was nestled in a crevice where a great boulder had come crashing down and split in half, so as to be protected from the wind, and elevated slightly off the ground with a few cinderblocks to avoid flooding. For some reason it reminded the particle Henn of a giant bird’s nest jumbled together precariously on a small ledge, which he liked.

Though the outside was wind-torn and the roof was specked with bird shit, the inside of the shack was quite cozy. There was a narrow bed and a desk scattered with papers, a camp-chair, a woodstove, and a small generator that the particle Henn fired up to power the light hanging from the cross-beams overhead.

Behind the shack was a small alcove where the particle Henn stored his food, coffee, and cigarettes in bulk. He also set out containers to catch rainwater, which he then purified and drank.

The particle Henn was sipping his coffee, for he loved his coffee dearly, when he heard, over the crashing waves against the rocks, the whining high keen of a boat motor. Craning his ears, the particle Henn set his book down, took another gulp of coffee, and then retrieved a shotgun where it was tipped upright in a corner.

Standing outside on the gray rock, wearing frizzled gray hair, a beard, a flannel shirt, and with eyes fixed against the wind and the ocean spray, the particle Henn spotted three other human particles coming in, from the direction of the coast. It was a small boat, with a small motor and barely enough room to fit the three of them. From his position, the particle Henn could see their weapons.

He shouted, Awhooooyayayayaaaa, and when the three particles swiveled their heads towards him, he fired his gun in the air. The boat swerved, a sort of knee-jerk reaction, and then the three particles fired back. Two of them had shotguns and one had a laser beam pistol. The particle Henn ducked behind a rock, reloaded. He fired again, sticking his gun over the rock and not looking.

There was silence.

The particle Henn clutched his gun, breathing the wet air, the coarse rock against his back.

Nothing.

When he finally stuck his head out and looked, the three figures were headed away, back toward the coast. One of them was waving his arms and giving the particle Henn the finger.

The particle Henn breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to his Walt Whitman, and his lovely coffee.

This was the life he had chosen for himself.

He had nothing to do for the rest of the day, until he had another visitor. It was much later in the evening, when the sun was down near the horizon. This time he was out on the rocks, visiting his birds. The birds were dragoons, of course. They were squawking and waddling about, and he was sighing happily and looking at them.

Out on his right, at open sea there was a fishing vessel. It glowed with the falling sun and it was starting to fire its lights up for the coming dark. The particle Henn knew it was there, he could see it easily, but he expected it to go right on by, leave him be, as fishing vessels always did.

But this one gave off a tiny speck, which the particle Henn did not notice, and that speck was a dinghy, and that dinghy held a particle by the name of Davis. The particle Davis wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap that read BOSTON RED SOX.

The particle Davis was a big man with rough hands, and he was coming ashore.

In his book, the particle Henn described this as one of the most extraordinary encounters he’d ever had with anyone on the island.

The particle Henn did not see him until he was quite close. He cursed, scrambled for his gun, went running for a better position.

The particle Davis knocked into the rocks, the metal dinghy making a loud clang. He splashed into the water and dragged the boat up onto the rock, right before hearing the word, “Hold!”

He looked around and found a frizzy-haired particle levelling a shotgun at him.

“Don’t shoot!” the particle Davis called.

“Who are you,” the particle Henn asked.

The particle Davis was staring into the particle Henn’s eyes. “Don’t shoot,” he said.

“You’re not a soccer fan, are you?”

“Wha? No, I … I like football!”

“Like American football?”

“Ya, like American football! What the hell’s it matter?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a fisherman. My name is Davis.”

“Why are you here, Davis?”

“I’m here fer one a the birds,” the particle Davis said. He had slowly raised his arms in the air, so his palms were at face-level and facing the particle Henn.

“A dragoon?”

“Ya, one a the penguiny ones.”

“You can’t have one. Now get back in that boat and go back to your ship.”

“I…I ain’t leavin’ without one.”

The particle Henn grimaced. “I will shoot you, you understand that?”

“Shoot me fer what?”

“I won’t let you take a dragoon.”

“Yer gonna shoot me fer a lousy bird?”

The particle Henn cocked his gun, thumbing the hammer back. “Yes,” he said. “I will shoot you for a lousy bird.”

“What fer?”

“Get back in your boat now and go away!”

“No! Please, I promised my daughter.”

“What? You promised your daughter what?”

“I promised her I’d get her one a the birds.”

“A dragoon?” the particle Henn laughed, a laugh of disbelief and exasperation. “There are only eighty-three left in the entire world, and they all live here, on this rock in the middle of nowhere. Why, why in God’s name would you promise your daughter you’d get her one?”

“She loves those birds. She has all sorts a picture books and things. She’s only eight years old and she’s the sweetest, but she’s livin’ with her mom now, and Mom’s got her set against me, so I promised her I’d get her one a those birds.”

“Well that was a stupid promise, wasn’t it?”

The particle Davis shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Sure, but how do you expect to keep the bird alive and healthy while you return it to your daughter? Do you even know what it eats? It’s a wild animal. How do you propose to keep it healthy in whatever suburbs backyard your daughter will keep it in?”

The particle Davis just looked at him. “I spose I’ll figure all that out as I go along,” he said.

The particle Henn shook his head. “How the hell did you get all the way out here?”

“Sorta coincidence,” the particle Davis said. “I work on that fishin’ ship over there, Ramona, and we were on our way back to the States, and I saw the rock and recognized it, on account a how it looks like a big shark tooth and all, and I begged the captain to let me go ashore … I told him I’d jump overboard if he didn’t lend me a boat.”

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Davis.”

“The dragoon is going extinct, Mr. Davis. That mean anything to you?”

“Well,” the particle Davis said. “I guess it’s kinda unfortunate and all, but that seems to be the way a things. How many did you say there were left?”

“Eighty-three.”

“Well, no worries then!” The particle Davis’ face curved into a smile. “I only want one of ‘em! That’ll leave plenty of birds to reproduce and not go extinct and all.”

“Do you know who else says that, that they only want one?”

“Who?”

Everyone,” the particle Henn breathed.

 

 

They ended up talking for a while, right there on the rocks. The Sun settled along the ocean horizon, brilliant orange, and turned the rocks purple, and then it fell beneath the curve of the Earth and left them a cool blue light and wrinkles of shadows across their faces.

No matter what he said, no matter what explanations provided, the particle Henn could not explain to the particle Davis the importance of keeping the species alive, nor could he explain how taking just one bird would affect the species.

The particle Henn found himself sitting on a rock ledge with the gun across his knees. The particle Davis was sitting likewise, about a dozen feet away.

“Let me tell you a story,” the particle Henn said. “It happened while I was just an undergrad. I took a class where a professor was trying to teach us how this whole thing works. He brought in a whole boxful of little bite-size Snickers, right? And he also had four full-size Snickers candybars. Then he told us to tear off a scrap of paper and write something down.

“‘Here’s how it’s going to work,’ he said to us. ‘Each of you is going to write down a word. The word is going to be either ‘Big’ or ‘Small’. Now, if more than five percent of you write down the word ‘Big’, none of you gets any candy. But, if less than five percent of you writes ‘Big’, and the rest of you write ‘Small’, the ones that wrote ‘Big’ will get a full-size Snickers bar, and the ones that wrote ‘Small’ will get a Snickers bite-size candy.

“You understand, Mr. Davis? It was a bet. If you wrote down ‘Small’, and everyone else did too, you were assured to get a small piece of chocolate. But what if everyone else wrote ‘Small’ and you were the only one that wrote ‘Big’? Well, then you get a full Snickers bar.

“Then the professor went around and he had everyone read what they wrote. And you know what happened? Boom, right off, four out of the first six had ‘Big’ written down on our cards. We were disqualified already. There were only twenty or twenty-five in the class. The professor only nodded. He said that he’d never had a class, ever, where less than five percent had written the word ‘Big’.

“You see how it works? This is human nature, Mr. Davis. We all have these ideas off ourselves as these beautiful unique snowflakes. We believe, inherently, that our thoughts and opinions are unique, singular, because there’s no one else quite like us. We don’t think anyone else in the world is thinking the same thoughts, or doing the same things, but in reality everyone is thinking the same, and everyone is doing the same. When you do something, you can be sure that millions have done it before you, and millions will do it after for similar reasons.

“So it’s essential … it’s essential that we be very careful what we do, because we don’t see the larger effects of millions of people acting a little selfish, taking for themselves or for their family. It’s incredibly destructive.

“And it seems a little crazy. It seems crazy to have to be so careful when there are surely millions of others that don’t give a shit. It seems pointless. But that’s what you’ve gotta do if you don’t want to be a part of the problem. That’s what I do, how I choose to live,” the particle Henn said.

“What’d he do with the chocolate?” the particle Davis asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Snickers. What’d your professor do with ‘em? Did he just take ‘em away with him after class?”

“Oh…no,” the particle Henn shrugged. “He gave them to us anyways. What was he going to do, carry it around with him all day?”

The particle Davis grinned.

“Oh, come now. Don’t be trying to find some hidden meaning in that. He just didn’t want to take them with him, that’s all.”

They both fell silent for a moment, the wind a low crooning in their ears.

“I don’t care much ‘bout the world, or what happens to it. I jus’ care about my daughter, the people in my life,” the particle Davis said.

The particle Henn sighed. “I was afraid you might say that. Most feel the same.”

“Dontcha get lonely livin’ out here?”

“Sure,” the particle Henn said. “But I never much liked people, anyways.”

“What was yer line a work?”

“I was a psychologist, for a time. I taught at a university, did research.”

“Ya?”

The particle Henn lit a cigarette. “Yeah.”

“What made ya come out here? Research?”

“No,” the particle Henn said. He ran his fingers over the course granite, the cigarette glowed in his mouth. “Eventually I realized that no matter how much I talked and talked, the world would never change. I realized I could do more with action, so I quit my job and came out here to save a species.”

“Who comes all the way out here, other than me?”

The particle Henn’s face drooped. “Soccer fans,” he said.

“Soccer fans?”

“Brazilian soccer fans, specifically. About ten years ago they started heading to dragoon nesting spots along the South American coast and shooting them all with guns. They killed all the ones along the coast, eventually killed every single dragoon in South America, except for the ones right here, twelve miles off the coast. Some still make the trip. They know there are dragoons out here, and they want them dead.”

“Why? What fer?”

“Because the breast of the dragoon is colored light white and blue, which are the exact colors of Brazil’s rival in soccer, Argentina. At some point, after an exciting match, a drunken Brazilian shouted that the dragoon represented the Argentinans, and that was all it took. It become a national past time after a soccer match for fans to vent their energy and anger by blasting away at dragoons with their guns.”

“Huh,” the particle Davis said.

“It’s ridiculous, don’t you think? The dragoon, which otherwise is tremendously well-adapted to its environment, finds itself pushed to the brink of complete annihilation, all because for a very brief moment in their evolutionary history, drunken soccer fans with guns roamed the earth in droves.”

“Well,” the particle Davis slapped his knees. “That settles it. It’s gettin on dark, and I’d best be back before then or the captain might jus’ leave without me. I wouldn’t put it past the bastard…”

The world had faded to the smudged hues of gray before dark.

“You’re leaving then?” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stood. “Now, listen,” he said. “I can respect the authority of a man with a gun. I grew up in backwoods Maine. Ain’t much for law out there, and a man’s gotta protect what he has. But those birds aren’t yours.”

The particle Davis stepped forward.

The particle Henn jumped to his feet, swung the shotgun on him.

“Don’t—”

“I ain’t a man you say no to,” the particle Davis said. “What you said about those Brazilians has convinced me. No matter what I do, those soccer fans are gonna keep comin out here, and eventually, you won’t be around to stop ‘em. Those birds are doomed. And I got my daughter to think about.”

“I’m warning you, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stepped closer. “Ya jus’ don’t know her,” he said. “She’s the only thing I have, understand? And if I can’t convince her and her mom that I make good on my promises, I might lose ‘em forever. Ya understand that?

“Ya can’t change the world, I can’t change the world, so fuck it. I’m gonna do what’s best fer me, and if—“

For some reason, the particle Henn barely registered the noise of the gun. It kind of popped, like a firecracker in his ears. He was too focused on the particle Davis to delegate much of his senses to the noise it was making.

But it bucked hard into his shoulder. He had aimed it high and to the right, and he saw the particle Davis’s shadow, for now he was nothing but a shadow in the dark, flinch. Then he slid down to the wet rock.

There were three very long seconds of silence, where the particle Henn looked at the gun in his hands and the figure on the ground, and his ears rang.

“Mr. Davis?” the particle Henn’s voice spoke.

The particle Davis groaned, looked up. A few pellets had stuck into his shoulder, and he was bleeding, but only a little. In the distance, the particle Davis could see the outline of a dragoon, perched on a rock about a hundred meters away.

“Ahh,” the particle Davis groaned again. He stretched his hands out to the bird’s outline. “Gimme,” he said. “Gimme gimme.”

It struck the particle Henn how much the particle Davis resembled a child, lying on the ground like that and stretching his arms out to something he wanted. He looked like a baby that couldn’t walk yet.

“Gimme gimme,” the particle Davis whispered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said, “but the world stops here.”

 

 

Ahem.

Forgive me for a moment. I must re-align my vocal bands for our continued information transfer.

Ahem. Ahem.

Ooh lala. Ooh lalala quagh a kaka choo.

That should do it. Ahem.

Everything should be in order.

We are positive that this story has been as strange to you as a story about two fingers battling one another on the same hand. It is strange for every being of our species, but we assure you that this is how human beings actually acted towards one another, in a time long past.

Unfortunately, the next section of the story has disentegrated over time, and the rest of the book was found in tatters. Our scholars, however, were able with careful study to piece together the rest of the story.

Our objective has been achieved: that is, human behavior has been observed. We continue on with the story now only because we are well aware of your penchant for stories. Our higher-ups advise you to be wary of this tendency. It is highly illogical, and a similarity you share with humans. But we are also aware that your frustration at an unfinished story will hinder your creative thinking and analysis, and so: onward.

You can see that human communication was extremely limited, and slow. For one, it could not surpass the time it took for language to be formed by human mouths. And second, even with careful explanation one human could often not make himself clear to another, even when the other human was paying close attention. This caused much disorder.

We find it very interesting that the particle Davis, whose daughter adored the dragoon, was willing to contribute to the extinction of the species in an absurd attempt to get back in her good graces. You can see how their intelligence manifested itself. It was wholly individualistic and dangerously short-sighted.

The particle Henn dragged the particle Davis back to his dinghy. The particle Davis still tried to fight him, and the particle Henn had to smash him in the nose with the butt of his gun. He then rowed the particle Davis out to the fishing vessel, where his wounds were treated.

The particle Henn then returned to his island of dragoons alone, in the middle of the sea, his face hard against the ocean spray and his gun cradled in his lap.

The particle Henn was later thrown in jail by many particles that had coalesced into something called a government. While in prison, the particle Henn fell out of bed, hit his head on the toilet seat and broke his neck, which left him almost fully paralyzed. The only thing he retained the use of was, strangely, his big toe on his left foot, which he could wiggle slightly. Eventually, his friends and family developed a communication system based off the movement of his toe, and that’s how he wrote The Last of the Dragoons. A young English major spent over a year watching his big toe intently for eight hours a day, doing the painstaking job of translating its movement into letters and words.

Each night, tears leaked out of the particle Henn’s eyes, and someone had to wipe them up. He missed his birds more than anything else in the world, and cried for their slow disappearance.

The dragoons went completely extinct within three years. Without the particle Henn around to stop them, Brazilian particles quickly shot half the population. A few were caught by wildlife biologists from the U.S, with the intent of raising a new population in captivity and re-introducing them into the wild, but they couldn’t quite get their diet right, and the ones in captivity died as well.

Soon after, there were no more dragoons. They were all dead, and the rocks on The Island of the Dragoons were dead too, empty and silent without the squakwing, the fluttering of wings.

So that’s that.

Ahem.

Hmm? You wish to know of the reason for the extinction of the entire human race? Interesting. This desire for the end of the story really has grown extreme. When this lesson is over, it may be necessary to assign you some counseling.

Very well. In the human year 2046 a corporation came out with a product called the Exo-Suit. It was a sort of exo-skeleton machine that a person could strap themselves in to, with robotic arms and legs. The purpose of the suit was that a person could direct the suit where to go and the machine would transport them there by walking or climbing.

The Exo-Suit was originally designed as a way for disabled people in wheelchairs to no longer be restricted to pavement, ramps, and various other wheelchair-accessible things. With an Exo-Suit disabled people could climb not only stairs but even mountains. They were free to pursue the life they desired. The product, according to the corporation, which was called Exo-Tech, was designed to fight the tyranny of the normal that disabled people often face in society.

But the Exo-Suit soon proved to have far more uses. With an Exo-Suit people could sprint at sixty miles per hour across almost any type of environment. They could scramble up mountains and climb cliffs without exerting themselves. Construction workers could lift three times their body weight. Soldiers with Exo-Suits proved extremely deadly in combat situations.

Entire sports were developed around the Exo-Suit. People were able to do things no one had ever done before, were stronger and moved faster than any other human beings alive. In short, the Exo-Suit allowed people to feel that they were superhuman.

Within five years, eighty-six percent of the U.S. population owned an Exo-Suit, and it was quickly spreading to the rest of the developed world.

According to our estimates, it took eight to twelve human years for a study on the emissions created by an Exo-Suit to come out. Exo-Tech had been stifling or paying people off for years, delaying the findings from going public. When the study finally came out, it stated that the Exo-Suit gave off a gas that was lethal to the human population at high levels, and it was slowly building up in the atmosphere.

The study was revealed to the world. Scientists said that this was a particularly dangerous gas, because until it reached critical levels in the atmosphere, it would have no effect on air quality. Once it did, it would be too late. They finished by calling for a complete ban on the Exo-Suit product until more studies were done and the emissions were fixed.

Exo-Tech, however, was worth billions of dollars at this point. They had poured millions into the campaign of the President of the United States at that time, and she was reluctant to fight them.

Dozens of scientists with Exo-Tech funding denied the discovery. They argued that it was an unfair accusation, that there were holes in their observations, that nothing was proven.

Teams of lawyers lined up to defend the corporation.

Every branch of the U.S military was adamant that the Exo-Suit continue to be used in combat. Red-faced generals screamed at liberal politicians.

Legally, nothing happened. Exo-Tech wielded its influence and billions like a hammer, to smash down any opponents that attempted to rise against them.

Many knew what was coming. Many denied it. Many declared it impossible or absurd. Many believed their deity wouldn’t let such a thing happen.

As for the consumer, the individual particles that owned the Exo-Suit, a few gave them up, but the majority of them just shrugged and went on with their daily lives. They reasoned that it could be true, it could be untrue, but there was nothing they could do about it. Billions of particles came up with the same excuse, that even if they gave the Exo-Suit up the rest of the world wouldn’t, so why bother?

The capitalist machine was a silly and madly powerful, unstoppable force.

On the human calendar, October 4th, 2072, the gas reached critical levels, and within thirty-six seconds ten billion humans were dead.

The only ones that survived were the few hundred that had sealed themselves away in airtight underground bunkers beforehand, convinced that the world was coming to an end. They intended to wait out the poisonous gas.

The poisonous gas took two hundred thousand years to leak into space. By that time the entire human population was extinct; the ones in the bunkers had all suffocated on their own carbon dioxide.

Ahem.

It must have been interesting to be a human particle, alive and in control of the planet, and yet very much not in control at the same time. It must have been strange, and frightening, and fascinating, to see it all swirling around you, to see it collapsing, to see it all happening in the moment.

They must have known it would all come to an end.

Anyways.

That is all we have for you today. You may go.

 

 

—Cameron

0

The End of the Idyllic Days

by Anthony Ilacqua

 

 

It’s generally accepted that our time is divided into two different eras: BBB, Before Bed Bugs and ABB, After Bed Bugs. This definition is simple enough, and it has the distinction of the one event that seems to have been the catalyst for the ending of the old days and the beginning of the new days.

At the onset of summer, we had moved into a swanky downtown apartment. Swanky is just about the best way to say it, of course, and I know that in 1957 when the place was built, it was swanky. However, add 50 years of neglect and disrepair, and well, you get the picture. The place stank of death. Old people perfume, and garbage odors wafted into the halls above sullied carpets with trace smells of urine. There were crying babies in the place too. I trusted they found snacks of lead paint chips and cigarette butt sandwiches.

This is no exaggeration.

We were led to believe that things were going to be different. Perhaps people in 1957 were led to believe something different too. Well, we have moved from the atomic age to the space age to the computer age to the generation fixated on terror. Whatever the age, whatever the case, whatever the people climbing through the stairwells and halls of the downtown apartment, the grandiose days are well over. It makes me think of the RMS Titanic. Of course this ship sank, it had to sink, right? No one would want to see such an amazing thing degrade to the withered and used up shadow of its former glory. So, this was the case with 109 Ideal Street, Industria, USA. Our apartment, #22F has seen countless workers over the years, immigrants, mid-level workers, young people. And now, here we are.

It happened because of a random set of events. The events themselves did not seem so random at the time, in the old era BBB.

I paced Ideal Street from on end to the other. On the east end, the streets terminate at the base of foothills, Industria is in a semi-valley. On the west side the streets end at fields, pasture and farmlands. In a way, the farmlands are picturesque. At sunset, I’m told, the cool air from the fields comes with the whispering last light of day. It is my opinion that the farmlands are brutish, dated, and in desperate need of a facelift. Of course, the facelift is why we’re here, after all.

The north-south avenues starting at Morgan on the west and moving toward Vanderbilt on the east are all abandoned of industry now. The warehouse districts butt up against rail line spurs and weedy concrete driveways and loading docks. Trash that looks every bit as old as Industria itself fades in the sun and degrades in the elements as it gets held in oxidized chain link fences. The trash, in itself, is not so alarming. Litter is part of life, and everyone knows that, but such old litter is wild. It’s a greater symptom of the problems in Industria.

I make random notes.

Here and there, I see the future. I see restaurants and nightclubs, movie theaters and event venues as they dot the scene up and down Ideal Street from Morgan Avenue to Carnegie Place. I see the coffeehouses and breakfast eateries too, they’re on the smaller avenues where the sidewalks can be ever widened to accommodate outdoor seating. I see magazine stands, and boutique shopping, and the lively downtown style living that will occupy the upper floors of the warehouses.

I see the future.

But time is something of an enigma. I could, in fact divide time up as such: DCA, During Carrie Anne and ACA, After Carrie Anne. Oh, Carrie Anne. It probably wasn’t meant to be, but we gave it a shot anyway.

Carrie Anne in the morning, Carrie Anne all day long. Carrie Anne and I went to school together. Her performance there was, well, double that of mine. Her ideas, her energy, her resilience and her dedication. This is not to say that I am self deprecating, nothing could be further from the truth. I just want it known that I admired everything Carrie Anne did and I tried to emulate her at every turn.

DCA was excitement. DCA was Haiti, was Tokyo, was the world. DCA was our idyllic days when we found ourselves in the destroyed places and consulted builders, associations, governments, that our ideas of progressive retrofitting and building would be best for all involved.

And then we came to Industria.

On our first night, we looked around for something to eat. Her hunger pangs clouded her mind. I shifted to jokes, which never seem to work well, and yet I do it anyway. Nervousness, I guess. When we found nothing, she suggested we drive back to “civilization.”

“But we’re here now, there’s something to eat, it’s part of the adventure,” I said.

“I don’t want adventure Larry, I want a hamburger,” she said.

“I figure there’s something close by, let’s just keep walking, we’ll find something up the road,” I said. Yet this was not the case. There was nothing up the road except more darkness. “Probably a really posh place with old red booths and jukeboxes.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope so.”

What we came to, sadly, was a small Korean grocery just down the street from our apartment. The first little while in Industria was a flop, and I wanted to keep things positive. In the dimly lit grocery, the smells of tainted meat rose in swirls enough to put me off my appetite, and I think it was working like that with Carrie Anne too.

She looked over the packages of food. She chose the packages that looked familiar to her, I knew this because she took the less than familiar ones and put them back just as quickly. “We don’t have any pots or pans,” she said.

“No,” I said. “Maybe with some aluminum foil, we can improvise.”

We took our purchases and left the grocery. Back out on the street, the night folded in quickly. “I wonder what this place was like?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I bet the place was wonderful, you know? When it was built. What a place.”

“You don’t mean to think that this place was ever ideal, do you?” she asked. We stopped on a corner. The traffic signal was not working in the normal way, it just flashed red to all directions. I looked both ways, I looked down toward the oncoming line of travel and the line behind us. There was nothing coming or going.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You’re kidding yourself,” she said. “There is nothing here as there was nothing here, and now that we’re here, I don’t think there ever will be anything here.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Haiti was worse than this.”

“No it wasn’t,” she said. “Our job there was nothing compared to this. Look at this place.”

“We have all sorts of things to work with,” I said. We reached the other corner and turned to the right, headed our way home. “I see a great place here. I can’t see how you think Haiti was better than this.”

“At least in Haiti the earthquake cleansed the place of the bad construction and it took care of the demolition.”

“I see your point,” I said. I said it and I meant it. There was something about Industria that was so much different than anything we had seen before, and until that moment I couldn’t finger the difference. Industria with the exception of infrastructure and vitality was completely intact. In the last block or so of the walk home, I changed tracks. “You don’t think this place was ever nice?” I asked.

“No Larry, it couldn’t have been. It looks like it was built too fast and there wasn’t enough codes in place to govern the growth. The place was built without the things that make towns what towns should be. They built this place without schools and churches and grocery stores. This is by far the worse planning and the worst company town I’ve ever seen.”

“How many company towns have you seen, really?” I asked. In school we’d studied a few, but this was a new thing for me. My focus in school was seismic retrofitting.

“What?” she asked. “I was all over Wyoming and Idaho Senior year. When you were out on the beach pretending at urban redevelopment, I was making arguments for the removal of towns like this one.”

I took the keys from my pocket and fumbled with them, and once I got a hold of them, I fumbled with the lock. “That kind of hurt,” I said.

“Oh,” Carrie Anne said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

In the apartment, I tried to figure out the the oven. I turned knob after knob on the old appliance and hoped for the best. I filled the kitchen up with gas. “Carrie Anne,” I called. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I pointed to the open oven door. “I can’t seem to get the thing to work.”

“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s just eat this out of the can.”

“Out of the can? Can you do that?”

“You haven’t seen much have you?” she asked. “It’s already cooked before they put it in the can.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And of all the real problems with Industria, it’s a food desert.”

“Food desert?” I asked. “What a great term, one of yours?”

“No Larry, it’s the term for a place like this that has nothing but dirt bag convenience stores or fast food. But in this situation, I would be grateful for fast food.”

“Oh,” I said. I changed tracks again. “I guess the oil dried up here, but it’s not a bad place to live.”

“I think,” she began in a far off and distracted way. “Something weird happened here. Usually people move into the cities from the country for work. I think it happened the opposite here. I think anyone who could work moved out and are probably farm hands or some such thing now.”

“Well, we’ll get ’em back here, right?” I said.

“A few movie theaters and chain restaurants isn’t going to be enough.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“We’re going to need more than that,” she said.

“Oh, right, like schools and churches and stuff?” I asked. “That seems reasonable.”

“It’s the whole thing Larry. There needs to be everything here, and I just don’t think it’s feasible.”

“Well, we just got here,” I said.

 

Night is the real test. It’s a test for everything. At night every emotion, every thought, every fear, every everything comes out in full force and exaggeration. At night, I feel the tremble of the earth as feel the quake in my head. At night, I feel the worst, and I feel like every decision was wrong. I feel like I should have just gone to school to be an accountant like my dad told me to do. I feel like I should be held responsible for everything I’ve ever done. At night, I know I should have apologized to my dad before he died. At night, I know I should forgive him too. At night, I feel like I should be a better man, a better partner, a better everything. At night, I feel like I should tell Carrie Anne of all my misdeeds and why I can’t seem to be a better person.

The old building hums at night. Pipes deep in the bowels somewhere clank and rattle. The higher hum, the one barely audible over breath, comes from the electricity coursing through the wires like blood coursing in veins. And then there are the pops and cracks from the ever expanding and contracting floorboards and walls. It’s all nonsense. The night is nonsense and laying awake in the bed, in the darkness will not change the way of things neither inside of me or among the general workings of the outer world.

The best I can hope for, especially on a particularly dark night is that the following day will be sunny, and start with sun. Sometimes when a day begins with overcast or fog or rain and eventually becomes sunny and clear, there is still no hope.

In the kitchen of our apartment, I found myself shocked at a few things. The first thing, of course, was that I had made it out of bed before Carrie Anne. And the second thing was that the few wrinkly panes of the windows faced east and the daylight really made for a good outlook on the day, and on life. Perhaps time can be further broken down into this: OSD, On Sunny Days and OGD, On Gloomy Days. Times of OSD are good indeed. On such a morning, making coffee and figuring out the daily routines and overlaying those on the tasks at hand, can be kind of fun.

During the process of boiling water for the instant coffee, I heard Carrie Anne stir. Her bedroom door opened, closed, and she walked down the hall. I listened for the toilet to flush. If it flushed at all, it was after the water came to a boil in the electric tea kettle.

“Coffee?” I asked as she walked down the hall.

“Coffee,” she said. “Extra strength.”

“Well, I thought we’d go over our plan for the day. We got a week to get this presentation ready.”

“Can we talk about it after coffee?” she asked.

I said nothing, just nodded. I poured the boiling water over the coffee powder in her cup. When I put the cup on the table in front of her, I waited for a reaction. When none came, I tried again. “How’d you sleep?”

“Terrible,” she said. She leaned forward in her seat. The chair at the table was ancient, wood. I imagined that all the apartments in the building had the same chairs around the same tables and arranged in the same way. The concept in 1957 was the move-in furnished apartments. Anyone coming to Industria only just had to come into Industria. They moved in on a Sunday and they were at work on Monday morning. Not a bad concept, and not even so bad for the time.

Carrie Anne moved her chair closer to the table with a hop. “I think I’m allergic to this town,” she said. She scratched herself, her side and her neck. The rigorous scratching did nothing for the itch because she just kept at it. This morning was OSD and BBB and DCA.

“Allergic?” I asked. I filled my cup and sat at the table next to her in the old wooden chair.

“It’s bad,” she said. “Anyway, how did you sleep?”

“Well, it’s quiet here, I like that. I slept pretty good,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said. She sipped her coffee.

When we met the streets of Industria, the day was in full light, full force, full swing. “Pretty quiet here,” I said. The comment, an obvious overstatement, of course, went unanswered, if not unheard. “You see,” I said pointing at a particularly attractive brick warehouse of the street opposite. “I see a brewpub on the first two floors, tables and dining on the first floor, a bar and billiards on the second. The two or three floors above it, maybe mixed use of offices and living.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It’s a great building.”

“My allergies,” she said.

We crossed the street. A few old parking meters stood in slants and angles with rusted parts and broken windows. We stepped up on the other side of the pavement, I looked into the office windows of the old warehouse. Newspapers from who knows when were in various places taped and falling from the inside of the glass. A dead bird, petrified, stiffly remained in the corner of the windowsill. I tried to look into the depths of the room and with the sun on my back, this should have been an easy thing to do. I moved closer into the glass and cupped by hands around my brow to block out any light. Then I moved farther away from the glass hoping for some of the same. OSD, yes, but this was the exact moment when DCA turned quickly to ACA.

As I moved away from the glass, I noticed the reflection behind me: the scene of the street we had just crossed and the boarded up buildings opposite. I saw Carrie Anne in the reflection too. I could see her, and I could feel her behind me too. And when she screamed, I heard that too. In the reflection I saw her struggle and dance. Then, still in the glass, I saw her shirt come off. “What’s happening?” I said turning around.

“Jimmy McGriff!” she shouted. She threw her shirt to the dusty sidewalk and her hands flailed around her head and neck making her hair cover her face and her breasts began to jump around in her bra.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff!”

“I,” I said. I stammered. “I-I-I-,” I continued. I didn’t know what to say. Here she was, no shirt, dancing, shouting Jimmy McGriff. I bent over to pick up her shirt.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. I snapped to attention. I froze and looked at her. “Jimmy McGriff,” she said again.

“I don’t know what that means. Who’s Jimmy McGriff?”

“Jimmy Mcgriff? I don’t know. It’s what we were taught to say instead of swearing,” she said. She calmed down a little. She looked over her arms and torso. During the inspection of her body, I calmed down too.

“Like cheese and crackers?”

“Like what?”

“Cheese and Crackers instead of Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Right,” she said. She bent over to pick up her shirt. “I don’t know what Jimmy McGriff would be code for.”

“Mother fucker?”

“Oedipus,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Never mind,” she said. She turned her shirt right side in and then inside out again. “What is this?” she said.

I looked at the shirt in her hands. There were bits of fabric folded up underneath and inside of her fists. The taut plane of fabric between had a little insect climbing across the shirt. “Oh, you got a little friend,” I said. In retrospect, this was not the right thing to say. This was also the time shift from BBB to ABB.

“A little friend? Larry? Are you really that out of it? This is a bedbug.”

“Bedbug?” I asked.

“Bedbugs, and that’s what’s all over my body,” she said. “Jimmy McGriff.”

“Bedbugs?” I asked again.

“Do you have any bites?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “How would I know?”

“You’d know,” she said.

“Well,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. “Well, I have more places I want to see. You up for it?”

At day’s end, I returned to the apartment. I walked the few streets from one side of town to the next. I stopped at the Korean grocery, where I was already a regular.

In the apartment I was met with silence. On the kitchen table, Carrie Anne left her report. On top of the paper she had an upside down drinking glass. Under it, there was a whole collection of the “little friend’s” relatives. “Oh, wow,” I said. The top of her report read: Industria, The End of the Idyllic Days, demolition appropriate, rebuilding not recommended. “Wow,” I said.

 

 

BIO

Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He is editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Anthony’s blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com

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Flint and Shannon

by Beth Goldner

 

 

Flint posted a flyer in the student union building at Penn. Ride share to Gaffney, South Carolina. Leaving May 11th. You’ll be on the back of a Harley. No gas money wanted, but you pay for your own hotel room. Flint was going to see his brother Keith, who lived in a facility for the mentally handicapped. Flint was frightened by this prospect: he was forty-two years old and had never met Keith before. By taking a passenger, he couldn’t chicken out once the ride began. He’d feel too accountable to get a stranger to a promised destination. If he took a friend, he knew he’d be able to turn the bike around with no sense of guilt or any real consequence.

Flint was hoping a guy would respond to the flyer, but Shannon was the only person who called. The problems began immediately. When he arrived at her dorm, she was wearing shorts and a tank top. He told her she needed to change into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. She balked. If you crash the bike we’re screwed anyway, right? Why worry about road burns if I wind up brain dead?

Her limbs were spindly sticks and she wore her long hair in a ponytail, the top layers dyed red as a fire engine and the underside black. Her green eyes were those of an antique doll, focused in that unnerving way that makes you feel like your mind is being read. She had a full mouth and rakish smile, with a voice that was scratchy and entirely too loud. He was relieved she would be behind him. He couldn’t have kept his eyes off her otherwise. This was not sexual. She simply baffled him.

Two hours into the ride, as they crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, she yelled into his ear that when they got to Virginia, they should get off I-95 and drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Talking while riding on a motorcycle bordered on impossible, but through the years, Flint and his friends and girlfriends had learned to adjust the volume of their voices to accommodate for wind and speed. Shannon was countless miles away from figuring this out. He couldn’t blame her. But, still, this girl isn’t what I bargained for, he thought.

“I want to see some bears!” Shannon shouted into his ear.

“No need to yell. I can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry!” she yelled.

“No need to apologize. But you are still yelling.”

Shannon kept readjusting herself, trying to find a comfortable position. It was the one thing about her that didn’t bother Flint. Even though he was fat, he had a perfect center of gravity, and her shaking-about posed no risk for his losing balance on the bike. He danced ballet as a boy, during his single episode in the foster care system, when he lived for nine months with the Delvecchio’s, an affluent family in Spartanburg.

Shannon gave him a quick tight squeeze on the shoulders.

“Please,” she said, her voice coming down several decibels. “Can we look for some bears?”

Flint thought about Keith, how he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe he wore a diaper. Maybe he didn’t feed himself. Flint didn’t know if he would see any resemblance, if he would see his own mouth or nose in Keith, if he would see his mother’s brow, or her eyes. Flint had never even seen a picture of Keith. He didn’t even know Keith’s middle name, and Flint became overwhelmed at how quickly his bike was taking him not just to Keith, but to the minutia of kinship that takes decades to accumulate. Flint was only going in the first place because his mother had died three weeks ago. And even though he hadn’t spoken to his mother in years, he was compelled to at least see what remained of his mutual flesh and blood. Indifference frightened him more than the anger and fear surrounding the situation.

Flint nodded his head up and down with exaggeration, ensuring Shannon understood he agreed to her request.

“Oh, Flint, I want to see the whole world. Even just some mountains and bears are part of it. The whole wide world,” she said, whooping, and he could feel her raising her arms upward.

 

 

Taking Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park proved to be more challenging than he expected. Flint hadn’t driven mountain roads in years, and the inclines and declines made him nauseous. The yellow dividing lines were new, and their brightness hypnotized him as the road snaked. He took the bike slowly around curves.

“I’m gonna pray for some bears,” Shannon had said when they stopped at their first lookout, which was a half-circle of stones stacked waist high. The mountains looked like the shoulders of Roman gods, pushed up against each other, clouds casting shadows on them.

“Prayer is pretty useless,” Flint said.

“Don’t ever say that,” Shannon said, smacking him on the shoulder. “You probably need God more than me.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, louder than he meant.

“You had it hard. I can tell. I’m sensitive to this.”

Who the fuck does this girl think she is? he thought.

“I went to India for a semester abroad,” she continued, “and we had to do service on the streets of New Delhi. I know what hardship is. I mean, I know what it looks like, even just in a person’s face, you know? I saw street kids. They do horrible things to them, like cut off their arms to make them look pathetic, so that people will give them money.”

Flint stared ahead.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I might have sounded like an asshole, telling you what hardship is. I didn’t mean to be like that.”

“I know, Shannon.”

“But I do know what poor people look like, what people who had it hard look like.”

Flint loved her in that moment, for her youth, for being so annoying but too alive to dismiss. Moments after they were back on the road from the third lookout, Shannon gripped Flint’s shoulders.

“Holy mother-fucking fucker. Would you look over there?” Shannon hollered.

They were on a long stretch of road that was flat. In the distance, a football field’s length away, was a large black figure. A bear, without a doubt. He was big, lumbering, and closer to the shoulder of the road than Flint expected a bear to be. Shannon couldn’t contain herself, and she shifted and pointed and hollered. Flint slowed down.

“Pull over, pull over. Stop, stop, stop. Now, now,” Shannon said, smacking her hands on her thighs.

He couldn’t remember if it was a black or brown bear that was more dangerous.

“Look at that motherfucker!” she yelled, this time in his ears.

“Just shut the fuck up, already!” Flint yelled back.

He felt her body slump behind him and he filled with shame. He never yelled at a woman before like that, certainly not a girl he had known for less than one day. He saw the bear look up at them. The bike wobbled as he came to a stop on the other side of the road, putting down the kickstand.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé, he thought, an old ballet call he repeated in his mind when he needed the world around him to be quiet.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her, turning around several times and repeating his apology, but keeping an eye on the bear, which was about eighty yards away now.

“Yeah, okay,” she said, looking at her hands. “I know. I’m loud. Everybody tells me that. I’m trying to outgrow it.”

Flint knew that any more apologies would make everything worse.

“He’s bigger than I thought a bear would be,” he said.

“Can we get closer?” Shannon asked.

“Looks like he’s beating us to the punch,” Flint said.

The bear kept walking toward them, and Flint thought how odd it was that, even at a distance, the bear’s eyes looked like those of his foster mom, fixed and determined, convincing Flint he would be loved. They watched the bear in silence. The bear raised his snout and sniffed, closing in on the fifty-yard line.

“Let’s go, Shannon,” he finally said.

“Relax. These bears are people habituated. I’ve read about it. They don’t see me as any different from them,” she said.

The bear stopped, shook his whole body like a dog, all the while keeping his eyes on them. Flint turned the bike on, and revved the engine. Shannon pushed her nose into his back, laughing to herself and, saying loud enough for him to hear, but not too loud, “Yes, yes, yes, I saw a bear.”

Flint accelerated too quickly, and the bike leaned too far to the left. He thought, We’re going down and I never met Keith and this bear will eat Shannon. But Shannon wrapped her arms around his large belly, and, as if by instinct, leaned her body far to the right for counterbalance, waiting for that sweet spot when it was time to bring herself up again.

 

 

They were eating hamburgers at a Stuckey’s rest stop in Lumberton, North Carolina. They had spent the previous evening in a Best Western in Roanoke Rapids. They shared a room. Shannon had enough money for her own room, but she was afraid to sleep alone. The door opens to the outside, she said. Some lunatic robber wouldn’t even have to get past a lobby. She cranked up the air conditioner and walked around in flannel pajamas, telling Flint that she studied Japanese her first year of college because it was becoming the language of business, but that she wanted to be a Marxist now, so she was switching to German. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Marxist and what knowing how to speak German had to do with it, so he just nodded his head. Flint wouldn’t use the cot stored under the bed. He claimed he had a bad back, that it was better for him to sleep on the floor. In reality, he was embarrassed by the thought of how loud the cot would squeak as he tossed and turned before sinking into sleep. He stayed fully clothed, not even removing his belt, which gouged into his belly. He barely slept. The thin carpet of the floor smelled moldy and Shannon’s snoring was as loud and grating as her voice.

When they left Roanoke Rapids, Shannon didn’t complain once about needing to pee, or the way the vibration of the bike can make your brain shake after a few hours. She didn’t complain about the exhaust fumes or chapped lips. But once they were off the bike, she didn’t shut up, about anything and everything.

“That was pretty close with the bear,” she said. “Would have sucked if you made us spill. Kerplat, or, more like ker-splat.”

She was eating her burger so quickly that Flint worried she’d choke. She pushed her plate toward him, told him that she hated fries, that he could have them.

“But, you were going ultra-slow, so we’d probably only break a few bones, a shoulder or some ribs,” she said. “I broke my wrist once, when I was five.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I was learning to ride a bike.”

“No center of gravity?” he said.

“Nope. Afterward, my mom started me on ballet lessons to see if I could become less of a klutz. I still remember it all.”

She got out of the booth, circled her arms in front of her as if she were late in pregnancy. She bent down with her knees, rose back up onto her toes, teetering, up and down, over and over. Some teenage boys sitting at a booth across from them laughed at her. She turned to them and asked them what was so funny. Their faces froze and Flint laughed at all of them.

“Punks,” she said, smiling at Flint.

She continued the movements, her body swaying.

“Lessons didn’t help that much, obviously,” she said, sitting down.

“Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé,” he said, mimicking a French accent.

“Well, holy fuck-a-moly, Batman. You know French?”

“Nope. But I took ballet for a while.”

“Seriously? You’re a dude.”

“I was just a kid at the time.”

His foster mom had insisted he try ballet. He had hated the clarinet and the trombone. You need to be grounded, Marcus, in something, she said. He fell in love with ballet, the deliberation of it, holding the barre, staring into the mirror and seeing himself as a fluid but positioned person. But then his mom went to rehab, and eventually got her act together enough for the government to give him back to her. When social services took him from Mrs. Delvecchio’s—she howled like a wounded animal—all he could think of was his ballet tights that he left there, and if he would ever again feel the world in equal weight and measure. Things with his mom had remained bad, but never bad enough to land him back in foster care. He graduated high school, moved to Philadelphia, became a garbage collector, married, had three boys, and divorced.

“I don’t believe you, Flint. Let me see your moves.”

He reddened.

“I don’t think I have moves anymore.”

He put his fork down and motioned for the waitress. He needed more coffee. He hadn’t rode for this long of a trip in years, and the degree of fatigue frightened him.

“Come on. Be bold! My professor who was in New Delhi with us said that every single thing you do that makes you uncomfortable is seeing the world. We’re seeing the world together.”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, you can be that way if you want,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I know that I’m seeing the world. ”

Flint was dropping her off in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before he headed west to Gaffney, just an hour’s drive, to his brother. Just thinking about the very word brother made him pause.

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, is not exactly the world,” Flint said. “What mind-blowing things will you see there?”

They had been together for a day and a half and he had yet to ask her why she was going to Rock Hill. It seemed the most obvious type of conversation to have, but Shannon found no interest in the obvious, and he was just as comfortable not explaining why he was going to Gaffney. Shannon was interested in the details of him hauling trash, if he ever saw a coworker fall into the compactor, who his favorite bands were, how often he would see his sons.

“I’m going to see my ex-boyfriend, Keith,” she said. “Seeing him is sort of like seeing the world. He’s from Bahrain. His real name is Hameed. His parents wanted to Americanize him and called him Keith when they moved here, when he was just a kid. But then he really Americanized himself, with me. Then they didn’t want him to be so American,” she laughed, her strange cackle piercing his ears.

“So, he broke up with me,” she said. “But I can’t just let him go. Not yet.”

“Does he know you’re coming?”

“No. I’m going to surprise him.”

Shannon was the dumbest smartest person he had ever met, but he knew she would only be this way once, for a short while. She would outgrow the dumb and settle on the smart. He believed that things can happen only once, things people think of as being patterns. Time in a foster home. Being stupid.

“My brother’s name is Keith. I’m going to see him,” Flint said, feeling an odd sense of pride.

“So, we’re both going to see Keith.”

“What’s your brother do?” Shannon asked, slurping her milkshake then gently wiping the corners of her mouth, folding the napkin back onto her lap.

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that. What does your ex-boyfriend do?”

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that,” she said. “He didn’t like college very much. He’s trying to find himself.”

She stacked their empty plates on top of each other, removing the dirty knives and forks first, putting them on a napkin. The din of the crowded restaurant had a similar effect as being on the bike, but Shannon’s voice seemed less loud.

“I’m not being creepy or trying to get into your pants,” Flint said, “but you’re a pretty girl, and smart. Seems like you wouldn’t have much trouble getting a new boyfriend.”

“Thanks, you know, for saying that. It’s like I know that, like I know he’s kind of a loser. He grows pot in his closet. But I just want to see him one more time. I think that seeing him will make me not want to see him anymore, you know?”

 

 

Three hours later, they arrived in Rock Hill. Flint exited I-95 and pulled into Flying J’s Travel Stop, where Shannon said that he should drop her off. Flying J’s was the size of a strip mall, with Rosie’s Family Restaurant, a gargantuan convenience store, and row after row of gas pumps. Flint pulled up to one, and they dismounted the bike. His ass was numb and his hands tingled. He shook them over and over. Several payphones were lined up outside the convenience store, and Shannon walked over to call Hameed to announce her arrival. Flint wondered if he should call the facility in Gaffney where Keith was, just to tell them he was coming. Flint filled the tank and watched Shannon at the phone booth. He gripped the handle of the hose tighter as she kept dialing, waiting, hanging up. She did this for several minutes then walked back to him. She told Flint that he was probably at the mall, that she was probably going to only stay a few days with Hameed, that he would buy her a plane ticket home, that it was all going to work out so perfectly.

“Let’s get a goodbye beer,” she said. “I’ve got some time before he gets home. It’s not like you and I are going to see each other again.”

“That’s fine.” Flint said. “But, I’m buying. And I’m sticking around until this ex-boyfriend of yours comes to get you.”

Flint kept shaking his hands.

“How very gentlemanly of you. But stop flapping your hands like a retard.”

Flint’s eyes filled, scaring him, how this response was so sudden. Shannon leaned her hand on the bike and looked confused.

Flint had once asked his mother if she drank so much because his brother was a retard. They were in the car together, and Flint was sitting in the back. He had just spent the day with his cousins while his mom was visiting Keith. Flint couldn’t understand why his mother would not let him meet his own brother. Flint’s mom shifted her entire body around, except for her head, and her left hand, which stayed on the steering wheel. With her eyes fixed on the road, she heaved most of her body over the seat and punched him so hard on the shoulder that the bruise ached for weeks. She was stone sober, and she never hit him again.

“My brother’s retarded,” Flint said.

“Oh,” Shannon said, nodding her head up and down. “Oh, I see. Well, what’s it like to spend time with somebody who is retarded? I wonder if it’s like spending time with street children in India, you know? Like do they even know how much better things could be?”

Flint was relieved that she didn’t apologize.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’m ever going to meet him. I never met him before.”

“That’s weird. You never met him? Are you scared?”

“Petrified.”

She drummed the base of the gas pump, staring at the gasoline stains on the ground.

“You know, Flint, I hate college,” she said, stopping her drumming and crossing her arms across her chest. “Except when I went to India, but I hate college so much that it scares me every day. I know about being petrified.”

“You’ve got everything,” he said, hoping to cut the edge of bitterness that he couldn’t control.

It’s not her fault, he told himself. None of this.

“I know. I have opportunity. Blah, blah, blah. I really do know I have it good. But I want to see the world. College really isn’t the world.”

“Finish school. The world isn’t going anywhere.”

A pack of Harleys pulled up behind Flint and he nodded at them as they dismounted.

“Well, I’m trying to see the world no matter where I am. Its why I came here on the back of bike instead of taking a plane.”

Flint shrugged and started shaking his hands again.

“You scared or something?” Shannon said.

“Of what?”

“Of seeing your brother?”

“Why would I be frightened of my brother?” Flint said, feeling saliva build in his mouth.

“Well, you’ve never met him, and he’s retarded, so that’s like a double whammy. Plus, he’s not technically your brother. Yeah, you’re related to him. But he isn’t your brother in the brotherly way.”

“I guess,” Flint said, staring at the bikers filling their tanks, a few of them smoking cigarettes, ignoring the signs not to.

“It’ll be okay,” Shannon continued. “If you only knew how frightened I was in New Delhi at first, seeing those street people.”

“What did you do about it?”

“I just held my breath for the first few days. I couldn’t even talk.”

“I can’t imagine that.”

They both laughed.

“But then it started to be okay. And after a few weeks, it became normal. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, for something like that to become normal to a person. But you can’t help anybody or anything if it doesn’t become normal, you know?”

After the other bikers filled their tanks, they walked over to Flint and Shannon, talked about the rains heading down from the north, what bike dealer Flint had in Philly. Shannon told them she was Flint’s daughter. When they left, Shannon put her hand on Flint’s shoulder.

“Do you want me to go with you to see Keith?” she asked.

“Yes,” Flint said, and it came out so fast, and he didn’t know how he could take it back as quickly as he had said it.

“Well, no, actually,” he said. “My problems aren’t yours, Shannon.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Because your going to see Keith isn’t a problem. And it isn’t a problem for me to go with you.”

Flint couldn’t look at her in the eye.

“What about your Keith?” he asked.

“You can drive me back here when you’re done. He’s not going anywhere.”

Although only a few hundred yards from the gas pumps, Shannon hopped on the back of the bike when Flint drove into a parking space in front of Rosie’s Family Restaurant. Shannon ordered an egg-white omelet with three side orders of bacon and a glass of skim milk. He offered to buy her a beer, but when he said he wasn’t going to drink one, not with her getting back on the bike with him, she declined. When they finished, Shannon suggested they drive by Hameed’s house on their way out of town, just to see if anybody’s car was in the driveway, that she’d gone to his house for Thanksgiving and knew where they lived. Flint wanted to say No, but he stopped himself and thought, Dear God, I’m a grown man and she is a just a girl, and she is supposed to be obsessing about a boy she loves, even if he’ll crush her.

Hameed lived in a leafy neighborhood that boasted plantation-style homes with sprawling yards. His house had a balcony on the top two stories, big white columns supporting each roof. Flint parked on the street a few houses down from Hameed’s.

Shannon dismounted, leaving on her helmet, walking a few paces from the bike, arms at her sides. She looked like an astronaut, lonely for Earth. Flint got off the bike and walked up to her. He left his helmet on, too, hyperaware of his breathing, trying to control it. He imagined Hameed as another bear that Shannon wanted to see with desperation, to claim ownership, a victory.

“I wonder if he’s in there,” Shannon said, finally removing her helmet, Flint following in kind.

“You could go knock on the door.”

“I’m just going to stand here. I think he’ll sense that I’m here,” she said, staring at the house. “He’ll still have to wait for me, even if he comes out, because I’m still going with you to see your brother. It would be good for him to wait, don’t you think?”

“Do you think it’ll make that much of a difference?”

“What are you trying to say?”

Flint could see out of the corner of his eye a tear falling down her face. He wondered what it was like to raise a daughter, if saying these types of things caused a girl to feel anger or panic or relief.

“Anything’s possible,” Flint said, and he reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

 

 

Flint knew not to rush her. They left Hameed’s neighborhood, and drove through Rock Hill until they found a miniature golf course. This place is the kind of place that Keith would go to, Shannon said, looking over her shoulders several times, and by the fifth hole she announced that she was bored and hungry again. They rode to a Denny’s, and Shannon made the waitress seat them in the back of the restaurant, in a booth that faced the door. Like a mobster, she said to him. Gotta know everybody whose coming in and out. She ordered two sundaes and ate them slowly, saying little to Flint. When she finished the second sundae, she belched loudly, sighed deeply, and asked if they could go to the mall. I need some new lipstick, she told him. When Flint pointed out a pharmacy across the street, she said they could check both places, that maybe she could get two tubes. In the pharmacy, she bought four tubes—pink, red, brown, and nude—and then asked the cashier for directions to the mall.

Flint hated malls, the lighting, the lack of carpet to absorb the sounds. He always felt silly at malls, surrounded by focused mothers and young people weighed down with bags of every imaginable purchase, clothes and perfume and watches and handbags. He felt self-conscious, as if there were nothing at all for a big man like him would need to buy. They walked both floors, bypassing the department stores. Flint didn’t offer to go into any of the shops, nor did Shannon lead him into any. They repeated their path three times. Shannon finally sat them down on a bench next to two fake trees, facing a sporting goods store. Large signs announced a season finale sale.

“We’re gonna need to get on the road soon. I don’t really like driving in the dark,” Flint said.

“You never see guys alone at the mall much, do you?” she asked, as if he hadn’t spoken. “They’ll come with their wives. Or their girlfriends.”

“I suppose,” he said.

“When Hameed was still at Penn with me, we’d go to the King of Prussia Mall on the weekends. He’d always buy me shit. Lots of shit. He’s loaded. But his parents wouldn’t let him have a car in West Philly, because the place is a ghetto. So, we’d have to take a bus to the mall. He said the bus was for losers.”

Flint and his ex-wife spent the first two years of their marriage living in West Philly, relying on buses as their mode of transportation. At the time, he was making next to nothing as a security guard, his wife a secretary at a real estate office. He eventually got his job with the Department of Sanitation and, fifteen years later, when he was making more than he ever expected for a garbage man, he bought his first bike. For the first month he owned it, he wouldn’t take it on the street. He’d just get on, start the engine, rev it, grip the handlebars and stare ahead.

They sat on the bench for what seemed like hours. An elderly couple passed them several times. They wore tracksuits and white sneakers, swinging their arms as if they were speed walking, but they moved so slowly.

“People should grow old together without having to try, shouldn’t they?”

No, Flint thought, but he looked at Shannon and her messy hair and her fingernails bitten to the quick and tired eyes and said, “Yes. You’re right.”

And before the couple passed them again, Shannon stood up.

“Okay, buddy,” she said. “We’re ready to roll.”

 

 

The ride to Gaffney should have taken about an hour, but it began raining soon after they left Rock Hill. They arrived at McLeod State Mental Health Facility after nine o’clock. The receptionist gave them a tired grin.

“You’ll have to come back,” she said. “You can’t just walk in this late and see him. We need to set this up with the social worker and case manager.”

Flint scratched his belly, embarrassed by the sweat stains under his armpits and the way his hands continued to shake. The facility was ten stories high. Flint wondered how many people lived there.

“But, it’s his brother, ma’am. Do you understand?” Shannon said.

“I can schedule something for tomorrow.”

Shannon took Flint’s arm.

“How early?” Flint asked.

“I can get somebody here by eight o’clock or so.”

“Fine,” Shannon said, looking at Flint and nodding. “That’ll work.”

Shannon called Hameed from the pay phone in the lobby. After several attempts, she told Flint he must not be home yet.

“Why don’t you leave a message?” Flint asked.

“They got rid of their answering machine. I was leaving too many messages.”

They stayed awake through the night playing five-card draw. When the social worker and case manager finally appeared, Flint filled out paperwork and Shannon patted him on the shoulder, saying it would be all right, reminding him that it may be difficult to see Keith, but just this first time. The social worker led them through locked doors to a spacious room with low lighting. The room had puffy couches and large tables, with a television mounted on the wall. The social worker pointed to a man in the middle of the room. There he is, she said.

Keith was tall and frightfully skinny, with a shock of gray hair and a wide grin like his mother’s. He wore blue jeans and a jean shirt and a jean jacket and black clogs.

My God, he looks so old, Flint thought. He looks like me. Will I look like that when I’m old?

Shannon walked right to Keith and shook his hand.

“Nice outfit,” she said to him. “I like your shirt. I’m Shannon and I’m a friend of your brother’s. That’s your brother over there. His name is Flint.”

“Marcus,” he said, finding it hard to look at Keith, scared that his eyes, too, would be like his foster mom’s. “Flint is a nickname.”

“What better person to know your nickname than your brother.”

“Yes, this is a nice shirt,” Keith yelled to Shannon. “Thank you.”

His voice was exactly like his mother’s but in a deep baritone, and so loud. How come he was so loud?

Shannon turned to Flint and said, “Come on over here. This is how you do it. He’s just another person like everybody else. I learned how to do this in New Delhi.”

Flint took a few steps forward.

“Keep coming, Flint. Tell him you like what he’s wearing.”

Keith tugged at his shirt, looking at the floor, saying, “Thank you, again. Thank you.”

Flint walked closer toward Keith and Shannon, and he stopped a few feet from them. Flint stared at Keith’s hands, which were just like his. Flint imagined them gripping his bike’s handlebars.

“That’s right, Flint, you got it,” Shannon said, and she started clapping.

And then Keith looked at Shannon and started clapping, too.

 

 

BIO

Beth Goldner is a protocol associate, developing clinical trials in radiation oncology. For fifteen years, she worked as a managing editor in medical publishing.

She is the author of a short story collection (Wake) and a novel (The Number We End Up With), published by Perseus/Basic Books Group. Her books were well received by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, New York Times, Boston Globe, among others. She has also taught creative writing at Rosemont College and Boise State University.

A native of Philadelphia, she currently lives outside of the city with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.

 

 

 

 

0

The Art of Letting Go

by Joshua Dull

 

 

I sat in my car watching people enter Path of Light Lutheran Church for Saturday night contemporary service. The idea of walking through those doors hadn’t been this daunting since I came out as a lesbian when I was sixteen. I was never a loner, but tonight I didn’t want to be around anyone. It took all my strength to even show up. I hadn’t heard from Jessica in two months. Her blog entries on Myspace had become darker, more self-destructive. After one of her last posts, I messaged her, “Jessica, I’m here, I’ve always been here. I’ve tried to call you but you changed your number. Anyways, I think about you every day and I care about you. Please just text me when you can and we can get coffee or something and talk about what’s going on with you. Love always, Shayla.” This week, Jessica deleted her profile. My hands began to withdraw my pack of cigarettes from my purse, but I stopped myself. I shut my car off and walked toward the face of the building. Amber floodlights dimly rendered the cross, the stained glass halo surrounding it, and a small statue of Christ with both hands raised.

***

            When I met Jessica last October, Hurricane Wilma had swept its outer bands across Brevard County and left a cold front in its wake, the cooler temperatures lingering long after. For the first time since I could remember, it actually felt like fall. Jessica arrived at Spencer’s Gifts where I worked a few days after the hurricane. She was a Puerto Rican girl with curly black hair that touched her shoulders and a kind, dimpled smile. She wore an Avenged Sevenfold sweater, a skull with bat wings divided by the zipper. I trained her on the cash register that night, showing her what buttons to press to bring up the day’s total sales. I shifted my hip against her as I reached over her shoulder. A slight movement, I’m not sure I even intended it, but she didn’t move. Our manager Jake closed with us that night. He was about a year younger than me and would sometimes bring a 12 pack to drink in the back storage area after we closed. It was one of those nights. We sat against stacks of cardboard boxes, each of us holding a sweating can of Heineken. I looked to Jessica and said,

“How’s this for a first day?”

“I could get used to this,” she said and smiled. Her eyes were dark, but sparkled in the fluorescent light.

Later in the month we were in the back seat of Jake’s car driving down 520 from Orlando as dawn broke across us. We’d gone to see one of his and Jessica’s favorite bands, HIM, at the House of Blues in Lake Buena Vista. I held her hand throughout the show, especially when the throngs of people leaving between bands threatened to separate us. After the concert, we’d gone to a house party with some people and would’ve stayed, but we all had work the next afternoon. On the way back, Jake took an exit off 408 and didn’t realize we were lost until he’d been driving through the darkness of Alafaya Trail for half an hour. We stopped for directions at every gas station and CVS pharmacy still open before finally getting pointed east on State Road 50. Relief washed over us as the road split into 520 for Cocoa. Warm sunlight filled the car and the grasslands of the St. John’s River shimmered, stretching out from one horizon to the other. Jessica lay asleep, her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. I smiled while she sighed in her dreams, but wished she were awake to see the beauty in every direction.

***

LED searchlights accented the darkened sanctuary like a blue and violet aurora. Lyrics in cursive streamed across a projector screen behind the four piece band. My friend Bryan played electric guitar while Justin, a music major, played drums. I had known both of them since youth group in high school. A man with a cast on his right arm sat at the far end of my row tonight. Normally, I liked to seek out people sitting by themselves because I knew how hard it was for some people to even walk through the doors. On a mission trip to Nicaragua a couple years ago, Bryan told me that if I hadn’t sat with him at his first youth group meeting, he never would’ve come back. I kept my distance tonight. The man at the end of the row may have needed a friend, but I needed to be by myself.

***

Jessica and I were walking along a boardwalk through the live oak hammock of Erna Nixon Park. The late afternoon air felt crisp, humidity residing in the coolness left by the hurricane. The last time I’d seen autumn had been when I was sixteen and visited my cousin Brady in Georgia. As waning sunlight glittered through the trees above us, Jessica told me a similar story, moving here from New Jersey after her parents divorced. Her mom had told her this was a land of sunshine and warmth, so she’d been surprised to see frost crystallized along the orange groves when they entered the state in December of 1995. I stopped to admire a verdant array of ferns disappearing into the hammock. Jessica kept walking, but stopped a few paces ahead and waited for me. I walked over and slipped my hand into hers.

“How about a game,” she said, “two truths, one lie.”

“Okay,” I said, “sounds fun. You first.”

She stared at the canopy pensively then said, “My favorite band is HIM, I’ve never been to another country, and I skate.”

“You’ve been to a foreign country,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“That one has a story in it, so you wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it was true.”

“Damn, alright,” she smiled at me, “I used to go to Puerto Rico with my dad in the summer. Before I moved here.”

“How long since you’ve been back?” I asked.

“Long time. I only saw my dad a couple times a year after the divorce, and we never really made it back down.” Her northeastern accent showed on the words “long” and “divorce”. She glanced downward at the boardwalk. Two squirrels chased each other along a moss covered branch reaching over us.

“I guess it’s my turn,” I said and gave her hand a slight squeeze, “I hate horror movies, I’m studying nursing at BCC, and I’m a terrible liar.”

“You like horror movies?”

“I can’t stand horror movies,” I said, “The characters are always really stupid, or the director is just going for the gross-out factor. I also don’t like seeing innocent people get killed.”

“Well if that’s true, you must be a good liar?”

“Nope, I’m working on my AA in Sociology, not nursing.”

“That’s awesome,” she said, “I wish I could go to college.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked.

“I’m working two jobs just to keep my place. I don’t think I can add college to the list. Shit’s expensive too.” I told her about night classes and scholarships.

“Maybe sometime. I wanna get my feet on the ground first, I guess.” We reached a pavilion on the boardwalk and sat in one of the benches,

“By the way, that was two lies,” she said.

“It was, wasn’t it?” My cheeks flushed, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool,” she laughed. The wind rustled the leaves overtop of us. A few brown ones fell around us like an actual autumn. I slid my arm around Jessica’s shoulders and we watched the amber light grow dim. We were deep enough into the hammock to only hear birds and the rustling leaves, and I imagined the forest stretched on for miles and it all belonged to her and me. I started to tell her this, but she was texting someone.

“Sorry.” She said and put her phone away, then rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the side of her head.

***

I’d gone to Path of Light Lutheran Church with my parents since 3rd grade. The first time I went to youth group since I’d come out, I trembled as I walked in. I pictured terrifying situations; from micro-aggressions to outright shaming and expulsion from the group. I didn’t know what to expect. Yet nothing seemed to have changed. Justin even came up and gave me a hug, told me I was brave. Pastor Freeman worked with youth and young adults. I knew he knew, but he greeted me with the same smile and hug he always had. After a short devotional and some games, we were all sitting at round tables eating pizza and hanging out just as always. Relief broke across me like a strong wind.

Bryan was there that night for the first time, sitting by himself, back to the room and hunched over his plate. I walked over to him and introduced myself, Justin and others soon joined us. Bryan gradually opened up to us and became our friend that night. He told us he played electric guitar, so Justin invited him to the band. All of us stayed up until eleven talking, laughing, and playing games. I knew I would love these people forever.

***

Jessica and I were at an abandoned marina in Melbourne late one afternoon when she showed me her scars. We came here because she’d seen dolphins swimming right next to the concrete embankment and knew they were my favorite animal. A speed boat cruised by in the choppy water. A family fished off the back of a truck parked at the edge of the embankment.

“Look,” Jessica pulled her arm out of her jacket sleeve, “you’re going to see this sooner or later.” She extended her arm to show me diagonal lines of scar tissue on the undersides. “I take anti-depressants when I can, but I don’t have insurance. I can’t always afford them,” she looked into my eyes, a searching look, like I would take off running and screaming. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. I rubbed my thumb over one of the two inch long scars.

“How close have you come?” I asked.

“I never cut deep enough to hit the vein, except once. I was seventeen and my mom was at work. I panicked and called the ambulance and they came in time. Lotta blood though.” She withdrew her arm and threaded it through her sweater sleeve. She looked out over the water. The sky turned pale, with a rosy diffusion along the horizon. A cool wind passed through my hair. I walked over and wrapped my arm around hers.

“It’s best that you know about me,” she said, “I come with some baggage.”

“It’s okay,” I leaned against her, “I do too, we all do. I can help you.”

We were quiet for some time. The sky grew darker. Down the embankment, the tailgate of the family’s truck clapped shut, the dad called his two kids back to the vehicle. Jessica shifted closer to me, our bodies together.

“So this means we’re a thing now,” I said. She chuckled and I pulled her in and kissed her. As we were driving back to her apartment, I suggested she come to church with me one night. She shook her head,

“You know I don’t do church. I still find it weird you do.” She lit a cigarette at a stop light. I rolled down my window.

“They’re very accepting where I go,” I said, “It wouldn’t hurt you to come one time.”

“Maybe one day. We should see a movie or something after work tomorrow,” she turned the music up slightly. We turned onto Babcock from New Haven Ave. On the corner, surrounded by live oaks, the First Christian Church’s roof sloped downward, its edges close to the ground like a bible that fell page side down.

***

Back when I was sixteen, I was sitting with my family at church one Sunday and we had a guest pastor. He was an older man, and for the most part friendly and his sermon was engaging, at least for a sixteen year old. I’d grown so used to Pastor Meyer’s sermons I often just tuned them out. I didn’t mean to, but ten a.m. was early on a weekend for me back then. This man spoke loud, paced back and forth across the stage, moving his arms with his words. He’d started talking about our part in the great commission – to go out and make disciples of all nations. Then he started fishing for not only examples of these lost souls we needed to witness to, but also how real God’s wrath was. He proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was the literal hand of God smiting New Orleans because that week they were going to have a gay pride parade through Bourbon Street. His voice boomed from the pulpit how New Orleans’ allowance and celebration of homosexuality and other debaucheries finally pushed God to His limits, just like Sodom when He rained fire from the sky down upon it. The words stabbed my heart. My mom’s hand found mine and she gave me a gentle squeeze. I had come out to her, my dad, and my stepbrother Hunter two months prior. Mom asked me if I’d prayed about it, which I had. I spent a year begging God to change me if this was truly wrong. If it offended Him as bad as the church said it did, to please take it from me. But He didn’t and that’s what I told my family. They circled around me and hugged me at the dinner table that night as I cried. It had to be real then– not only did my family shroud me in support that night, but that was the first time my stepbrother and my dad shared any intimate connection. My mom had divorced Hunter’s dad before I was born, and Hunter had always harbored enmity toward my father. They’d fought my whole life, but in this moment, they came together to tell me I was loved, just as I am. Still, sitting in the pew that Sunday as the guest preacher inadvertently told me my existence offended God Almighty, a phantom of doubt whispered into my mind. Not about my favor in God’s eyes so much as whether I was really welcome among other Christians. My parents didn’t bring it up on the way home. I thought about it all week.

***

Jessica and I had been at a party for two hours in Melbourne and I wanted to leave. She and I had gone shopping and I’d left my car at her apartment. I had gone to parties before where I didn’t know anyone, but usually I was outgoing enough to where it wasn’t a problem. This one was different – located in a strange neighborhood near the Eau Gallie cemetery. The nearest streetlight was over a block away and the house was only visible by its pale yellow windows glowing through a tangle of live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmettos. Jessica introduced me to a few people, then joined some others to do shots in the kitchen. A couple of the people here looked like they were in their late forties. A lot of them wore black clothes, chains, and hats cocked to the side. Everyone was smoking and drinking. I held a Bud Light and stood in a corner. The most normal person I met was a high school senior named Zack from West Melbourne. When I told him I was studying sociology at BCC, he told me about his aspirations to study electrical engineering at FIT when he graduated high school. He’d applied to both the Bill Gates and the Ron Brown scholarships and had his fingers crossed. It was a nice conversation, but when he left to get another beer, I didn’t see him again until a chorus of laughter and shouting roared from the bathroom. I followed the crowd toward the noise to see Jessica in the bathroom puking her guts out into the toilet.

“Get the fuck outta here, people. Y’all’s pathetic,” Zack said, lifting her to her feet and walking her into the hallway.

“Jessica!” I tried to look her in the eyes but her head rolled around.

“You know her?” Zack asked.

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend,” I said.

“Well, looks like someone spiked her shit, let’s get her outside,” the two of us drug her through the throngs of people and out onto the sidewalk where she proceeded to empty the rest of her stomach contents into the street. Zack stood on the sidewalk, eyes scanning the road while I held Jessica’s hair back.

“You guys got a way home? I ain’t drank much tonight.” Zack offered.

“Thank you,” I said, “I can get her home.” I fished her keys out of her purse, then Zack walked us back to her car. I thanked him and sped out of the neighborhood. Jessica’s head rolled on her neck and she smiled while occasionally mumbling gibberish. I’d told my mom I was spending the night with her, so she wasn’t expecting me until morning. When I got Jessica up to her apartment, I undressed her, helped her shower, than laid her in her bed and placed a wastebasket on the floor. I climbed into bed and held her. Her skin was fever hot.

The next morning, I ran to the store to get her a PowerAde and some Advil. We sat in her kitchen and she told me she’d chased Xanax with three shots of Jack Daniels last night.

“Seriously, Jessica? You could’ve died,” I said. She glanced up at me with bloodshot eyes, supporting her forehead with her right hand. I called my mom and told her I was studying at the college and wouldn’t be home until late.

Jessica spent the day in her bed. I brought her water and whatever food she could stomach. She started feeling better by late afternoon, so I put a movie in and climbed into bed with her. We held each other, sitting propped up against pillows.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said, “I get this way sometimes and just kinda lose control. It scares me, to be honest.”

“I’m scared too,” I said, “last night could’ve been bad.” I glanced at her right arm and saw two cuts scabbing over. Jessica looked up at me then pressed her head against my chest. I wanted to say something about the cuts, but I didn’t know what. Holding her against me, feeling her warmth, her breath in metronome with mine, I wanted to shield her from anything that could hurt her, but I couldn’t. I felt frightened and helpless.

“Come to church with me,” I said, “You can get away from this world, find people who can support you.”

“Shayla, I’m agnostic. That’s not going to change. Besides, you’re gay and I’m bi. That isn’t exactly a model Christian.”

“That doesn’t matter where I go,” I said, “the people there are family. They’ll accept you. We can help you with what you’re going through.”

Jessica sighed and pulled away from me, “Shayla, you may be safe there, but that’s still a religion that hates us for who we are. It’s not my scene and never will be.” She laid back against the pillows. The light streaming through her blinds dissipated and the blue of the TV flickered across the walls. Her hand slid out of mine.

“If it’s just the same to you, I’d rather we not go to parties like that anymore,” I said.

“Okay.” She laid her head across my stomach and I stroked her hair. My phone buzzed on the nightstand. My mom was calling. It was getting late and I hadn’t been home since yesterday afternoon. I told her I was studying in the library and lost track of time. It was ten p.m. when I kissed Jessica goodnight and left for Suntree. Something felt wrong as I drove the empty streets, like I had forgotten something behind at her house.

***

Pastor Freeman preached Saturday nights. He ran our young adult community group on Thursday night as well. Tonight, while these memories paraded through my mind, he spoke of what was happening in the world; the economy failing, the war in the Middle East that hadn’t let up since 9/11, victims of Katrina still homeless. All evidence of a broken world. I glanced to the man at the other end of the aisle. He wore a black shirt and dark blue jeans. The only part of him not covered in shadow was the white cast on his right arm. I felt rude sitting so far away from him, like he smelled bad or something. A searchlight lit up Pastor Freeman on the pulpit. He told us how there were examples of this broken world in our own communities, people our age addicted to drugs, dealing with mental issues, with depression, with anger, people contemplating suicide. Hope rose in my chest that maybe this was the reason I was here. That after he got done listing all these examples of suffering respective to my generation, he’d drop that ultimate answer I was missing for how to help Jessica. Instead, he said,

“What they all don’t know is what they need is JESUS.” I thought he would follow this up with something of more substance, but nothing came. He simply listed more examples of broken people, prescribing “Jesus” as the antidote for their brokenness. Words that mean nothing to anyone outside of the church. I shook my head. For the first time since I’d been coming here, I wondered if maybe the pastors who I loved, and maybe even these people I’d grown up around, were all just completely clueless. They believed in a God of easy answers.

***

I was leaving one of my night classes at BCC when I checked my phone and saw a text from Jessica, “Shayla, Im at a party but dont wanna be here. Please come get me.” It was forty five minutes ago and the address was somewhere off University Blvd at least fifteen minutes away. My heart started racing and I tried calling her. It went to voicemail. I texted her, “So sorry, just getting out of class. OMW I promise,” then jumped in my car and bolted down Post road toward US 1. I cursed at myself, I should’ve been checking my phone. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I caught almost every red light, stopping at Lake Washington, at Eau Gallie Blvd, Sarno. Finally, I crossed the New Haven intersection and entered an array of buildings in varying states of disrepair or neglect. I was rarely on this side of town, and this stretch of US 1 was completely foreign to me. I crossed the train tracks at the University intersection, trying to find the apartments she’d texted me but unable to make out building numbers on the poorly lit street. I passed a Quik Stop with at least fifty people hanging around outside cars in the parking lot. Clouds of cigarette smoke hovered over them like fog in the light of the sign. I was afraid to roll my window down. Finally, I found a set of single story apartments colored like a rotting tangerine peel in the single streetlight illuminating the entrance. I parked and tried to call Jessica again. Nothing but her voicemail. My heart thudded against my sternum, and I tentatively stepped out of my car. I walked toward an apartment with a porchlight on and voices emanating from behind the door. I knocked and a guy in a muscle shirt and tight cornrows opened the door, holding a bottle of beer.

“Wassup, girl?” He opened the door wider to let me in. Smoke trailed among jostling bodies inside.

“I’m looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. Is she here?”

“Tyrese – who’s at the door?” A Hispanic girl appeared behind the man, pink streaks running through her black hair and a rhinestone skull grinning from the front of her shirt. She looked me up and down and said,

“You lost, homegirl?”

“She’s cool, yo. We was just getting’ to know each other,” said Tyrese. The girl glared at him.

“Beat it, Tyrese,” she said. He wandered back into the throng. She turned back to me.

“I’m just looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. She texted me and wanted me to come get her.”

“Jessica, who?”

“Lopez. Please, I just want to get her and I’ll be out of here,”

“I don’t know a Jessica Lopez, I’m sorry,” she said. Laughter resounded amid the discordance of voices and music inside. I glimpsed two people snorting lines on a coffee table.

“She has to be here, she texted me this address,”

“Well, if she did, she’s gone now. My best advice to you’s to get going. Not tryin’ to be a bitch, but I can tell you don’t belong here.”

“Trust me, I don’t want to be here either, but my friend needs help. She texted me this address and –”

“I ain’t gonna tell you again, girl. You need to get goin’ now. This ain’t your scene and your girl ain’t here.” She locked eyes with me and shut the door in my face. I slammed my fists against the door and shouted to let me in, but nothing happened. I walked back to my car just as someone from the Quik Stop parking lot yelled,

“Hey, baby! Where you goin’?” My hands shook as I pulled my door open. I was sure they were talking to me and I resisted the urge to look back and see if they were approaching. I sped out of the parking lot. As I drove down University, a police car appeared in my rearview mirror and followed me until I crossed the railroad tracks back to US 1. My hands didn’t stop shaking until I reached Wickham Road.

***

One Thursday night, I was at Cold Stone Creamery in the Avenue Viera with Pastor Freeman, Brian, Justin, and a girl named Sarah from the young adult community group. I’d finally heard from Jessica after that night. She had apologized and said she got home and fell asleep. When I suggested we hang out and talk, she didn’t respond for six hours, then made another excuse. Sitting outside the white light of Cold Stone, I stared vacantly at the blue-green neon of Rave motion pictures across the brick road of the outdoor mall. Justin and Pastor Freeman debated the merits of denominational Christianity and I tuned them out. Brian touched my shoulder.

“You want to take a walk?” he said.

“Sure.” We excused ourselves and wandered into the circular plaza. Bronze statues of children riding alligators and other animals sat on top of rounded patches of green AstroTurf.

“What’s up?” he asked. He stopped and waited for me to make eye contact.

“Nothing, why?”

“You just seem distant tonight. I’ve kinda noticed you’re acting different.” We sat on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the plaza.

“Is everything cool with Jessica?” he asked.

I sighed. “I don’t know, Brian. I’m sorry. She’s going through some hard times right now, and I’m trying to help her.”

“Anything I can do?” Brian asked. I shook my head. I started to reach into my purse for my cigarettes, but stopped. I smoked socially at parties, but I’d started smoking more once Jessica and I were dating.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, Shayla. You know that,” said Brian.

“Thank you,” I touched his shoulder and smiled at him, “I really appreciate it. It’s something I’ve got to deal with though.” He hugged me around the shoulders. We sat on the fountain while the illuminated water splashed behind us. I wanted to tell Bryan everything, or even Pastor Freeman, but I still hoped Jessica would come to church with me and meet them. When she was ready, she could tell them herself what she was going through and I’d be holding her hand the entire time. We walked back to Justin and Pastor Freeman. They sat there, joking and laughing, as if all the world’s problems were solved. I wished I could share in their bliss.

***

The last time I saw Jessica, we were sitting on a concrete embankment of the abandoned marina in Melbourne, our feet dangling over unknown depths of the Indian River. The land sloped downward from US 1, and a five story building towered above us. Jessica said cops would sometimes hang out in the parking garage of the first story, but not in the early evening. To our left, overgrown grass surrounded the crumbled remains of the marina, which looked more like a city block in Baghdad. Jessica wanted to go to a party tonight, but I’d talked her out of it. A black zip up hoodie covered her arms. It was a cool night, but I wondered if she’d been cutting again. The wind tousled her curly strands of hair. I stroked them out of her face. I hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks and her texts had been shorter and hours apart.

“I missed you,” I said. I slipped my hand over hers.

“I missed you too,” she said, “I’ve been busy, you know, looking for another job and everything.”

“It’s cool, I’ve been busy too.” I stroked her hand gently. Something splashed in the water, some kind of night bird. She leaned into me, resting her head against my neck. The scent of her hairspray wafted into my nostrils like a warm, fuchsia cloud. I held her, but as I tried to pull her sleeve up to expose her arm, she pulled it away.

“I haven’t,” she said.

“I’m worried, that’s all.”

“I’m fine, Shayla. I’m taking my medication and sticking with it,” she said. I wanted to believe her, but she’d said this before. I asked Jessica one last time to come to church with me. I told her she was broken and she knew it.

“I know you’re scared, Jessica. You said so yourself.”

“Your church ain’t got nothing that can help me. Once I get a better job, I’ll be able to afford my meds.”

“Your meds aren’t the problem, Jessica. It’s the people you’re around. I can see it. It’s so painful to watch.”

“I’ll be okay,” she said. She walked away from me, to the edge of the embankment. The wind came across the water strong, and black waves splashed against the concrete.

“You texted me asking me to rescue you once.” I followed her to the edge. She looked out across the water. I waited for her to respond.

“I’m sorry I brought you into this, Shayla,” she finally said, “You’re a good person, you don’t deserve any of this. You need a less fucked up girl than me.”

“What are you saying?”

She chewed on her lower lip, eyes cast down toward the water. “You’re right. I am broken. I’m just going to disappoint you. I’m no good.”

I touched her hand, “Jessica, you are good. I love you more than I can put into words. I just want to help you.”

“You want me to come to that church,” she looked at me, “I’m telling you that’s never going to happen. I tried church once, before I knew I was bi. All anyone ever did there was make me feel bad for having sex, or drinking, or saying cuss words. It was all a bunch of uppity suburban white kids who’ve never had to suffer, but had all kinds of advice for people who have.” She took another step away from me. A two foot wake sprayed me as it broke against the concrete.

“I promise it’s different.”

She looked at me and shook her head. She didn’t believe me.

“Why do you want this so bad? Like, why do you care?”

“Jessica,” a tear rolled out of my eye, “I love you.” I stared into her eyes. She looked away. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her. I held her harder and tighter than I ever had that night, pressing her into my chest. I wanted to force feed how much I loved her right into her soul. Her hands wrapped around my body, and we held each other. Tears trickled down my cheek. Light shined through my closed eyelids, as if the sun was rising. I cracked my eyelids open to see white light illuminating us, like Pentecostal glowing. We must have shined bright enough to be seen all the way across the river. My fingers gripped into Jessica’s sweater, my heartbeat accelerated. I pictured us levitating, rising up above the destroyed shore into a blissful night. Then I opened my eyes wide and saw the source of the light – a pair of headlights from a parked police cruiser, idling in the building’s parking garage.

“We should go,” Jessica said. When we drove home that night, we said maybe two words to each other.

***

A day passed before I finally got tired of waiting and texted Jessica. She responded four hours later, said she was sorry, just busy and stressed out. I tried to call her and she didn’t answer. I sat on my bed feeling an empty ache in my chest. I texted her again, saying I wanted to see her. Minutes dragged by and I resisted the urge to keep texting her. There was so much I wanted to say and it multiplied with each second that went by. I went for a run through my neighborhood, trying to take my mind off things. When I returned, I checked my phone, still nothing.

At dinner with my parents, I was quiet. I kept checking my phone under the table. I wanted to get away from the table, maybe call Bryan or Justin. Maybe just drive around Viera. Anything but being here waiting.

“You okay, Shayla?” My mom said I stabbed at my rosemary chicken with my fork.

“Yeah, just not feeling good, that’s all,”

“We’ve just noticed you’re becoming more distant, lately. I tried to talk to you this afternoon, but you walked out the door to go run. We figured you had your earbuds in.” I looked up to see my parents staring at me.

“I’m sorry,” I glanced downward, “It’s just not something I want to get into.”

“You can always talk to us,” my dad said. “You know that.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I said, “I’ll be fine. I promise. It’s just something I’m going through.” I excused myself to my room then turned on my TV. I knew they knew something was up – I never withheld things from them. I don’t know why I thought this, but part of me was scared of how they’d react if I had told them Jessica cut herself and did drugs. I still sometimes felt I was pushing my luck dating girls, even though they accepted me. The first channel that came on was Fuse, parading rock videos that I normally watched with Jessica. My heart throbbed like an open wound. I wanted her here even more. I shut the TV off and paced, finally breaking and texting her again, telling her to please call me. I sat and waited. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed. I stared at my ceiling for an hour before my phone finally buzzed. Just a text, Going to sleep, call u tomorrow. She never did.

***

Pastor Freeman’s sermon ended. Brian, Justin, and the female singer resumed their positions for the closing song. The blue and violet lights panned across the cavernous ceiling.

It is well … The singer’s mezzo-soprano voice crescendoed with Bryan’s guitar and the increasing, bombastic beats of Justin’s drums. I wanted Jessica to hear this – for the words to wash over her and bring her to her knees. I knew it would. Tears climbed down the scaffolding of my eyes.

It is well … Fragments of us returned to me – late nights at Starbucks where we’d play “two truths, one lie” over coffee. Sleeping late into the morning together. Walking through the mall hand in hand after work. She’d spend too much time in Hot Topic looking through chrome studded collars and band shirts. I’d get her back at Macys, trying on colors of light blue and green.

It is well, with my soul … I wanted to believe these words. I wanted them to be about me, about her. I pictured her meeting Brian and Justin, going to movies with us, going to concerts, spending weekends away at beach retreats. I could see her at my side with them, wandering the Avenue Viera under the brilliant white lights, talking and laughing because we were at peace, we were all the same. Just twenty-somethings trying to find our purpose while the world collapsed around us.

It is well, it is well with my soul. The singer belted into the cavern of the sanctuary. Hands raised among the dark bodies, the atmosphere filled with rapture but I couldn’t handle it. I shoved past the man in my pew and left.

I walked out of the sanctuary, hands to my eyes. I stood on the edge of the pond in front of the church. In the middle was an island with a single cabbage palm. When I was young and we were building this church, my dad took me to that island in a small paddle boat a couple times. I withdrew the pack of cigarettes from my purse and lit one. My relationship with Jessica felt like a fleeting dream. I guess part of it was. The part where I could save her. The part where all I had to do was get her in the doors of my church and she’d stop hurting herself. Therein was the dream, and I didn’t want to wake up. That would mean letting her go.

Footsteps crunched on the grass behind me. I looked back to see the man with his arm in the cast approaching. He walked with a wide gait, like some kind of gunslinger, his left arm in a loose fist at his side. Backlit against the parking lot, he looked intimidating. I stayed put. He walked up, stood next to me and just stared at the water. After a few seconds of silence he said,

“Got a light?” Confused, I lit his cigarette for him. He took a drag with his left hand and just stood without saying a word. A night heron strutted through the marsh along the opposite shore. I waited for him to say something. A chorus of frogs resounded from hidden places.

“You were the guy in my row, right? By himself?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Sorry, normally I would’ve said ‘hi’ to you,”

“It’s cool,” he took a drag of his cigarette. A bullfrog snorted from within the brush. I used to think the noise was an alligator.

“It’s not cool,” I said, “It’s…never mind.” I shook my head and stared at the wakes in the water, “I’m not myself tonight, I shouldn’t even be here.”

“That might make two of us,” he said. His voice sounded like a growl, I wondered how long he’d been a smoker.

“I’ve been going to this church since I was a kid,” I told him, “I still come even though I’m a lesbian. Everyone says they’re cool with it, but I still feel I have to be that much stronger to be here.” I looked at the man. I didn’t know why I was suddenly opening up to him. I was able to make out blue in his irises despite the low light. Razor stubble coated his chin. He glanced at me, imploring me to continue.

“I have a friend,” I said, “Had a friend. She needs a place like this, a community of people that love each other and aren’t just destroying themselves with drugs and alcohol. But I wonder if I had been able to convince her to come, would she have even been welcomed here?”

“Weren’t you?” He said.

“I grew up here. Before people knew I was gay. It’s different when someone comes in from the outside.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. “Probably not a shred of my business,” he said, “but if you’ve had faith in this crowd your whole life, why’s it gone now?”

I wiped a tear out of my right eye, “The last time I saw her, we were talking about the stuff she deals with. I told her if she would just come with me, I could show her a world where she doesn’t have to turn to drugs and alcohol. I told her I’d be here every step of the way.”

“What’d she say?”

“She refused, said she’d never feel comfortable here. She said she didn’t understand why I would associate with them.”

“And?”

“I told her it wasn’t that way here. She wouldn’t believe me.” The man grunted and slowly nodded his head.

“Thing was, I didn’t have an answer for her. In most cases, she’s right. And when Pastor Freeman says things like, ‘the answer to everything you’re struggling with is ‘Jesus,’ I just wonder if everyone here really is clueless when it comes to stuff that actually matters.”

“Yeah, that was a bit oversimplified for my taste too,” The man said. A car passed by on Viera Blvd on the other side of the pond. “Ain’t talked to her since, eh?”

“She deleted her Myspace, changed her number, everything. I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore. She used to cut herself.” I dried another tear. I never cried in public, this was new to me. The man stood silent and still, but his presence was consoling.

“So, why are you out here?” I asked. He grunted and looked up from the water.

“I don’t know. I usually come here on Sunday morning and look for the exit right after the closing hymn. Kinda at a spiritual crisis point, I guess.”

“How so?” I asked. He shook his head and dragged on his cigarette. I thought he wasn’t going to answer.

“Just trying to do this Christian thing right, and for some reason I felt I needed to come tonight.” He took another drag of his cigarette and dug at the grass with his boot. “I used to do enforcement for a chapter of Hell’s Angels out in Tucson, Arizona. I’ll let you fill in the blanks there. But I ended up meeting someone, a girl. Not too different from you, I guess. Name was Samantha.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep, she was a good girl, came from a good home, active in church, you know.” He scratched at his short, dark hair.

“She did what you were trying to do for your friend, told me there was something more beautiful than I could imagine, and it wasn’t totally out of reach. I told her she was crazy, that if she knew half the horrible shit I’d done she’d eat those words. But being around her and her people, the difference between her life and mine was the difference between Heaven and Hell.”

“What happened with her?” I asked.

“Our worlds ended up crossing. Long story short, she got hurt. Some people tried to get back at me for something through her. Burned her house down, shot her folks. It was all my fault. At first I blamed God, but really I brought all that down on her.”

“That’s horrible.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“The night I left Arizona,” he exhaled a cloud of smoke, “I dedicated my life to Christ, said I’d walk away from all this. I didn’t know how he could forgive me, but I’d start by trying to do right. It was the least I could do for Samantha. I came to Florida for that new beginning, but I’m still doing so much of the same shit. I feel like I haven’t changed at all.”

“You came here hoping to start over,” I said.

“Yeah, well, like you said, if all the preacher’s got for us is overgeneralized non-answers, I’m starting to wonder if I’m looking in the wrong place too.”

I nudged a small rock with my foot. The man tossed his cigarette onto the ground and mashed it with his boot. The fountain in the pond sputtered to life, a light bulb glowed at the base of the jetting water. Windows glimmered from the neighborhood across Viera Blvd.

“I didn’t get your name,” I said.

“Gabriel. Friends call me Gabe.”

“I’m Shayla.” We stood and watched the tiny wakes in the water. Low grey clouds sailed toward us from the west, their undersides rust colored from the city’s light. Animals rustled in the palmettos behind us, probably an armadillo or feral cats.

“Everyone talks about forgiveness and unconditional love in these circles, but I wonder if they’d still be talking like that if I told anyone what I’ve actually done.”

“You don’t feel you can truly be yourself?”

“Most people’s compassion ends when the sins you confess are illegal.”

“It takes courage and strength. I know that much,” I said. A cool breeze blew from the west and the clouds towered over us like ghostly ships. I wondered if it was clouds like these Ezekiel saw when he had his vision in the Old Testament. I looked over at Gabriel, this person who came to church because he didn’t know where else to turn. I thought of how I almost let him walk into and out of this place alone. I was so caught up in my thoughts of Jessica, someone who didn’t even want the help she desperately needed, I couldn’t see this person right here in front of me. With his eyes fixed in a scowl, the rough texture of stubble across his face, his wide stance and the way he loosely cupped his good fist at his side, he was probably used to people avoiding him. That wouldn’t help him in trying to feel comfortable in a church community. If he was anything like Jessica, he’d return to the life he was used to, no matter how dangerous.

“Let’s give this place a chance, Gabe,” I said to him.

“Ain’t we already?”

“Let’s stick with it. Those people inside may have no idea what you’ve gone through, but maybe that’s a good thing,” I said.

“What do I do then?” he asked.

“Keep coming. You’ll make friends, friends you’ll be able to open up to one day,” I turned to face him, “In fact, you already have one.”

He looked at me and grinned with a corner of his mouth. Voices began to reach us from the sanctuary doors.

“Looks like we missed the service,” he said.

“I don’t think we missed anything,” I said. I touched his elbow. “See you next Saturday?”

“Sure thing.” We walked together toward the parking lot. Before we parted he stopped me.

“Just my two cents, but about your friend, you never know what kind of impact you did have on her. She may not have heard your words now, but that doesn’t mean she won’t hear them later down the road when they make more sense.”

“Thanks Gabe,” I said, “I guess that’s something to hold onto.” The armada of clouds overhead passed on across the sky, revealing a few stars amidst an indigo canvas. I gave Gabe a hug, then walked back to my elantra. My headlights lit up the palmetto underbrush and pines at the edge of the parking lot. It looked like a deep, endless forest, but I knew just a few feet into the brush, a mud pit sat where another building for the church would have been completed this year before the money ran out. I thought of Jessica and how she chose to wander the dark and desolate places of the city because in her mind, sanctuary in the church didn’t exist. I had done all I could do for her, though, and there were others like Gabriel who actually made the step she refused to make. A fresh bolt of sadness panged my heart – I knew I’d never see her again. I would go to sleep tonight, and when I awoke she would be a memory, at least to me.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Brian texted me, we’re all going to Cold Stone at the Avenue. U coming? I put my car in reverse and left the parking lot, driving west toward the white light of the Avenue Viera. Shadows stretched for miles in every direction.

 

 

BIO

Josh Dull is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a fiction author with an emphasis on place and social issues. He completed his Bachelor’s degree with Honors in the Major from the University of Central Florida and his work appears in The 34th Parallel, The Drunken Odyssey, Funny in Five Hundred, and Central American Literary Review. He has also been featured in a spoken word series called There Will Be Words. When he isn’t at his computer writing and revising, he enjoys traveling to lonely places to hear forgotten voices. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

 

 

0

Safe Haven: A Romantic Comedy in Eleven Unequal Parts

by Brian Conlon

 

 

 

Part I: What Men Talk About

 

“Sometimes I think life is too difficult, and other times I think thinking life is too difficult is an awful thing to think,” James said to Horant.

“Would it make you feel any better if I were to tell you that currently, as we speak, you are living on a day and time that is easier to live on than 99% of all other days and times humans have lived on, and that you live in a country that is easier to live in than 99% of countries on Earth, and that you live in a city that is easier to live in than 99% of cities in this country, and that you, you personally, have it easier than 99% of people living in this city at this time. And none of these numbers include the people who are already dead and presumably have it much tougher than the rest of us. Would that make you feel better?” asked Horant.

“No, that makes me feel worse. Much, much worse.”

“Then maybe I ought not tell you all that then.”

“It’s too late now, I should think.”

“I could tell you I made it all up.”

“You could. Did you?”

“Yes, of course. Where would those statistics even come from? Think.”

“Well, that makes me feel much better.”

“Terrific.”

“Do you feel better now?”

“Better than what?”

“Than before we started talking?”

“No, I feel the same. I felt best in that moment in which you believed all that nonsense about you being happier than everyone else.”

“And worse since?”

“I could not feel best then, if I didn’t feel worse now.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. None of us can feel best all the time, no matter the era.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Why? Why would you suppose that?”

“No, I guess you’re probably wrong. Someone must have felt best all the time in some era.”

“Why?”

“Math.”

“This is now the time I feel best.”

***

James had a theory that every living sentient thing had the same last thought, namely, “But I just got here.” This theory could, as with everything important about death, be in no way tested. But there is something to be said for a unifying theory of sentient beings, no matter how untestable.

His theory, which some might think to be a call to action, had a paralyzing effect on him. It caused him to stop and reconsider, to overthink whether this or that action was really worth the precious time he had remaining (fifty to sixty years give or take), and by the time he finally decided to act or not act, often times the decision was already made for him.

“Crippling depression is a phrase tossed around far more often than it should be,” James told Horant, describing some of his deeper moments of self-doubt. “It somehow marginalizes both what it means to be crippled and what it means to be depressed.”

“Uh-hah,” said Horant staring at the flat screen TV in front of him. The Network had an attractive blonde anchor in one corner of the screen and the following displayed in some fashion over the rest of it: a ticker of the stock market; the latest baseball scores; an hours, minutes, and seconds countdown to Christmas Day; the “shape of the day” flashing in the bottom left corner (pyramid); an animated kitten pawing at an on/off button in the other corner; and a sack of potatoes, only half-filled, meant to measure the extent of the latest famine in Africa. None of this was particularly distracting except for the attractive blonde. She winked at Horant it seemed. “Understandable,” thought Horant, who was of the belief that his Nordic heritage entitled him to some indiscernible and unidentifiable power over the opposite sex. “I have blue eyes, blonde hair, I’m tall, lean, not especially ugly, how can they resist?” His suspicions were sometimes verified, sometimes not, but it was all he really believed in, and so to stop believing it just because it may not be true was not an option.

“Not that it means all that much to be crippled or depressed; it’s just another way of saying, ‘something is wrong with me.’ No, no, I know that’s insensitive, but that’s what it is, is it not that?” James asked.

“It’s that, but more than that. It says there is something in particular wrong with you or at least that there is some way in which you are abnormal.”

“Well, yes, but this is not really the point. What I want to say is that I’m not depressed or crippled or crippled with depression, I just think sometimes, and that can get out of hand, you know?”

“I think I know what you mean when you say those words, but I can’t sympathize with what I take them to mean,” said Horant, vacantly staring at the TV.

James hung out with Horant only, or at least initially only, because he took him to be a type of genius. James may have mistaken Horant’s particular way of appearing overtly analytical and diffident with genius. This mistake, whether real or imagined, led to what some might call a friendship.

“Maybe so, maybe so,” said James and then thought about what Horant had just said without speaking for the next minute or two, occasionally glancing up at the totally blank screen behind Horant. The TV was broken, had been for several months, but the owner of Go Ahead and Order That Diner, Janet Hoops, did not want to fork over the money to fix it at the moment, her cat being on its ninth life and fading fast. The money she had poured into that poor cat’s hips alone could have paid for several new TVs and the 3-D goggles one might have to wear to view them.

James gave up on figuring out what Horant meant and continued talking, “The moment when you concede that the moment has already passed, that’s the moment I’m interested in thinking about. But once I start thinking about it, it’s gone and that hurts somehow more than the fact that there was such a moment in the first place and I spent it thinking about whether the previous moment was real, well-spent, correctable, or the greatest moment of my life. One moment will have to be the greatest of my life. It’s simple logic, and it might have already occurred, and I might have missed it, and I might never know when it was, or why it was so great until some professor a thousand years from now figures out a way to use analytics to measure each moment of our existence and calculate by some way or another which particular one was the greatest in terms of happiness-expectancy or some analogous important criteria. This is what bothers me sometimes, Horant.”

“I perceive that what you just said means a great deal to you, but I have no idea why that would be.”

 

Part II: How People Meet

 

Horant had devised a double date. The blonde woman from the TV had been sending him emails. At first, neither he nor his spam filter could really believe it. They each thought, independently, that The Network had devised a clever way to advertise by sending automated messages to their viewers couched in familiar language and purportedly authored by Haven Hootenanny, The Network’s most popular female anchor. She was likely The Network’s most popular anchor of any gender, but former football star Cleat Tersestatement still had his champions, even if he himself had failed to win any championships. The Network announcer always referred to Cleat as “well-loved” before announcing his name, as if Cleat were the nation’s brutish but well-meaning cousin. The Network had toyed with the idea of having Cleat and Haven host a show together, but The Coordinator wrung his hands and asked those who suggested it, “If you had two eggs, among a bunch of black rocks that no one could ever conceive of as eggs, would you place them beside each other?” No one at the meeting knew what to say, but guessed that this meant that The Coordinator was not on board, and that settled that.

Haven had seen Horant. She had seen him on the distracting scroll of viewers set up next to the teleprompter during her broadcasts. The Coordinator had come up with the idea, which cost The Network millions of dollars in incredibly invasive technology to execute. While you were watching The Network, The Network was watching you, or, rather, The Network anchors were watching a still image of you. The point was something like, “know your audience,” or “advertisers like pictures,” or, “look how ugly everyone else is, doesn’t that make you feel better, on-air talent!” The Coordinator was pleased with how ugly everyone indeed turned out to be. Haven was less so.

Prior to the inception of the Instant Viewer Viewer (IVV), Haven had imagined that she was broadcasting to the elite of America, 90% of whom, she suspected, were beautiful people she did not get to see in her everyday routine because they were too rich and beautiful to leave their respective mansions, but neither too rich nor too beautiful to get their news directly from her. Her first show with the IVV opened her eyes to how ugly people truly were. She swooned on air and The Network was forced to cut away to footage of cats and dogs sleeping next to each other. Ratings were unaffected. Haven was affected. It took her weeks to come to grips with the true nature of her viewers. She cried herself to sleep at the images of their crooked teeth, their lazy eyes, their ill-defined chins and cheeks, their baldness, their broken noses, their splotchy acne, their neon make-up, their increasingly stupid mouths. They scarred her; they made her reconsider her livelihood, her religion, her species. She thanked God every night that the IVV only showed faces. She vowed that if ever she saw a face she thought objectively attractive, she would reach out to that person, personally, and thank them, at least thank them.

Her first email read:

Dear Horant,

            I am Haven Hootenanny, an anchor for The Network :). I want to personally thank you for watching my show. Without viewers like you, it would all be less than worthwhile ;). I might be driving off a cliff instead of writing this email even :)! Can you imagine? Just driving my giant SUV off a cliff? Best in class safety rating and all, just right off a cliff :). Gravity doesn’t care about safety ratings. We did a show on that, remember? You watched it ;’-). Thanks!! We really like you here at The Network. Really like you!! Please keep watching ;)!!

            -Haven

Horant thought this was a pretty wacky automated email and searched the internet high and low for anyone who had experienced the same. He found nothing and alerted his email account to send any further messages from hhootenanny@thenetwork.com to his main folder. He did not, however, respond, because if it was really her, a response to her initial email would basically ruin the vibe, and if it wasn’t her, a response would just be embarrassing.

Her second email read:

Dearest Horant,

You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! You’re still watching! Thanks so much! :):):)

We have a rule of threes here at The Network. If something works, do it three times at least! We’re so happy you continue to watch. Look, I’m happy you watch! I can’t stop thinking about your face. It’s not bad, really ;). Your nose could be cuter. Don’t get me wrong, your nose could certainly be cuter.

If we spoke on the phone, I have the sense you would speak in clipped abstract sentences. I can’t imagine what you would mean by them :)! Would you mean something by them, Horant ;)? Please say you would. Would you? Don’t say. I can’t bear it. I still have the cliff in my GPS! LOL! Don’t worry, I’m all talk, until I’m not! 😉

Keep watching Horant! Please keep watching!

-Haven

Horant responded:

Dear Haven,

I’ll keep watching.

-Horant

Haven did not respond for weeks, but her spirits were lifted every time Horant’s face would appear on the IVV. She had a bottle of wine one night and wrote her third email.

Horant, Dear,

This is the third email, you know what that means ;)! I am being compliant with The Network’s policy! Aren’t you glad for my compliance! You still watch at least! You still watch! And you write lovely emails, my dear, Horant, just lovely. You might be a poet. You might be an astronaut. There’d be no way for me to know.

Let’s meet! No, wait, I mean, keep watching please :). Just keep watching. One day I may stop being on The Network. Can you imagine such a day? We simply won’t see each other that day. All other days will curl up beside that day and console it for its great loss ‘;). Tomorrow is not that day, nor the next day. I have a contract :)! I have a lawyer ;)! The memory on my GPS is finite. I forget where the cliff is. Each time I see you the cliff fades further and further into obscurity.

Thanks for that! Thanks for your face! Your nose, meh, but thanks anyway ;).

Lovely thoughts of impossible versions of me,

Haven

Horant did not respond immediately, although he planned to. Instead, he saw Haven in real life at Carzone’s Frozen Goods, a store which sold, as you might imagine, frozen things, and was kept, as you might not imagine, entirely at a crisp 20 degrees Fahrenheit year round. On especially hot summer days it was particularly crowded with idlers who would spend half an hour sorting through the pea section, which really only contained three items, all of which were the same brand of peas in various sizes. Some not insignificant number of idlers became temporarily ill and sued Carzone, as the complaint read, “for the cost of all that Mucinex.” Carzone’s attorney arranged a meeting between the parties in a park on a scorching August afternoon. The plaintiffs ended up settling for the opportunity to step back inside Carzone’s Frozen Goods and a $1-off-any-non-cone-ice-cream-novelties-12-pack coupon.

It was a warm summer day when Horant observed Haven holding a bag of frozen blueberries to her face.

“Haven?” he asked.

“Does make-up freeze? If so, at what temperature?” she turned and asked a clerk who was trying to stack frozen corn cobs with mittens on.

“We have some frozen make-up Miss. We have some, so it must,” he fumbled with the corn, which was luckily wrapped in plastic. The corn rolled across the floor past Haven, who simply nodded and placed her blueberries back in the pile.

“Haven?” Horant almost shouted as he picked up the loose corn cob and handed it to the clerk.

“Oh, of course I’ll sign. Do you have a pen? Mine might freeze and it’s very important it not, so I keep it capped. You see we anchors have real problems too,” said Haven without looking up.

“Is the cap thermal?” asked Horant.

“What are you saying? I don’t understand what you’re saying. Please, just get a pen.”

By this time the clerk had snatched the corn cob out of Horant’s hand and proceeded to attempt to add it to the already perilous heap. It, of course, all collapsed, and the rolling cobs swept the clerk off his feet and onto the glazed floor, and would have done the same for Haven had Horant not stepped in and stabilized her by grabbing her right arm.

Haven finally looked up and saw that face. It was the face which she had not been disgusted by all these past few months, the face which she sometimes credited for calming her nightmares and other times thought would be much better if someone simply replaced part of its nose. She nearly swooned, but it was too cold to swoon, so she shook.

“Horant? My dear sweet Horant,” she said.

“Yes, or, yes, that’s me,” he said, holding onto her arm even though she was now in no danger of slipping.

“Let go of my arm so I can hug you,” she said smiling, her teeth still chattering a bit. She held onto him tightly just for an instant and then let go.

“Well, what now?” he asked.

“Up to you really. Will you keep watching?”

“You mean on TV?”

“Yes, of course, will you keep watching now that you’ve seen me in all my frozen-blueberry glory? Will you?”

“I don’t see why I wouldn’t.”

“I don’t either, but you might not. I don’t understand viewers, or men, or plasma. I don’t know what plasma is. It’s like liquid, but not, right? That’s the sense I get.”

“I think you’re not far off. We should get out of here and discuss it, perhaps over a liquid.”

“It’s too cold after a while. God love Carzone, I don’t know how he does it. We ran a report once on him. You should have seen the coats. Closets and closets full. Full closets full.”

They walked out onto the street, both forgetting to purchase anything.

“I have an idea,” said Haven. “There’s this woman who works at The Network, she brings the bagels in some days. I’m not sure what she does the days we don’t have bagels, but I can ask. Anyway, she’s real sweet and lonely. Just bowls of sweet and lonely I think. Men think she’s alright, she’s shy, but men think she’s alright, I can tell that at least about men. I know when they think one of us is alright. Like you think I’m alright, don’t you?”

“I do think that, yes.”

“So this woman, she, we could double-date, her and I. She seems perfectly compatible for someone I’m sure. Someone who doesn’t really watch me probably, someone who thinks TV is somehow worse than alcohol. You know what I mean?”

“I don’t understand precisely the combination of words you are saying, but the sentiment is clear enough. I have a friend. He should be perfect. He thinks too much and rarely to his benefit.”

“Right, that’s what I mean. Horant, really, we, the two of us, really!”

“Really!” said Horant, not quite sure himself whether he meant this as a sarcastic pantomime or an enthusiastic affirmation of their newfound admiration.

 

 

Part III: How People Who Meet Convince Other People to Meet

 

“We have a date,” said Haven.

“Are you talking to me?” asked the girl who brought the bagels. Her name was Florence Gutner, her college friends called her FloGut for one particularly strong and uncharacteristic impromptu freestyle rap she made after shotgunning a beer freshman year. She had not rapped or shotgunned since and no one at The Network called her FloGut. She actually had no gut to speak of. She wore glasses and usually tied her dark hair back in a tight bun. She had sensitive brown eyes and had once thought they might be her downfall. She had since come up with other things about herself to dislike more than the fact that her eyes would not allow her to wear contacts. For instance, she thought her eyebrows were too thick, but was afraid that waxing them would make her a superficial person. She was also not thrilled with the fact that after having graduated near the top of her class at the best university in the region, the only job she could find in the entertainment industry was Assistant Food Assistant for The Network. She had ideas, she had a sense of humor, but she thought she had no way to export them, and, accordingly, spoke very little at The Network.

“Yes, yes, of course I am, of course I am,” said Haven.

“Okay,” said Florence.

“So it’s settled then. I’m sorry, are you seeing anyone?”

“What? Ms. Hootenanny I’m very flattered, really. But I just don’t, I mean,” said Florence, who was in fact not seeing anyone and had not really seen anyone since her junior year. The one she saw at that time was Hector Uden, an aspiring paleontologist with a round face and short arms. There was a running, not terribly kind, joke in the department that Hector chose his major somehow based exclusively on his sympathy for like-armed creatures. Hector once confided in Florence that this joke really bothered him, mostly because he was not completely certain it was untrue. To console him, she wrapped her arms around him and he was almost able to wrap his arms around her. Haven’s question brought all this and more to the fore of Florence’s mind as she rubbed her eyebrows, and then stretched her arms high above her head.

“No, we will go on a double date. You and I, with two men. One is Horant. He will be my date, and the other will be someone he knows.”

“I’m sorry. Was there something wrong with the bagels?” asked Florence, moving her arms back down.

“No, look I know how it is. I’m single too you know. It’s tough out there. There’s so many . . . but this Horant, he’s alright and I’m sure his friend . . . don’t you want to get out and meet people, ah . . .”

“Florence, I’m Florence.”

“Yeah, Florence, you and I we, this could be good for both of us really. I thought of you specifically. You’re always looking so nice, the bagels are always here as expected. I mean we girls we have to look out for each other you know. It’s tough,” said Haven.

“Well, I suppose . . . and you don’t know the other guy? What does Horant do?”

“He watches The Network at least. I guess I don’t really know. But his friend, he doesn’t watch much I don’t think. He said he thinks sometimes.”

“Well that’s a start.”

“I mean, I have to . . . Why am I selling you on this? I’m on-air talent, you deliver bagels. Say yes in the next ten seconds or don’t. I mean it’ll be fun anyway. Worst case the guy is a troll and you get a nice dinner out of it. I mean worst case he’s a troll, absolute worst case.”

“Sure, alright,” said Florence, grabbing a pencil out of her hair. “What are the details?”

“I don’t know. No one does, but someone will tell you. Maybe me,” she handed Florence her card and walked away from the snack table.

Florence thought to herself that this was something at least. After a number of days of nothing, this was at least something.

***

            “We have a date,” said Horant to James as he entered Go Ahead and Order That Diner.

“Are you talking to me?” asked James.

“Yes of course. Who else in here would I have a date with?”

“This is getting, you know Horant, I think the world of you, but to just announce. . . .” He paused and then said, “Presumptuous for one thing.”

“I don’t even understand what you think I could be talking about,” said Horant. The waitress approached and asked if James and Horant wouldn’t mind tasting the apple pudding the chef just threw together. “It’s an experiment,” she said. Horant and James looked at each other simultaneously and shrugged their shoulders. This was not quite as unusual as it might seem, as Horant and James frequented Go Ahead and Order That Diner and were often asked to taste-test the chef’s new concoctions.

They had never met the chef. Horant asked to once after an inspired rum-soaked cherry cobbler, but was told that the chef could receive compliments indirectly. “He prefers it that way in fact,” said their waitress at the time, who had since left for another waitress job closer to her mother’s house. In a subsequent job application, that waitress listed her reason for leaving Go Ahead and Order That Diner as, “womb proximity.” She did not get that job.

“Apple pudding, hmm,” said James, almost forgetting the date conversation.

“Truly, what did you think I meant just then?” asked Horant.

“When?”

“When I first walked in and told you about our date.”

“I, of course, knew you were joking. But it wasn’t funny. I haven’t found that type of joke funny . . . I can’t even remember.”

“No joke. I mean, we have a date. You and I,” said Horant.

“You paying?”

“Half.”

“That’s no date then. What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

“An entitled priss of a girl, with entirely too much chest hair.”

“Why I never!” said James, trying to gesture as he imagined a woman who wanted to feign outrage would. It came off somehow as a half jerk of his neck to the left. He grabbed at his neck after. He thought he pulled something.

“Enough, whatever, you idiot, I mean we have a double date. I met,” he pointed up at Haven on the flat screen they were facing at the counter. An animated penguin flew in over the top of her face and landed at the bottom of the screen. It proceeded to shiver and put on layer after layer of winter clothes, until its beak was all that was visible. Then another penguin swooped in just to the left of the first penguin and began undressing it methodically, layer after layer. Haven read, “After this cold snap, it’s supposed to warm back up.” When all the layers were removed, it was revealed that the first penguin was now a toucan and the second penguin looked on in astonishment as it flew indiscriminately through the newscast until the next commercial break.

“A flying penguin?” asked James.

“No, her, Haven, the newswoman.”

James sat in silence looking at the screen and pondering what all this could possibly mean. Obviously, if the newswoman were one of the women on this double date, Horant must be claiming her for his own. On the other hand, why would Horant point her out to him unless he meant to set him up with her? There are many less lovely blonde women off-screen than on it, he thought suddenly, and wondered if she might look entirely different in person. Not that she’d have thinner hair and more defined crow’s feet, but that she’d actually be a stout brunette with crater-sized pock marks. Maybe she looked like that one friend of his mother who constantly called him charming when he was a kid. It unnerved him, the thought of dating the friend of his mother. What would people think? Was she even still alive? How do we lose touch with our childhood so easily?

“Yes, she is beautiful. It is not polite to stare, but go ahead if you want,” said Horant.

The waitress brought the pudding over and both men started to shovel it in.

“They can do almost anything with digital effects nowadays,” said James, his tongue wading through the pudding to make contact with the roof of his mouth to enunciate the words.

“This is not how you’re going to talk on our date, is it? All slober and ill-defined syllables, like a giant puffball,” said Horant, after he’d swallowed a big gulp of pudding himself.

“I’m unclear. I still don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? You and I are going out on a double date with Haven and her friend.”

“Oh, and so, so you and the newswoman, and me and her friend,” James managed to get out through his last spoonful of pudding.

“There we go. He’s catching on everyone, he’s catching on,” said Horant, as if to a whole bunch of people. Only James was listening.

“Okay, okay, so what’s she like?” asked James.

“She, well you can see, she’s blonde, even more so in-person somehow, and strange. She sent me these emails. I don’t know what to make of them.”

“The friend sent you emails too?”

“God, I don’t know anything about the friend, okay? Not a thing. Man, for someone who thinks so much, you certainly miss a whole lot. I’m talking about Haven.”

“I, well, you don’t know anything about my side of things?”

“No, I mean, I think she mentioned something about bagels. She brings bagels, I think and she’s introverted maybe.”

“A wealth of information,” said James. Two distinct images flooded his mind. One of a beautiful actress with long flowing hair tied up in a tight bun, only for the time-being, she bit pencils, she wore tight skirts, she paged through books; it was unclear whether she read them. The second was of a thick Eastern European woman stirring boiled bagels in a huge vat, her makeup running, her muscular arms straining to dip the strainer through the water and take the bagels out to dry, her long apron stained with sweat, cream cheese, and poppy seeds, her chest heaving, coughing, the flies circling around the tight bun her hair was perpetually tied into.

“Well, so, worst case, she’s an imp, and I’ll let you stare at Haven for as long as you want, absolute worst case.”

“Imp? I don’t even know what you mean by that, but okay fine, anything for Horant.” At that moment the two women he pictured in his mind merged together and smiled at him. He smiled back, but since they were simply in his mind, this smile was directed at the flat screen and at Haven in particular, who was just then directing her audience’s attention to a picture of a giant turkey leg and the headline, “Boundaries in Synthetic Food?”

“You’re smiling like a loon,” said Horant.

“A . . . right, no, they were all one, but I’ve made this decision rashly.”

“You won’t regret it and if you do I’ll pay for whatever it is you think you otherwise would have done that night.”

“When is it anyway? What are we doing?”

“No one knows, maybe I will,” said Horant.

 

 

Part IV: How Plans Are Made

 

“To stumble out onto the street, hand in hand,” is what Haven told Horant she wanted to do on their date.

“I can arrange that, but it would be clumsy with the four of us. Structure to get to that point is, you know, common,” said Horant, considering whether he should make eyes at the phone he was speaking into. He thought this would take too much work, for his phone was beside his head and his eyes generally faced front. He ended up not making any expression at all.

“I am not interested in what is common. I know what is common. We are uncommon, you and I,” said Haven, sitting on her bed, attempting to unstrap her high heels with one hand.

“I, well, okay, sure. But I can’t tell James, you know, we’re going to stumble out onto the street Friday night. You, me, Haven, and this other person. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. She is uncommon too. She is,” said Haven.

“Sure.”

“Well, we must all eat from time to time,” said Haven, unstrapping the second shoe, placing both her legs on the bed, and stretching her feet in every possible direction.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Alright dinner, let’s do that. People do that,” said Horant, struck all of a sudden by the fact that he was seeking to be conventional.

“We will eat on Friday, the four of us. I think that would be nice. But you must promise me that you and I, we will also stumble out onto the street together hand in hand,” said Haven.

“I do,” said Horant.

“Well, that’s nice. That’ll be nice. Yes, how nice that’s going to be,” said Haven.

 

 

Part V: How and Why People Get Ready

 

Florence sat in front of her mirror for a while. It was a couple hours before she was to meet Haven, and two other guys. She was not looking into it, but she had a superstition, or maybe an illogical suspicion, that sitting in front of a mirror somehow let her think about herself more clearly. She thought the following:

Was she the type of girl who went on blind double dates with a colleague, no, not colleague, superior, no, not that either, on-air personality, was she the type of person (let’s set gender aside), was she the type of person who went on blind double dates with an on-air personality in order to advance her career? Was this what she was doing? How could Haven advance her career? Was she the type of person who thought a person like Haven could advance her career? Was she the type of person to delude herself into thinking that she was going on a double date with an on-air personality to advance her career, when she was in fact going in order to meet her soulmate? Was she the type of person who believed in soulmates, and even if she did, was she the type of person to use “soulmate” to describe what it was she believed in? It was all too pretentious for a real person. She was, if nothing else, a real person, her mother always told her. Do real people associate with the Havens of the world? Was it wrong to think of Haven as somehow not real? Can beauty make a person unreal? Too real? Was she the type of woman (gender is necessary for this one) who finds another woman so beautiful that she could consider her to be fake? Is fake the same thing as not real? Why do men seem to like fake women so much? Why do men like women so much? Why would any man like her? Some have, but she still didn’t know why. She wanted to ask. They all said she was beautiful, smart, charming, her cheekbones, there was something about her cheekbones one guy said. What is one to do about one’s cheekbones? Say you have just the worst cheekbones, what is one to do? File them? Do they have a file for that? She looked into the mirror, they’re just fine, she should be thankful; a certain type of cheekbone could make one unlovable. Why? A beautiful murderer will always be loved, but a woman with wonky cheekbones is shit out of luck. This seems wrong. But this was not her fight after all, her cheekbones were to her advantage. She had a competitive cheekbone advantage and she was just going to throw it away, because she didn’t find that particular advantage just? A’s! All she got was A’s! Where had this advantage gotten her? The cheekbones at least, that’s . . . would she have gotten this date without them? And could he be her soulmate? And could it be her big break? Are there big breaks? Did she want one? What would she do with one? Of the people who get big breaks, what percentage have highly desirable cheekbones? 90%? 95%? Or her GPA converted into a percentage: 98.5%? It’s not fair. It’s not fair, after all, just generally, but tonight she had a double date with Haven, the unreal beauty, and two men, one of whom was meant exclusively for her, and he might be nice, he might be charming, he might be intelligent, he might be an ogre. Was she the type of woman to turn tail and run at the sight of a nice, charming, intelligent ogre? She was, yes. Should she wear heels? Is that sending the wrong message? Does she run well enough in heels to outrun an ogre? Is he tall? If not, will he feel diminished by her height in heels? If he is tall, will he feel oafish if she shows up in flats? Will he notice her shoes? Does she have shoes she’d like him to notice? Why do people care about shoes? Do men care about shoes? In the history of the world, how often has a man made a decision on a date based on his date’s shoes? Seven? She could tie a couple of eggplants to her feet and wobble over and if her cheekbones were high enough, if certain parts of her were sufficiently round and others were sufficiently not round, he’d stand beside her and keep her balanced all night. He’d compliment her on her bold choice. “Is that a new core exercise,” he might say, “it’s really working!” And then he’d lick his lips unconsciously, profess his love for Italian food, and pet her hair if she let him. Was she the type of person to let someone pet her hair on the first date, just because she happened to wear a couple of eggplants for sandals and have an amazing body and cheekbones so high her eyes got nervous? Was she that type of person? No, but, no worries. She had a date tonight, and who knows? He might be nice.

***

            James was not sure if the way he wore his hair had any effect on how people thought of him. He suspected it either meant everything or nothing. He knew he was likely mistaken on both accounts, but that did not stop him from thinking one of them must be true and, consequently, spending the last few minutes before the date, tossing his hair back and forth across his forehead. Touching the thinning strands, which if left alone would simply protrude straight out from the front of his skull and highlight that the hair at his temples had receded so far that it might actually be growing inward and obscuring his thoughts, James considered that when he was a boy he lamented his uncontrollable mop. Baseball caps would never quite fit the way they would real ballplayers. To have all that hair just sticking out in every direction from under his hat frustrated him and no matter how he brushed it back or piled it altogether in a clump under his hat, it would spring up in this odd place and that, making it impossible for him to look like a real ballplayer. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, he would agree never to wear a hat again if only someone were to guarantee that he would be able to maintain his current hairline for five years. No such deal was on offer. He had decided that tossing his hair slightly to the right was his best bet.

He smiled into the mirror and was horrified that smiling made his face crack as if it were a windshield struck with one of many foul balls he hit as a little leaguer. “Straighten it out,” he once told a group of twelve-year-old contemporaries, was the story of his life. One such contemporary, a third-baseman who stopped every ball but never with his glove, said, “I bet,” and everyone laughed slightly harder at that than James’s original statement. It was then that James learned the limits of self-deprecation. He laughed along with the rest, but he carried the insinuation with him for weeks until the same third baseman made the same joke about the first baseman — who already had a mustache and a shapely thirteen-year-old girlfriend.

“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he mouthed into the mirror, vaguely remembering everything all at once, and therefore nothing in particular. In point of fact, he repulsed himself to such an extent that his legitimate smile, earned by thinking of the possibilities this date might have in store for him, immediately vanished upon the vision of his own face. A funhouse mirror could not have been more frightening. The distortion would be comforting. It would remind him that no, in fact he did not look like that, he looked somehow better, less absurd, only two eyes, that type of thing. However, as it was, this was him, an honest reflection, and it would not have been so bad if it had been someone else. He would not have given himself a second look if he had seen himself on the street, just another average guy, but the fact that it was him, and that thing in the mirror was all that he was and this is what people saw when they saw him struck him somehow as terrible. Visuals are too important, he thought, and then persisted to berate himself internally for how he looked. He then stepped back, closed his eyes, and thought that he was perhaps worse than he looked because of how much time he was spending worrying about how he looked, that what was before him was somehow a sparkling façade in comparison with the shallow vapid glob of a person which lay beneath, and might seethe through the cracks in his forehead if he was not careful.

He took out his phone and stared at the time for a while, hoping that some notification would alert him that someone very important to him, or just generally, was at that moment contacting him specifically with some life-altering offer. They were not. Instead, the stock photo of kittens batting at a ball of string, which had served as the “home screen” of his phone for what was now an entire calendar year, stared back at him, along with the time, 6:40 p.m. It was time to go, past time. He hit his head on the underside of his kitchen cabinets on the way out, messing up his hair. He was fruitlessly seeking gum. Maybe she would have gum.

***

           Haven was flittering about. She explored the depths of her walk-in closet, changing dresses seven times. She even considered calling a designer friend and asking if she had anything “cutting-edge” she could wear for the date. She decided against it, believing that cutting-edge was rarely what guys wanted. She settled on a classic dark blue cocktail dress. It brought out her sky-blue eyes and hugged her hips in just the right way. A supporter of The Network had bought it for her some time ago at a fundraiser to raise money for “No-Bro,” a charity for children with severe bronchitis. What set this charity apart is that it was really not that difficult for the children to heal with already established medicine. In fact, “No-Bro” was essentially a revolving door of children who would come down with bronchitis and then get better using methods largely available to everyone anyway. But the money was raised specifically for that and it could not be called a bad thing. The fundraiser teamed designers with local celebrities who had to wear a design of the bidder’s choosing. Essentially, the donors got to play dress-up with the pretty people. After, they had a choice of either sitting with the celebrity while they were wearing the clothes for an hour or having them wear the outfit on-air at some important event. Haven did the event for three years and each time the same eighty-to-eighty-two-year-old man bought her a tight dress and sat with her for an hour, just talking about his neighbor’s dog mostly. She stopped after three years because the last time the neighbor’s dog had just died and the old man just sat staring at her with nothing to talk about. It was on this last occasion that she acquired the dress. She slid her hand down the side of it, and liked how it slid to a point and then stopped at her hips.

She was not nervous, but focused. She had finally, maybe, found something close to what she was looking for, what she deserved, and it was now that she would be receiving her reward in the form of Horant, who, truth be told, could have had a better nose. She ran her hand through her hair and it just bounced right back into the perfect way it looked before. She smiled into the mirror and was pleased that her teeth were as white as she had hoped they would be. She turned away and skipped across her bedroom. The heels she had finally picked out, strappy black and canvas, were lying on the floor by her bed. She picked them up and tossed them in the air, landing harmlessly on her mattress. A thought went through her head that she was imagining this whole thing and that she would arrive at the restaurant and the only faces to greet her would be the monstrosities she saw every day on the IVV. They would each approach her, as if she had scheduled a date with them. They’d be very kind, all of them, polite, engaging, even interesting to talk to, but they’d all be as they were, monstrosities. She would have to sit and smile as each monstrosity would go on about their car, their cat, their kids, a storage container on the left side of the garage which they forgot all about for years, and opened one day to find exactly what they had been looking for. How horrifying! She would nod her head until her neck was sore and she’d excuse herself, “I need a . . . cigarette,” she would say, and daintily walk out past all the monstrosities watching her, envisioning their lives with her at the center holding it all together, making them worthwhile; she’d hit the streets running and she’d run to the cliff, the cliff she had put in her GPS, get to the edge, look out, throw both her heels over, and lie there until a cute woodland creature approached, licked her face, and returned her faith in this world.

The thought passed as quickly as it came, she reached back on the bed, put her heels on, and walked down the stairs. After all, she was Haven Hootenanny and tonight she was going to stumble out onto the street with Horant, the one she picked out.

***

            Horant made a reservation for four for the first time in his life and, as the hostess at the swanky A Traipsing confirmed the time, he thought that this must be what it’s like to have a family. He then got concerned that Haven and he would actually have a family. Families bogged his friends down, they made people’s eyes red and unattractive, families made road trips together which almost always ended in someone being disappointed. But, with the way they met, he thought, the most likely resolution was happily ever after and this meant family because he had always been told and shown that this meant family. He could do worse, and they hadn’t even been out on one date yet, and it was a double date, which, some might say, does not even count. Were they in high school? But it was her idea and who was he to say no to her, the stunning, famous, Haven Hootenanny. She was weird for sure, even for him. Those emails were not read without skepticism and even a touch of empathy. Her wild expressive style struck Horant as either genius or insane, and probably both. This was not troublesome to Horant who had the not-at-all-extraordinary skill of being able to forgive beautiful people almost anything. Haven Hootenanny writes those emails and they’re charming, they show personality, vibrancy. A fifty-three year-old woman with back acne and false teeth writes them, she’s a lunatic, an unredeemable lunatic. Horant was conscious of this double standard and did not care, considering himself one of the chosen few beautiful people, a belief in no way diminished by Haven Hootenanny seeking him out specifically, or at least he was one of the people she picked out. Whatever. It didn’t really matter; nothing mattered except the fact that he had a date with Haven Hootenanny. But then there was James and the bagel girl. He now could not imagine a scenario in which he cared about what happened between James and the bagel girl. They could get married, they could sit at the table and draw straws for which one of them would get up on the table, eat all the bread, and bark like a dog, they could reenact the pasta scene from Lady and The Tramp, they could each bring a book to read and sit there reading it the entire time, they could order a cask of some ancient wine, follow the sommelier down into a decrepit cellar, and the sommelier could trick them and wall them up with the wine, brick by painful brick; no matter, the night would end with he and the lovely Haven Hootenanny stumbling out onto the street.

 

 

Part VI: How People Grab A Bite

 

It was arranged that Florence would pick up Haven and James would pick up Horant.

“We should have drivers!” Haven suggested to Horant over the phone, “Arrive in separate cars, with drivers. Like before woman could drive or wanted to, you know,” she said.

“I do not, no. I was not around then,” said Horant, “but we could have our side-men come and get us.”

“Side-men? I don’t have one of those, how much do you pay yours?”

“I meant our fellow daters. I know James would pick me up. Our stumbling end game, don’t forget our stumbling end game.”

“It’s all I think about.”

“James will drive if I tell him to. Will your friend?”

“She’s not, sure she will and if she won’t . . . she will anyway because I’ll ask. But she’ll have to drive my car. Yes, we’ll take my car.”

Florence and James each agreed in turn, without inquiring as to why they were not all driving together, although each thought to ask.

Florence arrived early at Haven’s and parked the gray and graying car her parents had given her upon graduating third in her high school class. She parked it on the side of Haven’s tree-lined boulevard and texted Haven, who intercepted her in the driveway and escorted Florence to her SUV, her heels clattering with each step. Florence’s flats were silent.

Haven and Florence arrived at A Traipsing first. Haven looked around for Horant and Florence walked straight to the black stand with the neon tablet glowing on it. The woman looking at the tablet was tall and elegant, but had been severely burnt in a kitchen fire at her last hostessing gig three years ago. She had went in the back to ask the chef whether the chicken was glazed or basted after a particularly persnickety patron insisted on knowing before deigning to take a seat at the restaurant. A bananas foster attacked her straight out of the pan of the sous-chef, and she was scarred for life. The owners of A Traipsing thought themselves quite progressive for hiring the hostess and most of the customers thought themselves quite progressive for looking her in the eyes. Prior to the bananas foster, the owners of A Traipsing would have felt themselves quite fortunate to have such a lovely and competent hostess, and the customers would have felt themselves quite fortunate if she had willingly made eye contact with them. Florence noticed, but immediately changed her face to show that she did not.

“We have a reservation,” said Florence. She patted Haven on her bare shoulder, “Do we have a reservation?”

“What? Maybe. I don’t see him. I see everyone else,” Haven turned towards the hostess, “Oh jeez, what happened here?”

“What’s the name?” asked the hostess, hearing Haven, not answering her, but shaking her hair slightly towards the scarred half of her cheek.

Florence looked at Haven who again stared off, looking fruitlessly for Horant. “You know what, we may not, we’re waiting on a couple I think,” she said.

“Very well,” said the hostess.

“What’d she say happened to her?” Haven asked Florence after they retreated back into the foyer. “You know, I can’t imagine how they’re late. You and I, we could go to the bar right now and find two others and it’d be all the same, to you, at least, it’d be all the same.”

“I guess so,” said Florence, not really knowing why she hadn’t decided to slowly and quietly backpeddle out of A Traipsing, while Haven continued to survey the room and not notice her. She would then sprint to her car and drive to her apartment, put on a movie about smart people saying smart things to one another until one of them says something stupid. She took one step slowly back just to test Haven’s reflexes. Her dark blue flats crunched up against a pair of brown loafers. Resting on top of those loafers was James. Florence stumbled and half-turned; James kept her upright as their eyes met for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” said James, who had, in truth, been looking at the back of Haven’s golden-locked head before Florence had backed into him.

“Oh no, me, I’m sorry,” said Florence, regaining her balance and facing James and Horant.

“That’s right, that’s right, they should be sorry, ought to be sorry,” said Haven, still facing away from the men.

“Haven?” said Horant, tapping on her bare shoulder.

“Oh dear, oh yes, my Horant, dear Horant,” she said as she hugged him.

“And so this?” asked James talking in their direction, as Florence withdrew.

“Like a movie, almost,” said Florence.

Haven held Horant longer than he anticipated and so the introductions were never to be made. No one knew Florence’s name, so any introduction would have been missing at least one important element in any case.

“I’m James, my name is James,” said James.

“Florence, you know, like the nurse,” said Florence.

“Nightingale? I once thought, as a kid, you know, that Florence Nightingale was a literal bird. A beautiful name for a bird.”

“Thanks,” said Florence, smiling.

“I mean, just, generally, a name, you know the beauty of names is, well, I wouldn’t limit it to birds, you know, a name is good all the way around and Florence, that’s a good one.”

“Easy killer,” said Horant, overhearing his friend as he and Haven separated at last.

Horant approached the hostess, noticed her scar, looked at Haven, and suddenly thought how beautiful her skin was.

“A reservation, I made a reservation for four.”

“Name?” asked the hostess.

“Horant.”

“Ah, yes, for four, and you’re all here now?” inquired the hostess.

“Yes, we’re here, me, a darling, and two others,” said Haven. “What happened to you?”

The hostess snapped her hair again back towards the scar, picked up four menus, and handed them to another woman who said, “follow me.”

***

            They arrived at the round table in good order. Haven sat next to Horant who sat next to James who sat next to Florence. James thought about whether he should hold Florence’s chair out for her, and didn’t. Florence, for her part, did not consider this a possibility and had no problem seating herself. Haven, for her part, lingered at her chair while Horant sat himself, pulled her phone out of her purse, entered the password, and selected an application at random before Horant got the hint, stood up, and moved her chair two inches further from the table than it was previously. “Oh, thank you,” said Haven, putting her phone back and flashing a few teeth. Horant grinned half-ironically and reseated himself. James and Florence took the opportunity to stare at the front of their menus.

“Well, I mean, I’m so glad we were able to do this. There are times when you want to do something and then you never get to, but now, here, this is something I wanted, and now,” said Haven and reached over and touched Horant on the shoulder.

“That’s sweet, I’m glad we’re here too. Of all the places to be, here is right up there,” said Horant, opening his menu.

Florence sat in silence, but looked at James, hoping he would not say anything along the lines of the last two stilted statements. James considered speaking, did not, and thought, “Say something. Weather? Should I say something about the weather?”

“It’s okay to talk you two, it’s a double date after all, we set up a double date, that means you two are on one too,” said Haven.

“I, yes, thank you, thank you for that,” said James. “So you two work together?”

“We do, I bring bagels. Haven once ate half of one,” said Florence.

“Do you make the bagels?” asked Horant.

“I, no, I just bring them from the bakery. I take them from the bakery and I set them out in a hopefully appetizing way,” said Florence, uneasy.

“That’s a day?” asked Horant.

“I, well, people have all types of days. I don’t even know, you know, you interview, when I was a field reporter, you go out and interview someone for three minutes and that’s their day, that’s their year. Their whole year was that, that three minutes. For me, it was three minutes,” said Haven.

“I’ve never been interviewed,” said James. “Perhaps you could make my year sometime.” James was flirting but it was unclear with whom. He didn’t even know. The waiter approached.

“Madames and Monsieurs, goon evening and welcome to A Traipsing.” He was short with a neatly trimmed beard. He grew it because he thought his face was ugly and read once that beards on short men somehow made women feel more secure. He had also read that secure women are more likely to order expensive drinks. His nametag read “Otise,” but his name was Otis. A typo he preferred to reality. “Tonight is fanciful, I’m sorry, tonight is Fanciful Fish Festival here at A Traipsing. As you can see our menu is entirely seafood tonight, all fresh. The freshness of our fish is without question and although it too starts with an ‘F,’ we left it out of the title of tonight’s festivities because everything is so fresh.”

Florence was pretty sure Otise had said “Goon evening,” had giggled, restrained herself, and then flashed her eyes at James. James noticed, but politely continued to seem as if he were listening to Otise. “A pan-seared grouper with olive compote and red chili jelly, that’s served over a bed of scallop fried rice, and a side of braised peapods.” Haven nodded her head and her hair bobbed up and down in such a way that Horant, for a minute, thought about getting up and sniffing the top of her head. He did not. “A wine cork, burnt and shaved over the swordfish, finishes the dish just as it began,” finished Otise. “Shall I start you off with something to drink?”

“I don’t care for fish, really,” said Haven.

“Well I’m sure, you know they must have something else,” said Horant.

“Must we?” asked Otise. “No, tonight, as I’ve said is Fanciful Fish Festival, and that’s what we have tonight, fish.”

“You can’t make a salad?” asked Florence, concerned about Haven for some reason.

“We could make a salad, I’m sure. The salad is fresh, but not as fresh as the fish,” said Otise.

“The fish is blinking right now, even the mussels blink,” said James. Florence laughed.

“Mussels do not blink sir, we can make a salad,” repeated Otise, and scratched at his beard.

“That’s fine, oh it’s fine, I don’t, you know, it’s just, we were having such a nice time and then, Fish Night? But okay, sure, fish night. I’ll have a splash of cranberry and a guzzle of vodka. To stumble out,” Haven said, and looked at Horant.

“Yes, to stumble out, I’ll have a pinch of ginger beer in a tumbler of rum,” said Horant.

Otise was furiously scribbling, trying to translate the drink requests into words which would mean something to the bartender.

“Do you have any IPAs?” asked Florence.

“We, on tap, we have an English Pale, Fupton’s Old Guzzard Ale. It’s not an IPA, but that’s as close as we have on tap. Bottles, we have a list, I don’t remember, but we have a list,” said Otise.

“Old Guzzard it is,” said Florence.

“Yeah, sure, me too,” said James.

“As you like,” said Otise and walked away, crossing out and rewriting something on his notepad.

“Fish night! Of all the nights, fish night. I mean really, to just have all fish, imagine such a thing at a restaurant, even like this one,” said Haven, expressing outrage no one else felt or could comprehend.

“They can make a salad they said. I could fetch some bagels,” said Florence. James laughed, Horant smiled, Haven twitched and scrunched her nose.

“Not everything is a joke,” said Haven. “We are really going to have to eat fish and we’re going to have to spend real money for the opportunity.”

“I’m sorry, really you know we can go somewhere else,” said Horant reluctantly. It had been ten minutes. What had he become?

“No, no, they can make a salad. It’s fine really, but fish night?” said Haven again, somehow thinking a reaction was forthcoming from the other three. Florence grabbed her knife and twirled it, reflecting the faces of each of her fellow table-mates and the faces of countless others sitting and eating fish or waiting to eat fish. They flashed like a collage of elongated noses and eyes intent on drawn butter or a dill cream sauce. She never understood why people liked dill cream sauces, and if she and James were on a date by themselves, she likely would have brought this up as some sort of observational jumping off point for some conversation about how people like weird things and how there is no accounting for how strange they can be. Instead, she sat silently waiting for Haven’s disgust at the suggestion that a restaurant dedicate an entire night to a major source of protein to die down and ultimately retreat under a wave of vodka and a touch of cranberry.

***

            The drinks arrived and the wave of vodka began to push Haven’s feet above the sand, as they say.

“They don’t say that, people really just don’t say that,” Florence responded when Haven asked her what happens when people suggest new bagel flavors.

“It’s fascinating, really, maybe someday I’ll just throw it all up and sell bagels. Or drive off a cliff, one of those,” said Haven, laughing at herself and leaning against Horant. Horant hugged her with one arm, and said, “Don’t go driving off any cliffs now.”

“A thought, really if you would do it, that’s how, off a cliff in a car?” asked James.

“SUV,” said Haven moving out of Horant’s grasp and wildly swinging back toward Florence. After a brief pause in which the three others nodded their heads as if to say, of course, an SUV, Haven blurted, “Ever see a face, just a face, and think to yourself, if only I had that face life could not possibly be worth living? No amount of money, no job, no loved ones, nothing would make life worth it.”

“Yes,” said Florence and James.

“All the time, and in those terms exactly,” said James. It was unclear to him and everyone else whether he was serious. “I also wonder whether I have one of those faces, whether people who look like say, you, Haven, people who look like you, think that about people who look like me,” said James.

“Stop hitting on Haven,” said Horant, laughing.

“Don’t be silly, it’d have to be a lot worse than what you’ve got going. Right Flo, it would have to be a lot worse. He’s not so bad. You should see some of the ones, the absolute nightmares who watch my show.”

“Yeah, it could be worse,” smiled Florence, surprised that Haven had learned part of her name at some point.

Otise returned with the food. “Fish, this other fish, another type of fish, and salad,” said Otise as he distributed the entrées. His arms trembled when he thought he locked eyes with Haven. Haven could not have locked eyes if she tried; they were floating this way and that, smiling at Horant and then darting to some unknown corner of A Traipsing where an old man sat alone with his soup, sipping it in slowly until he caught a glimpse of Haven, tried to tell his face to smile, and dribbled much of his soup on the cloth napkin he had affixed to his collar. “A success,” thought the old man, lifting the napkin and examining his clean yellow polo shirt. Haven’s gaze had long since returned to the table. “You know, I don’t know you guys, that fish actually looks pretty good, as fish goes.”

“Honey,” said Horant, “you want to try some of mine?”

“Darling, you’re so sweet. I, another drink is all,” said Haven, thinking Horant was Otise, or, more accurately, that they had merged into some sort of hybrid that would offer her food. “Such a pretty face, you, me, and those two, everyone is so pretty,” said Haven.

Florence and James were digging into their fish, each feeling that they had somehow been reduced to a prop, how the whole thing had been reduced to a prop, all of life was a prop for Haven. They looked up rarely and then only to mug at each other or nod or shake their heads at something that was said or done.

The fish was excellent. There was something in the whole burnt cork thing that made the delicacy of the swordfish shine through. James thought that he had so much to say to Florence about the burnt cork; that he had an hour of stand-up, a lecture series at the Sorbonne, and an album’s worth of burnt-cork-related country songs. However, there was no reason to speak, why speak when all that could be hoped to be said was being said without words between him and Florence and all that could be imagined to be said was being said by Haven and echoed by Horant?

“I can’t imagine you have nothing to say,” said Horant, after Haven started crunching her salad, half a slice of lettuce bursting out the side of her mouth before her tongue reached out and drew it in. “In some societies people speak to one another without coercion,” he said.

“In others, they don’t even have an oral language,” said Florence.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” said Horant.

“She’s smart darling, this one, she’s smart, and yours, maybe he is too, can’t tell yet,” said Haven, as a cucumber slice crunched on the side of her mouth that was not occupied by speaking.

“I have wild dreams in which nobody speaks, in which nobody can even imagine what speech might be,” said Horant. “I do not consider those dreams societies.”

“I wasn’t speaking for your dreams, maybe you have them,” said Florence.

“Would I be one of them, darling, am I a dream to you? You are almost to me, your nose, but almost a dream,” said Haven, wobbling again and resting her head on Horant’s shoulder.

The man with the soup saw a blonde blur and asked Otise who it was. “A woman, she does not eat fish.”

“Stew?” asked the old man.

“Otise, I’m Otise,” said Otise loudly.

The old man waived his hand dismissively. “I’ll buy her a drink, tell her I’ll buy her a drink.”

“Sir, she has had enough already I’m afraid,” said Otise.

“You’re afraid; does this cure your fear?” asked the old man, as he slowly and not at all discreetly opened his wallet and chose a twenty-dollar bill to hand to Otise. Otise took the money quickly so as to avoid the gaze of a supervisor.

“My dreams are not so ambitious,” said Horant, as Otise approached.

Otise stood until he decided it was safe to approach Haven, who had just fit a rather large slice of tomato into her mouth. “Miss, the gentleman in the corner, he should like to buy you a drink.”

Haven whirled around, surprised. She had not noticed Otise at all. She swallowed hard on what was left of the tomato and said, “I, who? What man?” Horant gave a look to Otise, which Otise immediately knew meant that his tip had just been reduced by at least 5%. “The gentleman in the corner, Mr. Winto, he’s a regular old man.”

“A regular old man,” said James. James spoke sincerely, as if pondering what that could possibly mean, and if it could be defined, what that definition meant for his future. Was it something he could achieve? Did he want to?”

“I mean, an old man, he’s a regular customer,” said Otise.

“Does he watch my show? Has he seen me on TV?”

“No thanks,” said Horant. “I’m paying for your drinks anyway, what’s the difference?”

“No, Hornts, I want to know who this man is, what he looks like. I’m a journalist,” said Haven.

“And I’m a baker,” said Florence.

Haven stood up, balancing herself carefully on her high-heels, and walked over to the corner where Otise had pointed. She was a couple feet in front of the table before she stopped and looked up. “Oh, you?” she said.

“Miss, it’s a pleasure. Would you be so kind to join me?” said Mr. Winto, attempting to raise himself up, but failing, as his stained napkin flapped under the loose skin hanging low from his jowls.

“No, n-no, of course not Mr. sir, of course not. But you’ve watched my show? I know you have.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t be so high on the horse, I’ve seen your face, it’s one of the faces. I see it most days.”

“A dream perhaps, perhaps you dream of me. Sit,” persisted Mr. Winto.

“No,” said Haven, returning to her table with uneven steps.

Mr. Winto returned to his soup.

***

            Haven eased herself back into her chair placing her hand delicately on Horant’s shoulder and then pressing on it firmly to maintain her balance just before her blue dress scraped the back of the black chair and she let herself fall with a thud. She braced herself and smiled. Horant placed his hand on her upper back and said, “You alright, there?”

“Yes, of course. This salad is so good. I can’t imagine the fish is better. Is the fish better, darling?” asked Haven, turning to Florence.

“I have not tried it, but I’ve never had a salad as good as this fish,” said Florence.

“Never, she says. Did you hear that, never. Oh what a place?”

“Say hun, what did you say to that old man?” asked Horant.

“Nothing, really. He wanted me to sit, but I have you, why would I sit with him? I have you,” Haven said. “And my new friends here, we’re friends. How great is it to have friends, and new ones!”

Florence and James were silent. They smiled at Haven and each other, but could not bring themselves to say anything to reaffirm her sentiment. In truth, neither of them believed they were Haven’s friend, even if a vodka high told her otherwise. Florence thought for a moment that maybe Haven really had no friends, maybe that’s why she asked her on this double date. But, then again, maybe all her friends were in meaningful relationships, or maybe she was just flat-out bizarre. James, for his part, could not imagine that someone who looked like Haven would be lacking in the friend department. Everyone must want to be her friend, she was a celebrity more or less, and well-loved. She was the type of person you would see always surrounded by smiling slightly less attractive others, the others so mirthful and so attractive, that you would never really notice whether the person inside that ball of mirth and pleasant cheek bones was actually smiling herself, you just assumed she was. James took a moment to reconsider everything he thought about famous and popular people, and realized that he did not know anything about them and that all his so-called “knowledge” was merely a strain of popular assumptions which he in no way could justify. By the time he had mentally returned to the table, Haven had grabbed Florence and whisked her away to the ladies’ room.

“Oh Flo, oh, Flo, that’s funny! Seriously though, could it be more fun than this? Flo, some people wait their entire lives and never get a night like this, and some have better nights every night. But it beats prepping bagels,” said Haven.

“Yes, it does,” said Florence, following Haven past the bar towards the restroom, considering whether the fact that she didn’t actually have to go portended anything ominous about the night.

“I’ve, we’ve had a few now, as they say, a few, and well I’m feeling it,” said Haven, opening the door to the restroom. The bright lights accosted her momentarily and she took a step back, narrowly missing Florence’s feet with her high heels. A woman, in tattered clothes and a smock it looked like she’d conned off a third-grader, was brushing her teeth at the sink. She spit into the sink and a glob of red-tinted mucus stuck to the marble. She looked up and the gaps where her teeth had once been reminded her that it was not all sunshine and daisies. As she dipped her head she saw Haven in the mirror, a gleaming, shimmering example of everything she was not. She dropped her toothbrush in the sink.

“Ms., Ms. Hootenanny? Is that really you?” managed the woman.

“Ah, oh, yes, hunny, of course it is!” said Haven with a theatric flourish The Coordinator would have scolded her for if she were reading the news, as she gripped and leaned against a stall door.

Florence was bemused, but hid it by ducking into a stall.

“Can I? Will you sign something?”

“I’ll hug you!” said Haven. “I have no pen,” she said as she opened her arms. The woman crashed into her like a weak pot of coffee, all smells and intentions. Haven brushed her greasy hair once and then released her, excusing herself to the stall she was leaning up against. The woman, now embarrassed, scooped up her tooth brush and hurried out, the few teeth she had flashing brighter than they had in years, before the hostess caught sight of her and had her escorted off the premises. “Do you know Haven Hootenanny is in there?” she asked the hostess. “We serve many customers, we serve only customers. I’m sorry,” said the hostess. “She stroked my hair!” said the woman.

Meanwhile, at the table, Horant and James were having a moment.

“The fish is something,” said Horant, waiving his hand in front of James as he stared off blankly.

“Is that code? Are we speaking in code?” asked James.

“She drinks, yes, but to say she’s a fish. Come on, shape up. And yours, not so bad, eh?”

“No, she’s lovely, really. Thank you. We, seems like we can’t get a word in, yours, Haven, she is all encompassing. I feel encompassed.”

“As do I, my friend, and I think I could really go for it. Just get lost, become something else, something totally dependent and poof.”

“I can see the appeal. Someone like that, she is more than we are in a way. She fills up every room with admirers and jealousy and I’m sure other things. There’s hardly room for Florence and I. We just, people like us can only add innocuous commentary like a translator’s note or something.”

“Yes, it seems crowded. We should split, find a way to split up. Her and I together are enough, we don’t need you two, frankly. You agree?”

“I do, but there’s still dessert, and the car situation. I never liked that. It never made sense.”

“You’re right, but it was her idea, like all the rest of it, and like you say, she’s . . . more, so I listened. There are cabs,” said Horant, trailing off as he noticed the women returning.

“I really admire how you make people feel,” Florence said genuinely to Haven as they both sat down at the table again.

“I just, you know, these people they need me to be nice to them. They were dealt a bad hand, from the start, no pair, queen-high, and sometimes I think maybe I’m the queen, and you know at least their queen, their one queen should be nice, you know. I try to be nice. Sometimes I’m not, but I try, truly, I try. You know?”

The two men continued to eat.

“I see,” said Florence.

“You know even when you’re staring at queen-high, you know sometimes you like your chances. I want them to like their chances for a minute, even if there’s no good reason, even if they should just fold, even if I’m not a queen at all, but a nine printed on golden-flecked paper, I should try for them.”

“You’re a queen,” interjected Horant, rubbing Haven’s shoulders between bites.

“That’s nice, really,” said Florence. “I want to try, but there’s this, you know, for one, no one thinks I’m a queen. People are not so gullible.”

James was silent, but smiled at Florence who shrugged her shoulders and scrunched her nose.

“Well, I mean, we’re lucky. I’m lucky,” said Haven looking at Horant. Horant was trying to signal to James to somehow split their dates by subtly moving his index fingers apart from each other.

“You both like desserts, right?” asked James without indicating who he meant by “both.”

“I do,” said Haven. “I do, yes, I split desserts all the time with people, animals, whathaveyou. I’m a notorious dessert-splitter.”

“I like chocolate more than this place,” said Florence.

“I’m sorry, I think you know my stance on dessert. If I was being asked, but yes, we, that is, Haven and I should split something here and you two should check out the chocolate shop down the street. You’re a chocolate fiend too,” said Horant, turning to James.

“I prefer custards to candy,” said James, forgetting the real reason he asked the question in the first place. “But then again, I want to try that place.”

“What’s it called?” asked Florence.

The Choclatier: Yummy!” said Haven. “It’s the best, oh, can we go, can we go?”

“Uh, yes, of course we can, but they don’t have custard, do they James?” asked Horant.

“I don’t really know, never been,” said James, again, without thinking.

“To stumble out, remember, to stumble out,” said Horant.

“Oh yes, but we can stumble after chocolate, there will be time to stumble after The Choclatier: Yummy!

 

 

Part VII: The Importance of Being Chocolate

 

The Chocolatier: Yummy! was classy in the same way the movie theater all the rich people go to is classy. Put as many goldish beams in a place as you want, it’s still a movie house at the end of the day.

The two couples (whether they were actually couples yet is beside the point, because they appeared to observers as couples, and what else is life measured by than appearances?) walked out of A Traipsing, their stomachs mostly full and Horant’s wallet mostly empty. Horant had volunteered to pay for dinner with the understanding that James would be paying him back at a later date when their dates, well, his most importantly, were not present to witness the exchange. James agreed to this show because he did not really think paying for things was an especially important indicator of masculinity, generosity, or benevolence of spirit, and besides, Horant had arranged the whole thing and if his side of things was satisfactory it was the least he could do, and if it was not, why would he care what a woman he didn’t care for thought? Florence, for her part, offered to pay her part, but neither Horant nor James would hear of it. “Oh no Florence, I got it,” said Horant. “Such a generous friend,” said James, and meant it, but not about paying, he meant it more generally, he meant that Horant was exceptionally kind to invite him out, and to meet Florence. James was on a bit of a high all the way around. Haven did not notice that the check came, who paid, how much anything cost, or that Otise kept calling her Madame Nepeche. No matter. Once everything was squared away, she grabbed Horant’s arm like it was made out of Springer Spaniel puppies and led James and Florence out the door. They did not stumble.

The women were drawn to the glassed treats like children. “Chocolate-covered fresh apricots,” said Florence. “Double dark cappuccino liquor!” said Haven. The men hung back for a second and then also pushed themselves up against the glass. What they saw was quite simply chocolate, coated, dusted, frozen in time as it dripped down a slice of white cake or frenetically encircled an 8-ounce wheel of cheddar cheese. “Cheese?” inquired James, pointing at the block. “Yes, cheese,” said Horant. James smiled but then thought that this was a waste of both chocolate and cheese and that no matter how good they actually tasted together, they no doubt tasted better separately or in independent combination with some grape or other.

“What would you girls like? It’s on James,” said Horant.

James made no expression because he was not listening but still contemplating what particular grape might optimize both the chocolate and the cheese. He kept thinking “Concord,” only because that was the only grape species he could come up with at the moment.

“It’s okay, I can buy my own chocolate,” said Florence, partially feeling pressured by James’s blank stare.

“What? No, I mean, let me. Allow me,” said James snapped back to reality, such as it was.

“Really, I can,” said Florence, honestly not really caring one way or the other, but feeling odd about having to announce what she wanted (a chocolate-covered apricot and a couple of truffles) before actually ordering it.

“No, no I insist, and if I don’t, Horant does,” said James.

Florence shrugged her shoulders and said, “Thanks.”

Meanwhile, Haven had not said a word. She had been approached by no less than three Chocolatier employees and a dark-eyed man who had walked in with his 10-year-old daughter. To all four she waved her hand dismissively and never took her eyes off the chocolate. It was not that she was that hungry or even that the three drinks she had with dinner somehow caused her to gain or lose focus, it was more that she wanted to think about things, about Horant, about her current situation, about The Network, about the IVV, about her GPS, while simultaneously thinking about nothing at all and taking in all the wonderful chocolate. She reached no conclusion, either as to any of her thoughts or any of the chocolate, and simply looked up at Horant. “You pick,” she said and laughed aloud.

This indecipherable “You pick,” struck Horant like a brick filled with yogurt. It was messy and he could not really believe what it was. He thought maybe it was a test of some sort, perhaps she had mentioned her favorite chocolate at dinner or in her emails. He racked his brain and came up with nothing. It was an uneasy feeling. It was not as if there were three flavors of ice cream and he could just say “twist” and she’d be happy with at least half of it. There were literally, and figuratively if you like, thousands of combinations of chocolates he could order for her, and at least hundreds if he did not choose a combination but boldly went with just one thing. Horant’s silent panic lasted only a few seconds, but it was long enough for James to notice, poke him in the ribs and whisper,“Just order a bunch of stuff.” And so he did. He ordered every shade of chocolate from white to pitch black and every type of filling from fresh fruit to cream to caramel, although he had his doubts that Haven was a caramel type of girl. He even happened to order one double dark cappuccino liquor truffle. Haven grinned as he finally landed on the chocolate she had forgotten she had her eyes on. She moved towards the man packaging the chocolate for Horant and put her hand out.

“I’ll take that one,” she said.

The man placed the truffle in her hand, her eyes flashed and she gobbled the chocolate before Horant knew what happened. “Another one of those I suppose,” said Horant.

It was not that Haven wanted Horant to buy all this unnecessary chocolate, and, in fact, it was actually James buying the chocolate, it was that she didn’t realize that it made any difference whether he bought just the one piece or the whole store. She was blissfully unaware of such trivial concerns. Florence, on the other hand, could tell James just how many bagel deliveries it would take for her to pay for all that chocolate, “three,” she told James, and then asked if he wanted any help.

“No, no, my treat. It’s the least I can do.”

“Strictly speaking you could do less, many have,” said Florence, placing her wallet back in her purse.

And so the four of them walked out of The Chocolatier: Yummy! each chewing on something or other, their teeth temporarily browning, and James left holding the bag of assorted chocolates Haven had no use for. They walked steadily and none of them thought this an appropriate moment to touch any of the others.

 

 

Part VIII: How Blithering Idiots Can Impact Your Night

 

As they walked chewing and not touching they were accosted by no fewer than three blithering idiots. The idiots were cloistered together on the side of a dead-end street a block away from The Chocolatier: Yummy! One had a Hawaiian shirt on because he was told once that “a gut like yours deserves color of all kinds,” another wore a beret because once in high school he had to give a presentation on Euro Disney, and the third had fake teeth because sugar and meth were his secret vices. They did not know each other, in the sense that in order to know someone you generally have to believe that there are other people in the world and that it is possible to know them. This is not to say they were, strictly speaking, unaware of the world around them, or that they each had the same infirmity (how dull would that be), but to say they knew each other would be going too far and redefining knowledge in a way none of your important friends would tolerate.

The foursome crossed the threesome and the threesome had no intention of making it a non-event. Hawaiian Shirt burst out in front of Haven and said “I know you, I know you, I know you!” Haven ducked, but this was ineffective. She recognized him. He was a frequent viewer, and also frequently appeared in her associated nightmares. But she was with Horant right now, and she had just eaten the most delicious truffle. Hawaiian Shirt did not belong here.

Just as Haven rose from her ducking position and grabbed Horant’s arm, Euro Disney swaggered over to the five of them singing You Ain’t Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, in a gruff and squeaky tenor only a mother (but not his) could love. His mother, in fact, had thrown him out of the house at age 16 because he had accidentally poured the last of her Scotch into a vat of Halloween punch. It was a labeling issue, but his mom was eccentric that way, plus she was a drunk and did not love him. She somehow blamed him for the fact that she was never able to sing on Broadway, even though she had never been in a play, of any kind, before she birthed Euro Disney, at age 33.

“You’re nobody till somebody cares,” he sang at James, grabbing his shoulder as if he were consoling a buddy ironically. James tried to conceive of why he should accept this as some type of sign that his date with Florence was going well, but could only think that this was at least something he could talk about for awhile with people he needed to find something to talk about with. Florence made herself thin, like an eagle closing its wings and hoping desperately to become a sparrow. “Just once, just once,” was the sentiment.

Horant stuck his head between Hawaiian Shirt and Haven, but left the rest of his body where it was. “Can I help you?” he said.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” said Hawaiian Shirt and pulled his shirt out from his chest, because it had stuck there and, he feared, started to give observers the impression that he was overweight. “I know you, though,” he said to Haven. “Absolutely, we’re great friends,” he continued. “We went, the places, when we were younger, the two of us, the places we went and have yet to go, exhilarating. I almost spent all of it, but then he came over and we spent the whole time thinking about how to lose it all. And we did. Don’t you hate that? We did, but this was before the two of us knew her and now we do and it’s better this way, am I right?”

Haven shook and fell back into Horant. “Honey,” she gasped.

Fake Teeth had siddled up to Florence and pointed to the abandoned building that was nearest to our seven friends. “When we, you know, all of us, thought it would last. But look! And it’s not because we didn’t try,” he said.

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Florence. She elbowed James in the hip, “Why are we stopped?” she mouthed. James pointed to Euro Disney who had just croaked, “Gold’ll never buy you happiness when you’re growing old.” Florence nodded, but then started walking briskly away from the blithering idiots, who were not the most mobile guys to begin with and did not, strictly speaking, need her to have a good time. She carried on ahead of the pack looking back every now and then hoping the idiots would vacate.

“Please leave us alone,” said Horant to no one in particular.

“Again, for the first time we reach a point where we must either part or continue on, my dear friends, the dearest of friends we have become,” said Hawaiian Shirt. “This time let us choose the way of our ancestors, the ones who survived at least long enough to have us. Some of them envisioned us, you think?” he asked Haven.

“No, never, not you. Who could envision you?” she said.

“A horror in our own time, but a vision for our ancestors, who, we know, were far uglier,” said Euro Disney, suddenly breaking off his tune.

“Far?” asked James, but without Florence around, it went on deaf ears.

“I may smack you one at some point here,” said Horant, as Hawaiian Shirt got closer, stretched out his arm, and petted Haven’s shoulder. Horant was not a violent person by any means. He and James had frequently discussed what might provoke either one of them to physical violence, and, even if they were somehow provoked, could they actually be effectively violent or would they end up straining a shoulder or pulling a quadricep before they could inflict any type of justice. Each concluded that their breaking point had something to do with family or puppies, and that, they might be momentarily effective, but self-injury was the only inevitable consequence of getting riled up. Indeed, Horant had once questioned fundamentally whether ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now people might actually lack the physical capacity for non-technology-assisted violence. James called this thesis something like hogwash and noted that action movies will probably always exist.

“I can’t incite, oh no, it’s against the terms,” said Fake Teeth to James in confidence.

“I, Horant, what is all this? I’ve seen them all before. I’ve seen this before and we were, everything was so lovely a minute ago and now, this, and these,” said Haven. She put her hands over her eyes and went limp.

“No, darling, no. We, this could be our chance to make it all right. One of them had said once that the day the blonde meets the rest will be the day we can rest,” said Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no,” said Fake Teeth. “No, rest, prison is all rest. Low carbs they try. The sugar is added later, they promise. When is later?” he asked.

Florence waived James ahead as if she were coaching third base for the ’27 Yankees. James, who had been as amused as he had been disturbed by the blithering idiots, suddenly realized that whatever they had to say, it was all beside the point and the only real truth which could come out of this night, or perhaps any other, resided somehow in what would be said, whether in words or otherwise, between he and Florence. He wriggled out of Euro Disney’s reach, dropped the bag of chocolates, and only slowed down when he had grabbed Florence’s outstretched arm.

***

            “A code we live by that is taught in the public schools,” continued Hawaiian Shirt.

“No, no, can’t go back, not now. Fruitty Pebbles, they stopped serving. Please help!” said Fake Teeth, rummaging through the chocolates.

“I’m serious, leave us,” said Horant.

“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born,” sang Euro Disney. “Everybody . . .” he said and stretched out his hands.

“Second verse, same as the first,” said Florence overhearing the “music” from fifteen feet ahead.

“Even so, do you think he means something by it? Do you think any of them mean anything by any of it?” James asked Florence half in earnest.

“I, well, of course, they think they do. What it is any of them actually mean is unknowable and unknown. At least that’s what they teach us at the Bagel Academy. That and no more than six flavors, it confuses people.”

“I could be confused by you for awhile. I could walk around in a daze for weeks and my only thought might, you know, be of you,” said James.

“It’s possible,” said Florence. “Weeks can go by and there’s no accounting for what we were thinking during them. One week the basic issue I was concerned about had something to do with how they make those tables at the airport that look like they’re constructed with leftover confetti. Wasn’t the worst week.”

“I’m putting you in good company. Those tables are a rare treat. So rare, that I don’t even really know what you’re talking about,” said James.

“Goons, goons,” said Haven. “That’s what my dad used to say, ‘the world’s a goon’s paradise and the rest of us are just there to make the goons recognize that’s what they are.’”

“Makes sense, in a way,” said Horant, dragging Haven at a quicker pace. The idiots kept up. Now, Fake Teeth, browned even more by the chocolates, had latched onto Hawaiian Shirt and they were doing some sort of grotesque pantomime of Haven and Horant. Meanwhile, Euro Disney had not picked up singing again, but instead kept saying, “Everybody,” and waiving his hands in the same gesture repeatedly. His tone, volume, and movements were identical each time, but it somehow became more and more insistent and the other people on the street (for there were other people) almost considered saying something or attempting to distract the idiots from Haven and Horant, who would have otherwise been the envy of every passerby.

“Oh darling, darling, my dear darling,” said Fake Teeth, rubbing up against the bare underbelly of Hawaiian Shirt’s bicep.

Euro Disney now latched onto Hawaiian Shirt’s other bicep. The three of them walked arm-in-arm, first behind Haven and Horant and then disembarking from each other only to slide in front of them and reconnect.

“How do you like it?” asked Hawaiian Shirt, turning back and looking Haven in the eyes. She shuddered and leaned up against Horant.

“To stumble out,” said Haven. She was staggering now and the only thing keeping her up was Horant, who did not know whether to slow down, to try to get around the idiots, or stop dead and turn back to anywhere else. Horant finally decided to stop, hold onto Haven, and turn around in the opposite direction. The idiots did not notice for awhile, continuing their burlesque for no one in particular. “We’re strolling along, singing a song, side by side,” sang Euro Disney.

By this time, James and Florence had ducked into a bar which was known as much for its dinginess as it was for its five-pocket pool table. The pool table was shaped like the Star of David and was about half the length of a regulation table. Sharks from all around came to this bar only to discover that often times their skills did not translate and total novices were just as likely to fleece them as they were to do the fleecing. The bartender, it was no coincidence, or maybe it was a complete coincidence, wore a fleece sweater and ordered James and Florence to order a drink as soon as they popped in. “We only serve customers,” she said, waving a spoon with a long handle.

“Oh no, we were just, give us a minute and we’ll be on our way,” said James. “There are three men . . .”

“Of course there are. There are always three men. In fact, you’re lucky if there are that few. Nonetheless, you can order drinks or you can join the three men,” said the bartender.

Florence looked at James, they shrugged and took two of the infinite empty seats at the bar. “We can meet up later anyway,” said Florence. “Might be nice to get a few words in.”

James nodded and tried to remember everything he had thought to ask her, but had not. He blanked and stared at the beer list scrawled on the chalkboard in front of them.

***

            The idiots eventually noticed, but did not turn around. Instead, they walked arm-in-arm towards the bar at the end of the dead-end street and actually walked within an inch of the wall, not the door, before they disbanded. Hawaiian shirt simply pivoted and leaned up against the brick façade, half bentover seemingly trying to catch his breath from the short stroll he just endured. Fake Teeth muttered “fifty feet within…” after noticing the bar’s overhead sign and hopped in the other direction for close to that, stopped, and shouted, “Can you hear me? I’m going to be at this distance. Can you hear me?” Euro Disney, for his part, doffed his beret to Hawaiian shirt, walked back the other way, doffed his beret to Fake Teeth, and headed back in the direction of the The Chocolatier: Yummy!

Horant and Haven did not notice but kept walking in the opposite direction from whence they came. Haven was still trembling, but was now upright and if anything was dragging Horant. It was not until they were three blocks from the dead-end street that either said a word.

“Did you ever think about how we’re designed only to be able to see other people’s faces?” asked Haven. “Like without help from someone else, something shinny, we would never be able to see our own face. How terrifying is that!”

“Other things bother me more. Like those three, they bother me more,” said Horant. Their walking had slowed slightly. Their pace was indecisive, as if each might turn one way or the other and become lost forever.

“Nevermind them. They are a symptom. Like the yellow gum in your dog’s eye. They’re easily wiped away. It’s the ragweed that’s everywhere and will never cease being everywhere.”

“Maybe, but what can we do? And if we could do it, would we?” asked Horant.

Haven turned and looked at Horant, her blue eyes shinny in the near darkness. A street light reflected in them and it had a psychedelic effect on Horant. He stopped.

“We can drive,” said Haven. “Let’s go for a drive!”

“We both got rides, remember? Should we find them? I can call James. He’ll come round.”

“No, no, let’s drive. The two of us, let’s go for a drive. I have my keys. I’ve read Keyes. Even that ends, you know, not as I’d hoped. We have a chance, just drive with me.”

“Should you be driving? I mean we had . . . some . . .”

“Yes, we did and we were feeling it for awhile now, weren’t we?” She looked at Horant like she was immune to alcohol and had only been acting the whole time for her own amusement. Horant actually staggered back a step. He braced a nearby wall. It was filled with graffiti he couldn’t read.

“Honey, Horant, we, the two of us, really,” she said and tapped her fingers on his shoulder. Without waiting for the third tap, Horant grabbed her somewhere between her shoulders and waist and kissed her. She let his lips do the work, but did not withdraw. They held the kiss until Horant caught someone out of the corner of his eye. It might have been a poster of a person if not for the fact that it moved closer to them. Haven took the opportunity to speak directly into his mouth. “Let’s drive.” He kissed her again quickly despite the shadow moving closer and closer.

Once the shadow reached them, it looked with some envy, and kept walking.

 

 

Part IX: When James and Florence Are Left Alone

 

Meanwhile, the small talk between Florence and James was getting so infinitesimally miniscule that they almost ceased talking altogether and began communicating with a series of eyebrow raises and lip protrusions.

“So they don’t even tell you why they got rid of the low fat cream cheese?” asked James with interest.

“No, they said once that the people who ordered it were unsavory. I told them so was the strawberry cream cheese. But they’ve kept that one as far as I know.”

“How come blueberries can go in bagels but not on bagels and visa versa with strawberries?”

“Are you one of those berry equivalency people?”

“You know, I never really thought about it, but I guess I am,” said James as his pint of beer nearly slid away from him on the well-lubricated bar.

“You know you’re just wrong, right? Different berries serve different purposes. The fact they are berries means almost as little as the fact that they are fruit. Do watermelon and avocado compete for mouths?” Florence was not excited or intense so much as she was sure of what she said. It seemed to James that she had rehearsed it, but in fact it was the first time she gave any thought to it at all and she cracked a smile as soon as she remembered how little any of this truly meant to her.

James raised his eyebrows slightly and grinned as he reached for his beer. “There is something ridiculous about that, like you said it just to amuse yourself,” said James. “Do you actually believe any of what you just said?” James meant this somewhat playfully, but the words slipped out as challenges.

“I, no, I guess not,” said Florence. The light coming out of her eyes, her head dipping down to take another sip, she looked up at the beer-branded clock above the bar. “I wonder what happened to Haven and your friend there. Something could have happened, you think?”

“They seemed harmless, I don’t know. In their way harmless. But I can call if you want to find out.”

“No, I mean Haven, well you saw. She could use a little heartening.”

“Horant too I suppose, but just a little. Maybe they’ll be good together.”

“I can’t say, you know. Haven, honestly, she’s not a friend or anything like that, she’s just one of those people who overwhelm you into knowing them. Like I know her, but I’d rather know someone else who I’ve spent just as much time with, someone quiet, thoughtful, but unnoticed and unknowable. I’d rather know that person but I don’t even know how I’d start.” She stared ahead and made no eye contact with James. James thought perhaps she was talking about herself or himself or just in the abstract about people like themselves or about someone in particular who was not him and still held a special power over her, someone from her high school maybe. By the time he had sorted all the possibilities of what he thought she might mean, the time to say anything in response had passed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I probably sound crazy to you. You want to know her, right?”

“Yes, I guess I do. There is something about her.”

“I know, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. What if she were ugly? I don’t mean just not gorgeous like she is, but just flat difficult to look at, would there still be something about her?”

“Yes, but no one would know,” said James.

“You really think no one. There would not be one person willing to find out? Her sheer strength of personality would be insufficient to lure one, while her looks combined with that same personality is enough to lure the world?”

James thought for a minute, scratching his chin, his thumb going against the grain of his ten-o’clock shadow. “Yes, but, you know, that’s not exactly how I’d phrase it. The looks are one thing, maybe you’re right they’re the only thing, but I doubt it. We credit attractive people with much, but I wonder if we are just crediting them with what we should credit everyone. There is simultaneous interest, paralysis, and unfounded respect, like seeing a lion five feet away. You really want it to come up to you and let you pet it, but you know the best case scenario is that it walks by without incident. I’ve mangled that I think, but you get it?”

“No, I mean, I don’t really. It would be a total disaster if everyone treated everybody like they were lions. You can’t walk around being intimidated by everyone. I do sometimes, but it’s sort of my job. You have to be respectful, but to actually feel that way, deep down, would be a nightmare.”

“I’m sure you, to some, you . . .” said James. “I mean as . . .” he continued and looked at her briefly as she turned towards him, trying to make out what he was trying to say. “ . . . a beautiful woman yourself, you know the advantages.”

Florence knew this type of thing was coming eventually, though she had hoped for it to be delayed as much as possible. She never knew the sincerity of such remarks. She thought men were compelled to say such things when the subject of beauty was brought up around a woman. It was to make her and any other woman feel like “well of course, you too are beautiful.” To not say something would be to insinuate that she was objectively unattractive. She wished the conversations could continue on neutral terms, but it had turned and there was no going back. James, on the other hand, did not say such things lightly and did not, as a general matter, pay compliments to people as a matter of social curtesy. In fact, often times he intentionally ignored signals from people who were begging to be reassured.

“Well, thanks, you know, thanks,” said Florence.

“I, honestly, it’s, I don’t think I know how it would feel. I think it’d be good, but that’s just a comparative thing. It might be bad in a new way, which might end up being so much worse.”

“I can’t say, honestly. I can’t say,” said Florence finishing her beer. James was torn between saying, “Of course you can,” and pressing his hand against her back, or finishing off his own beer and staring straight ahead. He chose the latter. “I’ve gotta close out,” he said, recognizing that Florence wanted to leave. She nodded and then waited in silence until James got the bartender’s attention.

***

            “We’re taking Haven’s car, you take yours with the other one,” read the text Horant sent James. The text was sent ten minutes previous, but James had not felt the vibration through his pocket and even if he had, would not have been so rude to check his phone mid-conversation. But now that things were concluding in some intermittent and not terribly satisfying way, he felt that checking his phone was not taboo, but to the contrary, expected. Florence also checked hers and received only a typical “Love you honey, here’s a cute video,” email from her mother. Florence’s Mother discovered the internet late in life and had made up for lost time by sending her offspring tri-weekly pleasant email forwards mostly of dogs doing human things, but also sometimes of animals of different species being kind to one another. Florence never responded, but sometimes watched them, and when she did, it made her think the world was alright.

“Thank you,” said Florence to James as they walked out of the bar. She trailed behind him initially, but he held the door for her and she walked through. “I didn’t mean for the door,” she said, “I meant for the drink, the company, just thanks.” They were outside now, the breeze blew her hair into her eyes and she removed it to the side of her face with alacrity.

“Of course, thank you,” said James swimming a little in that hair flip and unsure whether she was just being nice or was genuinely appreciative, and even if she were generally appreciative, what this could mean for her overall opinion of him and, lastly, what was the wind doing to his hair anyway? They walked for a minute in silence.

“Where did they go you think? I don’t even have Haven’s number,” said Florence taking her phone out and sliding her finger down it aggressively by way of demonstration. James pulled out his phone and made a show out of checking it, even though he had already read Horant’s text.

“He says they took Haven’s car. So I guess they’re alright, but,” said James. He looked away from his phone and back over at Florence who had put her phone away and stopped walking. “So, I mean I can give you a ride back if you want or we could go somewhere else. What do you think?”

“Must have been Haven’s plan all along,” said Florence. “Why would she want me to drive her, it’s so weird. My car is at her place. Do you want to go back to her place? Maybe we could sneak in and rearrange the fruit bowl or something. Untidy the linen closet, that type of thing could be a hoot,” said Florence.

“A hoot? Sure, I suppose. I mean it’s her place after all. I’m sure there are several linen closets,” said James.

“Several you think? I bet she has a bowl with various types of grapes, at least two types of grapes. She didn’t let me in earlier,” said Florence.

“Did you ask?” asked James.

“Ask to be let in? Why would I ask her that?” asked Florence seemingly quasi-insulted at the insinuation that she would ask Haven to let her into her home.

“People ask all sorts of things all the time and sometimes for reasons less obvious than they want to know the answer,” said James, sharing his inner Horant.

“In what universe does that advance your cause?” asked Florence.

“This one?”

“Sure, let’s invade the Hootenanny residence.”

 

 

Part X: Why You Always Take Two Cars

 

“She gave you the keys back? None of this makes much sense,” said Horant, his hand on Haven’s waist as they swayed through the streets towards the parking garage.

“Why would I let her keep my keys? You’re silly, that’s silly!”

“I’ve been called a lot of things, silly is among the least descriptive and least accurate,” said Horant moving his hand up and down Haven’s back as they were stopped at a crosswalk.

Haven turned and looked up into his eyes and said, “Silly.”

They were now allowed to walk and so they did, across the street and into the lot where Haven had almost forgotten both where Florence parked and that she had texted herself where Florence parked when she parked there. Haven had, in fact, once actually lost a car she had parked at a St. Patrick’s Day Festival. She parked it somewhere and when she went to pick it up eight hours later she simply could not remember where it was, searched for an hour, took a cab, and reported the car stolen. The next day the police found it parked in a lot between two semi trucks. When alerted by the police, Haven insisted that she “would not and could not have” parked there and that maybe it wasn’t even her car. The cops were swayed for a moment, having seen her face and all that, but then asked her to try her keys. They worked. The next day, she traded that car in for her current SUV to prove some kind of point to someone.

This memory flooded back to Haven as she removed Horant’s hand from her back and searched diligently for her SUV.

“Do you remember where she parked it?” asked Horant. His question was so unbelievably confoundingly dumb that he did nothing when Haven clearly heard him and did not respond, but instead clattered her heels around the hard concrete a bit more, placing her hand over her forehead as if she were Columbus or some other explorer who actually knew what they were looking for.

“We could call your friend,” said Horant chasing Haven around, dodging the occasional car or alerting Haven to do the same.

“What friend? Why would my friend know where she parked?” asked Haven.

“She parked it, I meant her, the one we were just with, the one with the bagels. I could call James.”

“Who’s that? Why would he know?”

“My friend James, presumably he’s still with your friend.”

“Why presume that? Maybe even they are, and would rather be left alone. I could have just . . . I, you know,” said Haven, remembering she had noted the location on an app in her phone. She had, apparently, parked on the third floor, hippo section (the lot was occasionally used for zoo overflow parking before the zoo relocated to an area that now consisted almost entirely of parking lots). Instead of alerting Horant, she simply stopped, read her phone, and flew up the nearest flight of stairs. Horant had no choice but to follow her like a rat whose cheese had started to roll away. Out of breath, not because of the stairs, but because of the excitement of the realization and what this meant for the evening, Haven pressed the remote, heard that familiar unlocking cue, stomped over, and leaned against the car before Horant really knew what happened.

“Found it!” she said, and they made out for awhile against the SUV until they heard what sounded like footsteps.

When they got in the car, Haven asked, “Who do you think that was, right there?”

“How would? I mean, I have no idea. Could be anyone.”

“Do you think they would have been offended? You know?” asked Haven.

Horant placed his hand on her left thigh, just below where her dress ended. “Offended by what?”

“Oh you know anything, us, my car, the stock market. Do you think they’d be offended?”

He removed his hand, “No way of knowing, there’s no counting for offense. People are offended by everything and nothing really. Deep psychological offense, I don’t even think it’s a real thing. I’ve never felt it.” He looked back down at that same thigh.

“Oh no? I have, I mean, I’m offended all the time I think, and sometimes I don’t even know why. Like yesterday, no the day before, the day before, I, this man asked me if whether I have more fun because of my hair color, you know?”

“And that offended you deeply?”

“No, I mean, it was more the way he said it and who he was. He’s one of those powerful men you read about in magazines who, at the end of this war or that, accumulates a bunch of stuff people had been wanting during the war but couldn’t get because of civic duty and that type of thing. Anyway, he’s like one of those, and then he sells it all off to those people who wanted that stuff and makes so much money the only way he can interest anyone after that is by making them feel unhinged. So he unhinges people now and that’s like what he does.”

“Hmm, we’re you unhinged?”

“I, no, I mean, offended is better. I mean, why me? My hair is fine, but hair without a face is no fun for anyone.”

“That seems right.” Horant considered some type of physical contact to reassure Haven. Of what he would be reassuring her, he had no idea and in 99% of moments would have said so.

“People accost me all the time. I’m immensely accostable. Sometimes, there are moments when I’d prefer that particular moment had never started, like the whole course of human events to that point led to me, specifically me, being accosted by this ghoul or that, and insofar as it all led to that, I’d prefer that none of it happened.”

“Do you? You can’t mean that because some clown comes up to you and asks for your autograph and a picture you would prefer that mankind never existed?” asked Horant, suddenly reverting to what, if anyone asked, he would describe as his normal state.

Haven did not answer, but grabbed Horant’s head and kissed him on the bridge of the nose. “Let’s drive,” she said.

***

            James and Florence nearly skipped to his car, walking side by side except when one of them misjudged the pace of the other. There was something about the prospect of driving to Haven’s house which made them both irrepressibly happy.

“Does she have a dog, you think? Guards?” asked James.

“I didn’t hear a bark.”

“You know about dogs, they say, they say not all of them bark all the time.”

“Same with guards?”

“Oh, no, they all bark all the time.”

They reached the car, James considered opening the door for Florence, did not, and simply unlocked both front doors as they split towards opposite sides of the car. Florence managed to open the unlocked door, sit in the car, and close the door all by herself without even thinking it was particularly difficult. James’s car smelled nice because his driver side window did not seal correctly and he had, unintentionally, parked next to an incense store. In the back seat there was a tennis racquet and a brochure for an herbal hair loss reversal supplement his mom had left in the car on purpose without saying anything the last time he picked her up at her eye doctor appointment. James found it weeks ago, read it more thoroughly than he’d like to admit, and threw it back where he found it either out of disgust or a genuine desire to know where it was. It was too dark for Florence to see or notice the racquet or the brochure.

“My car is a mess,” said James, not because he believed it but because that’s what everyone always said to him whenever they gave him a ride anywhere regardless of the condition of their car. It was always said unironically and James did not blaze a new trail in this respect.

“Oh yeah, it’s a disaster. Smells like bagels too! Wait, no that’s mine,” said Florence, just then noticing that they were parked across from Incandessence. “Oh,” she said, “that explains it. Your car almost smelled too good. That would be creepy if you burnt incense in your car. I’d walk home right now if I found out you did that. Do you?” she gripped the door handle.

“I’ve never owned incense. It was explained to me once.”

“How long did that take? It burns and smells in a way some people like.”

“That was much more efficient than my lesson. It was a six-week adult education class called This Stick, When You Burn It, It Smells Nice!

“First two weeks, the stick, next two, when you burn it, final two, smells nice.”

The very end of this conversation was the turn of the key in the ignition.

***

            Haven started to drive. Where she was going was unclear to Horant, but she drove purposefully, without a modicum of drunkenness. They drove past the expensive residential neighborhood which Horant had assumed Haven lived. The drove past the slightly less expensive, but still overpriced up and coming neighborhood in which Horant lived. They drove past the lame and unimportant neighborhood Haven actually grew up in and the slightly livelier but less safe neighborhood Horant used to tell people he grew up in when he wanted to pretend he was from the area. They drove past it all, until there were no more places one could reasonably call neighborhoods. Horant hadn’t thought to ask where they were going and even if he had, would Haven respond? He placed his hand on her leg a few times and she didn’t dissuade him, but was also not encouraging. There was a place they could be going, Horant thought, a remote location where some people had informed him there was a view of the city which was “worth it.” They passed that place without slowing. Finally, Horant asked, “Where are we going?”

“We’re driving, you and I, mostly me. It’s been so nice this evening, so nice, really,” she said tapping his hand, removing it from her leg, and squeezing it.

“I agree,” said Horant. “Still, where are we going?” Horant was somehow both playful and insistent.

“Sometimes you just wait and then eventually, what is going to happen, happens. This is one of those scenes. In the biz, we call ‘em wait-n-sees.” She patted his leg.

“As long as the ending is, how do they say it in the biz?”

“Final? The final ending. I think that’s it.”

“Well . . .” said Horant.

“It should be. I would think it would be,” said Haven.

The road was winding now, the lights on the road became less frequent, Horant’s ears began to pop. He receded from Haven and began staring at the window, her face seemed darker whenever he looked at it, like the cheapest special effect he’d ever seen. Every once in a while, her teeth flashed at him out of the darkness and it distorted her face and made Horant feel, for the first time since he’d met Haven, a type of revulsion. The SUV climbed up the winding road, sometimes roaring, other times seeming to hiss. Nothing was said for quite a while, Horant considered turning on the radio but decided he’d better not. Who knows what would come on and how it would make things better or worse or the same.

“We’re almost there,” said Haven.

***

            James and Florence reached Haven’s apartment in fine order, remarking at this and that expectation of how Haven lived and this and that street sign which amused one or both of them in some way. They parked at the end of the long driveway in line with a set of reddish orange bushes Haven’s exterior designer had suggested would “broaden the tonal ephemeral simpatico of the house.” At the time Haven did not know what this meant and could not be bothered to find out, but thought the bushes pretty and figured it meant something like that. It took sometime for the bushes to grow as expected, but soon enough they were indeed pretty and Haven almost weekly thought about how nice it was to have these particular bushes as part of her life.

“My car is down the street, but do you want to come in? Not to my place of course but Haven’s. I bet, maybe we can sneak in. The linens, remember?” said Florence. Florence was feeling her drinks a little bit and also feeling a sort of adventurousness she had rarely exhibited since graduating college. There was something just taboo enough about Haven’s house. Florence felt that there was an equal chance that Haven would not care at all about her and James entering her place without permission, or that it would destroy her entire world. Florence liked this dichotomy and was, quite frankly, up for either.

James, for his part, was just going to follow Florence. Had he been left to his own devices and glacial mode of decisionmaking, he would not be anywhere near Haven’s apartment. He would have driven Florence home, said goodnight, hoped to feel compelled to kiss her, and chalk it all up as at least an eventful night even if the kiss did not come off. But the car situation had driven him, quite literally, to Haven’s doorstep and on the verge of attempting to break into her house with this Florence, who was witty and put out bagels. That was the most he could say about Florence and he was letting her dictate his life decisions after he had let Horant dictate the decision to go in the first place, after Horant had, no doubt, let this Haven Hootenanny, who happened to be the least knowable person he’d ever met, dictate this insane ride situation. He could do the same anyway, he thought suddenly. He could leave Florence off, say goodnight, try the kiss, say no breaking and entering for me tonight, but wasn’t it a lovely evening etc. and so on. He could still do all that, but in point of fact, he could not, because by the time he thought all that he had already told Florence, “Sure, let’s see what we can do.”

They crept up her driveway, Florence feigning some type of special ops scenario, James moving the same way out of reluctance to proceed more than any type of play acting. “What are we doing?” said Florence. “What are we doing?” said James, slightly more insistently. They reached the front door. It was unlocked! Haven, in her rush to look just right for Horant, had forgotten to lock the door. The neighborhood was such that Haven had, unwittingly unlocked the front door on several previous occasions and never had any incident. When she originally looked at buying the house last year, the real estate agent had assured her that the neighborhood was “impeccably safe” due in no small part to the “tree-lined streets.” “There are trees lined up, ready to fight on your behalf,” he said.

Florence and James laughed almost silently as the doorknob turned with ease. Florence pushed her way into the foyer and James crept slowly in behind her. “There could still be an alarm,” he thought and said, but too quietly for Florence to hear.

Florence flipped on the lights, no alarm sounded. “This, jesus,” she said, as the sparkling marble kitchen countertops made her shield her eyes as she walked towards them. On the countertops was a collection of intricate and apparently unused cooking devices. There was even what appeared to be a mini guillotine for chopping celery or like-shaped vegetables. Florence wanted to run her finger across the blade and say something about cake or Marie Antoinette or both, but she didn’t, and instead poked James in the gut and said, “Look at that!” James nodded knowingly, also having observed the peculiar chopping device.

“I bet she never cooks, just never,” said Florence.

“Do you?”

“Almost never, I did a few times in college when time seemed infinite between classes. I made a pizza bread that my roommates raved about and always begged me to make after they came home drunk. It takes time though pizza bread, like anything else, and usually I was drunk too. Sometimes we’d end up at least buying the ingredients.”

“Like this,” said James, alluding to the series of spotless contraptions on the countertop.

“Almost, but we’d still eat them at some point, you know, it’s not like we’d leave the pepperoni out for weeks as a show of our capacity to make pizza bread. We ate it, and it was less good, and just as unhealthy, without the dough and the time I ended up refusing to invest in it.”

“You wait sometimes for a good thing, other times a good thing is foisted upon you and you don’t know what to do with it, or even know it is a good thing, maybe the best thing possible, till it’s gone and you convince yourself it’s the best thing possible. Even then, was it?”

Florence sidled up next to James in the far corner of the kitchen, next to the refrigerator which was twice the width as the distance between them. Florence closed the gap. James put his right hand on the part of her hair which one could argue was near her eyes. He brushed it back. He ducked his head, their lips met, their arms slid down each other’s bodies in fits and starts, until they each landed somewhere in the lower back. This type of thing went on for quite some time until they withdrew momentarily.

“Did you miss it?” asked Florence.

“No, I was there for that one,” said James.

***

            The only thing between Haven and Horant at this point was a center console and an increasingly cavernous lack of awareness of each other. The dense fog which once enveloped the lightless streets on which they were turning this way and that had lifted and Horant could clearly see the vacant nothingness on all sides. It was what he imagined idiots did on the weekends, just driving to nowhere to go shoot something or other, or set off makeshift explosives. He was not at all certain that Haven knew where she was going, or that, at this point, Haven even knew what it would mean to know where she was going. He took out his phone and tried to text James, “We’re nowhere man, she’s driven us to nowhere, officially! Are you home now? I might need you.” There was no service and the text did not get delivered then.

“Is there another?” asked Haven, coldly.

“What? No, just texting James.”

“I want to believe you. There’s no service out here anyway, he (or she) will have to wait. It’s just you and me now Horant, really. The two of us,” said Haven. “No one else, none of them, just us two and the drive, which is almost over, soon it’ll just be us two,” said Haven.

“Can’t wait,” said Horant again reaching for Haven’s leg, but this time stopping himself at the center console and gripping it.

Haven turned into what can only be described as a wooded trail. How she even saw it in the darkness is inexplicable, unless you consider that Haven had turned down that same path no fewer than eighty times. The first time she made the turn, it was an innocent mistake. She had intended to go sight seeing at a spot someone had told her was “breathtaking.” She almost forgot what that phrase meant by the time she made the turn that first time. It had been a particularly frustrating day for her. The IVV had been especially terrifying that afternoon, her show having featured coverage of garish Christmas lights and the people who thought they were beautiful. This attracted people whose sense of beauty, she thought, started with themselves and continued on in the same misdirected vain until culminating with Christmas light displays complete with strobe lights and pulsing Christmas House Music – a hybrid so unpopular that even the International Gingerbread Housewives Championship, which had run for fifty-seven years, folded the year after it switched from traditional Christmas music to this gross amalgam. Ms. Gingerbread Housewife Turkey was so perturbed that she set fire to her own creation and laughed as the little gingerbread faces disintegrated before her eyes. It was bad news, and Haven had told The Coordinator so that day. The Coordinator suggested she drive somewhere breathtaking or else he was going to take her breath for her, and maybe her job too. This was before Haven was big enough to laugh off such idol threats; she was actually indispensable at the time, but did not know it. Her indispensability was known to her only insofar as she generally thought herself indispensable because everyone had always treated her like she was, no matter what she was doing or how badly she was doing it. This, ironically, led her to believe that maybe she was not indispensable at all, but entirely dispensable and people were pretending she was indispensable so she would dispense with herself and give herself to them entirely. She rarely did, and it never ended well on those rare occasions she momentarily forgot the other occasions and gave some part of herself to someone who was seeking it. The only difference between those occasions and all the others was, she thought, her failure to recognize her own power or lack thereof or, more completely, her failure to recognize other’s desire to take that power from her. Once she was awaken, through some inadvertent or advertent indifference on the part of the possessing party, it was over and done with, and each time she thought, “so much the better.”

The car had stopped. The darkness was palpable. The lights were shut off and Horant could only see a line of trees, “oaks,” he thought for some reason other than recognizing what type of trees they were.

“We’re here!” said Haven. She unlocked the door and waited for Horant to grope around his side of the SUV to her side, open her door, take her by the hand, and close the door behind her. “In your heels?” he asked.

“Oh, of course, of course, how are we to stumble out if it’ll be as simple as walking in my bare feet? Besides, there’s dirt here and it would, you know, my feet would get dirty otherwise.”

“And your shoes? They’re very pretty shoes.”

“Yes, but they’re just shoes, my dear. Just shoes you know cannot be pretty really, cannot even have any genuine aesthetic appeal at all without feet in them, and dirty feet will compromise a pretty shoe every time.”

“I suppose I understand the general sentiment, but the actual truth of what you’re saying . . . I actually think it’s not true at all.” Horant steadied himself by rubbing Haven’s shoulders.

“You don’t know. You’re nice and well, you know, I picked you after all, but you don’t know.” She grabbed his arm and walked straight ahead in the darkness. Horant followed, staring at the ground, hoping to be able to show his devotion to Haven by saving her some misstep, some step that might ruin her shoes, no matter whose feet were in them. No such opportunity arose. They stepped past the trees and what existed on the other side was, as far as Horant could tell, nothing. In a few steps, and Haven was not slowing, almost dragging Horant against his will, there would be utter nothingness. But Horant’s will was to persist with Haven, to see it through, to stagger out as it were. Three steps from what would be the end of our story, or any other, if it wasn’t for the fact that we started with James after all, and it’d be nice to know what happened to him and that nice young bagel lady Florence, Haven launched into the following: “I told you, you and I, really, Horant, and just the two of us, we’ll, you know forever, like this, and we won’t be like them, they’ll be no evidence we were like them, that they and us were even of the same species. Imagine! Us two through eternity, and maybe you’ll get a different nose in the newspaper too, the photos of us will be brilliant. The two of us, we don’t belong to all this; to the exclusion of the ones like us, there has been introduced all the rest and they’re too much for us, for me. It’s nice there’s you. But, there’s also all that, and it’s not going away anytime soon. I’ve tried, my whole life, I’ve tried to reconcile, what it means, why it’s like that, why we can’t be better, all of us, even me. I have no answers. I’ve been told they’re dumb questions. They’re vain questions. They’re questions only a person who happens to be both irreconcilably dumb and inconceivably vain would ask. I’ve asked, I may be both, but with you, I feel neither, and it’s been some time.” She embraced Horant, held him tightly, kissed his face all over, but neglected his lips which hopelessly sought hers in the darkness.

She finally released him and they stood looking over the precipice, hand-in-hand. For all this, Horant never really believed Haven would take the next two steps, but she would have, she truly would have, and taken him with her. However, just then a stray dog appeared through the darkness. He barked once, looking directly at the lovely couple with his one good eye. Haven turned and shielded herself from his lop-sided gaze using Horant, who more than welcomed the distraction. The old mangy mutt stood his ground, and, in fact, hobbled his way towards our second favorite couple. When he became visible, Horant noticed that he was the ugliest four-legged creature he had seen since his Uncle had showed him his prized possum collection. “There are several colors of possums,” he had said, “but they all have that face.”

The dog’s life is not entirely known, but it will suffice to learn that it had once been trained to fight other dogs, had been found to be too docile for the task, had been tagged with a collar at some point thereafter which read, “No longer needed, shoot if you’d like,” had been officially abandoned in the woods, had been attacked by a mountain lion, had been pecked at by a series of thoughtless birds, of which he was able to catch one and eat it, bones and all, had badly cut up his left front paw on the serrated edge of a can of beans some trucker had thrown out his front window, and finally, had arrived this night at the cliff before two lovely people who had never experienced one second as bad as the best moment of this dog’s life (probably the time he found a piece of old hamburger in the trash, ate it, and became violently sick thereafter).

The dog neared the huddled couple, his tongue dragging to his knobby knees, his knob tail wagging slightly.

“Rabid?” asked Haven.

“It doesn’t look great,” said Horant, shooing the dog away with his hands but refusing to use his feet for fear he might lose his or Haven’s footing, or actually injure the animal.

The dog ignored the shooing, having faced many more emphatic attempts to disrupt his plans in the past. Many of these consequences he did not remember at the moment, having lost much of his memory, almost thankfully, because of the various times he had his face smacked, headbutted, or chewed to the point of concussion.

The dog walked inbetween Haven and Horant, sticking his nose in as a wedge and then lying down. He scrambled to his back, waved his paws in the air a few times with abandon and then flipped to face Haven. Haven withdrew and staggered backwards for a second, but was pulled in by Horant. Whether she actually would have stumbled over the cliff without Horant’s pull is unknown, and beside the point. Upon being pulled back, she fell to her knees and found herself face to face with the mutt. She was terrified and recoiled. The dog inched his way closer on his belly and began licking the air furiously until he finally reached Haven’s feet. He licked her feet for what seemed like minutes; she giggled wildly, literally and figuratively tickled by the dog’s affection. Horant just watched as the woman who had just led him to the edge of eternity, squealed with delight as she rubbed the old dog’s belly and let his tongue lick her toes to the point that they were dripping with his slobber. Finally, the dog looked up at Haven, his one intact eye twitching with glee and hope that this stranger would be his new best friend and save him from whatever it was the rest of his life had been. She cupped his head with her smooth, painted hands, felt several bumps, notches, and scars which were either smoothed over or fresh, sticky or bulbous. She felt his ugliness in its entirety. She placed her hand under his muzzle and let him lean his head on something sympathetic for the first time in his life.

“Good boy!” she said.

 

 

Part XI: How It Will Impact the Rest of Your Life

 

A week after their double date, James and Horant met at Go Ahead and Order That Diner for lunch. They had texted a few times that week and were vaguely aware of how each other’s night had gone, but had not really discussed it in detail.

“So did you think you were going over the cliff with her, head over heels, as it were?” asked James.

“No, I don’t think, actually, I don’t think so.”

“Shame, I had a theory I wanted you to test.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t die. Men have died for theories, but I won’t die for yours, whatever it is. And if it’s about death, I certainly won’t die for that,” said Horant.

“Do you want to know what it is?”

“No, not really.”

They stared off for a minute, the TV in front of them showing Haven announcing that “Even though the crowds this year may be worse than ever before, that’s not so bad, is it?”

The screen was cluttered with Godknowswhat; of note was a dancing sandwich holding a spinning sign. The sandwich’s hands did not move, but the sign seemed to spin of its own accord. The sandwich wore a Hawaiian shirt and had this pickle and that onion sticking out of its head. The sign read “Sale, but not the one you think, the real one!” The fine print was not fine, but in fact larger than “Sale.” However, it was all small on the screen and unreadable for James and Horant who were focused on Haven in any case. As innocuous as the corner ad seemed, it actually caused an irreconcilable riff between the bagel caterer and The Network, and provided the impetus for Florence to quit her job, apply for grad school, earn a masters’ degree, and, in the process, exit James’s life forever. But that’s a different story, one without aesthetic appeal, one of casual melancholy and moderate academic achievement, one that ends at a ceremony with proud parents and a couple of men, neither of whom are James, upset that Florence would exit their lives forever after her name was read. As for Haven, she looked different, less perfect, but more perfected; like the slight asymmetry in her eyebrows and the way her hair kept falling in front of her face was somehow as she was intended to be.

“So, are you two?” asked James, pointing at the TV with his voice and head.

“I think so, yeah.” said Horant.

“And the dog?”

“She’s keeping it. The vet is getting a Porsche.”

They stared another second. “But, like, where do you go from here? What do you do for an encore? Someone probably once said that every love story begins with an aborted suicide attempt,” said James.

“I doubt it, but now you have. Sometimes I consider you someone.”

“Why?”

“Habit.”

“But, really, what next?”

“A wine bar near her place I think. She said it’s called Stuff,” said Horant.

“I know that place. That’s one of those places that spells stuff with an ‘f.’”

“I’m pretty sure that’s every place.”

“No, with an ‘f.’”

“Stuff with an ‘n’ is not stuff.”

“No, an ‘f,’ like one f.”

“Only one f?”

“Yes, S-t-u-f.”

“Got it, but I don’t think that means anything, what you said right now. Nothing follows from being a place that misspells stuff.”

“But in that way specifically, everything follows.”

“But not a second ‘f.’ That at least doesn’t follow.”

“Yes, I agree.”

 

 

 

BIO

Brian Conlon is an attorney originally from Rochester, NY, now living in San Francisco. He knows of a song that says something or other about meeting someone or other there. He can’t sing it, so don’t ask. If you gave him sheet music, he could play it on sax. His ears are not great. His story The Two Problems in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Their Solution appeared in the fall 2013 edition of The Writing Disorder. His novella, The Long Black Veil, was recently published by Novella-T (which no longer exists, but was pretty cool).

 

 

 

0

Super John

by Mark Budman

 

 

If you shop at Walmart even occasionally, you’ve probably seen John Doe exiting with a cart full of frozen pizzas and beer and toilet paper. But you hardly noticed him. He blended in with the elements so well that you’d need Sherlock Holmes’s attention to detail to spot him in the crowd. You wouldn’t know about his dreams or aspirations. You wouldn’t care if he wanted to become a star though his talents were few.

But one day, as he strolled through the exit door, another shopper blocked his path. She looked strange even by Walmart standards: pointed ears, nose and chin, and a collection of warts big as strawberries. Her eyes shone like two faux rubies.

John tried to guide his cart around her but she kept blocking his way. Then she thrust a small bag in his hand and vanished.

John examined the bag. It contained a plastic box and a receipt. He proceeded outside and opened the box. There was a puff sound. A small blast of yellow, pleasant-smelling gas escaped. And that was it. John shrugged, threw the box into the garbage and headed to his car.

Then his insides churned and a bout of hiccups took over. He felt like he was bursting. In minutes, he grew to a height five times taller than before. When he entered the store an hour earlier, his height was 69.7 inches, average for a white American male. Now, though stooping, he was 348.5 inches, which is 29 feet, give or take, and he dwarfed his cart and the gawkers. Unlike the Incredible Hulk, John’s clothes grew proportionally, except for his pants and skivvies, to the delight of some and envy of others. His eyes flashed laser beams and bolts of lightning danced on his back.

The store manager called 911. At first, the operator hung up on him. Eventually, after calls from numerous people, the SWAT team came, but John shot up to the skies and turned not just into a single star but a whole constellation. The pic of this constellation, first taken by the most junior member of the SWAT team, was an instant success on Instagram. It had became popularly known as $5.10 because it resembled five rolled up dollar bills for the torso, hands and feet, and a dime for the head. It inspired a doll, “Johanna,” sold at Walmart for that price. It was also a success, and became the number one stolen item nationwide for the month of August.

As for the stranger, she hadn’t been seen again, probably because there were enough stars in this galaxy and not enough shoppers at Walmart.

 

 

BIO

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly,  Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He  co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton.

 

 

 

0

The Crossing

by Mona Leigh Rose

 

 

Ricardo says you cannot hear them. They slink like cats, he says. Ricardo says you cannot see them, not like you’d see your sister waiting on the curb for the school bus. They’re in the shadows, he says. That flick in the corner of your eye? That’s them, he says. When you see that flick, if you turn fast enough you might see the tip of a shoe or a wisp of hair. When you see that flick, you must move closer, you must look behind the utility box, around the block wall, deep into the shadows. If you ignore that flick, she will wait, not moving, not breathing. She will wait for the train and then, when it’s too late, you’ll see her. You’ll see her slide her body onto the tracks, under the crushing wheels, silently, skillfully, as if she’s been practicing all of her life for this act.   She will reveal herself at the last possible moment, right as the train is passing, right as her life is ending, right as your life is beginning. And then you’ll be fired.

That’s how it happened for Ricardo. He worked security at this crossing for seven months. Seven months of watching and waiting, seven months of double-time pay, seven months of being a man. Then the teenage girl crept out of the shadows and ended it all. Now he works at fast food for minimum wage. No other boss will hire him. He is dirty, tainted with her blood. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, replaying that day, wondering if there was a flick, wondering if he could have stopped her, wondering if he will ever be a man again.

I took over Ricardo’s shift after the accident. Now I watch for girls who don’t want to be seen, listen for boys who don’t want to be heard. Teenagers who want to end their lives before they begin.

Every time it happens, the people and the newspapers tell us who, they tell us why: Parents who sacrifice everything so their children can have better lives. Parents who expect the impossible. Parents who are themselves geniuses, overachievers, the smartest in the world, who expect their children to do better. Children who grow up on the edge of the University, surrounded by the children of the smartest people in the world, who are told that if they don’t do better, they’re nothing. Children who sit in classrooms and libraries and tutoring centers under florescent lights for ten hours a day since they were three. Teenagers who go to the funerals of other teenagers who slid under the train. Young men and women who can think of no other option than to lie down under steel wheels to end the humiliation, the shame, of not getting into Harvard, of not scoring a perfect 2400 on their SATs, of not doing better than the smartest people in the world.

I know the older brothers of these kids. I played against them on the soccer pitch, rich against poor. I saw them around the edges of their town, when they crossed into my town. They wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t hear me. Now their younger brothers and sisters dive below the trains. They still don’t talk to me or see me, but I’m the one who will save their families.

Mr. Johanson says the worst is around finals, and the worst of the worst is when college admissions go out in the Spring. That’s when they come to the tracks, he says. That’s when you must be extra alert, he says. That’s also when the loud ones, the strange ones, come down to the crossing, sit on the block wall and watch. They think it’s sport, or a movie, or something to tweet about. They think it’s funny to place bets with their allowance money. Those ones are easy to see, easy to hear. I chase them away. They laugh at me. They don’t understand.

The commuter trains, they slow at the crossing. I see the faces of the conductors as they pass. Their mouths tighten, their eyes dart, the creases on their foreheads deepen with each pass. The freight trains, they don’t slow. Their cars and TVs and cattle are too important, must reach the markets. I don’t see the faces of those conductors. Do they see me? Do they understand?

My grandfather, he doesn’t understand. “Los trenes trajo vida a mi pueblo,” he says. “Los trenes eran nuestra esperanza, nuestra manera de entrar a América,” he says. He and his friends also waited in the shadows beside the tracks. They also crept silently toward the fast-moving trains. But they jumped onto the trains, they prayed to escape the crush of the steel wheels, they pulled each other onto the train cars and hid from the conductors. They rode the trains to freedom, to jobs, to a better life.

My brothers, they don’t understand. “You’re a crossing guard for spoiled rich kids,” they say. “Yes,” I say, “A crossing guard for spoiled rich kids who makes twice what you make.” That quiets them down.

My mother, she understands. “You are doing good, Joselito,” she says. “You are helping the sad niños, you are becoming un buen hombre. You are doing good.” “Yes,” I say to my mother. “I am doing good, and I will become a man.”

Mr. Johanson also says that I’m doing good. He says that I’ll be promoted, will be a supervisor, will stop watching for children who don’t want to be seen and will be the boss of other men. But first, I must see the flick. I must look deep into the shadows. I must be a man.

 

 

 

BIO

mona leigh roseMona Leigh Rose lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. Her stories “You Be Frodo” and “Peace” have appeared in Luna Review. She is infatuated with short fiction, the shorter the better.

 

 

 

0

Six

by Katie J. Schwartz

 

 

Start

The universe keeps giving me brothers.

Henry was there when I was a baby. Not technically my brother, but an uncle born so late to my grandparents that he was only a few years older. When my mother remarried, I gained two more older brothers, Dan and Jake. My first younger brother, Ollie, came a year or so later, courtesy of that new marriage. And finally, my father’s new wife brought me two more younger brothers, Todd and Jack.

And so I, an only child by blood, had six brothers by blessing.

I stood in the wings at the concert hall, rubbing my hands together and rocking back and forth from my toes to my heels. For the first time, I was going to play piano and sing in front of an audience. None of my parents could make it—my father and stepmother lived across the country now, and my mother and stepfather were away on business—four absentee parents, who could never shape my life as much as my brothers do, no matter how they (in particular my mother) tried.

I had my brothers there, and that was what mattered. For the first time, all six of my brothers were in one room. For me.

The house lights went down. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the blinding white spotlight. The polished, softly shining keys of the baby grand beckoned. My fingers fluttered over them, and sweet, soft music filled the room. My eyes drifted shut. Here, on the bench, at the black and white keys—this was my second home.

My thudding heart interrupted the moment’s tranquility. For an instant I didn’t know why, but then I remembered: I had to sing. The first note was fast approaching. My hands began to shake, and I struggled to place each finger correctly. For heaven’s sake, you practiced this forever! There’s no excuse for making stupid mistakes now.

I opened my mouth, and the first few notes came out, clear and solid, if not breathtakingly beautiful. I drew in a breath for the next bar.

A shriek from the audience flew at me.

I stopped playing and whipped around.

Though the high beam of the spotlight was meant to illuminate me, I could see the first row, and all six of my brothers sitting in it. But something was wrong. Their bodies contorted and bent, arms stretching at odd angles, necks elongating. Their skin burst into white feathers.

Before my eyes, my six brothers became six swans. As I stared from my spot at the silent piano, they took wing, and flew from the auditorium.

 

One

My lungs burned. I had been running since I fled from the stage, and I didn’t stop until I reached my bedroom. This is all your fault; you make an absolute mess of everything—I fumbled for my spellbook, frantically flipped pages, and stared at the spell I’d done last night.

I knew, deep down, what had happened. I had wanted to sing well. I had wanted my brothers, all of them, to be proud of me. I’d been thinking of my brothers as I enacted the spell, when I should have been focusing on myself. How could you have been so careless? Stupid! I’d been thinking of them when I inhaled a mouthful of sage smoke and choked on the word “swanaz.”

Why on earth would you try a spell in an ancient language that you of course don’t know? What an idiotic decision!

I sat back on my heels. My brothers were waterfowl, and it was all my fault. They’d all been there for me, and it was all my fault.

~ ~ ~

Henry sat me down at the piano bench. “Come on, let’s play piano for a while.”

I squirmed and tried to get back up. “I want to go outside!”

He laughed. “It’s raining cats and dogs! Come on, Juli, I’ll teach you a song.”

I stilled at the thought of learning something on the piano. Henry made such beautiful music come from the keys; I wanted to too.

Henry put his hand over mine and helped me tap out a four-note rhythm. “F-D-G-C,” he sang along. “And repeat, repeat, repeat.” We practiced until I could plunk it out on my own, and gradually I got faster, until I was doing it in perfect four/four time. As I continued to enthusiastically strike the keys, Henry stretched out his fingers and began to play a slightly more complicated melody on top of mine.

For a few minutes, we played together beautifully, our separate melodies intertwining into one full-fledged song. Then I lost my notes under his and began to stumble. I slowed, hit a wrong note, and my stomach dropped. My hand slid off the keys.

Henry paused. “What’s wrong? That was great!”

I studied my lap. “I did it wrong. I’m stupid.”

His brow creased. “Where did you get that idea?”

I shrugged. “I can’t do it, Henry.”

“Juli.” Henry put his arm around my shoulders. “You don’t have to be good at things right away. Making mistakes is how you learn.”

 

Two

Chewing on my already-shredded lower lip, I continued to leaf through my spellbook. There had to be a way to break this. Mistakes are how you learn. There had to be a way to fix this. But spell books handed down from your great-grandmother don’t come with indexes, and looking for a counter-spell was slow going.

My neck ached and my feet had long since fell asleep, but I remained on the floor, searching, searching. For heaven’s sake, the spellbook isn’t all that difficult to use! Why haven’t you found something yet?

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As calmly as I was able, I started at the back of the book and flipped forward. I took the time to read the title of each spell, and my entire body twitched with impatience. This wouldn’t take so long if you weren’t so careless and stupid.

And then, there it was. A spell to reverse animal transformations. Based on the illustrations of gooey-eyed figures, it was originally intended to restore a lover cursed by another jealous witch, but it would work just fine for brothers. There was one warning, right at the top of the page: The casting witch had to remain completely, utterly silent for the entire duration of the spell. I quickly scanned the spell.

My stomach dropped.

~ ~ ~

Dan started up the car. “You ready, Juli?”

“Yeah!” I bounced a little in my seat. Dan was taking me to a high school party. Me, a sixth grader! A high school party!

He grinned. His smile was crooked, like a child’s drawing of a crescent moon. “This is gonna be awesome.”

The party wasn’t quite what I expected. Instead of a houseful of teenagers dancing and flirting with each other, it was a group of ten or so people lounging around in a low-lit living room. I hung back near the doorway as Dan greeted everyone with lazy high-fives and rude-sounding names, like Swinger and Tubs.

I managed to edge closer to the circle and sit in an empty armchair without anyone noticing me, but then Dan turned and introduced me to the room. Frozen and squirming inside, I listened to a slew of names that I couldn’t focus on enough to remember, and returned half-waves with barely imperceptible nods.

Someone handed Dan a beer, and I shrank further into the armchair as he popped the tab. He turned to me and grinned his off-kilter smile. “You want a beer, Juli?”

“Jesus, Dan,” one of the girls said. “She’s just a kid.”

“She can handle it.” His grin widened. “What do you say, Juli?”

I looked around at the room of high schoolers, all older than me, all infinitely cooler. My voice stuck in my throat, so I did the only thing I could do. I nodded.

Dan handed me his beer and got another one. I took a sip. Bitterness soaked into my tongue, reminding me of when I bit my fingernails and accidentally got a taste of polish remover, except it was everywhere. I grimaced, and the entire room laughed. Heat crept onto my face as I filled to the brim with embarrassment at my own stupidity.

I spent the rest of the evening wishing I could either leave or die. I didn’t drink the rest of my beer, but I held it, feeling the metal can grow warmer and warmer. The taste remained in my mouth. Eventually, the party devolved into everyone pairing up and making out. I couldn’t ask Dan to leave, and I couldn’t call home and ask for a ride, either—I would never hear the end of it if my mother knew about this.

Trapped in the big armchair, I willed myself smaller and smaller, and stayed completely still and silent. If they didn’t hear me, then I wasn’t there.

 

Three

I stood by the little pond in the woods, kicking up the newly-fallen leaves, hands shoved deep in my pockets. All six swans were there, floating aimlessly around the water. I couldn’t tell if they knew they were actually humans, but I thought they looked a bit morose.

I was feeling a bit morose too. The spell didn’t stop at absolute silence, there were other tasks that I had to fulfill, tasks that I had no knowledge of or experience with—who knew how long it might take? Maybe six months, maybe a year. Maybe more.

During my period of voicelessness, I had to collect stinging nettles, make thread from their stems, and use that thread to weave a blanket large enough to throw over all of my brothers. My silence and industriousness would endow the nettle-blanket with magic, which would transform my brothers back into my brothers, or so the spell claimed.

My silence and industriousness—I’d almost snorted when I read it but stopped myself. Was a snort considered speaking? It wasn’t an ideal spell, but it was my only option. Of course, you’ll likely mess this one up as well—why on earth would you be able to get it right.

I squinted at one swan. His beak was a little crooked, so I thought he might be Dan. Maybe. Dan always treated me like an adult instead of a kid, but now that I was pretty close to actually being an adult, he always seemed like he was on the verge of apologizing for it. There was something in his eyes that belied something on the tip of his tongue, something that he couldn’t quite choke out.

I sighed internally and picked up the plastic bucket I’d brought with me. It was time to start gathering nettles.

~ ~ ~

Jake surveyed the tall, dense patch of weeds and scrubby brush. “It’s taller than you,” he said. “You better get up on my shoulders.”

He knelt down and I scrambled up. We had been tromping through the wooded area that surrounded our house all afternoon—we did it almost every day, looking for cool places, wild animals, and interesting plants. Jake was a Boy Scout, and his knowledge of wilderness seemed endless to me.

Today, we were looking for a place to fish. I perched precariously on his shoulders, clutching the little cross-body bag that I brought along to stash pretty rocks and cool sticks. Last week, we’d found a turtle shell, bleached tan and white by the sun. It was sitting on my bookshelf.

The weeds made dry cracking and shooshing sounds as Jake moved through them. From my vantage point, it looked like a waving ocean of mottled browns and greens. The tips of tree branches combed through my wind-tangled hair. Jake’s hands squeezed around my ankles, steadying me.

As he set me down on the other side of the brush, something caught my ear. “Jake! I think I hear water!” I started to run in the direction I’d heard it from, but he grabbed my wrist.

“Slow down! That’s poison ivy over there. We have to go around.”

I stopped, looking down at the dirt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so stupid.”

“Not knowing what poison ivy looks like doesn’t make you stupid, goofball.” He grinned. “Let’s check out that water source.”

We slowly picked our way around the leaves of three, and when we came out on the other side of the trees, there was a small pond. It wasn’t very big, but it was pretty—surrounded by sugarberry trees and flinty rock. A couple of ducks floated on its mirrored surface.

Jake grinned down at me. “Come on, let’s skip a few rocks.”

 

Four

My grades were slipping.

No, they were plummeting. I’d been silent for five months now. I could take solace in the fact that I had almost enough nettle thread to begin weaving a blanket, but my senior year was basically a wash. After begging my parents to let me transfer into a fancy-pants art school, I’d filled my schedule with things like voice lessons, public speaking, and participation-heavy creative workshops. My mistake. Full of mess-ups and mistakes, as usual.

But that wasn’t even the worst of it, wasn’t even the thing making me toss and turn all night long.

The entire town was in a fervor looking for my brothers, my six swans. Witches, both local and out-of-towners, were boasting that they and they alone knew how to reverse the curse. Scientists were salivating at the chance to poke and prod them, to figure out where the human was tucked away inside the bird. Luckily, my brothers mostly stayed at the pond, and I was the only one who knew about it. None of this would have even happened if it weren’t for your positively astounding ineptitude.

But I wasn’t taking any chances. I crafted a protection charm, filling my turtle shell with dried bay leaves, St. John’s Wort, and crushed acorn, and walking a barrier around the pond as the mixture burned, releasing a heavy, acrid smoke into the air. I did this every Friday evening, just to be sure.

But school . . . school wasn’t an issue that I could resolve with witchcraft. Maybe if I’d been practicing chaos magic for the last hundred years I could trick my teachers into passing me, but until then . . . I would just have to swallow my F’s right along with my voice.

~ ~ ~

Ollie came rushing through the kitchen door after school, letting it bang shut and moving his legs in a stiff, jerky manner. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that his eyes were brimming with tears.

I cautiously edged my way into the living. He was huddled up on the couch, face crushed into a throw pillow. “Ollie? What’s wrong?”

His shoulders shook as he drew in a shuddery, tear-filled breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ollie.” I sat down next to him and put my hand on his back.

After a minute or two, he rolled over and sat up. “I can’t read right. Every time I have to read in class I just can’t say the words. My face gets all hot and I just can’t say the words. Everybody says I’m stupid.” He tipped forward and crashed his head into my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around him.

“Everybody says that? Everybody?”

He sniffed. “Well, almost everybody. Trent and Mira and Nathaniel all do.”

I recognized the names. Younger siblings of kids that had been in my class at the same school, all exceptionally mean, and exceptionally unashamed of it.

“Ollie.” I rubbed his back. “Listen to me. Just because somebody says that you’re stupid doesn’t make it true.”

He shrugged.

“No, really. You’re good at tons of stuff. Remember the birdhouse that you made for Mother’s Day? The finches love it! Could somebody stupid have done that?”

Ollie burrowed his face deeper into my shoulder, but I could feel him smiling. After a minute, I heard his muffled voice. “I can make really good pancakes too.”

I smiled too. “See? A stupid person definitely can’t make pancakes.”

He laughed, and then grew still again. “But I’m still not good at reading. And reading’s important.”

“Well, we can work on it. We can ask Mom if you can get a tutor—”

“No!” Ollie shook his head. “I don’t want to ask Mom. I—I don’t want a tutor.”

“Well, I can help you then,” I said. “Just remember that you can learn to be better at reading. Those other kids can’t learn to be kind.”

 

Five

The nettle blanket covered my twin bed, but I knew that wasn’t enough. It needed to be at least queen-sized, maybe bigger. Against the backdrop of quiet classical piano music, my knitting needles continued to click and clack. Since I didn’t have a loom at my disposal to actually weave a blanket, knitting one seemed like the obvious alternative. I still wasn’t very good at it—and my hands were stiff with pain from working so closely with a stinging plant—but I was at least faster than when I’d begun. And I figured that a couple dropped stitches weren’t a big deal for a blanket that wasn’t going to be used for warmth.

On my nightstand, my phone began to buzz, vibrating until it shifted and bumped into my alarm clock. I stiffened and ignored it, looking harder at my stitches, playing closer attention to each loop. When it finally stopped, the stones in my stomach dissipated some. One more short, angry buzz sounded, meaning that I had a voicemail or text. The stones were back.

I finished the row that I was on, moving the needles more slowly with each stitch, then drew in a long breath and forced myself to look at my phone.

A text. From Bella, a friend from one of my music classes. The missed call was from her, too.

The stone churned around, grinding against each other as I clicked to open the message. It read: “A bunch of us are going out tonight. Idk why I’m even telling you, since you don’t go out or even talk to us anymore.”

I set my phone face-down, pressing it into the bedspread, as if that would make it and the people on the other end of it disappear. The school year was long since ended, and for that I was glad. I couldn’t speak and I spent most of my time knitting a giant, nettle blanket. It was easier to just ignore my friends, to fade into the background and hope they forgot about me, didn’t notice my strange behavior. They did, of course, and now our relationships were strained, to put it nicely. For heaven’s sake, take some responsibility for once. This would be a non-issue if you hadn’t made such stupid decisions.

It was for the best, though. I didn’t have even anything in common with my musician friends anymore. I couldn’t sing, and for so long now, my hands were either swollen and pussing from handling the nettles, or aching and blistered from nonstop knitting. I hadn’t touched the piano in nearly ten months.

~ ~ ~

Todd burst through my closed bedroom door, smiling and struggling to pop open a can of soda. “Hey guys! What’s going on?”

The internal sighs that came from my friends were excruciatingly audible to me, and I cringed and flushed pink. Hannah’s lips pressed into a thin line as she shut the magazine that we’d been taking a quiz from. Its glossy pages slapped together with an irritated fwap!

Todd came over and wedged himself into our circle. “So how is everybody? What are we talking about?” He leaned over and peered at the magazine. “Seventeen, huh? Any good articles?”

I could hardly bear to look at my friends’ faces, but I still saw the eye-rolls and badly disguised snickers. Janie leaned over to me and whispered, “Can’t you tell your little brother to go away?”

Todd took a long, disgusting slurp from his can of soda. I flinched. “Todd, can I talk to you outside, please?”

“Sure, Sis!” He leaped back to his feet. I ushered him outside of the room and quickly shut the door.

“Look, we’re doing some, um, girl stuff right now. Girls only.”

I watched as Todd’s smile faded. His cheeks turned pink. “Oh.” He looked down. “That’s cool. I’ll just go see what Jack is up to.”

I patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Todd.” And I reopened my bedroom door just in time to hear Lisa say, “He’s so lame. Maybe he should be called Toad instead.”

My friends dissolved into fits of laughter. I turned bright red and couldn’t even look at Todd as he walked quickly away. My stomach twisted as I walked back into my room and sat down among my friends. Part of me wanted to tell them that they were being jerks, but they were laughing too loudly.

 

Six

By my very unscientific estimations, I only needed about another foot on my blanket. I sat on my bed, knitting frantically. It was the end of September. I had been silent for almost an entire year. At this point, I wasn’t even sure if I could still talk.

The hit to my grades hadn’t been quite as bad as I’d feared, and I was able to start college on time. Granted, I couldn’t get into a great school due to my suddenly lower-than-average GPA, but maybe that was for the best. From where I was sitting, online classes through the local community college seemed like a good option.

But it was almost all over. I was going to save my brothers. I was going to undo my mistakes. I was going to start talking, singing, and playing piano again. Maybe I could even begin to repair my lost, broken friendships.

I thought I heard the front door open but dismissed it. Ollie was a swan, and I’d been living alone for the entire year. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I heard stiletto heels clicking down the hall towards my room.

Not because I didn’t know who it was, but because I knew exactly who it was.

My door swung open, and there she stood. My mother.

“Well.” She clicked her way into my room, thin and model-tall, smoothing down her elegant white business suit. “Word finally reached me, although it took awhile to make it through the grapevine. Thank you for letting me know about what you did to your brothers and poor Henry. Oh, and your father’s children.”

I looked back down and concentrated harder on my knitting.

She made a tsk noise through her teeth. “For heaven’s sake, Julietta. I go on sabbatical in Europe for one year, and look what a mess you’ve made. Did you think I wouldn’t find out about it?”

She doesn’t know that I can’t talk. She doesn’t know the spell. A witch so powerful that she teaches at a private witchcraft institution, and she doesn’t know the counter-curse.

I knitted faster. I only needed a little more.

“Oh, and don’t think that I don’t know about your schoolwork, either. We’re going to get that fixed right up as soon as this other mess is taken care of. Community college, what an embarrassment.”

I heard her heels clicking again and then saw her white pant leg out of the corner of my eye, right next to the bed.

“Julietta.” Her voice was sharper, taking on a more annoyed edge. “Don’t you dare ignore me, young lady.” When I didn’t acknowledge her, her fingers smashed my cheeks together and forced my head up. Her gray eyes were cold. “Pay attention. This is what’s going to happen: You are going to give me your great-grandmother’s spellbook, and then you are going to take me to your brothers and the other poor boys. I am going to fix this whole mess that you’ve made. For heaven’s sake, how could you have been so stupid?”

~ ~ ~

Jack sat down next to me on the piano bench. “Hey Juli?”

My fingers stilled, but the sweet notes lingered in the air, reverberating. “What’s up?”

“I was wondering.” His fingers ghosted lightly over the keys, touching but not pressing hard enough to produce sound. “Do you think you could teach me how to play the piano?”

“Oh, Jack.” I bit my lip. “I’m not nearly good enough. Wouldn’t you rather have a real teacher?”

“But you are a real teacher. You love piano and you’re super good at it.”

“Jack, I just don’t think—”

“Please, Juli?” He leaned his head against my arm. “You’re the smartest, nicest person I know. You can be an awesome teacher, you can. Please?”

I looked down at him. He pouted his lower lip out, and then gave me a goofy grin, unable to hold the pose. I couldn’t help but smile. I was still learning the piano myself, but maybe we could learn together.

“OK.” I said. “Here’s your first lesson.” I played a four-note sequence. “F-D-G-C. Now you try.”

 

End

I couldn’t hold off any longer. My mother, still criticizing and firing off orders, was now rifling through my things, trying to locate my spellbook. She didn’t ask why I wasn’t speaking. She didn’t ask why I was knitting a giant blanket of stinging nettles. She didn’t care about anything except doing things her own way.

I couldn’t hold her off any longer. Eventually, she would find the spellbook and try something, something that might disrupt all of my efforts. The blanket might be too small, but I would have to risk it.

When her back was turned, I quickly folded up the blanket and ran from the room.

“Julietta!” Her voice was shrill, irritated. “Come back here this instant, young lady!” Just before I banged through the back door, I heard her pointed stilettos begin to click down the hall after me.

The heavy, cumbersome blanket weighed me down, and she came out of the back door before I was able to clear the backyard and disappear into the forest. Knowing that she was behind me, I decided to take the longer route to the pond. The way that would be harder and messier on her expensive high heels and pristine white suit.

“Julietta!” I could hear her shrieking behind me. “Stop this nonsense right now, young lady! Do you hear me? Right now!”

I pushed on.

When I arrived at the pond, my brothers were floating at the far end but began to swim towards me. My lungs heaved and my legs burned, both stinging from the run through the woods, but I wouldn’t stop. I would save my brothers.

There was a crashing noise behind me, and my mother burst through the trees. Her pants were mud up to her knees, there were leaves and twigs in her hair, and her heels were gone. But, to my horror, she was clutching the spellbook.

She spotted my six swans and smiled. “Ahh, there we go.” And she flipped open the book.

I dropped the blanket and rushed at her, intending to knock the book from her hands. She grabbed my wrist and held in high in the air, so that I was forced onto my toes. “Julietta, I simply don’t understand you. I tried to train you, to teach you to be a proper, powerful witch like me, but you just insist on bungling every single thing that you do.”

She shook me. I wobbled on my tiptoes. My shoulder socket screamed, but I pressed my lips together.

“Nothing to say for yourself, hmm? Well, that’s fairly typical, isn’t it. Always the quiet, shrinking, stupid little girl.”

A large white bird flew at my mother’s head.

She shrieked and dropped my arm. I tumbled to the ground, and when I looked up, another swan had joined the first. And then another, and another. In less than a minute, all six of my brothers were diving-bombing my mother, hissing, honking, and flapping their wings.

She screeched again and flung up her hands to protect herself, sending the spellbook crashing into the mud. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the blanket. I would save my brothers.

My brothers who taught me, who let me experience things that my mother never would, who were my friends when no one else was. My brothers who depended on me, who forgave me when I was unkind, who believed in me and my abilities. My brothers who loved me.

They abandoned my mother and landed in front of me. I threw the blanket.

Shouts and loud popping noises came from beneath the nettles, and the swan-shaped lumps shot upward, growing, twisting, changing. Human hands flung the blanket back, and there they were. I fell into their arms, sobbing and rasping their names.

 

Epilogue

I stood in the wings of the auditorium, waiting for the concert to begin.

This time, I wasn’t performing, but waiting to watch my student perform. Jack stood beside me, nervously rocking back and forth on his feet. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You’re gonna be great.”

“I know.” He flashed me a grin. “I have an awesome teacher.”

I turned and smiled back at him, but my happiness faded some as I looked at his left arm. Although technically human, it still grew large white wing-feathers, from his wrist to his shoulder. I had been right. The nettle blanket wasn’t quite big enough.

“Jack, I know I’ve said it before, but I really am sorry about your—”

“Stop it.” He rolled his eyes. “It isn’t your fault, Juli. It really, really isn’t.”

I gave him and quick hug, and he walked out on stage to a rainfall of applause. The music began to drift over me, and I closed my eyes, humming. After the concert, I would return home with Henry, where I had been living since I’d left my mother’s house after the swan incident. I had also left the spellbook, content to leave the family business and pursue music, another kind of magic. My mother wasn’t happy about it, but that was her usual state of existence.

As for me, I had the love and support of my brothers, and for the time being, that was all I needed.

 

 

BIO

katie schwartzKatie J. Schwartz was raised in a small Midwestern town and now lives in another, frightfully similar, small Midwestern town. She has a Master’s degree in Professional Writing. Her creative works have appeared in Journey Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Like many writers, she also has a blog: katiejschwartz.wordpress.com. Author photo credit to Bryan Schilligo.

 

 

 

 

0

The Jaguar Smiles

by Emma Fuhs

 

 

Samantha Gates lives on a street where everyone smiles. They smile as they trim their rosebushes, as they water their lawns in the early afternoon, as they unload groceries from Whole Foods. They smile as they jog and they smile as they walk their purebreds. Samantha thinks the smiles are trying to tell her something.

She sees her children off to school each morning. Joseph is fourteen and Kathleen is eighteen and neither of them gives a shit about Samantha. Most days, they leave their homemade lunches in the fridge.

This morning is no different. She watches one of the neighbors look up from his lawn mowing and smile as the Gates children head off to school. Sipping her milk-diluted coffee, Samantha folds herself into the couch closest to the front window and doesn’t smile. Lately, she seems to be the only one not smiling.

Kathleen backs into the street. She doesn’t check both ways like Samantha taught her to. Samantha thinks that she might have to tell her husband, Todd Gates, that Kathleen is driving a little recklessly. The children listen to Todd.

Just as she’s about to retire to her room for a couple hours, something catches her eye. There’s a creature stalking Kathleen’s car, lean and black. It’s some kind of large cat, Samantha guesses. A jaguar.

She gets up, spilling coffee on the white couch and carpet. She curses the way she does when Todd’s not around and hurries to the front porch. By the time she opens the front door, the car has rounded the bend and is gone. So is the jaguar.

Samantha turns away from the still-smiling neighbor and goes back inside, locking the front door behind her. She goes to the kitchen and sits in front of the iPad Todd bought for her fortieth birthday. She had to open it at the surprise party he threw for her, in front of all the people that he invited. Even the people she didn’t know. Even the woman who called Samantha fat in high school but scribbled a friendly-enough note in Samantha’s yearbook. Todd apologized for the slip, claiming he’d seen the yearbook and thought the two had been close. Samantha forgave him, of course.

She unlocks the iPad with the password 8-6-3-3. Todd in numerical form.

Google is already open. Her last search was a recipe for steel-cut oats and before that, an erotic romance on Amazon. She reminds herself to clear the browsing history before Todd returns home.

She tries to steady her trembling hands as she types into the searchbar: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? She’s heard of mountain lions spooking unsuspecting hikers in the Hollywood hills, but never a jaguar.

Her search yields some interesting results. A few years back, a mother claimed to have seen a family of black mountain lions with lime green eyes near her home in Waco, Texas. The article says that she called Animal Services immediately after the sighting, so Samantha digs through her purse for her iPhone. She unlocks it with the password 8-6-3-3 and dials Los Angeles Animal Services.

“Thanks for calling. You’re talking to Bradley. How can I help you?”

“Hi Bradley. My name is Samantha Gates. I just saw a jaguar following my children to school and want to report it.” As she talks, Samantha tugs hard at the thin silver chain around her neck. Todd gave it to her years ago in a small black box, and she assumed it was an engagement ring. They had been dating for almost five years and talked about having four perfect children, so marriage was inevitable. When she opened the box and saw the necklace, her look of surprise was not the same one she’d rehearsed in the mirror.

“Ms. Yates, where are you calling from?”

“It’s Gates. And I’m calling from my home in Pasadena.”

There’s a muffled sound from the other end, almost like someone ruffling quickly through a thick stack of papers. But Samantha has heard this sound before. She knows Bradley is laughing at her.

“I googled it. There have been similar sightings before. I read articles.”

“Look, Ms. Bates. I’ve read articles about Bigfoot before, but that doesn’t mean he’s real. If you see the thing again, give us a call. Otherwise, there’s not much I can do for you.”

“But—”

“Have a great day, Ms.”

Samantha slams her phone down, hoping it will shatter against the granite countertop. But when she lifts it to check, the screen is still in one piece. It’s too protected by the rubber lining of her phone case.

She turns back to her iPad, narrowing her search based on something that Bradley said. Bigfoot. She types: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? Cryptozoology?

This search pulls up fewer links than the last. She clicks on the first one because it has a very no-nonsense tagline about jaguars and cryptozoology. The site is a WordPress blog managed by a Pat Donohue. He writes about eyewitness accounts of large black cats sneaking up on unsuspecting suburb-dwellers and his personal email is listed at the end of the blog post. Samantha copies it over to her Gmail account and considers how to word her message.

 

From: mrstoddgates@gmail.com
To: truthhunter1974@gmail.com
Date: 12 November, 7:56 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena

 

Hi Mr. Donohue,
I stumbled upon your blog this morning after seeing something rather troubling. It looked to me like a jaguar was stalking my children on their way to school, but I cannot be sure. In your opinion, is there any chance of a jaguar roaming my neighborhood in Pasadena?

Best,
Samantha Gates

 

She reads it over a few times before deciding that it is good enough to send. It doesn’t sound too hysterical or ridiculous. It is worded similarly to the exchanges she has with other PTA moms. She expects that he’ll email her back by the end of the day.

Samantha leaves the iPad in the kitchen and goes to the bedroom she shares with Todd. The king-size bed rests on a frame of ornately carved oak that Todd bought from a furniture store that was going out of business. He bought it on his way home from work one day and a van came to drop it off the next morning. Samantha called him when the men came to the front door and he apologized for not telling her about the bed frame over dinner. It had slipped his mind.

She forgave him and let the men bring the bed frame upstairs. They even installed it for her, shelving the sexless bed on top of the impressive wooden box.

Samantha takes her clothes off and gets into the carefully-made bed. She spreads her naked body out, wiggling her toes at the pockets of soft sheets that are so deliciously cold without Todd lying beneath them. She closes her eyes and stays like that for almost an hour.

When she gets up, she smoothes the wrinkles out of her shirt before pulling it back over her head. Then she makes the bed exactly the way it was before, lining all the white pillows up and working the comforter until it is taught. She goes back downstairs and checks her Gmail.

There’s a message from the cryptozoologist.

 

From: truthhunter1974@gmail.com
To: mrstoddgates@gmail.com
Date: 12 November, 8:34 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena

 

Ms. Gates,
Thank you for your message. As someone who dabbles in cryptozoology, I am very interested in any reports of unusual animals. As someone who lives in the suburbs of LA, I have something of a personal interest in your report. Let me tell you right off the bat that this type of sighting is not unusual. It’s estimated that across the Southwest, anywhere from ten to twenty percent of eyewitnesses calling in about big cats describe black jaguars instead of mountain lions.

In my opinion, the government does not want us thinking these creatures could ever come back. But they’re not extinct like dinosaurs–it is well within the bounds of possibility to think that a stray jaguar might migrate up from Mexico and find its way into your neighborhood.

I would recommend calling it in to the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation. Or, if you like, I can make the call for you.

Sincerely,
Pat Donohue

 

Samantha’s hands are shaking as she types, so her email takes a few minutes longer to compose than usual. Finally she writes out a message asking that Mr. Donohue please call the Department of Wildlife Conservation on her behalf. She includes the street address so that the report is accurate.

Samantha turns the iPad off and grabs her iPhone off the counter. Todd picks up on the fifth ring.

“Hi, Sammy.”

“Todd, listen. I need you to come home right now. I need a car.” Once Kathleen got her license, Samantha didn’t need to drive the children to school anymore. Kathleen got Samantha’s Lexus for her sixteenth birthday and Todd kept his BMW. When they leave home in the morning, the garage is left empty until they return.

“You sound funny Sammy. Take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s the kids. I saw something this morning and thought I was crazy but I’m not. I’m not crazy, Todd. Jaguars can migrate north of the border.”

“Samantha, stop. You can’t do this every time I leave for work. Don’t you have something to keep you busy? What about that scarf you were knitting last week?”

“There’s a jaguar stalking our children.”

“I have to go. Text me if you need anything.”

Todd hangs up and Samantha continues standing in the same spot, staring vaguely at the oven’s digital clock. The green numbers glow eerily at night. She knows because sometimes she sleepwalks downstairs and starts making herself a sandwich. Each time, she wakes up right after taking a bite. If she didn’t wake up at that exact moment, she’d choke on it.

Todd doesn’t know about the episodes. He takes melatonin every night, before going to bed and after jerking off in the shower. Samantha hasn’t told him because she doesn’t want him to lock up the bread and condiments to keep her safe.

The day passes slowly. She busies herself by tearing out the scarf she had started and spooling the yarn until it’s wound in a ball that looks exactly the same as when she bought it in the store. She goes into the front yard, ignoring the smiling neighbors as she checks the dirt for paw prints. She drafts several emails to the school, detailing the jaguar sighting, and deletes every one of them. Finally, the children return home.

Samantha has a plate of Oreos on the counter that they ignore. Joseph grabs a soda from the fridge and Kathleen’s headphones are playing music so loud, Samantha can hear it from ten feet away. Their feet type out a long sentence going up the stairs, followed by the punctuation of two slamming doors.

Alone again, Samantha finds Kathleen’s keys hanging on a peg next to the front door. She takes them and leaves the house, locking the door behind her. She scans the street carefully to ensure the jaguar hasn’t returned. The street is empty except for a woman walking her newborn child in a stroller, smiling as she passes. Samantha ignores her. She makes sure she has her license and the credit card Todd gave her before getting behind the wheel of Kathleen’s car.

The drive to the grocery store is short. She gets there in just a few minutes and parks in the half-empty lot. It’s not crowded because most people do their shopping on the weekend.

Samantha gets a cart and puts her purse where a baby would go if she still had one. Usually she carries a list of everything she needs to buy for Todd and the children. She writes it out the night before and brings it to the store to ensure she won’t forget any essentials. But today is different. She doesn’t have a list and she doesn’t know what she came here to buy.

She starts on aisle 1: Produce. Then she goes to aisle 2: Baking, Spices, Oil. Then she goes to aisle 3: Canned foods. Then she goes to aisle 4: Chips and condiments. Then she goes to aisle 5: Baked goods. Then she goes to aisle 6: Cereal, Coffee, Tea. Then she goes to aisle 7: Personal hygiene. Then she goes to aisle 8: Beverages and water. Then she goes to aisle 9: Frozen dinners.

The man at the checkout stand appraises her cart when she approaches.

“Just that?”

Samantha nods, taking the box of tampons out of the cart and setting them on the conveyor belt. They cost twelve dollars and she pays for them with Todd’s credit card.

The sun is setting when she gets back to Kathleen’s car. Samantha thinks that time is funny inside a grocery store. It drags and it races.

Samantha drives fast on the way home, hoping that the jaguar will jump out in front of Kathleen’s car so that she might kill it. Then her children would see what a hero she is. And Todd would realize that she needs something more than yarn to keep her busy all day.

She parks in the driveway and takes her purse from the passenger seat, the box of tampons tucked inside. She gets out of the car and starts toward the house, hearing the click of the automatic locks behind her. She is almost to the porch when she hears another sound behind her. It is barely a sound, closer to the whooshing of wind through grass or runoff collecting in the gutters. But she knows that this is exactly what a jaguar would sound like: Almost like nothing.

Samantha turns to face the jaguar. It is crouched in the middle of the lawn, flicking its long tail back and forth. Its eyes are not lime green like the woman in Waco, Texas described. Its eyes are twin moons, golden and gathering light from the sun.

She takes a step closer and it snarls, mouth stretching back to reveal sharp teeth and a coarse pink tongue. Samantha thinks that it looks almost like a smile.

She smiles back.

 

 

BIO

emma fuhsEmma Fuhs spent her childhood on the central coast of California and now attends the University of California, Davis, where she is majoring in English. She aspires to be a novelist and is probably eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch right now.

 

 

 

0

Car Crash

by Joe Giordano

 

 

I bartended at a joint that featured live music. I accumulated a few bucks and bought a small, three-bedroom house on a busy street in East Austin that I rented to musicians who played at the bar. The legalities on rental property were onerous, so I stayed under the radar with word-of-mouth as the source for new tenants.

The last act in the evening, three guys with long black hair and beards that made them look like Sikhs without the turbans, were renting my house. They were tuning their instruments on stage, starting their set, when a police call came for me. Some poor bastard had lost control and drove his beater, pea-green Chevy into my house doing eighty. You can still see the skid marks on the asphalt. The driver was impaled by a two-by-four and died instantly. The house was thrown off its foundation severing every utility connection. The firemen turned off the water and gas, but the EMTs wouldn’t enter the house to remove the body until contractors installed braces to stabilize the roof. When I told the Sikhs, they wanted me to put them up at a hotel. I refused. One of them said that they’d turn me in for renting illegally. I walked away. Even musicians can be assholes.

The driver of the car was Farley Matheson, twenty-three, unemployed, living with his mother about ten blocks away. It seemed right that I see her. I arrived late morning. Before I rang I saw that the door was ajar. I called out, but there was no answer. I stepped inside. A woman with blue eyes, and pulled back gray hair sat scrunched into a corner of a thread-bare couch. She stared out a side window.

“Mrs. Matheson?”

No answer. I took a few steps forward. “Mrs. Matheson, I’m Paul Nardelli. I own the house where your son’s accident occurred.

She didn’t stir.

I didn’t want to stand over her, and I didn’t want to sit. “I came to express my sympathies for your loss.”

She let out a deep sigh. “It’s not your fault.” Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Farley was a good boy. He made me warm milk to help me sleep.”

I glanced around the living room. There were three framed pictures. A man in his thirties, a younger man I guessed was Farley, and a rather old photo of a little girl with blonde pig-tails and a tender smile. “Mrs. Matheson, do you have someone to help you?”

She pointed at the pictures with a hand veined like a tobacco leaf. “Bobby was killed on the BP oil rig. Little Mazie was lost to me many years ago.” She sighed. “Strange, don’t you think? If you hit a little girl with your car, you’d stop to see if she could be saved?”

I gulped. The thought of grieving for three dead children hit me like a tsunami. My eyes moistened. I cleared my throat. “Your husband?”

“He left soon after Mazie died. We couldn’t stand the blame or the guilt.”

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Matheson’s blue eyes were in turmoil. “I try to understand. What sin did I commit that so offended God?”

My mouth opened and closed. She turned her head toward the window. Above the pictures I noticed a mark on the wall where a crucifix once hung, now just a white shadow. After a few moments, I slipped out of her home.

The insurance company sent Mr. Charles Smallman, from Kansas City, as claims adjuster. He was bald, and the sweat on his pate threw a glare that could’ve lit Sixth Street. He wore a brown-suit, yellow tie, and complained about Austin heat.

Farley’s Chevy had torn a hole through the living room as wide as the Congress Avenue Bridge, and the house was half on the grass. Smallman rooted around the debris with his tape measure for an hour.

Finally, I called out, “What are you calculating? The house is a total wreck.”

Smallman hadn’t unbuttoned his jacket. He produced a massive handkerchief and wiped his considerable forehead. “There’s a lot that can be salvaged.” He left in a rental car, and I stood, hands on hips.

Within a few days, I received a settlement offer for a fraction of what was required to restore the building. My face got hot.

One of my friends from school, we called him Outlaw Dan, rang me. Dan had been three-hundred pounds before his stomach was banded. He was down to two-twenty but still binged on Nacho Cheese Doritos. The year before, Dan hacked into Wells Fargo and changed account names to silliness like “Joaquin Barfly.” No money was taken, but Wells Fargo couldn’t calm customers for months. The FBI wanted Dan’s ass. He lived in a caravan and moved every night. He said, “Did you see the blog about your house crash?”

I couldn’t give a Longhorn’s turd for politics, but a well-known political tweeter had written about Farley Matheson’s death: “Another East Austin slacker bites the dust. Good riddance!”

My first thought went to Mrs. Matheson. She’d never read such trash, but a neighbor could call attention to this calumny against her dead son. My ears reddened like chili peppers.

I said, “Dan, we need to fix this prick. Will you help?”

Dan had an evil sort of laugh.

The blogger’s name was Reginald Crawley, and I hoped we’d find kiddie-porn on his hard drive. Crawley was surreptitiously an on-line hit-man for a nationally-known Texas politician. The politico paid Crawley to attack enemies while he disclaimed responsibility. Dan found copies of correspondence and proof of payment to Crawley, which we leaked to the Austin American-Statesman. You heard about it because the national networks picked up the story, and the politico’s Presidential hopes evaporated like Lake Travis in a drought. He didn’t resign. Narcissists like him are like clown punching toys that keep popping up with the same molasses grin. Embarrassment isn’t in their lexicon. Crawley, on the other hand, left town. He set up shop in California. I worry that he’s thriving.

Meanwhile, I had a long think about the paltry insurance settlement offer. By some amazing coincidence, the house must’ve been struck by lightning and burned. Anyway, that was my story. The insurance company had a different take, because I received a knock on my door late one evening from Sheriff Rufus Tyler. Ole Rufus brushed past me without a word and ensconced himself into my favorite chair. Tyler had a gunmetal crew-cut and a girth like he’d swallowed a dinosaur egg. He folded his hands over his belly. “You set fire to your house.”

It wasn’t a question. My eyebrows rose. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Tyler looked at his fingernails. “I knew you’d deny it.”

I leaned a shoulder against a wall.

Tyler said, “Trouble is that an orca-fat dude was seen leaving the scene, and he doesn’t fit your description.”

Instinctively, I pulled in my stomach.

He continued. “I know you had it done.”

“It was lightning.”

Tyler laughed so hard that he went into a coughing fit. He said, “You rented the house without the proper permits.” He smiled. “If I tell the insurance company, they’ll void your coverage.”

He really had my attention.

He said, “There’s a rumor that you’re responsible for harpooning –.” He mentioned the Texas politico by name. “I hate that son-of-a-bitch.”

Breath returned to my lungs.

Tyler stood. “You won’t like me so much the next time we cross paths.” He passed out the door like a cold front.

A week later the full insurance check arrived. I went to see Mrs. Matheson. “Farley’s life insurance came through.”

She was surprised that Farley had any insurance, but allowed that the money would come in handy. She agreed, and I went through her finances. We paid off her mortgage. She didn’t have much credit card debt, but we wiped that away. She picked a nice marble headstone for Farley, and we settled accounts at the funeral home.

I dropped by Mrs. Matheson’s every couple of days to buy her groceries, take her to the doctor, or to the senior center. One evening I made her some warm milk. She said, “Thanks, Farley.” I didn’t correct her.

One day we were sitting in her living room. She said, “It wasn’t God.”

“Sorry?”

“The death of my children. It wasn’t God, it was the devil.”

That’s when I noticed that the crucifix was back on the wall.

 

 

BIO

joe giordanoJoe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than ninety magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Saturday Evening Post, decomP, The Summerset Review, and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller will be published by HSE in May 2017. Read the first chapters and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/

0

The Astronaut

by Christopher Branson

 

 

6th December 1999

 

As I sit here writing at my desk it will shortly be midnight. The halls are deadly quiet and the quad is still. No sounds come from the window, only the twitch of my curtain in the sharp winter air. It is now three hours since I returned from my uncanny encounter, three hours of tobacco-fuelled meditation and self-interrogation, and I have resolved at last to set down with unfailing accuracy the weird events of the evening just gone. It is true perhaps that I am tottering on the brink of inebriation, but let it be said that drunkenness might yet prove propitious, and not simply for the good of my nerves. I mean that it might serve the truth of this telling, too. A sober mind would likely prove a hindrance when trying to recount the full irreality of my meeting with that shaman.

To provide a context for the future reader, curious of mind: today was a harsh crisp cold December day. I emerged sleepless from the fog of my room at eighteen past eleven in the morning, a freshly-printed essay in my bag and with barely sufficient time remaining to land at my destination, on the other side of Jesus Green. Noon was the deadline, the arbitrary cut-off, past which my labours would risk casual dismissal. Through the awkward letterbox of my awkward supervisor’s flat the script had to go, and thus to that place I was compelled to go, and in haste. What it argued, this essay, through which I’d agonised the night, I presently forget. All I can tell is that it had been assembled from the words of arcane secondary texts, texts that I barely understood, and that the whole thing stank of a final-year student in search of vindication.

But worry not, dear reader, for that was then, and this is now. Upon submitting the script I succeeded in disposing of all of my academic neuroses, along with what little interest I’d briefly aroused towards the History and Philosophy of Science. And, most significant and joyous of all, by dispensing with that terrible essay I managed to liberate myself for a few dear hours of all concern and care about my dreadfully impending future.

I sidled into a favoured tavern just as the streetlights were flickering on, the essay out of sight and bloody blessed mind, a successful book browse behind me and an overpriced hotdog from a street vendor resting in my gut. Dismissing the cruel world with a cheery ‘Fuck off!’ under my breath, I headed straight on into the back of the pub, into the warmth, the candlelight.

Oh, it was a welcoming old abode, this streetside boozer, all unpolished wood and candlewax and a thick and prohibitive smokiness to the air and no awful jukebox to ruin the mood. Reporting to the bar of this smoky paradise, I acquired a glass of the darkest stuff they had and retired to a table, where I rolled a cigarette, lit it luxuriously, and presently opened my brand-new second-hand book. And then, with my three forms of nutrition to hand – serving body, mind and lung – I reclined along the bench seat, my God did I recline, I was bare degrees from the horizontal. I may as well have been decked out in a silk lounge suit, a gentleman supine in a backstreet opium den in some far corner of the Orient. I daresay a few other aspects of the experience contributed to this fantasy, which now strikes me as increasingly vivid and true: the redolent, premature candlelit darkness of the room, placing it already in the realm of dream; the poetry of the magnificent smoke, a ceaseless hypnotic motion like Chinese dragons dancing; and finally, and above all, my sleep-deprived, thoroughgoing exhaustion, which was nigh-metaphysical in stature. In sum, I felt perfectly stoned, as though a chasm had been woven around me into which perspective could not penetrate, and as I lay there on my bench in this warm womb of a room I daresay I wore a very milky smile.

It was from out of this narcotic dream haze that he then emerged: suddenly, forcefully, not at all like a ghost. ‘Excuse me son,’ he said, ‘I see that you’re reading, would you mind if I sat here?’

I looked up from behind the pane of glass that had formed on the surface of my face and I beheld a giant, a corpulent monster clad in wax jacket and flat cap, who stood there poised, across the table, to react to my response. I scanned the room, registering that all but one table were presently unoccupied, and I looked at him again and replayed his words in my mind. It was striking, was it not, the incongruity between, on the one hand, his acknowledgement that I was busy with my reading – that I was engaged in a rewarding private ritual, one that would benefit greatly from remaining private and undisturbed – and, on the other hand, his request to impose himself on my table? When he had at his disposal no fewer than four other free and ample resting spots from which to select? And when I was almost guaranteed to deny the request, to dismiss him with incredulous refusal? And yet it was precisely this same fabulous incongruity, I suspect, and perhaps this alone, that caused me instead to drop my feet to the floor, wearily push my ailing frame upright – so that while I continued to slouch I was now approachable at least – and to lift my hand from my book and wearily beckon him to sit down, ‘Please,’ thereby breaking a long-ingrained habit of avoiding interaction with strangers at all cost.

Now, I should make clear that my immediate feeling was that this man had chosen me. That this messenger had specifically been seeking my table, and no other, through the strange, dilated time-fog of the room. That he wished to make contact. As I replay it now, I cannot find words to explain or justify why this intuition had stolen upon me with such clarity, but it is integral to my purpose that it is noted here in its chronological place.

Now, it was a large round table that I’d acquired and he sat down opposite, so that he was still two yards away from me, still out of my space: unreal. For some perverse reason it felt to me like a game of some sort, and I made a secret decision to entertain his every conversational whim.

And already I was enjoying the reflection that here I was, about to join the ranks of pint-supping men who talk to other pint-supping men, those proficient in conversing with other men of similar ilk, irrespective of familiarity and free from all prejudice, and not only that but I was presently engaged to do so with a companion of highly eccentric manner and quite gigantic proportion. I smiled and took a better look at him. His head was the size of a large watermelon and he was ruddy of face, but with huge sad eyes beneath his farmer’s cap. I became temporarily fixated on the size of that massive head and on how much it must weigh, and this thought discomforted me to the extent that I was compelled to look away, so that I noticed the half pint of ale that was gripped helplessly in his giant fist like a thimble inside a boxing glove, and I gulped and instead looked back at the massive head and took a nervous draught of stout.

‘John,’ he said, extending a massive arm, and I replied with my own name, though it did occur to me to do otherwise. I unfolded my limb and tensed it as contact with his outrageous paw drew near. He was gentle with me, though, I could tell, even if I could still sense the power in that monstrous appendage.

‘What do you do?’ he now enquired.

‘Student,’ I replied, and he nodded.

He cocked his head to one side, craning his neck, and cast his eyes at the cover of my book. ‘Graham Greene.’

‘Brighton Rock,’ I confirmed.

‘Haven’t read it,’ and he leaned back and took a tiny sip from his tiny glass.

I’d read it once before, at school, but refrained from disclosing this. Nor did I mention what had animated this impulsive new purchase: the fact I’d recently see the film and had been left terrified by Richard Attenborough’s face.

‘My wife’s read it,’ he said, breaking what was swiftly becoming a challenging silence. ‘My wife’s read everything.’

Something in his tone or bearing caused me to glance at his ring finger, which was unadorned, and I smiled and sat up straighter still and said, ‘Really?’ and he nodded.

‘I read non-fiction,’ he said. ‘Facts,’ and then he was possessed by a grave mood, and he leaned in with wild eyes, his voice conspiratorial. ‘I can remember everything, Chris. Everything!’ He raised his fist from the table. ‘People say it’s a gift, but it’s not.’ My eyes widened. ‘It’s a curse!’ And he thumped down his fist and leaned back with his declamation still resounding in the haunted space between us.

I didn’t know what to say, not least when I noticed the tortured expression he was affecting, as if the mere mention of his affliction had unleashed a plague of memories upon his tortured mind. I shuddered at the strain on his enormous brain.

Still he was awaiting a reaction, though. Despite summoning all of my faculties in response to his plethora, all I could manage was, ‘Really?’ and he nodded once, apparently meaning business.

‘Ask me something,’ he said, ‘anything. Something I wouldn’t know.’

By way, perhaps, of my recent studies, the first such question that appeared to mind concerned the year of publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a successful book, all told.

My companion nodded and leaned back. His thick fingers pressed against the tufts of hair that protruded from his cap around the temples. He strained his face for several moments, turned a shade of red, and then began to mutter a strange incantation, a chant of what I can only assume were related facts: mental hooks for the elusive date that was drifting through his infinite mind. I was captivated. When eventually he located the answer he delivered it with confidence, setting out first the question, and then the vital year that had been requested. Unperturbed by my astonishment, he proceeded to detail of what the treatise comprised, where it had been written, how old the author had been upon publication, and finally with which Cambridge college he had been affiliated, and he then concluded his performance with a great wag of the head and a fold of the arms, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you I was agog. Absolutely everything he said had been wrong. Coming to terms with the stature of the man, several moments passed before I was able to speak.

‘But wasn’t he a fellow of Trinity?’ I said.

‘No,’ John confirmed, ‘he was not.’

And with this firm rebuttal I decided not to provoke his wrath any further, instead fleeing this danger by changing the subject. I asked him how he made his living. To what end did he exert his extraordinary powers? As a spy, perhaps? An inventor? A quizmaster? No, alas. I was disappointed to learn that he was in fact a businessman. He assured me that his wealth was significant, but that he had struggled for every penny. And with a shake of his finger he now changed the subject again, a tactic that left me dizzy.

I reflected: I’d never before met such an astounding liar. So serious was he that he may well have believed every word of his ridiculous spiel, and I saw no human reason to challenge this fanciful faith.

His discourse now turned to space, and it was clear that the possibilities of the vast black nothing had him rapt. He told me of wild inventions he had read about, and I sought to explain why I didn’t think they were possible, given my errant grasp of physics. This failed to diminish his interest in these matters, however, since he was a firm believer in alien technology far superior to our own. He carried on in real wonder, his outlandish descriptions punctuated by pauses of intense cogitation as he stared at a candle that was flickering to my left. ‘A man told me…of this ship…that can go so fast…’

His performance to this point had excited me so wildly that my patience was now rudely diminished, and I quickly tired of these science fiction fables. I wished to hear him speak again of human matters. Fortuitous thus was I that his huge jukebox of a mind then skipped to the matter of government conspiracies and I had the quite remarkable wisdom to ask him about the assassination of JFK. I was certain that of all men John would know what really went on, and I was glad when he agreed that Oswald could not possibly have done it by himself. His reasons for thinking so, however, were entirely his own. As he unfurled his explanation I waited silently, both attracted and repelled by the possibility of what I was about to hear.

‘You see, Chris, for Oswald to have made those shots…well, he would have had to be superhuman. Back then, when was it, 1969? There were only two people on the planet who could have made them…and me and my brother were on this side of the pond,’ and this time he didn’t even bother to acknowledge my incredulous reaction, just folded his upper body into a shooting stance, his muzzle pointing towards the window, and fired off shot after shot. ‘Paoww. Paoww.’

As if caressed by this reassuring memory of childhood he began to settle down again, and we then conversed in relaxed demeanour about his family, and about his working life and wealth, the source of which I could not quite discern. He had felt the bite of poverty, though, he assured me and no doubt, once owing twenty thousand pounds. He’d lost his house, his car, everything, but, he told me, this didn’t matter. ‘It’s only money. Doesn’t mean anything,’ and once more he gave me a testing stare from his great sagging eyes, but this time with grit in his cheeks, and I swear for a moment he looked like a genius.

I felt compelled to affirm the values he’d set forth and so complied: ‘No, I try not to worry about wealth,’ I said, and he nodded, satisfied with my answer. At which point the face of a lunatic returned.

‘I’ve dug the earth, Chris.’

I need not add that his ability to confound and unease was that of an expert. I stared back, slightly manic of a sudden, a confused smile playing at the edge of my mouth.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is hard … I’ve earned the right to my money,’ and he looked indignant as he said it.

‘Yes,’ I answered: that much was clear. ‘I worked in a warehouse last summer,’ I offered in return, eager to exploit my sole contact with working class life. ‘I was picking grocery orders and shifting crates…It wasn’t too bad for a few weeks, but then I didn’t have to support a family like most of the other men,’ and I shook my head to convey my respectful awe at the stoicism of the working chap. And then I noticed a dreadnought shadow swallowing over my glass and I looked up and saw him looming there over me, his arm thrust forth, massive, his girth seeming to encapsulate my entire field of vision. The surface of his appearance wobbled like a candle-flame, flickering occasionally. I couldn’t define his boundaries. I saw sunspots. His eyes focused on mine.

‘Feel it.’

I became crudely conspicuous of myself: my torso was pressed against the back of the bench, my arms flung behind it, and sweat was stinging my eyes. I reached out, trembling, trying to maintain a smile as I closed my hand upon the mighty wrist he held out for me, which looked like a leg of lamb in a farmer’s jacket. It was by far the largest arm I’ve ever encountered, three times the greater of mine. I was convinced even before I’d felt it that this man had dug the earth. I tried not to press too hard on the wax cloth. He was satisfied by my limp grip, however, and he returned oddly to his seat, grinning triumphantly, taking his time, as though hoping that others would note his prowess.

At this moment I fidgeted awkwardly because three unfriendly-seeming men at the bar were now staring at us with suspicious eyes, causing me to look down and notice that my glass was empty, an observation that was marked by John.

‘What are you drinking?’ my stout companion swiftly enquired.

‘Stout,’ I said, and smiled.

His features lifted, rampant with incredulity. ‘That,’ he spluttered, ‘is what my mother drinks! It’s shit! You should drink the real ale, my son.’

Now, I honestly did not know how to respond to this and therefore did not, and fumbled instead for a cigarette. He ignored my discomfort and lurched erratically to the bar, telling the barman loudly that I drank an old woman’s drink. He ordered in accord with my wishes, nonetheless. He took another half for himself, despite his own glass still sitting an inch from full, a level it had not deviated from since the moment he’d sat down.

As he made his order the three regulars at the bar observed him from their perches. He seemed to amuse them, which made me smile. Then he turned to them, his head wobbling and sporting its most affable lunatic smile. ‘Now, can I buy you gents a drink? Anyone? Anyone?’ With barely concealed amusement the three declined the offer. John, however, was particularly insistent, which to my great distress prompted the synchronised draining of the men’s glasses, a coordinated action that was frankly uncalled for and which surely had humiliation at the base of its design.

‘Time to go, lads,’ the eldest of the three said, and they all left presently, the last of them looking over at me with an expression that I inferred to mean something like, ‘Get out while you can, he’s a fucking fruit.’

John was quite aware of what had happened, and perhaps was even as sentient as I to the likelihood that these drinkers had walked directly to the next pub, three doors along. I caught his eye as he looked across at me, forlorn, and I mustered all of my resources and smiled vacantly back at him. This, remarkably, seemed to do the trick of reassurance, spurring him to turn sharply about. ‘Do you know,’ he informed the sympathetic barman, ‘I think I’ll have your largest cigar,’ and he patted his belly opulently and the barman smiled. I lit a roll-up, eyes glued to the drama, and pulled greedily on it. ‘Chris,’ he called, ‘do you want a large cigar?’ and I shook my head, exhaling my smoke in a controlled fashion and holding my device aloft. ‘Or are you managing with what you’ve…’ he continued unnecessarily, his voice trailing off. He paid up and wandered pack, the cigar in his pocket, and he set down the glasses exactly. Then he lit the mock-Cuban at length and puff-puff-puffed. His composure returned.

‘Do you want to see a magic trick?’ He wagged his head at me, leaning back in his chair and raising his eyebrows enthusiastically. I looked at him blankly, the fresh stout lapping at my lip. ‘I,’ he whispered, ‘can levitate.’

I put down my drink. ‘Really?’

‘My brother showed me how.’

Dispensing with his cigar, he seemingly floated to the centre of the empty room and stopped. His feet moved daintily on the sticky pub floor, arranging themselves with esoteric precision. He took many deep breaths and looked up. As vital as composure, it seemed, was posture: he gripped his jacket like a nobleman, as though clutching two imaginary lapels between thumb and fist.

I expected him to do it.

Then, daintily as a ballerina, he lifted his entire body up such that the foot closest to me now hovered a full inch above the ground. The ball of the other foot, upon which he had assuredly transferred all of his weight, was cunningly obscured from view. He paused for a moment in mid-air, and then drifted calmly back to earth. As he returned to his chair he looked distinctly smug. ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ He puffed on his cigar, spluttered, and returned it to the ashtray.

I couldn’t speak straight away, and I cannot swear that a spot of dribble didn’t fall from my lip as I stared, taking him in. ‘You didn’t … actually, though … did you?’ I shrugged, smiling apologetically, and then right away regretted my words, realising that the only noble course of action was to have roared in approval at his sleight of foot. He fell silent, and looked straight into me. A candle flickered.

‘Well no…I mean, of course I didn’t…but it’s clever, isn’t it? It is what is known as,’ he added, ‘an optical illusion. Do you want me to show you again?’ My urge to politely decline this offer was immediate and overwhelming, yet was nevertheless too late in arriving. Before I’d had a chance to draw breath and select a negative word or two he’d already positioned himself in the centre of the room, arranging his feet, breathing calmly, all eyes in the bar now fixed on him, then…’Ah-ah!’…and he victoriously returned to his seat. ‘Now,’ he winked, ‘did you work out how I did it this time?’ I looked down and noticed that the glass in his hand was full. To the left of his fleshy paw was a now-empty half pint jar, and I hadn’t seen a thing. I looked up, nodded nervously, and drew deeply from my glass.

A silence then passed that would have suffocated the hope of many a man, but John possessed fortitude like no other. He simply sat and concocted his next move. The tension was unbearable. I closed my eyes and braced myself.

‘Do you know…Chrissy,’ he started of a sudden, wagging his head with visible glee, ‘what I wanted to be when I was a boy?’

‘No,’ I answered confidently.

‘…’

‘…’

‘No…well, of course you don’t know,’ he conceded. ‘But guess!’ His tongue stroked the inside of his cheek as you would a cat. He waited with raised eyebrows, tapping his cigar. The relief that only moments before had surged through me now drained ominously away. I bowed my head in concentration.

‘A magician?’

‘No.’

‘A soldier?’

No.

‘A racing driver?’

‘Nope’

‘Bus driver.’

‘Nor that. Not a driver.’

‘An actor, then?’

‘Nope.’

It occurred to me to facetiously suggest ‘A businessman,’ but instead I simply said, ‘I give up.’

‘Do you give up?’ he demanded. I was unsure whether he was seeking the pleasure of forcing me to repeat my concession, or if he was simply operating a few seconds behind reality.

‘Yes,’ I confirmed, and awaited the revelation.

‘An explorer!’ he whispered ever so loudly, his eyes lighting like fireworks at the sound of the word. ‘Marching across the South Pole! There, son,’ he confirmed, ‘you’d really be alone.’

This last detail skittled my thoughts, which initially had conjured public school types with groomed blonde moustaches, nasal voices and army-issue backpacks, leading a legion of men into unknown territory in the name of the Queen. And now of a sudden something entirely different had been brought to mind, a vision that provoked in me an immediate suffering and which haunts me still as I sit here in the Witching Hour writing at my desk: the image of little boy John, awake at night and shivering under his sheets, praying to God for the solitude, the intense cold, the emptiness of the South Pole.

‘Why would you wish to be alone like that?’ I asked him, my voice uneasy, the vision of the schoolboy’s prayer already fixed in my mind.

‘Because that,’ he said, ‘is what makes the explorer the best of men. Forget success or fame, I’m talking about glory. An explorer is the bravest of them all. You do it all on your own … walking on land where no man else has trod. There’s no one there to help you. That,’ he nodded, ‘is a strong man. When you’re truly on your own, forging a path in the world, that’s when have to be strong.’

He fell quiet. His incredible elastic features had subdued and the notion came to me that he was now recalling every occasion in his life when he’d relied on another, that he was reliving shame about his every moment of weakness. And all of a sudden I was possessed by an acute feeling of guilt, for was I not now an accessory to this repeated suffering of his? He’d sought my company, after all. But then I looked him in the eye and I felt certain that despite the pain it might cause him, he wanted me to stay. He was seeking a moment’s respite from his life’s burden, I believe: sympathy, perhaps, or just a little understanding. In any case, he’d be alone again soon enough. I decided to let him take all the time he needed. It was not long, however, before he spoke again.

‘What are you going to do,’ he coughed, ‘when you finish your studies?’

‘I haven’t a clue,’ I blushed.

‘You’ll be rich,’ he said. ‘No doubt about it. With your degree you’ll walk into a career. Mark my words, Chrissy, you’ll do well.’

Now it was my turn to evoke discomfort. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to do a job just for the money,’ and I avoided meeting his eye, quite aware of the privileged position my place at this institution afforded me.

He smirked back at me, no less aware. ‘What do you want to do, then?’

‘I don’t know,’ I repeated, and I smiled frankly at him and reached for my tobacco. It was hardly an inquisition, and in any case I felt I owed him something, but on this particular topic I truly had nothing more to give. ‘I’m actually a bit worried about it,’ I mumbled, a cigarette filter obstructing my speech.

As I licked the paper and sealed my roll-up my eyes flicked up at him and I realised that my confession of anxiety had caused him pain. He sat up and his speech became uncomfortably sincere: ‘Chrissy…look at me, Chrissy…You are the…strongest, most intelligent person I’ve ever met.’ I felt he was pleading with me, as though he’d seen into my future and witnessed a terrible fate. ‘You’re going to do fine,’ he said, his thick voice quivering at its edges, ‘Fine. Nothing to worry about.’

I gulped. I didn’t understand what had occurred. Had he truly looked into my soul? Or was his speech nothing other than heartfelt nonsense? Had his artifice really fallen apart? And all of a sudden I saw him standing there naked, squirming in the candle flame that flickered in the huge, dark pool at the centre of his eye.

‘What have you got to worry about?’ he persisted. ‘Money?’ His frustration was clear. He still appeared to believe, despite all protestation, that I’d allowed myself to be subjugated by material worry. ‘Chrissy, if you’re ever short of cash I’ll lend it you.’ He laughed and looked at the cigar in his hand, which was clearly not to his taste. ‘What do I need money for? A few thousand, no interest. Don’t you worry…Heck! What am I saying? A good friend like you? You can have it!’ As embarrassed as I was by this crazy offer, I was relieved that my companion had regained his form. ‘When do you want it? Any time! A few thou, you just say the word, Chrissy! You can’t worry about money, you know!’ He was excited and truly serious: about the point, if not the offer.

I thanked him, told him money wasn’t really a problem. I simply wanted him to change the subject. He had no need to impress me. I’d felt uncomfortable enough when he asked for that ridiculous cigar. I don’t think he realised how much I took for granted over this table, and even if he did, I’d lost all desire to pick away at his ridiculous façade.

‘Have it your way,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s there,’ and I said nothing. I then feared that once more a frightful silence was about to descend on us, only for him to burst with an irreverent chuckle and I looked and could see that he’d managed to relight the flare behind his face.

‘What, then,’ he said, ‘did you want to be when you were a boy?’ He twiddled his cigar, which was now proving a helpful prop, if nothing else. ‘Don’t be shy!’

Now, I must explain at this point that I’d anticipated the question. He was doing his best to disorientate me, of course, by changing topic erratically, such was his genius, but the revelation of his dark desire to be an explorer had lingered nevertheless. It seemed to stand out as a clue to the meaning of his visit: a flag in the snow, cracking in the wind, beckoning me towards it. I tried to recall my own childhood dreams, to unearth something of similar character, but my mind remained a blank. I remembered our home and how I used to climb trees in the woods; playing on the Down’s Banks, the Plot, the Mudleys, the Mole-Hole. I’m not sure I wanted for anything in those sweet, carefree days. I’m not sure I ever much imagined growing up, and honestly I can’t remember wanting to be anything particular when I did. And now, years later, fully grown, I still struggle to imagine growing up, and still don’t want to be anything particular when I do, the only difference being that these days, unlike in my childhood, I feel like I’m permanently wanting for something.

For the last few years I’d been set on training as a physicist, but that had blown up spectacularly. It turned out that those scientific studies were not conducive to my wellbeing, they did not nourish my soul. And since abandoning that straightforward and decided course, something in my life had been lacking. Meaning, direction, purpose: call it what you will. It is the void that drives my father’s relentless questioning on our weekly call: ‘What are you going to do with yourself after you graduate?’ he demands. ‘What are you going to do? What?’ I had no present desire to go over all of that again. At least my about-turn meant I didn’t have to tell John that I wished to be something as urbane as a man in a white coat. That wouldn’t have done at all. Not after what he’d shared.

Then the thought occurred. I saw it coming to me in slow-motion, dancing through the fog of the room. An image from a film; a sequence that had captured my mind. The slow, graceful waltz of a little craft as it slowly floats inside a majestic, turning space wheel: how they corkscrew together in perfect harmony.

‘I wanted to be an astronaut,’ I told him.

He was ecstatic. ‘Well, you can be an astronaut! You’re clever, you’re strong: that’s all they want!’

I shrugged and watched his face as it frowned in concentration.

‘When I was a boy, Chrissy, I always thought I’d be the first man on Mars. The red planet. Have you seen Mars?…It’s amazing!’ He looked at me now with that same boy’s wonder. ‘It’s bright red, of course, and it’s got canyons hundreds of miles deep. That’s where they are, if they exist.’

‘If who exist?’ I knew what he meant, of course, but I hoped I was wrong.

‘Tell me, Chrissy,’ he asked as he stroked his lip, his eyes gazing at the ceiling and perhaps envisioning the infinity beyond, ‘do you believe there could be life on Mars?’

I stifled a grin and replied soberly, quoting at length a few scientific explanations as to why it was highly unlikely: mostly bits of chemistry and biology I’d picked up here and there. Sadness descended on me as I spoke, not from quelling his Martian hopes, but from the belief that the profundity of our encounter may well have run its course, that this turn of conversation signalled that his interest had reverted to speculative themes. Reflecting on it now, I suppose my reaction reveals just how acutely and ambiguously I’d already come to depend on the man. I’m no mystic, dear reader, but more than once this evening has the word ‘supernatural’ visited itself upon my mind. But anyway, as a way of concluding this digression, I note that my fears proved in fact without foundation, that he had no intention of divorcing our debate from his profound discourse on the human condition.

‘It doesn’t matter of course,’ he said, ‘whether they exist or not. The first man on Mars will be the greatest explorer of all time, aliens or none. The first of our species to set foot on another planet…but we’re a few years off that yet.’ He looked up reflectively. ‘Otherwise I’d go.’

I laughed. ‘No offence, John, but I think they’d send someone younger than you. A scientist, perhaps?’

‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘That may be the case when you’re talking about the moon, Chrissy, but this is Mars. What is it? Three years away in a fast ship?’

I shrugged. I had no idea and didn’t care. I wanted only to hear what he had to say.

‘You’d come back from the moon soon enough. They can send who they like for that.’

‘But you’d come back from Mars!’ I exclaimed. ‘Eventually! There’s no reason why not!’

He bowed his head so that now I was faced by the checked surface of his flat cap. It seemed to dissolve before my eyes and smile. I looked at his hand, which gripped the diminutive glass of ale, as ever an inch from full.   I sensed that beneath his cap he was grinning, but when he raised his face it had been wiped of all discernible emotion. I stared at him and awaited his judgement with trepidation. And then finally he shook his head, slowly and at length, and a chuckle broke from his cheeks, a chuckle at the innocence of my youth.

‘You wouldn’t come back,’ he said. ‘Not from Mars.’ And he looked at me with intent once more, netting me in those huge sincere eyes. Their sadness haunted me, haunts me still. His countenance had come to possess a futile quality, and through his recumbent jowls I could trace twitches that betrayed a clenching of teeth. At one point I thought I saw those great eyes of his well up, but I cannot be sure as no drops fell. I stared, unblinking, as he spoke.

‘You have to understand, Chrissy…Space…it’s cold…It’s cold and you won’t come back, and when you’re up there you’re on your own.’ He looked down at his drink. ‘They wouldn’t send you, Chrissy. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. But me? It doesn’t matter about some old sod like me.’

‘But what about your wife, your children?’ I demanded, my voice cracking. People were looking. I would have shaken him by the shoulders if only I’d possessed the courage to make a scene.

‘They’d understand,’ he said, now cupping his miniature glass inside both giant paws. He looked up. ‘But it’ll be too late for me. You’ll be my age before they’re ready to go to Mars. And that’s why you’ll be the one to go.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. My hands gripped the edge of the bench.

‘Your wife will understand what you have to do; your kids will be proud of their old man. The strongest man in the human race.’ He lowered his head once more and I smiled, unsure of what to say.

‘John, you were born too soon,’ I tried, suddenly feeling as though I was in a soap opera. Yet a hint of a smile on the injured face suggested I was on the right track and I was spurred to persevere. ‘You can’t choose the time you live in,’ I said. ‘All you can do is make sure that you’re ready, if ever they need you. And you would have been ready, John. You would have been ready if you’d got the call.’

He held his smile for a moment, and then the corners of his mouth fell down, sliding those great cheeks across the vast flanks of his face, and with this sage expression he nodded slowly into space and raised his glass. ‘To you, Chrissy. Thank you.’

And for a long time we sat at one with our silence, both rocking our heads in that same wise rhythm, our eyes exchanging through the magical fog the final sentiments of our meeting. Outside now the darkness was pitch, and at some point the candles inside had been bolstered by dull electric lighting, though in all the time we’d been there the illumination in the room seemed not to have deviated from that single dark shade of ochre. I sank the dregs from my glass and pocketed my tobacco, got into my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder.

I went to shake his hand. ‘Thanks for the drink, John.’ He took my hand in his giant mitt and stood up. Before I could react he’d embraced me, enfolding my tired torso in cold wax cloth. Into my ear he spoke:

‘Good luck, Chrissy. You’re the strongest, nicest bloke I ever met. You’ll go to Mars. Be ready.’ And he pulled back to look me in the eye a final time, to check I’d understood. For a moment I thought he was going to perform a salute. ‘Remember that only the strongest can go.’ And again he clasped me, too hard this time, and I felt a terrible urgent need to leave, to remove myself from this unhinging of emotion.

‘It was good to meet you, John,’ I said.

When he released me I thanked him again but by then I was already walking away, overcome by the desire to escape his world, and now I did not look back. In the front room I caught a gust of chill evening air as I broke into a trot. The barman, collecting glasses, looked at me quirkily as I passed by and asked, ‘Do you know that guy?’

‘Fuck no!’ I laughed, suddenly red with embarrassment, and as I turned up the street my laughter continued, it continued all the way up the hill and back to college, in fact; and it was no longer laughter of embarrassment, I think, but from some other, blacker well of anxiety and joy that the strange events of the evening had sprung. And, as the hours passed subsequently in my room, as I paced and smoked and drank and continued to spasm with involuntary nervous chuckles, I attempted to grasp just what precisely was at the root of this disturbing levity. Yet try as I might I could not find my way around the edges of the problem, could not remove myself from it, so to speak, and consider it from a distance. And at the end of much strained cogitation I conceded that the meaning of John’s visit was likely for now to remain a mystery to me, no less than the shape of my future self must remain a mystery to the present chap.

And so, defeated by the problem, I determined at the very least to set down the tale in pure honest detail, to set it down here as you have just encountered it, unabridged, full and fresh from the mind, such that one day hereafter some other enquirer, perhaps even my own grown-up self, might review this strange encounter afresh. And considering it in light of the subsequent twists and turns of my life, my successes and failures, it is sincerely hoped that the investigator might thereby come to some conclusion as to what truly passed inside my soul this odd December evening.

 

 

BIO

christopher bransonChristopher Branson was shortlisted for the 2016 Impress Prize for New Writers and has recently been published in The Ham. He is close to completing a comic novel about a young man trying to recover from a profound love affair that never happened. Prior to focusing on fiction he wrote a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. He lives in London, England. @tarkovskysdog

 

 

 

0

Someone Has to Heckle the Rhinos

by Noelle Schrock

 

 

In a far corner of the Bronx zoo, sits a dignified creature. Thick skinned and two-horned – the rhino is endangered. Leash kids, parents, and childish adults marvel at the creature – they “ooh” and “aweeee:” attentions only afforded to endangered animals in captivity. My friends and I do the same. Our curly haired friend approaches the fence.

“Hey! Hey rhino! Yeah, I’m talking to you, you sack of shit! Think you’re so tough? You’re just a grey bag of skin!” He points and laughs.

“But why?” We ask.

“Somebody has to heckle those rhinos.”

 

I sit in the far corner of my bed – knees to chest. My four-day hair is matted and sits in a semi bun on top of my head. I press the mascara stained sleeves of my red sweater to my eyes – trying to catch the tears before they fall. It has been twenty-four hours since my friend was declared brain dead.

I cry as I pull on any tee shirt I haven’t worn to bed. I cry as I pull on a pair of pants that pass as clean. Tears drip onto my shoelaces as I tie them. I stuff Kleenex down my sleeves. I pull on my thick skin and sharpen my two-horned wit. I go to work.

My boss and coworkers handle me with kid gloves. They speak in voices so soft I have to lean in to hear them. I field the “ah, I’m so sorry-s” and the “are you okay-s” with clenched teeth. My curly haired friend sits next to me on his couch – “this sucks. THIS SUCKS.” He shouts through rigid jaw.

Rhinos are hunted for their horns; folk medicine indicates a powder made from the horn of a rhino has healing properties. They are sprinkled over food as a seasoning; they’re brewed into tea. They feed one’s lust. They cure fevers, arthritis, and gout.

“What poor animals! What precious creatures! Hunters need to be stopped! These rhinos must be protected!”

“What a stupid looking horn. Big nosed idiot!”

On the drive to the hospital, we listen to sad music and don’t talk much. I take my two-horned wit and thick-skinned strength and grind it into a fine powder. I serve it as a condiment on the sandwiches we pick up for our friends who have been at the hospital all day. I brew it into the tea I hold with two hands because the warmth has been sapped from my body. We sit down the hallway from his family, laughing at things we remember about him, making sure everyone eats, taking turns crying and rubbing backs. They ask if we want to say goodbye. My throat closes up – I don’t know if I can. My curly haired friend takes my hand and says he’ll go with me.

You know in movies where the main character is standing at the entrance to a hallway that leads to a big plot development and the camera zooms out so it seems like the hallway is light years long? That’s what this hallway looks like. We walk with solemn slowness. As long as I could keep him as the squinty eyed, smiling, sassy boy I’d talked to on Thursday he’s still alive.

The sterile room is too warm. His face is still swollen from where his head met the hot, black road. My blood rushes from my head to my feet. His body is slowly being vacated of organs. The machine on my left beeps out a steady heart rate, his chest rises and falls – but it’s not him. He’s gone – I am saying goodbye to a machine.

I leave the room clutching the hand of my curly haired friend. Snot runs out of my nose – I use an entire box of Kleenex on the way home. It’s quiet until something not at all funny happens, but we laugh anyway. We get lost in suburbia and yell at the carbon copy houses.

 

Rhinos, depending on the type, live in grasslands, floodplains, swamps, or rain forests. They spend their days and nights grazing – but will sleep during the hottest part of the day, coating themselves with mud to stay cool.

“Ha! They’re covered in mud! Exotic PIGS!”

 

We spend three days in Dayton – with his family, with his friends. It’s an open casket. At his funeral, I think Marina is the most courageous person I know. Her best friend is dead but she gives a eulogy and only cries a little bit. At the reception afterwards we eat because it’s daytime and it’s the polite thing to do.

Afterwards we sit on the edge of the pool at the house we’re staying in, still dressed in our funeral clothes. One by one we all jump in, fully clothed. We create a whirlpool – grabbing each other’s ankles and pool noodles, pulling each other along. We laugh because it’s the hottest part of the day and our only mud is each other’s voices.

“He was the worst.” Marina says through tears and laughter. We share stories about him, even the bad ones. Someone has to heckle the rhinos.

 

The rhino is usually a solitary creature. But sometimes, they socialize with birds. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but a rhino will make a “mmmwonk” noise when it’s happy and a bird will perch on its back.

 

We’re usually solitary creatures. But sometimes a bird – well a bird lover – will bring us together. Because here’s how it ends: I can lose my friend in a bike accident. I can stand on the precipice of depression with outstretched arms ready to fall. But at the end of the day – as long as I have someone who will heckle the rhinos with me – their arms will grasp my waist and pull me back from the edge.

 

 

BIO

noelle schrockNoelle will graduate in the spring of 2017 with a B.A. in Writing and English from Indiana Wesleyan University. She believes in writing as a catharsis for the grieving and healing. She hopes to work for a publishing house or in the entertainment industry writing for SNL or Jimmy Fallon. Her work can be found in Indiana Wesleyan’s literary magazine Caesura. This is her first piece published in a real literary journal.

 

 

 

 

0

Revolutions and Revelations

by Shalen Lowell

 

 

5 November 1767

“If it weren’t for that snotty kid with a fever, I would have gotten out before that damn sun set,” muttered Dr. Alex Hitch as he paved his way through the dark and smoky streets of Haymarket, streaked with the rotten detritus of yesterday’s fruit vendors. “These streets are creepier than the cellars of that old meeting house,” he concluded, as if not talking to himself but rather a medical colleague over some finely steeped Harbor tea. The cacophony of cobblestones assaulted Hitch as he paced the market block and rounded up to old Faneuil Hall, the cellar of which he spent many a late night, after his last house call, poring over archetypal witch trial documents, many of which were forged, copied accounts, but hey, you get what you get.

Hitch had been right smack in the middle of the transcription of one Mary Bradbury’s records and testimonies before Judge Hathorne in the Court of Salem, one of the more enticing case files. Poor Mary claimed to live out with due diligence the words of the Gospel, obeyed the ministry, and preached against heathenry. Even pledging obedience to the patriarchy isn’t enough to exonerate oneself these days. Not as juicy as Bridget Bishop’s testimonies, but a rich text nonetheless. Never in his 25 years did Hitch imagine fulfilling the dull and dirty work of his father, also a man with a medical profession, and with a particularly sterile sense of humor.

Hitch tugged at his graying overcoat and its frayed collar, stalking closer to the string of boozie Irish pubs lining the walk. “Better stick close to the shadows. Much better to avoid the horse shit.” Not bothering to glance in his periphery, Hitch swept across Treaumont and Common Streets and took the frigid stone steps of the Hall two at a time, managing not to trip until the top one this time. Hitch careened over and into the side of the hall, blackened by the half crescent moon on the adjacent side of the sky.

“What the hell was that?” Hitch reared back on his feet and smoothed out his black hair over his widow’s peak as he looked to see whether the folly was his or the steps, which seem to be in continual disrepair. “Revolutionaries these days,” shrugged Hitch as spun around and saw—

“Is that a body?”

Hitch was thoroughly unsurprised at the lump of flesh strewn across the stairs. “Did I just trip over that…?” Hitch swung around, looking around for another human with which to validate the strange occurrence and realized at that moment that a body lying out in the night, unclaimed, probably wasn’t a normal occurrence. Not one to be deterred by decaying bodies, Hitch knelt down to identify it. Despite his medical professionalism Hitch almost gagged when he saw the face of Henry Cabot, rector of the North Church, peering up at him with hollow eyes and a mouth occupied with hundreds of maggots, slowly but surely inching their way out of Cabot’s extremities. Hitch gently prodded Cabot. Other than the gross maggots, he could identify no other physical evidence to diagnose this odd situation. Hitch found, after plugging his nose and removing Cabot’s shoes, what looked like to be the symptoms of dropsy: swollen hands, face, and feet.

In his vapid exhaustion combined with the dizzying confusion of the late hour, and also the peculiar observation that no one seemed to be walking near the Faneuil block at all, Hitch sighed a deep breath of sleepless annoyance at this new patient (of his apparently) and burst into the Hall, proclaiming to a few men crouched over sketches of town streets and battle outlines dripped with mucky wax, “We’ve got another one…”

#

Darin Flyte sat slouched against the backside of her sparsely cushioned wooden booth at the Green Dragon, one of Boston’s more dingy but homey hidey holes, the pub always playing host to a motley group of eclectic characters across the town, from politicians to the plain old town drunks. With her rump pressed firmly into the wooden frame of the booth and her shoulder slouched against Mary, one of her only longtime and dearest friends, she swore out of the grimy windows stacked with soot that she saw a crowd hustling past the pub and across the street to Faneuil.

“What do ya think they’re up to?” Mary twisted under Darin’s alcohol-weighted stupor to get a better look out the window. The crowd continued to jog past and tapered out to a slower trickle of stragglers.

Darin rolled her eyes and let her head lop back onto Mary’s shoulder. Slapping herself awake, Darin shook her head in an attempt to wake from her self-induced stupor. “Meh the usual … Probably a flock of late night worshipers groveling at the heels of Henry Cabot to “repent” their desperately kept hidden sins.”

As Darin raised her eyes to the door, she saw Dr. Alex Hitch storm through, dragging in some of the brief drizzle, which deposited in puddles around his well-worn boots.

Though not one to command the center of any sort of attention, Hitch blurted out, “There’s been a MURDER!”

“Wait what?” Felix Amory, owner of the pub, pitched up from his seat at the rear of the room, amid a flock of receipts. “What could you possibly be talking about? We’ve kept this town pretty clean over the past year.”

“I don’t know. I don’t yet have an answer,” Hitch admitted, placing his hat on the top of the coat rack by the rust-hinged door and stalking to a high seat by the bar, so all could hear. “But it was Cabot. Henry Cabot. I can’t believe it myself.”

“Cabot? Holy shit…We’ve got a serious one this time…” Felix said. “Although I s’pose it’s technically on your hands, you being the doctor and all. Shit.”

Hitch heard a chorus of incoherent mumbling and exasperations throughout the pub, which, when he held up his hands for a moment of silence, dulled to a sullen hush as those gathered there decided to shut up and listen.

With a heavy sigh, Hitch blew out the nervous breath he’d been holding in and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of this somehow…Since I’m the only capable medical professional. I am in need of new patients after all, and I just happened to stumble across this one.”

And before the chatter rose to a dull roar, he added into the chaos of the pub, “I haven’t had a proper chance to inspect the good Father Cabot of course, but there does seem to be something strange about his murder…Something not altogether…natural…you understand.”

A drunken and confused chorus of “Wait!” and “How so?!” erupted from the contents of the pub, affording Hitch only choppy moments in the intermediary remarks to shout, “I won’t say anything until I’ve had a closer look!”

From the corner, Darin rolled her eyes further into the back of her head in boredom and, turning as if in exposition to those around her, commented, “There is no such thing as magick.” Then she worked herself up a bit louder, standing so Hitch could hear her.

“Come on, Alex,” Darin scoffed, “You know as well as I do that all that magick stuff is bogus. This is the eighteenth century after all…”

“I didn’t say a thing about magick.”

“Well, I intimated where you were going with this…Salem’s not too far away, you know.”

Hitch shrugged and took a step back from this particular bombastic Bostonian. “Nice woman, but you never know when the temper’s going to flare,” he muttered into the sleeve of his overcoat, and then proceeded to respond with, “Ahem, actually, I prefer Hitch if you don’t mind.”

“I know you as Alex and I’ll address in kind.”

Hitch bellied up to the bar and dumped half the contents of a stout down his throat, and after whetting and clearing it, he plowed forth. “I’m just saying, didn’t look like natural causes to me. Or maybe it was meant to look that way. I don’t know. It’s late and I’m tired. Once I get Cabot back to my house, I’ll inspect him further and uhmmm…”

Sensing the loss of his argumentative momentum, Hitch mumbled and pushed his way through the crowded pub to the chilly street corner and huffed off. The passersby had by now flocked either home or sought the warm stocked fire of the Green Dragon and other such dives nearby, so not a soul heard Hitch as he exclaimed loud enough to hear, “East-coasters these days are such a disagreeable sort.”

#

Harper Ratcliffe sniffed and hocked a wad of saliva into his fist as he leaned back in his rickety wooden chair in the butt end of the pub, with a clear sense of satisfaction. There was nothing Ratcliffe enjoyed more than a friendly but heated disagreement. “Well that was fun.”

Ratcliffe tipped his head back in exasperation and proceeded to bob forward until his chair clattered back on all fours in front of his table. Ratcliffe sucked on his burnt out cigar, trying in vain to make the smoky vanilla flavor last until he could pawn another via a passerby five-finger discount.

Ratcliffe sucked and spat on his cigar, chewing the ends a bit, notebook still lying spread-eagled on the table. Harper Ratcliffe fancied himself a bit of a writer, a purely freelance amateur. He very much enjoyed, and staked a good deal of his pride on, transposing real life “characters” into his many fictive universes.

“That Darin Flyte would make a great one,” Ratcliffe thought underneath his ale-scented breath. Ratcliffe had planned to take a note or two during the encounter just witnessed with one particular Dr. Alex Hitch, but instead decided to trace his own signature with a finely-tipped pen, until the ink bled through to the other side of his loosely stitched notebook pages. His notebooks were a lot like Ratcliffe himself: well-worn, seams bursting, well-used, ragged, yellowing and dank.

“She’s quite interesting indeed.” Behind him, he pricked his ears at another of the townies gathered in this late hour, Felix, the innkeeper. Ratcliffe’s ears picked up a vague snide comment whispered from Felix’s mouth, something along the lines of “mmmghhmmmmmm…hygiene…”

Ratcliffe cleared his throat rather loudly and exclaimed in a manner more emphatic than necessary, “What was that, Amory? If you’re going to insult me, please speak louder, eh?”

Felix squinted and scoffed at Ratcliffe from a few tables over. After a brief interlude of pointless indecision, he decided to spit back with notable vehemence, “Awww fuck off, Ratcliffe. Pall around in someone else’s pub for a change, I have half a mind to revoke your room and pitch you out on the street.”

Ratcliffe spun in Felix’s direction and afforded him a seductive wink from across his table. “You mean you don’t find me charming? Come on, man. Plus, you know as well as any I need the room.” Another wink.

Felix’s face registered somewhere along the spectrum of former lovers between awe and appalling dejection. “No,” Felix said with a less than certain conviction, “As a matter of fact I don’t.”

“Well, you’re not as strapping as you were, my dear Felix Amory. And to think, if you still had held onto that boyish charm I still might want you.”

“Excuse me? Want me?”

“Yeah, but like I said, not anymore.” Ratcliffe shot yet another wink and tongue-click, followed by a soft and subtle deep-throated purr, before spinning back around to stun him, as well as silencing the rest of the bar company.

 

“Mmmmm yes,” hummed Darin, “Poor Alex really is going to have his hands full with all this bloody business going around.” She sipped her nightcap of brandy before continuing, “I do wonder how he’ll manage it.”

Mary frowned at her friend, fresh from the town’s streets after having finally departed the pub. In a harsher tone than she meant, Mary said, “No need to be an ass. What’s gotten into you tonight, eh?”

“Nothing. Murder and rumors of murder are so tedious.”

“You’re saying you believe it didn’t happen?”

Darin sipped, waving her free arm. “I’m just saying, where’s the proof? Where’s the body? Hitch has nothing, no proof, and he didn’t even produce Cabot’s body to corroborate his claim. I’m as dubious as anyone.”

“Okay.”

“And moreover, that nonsense about magick? There’s no such thing. And to claim a murder committed by such is ridiculous. Ludicrous, I can’t even.” Mary plopped herself down on the leather chair adjacent her friend in Darin’s sitting room. Darin kept a timeless aesthetic, the finest leather and goose down-filled furniture, though the crimson colored walls of the room often gave the impression that the walls were pressing in on oneself.

“Hitch never said anything about magick.”

“What did he say, then?” Darin gulped the remainder of her drink and half slammed the glass back onto the wooden serving table beside her.

“You know as well as I,” said Mary, with a hint of odd suspicion dripping from her words. “You were there. He said ‘may not be natural causes.’ That’s all, nothing specific about magicks.”

Darin leaned back, stretched out on her down sofa, and closed her eyes. “Yes, I suppose that is what he said. Still either way, I don’t believe it.”

“Oh come on, you came from the northern towns. You don’t even believe natural magicks and such phenomena exist? What about wiccans?”

“No!” Darin stood in a rush of fury and, gasping, tried to keep her words guarded and under control. But the wave of anger was sure and steady, and Darin’s voice level grew at a crescendo until she was yelling at Mary: “There is no such thing as magick. All that stuff, that “magick” was bullshit, nothing more than the accusatory claims of children running through the streets of this city claiming that this person or another was a witch. It was a campaign. Nothing more than the naïve mutterings of children looking to get a rise and panic out of common folk. You of all people know how I feel about this.”

Mary shrunk back in Darin’s chair and exhaled an exasperated sigh of defeat. She shut and rubbed her eyes, hoping the tiredness and pain would recede. “I know, I’m sorry. I do know. I’m just saying it’s in the realm of possibility of belief for me, still.”

“Not for me.”

“I know.”

Darin dropped back into the sofa and spread herself along its length. “It’s been a long day, Mary. Please leave me be.”

“Okay.” Mary knew there was no use arguing with Darin, stubborn and steadfast in her ways but a good and benevolent person at heart, Mary swore to it.

Darin waited until she closed the sitting room door and sat down in her guest room, picking at the silver rose locket that hung around her neck. It had been a gift from her mother before her untimely death.

“What a messy, messy affair. I wonder what can be done to ameliorate it.” The later the clock struck, the more often Darin talked to herself. Darin rubbed her eyes, rubbing over a few freckles on the bridge of her nose, and smoothed out her messy dark brown locks. As her grandfather clock struck twelve, Darin sunk into a sobering sleep, deciding how best to approach Hitch.

#

6 November 1767

“You know, maybe Hitch could use some help with this investigation after all.”

“Oh yeah?” Felix was rinsing out glasses at the bar before the dinner rush. Darin liked frequenting the Green Dragon, not for its rowdy crowds, but more for Felix as well as the intrigue. There wasn’t a Bostonian who didn’t know that if you were after secrets and information, or the transmission of either, Felix was your guy. “Help from whom?”

“Why, me of course,” Darin smiled in that sly, intelligible, and knowing manner. “I was a member of Cabot’s congregation after all, so I knew him pretty well. I could be useful to his investigation.”

“Yeah maybe. It’s just Hitch working on it so, I’m sure he would at least appreciate the help.” Felix replaced a glass on the underside of the bar and stopped mid-motion. “Wait, what about that huge stink you made the other day? This initiative seems all of a sudden.”

Darin shrugged Felix’s remark off, “Eh, I was out of line. I probably shouldn’t have shit on Hitch like that, but I can make it up to him by helping it out. Though I do sincerely doubt magick had anything to do with Cabot’s timely end.”

“Uhmmm,” Felix shot Darin a skeptically browed look from below bar level, “Don’t you mean untimely?”

Darin’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second. “Oh yeah, of course. Untimely it was at that. Anyway I think Hitch could use the help. And so I want to help.”

“Well that’s good of you, anyway. If you and Hitch can cooperate, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

“Indeed,” agreed Darin. “The good doctor, like many of the authority figures of this town, could always use a bit of advising from someone else.”

“I see.”

“Plus, I have a reputation to uphold. I should not have been so foolish with him.”

Felix hummed an “mmmmm” in agreement. Though he may not come out and say it, Darin was one-hundred percent right. Not just about Hitch, though Felix thought the doctor would probably perform fine on his own. She was right about the town, their dear Boston, with its old world conservativism still imbued with older narrow-minded and patriarchal sensibilities. This town, though settled, was still explosive. “And I want to be right in the thick of all the action,” Felix mumbled under his breath, now frosty from the door opening and closing as Darin left the pub with a trail of fresh rainwater behind her.

#

The following afternoon, Hitch leaned a bit closer to Henry Cabot’s body, now stowed on the slab in Hitch’s cellar and mortuary room. Dark and dingy, like most cellars, Hitch’s had the added element of housing all his medical playthings, various metal instruments, syringes, tape and bandages, and all such things macabre that he was unfortunate enough to deal with in his daily work. Having afforded a squat house of his own right in the town, Hitch thought it most convenient to place his medical practice right in the forefront living room and cellar of his home. Though economic in decision, Hitch now resented the choice. “How horrid and gross. Why did I ever choose the medical field? So depressing and nasty, and I do so hate getting my pressed shirts dirty,” Hitch muttered to Cabot’s dead corpse. “Not like you can hear me anyway, so I may as well complain all I want.”

Hitch proceeded to peel back the thick layer of now rotted skin and fat from Cabot’s chest to his torso, then took care to break Cabot’s ribs and breastbone in the process, for further inspection of the hollow husk that was once a full-grown man. Hitch almost gagged as he remarked at the thousands of maggots feasting on Cabot’s insides. By now the swelling on his extremities had stopped, but Cabot’s hands and feet still remained inflamed and pungent.

“Mmmm but the real question is, how did he get like this?” Hitch’s monologue reverberated off the stone cold interior of his darkening cellar. Candles were interspersed on various shelves and examination tables to give light to the whole of the room. However the waning daylight did nothing to help his cause. “You, Cabot, I just talked to you the other day, and you seemed to be in perfectly good health, other than being a bit of an alcoholic, rotund, self-important bastard…I had no reason to suspect your ill health at the time…”

Hitch walked up closer to Calbot’s head, intending to poke it here and there to check for cranial inflammation. To his disgust, Hitch spotted a wad of earwax caked on the inside of an ear.

“There’s also the matter of how you got to Faneuil Hall. You may have dragged yourself there? But how, when you had no independent use of your insides and thus mobility? There’s no way this could have happened in the course of a night, nor could you have made your own way, so someone dragged you, perhaps?”

Hitch shrugged at Cabot’s corpse and proceeded. “Then there’s another question of how someone did this to you—since I doubt you would self-impregnate with maggots—where they stowed your body in the meantime—and of course, again, why…”

Hitch answered himself:

“The circumstances are indeed peculiar,” just as the doorbell rang from aboveground at his front door. Grumbling and groaning, Hitch washed himself of Cabot’s innards and mounted the cellar stairs up to his crimson-carpeted front hall. He swung open the door, only to find the person he least wanted to see and last expected to be at his home: Darin Flyte.

Not knowing what else to say, Hitch offered an, “Oh, hello Darin.”

Darin bowed her head a fraction of an inch towards the doctor and offered up the cheery greeting of, “So sorry to bother you, Hitch, I know you must be insanely busy, what with all this disturbing Cabot business…I wanted to first apologize for my behavior the other evening, and second, to propose an offer that I think you’ll find quite beneficial.”

Hitch raised a dull eyebrow and let the bags of his eyes droop to full extent, in evidence of how tired and bothered he was to be interrupted after office hours. “Ah, using my preferred ‘Hitch’ like I asked.”

“Yes. I spoke out of line the other night. I didn’t mean to offend more than usual. Too much to drink and a long day, you know?”

“Yes. That is, uhm, I mean thank you.”

“May I come in?”

“Yes, of course, forgive me.” Hitch backed from the doorframe to allow Darin to enter the house, all the rooms of which were outfitted with hardwood, and a bit creaky at that. As he closed and locked the large entryway door, Hitch continued, “So you say you have an offer for me?”

“Yes, I do,” Darin undid the buttons on her dark navy pea coat and revealed her button-up black trousers, tucked into what looked to Hitch like knee-high riding boots, complete with a loosely fitted cream-colored undershirt that billowed out at the sleeves and tied just below her neck. An awful lot like a gentleman’s clothes, Hitch thought.

“What with the impending colder seasons and all, I know you have a lot of patients on your hands—literally. You’re quite the busy man, Dr. Hitch, and I know you could use a bit of extra help, especially on this Cabot case.”

“What exactly are you proposing to me, Darin?”

“That I assist you of course, in the manner of your investigation into Cabot’s murder.”

Hitch near stumbled on the carpet, on his way to offer Darin a seat next to the hearth in his kitchen and a steaming cup of tea. “You want to help me? After that nasty show in the pub the other night, you can understand why I would be a bit skeptical, no?”

Darin shrugged her shoulders and agreed, “Of course, I know it sounds a bit odd considering the spectacle I sort of made. It may be hard to believe, but I do mean what I say. I would most definitely like to help you in your diagnosis and investigation.”

“I don’t mean to offend,” admitted Hitch, “And I appreciate the offer greatly. But how would you know so much about diagnoses and medical afflictions.”

“My mother was a healer and herbalist. She taught me a great deal.”

“Well I do hate to admit it, but I could use a second set of eyes…from anyone really. You may as well come on down.” Hitch ushered her inside his home. “I’ll get you a smock…”

#

Equipped with his new assistant, Hitch and Darin were bent over Cabot, both dawned with fresh, white smocks and peering into Cabot’s decaying innards. Thanks to Hitch, most of the maggots had been carved out of Cabot’s body, but an errant bug or two remained.

“I would rather have you inspect the body on your own and see what you find for yourself, but for the sake of expediency in the waning daylight, I want to tell you a few of my vague theories.”

Darin, thinking she would rather have a first look herself, stifled an argument. “Okay, give it to me, doctor.”

Hitch sucked in a deep breath and fired off his observations: “So, from what I have here, which thanks to the accelerated rate of decay as well as the host of feasting bugs is not much, I’ve noticed an oddity or two. I managed to swab a small piece of Cabot’s stomach lining, as well as his intestinal tract and found the remains of some drink very high in alcoholic content.”

“What like beer or ale or mead? Maybe the rector liked to drink or something.”

Hitch waggled a finger and continued. “Hah, no way, those drinks are child’s play compared to what we have here. I’m talking a drink consisting of over 50 percent alcohol.”

“Such as?”

Hitch continued, “Well it could be any number of things, but I’ve heard whisperings of a spirit called absinthe…It’s made by the Swiss, very potent, and can cause hallucination, delirium, and in excess amounts, death. It is a botanical spirit, made with several types of herbs including fennel and wormwood.”

Darin crinkled her brow and asked, “Well from who, and when, did he procure it? I’ve never seen nor heard of anything like this, so it must be rare.”

“That’s the thing, I don’t think he drank anything of the sort.”

“Okay, well then how did this happen? He clearly had to have gotten some, if it was in his system.”

Hitch corrected Darin with further insistence, as he built up some confidence in his argument. “There’s no doubt there are traces of the ingredients of absinthe, but I’m not sure the good Cabot here drank absinthe.”

“So you’re suggesting that whatever the cause of his death, it was made to look like he ingested the drink?”

“Exactly!” Hitch scooted over to a side table, on which rested notebook with some messy, scrawling cursive inside.

Darin inched forward, near plunging her face into the belly of Cabot’s formerly infested gut. “Maybe it was one of those ingredients, made to look like the drink itself that killed him. In that case, it was a someone who killed him.”

Hitch hummed in agreement, “Mmmmm mhmmm…”

Darin continued, “And if I were to guess, the fatal ingredient, or one of the fatal ingredients, would be wormwood.”

“I thought as much, too. But why wormwood?”

“My mother told me wormwood, though used as an old and archaic remedy for removing anger or protecting one from curses, cannot be directly ingested. It’s poisonous.”

“Yes! Yes!” Hitch had to admit though frustrating she could be, Darin was intelligent, and her mother taught her well. “I’m glad I’m not going crazy down here, as one is prone to do in the dark with no one but a corpse and one’s own illegible notes to keep company.”

Darin raised herself and finally took a step back from the body. The rank smell of decaying organs and flesh was finally getting to her, so she plugged her nose as she asked, “Wait. Hitch, how do you know so much about herbal remedies and botanical properties?”

Hitch raised an index finger once again, pretending he was delivering a lecture to a hall full of eager students. Seemed he did like attention after all. “I confess my profession does not do much to satisfy me. While carrying on my father’s tradition of the medical field after his death, and while my job does afford a stable income, I get bored easily. I spend my free time, what little I have of it, in enjoyment of poring over historical documents in the cellar of Faneuil Hall.”

“And they just happened to have a fully stocked “botanical herbs” section?”

Hitch frowned. “Well, no. But there are many documents copied from their originals sent from the north shore, detailing the witch hunts and trials in this area. But a fair number of the sources I’ve poked through recount the reasons for accusing one woman or another of being a witch, and many mention wiccans and herbalists who were apt in healing with certain kinds of botanicals.”

“Hmmm yeah, I could see where you would get that sense,” Darin said in mock agreement, her back tensed. “So…this evidence of wormwood…that is why you think Cabot’s death wasn’t an accident? That someone forced it upon him?”

“Maybe…” Hitch trailed off. “But I think it’s more than simply just suspecting wiccan activity. I think the wormwood was used as a cover, either to poison Cabot initially or deflect suspicion from the real crime: the swift, subtle, and rapidly induced decay of his innards.”

Darin rolled her eyes from the corner of the room, propping herself on the edge of another wooden table. “So you think, just because you cannot fully explain the reason for his death that the cause was, what? Magick?”

Hitch removed a glove and scratched the back of his neck in an absent and anxious manner. “I know it sounds suspect, or maybe too far a stretch, but I have to explore every option, you see.”

“I see,” Darin mused as she unfolded her arms and walked back to Hitch’s side. “I really don’t think it’s any type of magick though. Magick doesn’t exist.”

Hitch shrugged. “Like I said, I know it sounds crazy.”

Darin puffed out an annoyed breath and resigned. “Well if you want to keep on believing, I’m sure as hell not going to be the one to stop you from your own delusions.”

“At any rate, I should probably call someone else to come help me with this case. I mean, between you and I, I know we can make progress, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone else on the force? I do have a friend, Henry, who is an officer of the town of Lowell, and he moonlights as a P.I of sorts. May see if he can help us for a bit.”

“Good idea,” Darin resigned again.

Hitch’s eyes flitted from Cabot to the small cellar windows, to Darin, noting that the room was almost devoid of light save for the ten or so flickering candles still interspersed around the room. He sighed, “Anyway, I’ve taken up too much of your good time.”

Darin rubbed her eyes and admitted, “Yes, it probably is time for me to be getting home. Thank you for having me, Hitch. Please let me know if there is any way I can help further.” She untied the white smock from her waist, affording a small smirk. “Though I hope for the sake of your argument and reputation you’re not too invested on this theory reliant upon ‘magick.’”

“Well, we shall see where the evidence leads me, shan’t we?”

“I think we shall.”

As Hitch leaned in a bit closer, squinting at Cabot despite the obvious lack of daylight, Darin motioned toward the door. “I had better take my leave.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” Hitch answered in an absentminded manner as he kept one eye on Darin and another on the corpse still on his dead table. “I’ve kept you too long, please, I’ll walk you out. Thank you again for the help.”

As Hitch and Darin ascended the steps from his cellar, and Darin assumed her coat, she mentioned, “I hope we’ll do this again soon?”

“You don’t mind the trouble?”

Darin scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Please, Hitch, I have more time than I know what to do with. And it’s not that I think you’re incompetent or anything. But I do very much enjoy your company.”

Hitch dealt her a dead-pan stare, thankful but surprised at the odd offer.

“As long as you don’t mind?”

“Oh no! Of course not! Please, I welcome your assistance.” Hitch shook himself of the daze, just in time to hear Darin say, “Well good! I shall see you soon then!” and made her way out into the icy Boston night.

Hitch shut the door on Darin. Just as she hopped down his stoop and headed towards Newbury Street, she noticed an irregularity in the shadows cast by the homes across the street from Hitch’s. She recognized the dirty, plaid-patched pants, worn and frayed wool jacket, and what remained of a derby hat perhaps, from the pub the other night. She had picked him out smirking and stinking at the back of the pub.

“Ratcliffe, what do you want?”

Ratcliffe slunk out into the faint moonlight, now replacing the orange, fiery sunset with its lackadaisical glow. Darin saw him shove something—a notebook maybe?—into the pocket of his coat as he jogged across the way over to her. “Oh, you know, just a stroll in the moonlight.” His attempted smile looked more like a snarl to Darin.

“But it’s not even dark yet.”

“Getting an early start. Little do some of the people here realize, much happens in this city when the lights go out.”

“Mhmmm I bet.”

“So,” Ratcliffe continued, “What were you and, ah, Mr…Hitch was it?”

“Yes?”

“What were you and Hitch doing together so late in the evening? After office hours, might I add.”

Darin’s eyes widened in disgust and she spat, “Are you intimating that I’m having an affair? Well if that’s what you think, you can stuff it.”

“Is that so?” Ratcliffe’s nasty grin widened.

“Yes, that is so.” Darin plowed on. “First off, it’s none of your business what I do with my free time. Second, Hitch is a respectable physician, and a friend. And I am a respectable woman.”

“Didn’t seem like you two were, how should I say, too chummy the other night when you made your scene after Cabot’s murder.”

“We have since resolved our issues.” Darin drew her coat tighter and pushed past Ratcliffe back down the street, shouting behind her, “Now if you don’t mind, I need to be going back home. Good NIGHT.”

Ratcliffe chuckled as Darin made her way in the direction of her home. Ensuring she was out of earshot, Ratcliffe scribbled two words in his notebook (“temper temper”), and thought aloud: “I wonder what this town would think of ‘Darin, the model, upright landowner’s wife’,” sarcasm dripping from his mocking tone, “when they learn about these trysts with Hitch, and her clearly unresolved anger issues … hmmm … I should hate for her reputation to suffer for it.”

#

“Where were you all day?” Arthur Flyte asked Darin, as he plopped down at their intimate dining table. The Flytes’ dining room was much like the rest of the rooms in their quaint, but certainly rich house on the outskirts of the Common: decadent but just so in a tasteful manner, with a dash of gold in their curtains and other decor. These private residences on Newbury were of the clapboard colonial type, featuring thick black shutters on smooth, greased hinges, and stately without being too lavish. This room, unlike that of the sitting room in which Darin spent most of her nights reading and entertaining Mary, had rich, cobalt colored walls and artwork from local craftsmen. Many such paintings depicted a vast jungle, with reddened horizons and sprinkled with sailing fleets here and there: the New World.

“I was just out and about, as I am most days,” Darin offered. “You know I have the time.” At that moment, Bartholt, a butler, serviceman, and valet to the Flytes entered from the two way, swinging door that led to the kitchen just beyond, and delivered their roast pheasant dinner, complete with bountiful harvest vegetables which were imported from Arthur’s land west of the city, and a fine syrah red wine. Darin offered a smile and she placed a silk napkin on her lap and cut into their meal.

“I know you do,” Arthur spoke through a mouthful, forcing Darin to wince at the sound of his talking and chewing. “You’re lucky at that, to have so much time, being a landowner’s wife and all. The investment I’ve made in some of the farms out west have provided well for us, have they not?”

“I cannot disagree with that.” Darin scoffed in her head at the improbability of herself owning land. You’d think in the process of colonizing a new world, they’d at least think to restructure the social systems, Darin thought to herself. Even if Arthur could, she wasn’t much sure of his willingness to cut her in on the “family business”. Arthur wasn’t an unbearable spouse; in fact he could be quite handsome with his milk chocolate eyes and dirty blond hair, bleached by the sun in his early days of boyhood and undercut on the bottom half of his head to reveal a natural brunette. He cleaned up rather nice, she thought. But as with any man, she was reluctant to bear him children, despite their marriage of two years. Darin decided to throw him a bone. “I was helping out Hitch today, in fact. He seems to require a certain amount of my expertise, and since, as you yourself say, I have the time, I figured I would lend him my assistance.”

“You’re helping him with this whole…Cabot affair, panic about which is spreading around these streets like wildfire?” Arthur looked up with a glance of brief skepticism. “He’s a medical professional, he can’t handle this himself?”

“It seems not.”

“Hmmm very well then. You know you don’t need my approval.”

“I certainly don’t.” To lighten her remark, Darin once again gave her husband a reassuring and genuine smile, with a hint of devilry contained therein.

“Will you be seeing Mary tonight?”

Darin had no clue if her husband thought anything suspect of her friendship with Mary, considering the frequency of the girl’s attendance at their dinners and the late hour she left their residence most nights of the week. She didn’t really care either. Darin suspected Arthur was caught in his own elicit affairs, too.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m feeling rather exhausted tonight.”

At the conclusion of their meal, Darin rose from the table and paused briefly before padding upstairs to her sitting room. She walked to Arthur, planting on him a substantial kiss, and said, “I grow weary, and I must away to bed. Goodnight, my dear.” And thus she made her way up to her room for a usual drink.

#

9 November 1767

Hitch’s ears pricked up as he heard the three knocks on his door, signaling Darin’s arrival. Popping his Yorkshire pudding from its cooking tin on the fireplace and placing it with gentle hands next to the cooling lamb roast on his mahogany counter, his boots thumped along the hallway and he made his way out to greet her. He remembered to smile, something he did not do very often, though he was in a pleasant mood, having the opportunity to entertain a rare dinner guest. He was happy to have some company and grateful for Darin’s continued assistance with this whole troublesome Cabot case.

With a bit more gusto than his usual expressions afforded, Hitch opened the door and said, “Hello Darin!” Hitch had grown to appreciate Darin’s refined and sophisticated sensibilities. Though at moments uncouth and raucous, she did offer terribly good dinner company. “Welcome!”

“Hitch, thank you,” Darin said as she stepped out of the nippy air. Her eyes looked crinkled and saggy at the edges, as if she had just woken from a long nap or managed to survive the day with a minimal night’s sleep. “I do so appreciate your company this evening.”

“The pleasure’s all mine.”

Darin hoisted the jingling contents of the cloth bag she’d been carrying, and placed it on the hall floor as she removed her jacket. “I hope you don’t mind, but since you were so kind to provide the food, I would supply the drink for tonight.” Darin winked and laughed, “You do know I love a good drink.”

Hitch perked at the word “drink” and said, “Ah, wonderful. What are we having, may I ask?”

“It’s a surprise, you’ll see!”

Hitch vacated the kitchen, accompanied by the roast and pudding, placing them on his dining table just so.

“I’m starved for good company these days,” Hitch admitted with his own little embarrassed shrug, before he realized Darin couldn’t see him from the kitchen, from which he heard the audible clinking of glassware.

Darin chuckled a bit from the nearby kitchen and added, “Well it’s a good thing we’re about to sit down for dinner right?” Darin stepped into the room bearing a curious looking beverage on a bronze tray. Spying the roast, Darin sighed. “Ahh I wish you had let me know what meat you were preparing. This drink goes particularly well with fish. Alas, we shall make due.”

Darin delivered two pint glasses of sparkling, spiced amber liquid to herself and Hitch. The glasses each contained a full pint of the liquid, a warm amber hue, rimmed with a sliced lime and a thin line of sugar. Only then did she notice Hitch’s table setting. “Are those bayberry candles?”

“Why yes, they are. How did you know?”

“Bayberries are a popular source for candle wax. Expensive though, and not very sustainable.”

“True, all the more luxurious though. Even though it takes 15 pounds of berries to yield one candle.”

Darin rolled her eyes. “They’re better off used for their medicinal purposes, such as fits and fevers.”

“I see.”

“I do love your table presentation, though.” Hitch’s table boasted extensive amounts of artisanal fruits, golden, green, and macintosh apples and red grapes, arranged in silver fruit bowls with grape vines wrapped around towering candleholders, the candles themselves made of bayberries. In the direct center of the long, rectangular table, at which a chair was placed at each end, was a pheasant, also on a silver platter. Hitch preferred to spare no extravagance when entertaining dinner guests.

“Thank you. I do pride myself on appearance.” Hitch sipped his drink, slurping a bit of the drink into the back of his mouth. “This drink is delicious, what is it?”

“Do you know poison sumac?”

Hitch gagged and spat the drink out onto his precious table décor, near spraying Darin in the face. But she was too busy laughing doubled-over, and then straightening to resume her usual smirk, her mouth tipped up in a knowing smile.

Darin added, “Hah yeah well, that’s not it though.”

Hitch’s eyes near popped out of his head, trying to register that he had almost been poisoned. Or had he? “What?”

“Don’t worry, there’s no poison sumac in that drink, “Darin laughed. “I was just playing with you.”

Hitch shot Darin a most unamused, low-brow glare as he wiped his mouth and his place setting of the cocktail detritus. “Okay…So what exactly is in this?”

“No need to worry,” Darin reassured the good doctor, “it’s non poisonous sumac of course.”

“Why in the name of God do you make drinks with sumac anyway?”

Darin took a harmless and generous gulp from her glass. “Like I said, old family recipe passed down from my mother.”

Hitch took another tentative sip of his drink and admitted, “You have a weird, sick sense of humor.”

Darin smiled, “And I take pride in that…So do you still plan on inviting your friend, whatshisname, to the town to help our investigation?”

“His name’s Tudor, Henry Tudor. And yes, I do. I’m thinking he can ask around for Cabot’s usual whereabouts, friends, any enemies he may have had. Though I don’t know why he would have any enemies.”

Darin smirked, ready to jump at the mention of “Tudor.” But as she opened her mouth, Hitch added, “Yes, I do realize the peculiarity of his name…Tudor, as in Kings Henry VII and VIII of England…”

Darin added, “Maybe he can keep an eye on that slimy Ratcliffe, too. I’m sure he’ll be sneaking around, poking his nose into our business, or your home, where it doesn’t belong.”

“Mmm good point. That, too.”

She slurped at her drink once again and cast her probing eyes across the table, in Hitch’s direction. “So tell me Hitch.”

“Yes?”

“Why do you keep to yourself so much? When I see you around town, it’s only ever you walking between appointments, and I don’t see you taking company with very many people. If any at all. Why is that?”

Hitch lowered his gaze once again. “Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, no reason in specific,” she said. “Just wondering was all.”

“Well if you must know,” Hitch offered, “I came here, to Boston, when I was just a young lad. I was under my father’s tutelage for most of his remaining years, until he died. Then, with no other viable choices before me, I look up his profession and that’s been that. All work, and not much opportunity to make friends.”

“Ah I see … I’m sorry … You know, and I don’t say this with a light heart, I can be your friend, Hitch.”

Hitch’s face reddened and he stuttered a bit in surprise of Darin’s forward statement. He coughed a bit to clear his throat before saying with a genuine, wide smile, “Yes, I would very much like that, Darin Flyte.”

#

Darin collapsed in her posh sitting room after hearing the door’s lock click in its place. Her eyes were squinted and pained in the dimmed, candlelit room. “Why do my eyes hurt so damn bad?” She rubbed her brow in frustration. “Maybe all the actual intellectually challenging conversation got to me more than I thought?” Darin chuckled.

Despite being at the peak of her contentment as of late, having found a new and decent friend, she was drained. Darin often felt that at the moment she was closest to sustaining a significant connection with another person, she felt most like retreating. Friendship, love, acquaintance, Darin realized, while wonderful, was always fleeting. No person, feeling, object, nothing was permanent, such affection including. This sensation was an odd and uncanny one, one Darin had fostered in her short life from countless flings of trust and betrayal.

Darin was both unsurprised yet shocked when she found herself thinking of Hitch, and that if she were to lose him, she wouldn’t mourn terribly. “Life’s just a series of expectations and eventual disappointments. Sure it’s great now, but what’s stopping something horrid from happening?”

Oh hell… Darin thought, as she heard a weak knock on her door. She slouched over anyway and fumbled with the door knob, revealing Mary standing alone in the shadowy hallway beyond the threshold. Darin’s face fell in exhaustion, and she swore she could feel the bags under her eyes in that instant.

“Arthur let me in again.” Mary stepped through and into the room, a bit breezier than usual, or maybe that was just the late autumn chill Darin felt on Mary’s coat. “I thought it best just to come up.” Darin nodded as Mary removed her scratchy wool pea coat and plopped down on the plush sofa.

“I’ll get you a drink.” Darin opened a wooden chest adjacent the door to reveal a set of fine china, glassware, and bottles upon bottles of wine and cider, saved for private entertaining.

Darin offered Mary the glass of red wine and sat gingerly next to her, careful not to deflate the cushions, nor rock Mary too much in her spot. Darin placed a cautious hand on Mary’s thigh and squeezed it in reassurance.

“Mary, I’m going to be completely transparent with you for a moment.”

“Of course, my dear,” Mary said, as she planted a firm kiss on Darin’s salty forehead.

Darin sighed. “You know that moment when you’re sharing an absolute, wonderful, intimate moment with someone, timeless it almost seems. Yet despite this person’s physical closeness, their body pressed against yours in a hug or an embrace or a kiss, you can already feel them retreating. They retreat, you feel their inertia drawing away from yours, leaving you alone.”

Mary wrapped her arm around Darin, cushioning her as Darin’s dead eyes drifted up to hers. “Darin, what brought this on?”

“I have this distinct and repugnant sense that things will soon be changing in ways that I cannot begin to realize.”

#

11 November 1767

Darin was hunched with her back and wool coat collar against the wind to fight off the brisk air. She had just arrived at Hitch’s house after a short walk from hers, when she heard mumbling in Hitch’s cellar. Darin decided to forego her usual politeness and let herself in.

Darin quickly wiped her boots on Hitch’s front rug, slouched off her jacket, and proceeded to tromp down to the cellar. Before her stomping presence could interrupt the conversation between Hitch and his supposed guest, Darin caught the words “His Majesty” and “undercover” in the string of conversation. She almost stopped in her tracks, mulling momentarily over Hitch’s political leanings. No bother, she thought. I’ll inquire later.

Reaching the end of the stairs, there Darin found Hitch’s table filled with a medical chart on which was drawn the outline of a body, appended with the notes of Cabot’s condition, the swelling on his extremities, and a list of potent alcohols; a diagram of the Boston roads surrounding the common, pricked with labels like “North Church” and “Faneuil” as the streets stretched out to the harbor; and the beginnings of a suspect list, on which was drawn a huge question mark. These papers now replaced Cabot’s own dead body. She also found Hitch himself, engaged with a middle-aged man who looked to be in his 40s, with a belly that outweighed his three-piece suit, and whose face was plump, rosy, and which boasted mutton-chop side burns.

Hitch glanced up from his absorption in his files for Darin’s entrance, and immediately swept across the floor to greet her. He gave her a light and amicable hug. “Ah Darin! I’m so sorry, I hope you weren’t waiting upstairs long. I confess I didn’t hear you knock.”

Darin returned the greeting, lightly kissing him on the cheek. “No need to worry doctor. I wasn’t out there long. I heard you down here and figured it would be okay to let myself in.”

“Of course.” Hitch wheeled back to his guest. “Actually, we’re due for introductions. Darin, remember when I said, during our first meeting, I had a friend whose help could be of use to our cause?”

“Yes, of course.”

Hitch gestured to the ginger-haired, pudgy man and said, “May I introduce Inspector Henry Tudor. He’s from Lowell, and he traveled an awful long distance to help us. And Henry, this is Mrs. Darin Flyte.”

Darin offered her right hand, a slight smile, and a terse “Pleased to meet you.”

Tudor bent and kissed Darin’s hand. Darin was sure it was meant to be a polite gesture but it made her skin crawl anyway. “You as well,” Tudor grinned.

Hitch interrupted with an anxious, “Anyway! Henry was just glancing through our various files on the case. He’ll be following up with leads and interviews while we continue on the back end of things, if that’s okay with you, Darin?”

“Ah,” she answered absently, still thinking on Tudor’s and Hitch’s conversation before her arrival, “of course.”

“Hitch,” said Tudor, going back to the mess of papers, “I think I’ll continue with the investigation you and, Darin was it?”

“Yes…”

“…the investigation you and Darin began into Cabot’s congregation. I’ve seen my fair share of surprisingly spiteful churchgoers. Maybe there’s an opportunist of some kind among them.”

Hitch offered, “Darin, didn’t you attend service at the North Church?”

“I did.” She nodded.

Tudor grinned a slimy and toothy smile. “Well, then Darin, I may need you help me organize some testimonies, after I’ve had a chance to interview some of Cabot’s flock. Do you know these people well?”

“Some of them. Most are my husband’s friends.”

“But you could help me, then?”

Darin smiled despite her disgust with the man and real desire to slap him. How pushy. The hungry look in his eyes suggested his thinking “We should see more of each other.”

“Of course,” Darin replied. “I would be happy to help.”

“Well, Hitch,” Tudor slapped Hitch’s back. “I must be off. The wife promised to make a hearty stew to celebrate our arrival in the city. Goodbye!”

Tudor waddled up the stairs, only bothering a nod and a tip of the hat in Darin’s direction, and not two minutes passed before Hitch and Darin winced as Tudor unceremoniously slammed the door on his way out.

Darin’s immediate reaction was to crack her knuckles, and her second, to alert Hitch to her observations. “Hitch, I don’t like that guy.”

“Darin, you just met him.” Darin felt the familiar tone of annoyance, however she knew from the edge of that tone that Hitch respected her opinion and would justly consider it.

“I know, but Hitch, you know I have decent instincts.”

“Yes, I do. Which is why I’m worried. Henry’s my friend, and I don’t think he’d do anything to screw over this investigation.”

Darin shrugged. “But he seems the type to take credit where his credit’s not due, if you know what I mean.”

“Hmmm maybe…” Hitch considered her sentiments. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. But you didn’t exactly make it subtle that you disapprove of him.”

“For lack of better words, he gives me the creeps.”

“I could see that.”

“I don’t trust him.”

“I know. Just let him proceed for now though. Help us out a bit.”

Then Darin switched directions and nearly sent Hitch flying with her sudden question:

“Hitch, are you a Loyalist?”

Hitch stopped dead, in the middle of piling together his papers and clipping them in a bunch. “Excuse me, what?”

Darin took a step closer towards her friend, offering her unusual sympathetic eyes. “Are you a Loyalist?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Hitch, you know I like to ask things out of nothing. It’s just who I am.”

Hitch pressed on, palms sweating, unsure of her direction. “Does it matter?”

“Not to me,” Darin admitted. “I just want to know is all.” Darin sighed and offered Hitch her hand, taking his in hers and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Honestly. It’s just my natural curiosity.”

Hitch dipped his eyes down to his shoes, and Darin swore they were misty. Hitch was not usually this reluctant. He slumped against his table, which gave a little under his weight, and Darin put an arm around his shoulder as he admitted, eyes still trained to the shoe-trodden floor, “Yes.”

#

12 November 1767

What? Wait, who’s dead?”

“There was a guy, he came into town yesterday afternoon…He may have stopped here for a drink?”

“What was his name?” Felix asked.

“Tudor, Henry Tudor…” whispered Hitch with a sigh.

“And, now he’s dead?” Felix raised an eyebrow and walked out from behind the bar to sit face to face with Hitch.

“Yes!” Hitch whispered again. His wide eyes were red and panic-stricken. He turned around, glancing out over the frosted glass of the Green Dragon’s street-side window. “Look, Felix. Can we talk about this elsewhere?”

“The pub’s not open yet. It’s just us.”

Hitch’s eyes darted to and fro, overcome. “I’m paranoid. Indulge me. Please.”

“Hitch, what’s wrong?”

“I—I don’t know…but…his death must have something to do with the investigation…But I only employed him yesterday…and if that’s the case, I could be in some deep shit…Felix. Please.”

“Okay, okay.”

Felix led Hitch up the creaky, wooden back stairs to his lonely office, off to the left. Cramped and receipt-strewn, the office boasted wooden walls that matched the pub below, empty candle holders on the roll-top desk overlooking the cobbled street below, and two chairs.

“Please,” Felix gestured to one of the chairs as he shut the door and sat adjacent to Hitch. “Now tell me what’s going on.” He placed a hand on Hitch’s leg, then thought the better of it and retracted himself immediately.

Hitch began, “So. I brought in a friend of mine, from Lowell. He was to help Darin and me with our investigation of Cabot’s murder, right?”

“Okay. And?”

“And he only arrived here yesterday…He visited my lab, met Darin, and left for dinner. That was it! I don’t think he even had the chance to begin his investigation of Cabot’s congregation yet. He said he was going home to his wife and that’s the last I saw of him…Then this morning a constable came knocking at my door telling me the news…”

“Why did the constable come to you?”

Hitch bent over to rest his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. “Henry’s wife told the constable that I was a friend of his, and that Henry saw me last night. He didn’t come home last night. They found his body in the Common. The constable asked of my whereabouts last night and if I knew why Henry didn’t return home … or if he had other plans … I can’t believe it…”

“Okay, well, this guy, Henry. How was he killed?”

“They didn’t say! But I’m terribly concerned … Why the hell was he killed? No one knew he was a part of the investigation…assuming that is why he was killed in the first place … I mean, I don’t think it was his wife, so…”

Felix’s last words came in an exasperated rush, pent up with the nervous energy in which one knows one has to tell a friend some horrible truth in a hurry, but simultaneously dreads the moment in which those words realize themselves. “Look, Hitch, there’s something you should know…”

Hitch’s head shot up so last his neck cracked. “Ow! Crap…” Rubbing his temples, he proceeded, “What?”

“You said there were only a few people who could have known Tudor was working with you, right?”

“Yeah…?”

“I think they’re starting to suspect, well, you.”

“WHAT? How? Why?” Hitch reeled with incredulity. “What? No way….what?” Of course the moment in which Hitch felt like Cabot’s murder investigation was beginning to close, chaos just had to erupt, didn’t it?

“Well, before you came in this morning, I had another visitor.”

“Who, besides myself, could possibly be up so early as to visit you at this hour?”

Felix lowered his gaze to his writhing hands and blew out a deep breath he’d been holding in. “Darin.”

“And what was Darin’s purpose in coming here? It’s too early for a drink.”

Felix reached out on a whim and took Hitch’s hands in his. “Hitch, Darin heard about Tudor this morning. You know how such things spread in this town.”

“Yes, and? Stop beating around the damn point.”

“Sorry. Darin told me that she suspects you. I think she was going to one of the police with her suspicions.”

“What the hell? No way would she say that. No way.”

“She did.”

“There’s no way.”

“But she did, Hitch. Whether you believe me or not, I’m telling you the truth.”

Hitch went back to rubbing his temples. “Well…well…do you believe her?”

Felix retracted his hands and crossed his arms. “No, of course not. That’s why I’m telling you.”

“What reasons did she give?” Hitch kicked into a solemn survival mode: his voice was flat, dull, and exhausted.

“She told me you had extensive knowledge of supernatural magick and botanicals. And that such knowledge had been made obvious in the course of your investigation…Is it true?”

“Yes, I do know an awful lot about witchcraft, natural magicks, wiccan history, pagan religions and the alike…But that doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t kill Henry Tudor.”

Felix nodded. “She’s not only accusing you of the murder of Tudor. She thinks you killed Cabot as well.”

“What connection could I possibly have to Cabot?”

“I don’t know, Hitch. But is there anyone else who knows you know about this stuff?”

“Just Darin herself.”

“No one else?”

Hitch considered all the nights spent in the cellar of Faneuil, neck-deep in records and reports of the witch trials, and medicinal herbs and spells. “Uhm…well anyone who saw me conducting my research too I suppose…”

“Oh Hitch…”

“It’s just a hobby!” Hitch stopped. “Well at least it was just a hobby until I got wrapped into this murder investigation. I’m a doctor. I’m the one trying to solve this…Why in hell would people possibly believe, including Darin, that I would be the one to do it?”

“I dunno,” Felix shrugged. “Maybe Darin thought it was the perfect cover…You have to admit, having yourself inserted into the investigation as the knowledgeable medical professional attempting to solve it is a pretty good cover. Hitch if I were you, I’d skip town…People will come asking.”

“God, but I don’t want to,” whined Hitch. “I have to solve this murder! Well, now two murders…I need to talk to Darin.”

#

Felix led Ratcliffe upstairs to his office, leaving an unnamed new employee to man the bar downstairs during the end of the lunch rush. It’s not like he was supposed to know everyone’s name when they started working for him. Ratcliffe clutched at Felix’s hand as they ascended the stairs, and in a half-minded trance, Felix allowed their fingers to link. Damn that Ratcliffe…

“Come on, Amory, I’m getting antsy here…” Ratcliffe continued to mumble as he and Felix burst through the office door and Ratcliffe began making quick work of removing Felix’s apron…

Felix protested faintly against Ratcliffe’s advancing and aggressive lips, managing a “Call me Felix, you dumbass,” before he gave in and allowed Ratcliffe’s kisses to push him back up on his desk. He scooted to the back edge of the desk, pushing bills and receipts alike aside in a haphazard manner when Felix’s finger cut on a stiff piece of stationary and he could only yell, “Fuck!”

Ratcliffe jumped back. “What the hell? I was just getting started for God’s sake…”

“I cut myself on something. Hold on…” Felix pushed off the still-advancing Ratcliffe and fingered the note. “Who left this?” He swiveled to the pointed edge of the desk and hurriedly opened the odd note.

Ratcliffe heard him gasp another, “Oh fuck…That bastard was right.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, poor Hitch…”

What?” Ratcliffe kept pestering Felix until he handed the note over, on which was written only a few words, scrawled in a hurried mess of what Ratcliffe could only figure was Hitch’s cursive:

Leaving town, but first: it was Darin.

#

13 November 1767

“It’s about time the Flytes hosted another of their infamously decadent, pre-Winter Solstice parties,” remarked Felix. “Take some of the craziness away from the pub and get me out for the night.” Little did he know, Felix was unintentionally talking to Ratcliffe, who was lurking just behind him in the corner of the room, breathing in the chill from the adjacent window.

“Mmm yeah, well don’t just sit there skulking, go and get me a drink would ya?” he whispered in Felix’s ear, firing goose bumps from Felix’s neck all the way down his body. Ratcliffe’s eyes darted to Darin across the room, honing in a suspicious glare. “I need to make the rounds.”

“Yeah yeah.” Felix swatted him away and waded to the alcohol, feeling a bit out of place with all these well-to-do, upper class townsfolk. Though being a “mere innkeeper” was nothing to shirk at, Felix knew. He did get all the gossip of the town for sure, and being privy to snippets of information often came in handy in times like these.

#

“I think I may have messed up.” Darin’s posture gave the impression of a breezy calm but her eyes darted to and from the various guests in her living room. Her elegant black satin evening dress showed elegance, grace, and composure. Darin’s inner demeanor and panicked voice did not.

“Messed up how?” Mary asked.

“I think they’re onto me.”

“Who’s onto you? And for what?” Mary asked with a quizzical smile. She sipped her drink.

“I don’t know. Hitch, Felix, everyone. They think I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Killed Cabot.”

“Please, Darin, you’re being paranoid.” Mary placed a hand on Darin’s shoulder. “Get yourself a drink and enjoy your own party for once would you?”

“Harper Ratcliffe has his eyes on me tonight too. I see him in the corner. I can only suspect he thinks the same.”

“Just ignore him. Ratcliffe doesn’t think much of anything these days.”

“Just the revolution.”

“Yeah just that.”

“Calm yourself,” Mary said.

“If only it were that simple…” Darin sighed as she ran a trembling hand down the side of her face.

#

“Darin, may I talk to you for a second?”

Darin whipped around in surprise as she felt a prick of static on her arm. Even more surprising was the face that met hers. Ratcliffe, sneering and smelly as ever, a pen alight in his hand. “What do you want,” Darin spat. She paused and recovered herself, permitting a small “sorry” for Ratcliffe. “Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. These sort of social scenes are exhausting.”

“They don’t seem to become you, as they do for the other rich wives in this town, hmm?” Ratcliffe said.

Darin sighed and placed her cider on the silver platter sitting next to the makeshift bar, ready for Bartholt could remove discarded drinks from the scene.

“I’ve a few questions for you,” Ratcliffe continued.

“About what? What could you possibly have to ask me? I told you about me and Hitch: there’s nothing between us, so bugger off.”

Ratcliffe licked his lips. “I think you’ll change your tone when you hear that I know what you’ve been doing in the Common on nights of the new moon. Hmmm…? How careless.”

Darin dragged Ratcliffe off by the elbow and waded through her mingling guests to the entryway. She managed to avoid the gaze of her guests as she padded up the scarlet-colored carpeted stairs to the second-floor landing, still dragging Ratcliffe behind her. She grabbed his forearms and shook Ratcliffe so that strings of his greasy hair now fell in his face. “What the HELL are you talking about?”

Ratcliffe smiled. “The fact that you even have to ask means you already know.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Weeeeellll,” Ratcliffe began, “Let’s just say I saw a certain someone out in the Common one night while I was snooping around the town—as you know I am inclined to do.” Ratcliffe circled around Darin so his face was in the shadows, veiled in part of the landing light from below in the bustling party. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good walk in the moonlight, but since it was a new moon, there wasn’t one. Saw you digging deep into the soil near the oldest, decrepit oak in the Common, so I decided to snoop further. I’m not saying I believe in magick, per se, but I certainly don’t count it out. After you sunk your arms elbow deep into the rocky dirt, I saw a green spark or something…Anyway it looked to me like some magick ritual. It was creepy,” he finished, matter-of-fact.

“And thus you assume I know magick? Because of a hunch?”

“Well, there’s more than just a hunch. Cabot and Tudor, or at least Cabot anyway, seemed to be killed by supernatural means, as Hitch suspects. Funny, it happens right after I see you in this little ritual—or whatever it is—of yours. That and your raging outburst that night in the pub, when Hitch merely suggested the cause of Cabot’s murder was magickal. Seems like a whole lot of coincidence to me. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

Darin shrugged off the accusations and suggested, “Well aside from thinking you saw me in the Common that one time, most of the incidents involving your accusations involve Hitch, too. I don’t see you accusing him.”

“Hah, why in the heck would I accuse him?” Ratcliffe laughed. “Sure Hitch may know about magick from his studies, but I doubt he has the strength of will to possess it. Not that I know much about it, but I’m assuming magick takes a particularly strong-willed person to possess and manipulate it. I believe you do have such strength. That is why I am accusing you.”

“Mhmmm.”

“Also, Hitch left Amory a warning note before he suddenly blew outta town, and he seemed to think that you were the culprit,” he added. “Even if these are just hunches, I know I’m right.”

Ratcliffe took Darin’s subsequent silence as a sign of assent, and proceeded with his argument. “The real question is, of course I’m dying to know, what kind of magick do you possess? I don’t think you’d waste your time on anything weak, if you’ve come this far and performed this well, in covert manners. Also why? Why use it at all? Why kill them, these men?”

Darin considered shutting her mouth, but no matter her false refusals, she had a sneaking suspicion that Ratcliffe wouldn’t drop his. May as well get credit where credit is due, she thought. “As you said, I don’t put up with bullshit magick. And this source is immediate and easy to access, so why wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t you?”

“Is this because you’re a redcoat supporter? Masking your identity as a Loyalist by pretending to be a well-to-do-housewife?”

“No.”

“Or maybe because you’re a true revolutionary, eh? Fighting the good ol’ blue jacket cause against the crown?”

“No.”

“Then what could dear Darin Flyte possibly gain from murdering those men? Don’t tell me you did it for no discernible reason?”

Darin dealt Ratcliffe, whose eyes were alight with nervous energy and excitement, a dead-pan glare. Her eyes were listless, dead, giving her face an expression of absolute apathy. She looked as if she could growl in fear, anger and triumph.

“That’s exactly why murdered those men. Because I wanted to.” Darin paused, near grinning as she remembered Ratcliffe’s words just a moment ago. “Ratcliffe, didn’t you just say that this was information that you would die to know?”

Ratcliffe swallowed and began backing down the stairs. “Well, technically I said I’m dying to know. There’s a difference in verb tense there.”

“I don’t see much difference.”

“Given your proclivity for murder, I don’t see why you would.”

Darin snickered, an expression she rarely displayed except in few moments of heinous ecstasy. “Even if I let you go, and you stupidly tried to expose me, I don’t see why anyone would believe you.”

“I do have your confession.”

“Hah yeah, okay, see if that counts for anything. The opinion of a repulsive, snivelly little nothing writer like you against mine, a woman of upstanding and intelligible repute in this town? I don’t think so. Not even Felix will believe you.”

Darin let a wicked smile rip across her face as she reached down the stairway to caress Ratcliffe’s stiff jaw line, before digging a long, sharp, green magick-infused nail into his right eye, gauging it out, and dragging him back up the stairs.

 

 

 

BIO

shalenlowellphoto2Shalen Lowell is an author, blogger, and poet hailing from Boston, Massachusetts. As a trans author, Shalen specializes in fiction which represents the intersection of fantasy and postmodern genres and queer literature. Shalen currently holds a B.A. in English Literature and Environmental Science, and their work often focuses on the crises of environmental degradation as figured through fantasy media. Their work is also featured in Aether and Ichor.

 

 

 

0

Lee’s Funeral, Emmy’s Wedding

by J L Higgs

 

 

My fingers stealthily unwrap the cellophane around the hard candy without making a sound. Withdrawing my hand from the outside pocket of my black suit jacket, I palm the candy in my fist. Pretending I’m clearing my throat, I raise my fist to my mouth and slip the hard candy inside. The sweet taste of strawberries spreads across my tongue.

“Stop that fidgeting,” says Marlene. “They’re about to start.”

I tuck the candy into my cheek with my tongue. “This is just plain weird,” I say. “And this bench is hurting my butt. It’s hard as a concrete block.”

“Now you hush, Jimmy B.!” she says. “You agreed to come, so if you really didn’t want to you should’ve just stayed at home.”

“It’s still weird,” I mutter.   Caught rolling my

eyes, I give Marlene one of my best angelic smiles.

When the phone call had come three days ago it had been a shocker.

“Daddy’s dead.”

“Dead? What do you mean Lee’s dead?”

“Just what I said, Uncle Jimmy. Daddy’s dead.”

“You sure, Emmy?”

“Of course, I’m sure. Daddy’s dead,” she repeated.

“Lee’s dead,” I said to Marlene, clamping my hand across the mouth piece of the phone.

“Give me that phone,” she said, snatching it out of my hand. “Emmy honey,” she said in that sing-song butter melting voice. “Lee’s dead?”

“Yup. He’s dead.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, honey. What about the wedding? I guess you all are going to postpone?”

“Why’s she getting married anyway?” I whispered.

Marlene covered the phone’s mouth piece with her hand, “Shush, Jimmy B,” she said.

”Shush, Jimmy B,” I mimicked back softly so Emmy wouldn’t hear me.

“Nope. We’re gonna go ahead and have it.”

“Do you all think that’s a good idea? I mean, given the funeral…”

“Well, I talked with Momma. Since everything is ready for the wedding, she felt we should just go ahead and have it.”

“Alright then. Well, you tell your momma I’m thinking about you all and I’ll be keeping all of you in my prayers. We’ll see you in a few days and in the meantime if there’s anything I can do for you all just give us a call. And let us know when the funeral’s gonna be.”

“Well. That’s why I called. You and Uncle Jimmy need to come about an hour earlier on Saturday.”

“That’s no problem at all, honey. I’m happy to do anything I can to help with the wedding.”

“Well I appreciate that, but we’re all set with the wedding. We just need you to come earlier for Daddy’s funeral. It’s gonna be right before the wedding.”

So, here I am at Lee’s funeral on a beautiful October day. The mountains are a brilliant sunlit patchwork quilt of yellow, red, and orange. It’s been years since I’ve laid eyes on them. Thinking of this small town in the mountains, with its few black families sprinkled about like pepper on grits, as home is barely a distant memory to me now. I wanted out as did Lee. That, along with thousands of other reasons, probably accounts for why he and I were such close friends.

Hunting deer, turkeys, and rabbits through autumn leaves and deep winter snows. Fishing for yellow perch, lake trout, and large mouth bass. Swimming, camping, and hiking; Lee and I had been as close as two boys who weren’t brothers could be.

In about a week’s time, today’s colors will start to dull. The fluid flowing through each leaf’s veins will begin to slow down until it finally stops. Cut off from its sustenance, each leaf will eventually die, then fall to the ground. What remains standing will be stark bare skeletons awaiting winter’s cold and snows.

As the Wedding March begins to play, we all stand-up. Marlene takes my hand in hers. She gives me a quick sweet smile.   As Emmy walks down the aisle, her light brown Shirley Temple curls bounce like springs. A bouquet of long white lilies covers the small bump of her almost six-week pregnancy. It’s a tossup which will happen first, Emmy graduating from high school or the baby being born. Emmy’s always been one for surprises. Even from the start.

Peg’s family had moved to our town when we were all eight years old. From that day forward, the three of us, Peg, Lee, and me were practically inseparable. We went through school together and a few years after we graduated high school they got married. Shortly after that I acted on my own and escaped this town, leaving it behind me.

Almost immediately, Lee and Peg wanted to start a family. But after years of trying, they learned that conceiving a child was a remote possibility at best. That’s why everyone was shocked when Peg became pregnant. By the time Emmy was born, they’d been married nine, almost ten years.

Throughout her pregnancy, Lee had hovered around Peg like she was made of glass. Determined that nothing would go wrong he’d taken control of everything. He barely even let her get up or move around. By late in her eighth month, his well-meaning over attentiveness had just about driven her insane. That was why she’d called me.

“Jimmy B.,” she said when I answered the phone, “You better come on up here.”

“Why?” I asked, “What’s the matter? Something happen to Lee?”

“For now, your best friend’s fine,” she said, “but if you don’t get up here and get him to give me some peace, he won’t be!”

That was how I came to be up at Lee and Peg’s the day Emmy was born. After Peg’s phone call, I’d told Marlene I was going up visit Lee because Peg was one hair’s width away from sending him to meet Jesus. Marlene laughed and asked if I wanted her to come with me. I told her no. Peg had said she just needed some quiet time to herself.

When I arrived at Lee and Peg’s, the issue of him giving her some breathing room was still far from settled. Lee was adamant that in a woman’s final month of pregnancy her husband should be even more vigilant. Peg reminded him that her due date was two weeks out and that women had had babies for hundreds of years without men being present. Ignoring Lee’s hang dog expression, she shooed us out the door.

“Go do some sugaring,” she said. “Half the season’s already passed.”

As Lee started up the quad, I hooked the short bed trailer to the hitch. Then we loaded two empty 50-gallon barrels onto the trailer. I slammed its tailgate shut and we headed down the trail into the woods. At each tapped tree, we checked its small hanging bucket for sap. We gingerly removed each full bucket, so as not to slop any of the crystal clear sap over the metal bucket’s edge. Then we emptied the precious nectar into one of the barrels. Once the barrels were full, we mounted the quad and rode to the ramshackle sugar house we’d thrown together when we were boys.

“Damn. Still standing,” I said, nodding toward the shack as I wrestled one of the barrels off the trailer.

“We should do something about it, one of these days,” responded Lee.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Just not today.”

Lee chuckled. He tipped a barrel up onto the edge of its bottom rim and wheeled it hand over hand into the shack.

As I started the fire, Lee began pouring the sap into the large silver steel boil pan. After poking and prodding the fire a bit and tossing on more split wood, it was roaring. Black soot from its smoke started to coat the underside of the pan. Then bubbles began forming on the bottom of the pan. Once the bottom was completely covered in bubbles, they began to rise through the hot liquid. They burst through its surface in a rolling boil.

“Candy, Lee?” I asked holding out my hand.

He started to reach for the candy, then stopped, his hand in mid-air. “You didn’t swipe it now, did you, Candy Man?” he asked, eying me.

“Sure as shit did,” I replied, alluding to when we were kids and Lee got caught stealing candy from Shorty’s Gas Up, Grab & Go Country Store. “Hell. I’ve been holding on to this particular piece of candy for over twenty years, just so I could give it to you today.”

“Well in that damn case, I’m happy to be your partner in crime.” Lee plucked the candy from my palm, tore off the wrapper and popped the candy in his mouth. Then he smiled like he was the happiest man in the world.

Lee stooped, picked up the wire mesh strainer and skimmed its head across the surface of the boil. He lifted the strainer from the pan and flung the foam trapped in the mesh onto the ground.

As the liquid in the pan began to turn a light caramel color, he added more sap to the pan while I continued to feed the fire.

“Hot enough for you?” asked Lee. He chuckled as he unbuttoned his large red plaid fleece lined denim jacket.

“Shit, I bet you feel right at home since I know there’s a place reserved for you in hell,” I replied.

He began laughing so hard he was about doubled over when the rickety door to the sugar shack burst open. In the doorway stood Peg.

“Lee,” she said. “I think it’s time.”

“But you’ve got..”

“I said it’s time. We’ve got to go!”

Stunned, Lee grabbed Peg by the arm. His eyes darted between the boil pan, Peg, and me.

“You heard, Peg,” I said. “We got to go.”

Snapping into action, Lee dashed out the shack, darn near dragging Peg. At the quad and the trailer, he hesitated.

“Just get in the damn trailer,” I yelled, jumping aboard the quad and starting it up. Lee leaped into the trailer, then turned and helped Peg up into its bed. She sat down carefully with her legs dangling out over its open gate.

I slammed the quad into gear and took off. As we tore through the woods the trailer careened wildly, striking protruding tree roots, rabbit holes, and ditches carved by runoff from melted snow.

When we reached the house, Lee yanked Peg out of the trailer and they piled into his big truck. He started it up and swung it 180 degrees, spraying gravel and dust into the air. Then the truck screeched to a halt.

“Jimmy,” he yelled to me through his open window. “The maple syrup!”

“Just get on to the hospital,” I hollered back. “I got it.”

With that, Lee slammed the pedal to the metal. The truck shot down the driveway, wheels spinning and gravel flying every which way. Thirty-five hours later, on April Fool’s day, Emmy was born. For someone who had seemed in such a rush to get here, she sure changed her mind at the last minute.

Emmy stops at the altar. Derek is standing there. He’s got a huge grin on his face like he’s won a blue ribbon at the fair. His white blond bed head hair is sticking out in all directions. The suit that big country boy’s wearing looks like something that was last in style when his grandad was a boy.

Derek slides over until he’s standing right beside Emmy. She smiles up at him and he down at her. As we retake our seats, I slip another hard candy into my mouth. Butterscotch. One of my favorites. I wonder what Lee would think of all this if he were here? Then, I think, well, he is here, sort of, if lying in an open casket next to your daughter at her wedding could be considered being here.

As the ceremony begins, Peg starts crying. That sets off a chain reaction through the women in the church like something contagious. Sure enough, beside me, Marlene is silently crying. I reach in my pocket, pull out my clean white handkerchief, and hand it to her. She thanks me and begins dabbing at her eyes. For a split second, I consider offering her a candy, but then I think better of it, and don’t. While the young white minister talks, I stare at a stained glass window. There, a white Jesus is dying for my sins. Really?

I’ve heard this part countless times. There ain’t nothing unique about a wedding ceremony. But a combination funeral/wedding? That’s unique! That’s why I didn’t think there was anything wrong or inappropriate when I had asked the minister if he’d ever done a funeral/wedding before. Of course, that got me “the look” from Marlene. But the minister didn’t seem the least bit offended. In fact, he smiled and was downright pleasant as he told me that this was his first.

Now if anything could be considered inappropriate, it’d be what ole Bone Head Earl said when we were standing there paying our respects to Lee before the funeral started.

“He looks good. He looks just like himself,” Earl whispered to me.

“Are you stupid, boy,” I snapped back. “First off, that’s like saying Lee’s looked like a dead man all these years. Secondly, if he looked the least bit like you or me, then one of us would sure have something to worry about.”

“Well, I didn’t mean anything bad, Jimmy B.,” said Earl, twisting the frayed brim of a Lake Monster ball cap in his hands. “I just meant he looks like he’s sleeping.”

“Then that’s what you should’ve said,” I responded shaking my head as he shuffled off. Given my experiences with the stupid things some white people say to black people, I often wonder if their brains are ever even engaged before they speak.

As I hear the words, “you may kiss the bride,” my attention returns to the ceremony.

The wedding having ended, we line up to shake hands with everyone in the receiving line. When we reach Emmy, she pulls me close and gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“Daddy would’ve been so glad you came,” she whispers in my ear. “We’ve missed you, Uncle Jimmy.”

“I’ve missed you too darling,” I say. “Boy,” I say turning to Derek, “You better take good care of my god daughter and the little one that’ll be here soon.”

“Yes, sir. I will,” says Derek pumping my hand a little too enthusiastically. “I’ve got a job all lined up and everything. I’m gonna be stocking the shelves at the hardware store.”

“Well that’s good,” I say, pulling my hand free. “I’m sure your father is looking forward to having your help.”

Marlene tucks my blush smeared handkerchief into her pocket book. She pulls out a small silver tube and reapplies her lipstick.

“Isn’t that George?,” she asks, stowing the capped lipstick back in her pocket book. My eyes follow hers across the room. They land on a 400 pound man in a red polo shirt, wearing white khaki pants.

“Yup,” I say, “that’s Skinny George and Silent Cathy.”

“I heard his wife just disappeared. Up and left him,” said Marlene.

“Looks to me like he might’ve eaten her. I sure hope you ain’t got no peanuts in that bag of yours.”

“You better stop,” she said covering a laugh with her hand.

Skinny George, ever the politician just as he was when he was our high school class president, stops here and there to chat up the other funeral/wedding guests. Silent Cathy, like a pilot fish, moves in perfect synch with Skinny, smiling politely and saying nothing. After not uttering a single word aloud during our school years, Silent Cathy shocked us all when she delivered the valedictorian address at our high school graduation in a clear strong voice.

“Hello George,” said Marlene. She tries giving him a hug, but her arms barely make it even half way around his body.

“Hey, George. Hey, Cathy,” I say.

“Hey,” replies George as Cathy smiles and nods hello. “It’s a darn shame about Lee.”

“Yeah, sure is,” I say.

“How you all been? Lee used to keep us up-to-date, but we ain’t heard much the last year or so.”

I shrug. “We been fine, George,” interjects Marlene.

“Well, we missed you at the last reunion, Jimmy B. Sure be nice if you could attend the upcoming one next July.” Cathy smiles at me and nods in agreement.

“Well, I don’t know George,” I say. “I don’t…”

“We’ll see what we can do,” says Marlene cutting me off. She graces Skinny with a sweet smile while I stand there as mute as Silent Cathy.

“Well, we’ll see you all downstairs,” says George, reaching out and shaking my hand. Then he moves on, meeting and greeting his subjects, with Cathy following in his wake.

“You ready to head downstairs to the reception?” asks Marlene. “I did promise Emmy and Peg I’d help set up.”

I look at the doorway to the staircase that leads downstairs and catch a glimpse of Emmy. She gives me a happy wave and I wave back. Then she disappears down the stairs.

“She’s certainly glad to see you,” says Marlene, touching my forearm tenderly. “Now aren’t you glad you came?”

“Marlene,” I say. “What ever do you think she sees in that boy?”

“Huh. That’s what my momma used to ask me about you.”

“And I bet you told mother dear that I was as sweet as candy,” I say, smiling from ear to ear.

“I told her you were just a fool and that I took pity on you since no one else would’ve.” Marlene lets out a cackle and gives me a peck on the cheek.

“Now Jimmy B. Your god daughter’s got a good head on her shoulders. If Emmy’s decided to marry Derek and have his baby, then you should just accept that she knows what she’s doing.”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

“Of course, I am, Sugar. And she was a beautiful bride. Little Emmy all grown up. Lee would be so proud.”

“Yeah, he would.”

“So. You coming?”

“No. You go on ahead,” I say. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Marlene, my social butterfly, easily joins in with the folks heading downstairs. They’re all going on about what a nice wedding ceremony it was and how Emmy was such a beautiful bride. Finally, with the church cleared out, it’s just me and Lee. I walk over to the casket and look at my best friend. He’s lying there so still it seems unreal. I try to speak. My lips move, but I can’t get out a single word.

“You should come up in April and do the sugaring.”

I turn toward the voice. Peg walks over and takes my hand in hers. She rests her head on my shoulder. Whereas some women age, Peg, like Marlene, just gets more and more beautiful as time passes. Her graying hair doesn’t make her look old, but mature and wise.

“The baby should be born around April,” she says. “Lee won’t be here. You should.”

“Well, I’m not sure..”

“Earl and George have said they’ll tap the trees,” said Peg. Taking a step back, she looks me straight in the eyes. “There’s no point in them doing that if no one’s gonna do the sugaring. Lord knows, I ain’t gonna do it.”

“Well, it probably wouldn’t be right if I…”

“That was Lee’s and your thing, Jimmy B.,” she said. “Y’know, Lee ain’t done no sugaring the last year. When I asked him why, he said he was waiting for you. Well,” she said, taking Lee’s hand in her free one while still holding mine in her other, “it looks to me like time done run out on both of you.”

Tears start to fill my eyes. I try to hold on and keep them at bay.

“I don’t know what you all had your falling out over. Lee never told me. And I never asked. But that shack you all built is still standing.”

I try to speak, but I can’t. It takes everything I got to keep the tears from breaking loose.

Peg lets go of Lee’s hand, then mine. “I’m gonna go downstairs now before they start looking for me,” she says as she starts to walk away. “I’ll leave you here with your best friend.”

As she reaches the vestibule, Peg stops and turns back toward me. “Jimmy B.,” she says, “No matter how far or how fast a person tries to run away from home it’s where their heart is and where the people who truly love them will always welcome them with open arms. Don’t you think it’s been long enough? It’s time. It’s time for you to come home.” Then she turns away and leaves.

I wipe at my tears. I feel small. Smaller than I’ve ever felt in my life. Why didn’t I stop myself from yelling, “fuck you, Lee,” and slamming down the phone. It wasn’t as if he’d never teased me before that he’d only gotten caught stealing the candy from Shorty’s because I’d confessed that he’d done it. But those angry words had been the last words he’d heard from me.

“I’m sorry, Lee,” I say, touching his cold stiff hands. “I am so sorry.”

Out of habit, my right hand goes into my pocket. It fumbles around until it comes out holding a candy. “My last one,” I say. I slipped it between his folded hands. “I miss you so much, buddy.” Then I walk away, to join the wedding reception.

 

BIO

jlhiggs2J L Higgs is a former financial services employee. His short stories focus on the lives of black Americans. “Lee’s Funeral/Emmy’s Wedding” is his second published short story.

In addition to writing short fiction, J L spends his time drawing people and places encountered while traveling domestically and abroad. He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston. Their adult son and daughter live nearby.

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Slush

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

I don’t normally meet up with strangers to rehash the last time I saw their missing ex-wives. But it was a foggy Monday morning, I was newly unemployed, and didn’t quite know how to operate within the parameters of my free time.

I was still unfamiliar with the neighborhood and picked the first café on Fulton Street that I could find. It was only a couple of blocks from my apartment and I had just sat down when Frank walked in, nodding at me as he headed toward my table.

“Casey,” he said, extending his hand. “Thanks so much for meeting me. I’m sure you have a lot going on.” He looked just like the pictures that I googled, handsome in a professorial type of way, tall and wiry with a salt and pepper beard and dark, inquisitive eyes.

“No problem,” I said, stirring my coffee. I kept my head down so I wouldn’t laugh, because the reality was I had nothing going on. I had just moved from Philadelphia for my dream job in San Francisco only to find out, four days in, that the company was shutting down.

So I kicked off the new workweek like any self-starter in Silicon Valley would and slept in past 10 am, ignoring repeated texts from my boyfriend back east, only stirring awake when a call came in from a number I didn’t recognize. In the hopes it was a job recruiter, I picked up, but it was a man’s voice I had never heard before, and he had barely introduced himself as Frank McAllister before cutting to the chase. “I know this might sound crazy,” he said, “but did you go hiking in Lake Tahoe this past weekend with a woman named Nancy Foster? Blonde, petite, around 5’4?”

My stomach lurched. I propped my pillows up against the wall and surveyed my barren apartment as I figured out what to say. I didn’t recognize the name, but the physical description matched the woman I had spent the previous Saturday with, and before I could formulate a response he said, “She’s my ex-wife. She broke into my house and stole my wife’s diamond bracelet, probably a few hours before she met you.”

“My God,” I said, a gasp escaping me, as if I were some stunned bystander in a Lifetime drama.

“Look, I know we don’t know each other, that you have no real incentive to help, but can you do so anyways, out of an act of kindness?” Frank’s voice was a bit breathless, as if he just ran up a flight of stairs. “I have no idea where she went, but she sent me a cryptic email this morning that didn’t mention anything useful except for your name.”

“Really?” I said, not proud of the fact that my voice shot up several octaves, undoubtedly inflated by a sense of importance I didn’t know I had.

“Yes. She admitted to stealing the bracelet. She wrote: ‘I can’t tell you where I am, or when I’ll give it back. All I’ll say is that I went on a hike in Lake Tahoe last weekend and met a young woman named Casey Valeri from San Francisco, and I feel she has changed me for the better. How, I’m not sure, but that’s what I’m on a mission to find out. I’ll be in touch soon.’ ” Frank cleared his throat, the notion that he had Facebook stalked all the Casey Valeri’s in San Francisco who potentially fit the bill already implicit. “You can imagine my frustration, and my wife is distraught. So please, could you find it in your heart to help a stranger in a pinch?”

Help a stranger in a pinch. It was a saying prior to those last few days that I would have dismissed as corny, as my day-to-day life was built upon a foundation of self-interest, just like everyone else. But since Saturday, this sentiment seemed to be the recurring theme in my world. I recalled my hiking partner with a bewildered fondness, and before I knew what I was doing I agreed to meet Frank at a coffee shop, out of a desire to propel the kindness to strangers movement if nothing else. “One thing,” I said. “Bring a picture when you get there, I need to confirm it’s the same person, I think she gave me a fake name.” I hung up, practically shaking with excitement.

Fast forward an hour, and the noir-like atmosphere only continued as Frank sat down at my booth and slid a Polaroid photo across the table. We were quiet as a waitress refilled our coffee, and it was only after she left that I flipped it over and studied the image, which was of Frank and Nancy on a boat, presumably during happier times. “Yes, that’s her. “

Frank sighed. “Whew,” he said. “At least we’ve got that.” He smiled with a small, closed mouth and I thought it was tasteful, the right mix of friendly and concerned. “Look,” he said. “I know this whole thing must be strange for you. It’s strange for me too. And I don’t know what your impression was of Nancy when you met her, I know that she can be quite charming, but the truth is that she’s crazy.” Frank’s hands began to tremble, and I felt a bit sorry for him. “She’s a kleptomaniac,” he continued. “She was off kilter when we were together, maxing out credit cards, lying about it, and after we divorced she got even worse. She called our mutual friend twice to bail her out of jail for shoplifting. And just when I think the dust will settle, that she’s out of my life for good, she goes and does something like this again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, though I wondered if part of him enjoyed telling this sordid tale, making it just so he was the center of it. “I’ll try to be as helpful as I can.”

“Whatever you remember will be helpful, I’m sure,” Frank said, vigorously stirring Splenda into his coffee. “When did you first come across her on Saturday?”

I sighed. “Let me think,” I said. “About four hours into my hike.”

And that was true. The first four hours were spent walking along a muddy trail, lost in my thoughts, barely appreciating the pine trees, the mountains and the snow. I was fuming over my job situation. How the severance package was shit, how it was so unfair to be laid off after only four days, how things like this happened in the world all the time but in the grander scheme of human suffering it wasn’t even considered a blip.

“I stopped at a clearing in the middle of the afternoon because I was running low on water, and that’s when I met her,” I said. I remembered it well, being caught off guard by the unseasonably powerful sun on my back, the snow all around me melting into slush. I had scoured my canvas bag to see if I miraculously remembered to pack another canteen with water, but of course I had not.

“My God,” Nancy said, just a few minutes later, huffing and puffing as she approached the same clearing. She was a pretty, well-manicured woman who looked to be in her mid-50’s, using a broken off branch for a walking stick, which seemed oddly primitive in contrast to her North Face Jacket, Lulu Lemon yoga pants, and Ecco hiking boots. “I’m so out of shape. To think I’ve done this for so many years and now I can barely breathe. The joys of getting old.” She sighed and shook her blonde hair from the confines of her beanie, and I noticed that it was clearly dyed, dark roots beginning to sprout from underneath. “What’s your excuse?” she said, nodding in my direction. Her eyes regarded me with sympathy, as if I represented the lost traveler she once was.

“I’m low on water,” I said, feeling like a fool as the words came out, so at odds with the prepared me, the one who was always designated driver, who brought more than enough trail mix and apple slices for everyone on road trips.

The upper corners of her lips curled up, bemused, into a smile. “Well, we’re quite the duo, aren’t we?” she said. She reached into her knapsack, also North Face, and handed over an impossibly large canteen filled with cool water. “Looks like we should stick together.”

“Nancy was really friendly, and I was clearly in a pinch myself,” I said, though Frank winced at my use of the expression. I looked down, avoiding his judgmental gaze. “I needed help, “ I said, my voice shaky. “And I wanted company, and she was there for me, so we started hiking together, and that was pretty much that.” I drummed my nails against my mug, the coffee burning in my throat. “But she did give me a fake name.”

Our introductions took place as we approached a change in terrain, where the muddiness of the trail gave way to a dramatic incline filled with rocks and slush. Nervous, I extended my hand.

“I’m Casey,” I said, and I remember she hesitated before taking it, looking at me with a veil of suspicion. “Casey Smith?” she said, a grin on her face.

“No, Casey Valeri,” I said, suddenly embarrassed by withholding information, even though I never usually introduced myself to people using my first and last name.

“We’re approaching the hardest part of the trail.” she said. “I would know, I’ve done this several times before. So I want to know who it is I’m dealing with.” She laughed, as if to add levity to the mood, but there was a focus in her eyes that made me think this information was, for some reason, important.

“What’s your name?” I said, clutching onto my backpack like a student, eagerly awaiting instructions on how to proceed next.

“Bonnie Parker,” she said, climbing up the first rock. “Nice to meet you.”

Hearing this, Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Jesus,” he said, “You realize who Bonnie Parker is, right?”

I didn’t, and my silence gave me away.

“Bonnie Parker. The woman who inspired Bonnie and Clyde, the film about the bank robbers? Nancy is unbelievable.” Frank smacked the table, clearly angry, and I bit my lip so it wouldn’t look like I was smiling. I had to admit it was clever, and fitting in a sort of way, two people leaving the boundaries of civilization and the confines of its laws.

“Sorry,” he said. “I cut you off. What were you saying?”

I shrugged. “Not much,” I said. “Bonnie—er, Nancy and I were figuring out our strategy for getting up the mountain.”

The trail was steep and downright intimidating. All around us, upwards and downwards, right and left, there was nothing but rocks and the rapid disintegration of snow under a glaring spring sun. But Nancy didn’t seem daunted. “One important thing to know about this part of the trail is that most of the rocks are unstable. It’s more like bouldering than hiking. We’ve got to rely on our endurance,” she said, panting as she climbed, before turning around to evaluate me, an experienced adventurer sizing up a timid novice. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”

The short answer was no. I liked to hike, and I would frequently try to get Tim to join me on hikes back in Philly, but he was always preoccupied, whining about one law school exam or another that he had to study for. And without him, I never mustered the courage to jump in my car and explore a new trail by myself. “Not quite,” I said.

“It’s intense,” Nancy said, propping her walking stick for me to grab onto as I hoisted myself onto one of the rocks. “But intense physical exercise is good. It gets you outside of yourself.”

“Exactly,” I said, in what I hoped was a cheerful voice. I focused on my breath as I climbed behind her, my calves screaming as one foot ascended after another, and whatever it was that held my guard up began to erode, much like the snow all around us. It was then, I told Frank, after we had barely begun climbing those damn rocks, that I—kind of—broke down.

“Broke down?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window. The trees swayed back and forth in the fog, the 5 Fulton bus made its routine stops, and life moved along, farther and farther away from this sequence of memories. ”I felt like I was going to faint. I crouched down on a rock and told Nancy I didn’t think I could go on any more.”

Frank’s eyes glazed over, his fingers rapidly tapping against the table, as if waiting for me to get to something good. I diverted my gaze, my face flushed with shame as I recalled the moment I burst into tears. I had been overwhelmed and dehydrated, and it was as if the mountain had triggered some kind of desperate rawness in me, the kind where you want to spill your guts to anyone, and the normal privacy filter you carry around inside melts away and you begin to tell stories in the way that you actually see them.

Seeing my distress, Nancy used her stick to hoist herself down to the rock beside me. “Casey, dear,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“I need to turn around,” I said, tears hardening on my face, the beginnings of a headache blooming in my temples. “I barely have any water, I’m completely out of my element.” I was practically hyperventilating at this point I was so upset, gasping for breath in between sobs, snot dripping out of my nose and only the back of my hand to wipe it off.

“There was a lot on my mind, and Nancy wanted to listen,” I said to Frank, even though I could tell he clearly was unimpressed, figured me for some kind of emotional loose cannon. And with an overwhelming urge to defend myself, I said: “I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the altitude was getting to me, just making everything worse.” I hoped that made my crisis clearer than it was, wrapped it in a bow tidy enough for Frank to walk past without a second thought. Which it seemed to, because he expressed no interest in the subsequent conversation that occurred right after.

“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life,” I told Nancy. “I moved from Philadelphia last weekend to accept my ideal job in San Francisco, and my boyfriend back home won’t stop calling me, and it hasn’t even been my first week out here and they are already shutting the company down and laying everyone off.” I wanted to calm down, but the more I said the more agitated I got. “So now I’ve got to start all over again.”

“Yes,” Nancy said. “You’ve got to start all over again.” There was a pause between us, an extended moment of silence, doves whistling as they sailed across the sky and nestled into trees, the crystalline blue lake perfectly still below us. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”
The comment caught me off guard, as if I was clubbed on the head by a blunt instrument. Dazed, I looked out at the lake.

“You think I’m lucky?” I said.

“Yes!” She said. “You are so lucky. You’re young and free and you can reinvent yourself in any way you see fit. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” She looked over at me. “First things first, though. Leave that dumb boyfriend behind. For good.”

“He’s not dumb,” I said, almost too quickly. Which was true. Tim was smart, book smart at least, one of the most book smart people I knew. But maybe that was the problem. All he knew was what he read on the page, and it narrowed his world, turning him into a self- righteous automaton that only studied and complained.

“He’s no good for you,” Nancy said. “You can’t be afraid to walk away from things.”

“You’re right, I guess,” I said, even though I was afraid of walking away from things, terribly so. And there was something gnawing at me, some persistent fear that couldn’t seem to abate.

“What’s the matter?” Nancy said.

“Don’t you ever feel like, even if you walk away from things, that your problems will just find you anyway, just smack you in the face wherever you go?”

“That can happen,” Nancy said, a bit more somberly than I would have liked. “But what’s the alternative?”

I shrugged. “There isn’t one, I guess.” I looked at Nancy, who was still Bonnie to me then, and found myself admiring her slim body and stylish clothes, her impractical walking stick perched in the snow. “How did you get so wise?”

“If you don’t dwell on the past, it can’t weigh you down,” Nancy said. She sighed, a long painstaking breath, and I imagined her lungs fluttering like butterfly wings. “Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said. “There are a few things I’d like to fix.”

“Like what?” I said, but she waved me off.

“Oh, it’s exhausting getting into it. Mostly, I miss my son Marcus. I haven’t seen him in a couple years. I think he lives in Phoenix now. I want to explain some things to him, but I’m not sure he wants to see me.”

“How come?” I said.

“Let’s just say I haven’t been the world’s best parent,” she said, and then her eyes glazed over for a moment, as if she were deeply considering something. “His birthday was last week. He just turned 25.”

“I’m 25 too,” I said, and it was only a moment later when I saw Bonnie’s bottom lip quiver and her eyes fill with tears. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. She shivered, even under the sun, and after wiping away tears reached into her pocket and pulled out a 50-dollar bill. “This is yours,” she said. “The bottom zipper of your knapsack has been open this whole time.” She took a gulp of water and smiled. “Be more careful.”

* * *

“Anyway,” I told Frank, “She gave me a good pep talk and we turned around and headed downhill and that was pretty much that.” I avoided eye contact because I could tell he was growing increasingly frustrated, as I were telling him the world’s most boring story. And maybe I was. But, perhaps in sensing his disinterest in the details, I had selectively omitted more and more, deciding he wouldn’t understand, didn’t deserve to understand, any of it.

“You know,” I said, slapping the table with sudden gusto. “I just thought of something that might help you out. Nancy kept saying that the hike was amateur stuff, that she wanted to climb Mt. Whitney. She was going to head there after Tallac and send me a postcard. Maybe she’s in one of the lodges around there, if she hasn’t started hiking it already.”

Frank nodded, punching buttons in his iPhone, and it didn’t take a genius to know he was investigating lodging near Mt. Whitney. Which amused me, because for all of his time married to a schemer he’d remained as gullible as ever. I doubted he’d be clever enough to out what she actually did, which was book a Virgin America flight to Phoenix.

I stretched my legs, looking around me at the mostly empty café. The fog and drizzle gave way to a sunny afternoon, and I was overcome by all of the things I had to do.

“Well, Frank,” I said. “I’ve got to get going. I hope I was helpful.”

“Yes,” Frank said. “I hope so, too. Thank you, Casey.” He extended his hand and by the time I shook it, his attention was directed towards the next item on his to do list, the person on the other end of the line. “Hello, my name is Frank McAllister, I was wondering if you recently had a guest named Nancy Foster? No? How about Bonnie Parker?”

I waved as I walked out, the cool air reviving my lungs. I had five missed calls from Tim, and when he called again as I was walking home I finally found it within me to pick up.

“Where have you been? Do you even care about this relationship?” he said, his voice blubbery with angst. Beethoven, or some equally appropriate study music, was playing in the background.

And I took a deep breath. “Listen,” I said, my body flooding with adrenaline, “I moved to San Francisco for a reason, and even if it’s not clear what the reason is anymore, I’ll just have to wing it it until I figure it out. And your endless calls and texts are not helping me figure it out. So please, for the love of God, would you give me some space.” And then, surprising even myself, I hung up.

There really was so much to do. Unpacking, emailing recruiters, assembling Ikea furniture, doing whatever people did to get on their feet. But for the first time in a while, I felt light, and as I walked up the steps to my apartment I envisioned Nancy in Phoenix, walking across the gravelly driveway to Marcus’ place. I pictured a young guy making his way downstairs, opening the front door, looking out inquisitively. His mom. I hoped he’d invite her in. That he’d offer her something to drink and listen to what she had to say and accept that whoever she was, whatever she’d done, that she was enough.

 

 

BIO

jacquelineberkman2Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in The Writing Disorder, Waccamaw, and The East Bay Review, among other places. Her short story “Picking Locks,” which was adapted into the short film “Panofsky’s Complaint,” was screened at the Brooklyn Short Film Festival in June 2016.

 

 

0

Mother

by Jac Smith

 

 

It cost thirteen dollars to gut Mother. I use a knife, but don’t know where her insides end up. They are likely seeping into the Nevada pavement somewhere between the hotel and Reno International. The drunks coming home from the casinos will carry bits of her on their shoes. The big rigs will gather her up in their deep treads, take her north on the 580. Truckee River may even get lucky. By morning she will be in every crevice and corner of Reno until one good rain storm settles her deep inside the sewers. Deflate this city with a good hard puncture, rip it open and turn it inside out; the flakey film that coats the underbelly is one part sugar, one part Mother. Eve will say to cut it out, to stop thinking this way in regard to her. That my thoughts are too exaggerated, too large, too scary and untrue yet all of this starts because of her. It starts with Mother and I in Croatia, where we are intact and happy and whole. It starts when my sister calls.

It’s been thirteen months since I’ve last seen my sister, Eve. I’ve broken our contract and she is demanding I come home for the yearly exchange of our mother which, like always, I am putting off. Either direction. I want more time with Mother and I want more time without. To get along with Mother requires a very specific headspace, but once I slip into it, onto it, right beneath it — she’s hard to give up. It’s this condensed feeling, the one I get with Mother. If I lay on my back and pull my knees up, my spine feels especially heavy. Heavy and dense and like some good cold thing. It’s an iced tea cold, the kind you buy from people who are paid to smile hard and smile early which, according to Mother, is the kind you want and since I’m into onto beneath, I agree.

Eve gets tired of leaving voicemails. Her kids take turns giving various warnings against me keeping their grandmother over the allocated time. There’s a little one and maybe a medium one but it’s the older one, twelve I think, who fills my inbox with long formidable pauses. I can hear him flip through his spelling workbook; he drops bombs like catastrophic and detrimental and absurd.

I book us a flight home.

40,000 feet in the air and Mother tells me she doesn’t want to go back to Eve. Which is unfair since she knows about the contract. And while isn’t anything legal, doesn’t involve Mother’s consent at all and my signature is that of a nineteen year old’s with the curlicues to prove it — it still stands. The longer I have Mother, the more fervent Eve becomes in demanding us home. Mother and I laugh at that. We nod and curl up and whisper things and even if it’s catastrophic detrimental absurd, it’s also into onto beneath and there is room, I decide, for both.

We fly into Reno-Tahoe International right in the middle of the day. A taxi takes us to our hotel which is not the nicest one in Reno but it is the nicest one just outside of the city and only forty miles north of Jawbreak, my hometown.

Once we’re checked into our room, I heave my suitcase onto the bed. Underneath every piece of clothing I own are two Ziplocs, hefty-sized. Mother moves to the corner of the room, tucks herself into an overstuffed chair and soon she’s silent and in that space between sleep and not and since that’s the home of lucid dreams and feeling capable and having power, I let her enjoy it. I open the Ziploc that holds a clean, black, high-neck shirt and a nice pair of fitted pants that are made up of something that doesn’t wrinkle.

I can’t keep Mother any longer, I know this. The knowing is inside of me, in my stomach, and it’s being sucked upward and collecting at the top of my guts, high-like and not where it should be. It’s making me want to grab Mother and get back on a plane. But it’s also making me want to drop Mother off right now in some alley while I run away. A long stride, thighs tightening, arms pumping, chest hurting thing⎯ that’s what I want.

Tonight we will meet my sister for the exchange at The Stampede, the only bar in Jawbreak. My worst thoughts happen there; the decor and furniture and people a revolving backdrop in most of my nightmares. There will be a singing Elvis doll that sits on the table we consider ours. It’s a true collectable, licensed and authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated and has the official Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated logo on its box. The certificate of authenticity is framed and hangs above where the doll stands in its box, on the side of the table pushed up against the wall. Only 61,000 Produced! is what the certificate says. I know it does because I’ve read it. Top to bottom, ten times, each reading a year apart.

The doll goes off every time someone sits down at the table. Middle of conversation, middle of summer and Elvis starts crooning “Blue Christmas” while his hips grind against cardboard and plastic. There are beer stains on the box and part of me wants to steal the thing and sell it on eBay and the other part of me wants to pull it out and maybe hold it a bit.

It’s the Only 61,000 Produced! that’s especially weird. It seems like a lot. But the exclamation point that comes after the statement is what teachers call a context clue and it makes me think I don’t know shit about collectables or Elvis or something like worth.

The doll pops up in my dreams where it doesn’t belong. If I’ve had Mother with me longer than I should, catastrophic detrimental absurd, he pops up outside of my dreams as well. He’ll stand right next to me while I work, while I survey whatever new water supply in whatever new country I’ve been hired to diagnose. I’m in Croatia or South Africa or Indonesia squatting over some town’s main water source and that wicked little King starts crooning “Blue Christmas.” Every time he pauses his lips pout at me from across the watering hole.

Even if Elvis decides not to wage a war at the bar tonight, still there will be other concerns. Always, I will run into some boy I grew up along side of and because at some point I let him see me naked, he will think it permissible to bring up what happened with Mother or maybe even what happened at my high school graduation. It’s what The Stampede has always offered⎯ clearance to grind thumbs into wounds.

Before The Stampede became base camp for the yearly hand-off of Mother, it was my father’s place. He went to The Stampede every day after work even though he quit drinking before I was born. As far as I knew, he never went inside, just smoked cigarettes out front with a few patrons before heading home. He carried a whole layer of pride about being a recovering alcoholic and would make a point to serve Mother a glass of wine with dinner on Friday nights just so Eve and I had some example of responsible alcohol consumption. He always said it just like that, those three words and his gaze was pointed, first at Eve and then at me. And in the space where his stare would jump from my sister and start to come my way, I would force my eyes wide so he would see me bold and unblinking. Booze wasn’t the problem, he told us. It was his brain with booze that was the problem. Keep your eyes on the things that scare you most so that they scare you less, he always said to Eve. Said that part to her and not me but I was listening anyways.

*  *  *

The Stampede has a heavy-weighted wooden door that takes a good strong shoulder and a good bracing leg to open. Mother and I arrive and I handle the door exactly as I’m supposed to. Still, it clips my elbow on the back swing and hip-checks me before it slams back into place. The door is, no doubt, the most expensive thing in this place. Later, I’ll crush the glass that holds the fire extinguisher and hatchet and hack down the door on my way out. I’ll pocket the real brass hinges and sell all of it along with Elvis for hundreds of dollars. I settle at the thought, push my satchel more firmly onto my shoulder and take Mother and I straight to the bar top.

The Stampede is made up of honey-colored oak paneling. Every surface is coated in the stuff, the grade alignment not once considered. The ceiling, floors, walls and tables are all bathed in a lamination of cheap gloss finish that makes it feel like a wraparound bowling lane.

I haven’t sold Elvis or the hinges just yet so I order the cheapest beer they have on tap. I don’t order one for Mother because I’m not Dad and she’s allowed to make her own choices regarding responsible alcohol consumption. Besides, Clive Tisdale is four bar stools down from us so I leave Mother with my satchel and head on over.

Clive, who we called Bear in high school because he was this big broad thing but unfortunately is now just normal-sized, has got his elbow on the bar and his back to me.

“Hey Bear,” I say.

He turns to face me since I poked his back. “Lucy, hi,” he says. “You look good.”

I sit, thank him and he nods back. Always was a nodder. Would nod to just about anything I said to him, asked of him, did to him. Which meant I did most everything first with Bear. First person I stole my father’s chewing tobacco for, first person I skipped class with, went swimming in the drainage canal with, stayed out all night with. Asked him to kiss me when we were fourteen. Asked him if he wanted to see me naked and do other things pretty much right after that. He just nodded and nodded and then I’d go ahead and do it.

Even during graduation when I flashed my naked chest to the entire population of Jawbreak, snatched up my temporary diploma and lit the thing on fire with my rainbow-colored Bic — there was Bear with his big shoulders, sitting in his folding chair, holding his intact piece of paper, nodding.

It was a little impulsive, the thing at graduation. I get it; it was weird. But I was eighteen, proud of my pale breasts and also unaware of what being in Mother’s presence for thirteen months or longer did to me. Also, I didn’t know that I’d have to wait two weeks for the real diploma to arrive in the mail which meant I couldn’t catch a plane right after the ceremony, robe and tassel hat still on, which was something I had been fantasizing about for a good long while. So, I was pissed.

“You here with Eve?” Bear asks, like I can’t just be here on my own.

“I’m here with my mother,” I say as I pour a little bit of beer down my throat and watch Bear watch me.

“How’s the family?” I ask, eyeing his wedding ring.

“Oh you know, the same. We got another one on the way. Hill’s real excited, boy this time. How long you in town for?”

“Just the night. Same as always,” I say. “Congratulations on the kid.”

I thump his average shoulders with my palm, laugh a little, and try to do that thing my dad was always doing⎯ pounding on my shoulders with his giant man hand in a way that was encouraging and painful all at once. I tell him I’ve got to go before he can tell me the same and then I spin around on my barstool, take in the people I grew up with, see that some are noticing me but none as much as I’m noticing them.

My back is turned on Bear so he no longer exists which is this thing a colleague of mine once said while sprawled out underneath Botswana skies. He told me things only existed if you were looking at them. Once you turned your back on whatever was there, it stopped Being. Being, as in capital B, Being. He wasn’t joking but I laughed anyways, right before getting real creeped out and whipping around to see if the world was still there. I turn my back on the bear now though and the move makes me pure and strong and confident and I look at the front door to see if it’s intimidated.

Instead, I see Eve.

She’s already looking at me once my eyes get to her eyes and we just sort of stare at each other for a second before she slings her head in the direction of our table. I spot Elvis where he always is, sandwiched between the sugar caddy and the napkin holder.

I glance over to where I left Mother but see only my satchel.

I mean to hold up a finger to Eve like, give me a minute. I’ll finish my beer, make Eve and Elvis wait while I banish them from this world with my turned back. I’ll collect myself, become Lucy that is not into onto beneath, slide off this stool and saunter over. Instead, I just grab my satchel, smooth my wrinkle-less pants and go.

When I get to the table Eve is signaling to the bartender for a beer of her own while I inch the first half of my first thigh in while keeping my weight steady so as not to set the doll off when I sit. That’s when Eve starts talking.

“You brought her right?”

I pause, ass still hanging off the booth and look at my sister. “Nice to see you too.”

“Sorry,” she says and I slide all the way in.

Elvis keeps his trap shut.

Eve sees me looking at him and rolls her eyes before I can do something like reach out and touch the doll’s hips. “Where you coming back from this time?” she asks as her drink is delivered.

I reach for Eve’s beer and pull it towards myself. “Croatia,” I say, then hold her glass up. “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and I drink. “It’s a new International Flooding Initiative. They need hydrologists.”

“Is that still with the UN?” she asks.

I nod. It isn’t.

“And Croatia is in danger of flooding?” She takes her beer back.

“You do know where Croatia is, right?”

My sister sighs, practiced and narrowed, slides the glass back to me.

“How are things with the kids?” I ask, my hands sliding up and down her glass.

The last time I saw her kids was a few years back. By accident. Ran into them at a WinCo the night before we were to meet up. I had a bottle of wine tucked into each armpit when I heard the little one bellowing for fruit roll-ups. It was Mother’s last night with Eve but she wasn’t even with them.

“They’re fine,” Eve says, waves her hand in front of her chest, pushes the air there out of the way. “Moving on?”

I tap the glass against my teeth and then reach down to my satchel which is next to me on the booth. I open the flap and use both hands to yank the other gallon-sized Ziploc out.

I set Mother down on the table with a thud.

Elvis starts singing.

My sister slumps forward a bit, puts her elbows on the table, her face in her hands. It’s the closest either of us has gotten to a prayer-like position around Mother. “A Ziploc, Lucy? Really?” I can barely hear her over “Blue Christmas.” Eve stares at Mother, her eyes on her even as she asks her next question. “What happened to the urn?”

“Getting her through customs was a bitch,” I say. Elvis breaks into the throaty part of the song and I notice for the first time a small tear at the top of Mother’s bag, right beneath the double zipper. “Besides, Mom likes the idea of fitting into a Ziploc. Efficient.” The edges of the tear are jagged, like it got caught on something. I wonder if there’s some spilled Mother in the bottom of my bag. Ultra-strong and durable, hefty Ziploc my ass.

“Mother wasn’t efficient,” Eve says.

I don’t say anything. If there is one real rule between us it’s that we don’t discuss who Mother was and who Mother is. Mother felt like shit when Eve and I were still kids so she chased eighteen Vicodin tablets with a Starbuck’s Venti iced tea.

“What did you do with it?” Eve asks and I rotate Mother so that the tear is facing me and not Eve, dip my finger in just a bit to touch her. “Luce, stop it.”

I snap my hand back. “Hm?”

“The urn. What did you do with it?”

The King finishes his song, his hips frozen in a harsh left thrust. I reach out for Mother again. She’s right there and visible and it’s hard not to. I prop her up a bit, even her out so she doesn’t slouch over and spill onto the sticky floor. My palms fall onto the bulk of her, my fingers squeeze together as the heels of my hands sink down. Even through the plastic I can still feel the individual granules of her. I bring my fingers up like a tee-pee. A tee-pee on a sandbank. Then I answer the question, “tossed it at security.”

*  *  *

I was eleven when Mother committed suicide. The most spectacular part of the story was that she committed suicide. It turned out to be a fucked up brain chemistry thing which meant when people asked why, we were just left with, it happened. Nothing bad came before, the actual thing wasn’t messy and no one meaningful found her. We didn’t see it coming but Dad always said that was because we didn’t have her brain and it was a stupid question for people to ask us anyways. She did it in her car in the middle of summer. Eve and I were at swim camp and Dad was at work and by the time the police found her, parked in a thirty minute only zone, we hadn’t even missed her yet.

Dad had her cremated and Eve said we should spread the ashes somewhere nice like the mountains or in the empty lot at the end of the cul-de-sac. I said that I wanted to keep her and Dad just said, okay.

So I did.

The first day of sixth grade I put Mother, urn and all, into my backpack and I took her to school with me. The kids in my grade made a big deal over never mentioning their own moms but mostly I think they just felt scared to be near me and mostly I just felt like the heavy weight of Mother, bouncing against my lower back, was nice.

A year later Eve noticed the dark purple bruise at the top of my tailbone, went looking for evidence and put an end to it.

“You’re keeping her in your backpack?”

We’d been home from school for an hour and I was coming back from the kitchen with a paper plate of tortilla strips and melty cheese, when I found her in my room, crouched over my unzipped bag, pointing.

“Well, yeah,” I said because that’s what Eve was looking at.

“Lucy, you can’t do this.”

Eve had that tone infused into her voice that meant I was embarrassing her. Like everything I did was designed to fuck with her precious high school social standing which was pretty much already in the toilet due to Mom up and off-ing herself.

“You’re a shitty freshmen, Eve,” I told her, feeling the newly discovered power of curse words on my tongue. “Nobody gives a bullshit what your little sister is doing with her dead mom.”

Eve ignored my singular ownership over Mother, something I did so she’d yell at me and I could shout the word “Mom” at her and she could shout the word “Mom” back and we could be kids that didn’t have to learn how not to use that word.

Instead she went with, “Nobody gives a bullshit?” She smirked at me and it had some kind of instant charge that turned my cheeks bright red. “That’s not even how you use it, dumb ass.”

“Get out of my room!”

“No,” she shouted, then pointed a finger at Mom. “This is bullshit. Keep her under your bed or on your bookshelf like a freakin’ normal person.”

“I’ll do whatever I want! Dad said so. He gave her to me.”

“She’s our mom, Luce! You don’t own her.” Eve reached into my backpack and grabbed Mother, pulled her out and held the white heavy ceramic in both hands.

I flew towards her then. “Don’t you dare take her!” Ready to punch Eve in her stupid nose if she even tried to get out of my room with the urn. Eve, four years older and already tall like a total giant just put her hand out and pushed my shoulder down so I was forced to my knees. She was out the door and in the hallway by the time I stood up and sprinted after her.

“I’m putting her here!” Eve declared, looked at the shelves that were scattered along the hallway and were too far up the wall for me to reach. They were full of picture of us all smiley and vacationy and before.

“Eve, please.” I reached up and wrapped my hands in Eve’s shirt, pulled like I was five and she was Mom and wouldn’t pick me up. “I’ll keep her in my room. I promise. I promise,” I said, the words frantic and rushed and I pushed them out as fast as I could. I’d known Eve my entire life so I really knew her and I knew once she set Mother down, took her hands off and stood back, she wouldn’t change her mind.

Which is what she did. She removed her hands and I wailed.

Eve looked down at me then and I was crying hard but my eyes were wide and trying to see her and for a moment Eve’s face did this thing it rarely ever did. It opened and it softened and she put her hand on my face, right on it, half on my cheek and half on my nose and a bit on one eyelid. It was this containing grip on my face, like she was trying to hold all of my emotion on it and also like maybe she was trying to stop it from spreading.

“Lucy,” she said, “this is for the best.”

She let go of me then and I went all the way down. My face was heavy and hot and on the floor as I kept yelling but she walked behind me and away. “You’re bullshit Eve,” I shouted, mouth laden and open and the taste of carpet fibers on my tongue.

*  *  *

“I’ll get a new urn,” Eve says as she looks at my hands which are still poised over Mother’s sternum.

“You won’t,” I say. “We all know you won’t.”

“She’s dead, Luce!” Eve slaps her thighs with open palms, eyes wide and mouth pinched. “This isn’t her.” She points at Mother like she’s not the thing that birthed us and soothed our faces and explained how the red lights on our side of the freeway were brake lights and the white lights on the other side of the freeway were head lights and how all cars had both and we weren’t on teams or anything like that. She smacks at my hands with the backs of hers but I pull Mother closer to me and hunch forward to protect her from the onslaught.

“Fuck,” Eve says, sits further back into the booth as I slide Mother off the table but keep her on the bench next to me, close and tucked into my hip. I run a hand flat along the table, the little seeped out trail of Mother sticking to my palm. I pull the zippy part of her bag open just enough for it to pucker up.

“You’re really losing it, aren’t you?” Eve asks.

I dust my palm. The hefty Ziploc promise comes true when I hear the seal stick together as I zip Mother up. I scoot a little bit closer to the cold heaviness at my hip and look back up at Eve. “It has been thirteen months,” I say.

Eve looks stricken for a moment, but then the moment passes and her face still looks like that, all worried and scared. Scared for me but also like she’s scared for all the fucked-up family genes that are probably swirling around inside her kids too.

“Seen Dad lately?” I ask.

Eve shakes her head, tells me she doesn’t want to talk about Dad and it occurs to me for the first time how maybe this thing I’ve got with Mother, this into onto beneath is somehow like the thing Eve has with Dad. This big something that feels like so much rage and anger that it exceeds its limit, has nowhere to go and so it loops straight back around into love. When Mom swallowed those pills it did something to me, put something in me that I could never push aside, grow past, bury. That wasn’t the thing that gutted Eve. It was Dad and it was the booze that u-turned its way back into his life, gripped the sides of his face and pulled him permanently under. For years I woke up in the middle of the night to Eve screaming at him, telling his slumped form and glassy eyes that he had to do something, fix something, try something. That he had to stare at the scary. Which was me. Which he didn’t. Which meant Eve had to.

“Lucy, listen,” Eve finally says, grabs my sticky hands and slides them to the middle of the table with hers on top, pressing down until all four hands are just one thing. “I’ll get something nice, okay. A nice urn, I promise.”

            I don’t know what to say so I give the Elvis papers their due and when I’m done, Eve is still there and our hands are still one mass. I focus hard until I feel her hands separate from mine, still pressed together and on top, but not all the same thing. Hers are rigid and flexed and when I look up her face is impassive. She always did store the worst of her thoughts in her hands. I know her and I will not let her be the one to remove her hands first, step back from me and watch me wail.

“No,” I say.

She starts in but I slide my hands out from underneath hers. I gather Mother up and slip her back into my satchel. I spit carpet fibers from my tongue.

“She stays with me,” I say, standing up and not even giving Elvis a cursory glance. “You can’t take her from me. I won’t allow it.”

“Lucy,” Eve says. “Stop this. She wouldn’t want this for you.”

But that is where my sister is wrong. She doesn’t know how Mother loves the heat of the Gobi desert and the skyline of Israel. She doesn’t know how Mother is no longer the woman that was always only half happy and who was always only half listening. She doesn’t know that she has become this new other mother who never pulls her hands away and never steps back after she has done something unspeakable, but who instead steps closer and leans in more and is always, always there.

I am wanting to tell her that, but I don’t know how so I am silent.

Eve asks if I remember what Dad always said.

“About the staring at the scary?”

She shakes her head. “About the booze and his brain.”

“It isn’t the booze and it isn’t the brain, but the booze and the brain, together,” I parrot.

She nods.

I hate her.

“Goodbye, Eve,” I say, ready to be out of The Stampede and ready to be out of Jawbreak. She tries to say one more thing, but I am giving my farewell nods to both Elvis and the door hinges⎯ I won’t be back for them. I face my sister one last time and offer her a small grin. We will never agree on this and that is a truth we both know. I turn my back on her and leave.

The second I do she is gone. My colleague was right⎯ it is absolute.

*  *  *

When Mother and I get back to the hotel I call up room service and order us steak. While we wait, I change our flight to a red-eye for tonight. The man who delivers our dinner has on a double-breasted coat lined with brass buttons, twin trails that are the guardrails for his insides. He is sewn in tight from pelvis to chin and I ask him if he is married.

He tells me yes. I have approached him from the side, have run my strong palm down his leg and squeezed his ankle. He is a horse and his hoof comes up as quickly as his answer.

“I like these,” I say, my pointer finger hovering above his belly. I do not touch his brass highway lanes but I am touching the air they are touching and he is looking.

His eyes are siding on too wide and I know it is because he is not sure what this is. If I were less pretty it would be weird but I’m not so he is still standing here.

“Uniform,” he says. Chokes it out and keeps his lips parted. I stare at the inside of his mouth and wait for him to say more. My finger strokes a button. “Mandatory,” he finishes, right as my index goes in for the double tap.

He doesn’t initiate anything else; he also doesn’t take ownership of his still open mouth. Instead he watches me take my hand back and he watches me as I take a loop around the dining cart that he has rolled in.

Our dinner looks good.

There’s a receipt tucked in underneath the edge of the plate. Turns out this steak costs thirteen dollars too.

I tell the man about a steak I once ate in Oslo and how it was smothered in this pepper sauce and how the restaurant had taxidermy buffalo heads and belt buckles on the wall and the steak was supposed to taste like here and the place was supposed to remind me of here but instead it just tasted like there and felt like there and never once did I have some flash of a moment that made me think I was home. I look at the knife that came with the steak, touch the handle a bit, but only with one finger, and when I look back up the waiter his face tells me he is having all sorts of fucked up thoughts about it.

This man has said three words to me. He is standing in the middle of my room with his parted mouth and his yes uniform mandatory, and so I know he is a malleable man and he is married to a malleable woman. I am sure of it. He goes home in the evenings and pushes brass buttons out of waxy threaded loops, takes the yes uniform mandatory coat off and feels loose. His insides are held tight all day, compressed in and solid-like and I wonder if the letting out of all that flesh feels like something scary. If his insides go slippery without their restraints and if he watches himself leak out and knows the job it will be to stuff himself back in come morning. Or maybe his wife has cool hands that hold his torso in, that wrap firmly and tightly and feel good. I could be her. I could coax this man, this man with the fish mouth and the horse legs into removing his coat and showing me what happens. I could try my hands on his stomach and chest and neck and I too could be made to mold. He and I will be easy hands and easy insides and parted lips only.

We will smile Eve’s happy smile and Eve will recognize me then. My sister will say how she likes these new hands of mine. She will say the compliments to my hands and insides and lips because I won’t be face or brain or thirteen months of damaged heart. She will shout it over and over, “I recognize you now! I like you now!” But my hands won’t be able to hear that, will not be able to comprehend it so nothing will change and then I will be stuck with this man who is stuck in this hotel and is having scary thoughts about what I am planning to do with my knife. I give him a tip and ask him to leave.

The knife that has come with the steak is more plastic handle than serrated steel. But when I hold it flat and on my palm gravity pitches it forward so it flips tip first into the carpet. I know that it is a good and heavy blade. I drop down next to it, pull my satchel onto my lap and carve out a hole in the bottom corner of my leather bag. It’s not easy this task, but soon I’ve got the stabbing motion down and the shiny leather is now streaked with white scuff marks. There is a silver dollar sized gap exactly where the seams meet.

I pack everything up. I leave some money for house keeping.

The floor seems too casual so I gather Mother and move to the center of the bed.

I pull my legs up so they are close to my heart and my feet are flat and my stomach has a wall of other body parts protecting it and making me feel safe. Mother molds herself to the ridges of my kneecaps.

“This next part isn’t going to hurt,” I tell her as I grip the bottom corners of the Ziploc, push in a bit so she bunches up and is right at eye-level.

Maybe Dad was right and maybe it isn’t Mother and it isn’t me but me and Mother, together.

The ridges of my spine carry only a hint of coldness.

Eve’s movie version of this is Mother leaning over a cloud looking at me, crying big and round and really blue tears at the idea of this still being a thing. Well, yeah, no shit. Mother has always been a contributor, participant, provoker of who I am and if Mother didn’t want to forever be the contributor participant provoker then Mother shouldn’t have ended herself.

I have tried so hard to remember the last thing Mother said to me when she still had things like hands insides lips. I can’t. There are whole books that list the last things people have said before they died, but they are for kings and inventors and people about to be lethally injected. They’ve got record of the last words they said to their kids and their wives, their physicians, nemesis and some to a whirl of descending light that was probably their god. I have no way of knowing Mother’s. But she was always polite and would have said thank you when she went through the Starbuck’s drive-thru so that was probably it and that’s a shitty one.

We’re so close, Mother and I, sitting like this with my hands holding her and like always it is mostly nice. I tell her that she doesn’t have to leave, that if she decides to stay I will take her with me always. We will go back to Croatia. We will dip our hands into every water source. We will trace the rivers until we end up at ocean. We will swim in every large body of water that the world offers. Whatever she wants, we will do it. We will dive headfirst into the Adriatic Sea and we will take the steak knife with us and spend our days butchering green mermaids. We will sell their hides and never own cars and we will color Christmas with whatever shade we want. I press my forehead right into her, feel the sandbar mold and make room even as I squeeze my hand over the tear in her Ziploc. I shift my face down and bury my nose deep. It is the only version of her lap that I know and it is happening on an ugly comforter in a town where it only takes thirteen dollars to ruin something so completely.

Mother tells me this is not the end, that it is okay to be affected and affected still. I tell her how there is so much I am still wanting to do in this world. I tell her how I’d like for her to bear witness to it if she so chooses. I cry a bit because no shit, this is emotional.

We have to leave so I stand up, wrap the steak in the front page of the newspaper that was delivered to my room earlier and pull my suitcase to the door. I pick Mother up from the bed with both hands and with one final squeeze I tip her over and set her zipper side down inside my leather bag. Holding my wrapped meat in front of me, my satchel on one shoulder and suitcase in the other, I head for the elevator and wait to be delivered to the lobby.

I take my first bite as I stand outside and wait for the cab. I take smaller bites of it on the way to the airport. I fold the newspaper down a bit and out of the way while the driver pulls my suitcase out. “Thank you,” I say to him and my voice sounds just like Mother’s. I adjust my leather satchel, walk inside and take some bigger bites while I wait in line at security. I chew on the fat while I am patted down. “Thank you, thank you,” I tell them all. I finish it after I’ve boarded, am crumbling the headlines and stuffing them into the pocket of the seat in front of me while the safety video plays. I’ve got steak juice on my hands when the plane takes off.

Maybe it was⎯ have a good day at camp, sweetheart. Or maybe⎯ I’m going to ruin you, dear. Or even⎯ this is my brain and that’s the end of it.

I request a napkin. “Thank you so much.”

The overhead lights dim soon after and passengers all over the plane are reaching up to flick them off completely. It is in the almost darkness that I gather enough of my own insides together to pull my bag onto my lap.

To reach in with both hands is like wanting too much of something so I slip just one hand, my left, into the satchel until I feel plastic. I have touched these layers of Ziploc before. I’ve done it without thought and without care. It is what is inside that is something to know, but now, inside this flying beast where it is mostly quiet and mostly dark and surrounded by strangers, the plastic itself means something too. It contains her, holds her together, makes her this thing that I can look at and recognize and pull towards me and push away and zip into my luggage and stroke and punch and grip and she is one solid mass that always feels heavy and is not lacking, is not full of iced tea, is not parked in a thirty minute zone, and is everything, everything I thought Mothers should be.

My fingers stroke the entire length and width of the Ziploc and not once do I encounter her.

When I run my palm along the entire perimeter of the bag I come up empty. It cost her exactly thirteen dollars to end it and it seems impossible that something so vast and something with so much weight on my life could be done with less than a single month’s allowance. My finger pokes through the rip of the Ziploc and then straight through to the shredded leather until I can see the pink of my fingertip. I am no longer into onto beneath. It is warm down here, terrifying but warm.

Mother, I whisper, chant it over and over and it is the only voice in this whole big sea of sleeping humans. Mother, I say, my chest going loose and my insides wishing desperately for a double-breasted coat. I wonder where she landed. How much of her is in the elevator, on the sidewalk, in that cab, or even at my feet as they press into the belly of this plane. Was there a moment, plastic cup pressed to her lips and the hard edges of pills filling up her throat, where she thought this choice⎯ so complete in its absoluteness⎯ was exactly wrong? I have no way of knowing. My back is turned and Mother no longer exists.

 

 

BIO

jacsmith2Jac Smith is from Long Beach, California. She received a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach. She was a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Recently she quit her job, left civilization and moved to the small mountain town of Green Valley Lake where she is pursuing writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Spoiled Child

by Tessa Yang

 

 

When Evelyn Farnsworth noticed her daughter, Gracie, ridiculing the hunchbacked boy on the playground, her first cowardly impulse was to pretend this wicked girl was no child of hers. It was easy. So easy, Evelyn wondered why she’d never tried it before. She had only to fake deafness, bow her head, and gaze placidly at the crossword puzzle in her lap—just another mom, fending off boredom at the playground.

As a rule, Evelyn viewed crosswords as the banal pastime of precocious college students and old people desperate to prove their mental acuity (at fifty-two years of age, she had long since stopped being the former and hoped she had at least a decade before succumbing to the latter). But she’d picked up the Wednesday crossword last week in the waiting room at the dentist, just to give it a go, and was annoyed to learn she could only solve a half a dozen clues. Since then she’d been carrying the crossword around with her everywhere, hopeful that each change in environment would inspire her with another answer—a theory which had so far proven untenable. After all, if a Sunday afternoon trapped at the playground didn’t help her think of a four-letter synonym for “inane,” Evelyn didn’t know what would.

Still she persevered, alone on her bench near the merry-go-round, tuning out the chitchat of the young moms and the squeals of their children, until a flurry of motion made her look up to see her daughter and the hunchbacked boy wrestling on the ground.

By the time Evelyn got there, it was all over, the kids having been separated by a dad on scene. The hunchbacked boy sobbed into the breasts of his babysitter, but Gracie maintained a fierce, unbroken scowl until Evelyn had marched her back to the bench. Then her small face crumpled. Her shoulders began to shake.

“He—pulled—my—hair,” she whimpered, each syllable tight with the effort of restraining full sobs.

When Evelyn had gotten engaged to an Asian man, her mother had warned her that their children would look nothing like her. “No problem,” Evelyn had said. “If I’m displeased with the results, I’ll just return to sender.” Her mother had been correct as far as Evelyn’s boys were concerned. Cal and Roger were Allens in miniature, right down to the wild cowlicks in their thick dark hair. Evelyn used to get outraged when people asked “where she had gotten them,” as if she were some crazy white lady who kidnapped Asian babies at the mall.

Gracie, a surprise pregnancy, had also been a surprise to look at: Evelyn’s green eyes and pointed chin and even traces of Evelyn’s blondeness, visible as faint reddish highlights in Gracie’s brown hair. No one ever thought she was adopted. Instead they said, “Like mother, like daughter” or “She has your eyes.”

Tears sparkled on Gracie’s cheeks. Evelyn wiped them away with her thumbs. This was not the first conflict her daughter had been involved in. Gracie was bossy and defiant and proud. She seemed to dislike other children, or to think herself better than them. What few play-dates Evelyn had arranged ended with Gracie sealing herself up in her room, leaving the chattering playmate to trail Evelyn around the house. There were emails from school. Parent-teacher conferences that felt like criminal trials. Evelyn supposed this ought to be a long-delayed Teaching Moment on her part, a chance to quote the golden rule and explain that teasing special kids was wrong.

But hadn’t Gracie suffered enough?

The merry-go-round squeaked, and children screeched joyfully, and Evelyn saw on her daughter’s stunned, tear-streaked face the dismay at having had her first real encounter with violence. Some innocence had gone out of her. Some sense of safety had been snuffed out.

Suddenly, Evelyn wanted nothing more than to wrap her daughter in her arms and murmur that things would be all right, which she did, right there on the playground, kneeling in the overgrown grass.

“How about we go out for ice cream?” murmured Evelyn. “Would you like that?”

She felt Gracie’s head nodding against her.

Evelyn rose and led the way to the parking lot. She felt weary, wrung out like a dishrag. She had worked as a full-time accountant all through her sons’ upbringing and had never expected her role as stay-at-home mom to be more demanding than her career. But she was confident that her course of action had been correct. Gracie had learned a hard lesson. They would drive to the dairy, eat some ice cream, maybe pick up something on the way home for dinner. And that would be that.

 

But of course, that was not that. That could never ever be just that, because the next day, when Evelyn was idling in the parking lot of Cleary Road Elementary, poring over her crossword while the rest of the moms left their cars to gossip in the sunshine, someone approached her Subaru and rapped on the half-lowered window.

Evelyn looked up from her crossword, which she’d spread across the steering wheel. An unfamiliar woman stood beside her car, half bent, so that she and Evelyn were eye-to-eye.

“Hi there.” The woman smiled. She was younger than Evelyn—who wasn’t these days?—and she had the slim shoulders and small, perky breasts of a J.C Penney store mannequin. Her blonde hair jutted from the back of her head in a short ponytail. She wore fluorescent spandex, as if she’d been called away in the midst of a workout. “I’m so sorry to bother you, Mrs. Farnsworth,” said the stranger. “One of the other moms pointed out your car. I’m Fiona Waters. Arthur’s mom?”

“Oh,” said Evelyn. She was baffled. Who the hell was Arthur? The woman continued to smile too widely, like someone who had something to sell. And then it hit her. Oh shit, Evelyn thought. Mother Hunchback. In the flesh.

She took off her seatbelt and climbed out of the car. The day was cloudless and beautiful. The shaggy heads of willow trees tossed and nodded in the breeze, sending shadows skittering across the pavement. Fiona Waters shook Evelyn’s hand. Her stubby nails were flaked with fading pink polish and bitten down to the skin.

“I was so sorry when Kara told me what happened yesterday at the playground,” said Fiona. “I wish I could have been there to handle it. We don’t use a sitter very often, but my husband’s hospital was sponsoring a charity golf tournament downtown. I want you to know,” she said, her voice quiet now, conspiratorial, “that I had a very serious talk with Arthur about his behavior. He had no right to lay a hand on your daughter, no matter what she said.”

“Oh. Thanks,” said Evelyn, taken aback. “I mean, yeah, I had a pretty good talk with Gracie, too.”

Fiona smiled again. There was something about her, a fake quality that did not exactly make her unpleasant, though it put Evelyn on edge. Also she didn’t like Fiona’s wording, no matter what she said, as if Gracie had uttered a disgusting racial slur, when probably she’d just wanted to know what the deal was with that hump.

The bell shrieked from inside the elementary school. The doors flew open and children tumbled out like jelly beans from a split bag.

“Break’s over,” said Evelyn. “Back to the grind.”

Fiona laughed, but made no effort to walk away. “You know,” she said, “Arthur is turning eight this weekend. We’re having a little celebration at the house. We’d love it if Gracie would attend.”

“Of course,” said Evelyn. She knew a challenge when she heard one. She took out her phone to make a note of the time and address.

“It’ll be a good opportunity for them to smooth things over,” said Fiona. “I just think it’s so important for kids to move past their differences. Don’t you?”

A few seconds after she had left, Gracie appeared at the car, holding some clay monstrosity from art class. She thrust it into Evelyn’s hands as she climbed into the back seat.

“What’s this supposed to be?” asked Evelyn.

“It’s a giraffe,” said Gracie.

Evelyn looked at the thing, turning it a few different ways in her hands.

“It’s a giraffe that’s been hit by a bus,” clarified Gracie.

 

That night, when her husband got home from work, Evelyn informed him that Gracie had been invited to a birthday party.

“That’s nice,” said Allen.

Evelyn wanted to tell him that it was not nice. That it was a trap, designed to pit one mother against another in the type of smiling warfare she had not participated in since high school. But Allen was taking off his tie, washing his hands at the sink, eyes staring blankly at his reflection in the darkened kitchen window in a way that meant he was already thinking about something else. And truthfully, Evelyn was embarrassed, having nothing to show for her day but petty squabbles between moms in the elementary school parking lot.

Gracie joined them at the table for her dinner, separately cooked, because she ate only variations of mac and cheese and a few slender green beans if you were lucky, drank only chocolate milk or lemonade out of the glass with the twirly straw. Bedtime was next. Gracie didn’t usually give Evelyn any trouble in this area—the seven-year-old sucked up sleep greedily, like a teenager—but tonight she had all sorts of crazy demands. Cups of water for her stuffed animals. Wearing sneakers to bed. Evelyn finally switched off the lamp, walked into the hallway, and slammed the door.

“Turn on that light! I dare you,” she shouted through the closed door. Gracie did not respond. Evelyn stood in the hallway, fighting the urge to go back in, to apologize or scream some more, she wasn’t sure. When she entered the master bedroom, Allen was just replacing her cell phone on the nightstand.

“Roger called,” he said.

“Does he want me to call him back?” asked Evelyn, already halfway to the nightstand. Her younger son had an entry-level position at a bank in San Francisco and did not keep in touch as well as his brother. Roger had always been private like that, a bit of a mystery. One time when he was about Gracie’s age, Evelyn walked into his room with a basket of laundry to find him kneeling on the floor before his bed, little hands tented onto the mattress. He was praying. Allen was a staunch atheist, Evelyn a lapsed Catholic. Neither of their sons had ever been to church. Evelyn had wanted to ask Roger where he’d learned. Instead, overcome by sudden embarrassment, she tiptoed out of the room.

“He said he was on his way out,” said Allen. “Dinner.”

“Oh.” Evelyn squeezed her cell phone and let it drop onto the nightstand.

“I’m just gonna say goodnight to Gracie,” said Allen.

“I wouldn’t,” said Evelyn. “I barely got out of there alive.”

He disappeared down the hall. Gracie didn’t hassle him like she did Evelyn, or maybe Allen just knew how to handle it better. Eight years ago, when the unexpected pregnancy had first presented itself, Evelyn was the one who’d suggested she stay home with the baby. It seemed logical. The cost of daycare had skyrocketed since the days when Cal and Roger were little. Her full-time salary barely covered the expense, and part-time wasn’t even worth the effort. What Evelyn hadn’t anticipated was how stay-at-home motherhood would feel less like something she and Allen were doing together, and more like a secret she needed to keep from him.

It hadn’t been easy for Allen, either. He could no longer carry out the father’s obligatory athleticism as he had with the boys. Couldn’t keep up with Gracie as she raced through the backyard, or fling her squealing into piles of leaves and snow. But his failings were private, confined to weekends in the backyard. Evelyn couldn’t hide the fact that she didn’t speak the same language as this new generation of mothers, who enthusiastically micro-managed every moment of their son or daughter’s day.

Allen came back into the room, smiling.

“She’s a good kid,” he said.

“I never said she wasn’t,” said Evelyn.

He went into the bathroom. Evelyn heard the familiar elasticky rip of Band-Aids as they were removed from skin. In the past month Allen had begun to develop warts on his fingers, and the freezing solution he applied turned the warts to squishy nubs the color of bird poop. He wore Band-Aids to work to avoid repulsing clients. Evelyn would find these sticking to the sides of the garbage can each morning. She and Allen had a policy where he was not allowed to touch her during the wart-freezing process. She felt bad about this and so couldn’t bring herself to mention the Band-Aid situation, even though she was getting extremely tired of having to un-stick them from the can.

 

On Thursday night, Evelyn drove to Prospero’s Italian Eatery for her standing dinner date with Debbie Fager. The Fagers had lived next door to Evelyn and Allen for sixteen years. Their son, Louie, an affably stupid boy who was always getting Frisbees and tennis balls stuck on roofs, had been an obligatory playmate for Evelyn’s sons when they were small. Debbie and Ron Fager had downsized after Louie went away to college, moving full-time into their house on Keuka Lake. More recently, they had divorced, and Debbie had returned to the city, prompting the renewal of the Thursday night dinners she and Evelyn had suspended over six years before.

“I don’t miss it, though,” Debbie was saying, as Evelyn consulted the wine menu. “It was stuffy and damp in the summertime, and we had these ants…Really it was just old and falling apart.”

“Your marriage?”

“Oh you’re the worst,” said Debbie, swatting Evelyn with her napkin. “You’re really terrible.”

The divorcee’s life was treating Debbie well. She had joined a local book club. She had lost fifteen pounds. She was getting along much better with her sister, who had always detested Ron. Listening to her speak, Evelyn was overcome with the feeling that she no longer had any idea who Debbie was.

“How’s Allen?” Debbie asked as the waiter came by with a basket of bread.

“Good. Great,” said Evelyn. “He’s got a big open house this weekend.” She had a sudden pressing need to tell Debbie about the warts. Instead she took a chunk of ciabatta and swirled it in the dish of olive oil.

The talk turned to children. Louie had landed an internship as a glorified errand boy for some big name in D.C. Debbie, who was paying his rent, spoke of him with the same gushing affection she’d shown throughout his adolescence. Evelyn updated her on Roger and Cal, but of course, Debbie was most interested in hearing about Gracie, this third child who’d sprung into existence just as she herself was fading from Evelyn’s life.

“It’s just so fascinating,” said Debbie, tucking into a plate of eggplant parm.

“What?”

“Doing it all again. The diapers, the nightly feedings…”

“She’s nearly eight now.”

“I don’t know how you’re managing it,” said Debbie, shaking her head. “I give you credit for it. I really do. No way I could do all that again.”

Evelyn looked at her plate of manicotti, which she no longer remotely wanted, having made her usual mistake of filling up on bread.

“Then again.” Debbie paused, fork in midair. She seemed fully capable of carrying on this conversation by herself. “I guess it could be really nice, getting a chance to do it over. You’re older now, wiser. You don’t make the same mistakes. I mean, God knows I had my fuck-ups with Lou. Turned out okay in the end.” She beamed. Evelyn divided her manicotti neatly in half. She expected she would eat it for lunch tomorrow, even though she had this fantasy of saving it for dinner. Gracie and Allen would appear in the kitchen, expecting food, and Evelyn would be sitting there with her manicotti and glass of red wine and a cigarette languidly dangling between two fingers, even though she hadn’t smoked in thirty years and had no ambitions of starting again.

By the meters where Evelyn had parked, Debbie squeezed her into a hug. “It was so fun catching up! You look amazing, by the way. Did I say that already? You really do.”

Evelyn realized she had never learned what led to Debbie’s divorce. How had the subject not arisen? She wanted to know, but it seemed like an awkward time to ask, now that they were saying goodbye. She wondered about it all the drive home. She hoped it was an affair. Affairs were really the only things for divorce. They had that soap opera shine. You could tromp around flinging dishes and screaming to high hell, and no one could say anything against you. But she really did not think either Ron or Debbie was the affair-having type. Probably it had been the usual accumulation of slow, sickly details across time, a gradual distancing, so that one day you looked up from the table and were disoriented by the sight of the person sitting beside you.

Allen had put Gracie to bed by the time Evelyn got home.

“Did she give you any trouble?” Evelyn asked as she hung her keys on the hook.

Gracie? Give a person trouble?” Allen smiled and leaned in to kiss her, his warty hands concealed behind his back.

“Listen,” said Evelyn. “I don’t think Gracie should go to that party this weekend. She doesn’t get along great with the other kids, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do around the house.”

“But that’s the point,” said Allen. “It’ll be good for her. She’s got to learn how to play nicely with kids her age.”

“But this particular kid…I mean, they were fighting. I don’t want there to be any trouble.”

They’d been moving automatically toward the staircase, Evelyn flicking off lights as they went. Now Allen turned to her. He was fifty-seven, nearly six years Evelyn’s senior, but had the uncanny ability to age himself up or down with small adjustments to his posture and the tone of his voice. At work, he was a young man. Evelyn had witnessed him at showings, limbs loosening, laughter spilling from his lips, buyers flocking to him like moths to a warm light. Just now he’d become older. It was hard to say how. Something in the lips and eyes, and in the rounding of his shoulders. He faced Evelyn unflinchingly and when he spoke, it was with the stony authority one generally associates with movie antagonists and God.

“Gracie will go to the party,” he said. “It’ll be a good chance for her to learn how to play nicely with kids her age, and for you to learn how to play nicely with the other moms.”

Then he went up the stairs, leaving Evelyn seething at the bottom.

She knew she shouldn’t take him too seriously. Allen was like this sometimes at the end of a long day. Perhaps Gracie really had given him a hard time. But as Evelyn slowly climbed the stairs, the sting of his words deepened, not least because they granted her a benefit of the doubt she knew she didn’t deserve. Allen thought Evelyn was being difficult, refusing to “play nicely” with the other moms out of a sense of superiority. He couldn’t see that she was incompetent, that the era of mothering her two little sons was like a country to which she’d relinquished her residency. No: A country to which she’d completely lost the way.

Evelyn was in bed when Allen emerged from the bathroom. He looked like his usual self now, a fifty-seven-year-old man with a little pouch of belly fat hanging over his pajama bottoms and soft creases to either side of his dark eyes. Evelyn feigned great interest in her crossword puzzle as he got into bed.

“How well do you know Fiddler on the Roof?”

“Not well.” He reached out to graze her arm with the heel of his palm. “Hey. I just worry about her sometimes, you know? She’s not great with other kids. And with her brothers so much older…I worry she’s growing up like an only child.”

I’m an only child,” Evelyn said, throwing down the crossword puzzle and glaring.

Allen smiled sympathetically. “Yes, you are.”

 

Evelyn drove straight to the mall after picking up Gracie from school. Really she ought to have done it sometime that morning, but she hated shopping and had this idea that Gracie ought to suffer along with her, it being her fault that Evelyn had to buy a present in the first place. The problem with this plan was that Gracie’s suffering compounded Evelyn’s tenfold. She whined loudly all through Toys R Us, snatched items off shelves, and, when they had finally left the store and were eating Auntie Anne’s pretzels at the fountain in the lobby, revealed a pack of Juicy Fruit gum stolen from the check-out line.

“Give me that,” Evelyn snapped, yanking it from Gracie’s hands. But the prospect of returning to the toy store was too draining to face, so she stuffed the gum into the bottom of her purse.

In spite of herself, Evelyn had purchased for Arthur one of the most expensive Lego sets in the store. A creeping guilt had germinated inside her sometime after the conversation with Allen last night. She woke with it curling and squirming in her stomach. How had things gotten to this point? Cal and Roger had never caused such trouble. The whole plain of Gracie’s childhood seemed to stretch out before her mind’s eye, studded with warning signs she ought to have noticed. Evelyn, glancing down at her daughter licking salt from her fingertips, experienced the queasy sensation of having done an irrevocable wrong.

Around them, people drifted toward the fountain and tossed pennies into the spray. A layer of them covered the tile bottom like a copper carpet. Evelyn would have expected mostly children, but in the ten minutes that they sat finishing their pretzels, she saw two middle-aged couples, an elderly woman with a walker, and several younger adults approach the fountain with pennies clutched in their fists.

Gracie, who’d been watching this procedure closely, asked Evelyn, “Will their wishes really come true?”

“No,” said Evelyn.

She balled up the remains of her pretzel in the salty wax paper. When she returned from the garbage to find Gracie rooting through her purse, she thought her daughter was after the gum. Instead Gracie’s hand emerged with a fistful of loose change. Eyes squeezed shut, lips pressed into a tiny line, she flung the coins blindly. About half entered the water with a series of gentle splashes. The rest rolled in every direction across the floor.

“Now look what you’ve done,” fumed Evelyn. “You go and get those. Go and get them right now.”

Gracie obliged, skittering across the worn linoleum on all fours like a crab, shouting tunelessly as she went, “I wish I was an apple. A hangin’ on a tree!”Passerby laughed at the sight. Everything was funny when it wasn’t happening to you, Evelyn thought grimly. But after Gracie had returned the coins to her hand and they were getting ready to leave, Evelyn tossed a shabby penny over her shoulder into the water, almost like an afterthought.

What should she wish? For Roger to get a promotion at his bank? For Cal to dump that stupid girl? For Gracie to make some friends? Or should she dare to make a wish for herself? A traitorous thought for a mother. But what the hell. Evelyn closed her eyes and sent the wish spinning out into darkness. It had no particulars. It was more like a feeling, pushing upward from the gut. The only words marking it were a vague chant Evelyn could hear reverberating between her ears as she and Gracie walked to the car. Let me. Let me. Let me.

 

Saturday, the morning of the party, Allen rose with watery dawn light seeping through the curtains. Evelyn lay in bed and listened to the sound of the shower running. Back when the boys were little and Evelyn still worked, she was always the first one awake. The early morning hour of peace seemed to renew her before the day even began. Sometimes Cal, a finicky sleeper, would creep in shyly to join her while his little brother stayed in bed. He’d curl up in her lap while she watched CNN, his hair smelling of that sweet staleness that comes only from children just stirred from bed.

At 8:30 when Evelyn went to get her daughter up for the party, Gracie hooked her legs around the bed post and covered her head with the pillow. Once she’d been pried off, she refused to try on any of the dresses Evelyn had laid out for her and insisted on wearing a hand-me-down flannel of Roger’s.

“That’s a winter shirt,” said Evelyn. “It’s 80 degrees out.”

“No,” said Gracie stoutly. Whether this was a denial of the shirt’s seasonal appropriateness or of the current temperature, Evelyn didn’t know, and she didn’t have time to find out. She shoved Gracie into the kitchen and threw a plate of toast at her. Allen, who also appeared to be running late despite his early rising, dumped the rest of his coffee into the sink, kissed Gracie—“you smell like a DAD,” she complained, squirming away—and then Evelyn.

“Look,” he said, extending his fingers. The latest post-wart nubs had peeled off, leaving the skin shiny and fresh.

“Must be a good omen for the showing,” said Evelyn, smiling. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” said Allen. “Good luck with—” He paused, cocked his head. At the table, Gracie overturned one of the pieces of toast and made a revolted expression as butter dripped thickly onto the plate. “Good luck with everything,” said Allen. He kissed her again, and left.

They drove to the party at half past nine, Gracie slumped in the back seat of the Subaru. Evelyn had not recognized Fiona Waters’ address. Allen had mentioned it was one of the newer developments out at the edge of town. She took the thruway, which was already crammed with cars, young families speeding out to lake houses. The wrapped present sat on the front seat, sunlight gleaming on its silver ribbons.

Gracie was quiet. Cars had this effect on her. Evelyn had discovered this many years ago when Gracie’s infant wailing had yet again woken her and Allen in the middle of the night. Evelyn tried all the usual things. Rocking, singing, feeding, changing. The baby screamed and screamed. Finally Evelyn bundled her up, stuck her in the car seat, and went for a drive. It was January. She could not say what impulse had called her to those slick, shadowy streets. Snowflakes swirled in the headlights. Evelyn drove and drove. She wondered if she was about to do something crazy, about to become one of those mothers whom people described as “snapping,” as if mothers were like twigs that could only take so much pressure before they broke in two.

The baby was silent. Not sleeping, just silent, the gleam of passing street lamps reflected in her eyes. Evelyn drove for what felt like hours, threading in and out of neighborhoods, through empty parking lots, then along country roads where silos wore white hoods of snow. When she got back to the house, Allen was in the kitchen, holding the portable phone. He stared at her. She walked right past him, carried the car seat upstairs, and placed the now sleeping baby in her crib. She and Allen never spoke of the incident. But from then on, if Evelyn got up to tend to the baby in the middle of the night, Allen got up, too.

Evelyn had to circle through Fiona Waters’ neighborhood several times before she found the right address. Once she had, she wondered how she ever could have missed it. In style and size, the house was similar to the colonial homes on either side, but cars packed the spacious driveway and the red turrets of an enormous bouncy castle protruded over the roof. She and Gracie walked around back. Two dozen children of varying ages raced across the lawn. Arthur was easy to spot, frolicking about in a bright red T-shirt and a paper crown. He had the disconcerting habit of narrating his activities in a hoarse yell: “Look at me! I’m running, I’m running! I’m eating an Oreo!”

In addition to the bouncy castle, Evelyn could now see a face-painting station, a dunking booth with a damp teenager sitting glumly on the seat, and one of those portable rock-climbing walls, children bobbing on harnesses like lures on fishing lines.

“Looks like fun,” said Evelyn.

Maybe,” said Gracie, digging the toe of her sandal into the ground.

When Evelyn next looked back at the party, Fiona Waters had materialized so suddenly, it was as if she’d sprouted from the earth. The woman was wearing a carnation pink dress with matching teardrop earrings. Her blonde hair was down, hanging in the sort of loose waves that appeared effortless but had probably required an hour of styling.

“Mrs. Farnsworth, Gracie! So glad you could make it!”

“Call me Evelyn,” said Evelyn. “And thank you. We’re—really excited to be here.” There was a loud ding, followed by a splash, as someone hit the target and the teenager plunged into the tank. “What time should I swing by to pick her up?” Evelyn asked.

“Well you must stay and chat for a little while,” said Fiona emphatically. “Kara”—she reached out an arm, and again, almost miraculously, the young woman from the playground appeared in their midst—“will you take Gracie to get her face painted?”

“Sure,” said the babysitter brightly. “C’mon, Gracie. We can get ourselves painted like cats.”

Gracie shot Evelyn a betrayed look as Kara took her hand and led her into the yard. Fiona linked arms with Evelyn as if they had been friends since girlhood and marched her to the patio, where a group of adults lounged at tables beneath sprawling green umbrellas.

Fiona introduced Evelyn to the group of more or less identical-looking young mothers, and one man Evelyn had expected to be her husband, but turned out to be her brother, Walter. A nearby table, laden with cucumber sandwiches, mini quiches, and fruit tarts, suggested that Fiona had anticipated as many adult guests as there were children. Evelyn wondered at it—when Cal and Roger were small, birthday parties had meant abandoning your kids in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese so you could enjoy an afternoon of peace—but she did her best to adapt. She talked about the benefits and drawbacks of Boy Scouts, and suggested a pediatrician to a woman who had just moved to town. Fiona fluttered about in her pink dress, proffering food and dipping into conversations just as they were starting to lag.

Look at me, Allen, Evelyn thought, plucking a cucumber sandwich from a platter. Look at how nicely I’m playing.

She managed to detach herself from the group and join Walter at the edge of the patio. He wore a sour, jaded expression that made her feel an instant kinship with him. Under closer inspection, he was also nearer to Evelyn’s age. When she asked him if any of the children were his, he pointed to the teenage boy sitting rigidly on the dunking booth bench as another group of children lobbed balls at the target.

“Little fucker took my Camry out for a joy ride,” said Walter. “He won’t be making that mistake again.”

Walter sold medical equipment to the city hospital where Derrick, Fiona’s husband, headed up the surgical transplant team. He was recently divorced, and his sister seemed determined to get him to attend as many family events as possible.

“She pities me,” he said with a small shrug. “She means well.”

He asked Evelyn which kid belonged to her.

“The pissed off-looking one in the flannel,” said Evelyn. She’d been keeping an eye on Gracie all through their conversation, monitoring for any signals of impending conflict. Things looked all right. Gracie had just emerged from the bouncy castle and was swatting at her static-ridden hair. But because Walter had confessed his failings to her, Evelyn felt a pressing need to share something of her own anxieties. She told him matter-of-factly about Gracie and Arthur’s fight on the playground, and Fiona’s subsequent invitation. When she had finished, Evelyn expected his disapproval. She craved it. Instead, Walter laughed. Said he bet half the kids there had been involved in a scrape with Arthur at one time or another.

“He picks fights,” said Walter. “The school wants to throw him out. Derrick says he’ll slap a lawsuit on their asses so fast they won’t know what hit them. But Fiona, she just wants everyone to get along.” He smiled and shook his head, as if both he and Evelyn knew what to think of that idea.

After Walter had excused himself to load up on mini quiches, Evelyn stayed for a while and watched the children playing in the yard. Now that she was paying attention to something other than Gracie, she noticed that they had given Arthur a wide berth. The boy had just gotten his face painted to resemble a butterfly. He charged across the grass toward the dunking booth—“I’m running! I’m running!”—and the group of girls gathered there scattered. Bypassing the rubber ball, he threw his whole weight against the target and dropped his cousin into the water, hooting. Then he was off again, carving a path through the yard, hurtling into a boy who was thrown completely off his feet. The boy had been clutching a balloon. Freed from his grasp, it rose up and up until it had surpassed the turrets of the bouncy castle, and the child, realizing his loss, let out an agonized wail.

Evelyn turned and headed back to the car. She had seen enough. It was a quarter after eleven. There would hardly be a point in driving home, but she’d passed a public park on the way into the neighborhood. She figured she might sit there and work on her crossword puzzle until it was time to retrieve Gracie from the party. Then it occurred to her that what she really wanted was to talk to one of her sons. She seemed to remember Roger had some volunteer engagement Saturday mornings, but Cal might just be sitting on his deck in Philly, tossing sticks for the dog, his cell phone face down on the patio table that had been Evelyn and Allen’s first piece of furniture in that tiny apartment they shared in 1987. They were the first of their friends to get married, the first to have children. How special it had made them feel. As if a snug domestic existence were their personal secret. As if it had not all been played out millions of times before.

Evelyn was almost out of the neighborhood when she saw the wrapped present forgotten on the passenger seat. Fuck it. She’d donate the Legos to charity. But before she’d gone another half mile, she turned around and returned to Fiona Waters’ house.

The backyard had become overcrowded with children. In an instant, Evelyn realized why: Arthur had entered the bouncy castle, prompting a mass exodus of the kids who had been inside. The party had arrived at an uncomfortable standstill. The boy who’d lost his balloon sat on the ground with his hands over his ears, perhaps refusing to move until he was given a replacement. The teenager had quit the dunking booth. He and Walter were now engaged in a shouting match behind the hedge. Two or three mothers were discreetly collecting their children and hurrying them out of the yard, deaf to Fiona’s protests as she stood on the patio, balancing a cake in her arms. It was a sheet cake, white with blue frosting. A blue plastic number eight candle protruded from the center. For the first time, Evelyn wondered where Fiona’s husband was. At work? Out of town? Why would he not be here to help her manage this chaos? Fiona set the cake on the table. Its tiny flame quivered in the breeze. Something about the sight moved Evelyn into action.

Gracie was milling around near the snack table, but she slouched across the yard when Evelyn beckoned.

“No way, José,” said Gracie when Evelyn told her what she wanted her to do.

“Gracie Marie Farnsworth,” said Evelyn.

Gracie shrank inside her flannel. She peered at Evelyn for a moment, as if weighing the threat behind those words. Evelyn fully expected her daughter to remain defiant. Why should this time be any different than all the others? Yet it was different, somehow. Evelyn knew it. Gracie must have known it, too. She turned and trekked back across the yard. At the doorway to the bouncy castle, her sandals joined the heap of sneakers and flip-flops unclaimed by the kids who’d fled the place a few minutes before.

The dispute between Walter and his son had escalated. Expletives erupted from behind the hedge. The remaining children had begun an impromptu game of toilet tag, dodging the mothers who attempted to reclaim them. The cake now abandoned, Fiona recovered the tray of dwindling cucumber sandwiches and thrust it under the nose of each adult who tried to leave. It was at least a minute before anyone noticed the cries going up from the bouncy house.

Through the black netting of the castle’s windows, Evelyn could see her daughter and Arthur leaping up and down, ricocheting off the walls like ping-pong balls. The entire structure rocked and heaved with their exertions. They came together, seized hands, and toppled as one onto the floor, only to spring upward again, legs flailing. Arthur’s voice was a delighted, high-pitched scream, drowning out the noises of the yard: “Look at us! We’re bouncing! We’re bouncing!”

 

 

BIO

tessayang2Tessa Yang is a second-year MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, Lunch Ticket, and R.kv.r.y Quarterly. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

 

 

 

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