Home Fiction

Larceny

by Sandra Yauch Benedetto

Renea was tallying up the money she’d spent on exorcists when she heard the elevator gate clatter open in the hallway. The out-of-pocket total was $17,683.21, because even after meeting her high deductible she had to fight with insurance to get “elective” services covered. On the plus side, she had just enough years in her work life left to rehabilitate her retirement savings. There was a knock at the door, and three more in even succession.

Renea froze. If I don’t move, they’ll go away. Silence strummed a hollow chord in the echo chamber of her head. I will win if I keep still. She was six years old again, hiding in a coat closet at her grandparents’ house, rationing woolen Pall Mall air, so that nobody could hear her breathing. Her brother should be onto another part of the house to seek their cousin, who would be giving himself away with giggles by now. Tension stretched taut between the decades. She waited for the sound of victory in the resigned retracing of footsteps.

Instead, a man’s voice called out, Hello, Mrs. Holten? Are you there?, and Renea was again at her kitchen table, with an abiding understanding that win-lose is a false dichotomy. To the door she must go. A familiar starched navy on the other side of the peephole foreshadowed what would come next. Despite knowing at the first knock that the presence in the hallway was yet another outgrowth of the shape-shifter that possessed her daughter, dread dropped like a cannonball through her body. It tore past her clamoring heart, gutted her viscera, and plowed through the floorboards.

“What is it?” Renea asked as she opened the door.

Officer Aquino of the SFPD presented his badge and introduced himself. Placid expression, even tone, an exhalation of ennui. Whatever he’d set out to prove twenty years ago had already been sufficiently documented, uncontested, and filed. Renea waved him in for the requisite inventorying of her studio apartment. Nothing about her decor signaled that a devil had been spawned in the room — not the misshapen couch, the cheaply framed print of Dali’s Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy,a depressed spider plant hanging in the corner, or the cluttered array of candles and totems on her TV stand.

“We’re not going to press charges, but I wanted you to be aware of the situation.” Officer Aquino’s eyes finally met hers. “You might want to tell your daughter that you have to live here, you don’t want her messing with your neighbors.”

So. Casey had attempted to steal a package from the lobby. It wasn’t the gravest sin she had committed since the fiend took up residence in her body, not even close. Apparently, the sister of a woman who lived in the building had held open the door for Casey, unaware that tenants were under strict orders from the landlord to never let in people off the street. Casey’s depraved mien and shadowy movements as she slithered along the mailboxes caused the women to become suspicious. They called the landlord, who checked the security camera in time to see Casey hauling out a large box. Officer Aquino apprehended her two blocks away from the building.

He sequestered Casey in the patrol car before delivering the box to its intended recipient, a divorced dad in his thirties named Derek. When Officer Aquino filled him in, Derek said,Oh, Renea on 5’s drug-addled daughter? Nah, just tell her to get some help. Had Renea known this, she would have laughed. Derek’s limited imagination couldn’t fathom the hours she spent unearthing reputable exorcists, weary but determined to keep digging, tolerating their musky fresh-from-the-earth zeal and piling up nothing but debts and resentments.

The first exorcist was recommended by a nurse at the women’s clinic where Renea worked as Office Manager, whose niece suffered from the same affliction as Casey. He balked at the last minute, citing a conflict because he was romantically interested in Renea. He did not in fact want to date her, but believed Casey’s demon to be irrevocably entrenched and was loath to add another failure to his portfolio.

The second exorcist was a frizzy-haired baby boomer who wore her reading glasses on a chain and rubbed stockinged feet together under her desk. Her business card read Demon Management Specialist in an all-caps gothic font. She was more fixated on Renea than Casey, to the point where Renea left mid-session, grabbing her daughter and shouting, This is not a two-fer! We’re done here!

The third exorcism, conducted by a team of experts in a facility in Oakland, was too slow-moving. The preliminaries dragged on for weeks, as if one needs to become better acquainted with the soul-sucker that is squatting in one’s body before kicking it the hell out. And the jargon, my god. Incubus this, succubus that, because sex must be at the root of everything. Not that these people condemned primitive sexual desire; they worshipped it. In Casey’s case, dysfunctional sexual relationships were a red herring. Renea could have told them as much during the initial consultation. Reservations aside, Renea would have seen the treatment through since it was likely their last shot, but Casey was expelled after threatening to use the crucifixes on the exorcists in what they described as an obscene desecration of their process.

There was no need to tell Officer Aquino about all that. After he left, Renea prepared for bed. She pictured her daughter grappling with the package, hurrying down the street to wherever she was going. What was the plan? She imagined Casey sitting in the police car, worrying a hangnail or biting skin off her lower lip. What was in the box? The nature of the contents might render the petty crime either more pathetic or more forgivable. Consider Grandma’s binders containing decades of genealogy research versus five thousand pamphlets of fascist rhetoric. It was not inconceivable that Derek was a fascist. He smoked cigars sometimes on the roof. Maybe it was a humidor in the box. Useless.

An hour after falling asleep, Renea jerked awake, said aloud, Are you OK?to nobody, and gaped at the ceiling fan until she registered that it wasn’t Casey as a baby suspended in a swaddling blanket from the ceiling. Usually during these middle-of-the-night awakenings, Renea hallucinated spiders descending on indestructible threads from the ceiling. The immediate panic and protracted confusion were unsettling.

She couldn’t fall back asleep. The cool pressure of a gel mask she found in her drawer didn’t help. At the intersection of her roving mind and the pliable midnight hour, her third eye pushed play on a reverse age progression of her daughter. Starting with Casey now, at twenty-three, tall and thin, eyes too big to hold the absence of feeling, stringy dishwater hair. A limp ballerina doll that had been washed too many times with dark colors. One that on occasion was animated by demonic possession, during which her eyes became radiant and hungry and her manic smile would devour the hopes and memories of everyone in the room. As frightening as that could be, worse were the glimmers of self-awareness and contemplation in Casey’s expression. Those invariably turned out to be the work of the master manipulator, that tricky shitfuck thief that inhabited her.   

Renea rewound to see Casey as she was in middle school, the age when girls lose confidence and the lights behind their eyes dim intermittently. They are on the cusp of something wonderful or terrible, like being at the top of a gaping roller coaster. The adults in their lives are weirdly absent after so many years of being constantly present. Either that or they’re waving inanely from below, oblivious to the potential dangers of the impending plunge. Friends are on parallel but separate tracks. Some will crash, some will soar. There’s Casey, smiling nervously as the ride plummets, bright, anticipating.

That must be when the devil saw its opportunity. It knew that Casey would never be so vulnerable as she was then, alone and suspended between two worlds. Renea had tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint a time and place of entry, but one of the many things she’d learned about demonic possession was that it wasn’t necessarily a cinematic, violent overtaking. It could be an insidious creep with periods of latency. In fact, it took Renea longer than it should have to identify the demon as such, and only then because the imp had carelessly left some noxious paraphernalia lying around. Naming her adversary was half the battle, after which she drew up plans to wage war. No more pleading heart-to-hearts with a creature that has no love or empathy. The exorcists were supposed to bring the big guns, but they were not leading her out of this quagmire as hoped. Who would help save her threadbare baby?

Renea skipped back to the early days, when her daughter was solid and intact, not the flickering phantasm she’d become. Toddler Casey absorbed everything in her orbit, her gray eyes like puddles that reflected or concealed, depending on the light. Her fine hair curled at the ends. She’d been curious and affectionate, by turns silly and solemn, with a stubborn streak that had Renea biting her lip daily. During her first few years, Casey and Renea spent all of their time together. Renea could recall the moment she fully realized that they existed as two distinct people. Obviously she knew that, but she hadn’t feltit with atom-splitting physicality until one day after Casey had turned three and was setting up a picnic in her bedroom for Harry Elephante and Madeline and tiny glass pig. She was absorbed in the task of arranging, moving in accordance with her own desires, as opposed to being held or placed or guided by her mother. Renea stood watching from the hallway, struck by the thought that her daughter’s mind was becoming, and maybe always had been, unknown to her.

Renea tossed the sleep mask aside and got up to refill her water glass. In the night-light cast by the open refrigerator, her feet shone cadaver-like on the linoleum. She thought about the apartment they lived in with Casey’s dad and how she used to check on a sleeping Casey every night and how, as she quietly shut her daughter’s bedroom door, she would take her mind to the brink of the unthinkable before shutting it down with a final resolution, I would die. She would not want to live if she lost this girl, the center of her universe. Then, having indulged this darkness, this warped fantasy of abductors, viruses, freak accidents and men who never learned how to cry, she could go to bed knowing that Casey was tucked in, safe, at home.

When Casey was older, after the divorce but before the demon had a foothold, their favorite thing to do together on weekends was take the ferry to Angel Island to walk around the deserted barracks. There were no careless drivers to watch out for, no huddled reminders of how forgotten and unreachable a person can appear. Sometimes Casey confided in Renea, after they’d been walking awhile and each step on the insular loop made everything feel inevitable, including a renewed closeness between them. Renea could still feel the weight of Casey as she leaned into her on a bench overlooking the bay one clear January afternoon, their shimmery city winking at them from across the frigid water. Casey wiped away tears before they had a chance to fall and professed to never want to speak to her best friend again. Walking back to bed, Renea breathed in, remembering. The scent of Casey’s shampoo and skin mingled in her nostrils for a split second of reclamation.

She climbed back into bed and eyed the ceiling fan. Now that her pupils were adjusted to the darkness she could distinguish each blade and felt foolish that she’d been tricked earlier. Yet, the terrible feeling that she hadn’t been able to rescue her imperiled infant persisted. She wasn’t sure she had the mental fortitude to continue revisiting the past, but her traitorous insomniac brain chose to brand itself with image upon image upon image. Grimy bathroom walls airbrushed in blood. Crumbled pieces of tooth found on, not under, a pillow. Rainwater running like the river Lethe through warped streets where the demon sought oblivion.

Renea continued with the last time Casey had visited her, in the fall. Renea buzzed her up and greeted her guardedly across the anti-halo that darkened the space between them. Casey showered, ate a hamster-sized snack, and fell asleep on the couch in a sunspot. The light gave the illusion of restoring a healthy glow to a complexion that had begun to resemble potato skin. Her breathing was so shallow that Renea put her hand in front of her nose to make sure air was going in and out. She wondered for the hundredth time how to extract her foe while Casey slept. There weren’t any viable options. Coaxing was worse than ineffective, it seemed to rile up the demon. The use of implements risked harming the host, and anyway, Renea wasn’t sure where exactly it hunkered down. That’s why she’d expended so much effort on exorcists. It seemed to be the only way.

After the sun had slid off the couch and into the corner, Casey woke up asking in a voice still sticky with sleep where Sasha was. Sasha the cat had succumbed to kidney failure a few years before. In spite of herself, Renea wondered if Casey’s question was reason to hope, a tiny crack in the demon’s scabrous skin.

Renea had spent years treading over the same recriminations and fears, furrowing her brain with the question of how exactly she had failed Casey. It boiled down to two possibilities: she’d loved her daughter too much or too little. Now, on this night not unlike many that had come before, it became clear that her reasoning was flawed. She had fallen for another illusory choice. She loved Casey enough. It was impossible to love a child too much. The question was, how had she loved her? I would die. Three words skulking in the fog as she closed Casey’s bedroom door every night.

A cry caught in her throat. That was it, then. All along, Renea had stockpiled worry as a means of fortifying their castle, so they’d be ready for whatever calamity the world threw at them. But worry was corrosive. It was her fault their castle became porous, with thousands of tiny holes for the invader to seep through, and now it was crumbling.

She flew to the bathroom, rummaging through the standalone medicine cabinet she kept in a corner. Pepto Bismol, ibuprofen, band-aids, aloe vera, hydrocortisone cream, no, no, no. There were no potent pharmaceuticals, lest the possessed one was on the prowl. Cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide. Maybe? Keep looking. Syrup of ipecac! Disregarding the brittle warning label, she removed the cap from the brown glass bottle and drank until it was gone. Take that.

What to do for the next thirty minutes until the ipecac did its job? She thought about chasing away the bitter taste with a glass of wine, but wanted to savor her enemy’s demise. Besides, Pinot Noir might not be a good look once she started throwing up. She could get dressed, but it was 4 a.m. and what was appropriate attire for a self-induced exorcism, anyway? Wielding a symbolic instrument couldn’t hurt. No crosses, please, not that she owned one. She scanned her TV stand and decided upon Casey’s dusty glass pig.

She didn’t have to wait the full half hour. The expulsion started eight minutes after she downed the bottle and she spent the next fevered hour hunched over the toilet in a litany of rank purification. Renea gloated at the indignity of the demon’s exit — all of her tremblings, pits, and shivers, all the wrong what ifs, backward glances and aborted plans, sucked down into the literal gutter. Outside, the city sparkled. Sirens heralded ninth hour salvations. Tonight, there would be a winner and a loser. Her demon, that had been living in her bowels like undetected cancer, biding its time, feeding on her cynicism and fear, was about to be expunged forever. Only after fixing this could she help Casey. Christ, she thought, that Grandmama Addams exorcist actually knew what she was talking about.

Spent, Renea lay on the tiled bathroom floor, glass pig in hand. Desperate to remain undiscovered, knees pulled up to her chest and upper back rubbing against her grandpa’s scratchy coat, Renea heard a crescendo of sirens. Something terrible was happening to somebody right now and here she was, alone. How quickly her fervent desire to remain hidden had twisted into an urgent need to be found. She unfolded the accordion door and peered out. She expected her brother to be on the other side of it. Instead, she found him with their cousin playing jacks on the kitchen floor. They hadn’t even been looking for her.

Casey was somewhere nearby. She’d been in the building mere hours earlier. The demon slipped up by permitting her to get this close to Renea for the first time in months. Its hold on her is weakening. Renea’s own demon disgorged, her stomach felt sublimely vacant. Come back to me, sweetheart. I know what to do. You invite your friends and arrange the picnic and everything will be wonderful. We will learn how to be brave.

She slept. As the sun came up, the sparkling crown of the Bay Bridge and the halo of Coit Tower dissipated. Alcatraz materialized as a poignant chiaroscuro on the water. The green parrots of Russian Hill squawked their good mornings. The sound of the buzzer penetrated her sleep.


BIO

Sandra Yauch Benedetto is a Chicago-adjacent mom, sometime teacher of high school students, and perpetual seeker of sunshine. She adheres to science and her dog’s gaze. She likes to write short things.








Sainte Chapelle

by Joanna Milstein

“It has to be breakfast,” I told Laila, although this was categorical and unfair, since it was Sunday and it was nine pm, and we were on the Upper West Side, generally understood to be a culinary wasteland. The navy-black December air chomped away at any exposed patches of our skin not shrouded by nylon feather-filled coats. My orange jacket kept my core warm, but the extra layers of downy lumps made me feel like a bloated, artificial bird.

“My mom also recommended this great Italian.” Laila said. “We should try it. I read the review and it sounded—”

“Breakfast. I want pancakes with maple syrup and American coffee and a glass of orange juice. With pulp,” I said.

We settled for a tiny French bistro. Laila and I had studied in France together, a happy time in both of our lives, so it made sense. I ordered coq au vin and Laila had branzino en papillot. Because sometimes you had to make compromises. I ordered a glass of the cheapest red wine on the menu.

“Do you remember that restaurant in Paris where I had the branzino?” Laila asked when our food arrived. “The restaurant was a tiny box, and there were murals on the walls? That was the best branzino I ever ate.” I didn’t remember, and anyway branzino wasn’t a French dish, but it didn’t seem like the right time to mention that.

“Don’t remember,” I said, looking down at my chicken thigh swimming in thick red-wine reduction with glassy onions and fat, round mushrooms.

“What would your father say, if he were here? I wonder what he would say.” Laila’s father was dead. I had loved him. I still blamed myself for not calling enough. It had been two years but Laila and I were always only three seconds from tears at any given moment.

“Can I have a sip of your wine?”

“You know you shouldn’t,” I said. Laila was three months pregnant. A few months ago she’d had a miscarriage.

Laila took a deep breath and held it as long as she could. It wasn’t easy for her. She’d gone to a New York private school and then a fancy college and graduate school where she’d won prizes. She’d been an acclaimed photographer, whose photographs had been exhibited in prestigious art galleries. Now she was pregnant and uninterested in taking pictures. She reminded me of an injured angel, ethereal, out of place in our modern, terrible world. Recently she had moved to LA with her husband, although she missed New York. Even the winters. Earlier that night she had told me, “I miss hibernating. I miss overhearing casual conversations about politics and literature. In LA, all the conversations I overhear are some variation of ‘Where did I park my car?’” I disagreed with Laila, although I didn’t tell her. I thought if I could only move somewhere warm I would buy a couple of sundresses and spend the weekends sitting by some anonymous, plastic pool and never miss winter again.

I had helped Laila get dressed on her wedding day, on a bright and sunny summer afternoon, over a year ago. Her mother had been shouting at her all day and her older sister, Fran, was upset that Laila was getting married. Every time Fran started to speak, she would start crying. “I’m just so happy for La-a-a-ila,” she would sob. So it was up to me, matron of honor, to tuck Laila into her white ballgown dress, covered in cupcakes of tulle and lace. Once the dress was on, she asked me to rub this water-soluble concealer cream all over her back to cover up her acne. (“It’s backne,” said Laila. “Get it?”) I was in a hurry and did a messy job and then tried to blot the flesh color off of the white gown, but that only made things worse. I hoped the stains could be photoshopped away.  

Laila had chattered on. “The concealer hides everything. It’s the stuff they use on porn stars,” she’d said to me. “Little known fact.” I had zipped then buttoned up the back of the dress. All of this had transpired in a small room near Laila’s mother’s bedroom that had been Laila’s father’s study in their house on a small stretch of beach that overlooked the Long Island Sound. Laila had pointed to a velvet pouch sitting on a ledge in the corner across from us. “Dad’s ashes, in an urn in there,” she said. “We’re burying, or perhaps I should say we’re dispersing him, later tonight, or maybe tomorrow. On the beach. Next to his favorite view. He’ll have it forever.” The wedding was beautiful. Laila kissed the groom before the ceremony even started, and she cried the whole time, when she said her vows and after that. Later that evening I gave a soppy speech about the first time I had met Laila (we were 9, we knew at first sight that we were destined to be best friends, we didn’t see each other for eight years after that, but as soon as we saw each other again it was the same as before, as it had always been, not unlike true love). I drank a bottle of tequila, I danced until my feet hurt with the tall best man, who had a Ph.D. in psychology. We talked academia through dinner.   

“Are you okay?” he asked me, when he saw me swallowing another shot of Patrón. I thought I was being discreet.

“Fine. Just fine,” I said.

“It’s worse to watch your friends get married,” Laila told me, as the evening pulled to a close, around 3 am. I was dancing with her Uncle Fred at that point, because he reminded me of her dad. “More traumatic, I mean. Why do you think I scaled that lighthouse on my own the night before yours?” She asked. I frowned. I still hadn’t forgiven her for that.

“My dad? My dad would be horrified. I’m glad he’s not here,” Laila said, soaking up the last drop of the red branzino sauce with a hardening piece of sourdough. “To see it, I mean. To see that man. Our president. To think.”

“I don’t want to think. I prefer not to think,” I said.

“Let’s talk about Paris,” she said.

“Do you remember when you gave the tour of the Cathedral of Saint Denis to those French tourists? When they thought you were their tour guide?”

“But they never paid me. I can’t remember why.”

“Maybe they paid online beforehand? Anyway, no one describes medieval tombs quite like you do. Remember our afternoon at the Musée D’Orsay? I finally saw the Luncheon on the Grass. And all those heavenly Monets. And Van Gogh’s Self Portrait. There must have been so much promise in 1900 when it was built, before the First World War. Before the world fell apart. Then they put it back together, so—”

“That’s not how it was. I only agreed to go because you begged me on your hands and knees. You claimed the D’Orsay was your favorite historical site in Paris and then had that panic attack and we had to leave after twenty minutes. And the museum, for your information, opened in 1986. It was a train station to before that.”

“There were so many people I couldn’t breathe. I never told you the D’Orsay was my favorite. I said Sainte Chapelle was my favorite place in Paris. I knew the original function of the building for the D’Orsay had been a train station. You never came to Sainte Chapelle with me, the royal chapel. Those high vaulted ceilings and the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Did you know there are over a thousand stained-glass windows? Did you, with all your knowledge, know that? I don’t understand why you never visited Sainte Chapelle with me.”

I did, of course, know about the stained-glass windows. I could have given a lecture about Sainte Chapelle in my sleep. And I remembered seeing the pictures Laila had taken of both the exterior and the interior, majestic images that had featured prominently in her 2012 solo exhibition at an art gallery. But as to why we had never gone together, I couldn’t recall.

Some years earlier, I had gone to Paris for the summer to conduct research in architectural history. Laila, who’d had a few free months before she had to start art school, accompanied me. She had planned to take French classes at the Alliance Française while I worked in the archives but most days she slept in. Anyway, her French professor was obsessed with moral philosophy and the criminal justice system. The fifth day of class, she had asked the students: If they were in a sinking boat and had to save only one of their classmates, which one it would be? This hadn’t helped class camaraderie. The seventh day of class, the professor took the group on a field trip to a local courthouse and they watched a multi-hour murder trial. Laila described making eye contact with one of the defendants, his expression of crystallized fear. She dropped out shortly afterwards. Laila didn’t feel like the class was helping her French, but I disagreed. She had acquired an unusual vocabulary. One day she asked me who, out of our mutual friends, I would save from a sinking boat.

I said I didn’t know. “You? Of course you. What do you want me to say? Being trapped on a boat on the open sea is one of my only true fears. Especially at night. Absolute nightmare material.” It didn’t make sense to Laila. She had gone sailing every summer since she was five.  

Without a class to go to, Laila walked around the city taking photographs infused with her habitual sensitivity and elegance, while I spent my time shut up in several Parisian archives and libraries, those magnificent gilded cage-temples of higher learning with lifetimes worth of unpublished and unlimited primary sources. Intense intellectual work increased my lust for life, which occasionally spilled over into lust for people. The more arduous the labor, the worse it got. While waiting to see documents or books, I sometimes fantasized about dragging someone, possibly one of the librarians, with me into one of the deserted carrels.

A musician I knew was teaching in Paris over the summer. We had dated a few months earlier when we had both been in New York, but had just as quickly given up. Our temperaments were similar. Selfish. Stubborn. But as we were both in Paris, fooling around seemed obvious and convenient. The musician had rented a fifth-floor walk-up similar to mine, and only a fast metro ride away. I liked to show up and ring his buzzer, unannounced, after the libraries closed, and then after we had finished I would have the rest of the evening free. It was July so unless he left the windows open, the apartment turned into a sauna. I was loud, partly for the release and partly for the performance-aspect. He said I had a voice like a soprano but I’m pretty sure that was just a line. I still cringe when I imagine him telling all this to his friends, and what the neighbors must have thought.

“When you came home at night your hair and makeup were always a mess, but you looked happy and relaxed.” Laila said.   

One weekend Laila and I took a trip to the countryside and I gave her detailed and exceedingly enthusiastic tours of the castles in the Loire Valley. She filmed the tours and asked me a lot of questions, acting as the narrator. As we stood on a balcony at the Castle of Chenonceau overlooking the arches, which extended out into the picturesque River Cher below, I explained that French courts in the early modern period had been peripatetic because the court routinely tossed their refuse in the moats, and therefore they had to move often, especially in warm weather. At the Château de Blois, I showed Laila the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici’s bedroom.

“Catherine was a skilled stateswoman, but her great passion in life was architecture,” I said on camera. “In a different era she might have been an architect. The construction of the Pont Neuf, the oldest, and in my opinion most beautiful, bridge in Paris across the river Seine began during her lifetime, and it is said she supervised its creation.”

“I remember the Pont Neuf—I crossed it on my way to the Île de la Cité, on the day I went to see Sainte Chapelle for the first time. Gorgeous bridge. I took more than a few pictures there. I had no idea a queen was involved in building it.”

“In addition to her architectural endeavors, Catherine was a wife and widow, and mother to 10 children, all of whom tragically predeceased her, save one, who was assassinated 7 months after she died. She died in this very room,” I said.

“Getting goosebumps,” said Laila. “Sorry. I meant to say, can you please tell our viewers at home the story of Catherine de’ Medici’s final hours?”

“It was strange.” I said, taking a step back. “The Queen Mother had heard years before from an astrologer that she would die beside Saint-Germain, so for years she avoided her castle of Saint-Germain-En-Laye and the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, any place with the name Saint-Germain. In 1589, as she lay ill her confessor walked into this bedroom. It wasn’t, however, her usual confessor. It was a much younger man whom she had never seen before.

‘What is your name, son?’ the Queen Mother had asked.

‘Saint-Germain, Madame. My name is Julien de Saint-Germain,’ he had answered.”

Laila filmed all of this, but has since lost the footage, and it’s a shame, because I’ve forgotten so much of what I used to know.

On Bastille Day, July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, the archives and libraries in France are closed. Laila and I had interrupted our shooting and studying and gone out to dinner in an outdoor garden in Pigalle where rats scurried back and forth between courses. We ignored them. After dinner we’d met up with an old French friend of mine, Charles, whom I hadn’t seen in years before I had randomly bumped into him on the escalator of the Centre Pompidou a few days earlier and we had made Bastille Day plans. He brought another friend, Étienne, with him. Open air parties were held all over the city and there were fireworks. The four of us went to one of the parties, which featured semi-undressed firefighters for no apparent reason, and spent the night dancing and drinking cheap champagne. I never admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, but I had been hot for Charles those years ago, although we were never friends like that.

We’d watched the fireworks and Charles had suggested we play truth or dare, also known as action ou vérité in French. When it came to the truth question, Charles and Étienne had wanted to know what Laila and I had done together, sexually speaking, and when the answer turned out to be ‘nothing,’ they had dared us to kiss. It all felt fun and familiar. Then we’d made the guys make out with each other, then we had made out with each of the guys. Charles had reached his hand under Laila’s shirt and I noticed.

Charles had invited us back to their apartment but we had declined. We haven’t spoken to those two guys since. All four of us are married, now, and married people try not to remember these kinds of things. Charles and his wife just had a baby, or so I’ve seen on Facebook.  

The night before we left Paris, Laila and I treated ourselves to overpriced ice cream sundaes at the famous Café de Flore, where the round, green café tables, the white awning with the green letters, the grumpy waiters with white aprons, were the same as they’d been since Hemingway used to drink there in 1921. We sat outside. An older woman with bleached hair and thick black circles traced around her feline eyes appeared wearing a black cocktail dress, slightly shrugged off her shoulders. “Just wait. She’s going to do her Edith Piaf impression,” I whispered to Laila. And within a minute the woman took a small gray stereo and speakers out of her bag and put it on the floor in front of her. She began to croon La Vie en Rose.

“Wow,” said Laila.

“Told you,” I said.

“Our Parisian swan song,” Laila said. And so it was. Her father first became ill while we were away that summer, and he never fully recovered. But he loved to hear our stories. The ones we told him. His own father had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Laila used to go there, sometimes, when she was feeling low, in an effort to reach out a hand to the past. On his deathbed, her father had asked Laila to tell him, once again, about our summer in Paris, so she had told him a few last anecdotes. Les autres sont reléguées au passée.

“Let’s write a script,” said Laila, “and perform it out one night at dinner in a crowded restaurant. And then people will hear us. It’ll be an experiment. An artistic experiment.”

“But Lai.” I said.

“Yeah?”

“We’d be performing without an audience. No one else cares.”

“So what?” she asked. “It’ll be for us anyway. It’s always is.”

“Lai,” I said, moving my fork to the edge of the plate. “It’s no use.”

“No use?”

“We’ve been adults for a long time now.”

I finished my wine and Laila finished her water, staring into our phones, the void, other patrons but we didn’t look at each other, not for a few minutes. I looked at the cracked wall, patched up with band-aid posters of Nouvelle Vague films. I used to collect such posters to decorate my college dorm room. I liked to think of myself as being worldly and avant-garde back then, when I’d only been to Paris once.

“I should take you home, L. Your mom will start to worry. We can split a cab.”

In the cab Laila clutched her stomach. “Look how fat I am. I can’t fit into those Paris clothes anymore, and I can’t afford to buy new ones.”

“You’re not fat, L.”

“You’re not pregnant. Lucky you,” she said, and clutched a roll on her swollen stomach.

When we got home Laila’s mother was waiting at the door. She threw her arms around me.

“I gotta pack,” said Laila. “Leaving tomorrow at 7.”           

Laila’s mother, Randy took my coat and draped it on the couch. “Let me give you a tour,” she said. She had moved to a smaller apartment at the tip of the Island of Manhattan, Battery Park. Laila had taken photographs of the neighborhood after 9-11, one of her earliest projects. “There’s my old building,” she said, pointing out one of the windows. It was dark, but I could see the lights over the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, and Randy and Laila’s old apartment building. She brought me into her bedroom, where I saw the pictures of Laila’s dad, Thomas.

Laila came in and interrupted us. She was wearing only a bra. Her stomach wasn’t so swollen.

“Look at me, I’m a triple D!” she said, cupping her breasts with her hands. I remembered how she used to stare at herself in the mirror in Paris, how she used to say “Aren’t I pretty? I feel pretty.”

“Your boobs are enormous,” I said.  

“You would know, you saw them every day in Paris.”

In her bedroom Laila told me that Randy had started dating again. “Look after my mom, will you, when I’m back in LA,” she said. I said I would.

We stayed up all night waiting for the sunrise, to see the Hudson and the

buildings that surrounded it on all sides. Randy and I walked Laila down to the lobby and Randy gave her money for a cab. Randy asked if I wanted to come back up for a drink.

We sat upstairs looking out at the glowing city, and Randy poured us each a glass of wine. “There was a time when Laila asked me if she should marry some rich guy and have babies, and I said no. She had won awards in grad school, and her show of Paris photographs had just premiered. Laila was, is, such a gifted artist. She could’ve been a big name in New York right now. If she’d stayed. Now she’s pregnant and her husband wants her to stay at home, and definitely not lug all that heavy equipment around town in the heat. Maybe I was wrong, Randy. Was I wrong?”

“All I can say is I’ve never seen her as happy as she is now. She’s going to be a wonderful mother. It’s what she’s always wanted, in her heart. Did she tell you what’s she’s been doing out in LA? She’s a social worker. An unpaid social worker. She could’ve been a saint in another life, she has this talent for dealing with sick and needy people. A talent I don’t have.”

“I don’t have it either,” I said.

“You have other talents. I just hope you’re as fulfilled as Laila is, or that you will be, someday,” Randy said, and although she meant it nicely, I think, it made me feel wistful. In a way she was right, I was still searching for something Laila had found. She was grounded, satisfied, but I hadn’t changed. She was the artist, so why was I still the restless, rootless one?

“Laila’s got such a big heart,” I said, simply. “How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?”

Randy looked out towards the Statue of Liberty and I did, too. If we had made eye contact we would’ve both started crying. “The hardest thing might be the finality of death. You know, I haven’t given up on the idea that he’s going to walk through the door one day. I keep waiting,” she said.

I had no reply. We shared memories for the next hour, and then I said goodbye, promising I would call her soon, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t.

“Thanks for being such a good friend to Laila,” she said. “Paris changed her life, you know. She’ll never forget the time she spent there together with you. That solo exhibition, it was one of our proudest moments as parents, and I’m so glad Thomas was alive to see it. He was very grateful, he told me. He wanted you to know.”

“Laila’s my best friend,” I said. It was cold and windy, but I walked home. I undressed and got into bed.

Lying down with the curtains drawn, I thought of Laila standing in front of Sainte Chapelle, the only place we hadn’t gone together in Paris, even though it had been her favorite.

Laila, alone, staring up at that regal façade, her black hair illuminated under a halo of a thousand glass rainbows.

BIO

Joanna Milstein is a New York-based writer and historian. In 2019, she received her MFA in Fiction from NYU, and was awarded a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews. Her thesis, “The Gondi: Family Strategy and Survival in Early Modern France,” was published by Ashgate in 2014. She is currently working on her first novel. 




He Left Early

by Emily Newsome

“This is where we’ll anchor.” 

She looked toward Jay as he killed the houseboat’s engine. “Here?” 

“Yeah, it’s perfect. Right between the mountains, no one around for miles…”

Her heart thundered as he trailed off. The spot he’d chosen on the lake was secluded indeed. An inlet pooled between white-clay, sandstone mountains surrounding them on all sides, stood stark against the clear black water. Like a canyon turned lake, in the middle of nowhere.   

“I bet we’ll get a perfect view of the sunset, right here.” He held up his hands, making a square with his fingers.  

She nodded, allowing a tight smile to splay across her lips. “Can’t wait.” 

“What is it?” He frowned, his dark brows knitting together. 

“Nothing, I’ll go get the girls.” 

“Sophie, Mia!” Her voice rang through the tiny houseboat. The soft patter of running feet followed. “We’re anchored.” 

“Can we go swimming?” Sophie asked, bouncing from foot to foot. 

“I already told you, it’s too cold for swimming,” said Mia, her older sister. 

“But I want to swim!”

Kristy looked down into Sophie’s young, hopeful face. “It’s too cold for swimming, sweet. But there are plenty of other things to do.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like play board games or… tag!” She gently tapped her daughter’s arm, dramatically turning to run outside onto the deck. Mia followed suit as Sophie whined, “Hey! That’s not fair!” 

Jay watched his wife and children run around the deck, playing chase.

“Play with us dad!” 

“Yeah, play with us!” 

He shook his head. “Not right now girls.” 

Kristy slowed her steps to glance over at Jay. “Come on, play with the girls for a little.”

He looked at her from across the deck where he was seated. “Not right now, I’m enjoying the lake view.” 

“Well, maybe I want to sit and enjoy the view too. But I’m playing with the girls, before I have to get dinner ready, unpack, and make sure everyone has what they need for bedtime.”  

Jay rolled his tired eyes, sliding a hand through his hair. “You really wanna do this right now?” 

“The whole point of this vacation was to spend time as a family.”  

“We just got here.” 

“Yeah, and already I’m the one having to take care of everything. While you sit there.”

“What have you had to take care of? I drove the boat, I anchored us! I mapped out the whole trip—” 

“This trip was your idea!” 

Sophie and Mia stopped playing.  

“Mom, it’s ok. We don’t need four people to play.”

Mia’s light, tiny hand grasped her own, pulling her back toward the game. Letting out a sigh, she turned back toward her daughters. Plastering on a smile, going through the motions. Pretending to be content, to be happy. 

She lay beside Jay that night, waiting for sleep. Her eyes began to flutter close, the desire for sleep pulling her down.

“Come here,” Jay said, sliding his hands over her body. “I’m sorry about early today.”

Silently, she turned into him, the warmth of his body suffocating. 

“You know playing with the girls is hard for me. My dad never did those things.” 

“I know.”

“You know?” 

“It’s fine,” she corrected.  

The tension tightened in the room. But after a moment, she felt his mouth press down on hers, hard. He didn’t ask permission. He never did. Even if he had, she’d likely given in anyway to save herself the trouble.

As he rove his hands through her hair in the darkness and over her body, she focused on the holes in the wood paneling of the ceiling, her mind numb. She thought about the icy black water they floated on while he thrust faster, his breath quickening. The whites of his eyes glistened in the darkness. She arched into him just the way he liked. Her urge for it to be over mistaken for pleasure. She let him flip her over, reveling the brief moment he pressed her face into the mattress and she couldn’t breathe. Mia and Sophie’s faces flashed in her mind. Delicate and slack with sleep in their bunks. She held on to them, a reminder of something good that had come from Jay. From them. From this.

When he finished, he peeled himself off her. 

“Night,” he said. 

She held the tears in her eyes and swallowed back the tightness closing around her chest. “Night.” 

~ ~ ~

She took another sip from the glass, the smooth wine gliding down her throat. She looked across the table at Jay. After two days of walking on eggshells around each other, she could see it in his eyes. Tonight was going to be one of those nights. The girls knew it too, as they anxiously chewed their food, swallowing loud. She set the wine glass back down. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. 

“Then how did you mean it?”

“I just meant, maybe you’re overreacting.”

Jay slammed the fork down on the table sending the dishes clattering. She jumped in her seat. Sophie started crying.

“Stop crying!” Jay yelled. “All you do is cry!”

Sophie cried louder. 

Kristy reached across the table to comfort her daughter. “Do you want to finish dinner in your room?”

Sophie nodded through her tears. Mia too.

“Ok, go ahead.” She glanced sideways at Jay, watching the girls grab their plates and head to their room on the boat. She shook her head. “Every vacation.”

“What was that?” Anger laced his voice.

“I said, do you have to ruin every vacation?”

His eyes widened, his face red with rage. “Nothing has been ruined.” He locked eyes with her. “We’ve been having a fine time.”

Casting her eyes down, she knew it was pointless. She finished the glass of wine, the silence thick and heavy between them, then rose to start the dishes. Her hands shook as she gathered up the unfinished food and plates, the boat tipping slightly back and forth as she walked. Her cheeks flushed from the wine she knew she shouldn’t have had. Just a few more nights on this boat, and they could go their separate ways.

She turned the sink on, listening to the water hit the metal basin. Gripping the counter to not stumble.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked over her shoulder at Jay, her mouth in a firm line.

“Just,” he brushed a hand through his hair, “don’t talk about my father.”

“I wasn’t talking about your father.” Or she hadn’t meant to. But in that moment, she couldn’t look past the similarities.   

“Can you ever just apologize?” 

“For what?”

“You say you hate fighting, especially in front of the kids, but then you do this shit.”

She turned the water in the sink on, hotter and hotter, then plunged her hands into the scalding heat, her eyes tearing up.

Jay shoved his chair back and stalked over to her. “Just apologize, I’ll forgive you, and we can forget about it. Continue having a nice vacation.”

“I’m sick of apologizing for nothing.”

His eyes widened at the sink. He grabbed her wrists, ripping them out of the steaming water. “What is wrong with you?”

She ripped her arms out of his grasp. “Don’t touch me.”

“Don’t touch you?”

“Don’t touch me!”

“You’re my wife!” 

She felt his hands tighten around her wrists, pinning them against her chest. He forced her back against the wall. “As unfortunate as that is.”            

“Stop.” 

She let her eyes lock with his. How had she ever loved this broken shell of a man? “Let go of me and I’ll stop.”

“That’s not how this works.”

“Let go of me,” she spat.

Anger flared across his face, every muscle in his body tightening. He grabbed her under the chin, forcing her to look at him. “You are making me angry.”

“Oh good, you’re trying what the therapist recommended.”

“At least I am trying.”

“I’m not the one who needs therapy.”

“Will you just stop!”

She felt her head ricochet off the wall as he shook her. Felt herself disconnecting from her body, her voice turning low and cold. “I’ll stop when you let go of me.”

“Mom?”

All the air went out of the room. Jay released his grip enough for her to rip away.

“What is it?” 

“I want to go home.” Tears threatened to spill from Mia’s eyes as she hid halfway behind the corner of the wall.

“We—”

“We’re not going home,” Jay said.

She ignored him. “Everything’s alright sweetie. We can leave tomorrow morning.”

“We are not going home,” Jay walked over to Mia. “We are spending the week on the lake as planned, and everyone is going to have a good time.”

Mia looked between her parents, confused and scared.

“Why don’t you go start packing up your things and getting ready for bed?” 

“Do not pack your things,” Jay seethed. “Your mother had a little too much wine tonight and is confused. We are all just going to get ready for bed, and then start a new day tomorrow. On. The. Lake.”

Mia shied away from Jay as he knelt down to brush a stray hair from her forehead.

His eyes ripped to his wife’s ashen face. “Now you’ve taught them to be scared of me?”

“You did that all on your own.”

“So I’m not allowed to touch my wife or my children?”

“Mia, just go get ready for bed with Sophie.”

Mia hesitated, looking into her mother’s eyes. 

“Now.” She jerked her head. 

Mia turned quickly, back into the safety of the small bedroom.

She tried to ignore the look on Jay’s face, the sympathy that threatened to bloom inside her chest for him.

“I’m going to bed.” Was all he said, as he turned away, defeated, retreating toward their tiny bedroom on the boat.

Her feet remained planted.

“Are you coming?” 

“I need to finish the dishes.”

~ ~ ~

The wind was cold as it brushed ripples across the dark water. Undistinguishable, was the separation between horizon and water in the blackness that engulfed everything.

She sagged against the railing.

She could jump over. What would it feel like to plunge into the frigid water? To have her body found a week later? If it was found? Lapping against the shore. Bloated and discolored.

She could almost feel the frigid, black waves and icy water rushing down her throat. Filling her lungs.

“You’re still up?”

She started at the sound of his voice. 

“Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She turned back out toward the water. “We need to talk.”

“I know. I’m sorry—”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I thought you said you wanted to talk.”

She let out a long sigh. “I want a divorce.”     

“Look, I know we’ve been having issues. I know I’ve been going through a lot lately and it’s not easy being with me. But I’ve been working really hard on my anger and the issues with my dad—”

“I want a divorce.” 

There was a long silence that wrapped around them. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, hear his breathing hitch as he battled with himself to remain in control. 

“We’re not getting a divorce,” he said. 

She turned to leave, wanting to be anywhere he wasn’t.

He grabbed her, threatening to bend her over the railing into the deep water below. “You think this is something only you get to decide?”

“Let go of me!”

“We are not getting a divorce!”            

She refused to let any fear seep into her eyes, keeping her expression blank as she shoved him back. He was so much stronger than her though, so much bigger. 

“Yes Jay, we are.”

~ ~ ~

Kristy struggled to stand, pulling herself up with the railing of the balcony. The world swayed around her as she stood and touched her forehead. Her fingers came away slick with blood.

Jay. Where was Jay? 

She leaned over the railing, searching the water below. There was only darkness. It had happened so quickly, she almost couldn’t be sure he’d really— but he had. She stumbled across the deck, reaching for the life-ring and struggling to untangle the rope, when she heard him somewhere in the distance.

“Help, help me!” he choked, the freezing water taking his breath away.

She imagined him fighting against the numbness and tingling, the tightening of his lungs desperate for air. Would he be able to see the vague figure of the boat, visible against the night? There was a ladder on the back deck. He could swim to it. But would he remember it? She knew his body would be slowing, the water chilling him inside and out. 

“Come on, come on,” she begged. Her shaking fingers ripped frantically at the ropes holding the raft to the railing. Knowing how cold the water was; there wasn’t much time. 

Finally, she got it free, falling back from the force. She tried to stand but failed. Her head pounded, her vision fading in and out. 

“Kristy, please!” he called, “I’m sorry!”

She imagined he was sorry as she crawled her way over to the other side of the deck where he’d fallen. Regret and fear were probably racing through his mind, knowing he had come outside to apologize but instead, had let the words die on his tongue. Their last moments together spent fighting, him hurting her—

Had he even kissed Sophie or Mia goodnight?

“Where are you?” she yelled.

She waited but heard no response. The night grew eerily quiet beside the pounding pulse in her ears.

“Jay!” she called.

“Kristy!” 

She couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from so she threw the raft overboard, praying it’d find him.

Waiting for a tug on the rope, or a sign of movement, she called again. “Jay!”

There was no response.

She reeled in the raft and threw it over again in a different direction. And again, farther than before. How long had it been since he fell? She should jump in, find him. Save him. She raced down the deck stairs around to the back of the boat, but a wave of nausea ripped through her. She covered her hand over her mouth, the world spinning, as she lowered herself to the ground. Leaning against the railing, she gasped for air. 

Then it dawned on her. He’d almost killed her. She’d probably be dead if he hadn’t fallen into the water. And the water—it was too cold. It had already been too long, and she knew. The chances of finding him in the darkness…

As the wave of nausea subsided, she slowed her breathing, shaking away the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She looked up into the night sky scattered with twinkling stars. 

The sky was beautiful. Her breath echoed in her ears, sending puffs of mist into the cool night.

She didn’t know how long she’d sat there. Didn’t remember when she’d started to shiver, or when her cracked lips had faded to blue. When she’d slowly made her way to her feet, her body groaning in pain as she walked over the deck, the boards creaking beneath her feet. She didn’t remember slipping through the sliding door into the warmth of the boat’s interior. Then washing up in the bathroom and bandaging the gash on her head the best she could, knowing it probably needed stitches. 

What she also didn’t remember, or maybe what she chose not to remember, was the feeling of relief that flooded through her as she lay down in bed that night, the side where Jay should be, empty.

~ ~ ~

Sun crept in behind the closed blinds of the small bedroom window the next morning. Kristy opened her eyes. Her head throbbed as she listened to the faint sound of water lapping against the boat.

She brushed her fingers over her bandaged forehead. It was tender. She knew the girls would ask about it, about Jay. But she would not cry. She knew her story, had gone over it a million times last night before she’d fallen asleep. 

Taking her time, she got up, reveling in the silence and peace. She knew it might not last for long, but stepping out into the living area of the boat, she didn’t care. 

Mia and Sophia were waiting at the table.

“Morning girls,” she said. She bent down to kiss them each on the forehead. 

“Are we going home?” Sophia asked. 

“Yes, sweet. We are.” 

“Today?” 

“Mmhm,” She shook her head yes and grabbed three bowls for them, filling each with cereal and milk. 

“W-where’s dad?” Mia asked. 

“He had to leave early,” she said, quietly humming to herself. “He left early.” 

Kristy looked out across the water through the kitchen window of the boat. The sandstone mountains, that had seemed like a cage before, glittered in the sunlight. Their vibrant hues of clay splashed across the inky, black water, covering the darkness with light.


BIO

Emily Newsome is an emerging writer living in Upstate New York, currently pursuing an Associate Degree in Creative Writing at Monroe Community College. Following this, she plans to obtain her Bachelor’s degree. Her work has been published in MCC’s literary magazine: Cabbages and Kings, and she was a winner of The Sixth Act’s Annual Student Playwriting Competition in 2020. She loves reading and writing in all forms and genres, and cannot wait to share her work with the world.

Sixty Days in the Hole

by L.D. Zane

            “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton.”

            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

Rachael Bensinger walked up to the cashier—a Hispanic woman in her early forties—at the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road, and stated, “I’m here for an interview with Mr. Patterson.”

            “And your name, sweetheart?”

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger.”

            “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Bensinger.” She extended her hand to shake Rachael’s. Rachael returned the courtesy. The cashier pointed to her name badge and said, “My name is Serena. I’m the store manager here.” Then she reached under the counter and handed Rachael a clipboard with an application and pen attached.

            “You can sit over there at the table and complete this. When you’re done, come find me and I’ll get Mr. Patterson.”

            “I actually completed one online and printed it out, along with my resume.” Rachael held them up. “See?”

            Serena gave a broad smile and said, “Then I’ll call Mr. Patterson now. He’ll like that you came prepared. He always likes it when someone is prepared.”   

            Yeah. Like I had a choice, Rachael thought.

            A fit man wearing a navy polo shirt, sporting the store name, tan khakis, and Nike sneakers walked up. Holding out his hand, he said, “Hi. I’m Dylan Patterson, the General Manager. I’ll be conducting the interview. And you are Rachael Bensinger. Right?”

            “Yes, sir,” she answered, shaking his hand.

            “Dylan or Mr. Patterson is good. I haven’t been addressed as ‘Sir’ since I left the Army. Okay?”

            He noticed her slight-of-build stature and long auburn pony tail.

            “Absolutely, sir… I mean, Mr. Patterson. Please call me Rachael.” She paused, then added, “Actually I prefer Rach.” What the hell am I doing being so chatty? Christ, Rachael, shut up.

            “Then Rach it is. Please follow me back to my office.”

            They walked to the back of the store, through two swinging doors, into the warehouse. Dylan made a left turn, stood to the right of his office door frame and, with his left hand, motioned for Rachael to enter. “Please, take a seat.”

            Not much of an office, Rachael observed. Looks like a converted storage space. Plastic chairs, and a cheap-ass desk, with the same type of plastic chair behind it. And they’re orange! This guy doesn’t stand on ceremony, that’s for sure. Apparently, he’s not trying to impress anyone. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have to.

            Rachael picked the chair to the left. Dylan noticed she waited until he sat before she followed suit.

            He looked at her application and resume for a few moments, put them aside, and said, “I’ll be straight with you, Rach. I’m seeing you as a favor to your PO.”

            Rachael sat up straighter in her chair, and said, “I wasn’t aware of that Mr. Patterson, but I thank you.” She then mustered up the courage to ask, “How do you know my Parole Officer, Rebecca Olson?”

            “A couple of years ago she was making visits to small retailers like us, asking if we would be willing to hire non-violent parolees or those on probation. I told her I would, if I saw the right candidate. We kind of hit it off, and still see each other on occasion. Our lifestyles aren’t conducive to a long-term relationship. Did I answer your question…Rach?”

            “Yes. And I’m sorry for that. It really was none of my business,” she said, squirming a bit in her seat.

            Dylan noticed. “Relax,” he said. “No harm. No foul. I opened the door, and you walked in. I like that attitude, for what it’s worth.” Without hesitation, he said, “I have a few questions of my own. I see you’re from Columbus, Ohio. Graduated high school and have an Associates Degree in accounting.”

            “Yes. And I also took a few more courses in business.”

            “Excellent. So what brought you here to Riverton?”

            “In my last year at community college, I met a guy who was taking a course in welding. We started dating, and eventually moved in together. We both finished our courses at the same time. The college had a placement service and found me the position doing accounts payables at All States Trucking.”

            “Good company. I know it well,” said Dylan. “They handle a fair amount of our freight. So how come you’re no longer there?”

            “I believe you already know the answer to that, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Ya know…you’re right. I do know the answer. Please forget that I asked that question. You’re not required to tell me about your personal past.”

            “No, I want to tell you, Mr. Patterson. I have nothing to hide.”

            “Okay. As you wish. Please continue.”

            “They also found Billy—that’s his name, Billy McKenzie—a job as a welder in this area. So we came east, found an apartment, and moved in together.

            “We were good for about a year and a half, but then Billy started hanging out with some real stoners from work. We both did a little weed from time to time; it never got crazy. But I could see Billy change. He was stoned almost every night. He had trouble getting up for work. After a few months, the company cut him for bad attendance. Billy promised he would get off the weed, but he didn’t.

            “He bounced from job to job, and eventually he stopped looking. During that time, I was promoted to assistant supervisor of the accounts payable department. With Billy not working, the money was getting tight, but I was doing well enough to keep up with my car and the apartment. Billy’s car got repo’d. We argued daily about the money. But it never got violent. Never.

            “Finally, one day the shit hit the fan. He came home totally blown out of his mind—drunk and stoned. He offered me a joint, and I took it, thinking that if I got a little high with him, we wouldn’t argue. I also had a couple of beers. Looking back on it, I don’t really know what the hell I was thinking.” She glanced down, and then said quietly, “Guess I wasn’t thinking.

            “I told Billy that he either needed to get and keep a job—any job—pronto, or we were through. That sent him into a rage. He trashed the apartment. When I tried to stop him, he slugged me in my left eye.” Rachael reflexively brushed her bangs to cover her left eye.

            “How long ago did this happen?”

            “About three weeks ago.”

            “He must have really laid one on you, because I can still see the remnants of it. I didn’t want to ask before, but now it makes sense.”

            “They x-rayed my eye at the ER after I was arrested. There were some slight fractures, but the orbit was still intact. I have blurry vision in that eye, but it’s getting better every day. I can drive okay.”

            “So what happened with the police? The report said you were charged with assaulting a police officer.”

            “Before we knew it, the police were at the door and demanded we open it. Billy opened it and asked the one cop, ‘What the fuck do you want?’ The officer pushed Billy aside and told him to sit down. He refused and took a swing at the cop. That was it. They threw him face down on the floor and cuffed him. He was screaming that the cuffs were too tight and cursing up a storm when they lifted him to his feet.

            “The one officer saw my eye bleeding, came over to me, and wanted to look at it. I told him to take his hands off of me, and to loosen Billy’s cuffs. One thing led to another, and apparently I grabbed a beer bottle and hit the officer in the head. I say apparently, because I don’t remember much about that night, and that’s the truth.”

            “Then what happened?”

            “We were arrested, charged, booked, and spent the night in jail. They arraigned us the next day and we were given Public Defenders. Billy and I appeared before a judge a few days later, and that’s when he sentenced us to six months’ probation because it was our first offense. He said we couldn’t leave the county, had to take random piss tests, pay a ton of money, and find gainful employment within two weeks. The judge said if we tested positive, didn’t find a job, or got so much as a parking ticket, we would be spending six months in the county prison. He also said Billy had to move out, being the apartment was in my name. We even got different PO’s.

            “All States wasn’t too happy when they learned of this. They put me on ‘Extended Suspension.’ HR said if I was clean after six months, they would consider hiring me back.”

            “Well, Rach, I hope you’re not holding your breath about being rehired. That was a nice way of them covering their collective asses. They’re not going to rehire you. Period!”

            “I know that, Mr. Patterson. I’m not that naïve. Rebecca—I mean Ms. Olson—said she believed I could straighten out my life and deserved a second chance. A few days later she told me about this job and that she’d set up an interview. Ms. Olson even helped me put together my resume.”

            “What happened to Billy?”

            “Since he didn’t have a job or a place to stay, they transferred his case to a PO in Columbus so he could stay with his folks, under the same conditions. I don’t know what he’s doing, and I don’t care. I haven’t heard from him since the night we were arrested.   Good riddance.”

            Dylan could see a twinge of sadness in Rachael’s eyes when she spoke of Billy.  “I appreciate you sharing your story, Rach. Seems to be in line with what I’ve been told by Ms. Olson. What other questions do you have for me?”  

            “Well, the first question I have is, how did you become the General Manager?”

            “Good question. Believe it or not, no one’s ever asked me that before. After college, I went through Army basic training, Officer Candidate School, and completed Ranger training. I did two tours in Afghanistan during my seven years in the Army, and came out as a Captain. I got married while in my fifth year in the Army. That lasted two years. I was discharged from the marriage just before I was discharged from the Army.” Dylan shrugged his shoulders and said pensively, “That life wasn’t conducive to a long-term relationship either.

            “I tried a few jobs, but nothing caught. A friend of mine said that he had heard about a guy who was looking for someone who knew logistics and had leadership skills, for a General Manager position. My friend didn’t know the guy’s name, but knew he owned a few Just-a-Buck stores. So I went to a Just-a-Buck store—this one in fact—and filled out an application and handed them my resume. A day later I got a call from Ross Wells, the owner. We met, and the rest is history.”

            “How long have you been here?” asked Rachael.

            Dylan looked up, and then said, “Hard to believe, but going on five years. We started with two stores, and now have six between here and Polltown.”

            I was spot on. Knew he was in his mid-thirties. “You said ‘we.’ If I may ask, are you an owner as well?”

            “Not yet. Nonetheless, I treat the stores as if they were mine. I like to believe I had a hand in the growth of the company. I think Mr. Wells believes that as well. He’s told me, more than once, that ownership is in the offing…and soon.”

            “And you believe him?” Rachael asked with a smirk.

            Dylan stiffened. His expression turned hard and cold. He responded, “Yes. Yes, I do. I have no trust issues, Rachael. Do you?”

            Rachael looked down and fidgeted with her hands. Why the fuck would I ask that? That was really stupid. I might as well apologize and leave. I’m not getting this job. I guess it’s prison for me.

            Dylan stood up suddenly. He looked down at his desk and shuffled some papers.

            Then both Dylan and Rachael started to apologize at the same time, their voices stepping over each other. Dylan broke the tie and said, “My comment was out of line, Rach, and a cheap shot. I’m sorry.” He sat down.

            “I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine,” said Rachael.

            “Deal,” said Dylan.

            “Any…other…questions?” Dylan asked with a hesitant smile.

            “Just a few.”

            “Okay. Go.”

            “What’s my position, how much does it pay, and when do I start?”

            Dylan folded his hands on the table and leaned in. “What makes you think I would offer you a job?”

            Rachael didn’t hesitate. “Well, for starters, I think you liked what you heard from Ms. Olson or I wouldn’t be here. You had every reason to blow off someone with a record—especially assaulting a police officer.

            “Second, I’m still here. You didn’t ask me to leave, even though I asked a few totally stupid questions.

            “Third, I think you and I have a few things in common.”

            “Such as?” asked Dylan.

            “We both have faced some tough situations—although I won’t compare mine to your military service—and we kept going. We’re not quitters. I’m not a quitter, Mr. Patterson. Stupid? Yeah. A quitter? No way.”

            “You’re not stupid, Rach. That’s obvious by your employment record and how you’ve conducted yourself with me.”

            “So when do I start?”

            Looking squarely at Rachael, Dylan answered, “Today is Friday. Be here Monday at 8 a.m.”

            “I’m assuming the usual retail work, like stocking and the register?”

            “Nope. Actually, I have something more challenging in mind, and have since I first heard about your accounting skills.”

            Rachael asked with some reservation, “What would that be?”

            “Well, I only have two full-time employees in each store—a manager and an assistant manager. Depending on the size of the store and its traffic, we also have two to three part-timers averaging twenty-five hours per week. My assistant manager here just quit after two months.” He shrugged again. “Such is the retail industry. So Serena and I need an assistant manager. Serena’s one of the main reasons this store has been so profitable. But she can’t do it alone.

            “I like to believe I’m pretty squared away with most aspects of this business, except one—which Mr. Wells brings to my attention, unfortunately, often.”

            “And that would be?”

            “Putting all the numbers together in a way that makes sense to both Mr. Wells and me. Yes, we have a great accountant, but we need someone who is in the trenches—so to speak—every day. We need real-time information if we are to really grow this business. But up to now, we haven’t found the right person.” He stopped, studied Rachael’s face for any sign of hesitation. Seeing none, he asked, “Think you could be that person—both an assistant manager and help me with my numbers for all of the stores?”

            “So I would kind of be your assistant, in addition to being the assistant manager here. Is that right?”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I never thought of it that way…but yes. What do you think? Are you up to the challenge?”

            I’m in no position to be choosy, but I just don’t want to be taken advantage of and treated like some tool because of my situation. I was making excellent money before this shit happened, and I need to get back to that level as soon as possible. I need to go for it. Rachael responded coolly, “Depends.”

            Dylan’s eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows. Still smiling, he leaned forward and asked, “On what?”

            “On the amount of hours and the pay. I want to work as many hours as I can get. I’m not afraid of long hours, Mr. Patterson, as long as I’m being paid the right amount for the work I’m doing.”

            “We’re talking forty hours. And I won’t abuse the privilege, I promise. As far as pay goes… ” Dylan leaned back, put his hands behind his head, and looked at the ceiling. He then placed his hands back on the table and said, “Thirteen-fifty an hour. I know it isn’t what you were used to making, but it’s about a dollar more than I would start an assistant manager.”

            “Fourteen.”

            “What?” his voice raising an octave.

            “Fourteen an hour. I have no idea what you’re really going to need as far as reports for you and Mr. Wells, and experience has taught me that you don’t know either. I’ve been in this spot before. The more I do, the more you’ll want. I’m just building in some cushion for what I know will happen.” She paused, and then asked, “Are we still on for Monday at 8 a.m.?”

            Dylan stood and said, “We are. Welcome aboard.” He stuck out his hand.

            “Looks like we have a deal, Mr. Patterson,” she said, shaking his hand. “Do you inform Ms. Olson, or do I?”

            “I’ll take care of it. She said she wanted a call from me immediately after the interview. I’ll take you out front and formally introduce you to Serena and make her aware of your duties. She’ll be thrilled to know that she’s getting some reliable help.”

            He stopped for a moment, dropped his smile, and then said with the commanding tone of an infantry officer, “I, too, believe in second chances, Rach. Lord knows I’ve had a few do-overs. We’re all counting on reliability. If you start having attendance issues, or you come in here high or fail your piss test just once, you’re history. Are we clear?”

            “Absolutely clear, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Excellent. Then I’m positive we’ll have a great working relationship. And I really would appreciate if you would just call me Dylan. Okay?”

            “Okay…Dylan. What do I wear to work?”

            “Same outfit as mine. We start you off with two sets. If you are still here after thirty days, there’s no charge. If you leave before then, we dock the one check we hold back. We pay weekly, so you won’t get a check until the second week. Will you be able to manage until then?”

            “Yes. I still have some savings. But what if I need more than two sets of uniforms? How much is each set?”

            “They’re somewhere around thirty bucks.” Dylan looked away for a moment, then turned toward Rachael. “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll spot you the additional three sets. After thirty days, I’ll recover the cost of the three sets over three pay periods. Does that work?”

            “Yes, yes it does. Thank you so much, Dylan. What do I wear until I get the first two sets?”

            “Serena always carries enough sizes on hand. But if she doesn’t have your size, she’ll call me. I’ll get them from another store and bring them in this Saturday.”

            “Thank you!” 

            “Great. Let’s talk to Serena, and then I have to jump. I have a lot on my plate today.”

The next thirty days went faster than anyone had anticipated—especially for Rachael and Dylan. They were now into their first full month of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. It was customary for Dylan to hold a team meeting with each store, once a week, and prior to opening for the day. The Perrytown Road store’s day was Friday.

            After going through some mundane issues, Dylan got to the pandemic. “This last month has been different, to say the least. I know we’re in short supply of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, everything made of paper, and stuff I never thought most people would think of as essential. I mean, we’re just about sold out of dish racks. Go figure!”

            Dylan paused for a moment to make sure he had the right tone of voice. He continued. “I do have another matter which I need to address. We’ve been gradually scaling back our hours. We’re now going to be open from nine to five, for two reasons. First, limiting our hours does mean fewer customers, but it also means there will be less demand for our products—especially the items we don’t have anyway. Hopefully, we just might be able to keep some of those high-demand items in stock.

            “Second, our employees have less time to be exposed to the crazies out there. Thanks to Rach running some numbers, we found that the highest amount of negative incidents at our stores happened after five. For those of you who are part-time—don’t worry, your hours won’t be cut. I will, however, need to see Serena and Rach after the meeting to discuss this further.”

            That’s a polite way of saying your hours are getting cut, thought Rachael. But hey, at least I’ll still have a job.

            “I know I didn’t bring much in the way of good news today, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt the best we can. This store was the first store Mr. Wells started, and all of you continue to make this the number one store in all the areas where it counts. I’m proud to work with each and every one of you. Are there any questions?”

            Teresa, a part-timer in her early twenties, raised her hand. “I’d like a few minutes of your time, in private, Dylan.”

            “No problem, let’s go to my office. Everyone else—keep up the great work. See you next week. Have a good weekend, and stay safe.”

            In less than fifteen minutes, Dylan came to the front of the store, backpack slung over his right shoulder, and asked Serena and Rachael to step outside.

            “Smoke ’em if you got ’em, ladies. I know I am.”

            “What’s up, Mr. Dylan?” asked Serena.

            “Well, for starters, your hours won’t be cut. Our original intention, as much as Mr. Wells and I didn’t want to do so, was to cut managers and assistant managers’ hours to thirty-five hours per week. But that won’t be necessary now…at least here.”

            “Why’s that?” asked Rachael.

            “Because Teresa just quit.”

            Serena’s eyes widened and she lifted her eyebrows. “Why? I thought she was happy here.”

            “She just said she had some family issues. I didn’t press her. But instead of allowing her to quit, I told her I would lay her off so she could collect. Between the state and the feds, she’ll do okay. I also told her if she wanted to come back, and we had an opening, I would rehire her.”

            “You’re a good man, Mr. Dylan.”

            “Uh…it was the least I could do, Serena. The question I have for the two of you is—can you handle the load with one less person?”

            “I’m sure we can,” said Serena, “especially with the reduced store hours.”

            “What do you think, Rach?”

            “Serena and I will talk with Terry and Gina to work it out. You won’t notice any change in our performance, Dylan.”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I don’t doubt it. I can’t thank the two of you enough for holding down the fort, especially with all the shit that’s been happening. Before I get going, could I have a word with you, Rach? Alone?”

            Serena took the cue. “I should be getting back in. Have a good weekend, Mr. Dylan.”

            “You, too, Serena.”

            Here it comes. “You’ve done a great job, Rach, but we have to cut you loose being a convict and all. So sad. Too bad. Shit!

            Dylan got right to the point. “Drop the worried look. It’s all good.”

            “Just a natural reflex. Sorry.”

            “Yeah. I get it. But it really is all good. You’ve done an outstanding job helping out Mr. Wells and me. And you were right… We had no freakin’ clue as to what we wanted or needed. That negative incident report was brilliant. And we never even asked you to do that. Impressive work with us, and here at the store. Just know that Serena loves you. This brings me to the first order of business.”

            “Yes?”

            “Your pay. Because of the outstanding work you’ve done, and your initiative, I wanted to bring you up to fifteen an hour, but Mr. Wells overrode that idea. He said…” Dylan purposely hesitated, to keep Rachael in suspense, “‘Don’t be so fucking cheap, Dylan. Good employees are hard to find, and harder to keep. Give her sixteen-fifty.’ That pay raise starts Monday. Think you can manage on that?”

            Rachael had a blank stare. Her mouth fell open.

            “Wow! This is a first. Rachael Bensinger not commenting. I could get used to this. I’m going to continue, while you collect your thoughts. Okay?”

            Rachael just nodded.

            Dylan put his backpack on the sidewalk, pulled out an iPhone from a side pocket, and handed it to Rachael.

            “What’s this?” asked Rachael.

            “It’s called an iPhone.”

            “I know what it is, Dylan. I already have an iPhone.”

            “Mr. Wells and I felt badly about clogging up your personal phone with voicemails, texts and emails. Now—”

            Rachael cut him off, and said with a smile, “You get to clog up this phone. Right?”

            Dylan took a drag on his cigarette, pointed it at Rachael, and said, “Exactly. You always were a fast learner, Rach. We’ve already loaded it with all the apps you’ll need. If you need a new app—that’s business related, of course—just ask me and I’ll make it happen. I also loaded all the contacts you’ll need. You’ll find your phone number under your name. I’d appreciate if you keep it on you, and always on. I promise I won’t abuse that privilege either. And, of course, we pay the bill. You’ll never see it. You good with this?”

            Rachael turned melancholy, and Dylan saw tears form in the corners of her eyes. “Why so glum, Rach? I thought you would be happy with the raise and the phone. What the hell am I missing here?”

            “Guys just don’t get it.”

            “Not sure what you mean. Enlighten me.”

            “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed…overwhelmed by the whole situation. I’m thrilled and happy.”

            “You’re right. I don’t get it.”

            “What I mean, Dylan, is that a little over seven weeks ago, my life was in the crapper. Now, I’m just about at the same pay level I was before this whole shitty mess started. I have a good position, I have bosses who actually care about the people they employ, and—most importantly—” Rachael started to cry openly, “My work is appreciated. I’m appreciated.”

            Rachael collected herself. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said between sniffles. She wiped away the tears with the palm of her hands. “I guess it all came to a head. I’ve been holding all of this shit in. It won’t happen again. I promise. And I thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”

            “Hey… I didn’t do anything for you. I showed you a door. You opened it and walked through it. You made it happen. You’ve earned everything that you have. No charity here, believe me.

            “Now, if it’s okay with you, I need to motor or I’ll be late.” Dylan picked up his backpack, looked at his watch, and muttered, “Shit. I already am. Oh well. Savor the moment, Rach. Have a great weekend, but remember…”

            Rachael interrupted again, and said, “I know… Keep it tight and together. No worries, Dylan.”

            Dylan allowed himself an ear-to-ear smile. Before he headed to the car, he said, “By the way, and I hope this doesn’t make you cry again, but remember those three sets of uniforms you were supposed to pay for starting this month?”

            “Yeah. I can more than afford to pay it back.”

            “No need. You’ve more than paid for them for what you’ve done for this company. Debt is cancelled.”

            “Was that your decision, or Mr. Wells’?”

            “All mine. Mr. Wells allows, and expects, me to make executive-level decisions, Ms. Bensinger. Besides, he didn’t know I did it in the first place.”

            Before Rachael could respond, Dylan turned and sprinted to his car.

The next month was a blur. Businesses started to reopen; people were getting back to work, products which were once scarce appeared on the shelves—and stayed there— because the hoarding had diminished. Customers were actually behaving like customers, instead of hungry, cornered animals.

            At the end of his last Friday team meeting of the month, Dylan thanked everyone for their efforts in an extraordinarily difficult time. He also mentioned that he and Mr. Wells were planning on opening at least three new stores in the next year.

            At the conclusion of the meeting, Dylan said to Rachael, “I need some time with you. And don’t worry, it’s all good. Let’s grab a smoke.”

            Once outside, Rachael asked, “So what’s up?”         

            “First, I have some good news about me.”

            “Go on.”

            “Mr. Wells has agreed to let me buy in on twenty percent of the existing stores, and I’ll get thirty percent of the new stores, up front. Pretty slick, huh?” he said patting his back over his left shoulder with his right hand.

            “Forty.”

            “What?”

            “Forty percent. You know you’re going to be working your ass off on opening three new stores, and you should get forty percent.”

            “Okay. I don’t disagree, but what if he doesn’t agree?”

            “Then you negotiate. Get real, Dylan. He’s not going to cut you loose. You’re too valuable. He’ll probably wind up giving you thirty-five percent. I mean, what do you have to lose? The worst that happens is that he stays at thirty, and maybe gives you an option for more down the road. I know you’re not a wimp, so don’t start acting like one now. The guy loves you. He’s already said as much to me.”

            “He has?”

            “Yes. He has. He said you’re almost like a son to him—which I don’t understand, being that he has a son.”

            “His son is a fucking idiot, which is why Mr. Wells doesn’t allow him near the business. If you ever have the unfortunate opportunity to meet him, you’ll understand. Believe me.”

            Dylan remained silent for a minute. Rachael saw him nodding his head as if he was talking to someone. Then Dylan said, emphatically, “You’re right, as usual. I’ll ask him for forty. I meet with him today to iron out some of the details. I promise you, I won’t wimp out.”

            “That’s the Dylan I know. Charge that hill!” Rachael paused before she asked, “Is that it, or is there more good news?”

            “There’s more.”

            “Go on.”

            “Well, you’ve done a great job, Rach, which is why I might need to replace you as assistant manager.”

            “What? Why?” Rachael said raising her voice in both disbelief and anger.

            “Because Mr. Wells and I were hoping you would accept a promotion to the position of Assistant General Manager.”

            “I wasn’t aware we even had an Assistant General Manager.”

            “We don’t…yet. That’s why we were counting on you accepting it. And if you do, I need to replace you here.”

            “You know, Dylan, maybe you should have led with that. Sometimes you have the tact of a hand grenade.” Rachael crossed her arms tightly across the front of her body.

            “I suppose I could have broached the subject differently.”

            “Ya think?” Rachael said while rolling her eyes. She started tapping her right foot. “So who will be the assistant manager here?”

            “We have someone in mind from another store. It would be ideal for her.”

            “So, did you offer her the position?”

            “Nope. I wanted to see if you accepted the promotion first. It wouldn’t have been fair to offer her a position that wasn’t available.”

            “Does she even know that the position here might be open?”

            “Again, no, for the same reason as I just mentioned.”

            “Who would train her?”

            “Serena would. She said she wants to train the assistant her way, like she did with you, and I agree. And please stop that incessant foot tapping and chill the hell out! Christ, Rach, you’re always so fuckin’ defensive.”

            Rachael stopped the foot tapping, but kept her arms crossed. “Maybe I have good reasons for it.”

            “Maybe you do, but I shouldn’t be one of them. Quit making me pay for how other people have treated you. Okay?”

            Rachael dropped her arms, lit another cigarette, and shuffled her feet. She said, sheepishly, “I agree with Serena. Who wants the old assistant hanging around while you’re training a new one? So, tell me about this new position.”

            Dylan carried on as if nothing had happened. As far as he was concerned, nothing did happen. “Doing exactly what you’ve been doing with the numbers, except doing it full time. You’d be meeting with Mr. Wells and me more often, as well as visiting the stores more frequently. It’s come to my attention that the managers and assistant managers prefer hearing the numbers from you, because—and I quote—‘She’s one of us.’ You will be busy, Rach. But having you in this position is more important now than it ever was.”

             “Would I work from one of the stores, or from home?”

            “That’s your call. What do you prefer?”

            “I prefer to work out of this store, actually. I believe I’d be more productive. May I use your office when you’re not here?”

            “I have a better idea. If you accept the position, I can have a contractor build out another office next to mine—here. This is the only place I have an office, by the way.”

            “Would I be able to have a plywood desk and orange plastic chairs like you?” Rachael grinned.

            “Why, Ms. Bensinger, I am deeply hurt. I always thought my furniture had charm. It gives off a certain ambiance.”

            “It does. It says this guy is either incredibly cheap, or has very bad taste in furniture.”

            Both laughed out loud.

            Dylan relaxed his stance and lit another cigarette. “In reality, Rach, you’re not going to be spending that much time in the office. Nonetheless, Mr. Wells gave us a budget for new furniture. We can look together and pick out nicer stuff. I’ll defer to your judgment.”

            He’s finally learning, Rachael thought.

            “And speaking about shopping for stuff, part of your package of perks is a leased car. We can go shopping for one this week, since I would have to sign for it.”

            “What do I do with my car?”

            “Keep it. The leased car is for business purposes so you don’t rack up the miles on your car.”

            “Can I get a fancy SUV like yours?”

            “Uh, no. But I promise you yours will be safe, comfortable, new, and appropriate for your position. You won’t be embarrassed driving it.”

            “It all sounds great, Dylan. I’m flattered that Mr. Wells and you think that much of me. When would I start?”

            “This Monday would be great.” Dylan paused, and then said to Rachael, “I’m surprised you didn’t ask about the money.”

            “I just figured all the other perks would be my increase in compensation.”

            “Not even close, Rach. We’re putting you on a salary of forty thousand a year, plus profit sharing at the end of the year. That’s a six-thousand-dollar increase. So…do I make the call to the new assistant manager offering the job, or what?”

            “What if she refuses?”

            “She won’t. Quit stalling. What’s your decision, and don’t play hard to get.”

            “Absolutely, Dylan. Absolutely! Thank you, thank you. Please thank Mr. Wells for me, please. And I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you earlier. You didn’t deserve it.”

            “You can tell Mr. Wells in person when the three of us meet this week to design a strategy for opening these new stores. And I did deserve it. I thought I was being clever. Guess not!

            “I have a few calls to make before I head out. Have another smoke. You’ve made a number of people very happy by accepting this position, especially me. And, by the way, today marks the end of your sixty-day probation period with us. Congrats. You’ve come a long way in these last two months. Very impressive. For what it’s worth—Ms. Olson, Mr. Wells, and I are extremely proud of you. Well done.”

Yes! Yes! I know I haven’t said this lately, but thank you, Jesus. No, really, thank you. I can’t believe this is happening. Rachael threw a fist bump in the air. She flicked her cigarette onto the parking lot, and turned to go back into the store.

            “Nice dance, Rachael.”

            Rachael’s breathing became fast and heavy. “What the fuck are you doing here, Billy? I thought you were in Ohio.”

            “Is that any way to talk to your boyfriend?”

            “You’re not my boyfriend.”

            “I kind of figured that, since I haven’t heard from you in almost three months. I called your cell, but the number went to a different person. What happened with us?”

            “What happened? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? You hauling off and clocking me in my face. You damn near cost me my eyesight in one eye. We got arrested and all the other shit that came with it. That’s what happened! And there is no ‘us.’ Now get the hell out of my way. I need to get back to work.”

            Billy blocked her path. “Rachael, I know I fucked up, and I’m sorry. Can we at least try to work it out?”

            “No. Now move out of my way.” As Rachael strode toward the door, Billy grabbed her right arm with his left. His hand completely engulfed her slender wrist. “Let go, Billy. You’re hurting me.”

            “I figured you were going to reject me, so how about spotting me a hundred bucks. I’m staying with this guy and I need it for expenses.”

            “Bullshit! You’re stoned, and you’re going to use the money to buy weed, or whatever. I’m not giving you a fucking dime. Now, LET GO.”

            Rachael heard a firm, calm voice from behind her. “Let her go, Billy.”

            She turned and saw Dylan in the doorway with his backpack slung over his right shoulder. I’ve never seen Dylan’s face and demeanor look like that. That’s the face of a Ranger in combat. If I were the enemy, I’d be scared shitless.

            “Who the fuck are you?” asked Billy.

            “It doesn’t matter who I am, and you don’t want to find out. You just need to let go of Rach.”

            “I’m not leaving without her, or some money.”

            Dylan locked his eyes on Billy, allowed his backpack to slide off his shoulder, slowly reached into his left pocket, and pulled out a neatly folded wad of cash. “There’s over two hundred dollars here, Billy. Let go of Rach, take the cash, leave, and I’ll pretend this never happened. Okay?”

            “Fuck you,” Billy shot back. He turned to Rachael and asked, “Are you doing this douche bag, Rachael?”

            Dylan answered before Rachael had a chance. “No one’s doing anyone, Billy. Let go of her, take the cash, and split—now!”

            “And what if I don’t?”

            “That would be your first, and probably, last mistake.”

            Rachael shouted, “I’ve had enough of your shit, Billy. You’re never going to hurt me again.” She spun to her right, breaking his hold and, with both of her hands, pushed Billy.

            As he stumbled backward, he shouted, “You bitch,” and reached under his hoodie.

            Rachael felt as if she was hit twice in the gut by a sledgehammer. She slammed up against the store’s pane glass window, and slid down onto the concrete walkway. This pavement is cold, she thought.

            Dylan seethed under his breath, “No, no, no. I thought all of this shit was behind me.” Then his instincts took over. He put his backpack under her head, took off his jacket, stripped off his shirt and pressed it tightly against Rachael’s abdomen. “Christ. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

            Serena came to the doorway, gasped, and put her hands to her mouth. Choking back tears, she asked, “What happened to Rachael, Mr. Dylan?”

            Dylan remained calm, and said, “Get me a shitload of towels, Serena.”

            “What kind?”

            “Any fucking kind. Move it, Serena.”

            Dylan grabbed his cell phone with his free hand, and made yet another call.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” inquired the male operator in a controlled voice.

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton. Please hurry,” responded Dylan.
            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

            “I have a female employee who’s been shot twice in the abdomen.”

            “Is the assailant still there?”

            “No. He dropped his gun and fled on foot. Now get me some help, please.”

            “Stay on the line, sir, while I make the call. Your name?”      

            “What?”

            “Your name. What’s your name, sir?”

            “Dylan. Dylan Patterson.”

            Serena returned with an armful of towels. “Just put ’em next to Rach, Serena.”

            “Is she going to be okay, Mr. Dylan?”

            “Hand me three of those towels.”

            “They’re turning red as soon as you put them on,” cried Serena.

            Dylan now talked to Rachael. “Rach, listen to my voice. Just focus on my voice. You’re going to be okay. Help is on the way. I need you to help me pick out furniture, Rach. Listen to my voice.”

            The faintest of smiles crossed Rachael’s face. I hear you, Dylan, but I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. My eyelids are so heavy. I feel so tired. Why do I feel so tired?

            The operator returned. “The police and EMT’s should be there in a few minutes. Keep pressure on the wound.”

            “I know what to do. I was in combat.”

            “Understood, sir. I’ll stay on the line until the police arrive.”

            Within a few minutes two city police and a county sheriff’s car rolled up at the same time as the EMT’s. “I’m going off the line, sir. God speed,” said the 9-1-1 operator.

            Two medics knelt beside Rachael. The police pulled Dylan aside. “Let the EMT’s do their job, sir. Perhaps you could help us with some details.”

            “What’s her first name?” asked the EMT at her feet, while the other EMT put an oxygen mask on Rachael.

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger,” responded Dylan. She’s about twenty-three.”

            “Thanks.” Then the EMT spoke to Rachael. “Rachael, my name is Ryan. My partner’s name is Nilda. We’re with the fire department. You’re going to be okay, Rachael, but I need you to focus as hard as you can on my voice. Blink if you understand.”

            Rachael managed one blink, and then her eyelids slammed shut.

            “Rachael, we need to roll you on your side. This may hurt, but it’s necessary.”

            As Ryan rolled her onto her left side, Rachael let out an anguished cry. “Nilda, look for exit wounds.” Nilda looked and shook her head.

            “Shit,” said Ryan. “That means the slugs are still in there. I can’t stop the bleeding, Nilda.”

            “Her bp is falling off a cliff, and she barely has a pulse, Ryan. We have to move her, now.”

            A moment later, Nilda yelled, “No pulse, Ryan. It’s gone. I’m starting CPR.”

            As Rachael felt the chest compressions, she thought she heard Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Human Touch’ being played over the store’s music system. What a strange song to play now. And why am I thinking about volcanoes?

            At that very moment, a geyser of blood violently erupted from Rachael’s mouth, filling her mask. Nilda ripped it off. Dylan broke from the police, cradled Rachael’s head from behind, and turned it to the side so she wouldn’t choke. Nilda continued with the CPR.

            “Don’t you quit on me, Rach!” yelled Dylan. “Start fighting, damn it. Be fierce. Fight!” A torrent of tears from Dylan pelted Rachael’s forehead like a hard rain against a window.

            Ryan looked at Nilda and said, “Nilda, there’s still no pulse. It’s over.”

            “It ain’t over until I say it’s over. Give me another minute, Ryan.”

            Ryan gave it thirty seconds, then grabbed Nilda’s arm. “It’s over, partner. Time to let it go.”

            Nilda slammed her fist into her medical bag three times, shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

            From some deep recess of Rachael’s mind, which she couldn’t quite pinpoint, she heard a calm voice. Congratulations for getting through your sixty days in the hole. Good job. In her mind, she smiled.

            A moment later, from a different corner of her mind, she heard a desperate, panic-stricken voice cry out, Awww shit, Rachael.


BIO

L.D. Zane served in the Navy from 1968 to 1975. Five of those years were aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. He lives with his wife in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania, and is a member of The Bold Writers group.

L.D.’s short stories have been published in over two dozen literary journals. His first anthology, It’s Always My Fault & Other Short Stories, has recently been published by Pretzel City Press.

L.D.’s website is: ldzaneauthor.com



A Weed in the Canyon

by Susan E. Lloy

Clementine just purchased a small two-story house on Willow Glen Rd in Laurel Canyon with a lush side garden teeming with lemon, lime and orange trees. It’s absolutely lovely and completely renovated. She scrimped and saved her entire life and, with the help of an inheritance from an uncle, purchased it for one buck shy of a million, which is a steal for this area. The move isn’t at all practical. For one thing she isn’t American and will have to leave the country every six months in order not to be labeled an illegal alien. Nonetheless, she’s here.

Clementine had visited California and many of its counties numerous times wishing she could move to the Golden State. She doesn’t know a soul; yet an undeniable lure has brought her here. It’s the mystique of it all that played a significant slice of her decision. Much has happened here, the music scene that changed a generation, but that history is spent. Even so, there is an aura about this place. Maybe it’s only the warmer weather. It certainly puts a smile on a face instead of freezing one’s ass off as the northern neighbor where polar winds bite at a face, freeze toes and every single bone aches and cries out for comfort.

She has no clue of what to expect from relocating. Change. Something. No matter how insignificant. It felt as if days have remained stagnant the last twenty years and now that’s she’s left the life of the worker bees, she wishes to venture somewhere unknown. Taking in the scents of all unchartered.

It’s the first time in her life that she will live in a detached home since her childhood. For her entire adult life she has lived in apartment buildings hearing the continuous slamming of doors. Haunted by noise and smells of cooking not to her liking. This house is open and airy with an ultra-modern kitchen, dining and living room all in one breadth. Glass pilot doors open to a patio area and upstairs there is an additional living space with a fireplace for cool evenings, a closed bedroom, a courtyard off the second level and a roof garden. It’s sleek and sexy. What more could she wish for?

In all her years Clementine never really learned to drive. When she was young she had been in a serious car accident and two of her cousins had died. She never got over her nervousness of vehicles even if it hasn’t been constructive for her life. She does maintain a driver’s license, though never drives. She forced herself to acquire one to overcome her fear. Still, she has only been behind the wheel three times in sixteen years.

Her home is situated on a bend high up in the canyon and the closest store is more than an hours’ walk. Still, it will help with her weight. She has let herself go the last years. Hiding under think layers of clothes, which is required most of the year, with only a sliver of warmer weather allotted for thinner attire. Here lifestyle is paramount. Fitness. Clean habits. She never gave up smoking. It’s not a heavy addiction, nevertheless she can’t say no when having a drink that has become more of a problem of late. Hell, can’t I have something? It’s her go to for when she’s overdone it.

She sold everything, keeping only a few photographs inside her three large suitcases. Got rid of all her heavy attire. A fresh start – that’s what’s needed. Her kin are all gone and she is childless. What was there to keep her there – nothing. She looks at a photograph of her five-year old self, standing beside a snowman proudly pointing at her creation. It feels so different here with the ocean off in the distance and palm trees erect and alien.

There isn’t a thing to eat. Only a can of espresso she brought in one of her bags. Not even a drop of milk, but makes a stovetop brew. She’ll need the energy to traipse down the hill to the Canyon Country Store and back up again. She grabs a few bags and begins her descent down the winding road. The heat is intense and it scorches her exposed skin. Humidity attacks her hair making her gray locks look like a deviant scrub brush. Often cars pass. Some with surfboards, yet no one offers a lift.

She’s happy to be back in the land of Anglophones after leaving the French province, where she had become one of those people who swore she never would be. One that had lived there for decades, but whose French had remained shabby at best. She did try, but she was always lousy with languages and only had English acquaintances. French was not required for her job with an international import/export company and now she relishes in the thought that if she needs directions or whatever, she can easily converse in her mother tongue. Instead of doing her French best and getting a “Hein-quoi??” Which is the Québécois equivalent of “what the fuck did you say?”

She finally reaches the Canyon Country Store and takes a seat outside before venturing inside to purchase some provisions. They say, sometimes, you can see famous people here, although today there are only loud-mouthed, skimpily-dressed millennials wearing Lululemon and baseball caps taking selfies.

After having a meal and buying all the food items she can easily carry, she begins her amble up the road. By the time she reaches her house she is drenched in sweat and thirsty beyond belief. How she wishes for a frosty Margarita, but she doesn’t have any Tequila in the house. Beer was too heavy to lug up the hill, so she settles for a warm rosé with ice.

As Clementine sits on her garden terrace she feels a tinge of happiness. She does not believe in this state-of-mind. She simply isn’t wired this way. She remembers hints of such a feeling when playing with childhood friends, having a laugh when tripping or in the first bloom of love, but not in the day-to-day and all the therapy in the world won’t change that. When folks say, “I’m great” she believes they are total phonies and liars. Even so, her mood is lighter today.

The city is beautiful lying beneath her feet, especially at night when it is aglow and brimming with life. She ventured into downtown LA a few times to lunch watching the many young fit bodes stroll along the sidewalks, but felt consciously exposed in the sizzling sunlight with all of her abundance displayed in plain sight. She wished herself back up north enshrouded in heavy clothing – a tuque and winter coat and winding scarf partially concealing her face and neck. Here, there is no escaping. No snow gusts or freezing rain or a thousand brown-red turned maple leaves encircling one’s sphere.

It becomes more and more unusual for her to venture down into the city even though it awaits a few minutes from her doorstep. And although she loves the sea and went to the beach a few times, she was too scared to swim. The strong temperamental currents frightened her. She imagined them sucking her far out into the blue with hungry sharks lurking under the swell, ravenous for her generous form. She did enjoy the surfers though, admiring their courage and their highly developed art of riding the waves.

Even though it’s preferable to have her food and liquor delivered from favorite downtown shops, she still sets off every other day down to the Canyon Store. One afternoon after leaving the store she is offered a lift. A yellow, vintage Volkswagen van with a white top slows down along side of her.

“Hey there, you’re lugging a load. Can I offer you a ride?”

He looks friendly enough, with a smiling dog panting out the window; nevertheless he could be the local loony, but she accepts. The van grinds into gear and makes a series of wheezing sounds that reminds her of the van in, Little Miss Sunshine, trying to stay the course with all of its troubles.

“Where ya heading?

“Willow Glen Rd.”

“No problem, we’ll be up there in a jiff. It would be a shame to let a lady trudge up this road with all that gear you’re toting.”

“What’s your name?”

“Clementine.”

“And you?”

She somehow expected him to say Jax or Zane. Something vernacular Californian.

“I’m Bernie. And this is Chili Pepper.”

“Well, this is very kind of you Bernie.”

The dog quietly wags her tail revealing several patches of heavily matted fur.

When they reach her house he beams.

“Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”

She returns his smile watching as he turns the rig around with its groans and spurts of pain. He waves out of the side window and drives and slowly makes his way down the hill. After he is out of sight, she thinks that was kinda nice. She has become somewhat fatigued with herself. Solitude has a shelf life.

When moving in, her next-door neighbors came to welcome her, promising hello to invite her over once they returned, but they were heading to Sicily for five months. The only contact she has with folk here is the staff at the Canyon Store.

Clementine’s used to it. She’s more of a loner, although she can be quite social when she needs to be. The older she’s become people have become less significant to her. She prefers the company of birds or hearing the distant barks of coyotes that howl throughout the canyon every evening. Often they compete with hoot owls serenading everyone within earshot.

A hummingbird feeder hangs from one of the lemon trees and sometimes they come close to her like tiny fairies. One morning a coyote was standing on her patio with three of her cubs. Clementine threw some sliced meat cuts, which they gobbled up like there was no tomorrow. Afterwards, she thought perhaps she had made a mistake. One shouldn’t tamper with wildlife. Imagining them moving in, awaiting grub every day, yet that was their only visit.

Bernie settles in for the evening on an empty lot further down the canyon featuring remnants of an old foundation. His van is camouflaged amongst hearty overgrowth. He knows this locale is only temporary. Soon enough, the builders will arrive to construct a new home.

He is accustomed to this upheaval and has been homeless for years now. At first, he had aspirations of becoming a singer and drifted to Los Angeles in the early eighties. Initially he got gigs as backup vocals and playing acoustic guitar in clubs on the Strip, though in the end it never amounted to anything. He ended up doing odd jobs, mostly in restaurants. He gave it up completely following a motorcycle accident, which left him lame and in constant pain. Forcing him to walk with a cane carved from a tree branch.

Sometimes he busks for money downtown. The tourists are the most generous. Thinking he’s some old throwback from the music scene way back when. He eats a lot in soup kitchens and wanders the hills inquiring about yard work and handyman jobs and often he can earn a few bucks.

Clementine’s out of the loop as far as scoops go. The last time she read the news she saw a photograph of a wild elephant lying dead in a river somewhere in India. Someone had given it explosive fruit. It disgusted her and she vowed to stay clear of what’s going on in the world. It’s only shit.

The house is absent of a television or stereo. She wasted so much time staring at the screen and withdrew from music years ago. Compressed with neighbors and paper-thin walls. Sometimes, though, she twirls around her open space like some excited Dervish. Especially when she hears a tune from the B-52’s or the Ramones or something else to her liking from a car’s open window. She thinks a party would be amusing, but there’s no one to invite.

One evening while sipping a cocktail on her patio she hears a familiar sound. The voice of the van. It seems to be conking to a stop in front of her house and lets out a long series of grunts. She heads to the door and sees Bernie with a bouquet of wildflowers. Chili Pepper sits obediently at his feet.

“Bernie. This is unexpected.”

“Thought I’d take a chance.”

Handing her a mix of locally grown blossoms.

“Well, come in.”

She isn’t at all certain why she invites him in. Though truth be told she is bored with hardly a soul to chat with and celibacy has become too close a companion.

“Would you like a cocktail?”

“That would be nice.”

Clementine goes to the kitchen and Chili Pepper follows close behind. She prepares icy Margaritas in the blender and brings them out to the patio.

He sits across from her taking a deep, long swallow.

“This is really tasty.”

“Want another?”

“Sure. Can’t say no to that.”

She produces two additional delicious dripping glasses and returns with a plate of assorted cheese, crackers, seedless grapes, and a bowl of cold water for Chili Pepper, which the dog gulps down as if it is her last moment on earth. She is offered a few bits of cheese and following her treat, gazes back at Clementine with a grateful smile.

“So Bernie are you still working?”

She does not find this intrusive for they are of similar age.

“I do landscaping from time to time. Keeps me active.”

After the second drink Bernie asks Clementine if he can take a shower.

“I never had the chance before dropping by. I was in the neighborhood you see.”

Although she finds this odd and feels put on the spot, she agrees providing him with a fresh towel. She feels it would be unkind of her to refuse him. A considerable amount of time passes before he emerges cleaner with bits of water lingering in his full, longish hair.

There’s no denying he’s a good-looking man, reminiscent in a certain angle of light of a young Sam Shepard. Inviting, in a definite, raffish way.

“I feel like a new man! Thanks, I really needed that.”

Bernie has started to come over more frequently, but she wonders why he never invites her out to dinner, a movie or anything for that matter. She just assumes he’s stingy, an attribute she doesn’t respect in a man. Still, overall she likes him. He told her about his past. How he grew up on a farm in the Midwest. How he hated it. Forced to do chores upon chores day in day out. How his mother died from an accident when he was four. How his father was mean and beat him and the minute he was old enough to leave he headed here.

By the end of the month he is practically living with her. She even buys steep-priced chow for Chili Pepper from a vet. Chili has taken a shining to Clementine and often Bernie will have to limp over just to rub her head and get a wagging tail. His pained hip doesn’t hinder his sexual performance though, which has proved to be an extra benefit to the friendship.

One afternoon down at the Canyon store one of the guys, Wyatt, whom she’s gotten to know well, shines the spotlight on Bernie.

“Clementine. I realize this is hardly my business, however I’ve seen you from time to time with Bernie. You are a nice lady and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“Don’t get me wrong. Bernie is a cool dude and all, but he’s sort of a predator.”

“Predator!” You mean sexually perverse?”

“No. No, not that. A player. A sort of douche. It’s just that I’ve seen it again and again throughout the years. A single lady comes to the Canyon and he swoops in like a bird of prey. Ya know, gets chummy, and then makes his move to gain entrée so to speak. Get me? He’s homeless. Bet he didn’t tell you that one. He lives in his van.”

As she eats her lunch on the terrace the story of him being in the area, dropping in, and the ceaseless requests to use the shower start to sink in.

A few nights after following a carefully executed meal, Clementine puts the gears to Bernie.

“So Bernie. Why don’t you ever invite me to your place? Truthfully I get fed up with all the cooking. You know I do –  you once in awhile do, would be nice.”

“Oh, I will. Eventually. I’m ashamed, actually. It’s a mess. You know with the bum leg and all. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

“M-m-m-m. That’s funny because someone told me, someone whom I trust, that you live in your van and that you make a habit out of befriending single women and moving yourself in. Trust me, I hate liars and I’ve met plenty throughout the years.”

“Man. If I had told you the truth would you have given me a second thought?”

“I dunno know. Maybe I’d feel less disappointed if you’d been upfront from the get-go. But, you never gave me the chance. I don’t judge most folk.

Everyone has had hard times. In spite of that I’d like you to get the hell out. I’ll find a way to contact you if I change my mind. I feel totally deceived and ripped off.”

“Clementine, please believe this wasn’t my intention. I would have told you sooner or later.”

Bernie gathers up his few belongings and his guitar and calls for Chili Pepper who knows a good thing and hides herself where no one can find her.

“Chili Pepper… come on girl. Chili…”

But before he can sniff her out Clementine pushes him out the door. Cane and all. An old tattered duffle bag just misses his head.

Several weeks have passed and no sign of Bernie. She feels bad about keeping Chili and is certain Bernie pines for his dog. Clementine puts a note on the message board of the Canyon Store alerting Bernie that Chili Pepper is happy and misses him since he doesn’t answer his phone. She asks Wyatt to tell him to stop by if he runs into him, but it is as if he has dropped off the planet. Or abducted for that matter.

Truth be told, Berne has already hooked up with another lady. A new addition to the Canyon, a newbie from London named Arabella. He left his van on the entrance driveway to the vacant lot, partially concealed by heavily laden foliage and high-tailed it down Mexico-way with his new squeeze. Not giving Clementine a second thought and a mere nano-second for Chili Pepper. Thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have to stash her somewhere while he’s off gallivanting down South with Arabella, whom he met when he helped her with car trouble and charmed her on the spot right then and there.

Rain has been falling heavily the last week keeping Clementine housebound, preventing her from going down to the Canyon Country Store. Instead, she watches the worrisome stream of brown earth running down the road in front of her house. Chili Pepper has never been happier since her groom and shampoo down at the doggy salon. If Bernie were to appear now she’d give him the cold stare, ignore him and exit the room retreating to one of her many hiding places.

The downpour continues without pause and unbeknownst to Clementine the earth has started to shift. First, she hears a rumbling like an oncoming train. When she looks outside she sees that part of the road has caved in and her next-door neighbors’ house has collapsed like an accordion from the swiftly, accelerating mudslide. She picks up Chili Pepper and speedily walks down the road stepping over fallen trees, boulders and structural debris.

After walking for some time she sees the back of the yellow van lurking from under a palm branch. She opens the door and gently puts Chili in the back on the worn sleeping bag before rummaging around for the keys that are soon discovered taped to the roof of the glove compartment. To her amazement it starts without hesitation, although a little surly and stubborn. She turns the yellow van around, which sighs in disapproval, heading down the Canyon with one wonky wiper clearing her way.


BIO

Susan E. Lloy is the author of two short story collections, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita (2019). Susan likes to write about unconventional characters who exist on the edges of ordinary life and is hoping to finish her third collection by spring 2021. She lives in Montreal.




A Hasid in the Park

by Akiva Rube

I took a seat under the 40 foot stained glass windows of the Bobover synagogue. My father was sitting to my right, rolling his wet sidelocks around his finger. When the rabbi entered, the man at the front pounded once on the lectern signaling that services would soon begin. We prayed for half an hour and then I stepped out for a short break between the early and late evening prayers. Up the street the sun was setting and all around the shops had their metal gates pulled down and locked for Shabbos.

Standing outside on the curb I noticed Meir Miller and his younger brother Zalman by another synagogue across the street. I went over to say hi and we gathered around a low brick wall that surrounded a brownstone’s front yard. I sat on the wall and Zalman teetered on it with his arms out by his side.

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked. Meir, who was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, suggested we stay home and play Risk. Zalman waved a hand dismissively, “Let’s get drunk and go to the park.”

Zalman was excited because we had gone to Gravesend Park — the newly renovated playground on 18th avenue– the previous Friday night, and found a group of teenage Hasidim, like ourselves, smoking on Shabbos. To top it off they were a mixture of boys and girls. Zalman grabbed his crotch and clutching it said, “Maybe I’ll get my dick sucked.”

“I’m down,” I said and Meir said he was too.

The side door of their synagogue creaked open and their father stepped out. Mr. Miller looked around and told his sons to come back inside. I wished him Good Shabbos and crossed the street back to Bobov.

When prayer ended my father stuck around to catch up with a few friends. I walked home ahead of him. Children playing tag ran in and out of the empty streets while their mothers and older sisters sat on their stoops and waited for the men to return.

At home, my mother was sitting at the table praying and my younger sister Chavi, all showered and dressed for Shabbos, was reading to the rest of the kids on the carpeted dining room floor.

“Can you see George peeking from under the yellow hat? Can you see him, Shloimy?” She asked. Shloimy nodded. My mother’s glasses rested near the tip of her nose and she looked over the lenses to Chavi. Then she turned to me and asked, “How was it tonight?”

“Good,” I said. I’m so zonked and hungry, what did you make?”

“The usual, gefilte fish, soup, salad, and chicken.” She pointed to each on the counter and gently rocked a bassinet with her foot. I gave Shloimy a little pinch on the cheek but he turned his face and put his arms around Chavi. We sat quietly then, listening, as Chavi read on.

After a few minutes, we turned to the sound of my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs and then his voice, he began to sing, welcoming the Shabbos angels in a short hymn. Chavi closed the book and my father came in bellowing, “Good Shabbos.” Shloimy stood up and ran into his legs yelling “Good Shabbos, Tati.” 

*** 

The Miller house was the next one over and as familiar to me as my own. Our parents had been friends and neighbors before any of the kids were born, and my earliest memories featured Meir and Zalman, the two oldest of the family. As kids, the three of us would ride our bikes up and around every block in Borough Park. And when we got bored, we climbed the garage that was behind their house and jumped along those annexed to every subsequent house on the street.

After my Friday night meal, I walked to the Miller house, as I did every week. I turned the knob to their apartment, which, like ours, was always unlocked. Mr. Miller sat with his back to the door at the head of their long dining table, beneath a crystal chandelier. As soon as I entered, Zalman, who was sitting at the other end and facing me, shouted in Yiddish, “Ah, Good Shabbos Reb Pinchus, how are you?” and I shouted back, “Thank God Reb Zalman, and you?” The little girls and boys started giggling and then imitating, screaming to each other, “Good Shabbos Reb so and so or “Good Shabbos Rebitzin” so and so. Mr. Miller turned to me with a smile and wished me Good Shabbos.

“Good Shabbos Pinchus,” Mrs. Miller said as she walked from the kitchen with a bowl of soup that she set down in front of Mr. Miller.

“Good Shabbos,” I said and stepped over all the Yiddish childrens books spilled from capsized storage containers. I sat down near Zalman. I turned around and Shifra, who’d just come in from the kitchen, was behind me, also carrying soup.

“Good Shabbos,” she said to me. She was the third child and only a year younger than Zalman. She wore a white, long sleeve shirt under a sleeveless, blue-belted dress, and a studded headband that puffed her hair in the front. She rounded the table and handed Meir his bowl with two bobbing knaidlach.

“Good Shabbos.” I said.

“What are you doing tonight?” she whispered. We’d told her last week about the people in the park.

“Not sure yet” I said smiling.

“You want soup?” she asked.

“No, thanks.”

Mr. Miller began a song about the beauty of Shabbos and all the boys joined in. When we were done, Meir and Mr. Miller began to argue about the meaning of a verse in that week’s Torah reading. Occasionally, I turned to see Meir stroking his hairless chin and furrowing his brow.

By the wall near Zalman and I there was a small table with a mix of silver and earthenware candlesticks, one for each family member. The wax had burned down and over. On the same wall there was a picture of a rabbi over a book with candles by his side.

***

There was a synagogue with an open liquor cabinet in its basement just a few blocks down. When we arrived we sat on padded folding chairs among stacked bookcases and drank from Styrofoam cups. Zalman found some orange juice in the fridge and added it to his cup.

“Screwdrivers all around,” he said. I smiled. Zalman had just learned this word and was now apt to say at any time. “Ah, I could really go for a screwdriver. You know?”

Within an hour we finished the bottle. Meir was rolling on the cold marble floor with his hand down his pants, and Zalman waved the bottle in triumph.

*** 

Even before entering the park we heard teenagers speaking in English and Yiddish, and pretty soon we were among them.

Clouds of smoke rose from the groups scattered around the playground, and coming up I could see a teenage boy with gelled black hair. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had a cigarette in his hand. He and another guy stood beside a girl. She wore a sweetheart top that revealed a five-inch tattoo of the sun on her upper back. I asked the smoking guy for a cigarette. He stuck his hand in his pocket and opened a pack of Newports toward me. I removed one and placed it between my lips; he pressed on his lighter and I inhaled.

He turned to the girl and continued “So, which is it?”

Sukkis” she said.

He had asked what Jewish holiday she most missed celebrating. She went on to describe how decorating the Sukkah had meant a lot to her. Yes, it was her father and older brother who lugged the wood panels and bamboo sticks from the garage, laid them out in the driveway and built the structure that they would sleep, eat and sing in for a week. But she was the one who went to the arts and crafts store and bought paint, string, glue, and paper and designed much of the interior.

Then she looked at me and said “Hi, I’m Esty, and this” she said pointing to the boy who gave me the cigarette “is Baruch.” The other one who was slouching and had shoulder length curly hair was Yoni.

“My name is Pinchus” I said. “What do you all do?”

“I’m studying psychology at Hunter College,” she said. “I want to be a therapist.” Baruch was an EMT and Yoni was an English major at Brooklyn College. I told them what I did, which was go to high school. And even though not one of them was a day over 20 they went on about how much younger I was, and about how fast time passes.

“To tell you the truth, I think that as soon as you’re born you start missing opportunities,” Yoni said.

“Why stop there?” Esty asked. “Some opportunities might be lost in utero, no?”

“Exactly!” and he clapped his hands together.

Yoni’s favorite holiday was Shavuous. He still celebrated, he added proudly. Every year he and his “buddies” stayed up all night reading, instead of the Talmud, whatever books they’d read and appreciated that year.

They had a certain pride in the way they sounded and even lapsed back into Yiddish if they felt a point could be better made by its use. For two hours we talked and almost finished Baruch’s cigarettes, who, by the way, smoked them not like some inexperienced teenager, but like the Marlboro Man himself.

Later I found Zalman, who told me that Meir was lying passed out near the swings. Zalman poked Meir, “Hello, wake up.” But Meir was out. We got under his arms and carried him home.

Standing outside the Miller house, I was scared that a neighbor would come out and see us, maybe walk too close and smell the cigarettes. But we got in quickly enough and took Meir through the dining room where we had been earlier and into the room that Zalman and Meir shared. Zalman put Meir down on his bed and said to me “he owes me at least one cigarette.” He sat down near Meir and asked, “Who the hell were these people? They’re from here?” He put his hand on the window sill and opened the window. Then we heard a noise in the hallway. Zalman opened the door and it was Shifra. She was in pajamas, my view of her mostly obscured but I could see her briefly in a formless white robe, her hair undone.

“Go to sleep” he told her. She argued for a moment but then she was gone.

Zalman sat down again on the bed. “What’s up with these guys?” he said to me, his voice lower now.

“Some are in college.”

“Really?”

“Yup, Hunter and Brooklyn.”

“What I don’t understand, is where they go the first day.” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say some guy decides ‘I’m going off,’ you know, ‘I’m leaving.’”

“Yeah.”

“Where does he go? Where does he sleep that night?” he emphasized ‘that’ by pressing his finger on the bed.

Meir rolled in the bed to face us and muttered, “It’s silly.”

“Oh welcome back.” Zalman said.

“What’s the point in ‘going off’?”  Meir said. “Just to smoke a couple cigarettes on Shabbos? Big deal.”

“It’s not about that.” I said.

“What is it then, sex? You think the whole world is going to line up to have sex with you?”

“Why not?” Zalman said.

 “It’s not about that either,” I said. “The question is whether it’s true. Do you believe it?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Meir asked.

“Why should you, is the question, not, why shouldn’t you.”

“I believe in God.” Zalman said.

“Then how can you smoke on Shabbos?” I asked.

“I don’t know; I just want to.”

“I don’t understand that.” I said.

“You know, you’re talking all the time about the truth,” Meir said. “’Is it true? Do I believe it?’ But this has nothing to do with the truth. This is about two things,” he held two fingers in the air, “freedom and happiness. You go to the park and see people dressing how they want to dress and you think to yourself, I want to have the freedom of controlling how I look, which is really the freedom to control how other people see you. And I understand that, they are definitely more free in that and many other ways, but are they really any happier? I’m not so sure. Now ask me if I’m happy.”

“What?”

“Ask me. ‘Are you happy?’”

“Ok, Are you happy?” I asked.

“Yes, very.” he said. “Are you?”

I leaned back in my chair and looked at Zalman. Out the window I could see the yeshiva the three of us had gone to. Not far beyond that is where my grandparents lived. The nest to which I and my many cousins from across New York and New Jersey would flock for endless holiday and family celebrations, Sukkis among them. I like pulling wood from the shed and building the sukkah, I thought. And I like staying up all night on Shavuous learning with Zalman and Meir. I also like looking for bread crumbs by candlelight and unabashedly dancing with Torah scrolls.

“I am.” I said.

Zalman climbed the bunk bed and threw his pants over. I lay down on the floor but couldn’t sleep. After a while I walked home.

***

The next morning a cone of light shone into my room, the clock read 11:00 AM. I dressed quickly and masked the smell of cigarettes with Old Spice. When my father arrived I was waiting for him at the dining room table. The meal passed, as it usually did, with singing, discussion, and questions and answers. Exiting my house, I decided not to visit the Millers but to take a walk near the outskirts of our community. As I approached the implicit boundary between our neighborhood and the Italian one on 18th Avenue, the sound of running cars became more frequent.

I noticed Shifra on the opposite side of the avenue in much the same clothing she’d worn at last night’s meal. She looked both ways before crossing. 

Good Shabbos, we said to each other. We walked for a minute and then she said, “Let’s go to Manhattan.” When I looked at her, she showed me a Metro Card, cupped in her hand.

“I have enough on here for both” she said “to come back too.”

“What will we do?”

“Nothing, just walk around.”

“Where?

“I don’t know yet but we have to go soon.”

“Have you done this before?”

“Yes, are you coming?”

“Yes” I said and I followed her to the Fort Hamilton station where, out of view, we darted down the stairs and ran to the end of the platform.


BIO

Akiva Rube is a chemistry research assistant and laboratory instructor at Yeshiva University. He enjoys writing, cycling, and being involved in collaborative projects. 




The Costume Party

by K.D. Alter

My Uncle Bobby likes to say if you live long enough you’ll see everything, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see a 60-year-old man, ex-military at that, yelling “Go f— yourself!” to his wife’s folks who’re in their eighties or nineties maybe who stood there trembling like kittens. Duke was mad as hell on account the folks were asking him and Charlene to move off the ranch and he’d gotten into telling himself this was his place and not theirs. When they told Charlene (who the folks call Charm, and not sarcastic) she began hollering and storming about the place knocking things over, including some relics Grandpappy brought from Korea when he was in the service. When they walked out, Duke cornered them and stood about a foot away cussing their faces off. Grandpappy is still half a head taller than Duke but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re like 90.

Duke’s not his real name but Jean, but that name doesn’t fit his hat, boots, or 4 x 4 Ram 2500 Laramie with the jacked-up suspension which he bought off Ray Santos for a thousand bucks because Ray’s old lady left the windows down when they went away for a week and it rained every day and the truck got molded out. Duke spent all summer stripping and changing out the inside. He didn’t lower it down though, even though he’s always saying only a moron would jack it up that high. That and the driver’s door is jammed so you have to climb in from the other side. But Duke seems to like sitting up there. Maybe also he keeps it that way to keep Charlene from driving it because she has a hard time climbing up into it. I offered Charlene to fix it once and when Duke heard he took me out behind the barn and said, “You ever do that again and I’ll rip off your head and shit down your neck.”

I personally think the folks might’ve had better sense than to lay the news right to their face but could’ve called from Reno where they live most of the time. Right now, they were stuck out by the redwoods Grandpappy planted when he was a kid and I heard Grandma’s words choking in the wind, “I can’t take this, Henry.” Grandpappy was standing looking like he was trying to solve an arithmetic problem but Grandma was pink in the face, scared and angry and sorry all at the same time. The wind was blowing like mad and Grandma’s cape was flapping around like a tarp. Even Admiral, which is Duke and Charlene’s Newfie, was steering clear. He’s old and wise and can sense a bad situation.

Now I’m just the hired man and I’ve been told it’s not my place to butt in, but when I saw the folks standing so pitiful and Duke stomping around, I picked up a fitting I was working on and jammed it in the wrong way and went up to Duke to ask if he could help me set it right. I knew he’d yell at me, so I made myself goofy and I walked right up and held out the fitting and I go, “I know you’re busy but could you undo this thing because otherwise my whole hour’s ruined.” There’s nothing in this world Duke hates more than a wasted hour. It’s the folks’ money but he still can’t help himself. Sure thing he fell for it, his goatee getting right in the grease because his jaw does this funny back and forth on account of his Parkinson’s. The folks turned around and ran back in the house.

Duke and Charlene’ve been living up here since their house got foreclosed down in Orange County. From what I heard, they lived for two years rent free even though they could afford to pay, but the house got under water so they just stayed until the sheriff came and hauled them out. I’d sooner live under a bridge than in a house with a foreclosure sign on it, it’s a kind of disrespect to yourself. But Duke’s a skinflint and never misses an opportunity to get something for nothing. Charlene goes to the food pantry every week for groceries. When she pulls up in her 2010 5.7 liter Sequoia when everyone else is in some pathetic beater truck, she tells them it’s not for her. But she just brings it all home and then ends up throwing half of it out. Sometimes she offers some to me and Cherry, but we never take any.

After they got chucked out of Orange County Charlene begged the folks to let her stay up here. The folks agreed to it and moved out of the ranch house where they lived 22 years and they set up to stay down in the bunkhouse which was never really a bunkhouse but a single-wide that they busted out with an extra room and faced with old lumber so that it looked like a regular house and pretty nice at that. The ranch house is sweet but apart from the extra bedroom the folks added it’s just an old shotgun and it’s always a question about whether it’s better to put lipstick on the pig or tear it down and start over. The place holds lots of memories so they poured money into it over the years and it was pretty generous of them to move out to let Charm and Duke and Chatamoise (pronounced Shamwah), their daughter, move in. Grandpappy worked as a radar engineer for the military in LA until they retired up here full time. Grandpappy kept his souvenirs and photography stuff down at the bunkhouse and figured that’s where he’d work on them so they might as well move down there. That’s the same time they bought a second place in Reno so they could be near doctors.

Charlene’s main hobby in Orange County was going to estate sales and they never throwed anything out so they had literally a ton of dead people’s shit. The military moved it all up here for free. There’s lots of free things you get being ex-military people don’t know about. All I ever hear is vets bitching about their medical benefits, but in my opinion they’ve got it pretty sweet. Duke and Charlene are always running to the VA in Yuba. Charlene stockpiles all the medicine they give her. When me and Cherry go to the clinic we wait all day and only get a nurse who looks at us for like a minute and then ends up giving us antibiotics or painkillers no matter what we come in for. Anyway, when they came up here they didn’t have place for their stuff so they sold every stick of the folks’ furnitures in the ranch house, took down the pictures, filled it with their stuff and settled in like it was theirs all along.

Grandpappy’ folks were dust bowlers who came to California back in the day and though their furnitures weren’t fancy I could see why they’d be sentimental over seeing it all sold off for pretty much nothing. When they found out they went over to Jenna Ruth’s in town to try to buy it all back but most of it was gone already. I wouldn’t of blamed them for being mad as hell but Charm’s their only kid, or the only living one anyway since there was a brother who died young. The folks just sucked it up. They started spending most of their time in Reno.

Around that same time their old hand Devin died of hepatitis and they hired me to look after the place. Duke and Charm could’ve done it, but they don’t like to work. I heard them say to the folks lots of times, “You’re not gonna turn us into Devin.” Other times they call Devin a drunk and a bum. That’s not right because it’s Duke and Charm who’re lazy, watching TV and complaining how they don’t have any place for their stuff. Devin drank too much maybe but he did good work and they’re not half the man he was.

I bring lots of ideas to Duke and Charm about how to make money, sure-fire things like selling firewood, which’d also help against forest fires, or growing garlic—I know a guy up here makes 17 thousand an acre on garlic. I’d do all the work because I can cut trees, run cattle or farm in my sleep. But every time I bring something up they keep saying, “Oh no! That’d be too much work.” My theory is they got plenty of money because the folks pay for every lick up here and they’ve got pension and disability besides. Every time I pick up the mail there’s a check in it.

What changed was last summer when Grandma’s cousin came up from LA and set looking through the books and telling the folks they can’t afford to keep supporting “the kids”. I only know what I picked up from conversation here and there when I was walking around and the windows were open because it was summer, but something I heard the cousin saying is why can’t Charlene ever get a job because she never worked a day in her life and Duke’s been retired since he’s 39 when he finished his twenty in the navy.

It made perfect sense to me but Grandma especially kept crying how it was her fault and how they couldn’t just throw her Charmy off. They worried about where would Chatamois go. Chatamois’s twenty-one. She quit school when her folks came to live up here and she’s hardly ever off the hill. She doesn’t even know anyone, except for maybe me and a couple of the hippies who moved up here to grow weed. She hardly leaves the place except to go to the Red Bear to pick up smokes. She and her mom pretty much live in front of the TV. It’s a bone of contention between Duke and Charlene, him saying it’s no good for a girl to be stuck on her mom that way. I’m with him on this one, even though I also feel bad for Charlene. Chatamois’s her only friend in the world and Charlene won’t let her go.

I don’t mind talking to Chatamois, sometimes we go to the outdoor kitchen to smoke a J. She’s smart and sorta pretty too, but after a while she makes me feel uncomfortable because no matter who or what she’s always getting sexual. I got my old lady and I’m not interested in the least but I’ve seen Chatamois pull her shorts over her crotch right in front of Grandpappy, making like she was getting out an itch, but I could see she was enjoying his uncomfort and she was smiling and licking her teeth at me the whole time. I don’t want to look either but when I get fascinated by something I can’t help myself and the look she had on her face seeing Pappy fidget and look off like he was trying to solve a science problem in another universe is a sight my mind won’t let go of soon.

Anyway, after a fight at Christmas over the popovers when Grandma asked Duke to quit eating all the popovers before the meal and he and Charlene stormed out over it, I guess something clicked and the folks decided after all to ask Duke and Charlene to move out. They told them they had a year to do it, which in my opinion was as good as not asking them at all, but that’s what they did. I already told you about what happened on the day they told them. After the folks packed off I left too so I wouldn’t get interrogated by Duke about what the folks were saying in the house because he’s always asking me who said what about them and then making me swear not to repeat anything they say or do.

Charlene told Duke to quit worrying because the folks would change their mind. Eventually the ranch would come to them. Not that that would guarantee Duke’s security because Charm’s always threatening that as soon as she has the deed she’s going to find a new husband who doesn’t piss off the porch and have Parkinson’s. Charm’s a real piece of work all right. Grandma told me that when Charm was a baby she used to spread her poop all over the sofa. She also said, and she made me promise never to repeat it, that their son Eric, the one that died in high school, was really their favorite. It made me tear up to hear her say it, especially because the chances are Charlene knows it too, but that’s how families go on, I suppose.

Soon enough they all went back to drinking cocktails together, plastered and forgetting each other’s sins. No one ever mentioned Duke and Charm leaving again.

Until Halloween. I remember the day exactly because the folks invited me and Cherry for dinner down at the bunkhouse to celebrate. Halloween must be the family’s favorite holiday, because even though there’s nobody else to see it they decorate the bejesus out of the place. This year they went crazier than ever. Everywhere outside was blow-up monsters with lights and witch’s laughs coming out of them, skulls and bones, tombstones and a hanging mummy that really could scare you. Everything was even scarier because the wind was blowing like mad and the ghouls were straining at their ropes, leaping at us on our way to the door. Admiral wouldn’t even come near the place but stood about fifty feet out barking his brains out and looking like he couldn’t figure out why we weren’t out there with him. Inside you had to walk through cotton spider webs, rats with red eyes lit up and jerking all over the floor, and hanging from the chandelier was a canvas sack with a foot sticking out of it that twitched. I swear they must’ve spent a thousand bucks on decorations.

Grandma told me and Cherry to dress up. “Make sure you bring the right costume,” she said. I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant because Cherry and me’d never been to a costume party before. Cherry’s good at the sewing machine though and she fixed us up, me as a lumberjack, which isn’t that much of a costume once you think about it, and she dug up some of her gramma’s clothes and came as a country maid like from the 1980s. I brought an old axe I’d dug up the head to on a job over in Rackerby and I carved a handle for it.

Duke came as a Viking with a fur coat that went all the way to the ground and a plastic helmet with two horns. He also carried a shield and instead of an axe he brought a chainsaw. Me and him kidded around that we should trade tools but then we didn’t. Charlene came as a Mother Superior, with a habit, only with a joke crucifix that was about a foot long and jelly bean prayer beads. Cherry’s Catholic and whispered to me she was offended but I told her it’s all pretend and she should just make believe it’s funny but she said she couldn’t.

Grandpappy’ outfit was wild. He was the headless horseman, with a bloody stump made from a real pork chop at the top and holding his own head at an angle in front of his chest. He was about seven feet tall. I still can’t figure out how he got his head to stay at that angle. When he wasn’t using his hands he kept them around his head like it was someone else holding it. Cherry got pictures of it on her phone. Grandma came in wearing a homemade spider skirt that might’ve looked better on someone fifty years younger but she was kinda cute anyway once you got out of the habit of accidentally looking at her legs. She had cotton candy webs that she’d pick off with her fingers and eat.

Pappy is in his favorite mood when he’s fixing cocktails and even Charlene was helping in the kitchen. Me and Cherry were in a good mood too on account we had amazing news. I know Cherry didn’t want me to jinx it by telling too early but after one of those Moscow Mules Grandpappy makes I blurted out to everyone that Cherry and me were going to be parents. Everyone started clapping and laughing and I felt all warm toward the whole family, even to Charlene who hugged me and I could smell how loaded she was. She’s a happy drunk, which isn’t that much of a surprise because people usually become their own opposites when they’ve had a few. Duke shook my hand and said being a Dad was the best thing you could be in this world and he hoped for me it was a boy because looking after a girl was a full-time job. Chatamois, who acourse was dressed like a prostitute, went “Oh Daddy!” while pushing her tits up real flirtatious and everyone laughed the way you’re supposed to in a family and everything felt happy, if also a little weird.

Just when everything was cheery and I was hoping the family was finally healed, everything went to hell. I’ll tell it like I experienced it and then you’ll know how it happened.

Grandma made a cake for her birthday because it’s on November 2nd. Everyone was so merry she said why don’t we have dessert first for a change and she took the cake out and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Then outta nowhere Charlene started screaming at her mom that all this waiting was making Duke sick because he needed to eat on time on account of his Parkinson’s. Sure enough, Duke was sitting in one of the easy chairs staring off like he was a Viking who died with his eyes open, though I swear that two minutes before he was singing Happy Birthday with the best of them. He still had the chainsaw on his lap.

Well, Grandma told Charm that she could’ve just gone anytime and fed her husband because it was her job to. Charm narrowed her eyes in a way that always chills my spine when I see it and said, “You don’t give a rat’s ass about Jean or me but only yourself.”

Grandma said, “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” and then something like “You wanna blame me but the truth is you never feed that poor man when he needs it so you’ve got nerve coming to my house blaming me.”

The way she said my house told the whole story.

Charm looked like she was deciding whether to walk out or not. I was standing there waiting to see what would happen next but Cherry’s smarter than me, at least when it comes to people, and she said, “This has been really nice but I think we’d better be going,” and she took my arm.

Now Grandpappy was standing in the kitchen the whole time nursing his drink and trying not to get killed like an innocent bystander. “No one’s going anywhere. This is a celebration and it’s not getting ruined by anybody’s bad temper!” he said, and he was staring right at Charlene when he said it. Charm looked like she might cry because Pappy is usually sweet on her. “Everyone sit down!” he went on, and then he turned to Cherry saying he and Grandma had a gift for her and for our new baby and he wanted us to turn around so he could get it and it’d be a happy surprise.

Charlene forgot all about Duke who seemed to be wearing his so-called Parkinson’s mask for real this time, but Chatamois was in the kitchen fixing a pile of gravy ham for her dad and told him to hang in there. That perked him up a bit and he started drinking his Mule again. I leaned over and said maybe he ought to wait for the food because drinking on an empty stomach can make you sick and a lot of times when you’re taking medicine for your brain you’re not supposed to drink alcohol in the first place. Duke just said “Jackass” through his teeth. I joined my wife and turned around toward the kitchen with our backs to the bookcase like Grandpappy asked us to. I was feeling uncomfortable, I don’t like accepting gifts in the first place, but Cherry took my arm and I waited and smiled at Grandma who was sitting in the other big chair with her feet up cradling her drink on her round spider belly, breathing deep and not really smiling.

Cherry asked Grandma if she was okay and Grandma gave a weak smile and said, “Don’t look, Sweetheart.”

Now I know the folks keep a lot of cash hidden in a fake book they have which is a good hiding place because they have more books than a library and you’d have to spend all day finding the one that’s got the money in it, and that’s if you knew money was in one of them in the first place. I knew it was the cash they were going for when Cherry and me turned around.

We stayed turned around smiling until I heard a giant “What??!!” from Grandpappy. Grandma bugged her eyes out and her drink fell off her lap. Cherry bent down to clean up the mess. She reached to take Grandma’s hand, saying “Grandma, are you okay?” but Grandma took back her hand and didn’t say anything.

I figured it was okay to turn around and what I saw was Grandpappy holding the fake book with the flap hanging down at the same angle as his head and he said, all sober, like in a kind of church voice, “There was nearly forty thousand dollars in here.”

The whole place was like a bomb had gone off and no one could move. Everyone was looking at everyone else but more at me than anyone.

All I could think about was how when the well stopped working a couple of months ago and it was an emergency and Duke called Grandpappy in Reno saying they needed cash right away to pay the guy from the pump company, the two of us were in the bunkhouse and Duke went to the money book and he saw that I saw. I made like I wasn’t looking but he told me right then and there that if there was ever money missing he’d know who stole it. I told him to hide it somewhere else because I didn’t want to get accused and he just said he would and I never thought about it again until Halloween when the money was gone and I could see from where Grandpappy was standing and the empty place in the shelf that it never did move. Duke said, “Well, Carl, where’s the money?”

Now I’m the first to understand that blood’s thicker than water even when the blood is bad, and as soon as he said that I knew the folks weren’t going to be blaming Duke but me and I just stood there and went, “No way! Nobody’s pinning this on me.”

Grandpappy said, “No one’s blaming anybody—yet. Now’s just about figuring out where it is and putting it back because that’s a lifetime of savings and no one here wants to bring Grandma and me that kind of suffering.”

“Maybe you took it to Reno?” Charlene said.

I think maybe Grandma could’ve thought a little harder before she yelled back, “Why are you always treating us like we’re a buncha doddering old fools?” And then there was another long fight I won’t repeat because it gets boring after a while everyone saying the same stupid stuff. But I’ll say it was pretty hurtful because Charm accused her mom of never letting go of her dead brother and that after forty years she still loved him more than her. Grandma and Pappy both cried for a while and Grandma even said she wished she was dead. It was heartbreaking just to be there and I’m not even part of the family. Everyone except maybe me and Cherry seemed to forget about the money. But even though I’d of rather been anywhere else but there, I knew there was no way I could just say, “All right everyone, Happy Halloween, Cherry and me are leaving.”

It was a real brainteaser about the money because I knew I didn’t take it but to be perfectly honest I didn’t think Duke or Charm did either. Not that they don’t steal all the time but their routine is to do it only a little at a time so you can never pin it on them. And almost for sure Chatamois didn’t take it because she loves her gramma and grampa too much. When Charlene was making Grandma cry, Chatamois climbed into her lap to make her feel better and that stopped the fight. Charlene growled at her like a bear but Chatamois just dug her face into Grandma’s shoulder and she had to quit. Right now Chatamois was back in the kitchen poking the ice in her drink with her finger, looking bored like she’d been through all this before.

Grandpappy said we’d all better go looking for the money.

Acourse everyone knew there wasn’t much point looking for it in the house. No one would take it all out and put it somewhere else in the same house by accident. But we all went looking anyway because if we didn’t then all there’d be left to do was stand around pointing fingers at each other and not even Charlene seemed in the mood for it though she kept looking daggers at me.

Grandma didn’t get up but just stared like she was in the front seat of the firetruck watching her own house burn down. She kept saying “We’re ruined.” And Grandpappy also said like five times, “We’ll have to sell the ranch.”

It wasn’t maybe ten minutes again before Charlene yelled out, her face red and her arms stiff like she was filling her diaper, “This is bullshit! It’s obvious Carl took the money so why’re we putting on this charade? That imbecile’s always snooping around and he knows damn well where the money is.”

Then Duke got up like he was going to punch me or something (which is of course a laugh) and said that’s it he was coming over to my place right now to look for the money.

I knew I had to keep my cool because even though I never took the money, if I got all angry it would look like I was getting defensive. So I go, “You can come over and search my place for as long and hard as you like. But in my opinion,” I said to the folks, “I think you took the money to Reno and forgot. I’m going home now. Duke’s welcome to follow me home and spend all night looking to his heart’s content. If he finds any more than fifty bucks he can keep it. You people are crazy and I quit.”

Neither Grandma or Pappy said a word as me and Cherry were getting our coats. Duke wasn’t going to follow me home. Even if I did steal the money he’d never know where to look for it, and it wouldn’t of been my fault if my dogs tore his nuts off either.

Well now I’ll tell you a happy ending because that’s what you’d need to hear right around now.

Grandma and Pappy went back to Reno the next morning and sure enough they found not forty but forty-two thousand in a paper bag. Grandma remembered when she saw it that she took it last time they went to Reno. They felt bad about not trusting me and called to ask if I’d come back and work for them and how did a pay raise to twelve bucks sound. I said I’d never work for Duke and Charlene because they were plain nasty and I know they’d never move off the place and the folks would never make them.

I don’t usually say everything I’m thinking but that time I did. Grandma said I had every right to be mad but Charm was their only daughter. Every time they crossed her she didn’t speak to them for a year. Now when they weren’t long for this world, they couldn’t afford it. They weren’t going to sell the ranch because it was too much trouble and also Grandpappy wanted to be buried on the ranch near his folks and Eric. They still needed me and hoped I’d come back. They even said they’d give me thirteen an hour as a bonus for having to deal with Duke and Charlene.

I thanked them but said they’d have to find someone else because not even fifty bucks an hour would be enough to work for those people. I said I’m sure they could find someone because everyone is looking for work in these parts and I was planning on thinking of leaving the area anyway. Grandma told me she’d recommend me to anyone who asked. And you know what? About a week later I got a card from them in the mail with a money order for two hundred fifty hundred dollars for our baby’s college fund. I knew I never wanted to work for the family again, but like my Uncle Bobby also says, everything’s good that ends good, and I’m glad because as long as I live I never want to hold a grudge.


BIO

K.D. Alter lives in the United States. He can be contacted at kda2433@yahoo.com






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 Lorene Ritenour


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 Lorene Ritenour’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.



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