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Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon

by Nathaniel Heely



The conspiracy was in. The first reaction from the literary public was one of impending death. Why else would a hermit break silence? For there was no new book coming out, no new tome that might define and brand an adolescent century. Thomas Pynchon was sick. Thomas Pynchon was dying. Finally being sent off to see what was beyond the zero, soul ready to investigate the deep web of religious afterlives.

It was even more peculiar whom he had chosen. The young writer/coffee barista had no prior familiarity, indeed had only published a handful of George Saunders knockoff stories, and was more famous for her voluminous output of book reviews on Goodreads. Her most notable contribution to the literary world was a Salon article roasting James Frey and a listicle on Electric Literature: “10 Underexposed Indie Press Female Works of Fiction 2016.” As far as anyone could tell she had never even mentioned Thomas Pynchon by name. Her lone review on Goodreads of his work was a brief paragraph on The Crying of Lot 49—seemingly the book Pynchon had most derided, saying of it years earlier, “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

Rochelle [J’est un] Autry’s full review of CoL49 to wit:

Funny story overall. Afraid much of it went over my head, or else I feel as though the feeling of much information going overhead is required reading for this novel based on reviews I’ve seen. Am told the unusual names (uh, Mike Fallopian? Oedipa Maas?) are kind of par for the course. Was a fan. This book about conspiracy invites us to conspire over its own bookness by use of several MacGuffins factual and counter-factual, real and imagined. It reads like a circus performance. At no point did I feel the crushing disappointment of mystery—of failed detecting—I think I was supposed to on Oedipa’s part. I felt like too much of a watcher.

Further hypotheses were postulated. Rochelle lived in Williamsburg, only a half hour’s drive from The Hermitage. Paths could be crossed, backroom deals long in process. A rumor was traced back to an editorial intern at Penguin that Rochelle had a novel-in-progress that Pynchon believed his interview would help elevate. A literary agent publicly pondered on Twitter whether Autry was a long-time mistress to Pynchon, perhaps inspiring—at least in part—the character of Maxine Tarnow. A white male blogger accused Autry of being a notorious bed-hopper, providing a list of authors and editors she had dated, and was then attacked viciously himself by the Internet horde over everything from his unprofessional and libelous conjecture to his white male blogger privilege.

It was Melanie that contacted Rochelle on Tom’s behalf. She acquired the email via Rochelle’s personal website and stated merely that she was Pynchon’s “agent” and nothing further, and that Tom was interested in exploring the “landscape of digital interviews.” His stipulations were that he not be asked why he was granting an interview, nothing on the nature of his reclusiveness and that all the questions remain literary in topic.

It had been over 40 years since Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus. What does one do for forty years knowing their best work and days are behind them? She considered questioning him more upon this line but felt it would be disrespectful. Knew it would be disrespectful. Tom would come out a victim of this question. That was another thing she was doing nowadays. Thinking of him as Tom. It’s how Melanie always referred to him. Rochelle always wrote back referencing him as “Mr. Pynchon” but fully conscious of it, and feeling that one day she would boldly replace it with “Tom.”

There were so many ambiguities in the world. She could not read people’s sincerity. Everybody acted as though this were a big project, something ambitious that she had chosen to work on. She was all the more ashamed that she had no grand ambitions. She rode the subway every morning hoping to make it through the day with enough energy to ride back in the evening and maybe fall asleep amidst the noise and clamor and rude bumping. Now when she rode back into Brooklyn, she felt a needle in brain’s stem, pressing hard, keeping her awake, trying to re-engage with the active and creative side that would compose what several literary outlets were calling “the Millenials’ finest hour.” Written of course by Millenials themselves, proving no one loves torturing a generation as much as one of its disbelieving members. Not that a belief had anything to do with when you were born, but then what was a generation in the twenty-first century if not a pseudo-cult exclusive to birthdates?

As Flavorwire put it, “Autry and Pynchon are ostensibly two voices of a generation clashing: Tom with his tome-atic ecstasy of printed word, while Rochelle, in contrast, is a mere mendicant producing idle, uncollected thoughts in 140 characters.” n+1 made a vigorous extended metaphor about orphanage and absent fathers in regards to Pynchon’s noted silence and the constant prattling, neuroticism and triple-coated irony that came from Rochelle (or really a conflation of the entire ‘Blogging Generation’) and her perceived lifestyle.

Within a week of receiving the email, word got out, shocked, settled and was forgotten. Rochelle was getting invites to book launches, requests from magazines both large and ignored to write reviews, agents offering their services for her own book writing ventures. She was invited to a launch party for Jonathan Lethem’s latest book. Her boyfriend, Havik Tanner, an editorial assistant for the independent press, Albino Alligator, worked the room, handing out his business card while she hovered over the punch bowl, sipped complimentary champagne and followed the hashtag #LethemLaunch on Twitter and Instagram trying to identify people in the room by their various posts and deciding which ones she despised the most.

Coming home she received an email from a man who identified himself as Richard and as a former friend of Thomas Pynchon.

Dear Rochelle

My name is Richard. Forgive me if this is too forward. The news of your upcoming interview with Mr. Pynchon has made quite a stir in our tiny literary community. If you are interested I would like to speak to you about your subject as I have some information that is very pertinent.

Kind Regards,
-R

She emailed him back with some reserve—that reserve that any young person holds in her head when she feels she is being peddled a scam. Her place in the literary world was one of phantom power, receiving lots of correspondence and requests to meet the man, while she herself was only to have electronic correspondence. Her iPhone dinged at 1:01 AM with a reply:

Rochelle,

What I’m about to say will seems an absolute fabrication, and you’ll likely regard me as the crazy hippy I am. Tom was not very close with many people and even less so with writers, but since we were friends before his genius was ever pronounced to the world, I was lucky to be in that close circle and I kept his silence along with him for many years. It’s very apparent to me, though, that something quite nefarious is going on and I believe that it would be Tom’s wish to communicate to you what I know.

The real Thomas Pynchon died, like the prophets of old, on his birthday, 8 May 2007. He was 70. I was at his funeral. Against the Day was his swan song, and a beautiful one at that. He died of congestive heart failure. Since then his literary trust has remained more secret than most government agencies. Tom was always very fascinated with technology and the modern world in his literature as well as his personal life, and in his last years he developed an early AI program that could compose its own literature. It was based upon the same kind outputs you’ll get from SPAM emails, often the ones that send out those fake prince from Nigeria schemes (sidenote: those programs are actually compelled to riddle their emails with typos and bad grammar to target people who are less intelligent, but think themselves smart that they realize it’s a person speaking in a second language). His family made a discovery of this and has since developed two books: Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge.

Sounds improbable, I know, but if you’ve read these books you’ll notice that they’re very similar to each other. Both involve private investigators, both rely on typical rehashed Pynchon tricks of the search for ambiguous entities (The Golden Fang and hashslingrz) and many critics have gone on to refer to these books (along with a book he wrote in his 20s) as “Pynchon-Lite.” The construction of the books is quite simple. It’s actually a basic 1000 monkey at 1000 typewriters type of scenario. Much of what The Typing Monkey produces is gibberish, but it creates a lot of gibberish. Volumes. Reams. Something like ten full length books a day. The Hermitage actually employs nearly a dozen readers simply to rifle through these manuscripts and select coherent passages, plots, characters etc. I’m giving you just the superficial tie-ins. I can give you more information, but my security in this matter is extremely delicate. I will provide further and substantial proof, but you must not tell anyone about me.

Again, I know I’m crazy, but this is not what Tom would have wanted: his life being exploited for this. It was contrary to everything he was. He was dirt poor for many of the years I knew him, living in squalor and just happy to write. Now everything that Tom created in his life is undermined with the publication of these two novels. At this point only the grave can keep me silent, and I’ve let that day crawl these eight years closer and closer, hoping and praying (to many manner of gods I didn’t believe in, perhaps they are all real, perhaps only some) that someone else would come forward. But I’ve heard nary a word. Perhaps they’ve tried and been silenced. Please contact me. Please take this seriously. Please believe me. I will provide everything you need to prove this. I promise.

Regards,
Richard

PS. If you still need convincing look at this:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/algorithm-human-quiz.html?_r=0

Rochelle’s first instinct was to be afraid. She was caught up in something she didn’t want to even be aware of. The link provided an eight question quiz to see if humans could decipher between human and computer produced writing. She got a 4 of 8. If there was such uncertainty between these simple sentences then of course there was an argument to be made that AI could already write books. Just a few years ago a man named Phillip M. Parker had revealed his own patented system for algorithmically compiling raw data into book form. Because of it, Amazon now had nearly 1,000,000 books for sale from his company. It was ridiculous to believe, but also ridiculous to not at least consider it.

She emailed him back in the dead of that night, hoping that he would still exist outside of it. He replied that it would take a little while to establish more secure communication and that he would write to her soon.

There were other considerations. In the 70s many people judged William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon to be the same person. Gaddis wrote The Recognitions in 1955 and promptly disappeared from the literary scene for twenty years, also never giving interviews. A man identified as William Gaddis would eventually consent to some interviews in the 80s, most notably with The Paris Review and Malcolm Bradbury. Up until Ted Kaczynski was arrested, the popular theory was that Pynchon was the Unabomber. There were those that believed he used the name Wanda Tinasky to write a series of letters to Mendocino Commentary and Anderson Valley Advertiser. He was Bob Dylan’s best man. He met Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City in 1963 over a meal of shredded chicken gorditas. He had crippling agoraphobia.

She was firing off all these theories one night to her boyfriend in bed. She rattled through them all off during sex and found herself unable to judge whether the sex was good or bad, only that it had happened. Havik held her quietly listening to the prattle and stroking her thin chestnut hair.

“And then there’s the Richard Farina theory,” he said passively inspecting the hair as though looking for a magisterial, almost angelic quality.

“The what?”

“Richard Fariña. Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me?”

“Never read it.”

“Oh, well he was friend of Pynchon’s. Some say they’re the same person.”

“Friend? Wait that…what was his name?”

“Richard Fariña.”

By the last syllable of his last name she was already digging through her gmail. She confirmed what she believed to be true. “He emailed me! Holy Christ, Havik, he emailed me. I mean I’m not supposed to tell but frankly I didn’t believe it to be true and he told me not to tell anyone and promise you won’t tell anyone but he was telling me all this stuff that sounded insane but he wrote a book you’re saying?”

“Woah, calm down. Who emailed you?”

“Richard. Richard Fariña, look at this email address. RFarinaphobe at gmail, I was wondering what the hell a Farinaphobe was but—”

“Rochelle, Jesus. That can’t be Richard Fariña.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Richard Fariña died in 1966.”

Her blood ran not just cold, but felt like microscopic beetles composed of frozen nitrogen; disappointment, madness, claustrophobia. “What are you—?”

“They went to Cornell together, yeah. Pynchon wrote the Introduction—”

“But that can’t. He emailed…”

“Probably just someone being smart with you.” Her shoulders dragged down to her hips. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you. I’m sorry.”

She wept and buried her face in his bony neck. “What is going on with me? Who the hell…but he can’t…”

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Don’t say that you asshole.”

“What?”

“Of course you should have said something. You shouldn’t have had to say anything. I’m just an idiot. I know nothing about what I’m wrapped up in.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“For all I know someone did this just to show how clueless I was. God, Jesus, I’m so embarrassed. I’m so fucking stupid…”

Havik had a copy of the book, but she swatted it away, it being a scepter of her stupidity. He held her and told her he loved her as she struggled against him.

The five questions she sent to Melanie were composed in a flurry the next morning. She just wanted the thing behind her, to be completed. She abided by the stipulations and came up with: 

1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest piece of American fiction of the past twenty-five years?

2. What is your writing schedule like?

3. Your name is brought up constantly as a Nobel hopeful, particularly in light of the fact that it has been more than twenty years since an American won it. How do you respond to this?

4. Some of your more recent books Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice have been relegated, by some critics, as being genre or cross-genre fiction. How do you view genre fiction in the world and as it relates to your own work?

5. What did you think of P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice?

A day later Melanie responded.

Ms. Autry,

Please forgive me but I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject these questions. I realize how frustrating this must be! Mr. Pynchon is very peculiar in what he wants…or rather what he doesn’t want to answer. What am I saying? Perhaps that he knows it when he sees it. There’s no rush to this sort of thing. He told me to relay to you that it may take several attempts and to not be discouraged. He would never want to discourage you. In addition he gave some reasoning he thought might be helpful for why these questions seem inadequate:

1. This seems the type of insular question that I ought to avoid. There are a great dozen or two dozen books I could list but I don’t want to come across as a promotional advert. There are many authors I like, some books I’m rather fond of, and even a few I’ve felt necessary to blurb, all of which you can find with a cursory google search. But I don’t wish to single anyone out.

2. The only reason one might answer this question is because some people think I have access to an El Dorado of Writing. I assure you this is not the case. The best answer I could give, which I do not feel is an answer, is that I write enough to produce eight novels in fifty years.

3. Commenting on the Nobel seems to be a dangerous sort of thing. I’d rather the Nobel committee pretend I don’t exist and vice versa.

4 Nope. Sorry, try again.

5. Let Paul’s work have a chance to stand and resonate before I come in with some overbearing and completely unnecessary critique.

He requests you do not make this reasoning public.

Best,
-M

She would have been insulted had another email from the Richard Fariña address not appeared just two minutes before. It simply stated to check her mailbox downstairs. With eyebrow twitching in her kitchen, Havik came strutting in, blinded by the morning glare.

“Morning.”

“Can you see if the mail’s come yet?”

“Babe it’s just past 8:00 I don’t think…”

“Just check please,” she snapped. Havik stood there waiting for her to come to her senses, but she just stared with pupils the size of her iPhone. He walked silently pretending to be angry and not hurt. He came back with a single envelope, her name written in calligraphic grace, and no postage stamp.

“Friend of yours?”

She opened.

It’s me. I told you this would be arriving. For my safety it’s best I don’t deal in specifics. Meet me at the place you and your boyfriend had dinner last Thursday. Tonight. 8 PM. Make sure you aren’t followed.

-R.

She was now thoroughly insulted and realized it was a massive prank. She and Havik had eaten in last Thursday and the letter was clearly a furthering of some perverse internet prank. She flicked it once toward the trash, brought it back, admired the calligraphy—she had always admired calligraphy and was even jealous of it despite its source—and flicked it again into the trash.

Havik was working late that night. In his text he termed it “babysitting an author.” She invited friend and coworker, Connie Quetzalcoatl, to her place for the evening for dinner, which ended up being white wine, pita chips and a tom-sized drum of hummus.

“I want to die,” Connie said opening a second box of pita chips and cramming one in her mouth on the final word.

“Mistakes were made,” Rochelle countered.

“Starting with my parents having sex.”

“We’re better than this.”

“To think I was one hump away from never existing.”

“If only one of us had learned self-control. It might have been enough.”

“I’m not of the mind that quantum physics leads to a multiple Universe theory.”

“But how else do you learn self-control without self-control?”

“It’s just this one. And most of the things, most of the people that could have existed. Just didn’t. And I was the one that existed. Man.”

“I mean if you’ve had no experience with it, how will you ever be able to withstand it?”

“Mistakes were made.”

“I’m out of wine.”

Connie said she ought to be going. They buoyed up off the vinyl couch like pregnant mothers and shuffled to the door. Connie ordered an Uber. At the apartment door they bid each other goodbye. Turning around, Rochelle saw a man in a tan trenchcoat, grey fedora, wayfarer sunglasses and hair so jet black it looked dyed with car grease.

“Rochelle,” he nodded.

She stood stunned. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Richard. Can we talk?”

She looked about her. For what she couldn’t name. Cameras? Exits? Police? None of the Above? She ascended in a dreamlike manner, taking everything at face value. Sitting back on the vinyl couch the man sat down, looked nervously and began speaking without taking off his coat or hat and without Rochelle offering. He spoke the past to her: how until Tom had married Melanie he had considered himself retired from writing. She was the one who convinced him to release Slow Learner. Vineland actually started as an inside joke between he and Tom. Mason & Dixon had sputtered sometime around ’79 and its publication owed credit to at least three other ghost writers. This was why Tom had invented the Monkey Typewriter. To get out of writing once and for all. The goal was to publish a perfect mimicry of his writing mind…

“You’re supposed to be dead!” Rochelle said.

Richard stopped, straightened himself and said in a calm demeanor. “Yes. I am. It was a…dangerous time for me then. It was necessary to die and as far as the world is concerned I am Robert Feddlestein. I didn’t think I’d live this long.”

“But you’re supposed to be dead!”

“Shh. Be quiet, Jesus.”

“Out. I don’t know how you found out where I live but you need to leave.”

“No Rochelle, please. For my friend.”

“What proof do you have? How can I know you are who you say you are”

“You can’t.” He said coldly. “If I hadn’t destroyed any identifying evidence about myself you’d just assume it was a fake. If I showed you an old letter from Tom in the 60s, you’d assume I wrote it last night. Everything that is,” here he gestured to the apartment, the floors, the kitchen, “is taken on faith.”

Rochelle was on the border of hysterics. “Get out. Just get out I’m calling the police.”

“What you want. What I want is at the Hermitage on the 14th floor facing the street, third window from the right.”

“I don’t want anything! Nobody ever asked what I wanted!” She was shoving him toward the door, slapping his chest which was thin and frail, and it took little strength at all to move his elderly body.

“Shh. Quiet. Mother of Christ, I just need your help on one thing.” He brought her hands together as though in prayer.

“What? What could I possibly give you? Because I don’t have access to him. That’s why it’s an email inter…”

“Just tell Melanie that you’re having a little difficulty and that you’d like to meet her in person. That’s all I need. Her out of her office for a few hours.”

Rochelle stood mute, wounded, angry.

“That’s all I ask.”

“If you don’t leave right now I’m calling the cops.”

He turned, flinging the coat like a cape and whisking the door all but one inch to the jamb. “On the day you do it. Please. Just leave a note in your mailbox. It will get to me.” He closed the door and Rochelle went to cry on her couch.

In researching for her questions she found the sheer fanaticism of Pynchon fans even more frightening and lurid. There were vigils held every May 8th at his old Manhattan Beach house. Fans staked him out for days snapping pictures of old men fitting Pynchon’s description and comparing them on internet forums. Periodically “Missing” posters with his old Navy portrait appeared on the streets of Manhattan. It was obvious that Pynchon feared his fans. In 1989 an 1800 word autobiographical sketch for an application to the Ford Foundation was released to a few scholars. He quickly had them rescind this action, but not before Steven Weisenburger from the University of Kentucky published the article: “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch” by Duke University Press. There was tale that in 1997 a drunken group at a Pynchon lookalike competition ran down a fellow doppelganger they suspected to be the author, only to trip him and flee when it was found not to be him. He bled on the sidewalk for the next two hours before a New Yorker finally offered to call him an ambulance.

And Rochelle rationalized that perhaps what she was up against was nothing more than a method actor, probably fanatical in his own right. Never mind how he got her address, the Internet existed. These things happened daily, even to those who take intense precaution. She took the criticism from the first email and wrote five new and fresh questions and sent them off to Melanie:

Mr. Pynchon,

1. Paranoia is persistent in your work. For those of us coming of age in an increasingly Orwellian society where the government can ostensibly track us in real-time, how best do you think we can handle this?

2. For you, personally, is fiction an inherently moral art? What is the best way of going about creating art that is moral? And what does it mean?

3. What was your writing education at Cornell like?

4. Does the fact that your characters rarely, if ever, find meaning for the things they most seek indicate a reflection of your own beliefs?

5. Do you still keep in touch with Irwin Corey?

Melanie wrote back exuberantly that Tom had answered one of the questions and encouraged Rochelle not to despair that four others were rejected; that it was “great progress.” The notes sent to the questions:

1. You’re asking about something a little outside my work. I’d prefer if we could stick to that.

2. Nice try, but there are three questions here. Not that I would answer any of these, but I won’t accept multiple question marks in a “Question.”

4. See #1. I’d rather not talk about what I believe. I’m probably wrong as it is.

5. I’m sorry I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about

3. It’s not so much the where I was educated, but when. 1958, to be sure, was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time. Sure we wrote letters, rallied, demonstrated, marched, rocked, smoke bombed, egged, yet there was no sense of sanctuary there, or eternal youth. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the brutal winter winds, but death always felt close to us in those days.

She took momentary solace in the one success she had. Perhaps progress existed. She worked her days at the coffee shop, giving old men an extra look, wondering if Pynchon was a coffee drinker himself, wondering if she might as well ask him this since nothing else worked. Havik remained increasingly busy. Their time together was blurry. They fell together at night sometimes for sex, more often in exhaustion.

They had a date night. Dinner at Isabella’s, short walk to Dive 75 where they met some friends and then plodded south to the Wine and Roses Bar. It was 11 PM and she was walking west on 72nd street toward the park babbling to Havik incoherently who was near sleepwalking himself when they passed the Hermitage, ominous and stretching beyond comprehension so that halfway across she was exhausted and they sat down. Here she could think up more questions while the moon burned a hole in the sky and The Ruggles himself lapsed into failed memory of old age. What she hoped was failed memory. Afraid it was more sinister. He toying with her precisely because she was a nobody, picking her at random, coming up with dubious responses to her questions to…to what? To prove a point? To produce an echo of bone-rattling paranoia from inside that mausoleum? To speak death to her as apparently his whole life had to him? To feed some inane desire for performance art? It was all a joke. Everything was a joke to him. He had hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf, never having met the man, seen the man, known the man, heard the man, discussed with the man what he ought to portray. And she was like that befuddled audience laughing only to show they were hip to the joke, but not getting the joke, terrified of not laughing, of a world full of silence and nervous coughs. Silence is the essence of meaninglessness. What was the point of asking questions? Of course he didn’t want to talk about the Nobel. Likely he just wanted to win so he could make a mockery of it too and not even show up. Respond, perhaps, by donating the money to a Waco Davidian cult that no longer existed. To answer the question would forewarn the Swedish Academy and permanently blacklist him from the nominations. And then he would no longer be practical joker Pynchon, but angry and bitter Pynchon. The Pynchon that excoriated his former love Lilian Landgraben in his first novel. The Pynchon who rescinded that 1800 word autobiographical sketch. The Pynchon who was so exasperated by the reading public that he escaped to Mexico, an entire country and language barrier separating him from his identity.

And she too began to scowl. There were now watchblogs commenting and updating on her daily internet activity: her Twitter updates, her Instagram photos, her Goodreads progress, all questioning why she hadn’t questioned. As though asking questions were easy work. A Facebook fan page of her popped up and people discussed in the open forum all the salacious rumors that surrounded her. Rumors that, of course, had no origin, came out of nothing, as did the whole Universe. She scaled back, deactivating her Facebook, taking down her Instagram, not posting to social media any longer, but only watching. She wanted to deprive the web of gossip—its oxygen.

Her silence was well noted. Her silences. People began wondering if she was in fact a Pynchonian hoax. One of the watchblogs aggregated data of increased sales of Pynchon’s books and pointed to it as nothing but a clever marketing scheme. But why would he need money? Again, fans feared the worst for the ex-sailor.

1. What is your next book about?

2. Is that really your voice in the Inherent Vice book trailer?

3. Did you ever end up writing those opera librettos proposed in your application to the Ford Foundation?

4. Do you think there will be a time when there are no humans to write books and that you are of the last generation to compose literature?

5. What do you think of the eventual heat-death of the Universe?

More non-answers. More “refer to note so-and-so in email so-and-so.” More and more and more and yet always less.

She finally got around to reading Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Or rather she read the Introduction and was heartbroken. The one answer she had received, the lone scrap of authenticity she held of Thomas Pynchon was actually a few extant sentences cobbled together from Tom’s most rare of autobiographical acknowledgements. She curled up on the vinyl couch crying, surprised she was still capable. 

Thomas Pynchon was identity in full entropy. An equilibrium across all people where one never knew if their dinner date that night was actually Thomas Pynchon. In a manner, Rochelle could consider herself to be Thomas Pynchon.

She relented to Richard Fariña’s request and asked Melanie if she could possibly take her out to lunch and get a better idea of what he wanted to answer. To her surprise Melanie assented, even encouraged the visit. It was a Tuesday, and Rochelle and Connie worked the morning shift beginning at 4:00 AM working straight through until 11:00 AM. In the Uber on the way over Rochelle commented to Connie that she hadn’t seen Havik in three days and asked if she should be worried. Connie responded by asking if she had been sleeping regularly. Rochelle looked vacantly at the back of the driver’s balding head hoping it would speak for her instead.

They arrived early and informed the lady at the desk of their appointment. They stood in the lobby waiting.

“Y’know I was googling her today.”

“Who?”

“Melanie Jackson. The lady you’re here to—”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just didn’t—”

“There aren’t any pictures of her either.”

“Of Melanie?”

“Yeah. That’s a bit weird don’t you think?”

“Considering who she’s married to, not really.” Rochelle ran fingers through her hair and stared at the elevator, the elevator’s lips, waiting for truth to emerge.

“But both of them. I mean, it’s like he’s got his whole family now in this sort of secret cult of privacy.”

“Is privacy a cult now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No but,” she said directing eyes now at Connie, worried look on her face. “Is it?”

But there was no answer. At that moment a screaming came from the ceiling, childlike and full of terror. The whole building began to wobble and the two dashed to the exit and looked up. A plume of dust and orange claws leapt from a window near the top, hail of glass and a resonant pounding from the heart of the building resolute and final. People were running in no discernable direction: toward the building, away, some walking as though deaf or else too bothered to be afraid. A cascade of flimsy paper, some of it burning, eschewed from the floor and there were little children nearby trying to catch it on their tongues like snowflakes.

They went back to Rochelle’s place and lay on the couch emptying their eyes into the TV. MSNBC to CNN to FOX NEWS to ABC to MSNBC…Havik appeared only a few minutes later, kissing her and picking glass from her cheeks asking questions that got no answers. They sat like that for hours. When it was dark, Rochelle noticed there were bandages on her cheeks she did not remember being put on. Connie had left. She asked Havik if there was any mail and he said he would go check. She opened her laptop and typed the only thing she felt possible.

What happened at the Hermitage today at approximately 11:53 AM?

Do you have any reason to suspect that Richard Fariña is still alive?

Why me, Mr. Pynchon?

Are you there, Tom?

Are you alive?

Havik returned. “There’s no mail today.”

Richardson-Orange 2015-2017


BIO

Nathaniel Heely is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He has published over two dozen stories, appearing in in Burrow Press Review, decomP, Identity Theory, the Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and many others. He is currently working on his first novel. For more visit nathanielheely.com

Word May Set You Free

By Marco Etheridge



Sweeney thought the kidnappings would be the difficult part, but they proved to be the easiest. What he discovered is that people are disconnected from their surroundings. Each of the abductions went down more or less the same way. One of the agents would be walking down a city sidewalk; strolling from the office or the subway station. Their faces were invariably glued to their smart phones, oblivious to the world around them.

Buck Mulligan and Sweeney worked as a team. They slipped up from behind while the agent was busy reading texts or yakking into the phone. Sweeney zapped their target with a stun-gun. Buck grabbed the sagging body under the armpits before their victim turned into a rag doll. While Buck held them upright, Sweeney popped a sack over their lolling heads. The van pulled up, side door already open, Stephen’s strong torso leaning out. The wobble-legged agent was thrown to the yawning door of the van and Stephen Dedalus snatched the hooded body into the shadows. After scooping up whatever belongings the victim had dropped, Buck and Sweeney followed. The van door slid shut and Molly Bloom drove them away. It was as simple as pie. No one seemed to notice or care. Maybe that was because it was New York City, or maybe because even in NYC, nobody likes a literary agent.

No, the hard part wasn’t snatching them off the street. The hard part was the long van ride from the City back to the warehouse in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. That first drive, after they snatched Jeff Lyons, that was the longest. The guy whined and babbled like a little girl: What do you want from me, I don’t want to die, please, please. It went on forever, over and over, until Sweeney wanted to club him like a baby seal, which would have spoiled the plan.

After that first interminable ride, Banshee said she was damn sure going to show them another use for duct tape. She did just that. The second drive was quieter; mostly just inarticulate moaning and nose breathing. Leave it to the mystery writer to have a practical solution.

It was blind luck that they got two of the bastards in one day, or, more correctly, a bastard and a bitch. In retrospect, Sweeney realized they shouldn’t have been all that surprised. The literary agencies in Manhattan are grouped in clusters, like infected buboes in the armpits of the island. Set off a big enough bomb on West 21st Street, and you were liable to take out four or five agencies. Not that Sweeney would consider that as an option. Bombs were far to random, far too anonymous. It was a much more specific revenge that he craved.

When Allie Stark ducked into the alley behind Greenburg-Golden, she practically stepped into the van. The crew had just snatched the Reuben guy, so why not?  Bad luck for the stylish Ms. Stark, and one less trip into the City for them. At least the Stark chick was quiet, unlike Mr. BJ Reuben. He blubbered and made eyes at the Stark woman like he knew her. She ignored the crybaby, keeping her eyes focused on her abductors. All that long drive to Jersey, she didn’t make a sound.

*  *  *

Molly leaned through the heavy steel door, her voice coming thick and dull from under the latex mask.

“Are you ready for the opening monologue? I want to lock these parasites in their boxes. Everybody is sick of listening to their shit.”

Sweeney rose from a battered steel table, five manila folders in his left hand.

“Yes, Ms. Bloom, I am ready.”

“It’s Mrs. Bloom, as you know all too well. Don’t forget your mask.”

“Right, the mask.”

Sweeney dropped the folders onto the chipped tabletop and reached for a crumpled pile of latex. It was the distorted face of a nightmare leprechaun; a corpse face without an Irish skull. He stretched the thing over his head, letting it snap into place around his neck. The latex pulled against the stubble on his cheeks.

“How do I look?”

“No more of a fool than the rest of us.”

Molly Bloom raised a hand to either side of her distorted head, miming alarm. A fake orange beard wobbled below an exaggerated nose as she rolled her costumed head in a show of alarm.

“Oh, the humans, they be after me pot of gold! C’mon, Sweeney, let’s get this show on the road.”

Molly disappeared through the doorframe.

Sweeney watched her go, this woman he loved, the woman who would always be his best friend and never more.  He stood alone in the room, his breath was hot under the latex of the mask.

Sweeney’s mind wandered back to the conversation that had changed everything, before she was Molly or he was Sweeney. They were celebrating the completion of her latest work, some of the most poignant and beautiful memoir he had ever read. Over drinks in the corner of a favorite bar, their talk was of the usual frustrations, and the struggle to get published. Then the words were coming out of his mouth: It’s time to teach these bastards a lesson, change the rules of the game.

More than a year of planning followed, with endless discussions over endless pints of beer. Sara was brought into the scheme and became Banshee, then Joe became Buck Mulligan. What began as a formless fantasy of revenge took on sharp edges. By the time Stephen Dedalus joined the group, the thing had become real. Sweeney shook himself out of his memories and looked through the open doorway. And now it all comes down to this. Are you ready?

He grabbed the five file folders from the table and stepped past the rusted steel door.

*  *  *

Evening light leaked into the warehouse through jagged holes in the painted-over windows. Layers of surplus industrial paint peeled from the concrete wall; huge patches of pea green sloughing away from baby-slime yellow. Water dripped into puddles at the windowless back wall. Time had not been kind to this abandoned hulk, and it had been abandoned a long time. A collection of five small shipping containers stood in a rough row; ten-foot long steel boxes in faded colors of blue and red and green. The doors of the containers were standing open; eight-foot-wide by eight-feet-tall.

In front of the containers sat a row of five aging steel chairs. In the chairs sat two women and three men, all looking decidedly worse for the wear. Each of them were manacled; one ankle hand-cuffed to a heavy chair leg.

Sweeney crossed the chipped concrete floor, taking his place beside four masked figures standing in front of the seated line. He slapped the file folders against his thigh. Five sets of eyes looked up at him, eyes that were angry, or confused, or frightened. Sweeney ran his own eyes across the faces, looking for the cracks.

The Collin woman looked scared; just plain, ordinary scared. The first one they’d snatched, Jeff Lyons, he looked ready to burst into tears. The BJ guy was a bluster of anger and indignation. It was the last two that mattered. The older guy, Peter Schear, his eyes were taking everything in, looking for a way out. But the Stark woman, her eyes never moved. They were staring straight into Sweeney’s. He smiled at her, just to see what would happen. What he got in return was the slightest raise of an eyebrow, nothing more.

“Right. Let’s get started, shall we? Some of you have been with us for a few days. Others have just arrived. Now that we are all here, we can begin by laying out the rules. I…”

The BJ Reuben character interrupted him, his voice loud and angry.

“What the hell are you talking about? What rules? Are you some kind of crazy terrorists, or what?”

Banshee started forward, a Taser gripped in her left hand. She aimed her outstretched hand at the crotch of Mr. Reuben’s expensive slacks. He became suddenly very quiet, wide eyes staring at the thing Banshee held.

“Well, then, let’s move straight into introductions. BJ Reuben, I’d like you to meet Banshee. She will be your handler. I would advise against any more outbursts. I don’t think she likes you very much. Ms. Banshee, here is Mr. Reuben’s file. And would you pass the rest of these down, please?”

Banshee reached for the files. Through the holes of her grotesque mask, Sweeney caught the bright gleam in her eyes. Someone is enjoying this far too much. He had no doubt that Banshee would turn this whole escape into a cutting edge mystery novel. Sweeney turned his attention back to the seated captives.

“Moving right along then, let’s get to the rules. I am sure most of you are aware that you are in the same business. In fact, I am reasonably sure that some of you know each other quite well.”

He watched for any furtive glances and was not disappointed.

“Think of these rules as submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules, exactly as they are laid out, your stay here will be a long one, and more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Each of you will be paired with a handler. You will speak only to your handler, understood?”

“Ms. Collin, you’ll be working with Stephen. I think you’ll find Mr. Dedalus to be quite a gentleman. Peter, you’ll be with Buck Mulligan. He’s a bit hard at the edges, but I’m sure you two will hit it off.”

“Jeff Lyons, you’ll be working with Molly Bloom, you lucky devil you. That takes care of everyone but Ms. Stark, who will be working with me. My name is Sweeney. Ah, yes, Mr. Schear, thank you for the raised hand.”

“Mr. Sweeney, I’m guessing that we’ve been abducted for some reason, but I’m struggling to figure out what that reason is. I mean, we’re just literary agents; not exactly high ransom targets if I understand the situation correctly.”

The man’s voice was calm and smooth, probing for an advantage.

“If we could just hold off on the questions, I think this will go faster.”

Peter Schear shrugged, his hands in his lap.

“You are here for one reason, and that is to write. The way you are going to get out of here is to write your way out. Your choice of project is up to you. It can be a novel, a collection of short stories, even a play if you like. Buck, what would you think about the choice to write a stage-play?”

The answer came rough and hard.

“Delusional.”

“There you have it folks; and from a source that should know. Buck writes some of the best dramatic dialogue out there, but I’m sure none of you have ever heard it. His work is performed so far off Broadway it might as well be Uzbekistan. As you can see, Buck is a large man, and I can assure you he has no love for agents. I would not cross him if I were you.”

Sweeney paused to let his remark sink in.

“Now, back to why you are here. Whatever project you choose, it will be submitted to a jury of your peers, namely other agents. We will, of course, have to submit your work under assumed names. If an agent, any agent, asks to read a full manuscript, or further chapters, or expresses the slightest interest in representing your work, you will be free to go. One simple, positive response is your magic key.”

“Wait, you want us to write something, submit it to an agent, and wait for a response?”

“Another country heard from. Yes, Mr. Lyons, that is exactly correct. You will write, your handler will transcribe the manuscript into a computer file, and then we will send it off with as perfect a query letter as we can conjure.”

 Sweeney watched the change in the man’s face; the look of a little boy about to cry replaced by the look of a little boy struggling with his maths. Jeff Lyons swung his eyes up as the difficulty of the problem dawned on him.

“But, but, that could take months!”

“Yes, it could, Mr. Lyons; all the more reason for you to write well and quickly.”

“Ah, Mr. Reuben, you wish to comment?”

“Is this some crazy stunt to get published? Some elaborate piece of performance art?”

“An astute and hopeful question, Mr. Reuben, but no, this is not a stunt. Besides, each of us have published work, though perhaps not to your standards. After all, you are the gatekeepers, are you not? You judge who is worthy to walk the hallowed ground and who will remain out in the cold, dark night. No, we are well past stunts or trickery. This is about something much simpler; it is about getting even. I admit that there is some thought of making it better for the writers coming after us, but mostly this is just revenge. Banshee, do you have Mr. Reuben’s wish list?”

Banshee swung the folder open with a flick of her right hand, the Taser still held in her left.

“Got it right here, Sweeney. BJ Reuben, always willing to take a chance on a debut author. Looking for something that makes him miss his stop on the subway. Likes literary fiction that is quirky; surprise him. The usual rot.”

Sweeney raised a hand to cut off any more comment. I should just let Banshee Tase this bastard in front of the others. That would move things along. Just a nod and she would be so happy to oblige. She’s angry and ready. Sweeney knew he could count on Banshee to do her part.

“We are wasting time here. Forgive me, perhaps I have not been clear. If you wish to leave, you will write. Behind you are your accommodations. Think of them as monastic cells. Each has been furnished with a cot, a desk, and writing materials. Chairs you already have. Meals and other essentials will be provided for you so long as you write. If you want to eat, you write. If you want to shower, you write. It’s quite simple, really. Three thousand words per day, seven days a week; in four weeks you will have a novel of eighty-four thousand words. That is, I believe, your optimum length for a debut novel, yes?”

“And what if we refuse?”

Lauren Collin has found her voice. Sweeney looked into her brown eyes; attractive eyes. She may be scared, but at least she is thinking.

“That is a very good question, Ms. Collin. There must be penalties, of course, else how would the system function? If you refuse to write, you will not eat. You will not shower. You will not be allowed out of your comfortable cell. There are some other penalties as well, which I should make clear. You may write whatever you wish. Your work can be tailored to your own wish list, or the wish list of an agent that you know. But do not try to plagiarize someone else’s work. If you do, we will know it. The penalty for plagiarism is death, and I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense. You will be shot, and your body will be dumped in a place where no one will ever find it. Likewise, for any attempt at escape or mutiny. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The words seemed to sink in. There was a silence from the line of chairs, then one raised hand.

“Yes, Ms. Stark, you have a question?”

“I just want to clarify. I write a novel. You send that novel out to other literary agents. If one of those agents requests additional material, or expresses any interest other than a rejection, then I go free?”

Sweeney smiled to himself, making note of the careful choice of pronouns. There is no ‘we’ with this woman.

“That is exactly correct, Ms. Stark. I couldn’t have put it more succinctly.”

There was that same barely raised eyebrow, the slightest nod as if she were confirming something she already knew; then nothing. I like this one, even if she is an agent. Careful, Boyo, this is not the time or place.

“Very well, if there are no further questions, we need to get you back into your cells. We must start the dinner preparations. There are some good cooks amongst us, as some of you already know. You will not suffer unduly. Tomorrow is our first work day, so you will want to get your rest.”

Sweeney turned to his companions.

“If you will, please; one at a time of course. Escort our guests back into their cells.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan bounced his ass down the bench between the concrete wall and the long table. He pushed a plate of breakfast down the worn surface. Once the big man was settled, he smiled across at the others.

“G’morning Banshee, morning Ka… sorry, Sweeney.”

“Morning, Buck. What, two weeks of practice and you’re forgetting your lines? You’re the stage professional.”

“Yeah, sorry, a momentary lapse. Your two shining faces put me off my guard. Banshee is smiling like a cat in a canary factory.”

“Understood, of course, but no mistakes in front of the guests, please.”

The bigger man grunted, stabbing a fork into a mound of scrambled eggs and roasted peppers. He chewed and nodded before he spoke again.

“Mmm… that’s some fine tucker. I don’t know if the original Dedalus could cook, but our modern version is a wizard. What is the line? God made food, the devil the cooks, or something like that.”

Banshee smiled at Buck from across the table. She was curled around her coffee; a soft smile gleaming through a tent of dark hair and bare forearms.

“You have it exactly, Mr. Mulligan.”

Buck looked between the two of them, Banshee’s dreamy smile and Sweeney’s smirk. His suspicion grew in spite of the known facts. He pointed his fork at them as he spoke.

“Okay, what’s the deal? Have you two been laying pipe?”

The first response was laughter, then more smirking.

“You have a suspicious mind, Buck Mulligan. Banshee and I have done no more than sit here and enjoy each other’s company.”

Sweeney leaned into Banshee’s shoulder.

“Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, my dear, if proclivities weren’t what they were.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll send you a memo if something changes. As for you, Mr. Mulligan; laying pipe, really? This is how a man of the theater speaks?”

Buck waved them off with his free hand, reaching for his coffee with the other.

“Theater is the art of the people, don’t you know, written in the language of the common man. Unlike the fancy prose of your highbrow novelists like Sweeney here. So what’s with all this bliss and happiness then?”

Banshee pushed herself upright, raising her coffee mug between thin, spidery fingers.

“I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this good in years. Almost three weeks of dealing with that whiny shit Reuben, and yet I feel fantastic.”

“Is he actually writing anything?”

“Just enough to eat, and what he’s scribbling down is crap. Worse than you would expect. Bitching, moaning, and scribbling shit; that’s pretty much his daily agenda. It’s a good thing we aren’t actually submitting this garbage to anyone.”

Buck nodded, savoring the tang of the peppers against the smooth taste of the eggs. He looked between the two faces sitting across the table, his fork poised midair.

“So what do we do with him?”

Sweeney turned to the smiling Banshee.

“He’s your guy. What do you think?”

She smiled even more, wrinkling her forehead as if it were a stupid question.

“Look, I signed on for the long-haul here, just like the rest of us. But I don’t have two years to waste on this little bitch. He doesn’t have a bad novel in him, much less a decent one. I have my own projects to write, and lovely maidens to chase. So I think it’s obvious: We kill him.”

The two men nodded their heads. Buck shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth. Sweeney spoke first.

“Sounds reasonable to me. When do you want to do it?”

“After breakfast tomorrow. I’m feeling too relaxed right now.”

“Who do you want to help you?”

“I don’t need any help to shoot him, but Stephen can help me dump the heavy lump of shit. I’ll have more free time after that, so I can play in the kitchen. I’ll bake you some biscuits, Buck.”

“I like biscuits.”

Buck pushed the empty plate aside, reached for his coffee.

“Listen, I’m worried about this Peter Schear cat. He’s the exact opposite of Banshee’s BJ. Pardon the pun.”

“In your dreams, Buck Mulligan.”

“I only dream about flying monkeys. Anyway, my guy is following the rules like a hall monitor. I swear, it’s like he’s analyzed the entire program, trying to figure out how to unlock it.”

Sweeney sipped at his cooling coffee.

“What about the stuff he’s writing?”

“Well, that would be worse news. It’s pap, pure and simple. Setting that elitist judgment aside, it’s the kind of pap that would sell in very respectable numbers. A dog, a pretty girl, a mildly shocking conflict; every element is lifted from somebody. But we can’t shoot him for plagiarism. He’s not lifting from one person; he’s lifting from everyone.”

“Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. It’s not unreasonable that one out of the five would turn out to be a writer. Maybe we just handed him an opportunity. At least he’s not trying to bust your balls.”

“No, but he’s a calculating bastard, I can tell you that. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of a negotiation with him. A fella would come out short on that deal.”

“Think about what we should do with him, Buck. Banshee will have a bit more time after eliminating the annoying Mr. Reuben. When she’s not baking biscuits, perhaps she could give Peter Schear’s cage a bit of a rattle?”

Banshee shook back her hair, grinning a wicked grin.

“I’d be delighted.”

*  *  *

It was after breakfast when they came for him. The captives were all in their cells, but she could hear every word. The steel boxes did not hide sounds as much as magnify them. Every noise, every groan or fart, was broadcast across the open concrete room. Allie Stark heard the outside door open, the footsteps heavy across the floor. This wasn’t part of the routine. The handlers usually stayed away in the morning. No one had shouted for a bathroom privilege. Allie sat absolutely still, the tip of her pen hovering above a yellow legal pad. The footsteps passed in front of her box, the sound of two people moving further up the line. She heard the wrenching creak of a steel handle, then the groan of a heavy door opening.

“Okay, Reuben, on your feet.”

It was the woman, Banshee, with that voice like soft gravel. The other one was silent; maybe one of the men.

“What do you want? What’s this about?”

Allie shook her head at the tone of BJ’s voice. You poor idiot, three weeks and you still haven’t figured these people out. As if you were still in charge of everything. You never were much for learning things. Banshee’s voice cut across her thoughts, harsh and metallic.

“Shut up. I am sick to death of listening to you. Turn around and put your hands behind your back. We’re going for a little walk.”

“But I…”

“I said shut up. I won’t say it again. Turn around, hands behind your back, or I stun you right now. Dragging you will be more work, but if that’s the way you want it, fine.”

There was the creak of a chair, the muffled sound of movement, the faintest click of steel on steel. Then the sound of shuffling feet, footsteps being retraced. Allie Stark sat quite still, listening to the quiet that followed. She knew the others were listening as well.

The first gunshot cut through the silence, rolling like thunder against the concrete walls. Two more shots followed, the echoes mixing and dying. The thunder fell away, replaced by the sound of weeping from the next cell.

*  *  *

“Dammit, Stephen, couldn’t you two keep your hands off each other for a few more weeks? I thought you were the writer who wanted to reinvent the modern love story. Instead, you get involved in some pulp romance.”

Molly Bloom stood in front of Stephen, her hands on her hips. Dedalus raised his hands from the arms of the chair, shook his head, dropped the hands to his lap. Molly blew out a huge sigh, turned to the others.

“Does someone want to help me out here? Anyone?”

Sweeney was slumped over the long table, silent. Banshee leaned against the wall casting dangerous looks. Buck Mulligan sighed and scratched at the stubble on his jaw, thinking of where to start.

“I think it’s safe to say that this changes things a bit. Stephen, can you give us the quick version? But please, without any graphic bits, because I am really not in the mood for that.”

Banshee laughed out loud.

“Yeah, I’m dying to hear this. At least someone is getting laid. Please tell me that you took that stupid leprechaun mask off.”

“Look, I’m sorry; really I am. It was after you took that Reuben prick out. Lauren was scared; I mean really freaked out. We were just talking, you know. We had to whisper, so we were leaned in close. Then it just happened.”

Sweeney raised his head from the table.

“Yes, it just happened. The Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, or the earth moved beneath the two of you. It doesn’t matter at this point. This pretty much tears it. Ms. Collin has to go, and so do you, Stephen. Then you two can live happily ever after, or she can hand you over to the Feds.”

“I don’t think Lauren would do that.”

“Sure, of course. Buck, would you care to script this one out for us?”

“No, Sweeney, I most certainly would not. But I agree that they have to go, and they have to go quickly, which means we have to close up shop. The question is, how long is it going to take to clean everything up?”

Sweeney’s laugh was sour.

“When we were planning this thing, we weighed out a lot of contingencies, but I swear, I never thought of this one. But at least we have an evacuation plan. I need to go over the checklist, but I originally figured two days at the outside. We can probably get it done in one. After we serve our guests their dinners, we can start packing up the gear. Stephen, you’re going to have to wait a day or two before we can spring you two lovebirds. Can you live with that?”

“Sure, of course we can. Look, I’m sorry. I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone. And you guys can keep my share of the profits.”

“No, Mr. Dedalus, a deal is a deal. We spent an entire year planning this thing. One of the rules was that if there were ever any royalties, we split them evenly. You did your part, just like everyone else, so the deal still stands as far as I’m concerned. Besides, you may need some money when you finally get out of the slammer. As far as talking goes, never is a long time. But we can’t kill you; we all go back too many years. Is everyone okay with that?”

There were nods around the room. Sweeney shook his head.

“Right. There’s not a lot more we can do tonight besides packing up the miscellaneous stuff. Tomorrow we move everyone out. Buck can drive Stephen and Ms. Collin to the Denville Station. That’s in the opposite direction of where we dumped Reuben. They can get to the city from there, or wherever they choose to go. Stephen, you need to do whatever you can to keep a lid on your new girlfriend until we can get clear of here.”

 Stephen Dedalus nodded his head, still slumped in his chair. Sweeney rose from the table.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we better get to it.”

*  *  *

Hers was the last dinner to serve. Sweeney rapped twice, his knuckles ringing on the steel door. Heavy cams groaned as he rotated the thick handles. Before he fully opened it, Sweeney peeped through the gap in the door. There was no need. Ms. Allie Stark was not poised to attack, sharpened pencil raised to stab. She was sitting at her makeshift desk, as always, her eyes calm and waiting. Vaguely disappointed, he retrieved a tray of food and pulled open the door, edging into the steel box.

“Good evening Ms. Stark; here is your dinner.”

“Good evening, Mr. Sweeney. Mmm… it smells like curry. It must be Stephen Dedalus’ turn in the kitchen. He is a very good cook, Mr. Dedalus. I may actually miss his curries.”

Sweeney set the tray on the desk and took one step back.

“Are you leaving us, Ms. Stark?”

“Everything must come to an end, Mr. Sweeney, even this little vacation.”

“Yes, well, I will leave you to your meal.”

Her voice stopped him before he could move.

“Would you mind very much staying for a bit? I am sick of eating alone, truth be told.”

Sweeney shrugged, seated himself on the narrow cot.

“A bit of time is all I have, I’m afraid. Lots to do, dishes to wash; you understand.”

“Yes, and love affairs to see to, I would imagine.”

She caught his harsh look and gave him back a half smile.

“Relax, it’s no business of mine. The walls are quite thin, that’s all. But it would make a very good party story, don’t you think? A wonderful response to that awkward ‘how-did-you-two-meet’ question. Speaking of questions, do you mind if I ask you one?”

“I believe you just did.”

“Alrighty, let’s make it two.”

Sweeney raised his hands palm up.

“Your name; how did you choose it? I mean, I understand the others, the Joyce characters: very clever. And Banshee, that requires no explanation. She has the sexiest voice on the planet, all gravel and threat. It is a treat to listen to her.”

“She would be pleased to hear it.”

“Yes, I’m sure she would. But back to your name. Which version of the Frenzy of Sweeney are you? Were you cursed for insulting a holy man, or broken in the shock of battle.”

“I am impressed, Ms. Stark. You are well-versed in your Irish literature.”

“Allie, please; I think we are long past the formalities. And yes, I have a little something to show for all of that money my parents handed over into the coffers of the Ivy League.”

“Brown University, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, six years of it; and you?”

“I spent a bit of time in academia, but nothing so prestigious.”

The woman ignored her food, her eyes fixed on his.

“Tell me, Sweeney, what do you think of my story?”

You asked for this, Boyo, engaging in a serious conversation with this woman. All you had to do was drop off the food and go on about your business, but no.

“To be honest, I like what you’re writing. It’s good, edgy, but it will never sell.”

“I wasn’t thinking about it selling. You never had any intention of submitting our manuscripts, so what does it matter? I may as well write what I want. Isn’t that the way to create something real?”

Sweeney rose to his feet in one motion.

“Damn you, Allie Stark. Damn you to hell.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan stepped into the room. His crumpled leprechaun mask dangled limply in one hand. The other three looked up from the cramped table. Molly was the first to speak.

“Did everything go okay, Buck?”

“Sure, by the numbers, just like we planned. I dropped the two lovebirds off at the Denville Station and came straight back here. But the clock is ticking. We need to wrap this up if we want to stay out of prison.”

Sweeney looked up from a pad of paper.

“Buck’s right, of course. We need to get the others out of here and clear out ourselves. Let’s run through it one more time. Banshee, is the pistol taken care of?”

“It’s handled, Sweeney. I ran the tap thing down through the barrel. There were metal shavings everywhere. No one is getting ballistics from that pistol. I swept up the shavings and mixed them in with some other piles of junk.”

“And you dug the three slugs out of the hay bale?”

“You know I did. We can’t be leaving any bullets for the cops to find. They went down the toilet.”

“Good work, thank you. We can toss the gun when we leave. One more pistol in a New Jersey ditch; no one is going to notice or care. I can smell the chlorine, so the bleaching must have gotten done, right?”

“Yes, we made Stephen do it. It seemed only fair. He doused the toilets and the kitchen like a madman. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of DNA left. Better if no one ever finds this place at all, but we did our best.”

“Okay, Mrs. Bloom, that’s checked off the list as well. Everything went to the storage unit this morning. I paid three months rent on that thing, so no one will be opening it anytime soon. I don’t think anyone will ever connect a bunch of pots and pans with a kidnapping, but if they do, we will have a long head start.”

“Do we tell them anything about the cel phones, Sweeney?”

“Sure, tell them the truth. We’re not thieves, but we couldn’t have the cops tracking us. Their phones are in a package buried in the mail room of the Reuben Park Group. It’s disguised as an unsolicited manuscript. If they look hard, they may find it in a week or two.”

There was grim laughter around the table. Sweeney pushed the legal pad away and looked at the others.

“You know they’ll never stop looking for us, right? Kidnapping, a Federal offense and all of that; we need to get this last part over with.”

Everyone nodded. Buck Mulligan’s voice cut across the group.

“We need to be careful about the finger prints. Everything has been doused with WD-40. All the doors will be open, so there should be no need for anyone to touch anything, but make sure you keep the latex gloves on until we are in the van and driving.”

Sweeney nodded his head.

“You all know what to do. You three take the van. You dump Lyons and Schear near the train station. Their hoods don’t come off until you push them out of the van. I do the last wipe down, then I take Ms. Stark in the car. Once we’re all clear, we head for Philadelphia. Remember to watch the speed limits and all of that. Any questions?”

It was Molly Bloom who spoke.

“The wild card is that prick Reuben. Banshee, you dumped him in Patterson, right? He’s had a few days to do whatever he’s going to do. What do you think?”

“We gave him the spiel, about how we know where he lives, where his family lives. I think he’s scared enough to keep his mouth shut, at least for a little while. I told him that if he talks, someone will find him and kill him for real; slowly and painfully. Stephen said there is a lot about this that Reuben wouldn’t want made public, but who knows.”

“I suppose we will find out soon enough. We give the same talk to the others, of course. Let Banshee put the fear of all the gods into them. Buck said it best; the clock is ticking. You guys get a move on. As soon as you’re clear of here, I’ll do the last walk through and follow. See you in Philadelphia.”

Without a word, the crew rose and set to work.

*  *  *

Sweeney crossed the concrete floor, a canvas bag in his hand. The warehouse was in shadows. Steel doors gaped open on four of the shipping containers; empty mouths on empty cells. The nearest, the fifth, was shut tight. Sweeney rapped twice, then pulled at the heavy handles. The door wrenched open, the handles clanged. A feeble light trickled in from a small overhead vent. The generator was gone and the lights had gone with it. 

Allie Stark was seated on her narrow cot, hands in her lap, as if she were waiting on a bus. She held a hand to her forehead to fend off the sudden light, weak as it was.

“Good afternoon, Sweeney, or evening; whichever it is.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting Ms. Stark. Late afternoon would be accurate, I suppose.”

“If you call me Ms. Stark one more time, I’m going to scream. And I can scream really loudly, so fair warning. Not that it matters, since everyone is already gone. They are gone, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Allie, everyone else has left, as I’m sure you heard. “

“Then I should be terrified: Trapped alone with a legendary Irish madman.”

Sweeney did not think she looked at all terrified.

“What is it you’ve got there?”

Stepping into the gloom, he held out the canvas bag.

“I brought you your things; your purse, wallet. You’ll have to do without your cell phone.”

Allie Stark took the bag with one hand, motioned to the cot with the other.

“Have a seat while I pack.”

Sweeney shrugged and sat, leaning against the steel wall at the far end of the cot.

Allie rose, took three steps to the desk, reached for a stack of legal pads. She fit the pads into the canvas shopping bag and returned to her place on the cot. It creaked under her slight weight as she sat.

“I’m packed.”

Her smile flashed in the dim light. Sweeney reached into a side pocket of the work coat he was wearing.

“You should add this to your packing. It’s your manuscript; as best as I can transcribe it.”

“Oh, a thumb-drive, how sweet. Now I will have something to remember you by.”

“Right, a keepsake. I didn’t want you to lose all of your hard work, that’s all.”

“One of the lessons I have learned in the last four weeks is that I rather like working with paper and ink. I had forgotten that lovely scratching sound the pen makes as it slides across the paper. Speaking of lessons, did you learn yours?”

“And what lessons would those be?”

Allie Stark turned away from the bag in her lap, giving Sweeney a frank stare.

“You know exactly what I am talking about. This elaborate abduction; weeks of watching and listening. There must have been some surprises, lessons you weren’t counting on.”

Sweeney looked away from her probing eyes.

“I’m going to need to get back to you on that. I wish I had something profound to say, but I’m still trying to sort it out in my head.”

“I suppose that’s fair. Did you at least get what you wanted out of this whole thing?”

“No, not so much, or rather yes and no. I think there was more of the unexpected than the expected. Let’s just say that things didn’t stick to the outline.”

“Maybe not as much as our friend Banshee? Direct anger, driver revenge; she is very good at it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. Banshee got exactly what she was looking for, exactly what she was needing.”

“Are any of the others really dead?  Mr. BJ Reuben in particular?”

“Dead?”

“Yes, you know, shuffled loose the mortal coil: Dead.”

“No, no one is dead.”

“Good, I’m glad for that.”

“You’re glad for them?”

“No, I’m glad for you, Sweeney.”

She raised a hand, pointing to his face.

“Since it’s just the two of us, would you be willing to take off that stupid mask? It’s most unflattering, you know.”

“No, Allie, I would not be willing to take off this stupid mask.”

Her eyes were on him again; grey, serious eyes.

“Then I am stuck with the image of a horribly disfigured man; saber scar across the left cheek, a crooked, broken nose.”

“That is remarkably accurate. We should be going now.”

“All right, Sweeney, but just one more thing before we go. When you send me the query letter for this novel, make sure you put in a line, a code word, something I can recognize. I know, use this sentence: And your words may set you free. I’ll make sure my assistant is looking for that.”

“What makes you think I’m going to write a novel about this?”

“You’d be a fool not to.”


BIO

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, Five on the Fifth, Storgy, Inlandia Journal, Manzano Mountain Review, Every Day Fiction, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Literary Yard, Mobius: A Journal for Social Change, Czykmate, Cleaning Up the Glitter, and Fleas on the Dog. His non-fiction work has been featured at Route 7 and Bluntly Magazine. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers.

Reflections

by Regan Kilkenny



It was always empty at this time of night. Everyone else had gone home to start their weekends – see their kids that they had visitation rights to see – although had no custody over. The addiction had made it that way.

I dragged the chairs out of the little circle we had set up and back into their proper formation. A chill had set in. The heating turned off at nine each evening and the old, poorly insulated walls did little to nothing in order to help keep it warm. The cold wind managed to trickle in through the cracks in the single-paned windows and, at the same time, created a high pitched howl that echoed around the room. The artificial light that had been shining down on me for the last few hours was beginning to give me a headache. The muscles behind my eyes had been working too hard and had started to become strained, forcing the unpleasant soreness that wrapped it’s way around my head to intensify.

I dreaded the drive home. Navigating the winding country roads that remained unlit at this time of night, the darkness that set in would always crowd her, the blanket of black creeping its way in, suffocating me. I hated it.

The isolated town hall, that was far too elegant to just be a town hall, was situated outside of town which unfortunately meant a grueling drive for me every other Friday. It had once been home to an eccentric, elderly man who had supposedly donated it once he had died. Whispered rumours informed us all that he had gone mad in his old age and when he died there had been no next of kin and so the council deemed it the new town hall.

Most of his belongings were still here since no one had bothered to clear it out. The antique furniture that had a permanent layer of dust settled on its surface, the unpolished marble floor. The grandfather clock that stood proud at the top of the carpeted staircase and yet always chimed at the wrong time. A forgotten plate was still placed on the dining room table. I passed it as I walked to the coat room to grab my gloves, coat and bag, glad to be done for the day.

I whipped my head round when I heard a noise from another room. A high-pitched squeak, like worn shoes dragging across a too-shiny floor.

“Hello,” I called out, my voice confident despite my shaking hands. I told myself it was just the cold.

Expecting the noise to be from some kids that had snuck in as a joke, I walked in the direction that it came from – behind a pair of large double doors that stretched all the way up to the high ceiling. The wood that the doorway was made of had cracked and discoloured in places. The corners had even rotted slightly. The gold handle had been well worn, rust settling into the delicately sculpted design. Grabbing the handle, the cool metal sent shivers up my arm. I turned and pushed. 

The floor was made of mirrors. As I walked across the room, a deep pit eroded away my stomach. A weird tingly feeling spread over my arms and legs. Like fireworks, except I felt nauseous. My fingers were numb.

Looking down at the floor beneath me, the mirrors began to move. Ripples spread out from under my feet, the mirrors sliding over each other like a reflective pool of water. Yet I seemed to still be standing on solid ground.

I jumped back when a pair of hands reached towards me, through the pool of mirrors. More ripples spread over the surface. The skin on the hand was grey, almost translucent and rough; patches of dry flaky skin chafing against my own smooth skin. Long black talons pierced into my wrist along with a burning sensation – a handprint burning into my flesh. I screamed as the hand began to pull me down.

I was pulled through the river of mirrors, an icy chill settling over my skin as the unusual liquid splashed around my body. An indistinguishable pressure encompassed me – as if being squeezed through a tube that only just allowed enough space for me.

The claw was still wrapped tightly around my wrist, tugging me along; branding itself deeper and deeper into the flesh on my arm.

I struggled against it, pulled with the weight of my body. But with nothing else to pull myself towards, my efforts were futile. The hand pulling my body along as though i was a limp ragdoll.

The pressure around me began to grow tighter. Tightening around my chest, my ribs, my lungs. It became harder to breathe. The effort it took in order to get air into my lungs was unbearable and when I opened my mouth to attempt to breathe, a foul taste of iron entered my mouth and coated my taste buds.

I was drowning in metal. And then I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, the tightness around my chest released and my feet had found purchase. I was no longer falling through the river of mirrors. Instead I was in a room of mirrors, with multiple versions of myself staring back at me. My hair was now a wild nest on top on my head; completely windswept. My jumper had ripped, the stitches up my left side that held together the purple polyester had come apart completely.

In the dim light, the figure behind me was barely visible. It was all but a shadow that towered above me. It lifted a clawed finger and point towards one of the walls that was coated in mirrors. Though these mirrors had gone dark and cloudy. A dark inky mass spreading across the once crystal-clear wall and with it, the last of the light that lingered in the small room. It pulled all the light away and me along with it, I couldn’t seem to look away. When I dared to try and look at the creature behind me, I just couldn’t. My vision was fixed. I felt a cold hand rest on my shoulder.

In a rapid movement that lasted all of a second, the inkiness cleared and a brief spark of yellowing light flashed across the wall; a scene from a film, playing in front of me.

A younger version of myself stumbling down an alleyway, visibly intoxicated. It was nighttime; a full moon stood proudly in the pitch-black sky. No stars were out that night.

A man was following me, the glint of a knife reflected off what little light the moon provided. He walked with purpose, towards her, me, as I continued to stumble down the alley, wanting to be home. The me on the screen pulled out her phone. I remembered that I had tried to call a taxi, but the screen of my phone danced around, my eyes wouldn’t focus. The man had reached me now, grabbing my arm and roughly pulling me around to face him. I almost fell over with the force that he enacted onto me.

“Give me your money,” he said. My own mouth, the one in the room made of mirrors, mimed along to his words, like it was me saying them. The cold hand clutched my shoulder even tighter.

“I don’t have any,” My words were slurred as I tripped over my own feet. I pulled him with me as I fell. His body landing on top of me with a grunt. I struggled under him, trying to move his heavy body off me. I remember feeling as though he was suffocating me. I remember passing out. I remember the feeling of his dried blood clinging to my jeans that made it even more impossible to move. I remember his body crushing me.

I had still been drunk when I left him there. With a knife sticking out of his chest. It had somehow managed to lodge itself inside him when he had fallen on me. I was left limping away covered in a stranger’s blood.

The wall went black, like a television turning off. My cheeks were sticky with tears, but when the lights came on, I was back in the town hall, with nothing around me except the howling wind. And a burning handprint scarred into my wrist.


BIO

From the U.K., Regan Kilkenny is a young aspiring author currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Staffordshire University.

The Walker

By Martin Keaveney



            I stop walking on the hard shoulder. There is a light flashing in the distance. It’s different from the yellow glow of the streetlights. A silver torch beam from the bog, over the sparkles of tarmac, through the hue of the blue moon. Now it lights up the canvas of a small tent. There is someone inside. It’s a female. I know by the shape of the shoulders. I better be careful.

            I always leave the city when the buses stop running. The clubs are starting, there’s queues of youngsters lined up, perfumed, heels tapping, phones blinking, excitement of the night to come. I hit for the ring road, past the 24-hour service station. Around the big roundabout and onto the east route. I walk fast. I go if it’s dry, if it rains, if it snows. I take what comes. I go no matter what. I probably shouldn’t walk on the dual carriageway. But I live with risk.

            There isn’t much notice taken out here after dark. The night has its own laws. I could go by the old road. There’s a lot of hills that way. But I’d get over them. Or I could go cross-country. I have done. Squelching across the bog, trawling through streams, climbing over fences. The world slows you down. It’s never in a hurry. Nature is always on time.

            But my old boots are leaking this last while. You can get no wear out of anything these days. I only have them a few years. I can feel the damp coming in already. Even though the shape of this road rolls down from the centre, there is still a film of dampness across it. I sense it coming in my woollen socks. Around the toes. The reeds and marsh are out for now. I’m afraid I’ll have to get new boots for the winter. Then I might take on the cross-country. But the motorway is the most direct. As-the-crow-flies.

            They knew what they were doing when they set it out. I know all about road-making. I did an exam on it. I studied the production of road coverings, bridge-building, urban and rural planning, infrastructural strategies and policies, waterways, dams. The route was well planned. On certain parts of the road, you can see the track of it for miles by the lights each side. You can see things better in the darkness of the night.

            It’s hard to get silence in the world these days. I’ve tried lots of places. The church. The last morning, I found a couple of parishioners by the devotion candles. Chatting as I knelt and prayed. Down the library. A row broke out one day over an unpaid fine while I was looking for a history book. You can’t even walk along the canal in the daytime, without whooping children rattling crisp bags, beeping mobile phones. People racing everywhere. Round in circles.

            I’d only be about during the night if I could. Sounds that were hidden all day come alive at night. The rustling on leaves, doors banging, bins emptying, dogs barking. You couldn’t hear them things during the day. Not with all that goes on. But I wouldn’t be the first to throw light on that.

            No cars have passed for a while. Awful waste of a good road really. Lying dormant here for hours. It’s funny to be walking slow on a surface designed for great speed. The road tries to hurry you. But I’ll not be hurried.

           It’s like you are in slow motion. The big white and yellow lines, the flat bitumen skin, the crash barrier of two aluminium channels running all the way. The massive green and blue signs. The smaller yellow ones with bars showing how many hundred metres before the next turn-off. Billboards at the slip roads. Designed for people zooming by. You get a glimpse of a woman using a shiny lawnmower or a man filling a sleek washing-machine. Happy people that have something the drivers of the cars should buy. You see it. You want to buy it. But I’m looking at these pictures for a long time as I walk. When you come up close to the giant board, you see them better. You see it as a flat sheet of colours and shapes. If you look really close, you can see it’s just lines of coloured full stops.

           The hostel lobby clock put temperatures at between 4 and 5 Celsius tonight. The autumn is dying. The leaves won’t be rustling for much longer. Except in the Copper Beeches. And the evergreens. I’m an evergreen. I don’t lose my leaves in the winter. I don’t hibernate. I keep going all year round.

            I’ve decided I’ll move out of the hostel as soon as I can. I’m in one of six bunk beds in a room. The people change every night. But even so, they’re the same. Rattling plastic bags. Fiddling with zips. Blowing hairdryers. Flashing phones. I get cold with those noises. Scratching at you. Great silence out here. I was always fond of the night.

            I didn’t want to go to bed at all when I was a boy. The old man would tell me it was time. I’d spell ‘N-O’. He would spell ‘Y-E-S’. But I couldn’t spell ‘Just another half-hour?’ The old man was good at spelling.

            There’s always hassle in the hostel. One night in there I thought I heard the cuckoo. I never heard one, even though I lived in the country until I grew up. I was awful excited. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and in the city. I jumped down off the bunk, the man sleeping below groaned, rattling the wooden bead necklace he wore. I ran to the window. It was like waking up Christmas morning, running to the bottom of the tree to see what the man in red had brought.

            I looked across the roofs. There were owls hooting by this time as well. Another first. I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t see any birds. I thought they must have all their nests under the eaves. Then I saw a square blue light reflected in the glass. The man with the wooden necklace was sitting up in the bed. He had his phone out. He turned off his alarm. The owls and cuckoos stopped.

            I don’t need to find anywhere else when I leave. I’ll firm up for the winter. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Surprising what the skeletal structure, the muscular tissue, the organs can withstand. It’s a durable design. Almost limitless. You’d be minted if you owned the patent.

           I’ve tested it well already. I was able to hop sixteen foot when I was sixteen years. The long jump at the village sports day. The sports field was green grassed. White fence posts and blue ropes marked out the running track. Crease suit lines ran in huge decreasing circles for the laps and relays. Wooden swing boats rose high into the blue sky. Children laughed. A man in a suit walked around speaking into an orange spongy microphone with a short piece of wire that wasn’t connected to anything. His voice came out of two blue loudspeakers attached to the top of a telegraph pole. I always wanted a go on that microphone. You could hear him speak all over the village, giving the results of the under-10s three-legged race. But I didn’t mind the noise then. I always loved the night though.

            The schoolmaster in the village shook my hand and gave me the winner’s trophy. It had a small golden statue of a man in sports gear. The master’s name was Joe. But he wasn’t my teacher anymore by then. When he gave me the trophy, I could have said ‘Thanks, Joe’, if I wanted. But I didn’t. I said ‘Thanks, sir.’ The master told me I should take sport more seriously. I had a real talent, he said. I could jump very high as well. And I could run fast. I looked at the trophy as he talked, my fingers on the marble base, the little golden plate glued on, inscribed with the year and the word: ‘Winner’. The man in the suit said my name into the orange microphone. It came out the two blue loudspeakers on the telegraph pole for everyone in the village to hear. They took my photograph. Everyone clapped for a long time.

            But I didn’t take sport more seriously. I went learning about the roads instead. The old man told me it was more secure. One of the arms broke off the trophy figure a while later. I never did any sport again. That was fifty years ago.

            I’m still fit enough. I walk most of the day as well. It’s surprising what the body can train itself to do. Imagine all the miles I could walk over another twenty years if I keep in good shape. No one should ever be in any hurry. Nature is always on time.

            I moved out of the flat in the city a month ago. The crowd I was living with were fairly lively. ‘Sticky People’ the landlord called them. He didn’t mean me. If they were all like me, he’d be elected, he said. But they’re not all like me. That was the problem. He was getting rid of the lot of them.

            The buck from down the country that called a kettle a ‘kittle’. The foreigner that was trying to learn English from him. The father of three whose family lived in a different continent. There were a few women there too. I didn’t know much about any of them. They’re all sticky people, the landlord said. He wanted to clean the place up and get in a family. Every landlord wants a family.

            I didn’t mind. I was glad to be getting out of there. I took a top bunk in the hostel. But I’ll be getting away from there soon enough too. Sticky people in it and all. Out here on the road, there’s none of that. It’s all left to you. Freedom.

            I looked at a few places last week. But I didn’t like the terrain. I’ll firm up for the winter instead. I’ll wear two trousers and two shirts if temperatures go below zero. My woollen cap. Thick socks and gloves. I’m fit for anything. I’ll sleep behind the crash barrier on the motorway. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to if the mind is right. The mind is a powerful tool. The old man told me that once.

            I’m getting very close to the torch beam in the bog. I can see the tent better now. It definitely wasn’t there last night. Someone sleeping by the motorway. Moved in under cover of the day. Someone with my idea. I can see the woman inside. I can make out the jawline. The shape of the hair. It would be funny if I hopped the barrier and called in to her. Tell her I pass this way every night. Maybe she could do with something brought from the city 24-hour next time I’m passing. A carton of milk. Or a pound of sausages. Or a bottle of 7up. But I don’t talk much to women. Never did. It’s hard to know what to say to them. They’re not straightforward. The old man told me that once. They can be sticky. The night is not sticky. The night is straightforward.

            But it would be funny if I told her I was going to be her neighbour. That I’d the same idea. Except without a tent. She’d probably call the law. Say I was some weirdo. There’d be a court visit. A cell at the finish. That’d be the end of the freedom. I value my liberty. I pass by her tent and keep going. Good luck to her. She’ll have to do her own shopping.

            I turn onto the slip road after the last yellow sign. I walk up a little hill to the bridge overhead. I walk across, looking over and back at the carriageway, streetlights stretching out into the dark. I can see the tent in the bog. A small triangle of canvas-shaded light. I go by a little roundabout. Then I come into the suburbs. Streetlights shine torch beam silver here instead of the motorway yellow. Security alarms flash in industrial estates. Lines of trucks parked up all night. Awful waste really. The night is a neglected space.

            Near the town centre, I cross an old bridge. I stop in the middle, go to the wall, look into the canal. The water never stops flowing here, from dusk to dawn. I hear it splashing against the bank. On the stone cut cap someone has written a small message in white paint: ‘Don’t Jump’.

            I get to the main street. I pass the traffic lights, a post office, a supermarket, a clothes shop, a bank. I walk into the town square, cars parked around it.

            I get to the statue in the centre. I stand by the square concrete base. There is a gold plate at the front inscribed with the words: ‘J.M. Barrie 1757-1845 – “The Walker”’. I look up at the bronze sculpture. I can see the outline of the boots, the jacket, the big bag on the back, the hat on top. The arms are outstretched. The wall lights of the town hall behind shine against the statue and the head is a black shape as I look up. But I always imagine The Walker is smiling.

            I pull my bag off my back. I sit on the concrete base. I look down the street. I have the freedom of the town. There’s always sticky people around the city. But not out here at night.

            I’ve walked ten miles on the dual carriageway. But I feel like I could walk forever. I stand. Better not to sit for too long. Hard to get going again. I bend each leg. I rub the backs of my thighs and calves. I’ll have to get new boots for the winter.

           I walk down the main street to the traffic lights. They change every thirty seconds, even though there’s no drivers to come and go. Changing colours all night to an empty street. Awful waste of electricity really. I go up close to them.   The lights are just circles of coloured full stops. I stare at the amber when it comes. It means prepare to stop. It reminds me of the torch beam yellow. I walk back up the street and sit under The Walker.

            I pull off my shoes and socks. I wiggle my toes and stretch them out. I take off my high-viz jacket. The jumper with ‘Champion’ written across the front. The check shirt. The vest.  I sit in my skin. It’s good and cold. I look around. Not a sinner, not a sound. I scratch an armpit. I walk out to the middle of the main street. The road is wet on my feet. I stand on the white line in the centre. I flex my biceps. After a minute, I let off a roar. The silence falls again in the town. I let off another roar, louder. I’m coughing after this one. Heart thumps. A light comes on somewhere.

            I go back to the statue. I put on the vest, the check shirt, the ‘Champion’ jumper, the high-viz jacket, the socks and the old leaking boots. I put my bag on my back.

            I walk by the bank, the clothes shop, the supermarket, the post office. I stop at the traffic lights. I look to the town square. I can see The Walker, the arms outstretched. Smiling down at me. I smile back.

            The walk is always easier on the way back to the city. A car whizzes by outside the suburbs. Boxy lads squeezed inside, music beating, a purple light shining from the underbelly. They circle the little roundabout a few times. Then they zoom back by me toward the town. They beep as they pass. Sticky people. I shouldn’t be walking out here at night. But I live with risk.

            As I walk across the motorway bridge, I see her leaning against the crash barrier. She is looking up at me. The only trouble with the motorway is there is no cover. But usually there is no need to hide.

            There is nowhere to turn off on the slip road. I have to keep going toward her. I don’t let on to see her at all. I keep my eyes down on the sparkling tarmac. But as soon as I set foot on the hard shoulder, I hear her say ‘Excuse me?’ I say nothing. I keep walking. She has the torch in her hand. It shines on the road. But she could flash it in my face, if she wanted.

            ‘Excuse me?’ she says again.  I’m close by now. She says it so loud I couldn’t miss it. Unless I was deaf. But that could be dodgy to pull off. I stop. ‘Yes?’

            ‘Did you pass by here a while ago?’

            ‘Pass by? Where? Here?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘No. No, I wasn’t this way before. Not for a long time.’

            ‘I thought I saw you pass by earlier. From my camp.’ She nods back to the bog, ‘I thought it was you.’

            ‘No. That wasn’t me.’

            ‘You don’t normally pass this way?’

            ‘No.’ I look back toward the little town. ‘My car broke down. Back there. In the town. But there’s no one about. I’m going to the city. To get help.’

            ‘That’s awful, can it be fixed?’

            ‘What’s that?’

            ‘Your car, can it be fixed?’

            ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much about cars.’

            ‘Can you ring anyone?’

            ‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t use them.’

            ‘I’d give you mine, but the battery is flat.’

            ‘That was it.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘The battery. In the car. It’s flat.’

            ‘You poor thing. There wasn’t a phone box in the town?’

            ‘Vandalised. I must be on my way.’ But I’ve hardly gone two steps and she calls me again.

            ‘Excuse me! Really sorry to bother you when you have enough trouble, but I’m very stuck, and I wonder, do you, by any chance, have such a thing as a tin-opener? Maybe in your bag there?’

            ‘A tin-opener?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘You need to open a tin?’

            ‘Yes, do you have one?’

            ‘I do.’

            ‘Great! Could I borrow it? Just for a couple of minutes?’

            She has a funny accent. She’s not local. Her voice is like the current under the bridge, where they tell you not to jump, she gets higher pitched, same as the water splashing against the sides of the bank, as she reaches the end of each sentence.

            She must have grown up in a place hundreds of miles away from here. She picked up that twang in the schoolyard.  Pushing, pulling, shouting, screaming. Bouncing balls, stones grazing your arms, a busted nose. I hated them places.

           I pull off my bag from my back. Everything I need is within. Three pairs of trousers, three shirts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks, my wellingtons and a belt. Three cooking pots of different sizes, a frying pan, one knife, one fork and one spoon. A mug. A razor, a comb and a toothbrush. A shirt, tie, suit jacket and black shoes. A football jersey. My woolly hat. A bar of soap. A penknife with a tin-opener. Carrying all this around probably makes the walk harder. But I never leave anything in the hostel with the sticky people and their sticky fingers. ‘You have a tin and no tin-opener?’

            ‘Well, yes.’ She could be smiling, but her face is a black shape in the streetlight.

            ‘If you get the tin, I’ll open it for you,’ I say, taking out the penknife. ‘There’s a knack to this.’ A penknife is a valuable item when you live in the bog. She might not want to give it back.

            ‘Thank you so much!’ She sounds young, but she could be old. She climbs over the crash barrier. I hear the boots squelching over the bog. I know they are boots by the stamp. I wonder where she bought them. I will ask her that before I go. The torch flashes out the opening, lighting up a part of the night. The tent looks to be of decent quality. I wonder where she bought it. But I’m not getting a tent.

            When I move out of the hostel, I’ll lie directly onto the bog. There’ll be nothing separating me from the elements. It can get as cold as it wants. I hope it does. It’s welcome to. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Strange machine really. If you ever built something as durable, you’d be minted.

            But no one has yet. It’s a long way off. I’ll take full advantage of the skeletal and muscular structure I was born with in the meantime. Firm up the body. Away from all those racing sticky people. Nature is in no hurry. It’s always on time.

            If I fit with nature, I’ll be alright. That’s what they mean by staying fit. Fitting in with nature. Everything makes sense at night. You couldn’t ever get your head straight during the noise of the day.

            She’s coming back now with a pile of tins in a plastic box. She must have strong arms. ‘I may get a few opened while you’re here. Do you mind?’

            ‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ She takes out the tins and lines them up along the top of the crash barrier. I take the first one and clip the tin-opener onto the top. It bites into the rim. I wiggle the handle until it grips the little wheel. As I twist, it clicks around the circle.

            ‘This is so great,’ she says. An articulated lorry whizzes past. The gust lifts her hair high into the moonlight. There’s a smell of oil and burning rubber.

            The moon goes behind clouds. She shines the torch on the tin-opener. I look over to her. ‘If you turn off your torch, I’ll see better in the dark.’

            ‘Really?’

            ‘Once the eyes become accustomed.’

            ‘Ah-hah.’ She turns off the torch. I stop twisting the handle and the lid comes off. I can smell sweet fruit juice.

            ‘Good man,’ she says. She takes the opened tin from me and pours it into the plastic box. I start on the next one. ‘Do you like peaches?’

            ‘Peaches? Is that what these are?’ I fiddle with the handle. The wheel catches and the teeth chew the rim. I guess she nods, her hair moves around her shape.

            ‘They’re not fresh fruit, but still they’re good,’ she says.

            I get them all opened. I hand her the last one. She’s happy. ‘Thank you so much.’

            ‘You’re welcome.’ I push the tin-opener back into the bottom of my bag.

            ‘Would you like a bowl?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Would you like a bowl of peaches?’

            ‘No, thank you. I’d best be on my way. My car, you see.’

            ‘Of course. Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘I do. I do like peaches.’

            ‘Don’t you want a bowl?’

            ‘I’m not sure I’m that hungry.’ I’m beginning to wonder if maybe she is a bit sticky after all. ‘But where are the bowls?’

            ‘Actually, I use mugs. They’re back there. In my camp.’ She points to the bog.

            ‘I’d better not.’

            ‘Come on! You’re safe enough.’ I guess she is smiling now by the rise of her voice. ‘What’s your name?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Your name?’

            ‘My name is Jeremiah.’

            ‘Of course it is. Come, I’ll get you a mug of peaches for all your hard work.’ She climbs over the crash barrier. She carries the box of peaches to the tent. She is fit enough. You have to be to live in the bog. Her boots squelch. She stops at the tent and turns. ‘Come.’

            I climb over the crash barrier. My old boots sink. The ground is soft. It wasn’t the best spot to pitch up. With no tin-opener and no bowls. People get very confused. But that’s because of the day.

            She has gone inside the tent. I stop at the entrance. ‘Welcome to my camp!’ she says. Her voice sounds different in there. She’s kneeling on a sleeping bag. There are lengths of beads hanging everywhere, all different colours. Some are wooden but most are plastic.

            She has the torch set up in the corner. She has two mugs on a small wooden table. They are three-quarter full with peaches in fruit juice. The plastic box with the rest is now covered with a lid, beside a pile of folded clothes. ‘Are you coming in, Jeremiah?’

            ‘No. I’m fine here.’ I kneel at the edge of the floor cover.

            ‘Fair enough.’ She hands me the mug. It’s a fisherman’s tin. They use them mainly for worms as far as I know. Good for little else. Burn the lips off you if it were hot. But it’s not. It’s ice cold. Pieces of peach float around in the juice. I sip it. It’s sweet. I suck up one of the peach segments, making a slurping sound, breaking the silence of the night. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’

            ‘They’re good. Not like fresh fruit. But not bad.’

            ‘Not many peach trees around here, Jeremiah.’

            ‘Not many.’

            She sips the juice. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything to smoke?’

            ‘No.’

            ‘Pity.’

            ‘Are you going to be here long?’ I say. I’ll have to change my route by the looks of this. Get new boots for the winter and get off the motorway. Take the old road.

            ‘It depends. I don’t make plans anymore.’

            ‘That’s about the best plan,’ I say. She slugs the mug. I look around the tent. There’s a pillow with blue strawberries on the case and a photo sellotaped to cardboard on top. There are two children in the photo. Beside the pillow, there’s an alarm clock with two silver bells on the ears. The woman keeps track of time.

            I finish the mug. ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Thank you so much for the use of your tin-opener.’

            ‘You’re welcome to it. I better be going. My car.’

            ‘Of course.’

            I hand her the empty mug. ‘Hope to see you this way again, Jeremiah,’ she says and shakes my hand. She doesn’t let go. I don’t know what to do. Her hand is warm. I couldn’t say what age she is. She’s not that young. She’s not that old. Hard to say with women. They’re not straightforward. Then she takes her hand away.

            My old boots squelch on the bog as I walk back to the dual carriageway. The water seeps into my socks when I hit deep puddles.

            I’ll take the old road tomorrow night. The buck from down the country told me it had been upgraded. New surface, yellow lines for the hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes. Nearly as quick probably. There’s no crash barrier on the old road. But I live with risk.


BIO

Martin Keaveney’s debut collection of stories, The Rainy Day, was published  by Penniless Press in 2018. Short fiction has been published in  many literary journals in Ireland, UK and US. He has also written for the screen and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international  film festivals and on broadcast television. His  scholarship was recently published in the peer-reviewed  New Hibernia ReviewJournal of Franco-Irish Studies, and Estudios Irlandeses. He has a B.A. in English and Italian, an M.A in English (Writing) and a Ph.D. at NUIG (Creative Writing and Textual Studies).   He was awarded the Sparanacht Ui Eithir for his research in 2016 and the NUIG Write-Up Bursary in 2018. See more at www.martinkeaveney.com    

The New Girl in Our Office

by Deepti Nalavade Mahule



The New Girl in Our Office arrives for the first time one rainy morning with glistening raindrops splattered like stars on the lenses of her glasses. She is without an umbrella or raincoat. This indicates that she is clumsy, but it could also mean that she’s very excited to start her first day at work. 

Her manager introduces her to all of us. She shakes all of our hands in turn and furrows her brow in concentration as we tell her our names. 

Although not exactly a beauty, she has the rosiness of youth and a face that many might label “moderately cute”. She smells of lemon and lavender, a mix of two commonplace fragrances, which suits her personality just fine.

The New Girl sets up her desk on her first day. Among her personal items, there’s a picture frame of her green-eyed tabby cat and two palm-sized red dice with white dots on them. 

The New Girl asks many questions about her job responsibilities but during lunchtime banter, she is mostly silent and only answers when asked a question. Because she keeps her mouth shut for so long, it emanates a slightly unpleasant odor when she opens it to talk.

She’s fresh out of college and has touched down onto this bustling city as if she were a fledgling landing after its first flight from its nest. However, even after weeks in office have passed, with her sitting among different groups of people during lunch hours, she doesn’t seem to be part of any particular flock. When we talk to her, we cannot help but look away from the loneliness in her eyes staring back at us unabashedly.

On most evenings, when we’re leaving for the day, the New Girl is still at her desk. She barely looks up from her computer as she murmurs a “good night”. Sometimes, she’s not there with us at lunch. We find her later, devouring an apple in the break room while she scrolls through work emails on her phone. She does not interrupt others in meetings, but after everyone else has gone silent, she offers creative solutions to most problems. The New Girl’s earnestness in applying herself to her given tasks grates on our nerves and makes us question our own efforts.

At a team dinner one night, which she’s forced to attend, as the alcohol flows freely and tongues loosen, someone pesters her during a game of Truth or Dare to share the purpose of the dice on her desk. She finally discloses that they are containers to hold her antidepressant medication.

Months pass and the New Girl is fading into Just Another Go-Getter Girl at our office when hushed whispers are heard at the end of one workweek. Words like “New Girl”, “New Girl’s boss’s boss”, “sexual misconduct” are thrown around, followed by “brushed under the carpet”, “consensual”, “too ambitious” and “The Girl of Questionable Character”.

On Monday, the New Girl calls in sick and does not show up for work. She is absent for the rest of the week and at the end of Friday, we learn that she was last seen at dusk the previous evening by her landlord. She was standing on the bridge overlooking the rushing waters of the river that runs through our city. She’d already given her notice of resignation at the office and had probably stopped by at our workplace in the early hours of the previous morning to gather her things from her desk. Having cleared out her belongings from her rented apartment as well, she was presumably planning to be on her way back to her hometown.

The Monday of the next workweek comes and goes, and it is confirmed that The New Girl will no longer be with us. Gone from her desk are her dice. One of our colleagues who has a cousin in the police force tells us what he’s heard. He says that two red dice — one of them with four dots and the other one with two dots on the sides facing up —  were found when they plummeted from the top of the bridge and landed in the bushes near the river bank instead of on the rocks jutting out in the middle of the surging downward current of the river. It’s surprising how much detailed information the colleague has about the position and location of the dice and yet he doesn’t know if they were thrown down first by the girl or came down with her.

We rack our brains about the four and two on the dice and talk excitedly among ourselves theorizing about the meanings that they might have tried to convey. In the end, we give up and look away from the blank space that they’ve left on her desk and talk about her cat instead. In our minds, we convince ourselves that the New Girl in Our Office has gone on to a higher paying job at an ideal workplace and that her dice-like containers are sitting on her new desk with nothing but breath mints inside them.  

      

BIO

One of Deepti Nalavade Mahule’s short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared in Daily Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 words, Kitaab, Aphelion webzine, Women’s Web and elsewhere. 

Originally from India, Deepti currently lives in California, where she spends time developing software, reading aloud to her five-year-old daughter, submitting short fiction and fretting about what to put in her author’s bio. 

Her website is: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/

Smitten to Spitten

by Madeline McEwen



If only we’d had a prenup, none of this would have happened, but we didn’t and it had.

The first hint of something amiss was when I couldn’t pay the hackney cab driver with my credit card. The second hint, after I paid with cash, was when my latch key wouldn’t fit in the lock. It took a few seconds for the light to dawn.

I stuck my finger on the bell and hammered on my front door. Nothing. No response. Was anybody home?

Bending down, I lifted the flap on the letterbox and peered into the empty hall.

“Kevin! Are you in there? Open the bloody door, I’m freezing out here.”

Turning, I checked the street. Where was his precious car, a prestigious, gold colored Infiniti? Our two-story, Edwardian terraced house had no garage, and only a tiny garden the size of a picnic blanket currently full of Kevin’s dismembered motorcycle—a Royal Enfield Bullet, which lay buried beneath a season’s worth of soggy leaves. The man had a million projects, none of them ever finished. Although, changing the locks might signify the start of task completion and the end of our stagnant relationship.

I grabbed my phone, dangerously low on power, called Kevin, and put my ear to the letterbox. If he was hiding, I’d hear him since he never switched his phone to vibrate. Like a surgeon on call, his inflated ego demanded 24-7 availability. CyberTex, his fledgling business enterprise, swallowed his attention and energy.

Listening to the silence, I sighed in defeat. Where was he? Then I remembered the app—TrackMyPhone—which Kevin installed even though they’re illegal in the UK unless the trackee consents. The red battery icon flashed and died, the screen turning black.

Typical. Now I was stranded, powerless, homeless, and carless—my battered jeep was in the local repair shop–on the coldest February evening I could remember.

How had this happened? Where had I gone wrong? What should I to do next?

That’s when I heard a snuffling sound from inside the house. Oscar must be waking from his late afternoon nap. I’d come home early, thirty minutes earlier than my schedule permitted. Usually, Oscar was awake and ready to play for a few minutes before I prepared dinner and tackled the other chores I had to conquer. But now I couldn’t get in, entry barred, and banished from the house I’d learned to call home over the last eighteen months.

What would happen to our little family? Divorce was inevitable, but Oscar was the innocent party. He didn’t deserve to suffer. Somehow, I must maintain his routine and stability. Obviously, that goal was best achieved if Oscar lived with me, his primary caregiver, in a new home, somewhere far away. No chance of accidental meetings causing endless grief and unnecessary heartache.

Hearing the clunk of a car door, I glanced behind me.

“Kevin! Where have you been?” He stared at me, his expression unreadable. “No matter. Don’t tell me, I don’t care.”

“You’re home early.”

“Shut up. I’m not here for a debate. Just give me Oscar and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“You’re spitting in the wind if you think I’ll give up Oscar without a fight.”

“I’ll take you to court, sue you for custody.”

Kevin leaned against the front door and swallowed hard. He spat a wad of phlegm onto the concrete.

“That’s all you’ll get from me.”

#

I fled without further pointless protestations. His words were lies, but I didn’t want to make a scene for my neighbors’ entertainment. Instead, I opted for a safe harbor, walking distance from home until I could collect my jeep.

I charged along the road and into the next street where the old terraces had been torn down and replaced with luxury, single-dwelling homes with double-garages and generous gardens. Lydia, my friend since childhood, lived in a mock-Tudor monstrosity with her numerous, obnoxious children.

What can I say our friendship?

Things were great until the twins were born, but after that I couldn’t compete for her attention, the woman caught baby-fever. At least this meant she was almost always home.

On the doorstep, I listened to a peel of bells announcing my arrival.

Lydia threw the door open and gaped at me open-mouthed.

“Clare! What have we done to deserve the honor of your presence.”

Sarcastic as always, Lydia’s face broke into a hospitable smile. I missed her company and her witty mind, but I’d given up on our friendship when her brain was over-taken by child development milestones and a never-ending pile of baby related trivia. No longer a corporate lawyer, she’d betrayed her sex and settled for domestic suburbia. But as ever, Lydia was a sucker for a sob story. I dabbed my eye with a crumpled tissue.

“What’s wrong, Clare? What’s happened? Come in.”

I picked my way over the carpet strewn with discarded toys, sippy cups, and assorted primary-colored clothing while Lydia cooed words of soothing solace to me. She swept the sofa clear of detritus, and I sank into its soft, supple warmth.

“It’s Kevin,” I explained. “We’re finished.”

“Oh dear. How ghastly. Are you sure? I always thought he was the one.” A frown fluttered across her face. “Let him cool off for a couple of days and maybe you can patch things up. I’ve always liked Kevin, he’s so good for you, so stable, so calming.”

“Calming?”

“You know what I mean. Your personality traits are complemented by his. Together you make the perfect couple. Yin and yang.”

“Don’t give me that romantic claptrap. We’re like chalk and cheese, incompatible, and now we’ve have an irretrievable breakdown. But I need your advice, legal advice, on what to do about Oscar. What are my rights? Will you represent me in court?”

“In court? I don’t practice any more, and even if I did, that’s not my field of expertise.”

Damn. I’d spat it out too quickly. I should have played the pity card first.

“But,” I said, using the gentle tone of a sympathetic plaintiff, “I remember you saying that everything in law boiled down to contracts, didn’t you?”

Lydia’s deep wrinkle of concentration distracted me, which was when I noticed the palpable silence.

“Why is it so quiet, Lydia? Where are,” I trawled my memory for the kids’ names, came up blank, and whitewashed my question, “all the children?”

“On Wednesdays after school, kindergarten, and day care, they spend the evening with their paternal granny. Why do you ask?”

“I’m interested. Being a mother is such a huge part of who you are and because of that, I’m hoping you can understand my desperation about Oscar.”

Lydia’s eyebrows jumped. She pursed her lips.

“It’s hardly the same thing.”

“It stems from the same desire to nurture.”

“I don’t wish to be unkind,” Lydia said, “but you can’t equate giving birth to six children with buying–”

“I thought you of all people would be aware of the politically correct terminology. I didn’t buy Oscar. I adopted him.”

Lydia raised her hands in a gesture of exasperation.

“Whatever,” Lydia said. “The point is, no matter how smitten you are and how cuddly he is, Oscar is still a dog.”

#

I spent the rest of the evening in Lydia’s luxurious guest bedroom ostensibly weeping in private while watching Netflix on my phone. Fortunately, Lydia lent me a posh, silk nightgown—price tag still attached–and a charging cable. She’d also called the repair shop and paid the bill for my jeep’s repairs—ready for collection tomorrow.

After a fitful night’s sleep during which I had formulated a plan of action based on Lydia’s advice, I crept out of the house before dawn with a sheaf of paper from their copier machine. If I used my flexi-time hours at work by starting at six, then I could clock off at two leaving the afternoon free and clear. With luck and a handful of intimidating copied receipts, Oscar, once again, would be mine exclusively.

#

At the park, I left my jeep at a discrete distance and lay in wait for my victim, Hamish, a self-employed dog-walker, as wiry as a whippet.

Before too long, Hamish appeared, or rather eight dogs barreled into the park like a pack of working huskies dragging Hamish behind them.

Oscar, my favorite, ninety-five-pound, Old English Sheepdog puppy was flanked by three other large dogs, none of whom I had seen before. Judging by Hamish’s struggle to control them, they, or rather their owners, were new clients.

I stepped into their pathway. The dogs surrounded me, a single sheep in an overgrown litter of barking, bouncing, salivating dogs frantic in their excitement.

“Clare! You shouldn’t be here. Kevin warned me.”

“Warned you?”

Hamish was flushed, sweating, and breathless from exertion. He was both outclassed and outnumbered as I had hoped.

“He said you might try to dog-nap Oscar.”

I unrolled my sheaf of papers and flapped them in front of his face.

“These,” I said, “prove Oscar belongs to me.”

“No, no, no.” Hamish wrestled with the tangled leashes. “I can’t get involved in another custody dispute.”

“There is no custody issue.” I unhooked Oscar’s leash, and he leaped free. I hurried away, Oscar following my outstretched hand dangling a bag of his favorite treats. I called over my shoulder, “I’ll let you know my new address”—if I ever found a dog-friendly landlord.

#

My jeep chirped and unlocked, which was when Kevin’s tires screeched into the curb. He stomped toward us, fists clenched, jaw locked.

I had a spare leash in the jeep. Without it, I had no chance of reining in my powerful puppy. Instead, I dodged around Kevin, dashed toward my car, and yanked the rear door open.

 “Enough,” Kevin shouted, spittle bubbling at the corner of his mouth.

He blocked the dog’s path as Oscar ran toward the jeep. Kevin grabbed him by the collar and lugged him toward the Infiniti.

“You can’t take him,” I said, stuffing the treat bag in my pocket.

I was yelling too. A man wearing a bike helmet leaned against his motorcycle, arms folded across his burly chest, enjoying the show. A group of mothers and children in the play area stood gawping at us too. Kevin bundled Oscar into his car and gripped his key like a lethal weapon.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he said.

“No, UK law treats pets as property. Money changed hands. I’ve paid for his food,” I counted them off on my fingers, “his vet bills, the microchip, and all his other paraphernalia.” I saw Mr. Motorbike striding toward us. “In contract law, he’s mine, and I have the proof in this paperwork.”

“Hey, you!” Mr. Motorbike stood too close, spitting distance from Kevin. “Is that her dog?”

“No,” Kevin said, “get the hell away.”

“Wait a minute, Mate.” Mr. Motorbike opened the Infiniti’s door.

“Take your hands off my car.”

With his shoulder, Kevin shoved Mr. Motorbike, but the guy barely flinched, an immovable buffer.

“Call your dog,” Mr. Motorbike said. “We’ll see who’s his owner.”

I slipped my hand into my pocket–a secret, visual cue to Oscar. “Here, boy!”

Oscar bounded toward me. I flung the treat bag inside the jeep, and Oscar followed. Sometimes I too acted like an animal, thoughtless and instinctive, occasionally unkind when I was with Kevin, but Oscar brought out the best in me and made me a better human.

With Oscar’s tail safely inside, I slammed the door, jumped in the driver’s seat, and reversed. I sped off in triumph with my love-smitten pup drooling on the backseat, showering gravel in our wake, and Kevin, no doubt, spitting nails in defeat.

BIO

Madeline McEwen is the author of three stand-alone novelettes, numerous short stories published both traditionally and online, and is a contributor to several anthologies. Currently, she is focused on two cozy mystery series, one set in the UK and the other in San Jose, USA both featuring a significant character with a disability, and a senior female amateur sleuth. She is an ex-pat from the UK, now settled in San Jose, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Bi-focaled and technically challenged, she and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. In her free time, she walks the canines and chases the felines with her nose in a book and her fingers on a keyboard.

Separated by Glass

by Kailyn Kausen

 

He’s a slice of a red hot velvet cake. She’s a creamy chocolate cheesecake with many layers and curly hair made of chocolate shavings. They are each surrounded by others like them, but they don’t want the others. They want each other, the one on the other side of the glass, the plate standing vertical, separating the cakes from the cheesecakes.

It started out like this. They were formulated one after the other by the same hands. First it was him, the red velvet, mixed together with his brethren in an old silver pot. Those were the velvet’s youthful years. He was poured into a pan along with his brothers and warmed from a gross gooey boy to a firm, but sensitive man. While he was cooked to perfection, she was mixed, settled into layers, refrigerated, and transformed into a woman.

After maturing, they were carefully separated from their brothers and sisters, individually wrapped, and placed into specific rows – he with the other red velvets, and her with the other chocolate cheesecakes. They ended up in the back of their rows and learned each other’s expressions as they moved forward in line, unable to speak or touch, but learning more about each other than a cake and a cheesecake ever cared to.

His brothers made fun of him.

“You won’t ever get her. Look at that glass! Might as well give up now and accept your fate.”

“Why would you want a cheesecake, other than her being rich, of course?”

“She’s not one of us.”

Her sisters had a similar reaction.

“He’s dry, honey.”

“He’s only got two layers. And buttercream!  He’s a simpleton, sweet heart.”

So they learned to ignore the others. They grew worried as they approached the front of the line, nearing their inevitable deaths, but also grew more in love. They stopped hearing the buzzing sounds of the others making fun of them. Nothing mattered except the other.

The worst times were when they weren’t next to each other, when too many of her sisters or too many of his brothers were purchased for the pleasure of the moving giants. They grew nervous the other would be taken away for good long before they could devise a plan to be together, to touch each other just once. The rows always evened out eventually, so they approached the end together.

She reached the end first. She hung onto the edge of the slanted shelf, nothing but the lip holding her in place, covered in the sweet remnants of others trying to save themselves, the lip that said, “Chocolate Cheesecake,” like that was all she was. Everything that had settled to the bottom while she matured threatened to explode out of her. She couldn’t look away from the vast chasm before her even though she knew if she looked back at the velvet, he’d give her that reassuring look. She thought she should look back. If she did, she would see his face. That’d be the last thing she’d see, whether she dropped over the edge of the cliff because she wasn’t good enough anymore, or if she was picked up by a customer. His face would be a happier sight than either of those, buts, she couldn’t look away from the scrawny boy with the crumpled five-dollar bill waving in his hand.

The boy was coming for her. She knew it. If only she knew the red velvet’s name, if only he’d be able to hear her say it. The dirty fingernails snaked towards her and she closed her eyes, waiting. But the boy didn’t reach for her, he reached for the red velvet next to her – not her red velvet, but the one preventing them from being side to side.

So, the red velvet and the chocolate cheesecake were side by side again, each waiting for their deaths, each scared on the side of the cliff, each wanting to speak, and each staring at the other from the corner of their eyes, both waiting for the ring of the bell at the door that would signal their end.

When the ring did come, it was much louder than either of them expected it to be because it rang for both instead of one. A young woman and a young man walked into the store, laughing and so involved in  each other they could barely tear their eyes away from the other’s face.

The chef, hearing the bell, came to the front of the store. “When you’re ready,” he said, smiling.

The young man grabbed the red velvet.

The young woman grabbed the chocolate cheesecake and two plastic forks from a cup on the table.

“Will that be it?” asked the chef, placing the two cakes into a white bag.

The cakes shivered in fear and their proximity, now able to touch and speak, but they didn’t want to speak. They were afraid of what to say and too frightened at what would happen to them in the next moments. It was simultaneously the best and worst time of their lives.

The young man handed the chef a bill. “Yes, thank you,” he said. The chef returned his change and the young man dumped the coins into the tip jar.

“Anytime,” said the chef as the young couple exited the store.

The young man stood behind the woman and fumbled with the bag, slipping a ring into the plastic wrapping of her cheesecake. She chose a table and sat down. He sat across from her and pulled the cakes from the bag. She handed him a fork and began unwrapping the plastic. When she uncovered the ring, she stopped unwrapping.

He got down on one knee and looked up at her like he was the earth and she was the moon. “Will you marry me?”

She smiled and tears filled her eyes. “You know I can never say no to cake,” she said, laughing and crying.

He took the ring from her hand, slipped it over her finger, and kissed her knuckles. “That’s why I asked you like this,” he said.

They smiled and talked a while more with excitement before settling in once again on opposite sides of the table to open and eat their separate cakes.

This is the moment the chocolate cheesecake and the red velvet had been dreading from that very first moment they were created. But, at least they would go together.

The fork sliced into the red velvet first, his buttercream filling smearing over the fork and across the lips of the young man. Crumbles of the cake dripped from the man’s mouth like drops of blood.

Next, the young woman pushed the cheesecake onto her side, slowly ripping her apart before the first bite was taken. This bite stripped the cheesecake of her form, reducing her to a pudding-like consistency, which flowed down the woman’s esophagus into an acid bath.

The cakes were forced to watch as the other was eaten by the couple, pieces of red velvet flying across the table and onto the floor, smears of chocolate against the plastic wrap, chocolate shavings rolling away like unwanted ornaments after Christmas. Dismembered and dissected, the cakes hoped each other would leave this world quickly and find peace in the next world as a brown reincarnate.


BIO

Kailyn Kausen commutes between Santa Barbara and the Central Valley of California, and spends her evenings imagining the secret lives of inanimate objects. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Spectrum literary journal. She has been published in Disturbed Digest and Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentorship.

Assumptions

by James Mulhern


“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
(Song of Solomon 4:7)


Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia. Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this–She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants–“slacks” my grandmother called them–for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when, after my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged, as most grandparents do, that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk; I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment, and even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, remembering too, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course–years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords–but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming–longing for her husband Jim–and I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we had retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father,” Peg said, passing me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood. “Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch. Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us–Peg, Scruffy, and myself–began canvassing the neighborhood. It was December and cold; the sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon. What a sight we must have been! Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer. I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and there were looks of exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home!” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—

“Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball. Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV? Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job? What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise. Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content–he had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to Beth and me. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us–Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses–crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately. I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary. Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her ‘Lovely Peggy,’ ” she whispered quickly. ‘Lovely Peggy’ was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsk tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots; there were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off! The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg! The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything! Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.” I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together,” Peg said, arching her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck; she shone like a miniature Sun. Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her; we pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish, and we scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl. For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose; then it began to descend over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late; both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle–my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses, just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried. As we began to help lift them, my grandmother and Peg, in between guffaws, groaned that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair. Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me. I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall. Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother would come to my room and wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow. When she told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep, I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs.

I imagined Peggy “over there,” eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflecting the brightness of a blazing fire. Finally she would be at home with her Jim. Completely awake–laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine–she rises once again to sing her favorite song. And the Sun’s great light shines upon and caresses her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting His crossed arms to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.


BIO

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals or anthologies over eighty times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has earned a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.

The UMAMI Museum Field Trip

by Cecilia Kennedy



A swarm of children from the St. Lawrence Catholic Elementary School—all dressed in blue and white plaid uniforms—descended upon the University Museum of Art, Muses, and Inspiration (UMAMI) in the center of town one afternoon.  They were on their best behavior, having previously been banned from field trips.  (Henry and Justin, as the story went, had startled the monkeys at the zoo by throwing “snap-its” fireworks into their cages.  The teachers and parents in charge of the trip thought that someone was shooting a gun in the area, so they made the children run for cover.  However, security cameras in the vicinity caught the two St. Lawrence boys throwing the fireworks.  Shortly thereafter, the second-grade class was banned from the zoo for life, and the school administration decided that the children shouldn’t be treated to anymore “experiential learning opportunities.”  However, the school administrators also realized that they couldn’t keep them from cultural experiences.  It just didn’t seem right.  A zoo was one thing; art was another.)

            At the same time that the children entered the museum, the Senior Citizens’ Home was treating residents to a trip to this very same museum.  The occupants of that bus filed out in orderly fashion, and promptly expressed their disappointment that they’d have to share their outing with a group of school children who, at the moment, were not misbehaving, but who could turn on them at any moment.  They just knew it.

            The featured exhibit at the museum was called “More than ‘Eats’ the Eye”—a clever nod to a particularly talented food photographer/artist who happened to be presenting a lecture on his work.  He was especially eager to speak to impressionable children.  How precious! How delightful!  He would certainly rock their world.

            Meanwhile, the principal of St. Lawrence Catholic School, who was called in as extra back up if things turned ugly, directed her gaze upon the children.  Many were smart, but many of them came from what she considered “broken homes.”  No wonder they acted out, the poor dears.  And, the ones who didn’t have strong reading scores, could probably excel at something. Some were showing great promise in art.  They could grow up to be artists, perhaps . . .

            The children began to form a circle in the central gallery. The artist—Reginald Piper—stood off center at a distance to gauge their reactions.  They stared blankly up at the walls of photographs, which included a shiny stream of milk pouring out onto cereal flakes in a bowl, colorful ice cream scoops perfectly stacked upon one another inside a waffle cone, shiny red apples in a basket, enchiladas dripping with cheese and sauce, and fluffy pancakes covered in syrup. 

            They’d seen these things before. They’d probably eaten them too. What made this art?  Reginald could read their presumptuous little minds, but he couldn’t stifle his laughter, which spilled out into the gallery and made the children turn around.

            There, in a dark corner near the exit, they saw a strange, thin man dressed in a rather garish Kelly-green suit that was paired with a pastel pink and yellow checkered tie. He wore exceedingly round spectacles, which made his face seem small.  Certainly, there was much that the children could make fun of. However, there was also something about him that they didn’t quite trust. Perhaps he knew their weaknesses and could gut them with humiliation. 

            “Yes, yes. Gather ‘round,” Reginald said, as he moved closer to the center of the circle.  The senior citizens edged in closer too. They knew the presentation was for the children, but who would kick them out?  Who would dare tell them to leave?

            “I suppose this exhibit bores you,” Reginald began.

            Truthfully, the children were bored.  The zoo was better. 

            “I suppose you think you could take pictures of food that are just as good—” Reginald continued.

            “I could take a better picture of Mrs. Motley’s face,” one of the children said.  The others erupted in laughter.  The senior citizens frowned.

            “That’s enough!” Mrs. Motley, the principal said. She knew she wasn’t what the children would consider “pretty,” but she believed she was the most successful adult in the room. She had a job. A good job.  Still, it hurt.

            Reginald—not one to lose control of a class—stood right next to the boy who made the comment about Mrs. Motley’s face.  All Reginald did was stand there quietly. The boy grew silent—not out of respect—but because he thought Reginald, standing so close to him, was creepy.

            “Good. That’s good,” Reginald said, smiling.  “Now that everyone’s paying attention, I can tell you that there’s more than ‘eats’ the eye in these photos. 

            Pointing to the photograph of the cereal in the bowl, Reginald said,

            “I didn’t just snap a picture of a bowl of cereal.  This photograph took nearly four hours to shoot correctly.  Children, do you know what happens when flakes of cereal just sit in a bowl of milk?”

            “They get wet and limp like Mr. Zenkins’ p—”

            “Stop it!” Mrs. Motley shouted to the boy who made the comment.  “I will send you home on the city bus now! You’ll be the only child on it, and I won’t care what happens to you!”

            Reginald just raised his pointer finger and smiled. The children turned their attention back to him.

            “Let me ask you a question—a simple one.  How many of you have a bottle of glue in your desk at school?”

            All of the children raised their hands.

            “Well, glue looks a lot like milk. And, if you use enough of it and let it harden, it won’t ruin cereal flakes.  Lots of things I use in these photos can’t be eaten—or maybe you could eat them, but you wouldn’t want to.”

            During the rest of the presentation, the children learned how the ice cream scoops were really mounds of mashed potatoes, dyed in different colors. The maple syrup was actually motor oil, simply because it was thicker and more luxurious looking.  The shiny red apples in the basket had been lovingly doused with hairspray.

            “And now, we come to the enchiladas. Don’t they look delicious?  Who likes enchiladas?”

            A few of the children raised their hands. 

            “Well, many of us food photographers know, that in order to make the enchiladas look like they are stuffed with incredibly tasty ingredients, we could use mashed potatoes for the filling. But I found something better, children. Much, much better.”

            Now, the children were paying attention.  This was what their deranged little minds craved. By the time Reginald finished his story about how he found his enchilada stuffing in the alley, behind this very museum—on a body covered with boils that, when squeezed, looked like ground beef—Mrs. Motley was convinced that the children could definitely make something of themselves someday.

            After the presentation, the children filed past the museum’s cafeteria, which displayed perfectly formed sushi rolls in the window.  Little Rosie thought that the cubed pieces of tuna looked like the tip of her grandmother’s tongue, which she stuck out slightly when she would thread a sewing needle.  And, for the first time, Rosie thought that maybe she had what it took to be an artist.  Oh, if she could just get a hold of that tongue! Just the tip—sticking out from a roll of sushi—would make for a lovely photo.


BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish from The Ohio State University, and she taught Spanish and English Composition in Ohio for 20 years before moving to the state of Washington with her family. Twenty-three of her short stories have appeared in 17 literary magazines. She also writes a blog called Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks, where she details her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair:  https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/

Natural Burial

by J.L. Moultrie

With a will buried beneath the conditioning and walls of childhood, he rode his bike behind the ice cream truck. As he veered into the middle of the street, sudden regrets about being poor stood in his mind, then his body collided with the front end of an accelerating Lincoln town car. He flew into the air, his frame falling upon the summer scorched asphalt.

The children and parents of the neighborhood either gawked or gathered around him as he crawled out of the street onto the sidewalk grass. The car kept going. A sense of shame covered him because he was the center of attention. His lower back and head were ringing with a burning sensation. The crowd dissolved after he managed to walk into his older sister’s home.

He winced as he slid onto the far dining room wall. He followed his sister’s eyes as she walked past him without uttering a word. No one took him to the hospital.

At moments like this, upheaval rose in him that he could not understand nor accept. His limited sphere of understanding was constantly demolished and slowly rebuilt. He didn’t know it, but these things would be planted in the fertile soil of his recollections.

Unable to circumvent the monoliths of familial history and expectation, he found himself at the center of his 5th grade teacher’s Academic Game’s team. After he tried to quit his teacher refused saying he, “Did not like quitters”. He tried his best to avoid the event, asking his mother if he could stay home for two days in a row. However, on the third day, at his locker, his friend asked him if he was, “Ready for the big day.” He stood on stage shocked, looking for his parents in a sea of faces, but seeing none.

After spelling a few words correctly he failed and retreated to the bathroom, where he relieved himself after holding it for a long time. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders as expectations and attention towards him dissolved. Later, he found himself in the principal’s office – she congratulated him on making the honor roll and principal’s list, then she asked him if he’d like to go to a hockey game. He said yes but couldn’t go because his parents had no transportation.

After a day of school, he went over to his friend’s house, but his visit was cut short when his parents began shouting at one another in the bedroom. His friend’s mother emerged into the living room with fresh blood covering the white of her eyes. She told him that he’d have to come back another time.

An ache, resembling a futile longing, was all that he’d inherited from his parents who ran the streets and worked enough to support their habits. The dimensions of his days were steeped in the heavy brine of neglect. He saw and felt too much until he sought emotional blindness. He played and spent time with kids his own age, but an incurable distance ebbed between them.

His experience afforded him no reference for how to interpret the phenomena surrounding him. He entered middle school sulking, barely speaking a word. In this silence, his body began a slow transformation. As his inner world began to split at the seams, his emotions slipped beyond recovery. He barely made it through each day, subsisting on the morsels of wavering possibilities.

He slept on the floor in the projects, finding himself languishing further and further into and undeveloped self. He found himself in a situation where many were not afforded self-belief. The quality of his potential remained unkindled embers, dangerously close to being extinguished.

One night his father, who he remained largely a stranger to, stopped by. He took him to get pizza, but they barely spoke. His hunger for genuine connection superseded any desire for popularity. This orientation engendered scorn and derision, even from some of his adult relatives.  His experience felt tenuous and ephemeral, as if it could be supplanted at any time by anyone. The adults in his life feigned warmth and recognition, but he knew they did not see him. He, in turn, developed a healthy mistrust.

That same night, he waited outside of the bathroom as his mother came in and out of consciousness after injecting heroin. This event etched shame and anger upon his young soul. As his performance in school began to decay, he withdrew into numbness; lying by saying he was “okay” when he clearly was not. Talking amongst themselves, the adult speculated if he were inarticulate or simply withholding his thoughts.

In truth, his mind was full of chimeras and inhospitable expanses. The features of his psyche were nebulous, sharp to touch and as ubiquitous as stars in a clear night’s sky. When he walked into a room, people noticed. When he spoke, many paid attention. His eyes were penetratingly innocent; these qualities of gravitas were lost upon him. He was frightened and confounded by the sensations that passed through him. Each step resembled a perilous leap into the unknown.

While walking alone in a desolate field, he heard mewling amid the tall, wind swept grass. Nestled in a small clearing was a litter of newly born kittens, their eyes barely letting in the pale, fall sunlight. They were an assortment of limbs and mouths, splotched with white, black and orange. They grasped and gaped at the newly entered world.

Buried under the bronze veneer of his flesh were turbulent waters where many sunken vessels lied. He softly grabbed the nearest rock; its rough texture pushed tightly against the sweaty center of his hand.

He tossed the first stone at the scrum of fur and murmuring. He walked around the field, picking up rocks and scanning his surroundings, making sure no one was watching. He tossed them as hard as he could, connecting several times with the heads and chests of the litter. He stood in the field, aware that what he’d done was not good, but his body persisted. He slowly took steps toward what he created.

Warm streaks of scarlet lie spattered on paws, whiskers and multicolored rocks. He pushed the long-idle torment back into the spacious compartments of his subconscious. He scoured the large field for a suitable object. Upon finding it, he returned to the site and began using it. With a fallen tree branch and his hands, he dug a shallow crevice in the cool, coffee-colored soil. With one hand, he shielded his eyes from the quickly setting sun, he used the other to push the still murmuring pile into a shallow grave. He hastily filled it and returned home.

That night consciousness was wrested from his body only partially. Vague, dissonant impressions startled him back onto the terrestrial plane. That morning as he through the field on his way to class, his face darkened, and his heart began beating rapidly. It went on this way for several weeks to the point that he began having mild convulsions – trembling whenever his surroundings became too loud or moved too quickly.

As his headaches and backpain persisted, he became more submerged in the rapids of deterioration. He rode his bike and took walks aimlessly, going as far as he could from home. His interactions were skeletal – he spoke with his eyes downcast, his voice a tenuous thread of sound. That fall, he was taken to churches, roller rinks and libraries, but none of thee excursions managed to take his attention away from recollections of the field and stones.

On Halloween, he went out collecting candy with some cousins in a werewolf costume. It was a rainy evening, punctuated by barking dogs, careening headlights, droning thunder and vacant alleyways. His interpretation of these phenomena mingled with his senses, putting him in a state. The coarse sonic fabric of voices, distant aircrafts, locomotive horns and rustle of fallen leaves momentarily subdued what was ever present.

After hours of walking and eating candy, he got into bed. But before he got settled, he vomited onto the floor. The result resembled gasoline on concrete – liquid hues of green gold and purple bled into one another. Even when he was sitting still, he was sprinting into the night across ambling terrain. Even when he was silent, one got the sense that he was on the verge of screaming.

It went against every fabric of his being to try to be other than who he was, despite the subtle and not so subtle urgings of his relatives and schoolmates. When class became inhospitable, he began spending long days walking and taking the bus across the city. Though he was alone, he enjoyed the absence of expectation mixed with repulsion. He refused to grow buoyant upon the trauma but allowed himself to sink beneath it: it was the only way he could get out.

As his volition had not grown to a level that could sustain his world, he remained dependent on these around him. The barriers between him and others had only grown more intense and glaring. His rare episodes of anger and defiance were largely dismissed as him, “needing an outlet”. Thus, he grew more intangible by the day, only holding long conversations when he saw fit.

He was plagued by a confounding curiosity; questions ruminated in his mind to the point that he couldn’t sleep. In his pajamas, he’d wander inaudibly into the early morning. Once he was found by his mother having a conversation with a homeless man in front of a library. His silence would not relent as she berated him. When she questioned the man, he told her that, “The boy was only concerned about me and how many books I’ve read”.

That night he slept soundly but continued to live under the doubt and suspicion of those around him.

BIO

J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. His work appears or is forthcoming in  Datura Literary Journal, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Visitant, Backchannels, The Free Library of the Internet Void and elsewhere. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

20/20

by A.L. Bishop

I woke with limbs full of wet cement, head woolly and hot, wanting only to go outside and lie down in what was left of the snow along the fence. Instead, I went to see the police, as I had promised to do.

“So, you were driving southbound to Fort Erie on the QEW?”

“I was going to the Falls.”

“Why?” He leapt on it. This was one hungry traffic cop.

“That’s where I live.”

“And there was a back-up on the Garden City Skyway? All three lanes?”

“Yes. The Friday of March Break—the exit to the outlet mall—”

“And you knew the young woman?”

What? “No. I didn’t know her.”

The officer watched me closely, a canary feather dangling from his mouth. “You weren’t acquainted in any way?”

“No. She just rear-ended me.” A crunch, bewildered squeaking as my car rocked back and forth, and when I got out—which took forever, because I would have done anything to just sit there and pretend that nothing had happened—when I got out, I saw her behind the wheel, eyes wide as tulips about to drop their petals. I’d never seen someone so young driving a Caprice Classic.

“She ‘just rear-ended’ you.”

“Yes.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “She ‘just rear-ended’ you and then jumped off the Skyway. Just like that.”

Not just like that. First she had crawled over to go out the passenger side door, but then she was up and gone, scrambling over the guardrail like a centipede, translucent, indifferent, disappearing into nothing until, after about half a kilometre, she hit the surface of the canal, though I didn’t know that at the time. I looked into the empty air where her head had just been, catastrophe streaking out into the sunny sky and through every nerve path in my body. I ran to the spot but couldn’t bring myself to lean forward against the wind and the horror and look. So whether we were over water or roads or trees or industrial wasteland at that particular point on the elevated highway was a mystery, but not the most pressing one, in that moment, which was also occupied by intense salivation at the roots of my tongue and puking onto the grit left behind by a winter’s worth of salt and ploughing, near the faint scuffs where she’d gotten out of the car. How small she must have been, to turn in that tiny space. “Pretty much.”

Traffic Columbo decided to change tack. “And you hit the car in front of you?”

“Yes. Tapped it.”

He lunged once more. “Did you exchange words with the young lady?”

“No.”

“Were you carrying a weapon of any kind?”

“What?”

“Did you lose your temper? Was she trying to escape? There will be footage,” he warned. “Traffic cameras.”

In the preceding sixteen hours, I’d replayed what had happened in my head hundreds of times, often with tiny tweaks, trying to conjure up a different outcome. In all those versions, never once had I imagined what would have happened if I had stayed in my car like I wanted to. “Wait. You think she jumped to get away from me?”

“Is that what the witness statements are going to tell me?”

My impression from the cops at the scene had been that it was just a routine public suicide, insofar as suicides in Niagara, a land of waterways and bridges, are more often routinely public. The scene cops were the ones who told me that she’d landed in the canal. I looked it up in the middle of the night—the Skyway is 130 feet at its highest point, and the Welland Canal is about 25 feet deep. I don’t know anything about physics, but I saw a Canada goose get hit by a sports car once on the 401 and just explode. If the girl hadn’t burst when she hit the surface, she might have hit the bottom, like landing on concrete twice, breaking, then breaking again. Could the skin be expected to hold together? She was so small. “I didn’t say anything to her. There wasn’t time to—”

I don’t remember much else that he said after that. He wound up by noting he might need me to come back for further questioning, that I shouldn’t go very far—a moot point, since they still had my car, were keeping it as part of the investigation—but he’d already lost me deep in the notion that the girl might have been frightened. Of me. Most people barely register me, and I’ve certainly never scared anyone, certainly not to death.

If anything, I was on her team. Who hasn’t thought about it, a final exit, on your own terms? Living in a tourist town can do that to you, knowing that everyone else gets to leave and you have to stay right where you are. But I think I would have paused for a look around, sat on the edge for a bit, surveying the sky and then maybe just leaning back, a scuba diver. Not straight up and over, like her, a GIF on autoplay—up and over, up and over.

What if it wasn’t up and over, but simply away, and not simply away, but away from me?

+ + +

At work, I drank the stale water from the steel bottle in my locker left behind after my last shift. As always happens at this time of year, I could taste fish. Today I wondered how much of the taste was actually fish—scales and waste—and how much was from other animals—the great blue herons in the gorge, the twenty or so gull species that pass through—and how much was from people—spilled food and drink, dissolved sunscreen, flaky skin, sewage, the rot of the unembalmed. I stared at the screen, tried to make sense of the delivery schedule, chatted with the FedEx guy like any other day. But it was like a smudge on my glasses, the image of her face behind the windshield, impeding my view whether my eyes were open or closed. Only now, I couldn’t remember where she was looking. We hadn’t made eye contact, but had she seen me at all? Or was it always that vacant stare?

Instead of fading out or lumping together, the questions in my mind got sharper and multiplied and developed taunting laughs, so that when I overheard one of the women on the morgue staff chatting with a mortician outside the dock—for in hospitals, you’ll almost always find shipping and receiving next to the morgue—I locked on like a lamprey.

“Can you imagine? I mean, traffic gets under my skin, too, but…” Ha, ha.

“Well, let’s make it official, shall we? Williamson, Agnes, female, 24…”

“No, never anything quite like this…”

“And they’d only just opened the canal for the season…”

“Interment, yes, small service. Eleven o’clock Tuesday at Fairview. Will that be a problem?”

“Amazing that they recovered enough to inter…”

“I hate talking to my insurance broker, too, but…” Ha, ha, ha.

I stepped into the hallway. “Did she leave a note?”

Elaine—who would have needed a more self-contained temperament in her line of work, I’d have thought—jumped.

“Are you speaking to me?” said the mortician, mortified.

“Ms. Williamson.” Saying her name felt like a betrayal and a consummation at the same time. “Did she leave any indication of why she—?”

“I’d best be on my way,” the mortician told Elaine.

Elaine, now recovered, forced a smile at me.

I wandered back to the computer terminal, thinking about remains. Through the dullness of lingering shock and the faint and constant diesel fumes of the dock, an idea sprang into my head, a motion-sensor light triggered by scurrying rats. If I were to go—pay my respects—what could her people tell me? Or, perhaps, not tell me, overcome with grief and not paying any attention to the nondescript stranger who seemed so broken up about things, but let me hear and see and learn—what clues, what skeleton key?

So, I would go to the burial. That’s what I decided. After work, I got all the way out to the employee parking lot before remembering where my car was, that I had to walk home.

+ + +

My attic apartment is in an old neighbourhood close to the Niagara River, one that used to be something before the bottom fell out of downtown. The street’s leafy quiet butts up against a garish wall of tourism, so that you step out of this creaky old enclave straight into the plastic fantastic if you’re going anywhere on foot, which I was now, heading to the graveyard. It was a bit like having to pass through Disney World to get anywhere, but with more smut and fewer people tasked with cleaning up urine.

Dirty snow clung to the ground, defiant of the brightening sun, and my face felt hot from the cold by the time I arrived at the cemetery. I surveyed the scene as I approached along the walking path. People weren’t thick on the ground—a minister, attendants from the funeral home, though not the giddy mortician, and a few middle-aged women in parkas and matching black pants. Those matching black pants, a uniform, gave me pause. If Agnes Williamson had no one to bid her farewell apart from a few work friends, my already-uncomfortable status as an intruder on a fact-finding mission felt shameful, obvious, and futile, worst of all.

I stopped and someone ran into me from behind.

The woman had a face dried out from too much nicotine and eyes like amber, glistening through as much mascara as I had seen one person wear at one time. Her red scarf had catches in it. She looked at me, put out and expectant.

Under her gaze, I felt unable to go anywhere except forward, toward the gravesite. Panicking but anxious to blend in and escape her, I left the path, stepping onto the colourless, snow-flattened grass. She fell in beside me. She stood where I stood, not far from the minister, who appeared to take our arrival as a signal that he could begin. The wind moved his greying hair off his head. He patted it down.

The woman sniffled quietly at first, but soon began to sob. Christ, was this Agnes’s mother?

The service, which couldn’t have lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, took a thousand years standing next to the weeping woman. As soon as the minister wrapped up, all of the black-slacked ladies on the other side of the grave hastened over en masse to huddle around her and, beside her, me.

The heaviest one grasped both her hands. “You must be Agnes’s mom. My name is Maria. I was her supervisor at the restaurant.”

Agnes’s mother nodded but didn’t speak.

“We’re all going to miss her. She always helped out if one of us needed a break. Never complained. Good worker.”

Multiple sympathetic gazes landed on me.

Overwhelmed with guilt, I dropped my head, but this somehow implied confirmation of a relationship, elevating me from rubbernecked gawker to full-on imposter.

“Ah, Agnes never said much,” said Maria, patting my shoulder. “Agnes was not a big talker, either, was she? But she did good work. We’re all going to miss her.” Then she said to me in a low voice, “Can you come by the restaurant? Agnes left a few things in her locker. We wasn’t sure who to give them to.”

Agnes’s mother looked up at me with blackened eyes.

“You should have that,” I said to her. She burst into fresh tears.

“It’s Sunny Side Up, on the Lane,” Maria said, trying to keep her voice down and be heard over Agnes’s mother’s wailing at the same time. “I’m on morning shift, next four days.”

Maria stepped away and I seized the chance to peel off with the work friends, but Agnes’s mother put her hand on my wrist, a burr.

“Won’t you help me?” Her voice held me, though I wanted only to be away from her.

Everyone else, even the minister, had hoofed it. “What can I do?”

“A drink, to start.” Didn’t she care that I was a complete stranger? “I’m staying downtown. So, close to that.”

“I don’t have my car.” I felt lucky that my knees didn’t give out as I spoke.

She hadn’t let go of my arm. “You have a couple of casinos in this town, don’t you?”

I held out a slight hope that if I started moving, she might let me go. Instead, she clasped my elbow and walked with me out of the cemetery.

“I’m due in for my shift at the hospital,” I said, which wasn’t true.

She ignored me. “You knew my daughter?” The word “daughter” stuck in her throat.

“Not really.” Her sharp glance drove another lie from my lips. “Not—well.” It took my breath away.

“You’re here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be here if she didn’t mean something to you.”

As we got closer to Bridge Street, a man who should have been wearing a coat passed us on the sidewalk, too close.

“I need to understand what happened to her,” she said.

So did I. Ever so much. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” I took my arm away from her, anxious to commence the likely interminable process of forgetting that I had ever crossed this line. I put my hands in my pockets, keeping an eye on the coatless man.

“What’s your name?”

I met her eyes as briefly as I could, dropped them to the lipstick bleeding up into the skin around her mouth. “Alex.”

Her face lit up. “She talked about you!”

I can’t imagine what I looked like when she said that.

“She did! All the time, she did.”

“It must have been another—”

She grabbed my wrist again. Flecks of mascara floated in the tears collecting over her heavy lower lids. “I know you were good to her. I know she would want you to be good to me. We’re both hurting, here. I think we can help each other.”

“I’m sorry. I have to get to work.”

She made a sort of huffing noise, and then fumbled around in her purse and came up with a pen. She scribbled down a number on a business card and handed it to me. It was for Leopold Drewe of Drewe Financial in Halifax. On the back, she’d written “Vi” and a telephone number. “I’m here for a few days.”

The man with no coat lurked a few feet away. The thought of learning more about Agnes, maybe finding answers—not just for me, but for Vi, too, for both of us—wrapped itself around me in slow, sticky loops, like the pulled candy they used to make behind a window on Queen Street when I was a kid. I held the card for a few seconds, scraping its edge against the winter-dry skin on the inside of my thumb, staring at the man.

“I can come with you for a bit.”

She smiled, then wilted, out of relief, I guess.

+ + +

We went to the old casino, what was once Maple Leaf Village, and ordered drinks in the restaurant, scotch and soda for her, tea for me.

“You came from Halifax?”

Vi frowned. “Who told you that?”

“Oh.” I pulled the card out of my pocket. “It says—”

She took it and peered at it, then tossed it on the floor. “Some man in a bar gave me that.”

“Oh. So did you have to travel far to—?”

Vi cleared her throat. “I was already on my way here when I got word. I wanted to see her—Agnes—about something.” Her shoulders crumpled in an exhausted, hollowed-out way. “Well, I’m sure she told you all about it. You know the bind I’m in.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Andrew?”

Vi drained her glass. “My son.”

“I didn’t know she had a brother. She—never mentioned him.” And there I was, manufacturing Agnes, my mouth so sour from it I thought my gums might start to bleed.

Vi held up her empty glass as a signal to our server. “Half-brother.”

“Older or younger?”

She paused. “He’s 24. They weren’t close.” She looked at me through bitumen-encrusted lashes. “How long have you and Agnes been friends?”

I took a big sip of the mug of tea the waiter had brought me and felt the fingers of hell on the insides of my cheeks, my tongue, my throat, the boiling water claiming what felt like many layers of tissue. Trying to recover, I took off my glasses and cleaned them on my shirt, then resettled them on my face. When I blew on the tea, they fogged up.

Vi smoothed back her thin brown hair, pressing the skin at her temples. “Are you all right?” She let it hang, my mounting discomfort.

“Yes. Sorry. You were saying, about going to see Andrew?” The inside of my mouth was still on fire. “Where is he?”

“Switzerland.”

“That’s why he’s not here today.” Not the right thing to say. “For Agnes. For you. It was too far to come.” Disdain weighed down her heavily plucked brows. “When does he expect you?”

Vi’s face contracted into helplessness. “I can’t afford it now.”

Sure. Funerals. “That’s terrible.”

“He’s ill. He needs me to take care of him.” Vi touched her cheekbone with her ring finger, blotting tears I couldn’t see in the patchy casino lighting. “I just don’t know what I’ll do now. If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t lose another—”

“That’s terrible,” I said again.

She trained her golden eyes on me. “I don’t need your pity. I need your help.”

“How can I help you?”

“You said you’re a doctor.”

When had I said that? Is this what people meant when they talked about losing track of your own lies? “No. I’m not. A doctor.”

“You said you had to get to the hospital. For work.”

“Oh—no. I work in shipping.”

I hadn’t seen anyone look so disappointed in me since I’d last seen my parents.

“The mail room?” She let out a little bleat of laughter. Our server walked by, a young man with broad shoulders and purplish white teeth. She waved him over. I thought she might be checking on the status of her refill, but she asked for the cheque. He started to fish through a wad of papers.

I grabbed the bill when he held it out. “Here, I can—”

“You don’t want to help me. I don’t know why you would pretend.”

The server handed me a portable card reader. Vi rolled her eyes at him under her laden lashes and he put his hand on the back of her chair, brushing her shoulder, giving her the smile he almost certainly saved for women like her. He flirted out of habit, to while away his shifts and maybe wring a few extra dollars out of the perpetually sad clientele. But Vi had just buried her daughter. I cancelled the tip I’d been about to confirm on the device and handed it back to him.

“Do you want to go anywhere else?”

“With you?” Vi pulled on her coat, tied her ratty red scarf. It seemed that the answer was in the question. I followed her out of the restaurant anyway, through the casino, into the parking lot, where a light, icy rain flicked against the awning overhead.

“Was Agnes going to come with you overseas?”

“Are you trying to upset me?” She was small, like Agnes, but not at all frail.

“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m just—I just wish I knew why Agnes was so sad.”

She unleashed that bitter laugh again. “You sound like a terrific friend.”

Desperate to hold her there, desperate to atone, I said, “I wasn’t her friend.”

Her face went still.

“I was just there. When she did it. And I wanted to—”

“Did what?”

I dropped my voice. “When she killed herself.”

“Killed herself,” Vi said, almost as though she didn’t believe me. “What does that mean, you were there? You watched your friend die?”

“She wasn’t my friend.” I kept running out of air when I tried to speak. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know your daughter. I only happened to be there when she—I just need to know why, I need to know what made her do it.”

Vi’s yellow eyes flared, twin matches. “You’ve been lying to me.”

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

A taxi pulled up from the nearby taxi stand. She turned away.

“Vi, please—I’ll give you anything. But please, can you just tell me what was going on with—why she was so—”

Vi stopped, holding the door handle, and said, “I need money.”

Her voice sounded different, so it took me a minute to process. “To get to Andrew,” I said at last.

She threw her arms around my neck, back to herself again. “I knew you would understand, honey. Agnes was going to give me the money. She’d been putting it by to try and help me out. But I can’t get to it. Everything’s all tied up.”

I tried to catch up. “I’ve heard that sort of thing can take forever.”

“I can’t wait. I thought that if you knew how much she wanted to help me, that you might step up.” When I didn’t immediately volunteer, she hardened. “That was when I thought you two were friends. And here it was all a filthy lie.”

“You want me to give you money?”

Lend it to me,” said Vi, hurt. “Just for a while.”

No one had ever asked me for money before for what, to me, were obvious reasons—nine hundred of them, the sum total of my personal assets. I didn’t know the correct reaction, or the protocol for agreeing or refusing. “How much?”

“Ten grand.”

“I don’t have—”

She cooled off again. “Right. The mail room.”

Agnes wasn’t my friend. Agnes wasn’t my anything. And yet, if I had only stayed in my car, she might—

 Vi made a move for the taxi.

“I didn’t know that’s what you wanted,” I said, stalling.

“It isn’t what I wanted.” She pouted. “You’re abusing me terribly. I thought you might like to try to make it up to me. If I could trade it all and have my daughter back, you know I would.”

She opened the cab door. I spotted a standalone ATM near the lobby entrance. “Wait.”

I went over and withdrew my daily limit, four hundred dollars. The taxi was just starting to pull away as I got back but I yanked open the door and jumped in. I thought she would have the driver throw me out, but when I handed her the money, she started counting it. I nodded at him to go.

She rolled her eyes and put the cash in her bag, stonewalling me all the way to a mouldy motor inn downtown, where I got out with her and paid the cabbie, hoping she might relent and ask me in and tell me all about her dead kid.

Fluorescent lights shone over each numbered door. As Vi stood before her cabin, one lit up her hair from behind, sad and wispy. “You know, you have my number,” she said. “If you actually want to help.”

She closed the door in my face. Halfway across the parking lot, I remembered that I didn’t have her number anymore—it was on the floor under the table at the casino. I went back and knocked, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she was taking a shower.

I wandered around downtown for a while, through the underpass where all the stray cats live, imagining Vi’s next few days. There would be lawyers to deal with, perhaps police procedure, not to mention scraping together the money to pay for the burial. She would have to go through Agnes’s home, her things. And all of it would be worse than just the fact of doing it—it would all be compounded by why she was doing it. And what had I given her, for all that misery? A pack of lies and a few hundred bucks.

+ + +

Sometime in the night, I remembered Maria and the bag of Agnes’s belongings waiting for Vi at the restaurant.

I set out first thing. I still hadn’t heard from the police about my car, so I walked again, the cold, damp air clamouring for the space between my clothes and my skin.

The restaurant’s ‘please seat yourself’ placard was up. Everything looked tired—the plastic plants, the stained upholstery. I ordered toast and then thought of Agnes with her goggle eyes bringing toast to liars in the early morning and lost my appetite. When Maria came out of the men’s room with a mop and bucket, I snapped my face toward the window, filled with regret. I took a sip of water but choked on it when I heard her say, “Is it you?”

I coughed and sputtered. Maria yanked napkins from the plastic dispenser on the table and handed them to me, then wiped down the table. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to startle you.” Her mild accent gave her words a plunging rhythm.

My eyes watered, which I’m sure made her think I was crying. “It’s OK.”

“It is you. I didn’t mean to—of course, you wouldn’t remember me. We met the other day.”

“I remember. You said you had some stuff that was—”

A small man stalked out of the kitchen, his hair greased back over the popped collar of his tracksuit jacket.

“Yes, yes, I’m glad you were able to come,” Maria said. “I wondered how you and your mother are doing. Oh, how we miss your sister.”

Maria couldn’t see the little guy hopping up the aisle toward us, so when he spoke, she recoiled.

“Maria? What’s the problem here?”

“She’s helping me,” I told him. “I was choking.”

“Tony.” Maria bunched up the soggy paper napkins in one hand. “This is—you remember poor Agnes—”

“Who?”

Maria, horrified, said, “Agnes!”

“Get this cleaned up.” He returned to the hostess stand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He’s the manager, but I usually take care of anything to do with the staff.” Her troubled smile fell apart, and she opted for retreat. “I’ll only be a moment.”

I watched her head toward a back room. Then my eyes settled again on Tony at the cash register and stayed there until she got back with a grocery bag. She whispered, “There’s money. I made sure no one touched it.”

The shame at being so unjustly trusted threatened the integrity of my skull. Still, I couldn’t help myself. “Can you tell me anything about her? About why she was—like she was?”

Maria shook her head. “It can be hard, families. I know. I wish I could tell you more. She was so quiet. Worked hard, never complained. I didn’t know her better than that.”

“Maria!” Tony hit the side of the register with the flat of his hand.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk no more,” Maria said. “But I appreciate you coming in here. Agnes was a good girl. Now, you give our best to your poor ma.”

Head spinning, I left a ten-dollar tip for the two-dollar toast that hadn’t arrived and managed not to throw up in the bushes. Maria thought her dead friend was my sister, and now I had swindled her out of Agnes’s last worldly possessions.

I took a deep breath. After all, a work locker is hardly the place for worldly possessions. Mine had cough drops and empty hand sanitizer bottles. If there was a letter or a will or a manifesto, it wasn’t going to be in this bag.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten Agnes’s things for me. I’d gotten them for Vi.

+ + +

Downtown, a heavy, damp chill trapped foul smells in the road.

I walked to Vi’s motel, stopping only at an ATM to get out another $400. It was still early, but I knocked on her door. She didn’t answer. I waited next to the overgrown and yet mostly dead cedar shrubs lining the parking lot, holding the bag of Agnes’s things, switching it back and forth between my hands as they got sweaty in spite of the cold. Apart from a few meandering derelicts, there wasn’t much foot traffic. A patrol car passed without slowing down. Cracked, faded plastic bowl chairs, stacked up at one side of the motel waiting to be set out for the summer, or maybe for garbage collection, were my only companions, apart from a parked silver Mercedes and Agnes’s legacy.

My phone rang.

“Alex Larson?”

The lead investigating officer, not the keener who had taken my statement, wanted to inform me that I had been cleared of all wrong-doing, and that no charges would be filed by the driver of the car I’d hit, either. I could collect my vehicle later in the day.

He was starting to say something about insurance and estates when the door to cabin five opened.

“Great, thanks.” I hung up.

Vi’s dusky head appeared in the weak sunlight. She had on her dressy coat, the red scarf with catches in it. Behind her, a bald man in a suit followed her out. The Mercedes chirped.

Her coal-rimmed eyes went stony when she saw me approaching. “What do you want?”

I held out the bag. “I went to the restaurant where Agnes—you remember, her coworkers said we should—these things belonged to her.”

Vi moved toward the passenger door. 

“Agnes’s things,” I said. “From her work.”

“Friend of yours?” The man looked me up and down, grinning.

“No.”

“You can join us, if you like,” he said.

“I’ll just be a second,” said Vi.

He shrugged and got behind the wheel. She grabbed the bag and dug around, pulling out an envelope and emptying it of the money Maria had safeguarded. The car started. Vi tossed everything else onto the pavement.  

Grief makes people do strange things. I bent over to rescue the bag and the discarded envelope. “I’m sure it must be so hard, going through all of her stuff and every—”  

She got into the car, which pulled out and away.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but the motel owner came out of the office and hollered at me. “Hey! You can’t work here!”

With no idea where to go, I started to walk, the bag bouncing against my leg.

+ + +

At the cemetery, the grass was crunchy with frost, the ground cold and hard as I sat across from the temporary marker that read “A. Williamson.”

People who die in freak accidents have all kinds of half-finished detritus kicking around afterward. Their loved ones have to decide about every single piece, whether or not to donate the teach-yourself-to-play-harmonica book to charity or to teach themselves to play, in honour of the dead person, who may have gotten the book as a gift and never had any intention of learning. If, on the other hand, you’re making an exit, you make sure things are sorted—you don’t want people stumbling across something you’d prefer left unseen, or swooping in and claiming a memory or memento that shouldn’t be theirs. If you’re on your way out, you get your house in order. Unless, of course, you’re on the fence about leaving when out of nowhere, you find yourself faced with an opportune moment. Or scared out of your wits by some stranger you’ve just hit with your—

I wrapped my arms around my knees and pressed my forehead against them, shivering at all of the horrors I’d come to see in the last few days, most of them perpetrated by me.

Then I sat up again and opened the bag.

Inside, there was a black cardigan that smelled of kitchen grease. I didn’t pull it all the way out. A few coloured elastics and bobby pins fell off of a sleeve, with one or two long brown hairs still in them. What would Vi have done with the hairs? Take them out of the elastics? Drop them onto the ground or release them to the wind—when these were the last, the very last ones?

Under the sweater was a coupon for a local uniform manufacturing store, and the envelope, which had a word that might have been “index” scribbled in pencil. At the very bottom was a folded piece of paper, a printout of Agnes’s obituary. Had Maria printed it? Unauthorized use of the office printer hardly seemed characteristic, from what I knew. I hadn’t ever seen the obituary, was surprised there was one. I couldn’t imagine Vi at a keyboard, hunting and pecking out a death announcement for publication.

A sharp breeze caught the paper. I thought about letting go.

Instead, I read it—several times, without making sense of it—loving parents, both deceased. Edgar and Carolina. No siblings. Not survived by anyone. Loving parents, both deceased.

I knew those names. They were on the stone next to Agnes’s marker.

I squinted in the sunlight to read the stones again. Edgar and Carolina Williamson, different birth days, same death day, three years ago. They died on the same day? How? A fire? Car accident? Atrociously bad luck?

I forced myself up into a crouch, then willed my knees to straighten as I stood. My numbing fingers lost their grip on the obituary, which almost refolded itself as it skittered away. I rolled up the bag and tucked it between a small shrub and the headstone for Edgar and Carolina. Then I drove my fists deep into my pockets, punching something. My right hand opened and closed again around cold polymer, heedless and aloof, a wad of ATM twenties.

BIO

A.L. Bishop is a writer in Niagara Falls, Canada whose stories have previously appeared in Book Six of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and The Forge. Learn more at www.albishopiswriting.com.

A Better Parent

by Alison Gadsby

Niki is smiling. Just in case. She’s not happy, but when her son Jeremy sees her sitting in the stands she wants to look it. She got up at 5:00 am, tossed frozen fruit and some green protein powder into the blender (as instructed by her ex-husband Chris) and swirled up a nutritious smoothie that was immediately rejected as being too green, too wrong. Jeremy scrambled up his own eggs and slurped the barely cooked mess into his mouth as she drove downtown to the university pool for his first swim meet of the season.

His eyes wander up every few minutes, not to Niki, but to the empty spaces around her. No Dad. He’s had his headphones on since he woke up. She knows she shouldn’t be here, but it’s her weekend. She hasn’t been to a swim meet in two years. Ever since Jeremy got fast and started qualifying for bigger and faster meets, he always chose his dad.

It started with the dog. The thing she’d hoped might save her marriage. One parent had to stay home with the puppy while the other did swim practices and meets. Niki got the dog.

Jeremy needs to take six seconds off his 200 Fly to qualify for Provincials. That feels like a lot to her, but Niki knows nothing. Chris was the swimmer. When Jeremy started with the club three years ago, he was just a small, keen eight-year-old who had a knack for it. Good genes, Chris joked. But it’s no joke now. He swims nine times a week and Chris is some kind of swim official. The early mornings, when Jeremy is with her, are a killer. Some days she asks him to go back to bed and not tell his dad he missed practice. She figures it will make him a more flexible person. Chris’ philosophy is, ‘there’s no point in doing anything if you’re not going to do it right and do your best’. That was their marriage. Niki didn’t do it right. She never remembered to ask him about his day, she drank too much wine, and she couldn’t get up before eleven even one day on the weekend so they could get shit Chris wanted done, done.

Jeremy is bobbing his head back and forth to whatever song is playing in his ears. The rhythm of the imagined race moving his body.

Margaret, another mother, is screeching “Aidan, Aidan” like a fox looking for a lost pup.

Niki can see Aidan trying to ignore her, but her shouts are so loud the other swimmers start poking him to get her to shut up.

Aidan tilts his head slightly and his father yells, “20 seconds.”

Niki flips through the heat sheet for Aidan’s name. They want their eleven-year-old to go well under three minutes in the 200 Backstroke. Seems outrageous, but what the hell does she know?

Margaret turns to Niki, “Jay going for Festivals, too?”

Her using Chris’ nickname for Jeremy is irritating. In the buffet line at the awards banquet last year, Niki asked if she preferred Maggie or Margaret. Her reply was a terse ‘while some call me Maggie, it’s Margaret’. Niki was granted Maggie status last spring, but has stuck with Margaret.

“I have no idea,” Niki says. It must drive Margaret bananas to know someone like Niki exists. A parent who doesn’t spend hours poring over time standards and calculating Olympic probabilities for her kid.

The Olympics. That had been their biggest fight. After a particularly good swim meet Chris ruffled Jeremy’s wet hair and said, “Kid stands a good chance at going in 2028, maybe even 2024.”

“God help him if he changes his mind,” Niki said.

“Well I’m sure if you could weasel your way into his head, you’d change it for him.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t waste your time,” Chris had finally said, “Haven’t you got better things to do, wine to drink?”

They went on for over an hour, and when they paused for a second, she’d looked at the clock. She wanted to know the exact minute it ended for her. At 11:46 am on a snowy December Saturday morning, she officially hated him.

“Aidan!” Margaret shouts again waving her hands wildly. When he finally looks up, Niki can see fear crawling all over his face. Blotches of red over pale grey skin. Someone announces they’re marshalling the 200 Backstroke. There’s still loads of time before his race. But Margaret is spewing her panic all over this kid. His father’s fingers are frantically scrolling up and down his iPad at the time standards.

Niki wants to say something, but instead looks away and pulls a magazine out of her bag. Who was she to judge bad parenting? Everyone has a story to tell about their shitty parents. Jeremy won’t be any different.

“Nothing therapy won’t fix,” Niki’s mother used to say. “It’s not like we locked you in the closet or tied you to the bed.”

“Mama,” she hears Jeremy’s voice, but he’s no longer sitting where he was. Hawk-eyed Margaret pulls on Niki’s t-shirt pointing to Jeremy directly beneath them.

Jeremy holds up his goggles. He has chewed at the ends and anxiously twisted the rubber so that now they’re broken.

 “There’s a spare in your bag,” she shouts quietly.

“These are them,” he says.

Margaret interrupts, “Aidan has an extra pair.”

Jeremy looks to Margaret and then back to Niki and shakes his head. They are not the right kind. He can only wear some Swedish brand with silicone pads. Chris found them, of course and they can only be purchased at the swim store miles outside the city. Niki points at her watch. She doesn’t have time. He’s terrified. She nods her head, but taps on her watch to tell him it’s too late.

Jeremy puts his hands together and pleads with her. She knows if Chris were here, he’d have a dozen pairs in the glovebox of his BMW. In his back pocket.

Niki collects her things and as she puts her sweater on she asks Margaret to give Jeremy a pair just in case she doesn’t get back in time.

“47 minutes,” Ken says. He counted the number of heats and the average times and gives her what is likely the exact time of Jeremy’s heat.

As Niki pulls open the doors to the gallery, a man falls through, almost tripping down the stairs. A small boy, about four or five years old, stands holding the door with his small body while the man struggles to get back up using the railing. He reeks of alcohol, a familiar blend of freshly drunk beer and stale old whiskey. Niki’s Dad had the very same smell. It’s as overpowering now as it was when she was little.

The boy’s eyes are glued to a bright pink Nintendo DS. He follows his father as he weaves between the backs of cheering and whistling parents and the wall, falling down on his butt beside Margaret and Ken. Niki can’t take her eyes off the boy who doesn’t miss a step walking and playing his game. The drunk man scans the deck and when he sees someone, he waves awkwardly. Niki follows his gaze to a girl about the same age as Jeremy. She doesn’t wave back until the young boy lifts his eyes from the game. They share a smile as the girl bends her wrist back and wiggles her fingers. The boy gives her one small thumb up, before sinking back into his game world.

Niki can hear Nana Mouskouri blaring in her head with that tinny car radio voice.  The CBC playing full volume while her Dad slips on and off the gravel shoulder of Highway 7.

Niki’s unblinking eyes start stinging and she goes back to where she was sitting. Jeremy is waving his hands, but Niki doesn’t look down.

Margaret lifts her phone points to the drunk Dad and mouths to Niki, ‘Should I call the police’? Niki shakes her head aggressively, no. Aidan is in the water and Ken is shouting over the railing. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. AIDAN. Kick. Even the drunk Dad is startled each time Ken yells. Margaret puts down her phone and joins her husband at the railing, blocking the view of anyone else who might want to watch the race.

Niki sits. She sees the young boy is playing a word game. He’d already found a bunch of four and five letter words from an eight-letter anagram. She looks closer.

“Did you get, SPILL?” she says.

The boy tilts the game away from her.

Aidan finishes his race and Ken is shredding the heat sheets.

Ken looks up to the clock and shouts, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before he turns to leave.

Aidan goes under the water and then comes up and starts banging his head on the wall. He took off eight seconds, won his heat and now has to wait for the other boys to finish. Not good enough he’s the fastest kid here. Jeremy approaches him after he gets out of the water and whispers something in his ear. They share a handshake that includes a fist bump, a side fist and a high five.

“Fucking high fives. Are you kidding me?” Ken says to Niki as though she’s to blame for the gesture.

Jeremy holds up Aidan’s goggles and gives her the okay sign.

Then from across the gallery, at the deep end of the pool, she hears Chris’s whistle. He used to do it in the playground when Jeremy was little. Like their son was a dog. Chris shouts Jay’s name and holds up a pair of goggles. Ken uses Niki as a handrail as he steps up and walks out of the gallery, mumbling more profanities and throwing the ripped and crumpled sheets to the ground.

The drunk Dad stirs and Niki can see it before it happens. He’s choking on all the drink, trying desperately to not spill his guts, swiping at the saliva dripping from his mouth. Liquid vomit fills the concrete floor at his feet.

It takes over twenty minutes for two security guards to turn up. One of them steps down and kicks the drunk Dad in the lower back. The man opens and then closes his eyes. The boy slowly slides to sit beside Niki, never once turning away from his jumbled words.

“Sir, can you stand on your own?” the other guard asks. The man shakes his head. The guards bend on either side of him and put an arm under each shoulder and lift. On the count of three they step up and drag him to the top leaning him against the railing as one speaks into his walkie talkie asking for help.

Niki’s head bounced off the wall. She was thirteen. She listened as her father tried to crawl up to this bedroom. He fell backward twice, landing on the hardwood floor with a thud that shook the house. When she had dared leave her bedroom to help him navigate the narrow flight, he had just enough strength to give Niki a good shove down the stairs.

As the guards turn the dad toward the exit, Margaret shouts after them, “Hey, his kid’s here too.”

The boy shrinks into Niki. “He’s fine here,” she says.

“He’s from some club up north,” Margaret says, “We don’t know them.”

“How’d you get here, son?” One of the guards kneels beside them.

“Did your father drive?” he asks.

Niki says, “We can hang out until his sister finishes swimming. I can get them both home.”

Margaret says, “You can’t do that.”

Niki tells her to shut up.

“I can get him home,” she says again.

“Unless you’re a relative or friend of the family, I’ll have to take the boy with me,” the guard says.

The Dad is mumbling something, barely able to keep his head up. It’s as if he’s gotten drunker.

The boy stands up and robotically follows the guards. Niki wants to grab him, stop them from taking him away, but her throat tightens and she cannot take a breath. How she always dreamed of punching her father back but the best arguments happened after he died. Minutes after the dad and boy disappear, Niki still has her eyes on the door.

They announce the boys 200 Fly. Jeremy is in the last of three heats.

He swings his arms around as he takes his place behind Lane 4. He unplugs an earphone gives his name to the timekeeper and steps back, intermittently slapping his legs and swinging his arms.

Niki can’t speak. She wants to cheer him on.

Chris has moved closer to the starting blocks. Go Jay Go. Jeremy claps his hands and throws two fists in the air toward his dad. Happier than a pig in shit, Niki’s mother might have said.

Chris was filling a suitcase with clothes when Niki stumbled into their bedroom at two in the morning last January. It was a post-holiday holiday party she had to attend, but she was angry he was leaving. What gave him the right to pack his bags? It was over. Long over. And don’t think because you’re packing up all your shit that it’s you who’s come to some suddenly wide-eyed decision that this isn’t working. You massive mother-fucking dickhead. She’d gone off the deep end, she knew it and all the while she helped him throw his crap in a couple more suitcases, she was stripping off her own clothes. As he stopped at the front door, Niki stood naked in the living room applauding him and his big move.

Margaret is still talking about the drunk father. All disgust, pity and shame as they wonder who his swimmer is. Niki looks down to the girl, who is beside her coach staring blankly at the gallery’s exit doors. Niki knows that face, lifeless because any twitch or slight movement will trigger tears and with tears comes a full-blown breakdown.

The race starts and Jeremy kicks fast and furiously before he comes up with his first stroke, a full body length ahead of the swimmer next to him. His first turn brings him even further ahead of the pack. Niki rocks back and forth to the rhythm of the stroke. It soothes her. This is what she will tell him after the race. She will thank him. How the grace of his swimming calmed her.

As Jeremy turns again, Margaret asks Niki if she knows the drunk asshole. Niki shakes her head without looking at her. Margaret keeps talking anyway. How she demands people don’t speak to her when Aidan swims and yet she yacks and yacks now. Margaret adds, how sorry she feels for the drunk man’s kids.

Jeremy finishes. Niki’s eyes are clouded. When she stands to cheer, tears spill down her face.

“You wonder why some people become parents,” Margaret says.

Jeremy glances up at the clock and throws his hands in the air before diving backwards under the water.

Niki watches Chris whooping and hollering, wiping his own eyes. He stares back at her. If only once he could look like he doesn’t know he’s the better parent.

BIO

Alison Gadsby is a Toronto-based fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from York University, where she was awarded the bp nichol award for exceptional achievement. She was also recently awarded a two-week residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts. 

Alison is an active participant in the literary community and is the founder, curator and host of Junction Reads a monthly prose reading series in Toronto. 

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN

by Tony Van Witsen

I awoke and even before I remembered where I was, I knew it wasn’t Michigan. The light was different: soft and cottony. The house shook slightly from traffic on the freeway and the air smelled of lemons. Sitting up, I saw a range of jagged hills outside the window. Then I remembered: it was just my luck that when my mother skipped out on her happy home for Hollywood, part of her plan was to take me along and make an actor of me. Another part was to trade Michigan and my Communist-obsessed father for California and a chance to breathe the same air as movie stars.

As a plan, it was no more or less logical than our block back home. To our left, Skip and Betsy Ambler maintained the biggest collection of science fiction I’d ever seen. On Halloween they greeted candy seekers by dressing in silver spacesuits with plexiglass bubble helmets.

Somewhere they had found hard candies shaped like cherry red or lime green rocket ships with tail fins. When my brother Ted reached into the bowl for another, Betsy gave his hand a sharp little slap. “Only one per star fleet, Ranger.”

To our right lived our dentist, Dr. Frederick Payne, whose name made him the butt of endless jokes. Dr. Payne was the only person we knew who’d supported Adlai Stevenson for President, giving him and my father something to argue about during cleanings. I knew Dr. Payne took unfair advantage by arguing when he had my father’s mouth clamped open and couldn’t talk back.

Three houses down lived Hap McGuire, a photographer for the Shackley Gazette which seemed like the best job in the world to me. Not to Hap, though. “It’s nothing, Phil. You go to a Cub Scout fundraiser, wrestle the little brats into a single line behind their craft stand. Fire off two shots. Drive to a ground breaking. Wait for the guys in suits to stick their shovels in. Fire off two more shots.” It sounded routine enough, but then came Hap’s moment to shine when Harry Truman’s presidential train stopped here on his way to Kansas City. “Damnedest thing happened, Phil,” he told me. “I had a copy of the Chicago Trib with that headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Couldn’t resist: I yelled, ‘Hey Mr. President, how about holding this up for us?’ He grinned as I shoved it into his hand. I said, ‘Move it to the left, it’s blocking your face.’ There was three, four of us on the platform; we all fired our flashguns. He started to lower the paper. I said, ‘One more?’ He said, ‘You boys should form the Just One More Club,’ but he raised the paper again. I screwed in another bulb, pulled the slide on the plate holder. Fired the flash.”

“And the rest is history?” I said.

“Hell no,” he snorted. “Truman is history. Newspaper photographers are nobodies.”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this could have happened anywhere within shouting distance of Truman but for our purposes make it West Shackley Grove Michigan, summer of 1954. There was my mother who worked as a ticket taker at the Grove Theatre downtown, my father who balanced a solid business doing doctors’ and dentists’ tax returns with a hobby of fighting world Communism and my older brother Ted who won awards and ran around town with girls, listened to modern jazz and collected prints of paintings I couldn’t understand. A two- bit prankster and cutup, I brought up the rear of this parade.

When I said summer I really meant Fourth of July. Evening. We all sat in chairs on our front lawn waiting for the sky to darken so the fireworks could begin. Pop had a home movie camera in his lap. My parents had already talked about the heat, how their respective families were holding up, and if it would rain Friday. They could do this for hours. She mentioned her sister who went and married a farmer on the U.P, never had kids and seemed perfectly satisfied to live with pigs and chickens. Then he brought up his cousin who was so good with people and became a real estate agent. “Was that Peg?” my mother said. “Didn’t she also run for City Council?”

“You’re thinking of Trudy,” my father said. “She wanted to run but those Republicans wouldn’t give her a crust of bread to gnaw on. Peg was the real estate tycoon.” I began to wonder why they didn’t write it all down somewhere and save themselves the trouble, when he shifted tone. “Philip, Ted. I want you to listen to this.” He took a sip of his scotch then began another of his warnings that Commies were everywhere. “I happen to know that the KGB— that’s their spying agency, the KGB—has a training center in Siberia with an exact copy of an American town. Homes, schools, city hall, everything. Now what do you think of that?”

”Sounds batty to me,” Ted said. I responded by walking to the porch where I’d left my firecrackers, lighting a string, and tossing it over the rail into my mother’s hydrangeas,

wondering what clever thing would make me seem as competent and popular as Ted. My mother had only to say, Ted, what’s wrong with the folding closet door in the master bedroom? Up he leapt, ran to the basement and returned, hands full of tools. After ten minutes, he emerged and calmly pronounced, It’s fixed. And it was. Or she said, “Ted, how about whipping up an angel food cake? We’d all love some angel food cake right now.” Off he sprinted to the kitchen. We heard utensils clink, eggshells cracking, the mixer. An hour later he emerged with the warm cake on a platter and a cake knife. We all knew Ted was headed for some eastern college which was merely the first step on a pathway to whatever success he chose. Girls of all shapes and sizes were pleased and proud to be seen in his company. Somehow his interest in abstract art, Dave Brubeck and foreign films made them feel like women of the world, though he never dated them. I spotted him in the center of a crowd walking down the school corridor, arms around each others’ waists. Ted was singing something fractured and deliberately off key as the girls, giggling, tried to keep up.

These stories filtered back to my parents, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps not. One evening, when they’d been discussing family relations again, the door to Ted’s room opened, flooding the room with the sounds of a saxophone.

“What the hell is that?” my father said. “Don’t ask me,” my mother said.

“What is that stuff anyway?” my father repeated as Ted appeared in the living room. “Bebop,” Ted said.

“I mean who’s playing.” “John Coltrane.”

“Is he a Negro?” “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I have nothing against Negroes, nothing at all. Some of them are extremely talented. Is Mr. Coltrane a Communist?”

“He’s a modalist.”

“Well–we just have to watch out for subversive influences, that’s all.” Ted and my father gazed at each other as my mother began flicking through a movie magazine, then Ted headed to the kitchen, emerging a moment later biting into an apple. The sounds of Coltrane’s sax grew muffled as he returned to his room and closed the door.

Until my dad brought up Communists I’d been reading Earl K McMaster’s Fourth Orb From The Sun. This was a tale of daily life on Mars or Tessort, as they called it. Tessort had red deserts and sand cliffs, jewel-like cities and rivers of flowing purple glass. It looked nothing like this place. My mother, who could watch the main feature at the Grove as often as she liked, had been talking about Joan Crawford’s fierce, eager smile when she begged David Brian to take up a life of crime in The Damned Don’t Cry. She’d recently spent a week in to Los Angeles with her friend Hazel, who worked at a talent agency in Beverly Hills, returning full of stories about stucco houses with red tiled roofs and oranges you could pick off the trees yourself. Her problem with Communists was that they weren’t movie stars.

“Philip is such a showoff,” my mother said. “But he wastes it all on pranks.”

“I know what you’re wondering,” my father said as though the previous hadn’t happened. “Why can’t we tell the commies by their accents or their dress or their habits.”

“I’m sure you’ll inform us,” my mother said. “Well sir, that’s a measure of how clever they are.”

“See those moths buzzing around the streetlights?” Ted said. “They’re from the FBI.” “That’s enough, Ted,” my father said. “It happens to be a fact that Russian spies spend

months practicing to be Americans.”

“Do tell,” my mother said.

“They read our newspapers. Learn about our sports. Wouldn’t be surprised if they listen to transcriptions of Your Hit Parade. They could be living right on this block and you’d never know it.”

“Hah! J. Edgar Hoover!” Ted grinned as a swallow flew down the street. “Or is it Stalin

disguised as J. Edgar? Typical Commie trick.”

“We are all responsible for fighting this threat to our way of life,” my father said. “You boys might want to write this down.”

Already suspended from school twice, I had recently been threatened with expulsion when my best friends Rick and Ronnie fingered me as the ringleader in some vague shenanigans, though I had nothing to do with it. Rather than expel me, they suspended me a third time, reasoning that even if I didn’t do it I very well could have, which was the same thing. I sat out the idleness on our porch, reading The Man Who Sold The Moon while Ted brought my homework so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Maybe it was the fits of purposeless boredom that defined my whole existence, but something in my father’s warnings stuck to me. If he said Commies read Readers Digest Condensed Books, why shouldn’t it be so? If we had to protect American life from spies, why not help? On Saturday I watched Jerry Peters, across the street, working up a tremendous sweat as he pushed a hand mower across his front lawn. He didn’t look remotely like a spy, so of course he had to be one. He noticed me staring and waved a friendly hand. Perhaps the KGB had taught him to sweat like an American including the damp circles under his arms.

I couldn’t find any Martians with x-ray vision that exposed Communists so I telephoned old man Peters. “I know who you are,” I growled. “I know what you’re up to.” He recognized my voice instantly and threatened to call the police on me. Reform school was threatened along

with stern-faced judges, child psychologists. Summer in California suddenly made all kinds of sense; my mother called in a favor from Hazel to find me something. And so here I was in this concrete block room off Sunset Boulevard that housed the Hand Laundry Theater Collective, which would make an actor of me or die trying.

It was some kind of place alright; more like a garage or a former drycleaners than an acting school. Picture a symphony orchestra tuning up: energy without direction. Two people were discussing apartment rents in Sawtelle. A piano which everyone ignored. Also a table laid with newspapers, gum, aspirin bottles, a sack of jellybeans, water tumblers, cigarettes, a cap pistol. Props, I guess. All presided over by an exploding cigar of a director, which is what J.D. Wagner seemed like with his shock of black hair and sweatshirt. My mother stood next to me, dolled up like it was church bingo night.

“What have we here?” were Wagner’s first words.

“He was in Our Town,” my mother said. “In Michigan.”

“I asked Philip, not his mother,” J.D. said. “Now why don’t you sit in one of those chairs and just watch for now?”

J.D. turned and began talking about actors and directors with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman named Rudd Markson. “I don’t know. I think so,” she said, speaking the words with a theatrical intensity that left me oblivious to anyone else. It was scary how beautiful she was: not just her bone structure but her movements, how her body fell naturally into an elegant sprawl the moment she straddled a chair. The way her voice, even her features seemed like a window to her most private self.

The talk stopped. Rudd sat very still, considering something, perhaps. I felt I’d been sleepwalking through life till that moment. Why hadn’t anyone told me what real movie stars looked like?

This wasn’t what my mother wanted to know as she sat at Hazel’s living room table that evening with a bourbon and water. “Did you actually get to act today?” were her first words.

“I did the lead in Our Town,” I knew this was what she wanted so I gave it to her. “Just like in Michigan. No scenery.”

“Really?”

“Really. I also played Lady Macbeth. As an experiment.” “You played—”

“Henry Higgins too.”

“Philip, will you be serious a moment? You are very annoying.”

Recently a prankster, now an actor—how serious was that? Mostly I’d spent the afternoon just sitting and listening. “J.D. says we should aim for the primal trauma,” I said.

“It sounds like a con to me,” my mother said. This was exactly what I would have expected from my father. “Well it doesn’t matter. My boy is going to be an actor any way it has to happen, aren’t you, Philip?”

“What did you do today?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s the most awful thing. They’ve got me turning out scripts on the mimeograph. I can’t work those things. Ink gets everywhere.”

“Clint Walker came into the office today,” came Hazel’s voice. “He’s so tall! Six-five at

least.”

“Did you talk to him?” my mother said. “Of course I talked to him.”

“That so? I would have thought he’d be too stuck-up to talk to real people.”

“And that’s where you’d be wrong. He’s like regular folks, only a whole lot better looking.”

“Well now. It just goes to show.”

Hazel’s job typing up contracts seemed like the stupidest work in the world. “Maybe I’ll play Captain Queeg tomorrow,” I said. My mother reached out and touched my hand but her face said, This is your chance to make something of yourself. And if you don’t, I’ll blame you for it.

“What happened with the mimeo?” I asked.

“Another mimeo lady took pity on me and told me just to bind pages together with those little brass fasteners. So that’s my job.” Rather than answering I went to my room, tore a sheet out of an old notebook and wrote REVENGE OF THE REPTILE PEOPLE across the top.

The rehearsal studio was no more inviting the next day when J.D. handed me a sheaf of pages such as my mother might have fastened together. “Philip, go up there and work with Rudd.” Feeling like less an actor than a block of wood, I shuffled into the open space in the center of the room to play a ten-year-old, with Rudd my adoring mother. Paying no attention to my embarrassment, Rudd began to caress my face and smother my cheek with little kisses. When I froze, certain I’d muffed it, J.D. leaned toward me. “Do it again,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “But this time when she’s completely engaged with you, pinch her butt.”

I read my lines, always aware of J.D’s gaze, but when the moment came I froze again, clutching Rudd till she jumped up, fell over the prop coffee table and bumped to the floor.

“Philip,” said J.D’s voice. “What did I tell you to do?” When I saw his grin I realized it was he who’d pinched Rudd’s behind for me.

“Damn! Is this the Dempsey-Firpo fight?” Rudd said. “I could have broken something.” “The scene was flat before,” J.D. said. “Now it roars. Take two aspirin and do it again.”

When I finally put down the script and plopped into a chair at the edge of the room I spied another company member looking at me as if he knew me. “Answer me something,” he

said. “Does this burg remind you of Mars?” I agreed—something about those foothills against the sky at dusk.

“I have a past,” Chuck said, as though I’d asked. “Froze my kiester off in Korea in ’51 and ’52. Now I’m here where it’s warm, writing science fiction. Do you think J.D. is the biggest phony since General MacArthur?” I had no idea what he was about, shambling around like a bear in his beret, hornrims and bushy black beard. At lunchtime Chuck took me to the Galaxy bookstore two blocks away (“FOUR FLOORS OF SCIENCE FICTION”) where we heard Jack Allenby read a chapter from his bestseller Invaders From Planet Vesta. English, in his forties, he had a glow on his cheeks as he read in his clipped speech to a crowd full of young men in sport jackets, buzz cuts and glittery tie clips.

Afterwards, one of them asked, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Allenby, what’s the secret of your incredible productivity?”

“Glad you asked,” he nodded. “My agent says you have to have a book every 18 to 24 months to stay in the game. Bit of a strain, that. But I have a system. My secretary arrives at my home in Pasadena at 8:30. We have a cup of coffee, then we go into my study at 9 o’clock sharp. I dictate all morning; she takes it down in shorthand. We both have a cigarette at 10:30, then back to work till noon. After lunch she types up what I’ve dictated while I revise what she typed the day before. We turn out a chapter every two weeks.” He paused to chuckle. “I’m amazed she can read all my scribbles in the margins when I’m done revising. Then she retypes it all and we’re halfway there. Or as we English say, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”

“Did you think that guy was as big a fraud as I did?” Chuck said afterward. “Do you think everyone’s a fraud?”

“Right-ho!” He fell into an impeccable British accent. “I’d like to thank my attractive and creamy complexioned secretary, Miss Fiona Balderdash, for making sense of my scrawls and pothooks. Yes, quite. Dear indispensable Fiona practically writes those books for me.”

“Why are you in J.D’s class?” I asked.

“If I want to make it in the science fiction market I’d better know everything about how stories are created. I guess that’s it. But I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll fire that cap pistol tomorrow for fun.” I pictured J.D. enthusing about what it did to the scene.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was mother, decked out in pearl necklace and earrings. “I thought I’d find you here. Have you made any friends in that class?”

“This is Chuck,” I said. “We’re learning to write best-sellers.”

“We’re at the stage where the Vestans advance on the U.N. with their demands,” Chuck

said.

“You know what I especially love about that story?” my mother said. “Where the aliens build a replica of an American town on Vesta so they can practice being Earthlings.”

“I don’t remember that part,” Chuck said. I could tell he was entertained.

“The houses are filled with transcriptions of Your Hit Parade,” I said. I knew my mother read nothing but romance novels. What would happen if I handed her a newspaper headlined VESTA DEFEATS EARTH?

“Vestans are more earthlike than we humans,” my mother said. “That’s how you can spot them.” It wasn’t the lying that shocked me, it was the casual insolence toward my father’s beliefs, his ideals.

“You’d fit right in on Mars,” Chuck said. “Are you an actress?”

“I’m in charge of story development for Cosmo Pictures. I read hundreds of novels and scripts to decide what we’ll produce next.”

“Why did you feed him that B. S?” I said as we drove back to Hazel’s place.

“I think he has important connections in the movie business,” she said. “It’s imperative to meet him at his own level.” She couldn’t get Chuck out of her mind. There was something humiliating about it.

“Your father called today,” my mother said. “Hap was hospitalized after a bank robbery downtown. Police shot the perpetrator as he left the building. Hap photographed the guy bleeding to death on the street. It made the front page. Hap needed a day to recover from the shock. Can you believe it?”

“Is that all?”

“Your pop’s helping Skip Ambler build a rocket launcher in his backyard.”

I looked into the darkness for Martians scurrying through the underbrush with their chrysoberyl eyes. Chuck was right. California was nothing like flat, platted Michigan.

One afternoon when I stole away from class to visit the Galaxy again I saw my mother leafing through a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. She slammed it shut when she saw me.

“When did you get interested in science fiction?” I said.

“Chuck thinks I should produce science fiction epics exclusively,” she said.

I could hear my father saying, “Son, you can’t solve your problems by pretending.” There was more pretending going on here than in acting class but it only drove me deeper into my mother’s delusions. “Good idea,” I said. “that might get you a promotion.”

Next day J.D. told me to play a troubled kid with Chuck a high school principal. Sitting across from me, Chuck glowered so realistically that I knew why J.D. said we should live the part through emotional memory.

Until J.D. stopped us. “Why did you hesitate before disciplining the boy?” he said.

“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “It just felt right.”

“Don’t. Just keep going as if was the most natural thing in the world.” “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?” “What’s the reason, that’s all.”

“If you’re wondering about character motivation—”

“I mean I’ve been here four months and I don’t know what I’ve really learned yet.” “Right,” J.D. said. “Well it doesn’t happen quickly. You have to have faith.”

“No pep talks, please. No psychological stuff. Why can’t we just act?” “Easy, now,” J.D. said. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”

“What if I have?” He seemed on the verge of causing grievous harm to someone, possibly himself.

“Look,” J.D. said. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Chuck’s shirt-tail was coming untucked as he shuffled toward the door.

When I got to Hazel’s after a long bus ride, I found Chuck seated in the living room across from my mother, both of them holding glasses of beer. A wedge of Chuck’s pink belly showed. The tabletop looked like a saloon at closing time.

“Guess who dropped by?” my mother said with a grin. “Chuck’s been entertaining us with tales of your director and his—how shall I put it? Antics.

“He’s nothing compared to some magazine editors I know,” Chuck said. “Pretentious,” my mother said. “He probably doesn’t even believe in scenery.” “How was your day at the studio?” Chuck asked my mother.

“I signed Clint Walker to a three-picture deal,” she said. “You what?” Hazel said.

“It’s still a secret. You won’t read it in the papers.”

“Your mother’s an amazing woman,” Chuck said to me. “But that J.D. He doesn’t know a scene from a Studebaker.”

“Call me when dinner’s ready,” I said, heading to my room. Over the next few evenings, in Hazel’s living room, I heard them discuss plans for a movie of Chuck’s work in progress, Pods. Developing the script, budgeting. Who would they get to star? My mom wanted Technicolor; Chuck leaned toward black and white. I realized there were some things I’d never understand about self-deception.

Those wooden folding chairs with their slatted seats remained perpetually arranged in a circle or semicircle while different cast members tried out their scenes under J. D’s demanding gaze. Alone one steamy afternoon, the others gone, I nibbled on jellybeans. The bus to Van Nuys wasn’t due for 45 minutes. I could picture Dr. Payne, back in Michigan at that very moment, telling a patient to open wide.

“Hey! I want to talk to you.” It was Rudd, coming up on me from behind. “Why?”

“No reason. I just think we should talk as one actor to another without J.D. around. I mean you can’t play scenes with someone and not notice things.”

“Maybe.”

“Because I think you could be a fine little actor if you’d loosen up, Philip.” “My real name is Clint,” I said.

“What I mean,” she continued “is you have to stop resisting your own self, know what I mean? I’m an intuitive actor but it took time to figure that out. I didn’t know you could make choices about how to play a scene. I thought my kind of acting was all there was. Give me some of those, will you?”

“What choices?” I poured jellybeans into her cupped hands.

“Why do I look in this direction? Why do I sit down at that moment? Why do I sit at all? That’s some peoples’ way. It’s J.D’s way. It’s Brando’s way. Not mine. For example, the couch scene.”

“Chuck says J.D. is the biggest fake he’s ever seen.”

“Never mind Chuck; it’s just you and me right now. Do you know you tighten up every time I touch you? Don’t be afraid to do something easy and intuitive with your body; the audience has a sixth sense about that.”

“Think the Tigers have a chance to win the pennant this year?”

“Let me give you my thoughts,” Rudd said. “I think mom is hungry for a little love. But it doesn’t make her lovable, it makes her overbearing. Her son intuits that.”

There I was, discussing character motivation with this looker. “I can’t go on being a cutup all my life. I have to do something real,” It was B.S. but I meant it too.

“Or you could try being more of a cutup rather than less. Great acting means doing what you’re already good at only more so.”

“Can I?” I pictured myself onstage tossing firecrackers into the audience whose cheering grew with each blast. This one is for the first suspension. BANG! This is for the second. BOOM!! That’s for Dr. Payne’s daughter Doris with her shining blonde hair who didn’t return my notes in class. Until my pop jumped up from the audience, grabbed me by the collar and told me to stop making a scene. He would have pulled me offstage entirely but in my imagination, Rudd intervened and persuaded him to give me just a moment more with the crowd.

“I hate everything about my life right now.” That slid out. “My brother can do everything. I can’t do anything. My mom wants me to be an actor—”

“Oh she does, does she?”

“—while Communists are taking over the country. What’s wrong with me anyhow?” “Come on,” Rudd said. “I’ll drive you home.”

Fading daylight made the flat floor of the valley look like another world as Rudd’s car reached Mulholland Drive. That stuff about my family made sense when I said it, less so now. “So tell me, Philip,” Rudd said as the car began to descend. “What are you most afraid

of?”

“Have you ever noticed how much this place resembles Mars?” “I asked you a question.”

“Or would you say it looks more like Venus?”

“Quit your kite-flying and answer me. Pretend I’m not an actress. Pretend I’m a carhop.” Below us tiny pinpoints of light moved along the boulevards like alien transport modules. I was afraid my mother would never return us to West Shackley Grove; equally afraid she would.

“What are you most afraid of, Rudd?”

“Getting too comfortable. Winding up in a movie contract where I do just what they tell me and I make a lot of money.”

“I don’t believe you. Why do you want to live like an ordinary person? You aren’t one.” “If I looked like a character actor I could do what I want. Live in a little apartment

someplace, maybe a beach house. Do interesting roles. Does that surprise you?”

Her words made me feel so commonplace. “Thank you for the ride,” I said as the car pulled into my street.

“And goodnight,” she said as I opened the car door. “You don’t like acting, do you?” “No.” I wondered how she could have figured it out.

“For what it’s worth, I’d respect you more if you just did what you damn well wanted.”

All the lights were off when I entered. Sinking onto the couch, I jumped right up again because I’d sat on one of my mother’s romance novels. For weeks I’d done what was expected of me but learned precious little about acting. “Do something character-defining,” J.D told us. I longed to notice a single flaw in some spy’s impeccable façade, tip off the feds, then watch with quiet pride as two blue-suited G-men led the Commie to a waiting car with two more agents lugging the mower as evidence.

Gradually, I perceived the voices of my mother and Chuck from her bedroom. Their talk was quiet and true, like two people who spoke so honestly they didn’t need to shout. I must have dozed off because after a while I made out my mother standing nearby.

“Philip?” she said. “Yes.”

“We’re going home next week.” “Why?”

“If you must know, Ted’s gone.” “Gone? From where?”

“Michigan. Your father called long distance. Ted found a job in New York. We don’t know how. At a fashion house.”

“Just left?” I said.

“Can you believe it? Threw away a college education. Your father was on the phone for half an hour; you know how he goes on so. ‘Never figured him for a dress designer, that’s for sure. I mean he was so popular with the ladies. Who’da thunk it?’” She mimicked his astonished tone so perfectly it was like he was in the room. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother, Philip. If I’d been home, Ted would never have run off like that.”

“So that’s the reason we’re leaving?”

“It’s other things too. Everybody hates me. Your father. Ted. The mimeo people. I’d like to kill myself right now. What do I have to live for?”

“Ma!” I didn’t believe her dramatics. “Does this have anything to do with Chuck?” I said. “Now you listen to me, young man. You are never to mention Chuck when we’re back

home.”

“What do you see in that creep? He should have stuck to acting and not walked out on

J.D.”

“When I said never, I meant never,” she repeated. “Can you do that for me? Can you?

Please?”

I didn’t answer, just thought about my obligations to my family, to J.D. and a girl who looked like a movie star but didn’t behave like one. Eventually my mother returned to the bedroom and closed the door. Next day when J.D. told me to play a scene as though I knew a secret, I didn’t have to invent one.

My mom stared vacantly ahead as pop pulled the car into our driveway. “Welcome home,” he said. “Skip’s rocket blew up on the launcher yesterday. Nearly set his house on fire. Does that beat all?” The place looked like a movie set cleverly fashioned to mimic our house only they’d gotten the proportions wrong, or the scale. The new school year was just days away.

The first thing my mother did after putting down her suitcase was start opening and closing kitchen cabinets.

“What’s for dinner?” pop called from the living room.

“How should I know?” she said. “I just arrived. Get your own dinner; then you can have anything you want.”

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” “I thought maybe Ted left something.”

“I can make French toast,” pop said. “Do you expect us to be grateful?”

I soon found people didn’t want to hear about what I called “my Hollywood escapade.” They were more intrigued by Ted’s job as an assistant to a dress designer in New York. My mother spoke of returning to California to see Hazel but didn’t follow through. Pop must have realized something because at Christmas he closed the tax office and took her on a month-long tour of Europe.

Like my mother I started opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut again. I felt Ted would leave a trace of his presence in the halls of Shackley High, some flicker of a remembered good time on the faces of the girls he knew, as though he’d shown them a higher version of themselves only to have it slip away after he was gone. Vanished, like the last slice of angel food cake. This was something godless Communists would never understand which was why we had to stop them from taking over the country.

“I think I’d like to write to Ted,” I said. “Do you have the address?” “What?” my mother said from the next room.

“Nothing. I’ll get it from pop.” I slammed another cabinet door and walked out of the kitchen.

“What?”

BIO

Tony Van Witsen is a five-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fourteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including The Missing Slate (featured as a story of the week), Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

Complicit

by Jane Snyder

Violet, disgusted, closed her eyes, lay as still and small as she could, hoping they’d go away, but they stayed, John and Dr. Walters, talking above her head.

I might speak, she thought, if they’d shut up. Her husband, John, old, thin, raspy as a grasshopper, showing off for Dr. Walters, the psychiatrist. Twenty years before, when Dr. Walters was an intern and John was chief medical officer, the nurses under Violet called Dr. Walters a pretty boy. Those young nurses were funny. She’d liked them so much, hoped they’d liked her a little too.

“Psychosomatic,” John said. “Well, I wondered. I did indeed. It came on so suddenly. Of course, I go back to when we called it hysterical blindness. Wandering Womb. I still think there’s something to that. Not at Violet’s age, of course,” he added comfortably. “But what do you think, Doctor?” Violet wished she could take a damp cloth, wipe the crispy bits from under John’s nostrils.

What Dr. Walters thought was that Violet’s behavior was a response to her daughter’s death. When he’d see her around town he said, with her daughter or John, he said, she was fine.

 News to Violet, this benign presence observing her successful adjustment to old age. John, Violet believed, would have liked it if Dr. Walters had said hello.

“One of those cancer tragedies,” her husband said, of Anne. “It seems as if it’s always the woman who’s the center of her family’s world, the one everyone depends on. When they become ill they’ve already exhausted their strength caring for others. They can’t put up any defenses against the cancer.”

Oh, so that’s what happened.

John was wearing a clean shirt today; hadn’t remembered to shave.

“Violet,” Dr. Walters asked. “Do you know your daughter has died?” When Violet worked at the hospital the nurses claimed Dr. Walters would raise his hand for silence when he spoke. Doctor at work.

Anne had died nine months ago. The doctor may have her grieving, Violet thought, decided she’d be the judge of that.

“What was her name, Violet?”

“Anne,” her husband said, embarrassed, Violet guessed, by her recalcitrance.

“Was her name Anne, Violet? I know you can talk if you want to.”

I was never so flattered as when Anne was small. I was a queen to her, could soothe, delight, comfort, enchant, entertain, anything. How she loved me.

“What was Anne like?” She was as dull as John made her sound, Violet thought. A good wife, mother, and daughter, put the needs of others first.

 It was what I was like when I was with her.

“You spoke last night, Violet. To that young man. Mark. You scratched his face.”

“Oh my,” her husband said. Not embarrassed. Currying favor.

Dr. Walters wants me to be ashamed, Violet thought. I’m not.

“Did you think you were in danger? That you were home and he was breaking in?  That he would hurt Anne?”

“Mark. I marked him.” Violet thought she’d spoken aloud but no one answered. You’d think a healthy young fellow could have gotten away from me. I wanted to hurt someone, she wanted to say, and you weren’t here.

“We cared for Anne in our home. With help from Hospice,” her husband said. “Our son-in-law just wasn’t able. It was easy for us, with our medical background.”

I cared for her, she thought. John came to Anne’s room once a day, showing off, as if he were on rounds with the residents. Keep the patient comfortable, he’d told the CNA. That’s the main thing in palliative care. She knows all that, Violet wanted to say. She works for Hospice.  

“Violet,” Dr. Walters said, taking her right hand in both of his. “I know you can hear me.”

Yes, and it’s no treat. Anger, now, anger is what I enjoy. She held onto it as tightly as Eliza held onto her son Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, running over the ice floes, away from the bloodhounds to freedom.

“You’re a smart one, Violet,” Dr. Walters said into the room, performing again. Not for her so no need to listen. “And I’ll tell you: I’m not putting up with this. I know you can talk and if you’re not doing that very soon you’re out of here. Nursing home, assisted living. Whatever. This is 1995. Sicker and quicker. Hospitals don’t provide long term care. Get better or don’t. Your choice. Either way, you’re not staying here.”

Eliza felt the dogs’ hungry hot breath on her legs as she ran. They’d tear her apart if they caught her but better that than being dragged back and Harry sold away from her. She held on and ran.

Violet’s head dropped forward and she bit into Dr. Walters’ hand.             

“Really, Violet.” Her husband made a clucking sound.

Her mouth was pried gently open. Sue, the nurse she liked, would have done it.  Dr. Walters snatched his hand away. “So you heard me all along, didn’t you, Violet?” His tone was triumphant; she must have hurt him.

‘She’s never done anything like that before,” her husband said. Thinks he knows everything about me. Apologizing for me.

“I may have come on too strong,” Dr. Walters said. Violet imagined the bruise growing darker. The skin would coarsen, appear granulated.

“Oh, no,” her husband said. “No.”

“It isn’t that I don’t sympathize with your loss. But sometimes confrontation is what it takes to get through to a patient.” Dr. Walters had always been like that, Violet remembered, pluming himself on his “unconventional” methods, knowing more than anybody else.

John’s voice was creamy. “Oh, of course.”

What a toady, Violet thought. What a pantywaist.

When he said goodnight John kept his distance. Afraid I’ll take a bite out of him, too, Violet thought. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he said, before leaving with Dr. Walters. Violet snorted. Trying to align himself with Pretty Boy. Just who do you think is going to take care of you.

John had been frightened last week when Violet stopped speaking. When he tried to take her to the hospital she inserted herself between the stove and the wall.

He told the Crisis Team she was the gentlest lady alive. Violet had kicked at them.

Like a donkey, she’d thought, braying.

“I wish you could have seen Dr. Walters’ face,” Sue said after they’d gone. She laughed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I don’t know; I’ve never worked Psych before. We’ve got low census on 4A so they sent me here. It’s kind of fun.”

Violet began to wish she could ask questions. Sue, though, spoke as if Violet was speaking and she, Sue, was responding to her. “4A is oncology. I don’t know if that’s different since your time. My nurse manager sure has been talking about you. Linda Richards. Remember her? She wants to see you tonight before she leaves.”

Linda. Not an agile mind, not as pretty as some of the others, but persistent.

“You don’t have to see her if you don’t want to.”

Violet remembered when oncology was on the seventh floor and called cancer. This was when she was the nursing supervisor on night shift. Her choice. She could sleep when Anne was at school, be with Anne when she came home. On weekends when John wasn’t on call, she was supposed to catch up on her sleep. He’d take Anne to the hospital with him, stow her with a coloring book at the nurse’s station while he saw patients. Violet, when she was alone, slept deeply.

When she was small Anne was sweet and appreciative and time with her father had gone smoothly. The summer Anne turned twelve, though, John became fierce with her. Chubby, he’d call her and say there’s no excuse for that. Wanted Anne to drink warm water and lemon juice when she got up in the morning and instructed Violet to serve fruit for dessert. At dinner he’d quiz Anne on what she’d eaten during the day, tell her she must be eating more than that.

Violet said it was temporary. She’s not going to be heavy, she told him. We’re not. When Anne was a baby she’d been the same, get a little chunky, have a growth spurt and be thin again. Why bother her about something that would go away on its own?

You indulge her too much, John said. There are serious health risks involved here. The subject, he told Violet, was closed. He wanted Anne to exercise, made her go on bike rides with him. He’d sit up straight, spare and erect in his khaki shorts and gingham shirt, talking the whole time, to prove he wasn’t winded.

Anne was embarrassed, didn’t want her friends to see them. She swam in their pool every day, she said. That could be her exercise.

“You float on your back and daydream in the warm water. Genuine exercise is what you need,” John said, announcing plans to take her to the pool at the country club. “It’s bigger. You’ll get a real work out.”

Anne said the high school kids went there on weekends and she’d feel funny.

Perhaps, John told her, you’d be less self-conscious if you’d lose weight. In any case, we’re members, have every right to be there.

He took her one Saturday after breakfast. Anne was sullen. John was stolid, cheerful; pretended they were having fun.

Violet anticipated trouble but she’d worked a double and fell deeply asleep as soon as Violet and John left for the pool, slept till late afternoon when the smell of chlorine and emesis sent her rocketing up from deep sleep to the surface. Anne was gripping her hard around the waist. Shuddering, sobbing.

“Sweetie? Where’s Daddy?” He’d be angry with Anne for waking her and scold her for crying and getting in their bed. Like a baby, he’d say.

Anne sobbed louder. She was still in her bathing suit. Damp. She ought to have changed; she knew about mold and mildew. Violet felt the heightened anxiety she sometimes had at work when there was no quarter for mistake, when everything had to be done right. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?” There was another smell. Acrid and sweet. “Tell me.”

Violet cautioned herself not to yell, not to frighten Anne. She was frightened herself, guessing what was coming.

“Don’t be mad.”

“No. No, I won’t be mad.”

John had dropped Anne off, and, as Violet learned from Anne, had driven on to his office himself, too angry to tolerate his daughter’s company for another minute.

Anne had gone into the hall bathroom and swallowed the contents of a leftover bottle of baby aspirin on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, the first thing she found, Anne said, crying harder. She’d gone to bed, thinking she’d sleep and not wake up. She’d lain there for a few minutes, feeling dizzy, but then her stomach had started to hurt and she’d vomited a big pinkish blob onto the rug.                                             “

“It’s a throw rug,” Violet said, thinking how inadequate this sounded.  “I can put it in the washing machine. It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”

Again she asked her where her father was. He wasn’t home, that was clear, or Anne wouldn’t have allowed her to lead her to the kitchen where Violet made lemonade from a can of concentrate. Anne gulped it all down even as Violet cautioned to drink slowly. “I’m not going to die?” She was diffident, wanting to know the answer, not wanting to show how much.

“No.” Violet thought of the things that could have happened. “Not today.”

“You’re sure?”

“Well, I’m a nurse.”

John, when he wanted to pull her up short would say, “Oh, I think I know, Violet. I’m a physician.”

Johns hay fever pills would have been enough. Or Anne could have made herself a noose and not been able to extricate herself in time. “Did you want to die?” Anne started to cry again. She had. She’d formed the thought and intended to carry it out. Violet felt something being pulled from her grasp.

“Why?” Imagine letting yourself entertain those thoughts. Actually thinking them, following where they went, not pushing them away. “What’s wrong?” Allow me to fix it for you, Violet wanted to say, put it in perspective for you, change it for you. I’m so glad you’re not dead, she wanted to say but already she was moving away from that. Moving herself and Anne away. “I’m so glad you’re all right. Whatever it is I won’t be angry.”

“Daddy is. Daddy’s angry.”

Violet wanted to promise to take care of it, wondered if she could. When she complained about the fat talk John only got harder on Anne. “I think it must have been a misunderstanding.”

Anne stood up. “I know what he said. I hate him and he hates me.” The lemonade had dampened the orangey pink powder around her lips.

She’s little, Violet thought, she’s just a little girl. “Oh, no, sweetie.” Do it right, Violet told herself. It has to be right. “Please tell me what happened.” She stood behind her, put her arms around Anne who seemed to grow smaller.

Her father had wanted them to swim laps but there were older kids in the lap lane. Larking, he’d said, not swimming at all. So he’d asked them, is this not the lap lane, specifically designated for laps? They’d shrugged.

A few minutes later he came back with the embarrassed lifeguard and the young people rolled their eyes and complied with her request to “move to the general pool area.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Anne said. “I didn’t say anything. He just yelled. He said they were rude and he was going to talk to their parents. And he said I wasn’t even trying. My stroke was lazy. I wasn’t doing it right or I’d swim faster. He said I must want to be fat.”

She’d turned mulish then, pulled herself onto the side of the pool to get out. He’d tried to pull her back but she’d run to the dressing room. He hadn’t gone after, Violet guessed, because he couldn’t bring himself to break the rule against running on concrete. He hadn’t gone into the ladies dressing room to get her. He’d called in to her to come out. “I know you’re there. You’re behaving like a spoiled child who needs spanking.”

She’d stayed in the shower till the same lifeguard, still embarrassed, came in and said her dad wanted her to go to the car. “He’s pretty mad,” she told Anne. “I think you’d better.”

I should, Violet thought, be telling her none of this matters. Only she couldn’t; she was feeling what it had been to be Anne, unable to get away from her father. “Daddy wouldn’t spank you,” Violet said, knowing this was true. He was too dignified, no matter how mad he was, to struggle with Anne. He was more afraid of looking ridiculous than Anne; the events at the pool would have been horrifying to him. I ought to tell her she’d done wrong, trying to hurt herself, Violet thought, say it isn’t as bad as she thinks, there is no problem that can’t be resolved. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” Fatuously. “You didn’t really want to die.”

Anne turned away.

“Now. You don’t want to die now?”

Anne got up, stood in front of her.

“Oh, sweetie. You can tell me.”

Anne paused, appeared to be struggling to pick the right words. Violet couldn’t remember Anne editing what she said to her mother before. “Don’t tell Daddy. I don’t want to talk to Daddy about any of this.”

“I don’t think it would be right to keep this from your father.”

Anne had never questioned her mother’s ideas about what was due her father before. “What about what he did?”

Violet imagined the three of them at a therapist’s office. A man of course, someone John would pick. Would interview first to make sure he wouldn’t question John’s authority. But maybe, she thought, I’m not being fair. Maybe he’d be shocked into a new approach. Or maybe John wouldn’t see the need for outside help, would talk to her himself. Violet imagined him sitting behind his desk and Anne, still with the grainy pink stuff around her mouth, sullen in the chair in front.

“If you think he’s right you’re no better than he is.”

“He shouldn’t have embarrassed you.” Anne glared at her, didn’t acknowledge the concession. “I don’t know why he did that.” Because he never lets anything go, Violet thought. “But it isn’t really the same thing. This is serious. He cares about you.” If she said love Anne would argue. “I know it doesn’t feel that way to you now.” 

“No. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Fat, fat, fat! If you tell him you’re as bad as he is.” This is ridiculous, Violet told herself, childish manipulation. I won’t be doing Anne any favors if I give in. The thought was in John’s voice. “I won’t tell your father,” she said. “But you must never do anything like this again.” Violet told herself she’d had no choice but to bargain. John would be furious if he found out. If Anne ever threw it at him in anger, for instance, accused him of driving her to it. “I’ll talk to your father. He never had a sister. I don’t think he knows much about girls.”

Or maybe he did. Violet thought of the distaste in John’s voice when he talked about Anne letting herself get fat. He knew how to hurt her.

You have to stop, she’d told John that night. No more talk about her weight.

No, he said, his confidence restored from the time spent in his office. He would not lower his standards and he would not be swayed by tantrums. He meant Anne. Violet was too frightened to be angry and she couldn’t match him in arguments. How had he harmed Anne, he demanded. Why did Violet ask less of Anne than she could do? Why was she selling their daughter short?

Violet wore him down, not talking. “Oh, very well,” he said, benevolently. “Since you feel so strongly. It may be, too, that the woman’s point of view has more value now that she’s an adolescent.”

Violet knew what was expected and expressed gratitude. John stopped twitting Anne on her weight, didn’t comment when she became slim again. He found other ways. A boy she liked who asked her out once, didn’t ask a second time. A poor grade in a class where she’d thought she was doing well.

“She’s her mother’s daughter,” he would say. As if Anne’s preference for Violet was a personal idiosyncrasy, like preferring broccoli to green beans. He could be humorous about it, telling their dinner party guests about Anne’s calls from college. “Fine,” he’d say. “She’s fine. If I answer the phone she’s always fine and her classes are interesting. And then she talks to Violet for an hour.”

Linda came after supper. She had the air of one conferring a favor by her attentions, no mention of Anne’s death or the circumstances surrounding Violet’ s hospitalization. In the old days, Violet remembered, Linda often expressed the belief that an elderly patient should be taken out of him or herself, needed to know they weren’t the only ones with problems.

 “Can you believe it? They’re having us chart four times a shift now. Every aspect of care, you have to write it down as soon as it happens.” Violet, who wanted to remain with her thoughts of Anne, listened in silence, nodding politely. Thick as a brick, thinking she, Violet, cared about that or wanted to hear about Linda’s children. Who were in college now, though, as Linda pointed out, they’d been toddlers when Violet retired.

Imagine that.

Violet longed for the quiet she remembered from night shift. The patients sleeping and the staff subdued by the stillness. She used to imagine herself walking through the patients’ dreams. A soothing presence, she hoped. She wasn’t usually imaginative. Being awake when others slept, moving through the dim corridors, gave a fairy tale quality to the time.

“She told me to take good care of you,” Sue said after Linda announced she had lots to do and went away. “So I guess I’ll let the other patients go to hell in a handbasket.” Violet, surprised, laughed. She was glad Sue was her nurse. “If she comes again I’ll tell her you’re asleep.”

She won’t come again, Violet thought. 

She admired the way Sue helped her to the toilet without making a thing of it. Got her ready for the night without talking overmuch. Good thing, too, Violet thought. You go on and on, ii makes the patient nervous. She asked Violet if she wanted to sit up, guided her hand to the button for lowering the bed, and to the call light, if she wanted a sleeper.

I won’t, Violet promised herself. I won’t give Dr. Pretty Boy the satisfaction. If he even checks on details like that. All style, no substance, was the way she remembered him. She moved to her right side, pleased Sue hadn’t closed the curtains. It was early summer and the sky was still light.

Nightshift started at 10:00 pm. Violet remembered it was always dark when she began her rounds but the summer darkness was different. Not as heavy. The stars, when they appeared, were less sharp.

Violet couldn’t see the ground from her bed. The shallow rooms on this side of the building faced Monroe Avenue. There was a little park on the other side. She remembered looking down on it. Mysterious in the night, flushed and pretty when the sun rose. A creek ran through the park and Violet was always surprised when she saw this evidence of a world beyond the hospital.

Snowfalls were impressive when seen from this high, she remembered. Whenever she saw one she thought of the ticker-tape parade they’d had for John Glenn in New York. She’d watched the footage from a television in a wakeful patient’s room. In black and white, the sky thick and gray with torn bits of paper.

The last year she worked, 1975, there was a freak snowstorm in April. It melted off before her shift ended but that night the snow twirled down in huge flakes. Violet had stopped to look for a moment when she got off the elevator on the ninth floor, the ward for respiratory patients.

Violet had come up, hoping to be useful, because the patient in 906, a Caucasian male of 50, moderately obese with a history of cocaine use, had coded. Acute myocardial infarction. They didn’t use the intercom at night. Violet had a beeper, something new then. She sat at the nurse’s station, answered the phone. She did rounds on the hour, walking from room to room. The patients were sleeping despite the hubbub, except for Ruth, an elderly woman, close to death herself. The room was bare, none of the pleasant clutter Violet would later assemble in Anne’s sickroom. Flowers, photographs, treasures from Anne’s childhood, as if their cumulative weight was enough to hold her, keep her there.

The second time she did rounds Ruth had gotten out of bed. How, was a mystery. She was too weak to even feed herself and ought to have been in soft restraints, Violet thought. If she fell she’d no doubt break her hip. Which would be painful and indicative of substandard care but Ruth was so weak, never trying to sit up, and old skin tears easily. The nurses would have thought restraints weren’t necessary.

She sat in the chair by the window, watching the snow.                                                       

“Isn’t it pretty?” She was small. Violet thought she could manage to get her back to bed on her own. It was a young crew of nurses that night and they’d want to be together, talking over the code.                                                                                   

“You’re cold, Ruth,” Violet said, holding Ruth’s hands, ringless and knobbed with arthritis, in hers. “Let’s get you warm.”                                                                               

She’d smiled a conspirator’s smile. “I’m so excited.”

“Of course.”                                                                                                               

Ruth stared at the damp, swirling snowflakes. “He’s coming.”

If she dies in the chair, Violet, thought, I’ll have to call for help. I can’t manage her if she goes slack.

“You wait and wait. You wait forever. But he always comes.” She pursed her colorless lips and hissed into Violet’s ear. “Santa.” She drew her head back a little to study Violet’s reaction.

Violet, entrusted with a confidence, nodded solemnly. “I think so.” The absence of personal possessions, of visitors, of anecdotes to establish herself with the nurses, suggested deprivation and institutionalization to Violet.

Ruth would have been a good little girl, she thought, anxious to please. Violet imagined her receiving a stiff doll in a dusty cardboard box, colored pencils, a jigsaw puzzle.

Her Santa Claus was driven hard through the cold night, Violet thought, imagining Ruth’s mother dreaming of a golden haired doll who cried mama, a teddy bear made of genuine mohair, telling herself next year would be better. 

Violet had made wonderful Christmases for Anne. She’d sit with John in front of the tree on Christmas night after Anne had gone to bed, tired, but replete, thinking about how lovely it had been and what she’d do next year.                                                                   

“You work too hard,” John would say, “Anne’s too young to appreciate it.” She wished he’d talk about what she’d actually done, perhaps admire the dish towels she’d embroidered for Anne’s play kitchen.                        

Ruth, still smiling, allowed herself to be guided back to bed. She was quiet then, but not still. Her hands reached up as if she was pulling threads from the air. Her eyes shone with excitement. She took fewer breaths. Ten one minute, then six. Four. Two shallow gasps.

Here, not here.

Violet left Ruth for a moment then to call the morgue and get a shroud and the body bag from the supply room. She would prepare the body herself, she decided. It would bother her less, she thought, than it would the inexperienced young girls. Ruth was even lighter than she’d supposed and the log roll to move the body bag and then the shroud underneath her was easily accomplished without help. ADC, After Death Care, it was called, and simple enough in the absence of family. No need to propitiate a coroner, or harvest organs.

Ruth was squeaky clean but a bed bath, with special attention to the hands and face was customary. It wasn’t necessary to place pads to protect the workers at the funeral home from possibly infectious fluids; Ruth was dry toast. Her limbs, despite the distorting effect of the arthritis, were graceful. Ruth’s eyes were open and Violet, imagining Ruth staring out into eternity, massaged the eyelids down and outwards till they shut.                                                            

Violet imagined Ruth smiling with delight, her thin fingertips stroking the soft cotton shroud, and realized she was thinking of Ruth as if she were still alive. A common mistake. She’d heard nurses talk to a child’s corpse, explaining what they were doing as if to reassure it.

Is that what you’d think about as you died, she wondered. Santa Claus? It was regrets usually, regrets the family didn’t understand. Not the steadfast conviction that someone, not God, was coming.                                                                            

Someone anyway.                                                                                                      

After the two orderlies took away Ruth’s body, Violet sat at the nurse’s station charting.  She was glad Ruth had died at night, when the other patients wouldn’t know.

The nurses were apologetic. The girl who’d been assigned to Ruth was near crying. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wythcombe. You shouldn’t have had to do all that. If you’d only called.”

“It was nothing,” she said, hoping the girl didn’t feel she was being scolded. The patient in 906 had also died, and Violet wanted to be kind and helpful, draw her good deed around her like a shawl, so that the nurses could relieve their feelings by speaking freely, but they went back to their charting in silence.

I didn’t know anything about Ruth, she realized. Not one thing.

She looked again into the soft darkness and imagined herself talking to someone. Perhaps Sue, when Sue came back. “To the old,” she’d say, “the dead are not so far away. They wait for us in another room. I’ll go to Anne soon.” Tonight, though, it wasn’t a calm, happy, nicely dressed Anne she saw but a fat Anne, her features sunk deep in protective fat.

What if Anne hadn’t resumed her young girl’s body? What if, instead of becoming slim again, she’d gotten bigger, spilled out of her clothes? What if she’d been grossly, morbidly, obese? Would Violet have harried Anne? Would she have looked at Anne’s body with disgust? Said ‘piggy, piggy, what’s in your trough,’ as John had done once when he walked into the kitchen and found Anne there, eating ice cream?                                                   

Anne’s face, as Violet saw it then, was blurred with fat and misery, a mirror reflecting Violet’s betrayal.

Unloving, complicit with John.

I didn’t love her enough.

John would hate being alone. No one noticing him. His little grasshopper legs rubbing all the time, rasp, rasp, but no one to hear. If no one watched him, if Violet wasn’t there, what would he have?

Violet, alone in the soft dark, tried to loosen her clutch on the bitterness she held, found she couldn’t. Reaching for the call button she thought how it would be one in the eye for John, for Dr. Walters, even for Linda, that Sue, substitute Sue, would be first to hear her speak.

BIO

Jane Snyder‘s stories have appeared in Cobalt, Lunate, and Bull, Men’s Fiction.

TITO’S DESCENT

By Marylee MacDonald


If you lose a friend in his youth, the years after such a loss become a kind of afterlife, an unreality, as if you, yourself, are fixed in that time when death lies far in the future. At first, you miss them, and all the questions of whether there is a heaven immediately stand in your path. The person you love like a brother is gone, shimmering in the stream of memory, and that is the picture you carry forward, taking it out now and then and pondering how the miraculous and the tragic can coexist.

Back in April 1968 when Tito led us down into the cavern, we had no fear of death nor suspicion that what we were about to find would splash our names across the Spanish newspapers, and indeed, the newspapers of the world. With the promise of a few pesetas, two local boys — mascots, of sorts — agreed to guide us. The boys said that our destination, the Well of Ramu, had no bottom, that their grandmothers claimed evil spirits lived inside the bluff. Shepherds, standing on its top and looking out toward the Atlantic, had many a time been startled by the eerie-sounding moans of disembodied suffering. The moans came from a pothole called the Well of Ramu, but, perhaps I should explain for the benefit of those urban dwellers who will watch your documentary that this “pothole” was not the kind of pothole one finds in cities, where the asphalt washes away and a street crew must be summoned to throw in a couple of shovelfuls of macadam. This was a geological pothole, a hole in the tabletop of a bluff into which a stray sheep or goat might fall to its death.

Neither Jesús nor Aurelio believed the tales, but they thought it well to warn us. They wanted to show us a different cave. Some crawling, but big grottoes and excellent formations. Most certainly worth the effort and “much easier for the girls,” Jesús said from beneath the first traces of a mustache.

“Don’t worry about the girls,” Tito said, championing the three of us. “We go all together, or not at all.”

Tito sprang over the stone fence that encircled the pothole and dropped to his knees. “The main thing is to determine how much rope we need.”

Then, flattening himself on the ground and with a handful of rocks, he slid his shoulders over the abyss.

Potholes were new to our caving group. In fact, I had never heard of a pothole until Tito proposed this expedition. The guides were country boys and had never rappelled down into one either. Aurelio, the older of the two, warned us not to get too close to the edge in case our weight made the ground collapse; but curiosity got the better of them, and they, too, flattened themselves around the perimeter, cocking their ears and listening to see how long it took for Tito’s stones to hit bottom.

Your cameraman asks why we spelunkers didn’t lower a lantern. A lantern only works if the floor of the cave is near the surface. Otherwise, darkness swallows the light. We could only determine the depth by feel, so when Tito couldn’t hear the stones strike bottom, he lowered a lead fishing weight, the hefty kind fishermen in Ribadesella once used to sink their nets in the ocean. I suppose they must still use them, come to think of it. As to where he’d found one, I don’t recall precisely, but Tito was very careful about bringing whatever we might need for the caves he wanted to explore, and I think he had borrowed the weight from a cousin. By the time we were finished with our preparations, we had five climbing ropes of eighty meters each tied together.

The plan, Tito said, gathering us around, was for him to descend first, assess the situation, and then send down one of the guides.

Instead of saying “of course,” the guides looked at one another.

Aurelio, maybe fourteen, said that when the boys explored caves, they slithered along with flashlights until the batteries dimmed, at which point they backed out.

“Do you want to go down or not?” Tito said.

“I’m scared,” Jesús, about thirteen, said, “but, yes. I’ll try.”

“One of you must stay behind.”

“Can’t we both go?” Aurelio said.

“It’s better to draw straws,” Tito said. “If we get injured down there, the one up here can run for help.”

“Where should we go?” Aurelio said.

“The mayor’s house,” Tito said, nodding his head in the direction of the town across the river. “Or the Guardia Civil. And, if the one who draws the longest straw is still scared to jump into a dark hole, one of the women can show you how it’s done.”

The boys smirked at us girls.

The younger, Jesús, drew the short straw. “So, am I just supposed to wait here, or what?”

“Yes, wait,” Tito said. “Once we’re down, you’re the only way we can communicate with the outside world.”

Tito secured the rope around a boulder and attached carabiners to his climbing harness. Saluting, he slid over the lip.

Adolfo, a bull whose callused hands came from years of scything his father’s hay, stood over the coil, the rope running around his leather-vested back and through his hands. Counterbalancing Tito’s weight, he lowered our leader down.

There were twelve of us in the Torreblanca Speleological Society, mainly geology students at the university in Oviedo, plus Tito’s sister and one of her friends. The name “Torreblanca” came from the town where Tito grew up. I know “Speleological Society” makes it sound like we were some kind of learned group, sitting around and drinking port and discussing academic articles about rock strata, but we weren’t a “society” at all. Our youngest was fifteen and the oldest twenty-two. Eight were geology students — always out in the field, gathering rocks and carrying them back to the lab to hammer apart and examine. Tito, though still not finished with his baccalaureate, had already discovered his life’s passion. Tito was a real rock-hound, completely mad for rocks.

In order to join the Torreblanca Speleological Society, as founder and self-appointed president, Tito insisted that we each buy the basics: a helmet, carbon lamp, and Levi’s from the store where workmen bought their clothes. For caving, he preferred rubber waders, but he let two of us get away with hiking boots — what he wore when he went out with his mountaineering friends. His kit of chocks, carabiners, and climbing ropes filled the trunk of his car.

These days, when I think of Tito, I see him in that famous photograph: in his helmet and muddy, as we all were. Chin down, he is spooning cold beans from a can. We are all smiling and looking at him in wonder. His appetite had become a joke. Bony shoulders with a hunch that hinted at his shyness, all elbows and skinny legs, Tito was a study in angularity. A shock of hair hung over his forehead, and the camera caught him looking down into the can. If I have one regret, it is that Fernando, our unofficial Society photographer, having lined us up, did not say, “Tito, amigo, look at the camera.” I should so have liked to see the tiny windows of light in Tito’s coal-black eyes.

We later learned that the Well of Ramu was actually four hundred meters deep, the length of four football fields, and because of its depth, the temperature remained a constant ten degrees Celsius, barely above freezing. The caves we had explored before this were not quite as cold and often high up, generally an opening on the face of a cliff. To reach them we had to climb, and afterwards, rappel down the rock face. To do that, we slid the rope under our behinds and then leaned back, letting the rope play out as we backed down or bounced down the vertical wall. In the case of the Well of Ramu, we had no wall with which to brace our feet and slow our descent. Our hands served as our only brakes, and when we dropped into the pothole, the rope slid through our gloveless hands.

I was supposed to show Aurelio how to manage the rope, but as I lowered myself down, I found that even twining my legs around it did not slow my descent. By the time I reached bottom, my hands burned, and blisters were already forming. I pressed my palms together, wishing the pain would stop, and took a step back from the rope, my waders sinking in. Mud over-topped them.

“Watch out!” I cried. “Quicksand!”

Tito had been standing nearby and grabbed my arm. “I think we’ve landed in a riverbed.”

“It’s the San Miguel,” said Aurelio, letting go of the rope and dropping freely the last three meters.

And, indeed, the sound of water echoed through the chamber, a gurgle that made me think we might step into the channel and be washed downstream. The things I feared most in caves were being sucked by the force of a river that would be too powerful to resist or stepping out into space and dropping into a lower chamber. My armpits began to tingle and, despite the cold, sweat formed on my upper lip.

Partly to overcome this aversion to confined spaces and partly because of Tito himself, I had joined his club, and now that he had accepted me, I dared not confess that in narrow passages, where I had neither room to turn around nor squirm and where I could see only the boots of the person crawling ahead, I feared the rock would shift and crush me.

The two other girls followed next, and then studious Fernando, who had a crush on Tito’s sister, but was too shy to ask her out. Adolfo, whom Tito called “the human crane,” came next, and finally little Ruperto, the youngest member, age fifteen. A lighter snapped briefly, illuminating his profile, and a moment later, I made out the glowing tip of his cigarette. Trying to appear older, no doubt.

We had all made it down safely.

“Let’s see where we are,” Tito said. “Each of you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and take five steps.”

We did and, in the faint illumination of our carbide lamps, saw that the mud, the murky grayish-brown of a tidal flat, extended beyond the reach of our beams. The cave smelled like no other cave we’d been in before, the air dank and humid, like an ice box exploding with rotting cheese and moldy bread. The river, hidden from view, sounded close, but to reach it and possibly follow it to where it emerged from the earth, we would have to cross the reeking, gray pudding of mud.

The pothole, through which we had descended, and the rope, our only way out, stood behind us, and I was tempted to turn around and keep a hand on it. Were it not for the light falling from above, I could not have told up from down. It was discombobulating.

“Now take five more steps,” Tito said, as if we were playing “Mother, May I?”

When the group had spread out so that each person, leaving his companions, felt a chilling awareness of the cold, Tito said to stand completely still and tilt back our heads.

I did.

Looking up, I could not see the top of the cavern, only a barricade of stalactites as evenly spaced as the twisted, iron bars on a window.

“Which way, do you think?” Tito asked the guide.

“To the right,” Aurelio said, sounding assured for his age.

“To the right it is,” Tito said.

And, then, as if needing to justify himself further, the guide said, “The air is cooler in that direction, and the sound of the river louder. This way should take us to the cave I told you of.”

“And?” Tito said.

“From there we should be able to walk out.”

“But you don’t know that for certain?”

“I don’t know if the passage is open,” Aurelio said.

“Let’s take a quick look,” Tito said.

“What about us?” I asked on behalf of the female contingent.

“All for one, and one for all.” Tito waved his hand inclusively, beckoning us to follow.

His and Aurelio’s lamps bobbed toward the gurgle, less river than burbling creek, its sound magnified by the echo chamber of the cave. A drop of water landed on my cheek, but when I looked up, I still could see no more than I would have seen in my grandmother’s windowless root cellar.

Walking away from the rope plunged me into darkness. As I rocked forward, mud sucked the wader from my heel. I tested each step and waited for the ground to render itself firm. The others cried out and cursed the sucking mud. It was impossible to move quickly, and I was breathing hard by the time I could see that rocks and boulders blocked our way. I placed my hand on one of the rocks for balance. I stopped. Had the stone dislodged from the ceiling, or had the river carried it in? Maybe Tito could tell. Meanwhile, the hiss of carbide, snaking up the tube on my back, reminded me of the hissing, slithering, eyeless albino salamanders we had seen in another cave. I hoped we wouldn’t come upon any creatures like that in this airless space.

Tito told us to wait while they explored, and if this didn’t prove to be a passageway, we could search the cavern for another. So far I hadn’t felt the air movement Aurelio claimed would lead us to the other cave, and I began to think it would be better for us to stay in this large chamber where, at least, we could look back and see the shaft of light beaming down from the pothole.

Tito squeezed sideways through pointed, egg-shaped rocks as gigantic as those the Arabic astronomer Ibn Yunus was said to have used as gnomons. Meanwhile, Aurelio ducked into a fissure that looked as though it led to another cavern, and I thought he might find another big room, but without the river running through it. Shivering and hugging ourselves, we heard his boots splash through water and Tito cautioning Aurelio to watch his footing. When they found themselves in the same passageway, Tito called back and said they could stand upright, but not see daylight. That meant the walk out could take a long time.

At last, their lamps bobbed back in our direction.

They had been gone half an hour, and I had no confidence that we could get out this way. What if we encountered more blockages? It might be better to follow the river in the other direction. I turned toward the sound of water. Above me, I saw a flash of red. It startled me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?” Tito said.

“Red.”

“Where?”

Looking up and trying to relocate the color on an overhanging rock, I moved sideways from the boulder. Because I had taken my attention momentarily from the ground, my feet slipped, and I fell, scraping my blistered hands and letting out a yell.

Then Tito had me by the elbow. His lamp blinded me, and my heart thrummed in my ears. Unlike the others, I was an art student, and the vividness of that red could only mean one thing: paint. I squinted, looking in vain as my headlamp’s faint beam moved across the undulating rock above my head.

And then I saw it: the charcoal silhouette. A single horse’s head. The horse had ears, nostrils, and the same throat latch—that thickening on the bottom of its muzzle—as horses in the pastures of Ribadesella. What was different was its mane. The mane stood as stiff and upright as a zebra’s.

“Look up there.” I pointed.

“A horse,” Tito whispered in awe. He put his arm around me and drew me closer. He was trembling.

I had never been as aware of my body as I was at that moment. The warmth of another human being, the sideways pressure of his hip, the squeeze of his fingers against my arm, the ripple of sensation from my forehead to my feet, made me feel as if we humans were designed, on a primitive level, to connect with one another not just with words, but with the intimacy of touch; that touch was essential for our well-being and the reason we have bodies, not just souls.

The others joined us, and Tito released me. Once again our leader, he directed us to form a line and tilt our heads in unison. Tito’s sister, Eloisa, squeezed between us and put her arm around me.

Hefty little Pilar, one of the most irreverent women I’ve ever met, had her arm around my hip. “What gives?”

“Cave paintings,” I said.

“Like at Altamira?”

“Well, we’re not far from there.”

Our lamps illuminated a swath of red.

“Is that blood?” Pilar asked.

“No. Ocher or iron oxide.”

Honestly, at the time, I had no idea what kind of pigment paleolithic artists might have used. I only knew that blood would have darkened and chipped away.

The artist had applied an orange-red wash to the cave wall just below the horse’s head. In the illumination of our combined head lamps, a herd of horses jumped from the darkness. Six that we could see immediately, although with better light, the archaeologists would later document more. The herd faced the opposite direction and appeared to move across a plain of red that might have been grasslands set afire.

Of these figures, the best preserved was a mare in the fullness of pregnancy. Horizontal bands of black and white circled her legs, reminding me of the mimes who perform in traveling circuses. It gave her a comical aspect that drew a smile.

Most remarkably, the artist had painted her body violet. Could it be that horses in prehistory were violet? In every other respect the horse was as realistic as if Goya himself had drawn it.

We lingered, tracing the animals with our fingers and seeing if others agreed that, yes, that was a horse. Or perhaps a deer, for as we continued to examine the figures, we saw that some had antlers.

Our watches told us that the day had advanced past one o’clock, and though we had filled our metal canisters with carbide pellets, we had a maximum of four total hours before the fuel ran out.

We walked as a group around the cavern, unable to locate any other painted surface.

The Torreblanca Speleological Society was not a democracy, but Tito asked our preference. Should he attempt to monkey-climb the four-hundred-meters of rope and prepare to pull us out, or should we follow the river, in which case, we should get going or have Jesús send down more carbide just in case. Like coal miners, cavers have always used carbide lamps because the lamps can be refilled and the fuel costs next to nothing. With the river below, we would have water, and could add it to the canisters when the gas pellets fizzled out. The main thing was not to get stuck down here in the dark.

The group split evenly, six to six. We gathered around the rope and Tito called up to Jesús. Expecting to see his face looking down, I was stunned when he did not answer.

Tito turned abruptly toward Aurelio. “Did your friend run off?”

Aurelio nervously cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted.

Still no Jesús.

“Maybe he got bored,” Aurelio said.

If the passage proved to be a dead end, we’d have to come back here and wait for rescue. The ground was too muddy to sit.

“We need more carbide,” I said.

“I’ll get some.” Tito extinguished his lamp and took off his helmet. “Back in a second.”

Hand over hand, he ascended the rope, twisting it between his muddy galoshes. When he made it to the first knot, he rested and looked down.

“You can do it!” we shouted in unison. His face took on a look of determination. At the second knot he rested again, this time, calling up angrily, “Jesús, you lazy lout! Come over here.”

Jesús did not appear.

Halfway up the third section of rope, Tito began to slide. He tried to slow his descent at the second knot by clamping it between his insteps. That helped, but unlike when I had abseiled in, with the rope acting as a swing beneath my butt, Tito had no such control and landed beside us with a thud.

Determined to try again, he prepared to remove his galoshes.

“Let me try,” Aurelio said.

He did not even make it past the first section. By now, mud had made the rope too slippery to hold.

Tito put his helmet back on, and Ruperto took out his lighter and lit another cigarette.

“So, it’s to be the river. Aurelio, what is your opinion?” Tito said. “Should we follow it downstream or up?”

“My instinct tells me up.”

“Mine, too,” Tito said. “Back to the passageway.”

The prospect of discovering more paintings made us avid to stay underground, but not having the use of the rope made escape a necessity. Before we tore ourselves away from these paintings and began our trek to the exit, Aurelio ducked back into the fissure he’d explored. There he found a small chamber with deer incised on rock. Not painted deer. These were petroglyphs and finding them made him glad to have won the coin toss. Now, he could legitimately say he was the discoverer of the cave, or at least part of it.

Expecting more discoveries, we picked our way along the rock-strewn passage, our feet slipping on the slimy stones and me fearing that we would reach a dead end or an underground channel that would force one of us to submerge and try to swim against the current.

“Tito,” I called out, my voice swallowed in the dark. “What if our lamps go out?”

“I have some extra carbide,” he said, “and a dozen candles, but I suggest we not think of that and sing to keep up our spirits.”

“What shall we sing?” Maria Pia called.

“How about ‘Puppet on a String?’” Tito suggested.

Adolfo and Fernando began whistling, and the melody carried us along; however, we were concentrating so hard on where to put our feet that the lyrics simply drifted away.

After three kilometers underground, we caught the scent of fresh air. Just as the first sign of daylight appeared, our lamps sputtered out.

Ordinarily, when a cave is discovered, it’s a shepherd who stumbles in, usually unappreciative, which is why so few caves are recorded or mapped. But the Well of Ramu was different. No one knew it was there. We were the first.

Since then the cave has changed. Despite the three air locks, the artificial tunnel introduces outside air, and the unforgettable smell is gone. No one can experience it as we did fifty years ago.

It annoys me that I must pay an admission fee to bring my grandchildren, and it annoys me when people complain about the path being uneven and rocky and dimly lit. It is a cave. What did they expect? The last time I went there, a French-speaking woman was complaining to the guide, who happened to be Aurelio’s son, that she’d had to walk a long way back just to see a few paintings. She had expected more for her money.

When I heard this, I felt a tremendous sense of abandonment and loss. “You have been privileged to see one of the treasures of the world,” I said, “and yet you disparage it. This is not the same experience as going to the cinema.”

I wanted to tell her what a miracle it was to stand before those paintings for the first time, to wonder at the artists who painted them and held them sacred. To imagine the horses that must have been running wild. And I wanted to tell her about Tito, how vibrant and alive he had been as we probed these secret grottoes. How he dove into his can of cold beans right after we had made it back to the top of the bluff and startled Jesús, taking a siesta. How euphoric we were as we tore off our muddy clothes and had Aurelio direct us to the mayor’s house.

Would you mind turning off the camera? Good. Now I will answer your question. Do I think Tito was a risk taker? Certainly, no more than any other young man his age, an age that predisposes the male of the species to believe he will live forever. Tito had his full share of the invincibility hormone. It surged through his veins, and it was what drew us to him. Tito was brave. A leader. He believed in living life to the fullest, squeezing every drop of joy possible from his time on earth. And, remember, this was 1968, seven years before Franco’s death. In a certain way, to live boldly was an act of political defiance.

When Tito slipped in a mountaineering accident a few days later, his sister brought us the news. The Faculty in Oviedo called for a day of mourning. The train to Torreblanca filled with students, but we, who knew him best, drove. At the Mass, his father wept like a man who’d lost a part of his very soul. And because of Señor Bustillo’s intense grief, the authorities decided to name the cave in Tito’s honor. No longer the Well of Ramu, today it is the Cave of Tito Bustillo.

Just this morning, I was thinking about Tito, how he stood next to me in that cave and how my body rippled with pleasure. Tito and I might have had a future. Instead, what he gave me was a single moment of ecstasy. Following his example, I have sought to live every moment as if it were my last.

BIO

Marylee MacDonald is a former carpenter with a Master’s in Creative Writing. She’s the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE AND BLOOD, and THE RUG BAZAAR. Her forthcoming story collection, BODY LANGUAGE, is about people consumed by their infatuations, hungers, and fears. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her strolling in a redwood forest, hiking in the red rocks of Sedona, or exploring California’s Mendocino coast.

The Art Collective

by Robert Boucheron

    

Swathed against the November chill in a woolen wrap and a silk scarf, still chic in her fifties, Nora Devereux made her way along Main Street. She walked every day, no matter the weather. The historic district, built in the late 1800s, offered endless vignettes—the intrigue of a cobbled alley, the thrust of a turret, a mask molded in terra cotta.

     Down a side street, Nora spotted something called the Art Collective. The grand old building had arches, carved keystones, and a beetling cornice. She detoured and peered in the storefront. The space was bare—white walls, a polished hardwood floor. Track lights hung from a high ceiling, bright as diamonds.

     A thin woman seated at a small pine table caught sight of Nora and waved her arms over her head, as though drowning. She wore a long skirt, a bunchy sweater, and a loop of beads that dangled from her neck. No one else was visible in the space. The gesture was not a cry for help but an appeal for company.

     Nora pushed through the glass door. The woman popped up, and her bob of gray hair flew.

     “Welcome to the gallery! The Art Collective is owned and run by a group of local painters, sculptors, photographers, and what-have-you. Many of the members are older and retired, including some retired art teachers. I’m Helen Tabasco, the artist on duty. Please look around, and if you have any questions, I’ll try to answer.”

     “Thank you,” Nora said. “I’m retired, too.”

     Trying not to ignore the artist on duty, Nora glanced right and left. The white walls displayed framed watercolors, sketches, collages, paintings, and photographs. Small ceramics of uncertain shape reposed on large white blocks. Here and there stood sculptures made from scraps of wood and metal, like primitive robots or post-industrial idols.

     “Are you represented here somewhere?” Nora asked.

     “Yes! Look for the big arrow.” Helen Tabasco pointed. High on a wall was her name in block letters with a cardboard arrow stuck beside it. Five canvases hung below. Nora felt obliged to take a closer look. Her heels clacked on the hardwood floor, and Helen followed in staccato counterpoint. In planes of orange, yellow, azure, and dark blue, the canvases were geometric views of a village in dry country. Cubism happened a hundred years ago.

     “Very interesting,” Nora murmured. She moved to the next artist, and the next. Helen was always few steps behind, tethered by an invisible lifeline. A telephone rang on the small pine table.

     “Excuse me,” Helen said. “I ought to answer that.” She hurried away.

     One side of a long conversation rang through the empty gallery. The subject was troubling, something to do with illness, a prescription to be refilled, and a cranky patient. Known only as “he,” the patient had accidents that required cleaning up after. Was he a dog or an incontinent senior citizen?

     Nora did her best to ignore this as she gazed. Strangely, nothing in the gallery reflected the wealth of architecture just outside the door, or the gardens and farms nearby. There were blurred portraits, bowls of fruit in unnatural colors, abstract splashes of black and blood red, and vistas of unremarkable hills. Street scenes reproduced a tangle of overhead wires, parked cars, and dented trash cans. The photographs were doctored, made grainy or dim, as if to disguise their bland subjects—a leafless tree, a railroad track. Artist names were posted above in bold type. Everyone got a few square feet of wall space, and a Featured Artist had a spread near the front.

     Nora gave each artist a minute and moved on. She was grateful not to have to talk. Truthful impressions were hazardous. Yet the gallery cast a kind of spell, like the stage of a theater. It made you want to believe.

     Nora worked her way back to the street door. A pocket of flyers hung there, and a neatly lettered sign was taped to the glass. The sign read:

The Art Collective is in search of talented individuals to join and exhibit their work for sale. Please take a flyer. Or call this number and leave a message. Or visit our website for rules, procedures, and a new member application.

     Helen Tabasco was still on the phone. Unable to desert her post, she grimaced with regret. Nora took a flyer, waved goodbye, and exited. The flyer explained:

Each member pays an annual fee and volunteers to staff the gallery twice a month. A portion of each sale goes to the gallery to pay rent and utilities. Members and their guests meet a few times each year for events like lectures and special exhibits. The month of December is the busiest, as people shop for Christmas.

     Nora had drawn with pencil and pen ever since childhood. Art teachers complimented her sense of proportion and distribution of light and dark. As an adult, she drew what struck her as funny or sad. They were quick sketches, done in an hour or two. She carried a pad and pencils in her bag. Weather and kibitzers could be overcome. She tried once to draw an old chair from memory and gave up halfway. Now she snapped a photo for later.

     Nora sometimes gave a drawing to a friend. She had not shown or sold her work. Until now, the idea never occurred to her. She had never taken an adult art class, and she was not sure she felt up to it.

     Could I learn how to paint? Nora asked herself. Do I have the patience to devote days to a single canvas? Where would I find a studio? My sketches are at least as good as what was on view. Maybe I should give it a try. If nothing else, I’ll have a new activity, meet new people. Volunteer for the cause of art.

     The gallery asked to see four or five samples with the application. In a tattered portfolio, Nora found a dozen or more drawings. She spread them on the floor of the apartment. They were of different sizes, drawn on different kinds of paper. How to choose? Should there be a theme to tie them together? Did they need to be framed? Custom framing was expensive. Ready-made frames that came with the glass and mat already cut might be acceptable.

     Over the next few days, Nora tiptoed around the living room. She rearranged the drawings, set some aside, and stepped on one by accident. It was creased, not ruined. Maybe it gained in character. In the end, she settled on four drawings that had nothing in common—a seedling in the crotch of a large tree, a shed built of discarded doors and windows, a pigeon soliciting a toddler who had a cookie, and a street vendor of scarves bundled up in her own merchandise.

     At an art supply store, the choices were overwhelming. After an hour of comparison, Nora found a plain black frame and bought four. Home again, she assembled the artwork on the kitchen counter. As she worked, she wondered. How many drawings had she given away, and what had become of them? All that was out of her hands. At the last minute, Nora swapped the street vendor for a poodle in a perambulator, with a ribbon in a bow on its curly head.

     The application asked for a name and address, media used, and any previous exhibitions. That much was easy. At the bottom, Nora read this:

Please attach an Artist Statement, or respond to these questions. What style best describes your art? How does the visual intersect the psychological? Where does it fit in the realm of phenomenology?

     Nora was stumped. She looked up “phenomenology,” but the definition was as opaque as the word, something to do with perception. At the public library, she browsed back issues of Art in America in the hope of picking up the lingo. “Line” seemed to be important, along with “profile” and “form.” She liked the adjectives “intuitive” and “spare.” That evening, she tried various combinations and ended up with this:

My work is grounded in the purely visual, without distractions of theory or interpretation. The line is intuitive, and the line is spare. The line marks the boundary of form implicit in the profile. Perception is profile, after all.

     The next day, Nora slipped the application and the four framed drawings into the bag from the art supply store. With this bulk under her arm, she walked to the Art Collective. A week had passed. Helen Tabasco was again on duty.

     “I’m here most Saturdays, except when I drive my husband to chemotherapy.”

     Nora explained her errand.

     “Wonderful! I’m also on the review committee. May I?” She reached eagerly into the bag and laid the framed drawings on the table. “Oh, these are very good! I see no objection to admitting you as a new member.”

     “When does the review committee meet?” Nora asked.

     “There’s no set schedule. You’re the first to apply.” Helen returned the drawings to the bag and placed it on a large white block behind her. A sculpture pedestal, Nora thought, or an altar.

     “Do I need to appear before the committee?”

     “Not that I know of. The others will come by and take a look. At some point, we will talk to each other.”

     “Will someone phone me?”

     “I suppose. It’s hard to say exactly what will happen.”

     This vagueness was far from reassuring. On the other hand, Nora had nothing to lose. She wandered the galley, and Helen returned to a large book that lay open before her, a book on the Desert Southwest.

     Nora gazed without seeing anything distinctly, as though struck senseless in the presence of art. A few minutes brought her to the door. She waved farewell and hallooed.

     “Thank you!”

     Helen looked up in alarm from her reading. Then she recovered.

     “Good luck!” She hallooed back.

     A week passed. Caught up in errands and holiday anticipation, Nora forgot about the gallery. It was off the beaten track, hidden on its side street. Another week passed.

     In December, happening to be on Main Street where she first saw it, Nora detoured again to the Art Collective. A different artist was on duty, a petite young woman with a striking figure, all in black. She wore a sleek silver necklace. She projected cool detachment. She did not stir as Nora approached the small pine table.

     “Good afternoon, I’m Nora Devereux.”

     “Astrid Unger. Can I help you?”

     “A few weeks ago, I left an application and some of my drawings here. Has the membership committee reviewed them?”

     “I don’t know anything about it.”

     “Helen Tabasco was here at the time.”

     “Oh, yes. She had to drive her husband to a medical appointment.”

     “She said she was on the committee and it was likely they would approve.”

     “Did she? That dingbat.”

     “Excuse me?”

     “Helen Tabasco gets confused. She has no authority to speak for the gallery.”

     “Is the Art Collective welcoming new members?”

     “We’re busy right now with the holiday season.”

     Looking beyond Astrid, Nora spied her bag on the pedestal, untouched. A couple entered the gallery from the street. Astrid stood and went to greet them. As soon as they were occupied, Nora slipped behind the table.

     The four framed drawings and the application were in the bag. Astrid chatted with the couple, well-dressed and middle-aged. The man held a lidded paper cup in front of his chest like a sacred object. The three took no notice as Nora tucked the neglected offering under her arm and walked briskly to the door.

     In the street, festive lights twinkled in the early winter dusk. Nora released a sigh, a wisp of vapor that instantly fled. She distanced herself from the gallery.

     A narrow escape, she thought. She could not have said from what, and nobody would ask. She refused to let the incident bother her. Still, what would become of poor Mr. Tabasco?

BIO

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

Robert grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. His academic degrees are Harvard University, B. A. in English, and Yale University, M. Arch. He is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His stories and essays on architecture and literature are in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

I as the being sui generis

sui generis – something odd

by Pawel Markiewicz

I have just returned from a walk with my beloved hound on foot, which has a good heart, the tenderly shaped by Erlking dog’s heartlet. I’m feeling very well at home, as well as blissfully. I have a light heart. It’s frosty outside, to wit It’s 3 degrees below zero, as If the Winter Queen ruled without any snow.

There is not a starry night. A moon is not visible. I dream of starlings of philosophers on sibyl-like heaven. I have not seen a red sky in the evening, such an Apollonianly marvelous charm, a weird of druids. All night long my dreams will be live in my dreamy soul. Afterwards I will sleep in a meek silence. I want to say You, my tender reader, a manifesto of my dearest dreamiest being.

As far as I’m concerned:

My immortal soul is typically German. I am able to feel a sempiternity, each poetical winglings, namely: Apollonianly tender-eternal vans that philosophize about dawn of ontology of poetries. My poetry, like a poesy of Poseidon’s dreamery, heralds fulfillment of each stars, morning starlet and shooting stars. Rilke likes me in the eternal time. Goethe said me he were proud of my meek poem, under the title: >Prometheus<.

In effect my body is Polish. I can indeed design neither robots nor spaceships such the Americans. My parents, my home, my language are polish. My polish blood seems to be indeed red. My nation knows: mourning and death, wars and subservience. This time is my polish time, the ontology and logic of starry night above the polish homeland.

In my heart the Japanese Basho lives who likes melancholic fantasy of a handful of haiku. My heart beats in rhythm of dancing samurais’, enchanted by each morning glow. My haiku are being carried  by some metaphysical traces of the eternity which loves my gorgeous three verses. In each haiku the beauty of sirens-like dreamery-miracle comes true, as if the Japanese soul had told me: Be thankful valedictorian of a sheening time!

Outside the body, there are magical romantic notions, which keep me one step closer to heaven, namely the gorgeous English poesy. Some Herculean muses bring me into: a woodland in the midst of England, next to a druidical fireplace. The druidic altar is also my heart, my whole being of the sui generis-miracle. English muses dancing under the most philosophical stars such my English hound, the mixed dog, between cocker spaniel and field spaniel, my houndlet, that likes huntings in a fairytale-like holt.

BIO

Pawel Markiewicz lives in Bielsk, Podlaski, Poland. He is a poet who also writes flash fiction. Pawel was (2007 and 2010) in Forum Alpbach, a village of thinkers in Austria. After his experience with poetry, he wants to write some good stories.

Where the Street Learns Its Curve

by Donna D. Vitucci

 

 

As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.

As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.

Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.

Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.

You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.

Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.

Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter.  How? When? Where?  This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader.  Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.

The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade.  Call neither of them Cinderella.

Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.

For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”

Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.

You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.

 

A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right.  Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because  amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.

 

In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.

When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner.  Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share.  Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”

Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.

“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.

She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.

 

 

  

BIO

Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My GWOT, Annotated

by Paul D. Mooney

(GWOT: “Global War On Terror,” pronounced Gee-Wot. It sounds dumber every time you say it out loud. Trust me)

 

Ours was (“Is” would be more appropriate. Nearly two decades long and the fat lady ain’t warming up yet) a peculiar war. At least, the part of it I played a role in. It was not, like some people might expect, a heart-pumping cacophony of action, explosions, and movie-style badassery. That shit never happened, at least not to anybody I knew. Most of our experiences involved large swaths of boredom with random moments of strangeness and tragedy in a series of locations equal parts bland and bizarre. Big, crowded ones like the sprawl of our gravel-paved FOB (Forward Operating Base). Big, empty ones like the vast swaths of desert between the tiny strips of green tightly bracketing the Helmand River and the distant horizon of the Hindu Kush. Small, crowded ones like the tiny Hesco barrier (Large, collapsible containers made out of chicken wire and overpriced fabric that are filled with sand and dirt to create fortifications and buildings. Think big, fancy sandbags) shed we worked out of crammed with outdated government laptops and dented filing cabinets. Small, empty ones like the sun-baked port-a-shitters that provided us the closest thing to privacy we enjoyed for seven months.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the start. Most of us didn’t. And the ones who did, the ones who’d deployed to a combat theater before, weren’t really thinking about such esoteric hogwash. Not while our whole detachment (a military unit formed for temporary and/or non-standard purposes) sat sweating on an ugly, beat-up, run-down bus pumping out exhaust as it idled on the sun-baked street in Camp Pendleton’s (Primary base for the 1st Marine Division, located north of San Diego, California. Prone to bouts of wildfires, flooding, and ill-advised tattoos) Las Pulgas Area.

That bus was one of those small, crowded, and decidedly dull spaces. The first small space of our generation’s war-proper for those of us who’d only been through non-combat zone pumps (filthy sounding slang for deployment) or, Christ help them, recently graduated from MOS (Military Occupational Specialty. A person’s job in the armed forces. Like on a GI Joe action figure’s file card) School. And it was definitely the first one of this particular deployment for all of us. A full-sized school bus painted the same rotten white color as all buses utilized by the military and jammed to the gills with Marines, Corpsmen (US Navy Sailors who serve as medical personnel for Marine units), packs, seabags, body armor, a smattering of guitars, an unknowable quantity of well-stashed pornography (Possession of porn is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the law extends to US troops and only US troops deployed there. Same goes for alcohol. Because war isn’t shitty enough), and everybody’s personal weapons.

Las Pulgas was one of the big spaces; a wide-open patch of uneven land ringed by high, grassy hills and filled with ugly, red-roofed buildings and vast concrete lots housing the personnel, trucks, gear, and guns of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Battalions as well as the Headquarters of the 11th Marine Regiment (The artillery unit of the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert, roughly halfway between Satan’s butthole and ballsack. The 4th Battalion was disbanded shortly after Vietnam). Suffice to say, there’s a lot of big machinery housed in Las Pulgas, which always struck me as a funny function for a place that’s name translates to “The Fleas” in English.

Even over the hum of the engine and the rumble of nervous chitchat echoing throughout the shitty bus I heard First Lieutenant Doggett’s girlfriend sobbing out on the sidewalk. I could see her, even from my seat near the aft of the vehicle, in the midst of the crowd out front of the trailer that served as the HQ for the Regiment’s rotating civil affairs detachments (This is a complicated one, so deep breath and bear with me: Civil Affairs [CA] is the term for units and operations focused on relations between the military, local governments and civilians, aid organizations operating in the region, and the like. The Marine Corps has several reserve units that fill this role but during the busier years of the GWOT it stood up temporary activity duty units under the commands of the artillery regiments. Personnel were assigned for periods of roughly a year; the first half focused on both specialty training in civil affairs and standard pre-deployment combat training and the second half consisting of the deployment itself. These Marines mostly came from the artillery regiments, like myself, but not all. Since the position guarantees going to a combat theater about half of us were handpicked from slews of eager volunteers. But since it’s a job with a low chance of participating in actual combat, the other half was forced into it as punishment for fucking up in some way. It made for a fun mix. Whew! I’m proud of you for reading all that. Have a cookie or something).

She had buried her mascara-smeared face into the shoulder of Gunnery Sergeant Aquino’s statuesque and stone-faced wife. One of the latter’s firm hands patted the former on her heaving shoulder with mechanical affection like some sort of hi-tech comfort robot. Something I would never describe her as to Gunny Aquino, but I filed it away in my brain as an apt description for the cold, beautiful woman currently comforting the Lieutenant’s buxom bucket of tears.

The rest of the significant others, friends, and family lining the sidewalk expressed varying degrees of emotional states running the gamut from bawling with despair to calm acceptance, the two aforementioned women representing the extremes of the spectrum. Nobody looked particularly happy, understandably. Even if some of them would no longer be significant to their current others by the time we returned from OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the one in Afghanistan). Some would be downright insignificant others (rimshot!).

Hell, Doggett’s girlfriend ended up dumping his lanky ass less than halfway through the deployment, right around ten weeks in. All those tears and weeping and ballyhoo added up to a whole lot of nothing the moment her Bikram Yoga instructor offered up a private chakra realignment session (wink-wink). Such is the risk of leaving someone you love all by his or her lonesome in sunny, sexy San Luis Obispo for a long period of time. Rumor had it that he was the very same longhaired, douchebag of a Jody (nickname for any civilian who bones a service member’s loved one while they’re deployed) who broke up the second marriage of Team 3’s CO (Commanding Officer. A unit’s first in command), Major Mercer, while he boated around with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Pronounced like the sound a kitten makes. Rotating combined Navy and Marine units on semi-constant nautical patrol throughout the more troublesome/newsworthy parts of the world) two years prior.

Doggett, our team’s XO (Executive Officer. A unit’s second in command. Why not EO, you ask? Because, as energy drinks and ESPN2 taught us, X is a way cooler letter), took it well insomuch as he didn’t end up dying from it despite his best efforts. Months three through five of the deployment for the young officer were marked by a constant string of semi-passive attempts to get outside the wire where something might shoot at, explode near, or possibly even stab into him. The XO of the civil affairs team assigned to the same district two deployment prior lost two fingers to a Taliban sympathizer armed with a hatchet and a significant percentage of his blood replaced by heroin, so rest assured that kind of thing happens in modern warfare.

Sergeant Popovich and I fretted over these developments at first, particularly given that Doggett had previously been the kind of happy-go-lucky fella who freely shared smokes, called enlisted guys “bro,” and offered hyper-critical teardowns of the homemade cards countless school kids regularly shipped over in bulk to us “Marnines” and “Amerracan Heros” overseas. And to think, some folks wonder what use an art history degree could be to a fighting man.

Our team’s CO, on the other hand, didn’t give the whole emotional mess much thought. I initially took it as a sign of heartlessness, or maybe dislike towards the diametrically chummy goofball of an executive officer she’d been saddled with, but in reality it was a case of her knowing the score. After all, it was her sixth deployment, the third to a combat theater, and she’d spent enough time in a front row seat overlooking breakups, long-distance divorces, and Dear John/Jane emails. Doggett’s fruitless and woeful hunt for a Combat Action Ribbon (Award given to US Marines and Sailors who have engaged in direct combat with or received indirect fire, to include IED detonations, from an enemy. Typically abbreviated as CAR and pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) or a posthumous Purple Heart (medal awarded to US military personnel killed or wounded in action) was nothing new to a salty campaigner like Major Carol Butterfield, callsign Gold Digger.

“Was that particular sobriquet your idea, ma’am?” Popovich asked with an eyebrow raised nearly to the Neanderthal-esque hairline that topped his pudgy face one evening after Doggett tramped off on one of his woulda-coulda-shoulda-suicide patrols.

We’d grown accustomed to them by that point. And I learned to take a little selfish relief from the fact that his patrolling kept me from having to share the burden of being the CA representative regularly outside the wire. Popovich was too vital to risk, being the only one who knew the overly complex computerized requisition system, and the Battalion didn’t allow field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) like Butterfield beyond the FOB walls unless necessary due to their being choice targets for the bad guys.

She guffawed in that biting, staccato way of hers; a throaty burst from a Ma-Deuce (Affectionate nickname for the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. It’s huge, armor piercing, and a ridiculous amount of fun to fire) made human and awarded naval aviator wings (that description give anyone else an erection?), “Yeah, not so much. Nobody picks their own and they’re all pretty much on the stupid side. But that’s the whole point of call signs for us Air Wingers (personnel who serve in the aviation units of the Marine Corps).”

“Sexism?” I theorized.

“References to popular rap songs white people can’t justifiably pick for karaoke no matter how badly they want to (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records 2005)?” Popovich speculated.

“Both wrong. It’s mockery plain and simple,” she corrected us. “Though I suppose Uunaia (My last name. It’s Samoan) guessed closest, so he wins.”

“Ha! Suck it, Sergeant!” I gloated. Turning to Butterfield, “What do I win, ma’am?”

“You win attending tonight’s BUB (Battle Update Brief. A semi-weekly or daily staff meeting where the key members of a unit brief each other on the tactical, administrative, and strategic goings on of said unit. They’re very important and totally suck balls) in twenty minutes instead of me,” smirked the Major.

“Fuck.”

“Rumor is this one’s 214 slides long. New battalion record.”

“Fuuuuuuuck.”

“What do you have to do tonight that precludes you from such suffering, Skipper (traditionally a nautical term for boss or captain, but we Marines use it to refer to a commanding officer whenever we want to picture them as a flustered fat guy smacking Bob Denver with a hat)?” Popovich asked Butterfield with a sideways grin aimed at my misery.

“Nothing. But they never listen to me and it’s 214 slides so they can fuck right the hell off.”

“As can I, apparently,” I grumbled in defeat.

“Rank has its privileges, Lance Corporal. I’ll be in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Readiness) tent. Let me know how it goes. And somebody come get me if my XO ever gets back. Or dies,” and, on that cheery note, she sauntered off to Skype her husband alongside all the other Marines and Sailors quietly weeping/engaging in phone sex in that sandy, tent-shaped conduit to home.

“Look on the bright side,” Popovich suggested my way.

“Which is?”

“Damned if I know. Better hurry up and grab grub. By the time you get out of that briefing the chow hall will be closed. Shit, the war might be over,” he chuckled and redirected his attention to typing away on his SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router. Government Internet for stuff classified as secret or higher) laptop, meaning he was either hard at work answering Gunny Aquino’s request for permission to order more school supplies or firing off dirty emails to his wife while she floated somewhere near Catalina with the rest of the USS Stockdale’s crew. In which case he was also “hard at work” (wink-wink). Privileges of rank indeed.

“By the time I get out of there, the goddamn sun will have exploded and wiped our solar system from existence.”

“Then you won’t have to worry about going to the next BUB. Hop to it, dicknuts.”

“Aye aye, sergeant. By which I mean: fuck.”

“Fuck’re you doing here, dicknuts?” the infantry Battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Hebog, politely queried of me through the tight lips of his wrinkled, angry, trailer-park-Dracula face. He sat at the apex of the giant, U-shaped plywood desk that nearly filled the whole briefing room of the command bunker.

Arcing out to both sides of the old fucker sat the rest of the Battalion brass (Slang for high-ranking personnel. Comes from back in the day when their shiny insignia was made of brass. I think) along with representatives from each section of the unit and it’s supporting elements: our team, the FET (Female Engagement Team. Small units comprised entirely of women formed to gather intelligence from other women firsthand in countries where the local men don’t allow their wives/daughters/sisters to speak with the opposite gender. Sound vaguely sexist? It sure is. Because that’s how shit often works in the third world), the HumInt (Human Intelligence. People who gather intelligence directly from other humans) guys, a hatchet-faced woman who always wore Oakley sunglasses and black polo shirts and “absolutely did not work for the CIA so don’t even bring it up,” a team of Army PsyOps (Psychological Operations. They fight the enemy’s brains with science! And sometimes leaflets) drunks who somehow maintained a steady supply of illegal hooch, et al.

In addition to the true bigshots a crowd of underlings and note takers lined three walls, shoulder to shoulder. And all of their eyes peered at me as I stood off to the side of the projection screen upon which the accursed slideshow glowed. Well, the eyes that weren’t distracted and/or bored as shit. Or hidden behind sunglasses and definitely not CIA.

“Sir?” my quizzical response was the first thing I said in the BUB. Hadn’t even gotten to my spiel.

“Where’s your boss? Why the fuck I got a lance corp’l gawking at me instead of your Major?”

“Major Butterfield has a pressing personal matter to attend to, sir. But I am fully prepared to answer any and all questions that may arise from the CA update.”

The Colonel grunted and waved at me to proceed in a fashion his ancestors likely used when they required another mint julep fetched by someone they owned.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the construction of the main irrigation weir is ahead of schedule, despite the initial use of sub-standard concrete in the spillway. Coordination for distribution of food to the poorer families in the southern end of the district has begun with USAID (United States Agency for International Development. Government agency that helps people in impoverished countries. I’d mock them but they’re pretty all right) and the governor. Latter’s promised to lend us some ANP (Afghan National Police) support to get that done.”

I’d lost the attention of pretty much everybody in the room, though I didn’t hold it against any of them except the PsyOps Staff Sergeant snoring loudly into his threadbare maroon beret. Not because of the snoring, but because I smelled the whiskey on it and those greedy doggies (adorably PG-rated, insulting nickname US Army Soldiers) refused to share. That aside, I felt everyone’s pain. Not like I wanted to be stuck in this PowerPoint purgatory, let alone forced to participate in and prolong it.

War is hell. Which I guess makes PowerPoint some kind of double hell. I pressed on.

“The big hurdle coming up for us is the girls’ school we’re looking to build outside Shamblatan, about ten miles downriver from here on the west bank of . . .”

“Hang on,” Hebog slammed a flat palm on the desk and leaned in. “Girls’ school? Ain’t that gonna piss off some a them more hard-line locals? Like that ah . . . err . . . help me out, Charlie. The bearded feller.”

The downright aggressively likeable and absurdly muscular Battalion XO, Major Charlie Blank, shot me a sympathetic shrug before turning to his boss, “I have no idea, sir.”

“Fine, whatever. That Elder Hajji Whatever. He ain’t gonna like folk coming in here teaching their gals to read and math n’ shit. Ain’t he?”

“I suppose he won’t at that, sir,” Major Blank concurred.

“Ain’t asking you. I’m asking Lance Corp’l . . .” he trailed off and leaned forward in an attempt to read my nametape from across the room.

“Uunaia, sir,” I assisted.

“Sure, why the hell not. Well?”

“Well? Oh, still my turn to talk? Hajji Whatever. Thing is, sir, we’re working on that now and have a potential solution. We offered to pay for a bridge to go up over the Helmand right next to his compound. He’s so stoked about the prospect that he promised to publicly endorse the school if it’s made official. It’s a pretty sweet deal. A crossing there would cut the travel time for most of the wheat farmers from further south to the big market in town to boot, so it’ s a win-win.”

Hebog rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in contemplation, stealing further irretrievable seconds from my life.

“Bridge, huh?” he muttered at last. “Gonna have to think about it.”

“If I may, sir, we need to get the project approved and started ASAP if we want to continue the school construction uninterrupted.”

“Think about it, Lance Corp’l. That’s all. Who’s next?”

Somebody nudged the inebriated Army PsyOps Staff Sergeant, who indeed happened to be next, into relative consciousness and I returned to my seat at the table.

I reentered the CA office a few dozen eons later, my mood having failed to improve in the meantime. There I found a distracted Popovich and a cheerful Butterfield both typing away at their laptops in addition to a surprisingly present Doggett cleaning his disassembled M4 (carbine model of the M16 rifle you see in war movies, carbine being a fancy word for “shorter version of a gun”).

“Intermission over at the Bijou, Uunaia?” Doggett hummed without looking up from his task.

“Uh . . . sir?”

“The BUB, dude. Popovich said you’d be over there at least another twelve hours. New Battalion record and all.”

“No, it’s over. Thank Christ. At least I think it’s over. I kind of blacked out during the weather portion and now I’m back here. Unless I actually died of boredom, which would make this purgatory. Yeah, that adds up.”

“Wouldn’t this be hell?” Butterfield smirked crookedly.

“No, that would be another BUB.”

The others all muttered and nodded in consensus.

“Anything of note to report?” Butterfield asked while snapping her blocky computer closed.

I listed the highlights, “The PsyOps team has switched from vodka to whiskey, that guy with Bravo Company whose buddy accidentally shot him in the ass is gonna be okay, and the Taliban cut off another police captain’s head in front of his family outside Jarham. Also the Colonel says he’s gonna think about the bridge/girls school exchange proposal.”

“Goddamnit,” Popovich rapped his knuckles against his laptop.

“At least he didn’t say no,” I pointed out.

“No, not that hillbilly and his bullshit.”

“Hey,” Butterfield cautioned semi-seriously.

“Sorry, not that glorious and shining example of the finest tenets of our Corps who truly deserves to command over a thousand of our brethren. And his bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Trouble on the home front is all.”

“Your wife accidentally forward another one of your erotic emails to the rest of the Chiefs’ Mess (Separate mess hall aboard US Navy vessels for enlisted personnel ranked E-7 and higher. Because they’re usually pompous dicks who can’t get along with personnel of other ranks) again?” I asked.

“Nah, she bribed one of the comm (short for communications) sailors to smash the boat’s server with a fire axe in case she does that again. Our daughter got in a fight at school is what happened. Some shitheel picking on her.”

“She win?” I asked

“The trans one?” Butterfield asked simultaneously. Popovich, long having considered himself the father of two boys and a girl, learned on pre-deployment leave that his eldest was a transgender teenage girl. As if falling into each of those categories individually doesn’t make attending middle school on a Marine base difficult enough.

“Oh yeah, kicked the shit out of the little butthole.”

“Nice. But I still think he’s looking to get some shooting started,” Doggett muttered absentmindedly.

“The other kid?” I asked.

“No, dumbass. Colonel Hebog.”

“Ah, of course. Wait, what?”

“I believe my currently-scatterbrained XO is jumping back to the first half of this conversation,” Butterfield surmised.

“Right. That. Stuff. What were we talking about?” Popovich sighed.

“The Colonel is holding out on giving the thumbs up to the bridge deal and the Lieutenant thinks it’s because he wants to provoke some gunfights with the local Taliban,” I recapped.

“Come on, this is an infantry battalion. They want to fight,” Doggett pointed out. “Why do you think they’ve conducted, like, three raids a week since we got here? In a district with eight Taliban left alive?”

“There’s eight now? Did they recruit two more since the last BUB I attended?” Popovich harrumphed. “Please, that hillbi . . . beacon of great officership or whatever I called him before wants to prove he’s the boss and demonstrate that building schools and handing out cash isn’t as important in a war as shooting people in the face.”

“If wars could still be won solely by shooting people in the face, this whole clusterfuck would have ended in a tickertape parade down 5th Avenue a decade ago,” Butterfield noted.

“They didn’t shoot Bin Laden in the face until 2011, ma’am,” I pointed out.

“Well they would have held the parade then. Shit, I’m not a ‘what if’ kind of person. My point is I agree with Popovich. Hebog’s flexing his muscles. He’ll give us the bridge after he gets some blood flowing back to his wrinkly, old pecker. Which is a sentiment that does not leave this office my young, gossipy Devil Dogs (One of the many, many nicknames for Marines. One of the least insulting ones).”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” we three subordinates chorused.

“He’s wants to get the shooting started in our district, mark my words,” Doggett added in a defiant singsong.

“Sir, with all due respect . . .” Popovich began.

“Oof, that’s never a good start,” Butterfield guffawed, her eyes and Doggett’s both rolling almost in unison. Privileges of rank indeed.

“. . . Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Popovich finished.

“Hey, I’m trying to get myself shot. Or at least shot at. Lightly shrapneled, perhaps. But myself and only myself. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” Doggett protested.

“Fair,” Popovich conceded.

“This may be the weirdest goddamn conversation of the deployment,” I pointed out.

“So far,” Doggett crooned as he slapped the upper and lower receivers (hey, what did I tell you about the diagram?) of his weapon back together with bemused finality.

“Hey there, Major,” Hebog’s inescapably ear-stinging drawl echoed across the FOB four BUB’s worth of evenings later, catching Butterfield halfway between our office and the COC (Command Operations Center) a few minutes after the latest PowerPoint purgatory’s conclusion.

From under the ramshackle gazebo that served as a smoke pit (designated area for the smoking of tobacco on any US military installation), with a Marlboro Light in mouth, I watched and heard as she made no attempt to hide her annoyed sigh. God love her.

“Word is your Sar’nt Poppinfresh raised his self a queer son,” Hebog chuckled like a corrupt sheriff in a cheap western. “Must have caught that from you feel-good, pussy-ass civil affairs fuckers, huh? Just kidding. Hear the little weirdo knocked out Staff Sar’nt Bucket’s kid.”

“Well sir,” my Skipper didn’t so much trail off as allow her attempt at a polite, appropriately subservient answer evaporate before it could condense. “If by ‘queer’ you’re referring to the Q in LGBTQ which stands for those who identify specifically as queer, or ‘questioning,’ regarding their sexuality, then I’m afraid you are incorrect. Sir.”

The squinty hillbilly’s eyes narrowed further.

“Matter of fact, Sergeant Popovich’s eldest is a transgender woman. Which would be the T for any weak spellers overhearing this exchange,” Butterfield ignored but definitely saw the double thumbs-ups that I and the two members of the FET smoking with me that evening flashed behind the Battalion CO’s back. “Her choice of new name is pending. But as I understand it, the modern Marine Corps is an all-inclusive, all-American fighting force where tolerance is extended to all but our enemies. Sir.”

“Point taken. But ain’t sure I appreciate your confrontational tone, Butterfield,” At least the old prick pronounced her name correctly.

Butterfield shrugged.

“Mm-hmm. Officers can get can Ninja Punched (Deceptively goofy term for a Non-Judicial Punishment or NJP. What happens when you get caught fucking up in a serious way but not serious enough to warrant a full-blown court martial like you see in the moving pictures. A Few Good Men and such) too, you know,” he finally cast an irked eye toward us enlisted types.

Butterfields shoulders sank a teeny tiny bit, succumbing to the difference in metaphorical weight between the brown oak leaves on her collar and the black ones (The rank insignias of majors and lieutenant colonels are both oak leaves, colored gold and silver respectively. Officer insignia worn in the field and combat theaters trades those shiny hues for matte brown and black so it’s harder for snipers to spot them and blow their brains out because that’s what snipers do) on Hebog’s.

“Apologies for my tone, sir. Been a long . . . decade. Give or take. But I’d appreciate you not disparaging the families of my Marines. Stick to insulting my idiots and me directly. Like good, old Lance Corporal Unpronounceable over there.”

I clicked my boot heels (though heavy duty rubber makes more of a thud than a click) and dramatically doffed my cigarette in deference to my Skipper.

Hebog snorted victoriously, though the exchange struck me as a more of a draw. Until the next part.

“Since I have your undivided attention for the moment, might I follow you to your office and further discuss the subject of the girls school/bridge project, sir?” Butterfield’s reserves of feigned subservience ran low.

“No.”

“O . . . kay. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“No. Full no.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Ain’t approving’ it.”

The cigarette nearly dropped from my mouth. Motherfucker.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ain’t approving’ it. It’s a bullshit deal and I ain’t gonna allow it. Not in my district.”

“It’s not your district, sir. It’s the Afghans’ district,” the cigarette actually did fall from my lips, either from opening them to speak or out of shock that I’d spoken.

“Shut up, Unpronounceable!” snapped Hebog without looking at me.

“Not now, Uunaia!” snapped Butterfield in the same manner. “Why is it a no to the bridge? Elder . . . Whatever will not be happy if we nix that end of the deal and go ahead with the school construction.”

“And he can eat shit because I don’t want every fuckstick Islamic Fundamentalist in a hundred mile radius knocking at our front gate demanding concessions over every project he claims pisses him off.”

What a shockingly good point made in a relatively comprehensible manner.

“Fair enough. But we’re not giving up the girls school project, so . . .”

“Good, you shouldn’t. Deserves being built.”

“And if the Elder vows reprisals against the school like we suspect he might?”

“This is fucking Afghanistan, Major. And it ain’t your first rodeo. Every-goddamn-body and their mama vows reprisals every time a sheep shits on the wrong side the Helmand. Hajji Whatever’s pissing in the wind.”

“And if he ends up telling his people to start winging grenades, rockets, and those ever popular rocket propelled grenades at us in response?”

Hebog chuckled in the fashion of a born killer you at long last realize you’re glad is on your side, “Then we shoot ‘him in the fucking face.”

Doggett presented a sanitized and summarized version of the information exchanged in the above conversation during the fifth hour of his next eleven hour patrol, throughout which nobody shot at or exploded him to any degree to his continuing dismay.

Two days later Elder Hajji Whatever ended up throwing us a curveball and opting for the middle ground between Butterfield and Hebog’s predictions: paying one of the impoverished locals working construction on the expansion of the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound connected to our FOB to convey his displeasure in a most unsubtle fashion. While the Afghan troops prepped for their weekly Thursday night orgy (Real thing. Seriously. Just Google image search . . . no, wait . . . eh, do what you want) this enterprising young lad laid down his sledgehammer, snatched a stray Pakistani knockoff Tokarev (Old Soviet pistol model. Ever see one of those WWII movies where the Russian commissars start shooting their own troops for retreating in the face of the Germans? These are usually what they’re doing that with. Yay for fun facts!), tucked it into his robes, and furtively flip-flopped over to the gym. Even when cheaply made, a pistol’s firing pin striking primers sends rounds downrange. This semi-pro assassin managed to get off five before a quick-thinking, mid-CrossFit scout sniper with no neck crushed his skull with a precisely hurled 16kg kettlebell.

Of those five rounds one nicked a dumbbell, another put a hole clean through the padding of the bench press, the third shattered the cheap elliptical machine’s console, and the last two took Popovich smack dab in the heart as he cranked out a set of lat pulldowns. Our hirsute sergeant died before his killer’s twitching corpse hit the deck. It happened so fast he didn’t have time to look shocked.

Popovich, that is. Nobody could tell what the Afghan’s final mien might have been before the avenging CrossFitter grabbed an even heavier kettlebell and made sure the motherfucker was dead. Hard to read the expression on a concave face.

So for all their supposed hootin’ and hollerin’ and raidin’ for a big, brassy fight with the enemy, the only Marine the Battalion sent home in a flag-draped steel box was Sergeant Alexander Popovich. Slightly pudgy, extremely hairy, idealistic, directly supporting (term for when an individual or a unit is operating in a role alongside a specific unit but not fully tied into its chain of command), never patrolling Sergeant Alexander Popovich.

Before Colonel Hebog could arrange for a bullet to pass through Hajji Whatever’s skull, the Elder piled his favorite wife, favorite son, second favorite chai boy (Tweenaged house servant/sex toy that many middle class and wealthy Pashtu Afghans own at least one of. Let that sink in and then tell me how despicable America was for trying to instill some of its values on the locals. Eat a dick, moral relativism), three AK’s (general term for all weapons in the Kalashnikov family, the most famous being that classic staple of generic bad guys in both movies and real life: the AK-47), and twenty pounds of opium into a pickup truck and escaped across the border to Pakistan where he eluded authorities for several months before being captured and garroted by a Taliban officer who refused to forgive the guy for working with us infidels in the first place. So the whole affair turned out pretty disappointing for all parties across the board.

Somebody from S-1 (administrative section, or “shop,” of a unit) plugged a pair of travel speakers into an iPod and blasted a tinny rendition of “Taps” as six grunts (nickname for infantry personnel) carried Popovich’s coffin out the open flaps of BAS (Battalion Aid Station. Central medical facility of a . . . wait for it . . . battalion) two days after his death. Butterfield, Doggett, and I stood at attention in a row along the path of packed dirt the pallbearers took to the waiting Osprey (The V-22 Osprey is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, transport aircraft that looks like the deformed baby of an inbred propeller plane and a helicopter with fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re great in theory, but in reality they’re terrifying death traps that have killed 39 people in crashes. Lowest bidder and all) while a dozen or so members of the Battalion staff assembled similarly to our left.

“That’s what they almost called me, you know. For my callsign,” Butterfield half-whispered in a sad, dreamy tone that broke my goddamn heart all over again as our shipmate’s body passed by.

“Ma’am?”

“‘Taps.’ They almost made that my callsign Taps. Because of Dan Butterfield.”

“Dan . . . Wait, the Civil War general? The bugle call guy?” Doggett queried from the corner of his mouth closest to the Skipper.

“There was both a Civil War general and a bugle call writer named Butterfield?” my grief-stricken brain played catch-up.

“One guy. Same person. My great-great-great uncle or whoever. Wrote ‘Taps,’ though I think they called it ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby’ at the time,” Butterfield explained.

“That’s a way creepier name it,” I opined.

“Right? Given its use,” Doggett agreed.

“So true. Which is why I’m glad they passed on calling me ‘Lullaby’ as well.”

“Also creepy. And somehow a little condescending,” I mused.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahem!” Hebog cleared his throat, thereby drawing attention to how loud our whispering had grown and the fact that none of the other assembled Battalion staff gave a shit that we conversed. We responded by not giving a shit about the Colonel in turn. Popovich was our Marine, after all.

“So, ma’am, they didn’t call you Lullaby because it’s too creepy even for the air wing. And they didn’t go with Taps because . . .” I prodded.

“Too depressing. And foreboding.”

The recorded trumpet notes ended. Then started over. That whole tune is barely a minute and a slow walk from the aid station to the LZ (Landing Zone) takes that long even without a coffin to carry.

Very fucking depressing.

The grunts reached the open ramp of the bird (Slang for aircraft. Because flying) and carried the coffin up into it, disappearing into its shady bowels with Popovich’s mortal coil.

“So why Gold Digger?” I pressed on, hoping new knowledge might temporarily edge out the melancholy.

“After the war Butterfield, apparently, went into government and got busted for some gold related scam. Think he was Undersecretary of the Treasury (He was actually Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Totally different thing) at the time.”

“Man, they really took your historical footnote of an ancestor and ran with it, huh ma’am?” Doggett ventured.

“Yeah, well, everybody gets pretty wasted at the get-together were the callsigns get handed out.”

Doggett and I nodded to each other. Of course.

“And, frankly, it could have been worse. They usually are. One guy in my first squadron wound up as ‘Shit Stain,’ for example.”

“Yeesh,” I breathed.

“Rough. Not as creepy as ‘Lullaby,’ at least,” Doggett pointed out.

“And not as depressing as ‘Taps,'” sighed the Skipper.

The Osprey’s rotors began their slow starting spins as the six grunts filed back out, unencumbered and blinking at the kicked-up dust.

“All right,” Butterfield sighed louder this time, her boots rustling the gritty ground as she turned away. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Like what, ma’am?” I asked earnestly.

“Damned if I know, but we gotta do it.”

That we did. Nearly two months of deployment remained ahead at that point but little of it turned out worth telling. Things stayed sad until rolling into predominantly boring and then, when we started turnover with the advance party (members of a unit who deploy ahead of their shipmates in order to liaise and coordinate with the unit they’re replacing) for our replacement team (who thanked us profusely and repeatedly for all our great work and then blamed us for every single fuckup they made over the first half of their deployment as is standard procedure), life got too busy to be much of anything else. Then we packed up our gear, chucked it into a series of aircraft across the world over a period of two weeks, and landed at last on the ugly, weed-lined tarmac of March Air Force Reserve Base (Riverside, California) one humid midnight.

From there another ugly, beat-up, run-down, rotten white bus drove us back to Las Pulgas to greet the dawn, a bedazzled  “Welcome Home” banner, and those others who remained significant. And so ended our madcap participation in OEF: twitching with impatience as we clambered off another rumbling, cramped, crummy vehicle surrounded by the big guns (M777A2 155mm howitzers) and rockets (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS) in the heart of The Fleas.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul D. Mooney is an NYC born writer with pieces published in American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, and more. You can see more of his work on his website, thewritepaulmooney.com, so long as he remembers to update it. He received a BS from BU, an MFA from SLC, and served four years in the USMC. He currently works as a copy editor at a marketing company and loves tacos, sailing, eating tacos while sailing, and his two cats (the dumb one and the fat one).

 

 

 

 

The Garden

by Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell

 

Thoris lay in his favorite tree and tried to remember his home as it had once been. He closed his eyes. Memories came and went as they pleased lately. On the days when thoughts could be summoned at will, Thoris tried to live slowly, letting each breath be its own morning, noon, and night.

There it was. Now he saw it. His forked tongue flickered on its own, already hunting for supper without him. But for now, his mind was still his mind, and the image of his old, perfect garden washed over him.

__

Everything in the garden–alive or not–had been special. It was how the Master worked. Thoris’ home tree was his favorite thing in the garden. In the morning, bark was green, soft, and new. At midday it was dark, rough, and brittle. Each night its dry branches leaned over and waited to be born again. It had lived hundreds of lives, each one a little different. Sometimes the leaves were greener, or more branches sprouted, or the fruit changed from small and red to fat and orange. Thoris memorized the detail of each life. It was the only thing in the garden that had to die, and he wanted to honor it.

At night, the Master spoke through the pores of every living thing. An instant before the sun disappeared, the garden would erupt with joyful humming. Every piece of creation served as an amplifier for his love. This love never translated to speech–at least not the tongue of the garden creatures. He remembered it as a dissonant, yet sweet song paired with the chattering of birds and the sigh of the woman when she felt sleepy. Sometimes the grass and leaves shivered, but he wasn’t sure if this meant the plants were being spoken through or were answering back.

After that chorus of heavenly noise, Thoris’ tree would die, and he would curl up to sleep, looking forward to its rebirth. He always chose the thickest branch as his resting place. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the afternoon, after its leaves had come in fully, it provided plenty of shade for his afternoon nap. Somehow, the wood felt as soft as sheep’s wool.

It had felt that soft.

__

Snapping back to his current life, new corner of Thoris’ mind took hold. Eat. Hunt. Eat. He ignored the command to hunt–while he still could–and plucked a puny piece of fruit from a branch. He nibbled on it slowly, as mindfully as he could, and watched the sky. It was a clear day, but the sun felt hotter than usual.  Mice and lizards below him crept through the grass.  An urge seized him, and a chunk of fruit came rolling from his mouth. It painted his teeth like bloody flesh.

How effortless it would be with his speed and stealth to creep over and swallow them whole.

His eyes flashed from their normal yellow to black.  He shook his head and took another bite of fruit. Drops of dew leapt off the skin as he tore out large pieces to chew.  Not only did the fruit taste bitter this morning, but he could only bring the very edge of the surface to his mouth.  Most of it would have to be thrown away for the ants, or else he could place it on the ground and roll it around with his nose to reach the middle parts.  Thoris could no longer see his shriveling limbs. It would not be long.  Within a week, his legs would be completely gone.

Not only would he lose his legs, but he would completely lose the power to communicate with man.  That didn’t matter, though, for he had not seen the man in days.  He gazed off in the distance, and there stood the mighty creature appointed by their Master as a guard for all eternity.  It looked sort of like the man who had been born here; he had once been cloaked in that same light.  Unlike the man, this guardian’s eyes were not welcoming; nor were they cruel.  They seemed to be made of stone.  No newcomers were allowed, and the garden’s old tenants were slowly retreating to the new, frightening world.  It didn’t matter anymore where they lived now. The Master’s protection was gone.

Thoris could no longer stand the taste of the fruit. He rolled it off the branch with his nose and watched as one fly after another landed on it. His hunger gone, he waited for clarity to return to him. He tried again to remember the past, ignoring the raspy, cold thoughts that were creeping closer to the center of his being.

He thought about the day the announcement was made. It hissed out of the pores of every being like steam. Thoris remembered freezing in place as that heavenly noise came softly, sorrowfully, from him and every other creature and plant. The leaves of his tree rustled with the sound. The Master had spoken to them plainly. Thoris squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears came out. Words were hard to remember. He focused on them. Cherished them. He begged them to come to his mind.

“We will try another way.  You beasts may stay or go, but you will not hear me for a while.”

“Where are you going, Master?”

“Ask the serpent.  The changes to come give me no pleasure, but something must be done.  This offense must be remembered.” 

“Serpent? Master, how have I offended?”

“It was not you, child. It was your neighbor.”
Thoris’ eyes flew open and flashed black again. His mouth opened in a twisted grin, and another word came to him. It felt similar to the word hunt. Kill. Kill. Kill him.

No. He shook himself so violently that he nearly fell from his branch. He steadied himself and spoke aloud. It hurt his throat.

“Olfrid. Cannot. Kill. Olfrid.”

The withering away of all serpents’ legs, the exile from their home, the fading away of music and thought… this was Olfrid’s doing. Those words, your neighbor, has blossomed into a vision from the Master. A final act of kindness. Thoris concentrated as hard as he could and asked for the vision again.

“If I see it again, perhaps it will stay with me when I am gone. Perhaps I won’t be completely lost.”

__

“The mornings come so quickly,” Olfrid grumbled as he crawled out of his hole. He hadn’t considered the inconvenience of an opening facing the east.

“The morning comes exactly when it must.” The answer came from the tree above him.

“Then why do I still feel sleepy, Thoris?”

“Because it’s time to eat. You’ll feel better after you’ve had breakfast. I was about

to go and pick fruit. Come with me.”

“I’ve eaten fruit with you so many times my teeth are stained red.”

“Such vanity, Olfrid,” Thoris teased. “Come on, the company will improve your mood.”

“If it’s all the same to you, neighbor, I’ll go for a little walk to wake up … get used to the light. Is it hotter than usual?” Thoris looked around and shook his head. Then he  descended from his branch and crept away.

‘I suppose I could cover the entrance at night,’ Olfrid thought as he walked away, eyeing the ground for fallen leaves.

The morning was damp and breezy. The grass sparkled and shook as he walked. It was almost too thick to move through. He spread the blades apart with his claws and lifted rocks with his pointed snout in search of leaves. The ground was perfectly clean–not even a speck of dirt out of place. He walked on, moving closer and closer to the end of the garden, to the place where trees got shorter and grass felt drier under his feet. Still no leaves.

Olfrid frowned. He had watched Thoris’ tree shed leaves in the late afternoon. Where did they go after they fell? Did they disappear into the ground? Were they carried away by the ants? Anyway, couldn’t he always climb a tree for leaves? But that doesn’t answer where the fallen ones go… He frowned and lowered his head to think.

The garden was home—a beautiful place. He enjoyed plentiful food, courteous neighbors, and a warm place to live. After a hard rain, he could count on the Master to open up the clouds and blanket him with warmth. The river provided him with cool water but also a place to admire himself. All creatures were proud of their looks, but Olfrid had a feeling that a little extra effort went into the serpents. Their scales were smooth and caught the sun’s light so nicely. He loved to look at himself in the water. His scales were large–much larger than Thoris’. They were a greenish brown with darker stripes wrapped around his body, with the occasional spot of white. His head looked noble, wide and pointed at the jaw narrowing to an upturned snout. His narrow eyes looked serious–the eyes of an intelligent creature. Many lazy afternoons were spent reflecting on these facts.

Olfrid also admired the beauty of his home and the grandeur of the evening song. It made him feel important. ‘Whoever made all of these things wants to speak with me,’ he would think. But the Master never waited to hear his words. As soon as the song was over, so was that feeling. That soft little squeeze near his heart and the buzzing of his mind returned to stillness. Peace. Absolute silence. Was it a satisfying silence? He could not say.

Olfrid’s body twitched again. New thoughts were making him feel uncomfortable, like the itch that came before shedding. But it wasn’t that familiar discomfort. When was the last time he had felt uncertain? Olfrid could not recall. When was the last time a question went beyond ‘where will I bathe today’ or ‘when will I have supper?’

Creatures for miles around might have heard Olfrid’s stomach rumbling, but he could no longer think of finding food. Instead, he spent a good part of the morning watching the treetops. He waited for the wind to pick up and make the branches whip wildly from side to side. Surely just one leaf would fall. Nothing. For some reason, this harmless leaf mystery had birthed questions that would never leave his mind as long as it was working.

‘Why have I never wondered before? About this or anything?’

He wanted to think about it more, to try and remember more about himself. Where had he begun? When had the garden begun? His heart squeezed. Then he felt another new discomfort. His stomach cramped painfully in a way he had never experienced.

‘Better to think about this later,’ he thought.

Berry bushes and fruit trees surrounded him, and a variety of tasty root vegetables were hidden underground. He only needed to scrape the earth gently, and one would appear. But none of these things sounded good to him at the moment. After half-heartedly prodding at the dirt, Olfrid decided to wander closer to the border. Maybe there would be something new to try there. He would put up with this growing discomfort and observe how it made him feel. The urgency was a little frightening but exciting at the same time.

‘I need to find food. Need?’

 It was a word he’d never used. The Master used it when he lay down rules. They needed to share with one another. They needed to sleep at night and give the garden time to rest and revive. They needed to stay away from… he could not remember.

Stay away from what?

Olfrid met the stranger at the garden’s edge. He was sitting on a large rock just inches away from the grass, and a violet robe was draped over his gaunt form. Beyond the stranger lay an expanse of orange and brown earth with a few scrub bushes poking out of the ground. Though Olfrid felt a breeze on his skin, it did not reach the land beyond the garden. None of the sick plants moved, nor did the stranger’s long hair. It was like looking at the pictures that the man drew for his woman in the dirt.

The stranger’s head was in his hands, and his shoulders were bobbing up and down. Olfrid recognized this. The man had done this on the nights before his woman was created. The noise was never heard in the garden after that, but he remembered what the Master had named it.

“Why are you crying?” Olfrid asked.

The figure startled. Then, after a pause:

“I am crying because I have no home.”

“How terrible. Would you like to live in the garden?”

“That garden is not mine,” he said.

“But it could be yours as well. There are creatures like you here.”

“They are not like me,” muttered the stranger.

“But they are.  They walk on thick legs.  They have fur on top of their heads.  They talk loudly and have long fingers,” Olfrid wiggled his own stubby fingers to demonstrate.

“Can they fly?”

“Why, I’ve never seen them fly.” Olfrid reared back on his hind feet, staring at the man with interest. “Can you fly?”

“I could once,” said the stranger, touching his shoulder tenderly.

“What happened?”

The man turned away from the serpent, refusing to speak.  Two holes in his robe revealed the parallel scars on his back.  Olfrid cringed at the shapes which did not seem to belong.  The wounds gave off a foreign stench, and the edges were moist and sticky.  At that moment, Olfrid realized the stone he had been sitting upon was also red. This substance looked like berry juice, but it smelled like something else. It smelled like Thoris’ tree at the end of the day, like the end of life.

“Those marks are not good,” Olfrid said, though he could not say why.

“No. I had wings there once. They were ripped from by body and torn to pieces.” The stranger returned to softly sobbing.

“Who did this to you?”  he asked, taking a single step forward.

At this, the man snarled and stared greedily at the garden. “The Master of your home did this to me. The tyrant. He saw my power and ripped it from me.”

Olfrid stepped away from the man and his venomous words.  He had heard from the Master that lies were a like a disease.  The stranger in violet scoffed at this reaction and looked down upon the animal.

“So he’s fooled you as well.”

“Quiet!” said Olfrid.  Don’t you know he can hear everything?”

“I do know.  Doesn’t that frighten you? How can you abide someone rattling around in your brain?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear. But if he hears you lying—”

“He tolerates lies,” the stranger leaned closer, clenching the parched earth.  “What he hates is the truth.”

“The master only wants us to tell the truth,” Olfrid recited.

“We can only tell what we think is the truth.  If the real truth is never given, we can claim innocence, even if what we say is a lie.”

Olfrid fell back on all four legs and lowered his head to the ground.  He frowned.  It was a strange feeling when words made sense in his mind but felt bad to hear.  Stranger still, the words reminded him of his own worries. His stomach churned.

“Don’t be afraid, now.  I have learned many secrets,” he crept closer now, inching toward the grass but never touching it.  “I could tell you the truth about your Master—about many things.”

“You—You’re a bad creature!  That’s why you’ve been punished!”  And with that dismissal, he ran away as quickly as he could.

__

Thoris felt ashamed.  He had stumbled upon this conversation during his morning walk.  He could have stopped his neighbor.  I didn’t know it was my responsibility, he said, knowing that the Master would hear but would not answer. He had gone home with a resolve to speak up if he saw the stranger again–to protect his friend Olfrid from the dangerous words of this intruder. But the pleasing sights and sounds of the garden had distracted him. That evening had been so lovely. He thought of that time while his memory still functioned.

__

A flock of white cranes made elegant shadows against the canvas of dusk. A black female serpent crossed his path–one with whom he had hoped to mate. She chose a smaller male with shiny yellow scales that rivaled the sun. They still smiled at one another and behaved cordially. There was no need for jealousy in this land filled with gifts. If he was meant to have offspring, the Master would also provide a companion for him. Perhaps the black serpent didn’t enjoy berries and the evening music as much as he. Perhaps the Master would mold a sweet and friendly creature from his own claw or one of his scales, much like the human’s mate.

Thoris loved the woman. Some days were veiled in vague feelings of contentment, but her birth was as clear to him as the first day he felt breath rushing into his lungs. He recalled her immediate affection and curiosity for everything around her. Her first question to the man was about his favorite place in the garden. The man obliged, taking her hand and walking her to a brook filled with silvery fish and swaying reeds. She scooped up her first mouthful of water and laughed her first laugh, unable to contain the fullness of those first moments. Then they walked together, reviewing the names of things. Unsatisfied with calling every serpent ‘serpent,’ and every deer ‘deer,’ the woman moved her mouth around to get accustomed to her language. Then she named them–she gave every creature a second name so they could be more like her and the man. Thoris cherished his name and the love he received from the woman.

There was so much to be grateful for and so much to do, Thoris thought as he climbed the dry, peeling wood of his dying tree. The leaves fell and curled themselves tighter and tighter until they were nothing. But he did not notice this. He was too busy reveling in the song and smacking down the last of his berries. Tomorrow would come just at the right moment, and he would go about his normal day. And there was something else that he would do. Something very important. What was it? Well, no matter. He would remember, precisely when he was meant to.

 

The following morning, Olfrid and his new companion were debating again. Thoris had forgotten his task and was far away, making the woman laugh with a song about beetles.

__

Again you call me a bad creature,” the stranger rolled a stone between his thumb and forefinger, sounding very bored. “It is not bad to oppose slavery.”

Slavery.  It wasn’t a word that anyone in the garden knew.  The part of Olfrid that loved the Master begged him to run away, to find a branch in the cool shade and never think of the stranger again.  But instead he allowed a trance to take him.  Slavery.  The word made his head ache a little.  The sound left a foul incense around him.  It sounded as wicked as a lie.

“What is that?”

“Slavery?” The stranger flicked the stone away and spread his arms wide.

“Slavery is this garden.  Slavery is what keeps his voice in your head.   I know, because I lived by his side.  I have seen what you’ve never seen.”

“You’ve seen the Master?”

“I have.  Even when I could not see him, I felt him.  There was no rest.  When I tried to drive his voice from my mind for one moment—when I tried to remove him from my heart just for an instant, he devoured my strength and cast me out.  My old friends chased me from home.  Some followed me, but they are even more mutilated and powerless than I.”

“And… their wings are gone, too?”

“No one here may have wings.”

Olfrid didn’t speak for a long time. “You think you’ve been wronged. You think you’ve been punished unfairly. You seem to be truthful. But this is more than I’ve ever had to think of in my life.”

He’s seen to that.”

“But all he wants is to be near us. Why try and be apart from someone who loves you and provides for you?”

“To know which thoughts are mine!” When the stranger’s voice raised, it sounded like a crackling fire. The air felt warmer around him. “To have one moment’s peace! Don’t you ever wonder?  Don’t you ever wish to know which decisions are truly yours?”

“I … don’t think of that.”

“Because he won’t let you.” For the first time, the stranger reached out for his companion. He gripped the serpent’s limb, and Olfrid thought he felt a searing pain upon his scales. When he pulled back, there were no scars, but the sensation remained.

“I can’t listen to you anymore.  These are all lies.  They’re lies!”

“Talk to the master tonight,” he called as the serpent made his escape.  “Don’t depend on my words! Find out for yourself!”

Olfrid crept away, almost free.  That night, he could not feel the Master singing through him. Instead, whispers of doubt circled him and kept him from sleeping.  By morning, his mind was neither his nor the master’s.  The garden’s little pleasures failed to satisfy him as they did when something small troubled his mind.  These new worries were so much greater than anything else in the garden—so much greater than a splinter in his foot or a cloud of dirt in his drinking water.  It felt like prickles in his chest.  Olfrid shifted from side to side until there was nothing to do but sit, and that didn’t help either.

The stars and moon were all pointed at him, staring, asking him questions.  What troubles you?  Why are you afraid? Whom do you seek?

“Is it true?” he asked aloud.

The lights of the night sky gazed back, unmoved.  Olfrid could not remember what the master’s song sounded like.

Every sunset ritual felt as distant as the birth of the world.

“I just want to hear you say it,” he pleaded many nights after. “Just once.  Say he’s lying.  I’ll believe you.  I’ll believe whatever you tell me. Just once. Aloud.”

Olfrid returned to the edge of the garden after days of waiting.  The stranger was not there.  He stared at the desolation, gently moving one toe towards the wasteland beyond his home.  He searched for green in the distance, but there was none.  The serpent could not imagine surviving there.  Moreover, he could not imagine an offense terrible enough for such a prison.  He had nearly disappeared into the brush when a voice emerged from the dead world.  There stood the stranger. His robes looked cleaner than before. His shoulders, straight and strong.

“Did he speak to you?”

Olfrid had many questions, but the sick feeling in his stomach told him to run.

“Leave me alone.  Stay away.”

“I am away,” he said, sitting down on the same rock where Olfrid had found him. It was also cleaner, the blood washed away.  “I thought I made it clear before that I won’t harm you. Now … Did. He. Speak. To. You?

“He … he didn’t,” Olfrid wanted to cry. “It was so strange.”

“And how did you feel?” He clasped his hands together and cocked his head. Listening.

“I felt … covered in mud. Buried.”

“And free,” the stranger clenched his fist, claiming a victory that Olfrid was not sure of.

“I feel sick.” The serpent lowered his head.

The stranger made a soothing, clicking sound with his tongue. Olfrid thought he’d heard an ape make this sound when its baby was chattering and fussing late at night. He drew back but could not turn away from this man who was not quite a man. The words the followed kept him in place.

“It’s odd at first,” he admitted, “but what you experienced was not a bad thing.  You challenged him, and he surrendered.” The stranger lifted his arms towards the sky.  “You … bested him.”

“He didn’t speak to me because he knows I was talking to you.” It was the first time Olfrid could truly admit his guilt. He stared at the grass–the grass that was still his if he wanted to walk upon it.

“Do not fear him, my little friend. Now that you know what I know, I’ve come to share another secret with you.”

“What can you tell me? I know what you are.  You doubted him and so have I, and now he’s sent you to live in a world with no life.” Olfrid panicked, stricken with a new realization.  ”It’s what he’s going to do to me. It’s why I can’t hear him!” He threw himself to the ground. If he begged, could he be forgiven?

“No life?” The stranger laughed for the first time. It wasn’t the quiet scoffing sound that Olfrid was used to. His voice was full of excitement.  “My friend, you haven’t seen all the corners of my home. I’ve explored it myself.”  He pointed out past the dusty hills. “Believe me, there is life. There is food. There is water. There is music sweeter than the Master’s. And best of all…”

Olfrid felt another pull. “What’s the best of all?”

“Everyone there has the Master’s eyes … the Master’s voice … the Master’s mind. Everyone is his own king.” The stranger’s lean arms and long fingers painted an idyllic picture in the air.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Unlike the Master, I am happy to show you.” He was leaning towards Olfrid now, his voice small and secretive. “I only need you to help me first.”

Olfrid thought for a long time. He sniffed the air, looked back at the greenery, and waited for a breeze to hit his face. Any sign. In those moments, he gave the Master one more chance. If he is bad, tell me. I’ll believe you. When no answer came, he walked forward, lengthened his neck, and spoke:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“I am afraid for the man and woman who live here. You can help free them. You

can go where I cannot,” he whispered.

“How can we free them?” Olfrid asked, matching the stranger’s voice.

“I remember when your home was created. The Master warned his children of a place they should never go. Do you know this place?”

“The tree,” Olfrid pointed at the garden, stretching his arm as far as it would go to suggest a long distance. “The one in the center of the garden.”

The Master often sang images of that tree into his creations’ heads. With it came woeful melodies and dark colors. Thoris had nearly chosen it as his home, but its trunk could not be climbed. Though its bark appeared coarse and covered in knots, to an animal it felt as slippery as the slime-covered stones in the water.

“That’s it. I’m sure he never told you why it was forbidden,” said the stranger.

“He only said it would harm us.”

“Why would he put something harmful in your home?” Another question to turn Olfrid’s stomach and make his feet feel restless.

“I never thought about it.” How many times had he said or thought those words recently?

“Think about it now,” the stranger pressed. “Think hard.” Now he was inches away from the serpent’s face. Without realizing, Olfrid had inched closer and closer to the garden’s boundaries. One claw had crossed that line and rested on the stone.

“I don’t know. I can’t. I just… I don’t feel well,” Olfrid said, his head swimming. Suddenly hot and thirsty, he gasped and drew back on his hind legs. The one traitorous claw backed away. The heat of the outside land left him feverish after barely one touch.

“Stay with me!” He reached out to Olfrid. The impatience in his voice might have betrayed the gentleness in his eyes of the serpent hadn’t felt so ill. “Stay strong. I have felt what you are feeling. It will pass.”

“My chest,” Olfrid gasped, a tear rolling down his scales. “Something is squeezing inside me.”

“Yes. It hurts,” the stranger purred, inching closer.

“Why does it hurt?” His legs bent and twisted from the pain. He curled up, his tail close to his snout. He closed his eyes tightly. Does the hurt come in through the eyes? The discomfort of hunger could not compare; it would have felt like a shallow splinter now. Tell me the truth and I’ll listen,” Olfrid begged. Tell me to run and I’ll run. I’ll never return to this place. The stranger watched the serpent’s eyes searching past the clouds, past the sky, past infinity.

“You’re dying,” said the stranger. His words were like a lullaby now.

“What is dying?” The word tasted like that other word. Slavery. Olfrid wanted to rub his tongue in the dirt after speaking it.

“Dying… is what’s inside of the fruit,” he said, stroking Olfrid’s back. The stranger’s hands looked smooth like the man’s but felt like the old bark of Thoris’ tree in the evening, and cold as the morning stream. “You were able to bring yourself to this moment without the magic of the fruit. Few can. Dying is good. It is the end of powerlessness. Your body and soul stops, and then you awaken a king. Like me.”

“I don’t like it,” Olfrid squirmed at the stranger’s touch. He pulled away.  “I don’t like it!”

“Take my hand. Now I will tell you. The Master thought for a long time about it—about whether his creatures should have his powers. It was fear that stopped him. If he shared his power, he would no longer be needed. Do you see? Do you see what your Master is now?” The stranger stretched out his hands towards the serpent.

“I don’t like this,” Olfrid repeated, breathing more heavily. “I don’t want this!”

Olfrid had known the stranger for only a few days. In the garden, that was enough time to love someone. This creature was more confusing. He seemed to know when Olfrid felt fearful or uncertain. Was that not like the Master? Didn’t he also know the minds of his creations? But what good was that knowledge if he ignored Olfrid’s pleas? Would the Master ever answer his children’s call? Would more of the Master’s children wake up wondering why they had never wondered before? Or would he be lonely in the garden forever, yawning through conversations of fruit and weather?

What happened next shocked the serpent, because it was so unlike his new companion. The stranger took Olfrid in his arms and cradled him. He suddenly felt as warm as the Master’s song. The roughness of his skin disappeared, or at least it no longer mattered. This was the answer Olfrid had craved. Every caress was an answer to his call for love, for attention, for acknowledgment. I am a living being. I have begun to wonder. Show me that you hear me. Show me that you understand. Answer me. In one motion, the dying creature’s doubt washed away.

“I am with you,” whispered the stranger. “Let the death come. It will soon be over. Then you and I will save the world from slavery.”

“Slavery.” The word made him die faster. “Death… will save me from slavery?”

Now a sweet taste filled his mouth.

“It is the only solution.” Gently spoken, simple answers. Olfrid accepted them hungrily. He relaxed his body and nestled in the soft robes of his master.

Olfrid felt a final spasm in his chest. It spread to his limbs, tail, and head. He felt something like spiders crawling around in his skull. A song rose up from his heart, a terrible song made of shattering and screeching. The noises scraped at his ears and eyelids. Flashes of coherence exploded amid the madness. Words. Lost. Death. Never. Betrayed. Soon, the noise and pain retreated like a wave, and Olfrid opened his newborn eyes.

The garden was as red as his new master’s back. He looked out to the lifeless world and saw a halo beyond the hills that had once been invisible. For a moment Olfrid was sure he could hear music. Different music. Vibrant, straightforward music with rhythm and words. He turned back to the redness and saw Thoris’ head poking out of a bush, but his neighbor looked different. There was a vibrating silver chain around his neck that had never been there–or that he had never noticed.

“What is that thing he wears, master?” Olfrid asked.

“What you see is a shackled beast,” the stranger hissed. Shall we free him as well?” The stranger’s voice sent Thoris running.

“This is slavery? This is what I did not see?”

“This is it, my friend,” he said, petting Olfrid’s head. “You finally see. You will free the man and woman, and then we will claim our kingdom. Go. Go into the garden while you still can.”

Olfrid hopped out of the stranger’s arms and into the tall grass. The ground felt hot, and a dusty wind pushed him in the direction of the dry world. Still, he was able to struggle against the unseen current. Thoris found him bounding out of the brush moments later and spoke to him frantically.

“Olfrid!  Olfrid! What did he say? What did he do? What’s the matter with your eyes?”

“My eyes? My eyes and everything else are new. I have been reborn by dying.”

“Re–” Thoris did not know the word. There is only birth. How could anyone be born again? Like my tree?… best not to think about it. “You look the same except… there is something missing when I look at you. I can’t find… something.” Thoris struggled as Olfrid once had, and Olfrid felt pity. “Please. Tell me exactly what he told you.”

“I cannot explain to a beast who has never wondered,” said the newly awakened Olfrid.

The reborn serpent looked into the face of his old friend and saw a stupid animal. Thoris’ words were like the single-minded babble of a stream running towards the open water. The shackle around his old friend’s neck made him want to cry, but then pity turned into disgust.  How could anyone be this blind? How had he ever lived like that? He pushed past the beast and ran towards the center of the garden.

__

The time had come. Something like a breeze was pushing all of the creatures out of the garden and into the barren world of punishment. Thoris marched along in rhythm with another serpent beside him, a female. They usually said good morning to one another, but today, he could not find that word. And anyway, her eyes were completely blackened. She is still a good female, he thought. I should find her whenever we settle. I will take her as my mate. Before he could move closer, another, larger serpent came from behind and nudged her forward. For a moment, his anger flared, and the word kill rose up in him.

“I am here. I’m still here. Forgive me,” Thoris said to the sky as he shook the thoughts away. “Forgive me.” He moved obediently with the current with his eyes on the ground. After days of uncertainty, the Master’s wishes were finally being set into motion. Birds flew toward the gray horizon. Trails of insects filed out onto the sand. The wails of the man and woman rang out as their bare feet touched the hot ground. Thoris could have fought the wind that pushed him away. It was more of a whisper than a shout, but he felt he should display obedience. Perhaps there was a chance for forgiveness. And if not…   A thought came to him.

“Master, just one more night in my beloved tree. Please.”

The wind pressed on a moment longer, then it stopped, and then it changed direction.

He bowed his head and crept home, plucking a berry here and there. They were bitter and made him feel sick. He could not get to sleep until he vomited them up again.

Other creatures were with him in the night. A wolf paced beneath him as the sun rolled away. It hoped that he would fall from his branch. Thoris had never been hunted before, but somehow he recognized the look of a hunter immediately.  I am like you, he wanted to say to the wolf. We hunt. We kill. The part of himself that was disappearing fought back. He listened for the music, for a voice, for the any pleasing residue that could sustain his mind.  There was no music, only the rustling of sleepless living things.

When the wolf gave up and prowled away, there came the serpent and a female. They had also decided to sleep in the garden. His female. He had not taken her as a mate, but she knew. She knew that she was his.  She knew and he knew, and she is using him to anger you. Show her you are strong enough for this new life.

Thoris woke up with the lifeless body of his rival under his foot. A red river cut its path in the dirt. His female had fled. He licked his lips and felt a quick pain. Slowly and carefully, he ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt something small and sharp. He poked around with his finger, felt a sting, and then curled up his little body.

I cannot stop this? Your desire is for me to kill?  Master, I’ll venture to any corner of the world if you’ll save me from these desires. Master, can you hear me?

The mist thickened. He couldn’t breathe without coughing. While words were still with him, he thought of all the ways he could make amends. When an idea came to him, it immediately dissolved into nonsense.

In the morning, Thoris couldn’t wait to open his eyes and watch his tree come to life. He stared at the shriveled leaves and black bark. The sun kept rising, a handful of leftover birds chirped, but the tree would not awaken. In fact, as the sun climbed, the branches bowed even lower. Leaves turned to dust when touched by the wind. The wind. Thoris could not recognize the word, but he could feel it on his back, pointing him towards his new home. His new home filled with hunters, blood, and no words.

Olfrid and Thoris crossed paths many times after the garden’s end, though they didn’t always know. Most days, they reared back and struck at one another with their dripping fangs filled with a death less potent than the stranger’s. On rare days, Thoris could remember flashes of the old times, and he wished he could not. On these mornings, he could only remember his and Olfrid’s last meeting as thinking, speaking creatures:

__

“Where is your friend now?” Thoris asked as he stumbled toward his neighbor.

He was still adjusting to his new body.  Olfrid said nothing.  “Where are your songs as sweet as the Master’s? Where are your all-seeing eyes?” he demanded.

Thoris trembled at the dead, black marbles inside the slowly emptying head of his old friend. Olfrid slinked away, fixated on something else. He coiled up and watched a nearby mouse who sat bobbing upon a stone, as if thinking of a song.  “Olfrid, don’t—” But before he could finish the plea, Olfrid had stricken and swallowed it. Then, with a flicker of his fiery tongue, he slithered away.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell is a native of Lafayette, LA and lives there with her husband, Jake. When she is not teaching third graders or performing in one of her improv troupes, Leslie spends her private time writing and submitting short stories. In the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, she was awarded Honorable Mention for her crime caper, “Jane the Brain.” In her classroom, Leslie prioritizes writing instruction and aims to mold a new generation of authors who are excited to share their work with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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