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The Marginalia Game

by Adam Anders


The books lay in chaotic heaps across the floor, and the cracked glass of the grandfather clock threatened to join them. The house-sitting job was definitely not supposed to end this way. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the library.

The glass-paneled door was closed when he arrived and so he hadn’t noticed the book at first. When he did see it – conspicuous in its tragic position – the potential displeasure of the professor made him shriek inside. He could not allow for that. Not after that infamous lecture. Embarrassing himself in front of the Distinguished Chair in Literature with that obtuse comment. And that after he had failed to submit the marked undergraduate essays on time. Recovery from this was immediately necessary, lest he become just another errant, freshly minted PhD. His verbal prostration at the Professor’s office led to this.

“I tell you what you could do for me,” the Distinguished Chair had said, leaning back in his office chair and narrowing his eyes, “I’m off to an extended conference in Japan next week, and I usually have my son house-sit. He informed me this morning that an obligation will preclude him from being there the entire time. Would you take his place for 24 hours?”

Naturally, he agreed. If he impressed, perhaps his blunder in the lecture would be forgotten. A glowing recommendation from this professor was critical to a tenure-track position for himself, once out of grad school, of course. Failing the professor would, at best, mean relegation to a limited term contract and at worst, ignominy and a lack of any opportunity coupled with a poor network of connections. The book on the floor in this prestigious home library needed to be put back.

Standing at the library door, he had hesitated. The assignment was straightforward: watch the house, leave it as found. And the library was described as ‘strictly off limits.’

So, he eyed the book, lying there on the carpet spine-up, almost crying out like a wounded soldier on unfamiliar ground, reaching out to him. He stood. What would the professor say?

Specks of dust floated in the sunlight, down towards the floor. Light crossed the wingback chair, but the book lay just out of the sun’s reach.

“Get up!” He whispered in desperation at the book.

“Don’t leave me here, man!” he imagined the soldier-book calling back. “It hurts!”

“Dammit,” he breathed. He leaned forward, placing his palm on the brass door handle. And it gave way.

His heart pinballed in his ribcage. ‘Off-limits’ rung in his head. Flashbacks of his parents’ venerable home office abounded before him. He shut his eyes, shook his head and glanced around once again. Because the library door was unlocked no one would know if he stepped in just to put the book back where it belonged. His body lurched forward and stopped. The grandfather clock in the corner of the library loomed. An hour remained before the professor’s son was to arrive and take over from him. What if his son knew about the book and was tasked with putting the book back? Perhaps the book was meant to be there.

“Gotta get outta here man, we’re surrounded. Take me back to my shelf-base,” the book moaned in his mind.

“What were you doing here?” he said, crouching next to the book, trying to make himself as small as possible in the wilderness of that library.

He glanced around. The stately library delineated the discarded book as out of place. It was unnatural. In a professor’s home it had to be… purposeful. It had to have reason, logic, motive…it had to be, a test. Yes. Of course. Much like the professor’s fabled lectures. Always testing the limits of his auditor’s intellectual capacities. He and his fellow graduate students lived for those lectures; between them was stark existence, a kind of intellectual stupor, unfed, famished, dying for a fix of the professor’s wisdom. Female graduate students would glide about the entrance to the lecture hall, gloomy and sullen, with dark circles under their eyes – the standard insignia of the thirst for knowledge. Male graduates in their vicinity were languid, likewise sporting blood-shot eyes, but notebooks open, pens at the ready to note every detail of the appearance of the prof each day, his blazer, the color-coordination of the pocket square and his shirt or tie, the unique lapel pin or tie clip, the apparent naturalness of his perfect hairstyle and whether it was in any way different from the previous day; all this in hopes of coming closer to understanding the secret to such greatness.

“This is silly,” he shook his head. The Distinguished Chair was just a title. He was still a man. A man who apparently dropped books on the floor.

No, it was obvious. He was meant to see this, break the rules, for the good of the sacred wisdom enshrined in that book, symbolic of the elite nature of their vocation. This was his opportunity for apotheosis. Test or not, books did not belong discarded haphazardly on the floor. There was nothing wrong with what he was about to do.

The floor groaned underfoot. The smell of old books and leather gave him goosebumps.

“You’ll alert the enemy!” The book scolded him.

He looked at it. Moral Letters by Seneca.

Ancient philosophy? he thought. Excitement tingled up his spine. Suddenly he was in ancient Rome, Seneca beside him in a suitably attractive toga, though his own was of finer material.

He picked up the book, as if taking Seneca by the arm.

The edges of the cover were worn; the spine had creases in it. Worn, loved, understood, accepted. Yes, this professor understood books in the same… he nearly stopped breathing.

Thin black lines raced under the text. Scribbled notes filled the margins. Exclamation marks dotted the spaces between the notes.

The private notes of a tenured professor. His inhalation was almost an audible gasp. The inner musings of a great mind. They were the intellectual secrets of a renowned teacher. All the things imagined, whispered, heard on the grapevine, suddenly became very real. The idea that one could learn from him, directly– that from this moment one would experience the joys his wisdom, feast one’s eyes on his divine thought, then speak to him and suffer delicious dialectic at his hands – at every encounter! – was one that had been inconceivable, not considered even in his wildest dreams. These marginalia were gold, manifest in scribbles.

He drew a deep breath to stem his nerves and shaking hands.

No. It wasn’t right. It would be invasive of him. As invasive as suggesting that personal traumas – including the professor’s – biases all intellectual work.

He glanced at Seneca in his mind. In those deep brown eyes lay the guidance. Forethought. He had lacked it at the lecture, he would not lack it now.

He closed the book carefully, running his hand over the cover as if to apologize for the intrusion. It needed to be where it belonged, amongst the other books. But then, where exactly in the library would he place it? Where had it been?

“What say you, old friend?” he asked Seneca, who had been stoically waiting for him to begin the conversation.

The book opened easily, which was unsurprising, stoics were, of course, inclined to engage the curious. He flipped through the pages – an instinctive reaction to the splendor in his hand, but also a learned reaction to solving a dilemma. Ink always contained life’s answers. The pages came to a natural opening somewhere near the middle. There, on the left-hand side, three lines had been underscored:

When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.

“Seneca, my fellow citizen, I couldn’t have said it better,” he said.

Then another citizen engaged them.

Next to the underlined words, in the left margin, a note read: scrape off layers; keep the peels; thus, γνῶθι σεαυτόν.

He put his hand to his chest. It could only be a kindred spirit who would write intriguing marginalia on interesting passages.

He stared at it. What did it mean? And how in the name of The Bard was this going to help him find its place on the shelf?

He read the words several times. The foreign letters…he recognized them. Yes, his maddening roommate had a Spartan warrior on his desk with letters that alphabet inscribed underneath.

“Spartan warriors…Seneca, I believe our apostilist friend here is speaking to us in Greek. Naturally, you know Greek. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to master the intricacies—” he trailed off; the mystery had overcome him; Seneca wasn’t listening anyway.

Did literary experts learn Greek? Perhaps it was a necessary part of knowing the ancient classics?

He glanced around the library. No books on Greek.

Looking at the note in the margin again, he ran his finger over the letters. The touch of the pen had been light, rushed even. This citizen was hasty, one of those cynic philosophers perhaps, those that lived naked in empty wine barrels and ate scraps of food with dogs. What purpose did this hurried bit of insight serve? The Greek words might hold the answer. Another page in the book could hold a clue. He flipped the pages carefully.

An exclamation mark caught his eye. Seneca spoke:

“Instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances, we send out thoughts too far ahead.”

He scoffed at the statement, “My dear fellow, that happens to be where I disagree with the Stoics. How is one ever to achieve tenure in the face of the miniscule odds? Adaptation to the circumstances was certainly not—”

The third citizen interrupted with a sharp line shooting from the last underlined word to a note in the space at the bottom of the page:

Ha! Joyce would agree!

Joyce? As in James Joyce? Did Joyce know Greek? He looked up towards the surrounding shelves. There must have been a hundred books on the two walls that were shelved.

“Would James Joyce agree?” he asked the empty library. “In A Portrait of the Artist the theme of being in one’s head rather than in the world, is there…”

“Where?” asked Seneca.

“Joyce,” he shook his head, “never mind, it’s the point you were making that matters.”

“Our thoughts being too far ahead?”

“Precisely. The artist, his thoughts far ahead of his time, sees the ills of convention, and rebels against them.”

Seneca raised an eyebrow.

He let out a frustrated breath through his nose, raising his hands in a rushed apology. “I must be going, citizen. Salve.”

He closed Moral Letters and scanned the library for The Portrait of the Artist. The book was special to him. In it, the eponymous artist not only rebels against the conventions of his childhood but then self-imposes exile. As a boy, he did the same. The world and the bullies in it were distant and defenseless against stacks of books. His father had always said that wars began and ended with words. He supposed this was why his father said little to him beyond that. And it was why the local public library was his daily exile – it was his arsenal, at once his armor and his sword – a way to avoid the bullies and understand the fatherly insights not immediately evident to his boyish brain. But he was still always home for dinner. He wouldn’t have been entitled to eat otherwise.

“Yes, Joyce must agree.” It was an acute observation about Joyce. But where would Joyce be amongst the broad scope of these volumes?

The library suddenly seemed to grow around him. A cold sweat threatened to break out down his back. He approached the bookshelf and found a loose space between two books. After re-shelving Moral Letters, he lingered at the shelf, straightened his waistcoat, and turned to look for Joyce.

Framed photos on the desk caught his eye. Their silver linings reflected the sunlight. He took a step towards the desk to view the content so hopefully mounted, but he then stopped. He imagined the things he might see, and the thought of them was terrifying. For he knew what such marble heroes turned into once they stepped down from their podia into the real world. He knew because he saw them in the street, in crowded buses, in the refectory or grocery stores, and walking across campus exposed to the elements. They looked quite different then, and far more inauspicious: stocky, pasty, with tiny timorous eyes, almost filthy, stinking of sweat or burned red by the cold, dressed in shapeless tweed jackets and caps, coarse, aggressive, fallible. The photos, the marginalia, they had to be left, altogether too terrifying to behold in the light.

The floors creaked with his slow steps as he crossed the library and then the house to the kitchen. He leaned on the counter. The window at the counter overlooked the front lawn. He stared through it.

“Where am I? What am I doing here? How did I let myself get into this?” He wailed silently. All the while, inevitably, the smell of old books seemed to swell and catalyze his heart. He couldn’t decide what to do. What would the professor do?

The light outside drew his attention. A young maple grew in the middle of the lawn. Two small birds came to sit on the flexible branches. A growing tree. That’s what Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist was essentially about; youth, growth. He watched the birds. Love birds. There was love in Joyce, too.

“Youth, and growth,” he whispered. He took a deep breath and then held it. A connection between Joyce and the marginalia manifest itself in his mind’s eye. The young are dreamers. So, they tend to be ‘in their heads,’ that’s where Joyce agrees. Consequently, they also tend not to adapt to circumstances, just as Seneca suggested; as such, they rebel.

“Hm,” he grunted, “I wonder how many apostils are con…nected,” he drew out the last word as a further realization struck him. What if this opportunity to house-sit could be more than just watching the stately home? What if this was a game?

“Don’t be crazy, the professor is a serious person,” he scolded himself in a whisper.

Yes. But, the book on the floor…perhaps that was too haphazard to be unintentional? Perhaps this was a game. Yes, in this professorial library, where privacy and unregulated access was a privilege, here, in the very heart of academia, modern sages could be forged!

He guffawed in a sudden burst. “Oh, come on.” He scolded himself, but only half-heartedly.

A squint of light reflecting off the library door caught the corner of his eye. Curiosity harkened, it reached out, pulling at some invisible robe tied round his waist and breathing a flame of vitality into his heart.

He grinned. I might as well, I already entered the forbidden enclosure, let’s just see where these marginalia take me. He shrugged off his cares and pranced towards the library.

The titles and authors raced past as he scanned the shelves. No real order to anything, it seemed. Could he find Joyce if he searched for him? A better question would be, could an answer to this Greek riddle lie in that book?

“Joyce, Joyce, Joyce,” he whispered, craning his neck to the top shelves. The edge of the bookcase was nearing; the chime of the glass-faced grandfather clock standing next to it made him start. The professor’s son would arrive soon to replace him. The game clock began with a tick of the minute hand. Curiosity had a time limit. A good thing, too, because they said that too much tended to kill cats. He wasn’t a cat, nor did he have one, but he was nimble. Nimble enough to cross into the dominion of the prohibited and solve its mysteries. The arrival of the professor’s son would see him evicted from his search, relegated to the doldrums of campus life without engaging the professor in this game of scholarly chess, in this mystery of marginalia, leaving him cold, empty, just another apparition wandering the campus in search of truth. No, he wouldn’t settle for that. Game on.

Retreating to the winged chair, he sat carefully and stared at the shelves across the small square-shaped room. Would he really have to comb over every spine to find it? He shifted in his seat. He would not fail. He could not fail. He had failed with the professor before: he had failed to submit work on time. He had failed to listen carefully in lecture. This time he’d succeed.

He narrowed eyes at the titles. Many were familiar. That raised his spirits. But there had to be a better way of searching for books here, this was a renowned scholar’s library, there had to be some logic, some reason, something to it.

“Alright brain,” he said, “how do you like to organize knowledge?” The books were not organized by author, nor by title, so no alphabetical order here.

Order. Organization. The words echoed in his head. He surveyed the shelves again. Rows. Neat. The shelves were compartments of a kind. Compartments. Compartmentalization…a psychological defense mechanism linked to rationalization.

“Rationalization. Now that’s something a professor would think of.”

Rationalization was a way of explaining controversial feelings. Feelings would have to be organized by…

“Categories,” he whispered, and looked at the titles more closely.

The groupings were broad, general categories amongst particular shelves almost emerged, and then escaped his grasp like ethereal wisps of letters. It was more than category. Broader. He retraced his logic. Feelings. Feelings would be too restricted by category.

“Theme.” He smiled.

Love would be Joyce’s theme, for him at least.

And there they were. Left hand shelving, chest height. Books that could be thematically organized by the term ‘love.’

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, almost jumped from the shelf.

He exhaled sharply through his nose and shook his head. The dust jacket was gone; he ran his fingers over the gold inlay on the letters and opened the book carefully, his heart pounding.

The first pages were clean, no marginalia to be found. But he would not be abandoned to a tragic fate.

“I know Joyce must agree, but what am I to find here?”

Stephen Dedalus, the hero in Joyce’s novel, jumped out and spoke to him, his words underlined on page 191:

“You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave.” He stopped. There was more, but the apostilist appeared again, distracting him.

On the inside margin, a note read: fear now overcome, love can grow.

What did it mean? There was insight in it, surely. If he could only see it. Six words; a secret hidden within. Understanding it would give him the key to this puzzle, bringing him one step closer to victory.

He read the note again. Fear…love…is this what was meant by Joyce would agree?

“Seneca’s reference to not being present could be equated with anxiety, or fear,” he thought aloud.

“Old Seneca may have said that,” Stephen Dedalus’ Irish inflection seemed to interject. “But it was Aristotle, I think—”

Aristotle? He slumped. This was getting complex. He sighed. What could it achieve? This mystery. Dedalus stared at him, mouth agape, halfway through his words. Expectant. Ready. Ready to refuse the fetters of fortune. Just like him. Yes. This was complex, but not too complex, no, not for him. He straightened and further abided Dedalus’ words.

“…who said the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connection belong to and not belong to the same subject.”

“Right,” he responded. “If you’re present, you can’t fear, and if you don’t fear…” He looked to Daedalus for a clue. “Stephen, you don’t fear being alone because you don’t need your lover. You’re alright on your own.” He flipped through the pages, stopping at a square-bracketed sentence that Dedalus spoke:

“The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act of intellection.”

“Of course,” he whispered. Academics were artists as well, artists of scholarship and intellect. “We’re alright on our own,” he said, filling out his chest.

An academic’s work was their passion, their love, others were simply a distraction. This was what the professor must have wanted him to understand.

He smiled. “Now, what were you saying Stephen?”

“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

Right. Mistakes are part of the game. Upwards and onwards. He swallowed hard. That didn’t really make sense.

He stared at Stephen’s words for some time. The piercing clang of the grandfather clock made him jump and Stephen Dedalus disappeared. It was quarter past. A reminder of his time in the library quickly ending. His eyes flicked back to the underlined quote from the protagonist. Above the word eternity something in tiny blue ink resembled a word. Screwing up his face, he brought the book as close to his nose as he could without it going blurry.

“Hung?” he said aloud. “Eternity…hung…hung for eternity? No…”

 “Hoaq No. Not that either,” he added furrowing his brow, looking up in frustration. How to read this? The light-stand next to the chair. It had a drawer. This was the kind of library that would have a magnifying glass, and the drawer is where it’d be.

Tugging gently on the brass handle, the drawer barely gave way. Something slid inside. He gave another tug. The handle loosened.

“Shit,” he whispered.

Then he saw it. In the drawer, open just enough to see inside, a piece of glass with a brass rim flickered. A magnifying glass.

“I knew it. Great minds, professor, think alike,” he said in a sing-song voice with a shimmy.

He gave the handle another soft tug. It slipped out just slightly, but the drawer moved with it. The space it left was just enough to get a finger in. The drawer slid with effort, but the magnifying glass was his.

“Hogg?” he read the word aloud. Eternity and Hogg… So many damn authors with that name, but which was related to eternity?

He was up scanning the shelves before he completed the thought. None of the thick volumes had Hogg on them.

“That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?” He put his hands on his narrow hips. “Okay, think theme.”

Eternity could be about love, but he checked that collection first. No glory. Eternity was associated with timelessness. Time?

“I could use more time, that’s for sure.”

He turned to the shelves near the grandfather clock. None of the titles could have been clearly associated with time.

“I don’t know, the afterlife?” he thought aloud, considering other possible associations.

He searched.

No books grouped by religious or spiritual themes.

“Think like a tenured professor,” he whispered.

He collapsed into the winged chair and crossed one leg over the other. Think like a professor. He began to stroke his chin, which soon turned into an imitation of smoking a pipe. He imagined himself sitting across from the preeminent academic.

“How might we categorize eternity, old chap?” he said in a poor version of a mid-Atlantic accent (but the paucity of the accent was no matter).

He impersonated the professor’s reply: “This isn’t about categorization, dear fellow, but about theme. Thematically, the afterlife is—”

“About the human view of life, and its truth,” he cut the professor off with quick perspicacity.

“Indeed,” the professor would reply.

“Indeed,” he’d agree, and he took a puff of his non-existent pipe.

“Indeed!” he exclaimed in his own voice, jumping out of the chair.

Truth. Books on the highest shelf. The theme practically sang from their titles. There, in the middle, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. He hesitated. Chills wafted over his skin.

This was the book that firmly set him on the academic path.

The philosophical mystery had chilled his teenage bones when he had read it more than a decade ago. Its case of demonic friendship had conclusively stopped his daydreams of befriending the idealized characters in the novels he loved. Its criticism of unquestioned beliefs stoked his skepticism. Its antagonist, Gil-Martin – or the devil – haunted the dark corners of his boyhood room for several nights afterwards.

The hands on the clock moved, making a sound like the ‘tsk’ of an impatient adversary.

“Time, time, time, running out of time,” he said, speaking over a rising chill. The mystery of the marginalia was somewhere here. Perhaps hidden in the evil in the book. A perfect juxtaposition for love. Yes, genius. Evil genius. It suited the professor. It suited him. He was close now. Close to understanding the Greek apostil. The taste of victory in a game of academic acumen was within his reach! He paused. Academic acumen didn’t sound like something that tasted good, if it had a taste at all. He chuckled and pulled Hogg’s work off the shelf. The small book was heavy in his hands.

Opening the book to a random page, his stomach dropped. Marginalia riddled its pages. It would be an impossible task to comb through all of them for a clue to how eternity was connected to the apostils in Joyce. He closed the book and beheld its cover. Justified Sinner.

“What does this have to do with love?”

“Nothing,” a voice whispered.

He whipped his head around. He was alone. Goosebumps ran across his skin.

He leafed through the pages again. Too many damn markings and notes.

“What moved you to such gratuitous analysis, professor?”

“What moved you to such a gratuitous question?”

He started. “Who was that?” He scanned the room. No one. He poked his head out of the library. An empty hall. “Hello?” Echo. He drew a breath and forced a short sigh.

He looked back at the book.

“A note or two, a clue laid here and there, that’s all I need.”

“You’ll never find what you’re looking for,” a voice growled.

“Yes, I will,” he said without looking up, his breathing quickening.

“Tsk, tsk, isn’t doubt the basis of all true intelligence?”

The book shifted in his trembling hands.

“You’re not real, Gil-Martin,” he said.

“Ahhh,” the whisper was more like a deep breath. “Then why reply? And why not open the book?”

He whipped opened the book from the back, almost tearing its pages. He wouldn’t be intimidated by a character, an idea, words.

Words.

He stopped. Of course, opening the book from the back. A standard practice amongst scholars – for it was there that acknowledgments, or more importantly, the indices, bibliographies, and endnotes were collected. But that was true only for scholarly works. Hogg’s book was, instead, literary, and yet, in such literary texts, good editions had extra blank pages at the back, for the inquisitive to take notes. The inquisitive, such as academics like himself, and the professor, obviously.

At the top of one of the first blank page, a note read: External labels are nothing. Position is nothing. It is the lie (see page 293).

There was nothing else on that page, and so he quickly flicked to page 293.

On the page in front of him, the devil came to life in two double-underlined sentences, hovering behind him, those red lips, wet, by his ear.

“We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way,” his voice was slow, like curling smoke.

“What do you have to do with the professor’s secret?” He whispered. He furrowed his brow as his eyes leapt straight to the marginalia next to the text, but he stopped. The devil’s voice was now in his head.

“Do you really want to know the answer to that? What if there’s nothing special in these marginalia? What if the secrets you seek reveal who the professor really is? Weak, like the rest of us. Nothing, like the rest of us. A simple dullard. Like you.”

“No!” His eyes shot to the marginalia desperately wanting to prove Gil-Martin wrong.

He read quickly:

Two natures: the lie and the truth. The truth is the individual divested of externalities/labels. The lie is ego. A line stretched from there to a longer note in the space at the bottom of the page, but before reading it, he reflected on the present apostil. It disturbed him. He was almost unwilling to admit the connection he saw between the notion of ego and his present understanding of the mystery.

“But-” it almost came out as a whimper- “how can you say that having the title of professor is ego? And if we are divested of the externalities of our profession, what possible truth remains? Without our titles of position, our books, our notions, our knowledge, we’re…”

His heart was beating faster now. Thoughts raced in his head. Somewhere in the darkened recesses of his soul, Gil-Martin chuckled.

Was his whole existence egoistic? Was he self-loving? Or was he simply vain? If so, could he overcome his flaws? He squeezed the edge of the book, gripped to his core.

He often sought praise. Naturally, he was diligent, even meticulous, though he had been accused of perfectionism at times. He liked hearing about how neat he was, how well-dressed; he went out of his way to please others – this house-sitting endeavor being one example. Was he then, afflicted by these vanities?

No, surely, he was not egoistic, simply ambitious, hard working with an eye for detail and a shrewd understanding of how things worked in his field. And what did this all have to do with what he had read in previous marginalia? His breaths were short.

He read on, seeking solace in the note at the bottom of the page.

As in Joyce, recognition of the ego is the beginning of overcoming it. As a form of self-acceptance, recognition is the beginning of self-growth.

He stopped before the end of the note.

“As in Joyce? What?” He sprung to the shelves and pulled out A Portrait of the Artist and re-read the note.

“Sweet beard of The Bard,” he whispered, seeing his mistake in interpretation of the previous note. “It’s not that the artist is fine on his own.” It was just the opposite. His hand began to shake.  The meaning of the notes became uncomfortably clear. Joyce’s eponymous artist was not afraid to face the worst because those fears have been laid out and he accepted them.

“Recognition of the ego,” he murmured, repeating the words of the note. “Self-acceptance.” Self-acceptance, without labels and externalities. The text and accompanying marginalia from Seneca made sense now in this paradigm as well. Seneca mentioned scraping off faults – the note emphasized this peeling or removal of self. The second Seneca line referred to sending thoughts ahead…

“Just like I’m doing with this house-sitting.” He barely got the words out.

The apostil for the second Seneca line referred to Joyce’s agreement. He now saw it. Joyce’s agreement meant we often focus on who we might be, instead of who we are.

Who we are… And who might that be?

The voice in his head then replied to his question. What do you mean who? Someone extraordinary. Natural, real.

After a moment, he snorted. There is no such person. Everything is pretense and masquerade.

Everything?

The house was silent, but for the ticking of the grandfather clock. Consciousness seemed to slip away from him with every tick of the pendulum. He wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep, for the realization that his striving to correct his mistakes with the professor, to improve the professor’s impression of him, that this behavior was the precise object of criticism of the prof’s most private insights and intellectual reflections, it all made reality seem so otherworldly and unbelievable that he felt he might have dreamt the library and everything in it.

He slumped into the chair and throwing his head back shaking himself awake, he could no longer doubt that this had all been real. This insight, this privileged passage into the mind of a genius had hardly made him wildly cheerful as one might expect. Quite the opposite. For perhaps the first time in his life, surrounded by brilliant discernment both academic and literary, he felt dreadful, and altogether aghast.

A melancholic apathy arose in him. This is what is must have been like for the tragic figures of literature. This was his moment of slings and arrows. No, his moment in the graveyard, overshadowed by the greats that came before him, he, destined to be but dust over the dead. Yes. Destined for dust. But instead of Yorick’s skull in his hand, he had this book. This damnable, cursed book.

He gave the marginalia a cursory glance. The final bit of the note at the bottom of page 293 in Hogg read: Self-acceptance is ‘a place of greater safety’ (thanks, Ms. Mantel).

A place of greater safety. That’s what he needed, not least to figure out how aspects of his character might have been detrimental to his understanding of the marginalia, and whether everything he thought himself to be and was proud of, was in fact being condemned by the professor in this intellectual game resembling a hall of mirrors of the mind.

In any case, he knew the next book in the apostilic sequence. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s meticulously researched fictional opus on The French Revolution, had just won The Sunday Express Book of the Year. Putting Hogg back on the shelf, he noticed Mantel’s novel nearby. Of course, it held the same theme in this library as Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

“Yes, what was The French Revolution about if not conflicting personal truths? How appropriate, professor.”

He debated about whether to bother with it. The mystery of the marginalia had only served to ridicule him. This game turned out to be more like a rebuke, an admonishment of his attempts to be seen as a great PhD student, helpful, unfailing, reliable.

“So, curiosity does kill the cat,” he said.

His shoulders slumped. The clock indicated that the professor’s son would be there to replace him within thirty minutes. Thirty more minutes, every one full of the promise of agony.

He shuffled towards the door.

Mistake…the word rang in his head as he approached the threshold of the glass-paneled doors. A mistake – his life, his goals, an eternity of mistakes. He stopped.

“Mistake, eternity…a lifelong mistake!” He perked up. The underscored section in Joyce came back to him. Mistakes were part of the game.

He had made a mistake, his goals were perhaps mistaken, but perhaps that was part of the realization the professor wanted for him. Of course! Spinning back towards the library, he had to know more.

He grabbed Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety from the shelf.

The novel was thick, over 800 glorious pages, and he had read it. The book was rife with marginalia. Looking to the clock again, he had no choice but to peruse these notes at random. Somehow, they had to bring clarity to the former questions. By the beard of The Bard, they had to.

He opened the first pages of the book. Underlined text with a marginal note was there on the left page:

He feared, in his secret heart, that one day in company the baby would sit up and speak; that it would engage his eyes, appraise him, and say, ‘You prick.”

He chuckled, once at the text, and then again at the note. The marginalia read: Don’t we all fear this? A sudden realization gave him pause. The observation was penetrating. He, too, had that fear. If he thought of ‘the baby’ in the passage as the undergraduates he taught or the people close to him that were unfamiliar with his field, well, then yes, they might well call him a prick. People could hate him for his confidence, perceived as arrogance, for his academic success, perceived as ruthlessness; and their perceptions had some truth in them. He clenched his jaw and flipped the pages.

There. A longer note beside this text:

For the establishment of liberty and the safety of the nation, one day of anarchy will do more than ten years of National Assemblies.

“What does government have to do with this mystery?” he wondered as his eyes moved to the note, ‘ain’t that the truth? same goes for the self…wonder if Mill would agree.’ The same goes for the self?

One day of anarchy…he looked at the door he left open to the library, then to the loose brass handle on the desk drawer, and the grandfather clock ticking away his house-sitting time. The books on the shelves arranged and placed almost haphazardly, particularly the ones he had used. Was he to understand, then, that liberty and safety were on their way for him? He looked at the note again. Mill, Mill…. who the hell was Mill? Scanning the bookshelves, he let out a frustrated sigh. The authors’ names on the spines were small. Couldn’t there be another hint? Which Mill and what theme would this fall under?

He ran his finger across the volumes.

Where is it? Mill. What a ridiculous name. Are you an author or a machine?

Craning his neck, he stubbed his toe on the bottom of bookshelf

“Damn it!”

He leaned over and reached out to the books for support. Some gave way on to the floor. Losing his footing, he slipped, slamming into the bookshelf. Another book fell on his head. He grunted in pain.

A Place of Greater Safety had fallen from his hands and he’d lost his place. He screamed as he burst to his feet.

Placing an open palm on the spine of three books at once, he pulled. They fell with a shuddered thud onto the hardwood. His eyes went wide at the disorder. The utter disarray. The beautiful disarray.

“There’s your anarchy!” He shouted at the walls in frustration, responding to the line he had last read. He pulled at more spines. Unruly thuds echoed throughout the house.

After a few shelves sat empty, he paused, panting, to admire the chaos he’d wrought. Books lay scattered in all directions and positions. Open with the spines up, their covers bare to the world of the library; other books were open with the spines down revealing pages of print marginalia. Some books had slid across the floor, still closed, others lay stacked on one another. One had its dust cover ripped. He picked it up. The book was something on neuroscience. The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel.

“Quite,” he remarked. He shook his head and brushing it and placing back at a random spot on the shelf, he paused. He’d have to clean this up.

He slumped back down, leaning against the shelf. Another book or two went down with the coarseness with which he took his seat on the floor, legs extended.

“Fuck it. Fuck it all to hell.”

He closed his eyes, listening to the grandfather clock announce the ever-nearing steps of the professor’s son.

He reflected on the marginalia; on the test of character he’d been through. What was there in all this that could have interested the professor? Was it meant to prove the prof’s revulsion at his academic ability, his potential, or perhaps simply his personality?

Sunlight caught his face, and he squinted. He hadn’t finished the game. Why should he? The prof had made a point, and he understood. He was unworthy. The offer to house-sit was prompted by disproval, by condemnation, by profound irritation and disgust. The professor was after all the Distinguished Chair and a legend, and as such was unlikely to feel much pity, let alone approval, for an introverted grad student.

But then, did he really know this for certain? He hadn’t finished the game, after all.

The book he needed to continue this game, or test, or wicked jest, was the one by Mill. It was somewhere here, and it had a theme like all the others. Maybe I could deduce the theme from the previous note? he thought. ‘The self’ was the standout phrase. The text mentioned liberty, safety.

“Almost like the Declaration of Independence. All we need is the pursuit—” he stopped and stood. That was what the apostil referencing the anarchy of the self, was about. “Happiness.”

And there, on a right-hand shelf near the grandfather clock, books that might have had that theme. “Or the pursuit thereof…,” he said as he laid eyes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

The combination of ‘liberty’ and ‘Mill’ from the previous apostil could only be this. Excitement rose in his gut. John Stuart Mill was a political philosopher he could get behind. Mill’s idea of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the related danger of conformity had always laid the basis for his individualism. The professor did not disappoint. “Excellent taste,” he murmured approvingly. Evidently it was a good thing he hadn’t given up on his investigation.

He flicked through the pages. The marginalia were almost nonextant. A few circled page numbers, no underlines, no notes. “Dammit!” he grunted and tossed the book onto the pile. It landed open. He raised an eyebrow and picked it up.

A strong crease in the spine at this spot caused it to open where it did. Had he perused the book more carefully, rather than fluttering through the pages with his thumb, he saw that the volume would have easily opened here.

A passage had a square bracket around it on the inside – he would have missed it just flipping through. John Stuart Mill emerged with a pronounced dignity and a remarkably shiny bald head and spoke to him.

“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

“Thanks, John, real helpful. Yep.” He imagined giving the philosopher a sardonic clap on the shoulder. Mill continued, undaunted, unperturbed, upper lip as stiff as a Victorian Brit could make one.

“The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.”

His eyes locked on Mill. A frustrated sigh escaped his nose.

“It’s the journey, as they say…” he said to the philosopher looking around the chaos he had wrought in the library. It was a grim scene. The tomes of wisdom with their insightful marginalia strewn across the Persian rug and hardwood floor as if he were one of Bradbury’s Firemen, amassing fuel for the fires of Fahrenheit 451. He snorted. How absurd. That he might burn books? Disillusioned though he was with this situation, he was no Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist. No, this situation was far more ludicrous, laughable, a mockery, a farce of what a graduate student performing the simple task of house-sitting was meant to be. It was grotesque, no, no adjective could do justice to this mess.

Where am I? What am I doing here? Why did I get myself into this? He wailed soundlessly.

In response to this ghastly spectacle, Mill seemed to motion towards the apostils on the page.

Above the square bracket, written lengthwise in the crease of the page, a note read: \ happiness, like love, is being; it cannot be a goal. Rilke knows.

He stared out into the sunlight beyond the window. It was true, wasn’t it? Seeking happiness meant engaging in everything except the feeling of happiness itself.

He sat there bewildered. He closed his eyes against the sunlight and fell into a daydream.

He was at a tailor. Elevated on a podium in front of three mirrors, he could see the suit being made to measure. His vision was close, zoomed into the details. Chalk marked the end of his shoulders, perfectly. The sleeve reached just to the base of his thumb – the right length to reveal a shirt cuff. It was double-breasted, formal but versatile, stitching brought it in around his waist for a snug silhouette. A smooth swipe of the chalk marked with perfect proficiency the end of his pant leg – the middle of the Achilles, to show off a stylish pair of uniquely colored socks.

Sunlight flashed in the tailor’s mirror. Bookshelves loomed before him. They were his own, but shorter, squat. He approached the shelves. His name glittered in gold on all the spines. It was his yet unwritten bibliography. He reached out. The gold began to flake. The walls moved in; cracking accented the sound of twisting of wood. He desperately began hoarding the books into his arms. Then there was smoke. All the books, including the ones he was holding, began to burn.

He screamed, startling himself out of the daydream.

Sweat rolled in rivulets from his once precisely groomed hair, which was losing its shape from the heat coming off his scalp.

“You… bastard,” he said aloud. To the professor primarily – for causing his world to come crashing down, but he just as well could have said it to himself.

He glanced down at the note again. ‘Rilke knows,’ the last words read.

“Just what I need, poetry to tear the gap into a widening void,” he said with a rising lump in his throat and closed the book. He glanced around the library. The books lay scattered haphazardly, ironically reflecting his own emotional state. He couldn’t leave them that way. Game or not, a library was a place worthy of respect. He squatted and began collecting the volumes.

When nearly all the books were back on the shelves, he slid a thin volume in a narrow gap between two thick books. The title caught his weary eye. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Marie Rilke. He hesitated. So, not poetry, but advice? He thought back to the last note. He glanced at the clock: his replacement would arrive any moment. He shrugged. Why not? he thought. Flipping through the thoroughly annotated pages. A long passage in the first third of the book, underlined and annotated, stood out:

But that is where young people so often and so grievously go wrong: that they (whose nature it is to have no patience) scatter themselves at each other when love comes over them, scatter themselves abroad, just as they are in all their untidiness, disorder and confusion…: But what is to be done then?

“Good question,” he said. An arrow stretched from the last word to a note in the right margin: So each one loses himself for the other’s sake.

He shook his head. “I get it already,” he said as his eyes flicked to the note at the bottom: \ self-love is key; those that don’t see the need for it fall prey to the societal mores – Robinson says this.’ He grunted.

“Nice try,” he said. What was the point of following this apostil? What had he achieved by doing so thus far? Scholarly restitution? A guarantee at tenure? Fucking…divine omnipotence? No, just the bitter taste of truth, the torments of self-reflection, and a healthy dose of hopelessness. The path to redemption and knowledge had been a road of doom.

“My time’s up anyway,” he said.

Or rather, perhaps, his time had never really begun. The time he had had in life was spent ‘losing himself for the other’s sake’ as the apostil put it. Libraries had occupied the entire space of his life since he could read. They supposedly armored him with books and knowledge. The mystery of the marginalia had taught him one thing: his armor was overwrought, rusted, and at worst entirely unimposing to the type of person it was meant to impress. And therein lay the issue. So said the marginalia. Had he born the armor for himself, it may have had an impressive shine – a shine he could himself be proud of, at the very least. He was beginning to suspect that this was his parents saw too, from the beginning.

He put the book back on the shelf and replaced the remaining few. He took a step back and scanned the room. The magnifying glass still lay on the chair.

“Almost forgot you,” he said, walking over to it.

In his emotionally fatigued state, he pulled at the desk drawer without care for its fragility. His hand whipped backwards as the brass handle came flying off. Glass cracked on the clock as it smashed into the face.

“No! No no no no no no no,” he muttered, rushing over to inspect the damage. The shattered glass crept across the clockface in a spider’s web of a pattern. He raised his finger to a crack. “Ah!” he hissed after touching it. A ruby pearl formed on his fingertip. He put it in his mouth and shuffled back to the chair, placing the book on the light-stand. He looked back at the grandfather clock, then his finger. Another pearl was forming where he had sucked off the blood. He’d have to do something about the clockface. And his finger.

He rushed to the kitchen, tore a strip of paper towel from the roll next to the sink and wrapped his finger tightly.

The lock on the front door clicked.

He looked at clock, and his body went slack.

“If that damn game wasn’t the end of me, this will be.”

The front door creaked open.

He walked to the front door and nearly did a double-take.

A young man with a green mohawk and worn leather jacket nodded at him. “Hey,” he said, removing his jacket and throwing it on the coat stand.

“Chester? Right?”

“Call me Chess,” the man replied, walking over. He held up his hand nearly vertical for an informal handshake.

“You’re the professor’s son?”

“Yeah man, hey—what happened to your hand?”

“Oh,” he said and the blood-soaked paper towel around his finger behind his back. He gave a nervous chuckle, “Um, you’d better come in.”

They stood in the library staring at the crack glass face of the grandfather clock. After explaining the incident, silence fell between them. He glanced at Chess. Was he smirking?

“What is it?” he asked.

Chess’ reaction was almost like subtly shaking himself from a faraway thought. “Oh, my dad won’t mind if you tell him you’ll replace it.”

“Yes, as I said, that’s the plan.” He watched him. Chess had the look of someone who knew more than he let on. “So, you’re sure he won’t kill me? I mean, the library was off-limits.”

Chess laughed. “Yeah eh? Man, it’s fine.” He put a tattooed hand on his shoulder. The letters L-O-V-E stood out below his knuckles.

He stared at Chess, confused. “What’s so funny?”

Chess shook his head. “He doesn’t mind the unexpected. Spontaneity is a fascinating part of human behavior. It can lead to growth. A professor of literature can appreciate that.”

“So why was it off-limits?”

He chuckled. “Ask him yourself, he’ll be over in a second.”

“What?”

“Yeah, just drove him back from the airport, he’s just at the neighbors’ dropping something off he brought back from Japan.

His heart went into his throat, but before he could speak, a familiar voice called from the entrance.

“Helloo!”

“Dad, you should probably stop tormenting your favorite students with the book on the floor.”

The professor laughed. “Oh, yeah?”

Chess pointed out the grandfather clock and explained.

He watched in horror as the father and son duo smiled and chuckled in comfort. The professor turned to him.

“Well?”

“Sir?”

“Where’d the library take you?”

He swallowed hard.

“Here,” the professor motioned to the couch and chairs in the living room, “have a seat, tell me, I’m curious,” he smiled again.

“I’m sorry, I know it was off limits.”

Chess scoffed, then turned and looked him in the eye. “It’s not really off-limits.”

“What?” he asked.

“Chester’s right. With Seneca’s Moral Letters, lying on the floor like that, who could resist putting it back?” the professor stated.

“So, it was a test?” he asked.

The professor laughed. “No, more of a game.”

Chester rolled his eyes. “He does this to every grad student he likes.”

He drew a deep breath, somewhat calmed by the atmosphere, but still tense from the perplexity.

“So, where did it take you?” the professor asked again.

“Well, I don’t think I solved the mystery.”

“What mystery?” the prof said, smiling.

“The mystery of the margin—” he stopped himself mid-word, realizing how silly it sounded. “The Greek apostil. I wasn’t able to determine its meaning.”

“The Greek apostil?” the professor asked.

“Probably something from Plato,” Chess suggested. The professor nodded in understanding.

He raised an eyebrow at the professor’s son.

“It’s just I annotate whatever I read when I’m here.”

He suddenly felt as if he were in a shadowy wood, speaking to a specter in the dark.

“You wrote the apostils?”

“The marginalia, yeah some of its mine, some of its dad’s, but yeah.” Chess smirked sideways and then slapped him on the back before turning and heading to towards the kitchen. “You want a beer?” he called over his shoulder.

“No, I-” he stuttered. This was getting to be too much for one day. The emotional devastation of his self-realizations – or lack thereof really – were black hole enough, but this…this tattooed, green mohawk-sporting, carefree, anomaly-of-a-man, was not only the professor’s son, but the insightful, shrewd, learned and astute apostilist? This had to be an alternate universe. He turned to the professor and gathered his courage. “I thought there was a message, an idea you’d connected through the literature, professor.” He tried to make it sound like his adventure had had noble intentions, but the words came out weakly.

“Sure, it was my idea to leave the book on the floor and tempt you. The rest, that is, what you connected, and how, that was you. And that’s what I’m interested in.”

He jumped as Chess put a hand on his shoulder, having returned from the kitchen without notice.

“Your mind,” Chess said.

“My…my mind?”

“Yeah, how you connect the dots,” Chess replied, taking a swig from a bottle.

“How you connect ideas.” The prof clarified. “That’s the treasure of the academic world, isn’t it?”

He turned away, reddening in embarrassment. He looked at the professor’s son. Chess was scholarly, despite appearances, possibly despite expectations. And yet it seemed natural that his notes condemned academia. Chess wasn’t what others might have expected him to be, and yet he was still able to connect with others easily, seemingly also with his father through the marginalia.

“Well?” the professor pushed again. His title now somehow seemed most fitting for the piece of furniture on which he sat.

Valor slowly returned to him. He had something to bring to the table, despite the doubts of the day. The perilous hunt had, it seemed, been fruitful.

“It was about self-love, the connection I made…but,” he looked up at the both of them.

Perhaps the mystery was not quite unraveled. There was one last thing remaining.

“You wouldn’t happen to know an author by the name of Robinson, would you?” he asked Chess.

Chess wiped his bearded face with the back of his hand as he sat down. “Robinson?”

“Yeah, a friend recommended something by them, but I forgot the title. I was looking for it earlier.” He thought maybe that would be enough to assuage any suspicions about the placement of the books – he hadn’t been too meticulous in replacing them from the floor.

“Oh!” The professor exclaimed. “Well, I have a book by Marilynne Robinson called When I was a Child I Read Books.”

“Yes, didn’t we all,” he murmured at the floor.

“Yep,” Chess took a swig from the bottle, “All the time, man.”

“Would you like to see it? Is that part of the connection you made?” the professor asked.

“‘Nothing of significance occurs in isolation.’ That’s Robinson,” Chess said.

The look on the professor’s face was serious now, but welcoming. There was a wisdom to it, to the glint in his eyes, the subtle curl of his lips.

He sighed. “Sorry, professor, it doesn’t really fit my self-love hypothesis.”

“Well, actually,” the professor said in a gentle tone, “in ancient Greece, kings and generals used to visit the oracle at the temple of Apollo in Delphi for prophecies. They came to know their fate, before battles, before political marriages and other strategies.” His voice was calm; the words rolled out in a melody that had him captivated. “Above the doorway to the temple, inscribed in the stone were the words ‘gnothi seauton’.”

“The Greek phrase,” he whispered, remembering the first note.

Chess gave a small nod. “‘Know yourself,’ is what it means.” He paused as it sunk in. “But you can’t know yourself in a void,” he concluded.

“Even with self-love,” he murmured.

The professor smiled. “Especially with self-love.”

#

The books in the university library were empty. Bereft of marginalia, they were all rookies. Easy pickings. His first would have to be special. The feel of dusty spines beneath his fingertips was the bugle call, the gauntlet thrown, the bid to combat.

A small, thin, almost unnoticeable book stopped him deep between the stacks on the fifth floor. This was the keystone.

Light-blue lettering against its green cover read Self-Knowledge. Yep. This was it.

He found a comfortable chair and skimmed the pages. At the end of a middle chapter, the final sentences before the blank space caught his eye.

…forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives.

He looked up and scanned the corner of the library furtively. No one was looking. Taking a pen from his pocket he scribbled in the margin: forgive yourself, too! And with a smirk, he placed it on the floor, spine up, open, and ready for written conversation.

Game On.


BIO

Adam Anders is a Canadian writer and teacher, living in Warsaw, Poland. Once upon a time, he worked as a scholar of the Roman Army, having earned a PhD in Ancient History. Now, he teaches History, English Literature, and Creative Writing at a private high school. 

He is also an ALM candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at Harvard University’s Extension School. In his summers he sails the seas, and in winter, he skis. 

6The Sins of Father Rickman

by Catherine J. Link


         Father Rickman was the oldest surviving member of his family. His parents both died in their early seventies and were buried in the historic St. James cemetery in East Galway, Ireland, where he was born and raised. He had outlived his siblings, and only a few cousins were still in the world, most much younger than he. 

         He didn’t care that today was his birthday. He was never one to celebrate much of anything, except the birth of Christ. That was the only day that had special meaning for him.  The day the Great Redeemer was born. He was a man in need of redemption, more than most, and so he had not lived his life to the fullest. Not by accident, but by design.

         He heard a noise and looked up from the pew where he habitually sat, his head bent in contemplation. He saw the approach of Bishop Lyle Morgan. He was younger than Father Rickman in earthly years, but he appeared older. In spite of his smile, his eyes were sad—a testament to the sorrows of the world. Today he wore a gray suit, civilian clothing.    

           “Father Rickman,” he said in a near whisper. “Would you like to visit for a while?” 

             He gave the bishop a bold up and down glance, then a disapproving grimace.      

            “Special occasion, Lyle?”

            The bishop chuckled at him. “Still a judgmental sonofabitch, Shawn?”

            “Think what you like.”

            “I just popped in on my niece’s wedding. She married into a Jewish family, so I decided to appear as Uncle Lyle, instead of stodgy old Bishop Morgan, not that anyone saw me.”

            “I didn’t ask,” Father Rickman said. 

            “Just making conversation, Shawn. Happy birthday.”

            “Only you would remember.”        

            “That’s because I’m the only friend you have,” the Bishop said. “And because I am an eternal friend, I’m making myself available to you now, as I always have. Tell me, Shawn. What’s been bothering you all these years?”

           “Besides you?”

           The Bishop laughed and nodded.

            Father Rickman’s first inclination, once again, was to decline the Bishop’s offer. But time was growing short, and he would be leaving this world soon. He looked up at the tormented body of his savior hanging from a gilded cross, and it came to him that he had to earn the redemption he so desperately craved.  

           “It’s an ugly story.”

           “Of course it is,” the Bishop said with a chortle. “Men are not born moral creatures, Shawn. We come to it by degrees. Our parents do their best to teach us, but we ignore most of what they say. Later, we learn by suffering consequences demanded by society. Then those of us who raise children learn it again as we teach our progeny. This is where the church has made some bad choices. We call ourselves fathers but we lack the practical experience of teaching decency to offspring. So how can we successfully instill decency in the strangers who make up our congregations?”

          “Interesting theory, Lyle. You always had a unique way of interpreting things.”

          “I followed a code of right and wrong that was my own, I admit.  From what I’ve observed of the new pope, he does the same.”

          “Does that excuse the common law wife you had for over forty years, the children you fathered by her?”

          “I don’t think of them as sins, Shawn. Instead, I feel guilty about pursuing the priesthood.  There were hardships thrust upon my family because of it, and I often begged both them and God to forgive my unrelenting ambition for power, the sin that set me on a quest to the Vatican.  It was just that God denied me the Holy See. Not because of my wife and children, but because of my self-absorption. Had I not put my ambition first, I could have been a better husband, father, and human being. Regret torments me, and I am being punished.”

          “Perhaps I, too, will be punished. We can spend purgatory together, deciding which of us was the bigger fool. I’m going to dinner. Join me if you can and maybe, after some wine, I will share my most unforgivable transgression.”

          The restaurant was quiet, the benefit of going out to eat on a Tuesday night. Father Rickman sat in a booth in the back, for privacy, and ordered steak.

        “The portions are large enough for two. I always take leftovers home.”

         “Perhaps you should eat more. You look pale, Shawn. And thin.”

         “I’ll eat a few extra bites, so you can stop worrying. Will that make you happy, Lyle?”

         “Ecstatic. So tell me about the abominations of Father Rickman.”

         “You don’t think me capable?”

           “We are all capable, and I am sure you have committed some error of judgement that you torture yourself over.”

            “Mine was not an error, but a choice, not unlike yours. I too have had a woman in my life. We met almost thirty years ago. She and her husband, and a preteen son. They would come to church regularly. Attend the bingo games, donate generously to the church and charities, and the boy sang in the youth choir.”

             The Bishop sat quietly, nodding.   

             “One day—her name was Nancy—she came to me and told me that she’d seen a ghost,” Father Rickman said. “She was working at the Bridgeport Convalescent Home, during the night shift, and she saw an elderly man walking the hallway. She called to him to see what he needed, but he did not answer. She went down the hallway, to the room he had entered, but the room was empty. She was baffled by the experience. She told her coworkers about the elderly gentleman.  As old people too often look alike, a few names were bandied about. Time passed and the incident lost its significance.”

                 “So no ghost?” the Bishop said. He looked disappointed.  

                “No, there was a ghost. The old man appeared again. He walked the hall, looking at every door as though searching for a room number. Nancy called to him and tried to follow as he disappeared down a corridor. She lost him in the maze of hallways. There were several such sightings, and Nancy became frightened. She had become convinced she was seeing a ghost. I listened, intrigued, but disapproving.”

              “And stubborn in your disbelief, no doubt,” the Bishop said.    

             “Yes. There are no such things as ghosts, I told her, except for the Holy Ghost, which is a spirit, part of the Holy Trinity. A coeternal consubstantial piece of God. For her to believe in the supernatural was to betray the teachings of the church, and Jesus Christ. ‘Do you think I’m crazy, Father?’ she asked me. I still had enough discretion at that age to tell her she was merely confused. There was a rational explanation, I assured her, and in time it would reveal itself.”

            The waiter came to pour the wine. Father Rickman was silent, until the man left.

            “I did not see her again for weeks. Her husband brought their son to mass, but she did not come. I asked after her, and the husband said her work schedule had changed. She was working Sundays now. I suggested she come to one of the nightly masses. Then, one Wednesday evening, she came to see me. The mysterious man had appeared again, she told me. He had come out of room A16 and wandered down the hallway. She ran after him and when she got close, she reached to tap his shoulder and her hand passed through his body. He stopped, turned and spoke to her. ‘You can see me, so I belong to you now,’ he said to her, then he disappeared.”

            “How odd,” the Bishop said. “Must be some outdated notion.”    

            “Perhaps, but the apparition was true to his word, according to Nancy. She was seeing him whenever she worked. He would follow her when there was no one else present to witness the haunting. He would accompany her on nightly rounds, from room to room. He would not enter but wait politely at the door. ‘Am I crazy?’ she asked again. I told her she needed medical or possibly psychological intervention and encouraged her to get a checkup. I assured her that there were no ghosts, and that to believe in them was akin to abandoning the church for a cult. I reminded her that nowhere in our Catechism was there a mention of ghosts.”

             “I have often thought that was an oversight on the part of the church,” the Bishop said.

            “Nancy wept, disappointed, and left me. I did not see her again for two years. When she returned, she looked exhausted. Unkempt, haggard, and nearly hysterical, she begged for my help. She told me that not only did she still see the old man, but he had brought companions.  She was now being escorted on her rounds by as many as five ghosts. The old man’s wife, their daughter and two sons, all three adults.”

            “You don’t mean it,” the Bishop said with a laugh. “How extraordinary.”

            “Nancy was able to converse with the old gentleman, but the rest of the ghosts did not speak. They would weep, make objects move, even let out with blood-curdling howls. Other members of the convalescent home staff could hear the weeping and the howling, and witnessed objects being dropped or thrown. Since it was always in Nancy’s vicinity, they thought that she was responsible. They had come to think of her as unhinged.”

            The food was being served, and the Bishop was so excited by the story that he knocked over a saltshaker. The waiter was startled and apologized, thinking he had been responsible. When the man walked away, the Bishop blurted out,

           “How dreadful for the poor woman. What happened next?”             

            “I asked her if she had gone to the doctor for a check-up. She said she had and it came to the doctor’s attention that she had suffered a minor stroke. At first she was glad, hopeful that the stroke had caused her ghost sightings, as well as other problems she was having within her family. It seems she had developed a revulsion to her husband of twenty years, and she no longer had a motherly feeling for their son.”

           “Peculiar,” the Bishop said.

          “I thought so. I counseled her on marriage and motherly responsibilities. Those were subjects I felt competent to discuss, but then she brought up the subject of ghosts again, and I became irate and advised her to go to a psychiatrist. She did not back down, however. She insisted that the ghosts were real, and that the old man had told her that all five of the ghosts belonged to her now. They were her responsibility.”

          “That is ludicrous. What does that even mean?”

           “Angrily, I badgered her,” Father Rickman said. “How can they be your responsibility? She had no idea, and I pounced on that. Of course it makes no sense, because it’s not real. You must turn loose of this delusion, or you will do yourself irreparable harm. She became upset and ran out of the church without another word. I did not see her again for an even longer time. Perhaps three years or more. She had changed considerably the next time I saw her. She looked wonderful. Healthier, nicely dressed and her demeanor was calm.”

           “Surprising,” the Bishop said.  

           “Yes, it was. She looked so well that I was hopeful she had freed herself from the ghostly delusions, but I could not have been more wrong. She had left her husband, she told me. She came to realize that she was a lesbian, and she had taken a female lover. Someone she had found true compatibility with. Her son had been angry and rejected her for a while, but he finally came around.” 

         “And the ghosts were gone?” the Bishop said.

         “No, and she was still being told that they were her responsibility.”

         “Shocking,” the Bishop said.

         “There were ten now. Three children about six to eight years old, and one young woman, perhaps twenty. And, of course, her own dead husband. He killed himself when she left him for a woman.”

          “That was unexpected,” the Bishop said, getting a bit loud. Father Rickman gave him a stern look to silence him. “Sorry.”  

         “I was furious with her. Your husband committed suicide, and you tell me about it as though it’s an afterthought. The man you were married to for twenty plus years, and you seem to have no feelings for him at all. What kind of woman are you?”

         “A fair question.”

        “I thought so. Her answer was unusual, of course. She explained that since her stroke she was not as emotional as she once was. She said she was happier now, even with the ghosts following her wherever she went.”  

        “I thought it was just a workplace manifestation.”

        “That was before. She had changed jobs and they not only changed with her, but they were now in her home. In the car when she drove. In the grocery when she was shopping. The worst time was when she got her hair done. The beauty parlor was so small that when the ghosts would howl or throw things, it was impossible for people not to notice. She began telling everyone she had Tourette’s Syndrome.” 

         “Seriously? Tourette’s? How creative. I would never have thought of it.”

          “I knew she was a smart one, and I suddenly realized that she was playing me for a fool. Telling me this ridiculous story about being haunted, all a pack of lies designed to amuse herself at my expense. I wondered if maybe she had recorded some of our past sessions. My pride was wounded, you see. My self-image was vulnerable. For the first time ever, I doubted my judgement and I was worried about my reputation in the parish.   

        “If there were all these ghosts around her, why didn’t you see them?” 

        “I asked her that, and she asked me if I wanted to see them. I didn’t want to, of course. But that shouldn’t have mattered. If they were there, I would have seen them.”

          “So what did she say to that?”   

         “Nothing. Suddenly, a howl reverberated around the church. A mournful cry that sent chills down my spine. I had been looking at her face and she had not opened her mouth, nor did it seem to be coming from her direction. It was coming from somewhere near the altar. Then, suddenly, lit candles were flying through the air and smashing against a granite wall. Moans of lamentation came from up in the choir loft. She smiled, then quoted a bible verse. John 4:48. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.’”

           “She was a clever woman.”

           “Yes, she was and it frightened me. You’re the devil, I shouted. You are the evil one, taken possession of this confused woman, using her for your own purposes. Leave this church, Satan, I shouted, holding my crucifix up like a shield. Now advancing on her, thinking of myself as one of God’s soldiers, forcing her through the front doors, I cursed her. I quoted scripture at her and thinking I should douse her with holy water, as they do in the movies. I cupped my hands in the font and splashed her.”

          “Did you really?” the Bishop said, and burst out in laughter, then, seeing the expression on Father Rickman’s face, he stopped. “Sorry.”

          “She was also amused by my frantic patty fingers in the font. Laughing at my pitiful efforts to banish her from the church. I must have looked like a moron. ‘I’m not the devil, Father Rickman,’ she said, unable to stop laughing at me. ‘I can’t help being haunted. I don’t want to be, but I am trying to live with it and not go mad. The ghosts are wanting something from me, but I don’t know what it is. I need your help.’”

         “Her laughter faded to an amused grin as she waited for me to say something, but I could not speak. I had fallen under some kind of strange spell. While standing in full sunlight, she shook the holy water from her hair and golden curls fell into place like a halo around her head. Still smiling, her mouth was sensuous. Her eyes were green. I had never noticed that before, but I could not miss it now. They sparkled like gems. For the first time, I truly saw her and what a vision of loveliness she was.”

         “Uh oh, that’s not good.”  

        “I regained my composure and asked her to leave. Then she asked me a pivotal question.  Do you want me to come back? Why I did not say no, I will forever wonder. She descended the front steps, looking back at me just one time, as she walked away. But the look was a turning point in my life. I will swear on the holy image of Christ, that when I went back inside the church I heard both weeping and laughter, yet the church was empty.”

          “Oh, dear. She left you a ghost.”

          “Nancy came to church regularly on Sundays. She would come to the rail for communion, and I would pass her over, but not before taking a look down the front of her blouse. She would speak to me, but I shunned her. She came for confession, and I refused to hear it. Yet, my eyes sought her out and feasted on her. This went on for a year. I shunned her and she punished me by giving me no peace. Every time I saw her she looked more attractive, and I could not help but be tempted. She had flawless skin, soft feminine curves, she dressed smartly and looked to be the epitome of good health for a woman her age. Of any age, truthfully.”

       “I can see where this is going.”

       “She brought her lesbian lover to mass a few times, and the woman was equally attractive, I must admit. Together they made a remarkable impression on me. Excruciatingly remarkable, I’m afraid. My imagination went into overdrive, and I wondered what they looked like together, en flagrante. Various scenarios tormented me day and night. My nerves were shattered. Many times I heard howls and lamentation, followed by sensuous moaning coming from the vestry. Startled, often embarrassed, I occasionally spilt from the chalice during communion, staining the clothing of our most prominent members of the congregation.”

        “That’s terrible.”

         “Even worse, on several such occasions, I yelled expletives loud enough to be heard in the pews nearest the altar. I even took the Lord’s name in vain in the presence of Monsignor Halliday. He came later to counsel me on anger management and decorum. Embarrassed by my faux pas, I told him I was suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Thereafter, whenever we crossed paths, I performed various twitches of the face to maintain the lie.”

          The Bishop burst out laughing again, then apologized. “In tragedy there is often an element of humor.”

          “It did not feel humorous to me. Soon after, I approached Nancy and her friend to ask them not to come back to mass. That was what I had intended to say in a noncompromising manner, even threatening them with excommunication if I had to. But they had an aura about them, a savage innocence. They were beautiful, healthy animals, and there was an intense chemistry surrounding the three of us as we stood near the confessionals. It frightened me, yet I reveled in it. Perhaps it was the romantic light streaming in through the stained-glass windows that melted the ice surrounding my heart, because I could not say what I needed to say.”

         “Good. It is never right to ask a parishioner to abandon the church.”  

         “Instead, I clumsily asked Nancy if she needed confessing. She said yes. Then I turned to her companion and asked her the same. The companion smiled at me, then let out a shriek reminiscent of the dolphins at Sea World. That horrible sound filled the church.  Her face turned so red, it was nearly purple.  Her hair suddenly seemed to be standing straight up, as a flame dances on the wick of a candle. She opened her mouth to shriek again and I wanted to run, but my feet seemed glued to the floor.”  

       “What was she? Some kind of ghoul?”

        “I asked Nancy what she was, but she said she didn’t know. She assured me the woman was quite tame. And that she didn’t make that noise all the time, just when she got overexcited.  She said it was unfortunate that I had spoken to her. She had taken a liking to me and she wanted to be mine.”

       “Yours? You must have been frantic.”

        “I was so scared I was nearly soiling myself. I told Nancy that I’d thought the woman was her lesbian lover. She said she had realized, after a while, that she was not a lesbian after all. As for Maude, she had a crush on me and wanted to go with me, and there was no way to stop her.”

         “Maude? That strange creature was named Maude?”

         “Yes, and Nancy told me Maude had been born and raised in Wales. When she talked, which was rarely, she had a brogue. It seems she was frustrated that she’s been unable to move on. She didn’t enjoy being a ghost. Nancy asked me to help Maude with that.”

         “How?”

        “I wasn’t sure. Nancy suggested hearing her confession, giving her absolution, the same things I would do if she was still alive. I expressed my doubts, telling her again that I know nothing about ghosts. She reminded me that I would have one as my lifelong companion if I didn’t do something about it.”

          “Frightening.”

          “That spurred me to action. I decided to try giving her absolution. It may not work, but what harm could come of it? I refused to do it in the church, however. That would soil my conscience, and it would give Nancy more ammunition if this all turned out to be an elaborate hoax. She invited me to her apartment, saying ‘Please, Father Rickman. Don’t make me beg.’  I was an emotional wreck. Part of me wanted to see her beg. I pictured her on her knees, begging, and knew I could deny her nothing. But at the same time, admitting that ghosts exist was mentally disabling for me, and I swear by all that is holy, I was experiencing PTSD.”

          “Post-traumatic stress disorder?” 

          “Yes. But still, my physical attraction to Nancy was stronger than ever. I did indeed want to go to her apartment and breathe air infused with her pheromones. Her allure broke through my resistance, overcame my fear of entrapment and exposure as a sex-starved deviate.”

         “I don’t think PTSD was your problem, Shawn,” the Bishop said. “I’m not judging you. Please know that, but you had other things on your mind, in my opinion.”

            “Even after all these years, I can’t be objective about it. Maybe you’re right. She gave me her address and told me to come at 9:00 pm. I asked why so late and she said that getting rid of a ghost might be more appropriate after the sun had set and the moon was high. I was out of my depth. I would have gone along with anything she suggested. I arrived at 9:00 pm on the hour. It had been a long day. Time seemed to have stood still during most of it. I’d spent time with two of my parishioners who had personal matters to discuss. Compared to what I was dealing with, their problems seemed petty and self-imposed. I did not give them the best of myself that day.”

         “Hmmm,” the Bishop said. “You should have taken time away from the church to search your heart.”  

         “You know how stubborn I was as a young man,” Shawn said, taking a gulp of wine. “I showered, changed into fresh clothing, and time stood still. Someone had sabotaged the clocks in my quarters, I was sure of it. Unable to wait any longer, I left early, hoping to speed up time by picking up a bottle of wine and flowers. Then I realized my mistake. How do I explain behaving as though I was on a date? Mother told me never go to someone’s home empty handed, I could say. It was the truth. Lame but plausible.”

            “You have very fine manners,” the Bishop said. “I have always admired your etiquette.”  

           “Thank you. Banging on her door, all that twaddle went through my mind lickety-split and I was again banging on the door a few seconds later. And again, and again. What do you think of my good manners now? Nancy scowled at me when she opened the door at last and scolded me for making such a racket. My God, no one ever looked more beautiful than she did, with her show of temper. I imagined her slapping my face, and it was magnificent. Under that yellow bug light, her complexion jaundiced and her hair bleached like straw, she was a dream. If she hadn’t asked me in, I would have committed violence. I know it.”

            “I don’t believe that. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

            “I did not hand her the flowers and wine. Instead, I took on an aloofness to cover my embarrassment, hiding pent up passions behind a ridiculous façade. I put the wine and the flowers on her kitchen counter and began jabbering like a fool.”

             Father Rickman did an impersonation of himself. “Only if we need them, understand? I thought we might, but I’m not sure we will. Know what I mean? Better to have them than not have them, as I always say.”

         “Bravo. You sound just like Humphry Bogart in that old movie. The one with the statue of a black bird.”

       “Exactly. I seemed unable to stop babbling like some Dashiell Hammett character. I was even talking though my nose with a slight lisp. ‘We have no idea what might happen, see?  We might need a peace offering, if things go south. This could get dangerous,’ I said, shooting my cuffs.”

         The Bishop bellowed with hardy laughter, and Father Rickman chuckled, remembering his own foolishness.    

        “Nancy watched the spectacle, grinning, recognizing me for the fool she had made of me. Knowing this, I still couldn’t stop myself. She told me she was glad I came, trying to make me feel less embarrassed, I think. She said she had been afraid that I might change my mind. And again, I went on with my one man show. ‘That’s not the kind of man I am. Understand? Once I decide to do a thing, I get it done.’  I was still channeling Sam Spade. Once in the persona, it was hard to shake off. ‘So where’s the dame?’”

            “Dame? You meant Maude?” the Bishop asked. “She should have come with you. Isn’t that right?”

              “Very astute, Lyle,” Father Rickman said to him. “I hadn’t thought of that at the time. Nancy reminded me that Maude was my ghost. We figured that she must have been hiding, perhaps a bit embarrassed. Then she appeared out of nowhere and sat down on the sofa, hiding a grin behind one hand. I nodded to her and she let out another dolphin call.”    

              “She was saying hello,” the Bishop said with a smile.  

              “’Hello, Maude,’ I said, with an unenthusiastic wave of my fingers. Meanwhile, Nancy was arranging a place at the kitchen table where the three of us would be comfortable. ‘Should I open the wine and put out some crackers for communion?’ she asked me. I nodded, wondering why the hell I had not thought of communion as a way to explain the wine. I was grateful to be done with the Sam Spade impression. It was exhausting.” 

              “I can sympathize. I feel the same way about charades. Ridiculous game.”  

              “Nancy put the flowers in water and placed them on the table, saying they could dress up our little chapel. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her. She buried her nose in the bouquet and there was a satisfied little smile on her lips. I flushed with humiliation, like a fifteen-year-old boy, then I asked Maude to join us in the kitchen. Nancy and I sat at opposite ends of the table, and Maude in the middle. ‘Can you talk?’ I asked her. She let out a string of screeches.”

                “The dolphin noises?”

               “That, or a language spoken on an alien planet. ‘How am I supposed to work with this?’ I said, frustrated. Nancy said she could translate. ‘She mutters sometimes, unable to get the words out, and then there’s the Welch brogue,’ Nancy told me. She said they had developed a mental bond, and that I would develop one with her over time if she stayed.”

              “And so, we started. Doing all the right things, saying the appropriate entreaties. The time came for her to confess and she let out with a yammer that was so bizarre, I had to pinch my own buttock to make sure I wasn’t having a nightmare. Nancy was able to translate her story. Unfortunately, it was overtly pornographic, and hearing smut falling from Nancy’s moist lips was having an effect on my demeanor. I took a gulp of the sacramental wine straight from the bottle. Startled, both women looked at me with doe eyes, their lips slightly parted, each holding their breath, waiting for my next move. The thin fabrics they wore perfectly molded their breasts, accenting the shapes, exaggerating every quiver of anticipation. I needed another pull on the wine bottle.”

                 “Oh my,” the Bishop said, loosening his collar and wiping his red face with a monogrammed handkerchief.

            “When her sins had all been told, Maude wept with relief, and I very nearly did as well.  I had her say a prayer, as best she could. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It was yammered out in an odd rhythm that made me think of a naked savage beating a tom-tom.             

Ld Jesses nod good, mery o’me, zinner.  Would you believe me, Lyle? That corruption of prayer got stuck in my head for weeks. I would find myself tapping my toe and reciting the sounds as she had said them, with that same savage rhythm. Sometimes it still comes back to haunt me. Telling it to you now will cost me some hours of distress, reciting it in time to the ticking of my father’s antique mantel clock, or the spin cycle of the washing machine, the timer I use to make three minute eggs. That piece of verse is not done with me yet.”

            “I’m sorry you told it to me,” the Bishop said. “I’m beginning to hear it in my head. Oh, dear.” 

            “Sorry about that. Well, I went through the rest of the litany with the two ladies, then we had communion. When I told Maude she was cleansed of all sin and was now worthy to move on in her voyage toward salvation, she slowly faded away to nothingness.”

             “Marvelous,” the Bishop said, with a reverent joy in his eyes.    

             “You’d think so, but I was disappointed. I admit that until that moment, I still didn’t believe she was a ghost. In all candor, I had envisioned a three way with the two ladies.  I did not know how I was going to justify my lascivious suggestion, but I was working on a rational excuse. Perhaps framing the sexual encounter as a sacrament, a beneficial cleansing of lust that would leave us free from carnal cravings forever after. Ridiculous, I admit, but remember that I was in the throes of PTSD and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about my own recovery. No matter the sacrifice.”

            It took a while for the Bishop to stop laughing at Father Rickman, so he took the opportunity to eat and drink some wine as the laughter died down. He was thoroughly annoyed.  

            “Are you quite finished?” Father Rickman asked him.

             “Sorry, Shawn, but it was funny.”

            “That being said, when Nancy, the loveliest woman I had ever seen, took a suggestive posture and gave me a come hither smile, I leapt across the table like a lion on a wildebeest, knocking what was left of the wine onto the floor, along with the dish of soda crackers and the vase full of water and blooms from the floral department of the local grocery.”

            The Bishop was silent with a shocked look on his face.

           “Yes, we stumbled onto each other like inexperienced teens, casting off clothing in all directions and leaping into each other’s arms by the time we reached the bed. It was the most poignant sexual experience I had ever suffered. I both hated Nancy and worshiped her. She’d turned me into an animal. She stripped God from my heart and mind and stood in his great stead. It was a magnificent night, but when the sun came up in the morning, Nancy was not in the apartment. I thought perhaps she was ashamed and did not want to see me again. I hoped that was not the case. I was completely in love with her, so much that I decided to leave the priesthood if she asked me to.”

        “Of everything I’ve heard so far, that is the most shocking. That you would consider leaving the church,” the Bishop said. “You have always exhibited a piety that was almost arrogant in its intensity. There were times when you did not seem human.”

      “And yet, I am among the most frail in my dedication to the church.”

      “What happened next?”

       “I gathered my clothing from the bedroom floor, the hallway rug, the living room hardwood, and the kitchen linoleum, putting each piece on in reverse order from which I shed them.  Now looking around, I found no definitive trace of her, which was disturbing. The wine was still staining the floor. The crackers were scattered, and the blooms still vibrant in a pool of water and shattered pottery. I cleaned the mess, then I scrutinized the apartment further. It was not much bigger than my own quarters provided by the parish. There were pictures on the walls. None of them had Nancy in them. There was mail on one end table.  Her name was not on it.  This is not her apartment, I realized. Whose then?”

           This part of the story tore at Father Rickman’s heart. He had to rest before he continued, and the Bishop waited, his eyes filled with pity.

          “I opened the door to leave, and a stranger was standing there with a key in her hand.  She took one look at me and screamed. ‘Please don’t be frightened,’ I said. ‘I’m Father Rickman.’ She stared at me, ready to bolt, but then she noticed my clothing, the collar. She did not run, but she cautiously stayed outside.”       

           “It must have been embarrassing,” the Bishop said.

            “I asked her if this was her apartment. She said it was, and she wondered how I got in. I explained that I was let in by a woman named Nancy. She told me that she had lived in the apartment for the past two years, and the woman who had the apartment before her was named Nancy, but she was dead. She had committed suicide, in that very place.”

              “Suicide. How terrible,” the Bishop said. “And you obviously knew her during that time, when she was so troubled.”

              “I must have looked stricken. The woman’s tone changed to one of sympathy. She came through the door and invited me to stay and have a cup of coffee. I told her no thanks and got out of there as quickly as I could. But then, before I got very far, I went back and banged on her door. I just had to ask. How did Nancy take her life? She told me that Nancy shot herself. Under the chin with an automatic. She’d read about it in the newspaper and became excited at the prospect of an empty apartment in the neighborhood. Her sister lived three blocks away.”

              Then Father Rickman chuckled. “I asked her if she believed in ghosts. She knew what I was getting at. She said that if I was asking if Nancy haunted the apartment, that she had no indication of it. The only noises that bothered her were the neighbor’s dogs. She said the damn things made the strangest sounds. She compared it to living next to a zoo. And they howled in the middle of the night sometimes. She said she’d complained, but it did no good.”

                Father Rickman sat silently now, sipping wine, waiting for Bishop Morgan to comment.        

                 “What you’re telling me is that you had sex with a ghost. Is that the upshot of it?”

                 “Well, yes, Lyle. You don’t have to make it sound so pedestrian.” 

                  “No, of course not,” he said, struggling for the right words. “It is a singular experience, Shawn. And tragic, to have found that special someone at a time in life when she was not…alive. But you accused yourself of having committed an abomination. I would hardly call it that. You are much too hard on yourself. One such encounter with a ghost might be called a minor infraction, especially since you didn’t realize, and considering the PTSD.”

        “Well, perhaps,” Father Rickman said, admitting he had a flair for the dramatic, and exaggeration. “I went back to my life, and the week dragged on, one joyless day after another until Sunday. I was hungover most of the time, wondering if all the craziness was just that. Was I crazy? Oh, how I wanted to be crazy. Nancy could be alive, and she would come to mass, with Maude beside her. Perhaps I had not killed her with my cold disregard and mockery. But when she did not come, I was faced with the truth, and I became a broken man. There were so many things left unsaid between us, and I did not know how to reach her. How does a mortal call on a ghost? A Ouija board, perhaps? I feared demonic possession so often associated with that game, especially since I’d become a believer in the supernatural, so that was out. The only safe thing I could think to do was visit her grave.”

             The Bishop, in his sympathy, wiped tears from his eyes and blew into his handkerchief.    

            “I found where she was buried and again, taking a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine with me, I went to her. Placing the flowers against the headstone under her name, I poured out my heart, hoping she could hear me. Telling her I loved her, and how sorry I was for not believing her. Then I drank the wine, and like a loyal dog standing guard, I slept six feet above my mistress. Nancy came to me in a dream.”

             “Did she really?”

            “Go home, Shawn, before you catch your death,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

             “Was that all she said?”

           “At that time, and it meant the world to me. I awoke to a downpour that soaked my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I very nearly did catch my death. That was autumn of 1989, many years before you and I met.” 

            “I can’t remember a thing about 1989. My memory is failing me,” the Bishop said, with a confused expression on his face.

            “Nancy was clairvoyant, you see, Lyle. She didn’t realize it when she was alive but in death, through trial and error, she learned of her gift and how to use it. And I have been helping her ever since, as I should have been helping all along.  I suffer terrible guilt over how badly I treated her. Perhaps, if I had been understanding, she would not have killed herself.”

           “You and I met later, in 2010. Is that right?”  the Bishop said.

          “Listen Lyle. This is important. She tells me things about people, and I check on them to see if they’re alright. I pass messages back and forth between the living and the dead. As we did for Maude, I hear confessions and give absolution so a spirit will feel ready to move on. We’ve helped many such souls over the years. I’m glad you came to see me, Lyle. Nancy has given me a message for you.”

         “For me.” The Bishop said. “From my Anna?”

         “That’s right, from your wife. She sends her love and she wants you to know that she always understood your dedication to the church, and she never held it against you. She said you made her very happy. You can stop haunting now and move on. Anna promises that when it’s her time, she will come and find you.”

          Bishop Morgan let out a sob. A single tear fell from his face and disappeared before it hit the tabletop, and he was gone. The ghostly outline of his crumpled handkerchief lingered, then it too evaporated.

           Father Rickman finished his birthday dinner, eating a few extra bites, as he promised his friend he would do. He finished one more glass of wine.   

          “I’m so tired, my love,” he said.  How much longer must I walk this lonely Earth?”

           He could hear Nancy’s voice, a soft whisper in his ear that caused it to tickle.   

         “It won’t be much longer now, Shawn. And remember, dearest, you never walk alone.”


 BIO

Retired and living in Hamilton County, Texas, Catherine Link is a painter who occasionally teaches private students. She has won awards in local shows for her artwork and had one of her pieces included in the December 2013 issue of the Rotarian Magazine.   

She loves to write short stories, which is like a form of meditation for her, calming her nerves and taking her away from everyday life for a while.

Catherine has had short stories published in Dragon Poet Review, Corner Bar Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Toasted Cheese, and Bewildering Stories.

She is married to Robert Link, also an artist and burgeoning writer. They have two grown sons. Douglas, who lives in Waco and enjoys painting, and Daniel, who lives in Northern California and is a successful fiction writer. 

The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him

by Shea McCollum


Celine almost couldn’t find the factory on her first day because of the awning. She had followed the directions left to her by her husband and taken the hillside road down into the valley. But instead of a factory, all she could see from above was an endless stretch of farmland. She was about to turn back to see if she had missed some fork in the road when she noticed the way that some of the distant barns seemed to ripple in the breeze. She continued making her way down the road until she found herself underneath a giant painted awning in whose shadow the factory lay hidden. There she joined the crowd of women that had gathered outside, waiting for the foreman to call out their names.

“Cigarette?” a lanky woman offered Celine her carton. She accepted gratefully and they smoked together in silence. Celine kept sneaking glances over at her between exhales. Almost all of the ladies gathered there, Celine included, looked nearly identical with their red lipstick and newly purchased trousers. They had all clearly seen the same poster in town with the bolded caption The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him. But this woman beside her was bare-faced, maybe a good ten years older than the rest of the crowd, with boots so broken in it looked as if she had been born with them. She didn’t seem nearly as nervous as Celine felt, or else she was better at hiding it.

“I wonder if they’ll give us an advance today,” Celine said to break the silence.

“I wouldn’t count on it. The foreman only pays on Fridays,” the woman replied without looking at her. “And don’t plan on making what your husband did. You’ll probably get about half.”

Celine glanced over at the woman about to ask a question when she answered it for her. “I worked here during the last war.”

“So, you know what it’s like inside?”

The veteran woman nodded.

“Is it difficult?” Celine asked. “The work, I mean. Were you able to get by okay?”

For a moment, the veteran woman’s lips twitched into the ghost of a smile, but she kept a straight face. “If you can learn to use an electric mixer, you can learn to use a drill press.”

The only other job Celine had ever had was on her grandfather’s farm. At the age of five, she and all her other young cousins were hired to sit in the dirt and pick all the grapes that grew near the bottom of the vine. They got five cents for every basket they managed to fill up. When she outgrew that, her parents put her in school, and after school, she had married her husband Richard. She’d spent almost every day since taking care of him and their house and eventually their two boys. The idea of working had never even crossed her mind.

Except once, a few years earlier, at a dinner party she and Richard had hosted for some of their friends. They were discussing how at the textile factory one town over, they had started to hire more and more married women whose kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Celine had only half been paying attention to the conversation until one of Richard’s friends turned to her and asked, “Celine, when the boys are in school, do you think you’ll ever get a job like Richard?”

Celine’s immediate reaction was to laugh. The image she got in her head of donning a matching set of jeans to her husband, of hauling heavy objects around (as she imagined much of factory work was consumed with), of returning home covered in sweat and grime only to have to cook dinner just seemed ridiculous to her.

But Richard cut in before she could answer. “No, the day Celine gets a job will the day all of hell freezes over.”

As it turned out, all it really took was the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

Celine had never seen an airplane in person before. She had only seen grainy images of them in the newspaper or flying very distantly overhead. She had certainly never seen a half-finished plane, like the one that sat in the center of the factory floor. It reminded her a bit of a whale skeleton she had seen many years before hung up on the ceiling of a museum. There was something about seeing that unfinished beast that felt a bit like glancing behind the curtain. Seeing all the little bits of machinery usually hidden under the hard shell exterior was a bit like being given insight into how the magic trick that is flying works.

 But to Celine’s dismay, the foreman led her and the other new recruits past the plane to a station for riveting. The foreman showed them how to do it, making sure to always keep their hands behind the tool so they wouldn’t accidentally drill themselves.

“Here’s a stack of sheets to get you all started,” he said. “Bolts are in a box over there. Before you get low, someone with a cart should be by to drop some more off. If you finish before they do, come and let me know.”

He was curt but not unfriendly. It was obvious that having to direct women in the factory made him a bit uncomfortable. But he was grateful for their presence nonetheless and made it known in the little ways he could. Later that week, when Celine recruited one of her neighbors to come work in the factory, she’d found an extra bonus in her paycheck and a little note thanking her for her service to her country.

Celine found pretty quickly that the veteran woman, whose name she’d learned was Margaret, was right. The work wasn’t difficult. Actually, it was a lot like housework, rhythmic and a bit boring but not altogether impossible to master. She entertained herself throughout the day making friends with the women working beside her or listening to the radio. The foreman had it playing constantly at a low level throughout the factory, giving updates on the war effort. Celine never understood why until one day in the middle of a reporting on the previous week’s victories and losses when the factory spontaneously burst into raucous cheers.

“What’s going on?” Celine had managed to get Margaret’s attention over the chaos.

“The plane that they’re talking about, the one that took down the Germans,” she said breathlessly. “It’s one of ours.”

That was the first time that Celine understood what it was they were really doing there. It was easy to forget while mindlessly drilling plates together all day where the planes were going when they left the factory. That the bolts that she secured could be the same ones holding her husband’s life together from 20,000 feet off the ground. And from that moment on, no matter how tedious the work got, it always felt like it had an air of sacredness to it.

The only time the radios were ever turned off was when the foreman got on the loudspeaker to announce that there was a plane flying overhead. Everyone would stop what they were doing and wait in silence for the buzzing outside to stop. Of course, there had been only a few bombings on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and almost all by water, but the foreman would take no chances.

Every day the workers were given an hour break for lunch. Some of the women who lived nearby would run home to make food for their children before coming back, sweaty and more exhausted than when they had left. But those like Celine who lived farther off stayed and gathered under the awning together to eat out of their tin lunchboxes. Sometimes, Celine would invite some of the ladies over to her house in the evenings after the children had gone to bed and they would all drink scotch and talk into the late hours of the night as their husbands used to do.

She had even managed to convince Margaret to come by on occasion. Outside of the factory, she was somewhat less brusque, especially when they managed to get a drink or two in her. When Margaret was feeling particularly social, she would regale them with stories of the different jobs she had worked over the years. She made them howl with laughter at her telling of the time she worked as a switchboard operator and mixed up the lines between a divorced couple and a pair of newlyweds or about the one day she spent as a department store clerk before she got fired for refusing to wear pantyhose.

“But my favorite job by far,” she would always end her stories. “Has been working in this factory. It’s the only thing they let me do that matters.”

When Celine wrote Richard her weekly letter updating him on life at home, she sometimes mentioned these stories or gave updates about how their sons were doing in school, but she would rarely mention her work in the factory, even though she was doing exceedingly well. It was as if her years of sewing little buttons onto children’s sweaters or polishing delicate china had actually been training for the precision work required in the factory.

When she started finishing her riveting work faster than the women with the wheelbarrows could supply her with new materials, she went and told the foreman, who gave her increasingly more difficult jobs. Winding delicate copper wire into intricate patterns, dealing with tiny screws half the length of her pinkie nail, gluing and peeling fabric on the wing only to glue it back again.

Celine grew comfortable working alongside the remaining men at the factory. So much so that sometimes she would forget her place. One day as she was working beside one of the new recruits, a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her eldest son, she noticed that he was holding his hand in front of the drill.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re actually gonna want to hold it like this,” she said showing him with her own drill. “That way you won’t accidentally get your hand.”

He looked at her for a moment with a blank face before glancing back over at the other men at the station. They were all looking up from their work at him waiting to see what would happen.

“I think I know what I’m doing,” he eventually said in a flat voice, turning his back to her.

After that, she was careful about how she talked with the men. She made sure to give all of her instructions in the form of questions to let them feel like they were the ones teaching her. Instead of “This is how you hold a drill” she would ask, “Am I doing this right?”

Eventually, Celine had advanced enough that she had worked on every step of the process that it took to make a plane and was pretty sure she could assemble one from scratch all by herself. That’s when the foreman placed her and Margaret in charge of training and looking after the new employees that were still trickling in every week. Being able to look at the bigger picture of things like this, Celine had begun to brainstorm ideas for a plane of her own. She showed them to Margaret, who helped her work out the technical details that turned her ideas into actual designs. Celine kept these sketches in a notebook, knowing that after the war, the factory would go back to making commercial planes, at which point she might gain the courage to pitch the foreman some of her ideas.

And then one morning, just as everyone was getting settled at their stations, one girl shouted above the chatter, “Turn up the radio!”

Someone did just in time for them to hear the announcer say, “President Truman has just informed us that the war in the European theatre has ended with the unconditional surrender of the German army.”

And as soon as he said this, the uproar in the factory was uncontrollable. People stopped what they were doing to hug each other, to laugh, to cry. It was so wild that for the first time since Celine had been at the factory, the foreman called for an early lunch. All the workers flooded the streets and joined the people of town already there celebrating. They drank wine and talked about what they would do now that there would be no more scrimping, no more saving up pennies or donating scrap metal. They speculated how long it would be before their husbands would return and what they would say to them when they did.

And at the end of their lunch hour, still flushed with excitement, still buzzing with conversation, they made their way back to the factory where Celine spotted Margaret hurrying in the opposite direction, a stack of papers tucked under one arm.

“Is everything alright?” Celine stopped her as she passed.

“You delude yourself into thinking things can change, but they never do,” Margaret said and brushed past her.

Celine looked down at the road at her for a moment before following the other women back inside the factory. There she found the foreman standing on the factory floor, waiting for them.

“I want to thank you all for your time here,” he said. “But as the men are expected to return home soon, your help is no longer necessary.”

Celine watched him in a daze as he began to call up all the women individually to collect their final paycheck. 

“Mrs. Rodgers,” he shouted and Celine floated to the front of the room. The foreman flashed her a wide smile as he shook her hand. But still, he couldn’t meet her eye when he said, “Thank you for your service.”


BIO

Shea McCollum holds a BA in Creative Writing from Pepperdine University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kudzu Review and Canyon Voices Magazine. She intends on pursuing her MFA in Fiction next fall.

Savior

by Katy Van Sant

Rebecca sat in a folding chair from Big 5 on the banks of the Russian River, an hour north of San Francisco. She heard her phone ding and retrieved it from the drink holder in the armrest. Wow. She hadn’t thought about that night in over twenty years. She gazed out through the green water and splashing frolickers.  

Rebecca remembered Julia that night wading into the bay. She had taken off everything except her underwear and walked alone across the soft sand into the dark waters. Beautiful in the moonlight. Julia didn’t say anything before she walked into the bay. No let’s go for a swim, or who’s going in with me.

Julia’s favorite nephew who she had helped raise had been shot and killed only two months earlier. Rebecca had been observing her throughout the night as they celebrated another coworker’s birthday and she could see how she struggled to contain the pain that she was steeping in. The more she drank, the less she was able to hold it in. When a racist woman accused them of going after her boyfriend, Stay away from my man and go back to where you came from, Julia had cried, “No!” in a low, desperate voice as she stood up to go at the woman. It sounded like a plea to herself, trying to stop herself, but it also said not again, no more, why are you doing this to me? Rebecca and the others verbally backed her up, while they held her back physically. Then the woman said she had called the police and Rebecca’s group stumbled down to that little cove before they arrived.

Rebecca had taken off her clothes and gone in after Julia. Body hot and rosy white from the whiskey and adrenaline, she didn’t even feel the cold. As she entered the water she recalled how she’d learned to drag a body while swimming, hooking one arm under the armpit and around the shoulder. Would she be able to do it? She gave Julia her space, but she stayed ready.

Rebecca stared at the phone trying to think of how to reply and wondering what exactly Julia was trying to say. Not all had my back like you. Does that mean she really was going to try to drown herself in the bay? Because that’s what Rebecca had thought when she saw her walk in. She could still to this day see the image that came to her. Julia’s firm brown body drifting in the deep, surrounded by seahorses and sparkling coral, her long dark hair intertwined with streams of seaweed.

As she recalled that night, it dawned on Rebecca that that was when it had started with her step-son Alex. It was not long after that night, probably the Spring of the next year, that Rebecca saved Alex’s life for the first time.  She was doing the dishes and he was behind her, playing on the kitchen floor. Rebecca’s boyfriend Andres, later to become husband, had left her alone with his son Alex for the first time. It was an emergency. Alex’s mother was in the hospital and Andres had taken his older son to visit her. Alex, 3-years-old at the time, hadn’t been told why his father was gone, but she could tell that he sensed something was different. There was a very slight shift in his behavior. Kids don’t need to know the details. Not like adults, or at least, Rebecca, a self-admitted busybody, who had to know everything and everyone’s business.

That evening, as she picked up a spaghetti encrusted plate, an alertness came over her, transformed her. It was a sensation that filled her in the presence of danger. Rebecca turned around and Alex was looking at her, mouth opened. He made no sound, but his eyes said it all. Those damned marbles. His little windpipe had a marble lodged in it blocking it entirely. Rebecca could see it in her mind’s eye. She didn’t move fast or slow. Deliberately. It was like she was watching herself from above as she calmly walked over to him, got down on her knees, turned him around, slipped her arms around his torso, made a fist with her right hand and cupped it with her left. Silently count to three and quickly push in and upward. Pop! The marble shot out of his mouth, rolled across the hardwood floor and disappeared under the table.

Neither of them said anything for three seconds. Stunned. Rebecca started to come back into herself.

“Are you okay?” Alex only smiled. “That marble was in your windpipe, blocking your throat so you couldn’t breathe.” He kept smiling, which was something she was used to by now. Alex had a speech and language disorder and often didn’t know what to say, or how to say it, or what was being asked of him. At three, he only had a few words. As he got older the sentences that would come out of his mouth were often incomprehensible, even to Andres and Rebecca. One of his coping mechanisms was simply to smile. It could be infuriating, but at this moment, relief at seeing that familiar smile rushed over Rebecca as she started to comprehend that he could have died, had she not been close-by and known what to do. She turned away, faced the sink again, so he wouldn’t see her cry. But she knew he knew. Alex may have had difficulty with words, but from a very young age, his powers of perception when it came to feelings and moods were another matter. If she was getting upset, maybe during a conversation with his dad, Alex would catch it before Rebecca herself even realized how her mood was shifting and Alex would interrupt and, once he learned to talk, he would try to steer the conversation in a different direction. He often amazed her.

After that Rebecca saved Alex’ life a total of thirteen times. It just kept happening. And each time it happened Rebecca always felt like he was the one saving her life. He was giving her something, offering her something, pushing her in some direction, but she couldn’t figure out where. As he got older, the life-saving became a joint effort. They were saving his life, doing it together. Or were they saving her life? There was the time they were swimming together in the Pacific Ocean in Baja. Suddenly the sand was no longer beneath her feet and Rebecca could feel the two of them being pulled out. Alex was only seven years old. Again, Rebecca was out of her body, felt another force take over. Was it him? Was it Alex himself?

“We have to swim as hard as we can towards the shore. Don’t stop. Use your arms and legs.” He said nothing and did exactly as she’d commanded. She swam behind him, giving him little pushes. When they made it to the beach they sat side by side, panting.

There was the time they were in the ocean in Rebecca’s brother’s inflatable canoe on a weekend they’d been camping on the Mendocino Coast. The waves were pounding and tossing the canoe closer and closer to the rocks. Again, they paddled together, strong and determined, sweating under the cold ocean spray until they reached safety. Each time she felt a deepening gratitude that she didn’t understand. Each time a well of mystery, of teaching, of life, of majesty opened wider and wider. She was swimming in it, searching for the meaning

There was the time he was running full-speed into a busy street and she scooped him up and they both fell over on the edge of the street as a car sped by. But most of the life-saving had involved water and breath. Drowning or suffocating. Rebecca connected it to his difficulty with speech, an attack on the passageway that made verbalization possible. To Rebecca language was life. She was not an animal person and could not connect with pets because they couldn’t speak. She needed to know, through words, what people thought and felt and she needed to express herself in that same way. What did it all these life-saving experiences mean? Why couldn’t someone just explain it to her? Why couldn’t she google it and read a few articles and easily understand what was happening?

As he grew into a young man his ability to converse, to express himself and to comprehend verbal meaning improved, but it never surpassed his other senses, not even close. After many struggling years of schooling full of frustrations and bittersweet triumphs, of self-educating and clumsy advocating for Alex, he was now in a good place, at peace with his life and his abilities. Working as a veterinarian’s assistant his skills not only with the animals, but with their owners were appreciated. Using very few words, he had a way of calming scared or nervous pet-owners. He lived at home with his father and Rebecca.

Rebecca sat in her beach chair staring out at the green waters of the Russian River. The beach was packed with city folk, awkward on the hot rocks and cold water, enjoying a summer weekend day away from foggy San Francisco. Alex and Lili were among them. Practicing the steps of an awkward, time-honored dance of new love. The text from Lili’s mom had come in fifteen minutes ago and Rebecca relived that night several times as she sipped her beer. What was Julia trying to tell her? Not all had my back like you. When nothing had happened that night, when she didn’t end up having to save Julia – talk her down or swim back to shore tugging her body behind her – she had assumed Julia never had any intention of drowning herself. She chalked it up to a crazy drunken night. But now, twenty years later, she wondered. Did I save her life? Is that what she’s saying? The emotion that came up was pride at the thought of saving Julia’s life. Pride was uncomfortable, inappropriate. Shame. Rebecca felt shame at her pride, but at the same time an unstoppable desire to know. She wanted to know she’d saved Julia’s life. She wanted everything to fit together like a tidy puzzle where she came out the hero. She saved Julia that night in order to ensure that Lili would come into this world. Then she saved Alex over and over again so that in the end Lili and Alex would find each other. That’s what Rebecca wanted confirmation on. Wanting that felt bad, but so good. How to respond to the text in order to get the confirmation she craved.

Rebecca hit send and immediately hid the phone in the bottom of her snack basket, stood up from her beach chair in her slowed-down, middle-aged fashion, nothing like the young woman who’d bounded into the bay after her friend that long-ago night, and walked down to the water’s edge to cool off. She stood with her feet submerged and searched for her son and her friend’s daughter. For an instant she seized up. Was he drowning again? But then she spotted the two of them in the water together, chest high, bobbing slightly, in an embrace. She could feel the excitement of their fresh love. Loss washed over her, followed by a lonely liberation. He didn’t need her anymore. She slowly waded into the cool green water.

When she returned to her chair, she fished her phone out from the snack bag.


BIO

Katy Van Sant is an emerging writer and translator who has won prizes from Glimmer Train and The Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. She has been published in Months to Years Literary Journal and Strangers’ Guide Magazine. She has written two novels and is currently working on a book exploring the circumstances surrounding the murder of her grandfather. She lives with her partner and children in San Francisco, California. Find out more about Katy at Twitter or Facebook.

Death Rattle

by Kristen Roedel

 
“What do we do?”

I pried my eyes from the word jumble before me. I’d been jotting down the beginnings of words and crossing them out, one after the other. SINNEDCOAS. SIN. CANDIES. SON. DEACON. DIES. SEDAN. ASCENDS.

Strangled chirping pierced the dead-quiet from the peach tree, whose lushly-leafed branches scraped against the siding and tapped on the windowpanes. The young sun beat in onto the fanned-out stack of brightly-colored bills, which clamored for attention like flyers on a telephone pole. Flecks of orange jittered in Annabel’s weary, marbled beryl eyes as she dragged a well-gnawed fingertip along the yo-yoing balance column in the checkbook from a few thousand to a number that read the same from both sides.

Pink was most urgent and typically largest. Pay off one, and we’d be set for a while. But that same money could be used to knock out a blue and a yellow—sometimes two. But the credit card companies weren’t as kind.

“How much after the house?”

She shook her head, laying out three pinks atop the pile like tarot cards. When I reached to brush a dark curl from her cheek, she leaned away. “We can’t afford this—”

“I don’t care what it costs,” I murmured.

She picked up the bottle of Sertraline sitting before her and rattled its sparse contents. She popped the cap and stared down its barrel. Then she took the other—Clomid—and downed two. Her almond-shaped nails began plucking at the skin between her trembling fingers. Her lips parted, but they pressed back together in a pensive line when she met my eyes. In all the years we’d been together, she cried bitterly, swore profusely, laughed recklessly, spoke articulately, and argued indignantly, but her eloquence had slowly bottlenecked in the last year. Thoughts died in her mouth as her lips tried and failed to form the words, though I saw them churning in her chest, like acid eroding her throat and tongue. Tears assaulted the bills she was hunched over.

The sun shifted, bouncing off the sunflower-shaped mirror in the hall and stabbing a blinding pain into the back of my skull.

“I get up, I go to work, I teach other people’s kids—” she rasped. “I care for them, love them—” Scorn flared and melted into sadness as she goggled over my shoulder.

“Bel—” I’d downed my last gulp of coffee minutes ago, yet it threatened to spew as if I’d barely swallowed.

“What if it’s too late?”

“We still have time.”

“But I need a break.”

Shamefaced, I watched her rake her hands back through her disobedient curls. The color drained from her face and pooled in her neck and chest.

“Okay,” I croaked.

After a protracted silence, she excused herself. She materialized shortly after to kiss the crown of my head and rain tears down into my hair before slipping out the front door.

* * *

“We got a live one!” Diego grunted, wheeling a tented gurney. He was a man of average stature and agile frame with a thick crop of dark hair, a round jaw, and a youthful face. “Christ, this guy redefines ‘dead weight.’”

The basement of Morgan & Sons was no more than a white-walled frigid cell equipped with an arsenal of steel instruments and bottled chemicals arranged atop shoddy, piss-colored cabinets. The fluorescents didn’t do the place any favors, especially not the dead. From the homey, though dated, upstairs, you’d never know such a cold, clinical place existed just below.

“Is that the bird guy?” My numbing gloved hands steadied over the blue-faced, thirty-something-year-old female before me.

“Yup.” He seemingly shrank when he suited up and secured his mask, concealing all but his big, dark eyes. “Nestor O’Daire, bird trainer extraordinaire. Heart attack.”

“The hell kind of name is Nestor?”

He shrugged, yanking the sheet from the body like a magician revealing the feat behind his velvety cloak. O’Daire was still relatively pink, and his keg-like gut protruded both upward and outward.

“EMTs said he had like a dozen birds on him. Neighbors complained about the smell.” Diego plucked what appeared to be flaky fried chicken skin from O’Daire’s dark, crusted-over mustache and flicked it into the trashcan at his feet. Stuffing his hand into the manila envelope sitting on the tray beside him, he extracted a gold chain from which two oblong medals hung.

“Who do we got?”

“St. Gall and . . .” He squinted. “St. Bernard of Arce?”

I hooked up my cadaver to drain about an hour ago, but she still looked like she was holding her breath under cold blue bathwater.

“Is that the two o’clock?”

“Yup.” I rolled my eyes when Diego began humming Neil Diamond’s “Desirée.”

“Life’s hard, and then you die.”

“Looks like she expedited the hard part,” I murmured, eyeballing the purple abrasions cinching her throat as I wedged cotton bridges beneath each eyelid. A quick referential glance to the photos her husband provided confirmed her eyes had always been a ghostly shade of blue. I hesitated to squeeze the thin line of adhesive that would close them for the last time. Although several rudimentary tasks remained on the horizon, the bruises kept drawing my attention.

“I can’t imagine being that unhappy,” Diego mumbled through his mask. He waited for me to secure mine before beginning to bathe the corpulent body as though it were some bigshot’s bird shit-spattered ’66 Shelby.

I held the curved needle of the injector gun beneath the right hinge of her jaw, brushing my other hand through her matted curls to hold her skull in place. Her lips parted slightly.

“I’ll be joining her if I don’t get a raise soon. I forgot how expensive babies are.”

“I thought you’d’a known that by now,” I huffed out.

“I must block it out after each kid, ‘cause Vanessa keeps poppin’ ‘em out.”

“Yeah, and you’ve got nothing to do with that.”

Diego’s crow’s feet rippled and dissipated.

I squeezed the trigger, coaxing a scratching, tinny cacophony from the skull in my palm, and gingerly plucked the suture that emerged from the roof of her mouth. After a second piercing scrape, I knotted the strings between her lips and massaged them closed. I lifted the photo from the cold metal tray—big eyes and long lashes, relaxed brow, a pinched bridge that gave way to the rounded tip of her nose, a soft dipping chin, smile lines echoing some long-forgotten joy.

A high-pitched squeak reverberated in the vicinity.

“On second thought, maybe it was St. Bonaventure,” Diego mused.

* * *

I hustled all afternoon so I could get home before Anna. Returning to the kitchen table, I sat in her spot to watch the entryway. A grumbling school bus flew past our house, and I heard the subsequent chattering of homebound children. Her keys would typically jangle in the door shortly after. But they didn’t. The hours droned on, punctuated by the round-faced cherry grandfather clock that had sat in my grandparents’ and parents’ houses for over six decades.

Knowing no other way to pass the time, I approached its towering presence in the foyer. Its pearl faceplate was inlaid with gold Roman numerals and marked by scrolled wrought-iron hands. It lacked a moon dial and many of the embellishments of more expensive clocks, but its round-topped overlay, long framing columns, beveled glass, and scalloped toe molding made for a distinguished aura. Its engraved long golden weights hung like tree ornaments, and its intricately-chiseled pendulum bore the moon phases. When the sun swung across the sky and shone through the front windows, the numbers glistened and the pendulum beamed, projecting an oscillating golden orb along the staircase.

I peered into the access panel at its crawling network of gears and chains. Its insides smelled distinctly of my parents’ house—knotty pine, nutmeg, and my father’s pungent aftershave. I imagined it would one day smell like our home, too—freshly-cut flowers, cinnamon, and Anna’s musky floral perfume.

Soon I was sitting in the dark, twisting my wedding band on my clammy finger and fighting the urge to doze at the table. My stomach growled as I paced the kitchen and circumnavigated the first floor, routinely peering outside. I stopped to check the calendar on the counter—no conferences or faculty meetings. She wasn’t teaching at the local college, either. When the clock struck eight, I tried her cell, which rang several times before sending me to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me. Just wondering where you are. I love you.”

I’d tricked myself into thinking I heard her keys in the door so many times that when it actually opened, I didn’t look up, fixated on my spinning wedding band instead. She stood over me, and I shivered when she combed her slender icy fingers through my hair and trailed them down my neck and shoulders. I knew she was waiting for me to say something, but drinking in her intoxicating aroma, I groveled. Before I could utter a single word, she was already running the shower upstairs. I forced myself to stand and scale the stairs, though my head felt like a boulder and my pockets as though they were loaded with bricks. The hallway was dark. I tried the switch, but the bulb must have burned out—or we’d neglected to pay the electric bill. I followed the sliver of light emitting from beneath the door. I hadn’t expected the thick fog that engulfed me when I pushed it open. The shower hissed, and the pipes creaked more woefully than usual.

“Anna?” I coughed, squinting against the heavy air. My eyes stung as if the steam were smoke, and I stumbled through the thinning fog only to encounter a denser patch above our bed.

Floating through the haze toward the bathroom, the running water grew deafening, and my head began to pound. But it wasn’t just the shower—the tub and sink faucets poured, too, grumbling against the porcelain with such fervor that they started to overflow. I lunged for the tap when the bath gurgled and fizzed. A mangled raspberry mass rose to the surface, squirming and flopping like a fish plucked from a lake, though gangrenous like a slab of carrion whose syrupy, blackened excretions colonized the tub. It wobbled and pulsated, squeezing against itself until it imploded, exorcising white and green maggots from its blistering core.

“Neil?”

I spun around and stalked back into the room. A splintering of two-by-fours, a metallic jangle, and electrical crackling rattled me. The fog over our bed dissipated, revealing a thick, braided rope that had yanked the ceiling fan from the drywall under the weight of a pale pendulum with bulging, weepy greens, tangled tresses, contorted lips, and indigo bruises that blossomed in her neck and snaked down her arms and chest.

Anna lay flat on the cold metal slab that sat in place of our bed, and—to my horror—my hand reached for the scalpel. But her flesh wasn’t hard or blue, nor was her blood gummy. It gave easily—willingly—dripping rubies.

A piercing infantile cry rang out.

“What are you doing?” she rasped, her quivering hand failing to slow the slicing blade in mine. “I told you I needed a break.” Her torso split like a melon under pressure, spilling writhing pink guts that cradled an infant who howled into Anna’s womb as I attempted to extract and examine its slippery body—a boy.

“What are you doing?” Her nails dug into my forearm.

“I’m trying—”

But I kept losing my grip, and he kept slithering back inside, wailing with increasing alarm. His little, slimy outspread fingers groped for the folds of her perforated womb.

“Neil—stop! What are you doing?”

“He’s almost here—just hang in there—”

I gripped his small, slimy arms and finally rent him free, and wiping his shrieking, squirming form clean, I laid him on her chest.

“I need a break, I need a break,” she sobbed, her breasts beginning to express blood.

Anna clutched my shoulders when I jerked awake. I wiped my maw on the back of my hand and craned my neck to look at her. Dry, bemused eyes met mine. Her neck and chest blossomed like scattered poppies in a field. Something lingered on her features, though I struggled to decipher amusement from terror. I flexed my jaw, eyeing the puddle of drool I left behind.

“You’re home late.”

“Stopped by Dad’s.” I watched her throat quiver as she swallowed, passing her fingers through my hair.

My gaze softened, but the pang in my chest didn’t. “Have you eaten?”

She shook her head.

“Let’s go out.”

My heart pounded when she pursed her lips and squeezed my shoulders.

“Okay.”

Though we’d made a habit of choosing each other’s outfits on “date” nights, I felt like I was snooping through her belongings. I laid out her mother’s gold necklace, a pair of strappy heels, and her favorite emerald scoop-necked dress. I pondered the contents of the bed until I heard her in the hallway. Like a child searching for a last-minute hiding spot, I second-guessed myself and nearly missed the edge of the mattress as she walked in. I was surprised to see her still dressed, even pulling her cardigan more snuggly around her torso. Sizing up my selection, she hummed her approval and headed for the closet. She thumbed through my clothes for some time before I moved my lips to speak.

“No funeral clothes tonight,” she interjected. She pushed a black button-down and a pair of pants into my arms before heading into the bathroom with her outfit in tow, the door clicking closed behind her.

Acutely aware of her every movement, I stared into her vanity. I scrutinized my thin nose, which had been too severe in my lanky youth. My blue eyes were gray against my suit. My forehead was apparently growing now that my father’s hairline had begun manifesting on my scalp—at least it held its medium-brown color. I massaged my cheeks, tugging the skin taut with my cheekbones to watch the blood drain under pressure. My face had always been thin, but I looked especially gaunt. Had I been on my own table, I would’ve airbrushed some life back into my face. I felt stubble beginning to scrape to the surface when I rubbed my narrow chin. Dread pooled in my chest cavity as I waited, and I stood there for a while before I remembered I hadn’t yet changed.

I was neatening the knot of my tie when the bathroom door pushed open.

“Honey, could you . . . ?”

Her heels clicked across the hardwood floor, and she turned to eclipse me in the vanity. She swept her hair up and out of the way, the darker strands commingling with the lighter ones. She’d worn this dress a dozen times, but I still struggled to catch my breath. In spite of the forlorn frown that had occupied her features the last couple of years, her plump, heart-shaped lips pulled upward against her glowing skin. Her sweet bulbous nose twitched against her pinched cheeks, and her soft brow gathered, seemingly processing some set of suffocating worries. She clenched the slackened material against her chest, leaving the rest to flank her sides and expose the valley between her shoulders and the small of her back. As if waiting for permission, I pinched the base of the zipper until her inviting eyes met mine in the mirror. Her florid cheeks burned brighter the higher the zipper crawled along her spine. Such a favor once entailed its immediate retraction, twisted sheets, and second showers, but now she averted her eyes.

Her reflection frowned, and she turned to tug my tie loose and toss it onto the bed. “Lighten up,” she murmured, undoing a couple of buttons and straightening my collar before allowing the ghost of a simper to creep onto her lips.

Much of the drive to the restaurant was silent.

“How’s the weather for Saturday?”

“Heavy rain. It’ll be a good weekend to watch movies and catch up on sleep.” I glanced over, hoping to sneak in a smile. She looked the other way.

 “I can’t. I’m dropping my car at the mechanic, I have an appointment with Dr. Aditi, and I wanted to talk to the bank about that loan.”

“I thought the appointment wasn’t for another few weeks.” My eyes stung.

“They had an opening. Wanted to tell her in person.”

“Let me take you.”

“In the hearse?”

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding. “I’ll call out.”

“Neil—”

“I’ll ask D for a ride. Take my car.”

“Hasn’t he been having a hard time being punctual since the baby? The last thing we need is for Harry—”

“He’ll deal.” I gathered my lip between my teeth. “I wanted to go with you.” I looked over again as we crawled to a stop. She tempted her hands to bleed.

“You can’t miss more work,” she said, gnawing on her thumb.

“Let’s just forget that crook.”

“You think he’s screwing us?”

“We’ve paid for at least a full year of college for one of his kids. He’s just replacing all the parts I’ve already replaced and killing us on the labor when he knows there’s nothing he can do.”

I’d thrown the car into park when I noticed her brimming eyes fixed just outside our car. Having scored a relatively close spot to the restaurant, I’d also secured us front-row seats to the show unfolding on the sidewalk. A red-faced balding man held open the door. First darted out a teetering child. Then a double stroller carrying identical wailing toddlers emerged, pushed by a radiant and heftily pregnant woman. But her luminescence dimmed as she hollered after the child who barreled toward the parking lot, and then at her husband, who’d been slow to chase him. As the man dove between our car and the next, she parked her stroller in front of us to pop pacifiers into the babies’ mouths and coo half-heartedly at them. Like a PSA for birth control, he returned with the kicking and screaming child bent over his shoulder and yelled something nasty about being “done” as he buckled the flailing boy into the back of the car parked beside us and slammed the door.

Anna dropped her purse at her feet and sank back into her seat.

* * *

My blaring cell phone woke me. Parched and sweating out of a deep sleep, I groggily fumbled for it, doing a double-take when I spied Anna’s shadowy silhouette partially swathed in our crimson sheets. Her arms were tossed over her head, lips slightly parted, and her unkempt tresses fanned themselves out on the pillow. I stumbled out of bed and into the hall to answer it. Harry. I had a body to pick up.

My mind remained in the other room as I scrubbed yesterday from my skin, fighting off the bilious nausea induced by a long-empty gut. Though I was careful not to make much noise dressing in the dark, I hoped she’d stir, even for a moment, so I could kiss her goodbye. I tiptoed to her side, eclipsing her in the moonlight, and reached to brush a tress from her eyes. But I stopped myself, not wanting to wake her from what appeared to be a long-overdue restful slumber.

Having left home long before dawn could melt winter’s final frost, which killed the tulips along our front walk, I spent the day hopping from one refrigerated cell to the next. I didn’t see the sun until I emerged from the embalming chamber later that afternoon. The wooly air from the car vents scratched my lungs and stabbed my thawing limbs, eventually reawakening the part of my brain that continually projected Anna’s dejected stare. I’d willed it away, knowing I couldn’t do anything about it until lunch. But when the Umbertos came in to discuss the body I’d retrieved that morning, and neither Harry nor Diego could cover for me, I was forced to put her off again. When I finally escaped, she’d already gone back to teaching and couldn’t take my call. Now, the apparition sprung forth with such urgency that I floored it the rest of the way, intent on beating her home with a bouquet of whatever managed to survive the night.

Checking the clock on the dash, I gunned it up the driveway, hurdled through the front door, and wove my way in and out of each room, calling out to her. Wondering if she’d already made her way upstairs, I arranged the flowers into the elegant Lenox vase we’d received as a wedding gift—ivory and adorned with daisies in relief—and brought them with me to scope out the rest of the house. I couldn’t find her, but I did find a notecard standing on her vanity.

I love you. — A

My fist constricted around the neck of the vase until it cracked in my palm, cleaving into large, bloody wedges that clobbered the fallen tulips in their wake.


BIO

Kristen Roedel is an American literature PhD student at Stony Brook University and creative writing professor at St. Joseph’s College. She maintains her sanity by doing more reading and writing in her off-time. She awaits the day when her students will be able to highlight her work and scribble “SHOW, DON’T TELL” in the margins. She lives on Long Island with her fiancée.

www.KristenRoedel.com

Cabbage Night

by T.B. Grennan


            The signs started popping up a few days after the compromise. Hard white cardboard twenty inches by twelve, supported by thin metal legs and bearing the words TAKE BACK VERMONT in plain, pine green letters. At first, there were only a handful, and though I asked around, nobody seemed quite sure what the slogan meant. Even the people who put them up wouldn’t say; if you pushed, they’d frown and look at their feet and mumble something about morality or big government.

            That summer, right around the time that the first civil unions were performed, the Vermont Republican party chose a woman named Ruth Dwyer as its candidate for governor. She accepted the nomination with a TAKE BACK VERMONT button pinned to her blazer, vowing that she’d find a way to turn back the clock, state supreme court be damned.

            And just like that, she was six points behind the incumbent. Six points and closing.

            The slogan started showing up on t-shirts and bumper stickers, on posters and cheaply-made baseball caps. Driving east on Route 15, you could see it written in three-foot-high letters beneath a mural of Governor Dean being lynched by a mob of torch-bearing voters that someone had painted on the side of a barn.

           By fall, every homophobe in my town had a sign on their lawn.

* * *

            Our anniversary fell on the last Monday in October and, to celebrate, we decided to go on our very first double date.

            That fall, Hannah and I were both seniors and had conspired to share an end-of-school free period, even though it meant gym class first period (me) and physics with the famously lecherous Mr. Phillips (Hannah). And every afternoon, we would race down the unpaved length of Plains Road in Hannah’s car, hands clasped, faces hot. Passing sign after sign after sign and trying to ignore them, what they stood for. All that hate and rage and fear. Looking past them, to the joys of Hannah’s second-story bedroom, her wailing boxspring.

            And when Hannah gasped and shivered and climbed off my face, that was it. I could let go. Surrender. Knees bent to my chest. Wrists bound with one of her father’s neckties. Hannah’s fingers traced circles on my hips, her cheek sliding along the inside of my thigh. I wiggled back against her, begging in a husky whisper. Her hands spreading me wider, her tongue slipping somewhere new. And then, just then, as I trembled right on the very edge, I heard it: the cruel bleat of Hannah’s private line.

            She took the call. “Oh, hey, Cullen,” Hannah said, plopping down on the edge of her mattress. “What? No, I’m not busy.” She gave me a salacious wink, then stepped out into the hall to talk, the phone cord shut piano-wire tight in the door. I lay there, staring at the damp oval she’d left on the sheet. Telling myself that she’d be right back, that she wouldn’t leave me like this. Not on our special day.

            Hannah had been trying to find her best friend Cullen a boyfriend since middle school. When I started hanging out with Paul, a thin, nervous junior in my third-period photo class, she had insisted on setting the boys up, certain that they would hit it off. I wasn’t so sure. “Oh, what do you know, Sonia?” Hannah teased. “You thought you were straight—for years!” Hannah had realized she was gay at the age of eight, when she’d found herself entranced by Tanya Mousekewitz in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. I was a lesbian out of loneliness and political solidarity, though I hadn’t quite realized it yet.

            When the bedroom door finally squeaked open, I was on my hands and knees, searching for my underwear in a pile of textbooks and glossy college brochures. “Hurry up, slowpoke,” Hannah said, leaning down to kiss the corner of my mouth, then stepping down the hall toward the bathroom. “We’re picking up the boys in ten minutes.”

            “So,” I asked, coating my hands with persimmon-scented bar soap, “what’s the plan for tonight?”

            Hannah stopped brushing her tongue and shot me a self-satisfied look. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said, trying to act coquettish with a mouthful of toothpaste.

* * *

            Outside, it was just beginning to get dark. Hannah’s VW was parked haphazardly by an old stone wall, a reminder of the afternoon’s haste. And as we approached, Hannah tossed me the keys. “Do you mind?” she asked, then climbed into the passenger seat without waiting for an answer.

            Cullen was waiting on the high school’s front lawn, sitting quietly under a dying sapling. Dressed in a brown crushed-velvet jacket, his signature bowler pulled down over his eyes. Paul was standing on his screened-in porch when the three of us pulled in. He waved awkwardly, hair still wet from the shower. And as I slowly backed down Paul’s long, curving driveway, dodging potholes and bold squirrels and his little brother’s action figures, Hannah began laying out the evening ahead.

             We would take a drive. Halloween was tomorrow, the election a week after that. None of us were old enough to vote, but we could still do our part. Tonight was Cabbage Night. Our classmates would be out in force, crushing pumpkins with baseball bats and pulling down mailboxes. They would obscure our actions. We’d cruise around town with our windows down, grabbing every sign we saw. Maybe we couldn’t get them all. But we could get enough.

            “And then what?” Paul asked, pulling his seatbelt tighter. “What do we do with all those signs?”

            “Then,” Cullen said with a grin, lifting a chrome canister of lighter fluid from his jacket pocket, “we have ourselves a little Dwyer fire.”

* * *

            The first time I met Cullen, I thought—somehow—that he was Hannah’s boyfriend. We were waiting on his freezing doorstep when he suddenly burst forth. And all I could do was stare, overcome. His purple faux-fur bathrobe. His cat’s-eye reading glasses. (“The doctor says I only need them for watching soap operas.”) His highball glass of chocolate milk.

            He led us inside, a host’s arm around my shoulders, calling me “Sara” and “Sandra” and “Sally” with a smile that made it hard to tell if he was joking. From an armchair, I watched the two of them reenact the minute-long promo for the series premiere of Dawson’s Creek; Cullen did all the girls’ parts in a note-true falsetto, while Hannah growled her way enthusiastically through the boys.

            I was jealous. Of their closeness, of their thoughtless, two-person ease. Well, I thought diplomatically, as they cuddled in front of the TV, that’s love. And was startled the next day when Hannah hooted at my mention of her boyfriend. Not that Cullen wasn’t my rival. He was. But it wasn’t much of a contest. I tried to count my blessings, to tell myself it wasn’t so bad being someone’s second-best friend.

            And then a miracle happened. Cullen greeted us one Dawson’s Tuesday in a red-and-cream private school uniform that clung to him like paint. “You are aware,” Hannah asked sharply as Cullen happily walked us through the brochure, all those classes and quadrangles and somber little chapels, “that this isn’t an all-boys school, right?” Cullen shook his head and insisted that it was, refusing to see the girl in the background of the cover photo no matter how many times Hannah pointed.

            The two of them drifted apart. Hannah complained that he never called, that all he talked about was his stupid new school and stupid new friends. A year later, he was back, having either failed scripture (his story) or been caught blowing the choirmaster (which was what everybody else said). But by then, I’d taken his place. Maybe I didn’t have his sharp charm, his history with Hannah, but I’d slowly realized I had something else, something he just couldn’t compete with.

            A second X-chromosome.

* * *

            I piloted the VW down Packard, aware we’d started too early, that there were still too many cars on the road. Grownups commuting home from the hospital, from downtown and IBM. Teenagers trickling back from friends’ houses and secluded fields. I turned down a side road, knowing we needed somewhere dark and quiet.

            In the passenger seat, Cullen was showing off. Rubbing his hands together. Bragging about his unparalleled gift for roadside theft, honed, he said, by years of pre-Halloween mischief.

            “Your parents must be so proud,” Paul said.

            “You’re skeptical. I understand,” Cullen told him, as a breeze blew pine needles across the windshield. “Well, I’ll show you. Driver!” he shouted, one arm extended. “To your right!”

            And there it was: a lone sign, poised on the edge of a darkened lawn. I slowed the car, veering gently toward the grass. Cullen sighed at this condescension, then reached suddenly out the open window, sweeping the sign out of the dirt and into his arms in a single fluid motion.

            Hannah clapped excitedly. Then glanced over at Paul, her eyes suggesting that really he should be clapping, too. Paul frowned and mustered a few seconds of half-hearted applause. Gazing ahead, I had a sudden flash of the anniversary I would be having if I were dating a boy—the cloth-napkin dinner two towns over, the fumbling words of affection, the necklace his sister helped him pick out at Claire’s. The forceful kiss and lingering hug, his heart thumping against my ear.

            “You are gay, aren’t you?” Cullen asked Paul suddenly, sounding hurt. “This isn’t one of those situations where Sonia found out you were a great fan of bodybuilding or modern opera and just assumed, is it?”

            Paul shook his head and quietly affirmed that, yes, he was gay.

            Cullen smiled. “Wonderful! I don’t know if you’re aware, but I happen to be gay myself.”

            I giggled softly.

            Cullen was the closest thing Mount Mansfield had to an openly gay student; he’d never come out officially, but the Burlington Free Press had run a photograph of his top-hat-and-rhinestone-codpiece ensemble at last year’s Pride Parade that had effectively settled the issue. Paul, on the other hand, had only recently mustered the courage to confide in me about his sexuality over a bulky black photo enlarger—and I had every reason to think this was his first time out with another boy.

            Up ahead—draped in store-bought cobwebs, nuzzled next to a pink flamingo with drawn-on fangs—was another sign, this one on Paul’s side of the car. I caught his eyes in the rearview; he nodded. The car slid across the far lane. Paul swallowed hard and went for it, his whole upper body disappearing out the window, arms swinging wildly.

            He got it on the next pass.

            We drove on, the streets ahead growing empty. Cullen gave instruction on the finer points of sign-grabbing (“It’s like paddling a canoe—pull and lift, pull and lift. Easy!”) while Paul frowned and nodded. Next to him, Hannah worked frantically, grabbing all the signs Cullen was too preoccupied to notice. By the time we rounded the hairpin curve at the center of Pinehurst and returned to Packard, the pile on the backseat had begun to flow onto the floor.

            We were pulling into Jericho East when Cullen suggested that we split up. He and Hannah would case the yards near Route 15 while Paul and I drove around the development’s far edge. We’d meet at the veterinary hospital in fifteen minutes. I asked if he was sure, if he wouldn’t rather pair up with Paul. And Cullen said in a stage whisper that he was counting on me to talk him up.

            “Oh,” I said. “Got it.”

            As Cullen preened in the headlights and stretched his calves, Hannah leaned through my open window and stroked my hair. “Are you doing all right?” she asked. I was sticking to the crotch of my underwear and when Paul left to shift the pile of signs from backseat to trunk, I said as much. “You’re welcome,” she said flirtatiously, then kissed me quick.

            “Have you two been dating long?” Paul asked as Cullen and Hannah dropped out of sight behind us.

            “I guess so,” I said, still seething.

            Paul nodded. Tried again: “So, Hannah seems nice.”

            “Well,” I told him, as we sped over cracked pavement, “she can be.”

            We rode on in silence. Paul leaned his head out the passenger window and as I watched the wind blow the ash-blond bangs from his forehead, I wondered what he really thought of Cullen. When things eventually fell apart between the two boys, I wasn’t surprised—but right then, I caught myself wishing that the match would stick, if only so Paul wouldn’t make it kiss-less to seventeen.

            “Does your mom know?” Paul asked as Route 15 rose in the distance.

            I nodded. “Our apartment’s too small to keep secrets.”

            “And she’s okay with it?”

            I pictured the bible my mother had pressed on Hannah after catching the two of us kissing, and then the matching bracelets she’d bought for our six-month anniversary. “More or less.”

            We idled for a while by the veterinary hospital before impatience got the best of me and I shifted back into gear. Hannah and Cullen were running side by side a few hundred yards back, happy as kids. He plucked signs from the nearby lawns, piling them in Hannah’s arms until the stack grew so high that she couldn’t see, until she was laughing and cursing and swerving like the drunkest driver.

* * *

            The two of them had grown up together, part of a clique of rich, selfish children you’d always see clogging the hallways at school. Showing off Tamagotchis and Gameboys, talking about vacations to Aspen and Hilton Head. Snickering at lower-caste classmates as they walked miserably by. I saw Hannah and Cullen all the time back then, but they never stood out; there were a dozen other kids just like them.

            Then puberty came and everything changed. Hannah arrived at school one morning in a boy’s v-neck and cargo pants, flowing blonde locks chopped to spikes, and watched her friends scatter. Cullen returned from basketball practice with a black eye and declared that he was done with team sports, that there was something far nobler in the stride of the solitary runner.

            Sophomore year, I was Hannah’s lab partner. She was smart and sly and exceedingly lazy, so I ended up doing all the actual work, which was nothing new for me. The strange thing was how much Hannah seemed to appreciate it. Thank-yous became hugs in the hallway, became deep, quiet conversations about her life, about mine. When we were together, I felt alternately dazed and annoyed by her gale-force personality, by the way she teased and mentored me. I’d never had a friend like her. But then I’d never really had a friend.

* * *

            We were leaving Jericho East, signs stowed away in the trunk, when Hannah gasped and swore and squeezed my arm. I glanced up, startled, and watched in the rearview mirror as a police car slid out of a nearby driveway, its headlights dim. I’d never been pulled over before and just the thought of it—the blinding glare of the police flashlight, my hands sifting desperately through Hannah’s disastrous glove compartment—sent a terrified shiver down my back.

            “What should I do?” I whispered.

            “How should I know?” Hannah whispered back. “Slow down?”

            The cruiser followed us out of Jericho East, down Packard, and onto Route 15. Lights still low, always at least two full car-lengths behind. I drove a mile under the speed limit the whole way, foot trembling on the gas. We were turning onto Cilley Hill Road when Paul cleared his throat: “I have a thought.”

            “Really?” Hannah said, skeptical.

            “Really?” Cullen said, intrigued.

            Paul pointed out a darkened driveway up ahead. “Turn in there.” Then, off my nervous look: “Trust me. This is going to work.”

            I nodded. Put on my blinker. Slowly turned the wheel. Then rolled to a stop at the back of the gravel drive, next to a sailboat draped in a vinyl sheet. The police car slowed but didn’t stop, and a moment later it had passed us and continued on out of sight.

            Cullen clapped Paul on the shoulder. “Quick thinking!”

            Their eyes met. Paul took a long, slow breath. Cullen just stared, like he was waiting for something. A motion. A signal. Hannah looked over, confused, and asked if they were both all right. Embarrassed, Cullen pulled his hand back and said, “Fine, fine,” blaming everything on static electricity. Paul just nodded, his mouth tight.

            I’d seen that exact expression once before, in a picture of me taken at my first—and only—high school party. The photo was snapped just moments before I expelled a tar-black stomachful of Midori and half-digested Oreos behind the coat tree in the Bryants’ mudroom, my features marked by that classically adolescent mixture of queasiness and elation.

* * *

            The signs were thick on Cilley Hill. We rolled on, passing four-bedroom mock-farmhouses and pastures that housed cows or sheep or alpacas. I drove in diagonals, swooping gently from one side of the road to the other, allowing Hannah and Cullen to pick the yards clean.

            Then I turned onto Hanley Lane. The two roads were almost parallel, but where Cilley Hill carved through farmland, Hanley Lane ran deep into the woods. The street was a wreck—it was clear that we weren’t the night’s first teenage carload. Decapitated mailboxes. Pumpkins stuffed with trash. A raised ranch garlanded with toilet paper. A walkway stripped of its stones.

            Something was going on with Cullen. He was gazing shyly at Paul, his expression borderline thoughtful—though every time I caught his eye, he’d pretend to be fixing his part or adjusting the placement of his bowler. Paul, on the other hand, just stared out the window, oblivious.

            “This street is so tiny,” Hannah said, squinting into the dark.

            “It used to be a logging road,” I told her, unsure the moment after I said it whether that was true.

* * *

            We entered Griswold at a crawl, stuck behind a puttering station wagon with a TAKE BACK VERMONT sticker on its back window. The development and its procession of 1960s bungalows surrounded the whole eastern edge of the elementary school, connected here and there via unofficial footpaths cut by two generations of children. And as we rounded the road’s first big curve, I glanced through a gap in the towering oaks to the school’s quiet playground and empty parking lot, to the cluster of one-blueprint, Reagan-era homes lying just beyond.

            To Sunnyview, Griswold’s fraternal twin.

            When I was little, I’d envied the kids in these developments, so close to the monkey bars and to each other. The apartment building where I lived with my mother had no other children, just retired couples and divorced men slinking into middle age. I begged and begged my mother to move closer to school, too young to understand why we lived in three small rooms when other families had whole houses.

* * *

            “It’s too quiet,” Hannah said as we drove past the darkened high school, her nose pressed against the glass. “Isn’t it really quiet tonight?”

            “Well,” Paul offered, “Jericho’s usually pretty quiet.”

            Hannah scrunched her nose. “I meant,” she clarified archly, “that it’s quiet for Cabbage Night. Didn’t someone set a treehouse on fire last year?”

            Cullen said that it was still early, that he and his brothers had always waited until midnight to begin their reign of terror. Which led Hannah to pick an exhausting fight about whether Cabbage Night was still technically Cabbage Night after 11:59 p.m.; at one point, she attempted to coin the name “Cabbage Morning,” to Cullen’s hooting disdain.

            While they argued, I felt a gentle tap on the shoulder. I turned my head toward Paul, trying to look as apologetic as I felt. “Up there,” he said, pointing ahead, to where a sign blazed white in our high-beams.

            The car slid left, crossing double lines. Cullen and Hannah looked up, startled, as Paul reached out the window, his hand dipping low, the sign seeming to rise into his fingers. He fell back into his seat, breathing hard, the white cardboard pulled against his chest. “You know,” he said, thoughtfully, “it really is kind of like paddling a canoe.”

            Cullen beamed. “Right?”

            And then Hannah turned her head, blinked twice, and ruined everything. “Throw it back,” she said. Paul looked at her, confused, then down at the sign. It was the right size, the right shape. But the words were all wrong: ELECT BUSH/CHENEY. “Come on,” Hannah hissed, impatient. “Ditch it. That’s somebody else’s problem.” Paul sighed. Then, looking a little sad, he slid the sign back through the open window and let go, watching as it blew out of sight behind us.

            “So,” I said when the silence finally got to be too much, “where to?” Clark’s Truck Center rose slowly on our left—its rows and rows of vehicles, its endless lawn, its massive digital sign blinking CLARKS TRK CNTR and 61°F and 8:51PM. Hannah looked at me, considering. Then pointed left. Toward Mountain High Pizza Pie. Jericho’s finest restaurant. Jericho’s only restaurant.

            Oh, I thought, touched. She remembered.

* * *

            It was a year ago, right here in the parking lot. A year ago exactly.

            Just a kiss, a moment’s boldness on the way out of the car, one hand on the door handle, the other trapped suddenly beneath hers. I’d never thought about girls before, not like that. Not until Hannah confessed how she was and what she liked. But it wasn’t so hard to imagine once I put my mind to it. I’d seen people kissing. You could do that, I thought. And it was true—I could. I did.

            But Hannah hadn’t been content with a peck, a few panting moments, a hand slid into my dingy bra. She called me her girlfriend. Girlfriend. Me. I wondered what people at school would think—but then, it wasn’t like they’d ever thought anything nice. So I said it back and a kiss became a week, became a month, became a frantic moon-lit encounter in her car’s backseat. Became a year, which was decades in high-school time. Eons.

            I got used to it. Her arm around my waist when no one could see, the wet kisses behind my ear. And, sure, it was boys I pictured when my mind wandered, when I had the shower nozzle angled just so, but what did that mean, anyway? It was habit, just habit. I was happy. We were happy. And I was naive enough then to think that was all that mattered.

* * *

            Inside Mountain High, they called our number. Hannah shot up, grumbling under her breath about the wait time as she raced toward the counter. I was staring after her—already picturing my first slice, the red-yellow grease dripping down my fingers—when I caught sight of Tom Bloom, all-state lacrosse and my eight-day sixth-grade boyfriend. He was hidden away by the ovens, wearing a red apron and tight jeans, his forehead dappled with sweat you could almost taste.

            He didn’t return my wave.

            Hannah turned away from the counter, carrying our pizza, and crashed right into a well-dressed man with a little girl wrapped around his leg. His name was Trevor Bissell; he was running for the Vermont State Senate as a Republican. I recognized his thin, hard face from pamphlets I’d seen in my mother’s trash. His daughter wore a bright green dress and looked to be about four.

            The pizza tray slammed into Hannah’s shoulder and struck Bissell square in the chest. She grunted in pain and fell backward; Bissell toppled sideways, his eyes wide, his arms swinging desperately in all directions. And in the instant before he reached out and caught himself on the counter, only his daughter’s presence kept me from hoping he would fall.

            The pizza somehow survived intact. Hannah and Bissell exchanged quick, heated apologies and went their separate ways. Back at our table, Paul and Cullen dug in while I dabbed at a spot of sauce on Hannah’s forehead with a balled-up napkin.

            Over by the counter, Bissell’s daughter—fully recovered from her big scare—started begging her father for bacon pizza and a chocolate creemee with rainbow sprinkles. Bissell teased his daughter, telling her that all sprinkles tasted the same. She violently shook her head. It was charming; I found myself a little charmed. But as Bissell lifted his daughter into his arms, I had a sudden flash of the signs we’d left in the back of Hannah’s car, a mass of damning evidence obscured only by Cullen’s tossed-aside coat.

            The newspaper headlines came with ease. Gay Vandals Indicted and AG Promises to ‘Make Example’ of Teens and, finally, Sonia Butler, 17, Knifed in Juvie.

            As I squirmed in my chair, imagining my mother’s tearful eulogy, Cullen turned to Paul and asked, “Say, are you having a good time?”

            Paul frowned and set down his slice on a grease-saturated paper plate. “You know what?” he said, finally. “I think I am.”

            I looked over at Hannah, expecting to see a triumphant grin. Instead, she nodded slowly in Bissell’s direction, her eyes bright with mischief. Then, before I could speak or shake my head or even frown, Hannah reached over and cupped my chin with her hands, her fingertips pressing gently against my throat. And as she leaned in to kiss me, I wondered if she could feel my pulse jump.

            That August, I’d worked myself into a frenzy over whether to come out at school. Wanting to be proud and strong, but terrified of the backlash, the whispering, of suspicious eyes in the girls’ locker room. Hannah had talked me down, reminding me we’d be gone in months, saying that it just wasn’t worth it. But now, if Tom happened to glance up, we’d be out.

            That was Hannah. Theft, not petitions. Spite, not activism.

            Hannah pressed her mouth hard against mine, overpowering me with a wet, one-sided kiss. Paul blushed and looked down. Cullen checked his watch. Tom slid another pizza into the oven. And over by the counter, Bissell reached down to cover his daughter’s eyes.

            We left quickly.

* * *

            On Hannah’s orders, we made our way toward Foothill.

Cabbage Night had rocked the neighborhood the previous year, with nearly every house losing something valuable: a $200 mailbox, a custom-cut picture window, an imported Belgian garden gnome. I expected to find Foothill in tatters—vandals, in my experience, delight in smashing expensive things—but everything there seemed strangely whole. I was in the middle of saying as much when the first egg hit Hannah’s car.

            It struck the windshield on the passenger side; if not for the glass, it would have landed square in Cullen’s lap. Hannah jumped at the impact, at the sound the shell made as it blew apart. I slammed on the brakes and even though we were only going fifteen miles per hour, the car fishtailed.

            Then the rain of projectiles began. Eggs struck the hood and roof. Wads of soaking toilet paper slammed one after another against the side of the car. My instinct was to flatten the gas pedal and race away, but our tormentors were too close and I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t hit someone.

            Paul and Hannah fumbled with their locks as I pressed my elbow against the horn and frantically rolled up my window. As the footfalls grew louder and the crowd closed in, I felt a brief, sickening flash of fear—was this a hate crime? (Then sense returned and I realized how very straight we must look, just two boy-girl couples out for a drive.)

            All around us, there were shouts and squawks and mocking laughter. Something struck the back window. Someone smacked the roof of the car with a large stick. Paul curled up in a ball, his seatbelt’s shoulder strap running diagonally across his back. It was only as the crowd began to shake the car that I noticed Cullen’s door was unlocked. “I want to see how this plays out,” he told me. (Even now, I’m not sure if he was joking.)

            “Ideas?” Hannah shouted as the car rocked up and down. “Anyone?”

* * *

            Today Hannah is happily married and lives down in Pittsfield. Our high school squabbles are mostly forgotten, and every year my boyfriend Eric and I go down to Massachusetts for Labor Day Weekend. Sometimes, late in the evening, the four of us will sit out on Hannah and Molly’s front porch with a six-pack and talk about Cabbage Night.

            “Thank God for those fucking cops,” Hannah always says, laughing, and the two of us are off, describing the battle-ready police unit stationed on Foothill, our nervous escape back to Route 15, the way Paul trembled in the rearview mirror. From there, Hannah always skips ahead, milking laughs out of the epic fight the two of us had while hosing off her car. And every time, I sit there, nursing my beer and thinking about everything she’s leaving out.

            When I remember that night, I picture myself stewing in the driver’s seat as Hannah and Cullen unload the signs onto the lawn of Clark’s Truck Center. Hannah leans against my window as the boys soak the pile with lighter fluid. Cullen sparks a match. Paul wraps a hand around the other boy’s neck and gives him a rough, lingering kiss. The match drops from Cullen’s fingers. The fire ignites.


BIO

T.B. Grennan was born in Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, and once read the entirety of Shirley Hazzard’s, The Transit of Venus, while stuck on a delayed plane. His writing has appeared in The Indiana Review, The Seventh Wave, TIMBER, and “Spaces We Have Known,” an anthology of LGBT+ fiction.

Great Spirits

by Arun A.K.

1953 – Utori, a fictional town somewhere in Northern India 

Just like any other working day, the second Monday of August had been no different for Arvind Shukla. Seated in his office cabin, he was typing the significant events of the day on his Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter. Ever since he set up his small publishing house in the town of Utori, he never had to venture out to find news. A few phone calls and the stories to be published on the following day would be fed to him. Arvind’s daily publication ‘Sacch Vijayi’ (Truth Wins) was the sole source of news for the inhabitants of Utori and all latest developments of the town used to find their way in his stories. Whatever good that happened in Utori was reflected in his dailies and surprisingly there would be no trace of negative news; be it-crime or corruption. Reading Arvind’s dailies gave the impression that Utori was no less than a Utopia!

But, the reality was different. Utori was a living hell. The once bustling and lively town had been turned into a silent graveyard where people moved around like corpses. Fear could be felt in every street corner and an air of gloom seemed to engulf the town at all times. For many years, Utori had been under the terrorizing reigns of Gajraj Singh – a politician-don who ruled supreme with an iron fist. Singh’s goons used to wreak havoc in the town on a whim and ‘hafta vasooli’ (extortion) had become an accepted norm which no one dared to challenge. Any occasional dissenting voice was silenced mercilessly in public, reminding every one of the grave consequences of rebellion. The police and judiciary were in Singh’s pockets and so was Arvind. All the notorious shenanigans of Gajraj Singh had to be overlooked by ‘Sacch Vijayi’. 

Extortion was more of an arm-twisting tactic for Singh than a money minting tool. For usurping wealth, he had partnered with Balwant Thakur – an industrialist who was also the business tycoon of Utori. With the help of Singh’s muscle men, Thakur had seized control over most of the major businesses in the region: construction, roads, transport, liquor stores, hotels, gambling dens, brothels, etc. Needless to say, the entire political funding for Singh was taken care of by Thakur. Together, they ruled over Utori, both financially and autocratically. Due to their monopoly, they dictated the prices of products and services in the marketplace and the inhabitants of Utori had no option but to pay exorbitant prices for procuring even essential commodities. Only those in powerful and influential positions along with the gang-members of Singh-Thakur enjoyed certain perks and privileges. The common man of Utter was ill-fated to endure suffering.

As most businesses were controlled by Thakur, most citizens had no other recourse but to work for him. They were overworked and underpaid. With sky-high prices for everything and lower wages, the citizens were bleeding money and most of them were forced to mortgage their assets to Thakur and his associates. Eventually, the majority of the population became bonded laborers for Thakur and Singh. Utori had turned into a dystopian society with no citizen having any free will. And, Arvind’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ functioned more like an advertorial for Thakur and Singh, rather than an unbiased publication. Only stories, bragging about the development brought in by Thakur’s businesses and pseudo-political/social services made by Singh used to feature in ‘Sacch Vijayi’.

One of the stories being typed on the second Monday of August by Arvind was about the latest pub soon to be launched by Balwant Thakur called ‘Great Spirits’. It would be located in the plush hotel ‘Golden Pride’ run by Thakur which was flocked by his and Singh’s close associates. Top police officials and judges were regular sights at the hotel’s casinos. ‘Golden Pride’ was an exclusive den open only to the coterie of Singh and Thakur. Details about the pub had been shared with Arvind by Thakur’s secretary over the phone, earlier in the day. It was going to be the premium most pub in Utori selling the finest quality alcohol, customized by a middle-aged professional named Manish Kumar. A couple of weeks back, in a meeting with Balwant Thakur, Manish Kumar had impressed him with his sound knowledge and expertise in liquor blending. Thakur quickly bought into Kumar’s idea of starting a pub offering customized blended alcohol.

Friday was slated to be the launch day of ‘Great Spirits’. On the previous night, Manish Kumar invited Balwant Thakur and Gajraj Singh over to his hotel room in ‘Golden Pride’. Thakur had arranged for Kumar’s stay at his hotel for the time he would be in Utori. The three of them discussed the itinerary of the launch event and how the business operations of ‘Great Spirits’ would be rolled out. Meanwhile, Kumar even wanted the two men to taste the customized whiskeys he had specially curated for both of them, separately. He offered Singh one variety and Thakur the other one. As for himself, Kumar was a teetotaler and never consumed alcohol. All three of them joked and laughed over the irony of the situation. The drinking session went on till late night before Thakur and Singh went crashing into their respective rooms at the hotel.

Friday evening had arrived. The launch event of ‘Great Spirits’ was going to commence in the largest hall of ‘Golden Pride’. Everyone close to Thakur and Singh was present there. The hall was packed with the most notorious and corrupt men of Utori. Arvind also had been invited to cover the event. After all, the next day’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition would have to be filled with pompous details of the event. Both Thakur and Singh were welcomed onto the stage with thunderous applause by everyone. They were seated on the stage facing everyone. After a brief introduction about ‘Great Spirits’ by the compere, Thakur was invited over to the dais to share his thoughts. What followed thereafter was a shocker for everyone present in the hall. Out of the blue, Thakur started talking about the teachings of Gautam Buddha and seeking a higher purpose in life rather than being consumed by material greed. He admitted that all his life he had been running after money but the time had come now for a transformation. Like Buddha, Thakur pledged to renounce all attachments and distribute everything he had to the citizens of Utori. He acknowledged that they had suffered for too long and it was high time that their pain and miseries came to an end. All his businesses and properties would be distributed among his employees and workers, before leaving Utori forever on a pilgrimage to seek salvation. The entire hall was left stunned.

It was Singh’s turn now to speak on the dais. For years, he had been the most terrorizing figure in Utori and everyone was expecting him to lash out at Thakur for his flabbergasting volte-face. To everyone’s surprise, he began his speech by lauding Balwant Thakur on his recent transformation and congratulating him on choosing the righteous path. Then, Singh started advocating the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was hilarious to see the most violent and ruthless man of Utori preaching peace, dharma and non-violence as the way of life. Singh promised that law and order would be restored in Utori and going forward he would be indulging in philanthropic pursuits. Many in the audience were left in splits as they thought that this was some sort of a wicked joke pulled by Singh and Thakur. Some of them started joking that Singh and Thakur had been possessed by the great spirits of Gandhi and Buddha, respectively. 

Arvind was perplexed by this bizarre transformation that he had witnessed in the two ‘baahubalis’  (dons) of Utori. Even, he wasn’t sure if this was real or a prank. Things would become clear the next day on August 15. As part of India’s Independence Day celebrations, all employees of Balwant Thakur’s business ventures were called to their workplaces. Town-halls were announced at all workplaces and it was declared that the ownership of Thakur’s ventures would be distributed among employees and workers based on their grades and hierarchies. Work timings would be reduced to 8 hours from the previously grueling 12 hours and all the properties mortgaged by citizens would also be returned to them. Finally, after so many years of torment, the citizens of Utori had gained freedom from the clutches of bonded labour and slavery. Now, that control had been handed over to the citizens of Utori, the monopolistic regime was immediately replaced with a democratic and free market. The competition was open, resulting in prices of commodities and services decreasing drastically and with an increase in purchasing power, the people of Utori started prospering. The goons of ‘ahinsavaadi’ (non-violent) Gajraj Singh disappeared from the fore and no citizen faced harassment from the thugs, anymore. Extortion and other crimes vanished from the face of Utori. The town was now lively and vibrant without any trace of fear among its citizens. As for Arvind, just like before, even now his dailies covered all the positive developments of Utori and there would be no mention of any negative news in his publication. The only difference now was that the news in ‘Sacch Vijayi’ was completely in sync with the town’s reality. The truth was winning in Utori.

However, Arvind was yet to come to grips with what was happening in the town. He often wondered, what might have caused this sudden transformation in Balwant Thakur and Gajraj Singh. One fine afternoon, he received a call from the secretary of Balwant Thakur to inform him that Thakur had left Utori, on his spiritual journey. Just when he hung up the phone, it struck him that Thakur’s secretary had mentioned on the second Monday of August about a certain Manish Kumar being responsible for the idea of ‘Great Spirits’. But, who was this Manish Kumar and where was he, wondered Arvind. Nobody had seen him during the launch event of ‘Great Spirits’. 

Arvind immediately rushed to the ‘Golden Pride’ hotel where the ‘Great Spirits’ launch had taken place. The hotel was now owned by the citizens’ corporation body and the pub ‘Great Spirits’ had been permanently shut down after the dramatic launch event. All the liquor stores owned by Thakur and Singh had been shut down in Utori as the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi condemned the consumption of alcohol. Even, the gambling dens had been completely disbanded, and ‘Golden Pride’ was now a family centric hotel. On enquiring about Manish Kumar, the staff at the reception told Arvind that Kumar had been put up in the hotel for a week before the launch event but had checked out on the day of the launch. Nobody seemed to know about his whereabouts. One of the waiters recollected that on the night before the launch, Thakur and Singh were drinking in Kumar’s room till late night. Now that Thakur was no longer available in town, Arvind knew that the mystery about Manish Kumar could only be solved by meeting Gajraj Singh.

Arvind got into his vehicle and made his way to Singh’s residence. The imposing persona of Singh had been replaced by a soft demeanor who was now living a Gandhian way of life. He was now a genuine public-serving politician and had become completely involved in philanthropic deeds. Singh welcomed Arvind inside and offered him tea. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Arvind came straight to the point and enquired with Singh about Manish Kumar. Singh revealed that during the party at Kumar’s hotel suite, Kumar had offered Thakur and him some customized alcohol that had been blended with some unique spirits. Kumar had mentioned to them that he had learnt the art of blending spirits, before Independence from a British friend. On being asked about his current location, Singh seemed to have no clue. But, Singh recollected Manish Kumar telling him that he had visited Utori in the past, long back in 1948. “I believe he had come to visit his cousin for a few days,” said Singh. On hearing this, Arvind became completely numb and still. His head started spinning on realizing what was going on and it felt as if the ceiling had come crashing down on him. The past flashed right in front of his eyes.

Manish Kumar had come to Utori five years back on January 25, 1948, to meet his cousin who used to work in one of the factories of Balwant Thakur. In the coming few days, Kumar witnessed the plight of the town’s citizens and the excruciating working conditions, which enraged him tremendously. He would argue with his cousin that one must not bend down before the goons of Singh and Thakur. Even if one citizen refused to be subservient or pay ‘hafta’ to them, it could start a revolution. “Change can be brought about only through resistance,” said an idealistic Manish Kumar to his cousin. However, his practical and timid cousin requested him to be rational and not do anything risky in his absence. Kumar being a free-spirited person had never conformed or bowed down before anyone in his entire life. A staunch Gandhian, he lived by the ideals of the Father of the Nation. Not heeding his cousin’s advice, Kumar ventured out in public fearlessly while his cousin was at work. He was sipping tea in a nearby tea shop when he saw the dreaded goons of Gajraj Singh bulldoze their way into each store and bully everyone. When they entered the tea shop, the owner quietly kept a packet of money on the table as a customary practice. Just when the goons were leaving the shop with the packet, Manish Kumar exclaimed to the owner that he should not get intimidated by these thugs and must stop giving ‘hafta’ to them. On hearing this, the goons turned back and aggressively barged at Kumar. They told him to apologize and threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t comply. But he refused to apologize even once. After the final defiance, he was dragged out in public and the goons started mercilessly assaulting him. A huge crowd gathered immediately and they witnessed in silence the barbarism unleashed by the goons. Kumar put up a brave fight against the gang of five thugs but they were too strong for him. Not a single soul came to his rescue and the cops were nowhere to be seen as usual. The goons kept on hitting him with rods and kicking him endlessly. After about half an hour of thrashing, Kumar’s body gave up and he lay motionless on the road drenched in blood. As was the custom, nobody uttered a word and everyone left in silence. The body was later taken away by the garbage cleaners. 

As expected, the ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition of the following day had no mention of Manish Kumar’s death. No crime had been committed despite Arvind having been part of the spineless crowd that had gathered to witness the savagery. Incidentally, his entire paper was filled with news related to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Flashes of that gory day of January 30, 1948, came to an end before Arvind’s eyes. It seemed as if Arvind’s present was also coming to an end. By now, he had become breathless. A worried Gajraj Singh called out his wife and helping aides. They all rushed to the living room where Arvind was sweating profusely and gasping for breath. Singh’s wife tried to make Arvind drink a glass of water, but in vain. A shivering Arvind collapsed on the floor and lay motionless. 

Perhaps, he had suffered a mental shock or heart attack…


BIO

Arun A.K. is a communications professional working in Mumbai, India. He admits to being guilty of showing more love to cinema and food than to writing. Most of the time, he ends up losing his frequent fights with sugar cravings. Twitter Handle: @arunusual

The Snow Queen

by Jennifer R. Lorene


The girl sat on the curb outside of her home and sent her thoughts to the ravens resting on the telephone wire. The ravens circled above her. One crowed and sat beside the girl. This raven had one foggy blind eye and one of sparkling gold light that he used to peer into the back of the girl’s mind and send her images and words of all the goings-on of the city. He showed her the image of a white spider woman whose legs were like saws. The same white spider who stole her brother when they were babies.

“Why did she do this to us?” the girl asked.

“It’s what evil does,” the raven said. “It’s time to face her.”

The girl walked down to the beach alone and she stumbled over the jagged rocks, cigarette butts, and broken beer bottles.

Inside the cave by the ocean was the spider and she was bigger than the girl had thought and as white as snow. The spider’s frontmost limbs crossed over her belly creating an X.

“You’re afraid,” the spider said. “Good.”

Before the girl could even move, the spider was on her, weaving a web so tightly that all the girl could do was freeze. She lay as still as she could while the spider wrapped her like a baby in a blanket of webbing before carrying her off into a nearby cave.

The girl couldn’t move and felt cold. She longed for the advice of the Raven. One camping lantern on the cave floor by the wall was lit. The spider placed her on the ground, and rubbed her front legs together like two knives.

The girl gazed into the swirling red and black underbelly of the spider. A crowd of open mouthed faces, no one able to hear them scream. Then she saw a face she recognized. A boy with the same freckled nose and gold hair as she. It was her brother.

The spider raised one of her legs, aimed right at the girl’s head, and right before the spider went to stab her, the girl heard a muted yell from her brother to move to the right. The spider stabbed the cave’s dirt floor and her leg was stuck. The spider screeched. The girl dodged another attack. Both of the spider’s front legs got stuck in the dirt. The girl rubbed the threads against one of the spider’s legs and cut herself free.

Her brother’s hand reached out and she grabbed it and pulled. Out he came from the spider; this broke her body in two. The siblings watched the spider wiggle and writhe on its back.

“Who are you?” the spider asked.

“I am love,” the girl said.

The spider melted, turned into smoke, and then disappeared with a hiss.

The cave became full of the people who had escaped the spider’s body. They had also once lived in the girl’s city. The girl pointed towards the exit; a doorway of sunlight.


BIO

Born and raised in San Pedro, California, with a four year stay in Vegas, Jennifer R. Lorene’s writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared in the anthology Last Call, Chinaski! published by Lummox Press and twice in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: https://linktr.ee/writershearth20 

The Affair of the Bird

by Harli James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “They do?”

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

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

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

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

            “You did not!” said Rebecca, perturbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Let’s go stop these folks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I came to stop this madness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Oof,” she said when she fell.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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




Pretty Boy

By Nina Shevzov-Zebrun

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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



The Woman in the Window

by Flora Jardine

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

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

            “Fine,” said Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Okay, fine then,” she said.

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

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

            “And who lives behind us?”

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

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

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

            “For what?”

            Marla shrugged. “Nothing really.”

            “So, famous for having no fame.”

            “Whatever.”

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

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

            “Didn’t Meg have a theory?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “It’s much too soon for lunch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Do I know them?”

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

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

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

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

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

            Mike stood motionless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Sorry.”

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

            “My what?”

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

            “No. She just left.”

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

            “Her plane? Who are you talking about?”

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

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

            “Oh. Right. Marla.”


BIO

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



A DAMSEL IN BEDLAM

by Kat Devitt



Bethlem Royal Hospital
London, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, if you don’t mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glanced up from her invisible work.

William took a sharp breath. Does she see me?

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

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

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

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

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

How could Eleanora thrive in such decay? he wondered.

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

****

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

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

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

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

“I need a drink,” William announced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No need.”

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

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

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

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

He sighed. “Maybe I do need a woman.”

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

“What you need is a wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even for a guinea?” he called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

“She enjoys painting.”

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

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

“You know I only ever have the one.”

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

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

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

“You have a bargain.”

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

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

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

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

She reached out and grabbed it.

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

But mental leg irons restrained him.

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

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

William read her lips. “For me?”

“Yes,” Charles said.

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“I knew her when we were young.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

He’d been watching her for weeks now.

In the halls.

In the garden.

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

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

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

Eleanora wouldn’t be painting her likeness.

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

But Eleanora couldn’t do it.

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

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

“I know you’re there, William.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could’ve been your wife.”

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

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

“Quit talking madness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything more than that?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t give a damn about your art.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And yet you did.”

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

“What’s this?” Gideon asked.

“A square with colors on it.”

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

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

“I never approved this.”

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

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

“Someone kinder than you.”

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

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

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

“Now, now. None of your nonsense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook her off.

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

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

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

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

“Leave it.”

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

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

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

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

“I will do no such thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll find other pursuits.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He hasn’t taken me from you.”

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

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

“Gideon came to my office.”

“Did he recognize you?”

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

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

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

“Eleanora,” he whispered.

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

“Eleanora, love.”

“Yes?” she whispered.

“Why do you think I’m here?”

“To tell me I can’t paint anymore.”

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

She blinked.

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

“Won’t that jeopardize your post here?”

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

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

“What will you have me do?” he asked.

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

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

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

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


BIO

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




The Poet Ray Brown

by John Yohe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Are you Dick?

—Rick. Rick Cassidy.

Brown smiled even wider. —Rick. My man.

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

—Mister? Man, just call me Ray.

—Ok Ray. We’re um, all ready for you.

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

—Um, it’s right here.

—Let’s see it.

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

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

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

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

Gasps from the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

—Um, yeah? Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Man, fuck you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Read one of the funny ones!

—None of my poems are funny, bitch.

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

—Un regalo para tí! It’s tequila!

—Tequila! Oh shit. What kind?

—El Patrón!

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

—Mexico!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Hi, Mr. Brown?

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

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

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

—Um, no. I’m a fan.

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

—Are you ok?

—Yeah. Ok, you’re a fan.

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

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

—Yes actually.

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

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

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

—I’m from Quebec.

—Ah, ma belle!

—Mais, vous parlez français alors?

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

—Like what?

—Like I want to suck your cock.

—Excuse me?

—Nevermind. Where you at right now?

—Ypsilanti.

—Too bad. Want to come over?

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

—Girlfriends?

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

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

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

Brown sighed. —Yes. Perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Mr. Brown?

—Check’s in the mail.

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

—Who?

—Gabrielle—

—Oh yeah! That french chick!

—Quebecoise.

—What?

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

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

—I’m fine! We’re here in Jackson!

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

—Yes. My friends Billy and Rick too.

—Oh, well, got any tequila?

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

—Of course!

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

—Yeah, I figured.

—Would that be alright?

—Do I have a choice?

—Well, we don’t want to bother you.

—No. Well, you got a car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Oh christ….

He crushed his can and threw it across the room.

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

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

She kept studying him. —No.

—You’ll never go back.

—I’m sorry?

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

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

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

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

Brown nodded. —Sure you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIO

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

Fishbowl Frenzy

by Susie Potter

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

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

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

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

“Kyle?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle had called me one night.

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

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

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

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

“No,” he’d answered, “not really.”

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

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

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I tell her, “a lot.”

 I remember Kyle making us coffee at his apartment.

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was just a few-”

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

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

“He was okay,” she says.

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

“Where did you see him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lie.

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

I will him not to look my way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a Friday night.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I was waiting for my turn,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I asked him anyway.

“I can’t play anymore,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “too bad.”

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

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

“Nope,” Kyle said, after a moment

“Sorry.” I was completely distracted now.

“Did you download the game here?” he asked

“No,” I said, “at school.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He came back to the car.

“Fuck,” he said, slamming my door.

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

“Not to me,” he’d said, “not to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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



The New Reality

by Tom Whalen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you happy about the new reality? I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Of this that and the other, it said.

That’s it? I asked.

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

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

Then the Professor spoke to us.

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

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


BIO

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

Photo © Kim Graser, 2015.

Three New Names

by Masie Hollingsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakotyzen will kill me if Sol doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, I hardly believe—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

“Oh, Kala, mom’s going to kill you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long pause, more splashing shrum up ahead. The dirty rodents must be nearly the size of men creeping through the darkness—downright obese off of city-scraps and who knows what else.

Snapping out of my distraction, I tilt my head, reminding myself to act puzzled by the suddenness of such a profound notion. And a dangerous one, too. “Yeah, and? He can’t let me, because then someone might actually trace it back to me, and then to him.” And he likes the power of it, to have thousands of names all to himself anyway. Though I wish I could, I can’t say that last part, of course; Kota’s mocking me for “sucking up” to Sol was one thing, but undermining Sol’s own methods? The both of us are rather fond of our heads. One can never be too safe when it comes to Sol’s various surveillance abilities. And I can’t have Kota realizing just how shallow my true loyalties really are in the interest of our employer.

“We both know that isn’t why.”

I feel my brow twist in confusion. “What’s—” I meant to finish with “gotten into you,” or “crossed you with a death wish,” or something, but my words die in my mouth when I see his teeth bared in a grin—and then a flash of silver almost as bright as the glint in his eyes, and then—nothing.

The first thing I register is my eyes are closed. So I open them.

I’m on the ground, staring up at Kota and… Ennerilsha? And Kaltsyll? That explains the ringing in my ears, and why I can even see through the fog of my blurred vision that I’m on the ground. Drenched with rainwater, and—so that’s what hit me. I flinch at the sight of a small bloodstain on the brick in Kaltsyll’s hand—my own blood washing away in the rain.

My breathing speeds up even more when it dawns on me. He’s brought Sol’s other top smugglers to help him threaten me. Two people he’d claimed to hate with me. Two people who are working with him now, who have been for who knows how long. “You—” the words choke in my throat as it constricts on my panting breaths.

Neither Kota nor Ennerilsha nor Kaltsyll even flinch when I wake up, don’t do a thing to stop me from standing. Maybe they know I’m in no shape to, after what must at least be a minor concussion. Or maybe they know that just the three of them is enough. Shadow-bending, lie-detection, and illusion-manipulation, respectively.

I do best to juggle between the three stares, each their own shade of cruel smugness. But each twisted smile is calm. They’ve been planning this for a long time, I think. “Whatever you want, I won’t give it to you.”

More movement, more pressure and disorientation as Kaltsyll lands another blow with a kick to my chest, meant to force my head back into the alley sidewall. I expected the strike, but was in no position to block it or even dodge it—all I can do is bring up my hands behind my head to cushion it from the surface of that grimy wall. They’re careful to leave me conscious, though; they want me awake, they want to see me cowering below them in an upright fetal position. I feel not much more than dizziness and stinging—and cold. I can’t even hear the rain any more with the sharp pulse of my ears. The pain hasn’t quite penetrated my damaged brain yet, but the adrenaline has.

In a blink of movement, Kota jerks me up by the collar, a shiny dagger to my throat. So that was the flash of metal I saw. Not a gun. No, a gun’s too quick, too clean, too merciful for his practice. His eyes reflect the cold metal like a pair of mirrors; he’d always had the slightest tendency toward a deeper-held cruelty—one I should’ve feared. He punches me again, but I just smile through the blood raining from my nose. I hope my face cut his knuckles good too.

“Did you trust me?” His voice is a taunt.

I refuse to take the bait, to look down at the knife he holds right under my jaw. I can feel as its liquid coldness reaches into my skin, but it hasn’t drawn blood, not quite yet. “I—”

I almost say no. Almost.

But that would be too harsh a truth, too soon. So I tell him… not a lie, but a different sort of the truth. “I trusted that you weren’t as shrum-brained as you look. That you weren’t actually stupid enough to do something like this. That you… were better than…” I stop myself. I can’t afford to pity him, not any longer. He’s torn my trust to more pieces than there are stars in the moontime sky, and it was my own foolishness after all that led me to hope that… I’d be able to fit him into my plans. Another cough wracks my body as I struggle to stay sitting up.

I look to the ground, regaining my composure in a disappointed laugh. “I was wrong.” He goes for another punch, but this time I turn my head to miss it, baring my nearly knocked-out teeth like a crazed animal. I hope they’re as bloody as they feel, my smile as wide and gruesome as I can make it to startle them.

I brace for another hit, but Kota just smiles. And something glints in his eyes again, too—I don’t like it. “Pledge me all your names. Maybe we’ll let you come with us, be the nameless little tagalong.”

He doesn’t smile as widely when I spit in his face, deep scarlet with blood. But to my surprise, he doesn’t bend the shadows to his face to hide his shame.

They want me to cower, to beg for mercy. Or put up a brave and valiant-hearted fight, only to fail. I’ll give them the satisfaction of neither. “Do you care about me? Do you want me to live?” I let loose a hacking laugh this time, shifting acute eye-contact between all three traitors. Kaltsyll glares back with menace, but I relish in my success in making Ennerilsha flinch. She knows this isn’t just an act.

“Maybe I should be honorable—come with you and get torn to pieces by Sol. Or I could just stay here—It’s a shame to die at the hands of a bunch of soft-hearted traitors, but it would sure hurt less—” I’ve got to buy myself time, and fast. Lucky I know just the words. “Poor, sad Syltana over here can’t even land a punch—” the pain of the next blow, which Kota does land, brings tears to my eyes. I can only keep my split-lipped smile with the knowledge that they won’t see my tears through all this blood. I pray the rain doesn’t wash it all away—and it’s almost as if it listens, still showering down from outside the covering but not too loud that they can’t hear my taunts.

“Last chance.” Kota jerks my collar even higher, choking my already-shallow breaths. I would’ve laughed in his face if he glared, if his eyes darkened with hate. But they’re bright—not just with cruelty of bloodlust, but with something else. Arrogance. Confidence. Like he knows what he’s doing.

And then my malicious grin fades, every sore and stinging muscle in my face pulsing with the effort. “You found it.” I don’t have to pretend to be surprised. Or intimidated. Maybe I really am becoming a coward, having second thoughts about my own plan.

He seems to thrive on the fear in my eyes, the shock released with the drop of my jaw.

“You shouldn’t have called me that name.” His dark eyes tear into mine, still the same brown flecked with bronze, ringed with black. But now I see another dark shape, my own silhouette close enough to reflect against the menace of his eyes. I breathe in and out, the smell of my own blood so strong it’s as if I’m breathing it in, that it’s what’s choking me by filling my lungs. Rather than the grip of someone I’d thought was a friend.

He found it. He found the name, the power I’ve been searching for ever since I discovered it’s already been used. Immunity to outside powers—yes, I’ve been waiting for this one.

I’m careful not to let the look of terror in my eyes waver. I’ve always been a good actress. But in the end, my smugness wins out in a silent grin.

Kota flinches with the rest.

So that’s why the shadows now betray him—he abandoned his shadow-bending for the new name.

But I’ve still got a few tricks of my own. And he still thinks he found that name all by himself.

I breathe in a last deep inhale, reviving on the feeling of lightness, finally rid of a weight I’ve carried for the past years of waiting for this. Kota’s confidence flickers as I let my smile expand, breathing out a small, disappointed sigh, even shaking my head just the slightest bit. If only he and the rest of them had learned patience. I wish they had, I really do.

“You shouldn’t have threatened me.” My voice sounds unhinged, drunk—and maybe I am, high off of my imminent victory.

I see the focus dissolve from Kota’s eyes, pupils dilating in panic as I toy with his balance, but not before they flash his surprise that his new little name hasn’t worked—even immunity isn’t perfect. Just like Loma had first guessed, the name apparently can only be cancelled out by one other name. One name of the two I found unexpectedly just hours ago.

But I’m not finished. “You should’ve asked what the two extras were,” I say to his slumped form on the ground, writhing out of control with wave by wave of vertigo. Who knew intense dizziness would be almost as useful a tool as name-stealing?  I hear the groans of Kaltsyll and Ennerilsha on the ground, but don’t bother to look their way. Thanks to Kota, theirs or any other powers in existence won’t be a problem any more. Three unexpected targets, now, three new names—one for vertigo, one for name-swiping, and now, one for immunity. Three test runs at once. I think it’s safe to say they all work.

I would have told him if he’d asked. I would have joined him if he asked with his words instead of his knife. I sigh again, allowing myself to pity them all one last time.

I can’t say the idea doesn’t cross my mind, but I decide not to kill Kota that easily. No, that wouldn’t be a proper enough revenge—just as how just killing Sol won’t suffice enough on behalf of Loma, once I get the pleasure of cornering him. But I’ve stolen Kota’s name, without having to kill him or force him to pledge it to me—a useful gift indeed. Same for the others, I think, as I bend down to touch Ennerilsha on the forehead, gentle as I take her precious lie-detection, Kaltsyll and his prized illusions next.

“Thank you.” I say, finally drained of any sarcasm, my voice now brittle with condolence. Even if I remind myself they wouldn’t have spared the same courtesy to me.

I really hope they don’t drown in the pools of liquid gathering on the alleyway ground, its clear rust color just diluted enough to reflect the coming moons; gold even through the conflicting blend of rainwater, my blood, and the grime of the city. The Sylwei side of the city, that is, that they’ll never see again if they don’t drown. I hope their fellow Syltana treat them well.

At the glow of the first night’s star, I remember the final remark I’ve had planned, the one I’d been dreaming of saying, practicing in silence for longer than anyone knew. “And lastly, you should’ve known that Sol would never send the likes of you after the power-immunity.”

Poor Sol might not have even known such a power existed. What he does know, by now, though, is that I’ve broken his topmost rule, I’m sure.

You are mine. The names you steal are mine, too—don’t even think about using them.’

‘Of course, master.’

I laugh after my last parting grace, smearing the blood from my chin onto my sleeve. But then I drop my smile, one more string of words on the tip of my tongue. And I’ve decided I think I will say them, whether or not Kota can even hear me any more. “Loma wouldn’t have been proud. I was right not to let her tell you.”

I glance at my twisted reflection in the pale red puddle at my feet. Vibrant even through my thick but smudged layer of concealer, the mark of Satialkala glows bright red. But this may be the last time it will.

Why share a name when one can take without asking? The three marks around my wrist glow even brighter. No, Sol won’t like that at all.

My giddiness is back. I laugh in time with the swift splashes of my footfalls through the rain. Salomachieth may indeed get her revenge. And after that?

Mother will never lack money for the family ever again.


BIO

Masie Hollingsworth is currently a High School student at Hillcrest High School, as well as the Creative Writing program at Greenville Fine Arts Center. Masie is an avid writer and reader in her free time and enjoys making and sharing all kinds of art as one of her many hobbies. She currently contributes as a reader for the Crashtest magazine and hopes to continue to pursue her passion for writing in the future.

Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon

by Nathaniel Heely



The conspiracy was in. The first reaction from the literary public was one of impending death. Why else would a hermit break silence? For there was no new book coming out, no new tome that might define and brand an adolescent century. Thomas Pynchon was sick. Thomas Pynchon was dying. Finally being sent off to see what was beyond the zero, soul ready to investigate the deep web of religious afterlives.

It was even more peculiar whom he had chosen. The young writer/coffee barista had no prior familiarity, indeed had only published a handful of George Saunders knockoff stories, and was more famous for her voluminous output of book reviews on Goodreads. Her most notable contribution to the literary world was a Salon article roasting James Frey and a listicle on Electric Literature: “10 Underexposed Indie Press Female Works of Fiction 2016.” As far as anyone could tell she had never even mentioned Thomas Pynchon by name. Her lone review on Goodreads of his work was a brief paragraph on The Crying of Lot 49—seemingly the book Pynchon had most derided, saying of it years earlier, “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

Rochelle [J’est un] Autry’s full review of CoL49 to wit:

Funny story overall. Afraid much of it went over my head, or else I feel as though the feeling of much information going overhead is required reading for this novel based on reviews I’ve seen. Am told the unusual names (uh, Mike Fallopian? Oedipa Maas?) are kind of par for the course. Was a fan. This book about conspiracy invites us to conspire over its own bookness by use of several MacGuffins factual and counter-factual, real and imagined. It reads like a circus performance. At no point did I feel the crushing disappointment of mystery—of failed detecting—I think I was supposed to on Oedipa’s part. I felt like too much of a watcher.

Further hypotheses were postulated. Rochelle lived in Williamsburg, only a half hour’s drive from The Hermitage. Paths could be crossed, backroom deals long in process. A rumor was traced back to an editorial intern at Penguin that Rochelle had a novel-in-progress that Pynchon believed his interview would help elevate. A literary agent publicly pondered on Twitter whether Autry was a long-time mistress to Pynchon, perhaps inspiring—at least in part—the character of Maxine Tarnow. A white male blogger accused Autry of being a notorious bed-hopper, providing a list of authors and editors she had dated, and was then attacked viciously himself by the Internet horde over everything from his unprofessional and libelous conjecture to his white male blogger privilege.

It was Melanie that contacted Rochelle on Tom’s behalf. She acquired the email via Rochelle’s personal website and stated merely that she was Pynchon’s “agent” and nothing further, and that Tom was interested in exploring the “landscape of digital interviews.” His stipulations were that he not be asked why he was granting an interview, nothing on the nature of his reclusiveness and that all the questions remain literary in topic.

It had been over 40 years since Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus. What does one do for forty years knowing their best work and days are behind them? She considered questioning him more upon this line but felt it would be disrespectful. Knew it would be disrespectful. Tom would come out a victim of this question. That was another thing she was doing nowadays. Thinking of him as Tom. It’s how Melanie always referred to him. Rochelle always wrote back referencing him as “Mr. Pynchon” but fully conscious of it, and feeling that one day she would boldly replace it with “Tom.”

There were so many ambiguities in the world. She could not read people’s sincerity. Everybody acted as though this were a big project, something ambitious that she had chosen to work on. She was all the more ashamed that she had no grand ambitions. She rode the subway every morning hoping to make it through the day with enough energy to ride back in the evening and maybe fall asleep amidst the noise and clamor and rude bumping. Now when she rode back into Brooklyn, she felt a needle in brain’s stem, pressing hard, keeping her awake, trying to re-engage with the active and creative side that would compose what several literary outlets were calling “the Millenials’ finest hour.” Written of course by Millenials themselves, proving no one loves torturing a generation as much as one of its disbelieving members. Not that a belief had anything to do with when you were born, but then what was a generation in the twenty-first century if not a pseudo-cult exclusive to birthdates?

As Flavorwire put it, “Autry and Pynchon are ostensibly two voices of a generation clashing: Tom with his tome-atic ecstasy of printed word, while Rochelle, in contrast, is a mere mendicant producing idle, uncollected thoughts in 140 characters.” n+1 made a vigorous extended metaphor about orphanage and absent fathers in regards to Pynchon’s noted silence and the constant prattling, neuroticism and triple-coated irony that came from Rochelle (or really a conflation of the entire ‘Blogging Generation’) and her perceived lifestyle.

Within a week of receiving the email, word got out, shocked, settled and was forgotten. Rochelle was getting invites to book launches, requests from magazines both large and ignored to write reviews, agents offering their services for her own book writing ventures. She was invited to a launch party for Jonathan Lethem’s latest book. Her boyfriend, Havik Tanner, an editorial assistant for the independent press, Albino Alligator, worked the room, handing out his business card while she hovered over the punch bowl, sipped complimentary champagne and followed the hashtag #LethemLaunch on Twitter and Instagram trying to identify people in the room by their various posts and deciding which ones she despised the most.

Coming home she received an email from a man who identified himself as Richard and as a former friend of Thomas Pynchon.

Dear Rochelle

My name is Richard. Forgive me if this is too forward. The news of your upcoming interview with Mr. Pynchon has made quite a stir in our tiny literary community. If you are interested I would like to speak to you about your subject as I have some information that is very pertinent.

Kind Regards,
-R

She emailed him back with some reserve—that reserve that any young person holds in her head when she feels she is being peddled a scam. Her place in the literary world was one of phantom power, receiving lots of correspondence and requests to meet the man, while she herself was only to have electronic correspondence. Her iPhone dinged at 1:01 AM with a reply:

Rochelle,

What I’m about to say will seems an absolute fabrication, and you’ll likely regard me as the crazy hippy I am. Tom was not very close with many people and even less so with writers, but since we were friends before his genius was ever pronounced to the world, I was lucky to be in that close circle and I kept his silence along with him for many years. It’s very apparent to me, though, that something quite nefarious is going on and I believe that it would be Tom’s wish to communicate to you what I know.

The real Thomas Pynchon died, like the prophets of old, on his birthday, 8 May 2007. He was 70. I was at his funeral. Against the Day was his swan song, and a beautiful one at that. He died of congestive heart failure. Since then his literary trust has remained more secret than most government agencies. Tom was always very fascinated with technology and the modern world in his literature as well as his personal life, and in his last years he developed an early AI program that could compose its own literature. It was based upon the same kind outputs you’ll get from SPAM emails, often the ones that send out those fake prince from Nigeria schemes (sidenote: those programs are actually compelled to riddle their emails with typos and bad grammar to target people who are less intelligent, but think themselves smart that they realize it’s a person speaking in a second language). His family made a discovery of this and has since developed two books: Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge.

Sounds improbable, I know, but if you’ve read these books you’ll notice that they’re very similar to each other. Both involve private investigators, both rely on typical rehashed Pynchon tricks of the search for ambiguous entities (The Golden Fang and hashslingrz) and many critics have gone on to refer to these books (along with a book he wrote in his 20s) as “Pynchon-Lite.” The construction of the books is quite simple. It’s actually a basic 1000 monkey at 1000 typewriters type of scenario. Much of what The Typing Monkey produces is gibberish, but it creates a lot of gibberish. Volumes. Reams. Something like ten full length books a day. The Hermitage actually employs nearly a dozen readers simply to rifle through these manuscripts and select coherent passages, plots, characters etc. I’m giving you just the superficial tie-ins. I can give you more information, but my security in this matter is extremely delicate. I will provide further and substantial proof, but you must not tell anyone about me.

Again, I know I’m crazy, but this is not what Tom would have wanted: his life being exploited for this. It was contrary to everything he was. He was dirt poor for many of the years I knew him, living in squalor and just happy to write. Now everything that Tom created in his life is undermined with the publication of these two novels. At this point only the grave can keep me silent, and I’ve let that day crawl these eight years closer and closer, hoping and praying (to many manner of gods I didn’t believe in, perhaps they are all real, perhaps only some) that someone else would come forward. But I’ve heard nary a word. Perhaps they’ve tried and been silenced. Please contact me. Please take this seriously. Please believe me. I will provide everything you need to prove this. I promise.

Regards,
Richard

PS. If you still need convincing look at this:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/algorithm-human-quiz.html?_r=0

Rochelle’s first instinct was to be afraid. She was caught up in something she didn’t want to even be aware of. The link provided an eight question quiz to see if humans could decipher between human and computer produced writing. She got a 4 of 8. If there was such uncertainty between these simple sentences then of course there was an argument to be made that AI could already write books. Just a few years ago a man named Phillip M. Parker had revealed his own patented system for algorithmically compiling raw data into book form. Because of it, Amazon now had nearly 1,000,000 books for sale from his company. It was ridiculous to believe, but also ridiculous to not at least consider it.

She emailed him back in the dead of that night, hoping that he would still exist outside of it. He replied that it would take a little while to establish more secure communication and that he would write to her soon.

There were other considerations. In the 70s many people judged William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon to be the same person. Gaddis wrote The Recognitions in 1955 and promptly disappeared from the literary scene for twenty years, also never giving interviews. A man identified as William Gaddis would eventually consent to some interviews in the 80s, most notably with The Paris Review and Malcolm Bradbury. Up until Ted Kaczynski was arrested, the popular theory was that Pynchon was the Unabomber. There were those that believed he used the name Wanda Tinasky to write a series of letters to Mendocino Commentary and Anderson Valley Advertiser. He was Bob Dylan’s best man. He met Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City in 1963 over a meal of shredded chicken gorditas. He had crippling agoraphobia.

She was firing off all these theories one night to her boyfriend in bed. She rattled through them all off during sex and found herself unable to judge whether the sex was good or bad, only that it had happened. Havik held her quietly listening to the prattle and stroking her thin chestnut hair.

“And then there’s the Richard Farina theory,” he said passively inspecting the hair as though looking for a magisterial, almost angelic quality.

“The what?”

“Richard Fariña. Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me?”

“Never read it.”

“Oh, well he was friend of Pynchon’s. Some say they’re the same person.”

“Friend? Wait that…what was his name?”

“Richard Fariña.”

By the last syllable of his last name she was already digging through her gmail. She confirmed what she believed to be true. “He emailed me! Holy Christ, Havik, he emailed me. I mean I’m not supposed to tell but frankly I didn’t believe it to be true and he told me not to tell anyone and promise you won’t tell anyone but he was telling me all this stuff that sounded insane but he wrote a book you’re saying?”

“Woah, calm down. Who emailed you?”

“Richard. Richard Fariña, look at this email address. RFarinaphobe at gmail, I was wondering what the hell a Farinaphobe was but—”

“Rochelle, Jesus. That can’t be Richard Fariña.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Richard Fariña died in 1966.”

Her blood ran not just cold, but felt like microscopic beetles composed of frozen nitrogen; disappointment, madness, claustrophobia. “What are you—?”

“They went to Cornell together, yeah. Pynchon wrote the Introduction—”

“But that can’t. He emailed…”

“Probably just someone being smart with you.” Her shoulders dragged down to her hips. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you. I’m sorry.”

She wept and buried her face in his bony neck. “What is going on with me? Who the hell…but he can’t…”

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Don’t say that you asshole.”

“What?”

“Of course you should have said something. You shouldn’t have had to say anything. I’m just an idiot. I know nothing about what I’m wrapped up in.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“For all I know someone did this just to show how clueless I was. God, Jesus, I’m so embarrassed. I’m so fucking stupid…”

Havik had a copy of the book, but she swatted it away, it being a scepter of her stupidity. He held her and told her he loved her as she struggled against him.

The five questions she sent to Melanie were composed in a flurry the next morning. She just wanted the thing behind her, to be completed. She abided by the stipulations and came up with: 

1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest piece of American fiction of the past twenty-five years?

2. What is your writing schedule like?

3. Your name is brought up constantly as a Nobel hopeful, particularly in light of the fact that it has been more than twenty years since an American won it. How do you respond to this?

4. Some of your more recent books Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice have been relegated, by some critics, as being genre or cross-genre fiction. How do you view genre fiction in the world and as it relates to your own work?

5. What did you think of P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice?

A day later Melanie responded.

Ms. Autry,

Please forgive me but I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject these questions. I realize how frustrating this must be! Mr. Pynchon is very peculiar in what he wants…or rather what he doesn’t want to answer. What am I saying? Perhaps that he knows it when he sees it. There’s no rush to this sort of thing. He told me to relay to you that it may take several attempts and to not be discouraged. He would never want to discourage you. In addition he gave some reasoning he thought might be helpful for why these questions seem inadequate:

1. This seems the type of insular question that I ought to avoid. There are a great dozen or two dozen books I could list but I don’t want to come across as a promotional advert. There are many authors I like, some books I’m rather fond of, and even a few I’ve felt necessary to blurb, all of which you can find with a cursory google search. But I don’t wish to single anyone out.

2. The only reason one might answer this question is because some people think I have access to an El Dorado of Writing. I assure you this is not the case. The best answer I could give, which I do not feel is an answer, is that I write enough to produce eight novels in fifty years.

3. Commenting on the Nobel seems to be a dangerous sort of thing. I’d rather the Nobel committee pretend I don’t exist and vice versa.

4 Nope. Sorry, try again.

5. Let Paul’s work have a chance to stand and resonate before I come in with some overbearing and completely unnecessary critique.

He requests you do not make this reasoning public.

Best,
-M

She would have been insulted had another email from the Richard Fariña address not appeared just two minutes before. It simply stated to check her mailbox downstairs. With eyebrow twitching in her kitchen, Havik came strutting in, blinded by the morning glare.

“Morning.”

“Can you see if the mail’s come yet?”

“Babe it’s just past 8:00 I don’t think…”

“Just check please,” she snapped. Havik stood there waiting for her to come to her senses, but she just stared with pupils the size of her iPhone. He walked silently pretending to be angry and not hurt. He came back with a single envelope, her name written in calligraphic grace, and no postage stamp.

“Friend of yours?”

She opened.

It’s me. I told you this would be arriving. For my safety it’s best I don’t deal in specifics. Meet me at the place you and your boyfriend had dinner last Thursday. Tonight. 8 PM. Make sure you aren’t followed.

-R.

She was now thoroughly insulted and realized it was a massive prank. She and Havik had eaten in last Thursday and the letter was clearly a furthering of some perverse internet prank. She flicked it once toward the trash, brought it back, admired the calligraphy—she had always admired calligraphy and was even jealous of it despite its source—and flicked it again into the trash.

Havik was working late that night. In his text he termed it “babysitting an author.” She invited friend and coworker, Connie Quetzalcoatl, to her place for the evening for dinner, which ended up being white wine, pita chips and a tom-sized drum of hummus.

“I want to die,” Connie said opening a second box of pita chips and cramming one in her mouth on the final word.

“Mistakes were made,” Rochelle countered.

“Starting with my parents having sex.”

“We’re better than this.”

“To think I was one hump away from never existing.”

“If only one of us had learned self-control. It might have been enough.”

“I’m not of the mind that quantum physics leads to a multiple Universe theory.”

“But how else do you learn self-control without self-control?”

“It’s just this one. And most of the things, most of the people that could have existed. Just didn’t. And I was the one that existed. Man.”

“I mean if you’ve had no experience with it, how will you ever be able to withstand it?”

“Mistakes were made.”

“I’m out of wine.”

Connie said she ought to be going. They buoyed up off the vinyl couch like pregnant mothers and shuffled to the door. Connie ordered an Uber. At the apartment door they bid each other goodbye. Turning around, Rochelle saw a man in a tan trenchcoat, grey fedora, wayfarer sunglasses and hair so jet black it looked dyed with car grease.

“Rochelle,” he nodded.

She stood stunned. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Richard. Can we talk?”

She looked about her. For what she couldn’t name. Cameras? Exits? Police? None of the Above? She ascended in a dreamlike manner, taking everything at face value. Sitting back on the vinyl couch the man sat down, looked nervously and began speaking without taking off his coat or hat and without Rochelle offering. He spoke the past to her: how until Tom had married Melanie he had considered himself retired from writing. She was the one who convinced him to release Slow Learner. Vineland actually started as an inside joke between he and Tom. Mason & Dixon had sputtered sometime around ’79 and its publication owed credit to at least three other ghost writers. This was why Tom had invented the Monkey Typewriter. To get out of writing once and for all. The goal was to publish a perfect mimicry of his writing mind…

“You’re supposed to be dead!” Rochelle said.

Richard stopped, straightened himself and said in a calm demeanor. “Yes. I am. It was a…dangerous time for me then. It was necessary to die and as far as the world is concerned I am Robert Feddlestein. I didn’t think I’d live this long.”

“But you’re supposed to be dead!”

“Shh. Be quiet, Jesus.”

“Out. I don’t know how you found out where I live but you need to leave.”

“No Rochelle, please. For my friend.”

“What proof do you have? How can I know you are who you say you are”

“You can’t.” He said coldly. “If I hadn’t destroyed any identifying evidence about myself you’d just assume it was a fake. If I showed you an old letter from Tom in the 60s, you’d assume I wrote it last night. Everything that is,” here he gestured to the apartment, the floors, the kitchen, “is taken on faith.”

Rochelle was on the border of hysterics. “Get out. Just get out I’m calling the police.”

“What you want. What I want is at the Hermitage on the 14th floor facing the street, third window from the right.”

“I don’t want anything! Nobody ever asked what I wanted!” She was shoving him toward the door, slapping his chest which was thin and frail, and it took little strength at all to move his elderly body.

“Shh. Quiet. Mother of Christ, I just need your help on one thing.” He brought her hands together as though in prayer.

“What? What could I possibly give you? Because I don’t have access to him. That’s why it’s an email inter…”

“Just tell Melanie that you’re having a little difficulty and that you’d like to meet her in person. That’s all I need. Her out of her office for a few hours.”

Rochelle stood mute, wounded, angry.

“That’s all I ask.”

“If you don’t leave right now I’m calling the cops.”

He turned, flinging the coat like a cape and whisking the door all but one inch to the jamb. “On the day you do it. Please. Just leave a note in your mailbox. It will get to me.” He closed the door and Rochelle went to cry on her couch.

In researching for her questions she found the sheer fanaticism of Pynchon fans even more frightening and lurid. There were vigils held every May 8th at his old Manhattan Beach house. Fans staked him out for days snapping pictures of old men fitting Pynchon’s description and comparing them on internet forums. Periodically “Missing” posters with his old Navy portrait appeared on the streets of Manhattan. It was obvious that Pynchon feared his fans. In 1989 an 1800 word autobiographical sketch for an application to the Ford Foundation was released to a few scholars. He quickly had them rescind this action, but not before Steven Weisenburger from the University of Kentucky published the article: “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch” by Duke University Press. There was tale that in 1997 a drunken group at a Pynchon lookalike competition ran down a fellow doppelganger they suspected to be the author, only to trip him and flee when it was found not to be him. He bled on the sidewalk for the next two hours before a New Yorker finally offered to call him an ambulance.

And Rochelle rationalized that perhaps what she was up against was nothing more than a method actor, probably fanatical in his own right. Never mind how he got her address, the Internet existed. These things happened daily, even to those who take intense precaution. She took the criticism from the first email and wrote five new and fresh questions and sent them off to Melanie:

Mr. Pynchon,

1. Paranoia is persistent in your work. For those of us coming of age in an increasingly Orwellian society where the government can ostensibly track us in real-time, how best do you think we can handle this?

2. For you, personally, is fiction an inherently moral art? What is the best way of going about creating art that is moral? And what does it mean?

3. What was your writing education at Cornell like?

4. Does the fact that your characters rarely, if ever, find meaning for the things they most seek indicate a reflection of your own beliefs?

5. Do you still keep in touch with Irwin Corey?

Melanie wrote back exuberantly that Tom had answered one of the questions and encouraged Rochelle not to despair that four others were rejected; that it was “great progress.” The notes sent to the questions:

1. You’re asking about something a little outside my work. I’d prefer if we could stick to that.

2. Nice try, but there are three questions here. Not that I would answer any of these, but I won’t accept multiple question marks in a “Question.”

4. See #1. I’d rather not talk about what I believe. I’m probably wrong as it is.

5. I’m sorry I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about

3. It’s not so much the where I was educated, but when. 1958, to be sure, was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time. Sure we wrote letters, rallied, demonstrated, marched, rocked, smoke bombed, egged, yet there was no sense of sanctuary there, or eternal youth. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the brutal winter winds, but death always felt close to us in those days.

She took momentary solace in the one success she had. Perhaps progress existed. She worked her days at the coffee shop, giving old men an extra look, wondering if Pynchon was a coffee drinker himself, wondering if she might as well ask him this since nothing else worked. Havik remained increasingly busy. Their time together was blurry. They fell together at night sometimes for sex, more often in exhaustion.

They had a date night. Dinner at Isabella’s, short walk to Dive 75 where they met some friends and then plodded south to the Wine and Roses Bar. It was 11 PM and she was walking west on 72nd street toward the park babbling to Havik incoherently who was near sleepwalking himself when they passed the Hermitage, ominous and stretching beyond comprehension so that halfway across she was exhausted and they sat down. Here she could think up more questions while the moon burned a hole in the sky and The Ruggles himself lapsed into failed memory of old age. What she hoped was failed memory. Afraid it was more sinister. He toying with her precisely because she was a nobody, picking her at random, coming up with dubious responses to her questions to…to what? To prove a point? To produce an echo of bone-rattling paranoia from inside that mausoleum? To speak death to her as apparently his whole life had to him? To feed some inane desire for performance art? It was all a joke. Everything was a joke to him. He had hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf, never having met the man, seen the man, known the man, heard the man, discussed with the man what he ought to portray. And she was like that befuddled audience laughing only to show they were hip to the joke, but not getting the joke, terrified of not laughing, of a world full of silence and nervous coughs. Silence is the essence of meaninglessness. What was the point of asking questions? Of course he didn’t want to talk about the Nobel. Likely he just wanted to win so he could make a mockery of it too and not even show up. Respond, perhaps, by donating the money to a Waco Davidian cult that no longer existed. To answer the question would forewarn the Swedish Academy and permanently blacklist him from the nominations. And then he would no longer be practical joker Pynchon, but angry and bitter Pynchon. The Pynchon that excoriated his former love Lilian Landgraben in his first novel. The Pynchon who rescinded that 1800 word autobiographical sketch. The Pynchon who was so exasperated by the reading public that he escaped to Mexico, an entire country and language barrier separating him from his identity.

And she too began to scowl. There were now watchblogs commenting and updating on her daily internet activity: her Twitter updates, her Instagram photos, her Goodreads progress, all questioning why she hadn’t questioned. As though asking questions were easy work. A Facebook fan page of her popped up and people discussed in the open forum all the salacious rumors that surrounded her. Rumors that, of course, had no origin, came out of nothing, as did the whole Universe. She scaled back, deactivating her Facebook, taking down her Instagram, not posting to social media any longer, but only watching. She wanted to deprive the web of gossip—its oxygen.

Her silence was well noted. Her silences. People began wondering if she was in fact a Pynchonian hoax. One of the watchblogs aggregated data of increased sales of Pynchon’s books and pointed to it as nothing but a clever marketing scheme. But why would he need money? Again, fans feared the worst for the ex-sailor.

1. What is your next book about?

2. Is that really your voice in the Inherent Vice book trailer?

3. Did you ever end up writing those opera librettos proposed in your application to the Ford Foundation?

4. Do you think there will be a time when there are no humans to write books and that you are of the last generation to compose literature?

5. What do you think of the eventual heat-death of the Universe?

More non-answers. More “refer to note so-and-so in email so-and-so.” More and more and more and yet always less.

She finally got around to reading Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Or rather she read the Introduction and was heartbroken. The one answer she had received, the lone scrap of authenticity she held of Thomas Pynchon was actually a few extant sentences cobbled together from Tom’s most rare of autobiographical acknowledgements. She curled up on the vinyl couch crying, surprised she was still capable. 

Thomas Pynchon was identity in full entropy. An equilibrium across all people where one never knew if their dinner date that night was actually Thomas Pynchon. In a manner, Rochelle could consider herself to be Thomas Pynchon.

She relented to Richard Fariña’s request and asked Melanie if she could possibly take her out to lunch and get a better idea of what he wanted to answer. To her surprise Melanie assented, even encouraged the visit. It was a Tuesday, and Rochelle and Connie worked the morning shift beginning at 4:00 AM working straight through until 11:00 AM. In the Uber on the way over Rochelle commented to Connie that she hadn’t seen Havik in three days and asked if she should be worried. Connie responded by asking if she had been sleeping regularly. Rochelle looked vacantly at the back of the driver’s balding head hoping it would speak for her instead.

They arrived early and informed the lady at the desk of their appointment. They stood in the lobby waiting.

“Y’know I was googling her today.”

“Who?”

“Melanie Jackson. The lady you’re here to—”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just didn’t—”

“There aren’t any pictures of her either.”

“Of Melanie?”

“Yeah. That’s a bit weird don’t you think?”

“Considering who she’s married to, not really.” Rochelle ran fingers through her hair and stared at the elevator, the elevator’s lips, waiting for truth to emerge.

“But both of them. I mean, it’s like he’s got his whole family now in this sort of secret cult of privacy.”

“Is privacy a cult now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No but,” she said directing eyes now at Connie, worried look on her face. “Is it?”

But there was no answer. At that moment a screaming came from the ceiling, childlike and full of terror. The whole building began to wobble and the two dashed to the exit and looked up. A plume of dust and orange claws leapt from a window near the top, hail of glass and a resonant pounding from the heart of the building resolute and final. People were running in no discernable direction: toward the building, away, some walking as though deaf or else too bothered to be afraid. A cascade of flimsy paper, some of it burning, eschewed from the floor and there were little children nearby trying to catch it on their tongues like snowflakes.

They went back to Rochelle’s place and lay on the couch emptying their eyes into the TV. MSNBC to CNN to FOX NEWS to ABC to MSNBC…Havik appeared only a few minutes later, kissing her and picking glass from her cheeks asking questions that got no answers. They sat like that for hours. When it was dark, Rochelle noticed there were bandages on her cheeks she did not remember being put on. Connie had left. She asked Havik if there was any mail and he said he would go check. She opened her laptop and typed the only thing she felt possible.

What happened at the Hermitage today at approximately 11:53 AM?

Do you have any reason to suspect that Richard Fariña is still alive?

Why me, Mr. Pynchon?

Are you there, Tom?

Are you alive?

Havik returned. “There’s no mail today.”

Richardson-Orange 2015-2017


BIO

Nathaniel Heely is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He has published over two dozen stories, appearing in in Burrow Press Review, decomP, Identity Theory, the Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and many others. He is currently working on his first novel. For more visit nathanielheely.com

Word May Set You Free

By Marco Etheridge



Sweeney thought the kidnappings would be the difficult part, but they proved to be the easiest. What he discovered is that people are disconnected from their surroundings. Each of the abductions went down more or less the same way. One of the agents would be walking down a city sidewalk; strolling from the office or the subway station. Their faces were invariably glued to their smart phones, oblivious to the world around them.

Buck Mulligan and Sweeney worked as a team. They slipped up from behind while the agent was busy reading texts or yakking into the phone. Sweeney zapped their target with a stun-gun. Buck grabbed the sagging body under the armpits before their victim turned into a rag doll. While Buck held them upright, Sweeney popped a sack over their lolling heads. The van pulled up, side door already open, Stephen’s strong torso leaning out. The wobble-legged agent was thrown to the yawning door of the van and Stephen Dedalus snatched the hooded body into the shadows. After scooping up whatever belongings the victim had dropped, Buck and Sweeney followed. The van door slid shut and Molly Bloom drove them away. It was as simple as pie. No one seemed to notice or care. Maybe that was because it was New York City, or maybe because even in NYC, nobody likes a literary agent.

No, the hard part wasn’t snatching them off the street. The hard part was the long van ride from the City back to the warehouse in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. That first drive, after they snatched Jeff Lyons, that was the longest. The guy whined and babbled like a little girl: What do you want from me, I don’t want to die, please, please. It went on forever, over and over, until Sweeney wanted to club him like a baby seal, which would have spoiled the plan.

After that first interminable ride, Banshee said she was damn sure going to show them another use for duct tape. She did just that. The second drive was quieter; mostly just inarticulate moaning and nose breathing. Leave it to the mystery writer to have a practical solution.

It was blind luck that they got two of the bastards in one day, or, more correctly, a bastard and a bitch. In retrospect, Sweeney realized they shouldn’t have been all that surprised. The literary agencies in Manhattan are grouped in clusters, like infected buboes in the armpits of the island. Set off a big enough bomb on West 21st Street, and you were liable to take out four or five agencies. Not that Sweeney would consider that as an option. Bombs were far to random, far too anonymous. It was a much more specific revenge that he craved.

When Allie Stark ducked into the alley behind Greenburg-Golden, she practically stepped into the van. The crew had just snatched the Reuben guy, so why not?  Bad luck for the stylish Ms. Stark, and one less trip into the City for them. At least the Stark chick was quiet, unlike Mr. BJ Reuben. He blubbered and made eyes at the Stark woman like he knew her. She ignored the crybaby, keeping her eyes focused on her abductors. All that long drive to Jersey, she didn’t make a sound.

*  *  *

Molly leaned through the heavy steel door, her voice coming thick and dull from under the latex mask.

“Are you ready for the opening monologue? I want to lock these parasites in their boxes. Everybody is sick of listening to their shit.”

Sweeney rose from a battered steel table, five manila folders in his left hand.

“Yes, Ms. Bloom, I am ready.”

“It’s Mrs. Bloom, as you know all too well. Don’t forget your mask.”

“Right, the mask.”

Sweeney dropped the folders onto the chipped tabletop and reached for a crumpled pile of latex. It was the distorted face of a nightmare leprechaun; a corpse face without an Irish skull. He stretched the thing over his head, letting it snap into place around his neck. The latex pulled against the stubble on his cheeks.

“How do I look?”

“No more of a fool than the rest of us.”

Molly Bloom raised a hand to either side of her distorted head, miming alarm. A fake orange beard wobbled below an exaggerated nose as she rolled her costumed head in a show of alarm.

“Oh, the humans, they be after me pot of gold! C’mon, Sweeney, let’s get this show on the road.”

Molly disappeared through the doorframe.

Sweeney watched her go, this woman he loved, the woman who would always be his best friend and never more.  He stood alone in the room, his breath was hot under the latex of the mask.

Sweeney’s mind wandered back to the conversation that had changed everything, before she was Molly or he was Sweeney. They were celebrating the completion of her latest work, some of the most poignant and beautiful memoir he had ever read. Over drinks in the corner of a favorite bar, their talk was of the usual frustrations, and the struggle to get published. Then the words were coming out of his mouth: It’s time to teach these bastards a lesson, change the rules of the game.

More than a year of planning followed, with endless discussions over endless pints of beer. Sara was brought into the scheme and became Banshee, then Joe became Buck Mulligan. What began as a formless fantasy of revenge took on sharp edges. By the time Stephen Dedalus joined the group, the thing had become real. Sweeney shook himself out of his memories and looked through the open doorway. And now it all comes down to this. Are you ready?

He grabbed the five file folders from the table and stepped past the rusted steel door.

*  *  *

Evening light leaked into the warehouse through jagged holes in the painted-over windows. Layers of surplus industrial paint peeled from the concrete wall; huge patches of pea green sloughing away from baby-slime yellow. Water dripped into puddles at the windowless back wall. Time had not been kind to this abandoned hulk, and it had been abandoned a long time. A collection of five small shipping containers stood in a rough row; ten-foot long steel boxes in faded colors of blue and red and green. The doors of the containers were standing open; eight-foot-wide by eight-feet-tall.

In front of the containers sat a row of five aging steel chairs. In the chairs sat two women and three men, all looking decidedly worse for the wear. Each of them were manacled; one ankle hand-cuffed to a heavy chair leg.

Sweeney crossed the chipped concrete floor, taking his place beside four masked figures standing in front of the seated line. He slapped the file folders against his thigh. Five sets of eyes looked up at him, eyes that were angry, or confused, or frightened. Sweeney ran his own eyes across the faces, looking for the cracks.

The Collin woman looked scared; just plain, ordinary scared. The first one they’d snatched, Jeff Lyons, he looked ready to burst into tears. The BJ guy was a bluster of anger and indignation. It was the last two that mattered. The older guy, Peter Schear, his eyes were taking everything in, looking for a way out. But the Stark woman, her eyes never moved. They were staring straight into Sweeney’s. He smiled at her, just to see what would happen. What he got in return was the slightest raise of an eyebrow, nothing more.

“Right. Let’s get started, shall we? Some of you have been with us for a few days. Others have just arrived. Now that we are all here, we can begin by laying out the rules. I…”

The BJ Reuben character interrupted him, his voice loud and angry.

“What the hell are you talking about? What rules? Are you some kind of crazy terrorists, or what?”

Banshee started forward, a Taser gripped in her left hand. She aimed her outstretched hand at the crotch of Mr. Reuben’s expensive slacks. He became suddenly very quiet, wide eyes staring at the thing Banshee held.

“Well, then, let’s move straight into introductions. BJ Reuben, I’d like you to meet Banshee. She will be your handler. I would advise against any more outbursts. I don’t think she likes you very much. Ms. Banshee, here is Mr. Reuben’s file. And would you pass the rest of these down, please?”

Banshee reached for the files. Through the holes of her grotesque mask, Sweeney caught the bright gleam in her eyes. Someone is enjoying this far too much. He had no doubt that Banshee would turn this whole escape into a cutting edge mystery novel. Sweeney turned his attention back to the seated captives.

“Moving right along then, let’s get to the rules. I am sure most of you are aware that you are in the same business. In fact, I am reasonably sure that some of you know each other quite well.”

He watched for any furtive glances and was not disappointed.

“Think of these rules as submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules, exactly as they are laid out, your stay here will be a long one, and more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Each of you will be paired with a handler. You will speak only to your handler, understood?”

“Ms. Collin, you’ll be working with Stephen. I think you’ll find Mr. Dedalus to be quite a gentleman. Peter, you’ll be with Buck Mulligan. He’s a bit hard at the edges, but I’m sure you two will hit it off.”

“Jeff Lyons, you’ll be working with Molly Bloom, you lucky devil you. That takes care of everyone but Ms. Stark, who will be working with me. My name is Sweeney. Ah, yes, Mr. Schear, thank you for the raised hand.”

“Mr. Sweeney, I’m guessing that we’ve been abducted for some reason, but I’m struggling to figure out what that reason is. I mean, we’re just literary agents; not exactly high ransom targets if I understand the situation correctly.”

The man’s voice was calm and smooth, probing for an advantage.

“If we could just hold off on the questions, I think this will go faster.”

Peter Schear shrugged, his hands in his lap.

“You are here for one reason, and that is to write. The way you are going to get out of here is to write your way out. Your choice of project is up to you. It can be a novel, a collection of short stories, even a play if you like. Buck, what would you think about the choice to write a stage-play?”

The answer came rough and hard.

“Delusional.”

“There you have it folks; and from a source that should know. Buck writes some of the best dramatic dialogue out there, but I’m sure none of you have ever heard it. His work is performed so far off Broadway it might as well be Uzbekistan. As you can see, Buck is a large man, and I can assure you he has no love for agents. I would not cross him if I were you.”

Sweeney paused to let his remark sink in.

“Now, back to why you are here. Whatever project you choose, it will be submitted to a jury of your peers, namely other agents. We will, of course, have to submit your work under assumed names. If an agent, any agent, asks to read a full manuscript, or further chapters, or expresses the slightest interest in representing your work, you will be free to go. One simple, positive response is your magic key.”

“Wait, you want us to write something, submit it to an agent, and wait for a response?”

“Another country heard from. Yes, Mr. Lyons, that is exactly correct. You will write, your handler will transcribe the manuscript into a computer file, and then we will send it off with as perfect a query letter as we can conjure.”

 Sweeney watched the change in the man’s face; the look of a little boy about to cry replaced by the look of a little boy struggling with his maths. Jeff Lyons swung his eyes up as the difficulty of the problem dawned on him.

“But, but, that could take months!”

“Yes, it could, Mr. Lyons; all the more reason for you to write well and quickly.”

“Ah, Mr. Reuben, you wish to comment?”

“Is this some crazy stunt to get published? Some elaborate piece of performance art?”

“An astute and hopeful question, Mr. Reuben, but no, this is not a stunt. Besides, each of us have published work, though perhaps not to your standards. After all, you are the gatekeepers, are you not? You judge who is worthy to walk the hallowed ground and who will remain out in the cold, dark night. No, we are well past stunts or trickery. This is about something much simpler; it is about getting even. I admit that there is some thought of making it better for the writers coming after us, but mostly this is just revenge. Banshee, do you have Mr. Reuben’s wish list?”

Banshee swung the folder open with a flick of her right hand, the Taser still held in her left.

“Got it right here, Sweeney. BJ Reuben, always willing to take a chance on a debut author. Looking for something that makes him miss his stop on the subway. Likes literary fiction that is quirky; surprise him. The usual rot.”

Sweeney raised a hand to cut off any more comment. I should just let Banshee Tase this bastard in front of the others. That would move things along. Just a nod and she would be so happy to oblige. She’s angry and ready. Sweeney knew he could count on Banshee to do her part.

“We are wasting time here. Forgive me, perhaps I have not been clear. If you wish to leave, you will write. Behind you are your accommodations. Think of them as monastic cells. Each has been furnished with a cot, a desk, and writing materials. Chairs you already have. Meals and other essentials will be provided for you so long as you write. If you want to eat, you write. If you want to shower, you write. It’s quite simple, really. Three thousand words per day, seven days a week; in four weeks you will have a novel of eighty-four thousand words. That is, I believe, your optimum length for a debut novel, yes?”

“And what if we refuse?”

Lauren Collin has found her voice. Sweeney looked into her brown eyes; attractive eyes. She may be scared, but at least she is thinking.

“That is a very good question, Ms. Collin. There must be penalties, of course, else how would the system function? If you refuse to write, you will not eat. You will not shower. You will not be allowed out of your comfortable cell. There are some other penalties as well, which I should make clear. You may write whatever you wish. Your work can be tailored to your own wish list, or the wish list of an agent that you know. But do not try to plagiarize someone else’s work. If you do, we will know it. The penalty for plagiarism is death, and I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense. You will be shot, and your body will be dumped in a place where no one will ever find it. Likewise, for any attempt at escape or mutiny. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The words seemed to sink in. There was a silence from the line of chairs, then one raised hand.

“Yes, Ms. Stark, you have a question?”

“I just want to clarify. I write a novel. You send that novel out to other literary agents. If one of those agents requests additional material, or expresses any interest other than a rejection, then I go free?”

Sweeney smiled to himself, making note of the careful choice of pronouns. There is no ‘we’ with this woman.

“That is exactly correct, Ms. Stark. I couldn’t have put it more succinctly.”

There was that same barely raised eyebrow, the slightest nod as if she were confirming something she already knew; then nothing. I like this one, even if she is an agent. Careful, Boyo, this is not the time or place.

“Very well, if there are no further questions, we need to get you back into your cells. We must start the dinner preparations. There are some good cooks amongst us, as some of you already know. You will not suffer unduly. Tomorrow is our first work day, so you will want to get your rest.”

Sweeney turned to his companions.

“If you will, please; one at a time of course. Escort our guests back into their cells.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan bounced his ass down the bench between the concrete wall and the long table. He pushed a plate of breakfast down the worn surface. Once the big man was settled, he smiled across at the others.

“G’morning Banshee, morning Ka… sorry, Sweeney.”

“Morning, Buck. What, two weeks of practice and you’re forgetting your lines? You’re the stage professional.”

“Yeah, sorry, a momentary lapse. Your two shining faces put me off my guard. Banshee is smiling like a cat in a canary factory.”

“Understood, of course, but no mistakes in front of the guests, please.”

The bigger man grunted, stabbing a fork into a mound of scrambled eggs and roasted peppers. He chewed and nodded before he spoke again.

“Mmm… that’s some fine tucker. I don’t know if the original Dedalus could cook, but our modern version is a wizard. What is the line? God made food, the devil the cooks, or something like that.”

Banshee smiled at Buck from across the table. She was curled around her coffee; a soft smile gleaming through a tent of dark hair and bare forearms.

“You have it exactly, Mr. Mulligan.”

Buck looked between the two of them, Banshee’s dreamy smile and Sweeney’s smirk. His suspicion grew in spite of the known facts. He pointed his fork at them as he spoke.

“Okay, what’s the deal? Have you two been laying pipe?”

The first response was laughter, then more smirking.

“You have a suspicious mind, Buck Mulligan. Banshee and I have done no more than sit here and enjoy each other’s company.”

Sweeney leaned into Banshee’s shoulder.

“Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, my dear, if proclivities weren’t what they were.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll send you a memo if something changes. As for you, Mr. Mulligan; laying pipe, really? This is how a man of the theater speaks?”

Buck waved them off with his free hand, reaching for his coffee with the other.

“Theater is the art of the people, don’t you know, written in the language of the common man. Unlike the fancy prose of your highbrow novelists like Sweeney here. So what’s with all this bliss and happiness then?”

Banshee pushed herself upright, raising her coffee mug between thin, spidery fingers.

“I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this good in years. Almost three weeks of dealing with that whiny shit Reuben, and yet I feel fantastic.”

“Is he actually writing anything?”

“Just enough to eat, and what he’s scribbling down is crap. Worse than you would expect. Bitching, moaning, and scribbling shit; that’s pretty much his daily agenda. It’s a good thing we aren’t actually submitting this garbage to anyone.”

Buck nodded, savoring the tang of the peppers against the smooth taste of the eggs. He looked between the two faces sitting across the table, his fork poised midair.

“So what do we do with him?”

Sweeney turned to the smiling Banshee.

“He’s your guy. What do you think?”

She smiled even more, wrinkling her forehead as if it were a stupid question.

“Look, I signed on for the long-haul here, just like the rest of us. But I don’t have two years to waste on this little bitch. He doesn’t have a bad novel in him, much less a decent one. I have my own projects to write, and lovely maidens to chase. So I think it’s obvious: We kill him.”

The two men nodded their heads. Buck shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth. Sweeney spoke first.

“Sounds reasonable to me. When do you want to do it?”

“After breakfast tomorrow. I’m feeling too relaxed right now.”

“Who do you want to help you?”

“I don’t need any help to shoot him, but Stephen can help me dump the heavy lump of shit. I’ll have more free time after that, so I can play in the kitchen. I’ll bake you some biscuits, Buck.”

“I like biscuits.”

Buck pushed the empty plate aside, reached for his coffee.

“Listen, I’m worried about this Peter Schear cat. He’s the exact opposite of Banshee’s BJ. Pardon the pun.”

“In your dreams, Buck Mulligan.”

“I only dream about flying monkeys. Anyway, my guy is following the rules like a hall monitor. I swear, it’s like he’s analyzed the entire program, trying to figure out how to unlock it.”

Sweeney sipped at his cooling coffee.

“What about the stuff he’s writing?”

“Well, that would be worse news. It’s pap, pure and simple. Setting that elitist judgment aside, it’s the kind of pap that would sell in very respectable numbers. A dog, a pretty girl, a mildly shocking conflict; every element is lifted from somebody. But we can’t shoot him for plagiarism. He’s not lifting from one person; he’s lifting from everyone.”

“Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. It’s not unreasonable that one out of the five would turn out to be a writer. Maybe we just handed him an opportunity. At least he’s not trying to bust your balls.”

“No, but he’s a calculating bastard, I can tell you that. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of a negotiation with him. A fella would come out short on that deal.”

“Think about what we should do with him, Buck. Banshee will have a bit more time after eliminating the annoying Mr. Reuben. When she’s not baking biscuits, perhaps she could give Peter Schear’s cage a bit of a rattle?”

Banshee shook back her hair, grinning a wicked grin.

“I’d be delighted.”

*  *  *

It was after breakfast when they came for him. The captives were all in their cells, but she could hear every word. The steel boxes did not hide sounds as much as magnify them. Every noise, every groan or fart, was broadcast across the open concrete room. Allie Stark heard the outside door open, the footsteps heavy across the floor. This wasn’t part of the routine. The handlers usually stayed away in the morning. No one had shouted for a bathroom privilege. Allie sat absolutely still, the tip of her pen hovering above a yellow legal pad. The footsteps passed in front of her box, the sound of two people moving further up the line. She heard the wrenching creak of a steel handle, then the groan of a heavy door opening.

“Okay, Reuben, on your feet.”

It was the woman, Banshee, with that voice like soft gravel. The other one was silent; maybe one of the men.

“What do you want? What’s this about?”

Allie shook her head at the tone of BJ’s voice. You poor idiot, three weeks and you still haven’t figured these people out. As if you were still in charge of everything. You never were much for learning things. Banshee’s voice cut across her thoughts, harsh and metallic.

“Shut up. I am sick to death of listening to you. Turn around and put your hands behind your back. We’re going for a little walk.”

“But I…”

“I said shut up. I won’t say it again. Turn around, hands behind your back, or I stun you right now. Dragging you will be more work, but if that’s the way you want it, fine.”

There was the creak of a chair, the muffled sound of movement, the faintest click of steel on steel. Then the sound of shuffling feet, footsteps being retraced. Allie Stark sat quite still, listening to the quiet that followed. She knew the others were listening as well.

The first gunshot cut through the silence, rolling like thunder against the concrete walls. Two more shots followed, the echoes mixing and dying. The thunder fell away, replaced by the sound of weeping from the next cell.

*  *  *

“Dammit, Stephen, couldn’t you two keep your hands off each other for a few more weeks? I thought you were the writer who wanted to reinvent the modern love story. Instead, you get involved in some pulp romance.”

Molly Bloom stood in front of Stephen, her hands on her hips. Dedalus raised his hands from the arms of the chair, shook his head, dropped the hands to his lap. Molly blew out a huge sigh, turned to the others.

“Does someone want to help me out here? Anyone?”

Sweeney was slumped over the long table, silent. Banshee leaned against the wall casting dangerous looks. Buck Mulligan sighed and scratched at the stubble on his jaw, thinking of where to start.

“I think it’s safe to say that this changes things a bit. Stephen, can you give us the quick version? But please, without any graphic bits, because I am really not in the mood for that.”

Banshee laughed out loud.

“Yeah, I’m dying to hear this. At least someone is getting laid. Please tell me that you took that stupid leprechaun mask off.”

“Look, I’m sorry; really I am. It was after you took that Reuben prick out. Lauren was scared; I mean really freaked out. We were just talking, you know. We had to whisper, so we were leaned in close. Then it just happened.”

Sweeney raised his head from the table.

“Yes, it just happened. The Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, or the earth moved beneath the two of you. It doesn’t matter at this point. This pretty much tears it. Ms. Collin has to go, and so do you, Stephen. Then you two can live happily ever after, or she can hand you over to the Feds.”

“I don’t think Lauren would do that.”

“Sure, of course. Buck, would you care to script this one out for us?”

“No, Sweeney, I most certainly would not. But I agree that they have to go, and they have to go quickly, which means we have to close up shop. The question is, how long is it going to take to clean everything up?”

Sweeney’s laugh was sour.

“When we were planning this thing, we weighed out a lot of contingencies, but I swear, I never thought of this one. But at least we have an evacuation plan. I need to go over the checklist, but I originally figured two days at the outside. We can probably get it done in one. After we serve our guests their dinners, we can start packing up the gear. Stephen, you’re going to have to wait a day or two before we can spring you two lovebirds. Can you live with that?”

“Sure, of course we can. Look, I’m sorry. I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone. And you guys can keep my share of the profits.”

“No, Mr. Dedalus, a deal is a deal. We spent an entire year planning this thing. One of the rules was that if there were ever any royalties, we split them evenly. You did your part, just like everyone else, so the deal still stands as far as I’m concerned. Besides, you may need some money when you finally get out of the slammer. As far as talking goes, never is a long time. But we can’t kill you; we all go back too many years. Is everyone okay with that?”

There were nods around the room. Sweeney shook his head.

“Right. There’s not a lot more we can do tonight besides packing up the miscellaneous stuff. Tomorrow we move everyone out. Buck can drive Stephen and Ms. Collin to the Denville Station. That’s in the opposite direction of where we dumped Reuben. They can get to the city from there, or wherever they choose to go. Stephen, you need to do whatever you can to keep a lid on your new girlfriend until we can get clear of here.”

 Stephen Dedalus nodded his head, still slumped in his chair. Sweeney rose from the table.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we better get to it.”

*  *  *

Hers was the last dinner to serve. Sweeney rapped twice, his knuckles ringing on the steel door. Heavy cams groaned as he rotated the thick handles. Before he fully opened it, Sweeney peeped through the gap in the door. There was no need. Ms. Allie Stark was not poised to attack, sharpened pencil raised to stab. She was sitting at her makeshift desk, as always, her eyes calm and waiting. Vaguely disappointed, he retrieved a tray of food and pulled open the door, edging into the steel box.

“Good evening Ms. Stark; here is your dinner.”

“Good evening, Mr. Sweeney. Mmm… it smells like curry. It must be Stephen Dedalus’ turn in the kitchen. He is a very good cook, Mr. Dedalus. I may actually miss his curries.”

Sweeney set the tray on the desk and took one step back.

“Are you leaving us, Ms. Stark?”

“Everything must come to an end, Mr. Sweeney, even this little vacation.”

“Yes, well, I will leave you to your meal.”

Her voice stopped him before he could move.

“Would you mind very much staying for a bit? I am sick of eating alone, truth be told.”

Sweeney shrugged, seated himself on the narrow cot.

“A bit of time is all I have, I’m afraid. Lots to do, dishes to wash; you understand.”

“Yes, and love affairs to see to, I would imagine.”

She caught his harsh look and gave him back a half smile.

“Relax, it’s no business of mine. The walls are quite thin, that’s all. But it would make a very good party story, don’t you think? A wonderful response to that awkward ‘how-did-you-two-meet’ question. Speaking of questions, do you mind if I ask you one?”

“I believe you just did.”

“Alrighty, let’s make it two.”

Sweeney raised his hands palm up.

“Your name; how did you choose it? I mean, I understand the others, the Joyce characters: very clever. And Banshee, that requires no explanation. She has the sexiest voice on the planet, all gravel and threat. It is a treat to listen to her.”

“She would be pleased to hear it.”

“Yes, I’m sure she would. But back to your name. Which version of the Frenzy of Sweeney are you? Were you cursed for insulting a holy man, or broken in the shock of battle.”

“I am impressed, Ms. Stark. You are well-versed in your Irish literature.”

“Allie, please; I think we are long past the formalities. And yes, I have a little something to show for all of that money my parents handed over into the coffers of the Ivy League.”

“Brown University, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, six years of it; and you?”

“I spent a bit of time in academia, but nothing so prestigious.”

The woman ignored her food, her eyes fixed on his.

“Tell me, Sweeney, what do you think of my story?”

You asked for this, Boyo, engaging in a serious conversation with this woman. All you had to do was drop off the food and go on about your business, but no.

“To be honest, I like what you’re writing. It’s good, edgy, but it will never sell.”

“I wasn’t thinking about it selling. You never had any intention of submitting our manuscripts, so what does it matter? I may as well write what I want. Isn’t that the way to create something real?”

Sweeney rose to his feet in one motion.

“Damn you, Allie Stark. Damn you to hell.”

*  *  *

Buck Mulligan stepped into the room. His crumpled leprechaun mask dangled limply in one hand. The other three looked up from the cramped table. Molly was the first to speak.

“Did everything go okay, Buck?”

“Sure, by the numbers, just like we planned. I dropped the two lovebirds off at the Denville Station and came straight back here. But the clock is ticking. We need to wrap this up if we want to stay out of prison.”

Sweeney looked up from a pad of paper.

“Buck’s right, of course. We need to get the others out of here and clear out ourselves. Let’s run through it one more time. Banshee, is the pistol taken care of?”

“It’s handled, Sweeney. I ran the tap thing down through the barrel. There were metal shavings everywhere. No one is getting ballistics from that pistol. I swept up the shavings and mixed them in with some other piles of junk.”

“And you dug the three slugs out of the hay bale?”

“You know I did. We can’t be leaving any bullets for the cops to find. They went down the toilet.”

“Good work, thank you. We can toss the gun when we leave. One more pistol in a New Jersey ditch; no one is going to notice or care. I can smell the chlorine, so the bleaching must have gotten done, right?”

“Yes, we made Stephen do it. It seemed only fair. He doused the toilets and the kitchen like a madman. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of DNA left. Better if no one ever finds this place at all, but we did our best.”

“Okay, Mrs. Bloom, that’s checked off the list as well. Everything went to the storage unit this morning. I paid three months rent on that thing, so no one will be opening it anytime soon. I don’t think anyone will ever connect a bunch of pots and pans with a kidnapping, but if they do, we will have a long head start.”

“Do we tell them anything about the cel phones, Sweeney?”

“Sure, tell them the truth. We’re not thieves, but we couldn’t have the cops tracking us. Their phones are in a package buried in the mail room of the Reuben Park Group. It’s disguised as an unsolicited manuscript. If they look hard, they may find it in a week or two.”

There was grim laughter around the table. Sweeney pushed the legal pad away and looked at the others.

“You know they’ll never stop looking for us, right? Kidnapping, a Federal offense and all of that; we need to get this last part over with.”

Everyone nodded. Buck Mulligan’s voice cut across the group.

“We need to be careful about the finger prints. Everything has been doused with WD-40. All the doors will be open, so there should be no need for anyone to touch anything, but make sure you keep the latex gloves on until we are in the van and driving.”

Sweeney nodded his head.

“You all know what to do. You three take the van. You dump Lyons and Schear near the train station. Their hoods don’t come off until you push them out of the van. I do the last wipe down, then I take Ms. Stark in the car. Once we’re all clear, we head for Philadelphia. Remember to watch the speed limits and all of that. Any questions?”

It was Molly Bloom who spoke.

“The wild card is that prick Reuben. Banshee, you dumped him in Patterson, right? He’s had a few days to do whatever he’s going to do. What do you think?”

“We gave him the spiel, about how we know where he lives, where his family lives. I think he’s scared enough to keep his mouth shut, at least for a little while. I told him that if he talks, someone will find him and kill him for real; slowly and painfully. Stephen said there is a lot about this that Reuben wouldn’t want made public, but who knows.”

“I suppose we will find out soon enough. We give the same talk to the others, of course. Let Banshee put the fear of all the gods into them. Buck said it best; the clock is ticking. You guys get a move on. As soon as you’re clear of here, I’ll do the last walk through and follow. See you in Philadelphia.”

Without a word, the crew rose and set to work.

*  *  *

Sweeney crossed the concrete floor, a canvas bag in his hand. The warehouse was in shadows. Steel doors gaped open on four of the shipping containers; empty mouths on empty cells. The nearest, the fifth, was shut tight. Sweeney rapped twice, then pulled at the heavy handles. The door wrenched open, the handles clanged. A feeble light trickled in from a small overhead vent. The generator was gone and the lights had gone with it. 

Allie Stark was seated on her narrow cot, hands in her lap, as if she were waiting on a bus. She held a hand to her forehead to fend off the sudden light, weak as it was.

“Good afternoon, Sweeney, or evening; whichever it is.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting Ms. Stark. Late afternoon would be accurate, I suppose.”

“If you call me Ms. Stark one more time, I’m going to scream. And I can scream really loudly, so fair warning. Not that it matters, since everyone is already gone. They are gone, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Allie, everyone else has left, as I’m sure you heard. “

“Then I should be terrified: Trapped alone with a legendary Irish madman.”

Sweeney did not think she looked at all terrified.

“What is it you’ve got there?”

Stepping into the gloom, he held out the canvas bag.

“I brought you your things; your purse, wallet. You’ll have to do without your cell phone.”

Allie Stark took the bag with one hand, motioned to the cot with the other.

“Have a seat while I pack.”

Sweeney shrugged and sat, leaning against the steel wall at the far end of the cot.

Allie rose, took three steps to the desk, reached for a stack of legal pads. She fit the pads into the canvas shopping bag and returned to her place on the cot. It creaked under her slight weight as she sat.

“I’m packed.”

Her smile flashed in the dim light. Sweeney reached into a side pocket of the work coat he was wearing.

“You should add this to your packing. It’s your manuscript; as best as I can transcribe it.”

“Oh, a thumb-drive, how sweet. Now I will have something to remember you by.”

“Right, a keepsake. I didn’t want you to lose all of your hard work, that’s all.”

“One of the lessons I have learned in the last four weeks is that I rather like working with paper and ink. I had forgotten that lovely scratching sound the pen makes as it slides across the paper. Speaking of lessons, did you learn yours?”

“And what lessons would those be?”

Allie Stark turned away from the bag in her lap, giving Sweeney a frank stare.

“You know exactly what I am talking about. This elaborate abduction; weeks of watching and listening. There must have been some surprises, lessons you weren’t counting on.”

Sweeney looked away from her probing eyes.

“I’m going to need to get back to you on that. I wish I had something profound to say, but I’m still trying to sort it out in my head.”

“I suppose that’s fair. Did you at least get what you wanted out of this whole thing?”

“No, not so much, or rather yes and no. I think there was more of the unexpected than the expected. Let’s just say that things didn’t stick to the outline.”

“Maybe not as much as our friend Banshee? Direct anger, driver revenge; she is very good at it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right. Banshee got exactly what she was looking for, exactly what she was needing.”

“Are any of the others really dead?  Mr. BJ Reuben in particular?”

“Dead?”

“Yes, you know, shuffled loose the mortal coil: Dead.”

“No, no one is dead.”

“Good, I’m glad for that.”

“You’re glad for them?”

“No, I’m glad for you, Sweeney.”

She raised a hand, pointing to his face.

“Since it’s just the two of us, would you be willing to take off that stupid mask? It’s most unflattering, you know.”

“No, Allie, I would not be willing to take off this stupid mask.”

Her eyes were on him again; grey, serious eyes.

“Then I am stuck with the image of a horribly disfigured man; saber scar across the left cheek, a crooked, broken nose.”

“That is remarkably accurate. We should be going now.”

“All right, Sweeney, but just one more thing before we go. When you send me the query letter for this novel, make sure you put in a line, a code word, something I can recognize. I know, use this sentence: And your words may set you free. I’ll make sure my assistant is looking for that.”

“What makes you think I’m going to write a novel about this?”

“You’d be a fool not to.”


BIO

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, Five on the Fifth, Storgy, Inlandia Journal, Manzano Mountain Review, Every Day Fiction, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Literary Yard, Mobius: A Journal for Social Change, Czykmate, Cleaning Up the Glitter, and Fleas on the Dog. His non-fiction work has been featured at Route 7 and Bluntly Magazine. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers.

Reflections

by Regan Kilkenny



It was always empty at this time of night. Everyone else had gone home to start their weekends – see their kids that they had visitation rights to see – although had no custody over. The addiction had made it that way.

I dragged the chairs out of the little circle we had set up and back into their proper formation. A chill had set in. The heating turned off at nine each evening and the old, poorly insulated walls did little to nothing in order to help keep it warm. The cold wind managed to trickle in through the cracks in the single-paned windows and, at the same time, created a high pitched howl that echoed around the room. The artificial light that had been shining down on me for the last few hours was beginning to give me a headache. The muscles behind my eyes had been working too hard and had started to become strained, forcing the unpleasant soreness that wrapped it’s way around my head to intensify.

I dreaded the drive home. Navigating the winding country roads that remained unlit at this time of night, the darkness that set in would always crowd her, the blanket of black creeping its way in, suffocating me. I hated it.

The isolated town hall, that was far too elegant to just be a town hall, was situated outside of town which unfortunately meant a grueling drive for me every other Friday. It had once been home to an eccentric, elderly man who had supposedly donated it once he had died. Whispered rumours informed us all that he had gone mad in his old age and when he died there had been no next of kin and so the council deemed it the new town hall.

Most of his belongings were still here since no one had bothered to clear it out. The antique furniture that had a permanent layer of dust settled on its surface, the unpolished marble floor. The grandfather clock that stood proud at the top of the carpeted staircase and yet always chimed at the wrong time. A forgotten plate was still placed on the dining room table. I passed it as I walked to the coat room to grab my gloves, coat and bag, glad to be done for the day.

I whipped my head round when I heard a noise from another room. A high-pitched squeak, like worn shoes dragging across a too-shiny floor.

“Hello,” I called out, my voice confident despite my shaking hands. I told myself it was just the cold.

Expecting the noise to be from some kids that had snuck in as a joke, I walked in the direction that it came from – behind a pair of large double doors that stretched all the way up to the high ceiling. The wood that the doorway was made of had cracked and discoloured in places. The corners had even rotted slightly. The gold handle had been well worn, rust settling into the delicately sculpted design. Grabbing the handle, the cool metal sent shivers up my arm. I turned and pushed. 

The floor was made of mirrors. As I walked across the room, a deep pit eroded away my stomach. A weird tingly feeling spread over my arms and legs. Like fireworks, except I felt nauseous. My fingers were numb.

Looking down at the floor beneath me, the mirrors began to move. Ripples spread out from under my feet, the mirrors sliding over each other like a reflective pool of water. Yet I seemed to still be standing on solid ground.

I jumped back when a pair of hands reached towards me, through the pool of mirrors. More ripples spread over the surface. The skin on the hand was grey, almost translucent and rough; patches of dry flaky skin chafing against my own smooth skin. Long black talons pierced into my wrist along with a burning sensation – a handprint burning into my flesh. I screamed as the hand began to pull me down.

I was pulled through the river of mirrors, an icy chill settling over my skin as the unusual liquid splashed around my body. An indistinguishable pressure encompassed me – as if being squeezed through a tube that only just allowed enough space for me.

The claw was still wrapped tightly around my wrist, tugging me along; branding itself deeper and deeper into the flesh on my arm.

I struggled against it, pulled with the weight of my body. But with nothing else to pull myself towards, my efforts were futile. The hand pulling my body along as though i was a limp ragdoll.

The pressure around me began to grow tighter. Tightening around my chest, my ribs, my lungs. It became harder to breathe. The effort it took in order to get air into my lungs was unbearable and when I opened my mouth to attempt to breathe, a foul taste of iron entered my mouth and coated my taste buds.

I was drowning in metal. And then I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, the tightness around my chest released and my feet had found purchase. I was no longer falling through the river of mirrors. Instead I was in a room of mirrors, with multiple versions of myself staring back at me. My hair was now a wild nest on top on my head; completely windswept. My jumper had ripped, the stitches up my left side that held together the purple polyester had come apart completely.

In the dim light, the figure behind me was barely visible. It was all but a shadow that towered above me. It lifted a clawed finger and point towards one of the walls that was coated in mirrors. Though these mirrors had gone dark and cloudy. A dark inky mass spreading across the once crystal-clear wall and with it, the last of the light that lingered in the small room. It pulled all the light away and me along with it, I couldn’t seem to look away. When I dared to try and look at the creature behind me, I just couldn’t. My vision was fixed. I felt a cold hand rest on my shoulder.

In a rapid movement that lasted all of a second, the inkiness cleared and a brief spark of yellowing light flashed across the wall; a scene from a film, playing in front of me.

A younger version of myself stumbling down an alleyway, visibly intoxicated. It was nighttime; a full moon stood proudly in the pitch-black sky. No stars were out that night.

A man was following me, the glint of a knife reflected off what little light the moon provided. He walked with purpose, towards her, me, as I continued to stumble down the alley, wanting to be home. The me on the screen pulled out her phone. I remembered that I had tried to call a taxi, but the screen of my phone danced around, my eyes wouldn’t focus. The man had reached me now, grabbing my arm and roughly pulling me around to face him. I almost fell over with the force that he enacted onto me.

“Give me your money,” he said. My own mouth, the one in the room made of mirrors, mimed along to his words, like it was me saying them. The cold hand clutched my shoulder even tighter.

“I don’t have any,” My words were slurred as I tripped over my own feet. I pulled him with me as I fell. His body landing on top of me with a grunt. I struggled under him, trying to move his heavy body off me. I remember feeling as though he was suffocating me. I remember passing out. I remember the feeling of his dried blood clinging to my jeans that made it even more impossible to move. I remember his body crushing me.

I had still been drunk when I left him there. With a knife sticking out of his chest. It had somehow managed to lodge itself inside him when he had fallen on me. I was left limping away covered in a stranger’s blood.

The wall went black, like a television turning off. My cheeks were sticky with tears, but when the lights came on, I was back in the town hall, with nothing around me except the howling wind. And a burning handprint scarred into my wrist.


BIO

From the U.K., Regan Kilkenny is a young aspiring author currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Staffordshire University.

The Walker

By Martin Keaveney



            I stop walking on the hard shoulder. There is a light flashing in the distance. It’s different from the yellow glow of the streetlights. A silver torch beam from the bog, over the sparkles of tarmac, through the hue of the blue moon. Now it lights up the canvas of a small tent. There is someone inside. It’s a female. I know by the shape of the shoulders. I better be careful.

            I always leave the city when the buses stop running. The clubs are starting, there’s queues of youngsters lined up, perfumed, heels tapping, phones blinking, excitement of the night to come. I hit for the ring road, past the 24-hour service station. Around the big roundabout and onto the east route. I walk fast. I go if it’s dry, if it rains, if it snows. I take what comes. I go no matter what. I probably shouldn’t walk on the dual carriageway. But I live with risk.

            There isn’t much notice taken out here after dark. The night has its own laws. I could go by the old road. There’s a lot of hills that way. But I’d get over them. Or I could go cross-country. I have done. Squelching across the bog, trawling through streams, climbing over fences. The world slows you down. It’s never in a hurry. Nature is always on time.

            But my old boots are leaking this last while. You can get no wear out of anything these days. I only have them a few years. I can feel the damp coming in already. Even though the shape of this road rolls down from the centre, there is still a film of dampness across it. I sense it coming in my woollen socks. Around the toes. The reeds and marsh are out for now. I’m afraid I’ll have to get new boots for the winter. Then I might take on the cross-country. But the motorway is the most direct. As-the-crow-flies.

            They knew what they were doing when they set it out. I know all about road-making. I did an exam on it. I studied the production of road coverings, bridge-building, urban and rural planning, infrastructural strategies and policies, waterways, dams. The route was well planned. On certain parts of the road, you can see the track of it for miles by the lights each side. You can see things better in the darkness of the night.

            It’s hard to get silence in the world these days. I’ve tried lots of places. The church. The last morning, I found a couple of parishioners by the devotion candles. Chatting as I knelt and prayed. Down the library. A row broke out one day over an unpaid fine while I was looking for a history book. You can’t even walk along the canal in the daytime, without whooping children rattling crisp bags, beeping mobile phones. People racing everywhere. Round in circles.

            I’d only be about during the night if I could. Sounds that were hidden all day come alive at night. The rustling on leaves, doors banging, bins emptying, dogs barking. You couldn’t hear them things during the day. Not with all that goes on. But I wouldn’t be the first to throw light on that.

            No cars have passed for a while. Awful waste of a good road really. Lying dormant here for hours. It’s funny to be walking slow on a surface designed for great speed. The road tries to hurry you. But I’ll not be hurried.

           It’s like you are in slow motion. The big white and yellow lines, the flat bitumen skin, the crash barrier of two aluminium channels running all the way. The massive green and blue signs. The smaller yellow ones with bars showing how many hundred metres before the next turn-off. Billboards at the slip roads. Designed for people zooming by. You get a glimpse of a woman using a shiny lawnmower or a man filling a sleek washing-machine. Happy people that have something the drivers of the cars should buy. You see it. You want to buy it. But I’m looking at these pictures for a long time as I walk. When you come up close to the giant board, you see them better. You see it as a flat sheet of colours and shapes. If you look really close, you can see it’s just lines of coloured full stops.

           The hostel lobby clock put temperatures at between 4 and 5 Celsius tonight. The autumn is dying. The leaves won’t be rustling for much longer. Except in the Copper Beeches. And the evergreens. I’m an evergreen. I don’t lose my leaves in the winter. I don’t hibernate. I keep going all year round.

            I’ve decided I’ll move out of the hostel as soon as I can. I’m in one of six bunk beds in a room. The people change every night. But even so, they’re the same. Rattling plastic bags. Fiddling with zips. Blowing hairdryers. Flashing phones. I get cold with those noises. Scratching at you. Great silence out here. I was always fond of the night.

            I didn’t want to go to bed at all when I was a boy. The old man would tell me it was time. I’d spell ‘N-O’. He would spell ‘Y-E-S’. But I couldn’t spell ‘Just another half-hour?’ The old man was good at spelling.

            There’s always hassle in the hostel. One night in there I thought I heard the cuckoo. I never heard one, even though I lived in the country until I grew up. I was awful excited. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and in the city. I jumped down off the bunk, the man sleeping below groaned, rattling the wooden bead necklace he wore. I ran to the window. It was like waking up Christmas morning, running to the bottom of the tree to see what the man in red had brought.

            I looked across the roofs. There were owls hooting by this time as well. Another first. I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t see any birds. I thought they must have all their nests under the eaves. Then I saw a square blue light reflected in the glass. The man with the wooden necklace was sitting up in the bed. He had his phone out. He turned off his alarm. The owls and cuckoos stopped.

            I don’t need to find anywhere else when I leave. I’ll firm up for the winter. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Surprising what the skeletal structure, the muscular tissue, the organs can withstand. It’s a durable design. Almost limitless. You’d be minted if you owned the patent.

           I’ve tested it well already. I was able to hop sixteen foot when I was sixteen years. The long jump at the village sports day. The sports field was green grassed. White fence posts and blue ropes marked out the running track. Crease suit lines ran in huge decreasing circles for the laps and relays. Wooden swing boats rose high into the blue sky. Children laughed. A man in a suit walked around speaking into an orange spongy microphone with a short piece of wire that wasn’t connected to anything. His voice came out of two blue loudspeakers attached to the top of a telegraph pole. I always wanted a go on that microphone. You could hear him speak all over the village, giving the results of the under-10s three-legged race. But I didn’t mind the noise then. I always loved the night though.

            The schoolmaster in the village shook my hand and gave me the winner’s trophy. It had a small golden statue of a man in sports gear. The master’s name was Joe. But he wasn’t my teacher anymore by then. When he gave me the trophy, I could have said ‘Thanks, Joe’, if I wanted. But I didn’t. I said ‘Thanks, sir.’ The master told me I should take sport more seriously. I had a real talent, he said. I could jump very high as well. And I could run fast. I looked at the trophy as he talked, my fingers on the marble base, the little golden plate glued on, inscribed with the year and the word: ‘Winner’. The man in the suit said my name into the orange microphone. It came out the two blue loudspeakers on the telegraph pole for everyone in the village to hear. They took my photograph. Everyone clapped for a long time.

            But I didn’t take sport more seriously. I went learning about the roads instead. The old man told me it was more secure. One of the arms broke off the trophy figure a while later. I never did any sport again. That was fifty years ago.

            I’m still fit enough. I walk most of the day as well. It’s surprising what the body can train itself to do. Imagine all the miles I could walk over another twenty years if I keep in good shape. No one should ever be in any hurry. Nature is always on time.

            I moved out of the flat in the city a month ago. The crowd I was living with were fairly lively. ‘Sticky People’ the landlord called them. He didn’t mean me. If they were all like me, he’d be elected, he said. But they’re not all like me. That was the problem. He was getting rid of the lot of them.

            The buck from down the country that called a kettle a ‘kittle’. The foreigner that was trying to learn English from him. The father of three whose family lived in a different continent. There were a few women there too. I didn’t know much about any of them. They’re all sticky people, the landlord said. He wanted to clean the place up and get in a family. Every landlord wants a family.

            I didn’t mind. I was glad to be getting out of there. I took a top bunk in the hostel. But I’ll be getting away from there soon enough too. Sticky people in it and all. Out here on the road, there’s none of that. It’s all left to you. Freedom.

            I looked at a few places last week. But I didn’t like the terrain. I’ll firm up for the winter instead. I’ll wear two trousers and two shirts if temperatures go below zero. My woollen cap. Thick socks and gloves. I’m fit for anything. I’ll sleep behind the crash barrier on the motorway. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to if the mind is right. The mind is a powerful tool. The old man told me that once.

            I’m getting very close to the torch beam in the bog. I can see the tent better now. It definitely wasn’t there last night. Someone sleeping by the motorway. Moved in under cover of the day. Someone with my idea. I can see the woman inside. I can make out the jawline. The shape of the hair. It would be funny if I hopped the barrier and called in to her. Tell her I pass this way every night. Maybe she could do with something brought from the city 24-hour next time I’m passing. A carton of milk. Or a pound of sausages. Or a bottle of 7up. But I don’t talk much to women. Never did. It’s hard to know what to say to them. They’re not straightforward. The old man told me that once. They can be sticky. The night is not sticky. The night is straightforward.

            But it would be funny if I told her I was going to be her neighbour. That I’d the same idea. Except without a tent. She’d probably call the law. Say I was some weirdo. There’d be a court visit. A cell at the finish. That’d be the end of the freedom. I value my liberty. I pass by her tent and keep going. Good luck to her. She’ll have to do her own shopping.

            I turn onto the slip road after the last yellow sign. I walk up a little hill to the bridge overhead. I walk across, looking over and back at the carriageway, streetlights stretching out into the dark. I can see the tent in the bog. A small triangle of canvas-shaded light. I go by a little roundabout. Then I come into the suburbs. Streetlights shine torch beam silver here instead of the motorway yellow. Security alarms flash in industrial estates. Lines of trucks parked up all night. Awful waste really. The night is a neglected space.

            Near the town centre, I cross an old bridge. I stop in the middle, go to the wall, look into the canal. The water never stops flowing here, from dusk to dawn. I hear it splashing against the bank. On the stone cut cap someone has written a small message in white paint: ‘Don’t Jump’.

            I get to the main street. I pass the traffic lights, a post office, a supermarket, a clothes shop, a bank. I walk into the town square, cars parked around it.

            I get to the statue in the centre. I stand by the square concrete base. There is a gold plate at the front inscribed with the words: ‘J.M. Barrie 1757-1845 – “The Walker”’. I look up at the bronze sculpture. I can see the outline of the boots, the jacket, the big bag on the back, the hat on top. The arms are outstretched. The wall lights of the town hall behind shine against the statue and the head is a black shape as I look up. But I always imagine The Walker is smiling.

            I pull my bag off my back. I sit on the concrete base. I look down the street. I have the freedom of the town. There’s always sticky people around the city. But not out here at night.

            I’ve walked ten miles on the dual carriageway. But I feel like I could walk forever. I stand. Better not to sit for too long. Hard to get going again. I bend each leg. I rub the backs of my thighs and calves. I’ll have to get new boots for the winter.

           I walk down the main street to the traffic lights. They change every thirty seconds, even though there’s no drivers to come and go. Changing colours all night to an empty street. Awful waste of electricity really. I go up close to them.   The lights are just circles of coloured full stops. I stare at the amber when it comes. It means prepare to stop. It reminds me of the torch beam yellow. I walk back up the street and sit under The Walker.

            I pull off my shoes and socks. I wiggle my toes and stretch them out. I take off my high-viz jacket. The jumper with ‘Champion’ written across the front. The check shirt. The vest.  I sit in my skin. It’s good and cold. I look around. Not a sinner, not a sound. I scratch an armpit. I walk out to the middle of the main street. The road is wet on my feet. I stand on the white line in the centre. I flex my biceps. After a minute, I let off a roar. The silence falls again in the town. I let off another roar, louder. I’m coughing after this one. Heart thumps. A light comes on somewhere.

            I go back to the statue. I put on the vest, the check shirt, the ‘Champion’ jumper, the high-viz jacket, the socks and the old leaking boots. I put my bag on my back.

            I walk by the bank, the clothes shop, the supermarket, the post office. I stop at the traffic lights. I look to the town square. I can see The Walker, the arms outstretched. Smiling down at me. I smile back.

            The walk is always easier on the way back to the city. A car whizzes by outside the suburbs. Boxy lads squeezed inside, music beating, a purple light shining from the underbelly. They circle the little roundabout a few times. Then they zoom back by me toward the town. They beep as they pass. Sticky people. I shouldn’t be walking out here at night. But I live with risk.

            As I walk across the motorway bridge, I see her leaning against the crash barrier. She is looking up at me. The only trouble with the motorway is there is no cover. But usually there is no need to hide.

            There is nowhere to turn off on the slip road. I have to keep going toward her. I don’t let on to see her at all. I keep my eyes down on the sparkling tarmac. But as soon as I set foot on the hard shoulder, I hear her say ‘Excuse me?’ I say nothing. I keep walking. She has the torch in her hand. It shines on the road. But she could flash it in my face, if she wanted.

            ‘Excuse me?’ she says again.  I’m close by now. She says it so loud I couldn’t miss it. Unless I was deaf. But that could be dodgy to pull off. I stop. ‘Yes?’

            ‘Did you pass by here a while ago?’

            ‘Pass by? Where? Here?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘No. No, I wasn’t this way before. Not for a long time.’

            ‘I thought I saw you pass by earlier. From my camp.’ She nods back to the bog, ‘I thought it was you.’

            ‘No. That wasn’t me.’

            ‘You don’t normally pass this way?’

            ‘No.’ I look back toward the little town. ‘My car broke down. Back there. In the town. But there’s no one about. I’m going to the city. To get help.’

            ‘That’s awful, can it be fixed?’

            ‘What’s that?’

            ‘Your car, can it be fixed?’

            ‘I don’t know. I don’t know much about cars.’

            ‘Can you ring anyone?’

            ‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t use them.’

            ‘I’d give you mine, but the battery is flat.’

            ‘That was it.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘The battery. In the car. It’s flat.’

            ‘You poor thing. There wasn’t a phone box in the town?’

            ‘Vandalised. I must be on my way.’ But I’ve hardly gone two steps and she calls me again.

            ‘Excuse me! Really sorry to bother you when you have enough trouble, but I’m very stuck, and I wonder, do you, by any chance, have such a thing as a tin-opener? Maybe in your bag there?’

            ‘A tin-opener?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘You need to open a tin?’

            ‘Yes, do you have one?’

            ‘I do.’

            ‘Great! Could I borrow it? Just for a couple of minutes?’

            She has a funny accent. She’s not local. Her voice is like the current under the bridge, where they tell you not to jump, she gets higher pitched, same as the water splashing against the sides of the bank, as she reaches the end of each sentence.

            She must have grown up in a place hundreds of miles away from here. She picked up that twang in the schoolyard.  Pushing, pulling, shouting, screaming. Bouncing balls, stones grazing your arms, a busted nose. I hated them places.

           I pull off my bag from my back. Everything I need is within. Three pairs of trousers, three shirts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks, my wellingtons and a belt. Three cooking pots of different sizes, a frying pan, one knife, one fork and one spoon. A mug. A razor, a comb and a toothbrush. A shirt, tie, suit jacket and black shoes. A football jersey. My woolly hat. A bar of soap. A penknife with a tin-opener. Carrying all this around probably makes the walk harder. But I never leave anything in the hostel with the sticky people and their sticky fingers. ‘You have a tin and no tin-opener?’

            ‘Well, yes.’ She could be smiling, but her face is a black shape in the streetlight.

            ‘If you get the tin, I’ll open it for you,’ I say, taking out the penknife. ‘There’s a knack to this.’ A penknife is a valuable item when you live in the bog. She might not want to give it back.

            ‘Thank you so much!’ She sounds young, but she could be old. She climbs over the crash barrier. I hear the boots squelching over the bog. I know they are boots by the stamp. I wonder where she bought them. I will ask her that before I go. The torch flashes out the opening, lighting up a part of the night. The tent looks to be of decent quality. I wonder where she bought it. But I’m not getting a tent.

            When I move out of the hostel, I’ll lie directly onto the bog. There’ll be nothing separating me from the elements. It can get as cold as it wants. I hope it does. It’s welcome to. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Strange machine really. If you ever built something as durable, you’d be minted.

            But no one has yet. It’s a long way off. I’ll take full advantage of the skeletal and muscular structure I was born with in the meantime. Firm up the body. Away from all those racing sticky people. Nature is in no hurry. It’s always on time.

            If I fit with nature, I’ll be alright. That’s what they mean by staying fit. Fitting in with nature. Everything makes sense at night. You couldn’t ever get your head straight during the noise of the day.

            She’s coming back now with a pile of tins in a plastic box. She must have strong arms. ‘I may get a few opened while you’re here. Do you mind?’

            ‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ She takes out the tins and lines them up along the top of the crash barrier. I take the first one and clip the tin-opener onto the top. It bites into the rim. I wiggle the handle until it grips the little wheel. As I twist, it clicks around the circle.

            ‘This is so great,’ she says. An articulated lorry whizzes past. The gust lifts her hair high into the moonlight. There’s a smell of oil and burning rubber.

            The moon goes behind clouds. She shines the torch on the tin-opener. I look over to her. ‘If you turn off your torch, I’ll see better in the dark.’

            ‘Really?’

            ‘Once the eyes become accustomed.’

            ‘Ah-hah.’ She turns off the torch. I stop twisting the handle and the lid comes off. I can smell sweet fruit juice.

            ‘Good man,’ she says. She takes the opened tin from me and pours it into the plastic box. I start on the next one. ‘Do you like peaches?’

            ‘Peaches? Is that what these are?’ I fiddle with the handle. The wheel catches and the teeth chew the rim. I guess she nods, her hair moves around her shape.

            ‘They’re not fresh fruit, but still they’re good,’ she says.

            I get them all opened. I hand her the last one. She’s happy. ‘Thank you so much.’

            ‘You’re welcome.’ I push the tin-opener back into the bottom of my bag.

            ‘Would you like a bowl?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Would you like a bowl of peaches?’

            ‘No, thank you. I’d best be on my way. My car, you see.’

            ‘Of course. Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Do you not like peaches?’

            ‘I do. I do like peaches.’

            ‘Don’t you want a bowl?’

            ‘I’m not sure I’m that hungry.’ I’m beginning to wonder if maybe she is a bit sticky after all. ‘But where are the bowls?’

            ‘Actually, I use mugs. They’re back there. In my camp.’ She points to the bog.

            ‘I’d better not.’

            ‘Come on! You’re safe enough.’ I guess she is smiling now by the rise of her voice. ‘What’s your name?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Your name?’

            ‘My name is Jeremiah.’

            ‘Of course it is. Come, I’ll get you a mug of peaches for all your hard work.’ She climbs over the crash barrier. She carries the box of peaches to the tent. She is fit enough. You have to be to live in the bog. Her boots squelch. She stops at the tent and turns. ‘Come.’

            I climb over the crash barrier. My old boots sink. The ground is soft. It wasn’t the best spot to pitch up. With no tin-opener and no bowls. People get very confused. But that’s because of the day.

            She has gone inside the tent. I stop at the entrance. ‘Welcome to my camp!’ she says. Her voice sounds different in there. She’s kneeling on a sleeping bag. There are lengths of beads hanging everywhere, all different colours. Some are wooden but most are plastic.

            She has the torch set up in the corner. She has two mugs on a small wooden table. They are three-quarter full with peaches in fruit juice. The plastic box with the rest is now covered with a lid, beside a pile of folded clothes. ‘Are you coming in, Jeremiah?’

            ‘No. I’m fine here.’ I kneel at the edge of the floor cover.

            ‘Fair enough.’ She hands me the mug. It’s a fisherman’s tin. They use them mainly for worms as far as I know. Good for little else. Burn the lips off you if it were hot. But it’s not. It’s ice cold. Pieces of peach float around in the juice. I sip it. It’s sweet. I suck up one of the peach segments, making a slurping sound, breaking the silence of the night. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’

            ‘They’re good. Not like fresh fruit. But not bad.’

            ‘Not many peach trees around here, Jeremiah.’

            ‘Not many.’

            She sips the juice. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything to smoke?’

            ‘No.’

            ‘Pity.’

            ‘Are you going to be here long?’ I say. I’ll have to change my route by the looks of this. Get new boots for the winter and get off the motorway. Take the old road.

            ‘It depends. I don’t make plans anymore.’

            ‘That’s about the best plan,’ I say. She slugs the mug. I look around the tent. There’s a pillow with blue strawberries on the case and a photo sellotaped to cardboard on top. There are two children in the photo. Beside the pillow, there’s an alarm clock with two silver bells on the ears. The woman keeps track of time.

            I finish the mug. ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Thank you so much for the use of your tin-opener.’

            ‘You’re welcome to it. I better be going. My car.’

            ‘Of course.’

            I hand her the empty mug. ‘Hope to see you this way again, Jeremiah,’ she says and shakes my hand. She doesn’t let go. I don’t know what to do. Her hand is warm. I couldn’t say what age she is. She’s not that young. She’s not that old. Hard to say with women. They’re not straightforward. Then she takes her hand away.

            My old boots squelch on the bog as I walk back to the dual carriageway. The water seeps into my socks when I hit deep puddles.

            I’ll take the old road tomorrow night. The buck from down the country told me it had been upgraded. New surface, yellow lines for the hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes. Nearly as quick probably. There’s no crash barrier on the old road. But I live with risk.


BIO

Martin Keaveney’s debut collection of stories, The Rainy Day, was published  by Penniless Press in 2018. Short fiction has been published in  many literary journals in Ireland, UK and US. He has also written for the screen and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international  film festivals and on broadcast television. His  scholarship was recently published in the peer-reviewed  New Hibernia ReviewJournal of Franco-Irish Studies, and Estudios Irlandeses. He has a B.A. in English and Italian, an M.A in English (Writing) and a Ph.D. at NUIG (Creative Writing and Textual Studies).   He was awarded the Sparanacht Ui Eithir for his research in 2016 and the NUIG Write-Up Bursary in 2018. See more at www.martinkeaveney.com    

The New Girl in Our Office

by Deepti Nalavade Mahule



The New Girl in Our Office arrives for the first time one rainy morning with glistening raindrops splattered like stars on the lenses of her glasses. She is without an umbrella or raincoat. This indicates that she is clumsy, but it could also mean that she’s very excited to start her first day at work. 

Her manager introduces her to all of us. She shakes all of our hands in turn and furrows her brow in concentration as we tell her our names. 

Although not exactly a beauty, she has the rosiness of youth and a face that many might label “moderately cute”. She smells of lemon and lavender, a mix of two commonplace fragrances, which suits her personality just fine.

The New Girl sets up her desk on her first day. Among her personal items, there’s a picture frame of her green-eyed tabby cat and two palm-sized red dice with white dots on them. 

The New Girl asks many questions about her job responsibilities but during lunchtime banter, she is mostly silent and only answers when asked a question. Because she keeps her mouth shut for so long, it emanates a slightly unpleasant odor when she opens it to talk.

She’s fresh out of college and has touched down onto this bustling city as if she were a fledgling landing after its first flight from its nest. However, even after weeks in office have passed, with her sitting among different groups of people during lunch hours, she doesn’t seem to be part of any particular flock. When we talk to her, we cannot help but look away from the loneliness in her eyes staring back at us unabashedly.

On most evenings, when we’re leaving for the day, the New Girl is still at her desk. She barely looks up from her computer as she murmurs a “good night”. Sometimes, she’s not there with us at lunch. We find her later, devouring an apple in the break room while she scrolls through work emails on her phone. She does not interrupt others in meetings, but after everyone else has gone silent, she offers creative solutions to most problems. The New Girl’s earnestness in applying herself to her given tasks grates on our nerves and makes us question our own efforts.

At a team dinner one night, which she’s forced to attend, as the alcohol flows freely and tongues loosen, someone pesters her during a game of Truth or Dare to share the purpose of the dice on her desk. She finally discloses that they are containers to hold her antidepressant medication.

Months pass and the New Girl is fading into Just Another Go-Getter Girl at our office when hushed whispers are heard at the end of one workweek. Words like “New Girl”, “New Girl’s boss’s boss”, “sexual misconduct” are thrown around, followed by “brushed under the carpet”, “consensual”, “too ambitious” and “The Girl of Questionable Character”.

On Monday, the New Girl calls in sick and does not show up for work. She is absent for the rest of the week and at the end of Friday, we learn that she was last seen at dusk the previous evening by her landlord. She was standing on the bridge overlooking the rushing waters of the river that runs through our city. She’d already given her notice of resignation at the office and had probably stopped by at our workplace in the early hours of the previous morning to gather her things from her desk. Having cleared out her belongings from her rented apartment as well, she was presumably planning to be on her way back to her hometown.

The Monday of the next workweek comes and goes, and it is confirmed that The New Girl will no longer be with us. Gone from her desk are her dice. One of our colleagues who has a cousin in the police force tells us what he’s heard. He says that two red dice — one of them with four dots and the other one with two dots on the sides facing up —  were found when they plummeted from the top of the bridge and landed in the bushes near the river bank instead of on the rocks jutting out in the middle of the surging downward current of the river. It’s surprising how much detailed information the colleague has about the position and location of the dice and yet he doesn’t know if they were thrown down first by the girl or came down with her.

We rack our brains about the four and two on the dice and talk excitedly among ourselves theorizing about the meanings that they might have tried to convey. In the end, we give up and look away from the blank space that they’ve left on her desk and talk about her cat instead. In our minds, we convince ourselves that the New Girl in Our Office has gone on to a higher paying job at an ideal workplace and that her dice-like containers are sitting on her new desk with nothing but breath mints inside them.  

      

BIO

One of Deepti Nalavade Mahule’s short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared in Daily Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 words, Kitaab, Aphelion webzine, Women’s Web and elsewhere. 

Originally from India, Deepti currently lives in California, where she spends time developing software, reading aloud to her five-year-old daughter, submitting short fiction and fretting about what to put in her author’s bio. 

Her website is: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/

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